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Chapter 58 — Recruiting Darkness

Despite the dwindling light, Snape did not move to light any candles or the lamp at his elbow. He did not move at all beyond occasionally petting Kali, who lay curled in the valley between his arm and his breast. It was into evening now, and Harry's friends had ceased to call. Hermione's owl sat on the lamp in the corner, head under its wing, awaiting the letter she insisted he send as soon as Harry returned.

Winky padded over, her pale skin and tea towel glowing in the low light. "Master still is not wanting dinner?"

"No." Snape resumed stroking Harry's pet. "You are certain you cannot sense where Harry is?"

Winky crookedly dipped her head then shook it. "Winky is not able to be knowing this."

Cradling Kali, Snape rose to his feet and paced to the drawing room window. There was no reason to look outside; Harry certainly was not going to arrive home by walking down the road. If Winky did not know where he was then he was most likely not in this world. 

Snape stared out at the weak orange glow in the windows opposite. The skeletal trees between the houses stood fixed, reaching for the last blush of sunset.  

The soft sound of something falling near the hearth did not startle Snape. He drew in a deep breath and extracted Kali from his robes. He put her away in her cage before moving to crouch beside the tangled figure lying between the andirons. Brushing his fingers over Harry's robes left behind a trail of magical sparkle that chilled his fingers. 

Moving faster, Snape waved over the warmed blanket waiting on the desk chair and wrapped Harry in it, careful not to trap Harry's arms this time in case he awakened with a start and panicked at being restrained. This done, Snape took his time examining the plaster bits embedded in his charge's hair and the tear on his sleeve. Harry had found another fight, a habit Snape expected would continue until it no longer could. It seemed Harry had lost all other outlets for expressing himself.

- 888 -

Harry rocked his head as he woke up making the blanket around him scuff his ears. He raised his head to check his situation. Snape sat in his desk chair, facing him, hands clasped. When Harry moved to sit up, Snape moved as well, reaching out a hand, which Harry ignored.

Snape pushed back, rolling the chair away a foot. He returned to waiting, eyes keener. Harry considered distrusting him and stared back.

"Are you recovered?" Snape asked. His voice held an unaffected timbre, promising he was prepared for efficient service. 

Still on the floor, with his arms hooked around his knees, Harry said, "Brew me something to put Fudge under my control."

"If you wish. May I inquire what sort of control you intend?" At Harry's hesitation, Snape went on: "There are multiple ways to control someone, as you well know. In Cornelius Fudge's case, might I suggest you potion him to do something horrifically embarrassing and use evidence of that to put him under your thumb?"

"I like that. He'd deserve it too." Harry remembered sending the other Snape off to safety and decided for the moment that this one had passed the test. He pushed to his feet and stretched his neck as he walked out into the main hall. "When is dinner?"

"Whenever you desire it," Snape replied, then strode toward the kitchen.

Harry went to the dining room to watch Winky nervously bring the food to the table, but it appeared in a sparkle. He considered going to the kitchen to confront her, but the scent of the roast, soaked in red wine and ringed by miniature onions, made his gut twist with hunger.

While they ate, Harry found his hair was full of debris. As he brushed it out, Snape observed, "You found a fight?"

"No matter," Harry replied, pushing aside the crushed buildings, his being coerced into battle, and his abandoning that place in a fit of hopelessness. But his face heated as if he were too close to the hearth and his teeth ground together between bites. That place did not matter. If he kept to his grand plans, his failures did not matter.

"Are you going to training in the morning?" Snape inquired.

"Yes," Harry replied. He badly needed to keep busy and wished he were at the Ministry doing drills right now so he would stop trying to dwell on why his clothes were torn and why the two of them were eating alone. He thought about Fudge instead, pudgy, weaseling Fudge. "When can you have the potion?" Harry snarled.

"It will require three and a half days," Snape replied. "You will want to use something untraceable, I am assuming?"

Harry's lips twitched. "For now," he replied, considering that to do otherwise would make for a good test of his position. Sometime soon enough he would do that. It would mean he had succeeded.

- 888 -

Harry woke in the early twilight hours and hung his head over the edge of the bed, wand glowing, but the strange book was not underneath. Deciding its message was of no use anyway, he pulled out his assigned reading for that day. It was important to keep up the appearance of obedience while it was useful to have the cover of the Ministry. 

The moment Harry woke the next time, he propelled himself to rise and dress. He did not stop moving, even re-reading half a page of his assignment in the lift at the Ministry. He closed the book when he came face to face with Mr. Weasley waiting for the lift.

"Harry! Good to see you," Mr. Weasley exclaimed, all warm welcome.

Harry managed a nod as he slipped by, hesitating when Mr. Weasley glanced down sharply, Harry assumed at the book he held. Harry held up On Optimal Negation of Primitive Protections and only then realized his fingers were roaming over the book in fidgeting strokes. 

"Still catching up on my reading," Harry explained. "Quite a chore."

"Yes, I'm sure it is." 

The lift gate clacked closed and Harry watched Mr. Weasley's watchful gaze as it slid up into the ceiling.

Harry, determined to behave normally, took a seat at the desk in the back and pressed his hands between his legs, stretching his arms to sit bolt upright. He blanked his mind, studying the ghostly remains of yesterday's writing on the chalkboard. Rodgers fired two questions from the reading at him, which Harry answered easily. Rodgers gave a satisfied hmf, and moved on to haranguing the others, especially Aaron.

As long as Harry suppressed his impatience, training was a relief from thought. Lunchtime came upon him so quickly that he stood blinking as drills ended. He let plots about the Minister of Magic push out thoughts of anything else. Tossing out the excuse that he needed to buy lunch, he headed for the stairs.

Minister Bones was in her outer office, pontificating to her staff, who sat leaning forward on the couches surrounding her. Belinda sat straight as Harry entered and did not take her eyes from him as he approached.

"Mr. Potter," Bones greeted him, shifting to a broad smile from the somewhat forced one she wore when he entered. "Demise of Voldemort Day is just over a month away. Do come in; we should discuss some plans."

Harry felt a smile spread over his face. "Yes, we should," he said.

The minister waved at Belinda, who put her quill to the notebook on her knee. "Now, the broom manufacturers have been on my tail about promotion, you know, without enough buy-in of our latest magical techniques it's not worth developing them, the usual, yadda yadda . . ." She tapped a finger on her chin and turned her rosy cheeks upward. "Yes, I think broom races."

"No tournament?" Harry asked, trying to sound innocently saddened. He could feel that his eyes had narrowed too much as he considered her. 

"Well, of course. My assistant, Agrippa, is organizing that. Posters go up next week." She waved a pudgy hand. "This will be in addition to the picnic. Overhead. At the same time. The way we used to have them when I was young, but to make everyone happy we'll add a Stock Sweeper obstacle course to go along with the Antique Racing Brooms and the Homebrew jousting competition."

