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Chapter 30 — Prison sans Bars

Harry paced most of the day, wishing for even just a foot more space to do it in. He worried about his guardian, who would not know why Harry did not come to assist him and would worry in turn; that was, assuming nothing bad happened to him in the meantime. Harry worried too that the impostor Snape could be at least partly responsible for framing him, even if Harry could not work out how he might have managed it.

Harry scuffed his feet to a stop and rested his forehead on the stone wall. A film of dank moisture came off onto his skin. He could go and take care of both Snapes, but it would mean throwing everything else away. He could do that; Tonks had seen to it that he could leave. What he would do after it was all straight was far less clear, but at least he would not be standing here in such a state, worrying.

Harry heaved a sigh that was eaten up by the imprisoned air. He really should stay and trust that others would take care of things. His guardian had made it clear he could take care of himself, even in that muddled place. From Harry's perspective, his guardian seemed to fall into his new, or perhaps old, role a bit too easily. He would be more than a little unhappy with Harry when he found out how much Harry had sacrificed just to help him with something for which he had spent a decade and half fine-tuning his skills. As to the impostor, well, he wanted to stay, which meant he would not do anything to harm his reputation, or he would not do so until his position was more secure, so for the moment, he was not a danger.

Despite being unable to piece together how the impostor might have managed to set up the evidence that led to his arrest, Harry imagined it to be well within his skills, even if he could not imagine him killing Moody. Although, another niggling part of his mind pointed out, he did kill Dumbledore.

Harry pounded his head lightly on the rough rock. He wanted a future, but he also wanted a present, and to have those two desires so viciously in conflict made him want to scream.

Harry sat down hard. If he had paper, at least he could be doing something. The guard who brought his meals insisted that his personal effects would take time to get through screening—days even. Harry growled and stretched his neck back to stare at the low ceiling. If he were susceptible to claustrophobia, he would have gone mad in this place already. As it was, his breathing occasionally faltered, especially if he thought too hard about the solid square miles of rock above him, poised to crush the cell and him into wet dust.

Harry rubbed his face and paced some more, trying hard to avoid looking inward at the army of shadows close by. Dwelling on their presence brought on that dark strategic thinking where he felt certain he could take over and control everyone, easily—the mode where his enemies would regret being his enemies in some fashion so gruesome his mind averted from the notion and blanked it out.

When the guard came to take him to the warden, Harry nearly leapt up off the bench with joy at the prospect of leaving his cell, even as badly as he had wanted to retain an air of detachment. The guard led Harry back down the long, uneven corridor. The carvers of this place had lacked not only the tools to work along a straight and level line, but apparently the desire to as well. The floor rose, fell and faintly corkscrewed.

They reached the wide area where the guards' unofficial break room had been set up. Another guard sat reading a ragged magazine. He stood and eagerly shook Harry's hand, spitting out a string of harsh French, at which Harry could only nod politely in turn. As they stepped away and the guard gave him a hearty, salute-like wave, Harry began to suspect he was currently being treated better than he would have been in Azkaban. This thought disturbed him with its implications and he mulled it over until reaching the warden's office.

Harry waited through a round of spells to verify he carried nothing dangerous before the door was opened. The warden waved off the guard, who did not even hesitate in departing. They know nothing about me, Harry thought in a kind a remote alarm. Or, maybe they did: Harry did in fact have zero intention of making trouble.

"Meester Pottar," the warden said warmly, leading Harry inside by the hand he pumped up and down, despite their having been introduced again just the day before.

A marble and iron cafe table had been set up in the warden's office, complete with gold-edged dishes that sparkled in the flickering lamplight.

"'Ave a seat. Please," the warden insisted.

"Thanks," Harry said, taking the more distant chair. Even though the office was not appreciably larger than his cell, the candles and the signs of normal life made if feel far more welcoming.

The wine poured itself and the warden raised his glass in a toast. "To you, Meester Pottar."

"To me?" Harry echoed wryly. "If you insist . . ." Harry drank up, figuring that if they wished to potion him, they would not have to go to this length to do it.

A knock sounded upon the door and a guard with a chef's hat stretched down over his unyielding helmet slipped in with a large pot of fish soup that filled the air with a heady simulation of an ocean breeze. Harry's thoughts tried to whirl far away with the scent.

When they were alone again, the warden put his elbow down beside his bowl and leaned forward eagerly. "Zo, I am dy-ing of curiosity. What was eet? A lov-er betrayed you?"

"What?" Harry responded, not following.

The warden paused to slurp soup before trying again. He held up one pinky and used it to point at Harry while also twisting his long curled mustache around between his fingers. "I am a-zuming that you, zo passion-ate, that you were driven to this by love betrayed, no?"

"No," Harry said. "I actually-"

"Ah! No, no, let me guess. I am close, though. I must be . . . I am zer-tain." This time he gestured with his oversized soup spoon. "No, it was a rival-ry and you stood up for your 'onor . . . or your lady's 'on-or. Yes, that would be more to your styling." He gave a great sigh. "This life it is zo full of trial for one such as you. Always so many wish to share in your spot-light and if they cross the line, you have but no choice but to crush them, am I right?"

Harry had abandoned eating for the moment. "I didn't do it."

The warden appeared not to hear. "Or . . . blackmail. Such fam-ous peoples make such easy targets." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "Or so zey think. But you showed zem, eh?"

Harry tried again. "I didn't do it."

The warden stared at Harry and sniffed sadly. "You still defend your own reputation, even so late in the game."

"I really didn't kill him," Harry said in his most honest and calm voice.

"Ah," the warden excitedly gasped in a breath. "Magnifique! You 'ave been framed!" He kissed his fingertips as if expressing delight for the soup. "Oh, I have not imagined this. It iz wonderful, zeez intrigues."

Harry had put his spoon down and now sat back, hand on chin, to stare at the man across from him.

