Chapter 26 — Ensnared by a Ruse

Early the next morning, as if fate had decreed it, Candide gathered up her cloak and bag and announced she was spending the day with her parents.

"Severus isn't coming home?" Harry asked.

Candide ducked her head to free her hair from the collar of her cloak. "He hasn't owled saying he will. I'm not going to wait around. I didn't have time to visit at all before the accounting year closed."

She wore fuzzy warm robes under her cloak, and tugged on thick woolen mittens, just to travel by Floo.

"Going to be warm enough?" Harry asked of her gear.

She held up one tan and grey mitten, which flopped off the ends of her fingers. "Frankly, I used these to breath through. Floo dust is bad for people who are pregnant."

Said Harry, "Floo dust is bad for everyone."

She took up her handbag with a chuckle and said, "Yeah. Funny the things you don't worry about until you're pregnant."

"Are your parents excited?" Harry asked. "I would think they'd be."

"Eh, what's one more grandkid? This will make five."

"Are they all magical?"

Candide rested her handbag on the table, still hooked on her shoulder. "Mostly. There is one still in question, the youngest. We'll see when he turns eleven at the latest."

"I can probably tell," Harry said. Then thinking back to the crowded tent and all the guests added, "I don't think I noticed at the wedding."

"We'll have to have them over for dinner, then, so you can." She patted her belly. "I hope this little one is. But it's all right if he's not," she added quickly.

"'Course it's all right," Harry said.

She sighed, "Well, if you get an owl from Severus, owl it along to me. Maybe my mentioning wanting to visit my parents is the reason he isn't here.

Harry replied, "I don't think that's it; he knows that he wouldn't let you talk him into going."

She bundled her cloak tighter and stepped into the Floo. Harry thought that if he were going to travel to this other place, he should do so soon too. He went to his room to prepare a warm landing area, just in case he was gone long enough to worry that Tonks may be on duty.

Harry arrived in the other Plane, and discovered a major downside to traveling in the morning: the weak sun did not warm him much. Harry lay on the cold, matted field, barely able to breathe or move except in spasms, fumbling with his wand to warm the ground beside him so he could roll over onto it and remain alive. By the time he was able to stand, his bones ached and his head pounded. He could hear Snape in his snidest voice telling him he had been overconfident.

"Yeah, yeah," Harry replied to the empty air.

Harry applied his disguise and needed no acting to hobble, bent-backed, up to the hedge surrounding the confectionary architecture of the Burrow. The Weather Vain on the peak of the roof must not be operating today since it was bone cold and damp like only December could be. Harry did not particularly desire to rouse the whole household.

Stretching his stiff shoulders back, Harry transformed into his Animagus form and took wing for the roof just above where Ginny's room should be. He may be guessing wrong, but with his keen sense of animal smell he expected he could tell just by getting close.

Three long flaps brought Harry to a delicate landing on his knuckles because he feared knocking shingles loose with his claws. The roof beams creaked with his weight but not loudly. Harry unfurled each foot in turn and placed them carefully where he could lean over the peak and look down into the window. It smelled of Ginny, and many other things, like mice and bats and faintly of illicit potion ingredients, which must be something of the twins'.

Harry scratched on the window frame, then scratched again. The second time, the bedspread used as a curtain jerked aside. Not wanting to scare Ginny, Harry took flight and landed just on the far side of the hedge where he could quickly check his disguise and step out.

Mouth agape, Ginny leaned far out of her open window, the makeshift curtains draping out beside her hands. Harry waved. Her head popped inside and a minute later, she emerged on broomstick and swooped down beside him.

"Hi!" she greeted him warmly, adjusting her hastily thrown on cloak. "You're an early riser."

"It's around nine, I believe," Harry said in his older, plodding voice.

"That's early for Saturday. We always sleep in."

"You have it very easy here," Harry commented. When Ginny shrugged, Harry said, "I need to speak with you. If you would accompany me on a short walk?" He held out a hand to invite her to lead the way.

She flipped her broomstick over to use it as a walking stick and stepped through the hedgerow. Harry followed along beside, remaining quiet until they found a trail bordering the orchard and followed it.

"Has anyone spoken to you?" Harry asked.

She seemed younger than the Ginny he knew. Her hair trailed a strawberry-scented haze and she walked with an unnecessary bounce to her step. "Lots of people talk to me. Like who?"

"Minerva McGonagall or someone else from the Wizengamot?"

She choked a laugh. "Are you joking? No, no one like that has talked to me. I'm not sure they know I exist."

Harry stopped and she turned her freshly curious gaze on him. He stroked his beard, mostly to keep it from blowing around in the wind so much. "Then they haven't realized the truth then," Harry thought aloud, setting Ginny back on her heels with a quizzical expression.

Harry said, "There's been a prophecy about the good times ending here. That a dark wizard . . . or witch is going to start making trouble and lots of people are going to get hurt."

"A prophecy?" The wind had a hold of her thick hair, tossing it back and forth behind her.

Patiently, he said, "Yes, like with Harry Potter and Voldemort you know."

"Huh," she muttered. "And why are you telling me this?"

Harry recited the prophecy to her and gave it time to sink in. He closed his eyes and felt for the shadows. There was no Voldemort, but his followers certainly were all there, scattered like dark stars around Britain. "See, I think the seventh pure-blood son who is not, is you." And I think the slumbering followers are Voldemort's old Death Eaters, long since forgotten.

Her face twisted into a humorous expression that Harry had no desire to laugh at. She giggled uncomfortably. "What is this magic I am supposed to have?"

"I don't know. No one knows. It's likely not something obvious or expected." He took her shoulders. "But you must prepare for this, or you may not survive to fulfill the prophecy."

Harry miscalculated badly with this. Ginny stepped back with a jerk, out of reach. With a hint of distaste, she said, "I think Harry might be right, that you're a doddering old showoff."

Harry drooped slightly, chastising himself. He had rushed things and now faced a poorer prospect for convincing her of what he believed should be done. With more emotion, he said, "Ginny, look . . ."

