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Chapter 64 — Mission

Monday, Harry rose early and slipped outside. He had notions of going for a run, of filling his muscles with movement, but his body resisted too fiercely. It was the first of May and the wind was the warmest yet as it shifted his loose workout suit. He walked instead, admiring the beds bursting with flowers and wishing he could Apparate all the way to Oxford. Elizabeth's letters had been polite, but not much more, and he very much wanted to see her in person, even though he would have to write down what he wanted to say when he got there. 

He had not yet attempted Apparition and he should certainly start with a closer destination. Breathing heavily just from walking up and down the short roads for half an hour, Harry decided he should breakfast before straining himself more.

He found Snape in the dining room, sitting with his chin on his hand, staring out the window. He must know Harry was standing there, but he did not move. Harry rapped on the tabletop and Snape's eyes slid his way, while the rest of him did not so much as twitch.

"Do you wish to take care of Ms. Beluna today?" Snape asked.

Harry pulled his head back in surprise, then nodded.

Snape glanced at his pocket watch as he stood and said, "She may still be at her flat this morning."

Harry tracked him with his eyes, then arrested his reaching for the Floo Powder. Harry shuffled his feet to line up their gazes and thought at him: Are you hoping I'll have heart failure again and have to stay?

Snape's expression did not change. "And if I admit to having entertained that possibility . . . will you forego assisting Ms. Beluna this morning?"

Harry released his arm. Snape had him on that.

"Shall we go?"

Harry braced himself for this upcoming test, then wondered where Candide was. He tilted his head; the house was quiet for this time of morning. 

"Candide went into the office this morning," Snape said, holding out the tin of Floo Powder.

- 888 -

A harried Belinda, wearing a grey trouser suit opened the door to her flat. She had her handbag open behind her on the table and after letting them in sat down to put on her shoes. "I'm going to be late," she said breathily while tugging a thin orange strap over her heel and running her finger under it to untwist it. She clapped that foot on the floor and worked on the other one.

"I have deemed Harry to be healthy enough to remove your Mark," Snape said.

Belinda set her foot on the floor with her shoe half on. "You mean I could wear a skirt today without leggings?" Then she laughed mirthlessly and fixed her strained eyes on the wall before her.

Harry dropped his head and briefly closed his eyes. She did not use to be like this.

"It won't take but a minute," Snape said. He gestured for Harry to approach.

Harry went down on one knee before Belinda and set her loose shoe aside. He took hold of her ankle, wishing Snape were not here. His knowledge was bad enough, but his seeing tore at Harry's guts. 

Harry closed his eyes until the burn in them eased. Under his palm the curse prickled and burned cold then hot. He pushed at it and Belinda sucked a breath through her teeth and jerked her leg.

"It is going to hurt a bit," Snape said, not in the least sympathetic.

Harry continued pushing at the curse and his heart began thrumming hollowly in his chest. Snape was correct; he was not strong enough for this. He needed more time to recover. But he could not wait any longer; it had been too long already. Belinda clasped her hands together and bit her lips, either impatient or hopeful.

The curse slipped aside again on the next attempt, escaping Harry's grasp. If he did not commit his whole spirit to the task it would not work. He took a deep breath and clamped his jaw together to hold it in. His next push was with his whole being and he feared for a moment that he had knocked Belinda's chair over because it tilted when the room tried to spin away.

Harry clung to Belinda's ankle with one hand, and wrapped the fingers of the other around the sharp edged chair leg. Beneath his hand the curse faded to the ordinary warmth of skin, and powdery grit ground under his fingers. 

Hands grabbed Harry from behind, pulling him away from the floor, which had tried to heave up and strike him. 

"Harry," Snape's voice was in his ear. "If you cannot do this, do not harm yourself trying."

Harry shook his head. The room still canted sickeningly. He longed to rest his head on Belinda's knees, or the chair edge, or the floor even. His neck would not support his head and the effort to bear up made his hollow stomach turn over.

Harry let go of Belinda and let the arm around his chest pull him to what must be level, even if he could not discern it for certain. A hand stroked the top of his head. 

"Do not sacrifice yourself for this, Harry," Snape said. There was no recrimination in his voice, no judgment. 

The room settled straight. Belinda hitched her ankle on her knee and tugged her trouserleg aside. Straining against the arm around his shoulders, Harry reached out and brushed the zig-zag pattern of ash away. She batted at his hand and ran her fingers over her unmarred skin. Shoulders sagging in relief, Harry gave into the hold and rocked back on his knees. 

The heartbeat fluttering frantically in Harry's neck faded. He breathed in and out experimentally and the arm crushing his chest loosened, then turned him bodily. Snape tapped Harry's chest with his wand. Harry kept his chin up out of the way, but could still see the Indificator Spell flare pinkish with flashes of a greenish yellow.

"You seem to have survived," Snape stated. He stood using Harry's shoulder as a brace then reached down to offer him a hand up. "Unless you need to rest . . ."

