NOS MORITURI, TE SALUTAMOS - we who are about to die, salute you.

CHAPTER ONE: LOYALTIES


Ron felt his knees giving way, as he tore through the long grass in the darkness. Distressed whimpering sobs met his ears, and he belatedly realised that the pitiful moans were his own, escaping unavoidably with every other laboured breath; his entire being was shaking with fear.

He could not see for the hot tears blurring his vision, and his lungs were painfully exhausted from gasping.

At the bottom of the hill his legs finally gave out and he collapsed into the mud on his hands and knees, focusing on the ground.He held his breath and listened intently.Not a sound reached his ears over the oppressive stillness of the night air.Dread settled in his heart.

Ron fought desperately to control his breathing, so as not to give himself away in the silence. He peered back through the darkness in the direction of Hogwart's castle, grasping at blades of grass for support.

There should have been sound.There should have been some noise: shouts, bangs, screams - anything.

It was so wrong that such silence should accompany such chaos.

He had never imagined that the end would be like this, that when the final battle between good and evil took place, he would be found cowering in the mud, hiding from danger.

In truth, he had never imagined it would happen like this at all.It was all too soon; they had had no warning; the Death Eater's had attacked them at Hogwart's.

Ron had thought the Castle was a safe haven.He cursed himself for being so naive.

Dragging himself along the ground and under the cover of a dead tree he hugged his knees, and rocked silently back and forth.

He was now in the worst possible position. There was nothing he could do but wait. He was utterly useless here, his place was back at the castle; fighting to defend everything he believed in, side by side with the people he loved and respected. He wouldn't even know who had won now, until it was too late.

He would never know if his contribution to the fight could have made a difference. He would never know whether his lack of courage had condemned the future of the world.

Ron shook his head bitterly. What the hell was he talking about? He was no hero; that was Harry's vocation. If only Ron hadn't become separated from his best friends as they were rushed out of the Castle to safety.

He should have turned back straight away, back to the battle. He should have known he could never catch up with the others in the dark. He should have gone back to fight.

He was more vulnerable out here alone anyway.

"He's over there, look!"Hissed a low voice.

Ron leapt to his feet and spun round in terror, wand raised.

"Holy shit..." he choked in relief; two identical freckled faces were looking back at him from the darkness.

He put his head in his hands and staggered towards his brothers, who firmly took hold of his arms and kept him on his feet.

"Jesus, Ron, you look bloody awful..." One of them whispered in shock.

"What the hell are you doin' out here on your own..."

"How did you two get out?"Ron asked desperately, clutching onto them for comfort, gazing into their faces with disbelief.

"We were already outside…"

"…in the forest."

"We saw the attack from the hill."

"There are so many Death Eaters, Ron…"

"Hundreds of them…"

"We were gonna go help in the fight!"

"But we caught sight o' you running down here…"

"And you're our priority,"

" - seein' as how we promised mum."

They fell silent in the wake of this outburst; their emotional personas crushed by the magnitude of their situation.

Ron had never seen Fred and George look so serious and worried. The expressions on their faces quashed the last of his hope. If this could break the spirit of his twin brothers, then what chance did the rest of them have?

He noticed that the twins seemed unable to let go of each other, clinging like lifelines to the other half of themselves.

He found himself wishing futilely that he had someone to cling to.

"So this is it."

"And Ginny's still in there."

It was what each of them had been thinking.

Ron met their eyes and nodded shakily, wiping his face. "We have to go back and fight."

"We can't..."

"We have to!" Ron protested, ashamed of his earlier desertion.

"Naw, Ron, you don't understand!"

"We can't get into the Castle!"

"We saw it – "

" The Death Eaters are attacking at every entrance..."

"We couldn't get past them to reach our side."

"And we can't attack them from behind - just the three of us!"

"We'd have no chance."

Ron sighed and let his head fall forward; if the twins said it couldn't be done, then it couldn't. They were nothing if not resourceful.

