Chapter 40 – Setting the Stage

Ron Weasley found himself in a bit of a dilemma.

Oh, he was not in trouble—in fact, this year had been remarkably free of danger, compared to his first four years in school. He had done his schoolwork to the best of his ability, something for which he had Harry to thank—Harry had been a great motivator with his new studious nature, which was ironically, much more than Hermione had ever managed to encourage him to do. Of course, Ron was somewhat embarrassed at this fact, knowing that at times, he had taken Hermione for granted. Both he and Harry had, to be honest. And though he knew he would never be the most studious or the smartest, Ron was happy with the uptick his grades had seen that year; and just in time for OWLs too!

But it was not his grades which troubled him—the simple fact of the matter was the fabled "Golden Trio" was a thing of the past, and Ron missed it immensely. In the past it had always been Ron, Hermione and Harry against the world. Now, Ron knew that Fleur had to a large part taken his place. If the indications he had seen over the past three weeks were anything to go by, Hermione had taken his advice—not that he had been the only one to give it, he was certain—and was taking the chance to get closer to Harry. That, of course, would solidify them as a trio, with Harry as the linchpin around which the two girls would orbit. He might have thought that he would feel jealousy over this development, but curiously Ron did not. He had done a lot of thinking since Hermione had refused him, and he had come to the conclusion that she was right. She had been his infatuation—they would never have worked out as a couple. Not that Hermione would not be a great girl for some lucky guy—on the contrary to the right guy Hermione would be absolutely brilliant as a girlfriend. He knew that Harry was that guy—he was good for her in a number of ways. He wished his friends the best.

But that did not make his exclusion any easier to bear, though to be truthful, Ron was aware that they had not excluded him consciously. Harry was still his best mate, and they still hung around together, talked and joked around often, and generally acted as best friends normally did. And perhaps that was the problem—in the past they had been much closer than normal best mates, the three of them sharing almost everything and spending almost every waking hour in one another's company. Their relationship was now more what best mates normally shared. By contrast, Harry's every waking moment seemed to be spent in the company of his two lady friends. He had naturally gravitated to his betrothed, and the girl who Ron strongly suspected would become his second wife.

Ron had to suppress a shudder—better Harry than him! And it was even worse for Harry, as there were other girls who were interested in him in far more than a friendly way. Of course, Harry could always have had his pick of girlfriends, not only due to his position as heir of the Potter legacy, and his general good looks and easy-going demeanor, but also due to the whole Boy-Who-Lived angle. The problem was, that most of the other girls saw the Boy-Who-Lived first, and Harry a distant second, though there were some who had come to know him on a more personal basis.

He would have been blind not to see the looks Harry received, and the interest, while understated to a certain extent, he generated. Of those of their extended circle of friends, Ginny was the most notable—and the most obvious!—who was interested in him, though others—Daphne and Susan—had also seemed to be sniffing around him. Even some others—Lavender Brown, the Patil twins, and Romilda Vane, for example—had made no secret of the fact that they considered the Boy-Who-Lived fanciable. Not that any who looked and saw the Boy-Who-Lived would ever land him.

Of the girls closest to him, not named Fleur or Hermione, he supposed that Ginny had made great strides, becoming more of a friend. Susan, who was at times a little tough to read, was very low key and upbeat in her interactions with him, and Daphne appeared to consider him more of a business partner. Any of the other girls, Ron suspected would not even stand a chance, though he doubted Harry would ever obtain the level of feeling for any other girl that he obviously felt for Fleur and Hermione. Ginny was still too in awe of him, Susan was nice, but kind of boring (at least to Ron), and while Daphne might agree to a marriage for the reason of cementing an alliance, Harry would almost certainly never agree to such a thing again. No, Ron suspected that it would end up being the three of them.

Steering his random thoughts back to the dilemma he faced, Ron put the thought of Harry's girls and potential girls from his mind. What was bothering him was the way Harry was acting—the way all three of them were acting, to be honest. It was nothing which would give anyone who did not know Harry any pause, but to Ron who knew Harry as well as anyone, the signs were there. There was something in the works; Ron was certain of it. And in the past he knew he would have been in the thick of it. Now, he was looking in from the outside, wondering what was going on. This must be how Neville must have felt, over the years when the three of them were often out saving the world, while Neville sat on the sidelines looking on. Or tried to intervene, in the case of their first year.

The question was, what should he do about it? What could he do about it? Knowing Harry, whatever he was up to had to do with saving something—or saving the world—and any interference on Ron's part could put whatever he was trying to accomplish in jeopardy. And given what had occurred during their first four years of school, that was certainly not a desired option.

On that Wednesday night, he found that he was not the only one who had noticed Harry's behavior. The club meeting ended early that evening, and the trio left the room as soon as the club was dismissed, another unusual event, considering the fact that Harry usually stayed late to answer questions and offer additional instruction. That night, however, he appeared tired, yet determined.

Ron was about to pack it in himself when he was approached by several club members, Neville—Luna as ever close by—Daphne, and Susan among them, though Ginny, Tracey, as well as the twins, were following them. On a certain level, Ron was still not certain what to make of the Slytherins—Daphne and Tracey were nice, and all, though with Tracey, Ron often got the impression that she was laughing at the world, given her overly sarcastic sense of humor and rather jaded views. But they were still Slytherins and Ron had grown up not trusting the entire house, believing that the whole lot of them were dark wizards. Regardless of how he had spoken out for them the first time they had attended the club, he still found himself wary of them.

"Hey Ron," Neville greeted him as he approached.

"Neville," Ron replied, wondering what this was all about.

"You've been friends with Harry since first year," Neville began a little hesitantly. "Have you noticed anything… off about him lately?"

"What, you mean the whispered conversations with Fleur and Hermione which they break off whenever any of us get close?" Ron replied a little testily. "Or maybe it's the way Harry is distant and moody when he hasn't been that way all year. Or the way he seems almost sneaky, like he's hiding something from us."

