Special thanks to my beta melusin. She did a quick beta for me even when she didn't have her computer with her and was on borrowed internet access. Mostly because I told her that if I didn't put out a new chapter soon that I was afraid that you guys would come after me with pointy sticks and torches. :-) She gave it a quick look-see and fixed a few problems and once she gets home will give me the grammar/punctuation fixes. So you have been warned - there are going to be more mistakes for this chapter.
There has been even more awesome artwork added the Pet Project fan art page. Please go check out the wonderful artists and leave them lots of feedback. They deserve it. HERE: petprojectcaeria . deviantart (just remove the extra spaces)
Chapter 44: Endgame*
Severus came awake slowly, cocooned in warmth and feelings of safety and contentment. The sheets. Even knowing that it was a magically induced peace did not lessen the impact upon his senses or emotions. It was a peace he knew to savor. From his own research and everything he'd read, the sheets slowly lost their magic over time as the baby they were made for grew older, until one day they were simply regular sheets. He idly wondered as he stretched, enjoying the feel of his muscles knotting and relaxing against the slide of smooth cloth, if his being an adult would make a difference in how the magic acted.
Relishing the feelings of contentment, he planned out his day. He had to speak to Dumbledore and Vector about the spell. He needed to speak with Hermione, although he wasn't exactly sure what he was going to tell her. He needed to plan out his estate, such as it was. Simply telling Rink to give everything to Hermione wasn't going to be enough, he'd decided. There were provisions that needed to be made. He needed to do a lot of things, but he was comfortable and from the weak light coming through the curtains it was still early. Curling onto his side, he blinked sleepily and took pleasure in what he knew would be an all too fleeting feeling of ease. For one of the few times in his life, he decided that he deserved a lie-in and closed his eyes.
Harry swept his eyes around the table. All those who were currently living at Grimmauld Place were present except for Snape. No one had seen the man all day. Harry had noticed Hermione sending anxious glances toward the stairs in between working on some kind of paper that involved multiple colours of ink. Her attachment to Snape still made his stomach twist in distaste but he'd finally broken down at her obvious worry and told her that he'd seen Snape early in the morning and that the git was probably just sleeping off his late night. Hermione had looked less than confident but had gone back to her furious markings between bites of her lunch.
Catching Ron's eye, Harry was encouraged as his best mate gave him a grin. He was suddenly overcome with the knowledge of just how good a friend Ron Weasley was, and the knowledge that he was about to send everyone he cared about into what could very well be their deaths terrified him. Beside him, Ginny squeezed his hand, pulling his attention back to the table. He flashed her a grateful smile and stood up. Squaring his shoulders, he was conscious of how young and unprepared he really felt. "I need to call an Order meeting."
All eyes were immediately on him and he fought the urge to fidget.
Dumbledore spared him a genial look over a forkful of baked beans. "Is that necessary, Harry? Perhaps I can help you?"
Harry shook his head. "No, sir." Twisting to the side, he took the Witch Weekly magazine that Ginny was holding out to him. Flipping to the article, he tossed it onto the table. "That's an article about an upcoming Christmas Eve ball that the Ministry is throwing." Harry's voice went flat with a barely contained anger. "The Ministry is hosting the ball to honour Devrom Dollart and his team in the Ministry for everything that they've done to safeguard the Wizarding world in these trying times."
Dumbledore reached for the magazine and pulled it closer to him. Patting at his pockets, he found his spectacles and glanced over the article in question.
Harry gave him a minute before he continued. "Notice the guest list. And that's probably not even everyone. But what's there reads like a who's who list of almost every prominent pureblood Wizarding family. But even more than that, everyone that we know is a Death Eater is on that list. I'm guessing that everyone that we don't know is a Death Eater will also be in attendance." Harry's voice took on a hard mocking edge. "It's Voldemort's big day."
As the others crowded around the Headmaster to see the magazine, Harry caught Hermione's eye. "Do you think you and Snape can be ready?"
"I-" She stopped and flipped through several of the equation-covered pages in front of her.
"Hermione?" he asked again when she seemed to get lost in one page of her multi-coloured equations.
When she looked up, she was wearing a stricken expression that Harry didn't understand, but Hermione finally gave him a jerky nod of her head.
"We don't have the people," Moody said, one eye on Harry and the other fixed on the magazine. "Too many unknowns. If the Order were at full strength, maybe." He shook his head. "Now, we don't even have enough people to cover known or suspected Death Eaters, much less the bastard's supporters who will be in the crowd. We'll have a fight on our hands for sure."
Harry drummed his fingers against the table. "It's my best chance." He shot a quick glance at Ginny beside him. "It's our best chance. How many people can the Order bring?" he asked, fixing his gaze on Dumbledore. "Not just the core Order people, but everyone who has pledged their assistance when you call?"
Dumbledore carded his fingers through his beard for several long moments. "We've lost a lot of good people. Others are going to be too afraid to come."
"How many?" Harry asked again.
