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Chapter 27 — Tangled Threads

"Where is my father?" Harry demanded, flicking his wand at his side impatiently, itching to take action.

"Your father?" Snape managed with a single sharp sputter. "Unimaginable. This whole place is unimaginable."

"Where is he?" Harry demanded again, raising his wand and staring along it at the impostor before him.

Snape's lips twitched. "Do you really need that magical stick you are holding?" he said mockingly.

Harry smiled. "It's hard to limit the damage if I don't use it."

Snape's gaze faded at this. "I assume my counterpart is where I departed from. That was how the gateway was purported to work."

Harry stilled his wand, thinking fast. He would have to fetch him back, somehow. "Where is this gateway? How does it work?"

"Why should I tell you?"

Harry stepped closer, wand still held out, angled down, arm arched, because Snape was sitting on the couch arm. "Because that place is where you belong."

Snape crossed his arms, but they slid down until they hugged his torso. Voice low, he said, "It is hopeless there. I could not do as you asked; I could not get close to Potter let alone get him to forgive me. Beyond Aberforth, I have no allies of any kind. I was hunted by my associates and tormented daily by my master." He scrubbed at his forearm. "Just as you just did." His bluster disappeared as quickly as it grew.

"I can do that again," Harry pointed out.

Bleakly, after a long pause, Snape said, "I could not stop thinking about the place you had described, where the Dark Lord was no more, where I did not have so many enemies. I remembered a partial, half-burned book from Dumbledore's collection, believed to be written by a deranged and delusional wizard who raved for thousands of pages about portals and gateways to parallel realities."

Snape straightened his robes and lifted his chin, gauging Harry before continuing. "And when you told me where you were from, I realized he was not, in fact, a raving lunatic, but a genius. So, I constructed a gateway by piecing together instructions from his ravings. It was supposed to take many moon cycles to open, but it latched on easily to the Inbetween, anchoring the book called it, to that horrible grey-skied place you took me to escape. Once that was set, the mirroring of the spell cast into this place was simple repetition. Then it was a simple matter of waiting for my alternate to step into the gate to engage it." He glared, hunched and grim, at Harry. "I am not going back. Only death awaits me there and I am not ready to die."

Harry considered the worn man before him and contemplated threatening to kill him, but he could not find it in himself. "You are going back," Harry insisted. "And in the meantime, not a word to Candide. I don't want her to know what's happened."

Snape's chin rose again at this.

"What?" Harry queried. "You like having a wife?"

"I would not have thought so . . . before."

Harry perched his fists on his hips and said, "You didn't make this place what it is. You don't deserve to enjoy it."

Snape retorted lightly, "If I had made this place, I certainly would not have put you in it in your current position."

Harry did not take affront at this. "No, I don't imagine you would have. If I'd told you, would you have come?"

Snape rocked back and forth slightly. "I would thought harder about it, I admit. I also did not comprehend what you really had become."

Harry paced away, slapping his hand on his thigh in frustration. He had to check on his guardian as soon as possible, make certain he was all right. His bones groaned at the thought. But from the other place, it should be clearer how to arrange for them both to return to their rightful place. He would have to try taking something alive through with him. Perhaps he could just drag both of the men to where they belonged, one at a time. He considered taking Kali as a test, but her dislike of the Dark Plane made him decide otherwise.

He glared at Snape, and said, "Be nice to your wife while I'm gone."

"I need to depart for Hogwarts soon, anyhow."

"Be nice to my friends then," Harry corrected.

Snape's lip curled into a sneer. "If they are Gryffindors, not a chance."

"Typical," Harry muttered.

Snape matched him. "Slytherin is not much better. My counterpart has grown dangerously soft. That and frequently leaving the house in Lupin's hands, of all people, has rendered my House unrecognizable."

"You must have left it in Remus' hands, to come here now."

"I realized I was expected to go home," Snape replied, bored sounding as he pulled a desperate haughtiness around him.

"You still are," Harry snapped, and Disapparated.

Harry fished agitatedly in his pocket for his coin purse as he strolled with overcharged energy along the narrow shopfronts of Diagon Alley. It was Sunday, so only every fifth shop was open, and the chill wind swooping through the length of the alley left the pavements clear of loiterers.

Eeylops was still being repaired from the fire, so Harry walked down further to A.J. Furriers, a far less savory animal dealer. Several warped cages had been parked out on the pavement. The animals inside them were crowded into the corners for warmth, their fur blowing backwards in the wind. One cage full of young chickens had a wired-on rusty sign reading Python Poulets. The next cage held small white Hat Rabbits ~ Guaranteed to Hide as Required. Harry bent down to look more closely at these. One of them had a crooked black stripe along its snout, parting its oversized pink eyes. Harry put his finger through the bars and prodded it in the haunch and it shuffled closer to its peers.

"You don't even wear a hat," a familiar voice said from behind Harry.

Harry straightened and slipped his hands into his pockets. "Hello, Belinda."

"I saw you from the window of Phantasmic Phoot Phasions," she said with a nod farther down the alley at the glittering new shop which had a bay window display crowded with dancing pairs of patent leather shoes in a variety of gaudy colors. Harry could not remember what shop had been there before.

Belinda glanced up and down the alley, in a behavior that gave the otherwise occupied Harry pause. A little nervously, she asked, "So, I was wondering if you wanted to do something, come over for tea or something. It's Sunday, you know, and we haven't had time to get together."

"I don't have time right now," Harry said. "I have something I really have to take care of."

She sighed and appeared frustrated or strained. Harry did wish to know what was troubling her, but he could not delay in finding out what had happened to his guardian.

"I'm sorry," Harry said. "Some other time."

Belinda stepped closer and straightened his robes for him by shaking the collar out and turning the lapels out. "That's better," she said. "We should take you shopping sometime." She started to let go, then stepped closer, making Harry take a quick glance up and down the alley, expecting Skeeter to jump out any moment. "You're certain you don't have time?" she asked again.

Harry gently plucked her left wrist off his lapel, skewing his robes again. "Yes. Positive."

She wrapped her arms around herself. "I need help with something," she said quietly, then bit her lip. "There is so much going wrong right now."

