The Aurors' office stood in silence. Harry stepped by it, glancing in at Rogan, who was reading from the topmost file of a foot high stack. Harry found Mr. Weasley around the corner in his office, yawning broadly. His clock yawned too and stuck its tongue out.
"Ah, Harry. You're nice and early, come in."
Hopeful that it would tone down his dressing down, if that was this meeting's purpose, Harry pushed the guest chair backward into the open doorway before sitting down.
Mr. Weasley stared at his clasped hands. "I continue to be impressed with Severus. You can tell him that if you like. Of course, he didn't make our job any easier, sitting where you are and lying to me about you." The clock had continued to make faces. Mr. Weasley picked it up and set it behind a neat row of Ministry manuals. "Turns out he was exactly right. But I was reminded yesterday that it always pays to keep tabs on Severus' loyalties in any dealings with him."
Harry did not know why Mr. Weasley was sharing this, so he said nothing.
Mr. Weasley's chair squeaked as he leaned back. "You look a bit worried about why I wanted to talk to you. I learned raising my sons that that's rather a worrisome sign. Worried about something we might find out?" He sounded not entirely teasing.
Harry wanted to shake his head, but could not. It was not entirely true that nothing worried him. He did not want the Ministry to find out what Tonks had done, nor that Harry had been playing with things across dimensions. But without a lie available, he had nothing.
Mr. Weasley waited more. "Severus tells me you are still finding your way around your own head, so perhaps we'll leave such a difficult question for another time."
Harry schooled himself to avoid appearing relieved.
"How is training going, Harry?"
"Okay. Glad back."
"Glad TO BE back."
Harry nodded then realized he was expected to repeat it properly. "Glad to. BE back."
Mr. Weasley lifted his chin and frowned. He appeared to get back to his purpose, saying, "I don't approve of what Reggie did. I don't like my Auror trainer engaging in this sort of behavior with the apprentices. I would have expected you to know better as well."
The desire to defend himself battled with Harry's desire to not speak more.
"Something to say?" Mr. Weasley prompted.
Harry had no choice. "I convinced. Rodg . . . him."
"You convinced Reggie that you deserve to stay. Yes, I noticed that." As he said this his gaze zeroed in on Harry. "Have you looked into having this treated?"
"Don't want." Harry kept his voice as unaffected as possible. It had been a while since he had to fight both himself and the world at the same time and he was out of practice.
"I assume you have a good reason."
Mr. Weasley waited, but finally turned to the file before him, closing and opening it. "The distraction of Percy's trial bought you some time, Harry. Once it was clear Percy had been trying to harm you, or worse, through all of this, you were granted some forgiveness by the Wizengamot." He dropped the file on another pile. "I have to tell you, I don't expect that to last. You had better hope something else comes along to distract them before they remember. After enough time has passed, and you manage a few impressive deeds, the threat will be mitigated."
Mr. Weasley patted the armrest of his chair. "I thought I should make certain you understand your position."
Harry moved to stand, considered remaining silent, but decided that was a mistake. "Have support?" he asked.
Distracted already, Mr. Weasley jerked his gaze back around and Harry saw a mirror behind his eyes: he did not want to lie.
After drawing in a slow breath, Mr. Weasley said, "Yes, but I admit I don't believe we understood your condition. You are here for your second year, for certain." He hesitated before adding, "I won't lead you on, Harry. I think you'll be evaluated at the end of that time as to whether there'll be a third year."
"Better silent," Harry said, standing up.
"Oh . . . I don't want you to think that. You should share what you have to say, no matter how you are going to say it."
Harry gently pushed the chair to the side to make it clear he was calm, then bowed his head and departed.
Training that day went well for Harry. As far as Rodgers was concerned it was as if Harry has faded into the background. He was given no more or less attention than Tridant. When Harry spent time writing out a note requesting next weekend's field work be moved to another time, Rodgers glanced away and continued his review of tracking spells.
"Your meeting with Arthur went how?" Snape asked as soon as Harry returned home.
Snape stared at the thick envelope he held as he asked, "You are not certain how it went?"
"Not sure. About me."
Snape stopped and turned. "You have traded Rodgers for Arthur, you are saying?"
"We can get you there in that time," Snape said, returning to his post.
"No one believes in Harry," Candide said, adjusting the linen draped over Arcadius, who was nursing.
Harry handed Snape the note from Shacklebolt which had the night shift field assignments he had traded for the upcoming weekend.
Snape glanced at it and handed it back before putting a blade to the envelope he held. Distractedly he said, "As long as Harry believes in Harry, that is all that matters."
Tonks caught Harry as he exited the training room the next evening. "How about we catch a quick bite before starting shift?"
