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Chapter 35 — Free Bird

The clanging footsteps reached a crescendo just before they stopped on the other side of the iron door. The bolts slid back and Harry, thinking he had another late evening visitor, stood up from his stone bench. And indeed, Steeltoe Pierre gestured with the riveted, rusty bucket he held for Harry to come out into the corridor. A sparkle of metallic confetti fluttered off the guard's armor as he left Harry there and efficiently swept back through the cell and tossed everything in the bucket, including the things Harry had stashed under the mattress.

Harry started to ask what was going on, but remembered he would not get an answer and, with his face-guard down, Harry could not gather a clue from the guard's expression either. Following gestures eager enough to make Harry worry that Steeltoe might become impatient with him, Harry led the way down the uneven, poorly lit corridor.

The warden's office contained a surprise: Tonks, standing before the desk, hair fluttering between brown and spiky pink like an agitated sea creature.

"Tonks," Harry managed breathily. He dearly needed to see a friendly face. Mr. Weasley stood off to the side, looking chagrined.

"Your pape-airs," the warden said, holding out a stack to Tonks, eyeing Harry keenly the whole while. He too had metallic confetti glittering on his robes.

Tonks turned the stack around to glance at them before reaching back for a pen from the well on the desk. "Here, Harry, sign this," she said.

They had decided to move him to the securest area of the prison, Harry thought, heart thudding as though a Bludger had become lodged in his chest. He should have exercised more control. Now he was going to be in with the worst, with the Vampires and who knew what else. But maybe he deserved that.

Tonks forced the pen into his hand. While he hesitated, the pen scattered ink on the pages she held up, arms propped up as a desk. "Don't look so glum, you're going home."

The pen slipped off the parchment, dividing the dense text with a wide, shiny line. "What?"

Tonks seemed unable to say more. Her face moved but her lips remained mute. Mr. Weasley stepped up and said, "We caught the real killer."

Harry's mind engaged on this news and the room snapped into clarity. "Who?" he demanded.

"Just a hired wand. A foreigner brought in by Durumulna to do the job."

Harry could not stop his shoulders falling in disappointment. He wanted to hear the name Percy quite badly. He rubbed his hair and scratched the back of his neck, trying to take in this new reality—he did not have to go back to his cell. He did not feel elation, just quivering relief.

Sounding strangely pained, Tonks flipped the page and said, "Sign here too, Harry."

After a firm handshake from the warden, who still had a knowing glint in his eye, a paper-wrapped package of his possessions was pressed into his hands by the guard. Steeltoe bowed them out of the office, inadvertently shutting his face guard, which he left down while he escorted them back up to the surface.

As they rose in the lift, the air grew fresher. Harry tipped his head back and breathed deeply. The shadows grew distant and he instinctively grabbed for them, pulling them along. The lift stopped, throwing them up onto their toes, and Harry lost his grip on them and his package. He picked it up slowly, stalling to see if he could recapture that fortifying sense of power. Tonks, thinking he needed help, picked it up for him and hooked it under her own arm while taking his. Something was going on behind her eyes, something easy to use. But she turned to lead him off before he could delve into it.

Reluctant, but given no choice, Harry followed them out into the towering entry hall. The sea sloshed angrily in the slots along the walls, spitting foam onto the floor and up onto the walls.

Mr. Weasley pulled out a Portkey from his robes and lifted it to dangle before them on its chain while he fumbled for his wand. Tonks shifted her grip on Harry's arm to lift his hand to touch the body-warmed gold. Harry turned back to their escort and with a clack! audible over the noise of the sea, Steeltoe saluted, and the prison spun away.

They dropped into the Ministry, in the corridor of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement outside Mr. Weasley's office. Tonks, who still had hold of Harry, pulled him down for a hug. Others flowed from around the corner, far more people than would normally be there for a late evening shift.

Aaron patted Harry painfully on the arm. "Happy New Year, Harry," he said. "You're coming to my party, right?"

"I forgot it was New Year's Eve," Harry said while accepting a hug from Blackpool. "I didn't have a calendar."

Tridant teasingly said, "Didn't you make marks on the wall to keep track?"

Harry replied, "If you tried that, one of the bricks'd give you a bloody nose." He finished greeting everyone, feeling raw relief radiating off his colleagues.

When Aaron again urged Harry to come to his flat, Tonks stepped in. "I think Harry should go home." She took Harry's hand. "I'll take him."

Harry did not argue, he longed for his own room and his own bed. The world felt disjointed; one minute he was stuck in a tiny stone cell and the next he was free to do as he pleased. "I have to go home," Harry confirmed with Aaron.

"Well, Ginny's annoyance with me will be on your head, then," Aaron said.

"Don't worry," Mr. Weasley said, "it's already on mine."

"Come by the house, then," Harry invited Aaron.

Vineet spoke up. "Hermione too, wishes to visit."

Tonks said, "News travels fast."

"Party at Harry's house," Kerry Ann cheered faintly.

"Not sure what Severus will think of that," Harry said, mind casting out to worry about the impostor.

Mysteriously, Tonks said, "He'll be fine with it. Come on, Harry."

They Disapparated, but did not re-appear in Shrewsthorpe as Harry expected. They arrived at Tonks' flat.

Tonks pushed Harry to arm's length, face distraught. "I have to tell you something." But she fell silent, head dipped between her bony shoulders.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked, trying to see beyond the unchained lightness of unexpected freedom. At some point her hair had changed back to brown and he had not noticed when. Upon arriving at the Ministry it had been as bright as ever. "Tonks?"

She paced her flat, running protective spells. "You're going to be angry," she said, stopping before the window and keeping her back to him. Sounding angry herself she added, "But we aren't as perfect as you . . . you know. You have to understand that."