Harry tried to Legilimize her but she glanced away. A trio of generic looking, dark haired wizards strolled by and Belinda stepped closer again, executing a dance move so she was partly behind the cages. When the strangers had passed through the gateway in the wall to the Leaky Cauldron, Harry took Belinda's wrists again, but this time did not extract them from his robes. "Are you mixed up with them?" he asked, disbelieving.

Sounding overly casual, she pushed away and said, "No, of course no- Who do you mean?" She backed up more, glanced back at the shoe shop, and then down at her feet. "I know that you are serious with Tonks now, really. I just thought, you know, tea or something."

What Harry got was that she was really in need of help. "I'm willing to help, just not right at this moment. I really have a personal emergency I have to take care of." She nodded without looking up, and Harry added emphatically. "I'll call as soon as I can, all right?"

She nodded again and stepped away, bony shoulders bent forward, head low.

Harry did not have time to review this conversation in his head as he liked. He slipped into the shop to buy the smallest Hat Rabbit they had. The shopkeeper plopped the snow-white animal down on a sheet of vellum that read Certified Bunny Obscura and slid it over in exchange for Harry's four Sickles. Harry pocketed both items and strolled to Knockturn Alley. Once he stepped down into the dingy, crooked place, he lifted his cloak and spun a half turn as though slipping an invisibility cloak over himself, and before he stopped moving, he slipped away into the Dark Plane.

The creatures there must have smelled the rabbit because they followed Harry in parade formation at a respectful distance as he wove along between hillocks, kicking dusty grit up onto his shoes. Harry needed the walk to gather his memories of the place he wished to return to and to clear his thoughts from all other worries. He remembered the place clearly, even though he had, upon first returning, assumed it to be a hallucination of striking his head.

He went along until he stood opposite his own house in Shrewsthorpe, and stopped beside a tangle of saw grass and vicious rusty wire. He glanced down and stared at the pentagram in the grit before him. He had made that pentagram with his foot as a focal point for returning home from that other place. But he was home now, or opposite of home now. There was only one Dark Plane, it seemed, and how one left it depended upon how one entered it. Harry stepped carefully around the Device and a little away so the throng of following creatures did not muss it. Although, now that he studied it, the lines of it looked far cleaner than he would have managed with the point of his shoe. Harry stepped closer, crouched down beside it and touched it with a finger. The grit forming the pentagram felt like sandstone, and it definitely had a straighter structure imparted to it since his trainer toe had scratched it out.

Harry growled lightly. He himself had left the gateway open that let this alien swap for his adoptive father.

The rabbit, despite the hordes wishing for its sweet flesh, sat calmly in Harry's hand when he pulled it from his pocket. Alert life shined from its dilute-blood colored eyes but it gave not a twitch of a white whisker. Its far-set gaze focused on nothing and everything at once in the grey light of the underworld. Harry took close hold of the creature and imagined a place he wished he did not know.

- 888 -

- 888 -

Severus Snape came to dulled awareness in an oppressive haze of hot beeswax. Quivering, icy pain radiated dully but insistently out from his joints to his fingertips and toes, and a burning sensation sizzled on the inside of his left forearm, filling him with alarm that somehow his Mark had returned. He twitched his arm and the pain faded to a dull ache and trailed around the top of his wrist, catching on the hairs of his arm. When he moved farther the new pain faded to the same persistent throb as the rest of him.

Snape raised his head. Angled rows of glowing, off-white candles filled his vision, their glaring radiance warming his chilled core. He rolled over as far as he dared and peeled the translucent blob of beeswax off his wrist and tossed it out of the pentagram of candles surrounding him.

Careful to avoid igniting his robes, Snape stood and stepped out of the Device and onto the thoroughly dilapidated rug. He lifted his head and stared around the hall, at the boarded up broken windows, the sagging balcony, the white-edged stain down the wall where the roof had been leaking for some time. Cobwebbed desolation encased him. It felt like a bad dream except for his complete wakefulness. It was as though his long-term memories were a lie, or a delusion. He breathed in the dusty air and lowered his head to consider the illuminated pentagram. No decent meaning offered itself up to him and he was desperate for any, no matter how unlikely. Had he attempted some dark magic to escape from the past into the future, for reasons he could not recall? Or had he simply forgotten, at some point, the clearly dismal present in a hallucination?

Confusion and alarm swirled through him as he paced, shaking the cold-stiffness from his limbs and, finally, movement exercised his faculties and he knew what had happened. Somehow, Harry's journeys through alternative Planes had come to snag him, and he suspected with slowly gathering dread that this empty, decaying house was just the first glimpse of a miserable, dark world.

Vaguely heartened that the home attached to his memories most likely still existed, Snape made a search of the house. What had not been removed had been chewed away by rodents, who had left their droppings in the mildewed drawers of the desk, the one remaining piece of furniture, although it sat crooked because one corner had been sheared off.

"Master?" a faint voice prompted, giving Snape a bad start.

A small ghost floated beside the desk, feet bent behind it so that it hung, half kneeling, but not any higher off the floor than it would have been if it were standing.

"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. Some time ago, it looks like," Snape dryly stated, tracing each line of dark spell burn on the drawing room wall facing him. 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 is having done this, Master. Is Tidgy being tested?"

"Hm. Did I?" Snape's eyes narrowed and moved side to side, taking in the room for clues. "Did I have a book I was working from?"

"Yes, Master."

Hope swelled where there was none previously. "Where is it; do you know?"

Tidgy's ears swung as he shook his head. "Master is taking it away somewhere."

Snape swore, making Tidgy put an arm up for protection. "I am too smart for my own good." To the elf-ghost, he said, "No one can hurt you, Tidgy; you're dead."

"Tidgy is knowing this," the elf said sadly.

"Well, I best go look for the book. Fortunately, I know where I would be likely to hide it. Unfortunately, I was presumably aware of that when I hid it. What did it look like?"

"The book is being large, Master, with purple ink. And half burned."

"Purple ink? I know another author who favors purple and the Dark Plane. Very good, Tidgy, thank you."

Tidgy wiped away a ghostly tear with the corner of his ragged towel. "Master is thanking Tidgy?"

"Yes. Why not?" He waved the elf away. "Go and haunt the kitchen why don't you."

