Chapter 27 : Invasive Darkness
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Headmistress McGonagall’s sharp footsteps halted outside the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. She swung the door open, and without preamble called Snape out into the hallway. Snape, instantly alert due to this unusual behavior, set his students to reading a chapter rather than practical practice they had been engaged in, and strode quickly out the door. McGonagall was already walking away down the corridor and he had to jog to catch up. When he did so, she said in a hushed whisper, “Merton has made his move.” She stopped before the gargoyles and added, “He has attacked the Auror apprentices.” Snape’s face flattened into a stillness that previously she would have taken to mean he did not care, not that in reality he cared too much.
Her next words had to be forced out; they felt like an unforgivable curse. McGonagall said to her unnaturally still colleague, “Merton set a trap at a Ministry safehouse. It is now in ruins and . . . Harry and his fellow apprentice are missing.” Missing, that was the word used in the message from the Ministry. It had a twisted hope to it. More steady, she commanded, “Go and see what is going on. Bones has been mincing about this threat and I want to know what we are facing. Do you know where the Hannover Arms was? The Order used it occasionally as well.”
Snape seemed to shake himself awake. “Yes.”
“Take the Floo from my office, then. Go.” Her voice grew harder and that seemed to pull Snape together. He was up the stairs and gone in a flash of black cloak.
The scream of Muggle emergency sirens and dazzling lights led Snape from the alleyway where he had appeared after Apparating from the Leaky Cauldron, which had been abuzz with rumors and a few arguments over what was actually happening. Snape had ignored all of it.
Out on the glass-strewn road Snape needed an Obsfucation Charm to slip beyond the barrier of lime-yellow vested police and tape. In the middle of the street he stopped to avoid being run into by a man dragging a hose that resembled a long snake. There was little solid left of the building except the bulk of the chimneys. Steam rose from the sparse blackened remains that hung like charred teeth from the remains of the framing.
A policewoman wandered close to where the outer wall would have stood. Her bubblegum pink hair was stuffed almost completely inside her hat. Snape moved to follow her and she turned as he approached, despite the charm hiding him. “Severus,” she whispered. Two other police in long coats passed close and the they remained silent until the Muggle personnel were far enough away. Tonks nodded her head that Snape should follow her and they walked around to the side of a shiny flashing truck. Oily water flowed around the tires. On the other side of the block, an ambulance slammed its doors and sped away, siren bouncing off the buildings in chorus with itself.
Tonks said, “There’s no sign of them, but I arrived too late to see everyone they pulled out. Rodgers is at the hospital now checking, but he hasn’t signaled yet.” Gesturing with her hand, she explained, “Given the way the wood on the first floor was consumed so quickly, there must have been a magical barrier holding in the spell. Which is good on one hand, since no one on the street was hurt and the people on the ground floor got a little time.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out two little chalkboards, one blackened. She put the unscathed one back away and scrubbed at the soot on her hand.
“Are you certain Harry was there?” Snape asked, trying to find something solid to grab hold of in the hollow of his chest.
“Yes. I dropped him myself just minutes before and Rogan said he’d dropped Vishnu.” With real anger she said, “Merton’s been working us a long time. False alarms and merry chases. He used it to work out our procedures. Knew exactly where to decoy us to get us to leave them here when we got called away.” She angrily slapped her blackened hand against her dark Muggle uniform and handed over the charred tablet. “It’s Harry’s,” she quietly said. “I used a charm to pull everything magical out. Three of Merton’s devices were in there too but one was shattered completely to bits.” She kept her eyes down and said with difficulty, “I’m sorry, Severus. We were trying to keep them safe . . .”
Snape turned the miniature chalkboard over in his hand. The wood was completely carbonized but the slate was unmarred. With a pained expression Tonks pulled her tablet back out and stared at it. “They’re at Mungo’s,” she uttered breathily.
Vineet began to show marked improvement and the Healers were not behaving so rushed and edgy. Harry sat back and began wondering if he were forgetting something, like checking in with the Ministry. Not finding his tablet in his pocket, he gave up on that for the moment and watched with only a few winces as they sealed the muscle and skin over Vineet’s freshly straightened ribs. Harry sighed with relief when Shankwell declared Vineet’s lung filled with air rather than blood, and stepped away to use a washing spell on his hands. Harry glanced around for Vineet’s clothing to look for his tablet. Skelegro was forced on Vineet to his dismayed expression, which made Harry grin painfully. When the crowd around the table cleared, Harry tugged Vineet’s cloak from under it and located his fellow’s tablet quickly enough. A broad question mark plaintively filled it.
Moving quickly and with no little regret at having neglected the very procedures that had been drummed into them the last month, Harry erased what was there and drew “M+”, the code used on the log for the wizard hospital.
Harry watched Vineet settle against the table as though released from most of his discomfort. Harry too let the tension in his shoulders ease, up to the point where he still worried that he should do something about contacting the Auror’s office more concretely. But before he could decide whether he should Apparate to the Ministry to report in person, the door to the room swung open and a rather wild-looking Rodgers burst in. His eyes took in Vineet lying there, the bloody bladder now in a pan of pink water, the Healers, and finally, with unusual relief . . . Harry, sitting unharmed in the corner of the room.
“Why didn’t you chalk in sooner?” Rodgers chastised him when he found his voice.
Harry, finding his normal self now that Vineet was okay, said, “I . . . didn’t have my slate, and I didn’t think to check for Vineet’s.”
“Yeah, we found yours,” Rodgers stated grimly as though Harry were in trouble.
Harry’s eyes went to Vineet, who was breathing normally and was getting bandaged with wide white strips of cloth around his middle, loads of it, as though he were a mummy. “Sorry,” Harry said. “I wasn’t thinking, I guess.” Now that everything was all right, his lapse seemed inept, even as busy with Staunching as he had been, something he did not wish to explain.
“How long does he need to be here?” Rodgers asked Shankwell, referring to Vineet, who had closed his eyes and looked as though he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
“Days, most likely.”
“Days?” Rodgers retorted in surprise.
With anger in his voice Shankwell said, “If you had seen him when he came in, you wouldn’t wonder.” He turned to one of the others. “Take him to Ward Six. See that he gets only liquids for the day.”
Harry followed Rodgers out when he was instructed to by means of a sharp nod of his trainer’s head. Rodgers grabbed Harry by the upper arm when he got the chance. “And you’re all right?” he demanded.
“Yeah,” Harry replied. His wand arm was lead heavy and prickly from blocking but he could ignore that.
“Harry!” A voice came from down the corridor. They both turned to find Tonks and Snape approaching.
Harry started badly. “Severus?” he uttered, surprised that he was here rather than Hogwarts. Snape’s eyes had an odd look in them that Harry couldn’t decipher; he had a good chance to too, because Snape strode up close to look him over.
“You are unharmed?” Snape asked, voice oddly wavering.
“Yeah,” Harry said confidently, worried more than he wished to be about what might be going on behind Snape’s black eyes. “I’m fine.” Although it was close, he considered, with a speeding up of his heart. “What are you doing here?” he then asked Snape. Rodgers meanwhile was insisting that they head back to the Ministry, muttering about debriefings in a dark manner as though Harry were indeed in some trouble. Harry ignored him, having decided that he had done what he could, when he could.
Snape replied, “Minerva received a message and sent me to see what was happening. The message said you were missing so, naturally, I came looking for you.” His voice was level now, almost formal, but he appeared vaguely unhinged. Rodgers’ grim expression on the other hand brought back Harry's old annoying feelings of not knowing what was going on.
Back at the Ministry atrium, Rodgers tried to send Snape off by saying that Harry’s debriefing was the business only of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement for the moment. Harry for an instant believed Snape had turned into Kali, his pet Chimrian. Snape’s cloak jerked wide as he turned to confront the Auror trainer full on with prominent nose forward and eyes blazing. Rodgers actually took a stunned step backward and didn’t even try to match him. Snape backed down only slightly as he stated succinctly, “I am here as the appointed agent of a senior member of the Wizengamot, tasked specifically with determining exactly what is happening here. Unless you have assigned these events as secret even to the Wizengamot, then you cannot keep me out.”
