"Really, Minerva. I am absolutely positive it is him."
The turning staircase reached the top and Harry hopped off. He waited, listening at the cracked-open door.
"Gertie, I do not see why our esteemed Defense Against the Dark Arts professor would be cursing your possessions, especially in such a, shall we say, esoteric fashion."
"He threatened me personally that he would do exactly that. And no species of pelargonium, including geraniums, grow teeth."
McGonagall's chair squeaked. "In that case I will speak to him."
"I'd rather you sack him."
Footsteps approached the landing where Harry stood and the office door whipped open. Greer's mouth froze in anger as she came up short, facing Harry. "YOU."
Harry held out his hand. "Harry Potter. Pleased—"
She stormed by him, elbows flying. Harry stepped aside, then into the office. He stopped to greet Fawkes on his perch.
"Were you out there long, Harry?" McGonagall adjusted her glasses to look at him.
"No. Just came." Harry sat in the guest chair when invited to. The glass surfaces of the office reflected the overcast day as sheets of grey.
She gestured at the door. "Do you know anything about that?"
Harry considered his answer. "Not fair to ask me."
"I can't lie."
She pulled off her glasses and folded them slowly. "So that makes it unfair to ask you such a question? Indeed, it sounds convenient to ask you."
"Well, nevertheless, what can I do for you, Harry?"
She sat back with her hands spread on the desk. "I had hoped you would do more of that. Please feel welcome anytime, but of course weekends are better. You will be a disruptive presence, I'm afraid."
"Every year your legend grows, Harry. You are the Heir of Gryffindor this year. You are expected to open a great cave of magical gems beneath the Quidditch pitch." She waved her hand. "Or some such. The news about the fight at Malfoy Manor yesterday has already grown into a pitched battle in its retelling. I hear Bellatrix Lestrange was even there."
Harry's last memory of her at the prison, on her knees, hand clutching at the air in a vain attempt at reaching him blotted out the Headmistress' office. He wondered with a hole under his heart what he exactly would have done with her if he could have taken her with him that day.
"Are you all right, Harry?"
Harry nodded and stood.
McGonagall said, "Well, have a good day. Try not to frighten the first-years, if you would."
Hermione came rushing to her office door even though it was open.
"Harry!" She squeezed him, pressing his elbows into his sides, and didn't let up for several breaths. "You need to visit more." She led him to a window, which leaked an iron-grey light only a few feet into the room. "You had some excitement yesterday."
Harry had already forgotten about it, yet again. He didn't bother shrugging for Hermione.
She tossed her hair back as she let out a breathy laugh. "Not that important, is it? Just a little scuffle."
"Something. Good to see you."
She pinched his arm. "I'm jealous of Vishnu getting to see you every day. But he keeps me updated. He said your reading is improving."
"I underline a lot. Read over and over."
A brown owl flapped by the window, banked to pass again, then flapped off.
"You wouldn't ever have worked that hard in our school days, so that's something. It's not about absolute skill, you know. It's about applying yourself."
Harry straightened. "I'm a Hufflepuff now?"
She put a hand over her mouth to hide her laugh. "Perhaps." Falling serious, she said, "They are the easiest to teach, in a way. Not something I expected coming into this. They don't have so many ideas of their own, just work hard to take in the ones you give them." She dropped her arms. "Gosh, I sound awful." She bent over laughing. "I'd have hated myself as a student, I think." Despite her words her eyes glowed with amusement.
She waved the office door closed and leaned her hands on the window sill. "Did Vishnu tell you he's going to India to arrange the divorce?"
Harry shook his head.
"As soon as he can manage reasonable Portkey connections." She peered outside. "Have him over for a nice dinner. Give him someone else to talk to besides me. He has to go before a Wizard Family Tribunal. It sounds positively malign. He's just going to admit to being a terrible husband so it will go quickly and easily for everyone." Her voice grew thicker as she spoke. "Makes me think I should accede to being second wife. He shouldn't have to go through that."
"I'll take him out."
She gave him another hug, but a distracted one.
In Snape's office, two students serving detention were bent over a copying assignment. Snape gestured for Harry to go to his room to wait for him.
In the suite, Harry settled on the couch and squinted at the shelves. Snape's chambers were no more bright today than the dungeon would have been.
With authority, Snape came into the suite and snapped the door closed. He stopped and clasped his hands, robes swaying. "It is good to see you." He paused before going on. "You had a bit of action yesterday."
"Wasn't really," Harry said.
"Just an ordinary day at the office then?"
Because he was thinking of the Devices beside the Veil in the Department of Mysteries and not the battle at Malfoy Manor, Harry kept his head down. "Exciting enough."
Snape pulled a chair over to sit facing Harry. "Is everything all right? Candide and Arcadius?"
"Something seems to be bothering you."
Harry sat up and brightened. "Not really."
Snape pulled his wand out of his pocket and polished it on his robes. "I do wish you would share a bit more, Harry." He fell silent. Harry did not take advantage of the obvious opportunity. Snape reached into his pocket for a letter. "About that action yesterday, your department head has already owled with a list of additional protections they will add to the house today."
That jarred Harry. "Maybe Candide can move out."
"The Ministry is certain the Boss' magical bus is damaged. But I will suggest it to her. The only places safer than our house at this point are the Burrow and this castle. I don't think Candide will accede to either as a long-term residence. Realize that if the Boss wishes to reach you through her, she is less safe with her family than in your presence."
Harry marveled at Snape's calm discussing this, then decided it was an act, but he could not verify this. "Need help with Legi. Limency," Harry said.
"You want me to give you lessons?"
"I can make time." He smiled wryly. "I wonder that your training doesn't include it."
"Rodgers thinks not teachable. He does Occlumency. Third year."
Snape sat back, arms lax in his lap. "I also don't believe Legilimency is particularly teachable, in general. How effective have your skills been?"
"Not good. Random."
"But you are managing, occasionally? You are certain it isn't just your imagination?"
"No. Works sometimes."
"We will assume you have some natural skill at it then."
"Used to be easy."
"So was Parseltongue, as I recall."
Harry rubbed his hair back. "Yes." He shifted to sit on the edge of the couch. "Where is Suze?"
