Clutching the straps of her book-bag with both hands, Suze pushed her way across the stream of students hurrying to dinner. Professor Snape's office door was open, she saw with some relief. She had imagined it would take a little extra guts to knock on the door this time.
Snape was talking to Professor Sinistra over the heads of the children milling in the corridor.
"I think the Headmistress expects you to see to it, Professor," Sinistra was saying.
"Most likely." His gaze came down as Suze approached, bent over by the weight of her books.
"Can I speak to you, sir?" Suze asked. He had been in the middle of closing the door and departing.
Snape stared at her before saying to Sinistra, "I will see you in the staff room." To Suze he said, "Is it an emergency?"
"Come by at . . . quarter past ten. I will have time then."
"Tonight, sir? After curfew?"
"Yes. I expect you'll manage."
She always had. "Yes, sir."
At the allotted time, and carrying only a folded sheet of parchment and her wand, which she held out before her ready with a Confusion Charm, Suze made her way from the dungeon up to Snape's office. The dark wood of his door, carved into opaque panes like a window, was not at all inviting. Suze knocked, picking the spot she thought the wood would be thinnest.
The door snapped open and Snape made an abbreviated gesture for her to enter. As he sat behind his desk, he said, "There was something I wished to discuss with you as well. You should have a seat."
Suze shook her head. "I'd rather stand." She took up a spot a few feet before the desk, wishing Harry really was related to this man by blood; it would make him easier to face.
Snape sat back and steepled his hands. "If you wish. I thought it worth informing you that the only reason I did not recommend you for Prefect this year is that I prefer that you concentrate on winning the House Cup."
She blinked at him, breath gone. "Me, sir?"
He nodded and paused before saying, "You have shown an unexpected capacity for leadership in the last year and assigning you as Prefect, a position Ms. Humphrey was abusing a bit, would be an excellent opportunity for you to grow. But I admit to being selfish about the Cup." When she didn't come up with a response, he went on. "It isn't easy leading Slytherins. And I have warned Ms. Humphrey that the badge is not a given. I may still reassign it to you. I wanted to warn you of that."
All Suze could think of was what her parents would have said to her receiving a badge in the post. "Consider me warned, sir."
"Good. Now what was it you wished to discuss?"
Suze breathed in and out. "I apologize for my dad bothering you, Professor." Her heart tightened just imagining it. "He can be so embarrassing."
She didn't dare look him in the eye, so she didn't see his expression soften.
"He was easily dealt with. Is that what you came here for? To apologize?"
"No. I wondered if you had a growth potion, sir."
His head tilted to the side. "Why do you ask?" He stood and came around to lean on the side of the desk closest to the potion shelves, arms crossed, face resuming its usual hawkishness. "In answer to your question, though, I have several." He considered her. "But I need to know why you are asking."
Suze reached into her pocket for the parchment. "I wrote down the heights of the thirty greatest Seekers of all time. Well, the ones where I can find out their height. And none of them were as small as I am." She held up the parchment, which contained a neat list with calculations beside it. "My all time favorite, was the Fabulous Flying Freddie, who died early in his career in a tragic accident with a propeller aeroplane, and he was five inches taller than I am. But I just want to be three inches taller than I am now. That would make me the same height as these ones marked with green ink."
She held out the parchment for him, but he waved it off. He said, "I wanted to make certain you were not doing this for Harry."
She scoffed. "Harry doesn't want me to bother wearing my tall shoes. He doesn't care."
"I expected not, but I wanted to be certain you believed that."
"It's not for Harry. It's for my career."
Snape pulled out a drawer, took out a piece of twine, and came around the desk. "Sit down there, and put up your foot."
Suze put up her dance slipper, which was already worn from the rough stones of the castle.
"May I ask why you wear those?"
"To go about not making any sound."
"There are spells for that," he said.
Suze dropped her foot to the floor. "No magic in the corridors . . . ?"
Snape actually smiled faintly. "Harry must be corrupting you. Put up your foot again." While he measured her foot with the twine, he said, "I notice you have picked up a more polite mode of speaking as well. Hold out your fist."
Suze held out her hand, then blinked as the string fit exactly around her fist.
"Hold up your arm."
He laid the string along her arm, then bundled it into his hand and stepped back. "Your arms are slightly longer, proportionately."
"That makes me a better Seeker—don't change that." Then after a pause. "Sir. Sorry, sir."
"I will brew you something that will work upon you evenly. Do realize that you are still young enough to grow more."
She turned a grim face up to him. "I haven't grown even a hair in two years." When he didn't reply, she added, "And I used to worry about getting too big."
"Come back tomorrow evening and I will have something for you."
Suze stood up. "Thank you, Professor."
He nodded with a bit of a bow to it.
"How fast will it work?"
"As fast or slow as you wish, depending upon how much of it you consume at a time. I would not, however, recommend taking it all at once. It will give you a rather uncomfortable week if you do."
Suze immediately considered that to be the best option, given that Quidditch practice started in two weeks.
Snape's mouth twitched. "I see you are planning exactly that. Try to avoid seeing Madam Pomfrey if you would. It would raise awkward questions at the next staff meeting."
She grinned. "Of course, sir."
He turned to the potion shelves and began looking for something. "Can you find your own way back to the dungeons?"
"Of course, sir."
Elated, she bounded for the door. In the corridor, holding off on closing the door to his office, she said, "Thank you, sir." She almost added that she wished he was her dad as well as Harry's, but his gaze had come around again, and it became too hard to say it. "Good night, sir."
"If you have difficulty with anyone on the way, send them to me."
Harry stood in an empty house. He'd just arrived home from training and Candide had not yet returned from work. Toy animals were scattered on the floor and on the end tables, evidence of a hurried morning departure.