Ron was about to explain what had happened to Harry, Hermione and himself as the siege on the Castle had begun, when he stopped suddenly.

The twins were utterly motionless.They were staring over his shoulder.

Their eyes held nothing but fear.

"Expelliamus."An icy voice purred.

Ron's wand flew from his hand, followed swiftly by the twins', and Ron whirled around so fast that he almost overbalanced.

Six Death Eaters, complete with blank white masks and pitch-black robes, were bearing down on them.The one in front now held in his possession all three of the boys' wands.

There was a crunch, as the Death Eater reduced their wands to splinters with a twist of his wrist.

Ron stumbled backwards, colliding with the twins, who grabbed him in a fiercely protective gesture.

"Well, what have we here? One of the Potter boy's little lapdogs, if I'm not very much mistaken?" Drawled a cruel, patronising voice, "You wouldn't happen to know where our dear Harry Potter is by any chance, would you?"

Ron froze.They were talking to him.He had no idea what to do.He did know where Harry had been headed, although he hadn't been able to find it himself in the dark.

The men standing before him suddenly seemed very large and powerful indeed.One of the taller, more elegant figures seemed to be working it's way subtly out of the group. Ron shivered, instantly sensing that that was the dangerous one; that was the one with the most power.

The way the man stood alone made him look intimidating above all the rest, not mentioning the fact that he at least six inches taller than the others.

Ron could feel the panic rising within his chest; he was weak - if they tortured him, he didn't know how long he would be able to resist. Yet if he didn't, he would be condemning Harry and Hermione to death. His friends' trusting faces flashed before his eyes and he set his jaw in determination.

"Somewhat reluctant, are we?I thought you might be." The voice seemed to be grinning gleefully. "How about a little... encouragement, then?After all, your little friends here, really aren't necessary to our inquiries, and I'm sure that in their absence..."

"NO! Please..."Ron cried in horror, shielding his brothers with his body, a new level of terror creeping into his mind.They couldn't kill Fred and George, it had nothing to do with them, it wasn't their fault; they had just come to help him.

If they died, Ron would be responsible: he would have killed his brothers...

"Ah yes, it seems that would be the best course of action,"the man raised his wand threateningly,"given your obvious concern for them.Perhaps after this you will be more willing to co-operate."

"No! Kill them and I won't tell you anything, I swear it!"

The Death Eater smirked, taking aim. "We'll see."

Ron closed his eyes tightly, tears of despair brimming at the surface.Please God no, please no, please no, not the twins, please not them...

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"

"NO!"Ron screamed, wrenching his eyes open.A blast of green light assaulted his pupils, blinding him temporarily.

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"More green light.

That was both of them.Dead.Dead.

No more twins.

No more laughing, teasing, defending him... no more talking to each other, finishing one another's sentences, always wearing the same clothes entirely by chance, ever...ever...again.

But...

…they were still holding his arms... he could feel their hands... - They weren't dead... they couldn't be…it wasn't them!

The bright dots dancing on Ron's corneas gradually disappeared, and his vision returned.

Two black, maskedfigures lay dead before him.

He stared in disbelief. How…What...?

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"

Another Death Eater fell dead, and Ron had seen. The tall, estranged Death Eater had just killed three of his acquaintances single-handed.

Ron and the twins backed away, completely at a loss, unsure of how to react to this unbelievable turn of events.

The remaining two Death Eaters, also clearly stunned by the other's unprecedented actions, after their initial delay began spitting curses at the outsider, managing to disarm the renegade.

The wandless outcast leapt defensively upon one assailant, snapping its wand in half, then using his captive's torso as a shield against the other's attack.There was a violent struggle, ended at a disturbing crack, which rang heavily through the air as the estranged Death Eater broke his assailant's neck, killing him outright.

Then, dodging three direct curses so closely that Ron found himself gasping at the man's nerve, the renegade attacked the last remaining Death Eater.This time charging the man's gut, whilst grabbing his wand hand and trying desperately to crush it, directing its aim away from himself.

