Chapter 42: When All Is Fair (Arc 7)
Do you really need me to tell you to bring tissues at this point? Also, all non-original lines disclaimed.
On a sunny June morning, by the quiet waters of the lake, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was laid to rest on the grounds of the school he had loved so well and served so long as teacher and Headmaster. The students stood to do him honor as his body was carried past, dressed in his best blue and gray robes, with his wand in his hand, and the faintest of smiles on his face.
Representatives of some of the largest student organizations came forward to place floral tributes on the bier, including Selena Moon, Maya Pritchard, Hannah Abbott, and Cho Chang, each of whom presented a quarter of a wreath made to represent her own House's crest. Fitted together, they formed the crest of Hogwarts, at which a number of first and second years broke down sobbing.
Headmistress McGonagall spoke briefly about her friend and colleague, about the times both good and bad through which they had worked together and the lessons she had learned from him, then yielded the floor to a sandy-haired wizard many of the older students recognized. A flurry of whispering went through the crowd.
"Remus Lupin…Remus Lupin…"
Remus waited patiently until the noise had subsided, his hands resting against the seams of his black robes. He carried nothing, no notes or scroll from which to read, though one or two students did note that his wife, sitting to one side with Professor Black's arm around her, had a folded sheet of parchment in her lap.
"Yesterday, I received a letter," Remus began when the only sound was the slight sighing of the breeze among the leaves of the Forbidden Forest. "It had been left for me by Albus Dumbledore, and written in it was a story. He asked me to share that story with you today, in its truest form, to counteract the lies and half-truths which will inevitably spring up. So I ask you to listen carefully, and to bear in mind this truth:
"Who we are at any given time is not necessarily who we will always be."
Another set of whispers ran through the students. Remus let them die away before he spoke again.
"Albus Dumbledore is best known to us today as a champion of the rights of all people, magical or non-magical, human or other thinking being. But when he was young, younger than most of you are now, his life was marked by an act of senseless cruelty against his sister Ariana, committed by Muggles who were frightened of a young girl's playful magic. The consequences of that act included the loss of his father and his sister's permanent incapacitation. So you can see that as a young man, Albus Dumbledore had little reason to feel friendly towards Muggles.
"Some years later, Dumbledore befriended another young man, near his own age, who had attended Durmstrang Institute and was in England to visit relations. He was very personable, this young man, and very persuasive. An excellent speaker, especially when he spoke about Muggles. They were dangerous, he argued, dangerous not only to wizards but to themselves. Only look at the ridiculous destruction they were wreaking with their stupid, pointless wars! In the best interests of all, said this young man, those who had magic should exert control over those who did not.
"For the greater good."
Remus paused as several gasps sounded through the audience, and met the eyes of Hestia Jones, who was smiling grimly. "I see some of you have been paying attention in History of Magic," he said. "Yes, 'for the greater good'. The motto of Gellert Grindelwald. One of the Darkest wizards of recent history, and one of the most dangerous. Many, many people fell into the trap of believing that by helping Grindelwald, they could truly bring about some 'greater good'. And for a short period of his life, Albus Dumbledore was one of those people."
The furious chatter which broke out at this dwarfed all earlier outbreaks. Remus stepped back to wait and glanced over towards the Pride, seated in a block near one side. Most of them looked as shocked and horrified as the rest of the audience, but Luna's face had not lost its usual composure and Harry, though he clearly didn't care for what he was hearing, seemed already to understand where the story was headed.
"For the rest of his life," Remus said when he had the students' attention once again, "Dumbledore regretted that it took yet another personal tragedy to awaken him to Gellert Grindelwald's true aims. Grindelwald spoke convincingly about the greater good, and very probably believed in his motto. But he also believed that in the service of that greater good, he was entitled to use the Darkest of magics as he pleased. To threaten or to cause terrible pain. To control the actions of another. And, in the final extreme, to kill, not because he or another was in danger which could be resolved in no other way but simply because this death, at this time, would be…convenient."
Hermione was not the only member of the audience who hissed at the word.