Harry remained silent; he was sort of hoping to not have to tell this story in front of Snape. Rodgers actually growled, but he led the way through the golden gate at the end of the atrium, assisting Snape in checking in by bullying the man at the counter into weighing Snape’s wand before those waiting in line and not allowing him to ask any questions, just hand over a badge. A few witches and wizards gave Harry suspicious looks, which he ignored as best he could. His ears burned though as the word “Muggle-baiter” drifted from a group of witches.
In the tearoom, Harry told his story while a dictation quill jotted it down. Wishing that he could just write it himself in silence, he described what had happened as neutrally as possible. He went along uninterrupted until Mr. Weasley popped his head in, looked Harry up and down, and muttered, “Good, at least I can assure the Minister that you are here,” before dashing away again.
Rodgers, who was reviewing the dictation, asked with keen interest. “You believe you managed to hit it with a tar ball charm?”
Rodgers rubbed his face. “I wonder if that’s why it exploded,” he commented thoughtfully.
“What?” Harry asked in shock. “We got out before . . . “ He paused, remembering the approaching wall of blue and yellow just as they departed. “It blew up?” he echoed.
“Quite,” Rodgers said, “There is nothing left of the Hannover Arms.”
Harry glanced around the faces at the table to look for confirmation of this. Snape, sitting with his arms crossed, gaze very far away, confirmed it by being so. “Did anyone get hurt?” Harry asked, remembering the noises from below just before.
Rodgers stood suddenly and picked up the parchment from the dictation quill, which poked around at the table top twice before falling flat. “Several Muggles,” he replied.
Harry’s heart sank. Defensively, he said, “I didn’t know it would do that if I hit it with a tar ball. I wouldn’t have done that otherwise. I . . . I just couldn’t block another hit. I didn’t know,” he insisted bleakly.
“No one knows if that’s what happened,” Tonks said from the doorway. She stepped in carrying a large lacquer box, inside of which was the remains of the devices. There was no tar apparent on them, but most of the pieces were too blackened to be absolutely certain.
“You said though that he was trying to avoid Muggle involvement,” Harry heard himself arguing, although it was cutting him inside. “That he didn’t want to attract Muggle attention.”
Rodgers considered him before pointing out, “Everyone is expected to recover from what I could glean while looking for you two. No one is accusing you of making a mistake, Harry.”
Harry relaxed marginally. His trainer, of all people, wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true.
“Best one we’ve got,” Tonks said, prodding a whole elongated ceramic bulb with only one broken edge.
“Let’s hear the rest of what happened,” Rodgers said.
Harry explained how Vineet insisted they could not Apparate out. Across the table, Snape, who otherwise had not reacted, stiffened as though feeling the stress of that moment. But, Harry went on to explain, Vineet had opened a gateway in the barrier and Harry had Apparated them both to hospital.
“You did good, Harry,” Tonks stated after the dictation quill came to a halt.
“How. . . how is the explosion being explained?” Harry asked.
“Gas leak,” Rodgers stated grimly, while collecting up the parchments on the table. “Good general excuse that works most of the time.”
The Aurors picked up their reports and retreated, leaving Harry and Snape sitting alone. Snape said, “Perhaps you should move into Hogwarts given that Merton has put such serious effort into trying to kill you.”
Harry sat straight. “It wasn’t me . . . I wasn’t supposed to be on duty. Kerry Ann called right before to trade, said a relative was visiting from France.” Harry imagined his two fellows in the upper room of the pub, unaware and un-warned of the danger. They would have been killed, he was certain. Trapped and spelled until they were pulverized. “It was a good thing,” Harry breathed, feeling a sort of post-panic. Snape crossed his arms and gave him a dubious look, making Harry say, “I can feel those things. No one else can. Mad-Eye can see them, at least, but Kerry Ann and Vineet would have been sitting ducks.” Harry stood. “I should go back to Mungos to see how Vineet is doing.”
Snape stood also and blocked Harry’s way to the door. He still appeared rattled and as though he wished to say something. Eventually, he stepped aside and said, “Do continue to be careful.”
Harry nodded. Snape followed him out, so Harry took the lift to the atrium since Snape needed to use a hearth. At the gates, which were now half-closed, a crowd had gathered and a few people were shouting at Nick, the guard, who wasn’t really up to guarding under such circumstances and cowered a bit behind the counter. When Harry stepped up to the open gate, the crowd quieted somewhat and a familiar voice shouted his name.
Harry searched the tightly-packed mass of robed people for Kerry Ann. He didn’t have to look long, she forced her way through and erupted forward to hug him. “Thank goodness you’re all right. Where’s Vishnu?”
Harry leaned into her ear to whisper, “Mungos.” so the very curious crowd couldn’t hear.
Nick found his voice to chastise them. “Now, then, clear the gateway, go on.”
A path opened, and as they headed toward the fountain with Snape following, a middle-aged portly witch and a tall man in foreign robes struggled through the crowd to join them. The witch gave Harry a tearful hug, and Kerry Ann explained, “She thinks I’d have bought it if you hadn’t changed shifts with me.”
“That’s all right,” Harry said, waiting for the long string of thanks to end and his release to happen on its own. “I’m going to see Vineet,” he informed his fellow.
“Is he in a ward? Can we come?”
“Yeah,” Harry said, even though he was thinking that hearing Vineet’s side of the story would not help Kerry Ann’s mother calm down . . . at all. He turned to the tall, lean gentleman, who must be the cousin and Kerry Ann broke in with, “Oh, Harry, this is Ambroise.” And as they shook hands, Kerry Ann made a quick face of overdone delight, just to communicate her excitement over him. The next moment though, she was behaving with calm aplomb and inviting him to borrow her Floo powder as though he were nearly a stranger.
Harry smiled lightly, dearly needing to so and he was still grinning when they arrived in the hospital waiting room. That is, until he spotted Rita Skeeter. The whole room turned to watch as the reporter gave a little cry of hungry delight and clicked her way over to Harry in her high heels.
“Well, looky looky, the man of the hour. Mr. Potter, what did happen this afternoon?” she asked, quickly getting her quill poised over her writing tablet. Beside her, her photographer was struggling to reload film into his camera, but the crank appeared to be jammed.
“This morning you accused me of being a Muggle-baiter, so I can’t imagine you would really want a story from me,” Harry said. “In fact, you shouldn’t believe anything I say.”
Skeeter pasted on a fake smile. “This is different,” she said.
“How so?” Harry asked.
“Well . . .” she said, dabbing the point of her quill on her tongue and then scribbling on the pad. Her manner shifted to one more calculating. “It doesn’t have to be different, does it? Muggle building burns down . . . Harry Potter somehow involved. Did you get interrogated this time, too?”
“Who told you about the last time?” Harry asked in a low voice.
She smiled, feeling her position strengthen, apparently. “My sources are my secret,” she said sweetly.
Harry stepped around her, nearly running into Snape beside him. “Then my day is my secret,” he mocked. But her long-nailed hand grabbed a hold of his arm and restrained him from departing. Harry turned and used a mild shocking crowd-control charm on her hand to make her let go. “Don’t do that,” he said threateningly. He had nothing but anger behind his control and found that letting it out selectively felt rather good.
She gave him a weak smile. Her photographer raised his camera, having finally loaded the new film. Skeeter pushed the camera back down while giving Harry a wary looking over as though reassessing him. Harry caught a glimpse of her thoughts and stepped closer. “You print those things about me and you know they aren’t true.” He leaned in even closer and whispered, eyes narrowed, “But what if they were?”
Snape tapped Harry on the shoulder. Harry backed off, happy with the disturbed thoughts he was leaving the reporter with. Kerry Ann and her mother and guest were waiting nearby and followed to the welcome desk. “I do hope you told that nasty lady off,” Kerry Ann’s mother loudly announced.
“I think so,” Harry said, feeling better than he had in days, focused and in control. Beside him, Snape shook his head and appeared grim. “I don’t give a damn what she thinks,” Harry explained.
