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Chapter 39 — Precipitous Plots

Harry sat at the dining room table, penning a letter to Tonks, one pet on his shoulder and the other watching and winking from the chair-back opposite. Harry held the letter out for Hedwig and took down the canister of Floo powder. She nipped at him, but accepted the journey, leaving behind a tail feather that quickly burned up in the fire when it returned to yellow.

Tonks appeared minutes later, and stood awkwardly beside the table.

"Did you bring Hedwig back?" Harry asked, wanting to send more letters.

"She wanted out of my window, so I let her. Probably off collecting your post."

Harry gestured that she should sit. He wished that nothing hovered between them, but could not shove the issues completely aside. He took her hand and sat down, holding it. "Want to stay?" he asked, missing her acutely from his time in prison.

"You aren't angry with me?" she asked. "About everything."

Harry thought she seemed angry with herself. A breath escaped him and he shook his head. Kali crawled once around his collar before settling in again.

"Coming into the Ministry tomorrow?" she asked.

Harry shook his head again. Partly, he was thinking he could better find Moody's killer if he had more time to do it. Partly, he wanted to punish the Ministry.

She pulled free of his hand and sat back, elbows out. Winky sparkled in and poured her a cup of hot mead, which she concentrated on while sipping it. She did not meet his eyes as she whispered, "We need to find who really killed Moody."

"That's what I was thinking," Harry said. "And I have an idea how to go about it."

Her tired eyes grew interested. "How's that?"

Harry was not ready yet to explain his plan to infiltrate Durumulna. "Let me try this week to see if it will work, then I'll let you in on it."

"Just be careful, Harry. Promise?"

A little recklessness would be required, but these people were nowhere near Voldemort's level, which Harry had just faced down yet again. He shrugged vaguely.

She pulled out her little chalkboard and scratched something out on it. Harry said, "Are you on duty?"

She avoided his eyes. "I've been taking extra shifts . . . just for something to do. I'm taking myself off for a few hours." She held the board up. "Kingsley says no problem." As she slipped the board back into her pocket, she said, "Arthur will want to talk to you."

"Fine," Harry said flatly.

It was not terribly late, but Harry had not rested well in days. He stood to lead the way to his room. In the main hall, Tonks said, "You never opened your Christmas presents."

Harry glanced over at the pile that Winky must be keeping neat and dusted. "Want me to open them now?"

Tonks headed that way, and sorted through the pile. "You have a lot of friends, Harry," she observed.

Harry took up the present from Candide and tore off the paper. Inside was a new quill set, gold tipped in six colors of feather. "I could have used that in prison," he said, remembering having to beg a quill from the warden.

"Posh," Tonks said. "Can I have the bright pink one?"

"Yeah, help yourself to it," Harry adamantly said, reaching for the next gift.

Tonks happily pocketed the quill and said quietly, "I caught Arthur in the file room the other day . . ." She stopped until Harry put down a small box that held what appeared to be a snow globe with the Hogwarts castle inside. But shaking it did not make any snow appear. "He was adding pages to Percy's file."

Harry fixed his gaze on the castle. "What was on them?"

"You assume I sneaked back to read them?" she said with false insult, raising herself up on her toes.

Harry waited, prodding the boxed globe to no avail. Voice low, she said, "He's opened an internal investigation. Just our department. He isn't telling anyone about it, even the Minister. Kingsley's assigned to it. I told him what I'd learned following Percy around at your request." She sighed. "The department would probably not be pleased to know I'm telling you this."

Harry nodded and held back a smile. It was a better present than any on the table.

Tonks helped dispose of wrappings while Harry stacked opened gifts. Halfway through the pile, she asked, "Where did you go?"

Harry turned the box he held one way, then another, trying to read all the small print. Set a Spell it read. Better than a Rememspeller! Harry opened the box, to find a small black pyramid inside. "It's hard to explain," he said.

Tonks took up the pyramid. "My dad has one of these. You can have someone record a spell you can't do yourself on each corner, and then replay it when you need it."

"Does it work?" Harry said, thinking that a bit dangerous if used the right way.

Tonks shrugged. "Only for weak spells and some charms. His refuses to record hexes or curses." She dropped it back in Harry's hand. "His mending spells are bollox, so he uses it for that to avoid asking Mum." After a beat, she said, "What's hard to explain?"

Harry thought of that other place and how tangled things had become with his guardian misplaced. He huffed and laughed lightly. "Everything."

Sadly, she said, "You won't say. I thought maybe you'd gone off to one of those other places."

