Harry arrived at the front door of the Breakstone residence, a low sprawling brick house that tried at Muggle, but failed in little ways. The brick wasn't smooth and straight, and the wrought iron decorations on the corners of the eaves strongly resembled bats.
"Come on in, Harry. I'm not quite ready to go, yet," Candide greeted him at the door, a niece and a nephew pressed against her legs, peering up at him with wide eyes. "Come on, you, give way," she said, herding them clear.
The whole family and some extended relatives had gathered for Sunday dinner and surrounded an awkwardly long table. Candide had requested Harry Apparate her home, but dinner was apparently running late.
"Harry." Candide's father stood up to greet him with a firm handshake. Children raced around their legs as they did so.
Her mother said, "We're just having dessert; why don't you have a seat." She scooted her chair over to make room for him. A sizable glob of lemon curd over shortbread was handed down to him. This cued the youngsters to fight over the best adult laps at the table.
"So, Harry," Candide's father said, "You are still punishing the Ministry, it seems." He sounded amused.
"Not that they don't deserve it," Candide's brother, Fenton, said. He had close-cropped hair, and low, square sideburns framing his chiseled face. Like much of Candide's family, Harry had not seen him since the wedding.
Harry dug into his dessert and relaxed into the conversation, especially when it turned to expressions of pleasure at the changes in the Daily Prophet.
A second serving of madeira left Harry groggy in the humid room. He was just backing his chair out to get some air when someone placed a toddler in his arms—a wiggly toddler who arched her back to head back to mom, or the floor. Candide's mother, beside Harry, told the girl to sit still, a command she honored for around three seconds.
"Candy tells us you can tell if the little ones are magical before it really shows," Ruthie asked. "Is that true?"
Harry lifted the struggling child to stand on his legs. She reached out and snagged his glasses off without warning.
"I think she's got a future as a Seeker," Harry said, rubbing his forehead.
Someone handed him his glasses back.
Candide's sister-in-law, Trillium, said, "Allie must be magical. Remember the incident with the open stove door last month?"
"Might have just got lucky dear," Candide's mother said. "You never know."
There were a lot of magical people in the room, confusing his senses. Harry stood up and carried the girl away from the table. Movement calmed her struggles and she swung her head around, interested in where they may be going. Harry set her down on her feet and held her hands to help her balance. Magic definitely vibrated off her.
"She is," Harry said, releasing one hand that immediately stretched toward mum.
Trillium scooped her up and swung her feet out before hitching her on a hip. "Told you. We are three for three."
"How do you do that?" Candide's brother asked when Harry resumed his seat.
Harry lifted his hands. "Wizards and witches just feel magical."
"They don't," Harry said. "Something's missing."
Candide's mother leaned forward to say, "When I was a girl there was an ancient old hedge witch who was known to be able to detect magical folk. She used to come to the market in Kent selling Charms and herb concoctions."
"She could suss werewolves, right, even outside a full moon?" Ruthie said.
"What was her name?" Harry asked.
"We called her Good Witch Glister, but her name was, uh, Gliwice, or something.
Pouring herself more madeira, Ruthie said with a grin, "You told us stories when we were little how you were going to sell us to her if we didn't behave."
"Do you remember her name, dear?" Candide's mother asked her husband.
"I just remember she was exceedingly old. She put curses on all boys, or so we were told, so we never went near her."
She patted his arm. "Only on troublesome boys, dear."
"Well . . ."
The evening drew on and fell subdued. Harry found Candide's gaze trying to capture his. She raised her brow questioningly, her face showing wear from the long evening.
Harry stood. "We should get home."
Candide's mother stood up. "We have one more we'd like you to read the magic on."
"We don't want to wake Elred, Aunt Addie. He didn't get a naptime this afternoon."
"I'm sure it will be all right, dear. It would be nice to know."
Candide's cousin's wife slipped away and returned with a sleepy baby in a long midnight blue nightie, who greeted the room with a shaky yawn and vague fussing.
Harry accepted the bundle, finding the boy far heavier than expected. "Yeah, he's a load," the cousin said with a laugh. "Eighteen months of determined eating."
Harry knew the instant the weight rested fully in his arms, but he walked to the open space by the darkened bay window to be certain. There was an absence about the child. He clearly existed, fussing half heartedly, fist rolling against his cheek as though considering cranking up the volume, but not sure it was worth the effort. But his existence ended at the physical, like he existed, but didn't, at the same time.
In the dimmer light away from the table, Elred could open his eyes wider, and he peered at Harry with suspicion between long blinks. Candide stepped up before him, in front of her cousin and his wife.
Harry shook his head.
"No?" Candide said, head tilting back with a jerk.
