Harry strolled along away from the coffee shop, dodging Muggles in woolen suits gazing far beyond him with their mobiles pressed to their ears. He faced a long morning after his easy interview with Ginny and felt restless to get started putting his plans for Percy in motion. But he also dearly wanted to see what he would find at that same tower in his own Plane, the one where he had found Dumbledore. Uncertain how long he might be gone, Harry ducked into an alley to send a Silver Message to Candide instructing her to wait until she received a second message before going home because he might not be there.
Harry slipped in from the Dark Plane at a safe distance from where the tower should be and gazed up. As in the other place, this tower had been destroyed. Unlike the other, this one had been destroyed long ago, lopped in half and standing in a pile of squarish stones. Time had done most of the damage. As quiet as it was, something did not feel right. Rather than expose himself by flying, Harry walked toward the tower over the hard ground, casting detection spells ahead of him. This was much needed practice and he slowed and spent some time recreating spells that he had half forgotten being out of training. Determined to remember the full complement, Harry trudged with purpose, thorns grabbing at his cloak. He went like this until a tumble of rocks from an even older ruin emerged from the thicket to block his path. It forced him to circle around to pick a steeper path up.
Harry walked on, breath deepening with exertion. His footsteps thudded on the ground, and his cloak swished against the brush. No habitation was in sight, not even a hedgerow on the distant slopes. Even though he was in his own world, he felt he walked in a Plane where no one lived at all, and that made him feel starkly alone and annoyingly vulnerable. The detections spells continued to fizzle out, revealing the way was clear.
With a huff Harry stopped to rest and closed his eyes. Buried deep beneath the English Channel, the Death Eaters appeared as a distant contorting smear. Perhaps that was part of the reason he felt so alone here.
Instead of continuing on, Harry studied the moss chewing away at the south curve of the cropped tower. It cascaded down the side and over the fallen rock pile, fusing it all into a heap. He was no closer than when he had arrived. He could Apparate directly beside the rubble, but he feared feeling even more desolate if he got that close. Wondering at his irrational instincts, Harry shook himself and considered that he had people to find and plans to put in motion and he should be doing that instead of tromping around in the wilderness. He slipped away, leaving the empty hillside to the dry wind.
Harry located his erstwhile Durumulna assistants on Knockturn Alley, window shopping, or pretending to.
"I want a word," Harry said, pressed close to Hummer, who was studiously looking in a window at an assortment of magical animal traps, the heaviest of which was labeled Rhinombuses, Erumpents and other Sizable Quadrupeds. It was so large it had to be wedged sideways in the window case.
Slowdraw squinted at Harry and nudged his companion. Harry did not see Hummer respond, but Slowdraw locked his fingers around their arms and took them both away.
They arrived in an empty bit of young forest. Curled leaves tumbled by their feet with each surge of wind.
"Word was we weren't to talk to you," Slowdraw explained. His eyes darted down repeatedly to check that Harry did not have a wand in hand.
Harry glared at him. "I need help with a job."
Hummer sighed and rolled his eyes. To his companion, he said, "'E don't listen so well, do 'e?"
Black anger seeped through Harry at the mocking, dismissive tone. He flicked his sleeve, freeing his wand, caught it in the air as it fell and waved a Mutushorum at the two of them. Hummer rocked in the breeze and toppled. Harry stalked up to Slowdraw, pleased to see the man's alarmed eyes straining to track him as he stepped around a mud puddle on his approach. Young branches rattled around them.
Nose to nose, Harry stated, "I said, I need help with a job. That means you are going to help me."
Limited as his expressions were by the neural numbing effects of the spell, Harry read disdain behind the dark grey eyes.
"I don't care if you like it," Harry said. "I do care whether you do as I say." Tingle inducing energy was rising up through Harry, giving a deepening three-dimensional intensity to the forest and the man quivering before him. His vision grew starker; the scent of the moist leaves at their feet grew more pronounced. His mind whirled like he had just woken up.
"I'm not going to chase you down or argue with you every time I want something," Harry said, feeling giddy with the intent flooding him. He breathed in, feeling revitalized by the air that moments before had felt cold and unyielding. He felt alive like he never had before. Free. He grabbed up Slowdraw's rigid arm and forced it around, making the man's body contort to follow. Clutch his wand dagger-style, Harry incanted the spell he had found for a flesh-based Protean Charm. Darkness drew into it like a drain; Harry could feel rivulets of it leeching through the fingers he had clutched around Slowdraw's wrist.
Harry guided the wand point to draw a zig-zag. The man could not move, but his chin and fingertips vibrated with his efforts to resist. The wand left a burn mark behind that puckered red, then black, then went flat like a tattoo.
With a jerk of his hands, Harry let go, pushing forcefully against the sickly taint that had gathered under his grip. Leaves scattered as Slowdraw fell, wand flying free. Harry flipped his wand hold and canceled the spell holding them hostage. He sucked in rapid breaths while watching Slowdraw writhe, gripping his arm. Hummer scrambled in the undergrowth to fetch his companion's wand, glancing frequently up at Harry to check his response to this.
Energy writhed inside Harry, an electric whip snaking and snapping. He had to shut down the connection between himself and Slowdraw or he was going to shatter from the inside and be lost. Harry lowered his eyes to fixate on the tangled tree roots that laced the ground. In his mind, he pushed a sense of artificial distance between them, pushed until their combined shadows divided into two with tendrils whipping between them.
Slowdraw's legs ceased kicking in the leaf fall. Harry's breathing quieted, but he grew increasingly leaden.
