Harry could not breathe. Raw acid fear coursed through him, making his limbs seize and quiver. His eyes, painfully tender, swelled against his lids as if he had cried them out hours before, yet still tears pressed upon them.
"Severus, what's wrong with your friend?"
Someone was shaking Harry's arm. "Totten, wake up."
Harry pressed his palms over his eyes. He was awake now, but the terror was only leaching away by degrees. His mouth moved as if to sob, but fortunately for his pride, he could not.
"He is not well," Snape said, tossing the covers aside and crawling off the end of the bed. Daylight flooded the room as the curtains were parted. Snape moved potion bottles about and came to the side of the bed.
Harry kept his hands pressed to his face. His beard had faded and he did not want Snape to see his misery, in any event.
"Is that Totten?" Candide asked.
"His disguise has faded," Snape said. "You must say nothing of this. I have no desire to use a Memory Charm on you." He tugged on Harry's shoulder. "Potter, I have a Calming Draught."
"It is far too difficult to explain," Snape said. "Please leave it for the moment."
Harry rubbed his eyes, which were no longer aching now that the dream had released him. With some effort, he sat up and accepted the cup.
"I cannot believe you came here in your condition," Snape said.
Harry studied his acute disapproval, unable to argue. This was not his pain. He feared it was his counterpart's in another place, but he could not possibly communicate something that complicated. The potion flowed through his stomach and spread to his limbs as a pleasantly satiated warmth, and he ceased worrying about Snape's misunderstanding.
Candide had slipped out of bed and stepped back to press against the bookshelf, arms around her nightgown. "I don't understand this," she whispered.
Snape's voice was strangely pleasant as he said, "I will renew his disguise and we will pretend you did not see it."
Harry held the cup out of the way as Snape used Voldemort's wand to make him old again. Harry rubbed his beard and felt at his wrinkly skin, then finished the potion and looked up at Candide, who still stared at him with round eyes. After some scrambling around for his robe pocket, he used his overly relaxed hand to write its ok and held it up in her direction.
"Severus?" Candide said.
Snape put the bottles away and went over to her. He took her arms and turned her. "Someday I will attempt to explain, but forget about it for now."
"Forget about it? We have two—"
Snape held up a long finger to her nose and her mouth clapped closed. Speaking in a low rumble, he said, "We are going to need every bit of help we can muster. I am relying on you, perhaps you do not realize how very much. If you can only trust in what I did last night in destroying the Dark Lord, hold to that. But, please, trust in me for just a short while longer so that this future can be preserved."
Her alarm eased and she sighed.
"Thank you," Snape said tiredly and turned away. In passing he handed Harry a folded slip of paper.
Candide turned back to Harry, who gave her a small smile as he opened the note. Fortunately the words were short and clear, in Hermione's smallest print: what do you need me to do?
Only a few stragglers were in the dining room for breakfast, and they had the look and scent of a late night about them. While they ate, Candide stared at disguised Harry, eyes worried and confused.
Snape pushed a complicated list over to Harry, who squinted as he strained to read it. Snape's grew appalled at his struggling. When he tried to pull the note back in disgust, Harry pulled it out of reach and tucked it under the front edge of his plate to study while he bent over to eat. Snape put his head on his hand and tapped his fork on the table. His despair would have been humorous in any other setting.
Harry reached across the table to tap him on the arm in a friendly punch.
"Yeah," Dennis said from the other end of the table. "Thank you for killing Voldemort, Professor."
The others muttered in agreement.
"You can thank me by not saying his name."
"You're such a kidder," another joked and they went back to their quickly brightening conversation.
Snape's head drooped more. "They think I jest. Our primary hope is illiterate, and they think I jest."
Harry interpreted most of the note by the end of breakfast. Snape had listed the things they needed: the Sword of Gryffindor to destroy the locket once removed; an easily enchanted building, preferably small, preferably stone; the spells to manipulate the Horcrux and to seal the building against it escaping. He held up two fingers then pointed at his chest, indicating he would take the second task on the list. When he moved to slide the note back, Harry, Ginny and Katie Bell banged through the door, talking loudly. He slipped the note into his pocket and stood up.
"You're still here," Ginny said to him.
Intruder Harry spread his hands as if to say it was just the way things were.
Katie Bell leaned close to Ginny and whispered something and then giggled. Ginny slapped her on the arm. Harry's counterpart had stopped to eye Snape, jaw working. But he turned away with a jerk when Ginny called to him, and the joking ceased while they served themselves breakfast. Intruder Harry waited until his counterpart was involved in eating and not likely to make trouble before Disapparating.
Harry arrived in Shrewsthorpe and took a seat on the remnant of the rotted rug in the main hall to think. The house depressed him less than last time, perhaps it was the lack of bone chilling cold. Closing his eyes, Harry cast his mind outward, inventorying small stone places that he knew.
Hagrid's cabin was stone, but the roof was not, so that was out. The cupboards in the dungeon under Hogwarts were stone walled, but the castle's old magic complicated any new magic. There were towers that were narrow and stone, and at least one windmill he had been to. The windmill was nicely isolated in a park, so it would be easy to surround it with barriers. But it was not very symbolic. Harry wanted his counterpart to be under no delusions.
Harry paused in plucking threads from the remains of the rug. He had an idea. Before he had even stood straight, he slipped into the Ministry Records Office.
The room was a disaster, with files loaded into crates in haphazard piles, holes had been blasted through the piles leaving donuts of paper and parchment. Black tracings of spell burn scored the paneling, accented by smoke trails where the wood had ignited briefly. Harry turned around twice, surveying the damage. The cabinet he wanted, the one that stored death records, was hopelessly chaotic, mostly empty, with a limb of burned paper stubs tumbling out of it.
