Chapter 22 — Twenty Years Later, Part III

Exhausted, Harry fell back on the couch in the main hall in Shrewsthorpe. He dearly wanted to attempt suppressing a curse cast at him by someone other than himself, but he did not, at all, feel like getting cursed right then. Tonks settled in beside him, arm around his shoulders.

"You two are so darling together," Candide said, leaning back with relish on the couch opposite. "It's the contrast with your hair I guess. Harry's dark and short, Tonks' long and upright."

Tonks' hair drooped, darkening until it looked like Harry's. Her face shifted too, nose and brow changing until she was a glancingly passable imitation of him.

"Oh, now, that's just disturbing," Candide said, eyes dashing between them.

"Tell Harry that," Tonks opaquely said.

Candide's face grew curiously perturbed but she withheld a follow-up question and turned to her files instead.

"Still too much work, eh?" Tonks asked.

"After Tuesday it will all be over with, for the most part. That's the end of the month." She looked up at them. "Why don't you lovebirds go out for the evening?"

Harry shook his head. "I'm tired," he said, leaving off explaining that someone should guard her as well.

Tonks said, "I'm looking forward to a proper, elf-cooked meal, I am."

"You wouldn't look so terribly forward to it if you actually bought groceries on occasion," Harry pointed out.

"Like I have time." She glanced around the hall. The tall clock chimed once for the quarter hour. "If I wish for a drink will Winky bring one?"

"You have to want one badly enough," Harry teased.

She sighed and propped her chin on his shoulder. "I thought I did."

Moments later Winky appeared in a sparkle, delivered something tall that smoked, and disappeared again.

With feeling, Tonks said, "Wow, you've got it so good here, Harry."

This gave Harry pause, since it echoed his thoughts from the other Plane. "You think?"

Tonk's propped her drink on her palm and licked the rim. "What? You don't?"

"I suppose." Harry considered that other place. He did not want to be that other Harry, and imagining that he could have been made him uneasy. Dumbledore had specifically made certain he did not grow up that way. So the risk had been real, even in this Plane, without his parents to help him along that path. It was Harry's low upbringing at the Dursleys that had made him choose Gryffindor over Slytherin when the time came to do so. Although, that seemed less important a decision now than it had before. Maybe that other Harry choose Gryffindor because that's what his father would have wanted. That Harry already believed he was "great"; the hat could not use that as bait like it had for him.

Tonks hmed over her drink, savoring it. Harry watched her sip the milky brown liquid that left foam strata rings on the glass as it disappeared. "What is that?"

"Hot Butterbeer milkshake. I just had a craving for one."

"Uh oh," Candide said without pausing in her sorting.

Tonks scoffed. "Not to worry."

Harry's heart found a semi-normal rhythm again, but it took a while to settle down completely. He found Candide grinning at him when he next looked over at her. He let her see his relief, badly needing to share it. The both relapsed into smiles and Candide returned to her work.

He leaned back and breathed in the familiar scent of home. What was he missing, he wondered. Not much, if anything. Well, his adoptive father was not exactly home often. But he should be home tomorrow. Harry felt an acute need to see him, which had not happened in a while. He was the main reason Harry's life had sorted out like it had and Harry wanted to be reassured of that reality.

Tonks set her glass down and leaned against Harry, who distractedly slipped an arm around her and rested his head back.

"You two are very twee there," Candide said.

"No we're not," they replied in sync.

"Even that's cute," Candide asserted.

The clock ticked, marking the evening out. "You're my guard all night, right?" Harry quietly asked the head resting beside his lips.

"Yep."

"Good."

- 888 -


Snape arrived home Saturday morning while Harry, Tonks and Candide sat in the main hall, each involved in their own reading. Tonks stood up just as Snape strode into the room, tugging his gloves off, a finger at a time. Her quick departure made Harry wonder if she was eager to leave. He was torn between this concern and his pleasure at seeing his guardian.

"I'll see you later?" Harry asked the departing Tonks.

"You have field work tonight, right?" she asked. "I have things to take care of before shift. So I'll see you then, probably."

Snape watched her go and, appearing thoughtful, strolled over before Harry. He shook the Floo soot from his gloves and folded them away. "If you have time, I wish to speak to you," he said to Harry.

Candide lifted her head, jostling her hastily pinned hair so that it fell. She tugged the clip free and held it while shaking her hair loose. "Do you want to be alone?"

"No," Snape said. "Please remain, unless we are distracting you."

Harry could not read him. He wanted to ask him to try some curse drills with him, but that idea slid aside when he fleetingly worried that he may be facing another grounding. "What is it?"

Snape checked the house for bugs and returned to the same spot before Harry. He spoke deliberately. "Meeting your younger self made me realize a few things," he began, snapping his sleeves once before letting his hands rest at his sides. "When you were young, first starting at Hogwarts, I do not believe you were looking for a parent. Nor do I think you would have accepted one. You were far too accustomed to getting by on your own. What I think you needed were friends more than anything, which you found, easily enough."

Harry blinked in surprise at this conversation. After his trip yesterday, he wished to share how he newly perceived his life; how he accepted now that a grim start could work to one's advantage. He had not figured out how to broach this topic without admitting he had journeyed out of this world yet again, but he had hoped to come up with something. To be faced with Snape expressing usually close-kept thoughts struck him as flukish.

When Harry remained silent, Snape paced once, hands clasped behind him and went on. "When I brought you home here, you were marginally willing to accept having a father, partly because you saw it as your last chance ever to have one. That and you were quite worn down and, for the first time, willing to accept a home as well as help from someone older than your friends." When Harry remained stunned silent, mind following too many trails to respond intelligently, Snape prompted, "Do you concur?"

"Yes," Harry said. He thought back to that time when the house surrounding him now was novel and everything about his life felt terribly uncertain. He struggled while piercingly remembering that the hardest thing had been trusting that this help would not be unceremoniously pulled out from under him. Rather than voice this, he resorted to nodding to accentuate his agreement.

Snape sighed and said, "But I think we have come full circle at this point. I think you are back to needing friends, not a father."

"I don't think that's true," Harry countered. When Snape did not argue, just waited, Harry tried to explain. Across from him, Candide had abandoned her work to watch the two of them, tennis-match style. "I still need someone to tell me when I'm messing up."

"Good friends do that," Snape pointed out.

"Yeah, but it's different with a father," Harry said, despite being unprepared to express in what way.

"Oh, it is," Snape filled in. "To wit: fathers expect to be obeyed . . . at least some of the time."

Harry frowned wryly.

"You see," Snape gently said, "you have returned to trusting only your own judgment. You give mine very little regard."

"I listen to what you say," Harry said. "I just . . ."

"Don't follow it. Correct." Snape shifted to cross his arms, but appeared to consciously drop his arms to the sides.

