Against a cramp in his neck, Harry jerked his head around to look at the clock. With another twist, he sat up. The bed was empty and it was just minutes before noon. Suze must have found her own way back to school. Harry scratched his rampant hair. She apparently had no trouble sneaking back into Hogwarts in the dead of the night. With his glasses pushed up on his nose he read the note she'd pinned with a penknife to the wardrobe informing him she'd borrowed his broomstick.
Winky had followed him across the room. Her ears perked then drooped. She rubbed her knobby hands together expectantly.
It required many seconds to get things to line up in Harry's brain before he could say, "Yes. Lunch." His voice sounded soft and raspy in his ears.
Moving like one with somewhere to go, he gathered clothes and headed downstairs for a badly needed bath.
Clean and smelling of lilacs because that was the only soap he could find, Harry settled at the table. An owl out on the sill fluffed itself and scraped its beak on the stone. Suze's owl.
Harry jumped up to let it in. It fanned him as it circled and landed on his hand, then it waited for him to untie the rolled letter from its leg before departing lazily. Imagining some manner of disappointment from her, Harry unrolled the letter. Her writing was simple and neat and no trouble for his rested brain. The words made him close the letter again with his whole body tingling to bright awareness. With a disconcertingly student-like, split-tipped pen, she had detailed exactly what she wanted him to do to her the next time they were alone. Harry held the letter closed, two crinkled rolls meeting in the middle of the printing. He could feel his clothes rubbing everywhere up and down his body.
How could she risk writing such things? He wanted to hide the letter somewhere safe as badly as he wanted to finish reading it. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with himself when he finished reading it. He wasn't sure even now.
Lunch failed to arrive. Winky must have sensed that he wanted to be alone. Pocketing the letter, Harry sat down and ran through his Occlusion exercises, twice.
Winky sparkled in with his plate and a tall glass of pumpkin juice. She gave him a knowing, toothy grin and went away again.
Meal finished, Harry took the letter upstairs and scrounged through his drawers for something he'd received as a present a few years before: Seclusion Sacks. Anything someone put in, only that person could get out again.
He sat on the bed and read the letter from the start. Perhaps his keyed up libido was helping him because he didn't puzzle over any of it. He carefully rolled it up, but before he dropped it in the sack, he read it again.
Putting the sack in his pocket seemed silly, even though he wanted to put it there. He settled for the nightstand drawer, then sat on the edge of his bed, far too aware of the texture and restriction of his clothing. She had suggested meeting that evening, in the same corridor they had departed from last night. Once he started moving again, Harry hurried to his writing set to reply.
Kali kept him company while he wrote, yawning toothy yawns and fussing with the claws on her wings. He had a habit now of extremely short letters, but this one grew long before he signed it.
Hedwig took his letter casually, nipping him because he hadn't a snack for her, but not waiting for one before flying off.
Harry was meeting Ron at the pub for dinner, so he piled his reading up beside him on the couch and tried to catch up with the assignments from three weeks before. Before he could find his place in his books, a knock came on the door.
"Ginny said you were alone today," Aaron said from the stoop, waving a single thin book. "I think she wanted me out of her hair at the paper," he added as he passed. "What kind of life is this? She's always busiest just when every sane person is not."
He dropped on the couch with a dramatic sigh, then looked up at Harry. "Any word from Vishnu?"
Harry shook his head.
Aaron said, "I worry about him like a brother. I don't know why I do that. I don't worry about anyone but Number One, normally. You worry about everyone all the time, so how do you think he'll fare?"
Harry wasn't certain, so he worked on an answer. He did not like imagining Vineet taking a fall back home to get what he wanted here.
"Are you not talking again?" Aaron's brow was crinkled with concern.
"You're doing all the talking," Harry said.
"Oh good." Aaron put a hand to his head and sat back again. "You don't know how close you were to getting pushed out of the program, Govern'r, with that silence thing." He lifted the book he'd brought. "I'm under orders to read to you. You were bollocks at questions last week."
Harry's heart clenched up remembering that. "Read," he said.
"Yes, torture yourself, Wickem. Read. Read!" Aaron flipped through the pages. "Probably doesn't matter where I start in here, I'm farther behind than you are."
As he continued to flip around, Harry carefully composed, then stated, "Ginny ordered you here so you don't fail out."
Aaron glared at him from under the book. "What lies. Are you trying to destroy my frail little ego? I submit! This clever torture must stop. Chapter 3, Compelling Rodents and Other Critters to Spy."
Harry picked up his own copy of the book and took up his highlighter to read along and mark important bits.
By the end of the first page, Harry's heart was racing. He was having rather an easy time with this task. The words coming in his ears and in his eyes were meshing up nicely in his brain, flowing into each other instead of clashing painfully. The second and third pages flew by. One time, the words scrambled up in Harry's vision, but otherwise they weren't lines and curves at all, just words. He feared with each page turn that the text would return to meaningless angles and arcs. It was just too easy to be real.
Aaron was beginning to read in different accents to amuse himself when the Floo sounded.
Hermione knocked on the doorframe to the dining room. "Can I join you? I need company."
Harry stood to greet her.
Back bent, she shuffled over. "I should have gone along to India with Vishnu, even as bad of an idea as that is. This waiting is deathly difficult."
Harry put an arm around her and sat down, pulling her along. Her head came to rest on his shoulder.
"I hope it's not too horrible for him," she said. She raised her head. "I hope you don't mind my lamenting, Aaron."
"It's all to the good. Do you mind if I keep reading about redoubtable rodents?"
"No, go ahead. Anything to keep me from worrying."
One handed, Harry took up his book and highlighter again and followed along. Winky brought hot cocoa for Hermione and went away again. Aaron stared at the mug, rolled his eyes, and said, "She knows how I feel about service like that. She's just doing that to annoy me." He returned to reading.
When Aaron paused to prop his feet up, Hermione said, "Do you think he's finished the hearing? It's nearly five there. Oh, I wish I knew what was happening. I really wish he didn't have to go through this."
Harry pulled her head back down to his shoulder and Aaron's lips twitched seeing this. He continued to read.
Two chapters later, Harry thought Hermione had fallen asleep against him, but she raised her head when he shifted.
"He won't be home 'til tomorrow, at the earliest," Hermione interrupted out of nowhere.
"Your friend is the master of the narrow topic," Aaron said. "No wonder Vishnu likes her so much."
"How is he at training? Has he been dangerously distracted by all this?"
"Are you kidding?" Aaron said. "You wouldn't know anything personal was going on with him. He's like stone."
"That's why I like him," Hermione said with a subtle smile. She patted Harry on the leg. "Thank you for putting up with me."
Harry gave her a confused look, letting himself fall back into the safety of gestures with her. She plucked his hand off her shoulder and held it in her lap between her own. "You are doing loads better, Harry. I can tell by your highlighting that you are reading along."
Harry nodded. Any moment it would all tangle up again, he was certain.
Hermione was desperate enough for understanding company that she did several chapters of reading herself before fetching her unfinished marking, then she accompanied Harry to the pub with Ron and a new girl he was dating, a London native witch by the name of Boadicea who had been four years ahead of them at Hogwarts. Harry didn't remember her, but Hermione did. The two women bent together to chat while Ron shrugged and slid down the table to better talk to Harry.
Ron chattered on about his work, about how much he was trusted with things, while Harry bit his lip, trying to think of something to say in time for it to still be relevant. Now that Hermione wasn't listening, he was tempted to try some longer phrases. But Ron changed topics yet again before Harry could speak.
