"Are there any objections?"
Severus looked around at the gathered members of the Order of the Phoenix. Few of them were warriors, but soon they would all be called on to defend their values and convictions with their lives.
He'd just finished describing the details of their plan to entrap Minister Voldemort, and many faces were looking grim and wan. Even Fawkes was less than his usual glorious self, his feathers dull and drooping. It was not a scene that inspired confidence.
"It's a good plan," young Mr. Weasley said, and Mr. Potter spoke up as well.
"It's going to work," he said confidently. Severus saw the firm belief in his eyes and was heartened.
There were no objections. Severus pressed forward.
"The Headmistress will be making the announcement to the Daily Prophet in the morning, and we will all head to the castle and prepare. It's possible that the Minister will accept the invitation and attend the 'unveiling' on Sunday, but we believe it more likely that he will arrive unannounced sometime sooner with an escort of aurors. We will have little warning so we must be prepared."
This announcement was met without pleasure.
"However, we have the advantage," Severus reiterated. "He is expecting a few teachers, instead he will be met with the full force of the Order of the Phoenix. Should there be any injuries, the Hogwarts infirmary is fully stocked nearby, and I have prepared a number of healing and restorative supplies to be distributed among us.
Once Minister Voldemort has fallen, the rest of the Ministry is sure to follow. Then we can recover and destroy the remaining horcrux in Gringotts… and release those who are wrongfully detained in Azkaban."
That reminder served to bolster some, their faced hardening with determination.
"Success is finally at hand, the culmination of everything we've worked toward. We all have the evening to make our personal preparations. Tomorrow morning be ready to go to Hogwarts.
After a moment those gathered began to stand and converse quietly. And some not so quietly…
"I don't know about you," Dorcas said loudly to the wizard beside her, "But seeing as this may be my last night on this earth, I'm going to have a strong drink or three. Care to join?"
Several chuckles sounded, and the tense atmosphere in the room lessened slightly.
Some approached Severus to bid him goodnight, but mostly he observed silently. The friendships and the family, the comforts and the sorrows. Indeed, it could be his last night living.
If so, he was content to spend it in the present company.
Severus was overseeing the distribution of supplies in the Great Hall when he realized she was absent. He pocketed some, delegated his leadership, and then went in search. Predictably, he found her in the library.
Hermione sat at a table near the entrance, but rather than read… she appeared to contemplate the scene around her.
"I've spent so much time reading, but I can't remember the last time I read for pleasure rather than fear," she admitted with a sad smile. "Always researching, desperate to find a solution in books and scrolls. But not every answer can be found in a book. You taught me that."
"It was still worth the search, I think," he told her, taking a seat beside her. Severus placed a number of small vials and containers on the table in front of her.
"Your supplies, since you decided to wander off and missed the meeting," he chided without any real heat. He lifted one tiny vial and placed it in her hand. "Phoenix tears, the most potent restorative in the world. Not as good as fresh, but still powerful. Fawkes was able to provide a few doses."
Hermione smiled and laid her other hand over his.
"Hmm. Make certain you won't need it."
"I'll do my best."
"Ready to join the others?"
They arrived at the Great Hall and were drawn in with curiosity. A large group was gathered around one table, a few turned to note them enter.
"I'm so sorry, Severus," Mr. Fenwick said, looking genuinely distressed. "I'm afraid Fawkes, er…"
He gestured at a pile of ashes on the tables, and they could hear a faint warbling. An ugly little baby bird lay nesting in the remains of a once-glorious phoenix. Hermione cooed and came closer. The poor thing was so ugly he was cute.
"His death day, is it? Not very good timing," Mr. Snape said, sighing.
"Or perhaps fortuitous," Albus countered, scratching the newborn Fawkes on his tiny, bald head. "An omen, if you will. Today he is reborn, and so might be the world."
"Omens are great and all, but he won't be much use like this," Mr. Fenwick said ruefully.
"Indeed. I do hope we won't have need his services. However," Albus looked at them all intently, as if there were great wisdom to be gleaned from his cryptic words. "If ever in need we can always seek refuge at Hog's Head,"
Hog's Head? Wasn't that a seedy old bar in central Hogsmeade? Hermione shook her head. Powerful wizard he might be, but Albus Dumbledore was more than a bit strange.
Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of a patronus. A lynx. Everyone in the room hushed and waited fearfully. It spoke to the room at large with Auror Shacklebolt's voice.
"We're coming. Be ready."
