A/N: I'm glad you liked the first half, and hope you'll feel the same about this second one. Just let me answer a few questions many of you asked in your reviews:
No, Harry has no children of his own. As you probably noticed, I kind of assumed a slash pairing between him and Draco in this epilogue, though it's so non-graphic you'll have to squint to see it, and since I don't hold with mpreg (my name's not Loretta), that makes children unlikely. I do, however, imagine that he's adopted or cared for a few children, perhaps war-orphans like he was, but that would have opened a whole new can of worms, and if they were actually orphaned by the Death Eaters, they would be too old to attend Hogwarts by now.
No, Hermione and Severus have no children of their own, either. You've offered a number of explanations in your reviews, most of them plausible. Just let me add my own bit: I don't think that Hermione would rush building a family, and as we know from the books, wizards age much slower than muggles. If you look at the age difference between the Weasley children, I am confident that Hermione and Severus could easily have children later in life.
I am also quite sure that neither Severus nor Hermione would want children while engaging in their dangerous work (Brazil, anyone?) – they know what happened to Harry, and they wouldn't want that for children of theirs. So while haven't multiplied yet, it doesn't necessarily mean that they never will. Though they wouldn't need it to have a full and fulfilling life, or at least that's my opinion.
Have fun reading!
Epilogue Part II
Severus had slipped away from the table as soon as the lights went out. There was always a harmless explanation for such an occurrence – though he had never actually encountered a situation in which the harmless explanation was the right one, but one had to keep an open mind - , but it never hurt to be prepared.
So he had pressed Hermione's hand to alert her, had stepped away from the table into the darkness and up to a small side door that led onto a seldom used terrace and from there to the grounds.
Hogwarts wards weren't designed to stop anybody from leaving and Hermione's emergency wards recognised him easily, but even if emergency warding should snap into place, he hadn't lived here for twenty years without learning a few tricks.
He used the close proximity to the castle to send a general detection spell into the areas where students lived and slept. When the spell came back clean, he triggered the additional wards around the dormitories – they hadn't been active when the other wards went down, and they snapped into place without a hitch. It was a good thing that he had taught here for so long – he knew all the procedures and was confident that the students would be safe till the morning.
Making sure that he was out of earshot from anybody and well into the trees, he activated the link to Hermione. It was an ingenious bit of magical technology, although the procedure necessary to create it had been 'icky', to use Hermione's words. But according to the rules of magic, Occlumency needed skin contact, and if that rule could only be tricked by implanting that skin inside the auricle, well, sacrifices had to be made.
What is happening? He asked silently. Instead of answering, she simply shared her eyes and ears with him, another trick they had learned over the years.
Listening to the disembodied voice sprouting nonsense, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or share Hermione's irritation. Even villains aren't the same any more, he thought towards her, and felt her answering chuckle of amusement.
But they managed to unravel the wards, and that's the work of a professional, even if security has relaxed after Voldemort, she answered. We aren't seeing the whole picture here.
An inside man? It wasn't really a question, but these little backs and forths gave both of them time to think and develop their theories, and he cherished them if for that only.
At least one, Hermione thought. But let's see if I can't flush them out with a bit of action…
Remember that none of them are used to regular fighting anymore, except for the aurors, Severus warned her, but a part of him was disappointed that he would miss her show. She and Harry were a beautiful team, playing one opponent against the other with the ease acquired only over many years.
He wondered if any of the aurors working under Harry knew whom their Head of Department chose as partner for his more dangerous missions. Probably not. Aurors were even worse idiots today than they'd been twenty years back.
As if you had to remind me of that, the way you always complain about it when we meet them, Hermione's amused voice cut into his thoughts. Now, ready to do a bit of scouting for me?
Away from the Great Hall and the dormitories, he could use a series of charms to determine the numbers and positions of their opponents. The results weren't exactly a relief.
Thirty-six in the vicinity, he informed her. Positioned around the Great Hall. There's no safe way to get the students out, and no easy way for backup to get in.
Then we'll have to keep the students safe inside the castle. My wards are holding so far, so we should have a bit of time for preparations. Authorities?
I'll take care of it, Severus promised. The best way to go about this was sending a message to an Unspeakable of their trust, so that somebody in the Ministry would be informed, but they would be spared the aurors arriving and complicating everything. Hostage situations were always handled best by small teams, and he and Hermione would have been called in for this sort of thing anyway.
With a flick of his wand, his patronus vanished into the night, bearing a message to one of Luna's operatives. Again he scanned the grounds, confirming his first results but adding another two opponents that were positioned closer to the lake.
Thirty-eight, now, he informed Hermione.
Thanks. Care to reduce the numbers a bit, Severus? She sounded excited and fierce, as she always did when she let the Master Spy out to play.
He grinned, his glittering eyes and bared teeth matching the fierceness in her voice. He loved to play, too.
Anything for you love, he promised. Good hunting.
After the corpse had been removed, the students calmed by the Headmistress and the prisoners interrogated by Harry and Aunt Hermione, they decided to stick to the original plan.
Students and civilians would be evacuated, Bill, Minerva and Luna would erect wards hopefully strong enough to keep the attackers out, and the rest of them would use the time left to prepare the Great Hall for battle.
It sounded totally surreal to Lily, who could not even imagine a battle taking place inside of Hogwarts, but the two prisoners, now stunned and moved safely out of the way, reminded her painfully of the reality whenever she looked at them.
This was truly happening. She was in the middle of one of the stories her parents used to tell them. And she was determined to fight.
She helped organise the students and escort them to the vault-like room below the Great Hall. She flipped tables to the side and stacked benches into obstacles close to the entrance doors.
And while she did all that, she watched Hermione, old Moody, Draco and Harry moving through the Hall, giving orders and calling questions out to each other, quite obviously in their elements.