Upstairs, Harry's pet rattled her cage loud enough to be heard. Harry waved his wand in that direction to free her, and she sailed several loops around the room before settling on his shoulder.

"I do not bring this up to disturb you," Snape said, glancing at Harry's uneasy pet. "I think we need to change the situation to something more workable, so I am merely stating things as I see them."

Harry, neck sore from peering upward, said, "Why don't you sit down? Make yourself at home."

Snape pulled a straight-backed chair over between the couches and sat rigidly in it, hands steepled in his lap. "I think you temporarily accepted a father, but that time has passed." He cut Harry off. "Yes, you wish to deny it. Which is fine, really. Touching perhaps even, but it is some residual instinct only, I feel certain."

"Severus . . ." Harry argued. "I like being in this family. I like living here, having your advice and to have you as, er, backup when things go wrong."

Still unerringly calm, Snape returned, "I have not disputed any of these things. All I am disputing is that you remain willing to allow me to act as a father to you."

Hearing Tonks' words echo in his head, Harry said, "You're not giving up on me, are you?"

Snape's face gave the first twitch of pain the whole conversation. "Never. That is precisely the opposite of what this is about."

"Oh, good."

Snape crossed his arms and fell into lecture mode. "This is the dilemma: You are unable to do as I say, but I insist on making certain you come to no harm." He let that lie for a moment. Harry's eyes flickered downward, partly because he had just the day before done something he knew would strongly meet with disapproval and he was not Occluding his mind all that strongly.

Snape went on, "What I am proposing is a change in how we relate. I will resist my penchant for directing your actions and you will seek me out more often for advice, as well as keep me better informed of what you are doing."

Harry did not feel certain it could be that easy. "You think that will work?"

"I don't know. I think it is up to you."

Candide's papers shuffled as she returned to sorting during the lull that followed. Harry plucked his pet up off his shoulder where she was chewing his hair and propped her on his knee instead.

Snape said, "For example. You returned again to that other Plane where you destroyed Voldemort. That was not wise."

"I didn't have any choice," Harry argued.

"You always have a choice."

"That's not true. I couldn't leave it like that, with your double in bad circumstances. Circumstances I caused." Kali began chewing on his robes as his agitation affected her. "I don't know how you could think I could just leave it."

"You believe you fixed things?" Snape asked.

Harry sensed a trap; it was something about the tone Snape used to ask the question. It reminded him of a dungeon door slowly creaking open, revealing an unlit passageway.

Harry answered honestly, "Yes."

"You received two short glimpses of another world and you believe you knew enough to meddle so thoroughly in that place?"

Now at least, it was clear where this was heading.

"That place wasn't so different from this one," Harry said, no longer arguing. "I had to off Voldemort and I had to rescue that other Snape."

Softly, Snape pointed out, "You did not answer the question."

"I suppose, then, yes, I think I did know enough."

Snape stood at this and produced a rolled leather satchel like a craftsman might use to tie up fine tools. Moving with purpose, he set his chair aside, hovered the couch Harry rested upon to get it out of the way, and said to Candide, "If you wouldn't mind. I would prefer that you remain at least thirty feet from what I am going to do."

She blinked at him. "Can I watch?"

Snape gestured at the dining room. "From the other side of the room. Certainly."

Candide eagerly gathered up her things and vacated them to the dining room and then stood in the doorway. Snape had already moved the other couch to clear a wide space on the floor. He unrolled the satchel at his feet with a flick. Inside it, caught in neat leather loops were rolls of fine, silk twine, chalk, telescoping rods, candles and other oddments.

"What are you doing?" Harry asked.

"Without sending you away again, I wish to demonstrate your mistaken belief in what you did."

Harry stood and came around to where Snape was fixing a dowel to the floor with a dab of wax. "How do you know it's a mistaken belief?"

"The world, this world, any world, is far more complex than you are treating it. If I am wrong, so be it. But if I am correct, I will have proved something very important to you . . . without having grounded you, or shouted, or anything of that nature."

"You haven't shouted in a long time," Harry said, feeling sheepish and willing to fall into to a teenage mode. He drew his lips in between his teeth as he watched Snape use twine and chalk to draw a large circle on the floor. Harry had to step out of the way of letting the broad arc of it close off. "What are you doing?" Harry asked again as the dowel was freed from the floor with a quick heat spell and placed at the top of the circle.

Snape took the twine he had used for the large circle and folded it into thirds then twice into halves. He then unwound five sections of that and made a knot. He used this length to make smaller circles around the circumference of the first. He did not answer until he had waxed down two rods at two seemingly random arc intersections and drew a blue chalk line along it, fingers positioned expertly to avoid deflecting the string. "I am preparing a five-sided device, with the expectation that you can use it to see into this place you visited."

Harry's jaw dropped open. He said, "I don't want you to make a pentagram; that's dark magic."

Snape gathered the twine around his wrist and held up the wooden dowel tied to it. "This is interesting, is it not? You believe this is not the best activity for me to be engaged in, but I think otherwise. I frequently think the same of your activities and you likewise disagree." They stared at each other until Harry backed down by dropping his gaze.

Harry watched as more long lines were drawn between arc intersections, slightly off from the center, forming a perfect pentagon in the middle. "That doesn't look like a pentagram," Harry said, despite seeing how it could be easily extended into one. He felt like being difficult, so the comment came out critical.

"It is actually a much more powerful device referred to as a twenty-vertex snark."

Harry raised a brow and considered making a comment about that.

"Something you want to say?" Snape eloquently asked, looking up long enough to give Harry an opportunity to do so. Harry declined and Snape returned to his attention to the diagram.

As the last of ten long lines were completed, Harry felt the floor vibrate and Kali took flight back to his room. "I don't think this is a good idea," he said. "I can already feel it activating. I don't want you messing with anything dark."

Snape handed him the chalk. "You finish it then."

Was this a test? Harry wondered. He studied the diagram without moving, and Snape said, "You need to make a string equal to the length of the distance between the outer circle and one of the pentagon vertices." When Harry had done that, he did as instructed and made arcs inward of the pentagon. Then he made more long lines, the intersections with the arcs told marked where to draw a perfect inner pentagon to the first. He was not as adept at mounting the dowels and tracing the twine for a straight line, so this proceeded slowly.

"I don't like this, Severus," Harry said again while bent ungainly over the artwork.

"Can you not control the interstice? I thought you were adept at this."

Another test. Harry was tiring of tests. "I can keep everything pressed down where it belongs," he insisted. "But you don't understand."

"Finish the points of the pentagram and we will move on. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can destroy the device." Snape levered himself to his feet, robes streaked with white chalk. "Candide. Thirty feet and if the baby so much as twitches I want you to Apparate away immediately."