"No," Harry said.
"Maybe you can't tell with a baby. He's half Allie's age."
"Maybe," Harry said, swinging his arms a little, making the boy fall still. "But I don't think so." Feeling sudden heat on his cheeks and up his middle, he said, "But it doesn't matter."
"No, of course not," various voices agreed, but they sounded like they spoke past disappointment.
Harry handed the child over to his father, who walked away bouncing him lightly while looking him over thoughtfully.
To Candide, Harry said, "Ready to go?"
She nodded, gaze far away.
After making their goodbyes, Harry Apparated her straight home to the main hall.
"Harry," Candide's voice drew him back from heading up to bed. She had not moved from where they had arrived. Gesturing vaguely at her midsection, she asked, "Can you tell if this one is?"
Harry stepped back over to her and shook his head. "It's too muddled up." Then he repeated: "It doesn't matter," and this time felt pain saying it, like some core of him was making a last desperate stand. He spun away to hide the damp that suddenly clung to his eyes.
Candide remained silent, watching, as he walked away and up the stairs.
Harry lay down in bed, but his body refused to relax. Hedwig plucked at her cage door, sending a series of twangs into the darkness of the room. Harry rose to let her out for the night, then opened his other pet's cage door as well. Kali climbed out onto the top of it and luxuriously stretched each wing. Harry wondered if he should get her a cage big enough to let her do that whenever she wanted. She sniffed the air in his direction with her little fox head, then bent to groom her fur with her rows of fine teeth.
Harry sat on his bed, letting the cold air of the room chill his sweat-damp pyjamas. Something about refusing to escape the uncomfortable cold seeping into his bones made him feel more aware of everything. With a deep breath he reached under the bed for one of the books he had borrowed from the Hogwarts library restricted section. The leather surface of the book squirmed under his fingers like tiny muscles flexed beneath the surface. The stamped cover bore no title, just amorphous shapes that could have been leaves and vines or creatures and limbs.
Harry cast a Silencing Charm on the room in case the book screeched when he opened it. It did not exactly screech, but the binding made a grating rumble like opening a subterranean chamber.
Harry studied the page he had opened to, but he could not understand any of it. It was like the ramblings of a madman interspersed with arcane spell snippets. He flipped ahead, reading each sheet of meticulously scribed text while the wide border decorations writhed and shifted around the words. But it was just more of the same. Harry wondered why Hogwarts kept the book. That curiosity alone made him keep reading for many more pages. Each page only held about thirty words the way it was written out so large. Each section had a little oil painting around the lead letter, with grotesque themes of death and plague, like a tarot deck viewed through a mind altering potion.
Harry shut the book around a Chocolate Frog card of Dumbledore. The figure of the old headmaster walked into the frame and winked, unaware of his odd surroundings. Harry thought he should have some opinion about all of this, but apparently not.
Swinging his head under the bed, Harry set the book back on the closest stack, but it teetered. When he leaned under farther to arrange all the books he had stashed there, he noticed that the light under his door shifted as though someone was standing outside it. Harry, caught up in a strange state of ill ease from the book and a fit of anger at some kind of ill-defined persecution, snapped open the door.
Candide stood there, hand out like she had been knocking.
"Oh," she said, startled about something she found in his face.
"I had a Silencing Charm on the room, since I was making noise," Harry explained.
"Oh." She was rubbing her abdomen in broad circular strokes. "I was feeling a bit off. I'm wondering if I should see the Midwitch."
Harry realized then that she wasn't startled by him, she was just startled in general, eyes wide and worried. She went on, masking fear with pragmatic planning, to Harry's ear. "Do you know how to get to the Midlands Midwitch Mediwizard Hospital? I'd hate to take myself since the Midwitch is the one who insisted I side-along for the last month of pregnancy. Scared me into it with all kinds of horror stories."
"We learned three ways to get to every hospital in Britain as part of our training, so I can take you." Her worry was infectious. Harry felt himself slip clear of the cloying shroud stultifying his emotions. He stepped out onto the balcony and took her arm. "Maybe you should message your mum. Or I could fetch her?"
"It's three in the morning and it's probably just the three servings of lemon curd with marmalade. Really."
"You're certain you don't want me to get your mum. I'm sure she wouldn't care about the time."
"Really, I'm sure."
"Severus?" Harry prompted, thinking ahead to trying to explain this later and foreseeing trouble.
"Harry," she said with structured patience, "in the last month all kind of false alarms are going to happen. I don't want to bother him already with this one."
Harry rushed back into his room, tossed yesterday's robes over his pyjamas and slipped on his shoes without any socks. He came back and took her arm again, and with a bang! they arrived in the arcade that formed the central corridor of the hospital.
