Harry rubbed his tired eyes and wedged his shoulder into the corner between the train seat and the window. Beyond the scratched glass, the trees and rooftops of Shrewsthorpe stood black against the steel grey morning sky. Candide wedged the bassinet between the seat and the stacked trunks. Arcadius had not stirred even an inch throughout their hurried departure.
The train lurched with a clang and began rolling. They picked up speed and the town slid out of sight. Snape leaned back and watched Harry from the seat opposite.
"How are you feeling this morning?" he asked. Despite Harry ignoring him through their quick breakfast, he spoke with a gentle tone. "You don't appear to have slept well."
"It is quite early," Candide pointed out.
Harry stared out at the forest rushing past, reviewing his strange dream. Snape leaned forward and tilted his head. It was then that Harry noticed his reflection in the window looked straight at his guardian.
"You had a nightmare?" Snape asked, maintaining an amiable tone. "It's the first since you eradicated Voldemort, is it not?"
Harry nodded faintly, switching back and forth between peering at the looming forest and peering at Snape.
"Do you wish to discuss it?"
Harry glared at him disbelievingly.
Snape sat back and calmly said, "If you change your mind, let me know."
Candide took a deep breath and glanced between them. She bent down for a magazine that had been stuffed down beside the sleeping baby and sat back with it, sighing, "It's going to be a long train ride."
In the Ministry Atrium a stage was being assembled. Rodgers came out to meet them at the reception desk and said, "The London Regionals are tomorrow," in answer to their curious glances at the bunting.
"Entering again, are you?" Snape asked with a touch of a sneer.
"No, are you?"
"Had enough, eh?"
"And you haven't?"
They looked away from each other and Rodgers gestured for Harry to follow him. "Are you all coming along? I did expect to speak with Harry, only."
"We'll go up to do some shopping on Diagon Alley," Candide said.
"Will we?" Snape asked.
"Or Knockturn, for Severus, of course," Candide said.
"I see you didn't marry a fool," Rodgers said to Snape. "I'll be finished with Harry in an hour or so."
Despite the other apprentices lunching with Harry just two days before, they greeted him as if they had not seen him in a year, which bolstered him nicely for facing their trainer.
"Down here, Potter, whenever your fan club is finished with you. They have one more round of drills before they can go home." He closed the training room door and led the way to the break room. Tonks slid in behind them and, with a businesslike manner, set out a blank parchment and quill atop a stack of files.
"First off," Rodgers said, "Before we get into the official things, I need to know what is going on between you."
"Nothing," Tonks replied easily. "We're good."
Harry was greatly relieved to hear her easy tone. He nodded in agreement.
"Really?" Rodgers asked, glancing back and forth between them, hands on hips as if this were an interrogation. "It is so not typical of either of you to make my life easier." He waited, as if to verify that they would not change their minds. "Well, that's something. Probably won't stop Harry the Hero from charging off after you, I'm betting, but I'll take it. Let's get down to business."
Rodgers bent to page through a stack of random notes. Harry reached under the table to squeeze Tonks' hand then let it go again. She glanced up in surprise and gave him a scrunched smile that made her eyebrows go shaggy for a second.
On the second time through his pile, Rodgers pulled out one exceptionally messy note, and turned it sideways, then upside down. Behind him, the coin tin on the snack cart hovered and rattled. Without looking, he reached behind him to smack it back down and held it there until it quieted. Taking up a quill, he began to crowd the parchment with even more notes.
Rodgers said, "I'm informed by a reliable source that we previously had not just you, Harry James Potter, but Lord Voldemort as well, resident in our Apprenticeship program."
Harry looked down at his interlocked hands and nodded. He forced himself to look up again.
Tonks said, "Harry's had something of Voldemort since the attack when he was a child."
"So, I've learned as well. That's reassuring." He paged forward again and pulled out a torn sheet of newspaper and held it up for examination. "I learned more about you in the last week than I did having you here in training for a year and a half. I find that alarming."
Harry gestured for a quill and parchment and because he dearly wanted to get in a poke at his trainer, sweated out writing IM no longr ploting UR death.
Rodgers tapped his fist to his lips and said, "Holy Merlin. How long it took you to write that is actually worse than the contents of the note." He continued to rap himself on the mustache with his knuckles while he stared at Harry. "Arthur tells me we're getting you back. Well."
"His magic is fine," Tonks said.
"He's injured," Tonks pointed out.
"I know that. That's not in question. We have a new class starting in a few months, probably taking in another new apprentice, two if we can find that many. If we make Harry repeat second year, we might make it without too much disruption."
Harry nodded, accepting that.
"That's all right with you? Well, that's the worst I can threaten you with given that I can't kick you out."
Harry was relieved, actually. He could catch up for certain in that case.
"I was hoping to find out in detail what you've been up to, but I see that's not going to happen. Any time before my retirement." He slid Harry's note back to him, dropped his quill and sat with his arms crossed high, which made his chest appear far broader. "Maybe I'll just cut to the chase in that case. Should I be arresting you right now for anything you were doing?"
Harry thought about that, eyes glancing around the room as he unwound his memories.
"He was mostly harassing Durumulna, remember?" Tonks said.
Harry wished she would stay silent, he could hear the guilt in her voice and expected that Rodgers would hear it eventually too. Mostly to distract his trainer, Harry pulled the note close and rubbed out his previous message. He wrote negel then stopped, stymied by the word. He was thinking of the time he intended to allow Tridant to die, rather than getting him help. Another near miss he was grateful did not go as badly as it could have. The room started to feel closed in.
"Negligence?" Rodgers guessed. At Harry's nod, he said, "We could all be in for that. Anything else?"
Harry wondered if Rodgers would feel as sanguine if Harry could manage to add homicide after negel. He thought some more. Placing curses on people, even lightning bolt shaped ones, was not technically illegal. Not that he was aware of. Not if the person knew about it. He had failed to inform the Ministry that he knew where McCurdy, the kidnap victim was, but McCurdy had not wanted anyone to know.