But this made her back up another step. He could see in her eyes she was recalculating being there at all with him, alone, could see her memory of the duel with his counterpart, flashing before her mind's-eye. Her wariness ratcheted up and she was preparing to Apparate away.

Harry stepped back, hands out in plain view. "I don't mean to alarm you," he said in his humblest tones. She gradually relaxed as he held that pose, head slightly bent. Harry was considering that it was no wonder that Dumbledore had left him to his own devices for so long without telling him the truth.

"Ginny, I cannot stay long. I should not be here at all. You must ask Minerva McGonagall for advice. Tell her I believe you are the one in the prophecy. Will you promise me that you will do this?"

Ginny's flexible face twisted into series of unlikely shapes that did not promise much.

"Please, Ginny," Harry said, pinning his beard down with one hand on his chest in entreaty.

"Why are you doing this? Saying these things?" she demanded, recovering some spunk.

Gently, knowing with ironic pain that he sounded like his old mentor, Harry said, "I'm not doing anything. I'm trying to help you." He needed a new tactic, as her eyes indicated imminent departure again. "You enjoyed my lessons in Defensive magic, right?" he asked, as though of someone much younger. How was she ever going to survive without growing up?

"Of course. They never taught us any of that and it's fun to learn stuff the teachers don't think we should know."

Harry's mind worked fast. "All right then. What if, just in case, you were to find an instructor in Defensive magic." He laid the endearing salesman mode on as heavily as he dared. "Someone who could teach you all kinds of things that are not generally known and in some cases are forbidden?"

He had her attention, so he went on. "You could learn all kinds of spells brothers have never seen. You don't have to believe in the prophecy to find that appealing, I'm sure."

She crossed her arms and considered that. "But why can't you teach me, then, if this is so important?"

"I cannot remain here. For reasons that I cannot tell you, but believe me they are real and dire."

She frowned, but appeared to yield. "So where do I find this great teacher?"

"You know him already. The person I have in mind is Severus Snape."

She physically stumbled backward upon hearing this. She righted herself slowly as though expecting attack and laughed in a nervous burst. "That's nuts. I'm not going anywhere near that slimy dungeon bat, not for all the Galleons in Gringott's." She took a few steps away, back down the trail. "Take your crazy ideas somewhere else. What an awful thought."

Harry called lightly, "Ginny, this isn't about gold, this is about surviving. It's about making sure everyone you know and love survives."

She stopped, shoulders bent. "What if I don't believe any of this?"

Harry resumed his earlier placating pose. "You may simply ask Minerva and she will confirm it."

Pained, she stared down at the ground. Harry tried to decide if he had accomplished enough here. It did not feel very settled, and he did not want to return again. He needed to be done with this for good.

"I'm not going anywhere near that greaseball of a Potions teacher," she stated firmly. "The best thing about finishing at Hogwarts was never seeing him again." She shuddered for effect. "He hates me. He hates everyone, really." She laughed.

Harry's mind ruffled through his options. He wanted to personally put Ginny in Snape's hands. If he did that, then he could leave in good conscience. "I wonder if Professor Snape is at Hogwarts," Harry said.

With clear disdain, she said, "I have no idea. It's not something I regularly contemplate. Quite the opposite." Relenting slightly, she said, "Many of the teachers go home on the weekends."

"They do?" Harry couldn't imagine it.

"So do loads of the students. If they want."

Harry stared at her. "What an odd thought."

She did not understand his confusion and sounded corrective as she said, "Why not? It only requires a few minutes to get home by Floo. And wouldn't you rather be home with your parents than stuck at school?"

Harry rubbed a hand through his beard and took her in. Growing strategic, he said, "You know, Harry rather hates Professor Snape. If you got lessons from him, you could face Harry down in any duel and imagine his annoyance when you beat him. Every time."

Ginny wavered and bit her lip. Unrequited, adoring love, grown poisoned by time showed from her eyes. She appeared strategic too. "He won't take me as a student, you know." Her lip curled unattractively as she spoke. "Not that I could stand to be within ten miles of the overgrown Slytherin bat."

Airily, Harry said, "I'd recommend finding a better title for him. At least until you learn to counter more curses." She expressed mocking amusement at this, but then seemed to find it genuinely funny. Seeing the best opening he was going to get, Harry said, "Wait here, all right? I'll be back in five minutes."

"You're not bringing the Dungeon Dungbomb back with you, are you?"

That one Harry almost could not let slide. Stiffly and with his annoyance clear, he said, "No. I'm just going to check where he is."

Harry, wanting to impress her, slipped silently away and arrived moments later in the Hogwart's Dungeon, inside the Potions office. The room sat in stillness, hearths and candles cold. Harry walked around to check the classroom. Two students were brewing something on the floor, whispering. They panicked when Harry approached, tripping on robes and nearly upsetting the cauldron.

"Just looking for the Professor," Harry said kindly to the Ravenclaws.

The boy's Adam's apple bobbed rapidly as he swallowed between words. "He's. . . .he's supposed to be home." Both his and his friend's eyes glared out as big as saucers. The potion smelled like Memory Magic.

Harry gently said, "I'm assuming you're selling that since, given your house colors, you certainly shouldn't need it yourselves. And it's frothing over, so you should get back to it."

They dropped back to a crouch and returned to brewing. Chuckling lightly, Harry stepped out and slipped away to Shrewsthorpe, wondering if in this perfect place Snape did not live somewhere nicer. Unwilling to invade the privacy of the place by slipping inside, Harry arrived beside a hedge across the street. While he waited for the cars to clear, a woman came by, walking a pug. Harry asked her if she knew who lived in the house across the way, and she replied, "The Snapes: Professor and the missus."

The Snapes, Harry thought with a small grin as the dog's claws clicked in retreat. He returned to Ginny, who abruptly said, "How do you do that? Not make a sound?"

Harry gave her a finger to the lips and wink. "It took me such trouble to learn that. But let me take you for a visit and make a proposal. I think with a little illumination of the situation, the good professor will see things my way."

He took her elbow, but she raised it. "Where are we going?"

"Professor Snape's house."

"He has a house? He doesn't just live in a hole somewhere?"