A quick bite meant nibbling the edge of a searing hot pie while walking along the pavement on the way to St. Mungo's. "We're going to try interviewing students again," Tonks said around a mouth of pie crust. "I'm not sure if your presence is going to help or hurt, but we're not getting anywhere with them in the little time the Healers will allow, and half are going home in the morning and who knows if we'll find them after that before school starts again."
Ferro, the student Blackpool interviewed last time, lay deathly still, her skin paler, the flesh around her eyes coarse and blue-black. She lay on her side but with her head canted toward the ceiling, like someone with a broken neck. A tall witch with a satiny black collar on her robes sat at her side, alternately knitting and patting the girl on the hand.
Tonks studied the scene before taking up the chart. She stepped away and Harry followed. "She's not getting released tomorrow. I wonder what sort of state of the others are in."
The witch's hopeful gaze came up at the sound of the chart being hung back on the footboard.
"We're from the Ministry Aurors' office, Madame. We were hoping to speak with you daughter again."
The woman's gaze shifted into the near distance. "The Aurors' office . . ." she dazedly repeated. "It must truly be very bad magic then." She picked her daughter's hand up and held it.
"We don't know what it is," Tonks said. "Has she been awake?"
They went around to the others, stopping at the first who sported a healthy pallor. Raymus Humjay, a Sixth Year, stopped chewing his dinner as they approached, holding it so it pushed out his cheek. He locked gazes with Harry as they approached, swallowed hurriedly, and pushed his tray aside.
With an official air, Tonks pulled a chair over and sat down. "We want to know what happened the night you fell ill."
Raymond's face shifted through three expressions before hardening. "I can't say."
Harry waited to catch his eye again, to see beyond them if possible. Raymond glanced between them as if to gauge the reaction to his statement. Harry only collected faint impressions of other students, laughing, sitting close, the room full of colors and rocking from movement. As Tonks went on questioning and Raymond's gaze fretted between the two of them, Harry caught a bit more because it was repeated: a promise not to say, a Lips Sealed Charm, it looked like from the wand motion.
Tonks stood and moved the bed in the corner of the ward, with no better luck. Out in the corridor while they waited for the Healer, Tonks said, "I hate to pull out hard-nosed interrogation tactics on them, but I don't think we have any choice. I think I can start with Humjay, he seemed the most nervous, tell him someone implicated him, but I have to figure out what or who is likely the culprit so I can imply the right implication."
Harry waited until a group of powder-blue clad personnel went by before trying to talk. "Vow," he said. "They have. Vow charm."
Tonks pulled her attention from her far away planning to fix it on Harry. "Oh, do they? Must be a strong one if not a single one is talking. You can sense that spell on them?"
Harry pointed at his eyes. "Saw."
Tonks crossed her arms. Her hair pulsed back to pink and stood up a bit. "What else did you see?"
"Yeah, we knew that already. Well, let's see if we can get more than one word at a time out of the Healer. And not get tossed out on the street for getting in his way."
All Harry got out of the interview with the Healer was that the man's prickly attitude was due to his frustration over being unable to diagnose his patients.
They interviewed all the students awake enough to be interviewed, then went off to interview the families.
"I wish you would tell me what was going on, I tell you," Mr. Ferro, the father of the most ill student, said when Tonks stated their purpose.
The narrow-shouldered man took a seat at his fine dining room table and then gestured for them to join him. He sat slumped. "Well you have Harry Potter on the case, at least. Maybe you'll get somewhere."
Harry thought that his mistaken faith would remain intact so long as Harry did not try any three word sentences in front of him.
Tonks did all the talking, but they learned little. The students returned home from school and had a party. The Aurors' office knew this; they had already been to the scene of it. Tonks took Harry there when it grew too late to do interviews. It was the unused thirteenth floor of a hotel in Manchester, a common hangout. The Muggles thought numbering out the entire floor completely logical and did not even miss it.
Harry circled the rooms, which had long ago been cut open to make a rough single space, peppered with makeshift bars where the kitchenettes had been. He did not sense anything except one discarded cursed hatpin.
Tonks picked up a tall glass with a smeared rim and held it to the light. "The tests on everything were negative, but someone cleaned up a bit." She caught his gaze. "You should see what this place normally looks like. Feel anything?" When he shook his head, she frowned.
She rotated the glass one more time and set it down again, waved a spell that returned it to its original spot and said, "Let's go do something useful. It's going to be a long night if we're bored."
"Remain," Vineet said. "Even if you have seemingly moved in for the summer, I will fetch it. You are my guest."
Hermione laid her hands atop her fork and knife. They did not need straightening, but she did so anyway. "Sorry, I'm so used to constantly doing something that needs doing."
Vineet put down an elaborate silver rice dish. A rush of steam escaped when Hermione peaked under the lid. "I'm afraid I'll relax just at the time school starts up again. Mmm, that smells like nuts."