"Severus . . ." Harry said, nearly pleading. He felt like he moved in a dream. He wanted to believe he was in the wrong place but some base instinct screamed that this was exactly right and believing otherwise a lame excuse. He had pushed Snape into this. "Why are we doing this?" Harry asked.

"Is it not safe?" Snape gestured at the nearby wall with his arm. "You treat journeying to this dreadful place as a stroll down the street outside. This is merely a minute gateway."

"There's a difference," Harry insisted. "You don't understand . . . I keep telling you. There's a big difference between traveling there and what happens when the Planes intersect."

Snape stared back thoughtfully now rather than haughtily. "Can you control it?" This was an honest question. "If you cannot, destroy the device."

"I can control it," Harry said. "That's not the problem. I just don't like it."

"I prefer that you don't like it. I wish you equally disliked every aspect of it." After a pause. "Finish the points of the pentagram."

While Harry drew in the last two, exerting increasing force to keep the interstice closed, Snape mounted a small brown candle on a skull and lit it. He handed this to Harry. "Set it in the middle and move aside."

Biting both his lips, Harry obeyed by leaning far over, limbs spread like a spider, careful of the chalk lines. With his fingertips, he pushed the skull to the center. Smoke bloomed from the candle, but it ceased to rise; it parted into five streams which snaked towards the vertices and disappeared, allowing only small spurting wisps of smoke into the room.

"You receive an "O" for this assignment," Snape drawled. "Well, done. Fetch me the skull."

Harry did not want to be anywhere near any of it. It pulsed and vibrated with morbid life or morbid death, or some halfway version of the two.

"Go on. If you can travel there, I do not see how this can harm you. It is the merest cracked window on that place you visit, frequently I suspect."

Harry, stretched long, propped on one knee, one toe and one hand, and grabbed up the skull candle. "This feels much worse than being there," he said, setting the skull aside.

"I think this is the only circumstances under which you truly can understand how foul that place is: when it is placed in stark contrast to this world." Snape fixed a lit white candle to each pentagram vertex, straightened, and gestured bluntly. "Go on. Step inside or destroy it if you cannot bear to."

Harry breathed deeply, preparing for a dive, and minced between the candles and over the lines until he stood in the very center of the center pentagon. Dizzying colorful sheets of sky and ground sailed up from the floor to disappear overhead, whispering and murmuring to him as they passed. When they passed close, they buffeted him, frosting his skin. Harry pulled his arms in and hunched over against the assault.

"Are you all right, Harry?" Snape asked.

Harry heard Snape clearly even over the wisps of noise. "Yeah. Can you see that?"

"No. What is it you see?"

Harry tried to better examine one of the fluttering membranes as it whisked by. His attention slowed the scene's course and he glimpsed fields and a city with red banners fluttering on the towers before it slipped away. The next one he focused on bulged with smoky clouds and he glimpsed a gloomy London in a fog thick enough to hide the ground. Glowing street lamps rested atop the grey blanket flowing along the roads between the buildings. On the next he glimpsed witches sharing a broomstick while flying low over winter-bare trees.

"I see all possibility," Harry said, then rethought that absurd notion. "I think."

"Can you see the place you were before, the one you heroically returned to, certain you knew what was best?"

Harry opened his eyes, only then realizing they had been closed. Upward-sailing scenes continued to strike him, visible whether his eyes were open or closed. He stared at his guardian through them. "You really think I shouldn't have done that?"

Snape's pale countenance, floating in the frame of his pitch black hair and robes, was remarkably easy to focus on through the deluge. He said, "I believe it imperative that you understand what you are doing, what you have done, and what you could do. I do not believe for an instant that is true at this time."

- 888 -


Severus Snape slept through the long nights, nursing the last of his wounds, which had gloriously faded to dull throbs that only accompanied sudden movement. The hut he had been set up in felt more like a home than he would have imagined it could, perhaps the influence of the close, companionable fire that burned nonstop. The green wood he had magically chopped and piled outside smoked terribly, but the hut had been cleverly designed to funnel everything away through the roof when the smoke-hole tarpaulin and the ground vents were given periodic attention.

More healing to his stress-worn spirit was the absolute quiet of the place. After living in dread of his tormentor's boot steps approaching along the dungeon corridor, the deathly, white-dusted stillness acted as a balm. Rarely did anything ever stir, and if it did, its animal origin was always instantly clear. Reindeer trotted by, their hooves a subsonic thundering, felt more than heard. Wolf cries carried from far across the frozen lake. Birds called overhead. These were all welcome noises, reminders that the world had not been utterly drained of existence.

Snape bent to sort through the collection of possible potion ingredients from his last foraging trip. The takings were sparse, but unusual, requiring creativity to make the best of them, an intellectual lure that drew him willingly each morning from sleep deep within the bundled rough furs and borrowed cloak.

Fire stoked comfortably high, Snape sniffed at a dried pine needle, rubbed it on a dark stone, sniffed it again. That was when he heard the strange swish-swish like a sheer curtain being pulled aside and dropped again. Then came a crackle of icy snow, just outside the door. Snape silently put everything aside and stood up, wand out.

Nothing moved. The rushes under the furs that made up the floor were brittle and would snap if he walked across them, but to avoid the fire, there was no choice. Biting his lip, Snape bent low and dashed for the door, hoping to take the person outside by at least modest surprise.

Snape's exit from the small tilted door was met with a low growl. He stood to face a scrawny grey and white wolf showing every last yellowed tooth through its loose gums. It growled hard enough it had to pause and lick up the saliva that dribbled off its jowls. Startled to find an animal bold enough to venture this close, Snape backed up a step and considered retreating to fetch a burning log from the hearth, figuring this would teach the animal better than magic would that it should give the village a wide berth.

The wolf growled again, territorial instinct plain in its eyes, but oddly centered on the hut behind Snape. Snape lowered his wand fractionally. "Are you the shaman who lives here?" he asked, assuming that if he were wrong, no harm in talking at an animal.

The wolf's jaw snapped closed and it tilted its head curiously. An instant later, a man in animal skin breaches, tall rubber boots and long fur tunic stood in the wolf's stead. Snape, seeing no wand on the man, lowered his own. "I am an uninvited guest, I think," Snape admitted, trying to come up with appropriate human society noises to explain his presence. Seventeen days, by the counting of the low sunrises, he had been alone here, long enough to forget something he rarely practiced at the best of times.

The shaman, pale steel eyes glowing in the blue, otherworldly light, held up a hand to halt Snape's speech and slipped inside the hut, clearly adept at using the odd door.

He stepped over to stand among the things Snape had spread out and stared down at them. Snape waited in the entry area where a wedge of bare dirt was framed with logs. The shaman picked up the leaf parcels of ingredients, examining some of them with interest, and handed them to Snape with a curt gesture to set them on the other side of the hut. Snape did so, spreading out his cloak to set them, as well as himself, on.

