Harry returned to his own Plane and, as soon as he was capable, began pacing his bedroom. In a way, his new, carefully decorated room felt as foreign as the one he had found Dumbledore in, and it irked him. He raised his wand, considering how he might change things, but Kali chirruped from her cage before he could decide whether to burn away the nicely matching curtains or simply Expunge them into the ether.
Remembering a time when he had no room at all to call his own, he dropped his annoyed disgust and went over to his pet. Kali climbed over the inside her cage, hanging upside down and considered him with a tilted gaze.
"Dumbledore and Grindelwald," Harry said aloud to his uncomprehending pet, trying out the sound of it. He shook his head. He calmed his thoughts and opened the door of the cage. His pet, as she usually did lately, did not fly to him, but crawled onto the top to stretch and groom her fur. Her color had never returned to its original blinding violet.
Harry pulled out his wand again and used a narrow cutting curse on his finger. Maroon blood ballooned into droplets that slipped between the fingers of his cupped hand. He held the swelling little pool out to his pet, who sniffed at it curiously and went back to grooming herself, uninterested. With a flick, Harry healed his wound and rubbed the blood off on a clean rag from the cabinet under the cage, and left his pet to herself.
- 888 -
Harry fidgeted his way through the remainder of a deathly quiet week. On Friday, he received another owl from his contact in Durumulna informing him of a meeting. Harry was tempted to ignore it.
Candide watched his bouncing feet a minute before saying, "Do you have something you need to be doing?"
Harry considered that he might be able to catch Hummer and Slowdraw alone at Belinda's flat if he went early for the meeting. He wanted to chat with them some, and if they did not want to chat back, then he wanted to interrogate them some. "Yeah. I have some things. You?"
"Molly suggested I visit any time. Owled to say she had missed a few things she wanted to give us." She heaved up and went off without a word, returning shortly. "I'm ready."
They arrived in the drive leading to the Burrow and Harry released Candide's arm. He studied the Weasley house wondering for the first time why anyone with magic at their disposal would choose to live in such ramshackle conditions. Molly waved from the door and Harry watched Candide approach before Disapparating away.
Molly, watching Harry go, remarked to Candide. "Harry is still upset with Arthur, I see. Do remind him I don't agree with everything my husband does and Harry is more than welcome for a visit."
"I'll remind him," Candide assured her.
"On that topic, when is this little one finally going to pay us a visit?" she asked, patting Candide's belly while holding the door for her.
Candide rubbed the back of her neck. "Three more weeks. The Midwitch insists boys are always early. I hope to Merlin's uncle she's right."
"Sons are a challenge and a joy," Molly lectured as she pulled a chair out from the table for Candide.
"You would know."
- 888 -
At Belinda's flat, Harry did not find his criminal assistants, he found Belinda, making herself lunch. She jumped when Harry appeared, aiming the butter knife she held like a wand.
Harry pulled out a chair at the table without an invitation and took a seat. "How are things?" he asked in a tone that insisted on an answer.
"They've been better," she muttered flatly. Keeping her eyes down, she came to the table and nibbled on a carrot.
Harry leaned back in his chair. "Is it safe to talk here?"
She twitched her head like a nod and picked up another carrot, which she nervously masticated.
"I'm curious about Percy," Harry said. He did not believe her that it was safe to talk, but he decided he could make this work even if they were eavesdropped upon, or especially if they were.
"I don't see him much." The next carrot got guillotined by her teeth. She straightened her sandwich but did not pick it up. More disturbed, she asked, "Why are you involved in this?"
"I don't have anything else going," Harry airily said. He hooked an empty chair with his foot and pulled it closer to put his feet up on it. Belinda's eyes flickered that way, but she said nothing. Harry said, "Someone framed me. I know you helped with that."
He relished her reaction. He couldn't see her face, but the blood left her fingers and she seemed to stop breathing. She looked frail, especially with her hands shaking.
Harry asked, "Why did you help with that? Do you hate me that much or-"
"I don't hate you." She pushed her plate aside. "I didn't have any choice," she snapped.
"There is always a choice," Harry stated, vacillating back to calm and wise.
"Yeah, going to wizard prison is a choice."
Harry sat forward suddenly, badly startling her. "As opposed to my going to wizard prison?"
Her eyes danced around the room. "I didn't know that was going to happen."
Harry opened his mouth to reply to that, then closed it again. He took one of her carrots and munched on it. "I want to know about Percy," he said again. "I'm certain he killed Alastor Moody and made sure I took the fall for it and I intend to get even with him." When she continued to pick at her plate, Harry said, "You gave my wand to Percy, didn't you? After you stole it."
"You can't prove anything."
"I don't need to." Harry dropped his feet to the floor, startling her. "You are going to help me get even."