Harry had tried to coerce Ursie, had used dark magic to torment him. What would the charges be for that? Harry could think of about seven without much effort. Taking a deep breath, determined not to have an attack, Harry concentrated hard and wrote mis hand prizner.
Rodgers turned the note to better read the crooked writing. "Someone from Durumulna?" At Harry's nod, he asked, "You're looking for a medal?"
"Reggie," Tonks said.
Rodgers pushed the note back to Harry and hooked his arm on a nearby empty chair. "It wasn't him anyway. Perfect Potter here would never do that. I'd be more worried that he'd decide the bloke he was bringing in wasn't exactly a Grindelwald-level threat and would stop to get him a pint on the way to the dungeon. That's what I'd be worried about."
He used his hand to tip the empty chair beside him up on two legs. "So, Potter, would you arrest you?"
Harry touched his lips then his heart. The room did not feel very steady; he was just barely breathing and what little breath he pulled in felt sandy in his throat.
"What's that mean?"
"He's saying he's sorry," Tonks supplied.
"Well, that's fine. We're debriefing the wrong wizard. I hear the right wizard is dead. I was told that, but now I really do believe it." Rodgers stood up. "He says he's sorry. Potter, you're going to be more sorry you can't read and write, I think."
The door closed behind Rodgers and Harry fingered the scrap with his crude messages on it.
"It's going to be fine, Harry," Tonks said.
Harry looked up at her, trying to figure her out.
"I know that look," she muttered. "I do miss being with you, already, but I always botch this part of things, and I'm not going to this time. I'd much rather keep you on as a good friend than let this get messy. Especially since we'll be working together. I hope we will, anyway."
Harry took her hand again, glad he did not have to find any words.
"Hey, come with me. I have a boatload of work, but this will be quick."
Tonks led him down to the Ministry Dungeon. As they arrived at the guard desk, Horace stood up so quickly, he nearly knocked the heavy desk over.
"Ya need tah get in somewheres?" Horace began to blush, Harry was sure of it.
"Can I just take the key?"
Harry now noticed that Tonks appeared broader in the shoulders than normal, and her cloak fabric grew coarser. He glanced at Horace and back at Tonks.
Horace tapped his feet as he located the right key on his ring and with a spell, pulled it free and held it out.
"Thanks, Horace. Be back with it in a flick of a newt's tail."
After they turned the corner in the corridor, Harry tapped her shoulder and pointed back at the entrance while waggling his eyebrows.
Harry repeated the gesture.
"Cor, Harry, don't be silly." She had the key in the lock of Percy's cell door, so Harry let it drop.
Percy froze, mid-crossing of his arms, when Harry stepped into the cell. He instead pressed his bony body flat against the wall and braced his hands on the bench, eyes red and ringed with fatigue.
"Greetings," Tonks said. "I brought you a visitor."
"What are you doing here?" Percy snapped, eyes roving fitfully between and over the two of them. "I want my solicitor."
"This is a friendly visit, Percy," Tonks cooed. "Just a chat." She turned to Harry and gave him a wink. She dropped her voice and added, "We know more about your situation than your solicitor, anyhow, Percy Weasley . . ."
"Don't call me that. That's not my name anymore."
Harry gave Tonks a raised brow in question.
"He insisted on being officially registered by an ancestral name. But he doesn't even deserve the name "Black" really. It would imply you stood for something, Percy."
Percy turned his chin up and away, but his eyes flicked back to Harry.
Tonks put her foot up on the bench and rested her arm on her knee. "You know what your trouble is? You can't turn evidence to get a lower sentence. Harry already caught anyone you could help us get."
"I can take him down," Percy sneered, glancing to indicate Harry behind her. "Your little hero toy there." His lips trembled as he spoke.
"No, you can't, actually," Tonks said soothingly. "Your solicitor hasn't been in this week, has he?" She glanced back at Harry with a grin. "Didn't think so. Maybe I should just leave you alone with Harry like he wants me to . . . unless you give us something useful."
Percy's sneered through vibrating lips, "Your friends have already been down here with the potions. You think I have anything left to tell them?"
"But, with the potion you only have to tell them what they ask. For example, I, myself, noticed some omissions in your transcripts. I assume there are others." She leaned close to tug on a strand of Percy's hair as she talked.
She let her foot slip to the floor and backed up. "It's going to be a long stay in prison, Percy."
Percy swallowed hard as she backed up to the door. "He's all yours, Harry. I'll catch you upstairs-"
Percy shook his head. "I really don't know anything about the Boss. I never really met him. Just my dad pretending . . ." His voice grew more frantic.
Harry turned to look at Tonks waiting by the door. He had little heart for this game.
"You think he's being honest?" Tonks asked.
Percy sat hunched with his shoulders aimed forward and his neck retracted, eyes brimming with wariness. Harry could remember enjoying this, but now his stomach clenched. He could not even pretend. Percy would have a miserable time in prison; Harry knew that well enough.
Despite his thoughts, Harry's grim stare further agitated Percy, who rocked his feet and gripped the bench harder.
"Look, I . . . Ma Dame might have mentioned a few things. Really, Tonks, don't go . . . just yet."
"Want me to stay, Harry?" Tonks asked.
Harry paused for effect, then nodded.
Percy said, "Look, I can tell you where the Boss got that bus of his. It was made by the brother of the founder of the company that did the magical mods on the Knight Bus. He moved to Morocco from Spain about five years ago to get away from the heat. It sounded like that was where the Boss would retreat to as well, if need be." He pushed his shoulders back. "That's all I can think of right now."
Tonks stared at Percy. "Hm."
Harry tapped her on the arm and tilted his head at the door.
"Done with him already? Don't want to knock him around a bit after what he did? He's tried to maim if not kill you a few times . . ."
Harry shook his head and went to the door. From the corridor outside, Harry stared at Percy's confused expression until Tonks closed the door on it.
Tonks stood with her back to the door and looked him over. Her mouth relaxed into a smile and she tugged on his arm playfully. "Good to have you back, Harry. Not as much fun . . . mind you. But good."
