The final act of this story. Writing this book is going to be a bit of a bittersweet experience for me, especially as we get closer to the end. The desire to tell Jen's story was what pushed me into writing in the first place, and now that it's coming to a close? Yeah, I almost don't want to finish it.
But all good things and that jazz. Welcome to the beginning of the end.
Jen jolted into sudden wakefulness, her heart beating a panicked tattoo in her chest. Several figures she could make out in her bleary vision, and she hurled a brace of lightning bolts at her attackers before they could get another curse off. Thunder boomed, and she called up green death around her other hand—
"Whoa, whoa! Stop stop stop!"
Blinking her eyes clear, she now saw the five members of her family huddled behind Dora's shield. "What happened?" she demanded, dismissing the Killing Curse and sending her senses through the wards over Grimmauld Place. Herself, her family, Kreacher in the kitchen. No one had slipped in without their notice, no one had disturbed the wards. What had sent her in such a panic, then?
Sirius cleared his throat. "Uh, that might be my fault. We – the Marauders, I mean – had a spell we used to keep ourselves awake after spending the whole night working on a prank. We need you up and alert for this conversation."
And between her paltry resistance to magic and her normal paranoia, him trying that had sent her over the edge. She took slow, deep breaths and ran her fingers through her hair. "Please don't do that again. I thought we were under attack or something." Her eyebrows furrowed when she took in the white nightie she was wearing. "Who changed my clothes?"
"I don't think putting clothes on you counts as 'changing' them," Andi said, crossing her arms with a faint huff. "And whether you like sleeping dressed or not is the least of our concerns right now. We're a little more worried about why you've been sick on the summer solstice for three years in a row." Jen tried her best to keep her sudden resurgence of panic from showing, but Andi and Dora's narrowing eyes were proof of her failure. "The first time, we thought you got sick after being kidnapped and exhausted your magic fighting it off. The second, you had just fought Voldemort, so maybe the same thing could have happened. But you didn't do anything like that this time, and what's happening to you doesn't match any disease we can find. A fever and coma that starts suddenly the night before and goes away as soon as the sun goes down again? There's something unnatural about this. How about you tell us what's going on?"
She gave them a weak smile. "I'd really rather not."
"Tough luck. Explanation. Now."
Glancing around for help, she saw that even Cissy, the witch who was supposed to be her ally when her darker nature brought her in conflict with the rest of their family, was looking at her with steely determination. Great. Worse, she knew that in other circumstances, their suspicion and determination might be the right way for them to approach this. They knew something was wrong, but because they did not know what was wrong, they had no idea just what they were asking.
She had managed to talk Dora out of arresting her two weeks ago when the older witch confronted her on her alliance with Priest and Menagerie, but somehow she knew that same trick would not work twice, and especially not with something like this. They were pushing her on her use of black magic, spells and rituals that were not misunderstood or misrepresented but were unambiguously evil. Black magic was considered a capital crime against humanity in any country that had a functioning government, and there was only one sentence ever handed down to those found guilty: immediate execution. Her Auror cousin loved her, that was not in question, but this would be a deal breaker. Yet they really thought she was just going to confess to them that she spent one day a year unconscious because the rest of the year she sacrificed human lives to a dark god in exchange for power?
Her denial caught in her throat, and the corners of her mouth twitched as she suppressed the cold smile that threatened to well up. Now that was an idea. It even had the advantage of being true, from a certain point of view. She needed to hide a few things, obviously, but she had successfully misled Luna whilst the blonde was wearing Ravenclaw's Diadem, the ultimate lie-detector, so this could not be any more difficult.
Luna had broken up with her immediately after that conversation, admittedly, but that did not bear dwelling on right now. She had truth to spin and lies to weave.