"Maybe forty. Fifty, if we are lucky. However, not all of them are fighters. Many won't be equipped to handle a pitched battle."
Harry shook his head. "Call them. Can we get an Order meeting for tomorrow?"
"Too soon," Moody growled. "They'll need time to make excuses for disappearing, especially if they think they are being watched. They feel exposed, they won't come at all."
"What about the house-elves?" George asked.
"Only if we know an address or the house-elf has been there before, or they've met the person," Hermione said from the end of the table.
Dumbledore nodded. "That would take care of most of them. I would still suggest waiting until the day after tomorrow."
"Still doesn't address the fact that we don't have enough people to cover a party this size. Not to mention, the problems with the Anti-Apparation Wards the Ministry will have set up."
"We've got people," Ron said, swinging everyone's attention to him. "We can bring another thirty people. Ones who are both prepared, and more importantly, ready to fight."
"Who?" Moody growled in disbelief.
"The DA," Ron said, and then clarified when several people at the table looked confused. "Dumbledore's Army. It's the Defence against the Dark Arts club that Harry started."
"There are still the Wards."
Fred coughed, pulling everyone's attention to him and George. "When we were on the run, we had a few ideas."
"And not much bloody else to do," George added.
"Right. We might have an idea or two for the Wards."
Harry gave the twins a grateful look before pointing at the magazine. "Look at the list. Several of those families are prominent enough that they had to be invited regardless of their leanings. Neville and his grandmother, for instance. Neville was part of the DA. Others as well. That gives us inside people, if need be."
"Harry, we can't involve students in this." McGonagall's face was pinched and disapproving.
Harry snorted in disbelief. "I'm involved. I've been involved since I was eleven." He swept out an arm and indicated Ron, Ginny, Fred and George and Hermione. "They're involved. Voldemort killed Molly and still has Mr Weasley. Everyone in the DA knows what they are fighting for and why."
"Unfortunately, Harry," Dumbledore began, his voice conciliatory, "we won't be able to contact the members of your group. Not without arousing suspicions we can ill afford to raise."
"That won't be a problem." Hermione's voice was both apologetic and smug, as if she was embarrassed to contradict Dumbledore but pleased she had the answer. She held up a galleon, twisting it in the light so that it glinted between her fingers. "Everyone in the DA Club got a Protean charmed galleon before we left Hogwarts. I can get a message out. They'll come."
McGonagall was standing now, tension radiating from her. "I don't like it. It's too dangerous."
Dumbledore was looking grave. "Unfortunately, Minerva, I believe young Harry is correct. We don't have the luxury of waiting and this party would provide us with an opportunity we've not had to date – all of Tom's major and minor supporters gathered together in one place." The Headmaster gave Harry a nod. "Very well. Gather your fellow students. I will gather the Order. The day after tomorrow."
"Are we to meet here?" Ron asked.
"It is the best location, as Hogwarts is currently closed to us. We will stagger the timing of the arrivals and bring them inside in small groups." Dumbledore sent Harry a warm smile. "Well done, Harry. Between this and the Linking Spell, we have an unparalleled chance to end this."
Harry felt himself flush at the praise from the man he idolized. He'd always wanted Dumbledore to be proud of him and he'd been looking for a way to right the disappointment he'd caused his mentor when he'd strayed into the Dark Arts. "Sir, I'd also like to speak with you some more about my other lessons."
"Of course, Harry." Dumbledore held out a hand to Harry, gesturing towards the hallway. "Perhaps we could continue our talk now?"
Harry flashed him a grateful smile. "Great." Turning towards his friends, he added, "Ron, Gin?"
Ron waved him off. "Go on Harry. We'll work with Hermione about the messages that have to be sent to the DA."
Standing, Harry grabbed the magazine from the table. "Whenever you're ready, sir."
Silas Mariner was earnestly shaking Harry's hand while several of the other DA students stood around. "So glad you called. It's such an honour. I've been holding onto my Galleon since Hogwarts closed."
Rolling her eyes, Hermione came to Harry's rescue. "Gin, could you take this batch into the house?"
Ginny flashed a conspiratorial grin. "Sure thing. Mariner, Luna, Neville, come on. We need to get you off the street." She held out a piece of paper. "Here, read this and we'll go."
There were various "oohs" and "aahs" from the small group as Grimmauld Place appeared from beneath the Fidelius Charm.
"Is that all of them, then?" Ron asked.
Hermione consulted her list. "There are a couple more Order supporters that should be arriving soon and one last lot of DA people."
Beside her Harry frowned. "You sure? I thought Neville's group was the last one on the list."
Hermione shot Ron a look when the crack of an apparition sounded before she could answer. Standing before them was Agnes Worth and her two Slytherin DA compatriots, Vivian Pueche, a sharp-faced and grey-eyed Slytherin that rarely spoke but seemed to miss very little that went on around her, and Constantine Tartaros, a big, beefy young man that always reminded Hermione of Goyle. His size and slow-witted appearance, they'd all discovered during DA class sessions, hid a strong fighter and a quick mind. Along with the three Slytherins was a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties. He looked enough like Agnes, who was currently bent over his arm retching, that Hermione figured him for a brother.
