First thing Monday, Harry’s luck failed to hold. He stepped out of the lift and immediately had to stop dead to avoid running over Mr. Weasley.
“Good. You are here early,” Mr. Weasley said as though he had parked himself there just to catch Harry. “Come with me.”
Harry prepared to follow, head down. But Mr. Weasley did not go to his office. Instead he reopened the lift gate and waited for Harry to follow him in.
Harry’s heart rate slowed when it was clear they were headed for the Minister’s office, which Harry was quite certain would be too serious a venue for such a simple issue as intra-department fraternization.
As they swept through the outer office, Belinda’s greeting gave Harry pause. It was a simple “good morning,” but she had not said much of anything to him for a long time. Harry stopped at the door to Bones’ office to return in kind, spirits lifted by even that small incident.
In the Minister’s spacious office, Harry took a seat in a tall, maroon chair with gleaming brass buttons, identical to the one Mr. Weasley had taken.
“Now,” Bones said, taking a seat at her shining desk. Her manicured hands began strumming her crossed knees. “I have discussed this with some of the other department heads as well as Minerva, and they are all in agreement, more or less.”
Harry glanced between the two of them, lost already. Bones explained, “We have been discussing how to best manage your image, Mr. Potter.”
“My image?” Harry returned.
Bones explained with patience, although in a speaking-to-a-child voice, “Your image is the Ministry’s image, Harry. You are the most famous wizard in Britain, for certain, if not the world. By keeping you on, we are also taking on your reputation, which unfortunately at the moment is a bit of an ambiguous one. We have decided that it is best to end the second-guessing of the Wizengamot’s actions currently filling the papers by demonstrating that we whole-heartedly support you.”
Harry, who had been avoiding the papers much of the week, had no comment to add to this.
Bones went on. “Supporting you means supporting your actions, which on the surface are certainly easy to condone. No one would argue that Voldemort should have been allowed to return to his former self, and it is clear in hindsight that would eventually have been the case. The previous prophecy was probably still valid, which is also in your favor with regard to violating direct orders.” She frowned as she said that, but then waved her hand as though an insect bothered her. “But that is in the past. For the immediate future we have decided to award you the Merlin service medal.” She reached into her desk drawer and pulled out an ornate miniature trunk from which she extracted a golden coin on a ribbon. She put her eyepiece in place and squinted at the back of it. “Ah, yes, Flying Merlin Distinguished Service of Wand is the name of it.” She let her monocle fall. “But we have to do it properly, of course.”
Harry sat quietly through her description of the award proceedings, hoping as the Minister did, that this would indeed help.
As the meeting concluded, Harry began to dread walking back downstairs with Mr. Weasley, but he was spared doing so by being dismissed early. As he closed the door behind him with no little relief, he thought perhaps getting it over with would save him rather a lot of stress. Belinda was busy taking dictation from one of the Minister’s advisors, so Harry only managed a small wave in her direction.
Back down in their department, he wondered suddenly if Belinda had broken up with Percy. He cornered Kerry Ann at the first opportunity, during a break in their readings discussion.
“Not that I know of,” Kerry Ann replied to his question.
“Huh,” Harry uttered. “She seemed, well, in a better mood.”
“I’ll ask around,” Kerry Ann promised. Harry nodded that he would appreciate that, finding himself in the odd position of desiring more gossip.
In the afternoon the four of them plus Blackpool were called together in the tea room to discuss the applicant examination results. Blackpool sat with her arms crossed, looking sulky, and she pushed the sheet of scores by her to the next person as though not interested. Harry wondered then with no little jolt whether she and Munz had been closer than he realized, perhaps even against-regulation close. His death had certainly hit her hardest. He stopped himself from intending to ask Kerry Ann this as well.
The list came his way. The range of numbers was broader than expected, some quite low. Ginny had tied for top in spell blocking with Tridant. Askunk was just ahead of Ginny on the written part, and just below her on the blocking. Harry thought that it would be interesting to put them all up against each other. Ginny’s written scores were in the high middle, but not stellar, unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately, if Mr. Weasley’s opinion were to be counted.
“What do you think, Potter?” Rodgers prompted, since Harry had been holding onto the list longer than his share of time. Harry passed the list along with a shrug. Vineet held it up and studied it. Rodgers asked, “Arthur’s youngest wouldn’t normally make the cut, but given her performance during the attack on Hogwarts, I am tempted to allow her to move on to the next stage.”
“I think she deserves a chance," Harry said, comfortable with showing more loyalty to his friend than her father. "She only got serious about her book studies this year.”
“And we won’t have full N.E.W.T. scores this year, to add to her record,” Rodgers added. “What about Tridant?”
“He’s kind of a jerk,” Kerry Ann said.
“Opinions, Ms. Blackpool?” Rodgers prodded.
She shook her head, and said, “We have too many other things to worry about right now to think about next year’s apprentices,” she darkly pointed out.
Rodgers picked up the list of scores. “We always worry about the future around here. You look like you could use some duty. Take Potter out for half a shift.”
Blackpool stood without responding and Harry hurried to follow her to the office, where she scooped up a handful of assignment sheets, tossed each of them down and picked one back up, seemingly at random.
“Mugglebaiting call, Earswick. Let’s go.” She Disapparated, but fortunately Harry knew where to go.
They appeared in an abandoned stable on a rundown farm. Blackpool started immediately for the wide carriage door which hung crooked on a bent railing, but Harry restrained her, asking, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” she insisted and Harry had a sense he was seeing himself saying of course I’m still fun.
“Something must be the matter,” Harry insisted, rubbing his nose. The musty scent of decaying hay made his nose tickle.
She snapped in return, “Potter, everything’s the matter, but I can’t do anything about any of them.”
“We can do something about this call,” Harry pointed out.
“It’s an old, unclosed one from the weekend. Just some magical folk wandering drunk into the countryside after a night out in York is all.”
“You’re sure about that?” Harry asked, never wanting to be so certain that he would let his guard down.
“Yes, I’m certain.”
“Were you one of them?” he asked, curious more than anything.
She snorted. “Don’t I wish. Do you know how badly I need a break?”
“We all need one. If you’re that close to losing it, you should ask for one.”
“That’s impossible. We are completely short-handed. Who’s going to cover?”
“The department will manage. If you crack, they’ll be short of you anyway.”
“I’m not going to crack,” she insisted derisively. “I just want to get . . .”
“Get what?” Harry asked when she trailed off. An owl fluttered in the upper part of the building.
Her fist was clenched, but she opened her hand to touch her wand pocket. “Get Merton,” she replied as though fatigued but then her demeanor shifting to cold anger. “Him and his bloody weapons. You want to kill someone, you should have the guts to face them with a wand and do the job properly, not send a stupid machine to do it for you.”
Harry feared for a moment that she may turn and blame him for not fulfilling the prophecy sooner, but she did not add anything more. She stepped out into the thickly cloudy day with its fresh breeze and Harry followed.
They strolled along a narrow lane until they came to a gathering of houses. The motorway whined close by. She stepped over a small garden gate and strode to the door through the overgrown footpath. “Let’s see if it’s the same blokes as last time.” She knocked on the door. When it opened, Blackpool said, “We’ve come about a disturbance.”