"It's just rice."
Hermione barely let the next item reach the table. "Oh my favorite."
Shards of poppadum scattered as she broke one over her plate.
"I make ambol and prawns in mustard just for you and you are only interested in the papad," Vineet said.
Crunching away, Hermione gave him an apologetic look.
"I included only half the mustard oil on the prawns," he said as he pulled out his chair. "And I used ripe mango and no fish head in the soup."
Hermione took a speckled poppadum from the basket and bent it low on her plate until it shattered to join the first.
He had gone back to the kitchen, so she called out, "I saw you had an official looking letter from India today."
Vineet returned with serving spoons and another serving bowl emitting a column of chili-laden steam. "You could have looked at it if you wished." He lifted the lid on a bowl of chickpeas in a dark oily sauce.
"I wouldn't do that." Hermione leaned forward to look over the table. "Do you have the chutney?"
"The chutney is here." He placed a stone bowl closer to her. It caught up the tablecloth, pulling it into ripples.
Hermione stared at it doubtfully. "But it has a lot of raw onion in it."
Vineet dropped his arms slack. "You cannot refer to the one in the jar."
Hermione crunched a bit more, eyes innocently wide. She did not hold the expression long before laughing.
Vineet sat down and said with finality, "Tomorrow I am making a spell specifically for the expungement of jarred things."
"As long as we keep using silverware."
"Hm," Vineet said, sounding doubtful.
"And plates," she said, handing hers over for filling.
"Fortunately for you the banana leaves here are of very poor availability." Vineet filled both their plates and adjusted his napkin. "The letter was a personal one from the solicitor. He thinks Nandi has become agreeable. Under the governing Dissolution of Magical Marriage Act, this is essential."
Hermione picked up poppadum crumbs off the tablecloth with her finger and licked them off. "Maybe she found someone."
Vineet paused after lifting his fork and spoon. "That would be good. My mother always wanted a daughter to marry off."
Hermione sipped at the fish soup, trying not to make a face at the pungent sweet flavor. "They are still getting along, then?"
"Very well. They were meant to be family, apparently."
"That leaves you out, though."
They ate in silence until Vineet said, "If my mother changes her mind I will tell her what I did with the Mark."
Hermione nearly dropped her spoon into the soup. "You would?"
His voice was pleasantly level. "It would make her very happy to be so justified. I could not make her so happy another way."
Hermione glanced around the table as if looking for an anchor. "But you insist on making her recipes for me."
Vineet paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth. "This is completely different. It is regarding food."
Arcadius gave a squawk of greeting as Harry ducked out of the hearth after the next day's training.
"Hello, stranger," Candide said with a grin. "How was the night shift?"
Harry rubbed his eyes, reviewing his foggy day of training. "Good," he said, then cleared his throat.
Candide turned his way again, eyes engaged this time. "Are you fit enough for these night shifts?"
Harry collected his post, resisting rubbing his eyes again. The top letter was from Suze and he did not have to pretend interest in it. "Yes. Sev," Harry said.
She sounded amused as she said, "He actually hates being called that, you know. But he lets you get away with it."
Something sizzled in the main hall, one of the protective spells. Harry had his wand out, but Snape swept by the door to the dining room, pointing at Harry. "You will remain here."
Snape's footsteps faded and the front door opened.
"Oh, that again," Candide said. She held a spoon of food up for Arcadius, who made a thoroughly disgusted face before opening his mouth.
"What?" Harry said. He put his post down and started for the hall. He hesitated at the door to the dining room, debating whether he was expected to remain with Candide and Arcadius for their sake, which had not been his impression. Snape returned before Harry could decide.
"Same?" Candide asked as she used the spoon to scrape porridge from Arcadius' chin.
Harry glanced sharply between them, feeling annoyance heating his face. Snape did not reply.
"What?" Harry asked again, putting his wand away. He could not imagine why they would keep something from him as if he were as witless as he feared he sounded.
"People coming to be de-cursed," Candide said, fully distracted by Arcadius throwing his arms up and down and upsetting his porridge bowl. A wand wave returned the scattered blobs to the bowl.
Harry turned to Snape, but Candide spoke. "The man who came this morning was . . . not right in the head. I don't know whether he was really cursed or not."
"Were. Wolves?" Harry asked Snape directly, expecting him to answer.
Snape said, "All sorts of maladies." He finally turned to Harry. "I informed them that there is a queue already. Most of them are as Candide describes. If they are cursed it is foremost with other difficulties, real and imagined."
"Fortunately, we're leaving Friday for the seaside," Candide said, sounding as if she wanted to soothe Snape's mood.
An owl came to the window. Snape intercepted it before Harry could get there. "It is addressed to me," Snape said, snapping it away.
