Disclaimer: Not mine, all the characters and the world belong to our dear Ms Rowling.
A/N: As usual, my apologies for long waits…at some point, I hope this line is no longer necessary at the beginning of my chapters. However, I thank each and every one of you for reading, and I very much hope you enjoy this next instalment!
Preparations and Surprises
Low voices rumbled from the dining room as Harry, flanked by Hermione and Ron, strode through the door.
The show of unity from the long-famous trio brought double-takes from the Order members assembled, and more than a few quick smiles. Alastor Moody met Hermione's gaze coldly, and she returned it in kind. Her relationship with Snape would never be acceptable to the old Auror, but she was certain he would not challenge her presence.
Not with strangers in the room.
'Hermione!' There was a touch too much surprise in Lupin's voice, which he hastened to cover as he stepped forward to clasp her hands. 'Thank you for diverting your attention from your projects to join us today.'
'Didn't think I'd do it, Remus?' Harry quietly asked his mentor with a crooked grin. Lupin returned the smile, reaching out and slightly up to clap both young men on the shoulder.
'Harry, Ron, Hermione,' his voice was louder now, and more formal; 'can I present Madam Silver and Mr Canus?' The two unfamiliar faces at the table rose rather stiffly. Their patch-worked robes, while clean, reminded the three friends forcefully of the way Lupin had looked when he had arrived at Hogwarts as their professor.
'You're the werewolf delegation.' Harry moved forward, reaching out first to greet the aged woman, then the younger man standing at her side. His clean, but unadorned, dark green robes had been Remus' careful choice. He was dressed as a wizard to acknowledge their equal rights as wizards, the cut of his robes respectful without being ostentatious. Hermione and Ron, dressed in equally sombre robes of deep purple and navy blue respectively, followed Harry's lead in greeting Silver and Canus.
'You are very young,' Madam Silver observed, and her voice was rough like sandpaper as she gazed into each face. 'But then, Albus Dumbledore was ever fond of encouraging the young to shoulder his risks.'
Harry's face heated and Hermione could see Ron visibly biting his lip, striving for the diplomacy that had proven so important to building their army against Voldemort. But the witch merely smiled fleetingly. Dumbledore had done his best, but there was no denying Madam Silver had a point.
'She knows,' the grey-haired woman nodded to the young woman, and she seemed approving. Hermione dipped her head.
'We could, doubtlessly, use your wisdom, Madam, if you see fit to lend it to us.'
Silver laughed now, a sharp sound that echoed like a bark in the room. 'And she's a clever flatterer. But then, Remus warned us you would be.'
They took their seats at the table once again as McGonagall entered from the kitchen with tea and several plates of biscuits. Like Harry's robes, her deliberate service to the werewolves was a gesture of goodwill and a promise of the future they were striving to create.
'I know that the young generally favour directness,' Silver began after taking a long, savouring sip of her tea. 'So I will be blunt. You wish us to join you to fight against the Dark Lord. He has made many promises to our kind, and kept a goodly number of them. He also has the added terror of Fenrir Greyback – who is more than enough threat for most of us to keep our distance from either side.' She looked directly at Harry, then let her brown-and-green eyes travel to each member of the Order, making contact with each. Coached by Remus, they all unblinkingly met her gaze, neither backing down nor challenging her.
'What are you offering, Harry Potter and Minerva McGonagall? What is your Order going to give werewolves that the Dark Lord is not and the Ministry has not? What is your vision of a brave, new world?'
'…Dumbledore owes him, he can't leave him in this state—'
'Ron – Dumbledore's dead.'
Ginny's whisper, followed by Remus Lupin's broken cry, snapped the voices muzzily floating around her into stark relief, and Hermione sat bolt upright, their one-time professor yanking her back to full consciousness with his distress.
Silence reigned in the infirmary. Hermione's eyes shot to Ron's, which were locked in horror on Harry, and then switched to Harry's jade green, glossed with tears behind dirt-smudged glasses.
'How did he die?' Tonks' voice was shaking so badly they nearly couldn't make out the words. 'How did it happen?'
'Snape killed him.' Harry's voice was loaded with exhaustion, grief, anger and guilt. 'I was there. I saw it.' Hermione felt her heart contract as he stumbled through telling the story she already knew. Malfoy hadn't been able to do it. Other Death Eaters had arrived. Then Snape…who had killed their dying headmaster at Dumbledore's own urging.