She turned to Harry, face reverting to an artificial smile. "Fun enough, right?" With a gesture, she gathered her staff and retreated to her office, master of everything around her. Harry considered Belinda, who sat finishing her notes. 

He needed more servants.

During weight training, Harry watched Vineet doing handstands where he lowered himself to a headstand and pushed himself up again. It spoke of vitality, of strength to fend off death.

Harry remained on the side, observing Tridant win every weightlifting matchup, even when he and Kerry Ann were allowed to combine what they could raise. He was another possibility.

Kerry Ann stood up and groaned, "How did you recover so much after your Healer's orders to take it easy?"

Tridant grinned and flexed a molded bicep. "Their Recovery Potion worked too well."

"Yes," Harry murmured, "magic is good, isn't it?"

- 888 -

Harry returned home to find Ginny and Aaron lounging in the main hall. Ginny leapt up as soon as she saw Harry.

"I need to talk to you. Do you have a moment?" Her eyes spoke of worry without using Legilimency. Uneasiness tainted her motions as she led the way to the next room.

"I need to warn you about something," Ginny said after Harry closed the door to the drawing room.

Harry remained by the door, taking her in. "What?"

"Skeeter blackmailed me into giving her her job back, but . . ." She held up a hand to forestall Harry's outburst of anger, rocked back on her heel, then stepped toward him. 

Harry released the door handle and stepped over to face her. "You let her get the better of you?"

"I didn't have much choice, and we have a deal now: she can't write anything about you I don't approve first." 

Harry came right up to her, so that he looked down on her. She had done something fancy to accentuate her eyes and her hair was clipped up. It added five years to her appearance. 

He weighed the possibilities of her words before saying: "You are willing to oversee her? She's a slippery one."

"Honestly, Harry, it will be easier this way." Her voice dropped and she swallowed hard. "I've been keeping things quiet all along anyway." 

Harry reached up to touch the silver clip in her hair. "I appreciate that."

"You've been making a lot of trouble lately."

"I got bored." He added a little smile to that, which drew one from her too. He pushed a stray lock of hair back to catch it on the clip. "I've never seen your hair like that," he said.

A blush grew up from her neck, staining her ears. "Yeah, well, we're all here for you, Harry. But we're hoping you get yourself together soon, too." 

The blush filled her cheeks and she turned away to pace to the hearth. 

Harry followed with a tread light enough that she jumped when she turned around again. "I'm getting it together," he assured her.

"You weren't careful enough in Hogsmeade, Harry. If it was you like Rita said."

"I'll be more careful," he promised, fingering her sleeve. 

She opened her mouth to speak, then ducked her head. "I have to go." Flushing redder yet, she rushed to the door and out.

- 888 -

"You'll have the potion this evening, correct?" Harry asked immediately upon stepping down to breakfast. 

Snape had his post open in front of him, a letter from McGonagall on top discussing school issues, Harry noted. 

Snape stood. "We can go check on it now, if you like."

"Yes, I'd like," Harry said, focusing on his future plans to avoid thinking of the empty day ahead. An empty day in a far too quiet house.

In the room beside Harry's bedroom, a pair of cauldrons bubbled away atop a warped door laid across stacks of books.

"Smells better today," Harry said. "Can barely smell it at all."

Snape stepped up to a cauldron bubbling to the brim with a clear liquid and gave it a stir with a dipping motion. "The cat's claw from my stores proved to be of poor potency. I had to alter the steps to merge a new batch into the brew."

Harry stepped up to the end of the table where he could watch Snape's face. "Not like you to have that kind of problem. I thought you refilled your stores with everything you may need."

Snape set the stirring stick back in the holder. White smoke curled off of it. "It is an exceedingly common ingredient. Not one I expected to be substandard."

Harry leaned on the table, rocking it. Something clicked in place inside of him and the world became as clear as the potion. "I don't know if I believe you. You have a bad habit of interfering."

Snape shook his head. "I have no desire to interfere in your getting even with an old enemy by putting him under your power." His voice grew sterner as he added, "I do, however, have a desire to keep you whole."

"You want to keep me as weak as the rest of you lot." Harry's lower lip vibrated as he spoke. He did not intend to shout, but his voice grew louder as he went. "You want to keep me mortal. And helpless. I can't use all this power if I'm afraid, now can I? That's what you want, isn't it?"

Winky appeared in a sparkle. She tugged on Snape's robe and reached up a hand toward Harry. "Master, Winky is not liking this."

Harry's gaze snapped down to her. He should have dealt with her sooner. 

"Winky, you will depart this room immediately," Snape commanded her.

Winky shrunk back, but kept her shaking hand raised. "Winky not let Master be hurt."

Snape's voice grew malevolent. "Winky. Now. Go. I will not be disobeyed."

Stooping, Winky shuffled backwards, eyes flicking between the two of them, then she vanished.

Into the silence, Snape said, "The potion will be ready this evening."

Harry raked Snape's eyes for any hint of deception. "I'll be expecting it." He stalked out.

- 888 -

The wind tossed Harry's robes as he leaned against the stone balustrade of a high balcony on the Tower Bridge. The wind reassured him. It fooled his senses into believing he was in motion. Below him, the river slipped sideways to the flow of the cars and panel vans.

Harry leaned over to rest his chin on his hands, trying to suppress his restlessness and ignore the painful memories still dogging him, so as to better plan. Up here with London spread beneath him, everything seemed both possible and pointlessly remote. The Muggle world felt empty, the life within it grey and loud and lacking the spark that made magical people special.

Insistent honking drew Harry's gaze to where a shiny grey saloon car had pulled over to the curb, blocking traffic. A heavy man with white hair and a full mustache trundled out of it and hand in pocket, stepped over to a newsstand, ignoring the impatient drivers blocked behind his car. Harry's heart raced, certain it was Vernon Dursley. Harry stood straight and leaned over the balustrade, trying to see better, hand on his wand.

Harry had his hand out of his pocket when the man turned to wave dismissively at the honking cars. It wasn't Vernon, just someone very much like him. Harry clutched his wand in both hands, considering what he might do to the car, just for fun. Perhaps a heat charm to melt the tires or better yet, turn the engine into slag . . . But his instincts warned: empty gesture, not worth the risk. He should be working on something meaningful instead. Swallowing his frustration, Harry pocketed the wand. 

Given the noisy street, Harry Disapparated directly for Belinda's flat. She sat at her kitchen table, still in her pyjamas and slippers. 

"Oh, it's you," she said and spooned another glop of soggy cereal into her mouth. 

Harry froze her into place with a Mutushorum. "Not much of a greeting," he said, voice low. 

Her eyes grew alarmed even though her face didn't move. Milk dripped off her spoon onto the table. Pleased enough with pushing his frustration outward, he released her and the spoon clattered to the floor.

"Hi, Harry," she said breathlessly. "Good to see you." She waited several breaths before picking up the spoon, then considered it a long moment before continuing to eat with it.