"Owls blocked?" Harry asked. He had not received any post regarding de-cursing.
Snape did not answer. Candide said, "Harry will need the break this weekend after two night shifts in three days."
This brought Snape's gaze to Harry with a new sharpness. Harry did not want the topic changed, but Snape said, "How was your shift?"
Harry shrugged. "Owls?" he said, sounding firm.
But Snape ignored his question. "What did your duties entail last night?"
Harry huffed, wanting to share the news. "Ill students."
"How is that investigation progressing? Minerva tells me only half the students have been released by the Healers." He sounded critical, in general.
"Can't or won't?"
"Won't," Harry said, following the rules to get even for the interference with his post and the visitors. He dropped his gaze and opened his letter from Suze. It was a decorative party invitation with scrolling text he could not follow except for the animated map, but he imagined it would be a good opportunity to learn more about what happened to the ill students, then he felt badly for thinking that right off.
Snape spoke into Harry's thoughts. "I'll assume that means the Ministry is making no progress in its investigation." Snape's gaze fell distant and concerned until he returned it to the letter he held. After half a minute, he pushed it into Harry's hand. "Remus sent this."
Harry tilted the paper to the light from the window. The narrow slanted writing, despite sitting still, also refused to form into words.
Snape said, "He wants to bring someone to you this weekend. Apparently his little group of friends voted on who should be next." He took the letter back and pocketed it. "I'll write and tell him to come Monday, then?"
"Friday," Harry said. "Before go."
"If you insist. But not here, in any event."
"Friday," Harry repeated.
"I agreed to that. Still working on that guilt, are you?" Snape asked. But he did not wait for a reply.
The next morning Harry encountered his fellow trainees in the corridor outside the lift, chatting amiably, evicted from the training room for applicant testing.
Rodgers came through. "All of you out of sight, the first applicant is due. Shoo. Shoo."
They followed their trainer to the break room. "Stay in here or go do something useful with yourselves elsewhere in the Ministry."
"Oh, I want to watch," Kerry Ann said, pulling up a chair and leaning forward to glance into the crystal ball on the table.
Tonks came in carrying a notepad and quills.
"I dislike this," Tridant said, sounding far away.
"Surprised you passed, in that case," Rodgers said, stealing Tonks' notepad. "You're doing the first candidate," he said in response to her blameful expression. "It's a cocky young buck I want overconfident before he goes in. Try to look small and cute . . . until the evil wizard test. Oh, and mix an extra strong batch of serum for him; he looks like he deserves it."
Tonks stood and pushed past Tridant in the doorway, her face a mixture of amused and chagrined.
"Go help man the office," Rodgers said without looking up. "We don't need this many evaluators." When they all looked at each other, Rodger said, "Potter's useless otherwise, so he should stay."
Harry took a seat across from his trainer. Kerry Ann frowned at him and glanced at Rodgers who was drawing grids on blank pages. Harry shook his head and smiled.
Out in the corridor Tonks was talking with someone, then footsteps faded and a door closed. Harry remembered his own testing: the blood, the phobia exposure, and finally being asked to trust the evaluator, absolutely. Vineet took a seat, and the others shuffled out.
"Duel?" Harry said to his trainer.
Rodgers pushed the notepad away and stretched his arms. "We don't need another duel, Potter."
"You two had a duel?" Kerry Ann asked. "Who won?"
Harry found that he did not wish her to know. He shook his head.
Vineet said, "There is no question who won."
"No?" She looked at each of them in turn.
Rodgers pulled his notepad close as a tiny figure of a young man stepped into view on the crystal ball. "At least I retain someone's faith." He waved a hand in front of Kerry Ann as she started to say more. "Quiet now."
The first candidate, as cocky as Rodgers predicted, made it easily through everything, but refused to drink more truth serum, becoming spittle-spewing belligerent in response to his chained and naked predicament.
"Is Tonks needing help?" Vineet asked, unlocking his folded arms and putting his hands on the table.
"No," Rodgers said.
Tonks waved a sleeping mist from her wand and the applicant collapsed. Rodgers tore the top page from the notepad and folded it saying, "You want to remove someone's mask— take away every last vestige of their power and hold a mirror up to them."
"How you do?" Harry asked after the paper had been folded three times.
Rodgers' face elongated in a mocking expression, then he laughed.
Vineet calmly asked, "Would you be allowing yourself into this program?"
Rodgers pointed with his quill. "I get productive when I get angry; I'll have you know. I did get very angry, I'll admit. Fortunately, baldly insulting the proctor, a old Auror by the name of Bitrather, didn't disqualify me. I eventually remembered it was my fault I was there at all and I behaved myself." He pushed to his feet. "I think I'll do the next one."
Tonks did not return while they waited. Harry said, "Hermione?"
