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For Your Own Good
Between the Worlds
By Anne B. Walsh
As of this chapter, a certain last name has been changed, and will shortly be altered throughout the entire story. If you've been reading all along, my apologies for the retcon. It seemed like a good idea at the time. If you've only just found this story, you have no idea what I'm talking about, so onwards!
"Well, this isn't good," Thea murmured, running her wand up and down Henry's motionless form. "Child, what have you done to yourself?"
Ryan couldn't speak for his son, but he knew what the waiting was doing to him. Waves of cold rolled across his skin, the scream he was repressing by sheerest willpower echoed inside his ears, and he was grimly certain that any second the white-walled bedroom before him would shatter, dissolving into the dark and grimy stone which bordered his other world—
"Stop that," hissed Gigi's voice in his ear, accompanied by a sharp pinch to his upper arm. "The last thing we need is to be dragging you out of whatever this is too!"
"Tell me something else to do and I will," Ryan retorted as John escorted his own two children to the large bed across the room and cast a quick spell around it to ensure they wouldn't disturb anything. Both Mal and Jeanie had appeared convinced this latest eruption of trouble was all their fault, an attitude Ryan was sure John would nip in the bud. His friend had taken to parenting that intelligent, sensitive pair as though he'd been born to it.
And speaking of born…
"Daddy," his little girl called quietly, lifting her head to peer through the bars of the bunk-bed ladder at him. "We need you."
Ryan squared his shoulders for an instant, trying to steady his nerves, then crossed the room to kneel beside the bed. Henry was alive, he'd been able to smell that from the doorway, but there was a disturbing emptiness about his little boy, an emptiness not familiar to Ryan Blake but all too well known to a man who shared his general form and many of his abilities.
Except that's ridiculous. He can't possibly have been Kissed. We'd have known if we had a dementor in the house, for one thing, and it never would have stopped with just him, for another.
But what did happen to him, then?
"His soul's been pulled free of his body." Thea didn't stop whatever she was doing, her voice the flat monotone of the fully focused Healer. "They're still connected, it's recoverable, but wherever he is, whatever's happening, it's draining him. He can't hold on much longer."
"Can you pull him back?" Ryan took Henry's free hand in his, wincing at how cold the fingers were. Hang on, kid, don't give up. We're going to get you out of this.
"Not from here. Something's blocking me." Thea looked up at Gigi, and a brief conversation composed entirely of facial expressions took place. "But if we had someone we could send in after him, someone who could fight what's got him, that might work." She turned her eyes to him, fear for the little boy they'd so long ago taken as their own imperfectly shielded by her Healer's detachment. "And if that someone had a close blood relation to another person who stays behind, a person who is also related to the Healer keeping alive everyone involved…"
Inwardly, Ryan swore with vicious, fervent creativity. Anything involving his soul leaving his body scared him down to his marrow, even without the hints of opposition his wife had carefully dropped, and his writer's mind had come up with a dozen ways, right off the bat, that this venture could go horribly wrong.
But if I don't…
"Do it," he said aloud, taking Pearl's free hand in his other one. "Do it now."
John Reynolds sat on the edge of the bed with his daughter leaning against his shoulder, his son curled up almost in his lap—
They're nothing of the sort, the nitpicking portion of his mind objected. You know that, you've always known that. Why do you keep playing this game, when it can only ever break your heart in the end?
They may not have been born mine, John answered patiently, as he had so many times before, but they're mine now. He lowered a hand to Mal's fingers, nodding as he felt their temperature edging back up towards normal, then let his head rest briefly against Jeanie's, smiling when she snuggled closer in response. And having dreams of the lonely life I might have had if things were different doesn't change the way things are here and now.
Deceiving yourself—that part of him began again, but John was in no mood to listen. Silencing the voice as firmly as he'd learned to do with his wolfish urges when the moon was close to full, he let his eyes rest on Mal, waiting until the boy shifted to look back up at him.
"What exactly were you two up to?" he asked.