Harry glanced at the time, eager to meet Suze. Ron noticed this, because he said, "Somewhere to be?"
"I've got a date," Harry said, then had to repeat it right in Ron's ear because he couldn't seem to talk loud enough for the now crowded pub.
When he was alone back at home, Harry stood in thought, letting the quiet descend on him. He picked up Super Advanced Blocking from the teetering stack of Auror books. The short words flowed by his vision, drawing up into his brain, interrupted only by the longer ones broken in half at the end of a line. With a snap, he closed the book. Winky had straightened the bed from the night before, but the scents still lingered. He had done something to himself, a spell of some kind. He read aloud for two sentences, heart speeding up, stumbling only over "transformation."
Harry had ten minutes before he was to meet Suze. He used it to slip into the London Wizard Library vault to search for one of the books he had illicitly borrowed months ago. Harry was glad he hadn't much time because the room was oppressive. He found the book with a minute to spare. It had a cherry red cover with diamond shapes tooled into the binding. Someone had conditioned the leather since he handled it, because the cover glowed. Promising himself that he'd come back and fill in a check-out form later, he slipped away with it.
Harry dropped the book at home and made his way to the bridge corridor on the fourth floor of Hogwarts. Suze stepped out from a doorway alcove, hair shining. A warm, living energy rose up in Harry's midsection. At first he imagined it was his emotions reacting to her, that maybe he had fallen for her utterly, but it was only the spell energy from the night before.
At first, Suze's face had bloomed with pleasure at the same time, but she went serious and cool. "Hey, Harry."
They came together. Harry interlocked their hands, listened for a few seconds, and took her away.
In his room, he set the red book aside and sat beside her on the bed.
"What's that?" she asked, reaching for the book.
Harry waved it farther away. "Evil."
"Evil?" She laughed. "You say something like that and you want me to leave it alone?"
Harry nodded. The book was a compendium of every known spell one could perform as part of a de-virgining and he was not keen on her seeing it.
She dropped her arms. "You aren't just teasing to get me to fight you for it, are you?"
"Are you trying to protect me from evil?"
"Only from me."
Her face grew cuter when it went quizzical. She put her hands around his arm and leaned against him. "You aren't evil anymore, are you?"
"You sound so hopeful."
She rested her chin on his arm and peered up at him. "There isn't that much real evil in the world. Mostly it's just jerks with too much power."
"Does your mum say that?"
"My dad, actually."
She slipped under his arm and molded herself against him. Harry let his arm rest on her and they sat that way while Harry considered trying a longer sentence. She had always been easy to talk to, but tonight she was ridiculously easy to talk to. He wished he could consult Snape, but his stomach felt fluttery thinking of doing so.
Suze said, "Did you get my letter?"
Remembering the letter made Harry's body wake up in yet another way. "Your letter was hard to read."
She lifted her head again, which made her pointed chin prod at his pectoral muscle. "I wanted you to be longing for me all day as badly as I was for you."
She showed all of her teeth she grinned so wide. "Yay."
Much later, Harry awoke thinking someone was calling out to him. The feel and scent of Suze's hair against his nose brought him back to reality, out of the haze of his last memories which were of deep intimacy and his mind reacting to that by going soft and shutting down. Her arm moved and the lamp wick turned upward, bathing the mounds of the covers in warm light. The world and his head felt stable now.
"Time?" Harry said, lifting his head.
Harry let his head drop and forced himself to work out what was important. "You have to be back for breakfast." He scrubbed his eyes and tried to ignore the tingles that spread from every incidental contact point between them. The tremors threatened to gather in one particular spot and he didn't want to seem insatiable. His body seemed bent on acting sixteen again.
Suze shifted and settled her head better on the pillow. The soft brushing of flesh and press of bony joint made every one of Harry's nerves light up so that he couldn't think for several breaths.
Suze yawned. "I really don't want to go back to school."
"You have to." He sounded breathless and swallowed hard.
"I just want to be done."
"You have to go back. I have training. I'm not around much."
"I suppose." She tapped her fingers on his arm. "You'll do a lot of good as an Auror."
"I hope so."
"I don't plan to do anything useful with myself," she said, staring off dreamily, "whether I finish school or not."
Harry propped his chin on his hand to better see her face rather than just her pointed chin and pert nose. "Quidditch is useful."
Her knee kicked up as she laughed. "If you want Snitches caught you shouldn't release them in the first place. Really. How often do they get loose on their own?"
- 888 -
Harry personally delivered Suze to the recesses of the dungeon just as the breakfast bell rang.
Back at home, the dining room stood in silence. Harry fetched his pets to keep him company. He felt especially alone without them this morning.
"How are you, Hedwig?" Harry asked his owl, who sat on the chair back across from him.
Hedwig's eyes closed and opened, closed and opened. Harry tried to say something more interesting but nothing came out. The alternative channel he had forced open to speak despite his injury was still there and he could fall into the trap of it if he was unlucky or tried too hard.
He raised Kali to eye level and said, "I can talk now."
She curled up in his hands and gave a yawn.
"No one cares," Harry said with a wry snort.
During breakfast, Franklin arrived with a letter from Snape. Harry broke into a sweat, for no reason. The letter didn't mention Suze. It just requested a note when Candide returned from the seashore.
Harry picked up a quill to respond, thinking to surprise his guardian with his new writing skills. He set the quill down after making a crooked mark. Demonstrating his skills would bring up the question of how he had gained them and he could not admit that he had accidentally performed some kind of virginal magic using one of Snape's students, no matter which student, nor how badly he might have needed the spell.
With his half-eaten eggs and toast pushed aside, Harry added more sugar to his tea to help him think and propped up the red leather book before him.
The woodcuts and etchings were more graphic than he remembered. He suspected now, given the friendly binding, that the book was not intended to be useful for executing dark magic, only to titillate. But the spell steps had been faithfully copied neatly on the page opposite each picture, even as boring as most of the instructions were. Harry flipped through, scanning the spells and post hoc notes for a hint as to what they might do. The titles were not always helpful. The Kiss Met appeared to be a spell for luck in gambling. The Sap Sucker would to allow a wizard to drain the will of his enemies for up to a year after performing it.
Harry's cold breakfast sparkled away and he poured himself more tea. He needed to finish and get rid of the book before Arcadius returned.
The Lapsarian spell mentioned healing, but it merely returned one's own virginity. An odd way to go about accomplishing that, given the sacrificial necessities of the spell.
Harry reached the end of the book without finding anything and flipped through it again from the beginning. The Lapsarian had a cross notation at the bottom, and in the back of the book it stated that it was a subclass of a Revivificare Spell, which the book did not have an entry for. Harry went to the shelves in the house library and found nothing. Sighing, he slipped into the London Wizard Library vault and stood and listened several minutes before deciding the room was empty of other visitors. He had learned the hard way that library patrons could stand in silence for rather a long time between page turns or coughs.
Harry began with the shelf where the red book belonged. Wishing he had Hermione to help and then immediately glad for her absence, he worked his way along the row, slipping away with Reanimation and Refreshment when the vault door clanged open. The book felt so cursed he sat on top of a Muggle office building in London to read it. The stink of hot tar rose up beside where he sat in the shade of a mammoth compressor.