Snape returned to the hall and extinguished each of the Device's candles with his fingertips, careful not to disturb their positions. He would need the Device to return home, if hope of that were rational, and he could not risk damaging it. He paused, crouched before the arm of the star where one of the candles had spilled wax onto his forearm, rousing him with bad memory, if not pain. Circumstances threatened to suffocate him along with the dust and mold of the rotting house. Raising his eyes to the poorly lit, damaged hall did not help. Grey sky showed through the gaps in the planking over the windows and through the hole in the roof.

Snape gathered a lifetime of plodding, yet vigilant, attitude about him and stood straight. Survival was the first order, and he needed to understand his situation better to manage that.

Out on the road, a ragged newspaper had plastered itself to the neighbor's chain-link fence. The usually welcoming house beyond the fence had a neglected air about it. The next house over appeared occupied, but had a pair of vicious dogs patrolling behind a crudely erected sign warning about same. A quick survey of the houses within view confirmed his fears that the magical population had departed Shrewsthorpe or wished make it appear as though they had. Snape gathered up the loose newspapers from the neighborhood with a broad, powerful spell and rolled them roughly. They made a sound not unlike fine parchment except for the film of pervasive grit that rubbed off onto his hands.

Snape crushed the newspapers under his arm to rub his left forearm where the wax burn stung with momentary eye-watering pain before easing. The rusty-hinged door squeaked tortuously as stepped back inside, leaving the neglected, dusty garden to the wild ivy intent on taking it over. Inside was slightly more appealing than outside, mostly because it was out of the wind. Out of a stash of spare Device-making materials dumped in the corner of the hall, Snape pulled out a candle stub and a torn rug and took them to the center of the floor where the light was best. Unable to bear sitting at the damaged desk, he folded the rug and sat cross-legged upon it to read the collected papers. Tidgy's ghost floated in and out of view, hands clasped in the mode of waiting for instructions.

The first two broadsheets were from the same Muggle newspaper edition and at first Snape thought the weather page would not be useful, but the article occupying a full half of the sheet spoke of a resurgence in extremely rare derecho windstorms along the coast off Yorkshire and East Midlands. Various experts were quoted discussing stationary warm fronts and dismissing as mass hallucination, sightings of giants tossing trees and electricity pylons aside as they rampaged through the affected countryside.

The torn pieces of Wizard paper, titled The Irreproachable Intelligencer but carrying the layout of the Daily Prophet, spoke of rules and edicts about what spells and topics of public discussion were additionally limited by the Ministry. Snape frowned most deeply at an interview with the Hogwart's Headmaster on the eve of his one year anniversary in the position: Lucius Malfoy. The last triangular corner of the most dilapidated page explained the newspaper's name change—prophecy had been declared an illicit word both in public and private. And the staff at the paper Formally Known as the Daily P____ could not responsibly continue under that banner given the risk to their staff.

Snape gathered the papers up and laid them in the hearth before holding the candle flame to a corner. The flame hesitated before it took hold, forced to burn through the dirt coating. Snape set the candle on the hearth and sat close to watch both burn. He was in one of those places Harry seemed always to end up in—one where Voldemort had not been defeated.

As the fire burned down and the thin black ash limned with orange glow crinkled away, Snape pondered the remaining light of the sagging, distorted candle stub. If this Plane's version of himself had changed places and was now in his home, Harry would eventually notice given his counterpart's likely active Mark. At that point Harry would come seeking him out. How long this would require was not clear. If Snape were lucky it would require mere hours; except that Harry had not been at home—he had been busily working day and night on plans to rescue his fellow apprentice. Snape fancied himself rather good at hiding where he did not belong, and he expected his counterpart to be the same.

Snape shifted to lean back against the wall beside the hearth as the candle melted lower.

The wind picked up through the broken windows, fluttering the single flame. Snape roused himself, stiff again with cold. It seemed Harry would not be arriving immediately. He stood and paced until his limbs ceased to creak. Somewhere out there were Voldemort and Malfoy and all the others, free to generate misery as they wished. Snape wondered where this Plane's Potter was. Given the ban on discussions of prophecy, it seemed unlikely Potter was dead. And if he was not dead, he must be most desperate by now.

The candle faded to a tiny blue orb hovering over a pool of clear wax that shed no discernible light. Snape stood in the murky light filtering through the holes in the ruined roof. He better appreciated Harry's desire to assist in these situations. He too felt strained imagining how the Harry here may be faring. Snape stared up at the grey sky, which seemed unnaturally bright to his dark-adapted eyes, and wondered where this Harry may be.

Snape wondered hard enough that he finally simply Apparated away to the Leaky Cauldron to consult with a long-time reliable associate on Diagon Alley. The Cauldron fell silent upon his arrival but gazes quickly turned back to their hushed conversations. The room felt as normal as ever, if a tad edgy. Strange to imagine this was not his Leaky Cauldron, but another, one of an infinite number.

The wall in back opened onto a smaller Diagon Alley than Snape knew. The shops leaned inward along a narrower passageway, and brown grime covered everything, including the windows. Snape turned toward the Apothecary shop and started when figures melted out of the brick wall behind him and one put a restraining spell on his arm.

The wizard, a thuggish man with cratered skin stretched thin over his cheeks, said, "You will submit to a check. You are not carrying proper identification." He wore bright green robes sporting a patch with interlocking Ps.

Around him, the shoppers that had been approaching the wall diverted with an attitude of suddenly remembering they needed to make one more stop, far at the other end of the alley. Others approached timidly with intent eyes, drawn to the promise of spectacle.

"Name," the second wizard demanded, pulling a thick scroll out of his robes and preparing to open it.

"I don't have to give you my name," Snape said, thinking that if his counterpart saw fit to exert such effort to depart this place, there was most likely a good reason for it.

The first man bodily threw Snape against the wall and placed his wand under his nose. "We can do this the 'ard way, Mate. I was gettin' bored anyway. Give 'im the test Herbie."

Handling the heavy scroll made it difficult for Herbie to manage his wand as well. Snape saw this as a possible opening for escape but decided to let it pass given the wand nearly up his nose.

"What test?" Snape asked. "Who are you?"

"We're the Pureblood Police, we are. Where you been?"

Dryly, Snape replied, "I don't get out much."

"Well, then, yer overdue," the wizard said. "Give me the doohickey, Herbie."

