Chapter 1: The House Of Gaunt
It was nothing but a little rundown shack on a hill.
An abandoned little rundown shack, in fact, which was what made it look so appealing to one Auror Sirius Black that fine hot summer afternoon after spending several hours running around the town of Little Hangleton on stakeout for the Order.
He had found himself on stakeout during his days off often since Pettigrew's defection to Voldemort had made keeping his and James' animagus forms secret from Dumbledore a bit too much of a bother.
Better that he, at least, knew.
Better that there be a village mutt running around Britain who wasn't all he appeared to be.
Especially as the Order had no spy. What had happened to Severus the night he fled, and the fact he was now trapped inside Hogwarts Castle for the foreseeable future, was warning enough to the remaining Death Eaters that changes of heart would most likely be fatal.
And Severus hadn't seen my brother in three months, Sirius thought. Damnit, Reg, what did you do? Where the bloody hell are you?
Even when Sirius had been able to spy on Death Eater movements, there had been no sign or word of Regulus Black.
There had been no movement around the abandoned manor house on the other side of the town. If Voldemort was using his father's ancestral manor as a base of operations at the moment, there was no sign.
Damn, that was the last of the places Snape thought might be his base right now, Sirius thought as he weaved his way up the hill, keeping to a proper loping jog and panting as he went.
At least I can rest a bit before I apparate out, he thought as he squeezed under the gate and into the overgrown garden surrounding the shack.
Wizards were here, once. There were a few relatively common Muggle decorative plants native to Britain that were useful in potions. All of them were present in the thick underbrush.
There was a startled hiss as a large grass snake protested his approach and retreated into the safety of a bush.
He neared the door.
He sniffed around his front paws. There on the front doorstep were scattered snake ribs and vertebrae, long bleached white.
From a snake large enough to put common village mutt on the menu.
He looked up and looked at the underbrush all around him. That snake's mate or sibling could be anywhere by now... He sniffed at the air, but detected none of the odor a snake that big would have left behind.
It's a long time dead, then.
He tilted his head as he noticed the nail in the door.
What kind of people nail an animal to their front door?
He slipped through the gap left by a broken board, drawn inside by curiosity.
The shack was filthy. There was a thick layer of dust everywhere, but under that...
Even given the amount of time it had to have been since any human walked there, he could smell the fear. It was strongest in what had been the kitchen, but it was present everywhere he stuck his nose.
Someone was abused here.
There were only a few belongings left. A few badly dented pots, an empty bottle in a corner, and not much more.
And loose floorboards in what must have passed for a closet.
Padfoot's paws were more than enough to break through to the hidden compartment below.
A cigar box lay there, and he could smell the lingering odor of dark magic on it. A human nose would never have noticed.
At least something came of today, he thought as he pulled the box out of the hole and set out with it gently held in his mouth.
It was time to report back to Hogwarts.
Chapter 2: What Sirius Found
Severus leaned foward in his chair.
"If he's not using the old Riddle home, he's either found someplace completely new or he's using a secret property some pureblood family has kept hidden from the Ministry." He didn't bother mentioning how old his information was.
After all, he hadn't stepped outside the castle grounds in four years, rarely left the safety of the walls, and both James and Albus knew it.
James sighed. "At least we'll know where he isn't."
There was loud barking from the stairs, and a moment later a black dog with an old cigar box in his mouth bounded into the room.
He walked over to them, sat politely between their chairs, and laid the box on Dumbledore's desk. A moment later, he was panting and holding a paw up to James.
"Nice try, Padfoot."
A whine, and a moment later a fully grown wizard was on the ground between them.
Severus felt his eyes narrow. "Black."
Sirius Black grinned sheepishly as he got off the floor. "Afternoon, Snape. Sorry about the surprise entrance -- I've been undercover as a village mutt all day."
Severus didn't reply to that.
Sirius turned to Dumbledore. "There's no sign of anyone living there, Albus, at least not in the surrounding area. They'd have to be apparating and disapparating inside the house."
"Then where was and what is that?" Severus asked him, pointing at the box.
"I honestly don't know. It was under the floorboards in an abandoned shack I took shelter in before returning. The place had known dark magic, there's been a human abused there in the distant past horrifically enough that I could still smell the fear today, and there were signs the most recent occupants had nailed a snake large enough to eat a reasonably-sized village mutt to their front door."
Dumbledore was casting diagnostic spells on the box before Sirius managed to finish his explanation.
"Albus?" James asked.
Severus was astounded to see the older wizard's face had blanched to nearly as white as his beard.
"What is it?" Severus asked.
"Very old and very dark magic. No one is to touch anything -- the box may be trapped, and if it is not, then its contents surely are. Where did I put those books..." Dumbledore got up, walked over to the first of many glass-doored and locked bookcases and began scanning the books' spines.
Sirius pulled up a chair and sat between James and Severus.
Dumbledore seemed to have found what he was looking for. After reading a few pages from a particularly dusty tome which had been defended by multiple locks - Severus wasn't even sure how the last one operated and would have loved to find out - he began rummaging through the various silver instruments scattered on the various worksurfaces in the office.
"Can we be of any help, Headmaster?" Severus asked after a moment.
"No, I've found it." He held up a device Severus had never noticed before, his face grave. "Pray I am wrong."
He held it up to the little box lying on the table and waved his other hand. Severus could feel the flow of power.
A mist became visible around the device for a few seconds, then dissipated.
Dumbledore collapsed into his chair, as hopeless as Severus had ever seen him.
"Albus?" James asked.
"Sirius, were there any signs as to who may have owned the building this was found in?"
"The garden was full of overgrown plants useful in potions, and there were snake bones on the front steps. Old ones. I'd say whatever serpent originally owned them was large enough to be a threat to my animagus form. And there were smells in the house, like someone had been afraid for a long time there. Those were strongest in the kitchen."
Severus felt his blood chill. "The rumor has always been that the Dark Lord's mother's family - the last of Slytherin's line - lived near Riddle Manor. And I can confirm that he is a Parselmouth himself."
"So it could have been his mother's childhood home?" James asked.
"That is what I fear," Dumbledore breathed, still trying to pull himself together.
"Headmaster, what is it?" Severus asked.
He took a few deep breaths. "This word cannot leave this castle. In fact, it would be best if it remained confined to this room. James, Severus, your quarters might be heavily warded enough to speak it there."
"It's that bad?" Severus asked.
The old man nodded. "Have any of you ever heard of a Horcrux?"
James shook his head.
Severus shivered and shook his head. The word was among the more ominous magical terms he'd ever heard.
Sirius had a blank look in his eyes. "There was a book, in the family library at home. I was doing some summer Defense homework the year I moved in with James on the topic of dark artifact destruction methods. The author barely seemed willing to write the word, and it was one of the most disturbing books I ever read there."
"When I became Headmaster, I banned the subject. Completely. Every book that mentions them was taken from the Restricted Section and put under lock and key here in my office.
"That dark?" Sirius asked.
Albus stood, picked up the dusty book and conjured three Muggle paper bags. "I believe page 157 will shed some light on the topic."
He handed the book to James first, and his face began to grow pale before he was halfway down the page. "That can't be possible." And then he visibly nearly sicked up and grabbed for one of Albus' bags even as Albus took the book from him and passed it on to Sirius.
This is not good, Severus thought. James had rarely become physically ill during any of their many discussions of the Dark Arts. And there had been many very nasty things covered in those discussions, seeing as they always made sure Lily and Harry were elsewhere before they started taking books off the shelves.
Sirius had the same reaction and also needed a paper bag to keep from giving the castle house elves an evening assignment of cleaning the Head's Office rug.
Albus handed the book to Severus.
