Chapter 17 — Reserve Rescue

With wand drawn Harry slipped silently into the Ministry of Magic dungeon. He peered in both directions down the low-ceilinged, dank-aired corridor, at the rows of doors, each with a small barred window set near the top. Harry had to stand on tip-toe, grazing his head on the damp ceiling, to see the whole of the cell inside. He popped up on his toes to look into the nearest two but saw only a white-haired witch and an empty cell. His striding forward to check the next cells was halted by an unearthly chill penetrating his already cold-weary bones. The light dimmed on the crossing corridor ahead of him. Harry closed his eyes and tried to find the Dementor in his mind, but he had long lost the connection to them. Still, he thought he felt some strange presence. Go elsewhere, Harry commanded, hoping that might work.

The approaching darkness held steady. The ice ceased to fork and spread over the wall ahead. Harry quickly checked the next few cells, but retreated when he felt the dismal presence approaching again. Harry ducked around the closest corner where new cells had been installed, resulting in a dungeon far larger than the one he knew in his Plane. The Dementor continued to drift closer. Harry hesitated using a Patronus for fear it would set off an alarm. He tried again with his mind to distract the creature but only encouraged its curiosity, apparently, because it sped up.

Bouncing on his toes as he ran, Harry checked the cells along this wing, putting needed space between himself and clawing unhappiness. He skidded to a halt after peeking in the second-to-last cell on the right, and looked in again. The figure hunched over its knees was painfully familiar. Harry slipped inside via the Dark Plane and stood with his back pressed to the wall beside the door. The occupant of the room did not stir. Harry raised his wand, preparing a Patronus Charm as the air grew depressing and sucked at the already sparse light.

The Dementor's skeletal hand drifted between the bars of the little window on the door and grabbed hold of one bar. Harry shivered and had to cover his mouth to keep his teeth from clattering. Hopelessness threatened him. Another skeletal hand wrapped around another bar, but the Dementor itself could not enter the cell, apparently, because it approached no more than that. Closing his eyes, Harry found warmth inside his memories. The warmth of being wrapped up in a blissful blanket and kept safe.

Harry opened his eyes. The Dementor still grasped the bars, but the terrible unhappiness had loosed its hold on him. He relaxed a little and studied Snape, his attention caught by one hand twitching where it hung off the stone bench. It was unlikely that he slept deeply because he sat slouched awkwardly, head resting partly on his own propped up knees and partly on the wall. The position did not look at all comfortable. His hair stuck up in strange directions, accentuating his odd pose.

Snape's hand twitched again and he made a small noise of distress. The Dementor rattled the bars and Snape's head jerked. Harry readied a Patronus but tried just a moment more to avoid using it. He closed his eyes and sought out the green world where he had once found the Dementors. Go away, Harry commanded. Feed elsewhere, he insisted, imaging his own hope as a shield in that world where it would go undetected.

One-by-one, the Dementor's long digits released the bars and it retreated, leaving a puff of frozen air drifting in the cell. Relief and warmth flowed into Harry's body.

Harry stepped forward and crouched beside the bench, intending to rest a hand on Snape's shoulder to rouse him, but his hand froze in space halfway there. From this angle Harry could see bruises mottling the side of Snape's face and neck and he could also see that the reason his hair was so matted was it was pressed into shape by dried blood.

Harry swallowed against the sick rising to his throat.

"Severus?" Harry whispered.

Snape jumped, not really asleep, his reaction instantaneous. He squinted at Harry, breath held, but then looked away again, resting his head on his knee. Harry blinked in confusion at being ignored. After a glance behind him and careful listening for any approach, Harry asked, "Who did this to you?"

Still no response.

"Severus?"

Harry shifted his feet where he crouched, thought of only one possibility for being ignored, and said, "I'm not a hallucination."

Snape raised his marred and bloodied head but did not look over, just stared straight at something to the right of the cell door.

Mood fuelled by relief that he had come to this place, Harry continued more amiably, "I'm quite certain hallucinations don't ever bring up the topic of whether or not they are, in fact, hallucinations."

Snape's head turned a quarter of the way in Harry's direction. This showed off the laceration to his scalp that had bled so copiously.

Harry again: "The Ministry must be a corrupt wreck to let this happen. Why did they do this to you?"

Snape swallowed hard in preparation for talking. "I told them. They wanted to know where the Dark Lord was. I told them," he repeated in a litany. His shoulder spasmed. "If this is a trick . . . it does not matter. I've told them."

Harry placed his hand on Snape's shoulder and felt a tinge of aversion through his arm. "Someone used a Cruciatus on you. Did someone from the Ministry do that?"

Snape did not respond. Harry reached a hand to his neck and felt for the tangled heat of the curse. It was not as bad as he feared, but the curse's tiny tendrils seethed, menacing with the threat of never fully letting go, of growing slowly worse forever. Harry pushed the curse down and cooled the heat of it fighting him, pressed it down and cooled it, repeating this back and forth until he gained ground. Snape's breathing grew shallow and rapid, worrisome, but it could just be a reaction to utter release from agony.

The curse ceased heating and reweaving and Harry dropped his hand. Eyes much clearer, Snape stared at him with the same stunned scrutiny he had the last time Harry had seen him. With slow care, Snape straightened and leaned back against the wall to stare at Harry more easily. His left sleeve had been torn free at the shoulder and hung like a crooked cape at his side. Harry noticed that his left forearm had a red X slashed in it.

