Chapter 10 — A Darker Place

Quiet settled over the house in Shrewsthorpe as Snape, divested of his shimmering blue-lined dress cloak, sat on the bed to unwind the long laces of the dress boots he wore. A shush-shush followed Candide as she strode to her wardrobe and considered herself in the narrow mirror inside the door.

"Dress worked out well," she said in a fatigue-tinged voice. "Pearl was a good choice."

"An overly sedulous decision for something to be worn once."

She shrugged, smiling faintly. "I need help getting out of it. Bad luck to use a spell."

"Ah," Snape uttered. "So, a well-designed garment you are saying." He stood with deliberate movements and stopped behind her, studying the fifty or so hooks and eyelets lining her spine. "This would constitute cruelty under the right circumstances."

She laughed lightly. "You would object to that?" she asked doubtfully.

He peered at her in the mirror. "You have a bit more of your sister in you than you let on. Don't know where you hid her . . . Certainly no room in this dress." He started in on the eyelets, from the top.

"So," she began. "While I have your attention . . ."

"Less of it than you might imagine . . ." he came back, frowning at getting his fingers behind the fabric to gain enough slack to continue unhooking beyond the looser high neck.

She lifted her ring hand and stared at it before dropping it back to her side. "You said, I do, but there are other things you've never said."

This garnered a glare in reflection. "And?"

"Hm," she said, pushing her unruly hair back. The spell holding it in place finally had worn off. "I'm curious," she said as he made it beyond the tough section where the fabric was pulled taut by her shoulder blades and sped up somewhat. She moved a quarter-turn to see him at least a little in the mirror. "Have you ever told Harry that you love him?"

His voice was much closer to stern as he replied, "You aren't in a competition with Harry."

"I know that. I wouldn't have even tried if I was," she admitted.

The gained only a disturbed shake of Snape's head. More eyelets were set free. Snape said, "To answer your question, however, the answer is 'yes'."

"Oh, good," she said. "He deserves to hear it, and there is hope."

More shaking of Snape's veiling hair ensued. More than half the eyelets were undone now, revealing the fine lace of an undergarment that almost no one would see.

"What did he say in response?" Candide asked. "Or am I prying?"

Snape huffed inaudibly. "Clearly the topic requires resolution as much the dress does, so I suppose not. But in answer to that question, he said nothing and when I myself pried, he said it was obvious. Harry does not care about words nearly as much . . ." He paused for a tough eyelet that kept re-hooking as though cursed to do so. It gave in only when it was uprooted. "He cares about actions. He cares solely that someone has faith and trust in him, and at least makes an attempt at understanding."

"He likes to be taken care of, doesn't he?"

"Not really." Less than ten eyelets remained at the edges of a decorative flap at the bottom edge of the bodice, which an oversized fake button appeared to hold closed.

"He doesn't complain that you check on him at night."

"That is a glaring exception. It is the singular thing he needed most as a child that he did not have." These last few eyelets made for quick work. "There." He stared at her in the mirror. "Why are we discussing Harry?"

Despite the topic being unimportant for the following hour, after the previous nights' experience of finding Harry sleeping in the window, Snape snuck away just at dawn to check on him.

Harry was sleeping only lightly and turned when the door opened. In support of Snape's earlier assertion, Harry sat up, eyes grateful for the company.

"Did you sleep at all?" Snape asked.

"Did you?" Harry returned coyly.

"I'm not answering that," he asserted firmly. "I only ask because I wondered if you had the same dream again?"

"What dream?"

"The one last night that sent you keep vigil at the window in a fit of uncomfortable nocturnal arrangement."

"Oh, no. It was a dream, anyhow. Nothing more."

"Still doubting the strength of the fabric of reality?" Snape asked, slightly mocking.

Harry frowned and crossed his legs under the covers. "Maybe."

Lecturing, Snape said, "To damage reality without possessing a time-turner would require sorcery of unimagined power. You are the veritable ant in the realm of what would be necessary to even so much as tweak the thread of existence. To break and reweave it is inconceivable. You grossly flatter yourself by even worrying about it."

"What happened to me, then?" Harry demanded.

Snape's expression grew less fierce. "I'll concede that I do not know."

"Doesn't that bother you?"

"Immensely. But let me worry about your disturbed visions of my life, all right?"

Harry sighed and rubbed his aching eyes. "All right."

- 888 -

That evening, after a sleepy-eyed day where training felt more like drudgery than it should, Harry settled in with his books across from Snape, who worked at filling in fancy parchment forms bearing the Hogwart's seal on the top of each.

"Hogwarts stuff?" Harry asked. "Lupin can't do that?"

Snape pulled his sleeve out of the way and considered what he had just written while it dried. "Unless I wish to conceded my position fully to Remus, I feel I should do the official paperwork. I also should make my presence felt at the Welcoming Feast as well as several staff meetings over the next week."

Harry considered how each year the students took early key impressions away from examining the teachers at the feast. "Good idea."

Candide arrived home just as Harry's stomach complained about wanting dinner. "Sorry I'm late," she said, setting a teetering stack of files on the sideboard. Dinner appeared shortly after she sat down. She jumped up again and fetched down the chalice used at the wedding and poured mead into it. She took a sip from it and set it before Snape's plate.

"It's the honeymoon," she explained to Harry's questioning look.

"I thought that was supposed to be a holiday of sorts," he said.

"That kind will have to wait," she said. "The Canaries or something would be nice. It's really getting into the busy season at work now and Severus won't have another break until Christmas."

When the dinner dishes disappeared, they all settled into their respective work.

This routine continued the rest of the week. In the late afternoon after training, Harry only joined his friends at a pub briefly if he did at all. Ron teased him about this one evening, but Harry just shrugged, knowing that Ron, with his constant overdose of family, could not appreciate Harry's wanting to capture this last two solid weeks of it.