“What disturbance?” the man rudely asked. He was unshaven and wore only a vest and a half-open robe, despite the hour. It certainly seemed likely that he frequented both mead and the wee hours of the morning. He was gearing up to say more, beginning with, “Don’t you Ministry people have real criminals to catch-” but he spotted Harry standing beyond Blackpool’s shoulder. Harry had been gauging how violent the man's belligerence may get, so he was surprised when the man stepped back and tucked himself behind the door for protection.
Blackpool sent a sly glance back at Harry. She propped her hands on her hips and chuckled cruelly. Fatigue seemed to blunt her because she said to the man, "Right, as if that door would help you against him."
Harry wanted to look away from the man's alarmed gaze, but he was duty-bound to keep an eye on him.
Blackpool demanded, "No more late-night excursions. I know it was you and your friends because it's been you and your friends every other time." The man's eyes revealed that this was indeed true. Blackpool went on, "Things are tough right now all around and every witch and wizard needs to pull more of their own weight to keep magic out of Muggle sight. The crap you guys pull when you get too much drink in you . . . Does. Not. Help." Her voice sharpened as though focusing all of the frustration of the last few weeks on one relatively hapless wizard. At least the man now seemed to think she was as much a threat as Harry. She jabbed at the door he was peaking around. "Keep the drinks in line or we'll be back and we won't be gentle next time."
The man glanced again at Harry, whose Legilimency made it clear how very fearfully uncertain he was about how much of a threat Harry represented. As they walked away, Harry wished for someone or something to take his own frustrations out on.
As they strode back to the stables to Disapparate, Blackpool said, "You're a good partner to be out with."
"How's that?" Harry asked flatly. The dirt two-track they followed provided lots of cover for an ambush, so he was keeping a close eye on the brush.
"You're quiet and just having you around makes everyone behave themselves. Last time that bloke tried a treacle trap on me. With you there he didn't even think to try anything." After a quarter mile of silence, she prodded, "What's the matter, don't like playing the bad cop, eh?"
"I'm not used to . . . I don't know . . . people being afraid of me."
They reached the broken stable door and slipped inside. A few whole sticks of straw still floated atop the rotted wood floor, getting swept around by their cloaks. "It's respect. You're misreading it."
"It's not respect," Harry insisted.
"I'd kill for that kind of respect," she went on, fully in the mode of venting now. "People see I'm a witch and think they can mess with me. Munz was small; he never got much respect either."
Harry turned to face her once he was out of view of the open door. "I'm sorry what happened to him. I was there and I've replayed it a hundred times in my head, but there's nothing different that could have been done."
She stood in the ripe air, breathing heavily. "I wasn't blaming you," she said with concern. She tossed her head back and stared upward at the open sky visible through the rotting boards. "It's supposed to get easier, but it doesn't seem to be. It doesn't help that this threat hangs over us, that it could descend at any time to tear everything apart again. Stupid mindless machines of death." She shook herself. "Rodgers is right. Let's get another assignment; I need to feel useful."
Harry thought she needed a few weeks holiday instead, but he followed her back to the Ministry without argument.
- 888 -
Harry didn't return to Hermione's flat until well into the evening. There, he found a note from his friend explaining that she needed to return to work for a few hours. There wasn't much to eat, and Harry prowled the kitchenette restlessly, poking into the same cabinets and drawers repeatedly, hoping to find something substantial that did not require much effort. The wizard's alarmed face from that afternoon overlaid on many others, dogging him. He dumped crisps into a bowl and took them to the small table to eat them as though they constituted a decent meal. Harry licked his fingers between bites, trying to relish what he was eating. The pipes pinged from the upstairs neighbor running the tap. A knock sounded, quiet as though it came from a different door. Harry stood and checked their door, wand out of view in case it was one of the Muggle neighbors.
Harry opened the door wider when he saw who was there. “Mrs. Granger,” Harry uttered in surprise.
“Harry, dear,” she said in soft greeting. She clutched her pink leather handbag against her pink coat as though not certain she would be invited inside.
Stepping back to let her come in, Harry said, “Hermione’s not here.”
With true motherly tones, she said, “I received an owl from her just an hour ago, said I should check on you while I’m in the city visiting my sister.” She slipped off her long coat and hung it up on the hook beside the door.
“She shouldn’t have done that,” Harry said, stashing his wand in his back pocket. “I’m fine,” he argued.
“I hope that isn’t your dinner, dear,” Mrs. Granger criticized as soon as she espied the table.
Harry sighed. “It probably is.” He took the salty bowl to the sink and balanced it on the other unwashed dishes.
“You don’t look all right to me, Harry,” Mrs. Granger said, her voice shifting rather startlingly to stern.
“The last few weeks’ve been rough,” he admitted, feeling good to be able to tell that to someone new. He considered washing the dishes, but stared at them instead.
Mrs. Granger stepped closer and turned his chin to her. “Why don’t you tell me about it, Harry?” she asked kindly.
Harry laughed and stepped away. “I can’t tell you about much of any of it, Mrs. Granger,” he said as he dropped into a chair.
“Let me make you some tea,” she said as she began moving about the small counter and its two cabinets. She used the burner to heat water and a few minutes later, set a cup before Harry. She didn’t sit, though. “Rather startling those eyes of yours.”
“So, I’m told,” Harry replied while he blew across the hot cup. At least Hermione’s mother wasn’t afraid of him, he thought. Others' fearful faces haunted him just then at that thought with a tenacity that in itself bothered him.
“Very startling,” she uttered with queer thoughtfulness.
Harry put the cup down without sipping.
“Not thirsty for tea, dear?” Mrs. Granger asked, sounding the most motherly yet. “Would you like something else?”
Harry ran their conversation so far through his head again. “No, this is fine. Just letting it cool,” he explained to buy time to figure out why his sense of things felt so wrong. Mrs. Granger tapped her finger impatiently on the chair-back before turning to attack the dishes in the sink. “Don’t do those, Mrs. Granger,” Harry chastised and reached for the milk, thinking to cool his tea.
“Do you want sugar with that too?” she asked without turning her head from where it bowed over the sink.
Harry aborted lifting the milk and reached for his wand, which was not in his back pocket. He pushed the tea cup away. “What’s in it?” he demanded.
Mrs. Granger put down a half-washed plate which caused the rest to clatter to an even more disorganized pile. She turned and put her hands on her hips.
Harry, insides in a frozen knot, said, “The only person I know of who sees things without turning around is supposedly dead. What’s in the tea . . . Mad Eye?” Harry asked again, the revelation so certain it made his blood rush.
After a brief pause, the image of Mrs. Granger replied, “Veritaserum.”
“You don’t need that,” Harry argued. “You can ask me anything you want; you’re an Auror, remember?”
The visage of Mrs. Granger didn’t move. “I remember what I am,” it grunted. “Do you remember what you are?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harry demanded.
Moody, snorted, an oddly uncouth thing for Mrs. Granger to do. “You have me worried, Potter. Very worried.”
Harry ignored that. “Why are you pretending to be dead?” he asked derisively.
Moody shuffled his feet. “I’m finally living my life, believe or not. I can do as please . . . investigate as I please.”
Harry cocked his lips. “Finally don’t have to live in paranoid fear, eh Mad Eye? No one tries to poison or curse someone who’s already dead.”
Crossing his arms, Moody commented, “You were always fast on the uptake.”
Harry stood. “I want my wand back.”
“After we chat,” Moody countered.
“We are chatting.”
