Author's Notes: Hi guys! I just wanted to give you guys a heads up that I may not be updating very often through the month of November as I'm going to try to take part in the National Novel Writing Month. Good news though…I'll be working on a Harry Potter story! Wish me luck and leave lots and lots of reviews, pretty please!
First Times, Second Chances
Chapter Nineteen: The Way Forward
It took some convincing, but Meri finally swayed Severus that a trip to downtown London would be perfectly safe. She had to tell him about the PO box and Harry's letters but now that their mental shields were completely down, she figured he already knew Harry was communicating with her. He offered to keep an eye on Draco while she did this errand so Draco wouldn't know the importance of a muggle post office.
The day was terribly cold, blustery and overcast. She had on a full length wool coat and scarf but the cold was still seeping in through the material. Thankfully the post office was in sight and a wall warmth greeted her when she stepped into the building. A couple of the post office workers gave her some uneasy looks and the few customers gave her a wide berth. She was getting used to seeing her face but others were still put off by her looks. She tried not to let it bother her but was failing.
She opened the door to the box and found a stack of letters waiting for her. Her doubts of Harry needed her or even wanting her around suddenly felt so foolish. If he didn't want her in his life she wouldn't be shuffling through eight letters from her nephew. She locked up her mailbox and headed back out into the cold. There was a small square across from the post office that looked deserted thanks to the cold weather. She had some time and would prefer to read through the letters by herself.
The bench was clear of snow, thankfully, and when she sat down she hit herself with a warming spell. She found the oldest letter and opened it. At first glance she noticed there were three different types of handwriting on this particular letter so she started at the top.
We're all fine, safe and mostly fed. We still have the thing but no way yet of getting rid of it. I wish you could give me some suggestions somehow. Hermione found an old Daily Prophet yesterday and we saw the headline that you had been made Head Auror at the Ministry and Kingsley Shacklebolt was made Minister! We all celebrated as best we could out here. Congratulations and best of luck! Having survived what you did in the other time makes you the best person for job. Stay safe.
Then directly underneath his signature were brief notes of congratulations and warnings to be safe from Hermione and Ron. She folded up that letter and slipped it into the inside pocket of her coat. That was a keeper. If a letter was just an update from Harry then she incinerated it but the ones that held something she wanted to hold on to, she kept it. The next one, however, was not just an update.
We just saw a Prophet that said Snape was chased out of Hogwarts (good job!) but it said that you're missing. I hope you're safe and hiding out. I really do. I don't know how you can get in touch with me, but if you have an idea, please do. We're looking for current Prophets now, trying to see if there's been any sign of you. Hermione thinks that it could be Voldemort trying to get me to come out in the open again. I'm afraid there might be truth to that. I hope that your getting these letters and know it's not because I'm scared to look for you. As soon as I can, I'll join in the search. Just stay alive.
She could tell the handwriting was different from his other letters. All the previous letters were written with a steady, almost bored feeling type of script. This one was written in haste and she could tell his hand was shaking as he wrote it. She had to find a way to let him know she was fine. The guilt and shame over thinking he didn't need her were shoved to the back of her mind as she tried to think of a way to contact him without putting him in danger of being found.
Instinctively, she slipped all the letters into her coat pocket and stood up, prepared to walk away but the person was close enough to grab her arm of her coat. She turned, with the full intention of getting away at all cost but she recognized Arthur Weasley and all the fight went out of her. Arthur always gave her the feeling of security she had when her Dad was still alive. She watched as the shock of the scar across her face sunk in and was thankful when he didn't acknowledge it's presence.
A wide smile broke across his features and she knew was restraining himself from hugging her. "I can't believe you're standing here! You're alright! Where have you been? What happened? Are you alright?"
"It's a long, unpleasant story actually. How's your family?"
"Doing well, doing well. They're all going to be absolutely thrilled that I saw you today. Why don't you come by the Burrow? I'm headed there now."
Meri instinctively grabbed a hold of left arm. "I don't think I should."
"Why ever not?"
How could she tell him she now sported the Dark Mark without having him question her loyalties? She didn't want to go to the Burrow and in the middle of dessert say, "Oh and by the way, Voldemort burned his mark into my arm. Please pass the sugar." No, she would be better sticking it out with Severus and Draco, coming into the final battle as back up support.
"I really shouldn't, Arthur. I'm trying to stay unnoticed at the moment."
