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Chapter 32 — Corruption

Christmas day passed like every other day in the house in Shrewsthorpe. The piles of presents went untouched until Snape had an idea and went to sort through them. Kali crawled up onto his shoulder to better observer these doings, reminding him that her claws could again use a trimming. Snape found what he was looking for and tucked the beating-heart-covered box under his arm and went to the library where Candide rested in a belly relieving, twisted position on the divan, listening to the wizard wireless on low.

"Merry Christmas, Severus."

Nodding awkwardly, Snape said flatly, "And to you."

"What's that?" She coyly asked. "We aren't opening presents until Harry's back, you know."

"I am quite aware," Snape said with no little relief, since he had not purchased anything for her. "I need to deliver this elsewhere on Harry's orders."

She sat up with some effort. "Ah," she said knowingly. "I can go visit my mum and dad while you're gone. Unless you don't mind my coming along?"

"Ms. Tonks is on duty today-"

"Christmas day? Her guilt must be running quite deep, in that case."

Snape paused, not having considered that. "In any event, I may have some difficulty in catching up with her, so perhaps it would be best if I go alone."

Amiably, she said, "I'll visit mum and dad, then." More sadly, she added, "Give Tonks a Happy Christmas for me."

"Of course," Snape said, nearly nauseated by how truthful he sounded.

- 888 -

Snape set the present aside and waited in a heavy gloom cracked into slices by sunlight slanting between the rotted boards on the windows. His exhalations chased dust through the air to swirl in the knives of light. Kali tried to crawl out of his pocket, but he gently dissuaded her, not wishing to chase her down should she decide to investigate too far afield. Snape had arrived early to assure himself the place still existed and was still secure. Nevertheless, when Tonks arrived, he gestured for her to remain silent, and said, "I ran some protective spells but I want to be certain . . . if you would do me the favor of running them again?"

Tonks paced around the old Order safehouse, an abandoned rowhouse in Newcastle under Lyme. She ran the same spells, but finished up with one to force Animagi to reveal themselves.

Not wishing to risk revealing his ignorance, Snape suppressed his curiosity and moved on. "I saw Harry yesterday, as you probably know."

"How is he, do you think?" Tonks blurted. "Arthur dismissed my concerns after the visit."

Snape said, "I believe your concerns are well founded. Arthur did not comprehend Harry's mood."

Tonks' shoulders fell, drooping as much as her murky brown hair. "I thought so." She sounded strained and her face looked sleepless.

Snape said, "My concerns are why I asked you to come here."

Tonks paced, looking up to study the cracking and peeling paint surrounded by water stains on the ceiling. "Yeah, and it needs to be quick. I'm on duty."

"I will be as brief as possible, but I must be complete. I do not want any more contact between us than is absolutely necessary."

Her curious gaze fell over to him, and he went on, "Harry must be removed from prison as soon as possible and that can be arranged straightforwardly enough, but I need your assistance."

Her gaze grew more puzzled. "Harry can leave anytime he wants . . ."

"Not without repercussions he is clearly unwilling to face."

She paced again, kicking up dust. "Well, true . . ."

"I want to have him cleanly removed, with no unnecessary baggage. To that end I need something from you."

He waited while she decided to take that bait. "And what might that be?"

"I need to you to deliver a Durumulna member to me. Someone freshly captured, whom no one knows you have captured."

She shook her head as if to clear it. "Huh?"

Testily, Snape, his voice emanating from the stark, dusty shadows, returned, "I'm quite certain you heard me."

Voice raised, she said, "You want me capture someone and rather than taking this person to the Ministry dungeon, you want me to give him to you?"

"Or her, I am not choosy."

"Or her," Tonks echoed quietly.

"The only criterion I require is that this person harbor some kind of major guilt. Beyond that I don't care who it is."

Wary of the answer, Tonks asked, "What are you going to do?"

Brightly, Snape said, "Get Harry out of prison. I presume you wish that to happen as well, no?" He was mocking her by the end of this, and backed off to pace as well.

"Yes, but-"

He spun, feet gritting on the grey-dusted floor. "But what? How difficult could this be? I don't require a member of the leadership, whom you've presumably been unable to locate. I assume at any rate. I need one of the lackeys I am certain you are leaving free to track in hopes of catching someone higher up."

Tonks swayed as though in a trance. "Yeah, we are . . . but, I don't think-"

"Don't think," Snape stated crisply. "That is not what is required of you in this instance." When she continued to hesitate, he said, "Perhaps I was mistaken and you do not understand Harry's state of mind."

"No, I do," she sadly said.

"No, I do not think you do, or you would not be hesitating. Perhaps you failed to notice how his anger made the Death Eater's restless in their cells, making them bang on their doors."

"He what?" She fell far away again. "Is that what happened? The guards, they ran by for something, just as Harry was at his worst."

"Most likely."

She tipped her head back and let it hang with a nearly broken looseness.

Snape softly said, "I am not certain what he is turning into, but I know it must be stopped. You are aware of the full range of his skills, I assume? How very dangerous he would be if he finally decided he had had enough of being a proper wizard?" He let that sink in. "He needs to be free of the influences of that place and steeped again in the company of his friends who can provide a badly needed moderating effect on any dark instincts he has picked up. He responds well to that, I have observed. If that isn't sufficient, something else can be tried."

Tonks looked up. "He responds well to you."

Snape let that pass. Tonks paced to the hearth, brushed the dust off, and rested her head on the mantelpiece, only then noticing the box there wrapped in paper covered in pulsing heart shapes. "What's that?"

Mildly, Snape said, "Harry's present to you."