Harry focused on the blissful future again and said, "I need your assistance early tomorrow morning. The Ministry Atrium at half past three." 

She swallowed and nodded.

"We'll need other help too," Harry said. "And better witnesses." He had a thought, one that lit up his brain like a firework. "Dictate a letter for me and owl it. It would be better if it came from you." He pulled out a chair and sat down, mouth crooked and salivating with pleasure. Plotting felt good. He was moving forward, not looking back.

Belinda pushed her breakfast aside like one accustomed to putting meals after everything else and dug out a sheet of clean parchment from under the stack of newspapers.

Harry began, "Dear Rita Skeeter, I have an anonymous tip for you that will be well worth your time. Please come alone, with a camera, to the Ministry Atrium at, let's see, tell her 5:30 am, because she will come an hour early and that's when I really want her there. Remain concealed at all times."

"She'll need to use the flash in the atrium."

"By that time it won't matter," Harry said. "And we'll need more wizards, and I think I know just the pair."

- 888 -

Snape looked up as Winky slid a full tea tray onto his desk. It held a silver set he did not remember owning, and the plates were piled with biscuits, sandwich triangles, and scones. There were even three varieties of sugar as well as honey.

"What is this?" Snape asked, inspecting a jar labeled spear thistle honey.

Winky flinched and bowed low while backing up. "Winky is a good elf," she squeaked.

"Yes. Winky is a very good elf, but she must obey me, especially with regards to Harry. Do not interfere with him. We have discussed this."

Her voice fell to barely audible. "Winky is not letting Master be hurt. Winky is not letting anyone be hurt in Winky's house. Winky is not being strong enough and is failing Master before. Winky not fail Master again. Winky like Master."

"Just do as I say, Winky."

She backed up to the doorway. "Winky is being strong enough."

The orange zest scent of the sugared scones was distracting Snape, so his tone did not come out as stern as intended. "I really don't think you are, and you will make things worse. Do you understand?"

"Winky is understanding, Master."

Just as the tea finished steeping, a familiar baby cry brought Snape's head up. Candide stood in the doorway to the drawing room, a bundled Arcadius in the arc of her left arm.

Snape put the teapot down with a clatter and stood. "What are you doing here?"

"It's my birthday," she said, sounding coy.

Voice low, Snape said, "You should not be here."

"Winky said Harry was getting worse," she said.

This brought Snape up sharp. "Yes. Exactly my point."

"Exactly my point too," she countered. "I asked Winky to owl me if things took a turn. I had to come back."

Arcadius gave another coo, which distracted Snape with the way he seemed to hear it with his chest rather than his ears. 

"Oh, look . . . tea for two," she said and slipped around him. 

"Candide," he snarled, following her over to the desk and leaning on it to come right close to her face. "You are not listening very well."

"I'm listening just fine, actually." She bit a biscuit. "You said he . . . mmmm . . . you said Harry couldn't harm me or Arcadius."

Snape hesitated replying, sensing a trap. The timbre of her voice was throwing him off. "I did say that."

"And is it still true?" she asked, biting into a second biscuit. When he hesitated again, she prompted, "Severus, is it still true?"

Snape's mouth worked until he pursed his lips to make them stop. 

She said, "You still think he can't. I can see that. That's why you're not answering." She tossed her cloak over his chair and rocked back in it to pat the baby over her shoulder. "He's missed you," she said. "Haven't you, Archie?" she added in baby talk.

"You cannot remain," Snape whispered hoarsely, toying with snarling. He needed to get her out, by any means.

She stopped rocking and while cooing back at Arcadius, stood up to face Snape. "Winky thinks you're in danger, so we're here to protect you."

Snape blinked at her. "You're here to protect me?" he repeated dumbly.

Her voice fell quieter, promising, "Harry won't make Arcadius an orphan."

Snape propped his hands on the desk and bent over them, hair flopping forward. "You still cannot remain."

Her voice lost all pretense of charming the baby and fell serious. "I won't be made a widow, Severus. It's my choice to stay."

"And what about him?"

Arcadius chose that moment to wave a hand at Snape and give an excited cry.

"There is no way Harry can harm him," Candide said. "Right?"

Snape slowly shook his head. He still clung to a sliver of hope, so he could not lie and risk losing that too. He whispered, "I cannot see any way he could, even where he is now."

She hitched the baby higher on her arm and said, "That settles it then." 

"It doesn't really," Snape said, to the empty air, because she had breezed out of the drawing room.

- 888 -

Harry had a lot of time to kill after planning with the Weasley twins. He found it energizing to speak openly of revenge, especially to wizards with endless uninhibited ideas. It was unfortunate that they were too roguish to make proper servants and had to remain mere willing accessories.

The trees were beginning to leaf in North Finchley, old trees that loomed over the houses from behind. Wand out, Harry strolled under his invisibility cloak past one gated brick wall after another. The air was fresh here, scented with greenery and blossoms.

Harry could have picked out the house without seeing the number. Unlike the neighboring houses, the front area was not used for parking, the dust bins were out of sight and the front square of grass and flowers was immaculate, as if someone had used a cuticle scissors on them just that morning.

Since he was invisible, Harry stepped right up to the front windows and cupped his hands to his face. Nothing moved within. He sighted on a spot before the white hearth and slipped inside. 

Everything was perfect, down to the perfectly arranged pillows on the long couch opposite the hearth. No one was about, but the scent of his aunt's shampoo and incessant cleaning stalked the closed-in air and hammered on his sinuses. Harry found the datebook in the second drawer he tried. Luncheon, club was too vague to follow up on. 

Harry roamed about the rest of the house, finding more rigid Dursley living except for the second guest bedroom, which was clearly set aside for Dudley. It contained wall-to-wall, ceiling-high shelves with pristine toys arrayed on them, brand new versions of the ones his cousin had destroyed as a child.

"Set up some candles," Harry said to the empty room. "Make it a real shrine." 

Harry started to close the door, then spotted the blackened brass train engine attached to a set of cars on a loop of track. He tested the weight in his hand and then pocketed it.

Back downstairs, he sat down to wait facing the hearth, which was sparkling white inside and out. But he could not sit still. The house, even as unfamiliar as it was, quickly rubbed his nerves raw. Telling himself that his annoyance would only make the upcoming confrontation more satisfying, he sat back and cleared his mind. But the smells: his aunt's perfume, the cooking odors . . . they drained him, made him someone he did not want to be.

Harry stood up and paced, stopping to glance back in the hope that he was tracking dirt on the white carpeting. Wrapping his head in his hands, Harry gave up. He could return anytime, anywhere in the house. He had better things to be doing, much better things. And if he remained in this place any longer he may simply pass through old rotting anger into abject madness.

In Shrewsthorpe, the main hall was full of color, full of toys scattered on the floor. That was the first thing Harry noticed, then he was wrapped in the smells of home and lost all thought.

"Hello Harry," Candide said, glancing up from holding a rubber Tyrannosaurus rex where she could tease Arcadius with it.

