The shop door, with its thickly frosted windows, closed behind Ginny with a muted jingle. After leaving school, she never imagined visiting Flourish and Blotts more than once a year, let alone needing to make weekly visits for writing supplies. To the left of the counter, near the floor, she crouched to reach into the torn box of stenographer notebooks and pulled out handfuls with the intent of not needing to buy more for a while.
The notebooks she had already hitched into the crook of her arm began to slip to the floor. Ginny let all the notebooks fall and began bundling them better when a pair of fuchsia alligator-skin pumps strutted over and scraped to a stop after toeing the pile aside.
Ginny glanced up at Rita Skeeter's disdainful, magenta smile. "So many notebooks, my dear? One might get the mistaken impression that you actually take notes," she said.
Ginny rolled her eyes and gathered the bundles to her chest to carry to the counter. "And what would you know about journalism?" Ginny retorted, willing herself not to blush in anger.
Skeeter whispered in Ginny's ear as she passed. "Knowing when one is getting played has nothing to do with journalism, necessarily. I'll agree with that. Your Potter puff piece was a stunning success on that point." She then followed to where Ginny stopped to wait for the shop clerk to finish with a young girl who was taking her time choosing between perfumed notecards.
The girl's mother eyed them curiously, so Ginny moved off to peruse the collection of Super-Stubby Neverout Quills behind Skeeter and kept her voice low. "I know Harry better than you ever will in a hundred years of writing the drivel you do. Can't you find anything better to harp on?" Ginny considered adding, you Harpie, but decided to make an attempt at professionalism since that was ostensibly the topic.
Skeeter crossed her arms and leaned closer to the same rack of quills. Up close her curls were perfect, not a hair out of place. "I have sources everywhere, more than you will ever have in a hundred years of your amateur interviewing of your old school chums."
Behind them the register ticked and clanged. Ginny gritted her teeth in her determination to come up with a properly scathing insult. Skeeter went on, "Your friends may think the Prophet runs the news world, but there are many ways of reaching the wizarding public, my dear child."
"Stop calling me that," Ginny said. "And speaking of getting played, wasn't it you who fell for a pile of fake letters?"
All false pleasantness faded from Skeeter's face. Her makeup became pale smears upon her anger-rudded skin. "No one with a reputation worth defending has ever survived for long as my enemy, Ms. Weasley. Don't think I've forgotten your not-so-small role in that."
Ginny rolled her eyes and managed a prim tone. "I'm quite certain that if you hadn't been eavesdropping, you would not have had any difficulty with it whatsoever."
Skeeter's voice became sickly chummy. "So, where did you get the letters? They were too good for you to have produced them, of that I'm certain."
"Oh, right," Ginny scoffed, moving to the now empty counter. She was still holding a Super-Stubby Neverout Quill and put that down beside the notebooks. Now that she had a decent salary, free room and board, and no time to spend money, expenses were suddenly, magically, a non-issue. Ginny said, "Clearly you have enemies you have not dealt with. That's not MY problem."
Skeeter considered her through slitted eyes as she put down coins for her purchase. Only when her notebooks were tied up with ribbon did Skeeter say, "You have responsibilities to the public, Ms. Weasley. Just because you are ineptly playing at reporter doesn't make those responsibilities simply vanish."
Ginny picked up her sack and spun on Skeeter. "I have responsibilities to my friends."
"No, actually, you don't," Skeeter corrected. "That's where you are quite mistaken. You don't have friends . . . you don't have family either. You have a job to do. I read your measly and strictly factual one paragraph about your brother's arrest." She made a disappointed tsking sound. "Come now, the son of the head of Magical Law Enforcement is in the Ministry Dungeon and all the public gets is 400 words? Do you know what a newspaper even is?"
Skeeter followed Ginny to the door and put her foot in the way of opening it. Her voice fell into a hiss. "That so-called friend of yours, our so-called hero, is everyone's enemy now, from what I am learning." Ginny jerked hard on the door, but Skeeter's foot only gave an inch. "Ask your father how his investigation of Mr. Potter is going." She breathed into Ginny's ear, "I dare you to."
"Get out of my way, you hag," Ginny said, controlling her tone, but not her word choice.
Skeeter flipped her cloak over her shoulder to reveal the blood satin underside of it and stepped neatly aside. "You'll hear from me soon enough," she smugly said. "Go, on. Run along. There is ink begging to be wasted, somewhere, I'm certain."
Ginny growled as she threw the door wide and escaped into the bitter wind sweeping along Diagon Alley.
* * *
A stealthy figure clad in clothing that rippled with a pattern of stones and torch-cast shadows slipped by the slumbering Ministry Dungeon guard who gave a snort and rolled to the side. Dainty feet moved soundlessly down the stairs, along the damp lining the wall, past heavy cell doors reinforced with decorative iron bars. The footsteps hesitated at the crossing in the corridor. The hooded figure bobbed to glance around the corner before aiming a Cloak Entanglement spell that way. When the corridor remained still, the figure slipped around and soundlessly crept that way, wand leading.
The figure stopped before the cell holding Percy Weasley and ran a complex spell on the door, starting over twice because it was a difficult one to do silently. The wood grain on the door glowed white and faded. The figure's wand lowered as it leaned closer to the door to study a strange pattern of blackening on the wood interspersed with gouges of brightly scoured iron.
The figure turned and pressed back against the door and, with a wave and a twitch, brought forth jagged black spikes from the corridor floor and ceiling. Another twitch ignited them with searing blue flame. No satisfying sounds came, like shouts of surprise or screaming, so the figure gave a circular wave and the floors and ceiling returned to their worn and ordinary state.
The figure threw back her hood and brushed her Mohawk back into place. Standing on tiptoe she could see that the room's occupant was sitting, staring up at her, blinking far too infrequently, but still safe.
Back up in the Aurors' office, Tonks stopped in the doorway and shook her head at Kingsley Shacklebolt. "Whoever it was, I didn't catch them, and it doesn't look like they got through the cell door's protection."