Tonks shoved away from the mantelpiece. "I just can't . . . what? Let you frame someone for the crime?"

In his favorite speaking-to-a-daft-First-Year voice he said, "Then make it someone whom you feel deserves to be in prison. I don't care." When she merely stared at him from her tilted head position, lost in thought, Snape added, "I assumed you cared about Harry enough to help, but perhaps I was mistaken."

Face twisted in pain, she turned away and pounded the mantelpiece once. Staring at the present, which in the poor light appeared to be spotted with spreading blood, she said, "There has to be another way."

"Yes, and when you think of it, I'll be happy to assist in kind, but in the meantime . . ."

She swung her arms in unison and paced the bare floor. "I just don't know, Severus."

"You don't know what? You don't know what is happening to Harry? I suggest you visit him again, every day, until you are convinced. Unless you are blind and deaf I expect you will come around in, say, two visits, at most. And during that delay, we may lose him irrevocably." He waited. "Shall I map the rest out for you? How he will not stay put in that place. How you will be hunting him down for deeds he really did commit. How you will be unable to capture and hold him, forcing you to resort to-"

"Stop it!" she snapped at him, pained. Taking up the present, which she gently turned in her hands, she said, "I get it already."

He held back on appearing smug. "In that case, when you have this person—and I suggest you not dally given the circumstances—leave them at the ruins of the Shrieking Shack and send me a post owl from another location with the message I finally have a Christmas present for Harry. I will take care of the rest." He paused and watched her breathing heavily. "Clear enough?"

She stalked off without a word, leaving only her restless footprints in the dust on the floor.

- 888 -

Snape returned home and immediately ran an Animagus revealing spell, but it generated nothing of interest. Glad to be alone, he went to the divan in the library and reclined there, thinking. The wireless was still on, he noticed once his head was close enough to the gold filigreed speaker. A holiday tune drifted out extolling the vapid joys of the season. In his world such lyrics could only be perceived as mocking and satirical, describing that which existed only in the mists of time. Disturbed by its unrealistic call to virtue and sentimentality, he tweaked the knob so the wooden box fell silent.

That night as he lay down, still distracted by finalizing his plots, Candide leaned close and said, "Not much of a Christmas."

"It was lovely," he deadpanned.

She cocked a smile. "You have managed the impossible—becoming less romantic."

Snape continued to stare at the ceiling. As one might expect when sharing a bed, she lay so that they touched all along one side of him. By concentrating he relaxed into it. Her fingers began playing with the hair at his forehead, which distracted him terribly from plotting. He could feel her breath when she said, "You've been pretty standoffish."

She played with his hair longer before asking, "Did I finally get too huge to be alluring?"

His mind had been elsewhere. "What?" Contrary to what he would have expected of himself before all this, he found her quite appealing. Her blatant acceptance, the powdery scent of her, and the knowledge that she already carried, essentially, his child added up to rather a lot of allure.

She continued to curl his long fringe around her fingers. "Not feeling guilty about Harry, are you?"

"Certainly not."

He sat up and grabbed his wand up from the night stand to run an Animagus revealing spell. The room stood as before.

"Great Merlin, you don't think she'd be in the bedroom at a time like this?"

He gazed at her, eyes peering about, looking ready to do battle against an unseen enemy, and he found himself amused.

"Are you laughing at me?" she demanded, quick to take offense.

"No," he replied, easily finding a soothing tone. He set his wand back aside. "I would hope Skeeter would not be here, but I do not trust her."

"And why would you?"

She lay back down, turned slightly away as if giving up. He felt a stab like regret. He did not want her to give up. He considered her a moment, then rested a hand on her upper arm. "You are not displeasing."

Sounding moody, she said, "You're just saying that."

Snape needed a moment to recover. "You truly think I would just say that?"

She rolled toward him, onto her back, and scoffed with light humor. "Eh, no, maybe not."

He stroked the fleshy arm under his hand, trying hard to seem casual about it. Her skin felt too soft to be real. He let the backs of his fingers drift over her neck, along the lace collar, to the buttons of her nightgown. She made a noise that he added to the list of things that made her alluring and bent to follow his fingers with his lips.

- 888 -

- 888 -

In Grimmauld Place, the distinctive atmosphere of a feast—silverware clattering, serving dishes thudding, chairs moving, accompanied by the drifting odor of roasting meats—greeted Snape as he moved along the balcony. He had not eaten all day and felt dizzy with the scent alone.

Closer in, the voices revealed attitudes of forced gaiety that tempered his separateness somewhat. He stepped into the chaotic dining room just long enough to toss an unwanted overcooked turkey wing and potatoes on a plate. Glances rose sharply, then disregarded him, an improvement over the norm.

Back in the bedroom he shared in shifts with Lupin, Snape set the plate on the brewing counter and buried his nose in a stained and holey Potions book. If he did not focus on something his mind would head off to imagining his counterpart, eating his food, off his plates, sitting at table with his family. Had he not been famished, the thought might have made him lose his appetite. As it was, he ate as slowly as he could bear to to best relish it all. House meals at Grimmauld Place had grown paltry in the days of hoarding leading up to the feast. The previous day the meals were so unsatisfying that Snape suspected Hermione had simply magicked them into being out of desperation.

The object of his suspicion knocked on the open door just then, her other hand buried in her pocket, looking strangely guilty. "There's more to eat," she said. "You should have seconds." She hesitated, but started forward while drawing her hand out. "And I brought you-"

"What are you doing up here?" Harry asked, slipping in from behind.

Hermione put her hand back away. Something square glittered in her grip before she released it to gesture. "I'm just telling Mr. Snape there is plenty of food tonight."