"Let's try that again," Harry croaked out. He felt impossibly heavy, unable to lift his head and straighten his back. Panic over this strange lethargy threatened to undo him; he must distract himself. He must move on quickly to something else, make it worthwhile, pretend he was okay. Voice forced stronger, he announced, "Let's go back to where I said you were going to help me with something."
Hummer, tugging on Slowdraw's cloak, straightened eagerly. "Of course. What do you want us to do? Whatever you want."
Harry, swaying slightly, drank up Hummer's eager energy. He stepped forward to take them to the old warehouse he had picked out for the trap. Slowdraw flinched away, but not far enough, frozen immediately by Harry's will. At the warehouse, Harry stepped back and the two of them stumbled away to peer around at the dust drifting under the skylights and high windows. Slowly, Harry felt his strength returning, as long as he did not reach out for the nearby shadow, as long as he pretended things were the same.
"You want ta make this like the boss' place?" Hummer asked, sounding like one wanting dearly to be clear on things. Slowdraw had stopped, stoop shouldered in the middle of the debris-strewn floor. Hummer went back and taking a fistful of his cloak, dragged him alongside himself.
Harry replied, "Yes. I want some black cloth on the scaffolding so someone can be led in here and be fooled. And I want to build an office like the Boss'."
Cringing, Hummer said, "I don't know if we can do the office." Quickly, he added, "The rest, yeah."
Harry believed him, given his newfound subservience. "We'll do up a box that will hold the spells. I think I know someone else who can do the details."
They went to work, masking the place from the Ministry and Scourgifying extensively, before Hummer went off in search of supplies. Harry would have sent Slowdraw, but he seemed incapable of doing anything requiring initiative. He shuffled along behind while Harry surveyed the existing scaffolding and did welding repairs.
It was convenient to always know instinctively where his assistant was, but Harry did not feel better having him close like he did with Voldemort's old servants. Harry must have done something wrong with the spell, he pondered as he cut away a section of rotted scaffolding. The remains tumbled toward the floor and would have clattered there, but Harry caught it just shy of the floor with a Tether and lowered it the rest of the way.
Putting aside his other circling thoughts, Harry concentrated on making a Spell Bridge that could be activated with a touch of a wand on the railing. His mind did not want to settle on the spell the first three times, but finally he got it right. Harry made it re-appear and vanish a few times before gesturing that Slowdraw should walk across it.
Slowdraw ducked, arms halfway over his head, looking more like a House Elf than a wizard. This made Harry wonder if perhaps Death Eaters needed to be willing servants from the start, or it just would not work out right. He shook his head in disgust and strode across the magical section of scaffolding to the other side. Slowdraw rose out of his protective pose and stood hunched. He would not meet Harry's eyes, instead staring just over Harry's left shoulder.
"Lots more to do, come on," Harry ordered, tugging on the connection between them.
Slowdraw jerked like he might vomit and stumbled to follow. Some part of Harry felt a stab of sympathy and horror, but it was far enough remote that thinking of how little personality Durumulna had left the man wiped it away. He was just a tool, for whoever saw fit to use him. This thought made Harry feel less burdened all around.
They worked all night and much of the morning to finish up. Every time Harry began to feel tired or hungry, he simply imagined the upcoming moment when Percy stepped into the trap and realized what he had revealed to his father. Harry swelled in Percy's expected horror until long after the sunlight gave shape to their hanging maze of black curtains and the Fairy lights could be banished.
The three of them stood on the warehouse floor staring up. The black cloth was a mishmash of shades. Right before bringing Percy in, someone would have to spell them all dark black, but that would not last if he did it now.
Slowdraw surprised Harry by speaking. Voice harsh and quiet, he asked, "Are we doing something the Boss isn't going ta like?"
"The Boss may be very happy, actually. We'll see how it goes."
Slowdraw had to clear his throat twice to say, "Ursie shouldn't've cut you off, maybe."
Harry kept his head tilted back even though his vision had passed far beyond the warehouse roof. "Ursie will regret that." He straightened and peered around the walls, taking stock of things. "But one act of revenge at a time. The anticipation of them is half the pleasure. No rush."
Hummer said, "This is a lot of setup for one gig."
Harry imagined the additional pain of the overly emotional Mr. Weasley when Percy unambiguously gave himself away. "It's worth it," Harry said.
When he had sent his message to Candide, Harry had not planned to be gone all night. He expected she would accommodate his silent absence, perhaps with just an owl to Snape. Harry had told Snape what he was planning, so that did not concern him. Harry told his assistants he was done with them for now and with a last warning that they would know when he wanted them again, he took himself to Diagon Alley.
It was just after noon. Harry went up to the accounting office and found Candide with her nose close to a large roll crowded with numerical tables. She tapped her fingers for a moment, then wrote in a figure in a box before backing off and studying her work.
"Harry!" she said in surprise, then dampened it down and invented a diversion for her surprise. "Is it noon already?"
"Yes. But I have to visit Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes, then I'll be back to take you home."
She pushed to her feet. Harry could read in her thoughts that she was heading for the window cage full of owls, to send one to Snape. "All right," she said, standing there at her desk, waiting for him to leave before moving.
Harry found the twins in their shop, arguing using their usual half-cruel banter.
"Harry!" they said in welcoming unison. One of them put a hand around his shoulder and drew him into their corner. "Maybe you can help us out with this." He picked up a small curly bottle sporting a large tag and tossed it in his hand up and down. "Suggestion Draught, let's you plant one idea on someone that will last an hour. Illegal or not?"