"I needed to work some things out," Harry insisted vaguely, not wanting to lie outright. He dropped the next wrapped box he had held and took her by the arm. "Come on, let's finish this later."

The next morning, Harry woke late, and alone—Tonks had slipped out while he slept, to return to duty. Harry found Snape in the drawing room, still in his dressing gown, well enough rested that his eyes were clear and keen.

"Feeling better?" Harry asked.

"Well enough. Candide wished to remain home from work for my sake, but I convinced her to go. I feel recovered but I do wonder if it is possible to ever feel truly warm again." He sipped his steaming tea with unusual reverence.

The door knocker sounded, and Harry went to open it, finding Ginny and Fred on the stoop. Ginny said, "Aaron owled this morning to say you were back, but not at training."

Harry nodded and invited them inside. Fred gave him a hard slap, "Welcome back to the Red Haired Anti-Ministry League, my man. Good to have you back on the safe side."

Harry said, "You only say that because I've seen too much of what you're doing. And my hair's not red."

Fred made himself comfortable on the couch. "That can be fixed. Permanently, even."

Ginny scuffed to a stop upon spying Snape in the drawing room. "Oh, you're still home, sir. Sorry, Harry, I need to talk to Professor Snape, alone, if you don't mind." She slipped into the drawing room with too much familiarity, and closed the door.

"What's with that?" Harry asked the room, which only contained Fred, who replied with a shrug.

Harry worried acutely about Snape also not knowing. "Maybe I'll crash this meeting. I'll be right back." He waved Fred to sit back down and after a quick rap, slipped inside.

Snape was standing behind his desk, wearing that thoughtful look on his face that implied he was trying to catch a hint beyond someone's eyes. Ginny stopped speaking upon Harry's entry, trailing off from, " . . . I don't feel comfortable . . ."

"It's all right, go on," Harry urged.

Ginny frowned, and with a half glance at Snape informed him, "I'm not supposed to tell anyone."

Snape gave a small sideways nod that Harry interpreted to mean he was grateful for the help. Harry wished he had some idea what this was about in order to help.

Snape cued Ginny for Harry's sake, "You were saying something about Lord Freelander, if I'm not mistaken."

Ginny glowered. "Oh, so now I can say something."

Snape's expression did not obviously change, but clearly he disliked this immensely.

Harry took a guess and asked, "You're not happy about the letters?"

"You know about that?" Ginny asked, sounding relieved.

"Yes," Harry assured her.

Ginny's shoulders fell. "I feel terribly about the trouble." She paused to give Snape a deserved glare before turning back to Harry. "I don't like having this kind of secret from Aaron, and I worry I should tell him before the letters come to light and can be traced to my handling them. I've seen my brothers at work; I know that can be done."

"Severus has the letters again," Harry said, finding amusement in Snape's attempts to appear that he followed this conversation. Harry turned to Snape. "I'm sure he's hidden them safely away."

Snape gave a mechanical nod. Fortunately, his usual annoyed detachment worked as cover.

Harry tried to console her. "Look, when this all blows over for the better, Aaron will be happy Skeeter got what she deserved."

Ginny argued, "If we got at her any other way, I'd believe that. But this is too close to the truth. I would never hang Aaron's personal life out there like this. Not if I'd known." She gave Snape another glance and stood up. "Never mind. I promised I wouldn't shirk." Her voice fell softer and she addressed Snape with, "I just feel like I sacrificed myself, even though you said that wasn't part of the plan."

Ginny departed, closing the door behind her. After a moment, Snape said, "Clearly, I returned home just in time. Hopefully." He pulled out the center drawer on his desk. "I suppose I should locate these letters, as good at hiding things from myself as I seem to be . . ." He closed that drawer and opened another. "What do they look like?"

"They are torn in half." Harry said helpfully. "Should be easy to spot."

Snape sat down to rummage in a lower drawer. "And that happened, how?"

"They had some kind of magical alarm clip on them, and when I slipped into the Dark Plane it refused to go along."

Snape shook his head. "I don't see them."

"Did you run all the eavesdropping spells?" Harry asked, pulling his wand to check now that he remembered.

"Of course," Snape said, still looking around. He found some other papers that were of momentary interest. "And these letters were to what purpose?"

"Revenge on Rita Skeeter."

"Did it work?"

"Yes."

Snape dropped the papers back into the drawer and closed it. "Long overdue."

Harry explained, "Well, she was tricked by it. What will come of it, is yet to be seen."

Snape stood and surveyed the room. "Is it possible I would have simply burned them?" he asked.

"That would have been the best thing."

