Chapter 12 — Adopted Destiny

Harry, without disguise, strolled through empty corridors to the statues that guarded the headmaster's tower. The hall leading there had been redecorated and now black curtains covered the walls, rendering the path tunnel-like with just a torch flickering at the end. The gargoyles sat unmoving and the doorway was open but there were no stairs. He put his head inside and called upward in parseltongue, then listened. Deep beneath him he felt a rumble and glanced down, noticing that the curving slide that had replaced the stairs spiraled away into the floor and darkness. The Basilisk would still be down there, he realized, since he had not been around as a Second Year to kill it. Voldemort apparently fed it often, since it called out with its deeper-than-Nagini's voice that it would appreciate a meal.

Harry feared using a spell so close to the headmaster's tower, so getting an idea he raced back to the main staircase and Accioed a barrel of cooking oil from the direction of the kitchens. He brought this back and after pouring it over the slide as high up as he could reach, he called to Nagini again and moments later, a slithering sound could be heard, but he could not be certain if it arose from above or below, so he backed off and, wand held at ready, waited for something to appear in the doorway. After half a minute of thumping and sliding, one of Nagini's coils slid into view from above. Harry, fearing being seen by her, ducked against the wall beside the still gargoyle and pressed himself there. Flailing sounded and more thumping and then a rapid sliding receded down into the bowels of the castle.

Harry stuck his head in the doorway and listened to the hissing that ensued and then the screeching and then the silence that followed. He called down in parseltongue and heard only the deep voice of the Basilisk. With a sharp exhale and glance at his watch, Harry hurried off.

Harry next strode into the kitchens with the attitude of head elf. “Attention, all of you!” he shouted. He scanned the array of bumpy heads framed by tall pointed ears, hoping to find Dobby, but did not. He spotted Grimpy, whom he recognized. He was by far the stoutest of the school’s house-elves and always eager to give Ron food when his friend asked.

“Grimpy,” Harry said. The elf blinked in surprise. “Get everyone out of here, now.”

“You is being Harry Potter?” Grimpy asked. A few of the elves gasped. When Harry nodded, more a bow, really, Grimpy turned his long-nosed profile one way and then the other as though considering his instructions.

“Come back in ten minutes,” Harry said to the kitchen elves, lowering his bargaining position. They shifted from foot to foot, nervous. Harry gave up on being nice. “I’m going to present you all with old socks of Dumbledore’s if you don’t leave now!” He pulled out a pink and green pair he had found stuffed in the Mrs. Pince’s desk drawer when he was looking for the key to the Restricted Section. He brandished them at the elves. “You have ten seconds or I start distributing socks!”

The elves disappeared with a chorus of pops! Harry sighed and with several great heaves, shoved the long marble-topped tables aside to make room for two tall spell columns that, when they were finished, radiated prickly blue light even to the most remote nook of the vast kitchens.

The puddings sat on the longest table, on small overlapping plates, waiting to be magically served. Harry dipped a finger in one as he passed and then frowned. “Hopefully the food improves with Voldemort gone.”

Harry initiated the spell he wanted, but stopped before the last line of it. He left the blue towers burning merrily to themselves, the air between them electrified and sizzling, and stepped out into the corridor leading to the Hufflepuff dungeon, but instead of walking up the stairs, he Dark-Plane Apparated silently to the Entrance Hall, just before the center doors. He stared at the marred old wood, took a deep breath, and adjusted his grip on his wand. His heart fluttered, inducing lightheadedness like it had before his first Quidditch match. Harry charmed his robes to bright blue, feeling he needed to represent some team, even an absent one. Beyond the doors, at the end of the staff table, Snape rubbed his thumb over his chin, experiencing similar cardiac symptoms, but no feelings of team spirit.

Harry pulled his hood far forward over his head, raised his wand, and blasted the doors open, following quickly through them before they could bounce closed.

“Lord Voldemort!” Harry addressed the surprised room and especially the slit-eyed man facing him in the center of the distant table. As he crossed the threshold of the tables, two forbidden curses formed behind him, aimed his way. Sharp watering came to Harry’s eyes as he squelched the spells, which made the magic explode inside the casters' bodies. A few students gasped; the appearance of taking out one’s opponents, without lifting a wand let alone turning to look at them was impressive all right, but Harry’s feet had lost their marching cadence, and for that he berated himself.

Harry reached exactly halfway down the hall and he tapped his hand on his wand and pointed at the banners, snapping consecutively the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor out to the same size as the Slytherin ones. “All houses are equal here,” Harry boomed as best he could. He wished he had a deeper voice. Fervent whispers rustled through the hall as though blown through by a breeze.

As Harry approached the end of the long House tables, Voldemort derisively asked, “Who dares challenge me?”

Harry stopped and tugged off his hood, wand aimed steadily. “Harry Potter.”

The frantic whispering reached a quick crescendo then fell to stillness, the audience fearful of attracting attention or of just missing any detail. The closest Hufflepuffs leaned or scrambled away from where Harry stood defiant. Voldemort’s eyes flickered with utter disbelief, which gave Harry a painful stab at the realization that his counterpart truly was dead in this Plane. Just as well he himself had stayed, then. No one else could do this.

Voldemort’s wand flashed and Harry met the Disemboweling Scissors Hex with a block because that was ingrained habit and their wands and their paired cores locked together. Harry felt the first shudder of doubt; if the wands had not responded to their common origin, he was not sure he could have countered that spell well enough. To say the spell was loaded, did not cover it; it carried power equivalent to every wizard in the Ministry added together.

The ball of hex energy hovered between them, but Harry, familiar with this, forced it toward Voldemort, while mocking him to hide his sudden nerves, “Ha! Albus Dumbledore tricked you and assured that you would have a wand to match mine!”

