Harry lay between furrows of folded grass in the field beside the Burrow. The lingering pain of absolute cold struck and held him fast. He waited, vaguely unwelcoming, for the magically heated ground beneath him to seep through his heavy cloak. A cloud-flecked blue-scape filled his vision so broadly he feared he may fall into it, tenuously pinned as he was to the hard-earth sky behind him. Closing his eyes reduced the vertigo but left him even more intensely alive with agony.
Eventually, Harry rose up and, feeling lazy and uncaring, applied only a disguise to his eyes before approaching the Burrow.
There was no answer at the door. Harry stood under the sagging awning over the side entryway and closed his eyes. Death Eaters shimmered in his mind, in the near field and far field, a forest within a forest. He swayed and had to force himself to draw in a breath against the intimate hold of the vision. An interesting cluster of shadows hunched together somewhere in the midfield. Harry Apparated away, in their direction. But when he closed his eyes again they were no closer. He stared at the shrubs and nearby road, thinking. He'd had this trouble before. Like the Dark Plane, direction in his mind did not mean much, unless the shadow was very close.
Harry swallowed a mouthful of saliva, wanting to feel so many servants so close, close enough to feel their tendrils brushing his mind. Harry systematically Apparated to the most distant places he knew from field work, glad he knew so many. Each time, the shadows teased, growing more distant, or sometimes slightly less, but never coming close, and in no predictable pattern. He could not simply triangulate, he decided, and attempting it was a waste of energy.
Gathering his wits for yet another Apparition, Harry returned to the place where the shadows had felt closest, Holyhead. He stood beneath the flag poles over the gate to the Quidditch stadium and wizard playground, which stood unused except by four bundled young children on starter brooms that would only fly two feet off the ground and only for ten seconds at a time. The children tossed a rugby ball around, while alternately running and jumping back into the air, a far more athletic sport than actual Quidditch.
This was too public a place. Harry transformed and took flight. He flapped inland, looking for a suitable remote spot, relishing the cold wind and the instinctive animal freedom from his emotions. The flat green expanse of Anglesey slid beneath him, dwarfed by the approaching mountains of Snowdonia. Harry came to a fluttering landing in a high hanging valley marred by grey boulders and rock seams wearing collars of stubborn snow. The air carried the dank scent of chilled mulch.
Harry's trousers and cloak hugged his legs, pressed unceasingly by the wind, but it barely stirred the stiff heather, disconnecting him even more from the world around him. The calm of conquering the open air in Animagus form followed him through transforming, but the wind sucked it away and the lure of the dark vision leached in again.
He paced around in a broad circle with a Fogging Charm, aiming it high enough to significantly dim the cloud-filtered sunlight. Taking up a position where the ground was smooth with nothing to trip over, he pulled his cloak hood forward over his head as far as it would go and spelled it with a darkness hex to hide his face.
Harry lowered his wand to his side and tilted his head back. He felt hungry to his core and that keen craving wiped away any wiser thoughts that tried to rise before he revisited what he had sensed while sending Voldemort off from Shrewsthorpe in that other place. He sent a vibrating song out into the green forest of his mind. A siren song, aimed at the cluster he could sense skulking nearby, but not near enough. It was harder to do than he expected. The wind around him seemed to tear the song away, even though it should not be flowing out in the physical world.
Harry took a deep breath and held it, pushing out the siren lure from his core, quiet at first, only building in strength as he could sustain the notes of it, starting again when it faltered and shattered.
At first nothing happened. The heather stood firm against the wind, as did the artificial haze obscuring the slopes. But the sound of Apparition finally broke the ceaseless whistle of the wind. Harry remained still, head covered, tuning the vibration to fetch the rest of the cluster. Consecutive pops broke the silence. The hooded forms, postures wary and clumsy with surprise, shuffled into a semblance of a circle. Four, five, six. Harry dulled the song. His arms prickled with the thrill of success and the dying vibration of the lure. The Death Eaters stood silently, waiting, their nervous tension making the Fogging Spell twist and eddie around the loose circle.
Harry tasted their presence, amused at what they must be imagining. They were so close he had no choice but to discipline his own hunger. Standing there with such obedient servants so close and with his own instincts choked back, slipped Harry into an unusually calm state. The Death Eaters continued to stand at attention. Harry could see the distant others in his mind, shimmering more than before, agitated perhaps.