The other twin leaned closer. "It's a ridiculously simple generalized variant on Amortentia."
"Which is illegal," Harry said.
"Well, technically. And technically, this isn't really Love Potion."
"Right," Harry said. "It sounds okay to me," he said dismissively. "Look, I need a favor."
"Anything, oh part owner who has never asked us to buy his share back . . ."
"True," Harry said, filing that idea away for when he might need gold. "I need to recreate a room. Can I give you a memory of it?"
"Fred, fetch an empty bottle," George said. When Fred loped off, George yelled after, "A clean one. Really clean. Actually clean."
They waited in a circle until Fred lifted his head from the stone mixing bowl pressed into use as a Penseive.
"Complicated bit of work. We'll need a few days, but we can give it to you in a Decorator's Cube, something we've been working on, but haven't got all the kinks worked out of yet."
Harry bit his lip. Getting angry would not change their abilities. "Okay. Thanks."
When Harry returned to Candide's office, he found her again carefully writing in numbers and adding in her head. He waited for her to look up. The rest of the office watched him a moment before returning to their own tasks. Candide bit her lip guiltily. "I owled Severus," she said quietly. "Just thought I should tell you." Her voice dropped even more when she said, "Since you were gone all night . . . "
"Maybe I'll go see him, then," Harry said. "And I'll meet you at home. Not sure how long I'll be, so don't rush."
* * *
At Hogwarts, a knock sounded on the door to the Defense Against the Dark Arts office. Snape waved the door open and found Harry's former fellow apprentice, Vineet, on the threshold.
Vineet pushed the door closed behind him and held his hand on it. "May I discuss with you something?"
Snape waved that he should approach and closed the books arrayed before him. He was rereading Ryorerson's Treetys on the Manipyulasions of the Soel and was glad for the break. His own gathering of books from the Hogwarts library was possibly the only competition for Harry's own collecting.
The Indian fidgeted once before standing completely still on the other side of the desk. "I wish to know if you think it wise for me to shadow Harry."
"To what purpose are you considering this?" Snape asked.
"I wish to assure that he does not do anything with repercussions too serious to undo."
Snape resumed his chair and laced his fingers together on the desk. "I'm curious if this was your idea."
"Not entirely. Ms. Tonks wishes to keep a better tabulation of Harry's activities." He paused. "They have had a falling out--if you were not aware."
Snape leaned back. "No, I was not aware. Thank you for informing me of that. Do you know over what?" When Vineet shook his head, Snape went on, "I do not think you are capable of successfully following Harry."
"I would have the cooperation of the office of Magical Transportation, I believe, through Ms. Tonks."
Snape studied him. Tonks certainly knew that would not help much. "You have not discussed that part with Ms. Tonks, specifically, I suspect."
"No, I am assuming that to be true," Vineet admitted.
Snape stood up and came around the desk, wanting to pace but holding back. "You will not be able to follow Harry, for reasons I do not wish to go into. As well, I do not think it wise to try. If you are willing, I would instead reinforce to Harry that you are on his side."
Vineet wrapped one fluttering hand around the other. "I have already done this thing."
"Then there is nothing else for you to do right now."
Vineet broke out of his calm. "I cannot remain standing still," he said, language falling away with his distress. "He was very distant during my last visit. I fear he will not return."
"I never count Harry out," Snape stressed. "Something I've needed years to learn. You haven't had as much time to learn this as I have."
A foot scuffed on the floor and the two of them turned. Harry had appeared, just inside the door. He glanced rapidly between them and Vineet took a step back, which was a mistake, by Snape's reckoning.
"Am I missing something?" Harry asked, approaching them with stone cold aggression sharpening the angles of his face and his shoulders.
Snape replied, "Mr. Abhayananda was just asking me if I believed there was anything more he could do for you. His pledge of loyalty to you has apparently gone without notice."
Vineet nodded, wisely remaining silent.
"I appreciate it," Harry said. "It's noted. But I want to talk to Severus alone."
Vineet nodded again, more a bow, and passed Harry to reach the door. He stopped there with his hand on the knob and paused to stare at the floor where Harry had appeared. Gaze thoughtful, he went out.
* * *
"Have a seat if you wish," Snape invited.
"No thanks," Harry said, pacing to the window. Beyond the wavy glass, the brown-grey world and blanket of cloud further depressed his heavy mood. "You wanted to be kept informed," he said for the only opening he could think of. He was not certain why he was here; he should remain silent.
"I've arranged a mockup of Durumulna's headquarters for the exchange. It should happen in a few days." Harry drew his lips in. He could stop with just this news. "You wanted to know."
"I did," Snape smoothly replied. "Thank you."
Silence fell. Harry watched the ripples drift on the lake, intersecting and merging, vanishing where the jutting shoreline reflected dark against the clouds.
Snape finally spoke. "I sense there is something else." His tone was factual enough to avoid provocation.
Harry turned. "I don't feel like saying."
"I wish only to assist you," Snape promised.
Harry's hands worked over one another. The man standing behind him used to be a servant, in a way, still was.
"Harry?" Snape prompted.
Softly, Harry said, "There only seems to be one way to do things now."
"Which way is that?"
Harry shook his head and turned to peer into the upper corners of the room. It was bright enough that the lamps were not lit, but the light was poor, the walls grim. "I have to think about things."
"As you wish, Harry. You know where to find me."
"I know where to find the rest of the interesting books too, I now see," Harry said, gesturing at the array on the desk. "Finding anything useful?"