With a dull thud, Tonks dropped the key on Horace's desk. Horace grunted as he tried with his oversized hands to slip it back on his massive key ring. He kept sneaking glances at Tonks as he worked at it.
The key fell back to the desk. Horace put his hand over it and glanced up at Tonks with a stressed expression. Harry remained there beside the desk to force Tonks to turn around and come back.
"What is it?"
"Er, ya wanna go fer a drink sometime?"
"You're asking me?" Tonks blurted.
"Well . . . er." Horace glanced at Harry with an uncomfortable expression. "Er . . . yeah."
"Oh. I guess we could." She turned to Harry and tilting her head humorously, said, "I seem to be available."
Tonks set a rapid pace on the way to the Atrium. "Really, Harry, he's hardly my type." And a moment later: "I can't believe you managed to set me up. You can't even talk." She took his arm as they came out through the gate. "Sorry. But really . . . Horace?"
Tonks steered him over to Snape, who waited beside the temporary dueling platform. "Here he is. I'll see you tomorrow, I expect. Goodbye, Harry."
The Burrow was a sea of redheads and loud chatter. Their arrival went unnoticed for nearly a minute, until Ron forced his way over and handed them each a cigar, even stuffing one in beside Arcadius' blanket.
Mrs. Weasley sat at the long dining room table, baby in arms. "I'll give Molly up when I'm good and ready. I've waited long enough for her as it is."
Charlie hunched at her elbow making twitchy faces at the bundle.
Candide asked in Harry's ear, "Where's the new mother?" When Harry glanced around and shrugged, she added, "Sleeping if she's smart. No one would hear a baby crying in here in a million years. Might as well take advantage."
Harry split off to wave hello to the people he knew. Two figures in purple velvet smoking jackets that cycled between hoary then plush in a tiger pattern, leapt into Harry's path.
"Say Harry . . ." one of the twins began.
"We were just wondering . . ."
"My brother and I . . ."
"Since you aren't technically with the Ministry at the moment."
"We were wondering . . . no, you go ahead . . ." The one on the left gestured for the one on the right.
"We were wondering if you'll be our spokeswizard."
"Well, our anti-spokeswizard, actually . . ."
"For this new line of sweets we have."
"The sweets shut people up. You know, like the gabbing bloke on the train beside you."
"Or the mother in law." He glanced over his shoulder to check where Mrs. Weasley was.
Ginny swept through, taking Harry away by the arm. "I sense, somehow, you haven't tested them on yourselves . . ."
In a relatively quiet corner, she asked, "Was the article okay?" When he hesitated, she asked, "Did you read it? Or . . ." Her face grew pained. "Have someone read it to you?"
Harry shook his head.
"I don't know why I was so worried," she said, propping a hand on her hip.
Aaron slipped up behind her and put his hands on her arms. "I thought it best to see what your secret conversation was about."
Ginny poked him in the ribs. "It's a one way conversation, Mr. Jealous."
"True. That just makes Harry more dangerous. He never comes across as self-involved." Aaron grinned, but his eyes flicked up and down Harry's new, Candide purchased, outfit—a pleated shirt and well-fitted swallowtail coat.
The Burrow grew increasingly crowded and too loud to talk at all. The Floo flared green and Hermione stepped out of it. Bill jumped up, stumbled twice over people sitting on the floor, and greeted her with a cigar which he insisted on lighting for her before she stepped away.
Hermione held the smoldering cigar aside as she came upon Snape. "I guess it's not an exploding one as expected," she said loudly.
Snape made a gesture with his head that they should go outside.
Middle-aged redheads, some wearing foreign robes and smoking pipes or cigars, had gathered outside the door in the misting rain. They turned to peer curiously at Harry.
Snape said to Hermione, "I am wondering if you would do me a favor. Are you are going to be in town for the evening?" She nodded and he went on. "I would appreciate it if you would take Harry to a film."
Harry pulled his head back in surprise at the same time Hermione said, "A what?"
"A film. One of those Muggle large moving picture things. I expect you are familiar with them."
"Yes, of course."
Snape went on, "I understand they come in a range of topics and genres. Please choose the sappiest one you can."
Hermione hesitated. "All . . . right."
"I have a theory about Harry. He is on much better footing today than previously-"
"I noticed that, just looking at him now," Hermione said, reaching out to squeeze Harry's wrist.
Snape said, "I believe it would speed his recovery to experience a full array of strong emotion. Since I cannot sit him down with a book very easily, nor is it especially convenient to bring in a troupe of actors, this seems the best fall back option."
Hermione brightened. "Certainly. That sounds like rather a lot of fun. Okay, Harry?"
Harry nodded, seeing nothing for it.
The door to the house opened and the rumble of conversation and clattering dinnerware grew louder. Snape bent toward her to say, "Thank you. I think we will be retreating now back to the Cauldron. Harry can remain with you. Please return him there when you are done with him, if you would."
Harry watched the Muggles streaming by on the pavement outside the window of the coffee shop as Hermione fetched their orders. When she returned she gave him that same over-done gaze he had been getting from Snape too often, although with Hermione, it looked like her eyes were getting moist as well.
"Mocha for you, and skim with cinnamon for me. We have half an hour."
Harry pulled the plastic top off his paper cup and looked into it. It sent a wave of steam into his face so he pushed it aside to let it cool. Hermione held her cup in both hands and peered at him, expression unwavering. He wanted to tell her to stop it, but he would have to write it down and that seemed tedious.
The bell on the door chimed as a group of black clad teens came in.
"You don't know how happy I am, Harry," Hermione said. She exhaled audibly through her nose as if relieved all over again.
At Harry's faint sigh, she shook her head. "You don't know how desperate it was getting," she argued as if he had disagreed. "Maybe you knew. Did you know?"
Harry shook his head, which wasn't exactly the truth, and glanced side to side to check if anyone was in earshot. If his friend needed to talk this out, then the least he could do was listen without reacting. He put his hand on her wrist to encourage her to go on.