Harry took hold of Snape's wrist and touched his wand to each of the wounds to heal them. He did not let go immediately after lowering his wand. Something was vibrating inside of him, something he did not like the feel of. Snape's arm was cursed, but worse than that, it called to something at his core, somewhere just inside his spine. His thumb tingled where it pressed on the cords of Snape's wrist. Harry moved his thumb and the resonance intensified. Harry pushed at it the way he had with the Crucio remnants and Snape's mark flared faint pink before fading to white and disappearing again.

Snape tried to tug his arm away, but Harry held fast.

"Do you regret joining him?" Harry asked.

"Regret?" Snape uttered. "I regret, at this moment, literally everything."

"You wanted him gone though, didn't you?" Harry persisted, feeling for the outlines of the cursed Mark under Snape's skin. Coming here may have been a mistake, if loyalty to Dumbledore was all that had driven Snape's actions. Harry needed to know. "It's better with him gone," Harry prompted.

"Better for everyone but myself," Snape grumbled. "But yes, better. I make a poor martyr, though."

"You told me not to give you away. Maybe I should have. Maybe I could have protected you. I could vouch for you now; it's not too late." Harry was not certain at all that he could arrange to return for the trial, but something had to be done.

"That would not have worked. Not being associated with you has saved me no small amount of interrogation. They tried to question me about you, but they did not know I had assisted you and I could truthfully tell them that I do not particularly like your family."

"Or me," Harry finished for him. Snape's gaze grew wary. "You don't have to like me," Harry assured him. "But you do have to wish you never joined him."

"How could I not wish that?" Snape snapped hoarsely at him. "There have been a few amenities, certainly, but . . ." He diverted his eyes. "Such a mistake I made," he whispered, sounding drained and beaten.

"Don't make any loud noises," Harry said and pressed down with his thumb. Snape hissed and his leg flailed in pain but an instant later the skull and snake image on his arm rose up through his skin and, smoking, faded to ash, which immediately smeared. Harry let go.

Snape held his arm up to better peer at it. "They would hardly notice my screaming here," he murmured. He brushed off the ash and stared some more. Without lowering his arm, Snape asked, "What are you?"

Harry stood and his knees thanked him for it. "I'm part Voldemort, remember?"

Snape flinched at the name and Harry said, "Come now. He's dead. The real question is what do you want to do?"

Snape sneered at him. "And my options would be?"

"I can vouch for you or I take you away from here. Somewhere far away."

Snape swayed as much as one sitting propped against a wall could. "You really are a hallucination. I am finally losing my mind." He swallowed. "If you can take me away from here or, barring my questionable sanity, drive me well enough insane that I do not care that I am still here . . . I would do nearly anything in my measly, miserable power . . . for you. But I have nothing."

"You don't have to do anything except tell me where you want to go."

"Damn you, again," Snape muttered, building to a snarl that transformed his marred face. "Stop giving me hope."

A clang echoed in from far away, interrupting Snape's tormented reply. Footsteps approached. Snape reflexively pressed his back fully against the wall, bracing his hands on the stone bench.

"Recognize the footsteps?" Harry asked, thinking belatedly that he recognized them as well.

"One of the Aurors is coming. Right bastard. His miserable, domineering wife torments him all night and he comes in here most days to take it out on me."

Harry pressed himself against the wall beside the door and tapped himself with an Obsfucation Charm. "Let's do this right," Harry said, thinking ahead to freeing Snape as completely as possible. "Convince him to test for your mark."

Keys sounded in the lock and the cords in Snape's thin neck stood out through his pale skin. He only flinched faintly when the lock sparkled and slammed clear, making Harry marvel at his indomitable will.

Rodgers strode in with a cloying swagger to his step. Snape glared at him, unblinking.

"You're looking better today," Rodgers said with mixed feeling.

Snape said, "I'm finally enjoying the many amenities of your fine establishment."

Rodgers laughed cruelly. "We can change that." His wand twitched at his side, and Harry raised his but waited for a real move.

Snape sneered, restricted from fully showing it by the swollen bruises on his face, "Don't you get tired of this?"

"Tired of getting even with your kind. Never. You're a contamination on the wizarding world and need to be dealt with properly, which means without mercy."

"'My kind'? And what kind would that be?" Snape asked, pulling forth his annoyed professor voice.

"You are an idiot or think me one."

Snape crossed his arms and raised his chin. "No, really, I'd like to hear you say it."

"The Death Eater kind of evil," Rodgers said, leaning forward and speaking low and slow.

"Oh really. And you are certain I am one, are you?"

This gave Rodgers pause. "Everyone knows it. You-Know-Who made no secret of it."

"You were privy to his memos, then?" Snape asked sarcastically, and Harry had to suppress a snigger.

Angry now, Rodgers said, "It is easy enough to check." He used a shackling spell to jerk Snape's arms forward and hold them there, fixed in mid-air. With no gentleness he rolled Snape's left arm over and stabbed his wand against flesh with a Revelatio. Nothing happened so he repeated it, tugging hard enough on Snape's arm to pull him forward off the wall. "It's a trick," Rodgers snarled, stepping back, which canceled the untethered shackling spell.

"Is it?" Snape asked. "I do believe that it is impossible to remove a Mark, is it not?"

Rodgers' shoulders fell and then he whipped his wand up aggressively. "Wait a minute, what happened to the wounds on that arm?" He started to spell something nasty, Harry could feel the cursedness of it. Harry beat him at it, using a whip charm to snag his wand, which sent the half-formed curse sizzling over the walls and ceiling like a firework.

Rodgers spun and leapt bodily at Harry, but Harry had his fist ready and being mostly invisible gave him a huge advantage. He leveled Rodgers with a punch to the jaw.

"Ouch," Harry said, shaking his hand. "Damn that smarts."