"Why? We still need a Head Auror. Kingsley refuses to fill your position until we heard definite news. He's still at the Ministry," Arthur grabbed her left forearm, "come on, he'll be thrilled to see you again."
Meri wrenched her arm out of his grasp but by doing so, the sleeve of her coat feel back to reveal the tip of the mark. It was all Arthur had to see apparently. She watched his face blanch as white as the snow. She tugged her sleeve down and when she spoke, her vocal cords wavered. "Don't tell anyone, please."
The question took her off guard. She expected accusations and use of the mark as proof of her changed allegiance. The thought of having the Order believe differently didn't cross her mind. "Like I said, it's a long and unpleasant story."
Arthur looked around the square lot. The number of people was definitely limited due to the weather. "How about I contact Kingsley and we go have a drink, the three of us."
It sounded so tempting but if she was gone too long, Severus would start to worry despite the mental link that allowed him to check in on her well being. But the need to tell the Order what happened, what really happened, was very strong. Perhaps she could even have Severus inducted back into the Order. It would be risky, being the advocate to the man everyone in the wizarding world thought was Dumbledore's murderer. She would have to tread carefully.
"Sure, alright," she nodded. Arthur sent out a patronus that was practically invisible against the snow. Once he was satisfied with it's departure, he headed back across the street to the pub next to the post office and Meri quietly followed behind. She knew the pub on reputation only. Despite the closeness to the Ministry, witches and wizards tended to not darken the door. It was known for bar fights and it was difficult for them to slip out of a fight without using magical means. But it was early afternoon, and the rowdy crowd had yet to appear. They had barely settled into a booth in a dark corner when Kingsley made his appearance. Meri noted he was grinning ear to ear and he clasped her hand in a bone crushing grip.
"I knew you were out there," Kingsley said as he sat down with them. "I knew you would make it back. Your office hasn't been touched so whenever you're ready to come back to work, just show up."
Meri fidgeted. "About that, I'm not sure if I can come back." She watched Arthur lower his eyes to the table and Kingsley try to make sense of her words. The only way to see what would happen was to honestly lay everything out on the table. Meri waited until the bartender went into the back before she pushed up her coat sleeve and showed Kingsley. His eyes widened in shock.
"The Dark Mark? How-"
"He burned it into me. Vold-"
Both men jumped in their seats and shh-ed her into silence. Arthur leaned across the table and whispered. "We've only recently found out that the Death Eaters have put a tracer spell on his name. That's how they've been finding those who are resisting him."
"Unfortunately," Kingsley said, "we're back to referring to him as He Who Must Not Be Named. Now, you said he burned it into your arm?"
Meri nodded. "He said that he wanted me to live through the discredit of my name and lose my position as Head Auror. That, coupled with the smear campaign of the Daily Prophet should throw enough doubt on my character that would cause you," she motioned to Kingsley, "to remove me from office."
Arthur scoffed. "The Daily Prophet is rubbish. Any wizard with half a brain knows who's running the Prophet now is a supporter of You Know Who."
"Arthur's right," Kingsley added. "Besides, they wrote some pretty outrageous things about you shortly after you disappeared. An attempted suicide your sixth year at Hogwarts, how you've spent the last sixteen years working to bring You Know Who back into power because you're actually his child. It's been reading like a sordid work of fiction."
Meri tapped her fingers on the scarred wood of the table. She shouldn't have been shocked that the Prophet had already released that info. The familiar feelings of shame and despondency came to the surface of her mind but she thought of the letters in her coat pocket and it dissipated…mostly.
"Meri," Arthur said, stirring her from her thoughts, "They're not right, are they?"
She took a steadying breath. "I'll be honest, some of it is. The suicide attempt came after I found out my…questionable heritage, which the Prophet did get correct."
Both men settled back into the booth, taking in the news. While silence hung between them, the grungy looking bartender came over to them and slid three pints in front of them.
"You want anything to eat?"
All three of them shook their heads and the bartender left them with a satisfied grunt and the silence came back. Meri tried to wait it out but the quiet became terribly oppressive and she moved to stand up. "I'm sorry, I'll just go."
"Nonsense," Kingsley snapped. "Sit down. I daresay, this revelation is shocking but it also explains the great amount of effort you put into finishing off He Who Must Not Be Named when he first came into power."