Harry did not move right away. He wondered if he had slipped into another Plane accidentally. The thought made him ache with disappointment at the lie of it.

"How was training this week?" she asked.

Harry found his voice. "Good. Good enough."

Snape wandered out of the library and over to Harry. "If you want lunch, I can have Winky put it on the table. We ate without you, I'm afraid." He sat down across from Candide and pulled out the newspaper.

Harry tore his gaze from the cuddling pair to ask: "Can I see that?"

He remained standing to flip through it, looking for Skeeter's name. He found it attached to two stories, one on Bones' meeting with the Canadian Minister of Magic and the other on the Wizengamot's proposed ban on troll baiting.

Harry handed the paper back and glanced between Snape and Candide. Harry's instincts stretched to analyze what was happening, but could not work it out. Too many pieces were missing and Harry just wanted to assume that things had been this way all along. "I have reading to do," he said for cover, then scooped up his books from under a stuffed polka-dot lantern fish and retreated to his room.

- 888 -

Harry sat on his bed in the darkness, leaning to the side where he could watch the lights on the distant hillside outside his bedroom window. He was there because his strategic mind chastised him severely for intending to risk exposure rather than leaving things to his servants. Trouble was, Harry knew staying home to be the best course and it ground on him to be of one mind, yet still find sitting there so aggravating. 

Harry knitted his fingers together and rocked forward and back. He needed to see what was happening in the Ministry Atrium, see what the twins had cooked up. He could just slip in under his cloak in the corner and watch. He would not interfere; he just wanted to enjoy the show. What was the point of making trouble if not to enjoy watching it? 

The knock on the bedroom door was so unexpected, Harry sat down again.

"Come in," Harry snapped, angry at himself.

"I saw the light under your door," Snape said. "Do you require anything?"

"No," Harry replied, relieved to have been interrupted from running off to satisfy his curiosity. 

"I thought you'd be utilizing the potion . . . ?"

"I am. I slipped it into Fudge's lamp oil, all around his house while he was out for dinner tonight. Everything else I delegated, of course."

"Wise plan." Snape sounded impressed.

Harry imagined what must be happening right now. The twins hinted that it could involve a sparkling pink goat and definitely would involve a clown suit.

"I'm surprised you are here," Snape said, eyes taking in Harry's face, "you generally like to be in the middle of things."

"What do you know of it?" Harry snapped.

"Only that you appear to wish to be elsewhere."

Harry crossed his arms. His hands moved to grip and ungrip his sleeves. "It's better to let others handle it. Act in the shadows where it is safe."

"It most certainly is," Snape agreed.

Snape sounded overly amiable. Harry grumbled, "I don't trust you. Leave me be," but it felt like a lie, which made Harry more angry at himself, for conflicting reasons. "Just go away," he snarled, desperate suddenly.

Snape bowed and backed out, soundlessly shutting the door.

After the door closed, Harry jumped up to pace. The clock read a quarter to five. If he remained he would start to think about things he wished to forget. He pulled out his invisibility cloak and slipped away for the Ministry.

The first thing Harry heard was Skeeter's voice, speaking as if through a suppressed grin. She was clacking in her heavy heeled shoes behind Fudge, who shuffled away, wearing a jester's suit stretched tight by his substantial paunch. The Atrium appeared empty except for a gold horned mountain goat, which was perched at the top of the fountain sculpture. But Harry sensed the room contained hidden others.

"Leave me be, evil wench!" Fudge snarled at Skeeter.

"Can I quote you on that?" Skeeter asked.

Fudge turned so fast he knocked his belled cap off, which he struggled to catch before tossing it away on the floor, then changed his mind and waved it back into his hand. "I have resources, Ms. Skeeter, make no mistake, and when I find out who did this, they will pay, dearly. And you will pay too, for working with them!"

Skeeter touched her breast with her manicured hand. "I'm just here to represent the eyes of the wizarding public, Cornelius, you know that. That's all I ever do." She fingered her large red handbag. "I can hold off on publishing this story until you get back to me, however . . ."

Fudge's face twisted to the side, comically. "You could?"

"For some consideration on your part."

Fudge reddened farther. "You will pay for this, you odious crone!"

Skeeter spread her hands, blood red nails glittering. "I had nothing to do with this, Cornelius."

Fudge picked up the belled hat he had dropped yet again and Disapparated. Clapping sounded, echoing around the Atrium, and the twins became visible under a doubly life-size painting of Merlin. 

"Well done."

Skeeter bent her head to light a cigarette. She kissed it in a rapid set of puffs before holding it out to the side. "I get a share of influence out of it, no?" she asked, voice harsh now.

The twins bent their heads together. "Oh, I guess a teeny bit would be in order, don't you think, Gred?"

"Oh, perhaps, Forge. A teeny bit. Come now, Rita the Skeeter, didn't you say you'd come along just for the fun of it?"

"I lied."

"You are very good at that," Gred said, clearly complimenting her. "Now, the camera."

"I think I'll keep it for safe keeping," Skeeter said. 

Forge said to his twin, "You knew she'd double cross us on that."

Harry started forward.

Gred said, "Good thing we had our own backup cameras, isn't it, brother?"

The two of them laughed uproariously. "Well, it's late even for us and Gertrude is tired." He waved in the direction of the goat, which baa-ed at him in return and scratched her nose on the statue.

Skeeter took out her notepad. "Gertrude, you say?" She made a note.

"If we're all cleaned up here we best give the guard the antidote," Gred said and loped off to the empty security desk.

Harry was right behind Skeeter now. Forge followed his brother and both ducked behind the desk and struggled to haul the guard back into his chair. Harry waved a Paralyzing Spell at Skeeter and reached for her bag, which prickled with curses. He whispered, "I'll take that," into her ear, pressed the curses out of the bag, reached in for the bulky camera and slipped it under his cloak. "Thank you for your assistance," he said, voice that of threat. 

He released her from the spell and waited for her to turn around which she did with a start. Her alarmed gaze searched through and beyond him.

Harry said, "As long as you are useful, you get to stay around. Remember that." 

She clutched her now flattened handbag closer to her side and tried to glare at what must appear to be empty air before her.

"You were right about me," Harry taunted. "But didn't you want to be?"

The twins had departed and the guard was shaking his head like a stunned dog, so Harry slipped away. 

Harry went to Belinda's flat to check that she had arrived home. The flat was quiet and empty. He slipped away again to the Muggle pub his friends frequented, selected an nearly empty whiskey bottle from the glass shelf behind the bar and slipped back in time to greet Belinda coming in the door. She wore a dark grey pullover and black wool trousers with black trainers. 

"Did you walk home?" Harry asked.

"Yeah, can't Apparate quietly when I'm this tired, so I came in down the street." 

"You dressed for the part, I see."

"I always make a point to dress appropriately for any occasion," she said tiredly.

"You deserve a reward," he said, setting the bottle down on the counter.