The warden waved his fingers. "You have no worries about poisoning. My chef is most careful. He must eat 'alf before he brings the rest. Zee kitchen is all zee way at zee end of zee hall. If 'e makes it to the table wiz it . . . we are okay."

Harry, not wanting to be rude, picked up his spoon and continued eating. The soup was still boiling hot; the bowl must be charmed. The conversation fell off in the interest of eating, punctuated by noises of delight from his host that may or may not have been related to the food.

In the middle of the terrine course, which made Harry begin to worry seriously about how many courses might be forthcoming, the warden returned to his earlier topic. While tearing bread into chunks to eat with the terrine, he said, "Zo, what ees your strategy for re-solving your zituation?"

Harry sighed. "I don't know. I've been framed quite well, but the department is trying to prove I'm innocent."

"And your pink-haired lady-friend iz on your side for certain? If she is part of the con-spirazy you may be 'ere a loooong while." This prospect sounded pleasant to him.

"I don't think she is," Harry said.

"Ah, but it would be perfect if she were," the warden pointed out, clearly intrigued.

"Not for me it wouldn't," Harry replied glumly.

The warden noticed that Harry had stopped eating. "Oh, I 'ave taken your appetite. My apologizes."

"No, I think the previous six courses took my appetite," Harry stated, worried if he moved more than to breathe his stomach might rupture.

"Oh, but we are only 'alfway true zee meal. Perhaps you need some digestif." He rang a bell beside his plate and the guard in the chef's hat came hurrying in.

Harry slowly sipped the proffered liquor while his host ate the next courses alone. He wondered how in the world the man could more resemble Lupin for physique rather than his Uncle Vernon.

During the second dessert course, which Harry managed to nibble at, grateful that enough hours had passed that he had managed to digest some of the earlier courses, the warden reached over to his desk for a thick folder.

"Your file. Or a copy of ov eet," the warden explained.

Harry balked at how thick it was. "What . . . have they put my marks in there from school, even?"

The warden flipped some pages around. "Yes, your 'Ogwarts' file ees in here, of course." He read a bit. "You were quite fond of detention, I zee."

"It was fond of me."

The warden flipped some more, tugging out a familiar page. "And your adop-tion. Most interesting. Same professor as your detentions."

"Funny that," Harry said, just to say something. His stomach was making him sleepy and the wavering candles made the room seem to rock gently, like a moored boat. Through a haze of food fatigue, Harry felt a painful stab of worry about his adoptive father. Here he was having a twelve-course meal with a crazy Frenchman while Snape struggled to fight Voldemort. At this point, even if he could leave, Harry felt unfit to do more than drag himself slowly away to his bed, certainly not battle anyone. He rubbed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to fall flat on his poorly padded stone bench, but he resisted asking to go back to his dreary cell, so he held out . . . through the subsequent coffee course and follow-on cheese course. The chef, after all that, behaved disappointed in the news that they were finished. He hung his helmeted head and pulled off his starched hat, which he crumpled up as he shuffled off in a posture of defeat.

Harry thanked his host for the nice dinner and said, "I wonder if I can get parchment and pen and ink from you, rather than wait for it to arrive in my care package. I need to write some letters right away."

The warden spun a mustache and let it snap back into place, eyes glittering. "Ah, you wish to unwind zis mystery, no?"

Harry hated to admit it, but he said, "I don't think I can from here." He ached again, thinking of Snape, trapped so very far away. "But I want to warn my friends to be careful." That sounded safe since he did not want to give them any clues to help them decipher the double meanings he would be using should they be reading his post.

The warden pulled several sheets from his desk and found a pen and inkwell, which he bundled up with string for Harry to carry off.

"Thank you," Harry said, finding unusual gratitude in receiving something so ordinary.

The warden went to the door. "Your post will be slow, I'm afraid, we must trans-late it, you understand."

"Even going out?" Harry asked.

This stopped the man. "Ezspecially going out," he stated knowledgeably.

"Ah," Harry said, disappointed.

"I vill ask around the cell-block poetic if there is a bilingual prisoner who can 'elp speed dis up."

Harry faintly shook his head. "What? You have a cell block just of poets?"

"But ov course," the warden said, gesturing toward the door. "We cannot put zem with anyone else."

The warden called out in the corridor to one of the guards, whose helmet visor fell closed when he snapped to attention from stealing tidbits off a tray of un-served courses hovering beside the door.

"Take Meester Pottar back to 'is cell, Marcel."

When the guard bowed, his visor fell forward again, and he left it down as he marched off. Harry followed, thinking ahead so intently about whom he should write to first that it startled him when the guard stopped to disengage the long locking bar for his block of cells, not with his crystal-tipped spear, but with a wand from his pocket.

"'ere we are, Monsieur," the guard said with a bow when they reached the right doorway.

Not ready to be left to the solitary stillness of his cell yet, Harry asked, "Why did you have to arrest so many poets?"

"Zee poets? We 'ave to arrest zem," the guard blurted. "Zo much trouble." He slowly shook his helmeted head, making it rattle with each pass. "Zey had a war, you know, of words. You have no heard of zis?"

Harry shook his head.

The man sighed and scratched an invisible pattern on the floor with the handle of his pike. "It vas a terrible time. No one could open zere post, and everyone, zey took the zides. The poets, you zee, zey got jealous ov each ozer. Zey began to write poems zat were not zo much poems, but spells, zome quite nasty. And zey zend zeese to each ozer." He pointed at Harry accusingly, as though he may have been involved. "ZAT would have been ac-ceptable, but zey began also zending zeese poems to colleagues and family who came out in zupport of zere poet. Zoon, everyone was in-volv-ed."

"Poems that were spells," Harry repeated, working hard to hear through the accent.