Snape held up a hand. "I am not finished with you yet. Something is bothering you beyond the usual guilt and concern for people who do not warrant it." He watched Harry and Harry watched him back. Snape said, "Why are you holding back, you who were so disquieted by my departure for the school year?" He held up his hands. "I cannot exactly give you detention, if that is your concern."
Snape's face had regained the subconscious hard angles it carried through the school year. It wasn't a face that welcomed questions, really. But Harry was curious enough to risk the anger he may receive from asking.
"Is Veil just a Plane?" Now that he'd voiced it, Harry wondered how he could live without the answer.
Snape leaned back in his seat, face stretched with dismay. "I asked for that." He tilted his head to the ceiling. "I don't know." He crossed his arms, still peering at the ceiling. "What makes you ask?"
With his head turned to the side, Harry thought about why he went to the Department Mysteries, and about his poor excuse for looking around the whole place. "Can't get detention?"
"Do you deserve detention?"
Harry shrugged. "Was curious."
"The trouble with curiosity in your hands is it can lead almost anywhere."
The shifting lines of the Devices played out in Harry's memory. "Devices in the Death Chamber. Part of the Veil arch?" When Snape didn't answer, Harry asked, "You've seen it? The arch?"
"Yes. And I know the Devices to which you are referring."
"You're curious too," Harry said.
Snape's face relaxed into a pained smile. "True. But despite reading up about it many years ago I don't have an answer for you. You might ponder whether there is one Veil or does every Plane have its own?"
"Must be more than one."
"Perhaps. Or a person's cumulative spirit from all the Planes could be reunited in one Veil. Who is to know? As to your original question, I don't think you will learn the answer without attempting to visit it. And I don't want you to attempt it. When you are a hundred and sixty you have my permission to try. Are you all right with not knowing until then?"
Harry nodded. He felt better just confessing that the mystery gnawed at him. But he should be able to keep secrets, to lie. It made him feel like half a person to lack an internal life of his own he could keep safe inside his head.
Snape stood. "I should check on my students. Lupin was lax last year and I am putting a halt to poor discipline immediately this year." He didn't move toward the door. "I think we have more to talk about. But for now, I'm certain you are eager to see Suze. She will be down on the Quidditch pitch."
Harry went to the window and pushed it open to look out. The clouds were so heavy it was impossible to determine how high they were.
Snape said, "Leaving that way?"
With a smile, Harry climbed up on the sill. He leaned out and spread his wings before stepping off, not wanting to seem too thrill-seeking by transforming as he fell, even though he'd done that many times before.
Harry grazed the treetops of the Forbidden Forest as he banked around the grounds in the direction of the pitch. Despite the gloomy day, clusters of black robed students with blazes of house colors were gathered on the lawn.
A small figure on broomstick broke away from those hovering over the stands and rushed over to greet him. Suze's pale face caught a bit of the little light there was.
"Harry! You're like a giant Snitch."
He flapped to a landing on the stands and Suze dropped in beside him even before he could transform back to himself. She grasped his wrist and swung it too and fro.
"So good to see you," she said.
The rest of the Slytherin team were floating in a clump, eyeing them. Suze waved to them and shouted, "Do the basic drills again since it's our first practice. I'll be back in ten. Come on," she said to Harry, urging him to get on behind her on the broomstick.
"Merlin, you're heavy," she said, as they made a second clumsy turn over the Whomping Willow.
They landed between the forest and Hagrid's garden.
"I have to practice having passengers," she said, dropping the broomstick to give him a hug.
He rested his arms around her. Her silver head came up to his chest. "Are you taller?"
She looked up at him with her pale eyes that reflected the grey glow of the clouds. "No. Why would I be taller?"
Her face broke into a smile of white teeth, pale skin, and bright hair. Harry had a sense she was hiding something.
"Really not?" he asked.
"I'm lying, of course." She pushed away and grabbed up his hand without looking for it. "Let's take a quick stroll. I have to get back to practice."
She talked as they went, in a manner which relieved Harry from having to contribute anything much.
Suze said, "The greatest Seekers of all time were fifty-eight to sixty-seven inches. I was too short."
Harry tugged on her hand to bring her to a halt. "Severus?"
She giggled. "So funny you call him that. Sounds so odd. Like he might be a real person."
Harry let her pull him along again over the furrows at the base of the hill where the earth was eroded.
"Yes, Professor Snape brewed me up something. It's murder. My bones ache in the morning. And if I don't have a big dinner and a big glass of milk before bed, I can barely move in the morning. But it was better this morning. Best morning yet."
Wanting to say something unexpected, Harry said, "Still play for Wasps?"
"What?" She turned to him while still walking. "They're a bunch of sloth, with no imagination. I would never play for the Wasps."
"You're suggesting a German team with even less imagination? At least their form is better. Oh, you're teasing me. That's not like you." She pulled herself against his arm and hung on with both hands. "I like that. Say another stupid team so I can make fun of them."
She stopped and reached into Harry's pocket for his watch. "I should go back. I'm co-captain and it's first practice."
"Too early for practice."
"No it's not. The other houses are just too lazy to practice until the season nearly starts. Some can't even bear to pick a team this early. They don't want anyone's feelings hurt." She set her feet and waved her broomstick over from where she'd left it. She turned a wistful expression up to him. "I'll see you Friday. Right?"
Her face took on a look of pained happiness. "Even if the Ministry is burning down or something? Right? Remember my birthday is more important."
"Even if Valkyries attacking Ministry."
She mounted her broomstick and hovered so they saw eye to eye. "If that's happening I want to go watch."
She swept close for a kiss and zipped off. Harry's insides went warm and cold at the same time.
- 888 -
Since it was the full moon on Wednesday, Candide was spending it with her sister and Harry was free to invite Vineet out to his favorite Indian restaurant.
Harry dragged flat bread through a silver tray of buttery green mush and asked, "You leave soon?"
"Friday, if all is arranged as it should be."
"Rodgers hasn't mentioned," Harry said, referring to their trainer's usual penchant for ribbing his apprentices about any topic, the more personal the better.
"He has sensitivity to this topic."