She picked it up and held it in the light. "A whole swallow. Generous."

"Drink it or not. I don't care. You didn't have fun?"

Her lips wormed into a smile. "Yes, I guess I did. Never liked Fudge. But it was a bit much, nevertheless." She shuddered. "I wouldn't want that to happen to me." 

"It won't happen to you while you're with me. And the photographs will be useful. Fudge needs to pay."

She caught the bottle by the neck, uncorked it with a sound of Disapparition, and while pacing to the sitting area, drained it. "You staying?" she asked without turning around.

An hour later Harry lay half asleep in the beams of colored light slicing through the part in Belinda's bedroom curtains.  The curtains shifted from the wind leaking in, sending the yellowish street light into his eyes. Harry pressed his face into the pillow. His arm felt sticky where it rubbed against Belinda's abdomen, but the sense of her shadow calmed him. He longed to feel like this all the time. If only he could lose his terrors; that would be real power.

Starkly awake now that thoughts of Marks and Horcruxes were pacing through his brain, Harry pulled away and slid out of bed. 

Light was just invading the sky beyond the shops in Hogsmeade when Harry arrived in the center of the muddy street. Pigeons warbled atop the high chimney of the Sundries Shoppe and lights showed from the first floor of Glad Rags. Harry stepped back into the alleyway beside the Hogs Head and leaned between haphazard stacks of barrels. The mud sticking to his shoes reeked of rotting beer. 

Harry waited, calm still, but with a growing hunger twisting in his chest. Everything appeared starkly real: the Highland fresh air, the way the dark grain on the barrels swelled away from the wood in flowing whorls, the eager green hairs of grass edging the buildings and filling in old footprints in the mud.

Harry sensed someone magical approaching before he heard the footsteps. A moment later, Vineet stepped by, hands in pockets, head bowed, probably heading for the Three Broomsticks to Floo home. He halted and turned when Harry made a noise through his teeth.

Vineet peered at Harry, expression unchanging. Harry licked his lips, assuming Vineet knew exactly what he was intending.

It only required a slight tilt of the head to get Vineet to follow. Harry walked leisurely over the grass leading to the Forbidden Forest, enjoying the chance to observe an object of desire . . . before collecting it.

Nothing was spoken, even as they reached the brush at the edge of the trees. The early dawn light had not yet penetrated beyond the new leaves on the brush. Harry stepped through confidently, despite the sudden blindness. Behind him he could hear the shuffle of branches as Vineet followed. Harry lit his wand and walked inward. His instincts rebelled; they threw complicated notions up into his path. Harry imagined the Thestral stables, making his willing friend into a servant in the midst of the harnessed magic of death's eye. He imagined the room where he had waited with the other champions after the Goblet had selected him for the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and smiled to imagine Marking Vineet while the teachers naively breakfasted just beyond the door. He had a vision of binding such a steadfast servant before the baroque frame of the Mirror of Erised, seeing in its glass his desire coming true just before fulfilling it for real. He had all of these visions as the two of them stepped over twisted roots and downed branches. Harry nearly succumbed to the last vision, but continued on, stubbornly.

Harry stopped before a large hollow tree. The musky scent of an animal lair wafted out of the maw of wood. Harry turned to his companion and held his hand out. Vineet's up-lit face turned away, eyes searching the inky forest on both sides before returning to Harry.

The forest around them breathed in unperturbed slumber. "We're alone," Harry said, voice sucked into the still air. 

Vineet nodded, eyes black in the blue wand light.

"You have always been loyal to me," Harry stated.

"You have been my life's purpose," Vineet said, voice coarse. He touched his chest. "I gave up everything to remain here. My loyalty is a given."

"Then you should be acknowledged for that," Harry said. He shook his wand free of the Lumos Spell and stepped close. Knowledge and certainty filled Harry; finally, he was on the right path. If only he would stop fighting it, not only could he live outside of fear, but he could live forever.

Focusing on the spot where Vineet had touched his chest, Harry tugged Vineet's robes aside, then tore the top two buttons on his shirt to expose his heart. Dawn was coming on and the forest's shapes were taking form, revealing trees like cathedral columns, branches open to the sky.

Harry let the spell flow in and out of him. That was the part he had not understood before; he had to take the spell in, make it like himself, then cast it upon its target. 

Vineet barely flinched, just scrunched his eyes closed. The lightning bolt seared upon his breast smoked faintly before he covered it with his hand and grimaced momentarily. He recovered two breaths later and dropped his arm.

"What do you want of me?" Vineet asked, voice smooth.

Harry tugged Vineet's shirt straight, covering the Mark. He felt giddily alive. "This, for now. But I'll let you know when I need something specific."

Vineet pulled his robes together and stepped back to bow. He appeared greatly relieved, which puzzled Harry.

"Hogsmeade is that way," Harry said when Vineet peered around the soupy grey world of the dawn forest.

Vineet nodded, bowed again and Harry slipped away.

- 888 -

Silence ruled in the main hall when Harry arrived. The bedroom doors on the first floor balcony were closed. Harry went to his room but felt too energized to sleep or even sit. He plucked out one of the dark magic books from under the bed, opened it at random, and began pacing as he read. He read page after page, until he reached a long treatise with instructions for cursing villages to make Muggles unhappy enough to move out without being aware of why. It went on to explain how that had been done to the villages around Hogsmeade and to other coven use areas such as Chartley and Fenton to preserve Wizard areas.

Harry's lips twitched. He paged forward to study the spells, rehearsing the motions. He would need help to enchant an entire street, but he had help now. With a bit of luck he could get the Dursleys to flee beyond the jurisdiction of the British Ministry of Magic. That would open all kinds of symbolic opportunities, such as making a Horcrux using the life force of his uncle. Would his uncle, being so large, have more life force? If so, his death would forge a strong one. Harry set the book down to copy out the spells onto parchment to give to his servants to practice. He wanted nothing to go wrong.

- 888 -

During breakfast, conversation went on without Harry's participation. He kept his head down, only glancing up to watch Arcadius, who was repeatedly sticking the back of his hand into his mouth and pulling it out again, tethered by strands of saliva. The house felt oppressive this morning. Harry's thoughts moved sluggishly, dodging thoughts of strategy.

An owl scratched at the window. Across from Harry, Snape waved the window up for it to flit inside. It dropped a letter on Harry's plate. 

"The Minister wants me to join her for a press conference in the morning to announce the DV Day festivities." Harry could not contain his giggles at this thought. He cleared his throat and massaged his mouth to make himself stop.

Levelly, Candide asked, "Another dueling tournament?"

"Yes, and a broom festival for the picnic." Harry folded the letter up and pocketed it. After another bite of scramble he could not sit still anymore. The house was pressing in on him; he could barely breathe.

"I have things to be doing," he said, and slipped away to put his other plans in motion.

Harry distributed his spell instructions and fetched his books to do his reading at Belinda's flat while Belinda learned the spells on the notes.

