It felt odd to return to the empty house. Harry couldn't credit how quiet it was without Severus around – no rustling of pages turned, no somnolent breathing, no squeaking of footsteps downstairs – nothing but silence, thick, deafening and oppressive.
For a while, Harry paced the living room, noting tokens of Severus' recent presence here and there, and finding his heart clenched at the sight of each – a book left on the couch, the quilted blanket, neatly folded on the armrest, a mug of unfinished tea.
Several times within a space of a quarter of an hour, Harry found himself heading back to the Floo, fully intent on barging back into Spinner's End, dragging Severus out of there and telling him they needed to come up with another solution. He stopped himself each time, anticipating Severus' indignation at such a turn of events.
When the Floo activated, it sounded shockingly loud in the otherwise silent house. Harry spun around, for a brief second hoping that it was Severus, changing his mind and returning home. When he saw Marietta emerging from the hearth, he couldn't hold back a disappointed grunt.
"Try not to overwhelm me with enthusiasm here," Marietta grumbled.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to, I just thought..."
She stared at him and smiled understandingly; there was no need to explain.
"I thought I'd come and wait with you," she said. "Do you mind?"
"I don't mind," Harry said tiredly, continuing to pace the living room. Marietta watched him. "I just... look, I can't help but feel like something is wrong. Something is wrong about this entire plan; I mean, it sounds logical and workable, but I know we're missing something, I just don't know what it is."
"All right, let's go over it step by step," Marietta said reasonably. "Are the wards on his house at Spinner's End secure?"
"Yes, very. Nobody would be able to force their way in easily. They will hold... well, for a long time."
"Okay. The alert system?"
"Will activate immediately, should someone attack. I set it up myself."
"How long will it take all of us to respond to the attack?"
"Not long. Minutes."
"Will Snape take any unnecessary risks?" Marietta asked.
Harry paused in his steps. "I hope not."
Marietta inclined her head.
"Then we've done all we can for now. All that's left is waiting. You should get some sleep."
"I doubt I'll be able to sleep."
"Then you should lie down and rest, because pacing the living room until morning isn't going to do you any good," she said calmly. "You will need a clear head when it's time to respond."
Harry couldn't argue with that. He went upstairs, leaving the couch in the sitting room to Marietta.
Once in his bedroom, Harry collapsed on the bed, resolving to rest, if not sleep.
Still, before sleep came, he wanted to take just a minute to think about everything that had happened lately and maybe, just maybe, locate that smallest piece of the puzzle he'd missed in the mad rush of the last days' events. Something that had to do with Ginny... the Snitch... the Underground.
Harry took a deep breath, let it out slowly and shut his eyes.
When the firecall came in, Severus walked to the Floo at once to receive it. Quite predictably, it was Diggory's face staring at him through the flickering flames.
"We need to talk," Diggory said briskly.
"Go ahead then."
"Not like this," the instant objection came. "I need to speak to you face to face."
Severus stared into the Floo, studying Diggory's face the best he could. "Really," he mused finally. "Why?"
Diggory paused for a bit. It appeared that the next words came to him with difficulty. "It's very important. In the light of... recent events I need your help," he said with obvious reluctance. "Will you let me come over?"
Severus couldn't help but feel the tiniest measure of respect for the man's candor; it was clear that this admission didn't come to Diggory easily. More to the point, Severus didn't feel like playing the games of evasion. He wanted to talk to Diggory just as much as Diggory wanted to talk to him.
"Very well," Severus said. "The Floo is blocked to you. You will have to Apparate to my doorstep. I will instruct the house wards to admit you. Come alone."
The conversation ended. A few minutes Severus heard the knock on the door and went to answer it, his wand drawn. Diggory entered the house alone. Seeming untroubled by the wand pointed at him, he made his way inside and sat down at the kitchen table without invitation.
For the longest time Diggory simply stared at Severus, as if uncertain where to begin.
"You don't seem surprised by my visit," Diggory observed finally. "Why is that?"
"You've wanted to talk to me for a while now," Severus replied. "In fact, you've been trying to get to me since the day I was found, but each time Potter frustrated your efforts. I was certain that you monitor Potter's house, as well as mine, and the Floo network, too. It' be shocking if you didn't take this opportunity to speak face to face."