"So, not a false alarm, then," Shacklebolt said, closing his files and standing up.
"No. They knocked Horace for a loop, so he's in the dispensary. I sent a crew from Games Security down to cover for him."
Mr. Weasley came up behind Tonks. "What's this?"
"Someone tried to get at Percy," Tonks said, tempering her business-like tone with sympathy.
Kingsley said, "Should we move him to the French prison? He knows too much for his previous associates to let him talk."
"Right now, he's not talking at all," Mr. Weasley pointed out. "They have nothing to worry about."
Tonks leaned on the door frame. "You didn't let us hold Harry down there because it wasn't safe."
Mr. Weasley held up a finger. "It wasn't safe because Percy was free to move about the Ministry. That is no longer the case."
"This didn't look like inside work," Tonks said. "Too brute force. Whoever it was doesn't understand the Dungeon's security beyond getting inside."
"Let's lay a trap in his cell then. I want to catch this person, alive and well." Mr. Weasley turned to go. "I want to get information out of someone; I don't care terribly who from at this point."
"Do we move Percy?" Tonks asked.
Mr. Weasley bit his lip in momentary thought. "Move him to another cell, put a pseudonym in the registry and put an illusion in his old cell."
After he departed, Tonks and Shacklebolt stared at each other, frowning.
"Got any ideas for a gentle but foolproof trap?" Tonks asked. "Preferably something I won't accidentally trip myself up on and end up missing the rest of shift?"
* * *
Harry stared up at the faceless black tower at the end of the pier. Waves whisked by, glinting merrily in the sunlight. He could not shake the illusion that he and this stone monolith sailed briskly forward, despite knowing firsthand how deeply anchored it was.
The helmeted guard at the door saluted him and welcomed him inside, so Harry ceased fishing for the letter in his pocket. Inside the tower, the watery slots glowed aquamarine, casting bouncing nets of light up the walls. The guard's metal boots rattled crisply as he strutted out in the lead with his bright red helmet feather bobbing behind him. Another guard, also unfamiliar, met Harry in the lift and after some saluting and bowing of the guards, the lift descended.
Harry took one last breath of fresh sea air and held it in. He also held in his delicious anticipation, intent on giving away no expression. The rough walls slipped upward around the lift, and the shadows slipped in closer like the imaginary pressure of the rock around them. Harry blinked, expecting the torchlight to dim with their presence. The ride took longer than Harry remembered, giving his insides plenty of time to squirm as he resisted closing his eyes and sinking deeper yet into himself.
Down they slid. Harry glanced at the guard and found the man's eyes were crinkled around the edges as if he may be smiling broadly behind his visor. The guard tapped his feet together and came to attention and the lift slowed to a leg-straining stop at the opening to a familiar corridor.
At the warden's office, the guard waved that Harry should step aside while he knocked primly despite his spiky gauntlets.
The door opened of its own accord and the warden came out from behind his desk to greet Harry warmly and lead him back into the corridor. "Ah, Mistar Pottar, so good to meet you again." Behind his eyes Harry saw intense fascination, and that set his instincts on alert.
"Thank you for inviting me," Harry stated formally, masking his unease.
"You are exact-ily on time, so we will assume you are eager. Eustache here will accompany us." The guard hovering close gave another heel clicking bow, sending his helmet feather sweeping through their midst. The warden waved the feather away and gestured that they should head in the less well-lit direction.
As they strode along the narrowing corridor, the warden said, "I was lamenting zat you would not pay us a visit, Mistar Pottar."
"How could I resist?" Harry said, breathing in the stagnant air and feeling the shadows flow around him, charged and waiting hungrily for a sign. He had to put his hand over his mouth and fake a cough to avoid making a sound of pleasure.
They went down a staircase and along corridors with cells on either side. Shuffling sounds and derisive grunts came through the slats in the heavy doors.
"Zees is our Cell Block Tey, for our short stays, just until zee trials. Mostly very silly crimes, not very interesting. I will show you somewhere better."
The warden walked faster until the end where they had to wait for a heavily armored door to be turned aside into the wall. The guards on the other side came to attention. Harry's instincts were fighting him, making his feet clumsy on the rough-hewn floor. He vacillated between hungrily looking forward to seeing Lockhart, and having his nerves tensing in expectation of getting locked in.
"Where do you keep the vampires?" Harry asked, wanting to judge the warden's reaction to this as a way of soothing his nerves, which had slammed into full alarm as the armored door had swung closed.
The warden turned to him, flanked by the block guards who peered over the warden's shoulders at Harry in a kind of awe. "Do you wish to see all you have captured, perhaps?" He was teasing; Harry was certain.
Dryly, Harry replied, "Not all. That would take too long."
The warden laughed. "Mmm. You will stay to dinner, of course. I will not 'ave it otherwise. Allons-y!" he said, gesturing that they should move on.
The cell block guards remained at their post as the three of them took a curved staircase many turns deeper into the rock. Even before the warden stopped before an irising metal door at the bottom, Harry's nerves were alight with prickles.
"Gardez-vous," the warden said, indicating Harry should step back while the iris retracted. The edges of the door plates, which were lined with inwardly curved spikes, did not retract completely. With a groan they came to a stop, leaving a jagged opening to wiggle through.
They stepped into an oblong cage that protected the door. The room contained a drooping tableau of rank clothing and pale white skin. Wilted figures sat on the floor, resting their heads on their knees or on an arm draped on the stone bench bordering the room. The warden bent down and paced around the cage, studying each figure in turn.
"Ah, voilà. 'Ere is your thing."
Harry turned on his toes, rubbing his arms from discomfort at such a strange sense of cursedness. The vampires no longer had access to the underworld, so their cursedness crackled, disjointed. "You keep them all in one room?"