"Exactamondo," the guard said, highly pleased Harry understood. "Zis is not allow-ed, zis magic is not. To let it continue . . . it would be zee end of ma-gic. Words 'ave such power, zey cannot be treated so lightly."

With a little bow that for once left his visor in place, the man closed the cell door and left Harry alone, to compose carefully worded letters in the cold, thin air, starting with his ersatz father. If he wrote carefully enough, perhaps his words would carry enough power to loosen his worry.

- 888 -

Severus Snape stood in the hallway outside the dining room of Grimmauld Place, observing Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom charming Christmas decorations onto the curtain rods and a crooked, two-foot high tree propped on the corner of the long table. Hermione directed and Neville obediently followed and soon the room glowed and sparkled with spell-generated gaiety. The scene threatened to roll over Snape like a great wave. For all his instinct to remain where he could be useful in aiding Potter in defeating Voldemort, a less well-cultivated instinct longed to be home, to be where the most serious redecorating issue was moving his oldest son to a different room to make space for his newest son. His oldest son . . . whatever had become of him.

Hermione glanced up and fell still and wary upon spying him there. Snape took advantage of that impetus to move on, upstairs, to check on Lupin . . . to do something.

He found Lupin bent to the task of carefully packing his one spare set of robes into a backpack that had extra straps sewn onto it to prevent him shedding it in wolf form. Without comment, Snape moved to mix a restorative potion with the honey and egg white he had just fetched from the kitchen. He poured this into a bottle spelled to be unbreakable and handed it to Lupin to add to the pack.

Lupin studied the bottle rather than put it away. Milky liquid strands swirled within as he turned it to study every side. "If you are here under false pretenses, Severus, you are doing an excellent job of hiding it." Before Snape could compose a response, Lupin added, "But then you must always have been good at that, fooling your master all those years."

Snape did not want to cast his mind back to that time in any detail. He said, "Do you have everything you need for tonight?" in as hard a tone as he could manage.

Lupin waggled a finger at him mockingly. "Dodging questions is one good way to avoid getting trapped into an unacceptable answer."

"I do not need to answer to you."

"No, funny that you only needed to answer to Dumbledore and we know what happened to him."

Snape ignored this, since it only stressed him more about the double who was living his life. "Where will you be at dawn? In the event that you need assistance returning . . ."

Lupin laughed, but his smile faded quickly. "If I keep arguing with you, I suspect I could get you to say anything, no matter how uncharacteristically kind-hearted." He cinched the pack closed and swung it over his fatigue-bent shoulder.

Flatly, Snape stated, "I will fetch you if you require it."

Lupin flinched, perhaps remembering the last time he needed to be fetched home. "I'll be on the Dartmoor, near the Bowerman's Nose."

"Fine," Snape snipped. His rancor for this man had faded, but he found it phenomenally easy to pretend it had not.

Lupin trudged over and opened the bedroom door, letting in a cry of "Harry's back!" from down below followed by pounding footsteps originating from all corners of the house. Reluctant to lose face, but as curious as the others where Harry had gone off to that morning, Snape followed Lupin downstairs at a discreet distance.

The dining room swelled into a hive of activity as everyone in the house gathered there. Fortunately for Snape, Ginny's approaching Harry with her arms crossed held everyone's attention, so they did not notice their unwelcome guest hanging in the doorway.

"Why didn't you tell me where you were going?" Ginny demanded.

"Because you would have followed me," Harry pointed out, trying to tease, but falling flat. He sat at the head of the table, beside the flickering tree, his heavy cloak still draped over one shoulder.

Ginny's hair caught the orange light from the hearth as she stretched her neck toward him. "Like we aren't all in this together," she mocked, rapping him on the shoulder.

Ginny's light touch made Harry's jaw tighten. He shifted carefully in his seat, holding his cloak around himself with one hand. Voice oddly bright, he tried again with, "I can only hide myself safely with the invisibility cloak. I wanted to check on something. I thought I'd figured out how to find the cup and I wanted to bring it back as a Christmas present for everyone."

Hermione leaned over the table in Harry's direction. "Did you get it?"

Harry smiled faintly. "No, but I know how we can get it." He glanced across the room and accurately out the door where Snape stood. Staring thusly, Harry fell pointedly silent.

Snape stepped away to the staircase. Lupin, almost as though pretending to the room that it was he who had halted Harry's story, waved faintly and said, "I have to be going."

This pulled Hermione out the door. "Got everything?" she asked. Lupin assured her that he did as she saw him to the door.

By the time the outside door was fully re-bolted, Snape was upstairs, standing far from the railing in a position where he could not be seen from below. He was certain Harry was injured and intended to hide it from his friends. He waited there, picking up the trickle of low conversation.

Down in the dining room Harry said, "With Bellatrix in hospital for the foreseeable future-"

"Thanks to Mr. Snape," Hermione pointed out.

"Yeah," Harry uttered. "With her out of commission, protecting the cup has fallen to the Malfoys, which means Draco. I realized that all we have to do is make Draco think we already have the cup and then we can follow him when he goes to check if it's really gone."

Ron said, "He's a pretty simple minded git, should be easy to fool."

Harry said, "And he's scared, which makes him easy to manipulate. Close the door, so I can tell you my plan."

Footsteps sounded and the door clicked closed. Snape remained where he was, staring at the soot-stained, gold and green fabric wall-covering across from him while the house creaked and settled for the night. He pulled aside the thick drapes beside him and looked out into the square. A solitary crooked streetlight cast a pittance of light over the cracked pavement, neither of which did the Muggles have the wherewithal to repair. Sirens wailed in the distance then faded. The orange city glow over the dark roof-line across the square could just as easily be the city burning. If tonight it was merely extra-low clouds picking up the myriad electric lights, then it was just putting off the inevitable. Dropping the curtain back into place, Snape went back to doing something concrete.