It's not your fault, she wished she could tell him. Don't blame yourself for this, too. There was nothing you could have done, Harry.
Ginny, Lavender and Tonks were making no attempt to hide the tears dripping from their faces. Ron, Lupin and Neville wore identical harsh, cold masks that contained their sorrow and promised a bitter retribution.
Madam Pomfrey was studying the young witch seated on her hospital bed, eyes huge and luminous in her pale face. Hermione caught her eyes and swiftly looked away again, all-too-easily reading the pity and compassion there. She had built a cage around her feelings, carefully walling them off as she had learned to do so well over the past year. The concerned, affectionate and almost motherly gaze of the school's nurse threatened to undo them.
But as she allowed her eyes to roam, she found Luna looking directly at her. As the Gryffindor witch met the Ravenclaw's steady silver gaze, she felt a jolt of pure unease. Luna had been with her when Snape had whirled into the hall. She had seen Hermione collapse as Dumbledore was making his final plummet from the tower.
Luna's oddities – her air of dottiness that suddenly seemed as carefully cultivated as Dumbledore's 'genial old wizard' persona – kept many from noticing the observant young woman underneath. But the fifth year now studying Hermione was channeling the penetrative glance of their late headmaster at his worst, and the older girl shifted uncomfortably on her bed, arresting her hand before it could make the tell-tale travel to her belly and the glamour-disguised bump of her twins.
'Listen!' Ginny's gasp distracted them from their staring contest, and it was with a grateful ear that Hermione heard the swelling melody of phoenix song.
It sounded as if it filled not just the room, but the whole of world, dipping and soaring with sorrow. The music pervaded her, reverberating in her chest so intensely Hermione felt at once that she was the source of this magnificent sound, the soul of the grief it sang, and no more than an instrument the song used, reduced to her capacity to hear and understand and mourn with the beautiful bird.
Ron's face was relaxing, Neville's brow unknotting, and Lupin's eyes closed as his jaw unclenched. The women still wept, but the music was swallowing their first blaze of devastated hopelessness, transmuting their despairing fear into a simpler misery.
Harry stood alone in the middle of the infirmary with his head thrown back, a strange serenity washing over his features, and Hermione remembered abruptly that he was the only one who was familiar with Fawkes' glorious hymn.
Time seemed to stop as they stood there, allowing the swirling ballad to caress them, washing away their heartbreak as a river carries sand downstream.
The spell broke when the door to the infirmary opened again, admitting Professors McGonagall and Flitwick – the latter sporting a large bruise on the back of his skull – and the rest of the DA.
Many of them were bleeding profusely from small cuts and abrasions; others were already wearing makeshift splints and bandages. Madam Pomfrey dashed her remaining tears from her eyes with an impatient hand as she set about tending to her students-turned-soldiers.
McGonagall shared one swift, piercing glance with her best student from behind her square-rimmed glasses, before taking a deep breath and announcing, 'Molly and Arthur are on their way.' She focused grimly on Harry, and Hermione fancied she could almost see their strict teacher force her next words off her tongue. 'Harry, what happened? According to Hagrid, you were with Professor Dumbledore when he—' knowing it had been coming for months did nothing to ease to ache, and she couldn't form the words '—when it happened. He says Professor Snape was involved somehow—'
'Snape killed Dumbledore,' Harry told her in a flat, hard voice.
McGonagall's face drained of colour, her breath hitching in her throat she folded gracelessly into the chair Pomfrey conjured behind her. 'Minerva…' the nurse breathed, squeezing one of her colleague's hands.
'Snape. We all wondered…but he trusted…' Above all others, Hermione thought grimly, recognizing McGonagall's need to dissemble and hating her for maligning her bondmate at the same time, 'always… Snape…I can't believe it…'
'Snape was a highly accomplished Occlumens,' Lupin all-but snarled. 'We always knew that.'
'But Dumbledore swore he was on our side! I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn't…' Tonks whispered.
McGonagall continued to play her role, stammering excuses, pulling out a tartan handkerchief to contain her all-too-real tears.
'I'd love to know what Snape told him to convince him,' Tonks interrupted coldly.
'I know,' Harry said heavily, and Hermione's eyes snapped to her friend, curiosity ignited. This was a question she had never asked him…why had he turned away from the Dark Lord?