Harry corked his anger, but each time it grew harder to bottle up. "Let me give you a little advice, for your own good. That mouth is going to get you taken down to about an inch high if you use it that way in front of Professor Snape."

"Good reason not to go," she commented, but lowered her arm into his hand and slouched. "This is all on your head, you know," sounding honestly blameful and a tad spoiled.

They arrived at the garden gate. "I know that, my dear," Harry said, returning to his more raspy voice, which he had let slip while arguing with her.

A knock on the door made it open almost instantly by Tidgy's hand. Harry gave the elf a small bow and asked, "Is your master at home?"

Tidgy did not have a chance to reply before a familiar voice brought an instant smile to Harry's lips.

"Who is it, Tidgy?" Candide came into view, mauve robes filling the corridor as she approached, moving like one not in the least pregnant.

Harry gestured for Ginny to answer. "Uh, I'm a student of Professor Snape's, er, I was, I'm, er, wondering if he's here?" She sounded as unpleased at the prospect of a yes as she possibly could.

Candide smiled wryly. "Why don't you come in for tea, and we'll see if we can rouse him from his books."

Ginny strode in behind Candide with a pose of defeat and wary hostility. The main hall was brighter and cheerier than Harry was accustomed to. The wood had been stripped and re-varnished in a lighter shade and woven hangings adorned the outside walls. While Harry admired this, Ginny sharply whispered through clenched teeth, "I don't know how I let you talk me into-"

"What is this?" Snape hissed from beside the doorway to the drawing room. He hadn't made a sound coming into the hall.

Pleasantly, as if this were a game, Candide replied, "Your former student and . . . I didn't get your name?"

"Aaron Totten, Madame," Harry said with a bow that he tried to make look creaky and painful given the eyes upon him.

" . . . and Mr. Totten are here for tea." She turned to the elf. "Tidgy prepare some tea in the dining room."

Snape eyed Ginny suspiciously after a sharp glance at Harry, who had his mind Occluded. Harry, wanting to explain things himself, turned Ginny's eyes away by taking her arm to lead her in the direction indicated by their hostess.

As they settled at the table, Snape stood in the doorway and said to the elf, "Tidgy, the smallest teacups, mind you."

Harry, in his best Dumbledore impression, said, "Ah, that will make the pot require even longer to consume. Such gracious hosts."

Snape's eyes narrowed, and Harry had to swallow a laugh by biting into a biscuit.

"Severus," Candide said in a long suffering but superficially annoyed tone. "I don't mind at all if we on rare occasion have someone over for tea. Frequently would be even better." She sat down across from Ginny and clasped her hands nicely. "So, you must be a Weasley."

"Yes," Snape answered from his cross-armed position by the mantel as Ginny opened her mouth. "One of far too many of them."

Candide asked, "Severus, are you going to sit down, or are you just going to loom?"

"He prefers to loom," Ginny said at exactly the same time as Snape said, "I always prefer to loom."

Harry bit hard into his treat and had to scrunch his eyes against a laugh. But he quickly fell more serious when he considered what he had to accomplish.

Snape tugged out a chair and sat on it, arms crossed. "To what do we owe the displeasure of this visit?" he asked in a falsely genteel manner.

Harry glanced at Candide. "We have something we need to discuss." He considered that the Candide he knew was the model of discretion, partly because of the habits of her job. Lips cocked, he said to her, "My dear lady, you must be an accountant, am I right?"

This drew newly vigilant, narrowed eyes from Snape. Harry went on, "I only suggest it from the ink stains on your hand and a bit on your sleeve, almost removed by your elf, but not quite, and the strength of your hands, presumably from moving the rolls and files around the office."

Unlike Snape, she found his guess less than surprising. "Yes, I am."

"Well, then," Harry said, sipping his tea. "I think I can speak before you." He turned to Snape, who was analyzing him more closely than the disguise would probably withstand if not for the backlighting Harry had intentionally chosen when he picked this seat. "Professor Snape, I wonder if you are aware that Professor Trelawney has prophecized again."

Snape's attention fell into a strange stillness. His head tilted to the right and held that way, like a giant parrot.

"I was not certain if you would have been told." Harry slowly recited the prophecy and, as he finished, Snape reached out two long fingers, which he placed on Candide's shoulder.

"This is to not leave this room," he said to his wife.

Vaguely stunned, but more curious, she replied, "I understand."

Snape sat back, clutched his hands together and touched the steepled index fingers to his nose as he sank into musing. His eyes drifted over to Ginny. "I see where your thoughts are leading," he said with little enthusiasm.

Harry nibbled his fifth biscuit, not because they were particularly good, but because they rekindled memories of when Tidgy was still alive. "I am here with the suggestion that you train this young lady in Defense."

Snape turned a baleful eye on Ginny. "Oh, are you now?"

Harry had thought this would be easy. He expected Snape to see the wisdom of the idea and agree without argument. Snape was not giving any indication of that, quite the opposite.

Snape said, "You think I have time for such things?"

Candide said, "You don't think it is a good idea, Severus? The prophecy does pertain to Ginny, does it not?"

"Who knows?" Snape muttered coarsely. "And in any event, she was one of the most horrid students I have ever faced. I certainly do not want her back again."

Ginny tossed her hair and crossed her arms to match his. "For the record, I don't very much want to either."

Snape turned to Harry, "And what is your interested in this?" he asked with suspicion. "I have never heard of you, yet you come in here setting things up like you expect to be next in line for Minister."

"I'm an old friend of Albus'. I've been out of the country for rather a long while." They stared at each other, Harry certain his disguise was not going to cut it if Snape's suspicions were roused for long. "Are you refusing to do this thing?"

"Yes. Are you as doddered as you appear?" Snape returned.

Candide rolled her eyes and sighed. Ginny pushed her heavy chair back with a noisy rumble and stood. "Well, I guess that's that," she said happily.

"Sit down," Harry commanded.

"Why should I?" she retorted, her voice pitching higher. "I hate this creep to the bottoms of my feet. I always have. He did nothing but mock and secretly ruin the assignments of anyone who wasn't Slytherin."

