Chapter 33 — Ace in the Hole

Harry paced across stone cage, turning in one corner on a toe before marching three steps to the opposite corner and turning again. His thoughts flitted onto a notion and off again without landing anywhere solid for long. Keeping his thoughts unraveled seemed to be the best way of avoiding plots involving dark, sniveling servants. It did not make him feel more like himself, but it did keep him from feeling like someone else entirely.

Harry tired of the repetition and stopped, breathing hard in the poor air, staring down at his meager excuse for a bed. Shoving the blankets aside he pulled out his most recent letters again and wished for more news, wished for a newspaper, even one full of Skeeter's lies, anything to tell him what was happening. Neville, perhaps because he had trouble thinking of things to write about, tended to ramble on about trivial things, which to Harry served as welcome news. Harry read his letter again. Madam Malkin's shop had been cursed so that their stock of wizard cloaks had turned pink and all their witches' robe's had grown needle spikes all over. And a gang of broom riders in leather cloaks had been reported harassing the elderly coven of the Solstice Sisters during their moonrise rituals just before Christmas.

When Harry started to think that this was a pathetic use of such an organization, and that there were much more profitable ventures, he put the letters away and went back to pacing.

The rhythmic padding of his footsteps became maddening rather than meditative, so he stopped again. His eyes felt heavy and that gave him hope for some good, solid time-killing sleep.

The blankets piled on his bench were tattered and full of holes. Harry methodically picked each one up and held it by the corners, turning the next one so the holes would not line up and increase the draft. Finished with this neatening, he climbed under the scratchy things and Occluded his mind, something he had been unable to do previous days.

Harry curled up more for warmth, finding the bench strangely comfortable, as if he floated above it on a softer, cradling bed. His sense of where he was drifted loose as if sucked away by the security of the weighty blankets and he sank into a blissful, dead sleep.

- 888 -

Mrs. Weasley called up the worn and rickety staircase for her daughter to come down. Ginny emerged from upstairs, one deliberate step at a time, nose in a book entitled Barrier Blocking Basics.

Mrs. Weasley, expression pleased and anticipative, held out a letter from Harry. It had two decorative, swirling postmarks on it: one from the prison showing a tower island with water flowing around it and one from the French magical post office showing a woman in a limp pointed cap, her hair flowing into the water of the mark beside her.

Ginny took the letter and turned back to the stairs.

"Oh, read it here dear. I'd like to hear it."

Ginny groaned and tore open the envelope. It was a good thing she read ahead two lines before reading aloud.

Dear Ginny,

Do not discuss this letter with anyone else, if you would, unless you have no other choice. I have something that is very difficult to tell you at the best of times and would be hard to explain even if I did not have to write it in the white space between the lines of another letter.

"Um, it's kinda personal, mum," Ginny said, shuffling away with the missive folded over her thumbs for safety.

Her mother had waved the dishes to begin rinsing and had to shout over the sound of the water. "I'm surprised he did that given the censors."

"Me too," Ginny said, heart thrumming fast. She slipped away to her room and put an Imperturbable charm on the door and the window before sitting where the sunlight made reading easier. Lack of light was not the problem in understanding the letter. She quickly began to wonder if Harry had lost his grip.

There exists another place, like ours, but where things have been going along much better, much happier—my parents aren't dead there, for example. In this other place there is another Trelawney with a habit of telling people things they maybe don't want to hear. She's been telling people things, and it isn't supposed to be for us, but I fear it has become ours. I'm not sure if this is my fault. I suppose it has to be since it was me who carried these words from that place to this one.

Anyway, she warns of a wizard (not a particularly nice one), taking command of idle dark servants, and peace being shattered. I don't want to believe this warning. Trouble is, I'm not feeling so stellar in here in the company of You-Know-Who's old friends. Actually, that's not quite true. Sometimes I feel very good here, and that's worse. I rarely feel much myself at all now, and so I thought I should write and tell you, just in case. See, the warning says that only the "seventh son who is not" can properly bring an end to the bad goings on and overcome this not particularly nice wizard.

I'm sorry I can't be more straightforward. I hope this letter doesn't take too long to reach you. Please stoke your fire with it, if you would.


Ginny read the letter again, faster, then again slower. Was he really implying that he was the dark wizard who needed warning about? Was he really talking about a prophecy? What was this about his parents being alive still? She had about a hundred questions and no way to ask them. She stared at the walls of her room, not seeing them, before starting for the door, letter in hand.

Huffing, she stopped and tossed it on the fire after one more quick read-thru.

Downstairs she looked around for her father. "Where's dad?"

Her mother did not look up from where she was bent over a plate that refused to mend, even with a spell. Ginny suspected it had been broken one time too many for even magic to repair. "Outside in the shed, dear."

Ginny headed out the door, ignoring her mother saying, "He said he was working on a surprise and didn't want to be interrupted."

At the shed, she knocked and did not wait for a summons. The wind blew brisk and cold and she wished she had put on a scarf, at least, before marching out of the house. She slipped inside the shed where her father was quickly trying to hide a rounded metal box surrounded by piles of gears and wires and curved metal pieces.

"Yes?" He composed himself, but went on rambling too fast, "I don't have much time, I'm afraid. I thought I'd have this working before Christmas . . . just a little surprise, the Muggles are quite good at . . . well, spells don't work so well for bread . . . anyway, what is it?"

"You have to take me to talk to Harry." She spoke with clear, calm determination, holding her father's gaze through the steam her speech poured into her face.

He turned back to his project, giving up on hiding it. He held a little panel with buttons like "Stop", "Start", and "Timer" on printed on them; wires dangled off the back of it like thick hair. "That's not really possible, Ginny."

"Why not?"

"You have to apply for permission, or fill out rather a lot of paperwork, and really it is only immediate family or representation who are allowed outside of law enforcement."

He put down the little panel and picked up a tiny screw, which promptly flicked off his fingers onto the floor. He ducked under the little workbench and not seeing it, waved his wand, causing a hundred little screws to fly up and pummel the tabletop, mixing with the screws already there.

"Blasted," he muttered, then sighed.

Ginny crossed her arms against the cold air. "It's really important, Dad."