Harry’s words had the effect he had hoped and the hex exploded just in front of Voldemort, forcing the tall, boney wizard to duck awkwardly. MacNair was caught in the backwash and flew backward in his chair to smack the wall. Umbridge tumbled from her chair with a squeak. Harry laughed. It echoed around the hall’s tall buttresses, reflecting back maniacally, sounding nothing like him. The room held a collective breath. Some of the teachers made a run for it, including McGonagall, who took up a defensive position at the top of the Gryffindor table.

Voldemort said, “You are surrounded, Potter.”

Another spell came Harry’s way and again they locked and Harry pressed his advantage of experience. Voldemort was standing now, his cloak and robes billowing in an unseen wind. He dodged this curse too as it erupted. This time, Harry used the gap, and very fast speaking, to complete Salazar’s spell while looping his wand over his head.

The hall erupted in blue electricity that crawled madly over the walls before sinking into a cold glow in the stones. Half the Death-Eater laden staff table flopped to the floor in fits of hallucinatory horror along with several students. The others began to flee in earnest, lining the walls and pounding out the doors at the far end. Voldemort stood firm, shouting in fury, “My forbearer invented that spell. You thought to take me down with it?” He tossed a curse at Harry, which Harry dodged, letting it bounce along the floor between the tables. More students scattered to get out of the way. Some remained pinned where they were, forks in hand, bound in trances of amazement.

“Good!” Harry shouted as he rolled to his feet. “I prefer to take you out personally.” He shot a curse at Voldemort that was blocked far too easily, but it let him dodge back to where fewer students were in harm’s way behind him. Harry tried to pry open the Dark Plane, but it resisted his call; the castle resisted him too. He bit his lip.

Covering for his failure, he met Voldemort’s Crucio with his own and this time they were spell locked for much longer, the curse energy hovering in the middle ground, neither holding an advantage for long. Voldemort was a fast learner, but he broke the spell off himself, possibly because of impatience. Harry dug desperately inside himself for enough pain and hatred to crack open the Dark Plane; it was surprisingly hard to find a sufficient amount. As a distraction while he worked at that, he said, “I’m your destiny, Tom.”

Voldemort’s eyes glowed even brighter red and he tossed an angry and less powerful spell at Harry, who matched it and held fast to the bound spells. “You are dead,” Voldemort stated. It was unclear if this was a prediction of the future or an established statement of fact.

The spells were still locked, Harry propped up his tiring wand arm with his other hand. “Funny, I don’t feel dead!” he mocked. “Perhaps you’re not the only one who can’t be killed.”

Voldemort broke off the spell, startled by that statement. He tried to Legilimize Harry, making his scar burn.

Breathing heavier, Harry lowered his wand and found the pain he needed. He found a lonely boy, beaten down by his aunt and uncle with no hope for a life of his own.

“This one’s for Lily and James,” Harry announced in a snarl as he overcame the castle’s weakened spells and glistening black creatures poured out of the seam between the right-hand wall and the floor. Most of the remaining students ran or leapt up on the tables. Those floudering on the floor of the hall, incapacitated by Salazar’s spell, were ravaged. Blood began to flow into the cracks between the hall’s worn stones. Harry could spare no attention for Snape or McGonagall. He held his wand on Voldemort, who gaped at this freakish invasion.

“Don't know that spell, do you, Tom?” Harry shouted. Voldemort was forced to defend himself from the hordes, but he glanced up at Harry, letting a few crawl his robes before he cursed them and they fell with queer squeals. Harry went on, voice returning to maniacal, “Here’s a Riddle for you . . . Harry Potter is darker than you are!”

Just as Voldemort swung his wand to again blast the creatures trying to devour him, Harry snagged the dark wizard, bodily, with a whip charm and jerked him over the staff table and into a skidding stop on the floor. Harry dealt with Voldemort trying to aim his wand by stomping on his forearm. Voldemort dropped his wand but it zipped back to his hand. Harry stomped on his hand instead, sending a curse wide that smashed the upper windows, raining down a spray of glass.

Voldemort’s eyes betrayed him. Harry spoke, wand at Voldemort’s throat, “Yes, you fear death, don’t you? But you know, by doing so you never actually live.”

Black-bodied, disgusting creatures, part crustacean, reptile, and rodent, encircled the two of them. They smacked their jaws and scratched the stone floor musically with their absurdly long claws.

Harry, calmer, said, “And now you are going to die, consumed by evil greater than yourself.”

Voldemort, by attempting to not betray himself, did so with his flat and almost confident expression. Harry chuckled and reached into his robe pocket. He scattered the smashed emerald powder onto the chest of Voldemort’s robe. “I destroyed them all,” he said, trying not to smile too broadly.

Voldemort rolled his bare head to peer around himself in horror. The stench was distressing, let alone the vision of so many bared, needle-like teeth.

Harry said with queer pleasantness. “It’s like they haven’t eaten in an eternity . . . which I happen to know is not true.”

Voldemort thrashed then, lifting Harry’s foot with his arm, Harry hit him with a blasting curse that stunned him back flat again. “This is the end for you,” Harry promised. “You are released from this un-life of yours. Considering what my options are . . .” He thought of his Voldemort, trapped in a mere Muggle existence. “. . . think of it as a gift.”

Shifting all his weight atop Voldemort’s wand hand, Harry used a Sectumsempra Curse to slash open Voldemort’s chest and then leapt aside to let the creatures pile on. The thrashing figure was dragged toward the wall, trailing bright red, and Harry Sent them all away, just as the upraised hand visible over the slithering black bodies drooped and released the wand it held.