"Interesting yes, useful no."
Harry stood on his toes to read the cover on the top one. His eyes snapped up sharply. The tingle rose in him again, going on alert. They stared at each other. Harry said, "What if I like the way I am?"
"Harry, I am only reading. I would not do anything to you without your cooperation, let alone consent."
Alertness mollified by this forthright response, Harry dropped back to his heels. Part of him wanted to say what happened, partly to check Snape's response for any horror, to test his resilience, but instead he remained silent. Harry scratched his nose with his cloak before tossing it square on his shoulders. "I should go."
"You have checked in with Candide, I assume?"
"Yes, her owl is probably on its way here." His voice came out formal, stating things absent any emotional connection.
Snape nodded, almost a bow.
Harry slipped home. His head lolled when he re-inverted out of the Dark Plane, longing for his pillow.
Movement made him draw his wand, then lower it. Tonks stood up from the couch and approached him. "I really need to talk to you, Harry." Her voice held nothing but determination to get her way.
Harry lazily walked by her and dropped onto the couch and set his head back. His eyes tried to close, but his need for sleep felt like such weakness he forced his eyes open again upon her pale face.
"Harry are you listening to me?" Tonks demanded, anger overtaking her other emotions.
"Yeah. You're right here. How can I not?"
She propped her hands on her hips. "I didn't think I needed to ask this. I assumed you would say, if you knew something. But now I'm not so sure. Do you know where McCurdy is? Our kidnap victim?"
With effort, Harry lifted his head and looked at her. Her puffed up hair was an unnatural shade of orange-brown and her matching eyebrows amusingly bushy. Harry rubbed his eye, taking his time thinking up an answer.
"Harry! I swear I'm going to knock you silly if you don't answer me." She had pulled her wand.
"All right. The answer is: sort of."
"What kind of answer is that?"
Harry crossed his legs. "It's the answer I have. What answer do you want?"
"You've seen him?" she asked, each word snapping out like a whip.
"Yes. That doesn't mean I could find him again, hence my reply."
"You saw him and you didn't say anything?" she reiterated, sounding like she wanted to have it straight in her own mind as well as give him a chance to change his answer.
Harry thought of possible dodges to this question. He thought of explaining that the man was much happier playing poker and smoking cigars all day than being home. Explaining himself would be unspeakably weak. In the end, he just said, "Yes."
Her exhalation noisily wavered into a groan. She paced from the couch to the wall and back, put both fists down on the arm rests and bent her head between her elbows. "I can't believe this," filtered out of her robes. She straightened up. "I can't believe this."
Just as quickly as she had warmed up the drama, it drained out of her again. "You can hold all kinds of things over my head." She stood staring at him, hair brown face strained. "So, what will it take to get help from you on this?"
"I want something from you."
She blinked at him, and gave in some more. Too easily. "All right. What?"
"I'm trapping someone from one of the criminal gangs and I want Mr. Weasley there." Energized at the thought of crushing Percy, Harry stood up. "And if I read things right, a whole branch of Durumulna might come down on the meeting. I won't know until they do or not. If you would like to be there to nab some of them, that would be fine with me."
Her face relaxed marginally. She rubbed her head. "Then you'll help me with McCurdy?"
"Yes," Harry said. Then backing off from his answer, added: "The little I can." Watching her shakily drop onto the couch, Harry wondered what kind of a Death Eater she would make. Probably a troublesome one, and given what Harry held over her, it wasn't necessary to control her, but he felt amusement imagining her face when she understood what he had done.
"Want to stay the night?" Harry asked.
"Not really," Tonks replied, tone insulting. "I'll see you later." With that she Disapparated.
Harry tipped his head back again. If he did not have to wait there for Candide, he would have gone to Belinda's flat right then to wait for her. He imagined that he could easily seduce her and that sounded appealing just then, especially if he brought her something strong to drink. But Candide could not arrive home to an empty house, especially after he had gone missing the night before, so Harry remained where he was, staring at the ceiling and letting his eyes periodically drift closed, thinking that Tonks' last comment deserved something in return.
"Harry?" a gentle voice prodded him awake. "Sorry, went to see mum rather than stay at work to give you time to get home."
Pain stabbed through Harry's neck when he lifted it. Rubbing it viciously, he looked around at the room. It felt different even though nothing had moved except the hazy angle of the grey sunlight. Harry's stomach rumbled, paining him more than his neck. He had not eaten all day.
"Are you hungry?" Harry asked her, thinking to go to the dining room table to hope for something to arrive, even though it was a bit early for dinner.
She stood straight, hand wandering over her belly. "Mum tried to get me to stay for dinner, but nothing she was going to cook sounded very good. Winky has spoiled me by always making me exactly what I want . . ." She grinned. "Even when I don't know what that is."
Each deep in their own thoughts, they ate. The pasta made Harry's head even heavier. "I'm going to bed," he said. As he imagined his pillow, his eyes tried to fall shut. If he went to sleep now, he could wake at 2:00 a.m. and do some reading without the risk of interruption. Or maybe even fetch some highly restricted books from the vault at the London Wizard Library, something he had been tempted to try.
A knock on his bedroom door woke Harry from a dream where Hermione was reading aloud to him from the jeweled book. As he jerked awake, she was demanding of him: "The cloak, Harry . . . what about it?"
Thoughts tangled in sleep, uncertain if the diffuse light meant morning or the same evening, Harry stumbled to the door. Candide stood there, hand moving obsessively over her abdomen.