Ron was shoved to one side as the twins instinctively darted forward and grabbed two of the dead figures' wands.

"Expelliamus!"They cried in perfect unison, aiming at the struggling pair.

The remaining loyal Death Eater screamed in frustration as his wand soared from his fingertips, to the twins' feet, and such a vicious fight ensued, that even Fred and George feared to intervene.

This time, the rebel received a harsh beating, causing the watching children to flinch and wince at the cracking and thudding sounds of bone upon bone, upon flesh. Eventually their black clad defender gained the advantage, pinning his opponent to the ground and snapping his neck with a twist that took considerable effort.

The boys found themselves panting with relief at the incredible stillness that followed this chaos, as the renegade collapsed fully on top of his victim exhausted. The boys remained frozen, watching as their enigma scrambled gracelessly to his feet, and his slumped shoulders straightened slowly, as he regained his composure.

Ron was shocked to realise that his brothers had hesitantly raised their newly claimed wands in the direction of their rescuer.

The renegade stood tall and alone, his dark robes silhouetted against the night sky; a sea of black shrouded bodies strewn at his feet.

He glanced fleetingly around at his gruesome handiwork, before stooping to search amongst the debree.

Ron released a breath that he didn't know he'd been holding, and slumped over, trying to process all the action he'd just witnessed. It had all happened so fast; he'd never seen anything like it, he felt as if his feet had sunk into the ground below. The twins were motionless beside him, but their eyes and wands were on the eerie figure, searching among the dead.

The peculiar Death Eater located his own wand amongst the wreckage, and stood up. Again Ron could feel the magical power and energy radiating from the man he had instinctively feared.

The man made towards them and Ron automatically recoiled, as did the twins, raising their wands pointedly, wary of this unexpected saviour.

The tall man stopped in reluctant exasperation.Brutally tearing off his mask, he shook his head free of the cavernous black hood and exposed his face.

A long, tousled mane of scraggly black hair fell from within, and out of the depths, a pale face with sharp cheekbones, piercing black eyes and a viciously twisted nose, emerged.

There was a stunned silence, then…

"Bloody hell!"Breathed a twin incredulously.

"Snape?"

Ron gaped at the man, who met his gaze wilfully, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he breathed fiercely.

"That was friggin' incredible!"

"Where is Potter?" Snape's harsh voice was unusually tight and savage.

"He…uh…he…"

"Out with it, boy!"

"It's…t…the Shrieking Shack - he's at the Shrieking Shack."Ron managed, finding his voice at last.

"The Shrieking Shack…" Snape murmured to himself, thinking fast and taking a last glance around at the shadows,"It's this way."

He strode into the darkness. The boys stared after him, their fallen mouths remaining open in bewilderment. After a moment, Snape turned back to face them with a naturally imposing swirl of his cloak. Seeing them still standing there by the bodies, he frowned almost nervously.

"What are you waiting for? Come with me you fools!"

The twins exchanged a glance and started forward immediately, hesitantly Ron jogged after them.

"Weasley!" All three of them stopped. Snape rolled his eyes gently and sighed, somewhat put out, "Err…Ronald Weasley."

Ron gave a short nod.

"Grab Avery's wand."

Nervously retrieving it, Ron quickly followed Snape and the twins, keeping much closer to their dreaded Professor than would usually have been acceptable.

"Thanks, Sir."

"We were in seriously massive trouble back there."

Ron was startled by the twins' audacity. But the twins were far more familiar with the Professor than he, having spent considerable time with the unapproachable man in Potions classes, extra classes and detentions, over the last seven years.

"…Don't mention it."

Ron stared at the man, astounded.

Snape glanced furtively behind them again."I only hope I haven't blown my cover. I may still need it."

He looked fleetingly down at the twins, unwilling to hold their gaze.

"That's... why I had to kill every one of them; otherwise they'd have known my true loyalties."

Snapewatched as he twins noddedwith understanding, and reflected, muttering with seeming difficulty, "I'm…sorry you had to see that – the bloody 'sacrifices of war' and all that..."