The hall fell quiet after the creatures sank away into the stone and Voldemort’s wand rolled to a quiet stop in a deep swath of blood. Several more smeared rivelets led to the right-hand wall along the staff table and in longer streaks from the Slytherin house table. The scent was like a butcher’s might have, healthful still, but unnerving. Someone was sobbing nearby. A Ravenclaw boy clung to a bench, holding his broken leg. Blood drizzled from bites on his hand. Harry moved toward him to help, but the boy panicked and tried to escape him, falling under the table.

“It’s all right,” Harry insisted, not wishing to scare the boy just to fix his leg. McGonagall swept over and Quiesced the boy and hovered him onto the tabletop. She turned then and said, “Harry,” with overwhelming emotion.

Harry gave a little bow and said, “Headmistress,” without much thought. The comment made McGonagall stand straight in surprise.

Snape slowly came up behind McGonagall. She turned and started, saying, “You survived, Severus.”

Sharp and annoyed, as always, “Yes, of course.”

Harry looked beyond him, barely giving him a glance, insistent still on not implicating him. Harry moved to repair the boy’s leg while he was still quieted and while McGonagall went to attend to others. Finished with that, he looked around. Other students had taken refuge on the tabletops, one still brandished the stone goblet she had used as a weapon. A few stalwart friends were slinking back in to help the stragglers. Harry remembered the menagerie, turned, and strode out the door, ignoring McGonagall trying to call him back.

Outside, a light drizzle floated in the still air, soaking Harry’s robes. His robes' bright sky color darkened as they grew damp and as the Morphmagus spell wore off.

At the largest cage, Harry called out to Hagrid, who roused slowly. Once the giant heaved to his feet, bent low because of the cage, he stomped up to the bars and lowered his bruised brow. He took a long sniff and said, “Harry?” with empty belief.

“Yeah, Hagrid, it’s me. Stand back, I’ll open the cage.” Harry, after much urging to get Hagrid to move, blasted the lock. The door opened, but Hagrid remained standing where he was, perhaps finding freedom not entirely comprehensible.

Harry left him to recover and went down the line on the left, opening every cage except the giant spider’s. At the unicorns, one ran off, but the other was lame and it did not get beyond the cage door. It floundered on the ground, eyes wide and alarmed by Harry’s presence.

“Hagrid,” Harry yelled to the half-giant. “Come help the unicorn!”

This got Hagrid moving. Cooing, Hagrid stooped to lift the creature in his broad hands and then stumbled off to the forest carrying it, glancing backward repeatedly, still disbelieving. Harry moved down the line of facing cages, releasing a beaked gibbus, a vampire duck, a hippogriff that was mostly likely Buckbeak, except it lunged at Harry before scampering off and taking flight on wings that lacked several major feathers. Harry reached the werewolf cage with great trepidation. He destroyed the lock and called out, “Hallo!”

Slitted eyes snapped open and a shaggy form put its head out of the wooden hovel.

“Remus,” Harry said, surprised to find this Lupin appeared partially werewolf outside the full moon as well.

Lupin limped slowly out of the cage, gazing quizzically at Harry. “Can’t be,” he whispered. “Can’t be.”

Harry felt a twinge at his ruse, but it could not be helped. “It’s Harry Potter,” he said in a reassuring manner .

“You look just like James,” he whispered hoarsely. He then jerked and looked about in fear as though an attack may be imminent.

Harry turned to look as well and found a familiar pink Mohawk approaching. “Tonks,” Harry greeted the witch, with too much familiarity it turned out. She peered at him suspiciously. “Harry Potter,” he said with a little bow, by way of introduction. “You’re one of the Aurors, right?” he went on, masking the pain he felt seeing her prematurely aged and careworn face.

“Yes,” she said flatly and turned to Lupin, who had taken to clinging to the bars of his cage, looking away from both of them as though ashamed. Tonks’ pained gaze fixed on Lupin's tattered back.

“Can you take care of him?” Harry asked, nearly pleading. He wished to leave, but these new burdens were threatening that.

Tonks did not reply, only moved to put a hand on Lupin’s arm to draw him away from the metal bars. Lupin resisted but finally leaned on her. Harry felt a twinge of jealousy and turned away.

“What did you do in there?” Tonks asked Harry over Lupin's shoulder. She sounded mistrustful.

Harry suppressed more disappointment. He did not want to feel the need to make her understand. “Something I should have done a long time ago,” he replied, voice harder than he intended. He was not going to argue over, or justify anything he had done. Her eyes gave away that she saw only the blood on top of too much other blood.

“Not really Harry, is it?” Lupin asked faintly, scratching his pointed ear with one clawed finger. "Can't be."

Harry walked away, back to the Great Hall.

A Ministry retinue was mincing here and there in the Hall, oohing and ahing over what they were hearing described and seeing in damage. Harry strode up to the familiar, brown-coated figure and stopped in his face, just as he turned at the sound of advancing footsteps.

“Oh!” Fudge said in surprise. “Potter?” he prompted, befuddled.

“Don’t blow this, Fudge.” Harry jerked his head in the direction of Lucius Malfoy standing amongst Crouch, Jorkins, Percy, and Bones. “Clean up the likes of him. All of them.”

Malfoy’s mouth twitched and he drew himself up taller and set his cane before himself, one hand over the other.

“He’s one of them,” Harry said. “And there are most likely others. Get them out of the Ministry, into prison. If you don’t, I’ll be back.”

Harry turned, waylaid, by Fudge’s bruised pride. “Now, see here, Mr. Potter, if that’s who you really are!”