"Sorry to wake you, but I've been feeling a little off since this morning, and I should probably go to the Midwitch hospital." She did not sound sorry so much as worried.
Harry dug the grit from this other eye. "Sure." Only half of him had woken up, but it was the half that leapt to worry to match that on her face. "Let me toss on some robes."
He tossed a clean set of robes over his bare back before tugging on trousers instead of his pyjama bottoms. He skipped socks.
"It's not such a rush you can't tie your shoes," she teased when he clomped back over to her.
Harry scratched his rough chin and bent to do that. He felt floaty, disassociated from everything except the task he had before him of taking her to the Midwitch.
She rubbed her belly again, face strained. "At least I'm not bothering them in the middle of the night again."
"I don't think they think it's a bother," Harry said, voice rough with sleep. He held out his arm, focusing entirely on safely siding her along.
Harry sat on a bench in the atrium to wait. The hands on the miniature clock tower beside the next bench down chimed a quiet seven. Harry still did not know if it was morning or evening. The atrium had many people coming and going, so he guessed it was still evening, especially given his exhaustion. Harry rubbed his face, trying to wake up. He sat with his thoughts Occluded. If he let them wander, he thought about Slowdraw and a surge of mixed emotions and burdened magic threatened to unseat him. Better to think about nothing.
A baby's cry brought Harry's head around. A family near the reception desk was shuffling close together and cooing over a blanketed bundle held by a blushing man.
"Probably wants his mum," he said, awkwardly shifting the burden over to a bleary-eyed witch. The baby did not quiet and the voices grew gratingly loud to compensate. They moved off, relieving Harry's ears.
A large wizard in cream colored robes lumbered over to Harry. His face, including his ragged hairline, had a crooked alignment to it, making him appear troll-like. "You're wanted," he rumbled. "I'll take you."
Harry followed along a corridor of closely spaced doors. Inside the one labeled Fuchsia Flowers Harry found Candide sitting up in a spacious room on a bed folded like a lounger. The Midwitch stood beside writing on a chart.
"Harry," Candide said. "They want to keep me here, but you don't have to stay."
The Midwitch said without looking up, "You'll be wanting to get the father here soon."
"Will we? Will I?" Candide uttered, face draining of color.
"Uh huh," the Midwitch sang in her deep voice. "Not too long now, Hun."
Candide stared up at the woman before turning to Harry, dreamlike. "Can you fetch Severus, Harry?" She sounded very small.
Harry's lips broke into a smile. "Yeah. I'll be right back."
Harry slipped onto the Hogwarts' grounds behind the Whomping Willow and carefully walked out from under its arching branches, which gave a threatening shake and rattle of dead leaves. Over the adjacent high wall the light through the pointed windows of the Great Hall stood like a glowing crown. Harry crunched along beside the wall clutching his shirt collar closed against the brittle wind.
Even in the cold weather, students were sitting out on the main steps, hunched low, hands in pockets. Harry returned their greetings distractedly, grateful for the blast of warm air that struck him when he hauled open the door.
The meaty scent of dinner made Harry's stomach complain as he made his way through milling students. Inside the Great Hall the tables were animated with eating and conversation. Harry paused there, lost in memory, before getting bumped into from behind and remembering himself.
Conversations fell still as he strode between the tables to the front, where Snape sat with his fingers on his chin, leaning toward McGonagall's gesturing hand. Snape's eyes flicked Harry's way without reaction before flicking back and narrowing in on him, expression giving nothing away but keen interest. Harry reached the table and hoisted himself up on the dais, wondering what Snape was thinking.
With a small smile for McGonagall, Harry said to his guardian, "Your presence is requested at the Midwitch hospital."
Snape's gaze fell into the distance before pulling back and looking to Harry as if for confirmation.
"Congratulations are in order," McGonagall said. "I'd like to get mine in early."
Snape pushed his chair back and stood. "You are set, right?" Snape stopped to ask her.
"Severus, I've had it all arranged already a month ago, just in case. Off with you!" She turned to Harry. "You can use the Floo in the staff room, if you like. And tell Ms. Breakstone best of luck from me."
No lamps were lit in the staff room. Snape waved a Lumos out of his wand and moved chairs aside to get to the hearth. Once there, he turned to Harry and took him by the shoulders, fingertips digging in until Harry met his eyes. His wand glowed from over Harry's shoulder where Snape still clutched it in two fingers.
"Harry," Snape said, voice crisp and quiet in the dark, empty room, "I want you to remember that you are my first son. That is not something I will neglect."
Harry nodded vaguely, his thoughts still unanchored and floating. With a last fierce squeeze, Snape released him.
They reached the hospital after many turns in the Floo, enough turns that Harry wished he had used his own method of traveling. Snape was fastidiously brushing off his robes when Harry arrived behind him.
"Ready for this?" Harry asked.
Snape considered him a beat before reply, "No. But nevertheless . . ." He gestured for Harry to lead the way, features fierce and inward.
Harry found the correct room and opened the door immediately after knocking. Candide was alone now, sitting up with blankets over her knees.
"Severus," she said resignedly, sighing his name.
"At least we all share the same state of mind about things," Snape commented.
Harry dropped into one of the comfy chairs along the wall on the right beside the door to the next room, which appeared to be a guest suite. On the wall opposite hung bright paintings featuring rivers framed by tangled blossoming vines. He rubbed his hair back. This place smelled similar to but more powdery and floral than St. Mungo's, which smelled of over-steeped tea and unwashed robes.
Snape moved a chair over beside the bed and clasped his hands tightly in his lap. "What did the Midwitch say? I presume she was here?"
