Chapter 31 — The Eve of Something

In the days before Christmas a few presents trickled into Harry's cell via the post. One present from Aaron, a griffin banner, Harry spent over half an hour working out a method of hanging. In the end toothpicks hoarded from his dinner trays tied into a bundle with a loose thread from his robes, and jammed into a crack in the mortar served as a workable hook.

Harry sat back on his bench to appreciate the effect of brightening just part of one wall. Not that he did not appreciate the gesture, especially from a Slytherin, but the overall contrast was more depressing than uplifting. He sighed and forced himself to stop fidgeting, which he had been doing too much of lately.

Lunch arrived with his post and Harry turned it away, having only barely picked at his breakfast. Steeltoe Pierre did not argue because he could not. He did tsk excessively from beyond the slot before walking away. Harry took the newly arrived post and nearly tossed it aside on his not-to-open pile. Even correspondence held little interest now where before it had been a lifeline. He resisted opening even the ones from his friends, wary of the pleasant things that would escape to mock him. The letter from Snape, however, that one called to him when he found it in the stack.

Potter,

The Ministry has nothing meaningful to report. I wonder at your state of mind for even requesting that I enquire. Arthur tells me your solicitor filed for permission to meet with you and his visit may precede this letter, but if it does not, know that is in progress.

Harry read that through again, thinking that either the impostor sounded remarkably like his guardian, or his view of the world had skewed far enough to make a true Death Eater sound normal and well-adjusted.

Your friends have visited in droves as you warned they would. Most wished to know how to get your presents through to you, as the French have rejected most all of them as unsuitable.

Candide said to wish you well, in case this letter arrives before hers. She insists I inform you that there are no decorations and no parties here and will not be until you return. All is quiet here now that the in-law visits are dispensed with. There are no threats from within or without.

Snape

P.S. I do not shop for anything that cannot be put into a potion, period.

Harry marveled at the letter again. Was Snape somehow himself again? He would have inserted a clue, or ten, if that were the case, Harry was certain. He always was too good at kowtowing to power, a thread of acid thought pointed out, both impressed and annoyed with the letter.

Harry closed his eyes while still clutching the letter, trying hard to force the black wraiths away. It had grown increasingly difficult to do so. They were like Dementors in that way, requiring happy thoughts to combat. But unlike Dementors, the shadows did not suck him dry; they instead pumped him full of strategic notions and a sense of power.

Harry opened his eyes; the letter had fallen to the floor. Time had passed but he did not know how much. He stumbled to the other side of the cell to wash his face in the metallic water. Bent over the stone basin, with the water dripping off his nose, he breathed deeply, trying to find himself again. He disliked the flat, stale water. He disliked this claustrophobic place. He needn't be here, and he certainly needn't worry about the repercussions of escape. With his loyal followers from here and the easily warped Durumulna, he could do whatever he liked. Worrying about repercussions was silly if you had absolute power.

Harry bit his lip and dried his face on his robe sleeve, scrubbing hard. The slot on the door clacked open and dinner emerged through it. This startled him badly about how much time had passed when he had blacked out.

A concerned voice said, "You must eat, or we will 'ave to do zee force-feed-ing. Zat is not pleasant for anyone."

Distracted by his inner fears, Harry mutely took the tray and set it on the bench. His stomach growled painfully at the scent but he ignored it and took up a precious sheet of blank parchment and began a letter to Ginny.

Harry poked at his food enough to satisfy the guard when he returned for the tray, or at least enough that the guard did not mention it. He also accepted the letter, which Harry sent off alone in the hopes it would go out faster that way. Harry liked the guards, as much as one could, but he knew well that the shadows hated them and he did not want a confrontation that would exacerbate those conflicting feelings, even if it meant eating when he did not particularly want to.

Harry sat on his bench, stroking his face and nose with the backs of his knuckles, a behavior he had adopted without being aware of it. The cell air hung in absolute silence, leaving him alone with his heartbeat and the rush of his blood, which his ears used to fill the void. He felt marginally better knowing the letter was on its way; Ginny deserved to know what she faced.

As he usually did when boredom overwhelmed him and he did not know the time, Harry lay down for a nap. His major muscles ached from doing this too frequently, but the pain reminded him that was alive, so he did not mind, and sleeping passed the time better than any other activity. When he had first arrived he had frequently exercised as best as possible in the small space—endless pushups on the bench and jogging in place. Now it seemed a waste of time and he could not imagine bothering, even to relieve the aches.

As he lay there, in a half-sleep state where he led his shadow friends through a merry chase in the forest of his mind, Harry heard an unexpected noise.

He woke fully and wondered if he had imagined it. It sounded like the cell block locking rod shifting, but there were no footsteps approaching, so that seemed unlikely. Mostly because he had nothing else to do, Harry stood and went to the cell door, which to his surprise, yielded to his touch and swung open without effort.

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 containing the break room. 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 tattily robed figure smacking the guard, helmet and all, over one of the couches and jumping on him.

Harry rushed out as another punch fell. The attacking figure exhibited the maniacal violence Harry knew from field work, so he approached cautiously, ready to move at the first safe opening. The guard's hand flew out to the side and his wand tumbled and rolled to Harry's feet. The attacker sputtered something in French and when Harry stared at him incomprehensibly, the man said, "Grab 'is wand you eediot!"

Harry picked up the wand and felt a rush of magic, long absent and hungered for. Without hesitating, he raised it and hit the attacker with a mummy curse. The man toppled to the floor and rolled to a stop while Harry approached the guard. It was Steeltoe Pierre, and he appeared to be out cold, despite his head being incased in metal. Harry did a Revelatio on him and it sparkled healthy.