A Revivificare Spell was intended to return the executor to the state they were in when they first lost their sexual innocence. The outward results could vary from personality shifts to de-aging. Harry stared at the sun-slicked, black roof, slammed the book closed, returned it without concern for being seen, then went directly home to stand before the bathroom mirror.
His hair was definitely the same, but his innate magic continued to win out on that. Would he be able to tell if he had slipped back to seventeen from twenty? He looked younger simply because he didn't appear as haunted as expected. Aside from their bright color, his eyes appeared normal, the eyes of someone with ordinary concerns. No wonder his guardian always appeared pleased after his giving them a good stare-down.
He made faces at himself, leaned close to peer at the thin groove of his scar, shuffled his hair on top of his head so that it stood up more evenly, then gave up. He wasn't going to figure out what he had done, and he had not used up all the magical energy, so whatever spell he had accidentally done, he had not finished it, nor maximized it.
On the sofa, he settled into his readings for the week, hopeful for the first time of actually completing them all. Before he opened the Basic Balancing of Justice Book he thought he had better owl Suze to be certain she would be waiting for him again that night. Anticipating seeing her would make the clock move as slowly as possible and he really needed the extra time.
- 888 -
Candide arrived. Harry helped her unpack, mostly by occupying Arcadius while she took care of everything. Their arms were bronzed and their cheeks reddened.
"How are your readings going?" Candide asked as she sorted toys out of her bag of magazines.
"Good," Harry said.
She appeared not to hear him. "Want me to read to you?"
Harry almost insisted that he could do it. But he didn't mind being read to. "Sure. Thanks."
When she saw what chapter he was on, she said, "Have you caught up this far?"
Harry tried to use as few words as possible to reply. "This week's."
"You are giving up on catching up?"
She frowned and flipped through the intervening pages, scanning each with a determined air.
Harry said, "I'll be good. Fine."
"I hope you are, Harry," she said, sounding resigned.
"Really, I will."
She nodded without looking up and began reading aloud.
Midway through the chapter on criminal habits, Hermione arrived. She greeted everyone, especially Arcadius, then said, "I hope you don't mind company again today, Harry."
"Not at all," Harry said. "Vishnu is returning today . . . ?" He was going to add more, but cut himself off at four words.
Hermione nodded. "I left him a note that I'd be here. Maybe I can be useful so I don't go stark raving mad. I can read to Harry if you like." She frowned at the topic of cursed object collection addictions, then held her free hand out. "I'll highlight for you as I go."
Harry grinned to himself as he sat back and let everyone do his work for him.
At the end of the section she flipped back and adjusted her highlighting. Over the top edge of the book she locked eyes with Harry. "How are you doing with this?"
"Good," Harry said.
Her mouth twisted, but she read another section. Again she locked eyes with him, but said nothing.
Harry said, "What?"
She swallowed hard. "I'm afraid to quiz you on what I just read."
"I just am." She paged ahead with a furrowed brow, the kind of expression she wore years ago when she didn't like the plans he and Ron had made.
"Go ahead," Harry said.
She flipped backward. "What age do most collectors begin their collection?"
"Right. What typically makes an item prized?"
Harry tried to compose a bad sentence for his reply. "How much pain . . . causes."
"Very good, Harry." She sounded overly pleased. "What percent of the collection is considered prized?"
Harry remembered this too; it was ten to fifteen percent. "Don't remember." He smiled at the ease of his lie.
"That's all right; you did great. Let's move on."
Arcadius began fussing without relief and Candide suggested a walk.
"I think it's raining," Hermione said.
"That would explain it," Candide said, waving a small blanket over and hoisting the baby under her arm in the direction of the entryway.
They walked with Canopy Charms over each of them, which let their legs get wet, and Arcadius straining, half out of his pram with his hand extended. He chattered happily the whole way, squealing in delight when a passing car threw up a plume of water.
They were back in the warmth of the house and Hermione moped back to the sofa saying, "He should have been back by now."
Her wavering voice lured Harry to sit down beside her. It took a lot to bring Hermione to the emotional edge. He draped an arm around her and she leaned against him.
The scent of Hermione's hair was nothing like Suze's. It smelled like Harry's own clothing, like something ordinary. She patted his arm then gripped it. He hoped she was worrying about divorce and not still dwelling on his recovery from Voldemort.
Rain pelted the house. Winky led Vineet into the main hall from the front door and everyone looked up in surprise. Harry easily read behind his chocolate eyes the quick jealousy that he hid immediately. Harry sat forward, bringing Hermione with him on his arm where she had fallen into a doze. He felt amused and anxious in equal parts by Vineet's reaction.
"'Mione," Harry said, hiding his pleasure and allowing his concern to show.
"Vishnu!" Hermione was on her feet and across the room. After a welcoming kiss she hung around Vineet's neck. "How did it go?"
He was slow to respond. "It is done."
Hermione bounced once on her toes. "Does that mean we can go to the Witch of Peace tomorrow and make it official?"
Harry could hear she was teasing, but Vineet said, "I would like that."
"Wait, are we having a wedding tomorrow?" Candide asked.
"I can't," Hermione said with a sobbing laugh. "I have to teach. But will that really suffice for you?"
Vineet said, "After the previous wedding of three days and three million yellow flowers I would like a rapid wedding this time. The gold and the flowers did not assist with the auspiciousness, it turns out."
Hermione turned in his arms and waved her fingers as though practicing a spell. "Let's see. Three million? That would only require seventeen minutes." She kissed him on the cheek. "So, we can have the flowers."
Harry approached slowly, hands in his back pockets. Vineet's heated gaze landed on him again before cooling to neutral. Harry considered touching Hermione to provoke another reaction, then discarded the idea immediately. He liked comprehending the temptation.
"Did you eat?" Harry asked.
Hermione pulled back and said to Vineet, "You probably haven't. I don't think Winky would mind terribly making you something."
"Not at all," Candide said, standing and going to the kitchen. She re-emerged and the three of them bullied Vineet into accepting their hospitality.
They sat around the dining room table talking. Harry expected Hermione to return to Hogwarts early, so he was surprised to find the clock showing ten.
"Curfew," Harry said without thinking.
"Oh, it is." Hermione sat forward in her chair. "I have patrol tonight."
As she accepted Harry's Floo powder, Hermione's brow lowered. "Why are you worried about curfew, Harry?"
Harry did not reply, but Candide did. "He must have a date."
Hermione stood straight and turned her fierce expression on Harry. "You're taking one of our students out on a date? On a Sunday night? Away from the school in the middle of the year?"
Harry didn't get a chance to compose a reply before Hermione went on. "Harry, we have responsibility for every one of those children. Their parents entrust us to keep them safe in the castle, especially at night. And you are taking off with one of them? How often do you do this?"
At a true loss for words, Harry looked to Candide for help.
"Just for her birthday," Candide said.
Hermione's posture relaxed. "Oh. Well, wish her happy birthday for me, all right?"
"I will," Harry said.
"And behave yourself."
Vineet turned her toward the hearth and kissed her on top of her head. The glance he gave Harry was full of commiseration. Harry gave his fellow a wave as they were sucked away.
"Sorry, Harry," Candide said. "I didn't expect that."
It was now ten minutes after ten. Harry asked, "Back in two minutes?"
She smiled. "We'll be fine for three minutes if you need it."
Harry returned in two and a half with Suze on his arm. Suze looked around. "I guess the little blighter's in bed already?"