Gruffer still, Moody, who was starting to appear more as himself, leaned over the table and said, “We’re not finished yet. I’m still not convinced of what you are.” He spoke with such suspicion that it ground on Harry’s nerves, already sore from tolerating the last few incidences of similar suspicion.
Harry rolled his eyes. “I don’t bloody well care if you’re convinced. I want my wand.”
“Tough luck. You’ll get it when I’m through,” Moody countered. His wide, crooked frame had half emerged now from Mrs. Granger’s much primmer one. Moody glanced at his hand, took his trademark silver flask from his pocket, and then put it away again without drinking from it.
When Harry stepped around the table to face him down, Moody aimed his wand at him and said, “That’s a lot of confidence for someone who’s unarmed.”
“Yes, it is,” Harry said, stopping a yard away, fists balled.
In a critical tone Moody said, “You still haven’t learned, have you, Potter.” He raised his wand, “Do you need another lesson like the last I gave you?”
Harry put his fists on his hips and mocked, “Since you're dead, you’ll have a hard time doing my next six month review, won’t you?”
“We can do it right now . . .” Moody offered darkly, wand steady as he pointed it at Harry. His left eye was sinking backward into his skull and he leaned as though relying more on one leg.
Harry's eyes narrowed further. "It was you, wasn't it? Percy doesn't have that much in him."
This shifted Moody's demeanor. "You're too bright on top of too powerful, Potter." Oddly, this was an even more threatening statement than the last two.
Harry leaned forward, letting anger out through his eyes. "You still don't know enough about me?" he demanded. "You put me through hell, and you're still sneaking around trying to . . . you've been following me around, haven't you?" Harry asked, thinking of the times he felt watched when there wasn't anyone there. Harry took a half step forward, wanting Moody simply to go away and leave him alone.
"What are you, Potter?" Moody asked as he solidified his aim so it was directly at Harry's nose so that Harry stared down the length of the wand straight into Moody’s good eye.
Harry felt around himself with the opening to the Dark Plane just cracked enough to sense what might be near. His anger made opening the gateway trivially easy. “You want to find out what I’ve become, you just try something.” When Moody didn’t move, Harry taunted, “Come on. I’m unarmed.” He held his hands out to show they were empty. “Try something,” he snarled, tired of this, tired of everyone’s distrust.
“You’re really asking for it, Potter.” Moody’s hand tightened its grip and he started to speak a spell.
Harry snapped open the gateway for just the instant it took to loose the creature prowling at the interstice. In a blur the old werewolf leapt out of the join between the floor and the wall beside the door and toppled Moody before he could aim his wand at it instead of Harry.
“Back!” Harry shouted and the pathetic creature scrambled away to rear up before the cupboard, hair bristled, teeth bared. “You think I need a wand to defend myself?” Harry mocked the Auror.
Moody swallowed hard and held his wand pointed at the disturbingly distorted half-werewolf, at the exposed ribs and patchy spotted skin starkly obvious and almost clinical in the Muggle lighting. He fumbled in his coat and pulled out his wooden peg leg, which he then brandished in his other hand. The wolf growled.
Harry threatened, “If you hurt him, you’ll deal with me.”
“Hurt him?” Moody echoed, “What the devil is that thing?”
The werewolf lowered down to four legs to sniff the air just above the floor. Harry went to the fridge to pull out a package of raw chops. “I’m still figuring that out,” Harry admitted as he crouched to hold out the meat. The creature whined piteously a second before snatching the package away. As it did, Harry pushed it back through the gateway. He hoped it got its share once he felt all the other things waiting nearby before he blocked the gateway again.
“My wand,” Harry demanded before Moody could even decide the room was safe again.
Moody pushed himelf to sit upright, recovering quickly. He put on his leg and got to his feet. With clear determined unwillingness, he pulled out Harry’s wand and said, “Do me one favor, Potter: at least try to remember what your dear mother would think before you do something.”
Harry countered with, “And you try to remember that I’ve been through more than she or my dad ever had been.”
Moody shook his head while plucking his bright blue magic eye from the breast pocket of his pink coat. “That doesn’t make a whiff of difference.” He pressed the eye into the sagging left socket, and looked at Harry with a sour expression before relenting and saying grudgingly, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone you’ve seen me.”
“Whatever,” Harry uttered.
Angry again, Moody stepped closer and waved his finger before Harry’s nose. “Your mum, Potter. Remember your mum. She didn’t like evil much; not the kind old Voldie did and not the kind you are so terribly fond of.” With that he was gone, and Harry stood alone in a Muggle kitchen, the air oily, the floor freshly scratched by long claws.
- 888 -
"I need to go," Lupin said, standing in Pamela's small sitting room. With a burst of orange rays, late evening was turning into night beyond the roof of the neighboring house.
"You won't let me see this monster, then?"
"It's not safe," Lupin argued.
"I thought you said Wolfsbane makes you clear-headed during the full moon," she argued.
Lupin frowned. "It does, but not absolutely. And I don't know about this time around after getting bit again." He took her hands and held them between them, but it was more a communication of restraint than understanding. "Others should be there to ensure your safety. We'd have to plan ahead."
"Why didn't you do that?" she asked.
Lupin laughed depreciatingly. "Because I'm not ready. I know I'm making much of this, but . . . it's harder with you."
She smiled lightly. "That's something, anyway."
Lupin bit his lip and glanced anxiously out at the darkening sky. "Really must go," he whispered.
"Come back in the morning," Pamela insisted, catching his hand before he could make it to the door. She explained, "You'll need a good breakfast and a good sleep." Embarrassed, she admitted, "I had Minerva send me a pamphlet on Lycanthropy."
Lupin shook his head as though betrayed, but he appeared to want to be swayed. "I'm only a burden after the change."
"Really, come back anyway. Please. As soon as you can," Pamela insisted.
Lupin's body twitched. "I have to go," he whispered again, pained, and then ran out the door.
- 888 -
Severus Snape finished straightening his office in preparation to return to Candide's flat. As he did so, he thought he heard movement. He waved the lamps higher and turned full circle. A familiar, but very unexpected voice said, “I’d be needing a word with you.”
An invisibility cloak was lifted aside to reveal Mad-Eye Moody, whom Snape gazed at in no little surprise. Recovering, Snape snidely asked, “What can I do for you?.”
“First off, I wonder if you still consider yourself the father to that boy of Potter’s?”
Snape drew himself up and replied, “I certainly do.”
“Are you keeping a right close eye on him?” Moody demanded.
“As close as possible given the circumstances. When the house is repaired I shall be keeping an even closer one.” He paused and challengingly asked, “Why?”
Moody paced once, his limp pronounced. “He’s on the cusp, Snape.”
“Your paranoia notwithstanding, what makes you believe that?”
Moody snorted. “A hundred things, Professor, and if you aren’t seeing them then you’ve lost your edge. Been dulled by this role you are playing and by the favors he's done you.”
Snape looked away, at the rapidly setting sun outside the tall windows. “Harry is hardly dire. He has improved immensely after taking care of Voldemort."
Moody snorted again. “And you last saw him when?”
“Yesterday. You must not be keeping very good watch yourself if you did not know that."
“I’m keeping watch over a lot of different things," Moody explained airily. "Being dead frees up a lot of time.” He stopped and picked up to examine one of the cursed boxes from the desk that were used for neutralization practice.
Annoyance clearer in his voice, Snape said, "Trust that I am keeping in close touch with him. I consider him my primary responsibility, and I would much prefer that you leave him alone.”