"Mom said maybe I shouldn't say just yet, in case it started happening again." Mal shivered briefly, staring through the slight distortion of the spell at his cousin, lying still and silent on the bunk with his parents and sister beside him. "Or in case I made it worse for Henry somehow—but how did we do anything to begin with?" he burst out, fear spiraling into anger. "We were just talking! How could words let something grab hold of us like that?"
"Ever heard of spells?" asked Jeanie pointedly.
"We weren't doing spells!" Mal pushed himself partway upright to glare across at his sister. "We were just—"
"I beg your pardon," John broke in, moving further back on the bed to accommodate Mal's new posture. "Did you say something grabbed hold of you?"
"That's what it felt like." Distracted (as John had intended) from his burgeoning fight with Jeanie, Mal wrapped a hand against his father's upper arm, tugging gently. "Like this, sort of. Only nobody was touching me, and I didn't actually go anywhere…"
"A pull on your soul, perhaps." John waited until Gigi looked around from whatever the Blakes were doing and beckoned her over. "Someone caught hold of your soul in some way, and drew you out of your body."
"Is that possible?" Jeanie looked appalled by the very thought. "It should have killed you! A body without a soul is—"
"Not necessarily dead, but not going to be in good shape, either," said Gigi, who had crossed the spell boundary in time to hear this. "At least if that condition continues for any significant period of time. But this one didn't." She went to one knee, offering her arms to Mal, who slid forward into her hold with a shuddering sigh. "There now, love," she murmured into his hair. "It's over, and you're safe. Thanks to our Jeanie." Lifting her eyes, she smiled at the young witch so named, who flushed nearly as red as the blanket on which she was sitting. "Who knew just what to do to break that kind of magic." Still holding Mal, she turned to look across the room at the Blakes. "Now all we can do is wait."
"And pray Ryan does as good a job of it as you did, love." John drew Jeanie into his lap, unsurprised when she came without resistance. "Though I've seldom found it cost-effective, or wise, to bet against your uncle when his family is on the line…"
If he hadn't been so terrified, Ryan thought, trailing Henry through the black nothingness might have qualified as fun. His method of locomotion in this bizarre not-a-place felt like a mix between swimming and flying, both of which were generally accomplished more easily in his human shape, but the faint and fading traces of his boy he was following reminded him more of scent than of any other sense, which argued for a certain amount of his other form in his current manifestation—
And while I'm thinking about that, I'm not paying attention to what's around me. He did so, sharpening all his senses and moving as silently as he could manage. Thea said Henry was pulled out of his body. That argues for somebody to do the pulling. And she also said she was being blocked, which means whoever it is, they don't want him getting back to us again.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of one person who wouldn't want my little boy to have what he deserves…
Soaring over a cluster of lighted lines, he pulled to a halt as a rank and far too familiar odor assaulted his nonexistent nose.
And here he is now.
Floating in the blackness nearby, distant from any of the lines but visible by a faint light of their own, two forms could be seen. One was that of a black-haired boy about eleven years old, curled in on himself with his face buried in his arms, the glow at his center flickering and fading even as Ryan watched.
The other could have been drawn straight from a puppeteer's nightmare. A skull-like face and a pair of long-fingered hands were the only three-dimensional things about an otherwise empty set of black velvet robes, which hovered beside the figure of the boy, darting here and there about him, occasionally whispering something to him which made him hunch more deeply into himself or passing a hand across him and siphoning away a bit of the remaining light at his core.
Turned soul-eater, have you, Snakeface? Two can play at that game…
Ryan shut his eyes (or whatever he had at the moment which served that purpose) and sought for his link back to life and light and sanity, the painfully tight grip of his baby girl's determined hand on his, and her mother's unwavering strength beyond that. Thus anchored, he dived into his memories, seeking one that would give him the hard punch of emotion he needed, a joy so deep it was almost painful—
Squeezing Pearl's fingers in thanks, he let a moment from seven years past wash over him.
He roused, momentarily panicked, until he could identify the chill in the air as proper to a February night, the dimness as that of his back corner bedroom, the lingering smell as a diaper in need of attention in the crib beside the bed. The whimpering cries which had filled his nightmare, though, continued unabated.