'Snape passed Voldemort the information that made Voldemort hunt down my mum and dad. Then Snape told Dumbledore he hadn't realized what he was doing, he was really sorry he'd done it, sorry that they were dead.'
The fragile fence wrapped around her emotions collapsed. Cold swept her from head to toe, drowning her, muffling Lupin's incredulous response and Harry's glower. She locked eyes with her Head of House, and saw McGonagall's equally shocked gaze fixed on her. It was clear that neither woman had known.
The numbness of disbelief was already settling an icy hard-heartedness in her chest. She knew what he was. She knew what he did. She had seen pieces of his ugly service to Voldemort when he had opened his mind to her…why should this come as such a blow?
But it did. The sins of his youth suddenly seemed thrown into stark relief, laid out for her perusal as they never had been before. Severus Snape, her bondmate and the father of her unborn children, a man she trusted completely and loved with abandon, had orphaned her best friend.
'Snape was a highly accomplished Occlumens.' They had always known that. She better than most.
Doubt avalanched on her. If he had caused the deaths of Harry's parents, who else had he killed – directly or indirectly – that she cared about by proxy?
'No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, or even what you will see, remember. I would never betray him, or you, or them.'
Suddenly, Hermione felt like nothing more than a frightened, seventeen-years-old and sixth-months-pregnant girl. She buried her face in her hands, and let her friends assume her tears were for the headmaster who had left them.
The members of the DA were patched up, those requiring bed rest providing anchors for the clumps of their less-injured peers clustered around them. The whole of the Weasley family – with the noticeable absence of their third son – was cluttered around Bill.
Except for a few whispers that rose quickly and petered out just as fast, Hogwarts' hospital wing was silent. They had all heard Harry's extraordinary story, and by unspoken, but common, consent, it seemed there was nothing to do now but let it sink in.
'Mr Potter. Miss Granger. Mr and Miss Weasley. Please come with me.'
All four heads snapped to the door where Minerva McGonagall was striding towards them, her eyes rimmed with red and steely with determination.
'Professor?' Harry rose immediately.
'What is it?' Ron asked, steering Ginny towards them from his brother's bedside.
'Albus' last will and testament,' she said quietly.
Her four students stared at her. After a night of nasty surprises, Hermione would have thought shock would be the very last thing any of them could feel, but disbelief was etched on all four faces. 'We're in it?' Harry ventured his guess. McGonagall raised both her eyebrows in a disturbingly accurate impression of her former colleague.
'Would I be requesting your presence, Potter, if you were not?' She seemed to notice the brittle cast to her tone, for her blue eyes softened behind her spectacles. 'Albus was very fond of you, Harry.' Her gaze lifted to the other three, 'and all of you – for the unwavering support you've shown him.' She turned away from them, tilting her raven head to indicate that they should follow. They obeyed in silence, Hermione and Ginny jogging slightly as their shorter legs competed with Ron and Harry's longer ones.
They stopped outside the Headmaster's Office as the gargoyle shuffled aside for their Deputy Headmistress, but maintained their silence until the spiral staircase had delivered them at the oaken door.
Upon entering, they found every single portrait wide awake and staring at them intently. Several winked surreptitiously or gave them small, encouraging waves. But most of them scowled – some at Harry, some at Hermione, the vast majority focused on McGonagall.
'Minerva, I must question yet again what I spent a second lifetime asking Albus: Do you think it wise to share so much with mere students?' Armando Dippet's portrait wheezed.
'Much as I hate to agree with a Hufflepuff, I must add my voice to his,' drawled Phineas Black in a superior tone. 'They are just children—'
'That will do,' McGonagall rapped out, sweeping a glare over the portraits protesting her decision. 'Or have you all – each of you a Headmaster or Headmistress of Hogwarts – forgotten the binding nature of a final will and testament? Albus Dumbledore named them beneficiaries of his estate. None of us have the right to interfere. Now. If you cannot be silent,' her wand slid smoothly from her sleeve to point directly at the paintings, who winced in turn as the tip glided over them, 'I will make you.'
They eyed her nervously, bright, oil-rendered eyes darting to the tip of her wand and back again. But they all fell silent.
'The Heads of House have already conferred,' McGonagall turned to her students' briskly, and though her voice was steady, Hermione saw the way she gripped her late husband's desk until her knuckles were white with strain. Playing a role no less scrupulously than Snape for many years was all that bolstered her now. 'We have determined to close the school.'