The hunger had not abated, but it had backed off in his mind, willing to wait. He turned, examining each of the fogged-in figures. Each displayed a personality in the way they waited. Some stood with deceptive patience, hands clasped. Some stood with arms tense, ready for flight. Behind the mask holes, their eyes showed wide and shining, trapped.
The sense of power and the self control it required began to grow suffocating. Enough of this, Harry thought. He slipped away, leaving them to themselves.
Harry returned to the Burrow and found it empty again. He slipped inside to check the magical clock. Ginny's hand pointed at School. Ginny had long since finished at Hogwarts, but since her tutor was there, that was the best place to check.
The thick undergrowth at the edge of the Forbidden Forest obscured Harry's arrival near Hogwarts castle. The dead leaf fall masked the scent of the Dark Plane he carried on himself, making it almost natural. Renewing the disguise on his eyes, Harry stepped out and began making his way toward the doors. As he passed the equipment sheds near the Quidditch pitch, he heard familiar voices. It was Ginny and a handful of students working on spells. Professor Snape was not around, so Harry approached as he was.
The students, a mix of Sixth and Seventh Years, paused and turned as he sauntered up to them.
"Harry Potter!" one of them blurted in the unadulterated tone Harry had not heard since he was a Third Year. The others muttered in agreement with the first boy's breathless surprise.
Ginny blinked rapidly, then her face underwent a transformation. Harry could see in her eyes she recognized him for who he really was, so he gave her a quirked smile. "How are your lessons?" he asked.
"Good. Done for the day, but Professor Snape let some other students join in, so we're just drilling until the bell rings for afternoon classes."
A bony lean girl in Ravenclaw that Harry recognized, but did not know the name of, leaned close to Ginny, and whispered in awe, "You know Harry Potter?"
Ginny held her mouth open while she worked out an answer. "Yeah," she finally said, trying to sound dismissive so as to cut off more questions. Harry could see her relishing her companions' ardor at his presence. "Yeah, we know each other." She shrugged broadly and the others shifted to better surround both of them.
"I wish we didn't have to go," another girl said. She gaped at Harry with an unattractive wavering grin.
Ginny tugged Harry's arm and turned him away from this sight. "Will you duel with me a little? Do you have time?"
The others lined up as spectators while the two of them got into position. Ginny had improved; she moved from one spell to the next much faster. The bell rang from the school, echoing out from the bailey and floating on the chill breeze. Harry took advantage of the distraction to snag Ginny's wand with a Whip Charm.
"You win." Her shoulders fell. "You rest better go."
With expressions of dismay, the five students obediently trooped off, leaving the two of them alone.
"You're doing well," Harry said, handing her wand back. She blushed fiercely, but his words brought her gaze up full of a shy smile, revealing poorly buried longing, which perfectly reflected Harry's raw emotions.
She started strolling and he followed. She said, "I never expect you to come back. It's very strange to have you here."
Needling her, he said in false concern, "You don't want me around?"
She grabbed his sleeve. "Oh, it's not that," she quickly amended. "Especially not with what's happening."
Harry had no idea what was happening. "Are people finally understanding?" he asked, taking on a wise tone.
She changed course and began walking parallel to the lake. Hogsmeade squatted in the distance, hemmed in by fog that obscured the far side of the lake edge.
"Understanding? No one understands what's happening. And some things that Professors McGonagall and Snape find in the Muggle papers, like the Nordic ferry going down yesterday and everyone saying Russia's to blame. And everyone pulling their diplomats out of everywhere. One day everyone's fine, then the next they are blaming each other for everything. This is how wars get started, right?"
"If people want to fight, anything works."
Her pale pink hands glowed in the low light when she waved her arms around. "It's all so big. It's certainly bigger than just me," she scoffed blamefully.
They strolled in silence before she added, "Boy, it's nice to have someone to talk to."
"You can't talk to Professor McGonagall or Professor Snape?"
She whinged slightly as she replied, "I can, but McGonagall just tells me to study harder, and if I have some kind of worry I just want someone to listen, not give me more work to do. And talking to Professor Snape scares the socks off me. He sees ten times as much conspiracy as anyone else."