Candide made a face and rubbed the side of her belly. "She timed the contractions at six to seven minutes apart. She asked if I wanted any potion, but I thought I'd wait until you got here to decide. I assumed you'd have a strong opinion one way or the other." Answering an unasked question, she went on. "It's not really painful yet, just uncomfortable."
Snape handed her the water glass from the table beside the bed and took it back after she took a series of sips. Harry stared at the brightly decorated yellow door, feeling the interloper.
Candide, talking quickly, said, "They are going to bring some food too. Something light they said. I could eat, I think." She sighed. "I could walk around, too."
Snape stood to offer her a hand to get out of bed. Harry closed his eyes and listened to her shuffle around and huff quietly. Slowdraw writhed in the midfield of his mind, not at all like the other Death Eaters. Something definitely was not right about how he had done that. Maybe he should not have tried. This shadow was more a drag on his mind than a source of support. But for the moment, Harry wanted him to continue to obey.
Harry must have drifted off, because he woke up on the bed in the next room, shoes off, covers bunching beneath him. He rolled onto his back and listened to the conversation in the next room. The sound that must have woken him repeated, like an echo in his memory. It was a groan of someone in pain, audible through the door that had been left cracked open. Harry lay staring at the smooth ceiling, breathing in shallow gusts.
Candide's mother's voice drifted in. "You should take the potion. It will help. I took it with all of you and you turned out all right."
Candide's snipped voice replied, "It's fine, mum."
Harry felt himself tensing as he lay there. He forced his limbs limp again. The floral scent was even stronger in here, emanating off the bedding.
The midwitch's velvet voice came next. "We're almost there, Hun. At over three inches dilation we can use the spells and it will be all better."
Oh good, Harry thought, magic. Then there won't be so much screaming like on Muggle television. Thinking about television made Harry think about growing up with the Dursleys. That made his thoughts wander off into wondering where they were living now, and wishing idly that when Voldemort attacked their old house that they had been still living there. Imagining Vernon's amorphous self leaping in panic out of a first floor window brought a twitching grin to Harry's mouth.
Harry thoughts did not remain on this tack for long. The moaning in the next room grew louder, distracting him.
Candide's mother again: "Let me wipe your brow." A moment later. "Dear, you do not need to be suffering so."
"Mum. Shut UP about it."
Harry snickered and rolled over onto his side, head pillowed on his bent arms. The furniture against the nearby wall was so neutral his eyes would not stay fixed on it. He closed them instead, but that made the sounds of pain seem to be coming from inside his own head. He sat up and swung his legs to the floor. He sat fixed, bent over in the act of looking for his shoes under the bed.
"All right, Darling, we're there," came the mellow voice of confident practice from the Midwitch. "Move aside, Mum. I'll be needing a bit of space to work."
A spell incantation began, a chant really, with an atonal quality. There came a squeak like someone biting down on painful surprise. Harry decided to skip finding his shoes. He pushed to his stocking feet and walked slowly to the cracked open door that spilled yellow light into the unfamiliar dusky room. Drawn, but not wanting to interrupt, he stopped with his fingers touching the wooden door edge.
The chant continued, mesmerizing and alluring. Candide made another sharper noise of surprise and there was concerted movement on the far side of the door. A shuffling of robes and limbs.
"There we are!" the Midwitch exclaimed.
Harry exhaled, not conscious of having held his breath. He could see a stripe of fuchsia wall paint, a frame edge and pure green vines. For a moment, Harry felt himself and the other with absolute clarity as they both contemplated the strangely vivid painting beyond. But the distinction sank into haze again, and Harry, suddenly sick at the notion of being alone, tugged on the door with his fingertips and stopped on the threshold at the scene beyond.
There was movement, blood, a quivering, impossibly small baby connected by an alien-like cord, which was at that moment being severed and pinned by one Midwitch, while another used a cleansing charm on the infant while deftly switching the cloth wrapping.
"We're not quite done yet, my dear," the Midwitch was saying to Candide when she tried to find a more comfortable position.
The rest of the controlled chaos receded as Harry's eyes landed on Snape, just bending over the bundle, which was trying hard to wave a tiny fist around, and did so, when Snape tugged the blanket aside.
"Look, he's perfect," Candide said, sounding dazedly overjoyed. "Look at the perfect little fingernails. Look at them!"
Snape seemed somewhere beyond the details of fingernails. Harry was not sure where he was. The infant began to fuss faintly. To Harry's ears, he sounded annoyed with the proceedings.
"A boy, just like Grizzly said," Candide said, excitement reined in now. "Severus?"
Snape raised his gaze and released the corner of the blanket he had pinched between two fingers. "Yes?"
"It's a boy," Candide repeated.
"It is," Snape agreed, sounding like he would be unable to think about anything more.
One of the Midwitches lifted the baby out of the blankets and tapped it with what appeared to be tiny Indificator spells. The other Midwitch, with some effort, caught Candide's attention again. "I need another little push from you, Hun, to go with this spell and then we are all finished."
Harry dropped his gaze to his stocking feet. His socks fit. They did not always fit. They were new with an attractive red seam across the toes, and elf-cared-for white. He held his gaze there until the Midwitch announced success with the afterbirth.
"There we are." She and her assistant efficiently packed things up into sacks and bright white cases. "Now, Darling, the lactation consultant will stop by shortly. The little man will be hungry, I expect. They always are."
"Lactation consultant?" Snape echoed. "That sounds terribly bovine, doesn't it?"