A half moon desk arced out of the wall halfway along, basking in the blue glow of a swarm of fairylights. Harry steered Candide that way and waited while she explained her situation. He felt strangely disassociated, abandoned, like his thoughts had too much room to rattle around in.
"I'll be back, Harry," Candide said, sounding like he needed reassurance now more than she did, perhaps because of the grip he had on her arm.
Harry did not want to let her go on alone, but the Midwitch took over his hold. Releasing her arm felt like letting go of a life preserver on a choppy sea. Harry turned to look for a place to wait, feeling far away from the arched metal poles holding up the glass roof just feet away on both sides.
"Aren't you Harry Potter?" the desk clerk asked.
Harry turned. The clerk was a delicate woman with a careworn face and receded jaw. The magic radiating off her was weak, almost overwhelmed by the taint of stale blood radiance leeching off the walls around them. She barely qualified as a witch at all.
"Yeah," Harry said, feeling whole again, or at least blessed with a head crowded with diverse notions.
A row of metal benches bisected the atrium. Harry took a seat and waited. Worried about letting his mind wander, he puzzled over the strange book he had been reading instead. What was the purpose of it? Why would someone write something that made so little sense? Someone had gone to great trouble to illuminate it and bind it. That was probably the only reason the Hogwarts library had kept it so long.
Candide returned, accompanied by the Midwitch, a black woman with a glowing face who exuded matronly reassurance.
"If you feels any pains tomorrow, come back."
Candide nodded, lips pulled back in a sheepish frown.
"Sorry, Harry," she said. "I shouldn't have woken you. Turns out it probably was nothing."
"No matter," Harry said, meaning it. "Ready for home?"
They were greeted by Winky, who bowed Candide in the direction of the dining room. "Winky is serving for Mistress chutney and banana on biscuits."
"Thank you Winky; I'm famished."
Harry's stomach grumbled as well, despite the menu. "Is there something else to eat?"
They split a pot of tea that sparked in when they finished their respective snacks.
"Are you going to tell Severus?" Harry asked.
"About what?" Then she chuckled. "I was overly careful, is all."
Harry found a deep reservoir of dutiful will on this topic. It tapped a source closer to his core than those new instincts could reach. "You can't be overly careful."
"The Midwitch was nice enough about it. Only mentioned first time mothers three times during the consultation." Wry smile fixed she poured them both more tea. "How goes your new job?"
Harry accepted this as code. "Not learning much so far."
"In general, you don't learn much until someone takes you under their wing."
"I haven't found anyone to do that yet."
"Maybe just as well."
When the amber glow of dawn lit the ivy veining the garden wall beyond the window, Candide yawned. "Maybe I'll sleep and go into work for the afternoon."
Harry swallowed a yawn too. He had things he wanted to do, but they could wait until she was safely at the office.
- 888 -
Harry dropped Candide at her office and, hiding under his invisibility cloak, immediately slipped into the far corner of the Magical Law Enforcement File Room. He crept along the short wall and leaned far over to be certain no one crouched on the other side of the long row of cabinets before moving down to the drawer marked Gjinni-Glock. Inside he found a thin file of disintegrating brown notes. Under his cloak his breath blew them around, so he held his breath while he carefully lifted each sheet, looking for an address. Holehollow was indicated beside her name, along with the date of 1 November, 1938. The remains of the report hinted at some complaint from her neighbors regarding finding iguanas in place of their children in bed that morning. Smirking, Harry flipped each fragment, chipping the edges of them despite handling them as carefully as possible.
The same location repeated on other sheets, but all very old. Harry should have asked at the party, but he had been loath to reveal his interest in front of so many witnesses.
On the atlas at home he found Holehollow and took himself there through a combination of Dark Plane Apparition and flying, laughing to himself at his ability to be untraceable with such ease.
Holehollow turned out to be difficult to find. In his Animagus form, Harry circled a pair of tracks that crossed in an area where the semicircular arrangement of gnarled old trees hinted at intentional planting. But everything else had grown wild, for quite a while, it appeared. Harry landed and found a broken down wooden sign beneath a canopy of dead ivy that confirmed he had found the place.
The sun beat down and without a breeze it almost felt balmy. Harry walked through the stillness, stopping to study the domed hillocks covered in washed out weeds and brush. He walked up to one and poked around until he found a smashed out window, low to the ground. Cupping his hands around his eyes he peered inside and found the remains of a house.
He broke trail to the next one and found the same thing, only this time there were signs of fire inside. Perhaps Muggle campers had used it. Back on the dirt track, Harry surveyed the area enclosed by the broken arcs of giant trees. It slept with a cold ease that spoke of wounds erased by time and the death of memory.
