Harry ran. He ran until his breath rumbled coarsely through his chest, until he had to stumble to a stop and bend over to breathe properly.
The day was cool this early in the morning even though it was the second week of June. Coughing, Harry pushed his feet to move in the direction of home, stumbling over broken tarmac that rolled underfoot. He had intentionally run as far as he could, to force himself to run all the way home again. But he only coughed more as he walked, and his plan might not work so well given that he could Apparate.
He walked on, more careful about his footing, measuring his body's willingness to run again. As he went, he practiced an alphabet of repeated sounds under his breath. This went well except for two vowels together. When he tried those, over and over, it felt like he was trying to control someone else's mouth.
Harry tired of babbling to himself and could not conceive of running home with the kink that knotted up his side. At the next bend in the road, ater a stream of cars went by as rush hour began, Harry took out his watch and decided it was getting late enough. As soon as the road was clear, he Apparated for home.
Candide was trying to eat breakfast with a fussing Arcadius squirming in her lap. "There you are, Harry. Are you having something before you leave? Severus said he would be down, but he is brewing something for teething."
A plate arrived as she said this and Harry gratefully sat before it, shoveling rapidly.
"All right," Candide said to no one in particular, as if giving into an argument. "Harry can you move that candlestick closer? I think that's what he wants."
The candle lit before he could set it down beside Candide's plate. Arcadius made a joyful noise as he stared at the flame. Harry reached to take him, but Candide said, "You're going to be late if you start playing with him."
Harry glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and jumped up to Apparate for the Ministry.
"True or false, Potter, a silk lined trunk is more likely to contain a compressed space?" Rodgers asked, the third question in a row that had come Harry's way. Every morning his trainer did this, until Harry missed a question.
Vineet and Aaron, who knew Harry could talk a little, smirked through the process of Harry giving thumbs up or thumbs down.
Harry gave a thumbs up this time.
"Not exactly. Yes, that was in the reading, but the reading was incorrect."
Kerry Ann rolled her eyes, took out her book, and made a note in it with a forceful flourish.
Harry sat back, thinking tomorrow he should get the first question wrong intentionally.
At lunchtime they assembled in the Aurors' office for the apprentices' advancement ceremony. Ambroise was already there smiling proudly. Mrs. Wickem came in, leaning on a cane. She gave her son a kiss on the cheek and tut-tutted that his father could not be there. Harry wondered which she meant. Blackpool's long-haired father and shaved headed brother were led in by one of the guards from the Atrium. The Minister came in before the ceremony just long enough to shake hands, then begged off staying for the awarding of chains. She shook Harry's hand an extra long time.
"I hope you are sanguine, Mr. Potter, about redoing your second year?"
Harry nodded that he was.
"Good." She gripped his hand, patted him once on the elbow, and departed with a last singsong command to her staff members. "Get a lot of good photographs for me. The press wants them."
Beside Harry, Kerry Ann and Ambroise were leaning close together to talk.
Ambroise shook Harry's hand a long time as well. "Kerry Ann assures me you are doing well. I am very glad for this."
As the chains were being awarded, Harry stood off to the side with the families. Blackpool was first, being awarded a second silver chain to go with her two gold. Tridant was last, being awarded his second chain. He came over and shook Harry's hand afterward.
"We're in second year together now." He sounded rather pleased about this.
Harry shook everybody's hand after that, as if he were one of the dignitaries. Aaron gave him a hug instead. "Hey there, Harry. Proud to be in this program with you. This place would go to bubbling hell in a cauldron if you were gone."
Blackpool glowed more than the rest. Her father kept patting her on the back, saying, "My little daughter is full Auror." But her brother kept glancing around the room as if checking who might be eyeing him.
Afternoon drills and weights drained Harry much less than expected, so as he loaded his books into his bag, he pulled out the crumpled note Candide had written for him a week ago. As he was fingering it, Kerry Ann said, "Hey there, Harry. See you tomorrow."
She sounded more glum than expected. Harry quickly pocketed the note and followed her to the lift.
They were the only slow ones. "What is it?" he slurred as he latched the gate on the lift.
"You can talk."
Harry waved her off and said, "Whas wrong?"
