Harry pushed his shoulders back under his Invisibility Cloak and clasped his hands behind him, unconsciously mimicking the pose of Vineet standing against the opposite wall. The restaurant was just filling up, and Vineet's deep brown eyes scanned the new arrivals. He wore a short black jacket and white shirt like the waiters. One of them, empty tray clasped under his arm, stopped to ask Vineet something.
Harry read Vineet's lips as he gave the predetermined excuse. "The owner said for my first day of training, I should stand here and observe."
The waiter gave a shrug and whisked off through the swinging kitchen door. Harry sensed another magical person had entered the room, and he began to circulate between the white-draped tables, careful to stay out of the way.
Harry stopped beside a table near the door. The woman sitting at it had silver nails and glistening stranded hair piled high on her head. She picked at her nails and adjusted the oddly long sequined hand bag on her lap. Harry reached into his pocket and, careful to keep the edge of his cloak completely around his hand, put a few drops of Glaze Eye potion into her water goblet, which already had lipstick marks on it.
Back in his former position along the wall, Harry noticed the window in the outside door flashing as someone pulled it open. Ginny paused in the doorway, glancing up and down the street before stepping inside. She insisted on a table in the middle of the room and Harry smiled at his plans playing out.
Ginny gave Vineet a glance as she straightened her white napkin over her lap, then her eyes traced around the other patrons as if counting how many there were. She started to unzip her jacket, then instead pulled it up tighter to her chin. From where he stood, Harry could see her draw in a deep breath. She took out her notepad and played with her Muggle biro while she waited, giving it curious study.
The Minister of Magic sidled in shortly after, trailed by one of her male assistants. Ginny had to stand up and wave at her as she stood beside the maître d', scanning the room.
"Ms. Weasley, is it not?" The Minister greeted Ginny after her assistant leaned close to murmur in her ear. Her assistant elbowed away the waiter who tried to help with the Minister's chair. Unaware, the Minister went on, "I almost sent my regards instead as things are quite hectic, what with all the recent arrests, but I decided I was in need of a evening away from all things magically ministerial, and a fine Muggle establishment does tend to fit that bill."
Ginny nodded mutely.
The Minister went on, "I remain pleased with the changes at the paper . . . you can quote me on that if you like. Ghastly thing before. Not even fit to line an owl cage."
Madame Zacundo came in with Skeeter twenty minutes late, long after Harry's feet were complaining. She spoke grandly and gestured with wide sleeves patterned in curved geometric shapes.
The Minister of Magic's face, despite a few Aperitifs, hardened at the sight of Rita Skeeter before shifting to a patented smile.
Zacundo gave dainty handshakes all around and waved a hand to introduce Skeeter. "This is my dearest niece, whom you may know. She is a bit of a household name." With her broad arm movements, Zacundo occupied half of the round table. "What a interesting set of dinner companions we have my dear. Always so pleased to entertain the Minister." She turned to Ginny, "And also always quite pleased to help an up and comer." Zacundo looked Ginny up and down with narrowed eyes. Harry recognized that look, the one of sizing up a potential underling. Under his cloak, Harry snorted.
Before Zacundo could fully raise her hand to summon the waiter, two of them slipped in and bent close, attending. "Wine and bubbling water, my dears!" she said, laughing, which spread her generous cheeks out even wider.
Ginny grinned as well, appearing stunned by the woman's mood. She pushed her notebook around on the table, but remained silent.
Zacundo raised her wine glass toward Skeeter and then the Minister. "Isn't it a lovely day?"
Skeeter, befuddled, was slow to react so Zacundo was already taking a healthy swig by the time Skeeter had her glass in the air. "You seem in a fine mood today, Aunt Margie." She turned in Ginny's direction with a distant focus.
"I am my dear. I have a great deal to celebrate today." She finished off her glass and held it up to signal a passing waiter. "I never thought I'd be saying this, but here's to Harry Potter!"
Ginny fell still and glanced around at the nearest tables distractedly. Harry assumed she was looking for help. He stepped forward a few tables to stand close beside a chair holding an old man bent over his fancy, platter-sized soup bowl.
Madame Bones raised her glass. "I'll toast to those silly enough to tangle with Mr. Potter. May our remaining enemies be as unwise."
Zacundo held her glass up for a refill and gestured for Ginny to join the toasting. Zacundo raised her full glass above her head and said "You win some, you lose some. But as long as your enemies lose more, all is right with the world." She tossed the glass back.
"I'll drink to that," Ginny agreed quietly.
"Is that a notebook you have out there?" the minister asked Ginny.
"Yes, Madame Minister, I was going to ask Madame Zacundo a few questions for a little article."
Bones waved her hand as if to ward off Ginny. "No questions for me, please. I am off the clock."