Ginny gasped, but Harry and Ron both nodded curtly, acknowledging that it was only to be expected. Hermione did not react at all – she knew it was out of character, but she was too tired to act, and amongst the night's overwhelming revelations, her lack of astonished protest would not be remembered.
'With Albus…Albus gone,' she cleared her throat, 'the professors have agreed that we have only a matter of weeks, two or three months at the most, before He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named manages to topple the Ministry. When he does, Hogwarts will come under his jurisdiction. Rather than allow that to occur, the school will be shut down after Professor Dumbledore's funeral. The castle is home to enchantments designed to barricade Hogwarts against intruders in extreme cases. Friday morning, we will trigger them for the protection of the castle and all the artefacts we have within.'
She removed one of her hands from the desk, and reached for a tightly-wound scroll tied neatly next to one of Dumbledore's many silver, spinning instruments. Picking it up, a wave of her hand indicated that they should go through a rather solid-looking set of bookcases.
Ron and Harry exchanged puzzled looks, but Hermione stepped forward without comment and tap-danced her wand across several tomes, until the hidden door swung open.
'How did you—?' Harry sounded both mildly curious and piqued. A frown creased between his eyebrows. He had always been obscurely pleased with his one-on-one direct access to their brilliant headmaster. The evidence that Hermione clearly knew something about the elderly wizard that he didn't chafed slightly.
'Occlumency, Harry,' she reminded him gently, accurately reading the flicker of emotion gracing his green eyes. If her best friend was a bit possessive of what he perceived to be his singular relationship with Dumbledore, who was she to blame him? Harry had had few enough adults to shower him with love throughout his life. The venom he had unleashed on Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy all year was proof that he still felt the loss of Sirius deeply.
'Ah, right.' His expression cleared rapidly, and Hermione shook her head as the four young witches and wizards stepped into the private sitting room with their professor.
'No portraits,' Ron commented, quickly scanning the walls. Hung with tapestries and Muggle art – many of them museum-quality – nothing moved with sentience here.
'Indeed, Mr Weasley. It is best that, for this conversation, the walls do not have ears. Please, take a seat.' Hermione and Harry took the wingback chairs flanking the couch, where the Weasley siblings quickly seated themselves, all on the edge of their seats, their eyes locked on their Head of House.
'Time is very short,' she continued in the swift, dry manner she had adopted since her tears in the hospital wing. 'The Minister will be arriving soon, and I assume you have as little desire to be interrogated about the events of tonight as I have to let him try. Harry, I know that Albus gave you a specific task: the destruction of Tom Riddle's Horcruxes.'
Harry, prepared to politely deny her questions about his mission, stopped mid-breath, green eyes wide as he quickly engaged in a non-verbal conversation with Ron, Hermione and Ginny, which ended with a very stiff, 'How do you know?' to their teacher.
'Because I was married to Albus Dumbledore for forty years,' she answered evenly. This announcement was punctuated with the startled exclamations that closing Hogwarts had not elicited, but she forestalled a full disclosure of her personal history with a raised hand. 'There will be time to discuss that later. Before the Minister arrives to interfere, we must attend to Albus' will. As you guessed in the hospital, Potter, each of you has been bequeathed a gift. Ginevra Weasley.' The youngest of the quad looked up, curious as to what their headmaster – whose only private conversation with her had centred on a soul-possessing, Horcrux-diary when she was twelve years old – might have left her.
'You have been gifted with the sword of Godric Gryffindor.' Ron emitted a low whistle as his sister grabbed his hand, shooting a questioning glance at Harry.
'Me, Professor? But I—'
'The sword is a magical object, Miss Weasley, one that has been wielded before in your defence. It remembers that fact. It is also impregnated with Basilisk venom – one of several rare substances known to be capable of destroying Horcruxes.'
Finished with that, she read the next. 'Ronald Weasley. Albus has left you with his Deluminator,' she produced the small, silver, cigarette-lighter-shaped object from her robes and handed it to him, 'and his Traveller's Foe Glass.' Another object followed the first, this one a round, highly-polished disc about the size of a Sickle and strung on a fine chain. Ron turned each over in his hands, long, callused fingers caressing the unexpected treasures from the headmaster's unique collection.
'Thank you,' he said hoarsely, blinking away the tears that had risen, sudden and unbidden, as he pocketed his heirlooms.