At the gate to Hogsmeade she came to a crunching stop in the frosted grass and timed her turn so that he came right up to her, close enough the mist of their breath co-mingled. Her eyes were narrowed by a pleasant smile. "It's really so odd to have you stopping by like this, you know. A Harry Potter from somewhere else." She shook her head. "You act like you don't even realize you are such a legend."
Harry scoffed out of habit.
"The Harry I know would be, I don't know, basking, preening. It would be nauseating."
Harry took her elbow through her rough woolen coat. "It wouldn't stop you obsessing over him though."
She frowned painfully. "It should though, shouldn't it?" she said with a laugh of shared understanding. Her face neutralized and she studied him, saying, "You're so much nicer. More approachable."
"More like a normal person. Absolutely."
Harry stared back at her, holding the smirk back from his lips.
She went on. "It's nice that you come and help. I don't know where I'd be now if you hadn't convinced everyone to do something before it all started." Behind her eyes flickered fearful alternative possibilities.
She leaned closer, eyes moving between each of his own. "We're done with practice for now, right?" she asked.
Harry read all kinds of things behind her eyes while she nervously chewed her lip. "If you wish." He grabbed her cold hand and walked her through the Hogsmeade gate.
Before the village, he pulled her off the rutted footpath and through the taller pale brown weeds topped with seeds that caught at their cold-stiffened cloaks.
"Where are we going?" Ginny asked.
Harry did not reply. He felt un-tethered and untouchable. His breath swelled his chest and made him lightheaded. Nothing that happened here really mattered and that notion left him dizzy with freedom.
"Oh, it's the Shrieking Shack," Ginny said, when the drooping house came into view over a rise cleared of frost by the weak sun. "Everyone says it's really haunted," she offered helpfully.
"In a sense," Harry answered.
The crooked door required an unlock spell and a hefty push to free the wooden door from the swollen frame. Paint strips stuck on only with damp, stuck instead to Harry's cloak. The floor had rotted through near the boarded-over broken window. Ginny clung harder to his hand as they traversed the floor along the few muddy boards not bulging and warped with rot.
The empty room smelled lived in, making Harry suspect Lupin still made use of it. "It should be better upstairs," he said.
"What's this?" Ginny asked when they creaked their way into the upstairs bedroom. The bed had a single threadbare quilt. A candle stood in a bent tarnished holder on the floor. Soot stains trailed up the peeling wallpaper above it.
"The ghost still visits, apparently," Harry said, touching the quilt stuffing where the patchwork had gone threadbare.
"Will it come back? Maybe we should go."
Her arm tugged tautly against his hold on her hand.
"It's not a full moon," Harry said. "He won't be around today."
She turned a mystified face his way. He returned a smile and tugged her forward with her hand, still clamped hard to his own. Her curiosity vanished, absorbed by bright-eyed surprise as he pulled her into a forceful kiss.
The bed creaked plaintively under their joined weight. Her quivering breathlessness echoed Harry's own when he reached out to let the shadows stroke his mind. Both driven by entirely different needs they fumbled through disrobing.
"Master?" a wavering voice croaked, probing at the room's musty air which now hung heavy with their exertions.
Harry, breathing fast, glanced at the doorway. The sparse light fell in slates from the boarded window, illuminating a strip of rough face through the gap.
Ginny squeaked and pulled the quilt over them, inside out. Harry blinked in confusion, feeling a shadow under the man crouching at the door more strongly than he could make him out in the physical world.
"I came, Master," the quavering voice insisted.
"Go," Harry said, voice rough. He swallowed hard and slid off the bed on the far side from the door. The shadow weighted him down almost to helplessness, confusing him more. He shook his head to clear it. Ginny pulled her wand out and, wrapped in the quilt, rolled to sit up.
"Go away or I'll smack you one," she snapped.
"Master?" the figure pleaded, inching into the room on his knees. He wore a long apron with a Honeydukes logo flourishing across the front. "It's been so long, Master."
"What is he talking about?" Ginny whispered.
Harry pulled his robes together and locked his instincts down with the help of panic driven adrenaline. He came around the bed, strategic thoughts lining up neatly, clearing his muddled head. "I don't know. But let me handle this."
Harry, bare feet feeling every ripple of grain and sharp splinter in the old floor, stopped between Ginny and the Death Eater. He licked his lips and struggled with his dual senses, the musty crooked room overlaying the green forest. He hated the feeling of being leashed down and bared his teeth at the simpering man before him.