Fred and George cut in with a cheerful façade. "Well, if it's any conciliation, given the choice of die horribly…"

"or watch Snape kill five Death Eaters…"

"…we'd choose the latter every time."

Snape paled slightly,"God, Molly's going to kill me…"

Ron smiled in suprise at the familiarity in Snape's voice. The twins stared at Snape.

"You just killed five Death Eaters…" George exclaimed emphatically again.

"Two of them with your bare hands!"

"…and you're scared of our mum?"

Snape grimaced inwardly.

Memories of their mother's temper assaulted the twins and each winced, catching the other's gaze.

"Yeeeeah, she's gonna kill you!" George agreed, nodding in resignation.

"You haven't a hope in hell."

They grinned mischievously at him, but stopped short at the look on his face.

" "Sorry." "

Snape sighed, but did not reply. Instead, he gave Ron a first, scrutinising glance.

"How did the three of you get out here?"

"…Uh…well S…Sir, I was inside when the attack began, b…but Dumbledore apparated Harry out of the Castle t…to the Shrieking Shack for safety - 'cause it's out of Hogwart's grounds and everything…"

Snape nodded impatiently.

"…and Dumbledore sent Hermione and me with him, but…something happened, and I was sent in the opposite direction. I landed at the top of the hill by the lake."

"Damn." Snape murmured to himself, staring intently at the ground as they rushed through the darkness. "Dumbledore must have been hit by a curse that skewered his magical flow."

The twins stopped walking, abruptly. "They got the Headmaster?"

"I didn't say they 'got ' him," Snape snapped angrily, "I merely suggested he'd been hit. There's no need to be melodramatic."

"Says the tall dark stranger in the black cape." Fred muttered to himself.

Snape threw an anxious look back towards the Castle.

"But only a highly powerful curse can distort the victim's spell like that, and considering how strong Albus is…" He glanced hesitantly at the children beside him, "that doesn't bode well."

Ron's mind was reeling; not only had he heard Snape just refer to Dumbledore as 'the victim', but a horrible thought had struck him.

"Sir…do you think that Harry and Hermione got split up too?"

Snape sighed and shook his head worriedly. "It's entirely possible. Perhaps neither of them made it to the Shrieking Shack at all, in which case I shall have to search the grounds. But it would be deeply unfortunate if they were not there. Death Eaters are patrolling."

An uneasy, sinking feeling descended upon the brothers. Snape glanced down at the twins.

"How did you two get out of the Castle?"

"We didn't, Sir."

"We were already outside."

"Ahh, yes."Snape said, with a smirk of understanding, "Undoubtedly roaming the 'Forbidden' Forest."

The twins looked at each other in bemused surprise, at the revelation that their harsh Potion's Master had known about their nocturnal escapades. At the look on their faces, Snape smirked and explained further.

"I am often in the Forest myself, and there is rarely an occasion on which you two are not to be found petering about on the edge. For centuries it has fallen to the Head of Slytherin to protect students from the Forest, despite the fact that only mindless Hufflepuffs and ridiculously chivalrous Gryffindors ever venture into the trees at night."

He grinned, distracted by his own amusement at the twins' indignant faces. "Slytherins have too strong a survival instinct," he explained,"and Ravenclaws are blessed with a little something called 'intelligence'."

The twins scoffed at this remark but shook their heads good-naturedly, for once refusing to rise to Snape's baiting.

Their professor, in turn, dropped the well-practised pretence. "You had a close escape this time, though. The majority of the Death Eaters used the Forest as their apparition point."

There was a silence, as the enormity of danger that the twins had faced was fully appreciated by the boys.

"Professor…" Ron's soft voice shook, revealing his apprehension, "…who's going to win?"

Snape looked down at him, sharply, and Ron flinched slightly, in expectation of some derisive remark. But Snape did not mock him; he simply hesitated carefully before answering.

"Your sister is still in still inside, is she not?"

Ron nodded placing incredible gravity on his teacher's next words. Snape paused, before increasing their pace through the shadows, and answering tightly.