- 888 -


Hogwarts' stone walls exuded a warm mustiness from summer's disuse. In an office on the fourth floor, overlooking the courtyard and the keep, Hermione blew her hair out of her eyes and pondered how best to arrange the next trunk of books. Unlike the two bookshelves full that occupied the office when she arrived, hers spanned a diverse collection of topics and it seemed a shame to disturb the lived-in organization of the dog-earred, old books with her own disparate and sometimes un-read ones.

She was just considering where to obtain another set of shelves to keep things completely separate when she realized the time, only by the accident of having a post owl arrive with the afternoon edition of the Prophet.

Hermione stared at the clock, brain unable to comprehend that she was supposed to be elsewhere just at that twitchy movement of the minute hand that landed it straight up. She scrambled for her new gold-edged notebook, pens, ran back for an ink bottle, exchanged that for a Never-out quill, grabbed all of it up instead along with the attaché her mother had bought her upon getting her job at the solicitors', and ran out of her office.

The stairways down never contained so many steps as they did this trip, but she slowed on the last set to catch her breath, deciding that being later yet for her first staff meeting would be worse than showing up breathless and clearly at the tail end of an arduous run.

With one last deep breath and a quick finger brush of her hair, she stepped out of the Entrance Hall and into the staff room. The teachers, in all their varied colors and sizes, were standing around the long table, chatting, catching up on personal events from the summer. Hermione breathed out, heart still running fast.

McGonagall turned casually from speaking with Professor Sprout as Hermione placed her things out on the table, trying to ignore what she was certain was a borderline sneering amusement from Professor Snape, who stood off the corner of the table, facing Professor Vector as though mid-conversation.

"Are you getting settled in, Hermione?" McGonagall gallantly asked.

Hermione relaxed, being on time was not a test, it turned out. "Working on it, Professor. Lots of books to unpack still. Oh, where do I get some additional shelves?" she asked before McGonagall could turn away again. She thought this an excellent question, given the implication of it.

"Just ask Mr. Filch. He will come install them."

Hermione had heard about the new Filch. "Right," she managed to answer anyway. This one may actually be a test, she decided.

Hermione took a seat as the others, on some unseen cue, did so. Across the table Trelawney blinked her amplified eyes at her as though wondering why she was there. Hermione opened her lovely new gold-leaf notebook with an audible crack of the leather spine and listened as changes in marking and house points policies were considered.

At the end of the congenial meeting, McGonagall waved Hermione over to her side. "Take a seat, Hermione," she said as Snape glided over to stand on the headmistress' other side. He preferred to stand and glare down, it seemed, because he remained standing as McGonagall continued and the room cleared out.

"This institution has a program for new teachers who . . . may require it. You are a sharp young woman, Hermione dear, but brains alone does not a teacher make. I am therefore assigning you a mentor to assist you. Severus has agreed to take the first round of mentoring.

Hermione glanced up at him, and then quickly down again before considering in private that for most of her school years, he had been her least-favorite teacher, although, she reconsidered, that had been based on a personal dislike, rather than a professional one. She composed her thoughts toward the future before looking up again. His eyes narrowed with a twitch before appearing grudging.

McGonagall went on, "You will report to Severus weekly to discuss how your classes are going as well as grading criteria, problem students, detention policy, etc." She stacked her notes together as she spoke and finished by taking off her glasses. "Any questions?"

"No, Minerva," Hermione managed to say with great effort, finding her first name far too casual for taste. "I'm excited to get started."

- 888 -


It was near the end of his rare normal family time when Harry left early for training in an attempt to catch Mr. Weasley before he got too busy. He found their department head in his office, reading the Weekly Snitch, the Ministry's gossip and sport's score newsletter.

"Can I talk to you, sir?" Harry asked.

Mr. Weasley put his feet down and sat straight, prompting a brush painted to resemble a colorful toy soldier to sweep off the edge of the desk where his shoes had been. Harry glanced back down the corridor to check that no one approached before taking a seat.

"It's like this, Mr. Weasley," Harry began. "I . . . have a bad feeling about Percy-"

"What's he done?" Mr. Weasley asked, perhaps sharply.

"Well," Harry hesitated. There wasn't all that much he had any proof of, really. Mostly just that he found him unsavory and with a bad habit of acting suspicious. "I think he's using Legilimency . . . around the Ministry when perhaps it isn't appropriate."

Mr. Weasley had picked up a ball point pen and was clicking the button on the end repeatedly. "As a Legilimens yourself, you would notice that, I suppose."

"Yes, sir."

The pen clicking stopped while he asked, "You aren't guilty of that yourself?"

Harry spoke slowly as he said, "I'm very careful to avoid it sir."

Mr. Weasley leaned over to reach into the farther file drawer so his voice was strained as he said, "Not always, it turns out." He pulled out a sheet and held it out so Harry could read it. "That's a complaint filed with us from a Mr. DeBenedictus." He pulled it back and scanned it. "I think it may be the first time ever someone has managed to fill this form out correctly. That alone would make him a bad enemy."

Harry bit his top lip. "I caught Percy using the skill on you, sir. And when I called him on it, he blushed and backed down, so I'm quite certain he was doing so."

Mr. Weasley reddened slightly and straightened the files on his desk. "I don't know why he would bother. He could ask me whatever he wishes."

Harry regrouped. At least his boss was now warned. "There just have been so many suspicious coincidences with him."

The pen clicking resumed. "That's also cauldron-calling, Harry."

"It's what?"

Speaking more slowly, Mr. Weasley explained, "The pot calling the cauldron black."

"Oh," Harry said.

Mr. Weasley held up the little plastic pen. "Lovely little thing, isn't it. Sucks itself inside so it doesn't write on things when you don't want it to." He put the pen down. "It's clear, Harry, that you don't like Percy, and certainly he's given you reason not to, but I'm not certain what you want me to do." When Harry hesitated answering he suggested, "Do you want to file one of these complaints against him? It will probably be dealt with in the same manner as this one, which was that all the senior staff signed off on it and it went in a drawer. But you may do so, if you have some kind of direct harm to report and I'm afraid personal lives do not count for much."