They expected a little more than thirty invaders, and Hermione had been able to give them specifics about their armaments and attack patterns, although Lily didn't have the slightest idea where her information came from.
Again she wondered where the Professor had vanished, and how he could have known what would happen as soon as the lights went out.
To think that she had grown up with these people and never known what they were capable of… To think that she had considered Aunt Hermione boring if brilliant…
"What are you still doing here, Lily?" Harry had suddenly appeared from nowhere, and she very nearly jumped in surprise.
"Hey," she said, aiming for coolness and failing miserably. "This is where the fighting will be, isn't it?"
"It is," he agreed calmly. "And that's why you should be inside the warded room right now."
"With the other children?" Despite the situation, she felt anger rise inside her. "I'm no child anymore, Harry, I'm seventeen. I know what you and the others did when you were my age, and I don't need to be protected!"
"I know," Harry said. One of the things she liked most about her godfather was that he always took her seriously, no matter what the situation. He had explained things to her that her parents thought her too young for, he had told her stories her parents wanted to hide away from her. And now he looked at her like he would look at an equal, no matter her age.
"You are a very capable woman, Lily," he continued. "But this isn't about you. This is about your parents and all the other people that love you. Twenty years ago, we swore that we would never again let our children fight for us. You believe it is your privilege to risk your life, and you're right. But it's your parents' privilege to protect you. Do you really want to take that away from them?"
Her shoulders sagged. One of the things she liked least about her godfather was the fact that he was nearly always right. And could tell her so in a manner that made her agree no matter what she wanted.
"Okay," she gave in after a short moment. "I'll be downstairs then…"
And in that moment, the great doors exploded inwards, filling the room with wooden shrapnel and dust. Their enemies had broken through the wards.
Hermione's eyes snapped to the doors of the Great Hall as soon as Severus' warning appeared inside her head.
"Brace yourselves!" She shouted, but already explosions rocked the old oak doors, and splinters and dust filled the air.
They had sliced through her wards quicker than anticipated, another thing confirming the professionalism of this group. A small part of her wondered about their reasons and resources, while another part informed Severus and her eyes darted through the Hall, making sure that everyone was safe and the children out of the way.
She saw Lily, half hidden behind Harry, and Ron and Ginny, who'd been determined to stay even though they hadn't duelled for a long time. But apart from them, everyone who couldn't defend themselves was out of the way.
She hadn't even noticed the knife in her hand until the first cloaked attacker appeared and it was flying towards him, flying true as always. She summoned it back without a second thought, coordinating the double images of her own and Severus' visual input in her head and determining the exact attack pattern.
They were conservative but very aggressive. Professionals, from their battle robes and stances more like mercenaries than fanatics. She really was beginning to wonder about this group.
She signalled Harry, who had gotten Lily to safety and was now moving towards her across the Hall, using tables and benches for protection, to proceed. A flick of his wand and his voice echoed through the now nearly empty room.
"Whoever you are, we give you one warning. Retreat, or we will not bother with disarming spells!"
Whether it was their knifed-down comrade or Harry's words that held them back, but no one else stepped through the ruins of the door for a moment. Once more Hermione's eyes swept through the Hall, assessing their status. They were thirteen altogether, Harry, Draco, Neville's protection squad of three aurors, Remus, Tonks, Moody, Kingsley, Ginny, Ron, Minerva and she.
It had been some time since she'd fought in such a large group, but most of them had had extensive training, and their positioning around the room was good. Not that she planned on letting their attackers advance far beyond the first line defence, which was manned by her, Harry, and Draco.
"Remember?" Harry whispered now, grinning broadly. He was having entirely too much fun with this. "Twenty years ago? Five of us against Voldemort?"
"I expect you want one of us to say something asinine like 'those were the times', now, don't you?" Draco commented mildly. "Well, let me say that I prefer today immensely."
"Me too," Harry answered after a moment, but he was still grinning. "It's just that paperwork can't compare to this!"
"We still don't know what 'this' is," Hermione cautioned them, her eyes fixed on the door, while Severus' were watching the side door the attackers had chosen as their entrance. He agreed, in her mind. "And until we do, it is a dangerous situation."
"You're getting very serious in your old age, Hermione," Harry teased. "And I bet Sev's already decimated them."
"He's having fun, too," she admitted after a moment, but then stiffened slightly when the sensory input from Severus changed.
"Here comes their leader," she whispered, and her friends snapped to attention.
A figure in black robes and a dark green cloak stepped through the door, glowing slightly in the light of the strong shield spell that surrounded it. The stranger – from the size and built most likely a woman, was gingerly raising her robes to avoid torn edged from the wreckage. Yes, definitely a woman.
Harry, still the designated driver on negotiation-issues, cast an equally strong shield spell around himself and rose to his full height.
"Tell us what you really want, and perhaps we can still conclude this peacefully," he offered, his voice calm and very much in control.
"Peacefully?" The woman's voice was still magically distorted, but it sounded shriller than before, slightly unhinged, Hermione thought with growing unease. Nothing was worse than a crazy terrorist, in her humble opinion.
"You dropped peaceful out of the window, Harry Potter, when you killed our Lord and destroyed his vision twenty years ago!"
Oh, Hermione thought, sharing a frustrated glance with Draco. One of those.
They'd had problems with deranged would-be followers of Voldemort before, those who couldn't let go of the past or, perhaps even worse, thought that by defeating Harry Potter they could somehow take up from where Voldemort had stopped.
But that type of 'villain' was usually unorganised, badly informed, equipped worse, and slightly pathetic altogether. Certainly unable to slice through Hogwarts' wards and attack with a team of forty mercenaries.
"That was decades ago," Harry said now. "Why throw your life away for something that is long over?"