"You are inquiring of me?" Vineet said. "She is well." He glanced at Kerry Ann and hesitated. "Things which have been a topic between us previously are progressing."
"What things?" Kerry Ann asked.
"Things," Vineet stated coldly.
"He thinks I'm a gossip, doesn't he?" Kerry Ann asked Harry.
"Knows." Harry teased.
Kerry Ann leaned forward. "Vishnu, you are so deliciously enigmatic. How about I share something about my personal life and then you share something of yours?"
Vineet sat back. "If you have something left to share I cannot imagine what it might be."
Kerry Ann's retort was interrupted by Askunk being led into the testing room. Harry listened as Rodgers doled out a variation on the same advice he had given him. "Only you can defeat yourself, nothing else in this place can."
Even shrunk down and viewed through the scratched surface of the crystal, Askunk's determination was clear. Unlike the last candidate, she wanted to be there. She had been angry last year that Ginny had been allowed through to this stage while she had not.
"Snake tests are always a wash with Slytherins," Kerry Ann said as that test concluded.
"Aaron was not liking the snake, at all," Vineet said.
"Oh, that's why he and I get along so well," Kerry Ann said with a wink. "Never thought I'd tolerate a Slytherin."
Harry stretched his legs while the agoraphobia and claustrophobia tests were conducted, too rapid to allow for recovery in between. He paid the snack cart for a biscuit and kept pacing through the serum test until a tinny voice said to Rodgers in his Dark Wizard guise, "What's with you? Did your mother drop you on your head too many times?"
Kerry Ann put her head on the table and started laughing. "Serves Rodgers right."
The tiny figure of Rodgers waved his wand and light exploded in the crystal ball, then flames.
"What's he doing?" Kerry Ann asked, leaning forward.
"You seem unimpressed," Rodgers said, pacing about the cell. "Also, you insult my mother, who isn't here, which isn't terribly sporting of you."
"Aurors are supposed to be sporting? Since when?"
"She makes a valid point," Vineet said.
Askunk tugged on a chain and sat back as if getting comfortable. "Isn't this test supposed to be hard?"
Rodgers paused before replying. "Depends." He paced again. "Depends on what you think is being tested."
"You are testing if I've got something wrong in my head. That I get scared like a little child at bogeymen."
A steaming chalice appeared in Rodgers' hand. "That's not what I'm testing now. I'm testing something I don't think you can handle." His smirk was clear, even as reduced as it was. "You get cheeky and talkative under half a dose of Veritaserum. You know that?"
There was a pause. "You gave me Veritaserum. Without telling me?"
Rodgers gestured broadly. "I haven't taken any, so why should I warn you?" He stepped closer, holding the chalice out. "And I have more for you. Veritaserum and more. A nice concoction of quieting potions to make you amenable to anything. You get to drink this and then spend another half hour in here with me." He held the cup out, closer to her nose. "That's the test."
Neither of them moved. Harry began counting to himself. He made it to twenty before Rodgers said, almost too low to hear, "See, I knew it." He continued to steadily hold the chalice out. "You complain, whinge I should say, that we don't let Slytherins be Aurors and now you know why. You have to trust someone to be an Auror. Not a lot of people, really just your fellow Aurors, but someone. You clearly trust yourself, and that's admirable, and far rarer than you know, but you are incapable of trusting anyone else."
He withdrew the chalice and stood with it in both hands. "If I let you in, you will end up dead."
Harry sat down again as Kerry Ann sniffled. In the crystal ball, Askunk was wiping her cheeks like one disgusted with her tears.
"Half an hour?" Askunk asked.
"Half an hour."
"What's in it?" Her voice squeaked, strained now.
"You want the list?" Rodgers asked, filled with the disdain she had lost. "Veritaserum, a full dose this time, Quieting Brew, and a little modification on Adsentious Broth I call Divine Compliance." The last rolled off his tongue with disquieting pleasure.
"That's an awful list." Askunk rubbed her arms, acting far more vulnerable. "I have to do this?" she asked.
"You fail if you don't. I just tore up the application of the candidate before you who refused."
Askunk closed her eyes and held her hand out. "Give it over."
Rodgers held the chalice out. Askunk swallowed a sip and made a face as she held the cup away. "Realize that after this, I'm going to hunt you down and kill you if do anything to me." She took a defiant gulp then and hunched a bit, looking sheepishly up at Rodgers.
Sounding exasperated, Rodgers said, "I'd expect nothing less." Rodgers took the empty chalice back and asked, "So, anything you don't want us to know?"
"I have no respect for the lot of you."
Rodgers laughed. "Is that so? Well, why are you hoping to join us then?"
"It's the best thing going?"
"I like her," Kerry Ann said. "I hope she's in."
Vineet sat back. "She would bring much needed balance now that Harry is harmless."