"Besides," Arthur continue, "No one in the Order is going to hold this against you. We know you too well, from before you disappeared and then from what Harry told us of the other time. So, where have you been for the last two weeks?"
Well, she promised herself she was going to be honest with them all. "I've been traveling around with Snape and Draco Malfoy."
Arthur picked up his pint. "They may hold that against you."
Meri looked over at him to see his was grinning over the rim of glass. "Does anyone know that he's on our side?"
Kingsley laughed shortly. "Snape? If he is on our side, he has a very strange way of showing it. What with killing Dumbledore and all."
She wasn't sure if it was her place to tell them that the details of the so called murder but then she remembered it was Dumbledore that had spilled her secret to Severus so she chalked it up to making things even between the two of them. "The murder was prearranged."
Arthur and Kingsley looked at each other before turning their attention back to her. She took it as permission to continue when they kept their silence. "Dumbledore was suffering from a fatal hex. Severus was able to contain it, hence Dumbledore's withered hand, but in the end it was going to be fatal to him. Dumbledore wanted Severus to remain in You Know Who's graces for as long as possible. Also, the task of assassinating Dumbledore had been given to Draco Malfoy and Dumbledore didn't want the boy to have that act on his conscience. Dumbledore asked Severus to kill him when the time came."
"Why would Dumbledore want to die?" Kingsley asked.
"Unlike most people, Dumbledore didn't fear death."
Arthur nodded. "I remember he called it 'the next great adventure.'"
Kingsley leaned forward across the table. "But Harry said that Dumbledore was pleading for his life before Snape killed him."
Meri remembered the feeling she had when she witnessed the murder. Seeing it from Severus' point of view allowed her access to his emotions at the time and he had been a roiling fury of anger, indecision and grief. "Dumbledore knew that Severus didn't want to do it. He wasn't pleading for his life. He was pleading for Severus to go through with it."
She could tell from the looks they were giving her that they found this hard to believe. It bothered her to see other people question what Severus had put himself through to carry out Dumbledore's wishes. But she had to remind herself that they didn't have direct access into his mind. They don't know what lies beneath the cold exterior and snappish comments. "Alright, look," Meri laid her hands palm down on the table. "This is very easily proved as Dumbledore's portrait hangs in the Head Mistress' office."
Arthur nodded his head thoughtfully. "She has a point. We can always send a message to Professor McGonagall to see what the portrait has to say."
"Make sure you tell her to tell Dumbledore that Severus is no longer a spy for us. He had to leave You Know Who's service in order to get me out alive."
Kingsley looked thoughtful but still slightly perturbed. "He really risked life and limb to get you out of Death Eater's clutches?"
"Me and Draco Malfoy."
"I would never have guessed he had it in him. We all thought he never reformed," Kingsley said. "We all wondered what great song and dance he gave Dumbledore that convinced him of Snape's remorse."
Arthur cleared his throat. "You wouldn't happen to know now, do you Meri?"
"I do but it's not my story to tell."
"But if we ask him, will he tell us?" Arthur pressed.
Meri smiled slightly. "I highly doubt it."
Kingsley gave her a semi-strict look. "How do you know he's being honest? That this just isn't part of the game to get back into the Order and then turn on us?"
"Dumbledore trained us both in legilimency to the point that we can actually communicate with each other across a decent amount of distance. In short," Meri continued, "we can have no secrets from each other. If you trust me, you can trust him."
Kingsley gave her a very hard look. "And we can trust that, if Dumbledore can attest to the truth of his apparent murder. If Snape's loyalties change then you will tell us."
"If his loyalties change," Meri said very seriously, "I'll most likely be dead."
Arthur looked uncomfortable. "You're really willing to put yourself in league with Snape? You really think he's innocent?"
"Of murdering Dumbledore, yes."
Kingsley stood up from the table. "I'll go out back and send word to Professor McGonagall. It shouldn't take too long, classes are out for the day by now."
Meri watched him leave and then picked up her pint and took a big sip. "That tastes good."
Arthur smiled at her. "Haven't had much time to relax?"
"You have no idea how hard it is to stay out of the Order's way as well as run from Death Eaters. You Know Who has not taken Severus' defection very nicely."
"So he really has defected?"
Meri rubbed her left arm. "Our marks burned three times in the last two weeks and he failed to show. Coupled with my and Draco's disappearance, it doesn't take much to put two and two together."
"So what have you been doing these last two weeks to stay out of sight?"