"Many things are really important."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "This is more important than everything else. Someone has to talk to Harry . . . I have to talk to Harry."

"People have been talking to Harry," he said in overly soothing tones. "I, myself, talked to him. Severus talked to him. His solicitor, even, had a meeting with him." He fell quiet at the last as if losing certainty.

Ginny crossed her arms. "But I haven't. And I don't trust the lot of you."

He shook his head and blew on his cupped fingers. "Well, I suppose I'll leave this for tomorrow." He stared at the disarray of pieces. "Doesn't look likely to be finished today, anyhow."

"What is it?"

"It's, uh . . . don't spoil it for your mum . . . a breadmaking machine." Brightening, he said, "See, here's the paddle, it goes here, and it kneads all by itself and then bakes. Does everything. Really very clever."

It looked like a pile of shiny metal rubbish to Ginny. "What will it take to get you to listen to me?" she asked, disliking the squeak rising into her voice.

"I am listening to you, Pumpkin." He gestured that she should back out the door.

"Not very well," Ginny criticized, stalking to the house. At the door, she said, "If you were listening better, you'd take me to see Harry."

Mrs. Weasley opened the door for them, and closed it quickly behind them, pushing against a gust. Glancing from one face to the other, she asked, "What's this?"

"I need to go see Harry," Ginny insisted.

Confused, Mrs. Weasley said, "He's in that Caché de . . . well, he's in prison."

"I KNOW that," Ginny retorted. "If he weren't, I'd just pop off and go see him myself. I don't know why he's there. He hasn't done anything, but for some reason, Dad, and others, thought it a brilliant plan." She exhaled hard, wishing she could avoid falling back into arguing with them as a teen rather than an adult. It would help if they would actually treat her as an adult.

Mr. Weasley beat the snow off his winter cap and hung it up. Firmly, he said, "You can't go, Ginny. And that's final, I'm afraid."

Ginny had just returned to calm, but it broke with a long growl of frustration and to accompany that she had to stamp off. The stairs were good for this, given their hollow state and long history of others doing the same, which long since loosened all the nails.

Ginny paced her room, feeling trapped. She had to do something; she could not bear to just remain in place. She tugged the trunk down from her wardrobe without magic, so it would bang onto the floor more satisfactorily, opened it, and began filling it with the contents of the shelf behind the bed, including some old stuffed animals: a dragon, a griffin, a winged sheep that when its magic was new would sing her to sleep. The sight of them there in the deep box of the trunk depressed her, and besides she did not need them. She tossed them away onto the floor and ignored them.

She wanted to hurry to make a point, but decided, given the limited space in her un-magical trunk, to sort out and take only the nice clothes, her Auror study books, and her favorite photo album. Trunk latched, she looked about the shambles of the room and smirked at the mess that she did not care about now. She pulled out her warmest, oversized jumper and her heaviest cloak. The weight of them made her feel invulnerable.

Ginny grabbed her broom up from where it stood propped on the wardrobe and was prying open the window while standing on the cracked lid of another trunk when a knock came on the door.

"Yeah?" she asked rudely while working at unjamming the crooked window.

Her mother opened the door. "Ginny dear, what are you doing?"

Ginny paused to come up with something better, but in the end just mockingly said, "I'm leaving?" The air blowing in took a bitter bite of her exposed fingers, making her grateful to find her old Quidditch practice gloves in the pocket of her cloak.

The window sash finally yielded fully to a spell and flew open hard enough to crack a pane. Mrs. Weasley shuffled closer while taking in the state of the room.

Ginny repeated herself. "I'm not staying here with people who think it's fair sticking Harry in prison for his own good." Gesturing downstairs through the floor, she added, "He won't take me to see him. He doesn't even know when he's going to let him out. Harry's going mad and Dad doesn't care!"

"Harry's not going mad, dear, he used to live in a cupboard, I'm sure he's doing fine."

Ginny gaped at her mother. "I don't believe you said that. Isn't he always your favorite when he's here?" Ginny stopped to catch her breath from shouting—and sounding jealous. The prophecy felt like a heavy, sodden blanket over her, making it hard to get air. If it was Harry in the prophecy, what were they all going to do? Realizing that she held her broom, and her trunk was at her feet and the window wide open, she said, "I'm going now." She tore down the decorative sash from the curtain rod and tethered her hovered trunk to the broom with it, glad she would not have to use her scarf because she needed it to keep warm. "Don't tell Dad goodbye for me," she said as she climbed onto the window sill.

Mr. Weasley stepped into the doorway of the room and frowned deeply at the scene. Ginny wanted to stiffly wave goodbye, but needed both hands to get on her broomstick as it floated half out the window. She ducked under the sash and kicked off the wall of the house to get her and her luggage moving.

Before Ginny could pick a direction, which she needed to do because towing a heavy trunk required careful and deliberate maneuvering, her mother came to the window and leaned out, ignoring the cold air.

"Ginny," she said, sounding disappointed.

Her tone reminded Ginny of being a child and that made her more angry. "Give it up, Mum," she snapped, and pushed the end of her broom down just enough to take the slack out of the sash cord, then pushed harder to tug the trunk along behind.

Back in her bedroom, her father gazed grimly through the window with its crack like a lazy path through fields beyond. He had his wand out. "Where do you think she will go, or shall I put a Tracer on her?"

"What do you mean: where will she go? And put that away . . . she's feeling betrayed enough as it is." She tapped the stubborn sash with her wand and closed it easily.

With a sigh, Mrs. Weasley said, "Trying too hard to keep them only sends them off faster. She is too old to placate."

"What was her reason for leaving? She must know I truly cannot take her to see Harry." Mr. Weasley said.

"It must have been the letter. He must send very different letters to his friends than to me. The last one I received from him sounded rather reassuring." She pulled it out of her dressing gown pocket. "He said he was enjoying the holiday from his duties. Sounded rather pleased that so much was being done to get him out. Almost did not sound like him, at all, actually, sort of poetic, in fact." She frowned.

"May I see that?" Mr. Weasley asked.

She handed the letter over and, after a squinting glance out the window to check on his daughter's progress, he pulled the lamp closer to read the letter. "Hm," he muttered, quickly closing the letter along the worn fold.

"What is it?"

