A/N: I won't even bother with an apology for the infrequent updates anymore; it's getting kind of redundant, and kind of ridiculous (last update was almost 2 years ago!). But I hope you don't give up my story in disgust :) Here's a good long chapter, though, as a peace offering. Also: I'm assuming in this chapter that all the stuff of the summer before 5th year has already happened, with Harry going to Grimmauld Place, learning about the Order, etc. I'm also assuming, in case I didn't make this clear before, that Dumbledore has already told Harry (and Minerva) about the prophecy. It's just easier that way.
Ok, on with the story...
Harry peeked carefully around the doorframe of the Quidditch supply shed. Wherever the two professors were headed, they were flying. And they apparently kept their brooms with the school equipment. Harry shook his head in wonderment; he wouldn't let his Firebolt out of Gryffindor Tower for all the candy in Honeydukes'. But right now, this was his advantage; it would make following them much easier. He slipped his invisibility cloak out of his pocket and threw it on, waiting until the professors had taken off before grabbing one of the brooms and zooming up into the night sky. The broom was a joke compared to his Firebolt, but it served the purpose; neither broom ahead seemed to be much for speed, either. 'For goodness' sake,' Harry thought, rolling his eyes. 'They run the flipping place; you'd think they could afford decent brooms.' 'They don't spend fortunes on status symbols; they're adults,' his inner voice chuckled. 'Get a GRIP,' he chided himself. 'There's no time for this insanity.' But the night air seemed to fill his head with lighter thoughts than might have been useful to him, such as a firmer plan to trap Voldemort than painting a bull's-eye on his chest and yelling, "come and get me," or more immediately, what Dumbledore and McGonagall would say. This was almost enough to make him turn back...almost. Dumbledore had sent him to bed like a naughty child. And McGonagall had left him alone, made him feel unwanted, just because she wanted to give him time to study. Anger helped--he felt justified in this extreme course of action, and he wouldn't let them argue him down this time. He followed their descent and landed a good distance behind them; he had always had a suspicion that Dumbledore could see through his invisibility cloak.
The two professors stopped just outside of Hogsmeade. They were obviously very good at not being noticed, and if Harry had not had his invisibility cloak, he would have been a fool to try and follow. As it was, he could follow them in what would have been plain sight, as long as he didn't bump into anyone. He trailed them to a small hut off the main road, and when they went inside, he secured his cloak around him and squatted down outside the window. He was relieved to discover that he could hear perfectly; apparently, whatever wards the Order had put up in securing the hut did not view him as hostile—for which he was damned grateful, he thought emphatically. The last thing he needed now was to end up suspended by his feet from the awning, or something, with the whole Order standing there staring at him and wondering what the hell he used for brains.
Harry perked up his ears when he heard Dumbledore's voice calling the meeting to order. He eventually let them down again, though; there was a roll call, then a list of the victims of the raids, then a trajectory of Voldemort's path towards Hogwarts. Harry rolled his eyes impatiently. 'Voldemort could slaughter half of Britain, fill the Parliament with Death Eaters and elect himself Prime Minister in the time it takes them to state the obvious,' Harry sighed to himself. His legs and rear end were numb and very cold by the time anything halfway interesting happened. Snape spoke. Harry listened intently as Snape proposed his plan for permanently infiltrating the Death Eater circle. He planned to convince the Dark Lord that Dumbledore had found him out and it was no longer safe for him (or—if he actually wanted to convince Voldemort—useful to the Dark Lord's purposes) to stay at Hogwarts. Harry was both grudgingly admiring the man's bravery and mentally thrashing him for his lack of foresight. Dumbledore quickly brought up Harry's point, though.
"Severus, I fear that I must point out the obvious. You will not be allowed to retire and bask in the glory of the Dark Lord. If you are no longer useful to him as a spy, he will require you to do his other, less appealing work, or he will make short work of you. You will, in effect, no matter where your loyalties lie, be a practicing Death Eater again, with no way of relaying to us any information you may happen to come across about Voldemort's intentions. It is a betrayal of our cause, unless you forfeit your life to him; he will force you to kill, to torture, and you will be no less guilty of these crimes than he, because you will have voluntarily given up any choice you now have in the matter. Consider that before you choose that course of action. You are correct, however, in assuming that the war has progressed beyond the stage of playing both sides. You can no longer be a credible double agent. If you are resolved to answer Voldemort's call, then you have only one option of serving the Order: undermine the workings of the other side, from the inside. You will be alone; none of us will be able to help you, or even to come to your aid, if Voldemort should discover you. If you can accept that you will take lives again, innocent lives, on Tom Riddle's orders, then you may certainly make that choice. If fate is so inclined, we may meet again, in the end. But not before. The choice is yours, but remember: if you choose to stay and fight with us, we will stand with you. Any personal disagreements, arguments or grudges that still exist within this Order are to be forgotten, here and now. We stand together, in perfect allegiance, if not friendship, and we leave everything else behind us, where it belongs. Those are the terms as they now stand. What is your choice, Severus?"