Rodgers was rolling to get to his feet. Left handed, Harry put him in a body bind and then tapped himself on the head to remove the Obsfucation.

Rodgers gaped up at Harry as he stepped over to stand above him. "Potter?!" He opened his mouth wide to shout something more, and Harry hit the door with a Silencing charm, then a series of Impenetrable Charms.

Wary, glancing at the door repeatedly from his ungainly position, Rodgers said, "You think that's the only way to initiate an alarm?"

"It'll buy time." Harry said easily, unperturbed. "Funny, regulations 721 through 724 of the Code for Handling Prisoners states that Magical Suppression Barriers shall not be removed from the Ministry Holding Area except in cases of repair or difficult prisoner movement." Harry waved his wand at Rodgers as though taking him to task. "It's your own damn fault I can do that."

Rodgers blinked at him, caught completely off-guard by having rules read at him. He recovered his bluster. "You don't stand a chance, Potter. . . or whoever you are."

"Oh, I'm Harry Potter," Harry said, bending over him. "See the scar?"

The door rattled.

"He managed an alarm," Snape whispered.

"You're surrounded," Rodgers stated smugly.

Harry went on, "Oh, but what you fail to realize is I'm at my best when things seem bleakest. And I have something to say to you before I go. You talk big about fighting evil, but I have bad news for you." Harry lowered his wand till it touched Rodgers' neck. He definitely had the man's full attention. "You are the evil. You're not an Auror; you're a bully. And if the Ministry is this corrupt there is no hope for it. This man isn't the enemy . . . you are."

The door began to glow and sparkle. "Potter . . ." Snape warned.

Harry raised his hand to him. "Give me your arm." Snape did and Harry grabbed hold firmly. "Brace yourself." The door began to fall inward. Harry hit it with a blasting curse and grunts of pain could be heard on the other side of it when it slammed home into place. Harry re-aimed his wand at Rodgers. "You could be more than this. But all you are is part of the problem. At least get a divorce . . . you'd be happier."

With that, he pulled the two of them into the Dark Plane.

Snape collapsed when they arrived and Harry thought him dead, the way he went so totally, floppily limp. Heart pounding, and berating himself for not thinking about the strain that would cause, Harry Apparated away from the creatures piling in their direction. He arrived in another area, trying to think quickly. He dropped his burden to the grey, dusty ground and knelt beside him. Snape was breathing, but shallowly, and he was nearly as gray as the dust behind him. Harry did not want to pull Snape through the other side again, worried it would finish him off. He raised his wand and tried a barrier, but it sizzled and cracked. He put his wand away and waited for the creatures to scuttle over, prepared to defend both of them until Snape recovered sufficiently.

Harry did not wait long. The creatures were soon bucking and snarling in a circle about ten feet in diameter. One giant rat-like thing with glistening scales grabbed at Snape's shoe, and Harry had to snarl at it to get it to let loose.

A stand-off ensued. Harry glared at all of the creatures and they glared, circled and crawled over their fellows in an effort to get as close as possible, yet not too close. Harry relaxed marginally and the creatures slowed. Harry froze, breath held. He relaxed more. The creatures, bent their heads and tried to sulk in closer. Harry turned his head side to side and narrowed his eyes at all of them. "Don't you dare," he said. They stepped back slowly and waited, watchful.

Harry sighed. He did not want to take his eyes off the creatures, so he used his hand to shake Snape's shoulder and failing to get a response to that, to check his breathing. Thinking about how vulnerable he was made the creatures move in closer. Harry glared at them again and they backed off again. He sighed into the stale air and held tight to that feeling of superiority.

Harry did not imagine that he could survive sitting there for ten minutes like that, but he did; he managed a draw with the creatures, which counted as a win. Snape muttered something and Harry commanded, "Keep your eyes closed. Feeling all right?"

"I've felt better," came the faint reply.

Harry decided that would have to be good enough and he Apparated them and pulled them through the dust into the only spot he could think of where Snape could have time to recover undisturbed.

A dusting of snow covered cold-stiff grass. Snape blinked in the grey-orange sunlight as he was lifted to kneel on the unyielding grass. "Where the devil are we?" He wrapped his arms around himself as he was released to sway slowly.

Harry moved along the line of huts until he was sure which was which. The snow bore no tracks and no smoke issued from anywhere; the village had been deserted for the season, as he'd hoped. "In here," he said, tossing open the door of Per's hut where Harry had stayed before on his visit to get instruction from the Shaman.

While Snape crawled gingerly inside, Harry fetched wood and quickly cleared the smoke-hole, adjusting the skin over it for the prevailing wind with practiced ease. Inside he ignited a roaring fire with a twitch of his wand. Snape sat with his arms hitched around his knees, looking only slightly better than when Harry had found him. With surprising force bordering on anger, Snape said, "You didn't answer my question."

"We're in Finland, or Norway, er, north of the Arctic Circle anyway."

"That explains the snow and the exceptionally grim sun," he stated, sounding dubious and fatefully bleak.

"I can take you back to the Ministry," Harry threateningly teased.

"Dying here would be preferable."

Harry was running out of time. "Here, take Rodgers' wand. You can hole up here until you've recovered and then go somewhere and start over again."

That notion appeared to be foreign to Snape because he did not react to it. He stared at the wand in great detail before pocketing it.

"You'll have plenty of time to think about it," Harry assured him, his mind coming up with ideas which might work quickly enough for him to get back before his hearthstone cooled and Vineet arrived. "Let me fetch you supplies. Oh, and if you see a wolf, it might be a shaman. In any event, watch out because they go for the hands first."

Harry stood, remaining hunched because of the roof branches, and Snape watched him with a stupefied expression. "I'll be back," Harry assured him.