Vineet pushed his dishes around and served himself more. "I would prefer to not have camaraderie with him in this regard. But alas."
Harry pointed at the empty plate that held the curry pockets. "Can we get more?"
"You and Hermione, samosas are the favorite."
"They're like little pasties."
"Also what she says."
Harry lowered his head to hide his grin. When he could be serious he looked up again. "She is happy. I'm glad for her."
Vineet sat back from the meal. "You have been reduced to communicating with a kind of simplicity bordering on stark philosophical truth."
"Sound like an idiot."
"Yes, well, as English you would not differentiate those two."
They ate in silence and more samosas arrived, which Harry burned his fingers on before deciding to leave them for dessert.
"Need to learn lying," Harry said.
"I don't want to help you with that."
"Of course not." Harry changed his mind and split the steaming pastries with a fork to hurry them along.
Vineet's voice lowered. "I thought the path of my purpose led to you, but you led me to Hermione. That now seems more relevant and perhaps the whole purpose all along. One should not look for meaning too early in events."
"Much better." Harry said, feeling a weight lifting off him. "I like that."
"And I know that you are not so much as dissembling when you say that."
"Right." Harry thought maybe he wasn't fit to date more than a Hogwarts student.
They sat at the table until late in the evening. With a jolt, Harry pulled out his watch and said, "Must go cure werewolves."
"May I come along?" Vineet asked.
"Sure," Harry said brightly. Snape was letting him go it alone this time, since Healer Hedgepeth would be there.
Harry tried to explain what would happen at the healing. "Like what I did. To you." He felt helpless then, caught by memories he didn't want to be his. "Very sorry."
Vineet followed him outside and did not reply until they had joined the other werewolf activists at Lupin's flat where they usually met up. Harry introduced his fellow to a pacing Josephine who checked the clock each time she passed it. They were waiting on Hedgepeth and for that moon's first patient. Lupin stood beside the couch arm where the end table usually stood. He gave Harry a soft smile.
Vineet leaned to Harry's ear and said, "You will die of exhaustion before you balance the scales alone."
Harry stared straight ahead while Josephine walked back and forth, back and forth. Finally, he turned to look at his friend. Vineet said in a voice pitched too low for anyone else to hear, "You must accept other's judgment that you are forgiven."
Harry couldn't think of a reply, so he said, "Severus would be glad. You're here."
Vineet clasped his hands behind his back and stood stoically. "I continue to fail in deciding about him."
Harry found this amusing, but a noise on the stairs distracted him from the difficulty of a reply.
"Here they are," Josephine breathed out in relief as she rushed to the door. Taintedness drifted in before it opened.
Hedgepeth was bringing the patient this time, a new admission to St. Mungo's, a wizard boy who looked old enough to be at Hogwarts. The boy had thin dark hair that stood up a bit from his head like it floated, and acne scars across his cheeks the way Ron had freckles. He stared at Harry as Hedgepeth led him to the sofa as if he might be infirm.
"Not much time," Hedgepeth said. "Dratted hospital paperwork, you wouldn't believe it."
The boy gave Harry an uncertain smile. Harry returned it and the boy's smile grew genuine.
Hedgepeth sat beside the boy and ran various health checks on him without pausing between spells. "I want to try first. If that's acceptable to you, Mr. Potter." He said this without looking up.
"Fine," Harry said. He pulled a chair over to sit knee to knee with the boy, then consciously clamped his hands in his lap to keep from using them to push away at the curse, just to instinctively relieve himself of it.
Josephine touched each of them on the shoulder. "I have to go."
Hedgepeth turned his whole large upper body to face her. "You should go next so you can better manage things."
"I really can't. Not when there are so many with so much more need." She Disapparated.
Speaking meaningless reassurances in a low monotone, Hedgepeth put his hands on the boy's shoulders, then over his arms, his head. Harry assumed he was getting a feel for where the curse was holding on.
"Time?" Hedgepeth barked.
"Yes," Harry said, seeing it was twenty minutes to moonrise and the curse was seething, washing around the room. "Good time."
Ten sweating minutes went by while Hedgepeth worked. "It's too big of an area to clear all at once," he complained.
"Bubble," Harry said.
"I've tried a bubble. I've tried a balloon animal . . . A bubble is a bloody well lot of wasted spell energy."
"Easier," Harry said. "Just one thing to do." Trying to clear every limb, every finger, by thinking of each of them individually would be tedious.
Hedgepeth removed his hands. "I give up. You go ahead. I'll be here with some strength for you. But nothing that will interfere with the magic."
Harry moved in with confidence knowing he did not have to find that last well of energy inside himself to finish the spell, wouldn't have to bring himself to the point of self-sacrifice. Vineet moved into his line of sight, watching from closer in, Harry thought until he saw Vineet tapping his watch.
Harry nodded and closed his eyes to dive into the sickliness of the curse. Someone put a hand around his arm, and he felt himself expand with power. He pushed at the curse, moving from the core of the boy, outward. He pushed more, certain he would have the boy clear in another breath, but something unimaginably large swept through, an undercurrent of energy that rolled over the earth's surface. The hair on Harry's shin's prickled and he opened his eyes. The boy's fingertips had grown into hairy claws. Harry closed his eyes again, but felt like he was wading through swirling currents of something that fed the curse. A hand closed over his other arm and this time he expanded enough to feel he took on a second self, not unlike how it felt having Marked followers. The boy's curse released with a snap.
The boy stared at his normal hands. "I liked them like that," he complained.
Hedgepeth stood and rubbed his hands together. Harry stared at Vineet's hand on his other arm. Vineet removed it and gave a small bow of the head.
Hedgepeth said, "Another in the morning, correct? Some friend of Josephine's?"
Harry did not know who was next. "You free morning?" he asked Vineet.
"If you wish me to be."
"He's not nosing in, is he?" Hedgepeth asked.
"Good at these kinds of spells. Like barriers," Harry explained, although that probably wasn't the reason Vineet synced so well to Harry.
"Hm," Hedgepeth grunted.
"Who's taking me home?" the boy asked. "Do I get to get to start the year at Hogwarts now?"