Harry picked his way to the far corner, sending piles cascading with a papery sigh. The more boring files were not disturbed nearly as much. Maybe there was another way to look this up. He read each of the drawer plaques, stopping at Magical Property Deeds. His heart sped up as he found a file for Black, and in the second to last sheet in the file, the location of something Sirius had once mentioned to him: the Black Family vault in Islington Cemetery. Below the location diagram, it listed exemptions to allow the application of various protective spells in a Muggle environs. He did not think Sirius would mind, he wasn't buried there anyway. The diagram indicated rows of surrounding graves in the cold style of a draftsman.
What better place for a death, Harry thought to himself.
Harry waved a quick Seerox at the sheet and put the file away as he had found it. Ignoring the destruction surrounding him, he went straight to the East Finchley tube stop and stepped out onto the pavement. He stood before the Old White Lion while waiting for the bus. Traffic was light and many of the shops were boarded up, but lots of people were out on the pavements. In his elderly wizard guise, he attracted quite a few long looks from the bundled up passers-by. It occurred to him only then that he could have changed his disguise to just about anything. Before he could decide whether to go back into the station to become something normal, the 263 roared up to the stop, belching exhaust.
Harry got off where the tall stone buildings flanked the cemetery entrance and only found the vault by comparing the copy of the license diagram to the posted Muggle map. He had never been here before and it was larger than he imagined. As he walked the beaten grass between the rows of graves, he expected the place to feel like death to his deeper senses, but it did not. It just felt quiet. People did not die here, like at St. Mungo's—they were simply mourned here.
The Black family vault was just taller than Harry, with a mourning angel crowning the entrance, wings aligned with the roof. The little building even had a stone door, Harry was pleased to see. And the original spells on it had weakened.
After turning twice in a circle to commit the surroundings to memory, Harry inverted himself for the return to Grimmauld Place.
Snape wasn't there, but Candide sat in the corner of the brewing room, reading while Lupin slept. She mouthed a hello, then frowned, perhaps realizing he had arrived soundlessly. Before he could depart again, she waved a finger at him. Harry leaned close to hear her say, "Severus is at Hogwarts. I talked to Fred and George as he asked me to, but I'm not sure how good an idea that was."
Harry found the twins at their shop, cleaning up, shouting to each other over the noise of shifting boxes and tumbling goods.
"Oy, hello there," one of them said upon spotting Harry.
Harry pulled out his slate and set it on the counter. After a minute, he managed Harry bad way.
The till drawer dinged as it rumbled closed. "Yeah, we were discussing that with Snape's squeeze just this morning."
Harry glanced around in concern.
"No, there's no one listening in here. We'd know. We check twice a day."
The other twin bounded over and leaned on the counter, standing too close for comfort. "Trade secrets have to stay secrets you know." Then he added, "So you think Harry's going to be trouble?"
When Harry nodded, the twins shared a long look and did not say more. Harry scratched out Vold alive.
"Is he really?" The twin leaning on the till sounded positively glum.
"He'll come back again, I think he's saying. Like 'e always does." He flicked each of a small pile of half eaten sweets off the counter.
"Oy, knock it off, Fred, I was eating those."
George asked Harry, "What are you going to do? To Harry, that is." He brought his eyes up and fixed them on him solidly.
Harry made a gesture with his hands like opening something up.
George ate the remains of a sweet and made a sour face and choked. When he recovered he asked, "Why can't you talk?"
Fred replied, "Snape's lady said it was spell damage. Didn't say from what." He turned to Harry. "Did you get in a fight?" he asked this as if Harry's hearing might be bad too.
Harry nodded emphatically.
"Hope the other bloke is worse off."
Harry scratched out help? on the slate and turned it to toward them.
Fred put his hand to his chin. "What do you think, Forge? I sort of trust Harry more than Professor Snape and this odd bird."
Harry began to consider his options if they turned him down. They most likely wore something to make them impervious to Memory Charms.
"I don't know, Gred. Harry's not been himself."
"He's been under a lot of stress."
"He's been under stress before," George pointed out. He sniffed a sweet that appeared to have pink mold growing on it. "What are you going to do to him, is what I need to know before agreeing. Or should I ask Snape?" His eyes came up and locked on Harry's while he waited for a reply.
Harry shook his head; contact between them had to be limited. No ask, he wrote out. Harry then laid his hands over his heart and tried to look compassionate in answer to the first question.
"Does he remind you of Professor Dumbledore as much as he does me?" Fred asked.
Harry snapped his fingers and slipped away to fetch the painting. When he uncovered the portrait back at the shop it was genuinely glad to see the twins, and shed a tear even.
"Oh, my dear, fine fellows . . ." Dumbledore began.
"This old bloke insists we need to do something to Harry," Fred said after the reminiscing stopped.
Dumbledore's face grew long, and his eyes appeared red-rimmed. "I'm afraid that is the case. I know you do not particularly like him, but Professor Snape has always lived up to the trust I put in him."
George popped a sweet into his mouth and talked with his mouth full of sugary strands. "Except for that part about him offing you, you mean."
"Even in that, my dear boy."
George clapped his mouth closed and then could not open it again.
Fred watched his brother work his jaw to free it. "This is serious then, you are saying."
"Even someone as kind as Harry cannot handle all of the powers working on him right now. He is giving in by degrees and, unfortunately, not all of his friends are resistant to the changes."
With a frown, Fred admitted, "Yeah. And he's got that creepy ring now. He got hot with me when I asked about it. I followed him once when he was talking to it, like it was alive."
Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "Too many powers, my lad, too many powers. You can trust my dear old friend here as you would trust myself. I've known him since he was a babe." The portrait gave Harry a sad wink.
The twins eyed each other, George stopped trying to pry his own mouth open and nodded soberly. Fred turned to the painting. "All right, we'll give slithering old Snape our help. We'd like Harry back the way he was before he got that wand and the other odd things he guards like his life depends on it."
Harry sighed in relief.