Sliding out of bed without disturbing his wife, he hurried barefoot across the hall. The nightlight on the dresser, shaped like a rearing Abraxan, showed him a tiny black-topped head turning restlessly back and forth against its pillow in the middle one of the three toddler beds. Swiftly he went to his knees beside the bed and laid a hand on the child's shoulder. "Henry," he said, administering a gentle shake. "Henry, wake up."
Green eyes popped open and focused on him, a small face filled with relief beneath its scarred forehead, a little brown hand shot upwards and latched onto Ryan's equally brown wrist. "Daddy," Henry breathed. "I had a scary dream."
"I know, kid. I get 'em too." Ryan pitched his voice low to soothe his son, his son now, whatever his nightmare tormentors might have to say on the subject. He knew better, in his sane and waking moments, than to think his best friend of eleven years and the immensely practical girl that friend had married would quibble over issues of nomenclature when it was their child's happiness on the line. "But that's all they are, is dreams. You'll always wake up from them, and you'll always be right here, safe and sound. And so will I."
Pushing himself upright in the bed, Henry fixed his eyes on Ryan. "You promise?"
"I promise." Ryan reached around with his other arm and gathered up his boy, settling him onto a hip and getting to his feet. "Come on, I have to take care of your sister's stinky diaper real quick, but then we'll go on out to the kitchen and have something tasty just for us, and drive the cats crazy 'cause we won't let them have any."
Henry giggled once, then rested his head trustingly against his father's side.
Filled with the soaring joy of that moment, Ryan opened his eyes to the blackness of the void between the worlds and snapped his wrist, feeling a familiar shape settle into his palm. Two words filled the whole of his mind as he slashed his wand through the proper motion for a charm he'd often wished he was still able to perform in his dreams.
His Patronus, the bearlike Grim, bounded forth and charged at the empty shape of Voldemort, which fell back, startled by this sudden attack where no attack should have been.
"Henry!" bellowed Ryan, and the boy before him looked up, astonished. For an instant it was a disbelieving Harry Potter who hovered there, and then Henry Blake sobbed once in thankfulness and shot across the intervening distance into his father's embrace.
Voldemort snarled and slashed his hand through the Patronus, dissipating it. "You," he hissed, his eyes fixed on Ryan's wand. "I should know you."
"Can't say I've had the pleasure." Ryan brought his wand up onto target, halting Voldemort in his tracks. "Don't much care to have it now. This, by the way…" He wrapped his free arm more tightly around Henry, who was clinging to his side. "…is mine, and I think I'll be taking him home now." Focusing for a moment on his physical body, he tugged twice on Pearl's hand, the agreed-upon signal for success and retrieval. "Say goodbye, Henry."
That young man lifted his head from Ryan's right shoulder and looked around at Voldemort. "Goodbye, Henry," he repeated dutifully, before proceeding to thumb his nose.
The last thing Ryan saw before his vision blurred into the semblance of a Portkey journey was Voldemort's lipless mouth dropping open in shock.
Pearl held tight to her parents' hands, focusing her thoughts, her strength, her magic on what she desired, as she'd learned to do when she wanted to slip downstairs to inspect her mother's cauldron and ingredients without getting caught. Dad and Henry, she thought with careful clarity, envisioning her handclasp as a rope by which she and her mother were pulling their wandering ones back. I want them home. I want them safe. And I want it to happen now!
Beside her, Ryan stiffened, then slumped against Thea, who dropped her wand to catch him, easing him into a more comfortable pose on the bed. "Got him," Pearl's father said tiredly, opening his eyes enough to spot Pearl and give her one of his famous grins, then widening it enough to include her mother and the Reynolds family across the room. "He should be back in just another second here…"
As if on cue, Henry tensed and groaned, then started coughing. Thea sighed, a trace of a chuckle in the sound, and kissed her husband on the cheek before moving around him to reclaim her wand and start a thorough going-over of her son.
Sliding off the bed, Pearl headed for the kitchen, letting the sounds of relief and rejoicing behind her guide her feet in one of the patterns she'd learned at last week's dance camp. If there was one thing about which she could be sure when it came to her family, both nuclear and extended, it was that tea would be wanted in large quantities after any period of stress or strain.