"Damn it, Hermione!" Harry shouted.
"Don't blame Hermione, Harry," Ron said, quickly before Harry could get himself worked up. "I agreed with her about this. We need them. We need everybody and you know it."
Taking the initiative, Hermione approached the slightly nervous looking group. Well, nervous looking except for Agnes, she just looked a little green to Hermione. She gave the group what she hoped looked to be a welcoming smile. "Pueche, Tartaros. Agnes, take a couple of deep breaths, it'll help." Then she stuck out her hand to the young man. "Hermione Granger."
"Talon Worth." He gave a slight shake to Agnes, who was leaning up against his arm. "This one's brother."
"Don't shake," Agnes moaned. Straightening slightly, but still leaning into her brother, she added, "Before Potter gets all twisted up, Talon was Hufflepuff and I told him what's going on. He wants to help."
At Harry's confused expression, Hermione explained. "It seems that Worths don't breed true for their House affiliation like a lot of pureblood families seem to. They're rather notorious for it."
Harry's lips pressed together as he gave the small group a stiff nod of his head. A second later he had a firm grip on her upper arm. "Hermione, can I talk to you a moment?" Feeling as if she was being led to detention, Hermione let Harry steer her a few feet away from the small group. "Are you insane?" he hissed, making an effort to keep his voice low.
"We need all the help we can get."
"Don't say it," she interrupted as she shook off his hand. "I don't care what House they were assigned to and neither should you. We need allies. Pueche had better accuracy than most of us and Tartaros was a seventh year. He's powerful and can apparate."
"Parvati had better accuracy," he said sullenly.
Hermione threw up her hands with a growl. "Harry Potter-"
Harry rolled his eyes at her. "Fine. I'm just-" He let out a sigh that she took to be surrender. "How do we know . . . how do you know they can be trusted?"
She softened her own voice. "I don't. Just as you don't know that the Ravenclaws or the Hufflepuffs can be trusted. Oh, Harry, don't you see, we don't even know that our own House can be trusted. But it has to start somewhere. This is a fight for all of the Wizarding World, Harry, not just for the Gryffindor corner of it."
"And if they betray us to Voldemort? What then?"
She smiled, though it felt more like a grimace. "Then we all go down fighting. And Colin will be very disappointed because he's got a serious crush on Agnes."
Her answer surprised a short bark of laughter from Harry that cleared the remaining tension between them. "Colin likes Agnes?"
"Not the important part, Harry."
He gave her a crooked smile in return. "It's better than thinking about the other part." He glanced over to where Ron was huddled with Agnes and the other. "Okay, Hermione. I'll trust them – and you. I just hope you're right."
Hermione gave Harry a quick, one-armed hug. "It has to start somewhere." Swinging her arms and putting on a bright and hopefully confident air, she headed back to the others. "Okay, then. Let me take you in and introduce you."
As Talon gestured her ahead, Hermione rummaged around in her pocket before pulling out one of the slips of paper they'd prepared. "Read this," she said, handing the slip over. When the house materialized, Hermione led them inside. She was braced for a fight from the Order as she led the small group of Slytherins in. Harry had at least been working with these students in the DA. To the rest of the Order, they would be a complete surprise.
"Language, Mr Tartaros."
Hermione spun around at Severus' voice. He was standing in a small shadowed alcove just past the front door. She'd passed by him without seeing him, but Tartaros had spotted him. The Slytherins were staring at their Head of House with something that was akin to awe. Agnes, Hermione noted, was grinning like she'd just earned an Exceeded Expectations in Potions.
Tartaros flushed, the tips of his ears turning bright red in embarrassment. "Sorry, sir. I just . . . I mean, you're . . . right. Sorry, sir."
Severus gave the small group a look that made Hermione want to laugh. So much for the famed Slytherin unflappability.
Severus' eyes flicked to her and back to the three Slytherins. "Miss Worth, Miss Pueche, Mr Tartaros, you do great credit to your House and the Wizarding World today." Severus' gaze traveled over Agnes' brother and Hermione suppressed a smile as the young man automatically straightened under his regard. "You also, Mr Worth. Hufflepuff is not often given the credit it is due."
Talon seemed to grow two inches on the spot, but managed a very mature, "Thank you, sir."
Hermione stepped forward. "Professor Snape, perhaps you'd like to take your students, and Mr Worth, of course, into the meeting?"
His eyes swept over them again, assessing and calculating. "Yes, that might be advisable. Follow me."
Leaving them to Severus, and inwardly relieved that he would be the one facing the Order when the Slytherins showed up, Hermione turned and headed back out into the cold December air, skipping lightly down the front steps. The rest of the Order might howl in outrage, but Hermione knew that having the Slytherins there would go a long way towards making the Wizarding World better in the long run. Harry still looked concerned but he wasn't avoiding her. "I hope you know what you're doing Hermione."
"It was right, Harry."