Herbie gave up on managing his wand to pull a silver cylinder out of his pocket, which he handed over. The Police Wizard snapped it open with one hand and extracted a balance. The mechanism unfolded neatly and swayed in the breeze.

Herbie leaned closer and whispered helpfully, "You should give up your name, that's easier." He glanced at the scales teetering in the wind a little nervously. "If you come up short in the measure, it'll not go well. Just give us a name, eh?"

A figure sauntered over, blonde hair flashing over a smug sneer. "His name's Snape, but finish the test anyway."

Beyond Draco Malfoy hovered two bulky, dark-robed figures, faces invisible in their deep hoods, wands out and aimed. Herbie bit his lips at the sight of them, agitated.

The policeman took his wand off Snape's nose to stack translucent squares on one side of the scales. Transfixed by curiosity and the additional guards, Snape did not move.

"Little finger, left hand right here then," the Policeman commanded, indicating a little platform on the scale's base. Snape obliged while he looked for an escape. Apparition would be traced in a place like this, departing would only buy him a very short time. The metal under his pinky warmed and the empty tray of the scale shifted of its own accord.

Herbie had found the right entry in the scroll. "Says here halfblood." He tsked with his tongue sadly.

The scales clanged, the cubes rising to the maximum they could. The first policeman said, "Scale says pure."

Draco's smile faded. "That's not right. Father said . . ."

"And your father of course knows everything," Snape stated, bored. He retrieved his hand.

Herbie helpfully said, "You should get your record set straight, you should. Bad confusion. Mudbloods 'n' halfbloods only allowed on the Alley here after ten and before eight."

Draco leaned in closer, pointing emphatically. "The record is straight. Look, Muggle father: Tobias Snape."

The first policeman disregarded this as he carefully packed away the scales. "Book's no matter, scales 'ave the final say. Come one, Herbie." He stepped back into the brick wall and melted away.

Herbie extracted himself from Draco and hurriedly set himself to rights before following his fellow. In the absence of the police, the hooded figures approached. Snape waited until just the right moment and used his off hand to spell Draco with a Blasting Curse so that he flew into the other two. Then he Disapparated for the countryside and Disapparated again for yet another spot of equally remote countryside, before landing in a Waterloo station cupboard and stepping out into the crowd after applying a quick disguise. His care turned out to be fully warranted; he could hear the pounding on the supplies cupboard door he had sealed shut even before he got out of earshot. He continued walking the same as before, keeping to the thickest stream of passengers heading for the tube lines. He didn't Apparate again until he was stepping into the Leaky Cauldron. This time he headed directly for the Apothecary, arriving in the back corner of the shop.

Content with hiding mere feet from where he had first been chased down, Snape waited calmly for the hunched witch in a battered hat to scuffle her way from the counter to the door before approaching the shop owner. Jiggers did not hide his surprise at seeing him there after he removed the disguise.

The Chemist glanced avidly around the empty shop. "Severus," he whispered. "What is it you need?"

"Information," Snape said.

Jiggers did as he always did when he got nervous, pulled out a stained rag to clean the mixing and pill molding area of the counter. "Don't have much of that, I'm afraid." He glanced sharply at the door, but it was just a passerby causing the light from the window to flicker.

"Is Harry Potter still alive?"

"Far as I know," Jiggers replied, falling mystified. The rag smoldered under his hand so he rinsed it out and hung it up more neatly than the holey and stained thing deserved to be. He leaned in, right eye giving a twitch. "You aren't thinking to patch things up with You-Know-Who by capturing the Prophe-" He stopped, bit his lips, and swallowed hard. " . . . the Devined One, are you? I've known you a long time, Severus, and I could never see you stooping that low, given what's at stake."

"That wasn't my intent," Snape said. "I would like to assist, in fact. My loyalty has always been to Dumbledore."

"Hm. Right." Jiggers straightened his board and pestles. "You got a funny way of showin' it," he muttered, turning to shelve a bottle of white powder. Without turning back around, he said, "Potter's hiding himself well, behind magic stronger than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can break through."

"Dumbledore's magic, you mean?" Snape stated, knowing exactly where to look. "Thank you, Jiggers."

Snape Disapparated for 12 Grimmauld Place, landing lightly on the porch in the waning evening light. Safely out of view, he scrutinized the surrounding alleys and shrubs, looking for watchers. Only a few crooked or flickering street lamps glowed on the square, providing for numerous hiding places. Snape expected that the house was watched, it certainly felt watched. If it was, that would be to his advantage if an argument were to start when he knocked on the door; the occupants would feel obliged to keep things contained.

Snape composed himself before pulling the bell cord. He had a feeling his presence was not going to be welcome.

Ron Weasley, his face as doltish as ever in stupefaction, tried to close the door, but Snape put his foot in the way.

"You should hear me out," Snape stated succinctly to the hunched over young man, who was making small surprised noises with each breath. They glared at each other. "No wonder Potter is getting nowhere with Voldemort," Snape muttered.

Ron finally tried to spell the toe impeding the door, but the hex was blocked easily. Snape let the young man keep hold of his wand, for now. Ron's freckled face shifted from startled to astonished. "You said his name."

"Did I?" He regrouped. "Don't you even have an alarm to raise to bring others to help you?" Snape asked, disbelieving.

Ron's head ducked inside slightly and then back out again while he pushed harder on the door.

"Oh, you are alone then," Snape stated. "I see."

Ron's face fell into stillness, a sort of giving in to fear.

"Look, Weasley . . . let's be reasonable. I don't intend to do you any harm."

Ron grabbed the edge of the door and stopped pushing so hard against Snape's toe. "Well, what're ya doing here then?" he demanded.

"I am hoping I can assist."

Ron peered at him, utterly mystified. "With what?"

"With what else?" Snape snapped. "With the destruction of the Dark Lord."

Ron puzzled this as a breeze caught his hair. "But . . . why would you do that?"

This was going to be a little harder than Snape first thought, and that was saying a lot. Perhaps he should just retreat to Shrewsthorpe and await his Harry's arrival. It was hard to give in so utterly, though, to a fight that was woven so firmly into the fabric of his being. While he pondered this, a pop! announced the Apparition of Hermione Granger, who, due to space limitations, teetered on the edge of the porch. Snape grabbed her arm and tugged her to safety, spelling a block as a nasty disemboweling curse came sizzling out of the darkened shrubs across the way.