Harry arrived a quarter-mile from the Burrow, but what he found astonished him. The same basic house was there, but it had been built onto in all directions, including precariously sideways on the first and second floors, and several outbuildings had been added around it. It was nearly a village. A fifteen-foot wrought-iron fence enclosed the place and it sparkled, heavily charmed. Harry walked around to the front gate and looked for a bell pull. He found a Griffin-head knocker instead and used that. From within the ivy growing thickly on the gate an eyeball popped open and peered around. A pair of lips appeared next, strangely off to the side rather than below the eyeball. "Who is it?" a voice that could be Mrs. Weasley's asked.

Harry stepped sideways within view of the eyeball. "It's Harry Potter, I—" He did not get to finish his request as the lips let out a cry of surprise. The lips muttered rapidly then fell silent. Harry waited, the breeze blowing his hair around. The eyeball moved again and jerked in surprise and the gate clicked open. Four people approached across the yard as the gate swung wide. Two others came running from elsewhere.

Harry stepped inside a few strides, but given the ivy that slithered to block his path and the way the gnomes crept around with miniature pitchforks, he decided to wait.

He was soon surrounded. "Harry Potter?" Bill asked him in disbelief. The twins slapped him on the back, stiff-armed as though their elbows were unable to bend. Ginny stepped through the pack when it eased. She too whispered his name in a way that tore at Harry for his deception.

Harry quickly said, "I'm sorry I can't stay long. But I need some help."

Mrs. Weasley had arrived, wand out, tied-back hair completely grey. "Out of the way. Out of the way." She gave Harry a quick hug. "Come inside, dear."

Harry wanted to ask where Ron was, but then wondered if he really wanted to know. His question was answered when he came in and found Ron in a floating chair, legs locked straight.

"Cursed, you know," he said, to Harry's staring. Adding: "That incident in the Atrium with the elves . . . maybe you heard about it?"

Rather than answer, Harry asked, "How are you doing?"

Ron shrugged. "I try not to drive Mum crazy. She's got enough on her hands with Fred and George being in and out of curse-punishment." He was about to ask something else. Harry could see in his friend's eyes and knew that he'd have to make up a lie to answer it. The question ballooned in Ron, painful and laden with the past.

Mrs. Weasley turned Harry around before Ron could say anything. "Bill said you need help and are in a hurry, dear; what is it you need?"

Harry shook himself from the notion of a coldly efficient Molly Weasley. "I need supplies. Food and a warm cloak. Very warm gloves, for flying in the cold. And a broomstick if you can spare it. Doesn't have to be fast so much as reliable."

The room went into motion, clearly accustomed to working in a panic as a group. Harry watched, moving forward when a charmed sack was produced, by joint magic of the stiff-armed twins, for holding everything. Cans and jars went into it until Harry lost count. The evening pot roast went in as well as plates and napkins and even the tablecloth.

Harry's deception on top of their generosity was nearly killing him. "I don't know how to repay you for this," he said, pain clear in his voice.

"No need," someone snapped fiercely, and others shook their heads in support.

Harry realized how to do it. He reached over to where Ron floated, holding jars of pickled beets that waited to be packed up. He grabbed Ron's shin and felt the curse coarse up sickeningly up his arm. Eyes watering, he pushed the curse away and Ron's leg bent, limp, and he gave a cry of surprise that brought everyone to a halt. Harry un-cursed Ron's other leg, and shook out his prickling hand. Ron jumped down from the chair and grabbed Harry's arm in gratitude.

"Can't be seen like that," Bill pointed out to his brother.

"I don't care. I'll hide in the house."

"Us next?" one of the twins sheepishly asked.

Household uncursed, Harry bundled the lip of the small sack with the twine handed to him and tossed it easily over his shoulder.

"You can't even stay a little while more?" Ginny asked. "We want to hear what happened. We all thought you were dead. What did Dumbledore do? Where have you been?"

Harry peered around their pale, red-framed faces. "I'm sorry. I can't explain, as much as I'd like to. I miss you all terribly but it . . . it just isn't possible."

"Thanks for getting rid of Ole-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned," one of the twins said.

"That was the easy part. All of you have the hard part of cleaning up the Ministry."

"That's for certain," Mrs. Weasley coldly agreed, again surprising Harry.

Harry looked them all over again as he looped the cloak over his arm and took up the battered broomstick. "Thanks. I won't forget you."

A chorus of well-wishing followed Harry to the door. "Take it easy, Potter." "Stop in any time." "Don't let the Trolls eat you."

Harry waved several times as he departed, and waited until he was out of view to disappear.

Back in the Arctic, he quietly set the sack down in the stone-floored kitchen area so as not to awaken Snape, who was curled up, sleeping, looking distressingly half dead. Harry rested the broom in the ceiling of the hut and draped the cloak over Snape, which woke him. He sat up quickly, but then winced severely.

"At the risk of sounding ungrateful . . . I hope you have food," Snape said through clenched teeth.

Harry reached into the sack and pulled out the tablecloth, placesetting and the roast. "Here. Compliments of the Weasleys."

Snape had taken up the fork and knife but at this last pronouncement, he stared, eyes glazed, at the food, seeming undone. Something compelled him to move, perhaps primeval hunger and, shakily, he made a jagged slice in the roast. He cleared his throat and said, "I do not think I have ever been brought so low, so humbled, as this moment."

"It's good for you," Harry said. "Builds character."

Snape snorted, but his mouth relaxed as though, minus the bruises, he might have smiled, or at least smirked.

Harry said, "Get better, and move on, somewhere far from England. Forget everything and start over again. Without the Mark no one can prove who you are."