"He can figure that out for himself," Harry stated flatly.

Hermione shrugged broadly. "What are you doing up here?"

"I want to talk to Snape. Shut the door."

"Can I stay?" Hermione asked, clearly challenging.

"Yeah, okay." Harry pulled over a battered chair and turned it backward before straddling it. Facing Snape, he said, "Ravenclaw's diadem. Do you know where it is?"

Snape shook his head while he resumed eating.

"I don't believe you," Harry stated.

Snape stared at him for effect. "I can only guess, and those guesses will waste your time and patience, I am certain." When Harry rested his chin on his hands curled around the chair back, Snape added, "I would tell you if I knew."

"I was going to check the library," Hermione reassured Harry. "Just haven't had a chance."

"You think that will work?" Harry mocked.

"Yes, why not?" Huffy, she went to the door. To Snape she said, "You should come downstairs to eat."

When she was gone, Harry grumbled in annoyance. Between nibbles on the paltry but tender meat between the wing bones, Snape said, "May I offer you some advice, which you are dearly in need of?"

"I doubt it will help," Harry mumbled. "But you can try."

Snape set his empty plate aside. "You are misusing your people. Ms. Granger should have no task but researching what you seek. She is singularly suited for that task and she must not be distracted from it."

"But we need to eat," Harry said, standing up and putting the chair aside.

"Others can procure food."

"Not as well."

"That does not matter; they can do it."

"An army marches on its stomach," Harry quoted, sounding miffed and defensive.

"This one will falter for lack of information long before it starves bodily." Snape bundled up his napkin and considered his decimated plate.

"There is more food," Harry grudgingly muttered.

Unable to deny that idea, Snape followed Harry downstairs. Perhaps because he clearly accompanied Harry inside, the room disregarded Snape's entry. He eagerly helped himself to the copious leftovers and stood in the corner of the room to observe.

Lavender sat discussing the latest rumors with Ginny, who was the only one to frequently eye Snape as he stood in the shadow of the curtain, relishing filling his stomach.

A bang! brought silence to the room. Harry, closest to the door, was the first one out of it to investigate. Snape set his plate down and reached futilely for his wand, cursing under his breath and balling his empty fists at his side. Ginny stopped in the doorway, gesturing authoritatively for the others to remain where they were. Snape considered it a telling measure of his situation that he found reassurance in the confident way she held her wand.

The others returned, carrying what appeared to be a dead goose sporting a red ribbon around its neck.

"What is it?" Someone asked, sounding appalled.

"A message, I presume," Harry said, tossing the animal aside. "And not from a friend." By the limp way it moved and the lack of rotted scent, it must have just died.

When it hit the floor, something golden rolled free of it—rolled unpredictably, like an egg.

"Don't touch it," Snape and Harry both said when a few bystanders moved toward it.

Harry bent over the egg, wand at ready, and nudged it with his foot.

"What is it, do you think?" Harry asked.

At this, it cracked open, making him twitch back. Clattering started and a ticker tape emerged straight up from the egg, fell over itself and piled onto the floor. When it abruptly stopped, Harry bent and ran his fingers along it to read the flowing writing stamped out in holes on it.

"It really is a message," he said. He ran his fingers along it and found the beginning. "You have something I want. I have something you want. I propose an equitable trade: Sword of Gryffindor for Hufflepuff's Cup. Meet at the Three Broomsticks at 9pm tonight. Draco Malfoy." Harry dropped the tape.

Hermione said, "You DID get the cup?"

"Not exactly," Harry said. "Or I wasn't certain I had, but I guess I did. Turned out there were a thousand cups or so. Every time I took some, more appeared. I took as many as I could and stashed them away somewhere safe to see what happened." He grinned. "Apparently the real one is in the stash."

He went to the bookshelf and hunted around behind the books, eventually pulling out a golden cup.

"Is that it?" Ginny blurted hungrily.

Harry shook his head. "Odds are not. It's just one I grabbed from the stash to show everyone. The spell ran its course after creating like a million of them. They nearly crushed me." He held it up. "Merry Christmas."

Hermione took the cup from him and held it this way and that. "We'll have to come up with a way to find the real one. Where are they?"

Harry did not glance around, he just said quietly. "I'll tell you later."

Hermione nodded like one suddenly remembering herself. "But someone could go trade this one for the sword," she said.

Harry peered at the cup. "I could go do that."

"Not wise," Snape intoned, stepping out of the shadows of the tight-knit gathering, but not so close as to seem challenging. "It is undoubtedly a trap."

"So?" Harry asked, scoffing.

"So? That is the best you can offer in return?" Snape mocked. He had an uneasy sense of altering things, of standing where he could force the rivulets of time and event to diverge off course. Without him there, the young man would go off and do as he wished. He breathed deeply, plunging in. "It is undoubtedly a trap specifically for you, that makes it imperative you do not go. You can always rescue others later, but who will be there to rescue you?"

Harry frowned while thinking. Hermione said, "I'll go."

Harry turned to her. "No. You research how to tell the cups apart and how to find the diadem. I don't want you doing anything else. Let someone else take care of everything else; you do only that, okay? From now on."

Hermione, ever pragmatic, did not argue, just frowned, appearing strained. Ginny, beside her, said, "I'll go. I can deal with the little blonde snake."

"I'll go with you," Neville said. "You shouldn't go alone. We'll take the cloak."

Harry glanced between his friends, hesitating. Snape took advantage of this and said, "The cloak can only hide one of you and both of you are wanted. No one will be expecting me, so I should go, and the other of you can use the cloak." He glared directly at Harry. "That will be far safer."