"Of course, Minister. It's just for the Home Fashion Section anyway."
"The what section?" Skeeter blurted, choking on a sip.
Ginny colored and managed to say, "It's only . . . going to be a monthly feature."
Skeeter drank down the rest of her wine. "Better make it bi-annual given the dearth of material."
Zacundo put down her glass and stretched her hands out before her. "Well, let's get this interview out of the way so that we might enjoy a lovely meal in peace."
"Of course," Ginny said, sounding relieved. She pawed through her notebook and replaced it before her and leaned over it, shoulders hunched.
"You still consider yourself on the leading edge of Witch home fashion, I assume?" When Zacundo responded with a smile, Ginny went on. "I looked through our file, and I didn't see the usual clippings from the society half-column about you hosting any parties. That doesn't match, really. Or do you show off your decorating mostly at your house in Cádiz?"
Zacundo put her glass down and said, "It's true that I've led a much quieter life of late."
"Ah," Ginny said, writing that down. She puzzled over the page of notes and muttered, "What to ask next?"
Skeeter's fingernails began tapping. She clasped her hands together, fingertips waving.
The waiter came for their orders. When he was gone, Ginny said, "In the last article about you, which I think Ms. Skeeter wrote, it said you had, I believe it said, 'the financial wherewithal to pursue the pleasures of the finer things in life.' How did you come into money?"
Ginny waited with her pen poised while a waiter took away their clean utensils and gave them new ones in slightly different shapes.
Zacundo's smile faded a little more. "I was lucky."
"You had a divorce, right?" Ginny went on, sounding just naïve enough, Harry thought. "Your husband was wealthy, then?"
"My husband was a rat. But don't write that down, my dear." She enforced this by placing her hand around Ginny's wrist.
"All men are rats," Skeeter offered in a playful tone while tearing apart a chunk of bread with her red tipped fingers.
The Minister made face at her assistant.
Ginny wrote something down. "People . . . um, readers . . . are always interested in how others came into money. I'd like to include that in the story."
The salads arrived and Harry stepped back to his more defensive position. Ginny tugged down the zipper on her jacket, revealing a glittering amethyst necklace.
Zacundo was saying, "Yes, well you'll have to just put down that I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time."
"You're a gambler then?" Ginny asked.
"Merlin, no, I never take chances."
"Wise woman," Minister Bones opined.
They toasted to this as well, and a waiter swooped in to ask if they needed a second bottle. "Yes, my dear . . ." Bones glanced at his name tag. "William. Yes, another of the same."
Zacundo's eyes came back around to Ginny and she started. "That's rather a remarkable necklace you have there."
Ginny lifted her hand as if forgetting she had it on. "Oh, this? Oh, yeah, a friend gave it to me as a present."
Zacundo stared at the necklace, which was composed of long spindly purple crystals with a longer branched one in the center, hanging like half an exploding star.
"Which friend was that?" Zacundo asked, sounding somewhat short on breath.
Harry adjusted the grip on his wand, tensing and looking for an opening where he could slip out from under his cloak, unobserved.
"Oh, um, Harry gave it to me."
Zacundo's voice went up half and octave. "Harry Potter?"
Ginny smiled distractedly. "Yeah." She leaned close to her notebook and tapped her pen down the page.
Zacundo tossed her napkin on her plate, glanced around the restaurant, picking out the three people Harry had already identified and dealt with. They all still appeared normal. She picked up her napkin again and draped it back on her lap.
"Something the matter, Aunt Margie?" Skeeter asked.
"Where is that wine?" She sat tall and affronted while she looked around more.
"Here it is," Skeeter said. "I'll have a full glass this time . . . William."
Harry tugged the cloak off in one motion and stuffed it in the back of his belt. The nearest diner glanced up at him in surprise, but then went back to eating as though nothing had happened. Muggles, Harry thought while striding over to face Zacundo.
"Potter," Skeeter said, shaking her head when she recognized him. "Should have known you'd be skulking about."
"You'd know that because you always are," Harry pointed out pleasantly. "Madame," Harry said, with a nod to Zacundo, then a similar one to the Minister.
"Mr. Potter!" the Minister graciously said. "Do please join us."
"I'm afraid I don't have time," Harry explained with another bow.
"What a shame," Skeeter said.
"Are you doing an interview, Ginny?" Harry asked his friend.
"I'm trying an easy interview for practice," Ginny quipped like the cheery underling.
"Better try another hundred before getting serious, in that case," Skeeter mumbled.
"Why, Ms. Skeeter, you think you know better?" Harry said. He could feel his face glowing with anticipation and tried to bank it down. "You always act as if you know better than everyone else. How would you conduct this interview, then?"
"I'd have my questions ready," Skeeter said, propping her elbow on the table and glaring at Ginny.