Snape swallowed and cut another generous, juice leeching bite. "Why are you doing this?"

Harry replied, "I have my reasons. You don't need to know them if you are benefiting from them."

Snape took another bite and said, "Benefactors are far more dangerous than enemies. They expect something in return. Enemies just expect you to be yourself."

"I don't want anything from you but that you stay out of trouble so I can focus on what I need to do."

"And what might that be . . . mastering the Universe?" Snape asked.

"I'm just doing what everyone does. Trying to get by, stay out of trouble, learn some magic. Nothing unusual."

Eating had given Snape his old attitude back. "Why do I find that highly doubtful?"

Harry warned, "This time I'm really not coming back."

"I believed you the last time," Snape said, falling quiet and strained again. "Thank you for lying."

"You're welcome. Just make something out of this second chance, all right? Then we're even."

"Third chance."

"Who's counting?"

- 888 -


Vineet stopped at the base of the steps to Hogwarts castle. The path was familiar from his round of attenuation lessons the previous school year and habit had carried him well until the grass became step.

He was behaving like someone other than himself and rather than finding that alarming, he found it a relief. A gust of wind blew the great front doors against the latch, and that felt like a signal. He stepped up and slipped inside, tugging the door closed hard behind him against the weather. In contrast it was sultry inside. A fire burned vigorously in the Entrance Hall hearth. Students sat on the Grand Staircase, one group sharing notes, another play-fighting over something of value.

"Vishnu, is it not?" a familiar voice said, drawing Vineet from ascending the stairs upward.

Vineet turned to McGonagall and bowed formally, hands pressed together.

"Your lessons with Sinistra have not resumed, have they?"

"No, this is a visit," Vineet said, wondering now if he were breaking school protocol that he had not needed to learn last time. Surely there were rules about visitors, even if no one had mentioned them to him before. Vineet felt dizzy with a remote part of him wishing to be sent away from this place.

She winked at him, dashing the hopes of that last sparkle of righteousness. "It's not a problem, young man. I do keep things a little more secure here than perhaps the school has historically been. I find as soon as I relax the habit for great care, something transpires to necessitate a return to previous security. But Ministry employees and certainly Auror apprentices are always welcome." She held back her sleeve to gesture to the stairs. "Please," she said, sounding eager for him to continue on.

Vineet bowed just with his head this time and mounted the staircase.

McGonagall followed along with him as he travelled through the castle. Beyond the Entrance Hall the corridors held chilly air and he was glad he had not shucked his cloak. McGonagall made slow elegant small talk as they went.

Just before the door to Hermione's office, when Vineet wished for her to be absent when he knocked, she held out a hand to the door latch and held fast. Quietly, she said, "I'm very glad you're here." With that she pushed the latch and slipped away.

The door creaked open an inch and Vineet, reeling from the way the world was conspiring to channel him along this path, knocked on the dense wood of the ajar door.

Hermione's voice sounded higher pitched than normal as she called that whoever it was could enter. She was working at something with a long quill. She looked up and held still in surprise before putting the quill on the stand beside the inkwell and pushing the sheet away by the edges.

"Hi," she said.

"I wished to speak with you; if that is possible," Vineet said, finding refuge in that limited intent.

"Close the door. Come on in," she said, restraining pleasure behind standard words. She fidgeted but then stood and came around the desk.

They met in the middle of the room between the two student desks facing her larger one.

"It's good to see you again so soon," she said, pained but with eyes glowing. She glanced around, perhaps for a normal chair to offer, considered the chairs lined up against the wall, then turned away from them. Instead, she simply pulled him down into a kiss.

His wet cloak hung forward over his shoulders, feeling cold and leaden trapped between them. He pulled away long enough to drop it to the floor and wrap her up so he could feel every square inch of warmth where they touched.

- 888 -


Harry sat up when the latent heat of his hearthstone seeped fully into his bones. He rubbed his eyes and glanced around his blessedly quiet and familiar room. His heart ached a bit from seeing Snape in that tortured state, but he had succeeded, and that let him breathe freely. He sat with his back to the dark hearth, forcing himself to pledge to not return there again. This time he truly had done all he could. Everything else would have to take care of itself. He wanted to believe in his own pledge but felt doubt nonetheless.

When Vineet returned in the Floo, Harry, who had arrived with a comfortable fifteen minutes to spare, was lounging on the couch with tea spread on a nearby tray.

"Hungry?" Harry asked his friend.

Vineet shook his head and took the couch opposite. He appeared a little shell shocked but far more relaxed and present than before.

"How did it go?" Harry asked.

"I think we reached an understanding."

"That's good. What was that?"

Vineet hesitated, struggled to explain, then said, "I don't have words for it."

Harry rubbed away his instant grin.

"And your errand?" Vineet asked, drawing outside himself in a sign of improved disposition.

"Good. I'm glad I took care of it. It was almost too late. But it's done now."

Vineet clasped his hands together. "May I ask if it involved anything illegal?"

"No," Harry immediately replied, thinking there were no rules about inter-dimensional travel. But then he thought again about springing a prisoner from the Ministry dungeon. "Well . . . it depends on whose rules apply."

Vineet said, "I only ask because I wonder how seriously I need to take making up a story in the future."

"You won't need to make up a story," Harry assured him. "I didn't break any of this Ministry's rules."

"Just those of a different Ministry?"

"Something along those lines," Harry said.

"The Latvian Ministry's rules, perhaps?"

"I helped out a friend who was in dire straits. That's all. You're one to suddenly care about the rules," Harry finally stopped resisting pointing out.

"I am trying to return to the habit as quickly as possible. I should not have let you convince me to leave you untended. I was weaker than I wished to be when you suggested it. But that is no excuse."