"For all our magic, there are some things even we cannot do." Remus drew his wand, balancing it on his palm so that all the students could see it. "We cannot alter the past, nor can we reverse true death. But." His fingers closed around the wand, bringing it into casting position. "The future is ours, to do with as we will. Only consider that Albus Dumbledore, who once considered Gellert Grindelwald his closest friend, is today noted in our history books, and on our Chocolate Frog cards," he added, waking a few brief snickers, "as instrumental in Grindelwald's defeat. If you remember nothing else from today, please, remember this. As long as you still live, it is not, it is never, too late to make a different choice.
As Remus took his seat beside Danger, he noticed Sirius giving him a strange look from the other end of the row. Something for you? he signed briefly, as Minerva and the Heads of the Houses (Professor Sinistra of Astronomy acting as interim Head of Slytherin) stepped forward to close the tomb.
He really asked you to tell everyone that? Sirius signed back.
Danger patted her hand against the letter she still held in her lap in answer.
Well, all right. But it seems… Sirius shrugged. Odd.
Remus waggled his fingers in the sign for Too complex, will explain later, and rose to his feet with the rest of the audience as teachers and prefects began to lead the students, many sobbing openly, back towards the castle.
"All right, let's have it," said Sirius once the Pack-adults were alone beside the white tomb. "I always thought a funeral was a time to talk about somebody's good points—why would Albus ask you to tell everyone that?"
"So no one like Rita Skeeter could get hold of it, sensationalize it, and turn it into a trashy serial for Witch Weekly, maybe?" Danger snapped before Remus could reply.
"Taking things a little personally today, are we?" Aletha interjected, cutting off Sirius's heated denial. "Sirius, that story would have come out sooner or later, especially with Albus no longer able to speak in his own defense. This way, no one can say we tried to hide it or cover it up. It becomes what it really is, the story of a young man who got carried away by a plausible liar." Her eyes pinned him where he stood. "And who, when he discovered his mistake, spent the rest of his very long life doing his best to atone for it. Does that sound familiar, by any chance?"
Sirius growled under his breath. "I don't have to like it," he said grudgingly.
"None of us do." Danger folded the parchment again and slipped it into her pocket. "But if we ignore the truths we don't like, they'll come back to bite us when we can least afford it." She turned her face into the breeze. "Like what we have to do this afternoon…"
At the edge of the Forest, leaves rustled briefly, making Remus look around. A branch swayed low down on a bush, but whatever had been there was gone.
It could have been almost anything, or anyone. A centaur, a wise wolf, even Harry's friend Sangre…
"Thank you for coming," he said softly in the direction of the sound, then turned back to Danger, drawing her gently into his arms.
The Pack still had their own loss to mourn today.
Hermione carried her best black robes down to Ginny and Luna's dorm, ostensibly for their help in getting dressed, in reality to keep an eye on Luna. She'd been acting…
Well. Strange isn't exactly the word I want.
Stranger than usual, perhaps.
Luna's frantic fear when she'd originally had her vision of Draco's gravestone, her terror and weeping and denial that it could possibly be true, were conspicuously absent now that the vision's time drew near. The blue-gray eyes showed no signs of tears, the sweet and silvery voice was clear and unthickened—
She's even singing a little to herself, the way she does when she's happy. As Ginny directed the efforts of a shoe cloth with her wand, Hermione turned her attention to Luna, who was brushing her dark blonde hair in front of the room's small mirror, humming in time with her brushstrokes. The tune was familiar, she'd heard it many times before…
As the words which matched the melody surfaced in Hermione's mind, she had to grip the post of Ginny's bed very hard indeed to avoid having any more visible reaction.
"In sleep he sang to me, in dreams he came…"
The song was that which lent its title to the stage show from which Luna had once witnessed herself and Lucius Malfoy singing a duet, in a graveyard, at dusk.
She's caught up in the vision, in making it come true. She's given herself completely over to that role, to believing what she'll say tonight. Is that why she didn't see a lie in anything she said to him in the vision? Because she's made herself believe it, in order to lure him into her trap?
With shaking hands, she straightened her hair, using the familiar motion to calm herself enough that her voice would not give her fears away.
If only that's how it comes out, Fox may not have died for nothing after all…
Luna continued to brush and hum, fully aware of Hermione's eyes on her, and more cognizant of her older Pridemate's thoughts than Hermione might have believed.