"What do you know about it, Weasley?" Tracey demanded.

"Nothing more than you," Ron grunted in reply.

"But you do think that something is going on," Daphne spoke up.

"Listen, everyone," Ron said, his eyes taking in the entire group, "I've known Harry and Hermione for a long time now, and I've been a part of most of the things that they've been up to. I can tell you for a fact that something is up, though they haven't told me anything about it."

The others all exchanged glances. "Well, what should we do about it then?" Neville asked.

"Nothing," Luna replied at the same time Ron said, "Not much we can do."

Several frowns met their joint statements, but Luna immediately spoke up in her usual airy way. "If Harry wanted us to know what is happening, he would have told us, unless, of course the Nargles ran off with his tongue. It would be tough for him to tell us without a tongue. But since I'm pretty sure that hasn't happened, he will tell us if he thinks we need to know. Until that moment comes, we will just have to be patient—we could mess up what he's doing and cause problems."

She then turned to Neville and taking hold of his arm, began directing him from the room. "Come, Neville. We have a little time before curfew and you are such a good kisser."

Though his back was turned to them, those remaining had no trouble imagining Neville's blooming cheeks, the thought of which elicited no small number of snickers from the group. Ron grinned at the retreating pair—Luna had always been kind of a little sister, undoubtedly due to the fact that Ginny and Luna had played together as girls. She and Neville made a somewhat odd, but obviously very happy, pair.

"Unfortunately, I think she's right," Ron spoke into the ensuing silence. "We can keep an eye on Harry, but until he decides to tell us, there's not much we can do. Be ready for anything—with some of the things we've been up to in the past, you never know what's coming."

Ron could see that answer had satisfied no one, but other than a few grumbles, no one said anything further and the group began to break up. All, that is, except for one Daphne Greengrass. The tall brunette watched Ron for several moments before she approached him with a determined expression on her face.

"Are you certain you are telling us everything?"

A frown came over Ron's face. "Everything I know," he said tersely. "I'm his best mate, but you know who he turns to for advice."

"Understood," Daphne replied with a sympathetic smile. She hesitated for a moment before she said, "The changes this year with his betrothal to Fleur must be hard for you."

Trying to show his nonchalance, Ron shrugged and said, "He's still my best mate, and I'm his too. And he's never really gone to me that much for advice anyway—Hermione's kind of always filled that role. And a bloody good thing it is too."

Smiling, Daphne turned to leave. "Let us know if you hear anything then."

"Daphne," Ron spoke up, prompting to turn back toward him with a questioning glance. He was not certain why he stopped her, but given what he had witnessed for the past few months, he thought she would benefit from a little advice. "If you're trying to attract Harry's attention, you're going about it the wrong way."

A raised eyebrow met his words. "Who says I'm trying to attract his attention?"

Rolling his eyes, Ron said, "I'm not completely blind, Daphne."

"Oh?" the brunette asked. "Word has it that you wouldn't know a relationship if it bit you on the nose."

"The emotional range of a teaspoon, according to Hermione," Ron replied with a grin. "Hanging around with Harry and everyone else has brought my range all the way up to a tablespoon, I would think."

"You mentioned something about going about it the wrong way?" Daphne prompted.

"Well," Ron started slowly, "you almost seem to be approaching Harry like some sort of project or a business partner. But I can tell you that Harry doesn't work that way. If he isn't convinced that you love him, and he doesn't love you, he will never even consider you that way. Purebloods are raised to understand that our parents might set up a contract for us, but Harry wasn't raised that way."

"He is in a contract himself, isn't he?" Daphne jibed.

Ron cut her off impatiently. "And what does he feel for her now?"

"But he didn't feel that way at the start."

"No he didn't. But I'm telling you that he does now. He was forced into this one, and now that he knows that marriage contracts are possible, I will guarantee that he will never enter into another one, which leaves that option out. If you want to get close to him and are really considering him as a prospective husband, then you will have to do it the old fashioned way. Otherwise, I think you will have a hard time convincing him."

Musing to himself for a few moments, Ron said, "That's really Ginny's problem, to be honest. She's always seen the Boy-Who-Lived, and a larger than life Harry, and he doesn't like that stuff. She's come a long way, but I still don't really think she'll ever really grow out of it. I can't really ever see Harry getting together with her."

"I assure you that I see more than just the Boy-Who-Lived," Daphne said, her tone a trifle testy.

"And I believe you," said Ron affably. "I'm just saying that trying to get together for the wrong reasons will get you nowhere. Personally, I can't really see him with anyone but Fleur and Hermione. But if you really want to try to become closer to Harry, I suggest you try making an emotional connection with him."

Daphne watched him for several moments before a wry smile broke out over her face, rendering her uncommonly pretty, he mused absently. "I think you might have actually graduated to a small ladle there, Weasley. That was pretty insightful."

"I do try," Ron replied with mock haughtiness, while buffing his fingernails on his shirt. "But also try to keep it under wraps—I have a reputation to protect, you know."

Making a face at him, Daphne said, "Don't let it go to your head. To be honest, I'd already come to the same conclusion myself, though I thought there was some possibility of convincing him otherwise. I'm not sure I want a husband simply to create an alliance either but I'd do it if I thought it would help my family."

"Harry doesn't need any of that," Ron stated firmly. "If he likes you and considers you his friend, he'll go to the ends of the earth for you. He doesn't need fancy contracts and treaties to give his loyalty to you."

"I can certainly tell that you've been his friend for years. You got his responses down to a tee."

Now Ron was confused. "Come again?"

Daphne smiled at him saucily and sashayed away. "Sorry, Ron," her voice floated back to him, "I need to keep some secrets."

Shaking his head, Ron looked around the room and, seeing that he was the last one there, made his way from out the door and back toward the Gryffindor common room, trying not to think of how he would have been in the company of his two friends only the previous year. He was not going to let it get him down, though it did still weigh on him. He had always known that at some point there would be a divergence in their lives—they would get married and have kids and though they would always be best mates, they would also have responsibilities and lives with their own families. It had just come sooner than he would have expected. Minus the children, of course. Or at least he hoped Harry was not going to have children any time soon.