Her eyes danced around the room. Harry after a moment, followed suit, but the room sat empty. Harry stood and paced the room, running every eavesdropping block he knew, as well as hovering some cursed objects into the toilet and shutting the door. He resumed his seat.
"How often do you see Percy?"
"Why should I say?"
Harry eyed her, but she did not look up. "Because I can tell the Ministry what you've been doing."
She rose to that with vibrating lips. "And what about what I can tell the Ministry?"
Harry returned levelly, "Go right ahead. I have nothing to lose."
She breathed in and out, "I haven't seen Percy since I did what he wanted. Just as well."
Belinda rolled her eyes and tossed a hand in disgust. "He works for her. She works for someone they call Ma Dame." When Harry tilted his head sideways, she added, "She's become a rival to the boss these two work for." She gestured into the room at the television where Harry normally found Slowdraw and Hummer. "They used to be a couple, but now they don't get along so well. Only women allowed in Ma Dame's organization. Except Percy. I guess."
Her mouth worked until it glistened with saliva. "Get even with Percy, you say?"
"Yes. I want to bring him low. As low as possible." Harry watched her pull the cheese from her sandwich and tear it into small strips. He went on, "I want to destroy him in front of everyone . . . especially his father." This notion opened a vibrating hollow in Harry's midsection, like he had not eaten in days and someone promised stew.
"What are you going to do?"
"Lure him in with what he wants most in the world. He's weak and not very bright. It'll be easy."
Belinda smirked, underlined with general unhappiness. "I thought what he wanted most was to show off. Get attention. A girl." She shrugged, tossing her hands, which accented her shaking anger. "New wand. New broomstick. His medals."
Harry was drawn out of his strategizing. "Percy has medals?"
She waved one hand dismissively, relaxing into mockery. "Yeah Special Under Duress Service and some other where you can't read it, since it's a secret, but it glitters a lot. Fudge presented both of them to him."
Harry rolled his eyes. "He must hate working in Mysteries. Can't brag nearly as much."
She hovered her abused sandwich bread back to the sink. "Doesn't stop him. Let's him brag and then not have to back it up, since he can claim you aren't allowed to know." She stood and fetched a bottle of sherry. With shaking hands she poured some into a tumbler, lifting the bottle invitingly in Harry's direction. When he waved her off, she put it down and sipped it. "Watched my mum do this when I was a girl. Hated her for it."
Harry pulled his wand and magicked it into non-existence, glassware and all.
She stared at her empty hand and licked her sherry moistened lips. "Why'd you do that?"
"For your own good," he replied. It sounded good, but it was a lie. He just wanted to mess with her.
"Bastard," she muttered, but rather than pop out for more, she sat back and with a long sigh said with relish, "I'd love to watch Percy go down."
"I'll buy you a new bottle of sherry to celebrate when we're through," Harry quipped, sounding obnoxious to his own ears.
She crossed her arms. "I won't need it, then."
Hummer and Slowdraw appeared. They glowered at Harry. Slowdraw grumbled, "You moved in on our territory. That was ours, Diagon was."
Harry reached into his pocket and tossed them a Galleon. Hummer caught it and examined it. "Boss gets 80%."
"That's a 100%."
They now stared at Harry with twisted faces. "That's all you got?"
Harry wanted to stand up to better toss spells at them if needed, but he opted to continue with cocky and dismissive and propped his feet up on the table. "How much should I have got from them?"
"For a month?" Hummer stammered like someone tired of dealing with the hopelessly daft. "At least fifteen. For a shop that successful, thirty."
"I'm getting paid by the day so that's right," Harry insisted, gesturing at the Galleon Hummer held. "What shop can afford that every month?"
The underlings just stared at him, giving no answer. Belinda said, "That's the point."
Harry thought about Eeylops and lightly shook his head.
Slowdraw said, slowly and clearly, "You need to get paid for a month."
Harry mockingly held up his hands. "All right. All right. No one told me."
"Yer just s'possed to know." Clearly they both thought he was an idiot. Harry considered knocking them both to their knees. His eyes slid over to them and he felt for his pocket. But they were apparently highly familiar with this look, because they stiffened, and mid-step backward, Apparated away.
Harry rolled his eyes again.
"Shakedown seems beneath you," Belinda said through a sloppy smile.
"I like to think so. It's not a shakedown; I'm working for pay, providing protection."
She laughed, snorting when she took a breath. "And the difference would be?"
After a gap, Harry admitted with a grin, "Maybe there isn't one." But he could not care about such subtleties when he had bigger things to worry about. He leaned forward. "Percy has my old wand." In case someone was still listening, he added: "and I want it back. But he's not going to give it to me. I want you to tell him that the Boss, Ma Dame's rival, is interested in buying it, price no object."