"Oh yes," Candide said. "And that's where I'm heading. You two have fun."
Harry led her to the main hall and settled back on a sofa, letting Suze pick where she wanted to sit. "I'm in trouble with Professor Granger," Harry said.
"Better than trouble with Professor Snape," Suze said.
"Not for me."
Suze settled onto the sofa and curled her legs up tight, showing her dancer's flexibility. "Really? Professor Granger only thinks she's tough."
"She gave me a lecture."
Suze pointed at her Slytherin tie. "About me? You didn't listen to her; did you?"
Harry still wasn't sure. He wished Hermione had tried to understand. He felt bitterly cheated when he contemplated giving Suze up and waiting for her to get out of school. But Hermione's solemn concern had opened a wedge in Harry's desires.
Suze interlocked her black polished fingernails around her legs and rocked to sit forward. "Tell me what you're thinking, you goon."
"I'm thinking that Hermione's advice has saved my life. Tons of times."
Suze's white brows lowered. "You're talking really well."
"I am. Don't tell anyone."
Suze rocked back with a giggle, which sent her uniform skirt sliding up her thighs, something Harry did not need to see at that moment. Suze made a cute noise as she cleared her throat. "So, Professor Granger, who probably doesn't know you can talk, right?"
"Professor Granger, whom you trust loads, told you to leave me at school, or something? Something about the responsibility of the school, how grave the trust the teachers have sworn to to protect us, right?"
"Not that bad."
"Close, I bet."
Harry looked away.
Suze's voice wavered as she said, "Bugger it all. Don't do this to me."
Harry turned back in concern. "I'm not doing anything. I'm thinking."
She crawled over and propped herself up on her hands which were holding his arm like a broomstick. "This isn't about thinking. This is about having fun together. Don't start acting like an adult, now of all times."
"I never got a chance to be a child," Harry said, thinking he was speaking in his own defense, not expecting to confess like that.
"Never too late to start."
Harry took some time looking over her white over pink and bluish features.
She shook his arm. "Come on, please. Don't make me put a miniature kraken in her tea pot. Or curse her pens to write only in profanities. Or . . . I don't know. I can't think of anything awful enough."
Harry lifted his arm, including her weight resting on it, then twisted suddenly to tackle her underneath him on the couch. He held her down, staring down at her while she caught her breath.
"Are you going to kiss me or not?" she said.
Harry reached up and tugged the green snake of her tie loose.
"That's an even better answer," she said, breathless again.
- 888 -
Harry carefully composed three word answers to Rodgers' questions during training. Their trainer glanced repeatedly at Vineet as if wanting to ask how things had gone, but always skipped doing so. He mocked Harry for answering questions correctly to make up for it.
Sometimes Harry needed many seconds to distill his thoughts down to three words, but these awkward pauses were treated as normal by everyone.
During weight training, Harry did double repetitions, which attracted Rodgers' attention.
"New girlfriend, Potter?"
Harry set the barbell on the stand and stared at his trainer, alarmed that he might be that transparent.
"Oh, come on, Potter. You think you're special?"
When Rodgers had wandered off to help Askunk and Tridant with barriers, Kerry Ann said, "I think you're special, Harry. But who's the girl? That Seeker you were always out with?"
"I'll take that as a yes." She glanced at Vineet's stony expression, chewing her lip. "How's your love life, Vishnu?"
"Very well, thank you."
"Is it? I don't believe you."
Vineet crossed his arms. "You want an invitation to the wedding?"
"Can I? You wouldn't know from looking at you."
"Hey!" Rodgers said from across the room. "We don't care who you are shagging as long as you keep it out of the Ministry and it isn't each other."
After Rodgers turned back to Askunk, Kerry Ann muttered, "Someone needs to get some."
- 888 -
Harry managed to keep up an appearance of slow speech all week at the Ministry. And it was a relief to pick Suze up in the late evenings to chat. Snape had insisted Harry stop by Sunday afternoon for more Legilimency training, and Harry watched the days tick by, vaguely dreading it.
Harry drew Rodgers for Friday field work and the two of them patrolled the docklands. Rodgers walked fast enough for so long that Harry's abdominal scars began to ache, reminding him that even though Suze rather liked to spend hours tracing his scars with her fingers, he should really get more of them fixed.
Rodgers stopped for a coffee at a place that was dingy despite white linoleum covering every surface. He swore when he burned his mouth, then gulped again from the styrofoam cup. "Vishnu is going to marry that fuzzy headed girl?" he said.
"She's not fuzzy-headed."
"I'd be dead if it weren't for her," Harry snapped.
"But he is, right?" Rodgers asked between sucking gulps across the steaming cup. "Foolish boy should take the divorce and run."
"They're perfect together. And in love." Harry said, scanning the street outside with his hand on his wand pocket. He felt more dutiful because his trainer seemed distracted.
Rodgers' gaze narrowed as he peered at Harry, and Harry hid his regret at forgetting to talk badly. Rodgers' other lessons about not letting emotion affect his duty came to mind. He needed to work on that, apparently.
Rodgers shifted his weight in what Harry knew was a show of feigned casualness. "How's that Death Eater father of yours?"
Harry thought about an answer this time, knowing he was being baited. "He's at school."
"Now there's the perfect job for a married man. Hogwarts teacher, broom delivery wizard, and sailor. Never home."
They returned to patrol. Rodgers stopped at a few places and ran some spells, never explaining to Harry what he was doing. At the end of a dead end alley, Rodgers waved out an Illusion Barrier and propped his hands on his hips. Harry remained casual, pretending his trainer's full attention was not focused on him.
"You managed to do all the reading this week."
"Candy read to me."
"And you answered most of the questions right. And the ones you got wrong, I got the feeling you were pretending."
Rodgers waited for Harry to reply, but Harry did not.
"You like sounding like an imbecile?" He waited a shorter time before saying, "I wouldn't have imagined anyone pretending they were slow. What is this about?"
Harry drew in a long breath. "Didn't want to explain how I'm better."
Rodgers tapped his wand on his thigh. "Why not? How'd you do it?"
Still holding the same breath in, Harry quietly said, "Dark magic spell."
"Oh really? A nice juicy one, I hope."
Harry looked down to avoid reading behind Rodgers' delight. "Yes."
Rodgers laughed, uproariously. "Excellent. Excellent. Going to make a habit of it?"
"No." Harry said, picking up Rodgers' amusement as a means of defense. "I ran out of victims."
Rodgers grabbed Harry's shoulder hard enough to hurt and shook him. "Excellent," he repeated, still laughing.
- 888 -
Suze shivered in a draft slicing through the Hogwarts' corridor and knocked on the office door of her Head of House. She knocked boldly, hopeful that he would honor her latest request for help after the last request went so well. He had replied to her owl with a time that same evening.
Her familiarity with Harry had only increased the butterflies she suffered around Professor Snape. She pulled on the door when called to, pleased to not have to haul so hard on the handle to move it. The castle was a challenge, even a few inches taller. Silly how easy all the doors would be if magic were allowed outside of class.
As she entered, Snape said, "I need to speak to you, sit down." He pointed at the visitor's chair with his black quill, then dipped it in the inkwell and bent back to what he had been working on.
Suze took the chair, relishing that she could touch her toes to the floor. Snape continued writing with a look of remote concentration. He didn't look up as he spoke, which left his hair over his cheeks. "You have been out of your dorm at night quite a bit this week. More than I expected."
