Chapter 36 — Substitute Heroes

Upstairs in Grimmauld Place, in the room Snape shared with Lupin, Harry sat on the end of the bed, hunched in the enveloping folds of his charm-warmed cloak. The cold spiking his marrow was slow to ease, and it perniciously drained his strength.

"No ill effects from prison?" Snape asked. He moved about the room pulling potion bottles from the shelves and mixing in a cold cauldron. "You truly were treated well?"

Harry shrugged and nodded reassuringly. Voice still rough, he said, "They were perfectly polite — well, one guard was a bit of an arse . . ." He shrugged again to dismiss this complaint. He had lots of things he wanted to say, but they were undoubtedly being watched if not listened in on. He waited and took his cue from Snape for what to discuss.

Snape used a match to light the burner under a cauldron. Harry blinked at that. "Want to borrow my wand?"

Snape shook his stringy hair. "It's all right. I've learned to live without."

Harry laughed in a bark. "Ha! Have you now? No more mocking me for my Muggle ways, Severus."

Snape's warm gaze slid over to him, nearly obscured by his unkempt hair.

More soberly, Harry said, "You look like a Potions Master again."

"You make that sound like it's a bad thing," Snape drawled.

Harry hunched over and better wrapped his cloak around himself, wondering if he should renew the charm. Perhaps the room itself was cold.

"The hearth's not lit," Harry commented.

Snape drew out the stirring stick several times, testing the viscosity. He said, "We have to ration wood."

"Why?"

"There is a shortage of just about everything. Partly it is the chaos outside, partly poor organization inside exacerbated by a shifting of roles. Procurement of supplies is gradually improving, but this is a rather large house, with many hearths to feed. The logs there on the grate are for the early morning. Someone usually comes in and warm the walls and floor with a spell after breakfast. That helps."

"They need to get Kreacher on their side," Harry observed. He pulled out his wand and warmed the walls himself, thinking it wise to skip the wall covered in potion-laden shelves. He then sat, hunched more, waiting for the brewing to complete on what he hoped was a Bone-Toasting Draught, if there was such a thing.

Snape's hand endlessly circled, alternately stirring and testing the potion. Harry closed his eyes and, like he had done so many times in prison, reached out in his inward world and . . . stopped cold, stunned silly.

The forest of Harry's mind hummed with Death Eaters, hundreds of them, perhaps a thousand or more. In his inner vision he huddled, small, amidst this dark star-scape, fixed in place by his own amazement. The few dozen servants that bolstered him in prison were a club team in comparison. Wanting to better know, to better feel, he stretched out to touch the shadows, and was over-swept by a headlong surge of potential strength. As his mind latched onto a few shadows here, it slipped away from others there, only to slip free again and rush in another direction, wave tossed, unable to find anchor, at the same time taunted and overwhelmed by the aura of obscene power. Harry had no defenses against the rush and retreat of this extra-sensory onslaught. He lost track of his physical self and slumped to the floor, inert.

Harry was dimly aware of Snape lifting him up and resting him on the bed, of hurried motion and quiet, adamant words. A hand brushing his hair back gave him the sensory harbor he needed to let go of that other world.

Snapped back to his senses, Harry opened his eyes. "It's all right," he insisted. Snape had taken up Harry's wand and currently sat with it aimed at Harry's heart. "I'm all right."

With a sudden motion, Snape stood and went about the room, picking up seemingly random objects: a crystal ball, a conch shell, a figurine of a girl with dog. With these bundled in the crook of his arm, he opened the door and stopped short because Hermione stood there.

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 within himself this time, and tried not to laugh aloud. He rested that way, wishing the cold would finish easing, and wondering what it would feel like to connect thoroughly to such a legion of servants. It seemed too much really. How would one keep track of them all?

The bed rocked straight as Snape stood to tend the potion, which bubbled noisily. Harry opened his eyes and peered around the room, vigorously resisting reaching out to test the closest shadows. Snape returned with a cup of watery violet liquid that glowed faintly and gave off a metallic odor. "Try to drink that as hot as you are able," Snape said.