They both stared into the hearth, where lean, blackened logs fluttered with orange tongues. "I'll look some more here and at Hogwarts, but if they do not turn up, I may assume I simply did that. But I do wonder if more action is required on my part."

Harry laughed. "You want to finish what your counterpart started?"

Snape gazed thoughtfully back at him. "You always do." He resumed his chair and gestured at the door. "Why don't you see your friends out and come back for our talk."

Harry felt a flutter of reluctance at getting a lecture, but did as requested. Ginny sent her brother on ahead and took Harry's sleeves. "Will you help me with Aaron if I tell him?"

"Yes, of course. You didn't mean any harm to him, right?"

"I didn't even know he would get involved. I didn't ask any questions; I just followed instructions. After your letter, I told Professor Snape I wanted to help you, and delivering those love letters was what he told me to do."

"You were a mule," Harry said, then explained. "What the criminal gangs call someone who does the legwork but knows nothing about what they are carrying."

"Wonderful. I've joined the Gang of Slytherin."

Trying to cheer her up, he quipped, "You'll enjoy it. They get away with everything you never dared try."

"Didn't stop my brothers."

"Your brothers always got caught, as I recall."

"Not as often as you think," she said. Then feel more serious. "I haven't asked you again about that crazy letter you sent me. Did you mean it?"

"I meant it, but I don't know if it matters," Harry said. "That's a bad answer to be going on with, I know. Keep up with your studies and don't trust me. I could be an evil wizard in disguise, you know."

She gave him a shove on the arm, "Harry, not trusting you would include not trusting the letter you sent."

A more wily instinct inside of him said, "And maybe you shouldn't."

"Uhhhn," she groaned in playful annoyance. "I don't want a prophecy. But I'll admit just the threat of one makes it easier to pick up my books when I'd rather do something else."

Harry considered delaying her longer, to delay getting the talk, but she said, "I have to get back to the shop. Aaron is coming to take me out to lunch." She gave him a peck on the cheek and said, "Glad you're home, Harry."

"So am I," He said, happy to gain some distance from the shadows calling to him. It gave him room to think about broader things.

"If you think of sending a letter again, come and find me instead!" Ginny said, before borrowing a handful of Floo powder.

Harry waited for the last of the loosened ash to settle on the grate in her wake before returning to the drawing room. Snape sat with his fingers on his forehead, reading his pre-opened post.

"Anything else I've been doing that I should be made aware of?" he asked, flipping each letter over to scan the next.

Harry took the seat before the desk and tossed his hands. "I wasn't here either, remember?"

Snape's focus drifted off. "The next few weeks should be excessively interesting, in that case."

"We're doing better than they are. Back there," Harry said, silently wishing them well.

"I've been thinking over those events. You appeared to win the Wand of Destiny off Voldemort, tipping your counterpart's hand, so to speak. Except that you already signaled your superiority before that. That may work in that Order's favor, by driving Voldemort into a defensive posture."

"That would be better?"

"It will give the Order some time to get better organized. . . Potter to get a sufficient graps of his powers. . ."

Silence ruled, until Harry said, "Do you think they'll manage?"

"I still gauge the odds at fifty-fifty." He put his letters aside and put his eyes squarely on Harry. "Thinking of going back to assist?"

Harry faintly shook his head. "I shouldn't go back there."

Snape's mannerisms lightened, indicating this was his preferred answer. "One of several things we need to discuss."

Harry frowned and took a deep breath. Snape closed his dressing gown tighter around his chest and settled back in his chair, hands in his pockets.

"Still cold?" Harry asked.

"No matter. Let's back up to the critical issues I missed. You were arrested for what?" he asked, in the mode of one making a list.

"Killing Alastor Moody."

Snape breathed in slowly. "I did not realize that."

"I didn't want to risk telling you in front of everyone."

"Valid concern. Who did kill him?"

"I don't know," Harry said. "Had to be someone who knew he was alive. Oh, that's another thing . . ." Harry, hemmed, "Tonks told me you arranged for someone to confess to my crime, to get me out of prison."

"I did that," Snape stated, half questioning.

"Yup."

"Remind me in the future not to be replaced by an impostor."

"What?" Harry countered, half teasing. "You'd have left me there in the lock up?"

"I would have thought of something."

Harry let that go, otherwise he may need to explain what precisely had motivated the other Snape to take such drastic action. Harry appreciated, with a tremor in his raw nerves at imagining otherwise, having a guardian who was not also a shadow and therefore a tempting tool. He felt badly now remembering how he had treated the other. He had not been able to help himself, and that bothered him the most.

Snape resumed a businesslike attitude. "So, you were framed for Moody's murder, how?"