Harry stared back, but actually focused beyond Snape. The room stood in stillness, barely breathing, waiting for Harry.

Snape calmly added, "I believe I can best handle Mr. Malfoy, having been in a position of authority over him for years." He held up his hands. "But it is your decision, Potter."

"I don't trust you," Harry said, stepping close to get right in his face. The others backed up to make way. Snape noted that he had to rock up on his toes to get to his own Harry's height. "Realize that if anything happens to my friends because of you I will take it out on your skin as slowly and painfully as I can muster the patience to do so."

The threat felt like half show, half real. Snape nodded. "I would expect nothing less," he quipped.

Harry searched his face seconds longer. "Fine." He spun and glanced between his friends. "You two draw straws . . . Or maybe not. Neville you tend to get too nervous around Snape. Maybe you should go, Ginny. Or maybe I should, after all." He spun on Snape again, looking for a reaction.

"And if I refuse because I can see you RE-injured your shoulder . . . ?" Snape innocently asked.

Harry colored. A few in the room burst into questions and the rest looked at the floor. Harry overrode them. "I'm fine. I'm just bruised from having ten thousand cups fall on top of me is all."

Lupin, previously unnoticed in the corner, said in a weak voice, "Then perhaps you should be on the injured list and stay, as Severus suggests."

"Whose side are you on?" Harry demanded of him.

Sounding inordinately tired, Lupin replied, "I'm on the side that argues that the Prophecized One should be reserved for the key task only he can complete." Lupin shuffled forward and leaned heavily on a chair back, appearing small inside the thick robes he wore against the chill. "Harry, you have much to do yet. No one is going to accuse you of shirking. I know you dislike sending your friends off into danger, and that's noble, but they want to do it for you because they can't finish this in the end like you can."

"However I'm supposed to do that," Harry grumbled.

Lupin tilted his head back and forth. "One thing at a time. The critical thing is that only you can do this last thing. Everyone here knows that and is willing to sacrifice so you can reach that point. Even Severus here is, which just shows how important it is."

Snape shot him a look of dismay, but let it go. That had not exactly been his thinking. His thinking had more been along the lines of shaking his oppressive helplessness with a bout of recklessness. And he was tired of being trapped in his dead enemy's house.

Harry paced in the space left by the group watching him. "Given it's a holiday, it should be a temporary armistice day. So, Ginny, why don't you go. I think it should be safe enough. I hope." He sounded bold at the beginning, but by the end his eyes rested sadly on her.

Snape pointed out, "I'll need my wand. At least for the evening."

Glaring at him, Harry gestured for Hermione to give it up to him. It gave Snape less reassurance than he wished as he slipped it into his pocket.

Harry puffed up then and marched from the room, pausing only to say to Snape, "Bring her back safely or I'll kill you." He did not look back to see Snape's reaction.

Snape found Ginny as the crowd dissipated. "We don't have much time," he said.

Without a word, she went to get ready, returning minutes later bundled warmly and carrying two broomsticks. Snape joined her at the map on the wall which marked the paths people had taken last to travel to various common places. Circles and colored arrows marked landing areas and Apparition points. She said, "We should start southward, to throw them off. I know we don't have much time to get there by nine, but can't risk getting predictable."

With his eyes, Snape followed the course she plotted and nodded, eager to leave this place for any reason. Ginny found him a cloak, flying gloves and a scarf from a trunk by the door. She carefully brushed off the dark plaid scarf before handing it over, muttering sadly, "We didn't use to have so much extra stuff, but . . . we've lost so many people . . ."

Snape wrapped the anonymous dead man's scarf twice around his neck and tucked it firmly into his robes. Harry stepped over and gave Ginny a kiss. "Be careful," he said to her before striding away again, ignoring Snape.

"Ready, sir?" Ginny asked, eyes far away and determined.

They Apparated, then flew some before Apparating again and flying some more. Snape took charge of the last Apparition, taking them into Shrewsthorpe in the fields behind his house. He stopped there, transfixed by the gaping windows and bowing roof marred with holes.

"Sir?" Ginny prompted as she rewrapped her scarf in preparation for flight.

Snape dropped his borrowed broom while saying "Up," and let it bump his leg as it hovered beside him. He resisted going. He wanted to simply step back into his house the way it should be. Ginny was already twenty feet in the air. Keeping his face averted from the decaying visage of his house, Snape followed.

They landed on the hilltop overlooking Hogsmeade. The rutted street was busy enough that the snow had been trampled down to mud and warm light shown from every window.

"Everyone's taking advantage to get out," Ginny said, tossing the cloak over her head and disappearing.

Snape led the way down to the alley beside the Three Broomsticks. The scent of stew and rotting beer permeated even the snow-covered ground. Snape could track Ginny by her footsteps in the snow and he made a half-blind grab for her shoulder when he heard cries of dismay from the roadway ahead. Ginny willingly backed up behind him as the walls iced over more and gloom descended on them. Snape pushed his charge behind him, between stacks of empty barrels. "Don't move, no matter what happens," he commanded, then released her.

Torn wraiths flickered by on the road outside their hiding place and for a moment, dread released them. But the gloom crept back and hooded shadows peered around the crumbling brick edge of the building.

Snape looked away, not wanting to look inside the approaching tattered hood. The Dementor both creaked and slithered closer. Snape could not run because there was no point in running. There was nowhere safe to run to. This place, this world, was an endless kingdom of doom and chaos. There would never be any real hope here. His bright house and wife and son were nothing but a cruel dream. He would never see them again. His Harry would never return and he would be trapped in this place forever, lucky only to survive, or perhaps not so lucky.