Harry pulled hard on Snape's hand to gain his feet. He shook his head, determination to be strong enough was making his heart throb rapidly again. He turned to Belinda and put out a hand to help her up. She ignored it and stood on her own while rubbing her clothes smooth.

Harry looked to Snape for help. Snape, still gripping Harry's hand, said, "Ms. Beluna."

When Belinda turned, Harry rapidly pressed his heart and his lips back and forth. 

"Harry is apologizing, as promised," Snape explained.

She stood considering them with her hands on her hips before turning away and collecting her handbag and cloak. "I really have to go. Since the Aurors' Office told the Minister Percy had me under an Imperius I get looked at crooked if I arrive late." She huffed and turned back to them, dropped her gaze and Disapparated.

Harry, chest hurting, shook himself free of Snape's grip and turned in a circle, tracing the edges of the Muggle Aversion Curse still applied to the floor, the one he had taught Belinda. Harry pulled his wand and with a sweep, canceled it.

"What was that?" Snape asked.

Harry did not reply. His hands were shaking with exhaustion and his spirit had deteriorated from facing down his past with this man as a witness. He simply wished to go home.

Snape stepped close and put a hand around Harry's upper arm. "Do you want me to accompany you in the Floo?"

At that moment, with the mixed food and cleanser scents of the kitchen reminiscent of the Dursleys, Harry wished to be small again. The burden of responsibility to make amends for his own evil was many times more wearying than bearing the Prophecy to defeat Voldemort, even at its most weighty. 

Harry looked up and thought, I can't make up for this.

"Harry, you cannot force people to forgive you. Because their forgiving you has nothing to do with you. It has to do with them." They considered each other. Snape said, "I started brewing you something restricted and dangerous if left unattended long, and it is about ready for a stir, I suspect. Come, let's go home."

- 888 -

Harry slouched on the couch, sipping hot cocoa, and flipping Elizabeth's last letter from back to front, painfully trying to decode the whole of it. He was hoping Candide would return to write a letter for him, but it was after lunch and there was still no sign of her. The next time Snape made his periodic pass through the main hall, Harry held up a quill to him.

Snape jerked his head in Harry's direction and came over to accept it. "You wish me to assist you? Truly?"

Harry looked over Elizabeth's letter from that morning and found no patience for waiting, only a knotted ache behind his ribs. He nodded.

Expression dubious, Snape sat beside Harry and took up the writing board. "I still think it for the best that you wait on any emotional entanglements, even as improved as you are," Snape said, addressing the envelope. His handwriting swept over the paper more than Candide's did, as if it were his one unrestricted outlet of expression.

Harry looked over the letter in his hand. Sadly, from what he could decipher, it contained nothing he would want to keep to himself. He handed it to Snape to read.

"Dear Harry, 

I was glad to read in your last owl that you are feeling better. You have quite a burden of expectation from everyone, well, at least those in the wizard community, and I imagine it would be difficult to bear up for long if you aren't at your best.

As soon as you are cleared by a Healer to Apparate on your own, I'd enjoy getting together for coffee. Be certain to owl ahead as life is very busy during term.

I've been trying to get involved more in the magical community, so I went to watch the Cornwall Regional Tournament yesterday. I still feel like an outsider in a crowd like that. There is a wizard pub here (very small one) and I've stopped in a few times, but it's always the same three patrons: an herbalist, who has plants growing out of his pocket that he will introduce you to, a dropout from Hogwarts who is hoping to absorb knowledge by breathing in the air around Oxford, and a retired professor who is cultivating a beard, despite being female.

Well, I best get back to reviewing my notes. Write soon. I like to have Hedwig here for a bit to keep me company while I write out my reply.

Yours, Elizabeth."

Snape handed the letter back to Harry, who picked up the quill and handed it to Snape again.

"She will notice the handwriting is different," Snape pointed out. "As I understand it, you are hiding your impairment from her, are you not?"

Elizabeth would notice his handwriting changing later anyway. Harry tapped the fresh sheet of parchment with his index finger, and Snape wrote out a salutation. The way the quill scratched and sailed under Snape's hand expressed Harry's feelings better than Candide's precise writing and he felt the tightness in his gut relaxing.

"And what would you like to say?" He turned to Harry and waited. "You don't know; I see. Unlike Candide, I cannot write this for you."

Harry chewed on his knuckle, fighting frustration.

"Well, let's see, you regret that she did not come to the London Regional instead, I assume? Nothing wrong with a potential love interest seeing you up there beside the Minister for Magic." He wrote for a while. "You most likely regret other things, such as not being in a position to take her out for the evening."

Harry shook his head, Candide had already covered that previously and Harry did not wish to seem pathetic.

"Perhaps something about the weather." Snape wrote a bit, then sat back and crossed his legs. "What is it about her that appeals to you, perhaps we can add something in the way of flattery?" He did not wait for a response, simply wrote some more. Harry just liked listening to the pen rasp. It soothed his nerves.