With a shudder, Ron put the matter firmly from his mind and began preparing himself for bed.

Being a double agent certainly had its perks. The ability to claim to be on the winning side no matter who won, for example, was an invaluable benefit to one who ultimately looked after his own interests first. Unfortunately, this line of work was also hazardous for one's continued health, and was becoming deadlier all the time.

To be honest, Severus Snape was well aware of the fact that it was not so cut and dried in his own situation. If the Dark Lord should actually come out on top, his own life could be measured in the amount of time it would take for him to raise his wand against his lord. That much was an inescapable fact, considering his situation and vows. Of course, the Dark Lord himself was not aware of that fact—or at least Snape hoped he was not. No, if Potter did ultimately fail, as Snape expected him to, then Snape would have no option but to tackle the Dark Lord by himself and attempt his revenge on his own. By that point, death would be the only option anyway, and he would much rather take the bastard down with him as his last act of vengeance. Not that he would stand much of a chance against the tosser.

Making his way down through the hallways of Hogwarts, Snape considered his situation moodily, wondering how it had gotten to this point. He was on his way to see the Dark Lord, passing on false information in order to mislead him into a trap. In other words, he was helping one bane of his existence try to defeat the other bane of his existence. The fact that he was doing anything at all to actually help that misbegotten whelp was almost more than Snape could endure.

But there was nothing to be done. One was merely the son of his most hated enemy growing up—a person he would gladly feed to the Grindylows, given the chance—but still just the son. The other was the man who had taken the life of the one person in the world Snape had ever truly cared about. It was vengeance on Snape's mind, pure and simple, and in order to ensure it happened, he would need to play nice with Potter.

Perhaps I can ensure Potter has a fatal accident should he defeat the Dark Lord like a good little weapon should, he thought somewhat vindictively.

It was, of course, a fond dream that the Potter line should suffer an ignominious disappearance from the world. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on one's opinion—Snape was many things, but what he was not, was a murderer. His role in the Dark Lord's schemes had always been one from the shadows, and as a result, though he had taken the Dark Mark willingly as required, he had never committed some of the more heinous crimes his fellows had. Not that he would not have, had he had the opportunity or been ordered to do so. He was honest enough with himself to admit that.

So what would he do if he was asked to actually perform some task? For example, if the Dark Lord should instruct him to do away with Potter's little Muggleborn friend in a most painful manner? Again, he was honest enough to admit that doing away with the girl and inflicting as much pain as possible on Potter was a very appealing thought. And the girl herself was irritating enough, with her know-it-all ways and devotion to the boy, that that in and of itself would make the deed almost enjoyable.

However, his vows prohibited such a thing, regardless of whether the Dark Lord commanded it. When he had sworn his vengeance and thrown his lot in with Dumbledore, his objection had been that he would be left without protection and exposed should the Dark Lord command him to do anything restricted by his unbreakable vow, but Dumbledore had been adamant, persisting in his opinion that the Dark Lord would never compromise such a valuable resource except under the most extreme of circumstances. In that, Snape had to admit that Dumbledore had been entirely accurate.

It was somewhat of a wonder he had ever sworn the oath in the first place. After the Dark Lord's disappearance, Snape had assumed, along with the rest of the world, that he was gone for good. He had even been on the point of suicide; a world without Lily Evans (he refused to dignify her husband with the use of her married name) had—and still did—seem like a very cold and lifeless place. It had taken Dumbledore some time and some convincing evidence to induce Snape to believe that the Dark Lord would be back after he had seemingly died confronting Potter. But convinced he had been, and he had known that the Dark Lord was returning for many years—it was only since that return that he had actively begun to use his position to bring about his erstwhile master's eventual and final downfall.

Just before he reached the entrance hall, Snape stopped for a moment, and glancing around to make certain that there was no one watching him. Seeing no one, he quickly disillusioned himself and proceeded into the hall, exiting through the massive doors and out into the courtyard below. From thence he continued walking out through the courtyard and beyond, out into the Scottish countryside. He had attained the edge of the wards, when he turned on his heel and disapparated away.

Once he appeared at his destination, Snape turned and peered at the surrounding landscape. The Dark Lord had certainly chosen a desolate place to make his headquarters. The manor house in which he made his base was dilapidated, the surroundings empty and even a little eerie, and there was no one other than the Dark Lord's minions for miles in any direction. Being, as it was, in a Muggle district, it was not likely that the Ministry would ever find it, even should they ever admit his return and bestir themselves enough to actually search for it.

Taking a deep breath in preparation for the trial ahead, Snape approached the building and entered. The security, as always, was lax, with nothing more than a single Death Eater watching the front door. Again, the Dark Lord was arrogant enough to believe that his enemies could never do him harm, or confident that his hideaway would never be found. Either way, Snape knew this was a massive oversight, and one which could be taken advantage of one day. The Death Eater was a nondescript thug—a low-level scum that Snape had never before met, nor did he particularly wish to know the man in any way. Apparently, however, Snape was known by sight, as the Death Eater merely nodded abruptly and turned his bored gaze back out into the countryside.

Ignoring the few minions who were in evidence, Snape quickly moved through the halls of the manor to the room in which a throne had been set up for his use.

He had almost made his way there when a figure dressed in black emerged from a side passageway and peered at him with distrust. Bellatrix. When he had first seen her after the breakout from Azkaban, she had been almost a raving lunatic, one battered and bruised by the rigors of the prison. Now, she was much more in control of herself—the cold killer she had been before her incarceration. And though she was appearing healthier the longer she was out of Azkaban, her skin was still pasty, her eyes shadowed, and her posture suggested that she carried a weight which no one else could see. Of course Snape could never remember ever seeing Bellatrix not looking at least slightly insane, but the ravages of Azkaban had certainly not been kind to her appearance. She was the one who had seemed to weather her stay in the prison the best—possibly outside of Black, which still annoyed Snape greatly. Of course, one had to possess some sanity before one could lose it, which explained Bellatrix's situation rather neatly.