The Midwitch just grinned even wider and nodded at each of them before shuffling to the doorway. "Have to run off. We've got yet another one ready to pop the natural way if we don't hurry. You picked a busy night. If you need anything, just pull the bell." She threw her rounded hand at the maroon cord hanging from the ceiling beside the bed.
"Harry," Snape said. It fell short of an invitation in some way Harry could not identify.
"Come meet your brother," Candide invited brightly.
Candide's mother stood up and gamely announced, "I'll bring in a few of the family."
"Please, not too many!" Candide begged sharply. "Let's keep it sane in here, okay?" She quickly turned her attention back to the bundle in her arms, but the fussing level had not changed with her voice.
She sat back with some belated assistance from Snape, who adjusted the pillows. "Well, that wasn't that bad," she said.
Harry found he had walked to the corner of the bed, even though he did not remember doing so.
"Want to see him?" Candide offered. She sat forward to better hold out the bundle. Inside was an alarmingly small human with wet wisps of dark hair pressed to his head, fists rolling over his scrunched eyes as though unhappy about the light.
"He's really small," Harry said.
Candide drew him back for a look before offering him out again for view. "He's just right."
"What's his name?" Harry asked.
After a breath, she pronounced, "Arcadius."
Harry glanced up at Snape, who crossed his arms and straightened his shoulders. "It wasn't me who insisted on a Roman emperor's name."
"And his middle name should be Arion, after my great-great-grandfather," Candide went on. She rocked the baby side to side lightly, "Arcadius Arion. Or should it be Arion Arcadius?"
Snape shrugged with his hands when she glanced up at him in concern. "Either is fine." He and Harry shared a congenial glance.
The door opened and Harry after one more look at the scrunched up face of the new arrival, retreated to let others in close. The crowd was not allowed to remain long, as the lactation consultant, a wisp of an old witch with outsized piles of streaky grey hair on top of her head, chased everyone out except Candide's mother. Harry and Snape retreated to the guest suite rather than follow the rest of the family back to the atrium. Harry sat on the bed while Snape took a stool against the wall. A single fairylight had come on in the corner when they closed the door, and that was the only light in the room.
"Congratulations," Harry remembered to say.
Snape scoffed lightly. "I did not do much, really."
"Not yet," Harry said. "I've been hearing warnings for the last month about how much you are going to be doing. Diaper changes if nothing else."
Snape rested his head back against the wall. "There are spells for that."
Harry considered that. "Wizards have it too easy."
"Oddly, it doesn't seem like it."
Silence fell. The door blocked all noise from the other room. Harry said, "Everything's going to be different."
Snape's eyes restlessly jumped around the wall opposite. "Some things are."
Harry considered him. His hair fell around his shoulders, longer than normal, flipping in all directions. But the eerie blue light made him look younger. "What, pray tell, do you expect to remain the same?" Harry asked lightly, enjoying needling him.
Snape's face stretched thoughtfully. Eventually, in a tone of giving in, he replied, "Teaching. When I get back to it."
Harry's face relaxed. "How long are you off for?"
Snape's voice sounded rusty in the closed space. "That was never quite established. But if I return before a month is out, Minerva has promised to curse me to forget where I am employed."
Harry smiled, which felt like clean spring water on his lips.
Their intermittent conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. At Snape's summons, Hermione put her head in. "Hi, sorry to interrupt. I was told to." She backed up, leaving the door open. The room beyond was again flooded with people.
Harry passed through and steered Hermione to a far corner. She grasped his arm, and shaking it said, "Isn't it exciting?"
Harry smiled lightly. "When I can teach him spells it will be more so."
She hit him on the arm, tucked her hair behind her ear, and leaned close to talk over the general chatter. "Minerva sent me, and I have to report back, so I can't stay long." Watching the baby being talked to in gleeful gibberish by grandma, she said, "Let's go out in the corridor and talk."
The door snapped closed on the noise and it became just another in the closely spaced rows lining both sides of the corridor.
"How are you, Harry?"
Harry thought about how his day had gone. She would be violently displeased with him. He shrugged.
"That's not good," she said in all seriousness.
"Do you wish me to lie?" Harry asked. Down at the end of the hall the tall orderly in cream robes was chatting up the receptionist, laughing forcibly at something she said.
"No, I don't want you to lie."
Harry remained silent. He could hear his friend inhale and exhale. "Excited to have a brother?" she asked brightly, repeating herself. "I sure would be."
Harry had nothing to say. He did not want to think about her disapproval, lest something slip out.
She pinched his sleeve between her fingers. "Can I help you with anything, Harry?"
"Not right now. I'll let you know."
A door opened down the corridor and a figure with a familiar cut to his wheat-blonde hair stepped out, cradling something in his cloaked arm. He reached inside to hold the door open. "If you want to go, we can. I see no reason to stay, personally."
"Is that Draco?" Hermione whispered to Harry.
Draco turned crisply just then and spotted them there, his eyes piercing and narrow but distantly grey at the same time. Hermione moved in his direction and Harry followed.
Hermione asked loud enough to carry, "Did Pansy have the baby?"
Draco's face twitched before he replied, "Yes."
From inside the room came a tired voice. "Perhaps we should stay, like the Midwitch suggests."
"Either way," Draco sang in annoyance. "Make up your mind is all."
A pram sat just inside the door. Draco stuffed the fuzzy bundled blanket he held inside at the head of it.
"Is that the baby?" Hermione bubbled, all previous animosity apparently leveled by the opportunity to view a newborn.