When the door opened after a sharp rap, Snape sat, hunched, on a battered old bar stool, mixing a general restorative. He looked up to find Harry standing in the doorway, cloak still covering his right shoulder.

"I have a question for you," Harry said, in the tone of making a demand.

Snape bowed faintly and continued stirring. Hermione and Ginny followed Harry inside, each standing just behind a shoulder.

Harry said, "The Malfoys have a secret hiding place in their house. I know this because I overheard Lucius describe it once. So don't try to claim they don't have one. Where is it and how do we get into it?"

Calmly, Snape said, "There is a dungeon hidden under the second and third to last floorboards on the wall opposite the hearth in the drawing room."

Hermione said, "A dungeon hidden under the floorboard?"

"It is a wide pair of floorboards," Snape commented, directly at the smartest of them. "And it is the most significantly warped piece of magical space I have ever observed. It exceeds the Tossfet Maximum Actual to Experienced Ratio by a factor of at least two."

Ron came up behind the trio, out of hiding. "Blimey, the Ministry's dug around their place completely at least twice and never found anything."

Retaining his patience with effort, Snape said, "That's because it is not really below the house, simply between two floor joists."

"How do you open it?" Harry asked. A scattering of sweat beads glittered on his upper lip, a symptom of fighting pain, Snape was certain, since the room was cool.

"I will tell only Potter. He can tell the rest of you if he trusts you enough." He glared at the lot of them in turn, pleased with this excuse.

Harry, with an abbreviated movement of his left hand, sent them out. "Hermione has his wand," he pointed out to Ginny to finally get her to depart.

With the door closed, Harry sat carefully on the bed. "So?" he asked impatiently after a gap.

"Precisely what I was going to say to you." Snape stared him down before turning to quench the burner. He took his time, giving the mixture one last stir. He turned back and asked, "How badly are you hurt?"

Harry's face lost its shape, unable to retain the ruse if it did not need to. "I don't know, really. Is it that obvious?"

"To me. Your little friends are even more dunderheaded than I ever gave them credit for if they cannot see it."

Harry lacked the strength to defend his friends, because he said, "They don't want to see it. And I don't want them to either. I'm barely holding them all together as it is." He wiped the sweat off his lip and stared at the moisture now glittering on his palm. "Compared to my scar, it's nothing."

"What'd you get hit with?"

Harry shook his head. "There wasn't an incantation."

Losing patience, Snape asked, "What color was it? Did it make a sound? Did it pulse or waver?"

"It was violet and red and it may have waved a little."

"Let me see it." When Harry failed to move, Snape said, "Going to check yourself into Mungo's instead? Get a bed beside Lestrange's perhaps?"

Harry moved ultra slowly to shed his cloak. Snape had to keep his hands fisted at his sides to resist helping, which would be too far out of character. The fabric of Harry's shirt had melted to the skin of his shoulder, and had to be tugged free, which Snape did help with, but since it made Harry gasp the action did not come across as solicitous.

"How deep does it go? Raise your elbow."

"I can't," Harry said.

"Because it refuses to move or because it hurts too much?"

Softly, Harry said, "Hurts too much." He studied his mottled shoulder. "What'd I get hit with?"

"I wasn't there; how should I know?" Snape said, venting his angst over Harry's condition in the only appropriate manner available, back at the young man.

"You can be a right bastard when you want to be, you know that?" Harry complained weakly.

Snape handed him a clear liquid in a small cup. "Drink this, then raise your arm."

Harry sighed even before he lowered the cup of Painaway. "That's good stuff."

"Arm," Snape insisted.

Harry obeyed, moving easily.

"You are very lucky your shoulder joint is not seized." He began digging through the cupboards and pulling out old clothing that given the pink frills and stains not even Lupin would wear.

Harry said, "But what was the spell? I know you know."

Snape, crouched beside the lowest cupboard under the window, looked up at Harry sitting on the bed. With no rancor, he prodded, "Do you now?"

"You're transparent, you know that?"

For a moment, Snape could not move—an intense homesickness paralyzed him there in that spot. He stood with effort and laid out an old flowered skirt on the bed. "Let me borrow your wand, or cut this into strips for me, if you can manage that difficult a bit of magic." He intended that to come out more mocking than it did, which twisted it into grudging affection.

Harry tossed the skirt on the floor and used a less-than-efficient cutting spell that also damaged the rug. Rather than bend, he gathered the strips up with a hover charm and handed them over like a bundle of dead snakes. Snape soaked them in an astringent potion and without comment began bandaging Harry's shoulder, reminded starkly of needing to do similarly to his Harry. With his pain taken away, Harry sat stoically through this process before pulling his damaged shirt and cloak back on.

"Leave that on at least two days," Snape said, turning to put things away.

"Yes, Professor." Sounding less than grateful, and perhaps even begrudging, Harry asked, "Where's your friend? I thought he'd be back before now."

Snape took care to set down the bottle he held. Harry, as usual, had hit a sore point, intended to, it seemed, as a means of putting proper distance between them again.

A knock sounded on the door and Hermione called out. Harry answered that everything was fine. Snape quickly whispered, "Twist the left horn on the goat's head under the mantelpiece and use the spell I will write down for you to open the floor itself.

Harry nodded as the door opened. Hermione said, "We wondered what was taking so long."

Harry replied, "I was just asking Snape here about his mysterious friend and why we haven't seen him back."

"Oh," Hermione said, in a tone that indicated she wished to know this too. She shifted to staring at Snape with interest rather than suspicion.

"Yeah," Harry said with quickly recovered bravado, "I was just asking how long Totten had been his boyfriend."

Snape nearly dropped the box of beetle carapaces he had just taken off the shelf. He glared at Harry in disbelief before turning to the mortar and pestle while broadly shaking his head.

"Well then, is he your cousin or great uncle or something?" Hermione asked.