Trying to sound like he was making things up, he put on a false tone and said, "Your master doesn't want you here right now. Go away."
He did not expect it to work, but the man bowed repeatedly, arms up for protection, and scuffled out backwards on his knees. "I'm sorry, Master. I misunderstood. It's been so long, Master."
"Right," Harry said quietly.
The Death Eater tried to close the door, but it wedged against the warped floor shy of the jam. He pulled frantically on it. "Please don't kill me, Master," the man said. "I did not understand. I'm a loyal servant. I've always been."
Exasperated, Harry said, "I won't kill you if you get out of here."
The man scurried away out of sight. A series of creaks followed him down the stairs.
"Merlin," Ginny breathed. "What a nutter." She swallowed hard. Harry could hear it.
Harry closed his eyes and felt the shadows closing in on him--all of them filling the gap in his inner vision with snaking wisps. He swallowed hard too. They would all come here, to the Shrieking Shack, unless he moved somewhere else.
"I should go."
"Go?" she asked sharply, vaguely hurt. But her face straightened out and she started finding her clothes. "Oh yeah," she then agreed quietly.
Harry teetered on his heels, trying to cease summoning the Death Eaters. A quick snapping shut of his eyes demonstrated it only worked for half of them. He could send them off like he did before, but he wanted to be alone to do that. He did not want to risk giving her any suspicions.
Halfway dressed, Ginny glanced at the doorway. "That bloke was creepy. What do you think was wrong with him?"
"I don't know," Harry replied, trying not to sound impatient. His body complained about their interactions being incomplete. The shadows almost made up for it and if he sent them away he would feel incomplete that way too. Reaching for them made him feel satiated and they began darkening his inner mind yet again, crowding in, filling him.
Ginny stood up and crept to the door, wand out. "Do you think he's still here?"
Harry flicked his eyes closed. Three shadows hovered very near. "Probably. There is a tunnel that leads to Hogwarts castle. Why don't you take that?"
"There's what?" she blurted.
Harry opened the panel and gestured for her to go. "Hurry," he snapped, and she obeyed with only one round-eyed glance back out at him.
Harry then slipped away into the Dark Plane. The grey horizon encircled him, unchanging. He wished the place had wind because he really needed to catch his breath. He could not seem to pull in enough air. His mind reached too far out of his body, unbalancing his senses. He tried to reel himself in, to send off the shadows with discordance, but it sent stabs of discomfort through his chest to do so. He relaxed into the instincts tugging at him, which loosened their hold on his emotions so at least he could function.
He did not want to let go. He felt larger and stronger than he ever imagined possible. He hungered now for something new. For something to test his power against . . . something worthy. Cradling that need, Harry gripped his sweat-slippery wand tightly in both hands and fell sideways, thinking of the base of a hill overshadowed by a lone tall tower.
Harry raised his head up and brushed away the raindrop that splashed into his eye. He sat up fully. He was warm, rather than frigid. Puzzling this, Harry rose easily to his feet and shielded his eyes from the rain to stare up at what was left of the tower. The roof was clean off, rendered into a pile of broken beams and mossy tiles off to one side.
Harry strode closer, feeling for the shadows, which hovered in the distance now, too far away to perceive if they were still approaching. He was glad he had not lost them completely. With their fortifying him, Grindelwald would have even less of a chance.
Harry flew up to the crumbled edge of the tower. Perched there, his keen animal nose screamed about the stench of carrion, burnt metals, and foul potions. The open top floor contained a jumble of debris from the roof and the contents of the room. One side of the wall bulged outward, stones barely balanced, grinding precariously in the wind.
Harry transformed back to himself and used the gaps in the mortar to climb down inside. His eyes keyed on a triangle of peach colored robe visible beneath the wreckage. The smell forced him to press his shirt over his nose and then his cloak too. Harry carefully hovered the smashed remains of a wardrobe aside, revealing the splayed limbs and waxen blue face of Dumbledore. Flies unsettled by the debris shifting, quickly re-congregated.
"Accio wand!" Harry shouted in each of the cardinal directions. He did not expect to find it, but he had to be thorough.
Harry backed up to the wall and transformed just long enough to flap back to the top edge of the wall. Stones cascaded out from underfoot. Animal instincts riled his mind and he could not calm himself without transforming back to human. Balanced on the uncertain curve of wall in his trainers, he hovered roof beams from the ground back to up to the top to lay across the edges of the tower. He balanced more broken beams across these. Being methodical about what he was doing eased the shaking in his limbs. Purpose seemed to be the only thing he could feel.
