Thank for everyone for your reviews. Please read the announcement below.
Wynnleaf – Yes, Severus is at the end of his tether. That was deliberate from my point of view and I'm glad it's been picked up. I wanted to show him as a man running on willpower alone and what the physical effects of that were.
Sefransan – Thank you for your compliment about my writing style and characterization. When writing other people's characters I try to stay as true to the original authors intentions as possible. After all they're published and I'm not so they must be better writers!
duj – True about Sirius' likely reaction!
RoseDemocracy08 – Thank you also for the nice things you say about my story and writing style!
Zafaran – Well caught! I actually had post-Nazi occupation Europe in mind when I set the background.
Aerhiana and Stephanida – Thank you for adding this to your story alerts. I'm sorry it's almost at an end.
To new readers and old, especially those who keep telling me they don't like cliffies, here is the 23rd and final Chapter of this story. When I first started I was thinking in terms of 12, maybe 15 chapters but it grew slightly with the telling. Thank you all for coming on the journey with me.
Severus paused to draw breath. It looked as if the situation had stabilised. The enemy could not gain entrance from the back and the fight in the front had reached an impasse with the Ministry holding the Dining Room but unable to advance further. It wasn't perfect but hopefully it was a situation they could maintain until the ICW visit had commenced.
Potter and the younger Weasley boy were giving each other self satisfied grins as they kept their wands trained on the Dining Room. Then there was the sound of an explosion upstairs and Tonks screamed.
The sound was followed by a shouted Curse. Simultaneously, running footsteps thundered overhead and Severus knew George had left his post to investigate.
"They've blasted their way through from next door!" the surviving Weasley twin shouted down.
Severus turned to the others. "Kreacher, come with me. The rest of you stay here and stay on guard. Keep an eye on your rear. If they get past us they can attack you from both sides."
For a moment the others looked like they were going to argue with him. Then they nodded agreement.
"Good luck." Potter said. "You too Kreacher. Master Regulus would be proud of you."
Kreacher croaked his appreciation of the compliment, then followed Severus up the stairs.
As he climbed, Severus shook his head several times in a vain attempt to clear the mist that had settled before his eyes. He almost missed his footing and had to put out a hand to steady himself and grimly realised that his energy reserves were almost gone, the adrenaline rush that had flooded his body had been exhausted and, if the fighting did not end soon, his own body would treacherously turn against him.
'It can't last much longer!' he thought desperately. 'The International Confederation of Wizards must have arrived at Azkaban by now and once they've seen what the Ministry was planning, they'll send in a Peacewizard Force to arrest Scrimgeour, Fudge and their cronies for crimes against Wizardkind!'
In his heart, however, he knew that for him and the others, it was a false hope. The Ministry forces arrayed against Grimmauld Place were fully committed. It would be impossible for them to receive word of an ICW announcement in time to halt their attack, even if they were minded to do so. The house would eventually fall and, while the Ministry's insane plans might be foiled, most of those defending this place would die. All they could do was delay the inevitable for as long as possible in the hope of saving as many of the children and wounded as they could.
He and Kreacher reached the landing to find George and Tonks engaged in a vicious struggle with Ministry wizards who were streaming through a large hole in the wall. He noted with relief that Tonks seemed to be alright. Kreacher croaked out a battle cry and entered the fray, a carving knife in one hand and a frying pan in the other. He jabbed and whacked viciously right and left, at the Ministry wizards. Several tried to Hex or Curse him but, whether by luck or some House Elf magic, he remained unharmed.
Severus looked past the fighting to see Dolores Umbridge glaring in through the breach, her body half hidden by the wall as she urged the Ministry witches and wizards onwards with jerky stabbing motions of her stubby wand. He aimed a Body Bind Curse towards her. It missed, but she ducked back out of sight with a high pitched squeal of fear. He then turned his attention towards one of the hit wizards who had broken free of the fighting and was heading towards him. He hit her with a Jelly-Legs Jinx, then an Incarcerous. He spared a thought for Poppy and the wounded Order members behind the doors on either side of the corridor along which the fighting was taking place. He hoped the Room sealing spells they had placed on them would hold as he entered the battle in earnest.