Belinda gave that some thought. "Why would he want it?"
"It's the wand that killed Voldemort. That would make it a collector's item, no? Just tell Percy that for me, that the Boss wants to buy the wand." Harry stood up, acting like he had somewhere to be.
Belinda said, "How would the Boss know Percy had the wand?"
"Maybe you let it slip . . ."
"I'm not that sloppy," she criticized. "I'm careful with things."
Harry leaned on the back of the chair. "Not careful enough to stay out of trouble, I would say."
Her lips pursed. She looked away and her face grew chiseled. "I can't stand my life now. Some days I just want to walk in and confess it all just to stop fearing everything all the time. I think everyone must know, that they are all suspicious, but then nothing ever happens. I'm just left to do my job. It's torture."
Harry rubbed his chin. He had a thought. "Ma Dame would love to take the Boss down, wouldn't she?"
Strangely, Belinda brightened at this. "Oh, I would say."
"Hm. And Percy would love to be rewarded by Ma Dame for helping with that. He'd do all kinds of stupid things if he thought that he might accomplish that." Harry's mind floated in a pleasant smoky weaving of possibility. It occurred to him that Belinda, lacking Occlumency, would be an open book for Percy. He stepped around the table, wand out.
When he took Belinda by the chin, she said, "What are you doing?"
Soothingly, he replied, "Nothing that will hurt. Hold still." And he struck from her the memory of the wand purchase being his idea and before she could blink back to awareness, he slipped away.
- 888 -
McGonagall shuffled her staff meeting notes, and said, "Anyone else have any issues they wish to bring up before we move on?"
Madame Pince raised her thin fingers. "A rather large number of books have been removed from the Restricted Section and not checked out, far more than the normal number that students find interesting. Given the exceptional nature of a few of the more dangerous ones, I cannot imagine they are being stored undetected by any of our students."
Snape uncrossed his arms. "I have a number of them," he casually said.
Across the table, Hermione's eyes narrowed.
"Quite a number of them, it seems," Pince criticized, adjusting her glasses to better peer at Snape as if to reevaluate him. "A few of the volumes are quite rare and fickle about their use. The Corpus Delicti should be handled with extreme care. I am surprised it let you remove it from the library, let alone the shelf."
Snape shrugged broadly. He did not have that particular book, but he strongly suspected he knew who had taken it. Dismissively, he asked, "Do you require a catalog of what I am using, currently? I can compose one for you."
"As long as you are careful and return them by the end of the school year for the final inventory, I can overlook it, but I would prefer you formally check them out. The other staff are quite good about that, even when they take books after hours."
Snape avoided Hermione's attempts to catch his eye, wishing she would better pretend to be un-affected. After the meeting adjourned, she stalled and sorted her papers until they were the last two in the room.
"All of the books you loaned me had been checked out already with Madame Pince," Hermione said in a leading tone.
"Yes," Snape said, finally pushing to his feet and tossing his robes straight. "And your point?"
"I assume that Ha-"
Snape interrupted, "Of course Harry has them."
Hermione frowned. "But what is he looking for?"
The mid-day light from the single window shifted while Snape considered an answer that was not utterly philosophical. The stone and masonry wall opposite the window went from pale mud to slate grey as the clouds glided overhead.
"He is not looking for anything in particular. I believe he is just bored."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "That's worse."
"The weekend could not come soon enough. I resist checking on him too frequently, lest he begin to think of me as overbearing."
"You have other good excuses to go home."
"And I have been using them."
Hermione dropped her voice. "Candide tells me he has been behaving just fine."
Snape rubbed his chin. "He has actually been growing more protective of her, I believe."
"That's something." She finished making a neat stack of her notebooks.
She stood staring down at her leather satchel flopped beside the stack. "He behaves so strangely around me. I just want to reach out and shake him."
"I would not recommend that."
Her shoulders fell. "What are we going to do? I have two notebooks full of references but not to any spells I would want to attempt on anyone, let alone Harry."
Snape was relentless. "No matter what he turns into?"
"The ones that don't involve crippling the mind—which is most of them, involve splicing souls one way or another," she said, filling with anger. "That's what started all this with Voldemort, isn't it?" She dropped her hand on the table. "I'm sorry. I've been reading instead of sleeping a few too many nights in a row." She pushed her hair back from her face and held it there. "I thought I'd feel better going to see him more often, you know, remind him of our friendship, how things used to be." With her hands still pressed to the sides of her head, she said, "It didn't work. He's so calculating now, it's unsettling. Calculating is what I used to have to do for him. Now all the time I worry what in the world he's thinking about.
"The way he looks at me sometimes, I get the sense he's wanting to test my loyalty with something he knows I won't want to do. And he knows me terribly well. That's the worst part: how awful the challenge may be. It's hard to act normally, worrying."