She frowned more. "Is it that obvious?" She huffed. "Ambroise wants me to move to Lille with him. I don't know what to do."
Harry made a disturbed face.
"Exactly," she said. "I wish he'd get another assignment here from his Ministry. If he threatened to leave, they probably would, but he doesn't want to do that." As Harry pulled the lift gate open at his stop, she said, "My mother always insists there are more fish to be Net Charmed from the sea, but you know, I don't think so. I've been spoiled by this particular fish."
Harry patted her on the shoulder; he certainly did not want her to go. "I'd miss this place, I admit," she said, low under her breath.
Harry stood holding the gate. He wanted to tell her that he wished she would stay but that she should do whatever she needed to be happy. He couldn't compose anything that complicated, so he gave her a sad smile instead.
She stepped closer and took the gate out of his hand. "I keep asking myself what I'll regret more later. I should finish this program, shouldn't I?"
Harry nodded. "Your . . ." he said, then had to point at his temple to indicate decision.
"More like here," she said, patting her chest and grinning. "You use this gesture a lot, I've noticed. You have a lot of heart, you know. Never would have expected that about you before getting to know you so well."
Harry pointed at her heart, then her forehead, then brought his hands together.
"I have to get the two to agree. Right. Wish me luck with that."
A pair of witches came down the corridor and Harry waved goodbye to Kerry Ann and the lift sank away.
In the Ministry Healer's office, Harry held out the note from Candide which specified what his trainer required in the way of a health release.
The Healer spent a lot of time looking at his fingers, which were whole and normal. Then she cast spells against his chest, shrugged, and filled out a Performance of Arduous Tasks Explicit Release form for him.
Harry went immediately back to present this to his trainer.
Rodgers spent undo time reading the form while the office observed in covert glances. "So, who's going to take Harry out Friday?"
"I will," Tonks replied.
Harry smiled at her.
"We'll take the morning shift, just to ease you back into it, okay?"
Rodgers handed Harry his form back and said, "Wise plan, my dear."
Tonks stood up. "I would take Harry out on a level five call if need be. But we haven't had one since Harry's place was attacked by The Boss." When Rodgers made a face at her, she said, "Shouldn't you be setting the apprentice admissions examination? It's mere days away."
Rodgers growled and slid by them to get to his desk chair. "Lots of applicants again this year. With a thimble of luck maybe one of them will be good enough to waste our time on."
"And that is why you are not in charge of recruiting," Shacklebolt said without looking up. "Or public relations."
At home, Harry went to the drawing room and said, "Friday. Field work," which only came out right because he had been mouthing it for a minute before he tried it.
"This moment was going to come eventually, I suppose. You will be careful. Always. Correct?" At Harry's nod, Snape picked up his small trunk from the desk. "Minerva needs assistance with closing the school year, so I will be gone this evening."
"Dinner?" Harry asked as Snape swept by.
"She and I will be eating in her office, I expect." He touched Candide on the shoulder on the way to the dining room. A second later the Floo sounded.
Candide held Arcadius out to Harry as he approached. "He's been pretty good today once we got some teething gel rubbed in. I actually got a little work done myself."
Arcadius grabbed Harry's glasses and pulled them off. Harry, with some effort, tugged them free and set them aside as he sat down and scooped up a stuffed dragon to distract him with.
"Da, da, da," Harry echoed back, then, using that momentum, said, "Dragon." Unfortunately what he could not yet say was "Arcadius."
"Field work. That's a big step," Candide said. "You hopefully are up for it."
Harry shrugged. He intended to be up for it whether he was or not. As he felt better, he continually realized how low he had been before, then realized that all over again days later. He had reached a point where he could no longer judge how he really was.
"This is Friday evening, I assume?"
Harry nodded. Arcadius settled against his arm and he thought it safe to replace his glasses and take up one of his books.
"At least they're letting you do it. That's a victory. Do they know you can talk at all?" When Harry shook his head, she said, "You should probably inform your partner that you can say a few things."
She moved as if to set aside her papers. "Do you want me to read to you?"
Harry shook his head. "Work."
"I don't mind putting this aside."
"No," Harry said, determined to figure out the words on the page before him.