The shaman did not speak, and when Snape tried to explain a bit, the shaman waved him off and felt in his tunic for something. He extracted a pouch and pipe, lit the pipe without a match or a wand and began puffing on it. The smoke smelled of nothing familiar, certainly not tobacco, perhaps bark.

Snape waited—for what, he was uncertain. An hour passed in this awkward silence.

The sound of Apparition outside startled Snape, but not his host. The door opened and a middle-aged woman with almond eyes and round cheeks ducked through the doorway. She sat down on the other side of the hut and shared the pipe. Despite the new arrival, no words were spoken for quite some time. Snape, who was grateful still simply to no longer be a prisoner at his guards' whim, had limitless patience for their slow pace.

It was some time after Snape laid down for a nap that the witch spoke, but in an incomprehensible tongue. The shaman replied likewise. Snape rocked to a sitting position and expressed interest even though he could not understand.

Silence fell and stretched long. Snape cleared his throat and said, "I do apologize for my intrusion. The person who brought me here seemed to know you. Perhaps you know him? Harry Potter."

The pair visibly stiffened. The shaman knocked the pipe bowl on a hearth stone and put it away with solemnity.

"Harry Potter brought you here?" the witch asked, disbelief clear.

"Yes," Snape said.

The pair glanced at each other, Snape could not catch their thoughts over the brightness of the hearth flames shielding them.

"Why?"

"To recover. I was injured."

Another impenetrable burst of conversation, then, "But why here?"

"You don't know Mr. Potter?" Snape asked, knowing well the best way to combat uncomfortable questions was with more questions.

Unsatisfactory silence met his query and nothing more was said.

Meal preparations commenced in equal silence, the only chatter coming from the implements used. By the time a wooden board with food was passed over to him, Snape was beginning to really like these people and especially their lack of incessant prattle.

After the meal, Snape's hosts began packing up amidst abbreviated back and forth conversation. The witch said, "We can just make it tonight. We will take you."

"Take me where?"

"To Potter."

Snape revealed more surprise that he liked when he blurted, "You're going to take me to Harry Potter?"

Nods from his hosts as they shrugged on their coats and shuffled out of the hut. Snape grabbed up his satchel of ingredients and his broomstick and hurried to follow. Outside, the two of them were strapping on skis. A pair was put down for him, which he balked at. He hovered his broomstick instead, and sat upon it. The shaman pointedly bundled the abandoned skis together and held them out. Snape perched them on his shoulder since he could not argue, as they shared no language in common to argue with.

Off they went, at a surprising pace given the age of the expedition. Snape flew along behind, sometimes holding the bundled skis out as a tow line to speed up long ascents. The first time this offer was made, it was turned down, but not the second time.

Hours glided by over the snowy, rocky landscape. In the distance to the left, deep valleys opened up, green with pines, but ahead of them the ground grew increasingly rocky and barren beneath the hissing snow.

Eventually, the broom gave out. It simply settled to the ground. Snape stood and brushed the snow off his cloak and stared down at it. The shaman gestured at the skis, which Snape reluctantly donned. The journey progressed far slower after that, especially since rather than pulling others uphill, Snape had to remove the skis and walk. An hour into this and his breath filled the air before his face with panting fog and he could not draw relief into his lungs no matter the effort he put into it.

Snape called for a rest and sat down on a rock, not caring that the cold of it sucked the heat from him. He remained hunched there until his breathing returned to normal. With a clearer head, he took in his surroundings. There was nothing here but blowing humps of white: the Sahara desert of snow. He peered at each of his companions in turn, but could detect nothing in their minds of concern to him, just a desire to move on and return home quickly.

Legs quivering, Snape stood and began breathing heavily to get ahead of it in hopes of not immediately falling breathless again. They continued their slow progress until the light began to fade, rendering the snow a slate blue-grey that masked large dips and buried rocks. Snape fell repeatedly, so he removed the skis and used them as walking sticks until the next downhill where he waited for both of them to reach the bottom and utilized the deeper of their two trails to follow.

The sloping ground met a rocky incline too steep to climb. The shaman pointed along this cliff-face and the witch said, "You'll have to go on alone."

Snape's tired brain did not allow him to do more than than stare at them. The skis were taken from his unresisting hands and the woman said, "Up around that way. Just a kilometer more. Go on. You cannot miss it."

"Miss what?" he asked, but they were already moving off with haste and glancing sharply around themselves, then up at the sky, which gave the distinct impression of apocalypse the way it fell in tumbling, torn flakes.

Snape pulled his cloak tightly around his body to block the wind and leaned into the path, picking his way carefully along the rugged join where the ground met cliff. The curving slope leveled off and the going became much easier even as the snow began to fall blindingly thick. As he parted the swirling wall of flakes, Snape kept the steep hill in view on his right to avoid losing his way in an endless, fatal circle.

The snow gusted first one way, then the other, alternating pelting and pushing, and then within a span of feet it slowed and trickled off to a few drifting flakes. Snape stopped and glanced behind him where the wind visibly corkscrewed the snow along the barren cliff.

Feeling more optimistic about finding something, Snape walked forward and stopped again when a glittering fortress trickled into view through the low-lit gloom, nestled in a dry gorge. At first glimpse it appeared to be a magnificent soaring ice replica of a castle, but closer in, deficiencies appeared. The turrets had melted and refrozen many times and in between had been re-grown with less skill than the original maker possessed.

Snape huffed in and out, fogging his view as he considered the scene. A sloping entrance had been cut in the side of the cliff and ice wall, leading to a high door, but below this, another door, a crack in the rock, really, led inside too. That way promised safer exploration of this strange place.

Snape made his way under the looming ice castle's gaze and slipped inside the crevice beneath it. The scent just inside alarmed him with its misplaced familiarity. He tossed a Lumos out of his wand and reeled back from what it illuminated: raw flesh. Catching himself on the wall of ice behind him, Snape gazed around at another hanging figure, half-butchered, thigh bone protruding. The thing swayed on a hook, antlers grazing the uneven stone floor. Snape patted his chest—a gesture he would have been appalled to be conscious of. Moving the wand, he examined the next figure, also partly butchered, but half-encased in the ice growing out from the wall. Beneath the glittering frozen surface, endless blood red figures hung in long rows, fully entombed.

Snape shook the spell from the wand and made his way back outside where the castle's splintered glow lit the gorge opening in a mockery of welcome. There was nothing for it; he could not stay down here and there was no other shelter. He could Apparate away, but the only destination in range was the place from which he had just been evicted.

Snape made his way gingerly up the icy path arcing along the cliff-face, wand at ready. At the top, the path broadened to a platform, framed by the ice columns of the doorway. There were no doors, so Snape slipped inside, shaking off the Lumos spell.