Harry turned sharply, sensing someone watching him. He crossed the road and tried the last hillock house on the other side. The weeds and brush were undisturbed around it but it felt more alive than the others. He circled around, looking for a door or window, and found a half-sized door on the side away from the road.
Harry knocked and waited, but no sound issued forth from beyond the bare wood. He waited more, feeling he was being tested. He knocked again and stepped back to where he could see around the sides of the house to watch for movement.
The door cracked open, swung back, creaked open farther, repeating this like it were being tugged on by a string. The door fell still, revealing a dark hole in the side of the hill. Harry stepped forward, just to the top a set of steps leading down and called inside.
In response the door tugged open just a little more. Harry stepped sideways down the stairs because they were so narrow and waited for his eyes to adjust. Light filtered in through brush covered windows in the roof. The air smelled of sweet smoke, cabbage, and wet fur. A brown rat scuttled up to Harry's foot and sniffed at his trouser leg. Harry stepped back from it.
"Herman has to approve of all the guests," a raspy and accented voice came out of the corner.
Harry located the voice in the corner, propped near a window on a rocking wooden contraption that resembled a magical concoction of a bed and a set of dining room chairs.
"Are you Gliwice?"
"I used to be. Not much of anything now." The window lit her pure white hair, which flowed in all directions from her head and accented her deeply sunken face. "Don't have a chair to offer you."
"That's all right," Harry assured her. "I won't be long. I was just curious about something-"
"That's the only reason any comes. They used to only come because they wanted to know, again, what happened here."
"What did happen here?" Harry asked.
She snorted breathily. "The war happened here. None ever wanted to move back." She turned to look out the window, her features as softened and sunken as a dried apple.
"I saw one of the houses was burned out," Harry said for conversation. "This is a strange little village."
"Used to be all magical folk here, and herbs grew everywhere around. Even on top of the houses. That's why my parents emigrated here, herbs was their speciality." Her face drew in farther. "Wars is terrible things. Grindelwald was hardest on the ones he thought should be his allies, but refused. That's what happened here."
"Wars are when things change," Harry said, not sure why he said it, or even what it meant. Gliwice remained staring out the window at the dead brush glaring in the sunlight.
Herman's tiny paws walked over Harry's feet, sniffing his laces. Shaking the rat off his foot, Harry said, "I heard you could tell when people are magical."
"You need me to tell you if you are?" she asked.
"No. I can do the same, is all, and I've never known anyone else who could."
She turned from the window, putting her deeply sunken features into shadow. "And you hears the demons too . . . the ones no one else will believe are real?"
"Oh, they're real," Harry said.
"You're awfully young for such visions. I thought that was only a plague on me old brains. Magic got bored or something."
"But sensing magical people, that's not the same thing as the demons, is it?"
"Yes and no." She did not continue right away, but studied Harry standing there. Herman tugged on Harry's shoe lace, and when it came loose, tried to run off with the end of it. Harry shook his foot free again, and stood on the lace ends.
Gliwice spoke more slowly, making her accent more apparent. "Everyone can channel evil. That's what you sense when you can feel someone is magical: that potential."
"It doesn't feel evil, though," Harry mused aloud. "It just feels like magic, or something more than Muggles have."
"Magical folk are connected to more things than non-magical ones are. That's the difference. Things no one can see. And probably wouldn't want to if'n they could." With her permanently spiraled, club hands she adjusted the quilt over her. "You have more than your share, from what I can tell. Not the same as power, though. Don't make that mistake."
Harry fidgeted, resisting her words.
She went on, "But you young people never take advice from the old. You have to make all your own mistakes. Given that odd scar, you've made more than your share already."
Harry was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake in revealing himself to her at all. It was a gut level worry that when examined in detail, did not hold up. But still, a careful voice urged a Memory Charm, or something.
Harry jumped back, and shook his foot free of Herman, who had bitten his ankle.
"He doesn't like unfriendly visitors," Gliwice stated.
Herman reared up to his full low height, tiny paws upraised, and snapped at Harry.
The air in the room shifted, rushing outward. Gliwice went on, cold and brittle, "Didn't survive this long for no reason, young man."
For a breath Harry wanted nothing more than to match her threat, to stretch his power so that it battered against another's. His better senses, bolstered by the sight of her there, hunched and withered, won out.
Tight lipped he said, "Right. I'll be going then. Leave you to the . . . silence."
"Silence is golden, young man, silence is golden." She turned back to the window.
Harry slipped into the main hall at home and bent to check the wound on his ankle.
Ginny's voice from the doorway to the dining room made him raise his head. "Harry. You sure came in quietly."
