Chapter 61: The Place of Honor (Year 7)
One last moment to take a deep breath before the final plunge. Nine chapters to go! Also a warning for the usage of one word in this chapter a bit dirtier than I usually write down. It seemed the proper place and time.
Corona lay silent on a narrow, crisp-sheeted bed in an unused room at Sanctuary, listening to Brian's regular breathing from the chair beside her. His hand lay loosely clasped around hers, as though even in sleep he needed reassurance that she would not disappear.
We played so many times, Elladora and I, at being princesses rescued from hidden castles or tall, tall towers. Our imaginary champions swam across rivers, scaled high mountains, fought dragons and giants and trolls for us. And once they had won our hearts and our hands, they gave us beautiful presents of shining jewels and magical rings.
How could I ever have imagined that the greatest gift my love would bring me is his steadfast and faithful heart? His trust in me, even when I doubt myself?
She had wept long and hard, and knew she would weep again, at her sister's betrayal and its consequences to her friends and colleagues, those who had been nothing but kind to her. Through it all, Brian had simply been there, offering silent sympathy or soft-spoken comfort or his warm embrace, each one as she needed them. Even when she had asked him to go away for a little while, he had gone only far enough to give her the privacy she wanted, and had returned as soon as she removed the spell from the doorway.
And I have no doubt he was keeping a close enough watch that he could have intervened if I tried anything drastic. But I would not, not when Danger took such pains to spare my life, even as I struck to kill her. I will honor her far more by living, and loving, and fighting against despair…
She closed her free hand into a fist as a wave of that same emotion rose in her, remembering what it had been like to be held prisoner inside her own mind, to strain her every nerve for even the smallest bits of control, to breathe the stench of her own burning hair and see the fear in Danger's brown-blue eyes as the poisoned dagger in her hand sliced into flesh—
"Enough," she whispered aloud, though the word seemed pitifully small against the rushing horror. "Enough. My hand, yes, but not my will. My doing, but not my desire."
And if I let those memories control me, I lose myself again, and that I will not allow.
Still, she shivered silently until the surge of feeling had passed, then reached again for the threads of her hopes and plans, as thin and inadequate as they currently seemed with which to weave her future.
Perhaps I should join the Ministry, once it is restored, and see about regularizing the work I have done with the Order. I enjoyed it a great deal, and certainly it is very much needed—magical animals must not be mistreated and penned up, but neither should they be allowed to roam without boundaries and prey on Muggles, or frighten them, or be frightened by them…
A knock at the door woke Brian, who came alert all in an instant, in the way Corona had become accustomed to in her love. "Yes?" he called out, squeezing her hand before he released it to draw his wand. "Who is it?"
"It's Charlie," came the answer from the corridor, in the cheerful tones of their dragon-keeper ally. "I've got some good news to share, and a letter to deliver to Miss Corona Gamp."
"One moment." Brian flicked an Imperturbable Charm onto the door and turned his attention towards Corona. "Tell me what you want," he said. "If you'd rather not see him, I can send him away."
The question was an honest one, Corona knew, since she had felt so frightened of being noticed by anyone except Brian during their move to Sanctuary that she had accomplished it under a borrowed Invisibility Cloak, but a quick exploration of her desires had her shaking her head. "No, let him in," she said, and pushed herself upright on the bed, drawing her legs in and tucking her feet beneath her knees. "Good news would be very welcome, and a letter is…intriguing."
Since I have no idea who could be writing to me, when anyone with whom I would want to keep up correspondence at this point in my life is likely a member of the Order…
"Come in," Brian called once he had removed the charm, and Charlie did exactly this, followed by Miss Ropes, the colorless witch Corona recalled taking notes at her and Brian's last session with Remus—only her lank brown hair was beginning to shorten and brighten, her face to round out cheerfully, her eyes to spark with mischief—
"Tonks!" Corona scrambled off the bed to hug her newly pink-haired friend. "Miss Ropes was you the whole time? Why didn't you ever tell—" She stopped short, realizing with a lurch of her heart what it would have meant if she had known.
"We knew there was a spy, but we didn't know who, or if they even knew it themselves," said Charlie, as Brian shook Tonks's hand with a smile. "Which, you didn't. So it's all for the best we kept it quiet. And she brought a little something back with her, too."