"It's done now, anyway," Ron said. "Anybody else on the list?"
A crack of Apparition sounded. "—me down. How dare you kidnap me! This is an outrage."
"—twins with Percy," Hermione finished during a pause in Percy's yelling.
"You two are wanted by the Aurors for questioning. As soon as I get free, I'm reporting you immediately to the Ministry."
Hermione pulled her wand. "Somnambul." Percy, wrapped up in what looked like a double spell casting of Incarcerous slumped in the hold Fred and George had on him. "Could you not have put a silencing spell on him?" she snapped in exasperation.
"Spoilsport," Fred said, sticking out his tongue at her.
"Besides," George added, "it's way more fun listening to his threats."
As they all headed back inside, dragging Percy behind them, Hermione could already hear the sound of voices from the front parlor. The rise and fall sounded like a hive of angry bees as the voices overlapped on top of each other. Giving the three of them jaunty waves, Fred and George carried the unconscious Percy into the meeting. As soon as they crossed the threshold, the voices within ceased for a moment. Then a woman's voice rang out sharply, "Oh for heaven's sake, what have you two done?" Any return comment by the twins was drowned out as the buzz of voices rose again.
Glancing over at Harry, Hermione noted his tight expression and clenched fists. Reaching out she brushed her fingers against his. "You okay?"
Harry let out a gusty breath. "No, don't think I am."
On his other side, Ron let out a sharp laugh. "No worries, mate. Hermione and I are here with you." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the parlor. "No matter what this lot decides, or doesn't decide, we're with you. Remember that. It's a good plan we've got laid out. With Hermione and Snape's help with the Death Eaters, we've got an edge that we didn't have before. It'll work."
A sharp stab of worry went through Hermione as Ron mentioned her and Snape but she put it aside for now, focusing on her two friends.
Harry shook his head. "I still have no idea how I'm suppose to fight Voldemort. What good does to it do to confront him if all it does is get everyone killed? I'm sending them to their deaths."
"No, Harry, you are leading them to their one chance at victory," Dumbledore said from behind them.
Hermione spun, as did Harry and Ron. Dumbledore was standing there in the entryway, looking resplendent in full Wizarding robes, rather than the more casual everyday robes she was used to seeing him in. Once again she was reminded of just how subtle and Slytherin-esque the Headmaster could be when he chose.
"Some of them could die because of me."
Dumbledore's expression was grave. "Yes, some of them could die, but not because of you, Harry. Everyone in this house has made the choice to stand up to Tom."
"Because you asked them to."
Dumbledore shook his head. "I've brought them here to this point and to this moment. But all of us, myself included, will follow you the rest of the way." Dumbledore laid a hand on Harry's shoulder. "You've made me very proud today, Harry." He glanced towards the doorway leading to the parlour. "And if nothing else, this promises to be a most entertaining meeting," he added with a mischievous wink that reminded Hermione of the Weasley twins before he smoothed down his robes and headed into the Order meeting. As he entered the room, the angry drone of bees fell silent.
Harry gazed blankly after the Headmaster, his expression clouded and dark.
Reaching out, Hermione laid a hand on Harry's arm. "Harry?"
Harry blinked, his eyes coming back into focus. "Come on then," he said, heading towards the parlour.
Severus leaned back against the fire mantelpiece, studying the room and its assembled members. There was a definite pattern to the group – Order members sat on one side while Albus' auxiliary members sat stiffly on the other. The students invited by Potter clumped together in one corner next to a window seat. Those who couldn't fit in the window were sitting on the floor and the edges of nearby tables and chairs. He found it interesting that even his Slytherins were welcomed into the knot of students as one of their group. Even more interesting, and inwardly entertaining, was the shocked reactions of many of the students at finding him at the meeting. It gave Severus a perverse bit of pleasure to confound their notions of him.
The meeting had gone much the way he'd thought it would. The first hour had been filled with yelling from all parties, followed by short periods of oppressive silence, only to be followed once again by yelling. Everyone was eyeing each other suspiciously and he'd noted more than one witch or wizard had their hands wrapped nervously around their wands. It was not an auspicious start to the meeting.
The room had once again degenerated into loud chaos as the hundred or so people in the magically expanded room tried to talk over, around and through each other, at least until Dumbledore made his grand entrance and silence reigned once more. This time the silence held.
Severus let out a soft huff of breath – the old man had the audacity to call him theatrical. Severus had no doubt that Dumbledore's appearance – from his carefully groomed beard to the tips of his chartreuse and silver embroidered pointed-toe shoes – had been carefully calculated. The total effect was the image of a powerful, commanding wizard, rich in age and power. The fact their powerful, commanding wizard was also a dotty eccentric that had been manipulating them all like a master puppeteer for years never entered their tiny complacent minds.
Albus gave one of his usual sprit-buoying speeches which Severus tuned out. He'd heard it, or enough variations of it over the years, that given the right incentive, he could probably give the speech himself, right down to the annoying twinkle and genial smiles.