Hermione gave a yelp and Ron gave a tug and the three of them tumbled inside the house. Hermione recovered first and stood against the corridor wall with her wand aimed, brushing her hair nervously from her eyes. "Professor . . . I mean . . ."

Snape picked himself up and dusted off, making no move for his wand, which he had stashed away as they fell rather than risk losing it. Ron stood to lock the door, but hesitated, hands seized around the brass knobs, clearly not wanting to be locked in with him.

Snape displayed his empty hands and said, "You should most certainly lock it, given that it strengthens the spells on this place."

Hermione inched her way along the wall. "What are you doing here?" she demanded breathlessly.

"I've come to assist."

"With what?"

"Are you as daft as your boyfriend here?" Snape demanded, glad at least that the direct approach was getting him a hearing.

Ron said, "He says he wants to help bring down You-Know-Who."

Hermione with a breathy huff, said, "You have a funny way of helping with that."

This gave Snape pause, given that it was the second time someone reasonably intelligent had said that in just the span of ten minutes.

Fortunately Ron, the slow one, believed the obvious needed to be stated, "Harry said you killed Dumbledore, and I know others don't believe it, but I believe him."

Snape turned to him and the young man shrank back against the door. When all else fails try Socrates . . . or Dumbledore. "And why do you think I did that?"

Ron, clearly panicked as always by a question from Snape, shook his head overly much from side to side. "I don't know."

Snape dearly wished he understood the situation himself. He had committed a Harry-style error of charging in without proper preparation.

Hermione, wand still trained on him, steady now, said, "He always trusted you."

The truth of that still felt like a weakness. Snape turned to her and said, "And I never let him down. Ever."

Hermione's wand wavered. "Ever?"

"Well, I did not do so well teaching Potter Occlumency." He waved his hand. "But that is in the past. For the present, Potter has a task to finish that he can't seem to get on with. At risk . . ." He indicated Hermione's wand. "To my own life, I am here to help."

"But why did you kill Dumbledore?" Ron asked, distress in every line of him. At least he had his wand out now, but he was not aiming it very well. Snape considered chastising him for that. He wished he knew the answer to the question. The mystery of it made his personal worries much more acute.

Hermione answered for him, "Well, he was really ill."

Bolstered by that, Snape took refuge in the easiest possible answer. "There are things I do not expect any of you to ever understand."

The three of them stood there in a stalemate until Kreacher came slinking down the stairs, muttering to himself. He spied Snape there and, with one eye twitching, said, "Mistress will be pleased with this visitor, yes . . ." His shadow lengthened as he crept around the banister and headed to the back of the house. " . . . not like those worthless Mudbloods and, mistress forbid, Werewolf . . ."

Hermione clamped her hand over her mouth before blurting out: "Remus, I didn't find Remus! I completely forgot when I came back and . . ." She raised her wand at Snape again, who gave her a tiresome roll of the eyes in return.

Snape stood with an attitude of disregarding the threat she represented. "And what trouble has he got himself into?" he asked.

Hermione replied, "He didn't come back last night, and I need to . . . I need to meet someone else now. And Ron has to stay here . . . we don't want to leave the house empty."

"Wise plan, given the history you have with this house elf," Snape said, trying to ingratiate himself a bit, and seeing the only possible chance at gaining some trust, he asked,"Do you want me to go look for him?"

Sounding threatening in a way only long-term strain could have hardened her, she asked, "Do you know where he is?"

"I have no idea where he is. So, if you wish me to fetch him, I will need some kind of clue as to what his mission was."

Hermione chewed her lip and glanced at the horribly ugly clock skulking halfway along the corridor. "What do you think, Ron?"

"What do I think? I say we throw the git out. What's to think about!"

Hermione did not appear to take this advice very seriously. "I'm worried about Remus, he's not been well and he really wanted to find . . . well . . ." She glanced anxiously between Snape and Ron.

Snape crossed his arms. "Suffice to say, I know more than you think I know. But if it makes you feel better to pretend I don't that is fine with me. What was Lupin looking for . . . in general terms, if you must use them."

"He went to look for something Bellatrix was rumored to have. But I'm afraid he may have been caught looking for it. I just went looking for him and he wasn't at the ruins of the Lestrange estate where we thought the . . . this thing would be."

Snape gave a small bow of his head. "With your permission, then, I will see if I can locate him."

"And . . .?" she asked, pained.

Holding in his temper and a snide tone that fought for a hearing, Snape replied, "And . . . bring him back here. Is that not what you wish?"

"Yes." She nodded emphatically.

"You have nothing to lose," Snape pointed out.

"Harry's sanity," Ron offered. "When he finds out."

"One thing at a time," Snape breathed as he swept out the door.

Snape applied a disguise and Apparated for York, to the edge of the wizarding area. The Ministry could not trace exactly who had Apparated, but they could certainly trace where, precisely. The only way to shake a trace was to get lost, by broomstick or on foot, in an area where there was more Apparition activity. As he strolled, Snape tried to settle his thoughts. He was getting involved against his better instincts. Surely, Harry would not be more than a few days in seeking him out. Snape would have to leave a clue behind in Shrewsthorpe, so Harry would know where he had ended up.

Each in turn, Snape systematically checked Bellatrix's hiding places. On the sixth destination, he found her in a Muggle-inaccessible cave branch of Llethryd Swallet. All but a narrow corridor of the twisting and branching cave was Apparition blocked, and the noise of anyone arriving would be heard throughout the connecting chambers, so his arrival would not be by stealth. But because of the obscurity of the location, Bellatrix had laid no traps and expected only friendly visitors, so Snape had the advantage of surprise.

By the time Bellatrix raised her wand in his direction, Snape had already struck out with a Blasting Curse, sending her toppling over a stalagmite-mound, which also shattered the brighter of two lamps that had been hooked there. Taking mental note of where the miserable lump that must be Lupin was resting, Snape moved to his right, to get into position for a clear shot when Bellatrix stood up. He peered through the bars of slick rock sheeting from the wall beside him. A deadly blast of green shot by Snape's ear, making him duck.