"I think she is doing just fine," Bones said between bites of salad.
"Well, I have a few questions," Harry said. "Why don't we try those? Although Ginny already asked the most important one: where did all the money come from?" Harry turned to Skeeter. "Have you asked your aunt that one?"
Skeeter's eyes dodged away.
"What . . . you didn't get an answer either?" Harry mocked. "Interesting. Perhaps it's because Madame does not wish anyone to know about the blackmail, or the racketeering . . . the smuggling."
"Good Merlin, Potter!" Skeeter said, tossing her utensils aside. "What are you on about?"
Bones put her salad fork down beside her plate, lettuce still bunched up on the tines.
"Getting all this down, Ginny?" Harry asked.
"This is absurd!" Skeeter said, standing now.
A waiter came over to ask in a comically quiet voice if everything was all right.
"It's lovely," Harry said with a glare. "Couldn't be better."
The man slunk off.
"Let me guess," Harry went on. "Money must have been getting tight. Kidnapping an Auror's apprentice was a rather cheeky thing to do, but shaking down a rich family was hard to resist wasn't it?"
"She did what to Aaron!" Ginny burst out, then bit her lips. She dropped her arm off the table and shook her hand as though she were dropping her wand out of her sleeve.
Across from her, Bones made a similar motion but aborted it, then elbowed her assistant, who sat dumbfounded.
Bones leaned toward Harry and whispered, "Mr. Potter, do you know what you are doing?"
"Has she denied any of it?" Harry innocently asked.
"Aunt Margie, let's go." Skeeter pushed her chair back and stood up.
Harry gestured at the woman across from him. "Come now, all she has to do is deny it."
Skeeter stamped her foot. "She doesn't have to dignify such filthy accusations with any kind of answer."
Harry stared straight at Skeeter and said, "The filth is entirely on her side. Getting all this down, Ginny?"
Ginny slipped her wand under her napkin beside her plate and began scratching furiously with her biro. Zacundo picked up her butter knife and hit her bread plate with it, twice.
Harry waited just a beat. "They aren't going to respond," he offered helpfully. "And if you are celebrating . . . me . . . you must not have been in your vault lately."
Zacundo looked away from Harry to stare at the witch near the door, whom Harry knew must be staring at nothing in particular while nibbling bread, just as she had been doing when he last checked on her.
"Your guards are incapacitated, Madame," Harry said with a little bow, and a smirk. "Just like Percy."
Zacundo backed up her chair and stood, and with a bang! fell to the floor.
Conversations at the nearby tables stuttered to a halt and the other diners turned their way. Skeeter bent to help her aunt up. "What happened?" Skeeter whispered harshly. "What are you doing, Aunt Margie? In front of the Minister, no less!"
After the waiters had been shooed away, except Vineet, who stood behind Ginny, Harry quietly said, "Apparition in knowing plain view of a crowd of Muggles. Tsk. Tsk. But really a minor crime, considering."
This time Bones pulled her wand all the way from her sleeve and held it in her lap. Skeeter stared at Harry while still holding Zacundo's arm. The first doubts were flashing across her thoughts. Harry smiled.
"Yes," Harry soothingly said to Skeeter, "You are such an excellent investigative reporter, such an unequaled judge of people, that you did not realize your own aunt was Ma Dame, one of the Ministry's most wanted crime bosses. Stunning work, Ms. Skeeter."
Bones sat straight and stared at Harry.
Harry crisply asked, "Getting this down, Ginny?"
Ginny pointed at Zacundo with her pen while the woman pawed around in her large handbag with both hands. "What's she doing?"
Harry calmly replied, "I expect she is going to use her emergency Portkey, again in the middle of a crowd of Muggles. We'll take that as an admission of guilt, I believe."
Madame Zacundo jerked her arm free of Skeeter's grip, ducked partly under the tablecloth, and vanished.
Nearby diners stared at Zacundo's empty chair, as did Skeeter, who waved an arm helplessly before noticing the room full of attention and moving to fluff her curls. Bones stomped around the table to glance under it, then gave Skeeter an eyeful. Despite her lesser height, Skeeter leaned away.
Vineet stepped up beside Harry. "I called for Reversal to come."
"She got away?" Ginny snarled. "After what she did to Aaron, she got away?"
"She won't get far. Tonks is manning Transportation to make sure the illicit Portkey is detected properly."
Harry started to turn, then came back and put a finger on Ginny's notebook. "Oh, don't forget to mention that Skeeter's uncle is The Boss, the head of Durumulna." Harry raised his pleasant gaze to Skeeter. "Lovely family. Perhaps next time you decide someone's needs moralizing, you start with your own family first. Saves so much embarrassment."