She still doesn't understand. Spreading the skirts of her robes, she curtsied to her reflection in the mirror. Even after Fox explained it to her himself, she can't see it.
The only way for me to win tonight is to be open to possibilities. Be ready to believe anything, anything at all.
Rising, she patted the pocket where she carried two letters and a carefully wrapped dagger.
Even if that 'anything' is that I have to lose to win.
"The song really doesn't make sense for them," said Meghan in the greenhouse, in the tone of someone grasping at straws to stave off tears.
"Which?" Neville looked up from the cutting of Luna's dark red rose, which he was wrapping in damp cloth to better survive the journey.
"'Barbara Allen'. She only cared about herself, and how many people drank her health in the taverns. It's why the briar grows from her heart in the end, because she was prickly and drove people away from her." Meghan laid a fingertip on one of the rosebush's thorns. "That's not how Luna is at all." A weak giggle escaped her. "Me maybe, but not Luna!"
"No briars for you." Neville pointed a stern finger at his lady. "You are not allowed to die in this war, do you understand me?"
"Not even if you do?"
"I'm not planning on it, so the problem shouldn't come up. And no, not even then." Neville placed the cutting carefully in his pocket. "You've got your whole Pack and the rest of the Pride to love, and there's a whole world out there, with an awful lot of wizards you haven't met. And Muggles, for that matter. You'd find somebody else, Pearl. I'd want you to." He held out an arm, and Meghan fit herself inside it. "Because no matter what else happens, I love you, and I want you to be happy. Got it?"
"Got it." Meghan sniffed once. "But still just please don't die."
"Same goes to you." Neville drew her close and held her tightly for a few moments, then kissed the top of her head and escorted her from the greenhouse.
Behind them, the rosebushes, deep red and gold-hearted pink, bloomed warmly in the full light of afternoon.
Aletha had just finished fastening her robes when a silver doe stepped gravely through the wall of her quarters. "Lucius Malfoy," the doe said in Severus Snape's laconic voice, "has not yet returned to his home."
"Hasn't he," Aletha murmured as the doe vanished. "I can't imagine why."
"Can't imagine what now?" Sirius stepped out of the bathroom, fumbling with the gold cuff links Danger had given him two Christmases before, formed in the shape of rampant Gryffindor lions. "Damn things never close right, even when they're bloody well enchanted for it…"
"Did you invoke the enchantment?" Aletha drew her wand. "Necto leoni."
Sirius pulled his finger out of the way just in time as the link snapped neatly shut. "Now why didn't I think of that."
"I would make a comment about you and thinking, but it gets less and less apt as time goes on." Aletha waited until he had the other cuff link in place, then repeated her spell nonverbally to seal it shut as well. "That was a message from Severus. It seems Lucius is intelligent enough not to try presenting himself to Voldemort as some kind of hero while he's a Squib."
"Heh." Sirius grinned briefly. "Love to see him try it. Wonder if they'd demote him to pot-scrubber, or just pat him on the head and tell him to go sit in his room, there's a good boy, and let the grown-ups get on with things? Or…"
"I know that face," said Aletha when the silence had continued for several seconds. "What have you just thought of, that you don't like in the least?"
"Need to talk to Moony, find out if it's possible. But." Sirius scrubbed his hands along the front of his robe. "What if Lucius hasn't gone home because he's hoping to grab Hermione and take her magic to replace his?"
"You'd think he would have when he had her helpless this morning," Aletha objected.
"Helpless in the middle of Hogwarts?" Sirius waved two fingers in a circle above his head. "Especially when Harry'd already asked the castle to slow him down some, muddle him up? He wouldn't have wanted to try anything that delicate in a hostile environment. And yes, I know it worked for Draco, but Draco belongs here—belonged," he corrected in a growl. "Don't I just wish it could have fallen out the other way. What would it matter to us if Fox didn't have magic for a couple months, hmm? He and Neenie could have shared, you or Harry or Pearl could have pulled from the castle to help replenish them… or hell, he could just have potted Death Eaters with his potion piece, Merlin knows he was good enough with it!"