Footsteps and shouting trickled down the curved staircase connecting the cellblock to the rest of the prison. Harry did not think it wise to be caught there, holding a wand over a guard. He put the wand in Steeltoe's hand and pressed his fingers around it, hoping that would hold. He stepped back and was just considering whether it would save him a nasty spell strike if he crouched down with his hands on his head when the warden appeared behind his guards.

"Ah, Meestar Pottar," he said, clearly pleased.

Steeltoe sat up and straightened his helmet, and the arriving guards helped the mummified prisoner to his feet to unwrap him. No one was behaving properly, returning Harry to a dreamlike state.

A grey-haired man with an equally grey walrus mustache sweeping his collar emerged from the stairs. The fine material of his suit reflected the light, black pretending to be silver. He joined the warden in pondering Harry.

"Zee, as I tell you," the warden said, rocking up on his toes.

The grey-maned man tilted his head side to side.

"Meestar Pottar, zis is our Ministre des Affaires Magiques, César Morel."

The man gave a formal little bow. Harry looked between the two of them, mind blank.

The warden explained, "I wished to in-vite you to dine with zee two of us, but Monsieur le Ministre did not sink it wise—'e does not trust in you, you zee, so I arran-ged a little test to prove I was cor-rect." He rocked on his toes again, pleased.

Harry slowly exhaled, finding annoyance where there had been numbing adrenaline before. "I see."

The warden wiggled his mustache by twisting his face back and forth. "I 'ope you are not upset." When Harry declined to reply during an awkward pause, he went on. "Would you like to come to dinnar?"

"I think I'll pass," Harry said, trying to not let annoyance transform into the more potent betrayal.

This clearly was not expected. "Ah."

The Minister's hairy white brow raised in a kind of disdain. The shadows were very close here, surrounding them. In the corridor above, beyond the staircase, someone rattled a cell door, someone else joined in. The guards ceased their teasing conversation and rattled up the stairs in their armor, all but one, who remained to monitor Harry.

Glancing back at Harry, the warden said, "If you prefer your cell . . ."

"Tonight I do."

The cell door beyond rattled again followed by a spell flicker and raised voices. The commotion did not ruffle the Minister, but the warden colored.

"Take 'im to 'ees cell, Gaspard," the warden commanded, more perplexed than insulted.

Harry turned deliberately when the guard gestured for him to lead, and pushed his anger outward one more time, making the cell doors rattle again, even though the noise was cut off abruptly.

"Sacre bleu, what is 'appening up zere?!" The warden marched away, trailing the cool headed Minister whose eyes followed Harry until he was out of sight.

- 888 -


The next morning, as indicated by the guard arriving to wake him, Harry rose rigidly like one who has rested without sleeping. But the guard had not brought breakfast, he instead opened the door and gestured that Harry should leave his cell.

"Vite, vite," he said, smacking his spear on the floor. Harry did not recognize this guard. He definitely behaved stricter than the others. His stern attitude was accented by his coarse skin and the scar that bisected his jaw.

They strode quickly to the end of the cell block and through the next two and up several turns of stairs to an unfamiliar corridor where warm air flowed. The guard opened the third door on the right and Harry stepped in and stopped when a surge of rare joy startled him at the sight of Tonks. He approached her, arms raised, but a crystal-tipped pike swung between them with a magical sizzle, tossing Harry back and making his clothes crackle.

"No frater-neye-zing!" the guard ordered.

Harry righted himself with his fingertips caught on the doorframe, and turned a glare on the man. The guard stood unimpressed, his pike at ready.

"Harry?" Tonks said to get his attention. She sounded worried.

Harry, his precious happy mood shattered, had no interest in relenting on the darkness sinking around his mind. He put on a falsely dutiful attitude and took one of the heavy chairs at the small table, noticing only then that deBenedictus already sat at the end, notes piled beside him. He sat in stillness, watching Harry.

Harry gave him a nod and ducked his head to stare at his crossed arms. The shadows paced around him. Harry wished he could feed the guard to them. So did they.

"Harry?" Tonks prompted again, alarm creeping into her voice. She was leaning over the table, violating the yellow line painted down the middle of it. The pike tapped on the table top and Tonks stood straight to take up a chair, surprised wariness in every move.

The guard took up a position at the door as rigid as his pike, ready to level it along the barrier line. Harry raised his gaze and took in Tonks' wide worry. He did not relent. He was not happy about being here and he would not pretend otherwise.

Unnecessarily, Tonks said, "I, uh, brought your solicitor. I arranged to escort him." Her voice fell off and her hair drooped. With a sigh, and hanging of her head, she gestured that deBenedictus should start.

The man did after a hesitation. "Mister Potter, I have been preparing for your inevitable hearing, which the Department of Magical Law Enforcement informs me will be delayed for at least another week."

His calm droning about organized things drew Harry up out of the depths he was drowning in, perking him up to care about what was happening.

deBenedictus noted this, and went on. "Barring significant new evidence we have a number of options, the most obvious being the undisputed non-extant status of the victim. That creates both the opening for a technicality as well as grounds for a reduction in charges. It does not rise to the level of a dismissal, I'm afraid, but it is a start."

Harry abruptly turned to Tonks and asked, "Have you been following Percy?"

Tonks nodded. "But he's like a church mouse . . . barely does anything. Goes from work to home and back again. Except he slipped away from me once, right after I was certain he was too clueless to know I was there. I don't know if it was a coincidence or an astoundingly well orchestrated ploy to distract me. But other than that one time, I've got nothing but a sore back out of it." She held his eyes. "Are you sure about him, Harry?"

Harry scratched his chin. At one level it was hard to care at all. "I thought I was. He gives me a bad feeling when I'm around him. And he's such an annoying git."

deBenedictus shuffled his parchment around. "If only all the annoying gits were murderers, then we would no longer need tolerate them in polite society."