"Do you mind if I take this?" he asked, already putting it away into his pocket while peering out the window again.

"Not at all."

They continued to watch the speck fade in the sky, veering in spirals because of the load. Mr. Weasley asked, "Are her friends close enough for her to fly to like that, do you think?"

Mrs. Weasley turned from examining the cracked pane to stare at her husband. "You really don't know where she is going?"

"No . . . do you?"

"I have a pretty good guess," she replied knowingly while stepping by him out of the room, leaving the window broken.

Ginny flew toward no where in particular, the broom straining out ahead of the trunk like a leashed animal. Taking great care not to allow the trunk to slide sideways out beside her, she turned gently while gaining altitude. She tapped her own head with a Obsfucation Charm then slowed slightly so the trunk drifted closer to tap it too, satisfied with its appearing to melt into the sky.

She considered going to Shrewsthorpe where Candide might be in need of a live-in guard, but with the Christmas holiday Professor Snape would be home and Ginny did not fancy trying to move in with him present. It would be an all night flight in any event. Ginny sighed and turned a little more toward London.

Two hours later, bodily exhausted from flying while steering something heavy in tow, Ginny sat down on her trunk in the corridor outside the door to Aaron's flat. Only two flats led off the outside door and someone had gone to great effort decorating even here, with dark-stained carved wood framing carefully sculpted plaster. Ginny let her eyes trace the polished, ridged wood as it arched and branched over the narrow ceiling, giving one the impression of sitting beneath a copse of young trees in winter.

She had not knocked but the door opened and Aaron stood there in his velvety dressing gown, wine glass casually in hand, projecting himself as a cross between Adonis and Bacchus. Ginny did not remove her head from where it was propped on her hands because looking up at him made the effect stronger, and it was not a bad effect. Everything about him screamed a lack of want for anything. Although . . . Ginny was learning that was not entirely true. She sat up and brushed off her robes. "Hey," she said, trying to sound casual. "Can I stay for a bit?"

Aaron gestured skillfully with his half-full glass and stepped back to make room in the doorway. When she had first met him much of what he was thinking made it to his face, but since the kidnapping, he often pulled a flat mask over his thoughts, which gave him more an air of mystery than previously.

He pulled out his amber-colored wand and waved her trunk in behind her, letting it come to rest against the wall opposite the bar.

Ginny resisted sitting without being directly invited to. "You haven't asked why I'm here, or teased me about being here unannounced or . . ."

"Have a glass of wine," he said, pushing a freshly poured one into her hand.

She stared down at the glittering liquid like thinned honey and realized with a stab that she was going to have to sort out whether she loved him or just loved his lifestyle. How would one go about sorting that out, anyway? She took the cool leather seat he steered her to and drank down half the wine in one go.

"Better?" he asked.

"Yes," she admitted, sinking farther into the couch.

"Good," he said, sounding pleased. He put his arm up on the couch back and leaned in her direction.

Swallowing hard, Ginny said, "Something's wrong with Harry. We have to get him out of prison, like fast." While Aaron considered that with little clue to his mood, she went on, needing to talk, "I got angry with my dad because he wouldn't listen to me about Harry. I stormed out when he refused to take me to see him. But I have to see him; he's not well."

Aaron stiffened. "What do you mean: he's not well?"

"I got this letter from him. Well, he didn't want me to tell anyone some things in it, but . . . it scared me. He's talking crazy stuff."

"Do you have it . . . the letter?"

"I burned it."

Aaron rubbed his chin, which made a scratching sound that Ginny sort of liked, and made her wish she had sat down closer to him. Moving over now would send a stronger signal than she wanted to send. "Can you tell me anything in it?" he asked.

"Well . . . " She hesitated, dearly wanting to protect Harry, but her need for help made her say, "He has this problem where if he is too close to the Death Eaters, he starts to think more like . . . well . . ."

"Voldemort, you mean?" Aaron finished for her. "He's had that trouble for a while now."

Ginny was stunned. "You know about that?"

Aaron nodded. "Harry's told me . . . warned me is perhaps the better word." He scratched his chin additionally. "And there is no shortage of Death Eaters where he is."

"No, there isn't," Ginny agreed emphatically. "What are we going to do? Poor Harry."

Aaron pulled down the hand he had put across the couch-back, withdrawing slightly, and Ginny realized she had made him jealous.

Aaron fell serious. "Other than finding out who really killed Alastor Moody, I don't have any brilliant ideas. We've been working at that non-stop and haven't come up with much of anything. Whoever killed him knew how to hide their own trail while leaving us only one, leading to Harry." He clasped his hands and leaned over his legs. "The department's a mess. Tonks is at the breaking point, especially. I've never seen her like she is now, her magic's got so bad the department can't send her out without a full Auror partner." He shook his head.

They sat in silence, cradling their empty glasses. Ginny looked around and said, "You don't mind if I stay here, do you?"

Aaron's face scrunched up comically, more like his old self. "I asked you to marry me, and I think I just heard you ask if I mind you staying. Which of us is plastered drunk because it's gotta be one of us?" He peered into his glass in abject curiosity.

Ginny smiled. "Must be you, I've only had one."

Aaron produced the bottle from nearly thin air by sweeping it up from the floor beside the couch. "We can remedy that."

Ginny accepted a refill and thought she maybe should not finish it if she hoped to come up with a plan. She sat forward and set the wine on the low glass table at their feet. "I should go talk to Professor Snape."

Aaron sighed and leaned forward to match.

Pleading for understanding, she said, "I don't think I can rest without doing something." She stood, torn a bit by knowing Aaron would feel jealous and may in fact feel she was choosing between him and Harry. But even with that risk, she could not sit still. Softly, she promised, "I'll be back as soon as I can."

He stood with her, seeming overly casual. "Want me to come along? You know, so you don't have to face my tetchy old Head of House alone?"

"I can face him alone. Thanks though."

Since Ginny visited often, she tried to take the Floo into Harry's house, but got redirected to the node in the nearby train station. The walk cleared her head in one way, but also gave it time to color in with more shades of worry.

Moving the innocuous crooked wooden gate aside to enter the garden sent a sparkle of spell energy along her arm. Ginny paused to see if anything worse happened but the dormant vines shrouding the garden walls sat in frosted stillness. Winky answered the door.