She dropped her hands to her sides. "You know all this," she stated.
He nodded faintly. "I am in my element; shall we say."
She snapped, bordering on shrill, "I don't want to hear that." Her eyes blinked rapidly as she buckled her satchel. "I've been reluctant to suggest this, but Winky . . . she also, in a sense, is in her element." Hermione raised her eyes, waiting for a reply.
"I have already dismissed that idea." He leaned on the back of a chair. "She did well enough, for a while, with Barty Crouch Jr. but Winky was bound to him long before she was put in charge of him. Harry is not, nor would he submit to it now, except through trickery that would most likely negate the effects. In any event, past events lead me to believe Harry is stronger than her."
"Care to illuminate?"
"In a fit of anger over breaking up with Penelope, Harry flew off in his Animagus form. When he had been gone too long, I ordered Winky to fetch him back, but she insisted he was out of her reach and could not elaborate more. He should not have been too distant, since he was still within the country. At the moment of my request, Harry was trying to escape his troubles by flying himself into exhaustion. Winky suffered great difficulty in denying my request, but still did so. I believe now that his will exceeded hers. And if it did then, it certainly does now.
"In any event, his trust is the most important thing I am concerned about right now. Winky has been instructed to keep an eye on things. Only. She insists she can calm Harry without risk when he is at home, and I told her to continue doing so only as long as Harry does not suspect."
"And the books? What if Harry learns something dangerous?"
Snape scoffed with lips twisted upward. "Harry does not need to learn anything. The fact that he believes he needs to is buying us time."
- 888 -
At home on Saturday, the first thing Harry said to Snape after following him to the drawing room was: "You said you could loan me a book about the Wand of Destiny."
"I did." Snape put his small case down on the desk. "It is in the Hogwarts Library. I'm surprised you have not found it." Then after a beat: "Given how very many books you have from there."
"I've been through the entire Restricted Section, twice over," Harry said, wanting to sound diligent.
"It isn't in the Restricted Section."
While Snape scratched out something on a parchment corner, he said, "The most powerful information is generally not hidden or protected. It is in plain sight." He handed the slip with an author and title to Harry, who slipped away for the library and returned not even a minute later.
"And to think, the rest of us must suffer the Floo Network."
Harry opened the jewel-encrusted book to a random page. "I don't know how you tolerate it," he said. "This looks familiar from that other place."
Harry closed the book and held it at his side. "I wonder how they're doing?"
"You promised not to return there," Snape said, placing his hands on his case, but not moving to open it.
"I won't return there," Harry said. "Not unless you change your mind for some reason and tell me to go." Indeed, Harry had found a far larger challenge: the two greatest wizards of the century, allied.
"I do not like that distant look," Snape said, studying Harry as he in turn studied the low hearth.
"Then I'll go elsewhere," Harry said distractedly, turning for the library.
Harry's reading was interrupted by Snape saying, "Lupin and your cousins will be here shortly for a late lunch."
Harry sat up on the leather divan and put the book aside. "You have been playing social director," he complained sharply.
Snape shook his head. "Not me. Your friends have." He leaned against the door frame and gestured casually at the closed book. "Learn anything?"
Harry shrugged. "It says Death himself created that wand, but that doesn't seem very likely, does it?"
"Death follows that wand." Snape said. "That much is certain. If Death created it, he has cleverly corralled human nature to his cause with it."
"Grindelwald had that wand, right? Before Dumbledore?"
Carefully pedantic, Snape replied, "That is my understanding."
"So all these great wizards . . . they were actually cheating."
"Perhaps. They were great, if you will, in their ideas. If we wish to be generous." Snape said. His intense gaze contrasted strongly with his easy-going posture and tone.
Harry matched his gaze. "Their ideas were also their downfall. So what does it mean to be great, then?" Harry did not wait for a response and, thinking of Percy, added: "I suppose it means your enemies are no bother." Harry waited a pause to properly fix Snape's expression so as to watch if it changed. "And the cloak?"
Snape's face remained level. "It could very well be the same as the one you have, just as your counterpart's friends assumed in that place. I do not know how one might tell, except to attempt to hide from death directly."
"Didn't work for my dad," Harry said, frowning.
Snape pushed away from the doorframe and stepped closer to touch the book. "In any event, the cloak's power is most likely limited to that which you have already experienced of it. You tell me if it is the one."
"It's a good cloak," Harry said.
"And one of rather exceptional longevity. Few if any last so long."
"Whose side are you on, again?" Harry prodded.
Snape's brow went up. "Yours. Do you doubt that?"
Harry shrugged. The door knocker sounded, prompting him to stand and slip by Snape, pleased at worrying him with that comment, and wanting to hide his grin.