'Hermione Granger. You have been presented with the entire contents of his library regarding the Ang'guin Weyr, Secrets of the Darkest Arts – which is the only definitive text on the subject of Horcruxes – The Comprehensive Guide to Blood Magick: Use for Fair and Foul Play, and A Study of the Magical Nexi of the World.' Hermione tilted her head in a nod, struggling to pay attention through the mantra that had worn grooves in her brain in the past hour: Snape killed James and Lily, Snape killed James and Lily…Wormtail never would have given them up if Snape hadn't set the Dark Lord on their tail…
'Harry Potter,' McGonagall continued after giving the listless young woman a long look, 'Albus has left you the key to his ancestral retreat here in Scotland.' She extended a bronze key to the baffled Chosen One, who took it a beat too late, examining its etched head with his fingertips. 'And his Pensieve – for when you should find your mind too muddied by confusion to think clearly.'
Harry bowed his head, thinking bitterly of the memories he had explored with his mentor that year. Memories that had led to nothing more than a hunt for the proverbial phantom Snitch and the great wizard's death. If he never saw another Pensieve it would be too soon.
But he forced himself to nod and approximate an expression of gratitude, though his throat was too tight to attempt speech. McGonagall seemed to know at least some of what he was thinking, though, for her hand clasped his shoulder in an almost maternal way before she sat down.
'"It is also my deepest wish that Harry Potter, Ronald and Ginevra Weasley, and Hermione Granger be inducted into the Order of the Phoenix as soon as circumstances this summer allow,"' McGonagall was reading directly from the bottom third of the six-foot roll of parchment. '"Along with as many of their peers from the excellent Defence Club, Dumbledore's Army—"' here five sets of lips twitched in unison, matched by five owners surprised that they could find anything amusing anymore '"—that wish to join."'
'That'll make Neville happy,' Hermione murmured. On the couch diagonal to her, Ron nodded.
'And Luna,' Ginny added.
'All of them should join,' Harry stated firmly. 'This is what the DA was all about. It was never just Umbridge, or getting Outstanding Defence OWLs. If Hogwarts is closing, they'll need the Order for protection. And we'll need them to defend others.'
The smile that touched the corners of McGonagall's mouth was both proud and pained. 'I'm gratified to know that we are of one mind on that, Harry,' she said quietly, and then continued, '"My final item concerns the matter of leadership in the Order of the Phoenix. As Founder, I choose to name as my successors my wife, Minerva McGonagall, whose wisdom and experience fighting the Dark will serve her compatriots well, and Harry Potter, the Chosen One destined to defeat Lord Voldemort. Use the guidance you have both been given to direct the Order and we shall triumph."'
Her eyes glossed with tears as she skimmed the final, few lines of the text, but their professor did not read them aloud. She lifted her gaze to peer at Harry intently from behind her square spectacles.
The Boy Who Lived couldn't breathe. He felt as if both Bludgers had caught him in the stomach at once. Lead the Order of the Phoenix? No matter what Dumbledore had taught him, regardless of six years of experience personally facing down Voldemort and other Dark wizards, he wasn't ready for this. Giving orders to wizards like Alastor Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt and witches like Tonks and Mrs Weasley was as foreign a concept as Aunt Petunia suddenly expressing magical ability.
At that thought, the peculiar impulse to laugh rose, and he set his jaw tightly, his lips thinning as it vanished.
'It is a grave responsibility,' McGonagall said quietly, meeting the hard green eyes steadily. 'But one you are equal to, Harry. To ask you to follow orders, when Albus himself entrusted you with a specific charge to stop You-Know-Who, is no more than foolishness. You will have the resources of the Order at your command to complete the task you have been given.'
Harry made no reply, but the constricting grip in his chest eased slightly at her words. He wasn't leading alone, either. She would be there with him, his firm, fair, surprisingly compassionate Head of House.
'You should return to your dormitories,' she ordered suddenly, breaking her eye-lock with Harry to sweep her gaze over the rest of them. They stirred under her attention, as if breaking a trance.
'Professor…how should I carry this?' Ginny asked, gesturing to the sword. Hermione's books were easily shoved into a quickly-Transfigured bag and Ron's objects fit into his pockets.
'And the Pensieve?' Ron queried, when it was clear that Harry was neither going to lift the heavy basin nor ask about it.