Harry did not know him well enough to read his tone and the darkness in him took umbrage at what could be mockery. Without being aware of it, Harry rose from his chair.

"Harry!" Tonks' sharp voice snapped at him, knocking him off of his anger. Harry lowered himself to his chair and sat slumped, glaring at her, seeing two worlds, the tiny meeting room and the forest of shadows.

Guards ran by on a crossing corridor, perhaps unrelated, but Harry suspected not.

"What's wrong with you?" Tonks asked, sharply panicked.

Harry wanted to say that he did not like it here, but some part that liked communing with shadows stopped him. With more time he would understand them utterly.

Tonks explained to the solicitor, "I don't know what's wrong with him." She swallowed hard and asked in a slow cadence, "Harry are you just trying to make a point or are you really this far gone?"

Harry blinked at her, wondering abstractly how he appeared to her. He could not explain, was barred from doing so by strategic instincts that had as full a hold on him as he had on the shadows.

"It's Christmas," Harry said, thinking that might explain. The grim statement of it summed up his mood nicely.

"Yeah, I know, Harry. I didn't think you'd still be here. I'm sorry."

In truth, he did not mean to worry her. Felt detachedly bad for doing so. He shrugged to try to dispel her concern.

deBenedictus' droning started up again, describing his legal maneuverings while Harry forced himself to listen and remain interested, which worked only for a few minutes at a time. Fortunately the solicitor repeated every major point he wanted Harry to grasp. In the end it was all only hopeful in the way knowing someone was working on it could be.

Eventually, deBenedictus wound down, closed the file before him, and asked, "Is that all clear to you? Do you have any questions?"

Harry sat back and with a forced level voice, said, "It doesn't sound very good."

They studied each other. The solicitor said, "It is a process, Mr. Potter, and it has not yet run its course, so its course is not yet fixed. Nor is the landscape fully revealed. I'm very good at this. Everything that can be done is being done. Trust in that, for now."

Harry pursed his lips, bit back on a retort, and turned to Tonks more sharply than he intended. "Did you bring the papers?"

Regret clear in her movements, she pulled out a rolled newspaper. "Just one. It's all they would let me bring in." She did not hold it out. "I'm loath to give it to you, given your mood."

"You aren't going to like my mood if I can't have it," Harry stated, flat and sober which lent it more force.

Tonks set the paper down and it partly unrolled itself. As he reached for it, Tonks carefully said, "I have to take it out with me again."

"I know," Harry snipped, reading quickly about his ruined home life. He felt he read about someone else. Some poor sap whose life was completely out of their own control. He stuffed the paper back at Tonks. "Someday I'll get even with her."

deBenedictus cleared his throat. "Perhaps best stated outside the presence of your legal representation?"

Harry slid his eyes that way, a faint smile relaxing his face. "Perhaps. Depends on whose side you are really on."

As Harry was led away to his cell, his solicitor remained sitting, carefully filing things away inside his case. Tonks waved at Harry one last time before the guard led him through the door at the end. She returned, closed the conference room door, and leaned back against the wall, spent and distressed.

deBenedictus said, "I'm contemplating filing a motion to have him removed to St. Mungo's."

Tonks rubbed her face and peered at him, considering that. "That would be a public motion." This was half a question. When the solicitor nodded, Tonks said, "That would be the end of his career as an Auror I expect."

Speaking frankly, he pointed out, "He demonstrated a rather drastic shift in personality between his arrest and just now."

"Well . . ." Tonks struggled to explain. "You haven't seen Harry angry before, I'm guessing."

Repacking abandoned, deBenedictus asked, "He gets like we saw just now frequently?"

Tonks tried to belittle that notion. "Not often, but sometimes." She pushed away from the wall and stepped closer. "You have to understand that Harry's been through a lot without breaking, but partly that's because . . . well . . . he has this hard edge to him that once it's loosed . . . well . . . you saw."

"You have seen him like that on a previous occasion?" deBenedictus asked, clearly aware of the specificity of his question.

Tonks grimaced faintly. "Not exactly like that, I'll admit."

The latches on deBenedictus' case snapped closed and he tugged it to the table edge, fingers around the handle. "You still believe him innocent?"

Tonks tossed her hand in the direction of the door. "That has nothing to do with that," she said dismissively.

"Interesting," deBenedictus muttered. He moved to heft his case, but only pulled it to the table edge. "Can I expect the prosecution to call witnesses to that sort of behavior?"

Tonks contemplated that. "If Fudge gets to lead the prosecution then probably, yes."

"I should not ask, but I am already extended beyond such concerns already here. What are the odds of that?"

Tonks huffed through her lips. "This has been the worst time for a Ministry turf battle, but we are fighting one anyway. I dearly hope Fudge isn't. But how about this, off the record . . . if Fudge is leading it, it means he managed to incapacitate me before I got to him."

Tonks escorted deBenedictus back to the Ministry, barely aware of the man's considerable presence. They had both fallen silent, including parting in the atrium. Tonks went straight to Mr. Weasley's office and closed the door, which had the advantage of giving her an excuse to tower over the boss because of the confined space. He held out his hand expectantly.

"I'm keeping the French Portkey a little longer," Tonks informed him, still a little breathless with alarm.

"Ah. Why is that?"

"I'm loaning it to Severus so he can pay Harry a visit. Someone needs to go talk to Harry, right now, and he's the best one for the job."

Mr. Weasley put his hand out again. "You're on duty. I can escort him there if you think it so important. He can't arrive alone."

Tonks resisted setting Harry up to be seen in his current state by this man, but on the other hand, sending Harry there was Mr. Weasley's idea.