"What are you on about?" Harry blurted. He would have found her statement funny if she were not so distressed. "I'm turning into Voldemort and you think I'm perfect?"

This made her turn. Through her stress, her lips tried to smile. "You don't seem much like Voldemort right now."

Out on the street revelers were shouting. Harry said, "Helps to get away from that place."

"That was exactly the point of it all," she said sadly.

She turned away from him again and parted the curtain to look out. Lights flashed on the adjacent building. Harry approached and peered down at where a car was parked with its hazard lights on. The driver leaned out the window to speak with someone walking along the pavement.

Tonks' dark flat felt small and closed up. Harry wanted nothing more than to be home. "The point of what? Come on. We're going to be missed."

"Severus arranged for someone to confess to the murder . . . to get you out."

Prickles ran over Harry's arms. "Arranged? What do you mean?"

Tonks spun on him, grabbing up his robes with her hands. "See, the killer is still free; you have to be careful. Durumulna will know they were cheated, not only out of framing you, but out of one of their own, who will take the fall."

Raising his voice, Harry blurted, "Severus framed someone else?"

Tonks exhaled audibly. "Yes. I didn't imagine he could do that . . . get someone to confess like that to something he hadn't done." She wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't like thinking about it, even. He's rather a dangerous chap when he wants to be."

"He is," Harry agreed. Then hoping to downplay it, reassured her, "He mostly behaves himself."

"I hope so." She tugged on his robe front and gave him a kiss. "It's good to have you out no matter the means," she said, but she sounded like someone trying to convince herself.

She tasted good, but he resisted pulling her closer. "We should go."

At the house, Hermione and Vineet were sitting on the couch beside Candide. Snape glided over from where he stood talking to Aaron and Ginny. "Welcome home," he said, in such an oddly convincing tone, that Harry needed a pause to say, "Thanks."

Candide levered herself up to greet him. Harry rushed over to meet her halfway for a hug. The motherly scent of home on her skin called to Harry's insides from unsettlingly far in the past. "Good to have you back, Harry. Really too bad this all had to happen."

Harry helped her sit back down and said, "It's all right."

Harry looked around the room at his friends, and their anxious expressions. He did not want their concerns right now. He had plans well concocted from his copious idle time and he was itching to get them in motion. He spun on Snape. "I want to talk to you, alone."

Snape gestured to the drawing room, but Harry went to the stairs. At the top, he had to fight his instinct to go to the right. Snape passed him and led the way around to the left, to where Harry's new room lay.

Farther down the balcony from the room that still gave off a chill of dark magic, Snape stopped. Harry glanced down into the main hall, where his friends were looking up, watching them.

"Candide has been busy in here," Snape stated, opening the door on the end.

Harry slowed as he entered. Indeed, the formerly neglected room had been transformed with mutely patterned curtains and matching bed drapes, and a new rug covered the middle of the floor, artfully turned diagonal to keep it distant from the embers of the corner fireplace. Even his old wardrobe glowed with fresh polish.

Harry went to the cages by the window, but they were both empty. "Where's Kali?" he asked sharply.

Snape stepped closer and reached into his pocket, out of which he plucked Harry's furry, bat-like pet. Harry lifted the sleeping creature from Snape's hand, eyeing him in surprise, which quickly became tainted with suspicion at being manipulated so. Harry cradled his pet in the crook of his arm and rubbed her fur. She creakily stretched her wings, one at a time, batting Harry's hand.

Snape said, "I realize you do not wish to like me."

Harry glanced up at the man who looked too much like his adoptive father. Pet now in hand, Harry's concerns about Snape handling her as a means of handling him slipped into unimportance. He said, "You helped me get out, even if it was to your benefit to keep me locked away."

"It was to no one's benefit to have you remain there."

"Not even yours?"

Smugly, Snape said, "Especially not mine. I understand to a degree unmatched by no one else exactly what is at stake."

Harry bent back to his pet, who was trying to crawl up his arm. "So you also understand what is at stake if I don't get my adoptive father back."

Voice low, Snape replied, "I resist understanding it, but if pressed . . ."

Harry felt the siren of the shadow hovering before him and said, "I'm grateful for your help, as dubiously moral as it is, but I'm still upset with your invading my home. I'll give you a day to prepare, but even if you put up a fight, you're going back."

"Put up a fight . . ." Snape echoed, sounding sarcastic, "to keep this perfect house? This perfect little family?"

"You sound jealous," Harry said.

Snape tossed his head and ignored the comment. "I have learned too much the last few weeks, too much about the power of chance and possibility."

Harry finally let Kali crawl up to his shoulder where she commenced chewing on his hair. He knew a lot about those alternative paths. "Learn too much about yourself?" he prodded.

Snape spun away on his heel. "You are undoubtedly expected downstairs."

Harry halted him before he reached the door, like tugging on a string. "Severus . . ." The air between them hummed. Harry could sense the shadow inside the other as an extension of his will. How easy it would be to reach out and make a firmer point about his power over him.

Kali took flight, clawing Harry as she shoved away. Snape's eyes tracked her progress back to the roof of the cage, where she landed, ungainly extending her wings for balance. Harry stepped over and picked her up again. She chewed lightly on his fingers, but remained in his grip. He turned to Snape and considered him and the connection that allowed him to stay his departure. Harry would miss having a dark servant this close as much as he wanted his family properly reassembled.

Snape's hand slipped from the door latch. "If you force me to, I will bow to you. But I somehow cannot imagine Lily Potter's son resorting to that." His voice grew drier. "Not without his temper riled, that is."