Harry had to switch hands quickly on the hot cup to hold it by the handle. All he could manage was one searing sip at a time, but his limbs warmed nicely.

Snape watched him drink before saying, "I'm going to fetch some books from Ms. Granger."

Minutes later, Hermione followed Snape back into the room, accompanied by a hovered stack of odorous leather-bound, monstrous volumes. Hermione was saying, "I don't think you'll find much on advanced diagramming in those. I can go search the collection for others, if you like." She gave disguised Harry an embarrassed smile when she saw him reclining there on the bed. Harry immediately put his feet down on the floor and sat up.

Snape said, "The library is open?"

"I have a key," Hermione said. "Technically, the library is only open two hours a week now and the time always changes. My library card shows the time for each week Sunday at midnight." She put her hands in her pockets and rocked up on her toes. "If you told me a bit more, I could probably help . . ."

Snape opened and bent over the top book, hair obscuring his face. Harry said, "I can go along to the library."

"Feeling up to it?" Snape asked.

Harry nodded, and stroked his beard, constantly worried it might have faded away. "You look through those and I'll accompany Her- Ms. Granger." Harry stood creakily, and fetched his wand from under the pillow in a quick motion. This also embarrassed Hermione, who stepped to the door.

"I'll be downstairs when you're ready to go."

"I'm ready now," Harry said, reminding himself to make his voice hoarser. Hermione shrugged and departed the room. To his guardian, Harry said, "I'll be back."

"Do be careful."

Harry hesitated, thinking that very good advice, but not at all in the way he suspected Snape intended it.

"I'll try."

- 888 -



The London Wizard Library stood like an oversized Victorian shanty in an apparently large open courtyard of a boring glass office block. Hermione stopped in the dimness of the portal leading in and examined the area, wand twitching in her fingertips. The low clouds rendered the scene mute and of indeterminate time of day. Harry's curse sense buzzed in the back of his rib cage. He focused on that, rather than the shadows dancing around him. He closed his eyes for just an instant, just long enough to swallow a charged flutter of breath-sucking reach and power. None flitted too near to them so he had no good excuse to remain in their tantalizing presence. Really, he could not risk getting overwhelmed again. If his disguise should fade when he could not renew it or use a memory charm on Hermione, things would get quite complicated.

Harry must have made a strange noise when he reached inward because Hermione patted his arm and said, "You going to make it?"

At Harry's nod, she turned back to waiting for an employee towing a dust bin to finish rumbling it off through the opposite portal, where it echoed louder momentarily before fading.

"Clear?" Harry asked. He wanted to say that he thought it was clear, but deferred to her familiarity with this errand.

Hermione nodded, causing her hair to bob in the usual manner. She marched across the grey courtyard that was dotted with concrete benches and concrete planters. But instead of heading for the carved double doors of the entrance, she paced around to the back, fishing in her pocket as she went. With practiced ease she pulled out the oversized key and let them both in a large battered door with smaller owl doors mounted in the face of it.

Harry was glad her practiced movements continued and the lamps came up quickly, because his curse sense was setting his back painfully straight. They stood in an over filled storage room. Thousands of books teetered in piles growing out of crates. Crates had been tipped sideways to form makeshift shelves beside real metal shelves. Owl cages hung crooked and empty from the wall over the door, cobwebs between them.

Hermione bent to the crate placed beside the door. "These are the ones I'm supposed to take next," she said.

"Take?" Harry said, feet glued to the spot by his instinctive alarm.

"I'm a member of Friends Of Obscure Libraries. That's why I have a key. With things getting bad, the libraries have been trying to disperse the collections to save them from destruction. So, the next lot to be taken to a safe place are put in this crate." She tapped her hand on the splintery wood.

Harry peered into the crate. "Several of these are cursed," he said, preferring if she did not take those.

Hermione stood on tiptoe to better see inside. "They are?"