"Eh, it is no matter. And it is expedient for the wardings. We potion the beef blood zey are fed. Zey are knowing zis, but they cannot resist it. Otherwise zey are quite difficult to contain, what wis zer, mind tricks." He gave an exaggerated shudder.
Harry went to the bars to better study Fueago, who sat alone on the end of the bench by the door, mostly upright, lithe arms resting atop his thighs. The space between him and the others indicated they afforded him some respect, or fear. Fueago's eyes cracked open without him otherwise moving. The black of them glittered wetly in the torchlight. For a moment, under their malevolent gaze, Harry felt small and hollow, dwarfed by an ancient force he could not understand, one that would outlive him by eons.
Harry hung there, one hand gripping a shiny steel bar, mystified by his own reaction. Then, like a wave filling a hollow in the sand, the shadows rushed in and he was everywhere and everything, although in contrast to this creature, it felt less substantial than usual. Fueago's eyelid twitched as they continued to stare at one another. Jealousy rushed through Harry, then anger. He held bars in both hands now, straining against them, but uncertain whether he yearned to get in or out of this strangely reversed cage.
"'E may not be fully captured by zee potion yet, Mistar Pottar. Zee old strong ones require longer time to succumb. Zee young ones, zey succumb immediately," the warden calmly explained, stepping up beside him. "'E ees a prize, though, despite zee trouble. Older than all zee rest, so most powerful."
Harry's knuckles had stiffened and resisted him unclamping his hands from the bars. He tried to massage them back to normal.
The warden prattled on after a sigh. "I hoped to 'ear 'is story sometime. But I zink 'e will not give up 'is mystique so easily. It is unfortunate zat vampires do not bore more easily. I guess zee easily bored ones would 'ave gone mad long ago."
As the door irised closed behind them, metal teeth grinding, the warden talked on, "Even zee most powerful ordin-ary mortals get bored and when you ask for zere story, you cannot but 'ope to shut zem up again."
The shadows had a hold of Harry for the next phases of the tour. They entered the third level of the witch cell block. This area was newer with more rusty metal and larger barred windows on the doors, much more like a Muggle jail if it had been built by medieval masons and blacksmiths. The warden ignored the glinting, curious eyes tracking their passage, and commented, "Ah, Fueago 'as had a not favorable effect on you."
Harry had nearly forgotten about the vampire, actually, lost as he was in exploring this extended sense of himself. He struggled for something appropriate to say while anger and jealousy rose up again. "I could capture him again. It's nothing really."
"Ah, you could; I 'ave no doubts." He waved off the guard's peppy salute at the next interlock. "Should you be lacking for work, you could provide for vampire removal services. Vampires like to feed upon remote and poor villages, but you would be very surprised how much gold zee vampire will have amassed and zee villagers' tradition is to give all zat to the eradicator. As well as zere best sheep, zere daughters. It is quite lucrative, I 'ear."
Harry was trying to come up with a response to this when they crossed through to the other half of the block, beneath a heavily spiked security door hanging by a single thin chain. From the right something launched at him accompanied by a ringing bang of a cell door and a cry of surprise. Harry jumped back and spun to face Bellatrix's distorted, howling face. Reacting without thought, Harry pressed on her Mark and she fell, clutching her arm, hissing.
The guard leveled his crystal tipped spear and clicked it along the bars, making them spit sparks from top to bottom.
Bellatrix scrambled back and struggled to her knees. She ignored the guard and glared at Harry, breathing harshly, mouth hanging open. Harry relaxed his shoulders, and smiled faintly at her. Her eyes glanced keenly from Harry to the warden and back again, making Harry aware of having made a mistake.
The warden stepped back to better inspect Harry. "That was most interesting, Mistar Pottar. Most. Interesting."
Harry met the warden's gaze with a level one of his own. "Is it?" he asked.
The warden raised his hand and fitfully rubbed his fingertips together. "Yes, I would say zat it is. But do come along, we 'ave more to see."
The guard rushed to catch up to the warden's side and clanked along closer now. Harry glanced back to see Bellatrix rise up like a wraith and come to the bars. Before Harry was out of sight, she reached a bony arm through, fingers clasping the air, eyes wild with hunger. Harry walked on, staring at the warden's narrow back, his new instincts mustering to combat the fallout from his revelation.
But at the next staircase down, the warden had returned to his previous demeanor. He began relating the construction history of each cell block, what Minister had been responsible and what political crisis had led to the allocation of funds. Harry listened with half an ear, tempted at each section to see if he could slip away and back again, but deciding each time against it, even if it would make him feel far better to succeed at it.
The warden and the guard stopped before an iron door in a short corridor of identical iron doors. "We are there, Mistar Pottar."
"Can I see him alone?" Harry asked.
"No. Certainly, as I do not know what your next demonstration will be, I am afraid. We will come with you." The guard opened the brass studded door and the warden waved Harry inside.
Harry's instincts would not let him enter first, given that if the door closed he would most likely be stuck. He gallantly bowed that the warden should lead. Mouth playing with a smile, the warden did so.
Inside was a block of four cells, separated by bars only. Lockhart was in the last one. He stood as soon as they stepped into view and glided to the front of the cage. His red eyes were nearly as bright in this dull place as his sparse blonde hair, which swept back from his head like a ragged mane magically haloing a bald head. He held a crooked finger up and pointed at Harry.
Harry watched Lockhart's face melt from one raw expression to another. Lockhart was not at all like the Death Eaters, but something inside Harry sensed his presence, or at least thought his eyes seemed naturally mirror-like. Harry relaxed; he faced a long-lost childhood friend, someone who had changed greatly but was still instantly recognizable, someone who knew things about him that he himself had forgotten.
