Chapter 24 — The Ransom of Red Twin

Snape looked up from his notes; Harry stood with his back pressed to the door, arriving with no sound, but nevertheless choosing to arrive near the entrance so as to not interrupt too rudely, and to have a chance to pretend he had entered the normal way if Snape were not alone.

Harry's voice came out strained as he asked, "Can I talk to you? Do you have class soon?"

Snape backed up his chair and stood. He cast a silver streak through the ceiling with a blurred motion of his wand, and slipped out from behind the desk. He gestured crisply for Harry to approach. Harry had remained still, already sucked back into his relentlessly circling thoughts. He made his feet move until he stood before the desk, unwilling to relax and take a seat.

A knock came on the door and Lupin put his head in. The knock jarred Harry from his revery. His eyes narrowed at the Muggle book on Snape's desk. The brightly printed and shiny paper cover made it stand out from the hundreds of hand-sewn books in the room. Musings on Existing, the title read.

Behind him Snape said to his colleague. "Can you take my next session?"

Lupin said, "Yes, of course. Seventh Years, right?"

Snape did not reply aloud. Harry assumed he had nodded. Harry felt bad making Snape rearrange things and turned to Lupin to see his judgment on this. But Lupin appeared only pleased. He gave Harry a nod of hello and an understanding smile before departing.

"I want to do the Beacon Spell," Harry said the moment they were alone.

Snape took the two steps to the window and peered out rather than reply.

Harry went on, "I mean, we may not know for certain who Aaron's father is, but we certainly know who his mother is."

He watched Snape exhale slowly, face and shoulders lit softly by the cloudy day.

"That is extremely unwise," he stated without turning.

"Why? You had McGonagall run it when I went missing again," Harry accused, unable to contain any sharp edged emotions.

"I should not have allowed her to do so. She insisted the spell was not so dark to put her at risk, given her past avoidance of blood magic. Afterwards she agreed it was not wise." He crossed his arms, still peering out. "I'll confess, I find her a better manager of the students since she has done the spell. She yields to pity less than she used to."

Harry took in that notion, wanting to argue against it, but Snape's judgment of people's behavior was generally spot on. "But what about Aaron?"

Snape turned with a snap of his head. "If you do this spell and succumb to dark magic there will be a thousand Aarons."

Harry's shoulder's fell and his eyes burned with moisture. In a lower voice, he said, "I have all this power, but I can't even rescue my friend. It's useless!" He waved his arms in a helpless gesture. "You keep insisting how potentially dangerous I am, but I can't even do this one simple thing!"

Calmly, Snape suggested, "Come over here."

Harry stared at him, arms limp at his sides. There was no reason to deny so basic a request. He joined his former teacher at the tall window. Snape took his shoulder and made him sit on the stone sill.

"Look out there."

Harry hitched his knee on the sill and twisted to look out.

"What do you see?" Snape asked.

Harry wanted to resist, but he said, "Hills. Clouds. Trees."

"That's all?"

Harry shrugged. Snape looked out too, his expression implying that he saw something else.

Snape spoke, sounding like one quoting, "The world waits, appears to slumber, but she is awake and riotously plotting, simply doing so on a scale too broad and patient for the small mind of man to grasp."

Startled, Harry blurted, "What's that?"

Snape crossed his arms tighter. "I have spent my life thinking only of immediate things, partly because my survival depended upon it, and partly because I felt derision for such broad views. But your explorations of parallel worlds has forced me to re-evaluate my limited perspective. I think that you may benefit from broadening yours as well. McGonagall lent me a few dubious books of poetry along those lines and I have been forcing myself to read them."

Harry took Snape in. "Are you sure you are you?" Saying this made Harry slump additionally, burdened further.

"I'm quite certain about myself. How about you?"

Harry could hear he was being needled, so he did not answer, just sighed. He stared back out at the mountains. Something large flapped clumsily from one tree to another in the Forbidden Forest. A light mist pooled in the deeper gaps in the thin foliage.

Harry said, "What are you hoping I'll conclude . . . that even if Aaron is suffering, it doesn't matter because people are suffering all the time? That I can't save everybody, so why try to save anyone?"

Snape's brow furrowed. "No, that is not where I am going with this. That is an even more worrisome viewpoint than your usual penchant for sacrificing the future for the present."

"What?" Harry demanded, cutting Snape off.

"Short term thinking is a product of your short years. That was not a personal criticism." Snape turned back to the window, tenser than his pose indicated. "I have been contemplating these other worlds. All of those small decisions and random chances that tally up to form a completely different place, every jagged path drawn along spindly branches resulting in its own existence."

"Maybe you should write poetry," Harry criticized, feeling uneasy with this conversation.

Snape let the bait lie. He said, "There are many places where Voldemort never existed. There are places where Hogwarts is a Muggle school. There is probably at least one place where you really are my son."

This notion drew Harry to the present. He scoffed in amusement, but it lightened his mood. He added, "There is at least one place where you end up with my mother."

After a pause, Snape began, "Undoubt-" and stopped, eyes slitting.

"You wonder if I speak from experience?" Harry needled back, glad to get even.

Snape shook his stringy hair. "We have a here and now to worry about that already exceeds our abilities." Snape touched Harry on the arm. "I know it is a lot to ask of you at this age, especially since you have had more than your share of responsibility for the state of the world, and most certainly deserve a break from that, but you must keep the larger picture in mind." He pondered Harry intently before saying, "At the risk of suggesting another use for a five-sided device, I wonder if you could see where Aaron is using your abilities to peruse alternative Planes?"

"I already tried that," Harry admitted. "I couldn't find him that way. I saw him all right, but only in the kinds of places I already know him in." After a pause, he added, "I did find Dumbledore still alive, in one place."

"Did you? And what, pray tell, was he doing?"

Harry gestured at the glass before them. "Sitting in an old tower. Staring out the window, like you are now," he added critically.

Snape laughed through his nose, then grew grim again. "Please, Harry. No blood magic. I cannot forbid it, so I am reduced to pleading with you to forgo it. There must be another way. The darkness does not care that you perform the spell for the right reasons. It will take something away from you that you, and the world, cannot afford for you to lose."

Harry drew in a breath past a constricted ribcage. He felt sadder and even more helpless than when he had arrived seeking help.