"Don't," Aletha said thickly, "please, don't, you'll set me off—oh, God, too late…"
"Oh, love." Sirius caught her in his arms and held her close. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
"No, it's probably best now," Aletha managed to say. "We're still here, I can fix myself up, and if I break down all the way out there, so will Pearl." Her throat closed for a moment. "Which is not a thing I ever wanted to be thinking about my daughter," she whispered, when she could. "How to keep her from tearing herself apart with grief, when she's lost a friend and a brother so close together. She deserves so much more, Sirius, so much better than this—they all do, every one of them…"
But what you deserve and what you get in life are hardly ever the same thing, she finished silently, as her voice was too thick to speak.
"Tell you one thing," said Sirius conversationally after a few moments. "If I ever find out who was the first person to say 'All's fair in love and war'…"
"I can tell you exactly who." Aletha blinked away a last tear and looked up at her husband. "Somebody who won their particular battle, and didn't much care for the methods they'd used being questioned."
"Ain't that the truth." Sirius sighed deeply. "It hasn't been very fair for you, has it?" he asked, his eyes and voice devoid of any vestige of laughter. "What I've put you through, I mean. All this time, all this trouble."
"All this love." Aletha closed her hand around his. "And yes, this war as well. I'd be fighting it even if we'd never met, Sirius. You know that. As it is, I fight better because I know you'll be there to back me. And we've added another fighter to our ranks between us, and raised others to make their choices well. To love the truth…" She smiled, hearing her own double meaning. "And the star, and the wolf, and the warrior. And to be warriors themselves, and fight against evil." Her eyes welled up again, but she held her voice steady with an effort. "Even if they die doing it."
"Even if they die." Sirius shook his head. "It sounds so poetic, doesn't it? So romantic and uplifting. Until you run smack into it, and suddenly it's not. It just hurts. Because you never realize, until it comes right home to you, that everybody who's out there dying for what they believe in? That's not happening in a vacuum. The ones who die have parents, and siblings, and people they might have married one day—and somebody'd better have put that in the box of permission," he added as an aside. "I'd have done it myself, but I had mine picked out already."
"Mine was music, but I'd imagine Remus or Danger thought of it." Aletha squeezed Sirius's hand. "Now, let me fix my face, and then we have to go."
"Right." Sirius released her. "Because it's just not on to be late for your son's funeral." He scowled at his reflection in a corner of the mirror as Aletha began to repair her makeup. "Not that it's so much better to be having one of those in the first place…"
Aletha refrained from further comment.
The funeral of Draco Regulus Black was quiet and private, as had been that of his Pack-brother Marcus James, held in the same location a year and a half before. First his parents, then his siblings, and finally his closest friends came forward to place their letters of permission in the simple wooden box Remus had conjured for the purpose. Luna, as befit her place in Draco's life, took her turn last, and allowed her hands to rest atop all the letters for a moment before she rose and stepped back.
Neville and Meghan came forward hand in hand, as Danger, her face very still, waved her wand once to close the box and swirled it three times to dig a pair of holes in the newly turned earth atop the grave where the small urn of ashes had been interred. With care, they laid the box in the larger of the holes, and Neville placed his rose cutting in the smaller one, then pressed his fingers to it and closed his eyes, concentrating.
Before the eyes of the gathered Pack and Pride, a golden glow developed around the young wizard and witch, and the rosebush began to grow, its vines stretching upward towards the sun and twining around the nearest available support. After a moment, though, the glow began to flicker, to fade, and the growth of the bush faltered.
Aletha and Sirius stepped forward, so smoothly that it seemed to have been rehearsed, and held out their hands to the younger people, Aletha to Neville, Sirius to Meghan. The hands were grasped, the glow expanded to surround the adults as well, and the rosebush's growth continued, until the cleanly cut stone with its three simple lines of text was all but covered in vines and buds showing lines of rich, deep red, along with one fully open blossom. The grass which surrounded the new-made grave moved in at Neville's beckoning wave, to cover its bareness of earth.
The glow faded away, and the Blacks and Neville returned to their earlier places. Hermione, pressing her lips tightly together, turned her face into Ron's shoulder, apparently unable to look at the grave any longer, green though it might now be.
Harry released Ginny's hand and took one step forward. "In his name," he said quietly, "we go on."
Slowly, by twos and threes, the Pack and Pride bowed their heads in acceptance.