Hermione came up behind her. "Hope you don't mind if we let ourselves in."
Harry wondered if perhaps they did not need better spells on the house, in that case. He glanced at the time. "I'm late fetching Candide home. I'll be right back."
Harry returned with Candide and they joined the full table; Aaron and Vineet had also come for dinner.
"My mum says hello, Harry," Aaron said, saluting with his fork from other end of the table. "She also says that next time you insist on picking a fight, please make certain the press takes their pictures from my good side." He pressed his face to the side with his thumb in demonstration.
Ginny said, "If she didn't insist on having the article framed so she could admire it every day, it wouldn't matter so much."
Aaron leaned his long neck out in her direction with his chin propped on his palm. "I happened to notice that someone else carefully cut out the article and is currently using it as a bookmark in her diary."
Ginny had begun to flush, but then snapped, "Were you trying to read my diary?"
Aaron raised his hands up. "You left it under your pillow." With a sigh, he added, "Besides, it was blank, as far as I could tell."
Harry blinked at that and glanced at Hermione, who said, "Watch out for Ginny and blank diaries."
Harry noted the time. He had not decided what he thought about this concerted effort to socialize with him. To Hermione he said, "No marking to catch up on? Assignments to write?"
"Professor Snape gave me his two best Slytherins as regular assistants."
Ginny said, "What is a 'best Slytherin' anyway . . . one whose blood runs a sort of streaky red-green?"
Hermione shrugged. "They'd be in Ravenclaw except for their chronically bad attitude. But they enjoy marking, rather a lot, rather too much, really. But who am I to complain . . . well, except for the nearly blinding, glittering green ink they insist on using."
"Speaking of blood," Ginny said, "Harry, Fred and George wanted me to ask you to come to the shop tomorrow morning. They need a favor of some kind. Wouldn't tell me what it was. There could be some gold in it for you, they told me to mention if you were too busy."
"I'm not busy," Harry said.
- 888 -
The morning sun was just reaching the rough wood around the windows on the upper floors when Harry stepped out onto Diagon Alley. He had his gaze on the triple "W" sign ahead of him, but noticed on the way, that the construction barrier was down around Eeylops and a fresh coat of black stain gleamed tar-like around the windows and exuded the nose-wrinkling scent of turpentine. A spritely sign painter was hunkered down adding gold embelishments to the corners of the glass.
Pleased to see the shop open again Harry stepped inside the propped-open door. Eeylop was unpacking merchandise, directing his employees to hang samples of each type of cage along the ceiling in front of the windows. Harry walked amongst the scattered packing materials and blinked as his eyes adjusted. He picked up the scoop in the Owltreets barrel and filled a paper sack for Hedwig. As he turned to find a path to the counter to pay, he realized he recognized the crude construction of the crate blocking his way as well as the trunks stacked behind the counter.
Eeylop met him at the counter where he pulled coins from his own pocket to make change because the till was absent.
Harry said, "You were lucky to get restocked so quickly."
Eeylop went from hurried to frozen. He shuffled the coins in his palm, staring at them. His flushed skin became dotted with micro-droplets of sweat. "Yeah, Mr. Potter. It was lucky."
Harry wished he would look up. Eeylop laid too much change on the freshly sanded counter. Harry picked out something close. "More than luck, I think," Harry said, pitched only for the man's ear.
Eeylop worked his lips and scooped up the remaining coins. His attitude stabilized. "The new owners use their own supplier," he announced. "I just run the shop now."
"New owners?" Harry glanced around, seeing nothing that would indicate this. "You sold the shop?"
"In a manner of speaking," Eeylop said, then bustled by Harry to help untangle a bundle of self-lowering cage chains that were faltering across the floor like a marooned metal sea creature.
Lost in thought, Harry opened the door to Weasley Wizard Wheezes.
"'Ello, Harry," one of the twins greeted him. "Come on in. Have a tea. It's on the house."
A pile behind the counter shifted and another twin emerged. Stacks of boxes and paperwork were mixed up all around the back area.
"Fred, where's that order form from House of Hair-Raising." He began digging, restacking things wherever he could find a horizontal surface. "Mornin', Harry," he added, without looking up.
Harry accepted a stained cup and held it out for tea saying, "Looks like Ginny was keeping things organized around here."
"Lies!" George exploded. "Never did a thing around here, that lazy sister of ours."
Harry grinned and accepted the seat indicated, a Smorgas-Sweets barrel with the lid hastily placed back on it.
George sat on the counter itself, and bent far over to talk to Harry at eye level. "This is what we would like, if you can stand the boredom. And we're willing to pay Galleons, mind you, knowing this." He gestured with his long-fingered hands as though holding a large sphere out before him. "We want you to spend some mornings here, on days we need you." He glanced up sharply and eyed the street outside the window. Dropping his voice he said, "As a kind of guard."