The topic was muscle weakening hexes. Sometimes the words jumped right into meaning, and sometimes, frustratingly, they lost their meaning on the second read through of the page. He still found it difficult to hold in his mind more than six or seven words to weave together a full sentence's meaning. The page of words turned to gibberish, so he started again at the top, holding his fingers to mark out the phrases. If he had trouble during field work because he could not read a sign or a note, he might have to quit entirely until his mind fully improved, and he did not want to do that.
The house settled into night as Harry sat down from putting Arcadius in his swinging basket beside the couch.
"He's really been an angel tonight," Candide said. "Too bad Severus wasn't here to enjoy it." She raised her head. "Maybe he's been an angel because Severus wasn't here?"
They shared a smile. Harry wondered when Snape would be home. He searched through his pockets for his watch, but did not find it. The grandfather clock read half past eleven.
Snape returned after midnight and found everyone asleep: Harry curled on one couch, Candide reclining on the other with a file folder tented over her chest, and Arcadius in his magically swinging basket.
Arcadius barely cracked his eyes as he was lifted out of the basket. He made a humming gurgle and ever so slowly stretched and curled his fingers. Snape leisurely paced the room while holding him, basking in the peacefulness. This was not a place arrived at easily, and it called out to be revered.
Long after Arcadius had fallen back to sleep in his arms, Snape touched Harry on the shoulder. Harry lifted his head and blinked curiously at the dim room.
"Ur late," Harry whispered.
Snape nodded as he collected up the baby things that needed to go upstairs. Harry held his hands out to take the sleeping baby, but Snape gestured that Harry should go up.
"Night," Harry said.
"Good night, Harry."
The brooding tone in Snape's valediction made Harry turn back and study him.
After returning the stare, Snape's mouth cocked. He piled the bundle of small blankets and dragon into one hand and approached to brush Harry's cheek with a knuckle. His face relaxed and he softly said, "Everything is good, Harry."
The next morning Harry looked around for his watch without success. He Fetched it with a spell aimed in various directions around the house, but it did not appear. Giving up for now, Harry went downstairs early for his run, stopping only long enough to drink the tall diluted orange juice Winky handed him.
"Sanks," Harry said, which reminded him to work on "th" that morning, as well as diphthongs.
About a mile outside of Shrewsthorpe, Harry slowed as something golden flickered in the grass-studded gravel beside the road. The watch lay there, flattened, the gears ground into the gravel. Harry stopped and stared down at what remained of it, chest hollow. He picked up the front cover, wrinkled and twisted into a flat disk puckered by holes and bumps where it had been rolled over stone chips.
When the sound of passing cars quieted, he used a spell to collect up the pieces and poured them from his palm into his pocket: the tiny silver gears, the hands, the twisted ribbon of the spring. The spell collected up the broken curved glass from the face too, and this tried to cling to his skin so he had to brush it off with a finger into his pocket.
He walked back home.
"Short run, or you were up very early," Snape said when Harry came inside.
Harry scooped some of the watch out of his pocket and held it up.
"You must have dropped it."
Harry nodded, feeling unexpectedly empty. After a moment, he said, "First gift."
Snape wrapped both hands around his steaming coffee and said, "I will get you another if you wish."
Harry did not think that made sense. He rarely even went to Quidditch matches let alone played. A new one wasn't what he desired, it was to not lose this one.
Snape plucked up a gear from Harry's upraised hands. "It does not appear salvageable. Not by any spell at my command."
Harry stared at the pile of twisted gold and rust-flecked steel. "Good gift."
"I remember." Snape dropped the gear back on the pile. "It was only a day after you moved in and you were rather upset about something at the time I suggested you open it. It improved your mood markedly. I never did learn what was upsetting you. Given how carefully you were behaving otherwise, it was quite a surprise to find you angry beyond your control."
Harry shook the watch remains out of his pocket and into a decorative bowl.
"Mirror." Without explaining further, Harry Apparated for Godric's Hollow. He arrived on the far side of a large tree at the edge of the cemetery and found a family looking up at him in confusion and glancing around as if looking for the source of a noise. As he walked over the green to his parents' grave, Harry ignored them in the hopes they would ignore him.
The crystal egg was just sprouting and the mirror was still there, worn to a dull finish by the weather. Harry knelt before the gravestone and took out his wand behind it. Biting his lip, he freed the mirror and held it against his chest.