She had the electric kettle started and was just filling the teapot with hot tap water to warm when another set of footsteps sounded behind her. "How well you know us, love," said Aunt Gigi, laughing through her words. "Let's get out both pots, shall we, and make our special tea for the world-wanderers, to welcome them home again?"
"Okay." Pearl held out her hands for the second pot and began to fill it with hot water as well. "Is that what happened to them? They got caught in between two worlds?"
"More or less." Aunt Gigi opened the glass door of the corner hutch and took out two apothecary jars, one filled with black tea leaves and the other with dried catnip. "After all, what are dreams but another world where we're allowed to come and visit sometimes?"
"I wish I weren't." Pearl made a face. "My dreams are boring. Mama goes to work and I go to school and we both come home to the apartment in Aunt Amy's same building, and sometimes we do things with her like baseball games or trips to the lake, and other times I go to dance class or Mama goes to choir practice, and we both have our shows and go to them with Aunt Amy and clap for each other. And that's okay, but…"
"But it isn't the life you like best," Aunt Gigi finished for her when she stalled on the words. "It isn't the life you wish you had all the time."
"Uh-uh." Pearl shook her head. "It isn't bad, but it's like you call Henry's dreams. The gray life. Even being a witch isn't exciting, because Mama's so strict about never, ever using my magic wrong, and to her that means almost never at all. And she's always so sad in the dreams. I wish she wasn't." Leaning against the counter, she regarded her aunt curiously. "Do you know why she is? I mean, other than you. And Uncle John and Mal and Jeanie. And Daddy and Henry, I guess," she added grudgingly.
"I think you've named pretty much all her reasons, sweetheart." Aunt Gigi sat down at the kitchen table, a trace of sadness coloring her eyes. "Your mama and I have been friends since we were younger than you are now. She's the one who tried to stick me with a horrible nickname after I fell down on my roller skates and hurt a whole bunch of my friends, and broke my own nose in the bargain." She grinned, tapping a finger against this feature of her face. "Lucky for me, it didn't take. But it's a sad thing, isn't it, to be apart from your friends? And your mama and I don't have any choice about being apart in our dreams, no more than your mama and daddy do."
"Why not?" Pearl reached up to the cabinet above the counter and started taking out plates. "I mean, I know about Daddy even if I'm not supposed to, Mama shouldn't have taught me how to research if she didn't want me to find things out, but why can't you be in my dreams too? Did something happen to you there?"
"Yes." Her aunt gazed into the distance, as though seeing what had been and what could never be. "Yes, something happened to me there. A lot of different somethings happened to me there, and all of them put together means I can never go back again. Though why I don't go forward instead…" She shook her head with a sigh. "Idle dreams and wishes," she said, getting to her feet. "That's not the way to live, you know, Pearl. Picking up the pieces, whatever it is you've been left with, and moving on works much better."
"I know." Pearl set her stack of plates on the table and returned for silverware. "But it doesn't hurt any to wish, does it? Especially not when you have magic."
"No, it doesn't hurt any at all." Aunt Gigi smiled, though her eyes were still sad. "So let's wish together, shall we?" She held out her hands, and Pearl took them. "I wish—we wish," she corrected at Pearl's indignant sniff, "that we could find the right way to make all our dreams be happier, very soon. And to make this wish come true, we offer…"
"We offer the work of our heads, our hands, and our lives," Pearl put in one of her uncle's favorite phrases. "To bring about this wish of our hearts."
"Yes, we do." Aunt Gigi squeezed Pearl's hands tightly, and received her answering squeeze. "So let it be done."
"So let it be done," Pearl echoed, before turning to retrieve the kettle as it switched itself off with boiling.
After establishing to her own satisfaction that all three of the day's far-travelers, whether inadvertent or deliberate, were safely back in one piece, Thea beckoned to Jeanie, who had begun to look distressed by the carefully worded questions Ryan and John were putting to their sons. "Let's go sit in the main room," she said, leading her niece into the hallway, where Pearl was waiting with a tray filled with cups. "They can talk about the whichness of the wherefore all they want to, and you can tell me what's troubling you."