They stared at each other, Harry limited himself to a hard look, leaving the shadow untouched. Without breaking eye contact, Snape reached to open the door and gestured that Harry should lead the way out.

Downstairs, even more of Harry's friends had gathered. Many wore sparkling pointed hats and glaringly bright robes, as if coming from other parties. Harry accepted a fizzing glass, the best seat on the couch, and tried to insist that, really, there was nothing of interest to tell about the French wizard prison.

Aaron sat across from him, looking older than Harry remembered him. He leaned toward Harry to ask, "Looking forward to stretching the ol' wand out in training on Monday?"

Harry did not answer right away. He had been anticipating using his liberty to take care of the imposter and investigate Durumulna himself, and not much beyond that. In fact, he would prefer to have more time for those things.

His silence did not go unnoticed. Tonks, from her perch on the couch arm, speaking with Ginny, quieted and turned to listen.

"I don't know," Harry said.

Aaron bent his head down. "I'd understand if you didn't come back."

Tonks bumped Harry with the back of her hand. "What's this?"

"I have to think about things," Harry announced, sitting back and sipping from his glass. The bubbles fizzing inside it were not spherical, but starburst shaped. They careened off the inside surface of the glass and each other, sometimes combining in little explosions.

The surrounding conversations remained muted a minute before starting up again.

The last of the spontaneous partygoers departed in the wee hours of the morning and a tired Harry glanced around the main hall. He thought he was alone, but Snape stood in shadow near the merrily fluttering hearth, watching him. His wand moved in the familiar arcs describing the usual anti-eavesdropping spells before he stepped into the orange light.

Snape examined his hands before saying, "I submit to you that tomorrow, Saturday, is not the best day to arrange the switch."

"Why's that?" Harry calmly asked, knowing he could gain the upper hand in an instant.

"Candide will be here. I suggest that Monday, when she will be at work all day, would be a better choice." His starkly lit chiseled gaze came up. "I assume you still wish her to remain incognizant of the situation?"

Harry wanted to fetch his guardian as soon as possible, but perhaps this would work out for the better. He could go tomorrow and warn Snape to be ready, and to make sure the notes were complete enough to execute the spell, then go back on Monday to assist with activating the Device. That would give him a chance to attend to some other things first, while he had the leeway to do so, a thought that appealed to him a little too much.

Sounding lightly disdainful, Snape said, "So, that meets with your approval? I have been led to believe that I can pass my teaching duties on to Lupin for stunningly weak pretenses."

Harry nodded. "We can do it Monday, unless there is no choice but to do it sooner." Harry strode away, turning on the stairs to say, "Don't enjoy your last two days too much."

Harry settled into a familiar bed in an unfamiliar room. Hedwig scratched at the window and he stood up to let her in, having lost the habit of using his wand. Hedwig had a bundle of letters for him. The top one was from Elizabeth. Harry put both of his pets in their cages and took the letters to bed to peruse.

As he read Elizabeth's letter, he felt relieved that she was isolated from the troubles in the magical world and would not lose faith in him since she was outside the normal wizarding world gossip. Her letter was written before she knew he had been released and her sympathy baldly reminded him of how much his living conditions had changed in mere hours. Harry sniffed the chilling air in the room and rubbed his eye. Despite exhaustion, notions of sleep eluded him.

The door cracked open, and a light rap sounded. Harry set the letters aside and shrugged to a sitting position just as the door creaked open. Snape glanced behind him before slipping inside.

Sounding wry and tired, Snape said, "It was suggested that I check on you."

Harry forced down a smile. "Yeah," he said, putting on an attitude for no really good reason. "So, now you have."

Meeting Harry's attitude with his own, Snape returned, "You're trying, but Slytherin does not fit you, truly. Your heart is not really in it."

"What does my heart have to do with it?" Harry smoothly asked.

Snape did not reply to this right away. He examined the wall and, putting his hand on the door handle, said to the ceiling, "Perhaps it is time to pass this whole thing on to someone better suited to it." In contrast to his words, he sounded disdainful.

"Oh, it is definitely time." Harry made as if he was bedding down to sleep and ignoring his visitor, but inside he worried what his Snape was going to think. If he found out. But he always seemed to find out.

The door clicked closed and Harry reached an arm out to crank down the wick on his bedside lamp.

Harry was woken by Candide peeking in the door and calling in a sing-song. "Harry, there are guests for breakfast, and we have been waiting on you. Winky will undoubtedly serve them another round of pomegranate Knut buns shortly, but they are hoping to see you."

Harry blinked painfully into the grey light from the window and scrubbed his eyes. Really, he must have just shut them and he wondered that his friends weren't all still abed themselves. "Be right there," he said, immediately thinking of all the things he needed to do that day, which got his blood moving nicely.

In the dining room he found his cousin, Pamela, accompanied by Lupin, settled in at the breakfast table. Pamela leaped up to greet him.

"Harry! So terrible what the wizards have put you through!"

"It was a misunderstanding," Harry said, returning her quick hug. "Well, not exactly . . . someone wanted it that way. But it will be straight soon enough."

"Soon enough?" Lupin echoed in surprise as Harry pulled out the chair across from him. A wondrous breakfast appeared, wondrous for being exactly what Harry normally had before he had been sent off.

As he sat there, Harry's curse sense bothered him in strange little surges. After the plain walls of his cell, the normal world felt confusing and busy, including the magic of it. Harry glanced casually around but the feeling came from directly across from him. Harry's eyes fell on Lupin's unnaturally long nails and hairy fingers. Perhaps it was Lupin himself that he sensed with his over-keyed perception.

