Chapter 51: Stranger Allegiances
Ahhhh! She liiiiiiives!
After a horrible month of prepping for my dissertation proposal (which I passed on Thursday, thank Merlin), the mythical Katrione emerges from her cave and deposits a chapter carefully at your feet. Everyone should send DutchGirl01 flowers and hugs for prodding me into getting this done this weekend.
Enjoy! We're getting close now!
At the words 'new members', the eyes of all the members who were not privy to Severus and Hermione's inner circle (basically everyone but Albus, Minerva, and Alastor) immediately panned to the door. In what Hermione had become fond of calling a typical Slytherin entrance (read: understated yet still irreparably overdramatic), the last sane members of the Malfoy family stood motionless in the threshold. Draco's face was frozen in the "Slytherin mask" she claimed he and Severus wore when they were projecting neck deep into their occlumency shields to prevent anyone from catching a glimpse of real emotion. Narcissa, however, was the one who drew everyone's attention.
Her posture was every inch the Malfoy Matriarch, dressed in stark yet flowing robes that were somehow both buttoned up and still floating slightly with the air currents of the room. Contrary to most people's experiences with the black-clad Malfoys, her robes were of a deep purple that contrasted with her pale skin to give her almost a regal exterior. However, it was not her robes but her hair which caused more than one gasp from the assembled Order members. Since her days at Hogwarts, everyone had always seen the witch with the typical Malfoy-blonde platinum gracing a majority of her well-disciplined locks. Now, however, her hair had finally been released from its highly-charmed straightness and was now cascading wildly down to her middle back in dark, flowing tresses of raven black, wavy curls. Hermione almost snorted as she saw her, projecting the mental image to Severus that this is what would look like if someone took Bellatrix to a muggle beauty salon and gave her a Brazillian blow-out. Hermione was quite pleased with herself when the accompanying mental image of Bellatrix under a heat lamp caused a small crack in Severus' stoic facade.
While it was abundantly clear from her appearance that Narcissa was far more Narcissa Black than Narcissa Malfoy, the collective whispers of confusion amongst the Order members continued until Hermione stepped forward to greet the newly-arrived Malfoys. With a formal manner to her actions, she stepped forward and offered each of them a slight bow as she welcomed them to the meeting. Despite fighting on the side of the light, most of the Order members were well-versed in pureblood cultural norms to know the significance of Hermione's gestures of formal acceptance as the Malfoys bowed back in turn and followed Hermione to the two empty seats that had somehow materialized next to Tonks. The whispers quieted almost in a wave as Narcissa and Draco walked proudly over to the empty seats, seemingly uncaring that they were two proverbial snakes in a den of lions. Seeing the way Tonks bristled at being so close to her estranged aunt, Remus was the first to find his voice.
"Erm, Albus, I do believe it's time to let us in on the circumstances that led us to these, uh...new additions?" he asked in as gentlemanly as possible of a tone, clearly fighting with his inner wolf's instincts to place himself between the young witch on his left and the Slytherin duo that was making her so evidently uncomfortable.
Dumbledore was full-twinkle when he cleared his throat to address the room, "young Draco here has been passing us information from within Voldemort's inner circle since he approached me the summer after his fifth year. He took his father's imprisonment as an opportunity to select a different path for himself. I elected to keep his position secret from all but a select few, for his own safety, but he has proved himself and the intelligence he brings to be invaluable and unassailable. I would vouch for his loyalty with my life and expect all members to take that as sufficient proof, yes?" Seeing Dumbledore's grandfatherly twinkle vanish, only to be replaced with a stern, almost challenging glare, the Order nodded collectively. As soon as he had achieved assent, the twinkle returned and Dumbledore continued.
"As for Madame Malfoy, Draco began having suspicions that her loyalties might have shifted roughly a year ago. These suspicions were confirmed when Severus made his public stance against the Death Eaters and she facilitated his escape, openly opposing both Voldemort and Lucius. And yes, as most of you have most likely noticed, that was when the familial magic that causes the Malfoy family, er, coloring wore off." There were still whispers all around the room, culminating with Moody opening his mouth as if to speak, only to be silenced by Dumbledore. "Madame Malfoy anticipated that she might not be as well accepted as her son and has graciously offered to undergo a public questioning under veritaserum to expedite the acceptance of her true loyalties. Would that satisfy your issues, Alastor?"