Snape, pestle in hand, grumbled, "You would not in your entire miserable little lifetimes understand what he is. Go away."

Harry said, "Well, we thought he'd be back before now. He sounded worried about you." Hermione gave Harry a dissuading nudge, and he added, "You know, as unbelievable as that is." This garnered Harry a glare from Hermione.

Snape rolled his eyes and let his hair fall into his face. "I certainly knew you were listening in. What do you take me for?" He held up a finger. "No, don't answer that."

Harry was tenacious. "But aren't you worried that he hasn't been back?"

Snape stared at the other that looked so much like his own. In truth he was so worried that to dwell upon it would render him useless. "That is not your problem," Snape commented, low and threatening.

Hermione gave a tug on Harry's elbow, fortunately for Harry on his left elbow. "Come on, Harry."

But Harry stood his ground. "I want to know why, if he's not a dark wizard, this Totten didn't stay to help."

Snape was growing angry like he had not in a long while—driven into black rage by a helpless, gutting pain. He wanted this conversation finished before he did something he would regret. "There are other things in this universe to attend to; your little world isn't as big as you think it is."

Oddly, Harry did not appear to take this as an insult as intended; his eyes indicated that he took some kind of hope from it. This time when Hermione pulled on him, he relented and followed her out.

- 888 -

As the clanging footsteps of his morning guard approached, Harry jumped down off his bench and went to the food slot to receive his post. This guard did not speak any English and Harry did not know his name, so he had named him Steeltoe Pierre, due to the loud metal boots he wore.

"Thanks," Harry said, catching the string-bound bundle when it fell through the slot.

"Je t'en prie," the guard said, and then hesitated. He had tried several times already to speak to Harry in French on the previous day, but had finally given up. Harry suspected he wanted to try again, but he let the flap on the slot slide closed and a second later the latch clicked. Harry listened to him walk away, the crisp echoes making him sound like multiple guards.

Harry took his prized letters to the bench to sort out. Word had made it around and now every letter included a sheet of parchment for Harry's reply, well, the letters from friends did. At home when less-than-favorable news was printed about Harry, Candide used a charm to drop the nasty post outside as needed, but Harry did not have the benefit of that here. He could usually tell by how the address was written out that the letter was going to be an angry tirade. This certain wasn't the first time he had received hate mail, and he would prefer that it not bother him, but he had grown tentative about even glancing at these letters. When he had read one the previous day, out of sheer boredom and lack of other unopened post, the shadows had drifted in, whispering dark reassurances of revenge for the insolence.

So, Harry tossed aside the letters with dubious writing, although sometimes his judgment about the envelope was mistaken. One letter yesterday, where the address was slanted and the nib had torn the paper, was a tirade against the Ministry in Harry's favor, from someone he did not know. It had buoyed him quite a bit, that letter. His friends he expected to be on his side, but to have a stranger believe in him, despite all the evidence against him, made him feel rather hopeful and touched.

Harry sighed and tossed another letter on the questionable pile, despite the lavender hue to the envelope paper. The next was from Suze, and Harry dropped the packet and opened this one immediately.


I hope you are doing alright. Do let me know if you need anything. I'm home for the holidays now and can go to Diagon Alley whenever I like. Just name it. I'm sure you could use loads of things to pass the time. The
Prophet ran a special set of articles on the L'île de Cachot Méfait where you are being kept. It didn't seem like it could even have a place to get outside at all! You must be terribly cooped up. I tried to imagine what it must be like when we were having our last House Quidditch practice and it made me feel most sad for you.

You asked me to keep an eye on Professor Snape, which I have been doing. He is very suspicious lately, but I think he does not suspect I have been walking by his office several times a day checking who is there if the door is open. He is quite disturbed by your being arrested. He has been short with everyone and our House punishments have been stricter than anyone remembers. I hope he doesn't think you really did what they said and is trying to make up for it, somehow. I tried to ask him the other day if he thought you really did it, but he sent me off, and threatened me with detention. Ouch! Which my parents would be really unhappy about. I've stayed out of trouble all year so far.

I've tried to tell the other Slytherins that there is no chance you are guilty, but I don't think they believe me, but fortunately, they are too afraid of Professor Snape to say anything too loudly. I'm not even sure what my parents believe, I have to confess. I'm working on them too.

I will send you some sunshine if I can find a spell for capturing some,

Harry folded the letter up and put it under the foot of his mattresses with the others he wanted to keep. Imagining that somewhere up above in the real world people were playing Quidditch, with the breeze in their cloaks and the clouds dancing with the sunbeams, rendered him utterly depressed. He dropped the letter packet onto the floor, kicked the sorted out nasty ones aside, and lay down on his bench to try to think about nothing.

Harry had no idea how much time had passed, but did not wish for a clock. Watching the hands of a clock creak in a circle would push him over the edge, he was certain. Better to go by his stomach and when meals arrived. In between those events the uncertainty helped keep him grounded in his own head.

He wrote a letter back to Suze that he hoped would move quickly through the censors.

Thanks, but short of getting out of here, I have everything I need. Have an excellent Christmas.

The next letter was from Rita Skeeter and given the envelope:

The Formerly Illustrious Harry Potter
The Prison of Misdeeds, Dreariest Cell Block B
Relentlessly Pounded Island in the English Channel

Harry suspected she had used her Quick Quotes Quill to address it. He glanced rapidly through the letter. As always, she wanted an interview, and this time, she seemed to think Harry would fall victim to her dubious charms simply because he was bored and was allowed few visitors, of which she would of course be among the privileged few. She was not informed enough to include a blank sheet, so Harry used the back.

He wrote:

Fat chance.

P.S. Lucky for you the poets are in Cell Block M or this letter would be longer.