'I will Floo your gifts to Gryffindor Tower,' McGonagall told them firmly. 'It is not safe for you to carry them through the halls.' Her eyes suddenly adopted a far-away look, and with a rap on the bookcase to bring them back into the main office, she was opening the door before her students realized what she was doing.
'They're already here. Take care not to run in to the Minister, Potter. And no matter who asks – even fellow Order members – don't mention Albus' will.'
Murmured affirmations met her statement, and the four found themselves moving downwards on the spiralling granite escalator.
They surged into the empty sixth-form boy's dorm, knowing that their remaining classmates would still be in the hospital.
No sooner had they arrived than the fire flared brilliant green, and McGonagall's hands passed through the shallow Pensieve and the ruby-encrusted sword.
'Gryffindor's sword,' whispered Ginny, picking it up.
'With Basilisk venom already staining the blade,' Ron murmured, his blue eyes hard once again as he studied the faintly-green, poisonous weapon. He turned to Harry abruptly. 'Did you get it? Let's kill it now.'
Harry closed his eyes, swallowing convulsively, and before he spoke, Hermione knew what he was going to say.
'You didn't get it, did you?' Ginny asked gently.
'No,' her boyfriend answered with a strangled whisper. 'No. I – we didn't get it.'
Ron sat down heavily on his bed. 'Dumbledore was wrong?'
'No,' Harry replied bitterly, pulling a long chain from his pocket. An ancient, ornate silver pendant dangled from it.
'What is that, if it's not a Horcrux?' Ron pressed, confused.
'A copy,' Ginny said quietly. At this, three pairs of eyes snapped to her, silently demanding elaboration. 'I was connected to Riddle via the diary. The Horcrux diary,' she reminded them. 'I wish I could forget that feeling. Even when I wasn't writing in it, I could feel its presence. Eventually, it felt like it had embedded itself in my skin – I could sense it when I was in class and it was locked in my trunk, and even over the Easter hols when I had gone home…' she shuddered, and eyed the locket nestled harmlessly in Harry's palm. 'If a piece of Riddle were in that thing, I would know. I would feel it.'
Harry was nodding as she finished her explanation, putting an arm around her. 'I know. That's how I felt, too. Even before I opened it and saw this.' He was undoing the clasp. Ron and Hermione sidled closer, peering over his shoulder as the locket fell open to reveal a scrap of recently-smoothed, scribbled-on paper:
To the Dark Lord
I know I will be dead long before you read this
but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret.
I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can.
I face death in the hope that when you meet your match,
you will be mortal once more.
'R.A.B…' Ron ran his callused fingers through his red hair before slumping down again. The forced confidence and genuine steadiness of the earlier battle was gone. Their trail, the object Dumbledore had died for, was a dead end, a false hope.
'So we have no idea…' Ginny picked up her brother's thoughts glumly, glancing at the now-useless sword gleaming gold and flame, reflecting the firelight roaring so happily beside it.
'None at all,' Harry answered dully, pocketing the locket once more. He wished Fawkes would sing again, allow his melody to loosen the ache that had wound once more in his chest like the Devil's Snare, but the phoenix was silent, probably gone, and the only sounds filling their ears were the crackle of the fire and the oppressive stillness of the black night.
Guests streamed away from the verdant lawn in the bright sunshine. It was a fitting explosion of glorious colour and riotous growth for the funeral of their brilliant, eccentric headmaster, but Hermione could not help but wish for a few clouds threatening rain. Albus Dumbledore had lived and died as a force of nature in and of himself, and it seemed unjust that the heavens did not weep at his passing.
The last several days had been amongst the most surreal and strange of a life that seemed composed of nothing but weirdness's. Snape was gone. Malfoy was gone. The school was in mourning – both for the immediate loss of the great wizard who had been a fixture in wizarding Britain for generations, and for the loss of one another.
McGonagall had announced the morning after that horrific night that Dumbledore had died, and that Hogwarts would be closing indefinitely. Hermione was grateful that her Head of House had spared them both the pain of blaming Snape in front of the whole school, though it mattered little. Within hours, the students all knew, whispers passing it from the solemn, frowning seventh years to the littlest eleven year olds. But the furious rumours that had accompanied the shattering events of previous years died down quickly as they prepared for living in a world at war. Hermione had never seen her peers act so maturely, and had the fleeting, uncharitable thought that it was about time they started.