"Don't get up," Ginny quickly said to Candide, who was propping herself up in preparation for standing from the couch in the main hall. "I just need a word with Professor Snape."

"He's in the library. Go on in."

Ginny knocked on the door frame. The figure in the corner straightened and turned in one fluid motion. Snape had been bent over an open book, head nearly touching the bookshelf in a pose of benediction.

Sounding doubtful, he said, "Ms. Weasley."

Ginny slipped inside and slowly shut the door so as to not seem rude. "Can I speak with you, sir?"

He did not put the book down. "If you must."

"I'm worried about Harry. He sent me a letter that makes me think he's over the edge. I have to find out if there's anything I can do to help get him out of there."

"I sincerely doubt there is anything you can do . . ."

Rambling in frustration, she said, "There must be something. I'll go mad if there isn't anything I can do. I'll do anything."

Snape closed the book and set it on a small writing desk. While staring at the ceiling he abstractly asked, "Do you feel guilty about anything?"

Taken by surprise she stuttered, "Well . . . no. Should I?"

"It was just a question. I have others, such as do you know why he is there?"

Ginny stared at him, noticing a few things she had not before, like the fact that he had bursts of stress lines around his eyes and that his temples were scattered with grey. It was eerily difficult to distinguish the pupils of his eyes, lending unneeded intensity to his unwavering stare.

"Some reason other than the one my dad gives, I'm assuming? No, I don't."

She felt relief from his scrutiny when he turned away to peruse the shelves. "This is difficult to navigate, Ms. Weasley. There are people whom, even still I believe, Harry wishes to protect."

She interrupted. "He's losing his mind. Do you think any of that matters?"

He made it to the end of one shelf and started back, reading the spines on the next row above. "Incarceration does strange things to some people. Harry is apparently one of them."

"I think there's more to it than that," she said, but stopped because Harry's letter had been clear on how little she should say, to anyone. Growing angry, she said, "I wonder if the Prophet isn't correct, that you aren't happier with him gone."

"Is that what you think?" he asked, putting his hand in his pocket, which was strangely full.

Thinking he was going for his wand, Ginny pulled hers out. "I beat you in a duel once, I can do it again."

"You think?" He did not have his wand out, but a blink later he did. Then it was gone again. "Put it away, Ms. Weasley," he said in such a tiresome voice that she blushed as she obeyed. He said, "I want Harry removed from there more than your tiny mind can imagine."

She ducked her head, "Of course, sir. Sorry."

"Note also there is very little I won't sacrifice to achieve that."

Ginny swallowed. That sounded more like a warning than a pledge. "That include me?" she asked, head swimming.

"Smart girl."

Ginny, with some effort, drew in a breath. "I don't think Harry would like that very much," she said, trying to laugh lightly while saying it. She thought farther. "But, that's assuming he found out." That eerie gaze was back again. She drew in a better breath and her thinking cleared. "If I might say, Professor, I don't think anyone really understands what you are."

He had not moved. "A distinct advantage, no?"

"That's my motto," she commented weakly.

Silence fell until Snape asked more lightly, "Still wish to assist?"

"Yes. But I don't particularly want to be sacrificed," she added forcefully.

He nodded like a twitch, seeming amused. Speaking in a hypnotic tone, he said, "I will let you know if there is anything you can do. It may be as simple as being a more regular companion to Candide, as I have some things I must attend to at a moment's notice. It may be something more that I ask of you."

She swallowed again, wishing she did not have to since it gave away how nervous she was. "Thanks." The door beckoned and she stepped to it, but stopped before opening it. "Does Harry know what you are?" she asked, feeling dizzy with how bold the question was.

"Most definitely."

"Well, okay, good," Ginny muttered, then shook her head to clear it.

Before she could turn the knob, he said, "Given your reaction to Harry's letter, I assume you know that action is imperative. Once things are imperative, understand clearly that I do not flinch. If you are to assist, I expect the same of you."

"Yes, sir," she said, staring down at her hand clenching the door knob.

"In which case, keep your wand in your pocket for just a moment." He took his out and ran three anti-animagus spells. "Good," he breathed in clear relief before resuming his intense posture. "Why do you think I needed to do that?" he asked, sounding the perfect teacher reviewing the reading for the week.

"Er, because Skeeter has been sneaking in again?" she asked, thinking that a stupid answer.

"Go on," he invited.

Ginny shrugged, confused what answer could possibly be meaningful here. "She's a bug, so she sneaks in easily?"

"Do you like her?"

"Bloody Merlin, no," Ginny blurted, then remembered her manners. "Not in the least."

"Good," Snape muttered. "You may go."

Ginny departed, spending far less time chatting with Candide on the way out than she expected to on the way in. She found the contrast between Snape's inscrutable strategizing and his wife's cheery demeanor intolerably bizarre.

Back at Aaron's flat, Ginny dropped onto the couch, wondering if she were way too far over her head or just utterly drowning. Aaron handed her another drink, frowning sadly.

"Thanks," she said. "After talking with Professor Snape, I could use a whole bottle. Maybe you should have come along. Next time would you?"

He sat back, making no move to close the gap between them. "That bad?" When she mutely shook her head, he said, "He was a Death Eater."

"Yeah," she agreed wholeheartedly. They fell silently into their respective thoughts. Aaron finished his glass and topped it up again.

"Do you believe in prophecies?" she asked suddenly.

"I try not to," Aaron quipped. He finally slipped over closer. "Not unless they say something magnificent will imminently happen to me."

She raised a dubious brow in his direction, glad to see him lighten up.

Aaron walked a pair of fingers over Ginny's shoulder and played with her collar. "Do you have a prophecy that says anything like that?"

"I may," she said, blushing.

"Mm," he said, but his fingers stopped and he put his arm back up on the couch back. "But you were saying something important, I think . . ."

Ginny shook her head. Apologetically, she said, "There's too much I don't understand, so I can't explain."

His fingers found the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. "Well, in that case . . . I personally always find that actions speak louder than words."