"The things you said to Dumbledore though. That maybe was deserved. Do you really think that was how he defeated Grindelwald?" Fortunately, she did not wait for an answer. "Love's not a weakness, though, Harry."
No, of course not, Harry thought, but he wasn't sure if nodding or shaking his head would best convey that. He was remembering Snape on his knees telling him something similar and it made him feel unwell, so he sipped his milky coffee drink to cover any change in his face.
Hermione was staring at the brass machinery on the counter as she said, "We were in a real bind, Harry. I know it wasn't your fault. I don't mean to imply that. But I hated the planning I was having to do." She appeared exceedingly saddened, making Harry swallow hard. "We had NO options." Her head shook slowly, gaze increasingly far away. "Dumbledore said if one of the Horcruxes had been left intact, we had a decent chance, but they were all gone. I don't know exactly what he thought we could use it for . . . It was just so horrific to think of sacrificing you."
Her gaze finally fixed on him. "Is talking about this bothering you?"
Harry shook his head, wanting to help her. If he focused on her needs, the tendrils of distress trying to grip his chest slipped away instead of taking hold.
"This could bring on an attack, though. We shouldn't be talking about this."
We? Harry thought.
She tipped a dose of sugar into her drink and stirred it. "Want some?"
Harry's drink was already sweet enough. He shook his head. Hermione slipped her arm free and gripped Harry's fingers, sipping thoughtfully from the cup in her other hand.
"But everything's good now. Sorry if I'm slow getting that through my thick skull."
A Muggle couple sat down beside them, identically crossing their legs and sipping immediately from their simmering hot drinks while discussing the film they had just seen, one involving a boy who is pursued by ghosts. Hermione did not release Harry's hand and their silent vigil attracted the attention of the other couple, who slowed their chatter long enough to glance over and shrug at each other.
Everyone went about their lives, unaware, Harry considered. The world went on. This world went on, that is to say.
"How was it?" Snape asked when Hermione and Harry arrived in their room at the Leaky Cauldron. It was late, and the Inn's corridors were quiet enough to hear the mice scuffling about.
Harry flinched slightly at memories of giant images and blaring voices of people having a bad time emotionally connecting with one another, mostly through pig-headedness. He felt frustrated, despite the happy ending.
"It was good." Hermione hooked an arm through Harry's and walked him fully into the room. "Here he is. Delivered as promised."
Snape stopped before Harry to consider him. His mouth relaxed as he said, "You do not appear to have enjoyed yourself, I'll admit."
"He wanted to see the film where things blew up and Muggles shot each other with guns. But I didn't think that the best idea."
Harry sighed then gave Snape a sheepish shrug.
Snape said, "Maybe next time."
Hermione asked, "Speaking of blowing things up, are you going to the tournament tomorrow? Minerva seemed to think I should take the weekend off. Even though I really should prepare end of term examinations, which are only five weeks away."
Harry turned curiously to Snape and glared challengingly at him until he said, "My duties are covered, albeit by someone depressingly less strict than myself. I was, actually, considering returning a few days a week, to try and salvage some of the term."
"Remus does all right," Hermione insisted, smiling. "I think it's actually a good sign that most of the Slytherins think it is nifty rather than offensive that he's a werewolf. I think they appreciate the fact that proper people don't like him." She looked to Harry. "Want to go together to the tournament tomorrow? I can stop by and get you. Both the twins are in it, as well as Neville. Ginny was still deciding whether to sign up late."
Harry nodded eagerly. The Minister would probably be happy to have him there for what would be the opening ceremonies.
"We'll all join you, I think," Candide said, coming in from the hallway carrying a sleeping Arcadius. "He was a bit riled up from traveling, but a walk put him right out." She closed the door so it barely made a click. "It's late." She put Arcadius in his basket and whispered, "What a long day."
Hermione said, "I'll let you get to sleep. See you tomorrow, Harry."
When she was gone, Candide said, "I really didn't intend to chase her out. But it is late."
Harry picked up his trunk and ducked to get to the second bed in the alcove. He had not realized from staying here as a child how very low the ceilings and especially the arches were.
"Did you bring everything you needed?" Snape asked.
Harry nodded, glad the side table did not hold the monitor.
"Do you want me to put it out? I found it in your wardrobe."
Harry rapidly shook his head.
"Yes, well, I expect you'll wake us if you have difficulty." Snape ducked to walk back to the main part of the suite, but turned. "No silencing spells," he said, accenting his command with a pointed finger.
"How was the film?" Vineet asked, when Hermione tried to sneak in without disturbing him.
Hermione waved the lamp up. "It was good, but Harry didn't enjoy it much. I don't think I chose well. Professor Snape insisted it be a sappy one." She laughed. "Can you imagine?"
Vineet tucked his dressing gown around himself as he stood from the couch. "He must have had his reasons."
Hermione put her handbag down and stepped over to him where they leaned together. Vineet put one hand on her head and the other on her back and they remained fixed that way, breath audible.
Into the stillness of the apartment, Hermione said, "I can't believe things are all straight now. I keep thinking I need to do something impossible. But I don't. I just have to write end of year examinations for the first time." She laughed lightly, but it caught in her throat like a half cry. Vineet tightened his arms around her.
"I still can't believe what you did." Hermione pushed back to stare at him. The one lit lamp on the table by the door, despite the mirror behind it, did not cast much light in the center of the room.
"I had my reasons."
"You never do anything without a good reason," she said tiredly. "That's one of the things I like about you."
"I owe much to Harry. I expected that you understood that."
She let go of him and walked toward the bedroom, waving lamps up ahead of her and dousing those behind. "We all owe much to Harry. But there is a limit, somehow."
Vineet stepped ahead of her when she slowed down. Facing her, he said, "You were inquiring into techniques to destroy him."
Hermione closed her eyes and slowly lowered her wand rather than use it on the bedside lamp. She bit her upper lip and her face crumpled. "I know. Never mind. I'm sorry I brought it up. You win."