"Not harmless," Harry blurted.
"Oh Harry," Kerry Ann said, shaking her head sadly while appearing to force down a smile. "You are so harmless."
Vineet crossed his arms. "Hopefully that is an acceptable specialty of Auror."
"You haven't been angry once since you came back," Kerry Ann said.
Harry wanted to argue with her, but his thoughts were piling up at the stage of making words. Flushed, but with dismay, not anger, he pulled the notepad over as a distraction, then realized he could not make out the labels on the columns.
"Oh, I'll do that," Kerry Ann eagerly volunteered and Harry slid the notepad over to her. "She's going to confess some fun things."
The shades were drawn down in Remus' flat, blocking out the morning light. Harry stepped ahead of Snape and into the cramped room despite the aversion the place held. The overnight shift had left him floating on fatigue, but he hid it behind easy movements.
Lupin gestured at the figures who had stood. "These are my compatriots, Oscar and Josephine and this is Philemon." A boy of about ten jumped slightly and turned to face them. He was dark skinned with high cheekbones and hair shaved back from his forehead.
Lupin went on, "We couldn't decide on one of us in time. Josephine had already been in contact with the Dutch Magical Rescue about a persecuted wizard boy they were bringing out of Limpopo." Lupin paused, glancing at the woman before going on. "Most of the children accused of witchcraft are not magical, but Philemon, here, is. He has the misfortune of being the sole survivor of twins, which makes the Muggles suspicious. A foster placement will be considerably easier to arrange, to say the least, if his Lycanthropy is cured."
Everyone's eyes were large in the low light. Oscar coughed nervously into his hand. "It's like Remus says. We couldn't agree. Even on how to decide, and it was causing a bit of a row. So we thought it best to let someone else have a turn."
Harry watched the boy while everyone watched him. Their wide gazes turned to Snape when Harry did not respond.
Lupin said, " He was only bitten a few months before he left home. I hope that will make it easier for Harry."
Josephine stepped up to the boy and bent to speak to him. The face on her carved wooden necklace began speaking at the same time, low and strange. The boy's face compressed thoughtfully, but his eyes dodged away from Harry.
"He understands," Josephine said, stepping back, but retaining a hand on the boy's shoulder. The boy shrugged her hand off and squared off at Harry, like a dueler might.
"He was chased from his village," Lupin said apologetically.
Harry raised a hand to still Lupin. The boy's defiance against a hostile world certainly could not offend him.
"Chair," Harry said as he stood looking down at the boy.
Lupin grabbed one up and positioned it while Harry steered the boy to sit. The hard bones and muscles under Harry's hands matched the fierce face of the boy, but he did not resist. His eyes contained a tumbled mix of impressions: of him, matched against expectation, and of this new, cold place.
The boy's head snapped over to look beyond Harry. Harry turned and found that his guardian had pulled his wand. Previously, Harry would have seen that clearly in the boy's gaze.
"Harry's heart has a bad habit of stopping when he is attempting this," Snape explained, crossing his arms and tucking the wand out of sight.
Glances went around, but Harry disregarded them. He slid his hands under Philemon's t-shirt sleeves. He could feel every cursed bone and sinew moving against his hands as the boy shifted. The curse was much weaker than that upon Lupin. Harry closed his eyes on the wide curious gazes of the strangers and pushed at the curse. The curse slid aside, slippery, and eased directly under his hands but even after many long minutes, he could not push it fully clear. It was as if he had too little to push against or that the curse was latent now, too sluggish to rise up where it could be taken hold of.
Harry opened his eyes. The boy was staring at a brass statue in the corner, boredom written across his brow. Harry took a step back, trying to find words.
"Need moon," he said. "Can't."
Lupin stepped forward and took Harry's elbow. "You need the full moon? I thought that would make it harder."
Harry held up his hands. "Curse weak. Too weak."
Lupin's friends were eyeing Harry with open curiosity. Lupin said, "We have to wait for the full moon, it seems."
Snape stepped up close on Harry's other side. Josephine leaned down to speak to the boy. After a low exchange, the boy looked up at Harry, giving him a clearer impression of running free through a dark woods, full of power, defiant of everything.
Lupin said, "We'll arrange to be here in the hour before moonrise on the full moon. All right with everybody?"
"Frankly, I'm relieved," Snape said as they arrived home. He bent to look out the dining room window toward the front garden. "Are you packed?"
Snape touched Harry on the elbow as he passed him. "There is much less risk of injuring yourself this way."
Snape returned from taking the Floo to the rented beach house with the trunks and Apparated Candide and the baby away. Harry stood alone in the dining room, half hoping someone would come to the door. The Floo powder began to prickle his palm, so he tossed it in and stepped into the flames.