- 888 -

Snape circled the dim upstairs bedroom of the shrieking shack. The slitted mask covering his face caught the moist heat of his exhalations and quickly became uncomfortably sticky inside his hood. The Durumulna-mimicking costume felt too familiar and he shrugged inside of it, trying to shake the sense of entrapment by reminding himself of the power and liberty of anonymity.

He paced to stand over the wizard Tonks had chosen. If Snape timed the potion right, the man would awaken momentarily, but just now he lay on the bare floor, one arm outstretched from under the rude heavy blanket Tonks had provided.

Snape turned away from the scene, robes swishing, hood making the room seem even darker than it was. He pulled the mask loose to dry a bit before resettling it, trying to wait with patience. The costume cast him back to other unsavory but necessary tasks—some Dumbledore himself had pressed upon him—and his mind came into clear, unhesitant focus just as the man on the floor stirred.

Snape stood unmoving in the corner by the window, waiting to verify what state his victim had been rendered into. Durumulna had done part of his task for him by removing much of the man's identity already. Through a potioned session of hypnosis the previous day, he had found what he needed, a youthful mistake that had festered into adulthood pain. By leaving it as one of the few vestiges of the man's ego, Durumulna's leaders left the man highly susceptible to what Snape intended to do.

Snape stepped out of the shadows, careful not to make a sound beyond the creak of the wide old boards. The man turned at the noise and started upon seeing the masked figure peering down at him. He quickly fell resigned and passive. After a pause where Snape did not move, the man said in a lilting accent, "I . . . I don't know what I did wrong."

Snape turned away to pace a few steps. Casting his voice deeper and layering on an ambiguous accent, he said, "Yes, you do."

The man, strain showing in his posture, appeared to think harder. He rubbed his eyes and head with a clumsy hand. The potion would make it difficult for him to reach any conclusions on his own, which is exactly what Snape wanted. Conclusions were something for him to deliver.

"You claim to not know, when Armando's ghost tells us otherwise?"

The man, alarmed, glanced around the decrepit room, with its peeling faded wallpaper, still marked with dingy halos where the furniture had previously been placed. "Wha . . . What do you mean?" He recovered some bravado, as much as the potion would allow. It would have been considerable bravado otherwise, given how strong the potion's will was. "I've never seen his ghost." He frowned, puzzled, and looked to want to say more, but the drugging kept him from coming to any useful suspicion about why his overseer might actually care.

"I've seen him," Snape assured him. Which was true; he had seen him in his mind. An overly eager boy, trying with all his small might to keep up with his older brother and his brother's best friend, to the point of taking on a task too difficult for him to complete. And when he balked and failed, the punishment was too spontaneous and fierce for one so young. His last plea for mercy had been deeply engraved on the man's memory, one of the few memories that still was, conveniently enough.

Snape intoned, "Armando still does not understand."

The man looked away, annoyed, but he lost the battle and fell passive. "I didn't mean it," he explained defensively, but the potion won again and he repeated the phrase with great regret.

"You do not have to live tormented by this guilt. You can escape and travel beyond it."

The man's mouth worked. Too many questions vied for too little awareness, so nothing came out.

"You are trying to ask why, are you not?" Snape said. "You were left with this memory for a reason, it shapes you into something useful, but now it is time for it to serve in a new way. Would you be living this life now if those events had not happened?"

The man gave the barest shake of his head. Snape gave him space to think, a slow process given the chemicals working on him. Sounding vastly saddened and stung, the man said, "I didn't mean to . . . we were just sick of him tagging along. And he wanted to. Begged . . ." He stared off into space, and Snape assumed he was remembering again. Without much else to remember, it seemed a safe assumption.

The man, his accent growing harsh, said, "They never forget, do they?"

Behind his borrowed mask, Snape fell dumb with the truth of that statement. His victim, went on more angrily, "Never a second chance, even if you regret what you did."

"I'm going to give you one. Of a sort." Snape held out a potion bottle inside of which swirled in the colors of ink and silver. "Drink that."

The man stared at the proffered bottle without moving, perhaps without comprehending. Offering it was a test more than anything; Snape could easily knock him senseless and force it upon him. Snape patiently said, "Which weighs heavier: the guilt or your grim future?"

- 888 -

Harry sat with his letters in his lap. Elizabeth had sent him a rather long and heartfelt message which practically bled faith in his innocence. He read it through twice. She also spent inordinate time talking about a future hinging on the assumption he would be out very soon—she insisted he come over for dinner now that she had a flat of her own, gave him a menu even. Her letter came across as naive, but he needed naïveté about now. The postmark was the day after his arrest; the length of the missive must have slowed it down. The pale pink stationary was well worn as was the envelope, hinting at extensive handling before it was delivered to him. Harry frowned at that, thinking he had not properly appreciated having his post to himself before this happened. The times back in Hogwarts when he had to mask his messages to Sirius felt like a childhood game compared to this.

Harry slipped that letter to the back of the pile and reread the next one from Ron. He did not feel like responding to any of them. A kind of grey lethargy had overcome him and within its dispassionate confines he could maintain a wall that kept the whispering shadows at bay.

Footsteps approached, heavy boots gritting on the stone floor, and Harry set the letters aside under the mattress. He did not go to the door since it was not time for post or meal delivery. He waited instead to see what the guard would do.

The door swung open with a protest of unoiled metal and the guard, the steelier guard, who had taken him to meet Tonks and his solicitor, gestured with his gauntleted hand that Harry should come out.

Unsure why he was being removed, Harry took his time, standing slowly to approach the door. He must have pushed the thin patience of his guard too far because he was given a shove down the corridor that made him skin his hands on the wall when he tried to slow his careening. Harry spun into a natural fighting stance, but turned to find a crystal tipped spear pointing at his heart. The spear smacked him on the shoulder.


"Right," Harry said, rubbing his shoulder while he started down the corridor. "Don't suppose you could tell me where we are going . . . ?"

He did not get an answer and he did not like walking with his back to the guard; it felt horribly exposed. He should not have to worry about guarding his back—he had followers plenty for that.

The corridor was long. Harry slowed and started to turn, but his guard was faster. The pike tangled Harry's feet and he fell, headlong. Re-abraded hands stinging, Harry pushed himself halfway up and turned, glaring. "What do you want? I'm going," he snarled, inordinately angry, not just at the guard, but at the entire world.

