Disclaimer: This is fan fiction, meaning it's written by a fan of JKR's world, not JKR herself. Astonishing, I know.
Author's Note: Ugh. This chapter is so much longer in coming than it should be, and I can't even say that I'm happy with it. Nonetheless, I needed to just stop fiddling with it and making it worse, and I've got a bit of a lighter schedule now, so hopefully the next chapter will be up before you know it. :)
The involuntary flash of comfort Severus felt upon seeing Malfoy manor was quickly stifled as he strode to the gates. What on earth was he doing here? The Dark Lord hadn't called a meeting at the Malfoys' since before the end of the first war. More ominously, Severus heard no cracks indicating the arrival of his fellow Death Eaters, meaning that he was either late, or this was some horrible private meeting…
Narcissa's face upon meeting him at the door confirmed his fears.
"Severus," she breathed, "you're nearly late—no, not in the dining room yet," she added quickly, as he made to move across the hall. "The front parlour. The Dark Lord wishes to speak to you alone before the meeting."
Severus nodded, careful to keep the anxiety from his features; he had to refrain from asking questions or acting out of place before he could figure out exactly what going on. Narcissa did not smile as she turned to go, her face white—and why not? thought Severus. Her home was currently host to the most dangerous madman in the world, and his nearly-as-dangerous followers.
He pushed the thought from his mind as he entered the dimly lit parlour; the fire was low, Nagini curled up by the embers. The Dark Lord himself was in the far corner, apparently enthralled by a small dragon skeleton displayed on the bookcase—but Severus knew better; to think the Dark Lord distracted was a very dangerous assumption. He dropped to his knees in the middle of the rug.
"Severus, my friend. Rise. There is no need for us to speak with you grovelling like some of your more worthless comrades."
The words sounded friendly—indeed, the Dark Lord looked to be in a particularly good mood—but Severus knew one false step could change Voldemort's temper in an instant.
"I merely express my readiness to serve."
"Do you? I find myself surprised—that was more sycophantic than I am used to hearing from you, Severus," Voldemort said, though, thankfully, he appeared more amused than annoyed. "You are angry with me."
"My Lord—" protested Severus, hoping he was not pushing his luck by interrupting, but Voldemort waved it away.
"Do not deny it. You are angry with me—and perhaps rightfully so. We have kept much from you these past weeks."
"I—I am sure you had good reason for doing so."
"Naturally," said Voldemort, laughing. "Still—you have resented it."
Severus was not quite sure what he was supposed to say to this. Admitting anger at the Dark Lord usually didn't end well, but then, he didn't seem to be making much progress in trying to deny it.
"I have been frustrated, I confess," he said finally. "It is difficult for me to operate without news. Dumbledore has been growing more impatient, and even he is beginning to doubt me, I think."
Voldemort nodded. "Forgive me, my friend; but I believe you see why it has been necessary to keep you in the dark about recent events? It was safest for you—one can only imagine Dumbledore's wrath if he knew you had something to do with the removal of the students from his school."
Severus suppressed a snort with difficulty. "Of course. He is angry enough as it is."
"Good, good," Voldemort chuckled. "Do not worry, Severus. You will learn more than enough tonight to perhaps—redeem yourself, slightly—in Dumbledore's eyes."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"He should be rather pleased with you, in fact," continued Voldemort, after a contemplative pause. "All of your students, safe, and learning…and learning as they should be, without the influences of bias, or what Dumbledore thinks is appropriate. It is a wonderful idea, is it not?"
"Certainly, my Lord. I have often said our house is not treated with the respect of the others—let alone the respect it deserves."
"Precisely, Severus. I have done everyone a great favour, don't you see? Dumbledore no longer must deal with the house he finds so repulsive; the students are taken from an atmosphere of resentment and can learn—truly learn, beyond the simple knowledge taught at Hogwarts. I have offered them that." He smiled thinly. "Of course, it would be best if we were to have the school itself to educate them, but here will suffice, for now. They will no doubt be willing to help me take the castle when the time comes."