"How do you do that?" Fred asked Harry as he prepared to leave, shrouded painting in hand. "How do you Apparate without making a sound?"
Harry shrugged innocently, free arm gesturing broadly.
"Yeah, definitely reminds me of Dumbledore," George said.
Harry arrived without a sound in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts Library. Beyond the gate came the usual soft rustle of papers and books being moved about, punctuated by students whispering. Harry found Snape skulking in the last row of shelves, bent over a book he had suspended by a magical chain. The book shivered, rattling the links. As Harry approached, it fell still, the pages sliding flat.
Snape glanced up in surprise and then relaxed. Harry pulled his slate and wrote out FG OK.
"Good," Snape whispered then turned back to the book. The writing was angled and spattered, and the pages bound crookedly. Snape leaned back and smoothed the top page between the loops of chain, then withdrew his hand quickly. He watched the book, hand on his wand, then relaxed. "Is that your doing?"
Snape waved the chain to the side and licked his finger to turn the page. "Ms. Granger is also assisting with finding the best binding or barrier for our purposes." He turned another page full of scrawl, and then another. "A bit distracting, these books," he said as he closed it and shelved it.
He rested his finger on the binding of the next book on the shelf and said, "Easier with you here. Why don't you stay awhile."
Harry was getting restless. They had been three days at their surreptitious research, showing up for meals, appearing to lounge idly when anyone came looking for them. Thanks to Snape's potions, Harry no longer woke wrapped in fear, but he also did not sleep fully. Worst of all, he could not help beyond fetching and calming books. He had to wait and watch, and his patience had stretched into a thin sheen over his aching helplessness.
Harry slipped into the attic of Grimmauld Place for the second time that afternoon. This time, Hermione did not bother to look up from her note-taking, even when the floorboards creaked underfoot. He stood at the join in the roof joists and watched her writing, her hair curtaining her neck, quill moving with precision. Unlike the others, she was exactly the same as his own friend and he ached to be done with this so he could return home.
She lifted the quill at the end of that line, dropped it into the inkwell, and raised her eyes. Whispering, she said, "I think I found the right binding spell for the stones to trap the Horcrux in." She gave the parchment a push in his direction, even though he was on the other side of the attic.
Harry stepped around the joist and pulled the parchment closer, mostly out of habit. She explained the sheet before he could strain to decipher it. "It looks like a Gunwalla Class Barrier, see the slicing motion of the wand, that's like the layering effect on a Wall Charm. It's a wickedly difficult spell. It takes two to put it down, and they need to be skilled with barriers and pretty well attuned to each other, magically. I think maybe the twins . . ."
Harry could read only every tenth word on the textbook-quality sheet—Hermione had even written the Latin out in a slanted hand—but he raised it to his face to study the diagrams. With a questioning look, he rolled up the parchment and motioned putting it in his pocket. She waved him off and went back to her book, then jumped up and checked the watch she had beside the inkwell.
"Oh, drat it, I really should help with lunch. I've been absent too much today." She stood up and put out her lamp, which threw the attic from orange warmth into dusty grey. She gave him a strained smile while biting her lip, then Disapparated.
Too happy to have a task to relieve his frustration, Harry did not seek out the twins. Instead, he went down to the brewing room. Lupin snored lightly while Snape and Candide sat, bent over heavy reading. Seeing Harry, Snape closed the book he held and shoved it under the bed. In a low voice, he said, "Ms. Granger messaged that she—"
Harry pulled out the parchment and handed it over.
"Ah," Snape uttered, unrolling it. After his eyes swept the parchment a second time, he whispered. "A thousand points to Gryffindor."
Smiling felt good. Harry pointed at his own chest then Snape's.
"You think?" He did not wait for a reply, but waved over his cloak and turned to Candide. "Cover for us; if you would."
Harry released Snape's arm after Apparating them both. They had arrived in the hazy shadow under a grove of dripping trees. In the lighter area beyond the sinuous trunks, a long dark car rolled by on a narrow strip of tarmac. After it had passed out of view, Harry led the way to the vault.
As they stood before the structure, drizzle graced their cloaks with shimmering droplets which quickly blacken the faded fabric. Mist drifted between the rows of stones.
"Ah, wonderful," Snape stated grimly. "The grave of my favorite family."
Harry pointed at his own chest in question.
"You thought your family was my favorite?" Snape asked, sounding defeated even as he played along with the joke.
Snape slowly circled the structure, checking the surroundings. In the relative seclusion behind the vault, they bent their heads over the parchment. The drizzle had slowed, but the trees and bushes continued to twitch with falling droplets.
"Did Ms. Granger teach you the spell?" When Harry shook his head, Snape's face hardened, but he read through the parchment in a low voice. "The casters who will join their magic to complete the spell must alternate laying the underpinning spell. We will have to do that below the ground level, which has risen since the vault was constructed, otherwise it will be disjoined to the slab inside. Then the casters must then simultaneously stretch the spell with an Integument Charm to encompass the structure. Understood?"
Harry nodded and knelt on the wet ground to use a cooking spell to peel back the bright mossy turf. After three failed tries at the underpinning spell, Harry pulled out his slate and wrote twins upon it.
Crouching beside him, Snape said, "I was considering suggesting that."
Holding up one finger for patience, Harry closed his eyes and let himself drift, remembering this kind of spell flowing easily from his hand. The next attempt made the lichened stones sparkle. With precise snaps of his wand, Snape succeeded on the first try, finishing the back footing.
Becoming methodical, Harry pressed the turf back and moved to the side of the vault to repeat the spell. Without comment, Snape crouched beside him and waited his turn. At the front, after standing on tip toe to glance around, Snape made quick work of the arcane lock on the door.