Candide took a seat beside him and studied her plate and then Harry's. "At least I'm not the one getting overfed this morning. I swear Winky thinks I'm eating for four, not two."

"How are you doing?" Harry thought to ask.

She was concentrating on picking up her fork and knife as she replied, "Ready to be not pregnant anymore."

Across from her Pamela dropped her hands into her lap to adjust her napkin.

Harry was just wondering how to ask what was wrong when Snape slipped silently in, but declined to join them. Flatly, he said to Lupin, "I will be staying here on Monday, if you will see to things at Hogwarts."

"That will be fine," Lupin said, eyes flickering to Harry. "I'm expect you want to spend some time . . . at home."

Snape hesitated before replying, "Yes. Of course," in a tone that conflicted with his words.

Harry gave attention to his plate. Some weaker part of him wanted to feel sorry for the man, but he refused to allow it.

"Joining us?" Candide asked, sounding concerned.

"I think not," Snape replied. "Just fetching the paper." He slipped around to the sideboard.

"Is that a wizard newspaper?" Pamela asked.

Snape untied the distinctly edged scroll of the Daily Prophet, and glanced at the headline, before turning it over with acute interest. "Yes," he replied, distractedly.

"May I see it?" Pamela brightly asked. "Remus didn't think he should bring me a copy, something about avoiding charmed devices in Muggle houses."

Snape's eyes scanned the page back and forth before he held the paper out to her, expression unchanged. With a faint nod at Candide, he slipped out again, as silently as he had arrived.

Pamela held the newspaper up before her. "Look at that. The people are moving. And what silly hats everyone wears in the cold!"

Harry smiled faintly at her reaction and reached to serve himself more sausages. They were the super greasy kind that became solid and pasty once they cooled even a little. Even a French prison chef would not deign to serve such a thing. As he forked a few more, he glanced at the back of the Prophet, at Skeeter's column.

Exclusive Exposé! it read in bold letters. Distinguished & untarnished old moneyed wizard family's sordid past history . . .

A chill passed over Harry. "Can I see that?" he asked his cousin.

"What? Oh yeah." She quickly glanced through the other pages, even as she handed it over.

"You can have it back," Harry reassured her as he laid the paper out beside his plate where the edge soaked up oil from the remains of his forgotten breakfast.

In muted letters after the gigantic title, it read: " . . . to be revealed in a special supplement to the Prophet tomorrow. Unveiled . . . a tawdry tale told through letters obtained by our intrepid reporter, Rita Skeeter. Infidelity! Deception! Do not miss the Sunday Prophet containing Part One of this five-part special investigation into the philandering past of a wizard many currently, and erroneously, believe to be above reproach."

Harry handed the newspaper back, wondering whose life Skeeter was planning on ruining now. While he was in prison, she found herself another topic, apparently. He wouldn't mind ruining it for her, if possible.

Breakfast wound down. Harry sat back and patted his full stomach. Winky would most likely get her way and return him to his normal self in short order. Lupin slipped out, saying he needed to ask Snape a few things about the Seventh-Year syllabus, and Harry saw his chance.

"You should come see my new room," Harry said to his cousin. "Candide did a wonderful job decorating."

Harry waved that Candide should stay put. She misunderstood that he believed her physically challenged. "I can make it, Harry. I'm pregnant, not lame."

Harry wanted to give her the Auror gesture for I want to talk to this person alone, but she would not understand it. He sighed and led the way.

In the bedroom, Kali set off a series of chimes as she climbed around in her cage.

"I like the rug," Pamela said, rocking up and down on her toes. "Squishy and it looks less like a dungeon in here with it."

Harry finished the quick tour, and asked his cousin, "Something wrong?"

"With me?" she blurted in surprise. "No."

Candide drifted toward the door sending an apologetic smile back at Harry. Harry decided he would prefer she stay and gestured for her to return. She hung near the door.

Harry shrugged broadly, falling into a disinterested mode. "I only ask because I thought you looked unhappy at breakfast."

"Oh." A regretful ripple went through her pose and she looked away. "It's not something you should be worrying about, really."

Harry waited. It was what his old man persona would have done. Pamela fidgeted more and spoke anyway. "It's just that . . . " Her voice dropped. "I want to marry Remus and he's having none of it. He pushes away, a lot, at the merest suggestion and . . ." She drifted off, strained. "I don't know."

From the doorway, Candide sighed. "I know how that goes."

Pamela laughed nervously and, after another pause, said to Harry, "I really don't know. I'm ready to give up. You've known Remus longer, but I don't get the sense you've really been close, or anything. So I hadn't bothered asking what you thought, even though I've been dying to ask someone." After another gap she added more harshly. "Maybe no one has."

Harry turned to Candide for help. Candide visibly took a deep breath and came back to them. "I admit that I don't know Remus all that well. And I don't want to seem insulting by guessing, so maybe we should have you over for a long dinner . . . ah, some night after Severus has returned to school, I wouldn't mind his input, but I've sensed a new animosity with him aimed at Remus . . ."

"Next Saturday would be good," Harry interjected. "I'll talk to Severus about behaving himself," he promised.

Candide sounded unconvinced. "You really think . . ."


Pamela snorted lightly. "You really don't have to get involved. It's not really your problem."

"Nonsense," Candide said, sounding chummy. "Things are quiet here and we could use a challenge."

Harry, stunned by her assertion of household peace, watched them depart. Before they could get out of earshot, Harry shook himself and said, "I'm going out."

Candide, arm now around Pamela's shoulder, turned outside the doorway. "Given how things have been going, I feel I should ask where you are going."

Harry bristled inwardly, but calmly said, "Just to say hi to some friends. I won't be long."