Severus's mind was racing, though he tried to show pleasure in the Dark Lord's pet project. Hogwarts had always been an inevitable target, of course, but this approach was new—simply taking the students until one essentially had the school, then using them to take the premises itself.
Screw pleased, Albus was going to have a fit.
"They will be pleased to serve you, I am sure, my Lord."
"They should," said Voldemort, abruptly frowning. "Some of them have been…more resistant to the idea, but I am sure they will realise the advantages of our position in time. Come, Severus, there is much left to do tonight."
Severus kept a respectful distance as they swept from the room, barely acknowledging the looks of astonishment and fear when they joined the assembly waiting in the dining hall. He himself was surprised at the ease with which he had been welcomed, but still too cautious to do more than nod to Lucius.
"I will be brief, my friends, as Greyback is already in position," hissed Voldemort. "This will be our most difficult family yet—we cannot afford any of the mistakes of last time. Delicacy will be the key, I believe. You will stay out of sight until I say—yes, all of you," he added, giving a sharp look towards the group clustered at the other end of the table, "and if I give word, you will not attack until I give the order. Is that clear?"
Severus kept his face as neutral as ever, though he noted the almost sullen glances between some of the other Death Eaters as they murmured their assent.
Voldemort nodded. "My friends, you surely agree that every drop of magical blood spilled is a waste? You will have your fair share of entertainment, but let us not forget the higher callings of our cause. Now—you have the portkeys, Rookwood?"
"Of course, my Lord." Rookwood passed a small bag towards the head of the table.
"Good. You should all know your positions by now…Severus, you will go with Lucius's group. I shall see you all again in five minutes."
With that, Voldemort Disapparated with a sudden crack. The room blinked at his sudden departure, and then moved towards the portkeys; Severus hung back to find Lucius.
"Lucius, what the hell is going on—" he hissed.
"Recruiting party," Lucius said quietly. "You're with us. Would you—after—a drink?"
Severus nodded. He would still have to be careful, but at least speaking with Lucius and Narcissa alone would probably yield better answers. He pulled on his mask and gathered around the small crowbar Lucius and a few others were holding, waiting—and then, after several excruciating seconds, the Mark burned again, and the ground fell away as they spun through darkness towards an unknown destination.
Minerva's eyes lingered on the door as it fell shut behind Severus, wishing she weren't quite so aware that this might have been the last time she would ever see him. Not that she wasn't getting used to it—she had worried, truly worried more than she had ever thought possible, every time he had been called away in the last year—and she was beginning to wonder just how much longer it could go on before he would crack under the pressure. She turned back to Albus unhappily.
"I hope one of you knows what you're doing," she said, somewhat tartly.
"So do I," said Albus. "It is quite unfortunate timing…I had hoped to inform Severus earlier—but perhaps it is better he knows nothing—"
Minerva stared as he pulled a few letters from one of the desk drawers. It was not like Albus to keep correspondence longer than necessary…
"I am not particularly in the habit of keeping my hate mail," Albus said, "as so little of it is useful… 'You disgrace your Wizarding heritage with the way you run this school'…'It is clearly time for you to give up your position; you've been at it long enough'…"
"Of course it is. I think if you examine these actual letters, however, you will notice something very interesting."
He sounded almost satisfied, but there was a definite undercurrent of worry to his voice that Minerva found unsettling. She scanned the first letter quickly—all tripe, as she had said—but put it down abruptly when she reached the bottom, staring at the shining silver ink.
"This is Tom's handwriting," she said quietly, stunned.
"Isn't it, though? I thought you might be the only other to recognise it—but I doubted I was wrong, having marked his Transfiguration essays for seven years."
"Of course I recognise it," Minerva snapped. "All of us at school then knew Tom Riddle…but why on earth…I can't believe he'd stoop to sending you messages, let alone such—such trifling excuses for insults."