"McGonagall wouldn't let you?" Harry asked.
The boy gave a broad shrug.
Hedgepeth said, "I was told the headmistress thought he should be cured first."
"Yes, you can go now," Harry said, wondering at McGonagall's sense of fairness.
The boy stood and put a fist in the air. "Yes!"
- 888 -
Harry folded the last of the wrapping around the small jeweler's box and taped it as neatly as possible.
"There's a spell for that," Candide said.
"Gar!" Arcadius said from where he rode on her hip, as if agreeing.
It was Friday morning and Candide was getting ready to spend the weekend with her sister at the seaside. Harry had not expected she would notice what he was doing.
"You sound like Severus," Harry said, trying to look as stern as possible.
She leaned in close and Arcadius had to grab hold of her robes and cling to her. "What did you get her? You didn't show me."
"Nothing? Well, if you don't want to say. . . Well, did you just lie, Harry?"
Her mouth pouted. "Really . . . ?"
Harry put the box down and she picked it up and shook it. "Feels heavy," she said.
"Trick," he said.
"I hope she likes it." She sounded doubtful.
Harry smiled to himself as he took the gift back and pocketed it after putting a padding charm around it.
"Severus owled this morning. Said you can come this afternoon for lessons if you like." She hefted Arcadius up higher on her arm when he tried to dive for the floor. "I didn't know you were still getting lessons from him."
"I need them," Harry admitted.
"You'll get to see Severus more than I will."
"You can visit."
"I badly need to do some shopping for the beach holiday. And I don't want to be in his way."
"I'm sure not," Harry said.
She smiled wryly. "If he owls saying he'd like a visit . . ."
Harry blinked at this, wondering how she had come to this conclusion. Snape did seem a bit more standoffish once the school year started, but it was just a convenient façade. Maybe she didn't realize that.
She said, "Would you mind terribly looking after the little bloke for an hour while I do my shopping?"
"Not mind," Harry said.
Arcadius was put into Harry's arms. Candide said, "He's a bit peevish this morning." She tickled the baby under his chubby chin, but Arcadius just stared straight ahead, mouth turned down. "I almost suspect he misses Gliwice this morning after two days in a row with her. Certain you'll be all right alone with him?"
"Yes, I'm okay," Harry said.
After the rush of the Floo faded, Arcadius screwed up his face as if building up a big cry. Harry bounced him and circled the room, hunting for a good distraction. He picked up and teased him with every stuffed toy in reach, but his round face grew redder and a little splotchy, and Harry thought he smelled smoke.
Carrying Arcadius, Harry took a turn around the hearths on the ground floor, but they were all cold. He even checked the one in the kitchen. Winky ducked her head and became busy with preparing lunch.
"All good?" Harry asked her.
"Winky is making good lunch."
"Ba BA!" Arcadius said and began to fuss like a low growl. Harry carried him back up to the main hall where he quieted a bit.
Harry wondered at Winky's restraint around Arcadius. She didn't pick up his toys or make herself visible much around him.
"Boobba," Arcadius said, reaching his clasping and unclasping hand in the direction of a book entitled The Loneliest Dragon.
Harry settled the two of them on the couch and propped the grossly oversized book up on his knees. He hadn't yet read this one, and hoped the words were short.
"Dagbert was the loneliest dragon," Harry read, pausing to give Arcadius time to enjoy the gallery-sized complicated painting of a cloudy stone mountain, atop which lived an aquamarine dragon shedding an aquamarine tear the size of a London double decker. When Arcadius pounded on the page, Harry turned it.
"The postman no longer visited," Harry read. The sweeping painting on this page showed a pile of bones in the corner, and Dagbert using a splintered femur as a toothpick.
"Who got this book?" Harry said.
Arcadius tried to turn the page backwards, so Harry turned it forwards with a bit of trepidation.
"The army no longer visited." On this page, Dagbert was using his huge claws to manage a vast collection of uniform hats.
"Different book?" Harry snapped the large covers closed and reached to the side table for a book with dancing moons on the cover dressed in fancy evening wear.
Arcadius began to whimper and lunged in the direction of the dragon book with enough force that Harry was hard-pressed to catch him before he tumbled off his lap. This time, Harry was certain he smelled fresh smoke but he had no idea where it was coming from. Everything partially burned should have been long-since removed. Or burned up already.
He leaned forward to look Arcadius in the face. The baby was chewing his knuckles and making a singing fuss. "No fires, Archie," he said. "Not good."
Before he could reach for the book Opera Moon, Harry felt something strange, a shifting of magic not unlike what he'd felt when the moon rose midway through his curing the werewolf boy. The skin on his back prickled and just to do something, he raised up and resettled Arcadius in the crook of his arm. Arcadius had fallen quiet, chewing his saliva-slick hand. Harry's training urged him to pull his wand and run every detection spell he knew, but his instinct told him he did not know one for this, whatever it was. Harry's skin prickled more, and he turned, expecting that someone had arrived, but the room was empty.
If this was some new expression of Arcadius' magic, he did not want to seem affected by it. He picked up the dragon book again, put his wand in his hand, and turned to a later page. He watched the room from the corner of his eye.
"The maidens the mayor sent were too ugly to keep around." This picture was a little better, showing a troupe of tear-stained, downtrodden girls in white robes and wilted garlands marching away from the mountain. Harry thought Dagbert must be too picky because the girls looked fine to him.
The sense that someone else was there in the room intensified. Harry turned the page despite Arcadius waving his arm to grab it and crumple it. Harry used his wand to repair the picture of Dagbert using bloodstained, empty suits of armor as playthings. He held the page firmly under his thumb and read, "The knights no longer held jousts for his amusement." Arcadius liked this picture, so Harry left it open while the baby touched the shining armor and gabbled around the fingers of his other hand.
"Who is this?" The voice seemed to come from inside Harry, not through his ears. It was unmistakably his own voice.
Uncertain how else to answer, Harry answered aloud, "My brother."
There was a long silence where Harry's heart slowed then sped up again faster still. If this was his counterpart, the Snake Lord, he had to handle this exactly right. Ignoring regrets and fears for the future, he turned the page, exuding confidence. Dagbert was melting holy crosses with his breath into a shiny floor of gold. The printing said, The priests no longer came to exorcise him with their trinkets. Harry did not read this aloud because he was afraid he would embarrass himself trying.