Rather than answer this immediately, Jeanie took a cup of the greener infusion from Pearl's tray, pressing a kiss to her cousin's braids by way of thanks. Thea helped herself to a mug of tea and held up a finger to halt her daughter where she was. Stepping into the bathroom, she lifted up the cover on the laundry chute and Summoned a pair of vials from her potions nook. "Here," she said, handing them to Pearl. "The green for Henry and Mal, the gold for your father."
"Yes, Mama." Pearl slipped into the bedroom, River following her with black nose hopefully uplifted, and Thea shut the door behind her. Jeanie had already gone down the hall to the main room, where Firefly had claimed a spot on the couch next to her. Thea took the brown-upholstered chair and sipped at her tea, waiting.
"Why are they so obsessed with those stupid dreams, anyway?" Jeanie burst out at last. "So they dreamed about meeting each other last night. Big fat hairy deal, when they see each other every day in real life! Why should we care about what might have been?We have lives here, and we should be thinking about getting on with them, not obsessing over things that never really happened!" She steadied her mug with her other hand, but it still wobbled. Silently, Thea cast a No-Spill Spell over it. "I wish we didn't even—"
A little shudder ran through Jeanie, and she shook her head. "No. No, I'm not going to do that. That's the kind of thing that gets girls into trouble in the stories, wishing without thinking it over first." A smile came reluctantly to her face. "Like not remembering you've been given three wishes by a fairy, and wishing you had a sausage."
"Oh, Gigi," Thea called out promptly. "We have a wish for a sausage over here!"
"Sausage heard!" Gigi called back, in the manner of a short-order diner cook, making Pearl giggle as she came out of the hallway with her now-empty tray and Jeanie's smile turn a bit more true.
"Your dreams still trouble you, don't they." Thea watched her niece as she dipped a finger into her mint-smelling mug and held it down for Firefly to lick. "Not for the same reason as the boys', but they do."
"The boys have it easy." Jeanie stuck out her tongue in the general direction of the front bedroom. "At least they know which side they belong on. Which side they prefer. I…" She swallowed hard, and Thea saw a telltale gleam creep into the downcast brown eyes. "I don't. Or I do," she admitted after a momentary struggle with herself. "But I don't want to! It feels so wrong, so disloyal, because the me in the dreams has her real parents, but…"
"But they don't quite understand you, and never really will," Thea finished. "They love you, they're proud of you, they want the very best for you, but there's just that little indefinable barrier between you, and there always will be."
Jeanie nodded, stroking Firefly as the cat nuzzled her hip. "I could just scream, every time Henry and Mal go on about how much they hate their dream families," she said. "They ought to try loving them instead, and see how hard that is."
"Don't I know it." Thea sighed deeply, turning her head to look out into the bright morning sunlight. "Don't I just know it."
"Well, this ought to make you happy," said John to his son after a round of careful cross-questioning had established exactly what had happened in the front bedroom of 2319 Tudor Lane that morning, and what had happened in the dreams the night before. "Your birth name is going to have to go on a list of words we don't say out loud around here."
"Really?" Mal brightened, then frowned. "Wait. Why?"
"Because that seems to have been what set this off." John sipped at his tea. "What began it, at any rate. I can't say either of you went out of your way to make it better. Magic is rooted in belief, which both of you know perfectly well, and still you decided to talk as if your dreams are completely and entirely real. I'm not surprised you managed to summon up a very real and very dangerous enemy."
Mal looked away, but Henry sat up a bit straighter on his side of the big bed. "But we never have before," he said. "And we've talked about the dreams loads of times. What changed?"
"Kid's got a point." Leaning against the wall, Ryan took a swallow from his own cup of tea, laced with the potion Thea had sent in by way of Pearl. "These two have been telling us stories about their what-if dreams from the time they were old enough to remember them, and all we ever got out of it were some laughs. Why all of a sudden can't they so much as say a couple names without causing havoc?"