Albus nodded thoughtfully. "I can't believe it either…I thought nothing of the letters when I first received them, but there seemed something familiar—and it was fortunate I had not yet thrown them away, once I realised why. But that still leaves us with the question of why they were sent in the first place."
"He can't truly mean it as discouragement, surely? In all honesty, they don't seem to be anywhere near as nasty as some of the correspondence you've received in the past," said Minerva, glancing over the other missives with a frown.
"My thoughts precisely. The only viable conclusions I have been able to draw is that either this sender is not, in fact, Lord Voldemort, though why he would want or be able to impersonate him so thoroughly is unknown. Or—that these were indeed sent by Voldemort or his followers."
"Why, indeed? They are far too trivial and unsophisticated for Voldemort's taste, if I may be so bold to say it; it is not at all his style of intimidation, especially as he would know such a tactic would not work with me. I can therefore only assume that these letters have some other purpose than their stated contents."
Minerva blinked, perplexed. This was quite possibly one of the most bizarre conversations she'd ever had with Albus—and she'd had quite a few. "What—?"
"I am not certain, but I have been trying to determine whether they contain clues to his next moves—I did receive one before the start of term, and another yesterday, but I cannot determine how a hidden message is supposed to work, if indeed one is contained within them. It's maddening."
"Perhaps that's what he wants," said Minerva, suddenly anxious. "Perhaps he's simply sending you things—even trivial things—just to take your focus away from what's important."
"I have not ruled it out," said Albus, though he sounded doubtful. "Still…I would like to investigate it further before I start discarding them. If it is indeed a sort of puzzle, it may be useful to solve it—as well as determine why Voldemort thinks it an adequate use of time and resources."
"He's evil," said Minerva flatly. "He's evil, and arrogant, and wasting your time with pointless puzzles—or, very well, then, making things more interesting by sending you his plans in disguise, only to see you fail to decipher them in time—is exactly what he would find amusing."
After a moment's hesitation, Albus stashed the letters away again. "I only hope, that if I am right about these messages…that it is not the warning I think it might be."
"If Voldemort is communicating directly, Minerva, it could very well mean he knows we will not have a spy for much longer."
Severus opened his eyes as soon as his feet hit the ground, and nearly squeezed them shut immediately afterwards; he was mere inches from a tree trunk. He backed away slowly and almost tripped over another Death Eater, who had not been so graceful with Portkey travel and had ended up sprawled in a heap.
"Oh, get up," he heard Lucius say, and the unfortunate man scrambled out of kicking range and nearly fell over again in his haste to rise.
"That should be everyone," said Lucius, looking around; Severus followed his gaze, picking out faint shapes of other men within the trees. It was rather thinly wooded, but a quick glance in the other direction made it obvious as to why; they were on the edge of an expansive garden, dwarfed by the unfamiliar manor perhaps a hundred yards away.
"We're really starting the raids again, then?" he muttered.
"Essentially, yes," said Lucius.
"Just like old times."
One of the others—Severus thought it was Rowle—spat bitterly. "Not like old times at all. We're not 'raiding' any more, we're 'recruiting.' Load of rubbish. He plans it out like it's going to be some big attack, and half the time we don't even get to come out of hiding. He just goes up to the door and talks to them."
If it hadn't been so alarming, Severus might have laughed—the Dark Lord, going from door to door like a Muggle salesman or politician! But if Voldemort wanted to do this himself, he clearly considered it important—far too important to let his servants handle it. Severus frowned—there was something no one was telling him.
"Well, the Dark Lord does have some power and influence about his person," he said drily. "I can't imagine many refusing him if he showed up at the door himself. We're here for a show of force."
"Yes," admitted Lucius. "And we've used force, when necessary… but the threat is usually enough. If not—well, we haven't brought Greyback along for nothing. Those that won't join us as wizards will have little choice in the matter as werewolves."