"I don't have any . . . direct harm," Harry said, frustrated by these circles. "I just feel justifiably suspicious and I thought I should say something. I've been told to work though the system and I'm trying to do that."

This scored, Harry determined, when Mr. Weasley's posture loosened. "All right, Harry. Good. If there's anything to be done, it will be handled. You're going to be late for training."

Harry thanked him and stood, feeling utterly unsatisfied, but having nothing left to say.

After training, Tonks found him in the dressing room and Harry waved his slow fellows out so he could talk to her.

"Feel like going out?" she asked. "I'm off."

"It's Severus' second to last night home, but sure, a quick drink maybe."

Rather than discuss anything interesting, Harry found himself complaining about Percy as they shared a pint.

"I agree he shouldn't be using Legilimency on Arthur," Tonks said after Harry related his conversation.

"You believe me that he is?" Harry asked.

"Of course. I trust you can judge that," she insisted, sensing that Harry needed reassurance. Her violet hair stood out from her head in all directions today. "I can only do the barest Occlusion. But it's not suspicious that he can do that; all Department of Mysteries staff can Occlude their thoughts completely or they wouldn't be allowed to work there. Many people learn Legilimency at the same time they learn that."

Harry, for whom that was true, was forced to concede that. "Something about him still bothers me. I wonder what he's up to?"

Tonks shrugged. "Can you get away tonight?"

Harry could not imagine himself more torn by a question from her.

"Come on," she said, "you said yourself Severus is going to be home more weekends as long as Remus is fit . . . moon-permitting."

"After dinner, then," Harry said, and the core of him thanked him for that decision by changing from knotted up to happily anticipating.

- 888 -


Two days later as Snape stood beside the mantel with a small trunk at his feet, he glanced between the two of them with a hint of dismay as they hovered nearby to see him off. "I will be returning in less than two weekends. And will be home most weekends after. You look like the bon voyage committee for the Lusitania."

Harry ducked his head to hide his laugh. Snape stepped in his direction and came almost nose to nose with him.

"Be careful. Stay out of trouble." He started to turn away and stopped to say, with a point of a long finger. "Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir," Harry said, finding odd comfort in being pre-scolded, but also somewhat lacking in decent warmth.

Snape relented just a bit and patted the side of his arm. He stopped before Candide and when she stood up on her toes and parted her lips, he gave her a kiss that went on long enough Harry felt the need to glance away, and even, eventually, clear his throat.
After the flare of the Floo network died down, Candide smacked her lips and said, "I'll have to tell the Weasley twins the lipstick really works and thank them as well. They said I could offer the "ultimate" test."

"What?" Harry uttered, bordering on bending over on laughter.

She pulled a little gold lipstick from her pocket and held it up. Lip-Locker Luscious Red ~ Guaranteed longer kisses.

"Do not let Severus see that," Harry said, grinning.

"Oh, don't I know it."

- 888 -


Training got a bit easier with Tridant in the mix since they were splitting their time between first-year spells for him and second-year spells for the rest of them. This new routine gave him time to catch up and feel he could stay caught up. And the quiet evenings with just him and Candide at home left him little distraction from even doing some old reviewing.

Harry began carrying some of his older books to follow along in while Tridant received his lessons. Harry found them surprisingly easy to understand now that he had far surpassed them. This made his center glow warm with a sense of accomplishment. It unfortunately made his book bag rather heavy and he was adjusting the straps of it, slow to leave the changing room, when he heard an unusually large group of footsteps pass by in the corridor. Harry left his bag and went to the door and just pushed it open a crack using his toe.

Fudge's voice could be heard echoing back down the corridor and, through the gap, the former minister could be seen standing outside the tea room with a large group. He was saying, "Well, inter-departmental cooperation was of course one of my initiatives as well, and it's good to see Madam Bones continuing it. We should hold these meetings regularly, not just when there is a crisis afoot."

Harry shifted his head side to side and recognized Percy followed by Ogden entering the tea room along with a few others he did not recognize. Mr. Weasley was the last inside and he closed the door. Harry stood thinking a minute before scooping up his book bag and making a dash for the stairs.

More overly pompous voices halted Harry in the corridor outside the Minister of Magic's outer office. Harry waited around the corner out of sight while a Portuguese dignitary and his entourage made some extraordinarily drawn out goodbyes before finally departing. When the noise of the lift made it clear they has slid out of view at the far end, Harry slipped around to Bone's office.

Belinda was straightening up stacks of brochures on topics of wizard tourism and economic development. Other staff members were holding a debriefing of sorts. They glanced up at Harry and away again, ignoring him. Harry slipped over to Belinda.

"Hi."

"Oh! Hi, Harry," she sounded at least vaguely pleased to see him.

Harry could not help but suspect she knew something and simply was not saying. "Can I talk to you . . . er, this evening?" When her shoulders twitched, he said, "Your flat at say 7:00 o'clock."

She nodded, shoulder-length hair falling into her face so he could not read her expression. Harry thanked her sincerely, generating a faint blush in her ears and more interested glances from the others in the office, so he left.

Harry would have liked to have bided his time at Hermione's flat, but since she was even farther away than going home, he tried Vineet's flat instead. When the Indian came to the door, he registered no surprise at seeing Harry there in the corridor.

"Hope you don't mind if I call unannounced," Harry said.

Vineet gestured that he should enter without changing his distant demeanor. Harry stepped inside the now sparsely furnished flat and realized that in the process of worrying about Tridant adjusting, he had lost track of his usually resilient colleague.