"Bellatrix," Snape greeted evenly. It did not do to appear aggravated or impatient when speaking with the Dark Lord's most fanatical supporter.

"What are you doing here, Snape?" she challenged. Bellatrix had never trusted him—doubly so since he was ensconced in the middle of Dumbledore's camp. Of course, Bellatrix did not trust anyone—not even herself, Snape thought viciously—and treated everyone as though they were her master's greatest threat. But she seemed to have a special distrust for him, whereas most of the other Death Eaters either ignored him or accepted their master's word that he could be trusted. Pity for him, Snape thought, that he did not give credence to his lieutenant's opinion.

"Bringing news to the Dark Lord," Snape responded. He had learned very quickly that one did not argue with Bellatrix—one stated one's purpose quickly and efficiently, and did not make innuendos, veiled remarks or threats, or attempt any kind of subterfuge.

"Actual news or something fed to you by Dumbledore?"

Snape allowed a slight smile to appear on his features. "I assure you that the news I bring is a product of my own observation. The old fool of a Muggle-lover believes me to be his double agent."

The suspicion never left her eyes. "So you say."

"Indeed," Snape agreed. They stared at each other for several more moments, Bellatrix not giving an inch, while Snape maintained his air of almost bored indifference. He was well practiced at doing so—this particular confrontation had played out with depressing frequency since Bellatrix's removal from Azkaban.

"I will be watching you," said Bellatrix at length.

"So you say at every opportunity," Snape rejoined. He had also learned not to show weakness when confronted by Bellatrix, though to be too aggressive would undoubtedly end badly. Dealing with the woman was like walking a tightrope. "I trust that when Dumbledore is defeated and Potter lies dead at our master's feet that you will finally believe in my devotion to the Dark Lord."

"Your hatred for the boy is like a tangible force and that is the only reason I give you the benefit of any doubt. If your hatred did not exist, I would flay you until your flesh hung in ribbons from your body and I was satisfied of your loyalty."

Snape did not even attempt to curb the disgusted glare or the contemptuous curl of his lip as he faced off with the madwoman. Bellatrix had always been graphic in her descriptions and she enjoyed causing pain far too much. Pain was a tool to be used toward a specific end—not something to be gloried in and of itself.

"I'm sure your bloodlust pleases our master," Snape replied, "but I suggest you direct it toward our enemies."

"As I am ever happy to serve," Bellatrix said. She turned away, and walked back in the direction she had come, but as she did, her voice floated back to him, "Remember. I will be watching…"

Snorting softly to himself, Snape continued walking toward the throne room. Bellatrix's threats were not to be taken lightly, but of far more immediate concern was the task he had come to complete. While Snape had a healthy respect for the mad witch's prowess, anything she could do to him would pale in comparison to what the Dark Lord would ultimately do if his actions should be discovered. The Dark Lord was not only powerful, but inventive and vindictive. Snape shuddered at the thought—the Cruciatus would undoubtedly be the least of his concerns should he be exposed.

Outside the throne room a single Death Eater was on duty—again one that Snape did not know by sight. Though one would perhaps have expected a higher level Death Eater to be guarding the Dark Lord's inner sanctum, the fact was that most of the higher level followers were members of society—many of them prominent—and as such it was not exactly feasible to have them guarding a door when they had other tasks to accomplish.

"The Dark Lord is within?" Snape demanded.

The man looked him over. "He is. He also instructed that he not be disturbed."

"He will see me," Snape responded, knowing that the Dark Lord had instructed him to come whenever he had something of importance to impart. Of course, should he deem the information to be of insufficient interest to warrant interrupting him, there would be consequences. Anything about Potter, however, almost ensured that the response would be neutral at the very least.

"It's your skin," the man responded before he turned and opened the door, allowing Snape to pass through.

The room was dim, as the Dark Lord usually liked it, and the man himself was seated in his throne, seemingly deep in thought. He looked up and Snape felt the uncomfortable feeling of the Dark Lord's eyes on him as he approached. Snape bowed deeply once he had reached the required distance from the throne.

"Severus," the Dark Lord greeted him, his voice almost a sibilant hiss. From the corner of the room, Snape could see the eyes of the Dark Lord's familiar glowing as it watched the proceedings, in its own way as protective of the master as Bellatrix was. The snake made Snape's blood run cold—it was almost as though the beast possessed a malevolent intelligence. It was altogether a stress-inducing creature, and Snape could hardly wait for the day it met its fate, hopefully in the company of its master as he made his way to the hell which awaited him.

"My Lord," Snape replied respectfully, putting the snake from his mind. "I bring you news of the Order and from Hogwarts, and in particularly about the Potter whelp."

The Dark Lord was apparently amused. "Your disdain for the boy is diverting as always, Severus. In fact, I believe you hate the lad nearly as much as I myself do."

"He is a spoiled brat who believes the world owes him everything on a platter. He is no different from his father." Snape deliberately ensured his voice and tone were offhand; the Dark Lord was well aware of his abhorrence for Potter, but it would not do to allow him to think that he was focused on Potter to the exclusion of all else. Death Eaters were expected to be able to master their emotions and concentrate on their tasks.

"As you have told me," the Dark Lord murmured. "Far be it for me to contradict your superior knowledge of the boy. I believe, however, you said that you have some information for me?"

"I do, my Lord. If you recall, you wished for me to watch for any mention of the prophecy by the Order."

"Yes?" the Dark Lord prompted.

"There has been some discussion lately, but there appears to be minimal concern. In fact, Dumbledore told both Black and Delacour recently that he believes the protections on the orb render it quite safe from any incursions to secure it."