"How do you warrant a brother?"
"Well . . ." Harry said, inconveniently remembering with a renewed panic that he had almost destroyed everything. And given that he had led the Snake Lord to his own Plane, may have done so anyway. Arcadius made an inquisitive face and used his wet hand to point at Harry's chest.
Harry pushed the recent past aside and reached for the more distant one, when he was stronger. "I found a family," he said.
The voice was sarcastic. "Really. How?"
Harry remembered accepting this life. He could have rejected it. "You have to take what you need."
"I always do that."
Harry snorted. "You don't understand."
There was a long gap where Harry arranged his thoughts around remaining in control of the conversation. Until he distinctly smelled smoke on a draft.
"What are you burning, Archie?" Gripping Arcadius, Harry stood and paced the room more slowly.
A wisp of smoke was emerging from under the balcony off Harry's room. One edge of the protruding beam had been charred just on the edge and not been replaced when the repairs were done. Smoke leaked out from between the old beam and the floor boards above. Harry raised his wand and used a narrow ice curse to carefully cut away a neat square from the beam. The block fell and Harry hovered it to the main hall hearth where it ignited. Arcadius gave a pleased "Gah!" and watched it burn.
"Archie," Harry chastised. He had no skills with the subtle steering Snape used to dissuade this behavior. "Not good."
"His magic is mad."
Harry smiled. "Yes."
"Your brother?" The voice sounded pained this time. "I have to understand."
"What did you originally want, coming here?" Harry found this conversation easy, as if he were speaking through the Dark Plane, although he spoke aloud in the normal world.
"I wanted to know how much of a threat you were."
Harry laughed. "None."
"I see that. Boring as hell here. Don't know how you bear it."
"Other things are important. Now."
Another long pause ensued, long enough Harry would have thought his visitor had gone if his presence hadn't still prickled at Harry's back.
The voice was quieter or, at least, resonated less through Harry's spine. "Explain how you have a brother." It would have been a command, except the delivery was weak enough to seem pitiable.
Arcadius again pointed at Harry, eyes wide, and Harry wondered if he could hear both sides of the conversation and knew both sides were him. He needed to get rid of his visitor; he didn't want Arcadius exposed to this.
Harry breathed in and searched himself for some primal truth. "It's not just taking what you need. It's trusting that someone else knows what you need. Especially when you have doubts." After a gap, Harry added. "You think it's weakness, but it's not. That's what you don't understand, or refuse to accept."
The presence continued to hover. Harry sat down with the dragon book again, arranged Arcadius so he would be comfortable, and turned to the last page. Dagbert was admiring himself in the golden mirror he'd melted onto his floor. There was no caption to read.
"How is Suze?" Harry jerked his head up to ask.
"Suze? Why do you worry about her?"
"It's a hobby."
The voice sounded confused. "She is the same as always. She is . . . company."
Harry hid his relief.
"Should I trust her as you say?"
"That's up to you. But you have to trust someone. What's the worst that could happen?"
The voice vibrated with energy. "I could be betrayed."
Arcadius gave a yawn, but jerked his head up at this.
"That does bite," Harry agreed. "You'll never know which it is unless you have the guts to risk it. You can always ask yourself what Lily would say."
The prickling became a vibration and Harry feared his counterpart might just arrive, whole, to face him. "I envy you. You must believe your mother would be proud."
"Oh. I don't know that," Harry said, awkwardly forced to confront that without warning.
"Really?" Mocking again.
Arcadius' head drooped forward, eyelids fluttering. Harry put the baby down beside him to sleep, waving out a barrier so he couldn't roll off. He took his time, acting as if he had full control of everything, except the past. "I was weak. I made a lot of mistakes."
"Oh. Good then."
And the presence was gone. The room took on that overly quiet feel it did after a big party. Arcadius lay still in sleep. Harry dropped his head back in post panic and stared at the ceiling, letting his breathing slow.
Arcadius napped until Candide returned. Harry helped her ferry things to the beach house for the weekend and returned to an empty house. He searched the whole place but didn't feel any prickly presence anywhere.
When he returned to the main hall he stopped. He should see Snape for a Legilimency lesson. This made him sweat, despite the cool room. He would be lucky to avoid revealing what had just happened.
Harry found his guardian in his office, alone, reading from a textbook. Snape lifted his head and his face lost its studiousness.
"You've come for a lesson?" Snape asked.
Harry nodded and took the visitor's chair, sitting forward with his hands clasped, concentrating on his Occlusion. The room and the scent of Hogwarts wrapped around him, soothing him. "I hope not too busy."
"Anything I can do to make your job safer for you to perform I am willing to do, no matter how busy. How are things at home?"
"You need to owl Candy to visit."
"Candide may visit anytime."
"Doesn't want to bother you."
Snape's brow scrunched up. He shook his head. "I will do that, then. But to your lesson." He stood and rested a hand on the side of the desk. His satiny black robes caught the cloudy light from the windows. In a lecturing manner, he said, "I would suggest you read Bergenfeld, who was the foremost expert on Legilimency, but I fear giving you even more to read."
"Yeah." Harry sat back, ready to listen, and hopefully remember. Snape stood with a backdrop of books and a few large potion bottles. The room worked upon Harry, reminding him how much he still wanted to learn, if he could.
"Basically, Legilimency is the opposite of Occlusion. In more ways than one. With Occlusion one must settle one's emotions to present a barrier. One must remove emotion from the immediate consciousness to build said barrier. With Legilimency, emotion is a tool, a pick that one uses to tease out and lever free impressions from the target. One uses emotion like a key; it must match the emotion tied to the thought in the target's mind. Stand up and I will present a target for you, something I will give you the key for."
Harry stood, remembering seeing Snape's bad memories of his father during their first lesson together. Apparently, he had seen them because they had shared similar youthful emotions. Without that, he might not have. He stalled raising his eyes until he could put this realization aside. "Wand?" he said as a distraction.