Harry, wanting to regain her attention in one go said, "Dark wizards do not play nice, so you might as well have got used to it. If you don't sit down, you are going to wind up dead."

This bluntness shocked everyone. Chastened for the moment, Ginny sat, but she pinned her eyes on the wall beside her.

Harry huffed in frustration, sounding old to his own ears. He did not feel like playing nice anymore, himself. "Professor . . . like I said, I am an old friend of Albus'. . . " Harry glanced at Candide. "Perhaps your lovely wife has errands or something she needs to take care of. There are few things I want to say and they should perhaps not be said . . . in the presence of a lady." It was the best excuse Harry could come up with; he was tiring of this role.

While Candide glanced to Snape for advice, Ginny said, "What about me?"

Harry turned to her. "You've proven you're not a lady with that mouth of yours."

When Snape gave no signal to Candide, Harry said, "Professor, I think this conversation should be between you and me. She's heard a lot already. Prophecies being what they are . . ." he trailed off and sent Snape the most meaningful look he could. And the first crack in the man's stalwart attitude appeared, for just a flicker.

"You said you needed to run to Diagon, did you not?" Snape asked Candide in a far less cocky voice.

Harry helped her along, "He can fill you in later, if he wishes. You can make an old man's visit easier . . . my brains don't always plan ahead as well as they used to."

With a grumble, she gathered up her cloak and baskets with a wave of her wand, and moments later disappeared in the Floo after terse good byes.

Snape's fingers traced a whorl in the tabletop. "You were saying?" he prompted with zero warmth.

Beside Harry, Ginny shrunk down in her chair to make herself smaller. Harry said, "I thought I could convince you amicably, Severus, but was mistaken."

"Dumbledore was often mistaken as well," Snape stated.

Harry suspected the comment was a test. "Yes, he was. You think I'd argue with that?"

Snape tossed his tea back and poured out more for himself. "Well?"

Harry struggled to find the best tactic. "You of all people should understand the position wizardom is in right now given the prophecy."

Sneer in place, Snape stated succinctly, "I didn't even know there was one."

"This time," Harry returned with ease.

Snape's fingers began to vibrate as they stroked the lip of his teacup. This was a deep secret Harry was hinting at. There was not time to work at this slowly. Moments past. Snape said, "So, this is blackmail?"

Ginny's head snapped to Harry, drawing Snape's unnerved glance.

"That's such a dirty word," Harry said.

Snape spoke in rapid fire. "I do not wish to do this. Why me? If you know so much about me . . ."

"That is precisely why you," Harry countered. "And I do know rather a great deal about you. For example, you look in need of a drink and I believe that silvered bottle up there has sherry in it, does it not?"

Snape froze. Of all the personal things to have revealed, that one caught him utterly by surprise. When he held still longer, Ginny asked, "Does it have Sherry in it?"

Sounding drunken already, Snape asked, "Yes. Would you like some?"

"'Course," she replied bluntly.

Snape slid out of his chair, which was easy to do since he had not pulled it to the table fully. "Why don't we have a round, then?"

Harry felt a bit bad for Snape; he sounded rattled and like everyone else here, he had grown soft, even if he kept up a convincing front otherwise. Harry talked as Snape polished small crystal glasses and poured dark red liquid into them. "You're the perfect choice, Professor, because I believe the slumbering followers to be Voldemort's former associates."

The decanter hit the table hard. "Do not speak that name in my presence," he hissed through his teeth with a threat that Harry did not doubt.

Harry sighed. "His name is meaningless. But if you insist. Fine. Dark Lord would be your preferred term, then?" Harry tossed out, knowing it was the preferred term for a Death Eater to use.

A ripple ran along Snape's jaw. He sat down and downed his sherry in one shot.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," Ginny said, while tugging on Harry's sleeve.

It seemed very right to Harry; things were so unfinished. "Fate has not unwound here so I think there is no choice but to at least try this. Professor Snape is unequaled at Defense and other things you will need to know, like Occlusion."

Sounding unconvinced and wanting to talk out of nerves, she asked, "What's that?"

"The skill at hiding your thoughts from others who might see fit to penetrate them face to face or even in your dreams."

"Who can do that?" she blurted rhetorically.

"Professor Snape can."

Ginny turned an alarmed gaze Snape's way. Snape raised his head and snarled faintly, "That's why I know exactly what you miserable Gryffindors think of me. You get exactly what you deserve in my class."

Ginny's shoulders were pulled back in surprise. Harry said, "Now, now, we'll have to have less of that if this to work out."

"This is not going to work out," Snape growled at Harry, and pounded his empty glass once sharply on the table.

Harry ignored him, as Dumbledore had often done when he stubbornly stuck to his own track. Harry asked the ceiling, "So, I'm curious, how many Death Eaters are roaming free, outside Azkaban?"

"I don't know," Ginny answered.

"I wasn't asking you." Harry lowered his eyes. "I was asking someone who would know."

Snape did not stun this time, nor did he grow warier, he just stared through Harry, thinking.

"Why would Professor Snape know?" Ginny asked.

When Snape still resisted, Harry saw a way to set this up better. "Professor Snape knows too well, in fact. That makes him invaluable, as I suspect there are Death Eaters in all kinds of bad positions, even in the Ministry. At Hogwarts even."

Ginny blinked a few times and shot Harry a questioning look. "Uh, you sound like you're saying . . ."

"Shut up," Snape said.

"That's pretty plain vanilla from you," Harry said, concerned by Snape's lapse into the mundane. "Usually you go for something subtle and twisted."

Snape rose partly out of his chair. "How do you know what I would usually "go" for? We have never met."

"Oh yeah, true," Harry said, going for old and fickle again to cover.

Ginny was tugging on Harry's robes again. "You aren't saying . . ." she whispered.

Harry addressed his comments to Snape. "People forget, don't they? Especially things they don't want to think about."

"I definitely don't want to think about this, or do this," Ginny said. "I'm backing out." Unconvincingly, she added, "I think I hear my mum calling me." She scooted her chair out farther.

