Disclaimer: I don't own HP or any of the copyrighted stuff.

Chapter Twenty – Love and Loyalty

Though living in a Muggle flat and desiring not to attract attention for it usually curbed Tasha Umbra's magic use, Christmas was a bit of an exception. Not that she hadn't learned to be fairly proficient at most things without it, but something about Christmas just demanded a touch of magic.

Sam seemed enthralled by the real magic snow on the tree and banister of the stairs, but even more so when Reneey repeatedly sent her pet puffskein sledding down it on a coaster. The creature's fur was naturally snow white, but Reneey insisted on constantly dyeing it whatever colors she happened to like at the time. For the holiday, it was striped red and green with gold glitter.

"It's so cute!" Sam squealed, tentatively ruffling its fur. "Does it bite?"

"Not usually," Reneey said happily, and Sam drew back slowly.

"Don't let her scare you," Lyn said with a roll of her eyes. "It's true most puffskeins have their fangs removed before they're sold, and Crystal still has hers because she was born feral. But she's never bitten anyone that wasn't trying to hurt her. That's why Reneey thinks she bites—because she bites Reneey for being mean to her."

"I'm not mean to her!" Reneey argued.

Lyn gave a pointed skeptical look. "Reneey, you tried to drown her."

Reneey huffed. "I tried to teach her to swim!"

"On that note, who wants some homemade mini apple pies?"

Again, Sam looked happily surprised. "They're so tiny they look like apple pie muffins!"

"They're Mum's special recipe," Lyn said with a grin.

"Baked with love and a little bit of magic," Tasha said with a laugh. "That was Lyn's favorite joke when she was younger."

Lyn rolled her eyes but smirked. "To be fair, I also used to think that knock-knock joke about the hippogriff was hilarious. I've matured. Now I'm on to 'Why did the hippogriff cross the road?' jokes."

Sam chuckled appreciatively, but Reneey glared. "But why are we sitting around here talking about jokes when there are presents to be unwrapped?!"

The day went beautifully until Sam and Reneey passed into a sugar coma in the living room on top of the Monopoly board. Then Lyn helped clear up the dishes for her mother, and Tasha finally got to ask the question that had been in her eyes since the car ride home.

"Lyn, dear, has something… happened at the school?" she asked cautiously as she collected teacups.

Lyn stopped in the middle of reaching for a fork that had somehow wound up decorating the Christmas tree, then forced a grin and said, "Well, of course. Charms backfiring, cauldrons exploding-there's a boy in my year that keeps making everything explode, actually…"

Tasha put down her load of dishes by the sink and fixed her adopted daughter with a look that only mothers knew how to wield. "Lyndotia, I know you better than that."

Lyn swallowed hard and took her time putting the silverware into the sink slowly so that she wouldn't wake up the girls in the next room. She couldn't bring herself to look up, but she admitted quietly, "Mum, I… I'm afraid."

Frowning, Tasha put a hand on the girl's arm. "Afraid? Whatever of? You're a fine young witch, darling. Nothing else anyone might say should matter."

Lyn almost laughed. Her mother thought the problem was someone at school making fun of her. Merlin, she wished it was that simple! Taking a deep breath to steel herself, Lyn turned to look at the woman that had raised her, the woman that had given up a life of magic to keep her and Reneey safe, the woman that had the most reason to fear what she was about to say… and whispered, "Mum… he's coming back."

The look on Tasha's face was one of stunned disbelief, and her very forced laugh matched it. "Whatever are you talking about? Who is 'he'?"

"You know who."

"If you mean the man that left you to me, then I'm sure you're mistaken," Tasha insisted, stacking a pile of dessert dishes haphazardly so that she had an excuse not to look at Lyn. "Dumbledore—"

"Dumbledore doesn't know," Lyn said miserably, her eyes begging her mother to understand. "Please, Mum, you have to believe me. He's coming back. He's coming back and he—he wants me to obey him."

Tasha turned at last to look into her daughter's eyes, her expression equal parts wary and fierce. "Lyn, are you having dreams again? You can't believe what you see in them, I've told you; you can't let them get into your head."