"Oh dear, is Severus writing your letters for you?" Candide asked upon arriving home with Arcadius strapped to her front. She put her things down and sighed. "I don't think I want to commute like that too often. Carrying him, I have to do five Apparition hops. That's exhausting." She sat down beside Snape without unhitching the baby. Arcadius' head rocked when she shifted, not waking.

"We are doing all right," Snape stated. But when she held her hand out for the letter, Snape passed it over.

"Hm, not bad. How come you never write me love letters with this lovely handwriting? Hm? Here, let me sign it, I can do Harry's signature." She read the letter over again and leaned forward to ask Harry, "Don't want to just ask for a date outright? You come awfully close."

"Harry will be leaving town," Snape said, taking the signed letter back and showing it to Harry one last time.

"He will?"

Harry handed the letter back and Snape slipped it into the envelope and sealed it. "More specifically, Harry will be leaving this dimension."

Candide sat with her mouth open. "What? For how long?"

"He does not know."

Candide untied the baby carrier while glancing between them. "You aren't leaving soon, are you, Harry?"

Harry nodded.

Snape's lips drew out to a thin line. "A week, Harry . . . you should wait and recover at least that long."

Harry shook his head. Visions of Grindelwald's unchecked destruction made it impossible to sit idle for that long.

"Where are you going?" Candide asked. "I don't understand this."

Snape and Harry shared a glance. Harry did not believe Snape had ever informed her that she had briefly been living with a substitute husband from one of the places he planned to visit.

Snape explained, "Harry insists on fixing some things he disturbed while traveling previously. We do not know how long will be required for this."

Disturbed by being unhitched, Arcadius yawned, face reddening. Candide spared him a glance then asked, "What about your apprenticeship?"

Snape pushed to his feet. "Harry is restarting year two. I expect the Ministry can be put off as long as necessary, given that." He bent to lift Arcadius from the loosened carrier. The baby gave another yawn that shook his limbs and the damper in the flue rattled. Snape glanced that way and then shook his head. "No one is to know where Harry has gone. We will tell his friends he has gone on a walkabout."

Harry made a face.

"We will tell them he has gone back to Finland, perhaps. We will tell them something." Snape held Arcadius so his feet dangled, inspecting the infant. "Harry is unable to let things lie, even at the risk of his own continued existence in this place."

Something about his tone made Harry tug on his robes until he looked over. He showed Snape how pleased he was to be in this family, disagreements over Elizabeth notwithstanding. Snape held his gaze longer than necessary before turning away to walk the room with Arcadius, who had started to fuss.

"He always wants to be fed after Apparating," Candide said, standing and putting her hands out on Snape's next pass.

"I only just got him," Snape said.

Candide chuckled. "At the risk of hitting too low, you sound like Molly."

Snape released the baby and stepped over to stand before Harry. "This family is incomplete without you." He looked like he wished to say more, but instead frowned and strode off to the drawing room.

- 888 -

Harry slept in short snippets interrupted by limb shaking with fear and despondency. He rose just at dawn and went to the kitchen.  The fire was roaring, filling the narrow room with heat and undulating light.  Harry took a seat at the low stool beside the bench and propped his head on his hands.

"Master Harry is wishing for breakfast?" Winky asked. He had not heard her appear.

Harry pulled his head off his hands and nodded.

Winky began shuffling different cauldrons over the fire. Tins sailed down off the shelf along the ceiling. "Master is being very worried about Master Harry. Master Harry is not being well and Master is being helpless about this."

Harry sighed. He knew he was not being fair to Snape, but he could not do as Snape suggested and forget those other places. It would hollow him out to turn away.

A bowl of oatmeal was slid in front of Harry, swimming in cream and piled with brown sugar. Harry eagerly took up the spoon that sparkled in beside the bowl. Winky gave a bow and sparkled away, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He liked it down here alone with the fire heating his sleeve and his cheek, with the stone walls and the comforting scent of old soot.

Harry tried to assemble real plans, but there were too many unknowns. He was going to have to just do his best when he got there. And hope that his past lucky spontaneous strategizing when things were their grimmest had been his own, not Voldemort's. As Harry pondered this new worry, footsteps scuffed down the steps to the kitchen and Snape appeared.

"Oh, you are here. I did not hear you get up. I am brewing something that should help you recover from the extreme cold when you pass Inbetween. It will be ready by the afternoon." 

They looked at each other, Harry recalling his recent threats over brewing that required him to wait. He nodded and dropped his gaze, intending to pretend to eat, but his bowl and spoon had vanished.

"I have already told you I've forgiven you," Snape intoned. 

Harry kept his head down. He had not been able to Occlude his thoughts, yet another skill that he needed to work on. 

Snape remained in the doorway. Thinking of Winky's comment, Harry raised his gaze and projected: This has nothing to do with you. I cannot live with myself if I do not at least try

Snape's shoulders fell. He stepped farther into the room to where the rippling firelight warmed the color of his skin. "I do understand, Harry. But that does not make it easier to accept." He stood with his arms lax, watching the fire, brow furrowed.