Vineet did not let her step around him. He gently took her shoulders and walked her back to where she had stopped when she came in the room. "It is not never-mindable. You are disappointed in me. Or is that it? I wish to know."
"I'm not disappointed in you. I am surprised by you."
"That is a bad thing?"
"I needed predictability from you. And I think I suddenly didn't have that." She shook her head. "I haven't actually worked it out yet."
"I am wishing to do so now, then."
She dipped her head and started to walk by him again, but stopped. "We have lots of things to work out, Vishnu. Lots of things."
He gently walked her back to the same spot again. They looked at each other. Vineet finally said, "Do you wish me to divorce Nandi?"
Hermione did not react. She considered him at length before replying, "If you are willing to take a Dark Mark, then yes, I do." After another long gap, she added, "I know you feel it is beneath you. I understand that. Or I did understand that. But this was such an extreme thing to do and so I don't really understand anymore. I suppose. I promised myself I wouldn't do this. But everything seems different now. I'm sorry for pushing you. But actually, I'm not, really."
She pressed her lips tight between her teeth while he considered this.
Vineet said, "The Mark. Harry. It all worked out in the end."
"And why won't this?" Hermione took a deep breath.
"I don't know?"
"Is that a question?" Hermione asked, then chuckled painfully. "Maybe we should discuss this when we aren't so tired."
"I am not at all tired."
"Well, I am. Spending the evening with Harry left me knackered."
"This is so? Harry is no trouble, now."
She opened the wardrobe and stopped mid-reach for her dressing gown, hanging her fingertips on the edge of the shelf. "I don't know why it was so wearing. It's me, really. He's fine, a little different, but fine. I'm the one who's still having difficulty. I can't move on, I guess."
He came up behind her and wrapped her up in his arms. "You are wishing to move on?"
"If that's not a proposal of some kind, I'm going to kick you on the shin."
He leaned closer and said into her ear. "Threats of Muggle violence while you are holding a wand. This is quite serious."
"You've been spending too much time around Aaron, I see." Hermione laughed breathily and turned around in his arms. "I just can't believe what you did. I'm still having a hard time coming to grips with it."
"I fail to know why. I have been Harry's servant since coming here seeking my fate. This one action made little difference for that reason. You, on the other hand, have been by his side for many years."
She shook her head. "I couldn't have done that if he had asked it of me." She shuddered and closed her eyes. "It terrifies me to imagine he might have. I kept expecting him to test me. He was suspicious of me; I could tell. Thank Merlin he didn't come after me with that. I don't know what would have happened. I don't know where you got the guts to accept a Mark. There wasn't much of Harry left in there, as far as I could tell."
Vineet put his hands on her shoulders. "Whereas you were contemplating ways of killing him, if necessary. I could never have done that."
"I couldn't have actually done the deed. But there didn't seem to be any other way. I didn't want to be left with no options if it came to that." Her eyes stared off into the distance, beyond his shoulder at the brightly colored flowing curtains framing the windows. Her voice fell away as she said, "The Harry I remembered would not have wanted to become that . . . thing."
Vineet's voice grew quiet as well. "Even so, I could not even have researched it. It required great strength for you to even do this."
"Well, it's all better now," she said, eyes pooling.
"You are needing to admit this often."
She sniffled. "I keep forgetting. I care a lot for Harry, and have spent nine years straight worrying about him."
She took down her nightdress and dressing gown and slipped out of his arms to walk to the bed.
"That is a long time," Vineet said, standing nearby while she changed.
"You aren't jealous of Harry, are you?" she asked, voice muffled from pulling her head through her nightdress. "Harry and I have never had anything between us."
Vineet waited until she had put her dressing gown on as well and tied it. "I am jealous of the time he had with you that I can never share in."
She sniffled again. "We were just kids."
"It was many years. I will never get to know those years."
She put her wand on the side table and let her arms drop to her sides. "We made the best of it, but it was mostly fear and danger. Everything was so much bigger than us. We were very lucky most of the time and that never made me feel any better about the future. Maybe that's why it's so hard to let go of the worry. I've held it so long."
Vineet stepped close again. "Perhaps I should teach you meditation. It can be good for solving this."
"Hm. Can you do that? I'd like that."
"It can help you forget everything that concerns you."
"Not everything . . ."
He pushed her hair back from her neck and cupped the back of her neck. "I will think about this other thing. Your point about Marks is well taken."
"It just seems to matter more now. I guess I am moving on. Now that Harry is better, I have to pay some attention to my life now."
"Meditation is definitely in order," he said gravely. "I can start by teaching you a simple method now if you want." When she nodded, he went on. "It is simple. You lie on your back with your palms turned upward and your eyes closed, and you do nothing while I make you forget everything that concerns you . . ."
Harry woke from a confused dream to stare at his low alcove ceiling, which for a panicked series of gasps, resembled a dungeon cell. He had been terrified in the dream, certain someone was coming to hurt him and the panicked helplessness still made his limbs jerk. Harry rubbed his arms and straightened the ragged quilts over himself. This mundane task helped his throbbing heart to slow until it no longer bruised against his ribs.
A dark figure slipped into the even darker arched opening and waited there.
Harry waved him away, but it was probably too dark to see it because the figure slipped closer and the worn springs of the bed tilted precariously. The bedside lamp lit. Glittering cracks covered the glass shade, the end result of many unskilled repairs.
Harry waited, but Snape did not speak, merely sat in the lamplight, thinking, every so often studying Harry's face.
Harry gave him a light push on the arm, telling him to go. Snape's brow twitched with a teasing doubtfulness. He reached for the lamp, but pulled his hand back before touching the knob. He stroked Harry's arm instead, then gripped it. His dark gaze grew earnest and Harry had a fleeting impression of himself, led into the house by the Irish Garda. Snape's knuckles just touched Harry's chin before he turned the lamp down and the bed sprung level again.
Harry heard him whisper, "There is nothing you cannot make right . . ." before he departed with a soft shuffle of heavy fabric.