He piled the rest of the room's debris under this makeshift floor and raised Dumbledore's body slowly up. As the old wizard's fanned out limbs cleared the tower, the wind began playing with his robes and hair, imparting a false life to his form. Harry swallowed bile and resisted the temptation to cover his nose and mouth again. It felt irreverent to do so.
The rain pelted down harder, in sheets that ricocheted off the ragged stone edge. Harry pointed his wand straight up and parted the clouds with a Sky Tunnel charm. Unpracticed, he expected it would not hold long. The rain continued to blow in on the wind despite the column of open sky.
A crow circled, scolding. Harry raised his wand again and ignited the debris: the broken roof slats, wardrobe, and tangled curtains and bedding. The flames caught and spread, popping and consuming with mindless intent. Harry watched them lick their way up to the body. They seemed eager now and that made him feel regretful. He balanced there on the edge of regret the same way he balanced on the edge of the tower, falling neither way. When the flames rose to chew Dumbledore's robes, high enough to toss in the wind, hissing and roaring, Harry remembered the books.
Ignoring the shifting blasts of heat, Harry clambered down again and ducked a fallen section of roof tiles to reach the staircase. He tip toed the stairs as fast as he could, listening to the tower above him creak in the heat. But the library floor stood empty of books. Only a few smashed contraptions and note scraps littered the room.
The tower groaned ominously. Harry took to the window and leapt out of it while transforming. He flapped through drifting curls of ash and rose to circle the fire. The flames licked madly at the fuel, fully obscuring Dumbledore's body.
A wind shift carrying feather-singing heat forced Harry to veer wide. He caught an updraft off the hillside and turned back to circle once again. Within the confines of his Animagus mind, Harry considered that he had instigated this chain of events. His one visit had set off these other events, each one spreading out from the others like the winter-shrunken landscape beneath his slow turning.
Harry drifted down to a soft landing at the base of the hill and transformed back to himself. The rain had returned, something he had failed to notice in his animal form. The fire shrugged off the rain as well; soot-edged flames now licked up as tall again as the tower itself.
Harry wiped his glasses on his shirt tail and put a charm on them to keep them dry before hooking them back over his ears. He had set Grindelwald loose from Dumbledore's influence. What exactly he should do about that, he was not certain. In his imaginings of a rematch, Dumbledore was always there, provokable, but hating himself for being so. Grindelwald alone, and bearing the Wand of Destiny, was something else. The same overpowering instinct that had driven him to seek out a fight, now counseled that he retreat and think through his next move.
Harry's lips quirked. That other instinct was scared. Scared of losing, and presumably of dying. Harry scoffed, mocking it. It fell silent and Harry fell homeward.
* * *
Harry did not find Candide at the office. It was mid afternoon and her office informed him that she had departed at noon, as usual.
"Do you know where she went?" Harry asked, wondering why she had not waited for him. Worry cleared his mind while he stood there in the doorway off the chilly staircase.
"'The Burrow', she said," one office mate replied while sprinkling sand over fresh columns of numbers.
Harry Apparated away and walked up the drive at the Burrow. He backed up a step when Mr. Weasley opened the door invitingly.
"Harry," Mr. Weasley acknowledged, sounding knowing, which rankled Harry.
"Is Candide here?" It annoyed him to have to ask, feeling like a servant.
"Yes, come on in." Again, his old boss sounded patronizing.
Expression hard, Harry accepted but did not acknowledge a pat on the arm from Mrs. Weasley. "Sit down, Harry. Have some tea and cakes."
Harry slid into the mismatched chair beside Candide. She said, "I got tired of the office, Harry. Thought I'd wait for you here. My mum doesn't dote like Molly can."
Mr. Weasley slid into the seat across from Harry and flipped his errant comb-over back into place.
"Home from the Ministry already?" Harry asked him, mind Occluded, voice flat.
Mr. Weasley opened his mouth, but it was Mrs. Weasley who answered. She patted her husband's shoulder on the way to the seat next to him. "Went in at four this morning, the poor dear."
Harry looked away. The dreary little window over the sink and the small windows in the door let in sparse light, but no lamps had been lit to dissolve the shadows. Harry could remember loving this place, now it felt like a dog-eared old photograph he had found in a book.