Curled leaves and black dirt rounded the corners of the vault. Harry expunged the dirt before repeating the underpinning spell on the slab. Snape did the adjoining corner. Eventually, Harry backed outside to let Snape finish, grateful to stand straight again. He held his toe on the door and bent his head as if in meditation while a couple wearing black finery and pushing a pram rumbled by on a nearby path.
Snape ducked out when Harry released the door. When the area remained clear, Snape pulled out the parchment and said, "This is the keystone step to prepare the underpinning shield for expansion, if you and I cannot succeed at it, we may have to negate everything and pass this task to a more attuned pair. The Weasley twins are perfect candidates."
Snape glanced around them before raising his wand to the corner of where the roof met the structure. "Ready?" he asked.
Harry gestured that he needed to hear the incantation again; his mind did not hold words after this much time. Snape dropped his hand and his face twitched, but he repeated it low under his breath, three times. Harry closed his eyes, rehearsing it in his mind along with him. He opened his eyes again and nodded that he was ready.
"We are wasting our time in the attempt," Snape grumbled, "But, on three . . ."
Harry thought the incantation in his head as Snape spoke it. Upon the last syllable, his wand jerked in his hand and a glow suffused his arm all the way to the elbow. Sparkling bands crawled over the mossy crevices and chased and reflected off the wings of the angel, growing brighter with each round, until Harry had to shield his eyes from the light.
With a rush like pouring sand, the glow snapped off, leaving a stray spark here and there. Snape lowered his wand and stared at the vault in surprise. Harry shuffled over and held his wand up beside Snape's. He pulled out his slate, which still read twins, and held it up.
"Ah, yes, of course," Snape said tiredly. "Yet another reminder that I need a new wand."
Snape hooked the lock back into place and checked around them before leading the way to the tree-shrouded shadows where they had arrived. Once there he raised a hand to indicate that Harry should wait to depart.
"Everything else is in place, except for Mr. Longbottom, who is resisting, although he cannot give us away with the Vow I put him under before setting my proposition before him. I would suggest proceeding this evening, except I fear you are not ready."
Harry pointed at his own chest with an expression of surprise.
"We are relying on you to manipulate the Horcrux, alone. Are you truly strong enough for this, Potter? You are not the wizard you once were, you know. I don't think you've acknowledged, let alone accepted, that."
A droplet fell on Harry's nose. He brushed it off impatiently and patted his own chest hard enough to make a hollow sound.
Snape appeared unconvinced. "This is our single best chance. We will lose the element of surprise, obviously. And our hidden allies will be revealed. Our position will be very poor indeed for a second attempt."
Harry grabbed Snape's arm as the other turned away and patted his own chest again.
Snape studied him, face lined and grim, pale complexion glowing in the low light in contrast to his jet black hair and cloak. "If you are truly so confident, this night then. Potter and his closest friends have taken to going out for the afternoon and dinner and returning for a late snack. I will tell Ms. Granger to be ready for my signal for her to potion Potter's drink. Then one of us must move in for the sword, whoever is in the best position. Understood?" He sneered a bit as he added, "Or shall I repeat it?"
Harry swallowed hard at the insult and shook his head.
Severus Snape swung open the door to his house and found Elizabeth on the doorstep.
"Good afternoon, Professor. Is Harry home?"
"No," Snape replied. "But you may come in if you wish to wait in hopes of his return."
"Thank you. I'd like that. I got my Apparition license today," she said, voice bright. "And I thought I'd call."
In the main hall, Arcadius was lying on the couch, grabbing his feet with his hand and babbling faintly.
"Is Candide home?"
"She is at work for a few hours. Should be home shortly." He gestured at the couch that she should sit.
"Oh. I didn't realize she was going back so soon."
Snape continued to face the hearth as he said, "I don't think she realized it either."
After a silence, Elizabeth sat straight from playing with Arcadius and said, "I hope I'm not being too forward coming to call. Harry didn't return my last owl."
Voice flat and low, Snape said, "Harry is away, that is why he did not reply. He needed to work some things out, you might say."
She stared at her hands a minute. "That's not my doing; is it?"
The hearth flared and Hermione knocked on the doorframe to the dining room. "I hope I'm not intruding."
"It is going to be one of those evenings, I see," Snape said to no one in particular.
Hermione greeted Elizabeth and came over to sit on Arcadius' other side. "Isn't he a doll?" Hermione asked, putting her fingers out to be clutched.
"Want one of your own?" Elizabeth asked.
"I think so." She bent closer to the baby and made funny noises. "Vishnu is trying to arrange for a divorce."
"Congratulations," Elizabeth said. "He seems like the kind of man who deserves to be happy."
"Ehem," Snape said, coming up behind them with his arms crossed. "If we can dispense with today's episode of As the Broomstick Turns, it would be much appreciated."
After a beat, Hermione asked, "Where's Candide?"
He strode away. "Working."
After Snape had sat behind the desk in the drawing room, Hermione whispered, "I hope he didn't scare her off. He gets upset when Harry is gone."
Elizabeth leaned close too and said, "Well, at least she has to come back for the baby . . ."
This drew a smile from Hermione, and she returned to making faces at the baby. Her smile faded. "I wish I knew where Harry was. Professor Snape refuses to say."
The door-knocker sounded.
"Since that is undoubtedly one of your friends, you should answer it," Snape called from the drawing room.
"You aren't here in the role of roaming reporter are you?" Hermione asked Ginny as soon as she opened the door.
Aaron put an arm around Ginny and steered her inside.
"My boss thinks I am," Ginny replied. "And hello to you too."
"Sorry. Hello," Hermione said, following them into the hall.
As they settled in, Elizabeth asked Hermione, "Did you tell them the news?"
"Is Harry back?" Ginny asked.
"No, she means about Vishnu and me," Hermione corrected. Beside her, Arcadius' face scrunched up and he made a fussy sound. Hermione picked him up and patted him, but he fussed louder. "He only likes Hagrid, really," she said.