“You should,” Snape returned in sharp anger.
His parental tone cut through Harry’s darkly positive attitude. Had he really just insinuated to Skeeter that he had burned down the Dursley house? “Something’s going odd with me,” Harry admitted, thinking of his recent unpredictably vacillating thoughts and moods.
Snape’s disturbed look was interrupted by their arrival at the lifts.
Up in the ward, they found Vineet in the farthest bed, alone. “Where’s Nandi?” Harry asked, expecting her to be here.
“Hermione is fetching her,” Vineet explained. “I am hoping she has not seen the news.”
“Ah,” Harry uttered before proceeding to introduce everyone. The ward’s floating lamps congregated overhead as he did so.
Kerry Ann approached the head of the bed and rested a hand on Vineet’s shoulder. “You look good. The photographs of the pub were pretty scary.”
“I am having Harry to thank for being here.”
“I am having you to thank too,” Harry countered. “I can’t open a barrier gateway. I don’t have a block good enough to survive an explosion like that. I’d have been caught in it.”
Vineet laid his head back and said, “I am glad you do not feel I was a burden.”
“What? No, of course not,” Harry insisted.
Kerry Ann patted Vineet and said, “Look at Harry there. Didn’t even bend his glasses.”
Harry straightened them and said, “I’m used to protecting them while I’m being attacked, I guess.”
Kerry Ann’s mother sniffled. “I wish my little girl didn’t have such dangerous aspirations.”
Ambroise on the other hand was giving Kerry Ann a rather interested look, perhaps inspired by this assessment. “These are your colleagues?” he asked.
“Uh, one more. Aaron. Not sure where he is.” She hesitated. “Hopefully, he’s all right.”
“But, Harry Potter and the others?” he asked, sounding as though he wished have this straight. “And you can keep up with such company?” he then asked when the previous question was confirmed.
Harry laughed. “Kerry Ann always beats me out on evaluations,” he easily explained, happy to help her resumé.
Kerry Ann said, “So does Vishnu though, and he’s flat on his back right now.”
“You shouted a warning,” Vineet said to Harry. “But I was too slow. I do not know what you saw, because I did not perceive anything.”
The patient sounded tired, so Kerry Ann and company made their departure, and some of the lamps drifted back to the center of the ceiling. Snape said, “I must report to Minerva, but I will see you at home.” It was very nearly a threat. Harry didn’t dare raise his eyes, just nodded.
Alone with his fellow, Harry pulled over a chair from between two other beds, nodding hello to the other beds’ occupants when they greeted him as though he were there to visit everyone in the ward. He took a seat and watched Vineet’s dark brown eyes roam over the ceiling.
“I’m sure Hermione and Nandi will get here soon,” Harry said, hoping Vineet stayed awake that long.
“You were correct,” Vineet said after a pause.
“I was?” Harry returned, wondering about what may be happening at the Ministry, but pulling himself back to the current conversation.
“It is not reasonable to tie oneself to someone selected for a caste or name before one has assured oneself that there is not a perfect person out there already, somewhere.”
Harry rubbed his hair and gave his friend a sad look. “And here I was beginning to believe you were right,” he said, trying for lightness and failing. “I’m assuming we’re discussing Hermione.”
Vineet nodded. “She is very smart. I have not met anyone more well-read.”
“True,” Harry said, glancing at the door, glad that Vineet was in a bed as far from it as possible so as to give them some warning.
“But, it is more than that,” Vineet murmured as though thinking aloud. Harry closed his eyes and tried to take this in along with everything else. Vineet went on, “I greatly envy you all of the years you must have been friends.”
“We were kids, getting chased by Voldemort and his Death Eaters. It wasn’t . . . well, it was all right, in the end. Mostly. I’d be dead without her. Many times over.” Harry sighed. “But she is off fetching Nandi for you . . .”
Vineet turned his gaze back to the ceiling. “I thought having her as a friend would be sufficient. She is a very conscientious friend and helps Nandi a great deal. But it is worse and now cannot be undone. I wonder often now if I could have come sooner to work on my studies. I may have gone to Hogwarts . . .” He shook his head, sounding almost dreamy, but in a painfully way.
This kind of regret and wishing how things could be different if something small in the past had changed was far too familiar to Harry. “You want someone you can’t have and they’re too close by . . . join the club.”
Vineet raised his head from the pillow to look at him better. The door to the ward opened and Hermione and Nandi arrived. Nandi took up a position beside her husband and rested a cupped hand on his shoulder. Hermione remained on the far side of Harry, gripping his shoulder and then just the fabric of his robes. His friend was definitely having the harder time with this, making even him wish that things were different.
Vineet and Nandi were speaking in their own language. Harry stood and said to Hermione, “I have to get back to the Ministry and then home, where I think I’m going to get chewed out, although for what, I’m not sure.” He wanted her to interpret this as a question as to whether she needed him to stay.
Hermione’s brow furrowed in concern about him before she said, “I’ll make sure Nandi gets home when visiting hours are over.” Which Harry interpreted as her saying she was all right.
Vineet’s eyes were closed when Harry turned to make his goodbye. He made it to Nandi instead.
Back in the Auror’s office a discussion was going on. “Where did he get three of those things at once? According the Mystery the magic in them should dissipate rapidly if not used.” Rodgers was speaking in clear dismay. “Hey, Potter,” he said upon seeing Harry enter the doorway. The room turned to look at him: Mr. Weasley, Tonks, Rogan, Shacklebolt, and and the old wizard, Whitley. Only Moody was missing.
“Am I needed for anything?” Harry asked.
Rodgers turned in his chair and said, “We had a question for you, in fact. You stated that the only warning you received that the vessels were there was your sense of cursedness.”
Harry nodded. “That’s right. It was really strong. The worst I’ve ever felt.”
“You’re certain they weren’t there all along? That was the only warning? No noise? No pop?”
Harry shook his head. “Oh, there was a slight breeze, maybe,” he said, remembering the slowed down sequence from when his mind slipped into overdrive.
Rodgers gave the others a meaningful look. “That implies a portkey to me. Which should have been reported in the log in Transportation as unauthorized.”
Tonks said, “I checked. Nothing into London was in the log.”
Rodgers shook his head, appearing frustrated. Mr. Weasley approached and put an arm around Harry. “Good to see you unharmed, Harry. Very good. We have your transcript, and that was the only detail we wondered about. You can go on home.”
Harry gave the mix of gazes another glance before waving and stepping into the corridor to Disapparate.
After he was gone, Tonks said with emotion, “We were really blasted lucky today. Bones finally going to make an announcement?”
Mr Weasley said, “She will tomorrow. Doesn’t have any choice now, not with Muggles injured and Ministry property destroyed.”
Rogan sat back, rocking his chair onto two legs. “Hopefully she can calm everyone. It’s just a magical spelling device. Things could be much worse.”
“Things are going to get much worse,” Mr. Weasley pointed out, and proceeded to fill in the rest of the Aurors about the prophecy.
Clearly rattled, so that the front legs of his chair smacked the floor, Rogan said, “So, we got bloody damn lucky today. Our once and future savior could have been wiped out easily by those things.”
Mr. Weasley went to the door. “Harry’s amazingly resilient . . . and lucky. Everyone needs to understand that despite being merely a first-year apprentice, he may need to be given more freedom to command a bad situation than you are willing to give him. Just don’t do it before it’s time.”
Rogan gave a dubious laugh. “And we’ll know that, how?”
“Just do the best you can,” Mr. Weasley tried a little lamely.
“He gets this look about him,” Tonks said. “As though he’s completely absorbed in what is happening. That’s the sign I would use.”
Back home in the dining room, Harry found Candide and Snape waiting for him, Candide with her hand on the Daily Prophet with its giant picture of the smoldering pub and the headline: Suspicious Explosion and Fyre at Ministry Safe-House. “Harry,” she greeted him with terribly strong emotion.
Snape stood stiffly with arms crossed. After a pause he said, “I need to speak with Harry alone.”