“You don’t worry about the half rotted werewolf he’s keeping as a pet.”
Snape’s brow furrowed and this gave him away.
“Didn’t know about that, I suppose,” Moody mocked quietly.
"Get out of here, Alastor," Snape stated softly. "I can take care of Harry."
Moody ignored the demand and picked up another box to study it. "See, I don't think you can. You are mostly at your best when keeping men like Voldemort happy, I think."
Snape snapped his wand around and the cursed boxes flew from the desk to the shelf, some of them shattering and smoking. "You are dangerous you understand so little," he snarled. In a treacherously quiet voice, he went on, "Harry's future relies on his being trusted. Wizards like you—especially like you, whom he formerly looked up to—are very, very unsettling to his state of mind. Leave him be. Albus put him in my hands, not yours."
Moody's lip twitched as though he had a retort ready, but he slipped his invisibility cloak over his head and departed.
- 888 -
Snape found Harry sitting on Hermione’s couch, petting Kali, who slept in his lap. Crookshanks sat on the couch back nearby, eyeing the Chimrian. Harry looked up at Snape when he arrived in the hearth, but didn't want to disturb his pet by standing.
“Where is Ms. Granger?” Snape asked.
“Had to work late,” Harry answered.
Snape eyed Kali a moment. “I had a most interesting visitor just now.”
“I’m surprised he risked letting yet another person know he’s actually alive,” Harry commented. He wished Snape would sit down, but suspected that he would not.
“Harry,” Snape said. “Please always trust that I am on your side. But Alastor had one concern that I must inquire about.”
“So?” Harry prompted when Snape paused.
“For a wizard of your power the path from dark thoughts to dark deeds is extraordinarily short. I don’t want you treading that path. I think it best if you resist interacting with the Dark Plane as much as possible.”
Harry straightened his head, prepared to snap something derisive back. But looking at Snape’s concerned gaze halted him and his annoyance evaporated. “I mostly don't,” Harry insisted.
“What was this Alastor mentioned about a . . . werewolf?”
“Oh,” Harry hedged. “It is this creature from the Dark Plane that I’ve been trying to understand more about.”
Snape peered around the room, spotted the new scratches and said, “You let it in here?”
“I let it loose on Mad-Eye,” Harry clarified. “He nipped my wand.”
Snape stopped. “You let him get your wand,” he chastised.
Harry frowned. “Yeah. I won’t let that happen again.”
“I should hope not.” Snape paced once, attracting Crookshanks off the couch to watch. “You did not leave Alastor with a good impression of your state of mind.”
Kali took flight from his anger and Harry stood to face Snape at eye-level. “He came in here using Polyjuice to look like Mrs. Granger, did he tell you that?” Harry demanded. When Snape shook his head, Harry went on, “Tried to slip me Veritaserum in a cup of tea. Did he tell you that?” Another head shake. "Turns out he was Percy for my Darkness Test, did you tell you THAT?"
Yet another shake. “Well, you certainly had a right to be annoyed with him.”
“He mocked me,” Harry complained.
“That you should be capable of withstanding,” Snape said, touching Harry on the shoulder for emphasis. “You are bigger than that.”
“He told me my mum would be disappointed in me. That after he gave me hell during the Darkness Test. And then there was my last review when he made me look like such a fool,” Harry explained, ticking off these complaints on his fingers.
“When he was pointing out your less than comprehensive knowledge of every spell in existence, you mean?” Snape challenged.
Harry put his hands in his back pockets and slumped a bit. “You sure you’re on my side?”
Harry dropped his gaze. Crookshanks rubbed against his shins. He asked. “Do you think I’ve let my parents down . . . with my power becoming what it has?”
"No," Snape said. "You are a long way from that." He sighed. "I wish you had told me about the werewolf, however. I do not appreciate getting tripped up."
"It wasn't anything significant," Harry argued.
"Yes, it is," Snape returned. "You may be guilty of what you accused me of: losing perspective."
Harry said wryly, "Only in the other direction."
"Harry, please confide in me. I am always on your side," Snape said.
"Even if that means nailing me to the wall for doing something stupid?" Harry suggested lightly.
"Sometimes it may mean that, I'll confess," Snape replied dryly, but almost smiling.
"Speaking of trouble," Harry began, "what was the problem last night? Why were you late . . . and so distracted?"
Snape immediately reacted to this question, stiffening and turning to stride away. He growled lightly and paced back, frowning. Harry in his mind threw all his other concerns and annoyances away, prepared to focus on whatever Snape may need from him.
"I discovered something," Snape finally explained.
Harry waited. "Yes?" he prodded when he could hold out no longer.
Snape's demeanor shifted. His shoulders hunched slightly, his head turned slowly; it was as though he wished to return to his old kind of anger where the target of it was intended to cower. Harry did not do so, of course, but he grew vaguely alarmed at this change.
"Candide is pregnant," Snape said. He spoke so softly, Harry was not certain he had heard him correctly.
"What?" Harry prompted, but Snape's return to his disturbed demeanor, confirmed Harry's hearing. Harry swallowed a laugh.
"You think this is amusing?" Snape challenged.
Harry nodded, lips pressed together to hold in his silly grin. Then after a pause, he said, "Especially after all the things you said to me. It's very unexpected, Severus." He could not resist giving him a ribbing in the form of a sly look.
Snape pressed his fingers to his forehead. "I was indisposed after my ordeal," he muttered.
"Not too indisposed, apparently," Harry said, still having far too much fun with this. Snape gave him the narrowest, darkest look Harry had received in years, but Harry continued to grin. "Good thing you were getting married anyway," he went on jovially, thinking Snape's attitude out of line and in need of adjustment. "What's the problem?"
Snape bowed and shook his head, hair falling into his face. "Far more consideration should have gone into it," he grimly stated.
"If that were always true, no one would have children," Harry pointed out, still buoyant, but he fell serious as he said, "Come on, Severus. You're a great father, you know."
This statement produced an awkward silence broken by Kali, flying over to perch on Harry's shoulder. Snape shook his head again, but with slightly less dismay.
- 888 -
At half-past five in the morning, a quiet knock sounded on Pamela's door. She had not gone to bed, but was napping on the couch as best as possible while worrying what it must be like to scramble about in the dark forest all night in a form not one's own. Lupin stood in the chilly, dewy air of the front stoop, bundled crookedly in his worn cloak.
"Come on in," Pamela said, trying not to sound too affected by his state.
She directed him to the couch and moved to dust off and plug in the electric heater to warm the room, given that he was shivering. He sat, hunched dejectedly, nearly doubled over his knees. She went to the kitchen for hot herbed tea and turned the burner on under the pasta she'd made, but had let cool.
"Here, chamomile is supposed to help." She poured a healthy serving into the largest mug in the house and set it on the low table before him, but he did not move. His eyes were closed and his skin looked pale and almost bluish in the dim light. "Remus?" she prompted. He reached out a hand for the tea, and rested it over the rim. She said, upbeat as possible, "I made you something heavy to eat like the pamphlet said: cheesy noodles . . . if you'd like some?"
He nodded weakly. She fetched him a bowl-full and a fork and sat down beside him. The room was growing overly-warm, but she ignored it. She set the bowl in his lap and folded his fingers around the silver fork.
"Remus, this is terrible. How do you manage?"