Snape's fingers were tracing the grain of the wood again. "Severus?" Harry prompted.

Snape regained himself and said, "I will do it on two conditions. Sit down, Weasley, or the next time your dear mummy is calling you it may be from beyond the veil, and you will hear her everywhere."

Ginny did not sit, but she did not move either, even to breathe. Harry said to her, "Ginny, things are going get very bad before they get better. Death and violence are new to you, I realized, but you are going to have to get inured to them to survive this. Sit down, please."

Ginny sat, appearing very sad and alarmed, hands locked under her arms, shoulders nearly touching the table edge she slouched so.

"What magic could she possibly have?" Snape pleaded with Harry.

"It could be anything," Harry said, "Loyalty to her family perhaps, or simply a resistance to evil's pull. I would tell you if I knew, but I don't." Not wanting to dwell there, Harry asked, "What were your conditions?"

Growing vaguely angry, Snape said, "First, I expect full cooperation. When I assign reading and practice, I expect it to be done, memorized from start to finish, and impeccably fine-tuned if it is a spell practice assignment. None of this half-effort nightmare of your schooldays." The first he addressed, to Harry, but he turned to Ginny as he went on, a good sign.

His voice softened as he added to Harry, "And the second thing is, I want to know who you are. You have on an expert, but hastily applied disguise, and you look vaguely familiar as well as act familiar." He sat back like a man who finally won a round and said, "Those are my conditions."

It was Harry's turn to freeze and try to quell his panicked thoughts. Swallowing, Harry said, "I can't do that."

Snapping quickly into heated anger, Snape said, "Than I cannot either. Take it or decline it. I do not honestly care which."

Harry bit his lip. "Ginny should go," he said, thinking that was the very least.

"I do not think so," Snape said with a note of triumph at gaining the upper hand. "You have been acting as manipulative of her as my old mentor at his worst. I think she deserves to see who you really are."

Harry schemed quickly, wondering if he could layer on a different disguise as he removed the first.

"Come, come, it cannot possibly be that difficult a decision. Have another drink."

"Thanks I've had enough," Harry said, thinking that he had not seen anything get slipped into it, but he would not put it past Snape to do so.

Harry had trapped himself, he saw now. And he could not see a way out of it. Ginny had recovered slightly and peered at him worriedly. He gave in, thinking he would just have to explain. He had explained once before and nothing bad had come of it; he could just do so again. He stood and said, "All right then. We have a deal. You will train her and help her along."

Ginny sat up and grabbed at Harry yet again. "But, I don't want training from a . . . didn't you say he was a . . . a Death Eater?"

Harry calmly took her hand from his robes and held it loosely. "Yes. You have a better suggestion for who can help?"

"Wha . . . well . . . uh . . ." She choked a bit more, then shut her mouth.

"He's the best for now, and when he ceases to be, should you have the luxury of doing so, he should find you others to help as well." He glared at Snape. "Right?"

Snape nodded crookedly, once, and waved down a different smokey bottle to top up his drink. "I am still waiting for your half of the bargain."

Harry stepped back and ducked to apply some quick wand taps. When he straightened back up as himself, Snape leapt up as well, and faster than Harry could have ever imagined, had the hover spell canceled and his wand re-aimed. The abandoned bottle shattered wetly on the floor. The hand aiming at Harry shook with rage.

"Potter!"

"Harry?" Ginny blurted in utter confusion.

"What the devil are you doing?" Harry spouted at Snape, alarmed at his attacking him. "You're going to what, curse me? I'm not who you think I am."

"I know exactly who you are you conniving little bastard." Snape sent a curse his way.

Harry had not reached for his wand, too surprised to be faced with this man threatening him. Harry didn't managed to scrunch down the whole Leather Slap Curse, but he cut it short, enough that he held his feet. Snape's wand struck the ceiling then clattered to the floor. Snape clutched his hand and stared at Harry.

"Why did you do that?" Harry yelped, rubbing his face and feeling something rising in him, responding to the man before him. Voice low, Harry demanded, "What makes you think you could get away with that?" Stung by a vision that generated such strong feelings, Harry couldn't contain his wounded anger, not with this thing inside him reaching for it, stoking its energy. The light in the room dimmed slightly. Snape retrieved his wand and Harry had his out in the next second. Ginny dove under the table and crawled to the other end of the room under its protection.

Snape and Harry exchanged spells, nasty ones that sizzled along the furniture before dissipating. "You always were bright only when it involved being a obnoxious brat," Snape accused. "If you had applied that a little better, you could have made something out of your pathetic fame."

The light dimmed more, Harry felt something sucking away at his core. He felt dizzy. The next curse he Squelched again, wand lowered. Snape held onto the wand exploding with magic in his hand, but he doubled over, clutching his middle.

Angry beyond what was safe, Harry hoarsely said, "You don't know who I am. Or what I can do." It was half a plea for the other to stop and half a threat should he not obey. Snape had not recovered enough to aim his wand. Harry readied something to take him down, but hesitated using it on a defenseless Snape.

"I don't know how you are doing that . . . but . . ." Snape finally straightened and held his wand out, uncertainty clear in his pose, head tilted with suspicion and hate.

Harry shouted, "Stop it! You don't understand anything."

The light dimmed even more and the others noticed it, noticed that the corners of the room were in total darkness, that the sunlight filtered in the window as yellow-grey beams. Ginny glanced this way and that, trying to find the source of the problem. Harry willed it to stop, but could not find the shutoff in his mind. Snape lowered his wand, glancing around with his eyes, head fixed.

Harry leaned on the table. "I'm not who you think I am," he said, grappling with what had risen within him—this need to control others, especially one of his Death Eaters, by force if necessary, by manipulation, preferably. He shook his head broadly between his propping arms. They weren't his Death Eaters. Trouble was he could feel something within Snape calling to something deep inside Harry and his part knew it dominated, or should.

Snape glanced at Harry's wand, then at his own.

Ginny said shakily, "Why don't we both just sit down, hey?"

Harry did so, woozy from something, perhaps just lack of control over himself. He rubbed his forehead, found he still held his wand, and set it down. Ginny scooped it up and asked with shaky politeness, "Professor, may I have yours too?"