Harry spun back around, unnaturally pale eyes blazing. “You let this go on,” Harry snarled. Fudge’s mouth snapped closed. Harry’s gaze took in the group. “All of you, catering to evil.” Fury was taking Harry to another level of his mind, and uncertain what he may find there, he made himself step down away from it, tearing parts of his ego it felt like, in the process. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Snape standing with the surviving teachers, hawk-like gaze taking in Harry’s every move.

Harry gestured at the smashed window, the darkening bloody streaks on the floor, the empty robes and hats, the littered bones, cleaned bright white. “This is nothing,” Harry said, stepping closer into Fudge’s simpering face. “You should see me when I get really upset. Clean up the Ministry or I will be back to do it for you.”

With that, Harry stalked out the door to the hall, out the door to the castle—propped open with a bench from the hall—and away across the lawn. The lake stretched out before him, sparkling in the evening light in the spots where the clouds were breaking up. He could leave now, but he felt less than himself, and he wanted to shake that before facing what was certain to be a crisis at home, sparked by his absence. Buckbeak sailed into view, angling away from the hills to stay over the water, a grey reflection skipping over the waves. Harry heard voices approaching, arguing as only political figures could. He dropped into the Dark Plane to avoid them.

Chilled, he returned to Snape’s office where he imagined it would be warm. He pulled a chair over to the fire, snagging the sherry bottle from a shelf on the way past. He sat, feet propped upon a trunk, using the hypnotic sound of the fire and the stomach warming effects of the liquor to let go of the last few hours, working his way up to letting go of the last few days in total. His robes dried and finished deepening back to black. When he left for good this place would cease to exist. Given that, being haunted by it would be tantamount to a psychosis.

The door to the office swung open and Snape, appearing distracted, stepped in and did not notice Harry until he was halfway across the room. He scuffed to a halt, exhibiting rare uneasiness. “You are still here,” he stated.

“I hadn’t tried your sherry,” Harry explained, voice gentle because his meditation had helped set his mind and emotions straight.

Snape crossed to the desk and stared down at it before stalking to the door to his chambers. His mouth worked before he said, “I was perhaps remiss in not offering it.”

Harry felt saddened and adrift at being feared by this man, by any version of him. “Have I ever, ever threatened you?” Harry asked.

Snape turned to him, studying him.

Harry said, “I owe you my life.”

Snape’s shoulders rounded and his movements were less jerky when he came over to borrow the sherry bottle. He poured himself a full tumbler and handed the bottle back graciously, making Harry laugh lightly. “You think I buy that from you?” he asked and then regretted the teasing, since Snape’s black gaze flickered with fear again.

“You really think I’d do something untoward to you?” Harry asked, badly needing to settle this.

Snape did not reply, but his eyes did. They answered in the affirmative. At Harry’s prompting of “Severus?” Snape spoke: “I saw what you did to get even . . .” He trailed off.

“Ah,” Harry said, understanding. “You mean for my parents.” Harry swallowed the half tumbler of sherry he held. He tilted his head back to stare at the cobwebs on the ceiling of Snape’s office. “I’ve forgiven you for that.”

“Really?” Snape laughed uneasily. “Why?”

Harry rubbed his head and said. “You saw what happened in the Great Hall. If I didn’t find the power to forgive you, I would have lost myself long ago. I wouldn’t have power over myself and I'd self-destruct.”

Snape considered that and added uneasily, “And you apologized for your father, no less.”

"Of course," Harry said, and stood, finally approaching the mood to depart for home.

“Where are you going now?” Snape asked, sounding casual and for all the world like he was dying to know the answer.

“Far away. Very far. Keep an eye on Fudge will you? Hold his feet to the Caeruleus fire.”

“I don’t have much power, Potter,” Snape pointed out. “Especially now. Before, I had rather a lot.”

“You're good at surviving no matter what. It’s better this way and you know it,” Harry said. "If I stay, things will only be fixed for appearances, for my sake. Not really fixed." He set his tumbler on the desk and said, “I’m going and I don’t intend to ever return. Do take care of yourself.”

Snape bowed faintly, doubt tinting his eyes even darker. Harry disappeared without a sound.

Clearheaded and determined, Harry found his way opposite his own house and tumbled sideways, focused on a painful affection for his real home.

- 888 -


"Severus!" Candide shouted frantically from the balcony where she peered over the rail down at Harry, strewn half across the rug below.

Snape came out of the library and, after spotting Harry, dashed over to him. He placed his hand on his shoulder to roll him on his side and icy sparkles haloed Snape's hand against the dark fabric. "He is half frozen again." Raising his head, he called out, "Get a blanket and heat it, quickly." He pushed Harry onto his back, setting off swirls of crackling in the ice clinging to Harry's robes. "And there is some odd residual magic still upon him."

At a run Candide brought a heated blanket and helped Snape lift and wrap Harry bodily in it. The frost coating the tips of Harry's locks melted where his limp head rested on Snape's robes. Once lifted off the floor, Snape had not put his charge down again. He pressed his hand to Harry's scarred forehead.

"Is he warming up?" Candide asked.

Snape nodded. "Get some hot water."

Harry woke groggily. He could not move his arms for the heavy blanket bundled around them and his face was pressed into robes scented with Hogwarts and potions.

He was home.

And he was being clutched with surprising fierceness. Perhaps he did not fully appreciate how much he was cherished, he considered. He might be able to stir, but he did not, enjoying the warmth too much.

A hand ran through Harry's hair and with a spell he was forced to swallow warm water. The hungry heat of it seeped through the very center of him and he opened his eyes to Snape's dark concerned ones.

Candide was speaking. "And I contacted the Auror's office."

Snape started at that, looking away from Harry. "I wish you had not."

"No?"

"We need to protect Harry from everyone." Figures Apparated into the Hall. Snape finished with, "Even the Ministry."