"I can't get this one at all," she eventually said after retreating to her bedroom to practice. "And really, I'd love to get rid of the Muggles below me. They argue at the top of their lungs at the worst hours." She read over Harry's notes again before looking up at him with eyes surrounded by worry lines.

She was scared of failing him, Harry realized. "I can show them to you," he said, wondering why she feared he would not be willing to teach her.

Harry walked her through the spells until she could apply it to a ten foot square area of her floor on her own.

"Think that's enough to repel them?" Belinda asked, hands on hips, hair falling into her eyes.

Harry smirked, inordinately pleased by her attitude. "If not, you can broaden it next week. No sense in making them suspicious, now is there?"

She plopped down on the couch in an attitude of exhaustion. "Good point."

- 888 -

Harry joined the Minister in the Atrium in the corner where she was convening with her staff. Between Belinda's presence an arm's length away and Vineet's just above in the Department of Law Enforcement, Harry felt nicely at home and in control. The Minister whispered her notes aloud, letting her staff add comments or corrections. Harry's mind drifted. He forced it to drift forward only. How many more servants would he need before he could approach the Minister with ultimatums and be secure in her fear?

Harry stood beside Bones at the podium, hands behind his back, watching the eyes of the press. For once, Skeeter asked only harmless questions, watching Harry the entire time she spoke.

"Are the past winners disqualified from this tournament?" Ginny asked.

Bones tapped her notes on the podium and replied, "I don't see why they should be. I'm sure you're pleased to hear that. Disguise Revealing spells will be used this year for the regional finals, to avoid a repeat of last year's little . . . debacle, shall we call it, and you CAN quote me on that, my dear Ms. Weasley. Next question?"

Ginny glanced at Harry with a look expecting commiseration; Harry gave her no reaction. She put her head back down over her notebook and blushed harder.

- 888 -

Harry woke with a start, heart thudding, hand hitting the bed as if it had dropped from a height. He sat up and held in his panting breath to listen, but could not hear anything beyond the wind outside. He sat up farther; a scent lingering as if Snape had just passed through the room. Scooping up his wand from under the pillow and his invisibility cloak from the nightstand, Harry slipped out onto the balcony, expecting to catch Snape sneaking back to his own bedroom. 

Harry stood there, feet cold on the wood, breath coating his glasses as he tried to dampen his breathing. A flicker of light was visible under the bedroom door across the way. A wave of something ill-defined tried to drain him of the strength to take action. Winky.

Harry slipped into the kitchen, wand drawn, anger heating his limbs. Into the main hall. Into the back garden. But he did not find the elf. She was there though; he could sense her sporadic interference, still. In the Dark Plane, Harry's movements in and out were attracting too much attention and he could be overwhelmed by demons on his next passing. He waited there in the garden, beside Sirius' old bike, knowing the creatures would grow bored and disperse so he could safely pass through again. Rather than stare at the bike, which caused him discordant pain, Harry stared up at the stars, his invisibility cloak like another Milky Way clouding his vision. 

Double checking that his cloak completely covered his feet, Harry slipped into Snape's bedroom and held his breath. Snape was sitting on the edge of the bed in his dressing gown, Candide was propped up, nursing Arcadius. 

Candide said to the baby, "Eventually you'll be big enough to make it through the night, right Archie?"

Voice low, Snape said, "I wish you were not here."

"I want to be here, Severus. I live here and everything."

Harry waited, breathing as shallowly as possible. Snape turned to stare at the bedroom door, making the bedside lamp accent his profile. Arcadius fussed and was arranged to feed on the other side, making little primitively pleased noises.

Harry felt a rush of shame about standing there. It was not from Winky, it was just him. He felt hollow and crude.  He had leaned onto his toes to slip away when Snape said, "Things are not going to improve anytime soon." 

These words pulled the center out of Harry's chest. Try as he might he could not find anger at the betrayal in them.

Candide reached out and laid a hand over one of Snape's. "You're doing what you can."

Snape shook his bowed head and Harry felt a confused twinge.

Snape appeared to remember something and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small bottle and put it away in the nightstand, touched the nightstand with his wand, then opened the drawer just long enough to check that it now appeared empty. Harry bit his lip and again felt that suffocating wave of elf magic just as his suspicions tried to take over.

Harry slipped into the main hall and tossed the cloak down onto his shoulders. If Winky did it again he would know what direction to send an attacking spell. But there was nothing except the house creaking as the night cooled. 

An insistent beeping split the silence, making Harry jump. It was the wake up spell he had put on his clock. Harry slipped away for his room, just as Snape's bedroom door snapped open.

In the Dark Plane on the way to his room, Harry had trouble. He had to repeatedly Apparate farther away, letting the creatures come close enough to smell their putrid breath, before he could safely return to his room and cancel the Wake Charm. He turned the clock aside. It read five in the morning. Harry expected a knock on the door to his room, but none came as he dressed all in black and Apparated away.

- 888 -

Harry was early. In the burgeoning grey light he leaned against a concrete block wall bordering a driveway beside the West Finchley tube station. The narrow driveway led to a plain brick Muggle house cut off from the world by the train line. 

A cat shaped shadow emerged from under a nearby parked car and stretched before slinking off. Harry lowered his wand again and shook himself. He half hoped his servants would be late, so he could summon them. His lips twitched despite how much rushing would damage their attempts to arrive in a manner untraceable to the Ministry.

The light continued to eek out new details in the world around him. He propped the broomstick on his foot and wished he could still repel the creatures in the Dark Plane. What was wrong with him that he could not, when it was so easy before? He was definitely stronger now, but the creatures did not react as if he was.

Why did Snape doubt him? 

These two things seemed related in some mysterious way.

Harry's musings were interrupted by Vineet and Belinda arriving, walking close together around the bend in the walled drive. Harry had a sense they had been talking, and he did not like that. They gazed at him with strain in their eyes. Harry did not like that either. He wanted them to be pleased to be there.

"Let's go," Harry said, and flicked his broom to float.

They spelled disguises on each other. Vineet a utility worker, Belinda an estate agent, and Harry dropped his invisibility cloak over his head again, making sure it covered his long black cloak.

They made their way along the pavement, applying weak Muggle Repelling barriers that grew stronger as they reached the middle houses on the street. Harry led the way, laying down Masking Spells to hide their work. At this strength the Ministry would be unlikely to detect it, but Harry intended to return every week to increase the spell strength until the Dursleys themselves took flight, hopefully after watching in alarm as their neighbors began acting oddly and running away.

Harry nursed this happy expectation of observing the Dursleys' slow meltdown as the three of them crossed to the other side of the street and began the process again. The neighborhood's denizens were beginning to rise now. A window cracked open, brightening the sound of a teapot; dogs released in a back garden began barking. The front door of the Dursley house opened and Vernon Dursley tried to bend down to pick up his newspaper. 