"I honestly cannot say.We are outnumbered by Death Eater's three to one here - that's including the older Hogwart's students, most of whom will still make unworthy duelling opponents – but the Dark Lord has attacked on our turf; we now hold the defensive position. And that will prove to be hugely advantageous in this battle."

"So…so it could go either way?"

"Essentially…yes."

"Then we must go back and fight, Sir – we could make all the difference!"

"You three will not make any noticeable improvement to our odds, I assure you-"

"Maybe not us, but you…you're a powerful wizard, you could…"

"I cannot fight the Dark Lord directly without revealing my true allegiances." Growled Snape through clenched teeth. "If this fight is fought and there are no winners, our position will not have changed and my skills at espionage will again be required. Dumbledore has made it clear that my assignment is, at all times, to protect Harry Potter. The Headmaster's priority is, naturally, to defend Hogwart's and her students, as is Minerva's, and each ofour othersoldiers has their own duty. At the moment, I am trying to honour mine."

In his dejection, Ron caught sight of the Whomping Willow's daunting outline on the hill up ahead. They were almost at the Shrieking Shack.

As they drew nearer, Snape seized a stick from the ground and charmed it quietly. Ron watched with fascination, as it scuttled through the grass and pressed the knot on the tree trunk that rendered the Whomping Willow harmless.

Ducking under the low branches, he and the twins followed Snape's curved form through the entrance to the secret passage leading into the heart of the Shack itself. Lighting their wands, they began the long walk through the darkened stone passageway.

"Professor," The twins began in unison, jogging to keep up with him.

"won't it look a bit suspicious…"

"…when all the other Death Eater's - "

" in your patrol –

"…are discovered dead…"

" - by you-know-who - "

"..and you're nowhere to be found…"

"…Sir?"

They were panting.

Snape did not turn around.

"Yes…" He hesitated quietly. "That is where things will start to get complicated."

The twins waited avidly for his explanation, but at that moment, the door at the end of the corridor crashed open and two voices screamed,

"EXPELLIAMUS…"

A white light sped towards Snape.

"PROTEGO!" The light ricocheted off the barrier Snape had erected and was deflected back upon its creators, illuminating their faces.

Snape caught their wands easily.

Ron had recognised their attackers.

"Harry! Hermione!"

"Ron!" Hermione ran to him, shoving Snape roughly aside,against the wall of the tunnel, and throwing her arms around Ron. "Oh God, Ron, I was so worried about you! What happened?"

Ron felt himself blushing, as he awkwardly patted her back in front of the others. "S'okay 'Mione, I'm fine. The spell just-"

"Not that this display isn't heart-warming, but could we possibly postpone the romance until after the war?"

The twins snorted in delight.

"Professor Snape!" Hermione gasped in surprise, looking to where he had fallen unceremoniously against the wall, and glancing uncertainly at Ron. "What are you doing here?"

"I should have thought that was obvious, Miss Granger. I'm here to protect Dumbledore's 'Golden-Boy' over there."

"But I thought…"

Snape shoved himself off the earthen wall and strode up the tunnel.

"Are you alright, Potter?" He asked in a seemingly uncaring manner.

Harry remained in the doorway, his arms folded protectively across his chest.

"I'm fine, Sir."

Snape nodded."The rest of you, come out of that tunnel, now."

He put a hand on Harry's shoulder and steered him backward into the room. The others quickly followed -Ron giving Harry a rough hug.

" 'was bloody worried 'bout you-"

"I'm fine. What the hell happened to you?"

"Long story."

"Yeah? When did Snape enter it?"

The twins clapped Harry hard on the back.

"He's got the starrin' bloody role!"

"You're lookin' at one knight in shinin' armour!"

Harry stared,"What?"

"Professor, are you...alright?" They looked up at the sound of Hermione's voice.

She was peering into the corner of the room, where Snape was on his hands and knees.

The twins moved closer to him in concern. He appeared to be examining the wooden floor intently.