As he slipped his wand away, Harry avoided looking directly at the printing before him. They weren't dead, not entirely, a realization that made him feel five years old again, back when he was certain his situation must be some kind of mistake.
The breeze played with his hair, and he raised his head and let his eyes move over the chiseled names. His mind was not slow reading these letters. Their shapes marked out the hollow inside him.
Snape would be worrying. Harry used that vision to pull himself free of memories, not of his parents but of his childhood vision of them.
Across the cemetery, the family of four were pressing down roots of the flowers they had just planted. Rather than disturb them, Harry ducked low and slipped into the Dark Plane. As his trainers settled into the grey dust, he turned at a movement in the corner of his vision and found the boy standing some distance away.
They watched each other. Harry was just forming words when the boy turned and strode away, surrounded by a cluster of creatures who slunk along as an escort.
Harry Apparated over before him.
"Do you want to leave this place?" Harry asked, then straightened in surprise at how easy the words flowed out. He remembered then how Per used the Dark Plane to speak to him without a shared language. Harry wasn't really speaking at all.
"Leave?" the boy asked, voice rasping. His heavy brow pulled together and he glanced around like a skittish animal might when sticking its head up out of a burrow. "The bright place is not kind."
"Sometimes it is. It has its moments," Harry said, pained and distracted by how easy it was to communicate.
"It is hell." The boy started away again, then stopped, which made the creatures pile up and snap at each other before settling down again to wait. He turned to Harry.
"Home," the boy pronounced with certainty, then started off again.
Harry watched him go, then took his words as advice.
"There you are," Snape said when Harry slipped in. Snape put the paper aside and stepped closer. "I would prefer you limit Arcadius' exposure to that place, if at all possible. I did not realize you were using it again."
"Not. Of-fen," Harry said. He held the mirror up and looked at it again. The silvering was eaten away to black along the cracks in the glass. Harry had hoped to sort out his feelings about the watch by holding the mirror, but now that seemed unlikely. His neglect had destroyed the mirror too.
Snape took the mirror. "This looks familiar. Your father had something like this. Did you inherit it from him?"
Harry shook his head. "Seer-" he said, falling short.
Harry violently shook his head.
Sadly, Harry nodded. He then gestured helplessly at possibly explaining.
"I admit I am not following. If you look up at me, I may."
Harry did not want to directly share the emotions swelling up at the memory of losing Sirius. As he stood there in the main hall, the pain of five years before streamed through him as if were again beside his bed at Hogwarts, unwrapping the mirror for the first time.
"Come, sit down, Harry." He tugged on the corner of Harry's sleeve. "I think you are experiencing something that Voldemort's influence would not let you fully experience previously. Come," he repeated more forcefully.
As they sat down, Snape handed the mirror back. It barely reflected the light from the room.
Harry sniffled, then shook himself.
"I think you need to expect this to happen when a strong memory reemerges."
They sat in silence while Harry played the memory of finding the mirror, of his hopes for talking to Sirius, his sharp regret at realizing that he could have easily avoided being tricked.
Snape reached over and touched his chin, but did not pull it his way more than an inch.
"It is difficult to help you if I do not know what is wrong." He dropped his arm and settled back.
After another silence, Snape methodically said, "Sirius is the topic. And the mirror."
Harry nodded, staring bleakly out at nothing in particular on the floor ahead. He kept expecting that these reborn emotions would simply release him.
"Harry, if I could bring him back, I would, despite our enmity. Just to remove your pain."
Eyes burning, Harry nodded.
"Of course, your official godfather would never have stood for this arrangement."
Harry took a deep breath as the weight on his chest lightened at Snape's lilting tone.
"No," Harry agreed, smiling through his pain.
"Although, it would have been amusing, for me at any rate, to watch him attempt to kill Dumbledore for suggesting it."
With that, the tightness in Harry's chest released completely. He waved down a felt sack, slipped the mirror inside and sharply drew the strings tight.
"Would you like a new watch?"
Snape stood and went back to the newspaper. "Your birthday is coming up."