"How are you doing, Vishnu?" Harry came out and asked for lack of any better tactic. It seemed clear from the empty rooms that Nandi had made a permanent move back to the home country.

Vineet tilted his head to the side, a gesture Harry was familiar with from another source.

Vineet's Adam's apple bounced once. "Would you like something?" he asked.

"Whatever you have," Harry said, and followed his fellow into the kitchen.

A stack of letters and other more official looking papers dominated the table, weighted down with half-globes of glass. Harry could not read any of these since they were covered in a script that resembled rows of dangling banners.

Harry waited until they were both settled into tea and biscuits before he asked, "Are you getting a divorce?" He held his breath while he waited for the answer, afraid he had stepped over some line.

"It is difficult," Vineet replied, expression unwavering. Harry wished he would show some disturbance; it unnerved him that he did not.

"I don't mean to pry . . . but I'm a bit worried about you," Harry admitted, trying to pry under that unmoving façade.

The façade shifted all right. It grew even more remote. "You have far more important things to concern yourself, I am certain."

"Not at the moment," Harry said. He sipped his tea since he had ignored it so far. "There hasn't been another prophecy that I don't know about, is there?" he had to ask.

"No. I would prefer that there were."

"Oh," Harry said. "We should hook you up with Trelawney more often then. Get a prophecy arranged for you."

Vineet stared at him, which was an improvement over him staring past him. "You are mocking me." He sounded on the verge of peeved.

"Only to get through to you," Harry pointed out, taking another sip of tea to seem more relaxed than he really was. "And it worked."

Peeved turned to annoyed, and Vineet dropped his gaze to stare down at the biscuit on his saucer. Harry considered that Vineet had been left to himself what with Hermione starting at Hogwarts on top of his wife leaving. Harry certainly knew too well what that felt like.

"I'm not very good at this," Harry admitted. "But rather than bounce back, you've just withdrawn. I don't mean to be a busy-body, but I can't sit by and let you sulk any longer."

This drew his fellow's gaze back up again and this time he seemed present and accounted for, bolstering Harry. "Fill me in, okay . . . it's hard for you to divorce?"

"Very."

It hurt to pry so much, but it was the next logical question. "But you want to?"

Vineet started to reply, opened his mouth, even, but he hesitated, caught in thought. "I don't want the necessity of it. It brings ignominy upon my family, as well being a personal failure." Making this statement returned him to withdrawn.

"So, what does your mother say?"

"She has begun to side with Nandi, perhaps because of proximity to her arguments."

"Do you want to go home?" Harry asked. "You aren't here because you think I expect it or something? I mean, I certainly like having you as a colleague, I owe you my life, but I just want to make sure you don't feel you are still under some obligation related to me." Harry frowned, that had not come out right. "I remember you saying you came because of me, but if you need to be elsewhere, don't let me stand in the way of that."

Vineet's gaze had returned to the present. "There is nothing for me there."

"Good. I mean, I like having you around."

Harry had the sense that if he wasn't already so grim, Vineet may have smiled at least faintly.

Vineet finally sipped his tea, expressed surprise that it was cold, tapped it to reheat it, and drank it down. "Would you be disappointed in me . . ." he faded out. "Hogwarts school is not so distant."

Harry threw his head back and stared at the cream-color ceiling. "How did I end up as the moral arbiter of you two?" he demanded. He relented his annoyance and peered at his friend and despite having scenes of Snape's recent wedding still fresh in his mind and life, he said, "Vishnu, I think you should do whatever makes you happy. It seems like the system isn't working very well for you."

"The system has been changed. Some wizards in my country still practice the old system."

"What old system?" Harry asked, now uncertain about the answer he just gave.

"The one where one can have more than one wife."

Oh, Hermione will go for that, Harry thought, but kept it in because she could answer for herself. At least, he hoped she could. At the moment, she was living as good as a monk to get away from this situation, so perhaps he should not prejudge. Carefully, he said, "You think that's a good idea?"

"It is a bad idea," Vineet said, to Harry's relief. But then less clearly added, "It is even more illusion that chains one to this life and prevents the soul from moving on."

After a pause, Harry said, "Right." He glanced at the time and finished his tea. "I have to go. I have an appointment and I have to walk a ways from where I can Apparate. Take it easy, all right? I'll see you tomorrow."

Harry still had the previous conversation in his head when he arrived at Belinda's flat. Belinda was waiting, wearing a long, red high-necked pullover over her nice skirt from the Ministry. The flat did not feel cold to Harry, but Belinda must feel differently.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked, buying time to adjust his frame of mind.

Belinda answered something meaningless and tried to lead him inside to sit, but Harry took her shoulders and said, "Look, something's been going on with you and I figured before that if you wanted to say something, you would, but . . ." Her eyes taking on a haunted look stalled him momentarily. "But, now I think you should talk to someone. Have you talked to Minister Bones?"

The absurdity of this was reflected in her reaction. "Talked to the Minister?"

Harry did not know what the topic was, only felt confirmed that was a topic so he rolled along with: "Have you talked to anyone?"

"Yeah, I talked to someone," she replied, annoyed and tried to turn away, but Harry held her fast, not finished yet. Her reaction to this was unexpected, she twisted instinctively, elbowing him on the soft part of his arm. "Let go of me!"

Harry did, immediately contrite. "I'm sorry." Harry envisioned knocking Percy around a little to bring himself back under control. Gently, he asked, "Can I ask whom you talked to?"

She turned away, arms half crossed-half wrapped around her middle as though despite the overgrown jumper she might still be cold. "No. I promised I wouldn't."

"Are you scared of someone?" Harry asked, struggling hard to sound softly understanding when his mind was full of making a careful arrangement of spells that caused some kind of pain.

"No," she replied, confusingly more certain of this answer than the last.

"Will you tell me anything?" Harry asked.

"No."

Harry closed his eyes and then asked, "You broke up with Percy, right?"