Chapter 3: Fiendfyre
James had just finished using a mouth-freshening charm on himself after reliving his lunch when Severus started reading. The ritual described was sickening. It wasn't merely dark, it was pitch-black and nasty. It was the sort of ritual Severus' constant refrain to him about there being different kinds of Dark Arts and the lesser being qualitatively different than the greater was made for. This was one of the greater, and just the fact the first step after optionally laying some disturbing spellwork in place was cold-blooded murder placed it in that category. No passion-fueled homicide, no voluntary sacrifice, no mercy killings, just coldly plotted murder. And James had no doubt that many of the most depraved authors in Severus' section of the communal library in their quarters would have happily joined him in sicking up at the thought of what that page spelled out. He watched Severus intently, even as Sirius was reliving his own lunch between them, quite curious as to what his own reaction would be. Severus grew quite pale, but there was no sign he had become nauseated. He pointed at the the cigar box. "That contains a Horcrux?" "I believe so," Dumbledore quietly confirmed. James' mind froze in its tracks. He'd been too busy sicking up to think about the implications. Voldemort did that? Well, if anyone now living would be capable of that depravity, it'd be him. "Then he's immortal. And there's a piece of him in this room." Severus was pale, and shaking, and unless James was less familiar with the other wizard than he thought he was now, he was about to go on one of his fear-induced nervous fits again. And considering the way he'd been tortured just before he fled Voldemort's service completely and how long he had been without medical care after, James really couldn't blame him or hold it against him. Between memories of torment and not at all improbable magically induced organic brain disruption no one was wiling to hypothesize about out loud, Severus had more than enough reason for simply not being rational where the threat of Voldemort was concerned. They were lucky enough that his problems all seemed tied to fear and terror, not anger and not lashing out. Sure enough, by the time Sirius had Vanished the paper bags filled with former lunches, Severus Snape was clearly on the way to hyperventilating. "Then he can't die. We can't outlive him. Harry can't outlive him. We're never going to be able to leave the castle, are we? Never..." "Snape, calm down before you make yourself faint." Sirius' warning went completely unheeded. James walked over and took the book from Severus, quickly skimming past the creation ritual. "According to this, there areways to destroy it." Sirius snorted. "Mate, last I checked we don't have access to a basilisk, don't have a chance of buying what little venom is available on the official, grey, or black markets without You-Know-Who finding out his little insurance policy was discovered, and every other option involves dangerous dark magic I know never got covered in Defense class." Severus regained a bit of composure and color. "What kinds of dark magic?" He's back in his element, where he has control. Let's see if I can make his day even better. "Well, there's fiendfyre..." Severus perked up. "Fiendfyre kills Horcruxes?" Success. James handed the book back. "Second paragraph from the bottom, third sentence." Sirius groaned. "And it also kills a lot of other things. Like people. Including not uncommonly the wizard who casts it. And I know you heard what Moody told all of us in training about the stuff..." "Hard to control. Best to have a shielded area with multiple defensive wards so as to limit the collateral damage to yourself. Really bloody stupid idea on a battlefield. Considered dark because of the unpredictability, lack of ability to aim with any reliable certainty of not hitting anything you don't want to, and the fact most wizards who would think of using it are right bastards who don't mind cooking their allies to death on accident." Sirius looked quite pleased with himself. "Exactly." Severus, meanwhile, had quite the glow in his eye. "There's a shielded chamber down the corridor from the Potions laboratories." Sirius finally caught on. "No. Too dangerous. If he lost control..." "Not if there's someone in the room already known to have tamed out-of-hand fiendfyre before in the room..." James met Albus' eyes and smiled. Albus looked at him sternly. It wasn't entirely uncommon knowledge among the Aurors that Gellert Grindelwald had used a form of fiendfyre in his duel with Albus Dumbledore, and that Albus had managed to neutralize it. A lesser form, for reasons no one could piece together - at least no one who hadn't spent time listening to Bathilda Bagshot rehash some very old gossip - but still fiendfyre. Still something that could destroy a dark artifact, even one as horrid as a Horcrux. "Do we have any other options?" James asked. There was no answer. "Albus?" Severus asked. The headmaster looked at the ex-spy with something not unlike resignation in his eyes. James almost laughed. Severus had quietly admitted that he really wanted to cast fiendfyre 'just the once', but had never found safe conditions to do so in, during one of their discussions, and apparently the headmaster knew that about Severus as well. That was Severus Tobias Snape: full of interest in the Dark Arts that tended to the highly theoretical with an eye toward personal safety and caution when trying new spells and techniques. If his life had gone differently, he might have been a Ministry-paid researcher giving seminars to Aurors. Or the Defense professor, if the position wasn't cursed. Even if he weren't like a brother to Lily, he's too important to the Order now to risk it. This was excuse, properly warded location, and available spotter all in one. Christmas had come in the middle of a summer heat wave. "Please?" Severus was practically begging. "Please can I be the one to kill the Horcrux?" The reaction made perfect sense to James. Severus might never get another chance at casting fiendfyre in properly controlled conditions, and he might never have another chance to personally damage Voldemort. "He's got a better justification than the rest of us, Albus," James said in support of the plan, being very careful to meet Dumbledore's eyes. And having destroyed a part, no matter how small, of Voldemort's soul might help fix whatever's wrong with him. And the sooner that thing was no longer a living piece of Voldemort's soul in the castle, the more secure James would feel about Lily and James living within the same set of wards. Dumbledore closed his eyes. "How long would you need to prepare, Severus?" When Lily returned from a library outing with Harry, Severus and James were ensconced on the sofa with piles of books everywhere. "Do I even want to know?" she asked. James looked up. "Not really." "Mum read me a story about an ogre. What are you reading?" Harry asked. "Books you aren't old enough to read yet, Sweetie," she told him. Severus snorted without looking up. "More like books you aren't allowed to read ever." "Uncle!" "...I'm not going to like this, am I?" Lily asked them. Severus scratched his ear with his left hand, their private signal that something had either to do directly with something Voldemort was up to or magic dark enough they couldn't say anything about it in front of Harry. She opened the door to the Potters' private rooms. "Go get cleaned up for dinner, Harry." The moment the boy had run through, she closed the door. "How dangerous?" "With the wards involved and the fact Albus is helping this time?" James asked. "Less dangerous than that incident with the vaporized Draught Of Peace last year with the OWL resitters." "James, that put over half of the class in the Hospital Wing! Poppy ran out of beds!" "We don't have a choice, Lily," Severus said quietly, finally looking up at her. "There isn't another option." She sighed. "We're going to need to ward the upper shelves before very much longer. He's almost six now. Keeping the dangerous books up isn't going to work once he figures out how to Summon them." "I'll figure something out," James promised her.
James had just finished using a mouth-freshening charm on himself after reliving his lunch when Severus started reading.
The ritual described was sickening. It wasn't merely dark, it was pitch-black and nasty.
It was the sort of ritual Severus' constant refrain to him about there being different kinds of Dark Arts and the lesser being qualitatively different than the greater was made for.
This was one of the greater, and just the fact the first step after optionally laying some disturbing spellwork in place was cold-blooded murder placed it in that category. No passion-fueled homicide, no voluntary sacrifice, no mercy killings, just coldly plotted murder.
And James had no doubt that many of the most depraved authors in Severus' section of the communal library in their quarters would have happily joined him in sicking up at the thought of what that page spelled out.
He watched Severus intently, even as Sirius was reliving his own lunch between them, quite curious as to what his own reaction would be.
Severus grew quite pale, but there was no sign he had become nauseated. He pointed at the the cigar box. "That contains a Horcrux?"
"I believe so," Dumbledore quietly confirmed.
James' mind froze in its tracks. He'd been too busy sicking up to think about the implications. Voldemort did that? Well, if anyone now living would be capable of that depravity, it'd be him.
"Then he's immortal. And there's a piece of him in this room." Severus was pale, and shaking, and unless James was less familiar with the other wizard than he thought he was now, he was about to go on one of his fear-induced nervous fits again.
And considering the way he'd been tortured just before he fled Voldemort's service completely and how long he had been without medical care after, James really couldn't blame him or hold it against him. Between memories of torment and not at all improbable magically induced organic brain disruption no one was wiling to hypothesize about out loud, Severus had more than enough reason for simply not being rational where the threat of Voldemort was concerned.