As Candide passed Harry on her way out, she ran a hand over his arm. “Glad you’re all right.”
“Yeah. I’m fine,” Harry replied a bit clipped.
Snape waited until the door upstairs closed. He paced once and stopped, arms still crossed. “What you said to Rita Skeeter was most unlike you.”
“No it wasn’t.”
Snape considered him pointedly and Harry Occluded his mind on instinct. Snape said, “If it were just one . . . unwise comment to a reporter, who already prints unflattering material about you on a twice-weekly schedule, I would let it go. But it is many other things as well.”
Harry crossed his arms too and put his chin out, ready to argue against anything. Snape was treading on thin ice as far as he was concerned.
A long pause ensued as though they were battling on some nonverbal level. Snape asked levelly, “Your magic is still all right?”
“Fine,” Harry replied. “Witness that I’m still here.”
“Yes,” Snape agreed, clearly struck hard by being reminded of that, and Harry tried not to let his mouth twitch into a smile. Snape went on, “I do not wish to ever repeat that experience. Whether you reject me or not . . . I am still your father. I have come too far to be otherwise.” He seemed to closely monitor the after-effects of this statement.
Harry blinked a few times, feeling guilty and slightly undone. He didn’t have a response.
Snape, voice back to level, slowly said, “The revelation that I informed my master of the prophecy could not have come at a worse time.”
“Is there ever a good time for that?” Harry asked sarcastically, now angry.
“I told you what happened,” Snape said, almost arrogantly, looking away as though the conversation was beneath him.
Harry’s shoulder’s clenched. “You told me only that you betrayed everything,” he hissed. “You tell me one thing but you do another.” Harry rode on a rush of fury now. “I don’t know why . . .” Harry began. He was going to say he didn’t know why he ever trusted Snape, but he didn’t really mean it, did he?
“What were you going to say?” Snape challenged.
“Nothing,” Harry said, wondering where these thoughts were coming from. Looking at Snape now made that dual sense of betrayal rise up again. “Your master. Right. Like you were ever loyal to anything.”
Snape pulled his wand up, aimed at Harry’s chest. Harry had not noticed that Snape even had it in his hand. Harry reached automatically for his own, but it wasn’t in his pocket. Snape lifted his other hand, far out of reach, to show Harry that he had his wand too. Harry took a step back and almost hit his head on the corner of the mantel. The wall was directly behind him.
“Don’t know what to do, do you?” Snape asked, oddly interested rather than threatening. Harry couldn’t even shake his head he was so befuddled and now his back was against the wall. Snape said, “That would be symptomatic.” And then he cast a Mutushorum at Harry, who froze, helpless.
Snape let out a breath. “Sorry about that. But I want to check you for a few things without your fighting me as you would be wont to do if my fear is correct.” Harry, wishing dearly that he were free to strike out, stared out, unmoving, as Snape leaned in close. “What am I doing?” he asked as though reading the question from Harry’s eyes. “I am checking you for an Imperius curse. Which isn’t terribly reliable, but I must give it a try given your recent behavior.” He tapped Harry on the forehead with the tip of his wand and cast something, speaking casually as he went. “You are displaying a disturbingly split personality and since you were out of observation for rather a long time after you left the Quidditch match, it seems possible that someone could have got a hold of you.”
Snape frowned, considering things, and went to the window and tapped the sill to check the perimeter spells. Nothing flashed outside. He stepped purposefully back to Harry. “You see,” he lectured, “a remote Imperious must be quite powerful and even then, it rarely keeps hold all of the time. It should be detectable.” He tapped Harry on the top of the head with another spell. Then after some thought, tapped him on each shoulder.
He huffed. “No sign of one, however.” He tipped Harry’s chin up and looked into each eye, back and forth. “Even your pupils are fine; the curse can constrict them.” Frowning to himself, he cast the cancellation spell at Harry, and caught him as he fell.
Harry propped his stunned feet under himself while Snape helped lift him to upright. Snape didn’t release him immediately, however. “Sorry, Harry,” he said. “I thought it likely given your behavior of late.”
Part of Harry wanted to push away out of the embrace, but he didn’t move. His heart felt as frozen as his body had been moments before.
“What were you going to say to me?” Snape asked.
Speaking into his guardian’s shoulder, Harry said, “I was going to say that I wondered how I ever trusted you.”
Snape huffed a laugh through his nose and propped Harry straight, but held onto his shoulders as though he may need help balancing. “Can I have my wand back?” Harry asked, not sure he was going to get it. He wanted to test his magic and needed it to do so.
Snape held it out, handle first. “Do try to keep better track of it.”
Harry, warm wand in hand, felt a rush of warmth at Snape’s trust. “I do. I didn’t expect you to take it.”
“Expect ANYONE to take it. These are difficult times,” Snape stated harshly, watching Harry try a Lumos that, for an instant, flickered with a black halo. Harry shook it the spell out and tried again with his mind cleared and filled only with that warmth of trust. The spell came out fine the second time.
“All right?” Snape asked.
“Yeah,” Harry answered in a difficult tone. “You were baiting me,” he accused.
“Yes,” Snape admitted. “I needed to see your reaction up close. I wish I knew what was happening to you.” When Harry simply stared at his wand and didn’t reply, Snape went on. “It seems more than just the injury of my revelation. More even than the Dark Plane impinging on you. Any more dreams?”
Harry shook his head.
“Truly,” Snape sharply asked. “No more?”
“I’ve been taking these Muggle pills to sleep. They may be blocking them.”
“Do you have the bottle?”
Harry sighed. “Up in my room. I’ll fetch them.” He stepped out, but Snape followed.
In his room, Harry picked the bottle up from his night stand and held it out. Snape stared closely at the sideways, microscopic print on the label before setting the bottle back down. “It is merely an antihistamine. I was concerned it was a psychotropic. It should not be blocking your dreams, but it may make you sleepy enough not to wake during them.”
Harry shrugged and wandered over to his owl, who was sleeping on top of her cage with her head tucked away. He was feeling empty again, fixed into a limbo state by Snape’s assertion that he would always be there no matter what Harry said or did. Hedwig fluffed herself when he petted her. Memories of the day, of the attack, washed around him rather than through him, and he scoffed to himself that the old crone had the date wrong.
Snape came over and opened Kali’s cage to remove her sleepy form and examine her. “She is losing her fur and has grown quite dull colored,” Snape observed.
“She was keeping residence in Hagrid’s hut with a six-foot Pranticore. I don’t think it was very quiet.”
Snape held the Chimrian closer to Harry and she hissed at him. He withdrew her and petted her as she clambered into the crook of his arm. “I can think of no rational reason for her to dislike you. She has no choice, by blood, but to be bonded to you.” His hair tossed lightly as he shook his head. “I am going to regret later not understanding this, I’m certain.” He stepped to the door, still carrying Harry’s pet. “Come down to dinner in an hour,” he said, as though everything were normal. More normal, in fact, than it ever really was in their family situation.
Harry lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling, vacillating between feeling betrayed still despite trying to forgive Snape, sickened by his lack of action regarding the betrayal, and hoping Vineet was all right. He wished they’d given him something to do at the Ministry so he wasn’t left to his own thoughts like this.
An hour later, moving on automatic, Harry went downstairs. Dinner was just being served on a table anchored by two tall off-white candles. Harry took a seat beside Candide and piled his plate with food that he had no appetite for. Kali slept, draped unexpectedly over Snape’s shoulder. Small talk passed between Snape and Candide as they ate, while Harry picked at his food, strangely pained by this family scene which matched any fantasy he may have previously had about having a real family.
Unable to pretend to eat any longer, Harry stood. “Finished already?” Snape asked.
Harry nodded and left for his room, expecting further argument, but not getting any. In his absence Snape said, “Any sign of unbalance from him and I want you to send me an owl by Floo, immediately. My hearth is open for your owl or Harry’s.”
She asked, confused, “You think Harry’s dangerous or something?”
“I don’t know what is happening to him. The term is finished on Monday and the Hogwart’s Express leaves on Friday after examinations. I expect he will hold together that long until I can return and be here all the time.”