Harry's cousins, including the two little ones, stood in the grey gloom of the garden, having arrived by car with Lupin.
As he helped with the coats, Lupin said to Candide and Snape in a quiet aside, "Don't know how Muggles manage that every day. At least in a train you can get up and walk about."
Harry followed behind Basel as the boy high stepped toward the brighter hall. The boy did not feel magical to Harry, but that did not slow him down at all. He charged into the main hall on his small legs, stopped in the center of the floor, and surveyed the room before heading straight for the tall floor oil lamp, which was lit. Snape waved an Imperturbable Charm at it just before the collision. Basel tumbled, picked himself up and launched himself at the footstool, which fortunately needed no magical protection.
Candide crossed her arms high on her body and said, "I can see that we are going to need some more child-proofing in here."
Patricia scooped Basel up. He kicked all the way as if still running on air. "They've been cooped up in the car. We're staying at a hotel with a glassed-in pool tonight and tomorrow, so they can have some play time. They need it. It's been a miserable winter so far."
Briar tugged on Harry's robes and folded her hand up and down in a wave hello before scampering over to pull off her brother's shoe where it dangled beside her mother's hip. She did not feel magical either, Harry decided.
He looked up and found Candide giving him a questioning look. He shook his head. She returned an overdone frown.
It was not until they were all seated and Harry helped Snape carry in the food from the kitchen that Candide said to his cousins, "Harry doesn't think the little ones are M. A. G. I. C. A. L."
"No?" Pamela said. "That's too bad."
Patricia said, helping her daughter with spooning her own potatoes after she gave a squawk when threatened with being served. "I don't think so, really. I don't know how, what did you call them . . . Mugged parents could possibly manage."
"Muggle," Harry supplied, setting a large serving fork on the plate of roast.
Pamela turned to Lupin, "Well, it's up to us."
Lupin blinked, stunned. "What?"
Harry forced down a grin. Patricia leaned forward and said, "Look at all this. How did you manage it all while we were sitting around having drinks?"
To avoid the children talking about her to their father later, Winky had been instructed to stay out of sight. "It was the help," Harry said.
"The E. L. F." Pamela explained.
"Oh, that's right. I forgot. How nice," Patricia added jealously, surveying the feast. "I don't need a wand to wave around, I just want an el- E. L. F." She accepted the roast Candide forked for her.
Lupin, who had been active in the conversation up to that point, fell silent. He was on the far corner from Harry tonight, allowing the sisters to guard and split up the children. Harry felt all kinds of strange instincts about him as he studied his profile in the light of the candelabra, mostly abhorrent ones. Memories of Lupin's early patient help with spells wiped away all but the curse instinct. Pamela patted Lupin's arm and Harry's other instincts came to the fore again. Again he won against them, but he had to keep at it.
Harry looked away, around the table and found Snape studying him. He dropped his gaze to Briar beside him. She piped up, pointing, "Candles!"
"That's what we use around here," he agreed.
She clapped her hands once and gave a grin that made her cheeks puff. "Whose birthday is it?"
Harry grinned. "No one's. We just like candles."
Dark liquids were being offered and perhaps that's what inspired Patricia to lean forward to look down the table and say, "Are you two going to give us some M. A. G. I. C. children?"
"We're thinking about it," Pamela said.
Lupin skipped stunned this time and went for long suffering.
Pamela turned to Snape. "What are our . . . um, odds, I guess you'd call it?"
"I don't know why you are asking me," Snape said between sips of something that gave off a whiff of smoke when swirled in a glass.
"Because you seem to know everything," Pamela returned.
Dryly, Snape said, "I don't mean to give that impression."
Snape rolled his eyes, sat back and huffed, "About a 65% chance. Maybe a little better. Harry might remember how many generations it tends to jump in your family. He would have seen the files while doing the paperwork for your exemption."
Harry, who had seen the disparate old parchments for each person through the years, tried to remember all the dates, or at least a sense of the gaps between them. "About once a hundred years. Maybe twice."
Patricia asked, "So, it's recessive or what?"
"It's random," Snape stated, pouring himself more from one of the bottles set out under the candelabra.
"So you really don't know," Pamela accused.
"I believe I said that," Snape replied.
Candide patronizingly shook her head and helpfully said, "Pure blood families that have been thus for generations can have what we call Squib children. Muggles with no history of M. A. G. I. C. can have children that are."
Pamela said, "Maybe that's just the rate at which people fool around, you know, showing up there."
Harry found this funny, then had to clear his throat. Beside him, Snape fell distracted, making Harry wonder what he was thinking.
After his relatives headed out for the hotel, sleepy children draped over their shoulders, Harry returned to his reading. Snape appeared in the doorway. "I thought perhaps we could play some chess."