He and Albus had gone over the plan earlier as the others were gathering. Albus would speak and then they would let Potter do the rest of the explaining. They had debated on having Vector show the assembled members the matrix, but had ultimately decided against it. That branch of Arithmancy was so esoteric that most of the Wizarding population wouldn't be able to follow it. The last thing they needed now was confusion in the ranks. But letting Potter speak, that Albus had been most adamant about. Severus had his doubts, but wisely kept them to himself.
Now he kept one ear on Potter as the boy explained the plan to the others. Severus was more interested in watching the reactions of the gathered witches and wizards; watching for signs of betrayal or weakness. The signs were subtle, but he found reading regular witches and wizards easier than reading his fellow Death Eaters. The intelligence he gathered from his observations would be used to lay out their strategy – who would directly engage with the Dark Lord's followers in the crowd versus the more passive, and less dangerous role, of securing the fallen Death Eaters. They had surprise and opportunity on their side in this, but so much could still go wrong.
His gaze rested on Hermione. She was watching Potter, her posture open and earnest, but he'd noticed the looks she'd been sending in his direction. Something was on her mind and worrying her. He forced his gaze away and back to the room as one of the Order supporters stood up, drawing the attention of the room.
"The Prophet says that there's a prophecy."
The questioner was someone Severus didn't personally know, one of the supporters that had pledged their support to Dumbledore. The man, Wills, Severus suddenly remembered his name from the introductions, Herbert Wills. He was a mid-level member of one of the smaller potion brewing houses.
The question was not belligerent, but there was a hard edge to it that made Severus straighten his stance slightly, the better to move if it came to drawn wands. They had hoped to avoid this line of questioning. He saw Albus shift and then everyone's eyes were on Potter as the boy stepped forward.
"You plan on sharing it?"
"Now, Herbert," Dumbledore began, "I don't think this is the time or the place. Knowing the prophecy won't do any of us any good. Thinking you know the future only biases your reactions to the situation."
Wills' jaw stuck forward, giving the man a striking resemblance to a bulldog. Ignoring Albus, he addressed Potter. "You know this prophecy?"
"You believe it?"
Potter's gaze swept the room before coming back to Wills. "I do."
"Harry-" Dumbledore began, but Potter continued as if he hadn't heard.
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches . . . born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies . . . and the Dark Lord will mark him as equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not . . . and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives . . . the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies."
Severus felt a chill crawl down his spine as Potter spoke the words. A quick glance around the room said he wasn't the only one affected as the room fell silent as those gathered absorbed the meaning.
Wills tapped his own forehead. "Your scar, that's the marking you as an equal bit?"
"And what about this power? How do you plan on killing him?"
Albus tried to interrupt the conversation again and Severus wanted to laugh. For quite possibly the first time in a very long while, no one was paying the great Albus Dumbledore the slightest bit of attention.
"No. I've a right to be knowing how this is going to work. This plan is all well and good. I'm glad we have a plan and an advantage, small as it is. But I want to know how you plan on facing You-Know-Who before I trust my life and my family's lives to this. I want to know that when it comes down to the duel between Potter and Him, that Potter over there is going to throw the first Avada."
Potter's face had gone white, but his hands were clenched into determined fists. "I'm not going to 'throw the first Avada.'" Potter threw up a hand when it looked like Wills was about to say something else. "The prophecy says 'power the Dark Lord knows not'." Potter turned his head to send a look at Weasley before continuing. "As someone pointed out, Voldemort knows all about Dark Magic."
Severus hissed in annoyance as Potter said His name. Thankfully, he just did it once.
"This isn't a fight of hate against hate. I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me. That's what defeated him."
Wills looked less than impressed. "And she died for it. Are you willing to lay down your life for us?"
Potter's expression took on the stubborn look that Severus was so very familiar with. He looked around the room, his gaze stopping and lingering on his friends. "If that's what it takes. Yes."
Severus stepped into his room and bolted the door behind him. As a secondary precaution, he set an archaic locking spell on the door, one he doubted that few had ever heard of, much less knew the counterspell for. For once his head wasn't pounding, an unlooked for miracle, but he was tired. The meeting had dragged on for hours, circling around and around until it had become a farce. Dumbledore had finally put a halt to it all. Each participant had been wand-sworn to their secret before being sent on their way. Well, each participant except for Percy Weasley. He was still under a sleep spell somewhere in the house.
He rather wished he could sleep himself. Unfortunately, that was not in his immediate future. Leaning back against the door, he took a few deep breaths to steady himself and closed his eyes. With exceedingly careful intent he built his Occlumency imagery. He gathered up up all traces of anything that could give him away to the Dark Lord. Thoughts and emotions, conversations, and interactions concerning Flitwick, Vector, the Matrix and most importantly Hermione, were each painstakingly gathered up and sunk beneath the cold water of his imagined lake. When nothing remained but carefully selected and edited memories and emotions, he opened his eyes.
With both his nerves and shields set, he pushed up his shirt sleeve and pulled his wand. Touching the tip to the Mark's surface, he sent a pulse of magic outward. Then he waited.