Thinking his post might keep him company, Harry headed for the dining room. As he opened a letter from Ron with a lunch stained envelope, a large bird sailed in the open window. The black owl dropped a satiny envelope and scrambled back to the sill. Harry considered the finely written invitation, sealed with black wax. The letter felt harmless, so Harry broke it open. The card was blank at first. Writing bled into sight. Worried it might disappear again, Harry read what he could of it as fast as possible: Dinner Party. Bring a Guest. This last was underlined, twice. The invitation was signed Draco Malfoy. Harry flipped the card over and back in surprise. He scribbled the date on an envelope from Hermione just as the letters on the invitation soaked so full of blood-red ink he could no longer read them.
Harry threw the now thoroughly red and wet card into the hearth and ignited it, which took two tries. Then he shook his head and decided to ask someone at the Ministry about it the next day.
Reclined on the couch, he stared at his assigned readings while imagining his friends out at a pub. But he made a good impression when Candide arrived with a pop!
"Thank Merlin Swarm Charm is only one hop away," she said, putting Arcadius down. Like a windup toy, the baby began churning his knees to get to the stuffed squid sticking out from under the couch. "They did a fine job of distracting him as I left, so he didn't fuss. And he didn't burn down, flood, or blow the place up after I left, which is a relief." She waved her post to her hand and sat down heavily with it. "My mother asked Good Witch Glister if she'd babysit on Wednesdays and Thursdays."
Harry put his book down and sat up.
Candide held up to the light a letter that was addressed to Snape. "She said she seemed very eager to. What do you think?"
Harry thought she was incredibly old. But probably powerful enough.
They both looked at Arcadius, who was entranced by the stuffed giant squid tentacle swiping at him from under the couch.
Candide looked at the time. "Maybe we should call on her."
Harry's chest did a little flip. Last visit to Gliwice he'd threatened her. "Now?"
She tore open a letter with her wand tip. "I could take Wednesday and Thursday off this week. But Severus insists we not be home without you for long. I could spend the day with my sister-in-law. Trillium's always keen for adult company when she's home with her kids." She waved Snape's desk set in from the drawing room and hovered it before her. "I'll do that and owl Glister to ask if we can visit. Doesn't pay to annoy a witch of her sort whether she's taking care of your children or not."
Harry reclined with his book, pondering possible apologies instead of reading.
"You seem down, Harry," Candide said sometime later.
"Not really," he replied, because life was in pretty good order just then since he had finished a chapter and had even remembered most of what he had underlined when he reviewed it a third time.
"You've been subdued since last week. Why don't you go visit Severus?"
Harry worried that if faced with Snape's inspection, he might confess he'd been peering in on other Planes. "It's all right."
She opened another letter with her wand. "It doesn't seem all right. Seems like you are feeling guilty again."
Harry arrived early at the Ministry the next morning and found Tonks bent over a stack of files in the Aurors' office.
Without looking up she said, "Hi, Harry. You're early."
"Have question." He cleared his throat. "I have. A question."
She looked up and smiled.
Harry dived into trying to explain. "Got invite from Draco—"
"You got an invitation to that big party he's throwing?"
Harry stopped and waited.
"I don't know how you, of all people, get by without reading the Prophet gossip column. Draco is throwing a big party. People think he is just trying to clean up the family name a bit. Everyone important is apparently invited and Rita Skeeter has been publishing who is going and who is not. But he invited you. After what happened. That takes some pluck."
Harry scratched his head. "Trap?"
"Maybe," Tonks said with a grin. "Are you going?"
"I need a date."
Tonks' hair rose up and grew hotter pink. "You're inviting me?"
"Don't know . . ." Harry had not thought ahead on this. Everything was a chess board. He needed to remember that.
"Your new lady friend is back at school, right?"
When he looked down at the floor, Tonks said, "You miss her already. How sweet." She squeezed his elbow. "But maybe you should take me, or Kerry Ann."
"Or one of the Weasley Twins," Harry said, raising his brows.
Tonks' eyes brightened to match her hair. "Or one of the Weasley Twins." She laughed. "I'd love to go. I just have to tell Sternie that it's for work."
"How's it going? With him."
She blushed with an inward smile. "Between the Aurors' office and emergencies at St. Mungo's we're both too busy to see each other more than once a week, so it's going great. But he acts like I'll find someone else any minute and never owl again." Her voice fell. "I acted that way a bit, didn't I?" At Harry's shrug, she said, "Now I know how annoying it is. I thought it might seem charming."
"You and me at party?" Harry confirmed.
"With bells on. And an extra wand or two in my garter."
Being around Tonks was confusing Harry. He felt fifteen again the way energy suddenly sizzled through his muscles around different women. When he got home he badly wanted to go for a run, but he didn't want to leave Candide home alone.
Despite the way Candide was crashed on the couch like someone uninterested in moving, Harry asked, "You have someone to visit?"
She rubbed her neck and blinked at him. "You need to go out" Her head tipped back. "What do you need to do?" She sounded unsympathetic.
"Oh." Candide sat forward. "We'll go for a walk with you." She jumped up and began finding supplies for a walk: Arcadius' favorite teething toy, his blanket. Scant minutes later she was at the door waving an Unfold Charm at the pram. "You can run alongside, right? I could use some fresh air."
Harry just wanted to move his limbs until his body took over his brain and sent it into that nice floating state. "Yes."
They stayed on the side roads of Shrewsthorpe. The leaves and grass had turned the tired green of autumn. Harry jogged away from the pram, turned and came back to pass again. Candide stopped often to play with Arcadius, who wanted out of the pram.
"He's not liking the walk," she said when Harry jogged beside them. "But don't let us slow you down."
Harry sprinted to the end of the road, turned and sprinted back, then bent to stretch his legs.