Harry strained to stand from the low seat and approached him. Snape's gaze remained on the flames. Close up, the lines on his face appeared to be engraved in leather. Harry pulled on Snape's upper arm and put his other arm around him. Snape remained stiff, patting Harry on the back twice.

"I am weary of being helpless," Snape said. When Harry pushed back to assess his face again, Snape added, "Yet again, I cannot assist you, only bide my time covering for you."

Harry wondered if he had been too much; if Snape regretted ever bringing him home. He still could not Occlude his thoughts and this time felt the Legilimency slip an impression of the emotion from him.

"No," Snape stated firmly. "No," he added more gently, clasping Harry's forearm in return. "I would not undo anything. I just retain some . . . uncharacteristic, perhaps . . . hope that we will reach some point of normalcy, that I will be reduced to the mere trivial worry attendant to your occupation as an Auror."

Snape captured Harry's other wrist and raised his arms so they crossed in front of him. "You have set yourself an arduous task with far too many unknowns." His mouth twitched into a wry smile. "I was considering a Promise Charm but I cannot bear to put you through the resulting torment if you were, for some reason beyond your control, unable to return."

Snape's hold on Harry's arms loosened, but they remained there, fixed in the same pose. "In your current state, I find myself unable to expect your return."

Saliva filled Harry's mouth, making him swallow hard. But I have to go. Certainly you understand needing to fix . . . Unbidden, Harry thought of his mother and looked away. The grip compressing the bones of his arms tightened.

"As I pointed out, I do understand." Snape released Harry so suddenly that he lost his balance and dipped forward. Snape caught him by the shoulders and pushed him upright, saying, "Nothing is the same without your presence. Please . . . Harry . . . do not sacrifice yourself again. Do what you can, but do come back to us."

Harry blinked rapidly and nodded. Snape pulled him off balance again to hug him firmly. His voice was low in Harry's ear as he said, "If you do not make it back, do remember that you have changed things here for the better, for everyone, including myself." 

Snape released Harry slowly, steering him upright as he did so. Something about the wavering light made it difficult to discern up and down. With one last pat on the arm, Snape stepped to the stair and turned back. "Coming up?"

Harry nodded, thinking that he would follow as soon as his eyes stopped feeling so hot.

- 888 -

"Here are the potions," Snape said, holding out five tiny bottles of orange liquid.

The bottles clacked together as Harry pocketed them. Candide stood nearby, bouncing and rocking Arcadius, who had been woken from a nap to see him off.

"You have pounds as well as Galleons, correct?" Snape demanded.

Harry nodded, touching the various pockets where he had things secreted. 

Snape went on, "Not knowing the consequences of warming you while you are traveling between Planes, the potion has a delay of thirty seconds or so. But it should allow you to arrive in a safer locale, without leaving you helpless, or needing a lit hearth, which is becoming harder to rely upon, given the season."

Harry continued to nod. He checked his wand, his old wand. Grindelwald had his new one. He would get a chance to get it back, which made his insides molten, even though he really did not want that wand back, particularly.

Harry lifted his gaze to his guardian, who stood pensively, eyes alert. Snape's lip twitched as he asked, "Anything else you might need?"

Harry shook his head and turned to pat Arcadius on the head. Candide would not let him get away with just that, she pulled him against the baby to give him one-armed hug. 

"Be careful Harry. And don't be long." She sounded perplexed still.

Harry brushed Arcadius' peach soft cheek with his knuckle. He would not miss seeing him grow up if he could at all help it. The thought alone emptied him out.

With one more glance between them, Harry stepped back and prepared to slip away. He had not been to the Dark Plane since his last battle with Voldemort and imagining returning made his chest burn, like his heart had been submerged in acid.

"Severus," Candide said sharply, shuffling over beside her husband. "Aren't you going to give Harry a proper goodbye?"

Snape turned to her, pulling his shoulders back. 

Candide said, "Give Harry a nice hug," while bumping him with her baby laden elbow.

Snape crossed his arms as his eyes slid back to Harry, who waited on his toes for the conclusion of this exchange. Snape said, "I don't think it terribly seemly."

"You are impossible, Severus." 

Snape gave Harry a narrow look that included a wink. Harry, heart lighter, Inverted himself into the underworld, holding fast to that last vision of the two of them: Candide exasperated, Snape standing defiant with his arms crossed, but with his eyes softened by a smile only Harry could perceive.

Harry peered around the windless grey world. It appeared the same as it always did, despite his latent dread. Creatures scuffled nearby, unseen. There was no sign of the young man, no sign of anything but the hillocks stretching away to the limits of his vision. Harry began to walk, to prepare himself. He was feeling much stronger than yesterday, his limbs moved without twinges, but he was still far short of normal, and the crushing cold would batter him miserably. And there was no predicting what he would find when he arrived, but he trusted that Grimmauld Place would be occupied by someone who could fill him on what had been happening, so he intended to make his way there, first.