Waiting was easy and timeless. Bodiless he floated deep within the chill waters of the pond. When the Dark Lord summoned him, he was prepared.
Sweeping up his heavier outer robes, he dressed and unlocked the door. He made no extra effort to be quiet as he headed down the stairs, but Albus met him at the door. "Be careful, Severus."
"Of course, Albus." He turned to leave and then stopped, one hand upon the door.
Severus hesitated for a moment, then spoke. "If . . . if Miss Granger inquires, tell her I will return."
Albus was quiet a long time. "Severus-"
Severus turned his head just enough to meet Albus' gaze. The old man sighed. "I will tell her."
Severus nodded. "Thank you."
Stepping out of the house, no sign of any inner turmoil or concern marred his expression. Once beyond the Fidelius, he followed the tug of the Dark Mark. Severus apparated blindly, but wasn't surprised to find himself in the overdone study where the Dark Lord had systematically tortured him during the summer. It was also no surprise that the Dark Lord was not alone. Thorfinn Rowle was also in the room, sitting back in one of the leather chairs as if the office was his own domain. Severus chose to ignore Rowle, his concentration on the Dark Lord. Or maybe, Devrom Dollort. Or Tom Riddle. Or Lord Voldemort. The man changed his name as often as Nagini changed her skin. Severus dropped his eyes, as he dropped to his knees. Foolish, dangerous thoughts, a part of him hissed from beneath the ice. Deadly thoughts, that will get you killed. Focus!
"It is not often that you contact me, Severus."
Rising from his kneeling position, Severus pulled himself to his full height. "My news was such that I thought it best to come straight away, my Lord."
"You thought it best?" The voice was Rowle, slick and heavy with an oily contempt.
Severus continued to ignore the other man. Rowle might currently be holding a place at the Dark Lord's side, but that position was a precarious one. "Dumbledore and Potter have come to a decision. They hope to use the distraction of the Ministry's Christmas Ball to launch their attack against you. They believe that your forces will be scattered and that you will not dare launch a full counterattack in the presence of both Ministry and regular Wizarding citizens."
"My Lord, this is a blatant trap," Rowle said, rising from his chair. "Snape is a spy for Dumbledore."
The creature that had once been Tom Riddle laughed. "Of course, he is Thorfinn. Severus is the very best kind of spy – the kind that tells the truth. Isn't that so, Severus? For Severus walks a dangerous and delicate path between telling me the truth and telling Albus Dumbledore the truth."
Severus dropped his head, but still stood straight. This too was part of the delicate path he walked – being humble before his master but not subservient. If he played the balance right, his master was amused at his gall. If he played it wrong . . . Severus had scars to show for those failures. "The truth is not always as black and white as the Order of the Phoenix would like to believe." Severus gave a delicate shrug. "I cannot be held responsible if they interpret the truth to their own perceptions. Those outside of Slytherin rarely understand the many and varied shades of grey in which the world is painted."
Rowle made a noise of disgust. "Pretty words, Snape. Pretty words designed to hide the truth that I see. That you are a traitor to our Lord."
Voldemort raised one manicured hand and Rowle fell into a seething silence. "Tell me your news, Severus."
"Dumbledore does not let me out of his sight willingly. It is true that he knows I have come to you this evening."
Eyes that reflected back red from the fire in the grate glittered in hatred and insanity. "Yet you are here, Severus."
His heart beat increased at the underlying menace in those words.
"I am where my true loyalty lays, Master. I have always served you faithfully. Dumbledore and the Order are in shambles. Few remain loyal to the old fool. There is dissent in the ranks. Dumbledore sees this as the last hope to defeat you and your plans for the Wizarding world."
"You would have us believe this tripe?"
This time Voldemort did more than just raise his hand. A blast of wandless magic hurled Rowle across the room, slamming him into the far wall. "While I value your council, Thorfinn, do not forget who I am. Severus was one of the first to take the Mark of his loyalty. I've given him leave to speak and you will hold your tongue, or I will remove it."
From across the room, Rowle shot a hate filled looked in Severus' direction before bowing his head down low to the carpet on which he sprawled. "Forgive me, Master. I seek only to further your goals and to protect you. But as you say, I'm sure my misgivings are baseless. My brother Severus has served you long and well." The words were conciliatory but the tone promised Severus retribution.
Severus risked a look at Rowle, his lips twisted in a sneer of contempt. It was expected after all and his Master loved to play his subjects against one another. ""Unlike some," he said, " I walk among the enemy daily. I see their arrogance and their fears. In their desperation, they have allowed Potter to call in his schoolmates for help." He dropped his voice. "They think they can beat us with children. Even then, their numbers are nothing to ours. Their strengths are paltry, their weaknesses overwhelming."
"What of the brat?"
"The boy sides with Dumbledore and is afraid of the coming fight. Already the Order questions his ability to carry out the fight against you."