The pike leveled at his eyes. Harry deliberately raised himself up fully and pressing his raw hands to his robes for some relief from the stinging in them. He did not feel like going anywhere; the pain, even as small as it was, cut through him, releasing deep-seated stubbornness. When he resisted the next clearly gestured instruction, another spell came at him. But this one was a curse. Grinning faintly, Harry squelched it, and the guard dropped his pike with an exclamation of, "Calice!" Well trained, he had it picked up again in an instant and made ready to use it as a club.

Harry gauged him an instant and walked on before the man had an excuse to do more, but Harry went only a few steps before he slipped away into the Dark Plane. The wide open quiet of the place blew through him, loosening every nerve, but he could not stay. He counted to five and returned, just behind the guard, who as expected, had grown alarmed at losing track of his prisoner.

Harry tapped the man on his chain-mail-covered shoulder. "Looking for me?"

The guard turned, but he was not one of the stupid ones. He stared at Harry from the inside of his helmet for almost a minute, thinking. With a small gesture of his pike, he indicated Harry should continue on, in the lead. Harry did so, turning to walk backwards every so often, feeling pleased, like some kind of equality had been reached between them.

The guard did not harass Harry any more, and when they reached the warden's office, the guard stood inside the door, even after it was clear the warden expected him to wait outside. The guard eventually relented after repeated commands interspersed with reassurances—all very clear just from the tone. The guard gave Harry a last threatening glare before the door closed.

"'Ave a seat, Mr. Pottar," the warden said. He casually went through the file before him before looking up and saying, "I 'ave zee sense zat your Ministry did not eggspect you to still be 'ere at sis late date, Mr. Pottar."

"I like to think they didn't," Harry agreed.

"Would you like tea?"

Harry would very much like tea, so he nodded. Moments later Steeltoe Pierre came through the door with a tray. He smiled at Harry and handed him a cup and saucer before handing one to the warden. He looked like he wanted to stay, but the warden shooed him off with, "C'est bien," and went back to perusing the file, which had been fattened even more with newspaper clippings.

"It is curious, Mr. Pottar, I sought I understood zis situation." He sat back and closed the file.

Harry rapidly sipped his tea, wondering if he could get a refill. Realizing that a reply was expected, he put his cup down and put on an attentive expression.

The warden casually said, "You know, we 'ave quite a bit of security 'ere."

"It is a prison," Harry said, just to say something.

"Hm. You are not fully understanding." The warden picked up a folding frame that held a mirror, one of a row of them that sat on a low shelf behind his desk. He run his finger along the side of the frame before setting it on the edge of his desk where Harry could watch it. The mirror, which was not reflective when viewed head on, showed a fuzzy oval view of the corridor outside Harry's cell. He and the guard moved into the frame and the events of his being led played out on it.

Harry's heart froze. It was true, that he was not fully understanding the security. He met the warden's gaze without shirking, part of him glad for the revelation, for the challenge to the warden that it represented.

The warden put the frame back on the shelf and held his finger up to stall Harry from speaking. "It ees no matter at one level. You are only 'ere at the convenience of your ministry. At another level . . . I do prefer to run zis place without mistakes." He interlocked his fingers and set them on the desk, in a pose much like McGonagall's. "But I am curious. I was curious, zat is why I 'ad you brought 'ere. But now I am extrem-ely curious." He leaned forward. "Why 'az your ministry inzisted that you be placed here in a manner that spezifically will allow you to ezcape?"

Harry pondered how to answer that, wondering if he could just skip doing so. He did not want the warden to pass on what he had seen.

The warden sighed. "Well, I do not know what to be making of zis."

He sounded disappointed and Harry found himself regretting what he had done because it had not been particularly well-mannered. The regret made him feel far more like himself.

"You 'ave nozzin to say?" the man asked, even more disappointed.

Harry wished he were angry; that he could work with. "I don't want to be here. I have things I need to do. Very important things. And I don't like that guard much."

"Ah, yes, 'e provokes you." He sounded amused, which made Harry frown. The warden went on, "Of course, you are tired of being wissout power. Zees is understandable, especially wis what I saw." He gestured over his shoulder at the mirrors.

Harry raised his head to look down along the row of them, but could not see anything in them.

Sounding strangely pleased, the warden said, "You 'ave solved one mystery for me, which I am plea-zed about. I see now how you captured zee the vampire, alone, no less."

Harry dropped his gaze. "Yep."

A long pause, and then, "Your history here, she does not have this detail."

Softly, Harry admitted, "They don't know."

The warden's hand smacked the table, making Harry jump. Then the warden held a finger up, excited more than anything. "Interesting," he said, sitting back again and lacing his fingers together.

They pondered each other until Harry said, "I don't think I understand you much either."

Eyes twinkling, the warden said, "Keeping zee magically powerful criminal mind in check is my role. It is one I enjoy. And I like to keep learning." He paused. "Would you like more tea?"

Harry nodded and Steeltoe returned just long enough to pour him more. Harry thanked him and the guard bowed.

"Zee, you are quite civilized, even when cornered. Not at all typical. One wishing to learn everysing about a topic, must closely examine zee eggszeptions, not zee norms." While monitoring Harry, he reached into a desk drawer for a flask out of which he poured a shot into his own teacup. "Not in zee rules to offer you any, I am afraid, unless wis a meal."

Harry shrugged, quite happy with a decent cup of tea.

The warden grinned crookedly. "Interesting. See zis here, even. I observe zat you are capable of escape, of defeating my guards, but I find, surprisingly, zat I trust you. Zis is also a first." He toasted Harry with his teacup.

Harry sipped his tea, unable to return the toast, undone by wanting to be trusted, even here.

"'Opefully your ministry returns you home soon, no?"

Harry nodded, tired in the wake of losing his anger, which safely put aside that other self, that part that seemed to have all the fire. He wondered how long this mood would last. He felt powerless, like he were twelve again, and he did not really like it. It gave him control over himself, but not of much else.

The warden drained his teacup. "Shall I assign Gaspard to take you back?" He gestured at the door. "My tea brewer? He does not provoke you, I sink."

Harry felt even younger to be offered such consideration. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Thanks."