"Very little." Chuckling, Tonks reached into the odd construction of cloth Charlie was wearing over one shoulder, and lifted out—
"A baby?" Corona had to forcibly stop herself from gawking at the tiny, dark-haired creature now cradled in the crook of Tonks's arm. "But you weren't gone nearly that long!"
"She's not mine by blood." Tonks swayed slightly on her feet, seemingly unconscious of her movement. "I found her, or should I say, a certain little cousin of mine arranged for me to find her." She scowled. "I'd beat him up for it, but he's hardly in any shape for that. Besides, she's awfully cute, even if she does cry a lot."
"What's her name?" asked Brian, sitting down on the edge of the bed and motioning Tonks towards the chair he'd left, as Charlie conjured another one for himself.
"Annette Selene Weasley." Charlie grinned. "I'm Mum's very favorite son at the moment. She's always wanted granddaughters."
"And she and Echo are the only reasons I'm not going completely mad." Tonks looked down at the sleeping child, and her face softened. "Not that she won't be worth it. But still. Babies are a handful and a half. I didn't think I was ready—I still don't think I'm ready—but we're getting through every day somehow or other."
"She's beautiful." Corona hardly knew where the words had come from, but they felt exactly right. "I don't know anything about babies, but I can still see she's beautiful. And so little. How old is she?"
"A bit over a month, now. Born the twenty-first of September." Charlie shook his head. "We know her birthday, but not who her birth parents were. Even Echo doesn't know, or says she doesn't."
"She might have been asked not to tell," Brian pointed out. "If one of the Death Eaters had second thoughts, perhaps, and wanted to save his child, keep her free from any reprisals."
"True enough. And it's not like it matters whose she was." Tonks kissed her fingertips and brushed them against the soft cap of dark hair. "Not when she's ours now."
Charlie leaned back in his chair, then sat up again at the crinkle of parchment. "And look at me, forgetting my manners." From his pocket, he extracted a narrow envelope, and handed it across to Corona. "For you. Just arrived a few minutes back. Guaranteed curse-free, by the way. Bill's taught me a trick or two."
"Thank you." Corona accepted the letter and regarded her name, written in a thick, dark handwriting she associated vaguely with Hogwarts, but could not otherwise place. "I wonder who could be writing to me." Laughing a little under her breath, she slid her finger beneath the flap. "So why don't I find out?"
Extracting the folded slip of parchment, she opened it and began to read.
To Miss Corona Gamp:
First, I wish to offer my deepest apologies for the position in which you were placed yesterday. It was my work, as a member of the Order of the Phoenix, to prevent such things from happening or discover them before they reached fruition, and I failed at both in your case, with what results you already know. I hope that you can forgive such a failure, though you would be well within your rights to refuse.
Second, I believe you deserve the latest news of your sister Elladora. She was alarmed by the partial failure of the mission for which she used an Unforgivable Curse upon you (caused, I have no doubt, by your resistance to said curse), and chose to take her fate into her own hands. Upon investigating her rooms after this had happened, I found that she seems to have had a side of her life of which her family and her colleagues were equally ignorant. Sleeping on her bed was an infant of approximately one month's age, a healthy baby girl.
For the time being, my house-elf is caring for the child. If you are not able or willing to take custody of her, I will certainly think no less of you, and have already made arrangements for her welfare if this should be the case, or if you or I should fall in the battle to come. Still, you are the child's nearest blood relation, and I wished to inform you of her existence. If you wish to communicate with me on her behalf, ask the house-elf Echo to take a message to her closest friend from Malfoy Manor, as he now works for me.
With thanks, I remain,
Corona lowered the letter to her lap, her arms and legs feeling almost as weak as they had when she first awakened after her ordeal, nearly a day ago now. "A child," she breathed soundlessly. "Elladora had a child…"
"Is something wrong?" Brian asked, looking around from his conversation with Charlie and Tonks. "What is it, love?"
"My sister." Corona extended the letter to Brian, who accepted it. "She—there was a child. A little girl." She laughed weakly. "About the same age as Annette. How funny. And now she's gone, Elladora's gone, and there's no one left except me…"
"Don't you have a grandmother?" asked Charlie.
"Well, yes, but—" Corona broke off, paling, as an inner panorama unfolded itself before her horrified mental eyes.