"Sorry about that. I think I took advantage of you, even if everything worked out."

Vineet bowed acceptance of Harry's apology and they fell into other topics. They were still sitting there discussing minor things when Snape arrived home early for dinner.

"Candide hasn't returned from work," Harry explained. "We're just having an easy Saturday here."

"Are you? Nice to have friends available as guards." Snape stated this flatly enough to make Harry's brow furrow. "Any other friends around this afternoon?" Snape asked.

Harry only saw the trap after it had sprung. He considered lying, contriving something with Ginny who would back him up in a pinch but could not withstand any Legilimency. Harry exhaled broadly and said, "No."

"Mr. Abhayananda, I will take over for the evening; if you would leave us alone."

Vineet stood and gave a low bow. "It will not happen again."

"I am most assured of that already," Snape stated. "On that note, Headmistress McGonagall wanted you to know that you can visit the school anytime and in fact wishes to know if you would like to teach a session on Asian magic."

Vineet stopped and bowed again before exiting with a clear line of relief to his posture.

Snape stood stock still until he and Harry were alone. "You are not to shake your guard. You are grounded for the week."

Harry frowned. "What does that entail?"

"It means you will be here in this house unless you have official duties to attend to. No pubs, friends who aren't assigned guards, or nights at Ms. Tonks' flat." Snape flicked his cloak and sat across from Harry. "I fear asking what you were doing."

"Don't ask, then," Harry quipped.

Snape's brow arched. "At the risk of sounding the bad parent, you were sloppy about covering yourself as well. I was certain to hear that your fellow was at Hogwarts this afternoon. He made no secret of his presence." He sat back, satisfied with this critique. "Have you shaken your guard previously?"

Harry wanted to be truthful where he could. "Once. To sneak into the Department of Mysteries. Tonks let me off for a few hours when I asked. I wanted to see what was going on there."

"Ms. Tonks as well. Goodness, is there no one to rely on at that place?"

Snape stood with a huff and slipped over to the drawing room doorway. "I hope you had plans this evening . . ."

"You hope I did?" Harry asked, confused.

"Yes," Snape retorted dryly, "So that you must cancel them." He disappeared into the next room.

Harry sighed, feeling bemused by getting into trouble with Snape after saving Snape. But he was loath to admit what he had been doing. Harry called down his owl to send a message to Ron telling him he would miss Sunday dinner at the Burrow. While he sat with quill poised, trying to decide whether to admit he was in trouble, Snape wandered back through.

He stopped and said, "What were you doing that required you to shake your guard?"

"Will it change my punishment if I had a good reason?"

"No."

"Then I'm not telling you." Harry dipped his quill and started to write out that he was in trouble because it was just easier to admit it instead of making something up. He finally looked back up at Snape when the other moved to lean on the back of the other couch, hands gripping tightly. They stared at each other until Harry looked down again at the letter before him. The quill had splotched ink where it rested, so he crossed out the word "trouble" and wrote it out again. Snape did not move, he stood there thinking for over a minute.

"I have a life to live," Harry said, even though this felt like a lie, given that he had used his free time to live someone else's life.

"Only if you survive to live it."

"Oh, come on," Harry complained. "You're acting like I've never been in danger before. Everyone is. I got less protection when I was eleven."

"That is not technically true; you just were unaware of the protection around you. Is that what this is about?"

"No," Harry insisted, shaking his head and abandoning his letter for the moment because he'd splotched it again. "I just have things I need to do sometimes. Why can't you just accept that?"

Snape formulated an answer before replying, "Because the possibilities engendered by your power are alarming in their scope."

Harry took a deep breath. "It's still my life," he said softly.

Snape kneaded his fingertips into his forehead in a gesture mimicking the one his alternative self used repeatedly while injured. Harry bit his lip.

"I don't mean to make things hard for you," Harry said, which was the truth, even though it did not change his will any to acknowledge it.

- 888 -


Ginny and Ron came on Sunday in response to his letter, forcing Harry to explain in a low voice that he was grounded.

"How old are you now?" Ron asked.

"It has nothing to do with that. I think I'd get grounded for shaking my guard if I were thirty. I'm afraid you can't stay," he said, when Ginny changed the topic to try to tell him something about the twins' shop.

"That's all right, Ginny's got a date tonight with his highness," Ron teased.

A blush tainted Ginny's cheeks. "It's just to the cinema."

"Aaron finally asked you out?" Harry asked, but was interrupted by Snape clearing his throat from the doorway. Harry's guardian glared at them all, arms crossed. "You have to go," Harry said, shooing his friends off.

When they were gone, he and Snape stared at each other for a few breaths before Snape returned to the main hall, leaving Harry wondering idly if he still needed him, really. In his gut he believed he did, but another voice in his head needled him mockingly that he should not stand for being treated like a child.

That evening, Harry sat in the main hall, taking notes from his books with slow, bored, grudging purpose, stalling by doodling in the margins. He doodled his pets and then the Dark Mark, remembering the ashy image of it as it emerged from the alternative Snape's arm, remembering how it had called to something inside of him. If he could shed this piece of Voldemort, he would need Snape less, it occurred to him. Harry casually slipped that parchment under the next as Snape approached. He turned the page in his book and pretended to resume reading.

"I am returning to Hogwarts now," Snape stated coldly.

"All right."

Snape appeared to relent a little. "Harry . . ." he began, with more emotion, but faded out and shifted to frustrated. He sat down, hands clasped as though cold.

"Are you more worried about me than you would be if I didn't still have part of Voldemort in me?" Harry asked, since it was flitting around in his immediate thoughts.