The quill halted and he glanced up without raising his head. The look was one of disbelief.
Suze breathed in and held it. "I suppose you have your ways. Things weren't so strict first and second year. That was better."
"There was a very good reason they became more strict. And we have relaxed things somewhat the last two years. You will note that I have allowed you to be absent from your dormitory without interfering directly, but it has been excessive. You must restrict your excursions to two nights per week. Your studies are suffering and you risk exposing your absence to others." He bent back to his parchment. "Based on discussions with the other teachers, I suspect you are doing your readings only for my class."
"I do my Potions stuff, too. Professor Greer asks me questions no one can answer and marks me down for that."
"She knows you are dating Harry."
"Yeah. She's mentioned. But I don't care about my marks. But I do like Potions."
Snape raised a brow.
She sat straighter. "I'm not just currying favor, Professor."
Franklin fluffed himself as Snape dropped his quill in the holder. The owl took the folded missive and flew to the window. Suze tried to sit up properly before Snape's full attention returned to her.
Fingers knitted together, Snape said, "You must reduce your excursions. If you slip in your studies you will be restricted from Quidditch."
Her breath caught. "You'd do that, sir?"
He grew stern again, and she realized how far out of stern he had slipped. "It would not be my doing."
"Oh." She looked around at the office. It smelled like his house. "Harry has to agree." She hadn't meant to push blame onto Harry, but couldn't retract it. "Sir."
"If you explain the downside risk, I believe he will be amenable."
She looked away as she imagined the bedcovers and close contact that would form the context of their conversation. She nodded.
His voice grew level. "How was Quidditch practice?
"Er . . . good."
Snape's head tilted sharply. "Only good?"
"The sun is still very bright this time of year. Hopefully it will get cloudier."
"Have you lost the sunglasses Harry gave you?"
Suze frowned and took a deep breath. She was keen to sell him on the idea she had come to discuss, glad he had led into the topic. If she handled it right, it would be his idea. "I won't be able to use them as a pro. It always gets cloudier, usually." She made a point of appearing grim but determined about her own prospects.
Snape pushed back and stood up. He halted in coming around the desk and fixed a thoughtful expression on her. "How is the new height working out?"
"Really great. I like being this tall. And my reach is better. And it lets me maneuver better on my high powered broomstick, but I can tell during practice that I better not get any taller. I wish something better could happen with my eyes." She cleared her throat. "Sir."
He stepped over beside her chair and said, "Look up at me." He moved his head side to side, peering at her eyes. "What exactly is going on with the pigment in your irises? They are not pink or violet, so there is something other than melanin tinting them." He backed up. "We could likely add some color and that would help to absorb the sunlight."
"I like my eyes this color."
His brow furrowed and he scoffed faintly. "You like having the eyes of a two hundred year old necromancer?"
She gave an exaggerated shrug, then flinched since it was the sort of gesture that tended to make her parents bark at her. But Snape did not react; he walked away to the corner and bent to remove the protective spells from a cabinet. He pulled out a few small boxes and then prowled the shelves for books.
Suze knitted her fingers together and tried not to bounce her feet while she waited.
He brought a thick black book to the desk. It had shapes of various bodily organs tooled into the leather binding. Beside this he placed a shallow ceramic bowl and began dropping bitterly scented liquids into it. "I think we can concoct an opaque pigment that is close to your own if not identical."
"I wish I didn't need so much magical enhancement to play."
"Most professional Quidditch players have had significant help."
"But they are checked for spells before the season and the championships."
"This is not some silly wand waving; this is transformative. It will not be detected any more than your growth potion will be in two months time."
"So it's not cheating?"
"I would say it is leveling the pitch."
"Where's the fun in that?"
He began grinding up something that smelled of caustic lemon, and she fell silent to keep the vapors from burning her lips. She wanted to pull her shirt up over her nose, but thought it bad to appear sensitive to whatever that was.
Just as she was going to pull out a textbook to read, mostly to give the impression that she was using her time wisely, he said, "These potions require some highly biologically active compounds, mutagenics and the sort. I want to make certain you can tolerate them before choosing which tincture to brew for you."
Suze shut her book and gripped it in her hands. He caught up a cotton wisp on a small stick and brought the bowl over, which now resembled a miniature painter's pallet. He hovered this beside her cheek and just brushed the wispy fibers of the swab over the bowl.
She said, "Is this dangerous?"
He withdrew the swab and its orange-stained fibers. "Mishandled, yes." Then he waited, poised. "Do you wish to remain as you are?"
"I thought not." He tossed his sleeve back and leaned closer.
Suze said, "I wish you were my dad."
He pulled back and despite holding the swab, crossed his arms. "Why in Merlin's name would you say that?"
"My parents don't understand anything," she said, alarmed by how angry he sounded. Or not angry exactly, she realized, replaying it in her head, keyed up.
He waved over another chair and sat facing her. "Hold still." He held her eye open with the fingers of one hand and touched the swab into the corner of her eye. At the stinging pain, Suze dipped her head, but his fingers locked around her chin forced her tearing eyes upward again. "I need to see the reaction."
"I guess that one's bad?" She said, sniffling, blocked by his grip from rubbing her watering eyes.
He was glancing between her eyes. "No, I would say that one is fine." He released her and she scrambled for the handkerchief in her pocket, flushing in humiliation for crying.
"It is too scant an amount to bother neutralizing. One more compound, and we will have the components for the tincture."
Suze bent forward, pressing the handkerchief to her eyes. She bolstered herself for more pain and sat up straight again, chin high. With his fingers, he turned her head and repeated the test with a green-stained swab to her left eye. This one did not sting, it felt like static crackling over her eyeball. Again, she was not allowed to move while tears streaked over her cheeks, which was unbearable, and she silently cursed them.
He released her and she refused to bend like a wilting daisy this time. She sniffled into the handkerchief rather than blow her nose, stubbornly staring straight ahead while her eyes blinked rapidly, tearing colors into the handkerchief.
He hovered the shallow bowl to the desk with a flick of his wand over his shoulder. "I just put poison in your eyes. Do not be so hard on yourself."
Every bit of sternness, every hint of sarcastic lilt was gone from his voice. She ignored the way the mere air was making her eyes burn more, and stared at him, unblinking.
He said, "If you prefer me the other way, I can change back."
Unable to come up with anything to say, she fussed with wiping her her eyes again. She balled the soaked handkerchief in her fist and squeezed it to help with the pain. She touched her sleeve to the next rolling tear. "Are you doing this for me because of Harry?"
"You will irrevocably stain your shirt doing that," he said, and stood up. He returned with a neatly folded handkerchief. "But in answer to your question, no. I would assist you with your career anyway. Normally, I wait until my students are well into seventh year before offering any help, to be certain they are fixed on their plans."
He began putting things away, striding crisply about the room. "On the other hand, I have been ridiculously lax with you because of Harry: lax with broken curfews not only out of your dorm, but out of the castle." He turned and pointed at her. "Do not take additional advantage of it, or you will not like me again."
She grinned at him and this made him cease putting little boxes of ingredients back on the top shelf of his cabinet.
"What?" he said.
"I've never not liked you, sir. You are always proud of us, and stand up for us."
He snapped shut the door of the cabinet. "Get out of here, Zepher. I have a million things to do."
Still smiling, she said with a nod, "Yes, sir."