"There must be another way," Snape repeated. "You are clever. You have many friends who would do anything for you. Think of something else. If it falls short; you did the best you could."

Harry swallowed hard. "I can't fail," he pledged. But it was true that he had not asked for much help from his old friends beyond jokingly suggesting Ron steal enough gold from the vaults in Gringotts to suffice. He could steal it for himself, in theory, if there were that many Galleons to be had in Gringotts. Aloud, Harry said, "Why did they ask for so much? It's an unreasonable amount of money, even Freelander can't come up with that much. There may not be that much to be had in all of England. They want us to hand over the full wealth of the wizarding world."

"Has anyone attempted to negotiate a lower ransom?" Snape asked, his clear concern a salve to Harry's frayed nerves.

Harry nodded and swallowed hard before saying, "Mrs. Wickem finally did. They sent her his cursed-off nose in response."

Snape bowed his head over his crossed arms.

Harry said, "If this goes on much longer, I'm going to find someone safe enough to do the Beacon Spell."

"That will not fully exempt you. Dark magic is a entwining and clinging pollution that leaves all involved touched in some way, no matter how remote they be."

"More poetry?" Harry asked.

Snape shook his head, "More experience."

- 888 -


Friday had arrived and the quiet intensity of the Aurors' office had turned to frantic. Mrs. Wickem and Lord Freelander had missed the deadline to collect together the necessary funds and had been punished for doing so. Harry was beginning to believe that at least part of the purpose of all this was to sow fear in the Ministry, to make a point about who had power over whom. This point was not lost on anyone Harry encountered that day. The language had degenerated and nicknames for their opponents sprang up as fast as others could learn them.

"Bloody hell," Rodgers said while reading a memo.

"Sir?" Harry prompted, not wanting more bad news but unable to hold back.

"Scant help from our foreign offices is all. Potter, weren't you supposed to go home hours ago?"

Harry stared painfully at his trainer. It was true that he did not have field duty until the next day. "I can't do that, sir. Don't you think they realize by now that we know?"

Rodgers frowned. "Possibly. But when we make it clear they will most likely punish everyone by cutting something else off their prisoner. Go on home."

Harry tossed his head but he obeyed. At home, lunch was just being served and the scent of it filled his head like a spell. His mood brightened more when he found Ginny and— even less expected but welcome—Hermione had joined Candide at the table.

Hermione said, "We were just starting a pool on whether you'd make it. "

Harry took the last open seat, more grateful for their presence than he would have imagined. He accepted a steaming cup of tea, but merely stared into it, at the oil playing on the surface.

Hermione hesitated before saying, "Ginny caught me and Candide up."

Harry tossed his shoulders up and down uncaringly. He now felt numb to the ruse that had so driven them early in the week, yet had come to nothing with their adherence.

"What are you going to do?" Hermione asked.

"Cast a blood magic spell," Harry replied, not having decided until that moment, but confident of his plan now.

Hermione dropped her cup, spilling her tea over her rice. "Harry, you can't."

"That's what Severus insists. I need to find someone less dangerous to actually cast it." He stared at Hermione. He trusted that she could remain untainted for one spell.

Her eyes went wide. "Harry, really," she snapped.

Ginny leaned forward with her hands gripping the table edge, her food untouched before her. "What spell is this? I'll do it." She ignored Hermione's sharp look.

Harry, thinking of prophecies, shook his head. "No. Not you either."

"Why not?"

Harry felt more like Dumbledore than he ever had in his life when he was forced to reply, "I have my reasons."

This reply stunned Ginny into silence. She pushed her food around with her fork rather than throw her disappointment back as anger.

Harry put his forehead on his fist, saying, "There's got to be another way."

Candide, sounding grim, said, "You really need half a million?" When Harry nodded, rocking his head side to side over his fist, she exhaled in a rough whistle. "That's a lot."

"Is there even that much in Gringotts?" Harry asked her.

She studied him a long time before replying, "Probably."

Harry guessed that she knew what he was contemplating. Ginny bit her lips. "Thinking of stealing it?" she asked.

Hermione juggled her newly freshened cup of tea, burning her hand. "What is going on with all of you?" she demanded.

"I think there's a better way," Ginny said. "I was talking to my brothers this morning about an incident where they had far more money than they really had."

Harry shut down his chaotic thoughts and turned all of his attention to her.

Ginny said, "No one can say anything though." Everyone readily agreed to this, so she went on. "When my brothers wanted to start up their shop, they got some money from Harry, but it wasn't enough. It was enough for the lease on the shop for a year, but not the ingredients, which were ten times that just to get going. They didn't have any collateral, so they . . . they went to Gringotts for a loan to buy ingredients. They showed them twenty-five thousand Galleons that they already had, and lied and said they needed that to buy the property for the shop, which they were actually only letting. Gringotts gave them the loan, so then they had real Galleons for stock ingredients."

"They used the property as collateral, but they didn't own it?" Candide confirmed. "Glad I'm not their accountant."

Ginny tried to cover. "They own it now. They just needed more money to get started, and the Goblins will only give money to people who already have too much already. That was their excuse for pretending they had more."

Candide said, "They managed to fool the Goblins with fake coin?"

Ginny nodded.

Trying to feel hope, Harry said, "How did they do that?"

Ginny replied, "You need some real Galleons to make the spell work, and metal disks of the right size for the fake ones."

Hermione, eagerly rising forward in her seat said, "It's some kind of Metamorphic Protean Charm? So each real coin can have its qualities pressed onto maybe twenty others?"

Ginny nodded. "Fifteen was all they thought safe, and even then some refused to hold for more than a few hours. It was your Dumbledore's Army coins that made them think of it."

Harry said, "If they were convincing enough to fool the Goblins, who are very hard to convince, then they should be convincing enough to fool Durumulna."

Ginny said, "We need tons of metal disks."

Harry thought back to his field work of last weekend. "I think I know where we can get some."

The four of them skipped finishing lunch and went into motion.

Harry asked Hermione to stay with Candide while he and Ginny went to speak to the twins.

They found Ginny's brothers in a meeting with four AWOL Hogwarts students who sold their wares inside the school. The students had not even removed their uniforms, but had pulled their cloaks firmly around themselves. They glanced nervously at each other when Harry appeared.