The Auror's descended upon them, led by Tonks, who crouched close. "Harry, what happened?"

Harry opened his mouth and tried to concoct a reasonable story that was not the truth. He lifted his head but could not yet hold it up without severe strain.

"More water," Harry requested, to stall.

He was propped up better in the crook of Snape's shoulder and given several more sips which warmed him enough to let him sit up, but Snape's grip seemed uninterested in even allowing him to try.

Harry cleared his throat and said, "I was poisoned," which made Snape's grip tighten even more. Harry closed his eyes. "I tried to Apparate to Severus but . . . I missed."

Tonks, from close by said, "Well, of course, you can't Apparate to Hogwarts. You shouldn't have even been able to depart."

Harry shook his head, formulating a modified story with effort. "I tried really, really hard. I ended up in a different potioneer's dungeon."

Silence fell over the listeners. "Where?" Tonks asked.

"I'm not sure," Harry said. "Somewhere . . . somewhere in Eastern Europe. Latvia maybe. He was good at potions though . . . he cured the poison. Which was in the pumpkin juice in the tea room."

Mr. Weasley gestured to Shacklebolt to take note of that.

Snape asked, in a manner that Harry could not read as helping a ruse or honest curiosity, "Was the castle small with two tall towers close together?"

"Er, yeah," Harry said, willing to accept any help to explain himself.

To the others, Snape said, "I know a wizard there by the name of Aldaris." To Harry he asked, "Do you remember the name Jazeps?"

"Uh . . ." Harry stalled and Snape caught on quickly.

Snape turned back to the crouching assembled and said quickly, "He is a hermit, corresponds only with those far enough away to be deemed not direct competition."

Harry broke in with a partial truth. "He was very good about the poison, but then he didn't want me to leave. Slipped me potions to keep me disoriented."

Tonks motioned as though this were horrendous. "No," Harry corrected. "He was nice, enough, sort of, and he saved my life. I think he was just . . . lonely or something."

Shacklebolt leaned in closer. "So, you don't want us to track him down, then, you are saying."

"No," Harry said in relief. "He saved my life; it's all right."

"How did you get back?" Mr. Weasley asked.

"I Apparated."

"From Latvia!" several people exclaimed at once.

"I concentrated really hard," Harry insisted.

"Wonder you didn't get Splinched worse than you did. You all right? No missing parts?" Shacklebolt asked.

Harry sat up and was allowed to. "Yeah, I'm fine. I didn't feel very good when I first arrived, but I'm better now."

"Don't make a habit out of Apparating so far," Mr. Weasley ordered him.

"I won't, believe me," Harry said.

Snape helped Harry to his feet, but steered him to the nearest couch. Of Mr. Weasley he asked, "Do you need to debrief him or can we keep him here?"

"No, I think we're set. I'll call a press conference and get everything straight."

After welcomes and wishes that he feel better and congratulations on making it home from so far away, the three Ministry people departed.

Snape turned to Harry and said, "What actually happened?" gathering a startled look from Candide.

Harry had a bad sense that they were not alone and he said, "Clear the house of bugs and we can talk."

Snape drew his wand and held it out toward the center of the room while turning in a circle around it. Harry had thought that the Snape he had shared quarters with the last three days was a slightly different man than this one, but what happened next disproved that assumption. Snape, with a slashing motion, cast a spell that forced any Animagus on the area to reveal themselves and falling with the floor lamp in a great crash was Rita Skeeter. Snape aimed his wand at her while she stood and brushed off her skirt and primped her curls. His gaze was hard and unyielding, looking for all the world capable of anything.

"Don't you dare point that at me," she commanded, trying to swap her quill for her wand in her beaded handbag.

"Get out of this house," Snape ordered. "You are not welcome here; you are trespassing."

"The wizarding public has a right to know," she stated, wagging her wand at him like one might a finger.

"The public has no such right as far as I am concerned. And that is just an excuse for what only concerns your ego. Get out or I will bind you with a mummy hex and hang you from the ceiling of the Ministry of Magic."

"You wouldn't dare," Skeeter countered, voice nasty.

"I'll have the Weasley twins provide passersby with paint-filled balloons suitable for throwing at you; I expect they will have no shortage of takers."

With a snarl, Skeeter Disapparated. Candide exhaled and said, "Oh she's really going to love us now."

Snape shot her a disappointed glance but moved to Harry and crouched before him, hands on his arms. "Are you all right?" he asked, sound like he had a long list of questions to follow. When Harry nodded, Snape asked, "What happened? Where did you go?"

"It was a terrible place," Harry said, thinking first of the menagerie. "I . . . with the poison, in the panic, I forgot you were no longer in the dungeon. I got confused and tried to reach you there. So, as a result, I ended up there."

"I thought . . . Latvia?" Candide interrupted, while taking a seat beside Harry.

"Harry needed a plausible story," Snape explained.

"Thanks for that," Harry said.

Candide clasped her hands together. "I'm sorry I called the Ministry in."

Snape held up his hand. "You thought it was the right thing to do. Now you know better." Returning his attention to Harry, he said, "Go on."

When Harry said, "Voldemort was headmaster," Snape's head fell forward. Harry went on, hopeful that he would not be in trouble. "I felt I should stay and take care of things. That Plane's Harry died in his first year trying to reach the Philosopher's Stone."

"And did you take care of things?" Snape asked.

Harry, mind full of the duel and the blood, replied, "Yes." After a pause to push the fresh memories down in the hopes of making them older faster, he added, "I'm glad to be home. It's Saturday, right?"

"Yes, you have been missing for days. We were most concerned about you." Snape touched the side of his head lightly and stood. "I expect your friends to come swarming in shortly. Are you up for it?"