A wall blocked the entrance and, by design, the wind, but passages curled around it on either side. Snape slipped to the right, lured by a flickering hint of flames catching on the rippled, wet wall. Snape hesitated long enough to reassure himself that if this were Potter's house, he could be safely presumed to be hospitable, given his recent actions. Having seen the young man in battle, Snape had no desire to face his ire unleashed. He hesitated longer, even after establishing this logic, before reminding himself again that he had no choice.

Around the bend, indirect light mutely flooded a grand hall of ice, complete with facing ice hearths holding merrily crackling fires. The cathedral-like ceiling arched high above, interrupted only by the cliff face flattening it preemptively like a wound. A figure sat on a pile of furs, bent deeply over some sewing. Snape stood as frozen as the walls framing him as he took in the bizarrely familiar lines of the figure. The woman moved, sending clearer auburn hues off her hair. Snape ceased to breath as he watched, transfixed. Finally she raised her head to tug her work-piece around ninety degrees, removing all doubt besides that of lost sanity.

The woman froze as well and raised her gaze, alert. She stared at Snape, who could do nothing more than stare back. Lily Potter slipped her feet under her and stood straight with lean ease, showing alarm in her pose, even as her voice held something quite different. "Severus?"

Snape managed to shift one arm, the one holding his wand. He must have fallen in the snow, fallen and had lost his mind to the cold. That would explain the conflicting hallucination of ice and fire—he was hypothermic, dying. He could not bring himself to care about this conclusion—to spell himself with a heat charm to recover; he feared the vision would fade if he did and that would be another, less palatable death.

Lily stepped closer and repeated his name. Snape glanced down at himself. He wore the cloak Potter had given him—the cloak of humble acceptance. What a thing to die in.

"Severus, what are you doing here?"

Snape blinked at her. Up close she no longer appeared a vision of twenty years before, but a more reasonable one of grey-sprinkled temples, crudely pampered hair, and faintly lined eyes. Why would he hallucinate her that way?

"Come over by the fire," she invited, tugging on his arm, which snapped him from his doomed revery.

By the time they traversed the fur-carpeted floor and reached a fur-clad ice block before the seemingly glass-enclosed fire, Snape bumblingly managed to ask, "What are you doing here? What are you doing alive?"

Her face fell at this, which was not rational; how could it be? She touched his cheek to check his temperature and he nearly fainted at the contact, barely catching himself on the unforgivingly hard edge of the ice chair. He crouched over his quivering arm, trying to comprehend what was happening, trying to establish what was real.

She hovered another ice block close by, tossed a spare fur from the floor over it, and said simply, "I asked you first."

Snape raised his head to stare at the closest set of homely flames, at the surrounding hearth, which perpetually melted and refroze he now noticed. "I can't possibly explain that," he said, wondering where reality left off and his delusions began. He had to admit, it could have left off a long time ago and he just had not noticed until the small changes added up to such undeniable absurdity.

"Nothing today, Mum," a voice announced from the doorway. "No game for miles."

Snape stood and spun around to face the familiar voice and found himself swaying again. It was Harry Potter all right, but not at all like he expected. This young man had a boy's stature, and correspondingly oversized head accentuated by his mop of dark hair.

Harry came to a halt and gaped at Snape. "Professor?" he blurted in sheer surprise.

"Potter," Snape greeted him with a nod, trying to gain enough time to connect dots that had no relation to one another. He gave up.

"What are you doing here?" Lily asked Snape, emboldened by having backup.

Snape answered, "I was led here by the shaman in the village. I came looking for . . . well, for Harry." That was a good enough story, he thought.

"Does Voldemort know you're here?" Lily asked.

Snape removed his eyes from the elvin-like green ones of Harry. They were too dark as well as too large. He fixated instead on the identical feminine ones peering up at him in concern.

"Voldemort is dead," Snape said, and started when Harry exclaimed, "I told you, Mum! I could tell."

"He's really gone?" she whispered. "What happened?"

"A powerful wizard came and destroyed him," Snape stated slowly, glancing back to Harry, who jumped down to cling to his mother's hand, kneeling beside her in a gesture that struck Snape as Victorian.

"So then you came." Lily said. "Did you know we were here?" Her brow furrowed as her mind worked, as sharp as ever.

"Not exactly," Snape said. "Before I can reasonably explain, I need to figure out some things for myself." He stated this with some authority, hoping it would keep the questions at bay. "But, what-" he began, but locked his jaw when she held up her hand.

"Harry," she said fawningly to the young man resting on one bent knee beside her ice block. "Can you go fetch more wood for the piles in here, please?"

Harry bit his lip and nodded eagerly, fairly skipping from the room. The wood piles already teetered near the ceiling, two to three deep.

Lily said, "You were going to ask again how I am alive." She sighed sadly. "I don't want to repeat it in front of him. It tears him to pieces."

Snape held his breath as her jewel-green gaze faded and she explained, "Years passed before Harry could even confess it all. Voldemort, using one of his weakest servants, had defeated Harry. He had offered Harry us, James and me, in exchange for the Philosopher's Stone. Harry said he wasn't certain how he ended up with the stone; it just fell into his pocket when he looked into the Mirror of Erised. After that he was defenseless. Voldemort's servant subdued him with a spell and took the stone. But after having promised him us in exchange for retrieving it, Voldemort believed he was bound to the contract of his promise or risk the stone being of no use. So he brought us to life using what Harry describes as rather gruesome Dark Magic executed in the graveyard in Godric's Hollow."

She drifted off, gaze pained. The lines of her face grew deeper and Snape needed time to build up the cruelty needed to prompt for more. "But, what became of James?"

The change was barely perceptible, but a shadow darkened her features. "He could not take being here. He insisted upon challenging Voldemort." Another long gap, but she restarted on her own. "He lost of course. Voldemort dumped him here . . ." She gestured at a spot on the floor nearby. "Making it clear it would not be tolerated again."

Snape tried to imagine the scene. The headstrong James Potter sitting still in an ice cage. "But he did it again?"

She nodded, drained by doing so.

"That was selfish of him," Snape said. "Abandoning the two of you here like that."

Nearly inaudible, she said, "It broke the rest of Harry's heart." She turned away, as the object of her statement, returned, hovering a load of wood before him.

Lily was biting her lower lip and fighting for control, so Snape stood and approached the young man. "How about there?" he suggested, picking an area with a small gap between the pile and the ceiling.

Harry responded to his attention with strange shyness, and moved quickly, and therefore clumsily, to comply. Snape gave no notice to the banging of logs while he occupied his time examining the ice hearth. The spells must be renewed regularly he suspected. Smoke had blackened the ice blocks, visible through the wall all the way up to the roof.

Harry glanced at his mum, brow twitching low. Snape had been watching for that. He asked, "Who renews the spells?"

"Mum, usually. Me, sometimes."

Lily stood and came over to help hover the excessive wood to other open spots. She had recovered but the strain showed in the rigid lines of her neck and back.