Alone in his room, Harry gathered up his nice cloak, which hung comfortably light on his shoulders. He also grabbed up his other cloak, the one from his father. Harry needed to check on his guardian, but before he knocked himself silly with the bone grinding and chilling transition between the Planes, he wanted to check on a few other things first. And since he was in a hurry, he was not going to be polite about it.

Under his invisibility cloak, Harry slipped in and out of the Dark Plane, directly into Belinda's flat. She had lied to the Auror's office about his visit the night of the murder and he wanted to discuss that with her, if not snoop around more.

Belinda was not home, but the flat was occupied. Two wizards sat before the television, sharing a bag of crisps. Their hair and features had the flat generic look of Durumulna. With food-flecked mouths, they laughed at the man talking on the screen, even though the scene was not amusing. A pile of plates and empty crisp wrappers littered the area around the base of the television stand. Harry listened to the incomprehensible commentary one offered the other about the program, while he decided how to proceed.

Tip toeing, Harry moved into place, noting where each of the men's wands were. Under the cloak he reached out and grabbed up one wand out of a back pocket. The man twisted and reached back in question, the cue for Harry to knock the other one into chain binding, and take up his wand from the floor where it fell. He used another chain binding charm on the first man and with one broad pull tugged the cloak off to reveal himself.

Confused motion turned to startled stillness as the pair recognized him. One of them expressed what must be a profanity as his eyes tracked Harry moving in closer to search them both. There was not much on them. Some pounds, and little note cards Harry could not read.

"Speak English?" Harry asked the nearest one. When there was no reply, he put his wand point just below his throat, where the bones formed a notch, and asked again.

"Yes," came the eager reply.

"Using this flat as a safehouse, are you?" Harry guessed. When he got a nod in reply, Harry narrowed his gaze. "You better not be bothering Belinda," Harry said, mind leaping to worst case scenarios.

The man rapidly shook his head. "No, no, no. She is not to be touched. We are clear on that."

"Who made you clear on that?" Harry asked. There was no reply, and Harry could see in his gaze only a murky figure bleeding through damaged memories.

Harry swore lightly himself and wondered what he should do with them. He did not want to turn them in, just yet, nor did he want them to tell anyone he had been there, talking to them.

Harry smiled faintly as he thought of a plan. Pressing his wand into the man's solar plexus, which made him shrink away, Harry said, "So, you've been shaking down the shopkeepers on Diagon Alley, eh?"

The man glanced at his cohort before saying, "Mostly Knockturn Alley."

"How much have you collected?" Harry demanded. "I want to know how profitable this venture is."

"Profitable?" came the dull echo.

"I want to know if it's worth my cutting in," Harry impatiently explained.

The man's tone did not come back into focus. "You want in? Harry Potter wants in?"

"What else you think I'm goin' to do? They sent me to prison, the Ministry did. I didn't like that so much," he added, thinking he should probably try to sound less like a film villain.

"Oh. Yeah." The man agreed.

Harry made the point of his wand clear again. "I want a cut of what you're getting."

"A cut? You want part of our share?" the other man exploded. "You think we get to keep much ourselves?"

"I don't care," Harry snapped. "I'm getting in on this, or I haul you both into the Ministry."

The man shut his mouth which had remained hanging open. Harry spoke more calmly. "Or you can do something more for me. You can introduce me to someone who can get me in where the money is a little better. I expect I'm worth it."

The two men stared at each other. "What'll it be?" Harry asked. "Ministry? Money? Or an introduction to your contact?"

"Yer, yer, going to have to prove yourself, you know," the man said, suddenly exhibiting a stutter. His face had turned red and bloated from lying on the floor in a tight binding, reminding Harry of Neville.

"I don't have any problem with that," Harry said pleasantly. "None at all." He aimed his wand back and forth at each of them while toying with their wands in his other hand. "I'll come back on . . . Wednesday, noon. I expect an introduction to be set up by then. If not, your trip to the Ministry dungeon will be long and roundabout and you will be very grateful when you finally arrive. Got it?" He stared hard at each of them. Not surprisingly, neither had decided quite what to do. "Got it?" Harry nearly shouted, thinking a little unbalanced craziness would play in his favor, and frankly, he needed the chance to vent.

They both nodded rapidly. Harry stepped back and said, "You owe me now," and released their bindings. He tossed their wands behind him near the bedroom door, pulled the cloak over his head and slipped into the Dark Plane, leaving them to concoct their own explanations about how he had departed.

Feeling good about how that turned out, Harry Apparated and slipped back into the real world on a narrow lane, beneath a decoratively written, crossed sign designating Heatherlick Lane and Battle Bridge Approach. At the end of the canyon-like lane with its crooked gas lamps, Muggle traffic hummed past, unaware.

Still invisible, Harry fell into step behind a witch pushing a pram, hoping she turned in at Number 55, a soot stained brick structure with heavy rusty bars on the ground floor windows. In contrast to the rundown building, the doors were thick glass protected by swirl-patterned brass, polished to a glitter. The first pair of doors parted for the woman and Harry followed, mincing to keep from getting pinched by the doors closing behind him.

The squeaky wheels of the pram were quickly drowned out by the noise of the front offices of the Daily Prophet. Clacking and humming filled the air as visitors queued at various windows for placing adverts, ordering bronzed back copies and collecting post from their Which Match Secret Admirer boxes. Beneath the chattering noise of the hall an incessant thrum came up through the floor. The glass walls around the wickets allowed Harry to see everything, but he did not see a way into the rest of the building. He wanted to check his suspicions about Skeeter's article and, given his skills, this should be easy, but while patrol had brought him around the outside of the building many times, he had never been inside.