Harry pulled out his wand and held it out before him. "Well, I went to talk to Belinda, that evening, and she gave me the brush off about needing help, which she previously told me she needed, but later said I was not there at her place that night. I made the mistake of using the Dark Plane to get there—I know, I know, I should not be using it at all—and so there were no records in the Department of Transportation to back me up." He held the wand up higher. "That and Moody's murder was on my wand," he added, feeling faintly nauseated at that thought.

Snape sat forward, thoughtful for many seconds. "They reversed the spells in front of you?"

Harry nodded, holding the wand out so Snape could take it. "deBenedictus was there and he told me not to let them do it. But I didn't see the risk."

Snape looked the wand over and handed it back. "And it is your wand."

"Yes." Harry sighed, turning it between his fingers, finding nothing odd about it.

"Give me the timeline in detail. When did they reverse the spells?"

Harry held the wand in hands clasped between his knees. "Two days after the murder, when I first came into the Ministry for training."

"And you recognized the spells preceding . . . actually sequentially after . . . the curse in question?"

Harry shrugged. "Other than drills, they weren't anything special."

"And the spells right before the curse?"

Harry paused. "They didn't go back any farther than that."

"They should have. Who performed the reversal?"

Harry's mind was speeding up, remembering. "Rodgers ran the reversal. But Mr. Weasley was in charge."

"I'm disappointed in them, then. I would expect them to be more thorough."

Harry shook his head. "They may not have wanted to prove me innocent. Tonks told me later they wanted temporarily to do what Durumulna intended, to keep me safe."

"And your wand was in your possession the entire time when the murder is reputed to have been committed?"

Harry wondered fleetingly how dinner with both his guardian and his solicitor would go. Tediously, most likely. "Yes."

"You are certain?" Snape stated with clear enunciation.

"Well, the day before my arrest, Percy knocked it out of my hand and fetched it up. Dangled it before me."

"Did he now?"

"Well, but he just knocked it under the bench in the changing room."

"But you lost sight of it in that moment?"

"Yes. But, what could he have done with it in that second and a half?" Harry asked, letting his frustration get out.

"He does not have to do anything but switch it," Snape pointed out, also rising in agitation.

"Severus," Harry insisted, not liking the implied chastisement. "I had my wand before that. I would know if I had lost my wand. It's kind of a rare one, you know."

"Harry," Snape said, backing off on his Head of House voice and moderating into something more gentle, "it isn't so very rare. You had another, before."

A tingle, like ice crystals forming, migrated up Harry's back. He thought frantically backward in time. "I . . . I was having trouble getting my wand out of my pocket. Like it would fall in too far." He slid this one into his front wand pocket and out again, feeling colder still. "Someone switched my wand for my old one. Severus, I had Winky extend all my wand pockets, and several times, I couldn't get at my wand." Harry thought back, trying to remember when that had started, exactly. "I don't remember the first time that happened . . ."

"Think back instead to another time your wand was out of your sight."

Harry did so, unable to remember, so he gestured helplessly.

Snape, unrelenting, said, "It could have been while you slept . . . it could have been while you ate lunch, it could have been a pickpocket."

Harry thought back, but shook his head again.

"Think, Potter. Did you ever loan it out?" When Harry indicated not, Snape went on, "Were you out on a busy street in the days preceding?"

"In the days preceding, I came to see if you were all right, in that other place. Surely no one there switched the wands."

"I would think not. Other than that?"

"I went down to Diagon Alley, to buy a small animal to try taking In Between." Harry felt another chill, remembering the desiccated creature.

"And did anyone bump into you, physically?"

"Belinda," Harry replied.

"Could she have switched your wand?"

Harry remembered that day. He remembered Belinda taking his lapels and waltzing him around the animal cages. He had not been watching her, but instead the suspected Durumulna walking by. "Yes." He scratched his chin with his knuckles. "She had been so eager to talk, to go out for tea or something, and after that, she gave me the brush off. Told me she'd taken care of things."

"She probably had," Snape stated knowingly.

"They told her to take my wand," Harry said.

Snape accepted the fresh tea Winky brought in and poured out two cups. "She was probably not the only one assigned that task, if they were at all competent about it." He gestured for Harry to come fetch the other cup from the tray, and blowing over his own, said, "They left the plan tight for Percy to change the wands back. They had to know he could reasonably get that close to you."

"It was a surprise inspection." Harry warmed his hands on his cup. "You think that's what happened?" he sadly asked, regretting the discovery that Belinda had grown so involved. "You think that's how the spell got on my wand?"