"Aunt Cissy, Aunt Andi. Do you remember three winters ago? I wasn't old enough to go with Sirius to the Solstice Ball, so instead I spent the evening with you two and Dora, and we lit the candles for the dead?" Andi nodded, expression lost, but Cissy was watching her curiously. It only made sense that the piebald witch would be the first to start putting the pieces together. She had more of them, after all. "Dora had to ask what the Dark Powers were, whether people actually worshipped them. I didn't."
"Because you worship Death," Cissy interjected. "Your mentor introduced you to that. You said you go off on the winter solstice to give your sacrifices."
Jen pasted on a smile. "That is what I told you, but it isn't the whole truth."
"Then what is the whole truth?" prodded Ted from his spot next to the door.
"Elsie didn't just worship Death. It wasn't that simple. She was one of his priestesses. But she was old and frail, and all her students fled or died when she was accused of practicing Voodoo and chased out of Haiti. For all she knew, she was the last of her ecclesiastic lineage."
"She was looking for a successor."
She gave Sirius a slow nod, not surprised but also not pleased at his queasy expression. He might have been raised a Black, but he was too Light ever to be comfortable talking about the gods and orders of the Old Ways. "She was, and she found one. A little blind girl left abandoned in the snow. She started teaching me almost a year after we met, and when I was eleven, she said I had completed my training and consecrated me as a priestess. Not that I'm that good of a priestess," she said with a small, self-deprecating chuckle. "I have no temple and no flock. I don't even make sacrifices regularly. But I still am one.
"You want to know why I always get so sick on the summer solstice and need a week to fully recover? That's why. On that day, the Dark Powers, Death included, are at their weakest. They retreat to the hearts of their realms until the sun sinks below the horizon and they come out to begin their ascent to the winter solstice." Her eyes fell to the scar on her left wrist. "I'm Death's servant, was as soon as I was ordained and will be until I pass through his realm and enter Guinea. When my god is at his strongest, so am I. And when he's at his weakest? From sunset to sunset, I straddle two realms, my body in the world of the living and my soul reaching towards the Labyrinth." She shrugged and looked up at the rest of her family again. "It isn't anything dangerous. It won't kill me. It's just incredibly painful to me and apparently frightening to you."
Ted shook his head. "If it's nothing, why didn't you tell us about it instead of forcing it to become this big production?"
"Because how in the world do you even start a conversation like this? Especially in this family?" She pointed at each member of the family in turn. "Aunt Cissy is a believer. Aunt Andi believes the Powers are real but not that they're gods. You and Sirius both think this is a bunch of nonsense, you because you grew up in the Muggle world and him because the Light basically rejects religion entirely. And Dora…." Jen frowned. "Actually, I don't know what your opinion on the subject is."
"I don't have an opinion. I don't know enough about what's what to even start making one."
"Mm. That's fair." Her gaze swept over them. "You wanted to know why I never said anything? It's because I could only count on one of you to believe that I was telling the truth, and I couldn't think of a lie that wouldn't sound just as crazy. Instead, I just ignored it."
Andi opened her mouth to say something, but Sirius interrupted, "I'm not saying I don't believe you – I'm sure that's exactly what you were told to explain it to you – but are you sure there isn't some… other explanation?"
"You just don't want to believe that the Powers are real," she taunted back.
"No, I don't," admitted her godfather. Points to him for honesty if nothing else. "I learned about them as a child, just as Andi and Narcissa did. They're capricious, callous, and cruel, and that's the good ones. The evil ones don't bear thinking about, and Death is one of the evil ones. I don't know why you'd want to worship them.
"But that isn't all. I have never, in my entire life, seen anything that can't be explained by magic and reason. Certainly nothing that would have to be attributed to any gods. Why would this be any different?"
The conversation petered out rapidly after that. She had answered their questions, and with a response that none of them had expected in the slightest. This was something they would have to mull over before she had to worry about any continuation. Sirius did offer her an apologetic grimace of a smile before he left; Cissy, on the other hand, walked over and gave her a short hug. Once Jen was alone in her room again, she shook her head and pulled off the nightie before wandering to the bathroom.