Pansy parked the pram so it blocked the door open. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, and she kept her gaze on the floor, the only surface of the room not decorated with flights of parasols.
Hermione peaked into the blankets. "Oh . . . she's adorable. She's got your hair, Draco. It's a girl, right?"
"Oh, yes," Draco said, "we have a fondness for wrapping boys in pink. It's a Malfoy thing."
Hermione did not rise to this. Her finger was captured by curled fingers. "What a grip. She'll play some Quidditch. What's her name?"
Pansy leaned over the handle to say, "Bella."
"Ah," Hermione said, sounding charmed. "For beautiful."
Draco crossed his arms. "Bella Donna."
"Right." Hermione repeated, "Right."
Pansy released the pram and moved carefully to sit on the edge of the bed. Harry tapped Hermione on the shoulder.
"Oh." She freed herself and shuffled out backwards. "Congratulations."
Harry took her place beside the pram and looked in. The bright pink face visible through the blankets gave an extensive yawn. "She is magical," Harry said, finding in himself an unexpected desire to improve their mood.
"Of course she is," Draco said. "She's a pureblood, isn't she?"
"Just thought you'd like to know," Harry said, trying to catch anything beyond Draco's eyes. Whatever was bothering Draco had grown into a broadly suffocating thing lacking detailed thoughts.
"Your mum will be here any minute, Draco," Pansy said. "Give my hair a wave, will you?"
Hermione tugged on Harry's sleeve and they slipped out. As they walked back, Hermione said, "What's up there?"
Harry shook his head. "I don't know."
"That has to be the saddest pair of new parents I've ever seen," Hermione observed as they arrived at Fuchsia Flowers.
Snape stood in the doorway. "What is this?" he asked.
Hermione replied, "Oh, Pansy and Draco are-" She stopped because Snape had suddenly slipped out into the corridor, between them.
"They are here? Which room?"
"Um, Purple something," Harry said, growing more curious.
Snape stalked off, checking door labels. He knocked on one and the door opened, casting a triangle of light on the hallway floor. Harry and Hermione watched the short exchange and then Snape disappeared inside.
"Professor Snape appears to know something we don't," Hermione said, sounding a tad miffed.
"Hogwarts is turning you into a gossip," Harry criticized.
Hermione put her hand over her heart. "Oh, don't say that. Come on, let's see if this kid has grown since we were away."
Harry shook his head and followed her in. The bulk of the party had moved to the guest suite leaving open space beside the bed. Candide was sitting up with the baby on her legs, playing with his hands. Everyone watched this attentively for a minute.
Harry stepped closer and said, "I can tell you if he's magical or not. If you give him over a moment."
Candide waved the baby's tiny hands gently together and apart. "It doesn't matter either way," she said in a faint sing song.
"It doesn't, really," Harry agreed; then felt uncertain, waiting for some kind of backlash from within. None came, but he felt vulnerable for having staked out that territory. Hermione stroked Harry's sleeve and he turned to his friend to find her biting her lip, overwhelmed with emotion.
"I don't understand anyone today," Harry complained.
* * *
Inside the room Purple Parasols, Snape bent over the pram and its occupant, but in reality he was obliquely studying Draco standing beside it, standing unnaturally suspended with his hands hanging slightly away from his body.
"You seem to have a choice," Snape said.
Draco hesitated in prompting, "What do you mean?"
Snape straightened and studied his former student directly. He took a slow inward breath before speaking, not wanting to come across as glib. "The past is fixed."
He paused when Draco's eyes narrowed, waiting patiently for him to reach the right conclusions about what Snape knew. "You have a choice," he went on, turning to bring Pansy into the conversation. She sat on the edge of the bed, with her knees crushing her clasped hands. "The past is fixed but the future is not. To continually fight the past will merely drain and, eventually, defeat you."
Draco's eyes grew shining as he stared off beyond the room's walls. He bit his lip and avoided looking at Snape.
Snape turned to Pansy, whose expression was more open, grasping for hope, perhaps. "The future can be whatever you wish it to be," Snape stated, holding her gaze.
"Awfully poetic, for you," Draco criticized. The shine on his eyes became a glare.
"Save that strength for the future. You are going to need it," Snape snapped lightly at him.
Draco's anger came out through his limbs as he gestured around the room. "You want us to just pretend?" His voice broke, pushed beyond his control already.
Snape took gentle hold of his lapels and moved him backward, just to prove he could. "Sit down," he softly said, adding when Draco resisted, "Right there beside your wife."
Draco sat, drained of anger, in the same pose as Pansy.
"I have notice that you have pretended so far, Mr. Malfoy," Snape pointed out with no rancor. "There is no sin in this deception. It is only noble."
Draco turned his head away, eyes shining again. Pansy peered hopefully at Draco.
"Your futures, as well as her future," Snape added, waving toward the pram, "are entirely in your hands. No one else's." When the two of them sat their thoughtfully for long enough, Snape sarcastically asked, "Would you prefer your lives not be in your own hands?"
This brought Draco to himself, as intended. "No, of course not." He raised his eyes and marginally shifted his pose.
Snape stood before them, comfortable with standing above them like they were students again. "From this point on, any misery that befalls you will be of your own making. Console yours with that, if nothing else. No one else knows your situation, and I certainly will not say. To keep fighting this is to only fight yourselves. No one involved here is at fault. There is nothing to fight against."
The baby fussed once. Pansy stood instantly and put a hand into the pram.
Snape added with grim softness, "The evil of the past can take another turn on the next generation . . . or it can stop here."