"My brother's family is out for a walk," Candide said, bustling about making room between white wicker furniture for the baby things in the long sunny room overlooking the lawn. "I'm thinking of trying to get Arcadius down for a nap before they return.
Arcadius gave a half hearted cry with a yawn just then. His face wrinkled as he looked around himself.
"Yep," Candide said, lifting the baby out of his basket. "We'll do that. Our room is in the attic above the addition."
Dragged down by his sleepless night, Harry, stifling a yawn of his own, followed her up, hovering his trunk ahead of him. The trunk vibrated in the air whenever he directed it to turn. After it settled on the floor at the foot of a bed, he stared at his wand. He liked that it had been with him all this time. It was one of the few things that had. He slipped it into his back pocket and flopped back on the bed, intending to rest his eyes for only a few minutes.
Gauzy curtains, filled by the by rush of a summer storm, brushed over Harry's bare feet. The strange room left him blinking in confusion at the light grey painted ceiling and white paneled walls. He must have slept because a dream still sang through his mind. He rested his head back, hoping to recapture it.
A smooth skinned young woman with dark green eyes and blond streaked brown hair like the mane of a lion was leaning over him, smiling like one trying not to laugh. She was teasing him, leaning down as if for a kiss, then pulling away, giggling through her nose. Overhead was an expanse of blue sky and spindly tree branches tipped in bunches of leaves, the warm ground beneath him, then the vision slipped away.
Harry rolled onto his front and pressed his face into the rain-scented pillow, but he could not find the dream again. He turned his head to the side and tried to nap again, but his eyes snapped open. It may not have been a dream, but a vision from another Plane. Harry rolled to sit up, wondering who she was. He had never seen her before, he was certain.
Awake now, Harry went down to the sunroom where everyone was sitting, playing with the children.
"Have a good nap?" Candide asked. "We didn't wake you for tea, but we just put it in the kitchen if you would like something."
Harry greeted Candide's family with sleepy hellos.
"Working the night shift, I hear," Candide's brother said.
Harry nodded distractedly, hoping the questions stopped there since answering was so awkward.
Arcadius, sitting on the floor propped on Candide's feet, gave a sharp cry when one of the other children took his toy. Having it immediately returned by the guilty child did not quiet him. Rain began pattering on the house and Snape looked up sharply before casually circling the room, examining the windows.
The voices and pounding feet of the playing children echoed loudly through the room. When the sky lightened, they were immediately sent outside. The scent of brine washed in through the reopened doors.
Arcadius continued to fuss, tossing toys. Candide picked him up and carried him around the room. "Maybe we'll walk down to the beach," she said, gathering Snape with a glance.
Harry enjoyed the silence for a minute before pushing to his feet to follow. At the long strip of sodden boardwalk joining the lawn to the beach through two streets of cottages, Arcadius began to wail. But as they came over the rise he fell silent, wide eyes watching the waves.
"How's that?" Candide asked the baby. Arcadius continued to stare, unmoving, even the fingers on his outstretched hand were still, frozen half curled.
The waves built atop one another and crashed close, stretching toward their feet. Arcadius glanced down to watch it soak the rocks and sand grey and shiny and then vanish.
They walked a hundred feet along the edge of the surf before Arcadius began fussing again.
"He didn't get a nap, really," Candide said, patting him rapidly as they turned around.
As they came up the lawn to the house again, Snape stepped up to halt her. "He is quite distressed still. Perhaps you should give him over to Harry."
Snape transferred the baby to Harry's arms without waiting for a response. Harry closed his eyes and tried to shut out the screeches of the children playing. Arcadius was bundled in a rough nest of energy. Harry tore it away, but it continued to spill from his tiny right hand. His fussing eased to a coughing hiccup and he tried to lean toward Candide.
Harry opened his eyes to shift his hold on the baby and brushed his fingers over Arcadius' fingers, forcing them open. He closed his eyes again so he could see the fibrous energy. It was prickly, drifting and catching on some invisible breeze in Harry's mind. Harry ran his hand over Arcadius' again, peeling the fibers away, and this time the new tendrils of energy slowed pouring forth.
"I'll keep," Harry said, turning to walk up the lawn.
Arcadius quit leaning out of his arms in order to watch where they were going, which made it much easier to hold onto him.
The corner door to the sunroom had a deep overhang with two padded loungers. Harry sat down and leaned sideways to close his eyes again to check on Arcadius.
"Maybe Harry will nap with him," Snape said, sitting on the recliner beside Harry, facing him, leaning close.
"You all right with him, Harry?" Candide asked, already moving toward the door.
Harry nodded. Energy was pouring out of Arcadius' hand again. Harry waited to brush it away until after the door closed.
Snape's quiet voice said, "That is quite a lot of water for an Elementalist to face. I don't know if this visit to the seaside is just in time for his development or a very bad idea."
