4 April, 1998, 23:51

OOO

"Shouldn't we…I mean, when we've done this before, it's always been the black and the scarves and –" Michael shook his head, cutting Anthony off mid-sentence as he reached into his bookbag, burying his arm to the shoulder and stretching the sides carefully to check the Expansion Charm.

"That's the Commander's style, and that sort of Gryffindor flair has its place, sure, but this isn't it. Our biggest Shield Charm here is that we're almost expected to sneak into the library after curfew now and then, so if we get nabbed, it's better if they know exactly who we are." His voice sounded almost confident, but as he caught Terry's eye behind the other wizard's shoulder, he knew that at least one person knew exactly how frightened he really was.

It was true, of course, the sapphire fabric of their pajamas and the bronze eagles on the pockets really were their strongest alibis, but it would be at best a preservation of the mission, and they all knew that. After Milton's attack on Snape and all that had followed it, whatever reputation Ravenclaw had once enjoyed as scholars too academically detached for any real rebellion had long been lost. They would be punished terribly if they were caught, there was no question about that, but neither was there any real question that it would be worth it.

He saw Terry take a deep breath, running his hand nervously over his short-cropped hair as if he missed the ability to fidget with it. "Everyone memorized the list?"

There were nods all around, Stephen mumbling a few of the titles under his breath, and Terry made a curt, satisfied noise. "We head out then. Let's go."

The sculpted eagle knocker fluttered its wings with a thin, metallic clatter that seemed as loud as fanfare announcing their tentative escape from the tower, and there was a terrified pause where all four held their breath, hearts and minds pounding over possibilities that they had somehow missed an alarm spell. Yet there was no further noise, the seventh-floor corridor was pitch black and utterly empty, even the pictures in their frames slumbering and nearly as motionless as Muggle photographs.

They were thoroughly concealed beneath Disillusionment Charms, he could see no more of his roommates than the vaguest suggestion of a sense of movement, but he could still feel Terry's presence barely inches away, and it was almost comfort enough to keep his hands from shaking. Maybe we should tell Neville after all…or somebody. Colin, even. He's already Secret-Keeper.

No. Terry's silent rebuttal was firm. This is beyond the DA. It's got to hold even if we don't. We're taking history in our hands here.

Literally. Michael agreed. I'm just…. He trailed off, but he didn't need to finish. Terry knew better than anyone that he still wasn't fully recovered, that he was still a little sore, a little weak, but he'd been taking it easy the whole day to be at his best for this, and he was grateful that they hadn't tried to exclude him from what had become known as Operation Alexandria.

What felt like years of dry-mouthed skulking through corridors and careful navigation of shifting staircases later, they found themselves at the doors of the library, and Michael raised his wand, feeling it hum faintly in his palm in response to the magic already there. "We need the Portal," he whispered. "The current regime doesn't seem to support after-hours study groups."

Stephen didn't hesitate, kneeling at once to smooth the thin circle against the wall, and the stone seemed to melt away at once, stretching and shimmering to open a neat, round opening through which the stacks of the library could be seen clearly. Anthony went first, already crouched to duck through, wand at the ready, and there was another hesitation, another few ghastly-loud heartbeats before the faint, golden flash. One long, two short. All clear.

Terry nearly lost his fingers pulling the Portal away from the inside once they were all through, but after that moment of shared panic, Michael discovered that he felt far more relaxed now. This was his true habitat, his chosen milieu even more than the dormitory or his own bedroom at home, where the smell of old leather and musty paper was as warm and comforting as a mother's embrace. His pulse slowed, a faint smile forming as he ran his hand gently over the tooled spines. Bene legere saecla vincere.

Breaking into the Restricted Section was a skill Stephen had mastered in fifth year, and many of the books were familiar to all of them, but their final destination was nothing so pedestrian as a volume of spells with potentially unpleasant consequences, and Michael's throat tightened, the weight of history palpable in the air so suddenly too thick to breath. The collected works of D'Aurillac, Perecelses, and Flamel. The Artes Magicae, the Golden Legend, the Dialogus Miraculorum, letters and notes from the genesis of spells that had felled kings and shaped empires…every faded and fragile volume priceless beyond reckoning; the most precious collection of magical literature assembled in the entirety of the western world.