Harry was impressed and awed, but not cowed. He recognized this moment for what it was: his cue. He pulled the cloak away from his body, burst through the door, ducked a Stunning Spell that some vigilant Auror, probably Moody, had fired at his forehead, and shouted: "He doesn't have to do it!"
Chaos erupted, or as much chaos as could be achieved within the dimensions of the tiny hut. Kingsley leapt up and slammed the door shut; Moody began shouting out warding spells until the roof looked ready to cave in under the huge weight of magical energy; Mrs. Weasley began bellowing at Harry at the top of her lungs; Tonks fell off her chair and spent the next minute or two untangling herself from the legs; Sirius shouted: "Harry! What the HELL!" Lupin's fists were clenched, and his mouth was hanging open. Snape looked ready to explode with anger. Harry risked a look at Minerva. She looked equally furious, but her expression also contained fear, as well as a touch of amused exasperation. Part of Harry's brain wondered idly how she did that. He didn't dare look at Dumbledore. Before anyone could shut him up, he began talking very fast.
"Look, I'm sorry, I know this is probably the stupidest thing I've ever done, but it's not a stunt, I promise. Sn—Professor Snape doesn't have to do this. I don't know why I never thought of this before. I don't have to be the liability. You're all running around trying to fight Voldemort and protect me at the same time, but it's spreading your resources pretty thin, isn't it? Don't you see? I'm the one he wants. You can all try to mess with him until the cows come home" ('Cows?' Sirius murmured quizzically), "but he won't go for it; he's only after me. We can use this, use him. What would he do if he saw a chance to get to me? Anything, and that's his biggest weakness. You can set a trap for him; I won't question it or interfere or anything, I promise. But I can help you this way, and I can tell you that it's probably the only thing that will keep me out of your hair." He risked a sheepish glance at Dumbledore, who, unfortunately, still looked as if he might strangle Harry. "This isn't just another chance for me to be the hero," he said firmly, looking straight at Snape, who blinked in surprise before returning in full force to his patented scowl. "Believe me, I wish someone else could fight Voldemort for me. I don't know how many of you know about the prophecy, about him and me..." Harry's voice caught for a moment, and he waited for Minerva's comforting touch on his back before continuing. "Anyone else who tries to face him, to destroy him, is a sitting duck. It's him or me"—several exclamations greeted this statement, not the least of which was Sirius' vehement cursing—"and if you want it to be me, this is your best chance. Make the fight happen on your terms, not his, otherwise he will find a way to kill me when you're not prepared, and then everything will be finished." Harry waited, counting the knotholes in the far wall, wishing someone, even Snape, would say something. Finally, in a very small voice, it was Tonks who spoke.
"You'd better watch out for your job, Dumbledore," she whispered, giggling nervously. There was some scattered laughter, and then Sirius spoke up.
"Bloody fucking hell," he said slowly. He stood up, walking forward until he was right in front of Harry. "You can bet I'm on your side, kiddo," he said softly, resting a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I have to tell you, though: I hate this plan."
Harry grinned appreciatively. "Thanks. Good to see you too, by the way." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a very crumpled letter. "I was going to send this to you tomorrow, but, well, here you go." Sirius laughed his loud, barking laugh and tousled Harry's hair, stuffing the letter into his shirt pocket with his other hand.
"Next time you can't find an owl to take your letters, Harry, maybe instead of tracking your professors to an Order meeting to deliver them in person, you could just borrow someone else's."
Everyone laughed, except Snape, who just looked disgusted. He opened his mouth to speak, and Harry tensed in horrible anticipation. "I have to say, Headmaster, that I do like this plan. Very much." Harry was ecstatic. Snape liked his plan! Of course, it was definitely because this plan involved Harry's mortal peril instead of Snape's, but who cared? It meant that Snape wouldn't be running off to spill Dumbledore's secrets or Harry's whereabouts to the Dark Lord, with or without the influence of Cruciatus. Minerva nodded slightly and winked at Harry, rubbing his back again briefly. She turned to the Headmaster.
"What do you think, Albus?" Harry realized with a horrible jolt that Dumbledore hadn't said a word since Harry's unexpected arrival. As he faced the old wizard, he got the shock of his life. Dumbledore looked truly, awfully afraid. And Harry realized that Dumbledore was the only other person in the room who had already thought of this plan, probably a long, long time ago. Harry was angry for a moment; why had the Headmaster wasted so much time diddling around with schemes to protect him? Why hadn't they gone after Voldemort like this before he became strong again, before more people, people just like James and Lily Potter, got in his way? But Harry knew the answer as soon as he asked the question. Because Dumbledore could never bring himself to ask that of a child, especially, Harry realized with a pang of gratitude, one that he was so unwilling to sacrifice. But it was time to stop protecting one person, a person who could end this, at the cost of so many other lives. Harry looked straight into Dumbledore's deep, blue eyes and gulped in a breath.