They were lucky enough that his problems all seemed tied to fear and terror, not anger and not lashing out.
Sure enough, by the time Sirius had Vanished the paper bags filled with former lunches, Severus Snape was clearly on the way to hyperventilating. "Then he can't die. We can't outlive him. Harry can't outlive him. We're never going to be able to leave the castle, are we? Never..."
"Snape, calm down before you make yourself faint."
Sirius' warning went completely unheeded.
James walked over and took the book from Severus, quickly skimming past the creation ritual. "According to this, there areways to destroy it."
Sirius snorted. "Mate, last I checked we don't have access to a basilisk, don't have a chance of buying what little venom is available on the official, grey, or black markets without You-Know-Who finding out his little insurance policy was discovered, and every other option involves dangerous dark magic I know never got covered in Defense class."
Severus regained a bit of composure and color. "What kinds of dark magic?"
He's back in his element, where he has control. Let's see if I can make his day even better. "Well, there's fiendfyre..."
Severus perked up. "Fiendfyre kills Horcruxes?"
Success. James handed the book back. "Second paragraph from the bottom, third sentence."
Sirius groaned. "And it also kills a lot of other things. Like people. Including not uncommonly the wizard who casts it. And I know you heard what Moody told all of us in training about the stuff..."
"Hard to control. Best to have a shielded area with multiple defensive wards so as to limit the collateral damage to yourself. Really bloody stupid idea on a battlefield. Considered dark because of the unpredictability, lack of ability to aim with any reliable certainty of not hitting anything you don't want to, and the fact most wizards who would think of using it are right bastards who don't mind cooking their allies to death on accident."
Sirius looked quite pleased with himself. "Exactly."
Severus, meanwhile, had quite the glow in his eye. "There's a shielded chamber down the corridor from the Potions laboratories."
Sirius finally caught on. "No. Too dangerous. If he lost control..."
"Not if there's someone in the room already known to have tamed out-of-hand fiendfyre before in the room..." James met Albus' eyes and smiled.
Albus looked at him sternly.
It wasn't entirely uncommon knowledge among the Aurors that Gellert Grindelwald had used a form of fiendfyre in his duel with Albus Dumbledore, and that Albus had managed to neutralize it. A lesser form, for reasons no one could piece together - at least no one who hadn't spent time listening to Bathilda Bagshot rehash some very old gossip - but still fiendfyre.
Still something that could destroy a dark artifact, even one as horrid as a Horcrux.
"Do we have any other options?" James asked.
There was no answer.
"Albus?" Severus asked.
The headmaster looked at the ex-spy with something not unlike resignation in his eyes.
James almost laughed. Severus had quietly admitted that he really wanted to cast fiendfyre 'just the once', but had never found safe conditions to do so in, during one of their discussions, and apparently the headmaster knew that about Severus as well.
That was Severus Tobias Snape: full of interest in the Dark Arts that tended to the highly theoretical with an eye toward personal safety and caution when trying new spells and techniques. If his life had gone differently, he might have been a Ministry-paid researcher giving seminars to Aurors.
Or the Defense professor, if the position wasn't cursed. Even if he weren't like a brother to Lily, he's too important to the Order now to risk it.
This was excuse, properly warded location, and available spotter all in one.
Christmas had come in the middle of a summer heat wave.
"Please?" Severus was practically begging. "Please can I be the one to kill the Horcrux?"
The reaction made perfect sense to James. Severus might never get another chance at casting fiendfyre in properly controlled conditions, and he might never have another chance to personally damage Voldemort.
"He's got a better justification than the rest of us, Albus," James said in support of the plan, being very careful to meet Dumbledore's eyes. And having destroyed a part, no matter how small, of Voldemort's soul might help fix whatever's wrong with him.
And the sooner that thing was no longer a living piece of Voldemort's soul in the castle, the more secure James would feel about Lily and James living within the same set of wards.
Dumbledore closed his eyes. "How long would you need to prepare, Severus?"
When Lily returned from a library outing with Harry, Severus and James were ensconced on the sofa with piles of books everywhere.
"Do I even want to know?" she asked.
James looked up. "Not really."
"Mum read me a story about an ogre. What are you reading?" Harry asked.
"Books you aren't old enough to read yet, Sweetie," she told him.
Severus snorted without looking up. "More like books you aren't allowed to read ever."
"...I'm not going to like this, am I?" Lily asked them.
Severus scratched his ear with his left hand, their private signal that something had either to do directly with something Voldemort was up to or magic dark enough they couldn't say anything about it in front of Harry.
She opened the door to the Potters' private rooms. "Go get cleaned up for dinner, Harry."
The moment the boy had run through, she closed the door. "How dangerous?"
"With the wards involved and the fact Albus is helping this time?" James asked. "Less dangerous than that incident with the vaporized Draught Of Peace last year with the OWL resitters."
"James, that put over half of the class in the Hospital Wing! Poppy ran out of beds!"
"We don't have a choice, Lily," Severus said quietly, finally looking up at her. "There isn't another option."
She sighed. "We're going to need to ward the upper shelves before very much longer. He's almost six now. Keeping the dangerous books up isn't going to work once he figures out how to Summon them."
"I'll figure something out," James promised her.
Chapter 4: The Witches
Lily hooked the heels of her boots on the bottom rung of her stool. "Talk," she ordered.
This was their space - a potions laboratory only they and Albus Dumbledore had non-emergency access to, a place they could discuss anything without the risk of being overheard by students or less innocuous ears.
Or by James, Sirius, or Harry, which was the more pressing issue at the moment.
Severus looked over at her, then turned back to the cauldron they were currently consideering. "I don't think this one has much promise," he reported. "Which is still less dangerous than that vile mixture four years ago."
"And we both got our names in print for disproving that one," Lily reminded him. Her name had been second because of her rank as Junior Potions Mistress, not because of the level of participation she'd had in the brewing and researching, but she'd still been ecstatic at the recognition.
"Well, warning everyone that a so-called reconstruction of the lost Wolfsbane Potion just happened to only remove the visible transformation and not the contagion risk or mental transformation was worth having our names in print." He snorted. "Should have gotten awards for spreading the news before anyone had a chance to bring it into production."
"True. But that's not what I wanted to talk about."
"Lily, if a word of any of it got to the Dark Lord's ears..." Severus was adamant.
"You know I hate it when Albus leaves me out of things."
He shuddered, and she could only wonder why. "Trust me, you do not want to be in on this."
"It's bad, Lily."
"Then why did you and James look like Father Christmas came early when I came back from the library with Harry?"
"Because I have an excuse to try something I haven't before, that's all."
It only took two seconds for her to figure is out. "Not bloody Fiendfyre. Sev, there's a reason so few people try that, and I really don't mind being Junior Potions Mistress that much!"
"I will be fine," he insisted.
"Like hell you will." She put her hands on her hips. "I know you were in class sixth year when Professor Arkwright told us how easy it is to lose control of Fiendfyre."
"He never even tried it..."
"With reason, Sev!"
There was a long pause as he delicately changed the stirring charm being used for the potion.
"We don't have any other workable options, Lily, or Albus would be using one of them instead." Severus stepped back from the cauldron and faced her. "And I wouldn't be arguing with him."
"It's that bad?"
"It's that bad. And it's completely unavoidable."
She sighed. "Is there anything you or James can tell me?"
"No. The fewer who know, the better."
"But it does have to do with the war?"
Severus gave one short nod, then turned his attention back to the cauldron.
Narcissa Malfoy looked on with worry as Bellatrix Flooed out of the sitting room and Lucius limped through after her.
They had been lucky - terribly and horrifically lucky - that the lingering physical effects of the Dark Lord's wrath that dreadful November had been limited to a limp easily enough passed off as the result of a backfired spell.
They'd had to pass the immediate effects off as Lucius going into a mourning seclusion after the deaths of his brothers-in-law and caring for the immediate needs of his widowed sister-in-law. Bellatrix had moved in, and the list of those outside the ranks of the Death Eaters who even knew she'd been pregnant at all was short.