"Er…Professor?"

There was a creaking sound as a floorboard was lifted, then Snape rose to his feet. He held a dark green bottle in one hand. He unscrewed the cap and discarded it uncerimoniously, then sank heavily into an armchair and took a deep swig.

The others looked at each other unsure of what to say. Snape noticed their behaviour and frowned in exasperation.

"Oh, sit down! For Merlin's sake…" He hissed, crossing his legs over the arm of his chair and staring at the ceiling. He took another gulp of the liquid and winced.

The twins alighted upon an ancient bed, whilst Ron, Hermione and Harry perched on various broken wooden chairs. They studied Snape in silence.

He turned away to avoid their scrutinising eyes and ran his hand shakily over his face.

"Professor, what are you drinking?" Asked Hermione quietly, looking at the floor.

"I don't see that the answer to that question is any of your concern."

Hermione made no reply. Snape examined his wand, pensively.

"It's alcohol…whiskey in fact.The strongest I could find."

Hermione hesitated."What was it doing under the floorboards?"

Snape face held a strange expression."Do you know Hermione, that alcohol is a very strong painkiller?"

Ron and Harry exchanged troubled glances. Snape laughed, ominously.

"Amazing, isn't it? There are so many potions to ease pain, all of which are well within my capability, yet I'm forced to resort to this pitiful muggle remedy. It doesn't change its properties with age, you see." He smirked at the bottle. "Only its quality."

He turned to face them at last, and locked Hermione in a sinister gaze.

"I often apparate here after…meetings."

Hermione had no reply; she could not bring herself to ask more about Snape's encounters with the Dark Lord. Awkwardly, she broke eye contact with the man. Snape collapsed back into the chair and took another long drink.

The door in the corner crashed open…

"PETRIFICUS TOTALUS OMNIS!" Snape had leapt to his feet; his eyes were wild, his wand extended and two figures lay motionless in the doorway.

There was a shocked stillness in the room.

"God, that was fast…" breathed Hermione.

George was grinning gleefully, "Yep, that's our Snape!"

" 's not just a pretty face!"

Snape glowered at the twins, malevolently.

"That's for sure…" murmured Ron, peering over at the bodies. "Bloody hell, he wasn't kiddin' about protecting you, mate! Harry?"

"It's Sirius!" Harry spun round, his facelit with excitment. "It's Sirius and Remus…Snape, take the spell off, let them up!"

Snape staggered forward, shoving Harry out of his path.He rolled his eyes as he caught sight of his childhood nemeses and turned on his heel. "Oh, bloody hell, it's the mutt brigade…" He strolled back towards his armchair, swiping the whiskey bottle back off the table.

"Snape! Aren't you gonna help them?"

"Must I?" Drawled Snape disdainfully. He smiled mirthfully at Sirius' glassy eyes and stiff limbs.

"Yes!"Said Harry, Ron and Hermione together.

"Fine, fine." Snape sighed, pushing himself up and strolling forwards. He raised his wand wearily, "Finite incantatem."

The newcomers stirred instantly, regaining the ability to move.

"Snape! You absolute TOSSER!" Sirius yelled furiously, catching sight of the man before him. "What the f-?"

"Don't even bother, Black, it's been a long day." Snape turned his back dismissively and took another long drink.

Sirius advanced on him,"Why, you...!"

"Sirius, no!" Fred and George seized the animagus and tore him away from Snape.

"You can't hurt him!"

"He saved our lives…"

"What?" Sirius growled at the identical redheads.

Ron stepped up.

"It's true, Sirius; he's here to protect Harry."

Snape stared at his defenders, apparently taken aback. The twins grinned warmly and he started, quickly pasting a condescending frown on his face.

Sirius snarled at him from within the boys' clutches, and Snape raised his eyebrows and his bottle simultaneously, drinking to the twins' attitudes from his corner, andlooking determinedly unflustered at Sirius' furious struggles in his direction.

Lupin got up off the floor with effort as Hermione alighted at his side.