Mr. Weasley broke the silence, saying, "You're a stubborn young man, Harry," in an almost affectionate tone.
Harry turned his gaze back to him, giving nothing away. Their eyes locked. Mr. Weasley's faint smile curled downward and he tilted his head.
"The things you wanted to happen are happening," Mr. Weasley said, trying and failing to sound reassuring.
Harry assumed he referred to Percy. He said, "Must be difficult for you," with no sense of sympathy.
"The difficulty made you reluctant," Harry criticized.
Mr. Weasley sat back, eyes dancing over Harry's face.
"Sentimentality is weakness," Harry added. But as he said it, he felt confused. The same consideration used to apply to him, from this very man. He felt torn about wanting it again.
"Harry, really," Mrs. Weasley said from where she poured out a cup of tea for him. "You sound like Severus."
"He's still alive, though, isn't he?" Harry said.
"Not without help," Mr. Weasley pointed out, lecturing, "from some of the most sentimental people ever to grace wizardom. As you are well aware."
Candide had dipped her head, tracing the lines of a crude carving of a broomstick in the table top.
"Not the best topic for over afternoon cakes, really," Mrs. Weasley criticized them.
Harry, thinking of the smashed tower and limp translucent grey body he had found, said, "Dumbledore was foolishly and dangerously sentimental." He almost added aloud: He should have killed Grindelwald when he had the chance, but heart jolted into racing, Harry wondered if the evil old wizard was alive here too. Maybe left to rot in a prison somewhere. From inside his distracted silence he did not notice the worried glances the Weasley parents sent each other.
Candide did, she set her tea down and rubbed her belly. "Maybe we should go, Harry. I'm a little tired." Her studious gaze at each of their hosts gave away, to Harry anyway, that she was lying, trying to draw him away from their presence.
Everyone shuffled their chairs backwards.
Mr. Weasley came around the table. "If you don't mind, Harry, going on ahead. I'll bring Candide along in a minute."
Harry shrugged as uncaringly as he could given how his instincts screamed to say no. He trusted Candide to handle them and the concerns faded. With a faint smile he gave a patronizing wave to the Weasley parents and Apparated for home.
Mr. Weasley, head tilted again, approached Candide. "Is Harry all right? Tonks has been reporting in on him regularly, but this . . ." He waggled his finger in where Harry had just been standing. "This was unexpected."
"What was unexpected?" Candide asked. "That he's still upset about being incarcerated?"
"This seemed like far more than that," Mr. Weasley said. Beside him Mrs. Weasley nodded emphatically.
Candide raised one shoulder. "Harry's fine at home. I don't think he was happy coming here."
The two of them frowned deeply at this. "Anything we can do?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "Anything at all? Harry's always been part of this family." She frowned again. "Or he was, and still is from our perspective."
"I don't think there's anything, really. Harry will get through this." But unlike everything else she had said, this rang false.
Mrs. Weasley took hold of Candide's sleeve. "Are you certain? I don't like doing nothing."
"Harry just wanted to be trusted, is all," she replied with finality, freeing her sleeve. "I'll let you know, but I don't think you can do anything. Harry's decided whom he can trust and whom he cannot. That's not going to change quickly."
Harry arrived in Shrewsthorpe and found Tonks sitting on the couch, crossed leg bouncing rapidly.
She stood with a single lithe movement. "There you are. Where's Candide?"
"She'll be along."
Tonks stepped closer. "I'm worried about you, Harry."
"Get in the queue," he said, turning over his post on the side table. Tonks must have moved it there from the dining room, which implied she had looked through it. "Sure you are not just worried about what I can say about you?"
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Harry, this is so not like you. None of this is." She tossed one hand. "Well, the part about trying to run your own infiltration of Durumulna is a bit like you."
Harry looked up, employing the same unaffected expression that worked so well on Mr. Weasley. It set Tonks back nicely too.
Tonks said, "I would like to know more about how that is going, by the way."
Harry returned to opening his post. "If you don't plan to help, there is no reason to tell you anything."
Tonks' reply was interrupted by the sound of Apparition outside, followed by the door squeaking open.
"Here she is," Mr. Weasley announced. "Ah, Tonks. Good to, ah, see you too."