- 888 -

- 888 -

Snape stretched for his notes while continuing to stir a cauldron. It all would be much easier if he put a spell on the metal stirring stick to free up his hands. He felt at his robe-front where the stolen wand lay flat against his chest in his most inner pocket. He turned to Lupin, who had been reading, to ask him for a spell, but found the man sleeping, the book pushed aside, pages providing a crumpled backdrop to his ragged hair.

Pulling out the wand, Snape put a spell on the stick himself. The wand felt greasy in his hand, not something he would have expected from someone as meticulous as Draco Malfoy. Checking again that Lupin slept soundly, Snape blocked the lamplight with his body and turned the wick up. The wand felt waxy because it was covered in something like shoe polish, rendering it mutely grey, but some rubbing with a brewing rag revealed pale wood underneath. A noise made Snape stop his investigations and quickly put the wand away again. He grabbed the stirrer, letting it guide his hand in circles.

Footsteps creaked by the door and went on their way. Snape let go and returned to his notes until the potion finished. With care he decanted the Noble Nod Sleeping Draught into a metal tin to cool and extinguished the burner.

In the bed Lupin snored softly, in need of no such potion. Finished for now and not wishing to disturb the usually poorly rested Lupin, Snape slipped out of the room and downstairs to see if the day's newspapers had arrived.

"You have to do better," Lavender insisted as Snape approached the dining room. "I can see what you have without even trying."

Angelina Johnson laughed heartily. "Come on, let me deal this time."

The two young ladies and Neville were clumped around a table corner, playing cards. Snape stopped with his hands on the newspapers stacked beside the door and watched. Neville neutralized his expression and picked up his cards, his face remained mostly blank.

"Better . . ." Angelina said. "But I bet that's a middling hand."

Neville frowned and put the cards down flat.

Lavender looked up at Snape. "We're trying to give Neville poker face lessons."

Angelina laughed again. "Yeah, he's pants at it."

Snape, finding it easy to play his part said. "Do not ruin him for that; it is convenient for me to know what you are all thinking."

Angelina, who might have had more than the one beer that sat open beside her patted the table and said. "Is that a challenge, then? Got any money?"

Snape glanced down at the top newspaper, which had an article about expanded city cordons and security checkpoints. It went on to warn that witches and wizards must apply for Muggle papers or risk arrest. He had little desire to read the article. "No, I'm afraid I haven't."

Angelina measured off a stack of knuts before her and shuttled them closer to the empty chair across from her. "Here, I'll spot you a sickle's worth. Neville needs the practice."

Willing to take any distraction from his worries both worldly and personal, Snape slipped into the offered seat. For his own amusement, he gave Neville a sharp glance, making the young man's face pickle up.

Lavender giggled at Neville and gave him a half-hug. "I'll deal ya' a good hand. I promise."

"But, but, I'll just give it away," Neville muttered, nervously taking up his cards one at a time as they were dealt.

"What are we playing?" Angelina asked, sounding impatient.

"Just five-card stud. Keep it simple." She glanced at her hand and put it down. "You bet first," she said to Angelina.

Ten minutes later, Snape had quite a bit more money in front of him.

"I think 'e cheats," Angelina said.

"'Ar 'Ar 'Arry said he reads minds," Neville managed to say, face scrunching up at the sight of his cards, which he folded up and put down. "I pass."

"It's not your turn," Lavender said. "You dealt."

"I still pass," Neville insisted with a sigh.

"What's this about mind reading?" Angelina demanded.

Snape looked at his cards, which only had strength if he drew to an inside straight. "It's less about me, and more about what astoundingly slow learners you are." He put his cards down and called Angelina's bet of two knuts.

"Yeah, well, pay me back what I loaned you," Angelina insisted.

Snape pushed a stack of knuts to her. "Gladly. And in that case I raise you two."

"What's this?" Ginny said from the doorway. She tugged off her hat and scarf, flashing flushed cheeks.

"Well," Angelina began in the mode of telling a long story, "we were innocently giving Neville lessons in keeping his thoughts to himself, when this, this, punter came along and insisted on joining us."

Snape stared at her, blinking a few times for good measure. "Oh, is that how you remember it?"

Harry stepped up behind Ginny, interested in the scene, but moving around the table to pour out glasses of water from a pitcher.

"No," Neville said, sounding confused and sincere. "You asked him to play." When Angelina rolled her eyes, Neville said, "Oh." Then a second later: "Did I already say I folded?"

Snape leaned toward him. "Longbottom, a losing hand is just as valuable as a winning one, or it can be. You must only make your opponent believe in what you hold. That is all that matters. In fact, a winning hand often is not, for exactly that reason. If you give away that you have unbeatable cards . . . as you did two rounds ago . . . no one will call your bet and the pot will contain nothing for you to collect. You recall that little incident, correct? It was just moments ago."

Neville's puzzled expression went through a variety of transitions. "A losing hand is just as good?"

Trying to sound gentle rather than exasperated, Snape replied, "Yes. In this game, and in many areas of life for that matter, you seek not to control the available riches." Here he gestured at the thick deck sitting in the middle of the table. "But to control others by misleading them, to direct their behavior to your advantage."

"But if they know you are doing that . . .?"

Snape held up a long finger. "Ah. You do not let them know that."

Neville stared at his cards. "So, if I had a good hand, I might . . . actually pretend that I had a bad hand because you . . . any of you . . . would expect me to give away that I did, and then if I bet, you would call, or even raise and then when I revealed my great hand, I'd actually win? For once."

"Correct," Snape said, relieved more than anything to be getting through.

Neville sat up straighter. "In that case I raise you ten."

"Neville! You already folded," Lavender blurted.

Angelina patted her arm. "No, no, let him go. I need to win some back." She glared at Snape. "Someone's taken half my money."

Snape called as well. "So Longbottom," he said, when the young man simply sat there. "You have to show your hand."

Neville laid his cards down. "Three kings!" Lavender shouted. "Why in the heck were you folding?"

Neville grinned and sat back as Angelina shoved the pot in his direction. "I wanted to win, and it worked. Thanks for the lesson, Professor."

Snape stared at the boy, then shook his head while reminding himself not to underestimate any of them.