Harry stopped, as did his companions behind him when Vineet ran into his back. Vernon was setting his feet wider for another attempt at bending low enough when he glanced up and saw them. Vineet immediately began inspecting a closed electrical box and Belinda pulled her clipboard up and pretended her wand was a pen. 

Vernon's eyes narrowed and circled around the street. His gaze came back to Belinda and locked on her while his mustache wiggled back and forth. 

Every instinct in Harry's body insisted he remain still, but he could not help it, he magically gave the newspaper a shove to the side just as Vernon's fingertips touched it. 

Vernon jumped back faster than seemed possible for someone his size. Vineet and Belinda were looking the other way, but they spun when he shouted, "None of that! Hear me! I'll have none of you freaks disturbing our home, our town!"

Vineet and Belinda gave each other mystified looks. Vernon said, "You think I'm that stupid, do you? I can tell your type. The lot of you should be sent out of the country. It's ridiculous to have you running loose, making mischief, scaring good people who just want things to be normal!"

The neighbor's door opened and a small woman in a pink nightcap leaned out to pick up her paper. "Good morning, Vernon."

"Eh? Oh, good morning, Mrs. Fraut."

The neighbor's door closed and Vernon wound up again. "What is your problem with normal, anyway? It's perfectly . . . sane and proper. It's not our fault you were born freaks, and we shouldn't have to suffer for it, I tell you! Get off my street or I'll contact the authorities!"

Harry did not think ahead; he simply reappeared behind Vernon just as his uncle turned to go inside. Harry pulled his cloak free of his head so it draped over his shoulders making him appear to emerge from the air. "You were saying?" Harry asked.

Vernon made a pitiful sound of surprise. Harry leaned forward to lord over his uncle. 

"What, I didn't get that?"

Vernon raised a chubby hand and waved it vaguely. "Petunia," he muttered, far too quiet to be heard. He recovered himself partly and grumbled, "What do you want?"

Harry considered this question long enough to make sweat appear along the folds of Vernon's neck. "All sorts of things." Harry snapped his wand out, which had exactly the right effect. "Revenge is high on the list."

Vernon backed up a step, noticed he was backing out his own door, then sidestepped. "Now, now, we took you in, you know. No one else would have-"

"That is a lie," Harry snarled, flicking his double layer of cloak out as he turned. The strange effect distracted Vernon so that he ran into a table lamp. With a wave, Harry arrested it before it could smash to the floor. Vernon sighed in relief and Harry gave a flick and sent the white Grecian vase shape across the room to smash soundlessly against the hearth. Vernon stared at the remains of it, blinking.

"You were miserable to me," Harry said, drawing Vernon's attention back. "You were lucky I wasn't stronger before. I let you get away with it because I was weak." 

Vernon shook his finger at Harry. "Y-Y-You were one who was trouble. You think you weren't trouble? What with all the . . . the evil, all-powerful wizards flitting around here?"

Harry smiled broadly. "You mean Voldemort?" 

Vernon swallowed hard, gaze growing confused. "Yes, that was his name. Bloody well would rather not hear it again." 

Harry heard the beeping of a cordless phone being dialed. He twisted an Electrical Storm Charm out of his wand. The television shot sparks out the back of it. In a distant room, Petunia gave a squeak and dropped something onto a hard floor.

Vernon backed along a glossy finished folded table, making it creak as he used it for balance. "Now, now, I know your rules."

Harry stalked after Vernon. "I make my own rules now."

Petunia came running through an arched opening. "The telephone it just . . . Harry . . ." she said in a mockery of a greeting, brushing her hands over her perfectly white apron.

Harry's instincts were complaining that he was doing this wrong. He again failed to understand the point of doing things in a way that meant he could not enjoy them. 

"What do you want, Harry?" Petunia demanded.

Harry stared at her. His instincts were telling him that she had the kind of forceful life energy that would make an excellent Horcrux. 

Petunia tugged on Vernon's sweat-soaked shirt sleeve and whispered, "I tried calling that number they gave us . . . but the phone exploded." Vernon waved her off with his free hand and swallowed hard. 

"The Ministry gave you a number, did they?" Harry asked. He flicked his wand up straight and tilted his head at them. "They can't protect you from me. They don't understand what I am." 

- 888 -

Snape was sitting in the drawing room in his dressing gown, marking the examinations Lupin had sent when pounding footsteps followed the sound of the Floo Network in the dining room.

A breathless Vineet caught himself on the doorframe and said, "You must come quickly."

Snape got to his feet and waved a cloak from the entryway. "What is happening?"

"It's Harry . . . he's at his aunt and uncle's house."

Upstairs, the bedroom door opened and Candide, dreary-eyed, came out onto the balcony. "Remain here with her," Snape commanded Vineet.

"I cannot," Vineet insisted. "I must go back."

Snape had been turning away, but mid-hook of his cloak, he spun back. 

"I have no choice," Vineet insisted, voice unsteady.

Snape tilted his head with an expression of extreme dismay. He closed his eyes, then shouted, "Winky, you are being left to defend this house. Against everyone." To Candide, he said, "Leave as soon as you are able to get ready. Do not return unless I fetch you." While peering at Vineet, he added, "Trust no one." 

Snape held out an arm to Vineet to Apparate them away.

- 888 -

"That freakish father of yours was always playing games like this too," Petunia said with a half sob as she tried to untie the binding on her feet with her skinny white fingers. Harry had done that because she had tried to run for the door. Vernon was kneeling beside her, trying to help with his great pink paws.

"Mrs. Dallow! Mr. Dallow!" Vernon shouted at the open doorway to a couple in business suits who were hurrying by on the pavement.

"They can't hear or see you," Harry pointed out, fingering his wand thoughtfully. "No matter what happens no one will know. And for the last time . . . MY PARENTS WERE NOT FREAKS!" Harry wound up his arm, not thinking much ahead about which exact spell, but thinking it should be bright and scary and that it should hurt, but he did not finish the motion. Someone grabbed his arm and forced it to his side. 

"No." Snape stepped in front of Harry, holding fast to his arm, which let Harry catch his balance.

Harry shook his arm free and glared. "Get out of my way."


Harry raised his wand to point at Snape's neck. Heat seethed through his bones, dissolving them, it felt like. "I said, get out of my way."

"They are not worth this, Harry."

On the floor behind him, Vernon blubbered, "Yes, we are worthless. Really, not at all worth the attention . . ."

"They deserve to be miserable," Harry said.

Snape said, "I won't argue that. But look at them. Don't you think they are, already?" He grabbed Harry's double layer of cloak and stepped a few inches to the side. "They live as Muggles. How much more miserable do you want them?"

Vernon put his hands up as if in prayer. "Yes, we are so very miserable already. Do not end our misery . . ."

Through clenched teeth, Harry said, "It's not the same as them knowing I'm hurting them."

Snape stepped back to completely block Harry's view. Harry hit his arm to get him to let go, but Snape held fast. "So, help me, Severus, I'll strike you down if you don't get out of my way. You know I can beat you. You are scared to even duel me."