"He wants to follow you," Candide said. Arcadius was stretching his hand upward and making a fussing noise.
"He wants rain," Harry said. The clouds were high and white, not threatening.
She studied the sky too. "As long as he doesn't actually make it rain, he can want it all he wants."
Back at the house Candide rolled the pram containing a sleeping Arcadius into the main hall and parked it in the middle of the room. "I hope you got enough of a run."
Harry's muscles felt relaxed. He settled into his reading with new interest. "I'm good. Thanks."
Rain began battering at the windows.
"You don't think . . . ?" Candide asked.
"No," Harry said, not because he knew, but because he didn't want her to worry. Arcadius was sleeping with a slack, round face, completely oblivious. "Too asleep for magic."
She sat on the edge of the couch, hands clasped, watching the baby. "I really hope you're right. No more magic, little sorcerer. I don't know what we'll do with you otherwise."
Harry lowered his book. "We'll do okay."
She shook her head. "I don't know how Muggle parents manage. We're magical and we can barely manage a little extra magic."
"Why did you take Ms. Humphrey's letter?" Snape said. The low ceiling sucked up the lamplight, leaving his face floating like a ghost's.
"Why didn't you send me one, Professor?" Suze Zepher stood before the stained desk in her Hogwarts' uniform, gloved hands clasped before her.
Snape rocked back in his desk chair and looked straight across at her. "You are needed on the House Quidditch team."
"I'm bored with Hogwarts Quidditch. I want to go pro."
His voice rumbled as he spoke. "This is the dungeon palace of the New Dark Lord, not the headquarters of a Quidditch League Team."
"I know that, sir."
"Why are you here?"
Her response snapped back, "Why didn't you send me a letter?"
His voice fell. "I am seeking a consort for Harry Potter. Do you understand what that means?"
"Do you know what happened to the last girl who came here . . . Ms. Chang?"
Suze didn't flinch. "I heard rumors, sir. She was weak."
He sat forward. "She was strong enough to answer Potter's invitation."
Silence descended. The lamp flames stood tall in the stale air.
"So. What happened to her, Professor?"
He sat back again, chin on his fingers. "She was consumed." He waited. "And, by the way, I hardly warrant the title of professor any longer."
Suze didn't react. He drilled into her eyes and said, "You truly don't care what happened to her." He looked her up and down and frowned with just the corners of his mouth. "Do you like Mr. Potter?"
She drew her lips in and wetted them. "Yes, sir."
"I did not realize that, or I might have sent you a letter." He steepled his fingers as if proctoring an examination. "Might have."
"I don't particularly like the notion of sacrificing you."
She stood straighter and sounded clever as she said, "I'm free to sacrifice myself, right?"
Snape's lips relaxed. "I've never been against one choosing one's own fate. For good or ill. What would your parents say if they knew you were here?"
"I don't care."
"Truly care not at all?"
"Well, I like that they would be horrified."
"Do you care what I think?"
Suze's mouth shifted, then she said, "I always care what you think, sir, but I wish I didn't so much."
He sprang up and leaned over the desk in her direction. "That sort of direct honesty is the only way you will survive in Harry's presence. Do you understand me?" His face appeared chiseled, and closer to the lamp the sinuous threads in his robe glittered. "Deception. Hidden motives. Duplicity. Simple pretense. They will destroy you in this place. You must be fully in touch with your own motives and never twist or attempt to conceal them."
She shrugged. "Understood, Professor."
He studied her eyes and she held his gaze a long time, until he sat down again.
"And you like the idea of being a consort to a moody, driven, and tormented wizard?"
"I like Harry. He's the only boy that appeals to me. And I like that he gets everything he wants."
"That is not at all the case. As you will quickly see."
"Who could stop him from getting what he wants?"
Snape gave a snort. "Like all powerful wizards, he is his own worst enemy. He needs no other."
Silence fell again. The lamp on the desk fluttered as it burned the wick too low. Snape reached out and cranked the wick down until it went out. Only the hanging lamp over the work table in the corner remained lit.
"Can I stay, sir?" Suze asked. "I don't want to go back to school."
"Always look forward," Snape said distractedly, still staring at the extinguished lamp. "It is your decision. But if you are to fail, I want you to fail here, so Potter does not damage what is left of his bruised spirit. Sit in that chair and do not move, no matter what happens."
Suze pushed herself up onto the ordinary straight-backed chair before the desk and rested her hands flat on her thighs. She remained quiet and still while he turned up the wick on the lamp, adjusted it several times, then slowly sat back, leaving it unlit.
His voice was reluctant and tired as he said, "If you are not worthy, you will be destroyed." Then he gave a long hiss.
The silky grating of scales on stone whispered through the room, and iridescent green and blue snakes emerged from the cracks between the stones and the gaps between the bookcases. Heads weaving, they converged on the guest chair in the center of the floor.
"Harry?" Candide was at the door.
"'M all right," Harry muttered, tossing the bedcovers down and rubbing his face. He wanted to return to the dream. To shout a warning which would go unheard, or just see for himself that Suze survived. He groaned then swallowed it.
There was a pause where he hoped Candide would leave him be, but the door swung open.
Sounding cute, she said, "I'd leave you to sleep, but Arcadius wants to see you."
Put down on the bed, Arcadius energetically trundled across the duvet. He grabbed hold of Harry's pyjamas and grinned at him. Harry tried to reconcile the vision from the dream with the one happily clambering over his bed.
They both watched the baby, Harry distractedly, until Candide said, "I'm under pretty strict orders about nightmares."
Arcadius was either trying to climb Harry or pull himself to his feet. Harry lifted him up and got an earsplitting squawk of complaint.
"He has to do everything himself. I think he takes after you."