Harry glanced around the room, making his feet move in what had to be a dangerous direction. "Lots of these are. This whole shelf is," he added, peering along a line of especially rugged bindings that nonetheless had taken a long-term beating.

Hermione, coming up beside him, gasped and grabbed Harry's sleeve in her fingertips. "What are these doing here?" she whispered. One of the books shuffled on the shelf and fell still. More quietly, she said, "These are supposed to be in the vault. Actually, in the special vault in the vault." Her hair swung as she glanced around. "It's not safe like that."

Harry gave the shelf a good eying, like he would the creatures in the Dark Plane, insisting they behave.

"It's a trap," Hermione murmured, tugging Harry backwards by the small corner of robe she still pinched.

"It's all right, stand over there," Harry commanded. "Keep your wand up." He scavenged around the room until he found an unused metal shelf. This he mounted across the front of the dangerous row of books. While the hot metal from his welding spell pinged and the glow faded, Harry blew across his wand and gave Hermione a satisfied grin, which, since she did not know him, made her dubious rather than amused.

Harry said, "You are correct that it isn't safe here. I would guess the scheme of your Library Friends has been compromised."

"Fools," she said.

"That's a little harsh," Harry said. "Things are tough."

"No, I mean F.O.O.L.s. That's our acronym."

"Ah," Harry said, not having anything to add. He shook himself. "I still want to look for the books we need. If you want to go, that would be fine," Harry added, thinking he could more easily slip out alone than with her.

Rattled, but as brave as expected, she said, "No, I'll help you look." She started in on the crate by the door, gingerly pulling out a book and opening it. "Just warn me if anything cursed is going to try to take my face off."

"It won't while I'm here," Harry said, trying to reassure her.

She studied him, too closely, such that a flicker of strange recognition crossed the lines around her eyes. "That's interesting. Why is that?"

"Just an effect I have on them," Harry assured her, quickly bending over a book away from her.

Two hours later, Hermione stretched her neck and blew her fringe clear of her eyes. "I don't have a key into the main library, but we could probably get in. Most of the good books have been dispersed already or are in here waiting to be." She gave the dangerous shelf a worried glance.

Harry stepped over a makeshift pile that formed a wall in the middle of the room. "We found three; that's more than I thought we would." Worried about his disguise holding out, he said, "We should go. Given that your Friends have been found out, we are pushing our luck staying this long." He faced her, putting his hands on her arms. "Don't come back here again. This is a trap." He gestured at the trunks. "Take what you must, now and don't return."

Cobwebs clung to the hair she pushed back out of her eyes. "That would be all of them."

Harry smirked. "Try to be more choosy than that."

The two of them ferried books to the attic of Grimmauld Place for three quarters of an hour, until upon returning to the office block after one overburdened run, Harry's sense of shadows advancing made him grab Hermione before she could step out into the courtyard. He pulled her backwards into an alcove of the concrete portal and waved a spell to obscure their hiding place.

"What-?"

"Shh," Harry said, arm tight around Hermione's smaller frame. Her back moved against him as she breathed, rapidly. Footsteps approached, the kind made by hard leather soles of business shoes. A Muggle.

Harry did not like the turn this was taking. He waved a darkening charm, which sucked the daylight out of the open entryway to the expansive courtyard. He then transfigured the dead leaves collected in the corners into hand-sized spiders and sent them scurrying out to the pavement.

"Gah!" came the expression of horror followed by running feet.

Harry hoped the man slipped away before what must be a dragnet closed around them. So many shadows approached, Harry worried that a broad Apparition barrier may already be in place.

In a very quiet voice, Hermione asked, "What are we waiting for?"

"I suspect we cannot Apparate away, and-" He stopped as she made a delicate series of movements in the cramped space. The resulting spell gave off a puff of smoke that swirled in a tetrahedron. She shook her head. Harry held her more firmly, and said to her, "Whatever happens, do not let go of me."

She nodded and sucked in a breath that may have been a sniffle. Harry bent to her ear. "I am curious what they are doing. I can't imagine all this trouble just for us."