Ginny ascended the stairs towards her dorm, glancing down as she went at an unwontedly sober Gryffindor common room. Final exams had been canceled (though that didn't affect her, since O.W.L.s, like N.E.W.T.s, had been conducted a few weeks earlier), and classes were in abeyance until Headmistress McGonagall could consult with her staff and work out who would be taking which years through which topics.
Which doesn't leave us a whole lot to do with ourselves.
For just now, though, she had another worry. Luna had excused herself about twenty minutes before, claiming she needed a nap. None of the Pride had thought much of it until a few moments ago, a slip for which Ginny was still kicking herself.
We thought, as long as we were in the common room and she was in the dorms, that she couldn't get past us to go out by herself and fulfill that blasted vision.
Apparently we're all too punch-drunk to remember that Luna, when she wants them, has wings…
At any other time, she would have been running, but running would be pointless now. If Luna was gone, she was gone, and Ginny's wearing herself out further wouldn't make her come back.
And if she's not gone yet, she'll be more likely to go if she hears my feet come pounding up here. If I'm quiet, I might be able to surprise her, and talk her out of it—
She turned the doorknob, lifting it slightly to take the weight from the creaky hinges, and pushed the door open.
Luna, seated on the windowsill, looked at her coolly across the barrel of her potion piece. "I thought you might come," she said. "Don't shout, please."
"I won't." Ginny stepped inside, keeping her hands in plain sight. "Luna, you don't have to do this alone. We can go with you."
"No, you can't." Luna shook her head. "He says not to."
Ginny stiffened, feeling rather as if she'd walked through a ghost unexpectedly. "He says—Luna, who says?"
"Draco, of course." Luna smiled, as though surprised Ginny had asked. "That's why I came up here to sleep. So that he could come to me in my dreams, sing to me and call me to him, just like the song says. I can't stay much longer, or the light will be wrong for my vision, but I wanted someone to know before I left."
"Luna…" Ginny swallowed hard. "Draco is dead. I know you probably don't want to think about that, but you have to believe me."
"Oh, I believe you." Luna's smile brightened. "I believe everything just now. It's how I have to be, if I'm going to close the circle and win the war for us." Her face lost its shine. "It may not be very much fun for me, parts of it, anyway. And Daddy won't like it at all. But then, he's under the Fidelius by now, and I don't think Neville's mum will tell him about this, not until it's all over. There won't be anything he can do in any case."
"Close the circle, win the war—" Ginny started to step forward. "Luna, what are you—"
"Stop there," Luna warned, bringing the piece up a little ways. "I don't want to, but I will."
"I believe you." Ginny stopped. "Luna, please. We don't want to lose you too."
"I know." Luna held her piece steady. "That's why I'm going to find myself. Will you tell everyone that I love them, please? And that I'm not afraid anymore?" Her smile returned. "Even the worst things that could come out of tonight will help us win the war in the end, you see. Draco's told me so." She blew a kiss with her free hand. "Goodbye, Ginny. I'll see you again."
Holstering her potion piece, Luna turned and leapt.
Ginny made it to the window in time to see Starwing the snowy owl gliding away across the grounds.
"If you lied to her," she muttered fiercely in the direction of the Founders' Castle. "If you lied to her, I'll…I'll kill you again."
A general lack of response did not improve her mood.
"Just this, sir?" said a middle-aged clerk at a small store selling odds and ends in Godric's Hollow, ringing up the black half-mask and the hooded cloak on her old-fashioned register.
"Yes. If you please." The last few words seemed to be added as a last-minute afterthought, as a long-fingered, pale hand slid a twenty-pound note across the counter. "I trust this will be enough."
"Oh, absolutely, sir." The clerk looked a bit askance at her long-haired customer, who returned the regard coolly from his pale gray eyes. "Do you…did you need your change in any…particular way?"
Silver-white eyebrows ascended, giving the clerk the unnerving feeling that she was about six inches high. "Quickly," the man said, his hand making an abortive motion towards his pocket, as though he were about to reach for something he had just remembered he was not carrying. "I have…an appointment to keep." He smiled thinly, fastening the cloak around his neck and sliding the mask into its pocket. "One for which I have been waiting some time."