Tonks and George, Kreacher and he were fighting like maniacs but were being forced back towards the stairs. Kreacher had narrowly avoided being hit by a jet of flame from an attacker's wand but one of his ears hung down over his face, blackened and dead. The rest of them had also taken injuries. Tiredly, Severus tried to consider his options. It was difficult to think, the mist before his eyes was growing thicker and thicker, he was finding it harder and harder to concentrate, especially as he also had to defend himself at the same time. What was eminently clear was that the four of them couldn't hold the Ministry; but if he called for reinforcements from the Potters and Weasley's still guarding the Dining Room, the Ministry wizards there would break out.
To his left, George yelled in pain. Severus Stunned his current opponent and risked a quick glance round to see Dolores Umbridge at the rear of the attackers, her wand pointing towards George and a look of vicious satisfaction on her face. At the same time, he noted that the corridor had opened out. They were now on the landing. That decided him. He despatched the witch nearest him with a full Body-Bind Curse, took a step back and shouted down the stairs.
"Up here, all of you! Potter, Ginny, help us. Percy, Ron, guard the stairs. Stop those in the Dining Room from joining with those up here."
"OK, Professor, we're on our way." Potter's voice shouted back.
In his exhaustion he had allowed his concentration to lapse for a split second and he felt the breath being pulled from his body as he was hit by a Jinx. His wand felt heavy in his hand and the mist before his eyes was almost blinding him. He felt himself falling. The sounds of the battle continued and he knew that the others were too hard pressed to help him. From what seemed a long way away he heard Umbridge's hated, high pitched voice scream her satisfaction as her familiar squat figure appeared over him. Even through the fog, Severus could see her lips drawn back, in a toad-like grin.
'This is it!' he thought, resignedly 'Is there truly life after death? If so, will Lily be there? Have I done enough to earn her forgiveness?'
Then Umbridge's expression changed to one of astonishment and she slowly sank to the ground. Shards of an ornamental vase scattered down on Severus' body. Looking up through the well of the staircase, he saw the cropped head of Lucius Malfoy hanging over the balcony two flights above him. As he watched, he saw the man lift another vase and throw it at another Ministry wizard who had arrived on the landing. Draco, Narcissa and Marietta Edgecombe appeared beside him and the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was the Ministry forces' retreating from the brightly coloured streams of spells being cast by Potter and his associates coming from below and the hail of missiles raining down on them from above.
Severus awoke to find his nostrils full of the familiar smell of potions and the clean, crisp feel of well laundered bed sheets against his body. His head rested on a cool, soft pillow. Keeping his eyes closed, he tried to work out where he was and cursed himself for his weakness in fainting. He was certain that he had returned to consciousness before but the memories were incomplete, and dreamlike. He remembered loud noises and a kaleidoscope of colours, then he had felt himself being gently lifted onto a stretcher which had been levitated so it floated gently out of a window and down to the ground below.
It seemed that, against all odds, he had been saved and was among friends. He opened his eyes and looked around, recognising immediately that he was in a private room at St. Mungo's Hospital.
"Ach, so you're back with us at last!" a familiar voice noted.
Severus turned to see Minerva McGonagall sitting in an easy chair close to his bed. She had put down the book she had been reading and was looking at him searchingly.
"How long?" he croaked.
"Ten days." She replied. "You were unconscious for two of them and the Healer's have been giving you something to make you sleep for the other eight." She paused and then burst out, "You fool! You should have told us about the state you were in! The Healers say your body couldn't have taken much more!"
"They exaggerate." Severus replied, indifferently. "And they believe in mollycoddling people unnecessarily."
He felt parched and looked round for a drink. Seeing a pitcher of water and a glass on the night stand next to the bed he raised himself up and reached out but found he didn't have the strength to lift the heavy jug. He looked for his wand but as he did so, Professor McGonagall came round and filled the glass, handing it to him. He drank thirstily.
"What happened?" he asked.
"The ICW expelled Scrimgeour and agreed to send in a Peacewizard force. Once they'd taken control of Azkaban, some of the other Order members and I Apparated to Grimmauld Place. We got there just in time. Everyone was retreating up the last flight of stairs with the Malfoy's providing cover. Harry and George were trying to pull you along by the shoulders despite being injured themselves." A catch caught her voice and she paused, swallowing heavily before continuing. "Anyway, once we arrived it was all over bar the shouting… and believe me that Umbridge woman did a lot of that!"