"Yes," she replied, then finally turned to face him while asking, "Happy about that?"

"Yes. 'Cause I don't like him. It was your choice though. Why won't you tell me what's going on?" He was pleading now. He felt so close to something.

"Because I'll lose my job." She waved her arms around, thin fingers white. "Or at least get demoted down to . . . I don't know, opening owls for the Department of Complaints."

Harry had nothing but momentum now, "Why would you lose you job?"

Now anger came through. Harry found it welcome. "Because you'd tell someone at the Ministry, that's why."

"No. I. wouldn't." Harry retorted. "Why would I do that?"

Her voice dropped, perhaps to avoid shouting. "Because you're an Auror. Don't you think I've seen the reports you blokes file with every last detail of some poor sap's life laid out?"

Harry pointed at his chest and bent forward slightly. "I'm not an Auror yet. Don't you know how many times they tell me that . . . every week it seems like."

She wavered, almost convinced. Harry said, "I promise not to tell anyone. I'll, however, reserve the right to try to talk you into telling someone. But I won't say."

Her eyes dodged between the door and the room across from it. "It'd be nice if someone else knew." She rubbed her eye impatiently. Voice thicker, she added, "But I'm too ashamed to say."

"Hey, there," Harry said, not by any means, wanting to make her cry. He took her arms again, remembering only after his hands sunk into the thick weave of her jumper that she had reacted badly to that before. She did not pull away this time; she bowed her head and rubbed her other eye.

"Can you at least tell me if this has something to do with Percy?" he asked.

She nodded, back of her hand covering her right eye. She appeared so terribly miserable that Harry stepped forward and gave her a hug. Without the high-heels she used to wear when they dated, she fit much better in his arms.

"Come on, then. I'll kick his arse for you if you want."

Her limbs stiffened under his arms. Muffled, she said, "Don't do anything . . . really bad. Like you . . . you did at Malfoy Manor."

Harry bit his lip. Careful not to sound caught off-guard, he said, "No, of course not." But in the wake of her comment, he felt a little sour in the stomach.

He pushed her to arm's length and asked, "Better?"

She nodded, keeping her eyes down. Harry felt it only fair to leave the questions for later.

- 888 -


The next morning, early, Harry was awoken in an unusual way, by Candide's voice at the crack of his door saying, "Harry, you should get up."

Harry lifted his head and blinked in the direction of the door with half-opened eyes. She wasn't really waking him up early, Petunia-style, was she? He wondered this more in surprise than annoyance, but the first toyed with becoming the second.

He dressed and made his way downstairs to the dining room where breakfast appeared immediately, accompanied by a brimming cup of coffee.

"Ready for this?" Candide asked.

Harry stared at her. Gears not meshing quite yet. "Er . . ."

"Nope, have some coffee, then," she said, knowingly. Her hand rested on the newspaper beside her plate. The headline was something to do with a post-Quidditch match pub brawl.

Harry sipped the scalding hot coffee and taking a deep breath, said, "All right. What is it?"

Candide, mouth downward and regretful, lifted the paper, folded it so the back page was upward and turned it around. Filling the back page, as red as any blood, was a photograph of Harry hugging Belinda.

Harry stared at it. "I'm not being very careful," he said. He meant that differently than it sounded. He was really just filling in what Snape would say, were he here. Harry had not run any spells to check if he had been followed, or checked if the blinds on the windows were closed or not. His eyes finally unlatched from the red wool filling the photograph to the headline: New Squeeze for "Boy" Hero?

"I have to go," Harry said, moving to stand.

"Eat your breakfast first," Candide said. "If you're going to have a bad day . . . you're going to need it."

Harry stared at her, and she added, "Sorry, don't mean to sound as if I'm mothering you. I'd say the same to Severus."

"Yeah, well . . ." Harry said, thinking this was getting deep quickly. He stood. "Really have to go."

She reached across the table and flipped his fried egg onto a slice of toast and folded it, squashing it flat. She bundled that in his cloth napkin and held it out.

"Thanks," Harry said as he accepted it.

"Good luck," her voice followed as he Apparated away.

Harry snarfed his breakfast as he strode across the atrium and stuffed the napkin in his pocket. One enormous benefit of his early arrival . . . he was almost alone in the atrium and the few glances he received moved on without real notice of him.

Harry could not locate Tonks in the department. Rogan was manning the office along with Blackpool. Harry snuck a peak at the log book and saw that Tonks was out on a call with Shacklebolt and had been for half an hour. It pained him, but he wished Candide had woken him earlier.

Harry sat down in the training room after giving up on waiting for Tonks. Kerry Ann shot him a most disappointed look.

"It's not what you think," Harry grumbled.

Her attitude immediately brightened. "Well, that's good to hear. You're one of the few men I still have faith in. If I lost faith in you . . ." She turned back to her reading.

Harry stared at the side of her head and her ear. Her comments reminded him of Vineet, of being given too much moral or philosophical credit.

Rodgers must not know anything about the Prophet because he did not mention or even hint at it, to Harry's relief. As their lessons wound through the morning, and Kerry Ann was called up for a third time, clunking her way to the front in her awkward shoes, Harry thought about high heels. He thought about how hard it must be to walk in them. And then a very bad notion occurred to him.

At lunchtime Harry, as much as he would have preferred to have broken into the Department of Mysteries and confronted Percy, went instead to Mr. Weasley's office. Mr. Weasley was speaking with Shacklebolt about some ongoing trouble communicating with the Obliviator Squad. Harry waited impatiently in the corridor, making sure he was in Mr. Weasley's line of sight. But when Shacklebolt moved off, Mr. Weasley stood and donned his cloak.

"I have a lunch meeting with Minister, Harry." He stopped before Harry as though to make it clear he had given him some attention. "I sense this is a topic we've covered already."

Harry required a moment to recover from his surprise at the astuteness of this observation. "Yes sir," he admitted.