They settled before the board and Harry promptly beat him in eight moves. The knight who had smashed the king stood tapping his sword on his boot, looking smug. The pieces looked up expectantly, watching the two of them.
"Want another?" Harry asked, enjoying himself, enjoying asking that in just the right insinuating way.
Snape was not so easily baited. "If you wish."
Harry sat back and surveyed the pieces lying toppled on the table beside the board. He waved for the pieces to reset for a new game. The queen on Snape's side patted the arm of the king who appeared to be nursing his head. But they all stood to attention, frozen, when the last pawn settled into place.
It required fourteen moves this time for Harry to win, including a wild distraction gambit that sacrificed three of Snape's pieces to even keep it close.
"I must be rusty," Snape said, toppling his own king this time, before the rook could reach it after eliminating the bishop that stood in the way.
"This wasn't a test?" Harry asked.
Snape reset the pieces before replying. His face gave nothing away. "I had not intended it as one, no."
"Getting rusty for sure then," Harry needled him.
Snape raised his gaze, but he looked amused if anything, or perhaps affectionate.
Harry pushed his chair back, feeling pulled in too many directions at once. He wanted to move on trapping Percy and now wondered if the state he had left Belinda in would compel her to contact Percy. "I have an errand to run."
"May I ask where?"
"I'll be back really quickly. So it doesn't matter." With that, he Apparated to Belinda's flat.
"I wish you'd use the door and knock like someone with some sense of decorum."
Harry glanced around, but the room was empty. "No one else who comes here does, do they?"
"Eff off," she breathed.
"Is that an invitation?" Harry asked, wanting the upper hand.
She smirked. "I seem to recall difficulties in that area were on your end."
Harry decided to ignore that rather than see where it may lead. It did not feel to be leading anywhere good. "Have you talked to Percy?"
She grew confused at this. "Why?"
Harry leaned over a chair back to lord over her. "Just say, yes or no. Really, how secret could that answer be? It was a simple question." When she nodded, brow heavily furrowed, Harry said, "Excellent. And his answer?"
"Said he had to think about it," she came back carefully.
"Owl me when he does, will you?" Harry straightened. "Oh, and owling the Boss . . . let me take care of that, if you will. I, er, I want to get on his good side."
Harry Apparated away, back to the drawing room. Snape was bent over his files; he only glanced up briefly.
Harry said, "Tonks is supposed to come by. I'll be in my room."
Harry sorted through the book piles under his bed. After running out of interesting titles, he had begun searching for books by smell instead of topic. The ones that gave off a whiff of old bitter smoke often had mundane beginnings but then rambled into more interesting prose, as if the author had become possessed. One of them had wild visions of things that could be demons. Another swore that trees talked to him, making Harry think the author simply suffered from magical abilities more in line with Shamanism. These authors' progressive distress made Harry feel smug.
He put those away and took out the next, one utterly infused with the odor of a trash fire and bearing page edges stained with fingers of smoke. This one introduced itself on the title page as a personal collection of the worst spells the author could find. Trouble was, the author was so obsessive about recording his findings he continued to write long after the nib ran dry of ink. Harry tilted the page to read what periodically became an engraving in the vellum. After straining his eyes on one particularly interesting page, Harry fetched out a soft pencil and lightly shaded in the missing lines so he could read the pen scratching in relief.
Harry stopped and flipped back a few pages. The described spell appeared to be a Protean Charm for flesh. Harry pulled out his soft pencil and laying it on edge, gently rubbed the words into view.
Harry shut the book when he heard the sound of the Floo downstairs. He changed it for one of his Auror books and then acted surprised at Tonks' arrival. She appeared worn and aged more than he imagined her with his mind's eye. She threw herself down on the bed, arms wide, and said, "There is way too much going on."
After a minute, she asked, "How are you, Harry?" She sat up and faced him, fingers plucking at the bedding. She wanted to ask him something, he could tell, but held back. With a sigh, she crab-crawled over beside him and sat close, legs rubbing.
"What to do anything?" she asked, sounding far away.
Belinda's taunts echoed in Harry's mind. He closed the book on tracking and dropped it off the edge of the bed while reaching for her, intending to make a point of some kind, but to whom, it wasn't clear.
The next morning, while Snape and Candide faced each other across a late substantial breakfast, Harry stood near the window, opening his post. Tonks had departed earlier, unusually declining a good breakfast. She seemed eager to go, despite spending the rest of the night. Harry had other things on his mind, and decided it not worth his while to ponder too long what might be troubling her.
As he stood there, an ordinary barn owl delivered a missive from Belinda, sealed with a fanciful wax disk bearing the note. If opened when not alone, letter will turn to sawdust. The seal looked like the kind of thing the Minister's office would use.