The Dark Lord's eyes fluttered closed and he leaned back in his chair. "What is your game, Dumbledore?" he murmured to himself. His eyes then opened to slits and he peered at Snape through lidded eyes. "Dumbledore is either playing us, or he is underestimating my abilities. He is not fool enough to think that the protections cannot be broken—he knows more of magic than most, and he certainly understands that for every magic there exists a counter."

"If I may, my Lord," Snape spoke up diffidently. He resumed speaking when the Dark Lord indicated for him to do so, "I believe his opinion is that the magic is ancient and powerful and will take some time to bypass. I think he is merely stalling for time. He does not wish to expose Potter until it is certain that you shall obtain the prophecy. Perhaps he does this in the foolish hope that some other solution will present itself."

"He is foolish if he believes that," the Dark Lord said, leaning forward on his throne once more. "My followers draw closer to the orb even as we speak." He leaned back and watched Snape almost lazily. "I sometimes wonder at both the good fortune and the curse which put part of the prophecy in our hands," he said. Though his face was expressionless, his tone was almost testing in its quality. "You overheard the prophecy and I, rather fortuitously learned of the threat to my power. It is unfortunate that you were apparently evicted before you could hear the most important part."

"Are you certain I did not overhear all of it?" Snape asked, though he certainly knew that he had not. Dumbledore had never seen fit to reveal the rest to him and for that he was grateful—if the Dark Lord suspected for an instant that he knew the rest, he would stop at nothing to rip it from his mind.

The Dark Lord nodded distractedly. "I am convinced there is more. You were correct, of course, to come to me with what you heard," he continued to muse, "even though you did not have the full text. I am certain that it is imperative that I discover the rest. I feel as though I am groping blindly in the dark without anything to guide me without this knowledge. I must have it!"

"Yes, My Lord," Snape agreed.

"Now, I believe you mentioned something about the Potter boy?"

"Yes I did, my Lord. The boy seems… distracted lately."

Snape could tell that the Dark Lord's interest was piqued. "How so?"

"He seems more impatient than usual, and has been seen to be snapping at others, even his friends. I believe that he has discovered the existence of the prophecy."

That little piece of information not only piqued the Dark Lord's interest, but grabbed his interest by the scruff of the neck and made it stand up and take notice. Of course, his only outward reaction was to raise an eyebrow and stare at Snape with an impassive gaze.

"Are you certain of this?

"As certain as I can be without asking him directly," Snape replied. This was the difficult part—convincing the Dark Lord of his information without any direct evidence. "Something happened during the Yule break, and Potter has come back to the school with a much more belligerent attitude than he had previously.

"I had actually thought he was making progress in controlling himself." This last was said with a sneer—the Dark Lord would be suspicious had he not expressed his disdain for Potter.

The Dark Lord eyed him intently. "That report does not necessarily agree with what some of my other eyes in the school have said."

"With all due respect, my Lord, your other eyes are all children, and some have done nothing but antagonize Potter the entire time he's been at Hogwarts."

Though he was silent for several moments, the Dark Lord's gaze never wavered. At last he said, "Point taken. So perhaps his growth remains, but his behavior has somehow altered toward his guardians."

"Perhaps," Snape allowed. "I will stress the fact that I have no proof other than what I have witnessed. But I have heard him almost demanding that Dumbledore and Black tell him something."

Understanding bloomed in the Dark Lord's eyes. "He has discovered the existence of the prophecy, but has not been told what it says."

"That is my suspicion, my Lord," Snape confirmed. He kept his face impassive, though inside he felt nothing but contempt for the Dark Lord. He was so arrogant in his own superiority that leading him down the garden path was sometimes far easier than it should be.

The Dark Lord fixed him with a piercing stare. "Does Potter know of the existence of the Hall of Prophecy?" he demanded.

"That I cannot say, My Lord," Snape replied. "He may very well, given the time he spends with that little encyclopedic mudblood. The Hall is not well known in our society perhaps, but it is not a secret either, and I do not exaggerate in saying that she has likely made her way through half of the Hogwarts library already. It is entirely possible that she has stumbled across a reference, though there is no guarantee that she would have informed him."

The Dark Lord again leaned back and his face took on a contemplative look. "It is truly a shame—such talent, such knowledge wasted because she is a mudblood. If her background was a little more… distinguished, she would be a worthy addition to our forces."

Severus Snape was not fooled. The Dark Lord paid all the appropriate lip service to the Pureblood movement, but Snape was aware of the fact that though he professed to be a Pureblood, the champion of all Purebloods himself was from a mixed background. The Dark Lord was for himself and nothing more—the Purebloods were merely a convenient tool for him to use to exert his control over the Wizarding world.

"Even if she was not a mudblood, her devotion to Potter is absolute," Snape said out loud.

"Even more the pity," the Dark Lord replied, his tone offhanded. This was another thing about the Dark Lord—he was focused, and if something did not go his way, he immediately moved on. He would undoubtedly have jumped at the chance to recruit Granger if the opportunity existed; since it did not, he did not dwell upon it.

"But this news about Potter and the prophecy is quite interesting indeed," the Dark Lord continued. "Perhaps we should encourage his interest."

With those words, Snape knew that he had the Dark Lord where he wanted him. He doubted he would be told any more of the plan which was almost certainly taking shape in his dark mind, but that was not unexpected—he was supposedly deep undercover in the enemy's camp, after all. The Dark Lord would most likely use the children of his followers in Hogwarts to provide any nudge he felt was required to induce Potter to the Hall of Prophecy. The trick was now to make it appear like Potter acted on his own, and that the Order had followed him when they discovered he was missing. Anything else and Snape's effectiveness as a spy would be drastically reduced at best.

"You have done very well in informing me of this news, Severus. This will be most useful in advancing our cause."

"Yes, my Lord," Snape said, preparing to depart. "I should return to Hogwarts before I am missed—is there anything further you require of me?"

"Nothing further at this moment. Send me word if you uncover anything more. I will handle this myself."

Bowing, Snape said nothing more as he turned and strode from the room. He quickly exited the manor and apparated back to Hogwarts. Once he had regained his quarters, he summoned his Patronus.