"Shall we have a roast?" Harry asked as he hovered more wood into the nearest roaring hearth. He turned his large eyes on Snape. "Are . . . are you staying for dinner?"

"If I am invited," Snape said, pretending he had an option.

"Of course. There's plenty to eat."

Snape knew for a fact this was true. "You must hunt a lot . . . and successfully," he observed, pulling out a flattering tone with some effort.

Harry leaned in a little, eyes sparkling for just an instant. "I can sneak up on them in deer form and catch them by surprise."

This time effort was not required. "You're an Animagus?" Snape asked.

"Mum taught me," Harry said, turning shy again, but then in a blink his face lit up. "I learned quickly, she thought. Isn't that right, Mum?" he blurted loudly.

"Yes, of course, Harry," she said calmly.

The evening passed with copious meat served in the high open space between roaring fires. Snape repeatedly shook himself from a reverie to find, yet again, that this unexpected place, and unexpected people, were as real as himself. While extracting the marrow from a heavy bone, he pondered the mystery of the two Harrys. By this time he had expected at least a sketchy theory to have manifested itself, but the facts refused to find any arrangement, even an implausible one. His expectations still jarred him when he studied the young man on his left. This Harry rarely met his gaze and when he did, he demonstrated clearly that he knew nothing of Occlumency. Snape took advantage of the glimpses he got, finding a wounded and straightforward boy, whose ego spent most its time trying to guard against utter self-loathing through distraction or servitude to his mother.

Snape tried his best to be nice to him, limited in this by his resistance to sounding false. The boy gobbled up any nibble of kindness sent his way.

"Can you show me that spell?" Harry asked, when Snape quartered and cored a half-desiccated apple with one wave.

"Certainly."

Harry grinned eagerly and drew out his wand. Snape said, "But there are far more interesting ones I could teach you."

The short remainder of the late evening was spent on spells. The radiant walls of the hall rendered night into endless twilight. Harry proved to be an impatient student, but given Lily was the audience, Snape found patience enough and with firm but light prods of chastisement, Harry fell into better behavior. He was like a child seven years younger than his calendar age. Removed from his peers and faced with nothing of solace, he had stagnated on maturing.

To keep the wild spells from disturbing Lily, the lesson proceeded on the other side of the long room.

"You have a partial grasp of that one. Perhaps that's enough for tonight," Snape said after Harry managed to transfigure a cup into a capon's wing, rather than a whole, live capon.

Harry's eyes turned blatantly hurt, so Snape firmly said, "We will do more tomorrow. Do not worry yourself."

With an unskilled surreptitious glance at his mother, Harry sidled closer to Snape and whispered, "How long are you going to stay?"

This was an excellent question. "As long as I am welcome." He left out that he had no place to go. He had planned to begin a long journey, possibly to Australia, but traveling untraceably it would be a lengthy journey. Other options, still half formed, had begun to occur to him. Whispering as well, he asked, "Do you wish me to stay?"

Harry's lips trembled, immediately overwrought. "Mum hasn't been this, well, happy in a long time."

Snape resisted glancing behind him. He swallowed hard, finding additional old feelings rising to life. If this was happy, he loathed to see how she was normally. He dreamed of staying, so to be begged to stay made it hard to control his voice. "If you feel that is true, I shall stay," he stated primly.

Harry nodded, equally sober, eyes radiating gratitude. Snape put aside the cups and stones they had been using for spell work, catching Lily's gaze when he turned. She did not practice any Occlumency either.

"Will you go hunting again in the morning?" Snape asked, thinking of when he would next be alone with Lily.

"Do you want to come along?" Harry brightly asked, keen on the topic.

Snape let his lips twitch, thinking how ridiculously naive the question was. "I am certain I would only slow you down and lead to failure. I just inquire because there are potion ingredients I could obtain from a fresh kill, and there is some brewing I would like to do." He sized Harry up. "For example, would you like to be a bit taller, perhaps?"

Harry grinned. "Am I small?" He peered up at Snape with his deep green eyes. "Compared to you, I guess I am."

Snape shuffled forward to better compare. "Yes, I think you should be about my height. And we'll work on spells when you return from hunting. Lots of spells." The eyes would be hard to fix; they would have to do.

Harry's smile held pain it so pressed itself upon his mouth. "I'd like that!" He rushed over to his mother to share the news.

Under his breath, Snape said, "I'd like to return to England, eventually. And with Harry Potter, powerful wizard and defeater of the Dark Lord as an ally, I might just be able to."

- 888 -


Harry flew his mind over snowy ranges, flat lakes of ice, tree-covered slopes, until he found Per's village. The ground around the huts showed trampling, but there was no life about and no smoke. Not skilled at steering, Harry veered one way and then another, trying to see closer in. He found the ski trail departing the village accidentally while trying to better tune his vision. He could freeze the scene well enough, and he did so now, pondering the two tracks leading away. Uphill they split into two and downhill merged into one.

Harry swayed on his feet. He ached to quit this task. His mind had rapidly exhausted just finding this place, and now all he wanted to do was release what he struggled to keep hold of and step out of the maelstrom whipping by him. With a deep breath he leaned forward, instinctively using broomstick motions to fly, but this did not work. He had to concentrate in a wholly new way, and each time he managed it, he grew increasingly worn raw by the effort.

The ski trail rambled up and down, suddenly splitting into two with a less skilled third veering between them. He cared little for this mystery, and flew past the last of the trees and into a sharply hilly area. Harry followed mindlessly, casting ahead with dead reckoning in the spots where the trail had blow smooth, until he blinked and froze at what he saw in the crux of two sharp cliffs. Glittering in the sunlight was an ice castle as tall as Hogwarts. This time his curiosity drew him forward without will, which was fortunate because he could not have expended even one more ounce of effort to move himself within this place.

He passed through the walls of the castle and looked down upon the ice floor. Ice-hearths rose out of the floor, facing each other, glowing yellow-orange with flame. One long wall was lined three-logs-deep with fresh wood. Ice blocks formed furniture, some draped with hides to make them livable. Upon one, two figures were curled around each other. The hair and beaked nose on the taller one was instantly recognizable. The other . . . Harry nearly staggered and lost the scene while he caught himself. The maelstrom buffeted him helplessly again.

"Harry?" Snape's voice prodded in concern, disturbing Harry's fragile reality all the more.

Harry waved him off and finding renewed strength in determination, grasped that scene out of the flow and forced that place to return to view. Determination worked well and moments later he was facing the same icy architecture. He passed through the glowing outside wall, lower down where the view would be clearer. Startled again, this time by finding a vision of himself sitting on a skin on the floor, cutting up something with a knife. Well, it was sort of himself. Almost a simultaneously younger and older version. So his counterpart had not died in this place, and his mother was alive. Harry puzzled that, stiffening in distressed surprise as Snape ran his fingers casually through his mother's hair. When his mother rested her head on Snape's chest in response, Harry let the scene go and simply floated there, battered without will in the surf of possibility.