She had heard nothing from her bondmate. The fear gnawing at her heart was the worry that she didn't want to. Harry's words in the hospital wing and their myriad implications had grooved a track in her mind. Even with all that she knew, even with all of his warnings… 'Snape passed Voldemort the information that made Voldemort hunt down my mum and dad.'
A gentle tug disturbed her thoughts. 'We're gonna take a walk,' Ron said gently. He'd sat between Hermione and Lavender for the full service, an arm looped around each of them. Hermione looked past the concerned blue gaze of her best friend to his girlfriend, who was wiping her eyes, smearing black streaks of mascara across her temples.
'I must look a mess,' she said, catching Hermione's gaze and summoning a watery smile.
'It's easy to fix,' Hermione replied quietly. 'Tergeo.' The black siphoned away, along with most of the rest of the other witch's make-up, but the fashion-conscious blonde didn't seem to mind.
'Coming?' Ron asked when she did not rise.
Ginny and Harry were already striding for the lake's edge, the vivid red of her hair and the stark blackness of his bobbing deliberately against the current of students, Ministry members, and staff headed indoors.
'Of course.' She stood slowly, carefully, biting back the desire to groan. The twins were now six months along, and getting heavier all the time. She was certain her ankles had begun swelling, too. It was a shame the glamours couldn't actually make her feel as slender and trim as she knew she looked.
The wind was picking up as they joined up by the lake, fluttering their bleak mourning robes open and cooling them. Hermione glanced at Ron and Lavender's tangled hands, then to where Harry had an arm around Ginny's shoulders, and felt a piercing shaft of loneliness. Fifth wheel. Unable to have with anyone the simple, united ease they shared with each another.
'Dumbledore gave me a task,' Harry started slowly, jade-green eyes locked on the iron-grey water. His voice sounded worn, tired, and Hermione glanced at him sharply, realizing he looked older, as if he carried an immense weight.
'The Horcruxes,' Ginny said.
'Yes. He thinks there are four remaining. One of them is the locket we failed to find. Another is a golden cup that once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff. He thinks Nagini, Voldemort's snake, is one. And a fourth that we don't know – but it probably belonged to Ravenclaw. Only when all four are destroyed will Voldemort himself be mortal.' He took a deep breath and now brought his eyes to meet each of theirs in turn. 'I can't ask any of you to do this with me. It's going to be dangerous. It might take years.'
'Shut up, mate,' Ron said, and though his words lacked heat, his expression was completely serious. 'We'll be there, Harry. We're going to your aunt and uncle's house with you and then we'll go with you wherever you're going.'
Hermione shook her head. 'You said to us once before that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We've had time, haven't we?'
'Loads,' Ginny agreed, and her arm tightened around his waist. 'This is our world, too, Harry. We're going to save it. You're welcome to come along for the ride.'
'I can make sure that you defeat Dark Lords and still come out looking glamorous for the cameras. We can't disappoint all those rabid "Chosen One" fans out there, can we?' Lavender said with a small smile.
Harry swallowed hard, opened his mouth, and couldn't speak past the sudden welling of emotion. Dumbledore's death had given rise to the fear that everyone who had loved and protected him had died. But the ferocity of his friends' – no, his family's – determination made it clear how wrong he was. His eyes were glossed now as they hadn't been through Dumbledore's service, and the five of them suddenly found themselves wrapped together in a fierce hug, limbs everywhere as they squeezed hands and stepped on toes without caring.
'The first step after your aunt and uncle's is the Burrow,' Ron said firmly as they stood packed together.
'Why?' Harry could think of at least a dozen reasons he didn't want to put the Weasley family in any more danger. Two of them were standing in his embrace.
'Bill and Fleur's wedding. Mum and Dad would go spare if we all missed it. Ginny's supposed to be a bridesmaid, and Mum wanted me to ask if Lavender would be in charge of flowers.'
He couldn't insult them by refusing. And a Curse-Breaker might have valuable information for Horcrux-hunting. 'After the wedding, then.'
When they backed away from each other and started towards the school again, their strides had an air of finality that wordlessly parted what remained of the crowd surrounding their headmaster's magnificent white tomb, and drew the majority of them in their wake.
'Word is that since Hogwarts is closing, people seventeen and up can join the Order of the Phoenix.'
Their compartment had hissed open to reveal Neville, Dean, Seamus and Parvati all jockeying to cram through, with a hallway full of people behind them. Dean's non-querying statement brought up five heads, gazes zeroing in on the queue rapidly spreading in both directions from their section.