Reversal swarmed through the doors on all sides and the Muggles were falling into a mass trance. Forks fell from fingers, a water goblet crashed and dribbled.
Ginny stood up and faced Skeeter, notepad out. "You have a statement for the press, Ms. Skeeter? Our readers would love to know what you think of all this. I'm sure the Minister has one, too."
Harry laughed aloud. Skeeter stalked off, weaving through the wizards and witches moving through the room with bored efficiency.
- 888 -
"Another success, Harry," Candide said, putting the newspaper down beside Harry's plate.
"I suppose," Harry said, poking at his scramble with his fire lined fork which reflected the candles flickering on the table to combat the cloudy morning. He had been half hoping Ma Dame would slip away from the Aurors, had set it up that way to give her a chance, he had to admit.
Snape raised his gaze, but said nothing. Candide filled in well enough. "You don't think? You are too hard to please, Harry."
After a gap, Snape asked, "Was that a Ministry owl I saw this morning?"
"It was," Harry said, then declined to offer up any more.
"Are you going back this week?"
"It wasn't about that," Harry said, putting down his fork.
Snape buttered his toast before asking, "What was it about?"
"Minister Bones wants to give me another medal." Harry grinned then and nibbled on a bacon strip.
A glance went between Candide and Snape.
"What?" Harry demanded.
"You haven't been eating well," Candide said, beating out Snape who had also started to speak. "I asked Winky to make your favorite this morning."
Harry ignored this. "I need to get in some dueling practice if I'm to go back."
"We can go up to Hogwarts this afternoon, if you wish."
"Do we get an audience?" Harry asked.
"Only if you wish for one."
Harry picked at his eggs again. He did not know what he wanted. He felt unmoored, adrift on others' currents, and he did not like it. A hollow yearning chewed away at his core. He needed a purpose. He needed an enemy. He needed more shadows; the singular one floating in and out of his thoughts taunted him more than fed him.
Candide stood to go to Arcadius, who began fussing from the next room. Harry decided his cold rubbery eggs were not going to make him feel whole, so he pushed his plate away.
"You're really wanting to duel?" Harry asked.
Snape crossed his arms and sat back. "I thought we would do your usual drills. Not so much duel." His voice dropped. "You are far safer inside the Ministry than out."
"Yeah, look how long Percy survived and he's an idiot."
"Case in point. He also demonstrates the power of having a sponsor in high places."
Candide returned, rocking Arcadius, who tugged on her hair. She leaned her face down right up to the baby's and said, "At least daddy has the same problem with that." She freed herself and hitched him up on her arm. To Snape she said, "We have an appointment tomorrow for his four week visit if you wanted to go along?"
Snape nodded, offering Arcadius a finger to clutch instead.
Harry's mind had gone blank watching this exchange. He sat straight. "I'll owl Ginny for some drill practice."
"I do not mind doing it, although you may be of help to Ms. Weasley as well."
Harry rubbed his forehead; he had lost complete track of his previous thoughts. "I'll go owl her now."
- 888 -
"Ouch! What was that? It came right through my Counter," Ginny complained, rubbing her shoulder.
Ron gave a sloppy grin and said, "That's my Troll Prod. I made it up by adding an extra two circles to the Slothful Spur gesture."
Ginny shook out her arm, wincing. "That was a Troll Control spell? Do I look like a troll?"
Ron explained, "I only need to use it when I catch them playing stone dominoes in one of the abandoned corridors. When there is a whole group of them, they like to ignore me."
"Do I look like a game playing troll to you?"
Harry stepped through the brush surrounding the Burrow, interrupting their regression to childhood behavior.
"Hey, Harry," Ginny said, turning his way.
Ron's next shot went undeflected, and she jerked as it hit, then held her wand arm up to aim at him. "So, help me, Ron. I'm going to blast you into pieces too small to be owl treats."
Ron glanced behind himself at the bedraggled orchard, as though someone behind him may have cast that last attack.
To Harry, Ginny said, "He's been a total git since my article about Ma Dame hit the stands. It irks him that everyone's been talking about it."
Ron sauntered closer, rolling his eyes.
"It was a good article," Harry said.
"It was a fun dinner. Can we do it again sometime?"
"Certainly," Harry said. "After you're an Auror."
She tilted her head far to the side. "Oh, that's likely. After that article, Beatrice wants to apprentice me to someone at the Prophet. I'm a bit tempted to take her up on it."
Ron asked with extra innocence, "She thinks you have potential, instead of just the right connections?"
Ginny waved down the lawn. "Go stand over there Ron, so I can cast some regulated stuff at you."
Harry said, "Both of you stand down there. I'll go against you two together."
"All right!" Ron said, loping off.