Harry pulled one of the tiny bottles from his pocket. In the grey light it appeared dark red, menacing. More scuffling sounded from beyond a large hillock. Harry looked up and it quieted. He had been so distracted by his planning, he had forgotten about the creatures. All the way around him, nothing stirred. At least in this, he was much stronger. To gain the wand, he would have to be strong. It would not respect weakness.

Harry Apparated within the Dark Plane to be opposite Gringotts Bank, popped the cork out of the bottle with his thumbnail, swallowed the bitter liquid and, thinking of that place where he had left his counterpart in possession of the Hallows, Fell sideways towards his vault, the safest place he could think of.

- 888 -

- 888 -

Severus Snape parted the faded frilly curtains to peer down at Diagon Alley. He remained that way, watching the dusk render the boarded up shops bleaker still. A skinny cat trotted into the street and stopped, still as a statue, even ignoring a sheet of newspaper skidding by on the wind beside its feet.

"You did that last time too . . . spent the evening looking out the window."

Holding his fingers in the curtain, he turned to Candide and said, "I am being careful. That is all."

She sat down and bundled her cloak around her. The room was colder than the three days before when she had invited him up for a late cup of coffee. She said, "It's not as if one could manage a decent date in the middle of a magical battle zone anyhow."

The cat cantered off, and with a smooth leap, slipped in under the blackened boards covering the Eyelops Emporium bay window. Snape said, "You should not stay here. It is not safe."

She smoothed off the faded quilt on the bed. "I know it's not much, but I call it home."

Snape ignored this. Figures were dashing along the alleyway, not casting any shadows in the murky blue light.

"See something?" she asked when he pulled his wand out. 

When the figures rounded the bend in the alley, he lowered his wand to his side. 

"You always act like you know something," she said, sitting back lazily in a pose that was probably borne of exhaustion, not an attempt to be provocative. 

"I know far less than I would prefer to know about what is happening," he grumbled. Potter never told him a thing ahead of time. Made a point of it, in fact.

A spell explosion lit the curtains and shouting rose up through the glass, then running footsteps. Candide came to the window and ducked to look out. She had to press close to see. Four figures were chasing a lone figure, who ran with full arms swinging. Snape recognized at least one of the chaser's voices as one of his former house students.

"I hate this sort of thing," she said, voice full of sadness.

Snape angled his wand upward and whispered a spell that would bounce off the window of the abandoned building opposite and down. His reflected aim was poor, but it distracted the gang enough that the object of the chase was able to Disapparate safely.

"How did you-"

He pushed her back from the window and covered her eyes with his hand as a spell washed over the buildings outside, a Seeing Eye curse that would reveal all observers. The curtain rod vibrated as it passed.

Seconds later, he released her to look out again. The alley stood empty. 

"Gone already?" she said. "Thank Merlin. They are getting skittish, I think. Potter seems to be scaring them. They used to fear nothing." She walked to the cupboard and dipped a cup in a tall kettle of water. She pulled down an orange topped Muggle jar and asked, "Want coffee?"

"Not that substance," Snape replied.

"It's all they had for sale at the Cauldron," she explained, spooning it out.

Snape muttered, "They should fear Potter."

She must have heard him because she said, "You think?" And then laughed.

"It isn't safe here," Snape repeated. 

She approached him stirring the cup. The aroma of coffee flavored mud approached as well. "You said that last week, but nothing happened." She joined him again in peering out. "I'm beginning to think it's random who gets caught in the crossfire, that there is nothing you can do to stay safe. It's just bad luck. So, why worry?"

Snape watched ragged propaganda posters skid along the alley. The wind whispered through the old window as well. "This is the easiest place to have a battle away from Muggle eyes. I fear one of these nights, soon, it will be very ugly here." He dearly wished he knew which night Potter was going to attempt to push the Dark Lord into a final stand. "I want to take you away from here."

She laughed. "I hear it's quiet in Canada. But I want to stay near my family. I still have a job, even if the hours are only a few a week. Do you know how lucky that is?"

Snape closed his eyes to visions of Potter and his friends whispering around the long table in the dining room, drawing furiously on parchment and arguing. Snape could catch glimpses of this, but never the final plans for any operation. He had even found the diadem for Potter, by interviewing the paintings at Hogwarts, but still, he was not trusted.

The Death Eaters had been slow to catch on, overconfidence had poisoned their minds, and Potter had drawn at least half of them out into the open where he could best them. He had swept through the Ministry, releasing his friends from the Dungeons and filling the cells with the survivors of his trickery. He had liberated Hogwarts and put McGonagall back in charge of it. But that still left nearly two hundred Death Eaters defending the Dark Lord.

Snape rubbed his forearm where it burned for a Summons. He clasped his arm around his midsection and leaned his head against the curtain, searching for one more reserve of strength to drain. He refused to be finished when it was this close.