After a long pause where he searched her gaze, he relinquished his as well. Harry said, "He'll have another."

With one brow cocked, Snape pulled a wand out of his sock and gave that to Ginny, who dangled it out like it were a drowned rat until a sharp look made her bundle the three together and take a seat too, wands clasped in her lap.

Snape spoke first, to Harry. "You are correct. You are not who I think you are. The Potter I know doesn't have a tenth of your magic. Perhaps less."

Ginny said, "Yeah, and at the picnic you dueled Harry, yourself, um, you dueled someone who . . . oh, I don't know how to explain it."

Harry sat forward just enough to pour a splash of sherry out for himself before sitting back again, holding it shakily. He still wanted to punish Snape for his actions and the desire sickened him.

Asked Snape, "How did you do that . . . counter a curse without moving or even taking out your wand?"

Harry said, "The answer to that wasn't part of the bargain," and part of him cheered his regaining ground. "But I'll tell you anyway . . ." He put the glass to his nose, making himself smell the thick, rotted fruit essence within. Nauseated by it and remembering it was probably doped, he pushed the glass forward out of reach. Tiredly, he said, "I'm not a wizard . . . I'm a sorcerer. And you made me angry, which is not a good idea."

Snape and Ginny considered that until Ginny asked, "Can we get the light back. The sun?"

Her childish plea snapped him out of the spiral. "What? Oh." Harry leaned his head back and let go of his distress at being attacked by the vision of his adoptive father while simultaneously craving control over him as a follower. The room brightened.

"Thanks," Ginny said.

"How did you do that?" Snape demanded.

"I don't know," Harry admitted. "That just happens sometimes. I think I'm pulling another reality on top of this one without really trying. A reality where there is no light."

"Oh, right," Snape said, sounding unlike himself by his mockingly friendly tone. He and Ginny shared a glance.

"I didn't know who he was, honest," Ginny insisted, but then ducked when Harry looked her way.

"I didn't mean to make trouble," Harry said. "I was trying to fix things. It's so peaceful here and it won't be for long and no one understands what's coming. I thought I should do something."

"Well, you definitely sound like Albus Dumbledore," Snape muttered. "But who are you?"

"I'm Harry Potter . . . just not the one you know." He stared at Snape to see if he understood.

Ginny said, "I don't get it."

Snape considered that at length, giving away nothing of his musings. "You travel that way, do you?" he asked Harry all of a sudden.

"Sometimes. I should quit it. I really should. It does me no good." Harry stood up. "On that theme . . . I need to go." He started to walk by Snape, then stopped, realizing it did not matter if they saw him slip away. "You are going to take care of things here?" he asked Snape.

"As best as possible. You have exposed me," he added, with a slit-eyed glance at Ginny.

"I didn't mean to make trouble," Harry repeated, too mentally deficient to say anything else.

"You have a very odd way of not making trouble," Snape said, standing as well. He looked Harry over from close range. "Those eyes from playing around with raw magic, I suppose?"

Harry nodded.

"They are going to be white if you keep it up." He gestured for Harry to exit. "You are my worst nightmare, a Harry Potter I cannot hope to fend off, so if you would prefer to be on your way, I would not complain."

Ginny followed behind Harry to the main hall where he stopped and looked over the decor again. The bright, almost fashionable room held promise. He turned back suddenly and closed the gap with Snape. "You know; there is redemption for you, if you want it."

"I don't care," Snape stated.

"Yes, you do," Harry countered.

"And you would know that too?" Snape asked mockingly.

Harry cocked a smile at him. "In my world, you're my adoptive father, so yes, I would know." He turned from Snape's re-rattled expression to Ginny and said, "Good luck. And remember that you can't be too careful. Good luck to you too, Severus . . . Dad." With a chuckle, Harry slipped away.

Harry woke on the floor before his own hearth, after deciding it was best to use his magically warmed hearth stone given how long he had been absent. Tonks could easily have been called away to the Ministry and he did not fancy struggling alone on the floor of her flat.

Feeling vaguely unsettled but warm enough to move, Harry sat up and brushed off his robes. The hearth had only recently gone out from the overnight fire and his movements induced floating curls of ash to lift into the air. Harry rubbed his head, which ached just behind his eyes. He really had to limit this kind of travel. Leveraging himself to his feet, he promised his aching body that he would do just that. He had done all he could in that place; it would have to take care of itself from here on.

Too stiff to lift his feet properly, Harry scuffed his way over to Kali's cage and raised her to his shoulder since she too creaked when she tried to climb. "Sorry," Harry said to her. "Didn't mean to make you suffer too."

With evening fieldwork looming, he really should do a little exercise to loosen his muscles, but instead he fell onto his bed with one of his assigned books. Kali curled up under the hair on his back collar as he read, making him loath to move. Her sleepiness infected him, and in the middle of a page listing potions to detect magically arranged dust, Harry fell asleep.

Harry woke to a familiar voice, in the middle of a very strange dream where he was arguing with Snape about Ginny, but in the dungeon at Hogwarts back when they were both still students.

Ron strode into the room just as Harry raised his disoriented head. "Hey, do you know where my sister is?"

Harry shook his head while combing his hair with his fingers. "Nuh, haven't seen her." He sniffled and blink broadly, feeling tethered still to his dream. He closed the book he had left open on the bed, feeling regretful that his intention of finishing his readings early looked to be falling short.

"Help me go look for her. I want to find her before dinner."

Harry pulled a muscle jumping in surprise at what time it may be. "I . . ." He fumbled hurriedly for his watch. It was only four. Harry stashed his watch back away and imagined Ginny planning on dinner with Aaron. "I'm sure she's fine."

Ron kicked the bed post. "Where's that smarmy bloke in your program live? I want to make sure she's not with 'im."

Harry stood up and slipped by his friend, not wanting to give that information away.

Ron went on, "It's not a listed address."

"No, and it's got a lot of protection on it. What does it matter if she's there . . . she can take care of herself."