"That has almost nothing to do with it. I assume by now you are accustomed to living as you have most all your life, with him included. No, what I fear is trouble you do not foresee, and in fact create for yourself out of earnest heroism or simple naïveté."

Harry thought about his previous day's foray and said with a touch of sheepishness, "I'm getting better at recovering from those."

"Practice does help," Snape stated wryly.

Harry wanted to tell him that he was going to inform Tonks of his powers. That he ached to tell her so she would trust him more. But before he could work himself up to it given the tension they already had, Snape returned to a more pleading attitude and said, "I have to do what I can, Harry, even at the risk of alienating you, which I see I am doing." Snape rose to his feet and stepped over to rest a hand on Harry's shoulder for a second before departing with a last goodbye to Candide.

In his absence, Harry sat staring at the doorway to the dining room, wondering again with a prickling chill across his skin if he had again landed somewhere similar but new. This time it was definitely his fault if that had happened. Perhaps every time he left he returned somewhere new. If that was the case, he was lost utterly now. But he could not ask for further reassurance without admitting he had departed once again. Harry shook his head and headed up to his room to take Kali out of her cage.

- 888 -


Ginny sat, happily eating a meal in a white-clad restaurant she could never imagine affording to read the menu of, much less order anything in. Across the neat table and crystal candlesticks, Aaron exhibited his disarming goofy gallantness as they tucked into one course after another.

Aaron gestured at their personal waiter to top up the wine glasses. "I asked Harry for permission to take you out, you know," he said.

"You what?" Ginny blurted, attracting glances from neighboring tables. The waiter, a true professional, reacted not at all. Ginny ducked her head and said, "Why did you do that?"

"He said you were like a sister," Aaron teased.

"I don't need another brother," Ginny insisted firmly. "Especially not a meddling one."

"Does Harry meddle?" Aaron asked.

Ginny drank a gulp of wine. "I don't know. Depends on what he said."

"He said he was fine with it."

Between sips she muttered, "Yeah, figures."

Aaron's eyes glittered in the candlelight. "Oh, I suspected your torch for him was still flickering a little."

"Ignore it. I try to."

Aaron, who was drinking far more than his share of the wine, held up his glass. "That's the spirit."

They lingered over the second bottle of wine and missed the last film of the evening.

Standing before the cinema, Aaron retook Ginny's arm and said, "We'll just go to my place."

Aaron's flat was a multi-level, high-ceilinged modern home with tall windows garnished by ivy shaped bars. Despite the copious windows and the November weather, the room was pleasantly warm as Aaron hung their cloaks up.

"Have a seat," he said.

"Nice place," she said.

"It's a trap," Aaron sighed.

"It is?"

He sat down beside her. "It keeps me in my mother's clutches."

"I was thinking the windows reminded me of a bird cage, actually," she said, hiding her grin.

He peered at the windows in turn. "You think so? You know the decorator my mum hired would be just the type of bloke to make a statement like that." He sighed and slipped an arm around her. "Well, it's nice to have company when stuck in a cage." He bent and kissed her fervently. And when she made a noise of surprise, he leaned back and noticed she was pressed ungainly back onto the piled throw pillows. He said, "We can move to the bedroom where it's more comfortable."

"Uh . . ." she began, putting a hand up while grasping for words.

Aaron straightened, and said, "Oh. Too soon for that, I see."

She let out a breath and sat up. "Yeah," she breathed like a huff.

This generated a raised brow. Aaron stood suddenly and said, "Let's have ice cream instead."

She managed to say, "You can eat again already?"

Aaron was digging around in the stainless steel kitchen, through the drawers and the freezer. He took out a tub of ice cream and began scooping like a man possessed.

"Here," he pushed a bowl over and straightened it neatly before her. "Chocolate sauce?"

"Uh, sure."

He fetched out a full jar and poured out a dollop.

"More than that," she said, pushing her bowl closer.

He made the white scoops swim and she said, "Stop. Thanks." She settled onto one of the tall bar stools and accepted the spoon and ate despite not being hungry.

He put things away and settled on the next stool over, behind his own bowl.

Ginny, mouth half frozen, said, "So, uh, we're having ice cream instead of . . . something else."

Bent over his bowl, he said, "Oh yeah."

"What's the problem?" she asked. "You're just too fast, is all," she added, blushing against her will.

He cleaned his spoon with his mouth and used it to accentuate his speech by waving it. "There is no such thing as slow enough with a virgin," he asserted.

"Yeah, there is," she lightly snapped.

"Not with me. I don't know what to do," he said, now sounding almost helpless.

"If you don't know what to do . . . how in the world is a virgin supposed to know what to do?"

He fell thoughtful, which he wore well because it was such an unusual expression for him. "You have a point there. But nevertheless."

She dropped her spoon into her bowl where it rattled around. "Sorry to waste your time."

Mouth full of white ice cream, he mumblingly said, "I didn't say that. What makes you say that?"

She dropped her shoulders. "I just assumed."

He swallowed and cleaned his spoon again by sucking generously on it, then relocated everything to the distant sink with a wave of his wand. "Not at all," he insisted.

"So," she said, partly to trip him up, "we can go out again?"

"Yeah. Why not. I had a good time." He propped his chin on his hand and critically peered at her. "How did you get through school . . ."

"Don't ask," she snapped, but then decided to kvetch. "It's not like there is a really big pool of possible wizard dates or anything."

"Hm." He pondered that. "I'll admit I find myself extending the acceptable age range as the years pass. So, I guess I'd have to agree. I don't remember that being a problem at Hogwarts . . . lack of opportunity, that is." He sounded debonair as well as teasing.