Harry went to the drawing room and shut the door. He stood in the middle of the floor and broke the wax free of the paper.
Percy is interested. Will only discuss terms with the Boss directly, face to face. Is adamant on this point.
A knock sounded on the door and Harry lowered the letter to his side. When the door opened he could feel the paper disintegrate between his fingers and flow away. Snape glanced at this, and moved on only after Harry brushed his hands off, uncaring.
Snape said, "I should return to Hogwarts soon, but I wanted to talk to you first."
Harry failed to react.
"Have a seat, Harry," Snape invited.
With no reason to argue, Harry took one of the visitor's chairs, sitting in it casually, attention on the window more than the desk.
Snape took his time making his way to the chair behind the desk. He considered Harry and his fingertips alternately. "You have plans?" he queried, taking the upper hand.
Harry replied, "I want to get even with Percy."
A pause. "You expect me to object?"
Harry's mouth worked. "I don't know."
"You believe he killed Moody; do you not?"
"I do." Harry could not bear to sit. He stood and paced once, stopping before a shelf that had collected more personal items than Harry realized Snape owned in total. He felt the words come easily, having no one to talk to about his ideas, most days. "I think he's been trying to get at me for a while now. At first because I suspected him of manipulating Transportation's records, then because I was interfering with his dating Belinda, which I think now was less personal and more strategic on his part."
"Dating the Minister of Magic's personal assistant would have distinct advantages." Snape pulled his robes over his lap. "I have no objection to assisting you. If you are willing to let me in on your plan?"
Harry felt the first stab of suspicion. He stared at a tarnished brass bookend in the shape of a sheared off crystal ball. The mate to it was on the shelf above. They were a wedding present from Professor Trelawney. A tasteless choice, he thought.
When Harry turned, Snape said, too casually, "If you do not need my assistance, that is fine as well."
"Percy works for a different branch of Durumulna than I have been. I put word out that my gang boss wants to buy my old wand, the one I know Percy has."
"How many others know Percy has it? How is this boss figure reputed to have found out?"
"Already thought of that. Belinda knew as well, and she could have told him. Her flat's one of his safehouses. I told her to tell him she let it slip."
Snape leaned far back in his chair, in a pose the opposite of his usual professorial one. "Why would Percy risk selling it, when he could deny having it at all very easily? The price would have to be very high indeed."
Harry shook his head. "That's not the plan, actually." He smiled. "Percy said he would only consider negotiating at all if he could meet with the Boss in person for the transaction. That's what I was hoping, but even if he hadn't insisted on that, I would have settled for trapping just him." When Snape's gaze narrowed, Harry went on, "Ma Dame, Percy's gang's boss, wants to get at the other Boss and take over his branch of Durumulna. If she thinks he'll be there, I'm hoping she goes in for an all out assault. I'm going to warn the Ministry to be ready for that possibility."
Snape rubbed his fingers over his chin. "Up to this point this Boss is not actually involved in the transaction. But if you were to tell him that Ma Dame is planning on ambushing him, you may get him to fall into the larger Ministry trap as well."
Harry smiled more. "That's an excellent idea. He may help me lay a more believable trap as well, if he thinks she'll be there."
"It has a chance of working, as long as Percy is trusting enough," Snape said. "Given Percy's skills at Legilimency, Belinda is a large potential hole in your plans."
"I used a few very small memory charms on her," Harry said reassuringly. "She forgot I was involved. Now she only thinks I'm nosing in to make a good impression on the Boss."
Snape raised a brow. "She thinks you're turning into Percy, in other words."
Snape sat with his fingers steepled before saying, "You run a huge risk trying to take everyone down at once, I must say. If you miss at all, you miss severely and will have serious enemies to contend with."
"You're saying I shouldn't aim so high?"
"I'm saying, keep the Ministry out of it. Let the rivals reduce each other's numbers by their very nature. Or aim lower. One branch at a time, starting with the rival of your handler. That will win you a rise in that part of the organization."
Harry scratched his head.
"Have you set a date for the transaction?"
"Not yet. I need time to set up a site for the meeting. I'll have to call in some favors for that."
"Do let me know when, so I am forewarned." He bent back to his files and without looking up reached into his pocket. "Speaking of forewarned, you should perhaps see what just arrived."
He held out a copy of the Quibbler.
Harry accepted it, tried to figure out which half of it to read, then found the headline in question, written in hand printed stencil around the outer edge of the cover. Harry turned it anti-clockwise three times to read it all. Exposé by our newest contributing investigative writer, brought over from the Daily Prophet at great loss to them, Rita Skeeter. Necessitating a print run of an extra 500 copies! Harry Potter, Crime Lord!
Harry flipped the magazine open. "How much does she know?"
Snape said, "For what it's worth, I think she found out the old fashioned way, by bribing some low-level sources."