It was all the warning Severus got as Voldemort forced his way into his mind. Severus reflected back his carefully chosen images upon the ice of his pond. Each memory and association seemingly random yet each telling a tiny part of the story he sought so delicately to weave.
Feelings of betrayal and hate. Of loneliness.
And then at the very end, he showed the Order meeting as Wills questioned Potter: Potter's face had gone white, but his hands were clenched into determined fists. "I'm not going to 'throw the first Avada.'" Potter threw up a hand when it looked like Wills was about to say something else. "The prophecy says 'power the Dark Lord knows not'." Potter turned his head to send a look at Weasley before continuing. "As someone pointed out, Voldemort knows all about Dark Magic."
"This isn't a fight of hate against hate. I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me. That's what defeated him."
Wills looked less than impressed. "And she died for it. Are you willing to lay down your life for us?"
Potter's expression took on the stubborn look that Severus was so very familiar with. He looked around the room, his gaze stopping and lingering on his friends. "If that's what it takes. Yes."
Voldemort pulled away so abruptly from Severus' mind that the magical backlash staggered him and drove him to one knee. Pain lanced through his head from the sudden withdrawal as the image of Potter saying 'I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me' was burned into his mind. Struggling upward, he found Voldemort across the room, pacing frantically in front of the fireplace.
It hurt to look into the brightness of the fire, but Severus pushed through the pain, as he always had. "My Lord?"
"They are desperate."
"Very desperate," he agreed. "Potter is weak and unfocused. He grasps at straws."
Voldemort stopped pacing and turned to look at Severus fully. "You are sure they will attack at the Ball?'
"They have committed themselves."
"They believe that my chosen - my Death Eaters and followers - will be there?"
Then Voldemort began to laugh. "They wish to meet my followers. Then I will gather them. Dumbledore, Potter and all who oppose me will be crushed at once."
Voldemort turned to Rowle. "Yes, Thorfinn it could be a trap." Voldemort cast a look back at Severus. "You wouldn't lead me into a trap, would you, Severus?"
Severus met Voldemort's eyes with a steady gaze. "I would give my life, Master, before leading you into danger."
Within the safety of his mind, deep within the chill waters of his Occlumency imagery, Severus Snape gave a serene smile. As he had said earlier, the truth was painted in shades of grey and according to Vector, he would be very dead indeed.
Severus staggered from his apparation landing. His head was still pounding and it was affecting his concentration. Voldemort's use of Legilimency had more to do with the hammer's approach rather than the surgical cut of a surgeon. The last image he'd shown Voldemort flickered within his mind like a loop. 'I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me.' He shook his head, trying to dislodge both the image and the pain. It was a fruitless endeavor. He knew nothing would dull the afterimage or the ache from Voldemort's penetration of his mind except sleep and time. The Dark Lord had kept him late with plans and, if he was truthful, needless posturing. Now dawn was on the horizon and there was still much that had to be done before any plans could be implemented.
Heading towards Grimmauld Place, the light dusting of frost on the ground crunched beneath his boots, disturbing the silence around him. So much to do and still so little time. He wanted nothing more than to go inside Grimmauld Place and forget everything for a while, to wrap himself in Hermione's sheets and sleep.
'I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me.'
Severus stopped, his heart pounding. Taking a deep breath of the cold night air, he let it out slowly. 'I survived as a baby because I was wrapped up in my mother's love for me.'
Mother's magic. Old magic. Everything Voldemort stood against and everything that he knew nothing about. Merciful Merlin.
Forgetting his headache, Severus quickened his steps, fairly flying into the house and up the stairs to his own room. Severus had been assigned a new personal house-elf from the Hogwarts' elves, an older, staid female name Mot. But contemplating now, he called on an entirely different name.
For a long moment he wondered if the elf would appear. Hogwarts was closed, Rink was a Hogwarts elf and no longer attached to Severus, and they had not parted company on the best of terms. A moment later, Rink appeared, already halfway bent over in a bow. "How may Rink serve Master of Potions?"
"I am no longer . . . nevermind," Severus said impatiently. "Stand up and quit that ridiculous bowing."
Rink popped upright and stood still, all except the very tips of his ears which were flickering rapidly back and forth. Even knowing he'd called Rink, Severus couldn't help asking," Are you suppose to be here?"
Severus almost laughed as narrow elvish shoulders went down in a gesture of stubborn defiance he'd seen many a Gryffindor perform over the years. "Master of Potions called Rink"
Severus shook his head in bemusement. S.P.E.W. might have died an ignominious death, but he suspected Hermione's legacy with the house-elves would have longer lasting implications than anyone realised. "I did call you. Can you bring me something within Hogwarts?"
Rink contemplated the request, then said, "Rink can."
"Good. There is a book on my nightstand. I need you to retrieve it and bring it to me."
Rink was gone almost instantly, his return a mere moment later. He handed Severus the book with another bow. His hand curled loosely around the book, Severus studied Rink. "You realise that this . . . devotion is completely ridiculous."
One of Rink's ears curled downward as the elf seemed to study Severus in turn. "Rink serves," he said, and popped away.