There is nothing my grandmother could want more just now than a chance to "fix her mistakes". If she discovers that Elladora had a daughter—and what secret of that sort was ever kept for very long?—she would move heaven and earth to claim that child. And then…
The scenes of her own childhood, after her parents' deaths, rose up in succession before her. The colorless governesses and tutors who had cared nothing for how much or how well she truly learned, only for how well she could parrot back their precise phrasings. The carefully measured half-hour in her grandmother's perfect parlor, answering endless dry questions about her lessons, sitting as still as a stone because "fidgeting" would mean no tea, and "knocking things about" no supper on top of it. The endless comparisons between herself and her sister, which had so often driven wedges between them when they should have stood united against Grandmother's bullying.
And she will not give this child even as much freedom as she gave to me or to Elladora, because she has seen where that leads. She will raise the girl in the strictest of seclusion, train her in only the magical skills Grandmother deems necessary for a "proper pureblood witch", school her and groom her to believe herself destined for one end and one end only in life, and that end to marry a pureblood wizard and produce children…
"I know nothing about babies," she said again. "But I cannot let my grandmother do to another child what she tried to do to my sister and to me. Her teaching warped Elladora's mind and ruined her life, because she thought herself, Elladora did, defective and worthless when she could not find a husband." She surprised herself with a small, breathy laugh. "Though she seems to have found a lover, at least. But I will not let her daughter learn the same twisted falsehoods as though they were undeniable truths." Suddenly recalling that there was another party to be consulted, she looked up at Brian. "That is—I mean, if—"
Brian only smiled. "We'll see if anyone knows where there's a nice cottage for sale," he said, taking her hand in his. "One with two bedrooms, at least. And plenty of space to play."
"Settle for a townhouse?" asked Tonks, her voice studiously casual.
"I'm sorry?" Corona blinked at her friend. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it so happens I was talking with Sirius about Headquarters, and what'll happen to it after the war's over." Tonks transferred the sound-asleep Annette back to Charlie, who nestled her gently into the sling he was still wearing over one shoulder. "He doesn't need it, he and Letha have their house out in Devon, and the Pride's all for taking over Malfoy Manor."
"The Manor Den, they're calling it," Charlie put in. "Ron's showed me a few of the plans, and it should be pretty spectacular by the time they get done with it."
"But in any case, that leaves number twelve, Grimmauld Place, without anybody in the direct line who'd want to live there. And the next one along on the family tree…" Tonks shrugged, her hair rippling momentarily green and orange before flushing back to pink. "You're looking at her. Awfully big house for just me and Charlie and Annette, though. And we already know we like you, we all get along, we work well together. Besides, you said you don't know anything about babies. Well, I don't know much more." She twisted her hands together in her lap. "We might have a better chance of working it out together. But only if you want to!" she added hastily. "Only if it sounds good to you!"
If it sounds good. Corona's pureblood training came to her aid, keeping her face calm and serene, despite her desire to laugh wildly or jump up and down with excitement. To have a home and a family all but given to me. To know that I will never be lonely again. That Elladora's child—no, my child now, and Brian's too, wherever she may have started out in life—will know friendship and laughter and love in every moment of her days and nights.
And Tonks wants to know if this sounds good to me?
"I think," she said, a trifle unsteadily, "that we could make it work. If you think so, of course," she said quickly towards Brian, who chuckled aloud.
"I've been sitting here trying to think up ways to convince you," he said, and sketched a polite half-bow towards Tonks and Charlie. "A household of six it shall be. And we're going to raise the most spoiled pair of little girls on the face of the earth, aren't we?"
"Not spoiled." Charlie stroked Annette's hair with two fingers. "A little pampered, maybe, but not spoiled. We'll get pointers from Mum."
"As if she won't be the worst offender," Tonks scoffed. "But we'll figure it out somehow. We always do. So, how do you want to set the place up? There's probably a back staircase in there somewhere, and if not we can put one in, so we can have our two halves properly separated, for times when we'd like some privacy. Or we could do it by floors, one for us, one for you, and one for guests…"
Sirius was in the Hogwarts kitchens, taking reports from some of the house-elves on the state of the castle's supplies, when the flames in the fireplace suddenly turned emerald green. Simultaneously, the intermittent chill infusing his pendants vanished, leaving the metal no more than pleasantly warm with his own body heat.
"Pearl," he breathed, and started to stride towards the fireplace, only to have to stop and steady himself halfway there, hands pressed against his thighs. Sheer relief had made his knees go weak, in a way no danger or peril for himself ever had.