Hopefully, that lie would appease their curiosity. As long as they didn't ask for a demonstration of what priestesses did, she should be fine.
James stumbled into the Order's meeting room, his mind still in the fog of denial and grief that had overtaken him ever since finding out that his son had been kidnapped. But what else was he supposed to do?! Snape claimed that he was trying to find out where Danny was, but James had his suspicions about just how hard the sniveling Slytherin was really working on that, and while Moody had offered to do some digging on his own, so far no one had even the first clue about where his boy was being held.
The longer this took, the more likely…. No. No, he was not even going to start down that trail of thought.
Most of the rest of the Order slowly trickled in, many glancing at the empty chair next to him but saying nothing. He had suggested to Lily that she come, to take her mind off their situation for a little while, but while she had said she would consider it, they both knew what she really meant. She was a ghost of herself, and he feared that so long as Danny stayed missing, that would not change.
Dumbledore finally walked in, Snape dogging his heels, and shut the door. Sitting at the head of the table, the elderly wizard looked over the group with tired eyes. "I know that many of you have taken it upon yourselves to search for young Danny Potter. Please tell me that somebody found something."
The various wizards and witches of the Light looked around with hopeful expressions that quickly dimmed when they saw that no one knew any more than they did. Moody heaved a sigh and shook his head before replying, "The Death Eaters have all gone to ground. No attacks, no recruitment pitches, not even any sightings – or none that can be verified, anyway. They know we're looking for them after what happened, and they're determined not to let us have him. The only good thing," Moody added after a moment, "is that we haven't found Potter crucified in the middle of Diagon Alley or Edinburgh. That means there's still a chance he's alive. And if Snape's guess that Voldemort isn't even in the country is right, that's probably why. They're waiting for him to get back so he can do the deed himself."
"So what have you heard, Snape?" James spat, the reminder of Danny's fate too much for him to tolerate. "I bet your pals are just patting themselves on the back for this and talking about what they're going to do. You're supposed to be a spy. When are you going to tell us what they know?"
"As a matter of fact," Snape said with a superior sneer, "it was only last night that I found out any details at all. For all that ambushing your spawn was a group effort, only one person knows for sure where he is. Bellatrix Lestrange. Rodolphus and Rabastan might know, but she keeps her own counsel far too often for me to say that with any certainty."
Dumbledore nodded sadly, and James forced himself not to sigh with disgust. As great a man as Dumbledore was, he had a blind spot the size of dragon when it came to Snape. How anyone could believe the tripe that dungeon bat spouted, he hadn't the foggiest. "Any details you can uncover, please tell me and Alastor as soon as possible. Does anyone else have any news to share?" Dumbledore asked once Snape had given his grudging consent.
It turned out that no, no one else had much of anything to talk about, and the meeting soon wound down to awkward silence. James rose to chase after the fleeing spy – no matter what Snivellus said, he knew the Dark wizard was not really trying that hard to find his son, and he refused to let that Slytherin bastard waste time when his son's life was hanging in the balance – but before he could do anything, Dumbledore called out, "James, if you could stay behind for a moment."
"What?" he asked once they were alone in the room.
"How is Lily handling this?"
"About as well as she can. Which is not very." Unable to keep his temper down, he accused, "You know Snape isn't telling us everything. Why are you just letting him get away with it?"
Dumbledore shot him a look of paternal disappointment. "James, I know you two do not care for each other, but Severus is doing what he can. I have told you before, I would trust him with my life—"
"But it isn't your life that's in danger, is it?"
A moment passed in mutual shock. Opening his mouth to apologize, his words died in his throat when Dumbledore raised a hand. "That…. That's fair. Perhaps trusting Severus is too much for me to ask of you. But if you cannot trust him, can you at least trust me when I say that I am doing everything I can to find Danny and bring him home? That I would not do anything I felt would endanger him?"
"No, I trust you. It's just…."
Thankfully, Dumbledore let him trail off and changed the subject. "I did not see Sirius here tonight. Do you know if he was planning to attend?"