"All what trouble?" But before Hermione's whisper faded, she jerked back against Harry in surprise. Out of thin air, Portkeying into the courtyard, appeared legions of Death Eaters. Harry's gasp of dizzy mental surprise was fortunately completely excusable.

The hooded figures, long cloaks flowing around them and snapping when they moved, paid no attention to the alcove behind them. Harry quickly added a series of masking spells to their hiding place, easy to add because he could bridge them across the concrete edges boxing them in.

Without any coordination the figures threw spells at the library, causing it to glow at the edges of every board and window pane. The spells hiding it from Muggle eyes failed in a burst that shattered the windows on the library and some on the office block. Glass rained like hail. The spells changed and the glow tightened, narrowed, until, with an ear-splitting creak and crash the building imploded.

The crowd of Death Eaters expressed only one or two notes of victory. A smaller group formed near the rubble and set fire to it. The dry wood caught easily and soon the grey evening sky fell darker in comparison to the rising inferno. The Death Eaters backed away. Some departed. More windows on the office building shattered.

Muggle sirens trickled out of the distance and the Death Eaters began leaving en masse. Harry waited until the fire personnel pushed their way through the crowd gawking from the relative safety of the portal's overhang, their hosepipes keeping a path clear behind them. He cancelled the spells keeping the two of them boxed in, and they slipped away in the crowded confusion and dazzling firelight.

"You were gone quite a while," Snape said when they finally returned to the Grimmauld Place dining room, empty handed for that round.

"We pushed our luck too far," Harry amiably said, trying not to feel anything. He could not afford to care about this place. It would overwhelm him.

Hermione remained quiet upon their return. She went to the tea service and with calm hands made herself a cup and sat down to cradle it, not drinking. Neville tracked her doing this and said, "What happened?"

This drew everyone else's attention.

Hermione cleared her throat. "They destroyed the library."

Lupin turned from helping Lavender put a spell on her mittens. "They did? Guess it was just a matter of time."

Hermione raised her worn gaze to futilely seek hope in every other face in the room, one at a time. Unconsoled, she returned to studying her teacup.

Harry tipped his head subtly toward the door, indicating he wanted to talk to Snape alone. Snape followed him up to the room, where Harry dropped tiredly onto the bed. "Things really are a mess here," he said. "I saw more Death Eaters this afternoon in one place than I believed existed before."

Snape turned to peer out the window, not replying. "What are you thinking?" Harry asked. When he received no reply, he added, "I want to get . . . can we talk safely?"

Without turning around, Snape replied, "I removed all the spying devices. Go ahead."

"I want to get you out of here," Harry said. "It's going to be difficult waiting until Monday when Candide won't be around to notice."

Snape nodded, but did not turn. From below, scents of dinner wafted up, making Harry's insides churn needfully. He stroked his beard and found it felt thinner. "Can you check my disguise?"

Snape approached, thoughts clearly far away. But he renewed Harry's wrinkles and his beard. Harry took his wand back and redid his own hands. He said, "You aren't having second thoughts . . . ?"

Snape shook his head. "I am trying to find hope, any assurance that the odds of success are better than zero . . . I have not yet managed it. This place well exceeds my inadequate aptitude for finding a bright spot."

Harry put his hands in his pockets to protect them against the chill and gave Snape a wry smile. "Mine too, I'm afraid."

- 888 -


- 888 -



Snape peered across the nightly feast filling the dinner table at his "wife". Her normally conversational demeanor had taken a holiday, making Snape wonder if she was beginning to suspect something was amiss. An newly emerging spoiled part of him wished her to know the truth, but his agreement with Harry kept that idea firmly in check. The young man would not be pleased, and Snape had little desire to cross him so blatantly. He did not fear Harry, exactly—only true cruelty was worth fearing, and Harry was not that. But his quick temper, previously impotent at being expressed in any significant manner, had found a dangerous conduit in this place.