Snape came to the door of the drawing room and looked each of them over, expression flat but sunken as if with lack of sleep.
"When's Harry coming back?" Hermione asked over the sound of the baby. "Have you heard from him? It's not like him to go off without any contact."
Snape strode over and lifted the baby from her hands. Arcadius' fussing wound down to a gurgle. He stared Hermione down for many seconds before saying, "You don't know Harry very well."
Rubbing his ersatz beard, Harry made his way down to the ground floor of Grimmauld Place, checking again if anyone had returned from the evening out. Lavender and Mabel looked up at him in question. He gave them a smile and pretended to be looking for a snack among the broken biscuits left on a platter on the sideboard.
Just as Harry had decided he could not believably stall any longer, the outer door banged open and buoyant voices rolled into the room.
"Daphne tried a Slug Hide Hex on me," Ron's voice came in complaint.
"I thought your skin looked a little funny," Ginny said.
Ron replied, "I got her with a Forked Tongue Hex, so we're even."
Ron, his face flushed with a mix of amusement and embarrassment, lead the way into the dining room, followed by Ginny and Katie Bell. Harry followed, face stoic in comparison to his companions', although his eyes held an unusual intensity.
"Draco sure was livid," Ginny said. "Acting like he deserved to be left alone, or something. He hasn't even faced the Wizengamot yet."
Ron pulled out a chair and sat down with his knees spread. "Yeah, Draco threatened to call the Ministry, can you believe it? What a git."
Neville minced in behind Harry, eyes darting around the room until they lit upon Intruder Harry. His mouth worked a moment, then he glanced around, dropped his gaze, and approached the sideboard with an artificially casual air. Neville plucked up a crumbled biscuit off the runner and between bites, muttered, "We shouldn't have been . . ." He faded out, while he hunted out more crumbs under the platter edge. "Mr. Snape said he wanted me—"
"Hey, Neville," Harry said, gesturing with a Butterbeer bottle. "Ginny's fetching more snacks, come take a seat. You did a lot of extra flying as our lookout."
Neville's face brightened through his blush. "Yeah, thanks."
Hermione strode in and pulled a chair around to crowd in beside Harry. She leaned forward to ask, "What were you doing tonight?"
Harry took a swig and set the bottle down before replying. "Hunting Death Eaters. You should have come along. You have your nose stuck in a book more than ever and everything's set now."
Sitting straight, Hermione said, "There's tons to do around the Ministry still, Harry."
Katie Bell plunked herself down into a chair. "Malfoy needed to learn a lesson, otherwise he'll get in Harry's way later. Malfoys always do that."
One of the twins slipped in the door, unnoticed at first. He surveyed the room and then, smiling brightly, reached rudely over Harry to get at the sandwiches Ginny had just set down.
"Wotcher," he said loudly. "I knew there'd be food! Fred, I said to myself, drop in on the Grim Place, there will be food." He patted Harry on the shoulder before circling the table. His face fell serious as he ducked to check the kitchen, then put on another broad smile when Ginny slipped by him and hovered out another tray.
Ginny said, "Funny how you only show up when there is no work to be done."
"Moi?" Fred pressed his hand to his heart. "You sound like mum. George and I work very hard. Cleaning up after experimenting is the hardest work I've ever imagined doing. Sometimes, it's worse than revising, given the research requirements." He rubbed the back of his neck and stretched his head side to side with a great groan. This attracted amused glances from the table and only Intruder Harry saw Hermione pass her hand over Harry's Butterbeer.
"Harry, what's wrong?" Katie asked a minute later. Her shaking his arm caused his body to slump in the chair.
"Harry?" Hermione said, voice quavering with stress more than worry.
"What's wrong with him?" Ron sat up to ask. "Oy, someone call a Healer."
The door snapped closed and glowed with a spell as Snape removed his hand from it. "What is the problem?"
"It's Harry," Ginny said, standing slowly, glancing from the door back to Snape. She reached for her wand and then patted her pocket frantically. "Bloody Merlin, where's—" She stepped smoothly back and the room rang with the sound of liberated steel as she pulled the sword from the scabbard at her waist.
Snape ignored this and ran a silent spell over Harry that flared with little bubble bursts around his mouth.
"Get away from him," Ginny snapped, waving the sword point.
Snape spread his hands and stepped back. Lavender rushed to the door, and tugged uselessly at it. "What's going on?" she shouted.
"We have a traitor, is what's going on. Give me your wand, Lavender. Quickly."
Lavender reached for her pocket and, with a high pitched sigh, slumped to the floor. Ginny glanced around the room. Neville was just lowering his wand.
"Neville!" Ginny chastised in shock.
Colin Creevey slipped out from the end of the table and sent a Disarming Hex at Neville, who had to dive for his flying wand. Intruder Harry used the distraction to slip out and back in just behind Ginny. He grabbed her wrist and pressed at the cords between the bones with his ring finger.
"Don't! Don't take the sword," she shouted as her fingers released.
Harry grabbed up the sword as it fell, swinging it clear of her grasp while pushing her aside.
"It won't let you wield it unless you've earned it," she said, rubbing her wrist. "We'll lose it!"
Harry put the point into the floor and switched hands to pull out his wand with the other.
"You stole Harry's old wand, too?" Ginny complained.
He gave her a small bow to cover for the wand. Colin had been bound up in a Mummy Hex. Snape handed Neville his wand back, forgoing comment.
Katie Bell still sat in her chair beside Hermione, eyeing them all fiercely. "What's this about?" She tugged at her hands, which appeared to be glued to the table.
Hermione backed up her chair and stood. "Once you get away from that dratted locket, it will become clearer. It's starting to affect everyone, especially Ginny, who sleeps next to it." She gave Ginny a long look. "You of all people should know better."
"I do know better," Ginny spat. "That's why I know it's not important enough to bother Harry about it."