Harry called for them to start off on attack, and found that his blocks were rustier than expected, and his instincts for Squelching a bit too strong. He let the pain of his bleeding blocks berate him into better spell form and crisper movements, the way Rodgers' attacks would be punishing him if he was this sloppy at the Ministry.
When Ginny suggested switching to defense, Harry insisted they continue on for more than an hour, attack after attack, until he began to feel that automatic habit reluctantly returning to his wand hand, the one that made it twitch and whirl with precision before the attack even finished.
Ginny waved for them to stop. "Wow, Harry." She rubbed her wand wrist and stepped forward. "That was a lot of spells."
"That's not even a full session at training," Harry replied, then shivered with the after effects of so many spells striking his flesh, the discomfort felt queerly pleasant. "I'm out of practice."
"You don't look out of practice," Ron complained. "I didn't score with anything I tossed at you."
"Drills aren't about scoring, Ron," Ginny snipped. To Harry she said, "Sorry, I have to go. The late evening edition moves to final copy in less than an hour."
After she Disapparated, Ron said, "How about a pub, then?"
Harry nodded and a moment later they were sliding into seats in the corner of the Leaky Cauldron. The other patrons quieted and turned to watch them settle in. Ron straightened and combed his hair with his fingers.
"Should I get us a round, then?" Ron asked.
While he waited, Harry studied each of the patrons studying him. Most looked away. He noted the faces of which ones did not.
"You don't like your sister becoming important?" Harry prodded when he and Ron had drinks.
Ron shrugged and dipped his head to take a gulp without lifting his mug, eyes distant.
Harry went on, "It'd matter less to you if you were someone important."
Ron grinned crookedly. "I'm out for drinks with Harry 'Never Stops Fighting Evil' Potter, that's pretty important. Everyone's only taking about Ginny because she wrote about you."
"Exactly," Harry said with a sweet smile.
Ron treated this as a joke and struck Harry on the arm.
Harry waited through more inane conversation before trying again. "You could be even more important to me, Ron."
Ron chewed his lip between sips of beer and did not reply. Harry decided that Ron had not actually heard, he said, "You aren't still jealous of me, are you?"
"What? No. Not really."
"That's good," Harry said, a silkiness entering his voice as it dropped lower. "Because there is no reason to be. Or how about, if you were, it would just show how much more you could become."
This also went by Ron's attention without eliciting a reaction that Harry could use to lead him along.
Ron spun his mug between his palms. His voice dropped lower as he nervously asked, "Ever wonder what Dumbledore would think of things now?"
Ron gave a twitching sideways shrug. "You know. Wonder what he'd think. Don't you ever want to talk to him?"
Harry stared at his friend, trying to read his eyes. He had thought to lead Ron on, not the other way around. Ron's comments prodded at Harry's conscience regarding the consequences of actually going and talking to Dumbledore in that other place. Although, usually now, he thought they deserved to have their unappreciated peace shattered; it only seemed fair.
"Don't you?" Ron asked. He met Harry's eyes with ones brimming with appeal, then looked away again, back down at his foam-ringed mug.
"What are you on about, Ron?" Harry asked, feeling irked now by not being able to suss out his usually guileless companion.
"I'm just asking," Ron said. "Curious, you know."
"Look at me, Ron," Harry commanded, surprising himself with the way his voice rumbled in a growl.
Ron looked up with eyes wide and innocent, then looked away again. It was too quick to catch anything. Harry's mind turned things over. Ron was too unsophisticated to come up with this on his own, so who was prompting him? Ginny would have given something away while they were drilling, so it was not her.
"So, how is Hermione?" Harry asked casually.
Ron raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Still thinks that married bloke is just scrummy."
Harry was considering that Mr. Weasley could be behind Ron's question when Ron frowned and began scrubbing at the condensation haze on his mug with his thumbs. Hermione was the most dangerous person Harry knew and he wondered what she was plotting.
"I've thought about Dumbledore," Harry said, drawing out his words.
"Have you?" Ron asked, brightening. He fell sober and leaned toward Harry. "You could talk to him, you know."
"Could I?" Visions of Dumbledore crushed beneath the beams of the ruined tower roof passed before Harry's eyes.
"Yeah, his painting."
Harry sat back. "Oh, that."
"What do you mean, 'oh that'? It's him, still."
"Not really." Harry downed half of his remaining beer.
"It's close," Ron argued, then made a leaking noise through his teeth like Harry was being daft.
Harry battered down a burst of pique at this slight, wanting to draw more information out of Ron. He led him on with: "I wonder how I'd convince McGonagall to let me have a go at Dumbledore's painting."
Ron, clearly relieved, said, "Oh, we've taken care of that." Then his face scrunched up at his error.
Harry snorted lightly and pushed up from the table. "I've got things to do. Let me know when your loyalties are straightened out."