"Muggle hotel hopping mostly. Ever once in awhile I would sneak out and grab some food from a convenience store. Thankfully, Narcissa had enough foresight that when she gathered clothes and things for Draco, she put enough in for Severus and me as well."
Arthur choked on his beer. "Narcissa? Narcissa Malfoy?"
Meri nodded. "No one has a clue that she helped us. I doubt even Lucius knows she helps us. Her only goal is to see Draco survive this. I guess that's how any mother would feel. It's how I feel."
Arthur started to say something but was interrupted when Kingsley came back into the pub. He slid back into his seat and nodded. "Minerva confirmed the story. She also said that Dumbledore wanted us to tell you, 'now we're even.'"
Meri grinned. One secret for another. "Yes, now we're even."
Arthur stared into his glass. "So, Snape is on our side. Dumbledore was right to trust him then."
Kingsley folded his hands on the table. "Meri, your position at the Ministry still stands. You're welcome back whenever you want to come."
"What about the Daily Prophet?" she asked.
"What about it?" Arthur spoke up. "Anyone who knows you isn't going to believe what the Prophet has to say."
"Arthur's right, Meri. It's been made very obvious who's in control of that publication. The Ministry has separated itself from the Prophet."
It was definitely something to think over. She would love to show Voldemort that what he did to her didn't matter in the least. That the Order had something that bound them together, something that he would never have with his circle of Death Eaters: trust. But she didn't want to abandon Severus and Draco at this time. Severus had been left holding the short end of the stick for as long as she could remember and she had tried not to be one of those people handing it to him. She wasn't about to start now. "I'll think it over."
"Wonderful," Arthur said cheerfully. "Now, how about you come to the Burrow tonight for a decent meal. It looks like you haven't eaten anything in over a week."
Here was the test of trust. "Just me?"
Arthur looked slightly put out but he recovered fairly quick. "Just take precautions with Draco. I think it's safe to assume he may not be on our side. But yes, you and Snape are welcome."
"You've got to be kidding."
Meri shook her head, her black curls bouncing around her face. Severus noted her hair was slightly longer now than when he had first seen her, ironically, at the Weasley homestead. "Are you really going to turn down a home cooked meal?"
"No," Draco answered immediately. "Where are we going?"
"That," Meri answered, "you're not going to know."
Severus pointed at Draco, "You stay here." Without saying anything else, he grabbed Meri's arm and shoved her out of the door, slamming it shut behind him. He cast a silencing spell on the door and turned to look at Meri. They were standing under a flickering hallway light and it gave her shocked features an eeriness.
"What?" she asked, crossing her arms in front of her. "We finally get the kid to agree to do something with us and you've got your nose all bent out of joint. What's going on?"
He tried to reign in his annoyance over the matter but decided to let some of it leak through his tone. "You told them about Dumbledore's murder."
"And cleared your name. Or did you like being on the outs with the good guys? The same side you happen to be fighting for?"
"You had no right to tell them anything."
"What are you afraid of? The possibility of them accepting you?"
"The possibility of them lynching me."
She gave him that annoying little Potter smirk. "You really have trust issues. Don't you think I would have scanned their minds to see if this was a set up to harm you?"
Her response left him speechless, not a small feat. The truth was, he had been certain she would scan their minds but had chalked it up to being too optimistic of the situation. Why would they accept him back into the fold after they so strongly hated him for the last few months? How could he walk into the Weasley's home and not feel the distrust coming off of everyone in the Order in waves?
He came out of his thoughts to find Meri standing directly in front of him, her hand on his arm. The closeness felt suffocating. "What?"
"You think too much. Besides," she thankfully stepped back and reached into her coat pocket, pulling out an envelope. "I've found a way to get the sword to Harry."
"Harry's last letter said that Ron left them after a row. He's not at Hogwarts which means he could only be at the Burrow. We give him the sword and when he goes back to Harry and Hermione then they will have access to the sword."
Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. "The sword needs to be taken in an act of bravery. Returning back to his friends after he abandoned them is not brave."
"As a matter of fact, Sev, it is. Admitting a wrong and asking forgiveness takes a great amount of bravery. Just like it's going to take a great amount of courage for you to walk into the Burrow tonight."
He tried to come up with an argument but couldn't. She made perfect sense and it was the perfect opportunity to pass the sword along to make sure it would get to Harry. He really hated it when she was right.