They shuffled to their feet and the Slytherin, biting her lip asked, "Are you going to turn us in to Professor Snape?"

Fred put an arm forcefully around Harry's shoulder. "Nah, he wouldn't do that. Would ya', Harry? This is our second-best sales channel here."

Harry glanced at the four of them, memorizing their faces. "I don't care what you're doing as long as you don't get hurt doing it. But right now I need to talk to Fred and George."

The students hurried off, fighting to get out the door. Harry glanced at those remaining. "Ginny, can you watch the shop while we talk?"

She nodded grimly, and rubbed one tired eye as she took a seat behind the counter.

Upstairs the twins paced nervously before offering Harry a chair, a cup of funny colored tea and a deluxe box of BouncySweets: an excellent gift for pet owners.

Harry set the box aside. "Look I need a favor . . ."

George swooped the box away back to the shelf. "In that case . . ."

Harry laughed, then fell sad again. "I need your help. I need to fake a lot of money, really fast."

The twins gaped at him. "What business are you getting into?"

"The wrong business," Harry said. "But other than filching the money, I don't see any other way."

"We need slugs, you know," Fred said. "You can't make money out of thin air."

Harry nodded. "I'll get those. Can you help me?" He held off on informing them that Ginny had informed on them.

Fred, arms swinging loosely— a sign he was feeling up for a challenge, said, "How much do you need?"

"Half a million."

Fred fell to his knees in shock. George burst out laughing and had to support himself on the litter-strewn mantelpiece to stay upright.

Harry said, "If I get the slugs and thirty-three thousand Galleons, will you help me?"

The two of them fell completely silent, eyes goggling. "You are a nutter. You're serious!"

Harry spent the afternoon collecting things they would need. He borrowed a triple-expandable magical trunk from Freelander, already containing the necessary number of real Galleons. The man behaved surprisingly insistent about the trunk as if driven by guilt that he wanted to be rid of along with the money. He stood distractedly while Harry verified that he could figure out how to use the trunk's magical compartments. Before he departed, Harry wished he had something hopeful to say to the grim man, but he could dredge nothing up out of his own worries.

While he waited for night to fall, Harry sent another letter to his guardian, but this time thought it best to simply speak in code and make the letter seem innocent. He wrote: There is a Lumos Charm in the darkest part of the forest now. Trust that I'm going not going to do anything you advised me not to do.

After dark, Harry went to the scrap yard and carrying a real Galleon, found fat rods of the right diameter. Moving stealthily so he would not have to deal with the dog, he used a welding spell to split them in half and silenced and hovered them into a neat bundle so he could Apparate into the Wheezes upper room with them. The bundle regained its weight when he arrived, landing with a deafening, thudding crash on the floor. No one complained about the noise, including Ron, who had covered his ears and winced. Everyone remained serious, barely speaking as the chopping began. They argued briefly over what chopping spell would work best, finally settling on the one used by cooks for root vegetables.

On long, cleared tables, real Galleons were laid out along one edge and fresh, hot disks of iron were laid out in long lines beside them. Fred, with much flourish, performed the spell to make them all sparkle golden and the process was repeated.

Long into the night they did this, until everyone's head nodded despite a dozen pots of tea. Ginny went to change places with Hermione guarding Candide and in the end they all returned to help. Even with the efficiency of magic, the process proved laboriously long. Like some reverse sorcerer's apprentice spell, horde after horde of golden disks were swept up in flocks and dumped with a rich clatter into the fancy trunk and more iron slugs laid out in long regiments, headed by a gold captain.

Early the next morning when it became clear how long the project would take in total, Harry headed off to Mrs. Wickem's house. It would be Sunday around five in the morning before they had the right number of Galleons, and the ransom would have to take place quickly after that. After the first missed ransom drop, the second had been left unscheduled, as far as Harry knew.

Harry flew in an upper window that was left unlatched for him. Downstairs he found Mrs. Wickem alone with the butler standing off to the side, looking like he wished he could provide more than the usual silence.

Harry skipped the niceties beyond a quick hello, far too tired for them. "Have they given you instructions for a second drop?"

Mrs. Wickem sniffled and handed over a letter. The deep red ink used to write it out did not bode well. Harry swallowed and asked with a wince, "Did they send anything else?" When she nodded, Harry muttered, "Oh dear."

"Just a little finger," she said with a gasp into her hanky.

Harry breathed out in relief. "Could be worse," he heard himself say. He really needed to sleep. "It says one of your servants is to come at noon to Down Street tube station. Just one, who will be magically verified as being in your employ." Harry handed the letter back. "That's easy enough. Write up an employment contract and I'll sign it. I want to make the trade myself."

Mrs. Wickem peered at the letter, her face sagging with the weight of sadness. "I'm afraid the Ministry is going to try something and my Aaron will come to harm."

"The Ministry isn't going to do this, I am. I'm just going to fetch Aaron, nothing else."

"But we don't have enough . . ." she stated slowly, as though he were the dim one.

The twins were adamant that the more people who knew the money was fake the shorter time it would remain convincing. Harry doubted that, but it was easier to say, "We have the money. Just don't ask where it came from."

"Alfie must have . . ." she began.

"Lord Freelander helped a lot," Harry confirmed, eager to get away again to help so they would be finished in time. "I have to go. Write up the contract and I'll be back in a few hours to sign it."

They each in turn took a three hour break that day when nerves took over and patience grew short. The room, with only one heavily-curtained window, remained the same night and day, giving the place a relentlessly timeless feel. When Harry closed his eyes he saw only fluttering gold coins. Eventually they sparkled across his vision even when he kept his eyes open.

Candide insisted she had done nothing but rest since Tuesday but Harry insisted she take a break before him. Her help was invaluable, as she was one of only three of them, including Hermione, who could get the entire table worth of iron slugs to change, everyone else needed several cancellations and re-tries, which often left a handful ruined and in need of sorting out.