"I have no idea. We…. Well, we haven't talked much lately."
"I see. I certainly hope I'm wrong," the older wizard said softly.
"Wrong? About what?"
Dumbledore grimaced uncomfortably. "It is likely just a rumor, but I have heard through the grapevine that there has been talk of a push to have your family deemed a client House to House Black. I wanted to speak with him about it and make sure that was not an idea he was truly entertaining."
"A client House?" That made no sense at all. For all that he and Sirius had been the best of friends during Hogwarts, neither of them had ever made any deals regarding their Houses, him because his father was the Head of the Potters until 1977 and Sirius because he was not even in considering for becoming Lord Black until he was already in Azkaban. After Sirius's escape and retrial, there had been other… issues…. "Jenny."
"I'm afraid so," agreed Dumbledore. "Even if she is still pretending to be Lestrange's daughter, she has a valid claim to your House. Before, it wouldn't have held up in front of the Wizengamot; by calling herself illegitimate, she gave Danny the stronger claim. With the whole world knowing that he has been kidnapped? Unless we can find him soon, I am sure the Dark Sect will side with her should she push for Danny to be declared dead. She would then be your only living child and, 'illegitimate' or not, your only heir." The former headmaster shook his head. "And after everything she's said and done, I do not believe that she would leave the Black name behind to take that position, not when she could instead call for your absorption."
James stared at him in surprise and pained disbelief. "No. She wouldn't do that. She bears us a grudge, sure, but she wouldn't go that far. Would she?"
"She has spent the last three years in close contact with the lady Malfoy," Dumbledore reminded him.
By Merlin, that was true!
"Why?" he whispered to himself. "How could she hate us that much? Not just to ignore us or blow us off, but to try to wipe her entire family tree out of existence? Just so she can keep pretending to be a Black?"
A thin hand came to rest on his shoulders, and he looked up to find Dumbledore looking down on him with sad eyes. "I'm sorry that I had to be the one to bring you this news, but I thought you would want to hear it from me rather than be blindsided during a Wizengamot session. And it may be nothing but a baseless a rumor at the end of the day; not even my sources were sure of its validity."
"Even if it's just a rumor, I wouldn't be surprised if Malfoy heard it and decided to make it fact," James grunted. "But it won't matter, right? Not after we save Danny."
Dumbledore pursed his lips, no doubt holding back some cruel but well-meaning statement about it really being a matter of if they saved Danny. "Of course, James. That's right. All we have to do is save Danny."
The return to the shores of Britain was not to cheers or chaos or even a few celebratory murders. No, Voldemort returned with the same subtlety with which he had set out the year previous. Partly that was because he did not want to attract attention before his new creations could catch up.
And partly that was because he was not quite sure what he would be returning to. As much as he expected Lucius had managed to keep Bellatrix under control, there was no way to be sure.
A dozen people in black robes and silver masks waited for him at his arrival point on the Southhampton coast. He had alerted only a few of his most trusted servants of his return, and only once he was already in France to provide them with less time to make trouble. Looking out over the assembled Death Eaters, he commanded, "Report."
One figure stepped up and spoke in Bellatrix's voice. "We have done as You commanded. The Ministry has spent so much of their time and efforts protecting the Muggles that they could not stop us from finding more recruits and getting rid of a few… troublesome individuals. The world is ready for You to take Your rightful place."
"Excellent. And what of your attempts to make inroads with potential allies already in the Ministry, Lucius?" Silence hung heavily on the coastline, and his ruby eyes swept over the sea of black fabric, trying to pick out the small difference that distinguished Lucius's mask from the rest. Where was he?!
Thaddeus Nott, the eldest of his line, cleared his throat. "My lord, Lucius is no longer among us. He passed through the Veil this April. It was illness that struck him down."
"I do not know that, my lord. He had been fatigued for some months, but we only learned of its severity once he was dead."