- 888 -
Sunday after lunch, with his three o'clock Legilimency lesson looming, Harry told Candide his lesson was at half past two. She was making plans to visit family anyway so it was easy enough at half past one to say, "I have lesson in an hour." Because that was roughly true.
She blinked at him and said, "Oh. I didn't realize." And changed her plans.
Harry felt badly about the lie, but he was too desperate to resist it. In retrospect he could have simply asked for her consideration, but he was weak when faced with direct questions, and since she reported directly to his guardian, he didn't feel he could risk any questions.
The lie felt slippery, slithering into his concentration as he sat in the quiet dining room, clearing his thoughts. The lie threatened to live on, to force him to lie more to cover the first lie, tainting his life as well as straining his still somewhat less-than-strategic brain.
Determined to admit to the lie if challenged on it, his anxiety eased. Which was good, because he needed to manage his Occlusion or the lie would have been in vain.
Snape moved directly into Legilimency practice as soon as Harry arrived in his office. Harry's skills were not much improved from the week before, so Harry was allowed to use his wand again. After half an hour, Snape gestured for Harry to sit down and take a break.
Harry sat and fixed his gaze on the white cloud tops visible beneath the gothic points of the windows.
Snape remained standing, considering him. He said, "Perhaps Ms. Zepher has already informed you, but I am limiting her to two excursions from the castle a week."
This brought Harry's attention back. "No. She hasn't." Inwardly, Harry flinched and looked away again. He'd forgotten to compose a clumsy response. Fortunately, that had been a short one.
"You will agree to this?" Snape said.
Harry knew having a companion every night of the week had been extraordinary. He had known he'd be reined in without rancor and now that was happening.
A long pause ensued where Snape tapped his wand in his hand. "Something else I should know about? I'm sensing additional secretiveness in you."
"Don't want to talk. About it." Harry said, pleased with that reply. He was belatedly glad he had not revealed too much to Suze, who could not then give it away to Snape. "It's good."
Snape's robes shifted with a sound like fine fabric as he came around the desk and leaned on the front of it. "How did your training go this week?"
Harry squinted at Snape's robes, surprised to find they were a rather nice set. "Rodgers's happy." He pointed at Snape's clothing.
"Candide has been shopping. Don't change the topic."
Wanting to stay a step ahead of the conversation, Harry said, "Aaron told me I was . . . not in good."
"You certainly are not. The Minister is determined that you will be desk-bound upon finishing to avoid putting you at risk. They do not want you dead, since you have a political future within the Ministry, they believe. As well, they would be blamed for any harm that befell you. Arthur doesn't want to lead you on much longer if that is the plan. Which I agree with."
"I won't fail. I'll . . . make them wrong."
Snape's face relaxed. "As long as you understand your position, I'll leave it up to you to navigate things. If you are learning, I am content to leave things as they are as long as you are."
Harry's chest swelled with gratitude, a raw version of it that physically hurt. He had been dreading this visit all week and now wondered why, given Snape's understanding.
"Thanks," Harry said. It came out so heartfelt, it saved needing more words. In the wake of the emotion, his heart felt scraped and empty. He swallowed hard, expecting his throat to be sore.
Snape said, "I would like to be there when you prove them wrong. But there is no rush." After a pause, he said, "Do you need anything from me?"
"Emotions still not right," Harry said, wishing it were otherwise, worried about the half spell he'd performed.
"You are much improved, Harry. Be patient with yourself."
"Suze helps. A lot."
Snape returned to his desk chair. "I do not need any more detail on that."
- 888 -
Monday, Harry stood up at the end of training and loaded his book bag. He had allowed himself a few four word sentences that day, thinking to work his way up each week to speaking normally. His trainer had grinned at him half the morning, but hadn't said a word, even in teasing, about Harry hiding his abilities.
Vineet, usually efficient in exiting the Ministry, was stalling, sorting and resorting his books inside his bag. Harry stayed back and after the training room door swung closed said, "Get married last weekend?"
"The Witch of the Peace is not available any of the hours Hermione is free."
"As well, her parents have insisted on something more significant. It will most likely be Christmastime."
"Happy?" Harry asked, unable to interpret Vineet's staid attitude.
"Yes. But I am not accustomed to being so. It is a flimsy thing."
Harry wanted to argue, but didn't have the words for it. "As long as Hermione's happy."
Vineet finally looked up from his things. "Yes."
- 888 -
Harry arrived early at Hogwarts that night. Because it lacked hearths, the little connecting corridor was lined with rugs and tapestries in colors too dark to discern the pictures upon them. At least tapestries didn't watch everyone pass like the paintings did.
Energy rose up in Harry, filling his chest. Through the door at the end, Suze's pale head approached, glanced behind her, lowered her wand, and stopped.
"Hey Harry. You've been waiting?"
"I was forced to be on time."
She came closer, smiling. "Who forced you?"
"Yeah, she's cool."
"Everyone at home likes you."
Suze made a doubtful face that remained cheerful. "I don't believe you. Can we go for a flight over the castle?"
"I have to get home. Candide is alone."
"Okay." She held out her arm. "When are you going to be living alone?"
"Not for years."
"So you are just like me. Stuck at home."
Harry interlocked their arms, but held on loosely. "You're too eager to grow up."
"Yes, I need to appreciate my family more . . ." She looked away as she paraphrased him. Her look turned sly. "I thought you said we needed to go?"
In his room, Suze jumped up on the bed and crossed her legs, then kicked her shoes off with an apology. "We have to get a whole week's worth in tonight."
Harry tossed off his robes and sat on the edge, facing her in his jeans and shirt. "Don't we always?"
She hit him on the knee, and her face turned downward. "I won't see you until Friday. That's forever."
"It's not." He pinched her chin, and she ducked away from his touch, but grabbed his hand and put it between her own.
"You have to miss me."
"I will," Harry said, but he was thinking that he needed to be more serious about his apprenticeship.
"Well, we're just having fun, right?" She pulled on his hands to grab his shirt and toppled him over her.
- 888 -
Friday morning, Harry's reading was interrupted by a screech of displeasure from Arcadius. Candide paced the room and bounced the baby to no effect. "He was fussy all night."
Arcadius was chewing the back of his hand, which was the only thing muting his cries.
"Maybe I'll try the teething gel." She handed the baby to Harry and went off. Waving things magically out of the home potions cabinet was not considered a wise idea given the contents.
Arcadius turned his head side to side, fighting them applying it. Candide dropped her arms with a pained huff. "He's old enough to use a weak spell on, right?"
Harry petted Arcadius' sweaty head. "Not a good idea." He was thinking of the risk of expanding Arcadius' magic by making him fight their own.
Candide's face crumpled and she put her fist on her forehead. "Ugh. It's awful hearing him cry when I can't do anything about it."
Arcadius tried to chew both hands at once as he screamed again.
"Maybe a walk?" Harry said. "Maybe it will rain and that'll make him happy."
She was too distracted to notice Harry's long sentence. "I'll try anything. I'd be happy if he made it hail if it quieted him down."
Harry, in his running clothes, jogged alongside. Arcadius did quiet down, but his face remained stormy as they bumped along. Harry ran ahead on the road, stretching his limbs into the effort. But he turned short and sprinted back when he heard Arcadius screech.
Candide pulled the baby from the pram and patted him, pausing to wave hello to the woman out watering her flowerbeds, who stared sharply at them, water spattering on the walk.