“He is nothing but polite to me. And completely normal.”
Snape pushed his plate forward an inch. “Then whatever it is, I am drawing it out of him. That is good, I suppose. Or are you just saying that to protect him?”
Nonplussed, she straightened and replied. “I wouldn’t lie to you about something that important, Severus. If I thought Harry needed help of any kind, I would tell you.”
“My apologies,” he muttered. “Too much is happening and I feel I should see through to what is truly behind his difficulties, but I cannot.” A minute later, he added, “I didn’t expect the bad times to return this quickly. I was prepared for a longer break . . . a chance to . . . live a bit.” The last he seemed to toss on as though it were unlike him to say it.
“How long can this go on?” Candide asked, shaken by his statement.
Snape stared into the closest fat candle, at the glow bleeding down through the beeswax. “Last time it went on for decades,” he stated, voice far away.
“Last time, my family remained untouched. No one bothered us. Well, the news was always bad.”
“It is not possible to remain untouched with Harry around.”
Candide laughed and then soberly said, “Poor boy.”
The plates and platters sparkled away. “I wish Dumbledore were here,” Snape stated after another long pause. “And you do not know how painful it is for me to admit that.”
“Why do you want him?” she asked doubtfully, standing to fetch the crystal bottle of fortified wine.
Snape waved her off pouring him any, and said while rubbing his forehead, “I fear he is slipping into dark wizardry, in a manner I cannot comprehend, let alone stop. I need Dumbledore’s advice. I am tempted to send Harry back to Finland, just on the off chance the Shaman there can help him again.”
“At least it would be summer this time,” Candide offered. She sipped from her tumbler. “I’d go with him, if you wanted me to. You said that you seem to bring the worst out of him. That is, if you don’t wish to send him alone.”
Snape took a sip of her tumbler. “I appreciate your willingness to assist with this overwhelming responsibility I have taken on.”
She grinned wryly. “Children are a massive responsibility, even when they aren’t Harry Potter.”
The next morning, Harry went straight to St. Mungos, where he found Aaron keeping Nandi and Vineet company. Aaron stood to give Harry a hard slap on the arm. “Hero of the hour looking unaffected,” he said gamely, as though introducing him to a crowd.
“How are you, Vineet?” Harry asked.
“Improving,” the Indian replied and gestured at the empty chair beside him. Harry accepted it, feeling light all of a sudden, as though the air in the room were fresher, or his chest less constricted.
They talked all morning. Other visitors came and went. Just before lunchtime, Mr. Weasley stepped into the ward. “Ah, there you are, Harry. I’ve come to fetch you.”
Harry stood and faced him, resisting just barely a sharp comment about Mr. Weasley’s poor sense of loyalty. Alarmed, Harry turned away and rubbed his head.
“You all right, Harry?” Mr. Weasley asked in concern.
“Yeah,” Harry replied. “I think I just need some lunch.” Which was half the truth; he had skipped breakfast and only had a touch of dinner the night before.
“Well, we’ll stop and get you some at the Burrow before I take you to talk to the Minister. Come on.”
“Bones wants to see me?” Harry asked, focusing hard on Mr. Weasley’s voice of concern, which was stabilizing him.
When they were out of the ward, Mr. Weasley took Harry’s elbow. “Insists upon it. That’s why I was sent to fetch you. But I can pretend it took a little bit longer to find you. This was the first place I checked. Molly’d be thrilled to see you.”
Harry sat in the sunny main room of the Burrow, eating a slightly dry but still tasty beef sandwich. His appetite returned fiercely as Mrs. Weasley doted on him, bringing him a pitcher of pumpkin juice and making sure the food was just right.
Near the end of the meal, Mr. Weasley said, “Remus said you had a bit of a falling out with Severus.”
“Yeah,” Harry admitted, suddenly not hungry and in fact, slightly nauseous. “But it’s all right now.”
“Is it?” Mr. Weasley asked doubtfully.
It has to be, Harry thought to himself. I have no choice. When he didn’t reply, but stared at his plate, he missed Mrs. Weasley signaling to her husband to drop the topic.
“Well, they’ll send out the whole squad hunting for us if we don’t get there soon,” Mr. Weasley said, standing up.
Harry followed him back into the Ministry, by Floo this time. As Mr. Weasley held out the household canister of powder, he explained, “New security procedures. No Apparating directly into the Ministry. ‘Cept they will probably open an area at the far side of the Atrium because it will be too long a wait in the Floo network otherwise and people will start getting misdirected. It will be chaos.”
Harry stopped a moment upon hearing that word, but he shook it off and tossed the powder onto the small fire.
At the counter there were five staff doing check-in, just as there had been before the DV-Day festivities. Harry was waved through, but Mr. Weasley got held up for extra questions. Harry waited beside the gate, amused, while his boss, in fact the Law Enforcement Department Head, located his identification and displayed it with a huff.
Up on the first floor, Harry led the way into the Minister’s office. Belinda sat at the desk, writing out a letter in a slow, neat hand. She looked up at Harry and gave no outward reaction to his presence. “The Minister is waiting for you,” she said to Mr. Weasley. Harry wanted to stall and ask how Belinda was, but Mr. Weasley had a hold of his arm and was steering him around her desk and into the next office.
Minister Bones’ office contained the trappings of power: fine carved furniture, lamps with attractive stained glass, dark, built-in bookshelves. She gestured for Harry to take a seat in a fine red chair with an exceptionally tall back that wrapped around its occupant. “I’ll send Harry down to you when I’m finished,” Bones stated pointedly.
Arthur hesitated, but nodded and on the way past Harry, leaned down to whisper, “Temper,” in his ear. Harry held back on rolling his eyes. As if he were stupid enough to let anything slip to this woman, who wasn’t Fudge, but wasn’t really so different—attracted to power and hence manipulatable through that addiction. Harry found these revelations interesting and useful, so he let them flow, wished for more of them, in fact. Amelia Bones moved around her desk to her chair. She was wearing a cream-color polyester Muggle suit today and it made an annoying noise as she walked. She sat in her chair and fixed a smile on as she peered at Harry.
“Our little hiatus from trouble does seem to have ended. I’m very pleased you came out of that scuffle unharmed, Mr. Potter, Harry,” she amended with an even more friendly smile. Harry nodded, unable to bring himself to smile in return. He was too distracted by memorizing the office, its layout, the relative distances between things, where certain things might be stored. It wasn’t the kind of thing he was usually interested in, but today he was. Bones was still talking. “Your fellow apprentice is expected to recover as well. We were very lucky. I was wondering though, if you would join me in speaking to the press.”
Harry bristled at the notion, picturing himself in the spotlight made him shirk instinctively. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” he asked smoothly. “After all, the prophecy isn’t widely known and I would like to remain less of a target.” This excuse rolled out without forethought, but on review, it sounded pretty good.
She gave this due consideration and a quick read of her eyes showed her weighing her immediate position against future assets. “You are of course correct. Perhaps it would not be wise.”
Harry had to avoid smiling this time. He stood, slowly so as to not be rude about it. “If that’s all Minister. I believe I should check in with the Auror’s office . . .” To his own ears he sounded deferential, not realizing before how very manipulative that attitude could be.
She smiled and nodded. “But of course, Mr. Potter. I am relieved to see you falling into your role in our organization so well. And to see you bearing up under the pressure you must be under.”
Harry nodded, a kind of bow, and she waved him out. As the heavy oak door, cursed in some strange way, closed behind him, Harry considered how very easy to fool they all were. Eager pawns, all of them.
Down in the Auror’s office, Harry’s strange confidence was shaken by encountering Tonks at her desk. Hesitating in the doorway, Harry worried suddenly what she would think of what had been going through his mind. He didn’t expect she would approve. Her eyes lifted to his. Her hair was the usual pink today and stood up neatly, a sign that she wasn’t completely stressed by events. Harry wished he could run his fingers through it and that thought alone made him feel as though the wind had been knocked out of him.
“You all right, Harry?” she asked in clear concern.