"Harry isn't doing well," she explained.

"So I'm aware."

"You are . . . how?"

Mr. Weasley held up a sheet of crisp white parchment. "Memo from his solicitor. It arrived just before you did."

Tonks pointed behind her, then at the desk, befuddled. "How did it beat me down here?"

"The man writes a fast flying memo." Mr. Weasley pondered the sheet. "Wouldn't want him as an enemy."

"What did he say?"

"He said Harry is in a bad way, and if we don't take action, he will." Arthur tossed on his cloak from the hook behind Tonks. "Which I think you will agree, would not be best, since his actions would limit ours." He nodded to Tonks. "Give me the key; I'll take Severus to see him."

Tonks dropped the decorative charm into Mr. Weasley's palm, hoping for the best the way one would dropping a penny into a fountain.

- 888 -


"Hello, Arthur. Do come in," Candide's voice drifted out from the entryway.

Snape rose from where he reclined on the couch with one of many irresistible books from the house library. For him this was a rare and wonderful kind of Christmas Eve—one where nothing special happened.

Arthur clutched his pointed hat in his hands and bowed in greeting. "I'm afraid I need to draw Severus away on a bit of an errand . . . to the French wizard prison." He turned to Candide. "You could go visit Molly, if you like. The Burrow certainly wouldn't notice yet another guest. Unlike here, I'm afraid we're celebrating a bit at our place . . . but just a bit."

Snape turned to her. "Yes, why don't you do that. I'll fetch you when we are finished."

Candide asked. "What is happening? Is Harry all right?"

Mr. Weasley hesitated, crumpling his hat down smaller. "Harry is perhaps not coping as patiently as we hoped." He glanced around. "I don't know if you've run any debugging spells so we should perhaps not talk here. I'll tell you more on the way."

Candide went off to don her cloak and mittens while Snape wondered about Mr. Weasley's comment, which he was clearly expected to understand. He gave no indication of his confusion, and waited keenly for an opening to induce clarification. After Candide disappeared in the Floo, Snape, with a formal air, took put a finger on the gold charm Mr. Weasley held out and they were both jerked away.

Snape lost his balance in the brutal wash of wind that greeted them upon landing and had to put a hand and a knee down on the water-sloshed pier to steady himself. The sun reflected blindingly on the wave caps as the sea crashed onto the straight-edged rock on either side of them. Dizziness stole his breath as for a disconcerting moment it was the stone island that surged up and down in the surf rather than the opposite.

Mr. Weasley's hand felt warm when he used it to take Snape's wrist to help him up and lead him forward. At the end of the pier towered a great black monolith of solid rock, with a tiny door in the base of it. When they approached, the door itself loomed, several men high. It opened silently and the guard that appeared within gestured unmistakably for them to enter.

The lift plummeted for minutes on end and the air grew clinging, still as death and just as rarefied. Endless carved rock sailed by the platform, swooping far upward to a tiny square of darkness high above. Snape decided that remaining sane in such a place would qualify as a kind of insanity.

They were led to a room with a well-used clerk's counter where they both signed paperwork they could not read, led expeditiously through it by a guard practiced at flipping to and pointing out where they should sign. Then they were urged along a series of dreary, small doored corridors, some stained by a trickle of ocean that could not be denied, even by magic. Behind the doors, the inhabitants banged, rustled and moaned, all of it rolling together and building into a crescendo that surged and receded like a massive, barely discernible heartbeat and exhalation.

"You all right there, Severus?" Mr. Weasley asked when they had reached the top of a spiral staircase that curved away into darkness and Snape had paused to put a hand on the wall while trying not to visualize all that rock and water pressing in upon them.

Snape straightened. "Yes. Just needed . . . a breath. Air's a bit thin, don't you think?"

Mr. Weasley shook his head, not understanding, making Snape consider that possessing a simpler mind could sometimes be an advantage, at least in those few cases where the active imagination would otherwise run to distraction with monstrous possibility.

The guard returned up the stairs to fetch them before gesturing for them to wait in an area unexpectedly sporting couches, old magazines and an aura of bitter cigarette smoke.

He returned minutes later, leading Harry, who halted upon seeing Snape despite the metal clad arm continuing to urge him forward. Harry shook his guard's grip and slumped an approach at a wary pace. When he got close, his nostrils flared, perhaps breathing in the fresh sea air carried in with them.

"Hello, Harry," Mr. Weasley politely greeted the young man, as though at a picnic or a pub. His spray-darkened cloak hung heavy on his low shoulders, giving him even less presence than usual.

Harry's head jerked that way as if just noticing his boss that moment. "Hello, sir," he said flatly.

Mr. Weasley smiled pleasantly and paced away, making an opening for Snape, who would have preferred more time to observe from the side.

"Potter," Snape began, trying to sound imploring. He had some other meaningless words lined up behind that, but he was cut off from the bother.

"Why do you call me that?" Harry lashed out, causing Mr. Weasley to spin around.

Snape stepped rapidly closer to Harry, while the young man went on, clearly lacking a regular outlet for his anger.

"You make it sound like you're talking to my dad," Harry went on, seething with heat eager to boil over once it found an escape.

"Harry . . ." Snape said, face to face now. Heat sizzled over his Mark as Harry sized him up, looking for an excuse to rant more. Snape did not give him an opening. "Calm down, if you would, for just a moment."

It was most likely not his words that worked, but the tone—a soothing warmth he could only manage in a fit of true desperation. He shook his hand at his side, wanting to rub the pain from his Mark. The gesture drew a flicker of Harry's eyes in that direction and the pain faded.

Harry looked away, at the wall. Snape said, "I realize it is difficult here." That was the truth; just coming down here had unsettled him. "But you must be patient . . . restrain your instincts a little longer."