Moody looked taken aback, but nodded begrudgingly. Dumbledore conjured an ornate-looking chair in front of the group and escorted Narcissa to it on his arm. He offered her a vial from his robes, which she drank without hesitation. Her posture still that of a queen, she turned in her seat to face Moody and tilted her head expectantly. Moody, ever the dog with a bone, wasted no time.
"Mrs. Malfoy, are you currently a servant of the Dark Lord."
"Do you have any lingering affiliation, loyalty, or duty to serve Voldemort or his Death Eaters."
A collective sigh could be felt throughout the group, but Moody was not finished.
"Have you ever had any loyalty to Voldemort?"
Moody turned to Albus, "this is preposterous! You fed her bloody gillywater. You can't expect us to believe-" Albus cut Moody off with a gesture of his hand and simply motioned for Moody to continue questioning.
"If you haven't ever been loyal to the Dark side, why in Merlin's name have you supported your husband as Voldemort's lieutenant all these years? Why is he living in your bloody house?"
"My loyalty is currently and has always been to my family. Originally this meant supporting Lucius as my husband, but I have come to the realization that Lucius is, at least for the moment, beyond helping. My only loyalty now belongs to my son."
The room was silent.
"So if Draco turned back to Voldemort, you would as well?"
"My loyalty to Draco lies in his long-term best interest. I see no possible upside to his living under the reptilian thumb of a deranged madman. If Draco turned back to Voldemort, the best I could do for him as a mother would most likely come in the form of a swift stupefy to the back of the head followed by a mandatory, supervised, and long-term stay in one of the Black family safehouses off the continent."
At this statement, an audible snort escaped the stunned, pink haired witch who was now openly gaping at her aunt. Narcissa's head turned to face her niece and bestowed the first truly warm smile any of the Order members had ever seen grace her features. This caused Tonks' hair to cycle rapidly through the rainbow as she fidgeted in her seat. While the dilation of Narcissa's eyes and the rigidity of her posture showed that she was heavily under the effect of the Veritaserum, her words and gestures still manifested the regality and breeding one could expect from a woman of her position. She turned to face Moody once more.
"Have I satisfied all of your questions?"
Moody nodded, unsure of what to make of these declarations. Dumbledore moved to Narcissa and offered her the antidote, but she waved him off with a quick gesture.
"While I am still obviously incapable of lying, might I clear up one misunderstanding, Albus?" Dumbledore nodded and waved her on with a knowing smile.
"My dear Nymphadora, it is one of the greatest regrets of my life that I was forced to part ways with your mother. I miss my sister every day and it is deeply painful to me that I have not been able to be a part of your childhood. I sincerely hope that, in time, you and she might both consider me family once more."
WIth this, Narcissa released another beaming smile at the now openly-weeping Tonks, turned to Albus, and plucked the antidote out of his hand, returning to her seat next to Draco as she drank.
After the Order had recovered from the events of the meeting, they managed to collectively pick their jaws up off of the floor and conduct a thorough accounting of the state of affairs with Draco's mission, the vanishing cabinet, and the fact that they could now plan for a final confrontation with Voldemort. As they wound around to the "planning" portion of the meeting, Hermione signaled to Harry on their DA galleons that it was time for the student group to make their way to the Order meeting. She nodded to Dumbledore, who in turn got the attention of the Order.
"Now, as many of you with children here might know, Harry Potter has been leading a study group of sorts since the days of Dolores Umbridge's tenure at Hogwarts. Harry, Hermione, Severus, and myself have carefully screened each member of this group and have determined that, should they wish to participate in this final confrontation, they have earned their rights to do so. As such, we have decided that these students should be privy to our planning and, more importantly, be part of our training as we draw nearer to that day. I would like for you all to welcome the members of the unfortunately-named Dumbledore's army."
And, with a sense of timing that could only be orchestrated by Dumbledore himself, it was at this moment that the doors swung open to reveal a large group of students standing at the doorway to the Order meeting. Harry stood at the forefront, with Ron on his right and Ginny on his left. Hermione had to fight the maternal pride she felt swelling in her throat seeing Harry stand tall and proud with the group of students he had invested so much time in training, so far from the small boy she first met so shortly after he had come out from his cabinet under the stairs. This new Harry, Hermione was pleased to see, stood with no arrogance, but with the confidence of every hour of his training with Severus, Moody, Albus, and Edgar. His body was that of a man, hardened by physical training and molded by experience. Ron wore a lopsided smile, while Ginny sported the look of concentration she usually reserved for Quidditch matches. To the far left of the group, Neville seemed to be watching everyone's flank, a sense of uncharacteristic ease and happiness emanating from the formerly-gawky student. To the far right of the group, Fred and George shared a smug look that could be easily tracked to the stunned look of horror on Mrs. Weasley's face, no doubt due to the realization that her four youngest children would all be active participants in the final battle. In between these pillars could be seen a flush of excitement from Lavender and the Patil twins as well as a shared look of excitement between Dean and Seamus.