"It is not over," the woman snapped. Yes. Definitely unhinged. "I was there when you attacked them and made their lives a living hell! I have to live with it every day!"
"I never attacked anybody," Harry answered, calmly, reasonably. "Voldemort came after me, and I…"
"DON'T ARGUE WITH ME," the woman screamed. "I'll have you admit to it before the end, Potter, I'll have you admitting to everything! Attack them!"
The mercenaries obeyed without hesitation, and Hermione's mind shifted smoothly into battle mode. She gestured to the rest of their impromptu squad to take out the attackers advancing on the flanks, while she, Draco and Harry would concentrate on the central block, and then the first men were upon her.
She fired off a quick series of stunners, then pivoted on her left leg and stamped the heel of her boot into her attacker's forehead. He went down and she blocked against a vicious cutting curse and answered with a sectumsempra. One knife found its target, another one whirled through the air and nailed a raised arm to the wall behind it.
Another stunner took care of a man who tried to sneak up behind Draco, and while she blinded two more with a directed flashlight spell, another one had an unfortunate accident with a fireball.
Her side was doing quite well so far, with nearly twenty attackers down and a few more wounded. Ron looked a bit disgruntled because no enemy had reached him yet, but he was smart enough not to leave his assigned position. His children were hiding behind that door, after all.
Four men were bearing down on Harry and she decided to help him with that. Her knives slashed and spells sizzled through the air. She blocked another attacker's disembowelling curse and answered fire, and noticed that their mysterious leader hadn't joined the fight. She was still standing close to the door, guarded by two of her mercenaries and the glowing blue bubble of a very strong shield spell, watching the battle quietly. Assessing their reactions and skills.
Her behaviour was starting to creep Hermione out, and while she twisted out of the way of a burning hex, kicked the legs of her enemy away and conjured ropes around him before he hit the ground, she considered asking Severus to take care of her.
But that spell bubble looked rather strong, and she didn't want to give up her trump, not before it wasn't necessary. Having a partner hidden away in the shadows had saved her life on more than one occasion.
Fifteen down. And the battle was nearly over.
It seemed that their mysterious attacker was going through the same realization, for she lifted her wand to her throat, and when she spoke, her voice echoed sharply through the Hall.
A pitiful number of mercenaries limped back to their employer, and those who did were in no state to further defend her. Still, no reason for carelessness. She gestured to the others to re-take their safe positions, and half grinned towards Moody, who nodded approvingly.
Again, Harry took the spear point.
"Don't you think it's a bit late to negotiate?" He asked, less angry than curious as to what this woman was up to now. There had, after all, been no casualties on their side, and the whole attack seemed somewhat lame.
But the woman just lifted her hand, demanding silence from her mercenaries, and something in the line of her shoulders told Hermione that she was satisfied.
"On the contrary," she said coldly. "It's just the right time, now that my spells had time enough to take a hold."
"Your spells?" Harry's eyes did not leave their attacker for a second, but Hermione was on it already, running detection and diagnosis spells so fast that the images and lights blurred into each other.
The results confused her, but still she sent them towards Harry and Draco with a swish and flick, and saw her confusion mirrored.
"An air-directioning charm?" Harry asked the woman sceptically. "What good will a fresh breeze do you?"
Ideas? Hermione asked Severus in her mind, and felt her own undefined worry echo back to her.
Assuming it's a compound-spell, Severus' rich voice whispered in her thoughts. There are many hundred possible combinations, most of them completely harmless. But others…
Silently, Hermione agreed with him. This had been too well planned, too thoroughly prepared to end with a stupid mistake. Whoever this woman was, she had the mark of someone dangerous.
As if to confirm her thoughts, their unknown attacker now chuckled, cold, low, and decidedly threatening.
"I think you will find that the air is being moved away from me, not towards me," she commented. "And what good it will do… well, that depends on what happens when I open this…"
She reached inside a pocket, and when her hand emerged she was holding…
Hermione stared at the vial in silent shock. It couldn't be.
But she had only ever heard of one potion that sparkled pearly blue like this, and it was a rumour, nothing but a whisper they had encountered during their research. Severus' shock mixed with hers, coursing through her veins, leaving only cold clarity.
This couldn't be, but if it was… then they were all in mortal danger.
Harry had noticed the sudden tension in her, but they couldn't communicate without interrupting the negotiations, and they needed to know that this woman was planning, right now.
She signalled him to continue, and added a little sign they had agreed on years ago. Abruptly, his eyes grew hard. He knew now that this might be a matter of life and death.
"What is in the vial," he demanded, the authority of his position and experience settling around his shoulders like a cloak. "You had better not be playing games with us."
"I don't like you enough o play with you," she hissed back. "And this is certainly no toy. Tell me, Harry Potter, have you ever heard of the Magic Eater?"
Hermione felt bile rising into her mouth. Draco to her right had gone deathly pale, and Severus had turned into cold, grim stone inside her mind. But it couldn't be!
"No," Harry said, slightly hoarse. He knew how frightened they were, and that frightened him.
"All that time among snakes, and still you know nothing about poison," the woman mocked him. "Go on, Malfoy. Be a good little blood traitor and tell your pet-auror what he is dealing with."
She was gloating now, revelling in her superior knowledge and the belief that they were completely in her hand. She had no idea of the rapid exchange of Severus and Hermione, foremost potions master and brilliant spellcrafter, taking place right under her nose, or she wouldn't have been so sure of herself.
She has anchored the air-directional to both her shield bubble and Hogwarts itself, Severus. It will take a while to unravel it.
I can cut off the air flows to the dormitories…
She linked those, too? Hermione's horror filled their bond for a heartbeat. This was mass murder!
She's nothing if not thorough.