Beneath his cloak, Harry frowned, frustrated. He would have to try something else. He followed a dallying young couple to the doors. They leaned heavily on each other, even resting their heads together. A glance showed they had wandered over from the Announcements: Births, Deaths, Weddings, Elf Ownership window. They were so dreamy, Harry himself had to give them a light shove to get the second set of doors to trigger open. Rolling his eyes inside his cloaked world, Harry took off to pace around the building, intending to finding a way inside.

As he strolled, passing one painted-over window after another, something flickered from the second floor, like a curtain fluttering out an open window. Smiling to himself, Harry slipped away to his room intending to collect his broomstick, but he forgot which room was his, and he silently inverted into the baby's room. The pale greens and grey-checkered matching ruffles on the basinet and curtains brought Harry to a halt, feet rocking on the edge of the thickly corded spiral of the muted green rug.

Harry took a deep breath, starkly reminded that all was not well at home and that he needed to get his Snape back again. Torn between his desire to get even with Skeeter and his desire to check on his guardian, Harry hung there on the rug edge for half a minute. If he waited, his guardian's influence might make him forgo using all his powers to snoop around without warrant. Harry bit his lip. He would give it just one quick try, then he would be off. In any event, arriving with the sun higher would be better for his recovery on the other side, if he could not think of a safe hearth to land at.

Feeling better about that excuse than the other, Harry presently returned to the alley beside the Prophet building. He rode his broom up to the second floor and found the source of the thrumming. Occupying the entire rear half of the building was a massive, complicated, steam-belching, printing press. The familiar newspaper parchments were shuttled, flipped, and sent flying around the space before settling down and arranging themselves in a neat column that drifted down into the dark depths of the basement.

A figure in a sweat-stained, white shirt hunched over the controls of a great lever arm shuttling at a blinding pace over a broad roller. His hovering chair drifted dangerously close to the cranking metal. The man wiped his brow with an ink stained rag and tweaked a control.

Not spying any Apparation landing spots inside, Harry maneuvered into position to raise the window far enough to slip through, but it would not budge. From under his cloak he pulled out his wand and rather than risk setting off a spell alarm on the window, sent a heating charm at the man. The man appeared to heave a great groan, inaudible over the din, and sopped his forehead again. He hooked a stretched rubber band over the largest control knob, and pushed his chair to fly over to the window. There was a metallic clack as he unbarred it, then with Harry's invisible help, the window shot up, fully open.

Harry had to grab his broom with a jerking motion and veer away as the man leaned out to catch the cool winter air in fish-like gasps. Inside, the rhythm of the machine changed ominously, a teeth rattling vibration threatened, and the man heaved up and pushed away, leaving the opening clear.

Harry sailed inside, skillfully weaving through the streams of parchment shooting in all directions, to come to rest on a high landing beside a lift. He stopped at each floor, hoping no one noticed the empty lift moving about, sometimes cramming himself back into the cage's corner and sucking in his breath to stay out of the way. He found Skeeter's office on the second-to-the-top floor. The walls everywhere were glass, but the blinds on her office were drawn firmly closed on the inside, and based on the dim light, the office was most likely empty. The massive gaudy gold door lock that must have needed a key only Hagrid could pocket, did not yield to the first spell Harry tried and merely attempting it set off his curse sense, so he minced off to the next office area and waited to be certain he had not set off any alarms. When nothing happened, Harry slid back along the corridor, peeking around the edges of the slats. He could just make out a narrow office with crowded, bowing bookshelves stuffed with leaning stacks of papers and a small desk, equally buried.

When he had a good enough vision of the office, Harry slipped inside using the Dark Plane, and stood perfectly still, nerves keyed up in case of attack from a protective spell. Just below the ceiling, all around, hung a long row of stoic, stone masks that set Harry's teeth on edge. The eyeholes of the faces stood empty, revealing the shadowed wall behind, but they did not feel empty.

Keeping his cloak close around him, Harry carefully circled the desk. Skeeter's familiar, narrow, ringed notebooks littered the area, stacked meticulously front to back. Heart beating in time with the thrumming in the floor, Harry tediously searched with just his eyes. On a low shelf beside the desk, he finally spotted a draft proof of the article from that morning's paper. It lay curled on something smaller underneath. Using the cloak, he tugged that aside, letting it drift to the floor. Under it lay a bundle of letters, secured with a great golden clip sporting a jewel-winged dragonfly. Harry again, through the cloak, picked up the bundle and his curse sense went wild, making him duck instinctively, which was limited by his closely held broomstick. A mad buzzing filled the air, the bundle tried to take flight from his hand and Harry slipped through the floor and away, tugging the bundle through with him only by gripping it with all his strength.

In the grey stillness of the underworld, Harry examined the bundle, torn clean in half where the charmed clip had kept hold. It was a collection of love letters, written in a stunningly fine hand, and addressed and signed in pet names. They were dated more than thirty years ago, and postmarked from various places around England, but mostly the village near where Lord Freelander had his estate.

Harry held his broom tight and slipped back home, directly into the main hall. He tossed off his invisibility cloak, set his broom against the couch and paced once, thinking rapidly about what he should do. Skeeter's article was probably running on the presses right that instant. Should he go back and break the works to delay publication? He really did not have time to deal with this; he yearned to see to his guardian.

"I have yet to get used to your method of ingress and egress," a distressingly familiar voice intoned from the door to the library.

Harry stopped pacing and waited while Snape approached, gracing him with intent scrutiny before seeming disinterested, that was, until he saw what Harry held in his hand.

"Where did you get those?" Snape asked, sounding vaguely stunned.