He addressed the envelope by crossing out his address and writing in hers, taking the high ground by resisting making an insulting version of her address in return. There were other, better, ways to deal with her, the shadows reminded him.

Since it would be opened by the prison staff anyway, Harry tucked the flap of the envelope in rather than re-wet the gum. Setting this one with Suze's letter, Harry took the next off the pile, from Neville, and read it slowly. Neville was confused, Harry could tell. He believed in him, but he also had a tendency to be influenced by others, and it showed in his letter. It reminded Harry that, trapped here like he was, he could not effectively argue his case, and that if this went on long enough, many would believe all kinds of untrue things.

The letter to Skeeter sat beside Harry, mocking him in this regard. Harry sighed and reconsidered his reply while tapping it on his thigh. But the shadows and he both agreed that she could not be trusted, so he put it back on the "out" pile, unaltered.

Harry flipped through the newly arrived letters and leaned back against the dank wall. The chilly damp soaked into his robes, waking him up and making him vaguely cross. He wanted to be home. He wanted to be somewhere there was noise, of any sort—the silence now threatened to crush him long before the solid rock did.

Harry found a letter from the twins and the resulting burst of affection sent his constant dark companions scurrying. With relish he pulled the letter out of the already unsealed envelope, hoping with a smirk that the censors got a little Weasley surprise when they opened it originally.

- 888 -

Severus Snape sat in a drawing room that was so quaint and pristine he still had not grown accustomed to it. He held Harry's letter, a couched affair full of so many trite phrases it seemed clear he knew there were censors on his post and as well, that he was practiced at coping with them.

I'm disappointed about missing Christmas at home and I hope you can make Candide's holiday happy enough alone. SHE deserves it, even if you do not think much of the holiday. I've told all my friends to all drop by, to make up for my absence. Please do manage some present shopping, even if you dislike doing so. Pick out something you hate, but think Candide will like, and put my name on it for me, if you would.

I want to believe you were not aware ahead of time that the Ministry would take this action to "protect" me, but I'm not certain of that. If you did know, or were involved in the planning, be aware it is something I intend to deal with when I do get out. There is not much I can do from here without serious repercussions later, as I'm certain you're aware. I'm used to suspecting the worst, but if I try hard enough, I can hope that you are free from involvement.

The letter went on with more disguised worry and suspicion, squeezed out through words unsuited for carrying proper force. Snape put down the letter after reading it through again. Harry requested extra parchment in the postscript, as much as could be wedged into the reply envelope. Snape pulled out the copious stash from his desk to count out ten sheets and something came out with the package and tumbled to his lap then the floor. He had carefully gone through every drawer to learn the contents, but he had not previously noticed this particular beribboned scroll, crushed as it was between unopened packages of parchment.

He scooped the roll up and untied the pastel velvet ribbon. It was a marriage certificate, with his name on it. Shaking his head faintly, he started to roll it back up again, but he stopped and rapidly unwound it again. The dratted and bizarre thing was signed by the Supreme Mugwump, of all people. He stared at that for over a minute, trying to conceive of that, before giving up and wrapping it up more tightly, so it could not be so easily damaged.

A figure moved in the doorway before knocking on the frame. "Are you going to change?" Candide asked.

Snape tossed the scroll away in the drawer where he had found it. "Do you think I should? he asked, unflappable in the face of little knowledge. His calendar had only read Dinner 7p.m., in overly slanted and heavily grooved writing.

"Well, my father usually wears dress robes when he comes, you know."

Ah, Snape thought, wondering what his counterpart would be thinking about now. The writing made him suspect disgust and annoyance. "I could change, but that would imply I was trying to please and that would be a distinct disadvantage."

Her brow went up. She was good at conveying a lot with just that. "Still," she said, sounding like one trying to cater to some harmless but persistent foible.

Snape bowed his head once. "All right, then. Something slightly more appropriate." It wasn't as if the closet lacked for robes. More frighteningly, its full state implied someone shopped regularly.

Dressed in the simplest dress robes he could find in the wardrobe, Snape returned to find Candide entertaining a middle aged man and woman in the main hall. They turned to him with the kind of expressions he was accustomed to: masked discomfort and wariness. He pointedly shook hands with the father and took a seat across from the portly man, feeling more in his element than he had since arriving.

"How IS Harry?" the woman asked.

Snape would presumably know her name if he had taken the time to read the witnesses at the end of the marriage certificate he had just found. Or, given the dubiously studious looks they were giving him, perhaps not.

Candide hesitated replying. "His letters are starting to come through now . . . they have to be read by someone at the prison first . . . but he sounds like he is coping well enough."

The man grunted, making his belly rock up and down. "So, did he do it?"

"NO, of course not," Candide snapped.

The man glanced at Snape and gruffly said, "Just had to ask, given the influences abroad in this house."

Snape held back a grin that came out in his voice as warm ego. "If I had assisted Harry, he would never have got caught."

Heads turned his way, but the man's thick brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I suppose there is that," he conceded, proving he was a typical bully that would back down if challenged on his assertions.

"Severus," Candide criticized. If she meant to say more it was interrupted by Winky bringing drinks before quickly disappearing again.

Snape rattled the ice in his glass before tasting it. "Harry is not the killing sort . . . at least not intentionally."

Candide sat back and huffed before sipping her butterbeer. "Forgive Severus, he has been in a mood since . . . well since Harry's troubles." Her brow furrowed too as if thinking over that ordering.

The older woman glanced around the hall. "No decorations, I noticed."

"It didn't seem right with Harry stuck in that awful place," Candide explained.

"Doesn't feel like Christmas without them, does it?" the woman asked wistfully, perhaps goading.

Candide, without losing her slouched, belly supporting posture, seemed to rise up. "It isn't Christmas without Harry here." She glanced at Snape for support. "You want us to celebrate without him?"

"I didn't mean that, dear," the woman said, getting huffy. "It is just so unfortunate, the whole thing."