"So, you dare show your ugly face, Severus?" Bellatrix taunted. Her voice echoed too much to localize it and the room's many shadows moved with the quivering lamp flame. "Master will be pleased when I present your severed head to him, which is the only way you will leave this place, Severus." She laughed heartily and another blast struck the rocks behind Snape, sending shards of limestone into his back.

Snape crawled on his elbows to a better position between two high mounds of glistening, veiny rock. Hoping he correctly remembered where Lupin lay, or that the man had managed to crawl away, Snape used a narrow, invisible Cutting Curse on the domed roof of the cave. Then spelled a basic Blasting Curse to force her to defend forward. The faint whistle of plummeting missiles accompanied Bellatrix's next taunt about what she would do to some other sensitive area of Snape's anatomy. This was cut off by a fleshy thud and a sad sigh.

Snape, fearing her faking injury, waited in silence, listening to his own breath in the trapped air. In the distance water plonked rhythmically into a resonating pool. Snape searched silently around on the floor of the cave for a loose rock, which he tossed towards the wall to see if it attracted attack. When it did not, he crawled carefully toward the flickering light, keeping to the shadows. Lupin's head was raised, his strained face peering into the gloom beyond. Snape gave him a silencing gesture and crawled on.

He found Bellatrix in a heap, impaled by a spear of rock. Not dead yet, but looking close to it. Snape raised up the lantern and found that the stark shadows were not from the light, but from the blood. Dizziness rocked him as he stood there, the angled cave floor tilting more and then back again. He stood on a precipice of choice for a world in which he had no meaning. If he stood here reeling in that long enough the choice would be made for him and knowledge of that only made him dizzier. What was he doing here, messing about with such things? He must be mad.

Snape eradicated the spike of rock and crouched to tug Bellatrix's robes aside and seal the twisted wound that made a mockery of ribs, sinew and humanity.

"What are you doing?" Lupin asked. He had dragged himself closer and clung to a fleshy-formed mound of slick rock to pull himself upright.

"Would you prefer her to die?"

Lupin had always been too soft hearted, but the question nevertheless stumped him. Snape used the silence to seal off the bleeding, but without a Healer it would only matter temporarily. With a swish and flick, he hovered her toward the narrow cave branch where Apparition was not blocked. Her robes snagged on stalagmites as they went, tattering. Lupin did not follow, and Snape turned to find he had collapsed, dull gaze reflecting the lantern light as it moved away.

"I'll return shortly," Snape said to him, noting grimly that Lupin failed to react to this promise. He set the lamp on the cave floor and Disapparated.

Snape abandoned Bellatrix on the floor of the lift inside the casualty entrance at St. Mungo's. Her wild hair had tangled hopelessly over her face, which saved him from a last sight of it.

Uncaring about being tracked at this point, as long as he evacuated Lupin quickly, Snape returned directly to the cave. Lupin lay where Snape had left him, ashen faced in the lantern light. "You came back," he said, voice weak.

"I said I would." Snape hovered him as well and Apparated him through a misdirection sequence that did not include a crowded wizarding area, but would have to do. Next trip out he would have to carry a broom, which would make interrupting Ministry tracking much easier.

"Remus!" Hermione squeaked in sympathy when she opened the door.

Snape supported Lupin more fully as he swayed, half dragging his toes over the threshold and inside the door. Hermione efficiently led the way up the stairs and Snape followed after getting a better grip on his burden.

Lupin's room was lined with disorganized brewing apparati but it sat cold. Between the two of them, they had Lupin cleaned up and laid out in bed in short minutes. Hermione rushed off to fetch soup and soda bread, while Snape remained behind, carefully tracked by bloodshot eyes as he perused the potions tables.

"Looks like you tried to brew Wolfsbane and failed."

Lupin cleared his throat. "Fred and George attempted to brew it for me. They halfway succeeded." Then after a beat. "What are you doing here, Severus?"

A very good question, Snape thought like a bell tolling through him. "I don't feel like explaining myself to you," he replied, moving to the shelves of ingredients, taking stock there, mind working out what could be made as a means of ignoring the broader question. It was the kind of answer that felt natural to an older version of himself, but it did not make him feel good to use it. Somewhere along the line he had started to care what others thought.

Snape was contemplating backing out of getting involved. He had already changed too much. If he were using a Time-Turner the world would have snapped already, gnarled into a ball of twitching, twisted fate and collapsed into itself, and that notion made him ill and uneasy.

Lupin sank back, exhausted. Snape sat on the stool beside the bed and checked his health with a Indificator, making Lupin's eyes open in surprise. "It was rumored that you had a falling out with Voldemort, that he believed you a traitor." Lupin stopped to clear his throat and gather some strength for his voice. "Everyone assumed you'd been killed."

Snape pulled a veneer of cold around himself. "Yes to the first. No to the second. Obviously."

"After everything that's happened, hard to believe you are not just changing sides because you have no choice."

"Believe what you wish. It is no concern of mine."

Lupin coughed lightly, expressing pain at doing so. "It's not quite that simple."

Snape stood and mixed a quick palliative, which he brought back in the stone cup intended for the Wolfsbane—the only clean cup in the room. Lupin took a sip, and the next second the cup thudded hard against the wall as a curse shot across the bed, knocking Snape to the floor and ricocheting around the space, shattering glass potion bottles.

"Harry!" Hermione's voice rang out.

Snape, trapped in the corner anyway, dared to raise his head over the edge of the bed. Glass tinkled and liquids dripped behind him, sizzling as they mated randomly on the floor. Harry stood in the doorway wand out, gaze wild and furious.

Snape raised his wand in time for the second blast. He held his ground, but did not retaliate.

"Harry! Don't fight in here, are you mad!" Hermione shouted. The rug began smoldering acridly and the air grew smoky. Lupin ducked away from the line of fire as best he could, cringing. Hermione moved in to help him, still yelling at her friend. "Harry, Lupin is hurt. Stop it."

"Oh, Merlin," Hermione breathed, gazing at the destruction. "Tincture of rose petal mixing with sea wasp stingers." Headless of getting in the way of the battle, she moved around beside Snape's feet and shifted things in the broken glass, spelling piles of ingredients to hover in the air in cycling globes of reddish brown and bubbles of glittering liquid.