With a wave, Intruder Harry put Ginny to sleep where she stood. She fell with a soft thud. Snape unsealed the door and opened it to let Candide inside.
"Keep an eye on them, if you will," he said to her.
Snape lifted the inert Harry from the chair, assisted by Fred. At Snape's nod, they Disapparated.
Neville looked hopefully to Intruder Harry. Assuming he wished to assist, Harry crossed the room to take his arm.
After a series of hops, they arrived at the darkened cemetery. Stars winked down at them, intrepid through the city haze. The stars are bright tonight, Harry thought grimly as he tugged on Neville's hand to lead him to the vault.
Snape was giving instructions to the twins. "Lay down a Muggle repelling barrier at two hundred feet and keep it patrolled. NO ONE is to approach. Even you two. Understood?"
They nodded and slipped backward into the night. A breeze rustled the new leaves, covering the sound of their footsteps.
"Are you ready?" Snape asked Harry. His eyes were darker than the night sky.
Afraid his nod would go unnoticed, Harry patted him on the shoulder instead.
Fat candles, glued to the stone walls with melted wax, warmed the Black family vault with a trembling light. Harry's arm twitched where he lay in the middle of the slab, potioned into unconsciousness. In the corner, crouched beside the door, Snape raised his head and his wand, then fell still again.
Intruder Harry pulled the deep hood of his cloak farther forward and removed his disguise. He enchanted the hood with a Gloom Hex and shook his arms straight, focusing on the task before him. At Intruder Harry's nod, Snape gestured to Hermione. With shaking hands, Hermione unbuttoned Harry's shirt and, wearing an expression of distaste, tugged the chain of the locket over his head.
"No," Harry muttered dreamily while tossing his head. "No."
Red light flashed like a burning wound from between the halves of the locket and Hermione dropped it to the slab with a clatter. When she reached for it again, Snape waved her off. At Harry's feet, Neville sat back on his heels, and his shoulders fell in a sigh.
They all waited.
Harry's arm jerked, encountering the Shackle Charm. He became agitated, straining with both arms and glancing around, eyes jumping over the ceiling of the vault, then over the plaques on the tombs: Elladora Black, Cygnus and Violetta Black . . . Intruder Harry watched his counterpart squint hard at the lettering nearest to his nose: Sirius Black RIP 1853, chiseled below a carving of a skull.
"What?" Harry said, looking around at his friends and pulling again at the invisible shackles.
Intruder Harry shuffled closer. As the glittering sword point approached, the locket rattled, bouncing on the stone. Harry pinned it with his trainer and set the point of the sword on the groove in its face. Remembering the feel of the Horcruxes he had destroyed by hand in that other Plane, he leaned on the sword just enough to pierce the metal of the closed locket. He might have opened a tiny doorway to another vault given the way the air shifted and resonated, reacting to the piercing as if a large hollow had been opened beneath them.
On the floor, Harry cranked his head, squinting around his glasses, trying to see. "What are you doing? Leave that be, that's mine."
Tendrils like smoke leaked out of the locket, stained by blood red light. Harry forced the cursedness back in, surrounding it with his mind, threatening to crush it. Above all, it wanted to live. Like a retreating sea creature, the smoke drew inward. Harry pulled the sword clear and waited, checking that the locket would remain still before removing his trainer from it.
Intruder Harry stepped around to Harry's left side, opposite Hermione.
"What are you doing?" Harry repeated, fully lucid now, half angry and half alarmed. His eyes traced upward along the length of the sword, peered blindly into Harry's face, which must resemble a black hole from the Gloom Hex.
Hermione ignored his plea and held her gaze on the intruder, peering up at him with open terror, darkened lips parted.
Deliberately, wanting to give Harry time to believe deep in his being that his death was imminent, Intruder Harry used the sword point to cut the remaining buttons on Harry's shirt. Harry lifted his head to watch this, eyes disbelieving.
Harry's head fell back. "I'm dreaming," he murmured.
That would not do.
Switching the sword to one hand, Intruder Harry used the point of it to push the locket a few inches farther from Harry's head. The locket clattered and jumped and let out a howl through the piercing that sounded a hundred miles away.
"No! Leave that be." Harry's face contorted and the sinew stood out in his arms as he strained to pull his arms upward to reach for the locket. He strained with his head instead, contorting his neck. "That's mine."
Intruder Harry swung the sword point so that it rested on Harry's prominent collarbone, cold silvery steel on warm flesh.
"No!" Harry shouted, less angry and more frantic. He began to thrash his head, but must have felt the point pricking, because he stopped, face distorted as he tried to shrink away.
"Hermione!" Harry said, turning to her again. "Hermione! Why are you just sitting there? Hermione?"
Hermione crouched lower, ducked her head, and gave a sniffling sob.
Harry's neck cords lifted up as he raised his head and glanced around to find Neville at his feet. "Neville?"
Neville lifted his eyes and lowered them again. Harry opened his mouth but said nothing, appearing too stunned to speak.
Harry let his head rest on the slab again, gaze far away. "What are you all doing?" Harry muttered hopelessly.
The blade scattered droplets of candlelight around the walls as Intruder Harry counted downward with the sword point. One rib. Two ribs. Three. He set the point just against the sternum and rotated the blade to parallel the ribs surrounding it. Ignoring his counterpart's horrified panic, the way Harry held his breath until he gave a little gasp, Intruder Harry stood the blade upright and let the point prick skin. Blood welled in the tiny dip, obscuring the wound. He adjusted his foot against Harry's side and smoothly shifted his weight over him, taking full command of the sword hilt.
"No! My dad said I didn't have to die. No!"
Bracing his elbows, hands clasping the rough surface of the hilt, Intruder Harry put his weight against the sword. It bit inward, connective tissue and sinew and muscle parting before it. Harry's torso arched slightly and went rigid. Blood streamed along the contours of Harry's ribs, black like thinned ink in the candle-glow.