"It isn't easy," he replied in a faint voice.
"Eat up. You need to get your strength back."
He clumsily worked the fork into a better grip and stabbed a few sloppy noodles on the tines. Pamela literally sat on her hands to avoiding even the appearance of wanting to help him eat.
After a few bites, already sounding stronger, he said, "I hate having you see me like this."
"I hate the thought that you might have to go through this alone more, I bet," she retorted.
He put the fork down to use both hands on the mug. After he put the mug down, he stared at his hands with their shaggy knuckles and pointed nails. "I keep expecting the change to complete, but it doesn't." He sounded very down.
"Eat. You're a wisp of a thing as it is."
He turned to her with a faint smile. "Takes a lot out of you to change back and forth from a monster."
"How does Harry turn into that bright red bird without showing any after-effects?"
Lupin took up the bowl again and returned to eating. "It's not the same. His change is magical; mine is cellular. I tried to learn that kind of transformation when my friends were . . . when we were all in school. James Potter managed it easily . . . became a most wonderful stag just so he could be safe around me during the full moon. I tried to learn it, but when I realized I would just become the same monster more of the time, it didn't seem worth it."
Light was filling the room from the window in earnest by the time Lupin set down an empty bowl and leaned back lethargically. "Thank you," he said sincerely.
"If making cheesy noodles and chamomile tea is all it takes, you're not asking for much."
The small clock on the mantelpiece quietly chimed six in the morning. "It's not that it takes much to actually do the things . . . it's that you are willing to."
"I bet more people would be willing to . . . if you'd give them a chance," she said, bordering on critical. "Why don't you lie down for a nap and I'll make you second breakfast in a few hours." When he hesitated, she said, "Come on, in for a Knut, in for a Galleon. Isn't that what you say?"
He shook his head. "We don't say that." But he turned to arrange the cushions to better lay flat.
"What do you say?" she asked.
He was settled in to sleep, eyes already closed, when he responded, "Once you've been bitten by the fire newt, you might as well wait around for the enchanted giant crocodile."
Pamela burst out laughing. "That's dumbest thing I've ever heard. That doesn't mean the same thing at all."
He sounded much more relaxed as he replied, "Yes it does. It's a way of saying: you've made one small bad decision, stick around and make a big one too, why don't you?"
"Wizards are nuts," she complained as she headed for her bed.
- 888 -
Later that morning, Harry arrived early and walked straight to the office of the man he had been avoiding all week. Mr. Weasley looked up at him in surprise when Harry opened the door. Harry pushed the visitor's chair into the corridor and closed the door before running a series of spells to check that they were unobserved by any magical devices. A flare of yellow gave away the old crystal ball of the twin's. Mr. Weasley tossed his cloak over it.
"I need to talk to you," Harry explained.
"I see that," Mr. Weasley replied. "Surprising given how little I saw of you last week."
Harry suspected then that Mr. Weasley also wished to avoid dealing with the issue of him and Tonks. Harry scratched his ear and put that other topic aside for the moment. "I just needed to tell you something in confidence, is all. Er . . ." Harry hesitated, wondering how this was going to come across. "Alastor Moody is actually alive."
Mr. Weasley's red brows rose to his hair. "Are you certain? You've seen him, I take it?"
"He's been stalking me, turns out. You didn't know, then?" Harry asked.
Mr. Weasley rubbed the nearly bare top of his head. "No, Harry, I did not know that."
"Says he prefers being dead because he doesn't have to worry then about anyone trying to kill him."
After a head shake, Mr. Weasley said, "Harry, if anyone but you had come and told me this, I would not believe them." He sighed. "Rather selfish of him to keep to himself that way. Wonder if we can count on him for any help at all."
"He said he was carrying out his own investigations."
"Of the wrong things, I suspect," Mr. Weasley said, adjusting the cloak over the crystal ball to be sure it was completely covered.
"Do you think he’s still working for the Department of Mysteries?" Harry suddenly wondered aloud.
Mr. Weasley sighed again. "I don't know, but it isn't impossible. They have little distaste for working with the dead in general. Perhaps you should have asked Alastor. Sounds like you had rather a long conversation with him."
"He doesn't trust me at all. Told me my mum would be disappointed in me."
"Oh, now there he's wrong, Harry. Don't believe that for a minute."
They stared at each other as Harry pondered the unusually stern tone of that assurance. Mr. Weasley looked away and pulled himself closer to his desk. He straightened one of the thicker file folders and said, "I assume you are still breaking departmental rules."
"Yeah," Harry reluctantly replied.
Harry waited, pained, during the lengthy pause before Mr. Weasley went on. "You've put me in a very bad position, Harry."
"I don't mean to, sir," Harry returned, truly meaning it.
"No, I don't suppose you do," he agreed. Without looking up, he went on, "It's already affected your judgment to the point were someone lured you into a trap. You recognize that, correct?"
"Yes sir, I do."
A knock on the door interrupted the next long pause. Shacklebolt was there, needing to speak to Mr. Weasley. Harry made his escape but Mr. Weasley's voice saying, "See that it doesn't happen again," followed him out.
- 888 -
Harry's week went by much faster once he no longer had to carefully guard against running into his boss. Wednesday, his first evening off, he took the Floo to Hogwarts to talk to Ginny before her second round of Auror testing. In the Great Hall where he arrived, Professors Sprout and Vector were having afternoon tea. They greeted Harry warmly and he asked if they knew where Ginny was.
"Helping Mr. Filch in the armory, I believe," Vector replied.
Harry stared at her, at her short black hair that stood up straight from her head, cropped level on top. "With Mr. Filch?" Harry repeated, confused and wondering if he were in the right Hogwarts.
"His name is technically Filch-Plumefeathervane," Vector explained, "but we have simply been referring to him as 'Filch'."
"Minerva hired a new caretaker," Sprout explained, adding milk to a warm-up of her tea.
"Argus Filch's cousin," Vector clarified, the two of them making Harry’s head go back and forth.
"Ah," Harry uttered, feeling sort of disappointed by that news. "Is McGonagall here?"
"She may be in her tower. She's been in and out the last few days."
"Thanks," Harry said.
Harry went first to the corridor where he and Hermione had battled the cursed suits of armor. Spread out on the floor like rows of fallen soldiers lay the suits of armor, their pieces getting matched up to their correct comrades. Ginny stood holding two gauntlets, comparing the filigree on each to that on the helm of the suit lying before her.
"I think this one looks better," she said.
A grunt from Harry's left brought his attention that way. He nearly jumped out of his shoes; the man limping over from the corner window was less Filch's cousin than Quasimodo's. He was twice the width of the old caretaker and twice as bent over and even more alarming, could probably put the crooked, knotty wand in his hand to real use. Harry blinked to clear his eyes: the new Filch's wand had spikes on a metal collar above the handle, just in case one wanted simply use it as a mace or something.
"Who are you?" the vision demanded, squinting challengingly, one eye larger than the other.
"Harry!" Ginny exclaimed, setting down the gauntlets and rushing over.
"Hi," Harry said, taking a welcome step in her direction.
"I see you've met the new Filch," Ginny said, sounding dismayed but unaffected. Loudly and slowly she said to Filch-Plumefeathervane, "This is Harry Potter. He's allowed to be here."
The suspicion didn't fade much. "Don't break nothin'," he growled and returned to polishing and hammering out pieces of armor with a spirit that implied violence was a willing part of his nature.