In a low voice, Candide said, "Everyone thinks I must be a terrible mum when they hear him scream like that. He doesn't like you running away, I don't think. Do you mind terribly?"
Harry held out his arms for the baby. "I'll take him."
Harry tried to project an aura of safety as he hitched Arcadius on his hip. It must have worked. The baby hiccuped and fell to babbling.
"Oh, thank Merlin," Candide whispered as she gave the pram a push. But the strain didn't leave her face as they went along. "He gets difficult the day after he's with the old witch."
After they made the bend in the road, Harry guessed at her frustration instead of practicing his Legilimency on her. "Don't like that he prefers Gliwice?"
Candide's face flattened and she leaned harder on the pram. "Funny you ask that. I'm terribly relieved to have someone who understands his magic." She trailed off.
Harry waited, but the silence went too long. "But it's bad that she's better for him."
Candide studied Harry. At first he worried it was because his speech wasn't bad enough.
She said, "There's nothing worse that knowing you're not the best parent for your child."
Harry gave her an understanding smile while he tried to compose a bad sentence that promised that the three of them would always work it out.
Now that Arcadius was quiet, they walked slower. At a bumpy patch in the tarmac, the stuffed squid lashed out and tumbled from the pram. Candide stopped to scoop it up by hand because they were back in view of the main road.
Harry's flesh trembled, the hairs on his arms and shins brushed one way, then another without his clothes moving. He reached for his wand with his off hand and raised it as a wave of ripples pushed the air over the road aside with a whoosh.
Apparition sounded and masked figures appeared around them. The pram crashed to the side and sprang back straight as it was charmed to. Harry aimed his wand at the beefy masked figure who had Candide in a head lock, wand pressed against her temple.
"I wouldn't," a voice said.
A barrel-chested man in a brown suit stepped out of a slice in the air and walked toward Harry, who was dreaming up and disposing of three spell ideas a second. None of them assured Candide's safety.
"Lower it," the man said. "Or else."
Harry let his wand hand fall. On his arm, Arcadius gave a little grunt of interest. Despite her head being held to the side, Candide's wide and wild eyes were fixed on the baby.
"Toss it away."
Heart burning with helpless anger, Harry slipped his wand into his pocket instead. He didn't move as the man came to a stop in Harry's personal space. Arcadius lifted a hand toward his mother and made another little noise, but not of distress, more of interest. Candide tried to stomp on her captor's toe, and Harry reached for his wand to make use of the distraction, but a Paralyzing Curse shot out from another of the guards and Candide went stiff and the Boss grabbed Harry's hand hard enough to crush his fingers against the wood of his wand.
Harry did. Candide's panicked eyes were fixed now on Harry. Her terror battered him. She feared he would try to rescue her and put Arcadius in more danger. Despite the half-strangling hold around her neck her concern was entirely focused outward.
Calm washed over Harry and he tried to project to her a promise that he honored her will and would keep Arcadius safe, at all costs. She had the right to choose the cost. Maybe she sensed his promise because her eyes stopped protruding.
The Boss held up Harry's wand before him. "This the one you used on Voldemort?"
"You thought I'd like to own it." He pocketed it. "And you'd be right."
He gave a wave and Candide was released to topple to the ground. "Ba," Arcadius murmured, reaching downward toward her with his clutching hand.
The Boss said, "I get any more trouble from you, Mr. Potter. I'll destroy everything you have. Am I understood?"
Harry met his gaze. Behind the Boss someone moved inside the bus, someone in ordinary clothes and not wearing a hood.
"Am. I. Understood?" the Boss asked, his face stretching into a mask of fierce anger.
Harry nodded, wondering if he could safely stall to get a full glimpse of this person.
With another wave, the Boss and the guards Disapparated and with a ripple, the bus whisked off. In a rush, Harry placed Arcadius in the pram and bent over Candide to cancel the curse. She fell flat with a groan. Harry sent a message to the Aurors' office with her wand while pulling her to her feet with his other hand.
She reached for the pram as she stumbled to her feet and Harry was scooping Arcadius up to hand to her as Apparition filled the road with Aurors.
Harry ignored the arrivals, knowing they would use the first seconds to secure the area. He got a better grip under Candide's arm and made sure she remained upright because she was swaying as she clutched Arcadius to herself.
Rodgers said, "What happened?"
"Boss," Harry said. "Threatened me." In simple language, Harry reported what had happened.
Candide interrupted, "And if I hadn't been in the way, Harry would have taken him down. All of them."
"Anything to add to what Harry just described?" Rodgers ask her.
Her gaze went distant and pained. After a few seconds, she shook her head. Harry handed her wand back to her. She reluctantly accepted it and they stood for many seconds, each holding it.
"Take her home, Tonks. Will you?" Rodgers said. "Stay there till Harry arrives."
After they were gone, Rodgers added, "Though, given whom she married, she'll probably recover from this with no trouble."
Harry grabbed Rodgers' sleeve and jerked hard on it. Rodgers plucked up Harry's hand and shook him off. "Relax, Potter."
Rodgers began to pace along the road, asking Harry exactly where everything had happened. Harry followed behind, pointing in response. Fury had taken Harry's voice, and a full minute passed before he wasn't on the verge of punching Rodgers. His sense that his trainer knew this, and kept turning his back, only prolonged Harry's agony of inaction.
Aaron emerged from between neighboring houses and strode right up to them. "Whoa there, Harry." He took Harry's hand in his own and walked along with him, like they were a dating couple. "Why don't you give me your wand before you regret something?"
"He lost it to the Boss," Rodgers said. "And you can leave him be. I'm enjoying this."
Harry wavered on his feet. His mind was rearranging itself and he couldn't balance while that was happening. Aaron gripped his hand and pulled him against his arm, holding him steady. With a cold sense of how inept he must appear, Harry shook Aaron off and composed himself. It required compartmentalizing his anger, his healing, and his own past each into their own cages and erecting walls of duty around himself. It wasn't any harder than sacrificing his strength to cure a werewolf, much easier, in fact.
Aaron grabbed Harry by the arms and studied his face. Harry gazed back at him unaffected, wondering if he looked as steely as Vineet. With a crooked grin, Aaron let go and pushed Harry in Rodgers' direction.
Harry reached for his wand pocket, then swore upon feeling it empty.
Rodgers called out, "We're finished here." Then to Harry: "Come into the Ministry to complete reports."
Harry schooled himself and calmly said, "No."
Rodgers' brow went up. "The Minister will be expecting a completed and signed report first thing in the morning."
"I'll sign it in the morning, then."
Rodgers' arms wriggled then fell lax, wand pointed at the ground. "I'll expect you at six sharp, or you're on probation. Something you should be on anyway. But because events were personal, I'll let it slide. This once. All right everyone, wrap it up and head back!"
The calm familiarity of home flowed through Harry as he stepped into the main hall. He looked around in surprise. "Severus isn't here?"
Tonks stood up from the sofa. "I thought you or I should fetch him so he doesn't freak."
"Good idea." They stood staring at each other. "You or me?" Harry asked.
Tonks patted his arm. "I suppose I will. You stay with Candide."
Harry sat beside Candide, close enough to bump arms. The couch felt too soft, like it might absorb him and he wouldn't be able to fight it off. Candide was rocking Arcadius in the legs-up position common to an infant. But he gurgled happily.
Harry had always thought of his mother's love as unique, but he sat now in the presence of the same will to sacrifice everything. He could have sat there indefinitely in her presence, feeling nothing.