"Not for certain. But lacking more evidence, we will operate on the assumption that it is correct. It is critical to recognize your enemies, especially the ones closest to you. In this case, we already know she lied, so the rest is safer to assume."

Harry turned his cup and drank off the end of it. "So, Percy probably knows who really killed Moody."

"Or did it himself," Snape stated, raising Harry's eyes in surprise. "You do not think him capable? Possibly. In such plots, the fewer involved the more likely the success, and since they succeeded, until foiled at a later time, I would assume there is only one other involved, at most."

"You could lecture our apprentices on criminal plotting, Severus."

"Our apprentices?" Snape prodded.

Harry dropped his gaze to his cup, which was empty. "I might go back. I haven't decided."

"I would prefer it." At Harry's curious glance, Snape went on, "You are still at an age where structure is important. And you have a great deal to learn."

"Yeah, plus you'd prefer I at least pretend I'm on the good side." He eyed Snape knowingly at the tail of this.

"Pretending to be on the bad side does gain one some personal leeway, but I don't recommend it, in general. In any event, you will most likely receive some concession for returning. Perhaps that will assuage your ego regarding it." His voice fell off and he regarded Harry in silence

Harry hoped that Snape would be finished with their talk for now, that he would leave some things for later, but this was not to be.

"On another topic. You were having peculiar difficulties in that other place. What exactly was the problem?"

Harry met Snape's eyes, and only upon finding them shuttered realized he had tried to get a hint of what Snape suspected. "I didn't like having so many shadows around. That's all. They bothered me."

Snape sat with his chin resting on his closed fist. "Bothered you, how?"

Harry shrugged, reluctant to give away everything. Those other instincts to plot had grown less alien and now felt like a reasonable advisor.

Snape asked, "Why did Voldemort fail to Summon his followers?"

Harry shrugged again; it was by far the easiest answer.

Snape did not speak for several breaths. "I consider it crucial to remain in your good graces, Harry. So, I do not wish to appear to betray you by entrapping you with my questions. Are you certain that's your answer?" Snape asked. Too level.

Harry swallowed. In a rush, he said, "I don't like what is happening to me. But I can't stop it."

Snape knitted his fingers before him and said, "Now we are getting somewhere. My counterpart left me a most interesting letter, one I find hard to believe."

"You were tricking me," Harry complained.

"I was simply asking you for information. Then when you resisted, I was merely assessing you. Both differ from trickery. I am now treating you as an equal by informing you of what he wrote, so you are aware of what I know. Or would you prefer I not?"

Harry dropped his eyes, fluttery inside again, he said, "He set me off. I couldn't stop myself. I was angry with him invading this house."

"Understandable. But despite that, I think you crossed a line. One that I am personally familiar with, so please do not think it a mere lecture when I warn you that it is difficult to remain behind this line after breaching it."

"I do feel better," Harry insisted without thinking. "Here. At home."

"I fear, merely a reprieve," Snape said. Adding upon Harry's change of expression, "I am never delusional, no matter how much I wish a situation to be otherwise. I would think you knew that by now."

The door knocker sounded. Moments later, Winky interrupted with immense shyness to announce Mr. Weasley. Mr. Weasley pushed the door open a tad more than Winky had to stick her nose inside. "I hope I'm not interrupting?"

Snape stood. "No, do come in. I assume you wish to speak with Harry."

Mr. Weasley slipped his hat off and folded it into his pocket. Scratching his head, he said, "If I could have a moment alone with you first, Severus, I'd prefer that."

Harry stood and, glad for the interruption, went out to the main hall where, with distracted attention, he opened the rest of his Christmas gifts. He stacked a pair of sparkling socks from Dobby on top of a box of Telescope Vision Sweets from the twins. For the first time he understood how his cousin could care so little for each gift. They felt terribly meaningless to Harry at that moment.

In the drawing room, Mr. Weasley tugged the chair so it better centered on the desk. He still had his cloak on and he stood halfway to flip this back over his shoulders before sitting again. "I just wanted to know where you stand before I approach Harry. We do want him back and I want to go about convincing him to do so the best way possible."

Snape sat back and stared at Mr. Weasley over the tips of his steepled fingers.

Mr. Weasley looked away and went on, "Ehem, I wanted to know where you stood on his continuing his apprenticeship before I-"

"I am for it," Snape interrupted.

"Ah. Good. Fine then." Mr. Weasley sat forward in his chair. "How best do you think that can be accomplished?"

"Give him time. Let him make up for his incarceration by enjoying some extra freedom. I honestly think, given enough time, he will grow bored."