The Atrium buzzed with bright conversation as Harry, satchel over his shoulder, led the way through the clumps of eager early arrivals. Snape trailed behind, Hermione chatting with him about a problem student. When Harry turned back to wait for them, he found Snape scanning the crowd with a narrow gaze. Candide had gone to a luncheon at the Burrow, a luncheon Harry expected Molly had planned in a kind of defiance to the dueling competition.
Behind the stage, Harry found Belinda conferring with the rest of Bones' staff. Her eyes tracked his approach, and the others turned to see what had distracted her.
Snape and Hermione caught up to Harry just as he stepped up to the group. The one staffer who did not pull his or her notes up like a shield, said, "The Minister was hoping you'd make an appearance. She's in her office. Shall I show you up?"
"We can find our way, if that's all right?"
"I should probably show you." The rail-thin man handed his things to the befuddled staffer beside him and gave Hermione a challenging glance.
"I'll go find our friends, Harry," she said, "and meet up with you later."
Bones sat at her desk and a wizard in flashy yellow robes stood behind her, arms raised. He finished a complicated spell with his wand and held up a mirror for her to take hold of.
"No, no, more like the first," Bones complained.
More wand waving shoved her hair around into a new configuration.
"Hm. That's a bit too great aunt and not enough friendly neighbor. Oh, Mr. Potter." Her chair creaked as she rocked forward.
The hairdresser dropped his wand on the desk in surprise, then gathered it and his combs up in a frantic sweep.
"Really, Marcus, it's not worth the theatrics." Bones pushed to her feet and came around the desk. "I can't keep track of who you are from week to week, Mr. Potter, I'll confess. Just you this week, I'm told."
Harry stared at her.
"In politics, no one is who they seem. While you were an outsider, you were delivering us our enemies, but in reality you were probably our biggest threat." She waved her arm tiredly. "It happens. We dodged a serious situation without even knowing it had developed and now all is well. The key thing is where are we going from here." She walked back to her chair and gestured for Marcus to try again. "Have a seat and spot of tea until game time, won't you?" she said to the two of them.
Harry tapped Snape on the arm while projecting Belinda at him. Snape shook his head. Harry huffed through his nose and slouched a little in his chair.
Minutes into their snacks, a rap came on the door and Fudge shuffled into the room. He stopped upon seeing Harry and turned an unnatural color while his face appeared to inflate.
"Cornelius is judging the London Regional for us. Unless he has taken ill . . . ?"
Fudge cleared his throat. "No. No, I'm perfectly fine," he snipped. "Any last minute instructions, or I'll be on my way. I'm a busy man, you know. Very busy."
"Keep it clean, that's all I ask. I don't want the competition sullied any more than dueling itself makes it."
Fudge stalked out. Snape sat hunched, pinching his lips between his fingers the way he sometimes did to hide a grin.
"Oh, that's perfect, Marcus." Bones handed over the mirror and sat forward with her hair as it usually was. "Shall we go down and talk to the press a bit?"
Harry jumped and checked for his satchel, which was beside the leg of his chair.
Back in the Atrium, a handful of reporters stood off the back corner of the platform, leaning inward as if silently conferring while holding their smoldering cigarettes and pipes out to the side. As they approached, Skeeter flicked her cigarette away and it vanished before hitting the floor.
Harry stopped a few feet short of them and took the camera out of his satchel and held it up to capture the group of them standing there.
"Nice camera, Harry," Ginny said, joining them. She had her notepad out and ready. "Comments on the last Wizengamot statement, Madame Bones?" she asked.
"Don't get annoying so early in your young career, my dear," Bones said with a smile. "We're having a festival here today."
Harry took a picture of the two of them, catching Ginny pursing her lips. Harry advanced the film again and the brass dial read 19. He put it back in his satchel, taking his time setting it carefully within and latching the flap, because Skeeter was eyeing his movements.
After the press got half answers from the Minister on various questions, Harry was released to wander. The Atrium had filled up. Harry took a picture of the crowd. The way all the witches and wizards nearby were staring at him, it resembled a group picture.
"Hallo, Harry," a familiar voice said. Neville approached with Hermione beside him. "Nice camera."
Harry nodded in agreement and took a picture of Neville, Hermione and Ginny.
Ginny said, "I recognize that camera. It's one of the nicest ones ever owned by the paper. Going to give it back?"
Harry shrugged and then understood Snape's smile. He felt strangely invulnerable. He had no will for tormenting Percy, but Skeeter was an entirely different matter. Skeeter was, in fact, following him around the Atrium as he and his friends made their way through the crowd, snapping photographs with others they knew.
Near the hearths Harry stopped to watch a trim figure in black who was briskly brushing off his clothes before offering a hand to Pansy as she pushed a pram out of the Floo. Harry wondered if they had not read the instruction booklet from the Midwitches.
Draco's eyes flicked up and down Harry, finally resting on the camera he held. Harry raised it and gestured for them to pose. Surprisingly, they did, although Draco's lips curled into a sneer.
"Competing today, Mr. Malfoy?" Ginny asked, her tone entirely devoid of the personal history they all shared.
"Of course. And I intend to win too." He stared at Harry and added, "I won't get any complaint from you, I assume." He snorted in amusement and his eyes flicked to Harry's right. Skeeter was approaching.
"May I have my camera back?"
Harry held it up questioningly but then tucked it back under his arm.
"Stealing things, Potter?" Malfoy asked.
Skeeter replied, "Yes. Several things." She held her hand out.
Harry gestured for her to stand beside Draco and he took another picture of them both appearing disgruntled, each in their own way. He advanced the film dial down to 11.
"I thought you were supposed to be good now?" Skeeter mocked.
Harry looked up from the camera's knobs to shoot her an innocent expression. Hermione put her hands on her hips and leaned toward Skeeter.
"He still doesn't like you," Ginny supplied. She turned to Harry, "You adjust the exposure here. And the aperture here." At Harry's surprised look, she said, "Hey, you know how many photographs I have to deal with every day?"
Harry pointed at the platform, and she said, "I decided to cover the competition from down here rather than defend my ill-gotten crown, as Skeeter keeps putting it."