Almost makes me see why Voldemort thinks love is such a weakness.
But then, if I didn't have the people I love, why the hell would I be doing all of this?
Straightening, he frowned. The spinning figure now growing more distinct in the green flames was far too large to be his little girl, and shaped very oddly indeed.
Luna did say she'd have help, but who—
With a whoosh of fire, the riddle was revealed, and Sirius sighed under his breath before starting forward once again.
I should have known.
"You could not have remembered you had a portable Floo in your pocket before we had to fight for our lives with an undead snake?" Severus Snape inquired tartly of Meghan, whom he was carrying in his arms. Her eyes were shut, her limbs limp, but Sirius could both see and smell that she was breathing, and found he didn't much care about anything else.
Well. Maybe finding out where all the blood came from. Snape's shirt and trousers were liberally soaked with the stuff down one side, and Meghan's robes bore several good-sized stains. But if they were fighting, that probably explains it.
"She is my daughter," he said aloud, bringing Snape's head around to face him. "What were you expecting? Here, let me," he added quickly, as Snape tried to take a step and nearly lost his balance. "Can we get a chair here, please?" he called over his shoulder, and scooped Meghan into his arms at the same time. She stirred with the motion and lifted one eyelid fractionally, then smiled a tiny, tired smile and pursed her lips once towards him before sighing and relaxing against his chest.
"Spirit," said Snape, nodding brusquely to the house-elves who had come scurrying over with a wooden kitchen chair, then sitting down in it with more speed than style. "Spirit to burn, a fair dose of impudence, and surprisingly little in the way of intelligence. All of which she demonstrated today."
"Yep, sounds like my girl." Sirius propped one foot on the cool edge of the hearth and balanced Meghan's weight on it long enough to draw his wand, murmur a few words into its tip, and send his messenger-Patronus on its way. "He going to be looking for you through that thing anytime soon?" he asked when he was done, displaying his own left forearm by way of explanation.
"Through—" Snape glanced up and shook his head. "I doubt it. As far as he is concerned, we are both dead." A gleam of humor sparked in his black eyes, which Sirius wouldn't have believed if he'd been told about it. "Or should I say, he thinks Miss Granger-Lupin and myself both to be dead. We had no time to discuss the reason for such a masquerade, though the Dark Lord posited some form of spell regarding a Dark Mark…"
"Yeah, we tried to get it off Fox." A smile came more readily to Sirius now than he could have imagined a few short minutes before. "Managed it, too."
Snape went very still. "Did he survive?" he asked after a second or two, his voice calm to the point of boredom but raw-edged hunger in his scent.
"Came out of it just fine, physically. And he'll be back up to snuff mentally just as soon as he sees—" Sirius looked around at the crash of the kitchen's painting-masked door against the opposite wall. "Make that right now," he said as the remaining seven-eighths of the Pride piled in, gasps and cries of relief mingling with questions and half-hysterical laughter. Neville, in the lead of the little group, strode across the floor to Sirius's side, stopping only to bow deeply to Snape.
"Give her to me," he said, holding out his arms. Sirius looked down at Meghan's relaxed face, then sighed a little and relinquished his hold on her in favor of the younger wizard.
And why I'm feeling like this has happened before, I don't know.
Neville stepped back and tapped his left foot twice, and the pair disappeared with a loud crack, startling a cough out of Snape. "House-elf," said Sirius under his breath, in the last moment before Hermione and Ginny stepped apart, revealing Fox and Luna, who crossed the floor to stand in front of Snape, hand in hand.
"I think it was terrible of you to try to make me laugh when I came to visit you," said Luna severely. "But," she added in a more penitent tone, "it was terrible of me to make you think I was under the Imprimatus Potion for so long. So we should be even."
"So we should," Snape agreed in a tone which Sirius had no trouble recognizing as one of vast, baffled amusement. "And what do you have to say for yourself?" he asked Fox, looking him up and down. "What excuse have you given your grieving family for such a ridiculous masquerade?"
Fox shrugged. "It worked."
"How very Slytherin of you, Mr.—Beauvoi, is it? Your sister told me," Snape said at Fox's surprised nod. "Indeed, she gave me a vast array of knowledge during our little time together, for most of which I had neither need nor desire. Still, there can be no doubt about her courage, though there may be some about her basic common sense."