Illness, hmm? Voldemort glanced over at Bellatrix thoughtfully. He had suggested to her before he left that he thought Lucius was planning to betray him, but he had also told her not to kill him. Had she decided to sidestep his command in an attempt to 'help' him? Possibly, but if she were going to kill someone, it would be a direct confrontation. She did not do subtle well, and disguising a murder attempt as a progressive illness would require subtlety. Not that she was incapable of it, no, but it was not at all her preferred method of operation.
"I see. It is a good thing, then, that my plans no longer require the Ministry to be taken with a minimum of force. The assets he has cultivated would be useful, but they are not necessary."
Thaddeus made a sound of surprised confusion. "But our…. I mean no disrespect, my lord, but even with the varied beasts you have attracted to your cause bolstering our numbers, we do not have enough men to make seizing the Ministry at all a guarantee. A political coup would surely be more to… our… advantage…?"
Voldemort hid his smirk. His old schoolmate could not have timed that remark any better had he actually be in on the plan. Turning to gaze out over the sea, the Dark Lord watched with no little pleasure as the new bulk of his army rose from beneath the waves, their trek across the English Channel discomforting them not a whit. "Are these enough to ensure our victory, Thaddeus?"
"I…. What is…?"
Yes, clearly it was enough. And if it were not, he could always make more.
Bellatrix cackled with devilish delight at the figures. "They won't know what's coming for them. Ooh!" Cruel expectation shining from her eyes, she turned towards three other Death Eaters and waved them forwards. "That reminds me, my Lord. We found something to celebrate Your return."
Oh, dear. He glanced at her again. Something about the way she had said that told him that whatever she had gotten up to while he was gone was about to give him a terrible headache. Had he not been in front of the other Death Eaters, the ones who weren't fanatically devoted to him and whom he held in thrall by his poise as well as his power, he would have asked what she had done. As it was, he knew all he had to do was wait.
Grinning like a small child expecting praise from her parents at her unintelligible doodle – or, perhaps more apt, like a cat bringing home a dead mouse – Bellatrix pulled back the hood of the middle man, the only one not wearing a mask.
Voldemort blinked slowly in disbelief as speech abandoned him.
The insane witch laughed again and ran her hands over Danny Potter's gaunt cheeks. The boy, soon to turn seventeen, was in rather pathetic shape all told; in addition to the obvious signs of starvation, one eye had been thoroughly blackened, and the very fact that he was hanging off the figures Voldemort could now identify as Rodolphus and Barty despite the life visible in his one open eye spoke volumes about the injuries currently concealed beneath his robes.
The Dark Lord had only one question. "How?"
"Credit goes where credit's due. My sister's boy, ickle Draco, hatched a plan to trick the Weasley bint into trusting him, and then he told us where we could find her and Potter. The girl's dead, he's here, and even though the whole world knows we have him, no one – no one – knew what we had done until it was too late to stop us."
Oh? Perhaps he had been too quick to judge Lucius's son. The boy's mistake with Black when he had wanted to recruit the girl had earned his wrath, and most deservingly too, but that could have been teenaged impetuosity masquerading as total incompetence. Or perhaps his punishment and his father's displeasure had made the boy grow up if he wanted to avoid being murdered for his stupidity before reaching his majority. Either away, coming up with this on his own had earned him a second look at joining their ranks.
If Voldemort were totally honest, the kind of honesty he showed no one else, he was almost impressed. Using the love-sick adorations of a schoolgirl to target Potter's lust had never occurred to him. It had been decades since he had last chosen seduction as his weapon of choice.
"Did you interrogate him, or was all this just you having fun?"
"He claimed he didn't know anything." She looked down, now all scolded little girl. "Then I just had some fun."