Harry screamed, chest heaving, which moved his ribs up onto the sword. Bracing the sword hilt against his own chest, Intruder Harry lifted the sword weight and held it suspended so it would penetrate no farther. Leaking radiance made the air filmy, rarified. Intruder Harry could sense a membrane shimmering just below the point of the sword, awakened and disquieted by its presence.
Hermione was openly sobbing now.
"Hermione?" Harry whispered, voice resigned and vibrating with curiosity rather than alarm, like he wanted to understand this one last thing.
"Now," Snape whispered from the corner.
Hermione's arm jerked at Harry's side. Harry, believing in her, reached out with the arm she had freed and, with some fumbling, found the wand at his side. He raised the wand upward, gaze following. As soon as his eyes came up and focused on him, Intruder Harry tossed his hood back.
Harry's eyes darted over his features. "You?" he exhaled in an abbreviated rush.
Harry wrapped his right hand around his left and let the solid weight of the metal tug the sword downward. Blood surged up around the shaft, welling in pulses. Harry's chest fell as his breath caught.
Sickly cursedness flared, and Harry rocked his head backward as he screamed. His cry and the terrible cursedness rolled around the vault. The Elder Wand clattered to the slab. Harry drew a chopped breath, face frozen, eyes glassy and distant.
Smokey tendrils coalesced, circling, thrashing against the inside of the vault. The smoke gathered into a face, then mutated into a hand, which reached out to touch the gathered figures as it passed. Intruder Harry released his bondage of the locket and the smoke floundered but gradually drained into the puckered hole in the jewelry. The wretchedness in the air eased. By degrees, the muscles in Harry's body were releasing, his limbs falling limp, his head tilting ever so slowly to the side.
Bracing himself, Intruder Harry lifted the sword out. Blood rippled up behind it, sending fresh rivulets streaming. On the slab above Harry's mussed head, the locket rattled and bulged, threatening to peel open. Intruder Harry stepped toward it, trying to hand the sword off to Snape, who had sprung to his feet. Snape opened his hands, refusing to accept it, but Intruder Harry, having difficulty containing the cursedness of the locket, pushed the hilt against Snape's chest and wrapped one of his hands around it. If your loyalty was always to Dumbledore, just take it, Harry tried to think at him as he let go, forcing Snape to accept it or drop it.
Moving rapidly, Harry pulled his wand and aimed a Welding Charm at the locket, but the spell struck stone when the locket leapt aside. An agonizing scream roared through the vault, as if it rushed out of a long tunnel. Hermione put her hands over her ears. A tendril escaped the locket, reaching for the unconscious Harry, then sweeping by Hermione.
"You are all mine . . ." The voice rasped across the heart more than the ears. Intruder Harry's knees felt weak. The air throbbed, seemed to slip over the skin like a scaly caress. He could not hold the locket's evil within it, it was stretching free of the jewelry and they were trapped in the vault with it. The evil trapped within strong enough to make the vault itself its horcrux.
The locket bulged again to three times its size and the air of the vault sizzled. Hermione, hands still clutched to her ears, fell on her elbows. Neville made a noise like a wounded animal. Harry tried again to aim a Welding Charm at the locket while compressing the cursedness leaking from it, but the spell struck the red glowing eye bulging from the piercing and scattered.
Snape fell, then rose up on his hands and knees. He kicked the door open behind him and slipped the bloodied sword point through the chain to lift the locket. He backed out quickly, shouting to Intruder Harry, "Protect the vault. Give Potter the Draught of Living Death, quickly. We do not want this thing re-inhabiting him."
Intruder Harry stayed in the doorway to the vault, unwilling to close the vault door and abandon Snape to the locket. He raised and hand and repulsed the tendrils seeking in their direction and still tried to reach out to contain the evil of the locket itself, but it had expanded beyond his powers. The locket seethed now like a dangling net of octopi. Each tendril sprouted a screaming head that popped and drifted off as smoke. The locket's chain sawed against the blade, making a grinding hum.
Snape tilted the sword to drop the locket onto a broad granite gravestone wide enough to cover two. The locket bounced open and blood-fed light poured across the lettering on the grave's face and across Snape's robes as he re-gripped the hilt for stabbing downward. A fair head and long hair blossomed from the light, stretching upward.
"Severus . . ." Lily's features quickly grew solid, her expression beseeching.
From where he leaned in the doorway to the vault, Intruder Harry flinched back at the wash of cursedness that followed the illusion's rising upward.
"I knew you were weak, Severus, always trying too hard to do exactly the wrong thing. You tried so hard and what became of it? Nothing."
Posture sagging, Snape raised the sword slightly, but it wavered. In the low light his features were starkly bird like, his elbows jutting out at odd angles.
"Why did you do it? You swore you'd be true to me. I was right all along not to believe in you."
Behind Intruder Harry, Hermione gasped, then ducked back when he glanced sharply at her.
Lily's visage was shaking its head with a sad expression. "You got angry and you said such hurtful things. You were always so weak and immature, nothing like James. James knew how to show love, not just pathetic clinging hopelessness."
The sword drooped lower, and Intruder Harry stepped forward. He crossed before the graves between them and came up behind Snape.
"Harry," the vision said, voice silky now. "My dear Harry. Don't you miss me? I'm so sorry we left you all alone."
From behind, Harry put his hands around Snape's loose fingers on the sword hilt and, ignoring the beguiling vision as much as possible, concentrating on the evil leeching around them, brought the sword point down on the open windows of the locket.
A choked scream issued forth, drawing out and fading over many seconds as the impaled vision wavered and grew wispy. Harry felt a great rush of wind that did not stir his robes, and the red halo vanished, leaving them in darkness. Then everything went still until a breeze moved the leaves. Harry let go of the sword and Snape's hands, then had to brace Snape from falling. Snape had gone limp except for his hands which had a vise grip on the sword hilt.