Harry pulled out the chair beside Angelina. "I'll play," he said eagerly. "Kreacher, bring us some butterbeers!" he shouted to the ceiling.

Kreacher appeared with an armful of dusty bottles. He gave Snape one first with a deep bow. "Master is saying Kreacher must serve the Mudbloods, but Kreacher will serve the ones his old Mistress would have preferred first."

Harry stood to grab up Snape's bottle. He sat down, opened it with a spell and took a relishing sip of it. Kreacher shot Harry a dirty glance and graciously gave Snape another after dusting it off on his tea towel.

Smirking, Harry said to Snape, "Yeah, old woman Black was your sort, wasn't she?"

"Deal me in too," Ginny said, sitting down beside Harry, which put her far down the table.

Lavender, who was dealing, said with playful seriousness, "Get yer money out if you want in. Threes're wild."

Harry and Ginny dug in their pockets and dumped a cascade of small coins out on the table, some of which they had to catch from rolling away. Ginny giggled when the two of them hit heads trying to catch an errant sickle.

Rubbing her head, Ginny asked, "What's the bet up to?"

"Give me a chance here," Angelina said, rearranging her cards. Snape gauged her expression and decided she had a promising hand. Hermione stepped in and walked behind each person on the other side, giving Snape another evaluation of the hands on that side. Her brow furrowed just faintly upon seeing Harry's cards.

Snape's own hand was a natural flush. Behaving with the slightest edge of disgust he put the cards face down and looked to Harry, and found his stare hard upon him. Snape raised a brow.

"You've been cheating all along, haven't you?" Harry asked, disgusted.

Snape crossed his arms and sat back. "You state that so judgmentally. It isn't cheating if your life is on the line, which mine very often is, I'll have you know. But no, I haven't been. It has hardly been necessary."

Harry looked at his cards and called the bet of three Knuts before putting his cards down and avoiding meeting Snape's gaze after that. Ginny folded. Snape bet five. Neville raised him to seven.

With an overly broad smile, Neville said, "I think I'm getting the hang of this game."

Snape gazed at him and tiredly said, "Perhaps you are. I have actually no idea whether you have a bad hand and are pleased to realize you can pretend it's a good one or whether you realize that by pretending you have a good one we will automatically assume you have a bad one."

Neville paused and said, "What?"

Snape held up a hand. "Never mind."

The betting went around until only Harry and Snape were still in. Harry leaned forward to count Snape's remaining coins and deliberately put down a Knut more than that.

"Classy of you, Potter. But I should not be surprised." He folded his hand into his fist and rapped it on the table. Angelina said, "I can spot you one." She glanced between them, dreadlocks swinging. "Well, if you're going to win that is. Otherwise I'm not spotting you nothin'."

Harry taunted, "Come on, don't you have a watch or a ring you can put in the pot?"

"I have the robes on my body, that is it, Potter. Pleased to hear that?"

"He has the wand," Ginny said, as if just thinking of it.

Harry's face shifted from mocking to serious. "What wand?"

Snape froze as well, surprised that she remembered, or that she was choosing to reveal him now after saying nothing. He gave her a dark look.

Explained Ginny, "I don't trust you any more than Harry does."

"Remind me of that before I save your life next time, will you?" Snape retorted.

Harry had his wand on his own wand pocket. "What wand are we talking about?"

Ginny said, "Draco's wand. Mr. Snape took it from him at the Three Broomsticks when his Blond Highness' hands were busy . . . you know slipping into something more comfortable."

"What a nauseating thought," Lavender complained.

Harry faced Snape plainly. "You have Draco's wand? You gave your wand back to Hermione but kept Draco's?"

"You think me a fool? Of course I kept it." Snape pulled the wand out and set it on the table before him. "You are going to take it from me anyway, so I'll put it on the pot to raise you, certainly."

Harry frowned at the funny colored wand. "Ew, Draco's filthy wand. Yeah, I'll spot you a Knut for that."

Keeping his hand on the wand, Snape said, "If I win this hand, I get to keep the wand." Under his hand, the wand felt warmer than it should, like it resisted being released.

"Yeah, sure," Harry said, and put down his cards, revealing a straight flush using two wild cards. He reached out for the pot, and Snape shoved the wand in his direction. "Don't like losing?" Harry taunted.

"I do not like being defenseless," he sneered, angry. "A perfectly reasonable motive for wanting a wand. Especially in the middle of a war."

Harry picked the wand up and instinctively rubbed his fingers on his robes. Snape relished saying, "It's been finished with shoe polish it appears."

"That doesn't sound like Draco," Ginny said.

"It's not the wand he used at school; it's pale colored," Harry said, holding it up to show the clean edge he had revealed.

Hermione grabbed up the wand and cleaned it by putting a spell on a napkin then passing it over the wood. Holding the wand this way and that in the light, she exclaimed, "This looks like Dumbledore's wand!"

Harry turned in his chair and said, "He was entombed with his wand. It can't be."

Hermione shrugged and gave it back. "I'm just saying." Her eyes found Snape's. "Mr. Snape would recognize it for certain."

Harry hesitated handing the wand back over, but did so with a sudden gesture as though battling with himself over doing so. Snape took in the subtle carving on the handle, now standing out starkly with the stain filling the recesses.

Mystified, Snape said, "It does look like his. Which would imply someone has opened his tomb."

"Lucius, I bet," Neville said. "He's always been a real winner, pretending to be all refined. I can see 'im grave robbin'."

Harry said, "And as headmaster it'd be easy for him to do it whenever he liked."

Hermione borrowed the wand again to look at it in the light of a lamp. "Why would Lucius want it?"

"He didn't want it," Lavender pointed out. "Draco had it."

Hermione gave a shrug and handed the wand back to Snape. Snape turned the wand in his hand and held it out to Harry, handle first. "Yours now, I believe."

Next: Chapter 34

Snape pondered that. So easy to sound rude with, "Such as?"

They had grown immune to his rough side, unfortunately. She ignored his tone and remained kind sounding. "Well, that old wizard, you know. If something bad has happened. I was just thinking . . . do you want help looking for him . . . that wizard Harry calls your boyfriend?"

"Harry should not call him that," Snape stated while trying to figure out her motivation. Was she truly simply being nice? "Why the offer?"