"Yes. Why don't you use it this lesson. Then we will dispense with it." When Harry raised his wand to ready, Snape went on, "I have something in mind you do not know. Normally one cannot hope to discover specific information this way, but since I am going to make it easy for you, I think you will manage. I want to know you succeeded so that we can move on."
Harry nodded, putting everything else aside: his worries about his counterpart returning, his vague anxiety about Suze's birthday party that evening.
"If you are ready, the key emotion is revenge."
Wand out straight, Harry mulled that over.
"Problem?" Snape asked after Harry didn't move. "You cannot generate that emotion, can you?"
"Have to think about it," Harry said. Struggling with finding the will for revenge in himself, and hating to disappoint, he said, "You cursed Greer's flowers."
Snape's head pulled back. "I didn't even sense you prying."
"I didn't. Just know that."
"Oh." Snape rubbed his forehead. "Let's try again. You apparently get about more than I realized. Name an emotion that you are capable of. Perhaps that will work better."
Snape grew mystified. "That is easier than revenge for you?" When Harry shrugged, Snape tossed his hand. "Betrayal it is then. Go ahead."
Harry brought the wand down around his head and forward, whispering, "Legilimens." No foreign thought pressed upon him. He tried again, remembering all the times people had fallen short of helping him as a child. Still nothing. He dropped his arms.
"You were closer that time. I could feel it. Try again."
When Harry failed after ten more tries, Snape said patiently, "Emotions have endless subtlety. Each emotion is like a folding knife with many tools on it. If one facet of it doesn't work, try the next. With practice one can try a series of them in just an eye-blink."
Snape's patience with him eased his frustration with himself. This used to be so terribly easy. It seemed laughable that he couldn't do it now. "Try again?"
"You never learned this," Snape said, voice soothing. "You borrowed someone else's skill. Remember that as you struggle to learn."
Harry raised his wand again, but in the face of Snape's gentle teaching, he couldn't come up with anything like betrayal.
The corners of Snape's mouth played upward. "I ruined it for you?"
Harry tried to appear tough and looked away.
"Positive emotions are harder, but perhaps you could try relief?"
Harry easily came up with this emotion. But lost count of his attempts to get Legilimency to work using it.
When Harry lowered his wand with a huff and rubbed his arm, Snape said, "You will need to practice on your own whenever the opportunity arises. I know that may seem unsavory, but it is the only way to gain the necessary skills."
"How you did it?"
"Yes. Mostly you will learn that humans obsess over pointless matters. Rarely will you find you have truly delved into something legitimately personal."
"Don't like that."
"I didn't expect you would. We'll try one more before giving up for the day. Throughout your day, I want you to work on emotional subtlety. Pick an emotion and try to feel all the variations of it you can. Come up with memories and images you can use to generate them at will. All right? Should be a healthful task for you anyway." At Harry's nod, he said, "Name another emotion."
Harry thought of the book title. "Loneliness."
Snape's sharp gaze faded before he nodded that he was ready.
On the third try Harry got an impression of writing a letter, something he did many times a day, to Hermione, to Suze, to people he wished he saw more often. But the quill in the mental impression had been a raven one.
"Very good. There is a detail to the bottom of it. Can you get it?"
Reviving the emotion of reaching out across distance with a heartfelt letter, he cast the spell again. His inner eye took over his outer vision and he saw the main hall in Shrewsthorpe, saw Arcadius and Candide and himself lounging about with books and files and toys, and he felt such a painful remoteness from the scene. Then he was released.
Snape was rubbing his eyes. "That wasn't it. But it was much better."
"You miss us."
Snape's face lost the fleeting vulnerability it had and went sharp. "You sound surprised."
"You told me to tell you. What I saw."
Snape turned to his desk. "Yes, I did," he muttered.
Harry stepped up to him and put his arms around him, hitching his fingers together around his upper arm.
Rather than chastise him as Harry expected, Snape fingered the book on the desk with his trapped arm and said, "With Lupin covering first through third-years I will have things under control in another week. Then I can spend a day home on the weekend."
Harry continued to hang on.
"Everything all right, Harry?"
Harry considered that he had apparently led an all-powerful dark lord version of himself from another universe to their own. But he didn't say that.
"Something is wrong," Snape said.
With a hard swallow, Harry said, "Archie started house on fire."
Snape stepped back, forcing Harry to let go. "How did he manage that?"
Harry's head felt a bit light. He had lied, by simply distracting from the truth. He told the truth, but lied. "Charred beam by my room. Candy was shopping."
Snape's shoulders fell. "He needs careful, specific management."
"I'm not good. At that."
"We'll work on that too." He touched Harry's arm. "Perhaps time to move on to other things. You have readings, I'm sure."
Harry glanced at the clock. He had field work and then would arrive late at Suze's party just before ten. "Need to go."
"Perhaps another lesson on Sunday?"
After Suze's birthday, Harry expected he would need a few more days than that to be certain he could mask his thoughts. "Friday, maybe."
"If you wish. I'll do my best to be home that weekend. At least for a few hours."
Harry gave him a one armed hug, then slipped away.
He spent a distracted shift with Rogan, who talked a lot about things unrelated to Auroring or even the Ministry. Harry's lack of replies didn't slow him down. But he was pleasant when Harry wanted to depart exactly at ten, even with a report unfinished. He might still remember Harry treating him well in interrogation when no one else did because he seemed pleased to finish Harry's work up for him.
Harry slipped directly into the remotest corridor of the Hogwarts dungeon. The musty scent from the underworld blended in with the stale, damp air.
In the Slytherin common room, all conversation stopped when he entered.
"I saved you some cake," Suze said in greeting, making a slice appear out of the air with a wave.
"You hid a piece," someone complained.
A pile of torn presents, all silver and green and Quidditch-related, had toppled into the remains of the cake. A chubby girl was pushing the ribbons around to scrape up the last of the black frosting up with her fingers. The scent of sulfurous anise rose from the tray.
"Not chocolate?" Harry asked, sniffing his piece. The other House students were moving in closer, attentive to Suze and him. Harry hoped the two of them left the common room soon.
Suze laughed. "What does it smell like?"
"You don't like licorice?"