Snape contemplated an appropriate comment for many minutes before saying. "May I ask what is troubling you?"

"What? Oh. I'm just worried about Harry."

Snape hoped that was the extent of it. Perhaps it was the majority of it. Reassuringly, he said, "He told me he needed to think things through. I am certain this is merely his quandary over whether to continue on at the Ministry." He made a point of returning to eating, trying hard not to feel jealous of this moment ahead of time. Such meals would become extremely rare very shortly, and the memories of them painful.

"Why can't he think here?" Candide asked, piqued.

Snape put the quick emotion down to hormones and replied, "Perhaps he grew accustomed to being alone." He gestured at the hall behind her. "You saw how many of his friends were here and how many continue to stop by."

"Including Tonks, who should know where he is," Candide insisted.

Snape shrugged dramatically, truly wanting her to let it drop so he could better have her attention. "Possibly he is rethinking that too," he insinuated. "Harry is fine. I am certain. He is more than capable of taking care of himself."

"True. The way he flits in and out of places, without even bothering to Apparate," she murmured, arguing with herself it sounded like.

"That and other things," Snape agreed.

She finally picked up her knife and started in on the main dish. "I wish someone in our office had Curse Nose. Especially around the time Ministry Revenue sends out the crows with the audit notices."

Candide remained quietly introspective through dinner. Snape wished otherwise, but knew of no means to draw her out. He did wonder why the boy wonder delayed so long in returning.

Candide arranged the pillows just so and settled back on the couch to relax with an empty sigh. Snape thought of and discarded many possible things to say before settling on, "Is there something you would like to do?"

Candide sat up enough to peer at the clock. "Oh, well at eight the Flying Gorgeouso Brothers comes on the wireless."

Snape wanted to utter the what? but held back on the assumption that he should already know. "Nothing else you might prefer?"

"They are re-enacting the magical version of Hamlet tonight. Not interested?"

"I think not."

She pulled a small book from her robe pocket. "I feel like listening to a story. You could read to me." Snape fetched the book from her outstretched hand and returned to the opposing couch as she tipped her head back and said, "I like listening to your voice."

The book cover showed a rider hauling hard to turn the head of his black horse. His white sleeves leaked out of his ill-fitting rough brown robes. The horse's head filled the foreground with flared nostrils and defiant protruding eyes, banded neck muscles arcing away, countering the tug of the bit. "The Fiery Friar," Snape read. "You truly intend to read this?"

Without opening her eyes, she said, "I'm halfway through. You can start at the bookmark."

Snape parted the book at the diminutive strip of yellow ribbon and backed up a page to the start of the previous paragraph. "Forks of lightening cracked the seething sky and torrents of rainwater consumed the surface of the already poor road. Behind him, the monastery's stalwart walls stood firm against the onslaught, tiny windows shining beacons against the night. Somewhere ahead on the fast-dissolving road, obscured by the foggy mist sent up by the battering rain, was the Green Rooster Inn, where the Duke undoubtedly harbored from the storm on his trip to the port. It would be harder to guard his daughter in such a place should she finally be driven into mutiny by his stubborn insistence that she be sent off, exiled really, to the colonies."

Snape stopped. "Why?" he asked.

"Why is she being sent off? To be married, because the Duke fears-"

"I meant why any of it? Why are you reading this?"

She laughed, reminding Snape again how easily she let criticism wash around her, unlike Lily. "It's just easy entertainment. I like the books that way. I don't want to think at all when I'm relaxing."

Snape flipped ahead a few pages. "No risk of that. I'll agree."

"Don't you sometimes ever like to imagine a different place, where different rules apply?"

Snape hesitated replying. "I find such thoughts to be unproductive, or . . . counterproductive even."

"Well, unlike you I don't want to get home from work and curl up with the latest Potions research newsletter." She peered over at him discriminatingly. "Well, you'd probably break if you tried to curl up, but you get the idea. Couches are for relaxing, Severus, in case you missed the memo on that."