Hermione stood at her post, gripping her wand tightly. Near her were Ron and Harry, with a few more experienced fighters interspersed. Stationed on either side of the corridor leading out of the entry hall, they were the last line of defense. Instructed to stay out of the thick of things, to observe and take down any aurors who might manage to make it through.
They waited in silence, hearts beating madly in anticipation.
The news of the diadem's discovery at Hogwarts had reached Minister Voldemort quickly after the press release was sent out. His invitation to tomorrow's unveiling of the "historical and cultural find of the century" was ignored, and instead he would soon be arriving with his aurors in tow to take the diadem from the school. By force, if necessary.
But they were ready. They had the advantage. They would prevail.
The sound of an explosion reached Hermione's ears and the ground shook slightly beneath her feet. It had begun.
Hermione took a deep breath and prayed to any gods willing to listen that they might make it through alive.
Severus cursed as an explosion of magic ripped a hole in the castle's wards. The flash and resulting shockwave no doubt stunned their forces in the vicinity, and it might cost them their lives.
They had thought the Minister would need to call down Minerva to open the gate. They hadn't counted on him having the ability to tear through the wards. They hadn't counted on him being prepared to fight from the first moment of arrival. They had underestimated his paranoia.
From his position at the castle's entrance he could see lines of aurors enter Hogwarts grounds with wands drawn and he cursed again.
He shot a flare of bright red magic into the sky to signal an immediate retreat to the castle. Their advantage of "surprise" was gone. Order members volleyed spells with the aurors as they fell back on foot, others members taking to the air on brooms to protect their comrades' retreat.
Unable to assist from so far, he watched with spell-enhanced vision as aurors flooded the grounds. More than they'd hoped, but they would manage. They would still succeed.
Except… he examined each face. They weren't perfectly clear, but it was clear to him that none of the invading figures were Minister Voldemort.
Severus cursed louder, before his attention was caught by a set of garish robes making their way—not toward the castle—but toward the gates.
Dumbledore. If Dumbledore was heading to the gates… Voldemort had be outside them. And Voldemort had to be defeated, or this venture would be for naught.
Casting a quick glance over the Order members on the grounds, he was satisfied that they would make it to the castle safely. Severus mounted the sleek, new (illegally powerful) broom purchased with Malfoy money and sped toward the gates, dodging spells as he went.
Passing through the hole in the wards was like flying into a lightning storm. A storm fueled by the might of two wizards: Dumbledore and Voldemort.
Severus had to quickly roll and dive to avoid stray hexes as they flashed through the sky. Crash landing on the ground just beyond the dueling pair, he lay flat and cast a shield, looking for an opening in the Minister's defenses.
It didn't come, but he let fly some spells anyway. They were tossed aside with ease, without even a glance, and the Minister laughed.
"You're getting slow in your old age, Albus," Voldemort hissed with an unnaturally wide grin, red eyes gleaming madly. His next curse sent Dumbledore stumbling to the ground trying to dodge it.
"And you're as delightful a dueling partner as ever, Tom," Albus responded, panting.
There was brief ceasefire as the two opponents regarded each other. Severus waited to see if the Minister's wand would lower even a fraction.
"Is it everything you ever dreamed of, being Minister?" Albus asked him from his disadvantaged position. His serene expression didn't falter. "Are you finally satisfied?"
"Not quite," was the Minister's response. "Not while one barrier remains to be torn down."
"I see. You can't yet purge your muggle 'taint?'"
It was over in an instant. Severus sent of a hex that was quickly dispatched, but it created an opening for Dumbledore to get in a smashing spell that obliterated Voldemort's dueling arm. The timing was just right to send Voldemort's severing charm flying wide… but not wide enough.
The Minister swore and retrieved his wand with his remaining hand, glaring at them hatefully
"I will recover, thought it seems you won't be so lucky, Albus. My only regret is that I must miss your final moments."
His red eyes slid over Severus like he was an unimportant piece of background foliage.
"If there is an afterlife," came the parting shot, "please do give my regards to Gellert."
As the snake-like man rose on a fine, dark mist into the sky and flew away, Severus scrambled to Dumbledore's side. The amount of blood seeping from the large slice in the older wizard's neck seemed a poor sign and he cursed once again.
He began to fetch various healing potions from his supply, wishing he hadn't given away all the phoenix tears, and Albus whispered a thready, "Stop."
"It seems to have missed the common carotid, thank Merlin, but we don't have much time—"
"Severus," Dumbledore said, and then gasped harshly, "Please, stop. I must die."