Hermione took a deep breath to compose herself, and saw that Draco had risen to his feet. He was still white with tension, but his face and voice held no emotion at all.
"The Magic Eater is a legend among potion makers," he said quietly, his eyes fixed on the sparkling blue liquid. "It was rumoured to be created by a 19th century master, but his notes were never found, only the effect of the potion – a village, filled with nothing but dead bodies."
He took a deep breath, and Hermione used the pause to continue her inner dialogue.
We might save the students in the dorm, but we will be infected and dead within a minute. And I doubt that the makeshift wards around the others will hold it back… there are more than two hundred people below us, most of them children, Severus…
We could slice through her shield bubble, given enough time…
But we won't have that sort of time, not unless we can keep her talking.
"The potion's active ingredient becomes airborne immediately, and it's incredibly fast," Draco continued, his voice now hardening. "One breath is enough, and once you're infected there's no help. The potion turns your own magical core against you. First you become a squib, then you're dead. Judging from the faces of the victims, it is a most painful way to die."
Draco was buying them time already with his overly-detailed description, but it wouldn't be enough. Severus and Hermione knew it both.
Inform our contacts outside, Severus. If this goes wrong, Hogwarts needs to be isolated immediately.
It won't 'go wrong', my love.
"And you expect me to believe that you found a way to produce this potion?" Harry now asked.
The woman actually seemed amused.
"I spent years preparing for this moment, Potter. But if you doubt me, I could offer a demonstration," she said, her hand moving slowly towards the vial's stopper.
"No!" Draco's shout echoed through the unnaturally quiet Great Hall, loud and quick so that Harry wouldn't have to lose face by backing down.
The woman chuckled.
"Then I assume that you are finally taking me seriously?" She inquired.
"What do you want?" Harry asked, too angry and frustrated now to hide his feelings completely. Everyone in this room was a professional, and still they were stuck in an impossible situation, played like fools.
Something changed in the woman's stance. She leaned forwards slightly, and her hand tightened around the deadly vial.
"I want to know," she whispered, greed and desperation and madness all mixed together into an awful blend. "I want to know what really happened all those years ago, when you defeated the Dark Lord."
Harry's eyes widened in disbelief.
"All this effort and death, just to satisfy your curiosity?"
"It isn't curiosity," she hissed. "It's the only thing that ever mattered to me! So tell me – what really happened? Not the nice tale your pet-Minister told tonight, but the real one. I want to know who destroyed my life twenty years ago, and how they did it."
The muscles in Harry's face tightened nearly imperceptible.
"You shouldn't believe the conspiracy theories," he said, very calm and controlled now.
"I don't," the woman answered curtly. "But I know that things weren't as clean and easy as your petty Order made them look. I know that you had someone inside the Death Eaters, and I know that she tricked the Dark Lord into the Tintagel attack. It was an ambush, staged and prepared, and I want to know how and who!"
"That is not what happened," Harry tried again, but the woman's patience had run out.
"Tell me NOW," she demanded shrilly. "Or this potion might just slip through my fingers!"
As Harry tried to prevent the inevitable, Hermione's thoughts raced alongside Severus'.
Who could this woman be? Few people outside the Order had known these details, and she had made sure to keep an eye on all of those. The only possible connection might be a Death Eater of their outer circle – she had appeared at several balls and festivities, if always in disguise. But all the key players had been caught, and they and their families questioned. She couldn't imagine that she had overlooked someone.
Perhaps she had just heard the wrong thing at the wrong time? Conspiracy theories had gone wild after the battle, and for once the Quibbler had actually been a moderating influence. Perhaps she had taken the facts and put them together in the right way?
She had been wrong before. This wasn't another misguided effort to resurrect Voldemort or build a new empire on his name. This woman was personally affected, and she had obviously dedicated her life to have these questions answered at last.
She could try to use that to her advantage, play her just right, bargain on the fact that she wanted knowledge, not their death…
But there were too many variables to determine. She couldn't risk all those children on a hunch, and if things went downhill, all this would end in a catastrophe.
Inside her head, Severus agreed, although his heart ached for her.
Go along with it, love, and try to gather as much information as you can. Play it safe this once.
I'll have to tell her. She might notice any lies.
I know. But you just have to keep her occupied. And when you see an opening, I'll be waiting in her shadow.
Plans and calculations flooded from mind to mind, being enriched and discarded and tweaked at until they had a perfect strategy ready, waiting for a chance to be used. Severus was just outside the hall now, ready to do his part in a heartbeat, but she would have to lay the groundwork for that.
She opened the link between them wide, readying it for the data that would pass between them, and hid her wand in the folds of her battle robes. Talking and slicing at the same time wouldn't be the easiest thing she had ever done.
I love you, she whispered inside their secret place. I will always love you, Severus.
Everyday I love you more, my Hermione.
She took a long breath and readied herself, fortified herself against what she would have to say. She didn't like this one bit, but at least she was chiefly among friends. And this woman wouldn't have much opportunity to spread tales after this night.
Gesturing towards Harry and Draco to stay calm and to everyone to wait for her command, she stood, and her heart beat wildly in her throat.
"If you want me to tell my tale, you'd better show your face first," she demanded curtly. "I don't like talking to strangers."
Harry had told her to get cover and out of the way, and so Lily crawled along the line of unused tables and benches until she'd reached one corner of the Great Hall. She'd hidden behind an old table and an arm chair, knees tucked under her chin, wand ready in her white knuckled hand. She could see the entire Great Hall and was close enough to hear everything, but she'd traded that immediately for a safe place with the other children.
The fighting was unbelievable, like nothing she'd ever seen at her duel club or the friendly duels some of her uncles and aunts had staged over the years. Her mother and father were brilliant at all this, and Harry kicked as much ass as she had always expected, but it was Aunt Hermione that really blew her away.