"No, sir," Harry assured him. Turning to Ginny, but with a backwards glance every few seconds, he said, "Just came to see if you were ready for your test tomorrow."
"Ready?" she asked, confused. "They said there wasn't any way to prepare."
"Well, there isn't. But you should be well-rested. It's rather hellish."
She stared at him. "People have been saying that but I didn't believe them." She picked up the two gauntlets again, setting one of them back down close to where the prone suit's hand would be. The other she carried over to a pile that appeared to represent a random collection of eras and countries of origin. "With you telling me that . . ."
"I think you'll do all right, but since you're here, rather than home, I thought you could use some support."
"Thanks, Harry. I could use some hints, it sounds like."
"Before my test I didn't get any hints or help," he pointed out. He bent down to pick up the highly decorated gorget at his feet. "This is still dented," he said.
Ginny took it from him and held it to the light. "And whose fault would that be?"
"I'm not apologizing for any damage in here. My only regret is that I didn't learn the welding spells you were doing that day in the kitchens."
Her mouth fell open, appalled. "Thank goodness. You know what a mess that would have made?"
"Excuse me. The armor was trying to kill us," Harry pointed out.
Ginny gave the gorget to Filch-Plumefeathervane. She then picked up a greave and looked through a pile of them, presumably for its mate. "So, no hints, eh?"
Harry shrugged even though she wasn't looking at him. From the corner a burst of pounding interrupted Harry’s reply. "I'll tell you what Rodgers told me, which he may tell you anyway, but I'll do so in case he doesn't because he's really over-stressed. He said that nothing in the test would harm you and that the only thing that could defeat you is your own demons."
Ginny took this in very thoughtfully. "Good to know,” she said around chewing her lip.
"Sort of obvious, now that I think about it," Harry said.
"Good to be reminded of, then." She carried a bent greave over to the repair corner and returned to sorting.
Harry said, "I was thinking of staying for dinner. I could use an elf-cooked meal." Ginny's bright smile indicated that she would love to join him. He said, "I'll meet you downstairs," before heading farther along the corridor, in the direction of the next staircase leading upward.
Harry found the door to the headmistress' tower open as usual. The windows were cracked and a warm breeze floated through, balancing out the heat of the late evening sun.
McGonagall greeted him and said, "Have a seat, Harry. What can I do for you?"
"I, um, just met your new caretaker. And I, uh . . ." Harry was not sure how best to phrase what was on his mind. "I guess I wondered why you hired someone so much like, well, even a cousin to, the previous Filch." Harry was unaware that he was cringing as he said this.
McGonagall steepled her fingers and leaned back. The flowers stitched in silver thread on her robe collar caught the orange light of the sky. "You don't like my choice," she observed lightly.
"Er, I guess," Harry admitted. "He isn't a Squib, is he?"
"My stars, no. We needed more magical help around here." She rocked back farther. "Would you like some tea?"
"I'd like to stay for dinner, if I could."
"Of course, my dear boy. Severus is not here, you realize?"
Harry snickered. "I figured as much."
She considered him. "I sense there is something you know that I do not."
"Probably," Harry said. "But we weren't discussing Severus."
"No," she ambled mildly on, "we were discussing why I have hired what appears to be a cruel monster as caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
She laughed lightly. "Harry," she said, sounding only fond of him. "The students of this school, given even a short window of opportunity, would disassemble this castle to very last stone, pebble, and beam, and no brick barriers or charmed concrete would stop them. There would not be a single unbroken thing remaining after one year, let alone a thousand years. The caretaker always, always, must frighten the students."
Harry blinked at that. "So Filch wasn't, isn't, what he seems?"
She waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, he may very well be. I'll keep an eye on him." She raised an elegant finger and added, "Far easier to keep an eye on one caretaker than hundreds of magically curious, devious, and frightfully inept students."
She sounded so at peace with what she said that Harry had no argument.
"Unfortunate about Argus though," McGonagall added softly and after a minute added, "Life goes on, however, and our current caretaker was just about the only family he had." She stood and gave her robes a smoothing. "Let's head down to dinner, shall we?" As they walked at a leisurely pace, she said, "I plan to make it to the medal ceremony on Friday. Many others of the Wizengamot will be there as well. Good show of support, which you very much deserve."
Harry pondered that, finding something unsettling about the whole thing. Perhaps it was just how very politically orchestrated it was. He did not need or care for another medal.
On the Grand Staircase, McGonagall took Harry's arm. "So," she whispered conspiratorially. "What is it that I don't yet know about Severus?"
"I think I'm going to let him tell you," Harry said, bending his elbow to give her a proper escort into the Great Hall. "I pushed my luck too far just finding amusement in his telling me."
Harry enjoyed dinner with Ginny and the handful of staff who were present. The cooking made it clear that the elves had returned and for the first time in weeks, Harry stuffed himself with thirds.
He looked over at Hagrid, who had brought Willy, his pet pranticore, to the Great Hall with him and was feeding him scraps from a bucket of six-inch slugs and enormous millipedes. No one seemed to mind that he was doing this, despite the frequent escapes from the bucket. Hagrid gave him a wink and said, “I hope they give you the largest medal the Ministry’s got, Harry.”
“A small one would be fine, too,” Harry said. “Are you going to be there?”
“He’s on guard duty,” Ginny said. “I can’t go either.” She shot a dark glance around at the teachers at the table. “The twins are banned as well, you know.”
Harry looked around more closely too. "Where's Remus?" he asked.
Ginny leaned closer and said, "Monday was the full moon."
"Oh yeah, that’s right," Harry said.
McGonagall, overhearing his question, said, "I received a letter from him yesterday saying he will be back on Friday."
Ginny leaned forward over her plate in McGonagall's direction and whispered, "Tell Harry where the owl was addressed from."
McGonagall turned again from her conversation with Sprout. "My dear girl, gossip is not welcome at the staff table."
"It isn't?" Ginny blurted. "That's news."
Harry slyly pointed out, “‘Gossip by students is not welcome at the staff table is what she really means.”
“Don’t you want to know where the letter came from?” Ginny prompted Harry.
“Godric’s Hollow,” she returned with a grin.
“That’s all right,” Harry said.
- 888 -
Harry waited in the tearoom with Kerry Ann while Rodgers gave Ginny her instructions and closed the door to the room. Others ambled in and leaned forward toward the large crystal ball in the center of the table. The scene inside it showed the inside of the training room where the glow of the single blue fairy light made Ginny resemble a wax figure as she stood and waited, unmoving.
Harry found this task of watching the testers highly and improperly voyeuristic, but recognized how valuable it was in evaluating each candidate. He felt even less comfortable with Ginny than he had with the other candidate that morning.
Ginny reacted well to the claustrophobia test and the blood test, but had an extreme reaction to the spiders. Harry had no idea she had the same difficulty as Ron in that area. At least she did not leap up from the floor, just sucked in her breath loudly, perhaps to swallow a scream. Harry found himself biting his nails as the test went on, something he never normally did.
“Something between you two?” Aaron finally asked, when Harry, jumped when the Ogre’s whip cracked.
“No,” Harry said, quickly. “Well, she’s an old friend. Like a younger sister really.”
Aaron chuckled. “That explains you chewing your fingers off over there.”
Kerry Ann said, “You’re handling this worse than she is, you know.”
“How would you feel watching your little brother go through that,” Harry asked.