Candide returned at dinner time to replace him. When Harry arrived in the main hall in Shrewsthorpe, the first thing he noticed was the silence, the disturbing absence of clattering coin. The second thing was the fresh air; the work room of the Weasley twins was not exactly lightly scented. Harry fell into bed, with an alarm spell added to his pocket watch set for exactly his alloted three hours of break time before he had field work for his apprenticeship. With his pocket watch tucked against his breast where its shaking would certainly rouse him, Harry dropped into a hard sleep.

Harry's watch woke him to a dream of the Wheezes work room full of swarming cold metal and a shadow skulked around the edge of the walls holding forth a dark wand trailing smoke. Harry snapped awake and groggily rubbed his head. He felt more tired than when he had laid down, but his rumbling watch insisted that three hours had passed.

Harry yawned and rocked forward and back to gather the momentum to get out of bed. He had not taken off his robes, for which he was glad because he could not raise his arms to change his clothes, he was certain. With a sniffle, Harry wondered if it would have been better to not sleep and simply taken more of the twins' strange wake-up concoctions.

The stairs down nearly defeated him because his toes seemed numb to the notion of walking. Perhaps the twins' concoctions were the problem. Harry caught himself with the bannister and descended slower after that, unwilling to take a fall on limbs that felt sleepy and brittle. He found Snape in the doorway to the drawing room, peering at him in surprise. He wore a heavy robe as though the fire were not burning high in the hearth behind him.

"Oh, you're home," Harry said, scratching his head.

"Yes," Snape replied. "I thought I would . . . see to some things." He appeared dubious of Harry's state.

Harry's mind was not working well, only half of it had come even partially awake and the other half was mired in dark thoughts about his friend. He did not feel like trying to explain what was happening, but he should say something, for backup at least. He strode around the hall, running a few eavesdropping prevention spells. When he came back around to the drawing room door, he said quietly, "I'm going to fetch Aaron tomorrow. Alone, because that's what they insisted."

Snape stood with his arms crossed, looking strained and a mirror of Harry's poorly slept state. "All right," he said, studying Harry intently.

Harry had expected an argument, and he was glad he did not have to hold up his end of one. "I've got it all arranged, I think," he assured his guardian. When Snape did not reply, Harry slumped slightly, feeling increasingly frustrated and angry as he spoke. "This has to work. Mrs. Wickem keeps receiving body parts. Pretty soon they are going to be major ones. It's really terrible." Really, Harry thought, he should have had the power to do something before now and that helplessness gnawed hard on him, making him want to lash out.

Snape glanced away, and Harry wondered suddenly if he had not at sometime in the past been a witness, or worse, to the other side of exactly this. Harry felt forceful ambivalence about that possibility. He bit his lips to keep from saying something he may regret. Feeling antsy on top of sleepy, Harry said, "Well, I won't be back until tomorrow. Will you be here?"

Snape stared at him. "What time?"

Harry shook himself. He should have said. "Noon, or right after."

"I'll be here," Snape stated flatly.

"Good. We may need your help."

A pause and then a nod. Harry felt uneasy but could focus on nothing beyond getting through his field work and then getting all the gold finished. So much gold . . . an inconceivable amount. He Disapparated for the Ministry with a groan.

By ten the next morning they had everything finished. Harry had sent Candide home hours before even though they missed her help almost immediately. The remaining six of them knelt around the trunk and peered down into the vast, cone-shaped pile rising from the depths.

"Mother of Merlin that's a lot of money," Ron said.

"It is," Hermione agreed, sounding disgusted.

Harry picked up on that and said, "I'm glad we're not giving them that much real money."

Hermione raised her head to look at Harry. "Did you tell the Ministry what you were doing, Harry?"

Harry shook his head. The other five glanced at each other. Fred said, "I wouldn't tell them."

Ginny said, "This is dad we're talking about, though . . ."

"All the more reason," George agreed.

Harry had been half-planning this morning to tell someone at the Aurors' office what was happening, but at the moment, he felt very much like going it alone with no interference. In fact, he wondered now why he had intended to tell them at all. He could do this better alone.

Fifteen minutes before the prescribed meeting time, Harry wheeled the trunk along Down Street, toward the blood-red brick façade marring the shopfronts. He peered inside the grimy window and tugged his mitten off to pretend to fix his laces until the road cleared of Muggles. The road was most likely being watched by someone from Durumulna, but Harry could not sense it if it was. He checked one more time to see that it was clear before Apparating inside the station.

Harry immediately pulled his wand believing he had been struck by a Blasting Curse. He caught himself from completely tumbling over the trunk and levered himself up against the brass edge of it. It was only the wind howling up from the staircase before him. He shook his tired head and jumpy body and hovered the trunk to tackle a flight of stairs, only to then be faced with a dauntingly deep spiral staircase.

Harry considered and then dismissed using a Silencing Charm as he went; he had no need of stealth and in fact did not want to surprise the other party. Realizing he should have left more time, Harry jogged downward, the endless turning rubbing raw his overwrought mind in the same way the endless repetitive spells of the last few day had.

The trunk bumped along ahead of Harry, carried by magical momentum to the concrete floor at the bottom. The lights glowed brightly down here, providing pretend normalcy rather than abandonment. With a wave the trunk leapt airborne again. Harry jogged along a tiled tunnel until he stopped to blink at a carefully painted sign that read Enquiries & Committee Room with an arrow below. A rumble built and receded, vibrating the floor, moments later a gust rushed through the shiny confines of the tunnel. Harry looked both ways along the old tube station corridor, but he could not piece together what the sign might mean so he hurried on, following the wind. The fanciful Way Out signs provided much-needed reassurance. Harry wanted to imagine leaving again, as soon as possible, with his friend safely in tow.

Harry proceeded from tunnel to tunnel until he met another staircase up, this one darkened, the electric lamps doused. Shadows shifted and slipped out of view around a bend at the top.

"Remain there," an echoing voice commanded. Harry let the trunk drift. Another rumble built and receded as if the very earth were sliding by, seconds later a rush of air lifted his hair and robes one way and then the other, as though he stood before the gaping maw of a great animal.

"Touch the railing. If you are not in the employ of the Wickems this will render you senseless."

Harry rested his hand on the iron pipe railing that split the stairs, amused as well as worried to think that his trunk was full of the same cheap material, and he was going to ransom a life with that.

"Send the trunk up."

Harry had not taken the time to think ahead. Instinctively he said, "I want to see Aaron first."