"Some, sir?" Fox raised an eyebrow, glancing towards Sirius. "We are talking about Meghan Black, aren't we?"
Sirius growled once in his throat. "Come here, you," he said, beckoning Fox towards him. Fox came, and stood with feet firmly planted, hands folded at his waist, looking as innocent as physically possible. "I'm about to break a promise. That all right with you?"
"Er." Fox frowned, his eyes abstracted, clearly searching his memory for the promise Sirius might mean and coming up empty. "All right. I guess."
"Good." Sirius reached around and swatted Fox on the back of the head. "I've wanted to do that since the day we brought you home too," he said through Fox's indignant yelp. "You were a pesky little brat, you know that?"
"Maybe if we could beat each other up later?" suggested Aletha, having come in through the kitchen door in company with Neville in time to see the last exchange. "I'm sure Severus would prefer us to get on with things, and Minerva was looking for you, Sirius. Something about making sure all the secret passages are safeguarded, even the ones she might not know about."
"Right." Sirius nodded. "Harry, where's the Map got to?"
"I left it with Colleen Lamb when the school year started." Harry grinned. "She and Blaise have been using it to keep the DA going, and all its little offshoots, like that 'Muggles Are People Too' thing that one Hufflepuff started. Murrow, I think his name is. And when Professor McGonagall's been 'forgetting' to enforce the detentions for anybody caught being a part of one…"
"Head Boy, Head Girl, and Headmistress." Sirius chuckled. "The Carrows never had a chance." He tossed a quick salute to Snape, who nodded once, and hurried out into the corridor, headed for an internal passage which would let him out two corridors over from the Fat Lady's portrait.
Voldemort was coming to Hogwarts.
Hogwarts intended to be ready.
Severus was grateful for the laconic warning from Reynard Beauvoi (whose newly-chosen name had amused him a great deal) that "it hurts a bit, getting the Mark off". No physical pain in his lifetime could have compared, not even the Cruciatus Curse, skillfully cast by the Dark Lord himself—
No. By Voldemort himself. His lips pressed firmly together, he examined the lurid scar on his left forearm, exposed by rolling back his bloodstained sleeve. For the first time in more than sixteen years, I can be certain that thinking that name will bring no repercussions. Even shouting it aloud would do me no harm.
For whatever such a thing is worth, I am free.
"Oh, before I forget, sir." Harry, about to leave the kitchen with his Pride, instead knelt down to murmur a few words to a passing house-elf, who disappeared immediately. "I think I have something of yours."
Severus nodded absently, his mind wandering to another subject, as for the moment he was disposed to allow it to do. Any period of meditation about what had just passed seemed likely to bring certain emotional consequences with it, and his outburst towards Meghan had exposed him quite enough for one day. "How long has Miss Lovegood—or I suppose I should say Mrs. Beauvoi—been possessed of Parseltongue?" he asked. "I had thought that particular gift confined to two people currently with us."
"She's had it since they got married. Short version, she's an Heir of Slytherin now too. By blood-adoption, so it's magically binding." Harry lifted a small locket from his robes. "Sort of a more permanent version of what I did with…Moony." The hesitation before Remus Lupin's nickname was minimal, but Severus had no doubt the boy before him was grieving, and deeply so. "Stroke of luck for us, since we knew we'd need all four Heirs to pull this off properly—ah, perfect. Thanks, Grabe."
"Welcome, Master Harry." The house-elf handed over the small, wrapped packet and scurried away, and Harry undid the wrappings and held out a battered, ink-stained, and almost painfully familiar object.
"Yours, sir?" he inquired, and Severus sighed and accepted the Potions text in which he had so long ago inscribed his self-given nickname, along with a great deal of other marginalia. "Thanks for the spells. They were awfully useful. Remind me sometime to tell you about the way we found out what Levicorpus does."
"I think I can guess." Severus set the textbook down beside his chair. "Though not who might have been the other party involved…"
"Ron." Harry grinned once at Severus's half-stifled snort and started for the door, stopping most of the way there to turn around. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly. "For Meghan. She can be a pest sometimes, but it would have torn us to pieces to lose her like that."
He was in the corridor beyond the painting of the fruit bowl before Severus could decide on a response. Aletha passed him on the way, and murmured a few words to him before stepping into the kitchen with her arms full of familiar-looking black cloth.