Just before Harry Disapparated, he caught Ron's thoughts, full of dread at Hermione's expected disgust with Ron's performance.
- 888 -
Harry's pacing drew Snape to the doorway of the drawing room. "I would not have expected drills with Ms. Weasley to put you into such a state," Snape said.
Harry stopped in the middle of the floor. Inside him anger vibrated in minor keys that made it hard to think. "My friends are up to something. They want me to talk to Dumbledore's painting." Harry glared hard at Snape as he said this. Snape's chin came up just an iota. "News to you? I hope," Harry challenged.
"It is," Snape said. Then after a beat, he added dismissively, "Certainly you do not fear his painting."
"I don't care about a stupid painting. I don't like my friends plotting things behind my back. I thought Ron was different. I was counting on it." Harry cocked his head, listening to the silence. "Where is Candide?"
"At her brother's," Snape said. "'Playdate', I believe was the term used. There is a letter for you from Mr. Weasley on the sideboard, by the way."
Without even shuffling his feet, Harry waved the letter from the dining room. It crinkled plaintively as it smacked into his hand. He tore it open, and read it in a glance. "He wants to know what day to expect me." Harry balled up the letter and ignited it, not for any good reason other than to watch it curl into ash the color of the Dark Plane and drift to the floor and scatter. "I need more drilling practice," Harry said. "Maybe next week I'll go back. I'm not ready yet."
"We may drill some right now, if you like," Snape offered. When Harry did not reply, Snape waved the furniture into a teetering pile in the corner and stepped to the adjoining corner of the room.
Harry stepped to the other corner and raised his wand. Inside him, something thrilled at this so strongly, his breath caught in his throat. Nasty spells prickled his fingertips where they touched his wand, bucking to get loose, a score yearning to be neatly settled. Harry's wand hand slowly and dazedly lowered to his side. The alienness of those violent plots and emotions jarred him for their sheer clarity.
"What sequence would you like to do?" Snape asked with endless calm, either wholly unaware or audaciously fearless.
Harry blinked at him and swallowed. "I need to practice my Counters," he said, voice barely above a whisper, trancelike.
"No sequence then," Snape said before casting a Leglocker Curse.
Harry vacillated between Squelching it and blocking it, and the spell's remains shattered around him, sparking off the walls.
"You need to ignore your instincts, Harry," Snape gently said, while shaking out his wand arm. "Again, until you get it properly."
Snape's tone of constructive discipline slipped Harry—who recoiled from that clarity of moments before—into a numb envelope of acceptance. He raised his wand straight up before his nose like a dueler and waited for the next spell, thinking of nothing else.
- 888 -
"Can't leave you two alone," Candide said as she surveyed the main hall. She put down her brimming bags and patted a fussing Arcadius on the back with both hands.
Snape came over to help her free the baby from pack slung across her front and held him up for inspection. Freed from the confining carrier, his small limbs drew tight into knobs.
"He's been fussy since his nap at my brother's. Maybe gas."
Snape propped the curl of baby against his shoulder and walked with him, circling once under the high windows then back around to Harry. Gaze intent, he stopped before him.
"I cannot tell what is the matter with him," Snape said, speaking to Harry.
From across the room Candide replied, "There is always the Neonatist from last week if he keeps it up."
Snape shifted his arms to hold Arcadius out, curled limbs upward. "Harry has a knack with him," Snape said, invited really.
Harry accepted the noisy infant without hesitation. He adjusted the surprisingly rigid bundle into the crook of his arm and looked down at his gum-lined half moon mouth. The magical bindings were corded and netted this time, much worse, but Arcadius was stronger now, drawing in air with determination. Harry parted the bindings with one hand, and the hardness of Arcadius' limbs released. He smacked his gums during a last half hearted wail and fell to gurgling pleasantly.
Harry did not want to hand him back to Snape's waiting arms, so he walked away with him.
"Harry," Candide exclaimed brightly from where she unloaded sacks of toys. "You do have a knack."
Harry walked around the couches, cradling the warm, soft infant over his shoulder. Perhaps it was the peacefulness of the baby's cooing, or the mesmerizing hum of his strange magic, but Harry resisted letting go of him. Past and future collided and meshed in him: a past Harry could not escape and a future he ached to rewrite, even though it had not yet been written. He walked slowly around the room, circling by the hearth, where the damper thudded in a burst of wind.
When Harry turned he saw the questioning look Candide sent at Snape. Perhaps to be cruel to Snape, perhaps to set things right, Harry said, "He's fine now."
After a pause, Candide asked smartly, "What was wrong with him?"
"Arcadius is burdened with Old Magic," Snape said.
"Burdened?" Candide said, striding over to pet Arcadius' back while Harry held him.