"Of—of course, sir." The clerk counted out the change as quickly as she could for the shaking of her hands and passed it over. "Have—have a pleasant—"
The bell over the door tingled as the man pushed it open to walk briskly out into the street with his limping step.
"Day," the clerk finished in a whimper, and ran into the back to indulge in a mild fit of hysterics. She hadn't been so frightened of anyone, as she would shortly inform all her friends, since that Halloween night some years back when that poor young couple's cottage had blown up from the gas leak, and she'd happened to look out the window and seen such a strange-looking person walking down the street just a few minutes before it went off…
Luna knelt in the grass Neville had grown only a few hours before, letting her fingers caress the leaves and buds of the new rosebush. In the back of her mind, she could feel her younger self watching, and smiled a little to think of how frightened and worried she'd been then.
It does hurt, being apart from him. But in only a few minutes, one way or another, everything will be settled, everything will be done. Either I will avenge my love, or I will go to be with him, and our two lives will be the price of planting a deadly trap among the Death Eaters…
She wished she could have explained that possibility more fully to Ginny, but it would have caused a great deal of trouble, not to mention delaying her far longer than she could afford.
And now, it begins.
Lifting her head, she regarded the rosebush. "And from his heart," she sang softly, reaching for the single blossom which had opened fully, "grew a red, red rose…"
Pity for the girl who watched her now, the girl she had once been, overtook her, and she began to weep, sobbing where she knelt, letting the sorrow of two full years of mourning for her doomed love wash over and through her in this moment.
It isn't fair, she cried silently, as she had done so many times before. It isn't fair—we've never done anything wrong, why should we have to suffer like this? Why?
Lost in the grief she lived again, she heard the newcomer behind her only when he began to sing to her, his voice rough, as though unaccustomed to the action.
Wandering child, so lost, so helpless,
Yearning for my guidance.
Luna's head snapped up and around with the first note. She wiped the tears from her eyes to clear her vision—
And Saw, hovering around the cloaked and masked figure, what she had only half-expected, and had not wanted to believe, that she would See.
Her voice nearly choked with emotion as she began her answer.
Angel or father, friend or Phantom?
Who is it there, staring?
Her partner sang over her final words.
Have you forgotten your Angel?
She picked up the line.
Angel, oh, speak…what endless longings
Echo in this whisper?
The man before her took the line again, his voice caressing.
Too long you've wandered in winter,
Far from my far-reaching gaze...
Pressing her hand to her chest, she fought to keep her breath as she sang. She must not, must not, lose her control now, or her belief would slip and all would be lost.
Wildly my mind beats against you…
The wizard smiled mockingly.
Drawing breath as one, they sang together.
Yet the soul obeys!
Their eyes were locked on one another, searching, finding, believing.
Angel of Music! I denied you,
Turning from true beauty!
Angel of Music! Do not shun me,
Come to me, strange Angel!
The man's song taunted and tantalized.
I am your Angel of Music…
Come to me, Angel of Music…
Drawing her first free breath in the pause which followed the singing, Luna found stillness, clarity of mind, even joy. All would happen as it had been foretold, for what she now Saw she had never seen before.
And my every word can and will be true.
"Such a lovely voice," the man said after a few moments of silence. "A pity to choke it with weeping. Did you love him so much, the one who lies buried here?"
Luna slipped her hand between the thorns of the rosebush to caress the writing beneath. "No, I suppose I didn't," she said, turning her head to smile up at the man. I still love my Fox at this very moment. "Silly of me, to cry for him." When there are so many more helpful things I could be doing.
"Indeed. For when did he ever give either of us reason to love him?" The man regarded the grave dispassionately. "I regret what I was forced to do, but I had no choice. You know that."
"I do." Harry was not the only one for whom 'neither can live while the other survives'…
The man closed his fingers around the stem of the one blooming rose, deftly broke it off, and offered it to Luna. "Come away with me, Starwing, silent huntress of the night," he said quietly. "Come and be my eyes and ears and hands, and my swift-winged messenger until messages are needed no more. It cannot last much longer, and I believe I know how it will end."
"So do I." Luna rose and accepted the flower. "And I will go with you." Though I am afraid, I will be brave. "I will do what you cannot, and fly to carry your words to far-off ears, until your side—" She drew breath and called to mind her Pride. "—our side—reaps our well-deserved victory."