"You all right?" Candide asked. She had been wandering around the tiny floor space of the flat, straightening the handful of possessions it contained. She sounded honestly concerned, which made him smile wryly.

"Do you need to eat? My parents probably have some dinner left this evening. I'm sure they'd like to meet you."

Snape held in a dismayed expression. "I'm fine." 

Pushing the pain of his Mark away, he left the window and went to her. He took her arms and steered her to sit on the bed. "I insist on taking you to safety tonight."

"How far away is that?"

"Not far, distance wise. We will have to take broomsticks, in fact, to be harder to trace. But I have to do something first, to be certain you are safe."

"For someone who hasn't made even the smallest romantic move, you are deeply into commitment."

Snape thought, We have already been intimate, you just weren't there. "It is too complicated to possibly explain." 

"Have I not seemed receptive enough? I mean the first two times we got together, I had no intention . . . but with all the craziness out there, it seems like there's no reason to give a damn about anything. And well, you seem interesting enough."

Snape released her shoulders, clasped his hands into balls, relaxed them consciously, and retook her shoulders. "We're on a different topic."

She pulled her ragged hair back from her face and dropped it. "Mum warned me this would happen. If I was too picky."


"I'd get so old no one would be interested. I still want kids." 

She was like this. In all fairness, everyone was like this: blunt and fatalistic. He trusted that her more livably pragmatic personality from that other place would assert itself, if things improved.

"I want you to hold this." He held out the Truth Teller. She lifted her hands and he dropped the marble onto her palm. "I need to see what it does while you answer a few questions." Tired of bending he sat beside her, which made the bed sag alarmingly.

"In the last two years have you ever experienced an event when you lost track of where you were, or what you had been doing for more than a few minutes?"

"Blacked out, you mean? No," she answered earnestly. The marble flashed white.

"Have you been approached by anyone to ferry a message or a package who wasn't someone you absolutely trust?"

"No. What is this leading toward?"

"I need to know if you have not been corrupted without your knowledge."

"By whom? I am very careful." The marble flickered the brightest yet.

"You are very inexperienced."

She raised a brow. "How would you know?"

Snape tilted his head, and soldiered on. "Have strangers ever followed you?"

"Besides you?"

"I followed you for half a street to ask you if you wished to have a drink. I don't think that counts."

"You did ask." Her eyes went far away in memory. "Hm, followed . . . maybe." 

"When was this?"

"Months ago. Before we closed the office in Hogsmeade. Someone seemed to be following everyone from the office now and then." Her voice fell away, distant. She closed her fingers around the marble, but the white flicker still lit her skin. Jerking back to the present, she opened her hands. 

"Hold still." Snape raised his wand and whispered a detection for a Memory Charm. "No one ever approached you?" he asked while the glow of that surrounded her head.

"No, when I turned around to challenge him, he went away."

Neither bit of magic shifted color. He plucked the flickering sphere up from her hand and slipped it into his pocket. He glanced at the darkened window, expecting the worst any moment, always. 

"Pack up your things and let us go."

She did not move. "I barely know you."

"You know me well enough."

She made a funny face at this. "Really, I don't. We've talked, what, four, five times? You could be anyone."

"I could be a Death Eater . . ." he said flippantly. He wanted to smile to complete the effect, but could not manage it. "If I could convey to you why this is so imperative, I would. I expect you will understand it later, implicitly if no other way, but in order for that to happen there must be a later. What do you have to lose? As you said, 'it doesn't matter what you do.' That is what you said, is it not?"

They landed on the porch at 12 Grimmauld Place. Snape hitched the broomstick on his elbow and pulled a folded card from his pocket that was so battered it opened like cloth. He unfolded it and held it up. "Read that, to yourself."

She squinted at the card in the glow from the sky. The Muggles actually had more than half of the city electrical grid working. 

"Okay," she said, then jumped back while looking up at the building façade. Snape put a hand on her arm, lest she step off the porch into view. Snape opened the door and led the way in.

Luna was running down the stairs just at that moment. She stopped and tilted her head at them for a dreamy hello.

Snape gestured sharply for Candide to follow up the stairs. Inside the room, he took her small bag and set it in the corner. Potions bubbled on the counter along the wall. Candide looked all around, jumping when she noticed someone was already in the bed.

"Oh, Severus," Lupin said, sitting up while scrubbing his hair. "Yeah, it's your turn for the room." He staggered by, stopping to say, "Oh, hello." He gave them many backward glances before shutting the door.

"It is a bit crowded, I'm afraid," Snape said, adding more boar's bristle to one cauldron and stirring the Wound Winder, which was already off the heat from earlier. His own actions over bringing her here were confounding him. He was behaving obsessed and disliked it.

Candide had pulled a book down and was flipping through it. A knock came on the door and Neville put his head in. "You're wanted downstairs. I'm afraid. Hi," he added to Candide.

"I'll be down shortly," Snape said, pretending to adjust ingredients in a potion that did not need it. When the door closed he said to Candide, "Might as well get this over with. Follow along, but do not say more than you absolutely need to."