Harry shook a glow from his wand but put it behind his back when he saw how Snape hung on the upright sword, head bowed, rocking faintly, at risk of cutting his arms on the blade as he slid downward onto his knees.
Harry touched Snape's shoulder and heard him murmur into his robe sleeve, "Sorted too soon. Sorted too soon."
Inside the vault, Hermione was reciting healing spells with the high pitched precision she used when stressed. "I practiced this a hundred times, Neville, just get ready with the Neutralizer and the Blood Replenisher."
Shouting came from behind them. Harry raised his glowing wand as Ginny came out of the gloom.
"Harry?" she said, sounding relieved. "What are you doing here?"
Yearning to hide Snape's agony from more eyes, Harry held his wand aimed and tried to see how many accompanied her.
"Harry?" Ginny said, stopping two grave rows away.
Katie Bell came up behind her. "What's up with Harry?"
Running feet preceded one of the twins coming into their circle of faint light. "They slipped by us. They know all the tricks we use." He stopped, rocking from foot to foot as he took in the scene, his eyes narrowed at Harry in confusion, but he lowered his wand. "Harry's not happy with us, I guess."
Hermione ducked her head out of the vault. "Mr. Snape, can you come check Harry?"
Snape raised his head slightly and with a shuffle of robes, used the sword to push himself to his feet.
"Harry's right here," Ginny said, glancing between them in consternation, raising her glowing wand to better light him, squinting as if doubting her eyes.
"Right," Hermione said flatly. "Even so."
Snape rested the sword flat on the double gravestone, holding his hand on it an extra second. He ducked between them to head to the vault. Harry lowered his wand and followed, sealing the doorway against anyone else entering. Outside, the twins and Ginny began arguing heatedly.
Snape knelt beside Hermione, who was patting Harry on the face. He ran three spells and sat back on his heels. "His heart is strong. Give him a few more minutes to recover." He sniffed and said to no one in particular, "You did well, you avoided nicking the lung."
Intruder Harry patted Snape's arm since it was his instructions he had followed.
"However, you could not control the doubly cursed locket as you insisted you could."
In the face of Snape's cold dismay, Intruder Harry ducked his head.
Hermione said, "Thank you for saving us from it. I couldn't do a thing. It was awful. That thing was awful." Her eyes repeatedly lingered on Snape, even though she dipped her head as if examining Harry.
Remembering the scene outside, Intruder Harry grasped Snape's arm.
"I don't need your pity," Snape sneered, voice thick. He remained unmoving a few seconds, then in a rush, removed the barrier on the door and scuttled out of the vault. He stalked off into the night, snarling something unintelligible at the questions from the others.
Ginny leaned in the doorway. "What the devil's going on? What's all this?"
"It's okay," Hermione said. "Everything's okay now."
The Elder wand still lay where it had fallen, below the plate marked Arcturus Black died 1959. Intruder Harry picked it up. It hummed against his fingertips the way his first wand had the very first time he had held it. He slipped it away in his pocket and held his hand over it, reluctant to let go.
Harry's eyes snapped open and he let out a burst of breath. "Wha . . . ?"
Hermione said, "It's all right, Harry. How do you feel?"
Harry's eyes darted around the vault. He started to say something to his friend, but instead stared at Intruder Harry.
"I honestly can't explain this," Hermione said.
The scrutiny and confusion grew uncomfortable and, following Snape's lead, Intruder Harry crept out into the darkened graveyard. He shook off Fred's grasp and kept going.
Fred called out, "Snape said he'd turn us into eels and dump us in Black Lake if we let anyone follow him."
The light from the wands near the vault faded behind him into the hazy night as he made his way through a clump of trees and out into another area of graves. After tripping twice, Harry stopped and closed his eyes, but he could no longer do that trick, and the painful memory of being torn from Voldemort's spirit that rose up in the wake of trying, made him pause for many breaths. Bats careened by, dodging and fluttering audibly, finally shaking Harry from his agonizing reverie.
Harry used a footprint tracking spell and followed that quite a distance, across paths and drives and through rows of neatly arranged little tombstones.
Snape sat on a bench, head in his hands. The moon hung as a blurry scythe blade in the sky above him. He jerked straight when Harry tapped his foot on a tombstone to give warning. Upon seeing Harry there, Snape resumed his bent posture.
Harry took a seat beside him.
"Why are you here?" Then after a gap. "Bloody well cannot answer, can you?"
Harry wanted to take him home, although at that moment, that meant Grimmauld Place. He wanted to point out that Snape had a future, he just needed to grasp it, let the past be the past. He reached for his slate, but held off pulling it out because he would need light, and Snape most likely was appreciating the darkness.
"I know what you wish to say," Snape said. "I can start again." His voice grew harder. "I have been trying to start again, even as delusional as that notion is. The past is never truly gone. It haunts us forever. In the end it makes death a welcome thing, so there is that."
Harry felt in the darkness for Snape's arm, easily sensing the cursedness this close. Snape tried to pull away, but Harry held firm to his bony wrist, and slid Snape's loose robe sleeve up to wrap his other palm directly over the Mark. The skin of his hand prickled, but it no longer reached to touch something within him, which was a relief.
Snape huffed in pain and his arm went rigid as Harry pushed the curse from it. As before, it took all his strength, and a moment later, Harry was plummeting through the disorienting darkness, swinging by his robe front.
The world righted itself as Harry was lowered to the grass by his robes. The grass streaked Harry's cheek with dew as he was released to lie flat on the ground.
Snape huffed again, an annoyed sound. "You don't ever stop, do you?" he asked, sitting hard on the bench.
Above Harry, the glow from London had eased and the stars hung close enough to touch. He put his hand over his pocket and held it there, over his heart.