“Yeah. Just thi- remembering something.” He felt small now in contrast to a moment before when he felt he ruled the whole place. He rubbed his eyes. Tonks grabbed his arm, which sent emotional electricity through him.
“Are you sure you didn’t get hurt yesterday? Here, sit down.” She guided him to a chair as he rubbed his face and eyes another round, trying to find a balance in his mind that was impossible to sustain. He felt like himself now, but where the heck had he gone in the Minister’s office? Tonks leaned close, close enough to smell her shampoo and asked, “Want me to take you to the Ministry Healer?”
Harry lifted his head. “No. Really. I’m fine. Tomorrow’s the Ides,” he suddenly remembered. “She had the day wrong.”
Tonks laughed. “Guess she did,” she agreed, patting Harry on the shoulder. After she went back to her desk that spot on his shoulder continued to feel warm and tingly, and Harry continued to feel like himself.
Rogan came in then and sat down heavily in his chair. “Bloody Control of Magical Creatures.”
“What’s that?” Tonks asked him.
“Like I have time for this, but Rodgers asked me to get things together for the apprentice applicant testing. I went ‘round to various departments to check on the whereabouts of the materials we used last time and I’m getting the runaround on things that should be simple.”
“They asking for forms that don’t exist again?”
Rogan laughed and shook his head. “I’ll try again on Monday when the people I need to talk to are actually here. Stupid me thought I get it out of the way today.” He looked at Harry, still sitting against the wall behind Tonks’ chair. Harry hadn’t wanted to leave, felt in fact as though he were clinging to her aura somehow and if he moved, he would lose himself again. “Need something to do, Potter? There are more files . . .” Rogan suggested.
Harry considered that. He could survive that, he thought.
Around dinner time, Rogan told Harry to go home. Stiff in the neck and with myriad paper cuts, Harry did so. Candide greeted him warmly when he arrived. His things put away, he took a seat across from her and picked up the newspaper. Candide said, “At least they’re too busy to dig up dirt on you.”
“That’s an upside I hadn’t considered,” Harry said.
After a quiet dinner, during which Harry failed to notice the extra looks he was getting, Harry pulled out his assigned readings and lost himself in them. He wished he had Kali to sit in his lap, but she had no interest in coming out of her cage. She tried to bite him when he tried to pet her. “What’s the matter?” he had asked her, truly wishing she could reply. She seemed to know something he didn’t.
Harry slept fitfully that night but rose with a jolt the next morning as though more wide awake then normal. Jittery as though he had too much to do in too short a time, Harry did his readings for a few hours before visiting his fellow at the hospital. Vineet was sitting up and looking much more himself.
Harry was very glad to see him well and energetic. “Are you getting out today?” he asked.
“I am endeavoring to arrange that,” Vineet replied.
“Where’s Nandi?” Harry asked. “She must be pleased.”
“Hermione has taken her to the park for a walk. Thought she needed a break from this dull room.”
Harry glanced around at the dark panelling with it mysterious streaks. “Probably did.” He pulled over a chair and asked, “You all right?” referring to Hermione.
Vineet rubbed his arm with his hand, one of the few nervous gestures Harry had ever seen him use. “I do not know.” Harry thought that was all he was going to say and was fishing for something meaningful to offer, when Vineet added, “I cannot live with myself if I take what I want. But I also feel I cannot live like this.”
“Maybe it will wear off with time,” Harry suggested. “If you’ve never been in love before, maybe you don’t realize that it doesn’t really last that long.”
Vineet gave him a dark look. “Why use it as a criteria then to chose a mate?” he asked in sharp challenge.
“We’re back to this again?” Harry asked. “Sometimes it lasts . . . I’m trying to make you feel better, here, not make grand philosophical statements.”
Vineet stared at his interlocked fingers. “Your advice is most meaningful to me,” he said.
“Love is the wrong topic to take my advice on. How’s that for advice?”
Harry sat back and the conversation ended, which was just as well, since the ladies returned shortly after. Hermione seemed very glad to see Harry and insisted he tell her that he was fine. Harry lied to her and told her he was doing better, which made her smile faintly, which reminded him of manipulation and the ease of it, but somehow in her and Vineet’s presence those darker musings did not take hold.
Harry returned home for dinner again, assuming he was expected. If Vineet was released, Hermione insisted she could help with him with moving home. That insistence jolted him with the notion that she knew his fellow apprentice better than he did.
Candide asked Harry how his day had been. Harry didn’t feel much like talking but he told her the latest about his two friends’ impossible attraction and she frowned, appropriately pained.
“I never understood arranged marriages,” Candide said.
“But you’d be married now if your family practiced it,” Harry pointed out.
She laughed. “True. Can’t argue that.” She sat back and sighed. “So what’s the latest on your cousin and Remus?”
“I got a letter from Pamela yesterday, but it was mostly in support of me versus Rita Skeeter. Apparently somehow she’s been getting copies of the Daily Prophet. Until the school year is over, I don’t think Remus can leave the castle. Not with Severus leaving so often.”
Pleasant conversation and a day of relative control let Harry fall asleep without any little Muggle pills.
Very late in evening, at the summons of McGonagall’s curt silver message, Snape appeared in her office and closed the door when she gestured that he do so. Cornelius Fudge paced nervously between her desk and the hearth. He glowered at Snape upon completing his latest circuit.
“Have a seat, Severus,” McGonagall invited. Her tone was one of grace under pressure. Between that and Fudge’s presence, Snape had little interest in sitting, but he did so when the headmistress continued to indicate the visitor’s chair by holding out her hand in its direction.
This cued Fudge to stalk over in the manner of a paunchy predator. “Professor, good of you to join us,” he stated, hinting at sarcasm.
“I will deal with this, Cornelius,” McGonagall said. She strode out from behind her desk to peer down at Snape from closer range.
“The same way you’ve been dealing with him all along? You and Albus both, I might add,” Fudge criticized, crossing his arms over his belly and glowering additionally. His next question was directed at Snape. “How long did you think you could hide?”
Snape was distracted from Legilimizing the man by his colleague saying, “I will not defer to you on this, Cornelius. I have vouched for Severus in the past and will continue to do so. He has my complete trust.”
Looking at her, Snape did not find this entirely true. Perhaps she merely wished to believe she could completely trust him. He waited for her to speak something useful, tenser than he wished to be. Her composing was interrupted by Fudge. “Goodness, woman, how can you imagine he has remained silent except to hide the truth.”
This comment did appear to get through to McGonagall. She pressed her fingertips into her forehead. Without lifting her head, she said, “Severus, I must ask you to show me your forearm.”
Snape gazed at her before tugging up his sleeve and turning his arm over with a confident gesture. It was, of course, unmarred. Fudge had stepped closer to peer at it and now licked his fingers and rubbed them hard over Snape’s skin. Snape bristled at this but didn’t withdraw his arm. “And you were expecting what?” Snape queried.
McGonagall explained, “The Ministry has been getting reports from Azkaban over the last few days of the Death Eaters behaving oddly and today they discovered that their Marks are darkening. Slightly, but still perceptibly.”
“To the last one of them,” Fudge added.
Snape stared at him, his thoughts caught in their own less-immediate circuit where recent inexplicable observations about Harry were taking on new meaning and shape.
McGonagall said, “Severus would not hide such a thing.”
“Hmf,” Fudge grunted, appearing unconvinced. He uncrossed his arms and fished in his pocket for a folded penknife. “I need to return. I suppose just as well the Aurors were too busy to accompany me. Get bloody annoyed when I can’t prove anything.” He flipped open the blade on the knife, turned it around in his hand to take hold of it, and disappeared.
McGonagall leaned back against the front of her desk. “I cannot figure that man out,” she said uneasily, as though realizing Snape had seen through her less-than-complete confidence. “He was so certain of the reports from Azkaban, but they seem erroneous in view of your own unaffected arm.”
Her words drew Snape back to the present. “My Mark may no longer be active,” he said. “It doesn’t survive death.”
“What?” she asked, sounding alarmed.
“Harry has not seen me in his mind as Voldemort’s servant since I fought entering the veil after my encounter with Avery.”