More shadows shifted, outlined by a weak light somewhere on the other side of the tunnel bridge. Another rumble passed by, teasing Harry's toes with vibration and sucking at his clothes a breath later.

A hunched silhouette careened toward the wall of the tunnel, manhandled into stopping at the lip of the top step. A single electric lamp came up for an instant before darkening again. Harry blinked at the afterimage smeared on his retinas. He had received a glimpse of a shiny stripe of blood red tile and a hooded figure that certainly resembled Aaron.

"Not much of a look," Harry sharply complained, one part of him thinking he should get on with it as another thought he should try to punish these criminals as much as possible by being difficult.

"We can simply take the money and kill him."

The hooded figure fell to its knees, or was pushed, it was hard to judge. With a malicious grin Harry said, "I'd like you to try that," with a tone that caused murmurs to slip along the hard walls from beyond the bend. Harry leaned more casually on the railing, wand flicking playfully, and added, "It certainly wouldn't be the first time I was the only survivor."

More murmuring.

Harry jumped ahead of their thoughts. "Aaron knew the risks when he signed up to be an Auror. I'm sure at this point he'd be more than happy to know his death let me take you out. Every. Last. One. Of. You."

Things moved along faster after that and more cooperatively, Harry was pleased to see. He could find no patience for their games. An unmasked figure with the typical generic look of the organization came down the steps to escort the trunk to the top where another figure waited, wearing their trademark netted mask. Harry followed, hoping to get a closer look at Aaron. The figure restraining Aaron lifted a wand to Aaron's ribs, so Harry diverted to face down the figure who seemed to be in charge, noticing the person wore platform shoes. Harry glared up at the slitted face and said, "Let me guess, costume shop was out of Death Eater masks?"

The figure took a physical swipe at him. Harry caught the figure's arm, and found less muscle there than expected. Many wands came in out of nowhere and aimed at his heart. Aaron, left to lean against the side of the tunnel, made a rather pathetic sound of distress. The sound shook Harry out the derisive mode he had slipped into.

He let go of the leader's arm, noticing the person wore something cursed around their neck, under their cloak where he could not see what it may be.

The unmasked man verified the money, dipping far into the magical cavern of the trunk for samples of coin and running spells upon them before dropping them into a colorful liquid with audible plops.

Aaron made another noise and slid farther, unable to prop himself up with his hands bound behind him and his returned guard offered him no help. "We're almost there, Aaron. Hang in there," Harry said.

"They're good," the man kneeling beside the trunk declared after drawn out minutes of testing.

Harry worked very hard to not release the breath he held. The eyes of the leader were certainly fixed firmly upon him and he wished to give nothing away when he was so close.

"Take him. Get out of my sight."

Harry grabbed up Aaron and helped him quickly down the steps and around the corner before trying to Apparate him away. Harry fell to his knees instead, struck by a barrier, and pulled his wand and waited to make sure he wasn't followed with the notion that he may stupidly try just that. Watching behind him, he helped Aaron along the tunnel. A chorus of pops reverberated over the hum of another train passing. Two bends later and many spells laid behind him, Harry stopped and started untying the hood hooked around Aaron's chest. But Aaron fought him doing this, making noises like talking through a gag.

"You don't want that off?" Harry asked.

The hood shook its head.

"Aaron, I have to know I've got you and not someone else," Harry insisted, even though he knew his fellow's lean physique well enough that he had not doubted who it was.

Harry untied Aaron's clutched hands, noting that his friend had a fresh stub where the ring finger on his left hand should be. Again, Harry tugged at the hood and his friend resisted. Aaron pushed away with an elbow and reached under to untie the gag. He tossed the wet thing away on the dusty floor, where it left a clean smudge.

"It's me," Aaron said, voice breaking, hand still holding fast to the edge of the hood.

"All right," Harry said, giving in and taking his arm. He Apparated them both to the main hall in Shrewsthorpe.

Ginny, Hemione, Ron and one twin waited for him there. Harry guided the blinded Aaron to the couch, where he promptly curled up, one arm around his covered head and the other hooked on his knees, seemingly chased inward by the rush of voices welcoming him.

Harry waved the others away and forced Aaron to give up the hood. His sense of cursedness was bothering him and he wanted to remedy that. "Come on, Aaron, it's all right." Aaron ducked inside his arms, turning away from them to hide his face.

Ginny said, "I'll go fetch Mrs. Wickem."

"No," Aaron moaned piteously, "I don't want to see my mum. I look horrid."

"Aye," Ron breathed.

Ginny moved in closer to sit beside Harry, who was trying to figure out how to best handle this. Snape slid over behind the couch, observing with a hard expression. Harry considered that as a last ditch effort, they could potion Aaron into cooperating.

"Aaron, come on," Ginny urged, tugging lightly on one arm.

"Aaron, we're just trying to take care of you," Harry said, trying to sound patient.

Muffled, Aaron replied miserably, "No, it's cursed. I'll be like this forever. I look like bloody Voldemort," he added, voice breaking.

Ginny shot Harry a look of dismay. Harry leaned closer, moving Aaron's hand so they could see where he had lost an ear.

"That's not cursed off," Harry said.

Eagerly, Ginny said, "I can give you an ear. Let me see your other one."

Hermione leaned on the couch arm. "Maybe you should take him to a Healer . . . ?"

Aaron ducked back down into his vice-like arms. "No . . . I don't want to be seen."

Harry gave his old friend a dissuading glare, and she stood upright, realizing her mistake.

Ginny half teased, half criticized, "Your students must love you at Hogwarts."

Snape's robes rustled as he glanced at his colleague, who visibly sighed. At the attention, Hermione said, "I'll get some stuff to purify the wounds with. You shouldn't heal them if they aren't clean."

"Thanks, Hermione," Harry said to her back as she departed for the toilet. They had grown too snippy with each other and that needed to stop.

Harry pried Aaron's arm free again so they could see the uneven hole with a curved red ridge that was all that remained of his ear.

"I need to see the other one," Ginny said. Still ineffectual at getting cooperation.

Snape leaned over the couch from behind. Sharply, he said, "Mr. Wickem, shape up and act your age. I am quite certain your friends are only trying to help, which you are fast losing any deserving of."