"It's been duly noted already, Harry," he stated flatly and, swinging his cloak onto his other shoulder, he hurried away.

Harry watched him turn the corner, thinking that they were not leaving him many options outside of taking action on his own. Harry returned to the tea room and found Tonks, who found him at the same instant. Neither of them said a word, but the room cleared out with everyone else spouting various absurd excuses.

They stared at each other. Tonks' hair was mousey brown, not a good sign. Harry tried to imagine the situation reversed so he did not completely muck this up. It did not make him feel better to do this.

"You know there's nothing to that stupid photo, right?" Harry said.

Tonks finished her tea in one long gulp. "I have to go, I'm on duty," she said.

At the door Harry halted her with, "You aren't even going to hear me out?"

She stopped, hand still clutching the door handle mercilessly. "Harry, if we are going to have a row, it has to be off the clock. Meet me after shift."

"There's nothing to have a row about," Harry said as the door swung closed.

After a day of distracted training where he only felt he made good use of the weight training portion, Harry waited around the uneventful office for an hour, doing some random filing and then thinking she may have meant the tea room specifically, he checked there, went back to the Auror's office and then went back to the tea room to wait there. Dinner hour had come and gone and Harry checked the sandwich cart for leftovers from lunch. Only one pumpkin juice remained, tucked in the back on its side. Harry cracked the lid of this open, mind elsewhere. He took a long gulp of juice and set it down hard as the room began to swerve around him. He grabbed hold of the table edge, expecting the floor and walls to re-right themselves, but they did not. Harry’s legs grew wobbly and he dropped to his knees. He called out, but heard no footsteps and when he managed to jerk his unwilling neck to stare at the door, he found it closed, even though he had not closed it.

Severus, Harry thought at the same time he decided firmly with his spastic mind that the juice had been poisoned . . . he had to get to his guardian. Harry immediately fell through the floor of the tea room into the Dark Plane. Unlike the quite corridors of the Ministry, things were busy here. Piecemeal, glittery creatures crept close, curious. Harry pushed himself up with one weak hand and stared down the nearest beady eyes. Saliva dripped from Harry’s mouth as he did so and he knocked himself off-balance wiping it away. The creatures approached, rheumy eyes glowing more than they should in the scant light; Harry did not have the strength to will this second wave of tenacious beasts away. The closest one cocked its head and clapped its tiny jaws together, flashing row upon row of hypodermic teeth.

Harry had to get away, to Snape, right now. He would know what to do. He would take care of him. With that overriding thought, he pushed himself to Apparate.

A new section of grey desolation greeted Harry. Disoriented and weak and fearing for his life, he imagined the Hogwarts Potions Master in whom he had absolute faith, and dropped himself awkward and teetering through the gritty ground digging into his knees.

Harry arrived with a tinny clatter of ice shards in a lamplit room that smelled warmly familiar of stale potion brewing and wood smoke. His head was careening toward the floor that was already close due to his kneeling when he folded himself into the real world. As he collapsed, Harry cried out, “Severus, help me.” His last thought before darkness sucked him in was to wonder why the stone floor pressed into his cheek smelled dank, like a dungeon.

Harry awoke to the same scents that had followed him into unconsciousness. He shifted his arm and found it to be under a warm duvet. A pillow cradled his head. Harry heard movement nearby and cracked his right eye open. Snape sat beside the bed, arms crossed, edged by the orange glow from the hearth far across the room.

Harry reached up a weak arm and rubbed his forehead. His scar itched. He lifted his head as a prelude to sitting up but decided to preserve his pride and not make the attempt.

“Er . . .” Harry said, trying to sort things out. He certainly felt greatly improved from when he had arrived, although he wished he felt more firmly himself.

Snape shifted minutely, seeming content to observe him. Harry squinted at him and leaned forward to look for his glasses on the bedside table. With minimal, almost economical, movement Snape reached into the breast pocket of his robe and handed them over.

“Thanks,” Harry said, hooking them over his ears. The first thing that occurred to him was that this was Snape’s chambers all right, but not his current ones. The center of Harry’s gut grew heavy and ominous. He turned to his host and observed him in return. Snape raised a challenging brow as Harry did this, but it confirmed that this Snape was not the right one; his face was too gaunt, for one thing, and his gaze far too consistently hard as granite.

Harry sighed and regrouped. “Thanks for taking care of the poison,” he tossed out as a test, hoping for some conversation.

“It was a sophisticated one,” Snape stated with no feeling and left it at that.

“Was it?” Harry prompted.

A long pause ensued before: “It was a Personatus Potion. One that manifests as one thing to the casual observer, but in actuality, the expected antidote completes the original fatal poison.”

Harry pondered that, wishing his faculties were a little more game for action. “What’s the point in that?”

“The point of it is,” Snape stated, sounding the aggravated tutor, “is that the recipient will appear to have been killed by their would-be rescuer.”

“Ah,” Harry muttered. “Someone is trying kill me and get away with it.”

“A stunning conclusion,” Snape observed.

Harry rubbed his forehead again and this time had the courage to assume the worst. He closed his eyes and with some effort found that niche in his mind where the world bled green and shadows lurked. Many, many lurked very close by as though inside the castle. “Damn,” Harry muttered.

“Problem?” Snape prompted sarcastically.

This made Harry laugh. He could not have held it in had he wanted to. When he stopped he laid back on the thick pillow and said, “You even gave me your bed.”

Snape stood suddenly. “No place else to put you. Could not allow you to be seen.”

The room swayed for Harry, and he wished it would not do that; he needed to be sharp. “You could have turned me in.”

Snape spun and studied him. After a long silence, he asked, “Where have you been, Potter?”

“Um, studying,” Harry ventured.

“And, how, pray-tell did you cheat death?”