She jumped and spun and kicked and twisted, and somehow there was always a knife in her hand and she was actually using it to cast spells.
It looked like a weird mixture of wizarding duels, Star Wars and the kung-fu action movies she hadn't been allowed to see until recently, only that this was real, and it was her godmother doing it!
Actually kicking a man in the face and then gutting another one (and Lily felt slightly nauseous as she watched that, but betraying her position by retching really wasn't the way she wanted to go), and looking so fierce, so feral that she was simply terrifying.
And another thing very different from a movie? Her parents and aunts and uncles were moving so fast, fighting with such precision and aggression that it was over before it had really begun, and Lily felt as if she had missed most of it (probably something to be thankful for).
But then their enemy raised a vial of some liquid, and Hermione and the others stiffened in fear. Something had just gone very, very wrong.
Lily trembled at the thought of all those students, her brothers and cousins and friends, dying from a potion that would eat up their magic and then consume their bodies, she trembled violently, and now she finally understood what the Order members had always told her, what Uncle Neville had said this very evening.
It was anything but heroic back then. It was overwhelming and terrifying, and we all had to do things we weren't ready for…
Oh, how much she wanted it all to be a dream now, to wake up in her safe dorm room and have nothing ahead of her than boring classes and homework.
But this was painfully real, and as Aunt Hermione stood, giving into the attacker's demands, Lily found that she wanted to turn away and cover her ears, to honour her godmother's privacy.
Only that it was a very bad idea to turn her back on a potential attack kept Lily from following through.
"If you want me to tell my tale, you'd better show your face first. I don't like talking to strangers," Aunt Hermione now said, her voice colder than Lily had ever heard it. If she had looked dangerous before, she now sounded it.
Lily saw the unknown woman twitch, as if in surprise and then visibly hesitate. Even Lily understood why. If she showed her face, she committed herself to either killing them all or becoming a wanted criminal.
Lily wondered why Aunt Hermione had upped the stakes this way. Was she planning something? But what could they hope to do against such a poison?
Lily guessed that a bubble-head charm would keep her safe for a while, but even she could only keep it up for about five minutes, and she was top of her Charms class! And if the potion spread too fast, the students and guests would be dead before they even knew what was going on.
So there was no reason for their attacker to follow Hermione's wish. But still her free hand rose towards her hood, grasped the cloth firmly… and lowered it.
For a moment, the silence in the Great Hall was absolute, as if the walls themselves were waiting breathlessly.
Then, Aunt Hermione's voice broke through the tension, disbelieving and slightly higher than usual.
"Pansy…" she whispered.
The woman nodded, her face twisting into an ugly grimace.
"Pansy Parkinson," she agreed grimly. "I gather you suspected someone a bit further form home? But then you war heroes never noticed anyone else, not even those right under your noses.
"But… your father was only a member of the Outer Circle, barely involved in what was going on…" Aunt Hermione said, confusion making an unusual appearance on her face.
The woman – Pansy – snorted bitterly. "Involved enough to get his estates confiscated and be shunned by the public," she spat, but then a change came over her, and she grew very quiet.
"Mother left us," she said. "And suddenly we were poor, and no one would talk to us anymore. My father couldn't bear it. Everything he had believed in was gone, and the name of our house gone to ruin. He killed himself, and my mother, the blood-traitor, married a mudblood, not that it helped her at all. So you see? You destroyed my life, all of you, and you didn't even notice!"
Lily saw tears glittering in her eyes, and wondered how she would manage to deal with something like that – her father dead, her mother gone…
Well, certainly not by becoming a terrorist and mass murderer, that much she was sure of.
Aunt Hermione's voice had softened somewhat when she spoke next. Perhaps she had thought the same thing.
"I am sorry for your loss, Pansy," she said. "There were too many deaths even after Voldemort's fall, and I admit that some of them were caused by our side. But your father and mother made their decisions freely, and their hands weren't guided by us."
"Don't you dare patronize me, Granger," Pansy Parkinson screeched. "You with your goody-two-shoes ways and your perfect career! I don't want your pity, I want to know what happened! What did you do? You'd better tell me quickly, or I won't answer for the consequences…"
She shook the potion vial, and Lily's breath caught in sudden fear.
Aunt Hermione's face twisted, then she nodded, resigning to it.
"Where to start?" She thought aloud, but Pansy answered immediately.
"What was the plan?" She demanded. "How did you do it? How could you fool the Dark Lord?"
Aunt Hermione chuckled.
"It was surprisingly simple," she answered, but the hollow ring in her tone told a different story. "Once we had infiltrated the Inner Circle, we gave our double agent a false prophecy, one that made Voldemort believe he could forever destroy Harry, if only he got him to "an ancient place on an ancient night". He accepted the story hook, line and sinker. Next, we fed him a bogus reason why Harry, Ron and I would spend Halloween night at Tintagel, and he believed that, too. We only had to ambush him and force him through a ritual that forever destroyed his should. Easy."
She had spoken slowly, her face impassive as she told a tale Lily had heard so many times – with one exception.
In the stories of her parents and Aunts and Uncles, there had never been a double agent, never an infiltrator that fooled Voldemort himself. Lily's eyes widened as she connected another set of dots.
Pansy had mentioned a woman, and unless one member of the Order had vanished and never been mentioned again, that meant…"
Lily's eyes widened further. Impossible!
"Who?" Pansy Parkinson asked, the words hard and fast. "Who planned it, and who was the double agent?"
For a second, Aunt Hermione hesitated, and an expression of pain darted across her face.
"I," she then admitted. "On both accounts."
Rage flooded their attacker's face.