Harry watched Snape reading and wondered if Sirius would have understood his turning into Voldemort, how he would have coped. His godfather's strength allowed him to survive Azkaban all those years. Perhaps he would have done fine. They were the same in that way, Sirius and Snape, both stalwart against incredibly bad odds. Harry would have said something to that effect if he could have. He would have to remember to say it later, even if Snape pretended he did not want to hear it.
Snape broke into his musings. "You would do best get some breakfast so you can arrive at your training on time."
Candide and a yawning Arcadius swept in while Harry ate. She was holding a satiny envelope. "Shall I open your post for you, Harry? Looks like an invitation. Fancy paper and everything."
Harry nodded between bites.
Candide looked over the card inside and said, "So, Severus, Harry received a release for full duty from the Ministry, does he get one from you as well?"
Harry swallowed and looked up at her in curiosity. The envelope had Lord Freelander's seal on it.
Snape narrowed his eyes as he considered Harry. "I do not think quite yet."
Harry's shoulders fell.
Candide waved the card. "Want me to read it?" At Harry's nod, she said, "Lord Freelander invites you to dine two weeks hence. He also wishes to have Elizabeth Peterson attending, but does not have her address and requests that you bring her along." She waggled her eyebrows and slid the invitation back into the shiny envelope and tucked it under the edge of Harry's plate.
Harry stood and wiped his mouth before saying, "Sev . . ."
Snape interrupted, "Rather than argue, futilely I might add, why don't you arrive on time for your training this morning?"
Shoulders low, Harry pushed back and took up his satchel.
Snape stepped in his way. "You will get there, Harry. You are improving rapidly."
Harry could not push aside the acute disappointment, despite the gentle tone from his guardian.
"Right," he said, and Apparated.
Harry returned home from training and took up Arcadius as he usually did, holding him as he went through his stack of Auror books.
"You haven't been making much progress this week since you insist on reading to yourself," Candide said.
Harry grunted, determined to do better today. If he could get his mind working better, perhaps his emotions would follow. He needed to make progress quickly, given the dinner invitation.
Harry bit his lip and set aside Gem Enhanced Magic of the Southern Hemisphere and Perp Walk, Perp Talk, and stared at the next book on the pile: Ravenlocks and the Three Muggles.
Taking this up, Harry sat back with a burbling Arcadius and turned to the first page.
"Oh, I wish I knew a Moving Pictures Spell for the camera," Candide said.
"No. You. Don't."
Harry flipped past the flyleaf and the title page and studied the picture of a young witch on a broomstick zipping over dense treetops. He lazily let his eyes trace the large words while Arcadius tried to crumple the page corner. Holding the book out of reach, Harry read, "It was a. Sunny. Day. Rav. En. Locks. Took up. Her broom. And flew over . . ." The next word looked funny.
Snape came to the doorway of the drawing room and leaned on the doorframe. Harry ignored him as best he could. Arcadius pounded on the corner of the book and Harry moved it out of reach again.
"Serenedell Wood," Candide said. "That's a tough word for anyone."
Harry turned the page, which greatly excited the baby.
"I shall. Ga-zer."
"Gather," Candide said, without looking up from her papers.
Harry tried it silently a few times. "Gather giant Pol-"
"Polyferns and Grimpleberries. The Muggle books are easier, if you want. They don't amuse him as much given the still pictures."
Harry shook his head, determined to finish what he had started, especially while Snape remained in the doorway, listening in.
"But. On the way. She speed . . . spied a cut-eh . . . cute. Little. House. On a lak-eh . . . lake."
Many pages later, Harry's mind sizzled with fatigue and he was beginning to stutter. He stopped and closed his eyes in the hopes it would make the words sit still. The animated drawings beneath the printing did not help with this.
Harry rubbed his eyes, adjusted Arcadius to sit up more, and opened the book again.
"But this game was. Just right."
The drawing showed Ravenlocks before a television playing a video game with many-toothed monsters eating each other. Discarded at her feet were two rejected games involving pastel bears and falling bricks. Maybe if the games had both at the same time it would have satisfied her.
Harry turned the page. The illustration showed Ravenlocks crashed out in a beanbag chair.
"After. Eating. So many. Crisps. And pudding cups. And still-frozen pies. Raven. Locks. Fe Fe Fe fell fas' 'sleep."