Snape clutched his wand, yearning to cast a Patronus to send the demon off, but it increased the risk of their being investigated. He ducked low, trying to shut down the flow of despair, the flow of all his emotion, in the hopes it would lose interest. The earthy, decayed odor of the Dementor's ragged robes wafted around them as a hooded head passed close, sniffing like a predator. The air hummed with perverted joy at his pain. He worried for Ginny crouched nearby and ducked lower into his arms trying to find any small hope inside himself, but there was nothing but bleak expectation of permanent emptiness. Torn robes brushed Snape like dried leaves one came so close, and then a whistle sounded and the Dementor jerked back and turned. The whistle repeated and the ghastly pair slipped away without a sound.

Snape rested his head more firmly in the crook of his arm, leaning heavily on a barrel, trying to school his rampant grief. He could not grab hold of it, let alone wrestle it out of the way, it permeated every fiber of his being.

"Sir?" Ginny said, then fell silent. By the sound of it, she took a seat on one of the barrels to wait. She sounded like she fared better than he, which annoyed him as much as it relieved him.

He had a task; Snape reminded himself from the absolute darkness of his robes. If he had a task, there was hope. He had lived exactly this way for an awfully long time, and it should be possible to return to that mentality, but somehow the past made it harder, not easier.

Snape raised his head, rubbing his forehead, trying to focus on the task, the purpose.

"Sir?" the invisible voice came from beside him again.

Snape stared down at the barrel he leaned on. Ice crystals had formed on the lid. Sharp, clear shards of the kind that accompanied Harry through the Planes. Harry would come. He had to come. Snape straightened, grabbing at that hope like a lifeline.

Sounding apologetic Ginny said, "I was about to scare the Dementor away even though I knew I wasn't supposed to reveal that I was here. They didn't seem to notice me under here."

"No, you did right," Snape managed to say, voice as unsteady as his heart.

Even though they were late, Snape took care putting on a disguise. Just taking any action released him from the debilitating effects of his grief, which made the spells work better, so he did them over twice. He bolstered his shoulders and neck with added muscle, greyed his hair, and fattened his face, spells minor enough that they might go undetected by a disguise-revealing device.

"Let's go. Stay close to me so I do not have to move as one being trailed. If Dementors cannot see you, that is not an ordinary invisibility cloak, but I do not want to push our luck, as thin as it is."

They transformed their brooms into barrels, stacked them with the others, tossed snow on them, and walked around to the front door.

As expected, the pub was full of revelers making the most of the holiday. Snape scanned the room for Malfoy but did not see him. He moved to the bar for a butterbeer and asked Madam Rosmerta if she had any rooms free for the night, just to get a chance to look at the register when she pulled it out. She did not need to; she nodded towards the empty key rack behind her and said, "Nah, been booked solid since a month ago."

Snape took his drink and stood against the wall with it, careful to always leave space for his companion to follow without bumping anyone.

The bright, borderline cheery voices filling the air were a balm and Snape began to feel himself again. He sipped his drink for show and froze when he heard one voice that vibrated through him as if his heart were a drum struck by a mallet. Snape peered desperately around the smoky haze. He found his mark with difficulty because her back was turned and her hair was different. She sat at a table with her officemates and her boss. The person beside her got up and disappeared down the corridor where the toilets were. Snape could take the chair—if only until her companion returned and demanded it back. It would be something, even as small as it was.

Snape began to move without thinking, drawn, then hesitated. In the end, the decision was made for him. The side door down the corridor beside the bar banged open and figures in Death Eater hoods slipped inside, wands in hand, but lowered. Snape slipped over to the seat and moved it closer to Candide to make room for his transparent shadow to crouch beside.

Candide turned to him in amused surprise. "Hello?"

"Greetings," Snape intoned, feeling strangely at ease.

"You look familiar," Candide's boss said.

Snape drew his gaze away from Candide's thinner than expected face and introduced himself. "Phineus Polstar, I used to play for the Wasps." He was saved from having to worry if this man were an ardent fan who would see through this lie by the room falling silent as the Death Eaters spread through the room.

Candide started and moved as if to stand. Snape leaned close. "Doing anything at all will get you singled out," he hissed at her before backing up and putting on a grin. "Someday we'll be playing Quidditch again," he said, giving a mock toast before pretending to just then notice the invaders.

Ginny bumped his leg as she crawled fully under the table and near disaster happened— The man on Snape's right shuffled his feet and ducked slightly to look under at what had brushed him. Snape leaned closer to Candide to say, "Just stay calm," but it was really an excuse to move his legs and give Ginny more room. His grim humor suspected she was debating which was worse: hugging his shins like she was or giving herself up. The man thankfully decided to ignore what was under the table and his movement went unnoticed, but it was dumb luck.

The room fell utterly still as the hooded but unmasked figures moved through, gazing challengingly at everyone in turn. Snarling at some for no reason, shoving others. They circled the room using their bulk to bully their way around, then as quick as they had arrived, they were gone.

Beside him, Candide deflated in relief. "They had to ruin a decent night, didn't they?" she complained. She sucked at her beer and said, "Thanks," to Snape. "You'd think I'd be used to them."

"You should never get used to them."

Candide's friend returned and cleared his throat. Snape stood, in a rude, body blocking way that gave Ginny space to get out too.

"'Scuse me," the man snipped in false pleasantry.

Snape bowed to both of them with overdone graciousness and with one fleeting glance back at Candide, returned to the wall to watch the room where his back was protected.