"Well, at least you're here Harry. We've been looking for you." Remus gave a slight smile."Sirius was going spare…"

"I was worried;" Sirius protested, "there's a bloody war going on out there! We killed three Death Eaters on the way over here!"

"Snape killed five!"

" - Two of them with his bare hands!"

There was a loud, appreciative snort from Snape's corner.

Sirius glared angrily at the twins as Snape couldn't help but smirk derisively at him. Lupin hurriedly intervened. "So, you're alright, Harry?"

"I'm fine! I'm no worse than anyone else here, I just…" he sighed, "I'm worried about the others, up at the Castle…"

"Hey," Sirius put a comforting hand on his godson's shoulder, "the Aurors have arrived now, they're attacking the Death Eaters. Dumbledore will have sent the students to safety."

Harry looked away.

"Listen to me, Harry. Things will be okay…"

"Don't be so damn naïve, Black," Snape spat bitterly, not looking up from his bottle, "and stop lying to the boy! It won't be 'okay'. Nothing will be okay. This battle could still last for days and we've no idea how many lives haveor remain to be lost. Nonetheless, hundreds of Death Eaters fighting hundreds of Aurors, in a children's school full of innocent bystanders, is not and will not be 'okay'!"

"Thank you, Snape, for that vote of confidence." Sirius hissed.

"I'm just being realistic, you fool. You should not dare to dishonour the children and fighters whose lives are lost here today, by belittling this battle's significance!"

Snape's eyes flickered over Ron and Harry. "Don't delude yourselves, the Dark Lord is more powerful now than he has been since his return.We have no hope but to prepare to fight harder than ever before, and remain true to each other…"

"Oh, and you're the bloody expert on that subject aren't you?" Retorted Sirius sarcastically.

He hit a nerve.

Snape fell silent.

"No arguing with that, is there, Death Eater?"

Hermione gasped quietly; Ron and Harry shifted uncomfortably.

Lupin sighed.

The twins were openly glaring.

Snape fixed Sirius with a striking stare andSirius raised an eyebrow, menacingly. Snape glanced around at the others, before turning away.

"I don't have to explain myself to you…"

"As if you could!"

"Oi !" Bellowed the twins, enraged on Snape's behalf.

"Sirius, shut up, you're not helping anyone." Lupin said quietly.

"Yeah, don't be a git, Sirius - he just risked his life to save ours…"

"-And more than proved he was no Death Eater!"

Even Ron reluctantly joined the twins in Snape's defence, speaking up quietly from Harry's side.

"He really isn't, Sirius."

"Everybody knows that." Lupin placated quietly, his eyes on Severus' lowered head.

"Listen…er...what do we do now?" Asked Harry, to change the subject more than anything else. "Should we try to get back to the Castle to fight?"

"No." Snape said quickly. "Nobody is to leave. I can protect you here. If you were to return to the Castle, Potter, it would do more harm than good."

"You can protect him? Come off it Snape!" Spat Sirius cruelly. "We don't need you here-Remus and me are more than enough protection for Harry…"

" - It's amazing that you're truly selfish enough to put Harry at risk by driving me away, out of mere distaste."

"It's more of a hatred-"

"My point still stands."

There was silence. Everybody's eyes bore into Sirius, who could make no reasonable retort.

Snape's clear, cold voice cut through the dusty air.

"I thought you loved the boy, Black?"

Sirius swallowed angrily, clenching his teeth.

"I do. But he doesn't need you. Remus and I would die to save him."

"You probably will." Whispered Snape harshly. "And you aren't the only ones. But I'm not leaving, Black. Dumbledore wants me here." His gaze fellintently to the bottle in his hand.

" -Yeah, I'm sure that you sittin' there getting pissed out of your head was exactly what the Headmaster had in mind!"

Snape leapt to his feet, advancing on Sirius angrily, the bottle clenched at his side. "I am not intoxicated! I would never let Albus down - I had you and Lupin unconscious before you even got through the door!"