"After bringing him here to me, I will not begrudge you some entertainment. But I do need that information." Gliding forwards, he stroked Potter's cheek and then ripped his finger away, hiding his reaction from his followers as best he could. His skin still sizzled where it had touched the boy's flesh. The protection Potter received from his grandfather, of course. It had been five years since he last felt that searing pain, and he had let it slip from his mind. Now he was reminded. Seizing Potter by the hair this time, he pulled the boy's head up until they were glaring at each other. "I suppose I'll just have to take it myself."
The defiance in the boy's eyes shattered as he ripped his way into Potter's mind. He searched for memories of the blasted Order of the Phoenix, and they came like a flood at his command. Names, faces; not essential information since he was sure his followers could recognize many of the members, but he could still do something with that information. The news that their headquarters was located at Longbottom Manor was welcome, for he had proven that even the Fidelius was no perfect defense. Plans, plans….
He scoffed. At any other time, he would have been happy with the Light's foolish insistence on turning away another wand, but right now it meant that Potter had only the vaguest ideas about what the Order was up to. How irritating. Voldemort nearly pulled out, but then a thought crossed his mind. Sirius Black had fought alongside the Order in the trap he had set up while he attacked Hogsmeade. What would Potter know about the necromancer in their midst? He looked again.
A minute later, he ceased his Legilimency and looked unseeing into the distance. Barely did he notice Potter slump bonelessly into the Lestranges' arms.
"A sister," he whispered to himself. He knew there had been a second baby that Halloween night. He had blown her absence off, thinking perhaps the other child had died in childhood while he lurked in Albania. The fact that no one knew she existed supported that conclusion. That Potter and Black had been born on the same day he had thought only an ironic coincidence. Bellatrix's insistence that she had never given birth was dismissed as the product of thirteen years spent in Azkaban.
And all along, the answer had been staring him in the face.
Now that he knew the truth, how Black had fought him on such even ground made perfect sense. He had wasted his time focusing on Potter, on the much-lauded Boy-Who-Lived, but that title meant less than nothing. Potter was not the one named by prophecy as someone who could vanquish him; Black was.
To make matters worse, he understood Black. The girl was just so much like the woman she had claimed as her mother. All that time he had spent on tasks other than pursuing her death? That was time she had spent working towards his. He had believed all his life that there was no good or evil, only power and those too weak or stupid to seek it. Black was neither. Combine that drive with her destiny and the dark secrets of magic not even he had known about until recently, and she truly could be his equal.
He actually regretted that he was going to have to kill her. Were he still mortal, she would have made a most excellent heir.
But those were thoughts for later. He patted Potter on the head, careful to keep the boy's hair as a barrier between their bare skin. "That was quite helpful, Danny Potter. Thank you for bringing us this information. I can only imagine how much it cost you."
A quiet snicker came from Bellatrix before she sashayed up to her captive. "Too bad, itty bitty Potty. Looks like your usefulness has run out."
"Just get on with it," Potter spat out. Voldemort rolled his eyes and turned away from the boy's empty bravado. He had other things to worry about. "I'm not scared of you. There are worse fates than death."
The Dark Lord stopped in his tracks as a terrible, awful idea made its presence known. Nergui had said that soul magic was incredible in its flexibility, hadn't he? "Did you know," he said, turning around to look down at the mindless figurehead of the Light, "your dear Dumbledore has said that to me on more than one occasion." That earned a superior smile from the boy. "I, of course, disagreed vehemently on just as many. But while I was enjoying my vacation, I realized something. Neither he nor I have ever put that claim to the test, me because there are few instance in which keeping people alive is more useful than killing them and him because he does not have the stomach for torture or murder." He smiled, the expression rather pleasant all things considered. "I guess we'll just have to find out who's right."
"He's already tried to escape," Rodolphus warned. "Did until Bellatrix broke him enough, that is."
"Let me worry about that, Rodolphus." Potter's face paled with the realization of just how terrible his situation was, and Voldemort nodded. "My time away wasn't just so I could find some rest and relaxation. I've been waiting to try out a few things.
"I have plans for how to make Potter a perfectly polite and proper houseguest."
Silently Watches out.