Over at the bar, Rosmerta, with suspiciously mechanical movements, handed a key from below the bar to a figure that had just entered, hooded as well, but smaller than the others who had just departed. Snape turned away before the figure could look his way, trusting that with his alterations he would not be recognized from behind. When the figure moved off, Snape whispered to his shadow, "Follow him."

He himself wandered casually behind examining the sporting photographs lining the corridor that led to the alley and the stairs to the rooms. At the foot of the stairs, he heard a disembodied voice breathless with excitement say, "Room four."

Snape led the way up the stairs and intending to not give Draco any time to prepare, burst into the room. He caught the young man exchanging his scratchy Death Eater robes for a richly woven dressing gown. Snape knocked the young man's wand away and snagged it for safe keeping. He then moved to a chair and sat crosslegged, as if he owned the place. "There, now we can talk."

Draco stood still with his robes half over his head. He came to himself and tossed them aside and slipped on the gown.

Miffed, Draco asked, "What are you doing here?"

"I have what you want."

Draco blinked at that.

Snape had no interest in giving away who he was working with. "Your message was ridiculously easy to intercept."

Draco fell relieved. "Then at least you understand that I have to get the cup back. You really have it?"

Snape reached into his pocket and gave Draco a glance of just the lip before securing it away again. "But I want the sword."

Draco paced while straightening his collar. He stopped before the free-standing, snake-edged mirror to brush his hair in place before facing Snape again. "Why? What good will it do you? You certainly aren't a Gryffindor, so it will be of no use."

Finding snootiness from somewhere, Snape replied, "The cup is nothing to me, but with the sword I can torment others. With the cup I can only torment you, which is a paltry game, really."

"You're awfully confident for a man literally everyone would like to kill."

Airily, he said, "No one seems to actually have the time to bother. Other priorities, I suppose." They stared at each other. "The sword?" Snape demanded.

With a rumble on the rough wooden floor, Draco pulled a trunk over from under the bed and opened it from his side of the table. He pulled the sword out of it and set it out. It was tethered with a chain to the trunk. Draco re-closed the trunk and gestured that Snape could inspect the sword.

Snape inspected Draco instead, looking for any deception, but there did not seem to be any, just wariness and certainty that he could pull off this transaction and that once he did, all would be well again. The sword certainly looked authentic to Snape. He touched it, but it felt like ordinary cold metal.

"The cup," Draco demanded.

Snape set the cup on his side of the table. Draco pulled a silvery drawstring purse from his pocket and tossed glittery powder from it at the cup. The powder passed through the cup as if it were not there.

"That's not the cup! That's a copy," Draco snarled, after glancing inside to see that the smooth metal bowl held no powder.

"Is it, then?" Snape said, laying a hand on the sword hilt, wondering if he could break the thin, decorative-looking chain. Draco was wandless, so he had an advantage there. "Understandable, you must admit, given how very many cups there were in your secret cellar."

Draco kicked the trunk and an answering thud echoed from inside it. A second later a Bludger broke free and flew straight through the flimsy plastered wall, dragging the sword behind it and painfully out of Snape's grasp. Snape ran to the window to look out, feeling a breeze behind him as Ginny joined him there.

"Ha!" Draco said. "You think I'm that stupid."

"Where is it going?" Snape asked, Ginny perhaps, but she was smart enough not to answer. The Bludger had been heading in a straight line, toward the castle. And if it were a Hogwart's Bludger, it might just head to the changing rooms where it was normally stored . . . eventually, anyway.

Snape ran for the door, Draco yelling, "Give me my wand back!" followed them out.

Two sets of feet pounded down the stairs, Snape tried to get the two of them in sync so they would sound like one. They burst out the side door of the pub into the alley and, as if trained to it, efficiently transformed their brooms back to normal. Shouting followed them out of the pub and running feet approached from several sides. Snape pointed straight up and took off, hoping Ginny would follow. He got a glimpse of her feet poking out from the fluttering cloak before the night sky blotted everything out, and knowing she followed, he accelerated for the school grounds.

Snape slowed high over the lake, something had disturbed the pristine snowy surface. A bursting line in the shape of a comet bisected the plane of icy snow and at the end of it, cracks radiated out. Snape turned and dropped down to hover over that spot. He flew farther out where the ice was thicker and landed. Another set of footprints appeared beside him.

"Why not just Accio it out?" A voice asked.

"That particular sword will not come that way. But you may try if you wish."

She did so, but nothing happened. A party of Death Eaters gathered on the shore near the village. They were slow to muster and organize and he must put that time to good use. He put a featherlight charm on Ginny and had her do the same to him. Then they both slip-walked over the crunching ice to where the cracks started.

"Stay back. I'm lighter," Ginny said, and started inside the real danger zone.

Snape said, "Give me the cloak. You do not wish to lose that."

She bundled it up and tossed it to him. He wrapped it around his neck like a scarf. More shouting drifted over the flat surface. "They're coming," Ginny said.

"They are in trouble if they come that way. The ice is thinnest near the village where the sewers dump in."

Ginny, who was on all fours, inspecting the hole said, "Oh, wonderful." Her weight caused the ice to darken and water to slip over the top. She backed up by crawling and began quickly removing her cloak.

"What are you doing?" Snape asked.

"Fetching the sword. I think I can see it. Does it glow?"

"Not that I know of, but it is hardly ordinary, and you are a Gryffindor. Perhaps it wants you to fetch it." Snape looked up at the approaching mob of Death Eaters. A spell sizzled across the ice but Snape had plenty of time for a Counter. "Perhaps you should hurry."