Snape sat straighter in response. He held the delicate book up higher, moved his thumb out of the way of the words, and read, "Scarletta slipped from the horse's quivering haunches and landed lightly on her dainty boots. The rain had eased into a gentle caress with the touch of dawn upon the land. She tossed her blonde tresses out of her eyes and held them back with one milk-white hand. 'But, you cannot go,' she insisted, troubled eyes reinforcing her unsteady tone. 'I don't even know these people or this place.'"

Candide interrupted, "He's leaving her? What page are you on?"

"Fifty two," Snape assured her. "Which would be . . ." he flipped ahead. "Precisely the middle." He paged back. "I did skip over some," he said, tempted painfully again to tell her the truth. He shut the book, forgetting the bookmark and having to find the page again to rectify that. "I'm sure he is going to tell her he has larger responsibilities . . . promises he cannot break," he said, thinking the author would have an entire run-on flowery sentence about how much effort he put into saying that with no inflection.

With a surge of selfishness, he pushed to his feet and went over to her and changed himself for one of her many pillows, so that she lay across his lap. He felt defiant given how little time he had remaining. Harry's mysterious absence notwithstanding, he harbored no hope that the unpredictable young man would not hold up his promise to send him home, on schedule. Executing the obscure spell of a long dead insane wizard had been Snape's last best chance, borne of homeless desperation. But fate had pushed back and now he had been drained of all desire to tempt it again.

While he considered his fate, Candide's breathing fell slow and steady and he assumed she slept. Her unremarkable face was canted away from him, so he could not be certain. His hand hovered over her shoulder, tempted to touch, but not willing to disturb her if she did sleep.

Snape took a deep breath and remained still, considering his situation. Even if he could not escape fate, escape retribution, it seemed more avenues were open if he would only escape himself and seek them. Candide presumably had a counterpart in his world. And his illicit understanding of her would work greatly to his advantage in approaching her. He may not have a future, but he certainly had a present and he intended to work out how to optimize the quality of it. There was literally nothing to lose, except the dusty past.

- 888 -


- 888 -



Harry had no hope of sleeping that night. Snape's reassuring presence helped, but the room's underlying haze of stale potions and the foot-powdery scent of his borrowed pyjamas distracted him from relaxing. That and every time he closed his eyes, the shadows loomed into view, teasing him with hard-to-define promises.

Harry would have tossed and turned, had there been space to do it in. As it was, he bumped Snape with his elbow and expected that if the other were not awake before that he would be now. Indeed, Snape shifted and asked, "Difficulty sleeping?"

Harry did not feel this was the best time to explain about his latest penchant for gathering a personal psychic army. "Yeah," he said, intending to leave it at that. But he could not, the wraiths teased at him, and the closest shadows bothered him the most. Harry pulled his wand out from under his pillow and sat up in the grey light.

As he sat there thinking, Snape shifted again. "What is it?"

Harry slipped out of the heavy covers and down to the cold floor. "I have to take care of something." With his toes, he found his shoes and grabbed up his cloak off the hook by the door. He could just make out Snape's outline, sitting up in bed.

"I'll be right back," Harry said, and slipped away.

He reinverted on the far side of the square in the center of Grimmauld Place. Relaxing his mind for just an instant, he detected that there was one Death Eater off to his left, near the corner of the fence, and another three huddled directly across from the house. Without even bothering to tie his shoes, Harry marched along the trampled grass beside the curb, preparing a spell in his head and rolling his wand in his fingers in anticipation.

The Death Eater guard was so inept, he caused a rustle of dead leaves as Harry approached, but Harry had a Silencing Charm applied just before the man let out a bird call. Harry jumped the short metal fence meant to preserve the grass from walkers cutting off the corner and sliced out with one of the few invisible spells at his disposal, a Choking Curse. It took two tries, but his quarry fell through the shrubbery at his feet in a futile effort to escape the spell. Harry disarmed the hooded figure and added a heavy chain binding before releasing the man to breathe again. Harry yanked the hood free to reveal Montague, a Slytherin Harry knew from Hogwarts. The surprised look he got in return made Harry realize that he was operating without a disguise.