Harry saw Fudge making his way through the crowd and wondered if he could get a picture of him, thinking of seeing his reaction when he saw the camera. Someone grabbed his robes. "Don't rub it in, Potter," Skeeter hissed. "My, you still are trouble, aren't you?" She released her blood red nails from his sleeve. "Well, go on, I expect like the child you are that when you run out of film you'll return it." Her voice fell lower, "I do want that film."
"Leave him alone," Hermione said. Harry took her arm and led his friends away.
Fudge was mounting the stage and Harry saw the Minister looking around the Atrium, hand shading her eyes. Harry unhooked the camera from his neck and pushed it into Ginny's hands as he started away. He could hear Ginny asking Skeeter, "So, what's on the film that you want so bad . . . ?"
Harry came aside the Minister and stayed there while she gave a rambling speech about the importance of maintaining proper wizard secrecy from the Muggles. Harry wondered what had happened that he did not know about.
"And Mr. Potter, of course, is our Master of Ceremonies for the DV Day festivities, so he is here to help us kick off the Tournament. Uh . . ." She peered at Harry as if rethinking handing the stage over to him. "Yes, well. We shouldn't delay any longer. May the best wand win!"
Walking with his usual scuffing gait, Fudge made his way to the center of the stage and began to recite the rules from a long scroll while the participants stood in a row behind him. Harry found Snape in the audience, with Candide beside him. "Molly offered to watch Arcadius and I did want to join the fun. She's less having a luncheon than running a nursery. Gosh, she's tickled about Molly junior."
Harry accepted a Bertie Bott's Bean from the sack Candide held. It was caviar flavored, so he took another and got the same again. He gestured to see into the sack and found that all the beans were the same glistening black.
"I always get the One Flavor Bean," Candide explained. "I figure why not?"
On the platform, Fred Weasley was facing off with Mortimor Pike, the man who ran the Cauldron and Sun-dried Sundries Shop on Knockturn Alley. The round was only close because Fred appeared to be holding back his best spells for later opponents.
The hearths flared as the crowd continued to pile in. A wizard with a shaved head pushed ahead of them to get a better view and stood with his arms crossed and his feet apart. The back of his robes, which had the sleeves torn off, had embroidered on it My Other Wand is a Wand. Candide stood on tip-toe while the next pair found their places on the platform.
Harry sighed and tapped the man sharply on the shoulder. As expected, the man spun around, bulky arms unwinding as he rotated. But then he stared at Harry, mouth hanging open. Harry gestured that he needed to move aside and the man slinked off to stand with his back to the wall between the hearths, pointing down at his feet with a hopeful expression as if checking with Harry that that spot was all right.
Harry nodded. Then shook his head.
"Thanks, Harry," Candide said, suppressing a smile.
Daphne Greengrass was battling an older witch and had trouble because she seemed to be trying hard to be nice. When she almost fell off the back of the platform due to a Felting Charm, Snape muttered, "You try to teach them right and sometimes it just doesn't take."
Fudge was a stickler for the rules and almost disqualified George for turning before the end of the count twice in a row. He and Draco made it to a draw in a set of exchanges that actually sent spell effect sizzling around the Atrium, to great verbal appreciation from the crowd.
Once the long list of participants was whittled down, Draco, rather gently, Harry thought, eliminated Daphne and Fred just squeaked out a win over Neville.
"George always won at home," Ginny said to no one in particular, then returned to jotting notes.
Draco faced a middle aged man with a paunch, who snapped out his spells like a music conductor. Draco had to duck under one of them. He stood straight, petting back his frazzled hair. Still stroking his hair, he missed with his Dark Web Curse and then lost his wand to a Toad Tongue Charm that did have an unexpected snap to it. Draco lightly stomped his shiny black shoe and jumped off the side of the stage rather than shake hands.
Between sweets, Candide asked Snape, "So, what was it like having him in your House all those years?"
Harry would have accused him of coddling Malfoy, if he could. He tapped Ginny on the shoulder and she looked up in surprise. After a beat, she said, "Oh, Professor Snape cosseted Draco."
Harry nodded in agreement.
Snape said, "I had to stay in exceptionally good stead with his father, you know."
Harry crossed his arms and watched as a twenty-something witch lost to George, who did not seem to worry about his opponent, tossing a Snake Charmer, followed by a Blinding Hex.
"Ouch," Ginny muttered as the woman had to be led to the middle for the handshake and then stand for a de-hexing. "Glad I'm down here. If my brothers knew they were dueling me, I wouldn't have a chance. Oh, by the way, Harry, Lord Freelander asked me if he should invite you to dinner."
Harry shrugged, then nodded.
"I tried to explain what had happened, but it's hard to explain these things to an old person."
In the end it was Fred and George remaining in the final round and the spells grew loud and bright. The paintings and bunting fell, chips of gold painted plaster rained on the crowd, the water in the fountain behind the platform sloshed out when one spell heaved the floor up.
"Now now!" Fudge shouted, holding his hands up and stepping between the opponents. Harry winced, expecting him to get blasted, but the twins raised their wands like a mirror image and peered at him full of innocent questioning.
"Keep the spell overflow down. No damaging spells! I read the rules so you must know them." He stepped back.
The twins tied that round and stepped back and faced each other while awaiting instructions. Their outfits matched, their red hair matched. They were less two people than one man facing his reflection.
Fudge scuffed his way to the center of the platform and silently moved his lips and made twitchy faces while checking the rule book. The crowd began murmuring in conversation, placing wagers with each other and critiquing the first round.
Harry thought about Percy in the dungeon beneath their feet. He thought about how much deeper underground he was going to end up after his sentencing. Harry rubbed his arms which prickled at the memory of his dream. He had felt such terror, pain and an all consuming dread of even the smallest noise. He remembered actual prison; it had never been that terrifying. In the dream he had feared someone approaching his cell with such force that his heart had been trying to claw free of his ribcage.
Fudge closed the rule book and gestured for the twins to begin another round. This round was more subdued, with longer incantations and spells that changed the shape of the air.