Ron jerked his head, indicating they should enter. 'Only you four and Luna,' he cautioned, straining to spy the Ravenclaw's dirty-blonde braid as the whole line surged, sensing movement.
'She knows. Joining us this summer,' Ginny announced.
'The more against Voldemort, the better,' Harry answered firmly as the door slid closed again, shutting out the protests of those outside.
'Cheers,' Seamus grinned.
Hermione gave them hard looks. 'Rescuing Harry from the Riddle House is going to look like a stroll through Diagon Alley compared to what we'll face this year.'
'Yeah, well, Muggle-born, remember?' Dean answered harshly.
'Half-blood meself,' Seamus pitched in. 'Don't reckon they'll want me around.'
'How long until the Ministry falls?' Neville asked quietly.
'We don't know—' Hermione started.
'Professor McGonagall thinks a few weeks. Two months, at the outside,' Ron cut her off.
'So where do we go?' Parvati asked. 'Where do we meet?'
'London, but the house is Secret-Kept,' Harry told her. His gaze met Ron's, a decision was made, and he ran his right hand through his lengthening black hair. 'You'll all get wedding invitations. Attend with whatever you'll need to move to Headquarters.'
The compartment door slid open, beckoning them out. 'And cast Muffliato before you pass the word along,' Hermione added urgently. 'The last thing we need is Crabbe, or Goyle, or any of their friends hearing us.'
They exited into the corridor, and Harry collapsed next to Ginny. 'Mum might not be thrilled to have an extra twenty guests,' the young witch told him. 'Even if it is for the Order.'
'They won't be getting an invitation to the Burrow,' Ron said slowly, raising his eyebrows at Harry to invite the other wizard to continue.
'If the wrong person overhears, or the owl gets intercepted, or either Voldemort or the Ministry is tracking us students, I can't lead enemies into your parents' house,' Harry explained to his girlfriend. 'They'll be getting fictional wedding notices for dates spread throughout the summer, in a variety of locations.'
'Brilliant,' Hermione breathed. 'Then no one will be wondering why this large group of students who never associated at school all merit invitations to the same wedding.'
'Exactly. And if one of the invitations is intercepted, it won't compromise everyone,' Ron finished.
There was no one waiting for him at the train station.
Blaise Zabini felt a cold pit unfurl in the middle of his stomach. His mother had never failed to meet him here before. With the exposure of the Dark Lord, the steady growth of his army, the escalation of their violence and the closing of Hogwarts, there was only one possible reason his mother would not be here.
She couldn't be.
Sick with dread, the dark boy recalled his conversations with his traitorous Head of House. Snape's command to befriend Hermione Granger. 'However, all that being said, I...applaud...your efforts at inter-House unity. It indicates a maturity beyond your peers and, indeed, the trends of our time. Exercise caution, Mr Zabini, as you continue.'
Suddenly desperate, he turned on the spot and Disapparated from King's Cross Station, heedless of the Muggles that might see him disappear.
He Apparated directly into his family's old home. Smoke stung his nostrils even before his eyes opened to register a scene he'd never dreamed even in his worst nightmares.
Scorch marks blazed across the walls, through the fine drapes and tapestries in wavering lines. The burnt after-smell of violent magic filled his lungs, and he coughed, tears burning in his eyelids. Most of the furniture remained upright and untouched, as if in deliberately mockery of the shattered glass of the windows, the slashing contours of curses and hexes that gouged the marble fireplace and scattered fragments of photographs through the room.
The manor was large, but it was clear the fight had taken place in the west wing. But even with the rest of the house untouched, no one responded to his calls as he pelted through the corridors, not even the house elves.
'Exercise caution…' he trapped down the unbelieving laugh that skittered to his lips as he stopped at the bottom of the grand staircase at the entry. There had been an air about Snape that whole conversation, an almost…gentleness…that completely defied anything he'd ever seen or heard about the man. He should have known. Draco had been right all along. Snape was a Death Eater, a spy for the Dark Lord, and Blaise's desire to join the Order had signed his family's death warrant.
A/N: Thank you for reading, and please let me know what you think! The lines that you recognize, both from the infirmary and a few when Harry is talking about Horcrux hunting down by the lake, come from HBP, pages 614-616, and 651-652. The note that Regulus left for Voldemort is from p. 609.