The man smiled fully this time. "My lady, your way with words delights me."
Luna dropped a brief curtsey, then bent and laid the rose on the grave where she had been kneeling. "We should go," she said, straightening. "I've wasted enough time here."
Grief is pointless when justice lies so readily to hand.
The man undid his mask and laid it on the grave over the stem of the rose, then offered his wrist. Luna rippled herself into Starwing's form and fluttered upwards to a landing on that slender perch, leaning in to preen a long strand of silver hair which had escaped the hood of the cloak. Its owner smiled, pulled his hood forward again, and walked away briskly, cradling her close to his chest.
When they were out of sight of the grave with its red rosebush, she mantled her wings, forcing him to stop. Swiftly she leapt to the ground, changing forms again as she went. "I have something for you," she said softly, reaching into her pocket. "Something very important…"
Quick as she was, he made his move before her.
A stab of pain ran through her arm, and her vision began to gray. Dimly she realized, as his triumphant smile loomed ever nearer, that he was doing to her precisely what she had intended to do to him. The Pride, she thought with her last few moments of clarity, would be very angry when they heard, but this would help to win the war in its own way, and besides, she had brought her fate upon herself. It was only fair.
And I will be with my Fox again, even if he does scold me terribly at first for coming after him…
A vast sense of contentment overcame Luna Lovegood, and she closed her eyes and let herself go.
Severus Snape sat in a small, secluded nook in one of the grander reception rooms of Malfoy Manor, watching as the Dark Lord held court.
For he may not call it that, but so it is. I wonder how long it will be before he decides that he ought to be promoted, from "lord" to "king"? Or will he think that a little too comic-opera even for him?
He allowed himself a sardonic smile. And would a King Voldemort trust a half-blood Prince, or would he suspect such a being of coveting his throne and arrange to have him secretly killed off? Untraceably, of course…
The door creaked. Severus turned to see who had entered and felt his eyes widen in surprise.
It seems I owe Aletha Black an apology.
Or, at least, a correction.
As calmly as though he had never left, Lucius Malfoy walked up the center of the room, the limp with which he had moved since he had become a werewolf perhaps more prevalent than it had been but somehow incorporated into, rather than marring, his sinuous grace. At precisely the right distance from the Dark Lord's thronelike chair, he stopped, went to one knee, and bowed his head. "My Lord," he said, all conversation ceasing with his voice. "I have returned."
"So you have." Lord Voldemort waved away Dolohov and Yaxley to lean forward and look closely at his prodigal follower. "Rise, Lucius, and tell me for yourself what has happened. Such stories come out of Hogwarts these days that one scarcely knows what to believe."
"My Lord, both good news and bad." Lucius got to his feet, as he had been bidden, and stood at his ease, a small smile on his face. "Though Draco did not prevail in the mission we had set for him, still Albus Dumbledore is dead. The strain of the night proved too much for his heart, or so the story goes."
"So that much is true." The Dark Lord smiled. "Excellent. What of you and your son?"
Lucius sighed. "I fear, my Lord, that my part of the work we did together failed under that same strain," he said, his lips momentarily compressed in what looked to Severus like some vestige of true grief. "I was forced to kill my own flesh and blood, or be killed in my turn. And he, before his death, inflicted a terrible wound on me." A long breath, as though nerving himself up for a painful disclosure. "My magic, my Lord, is gone. It will return to me, in time, but for the moment it is no more."
Whispers broke out all around the hall, as the Dark Lord's red eyes narrowed.
"But." Lucius held up a finger. "I refused to surrender to despair. Instead, my Lord, I looked around me for some way that I could return to your service as something besides a useless burden. And I found it." He laughed unexpectedly. "In the unlikeliest of places! Who would ever have thought that a random, foolish recollection of Draco's—for our minds touched during that last battle, and such a chaotic jumble you have never—but I digress, my Lord. My apologies."
Planting his feet, he thrust one arm above his head, his wrist held stiffly.
A streak of white dropped from the rafters, as silent as the stars, drawing gasps from every direction.