Lockhart fell still also, but his eyes narrowed and flickered a deeper red. He crossed his arms and pushed his chest out. His robes were faded but had once been crisp and flamboyant. Despite clearing his throat, it still rasped when he said, "The suffering I would put you through if I could." His anger quickly shifted to despair, and he dropped his arms and paced, fists pumping. He stopped suddenly, faced the side wall and watched his own hand clasp and unclasp empty air. "You would suffer so, you would beg and scream for . . . death!" On this last word he spun and pointed again, eyes pulsing. "I would enjoy every hour of your misery, you insufferable Muckblood!" His voice grated as it grew louder. "How dare you do this to me! You should pay! You should beg for me to stop until you are a heap of senseless sinew and bloody tissue!"
Acutely disappointed, Harry muttered, "Is that all you've got?"
The warden stepped close to Harry, arms crossed. "NOW, zis is an interesting one. With his fall from power, both political and magical, 'e is unique. I 'ave never seen such a case. Obviously."
Lockhart groaned in anger and took up pacing again while tugging at his hair. "How could you do this to me? ME?! I was invincible!"
Harry watched his antics ratchet up in volume and intensity. Lockhart's nearby block mate covered his ears and winced, then rolled his eyes when he perceived Harry's gaze drawn his way.
Lockhart continued pacing and ranting, alternately with theatrical artifice and honest misery. "He's nothing," Harry whispered.
"Not exactly," the warden said, sounding reassuring, which struck Harry as odd and drew his full attention. "Humans, no matter 'ow powerful, are motivated by only a few things, really. Zey do not believe zis is so, but it is." He waved his hands around his own head. "Zey invent many complicated stories inside zere head to make zemselves feel smarter, higher in thinking, but in the end it is just a few things. Zee criminal has a smaller, different set zen the honest man. Zee madman, a set the sane cannot comprehend."
He gestured at Lockhart, who was now bending over his bench, roaring and sobbing. The warden went on. "What 'appened 'ere . . . see . . . stripping away his power leaves us only the raw motivation, and nothing else, since 'e cannot act on it. 'E does not know how to act wizzout magic, so 'e is permanently fixed at zee stage of motivation."
Harry was not certain he believed this. "You think?"
Voice rising above the conspiratorial whisper he had been using, the warden clutched his hand before Harry and said, "What is a man but his actions!?"
Harry watched Lockhart pace around his bench, head down, taking care to avoid turning their way.
"But he's still Voldemort."
The pacing stopped. Lockhart, back still to them, raised a hand and combed it spasmodically through his hair, as if concerned for his appearance.
"Sort of," Harry amended.
The warden tested the bars with his ring, making them chime.
"What are the powerful and evil motivated by?" Harry asked.
The warden drew his fist back from the bars. "Whatever zey wish to be motivated by," he said. "Zee human is sociable. Evil is not. It acts unconstrained from such limitations."
Something inside Harry said, "Exactly," in a happy sort of manner.
They stood there another minute, and Harry, feeling increasingly undone, made a move toward the cell block door, away from this empty vision.
The warden queried kindly, "Seen all you hoped to?"
"Not quite," Harry said, rubbing his hair back.
In the corridor, the warden cheerily said, "I must thank you for sending us zat one. He is among my favorites. Especially since I can 'ave him to dinner with almost no precautions."
Alarmed, Harry said, "You should still be careful."
"Oh, Monsieur Pottar. Your concern is touching. But imagine, if I use magic on him, he cries for a week, continuously."
"Really?" Harry said, heart feeling oddly heavy and his stomach somewhat disturbed.
Harry spent dinner with the warden quiet and thoughtful. Each time his mind took a turn around his visit with Lockhart, something hard inside him tried to derail his train of thought, and it annoyed him enough he barely tasted the food. It was not until he noticed the warden's overly dissecting attention that he put aside his uselessly circling thoughts. He picked up a half-open crab claw, dripping with saffron butter and tugged the meat out of it, forcing himself to taste it, which, fortunately, was not difficult.
The warden, finished with this course long ago, put his napkin beside his plate to free up his hands for talking. "You 'ave an interesting power over Voldemort's former servants . . . I could not 'elp but notice."
Harry felt his face shift, his eyes contract. He felt suspicion tighten across his chest and knew it should be hidden, but could not manage it. He waited.
The warden smiled inwardly, knowingly. "Ah, do not become alarm-ed, Monsieur. You have answered me completely with a look, but you are not my responsibility at zis time, and I have responsibilities enough." He was still smiling when the chef came in and exchanged their plates for the risotto course.
The warden frowned at his bowl and restrained the guard from leaving. "Gaspode. What is zis? Two saffron courses in a row?"
The guard's chef's hat flopped forward as he bowed his head in shame. With a great sigh, he moved to take the shallow bowls, but the warden waved him off. "Leave zem, but do not make such a grievous error again." To Harry, he said, "My sincerest apologies." Then he started eating without a care otherwise.
When his bowl was empty, the warden leaned back with a sigh of appreciation. Harry's self-preservation instincts riled him too much to eat more than a few spoonfuls before giving up.
The warden patted his stomach and said, "Come now. Please. If I follow your case now, Mistar Pottar, it is only as an avid student of these things. Nothing more." And he smiled that strangely pleasant little smile again and Harry made himself feel sanguine, mostly because it annoyed his new instincts which trusted in nothing.
* * *
"Harry, good to see you," Mr. Weasley graciously said, holding out his hand. Harry returned him a reluctant handshake, then had to school himself not to react to the subsequent pat on the back when he turned away.
The long kitchen table at the Burrow was crowded with mismatched plates and cups. The water pitcher and the wine jug were bobbing about and clanking together, filling glasses.
Mrs. Weasley wiped her hands on her needlepoint apron and said, "Severus and Candy, you can sit here. Bill and Fred can't make it today, unfortunately."
Candide, Arcadius in her arms, got assistance from Charlie in getting seated. "I need the practice," he said, next helping his wife, Gretel, who had to maneuver her large belly into a seat, but then had no difficulty leaning over to play with Arcadius.
"When are you due?" Candide asked, when the playful baby noises eased up.
"Not soon enough," Gretel replied with a sigh, looking longingly at Arcadius, who was chewing on his blanket.