Harry froze and stared at his guardian, but he did not have much chance to react because Aaron had shifted his long legs to sit properly on the couch, head bowed and limp, but cooperating now. His nose did resemble Voldemort's, just two high slits between his eyes. Harry fought a cringe. Aaron kept his hands at his sides, tugging nervously on his robes. Apparently a sharp word from a former Head of House was exactly what he needed, as much as it stunned Harry under the circumstances.

Ginny turned Aaron's head one way and then the other, gauging the spell. Hermione handed over a cloth smelling of disinfectant and with much gasping in pain, Aaron let that be used on him. Face laden with concentration Ginny checked Aaron's right ear one more time and tapped, wove her wand in quick loops then tapped again.

"Nicely done," Harry said, surprised how perfect the new ear looked.

Aaron jerked his hands up to feel both ears all over with no little desperation.

Ginny said, "Yeah. Remember my long unicorn ears at the last Halloween party? I learned a quick spell to make them and then I did some serious damage getting rid of them later. By the time I got my own ears on right, I had the spell perfected, that's for sure." To Aaron, she said, "I can do a nose too. At least a temporary one." She tapped between his brows with her wand but the spell fizzled.

"It's cursed off," Harry said. "I can take care of the curse. But you're going to have to hold your breath or breathe through your mouth while I do." Snape leaned over the back of the couch, interested in the procedure.

Even after Aaron's cursed nose was replaced by one that did not quite look like his old one but worked well enough, and his hand was de-cursed and bandaged, Harry could still feel something accursed about him.

"Do you have anything on that they gave you?" Harry asked. "Jewelry or anything?"

Aaron shook his head. He sat up straighter now, but his face still hung long and disconsolately. "I could use a bath. Maybe that's what you're noticing."

Harry laughed lightly. "Maybe. We have to take you to your mum's before you'll get a chance."

Whinging instantly, Aaron said, "I want to go home. To my flat."

"Yeah, all right," Harry said. "But mum first."

Aaron, visibly cringed, which Harry could understand. Mrs. Wickem was a lot to take even whole and healthy. Half broken, she would be a painful experience.

"I promise it'll be quick," Harry said. "Then your flat. You weren't kidnapped from there, were you?"

Aaron shook his head. "Tricked by my date."

Ginny theatrically rolled her eyes.

"Oh," Harry said. "Well, we'll take you home, then I have to go to the Ministry." He stood and tugged Aaron to his feet. "And get reamed, I expect." A glance at his stony guardian made him wonder if he was not in trouble on two fronts, as usual. Harry had a thought. "Ginny, can you go into the Ministry and tell them what happened, then meet me at Aaron's flat?"

Ginny nodded. She glanced around at the rest of the crew, dismissed each of them in turn until she reached Hermione, and said, "Mind going with me?"

Hermione pulled herself straight. "Of course not."

Harry took one last eyeful of his guardian, standing behind the couch, unreadably grim. Harry had tried to keep Snape informed this time, as much as possible under the circumstances. Feeling at a loss, Harry sighed and Disapparated for the Wickem residence with an arm firmly around his friend in case he did not land perfectly.

Fortunately, Mrs. Wickem attacked Harry as much as her son. Aaron withstood a lengthy, cheek-pinching inspection with stoicism.

"Oh, my baby, you look fine. A few good meals and you'll be good as new."

Harry, who could still see the haunted depths to Aaron's eyes, thought that a bit optimistic.

"Look at you . . . is that your nose, or Harry's nose?"

"It might be my nose," Harry said.

"Does it look funny?" Aaron asked his mum, rubbing it.

"No, it looks fine, Dear," Mrs. Wickem said falsely. "We'll get that straightened out. Don't you worry."

Lord Freelander, who had remained beside his chair at the small tea table, finally approached and shook Aaron's hand. "Good to have you at liberty, young man," he said.

Aaron nodded broadly. "I have to go," he said, before his mother could swoop in again. "I have reports . . . and things."

"Long debriefing," Harry said in support. "I expect."

Mrs. Wickem said, "My poor dear. Why can't they leave you be?"

Aaron put a hand out to stop her approach. "It's all right," he said with the most strength than he had shown yet. "I want to get it over with. Let's go, Harry."

"But . . . you aren't going to stay?" Mrs. Wickem exclaimed.

"I need a bath and some sleep," Aaron pleaded. "I'll visit tomorrow, when I'm rested."

"Well, a bath for certain," Mrs. Wickem said with a twitch of her nose. "Well, all right. Just don't be a stranger to your worrying mother."

Aaron rocked his head away. Harry grabbed hold of his arm and took him home.

The serene silence of the flat was accented by the sun beams angling in through the tall, pointed windows. Aaron made his own way to the leather couch and fell on it, on his face.

"You all right?" Harry asked.

Aaron nodded.

Harry said, "You want me to get a bath ready?"

Aaron's head cranked down to peer at him, upside down. "You are offering to draw me a bath?" he asked in disbelief.

Harry chuckled. "I don't mind."

Aaron levered himself to half sit up so he could stare at Harry with a tilted head hooked to a tired neck. "If you would. You're rather tall for a house-elf, you know," he added to Harry's back.

Harry wandered the large open flat until he found the bath, which was a veritable Greek temple of marble tile. Harry started the gold plated faucets running and returned to check on his friend.

"Really nice place you have here," Harry said.

"For now." Depressed sounding, Aaron said, "You gave them all my money. From both my parents."

Harry said, "The hell I did."

Aaron stared at him, strangely free of expression. Harry did not leave him waiting long for further explanation. "We tricked them," Harry said. "I have friends with dangerous knowledge, like how to fake large amounts of Galleons."

"They checked them," Aaron said. "I could hear them running the spells."

"There was just enough real money to magic the fakes to pass the test."

"How much for real?"

"Thirty-three thousand, three-hundred and thirty three, or four. I don't remember how we decided on that in the end. Hermione and Candide argued about it for a while, but I don't remember how it turned out." Memories of the last few frantic days swooped over Harry, leaving behind overwhelming exhaustion.

Aaron moved aside and patted the couch. Harry accepted the invitation and collapsed beside him. "Still some serious coin," Aaron said, "but not half a mil, thank Merlin. I'd like to take half a mil out of their skins, personally."