Harry hesitated. “If I tell you that, you won’t be curious anymore and then who knows what you might do.” He sounded drunken to his own ears and wondered if the antidote was still doing its work.

Snape appeared to respect this answer. He departed through the door and moments later a glow indicated it was magically sealed.

Harry forced himself to sit up again, but dizziness overtook him and he fell back to the pillow.

Harry awoke later, quickly confirming that he had not just been having a bad dream. This time he applied more will-power and levered himself to his feet. He circled the room, which contained many familiar objects. He did not find his wand, even using an Accio repeatedly while holding out his empty hand.

Giving up, Harry stared down at a chess set near an overstuffed chair and considered simply departing. Except he wanted his new wand back and he was not fit for the Dark Plane in this state. Traveling via it in a drugged state was how he ended up here in the first place. On top of that Harry was as curious as he accused his host of being. He set the chess board for a game, waking the pieces as he lifted each out of the nearby bin. White was set up on his end, so he moved the pawn from in front of the right-hand bishop.

The door snapped open without warning. Snape stared at him long seconds before stepping inside and closing it again. He strode over to Harry, seeming to be trying to Legilimize him. Harry kept his mind properly closed, finally glancing down at the chess board. Snape followed his gaze and after consideration moved the opposing pawn for black.

Harry move the pawn before the knight ahead one and waited. Snape shifted to place some rolled parchments on the chair and placed his king’s knight out.

Harry did not make a move. “Can you stop potioning me into submission?” Harry asked. Until he asked this, he had not fully formed the notion that this was why he felt so helpless.

“Hm,” Snape grunted. “If it results in a decent chess game, I suppose.”

“Thank you,” Harry honestly returned.

“I am curious, however,” Snape said as he strode to a long narrow table upon which sat a row of decorative bottles. He poured out a tumbler-full of a milky orange one and brought it back for Harry. He tauntingly withdrew the offered serving with the words, “Why did you dare come here?”

“I knew you were the only one who could help me,” Harry replied truthfully, mind open enough to let the truth be revealed.

The tumbler was held out. “You are a foolish young man.”

Harry swallowed the faintly herbal liquid. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”

“I would like to know how,” Snape challenged, tossing his sleeve as he turned.

“I don’t know,” Harry replied.

Snape’s narrowed eyes slid around to Harry while he paced, muttering, “Albus must have arranged something . . . spirited you away . . .”

Harry drained the tumbler of the last few drops. “Maybe.” Harry wished he knew how broadly he needed to lie. He wished his head would clear faster. Chilled and with his scar itching, Harry took the chair before the fire.

Snape said, “I must return for dinner. I will be missed if I am not there.”

Harry’s stomach rumbled at those words. “Any chance for . . . ?” Harry began.

Snape sneered at him. “A heel of stale bread, perhaps?” he suggested maliciously.

“Anything,” Harry said, not insulted.

Snape rolled his eyes and stopped at the door. “The house-elves are forbidden to come into my chambers or my office because of the potions. They must not see you as they would report to the headmaster immediately.”

Harry blinked at that. “All right.”

“I removed everything from your person that could possibly be charmed as a portkey. I’m assuming that is how you got in here, apparently from the North Pole since you were covered in ice.”

Harry didn’t reply.

The sound of the fire ruled for several breaths. Snape went on in a lower voice, “How you came into possession of a portkey keyed to my chambers I cannot imagine.”

It seemed Snape would not depart without some kind of response. Harry said, “Something I was keeping around just in case.”

Snape’s expression did not change, but what could he say? He dropped the issue. “The ghosts also have loose lips, but they rarely come into my chambers. The Bloody Baron does on occasion, but him I can control. He is not particularly fond of the Dark Lord in any event, having nearly got himself banished on several occasions.” He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and hurried out, not noticing Harry’s frozen expression.

Harry let his head fall back against the chair. “He didn’t just imply Voldemort was headmaster, did he?” he asked the empty room. Suddenly, Harry felt much more reluctant to leave for his own Plane. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to track the shadows that moved in the forest of his mind. By concentrating very hard, while simultaneously not concentrating at all, he counted thirteen very close. One of those would be Snape. Harry went to stand before the small corroded mirror over the washbasin and wished he had his wand.

Snape returned an hour and a half later. Harry sat before the chess board, playing against the pieces themselves, which was challenging because they cheated.

“Definitely a Slytherin set,” Harry commented when Snape came over to observe.

“A gift from a friend.”

“Let me guess, name of Malfoy?”

After a pause, “Astute guess.”

Harry scoffed lightly. “Was that a compliment?”

This Snape, after a glare, sat at a small desk and proceeded to do what his Snape did, mark assignments. “So,” Harry finally ventured. “Still stuck teaching Potions? Never assigned anything better?”

Snape shot him a priceless look of disbelief. “Defense Against the Dark Arts is hardly in the curriculum at this time.”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry said, trying to sound knowing. His insides knotted a bit farther. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find a good way to ask if his worst assumption was correct. “No Advanced Arts of the Dark Arts class to replace it, eh?” he asked lightly.

This drew a unexpectedly thoughtful look from Snape, who said, “I expect the competition would not be welcome.”

The fire slowly died down and the clock read half past midnight. Harry stood with purpose and said, “I want to go look around.” It was either decide that, or depart entirely.

“Really?” came the sarcastic reply. “You do realize that the Dementors patrol the grounds and school from midnight to seven?”

Harry came to a halt, mid stride to the sealed door. “Oh.” He considered the chair he had just vacated with reluctance. He could just leave, but instead he made himself retake the chair, pulling the footstool close enough to curl up and use it as a bed.

He fell asleep minutes later, woken only briefly by something tangy smoldering under his nose and then after a whiff, he was out cold.

A headache stabbed, making Harry wince, when he next opened his eyes. He was alone but a small breakfast was stacked in paper wrappers on the empty chess board. After eagerly eating, Harry patrolled the room, finally settling on a book from the shelf on mutation spells and potions.