When Harry remained silent, Snape said, "His magic tangles around him periodically, stifling him. Harry is able to free him from it, temporarily at least."
Harry handed the baby over, unable to bear Candide's alarm. She walked in a small circle, patting the infant rapidly despite his good humor.
"I don't understand," Candide said, voice strained, still circling.
Snape stepped over beside Harry and fell into lecturing, albeit tiredly. "Old Magic manifests immediately, so it is more likely to be detrimental given they have no discipline to accompany their powers. Unlike say, the protective or repelling magic that young children sporadically exhibit, this is always flowing, always active."
Candide shifted the baby in her arms so he faced forward toward the group. He gurgled and blew a spit bubble. A stout candle standing on the mantlepiece fluttered to life, and Arcadius reached toward it and gave a happy squeal.
"The candles," Candide stated breathlessly.
"Yes," Snape agreed.
"I suspected. Often it is Winky lighting them, although rarely in the middle of the day."
Candide turned Arcadius in her arms to hold him up in front of her, feet kicking. "We don't need a baby starting fires," she said with alarm.
"He can only light ones that have already been lit," Harry said. When Snape turned his head with interest, Harry waved at the unused candles in the holders on the first floor. "He never lights those."
Candide clutched Arcadius close again. "Were you ever going to say something?" she demanded of Snape.
"When I had a better understanding, yes. I did not wish to distress you with half-formed suppositions."
She did not seem mollified, so Harry took a few steps away to leave them to work it out. Snape said to her in an awkwardly kind tone, "I was wondering what you wished to do for your birthday next week?"
Harry waited to see how that went over.
"I don't care about birthdays, Severus," came the icy reply.
Harry shot him a commiserating look and stepped away, heading for his room.
"I cannot explain something that I do not understand myself," Snape stated. "It has only happened once before, I was not even certain it would repeat."
Harry's door clicked closed upstairs and Snape dropped his voice. "Harry believes he is at fault for Arcadius' magic, I am certain."
Candide spun toward him. "Is he?"
"I don't know. It is so poorly understood, especially now that it is rare. All we have are stories to go by. Hedgewitches taking Muggleborns to save them from their own magic. Ancient sorcerers offering rich rewards to apprentice the strongest magic of this sort."
She dropped her voice lower, "But it's like Harry's magic, right? And it's rare . . ."
"Yes to both. But whether it is random, whether it is linked to my past magical experimentation, or whether it is linked to you living here with Harry through your pregnancy, it matters not. What's done is done. Harry has shown only easy willingness toward helping him. If you ever have any doubt about Arcadius' state, give him over to Harry."
Candide snuffed out the candle and while it smoldered, held Arcadius up facing it, bouncing him. "Harry does seem attached to him."
"Harry cannot help but be."
They both watched Arcadius reaching toward the candle, but it did not light.
"Figures he would only do it when you were not waiting for him to." She hitched him into her arms and carried him to the couch. "When are you returning to Hogwarts?" she asked after settling back with a tired sigh.
Snape followed her over and stood before her. "Not in the foreseeable future. I warned Minerva that I would be home indefinitely. She thinks me utterly smitten with fatherhood, which I will have to suffer."
She aimed Arcadius in his direction and raised him up before him. The baby gave a dual-legged kicking squeal. "You aren't?"
Snape tried for a glare, but fell far short.
- 888 -
"I'm off for the day," Harry said from the doorway of the drawing room later in the week. The household's new sense of congeniality was the only reason he was informing Snape at all.
"May I ask whither?"
"I'm bored and I'm going to find someone better to practice drills with."
After a pause, Snape asked, "How far are you going?"
"Your friends here are more than willing to help. Your Auror apprentice friends are more than willing to help. I sincerely doubt you could find a more fitting partner."
Harry bristled at this admonishment and scowled in return. He had woken that morning in the middle of a dream where shadows circled, brushing him seductively. The night before, he had resisted going and bedding Belinda yet again, and expected that had something to do with the dream. He rubbed his robed arms at the memory of their shadowy touch in the dream, like nothing he had actually felt from them. It made him yearn more to be closer to them, tapping their strength.
Looking for a drill partner was merely a convenient excuse, but he was not going to admit that aloud.
"I'll be back sometime later today."
Snape pointed at the floor before the flickering drawing room hearth. "Return here, if you would, so that I can assist you when you arrive."
Harry scowled deeper at needing help. "Maybe," he said.
Harry came to awareness in the field beside the Burrow, wallowing in the prickling pain of his flesh warming while he stared at the sky. The shadows surged and flashed, close by and more active than he had ever felt them. He closed his eyes and drank them in, taking in great gulps of air at the same time. A clear surge of knowledge interrupted his pleasure: Voldemort never sensed them this way, only as the faintest black ghosts haunting the edges of his vision. Now, he longed for their ready power as much as Harry did. Harry blinked at the streaked sky without seeing it, pinned down by a harmony of neediness.