"Impossible," she shouted, echoing Lily's thoughts. "You were a mudblood and a mere girl! The Dark Lord would never have…"
"The Dark Lord called me his pet and praised me beyond all others," Hermione interrupted, her face expressionless. "He gave me power over the purebloods in his Inner Circle, and in the end I defeated him in a battle of minds. Your precious Dark Lord was nothing but a crazed half blood, and he fell to the schemes of a girl. This is the truth, Pansy. I am sorry."
"No," the other woman whispered, her hands trembling. Lily wasn't sure what had shocked her most about Aunt Hermione's explanation, the fact that a mudblood had managed such a feat, or that Voldemort himself had been a halfblood.
"No! My father described her to me! She was like a queen of darkness, he said, and everyone feared her…"
Something about Aunt Hermione changed, then. She seemed to grow taller, her eyes glittered darkly and her lips formed a smile that looked both dangerous and strangely sensual.
Lily shivered. Despite all the things she had learned tonight, her aunt had still been her aunt. But now she looked like a stranger to her, like a Hermione she had never met and didn't really want to meet, either.
She looked like a queen of darkness, alright.
"They were in my hand, all those wealthy, pureblooded men, and my fist could have crushed them any day," she whispered, her voice smoky and full of triumph. "They loved me, and feared me, and trusted me despite my blood. So much power, so much magic, and yet their victory depended on me. And I betrayed them. I defeated Voldemort, I killed Lucius Malfoy, who even then loved me like he had never loved anyone, and I laughed as I did it!"
"Malfoy…" Pansy Parkinson whispered, her eyes darting from Draco to Aunt Hermione and back. All her arrogance and anger seemed gone, washed away by a revelation she had never expected.
"He was my lover," the stranger with her aunt's face hissed. "I seduced him, and he did everything for me. He introduced me to Voldemort, he supported my inclusion in the Inner Circle, and even when he tortured me, he loved me desperately."
She laughed, and all of Pansy Parkinson's front seemed child's play in comparison to that laughter.
"You thought you knew everything, didn't you, Pansy? Safe among your snakes, your father a pureblood, and you thought you had understood that world. But you knew nothing of its darkness, its grandeur, its pull. Evil has its own beauty, its own morale, but you never even glanced it, you and your family and your pathetic intrigues. They were kings among wizards, and I their queen, and they never saw it coming."
"But how could they?" The other woman whispered. She was sobbing now, her face red and blotchy, and looking strangely like a child that had been denied a toy. "How could they allow you in, when my father never even got an audience? How could they forget everything they stood for?"
Hermione's eyes and voice grew hard. She raised her head, and her eyes fixed Pansy's with a look that left no room for questions.
"They were idiots," she said. "And they paid for it. EVERYBODY DOWN!"
Draco's body reacted automatically to Hermione's command. One moment he was on his feet by Harry's side, watching Pansy with disbelief and growing horror, the next he lay flat on his stomach, wand ready to protect his family and himself.
A blast of light raced through the Great Hall at about shoulder height, pulverizing everything in its wake. It would have cut Draco in half where he stood, but even so it was only strong enough to slice through Pansy's shield bubble and destroy it.
She shrieked in surprise and fear, and her hand darted to the stopper, to release the potion and kill them all.
She wasn't quick enough.
Down swooped a crow, its black feathers glistening in the candlelight, and Pansy shrieked again.
Before she or anyone else had time to realize what had happened, Pansy's hands were empty, the crow was settling on Hermione's shoulders, and the potion was safely transferred from its beak to her hand.
Hermione smiled up at the bird.
"Thank you Severus," she said. She was the only one standing in the room now, and her wand was trained firmly on the sobbing Pansy, who had fallen to her knees. "Do you want to stay that way, or could you be bothered to transform back?"
The crow cocked its head, then hopped to the ground and morphed back into Severus Snape, black robes billowing around him like an echo of his animagus' wings.
"In the end, she was just an amateur," he remarked quietly, his voice rich and very soft.
Hermione smiled softly, and for a moment, her head found its resting place on his chest, black cloaks melting into another in absolute trust. They would be alright, Draco thought, just as they always were as long as they stood together.
Harry jumped to his feet and started stunning and binding the few surviving mercenaries. They were disoriented by the blast and gave no resistance, too overwhelmed by the sudden change of fortune.
Draco followed Harry's example slowly. There was a reason he had chosen a Potions Mastery over this sort of life, and although he could still duel with the best of them, the death and the noise and confusion of this sickened him.
After years of worrying about how closely he resembled his father, he had found out quickly that peace had turned him into an entirely different person. A life of research, useful work and small comforts was what he wanted.
This just made him feel sad and tired, and the waste of another Slytherin's life, spent with revenge and madness instead of something useful, made his chest ache.
Pansy was lying on the ground now, knees drawn up nearly to her chin, sobbing softly. She had probably spent the past twenty years of her life planning this, preparing for what she imagined as her ultimate triumph – a truly Slytherin thing to do.
But it hadn't given her satisfaction. Instead, it had destroyed the last things she treasured in her life, the memory of her family and her belief in Voldemort.
Gently, he searched her pockets and took her wand from her. She offered no fight – there was nothing left inside her to fight.
Another one of the lost generation, he thought sadly. Twenty years, and it's still poisoning lives.
"Come," he said gently. "Get up, Pansy. The aurors will be here any minute, and they shouldn't see you like this."
They could kill each other on the battlefield, but in the end Slytherins always stuck together.
She jerked away from his hands.
"Don't touch me, blood traitor," she hissed, but there was no venom left in her voice.
"I know," he whispered. There was nothing else to say, no way to console her and soften the pain of her past and her future, but this much he could say without lying. "I understand."