Harry hesitated only a second before tugging Montegue's hood back down and slipping off across the grass, angling away from his next targets a bit to come in directly from behind.

Harry had two of them bound up before the third even thought to turn. The figure's mask was in place, but his voice sounded like Jugson's when it said, "Potter?" and looked him up and down. Harry assumed he made quite a picture, standing in the night air in his pyjamas and cloak, shivering faintly despite the lovely adrenalin warming his blood in its course.

"I want you to leave me alone," Harry said. "I want you to go away."

"Go away?" Jugson echoed, as dull as ever. The mask made Jugson's breathing louder. He huffed and raised his wand. Harry easily waved out the counter to the Blasting Curse that came his way.

"What is this?" Harry mocked. "Aren't you listening? Take your friends and go!"

Another curse. Harry blocked that one too. "What does it take?" He sent a Spinning Hex at Jugson, toying with him. It spun his robes up tight and when it released him he continued spinning until he fell in the cold mud. "Go!" Harry commanded again, reaching inward this time to reinforce his will.

Harry could not see well, but thought that Jugson convulsed once in a great heave before shakily rising. Shoulders rising and falling, he peered at Harry, eyes glittering through the holes in his crooked mask. He raised his wand threateningly, but then lowered it and Disapparated.

Harry stepped over, grabbed each of his companions by whatever he could and took them away as well, to the first place he thought of that was harmlessly out of the way: the Quidditch pitch overlooking the port at Falmouth. He dropped his packages on the center line, also muddy, and went back for the last of the four.

Montague he took to the field outside of London where he had battled with Merton's associates. He dropped him backwards onto the windbroken straw and stared around them. The night made the fields stretch away to an impossible distance. There were no cars, no lights except the hazy glow that must be London central to the northeast. The closest houses were dark, roofs ragged, uninhabited looking.

"Happy with this?" Harry demanded of his confused captive. Part of him felt terror at this world, at what his own could have become if he had not succeeded. It all felt so fragile and slippery and Harry hated that feeling; he was strong enough that he should never feel that helpless, ever.

Harry brought his breathing under control. He longed to lash out, somehow, take any action against the impossible. A great spring threatened to uncoil inside him and if he did not let it loose, it would shred him from the inside. He tossed a Lumos out of his wand and held it low, glaring at Montague.

"You didn't have to become this," Harry said.

Montague cleared his throat, but still croaked as he said, "I did, really. There's nothing else."

"There's death," Harry said pleasantly. "That's always an option."

Montague's face stretched in dismay at that thought and he uselessly shuffled the thick links of the chain binding before falling still again, wary.

His old classmate lay like a black carpet before him, leaching poison into Harry . . . sweet poison. Harry licked his lips and in one sudden and violent movement crouched low, jerked Montague's arm free of the chain and pressed his hand over the Dark Mark. Desperately, fighting his own base instinct to do the opposite, Harry pressed the curse away. He pressed it away from himself, away from Montague's clammy flesh.

Montague screamed and Harry had to hold his knobbly wrist with all his strength to keep him from pulling free. Ash gritted under Harry's hand as he let go. With a small smirk he brushed the ash away to reveal a clean arm and said, "Explain that to your master."

Harry stood, unsteady in the dark field that provided little discernable reference for upright. He brushed his forehead, then had to rub it clean of the ash from his hand. Dismissively, he waved the chain binding off and Disapparated away so he could slip into the Dark Plane unseen, and from there return to Snape's room.

The field outside had not seemed bright, but the room was even darker. Harry's eyes finally landed on a figure standing in the window, when it turned.

"There you are," Snape said in relief.

"Yep, I'm here," Harry said, trying to act normal. He kicked off his shoes, shed his cloak to the floor on top of them, and slipped gratefully back into bed.

Snape joined him a minute later. Sitting on the other edge for a time, thinking, apparently. "We will discuss later what you were doing."