Kerry Ann sat back with a smirk. “He’d deserve it,” she quipped.
Harry went back to chewing his thumbnail as the boa constrictor that he himself had instructed, slithered its way into the room. Ginny watched it with little interested, perhaps seeming insulted by such a test.
“Ick,” Aaron shuddered. “How can people like snakes?”
“This from a Slytherin,” Harry commented. He glanced at Vineet, who had not spoken at all, just sat watching the crystal ball in silence.
“Who’s playing evil wizard this time?” Blackpool asked.
“Reggie,” Tonks said. “Said I was too easy on Tridant. I think Reggie looks more like a vampire in his disguise than a dark wizard.”
“You’re too short to be a dark wizard,” Aaron said.
“You don’t have to be tall to face someone chained to the floor. How can they tell how tall you are?”
“Shhhh,” Kerry Ann said, since Ginny had just woken from the Sleeping Fog, unknowingly doped with truth serum.
“I am not in favor of this part,” Vineet stated.
Harry silently agreed. Ginny appeared small and helpless huddled there on the floor. Rodgers’ disguised appearance seemed to confuse her more than frighten her. She figured out quickly that she was still potioned, even though Rodgers lied when she asked. She actually swore at him, which made Kerry Ann put her hand to her mouth in surprise and to suppress a laugh.
The tiny figure of Ginny was groggily sniping, “Yeah, you think I don’t know what every bloody potion concoction known to wizardom feels like, then you don’t know Fred and George Weasley very well.”
Even Tonks laughed. “I don’t think anyone has every told off the dark wizard before. People have tried to trip him, kick him even, but not tell him off.”
Rodgers recovered though, and said, “Think you’re strong enough to face anything, eh?”
“No, not anything,” Ginny returned. “I think I’m still alive when there were a lot of chances not to be. That’s all I think. You’re only pretending to be dangerous.”
He held the second cup of Veritaserum out then, earlier than normal. When she realized what it was, she snorted and said, “You think I’m lying about you looking like a fake dark wizard.”
Rodgers had lost most of the tone of his persona, as he simply said, “Trusting us, this department, enough to swallow that, is part of the test. Most teenage girls think they have secrets but they are not real ones, just silly little embarrassments that they fear reliving.”
Ginny took the cup in her hand, noisily trailing the chain on her wrist as she did so. She gave Rodgers a dubiously insulting raised eyebrow. “I had Voldemort inside my head for most of a school-year, you know.” She did like most testers did and stared into the cup.
“Did you put that on your application?” Rodgers asked.
“You didn’t ask it on your application,” Ginny said, drinking down the cup.
The amused silence in the tearoom was broken by Tonks saying, “I should have done the dark wizard on this one.”
When the test was over, Harry escorted Ginny to Hogwarts, since Mr. Weasley turned out to have been called away to a meeting. Ginny’s face was wane, but she was doing better than Harry remembered doing.
At the lift, she shivered. “I can’t believe everyone was watching.”
“It won’t seem so bad later. If you actually get accepted and are apprenticed, you won’t have any secrets around here at all.”
“I supposed,” Ginny said, rubbing her hands over her arms. “I can make it back all right by myself.”
“I have to take you. Someone has to take you.”
“Take me for a pint, then,” she insisted in worn tone. “That’s what I really need.”
Harry glanced back down the quiet corridor. “A quick one,” he said quietly.
Ginny’s face pulled into a grin. “Thanks, Harry.”
- 888 -
Friday, the current Auror apprentices were nearing the end of their lunch break when Tonks came in to tell Harry that he needed to go down to the Atrium. Harry glanced down at his training suit and rushed to the changing room, Tonks following. Harry pulled out his dress Auror robes and, holding them up under his chin, asked, “These?”
“Yeah, quickly, Harry,” Tonks insisted. “Minister thought you’d be down there already.”
Harry started to pull his robes over his training suit, when Tonks said, “Wait, you’re chains are wrong. You’re supposed to have a second chain.”
Harry, robes askew and half inside out, leaned one shoulder into the mirror to look at the decoration in question. “Does it matter that much?”
She helped him untangle and stared at his robes in consternation. “We never had an Advancement Ceremony for you four; Voldemort interrupted it. And yes, it matters; you look like a first-year.”
Harry found that prospective vision more debasing than expected. The last year had been a hard-earned achievement. “I could wear my regular dress robes. I brought those too.”
She was looking through the other lockers, even unspelling some that were locked. “Yeah, why don’t you. I can’t find another set with the right number. Munz’s must have been sent to his family.”
“His wouldn’t fit anyway,” Harry pointed out, feeling very odd about the prospect of wearing his dead fellow apprentice’s robes.
“Dress robes then, and let’s go.”
The other apprentices followed them down, chatting with an ease that had been lacking for weeks. “Harry must have a wardrobe full of medals by now,” Kerry Ann teased.
“Not really,” Harry insisted. He yet again straightened his robes, hoping they did not need a good cleaning.
“You look fine,” Tonks said.
Harry turned to Kerry Ann and then Aaron for confirmation of this, annoying Tonks who accused him of not trusting her opinion. “Come on, Valentino; you’re late.” She hauled him out of the lift, pulling his robes crooked again.
Minister Bones did not seem to care that Harry was late. She was beaming and looking over the busy crowd, which only had to fill half the Atrium, given that the podium and backdrop had been set up just in front of the fountain.
Harry waited behind the golden cloth backdrop as instructed. His fellows departed after a few last teasing jabs and headed around to the front. Harry was left alone. He felt nervous and wondered at it. Certainly, he was hopeful that being given a medal would make people less alarmed by his presence, but that did not seem to be what was bothering him. Harry tossed his robes straight again and checked for his wand. His other pocket was not empty either, it dropped heavily against his leg.
“Afternoon,” Snape said, stepping up to him. At Harry’s surprised glance, Snape explained, “I saw the other apprentices joining the audience and assumed you must have arrived as well.”
“Yeah,” Harry muttered, deep in other thoughts.
“Everything all right?”
“I kind of wish we weren’t doing this,” Harry said. That rang true inside of him. He stood on one foot and bounced his other heel impatiently.
“You are in need of this show of support, I think,” Snape pointed out.
“I could get by without it,” Harry said. He fingered his wand inside his pocket, swung his arms forward and back, and finally stopping all that, gave out a sigh.
Bones came to fetch him. “Ah, Professor Snape,” she said. “We are about to begin, if you’ll excuse us . . .”
She led Harry before the curtain and up to the podium. The faces of the crowd revealed curiosity more than any other emotion, and Harry had grown accustomed to fascinating people since the first time Hagrid introduced him in the Leaky Cauldron. Some faces, especially Mrs. Weasley’s and Hermione’s in the front row, were smiling broadly. Harry gave them a smile back and did not have much time to wonder where Mr. Weasley was as he strode out from behind the backdrop at that moment.
Harry glanced around at the other familiar faces of Candide, McGonagall and Ron and Bill Weasley as Minister Bones tapped the podium with her wand and began what she promised would be a short speech.
“We are here this afternoon to honor one of the Ministry of Magic’s most dedicated servants for good . . .” She went on in this vein, giving everyone a history lesson that they almost certainly did not need. Harry tried very hard not to fidget as her speech wound on for many minutes. Finally, she gestured off to the side, to where Rodgers stood waiting, prompting him to carry over the small trunk Harry had seen in Bones office. Bones was saying, “ . . . by this small token, we today recognize Mr. Potter for his steadfast . . .”