"I know you're dotty about omens and fate, and likely depressed after Grindelwald's murder, but this is not the moment-"
"I m-must!" he insisted, shallow breaths gurgling. Severus continued his attempt at hasty aid. "The wards! The Wall. After- after Gellert, I tied them to my life. I gave my life to keep," gasp, "To keep Tom from the world and now—now, give my death to free you." Severus froze. Dumbledore gave a rattling sigh as blood continued to gush from the wound. "Please, Severus."
"You idiot!" Severus cried, "Why would you-?" He grit his teeth with frustration and helplessness. If the wards around Wizarding Britain were tied to Dumbledore's life, they would not fall unless Dumbledore were dead. No matter the outcome with Voldemort, they would all still be effectively trapped by the Wall if he lived. The only means of passing through would be the few authorized floos or when personally escorted by the wizard himself. Horribly inconvenient, but not impossible...
"Fine. Fine. So we'll just be stuck for a few more years. A few decades at most. We've made it this long. It's not worth-"
"Please, Sev-Severus," Albus breathed. "Let me fix m-my mistake."
Severus stood with an inarticulate cry of rage. Dumbledore's pleading face was burned into his vision. This foolish suicide was due to guilt, then?
"Damnit! You're forgiven, you bastard!"
Albus brought his lips together as if to beg again, and Severus turned away. There was a battle to be won and he couldn't spend all evening arguing with a man who refused to accept his help.
Severus mounted his broom and shot into the sky as the sun began to set, racing toward the castle and a secret side entrance Minerva had shown him. The harsh wind ripped away his tears as soon as they fell.
Severus left Dumbledore to die, knowing he could have saved him.
He may as well have killed the man himself.
Severus stormed into the entry hall, robes billowing, his expression one of rage and fierce determination.
A number of Order members, Kingsley among them, were continuously resetting the wards set on the front doors even as they were being torn down by the aurors on the other side. The rest were tending the wounded, wounded themselves, or hovering anxiously waiting for orders.
"Plan 'B!'" he shouted, and several people around him flinched, startled. "We still have the advantage on the aurors. As the defenders of this hall, we can take them out as they enter. I do not doubt that we will overcome them."
When he paused in speaking, there was only the muffled sounds of the aurors outside and the muttering incantations of the ward-casters.
"Voldemort, however… Voldemort, true to character, is acting the coward and has removed himself from the battle. We will send out a team to track him down, and to kill him.
"Potter," he barked, and the young wizard stepped forward with a frown.
"How many people can fit under your invisibility cloak?"
"Uh, I'd say two, sir. Two adults fully covered."
"Kingsley," Severus said, "You're with me. Potter, the cloak if you'd please."
Mr. Potter hesitated as he retrieved it with a frown, and then shook his head, gripping the cloak tightly.
"No! I won't, you can't. I-I'll go with you."
"Mr. Po-Harry, there's no need to play the hero and get yourself killed. Auror Shacklebolt is far more qualified to handle this."
"I know, but- I have to do this. It's like, sir-" his bright green eyes pleaded with me to understand. "It's like I know. I have to do this. Please."
Severus closed his eyes with a groan. Gods damn these people and their pleas. But he promised he'd listen, and if by some chance the boy was right…
"Very well then," he said, ignoring the vocal protests of those around him. "Potter is with me. Kingsley, you have command. Send the unconscious to the infirmary and the injured but capable to the far corridor. Prepare the rest to open the doors."
As Kingsley began to corral the masses and gain control, Severus and Harry made to head further into the castle. As they passed Hermione, she gave them each a shaky smile and a hug and bid them to "be safe."
But before they crossed the threshold into the next corridor, Severus paused. He turned on his heel.
"Order of the Phoenix!" he said, and again there was a respectful silence. "Today is the day our nation is reborn. From our sacrifices and struggles a new world will emerge, where we need not fear our Ministry or those who should be protecting us. I thank each of you for your dedication to the Order, and I'll see you all on the other side of victory."
Cheers echoing behind them, Severus and Harry swept down the corridor toward the hidden exit.
Off to meet their destinies, Severus mused grimly.
As the better flier, Harry cast the tracking charm and led the broom. Seated behind, Severus kept the cloak covering them and an eye out for enemies.
After flying about the edge of the grounds for nearly twenty minutes, Harry whispered,
"Got it," and steered them deeper above the Forbidden Forest. After a time, Harry lowered them into the branches and brought the broom to the edge of a clearing and stopped midair.
Before them was Auror Bellatrix Lestrange, Minister Voldemort, and a giant snake floating in a protective, magical shield behind him.