Harry smiled. "Yes, very much so. Tell me more about this Aldaris and his castle, will you, before they arrive."

Snape smiled back, settled on the couch, and began speaking very quickly, holding up a hand when Candide tried to ask a question. "I'll explain it all later," he assured her.

She crossed her arms. "That ought to be good," she whispered.

Harry's friends began arriving within minutes as expected. Harry did not realize how badly he needed their companionship until he repeated his modified story and was roundly sympathized with by all. He wished he could tell Hermione the truth. Perhaps he would later. She was one of the few who knew already that he could Apparate inside of Hogwarts and she would keep any secret. Strange to imagine, but he found himself more willing to tell her than Tonks, who had just returned.

She gave Harry a hug. "Next time send an owl, a bat, anything!" she said while patting his back.

"I couldn't," Harry said. "Believe me . . . I wanted to."

Elizabeth arrived carrying a cake that said Welcome Home Harry in pink icing. Ron reached for the first piece, saying, "That was fast."

"I found a recipe in my mum's old magical cookbook."

Ron, mouth full, asked, "So it isn't real food?"

Elizabeth laughed while Harry worried about her doing magic at home where her father might spot it. "I just used a Foaming Heat Charm to cook it up in two minutes after the batter was mixed."

Hermione held her hand over her full mouth and asked, "Can you show me that spell?"

Elizabeth smiled painfully. "I'd love to show you a spell. You're the kind of witch who knows every spell. I'd be thrilled."

Hermione glanced at the clock and shoveled the next bite into her mouth faster. "It may have to be another time. I have to get back. And I'm sure Harry could use a rest more than a huge, late-night party."

She made her goodbyes and this triggered most everyone to leave. Eventually, only Tonks remained. Harry sat across from her in the dwindling candlelight, expecting Snape to check in any moment as he had throughout the evening.

Things clearly needed to be said, but her gaze skittered away whenever it met his. She said, "I was really worried about you. I couldn't understand why you left."

"I didn't leave-"

"I know that."

"Did you find anything out . . . about the poison?" Harry asked.

Tonks shook her head. "Everything in the tea room had long since been cleaned up."

Harry sighed and tweaked his fingers to turn the empty butterbeer bottle sitting before him. "Someone wants to kill me."

"Someone inside the Ministry," Tonks added. After a spell, Tonks whispered, "Can you come to my place tonight?"

"I shouldn't go missing, and . . ." Harry glanced into the hall, which was quiet. "I could ask, I suppose. Tomorrow would be better."

"I'll come here."

Harry imagined Snape checking on him. "Maybe not a good idea," he said, chaffing a bit at feeling over-protected because of this cramp on his sex life, but it quickly was overwhelmed by the basic notion of home.

Tonks tossed her tall pink hair. "I should go too. The office wanted a report on how you were doing and I've been here forever."

"Thanks for staying as long as you did," Harry said on automatic, standing with her.

She gave him a deep kiss that said more than any conversation could manage.

Harry strolled through the hall and the dim but warm light of the chandelier. The peace of the house both soothed him as well as put him on alert to defend it. Here's a Riddle for you, Tom . . . echoed through his skull. At the time he had only been trying for mockery of his enemy, but now the assertion mocked him back.

Snape and Candide were sitting in the drawing room. Candide's gaze held wonderment, presumably as a result of Snape's explanation of what had happened. Harry hoped it went away soon.

"Friends all departed?" Snape asked. "I'm curious about exactly what transpired at this other Hogwarts. If you would indulge me?" For a polite question it came out rather commanding.

Harry glanced at Candide. She put her things together quickly and said, "I'll leave you two alone."

"Thanks," Harry said. She hurried out with one quick smile back at Snape. The door clicked closed. Harry took the chair she had been in. The seat was still warm.

Snape pushed his own parchments aside, grasped the edge of the desk, and sat back, but it felt a false show of letting his guard down. "Did you kill Voldemort outright?"

Harry nodded and then equivocated by tilting it side to side. "I fed him to the demons."

"Ah."

"They always seem to be hungry."

"Or there are many, many of them and only the hungry ones bother to show up." Snape stated this dryly, factually.

A pause stretched out too long with Harry trying to stay out of memory, especially the memory of the menagerie, which had the tightest hold on him for some reason.

Snape finally said, "I worry that you are paying an unseen cost for utilizing these dark creatures to do your bidding."

"I didn't have any choice. I had already used Salazar's spell. It didn't take Voldemort down, just all his followers. Well, except your counterpart, who wasn't a threat to the castle." Harry pushed his fringe back out of his eyes. "He was stronger than me, Voldemort was. I couldn't take him down by myself. The wands saved me again. Kept him distracted until I could call in reinforcements. The Raksashas certainly took him by surprise."

Snape had him under intense scrutiny as he said, "I imagine it took everyone by surprise."

Harry nodded, thinking of the other Snape's fear of him. Harry examined his new wand, wondering that it didn't show any damage from battling. It looked exactly the same as before. He replayed the spells in his mind, wondering what he could have done differently. "I need to get stronger. I should have been able to beat him."

Snape merely stared at him, apparently unable to generate a response. An owl arrived, distracting them both. Snape opened the letter, which prominently displayed the Ministry seal on the flap. A minute later, he closed it, stuffed it back away and said, "It is from Arthur Weasley."

"Addressed to you?" Harry blurted, finding that odd.

"The Ministry is putting you under twenty-four-hour guard."

Harry laughed in a short burst, still deep in reliving the battle with Voldemort. "They think I need guarding? And besides, it's someone inside the Ministry; how do they know they won't just assign my attacker as my guard?"

Snape waved the letter. "They are certifying select individuals, by means of Veritaserum, and only they will be your guards."