Severus held his anger in check as Lucius lowered the snowy owl into place before him. This may not be what it appears to be—
With a flutter of wings, the owl leapt from its perch and became a girl, dark-blonde hair flowing over the shoulders of a black cloak similar to Lucius's, blue-gray eyes lowered demurely to the floor.
"Allow me to introduce my lovely little helper. Starwing." Lucius laid a proprietary hand on Luna Lovegood's shoulder. "Though please, don't all rush up to her at once." He smiled coolly. "She only looks sweet and innocent."
Or perhaps it is precisely what it appears to be. Severus gritted his teeth, well aware of the likely reception this news would garner in certain quarters. Though how he has done this, I cannot fathom.
"This little girl, my Lord, planned my undoing in a most painful fashion." Lucius tapped Luna's arm, and she obediently withdrew a silver dagger from a pocket of her gray robes, holding it out on her palm as Voldemort leaned forward to have a better look. "The Imprimatus Potion, an ancient brew calculated to destroy a human mind and make its victim instead subject to two things and two things only. First, the instincts of the animal to which he is most closely akin—the wolf, in my case, due to my malady, but in lovely Starwing's case, of course, the owl—and second…" His smile turned gloating. "The will of the first man, or woman, the victim sees after the potion has taken effect."
"And you turned the potion onto her, rather than her using it on you." Voldemort chuckled. "You rise to greater heights than ever, Lucius. Though I fail to see how this will amend your lack of magic."
"My Lord, only her human mind is no more." Lucius twirled a finger at the girl, who slid away the dagger and instead drew a pale, slender wand from her pocket. "Her magic is fully intact. And, like the rest of her, under my complete control. Starwing, I think Yaxley could stand to be a trifle more cheerful…"
"Rictusempra," intoned the voice Severus had heard in his classes for the previous five years, and Yaxley, caught by surprise, doubled over in a fit of pained laughter. The rest of the Death Eaters roared in appreciation, howling and clapping their hands, until Voldemort rose smoothly to his feet, cutting off the noise. Lucius snapped his fingers at Starwing, who quickly ended the spell and folded her hands over her wand, her eyes, clear and blank, resting worshipfully on his face.
"I approve," proclaimed the Dark Lord. "Harry Potter's pretty Pride is lessened, and we are strengthened. Go and amuse yourselves as you please until morning, when we shall reconvene. Lucius, I will want to see you in private before the general meeting, so that we can arrange for duties more congenial to your current needs."
"Of course, my Lord." Lucius bowed low, Starwing following suit with a graceful curtsey, as Voldemort departed from the room by a small side door.
Severus waited until the bustle and noise of the Death Eaters' departure from the room was in full swing before stepping out of his small nook. Lucius, as he had half-expected, turned to face him before he had taken more than three steps towards the sole living representative of the House of Malfoy.
"Now why," said the older wizard lazily, "do I suspect, Severus, that you are about to say something to me of which our dear Master would not approve?"
"I respected you once, Lucius," said Severus stiffly, keeping his gaze fixed on Lucius's sculptured, sneering face, so that he would not have to see the adoring and nauseating blankness in the wide eyes which had once belonged to Luna Lovegood. He noted, with the clarity of detail that came to him only when he was suppressing strong emotion, a new ring on Lucius's finger, matching one on the girl's. Both had the semblance of two serpents coiled together, holding red gems between their mouths. "I do no longer."
"Strangely enough, that fails to move me." Lucius turned and waggled two fingers at Starwing, who fell into step at his left shoulder. "Be sure to record everything faithfully for your report, Severus. It wouldn't do for the Pack and Pride to be left in the dark about the whereabouts of their beautiful Starwing." He stroked his ring-wearing hand down the girl's hair, possessively. "Or, should I say—my beautiful Starwing."
Smirk firmly in place on his lips, Lucius Malfoy strolled away, Starwing trotting obediently at his heels.
Everybody go ahead and scream at me. Just do it in reviews, please?
The frequency of updates may taper off a bit after this. National Novel Writing Month begins in a week, and we are about to enter…wait for it…the final book of the Dangerverse. That's right, starting next chapter, we are officially in "Year Seven", which means we're getting ready for the big Final Battle…which will, I hope, be a surprise to everybody, at least in some ways.
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