Harry rubbed his tired eyes. "You may get the chance. When they discover what happened, they'll probably come looking for us. Or me at least."

Aaron's eyes filled as he grew hotly angry and his neck leaned outward. "I relish the chance . . . just as soon as I get a bath and some sleep in my own, much-fantasized-about bed."

Harry could feel the extreme anger in his friend, like a poison that dimmed the light of his bright demeanor. He put out a hand to restrain Aaron from rising, and said, "Taking revenge will hurt you more than them. Really it will."

Aaron pulled free and glowered down at him. "What are you on about?" he sputtered, so unlike himself, it hurt to watch.

Carefully, Harry said, "I'm not belittling what happened to you. I'd be the last person in the world to do that." Harry stood, trying to sound older and wiser and, hence, more convincing. "Justice is fine, Aaron. Revenge is not." Aaron merely stared at him, so Harry added, "I've been where you are, right now, more than once. You've been hurt, but you're not letting the damage stop. The damage going on now is caused by you. The kind of emotion you were feeling just now—it's like a curse. It poisons you from the core outward. Whatever happens, it's not worth losing yourself to."

Aaron sighed, perhaps accepting this for the moment, perhaps falling victim to his own over-tapped spirit. In the distance the sound of the tub overflowing drew them both that way.

Aaron tip-toed over the overrunning stream and stretched out to tweak the faucets off. Harry pulled his wand, but the excess water was neatly heading for the drain in the corner. Aaron sat on the wide, square edge of the tub and scrubbed his eyes.

"I'm glad for the break from Rodgers and Mr Weasley," Aaron said, slipping off his shirt. "I'm getting the notion that this wasn't a Ministry operation."

Harry shook his head. "I was off probation," he said teasingly, garnering a painfully quick smile from his fellow.

Aaron finished stripping and slipped into the tub, sending more cacophonous sloshes onto the floor. Harry saw quite a few bruises and gashes before the water engulfed them, and Aaron washed with trepidation.

"I'll wait for Ginny out here. Want me to make you something to eat? You look like you could use it. Something light or heavy? How much did they give you to eat?"

Aaron dropped the arm he had been scrubbing into the water with a splash. His gaze slipped off into the distance. Voice low, and swallowing often, he said, "They wanted me to beg for scraps." He pulled himself together after saying this and more calmly said, "So I haven't eaten much. It depended on who was left guarding me."

"Something light, then," Harry said easily, leaving him to his bath.

Ginny waited in the kitchen, sitting on one of the tall stools beside the counter. "How is he?"

"Doing better. He needs to eat."

Harry went to the fridge, but Ginny's deadpan voice halted him, "You need to go into the Ministry, Harry."

Harry closed the fridge and said, "Yep. You didn't get into trouble, did you?"

Ginny nibbled on a gilded chocolate from a dusty, five layer deluxe box on the counter and said, "I told dad if he wanted me to work within the Ministry that I couldn't do that unless he made me an Auror." She gave up a tired grin.

Harry sighed. "It's tough to work inside the system. Useless sometimes." He gestured at the range. "Can you make Aaron some soup or something light and easy on the stomach."

She jumped down off the stool. "Yeah. 'Course."

- 888 -


Harry strolled down the corridor to the Auror's office with far more confidence than he felt. Trouble was, he had lost track of why he had gone it alone. He had planned to say something that morning, but completely changed his mind. Perhaps exhaustion had something to do with that.

As he stepped into the Auror's office, Rodgers directed him down to the tea room and into a chair. Harry obeyed silently. Moments later Rodgers returned with Mr. Weasley. Harry fortified himself by imaging that he was delaying Aaron from facing this.

Rodgers stood with his arms crossed, studying Harry curiously. Mr. Weasley seemed at a loss for words. He leaned on his palms over the table and angled his head at Harry, disappointment clear in his gaze.

"Harry," Mr. Weasley started, but stuttered to a stop.

"What Arthur is trying to say, Potter, is what the hell were you doing?"

Harry decided stating the obvious would be childish, so he said nothing. Rodgers went on, "I might have to reassess whether you really are just a glory freak, even though you convinced me otherwise."

"I don't care if I don't get any credit," Harry assured him. "Really I don't."

"Why Harry?" Mr. Weasley asked. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Harry wondered if he could use the notion of a security leak inside the Ministry as an excuse, even if it had not really been a reason for his behavior.

"I actually don't know, sir. We got sort of caught up in it all. It's not legal to make fake Galleons . . ."

"The Galleons were faked?" Mr. Weasley said.

"Er, didn't Ginny mention that?" Harry asked, wondering if he should have held that back. He decided he did not need to. "Yes, your sons worked it out," Harry said, feeling confident in that not going any further than it had to.

Mr. Weasley sighed musically. Rodgers said, "That's better. The Minister nearly had a aneurism believing you'd given Durumulna that much money."

"We gave them thirty-three thousand. We needed those to fake the rest convincingly."

Rodgers appeared vaguely amused. "There's a spell I'd like to see."

Mr. Weasley rubbed his eyebrow. "Maybe we shouldn't tell the public that Galleons can be faked."

"What?" Rodgers blurted. "There are lots of ways to fake Galleons. Nothing new."

"It'd be nice to have a few weeks rest before Durumulna realizes . . ." Harry shyly suggested, not hopeful for any favors.

Rodgers grew increasingly interested. "What will they turn into?"

"Disks of iron that we cut."

"Ah . . ." Rodgers said, excited. "We can track the bastards this way, by how they spend those Galleons."

Mr. Weasley glared at Rodgers. "Are you encouraging him?"

Rodgers shrugged. "He was on full duty, remember? We changed their status temporarily."

Harry's spirits lifted at that. Firstly because his trainer was not angry with him, and second because he did not want to be back on probation.

Mr. Weasley leaned over close to Harry again. "Did you tell Tonks what you were planning?" When Harry shook his head, he challenged, "Really?"

"No, I didn't tell her. Why?"

"Well . . . because she insisted she was not involved and I didn't know whether to believe her."