Ron poked Harry in the chest when he next came in range. "She's my little sister that's why it matters. I don't like that bloke much."

Harry pushed Ron's finger away, finding a little agreement with the first part. "Look, Ginny's like a sister to me too. But what are you going to do? She can do what she wants. And Aaron's okay, if that's who she's with."

"You know what Dad's going to say when he finds out?"

Harry worried a bit about that too. "Don't tell him."

It was early by two hours to leave, but Harry said, "Look, Ron, I gotta go. Training, er, field work. I'll see ya." With that, he Disapparated.

Tonks was manning the Auror's office when Harry arrived, scratching out a report with a battered quill. Since they were alone, she stood mid-word to give him a kiss. Harry tugged a chair over and sat near her, knees bumping.

While she wrote, she said, "Quiet night so far. Kingsley's out on an easy one. Seems our friends in Durumulna are taking a holiday." Then a minute later: "Getting by without a guard?"

"For now."

She stopped and looked up. Harry explained, "When the gold starts to turn back to iron, I worry a bit what they may do. I liked having a guard for Candide."

Tonks tugged over a sheet covered in cross-outs, arrows, and sideways writing and made a note in a slice of white space. "I can have Hornisham assigned on nights when you are here."

Sincerely, Harry said, "Thanks, Tonks."

"I want to reward you for not only being on time, but early."

"I had to escape from Ron."

Winking, she said, "You're afraid of Ron, now?"

Harry snorted tiredly. "I'm afraid of rampaging older brother of sister who is seriously dating my hard-to-judge friend, yes."

She laughed aloud. "I'd think Ron would be happy about that. Aaron's no slouch in the gold department."

Harry chewed on his lips while he considered how grumpy Ron could get about these things. "I think that makes it harder for him, actually."

"Hm."

- 888 -


After a long evening of patrol, Harry thought he would sleep solidly, but he woke at least twice from an odd dream of masks and chases where at one point he finally captured a black-cloaked Durumulna member only to discover Snape skulking beneath the disguise.

Kali rattling in her cage roused Harry from his sleep-drunken stupor. The glare of mid-morning light from the small window made him blink, so despite his heavy head, he thought it best to rise for the day. He had to fumble around the teetering stack of his assigned books to find his glasses. The cloaked shadow slipping around him in his dream followed him to the wardrobe while he pulled out clean clothes and tugged them on. Harry tried to shake the impression of the dream as well as the fresh memory of desiring to control the Snape in the other Plane.

On the stairs Harry knotted the sash of his dressing gown against the chilly air and stepped into the dining room. A familiar, stringy-haired figure stood bending over the sideboard, sorting post. Harry stared at Snape's back, a vague dis-ease washing through him, making his feet tingle. Candide poured Harry coffee and handed it to him.

"Didn't sleep well?" she asked.

Snape glanced backwards sharply and Harry felt a jolt of utter wrongness, but he covered it quickly. With a rumbling rasp of wood on wood, he pulled out a chair, but merely leaned on the back of it. "Yeah, tough night . . . at the Ministry," he lied, trying to gather himself. The steam of the coffee burned his face, so he set it down and verified that he had his wand in his pocket.

Harry watched the man sorting through the letters on the sideboard. He exuded the taint of a Dark Mark.

Candide, dripping concerned, said, "Sit, down, Harry. Or maybe you should go back to bed."

Candide's gentle worry made Harry risk sliding into a seat out of a more defensible standing position. Harry rested his forehead on his palm, thinking frantically. He must have returned to the wrong place . . . a place where his guardian was still Marked.

Snape collected his post and sat beside Candide to open them. Harry tried not to stare at him doing this. He instead stared at Candide's hands, wrapped around her cup, wondering with a tractionless circling of thought what he should do. If Snape and Candide believed him in the right place, and there were not two of him here, then his counterpart— and clearly he had one as skilled as himself—was in his Plane. Was it possible they would both recognize the mistake at the same time and both decide to switch at the same time? Was his counterpart sitting in exactly this place, thinking exactly the same thing? Or was he unaware that his guardian could be unmarked. Surely if he had the same Plane-jumping power than the other would be aware of the Mark or lack thereof.

Too many thoughts. Harry calmed his heart because the discordant thrumming of it was not helping his thinking one bit. He tried to sip his coffee and coughed on it.

"Harry?" Candide prompted, sounding disbelieving.

Harry put on a false smile and pretended all was as it should be. He did not want to reveal what had gone wrong, it just wanted it sorted out as quickly as possible. "I'm just thinking," he said. "Lots to worry about."

"Like what?" she asked, sounding the kind inquisitor.

"Well . . ." Harry struggled and plucked the first thing that came to mind. "Ron isn't happy that Ginny and Aaron are together."

Snape snorted and rolled his eyes. Breakfast appeared in a sparkle, and Harry decided to eat it because that was what he would normally do—on a normal morning where his appetite had not fled due to transcendental panic. How had he messed up, he wondered? He had done exactly the same as every other time he had returned. Well, except he had taken for granted this time that it would just work out and had not been trying quite so hard. Should he go back and try again?

Harry's cold-sore bones resisted the notion with a dissuading twinge. But he had little choice. If he did find home and he found another Harry in it, he would just have to explain. As he ate, suddenly voraciously hungry, Harry promised himself he would stay put after this—for certain.

Harry felt Snape's gaze return to him yet again over the letter he held up. Harry needed to behave normally, but could not manage it. He was grateful when Candide asked, "How is Aaron?"

"Better. Ginny seems to be, er, helping him along."

Candide chuckled, almost a giggle, at this, and Harry thought: is that really true here too? He had to be careful, not everything was going to be the same. Patrol had been the same, and Tonks had been the same . . . perhaps even unusually attentive. That made Harry wonder what his counterpart was doing differently and he felt a bizarre jealousy of his counterpart. Harry gulped his coffee, antsy to get home again, refusing to dwell on the worry that he might not manage to.

Stalling while he gathered his meager strength, Harry poured himself more coffee and put his cold-stiffened hands around the mug. So many things about this place were right.

"My sister says hello, by the way," Candide announced.