Arcadius rolled his head over Harry's breast and babbled contentedly. Harry shifted his feet off the ground to get comfortable, holding the baby's hand, rubbing his thumb over the tiny palm to break off the new tendrils as they appeared.
The energy eased off finally. Harry lost track of how much time had passed. He opened his eyes, disoriented. Snape sat exactly as he had been, keenly observing the two of them. The filtered sunlight lit the lawn in the same pattern.
Arcadius gave a baby sigh. Bone tired, Harry closed his eyes again.
Harry woke with a start, dreaming about the second task in the Triwizard Tournament, horribly worried that he somehow had to figure out how to breathe underwater when he was already swimming underwater, watching his friends float, feeling the prickle of the Mermen's gazes in the green gloom.
The leaden water from the dream refused to let him go. Harry couldn't move.
The tiny rushing noise of Arcadius' even breathing against his chest eased Harry's initial panic about being pinned in place. He closed his eyes and let his mind float; the prickly energy had enveloped both of them in interweaved bindings.
Behaving systematically, the way his trainer would expect, Harry looked around. Snape was nearby, standing at the edge of the lawn, plucking up plants, plucking them apart, and holding the remains to the light. Harry closed his mouth after he had opened it to call for help. Helpless was only a short step from harmless and there wasn't anything Snape could actually do.
Harry looked inward, forcing calm through himself. His left arm was around Arcadius, shielding his small body from the strands. He could feel the baby, but he could barely feel his body resting on the lounger, as if they were being hovered. Harry moved the fingers of his right hand as much as he could, curious what exactly this stuff was. The energy fought him, tightening and tangling. Rather than tense more, Harry relaxed, staring away at the top edge of the trees. Inside the sunroom the children were arguing over the rules to draughts.
Harry again contemplated calling for Snape, but held off. He wanted to understand what magic this was, and he did not want to panic his guardian unnecessarily. When he relaxed, he could barely feel it. When he closed his eyes he became so alarmed by the vision of so much stuff strangling both of them, he opened them again. There was always the old witch Gliwice, he thought to calm himself. Harry's lips twitched at the vision of her pet rat chewing them free.
Experimentally, Harry moved his foot, his head. It felt like a scratchy jumper, and it tightened and slithered in response. It was no wonder it upset Arcadius so badly. Bracing himself for the vision, Harry closed his eyes again and focused his mind to see his hands in the same vision. He tore the strands around his right hand. Some broke and vanished and some tried to tangle his fingers completely. The surrounding threads pressed his arm tighter to his side.
Harry relaxed again, floated and nothing happened until Arcadius rotated his head and began to make smacking noises with his mouth. Snape was at the corner of the house now, where a tangle of vines had taken over a small arbor. The shadows on the lawn were gone and the wind was rising.
Harry remained utterly relaxed. Like stroking a stringed instrument, he made a casual gesture that severed the strands he could reach with his right hand. In a great cascade, the rest of the cocoon broke free and dissipated.
Harry sat up, heart racing now that they were free. Snape put the flower he held in his pocket and strode rapidly over. He was searching Harry's face as he approached.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "But he's hungry."
Appearing unconvinced, Snape took Arcadius and went inside with him. He returned a minute later and sat to face Harry from the other lounger.
"I think you are hiding something from me," Snape said. He wore the kind of expression Harry remembered from Hogwarts.
Harry took refuge in silence, uncertain how to explain in few words but knowing he needed to try. "Arcadius having trouble."
"I expect the proximity to the sea is agitating his magic. Can you handle him or shall we return home?"
Harry bent his knees and hooked his arms around them. His robes felt sodden and overly warm. "I'm okay. Handling him."
"We'll be certain to keep you close at hand." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little white and maroon flower with long lobed petals. He held it upside down and let it hang there, tilting his head to look at it. "At least you are not putting yourself at risk with Arcadius."
"What's that?" Harry asked after a pause. Oddly, he smelled something like a sweet shop.
"It's night phlox. Zaluzianskya capensis. But it is blooming in the middle of the day, which would make it an interesting potion ingredient." He slipped it back into his breast pocket. "But I should not be caught at such things whilst on holiday."
Snape sat in silence, staring just beyond Harry's lounger before saying, "You had a rather alarmed expression when you woke up just now."
"Nightmare. Sort of."
Harry drew in a full lung of air and slouched as he released it. "Breathing underwater."
"That is not reassuring."
Harry straightened his legs, prepared to get up and go change into proper beachwear. "Hogwarts. It happened before."
Snape's eyes narrowed as if wondering the truth of that.
Harry tugged the collar of his shirt and said, "Change. I'm going to change."
"I think you already have," Snape said as Harry reached the door. When Harry turned in question, Snape said, "Nothing. Go on."