A year of mourning seclusion for a husband was more than enough time for any pureblood witch with reasonable potions skills to bear a posthumous heir and take care of the remaining physical signs she'd ever been pregnant at all, much less brought the baby to term.
Little Phoebe Lestrange had never left the grounds of Malfoy Manor.
Narcissa left the sitting room and walked to the dining room.
Phoebe and Draco were sitting at the far end of the room, backs against the wall. Draco had one of his favorite picture books and was quietly reading to his cousin, who was listening with wide eyes even though Narcissa knew she'd already heard it a hundred times. There was a plate of treats on the floor beside each of them and a glass of milk.
Narcissa sat down at the table and nodded encouragingly when Draco looked up at the noise.
A glass of wine and a plate of her favorite pastries popped on the table in front of her.
The Death Eaters of the family were off serving the Dark Lord. No one left in the house would be voluntarily sleeping until they returned.
Or until news came that they would not be returning.
At least it's summer.
Summer meant Lucius' scars and old injuries wouldn't be acting up, meant that if he did do battle tonight he would only be normally impaired and not debilitated.
She knew, and he knew, that if a battle ever went wrong in the winter, if the Aurors ever discovered where the Dark Lord was meeting with his followers while the snow was on the ground, that Lucius would be the last in the retreat if he were lucky.
And if he were unlucky, he would not be in the retreat at all.
Such was the revenge of the Dark Lord on a follower who had disastrously - but unknowingly - failed him.
"Aunt Cissa, may Haley join us?" Phoebe asked in her best toddler manners.
"Please, Mum?" Draco added.
"All right, she may. But remember, the table is for humans, not felines."
A moment later, they were both up and on their way to find the cat in question.
"And no running in the house!" she called out after them.
When they were out of the room and their fast little footsteps had faded off, Narcissa fiddled with her necklace.
The crystal pendant was charmed, linked to Lucius' physical state, and the most familial monitoring the Dark Lord allowed to trace any of the Death Eaters while they were actively serving him.
Green for health, yellow for minor injury, orange for major wounds, red for mortal peril, black for death.
Enough so that medical attention could be prepared, or that the families of the slain could have that little bit of forewarning to prepare their homes for the inevitable visit from the Aurors.
It was yellow-green at the moment.
It had never been greener than yellow-green since November 1981.
She hadn't bothered checking it that awful night. Lucius' description of his Mark's burn had been enough for Narcissa to start preparing her medical supplies before he'd even completely left the house. He'd told her later that knowing she was already waiting for him was one of the few supports for his will to live he'd had during that meeting.
Narcissa had a pendant linked to her sister, but rarely checked it.
Given how much care she provided for Phoebe and how little interest her sister had in anything but the Dark Lord's work, even when she had a pureblooded daughter to raise, Narcissa was beginning to believe Bellatrix could just take care of herself.
Chapter 5: Lure For Fools
Keep calm. Ignore the heat. Ignore how wonderful it is your knowledge is now experiential as well as theoretical. Keep the barriers around the flames up.
The patterns in the flames were almost hypnotic, and between that and the images of the nominal 'fiends', Severus now had an idea why losing control of fiendfyre was so easy.
He could feel Albus' own controlling barriers a few inches outside his own, ready to take the load immediately if his power or concentration failed for even a second.
It was wild and beautiful and...
And then the old box in the middle of it disintegrated. A moment later there was a surge of magic he could barely keep under his control and something that was not quite a scream.
Followed by a surge he couldn't control, that nearly blasted through Albus' shielding, and if James hadn't slammed another layer around the conflagration there was no telling what might have happened next.
As it was, the surge ended and the pressure of three wizards' worth of controlling spellwork pushed the remaining flames into nothingness.
Severus sank to his knees and Albus shakily sat down on the floor beside him.
"I am never casting that again, Headmaster," Severus gasped.
"I was about to order you not to," Albus replied just as breathlessly.
And then the aching in his arm finally registered and he clamped his right hand over his Dark Mark.
"Severus?" James called out with concern, looking up from where he'd been inspecting the ashes.
"It's not bad," Severus told him quickly, "but I think Marked men were not meant to kill horcruxes."
"No one has ever been recorded as having made more than one," Albus said comfortingly. "This should be it."
Albus got back on his feet.
James had something in his hand that Severus couldn't make out, and he was in no shape to stand at the moment.
I'd best admit it - I'll be lucky if I don't end up spending the night on the hideaway again.
So long as the Ministry and St. Mungo's had those regulations about survivors of the Cruciatus Curse, Severus was staying as far away from the Hospital Wing as he could. Poppy would just have to do a house call to the dungeons if she felt the need to check on him.
"My word..." Albus' voice trailed off as he reached out a hand.
"NO!" James yelled, closing his hand around whatever it was. "Think about what this is. Albus, it won't do whatever you think it will do."
"What is it?" Severus asked.
James' voice was grim. "The stone."
A few years ago, Severus wouldn't have believed it, nor been so certain which stone James meant.
Going outside under the Cloak of Invisibility from the same dusty musty old legend once a fortnight or so had changed that forever.
"James, be reasonable," Albus said, something strange in his voice.
"I am being reasonable." James took a step back. "Lily and I talked with Mrs. Bagshot. I don't know what happened the night Ariana died, but I do know this -- this stone is the only thing known to wizardkind that can harm her."
Albus flinched back as if slapped.
"I am a scion of the Peverell line. My father taught me the dangers and uses of the Hallows. This stone is poison to the soul and danger to the dead. Death intended it as nothing but a lure for fools."
The headmaster took a few deep breaths. "Then we need to hide it."
"Hide it? I was going to chuck it in the lake!"
"James, think. You are holding an item that can contact the dead. We are at war with someone who happily embodies the worst aspects of the things Slytherin House intentionally Sorts for," Severus reminded him. "We can't afford to throw anything away permanently."
"And how are we supposed to hide it?" James asked Albus. "You're headmaster. Doors refuse to lock against you here, and it's too risky to keep it outside the castle grounds."
"The more people know, the more leaks can form," Severus advised. "And neither you nor I could take it off the grounds ourselves."
James stuck the stone in a pocket before throwing his hands up in frustration. "Then how do we hide it?"
"Can you request particular people?" Severus asked.
"As long as you've not got a pressing regret or other desire to see someone else, or so I was told."
"Does it have to be by name?"
Albus chuckled weakly and with more than a bit of emotional pain behind it. "Simple, James. Can you ask the stone to let you talk to someone with knowledge of how to keep a headmaster of Hogwarts away from an object in Hogwarts without making the object irretrievable?"
James' jaw dropped and he stared at Severus. "That was what you meant?"
"It's worth a try." He shrugged. "And if it works, we will know how to ask for help with old magic forgotten by the living."
Albus stared too.
"I'm a Slytherin!" Severus said defensively. "We're supposed to think like that. If you two think that's impressive, ask Ab about the warding he put on the Hog's Head's storerooms."
Albus shook his head. "My brother has never been very good with lasting enchantments."
Severus grated inside. For a sufficiently innovative Slytherin -- which Aberforth was, even if he didn't fit any of the current stereotypes of the house -- lack of skill or power was merely a momentary roadblock.
And, in this case, that supposed lack of skill was in comparison to the transfiguration master of the age.
He'd dealt regularly with Aberforth as his contact in the Order. He'd been invited to take a glance at the wards.
And Severus doubted even Albus Dumbledore could break his brother's wards without feeling a wandtip on the back of his neck before he was through. Which, when defending firewhiskey, was the real goal.
James coughed to get their attention. "So, who's going to do the asking?"
"It can't be me," Albus admitted quietly, and Severus was almost certain he could hear shame and regret leaking into the older wizard's voice.
James and Severus looked at each other.
"We can't get Sirius to do it," James said. "He'd use it as an opportunity to get back at his parents in a heartbeat. And Remus... His mother..."
Severus nodded. The Resurrection Stone was not anything someone who'd lost a parent under the age of three ought to be given access to. The allure of repeated conversations would be too much. "And Minerva shouldn't be brought into this."