Harry's pose shifted to a cocky one so very reminiscent of his father that he could be a projection of his memory. He mockingly said, "I don't know why I can't enjoy myself here. I have so very many friends."

Snape felt something terribly disconcerting then—like hot water running under his skin. It made him dizzy with prickly sensation the way an overdose of Invigoration Draught would. A moment later, a cell door on the corridor above began to thud against its bolts. With an abrupt rattle of his armor, the guard started that way, stopped and reconsidered, then went up the stairs after a glance at Mr. Weasley.

"Po . . . Harry," Snape said, voice tightly controlled. Mr. Weasley wandered closer, orienting himself to face both the stairs and the two of them. Snape softly said, "Most of the inhabitants here will not make particularly good friends."

Harry's eyes narrowed. "You know, I bet they'd make particularly obedient ones."

A bit lighter, Snape quipped with a knowing attitude, "There you would be mistaken."

His more bantering tone worked, Harry backed down. He looked around at the floor and muttered, "I don't like it here, and I'm not convinced you didn't have anything to do with it."

"You are not supposed to like it here," Snape pointed out. Then, with voice pitched very low, added, "And you flatter me if you think I could have managed this."

Whispering too, Harry said, "I wouldn't put it past you."

Snape stepped closer, leaning almost to Harry's ear, "I don't even know who is alive or dead here, let alone have the allies required to set this up, certainly not this fast."

Accusingly, Harry said, "Having a nice Christmas with your lovely house and wife?"

Snape raised a brow. "Nice enough."

Voice almost too low to hear, Harry said, "Just nice enough? That's all? That should make it easier for you when you do go then. As soon as I'm out of this place . . ."

Harry paced away from Snape, sending him a glance full of lingering suspicion. "What am I being punished for?" He asked louder, taking both of them in with that question.

Mr. Weasley started to answer, but Snape cut him off. "For not paying sufficient attention to the details around you, so as to get caught up in such a thing."

While Harry frowned at Snape, Mr. Weasley said, "Oh, now I wouldn't go so far as that. We're trying to protect you, Harry."

Harry glared at him. "I don't need protection. If you kn-"

Snape stepped into Harry's line of vision to his boss and said in a tone that implied deeper meaning, "You need protection from yourself, I would say." He took Harry's shoulders and backed him farther out of earshot of Mr. Weasley, ignoring the prickling in his Mark as this gesture drew retribution.

Snape shot his hand out to the side in an attempt to shake the sensation. He leaned respectfully close, hands behind his back, and drew forth a tone he formerly reserved for the only other being who could pain him so. "It is understandable that you are displeased by this situation. Realize, if you will, that it will not go on much longer."

Harry raised his gaze, looking hopeful. He gestured in Mr. Weasley's direction. "They said they haven't made any headway with the . . ."

"Quieter, if you would," Snape pleaded, cutting him off.

Whispering, Harry said, "They said they haven't made any headway with the investigation. Tonks even admitted it."

"If we rely on that, you will be here rather a long time."

"What does that mean?" Harry asked.

The guard clanked back down the stairs and ordered them out with firm gestures. "We 'ave to go to lockdown on zees cell blocks," he said, partly out of breath.

Snape turned back to Harry and quickly said, "Do try to remember that you have more friends outside this place than in." He accented this with a intense look. The guard had drawn his staff, so Snape had to move that way, he glanced back and said, "If you remember nothing else . . ."

- 888 -


The portkey dropped Snape and Mr. Weasley back in Shrewsthorpe. Snape immediately paced the hall, glad for Candide's absence so he could think in silence rather than waste time recounting events. Mr. Weasley swung his arms and clapped his hands before him, his statement jarringly out of line with Snape's worries. "Well, as I expected, just feeling stubborn and out of sorts."

Snape stared at the table teetering with the presents Harry's friends had sent, gathering firm control around his reaction.

Mr. Weasley prodded at his reeling thoughts with, "Don't you think? Much ado about nothing."

Snape, facing the prospect of a burgeoning resurgence of the Dark Lord within a far more eclectically skilled Harry Potter, could only manage a shrug, a mocking one at that. "He should not be there," he managed to say with some levelness. He had to say something.

Mr. Weasley straightened his hat and put it on. "Well, yes. And that is at least partly our fault, I'll admit. Harry has a temper on him, but when he calms down I'm sure he'll understand."

Obliquely, Snape said, "There are many things Harry does not understand. Fortunately for you, power is one of those things."

Mr. Weasley puzzled that before shrugging his cloak straight in preparation for departing. "Well, we'll have things straightened out soon enough, I'm confident." He waited for some kind of response, and Snape half nodded, again mockingly, but this was again lost on his audience.

Awkwardly, Mr. Weasley asked, "Do you appreciate our position, Severus?"

Distantly, Snape replied, "I appreciate far more than you realize."

Again, this generated a puzzled expression before Mr. Weasley said, "Well, I'll be on my way. And I'll send Candide along."

"No rush," Snape muttered, mind elsewhere, plotting. "If she wishes for a nice holiday dinner, she should remain there."

- 888 -


"Aaron, dear. Do come in," the apparition that was Mrs. Weasley in her best unmatched flowered dress, robe, and apron invited.

Aaron hesitated at the sight, but made his feet move. The entire Weasley clan and many others filled the ground floor of the Burrow. Bill sat in a close circle with some cousins. Charlie's wife, starting to show a rounder belly herself, was deeply engaged in a conversation with Candide. There were so many people the lamps had a hard time spreading their light around the room.

The twins took the most interest in the new arrival. They teamed up on either side of the finely attired guest and asked, "How are you, then?"

"Getting on all right?"

"Smart robes."

"You look like you're sleeping well."