Her head tilted as curiosity pushed in before her alarm. “You are no longer Voldemort’s servant?” When Snape shook his head, she said, “I did not realize that.” Her spine straightened then. “But that means the reports from Azkaban may be true . . .”
Her statement of distress narrated Snape’s inner vision at that moment, which was a recent memory of Harry, rubbing his scar . . . repeatedly. Snape stood. “I must see Harry.” He went to the mantel and took down her powder canister.
“I’m afraid that isn’t going to work.”
Snape spun on her. “I must go, Minerva. Remus is in fine shape, and-”
“It isn’t that. The Floo network has been shut down for security due to the reports from Azkaban.”
“They what?!” Snape asked.
“That is why Cornelius used a portkey.”
Snape felt boxed in and began pacing. “I really must go.”
“You may borrow my portkey . . .”
Snape considered her offer while pausing on his toes in the doorway of the office. “No, you may need it.” He strode down the staircase with her voice following him, saying, “But even with Remus, please do return if you can manage it.”
Broom fetched from his wardrobe, Snape tossed open his office window and flew out into the night. At the railroad bridge, he landed and attempted to Disapparate to the house, but he was knocked back by a barrier and nearly tripped over the metal rails behind him catching his balance. Why was there a barrier on the house, he wondered in increasing alarm. He picked as an alternative the dark end of the small railway platform in Shrewsthorpe, but again was knocked back, although this time as though striking something rubbery.
He then visualized the village where he and a nine-year-old Harry had stopped for ice cream. Snape didn’t even know the name of it. He managed to arrive there, and immediately leapt onto his broom.
A nightmare woke Harry not long after he drifted off. Confused by the darkness of his room, he took a moment to catch his breath. Kali was frantic in her cage. Harry stumbled from his bed and opened her cage door. She hissed and in the darkness he could see her take a swipe at him with her needle-like claws. “What’s wrong?” Harry asked, dismayed. Outside, misty rain had covered the window, filtering out the view. Harry left the cage open so Kali could get out rather than risk her injuring herself in her panic.
He fell back into bed and pummeled his pillow into a comfortable lump before dropping his head back on it. Moments later he jumped; every muscle in his body twitched. He was surrounded by shadows. Breathing rapidly, he stared into the grey air of his room, not comprehending his startling inner vision. He closed his eyes and with effort, got his mind to drift, confirming the relentless approach and circling of at least a dozen death eaters.
Harry grasped his wand from under his pillow, clumsy in grabbing it the adrenaline was pouring so violently into his veins. He Disapparated for Candide’s room and fell to his knees on the hard floor of his own room instead. Barrier, Harry’s mind told him as he crawled to the door with leaden limbs while he recovered from the shock. He then dashed down the balcony for the far door as quickly as possible. Slipping inside he hissed, “Candy, get up. Get a robe on, get your wand.”
“Now,” Harry snapped. He ran the intrusion detection spell and if fluttered all kinds of colors, clearly tampered with.
She pulled on her dressing gown and approached him, sounding doubtful, “Harry, what’s happening?”
“Wand,” Harry ordered with a snap and she rushed back to the night stand to fetch it. “Get over here close to me so I can get you inside my blocks.”
She obeyed but whispered, “Why don’t we just Dispparate.”
“Barrier, don’t try it. It’ll knock you out.” Harry sensed that she believed he had lost it, but he had no time for her disbelief. The door shattered in the next instant and Harry barely got a Titan block up to keep them protected from the wood shards that launched from it. Candide frantically clutched the back of Harry’s pyjamas. At least now she had no doubts. Harry sent a barrage of attack spells through the opening and ducked back behind the stone wall to assess.
“Who is it?”
“Everyone,” Harry replied. “Every Death Eater who survived, I think. How are your attack spells?” he asked between blocking and casting out the remains of the door.
“What do you have?”
“Harry, I’m an accountant.”
“You must have something. Anything. Pranks from school or something you used on your siblings. You must have something.”
A breeze indicated a portkey and Harry, with a powerful jerk of his arm, traded places with Candide and put up a block against the Blasting Curse that emitted from the wand of the figure that had just arrived in the room. Over his shoulder Harry snarled. “Use anything you’ve got on the stairs, whether you see anyone or not.”
He was vaguely aware, as he battled the figure before him, of her casting a shoelace knotting hex but the sound of someone tumbling down the stairs followed. Harry stood up and threw a wind charm at his opponent to knock his hood off. Bright blonde hair tumbled out. “Figures,” Harry said. “Malfoy, it would be you invading my house. Again.”
A spell exchange passed followed quickly by another, both canceling out. Harry cursed; he had to win fast, his back was not protected well.
Malfoy smiled maliciously, his cold eyes glowing. “I’m going to win this time, Potter. I’ve so dreamed about this moment.” He threw another Blasting Curse, which Harry at least could handle easily. “I’ve plotted every last ounce of torture I’m going to use on you,” Malfoy went on. Harry cast back a chain binding and quickly the Alibappa that he hoped Malfoy didn’t know. It knocked Malfoy back, but something threw Candide into Harry’s back at that moment and he had to use the gap to catch her.
“Winky!” Harry shouted. “I need a diversion, now!” Down the hallway a door opened and a screeching could be heard. A small ball of fur flew past into the face of the attacker at the top of the stairs. In the corner of the room, Malfoy was standing upright. Harry cast another Alibappa at him, but he countered this one in some way Harry had never seen, with a spike curse that continued to appear jutting out from the point of his wand. He cocked his arm though to throw it at Harry, and Harry grabbed Candide and dragged her around the corner out onto the balcony, where screaming was accompanying Kali’s work on the stairs. The main hall held a swarm of black robed figures.
“Keep hold of me no matter what!” Harry commanded and ran toward the stone wall at the dead end of the balcony.
“Harry?!” Candide asked in alarm as the wall approached.
Harry held out his wand and struck the wall with a demolition spell from Ravenclaw’s book. The stones fell away in a circle six feet around. Grabbing Candide with both hands, Harry ran headlong through the hole and took flight with mad flapping and a sharp turn. Spells followed them out, lighting the trees and the road.
Harry flew as though possessed, dipping low between hedges and walls, pushing the strength of his wings to the limit with his burden. Several fields away, Harry fluttered to a stop and crouched low behind a waist-high stone wall. Candide gasped when put down and didn’t regain her feet. Harry used one hand to help her up, while scanning the surroundings, wand at ready. The strong smell of a hearth fire drifted on the damp wind and Harry stood a little straighter to see over the trees. A column of flames, starting low but growing, clearly had hold of the roof of the house.
Candide, breathless, leaned over the wall. “Stay down,” Harry said. “I’m not sure they didn’t see where we landed. I’m hoping they didn’t.” He wished he were alone. He would go back right now and start picking them off as they exited the burning house. When several minutes passed, Harry released the breath he had been holding. “You all right?” he asked her. She sat with her arms wrapped around her knees in a kind of self-hug.
“Yeah,” she said. “Little more excitement than I have most evenings.”
“Little more than I have too,” Harry quipped. “Usually the Death Eaters invade in smaller numbers.” He smiled then, relieved enough to have escaped to be able to joke about it. The blare of a Muggle fire siren brought his thoughts back to the house.
“Damn. I hope they’re gone.” The trucks were approaching quickly along the main road and the alternating blare grew louder. Harry couldn’t stand by and hope the firemen didn’t get attacked just for fun, just because the Death Eaters didn’t catch their intended quarry. “I have to go check this out. Don’t move,” he ordered her. “Well,” he amended, “if you’re in danger, obviously, Apparate away. The barrier probably doesn’t reach this far. Harry ran a quick detection spell. “No. I don’t see anything here. Although I’m not very good at that spell. Gotta go.”
Harry transformed back into his Animagus form and flew in closer until he could step up to the side wall of their garden from the neighboring garden, which was much larger than theirs. The neighbors were out on their back patio watching the firemen drag hoses onto their property. Harry held his wand in his sleeve with just the point between his fingers. There was no sign of any hooded figures around or in the house from what he could see in the window. And he could see well inside with the flames burning so well.