Harry lips twitched. "Maybe I should give her an interview. Got any potions I could slip her?"
Snape paused before replying, "Depends upon what effect you are hoping for."
"Something that takes her out of the picture."
"She's ahead of you in this game," Snape stated in a warning tone. "You cannot remove her now without all suspicion falling upon you."
Teeth clenched, Harry said, "I missed my chance, you are saying."
"You missed the previous chance. There will be others." He stood up and began putting his files away in a small trunk. "I will see if I can find a workable variation on the Holiday Compulsion Concoction. Generally a disreputable brew sold only by owl post for use on one's boss, but it can probably be reformulated. I would not recommend trying, for a while anyway, anything stronger than that. But by all means, grant her an interview and send her off the scent."
Harry assumed Tonks would show up around lunchtime, but he was mistaken. She did not arrive until evening. She stood in the main hall, hands fisted, leaning forward toward him as if into the wind.
"I need to talk to you, Harry," she stated clearly, absolutely nothing but discipline in her tone.
Candide stood up. "I'll be upstairs anyone needs me."
Tonks pulled a ruffled copy of the Quibbler from her pocket. While doing this she eyed Harry the way she eyed random magical citizens while on patrol. "I went around to a few of her sources, after I weaseled their nicknames out of her with threats I really wasn't prepared to back up. They pretty much confirm her story."
Harry imagined his erstwhile assistants under the effects of some nasty curse while saying, "So?"
This disarmed her. "What?"
"I told you I had an idea about how to do things. That's what I'm doing."
She stuffed the magazine back into her pocket. "Harry, you have NO idea what you're doing."
Her condescending tone flipped him completely out of any affection for her. Coldly, he asked, "And how would you know?"
Again, this made her stop to reassess him. She exhaled and rubbed her brown Mohawk gently one way then the other while peering at him sideways. "You're going to get yourself killed, Harry."
"You have that little faith in me? You don't know anything about me, just for the record."
She rubbed her hair. "Merlin, Harry . . ." She gestured upstairs. "And a baby on the way. Harry these people play for keeps."
"So do I. So did the Dark Lord." He paced away from her and peered up at the ceiling where the new wood still glowed where the balcony had been repaired. "I was going to ask for your help."
"I couldn't help you in good conscience with this anyway. I want you to stop."
He spun on her. "So, if I tell you I'm going to hand you an entire branch of Durumulna, you'll not take it?"
Tonks closed her eyes. "If you tell me what you're arranging. I might."
"I'll think about it," Harry said.
She frowned and glanced, pained, around the room. "You aren't leaving me a lot of options here, Harry."
"What?" Harry let his anger drive him into a disconnected state where everything spread before him like a chess board. "Are you going to arrest me again? I know you helped Severus frame someone for Moody's murder. You don't have any options."
- 888 -
"I want a meeting with the Boss", Harry demanded of his contact, Ursie.
It was the middle of the week and they were alone in Belinda's flat. Hummer and Slowdraw were off somewhere, which was unfortunate, since Harry wanted to talk to them and could not seem to catch them there. Harry was feeling irked. He had spent hours over the previous few days searching out a proper spot for the transaction, and he had found one, an old stone building on the outskirts of Birmingham. Spelled properly, it would hold well against even magical escape from the inside. He was going to force the two of them to help with that in exchange for not pummeling them for talking to Skeeter.
The man snorted. "Why would I set that up?"
Harry kept his burgeoning anger in check. "Why wouldn't you set that up?"
The large man crossed his arms and said through his mask. "Because you haven't done enough for me to deserve it. You've made more trouble than you're worth. You even got the press involved. That's breakin' rule one."
Harry's fingers grew damp against his wand, which he held pointed at the floor. He could simply level the man and force him to do what he wanted. An Imperio certainly would work. The spell leapt to mind like he had done it a hundred times.
Ursie uncrossed his arms, posture wary. Harry gathered his anger into a struggling bundle and said, "I have a business offer for the Boss and only I can convey it."
The man scoffed, "Do another job for me and I'll consider it."
"I don't want to wait that long." The sickly energy of the Imperio made his fingers burn where they touched his wand.
"I don't operate on your time, Potter," the man sneered, and Apparated away before Harry could finish raising his wand. He rubbed his tingling fingers together and peered at them. They were unmarred. The hungry feel of the spell still filled his limbs. He should have put an Apparition block on the flat before the meeting. A mistake he would not make again.
Annoyed and stymied, Harry slipped away to the Dark Plane. He walked a while, paced at a distance by a few curious creatures. One approached, sniffing the ground. It raised its bulbous, brain-exposed head and scampered off, dashing between the hillocks for cover.
Harry fell sideways to somewhere he had free rein to do as he pleased.