"You," she spat. "How could you ever understand? After changing sides in just the right moment, the Slytherin prince abandoning his followers. You were always on the lucky side of life, weren't you? Never a care in the world!"
Draco chuckled softly and reached out again. "I guess that's not a bad way to be remembered," he said, and this time she didn't resist his help.
She was limp in his arms as he helped her stand, and Harry sent a questioning glance at him, silently asking if he needed help.
Draco shook his head. This was his task, and it had been for many years. The Gryffindors might have rebuilt this world and made it a safer place, but someone had to pick up the lost Slytherins and care for them, and the only one left to do it was Draco.
"I'll take care of her," he said, and the understanding that echoed in Harry's smile thawed some of the ice around his heart.
It hadn't been terribly exciting down in the room below the Great Hall. Most of the students and guests hadn't really understood what was going on, though Ted thought he had a pretty good idea – listening to his family's war stories for years had taught him a few things.
A few journalists had demanded to go out and 'investigate' (longs words, why did grown-ups need them?), but the Headmistress and Aunt Luna and Uncle Bill had been firm. No one was to leave this room until the danger was over.
Before they started casting the wards, the Headmistress had collected Order children and moved them away from the rest a bit.
"You know what is going on?" she had asked, looking at them all, one by one.
"Then I need your help," she said, and Ted couldn't help but feel a bit proud. Headmistress McGonagall needed him!
"The other students aren't prepared for this sort of thing. They need to be distracted. Choose games that aren't too noisy and don't involve much running around. You have my permission to use small amounts of magic. I trust you to know what won't meddle with the wards."
"Yes, Headmistress," they all had agreed, still on their best behaviour.
And so they played twenty-questions (a muggle game that was all the fashion at the moment), and Make-Umbitch-Squeal, and even run-and-hide in the part of the room furthest away from the doors.
Sometimes they heard a faint noise echoing down from the Great Hall, and once there was a loud crash and a scream, but most of it was waiting and keeping the other students calm.
Ted liked staying up late, and he liked knowing more than the upper classes, too, but even that got boring after a while. So he was pretty relieved when finally they heard Uncle Ron's voice through the door.
"It's over," he called out. "You can open up now!"
But the Headmistress wasn't stupid, and so she asked the security question Ted had learned along with how to use his emergency portkey. Though he'd never understood what it meant, really.
"Who's our spy?"
The answer came back in Uncle Ron's deep, easygoing voice, along with a chuckle.
"Mata Hari. Open up!"
The wards were barely down when the door banged open and their parents flew into the room, ignoring everyone else in favour of checking their children.
Ted got hugged a lot – again! – and then his father took his hand tight, as if he'd never let go again.
Ted wanted to ask what had happened, but he knew that they wouldn't tell him in front of all the strangers, and so he supposed that he'd have to wait until they were alone. He was just glad that no one seemed hurt and that the attackers had been taken away by aurors.
On the whole, the evening hadn't gone bad, he'd think later as he lay in his bed in the dorms. The eating had been cut short, but so had the speeches, and he'd gotten something from the kitchen before his parents had tucked him in.
His parents had been wearing that look again, and Ted worried that they'd keep an extra-careful eye on him for the next months, but they had also praised him for being smart and reacting just the right way, and Harry had shook his hand and told him that he'd make a first rate auror in front of all the other students.
The only thing that made him a bit jealous was that Lily had been allowed to stay upstairs with the grown-ups, had seen the whole thing and refused to talk about it.
How unfair was that? The one time any of them had seen the Order of the Phoenix in action, and not a word to her brothers? Well, he would certainly think of a prank or two for the winter holiday. That'd show her!
Remus forced himself to wait until the last of their attackers were tied up and stunned, but the moment the last of them slumped to the ground he was across the room, and his daughter in his arms.
She was keeping up the brave front even now, but he could feel her trembling, and his embrace tightened around her.
"It's alright now," he whispered, cursing Pansy Parkinson, himself and all the Gods that she had seen this, that she'd had stripped a piece of her innocence away. "You're safe. It's over."
She answered his hug for a moment, her hands surprisingly strong and steady, but then she stepped back and he reluctantly let her go.
"It's okay, Dad," she said, and she even found a smile for him. Just like her mother. "I'm fine."
Remus took a deep breath, and felt Dora before he saw her join them. The hug was repeated, and so were the reassurances on both sides. Slowly, he felt the fear inside him vanish, to be replaced with an immense feeling of relief.
Dora kept one hand on Lily's shoulder, as if to reassure herself that she was still here, and her eyes were searching their daughter's face carefully, but her smile was warm and easy.
"That was some anniversary, eh?" She asked lightly, and Lily nodded.
"You could say that," she said, then swallowed. "This Pansy… who is she?"
A yearmate of Harry and the others," Remus answered. "Slytherin. We obviously underestimated her connections to the Death Eaters, but who could have imagined – after all these years…"
Lily nodded absently, something else on her mind. Her eyes were fixed on the small group around Pans, more specifically on Hermione. Yes. They would need to talk about that.
"Why did you never tell me?" Lily asked, and there were many things hidden in that questions, disappointment and anger, curiosity and fear. "You made all of us believe that she's just a harmless researcher, when she's really…"
She gestured helplessly, unable to put the revelations of the evening into words.
Remus sighed. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to sit down and hug his wife and children, but Lily was filled to the brim with what she had seen and heard. She deserved an answer, especially since they would ask her to keep all of it a secret.
"We discussed it," he answered, sharing another look with Dora. "It isn't a nice story. Hermione nearly died, and we all did things we aren't proud of. But in the end it was her decision, and she didn't want it known. We honour that wish."
Lily shuddered. "Did she really have an affair with Lucius Malfoy?"
Draco had told their children about his father (though that version had been strictly edited), and the disgust and horror in Lily's voice told them that the story had been impressive.