Albus and James quickly concurred. The fact she'd been wed and widowed wasn't a common subject in staff discussions even behind her back, and Severus was fairly sure some of the newer members of the staff didn't even know, but for this it was absolutely disqualifying.
Even letting her know the artifact was in Scotland, much less in the castle she lived in, might be too much for her.
"You're the one who belongs to the bloodline," Severus told James. "You are the one who was taught to survive knowing where it is."
"I don't know of anything that would disqualify me. Do you know of anything disqualifying for either of us?"
"I don't know whether or not Mum's alive."
Albus looked puzzled. "I thought Aberforth said someone had been tapping his storeroom wards and leaving letters..."
"... written in our family's personal code that no one but Mum, Dad, Lily, and I ever knew entirely, yes. But there's no guarantee that someone didn't find the letters she took when she left and break the code. It's a literary cipher, Albus. We meant it more as a family joke than as a secure means of communication. We didn't think we'd need one. What about you, James?"
"My parents were older when they had me. I didn't expect it when either of them died, but I've never felt there was much of anything left unsaid -- I always knew it would be sooner rather than later. I wouldn't mind it if my father was the one who answered, but I wouldn't try to make that happen and I'd know better than try to contact him again with the stone if he did."
Albus walked to the door. "I suppose I had better be far away when you use it, James."
"That would likely be for the best, Headmaster."
Albus nodded sadly and left.
Severus waited a full minute before asking, "What sister?"
James sighed. "Albus and Aberforth had a sister who was too delicate for school."
"Squib, you mean."
"And so my mother thought as well. Anyway, she died when Aberforth wasn't through school yet but Albus was."
"This makes the stone a danger to the headmaster because..."
"Because Aberforth broke Albus' nose over the casket, as Mrs. Bagshot tells the tale. And because her dear sweet great-nephew who she would believe no wrong of even after he was expelled from Durmstrang..."
"Yes. He left town nearly before the death was announced, so she says. Refused to believe the events were connected, of course, but if you've read as many pureblood family histories as I have it's clear there's some sort of connection there."
"And then Albus was the one who defeated him."
James nodded. "She also said Albus didn't try to defend himself before or after Aberforth's fist flew. Whatever really happened, he feels guilt. With the stone, guilt kills."
Severus let out a shaky breath. "I suppose you want me gone too? Should I tell Lily you are likely to be late for dinner?"
James thought for a moment. "You really only want to know if your mother is alive or dead?"
"And if she were dead and answered?"
"Apologize for having been a damn fool and tell her I'm doing my best to be a credit to our family and house from here forward. And that I shall await her judgment on whether or not I succeed in the endeavor when I go to join her, by nature's hand or that of my enemies. Why?"
His pulse raced oddly.
"Because nothing says someone can't use the stone before I hide it. For Albus, even just once might drive him suicidal. Losing access to the stone wouldn't take away the most common way of going to talk to the dead. But, if you really have a use that wouldn't make you desperate to see anyone Just One More Time..."
"Suicide would negate my attempts to atone."
James nodded. "Trade? Use of the stone for me holding your wand, so that if I have to fight you to get it back I don't have to hurt you and it doesn't turn into a full duel?"
Severus pulled it out. "James, you already have my wand, remember?"
"I thought you understood that was a misunderstanding!"
Severus shook his head. "No, the way you did mean it. You're asking to hold my wand physically to preserve my ability to continue repaying my debt, which is my wand to the defense of your family and the defeat of our common enemies."
James looked at him oddly. "Remind me never to get on a Slytherin's bad side while negotiating anything."
Severus handed him the wand and held out his hand, palm up.
"I think this may go better if you close your eyes."
Severus did so, a strange feeling pooling in the pit of his stomach. An apprehension.
Do I really want to do this?
Yes, he realized, he did. He needed to know.
Something cool against his palm, angular.
"Turn it three times, and open your eyes. Close your eyes before you let go of it, there are some theories that helps with the emotional aftermath."
Severus nodded. "Understood. How do I specify who?"
"Think about her. Only her as much as you can manage that."
His mother, giving Lily her first proper witch's hat.
His mother, reading to them in the evenings.
His mother, brewing upstairs while his father snored to wake the neighborhood in his chair in the sitting room.
There was a change in the air, and Severus nearly shouted "I'm sorry!" and turned his hand over to spill the stone to the ground but managed to hold in the fear and discomfort.
Even if I wanted to, I could not do this again.
Severus forced his eyes open.
The tallish, wide-shouldered man with hair not entirely unlike a somewhat cropped lion's mane in color and styling was decidedly not Severus' mother.
Chapter 6: The Stone
If he hadn't still been kneeling on the ground, James was certain Severus would have fallen over.
No. They would have to come up with a way to tell Lily without letting her know what they had been up to today, and even if Severus did manage to physically recover enough from the fiendfyre to not need watching, the two heart-siblings might be spending the night near each other for comfort anyway.
James' mind went through some words Lily did not was Harry hearing.
They hadn't included Muggles in the dead the stone might be able to contact.
They hadn't considered that a former Death Eater with a deceased close-degree Muggle relative shouldn't been handed the stone.
I've killed him. He's still alive but I've killed him.
It was unsettling watching Severus' eyes follow someone who wasn't there, someone who walked close and seemingly set down to judge from the angle of Severus' head.
Severus chuckled. "James, it's all right. He doesn't want you to worry about this."
"Got it." But James had no clue what the relationship between the two had been like beyond the bits and pieces Lily'd said over the years.
And now, he felt distinctly uncomfortable being a witness.
"I'm sorry. I've been a fool..."
Severus blushed and looked at the floor.
He shook his head, muttering, "No, it didn't."
Then he looked up. "Is Mum alive?"
Severus brightened enough that James knew the answer.
"Then the letters are from her. Where is she? Where did she go?"
Severus looked confused. "I thought they disowned..." After a minute, he gave a quick nod.
With no Muggle husband in her life anymore and her half-blood son technically disowned, she may have been fully accepted back, Severus, James thought. It'd take some fast talking, but you kept Voldemort from knowing your true allegiances and she may have been able to do the same with them.
It wouldn't have been the first time the pureblood widow of a Muggle managed to talk herself back into the good graces of her birth family.
Grief flashed across Severus' face. "So soon?"
James flinched. It was soon. But if his father wants to keep him safe... There may be an advantage to summoning favorable parents.
He knew better than to ask for his own father, but it was something worth adding to the lore he'd be passing on to Harry in a few years.
"I understand." Severus took a few deep breaths. "I..." The side of his mouth quirked up, and it seemed there was something he couldn't get out. Then a pained laugh. "I'll be seeing you after..."
A long pause, and Severus seemed to take heart at whatever his father was telling him.
"All right, then." Grief flared across his face. "Since I didn't get to say it before... Goodbye, Dad."
Severus nodded in response to something, tears beginning to flow down his cheeks.
Then, he closed his eyes, took one last deep breath, and let the stone clatter against the floor.
James rushed over, pocketed the stone, and put his hands on Severus' shoulders to brace him upright as he emotionally collapsed.
"Severus, I swear I didn't think..."
The other wizard shook his head. "I didn't get to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye."
James relaxed. The stone must have picked up on the regret, but it was a regret that nothing but words could fix.
And words was the one thing the stone could truly allow.
"Sons are supposed to bury their fathers," Severus said in a broken voice that was half assertion and half question.
James shifted to sit beside him and wrap an arm across his shoulders. It was a testament to how well their truce had held the past few years that Severus didn't react. "Yes, we are."
"I hate it."
"Me too." He waited until Severus had calmed a bit more. "You've never said anything about how it happened. I didn't realize it was so sudden."
"Industrial accident. There are lots of sharp pointy moving metal things in a textile mill. A boiler blew up. If he hadn't been made an overseer in the carding room two walls away, he wouldn't've died. The owners knew something was starting to go wrong, and he was getting his shift out. If he hadn't had responsibilities to them..."