"Step aside," Snape commanded through his stunned paralysis. Harry could barely concentrate on his guardian beyond. Given the tone he used, Snape may have repeated himself several times and Harry only now heard him.

Harry rotated his head to peer down at his feet. He stood in a nearly solid upwards tunnel of rushing scenes. They felt natural now, in tune with his being, the same way one feels after floating in water too long. But his mind was dissolving, losing track of itself. If he slipped through to the Dark Plane now, he felt he could slip into all places at once and cease to exist. He was too tired to even feel alarm at this daunting prospect. Harry took one step to the side, scuffing the inner pentagon, and the scenes faded and fluttered, releasing his focus to find on the perfectly normal room beyond. Another step and he was freed from the deluge.

Snape destroyed the device with one sweeping Scourgify. Harry stumbled to the closest couch, disoriented from being released from the sensory confusion into stark solidity. He gripped the edge of the couch cushions and breathed deeply.

After several minutes of this, surprise took over that Snape had not spoken. Harry glanced up at him. His guardian stood, gaze watchful, arms across his front, wand held horizontally to the side. "Are you quite all right?" he asked in concern.

Harry rubbed one tired eye and nodded despite his shaking hand. "You were right; I didn't understand what was happening there." Overwhelmed again by what he had found, Harry flopped back and tilted his head up to stare at the chandelier, noting that the unlit candles mounted on it were all of varying lengths and that long drips of wax had formed beneath the stubby ones. This was not important, but he could not stop himself from observing it. Also the daylight from the upper windows cast broad ovals on the ceiling. He had never noticed that either.

"Safe to approach?" Candide asked from across the room.

Snape turned on his toes. "Yes."

Candide strolled over and stood beside Snape, putting an arm loosely around him. Harry watched them in the edge of his vision. The scene reminded him of another, which he thought best to wait on discussing until Candide was absent.

"What did you find?" Snape asked.

Harry pulled a dismayed face. "Let's just leave it at: I didn't understand what was going on." He turned to the two of them. "But I don't regret what I did. It still worked out," he asserted, but felt another ripple of surprise. "But, it's true I didn't really understand," he reiterated yet again and sighed.

Harry's muscles quivered from being over stressed. He pillowed his head on his arm and shut his eyes, intending to just rest them for a moment.

Candide whispered, "You didn't set him too hard a task, did you?"

Snape took a step to the side to better study Harry who was lying on his arm with his hand hanging out into space, half-closed around something invisible. Dismissively, Snape said, "He's young; he will recover."

It was Ron and Ginny's arrival for lunch that roused Harry from a light doze where he dreamed that he was arguing with a vision of himself about which of them should do what.

Ron slapped Harry hard on the shoulder as he tried to clear the stray threads of the dream from his thoughts.

"Ouch," Harry complained. "Wotcher, Ron."

Ginny said, "I thought you had the late shift tonight, not last night."

"I do." Harry said. He pushed himself to his feet and felt for his wand, but then realized he did not need it out for what he wanted to try. "Ginny, feel like a few curse drills?"

Sulkily, Ron complained, "You never ask me to help with those."

Harry still felt weak and if he got hit with some wild thing Ron sent his way, it may knock him out. "That's because your attenuation is non-existent."

Ron tossed his hands out, fingers spread. "I work with Trolls, Harry. Do you know how much spell it takes to get a Troll's attention?"

Ignoring his sore body, Harry took up a position opposite Ginny, whose face was already deep in concentration. When she sent a weak Jelly Legs his way, it did not feel the same as when he had been casting at himself in the other Plane. But, of course it would not be the same, he told himself, holding frustration at bay. But he still knew now how things worked, even if he could no longer touch the spell all along the way. He could feel a curse being generated at the beginning, and he could see it come out of the wand. Maybe he could just guess on the timing in between.

Ginny changed to a blinding curse. "No," Harry said, "go back to the other one." She obliged without comment. Harry thought through the steps. He could feel the curse forming, then it had to be cast, passing down the arm and into the wand, where it was focused and modulated, then it came out. If he wanted to crimp the curse off as it entered the wand, that was about three quarters of the way along.

For several rounds, in the manner of a musician, he counted out the rhythm between generation and emission, estimating the stages and on the forth time, he squeezed down, blindly it felt like, on the spot where her hand met the wand.

Ginny dropped her wand, habitually stooped to reach for it, then brightened and left it for a moment. "Harry! That was excellent. My fingers went limp."

Ron bounced off the couch. "Can I try?"

"Let me try a few more rounds with Ginny. Same spell."

Snape wandered out of the drawing room and leaned on the doorframe to observe. The extra audience was a distraction, and it required to more tries to get the timing right again. Too early and the spell still came out as if his crushing it down failed because it met no resistance. Too late and he still got hit, but with less power, and Ginny could still hold firm to the wand.

Harry's heart beat faster and his focus grew farther inward as he counted and crunched each casting. When he had that spell stopped reliably, Harry said, "Try a different curse."

He counted again against a Blindness Curse, feeling like he had it just right, but he missed, and his vision flickered out. "Drat, that one's different." He asked her to repeat it until he could find the right timing on that spell as well.

After uncountable dozens of rounds against both his friends and many dropped wands, Harry waved them off and looked over at his guardian. Daunted by the task before him, he said, "I need some help on spell theory. I don't want to have to learn them all individually."

Snape stood with his arms half crossed, thumb thoughtfully grazing his lower lip. His expression was inscrutable. "Of course," he said.

After lunch, Harry and his friends walked around the village to take advantage of a warm shift in the weather. Harry thought about that other, unbelievably peaceful place where the weather could be nice all the time with the right magical device. Ron and Ginny argued half the walk. This proved a distraction to Harry, who wanted more than anything just some quiet time to think.

When they were approaching the house again, Harry said, "You know, I have a ton to do, and-"

"Ah," Ron interrupted. "Harry needs to assemble his plans for world domination, now that he is unstoppable."

"I, uh, what?" Harry rolled his eyes. Trouble was, really, which world, a darkly humorous part of his mind supplied. "I have field work after dinner and I can't take over the world if I haven't done my readings."

"I understand," Ron said. "Plus, Ginny's got a date to get ready for and if she doesn't start six hours ahead of time . . ."

It was Ron's turn to rub his arm where he had been struck. "It's true," he argued, veering out of range.

Despite Harry's prior insistence that he needed to do his studies, when he returned alone to the house, he sought out Snape instead of his books.

Snape stood over the small trunk he used to ferry things home for the weekend. He was sorting things out of it into either a pile or the low-burning hearth. "Do you want help with curse negation?" Snape asked.