As if on cue, Arcadius gave a yawn. Harry pressed his fingers against his eyes to rest them again.
From over his shoulder, Candide said, "When she awoke, Ravenlocks, to her horror, found that the Muggles had returned home. They were sweeping the kitchen with her flying broomstick!"
Harry realized he needed to turn the page.
"They were using her best hat as a coffee filter and worst of all they had put wart cream on her nose while she slept! Ravenlocks leapt up, grabbed her broomstick away from mamma Muggle, shook her fist at the lot of them, and flew home, never to return."
The last illustration was of Ravenlocks reclining on giant mushrooms in her straw and stone house, attended by fairies, smoking a long pipe.
"The wart on her nose never did grow back properly. The End."
Harry closed the book. "Thanks."
"You got farther than I thought you would."
Snape uncrossed his arms and returned to his desk. Harry dearly wished his shoddy reading did not feel so much like a victory.
Candide happily whispered, "And you put Arcadius to sleep."
"You will be alert and prudent during your shift this morning, correct?" Snape asked, taking hold of Harry's sleeve to get his attention.
It was early, the usual time Harry went for a run. Anyone thinking of evildoing would be asleep at a time like this. Harry pulled out his slates and put them both in his pocket again. "I will."
"And do not be too honest."
Snape still held Harry's sleeve. "I should be pleased to be worried only about your being an Auror, shouldn't I?"
Harry wanted to express confidence, but knew that would only worry Snape more.
"Careful," Harry promised.
Snape released him and crossed his arms. "I will hold you to that."
Tonks was waiting for the lift when Harry arrived. "You're early. We have patrol. I couldn't convince Reggie to give us an assignment."
Harry waited until they were strolling a rather rundown area of Central Blackpool before he said, "Tonks."
Tonks slowed and glanced around. Harry had to repeat her name to get her to look over at him.
"Harry? You can talk?"
She shook his arm. "That's great, Harry." She dropped his arm and peered at him suspiciously. "Why are you so quiet at the Ministry?"
Harry made a pained face, unable to say, "Well, because I sound like a child," without proving it as well. "Bad . . ." he began, but gave up. Words were escaping him in front of her, fleeing before he could organize them and push them toward his tongue.
"It's great, Harry. Reggie has been making quite a stink."
"You want to duel Reggie?" She laughed, which caused a man shuffling by in battered clothes to glare at her with popping eyes. "Harry, if it comes to that, I'll help you arrange it."
They arrived at the only occupied shop on the street. Hookahs and crystal balls lined the dusty window. The neon sign danced with light even though the cord to it dangled in view, unplugged. Tonks put her hand on the door and said, "We'll just check in, see if anyone has any concerns. Might as well make our presence felt if we can't do anything immediately useful."
The shop went completely silent and remained that way while Tonks talked to the proprietor, a Mediterranean woman with long wavy hair. She spent most of her time watching Harry who stayed just off Tonks' right shoulder.
Outside again, Tonks said, "Maybe with you along, outreach isn't going to work so well."
Tonks made a thoughtful face. "Maybe we'll just have to stick with the unsavory places. You'll be bloody useful there."
Harry peered up and down the road and wondered what that could possibly look like. Tonks released Harry's arm as they arrived in a stinking empty storefront where the shards of the front windows were held suspended in space by crisscrossed cloth tape.
"A few wizards who want to conduct business even dodgier than that tolerated on Knockturn Alley have opened a few shops here. They call it E-turn Alley."
Harry followed through a winding maze of brick-walled ruins open to the sky. At least the smell improved as they went, although Harry's curse sense began to bother him. He had to overcome strong aversion to make himself step through the apparently fallen fire escape securing the entrance.
Tonks walked with the same confidence she walked everywhere. Harry had his wand out as they stepped into a miniature square complete with a cracked fountain and half dead trees. Only three shops were occupied and the two hooded patrons on the square stopped cold and stared at them.
The cursedness of the place made it hard to think. Harry made his eyes roam systematically around the square: up to the first floor windows, along the gutters, over the cracked stones at their feet.
One hooded figure turned suddenly and entered the nearest doorway, The Hungry Soul, which bore a sign depicting a screaming skeleton with an outstretched hand.