"Go to Dumbledore. The game is afoot."

It became quickly apparent that whatever Snape had told Voldemort, it was having an effect. Harry felt like he drew more scrutiny than had been the case before, and comments were made in his presence that could only be construed as an attempt to nudge him in the direction of Voldemort's choosing.

Oh they were never overt—even Malfoy showed a smidgeon of Slytherin cunning, though Harry thought rather sardonically that he had much more Gryffindor impulsiveness in his character than anything else. But even had Harry not already expected something to happen, he thought he would have wondered at the mini Death Eaters' sudden interest in prophecies, divination, and the meanings of various predictions.

The final nail in the coffin had come when Crabbe—or Goyle; it was sometimes difficult to distinguish them from each other, as both were rather like gorillas—asked a rather clumsily executed question in Divinations class.

"But Professor Trelawney, what happens if no one is there to listen to a prophecy? How would anyone ever know if it had happened?"

His wide eyes and almost childishly eager affectation almost prompted Harry to laugh in response, and less than stellar delivery signaled the fact that the question was taxing his limited mental acuity. But since Malfoy, Nott, and some of the other moderately intelligent Slytherins were not in the class, Harry supposed that Voldemort simply worked with what he had.

"An excellent question!" Trelawney enthused, in her overly dramatic manner. This question, of course, led to a long conversation in class about the existence of the Hall of Prophecy, about which Trelawney was perhaps unsurprisingly quite knowledgeable. A quick trip to the library, making sure that certain others saw his choice of reading material, and he could honestly say that he had "discovered" the details about the Hall.

It had all progressed to that Saturday evening when they would spring the trap on their—hopefully—unsuspecting enemies. The only thing left to do was to make certain that Voldemort knew that he would be leaving for the Ministry that evening. In order to do that, a little acting was in order.

At dinner, Harry sat beside Fleur ostensibly listening to her speak, which was not truly something he had to feign. Fleur, in on the plan as she was, was playing her part, as was Hermione. Both the girls had not been happy about their exclusion from the plan, and had not been hesitant to let him know of that fact, though they knew not to discuss it overtly in public. They had not badgered him precisely—neither had been that aggressive—but their displeasure had been hard to miss.

Harry listened to the conversation on the one hand, while on the other he occasionally glanced in Malfoy's direction. As the ponce and his equally poncy friends had been watching Harry closely that week, they were to be the perfect dupes to induce Voldemort to believe that Harry was acting in the impulsive manner the dark tosser wanted. They just needed the right set of circumstances to put their plan into motion.

When Malfoy finally rose from the table to leave, Harry watched him as he moved, followed by his usual cadre of sycophants, toward the door. At the same time Fleur, who had noticed Malfoy was leaving, began once again speaking to him in a low, demanding voice. When the ferret left the room, Harry silently counted to five before suddenly standing and, fixing Fleur with a glare hissed, "That's enough, Fleur!" with sufficient volume to be heard by all who were close by. He then abruptly turned and stormed from the room, noting that all eyes were upon him as he had intended.

Outside the Great Hall he headed in the direction of Gryffindor tower, but was stopped by his betrothed before he could go more than a few steps.

"Harry, please stop," she called as he stalked away.

"No, Fleur!" Harry hissed as he stopped, turned and glared at her. Hermione was approaching him with Fleur.

"Harry, you have to see reason—"

"I think I've seen enough reason," Harry snapped. "They have no right to keep this from me and I intend to find out!"

"No, Harry," said Fleur in response. "It's too dangerous."

"I don't care! It's about me, so it's my right to know."

At the height of their feigned argument, Harry glanced across the hall, as though he was seeing Malfoy and his friends for the first time. The blond twit stood no more than thirty paces away and if the interested expression on his face was anything to go by, he had heard every word.

"Like what you see, Malfoy?" Harry jibed.

"I see absolutely nothing," Malfoy drawled in a bored tone of voice. "Just the Boy-Who-Should-Have-Died along with his creature girlfriend and an insignificant mudblood."

"Shove off Malfoy," Harry growled. "If you push me I'll shove your wand so far up your arse that you'll have to open your mouth to cast anything!"

Malfoy was clearly taken aback—Harry's words were said with such a fierceness that he was clearly not certain how to respond. Maybe I should do this more often, Harry mused. Rarely did mere words have the ability to make the ponce back off.

"Let's go," Malfoy said to his friends as he turned to head towards the Slytherin common room. "Potty and the creature obviously need a little make up time."

But Harry had already turned away and was stalking off, Fleur and Hermione in hot pursuit. They made their way to a nearby corridor and, after confirming that there was no one nearby, ducked into an unused classroom. Harry turned to the two girls and grinned at them.

"Well, do you think Malfoy bought it?"

Hermione snorted. "He's gullible enough for anything."

The three laughed softly at Hermione's statement, still mindful of the fact that they were acting a part, and left the room, making their way to the tower, once again Harry walked swiftly while the girls hurried to keep up. Once there, Harry made his way to one of the sofas in front of the fire and sat down heavily. A quick glance confirmed that there was no one in evidence in the common room, and Harry allowed himself to drop the pretense of anger.

"Dobby," he called, smiling when the excitable house-elf popped into the room in front of him.

"The great Harry Potter Sir is being calling Dobby?"

"Yes, Dobby," Harry told him with a smile. "Remember—watch Malfoy and let me know if he tries to send a letter or communicate outside the castle. But only come when I'm alone—no one else can know about this."

"Dobby be's doing it," Dobby said while bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. "Dobby lets you know when nasty master's son be's contacting his father."

The three friends exchanged looks and chuckled as he popped away. "I swear I get winded just watching him," Hermione observed with a grin.

"He does seem to have an… excess of energy," was Fleur's reply.