"Takes after Sev'rus," Harry said.
"He's not here to blame. You are."
Harry offered his index finger for a handle, but Arcadius fell back on his bum anyway and slapped his hands down.
Candide said, "If you can't tell me what you were dreaming about, I have to message Severus."
Harry leaned over to read the clock, which read quarter to three. "Don't."
"What was your nightmare about?"
Harry scrubbed his face again. "Sev'rus talking to Suze."
After a beat, she said, "That's what your nightmare was about? You managed to have a nightmare about that?"
Harry nodded, frowning. He really hoped his counterpart didn't hurt her, if that really was a vision from that other Plane and not just his own subconscious tormenting him.
Candide laughed lightly. "Sorry. I shouldn't find that funny. It's just the middle of the night."
"It is funny," he said, hoping she would go.
"What were they talking about?"
Harry played the dream back. "Important that she have no secrets."
She stood Arcadius up on the bed and lifted him so only his toes touched. "That's always a good idea in a new relationship."
"Or she would die."
"Oh. Not very funny then."
"Maybe true before," Harry said, rubbing his tired eyes and feeling pained.
"That was the past, Harry." She picked Arcadius up. The baby curled his legs up so she had to hold him as a ball. "I'll let you sleep."
Harry didn't sleep, despite dearly wishing to assure himself that Suze would be all right. He kept thinking over the conversations he'd had with his counterpart, imagining himself in the other's place, strong enough to contain Voldemort and his own humanity, at the same time. He wouldn't hurt Suze, even in his place. But he wouldn't have hurt Cho either. Although her defense of her friend's duplicity still annoyed him to this day.
"Don't hurt her," Harry said to the chilling air of his room. "You are strong. Don't need to hurt anything."
No one heard him.
In the corridor after training, Aaron caught up with Harry.
"Shall we partake of the readings together this evening?"
Harry spoke louder than necessary because Rodgers was still in earshot. "I'm managing."
Aaron gave a twitch of his shoulder and lowered his voice. "If you're certain."
Harry wondered what he looked like, unslept and distracted. "Come for dinner?"
"Capital notion. My fair lady will be finished at the paper around eight."
The minute Harry arrived home, he luxuriously stretched out on the couch. He could just catch a solid half hour nap, or an hour if Candide ran any errands.
Disturbed by a sound, Harry lifted the arm shading his head and found familiar black eyes gazing down at him. "Ugh," Harry said, wrapping both arms over his head. "You not come."
"What sort of speech is that?"
"Don't need," Harry said from behind his shirtsleeves.
"Your disturbed sleep indicates otherwise."
Harry groaned and kept his arms over his head, trying to catch any dreams he may have had. His memory was a grey-brown blank. He huffed and put his arms down to sit up. Blue blazed through the windows in the hall and orange through those in the dining room. Harry hugged his legs.
Snape stood straight, studying him. "What is troubling your sleep?"
"Not a nightmare."
A twitch of Snape's wand brought a chair over. He arranged it to face the couch and sat down. "What is it, then?"
Harry imagined his counterpart in his dungeon running the wizarding world, more than whole. Something greater.
Snape prompted. "Harry. What is troubling you?"
There was no other sound in the house; they must be alone.
"I was weak."
Snape's face twisted. "You were what?"
"I should've been stronger. Than him. I let him win. I should have won."
The fingers of Snape's hand pulled down on the neck of his Hogwarts' teaching robes. "I haven't the foggiest notion where you came up with that idea."
Snape leaned back. "Harry, you were stronger than anyone could have expected."
"Could have been stronger."
Snape stared at him. He seemed undone. "Putting that questionable assertion aside for a moment, what was your nightmare about?"
"You like Suze and I."
"Yes, I do. Why the change in topic?"
Snape's brow pulled together. "That was your nightmare?"
Harry looked away. "She's your fave student."
"I suppose I would agree with that. I try to keep track of her progress more so than most of my charges."
Harry stared beyond the front wall of the house, thinking of the test. The snakes. "You want us together."
"I am staying out of the way of your being together. And that is all I want to do."
Harry looked over Snape's eyes, the bridge of his prominent nose and the sprinkling of tiny white eyebrow hairs. "Why?"
"Do I need a reason?"
Thinking of the other Harry and Suze together made Harry worry enough to make his breath short. "Yes."
"I feel secure in the notion that at this point in your lives you are good for each other."
"You seem to be at the same point in your lives."
"This is practice for Arcadius, isn't it?"
"What? Just answer. Why Suze."
Snape's eyes widened. He did not appear to be thinking of an answer, simply trying to figure Harry out.
Harry answered for him. "She lacks hidden motive?"
"Where did you come up with that quote?"
"It is true. You are not equipped to manage anyone's fraught emotions from submerged experiences."
Snape tossed his hands down flat onto his lap. "What is wrong, Harry? Other than needing some sense knocked into you about whether you are weak or not."
"Worried about Suze." As he said it, he didn't know which one he meant.
Snape's gaze went from impatient to soft. "She is quite strong. Do not worry about her. For that matter, do not worry about yourself. Do not worry about my motives either. I am simply standing aside."
Harry thought that over. "I'm going to Hogwarts. For her birthday."
"She informed me after the first day of class. She is rather pleased about it." He calmed more. "Harry, she is fearless for a reason: because she is tough. You would have a very difficult time hurting her." Snape rubbed his chin. "However, I can think of one way that you could hurt her: that would be to treat her like a child. Given her consideration for you, that would hurt her. That is, until the next Quidditch match when she would lure half the opposing team into season-ending collisions and feel better about herself."