"Let's start with this one," Tonks strode across the cobbles to a shop with no sign, but the dirt on the window had been cleaned selectively to say Terror's D'Lite.
"Let me be certain I have this straight," the deathly thin, middle-aged shopkeeper standing among a broad array of cursed traps and cages was saying, "The Ministry wishes to know if I have any concerns."
"Correct," Tonks said.
The man stared at Harry a long time. Mind Occluded, Harry gazed passively back. The proprietor licked his lips. Passive gazes unnerved more in a place like this, it seemed.
The man stood straighter. "I cannot believe you are here to help."
"We're here to listen."
The man looked at Harry again, seemingly judging everything Tonks said in light of Harry's presence.
The man glanced side to side, then made a dubious face and said, "Well, we were banned from running an advert on the Falcon's scoreboard for E-Turn Alley. We thought that highly unfair." Speaking lower and faster, he said, "Beyond that, we'd like to be left alone. Thank you. Perhaps you can be going now?"
Tonks grinned. "Scaring the customers away, are we?"
"It cannot help."
Tonks slid her card over to him. "I realize that we are at odds, Mr. Widowmacher, but I also realize that if you blokes here . . ." She gestured to include the square outside. "Ever encounter something you cannot deal with, we'd really like to know right away. There aren't ever enough Aurors . . . witness the continued existence of your shop here . . . so we have to prioritize. And it's always good to have more eyes on things."
The man looked at her card, looked at Harry again, then made a face that appeared conciliatory.
Outside on the Muggle street again after visiting each of the shops, Tonks said, "Well, that was fun. Been meaning to pay a visit there. You're very useful, Harry."
Harry swallowed a sigh as they walked on, happy to be useful, but wishing he could choose who he frightened and who he did not.
Tonks sped up through the normal Muggle areas. She slowed down again when they reached an abandoned warehouse district and pulled Harry to a halt.
"I noticed that Arthur was working out how to downgrade the sentencing for a certain Durumulna lackey." Tonks frowned and stared off at nothing. "He hasn't said a word to me. I should go confess."
Harry tried to imagine what Snape would say. He put a hand on her shoulder. "No."
"No," he repeated when she made a pained face.
"I don't know, Harry. This is killing me."
"Was right," Harry insisted, especially given that it was his fault she had been boxed into doing what she'd done.
Tonks huffed. "Well, if you're saying this."
"I am." Harry tried to speak forcefully, but his voice came out as a harsh whisper. As emphatically as possible, he said, "NO."
Harry heaved a sigh when they Apparated into the Atrium. He shuffled on tender feet toward the lifts, and wondered if there was some kind of magical foot massaging socks for sale somewhere.
"Shift went all right," Tonks announced as they stepped inside the Aurors' office.
Mr. Weasley stood up from the spare desk. "I'm pleased as Punch to hear that. But before he goes home, I would like a word with Harry. But it can wait until your reports are finished."
"No reports on a shift like that."
Said Rodgers, "There better not be any reports. I told Tonks to steer well clear of action."
Tonks gave Harry a wink. "We did Reggie. We just walked around. Chatted with some nice folks."
Mr. Weasley said, "My office then, Harry."
Tonks watched them go, concern taking over her gaze.
"Harry . . ." Mr. Weasley began just as he pushed the door closed. "Take my chair, I saw how you were walking after patrol," he added as he leaned back against the office door, still holding the handle.
Harry took the only chair in the room.
Mr. Weasley slowly shook his head. "Well, Harry, I must be getting old and soft as I'm going to let some things go. One of which is dragging Severus in here for questioning."
Harry kept his face neutral, glad his Snape-judgment steered Tonks correctly.
Mr. Weasley looked up at the ceiling. "I don't like doing it, but doing otherwise would be a massive distraction. I can't do it without turning everything upside-down. No one is pursuing Percy's accusations except me. Well, Cornelius would be if he could bear to question his own successes. Not likely to happen. Minerva is going to slip the sentencing changes past the Wizengamot." He made a funny face. "One advantage to never learning the poor bloke's real name is we can file a motion with whatever name we want. So, I feel we're making everything as fair as possible."