Sirius strode forward furiously. "Oh well done, Snape! Let's just attack everybody on our side until we win!"

"STOP IT, Sirius!" The ex-convict turned at the sound of his godson's voice. Harry was frowning at him in disbelief. "He wants to help, can't you see that?"

With a final glare the two men broke apart. Sirius paced across the room towards Harry and Remus. Snape retreated slowly back into his armchair.

Hermione nervously examined the others in the room. She desperately wanted to break the tension. Lupin seemed the calmest, leaning heavily against the wall, facing the door.

"Professor Lupin?"

"Yes?"

"Er…how did you know the Castle was under attack?"

He smiled; recognising Hermione's poor attempt at conversation for what it was.

"Oh…well, Dumbledore sent an alarm to the ministry to alert their Aurors, but there's an alarm in the Order Headquarters, which was set up to be triggered by violent attacks in a number of prominent public buildings, including Hogwart's of course."

"So you and Sirius were at the Headquarters at the time?"

"Yes, a number of us were there. We were… well, actually we were awaiting the return of Severus. The others went to aid in the defence of the Castle, but Sirius and I came straight into the grounds to search for Harry and you two. It had always been arranged that in case of a direct attack Dumbledore would break the apparating wards and get Harry straight out of the Castle, but it was never agreed as to exactly where he would send you.There were a number of other places we had discussed as possibilities, so we checked some of those first. Then we encountered a number of Death Eaters and managed to kill…"

There was a sharp crash in the corner of the room.

Snape had leapt to his feet and was gripping the base of his hair in sudden dismay. The whiskey bottle lay broken on the floor, and the strong smell of liquor assaulted their nostrils.

"Shit." Snape ran his other hand across his face.

"What? What is it?" Lupin asked quickly, moving closer in concern. Sirius glowered at Snape from his position against the opposite wall.

Snape caught Lupin's eyes in a frantic but calculating gaze. "Hagrid. Hagrid wouldn't have been at the Castle. He'd be in that hut, alone. He might not even know what's happening! If the Death Eaters find him, he can't possibly defend himself against their curses. He has no means of magical defence, except natural resistance from his giant ancestry - it's not enough. The Dark Magic will overcome it."

An icy fist snatched at the hearts of everyone in the room.

"What should we do?"

Snape hesitated.He gazed at the door for a moment, then allowed his eyes to flicker over the students in the room.

"His hut isn't far." Snape's eyes bore heavily into Harry. "I don't see how we can risk sending anyone but me. I'll try to find him, Lupin,if he's alive I'll bring him back with me."

Snape pulled his travelling cloak back onto his shoulders, over the Death Eater robes.

"What do you mean? Wait! Severus, are you sure you should go alone? I…"

"Lupin, there are Death Eaters patrolling the grounds.There's a chance I may still be able to work my cover, and if not…" He shook his head doubtfully, "I'll improvise."

"Severus, Idon't…"

"Oh, let him go, Remus – he's the only one of us who can pass for one of those filthy monsters!" Sirius snarled, "You and I can watch over Harry and the others."

Snape glared at him angrily before focusing back on Remus.

"Stun anything that comes through that door; don't wait to see what it is.I f I'm not back in half an hour…" He glanced down at the broken whiskey bottle, "…don't expect me back at all."

Remus gave him a reluctant nod of respect. Pulling his wand and his Death Eater mask from his robes, Snape headed for the door.

"Good luck, Professor." The twins called, shakily.

Snape turned in surprise.

All the students were watching him intently, their eyes filled with trepidation and uncertainty. The twins' faces showed a grim admiration.

Snape found himself nodding in gratitude, and grudgingly broke the eye contact.

Sirius stepped slowly out of his way and Snape moved swiftly through the door into the stone passageway beyond.

"Be careful!" Hermione's voice rang through the passage behind him.


Please review so I can decide whether to post more! ;)

In the meantime, my other piece I'm working on is 'The Bad Prank'. It is another Severus based piece, and I'd appreciate your thoughts on it!