Aaron shifted his gaze back and forth between them, before waving them both to silence. "Are you looking for a favor?"

The twin on the right leaned in closer to say to the other, "Slytherins can always be counted on to catch on quickly, as needed."

"What is it you want?" Aaron asked, but the matriarch swooped in and swept the twins aside with an apology for their behavior.

When she returned, Aaron frankly said, "I do owe them."

She waved her finger before her face, denying that. "Ginny'll be down in a twinkle." She surveyed her magically stretched table, with too many seats to count in a glance. "It'll be the first Christmas Eve dinner she's missed."

"Er . . ." Aaron began, caught fast by her wistful tone.

Ginny appeared on the staircase and bound adeptly over the crowded floor and through two different games of Exploding Snap to stop just before him. "I'm ready."

"You're sure you can come?" Aaron asked.

Ginny's bright eyes narrowed. "Of course." With a dark glance at her mother, she pointedly stated, "It's better than risking sitting next to Percy, like I always seem to."

"Now, young lady, we're a family here and we will always be together as a family. Especially during the holidays."

Aaron gave Ginny a look that said see?

Ginny took his arm and, turning for the door, said, "I don't know what time I'll be home."

"Don't you now?" Mrs. Weasley called back.

Aaron stalled their progress and said to Mrs. Weasley. "It won't be late."

"Why not?" Ginny demanded.

"Because . . . there are only so many hours I can take my mother at a time . . ."

"Oh yeah. There is that."

Mrs. Weasley tut-tutted Aaron, which he ignored. "We'll come back here for afters," Aaron said, returning a wave hello from somewhere in the room before swooping Ginny out of the house.

- 888 -


A fine snow gritted on their cloaks as they walked up the drive to the Freelander Estate. Under the blindingly lit overhang supported by carved capitals, Aaron paused to properly order his overlapping collars, then inspected Ginny. He was biting his lip when he gestured for her to spin around.

"Are you sure I'm dressed all right?" she asked, working very hard not to sound hurt or exasperated. "I picked this out pretty carefully and borrowed a scarf from a friend with a much better wardrobe than mine."

Aaron had hold of her shoulders, thinking. "You look fine." But he did not move.

"What's the matter then? Shall we ring the bell?"

His voice sighed as he said, "I'm just thinking."

She waited. He bit his lip harder. She said, "Care to clue me in?"

Aaron dropped his hands. "My . . . father . . . is literally impossible to please. I'm just trying to brace myself for tonight." He sounded truly at sea.

"It'll be fine—" Ginny began, but the wide door with the big round brass handle in the middle creaked open then and the butler bowed them inside.

Ginny took up Aaron's hand and was able to hold it while a cavalcade of servants unhooked and took their cloaks and even bent to give their shoes one last polishing.

Ginny held up one shining black toe. "You weren't kidding."

Aaron pushed his shoulders back. "It's only one night," he whispered to himself.

They were led to the dining room, a mere four rooms away, beyond the grand ballroom which sat demurely this evening with only a tenth of the lamps lit in the massive chandeliers. The long table was set for four at one glittering end and a bouquet the size of a small car sat hulking in the center, many feet away.

The butler led them beyond to a small drawing room where Mrs. Wickem overflowed a sizable settee and Lord Freelander sat swirling a crystal glass filled with something dark. Lord Freelander stood as they approached.

"Aaron," the master of the house greeted him formally.

"Sir." Aaron, slightly breathless, started to say, "And this is . . . "

But Lord Freelander had Ginny's hand clutched between his own two coarse ones. Brightly, he said, "I am quite aware of who this is. How are you Ms. Weasley? It is good to see you again, I despaired at ever again having your natural charm grace this house. Do have a seat." He led her away and found her a chair beside the settee. "A drink for the lady," he commanded one of many vaguely penguin-like figures circumscribing the room. He bowed to his charge as a tray was offered. "And once you've settled in, I have taken some paintings out of storage after our conversation of last. I'd be delighted to give you a tour of them."

Aaron, abandoned in the center of the floor, gaped at this scene.

Mrs. Wickem raised herself from her chair. "If you aren't coming over to greet your mother, the mountain will have to come to her son." She gave him a hug. "How are you, Aaron?"

Aaron pondered her, then pondered Lord Freelander who was pouring on the charm with Ginny, explaining the origin and process that led to the liqueur she had just been served. "Uh, pretty good, all said," he uttered, still trying to accept what he was seeing. His mother pressed his hands around a drink, which he sipped at.

Another figure sailed in, draped in a long, simple dress. 'You are early," Mrs. Freelander said, sounding gracious.

"This is my wife, Beatrice," Freelander said, starting the introductions with Ginny before moving more awkwardly to Mrs. Wickem and Aaron. "And, uh, this is Aaron Wickem."

Aaron felt himself coloring, even though he had promised himself he would not. "Madam," he said, greeting the woman who was studying him most closely, as if looking for some sign in his face.

"Charmed, I'm sure," she said before accepting a drink from a servant who had followed her since she entered the room. "Alfred tells me you are training to be an Auror . . ."

Aaron nodded. "Doing my best at it, I suppose." He felt unexpectedly shy with her, pressured by the awkwardness of it all.

Freelander said, "I'll let you get aquainted," and stepped back with a bow.

Mrs. Freelander's wizening face smiled reassuringly. Voice lower than needed, she said, "I'll confess I did not know Alfred in his younger days to know if you resemble him or not."

Aaron could merely shrug. His mother sized him up while brushing a lock of his hair back. "He's got a lot of my father in him. It's hard to see much else."

Aaron snipped, "Let me know when the Best of Show portion of the competition starts, I'm really hoping to win that."