"No, my lord. Not yet," the mad witch simpered regretfully. "But I'm certain that soon-!"
"It doesn't matter," Voldemort sneered, "I'll have it back even if I have to slaughter every one of them myself."
"Of course, my lord, you-"
"Silence. Return to the others. If it looks like the fools won't manage, notify me and I will do it myself."
"Yes, my lord! Right away!"
Bellatrix lowered her head and backed away quickly, turning to obey.
Harry made to start flying into the clearing, but Severus whispered,
"Stop. Follow Lestrange."
Without a word, Harry turned as well and they shadowed the auror through the woods, flying low to the ground.
When Severus felt they were far enough from Voldemort, he carefully aimed his wand at Bellatrix's throat…
A blood-red flash, a thud, and the witch was down. Severus dismounted and approached with fallen auror stoically. Examining the injury and confirming she was dead, he cast animus revelo on an old poster he had in his pocket.
The blood-covered locket around her neck began to glow. A horcrux indeed.
"We'll leave it here until Voldemort and the snake are dealt with," he said. If... when they succeeded, they could take it back to Hogwarts and destroy it as they had the diadem. "No need to make it easy for him should we fail by taking it with us."
The hood of his cloak lowered, Harry nodded, his face looking a bit pale and sickly. But at that moment Severus didn't feel much like trying to comfort the young wizard. Death and murder were gruesome and vile. No way to sugar-coat it.
They got back on the broom and under the invisibility cloak. They quietly returned to the moonlit clearing.
Voldemort stood with the snake floating beside him, contemplating the stars. His back was to them.
Well. This was it. No time like the present.
Severus slid from the broom with a roll, firing a deadly curse at the Minister's back. With preternatural speed, Voldemort turned and deflected it, casting his own spell in response. It hit the empty air where they had flown only a split second before. Though disadvantaged for having lost his dueling arm, the Minister was still a deadly opponent.
"You pest!" Voldemort hissed.
Spells and counter-spells were fired and parried, Severus darting around the clearing. Until he raised a shield in response to a particular flick of Voldemort's wand…
But it wasn't a hex or curse Voldemort had cast. The giant snake, thrashing, removed from its magical cage, was flung toward Severus. Hit his shield, slid down—and sank its large fangs deep into the meat of his thigh.
His knees buckled as Severus let out a cry of pain. He cast a blasting curse at the snake and its body exploded, leaving only the head attached to his leg by its jaws.
"Damn you!" Voldemort snarled to see his snake destroyed. Shouldn't have used it as a projectile weapon, then. Dunderhead.
Severus pried the snake's head from his flesh and tossed it away, but it was too late. Whatever kind of snake it was, it was clearly venomous. He could feel an alternating numbness and burning…
Voldemort raised his wand once more, preparing a final spell-
In that moment, Harry revealed his presence with a simple disarmament charm. Despite managing to catch the Minister by surprise, the wand left its wizard's hand for only a moment before Voldemort wordlessly summoned it back and continued casting with a hissing snarl.
Still cloaked, Harry darted around the clearing on his broom, rapidly firing off spells. Voldemort was forced on the defensive, unable to clearly target his opponent and growing more frustrated by the moment. Though he managed to successfully deflect every attack, it seemed a stalemate.
Severus weakly tried to lift his wand to cast, but his arm felt a hundred times heavier than normal and he could barely raise it an inch.
One of Voldemort's hexes managed to land on the tail of Harry's broom, sending him spinning to a crash landing on the forest floor. Quickly standing, the young wizard raised his wand and stood to face his enemy.
The hood of his cloak had slipped down and the rest was twisted around his torso and legs, revealing strange sections of body interspersed with gaps of seemingly empty space. Visible enough to be a clear target.
There was a brief moment as the two opponents squared off, narrowed eyes meeting in taut silence.
In sync, their wands lifted and they cast. A flash of red from Harry's wand, and a flash of green from Voldemort's. The spells met in the middle and connected with a sharp crack and a shockwave of golden flames that would have knocked Severus off his feet if he weren't already immobile on the ground.
Maybe it was the pain and blood loss, but Severus could have sworn he saw the two spells pause in the midair before red overtook green and the golden flames sped toward Voldemort.
He struggled to keep his eyes open, but in vain. They fell shut and he was faced with darkness and agony. What could have been minutes or hours passed before a feminine voice cut through the haze, only for a moment.
"Mr. Snape? …Oh, Merlin! S-Severus? Severus!"
The moment passed, and then . . . black.