Harry's grip on his wand eased, given that his friend was in the way, but the hatred pouring out if him did not. "What the hell are you doing here, you murdering bastard?"

"Trying to help," Snape replied calmly.

Harry snorted. There wasn't even the slightest sign of good nature in him. "Get away from there so I can kill you properly."

Hermione froze and turned. "Harry, he rescued Remus."

"A trick," Harry snapped. "Easily planned." He waved his wand. "Get out of there, away from those two."

Snape glanced at the floor and stepped around Hermione, taking care not to trail any ingredients into any others. Before he stepped completely around the bed into the open, he said, "Killing me isn't going to accomplish anything."

"It gets me a lot of satisfaction," Harry said.

Snape hesitated on the verge of safety. "Maybe you've forgotten the prophecy."

"Maybe you don't know the whole bloody thing," Harry snarled. He was in full on, temper-lost mode; Snape recognized the headlessness of it.

In his local persona, Snape did not have enough room to placate this young man. "I do most certainly know the whole bloody thing," he stated, letting some heat through, since he was well aware that interminable calm simply drove Harry further over the edge. "That's why I am also well aware that the prophecy would be null and void if the Dark Lord never heard it. Our joint mentor Dumbledore would have had to tell him himself, if I had not. He was saved the sin of doing so himself."

Harry stared at him, anger trying to derail on this new idea. "Is that why you killed him?"

"NO," Snape returned as though Harry were a First Year.

"I saw you kill him. Don't deny it," Harry shouted, pained. And Snape saw it too, in sketchy memories flickering over Harry's eyes. Snape pinned him there with a whispered spell, trying to get a better sense of what had happened.

A tower and flashing spells. Why was Dumbledore pleading so? Was he pleading with Snape to kill him? There certainly were not a lot of options for the old wizard at that moment, as far as Harry's fluttering memories showed. Had it merely been arranged to maintain Snape's reputation? That seemed a pale reason. Mercy killing and the former? He must be missing something critical, something Harry did not know.

"Harry?" Hermione prompted, making Snape release him.

"I don't deny it," Snape said, trying to find footing and distract from what he had just done. He had never killed anyone directly before, and to come up with the right dark energy for a Killing Curse against his old mentor, as frustrating as the man sometimes was, seemed inconceivable. "But there is much you don't know, too."

Harry returned to shouting. "All I know is that you keep going around killing people that I care about." He slapped his chest once, anger boiling over again.

"I did not intend to kill your parents," Snape retorted, seeing no benefit to holding back. "The prophecy did not apply to Lily and James as far as I knew. I was hardly on the announcement list, as you might imagine. Your father's oversized ego aside, the Longbottoms were far better known as defiers of Voldemort."

Growing wary, Harry said after a gap, "You said his name."

That had been a slip. Snape took a deep breath. "Why not? I'm not beholden to him any longer."

"What? You arm doesn't hurt anymore?" Harry taunted, more mocking than Snape ever would want to hear him be.

Snape resisted rubbing his burned forearm and answered honestly. "It does, but I can ignore it."

Harry's wand came up to point at his head. "I don't trust you. I don't care who you rescued. I want you to leave."

Snape relaxed slightly. "Hm, I'm moving up. A minute ago you were going to kill me." To Harry's darkened gaze, he added, "I don't think you can get by without me. The prophecy should have been finished by now. I think you need my assistance." Harry did not argue, merely held the aim of his wand steady. Snape went on, "Given the things you need to collect, I think I can be invaluable, just on my knowledge of where Voldemort tends to keep things."

"I think he's right, Harry," Hermione said.

Harry's lips twitched nervously. "I think he's a plant. I think Voldemort gave him one last shot at redeeming himself since he's the only one who can get in here. That's what I think. I think we should make him regret doing that, then make him forget everything, and then dump him in the street for his friends who are always on guard to pick up and do with as they please."

Snape sat on the foot of the bed but he kept his wand at hand. He crossed his legs and looked around at the blackened, cold cauldrons lined up along the wall. "At least you aren't being foolish," Snape said. "That's something." When Harry had no reply to this, Snape went on, "How about I give my wand to Ms. Granger, whom I trust because her temper is a little more predictable than yours, and you give me a chance to prove myself?"

Harry thought while Snape waited. When Harry nodded at Hermione, Snape said, "Oh, I'm not giving up my wand until you agree."

Harry grew thoughtful, which was a definite improvement. "It's still a setup. Whatever you do will be designed to work out and then you'll turn on us."

"Well," Snape said, sitting back slightly, making himself at home. "In that case, you get a freebie don't you? And you can decide to give me another chance ad nauseam, until such time as it becomes clear that it can no longer be a setup because Vo- the Dark Lord would never relinquish a Horcrux, even to capture you. You are just a puny, upstart boy, and the Horcruces, well . . . they are immortality."

Harry blinked at him in silence, surprised by this openness and by how much Snape knew. "Well . . . " Harry said, hesitating, anger dissipating.

- 888 -

Snape stood before the cauldrons in Lupin's room, all of them bubbling now.

Harry skulked in, wand in hand. He sniffed at the first one. "That doesn't look like Wolfsbane."

"It isn't. It is the precursor to Veritaserum, which I thought would be useful to you. There are many potions that could be of use to you." Snape finished stirring one viscous pot and set the silver stirrer on the rest before the cauldron so as not to mix it up with the others. "I am willing to do things that are more helpful than brewing, but if that is all I am limited to, I will try to make myself as useful as possible."

"I don't trust you enough to let you do more. This Hermione can double check."

"As you wish," Snape stated, bored.

"You still haven't explained why you killed Dumbledore," Harry said, raising his wand and looking fierce.

Snape fished for yet another diversionary line. "If he did not see fit to explain to you, why should I?"

Harry's frown deepened, taking this as an insult. "You're saying Dumbledore kept you informed. You, who had no prophecy?"

"Hardly." Snape said, sounding firmly like he meant it, "If you think for one minute that I am not as trapped by circumstances as you are, you are sadly mistaken."

Harry relented marginally and went back to sniffing cauldrons.

Snape's Harry, when he brought him home had been hungry for an authority figure to respect. "Sit down, Potter," Snape said with an edge of command. When Harry merely glowered, he added, "You have been fighting Voldemort a mere eight or nine years. Some of us have been fighting him for twice that. Sit down and listen for a moment."