And they were going to steal it.

He held his breath as Terry's hand stretched out, refusing to give in to the temptation to reach out with the Legilimency, knowing his friend's concentration had to be flawless. According to their research, these shelves were self-protective, and they could only hope that if legend could be trusted that Rowena Ravenclaw had cast the spells herself, they would know the intent of her own, no matter how many centuries intervened.

There was a faint shimmer of blue, and Terry gave a jerk, almost as if burned, but before Michael could react, his hand passed through the light to touch the edge of Merlin's own Opus Malificarum, and the thrill of relief was almost a sob. It understood. Oh, it understood!

One by one, sweat beaded on his forehead, his lips pale as ash in the light of their wands, Terry lifted the ancient tomes from the stacks, Anthony performing a Gemino that sounded like prayer to create a perfect copy of each one. Those were returned to their precise places by Stephen, while Michael himself took the nerve-wracking task of settling the books carefully into his magically expansive and painstakingly cushioned bag. The atmosphere within had been transfigured to pure nitrogen, humidity and temperature precisely controlled, but it still seemed horribly reckless, and he was balanced on an edge of reverence and horror so tight that it melded to giddy impossibility.

When the last forgery was in place, their two roommates vanished into the shadows to prepare the chamber where the originals would be hidden, and Michael and Terry were left briefly alone to make a final inspection of the stacks, to ensure that nothing had been mis-shelved or overlooked. There would be no second chances. They all knew that.

Terry's eyes were so wide that white showed all the way around the rims of the deep blue irises, and Michael licked his lips with a tongue that felt as dry and rough as sandpaper as he looked at his friend. Sweet Merlin, Terry, I can't believe I'm holding –

We're fucked.

The thought was so calm, so matter-of-fact that it took Michael a second to process what it actually was, but when he did, a surge of sheer, adrenaline-spattered terror swept over him in a wave so thick that he staggered, barely feeling Terry's hand catch his shoulder to keep him from sagging to his knees as the dark outline of the shadow fell over them. He knew that shadow, but more than that, he knew what Terry had seen, had seen the image himself through the eyes that didn't even need to be his.

Still, it was worse when he did manage to gather himself enough to turn, his stomach churning a heave of bitter-sour into the back of his mouth that was barely swallowed back as the name rasped from Terry's lips. "Professor Snape."

The Headmaster's sallow face was a sickly green in the light of his outstretched wand, his thin mouth twisted around a smile as one black eyebrow arched imperiously. "Mr. Boot. Mr. Corner…I have no doubt, given your mutual reputations, that your explanation for why you are here will be extremely clever, but nonetheless, bis interimitur qui suis armis perit."

Terry's mouth opened, closed, but all that emerged was a low, rasping breath; half a moan, half a whisper. Nous sommes tres morts.

Michael could not have agreed more fervently, but whether it was the greater knowledge of what the strap biting across his chest and shoulder truly held, or whether the fear had simply swallowed itself in a perfect Oraborus of dread, the urge to vomit had vanished. Instead, he felt weirdly separated from his own body, a sensation he could only compare to the deepest moments of Legilimency or the tenuous threshold of a dream as he saw himself draw his back straight and square his shoulders, looking the hated Professor directly in those cold, black eyes.

The voice was that of a stranger; clearer and bolder, stronger and more evenly, authoritatively mature than he had ever heard from his own lips. "I don't care what you do to us, Professor, but I know you're a scholar yourself, that you've invented spells and potions that are part of the standard texts now, no matter what your politics or morals, and I would appeal to you on that; wizard to wizard."

Snape's head tilted almost imperceptibly, and though his narrow features gave no sign of reaction, nor did his wand waver, he also did not simply curse his two captives. "You would appeal to me?"