"I do," Harry said. "But I have something else I want to talk to you about."

His glance out the door prompted Snape to say, "Candide has gone to the office for a few hours."

"I'm surprised you let her."

"She insisted that you could liberate her on your way into the Ministry, if need be."

"I'd be happy to," Harry said.

Snape gestured at a chair and set the trunk aside on the floor, giving Harry his full attention from the seat behind the desk.

Buying time, Harry said, "I'm still thinking about what you said, about you acting less like a father." He stopped, startled by how hard it was to hear himself say it. "I wish it didn't have to be that way."

Snape gave a marginal, crooked nod of acknowledgment and waited for Harry to go on.

"But you are probably right." Harry rubbed his fingers together and fell silent. Snape was correct that Harry could no longer find the will to obey him.

Snape said, "I am quite curious what you found in that other place and I am wondering if you will tell me."

A prickle went through Harry. He looked up again and tried to gauge how to explain. Words failed him and he snorted lightly. Diving into the safer waters of this topic, he said, "Well, that place's Harry wasn't really dead."

"No? Previously you were confident on that point."

"That was based on Voldemort's reaction. But he knew something I didn't know: that he had that Harry helplessly under his thumb."

Snape's brow rose and his chair creaked as he leaned back and steepled his fingers before him. He waited.

Harry hesitated. Finally, he said, "I once accused you of having a thing for my mother and you said you didn't."

Snape's expression did not change, but he fell into stillness. "I did say that."

"But was that true?" Harry asked, finding he could not let this question lie unanswered.

Snape's face shifted an iota into confusion without losing an edge of hard challenge. "What does it matter?"

"It might," Harry insisted dramatically. "You never know."

At this, Snape's brows came down and he stared at Harry with obvious scrutiny. Trouble was, every time Harry thought about this issue, his emotions landed somewhere else. He was starting to feel that he should not let them settle anywhere, for fear of where that may be. If Snape had lied, maybe that was why: to simplify things.

Snape hmfed. "Perhaps I withdraw my question."

But Harry's emotional merry-go-round had just stopped somewhere else, and without thinking he said, "So, if you liked my mum a lot, why were you so cruel to me when we first met?"

The answer to this came easily. "Because you were nothing like her."

"I wasn't?" Harry challenged.

"You were just like your father," Snape insisted, voice snapping lightly.

Harry, who knew for verifiable fact that this was not true, hesitated for fear of revealing his evidence. Given how much he resisted that thought, he felt stung. "Are you certain of that? I don't believe it."

He was hiding his thoughts, so something must have come out in his voice. Snape backed down. "Perhaps not," he conceded softly.

"I don't think I'm anything like him," Harry muttered, dismayed.

This brought the edged eyes back again. "I fear you speak from experience."

The chill returned along the flesh on the back of Harry's neck. "So what if I do?" he replied with a cocky edge of his own.

Snape pointed at him, dragging his broad sleeve over the loose papers piled on his desk. "That's your father, right there."

"Oh."

Silence fell. Snape sat back again and did not take his eyes off Harry. "Are you speaking from experience?" he asked outright.

Harry stared down at his fingers. They were young fingers. "Yes." And then before he could be interrupted, he added with feeling, "But I learned something super important."

"Shall I hazard a guess what that may be?"

"Er, sure," Harry said, awkwardly derailed from speaking something from the heart.

Snape leaned forward and said, "You learned that it is highly unwise to jump around into different existences?"

"Um, no."

Snape sat back yet again. "Pity," he snipped.

Harry stared at Snape, who was holding firm on his display of disapproval. Harry found himself grinning and unable to stop. The man sitting before him was responsible for most of the difference between himself and that offensive version he had dueled.

Snape sighed audibly. "What in the world is that about?"

Harry shrugged knowingly. "It's just that . . . I wouldn't have wished for things to turn out a certain way. How could I? But nevertheless, they may have turned out for the best."

Snape lost all of his edges in the face of this. He pondered Harry openly. After a time he sighed again and asked, "So during the time that I was plotting how best to prove to you that your actions in leaving this Plane were unwise, you had already left to visit yet another place?"

"Yep," Harry replied.

"For what precise purpose?"

There was nothing for it. "I wanted to see what my parents would be like if they'd survived."

Snape closed his eyes for an instant while he took that in. "And?" he reluctantly asked.

"They were all right. But I didn't like what I'd become, at all. I was spoiled and miserable and not friends with the people I care about here."

"What . . . had you turned into your father?" Snape immediately returned.

Harry held back on a retort. Oddly, despite agreeing, he still yearned to strike back at that.

Snape said, "Sorry," with real feeling. "I should know better. Tough to compete with such endless possibilities."

"Merlin, don't be jealous, Severus."

A harder tone now. "Did I say I was?"

Harry smiled faintly. "There's no reason to be." He stared far away, feeling a painful metamorphosis churning inside him. "It all worked out for the best," he stated with certainty this time.

"Very odd to hear you say that," Snape said, undone.

"I saw them," Harry explained. "All three of them. Not a care in the world. And . . . well, my dad— James was raising his Harry like some kind of Dudley. I didn't want to be him, or even change places with him. I wouldn't've traded for anything." The truth of that freed up something in Harry's midsection and he took an easy deep breath. "Although I wish my mum . . . but never mind."

Quietly, Snape said, "I will always be sorry for your mother, Harry."

Harry knew that to be doubly true now. "I know that."

Harry turned what he had seen at the picnic over in his mind. "But, you know, she let James spoil their Harry terribly. He didn't have to take care of anything himself. And his friends, well, they were all right, but not my friends. My friends didn't even like him." Far away, Harry said, "Can you imagine, not ever having a single bad thing happen to you?"

"No, I cannot." They stared at each other. Snape slowly and clearly said, "Harry, do please come and warn me that you intend to do these things, whether it be trying out a new magic, or . . . simply running off to find a place where Dumbledore still lives. I have given up on punishing you for exploring your skills. If you are going to learn better it will have to be learned the hard way. I want to keep you from harm, not force you into a box too small to contain you. I reserve the right to advise you, but in the end you may do what you think best. I have no power over you in that regard—I admit that now. But I wish to know, to be kept informed. Is that equitable?"

Harry stared at him. "Do you think there could be a place where Dumbledore is still alive?"

Snape closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his long fingers in a pose of defeat.



Next: Chapter 23 — Worth a Weight of Gold

"Why didn't you come to the door?" Harry asked.

Ginny peered at him in disbelief. "Do you know what kind of night-activated spells this place has on it? I didn't even dare touch the gate."

"I didn't think of that," Harry said. "The spells don't bother me." Harry glanced at Hornisham who was enjoying watching them. "Er, what do you need?"

Ginny paced to the wardrobe and back, fitfully. "I had a date . . . I was supposed to have a date with Aaron last night, but he stood me up."


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