Harry sat on the edge of the bed, looking difficult.

Snape leaned back against the bench and said, "There is not much I can tell you that you do not already know, but perhaps hearing it spoken aloud will be of use to the rut you are in."

Without looking up, Harry complained, "You sound like Dumbledore. What happened to you?"

"If we can leave off with the insults, that would be preferable," Snape commented. This garnered a raised brow, a good sign. Going on, Snape said, "You have grown too careful . . . wait, let me finish. You let your losses lead you to a sort of paralysis where you too fiercely fear losing other members of the Order, and as a result risk losing even more because you keep letting the enemy regroup and grow stronger. Every rule the Ministry adds on that goes unchallenged, every death that goes uninvestigated, all of these things weaken your position."

"You want me to risk everything. Throw it all away? I knew you were still on Voldemort's side."

"You need to be bolder; I said nothing about being stupider." Snape tended to a cauldron and then fetched the stool over to sit on. He was heartened to have the young man's attention and wanted to make the most of it, even if he lost a potion doing so.

Harry said, "I'm tired of everyone getting hurt, or killed. Especially for something that was my idea. It's my fault then."

"It isn't your fault. It is Voldemort and his followers' fault. And these friends and associates that do as you ask are doing it because they believe in what they are attempting. They have already decided that the outcome is worth the risk. That isn't for you to decide for them. Have some respect for them."

Harry mulled that over, instinctively needing to offset some guilt. Falling ever more glum, he said, "Things have got so bad that more and more witches and wizards want to volunteer, even though they don't really have the skills to help."

"The war is going quite badly," Snape said, feeling he needed to say that to someone, anyone. The newly delivered newspapers gathering in the kitchen had alarmed him more than he ever imagined he could be. They had missed this utter chaos in his world, something he was eternally grateful for . . . assuming he would one day return there. The Muggles were inextricably involved now, and the grand excuses for the destruction became more elaborate and unlikely, magic and mundane churning and over-spilling poison across Europe.

Harry raised his eyes and studied Snape, and Snape realized he had broken character too far. That had been a problem the last two days, trying to remain nasty when the outside world had that well covered had proved impossible for him.

Harry said, "The war is going so badly that my worst enemy is trying to help." His eyes did not waver from studying Snape. "There is something very wrong with you."

"So you say," Snape retorted, recovering some attitude. "I reserve the right to reach my personal limit on things. Just like everyone else."

From the doorway, Hermione said, "I've been wondering if you are really you." She stepped inside and held out a clear glass marble. "I borrowed this from Feorge. Hold out your hand."

"What is that?" Snape asked, glad to have the leeway to behave paranoid.

"It's a Truth Teller," she lectured him. "Easier than Veritaserum, except that it can't make someone talk."

Snape held out his hand and Hermione dropped the marble into it. "Say your name," Hermione commanded.

"Severus Snape."

The marble flashed white. Hermione turned to Harry. "Could there be more than one?"

"Merlin, I hope not," Harry said, exhaling hard. "Are you helping Voldemort?"

Hermione interrupted before Snape could answer. "It doesn't work very well that way. It's too easy for the person to answer some other question he or she silently asked him- or herself in between. You have to make them say a statement. Say: I'm helping Voldemort."

Snape peered at her. "You want me to say that?" He studied the marble, not trusting it. But in the end, he repeated the statement. The marble flickered pink and black. He insisted in a huff, "I would not help Voldemort," and the marble flickered white. He dropped the marble back in her hand. "Enough of that."

"Something to hide?" Harry taunted.

"Many things. Especially from prying Gryffindors."

Harry muttered, "I still don't trust him."

Snape said, "I don't care. It is better if you remain untrusting when planning. Given the powers being used against you, anyone can be turned at any time."

Hermione said, "Like the other day, Ron had a fantastic idea and I felt I should check him for an Imperio." She gave Harry an apologetic half-smile.

Snape took the opportunity to study Harry better. Usually when they occupied the same room, he kept an angry scowl fixed on his face. With his attention diverted by his friend, Harry's face softened with humor into a strained and beaten down mode.

Hermione read Harry's face too, "I made lunch. Are you coming down?"

Harry nodded vaguely. "I want to ask Snape one more thing."

Hermione glanced worriedly between them turned with a bounce of her hair. Harry slunk around the potions one last time. "Is the Wolfsbane going to be done in time to help Remus next week?"

"Just barely. He will have a supply three days before the full moon, which is not optimal, but should help with the drain on his psyche."

Harry swallowed. "Yeah, he's not been doing well." Clearly this burden draped heavily over his shoulders as well. Slowly, Harry got to the point. "What you said just now . . . about people doing what I say because they want to do it—they think it's right. Did you mean that?"

"Have you held some piece of blackmail over their heads beforehand? Held a family member captive on the side, for example?"

Harry's face contorted in confusion. "No, of course not."

"Of course not," Snape echoed. "The situation is dire. Many who volunteer now have already lost all they have to live for. They are trying to make the best of it. That isn't your fault."

He could see Harry's chest expand and relax as he took that in. "You are the last person who would say that if it weren't true."

"I expect," Snape replied, feeling terribly bad for this young man despite that weakness being identical to the pitfall he had just warned about.

Harry stared off into space and shook his head faintly. "I can't see the trap you are laying here. Nothing makes any sense."

Snape thought wryly, If I told you the truth, it would make even less. He concocted something likely sounding. "Like everyone else, Potter, I've grown deathly tired of the way things are going. Egos aside, something much change, and quickly. Even I, as accustomed to darkness as I am, cannot take any more."

As plausible as this sounded, it appeared to pile on to Harry's psychic burden, and his face fell into the distant bleakness of his inner vision.

Snape struggled for something else to say. This wasn't his Harry; he knew what to say to his Harry. "You would not be named in the prophecy if it was not possible for you to succeed at this."

Quietly, as though fearing being overheard, Harry unburdened himself, "It feels impossible."

"It isn't," Snape said with immense confidence. "That I'm certain of."

Author's notes:

Opting for sleep instead of finding a preview. Trust that it would be an incredibly cruel one anyway.

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