Severus snorted. Elves. Book in one hand, Severus grabbed up the sheet made for him by Hermione and went to find the Headmaster.
He and Albus found them in the garden. Warming charms kept most of the chill away, but not even magic could keep Winter's bite entirely from the air. Four pairs of eyes stared at him as he invaded their domain. Hermione's gaze was warm and welcoming. Potter's was narrowed in ill-disguised suspicion, while Weasley's was curious and the girl's was surprisingly neutral.
"Headmaster." Potter's lips twisted. "Snape."
He heard Hermione mutter, "Oh, honestly, Harry." He fought the urge to smirk at the boy. It was heartening in a way that the enmity between them continued; comforting like slipping into an old and well-worn pair of slippers. As the thought occurred, he let out a silent chuff of breath in amusement. He really had gone mad. There simply was no other explanation for it. Ignoring the niceties of polite conversation, he went right to the point of the visit.
"The Headmaster and I believe that we have come up with a solution to your problem."
Severus glanced at Albus, seeing if the old man wanted to explain, but he was smiling at Severus. He fought the urge to roll his eyes. Albus seemed to think that this solution was somehow going to bring him and Potter together.
But, as Albus seemed unwilling to speak, he began. "You cannot defeat the Dark Lord with the Black arts. You also cannot overcome him with sheer strength, as he is stronger both physically and magically than you are. In your previous confrontations with him, you have survived on little more than luck."
Potter was looking between him and Albus. "So, you're just here to gloat about my upcoming defeat?"
"Don't be absurd," he snapped. "Your defeat would mean the utter destruction of everything I have given my life to see completed. I, possibly more than anyone besides yourself, want to make sure you prevail."
"Noble sentiments," Harry scoffed in disbelief. "So why are you here?"
Severus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He'd known this conversation would not be easy and he was determined to maintain his temper. "I am here to offer you a way to defeat the Dark Lord."
Weasley's gaze sharpened and he climbed to his feet. "A weapon? What kind of weapon and why haven't we heard of this before now? Harry could have used this time to train."
Severus fingered the spine of the book in his hand. It pulsed softly beneath his fingertips. "Lily Evans-" He paused. "Lily Potter . . . saved your life and defeated the Dark Lord once before. You said it in the meeting: you survived as a baby because you were wrapped up in your mother's love. That defeat, however, came at a price." Raising his eyes he caught Potter's gaze and held it. "She gave her life to protect you by invoking very old magic. At this point, we will never know if she did it consciously or unconsciously, but the result was the same. Many scorn this magic today as less powerful, less . . . controllable. If you would use that which he knows not I would look here." Severus took the last few steps forward and held out the book to Potter.
"You're giving me a book?"
Severus fought down the irrational thought that if Hermione had been the "Chosen One" this war would already be over and the Dark Lord would be in the ground. Permanently. "Yes, Mr Potter, a book – a book filled with dangerous and often ignored power. It is a book containing unconditional acceptance, understanding, joy, celebration, and most importantly, love."
"I thought you said it was a weapon?"
"Mr Weasley used the word weapon. You continue to think in terms of fighting . . . of winning and losing."
"The prophecy is pretty explicit. One of us will kill the other."
"Prophecies lie," he hissed. "We interpret them the way we want. Give them weight and meanings that exist nowhere except in our minds. Did you not hear yourself speak the words of the prophecy in the Order meeting? He will have power the Dark Lord knows not."
Potter's lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl as he finished the phrase: "And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives."
"Dying at your hand, Mr Potter, is not the same thing as dying by your hand." For the first time since walking into the garden, Severus looked over at Hermione, and then looked quickly away at the naked emotions writ across her face. "Read the book, Potter. I'm sure Miss Weasley can help you with the larger words. Miss Granger can help you with everything else you need to know." He didn't wait for a response but spun on his heel and headed back into the house.
"Severus?" Albus called.
But Severus ignored him and continued on his way.
*Endgame - In chess and chess-like games, the endgame is the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. The line between middlegame and endgame is often not clear, and may occur gradually or with the quick exchange of a few pairs of pieces. The endgame, however, tends to have different characteristics from the middlegame, and the players have correspondingly different strategic concerns. In particular, pawns become more important; endgames often revolve around attempting to promote a pawn by advancing it to the eighth rank. The king, which has to be protected in the middlegame owing to the threat of checkmate, becomes a strong piece in the endgame. It can be brought to the center of the board and be a useful attacking piece.
Author's Note 3: Those of you who read my livejournal got a preview scene that was supposed to be in this chapter. Unfortunately, it got moved to the next chapter due to issues with scene flow. It will be back.
Author's Note 4: I'm terrible at character names. When the new Slytherins showed up at Harry's DA class, I didn't name them just for that reason. Now, unfortunately, they must be named. I opened up the naming to readers on my livejournal account. Name winners are: Natasnape with Vivian Pueche and Marlene Pederson with Constantine Tartaros. Thanks guys!