Candide made a sad sound, and Harry ached to soothe her fear. "I wouldn't have let anything happen to him."
She bit her lower lip and her eyes grew shiny. "I know." But she could barely speak. She chuckled painfully. "The Auror was right though. I can't really complain about danger after marrying Severus."
"Not with me around too," Harry said. He would have said more, but the rush of the Floo Network interrupted.
Harry stood to greet his guardian as Snape strode alone into the room. He passed his eagle eyes over each of them and paused only a second before sitting where Harry had been on the sofa beside Candide.
Candide's voice had a forced easy-going tone as she said, "I got in Harry's way, otherwise he'd have taken them all into the Ministry dungeon, I'm sure."
Snape looked up at Harry, eyes not questioning, just assessing. Harry Occluded his mind, holding back his memory of pledging to protect Arcadius even if that meant letting Candide sacrifice herself. He sat on the sofa opposite, letting go of everything so his body would relax and he could keep his thoughts to himself.
After a minute of studying Candide, Snape again studied Harry. "You are unharmed?"
Harry remembered Candide toppling while paralyzed, which could be a bruising experience. "I am. Candide fell."
Candide tilted her head to the side. "Just a bump or two." But Harry saw her swallow hard and imagined she was remembering being choked. "I can get some ointment later. It's okay." She considered Arcadius who was still gurgling. "At least he's quiet now." She laughed wryly. "That's something."
Snape put an arm behind her and moved his wand to tap her on the shoulder with an Indificator. It sparkled green and yellow.
"It's nothing." She raised Arcadius up to hold him over her shoulder.
Winky broke into the companionable silence and asked if she should put dinner on.
Snape nodded, then stood and called Hedwig down from Harry's room. He jotted out a long note and gave it to the owl to take to Hogwarts. Expression inward he stalked back to the sofa and put an arm around Candide again.
Harry felt he was imposing himself on them a bit and looked away.
Snape said, "No Ministry reports?"
"I told Rodgers I'd . . . do in the morning."
"And he accepted that?"
"So you are in trouble with your trainer?"
Snape tilted his head. "I can look after things. Go dispense with your duties."
Harry stood, hesitated, then accepted that Snape wanted to be with Candide alone.
In the corridor of the Auror's office, Harry breathed deeply to fill the empty space inside him. If it grew any larger, his skin would become transparent. He found the duty compartment in his head and forgot everything else, which was a good thing because Rodgers looked up and smirked as Harry walked in.
Rodgers pulled a chair over with his toe and waved that Harry should sit. "Your position isn't as guaranteed as you thought, is it, Potter?"
"Can I see the report, sir?" Harry said.
"Potter, part of your training is to make sure you learn to keep your emotions out of everything you do. It's part of staying alive and as well as avoiding being a subject of investigative commissions. You're keeping your emotions out of your actions now. Even I can tell."
Harry didn't dare respond.
Rodgers picked up a parchment from the piles before him, but held it back over his shoulder. "You think I like baiting you?"
"Yes. You very much do."
"Oh. Well, maybe I do." His mustache stretched wide as he grinned. "Here's the report so far."
A half hour later Harry arrived in the main hall back home. Snape freed his arm from around Candide and pushed to his feet. Rather than head to his room as he had planned, Harry waited.
Snape said, "I expect you to see to your duties, even when you are personally involved." His voice carried no rebuke, unlike the words.
Harry nodded vaguely and waited for him to say more, sensing that wasn't the real topic, just a warm up.
Snape's face softened, grew disbelieving, but no less keen. "Did you really think I was trying to be rid of you?"
Harry wasn't sure about anything. As soon as he had no immediate duty, his mind felt funny, like it was being rewired.
"Why don't you go rest a bit?" Snape gently said.
Remembering Aaron's care after the attack and now faced with Snape's, Harry shook his head. He could not perform this badly under stress and remain an Auror. Breathing consciously, Harry sat on the sofa opposite Candide. Arcadius was on his belly now, trying to crawl to the floor against restraining hands.
With a flick of his robes, Snape returned to his spot beside Candide. "Your trainer was still at the Ministry?"
"And you completed your reports?"
"Yes. He was rude."
"I am sure he was. He takes the attitude I do, which is he wants to keep you alive far more than he wants to be your friend."
Harry nodded vaguely. He had overreacted to Rodgers' original comment. Rodgers' cruelty was a favor of sorts in the service of making it clear to Harry that he was already on a dangerous edge.
Hedwig returned and with a jolt, Harry remembered his date. He wrote out a letter and gave it to his owl, who wanted a snack before making another flight. Winky sparkled in with a strip of chicken skin just after Hedwig nipped Harry's finger a second time.
Harry settled back on the sofa, realizing only then that Snape would know exactly what he had just done. Snape gave him a soft look as he ran the fingers of his hand over Candide's shoulder.
Candide tipped her head onto Snape's shoulder and said, "Merlin's ghost, I wish I hadn't been in the way."
In a surge, Harry felt that parallel honor he had for Lily and for her. "You weren't," Harry said, voice soft and wavering.
Snape's keen gaze came over to Harry again. Harry didn't want to be dissected, so he opened one of his books to page one and stared at a neatly printed half page of lines and squiggles. He let his emotions go and words poured out across the page. He had gone over this introduction to interrogation three times already so it should be an easy read.
After dinner, Arcadius trundled about on the floor with Candide watching his every movement. Harry slid down to sit on the floor to play with him.
It was well after eleven when Arcadius curled up on his stuffed vampire bat and fell asleep in the middle of his playthings.
"I guess he should be put to bed," Candide said. She lifted him to her arms and took him upstairs. Snape watched her go without moving.
Harry waved the toys back to their boxes and remained on the floor. "Sorry," he said.
Mockingly casual, Snape said, "What are you apologizing for?"
Harry shook his head lightly, thinking over events. "I should have figured out . . . something. Because I didn't, the risk is still there."
"You did as well as you could have. Everyone is unharmed. You cannot second guess that or you risk making the wrong decision next time. That is dangerous."
Harry had no reply, but given how many times in the past he had made impossible things work out, he couldn't give up on the notion that he should have this time too.
Snape said, "Stress seems to be improving your speech . . ."
"It is," Harry said, smiling to himself for the lie. He lifted himself back to the sofa and sat back, lax, refusing to let the tension return to his body.
Speaking slowly, Snape added, " . . . for once."
"It's got better of late," Harry said, firmly Occluding his thoughts.
Snape jerked his head to study him from another angle. "You have my curiosity piqued."
Harry hesitated but felt certain enough about keeping his secret to say, "Well, I certainly don't intend to satisfy it."
Snape leaned back, arm on the sofa back, eyes shining. He appeared inordinately pleased. "You don't intend . . . to satisfy it?"
Relief washed through Harry at revealing his ability and he smiled. "I don't." He stood, intending to escape the conversation before he made a mistake.
Snape stood also. "Did Arcadius heal you?"
Harry smiled weakly. "I don't think so."
Snape caught Harry by the arm when he reached the staircase. "Regarding this evening's events, you are not to feel guilty. Do you understand?"
He held Harry's arm several breaths, then tilted his head. "I may go mad not knowing."
"No you won't. No one ever explained anything to me, and I'm still here."
Halfway around the balcony, Harry called out, "Good night, Severus," to his guardian, who was still fixed by surprise at the bottom of the stairs.