"They can't spare anyone," Harry asserted. "And I don't need protection. I look forward to this person trying again, so I can catch them at it."

Sternly, Snape said, "I am not objecting to Mr. Weasley's plan, quite the opposite."

"Well, of course, it'll make it right impossible for me to spend any time alone with Tonks. I'm sure you'd appreciate that." Harry immediately wished he had not said that, but his frustration over being unable to arrange to stay with her that night boiled over without his control.

Snape's features sharpened with a predatorial edge. "I do not expect coercion to repair that proclivity of yours, so I would not attempt it. I would much prefer you get wise on your own." He stepped around the desk with a swift movement, trailing his robes. His voice lowered as he said, "For your edification, she is at the top of the list of guards to be certified, which if I am not mistaken will mean you will frequently spend nights with her for the foreseeable future."

"Oh," Harry uttered quietly.

Snape snapped the envelope with a flick of his wrist and tossed it on the desk, clearly disgusted. "For the weekend it will be myself guarding you. You are not to leave this house alone, do you understand?"

Harry felt about four years younger at that moment. But given how fiercely Snape had hung onto him when he had reappeared, Harry did not complain or argue. This stern admonishment was just another expression of the same thing, he knew in his gut. "Yes, sir," he said.

Snape crossed his arms and leaned back against the front of his desk. Still business-like he asked, "Do you have control over what happened? Or can we expect further disappearances?"

"I have control," Harry insisted. "I know exactly what happened, this time. I better understand last time too, now that I know it was real."

"Good," Snape said.

After a space, Harry added, "Sorry." But he wasn't any clearer on what he was apologizing for than Snape, given his guardian's raised brow. Maybe, as usually, he felt he should make up for the trouble he caused.

Snape relented; it was clear by the way he said, "Do not apologize."

After an awkward pause, Harry said, "I should get to sleep. I had a long day of killing Voldemort and I'm kind of tired." Harry stood when there was no objection to this. "Thanks for kicking Skeeter out. It was fun to watch."

"My pleasure."

- 888 -


Hermione sorted through the parchments spread out before her as she stood at the front table facing the First-Year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. She had expected that by three weeks into the term she would be less nervous, but she had not yet completely shaken a base unease. The students who did well, she felt were not really her doing; the students who were already falling behind, seemed unreachable; and the two who she sometimes suspected may be Squibs, or close to it, she was not certain what to do with. This included the Mer-boy, Namortuk, who sat even now, eagerly in the front row, his slowly shifting magical collar of lake water reflecting the room around him.

It was not that Hermione did not think the boy had any magic, more that his magic was too different to get anything out of her class and perhaps out of the school. She did not hold this against him; it would be as if Hermione herself had been sent to a school only for Divination. She could read the textbooks but never really produce any meaningful output, except by random chance. But the boy continued to be intrepidly pleased with his surroundings and the assignments, so despite her gut instinct that something drastically needed to be fixed, academically, she forced herself to just let the situation be, but it still needled her.

She asked the reluctant children arrayed before her questions about the assigned reading—a short and easy chapter that despite being so, had gone unread by a handful. Finally, names were coming to her easily. Last names, though. She found herself losing track of students' first names and sometimes when speaking to a student about another student, was not always certain as a result who was being discussed. As with most days, by the time she set them to trying out new spells and had circled the room offering advice and encouragement, the class period was nearly over. She considered doubling the reading, in the hopes of making the slackers take it seriously, but instead threatened them with a short quiz. Groans emanated from the room, a counterpoint to the vibrating squeaks of the desks shifting as the children rose to their feet.

It was lunchtime, but as usual Hermione had too much to finish to contemplate the luxury of the Great Hall's food and instead hunched over the Third-Year textbook entitled Witchy & Warlocky Wand Waving and jotted down a few notes for questions and as a sort of desperation outline for that day's topic.

A knock on the door interrupted this and for a moment, Hermione feared she was late for class even though only forty-five minutes had passed. Relieved by what the face of the clock showed, she called out that the person could enter.

In stepped McGonagall, smiling graciously. She took a position beside the guest chairs and clasped her hands before her. "I could not help but notice that you were missing from the mid-day meal once again. This is a first for a Monday."

Hermione replied, "I was helping look for Harry part of the weekend, so I didn't catch up like I usually do."

"Ah, of course," McGonagall said gently. "The students wish to start a Harry Hunt Club, in fact. When I informed them that only those of age could join, given the requirement to leave school grounds, they were most crestfallen."

Hermione smiled since she was supposed to find this story amusing, but it was difficult to do so given how much trouble Harry still managed to get into.

McGonagall said kindly, "The teaching will get easier. It is hardest for those who care the most about getting every last thing perfect, but for the first year it is impossible to do that, and you risk burning out while trying."

Hermione gazed unseeing at her notes. "I wouldn't know where to . . . cut corners to manage better. There are such a terribly large number of sections. For the First through Fifth Years there are two each twice a week, sometimes doubled in length, and then two more Advanced Charms for Sixth and Seventh. I don't know how to fit it all in without a Time-Turner."

"When you are practiced at it and are not doing prep each time, it is far easier."

Another knock sounded. Hermione exhaled, blowing her hair around her eyes. "That must be my weekly review meeting," she said, working very hard not to sound completely overstressed. She put away her notes in a folder neatly labelled for the next class while McGonagall opened the door to let Professor Snape in.

"Ah, Severus, I wanted to speak with you. Sprout again caught Orfius and Sirco again attempting to sneak into the off-limits greenhouse. They have fallen afoul of a skin-eating slime mold and have been sent to St. Mungo's. If you would be so good as to pay a visit to their parents with a longer explanation than I could manage by Floo owl, I would appreciate it."