Snape waited a beat before saying, "It wasn't unfortunate; it was planned." When everyone stared at him mutely, he said, "He was framed. That requires planning. Someone wished him to be out of the way and they succeeded. Fortunately for Harry, it merely resulted in relocation, not something worse."

"You sound so cold about it," the woman complained. She leaned across toward her daughter. "Is he always so cold, Candy?"

"Harry is safe at present, is he not?" Snape rhetorically asked, ignoring Candide's frown. "At the moment, there is nothing to be done." But as he said that, it rang untrue, and partly to mollify Candide, he said softly, "At least nothing I have thought of yet."

Candide patted Snape's arm before crossing hers and taking on an anxious posture. Her mother said, "Don't stress yourself too much, dear. It's a critical time for the baby."

"It's fine, Mother. I'm not overly stressed."

Snape said, "Indeed, she gets quite a bit of sleep."

The woman patted Candide's knee. "Well, that's good, dear."

Candide turned a sharp look at Snape and he innocently cut her comment off with, "Sleeping for two?"

Amusement relaxed her scrutinizing him. "Yes, actually. Tough to sleep while getting kicked repeatedly. Too bad wizards don't play football more. I think this one is working on trying out already."

"Well," the woman said brusquely, directly at Snape, "I do hope you warm up some before the baby arrives. You act far too cold to deal properly with a child."

"Comes from being part reptilian. Or so I'm told," Snape informed her calmly, and like most woman who saw themselves as proper, she sat back, properly disturbed.

Candide made an attempt at defending that with, "I'm confident Severus will do fine. But no more reptilian talk or he may have to show you his Animagus form."

This halted Snape's taking that thread further, since that was most certainly a skill he lacked. He managed an uncomfortable shared smile with Candide and changed the topic to one he had been holding in reserve. "I'm certain Candide would like to show you the baby's room."

This overly delighted the woman. "Oh, yes, we'd like that. Wouldn't we, dear?" she asked her husband.

Candide explained, "I was reluctant to finish off the room with Harry gone, since it IS his old room, but he said in his letter that it would be fine, that he wouldn't mind. So we moved his room to the other side."

"This room?" her mother asked, pointing to the first door off the balcony on the other side of the hall.

"No the last one, that one, well . . ."

Snape chimed in helpfully, "The first room is reserved for dark magic incantations, and Harry, being the hopelessly white wizard he is, expressed a preference for the unadulterated room on the end."

He gleefully accepted their gaping looks, which migrated questioningly over to Candide, who said, "Well, that's essentially true."

An uncomfortable silence followed before Candide levered herself to her feet, saying, "Maybe I should have Winky serve dinner."

"So early?" Snape asked with pointed innocence.

"It's not early," Candide insisted. She returned from the kitchen and said, "By the time I show you the nursery, dinner will be ready.

The baby's room was roundly declared too Spartan by Candide's mother, who insisted on dropping by that very week to decorate. Or, after further thought, perhaps the week after, when Hogwarts resumed . . . so as to not be in Snape's way.

Dinner passed even more awkwardly than the evening began, which was fine with Snape, since it gave him time to think. Candide frowned rather a lot, which he disregarded for the time being.

When they were alone again, Candide sat down on the opposite couch and patted her belly. "Well, that could have, maybe, gone worse."

Snape leaned back with a fresh drink and asked, "How is it possible you convinced me not to simply poison them?"

She stared at him, beyond him, then back at him. "You are really different tonight."

Certain it was safe to say, he countered, "Did you expect us all to get along?"

She frowned and flipped her hair out of her eyes. "Well, no, but . . . you were baiting them, making it worse."

"They do not matter," Snape stated as though it were obvious.

"Yeah, you've said that before, but it always seemed like a lie, or wishful thinking, until now. And it isn't quite true, for me, which normally would make it not quite true for you too."

Snape stared into his glass, at the crazed facets bisecting the ice cubes without actually breaking them apart, and wondered with a burst of introspective honesty if he wasn't really the boor Lily Potter insisted he was. But those people . . . there was zero chance he would ever in this lifetime submit to their judgment, to build around himself a prison of their expectations. Hers though, that was different, in a way he could not yet define.

"Have I offended you?" he asked.

She paused to consider her answer. "No. I'm just making an observation. I know that just the notion of trying to please them is abhorrent to you. You just weren't passive in your dismissal of them, I guess, like usual. You didn't have Harry here to use as a tool to make your point this time, I guess is why you behaved as you did." She pushed to her feet and gingerly stretched her back and flinched. "Well, we're good until sometime in February."

"You're certain I haven't offended you?" he asked again, wondering if that was the point he had missed with Lily: that he was supposed to change not for others directly but because she would prefer it. What an empty, trapped existence in that case.

"Severus," Candide said, starting out corrective. She shook her head and brushed her tired hair back, adopting a caressing tone. "I didn't expect better, tonight, really, but I don't know what is going on with you lately." She stared down at him, leaning slightly backwards still, hands reversed on her hips. "Want to give me a hint? I'm not so good at that mind reading you do."

"It's not really mind reading, exactly," he muttered, lecturing.

"Oh, that tone. Well, that's a "no"," she quipped with strange affection.

She stalled departing and they watched each other. She did not expect him to change, apparently, which surprised him with how much space it gave him. It left him nothing to fight back against. He had been left to define himself for the first time, without risk.

How much could he lose, truly, giving in to such small issues over dinner? When he arrived here, he would have sworn he had nothing whatsoever to lose. Was being polite to people he inherently disliked any different than what he was doing otherwise: adapting to survive by being a companion to her and serving McGonagall? He did not feel he had lost any of himself doing so, perhaps even the opposite. The fact that he even had a opportunity for introspection about these things spoke volumes.