"Look at you. You find that amusing." He stood and braced himself on the back of the chair. "She is a Slytherin, Harry. She does not waste time going after things she is not absolutely certain she wants." He leaned closer, waiting for Harry to acknowledge this. "As to this nonsense about you being weak . . ." Snape began with a hissing sigh. "I do not have time this evening to discuss it, let alone resolve it. What brought this on?"
Harry dropped his gaze. One of the knees was wearing through on his jeans. "Don't want to say."
"Now that worries me."
"Didn't go anywhere," Harry insisted.
"Can't lie," Harry said, throwing his hands in the air.
Snape touched Harry's shoulder. "We need to work on that too. Remind me." His robes shifted as he stood straight. "You cannot change the past. You can be stronger for the future. Work on that."
"I need to go. You will be all right for a few days?"
"I'm all right now."
Snape halted and stared at him. "You are far too accustomed to guilt." He exhaled and shook his head. "If you had been stronger, Harry, I fear you would be dead. It worked out as well as it could have."
The Floo sounded and Harry put his arm over his eyes and returned to his nap.
Harry woke to the sound of Kali scratching all the way up in his room. Freed, she came sailing down and landed on the back of the couch with a chirrup. Rubbing his growling belly, Harry sat up.
"You hungry too?" Harry asked his pet.
In the dining room, Harry collected the pile of his post and hoped Winky would bring a snack if he sat down at the table. Taking up a pen he wrote out a reply to Suze at the bottom of her letter. She was always good about short letters, and she wrote clearly. Winky arrived with bacon for Kali and a plate of tea sandwiches for Harry.
Suze's note closed with: If I wrote this often to my parents, they'd think I'd been replaced by a changeling.
The room seemed exceptionally quiet when he sent Hedwig off with his reply. It was going to be a very long school year.
At the bottom of the pile, he found a folded note from Candide with post owl claw marks all the way through it. She was taking her mother out to dinner. Harry's watch read half past six. He weighed it in his hand while he thought over the hour and a half he'd have before she returned home.
In his head, he traced out the procedure for drawing a Device. The knowledge was there, waiting. And he could find a quiet place to execute it, maybe an old Order safe-house. He stood to collect up his readings for the evening, stacked them before him on the table, marked the pages he needed to read in each with color coded tabs, and used a candle and a knife to fix the nib of his favorite grey swan quill.
What if he didn't dream of that other Plane again? He may never know how Suze fared.
Harry stared at the first page of chapter three of Basic Blocking, a book from first year. He couldn't find anything to underline, because he didn't care about a word of it. Beside his discarded plate, Kali ceased her grooming and stretched each patchwork wing.
"I have to know," he said to his pet, feeling the condemnation of her scars. He really would not have time to find a secure place and make an active Device before Candide returned. He read page one of chapter three again, determined to underline something.
Note that certain barriers and Old Places will affect both attacks and counters to differing degrees and under differing Zodiac Signs.
Harry pushed the book away and stood up. There would be a Device in the Department of Mysteries, for certain. Kali shook herself when the table moved and yawned, revealing rows of needle teeth.
Moving rapidly now, Harry fetched his invisibility cloak and Apparated for the sheep fields to slip away.
He arrived under his cloak near Percy's old desk, which was piled with files and ebony magic-neutralizing boxes, not all of which were locked. There were no voices or sounds of activity.
He hunted haphazardly, avoiding certain areas like the Hall of Prophecy, the Death Chamber and the Tank of the Ancients, because he wasn't sure if they might tell on him, if the opportunity arose. Running out of familiar areas to check, Harry found himself at the top of the pit of tiers leading down to the archway containing the veil. The room chilled him.
Determined to not fall victim to his memories, he walked around the edge of the top tier, listening to the whispering rise when he stood straight on to the arch and quiet when he reached side-on. He stopped at a niche in the domed ceiling which formed a platform. There was a Device incised there, like none he'd ever seen. It was made up of concentric circles which orbited around one another, warping as they crossed to form straight lines. Around the other side of the arch, he found another Device made up of straight lines and angles that shifted over one another to form arcs.
Harry swayed on his feet as he considered that the veil may be just another Plane. He'd seen beyond the veil; did that mean he could reach it? And more importantly, return again?
The slowly shifting angles of the Device reached closer to his toe. Harry shifted his foot clear, his concerns for the other Suze dwarfed by these other questions.
He turned and walked down the tiers and onto the platform at the bottom. He stood before the archway, watching the strings at the edges of the tattered veil sway in a non-existent wind. His heart twisted for Sirius, but for the veil itself he had no feeling. Closing his eyes, Harry let the whispers flow over him, expecting they would sort themselves out into voices. Despite their maddening resemblance to speech the sounds remained just beyond understanding.
He really should get home. Harry pulled out his watch and read the time by the glow of the veil, then retreated back to the offices to slip away.
Late Thursday afternoon, Harry Apparated the three of them to Holehollow. The sun lit the mushrooming backs of the silver grey clouds and birds chattered noisily in the trees surrounding them.
"This is it?" Candide asked, looking around the tall grass.
Harry pointed at the washed out sign beside them, lost in the brush.
Gliwice's grass-covered house was the same sad hillock on the outside, but inside it was much larger and the floor sparkled with tile and a colorful loop rug. The old witch sat in a chair beside her table at the window, rocking and knitting with two wands. Herman the rat scuttled over from under her chair and stood on his back legs to look up at them.
"You're the witch we used to call Good Witch Glister, correct?" Candide said.
The old witch smiled, which lined up the wrinkles in her face. "Yes, young lady, that I am. I remember you. And your father. 'Specially your father."
Candide glanced at Harry, who was keeping half an eye on the rat. Herman chattered at him and waved his paws.
"You confuse him," Gliwice said. "He remembers everyone." She waved a twisted hand. "Shoo, leave him be," she said to the rat. "Forgive him. People don't return half themselves."