Harry's brows raised, unseen. "Right," he said amiably. "I just needed to stretch out a bit so I could sleep."

"Not wise doing that here."

Harry rolled away and curled up against the cold so far that his knees hung off the side of the bed. "Yeah, I know."

Snape gave him and settled in beside him. "Don't do it again."

Harry, enjoying the lonely near-field of his mind, and sucked down by exhaustion, could not reply.

He dreamed he stared into a mirror. He and his reflection considered one another, blinking and twitching. Harry reached up to touch the silvered glass and found that his reflection did not follow this movement, nor was there any glass.

Harry snapped awake, gasping. Again, he was glad to have Snape's nearly painful grasp on his arm as an anchor to bring him out of the forest. The square outside, and thus Harry's inner vision, hummed with scores of Death Eaters.

"Guess that didn't work," Harry mumbled.

"What?"

Harry rubbed his gritty eyes and explained, "I chased away the handful of guards out in the square earlier and now there are about fifty." With a heart surging start of worry for the counterparts of his friends, Harry asked, "They can't get in here, can they?"

Snape released Harry's arm and reached for his cloak. "If an all out assault could be effective, I expect they would have done it long ago."

Harry calmed his heart. "Good point."

The air in the room bit at Harry's nose and fingers and a gauzy greyness crept around the objects in the room. "Can I light the hearth? What time is it?"

"You may light it if you wish. Heating the walls is almost as effective."

Harry did both and scooted forward on the bed to better enjoy the firelight. Snape still peered out the window, moving slowly side to side, sometimes leaning close. "You really don't think they can get in?" Harry asked again.

Snape shook his head. Harry tapped his wand on his blanket covered knee. "I should renew my spells," he said. "Return to Dumbledore mode."

After a pause, Snape said, "You are nearly as frustrating as Dumbledore, so you do have that going for you."

"Thanks."

It was a good thing Harry had put on his disguise as early as possible. Just as dawn came on in earnest, Hermione knocked faintly on the door.

"Just thought I'd come and warn you to be extra careful coming and going. Looks like we have an invading force down in the square." She minced over to the window and leaned on the brewing shelf to peer out. "Look at them all. They aren't even hiding." She sounded rattled and worried.

Harry felt a bit guilty and then thought he should reserve his energy for keeping inside his own head.

At the door, Hermione stopped and said, "I have some books spread out on the table downstairs, if you want to come down before we have to move things aside for breakfast . . ."

Snape nodded. Hermione glanced stressfully at the window again before pulling the door closed behind her and leaving them alone.

Harry could not read Snape's expression. He said, "I don't need a lecture."

"I was not intending to give you one." He shook his stringy hair. "I have given up understanding the cause and effect of this place. A sign, I suppose, that I am more than ready to abandon it." He raised a finger in Harry's direction. "Back home, however . . ." and he left it at that.

Downstairs, a loud discussion could be heard even through the door to the room. Neville 's voice and Lavender's came through the clearest. They were debating how best to counter the force outside. Ron made proclamations like he had been pushed by frustration into a daylight counter-assault.

Harry closed his eyes and carefully, most carefully, reached not for the shadows, exactly, but for the heart of where they connected to him. He pushed discordant energy into that, making their Marks burn. Seconds later the sound of mass Disapparation could be heard clearly, like a bundle of marbles thrown at a wall in the distance.

"Did you do that?" Snape asked.

Harry nodded and stood up. "They'll think they were summoned."

"That should be interesting for them to sort out," Snape said.

"I didn't want Ron doing anything stupid for my mistake," Harry explained. "Come on, let's go do some reading so we can get out of here."




Next Chapter - 37

Hermione kept her hand over the book, visibly struggling with what she wanted to say. "This may seem a little mad, but I'm trying to piece something together and I hope you can help. What do you know about Dumbledore's wand?"

"Just that the Malfoy's are not above grave robbing, which is no great surprise upon deeper reflection."

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