A gauntlet of housemates lined the stairs as they passed, eyes bright with curiosity. The house had taken on an electric hum since Potter had obtained the three Hallows, as if nothing could touch them. Losing Dean Thomas and Mad Eye Moody only the week before had not dampened the energy at all.

Snape assumed he was being summoned to the Planning Room, otherwise known as the dining room. He led the way there. Harry stood as he usually did, between Hermione and Ron, bent over a map spread on a sideboard. Candide hung back at the doorway. Harry stood straight and spun when Snape said his name.

"I heard you brought someone inside." His eyes flicked to Candide, whose expression had melted into stunned. "You didn't ask me first?"

Snape casually said, "I have an invitation of my own. I could have written a new one, but used the one I received from Dumbledore. So you could say that he invited her in."

Harry turned to Hermione. "That means you can't revoke it," she provided.

"Clever bastard as always," Harry said.

Candide approached, stopped, approached. "You're . . ."

"Harry Potter, yes," Harry finished for her while turning back to Snape, who wanted to put up a hand to forestall Candide saying anything more, but could not without Harry seeing.

"You don't get it," Harry said, stepping close, which simply meant he had to look up more at Snape, but this did not seem to bother him. "You should have asked permission. Hermione, check her out." 

Hermione put her quill down and hurried over to Candide and led her off. Neville and Katie Bell stepped inside, backs to the door, like guards. 

"You are only here at my personal discretion," Harry said after the door closed. "I have every mind to toss you out. Feed you to your old friends."

"I don't think old Dumbledore's painting would like that," Ron said, tapping his toe on the floor. "You remember what he said—"

"Shut up about the painting," Harry snapped.

Ron's tapping feet froze and he made a discomfited face.

When Harry turned back his way, Snape dropped his voice very low said, "You do need me. And I have an oath to fulfill to the same dead wizard you do." Harry's gem-like eyes jumped back and forth between Snape's own before he backed off. 

Harry tapped the tops of the chair-backs as he passed them, walking away, walking back. "It's not going to matter long, anyway."

Snape, pained by years of Dumbledore's secretiveness said, "If you would inform me when, I could protect what I care about."

Harry spun on him, and stabbed a finger in his face. "You don't deserve to care about anyone!" He pulled back, as if in surprise and put a hand over his breast and gripped something through the fabric of his robe. He backed up two steps.

Ron, swallowing hard, said, "You're done with Snape, right? We have to get back to the plans."

"Yeah, get him out of here."

Ron led Snape away, keeping his eyes on the ground. At the door to the room he hesitated while giving his messy hair a good scratching, then departed without saying a word. Hermione opened the door a moment later and with an apologetic expression, urged Candide inside and hurried off.

"Severus," Candide said breathily. "I can't believe you are helping Harry Potter—"

"You cannot speak freely in here," Snape said.

"Cannot? Oh."

Snape took out a basket of jars and a funnel and began bottling Linement Elixer. "If you are speaking highly of Potter, on the other hand, by all means go ahead and speak."

She followed him with her hands clasped before her. "He's the Prophesized One, isn't he? Why wouldn't I speak highly of him?"

"Of course, why wouldn't one? Back up a bit, this is alkaline and will eat wool."

"Severus, why didn't you just say? Oh, of course, you have to be careful. He has to be protected."

Snape made a doubtful face at the bottle he held up for labeling, but did not reply. 

They were left alone for the rest of the night. Candide slept curled against him, which he might have expected to find reassuring, but instead he found himself gripped by the terror that, like she insisted, he could not influence anything.

They ate a late breakfast in the room. Lupin brought them plates and joined them, only seeming to interrogate Candide a little, but not on whether she was a potential infiltrator, entirely on the topic of how she knew Snape. Candide had taken on a bright cheerfulness since meeting Harry, which was probably the impetus for Lupin's comment of, "Doesn't seem your type, Severus, honestly."

Candide wrapped an arm around Snape's in response. She had transferred some of Harry's aura to him in her mind, which he did not have the energy to be disgusted about. He knew who she could be and held a desperate trust in that. There was nothing else to cling to.

Neville knocked on the door and said to Snape, "You're wanted downstairs. And Remus, Bill Weasley needs you back at the Ministry. And the new visitor should stay here."

The entry hall was full of colored light from the sun, but the dining room was as dim as it was at night, lit by only a handful of candles. It was also full, two people deep around the walls, some sitting, some standing.

"We need someone for a suicide mission," Harry was saying from the head of the table. "Oh, Snape," he said, acting surprised, then he smiled.

Harry's immediate friends all turned. Ginny pushed past Snape from behind, the ever-present sword at her waist knocking into the chair legs. "What's the discussion?" she asked as she took the only open seat, beside Harry.

"We need Nagini," Harry said. "It's the only bait that will draw Voldemort out of hiding."

Snape had schooled himself not to flinch at the name, but it still rasped on his nerves, which were too thin to bear it.