"You're having trouble?"
"At first it was sort of fun taking care of it ourselves." George cracked his knuckles. "But it's grown tedious. We have work to do and as much as we'd like a sideline in defensive devices and traps, well, our work for others in that area hasn't gone so well. We were told they'd be coming this morning, 'to issue us an ultimatum we'd be wise to consider'."
Harry stared at his friend before watching the other twin arrange boxes more tightly on a shelf to make room for something new, and tried not to smile in amusement.
"I can do that," Harry said.
Customers came in and most treated Harry with reverence, stopping to talk and commiserate about his situation. As usual, he was disconcerted to find how much near strangers knew about him. Throughout the morning, Harry kept up an attitude of simply visiting his friends there in the shop.
Eventually, the shop bells chimed and two familiar figures slinked inside, checking the alley outside repeatedly before making their way through the maze of goods. Their destination was the counter, but they did not reach it. They spotted Harry sitting there beside it and stopped.
Harry's gaze locked with those of his erstwhile criminal assistants and no one moved. Fred and George stood in defensive positions: one behind the counter, one beside the wall leading to the counter, wand hands hidden by their sleeves.
"Something you want?" Harry politely asked the pair from Durumulna.
Hummer and Slowdraw rocked from one toe to the other, bumping together like they wanted to whisper to each other, but not doing so. Uncertainty tainted their plain faces. Harry relished it; it was one step from fear.
"I didn't hear an answer," Harry pointed out.
The two stepped away and slinked out, glancing back at Harry several times.
Fred exhaled. "That went better than expected." He clapped Harry on the back. "You have the perfect reputation for this job."
Smiling faintly, Harry said, "Yes . . . that I do."
Harry remained at the shop until shortly before lunch when he needed to ferry Candide. Fred plucked a Galleon from the till to pay him for the day. Harry stared down at the coin, imagining for a blink that it flickered into becoming a plain metal slug, but he pocketed it anyway, feeling the pay did not matter anyhow.
Late that afternoon, Ron showed up in the front garden bearing a trunk full of baby things from his mother. He hovered the trunk through the narrow corridor with an ease that surprised Harry, not bumping either wall.
Candide pulled a chair over to look inside, while Ron explained apologetically, "Ginny tried to sort out the truly Weasley stuff, but I think mum slipped much of it back inside. Do what you want with it."
Candide pulled out a pair of knitted booties with long curled toes. "Oh, these are adorable."
Ron stayed for dinner, which put a crimp on Harry's thoughts of trying to track down Hummer and Slowdraw. Harry spent the evening thinking about what he would do the next morning. He must have been too wrapped up in his own thoughts because Ron said, "You're as quiet as a magician's mouse. What's up?"
Unwilling to answer, Harry turned the question back. "How are things at the bank?"
Ron pushed back from the table and rocked up on the back legs of his chair. "Oh, well. The more rigorous identification spells we require of customers have cut down on problems. We still have some trouble, like this customer last week who insisted he withdrew all his money under an Imperio. But that sort of thing has happened forever."
Candide said, "Have there been any large new accounts opened in the last year?"
Ron's chair dropped back to level. "You mean, is Durumulna using Gringotts to hold their money? Officially, no."
"Unofficially?" Harry prodded.
Ron rubbed his chin. "Probably, but using fronts to deposit the money. Once you start wondering if every threadbare wizard bringing in Galleons by the cauldron-full is actually laundering money they all look like they could be doing that." He flipped his napkin around. "No one asks anything about that. The Goblins care about losing money, not about who brings it in."
That night as Harry perused his Hogwarts collection of books, a tiny elf owl pecked at the window. It dropped the rolled up message on the sill and fluttered off. It read: Independent business is strongly discouraged. We expect monthly delivery of our cut. "Strongly" had three red underlines that began to spread and drip just before the message vanished in a flash of red heat.
Harry rolled his eyes and returned to his reading about a spell called The Living Skeleton. The author had not made it clear if one started with a live person or a dead one. Harry flipped back to the beginning of the section. Maybe the spell would work either way.
Harry closed that book, unable to think of uses for the spells outside Halloween and returned to the mysterious book with no name. He set Dumbledore's card to the side, but decided instead to press it into the back of the book, out of view. He turned each thick page, stopping at one showing a border of twining ivy sporting blooms of happy faces that shrank into craggy old shrunken heads that dropped off out of the frame. The meaning of the random words shimmered just out of reach.