Ginny was already stripped down to her shirt and trousers. She slipped off her shoes with vicious tugs and tossed them toward Snape's feet. With just one deep breath, and perhaps before she could think too hard about her actions, she dove in, shattering the ice more. She bobbed to the surface an instant later, gasping like a death rattle and flailing. "Merlin! It's cold!" She grabbed for the edge of the ice, but it simply broke it off to float about her in jagged pieces.

Snape used Draco's wand in his other hand to fetch her clothes closer to him out of reach of the spreading stain of water.

"Do hurry," Snape said.

"You think I'm not?" she weakly gasped, her eyes tightly closed as freezing lake water rivuletted from her hair over her face. With great effort and a thrown back head, she took three hoarse breaths, and ducked under the liquid slate surface again.

She was gone much longer this time. Their pursuers split up; some came over the ice and others came along the edge of the lake to get closer. Once they were tossing spells from both of those angles, defense would become difficult if not impossible.

Snape was just about to Accio Ginny herself from the depths when something burst from the water—a pale hand clutching a sword. The sword and hand crashed down on the ice as Ginny emerged. Snape had to back up as the surface gave way across a large area, staining with water and tilting ominously. One crack extended to the nearest pursuers taking the short path and cursing sounded as they fell through in the shallows.

With a careful whip charm, Snape dragged Ginny from the hole and up a thicker sheet of ice that groaned under her weight, but did not crack more. On his knees, Snape backed up to firmer ice, pulling her and her dry clothes along. She had gone limp beyond clutching the sword but because of the cold he had more time to revive her, so he moved carefully, rather than rush and potentially send them both into the freezing arms of the lake.

Their pursuers were extricating themselves from the water and coming around where the ice was sounder. A whistle sounded and Dementors emerged from the bare-limbed forest and floated along the snow down to the ice. The gathered Death Eaters stumbled back to let them pass. Snape tugged the chilled Ginny close and tossed the cloak over both of them.

Ginny's shallow breath reassuringly moved over Snape's neck, and she struggled blindly until he whispered that she should stop. Under the invisibility cloak, he unfolded her woolen cloak and helped her slip it around her neck, resisting simply wrapping her in his arms as would be reasonable, but completely out of character. She began to shiver so violently her teeth rattled together. In the small space, her jumper and robes could only be bundled around her from the front. Her shirt began freezing solid.

Above them the Dementors swirled in confusion. Their pursuers had found a boat and were pushing it out onto the loose ice chunks.

"We have to make a dash for it," Snape said.

Ginny nodded amidst her violent shaking. Even in the dim light, her face was ghostly pale.

"Can you keep ahold of the sword?" Snape gently asked. "I'm not certain it will accept me."

She nodded again and used her robes to protect her hand to grab hold of the blade with one hand while tangling the fingers of her other hand in the guard on the hilt.

"Now," Snape warned her. He lifted the cloak behind him and Accioed the broomsticks over. The brooms slammed into them with stinging speed. Ignoring the pain, Snape bundled them together, and hovered them with a painful jerk on his shoulder. With one arm under Ginny, and one leg barely over the broomsticks, he launched the two of them into the air with bone jarring acceleration, and skin freezing speed.

They flew so fast, the grief of the Dementors merely brushed them as they blasted up through them. But the creatures were in pursuit immediately, and Snape had no hand to spare for a spell. His cold hand clad in a worn borrowed glove, cramped from holding two broomsticks and his other arm could barely hold Ginny over the the wood and his lap and she had no hand to hold on either.

Ginny began to slip. Snape halted their rise fast enough that for an instant she became weightless. He adjusted his leg grip on the paired brooms and while keeping a grip on her, better caught her in front of him so they were flying normally. Her loose robes and jumper fluttered in the wind as they gained speed. Snape was not going to fly far; they would be far better off Apparating away despite how easily it could be traced. He landed them in the forest beyond the Apparition block and took her away in a sidealong.

"Quickly now," he said, unfolding her jumper so she could don it, but she was too numb to move and she refused to release the sword.

A noise made the both jump, so Snape Apparated them away again. In the alley of a small Muggle town Ginny swayed while he slipped her robes over her head and arms, and tied her jumper around her neck.

"We need to fly a little bit more to make it hard to trace. Can you make it?"

Her lips were blue, but she nodded.

"Never mind; let's just get you home."

She nodded again.

Snape took them through two more Apparition rounds before landing them on the stoop at Grimmauld place, where he had to hold her up to keep her from falling. The door opened immediately and many hands came out to take Ginny inside.

In the painful light of the usually dim front hall, Harry got a look at Ginny and demanded of Snape, "What happened?" He grabbed hold of Snape's robe front with his fist.

Snape grabbed Harry's arm in self defense. "What did not happen? would be an easier question to answer."

Ginny struggled with her arms caught inside her robes. "I have it. I have it," she muttered deliriously. Harry paused in his attack on Snape to hear her out.

Her struggles loosened her robes by raising them up enough for her to toss them back like a large hood. She held the sword out for Harry, who, stunned at the glittering, glowing sight, still held Snape.

"You have the sword," Harry whispered, finally letting go to take it by the hilt. He peered along its length while giving her a one-armed hug. "You're brilliant, Ginny. But you're soaked and freezing!"

She laughed with effort. "Well, yes . . ."

Harry released his awkward hug reluctantly as Hermione and others hustled Ginny away for a hot bath. The hallway fell quiet and Snape exhaled. "I don't think she is seriously injured. She just jumped into the lake for the sword."

Harry rested the point on the floor, looking like a statue of a knight. "The lake in Hogsmeade? It must be ice right now."

"Most definitely."

"How did it end up there?"