Lyn didn't know how it happened, but suddenly there were tears welling in her eyes. Her voice trembled as she said, "Mum, it wasn't a dream. He sent for me to come to the forest. He Obliviated a couple of Ravenclaws that followed me. Maybe he isn't strong enough yet to come back for good, I don't know, but he was there. I saw him. You have to believe me."

Tasha Umbra was already pale, but what little color she had drained from her face as Lyn spoke. "Are… are you sure?" she whispered, as if suddenly afraid the night had ears. "It wasn't a dream or a vision? Some kind of apparition or trick of the forest?"

Tears streaked Lyn's face, but she couldn't bring herself to care. "He held a wand, Mum. He was going to kill those boys. He still will, if I don't do what he wants, maybe me too."

"He won't hurt you," Tasha said, though her tone endeavored to convince herself as much as her daughter. "You're the oldest."

"Exactly," Lyn croaked miserably. "He has a spare."

Tasha pulled Lyn into her arms, cradling her there like she was still the toddler that used to wake up, screaming from nightmares. And Lyn just clung to her mother like that same frightened toddler, feeling just as helpless and just as lost.

"You can't go back there," Tasha decided finally, once Lyn's sobs had stopped.

Lyn pulled away, eyes wide with fear. "I have to. He'll know."

"How?" Tasha challenged. "Has he sent word for you to meet him again? How long would we have to run before he knew we were gone?"

"He… he has someone in the castle," Lyn admitted. "He would know as soon as I didn't come back from holiday."

"Professor Dumbledore must know," Tasha realized aloud. "We have to warn him."

"I-I can't! Mum, he'll kill people!"

"And he will kill far more if he isn't stopped," Tasha said emphatically, holding Lyn's shoulders. "Listen to me, Lyn. It isn't your fault if that happens. But if you stand by and let it, then it will be." She kissed Lyn's forehead and urged, "Be brave, sweetheart. Be brave like your mother."

"Yes, like your mother," said another, colder voice, and Lyn literally shrank back in fear as Professor Quirrell stepped into the kitchen with his wand drawn. "Like the woman that died writhing and begging on her knees."

Tasha put herself between Lyn and Quirrell, demanding, "Wh-who are you?!"

"It doesn't matter," Quirrell hissed, twirling something shiny and green between his fingertips that Lyn couldn't see over her mother's shoulder. "The likes of you will not deny my master's return. Avada Kedavra!"

Tasha collapsed in a flash of green light and Lyn screamed, screamed so loudly she was certain everyone within ten miles should have come running, but Reneey and Sam didn't even stir on the sitting room sofa. Quirrell smiled viciously and repositioned his wand, and Lyn realized he had killed them both.

As she stared down the tip of that wand in terror, suddenly the face behind it began to morph. No longer was it Quirrell standing there in front of Tasha Umbra's body, but Lord Voldemort himself—a tall, deathly white-skinned man with searing red eyes and snake-like slits for nostrils. There was something strange and echoing about his voice as he hissed, "Do not betray me."

Lyn awoke with a start, still screaming, on the floor at the foot of the sofa. Sam jerked awake, looking terrified, and Reneey fell off her chair by the Monopoly board with a yelp. Tasha came running in from the kitchen, and held a hand to her chest in relief when she saw no one was hurt.

"Lyn—dear, are you all right? Was it a bad dream?"

Still shaking a little, Lyn looked around the room to reassure herself it had been only a dream. And that's when she saw the ornament on the table, an emerald-colored serpent with rubies for eyes. That hadn't been there before—Lyn had never seen it before in her life. Except, she realized, in Quirrell's hand in that dream.

But it hadn't been a dream; someone had planted the serpent there to show her that. It had been a warning.

Do not betray me.

Lyn swallowed hard and put on a sheepish smile for her mother. "Yeah. Sorry, Mum. Don't worry."

No, Lyn would take care of all the worrying on her own, because she was being watched… by someone that could get into the house if she failed her father.