"Maybe because we met?" Mal hazarded, making a face over the taste of his mug's contents but drinking it down dutifully anyway. "We've always known our dreams were likely to be similar, we did come from pretty much the same place after all, but we've never known they were really and truly the same."
"Which means," said John slowly, "that they must have a certain level of reality. Not just one person imagining what life might have been if we hadn't found each other, but multiple imaginations working together." His eyes slid sideways to Ryan, who returned the glance without expression. "And since we don't know which other imaginations are involved here—or rather, since we know at least one, and that one decidedly dangerous—I would say a fair degree of caution is indicated in talking about these dreams. As well as one very clear understanding." He fixed each boy in turn with a firm stare. "They are not necessarily indicative of reality. In other words, you are not to count on anything you learn there as also being true here."
"Might even be better if you try and put them out of your mind most of the time." Ryan hadn't moved, but John could smell the tension wafting off his friend from across the room without an effort. "Trying to be one person's hard enough. Two's damn near impossible."
"Says the author, who has to be multiple people, all at once, every time he writes a story," murmured John, causing Mal a brief fit of snickers and Henry to dive under the bedcovers. "In any case, boys, if I were you, I'd try lying back down for a while. You're likely to have drained yourselves out with that little stunt, and a bit more rest wouldn't hurt anything."
Since Henry hadn't reemerged and Mal's eyelids were already beginning to droop, this advice was taken without much demur, and the older wizards removed themselves from the bedroom, stopping in the hallway for a long look, eye to eye.
"Go on and ask," said Ryan finally. "You never have, and I know you want to."
John sighed. "Padfoot—what the hell?"
"I don't know!" Ryan turned away to pound his fists lightly against the wall. "I swear to you, Moony, I don't know what happened any more than you do. I just started having these dreams, a couple months after I became a godfather. Dreams of Azkaban, and this feeling, like a warning. Watch out, stupid, don't make the same decision I made, or this could happen to you." He thumped his fists against the wall again. "Bastard hasn't ever bothered to say what decision. Or rather, he has, but how do I know what's true and what isn't after he's been sharing personal space with the soul-suckers that long? He could've flipped his lid and made everything up the way he wanted it to be, or even pulled out of my head what happened here!"
"So you dream of being falsely accused. Falsely imprisoned." John nodded. "But then, who would want to admit, even in his dreams, that he was a spy and a traitor?"
"Nobody." Ryan turned back to face his friend. "So we're back where we started. I know what I know, or at least I think I do, but it'd be my word against the world unless Wormtail turned up all of a sudden, and who's going to listen to me anyway? And you're not about to start pushing for anything just because of a dream, and I don't blame you. As far as he's concerned, the other you, this might be nothing more than wish fulfillment, and they could make your life hell without even trying hard. But if you should ever happen to come across some solid proof one way or the other…"
"You'll be the first to know." John smiled slightly. "Well. Maybe the second or third. I might send off an albatross to America first."
"Albatross," sing-songed Ryan, chuckling through the word. "Speaking of which, we'd better start planning when we're heading over there to get everybody's school supplies…"
Walden Macnair startled awake. Someone was bending over his bed. He started to grope for his wand, then stopped. Faint but unmistakable, his left forearm had begun to throb.
"Do you know your Master, Macnair?" whispered a voice he had never thought to hear again.
"My Lord!" Macnair slid quickly out of bed to kneel at the feet of the robed, masked figure. "My Lord, you have returned!"
"Yes, but it must remain secret for a time." The Dark Lord's voice was hoarse and whispering, as though he had been through unspeakable pain in the years of his absence. "I have work for you, Macnair. Work very like what the Ministry has given you to do. Destroying dangerous animals, is it not?" The soft, cruel laugh Macnair knew so well rolled over him. "On the island of Azkaban there lives an animal named Sirius Orion Black. He is dangerous, Macnair, and I want him destroyed…"
So, a bit of a longer chapter, but I think it was necessary. Thank you for putting up with the Black/Blake name change, everybody. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch "MASH". Leave encouragement and maybe I'll get us off this cliffhanger soon!