The ground began to make his back ache, so Harry sat up, resisting the urge to summon the Death Eaters right then, to satiate his hunger. This time he took proper notice of the sky. Muggle airplane contrails streaked it in closely spaced bands, angling mostly west to east. Harry was uncertain what they signified, but he could not remember seeing quite this kind of sky before.
At the door, with only his eyes disguised, Mrs. Weasley greeted him in near panic.
"Harry! What ever possessed you to go out alone! Do your parents know you're here?"
She ushered him inside and forced him into a chair and wrapped his hands around a mug of hot cocoa.
Footsteps banged down the stairs and one of the twins ducked into the room, wand out. He saw Harry and put it away. "I heard voices." He sauntered over and added, "You've recovered well."
Harry nodded mutely, the safest thing to do.
The twin turned a chair backwards and sat straddling it, facing Harry. "What was taken? No one wanted to say. Ya got more cocoa, Mum? It's really surprising to see you, Harry. The other night, seemed like you were going to find a cupboard and lock yourself in it for the duration."
"Fred!" Mrs. Weasley snapped.
Fred spread his hands out before him. "I'm just sayin', Mum." He accepted a chipped mug filled to the brim and glanced back at the stairs. "Where's Ginny? You're here to check in with our Prophecy Girl, right?"
"I'm here to see how everyone is," Harry said, speaking slowly because his mind was moving too fast to do otherwise.
"Glad it's not you this time 'round?" Fred asked.
Harry tried to imagine how his spoiled self would respond to that. Would he be jealous or relieved?
"Harry?" Ginny said, coming down the rest of the stairs. She stopped across the table from him and studied his face before blushing fiercely.
Fred hit her on the back and said, "One of these years my sister will get over being shy."
Harry said, "When she loses the idiot brothers who always chose the worst thing to say at any given moment."
Ginny stuck her tongue out at Fred and sat down before her own steaming mug.
Fred leaned close to Ginny and whispered, "You think he's been given Hutzpotion? I'm amazed he's here."
"Harry?" Her eyes danced back and forth. "He . . . always recovers quickly, right?"
"See." She clasped her mug tight enough to whiten her knuckles. "Can Harry and I be alone to talk?" After the others departed with a nudge and two winks, Ginny said, "You choose the oddest times to visit."
"You think that only because you don't know my reasons for coming."
"You mentioned before that it had something to do with getting to see your parents, whom you never knew."
"It's more than that." Harry sipped the cocoa, which was better than any he could remember having.
A chorus of rumbles started and grew, rattling the cups in the cabinets just as passed by overhead and faded rapidly.
"Fighter jets," she whispered. "You don't know anything that's happening, do you?" She shoved a newspaper over to him off the seat beside her. The headline read, Finland, Sweden Determined to Remain Neutral Despite Continued Provocation.
"The Muggles are at war. There are rumors of Grindelwald's return. Countries are taking the strangest sides, settling old scores, and then switching sides again."
Her voice dropped lower, wavering. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, Harry." She sniffled and blinked shining eyes. "What in Merlin's Bloody Realm is Ginny Weasley supposed to do?"
"Someone attacked the Potter house?" At her nod, he added, "Who?"
"No one really knows for certain. Could have been Pretenders, as they are called. They were dressed like Death Eaters, but no one was killed so they wouldn't have put up a Dark Mark. They've been doing that elsewhere, though, closer to the fighting, in Eastern Europe. Killing the generals and prime ministers of our allies. Creating chaos right in front of everyone. Some try to go neutral after that. Understandably, I guess."
She then pleaded, "Why are they doing this? It doesn't benefit anybody."
"It benefits Grindelwald," Harry said. "He likes fighting, likes letting wizards do as they will and that can't happen if civilization is intact."
"Maybe there shouldn't be any wizards at all, in that case," she muttered into her mug before taking a swig. She peered at him over the rim. "You should be in your other disguise, not looking like him. It's confusing."
"I hear he is curled up in a dark cupboard," Harry quipped.
Ginny choked on mouthful of cocoa. "Probably," she said when she stopped laughing.
She drank in silence for a while. "What should I do?"
"When the time is right you'll know what to do," Harry said.
Her eyes fell closed. "Merlin I hope so."
"Would you like to do some drills?"
Her wretched expression took on a darkened aspect. "Yes. Yes, I would."
Author's Notes: I posted a new copy of Chapter 46 to make clearer the situation with the two Planes being the same (the Peaceful Plane and the Dumbledore/Grindelwald Plane). I was way too subtle with just one reference to Harry not getting cold.