Harry waved the broken packet. "Skeeter's office. I feared I knew whose life she was trying to ruin and I think I was right."

There was an odd pause. "And why would you care?"

"Lord Freelander is my benefactor. He's offered me help in the past."

"Ah." Snape said, clasping his hands before him, which brought his broad sleeves to a deep point. "The letters are fake. I planted them on Ms. Skeeter to damage her standing in the wizard community and with her employer."

Harry stared down at the letters. "But Freelander was having an affair . . ."

"Well, not with this witch . . . who never actually existed."

"You think Skeeter'd fall for that?"

Snape's sounded smug. "I believe she already has."

Harry huffed. "I should have grabbed hold of a copy of tomorrow's paper while I was there. The presses were running and I didn't even think of it."

"That is most likely the evening edition, in any event," Snape said, holding out his hand for the letters.

Harry stared at Snape's elegant, open hand, which conflicted so strongly with the scruffy rest of him. Harry held the ragged bundle in reach and let go of it. "I didn't mean to ruin your plans," he said, feeling torn about the situation.

Snape thumbed through the letter halves. "Oh, you have not. This is a far better outcome that I did not think could be arranged. Her office is considered impenetrable, protected by artifacts she reputedly purchased from an illegal dealer in Tazmanian talismanic objects." He put the letters in his pocket. Sounding almost pleasant, he added, "Now she has no evidence, which makes her position all the more precarious."

Harry said, "I'm all for Skeeter getting her due. But I don't like you messing with the lives of people I care about. You have an annoying habit that way."

"I did not realize. I thought him a safe target. My former colleagues knew the blackmail possibilities on every significantly rich or powerful witch and wizard, and I believed him blameless and able to take the scrutiny. But you tell me he cannot."

"Aaron's his son, in fact."

"Really?" Snape said, sounding amused by this gossip.

Harry said, "I just hope Skeeter isn't onto the real truth."

"He can withstand it if she is," Snape drawled, sounding bored.

"You could have told me what you were doing."

"I was getting even as part of a personal battle, well out of your purview, or so I believed. In any event, including this in a letter would have been problematic . . . you and I do not share any code I could utilize. "

"We share all kinds of codes, you just don't trust that we do," Harry snipped. "And on that topic, I'm going to check on my adoptive father. Cover for me if you would." Harry started to turn away to fetch a sweet snack, which he hoped would make it easer to recover from the cold on arrival. But he stepped back to ask, "Where's Candide?"

"Napping," Snape replied smoothly.

"Behave yourself," Harry said, tempted to reinforce the point.

"Please," Snape breathed, insulted sounding.

"And get ready to leave, because you're going back soon."

At that, Snape lost his annoyance and a haunted something drifted into his gaze.

"You don't look ready," Harry said, trying not to feel anything.

"There is little hope in that place, you must admit."

"It's better than when you left, for what it's worth. You're living at Grimmauld Place now."

Snape crossed his arms and smirked. "With Potter and his Merry Band I suppose."

"Yes. It's safer than before, for you. Don't complain." Harry pointed rudely in Snape's face. "Pretend you deserve the assistance, because if you want a place like this one, you have to earn it."

Snape pushed Harry's hand away, but gently. Voice low, he said, "If you don't think I've been sacrificing for longer than you've been alive, you are badly mistaken."

Harry stepped back, remembered he could use a wand, and Accioed the treat jar from the kitchen. He took a handful out before leaving the jar on the nearest end table. "Your journey's not over yet," Harry said, then feeling a stab of regret, added, "That's just the way it is. I'm sorry."

Mouth full of biscuit, Harry Apparated to his room to fetch his notes, which he found in the bottom of his trunk where he had left them, folded into the back of his first Potions text book. With these firmly secured in his breast pocket, he finished the last of his snack and slipped away for greyer surroundings.

- 888 -

- 888 -

Harry checked the age spell on his hands, and brushed his beard out as he stood before the door at Grimmauld Place. Cold to the bone and with his joints as stiff as if they were full of treacle, he leaned on the railing, like an old man would. The transition between the Planes had been the worst yet. Something odd had caught his attention just as the crushing of the In Between reached its peak, and that distraction drew him back, lengthening the agony. Shaking off uncertain impressions of dark human figures, Harry breathed in the welcome reality of the quiet square boxed in by smoggy air. It was more than smoggy, the breeze smelled scorched, like hot concrete and burned plastic. But the square appeared the same, albeit more decrepit in the hazy light. Harry sensed the usual handful of Death Eaters hiding nearby, ever watchful. The door cranked open before Harry could decide if he had the strength for some mischief in the Death Eaters' direction. Hermione stood in the doorway, brushing the hair out of her face. She smiled at him in welcome, just like normal. "Hey, it's you. Come on in."

Harry bowed, and found it difficult to re-straighten his painful back. At least he need not worry about forgetting to act his part. Hermione led the way inside to the dining room, where the scent of bread overwhelmed the mildewed drapes. Hermione bit her lip once, as if in anticipation, but that made little sense.

"Mr. Snape, someone to see you."

Snape stood by the sideboard, explaining something to Neville while drawing on a well-used parchment. He turned and caught Harry's gaze and his expression fell away into blank relief. Neville moved aside and Snape met Harry halfway along the table. "You made it," he said, sounding as emotional as Harry had ever heard him. Snape's eyes took in his bent posture. "Have a seat, you must . . . have traveled a long way."

Harry gratefully lowered his sore body into the offered chair. Snape did not release his shoulder as he sat beside him.

"What happened?" Snape sharply asked.

The others in the room gathered closer. Harry managed a small smile for his guardian and decided it was safe to say, "Sorry I'm late. I ended up in L'île de Cachot Méfait." His voice sounded hoarser than he intended.