Harry circled the wall, listening to the hiss of steam as the water struck the flames. He hoped Kali and Winky were out. The barrier shouldn’t have stopped Winky from leaving, or so he hoped, and Kali could have followed him out. A drift of smoke stung Harry’s eyes and he had to veer around three firemen running up to the house.
“Anyone inside? this group asked the others.
“No!” Harry shouted, thinking it best they not encounter the spell books and spilled potions. “We’re out. We’re okay.”
“What happened?” a portly fellow wearing less respirative gear asked.
“I don’t know,” Harry said, seeing the hole in the wall from the corner of his eye. “It was like an explosion or something. We ran out rather than figure it out.”
“Just as well,” the man said and went back to giving instructions to the men with the hoses.
Harry continued his circling, still fearful a few Death Eaters remained hopeful to take out a few Muggles. When he came back around to the neighbor’s back garden, via a gate he used an unlock charm on since no one was looking, he spied a new figure in black walking slowly along the side wall, trying to see into the house. It was Snape and Harry had never seen such a look on his face; it was one on the brink of devastation.
“Severus!” Harry called out from the far end of the garden. Firemen were manning hoses in between them and noise of their work and the pumps out on the road was too high to communicate. Snape’s head snapped around though, as if he had picked up a drift of the shout. Harry headed over to him hurriedly, sidestepping coiled hoses. Snape searched for him through the many people occupying the garden with an expression of fear, as though false hope might kill him.
“Severus!” Harry called again from closer and this time Snape’s gaze found him. His eyes closed a moment and then he surged forward and met Harry just beside the stone path leading to the neighbors’ back door. He grabbed Harry up in a hug fiercer than any Mrs. Weasley had ever delivered, dropping his broom to do so.
He pushed Harry to arm’s length just as quickly as he had grabbed him up. “Where’s Candide?” he asked.
Harry gestured over his shoulder. “I took her to safety. But we should go get her; I had to leave her alone to check that it was safe here for . . . well . . .” He gestured at the copious Muggle personnel and led Snape around the neighbor’s wall. Even though many people were out gawking at the fire, they safely took off on the broomstick, just behind their backs.
Harry held onto Snape from behind and pointed where he should go. They landed just beside Candide, who sat, hunched over, on the wall. She stood and accepted the second fierce hug of the evening. This one lasted longer.
“You are all right?” Snape demanded.
After a pause Candide nodded and whispered something in Snape’s ear. Thinking to give them some space, Harry took a few steps away to stand on tiptoe upon the low wall to watch the grey steam billowing from the house, only a faint orange glow emanated from the cloud’s center. Harry was too far away to overhear Snape say, “You are bleeding,” in alarm to Candide while examining his hand. Her reply of, “He carried me off in that giant bird form of his. His claws got me . . . but don’t let on. I don’t want him to know,” also was too low to carry to his ears.
Figures Apparated in just beside them and Snape and Harry both had their wands out instantly, but relaxed upon seeing the Weasley twins and Ron standing there, each holding a broomstick in one hand, their wands out in the other. Harry jumped down and greeted them.
“Everyone all right?” one of the twins breathlessly asked as he set down what might have been been a prison box, except that it was circular and pinstriped, like a fancy hat box. A bit of robe stuck out of the lid. “This is the only one we caught,” he said disgustedly. “Thought a barrier on the village would snare us a few more of them.”
“You put the barrier up?” Harry demanded.
“Not on your house, mate,” Ron said. “We arrived just before the firemen. Dad sent us when the Muggle call was overheard with your address.”
“Your dad sent you?” Harry asked in shock, looking between the three of them. As he tried to find a followup question, Ron said, “There wasn’t anyone else to send. We’d gone in to help out and he refused to let us until this call.”
“Rest of the Aurors and all of Magical Reversal Squad are busy right now. Azkaban’s been emptied,” he explained.
“Tell me about it,” Harry snapped. “Half of them were in our hall. What the devil happened?”
Some hesitation passed through the three of them. In the dimness, highlighted macabrely by a low Lumos charm, it was hard to read their faces. One of the twins finally said, “There was trouble of some kind, but dad wouldn’t say exactly what. They sent Aurors up to help the guards but they didn’t report in.” This twin faded. The other picked up and said, “So they sent two more. Only one of ‘em came back, and just barely. The sea is washing over the island. The place is totally destroyed.”
Harry felt himself breathing, but the air felt stale and unusable. He felt suffocated. “Who didn’t come back?” he asked, fear filling him.
“Well, Moody and . . . and, Shacklebolt were in the second group and Moody didn’t come back, apparently.” They all fell silent. Ron said, “We should take you into the Ministry. We’re not supposed to tell you anything. We just have rumors, really.”
Ron was lying. Stepping closer to him, Harry asked, “Tonks was in the first group, wasn’t she?” He had a hold of the front of Ron’s robes and was shouting. “Wasn’t she?!”
The others surrounded Harry and he threw his arm out to block them. “Harry, mate, calm down. We don’t know what happened yet. We weren’t supposed to tell you anything.” They were all talking at once, and Ron was staring at him fearfully as though he didn’t think Harry would let go before harming him. Harry let go of him, his chest hollow. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and stalked away. Without much thought, he tried to Apparate to the Ministry and fell to his knees again.
Ron came over and lifted him up. “Can’t Apparate in. Security,” he admonished him.
“Let’s get to the Floo then,” Harry said, turning and considering the scene. Remembering the train station Floo node he started that way by stepping over the wall.
“Floo Network’s shut down,” several voices said at once.
Harry staggered. “What!”
“For security mate,” one of the twins said.
“What security is that?” Harry demanded.
“People were getting misdirected and attacked.” Ron said. “The Ministry just wants everyone to stay put until they catch everyone who’s out.”
“There aren’t enough Ministry people capable of that,” Harry argued. “And if we’ve lost . . . three . . .” His voice faded, pained. He rubbed his forehead, hard. Snape grabbed his arm and pulled it down, staring at him intently. “What?” Harry asked, but Snape didn’t explain, just released him.
Grabbing a better hold of the apparently weakening Candide, Snape said, “I need to take her to Hogwarts for Pomfrey to check. Harry, come with me.”
“What? I’m going to the Ministry,” Harry insisted.
Snape glared at Harry. “You are coming with me, now. You may go to the Ministry after I have had an opportunity to speak with you.”
“Severus, I-” Harry began angrily, but Ron nudged him in the back with his elbow. “Better go, mate,” Ron said soberly. Harry spun around. One of the twins said, “Yeah, go on. We’ll take care of everything here. Your elf, for example.”
“And Kali,” Harry insisted. “Really, I need to help . . . need to go-”
“With him,” one of the twins and Ron both insisted in unison. If Harry had been forced to put a label on their emotion, it would have been fear, and he had no idea why they were behaving so. Panicked sadness was all Harry was feeling and he could not see past it. Ron handed him his broomstick. “You’ll probably need this. Three is a bit much all on one.”
Snape said, “I will meet you at the railway bridge.” He Disapparated, taking the light of his Lumos spell with him.
Harry spun on the Weasleys. “Go on, Harry,” Ron said, sounding like his father. Shooting them a look as though he were disappointed in them, Harry departed too.
Ron swallowed and said, “I couldn’t tell him. Some Gryffindor I am.”
“Too cruel to tell him Voldemort is apparently back, you mean?” George asked. “If dad was right about the Dark Marks that is.”
“No, too cruel to tell him about Tonks,” Ron said with a flinch.
The twins shared a broom and the three of them took flight toward the dwindling fire.
Next: Chapter 28
"I don't know," Harry uttered. "What about your Mark?"
Snape shifted his sleeve and held his arm out. "But I do not believe mine is functional."
Harry lifted his gaze from examining Snape's forearm and pushed his shoulders back. "That's good." He then favored Snape with a relatively soft look. Still grabbing at denying hope, Harry said, "Prophecy didn't mention Voldemort. My earlier prophecies all did."
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