"In a month," Charlie offered. "To the day." He sat down beside Gretel and took her hand. She gave him a pained smiled in return.
Gretel turned to Candide. "So, tell me, how was it? I feel like everyone is lying to me about how it will go."
"Not bad at all," Candide replied. "Quick and easy."
Gretel did not seem reassured by this. "Everyone says that," she said, eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Our first grandchild," Mrs. Weasley announced, clasping her hands before her as if in prayer. She looked around the table as everyone finished seating themselves. Her eyes found Ginny, next to Aaron at the far end of the table.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Ginny demanded. "I'm the youngest. Hello?"
Several of the assembled ducked to hide their grins.
Aaron rubbed his hands together and said, "I'm up for the challenge," which garnered him an elbow in the ribs. Hunching over to rub his side, he said, "Apparently I'm not."
Dinner progressed slowly with superficial discussions of the weather and the preliminary pre-qualification matches for the next Quidditch World Cup. As people stood up with a groan and took up more comfortable spots around the living room, Harry pulled Ginny aside toward the staircase.
"Can I get a word?" he asked, glancing back, certain Snape must be watching him. But Snape was involved in discussion with Charlie. It was the fourth time that had happened--that Harry was certain Snape observed him, but found him otherwise occupied.
Ginny disappeared around the bend in the staircase, each footstep eliciting an ominous creak, so Harry pulled away from studying each person in the room to see how much attention they were giving him. Aaron gave him a friendly wave, despite his taking Ginny aside.
In the claustrophobic corridor on the first floor, where the dust motes took on swirling forms of galloping rabbits as they drifted by the carrot patterned curtains on the small window, Harry said, "Can you do a little research for me on someone?"
Ginny shrugged. "Sure. If I can find anything."
"I need to find out all I can about a Margarite Zacundo. Without her finding out about it. Do you know that name?"
Ginny rubbed her forehead. "You know how many names I've seen in the last month? I'll look in the Prophet files for you."
"That won't arouse any suspicion, will it?"
She smiled, and grabbed his arm. "Harry, I spend so much time in there, I got locked in accidentally one night. No, no one will care."
"Thanks," Harry said, feeling grateful. That rare feeling, coupled with their whispered conspiracy, reminded him acutely of their school days. He tried to hang onto the feeling as they returned to the get-together, but it did not survive reaching the bottom of the staircase, when Harry again felt compelled to check who was watching him.
As they departed, Mr. Weasley again took up Harry's hand. "Make it a point to visit the Auror's office this week, Harry. All right?"
"I have a lot to do this week," Harry said.
"Everyone misses you, Harry," Mr. Weasley added, accompanied by the sound of double Disapparation as Charlie and his wife departed. Mr. Weasley went on, "I had hoped by now you'd be missing us too."
"Maybe," Harry said flatly.
* * *
First thing Monday, Harry took up his cloak and his broomstick and the map of London around Battle Bridge Road and prepared to depart for some reconnaissance. His departure was interrupted by a knock on the door to his room. Harry let his laden hands drop to his sides and said, "Come in."
Snape opened the door and, seeing Harry, tilted his head curiously. Before he could speak, Harry said, "Did you charm my room to tell you when I was going out?"
Snape shook his head. "By no means. We are waiting on breakfast."
"I have things to do," Harry said, gathering up his items in his arms again, ready to slip away.
"Come down to breakfast, Harry." This was not a request.
Harry stared at Snape and clenched his teeth against his gut responses, which were all obnoxious attempts to assert his power. He imagined how Lockhart had appeared to him and could not find a response that did not echo that, so he said nothing.
Snape moderated his hard tone. "Come, Harry. Whatever it is you are planning, it will go better with good food in your stomach."
His broom swaying in one hand, his cloak trying to slip free from the other, Harry said, "You don't command me."
Snape frowned. "I do not; it is true. That was a mistake on my part. I can stand back and watch you do a lot of things, but not harm yourself. You ate little more than your suspicions yesterday at the Weasley's. Come." He put out an inviting hand and swept it toward the door.
Harry propped his broomstick beside his desk, let his cloak flow out of his hand onto the bed, and followed.
Harry said nothing through breakfast, finding solace for his ego in being obstinate. Snape paid this no heed, occupied as he was with discussing the newspapers and Arcadius with Candide.
Cloaked and ducking low to keep his feet from showing, Harry took flight from an alleyway two streets from the Daily Prophet building. He flew one pass rapidly along Battle Bridge Road, just at building height. Nothing unusual happened. He turned and flew by again, slower, letting the wind, which made his trousers and the cloak flap forward, propel him along. Ma Dame's listed address was the top floor of a stone and red brick building set back slightly from the road, breaking the straight line of roof edges. The penthouse had a large open balcony with potted trees, currently bare, and a wall of glass doors, tinted so they only revealed a reflection of the sky.
Harry veered closer, intending to overfly the balcony, but his curse sense sent spasms through his arms, jerking him off course. The world careened sideways as he struck something invisible, either a hidden wall or a magical barrier. As bad as his curse sense had been, it surged worse. Shaking, Harry landed on the building opposite and crouched down on the tar, behind the low brick wall decorating the roof edge. He wanted to clench his eyes shut, the disgust so pained him, but he instead gasped and peeked over the wall.
Nothing had changed. The building appeared exactly as it had. But behind him, the row of soot-stained metal tubes topped with cones suddenly groaned and squeaked, bent into L shapes and squashed flat as though between rollers. A second later Harry's curse sense released him.
Harry breathed in and out until his head cleared. He had no idea what that had been. Taking a deep breath, he again peeked over the roof edge, seeing if anything else was going to happen. He could not see inside, and what he could see outside was apparently an illusion. The deep balcony with the tall pots and benches, none of it was real. Or, maybe all of it was real, but none of it was for certain.