"I did." Harry hadn't tried licorice since his days of sweet shopping with Ron. Heads turned back and forth between them as each of them talked.
Suze handed him a fork. "You must not like licorice. The cake smells like your least favorite sweets, but it won't taste like it."
"Maybe Voldemort liked it," Harry said, slowly and clearly.
Several students flinched.
Suze put her arm through his. "You lost a lot then, when you lost him."
"Definitely," Harry said. "Parsel. Mouth. I miss that."
The students turned away, shifting into groups of their own and talking among themselves. Harry led Suze to a seat and dug into his cake. It was chocolate, so thick and heavy it must have been just cocoa and butter.
"Good cake, eh?" she asked.
He chewed and tried to swallow without choking. Two bites later he handed her the piece to finish, which she did with quick nibbles.
"Walk?" Harry asked.
Her face transformed. "I'd love to get caught out after curfew with you. Let's go."
Harry led the way up out of the dungeon, listening ahead for anyone in the Entrance Hall. The doors to the Great Hall were open and a handful of candles floated over the tables, the only light since the hearths were dark. Summer was holding on, and the castle had not picked up the chill it had most of the school year.
Suze tugged on his arm and he wondered how long he had stood there, staring through the tall double doors. "Bad place to hang because of the teachers."
Harry caught up on the Grand Staircase and took over the lead. The paintings lazily watched them pass up, floor after floor, to the top. A bit of low moonlight came in through the windows on the top landing. A noise from below made them both stop and listen, but only silence greeted their breathing as they stood holding each other's arms near the elbow.
Suze gave a giggle and whispered. "I feel like a first-year. You know a good snogging place?" Her eyes were full of sly anticipation.
She always had the better of him, but not tonight. He reached into his pocket for the wrapped box.
"Oh," Suze said weakly when he presented it on his palm. "You got me something." Her face fell, and twitched as she plucked it up. "Feels heavy," she said sadly.
Harry waited for her to open it. Her fingers rubbed over the paper, picking at the folds. She turned it over a few times, felt for the tape, then turned it again. "I didn't think you were going to get me anything." She said this levelly without the disappointment of seconds before.
With a sigh, she slipped her slim fingers under the folds of the paper. She bunched it in her hand, trapping the flapping Snitches printed on it, while she opened the hinged box. She stared into the green velvet interior.
Harry let his mouth give into the smile tugging at it.
"Oh. It's empty," she said, returning to happy.
He put an arm around her and led her away from the stairwell and the surveillance of the paintings.
"I hope you know a good place," she said, voice sultry.
They were in a rarely used stretch of corridor that bridged two wings.
Harry stopped and said, "I want to show you. What I am."
Her white brow went up. "That sounds intriguing."
Harry lifted her hand and wrapped it around his forearm, then grabbed her forearm and shook their arms. "Don't let go. No matter what."
As he matched her gaze to be certain she understood the seriousness, he felt a quiet serenity at that notion of holding on.
"Don't let go," he repeated and slipped through to the Dark Plane.
Suze's soft dance shoes landed with a dull poof beside him, one on top of his shoe. She peered around herself. The grey landscape stretched away under a grey sky, both appearing oddly foreshortened by the unvarying dimness.
Suze's mouth made a dry sound. "Where is this?"
Harry checked the full horizon for anything unexpected. All was quiet. "The underworld."
She used her toe to prod at the drooping saw grass. Rusty metal emerged from the tussock like dead flower stems.
"Really, the underworld?"
"Yes. The demons will be along as soon as they scent you. And watch out for the metal."
A hillock of grass shuddered in the near distance.
She pulled to arm's length to stand on tiptoe to look that way, and Harry said, "Don't. They are always ravenous." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight against him. "Stay close."
"Oh, this is going to be that kind of date, is it?"
She pressed tighter, yet relaxed her head against his chest. He could feel her pelvis against his leg.
A muskrat with turtle feet and crab claws sticking out of its back like antenna, crawled into view.
"Whoa, look at that. A demon?"
More creatures approached, chittering. Harry twisted to lean toward them and they backed up, piling up two deep to do so.
"They respect you." She said, then added after a beat. "Do they think you're one of them?"
"No, I don't . . . " he began, but then stopped to consider the question. "I don't know."
"Can I make them respect me?"
Harry snorted. "Probably. But another time." He stroked her hair, which hung loose down her back, long enough he couldn't reach the end and had to free his hand by lifting his fingers and letting her hair drop.
"Ready to go?" Harry asked.
"If we must." Her chin pressed into his ribs as she bent her neck to grin up at him. "Your house?"
Harry nodded and reached to intertwine their grips again. "Don't let go."
He didn't give her time to respond before tugging her through the interstice. They arrived in the sheep fields rising above Shrewsthorpe. A mist drifted onto their hair and clothes, gathering water beads out of the shimmering air.
Harry rocked Suze to one side then the other as he held her, letting the droplets condense on them. He felt he was stepping along an irreversible course by taking her home, and despite how pleased he was to be close to her, he felt daunted by this sense of narrowing possibility.
She said nothing, just burrowed into his robes and sighed. Harry fell still, staring at the haloed sets of lights along the main road, the glowing house windows, shivering through the trees. Without warning, he Apparated both of them to his room.
Suze shook his sleeve. "That's a terrific bit of magic. No one can Apparate in and out of Hogwarts. But you can."
"It's useful," Harry said, waving his bedside lamp up higher.
She turned her head around to take in his room. "Can you teach me? That way I can come see you here any time."
"Need have old magic." He lifted her hand and spread her fingers with his own. "Do magic without wand?"
"Without a wand?" She stared. "No."
"Can't teach. I don't think."
She tilted her head. "You spoke better before. In the underworld."
"I did. Not really speaking."
She swung his hand from side to side. "Does that mean those weren't really demons."
"No. They were real."
Harry shook his head and pulled her against him again, determined not to worry about her. Her eyes flared with elation. One side at a time, he pushed her hair behind her shoulders, then bent to kiss her. Her mouth tasted pleasantly familiar. She didn't grab his arms and pull herself up like he expected, simply stood with her head back.