"Long story. The short explanation would be something like: it wanted to be there since its magic requires that it be earned." Snape felt in his pockets. "I lost the cup. But Draco believed it wasn't the real one. Let's hope he was correct and that we did not fool each other."

"Odds are it wasn't."

Snape smiled faintly, which felt good. "And better yet, I saw the spell he used to test it."

Harry's eyes glowed. "Excellent," he breathed. "Things may finally be turning around for us." He squinted up the darkened stairs, where the sounds of hurried bath preparations issued forth. Then he looked down at the sword he held, biting his lower lip while adjusting to grasp it in a proper two-handed grip. "It's her sword now, I suppose. She earned it."

"Perhaps," Snape softly said and felt compelled to add, "I suspect it will honor your will as well."

Harry slipped one hand free of the guard and stepped lightly forward to thrust out in the direction of the stairs, blade flashing unnaturally in the low light. He smiled. "Yes, I suppose it will. But it is hers." He stared along the blade's length again and as though sharply compelled, said, "And I should take it up to her."

He ran lightly up the stairs, leaving Snape alone to worry that he had changed something significant.

- 888 -

- 888 -

Boxing Day, Tonks rested her head heavily on her palm as she filled out a report. She took extra time now filling out reports since going out on duty with her magic unpredictable just strained her nerves more and they were close to fraying away to nothing.

Rogan stood at the log book, going over assignment slips. He scooped one off the floor and said, "Disturbance at the warehouse in Scunthorpe . . . did someone take this one?"

"I did," Tonks lied without hesitation.

Rogan hesitated. "You took it alone?"

As reluctant as she was to get involved in what Snape planned, the lies flowed easily. "It was just an old charm hanging around confusing the Muggles. Even I could handle it."

Rogan tossed the slip in the finished box and went on with sorting.

Tonks waited ten minutes, just long enough to deflect suspicion. She moved without will, watching herself travel along a path she despised but could not change. "I'm going to grab a late dinner," she said to Rogan.

He gently said, "Good idea."

She slipped her gloves on before Apparating away. His sympathy did not help. They were all worried about her and at this point did not bother to hide it, nor could they hide the accommodations they were making for her.

She Apparated to the perimeter of the site where they had found the rogue elf guarding what must have been a Durumulna meeting place. As she walked closer in, wand barely glowing for light, she hoped the call was a real one as much as she hoped her lie was closer to the truth.

Her detection spells revealed someone was inside. Tossing out the glow on her wand, she spelled and slipped inside the back door. Taking positive action to help Harry, even as morally dubious as the action was, made her feel much stronger and her magic worked as it should, propelling her more surely along this bad path. She changed her face and hair and clothes to mottled grey and tip-toed along the rows of metal racks. As usually happened when she got confident, her clumsiness got the better of her and her sleeve caught a long metal rod. But fortunately, it rattled on the far end, not near her. A spell shot out of the darkness, along the parallel row, and Tonks immediately shot a chain binding where the spell had originated. Someone grunted followed by the rattle of heavy links hitting the cement floor.

Tonks scuffed her feet before approaching, overcome by a rabid and paranoid tumble of thoughts about how she should proceed. She changed her appearance again, to make herself taller and to make it look like she wore a black mask. She marched over to the victim with unreal confidence. By the light of her Lumos, she examined the young man, probably mid twenties, shiny dark hair sticking straight off his head. He tried to spit on her and she found herself laughing out of nerves at what she was about to do.

The stranger fell silent and fearfully watchful; her laughter echoing around the warehouse did sound unnerving.

Tonks stood above the perpetrator, wand aimed, wondering how in the world she could tell if the man harbored any guilt. Snape may be able to do that with a man pinned under his spell like this, but she certainly could not. What did he expect her to do, take him out for drinks and chat him up until he opened up a bit?

A large dog broke out into fierce barking just on on the other side of the metal wall, making them both jump. Tonks scoffed and quelled the adrenaline quake coursing in her limbs. With a silencing and a hooding spell, she took her charge away, but not directly away. There could be no traceable trail. Fortunately, she knew how to do this without thought given how many times she had worked the other side of the procedure.

Tonks propped her hands on her hips and surveyed the scene. She had the ramshackle room soundproofed, the house propped up somewhat because it looked beyond ready to collapse, and the man bound with ample water in reach. The anonymous wizard had sat, half sentient due to repeated spells, watching her make the preparations for his prison. His puzzled and worried brow never relaxed.

Yup, Tonks had thought to herself more than once, you count on us playing fair, but not this time, I'm afraid.

She resisted wishing an honest good luck to the young man as she departed, wondering how long his confused gaze would haunt her memory. Maybe it would not matter, she thought as she put a snowshoe charm on her feet to leave no trail out of the ruin of the Shrieking Shack. Maybe Snape would wipe this all the next time they met. She kind of hoped he would because just the chance gave her a depressing kind of hope for herself.

Author's Notes:

Well, this almost happened before but I managed to prevent it by making a super-long chapter, but that wasn't feasible this time, so the previewed scene did not get in. It's been pushed into the next one. So, you get another preview scene. A two-fer.

On another note, I have to give the betas their due. They work really hard and man the last two chapters have really needed some serious help. I don't know where I'd be without you guys. A million, gazillion thanks!!!

Next: Chapter 33

"I think there is more to it than that," Ginny said, but stopped because Harry's letter had been clear on how little she should say, to anyone. Growing angry, she said, "I wonder if the Prophet isn't correct, that you aren't happier with him gone."

"Is that what you think?" Snape asked, putting his hand in his pocket, which was strangely full.

Thinking he was going for his wand, Ginny pulled hers out. "I beat you in a duel once, I can do it again."

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