Mr. Weasley straightened his hair and better tucked his hat away. "Can I count on you to convince him?"

"I will do no such thing." At Mr. Weasley's surprise, Snape added, "This is his decision, alone. I have expressed my preference to him, but I will not attempt to coerce or even nag him. He is perfectly capable of deciding for himself."

Mr. Weasley's shoulders fell forward. "I was hoping for more help than that. Minister Bones insisted in no uncertain terms that Harry must return. Perhaps she can convince him."

"May I say," Snape said, "that I understand Harry's low estimation of loyalty from your organization."

"The threat to him was not to be underestimated, Severus."

"There has always been a threat to him," Snape pointed out.

"We have leaks-" Mr. Weasley stopped when Snape abruptly held up his hand, took up his wand and reran the spells to block eavesdropping and to force Animagi to unmorph, then he set it back on the desk.

"Do go on."

Mr. Weasley huffed. "Same problem we have. We have a traitor, or perhaps two or three, in our midst at the Ministry. We feared—we being myself, Reggie and Kingsley, that the goal behind framing Harry was not to have him prosecuted for the crime, but merely to have him held in the Ministry dungeon awaiting a hearing, where he would be an easy mark indeed." His face fell. "We cannot fail to detain someone once we have that much evidence. Doesn't matter if it's the Minister herself." He threw up his hands, which then landed on his thighs. "We brought in the very best to advise him, but dear Harry, with his overflowing faith in his own innocence, did not abide by his advice. Placing him with the French was our only workable fall back plan. Fortunately the new Azkaban will not be finished for another half a year; otherwise, we'd have had to come up with a rather singular excuse to not send him there."

The two sat in silence, until Mr. Weasley said, "Really, Severus, we are merely doing our best to protect him. He doesn't make that terribly easy, you know. But he's more than worth the trouble he attracts. I hope he knows that."

"He will if you tell him." Snape fluidly rose to his feet. "I'll fetch him, unless there is something else . . . ?"

Frowning, Mr. Weasley shook his head.

Harry looked up when Snape opened the drawing room door. He was playing with the Set a Spell, trying to trick it into recording a simple Hedgehog Hex. As Harry passed Snape in the doorway, and Snape turned to leave, Mr. Weasley said, "Do you want to sit in?"

Snape shook his head and closed the door. Harry's opened presents sat in a disarrayed pile on the table, the top packages off kilter and threatening to tumble. He took a seat on the couch, hands clasped, appearing more pained as he became more thoughtful.

Mr. Weasley pulled another chair away from the far wall—one in need of upholstery repair. He set it facing Harry and leaned forward anxiously.

"Harry. I'm glad you didn't spend too much time away. We were quite worried, given that not even your family knew where you had gone off to."

Harry rubbed his nose and waited for something easier to address.

Mr. Weasley spread his hand placatingly. "You are well aware of what the limits are of our office. The rules we have to work within. They are part of what keep us from falling into treachery, from the Ministry becoming part of the problem." He sat back and muttered to himself, "Perhaps that's the wrong way to go about this."

Given the terrible situation he had just escaped, Harry had more understanding than Mr. Weasley probably suspected. "I understand, Mr. Weasley, but I'm not ready to come back."

"Ah, but you do intend to."

"I don't know," Harry said with a shrug. "I don't know what I want."

Mr. Weasley gave him a pained frown that might be sympathetic. "Don't take too long to decide or you may fall too far behind. Not that we wouldn't make some accommodation," he added quickly. "We didn't believe you did it, Harry. But we have to do things a certain way, you understand."

An owl scratched at the window. One of the small grey and silver fast ones the twins owned. Harry went and let it in, taking the letter that had his name scrawled on it in a small and furtive, but familiar, hand. Harry opened the letter as he returned to his seat. It was short and from Ginny. She said that Skeeter was snooping around the shop in disguise and wondered if Harry had any ideas what they best do.

Harry tossed the letter on the fire on the way back to his chair.

"That looked like my one of my sons' owls," Mr. Weasley said, in a manner that expected further information.

Harry shrugged. "You were saying?"

"Ehem, yes, I was saying that you are always welcome back. Amel- Minister Bones told me that she is willing to go to rather great lengths to make things up to you."

Harry's brow furrowed. "By doing what?"

Mr. Weasley grew remote. "Er, I think it was something like declaring a Harry Potter Winter Fun Day or some such, but . . . that's not the point, Harry. The point is she's willing to smooth things over, whatever it takes."

Part of Harry thrilled faintly at the notion of being owed a favor he could save for later, but most of him did not want anything. "I'll think about it."