Harry slid his hand behind her hair. The back of her neck was warm and fuzzy-soft. Relieved she wasn't wearing her Hogwarts uniform, but her grey dress robes, he slid his other hand down her back and lifted the silky material upward. Beneath her robes she wore leggings, coarse, woven ones. She pulled back and wriggled out of her robe, revealing a stretchy black bra, which contrasted against her bluish, powdery skin.
With slow but commanding movements, he steered her to the bed and pressed her back on it. Her hair spread over the pillow and Harry rested his face on it as he stretched out beside her. He slid an arm under her and pulled her tight against him. She weighed almost nothing on his arm. Her corded muscles relaxed one at a time as they lay there. Once she lay languidly over his arm, he bent to kiss her just above the collarbone. Like a cascade of knots tightening, she went rigid again.
Harry waved the lamp down to a small halo and put his wand under the pillow, then lay still, holding her.
"You're not sleeping, are you?" she asked some time later.
"No," he said, making sure to sound easygoing.
"I'm not scared of anything," she said.
Silence fell again.
"I trust you like I'd never imagined I'd trust anyone."
Harry thought just maybe he'd earned that given who he was now. It made breathing easier to dwell on that.
She said, "I really am ready."
Harry smiled into her hair. He wasn't stalling for her sake.
Their noses brushed when she turned her head. "You've been around."
It took Harry a bit to realize this was a question. "Yes. But not. As only me."
Her face transformed, stretching into sly amusement. "Does that make you a virgin of some kind?"
"No," Harry said firmly. But his uneasiness didn't relent. She began tracing something on his chest, loosening his robes and his shirt to get a larger canvas.
Harry's shirt was completely unbuttoned and coming untucked. He arched his back so it would come completely loose. If she wasn't uneasy, there was no sensible reason for him to be. After some groping, he found his wand under the pillow and used it on himself through his clothes.
"I took a potion," she said. "Two, in fact."
"Have to," Harry said, and put his wand and then his glasses on the side table.
He slid his hands up and under the dark stretchy fabric and was rewarded with a sigh he hoped would be repeated.
When they joined, there was more pain than expected. Suze turned her head to the side and her face pinched then shifted to stony. For the second time that day an unexpected magic assaulted Harry's senses. It blossomed rather than flowed in from elsewhere, so it was not his counterpart, thankfully, but something else.
Harry lowered himself beside Suze and closed his eyes, feeling her gradually relax, one limb at a time. The magic was fuzzy soft and he was breathing it in without trying to. The core of it drifted, thinning. The dark magic books he'd devoured at the height of his dual nature had been full of woodcuts demonstrating the best way to sacrifice a victim, especially a virgin, for the most effective dark spells. The knowledge of those spells formed a shifting knot in his mind. He hadn't been curious about anything he'd read in that state, until now, and now that knot unravelled and opened like a book.
The energy brushed his cheek, touched his chest. He took a deep breath and it flowed into his chest, making him feel whole. He ached to be whole and couldn't let the energy dissolve and disappear. He gathered Suze tight against him and gathered the scattering magic at the same time like he had the remains of Grindelwald's life force. Except this didn't feel dark, it simply felt alive with potential.
Suze started to speak, and Harry put a gentle finger to her lips. She gave a musical huff and fell still.
Harry stroked her narrow back and breathed in and swallowed every last vibrating fuzziness of the magic, thinking to store it for later. But his thoughts grew dim and distant as if he had drunk too much ale on an empty stomach. He tried to open his eyes, to see, but they were already open, blinded by an inner swirling blackness. His heart thrummed. He could feel himself breathing, smelled the sweetened-sweat scent of the two of them, and the warm soft skin of her against every bit of him, and he clung to that sense as his mind receded within a dark sphere.
If she spoke, he couldn't hear her. But he could still hear his own breathing. Sweating, worried that he had inadvertently performed a dark magic spell, tried to force the energy out of himself. It seemed to be all around him, then it seemed to not exist at all. The swarming memories of the dark magic books glowed in his mind, raw power, knowledge. He clung to that too, to the ordered pages and cold diagrams, the smeared ink and spattered blood.
Harry opened his eyes upon the fan of Suze's bright hair against his face. She was staring at the ceiling, a pert expression of patience on her face. No energy swirled, and Harry felt intensely tired, but he feared closing his eyes again, still concerned what he had just done.
The magic to gather the energy of the sacrifice was always in the service of some other horrific spell. It was never a spell on its own. At the time he had studied them, his dark nature had found them trifling, but now their memory made him shiver with revulsion. Virgins contained rather nice powers for dark magic, to the degree that he wondered that the Ministry didn't arrange to have them better protected.
With a jolt, Harry remembered Pettigrew's spell in the graveyard. That spell matched in the books and might not have worked so well had Harry not been a virgin at the time.
Into these circling thoughts came Suze's voice. Her voice seemed disembodied from her body, the feel of her was so comfortable, a part of him, whereas the voice was not.
"What are you thinking about?"
Harry didn't want to say, so he shook his head.
Harry wanted to say yes, but nodded instead. Speech seemed too much effort.
Her voice was pained in a cute way as she asked, "Have any Quidditch cream?"
Harry lifted his head. This time he really tried to speak and nothing came out. He pushed himself to sit up and let the covers slide off him. She'd asked for something. Right, the salve they always slathered on in the changing rooms after matches that healed all their scrapes and eased the bruises.
Stumbling, Harry went to the door of his room on numb legs, returned for his wand, and waved the tin up from the bathroom.
"You have a cute bum," she said.
Harry hurried back under the covers and handed over the tin.
"Don't watch, this will be embarrassing."
Harry turned away, thinking it would be too arousing. After the tin hit the floor from being tossed, he turned and pressed against her side again. Sleep was weighing on him like one of Hagrid's beasts, after Hagrid potioned them so he could cage them.
Suze cuddled close. "Can you set an alarm? I can't be late for breakfast. I'm not afraid of anything. Except maybe having Professor Snape come fetch me. From your bed."
The alarm was already set early for training, even though it was a Saturday. Harry kissed her in reply.
She said, "It's on your head."
Harry kissed her again.