"Well, thank you for seeing me." Diggory's lips quirked slightly. "Frankly, given everything that has passed between us, I'm surprised that you didn't set more conditions on our meeting. I'd have thought you'd at least request for me to leave my wand behind."
"Why?" Severus smirked. "If you were to attack me, we both know how that would end – with you disarmed and back on my doorstep."
Diggory inclined his head and allowed his gaze to rest on the wand in Severus' hands.
"Your duelling skills were rumoured to be extraordinary at one point," he said. "Though I imagine your reflexes have dulled over the last seven years."
"Would you care to to test that theory?" Severus asked testily, marveling at how quickly Diggory was beginning to get on his nerves.
Diggory waved him off. "No, I suppose that slow reflexes or not, you'll still wipe the floor with me. I'm a bureaucrat, not a soldier. More to the point, I am not the one you need to be concerned about. The real question is, will you be able to hold your own against your former colleagues – all at once?"
Severus didn't answer that. He knew he would fight tooth and nail against being recaptured, yet he couldn't help but wonder if his best would be enough.
"Or," Diggory continued mildly, "are you hoping that once the Death Eaters attack, your former students will rush to your rescue? I imagine they will. They seem to be very protective of you." Diggory paused and eyed Severus in a thoughtful way, as if trying to gauge the reaction those words had on him. Severus kept his expression neutral, even though Diggory had managed to hit a nerve with his observation. "Though you seem to be equally protective of them," Diggory added with an unhappy smile. "The other day – you risked your life to save Mrs. Potter. That was... well. Let's just say, I hadn't expected that."
Severus inclined his head to acknowledge Diggory's words.
"That's why I find your current actions surprising," Diggory continued. "That you'd be willing to let your former students come into the line of fire on your behalf."
"They wouldn't need to if the Auror Office was doing their job," Severus pointed out. "Why don't you back us up, should the Underground attack?"
"Let's say we will. And then what? Capture a handful of them, interrogate them, embark on a wild goose chase, searching for other compounds?" Diggory shook his head. "Those methods proved to be ineffective over the past seven years."
"I don't see you offering any alternatives," Severus said.
Diggory let out a long sigh.
"That's why I am here." He gave Severus a long, thoughtful look. "You really want to end this, don't you?"
"Yes," Severus whispered.
"Then let me tell you this. I have a solution to the Underground problem. A solution that will involve only you – and nobody else."
Severus felt a twinge of excitement at those words, the excitement of a man about to gamble his life's fortune on one last spin of the roulette wheel.
"Tell me more."
"No. Not here. But if you come with me, I will explain everything, and we'll put an end to this. Take down the Undeground, without having the young ones fight our battles. It should never have been their fight in the first place." Diggory was speaking with the passion of the man who believed his own words, and was eager to be believed. Severus smiled absentmindedly. He'd often wondered how someone like Diggory could have come to power, and now he understood. It wasn't just that Diggory could say all the right things, or knew what buttons to push – he really believed in his own cause; and that naïve, nearly childish faith was something that could resonate with people.
"You're certain it will work?" Severus asked.
"Yes." Diggory gave him a wary glance. "Will you come with me?"
Severus nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "I won't survive this, will I?" he checked.
"No," Diggory said with ruthless candor. "You won't. But what is the alternative? Waiting here, in this run-down Muggle neighborhood, for your former students – most of them with no combat training whatsoever – to come to your aid and protect you from the Underground? A confrontation like that will not be just messy – it will be bloody. There will be deaths. And at the end of the day you can't be certain that you won't be recaptured and killed anyway."
Severus let out a deep sigh. Diggory was right about one thing – even with Weasley's unit being involved, the confrontation could end up being a disaster. Then again, he had never intended for things to go that far. He had expected Diggory to show up and offer an alternative, and Diggory had not disappointed him.
"I want to know what your plan is," Severus insisted.
"I will explain everything to you once we get there," Diggory assured him again. "But I will not risk revealing my plan unless I am one hundred percent certain we will not be overheard."