"I am not scared to duel you, Harry, just of little use to you in that capacity. In other capacities I am invaluable, such as advising you to leave your aunt and uncle be. They are not worth the trouble you will bring upon yourself, both legal and magical."

Harry grabbed Snape's wrist and raised it between them. "You want me to make you a servant again?" he threatened.

"No. Of course I don't. It's not necessary, in any event. You have my loyalty."

Harry shoved him backwards. "A loyal servant would get out of my way."

Snape spread his empty hands. "A noble servant would not allow you to make such a grievous mistake as this. Stop now, Harry. Your friends are keeping things quiet outside. We will wipe their memories and everything will be fine."

Vernon tugged on Snape's cloak. "You can make us forget this, Kind Wizard?"

Harry raised his elbow up and sighted along his wand at Snape's heart. "You have one last chance to get out of the way, Severus. You've been in the way too much lately."

Snape exhaled before repeating, "No. I draw the line at letting you go any farther."

Harry bit his lip, trying to dredge up old hatred for the man before him. His wand hand vibrated and sweat made his collar stick to his neck. He had once loathed him, but he could no longer access that emotion. He was a traitor too, a voice said, but Harry could not tap enough of that either.

Harry's eyes took in Snape's empty hands, his intense expression. Cringing, he lowered his wand. "You disloyal bastard," Harry breathed, then tapping the pain of a bruised ego, he struck out. It was just a Blasting Curse, and it was aimed almost entirely at the floor, but it swept Snape's feet out from under him, and he fell to his knees. Behind him, the Dursleys screeched and floundered away, closer to the arched doorway.

"You make me weak," Harry snarled at Snape. 

Snape shook his mussed head and steadily met Harry's angry gaze. "It's you, in fact, who taught me it isn't weakness."

Harry took a step back, then another. His heart was beating so fast it vibrated his ribs. The room seemed to have no air left and his head swam. Eyes stinging, he slipped away.

In the Dark Plane the creatures gathered rapidly, seeming to materialize from nothing. Harry could hear their limbs clacking together, could see their ivory teeth glowing. For a dizzy moment, he was exquisitely grateful for their company, until one latched onto his shoe and another leapt for his cloaked arm. Fortunately, the invisibility cloak was indestructible, and it slid aside, taking the creature with it. 

Frantic about the cloak, Harry kicked the creature holding onto it with the one biting his shoe. Screeches sounded, which sent the hordes into a frenzy. Harry felt claws all over his legs before he could Apparate away and slip free of them. 

Back at the Dursley house, Snape fell forward onto one hand in an instinctive gesture to grab at Harry. As he pushed to his feet, Vernon, sounding like a giant house elf, asked, "Is he gone?"

Snape drew in a breath and let it go again. "Yes." He pulled his wand out and held it pointing at the floor as he turned around. Vernon's relief evaporated. He glanced uneasily at the wand and sat up straighter releasing the magical rope on Petunia's ankles.

"You were thoroughly deserving of his wrath," Snape said, then used a slicing motion to negate the Binding Charm. Petunia clutched her now free ankles and sobbed faintly. He aimed his wand between Vernon's eyes, letting him stare at it with mouth agape. "Now hold still," Snape purred. "I'd like for this to hurt, but unfortunately, it won't. And when we are through, you should take a holiday, a very long and distant one."

- 888 -

Not wanting to, even more so, attract the demons to the area opposite the house, Harry re-emerged in the parklands northwest of Shrewsthorpe. Silver clouds hung over the hilltops with the sunlight slicing around them in all directions. Harry did not see this beauty; he was walking the other way, stumbling in the rutted grass. 

For a shining moment, everything had been clear, but he was too weak to keep hold of anything but failure. 

Harry transformed into his Animagus form and took flight. As he flapped hard for altitude, he took refuge in the notion that he could just remain that way forever. If nothing else, he could let his will and desires melt into an animal mind and forget everything human.

Without a destination, Harry simply flew home. He landed in the back garden and unCharmed the back door to get in. Snape stood in the main hall, still in his cloak. He was about to speak when a voice from the balcony said, "Oh, you are back."

Snape's head snapped upward, but Harry missed his alarmed expression because he too looked up.

"I thought you'd be longer," Candide breezily said as she came down the stairs.

Harry finally glanced at Snape to read his expression, but it was neutral. Harry's anger built again, but half of it coiled around inside his chest unable to find a way out. 

"I don't appreciate you getting in the way," Harry grumbled, directing some anger that way. He could not seem to stand straight, instead slouching like someone gut wounded. He had a fleeting vision of holding Snape down to Mark him, but it would not work right, even as satisfying as his horror would be.

"I would do it again," Snape said, voice pitched as low as possible.

"Everything all right?" Candide asked. She hitched a hand-gnawing, humming Arcadius on her other side to pick up a rubber teething ring from the couch. "I didn't mean to interrupt. I'll leave you two alone." She glided back up the stairs.

The two of them stood there in silence for many minutes, until Harry Summoned down the most gruesome of his purloined dark magic books and sat on the couch to read it. Snape glanced at this and said nothing. He collected his marking from the drawing room and sat on the opposite couch.

Harry's book groaned piteously with each page turn. He wasn't really reading; he could not seem to process more than a sentence at a time, and he did not really care about Maleficence anyway. It sounded too much like a combination of Trelawney and Firenze's philosophies where people had little control and were delusional to think otherwise.

Harry turned a few pages, faster. The book snarled and grew teeth at the page edges. Like the creatures in the Dark Plane, Harry had lost control of the worst of the books, too. He sensed they only let him read them because they wanted to be read, and the alternative was to be returned to the vault within a vault where their knowledge could not spread. He read on, doggedly determined to avoid thinking.

- 888 -

Candide stepped into the main hall from the dining room and stopped there when Snape held his palm up from where he sat on the couch. On the other couch, Harry lay slumped, arms akimbo, his extended foot turned outward.

"He fell asleep?" Candide whispered.

Snape nodded. He crept up and wove a complicated spell over the shoe-leather bound book before hovering it over the back of the couch and onto the floor in the corner of the room. As it came to rest and the sparkles faded, his shoulders fell. 

"Safe now?" Candide asked, still whispering.

"Safe as it ever is," Snape intoned. He spun on her after she settled onto the couch with a yawning Arcadius. Mouthing, not even whispering, he said, "I told you to go."

"I told you I wouldn't," she mouthed back. "We discussed this."

"I don't want to regret this," Snape said, but she returned a quizzical expression indicating she had not understood.

Next: Chapter 59
"Harry?" Snape's voice rose, insistent.

Harry could not bear to be confused any more, he may tear in half. "Leave me be," he whispered. When Snape's far too intent gaze did not waver, Harry added, "You betrayed me. I don't trust you."

Speaking these words gave Harry a foothold on reality and he could suddenly draw air fully into his lungs.

"I would be disloyal not to point out that you would feel better if you ate something."

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