"What about everyone else. The children and the wounded?"
"Sturgis Podmore and Hestia Jones both died from their injuries. They were hit by powerful Curses during the Battle of Azkaban and Poppy couldn't save them." Minerva looked sad for a moment, then seemed to perk up. "But the children are safe and everyone else will recover, even Kreacher."
"And the Ministry?"
Professor McGonagall's lips thinned into a straight line. "Scrimgeour was arrested in his office. At least he retained some shred of dignity. Cornelius was caught trying to board a Muggle ferry for France." Her lips twitched. "I'm told he was disguised as an elderly lady!"
Then her expression grew hard. "As for dear Dolores, thanks to Lucius Malfoy she had a lump the size of a Griffin's egg and she was screaming blue murder when we got to the house. She screamed even more when she realised it was all over. It was getting on my nerves and upsetting the children so I transfigured her into a toad just to shut her up."
Severus raised an eyebrow at his former colleague. He smirked slightly as she added defensively. "She deserved it! Anyway, I'll transfigure her back before the trial. She's being kept in a nice vivarium. She's probably more comfortable there than in a cell at Azkaban!"
"Speaking of Lucius …"
"Kingsley Shacklebolt has been appointed as acting Minister of Magic until an election can he held. He has pardoned Lucius and his family and, in recognition of his help at Grimmauld Place, also returned his family's estates to him."
"What about me?" Severus asked. He looked around. "Where's my wand?" he tried to keep the panic out of his voice but failed.
"I have it safe." McGonagall assured him. "Your Healer says you're not to perform magic until you're strong enough so, knowing you as I do, I said I'd look after it until then. Kingsley refused to pardon you…"
Severus felt the bitter taste of gall rising in his throat. After everything he had done and sacrificed and, still, they had betrayed him! Shacklebolt could pardon the wealthy, well connected Malfoy but for him, there would only be more long years of imprisonment.
Seeing the anger on his face, McGonagall hastened to reassure him. "Kingsley believes that pardons are for those who were guilty but have redeemed themselves. So, instead of a pardon, he convened a special hearing of the Wizengamot, which totally exonerated you of all charges. They also voted to award you a very generous compensation package for false imprisonment." She smiled, affectionately at him. "Filius wants to stand down as Deputy Headmaster next year and I'd like to offer you the job but you are now wealthy enough not to need to work ever again if you live modestly!"
Severus settled back. "Acceptable." He pronounced.
"Kingsley also wants to award you the Order of Merlin 1st Class. The ceremony will take place just as soon as he's elected Minister." McGonagall added. "And there are sackfuls of Get-Well cards from well wishers outside. The hospital staff wanted to put them all out but I didn't think you'd appreciate that."
Severus looked at her in astonishment.
"You're a hero now." She explained. She picked up a copy of the Daily Prophet which had been resting next to her chair and displayed the front page.
Severus stared at the picture of him. They had somehow found one where he wasn't scowling. The headline above it proclaimed in bold type
'PROFILE IN COURAGE'
He reached out and took the paper from her and slowly began reading.
Two months later
The ceremony had been a long one as there were many Order members who were to be recognised for their work against Voldemort and the corruption of the Ministry. Finally it reached its climax and Severus tried to keep his face impassive as Kingsley Shacklebolt pinned the Order of Merlin to the new dress robes, personally made for him by Madam Malkin and shook his hand. The Atrium of the Ministry of Magic was crowded with the great and the good of the wizarding world. The flash bulbs of the cameras held by photographers from both the British and world wizarding press were almost blinding.
Then Shacklebolt turned to face the crowd. "Let each and every one of us follow the example of the brave men and women honoured here today by always doing what is right, not what is easy." He said.
His words were followed by a cacophony of sound and colour as fireworks, courtesy of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes exploded around them.
Severus felt more at peace than he had ever done before in his entire adult life. He turned to Potter, who, as another recipient of the Order of Merlin 1st Class, was standing beside him.
"Mr. Potter, let us slip away from here as soon as we can. I once made you a promise to tell you about your mother. I'm ready now to keep it." He said.
Potter gave him a shy smile in return. "Thank you Professor. I'd like that." he replied.
Across the atrium neither man saw the portrait of Albus Dumbledore smile in satisfaction.