He patted Harry on the shoulder and Harry stood up. "I'm not entirely happy, Harry, so do me a favor and don't make any trouble for a while. I try to remember a few of the things the Order did over the years to defeat Voldemort and remind myself this was just more of the same goal and we are past it all now."
"But, that said, given Severus' background, I think you should watch what you say. All right?"
Harry nodded. "Yes."
"Good then." Mr. Weasley's gaze snapped up. "You said yes."
Harry closed his eyes to concentrate on saying, "I. Can. Little . . . Talk. Little."
"Oh. Well, Harry, that's wonderful. Reggie will be pleased to hear-"
Harry deflated a bit. "Sound. Child."
Mr. Weasley appeared quite compassionate. "Everyone has to start somewhere, Harry."
Harry hooked one last photograph under the gummed corners and pushed his head up to see the effect. He had had rather a large number of loose photographs stuck in the back of his other album, stuck in books, rattling in boxes.
Flipping through the nice stiff pages, Harry had to admit yet again that he was grateful for Colin Creevey's, at the time, annoying picture taking. Harry made a few more short notes and doodles around the photos with a Neat Write Quill. Turning to some of the pictures still brought forth renewed pain, but they had lost their sharp edge now. Putting the book together had made his eyes hot many times, something Snape would probably say was good for him. Whenever Snape approached, Harry had put the book away and pretended to be working on something else. Looking through it with his guardian risked undoing him. There was one world inside the album and another outside it, and he felt it best if they remained apart.
Harry flipped by pictures of him and his friends in the shops of Hogsmeade, in the Gryffindor common room, illegally practicing Animagia. He watched his captured face move, react. He had been a different person then, small, imprisoned. But he had been stronger too, stealing someone else's strength for his own. Without Voldemort's strength he may not have survived to defeat Voldemort. The realization made it easier to bear his more recent guilt.
Since the scenes saddened him, passing them on to Hermione seemed like a good idea. She would see only what they had all shared, where Harry now saw what he had lacked. He had not really lived, touching the world only through a cipher. He lived the scenes in the pictures more now than he had then, making them snares of a sort. He had lacked so much.
Harry thought of his disastrous attempts to capture what he had missed by traveling to those other places. That same regret about the past had driven him to see his parents, to see Dumbledore, and his interference had destroyed that perfection. Harry rubbed his eyes. He could not do anything more for that place except rue it, and it ate away at his heart every time he admitted that all over again.
The album made a satisfying thud as it dropped into the felt-lined box it came with. Harry had planned to take it to Hermione that evening, but he should do so in a better mood than this. Next time, he should not take the album out of the box.
Snape came to Harry's bedroom door just as Harry was tying a ribbon around the box.
"You have finished whatever mysterious thing you have been working on?"
"Yeah." Harry pushed the beribboned box aside.
Snape stepped in and tilted his head, then turned to look at the one remaining book in the corner of the room. "You kept that one." He fetched it up and brought it over. "It must not be inherently dark if you did so."
Harry shook his head. Snape placed it on the desk, letting it fall open in the middle to a page showing the ribs of a wrecked ship reaching out of foam-flecked sand. Snape's eyes fixed in the center of the page, which Harry knew would not bring forth a message.
"Can you read it?" Snape asked.
Harry started to shake his head, but then paused as decorative words began to assemble.
Harry traced the border where skeletons poked out of the sand surrounded by rusty swords and helms. The sand washed aside, tossing coins and a smashed treasure chest. Within the frame, the words shuddered and squirmed. You can never regain what has been lost. The past will always haunt you. Treasure and the future always contain pain. Nothing can be escaped, even in death.
But Harry knew all that. The album he had just assembled for Hermione had told him that.
Harry turned the book toward Snape. "Read," he said.
Snape hesitated speaking, eyes roving. "It says: What you treasure most dearly is always the most fragile. You will lose it, eventually. It will either wither, turn upon you, or abandon you." He closed the cover and ran his hand over it. "Pleasant book. And for you it said?"
Harry tossed his shoulders back. "Whatever." In a way it was just like all the other books from the vault, overcome by a show of strength.
Snape's gaze was still far away. Harry said, "We aren't. Fragile."
Mouth cocked, Snape removed his hand from the book. "No, we are not."