"You ended up where?" Snape said, hand gripping harder.

"Where's that?" Ron asked, and Hermione whispered, "It's the French magical prison."

Snape did not wait for a response. "Dare I ask how that came to pass?"

Harry read the double meaning to the question and nodded. "I was framed for murder, but some friends arranged for my removal with some, shall we say, dubious counteractions of their own."

Snape said, "So, we have some straightening up to do."

"Just a bit," Harry said, so pleased to be there speaking with his guardian, he imagined everything would be set to right soon enough.

Hermione approached. "Would you like a bite of something, or tea? We haven't cleaned up from lunch yet."

Harry held up his hand. What he really wanted was a scorching hot bath, but asking for that felt awkward. "I'm fine, young lady. Really. They treated me rather well in prison, all things considered. Twelve course dinners with the warden and such."

Ginny, still leaning against the wall nibbling on the remains of the heels left on the bread tray, made a painful noise and said, "Can we get arrested by the French?"

Harry turned back to Snape. "I just came to check on you. To make sure you were all right."

Snape finally released him and knitted his fingers together. "I am quite all right. The situation with the Muggle rebellion groups has grown worse of late, but we are still quite safe here. And how are things where you came from? Are they holding up despite your not being there to look after them, having fallen into disreputation the way you did."

It had been a while since Harry had been teased. He smiled faintly and voice weaker than he would like, said, "Things are holding up fine. But, I should get back."

"You are leaving again already?" Snape blurted. A few of the others also expressed surprise.

"I have things I have to do, Severus," Harry said.

"Not in your condition you do not."

Harry stretched his neck. "It's true that the journey here was . . . more difficult than expected. But I didn't intend to be gone long. I didn't leave things set for that. I'll return tomorrow or the next day, I promise."

Snape insisted on remaining in charge. "You should simply remain until then. Rest yourself."

Harry had not considered that. He had been in too much of a rush to check on his guardian and bring the notes. "I have things to attend to. No one is expecting my absence."

"What did you tell others before departing?"

"Er, I said I had things to think over, given recent events."

Sounding unusually fraught, Snape leaned closer and said, "Then you can easily claim you simply took more time to do your thinking. Stay, Ha-Aaron."

The way Snape botched his name, it came out "Heron" like the bird.

Harry put aside the issue of his staying or not. He felt for the spell notes in his pocket and hesitated speaking.

Snape, ever perceptive, said, "Something you would like to discuss in private?"

Harry nodded and assumed the two of them would depart, but everyone else quickly took the hint and left them alone. When the door clicked closed, Harry observed, "You are getting along here, Severus."

"Things have improved," Snape admitted. "Desperation leaves them little choice." Then more quietly added, "And me as well."

Harry pulled out the bundle of notes and smoothed them on the table between them. "I copied everything out of the book that seemed relevant to executing the spell. If it isn't everything, I can try bringing the book itself, but I didn't want to risk losing it."

Snape read the notes, flipping each page behind the others.

Harry remembered being marked on his essays, and hoped this one passed more than any before. He said, "I expect I can help, since I do this all the time."

Snape nodded distractedly and read through the pages again. "There are only two sections that are not clear to me. I assume you transcribed this exactly?" He pointed at a diagram, where a dome of spell energy rose out of the Device. Harry had been forced to verbatim copy out ink-faded symbols he did not recognize, some kind of modified zodiac signs.

Harry nodded. Snape found a pen. "Could it have been this instead?" Snape wrote out something in the margin.

"It could. It wasn't clear."

"That's an alchemial symbol. This whole string is. It may be the spell incantation. I cannot think what else it may be." Beneath each one, Snape wrote out phonetics, then held the parchment out to examine it. He shrugged lightly, a surprisingly easy-going response to the situation. He glanced sideways at Harry. "We may be relying on you a bit."

"I'll manage," Harry said, determined.

Snape put the parchments away and set the quill on the edge of a stray plate, even though the table was already stained and burned. "Stay, Aaron. You will need your strength for the spell."

"Afraid I won't come back?" Harry tried to tease, but he was too worn down, so it just came out hopeless.

"I spent the last weeks trying to imagine arranging a life here. I do not wish to do so. I am too soft for this place, too tired of the fight, not to mention too involved elsewhere."

Harry bent over his hands. "And there are new problems too. I'm in trouble with people who don't play nice."

"My duty is to be there helping you. I think I've earned that right." Snape stood and offered Harry a hand up. "I am not going to allow you to depart, so why don't you rest and recover while I research a few things from your notes in the rather interesting book collection Ms. Granger has been slowly pilfering from the London Wizard Library."

Harry accepted the offered hand and winced as his knees complained, chasing away his last stubborn thoughts of leaving. "All right."

"Thank you for coming back," Snape said, deeply sincere.

Harry snorted lightly. "Like I could stay away."

Next: Chapter 36
Hermione saw what he held and put her hands out. "I was just coming for . . ."

Snape rolled the things into her arms. She smiled sheepishly and headed downstairs. Snape closed the door with a satisfying snap and ran a series of anti-snooping spells before returning to Harry's side. His manic energy waned and he deliberately placed Harry's wand under his pillow, sticking out an inch for easy reach.

Sounding wry, Snape said, "Given their theories about us, I would hope they would not eavesdrop, but I wished to be certain." He felt Harry's forehead. "It is a good thing you did not try to return immediately; who knows what would have happened to you."

Harry closed his eyes, staying carefully within himself this time, and tried not to laugh aloud.

Author's Notes: Yup, huge break. Life just got to be too much and this had to give. Back on track again.

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