Harry did not hear what came next. A wave of aversion washed through him in parallel with a realization of utter clarity: he did not want this ceremony because it represented such an irresistibly tempting target.
The trunk clattered to the floor as Harry grabbed Bones’ robes and shoved her down behind the podium. A blast smacked into the heavy ancient wood, cracking it deafeningly. Harry pulled his wand to put up a block, but Rodgers already had the Minister firmly behind himself and was scooting her to the edge of the curtain. A shot arced out from nowhere in their direction but Rodgers’ block held. Bones had her own wand out now, but let Rodgers handle the spells. People were screaming and running for the hearths and the rear corner of the Atrium where Apparition was allowed.
A twisting, ill feeling took over Harry’s chest as he looked out over the surging mass of people; he was helpless to do anything. Another arc came from elsewhere and the crowd heaved in panic from the spot where it struck. More screaming followed as Harry tried to track the movement of his friends, but they were swallowed up. Snape Harry found easily; he had pushed a group toward the hearths beside the raised platform and along with Mrs. Weasley, was trying to provide cover for their escape. A young witch leapt up and ran across the platform. Harry, feeling that warning aversion, caught her with one arm and spelled a block to protect her. When the onslaught ended, he pushed her to keep running. Thinking that her motion drawing the spell may not have been a coincidence, Harry ran to the other rear corner of the platform and yes, he did indeed attract another shot, which knocked him to his knees behind a Titan Block. He could probably keep this one’s attention, but the other weapon was still randomly picking off others in the frantic, shifting crowd.
As Harry ran, the thing in his pocket slapped against his thigh. He pulled it out. In the bright Atrium he could better read the writing scratched into the black wax: Monster Mash ~ a simple Alohomora will suffice. Ill helplessness coiled violently around Harry’s heart again. “If you ever made magic that was obnoxiously big and disruptive,” Harry said to the absent twins, “let this be the time.” He dropped the disk, took two quick steps back and hit it with the prescribed spell.
The rush of air nearly knocked Harry flat. Two massive two-legged creatures had surged upward out of the disk until their heads skimmed the ceiling. Harry scrambled back off of the platform and gaped up, as many others did, at the giant green ogres in sequin suits who seemed to be dancing to the sparkles of one small lone mirror ball on the high Atrium ceiling. Harry pushed himself to his feet and joined Snape at the nearest hearth. Snape shot him a glance of sharp confusion and then shouted and pointed behind him to urge the next panicked person to enter the hearth.
But Harry’s diversion seemed to be working. The spell arcs now flew high and harmlessly over the crowd’s head to pass through the bizarre apparitions, scattering their magic sequins but not much else. Harry moved to the next hearth, where Ron, Hermione, and McGonagall were playing traffic cops. She waved him on that they was all right and next he found two of his fellows, protecting a larger group that was far more unruly. Tonks and Aaron were carrying a fallen wizard to the Apparition corner, shouting to clear a path. Harry rushed their way and ahead of them, clearing a path easily.
By the time the Atrium was emptied of visitors and the two ceramic spelling devices, as well as the disco ogres had spent themselves and crashed to the floor, leaving behind only dust and a few stray silver sequins, Harry himself was spent. He sat heavily on the edge of the platform and let his arms go slack. A hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up at Snape with a wry expression.
“As long as you are all right,” Snape said.
Harry stared at his burned sleeve. “I must have got grazed, but it doesn’t hurt.”
An argument reached their ears, approaching fast. “If they portkeyed in, there MUST be a record,” Bones fumed to the Head of Magical Transportation.
“There is no record; I just double-checked myself,” the man said, striding hard to keep up with her, despite not wearing heels.
Bones made a noise of disgust and stopped beside the burned curtain to survey the Atrium. Her eyes made it around to Harry and, loudly so it would carry, she said, “Good to see you survived, Mr. Potter.”
“You too, Madam Bones,” Harry replied.
After her inspection, she stepped over and held out her hand until Harry held out his. She dropped the medal into his hand, letting the ribbon fall slack, saying, “This is yours, I believe.” She started to step away but stopped and asked, “That crazy . . . thing . . . that was a Weezes device of some kind, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Minister,” Harry replied, uncertain if she was hoping for that answer or not.
She walked away, but added over the clacking of her heels, “You deserve the medal, Harry, but it is too dangerous to give it to you where anyone else can see.”
Harry stared at the profile of Merlin engraved on the medal. He dropped his hand and looked over the scorch marks on the floor. For some reason seeing them make his arm hurt. “Good thing more people weren’t here. Good thing Candide got away. Did you hear if more than two died?” he asked.
“I did not,” Snape replied.
Harry sat another minute before he pushed himself to his feet. “I’m sure there are things needing to be done.” That helpless feeling was still following him and guilt was now competing with it. He hoped to get distracted from all serious emotion.
Snape grabbed hold of his undamaged sleeve, gesturing at the other scorched one. “You are certain that is minor?”
Harry glanced down at his arm and tugged his layered sleeve up. The only part that still held together was where the decorative stitching reinforced the fabric. He tore it free, exposing a row of black marks marring the flesh of his forearm. When he lifted his arm, the same tattered scorching showed on the side of his robes. “I can’t feel it.”
“You will shortly, I’m sure. To St. Mungo’s with you.”
“Don’t you have a poultice in your potions cabinet for it or something?” Harry asked, not wanting to visit the Wizard hospital if he could avoid it.
Snape lifted Harry’s arm gently by the wrist and looked more closely at the equally spaced row of oval burns, arranged as though he had been hit by something that had been waving when it struck. Snape shook his head. “They are deep and worse than you realize.” He released Harry and added, “St. Mungo’s is a supremely wise idea right now if you have any injury at all.”
“How’s that? It must be mad there.” Harry wondered aloud, now dreading the pain that must be hovering there in his arm, trying to reach his brain.
“Come along; it will become clear later.”
Snape sent a silver message through the floor and began leading Harry away across the debris-strewn atrium to the corner where they could depart. Before they made it, running feet sounded by the gate and Tonks came across to them.
“Harry, why didn’t say you were hurt?” she asked accusingly, clearly unnerved.
“He did not know,” Snape calmly pointed out.
“Do you want me to come along?” she asked.
Harry nodded, but Snape mysteriously said, “You can take the midnight shift.”
Tonks straightened but then, looking more official, nodded and gave Harry’s shoulder a pat before she ran off again.
Harry’s asking, “What’s the midnight shift?” was interrupted by Snape Apparating them to hospital.
Next: Chapter 40
Hermione walked along the sunny path of Greenwich park. She found herself there without much of a good reason for it. She was drawn against her better judgment to approach Vineet's flat, but could not take the final step of visiting. What would have made the most sense—speaking to Harry about why his fellow had been so melancholy—she resisted doing due to Harry’s utter dislike of gossip, not to mention his disapproval of Hermione’s interest.
So there Hermione was, strolling the lovely rolling park with no particular purpose, not a situation she often found herself in. The pavement forked and she turned toward the shadier route only to stop short at the sight of Vineet walking toward her. The two of them hesitated before Hermione said hello. Vineet gave his signature small bow of his head. Without verbally agreeing to, they began strolling along together. Hermione glanced frequently at her companion and decided that his mood had not improved from last time.