Candide smiled wryly. "You've got a lot to work out, I see. I'll leave you alone to do it." She started to shuffle away.

Snape said, "And you claim no skill at Legilimency."

She snorted faintly and returned to kiss him. He realized too late that he was expected to raise his mouth, but she adjusted smoothly and kissed him on the cheek before heading upstairs. Snape propped his fist on his chin and pondered the unexpected power of raw acceptance as the hearth fire at the end of the hall burned down. Candide made it clear what she preferred and left it at that, his choice. Somehow he could not imagine Lily, with all her perfection and high-mindedness, ever leaving it at that, and the realization made him a bit queasy. He had not at all understood what he had been trying to obtain all those years ago.

- 888 -

"I'm glad you came," Aaron said, stepping back to open his flat's door wider for Ginny.

Ginny stepped inside and stuffed her mittens into her pockets. "So am I. I nearly got in a killer row with my dad. I needed to get out of the house."

"Well," he sighed dramatically. "I hope someday a visit to Chez Wickem Refuge and Emporium can be marginally better than mere escapism-"

"I didn't mean it like that," she said, giving him a one-armed hug as she passed. "You know that."

He closed the door and stood there expectantly. "I'm glad you're here because I have something for you." He pulled a small wrapped box out of his pocket and held it out.

She stepped back. "You can't give me my Christmas present yet, I didn't bring yours with me."

"This isn't your present; that is." He nodded over his shoulder toward the front corner of high-ceilinged sitting room.

Ginny choked on what she was going to say and gaped at the tall, multicolored box sitting where he indicated. "What's that?"

"Your Christmas present," he explained with bright quaintness. "That means you can take this now." He dangled the box enticingly.

"No, I mean, what's in it? It's huge!"

"Well, the present isn't quite that big, I find the biggest box I can so you can't tell what's inside, since the box would fit anything," he explained, clearly proud of his cleverness. "Here." He dangled the small box closer.

"Yeah, that would fit a giraffe," she said, still discussing the other one.

Aaron pulled the little present back and tucked it against his chest. "Did you want a giraffe?" he asked in all seriousness.

"No, I . . . wouldn't know where to keep it," she replied, hiding vague alarm.

"Ah, good. Now open this."

Ginny sighed again and took the box, which was rather heavy. Under the wrapping the box was covered in distinctive blue felt. "This isn't what I think it is, is it?"

He glanced from her to the box she held. "Probably."

"Aaron, really, you are nothing if not persistent," she complained while opening the box in a fit of curiosity that could not go unquenched. Inside was a smooth ring with seven red and white striped polished stones inset in it.

"What do you think?" he asked, leaning forward with hands elegantly clasped behind him.

"No diamond?" she teased.

He tilted his head knowingly. "Didn't seem like your style. Plus, this way you can wear it as an ordinary ring if you like, thus you cannot reject it outright on the grounds of refusing an engagement."

The ring was quite attractive in an elegant, understated way. She slid it from the holder and held it better in the light over the bar counter. "What are the stones?"

"Your birth stone, sardonyx."

"That's not my birthstone, it's peridot."

"Well, technically both are, and I had no interest in getting you a ring the color of my main rival's eyes." He stepped closer. "Here, try it on."

She frowned at mention of Harry. Any kind of fun seemed to make everyone think of Harry, stuck away, not able to have any. Everyone kept expecting he would be released soon, but it never seemed to happen. She sighed and returned to the present. The ring fit perfectly.

"You'll accept it?" he asked.

She spun the ring around to align the stones on top. "Aaron, if I said "yes" now, I might just be saying that because I feel sorry for you."

"That'd be all right."

She laughed and shook her head. "I don't know. I don't have an answer yet."

He lifted her fingers to kiss them passingly. "Well, wear the ring so it reminds you to think about it more often, in the hopes of speeding things up."

Her eyes fell on the tall present across the room, a box so big it gave little clue to the worth of what was inside, kind of like the ring.

"Thanks. I don't want to seem unappreciative."

"Do you like it, at least? I had Finicky Fitters design something I thought you would like to wear all the time."

She spun the ring again. "It's perfect. It won't get caught on things at the Wheezes when I am working."

He kissed her hand again and dropped it distractedly. "On that topic of the hourly shop clerk and the family scion, I have another favor to ask: Christmas dinner with my parents."

She glanced down at herself. "I may have to go shopping for some decent robes."

"Amazingly, I don't care what you will be wearing; I just need the moral support."

She dropped her hem and held up her hand, fingers waggling. "Shall I wear the ring?" she asked suggestively.

"Yes, why not. It matches your hair and It will keep the topic off me and put it firmly on you. It will be the best dinner with my mother ever."

She stared at the ring. "Did you get Harry a present? I tried but I received a note back saying the contents weren't allowed to prisoners. It was only a case of butterbeer."

"The glass would be right out. I read the rather lengthy rules and worked out something to send that should make it by the guards."

"But will he like it?"

"I expect. It has a griffin on it. I had to grit my teeth and close my eyes to buy it, but I managed."

Author notes: All I can say is if you know how busy life has been, the delay would be understandable. As of last week, in the last 7 and a half months I've been home 13 days. But things are getting saner now, so more writing. Yay!

Next: Chapter 31

Maybe he was dreaming, Harry considered. It felt like a dream with the door drifting open into the cold, dim corridor. As he stood there in the open doorway, glancing around in an effort to work out what was real, he heard banging and shouting from the exit end of the cell block.

Harry's soul woke up at this, his mind went from adrift to focused as his feet carried him along the uneven floor, from the cover of one cell door alcove to the next. He ducked fully out of sight just before he reached the wide join to the staircase where the break room was. A fight was in full swing, based on the sound of armor clattering against stone and Harry glanced out just in time to see a groddy robed figure smacking the guard, helmet and all over one of the couches and jumping on him.

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