Harry leaned back in the hard chair and stretched his arms out before him, palms flat on the table top. "I meant to say something this morning . . . I'll be honest, after it would be too late to change plans. But I just, got caught up in things, I suppose. I don't know why I didn't. I meant to. What's going to happen?"

"Well, you are certainly back on probation."

"With Aaron," Harry clarified.

"He's at his flat?"

At Harry's nod, it was decided that Rodgers should accompany Harry back for a debriefing. Mr. Weasley stalked from the room, shaking his head in grand disgust. Rodgers asked, "How is Mr. Wickem?"

Harry replied, "Not so good. But he may bounce back quickly . . . it's hard to tell. I do hope he bounces back." Harry silently pledged to avenge his quick-witted and gentle friend if he turned out to be permanently damaged. Harry did not think that a fair thing to steal from someone.

- 888 -


Aaron reappeared from the bath wrapped in and trailing a regally cut maroon dressing gown. Ginny slid the hot soup on the counter over before one of the stools.

"Or do you want to sit at the table?"

"This is fine." Aaron took up a spoon and stared into the bowl. "Nothing nasty floating in it. That's good."

An owl came to the window, and Ginny fetched the letter it carried. "It's from your mum."

"Wonderful. Read it to me."

Ginny opened it, but before she could start, Aaron corrected, "No, never mind, just tell me what it says; I've been tortured enough for one day."

Ginny read over the neat hand writing. "She wants you to come to dinner when it is convenient for you," she quoted aloud. Ginny moved her lips, holding back on an opinion.

"No, go ahead and say it," Aaron growled.

"I was going to say your family is nuts, but I thought I shouldn't say that."

Aaron bent back over his soup, managing to eat it in complete silence. Ginny had not seen him use a spell and wondered how he did it. He paused to say, "That would be a fair assessment."

Ginny took a slouched seat on the couch and closed her eyes. Aaron said, "Are you staying for a while?"

Ginny jumped forward as if to leave. "Do you want to be alone?"

"Not really." Aaron pushed the remainder of his soup away.

Ginny came around to the kitchen side of the counter. "Are you done already? Do you want something else?"

"You're behaving like my mother," Aaron accused.

Ginny froze on going to the fridge again, dropping her arms. "I really don't mean to." She remembered the surprising way Aaron had responded to Snape's tough commentary and said, somewhat stilted, "Well, if you want something. I expect you know where to find it." And went back to the couch.

Aaron felt in his pockets and then put his head in his hands. Ginny felt at a loss how to deal with this new mixed message. "I lost my wand. Those bloody losers kept my wand."

Ginny normally would have offered the use of her own, but that might be mothering. She looked around at the well-appointed flat, full of all kinds of extra, high-quality things. "You don't have a spare?"

Aaron rapidly raised his head. "Yeah." He looked about the broad room thoughtfully and pointed. "In there."

Ginny went to a fancy little darkly varnished desk and pulled open the incredibly light drawer. A ceramic wand case rested inside along with other odds and ends. She brought it over, feeling it too bold to open the strange thing.

Aaron slid the long top off the case and lifted out the diminutive wand. It was a narrow wand with an amber hue to the wood. "My dad bought this for me on one of his trips." More sadly he added, "One of his many trips. It's Egyptian."

He hovered the teapot over and poured some out. "Works just fine. I'd forgotten all about it. Thanks for the reminder."

Ginny resumed her spot on the couch. "You're welcome."

The doorbell chimed and Ginny, wand out, went to answer it. She escorted Harry and Rodgers inside. "Didn't expect you to use the door."

"Mr. Rodgers wanted to be polite," Harry said, in a high-minded tone that could have been poking fun.

"How are you doing, Aaron?" their trainer asked with about as much kindness as he ever used. He gestured for Aaron to retire to the couch, which he did with an obedient dip of his head. Rodgers pulled a chair around to face him, leaning his elbows on his knees. He tugged out a notebook and said, "It's storytime now, I'm afraid."

Aaron nodded bleakly as memory sucked him in.

- 888 -


Harry left Aaron in others' hands and went home, hoping to catch Snape before he departed for Hogwarts for the week. His getting out of trouble easily at the Ministry made him want to make sure there was no trouble at home. But Snape was already absent.

Candide sat at the dining room table in a dressing gown, sipping from a vast mug of tea.

"Hello, Harry," she greeted him vibrantly.

"Wotcher," Harry said. He was tired, but he took a seat across from her and nibbled on a triangular mini sandwich from the platter in the middle of the table. "Severus left already, it looks like."

"Yep," she said, brow furrowing. "He seemed eager to go." She shook her head.

"Do you think I'm in trouble? I haven't got used to this new setup we have. I tried to keep him informed, but everything moved too fast. And you got dragged in too. I hope you didn't get any flack." The last was a question.

Candide shook her head and flipped the page of her magazine. "He was quite surprised to find me asleep in the middle of the day, but then he didn't even mention it again."

She put the Better Gnomes and Gardens Winterfull Wonderland issue down and said, "Where's your guard?"

Harry's eyes moved around the room. "I don't seem to have one now." The prospect of losing his guard relieved him greatly until he considered that lately he had been maneuvering to get his guard shifted to Candide, whom he believed should have one.

Candide said, "Is Aaron going to be all right? You didn't leave him alone, did you?"

"There were people there when I left. Our trainer and Ginny. I'll check on him in the morning." Harry nibbled another sandwich. "I don't know how he's going to do. He seems . . . fragile. I don't know what to do about that."

"You can't give someone else strength, Harry."

"Well, Severus knew how to brow beat him out of feeling sorry for himself. Not something I would have tried. We'll have to do whatever works, though."



Next: Chapter 25
Dear Severus,

I believe this is my only chance to take care of something I feel I must complete. I expect you to object, but things will only become more busy soon enough after more is revealed. I feel strongly about this and don't believe it will take long to resolve. What do you say to this?


Harry sent the owl off right away and that night as he slipped the cover over his owl's cage, found Franklin at the window.

The reply was short and on the back of his own letter.

Do as you will, it read. Harry peered at it, tried a few revealing spells, read through his own message and again pondered the reply. Was he giving in, despite his earlier insistence that he never would? Was he expecting Harry to fail and therefore learn on his own? Whatever Snape was thinking, it surely was making Harry think a lot more.

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