"These books!" Michael gestured to the shelves behind him, feeling the flush of passion beginning to replace the pallor of fear in his cheeks. "This year is madness, Professor, you know that, and you know that the dogs of war roam the halls of Pallas whether we would pretend them leashed or not! One spell, one duel, one battle is all it would take for a tragedy unparalleled since Alexandria! We're only –"

A bang, a flash, and Michael braced himself, squeezing his eyes shut in preparation for what he knew was coming, and oh, it must be bad this time, something that would be apocalyptic once the numbness of shock wore off, because he could feel nothing, even as he knew he was falling, heard his body strike the floor....

But there was no pain, just hands on his shoulders, and as his eyes blinked open again, he realized dazedly that the hands were Terry's, that he had fallen only to his knees, and that the impact he had heard was Snape, lying now face-down in a crumple of black robes with Stephen and Anthony standing over him. Stephen's dusky complexion had taken on a horrible ashen verdigris, and his wand was shaking violently as he lowered it. "Holy fucking shit!"

The harder consonants and clipped rhythm of the Canadian accent underlined the simple, appropriate vulgarity of the phrase, and Michael nodded dumbly, still transfixed by the insensate lump of what he had been so certain was about to be yet another lesson in new realms of agony. "Yeah, Steve." The unnatural assurance was gone, the whisper that of the rattled barely-more-than-boy he really was, but he didn't bother to be ashamed, more than able to see that they were all just as frightened.

It was Terry who composed himself first, stepping forward to lower his own wand at Snape. "Obliviate!" His face was still pale, but the Commander had made his choice well, and the leadership was shaky but still there enough as he turned to the others. "Steve and I both got him hard, but that doesn't give us long. The chamber?"

Anthony nodded, though his eyes never left Snape. "Ready. Cut it into one of the oldest walls, past the stone and into the central rubble. There's no breaching that unless you tear the whole tower down."

"And if they do, it'll still hold once we're done with it," Terry said quickly, rubbing his hands together as if to force sensation back into numbed fingertips. "Tony, you stay here, keep an eye on Slumbering Severus there. We can make do with three, I guess."

"No." Anthony shook his head firmly. "I don't want to skew the odds against us like that. At least two of us have to survive to retrieve them, and it's better if that's only fifty percent instead of two-thirds."

Terry hesitated, then agreed reluctantly, and although Michael knew he had been right, it was still a nightmare of constant apprehension as they rushed to finish their mission. Every noise, every breath – even his own – was Snape stirring to come down on them all, and the tension strung the lingering shadows of his torture until Terry lifted the bag from his aching shoulders, helped him to sit as the final layers of complex spellwork were added.

He was exhausted by the time they reached Ravenclaw tower again, but they were all still far too keyed-up to sleep. They didn't dare say anything, feeling as though they had laid to rest a secret so huge as to be desecrated by words even between the conspirators, but he was grateful there was no such barrier with Terry as his friend gently opened his pajama top, smoothing a layer of salve across where the strap had bruised the still newly-healed tissue. I shouldn't have let you carry them.

I'm grateful, even if it was all about practicality.

Terry snorted mildly, pausing as he scooped up another fingerful of the useful but disgusting concoction. Well, at least it all worked out. That was….

Close.

Understatement.

But they're safe now.

And hopefully forever. Operation Alexandria was a success, I'd say. Terry's smile was uncertain, but Michael knew that it had nothing to do with doubts as to their mission itself as he reached up, clasping his hand over his friends' tightly.

A complete success. But make me a deal?

I'll have to withhold agreement for terms, if you don't mind.

Promise we leave future dumbshit stunts to the Gryffindors?

The smile widened to a full-fledged grin, and even though the tower dormitory remained dark and silent to anyone who might be interested in the enforcement of curfew, Terry's laughter beamed through Michael's thoughts like the living memory of summer sunshine. Absolutely! Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare!

TO BE CONTINUED