They tied again. And as they returned to their spots, they were both smiling.
Harry's heart began to race. He forcibly swallowed the saliva that had flooded his mouth.
Another round began. And again the Weasley twins ended in a draw. The crowd grew restless as Fudge and the Minister conferred behind the platform.
Harry breathed deeply, forcing calm through his agitated limbs. He was not having an attack, but the same technique worked to still his emotions.
"Mr. Potter, please come over here," the Minister said, managing to speak above the crowd without shouting.
Harry made his way to the front and considered hopping over the stage, but his arms protested at the thought, so he walked around it.
"I'm going to leave it to you to decide who goes on in the competition, Harry," Bones said.
Harry pointed at his own chest.
"You are the Master of Ceremonies. Go on, make a choice."
Harry took his time stepping up onto the platform. The crowd fell hushed and suddenly his footsteps on the hollow floor echoed a lot more. He looked from one end of the platform to the other. He had lost track of who was who. The twins were dressed identically in puffy shouldered dark green smoking jackets with a paisley texture. Harry gestured for them to come to the center of the stage.
"What's up?" the one on the right asked.
Harry looked at each of them again. They were not identical, one had hair that stuck up more neatly on the top and the other had more beads of sweat at his hairline. Harry gestured that they should put a fist up for stone, parchment, sword, and they did so, each lowering his head in an exaggerated pose of challenge. The twin on the right won with stone.
"Best two out of three," the other announced.
But Harry pushed that twin's fist down and shook his head.
"Awww . . ." the twin tossed his head aside and stepped back and gestured as if stabbed through the heart.
The other watched his brother with a frown, making no victorious sign.
"Well, there we are," Bones said, holding the miniature wand on a chain that served as a trophy. "Who shall we engrave this to?"
"Forge Weasley, Madame," the one on the right said with an elegant bow.
Back in the Leaky Cauldron, Harry sat in bed with the quilt pulled over his bent knees. He stared at the waning sunlight on the flaking plaster which revealed a mixture of river stone and brick underneath. He did not notice right away that Snape was leaning in through the archway to his alcove and wondered how long he had been there.
"You did well today," Snape observed, taking a step inside to stand straight.
Harry vaguely shook his head.
Snape's head twitched in surprise and he waved over a rickety chair with barely any cane left on the seat. He used two spells on it before sitting and resting an arm on the bed. "Do you have your chalkboard?"
Harry pulled that out from under his Auror book on the side table. He hooked an arm behind it and took up a piece of chalk in the other hand.
Fix, Harry wrote. At Snape's blank expression, Harry added Have to in front of that.
"If this is in reference to Ms. Beluna, you are not yet healthy enough."
Harry frowned. If it only were Belinda . . . He had a sick feeling his dream was not a dream; he had serious things to repair. Harry closed his eyes and stared at the splotchy darkness behind his lids to remain in control. He needed help and an attack would not inspire Snape's assistance.
Harry opened his eyes and circled have to, around and around with the chalk. He stopped and looked at it before wiping it off with his sleeve. He could not possibly spell "Grindelwald."
Snape leaned against the edge of the bed from his low seat and turned Harry's chin toward him. The light was vanishing fast now, but Harry assumed his guardian could still read his gaze. In his mind he pictured Grindelwald in full anger. Snape let go and with a jerking movement sat back, leaving just his elbow on the bed. The fingers of that hand stretched and bent.
"You are not healthy," Snape repeated coldly.
Too late, Harry scratched out and held it out at arm's' length, since Snape was sitting back now, posture one of half ignoring him.
Snape's robes rustled as he adjusted his limbs and leaned on the bed again.
His voice became a harsh whisper. "That place only exists if you make it exist."
Harry stared at him. When Snape refused to look his way, Harry wrote, U were in a place.
Snape frowned. "You cannot simply pretend that place does not exist?"
Not like me, Harry wrote.
Snape puzzled that one before saying. "You are telling me it would not be like you to leave things as they are. If so, I completely agree." He was close to sneering.
Have to, Harry wrote again.
Snape's hair fell back from his shoulders as he tilted his head to stare at the ceiling. His fingers drummed on the quilt. He lowered his head to glare at Harry again, glancing at the chalkboard Harry still held up. He reached his hand out to grasp Harry's ankle through the covers, eyes more like Hermione's now.
"I worry Harry, that one of these times you will go and never return."
Harry shook his head like a promise.
"You are sacrificing yourself for a dream."
Harry scratched out wand on the board and held it up.
Snape tilted his head as he considered this latest message. His voice was barely audible as he said, "The Wand of Destiny you mean? Dumbledore died without losing it to a rival. It has been negated, I am quite certain."
Harry waited, unmoving, with his message displayed.
Snape's lips pursed stubbornly and Harry half expected him to swear. He let go of Harry's ankle and flattened his hand on the quilt. "There are almost certainly numerous other Wands of Destiny in those other places. But you must earn such a wand. It will be average, or worse, powerless or even disloyal, if you do not."
He stared at the spread fingers of his hand while he said with great reluctance, "Your choices would seem to be: one, go to a place you know nothing about in the hopes of winning this wand to take against Grindelwald . . . and I assume that is your intent, as your options without the wand are singularly limited. Or two, obtain the wand from the place you have some familiarity with."
Harry's heart sped up as he considered that.
Snape said, "I expect, about now, that your associates in that place may be quite happy for you to remove it, quite honestly. And you would be given all kinds of assistance."
Snape's visage had grown grim and lined as the light had faded. Outside on Diagon Alley, weekend revelers were whooping and shouting to each other.
Harry's mind followed the lines Snape had set out. His heart felt lighter just thinking it possible.
Without another word, Snape stood up and set the chair aside. He turned as he ducked out of the alcove to look back. Harry could only make out his eyes reflecting the smoky blue panes of the small window beside Harry's bed. With the barest rustle of fabric, Snape slipped into the darkness of the next room, leaving Harry alone with the silence of his plans.