Harry smiled but said nothing, his mind already focused on what was to come that evening. He was not precisely nervous—it was not as though he had never before faced danger, after all, and for someone who had faced down a sixty-foot basilisk, Voldemort's thugs were just not that much of a challenge. No, nervousness was not what he was feeling, though he was also being careful not to underestimate the Malfoys of the world. He was more determined that the plan should go exactly as it had been designed. Retrieving the prophecy and ensuring that Voldemort did not hear it were both important, but getting Fudge to admit his return was just as critical.

"Pre-battle jitters?" Fleur questioned from his side.

Harry turned to look at her and noticed the intent expression on her face and the look of concern which she directed at him.

"I just want everything to go the way we planned it."

Hermione and Fleur exchanged a glance before the former spoke. "What was that saying? 'No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,' especially when curses are being thrown around by Death Eaters."

"I'm sure that whoever made that statement was specifically talking about Malfoy, Macnair and the others," Harry said with some amusement.

"Prat!" Hermione replied, slapping his arm, before she leaned into his shoulder. "You will be careful, won't you?" she asked after a moment's silence.

"You know me," Harry replied.

"That's exactly what we're worried about," was Fleur's dry reply.

The rest of the evening passed away with excruciating sluggishness, prompting Harry to wish that time would not be quite so mulish when it came to passing slowly when anticipation was at its highest. He tried to concentrate on his homework, but the approaching events sapped his attention and left him feeling irritable—he wanted nothing more than to be able to get to it and do what needed to be done. Even the appearance of Dobby—who showed up when Harry excused himself to go to the loo—to tell him of the fact that Malfoy had been seen heading to the owlery within moments of his argument with the girls, was not enough to settle his restlessness. He immediately sent his Patronus off to Dumbledore to let him know before rejoining his friends in the common room, more impatient than ever to be off. And through it all he still had to act as though he was still angry with both of his female friends, which led to a long evening, spent largely in the company of nothing more than his own thoughts.

It was unfortunate that this seemed to draw the attention of his closest friends, who could obviously see that something was amiss. Harry tried to ignore their looks and whispered conversations, but things came to a head late in the evening when they apparently decided that they could no longer keep their silence.

"What's going on, Harry?" Neville demanded quietly. "I haven't seen you this jittery since before the third task last year. Is there something we should know about?"

All around him his other friends—consisting of the four Weasleys and Neville—nodded their heads in agreement. Perhaps surprisingly Ron, who was as impatient as anyone Harry knew, was silent, seemingly content to just watch and listen. Knowing that the matter must remain absolutely secret, Harry attempted to prevaricate.

"Nothing is going on, guys." His rebuttal was unconvincing, even to his own ears.

Ron fixed him with a stare of equal parts exasperation, and some quality which seemed to suggest that Ron thought him to be witless.

"Harry, we've known each other for more than four years, and I fancy I know you better than anyone except maybe Hermione. I think I can tell when something is up."

"We only want to help, Harry," Ginny chimed in, echoed by the others.

Harry cast a surreptitious glance about the room. The room was busy as would be expected on a Saturday evening, and though no one appeared to be paying them any attention, there were far too many people to overhear them. The fact that this was the Gryffindor common room and that just about everyone in it should be friendly was no consolation—one could never be too careful, especially in the magical world.

"Look, Harry," one of the twins spoke up, "it's been obvious to us all week that something's about to happen."

"Like Ginny said, we just want to help," said the other.

Harry glared at them with exasperation. "Oh, so the whole school expects that I'm up to something?" he demanded.

"I reckon that only those who know you well suspect anything," Ron replied. "Daphne and Tracey knew something was up, and Susan and Luna know, but I doubt anyone else has noticed anything."

Somewhat mollified, Harry glanced at Fleur, who shrugged her shoulders. Clearly it was his decision on what to say.

Sighing, Harry once again glanced around the room before leaning in slightly. "Look, I can't tell you much of anything. Yes, something is about to happen, but Dumbledore knows about it and supports it."

Fixing Ron with a significant glare, Harry continued, "Remember going after the stone in first year?" Ron responded with a tight nod. "This has to be kept secret for the same reason. It's very important. I'm sorry I can't tell you more."

The look Harry received in return made him actually feel stupid. Ron, at least, had proven that he knew how to keep a secret, and the others were certain to do anything but get him in trouble or talk to the wrong person.

"Are you sure, Harry?" Ron asked.

Immediately Harry felt a pang of guilt—Ron had been his closest friend for the past four years, but this year they had drifted apart a little. There was just so much more going on and given the time he had been spending with his betrothed, and now with Hermione in the picture, that problem had been made even worse. Proving that he had grown quite a lot in the past several months, Ron had not complained; he had seemed to relish the time they had spent together and content himself with whatever Harry had been able to spare.

And then there were Neville and the twins. George and Fred, being two years older, had never been truly close and Neville had always kind of been on the outside looking in. All three had grown closer to him over the course of the year, and Harry knew that he had no greater supporters or fiercer champions than the three of them. And Ginny, though in previous years the most he had ever been able to get out of her was a squeak and a blush, had matured and become almost like a little sister to him. They were the best friends he could ever want.

"Look everyone, I know you're not happy about being excluded. Trust me that it's best that as few people as possible know what is about to happen. Don't worry—I'm pretty sure you'll all get your chance to get your licks in. With Voldemort running around I can almost guarantee it."

His five friends shared a glance before they turned back to him, Ron, once again, serving as the spokesman. "We'll trust you. But we'd like to be included in your plans in the future."

"As much as I can, I will," Harry replied warmly. "Now Ron, what about a game of chess?"

Later that evening, Harry snuck downstairs from the dorm, after confirming that all of his dorm mates were asleep. It had taken quite some time to convince all of his friends to go to bed that evening, but eventually they had seemed resigned to the fact that whatever was about to happen would happen without their involvement. Hermione and Fleur, however, had been a rather curious goodnight. Rather than fussing over him as he might have expected, they had each left him with a kiss and a simple request to be careful and had gone to their beds for the night, though Harry suspected they would not be able to sleep. Harry had left enough time for the castle to quiet before he slipped from his bed and put on some dark clothes, and then stolen from the dorm, careful to avoid waking his dorm mates.