"He'd have been first out the door?"
"More likely, helping count heads as everyone left the mill." Severus let out a shaky breath. "Which would have still been far enough away to live."
"Do you think you can be left alone right now?" James asked, very seriously.
Severus nodded. "It's like losing him over again, if that makes sense."
"That's the danger of the stone."
"But he was my father. He was supposed to die before me. And I finally got to say goodbye. So it's all right, somehow."
James knew Severus was still distressed, from his grammar if nothing else, but the other wizard was right.
Losing a parent was not usually a cause for being a danger to oneself, except perhaps through carelessness from grief. Not for an adult who was already living an independent life.
And particularly not for an adult who's already been living without that parent since being a schoolboy.
James handed the wand back. "I'll use the stone myself then, now." He stood up and slipped his hand into his pocket.
He closed his eyes.
I, a child of Ignotus, need someone who knows how to hide the stone.
Someone who knows how to hide things in Hogwarts castle so that the headmaster cannot find them.
And it needs to be someone on our side, not Voldemort's.
The world seemed to shift uncomfortably and James could feel the hairs rising on the back of his neck.
He opened his eyes. Nothing.
"I'm behind you, lad, and I'm going to stay there."
"So I can't get attached, or ask for you again."
"That would be the idea, young lion."
"He's not going to let me find out, it seems."
"But of course I'm not going to." He made a tutting noise."You know the dangers of the stone, son of Ignotus. So, you need to hide something?"
Whoever it was, he sounded as though he had originally learned English before Chaucer learned his letters.
"Yes," he breathed in a low whisper. "I need to hide something so the headmaster of Hogwarts cannot find it."
There was a chuckle. "That's an ambitious goal. Are you sure you were Sorted correctly, making plans like that?"
James felt himself flush. How dare...
Another chuckle. "Not to mention sneaky. But I suppose you were Sorted correctly, seeing as you are seeking help rather than trying to be crafty on your own."
"There's too much damage this could do to leave it lying in the open."
"Quite right there, lad. Do you trust me?"
"Well, considering I don't know who you are and you've just insulted me..."
"Insulted you? By merely insinuating you might contain qualities of more than one House? I thought you Gryffindors had thicker skin than that."
"It's all right. I think I summoned a Slytherin."
"Of course you summoned a Slytherin!" The two accents blended hilariously as the dead Sytherin and the live one spoke in unison, and James couldn't help but grin.
"How long will this take?" he asked.
"He says it will take an hour, Severus. If I'm not back in two, get Remus and Sirius. They'll know how to start looking for me."
Severus nodded. "I'll stay here until you come back; that way Albus knows where at least one of us is."
James turned and walked out into the hallway, the faintest of noises following him. "Where to?" he muttered.
"Left. We're leaving the dungeons."
Chapter 7: The Dead
Severus scooted back until he could lean against the wall.
It had all happened so fast, with so little time to analyze anything that had been said.
His father had sat down in front of him and said, "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Severus. You grew up. And you had better tell Lily's husband over there that this is going to be all right, before he goes mental with worry."
And Severus had done exactly that, before trying to apologize.
"Sev, you were always better at making plots than seeing through the plots of others. "You know better now. And all that talk in the neighborhood about the immigrants can't have helped, can it?"
"No, it didn't."
And it really hadn't. One form of xenophobia had easily bled into another.
"Is Mum alive?"
"Could anything in the world have stopped her from coming to you with me if she were?"
It was true. Eileen Snape had a way of breaking down barriers when she truly wished to. If there were a way, she'd have found it, and that meant she was very much alive, somewhere.
"Then the letters are from her. Where is she? Where did she go?"
"In hiding, with cousins. I can tell you no more."
"I thought they disowned..."
"Different cousins. And there was more to that than she told either of us, Son."
All he could do was nod. He'd never met any of her family, whether in school or out of it. Apparently they were one of the wizarding bloodlines that didn't always send children to formal magical education, and after what his mother had done Severus figured it was no surprise they'd stayed away from Hogwarts for a while.
"Severus, you need to let go of the stone now."
A sense of betrayal flashed through him. "So soon?" It couldn't be so soon, they'd only just now started talking!
"Please trust me on this, Sev. The longer you wait, the harder letting go will be. Even when your mother and I argued, I never wished either of you harm. I love you. It's time to let go."
It was only now that he had some breathing space that Severus realized his father had been speaking of letting go of more than just the stone itself.
"I understand." Only he hadn't then. "I..."
He couldn't get the dratted words out! The last chance he'd have to say it, and he couldn't get the words out.
"Severus, you wouldn't be the first man in my family who couldn't spit out the words 'I love you' when he wanted to. Believe me, I know." He laughed, that rich booming laugh Severus had missed so much. "My father was the same way."
"I'll be seeing you after..."
"After you die, yes. I'll be waiting for you. And after what you've been through, dying isn't anything you of all people need to fear."
"All right, then." It hit him, fast and hard, that this was really it. "Since I didn't get to say it before... Goodbye, Dad."
"Goodbye, Son. We'll meet again. I am proud of the man you have become."
Which said a great deal about what he thought of the man Severus had been before he'd overheard the prophecy.
Tobias Snape had always been good at finding ways to talk about what you were doing now while leaving you all the evidence in the world as to what he thought of what you'd been doing before whatever your were doing now.
"And even when you were being a damn bloody fool, I never stopped loving you, Sev."
That was when he'd started weeping.
It wasn't just Severus and Grandfather Martin who were or had been members of the Snape Family Men Who Can't Say 'I Love You' To Male Family Members Past The Age Of Ten Society.
Severus had aged out of Tobias being able to say it right when the arguments about how much his magical education was going to cost them, even with the poor student fund, had started.
That was what he'd needed to hear, even more than he'd needed to say goodbye.
He'd dropped the stone then.
James had been so frantic it was, even with this little bit of hindsight, nearly comical.
James Potter, frantic with worry that he might have done damage to Severus Snape, the boy he'd tormented through seven years of magical education. The man he only had a truce with now because of their connections to a woman, a series of events that in a better world would never have occurred, and him being forced to come to his senses about what that torment had helped cause.
My, how things have changed, Severus thought as he settled back further against the wall to wait and think.
"Now what do I do?" James whispered.
"Walk back and forth in front of the wall, thinking about how badly you need to hide the stone from the headmaster."
James resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
The dead Slytherin had practically made him walk half the corridors of the castle, a distance only made tolerable by the summer's complete absence of students and over half the faculty.
He did as the man asked, though, and a moment later there was a door in the wall.
A rich laugh. "You have no idea, little lion. Open it and see."
James opened the door and gasped.
"Behold the Room Of Intentionally Lost Things. Whenever a student wishes to hide something, whether from a professor, the headmaster, or even the Ministry, that student tends to end up here. That which you see before you is the detritus of a thousand years of questionable or outright illegal student activities."
"And Albus has no idea it exists."
"Oh, he knows. But he does not know how to find it, and as headmaster he cannot open it because of the magic wrought to keep all of it safe from headmasters. He would have to be brought here, and the room opened by another. And then, he would have to find where it lay within."
James stepped into the room and the door closed. "I need a place where I can find it again."
A chuckle. "Go to the right. I know just the place..."
Chapter 8: The Room Of Intentionally Lost Things
And I thought Sirius' vault at Gringott's was bad...
The room was an absolute maze.
Vials and flasks and bottles of things that glowed ominously in the low light.
Empty butterbeer bottles. Empty firewhiskey bottles. Something that looked like it might be an intact straight-from-the-brewer barrel of old Muggle absinthe.
Shells from dragon eggs. Baby dragon bones.
More damaged wands than James could keep track of, and a number of intact ones.
Enough books to restock half the Restricted Section.
Damaged broomsticks. Very old model unbroken broomsticks. Probably intentionally lost so the owners could write home to ask for newer ones.
Notebooks. Scrolls. At least three items that looked suspiciously like Blood Quills.