The rat lowered his paws, but remained upright, head cocked, whiskers twitching.
"And this is the little one," Gliwice said, falling sober.
"This is Arcadius." Candide turned the baby in her arms to face outward and stepped closer to the table. She sounded nervous.
Gliwice bundled up her knitting and set it beside the many empty teacups on the table. "You've done well with him, given what he is. Let me see." She whispered something and her outstretched, shaking hands grew steady. Candide set Arcadius into the old witch's lap.
Arcadius reached out to pluck at her wide lace collar, but otherwise sat contentedly.
"He likes you."
After a gap, Gliwice replied. "It's safe here."
Candide glanced at Harry, who shrugged.
Gliwice lowered Arcadius to the floor and everyone watched him creep over to the rat at Harry's feet. Herman retreated a foot, then retreated again before scrambling up the wall to watch Arcadius from a high shelf of wax sealed jars. Arcadius peered up at the rat and gave a squeal of delight.
"Only bringing him two days at a time, you say?" Gliwice asked.
Candide was looking around at the room in more detail. "Right now, yes."
Gliwice sat with her now young hands on her knees. "I would enjoy having him. Not much grows here anymore."
"We need someone to look after him," Candide said. "But I don't want to be a burden."
Gliwice gave her a look of impatience. "He isn't."
Candide scooped Arcadius off the floor. He didn't complain, just grabbed her robes and put a thumb in his mouth. "Did you have any questions, Harry?"
"I want to speak, alone."
Candide stepped over to shake Gliwice's hand, studying it before shaking it. "It's been nice to see you. I expect we'll take you up on your offer. Wednesdays and Thursdays."
Gliwice shrugged. "All days are the same."
"I'll wait outside, Harry. Nice seeing you again."
The light from the open door shrank closed on the tile floor at Harry's feet. Herman chattered but remained on the shelf.
"My fault?" Harry pointed behind him where they had just departed.
"That the infant is Skilled? Possibly. It did run in lines, households. When it wasn't Muggleborn." She rocked her chair, which wasn't a rocking chair. "You are scarred."
"Always have been."
She waved a finger at him and smiled. "Indeed. Best to not take yourself too seriously, young man."
"I'm sorry," Harry said.
"For what? The infant? He is a gift. I had nothing, now I can be useful. I haven't been in half a century."
"For threat. You."
She snorted. "You weren't a threat."
Harry shook his head. "Not matter." He pointed at his chest. "I did it."
She tilted her head back and rocked more deeply. "I see. That type, are you? The guilty kind. Also injured as well as scarred." Her eyes narrowed. "You're getting the infant to heal you."
Harry hesitated, then nodded.
"Won't work much longer. Just so you know. Then he can only heal another after he is very skilled." She rocked more. "I would say you need me, but you have got by so far without."
"We figured it out."
"You are clever then."
"Have to be."
A jet black coach and four pulled up to the grand gate at the drive leading to the Malfoy Estate and rocked to a halt. The elf dropped the reins and leapt down from the rig and impatiently waved the waiting guests to climb on top. He and Tonks had arrived early and only one other couple were waiting, an elderly witch who served on the Wizengamot and her son.
The coach rocked as they settled onto the narrow seats, and they had to grab one another as it lurched forward up the drive.
"A bit much," Tonks said. Her hair stood off her head in black spikes. She wore a matching velvet suit with a wide embroidered collar. She was far more maneuverable than Harry in his dress robes. He should have put more thought into his clothing.
The coach stopped to wait for a pair of elves waiting at the side of the drive to create an opening in a barrier. This repeated three times.
"Could be a massive trap," Tonks said.
Harry took her hand. "I'll get you out."
Tonks dipped her head, laughing. "You better be joking or I'll turn you into a parrot and put you on my shoulder for the evening."
"I'm on the guest list."
Elves waited to bow them up the steps into the house. Inside, the wide marble staircase rose up to the balcony level. Harry swallowed hard and squeezed Tonks' hand, which he still held and now worried that she might think he needed it for support. Harry pulled his hand free and checked for his wand.
"Much too obvious a move, Harry." Tonks hissed. Elves gestured from the drawing room where fountains of drinks flowed.
Harry accepted a crystal goblet and held it empty.
"Everyone should drink," Narcissa Malfoy said, striding into the room while dragging the long train of her gown behind her like the folds of a giant wilted flower. "Please." She glanced through Harry when her eyes went around the room as if he wasn't there. She plucked up a goblet and made a show of filling it from a fountain and drinking, then wandered the room wearing her forced smile and sipping from her glass.
Another wave of guests shuffled in. Everyone exhibited the same trepidation about the drinks.
"Look, Harry Potter is here," someone said, sounding relieved.
Tonks waggled her black eyebrows, then glanced down sharply just as something tugged on Harry's robes. Harry turned and just caught a glimpse of an elf before it vanished.
Narcissa turned back to the room and raised an arm. "Welcome," she said to the new arrivals. "Perhaps someone should be doing some announcing. Dredhook, attend to that," she said to the elf in a striped tea towel standing beside the white wine fountain. Then she swept off towards the main hall.
The robe-tugging elf appeared at the rear door to the room, gestured that they should follow, then vanished again. Harry took Tonks' arm and led her that way.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"I don't know."
The rear door led to a plain corridor. The elf appeared and disappeared off to the right.
"We're following?" Tonks asked when Harry took off that way.
Tonks shook her sleeve a few times to free the wand hidden there, then shook it harder. "Dratted tight sleeves." Her wand clattered to the floor. She scooped it up. "And I haven't had a drop."
The elf led them to the base of a narrow staircase.
"Less clumsy when you drink," Harry said.
"I am not."'