"It's time," he said gently. "It's time to end this. Ever since I was a year old, since that day he marked me, it's always been me or him. You must have known that, or you would have stopped me from going after the Stone in my first year, or going into the Chamber of Secrets. I refuse to believe you're as oblivious as you pretend to be," he teased, smiling as he remembered the time in the library when Minerva had given him precisely that piece of advice with regard to the sometime childlike Headmaster. Dumbledore gave him a little wink in return, and, encouraged, he continued. "You've given me as normal a life as I could have possibly had under the circumstances, and I'm grateful, I really am, in spite of being raised by the Dursleys. There's always been a price for being me, and that was part of it, that's all. But it's time to stop compensating for the prophecy and to start listening to it. Voldemort will kill until I stop him. Period. And since I'm still at school, and nowhere near ready for this, I'm asking you to help me. And I'm sorry if that puts you in the position of delivering me to him, but if this doesn't work..."—he cut off at the stricken look on Dumbledore's face—"then you're going to have much bigger problems than losing me," he finished rapidly.
The hut was silent for what seemed to Harry like days. He fidgeted under Minerva's and Sirius' hands. Finally Dumbledore spoke.
"You're right, Harry," he said simply. "You're not a child any longer, and I simply don't have the right to keep shielding you. But Harry"—Dumbledore stepped forward until he and Harry were standing eye to eye—"I'm going to remind you of something that I had occasion to remember today: knowing something is coming does not make its arrival any easier to bear. Don't try to face this alone, in any sense of the word. Promise me." Harry nodded briefly, choking back a whole knot of emotions, and Dumbledore took pity on him by adding: "For instance: next time you plan on tailing me to a secret meeting and scaring the living daylights out of a bunch of already excessively paranoid Aurors, let me know." Harry laughed, which made him cough and sniffle even more, and feeling very self-conscious, he relaxed against Minerva, who had pulled him as close as possible without giving him cause to be embarrassed for being hugged in front of the entire Order. Except for Snape, they were all like his family, anyway, and even Snape was looking unusually docile.
The meeting dispersed with plans to meet again in the morning in London, hopefully with the beginnings of a strategy. Harry returned to the castle with his professors; no one said very much until they landed. When they reached the front doors, Dumbledore put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "How do you feel, Harry?" he asked quietly.
Harry was uncomfortable at the question, but he knew that Dumbledore wanted an honest answer. "Encouraged, I think. Less like a hamster in a wheel. Very scared. And sort of embarrassed."
Dumbledore squeezed the shoulder he was holding and smiled slightly. "Harry, you've never had less reason to be embarrassed or self-conscious in your life, and I've never felt less like laughing at someone in mine. This is why the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. No matter what Professor Snape says, it is not a matter of taking foolish chances. It is the realization of what needs to be done, and the courage to do it, no matter the consequences. I wish James and Lily could have heard you," he whispered, half to himself. "They would be very proud, Harry."
The tears were very near now, the closest to the surface that they had been all evening. Harry swallowed as hard as he could. But he couldn't keep them out of his voice when he answered, "thank you."
When he had gone up ahead to the Gryffindor dormitory, Minerva turned to Albus. "You've got it," she said happily, kissing him affectionately on the cheek.
"Got what?" he asked, puzzled.
"What we were talking about earlier, when you interrupted Harry and me during our hot chocolate, and I told you that you needed to figure it out for yourself. What Harry wanted. To hear you say that you are proud of him. That he is important to you, and that he's needed. He's always known it," she said impatiently when he looked like he was going to say just that. "And he actually realized it tonight, back at the cottage. But he needed to hear it. From you."
Fire ignited in the depths of Dumbledore's eyes. "Because of the Dursleys. Because of how they treated him."
"Partly. That, and losing James and Lily. That's why he can't take love for granted. But I also believe he's been feeling neglected lately." That got Dumbledore's attention.
"What do you mean?"
"I can't speak about this to you without Harry's knowledge, Albus. It's something you should discuss with him. But I can tell you that both of us should take care to keep him from being alone so much. And I know there is a great deal else that he isn't telling me. Perhaps you could ask him if his scar hurts him very much; that might give us a clue. If I'm right, he's feeling more like the Boy Who Lived and less like Harry every day, and in light of this new offensive plan in which Harry plays the bait, the problem is compounded. Just...help me look after him, all right?" Dumbledore nodded, frowning with concern. Minerva reached out and smoothed a finger over the crease in his forehead. He smiled and raised her hand to kiss it, and Minerva stood up on tiptoe to whisper in his ear: "Let's save the worrying for tomorrow."