All manner of cages, both magic and Muggle, many with the bones of their residents still inside.
And there, under a bust of Claudian The Egotist -- his hair looked the exact same way it did on the old etching of him used in Nature's Nobility on the page used to laud his compiling of the first recognizable British pureblood comprehensive genealogical index -- was a cabinet.
"Recognizable enough for you, young lion?"
"Why would a bust of Claudian be in here?" James wondered out loud. "It's not like he hasn't been praised by some since he was alive."
Another of those chuckles from right behind him. "That's a very good question, son of the house of Potter. A very good question indeed."
James opened the cabinet door, and dropped the stone in shock when he looked at the lowest shelf.
Small vials, carefully sealed and obviously carved by magic out of some impressively dense natural translucent quartz.
And the color shining through was unmistakable.
Basilisk venom. Over a pint of it in containers small enough to be passed off as being bought from the few places it could be attained for any price.
And oh, what a price.
Basilisks were rare, the parselmouths capable of milking one even rarer.
These days, James knew, one of those vials would buy Spinner's End and every rowhouse on it. Possibly with the mill thrown in too, if this venom was as fresh as he suddenly thought it might be.
Slytherin's familiar was a basilisk. The Chamber Of Secrets was opened.
Sweet Merlin. This is Voldemort's schoolboy hidey-hole!
James picked up the stone, tucked it in a back corner of the shelf, and started putting the vials in a bag he swiftly conjured.
This is proof Hagrid didn't have a thing to do with it! Fresh basilisk venom at Hogwarts! We can get him exonerated, see what it would take to make that umbrella-wand of his legal with the Ministry...
But then James looked at the pile beside the cabinet and knew it was not to be.
There on top was a circlet of silver, with a prominent sapphire of an ancient cut in the middle of the front. And James could make out the words "Is Man's Greatest".
And even before he cast the dark magic detection spells at it, James knew in his heart what he would find.
One was rare -- it took a special caliber of dark wizard to even try to make one, at least according to the book Albus had handed them, and of those few considered trying. Two was nearly unheard of entirely, and most of the wizards who had tried it ended up destroying their bodies in the attempt or practically Squibs from the division.
It wasn't just giving up a piece of soul, but a bit of magical power as well.
And, James realized, Voldemort hadn't had access to the castle since before Severus was born. Everything Severus had ever reported about Voldemort's strength and skill was a report about someone who had already split off power to two separate Horcruxes, enough power that using Fiendfyre against one would be fatal to the assailant.
Even if the assailant were Albus Dumbledore.
It really didn't have to be a lot of power, just enough to destabilize the spell and make the caster lose control, but it was probably at least as much power as a first year needed to control in order to pass the practical transfiguration exam at the end of spring term at the absolute minimum.
And very few wizards or witches could ever control most of their power consciously, so for anyone less than Albus Dumbledore that would be a significant loss even the first time.
No. Anyone less than Albus or someone so intent on control he could learn to use significantly more of his own power.
And if Voldemort was as controlling of his followers as Severus reported, he would likely be that controlling of himself.
"That's why it took so long for Lucius Malfoy to disappear before he got that limp," James whispered to himself. "Voldemort needed the magical energy he'd been forced to use for healing to permanently injure him even that much. When he has to use significant amounts of power unconsciously, his conscious spellcasting suffers."
And, judging from what Severus had told them about all he'd suffered over the years, it was likely the limp itself was a sign Voldemort's total power was limited. Unless he'd intended to leave the pureblood Malfoy patriarch maimed, it spoke of a lack of finesse, something Voldemort had always reportedly prided himself on having.
He gets sloppy when he's injured, James thought with delight. Sloppy, and underpowered because his available magical strength drops.
And that, in the fight that would inevitably have to come, was something the Order of the Phoenix could work with. He'd have to tell Albus, so the headmaster could use the information in his planning.
And he'd tell Severus privately, once he was over the shock of losing his father over again and learning there was a second Horcrux, because the other wizard needed news that Voldemort did have weaknesses desperately.
"We'll just have to make him mortal first," James said firmly.
And as he secured the diadem and made his way from the room, James Potter was smiling.
Because wouldn't it be poetic justice on a grand scale if the very acts Voldemort believed had made him immortal were actually the acts that made him killable?
Chapter 9: Basilisk Venom
Severus was surprised when James entered the room looking worse than he felt.
James didn't answer. He simply cast a patronus, ordered it to tell Albus 'Get back down here, it's nothing medical', and then collapsed against Severus' wall.
"Really bad. Really really bad." He was clutching a bag as if the future of the world depended on it.
Albus dashed in, and Severus wondered how he could have moved so fast.
James pulled a smaller bag out of the one he was clutching. "Tell me this isn't what I think it is. And you'd probably better not touch it."
Albus looked inside and immediately the skin of his face matched his beard. "Where..."
"I was led to Voldemort's personal cache from when he was a student. That was next to it."
"What is it?" Severus asked.
"Rowena's diadem," James told him. "Layered in recent dark magics I know she didn't enchant it with."
Albus cast a few spells and closed his eyes.
Severus looked between them, not quite understanding.
"He's not quite mortal yet, I think," James whispered to him.
The blood sang in his ears.
The next thing he was really aware of, James had forced him to lean forward and was holding him up with an arm around his shoulders.
"Not doing it again," Severus finally managed to get out. "Bad enough the first time."
"I rather think you should be out of the room entirely when we manage to destroy it, Severus," Albus told him gently. "Best that if he felt the effect through you that he think we only found one."
"And how can we destroy it?" Severus felt himself getting frantic. "I can't cast Fiendfyre again, basilisk venom costs more per ounce than my salary and he'll know if we buy any..."
James was grinning. "I can confirm he was the one who opened the Chamber Of Secrets. And that Salazar's own basilisk familiar is apparently still down there."
Severus trailed off, feeling his eyes grow wide, as James pulled a vial out of the bag he still held. "He stockpiled it, outside the Chamber. I think there's more than a pint here, all under a century old and milked from a positively ancient beast."
He handed the vial to Severus, and he gently rolled it in his hand.
A thin translucent rock cylinder, carefully sealed in ways that would prevent the venom from eating through the plug, containing enough death for all the students and staff at Hogwarts.
Or, in combination with the right substances with reversing effect qualities in very particular ways, enough life to save them from Death's own doorstep.
And from Slytherin's own personal familiar...
"Keep it," James said quietly.
"No. We need it to destroy that thing."
James chuckled. "Hold the bag."
Severus stared at him, before finally extending his hand.
The unexpected weight jerked his arm down.
Severus couldn't help staring at the bag.
"They're all roughly the same weight and volume, so I don't think giving a former head of Slytherin a bit of a relic of his founder is going to be too much of a problem."
"Safer, actually," Albus offered. "Hopefully he stopped at two. If he did not, best our hopes of destroying them are distributed so that no one disaster forces us to use Fiendfyre ever again."
Severus stared at it in his hand, mind perfectly willing to find anything else to focus on besides the Dark Lord's continued immortality.
Venom from the familiar of the very first potions instructor of Hogwarts, from long before the official mastery system had been instituted.
I know potions originally formulated using you, he thought with awe. Not that he'd ever been able to afford brewing them himself.
Then, he grinned. "James, unless you really want her to throttle you in your sleep if or when she finds out I've got one, you really need to give Lily one of these."
Albus seemed deep in thought. "Perhaps this time our potions mistress should be the one to have the honor," he suggested.
It would mean letting her in on the secret, but Severus nodded. "I've killed one, and James has seriously wounded him in the flesh."
"And Sirius gets the next one," James added. "If, Merlin forbid, there is a next one."
Severus stared at him, and from the corner of his eyes he could see Albus' eyebrows migrating toward his hairline.
"Two is as many as have ever been completed successfully, James," Albus told them with the authority of being the only one in the room actually educated on the subject. "They require splitting the soul and sacrificing some magical potential."
"I know. I read." James still seemed sure, and Severus shivered. "But he's controlling, and determined, and still strong. I think he's got more control of his total magic than most ever learn. And he's been having the Death Eaters do all of the actual fighting."