"How are your parents?" Harry asked, hoping that was safe.

She smirked. "Non-stop nagging about this and that." She glanced at Snape beside her. "Just as well, I didn't insist you go along, Dear," she said, and reached to pat his nearest arm. Snape jerked out of reach, immediately relented, and sat rail-stiff until the petting withdrew.

Harry, who had been avoiding looking directly at Snape, froze while fixing his attention on him out of the corner of his eye. Harry waited for Snape's laser-vision to divert down to the next letter. Harry swallowed hard. Candide shot him an uncomfortable smile and returned to the Prophet. Harry sat back and stared openly at the man sitting diagonal from him. What if it wasn't he who was in the wrong place? He needed a test to find out.

As soon as Harry pondered taking the upper hand, his instincts fell in line behind it. The last piece of Voldemort sang within him at the opportunity.

"How was your week, Severus?"

Snape lifted his bored eyes and said, "Same as the others."

"Surprising," Harry softly returned. And when Snape's eyes narrowed, Harry backed off this direct attack and added with a casual smirk, "Well, I don't remember it ever being uneventful. The students saw to that."

Snape rubbed his fingertips together, put down the letter he held and folded the stack away to give Harry all of his attention. "The Gryffindors were their usual obnoxious selves, the Slytherins exceptionally creative, to their lasting regret."

Harry's mind churned over several times. The man before him was so wrong, and everything else so right. "Maybe you'd help me with some spells," Harry said. "You said you would when you were home next."

Candide sighed loudly. "Good thing I've never had the chance to redecorate in the hall."

Harry gave her a sympathetic smile. "When we move my room, we can do more to the hall. I'd like that. Something bright and flowery."

"Please," Snape sneered.

"You're never home," Harry prodded, baiting Snape and enjoying it immensely. A ripple passed over the man, aversion or possessiveness suppressed.

Snape's coffee was empty. Harry stood and invited, "Spellwork?"

Snape followed him out. Harry would have expected him to pat Candide on the shoulder, but he did not. Far too aware of the cursedness of the other, Harry waved the main hall furniture aside and spun to face Snape.

They exchanged a few basic drill spells and repeated them in a sequence, building in power. Candide strolled in to watch. Harry, preferring her not to be there if his suspicion was correct and he had to confront Snape outright, said, "Why don't you go to Diagon and get some tapestries for the wall in here? To hang between the upper windows. And for the walls of the nursery."

"I suppose I could."

Harry did not modulate his next block, so that the rebound rattled around the room.

"If I do, will you stop this for the day?" Candide asked. "I'd hate to see them burned to a crisp right off."

"Sure," Harry eagerly said, glad that had worked.

"I'll be back later then." On her way out with her cloak and basket, she said, "You two should take that to Hogwarts; it's built for it, unlike this creaky place."

As soon as the Floo faded, Harry waited for Snape to reach the Blasting Curse in the drill sequence. He lowered his wand and Squelched instead of blocking it. Snape's wand went flying and he gaped at Harry.

"Weren't expecting that, were you?" Harry asked crisply.

Snape took a step in the direction of his wand but stopped when the room darkened. Night dropped over the house and the air grew dank. Snape glanced around, but Harry's wand still hung at his side. Chattering sounded from the nearby wall. Snape glanced at it, not comprehending that either based on his posture. Harry waited for his eyes to come back around to him as the source of the shift in the environment. His eyes held wary surprise.

Harry helpfully stated, "You should be yelling at me about now."

Snape's shoulders fell an iota, supporting Harry's suspicion about which of them was displaced. He opened his mouth, but Harry filled in with, "Too late." He snagged Snape's wand from the corner.

"You have another?" Harry asked. "Let's see it."

Snape reached into his robes for another wand. He hesitated with it half pulled out. Harry said, "Try anything and you will regret it."

A draw ensued. The light darkened more and the stones of the house groaned like an animal in pain. Winky appeared in a sparkle. "Master Harry is doing bad things," she said, hunched over to make her plea.

"Master Harry is almost finished. Hand it over," he demanded of the man across from him. "And don't think I can't follow you if you Apparate away. You taught me how."

Snape put the wand away back in his robes. "I'll keep it, if you don't mind." He glanced at the windows and his brow lowered as he noticing now that they were not darkened but that the sunlight itself had gone slate colored where it struck the floating dust.

Harry let a little light in. "Better? Sit down."

"You are doing that," Snape stated, resolve fading as he took a seat on the arm of the nearest couch. He sat with his hands propped beside him, tense. He stared at Harry. "I didn't . . . realize how powerful you were."

Harry paced behind the other couch, keeping one eye on the alien wizard sitting tensely across from him. Winky, hands rubbing over one another squeaked miserably, "Master Harry . . ."

Harry let the light in. It was like turning off a source of anger inside himself, and he felt giddy in the wake of it. "Bring us cocoa, won't you, Winky?"

Winky hurried off.

"I asked you a question," Harry said, re-channeling his anger and feeling the thing inside him happy to sop it up.

"And I don't feel like answering," Snape returned, eyes challenging, pushed beyond care.

Harry felt around himself for the focus of the cursedness and pushed at it. Snape grabbed his forearm with a cry, making Harry smile faintly. If someone was going to invade his home, they were going to pay for it. "You continue to underestimate me."

Snape had bent partly over his arm, but he straightened with a snap of his spine and glared at Harry. "You were not like this . . ."

"I was not what? Have we met?" Harry had not considered that this stranger may not be so strange after all.

Snape clammed up, and Harry realized who he was, recognizing the depths of despair the man slipped into with such ease.

"We have met," Harry said, filling in for his guest. "I saved you from Voldemort in Weaver's End; didn't I?"


Next: Chapter 27

"Tidgy?" Snape said to the small apparition, whose long ears hung to its shoulders. "What happened?"

"Bad people is coming, Master."

"Yes, I perceived that," Snape dryly stated. His mind worked quickly, trying to narrow in on the likeliest possibilities. "Was someone here recently? Who set up the candles?"

Tidgy cocked his head. "You are having done this, Master. Is Tidgy being tested?"

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