Severus suppressed a shudder with difficulty. Quite apart from his own aversion to werewolves, he despised Greyback; using him to increase the circle of followers seemed extreme even for the Dark Lord. Severus narrowed his eyes as he looked towards the manor again.
"Shut up, Snape," Rowle hissed. "He'll be here any minute, and if he hears us, we're all in for it."
"Just watch," Lucius breathed. "I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough."
He did not sound pleased, though, and Severus could not help but wonder at the looks of unease and downright mutiny he saw in the eyes of the Death Eaters around him. Clearly, all was not as it seemed.
The crack as Voldemort Apparated in the middle of the garden was unnaturally amplified to Severus's ears, or perhaps he was simply too lost in thought. He watched, disbelieving, as the Dark Lord strode to the doors and waited, presumably for an answer from within.
"You have got to be kidding me."
They waited in silence as a crack of light spilled over the lawn, another figure silhouetted there, and Severus was suddenly glad he could not hear what was being said. He had enough trouble speaking to the Dark Lord himself; he could well imagine the terror of having no warning before being forced into conversation with the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time. He was glad he was far away in the trees, deaf to the conversation, half-expecting a Killing Curse at any moment—
Instead, his Mark burned so intensely that he barely suppressed a hiss, and a few men around him muttered curses. Lucius nodded.
They moved from the cover of the trees, converging in a group the likes of which Severus had not expected; the Dark Lord must have made arrangements with others, many more than the inner circle.
There was silence for a few moments, and then a few figures walked forward. After a moment, Severus realised the Dark Lord must have called them personally; they disappeared with the other silhouettes inside, leaving the small army to wait yet again. Next to him, Lucius huffed slightly.
"They were smart—they accepted before Greyback was involved."
"Who are they?" muttered Severus.
"Collishams. Lesser Purebloods. Barely." Lucius sounded almost like his old disdainful self for a moment before adding nervously, "But there's no guarantee whether it's—"
He broke off again immediately, for the great doors opened again and Voldemort re-emerged, staring around at them all and nodding.
"Well done, my friends. Two more for our cause. You may rest tonight knowing we are moving forward…but first…." He glanced at the manor again, and there was no mistaking the look of contempt that distorted the snake-like face. "Burn it."
He was gone in a sharp crack, and many of the waiting Death Eaters cheered. Severus did not protest as Lucius pulled him aside.
"The inner circle does not usually stay…unless you wish it, of course?" said Lucius, grimacing in distaste as the manor was engulfed in flames within seconds.
"I can't say that I do," said Severus, though he paused to put right a few fiery spells that had strayed from their mark. "Idiots…they'll have half the countryside burnt by morning if they keep that up."
Lucius snorted. "You remember, Severus. All in the name of fun."
"Of course." Severus nodded, but couldn't help his smirk upon seeing Lucius sniff irritably. "Only, you don't seem to think so anymore, do you?"
"Neither do you," said Lucius, not skipping a beat. He sighed and held out an arm. "Narcissa will be waiting. Shall we?"
Minerva turned in surprise at the voice hailing her; Charity rarely sought her out, and often returned home far earlier in the evening. Nevertheless, Minerva stopped and withdrew her hand from her office door.
"Charity, this is a surprise—what can I do for you?"
The short blonde witch smiled. "I just heard back from my publisher. They've finally approved it!"
"The book or the article?"
"The book! No more drafts, thank God!" said Charity, laughing. "They're ready to print whenever I give the word—only, I was hoping to get an endorsement from a colleague or two," she added, rather shyly. "I don't suppose there will be time in the staff meeting tomorrow to address it?"
Minerva nodded. "Of course—I shall add it to the list. Congratulations."
"Thank you!" Charity beamed. "Oh, I'm sorry to bother you; I should get home…Greg will be thrilled…."
She waved and practically bounced out of sight; Minerva watched her go and felt her heart sink.