Harry dropped his hand on the page and quickly flipped back to the Chocolate Frog card. Dumbledore rubbed his ear and clasped his hands together loosely. Harry's lips twitched; he knew how he would spend his free morning.
- 888 -
During the desperate search for his kidnapped friend, Aaron, Harry had tried without success to use a Device to see his own Plane instead of other ones. While doing so, he had glimpsed Dumbledore sitting alone in a tower beside a window. Seeing his old mentor again was something he had intended to do, once he had the time free, and currently he had nothing but free time.
Heart thrumming with anticipation, Harry slipped away to the Dark Plane from the stairwell of the accountancy immediately after seeing Candide to the door.
Knowing little about the place where he would arrive, Harry opted to arrive in a field nearby to the tower, but far enough away to have a chance to look around. The cold ground and weak sunlight made warming up a desperate affair. After he finally managed to heat the ground beneath him, he lay there for a long time, his body ringing with discomfort. Birds darted in serpentine paths overhead. The pale grass prickled and itched through his robes, urging him to move.
Heavy as lead, Harry rose up and ran his eye along the bare trees edging the field. Soft hills rolled to a sharp upsweep of unwelcoming mountains shaded from the sun by a shroud of clouds. A grey stone tower, topped by a tall conical roof, stood perched atop a nearby hill. No other habitation was in view. Assuming the tower was the one from his vision, Harry skipped his usual disguise and walked toward the structure, which turned out to be farther away than it appeared and on a much higher hill. By the time Harry arrived, his joints had sufficiently recovered from the punishment of the Inbetween to let him feel invulnerable again.
The heavily hinged door to the tower had a cursed aura. Harry circled the base and instead flew up to the first set of windows with no bars. Just in case of human repelling spells, he wiggled inside while retaining his oversized Animagus form. He kinked a wing doing this and when he changed back, had to nurse a stitch in his side while circling the workroom in which he found himself. Enchanted objects and apparatuses littered tables and sat atop stacks of books on the floor. Bookshelves bowed under the weight of rare grimoires. Books were spread out three deep upon one another, a thin dust layer upon them.
In the mode of Auror patrol, Harry made his way up the risers jutting out of the curved wall. He passed more living spaces smelling of long term use but with no current inhabitants.
At the very top of the stairs the door hung ajar. Harry rapped lightly and pushed it open. It swung soundlessly, moving with just a touch. Dumbledore looked up from the desk where he sat, transfixed by Harry's arrival.
Dumbledore moved slowly; he rotated the quill he held and placed it beside his diary.
Mired in guileless memory, Harry lowered his wand and stepped forward. "Professor," Harry said, voice far away.
Dumbledore's water-blue eyes flicked to Harry's wand and back to his face with machine-like precision. Harry smiled sheepishly and put his wand in his pocket.
Sounding as if Harry were breaking several serious school rules, Dumbledore asked, "Harry, what are you doing here?"
Harry fought the tangled spell of memory, resisting chastisement. "I wanted to talk to you."
Dumbledore raised his chin. "Speak quickly, then."
Harry floundered for a starting point in his story. How to explain it all? He was becoming something else, something from the past. What was he to do about that? He wanted help and the urge to pour forth his worries met with no resistance; his paranoid instincts fell completely still when faced with his old mentor.
Dumbledore's eyes drilled into Harry's. "How did you find me?"
Harry remembered himself and Occluded his thoughts. "That's too long of a story. Though it would be easier to explain everything else if I explain that too." He hesitated, but went on: "I want help getting rid of this last piece of Voldemort I have."
Dumbledore's white brows rose together. "I'm uncertain what you are referring too, Harry. What makes you think there are any pieces at all?"
"I thought you would understand." Harry said, feeling his last best hope shimmer away.
Dumbledore's chest filled as he prepared to speak, but a noise came from the doorway behind Harry and Dumbledore fell into the same kind of wary stillness he displayed when Harry first arrived.
Harry turned. An old wizard glided in, his blonde-white hair flowing wildly behind him. He moved like one much younger than his wrinkled features, which shifted indecisively as he studied Harry. "And who is this, Albus?" the wizard asked, gesturing toward Harry as though to touch him, but pulling back far short with a strange curl to his fingers.
Harry did not like this man, at all. His starkly contrasting beauty and keen, vile eyes reminded him of Lockhart hosting Voldemort.
"Who are you?" Harry demanded.
The wizard threw his fine robe sleeves to the sides as he gestured. Grandly, at full volume, he asked, "Who am I? Oh, dear, do I need to remind the world again who I am?"
Dumbledore's boney fingers closed hard around Harry's arm. Harry shook himself free and stepped out of reach.
Dumbledore, smiling and shaking his grand head, said, "No, no, my dear Gellert, I'm sure they have not forgotten."