Before he stepped down from the stairs into the common room he activated the Marauder's Map and made doubly certain it was empty. He further examined the rest of the Map for any hint of activity; as it was now past midnight, even the head students should be in their dorms—and Harry certainly did not relish the thought of running into Roger Davies, who had been silent and had ignored him thoroughly since his set down—but the teachers often still patrolled until quite late, and Filch, in particular, was known to wander the halls until the wee hours, hoping to catch some student out of bounds. Sure enough, Harry could see the cantankerous caretaker prowling the sixth floor corridor with his cat close by. A quick glance at the other levels showed no one in evidence.

Keeping the map in his free hand, Harry walked forward and exited via the portrait hole. From there he made his way toward the third floor corridor, making sure that there was no one blocking his path—Filch had by this time made his way to the seventh floor. Upon obtaining the corridor, he paced down its length until he arrived at his destination—the statue of the one-eyed witch.

"Dissendium," he murmured, stepping back as the statue moved aside, revealing a dark passage behind. He stepped into the passageway, waiting until the statue moved back into its original place, driving the long passage into pitch blackness.

Only then did he raise his wand and intone, "Lumos!" The light from his wand illuminated his surroundings and Harry peered off into the distance, seeking any sign of movement in its depths. Once he was satisfied, he began walking down deeper into the earth.

The passage was old and musty, and smelt of decay and dust. The dust on the floor had been disturbed, several times, if Harry was not mistaken, but he was not concerned as he knew that the twins used this passage regularly to bring banned items or party treats to the school. How it was that the proprietors of the shop were not aware of the traffic through their store, Harry could not be certain, but in this instance he was grateful for it.

Eventually the passage ended at a ladder which led up to a trapdoor set in the ceiling of the passage. Grasping the rungs, Harry climbed to the top and, releasing the catch, cautiously pushed up on the door. In the faint light of his wand emanating through the opening, Harry could see crates and boxes, some labeled with writing or pictures of what they contained. Harry could not see any movement.

He opened the door fully and heaved himself out through the hole, pausing to more clearly look about. Once he was satisfied that the room was empty, other than the sweets and other produce, and Harry pulled himself to his feet and closed the trapdoor. In an instant, the trapdoor disappeared and the cellar floor looked like a normal floor, with nothing to suggest that a passageway lurked beneath.

Stopping for a moment, Harry took out his invisibility cloak and threw it over himself, ensuring he was completely covered. And then, confident that he could not be seen, he left the cellar. The stairs were silent and well maintained, and in a moment Harry had emerged from the cellar into the familiar confines of the sweet shop. The shop was, of course, dark and lifeless, but Harry ignored his surroundings and, once he had taken a quick glance out into the street, he stepped from the sweet shop out onto High Street.

The village was illuminated by the light of the moon which was approaching full, shining off the cobblestones and the snow drifts, providing added luster to the shops and houses of Hogsmeade. It was, Harry reflected, a quaint and beautiful sight and a glimpse into an older world, something which the magical world often provided.

Now was not the time to wax poetic, though. Keeping to the shadows as much as possible to avoid detection, Harry made his way down the street and exited the town in the direction of Hogwarts. When he had reached a point which was beyond the town and still clear of the Hogwarts wards, he stopped, removed his cloak, and raised his wand.

With a flash and a bang, the Knight Bus appeared before him and Harry climbed aboard. He was met with the same characters as he had before his third year—the driver, Ernie, with his thick glasses and almost wild hair, and Stan the conductor, with his dirty and tattered uniform, and the unkempt mess of hair under his equally dirty hat.

"Look here, Ernie, it seems we got the lad from a couple a summers ago," said Stan, looking at Harry with a bored expression. "What was yer name? Newt or somethin'?

"Yes sir," said Harry simply, as he climbed aboard the bus. Though he had given Neville's name as his own in third year, it did not matter much what these two called him, as long as he was delivered to the Ministry. And if someone was watching, all the better—the name would not matter and it would cement in Voldemort's mind that he was off to the Ministry on his own, further baiting the trap.

"Where are you headed then, young Newt?" Stan asked.

"The entrance to the Ministry of Magic please."

Ernie frowned. "The Ministry? Don't suppose many right thinking folks are there at this hour."

"That's where I need to go," replied Harry.

"Suit yerself," said Stan, and he sat down on his seat beside the door.

The bus was empty of any other passengers, on the lowest level anyway, and the bus contained the same rolling beds and brackets carrying burning torches as the last time. Knowing he was in for another rough ride, Harry braced himself as well as he could against the side of the bus as they took off.

"Can I get you a cup o' hot chocolate?" Stan asked as the bus began swerving through the countryside.

"No thanks," Harry said, reflecting at the mess it would make the first time the bus turned a corner. "So are you fellows always on this bus?" he asked, making conversation.

Stan shook his head as he picked at his teeth with a dirty fingernail. "Nah. We does the night shift. There's another crew fer the day."

Harry fell silent, intent as he was on not being flung across the bus. Stan, it seemed, was not interested in making conversation, as he continued to pick at his teeth and generally ignore the mayhem which was occurring around him.

The ride that night was much longer than it had been the first night he had ridden the bus—unsurprising, really, as the distance was far longer than it had been then. Still, it obviously had some magical means of travelling quickly. It was less than an hour later when he was dropped off in the middle of London beside the old red phone booth he remembered from earlier that year, before the bus once again left with a bang.

The street was quiet and no one was in evidence and the old phone booth stuck out like a Griffon in a tea shop. It was, however, the entrance to the Ministry and remembering it from the previous summer, Harry was assaulted by the memory of other things—his trial, and first experience with Umbridge, most notably.

Shaking off such memories, Harry approached the phone booth, opened the door and looked at the old-fashioned phone which hung on the opposite wall. He was reaching for the phone when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

Updated 05/26/2014