It was not as though she did not agree with Charity's fundamental sentiments on Muggles—and she did think the Wizarding World needed to be made aware of them—but now was not the time to be handing out thousands of pages on the subject. It was too dangerous—but, then, Charity always did have a lack of foresight.
Minerva sighed. Albus could sort it tomorrow.
"You both smell awful," Narcissa said baldly, her delicate nose wrinkling, but it was somehow not enough to keep her from embracing Lucius the instant he came within reach. "What happened? Where were you? Severus—what's going on?"
"Patience, my dear," said Lucius smoothly. "I'm sure he'd rather like to know that himself. Shall we have a drink?"
Much to Severus's puzzlement, Narcissa glanced at the grand staircase before nodding. "I think they've settled."
Severus knew it would be pointless to ask; he instead followed the Malfoys to Lucius's study, noting how closely they walked, how reluctant they were to break contact. He had nearly forgotten that Lucius had only just escaped from Azkaban, but there was no mistaking that haunted look or the hollowness of his cheeks—nor the way Narcissa looked at him when they had finally barred themselves in the spacious study.
"It is good to see you again," said Severus sincerely, nodding his thanks as Narcissa poured them wine. She gave him a wan smile and nestled beside her husband again.
"I must confess, I did not expect to be released so soon," said Lucius, his voice low, "but I cannot say I am ungrateful."
"And what would have been gained by keeping you locked away?" said Narcissa, albeit nervously.
"Nothing much, of course," lied Lucius, and abruptly changed the subject. "It is good to see you again as well, Severus. When you weren't at yesterday's meeting, I thought…"
"I haven't seen you all summer," Narcissa cut in quickly. "I wasn't sure—"
"You thought I was dead," said Severus bluntly.
"Not necessarily," protested Narcissa.
Lucius smiled thinly. "You must admit, when someone simply disappears from meetings, they usually aren't in any shape to ever come back."
"If I am honest, I did not expect as warm a welcome as I received. I had assumed I was not included in most summonses, but I could not think of a safe way to ask why," said Severus, eying his hosts carefully.
Lucius frowned. "That was wise. I cannot say I knew much more than you, this past summer, but still…things have been—different."
"I hadn't noticed," said Severus sardonically. "I thought the Dark Lord always paid house calls."
"That's just it," said Narcissa quietly. "He has been. This summer, at least. Oh, Severus, it's been such a mess—"
Severus waited for Lucius to contradict her, to perhaps even roll his eyes as he always did when she tended towards the dramatic, but Lucius only squeezed her hand and looked grim.
"I assume you know the Dark Lord's latest educational project?" he said quietly.
Severus frowned. "If you're talking about the fact that every single student of Slytherin House has failed to return to Hogwarts, barely. When I spoke with the Dark Lord tonight, he led me to believe that he himself had recruited them all, and was somehow finding a way to teach them—but that's—"
"True," finished Lucius. "They're here, Severus. All of them."
"In the manor," said Narcissa, her voice trembling at last. "We'd do anything to serve the Dark Lord, of course, but—oh, Severus, this isn't a school; every spare room in the manor is filled, and it's been difficult to divide them up and find those of us that can train them—"
"The Dark Lord has assured us that it is a temporary solution," said Lucius hastily. "They will not intrude on us for long…but the fact remains, this is not Hogwarts. While they may be learning certain things more quickly, we cannot offer them nearly as much; it is difficult enough to find those of us that have the patience to teach them simple spells and duelling."
"They're children," said Narcissa coldly. "To have them so directly involved—most are younger than Draco, some even younger than eleven—he's been taking on the purebloods that had chosen to stay home for their education, as well."
Severus bit back a curse and sipped his wine to give himself time to think. "You cannot be the only ones that think this is a bad idea," he said finally.
"Of course not," snapped Narcissa. "Even those of us that were aware of this at the beginning were never particularly enthusiastic."