Mr. Weasley leaned closer. "She's willing to place you elsewhere in the Ministry, if that's what you'd prefer. I'd rather not tell you that, because we'd rather you stay with us. And I told Minister Bones that I doubted you would want to be anywhere else . . ." He faded out, eyes searching out Harry's.

Harry stood. "I'll think about it," he said again.

Mr. Weasley patted Harry on the arm, looked as if he wished to say more, but made it to the door before saying, "If you need anything, Harry. Let me know."

"A bit of leeway," Harry said.

Mr. Weasley asked, "With what?"

Harry shrugged again and saw him out. Snape stood in the hall when Harry returned, face unreadable.

Harry slipped his warmest cloak over his shoulders.

"You are going where?" Snape asked evenly.

Harry paused to look at him. He could make a battle out of that. He ignored that instinct and replied, "Diagon Alley. Skeeter is snooping around Ginny."

"Do you want help?"

Harry shook his cloak to drape it forward over his shoulders and memories of what they had just gone through cleared his head. He laughed lightly. "We are unfortunately both equally ignorant about things. I don't even know how Ginny got involved in this. I'm hoping to get her to explain. At least I'm supposed to not know."

"Her cryptic remark about being sacrificed also begs for illumination."

Harry paused in fishing out his gloves. "Right."

"You will be back to guard Candide when she returns home from work?" Snape asked. "If not I will remain."

Harry felt a warmth rush through him at that expression of trust. "I'll be back. You need to get back to Hogwarts, don't you?"

Snape nodded, studied Harry's eyes a moment longer than necessary, then turned to retreat to the drawing room.

- 888 -


The bells on the shop door cheerfully chimed out a dirge as Harry slipped inside Weasley Wizard Wheezes. His stroll along the alley had attracted a level of attention unmatched in a long time. A few congratulated him on proving his innocence, but most just stopped and stared in confusion.

Harry walked slowly and peered around the shop, thinking Skeeter may be hiding among the piles of colorful boxes. She would have come in disguise in order to ask questions, which she could not do as a bug. Undoubtedly, she hoped to get the letters back, and would not give up until she had.

"Harry," Ginny said in surprise, causing the pair of customers in the corner to look over. Fred, who was assisting them astutely led them to the farthest corner of the shop. As Harry approached the counter, Ginny said quietly, "You still haven't gone into the Ministry today. . ."

Out of the corner of his eyes Harry saw movement on the top edge of a framed Wizarding Yen note on the wall above the counter. Something insect-like with long antenna was crawling along the top of the glittering, gem-inlaid frame. Fixing his eyes on Ginny so as not to give away that he had spotted Skeeter, Harry stated clearly, "No, I'm not planning on going back at all."

Ginny's lips pursed. "Oh."

"I don't want you to give up trying," Harry added quickly. "Just because I have. You wanting to be an Auror shouldn't have anything to do with me."

She came around the counter and leaned on the front of it, peering up at him. This was better for Harry, as his eyes kept wanting to dance up to stare at Skeeter. Ginny said, "Dad's treated you really badly."

Harry gave the faintest shrug. He wanted certain things to make it into the evening edition, but others could be left unprinted. He thought about how he would like an article to read. "The department had to do what they had to do. But so do I. I'm doing what I want now."

"If you say so, Harry," she said, sounding dubious, but not so much as to tip off Skeeter. She sighed, and said in real sadness, "It just would have been nice to train with you . . . if I do get in. It'd be like old times." She glanced along the front windows before leaning closer. "As to the other thing. Are you certain that . . ."

Harry could see in her gaze what she was about to say. With Skeeter hanging over his shoulder, his options were quite limited. He bent down and kissed her to shut her up. It was a quick kiss, but she stood rail straight and stunned when he released her. Before she could speak, Harry grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the door. "I want to show you something."

Fred appeared beside him, seemingly out of nowhere, a perturbed expression on his face. "What's this then?"

Harry gave him a glance that he hoped conveyed he had bigger things to worry about. But the twin followed behind, head cocked amusingly. Ginny's feet caught up, and she said, "Fred, I'll be back in a bit."

Fred slowed down, giving Harry time to pull out his wand and whisper an Imperturbable Charm at the door while pushing it closed with his wand hand. Fred ran into the door and shook the handle. He gave Harry a raised eyebrow and a shaken finger and disappeared back inside the shop.

Harry tugged Ginny down to Eyelops, which had a construction fence around it, made up of half burned boards from the old shop. Based on the sound, work was going apace. Harry shook off Ginny's hand, ignored her sharp gaze, and waved an Animagus revealing spell around them. Nothing happened.