Harry was happy to banter. He didn't like this place. It pummeled him with lingering taintedness, memories of Snape being beaten down and the skeletal remains left by the creatures he'd set loose.
"We don't have to stay long," Tonks said at the top of the steps.
Harry set his face. He really needed to be stronger. The elf opened a door near the end of another narrow corridor and vanished, leaving the door drifting. On the other side was a fine bedroom and Draco Malfoy adjusting his white bow-tie.
"You don't know how to be fashionably late, Potter." He swept other ties off his chair and sat on it to watch them in the mirror.
Tonks tried to remain half out the servants' door, but it closed on her heels.
"I need you to—" Draco began, but the door to the room snapped open.
Pansy gave them all a hard look and slipped inside. "Mother is waiting on you," she said. She put her hands on her hips and looked at each of them in turn. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing," Draco replied with a scoff. "They wanted to see Bella is all." He turned his gaze to Harry and stared hard. Harry knew this was an attempt to communicate, but could not catch anyone's thoughts without more warning.
"You better not have woken her."
Draco gestured at a bassinet so grand with high, black, carved wood that Harry hadn't even recognized it as one. "Sleeping the rest of the wicked." Draco turned on his stool and stood in one smooth motion.
"She's darling," Tonks said from too far away to possibly tell this.
Pansy glared at each of them. "Downstairs. Now. Draco."
As they were escorted out, Harry passed the bassinet and peered in. Pale hair feathered over the baby's forehead above a slack face, deeply asleep. Draco cleared his throat from the doorway. Harry mouthed the word legilimens before he raised his eyes, determined to learn what Draco had wanted to say. He caught a sense of grim determination about the child, something about Snape and something about Gilderoy Lockhart. Pansy plucked Draco's arm off the doorframe and jerked on it.
Harry took Tonks' hand as they were escorted by a rapidly striding Pansy back down to the party. He wanted to think, not pay attention to where he was going. At the top of the grand staircase, Draco let them go on ahead. When Harry glanced back, Draco was peering at him with a disgusted expression.
"What's going on?" Tonks asked as they milled through the now crowded floor of guests.
Harry shrugged. He had no chance of piecing things together.
They returned to the room with the fountaining wine, where the conversation had reached a busy hum. Trays of food sat mostly untouched on long tables against the wall. Draco and family wandered the room, adding an exceptionally artificial kind of chatter to the hum. Wizards and witches approached Harry to talk, mostly about the Ministry, but some wanted to ask more pointed questions, but couldn't figure out how to.
"You, um, have been a rather fascinating figure to follow in the press, Mr. Potter," said a wizard with a long mustache. He then waited for Harry to say something.
Tonks leaned in and said in Harry's ear. "Our host and his mother just left the room. She looked unhappy."
Harry excused himself from the waiting questioner. "Which way?"
Tonks nodded to the main hall. Harry went out that way, finding many more guests milling here and on the staircase. Harry went across the hall to where the elves were collecting cloaks, then up the servants' staircase which he guessed correctly was the unmarked door beside the bathrooms. Alone, he waved a disguise on himself and slipped to the upstairs drawing room, wand at his side. This room, with the same rug upon which Snape had huddled while tortured, made his breath short. He never wanted to feel that impotent and hopeless ever again, but he was feeling it now anyway.
Concentrating on his mission, Harry turned from the rug and stared at the curtains until he found his balance. Then he slipped away for the kitchens. They were empty. All the elves must be occupied elsewhere. He stepped around the room to see around the great copper kettles hanging over the center benches and stopped when he heard voices. For a breathless moment, he was back before the veil, but these voices rose in volume, grew sharp. When he pressed his ear to a low door beside the stone sinks, he could hear Draco and his mother arguing.
"You planned this all along," Narcissa said, the hiss in her voice clear even through the wood.
"I am head of this household," Draco said. "I can arrange whatever parties I please. Father isn't exactly here to say otherwise."
"You are not to interfere in my business arrangements."
"Is that what you call it? You are a foolish old witch. You want us to lose what little we have? Like we aren't impecunious enough for you?"
Harry heard a slap.
"Same Mrs. Malfoy as always." Harry imagined Draco holding his cheek.
Her voice fell. "Next time it will be a Cruciatus."
"You'd do it too."
"Of course I would. You don't run this house. I do."
There was a pause before Draco said, "Go up to the party then, and embarrass yourself miserably. You are so very good at that."
"I will go up there and do my duty to my absent husband. Without any help from my underhanded, self-centered son."
Her shoes clicked up the cellar stairs. Harry shifted around the corner and pressed in beside the mops, wand out. She slammed the cellar door and marched out of the kitchen, failing to slam that door because it was a swinging one.
Harry stepped out, removed his disguise and waited.
Draco came out of the cellar and raised his eyes to Harry. "You are utterly hopeless. I don't know why I bothered."
This didn't sound like an insult so much as resignation.
"What do you need?"
Draco's hair fell into his eyes as he shook his lowered head. "I want my manor and estate back again. My mother has decided a few Galleons are worth looking the other way while some low-life squats on our property."
Harry's arms began to tingle. "Who?"
"Someone I know you are looking for. I got you in here, inside the last barrier they erected for us. They didn't trust ours." His face twisted, ugly. "I want them out. I want to be left in peace. That is all."
Harry again got a glimpse of some deep personal determination then went along with this mantra.
Draco gave an empty laugh. "You wouldn't think that would be so hard. But my mother wants to harbor the worst sort. Mudbloods and upstarts with no decent family name, who only push us around because once they are here our fates are sealed to theirs.
Harry tried again. "Where?"
"If I just send you out to be killed, do I get in trouble for that?"
Shoulders pushed back, Harry glared as best he could.