While his mother rolled his eyes and Mrs. Freelander nodded that they were perhaps out of line, Aaron slid over to Ginny and Lord Freelander. "I didn't realize you two knew each other . . ." he began.

Ginny explained, "Oh, yes, I escorted Harry here one day when he had an appointment. Back when he always had a guard."

Lord Freelander took a healthy swig of his drink. "Turns out he continued to need one."

Ginny's face fell. "Yeah . . . Yes," she corrected herself. "Maybe if he'd had a witness that said he'd been somewhere else that day."

Lord Freelander took a nearby chair, but remained on the edge of it, leaning forward. A servant filled his glass without his notice. "I read that he has exceptional legal representation already, or I would have offered someone I have on retainer." He glanced up at Aaron, and voice cheery with alcohol said, "Do sit down, my boy. Unless you are too thin and hungry to wait for dinner and are hoping to move that way."

Aaron took the chair beside Ginny's. Pointedly, Freelander asked, "How is the investigation progressing?"

"I'm not authorized to say, I'm afraid," Aaron said, noticing the others coming close to listen. "We've had some horrible leaks already, no one knows where from."

"Yes, you have," Mrs. Wickem accused. "That poor boy. After everything he's done, too."

Authoritatively, Lord Freelander stated, "In the court of public opinion, that does not help. It makes it worse. Too many are too eager to see heroes, or great men or women, brought low. And that paper of ours. It's enough to make me want to buy it out and fire them all."

Ginny straightened. "Why don't you?"

Freelander sat back and dismissively said, "Terrible investment. It's run at a loss already."

Aaron said, "It's half adverts. How can that be?"

"That's what the accountants tell me."

Sounding like one treading carefully, Aaron said, "Are you certain they weren't lying to you? Maybe to keep you from being too interested?"

Freelander huffed and thought that over.

Ginny said, "I'd love to see Skeeter fired. The article she printed today, I couldn't even finish reading it. I threw the paper in the fire instead."

Mrs. Wickem waved her hanky, which she had pulled out upon lamenting Harry, but had yet to put it to use. "Yes, the one where she claimed his family was happy enough without him. Where does she get the nerve?"

"Where does she get the quotes?" Ginny asked. "Professor Snape is usually really careful. And I can't imagine him saying those things."

Mrs. Wickem sniffled. "If the boy is not wanted at home, he can come live with me, anytime."

Aaron raised a disturbed brow, but let it go when Ginny squeezed his hand hard enough to hurt.

They moved to the table and a feast was conducted in as if on cue to the last of them sitting down. The conversation lagged into trivialities while everyone ate. With the rest of the lamps in the area extinguished, the servants moved in and out of the light, shifting from shadow puppet to solid and back again as they moved around the table, trained into silence when there should be noise. The massive silver branching candelabra looming over the roast platter glowed so brightly, Ginny had to squint across at Aaron. But he could see her merely picking at her food, because he said, "Not hungry?"

Ginny's shoulders drooped. "It's a lovely dinner," she said in the direction of their host. "I'm just thinking about Harry. Makes it hard to enjoy celebrating." She set her fork down and took up her glass, but only sipped at that too.

Aaron bit his lip for an instant, before taking up a more rigid posture. But his face remained doleful and his eating stopped as well.

Ginny sighed and clasped her hands together in her lap, where her fingers encountered the ring. Straightening up, she raised her hand and said, "I should show you the ring Aaron gave to me."

"A ring?" Freelander echoed with heavy meaning and a glance at Aaron.

Ginny held her hand out so he could better see, and continued to hold it steady while he pulled out his glasses.

Freelander observed, "That's a unique ring. What is that, seven stones?"

"Seven is a very lucky number," Mrs. Wickem proclaimed, while waving to the waiter that she would like a top up on her soup.

"It didn't feel lucky growing up," Ginny said. "That's too many older brothers for one person to have to take." She held the ring out for the lady of the house as well, who winked at her knowingly.

Freelander folded his glasses away, "Nothing the matter with that many guaranteed allies, my dear."

"They weren't allies, though. They were always telling me what was best, and never letting me do much of anything." She spun the ring to straighten it, and added quietly, "By the time you get to seven no one gets around to asking you what you want."

Aaron's eyes had narrowed thoughtfully through this and his face did not hang quite as long now.

Mrs. Freelander said to Aaron, "You have plans perhaps we should know of?"

Sounding too neutral, he replied, "I will when Ginny puts enough thought into it. She's taking her time."

"Someone should," Freelander said. He turned to Ginny, his face looking far older highlighted by the stark candlelight. "But, someone should also inherit this place. Otherwise who knows what the state will do with it."

Ginny froze, blinking rapidly. "Inherit this place?"

"Well, yes." Freelander said, sitting back to let his stack of bowl and plate be taken away. "Aaron, now that he has shown promise at making something of himself, will inherit this estate, of course."

"Ah . . . I hadn't thought of that."

Freelander sent a hard-to-interpret look at Aaron, one that appeared dubious, perhaps. Ginny bristled and said, "I do understand how these things work, of course, I just hadn't thought about it." She uneasily glanced around the grand dining room. The entire Burrow would fit inside just this one room if you cut it up and arranged it right.

Freelander patted her hand and signaled for more wine to be added to everyone's glass, even those who had not drunk much yet, like Ginny. "I wasn't implying you were slow my dear. It's that your comment seemed to indicate that you had a stunning case of irreproachable motive. A rare thing." He raised his glass casually before drinking from it.

"Can't see yourself living here?" Aaron asked, the flickering light on his angular face giving no clue to his thoughts.

"It's hard to imagine living like this. No offense, I hope. It's just, uh, too much of everything, I guess. Too far from what I'm used to."

Freelander smiled faintly. "You have plenty of time to get used to the idea. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."