Tonks did not seem pleased to see him, Harry thought. Tonks said, "I should get back to the Ministry," and Disapparated. Mr. Weasley followed, citing some unlikely excuse.
Harry said, "It's no wonder he does so poorly at the Ministry. He's a terrible liar." He turned to Candide. "How did it go?"
She moved to where Tonks had stacked the papers while waiting. "You worried them."
"Did you dissuade them from that?"
From behind the Daily Prophet she replied, "You seemed to be enjoying doing it; so, no, I didn't try to dissuade them much."
Harry's lips quirked. "No wonder Severus likes you."
* * *
Ginny Weasley pushed her hair out of her eyes yet again. She needed a ribbon to tie it up with, but if there were any in this office, they were long buried and Fetching Charms were forbidden during the hours when final copy was being prepared. She flipped ahead a few pages in her meeting notes from just a week ago. They felt months old so many other topics had been dealt with in between. It was late, but the offices of the Prophet were never quiet. In fact, they became loudest at about 3:30 in the morning when the presses fired up, just when everyone else in the country was finally still all at once.
Beatrice strolled in. Ginny could recognize her shuffling footfalls. "About time to freeze the issue," she announced, even though only Ginny was there. She picked up a proof and held it in the lamplight. "Do you have anything to add to this one on the Wizengamot?"
Ginny shook her head.
Beatrice put the oversized sheet down and straightened it with undo care relative to the table edge. "I've been getting quite a few queries about why we have not followed up on other publications' assertions about Mr. Potter."
Ginny frowned. "They're just rumors. Harry gets those all the time."
Speaking carefully, Beatrice said, "Do you want to put your hand to writing something about that, then? That would cover us for now."
"Ms. Skeeter was the paper's resident expert on him. Since we have no interest in taking her back on as a stringer, that makes you our new expert."
Ginny felt a hard weight press into her chest. Better her than someone else, but not much better.
Fidget, the bent over man who did layout, sneaked in just then in the attitude of a thief, and collected up the proofs scattered around the room. He wore a broad transparent green visor that nevertheless did not stick out as far as his ink-stained nose. He wore a leather waistcoat and his white sleeves were banded in six places each. Reaching from a few steps away, he carefully slid away the proof they had just been looking at, tense as though expecting to be slapped or to have it snatched back.
Ginny picked up a fresh narrow notebook from one of the stacks revealed by having things cleared out. Pretending to be eager and diligent, she asked, "What's my deadline?"
Beatrice said, "Tomorrow for the day after's morning edition."
Ginny balked and wrote that down at the top of a new blank page. "All right. Hopefully I can find Harry that quickly."
"Has he grown difficult to locate?" Beatrice asked. It was most likely an innocent question, but Ginny heard insinuation in it.
"So I've heard."
"That may be an angle for the article. If you can find out where he goes."
"I'll ask him."
Beatrice smiled. "I'll leave it to you for now to decide how to handle any interviews. For now," she repeated, adding weight to Ginny's sense of dread.
Aaron may have advice on how to navigate this, she thought, feeling better at that prospect. If not Aaron, then her mother might.
* * *
"Thanks for meeting me, Harry," Ginny said as she moved one of the coffee shop's wire chairs closer to the little table and laid her narrow yellow notebook upon it, two neverout quills beside it.
Harry glanced at these things but said nothing.
"Yeah," she said, following his glance, "I didn't know in my owl how to explain that I needed to interview you. Sorry."
Harry shrugged. "I was thinking of giving Skeeter an interview anyway."
"You were?!" Ginny's face scrunched up in disgust. "Well, I'm glad I got to you first." She flipped open the notebook. Harry read the two lines already written there from his upside down vantage. The second read: Angle: Harry always haunted by rumors.
"This is really hard for me," Ginny said, staring at the quill she held and picking at a nail. "I haven't been at the paper long, but I already really see how the simplest things can get misunderstood. This has to be just right." She took a deep breath, and simultaneously leaned back as well as poised her quill on the first page of the notebook. "So, one of our competitor publications . . . actually, they weren't before now." She rolled her eyes and huffed. "Our competitor published an article accusing you of having mob ties, or even working in organized crime . . ." She stared at him. He stared back, face neutral. "I can't believe I'm asking you this. I mean, other things you've told me aside, this is just silly."