"I thought you'd probably left some clothing behind here," she said, laying a clean set of robes over a nearby chair, and setting a small bag which doubtless contained other necessary items on its seat. "And…" From one of her pockets, she produced a wand, and tucked it into the bag after displaying it to him. "The house-elves were able to hunt me up a few extras. It won't work perfectly, but it will work."
"Which is all I need at the moment." Severus glanced down at his blood-streaked arm. Though a Cleaning Charm is likely to be rather rough with an unfamiliar wand…
"Pomona's said you can use the Hufflepuff common room if you want to clean up," Aletha went on, and Severus breathed a silent, but fervent, sigh of relief. "Most of the younger students have already been moved to safety, and the older ones are all helping to fortify the borders or being briefed on their positions." She regarded him for a moment, frowning faintly. "Do me a favor and don't send what you're wearing to be washed just yet. We might find a use for it later. If you don't object."
"Given what you are trying to achieve?" Severus got to his feet, pleased to find that his knees did not wobble, and bent carefully to pick up the Half-Blood Prince's book. "I doubt there is much to which I would object."
"Be careful of saying that around Sirius or Harry. Though I don't think even they would stoop to playing pranks just now. Especially not on you." Aletha pressed a hand against her forehead, letting out a shuddering sigh. "When I think of what might have happened…but it didn't. I have to remember that. It didn't, and that was because of you." She lifted her eyes to look at him again. "Thank you, Severus."
"I have seen enough death I could not prevent or change." Severus picked up his robes and slid his book into the bag beside the borrowed wand. "It was—and be aware I will deny this to your husband, should he ask—but it was my pleasure."
"I won't tell." Aletha stood aside to let him step out to the corridor himself. "Tell me, do you know the secret passage behind the mirror on the fourth floor?"
"I had thought that caved in years ago."
"It did, but the DA excavated it. For reasons of their own." Aletha smiled. "Try it out, when you're finished cleaning up. I think what you find will surprise you, in the best of ways."
"Thank you. I shall." Severus moved off down the hallway, locating without much difficulty the pile of barrels stowed away in a convenient nook, and counted up and over with care until he had located the proper barrel. With two fingers, he tapped out a rhythm on the lid, long-short, short-short-long, and it promptly swung open, revealing a tunnel into which he climbed.
I have always wished I could have met Helga Hufflepuff. One must approve of a witch who not only bars invaders from entering her students' common room, but douses them in vinegar as well, to make their foolishness obvious to all…
Meghan roused from her half-sleep with a gasp. She lay in a screened-off bed in the Hogwarts hospital wing, with Neville sitting in a chair beside her, holding her hand. The taste of potions lingered in her mouth, and she felt decidedly better than she had during her few moments of wakefulness with Professor Snape or her Dadfoot, but she knew her healing was still incomplete. Without thinking, she reached out to the magic of the school to replenish herself—
Only I can't.
She could feel the magic of Hogwarts humming around her, but it hung tantalizingly out of her reach. Nor could she see anything about Neville's state of health when she tried to shift her sight. A little sob trembled in her throat, and her eyes clouded over with tears.
I've lost my powers. Forever. And I did it to myself—it's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair, and I hate it…
Neville transferred himself from chair to bed without any words being spoken, and she buried her face in his offered shoulder and howled unabashedly, knowing from long experience that trying to keep a stiff upper lip would only make the inevitable explosion worse when it came.
"I'm sorry," she whispered when the first bout was past. "I wish I hadn't had to. It isn't very fair to you—you thought you were getting another Heir, and instead you're just getting an ordinary Healer, so if you don't want to, you know, anymore, I understand…"
"I wish you hadn't had to for your sake. But I'm glad you did for somebody else's." Neville lifted her head long enough to slide his handkerchief between his robes and her face. "Or don't you remember Harry's bargain?"
"Harry's—oh!" Meghan squealed under her breath. "I never thought about that! Neville, do you really think—do you really—"
"I think we'll be sure to keep a careful watch on all the ways into the castle. To keep the Death Eaters out, yes, but also to be sure we don't stop anyone who's on our side from joining us here." Neville looked down at her with an expression she knew well, half tenderness, half annoyance. "But going back to what you said a minute ago, you little goose. Would you walk away from me if I couldn't talk to plants any longer, or whisper things invisible?"
"I'm not a goose. I'm a deer." Meghan stuck out her tongue at him. "And no, of course I wouldn't. I love you, not your magic."