"We honour her wishes," Remus replied evenly, though he felt worry creep into his heart.
"Yes, I can understand that," Lily answered. "Especially considering how the press is hounding Harry. But why didn't you tell us, the family? Why did we have to live with a lie?"
Now Dora sighed, and her hand on Lily's shoulder tightened.
"It isn't easy to deal with the knowledge that someone was a spy, that someone hurt and killed people for information. There were misunderstandings and difficulties. And just imagine how Ted would react, knowing what you know now."
Lily swallowed, and much of the anger vanished from her eyes. "He would be afraid at first," she whispered slowly. "And then he would treat her like someone special, like a hero."
Dora nodded. "And she wouldn't want that," she continued. "She loves all of you, and she loves being the slightly boring aunt that helps with your school projects and only ever gives you books and sugar-free sweets. Why would she want to be someone else to you?"
Lily nodded, her eyes still on Hermione. She asked no more questions.
Together they watched silently as the aurors arrived and arrested Pansy and her fighters, as Minerva and Harry took over the proceedings and Hermione melted into the background with Severus, raising provisionary wards to keep Hogwarts safe for tonight.
Together they entered the large room blew the Great Hall, collected Ted and Sirius, who were rather bored and had no idea of the danger they'd been in, and sent them off to bed after a quick meal. Together they helped Minerva answer the guests' questions and saw the journalists off with the promise of a press conference tomorrow.
It was long past midnight when everything was done, and Remus saw his own exhaustion mirrored on the faces of his wife and daughter.
But there was something he needed to say before they parted for the night.
Taking Lily's hand into both of his, he pressed it gently.
"I am so, so proud of you, my little flower," he told her. "You did a woman's work tonight."
Lily blushed, and Remus could see that she was pleased.
"I love you, mom, dad," she whispered, then grinned wickedly. "And you really kicked ass!"
Dora grinned, and Remus felt the heat of an answering blush rise to his cheeks.
"We aren't just your old parents, we're war heroes, you know? Role models for all of you," he teased her.
Lily rolled her eyes.
"Goodnight, oh my role models," she said dryly, and walked towards the doors.
A few steps away, Hermione and Severus had claimed one of the wooden benches, still busy with Hogwarts' wards. Lily hesitated as she passed them, stopped, and turned towards them.
"Aunt Hermione?" She asked quietly, her voice not quite steady.
Hermione looked up, a wealth of emotions in her eyes. Remus shivered as he saw the fear of rejection outshining the rest by far.
Hermione was happy as far as he knew, still very much in love with Severus and doing useful work, leading exactly the sort of life she'd always wanted. She was accepted by her family, and handled the multitude of roles she chose to play with easy gracefulness.
But still there was this shadow on her soul, and sometimes it emerged to haunt her.
Remus prayed that his daughter wouldn't hurt Hermione, wouldn't make the same mistake so many of them had committed twenty years ago.
But hadn't he always claimed that his daughter took after her godmother in the cleverness-department?
"I've been having difficulties with my special Charms-project," Lily said quickly. "And I was wondering if you could help me with that?"
Hermione smiled, her whole face lit by relief and delight. Severus at her side smirked triumphantly. He had always said that Lily was a Slytherin at heart – the greatest compliment he had yet paid any of the children.
"Of course I will," Hermione answered warmly. "Write down your problems, and I'll send you a reading list. Perhaps you'd like to visit over the holidays for a day or two? Then we could work on the practical aspects."
"That'd be great," Lily grinned, saying so much more.
Again she hesitated, then reached out and pulled her surprised godmother into a tight embrace.
"You're the best, Aunt Hermione," she whispered, waved again towards her parents, and left the Great Hall with quick steps.
Remus watched her go with tears of pride in his eyes.
Over night, winter had sneaked in and staked his claim on the Hogwarts grounds. The sky was overhang and grey, and nothing of the late-autumn warmth lingered in the air.
Minerva flicked her wand, and a warm shawl wrapped itself around her shoulders. There'd been too little sleep last night, what with caring for the students, reassembling the wards and clearing everything with the aurors.
The others had been a great help, of course, but there were things only the Headmistress could do, and now that she was short of a Deputy, the tasks seemed to have tripled.
Minerva sighed. William Gopman. Had she ever been so wrong in her life?
Harry had embraced her, and told her that all great Headmasters of Hogwarts needed to be wrong about their DADA-teachers, but still she wanted to hit herself.
She sighed. No use crying over spilt milk. If the past night had shown anything, it was that she could be thankful for a lot of things. Surely that balanced out the embarrassment that was William Gopman?
Minerva smiled as she watched the small group of Order members that she had seen off a few minutes ago cross the grounds towards the main gates.
This had been their strangest anniversary yet, but in a way the most fitting.
She had never quite forgotten the feelings of that time, the fear and anger and constant worry, but they had mellowed over the years, and she had thought that part of her gone forever. But Gopman's knife on her throat had brought it all back in an instant, and again she marvelled at the strength of her friends and family, at the determination and power that had carried them through the past.
She had seen that same strength, too, last night, and the men and women her students had become made her heart swell with pride.
So courageous and clever, so beautiful and fierce. They were her children in a way, all of them, and she couldn't have been prouder if she'd born them.
They would never change, she realized as she watched them reach the gates and disapparate, in groups or alone. They would rise to every occasion, master every situation, and they would come out of it whole, because they were a family in every way that mattered.
If last night had convinced her of anything, it was that the prize of their victory hadn't been too high. They had fought for their freedom, and they had earned it. They would earn it every single time, no matter what the future brought.
"They'll never change," she whispered, and laughed, and went inside to start the day's work.
The world never stopped moving, and their work would never end. She was glad for it.