"It is silly," Harry agreed. After she wrote that down, surrounded by large angular quote marks, he added, "What could I possibly gain?"
"Right, but probably not the best argument to start with. More a capper."
Harry fetched their coffee orders, setting her delicately layered orange and red one before her.
"It's just not your style," Ginny said.
"You think that's a better way to start?"
She sucked the whipped cream off the top of her tall glass and licked cocoa powder off her mouth and fingers, reminding Harry starkly of a different Ginny.
"What?" she asked, when Harry stared too long.
"Nothing," Harry insisted softly. "You were saying?"
She licked her fingers once more and took up her quill again. "So, how are you spending your time? You must have a lot of it."
"Some days I do security at the Twins' shop. I spend a lot of time reading."
"About what?" she asked, jotting frantically.
"Books I can't understand yet."
Her brow furrowed. "What topic, though?"
"I don't know. Old collections of notes. That sort of thing."
Her mouth indicated she thought this interesting. She fell silent while writing. When she stopped, Harry said, "You give too much away with your face. Makes it too easy."
Ginny laughed. "You think I think I'm good at this? Mostly I take notes on purely factual things and then make sure the facts stay the same for the final copy. That's it. How many members showed up for a Wizengamot meeting, or how many people turned in Gulping Guppies after they were made regulated creatures. Those are just straight facts that don't care if I make faces at them." She sighed. "Sorry. Sidetracked." She bent over her notebook, sending her hair into the chopped up sunlight coming through the blinds on the broad window.
Harry's mind spun away elsewhere. Nothing mattered in that place, but it had grown hard to remember that at times. He did not feel the same raw desire here. Nor in retrospect did his previous desire seem sexual, more a desire for a raw experience that also abused his position. But it did not matter. Nothing mattered there.
"Harry?" Ginny asked, waving a hand before his face.
Harry sat back and rubbed his hair.
"You sleeping all right?" Ginny asked.
"Mostly. You're not writing that down, are you?"
Harry tried to gather his thoughts, to buy time, he tossed out: "Mostly I spend my time keeping an eye on Candide."
"We'll that's sweet." While writing she said, "Provides companionship to adoptive father's new very pregnant wife. Maybe I shouldn't say 'new'. Gives the wrong impression. She must be due any day now."
Harry shrugged. "Something like that."
"Men are impossible."
"Are you writing that down?"
"I should. But then it will end up on the editorial page and I'll have to write yet another real article."
Behind them, the counter people shouted orders to each other over the hiss of steam. Ginny rubbed her chin and read through what she had.
"How do these rumors get started?" Ginny asked.
"Some people always want to think the worst," Harry said, pulling on his wise voice.
"That's the truth," she muttered while writing. "But there must be something that starts them in the first place."
Harry was feeling too lazy to lie. "What I don't get is how anyone could imagine Durumulna would want me anyway."
She pointed at him with her quill. "Good point."
Their tall clear coffee mugs contained only foamy rings. Ginny closed her notebook. "Thanks, Harry." They stood at the same moment. "Want to do something, sometime?"
Harry found he did not trust himself. Safest to say: "Maybe. Candide will have to come along, since I'm on guard all the time."
Ginny smiled. "That'd be fine."
They parted on the pavement and went opposite ways. Ginny stashed her notebook in her handbag and was too distracted by writing her article in her head to notice that someone had matched their stride to hers.
"Well, well, well," Rita Skeeter said. "Wasn't that just the most skillful act of journalism ever witnessed in the annals of news publishing?"
Ginny stopped and faced Skeeter. "It's none of your business."
"Oh, au contraire," Skeeter snarled. "More proof of your dearth of comprehension."
Ginny rolled her eyes and started walking again. Quickly this time.
"Why didn't you just let little mob boss underling write his own article? Too obvious?"
"Give it a rest. You were fired for a reason, you know."
Skeeter stopped suddenly, as indicated by silence from her tall shoes. "Was I?" she said. "I didn't make anything up in the article I sold to old man Lovegood. You are being played. As amusing as that is to witness, at one level, it's loathsome on another."
"You don't know Harry at all!" Ginny snapped, losing her temper and control of her voice.
Skeeter stared at her for a second before tilting her curls back and laughing. She kept laughing as she strode the other way down the pavement. Passersby stopped to watch her, glancing to Ginny for clues.
"Merlin, I hate that woman," Ginny muttered to herself.