Neville leaned forward and kissed her. "Same goes to you," he said when he was done. "Goose."
Meghan pouted. "Take it back."
"Take it back now."
"Goose goosey goose." Neville grinned. "With roast potatoes and drippings."
With an indignant squeal, Meghan punched him in the ribs.
"Ow." Neville rubbed the spot ruefully. "Feeling better?"
"Yes. Thank you." Meghan glowered. "But I am not a goose."
"Yes, dear," said Neville with mock humility.
Then he bolted for the door, with Meghan only half a pace behind him.
"You runny-nosed animal food trough wipers!" bellowed Fred Weasley from the top of the Astronomy Tower, towards the distant lines of people and tents which marked the Death Eaters' encampment around Hogwarts. "I fart in your general direction!"
One of the graduates of Beauxbatons who had been arriving in small groups under the direction of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour, standing atop Ravenclaw Tower, added a stream of shrill soprano French which made Sirius blink in appreciation. "Here I thought they were nice kids Madame Maxime was sending us," he said to Aletha, with whom he was crossing the grounds. "I'm not even sure I know how to translate some of that."
"And the best is yet to come." Aletha motioned for him to pause. "Listen carefully…"
The voice which floated through the gathering evening was definitely feminine, and bore some of the hallmarks of age. It was also using the kind of language generally attributed to sailors, though Sirius wasn't sure he'd ever met a sailor with that kind of imagination. Most of the acts it was advising the Death Eaters to undertake were physically improbable, all were wildly inappropriate to a school environment, and the whole thing was being carried off with a skill Sirius envied.
"Who on earth—" he began when the unknown witch had ended her tirade.
"See for yourself." Aletha drew him out from under the shadow of the castle, then pointed towards Gryffindor Tower.
Grumbling at the annoying habits of his womenfolk to draw things out longer than they needed to be, Sirius turned and looked, and looked again.
"No," he said finally, staring upwards in disbelief. "It can't be."
"And why not?" Aletha chuckled warmly. "Since when does being Headmistress of Hogwarts mean her every thought and word has to be pure and proper and prim?"
"Merlin's ear hair. Minerva McGonagall, mistress of the art of the curse." Sirius shook his head in wonder. "Say, why are the Death Eaters hanging back like that? I'd have thought they'd be attacking us by now, not sitting still and listening to us insult the hell out of them."
"I thought I heard Percy saying something about stability," said Aletha as they continued their walk. "I could be wrong, of course, but that's the word I think he used…"
"…the ground around the walls of Hogwarts for approximately the distance of the average spell-cast has been mined," Percy finished his statement to the hastily assembled leaders of the fighting forces gathering in Sanctuary. "The Death Eaters can't set foot on it without risking a fall through the roofs of tunnels, which resist both covering over and filling in by magical means." He glanced over at Harry and Ginny. "They appear to be the work of goblins."
"It's always good to have allies," said his father, nodding. "So they appear to have decided to make camp for the night, and attack us tomorrow once they've had a chance to reestablish their footing?"
"That is their privilege," Percy agreed. "The castle can't exactly run away from them. And as far as they're aware, they've completely cut us off with the severing of the Floo Network to the castle fireplaces and the sky-watch for brooms or owls."
"Good. Let them continue to think so as long as possible." Mr. Weasley flicked his wand once, and a large map of Hogwarts and its grounds unrolled across the table. "Now, Harry, let's hear more about this plan of yours."
"Hermione's, really, sir," said Harry, glancing across the table to his sister. "But I agree with her now, even though I didn't when she first mentioned it." He highlighted the boundaries of Hogwarts with his own wand. "Everything inside here is our ground. Our territory. Not just legally, but magically. And magically, if the Death Eaters break through our defenses, if they invade Hogwarts when we don't want them to, then every inch of ground they walk on becomes their ground. It's like having your wand taken in a duel. But." He created a few small gaps in the boundary lines, then widened them. "What would happen if we let them come onto the grounds?"
"Magically, I suppose that'd mean we'd still have the advantage," said Auror Letitia Halcyon after a few moments of murmuring around the table. "But that's an awfully risky plan, Potter. They could get cocky, once they were in, and just keep coming. Run roughshod right over us."