Angry, but with nothing to take it out on, Harry considered various attacks and barrier cancellations. But with his alien instincts berating him for his silly approach to his enemy's hideout, he lowered his wand. All out attack was not the best way to go about this. Crouched there, his trainers squeaking on the rippled roofing tar, Harry felt compelled to agree, but it did not make him happy to do so. Harry needed more information out of Percy. He was certain Percy had it, it was merely a matter of getting him to talk.
Back home, Harry put his things in his room before returning downstairs to stand before Snape where he sat with Candide, Arcadius gurgling happily between them.
"I need to talk to you alone," Harry said.
Snape directly set his journal aside and stood to follow Harry into the drawing room. Harry ran protective charms even as he walked inside. Snape closed the door and stood behind his desk waiting for Harry to finish before taking up his chair.
Harry slipped his wand away and said, "I need a truth serum, but one the Ministry can't detect later like Veritaserum."
Snape nodded crookedly. "As you wish. It will require a few hours to brew something. I'll go to Hogwarts tonight to do that. I assume you can stay here, on guard?"
"Yes," Harry assured him.
"How many doses do you expect to need?"
Snape steepled his fingers and sat back. "For Mr. Percival Weasley, I assume." When Harry did not respond, Snape said, "Harry, if you cannot trust me regarding this, I'm not certain what you can trust me with."
Harry clamped his jaw. "Yes. Percy."
"May I make an observation?" He did not wait for a response. "I fear you are growing predictable. That will lead to trouble."
"But I can get out of trouble," Harry pointed out.
"You sound like one itching to give it a go, in fact," Snape said, exhaling. "Do try to be somewhat unexpected in your actions, if you can. Have an alibi, at the very least. That is all I have to say."
Harry pushed his shoulders back. "Sound advice."
Snape straightened the blue-black quills in the brass holder on his desk. "How was your visit to the prison yesterday? I expected you to voluntarily share your observations, but I was mistaken in that assumption."
"It was interesting enough. The food was good. Bellatrix is still insane."
"That is hardly a surprise." Snape pushed his leather journal to the center of the desk and stood up.
"You'll have the potion tonight?"
"I fully expect to."
Harry was laying the wrong way on his bed, trying out miniature versions of barrier spells, which continued to be far easier than expected. It was well after midnight. Harry was toying with the idea of paying Percy a visit that night, and practicing magic kept him nicely alert. He turned all the way to the back of his old Auror book, Protect and Swerve, and tried to find the most difficult barrier it described.
When the light rap came on the door, Harry eagerly pushed straight to wave it open. Snape stepped in, and the way he spun on his toes to close the door, gave away that he was disturbed by something.
Snape approached the bed, rubbing his chin with his knuckles. "My rare ingredient stores were not as I expected them to be," he methodically stated. "I could not, this evening, make the potion that would best serve you in your plans."
Harry scooted on the bed to hang his feet off the edge, prepared to jump to his feet. "What happened to your potion ingredients? Did Greer do something?" Harry clutched his wand tighter, remembering his old hatred of the Potions Master.
Before Harry could plot out some kind of punishment, long overdue, and therefore in need of twisted cleverness, Snape shook his bowed head and said, "I don't think so. Only I could get into my special cabinet. I am certain of that. I suspect it was my alternative self, in fact, who used them. I spent a little time figuring out what he may have been doing with Kelpie hide and Catoblepas scales, both of which are very difficult to obtain. I expect it had something to do with encouraging someone to confess to Moody's murder, given the slim list of potions comprised of both."
"So, you don't have what I need?" Harry asked, finding a hard tone very easy, and watching keenly as Snape hesitated a beat before responding, "No."
The air in the room vibrated as they considered each other. Harry slowly pushed to his feet, uncertain himself what he was going to do next. He could feel the depths of his new personality opening below him.
"I don't like waiting, Severus."
"I am fully cognizant of that, Harry." Snape rubbed his forehead, and tossed his head. "On the other hand, I fear you are dashing into something without proper planning and this will give you time to do that."
Harry turned briskly. "You only say that because I haven't consulted you."
"Partly that," Snape said.
Harry noticed himself breathing hard as he paced. It certainly would be appropriate to punish Snape for failing, extenuating circumstances or not. But there were too many possible ways to punish him. Hazy memories and forbidden spells clashed in Harry's mind, and made the skin of his wand hand burn. Before his visit to the prison, Harry might have given in to this instinct. You would suffer so, you would beg and scream for death.
Snape took a step back. Harry must have spoken aloud. With a gentle shuffle of fabric, Snape straightened his robes, lifted his chin, and considered Harry. Wary, but waiting. Harry almost smiled. Snape completely misunderstood.
"Don't the twins have either of these things in their stores?" Harry asked.
Snape swallowed before replying. "No. That is in fact why I was slow returning. I went to ask them."
Harry lifted his chin sharply. "Without consulting me first?"
Snape's mouth opened a second before he actually started speaking. "They are unequivocally on your side. And even if they were not, they are hardly on the side of authority."
"I suppose." Harry pondered Snape before shoving his wand away in his pocket. This made Snape's shoulders, already hunched, fall an iota more in relief. "So, when can you have it for me?" Harry demanded, feeling good about regaining the upper hand without actually intentionally doing anything untoward.
"The earliest would be late Wednesday. Even then it will be tricky to obtain the ingredients without it being traceable."
"So be it," Harry grumbled.
Snape exited the room with rapid footsteps. Harry watched his robes flare as he swung through the doorway and closed it all in one smooth movement. In the wake of what could only be an escape, Harry felt oddly bad, and got berated for it.