Snape nodded and said he would do so immediately after his next class. Hermione was glad she was not yet at a level to be assigned such tasks. She wondered at McGonagall handing it off to her deputy, but Snape did not show any sign of complaint, in fact he behaved surprisingly obedient, something she had noticed before, that is, when he did not disagree forcefully with an expressed idea. She puzzled that while the two of them discussed the troublesome students using their own administrative shorthand. And she wondered if Snape had a need to be loyal to someone and so had transfered his old loyalty to Dumbledore wholesale onto McGonagall.

McGonagall parted and Snape took one of the visitor's chairs, efficiently moving on to her weekly review without any small talk.

"How is Harry?" Hermione asked before he could start.

From his pocket, Snape removed his rolled parchment of notes from previous meetings and replied, "You saw him on Saturday, did you not?"

"Yes, but . . ." She hesitated, but with renewed confidence, said, "I had the distinct sense that a cover story had been fabricated so I wanted to know that Harry really was all right."

Snape read over the unrolled the parchment before him, stalling it seemed. "Harry is fine," Snape stated.

Hermione did not like being kept away from the truth. "What are you hiding?" When no answer was forthcoming, she said, "I can ask Harry. I know he can Apparate inside the school, which means he should've been able to reach you. That part was a lie; I know for certain."

Snape rubbed his fingertips together. "Then you understand the need to protect him."

"Yes. I do." She stopped, having trouble with seriously contemplating something so terrible. "That's why they were going to give Sirius Black a Dementor's kiss, wasn't it? Because they couldn't keep him in prison. Azkaban, when it's completed, wouldn't hold Harry either. If he ever got into enough trouble with the Ministry . . ." She had to stop.

"They could hold Harry, but, like the few vampires they have incarcerated, quite a few precautions are necessary and the risk of escape is high if any of the extra security fails. So yes, under an exceptionally bad alignment of circumstances I fear the worst."

Hermione held off on pointing out that he was one of those arguing forcefully for giving Sirius exactly that treatment. Perhaps that was precisely why he was being so very paranoid this time.

Snape said, "Suffice to say, the story told to the Ministry and the press was essentially true. Beyond Harry returning safely and avoiding future such mishaps, I have less care for what actually transpired." He referred to his parchment, and moved to their meeting topic. "How did this last week go?"

Hermione pulled her thoughts from Harry to Charms in all its seven levels of learning. "I thought it would go better than it did," she confessed. "I don't know what to do with the very slow students and the slackers."

"You cannot force every last one of them to learn. If you have not accepted that yet, I suggest you work harder on doing so."

"Yes, but if they aren't doing well in Charms then they must be struggling mightily in Transfiguration."

"That is not your problem."

"It is, because Charms is the easy one. It's the one everyone can do first because it is all impermanent."

"Hexs are what everyone gets first," Snape countered. "How you failed to notice that the very first day in the corridors . . ."

Hermione lightly rolled her eyes. "I'm also reluctant to assign points except as deductions."

"That is solely your prerogative."

"It just feels so . . . like such uneven treatment to reward someone for doing what they were supposed to do anyhow or just rewarding the ones who are trying to cozy up to me."

Bordering on derisive, Snape asked, "Did you not like receiving points as a student?"

"Well . . ." Hermione said. "Well, yes, of course." She stared out at the round stone tower outside the window. "It just all feels so different from this side."

"You are worrying over it too much." He let that lie for a moment and then said, "I need to sit in on one of your classes in the next week, but there are not a terribly large number of open times in my schedule that are actual class times for you. I may just have Remus take over and come some afternoon when it is convenient. Is there anything else we need to discuss?"

"Harry is really all right?"

Snape stood. "Harry is fine," he repeated, but he sounded far away as he said it.



Author's Note:

Special thanks go out to those who nominated Resonance for a Dobby!

Yes, quick turnaround. Please, don't get used to it: I'll need two weeks for the next.

I haven't done this is a long, long time, but I feel compelled--due to the sheer volume of comments that all say the same thing--to make a comment/clarification/offer some thoughts. First off, let me say that I love that you are all taking the story seriously and you are all sharp enough that I can't keep up with you, which means I don't have to worry about getting too far ahead. Very cool. Thanks for staying along for the ride and caring how it turns out. But to the meat of it: Harry's response to Snape that he is the last horcrux. Yes, that dimension's Harry is dead, which means that horcrux is gone too. (I didn't adjust these chapters for DH, so the total is off, but no one's mentioned that, and it doesn't really matter.) Harry is an endearingly straightforward guy. When asked where the seventh horcrux is, Harry doesn't think about this in a complicated way. He answers honestly, and also as a kind of confession, that he is the last one. Harry confesses because being the last horcrux (in his Plane, at least) still gnaws at him and he wants this Snape to understand what's going on. And, it's kind of a power move as well to tell Snape that. At the moment Snape asked the question, Harry's answer was essentially true. Now, were Harry to stay in this Plane, would he really qualify as an undestroyed horcrux? Interesting question. I lean toward a "probably" because Harry, since his arrival in this other place has been using that connection to detect this Voldemort's presence, so he clearly has a connection to this Voldemort (and for the record to the book 6 "canon" Voldemort too from the last fall into another Plane). At any rate. Those are my thoughts on this. Fascinating that so many of you had identical reactions to the scene.

Next: Chapter 13

"Shall we give it a try?" he asked her in a whisper, holding Kali up to stare closely into her beady eyes. He carried her to the open window and said, "No pigeons."

With her wings pumping in the evening light, his pet resembled a violet puffball sailing over the garden wall. Sitting on his trunk, Harry closed his eyes and tried to see out of his pet's instead.

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