"I certainly hope not," Ginny said.

"In the meantime, we'll have to teach you how to spend money," Aaron teased.

Mrs. Wickem sat forward energetically. "We can do some shopping my dear. That would be divine, just us girls."

Ginny shifted her shoulders uneasily, and managed to say, "I'd like that."

Aaron scratched his ear and leaned toward his mother beside him. "She's not a very good liar."

Mrs. Wickem grinned as though they shared a long-standing joke. "So I noticed. Not the worst quality in a wife."

"I am so a good liar," Ginny argued, then came to awareness of what she was saying. "Ehem. Right," she muttered, glancing around the table.

- 888 -


Snape paced the quiet house, his movements startling the candles as he passed. He had the outline of a plan and itched to begin executing it. But there were too many things he did not know, the most curious one was Mr. Weasley's comment about bugs or bugging. That was a distinctly Muggle notion involving electronics, which despite his deepest desire to understand, Mr. Weasley was hopeless at, so why would he use that word?

Snape distinctly disliked this state where important things were obscured from him and not others and he did not have an ally to ask for clarification. He could have asked Harry, but there had not been an opportunity, and now post would take days back and forth, at best. Snape passed the side table where the newspapers had been tossed, the day's paper still rolled up from delivery. The angry-letter conveying owls were sorted out with a spell that often caught the news owl, given the content of the paper. This particular one had made it through. Turning the roll revealed the headline: Harry's "Family" Thinks Prison Will Do Good for Wizard "Hero".

Snape slid the string off the paper and began reading the article.

This reporter has heard from a most reliable source that Harry Potter's household has not only moved him out of his own bedroom, but they profess that he is better off as a jailbird. For one thing, his incarceration has restricted his access to the dark magic that normally occupies his free time. He is now kept company by the far more wholesome, prison-censored correspondence of his friends rather than by the gruesome illicit books and device experimentation of his uncontrolled home life.

Snape tossed the paper aside, behaving uninterested in it. They were clearly being watched, in a way his nightly spell reinforcing was not blocking. Given that, he had to assume he was being watched right that moment. Still moving casually, which nicely focused his emotions into plotting, Snape went up to Harry's new room in the far upper corner of the house. He let Hedwig out of her cage. She gave a trembling shrug and stretched her wings while he wrote quickly on a small card curled in the palm of his hand. He folded it up without opening his hand, wrote Tonks on it, and gave it to the bird, who hopped on his shoulder to wait for the window to be opened.

The rarely used window stuck open and had to be closed with a spell. During the delay, the room's air frosted from the cold wind. In the ensuing silence, a plaintive chirp drew Snape to the other cage in the room. The Chimrian put a tiny paw through the cage bars and clawed in Snape's direction with a long-needled foot. Snape had instructed Winky to care for Harry's pets, since he himself had no interest in wrestling with something so nasty only Hagrid could love. Even Winky had seemed reluctant to accept the care duties, but the cage was clean and the water dish full, implying she had followed instructions. The Chimrian chirped again and clawed more frantically. Snape stepped closer, but well out of reach. Such a creature would viciously attack anyone but its blood master, Snape well knew. The fact that Harry had such a thing attested to some truth to Skeeter's article. But this one was less than healthy, most likely from the long absence of her master. Tufts of her bright fur littered the cage, and where it had gone missing, the black, leathery skin of her lithe body showed through.

The chirping grew more frantic as Snape stood there, and he found himself reaching for the cage door. Chimrians reflected their master's mood, but what if that worked both ways? Could calming this creature improve Harry's dark demeanor, buying Snape some much needed time? The creature scuttled like lightning to the door when his hand reached it and he instinctively jerked back. The next cry from the creature was gratingly plaintive. It certainly was not behaving like a murderous protector of one master, unless it played far more coy than expected.

Curious more than anything else, Snape unhooked the cage door, and pulled his hand back. The Chimrian balanced on the threshold bar an instant before leaping at Snape, who only had time to tuck his hands away. The violet, four legged bat latched onto his robe front and held tight, burrowing into him with it's fox-like nose.

Snape exhaled and slowly raised a hand to touch the tiny form. What fur it had left was stunningly soft. Snape petted it additionally, just in surprise at that. Was it possible that he was this thing's master as well as Harry? He did not know such a thing was possible; there must have been a rather interesting extra spell involved if so. The creature responded to his petting by burrowing into his breast pocket and curling up inside it.

Tentatively, because he still feared losing a lot of blood should the creature decide to turn the flesh of his hand into ribbons, Snape lifted the thing out to put it in his side pocket, where the lump of it rested more conveniently. A muffled chirp sounded through the layers when it was safely away—a far less frantic sound. Presumably the creature had a name. Snape found himself wondering what it may be.



Next: Chapter 32

Ginny repeated herself. "I'm not staying here with people who think it's fair sticking Harry in prison for his own good." Gesturing downstairs through the floor, she added, "He won't take me to see him. He doesn't even know when he's going to let him out. Harry's going mad and Dad doesn't care!"

"Harry's not going mad, Dear, he used to live in a cupboard, I'm sure he's doing fine."

Ginny gaped at her mother. "I don't believe you said that. Isn't he always your favorite when he's here?" Ginny stopped to catch her breath from shouting, the prophecy felt like a heavy, sodden blanket over her, making it hard get air. If it was Harry in the prophecy, what were they all going to do? Realizing that she held her broom, and her trunk was at her feet and the window wide open, she said, "I'm going now." She tore down the decorative sash from the curtain rod and tethered her hovered trunk to the broom with it, glad she would not have to use her scarf because she needed it to keep warm. "Don't tell Dad goodbye for me," she said as she climbed onto the window sill.



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