"I wasn't certain we'd beat her to the door. Let's go somewhere we can talk."

Ginny relaxed and let him take her arm. Harry Disapparated them to Weaver's End. Ginny crossed her arms against the cold wind whipping along the road and said, "Where are we?"

"Someplace easy to protect from eavesdropping. Come on." Harry led the way into Snape's old house after layering on a few spells to the outside of the ramshackle structure.

Harry warmed the walls and floor and Ginny waved a repair spell on the couch that caused the sparse remaining stuffing to collect on the seats, almost comfortable.

"This is a nasty place Harry." She glanced around at the bookshelves and the ajar shelf that led to the passage up. "Old Order safehouse?"

"Something like that." Harry adjusted his posture to half face her. "Sorry about what happened at the shop. I didn't want you to say anything with Skeeter there."

Rising quickly in frustration, Ginny countered, "I assumed Skeeter wasn't there because you were talking so freely." She rolled her eyes and sat back, faintly licking her lips, but remaining stubborn in expression. "What's she going to print about that?"

"She didn't have her photographer. And I'm okay right now with a reputation as someone willing to be reckless."

"You are?" She shook herself and brushed her hair back. "What's Aaron going to say?"

"Talk to him. I'll talk to him, too, if needed. Don't worry about it."

She gaped at him the way people in those other worlds often did, so Harry moved on. "I need you to tell me how you got involved with the letters."

"Reheat things, if you will," she said, rubbing her arms and shivering. "Unless you want the highly abridged version." While Harry complied, she said, "I told Professor Snape that I wanted to help you and that's what he gave me to do. He gave me those letters and had me bring them back to him, telling him I needed someone to hide them for a friend. They were love letters he'd forged, it turns out. Fakes to trap Skeeter, who he must have known was spying on him." She grabbed up Harry's sleeve. "I didn't know Aaron's family would end up involved. I really didn't." Heaving a helpless sigh, she sat back and stared at the ceiling.

"What was that comment about being sacrificed?" Harry asked.

A ripple went through her as she composed a reply. "Professor Snape is a scary bloke, Harry. Maybe you know that already well enough. I mean, we all used to think that, but somewhere along the line, we forgot. After I volunteered to help he grew, I don't know how to say it, aggressive. No, that's not quite right. Over-determined, maybe. Said I couldn't shirk . . . " She closed her eyes. "Don't tell him I told you this, okay?"

"I won't," Harry assured her. "Now that I'm back, it's all right again."

"I had the sense he had some plot idea he wanted to use me for. Something right awful. He warned me he would sacrifice anyone to get you out, and I said, even me? And he said 'bright girl'." She shook herself and behaved cold again. "I have to tell you, Harry. He scares me again."

Harry reran the warming spells and then the eavesdropping ones. "I stole the letters back from Skeeter. Partly because I didn't know what was going on. I would not have let Severus involve Freelander if I had been around to stop it."

Ginny laughed. "It's like Professor Snape knew we'd been trying to convince Lord Freelander to buy the Prophet and fire Skeeter."

"What?" Harry blurted. "You were?"

Ginny laughed harder, partly as a release from stress, and punched Harry on the arm. "That's what's happening now. He's trying to convince his wife to run it. Says he's tired of her running off far away to work on her charity stuff and this would keep her at home."

"Does Skeeter know the paper's being bought out?" Harry asked.

Ginny shook her head. "I doubt it. Freelander hasn't made an official offer yet." Ginny clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh Merlin, I almost said something to you in the shop! Thank goodness you stopped me." She blushed faintly before grabbing her hair and pulling it back from her face and holding it there. "Oh, what is Aaron going to say. Do you think she'll print that?"

Harry thought he would not mind a good fight, was in the mood for one. He found himself anticipating Aaron's anger with a kind of happy warmth. "Probably."

"Maybe I can head him off. Catch him as he leaves the Ministry. Tell him it was part of some plot you have going." She turned to him. "It is, isn't it?"

"It is now."


Next: Chapter 40
"Where is Harry this evening?" Candide asked as she draped herself across the couch in a position that was presumably more comfortable than it looked.

"Out," Snape replied. He pondered Candide there, considered making room beside her, but remembered Harry's words about behaving more coldly, and sat on the opposite couch. He took up the latest issue of Potion Portions Quarterly, even though he had no interest in anything except in getting reacquainted with his much missed home life. It pained him, but he managed a disinterested air for nearly ten minutes.

"When you are done with that, why don't you finish reading to me where you left off?"

Snape lowered the journal. He had no idea what she was referring to and clearly he should.



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