When Snape returned, Harry immediately asked, “Can I have my wand?”

“First, I want to know why you are here.”

“To destroy Voldemort, why else-”

Snape reacted with outright violence to the dark wizard’s name, sending the book Harry was reading flying up into his face. Harry blocked it with his arm and it flew beyond to smack the rack of fireplace tools.

“Sorry,” Harry said, rubbing his bruised arm. “I should have known better.”

Snape was pointing his wand at Harry like he meant it. “You damn well should have,” he snarled.

Harry ignored the wand aimed at him and reached over the side of the chair to fetch the book. “His name has no power you don’t give it,” he stated calmly. “I’m certain that I’m not the only person to point that out to you.”

Snape lowered the wand.

“On that note,” Harry said amiably, “it’d help to have my wand back.”

Hands propped on his hips, Snape asked, “How do you think you are going to accomplish any damage to the Dark Lord? There are powers he controls that even I do not understand.”

Harry closed the book, treating it carefully after the violence to it, and stood with purpose. “First, I want to take a look around. I need you to get Filch distracted so I can impersonate him. He can go anywhere in this castle without question. But first I need my wand.”

Snape used a spell on one of his inside robe pockets and retrieved Harry’s wand from it. Same as the antidote, he held the wand just out of reach and said, “I want to know how you survived.”

Harry shrugged.

Impatient, Snape demanded, “What do you remember of that night you followed Quirrell?”

Behind his carefully impassive features, Harry’s mind lit up. “Er, I thought it must be you, actually.”

“Figures,” Snape said, pacing away, holding Harry’s wand almost as though it were his own.

“Hey, I’m being honest with you. It was a long time ago.”

“And where have you been in the meantime?”

“Studying . . . with anyone who will teach me. With a shaman in Finland.” Given whom he needed to lie to, Harry felt the best artificial story would be one wrapped tightly in the truth.

“Explains the ice. What were you learning there?” Snape asked doubtfully.

“Old Magic,” Harry replied. When Snape shook his head doubtfully, Harry insisted, “That’s what let me survive the first time Vo- the Dark Lord came after me.”

Snape looked him up and down. “They even had your body, Potter. Of course it was Albus . . . who fetched it.” He paced up and down the room again, agitated as though personally offended. “You and your little friends had broken through all of the protective puzzles.”

Harry thought rapidly though the events of that night. If he were to have messed up that confrontation where would it have been? He had to admit, the promise of his parents returning had tugged at him. Quirrell may have been smart enough to not touch him a second time, used a wand instead. Voldemort may have simply taken Harry over and he had not mustered the will to resist.

“I messed up,” Harry tossed out. “And I needed to get away to prepare better to face him. It was my task, Dumbledore said.”

“You should have come back after Dumbledore’s defeat; the battle weakened the Dark Lord immensely.”

Harry did not reply to this directly, not wanting to dwell on what sounded like a tragically desperate bid on his old mentor’s part. “My wand?”

Snape handed it over with clear reluctance. “He is stronger than he has ever been, even as distracted with running a school as he has been. Many times stronger. If he found out . . . ” Snape actually bit his lip for just an instant before snarling and spinning away to pace again.

“Why are you helping me then?” Harry asked, needing to know.

“I promised Dumbledore, many many years ago, that I would act to protect you.”

Harry smiled lightly and stroked his wand, glad to have it. “No matter what happens I won’t implicate you, Professor.”

Harry went to the mirror and began working on his disguise. Snape watched for a while before departing. He returned as Harry was finishing and said, “I sent him to the lower dungeon to clean up the water that floods there, a task he will be a long time completing.”

Harry grinned at that and headed out, careful to shuffle as he walked and to keep a hunch to his back. In the second cupboard he found a mop and wooden bucket, which he proceeded to carry up the stairs to the Entrance Hall. From there he had a view of the Great Hall. The walls had not been scrubbed in years so the black of the fires and candles had coated the stone streaky grey. But most disturbing was the banners. The Slytherin banners hung long and proud but the other three tables were marked by only small ones at the very front, looking more like badges of shame.

Standing in that spot gave Harry a feeling not unlike curse aversion, so he moved on up the broad staircase. Students sat on the steps talking quietly and bending over books as though everything were normal.

Harry wandered the corridors, ignoring the occasional look of alarm from a student lingering between classes. Most outrightly ignored him as though he wore an invisibility cloak. In the trophy room, Harry felt that awful aversion again, bad enough to make his eyes water. He stopped to pretend to mop until the room was empty and then moved down the case until he pinpointed where he felt worst. His eyes moved over the polished wood, and the gold and silver figures and plates until they landed on the golden cup that topped the tall House Cup trophy. That was it, definitely.

Harry looked around until he found a nearly identical cup atop another trophy in the next case on the bottom shelf in the back. Working quickly, Harry unwelded that cup and swapped it atop the big trophy, where it would pass ordinary scrutiny. He even used an anti-dusting charm to make it look untouched, which helped hide the switch rather a lot. Pocketing the cup, despite a strong will against closer contact with it, Harry shuffled along the room. He had one last stop to make before heading back down to the dungeons.


Author's Note: Well, this was the last chapter before Deathly Hallows. I'll see what I can incorporate or I may just stick with what I've got written. We'll see.

Next chapter: 11
"The living is fine," Snape said, sounding vaguely spoiled.

"You're lying," Harry accused. He put the emerald down, intact, in the center of the empty chess board and asked, "Why was V- the Dark Lord allowed to continue as headmaster?"

"Why was he allowed?" Snape echoed derisively. "No one had any choice, Potter! What a ridiculous suggestion. Fudge believed it would keep him busy, and he was correct about that. Turns out he never lived down Albus refusing him a job."

"Blimey," Harry muttered. "It's a wonder any students come."



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