* * *
The next morning, Harry slipped down early for breakfast. He took up the newspaper and was bored enough to read it straight through. The paper had a friendlier tone than it used to, expressing an opinion only when it thought things were "lovely" or, at worst, "sadly out of fashion". So when he reached the piece on what strategy the Ministry had for combating organized crime, Harry's expectations for a probing article were about nil. And indeed, the Ministry planned to: "work cooperatively with the wizarding public" and would urge the Wizengamot to "drastically increase the penalties for curse blackmail and fraud." Mr. Weasley, when asked when the Ministry was going to get tough and how, had responded, "We are quite tough already, I believe. And as to how, I don't want to give that away." Harry rolled his eyes, then spotting the byline and grinned at imagining Ginny attempting to interview her father.
A generic barn owl scratching at the window drew Harry there. Harry took the letter and stared at the address, immediately suspicious of the writing. The owl had just pushed off the sill into flight when Harry, without forethought, snagged it out of the air above the garden with a net charm and dragged it, flapping and warbling, back inside. It flopped around inside the net, thunking and knocking the picture frames to the side.
Harry tore open the letter and read it rapidly. It was a demand from Ursie for Harry to meet with The Boss, the next day, at noon. Harry grabbed up a quill from the mantelpiece and scrawled, Sorry, can't make it on the bottom of it. He freed the owl and it shook itself with an insulted air and tried to peck him when he held out the refolded letter. But after tilting its head at it, the owl snatched it away and jumped out the window, scattering feathers of all sizes.
"What was that?" Snape asked from the doorway.
Harry shut the window. "A difficult owl. But it's gone now." Harry retook his seat at the table, not meeting Snape's gaze. It should not be any of Snape's concern if Harry chose to provoke an enemy. If Harry needed his help, he would let him know when the time came. Snape considered Harry a time before taking his seat, but he said nothing. Harry imagined he was feeling this morning that he should not push his luck, to which Harry agreed in distracted silence.
Their usual leisurely breakfast broke up early due to Arcadius growing fussy. Candide bounced him in her arms and patted his back, but he would only be consoled for seconds at a time.
"Maybe it was something I ate yesterday that's bothering him."
Snape took Arcadius from her and held him up to look him over, long fingers supporting his head. Arcadius rolled his fist over his eyes and gave an exceptional squealing wail. "Difficult to say what is wrong, isn't it?"
Snape shifted to holding the baby on his arm and rocking him, then moved him to his belly and stroked his back, but the noise level stayed the same. Harry decided that perhaps the morning would be best spent taking a flight in his Animagus form.
Once aloft and bobbing in the currents off the scuttling clouds, Harry's mind went wonderfully blank. He could pretend he had no other existence beyond this long winged creature that relished in the bitter cold wind.
Despite enjoying the sense of escape, Harry veered in and out of a broad circle over Shrewsthorpe, easily distinguished by the surrounding pattern of roads and other towns. When his mind grew weary of maintaining the Animagus spell, he simply plummeted down to the back garden when there was a break in the car traffic.
Back inside, Harry did not feel like sitting alone in his room, despite the ongoing fussing.
"Do you want to try a bit?" Candide asked, passing a kicking Arcadius over to Snape before he could extricate himself from his notebook and dripping quill.
"Certainly." With the baby on one arm, he skillfully put his things away and sat back, trying the same things that had been tried previously.
"Maybe we should visit the Healer?" Candide suggested.
Arcadius gave an extra squawk of dismay just at that moment, face reddening more.
"If it continues into this evening, perhaps a wise idea."
Harry fetched his Ministry rule books from his room and took up the spot opposite Snape. Unfortunately, with Arcadius' vocal distress, Snape seemed to have forgotten Harry's tenuous benevolence from the night before. Harry found annoyance with this, but saw no way to remind him of it.
Just before noon, after the baby had gone back and forth between his parents countless times, with only brief periods of respite, Snape said to Candide, "You said you had a brief meeting at the office today."
"I was thinking of Floo owling them to say I couldn't make it."
Snape stood and took Arcadius, even though he had just given him up. "I believe you need a break anyway. I will see to him."
Candide's shoulders fell. She tugged the burping cloth off her shoulder and tossed it into a nearby basket. "I feel so terribly helpless."
"That is precisely why you should take a break."
With a huff directed at no one in particular, Candide pushed to her feet. "I'll be very happy when he can talk and tell us what is the matter!"
She returned from collecting up her cloak and gloves. "I won't be half an hour."
"You just fed him. Take your time," Snape said with more patience than Harry thought possible.
Snape retook to his previous seat and held Arcadius against his shoulder, patting him rapidly.
"Babies get colic or something, right?" Harry asked.
"It could be that. There are potions for it, but he is too young to be administered them."
Harry watched Snape go through the now familiar set of quieting tricks with adept movements. Snape then laid the baby on his lap, facing him. Arcadius cried even more than before. "I think a Healer may be in order in about an hour," Snape said.
Harry stood. "Want me to try?"
Harry had not meant the offer as a kind of test, but for several seconds, it was one. But after a beat Snape raised the baby up to Harry, who had come over to take him.
Harry hitched Arcadius in the curl of his arm and walked away. Something was indeed wrong. Arcadius' normally odd magic had an unexpected sticky depth to it. Harry's feet came to a stop in the middle of the room as he considered the baby's scrunched face giving vent to his distress. Harry suddenly needed to see outside, felt compelled to get a view of the world beyond the claustrophobic walls of the house. He walked into the drawing room, unaware of Snape following until he reached the window. Snape moved the desk chair out of the way and waited just behind Harry's shoulder while Harry stared out across the road at the neighbor's fence and deep garden.
Oddly, Harry then needed to shut his eyes.
Arcadius' magic had woven a tangled cocoon around him. Harry's sense of it came into focus only when he completely relaxed his mind, but his glimpses were clear enough. When he opened his eyes again on Arcadius' pink, scrunched face, he half expected to see it manifested there like a spider's egg casing, with his arms sticking through it. But he could only see the infant struggling--for very good reason, it turned out. Arcadius gave another cry, weaker, Harry was certain, the realization of which froze him in horror.