"And, given how much time we have spent recruiting, it's not difficult to see why the others are growing restless," added Lucius. "Restoring the Wizarding world to its proper order seems a long way off from simply gaining the odd follower or two. But no one is going to be foolish enough to say—"
He fell silent immediately at the knock on the door; Draco poked his head around the frame moments later.
"What is it, Draco?" said Narcissa softly.
"Pansy was wondering whether someone else might switch rather than having to—Professor Snape?"
Severus nearly smirked at the flabbergasted look on the boy's face. "Hello, Draco. The dungeons have been rather quiet without you."
Draco fidgeted sullenly. "I—I didn't—the Dark Lord said he'd give me my Mark soon," he said, and Severus heard Lucius inhale sharply. "Besides, I'll be back soon enough, once Hogwarts is ours, right, Professor?"
"One can hope," said Severus vaguely, but he didn't miss how Lucius's mouth twisted in annoyance. Narcissa stood gracefully.
"What is it, Draco?" she repeated.
"Oh—yeah—Astoria said she'd take the new ones if Daphne and Millicent wanted to move in with Pansy instead, but we'd need help—"
"That's all right, I suppose. I'll be there in a moment," said Narcissa, and waited until her son had ducked out the door again before muttering, "Honestly, Severus. I've no idea how you deal with this on a regular basis."
"Neither do I. But you shouldn't have to," he pointed out.
Narcissa sighed. "You'd think I would be used to it by now…who are the 'new ones'?" she added, looking at Lucius.
"Collishams. They're still young and an unknown entity; don't tell them we burned the manor," he said softly. Narcissa nodded and left, though she looked rather paler than usual.
Severus remained silent as Lucius finished his wine; he looked far more upset than Severus had seen him in a very long time. Not that he could be blamed—escaping Azkaban to find his home invaded by the Dark Lord and a hundred schoolchildren could not have been easy, but Severus doubted that these were the greatest of Lucius's worries.
"You do not wish for Draco to take the Mark."
It was not a question, and Lucius looked around at him sharply. "No," he breathed. "Not yet. It—you know I am loyal, Severus, but it has been different—extremely so. It is not as it was last time, or even last year. The Dark Lord's return is known, but he is being more cautious with the more important of our plans; he rarely shares them, he is less patient, he is—more dangerous."
"He has always been dangerous, Lucius," replied Severus, though he did not disagree.
Lucius shook his head. "You know Draco, Severus. He is not ready. He has no idea of what is in store, what will be asked of him—so, no, I do not wish him to take the Mark. Not yet."
Severus searched his face for signs of dishonesty; he would not put it past Lucius to try to draw him out and test his loyalties, especially if the Dark Lord had commanded it. "And—if the Dark Lord wishes for Draco to take the Mark?" he said finally.
"Then he will," said Lucius abruptly. "I would never dream of telling the Dark Lord what he should or should not do, my friend. Perhaps things will be better within a few months' time, in any case."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps the Dark Lord will only grow more cautious. He cannot seriously expect to have achieved much if his focus is currently on recruiting children and their families."
Lucius frowned. "That's just it—I'm sure it's not. He's planning more, that much is certain, but I doubt he will tell anyone any time soon. Compared to last time, it's almost as if—" Lucius glanced around nervously, though Severus was quite sure they were alone— "it's almost as if he's afraid that we're losing."
"He is not alone in that," said Severus. "If anything, Dumbledore has been much the same."
"The Wizarding world at war, and both sides too paralysed at the thought of losses to do anything to guarantee a victory," Lucius snorted mirthlessly. "I wonder which is more dangerous: a war where both sides are sure they are winning, or both are convinced they are being defeated?"
Severus did not bother to answer. It made little difference; it would not end well for him either way. The only question was which side was going to decide his time was up first, and how long he had before then.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading! Again, apologies for such a long wait and such a slow chapter to end it; hopefully the next will be much quicker in coming. Feel free to say hi or berate me for my horrid update timing any time!