"Wouldn't Mr. Snape be bait enough?" Romilda asked from where she stood at the wall, picking the crusts off the toast plate and licking her pudgy fingers.

Harry turned back from glancing at her to consider Snape. "Interesting thought."

"I don't think at this point Voldemort would be that interested," Hermione said. "He's too busy protecting his last Horcrux to think about revenge."

Harry pushed back and rocked his chair on two legs. "Voldemort is never too busy to forego revenge, but he may be too careful to take us up on the invitation unless it has no risk. But I have an idea. There is someone who would stop at nothing." He stared at Snape, mind working. His Occlusion had improved as his motives had grown more focused, so Snape caught only flickers of ideas, images of Lucius Malfoy's angry visage, then Draco's. 

Harry's chair clapped back to four legs. "Yeah. I have an idea. Hermione, you have something we can trace him with. If we get lucky enough to have him dragged to Voldemort's headquarters, I want to be able to follow him."

Hermione put her hand on one of the writing boxes beside her. "Yes, I've got something," she said, voice faint. She held her hand on the box and held her eyes on Harry. "You're certain this is the best plan?"

Harry pushed to his feet. "You have a better idea you've been holding out on?" The crowd packed in more tightly to let him pace. "We can keep picking off his followers forever, but I'm tired of this. I want him gone." He raised his chin as if he was going to challenge Snape then spun to pace away again. "Yes, I like this plan." He stopped and stretched his neck while facing the wall, then turned and came back, right up to Snape's nose. "When'd he last Summon you?"

"Evening last," Snape replied quietly. 

Harry grabbed Snape's wrist and pulled his arm up and over. Snape resisted for only a second, realizing it would earn him nothing but more humiliation to resist. As Harry pushed Snape's sleeve aside with an expression of strange relish, the younger members of the Order shifted nervously. Snape's Mark was black, but the red inflammation from the night before had eased.

"He's not Summoning the Death Eaters right now then? And how long between Summons, usually, three or four days, right? We should move. Right now." Harry tossed Snape's wrist down and stalked away. "Hermione, take care of marking him. And the rest of you out for the moment. We'll call you in if we need you."

The Order shuffled out, glancing or simply outrightly staring at Snape standing pinned in the center of the room.

Hermione clapped the lid on the box closed and hurried over with something in her hand. Snape stood unmoving as she cut away one of the buttons on his cassock and applied a new one that fortunately matched. Or unfortunately, since it left him nothing to complain about.

- 888 -

Snape was running. His oversized boots caught again on an unseen tree root masked by the shadows cast from the leafing branches overhead. Snape put a hand down to arrest his falling flat. His breathing rasped in his ears and abraded his lungs. His boots, borrowed from a dead Dean Thomas, sank into the mud while he caught his breath and he had to twist them free before running on.

At first, he had loathed the running, but as he splashed through creeks, crashed headlong through bramble without regard to the injury, he felt liberated for the first time in a very long while. But now his body had reached its limits and his mind was following close behind.

Spells sizzled overhead. He was almost there, could almost stop running, now that his legs had gone numb and did not care about the motion and he could go on forever, if only he could breathe enough to stay upright.

The branch-strewn ground rose up and caught him at the knees at the next tangle of roots, and when he tried to push to his feet, he fell again, wheezing. The forest floor smelled of clay and swamp and it clung to his skin. Behind him, the shouting grew louder, then faded as footsteps thundered aside, intentionally losing him. 

Raising his sleeve to his throat, Snape tried to cough his lungs clear of suffocating mucus without making a noise. The shouting grew louder again, sounding like instructions to spread out. They were going to make the ruse as real as possible.

Snape's hand sunk into the icy mud as he pushed to his feet. But his quadriceps were too rubbery to manage more than a few steps stumbling forward. He made it between a monstrous pair of trees before falling again. Something passed through him, a spell, and he could barely move at all. There was no sound now except the thin branches clacking together overhead.

Snape pulled his wand out with a fatigue-weakened hand and thought about cancellations that might let him move, even though this was exactly how it was supposed to go. 

He did not manage to even start an incantation. The flash was the only warning before the slippery rotted mat of leaf debris cradled his helpless slump to the ground.

Next: Chapter 65
As they landed, Snape crawled blindly in the darkness and struck a stone wall. The place smelled of damp and the floor was cold. He tried to Disapparate, but was knocked flat by a Barrier. As he pushed to a sitting position, a light came up, the glow of Voldemort's wand. Snape could hear his old master's hissing breath as he too raised himself up. A soft scrapping sounded, Nagini shifting on the gritty floor.

Voldemort's face came into the light. "Your death has been delayed far too long, Severus."

Snape rested a shoulder against the wall. "You would never do me the favor of a quick death. Too kind for you."

Author Notes: Hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving (those who have that on deck this week). Given the craziness of the season and finishing up projects, I suspect there will only be one more chapter this year. Then I can write more as winter closes in for real.

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