"With all due respect, ma'am, they'll do that anyway if we don't find some way to stop them." Harry highlighted another, smaller line around Hogwarts castle proper. "And if we set up the real defenses a ways inside the grounds, to keep them out of the castle and away from Sanctuary, then they'll be fighting on unfriendly magical ground, which means the advantage is all with us."
"Besides, we have one other advantage," Ginny added. "They don't want us dead. For all their talk about bad blood, theirs are the lines that are dying out, and they know it. If they kill off all of us, they'll never be able to bring the wizarding world back up to full strength. We're the only chance they have, so they have to take as many of us as possible alive."
"And when that starts to become more difficult, they'll probably look for a place to retreat and figure out a better plan, and the best one they'll find is the Forest." Harry tapped it with his wand's tip. "Which is where I'll be waiting for Voldemort. Me and a few other people." He smiled, as a waft of Ginny's scent gave him her matching amusement. "And then all we have to do is keep him occupied, while I set the stage so we can finally get rid of him…"
Severus attempted not to stare. It took a surprising amount of his self-control to manage it.
I had known the DA was doing something, with all their late nights and early mornings and disappearings into the hidden depths of the castle, but I had no idea it had reached this extent…
The cavern before him was at least twice the size of the Great Hall, possibly larger, and its ceiling shared the enchantment which gave it the look of the open sky above, but this cavern continued the illusion with skillfully executed wall paintings, which gave the viewer the feeling that he was standing in the center of a great stone dance.
And some of the stones are rather neatly ornamented. He looked around at the stained glass insets into the columns and raised an eyebrow in surprise. All four Houses represented, I see…
"Professor Snape!" Selena Moon, one of his former students, who had been standing nearby demonstrating a modification to her potion piece to a small group of (if Severus was any judge) mixed Muggle and magical children, was now hurrying over towards him, holstering her piece as she came. "Welcome to Sanctuary," she said, a little shyly, motioning towards it. "Building it wasn't always easy, but it's done now, and it's where we belong." Her glance into the milling crowds which clustered throughout the cavern's expanse showed Severus the location of her fiancé, Roger Davies, former Ravenclaw Quidditch star, who seemed to be in a huddle with at least two Weasleys, among others. "Where we all belong. So…what do you think?"
"I think, Miss Moon, that I would be most obliged if you would give me a tour." Severus nodded towards a plateau-like construction of rock and soil. "What, for instance, is that?"
"Oh, that's the open-air theater. We've had so much fun with it." Selena laughed. "Just the other night, we looked up the notes about the pantomime of 'The Fountain of Fair Fortune' that went so badly at Hogwarts all those years ago and reproduced it, complete with everything that went wrong…"
Nearly an hour later, Severus heard his name called, and turned to see the Blacks, husband and wife, approaching him. After a brief exchange of greetings with Selena, Aletha drew her off to ask about something relating to the placement of artillery nests, leaving Severus alone with Sirius.
"So," Sirius said after a few seconds of silence. "We're working up this plan to make sure the war ends the way we want it to. Thing is, it turns on whether or not we can shock the hell out of a certain Dark Snarker long enough to keep him from spotting what's really going on. And given that he thinks you're dead and buried in some ugly little cave somewhere, your popping up alive and kicking in the Forest would probably help us out a lot. You willing?"
"I think so, yes." Severus nodded. "Does this plan have a name, by any chance?"
"Oh, I don't know." Sirius grinned. "I think 'Operation Brain-Fuck Voldemort' has a certain ring to it."
Far away, two lovers slept in one another's arms. Their work, for the moment, was over.
Tomorrow would be soon enough to seek out the rest of their kind.
And yes, that is where I shall leave it for now. You get to find out what, precisely, that operation entails not in the next chapter, but in the chapter after that. So not in "Raising the Flag", but in "The Last Enemy". Which is, yes, a reference to certain bits of canon, but perhaps not precisely the way you think it is…
Yes, Sirius does have a reason for thinking that moment with Neville has happened before. Check out the chapter of Living without Danger entitled "On Eagle's Wings". Also, the tidbits about the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room are canon, not mine, though I do think they sound well-suited to our dear Dame Helga, don't you?
If you get a hankering for more of Anne before next Friday, please look me up on Facebook, or at my website, which also hosts my blog, Anne's Randomness, today featuring a Fiction Friday post from my Chronicles of Glenscar series. Or you could just leave me a lovely review! Thanks, as always, for reading, and see you next time!)
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