"Very well." Severus rose to his feet and Diggory followed his suit.
"Leave your wand behind. You won't be needing it."
"All right." He allowed the wand to rest on the kitchen table and headed towards the doors.
Together, they stepped outside into the cold of the night. Severus looked around the neighborhood; all was quiet. The abandoned houses stood silent with their windows boarded up; the houses next to them had their lights out. The Muggle neighbours had all gone to bed. Privately, Severus envied them – people who were able to live their own lives, blissfully oblivious of the wars and battles being waged at their doorstep.
Diggory motioned for Severus to wait. Several Aurors approached them with their wands drawn.
"No need," Diggory assured them. "Mr. Snape is coming with us of his own free will." He turned to Severus. "We're going to scan you for tracking spells."
"Go ahead." In for a penny, in for a pound; there seemed to be little point protesting this.
One of the Aurors flicked his wand and cast the spell. It took him a few seconds to absorb the results.
"He's being tracked. The new tracking charm. Must be Weasley's doing."
Diggory gave Severus a cold stare.
"You didn't mention that."
"Frankly, I forgot all about it. Feel free to remove it."
"Thank you." Diggory nodded to the Auror, and the faint tingling informed Severus that the charm Ron Weasley had placed on him hours ago was now gone. He was on his own now, but there was no fear, only delirious excitement that everything was to become known – soon.
"Done." Diggory's fingers closed around Severus' wrist.
"Where are we going?" Severus asked. No answer was given, and the familiar sensation of Apparition came a moment later.
Harry woke up with a start – he hadn't noticed drifting off.
The house was quiet. Somewhere downstairs, Marietta was sound asleep. It was a calm before the storm, Harry knew that, and the horrible 'something wrong' feeling gripped him and didn't let go.
He shuffled downstairs, wand in hand, and came up to the couch, waking up Marietta with one gentle shake to her shoulder.
She sat up on the couch, rubbing her eyes.
"Did it begin?" she asked at once.
"No. I... I need to talk," Harry said. "Just to think out loud. Snape had us all so riled up that none of us actually stopped to really think about what exactly did happen on that Quidditch Pitch."
They sat on the couch facing each other. Marietta shook her head, banishing the remnants of sleep, in an attempt to focus.
"Tell me," Harry spoke cautiously, careful not to lose the train of thought that he'd barely managed to piece together, "why would the Underground target Ginny, of all people?"
"Well," Marietta mused, "I thought we had this worked out. They wanted to get you to... distance yourself from Snape... so that they could get to him..."
"Yes, but that's a rather convoluted way of going about it, don't you think? If they had the resources to set up an explosion in a secure area, why bother with the Snitch? Why not target Severus directly? They could have killed him just as easily."
"Maybe they wanted him alive?" Marietta hazarded a guess.
"But they don't," Harry pointed out. "They need him dead, and as soon as possible. Someone else though has been trying to get to Snape and get him alive for months."
"Diggory," Mareitta whispered and shivered. "Yes, I guess that makes sense, in a horrible way. It's just something they would do, too. The Ministry of Magic. Use your own family to get to you." She gave Harry a troubled glance. "All right. What do we do now? I mean... our plan could still work. Although if the Ministry intervene and try to snatch up Snape while we're trying to catch up to the Underground – well, things could get really messy. We might end up fighting a war on two fronts, and I don't know if we can win against the Ministry..."
"I don't like this," Harry said, rising to his feet. "We need to call the entire thing off. You go get Ron and Hermione, I'll go to Spinner's End. Met me there, all right?"
"Okay," Marietta agreed quickly.
Harry went to the Floo first and a moment later emerged in Severus' home. The living room was dark, but the light was still on in the kitchen. Harry rushed there, to find the kitchen empty. His stomach sdropped at the sight of Severus' wand, resting on the edge of the kitchen table.
At the top of his lungs, Harry called out to Severus, then sped upstairs, bursting first into the bedroom, then into the small laboratory, checking everywhere he could think of. Empty, all empty.
He shouted again, calling for Severus one last time. Silence answered him once more.
To Be Continued...