"At least you brought an Auror with you," Draco said. "Well, it's not on my head in that case. They are between the gamekeeper's lodge and the pond, northeast of the house. They are inside this last barrier. Stupidest arrangement my mother could possibly have made. Please get rid of them." He spun on his heel and marched off.
Harry returned to the room of the fountains via the servants' corridor. He found Tonks in one corner, scanning guests from under her eyelashes. "We have a job." He went on to explain what Draco had told him.
"But who is it?" Tonks asked. "You couldn't find out?" At Harry's frown, she added, "You need to work on your Legilimency, Harry. I got used to you having it."
"It was Voldemort."
"I still miss it." Standing closer at an angle she pulled out her slate and Harry saw her marking out a little map of the Malfoy property. "They'll have to wait outside the last barrier. Hopefully we can scare whoever this is into their grasp. Ready?"
Narcissa was staring at them from one doorway and Pansy from another.
"Maybe pretend to leave?" Harry said.
Tonks grinned. "I never leave a party where people would like to see me go. Just on principle." She reached by Harry for a goblet and he followed her to a fountain. "Here's the plan. I'll go fetch my cloak, you get lost in the crowd and do your special Apparition to get outside. Our hosts will probably wade into the crowd to keep track of you, rather than follow me. I'll slip on a disguise and leave as someone else. We'll rendezvous outside. Know a spot?
"Outside the kitchen door. Back of house."
She was leaning in so close, Harry could feel the heat off her even through her velvet suit and it was doing bad things to his concentration.
"Stay focused, Harry."
Tonks waved at someone near the door to the hall and Harry turned to look for the thickest, drunkest part of the crowd. He passed between tight clumps of chatting guests, pretended to drop something and crouched to search for it before slipping away through the floor.
Outside, the wind had picked up as the sun set. He wished they had broomsticks and wondered where those were stored in the manor. A doddering old wizard hobbled up to him.
She transformed back into herself, smiling. "Sir Bentley-Bletchler, actually." Her smile faded. "I didn't see any broomsticks in the coat cupboards so you are flying us. Just don't run us into any barriers. All right?"
Harry nodded and transformed into his Animagus form. Tonks pulled his head around hard when she grabbed his feathers to get on. Flapping madly and taking a run, Harry got airborne and swerved northeast. The pond was smaller and farther away than expected. He reached an even glide well before needing to slow to search.
Harry saw the ripples, like heat rising, and felt his flying feathers tremble. Banking, he checked again. A rectangular area of young forest was bent oddly, just the size of a bus.
"You are growling," Tonks said in his ear.
Harry banked again over the bus, but Tonks said, "I don't see anything."
Harry growled again. It was only his keener bird sight that was seeing their target. Raising his wings straight up, he made them plummet, then flapped madly to skim the treetops. He felt Tonks grab hold harder with one hand and expected that meant she had her wand extended in the other. They were flying so fast, he had little warning. He threw down his feet just as they passed over the invisible bus. His claws thudded and rasped over metal and wood and then a groan of straining structure as he shoved off to get fully airborne and turned so Tonks had a clear shot if anyone came out.
The wisp of air carried with them bore the scent of The Boss. Harry snarled so that he drooled into the whipping wind. Nothing happened right away. Harry banked to make another pass and Tonks shouted that he should fly off instead which he did.
"There is no way they missed that. Stay clear. But watch out for the barriers, we're too close." She tossed a few spells which lit up the inside of a series of warped domes in the air. "Fly closer to the house. We want to defend that."
Harry obeyed, flapping, banking, and flapping, trying to conserve his energy. The next time he turned, the ripples were moving, shooting out like a rocket through the trees, sometimes knocking them down rather than magically moving them aside. Beyond the oldest trees, where the roads and fields began, fireworks went up.
"That's our reinforcements. Land so we can get out of here and go help."
Harry dropped them on the drive in front of the steps. Tonks shouted a warning and put up a block before Harry could transform. The force of the Charm knocked him on top of her. He changed back and kept rolling, scrambling in his pocket for his wand.
Narcissa was tossing spells at them from the top of the steps. Inside, guests were shouting that everyone should get down. The horses were spooking, tangling the waiting carriages. The elves were raising their hands in Harry and Tonks' direction, glancing at their mistress for instructions.
Tonks grabbed Harry by his collar to help him up. "Just defensive. I don't want to duel her."
Draco strode out the entrance and ripped Narcissa's wand from her hand. "See. An embarrassment." And he walked away.
Tonks put her fingers to her lips and gave a shrill whistle. A coach in the middle of the waiting line came trotting over with the driver still trying to retrieve his fallen reins. The coach took off at a gallop toward the main road before they even got seated.
"There you are," Blackpool said when they found the others in an abandoned car park at a picnic area outside the Malfoy property.
"Did you get them?"
"Rodgers and Rogan took off after them on broomstick. Reggie thinks the bus is damaged. Hopefully they got them." She looked them up and down in their fancy dress. "Must be nice drawing that kind of duty. Like working security for the Minister."
"You can join Harry next time," Tonks said. "You wouldn't believe his flying."
Back at the Ministry, Harry was fidgeting while he waited for news. "Should have tried following."
"You said that." Tonks was sitting with her feet up on her desk, looking far too relaxed.
Rodgers returned and when he tried to prop his broomstick against the wall it fell and he didn't bother to right it.
"Didn't get them?" Tonks asked.
With a groan, Rodgers dropped into his chair. "Nope. It's like following the Knight Bus. And I would never try that." He stared at Harry. "Didn't know ahead of time what this invitation was about, eh?"
Harry shook his head.
"Unfortunate." He stretched his neck. "Write your report?"
Harry shook his head again.
"Get to it. Minister will be riding our broom twigs by dawn."