Harry glanced between them, trying to remember where he had heard the name Gellert before. Dumbledore restrained Gellert, patting his arm. They were equally matched, both boney limbs enveloped in bulky robes. Dumbledore turned to Harry with a guilty expression.
"It's a just a visitor from Hogwarts. Cleverly managed to track me down is all."
Harry remembered with a snap of his heartbeat where he had heard the name Gellert, and he stepped back again, surprised to find solid ground when everything shifted so violently otherwise. "Grindelwald?" Harry's wand slipped eagerly free of his pocket. Grindelwald pulled his out as well. Dumbledore tried to restrain Grindelwald but the other slipped free.
Harry risked a glance at Dumbledore, trying to understand. "Why are you here with him?"
Dumbledore did not get an opportunity to answer. "We have a cheeky upstart, here. So nice," Grindelwald said, and raised his arm.
Harry beat him to the curse, but just barely, the spells exploded between them, throwing Dumbledore aside. Harry used a Rubber Shield on the next one, trained well to avoid harming others.
Spells flew, taking the curtains and desk and even a heavy shelf with them. Harry threw a Blasting Curse so powerful it shifted the stones of the tower, Grindelwald threw back a Cutting Curse that doubled Harry over behind his best Block.
"Stop! Gellert, Stop!" Dumbledore commanded, reaching for his companion's arm.
"You will be destroyed, little upstart wizard!" Grindelwald mocked Harry in manic glee, but his next curse was pulled wide. "Let go of me, Albus. You said yourself that it would be dangerous for anyone to know we are here. Since you are too weak to destroy him, I will do it." He shoved Dumbledore aside.
His eyes fluttered with delight. "Prepare to die."
Harry countered, "Die? I haven't even started trying yet."
The next curse Harry squelched. Grindelwald held onto his wand, but he stumbled backwards into the crooked curtains, showing his age by the slow way he stood straight. Dumbledore moved as though to help him, but withdrew his hand and held the other up in Harry's direction.
"Harry. Hang on," he pleaded. Taking Grindelwald by the shoulders, he said, "I can handle Harry. Cease this pointless fighting at once!"
Grindelwald shook free and glared at Harry while throwing a Hatchet Curse, which Harry, wand pointedly at his side, squelched again. Grindelwald's wand clattered on the unyielding stone floor. Grindelwald called it back to his hand with an elegant finger gesture, but stopped to calculate what to do next.
"Come on," Harry said, using the same gesture. "Got something more?"
"Harry," Dumbledore criticized.
"You are one to talk . . . here with him, of all people. What did you do, fake your death or something?" Harry snapped back, guessing as best he could to try and hit a sore point.
Grindelwald, with a subtle flick of his wand, tossed out a Blindness Hex, which Harry countered. Without pausing in finishing that spell Grindelwald converted the end of it into a Cruciatus, which Harry suppressed, sending Grindelwald crumpling to the floor. He rolled and raised an arm in Dumbledore's direction. Dumbledore had his wand out, half raised at Harry.
"The wand. Give me the wand!" Grindelwald croaked.
Harry glanced at the wand Dumbledore slowly raised in his direction. Harry's insides twisted and thrashed, half wanting to plead and half joyful at the prospect of being utterly free, just as soon as Dumbledore attacked.
Harry took in the pale, carved wand. "You have the Wand of Destiny," Harry blurted, connecting dots together with other worlds.
Dumbledore threw a binding spell at Harry, which he barely blocked, and mostly slithered out of physically, by rolling away from the bulk of the spell. Before he could push back to his feet, a hex shot out at him from Grindelwald. Harry, close to the floor, managed a low counter that deflected the Spine Splitting Hex up through the roof, causing wood chips and bits of slate to rain down.
"Nothing harmful!" Dumbledore snapped, reaching a hand in Grindelwald's direction without sparing his aim from Harry.
The three of them held fixed in a wavering tableau, breathing heavily. Snape's warning about that particular wand echoed in Harry's adrenalin-soaked brain.
"I came to you for help," Harry snarled at his old mentor, things tearing apart inside him as he said it. Tearing free. Harry stood, staggering once.
Dumbledore's wand wavered and his face contorted, "Harry . . ." he began, clearly pained.
Beneath Grindelwald's feet Harry sensed another Forbidden Curse forming, felt the stench of hungry death. "Try it, I dare you," Harry said, glaring straight at the wizard. "That curse won't kill me. It never has." Turning back to Dumbledore, Harry said, "Lovely company you are keeping here. Hope it's worth it."
And with that, and one last glimpse of Dumbledore's regretful features, Harry soundlessly slipped away into the floor.