Hermione and Draco quietly approached Harry and exchanged the same formal gestures of acceptance Hermione had previously showed the Malfoys before settling on either side of Ron and Ginny and turning to face the stunned Order.
After a moment or two of silence, Albus was finally the one to break the tension. "Well then, it would appear we have some training to do."
After a thorough yet brief discussion of their battle plan for the day Draco "finishes" working on the vanishing cabinet, the Order members, now including the students who had formerly comprised Dumbledore's army, was put through an obstacle course of sorts, designed by the remorselessly sadistic Alastor, Severus, and Hermione to determine which members needed to focus on what skills in order to be equally prepared and useful for the upcoming battle.
Members who were current Aurors or otherwise involved in regular magical and physical feats, such as Tonks, Kingsley, and Remus, were sorted into the "strategy" group, where they joined Hermione and Severus to plot over an enormous magical board where arrows, diagrams, and color-coded lines danced about a miniature version of the school like lights at a muggle disco. After the events earlier in the meeting no one questioned Hermione's presence in the strategy group and everyone was still frankly too intimidated by Severus to mention anything to him about it.
Members who had been key players in the first war but were a little rusty on their physical fitness, such as Molly and Arthur Weasley, Madame Pomfrey, and some other members with magical know how but sedentary desk jobs, went to the makeshift gym in the corner of the meeting room where Alastor gleefully shot stinging hexes (and some other less benign spells) at them while they attempted to run, jump, crawl, and (later on in the evening) hobble their way through transfigured obstacles and challenges.
The majority of the Quidditch-obsessed members of the DA were sorted into a magical dueling group. This group was led by McGonagall, who, along with Narcissa Malfoy, had surprisingly enough beaten them all through the physical portions of the trial course. Both women had been breathing heavily, but neither had a hair out of place as they shared a knowing look while they waited for the younger members at the finish line. For the rest of the meeting, they lead Fred, George, Ron, Neville, Dean, Seamus, Ginny, the Patil twins (who were surprisingly agile), and some of the quidditch-playing elder order members through increasingly complex rounds of offensive and defensive spellwork. By the time they began practicing on each other in mock duels, this group was sweating almost as badly as those being physically "trained" (read: gleefully tortured) by Moody in the other corner of the gym.
Finally, there were several smaller, ad hoc groups meeting in various areas of the room. Albus had pulled Harry aside into the corner of the gym and they seemed to be hard at work at occlumency and legilimency drills, ensuring no one could pull battle plans from Harry's head. Although, Harry had progressed greatly once he, as he phrased it "pulled his head out of his arse and began listening to Hermione like he should have all along". Similarly, the healer Hestia Jones had pulled Lavender and Luna aside and was practicing a variety of healing spells with them on some conjured wounds on alarmingly-realistic practice dummies.
By the time the clock struck 11pm, everyone was well and truly exhausted. More surprisingly, the intense training session seemed to have gone a long way towards bonding the members together as a team. A very sweaty Fred and George Weasley had draped themselves on either side of an equally sweaty (but much more dignified about it) Draco Malfoy, completely ignoring his protests as they bantered with a very amused Narcissa Malfoy. It seemed that Narcissa's inner Black had been enticed out of hiding by the twins' auras of mischief and the three made, as the onlooking Ron had described it "a truly horrifying trio". Luna was stretching her leg casually up in the air and almost to her shoulders while talking absentmindedly to Kingsley, whose face had made Neville burst into laughter as he walked by. Neville, Dean, and Seamus were bantering with a Remus, who had his arm casually draped around a blushing Tonks as he spoke with the three young men, looking more comfortable than Harry had seen him in ages, the smile on his face almost rivaling that which Harry had seen in the pensieve memories of the Marauders in action.
Overall, everyone seemed to be in the right state of mind: calm, focused, engaged, and unified. Hermione found a pair of dark eyes from across the training room and projected to him a feeling of warmth and optimism. They had destroyed all of the horcruxes. Severus' dark mark was gone. Soon they would face the Dark Lord, hopefully for the last time. She basked in the warm smile emanating from her mental contact with Severus, despite the ever present scowl still fixed on his face. They weren't ready now, but she knew they would be.