He then said, "If you are set, I'll take you home."

She started to go, but paused to say, "Hey, does this have anything to do with my dad?"

"What part?"

"Any of it."

"No."

"Well, that's something."

He presented her with an arm to escort her across the flat. "How about Wednesday we do something? If we knock off afternoon studies early enough we can make the kid's matinée . . ."

She cocked her arm as though to hit him with her free hand. "You are so in trouble," she threatened.

He chuckled. "Oh, come on," he said. "Lighten up. You'll be happier."

"I'm perfectly light, thank you."

At the hearth, he held out a crystal goblet to take Floo powder from. "Well, this way I can face your father easily. So perhaps it has a tiny bit to do with him."

She dropped her head, dejected. "Hm."

"Didn't you have a nice time?"

She didn't raise her head. "I had a great time." Then still staring at her shoes. "I like being around you."

"But not looking at me . . ." he teased.

"I'm horribly embarrassed here already . . . can we go?"

- 888 -


At training on Monday, Harry watched Aaron saunter in and gamely greet everyone. Vineet came in behind him, appearing more his old self, which is to say, unanimated but lacking the sad edge he had been exuding.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked him.

Vineet responded with a simple nod to the side. Rodgers hurried in and set a disorganized pile of books and notes on the front table. His presence sent a chill through Harry.

When he was called up to the front of the room, Harry tried not to show his dislike, but his seriousness generated an immediate comment.

"You don't look happy to be here, Potter," Rodgers said.

"I have a lot on my mind, sir," Harry explained.

"Not in here, you don't. One thing only." He raised his wand and hovered a mirror into place behind Harry. "We're going to try this a little differently today since some of you were a little slow last week in picking this up. I'm going to spell you in the mirror and I want you to block the reflection, not the initial casting."

"Only a few spells will work that way," Kerry Ann pointed out.

Rodgers slid his eyes to her. "I am well aware of that. Thank you," he stated tiresomely.

Harry now found their trainer's slightly obnoxious attitude impossible to ignore, rather than just annoying. And between his turns at practice, Harry pondered how different sets of circumstances could bring out different parts of someone's personality. He could easily imagine this Rodgers torturing Snape under the right circumstances, and that made him feel he already had.

"Still grim?" Rodgers teased when Harry came up again.

Harry felt like hitting him with a blasting curse but he did not so much as let his wand twitch in that direction. "Yes sir. This is serious business, isn't it? That's what you always say."

Mollified, Rodgers said, "I do say that. Well, give it another go. Wand up."

At lunchtime, Rodgers pulled Harry back into the room with the words. "Just a second, Potter."

Harry let Tridant slide by him in the doorway and the door swung closed.

Rodgers said, "You act like I offended you somehow. When I say leave it outside, I mean it."

"Yes, sir," Harry said. He avoided the man's gaze, but when the silence dragged on, he glanced up and found eyes more human than he expected.

"Something going on?" Rodgers asked.

Leave it outside. Leave it behind. Harry chanted to himself. It wasn't this man; even if this man seems perfectly capable. "Some stuff. But you're right; I should leave it outside the Ministry."

"Okay, then," Rodgers said. "Just the way you were looking at me back there, like you wanted a real fight."

Harry silently agreed that was true and rubbed his hair around. "Sorry about that."

"I don't mind you getting into the spirit of things, but there is a limit and I've seen that look enough times, but not, I confess, on the face of someone I may have to rely on."

Harry had no interest in explaining. "I'll keep it outside, sir," he insisted. And to himself, he pledged to keep an eye on Rodgers, but for now would stop assuming the worst about him.

"That's fine," Rodgers said. "But as well, if you have something you really need to say, just say it."

Harry hesitated, but said, "I'd prefer you not get personal."

"Hm." Rodgers tapped his wand on the nearby table, letting it bounce. "If it bothers you so when I harangue you about your adoptive father . . . I think that's something you need to work on. Not me." He sounded hard as he said this.

Harry did not really want to argue. This was not the real issue, even if it was something that irked him. "I just don't like it when you're cruel," Harry said, aiming closer to the real issue.

"You think the world is always nice? Oh, I forget. To you it may be."

"You must be joking," Harry said, finding new annoyance with the man before him. "Look, we don't come in here and make fun of you and your ex do we?"

This found the mark. Rodgers eyes flared with something volatile. "You aren't in charge. It's not the same."

Harry saw no alternative to continuing. "It IS all the same. Why don't you have more respect for others around you?" Harry dropped his gaze, wanting to drop the whole conversation. This tactic was not going to help anything. "I'm sorry if I'm out of line, sir. I just . . . think your not being especially considerate is a sign of . . . something else that may need attention."

"If you aren't hard enough, this world will eat you alive," Rodgers insisted, sounding as hard as anyone Harry had ever heard.

"That's not really true, sir," Harry said, quietly, calmly and insistently. "And I think I have more than enough experience to know if it weren't."

They stared at each other. Rodgers said, "Maybe you're just better than I am, Potter."

Harry replied, "I don't think so, sir. Everything we do is the result of a choice we make."

"Hmf," Rodgers breathed through his nose. With a glance up and down Harry, he said, "Well, it's lunchtime."



Author's Notes: We may just be getting back to a regular 1-2 week schedule. Hopefully.



Next: Chapter 18

Harry laughed. "Want me to read aloud?"

Aaron sat straight to peer over the rim of Harry's book. "No. I'm too far behind you." He jerked his head to stare out the darkening window, appeared to consider standing again, but sat back with his book instead.

"What is it?" Harry asked,

"I don't want to sound paranoid, but lately I feel like I'm being watched."

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