Arcadius' own magic was stifling him. Harry swallowed his panic; he hung there before the window, abandoned by his new instincts and floundering as a result. With no other ideas, Harry made a motion with his hand, tracing over Arcadius' head and down the front of the bear-shaped buttons on his outfit. But it had no effect. Harry closed his eyes again, so he could see the cocoon, and more importantly see his own hand in the same place. That took a little trial and error, as well as ignoring Snape speaking his name a few times in an attempt to get his attention.
Harry got it finally, his hand glowed the same way as the magical bundling and when he repeated the gesture of passing his hand over the infant, the cocoon tore away and vanished.
Arcadius gave one more cry, then after smacking his wet lips a few times, quieted.
Harry stood staring unseeing out the window, feeling post-event panic unlike any he had felt since he was a Second Year. Arcadius gave a yawn that made his tiny hands vibrate. Harry turned, still holding firm, even when Snape held out his hands to take him back.
"He's not normal, Severus," Harry said, feeling the tingle of that strange energy as he spoke. Harry felt unburdened saying this, but also cruel, because while he had yesterday held back on punishing his old guardian, he certainly had succeeded now. Snape stared back at him, eyes unblinking.
Arcadius now felt the same as he always did, and continued to as heartbeats passed, so Harry handed him over. Snape accepted him but kept his alarmed gaze entirely on Harry.
"His magic is really strange," Harry said, and a voice inside of him pointed out that was probably Harry's fault. "His magic was suffocating him. He's far too young to control it."
Snape rocked the baby in his arms even though Arcadius was now in a perfectly pleasant mood. "That explains your hesitation when you were asked if he was magical at all."
Harry nodded, disappointed that he had given that away.
Snape said nothing more for a while, just leaned back against the desk, lost in thought.
Snape spoke a few minutes later. "Old Magic is considered difficult to survive because it manifests very early, hence the Muggle stories of old crones taking infants from their homes. It was the only chance the child had. But that was long ago. And now we know very little about it."
Harry wanted to feel sorry. His presence seemed very likely the cause. But there was nothing to be done about it now, so the emotion slipped away, replaced by the pleasing realization that Snape was beholden to him now on an entirely new level.
"What did you do just now . . ." Snape asked, "to relieve him?"
"Neutralized the magic winding around him."
Snape nodded and, with his head bowed, took Arcadius back to the main hall.
When Candide returned, she stopped in the doorway to the main hall and said into the silence, "Oh, I like the sound of that." She stepped over with her cloak still on to give the baby a tummy rub. Arcadius gurgled happily up at her. "Seems like he is over it? Was it just gas?"
Snape looked up from his writing to say, "Harry has a special touch with him, it turns out."
Laughing, Candide said, "You should have a few of your own then, Harry."
Harry and Snape shared a look, and Harry returned to his reading.
* * *
"Here it is," Snape said, stepping up to Harry's bed. Harry, expecting him and wanting to keep better tabs on the house at night, had left his door open.
Harry took the small vial, held it up to the light to see the silvery swirls inside it, then put it in the drawer of his night stand.
Snape ran some protective detection spells, then clasped his hands before himself and said, "May I enquire as to your exact plans."
"You can ask," Harry said, ducking back to the grimoire he had out. It was a mildly dark one, but the notes in it were amusing, full of deadpan descriptions of the bad results of dubious experiments in magic.
"I can help you, Harry," Snape said.
"You brought me an untraceable potion. I've already read about it, in fact. You still have lots of good Potion books, even if you got rid of the good dark magic ones." When Snape continued to stand there off the corner of the bed, Harry sat back against his pile of pillows. He did not have the heart to send Snape off firmly, which Snape probably knew.
Intending to sound fully exasperated, Harry said, "I'm going into the Ministry dungeon. I'm going to ask Percy some questions. That's it."
Harry raised a brow. "You want me to tell you what questions, precisely? I don't know them and it doesn't matter."
Snape's voice gained in patience as Harry's grew less so. "It matters a great deal. You should have the questions prepared. In such an operation, you should be in and out in a matter of minutes. This is a very effective potion, but not long lasting. Nor should it need to be. Every second you are in enemy territory is exponentially increasing the risk of getting caught there."
"I can't be caught."
"That is a very unwise attitude."
Harry looked Snape up and down. He sat rigid again and crossed his legs by pulling on his ankles. He tapped a finger on his slippered foot a moment. "You are only persisting in this because you have absolute need of me."
"I am persisting because I want you back whole and well. That has always been the case." Snape took a deep breath and raised one brow as he stared off beyond Harry. "True though that I suddenly have more to lose." He looked squarely back at Harry. "But that also means you have no reason not to trust my advice. Especially in this, where I have far more experience."
"True," Harry conceded. "Given that experience, I take it you restocked your ingredient cabinet more fully than was needed for just this?"
"Of course. Quite thoroughly." After a pause, Snape asked, "When are you thinking of going on this mission?"
"I was thinking tonight."
"You need an alibi."
"I have you."
Snape shook his head. "I am not a good alibi, Harry. Arthur frequently points out that he does not trust me."
"Clever of him to let you know that," Harry commented, sitting back against his pillows again. He thought a bit. "I'm going out with some people tomorrow night. I could slip away from there, if you really think I can do this in four minutes."
"One minute for the potion to work. Three to get answers to your questions. That's quite a bit more time than you realize. If you would like to practice on me, I am quite willing."
Harry pointed at his night stand. "Give you a bit of the potion?" he cruelly teased.
"I'd much rather not. And there is only one dose."
Frowning, Harry said, "Clever of you."
Snape bowed slightly. "It has a very short shelf life."
"Lucky of you," Harry said.
"Luck has absolutely nothing to do with it," Snape muttered, loud enough to be heard. "If that is all, I'm going to join Candide, who has probably been asleep for hours already."
"Good night, Severus," Harry said, mostly to catch Snape by surprise.
It did catch him. Snape spun at the door to Harry's room and stared back, seeming to expect something serious to follow. He composed himself and said, "Good night, Harry."