"He's still strong," Severus told him. "He can still cast Unforgiveables multiple times without resting for long."
"Including the Imperius Curse? Or just killing and torturing?"
Severus thought about it. "Only for a few minutes, in punishment. And not over distance. He has... specialists for that. He prefers the Cruciatus Curse."
James wrapped an arm around his shoulders again, and Severus knew the next question wasn't going to be one he'd like answering.
"And you told me when we all got trapped here that he prefers short-bursts of the curse, rather than a sustained session?"
Severus nodded. "Counted in seconds, not portions of a minute. Still feels like forever."
James nodded, and there was satisfaction in his eyes. "When Crouch allowed the Aurors to start using Unforgiveables against Death Eaters," he began, "we were all told that multiple short uses of that curse actually use less power than maintaining one use of equal length. But that's only usually a concern in active combat for someone with the kind of power and potential he showed as a student. Out of combat, he shouldn't feel the difference."
Albus was nodding grimly. "Unless he no longer has that power and potential left."
"And there's something else," James added in a voice that made it very plain he'd only just realized. "He learned how before the books left the library. We don't know how young he really was when he made these. If he was young enough, he'd have learned to compensate more easily than someone with more magical experience. According to that book, most who try are middle aged or older and feeling their mortality at the natural time for it. How young did he commit his first murder?"
Albus looked away from them. "I wasn't headmaster until after he took his NEWTs and left. I wasn't his head of house, and I never had the sort of proof Dippet would have accepted..."
"How young?" Severus repeated.
"Fifteen," Albus Dumbledore breathed. "Here. At Hogwarts. Myrtle, the ghost in one of the girls' lavatories. At least, I believe that was the first time. He didn't show the emotions even the darkest of wizards tend to show after a first kill." He thought for a moment. "There's one other possibility. I'll have some research to do into his background, quietly. It's been a long day for everyone. Perhaps it will do no harm to wait a few days before explaining everything to Lily."
"Make it a week," Severus whispered. "The latest Wolfsbane attempt will be over and analyzed by then. Having two distracted potioneers in one laboratory is asking for a disaster."
"I'm giving her a vial tonight, though," James said. "I don't have to tell her exactly how we came into it yet. That will spread it into three locations. It should only take a drop or three for each, so any one vial should be able to destroy all he could possibly make without killing himself outright."
Albus nodded his agreement.
Lily Evans Potter stared at the vial in her hand.
"This can't be what I think it is, James. Tell me it isn't."
"It is," Severus piped up. "From Salazar's own."
"We'll tell you later," James promised with a kiss.
She was suddenly very glad that Harry and her cat were napping in his bedroom. It meant she didn't have to explain what a basilisk was.
And that made her maternal view of the world flare up. "Please tell me it's not still around."
"We don't actually know if it still is or not," James said carefully. "But it doesn't seem able to wander on its own, so roaming the castle under control of a wizard once in the thousand years since its master left doesn't seem like the kind of track record that would put us or Harry in danger."
"And if the wizard who let it roam then returns to Hogwarts, we've got bigger problems," Severus added darkly.
She thought for a moment before standing and moving for the door. "I'm putting this in the locked ingredient cabinet in our private lab. Maybe having something closely linked to Salazar in the room will give us a bit of luck."
She marched off, and a matter of moments later she walked into their lab.
One stasis spell and a swiftly scrawled time on their research notebook later, and she was screaming, "Severus!" into the summer stillness of the castle.
He walked in a few minutes later, followed closely by James, something very tired in his eyes.
Then, they brightened and widened. "No," he breathed.
"Yes. We'll need to test and analyze it, but..."
"What?" James asked.
"It looks and smells like the fabled potion we're trying to recreate," Lily told him. "It looks like we were over-brewing the entire time. Now, we may not have the right combination of ingredients, but if we retry some of the failed recipes we thought would work that failed with the longer brewing period..."
"This might just be the breakthrough we've been looking for," Severus finished. He took a few deep breaths, pulling a stool against the wall and sitting down. "How long do you think the stasis will hold?"
Of course, she thought with a flash of guilt. Fiendfyre. And whatever led to the venom from Salazar's basilisk. Long day.
She met James' eyes, and James nodded.
Another night on the hideaway then. It wasn't a privilege Severus used all the time, but it simply made sense for him to spend the night on the Potter side of the dual quarters when he was sick, drained, or going through a terrified emotional spell she was certain was an after-effect of extended cruciation. Otherwise, he was alone with no way for anyone to so much as check on him without entering his personal space, possibly with no chance of getting permission first.
And it didn't help that Severus simply could not go to the Hospital Wing, not unless he wanted to risk life imprisonment in St. Mungo's locked mental care ward. If he were in need of any medical care at all, he was sleeping on the hideaway for the duration with Poppy making as few housecalls as she could get away with to keep the required records as nonexistent as possible.
So the hideaway sofa he'd spent early November 1981 sleeping on was unofficially his, and the few times he'd expressed unease at the arrangement it had always been over something a quick reminder that he was considered part of the family now and family looked after family could dissipate.
Besides, no one stayed up with him unless he was having trouble with or not supposed to do any walking. Otherwise, whenever one of the Potter adults woke with the urge to check on Harry there was simply another room added to the inspection circuit.
"A few days, maybe. At least two. Long enough for you to rest." She opened the safe with combined magical and Muggle locks they used for particularly expensive or dangerous ingredients and stowed the little vial inside, tucked into the very back. "Let's get you home, Sev."
"Don't let Lupin know," Severus warned James after dinner that night, while Lily was off getting Harry ready for bed and he was settling in so that if he fell asleep while talking the Potters could just wander out quietly instead of having to wake and move him. "Not until we've found a formula worthy of human testing."
James raised an eyebrow. "Why not? He's been waiting for good news ever since you and Lily announced you'd found the flaw in Belby's methodology and were taking on the potion reconstruction yourselves. And with everything else..."
"That's the whole point. If we are wrong, or if it takes years yet, and it easily could even if we are successful..." Severus shook his head. "It's not worth getting his hopes up."
"And since when do you worry about getting a Marauder's hopes up?" James asked quietly. Even with all that had happened over the past few years, there was still a clear barrier there. Things between Sirius and Severus could still get tense incredibly fast, and James had rarely seen Remus and Severus in the same room since that harrowing Halloween.
"Since what happened was mainly you and Black, plus that rat urging you on. A working potion would mean a complete upheaval of the laws concerning werewolves. He knows it, I know it, Lily knows it. His life would change, and not just in the sense of not facing a transformation every month and coming back to himself with a few more scars." Severus leaned back, sinking further into the padding of the sofa. "It's better he just knows we're still working on it instead of being personally affected by every single failure."
James gave him a grumpy look.
"Think of it this way, Gryffindor," Severus explained with a sly look that made it all too clear that he had not only been Sorted Slytherin but had once been Head of that house, "it will not hurt him to not learn the details of our research and there is nothing he can do until we need a willing test subject. And as I intend to be much more conservative about the testing risks than he will likely want to be, the less said about our progress the better until we need him to be our test subject."
"You're actually trying to protect one of us Marauders from emotional upset?"
"Willing subjects for research into lycanthropy are rare. It's not a comfortable process for the werewolf, even if the only goal is a saliva sample. Best if he still has his hopes up when we do finally have something worth testing."
"...What does it take?" James asked, very cautiously. "I, well, I haven't read up on that. Intentionally."
Severus gave him a knowing look. "Because it's part of the darker aspects of magical life that you don't like thinking too hard about, I presume?"
James nodded, looking away. "I don't need to do it, there's no way around it without unnecessary risk to everyone involved, so why have to think about it?"
"Because I'll need you there, and so will he." Severus shifted a bit, getting more comfortable for the explanation. "He has to be bound well before the transformation in such a way that he will remain restrained after it without the change harming him. And he must stay that way until his mind's completely back, which can take hours after the physical transformation..."
"...back to fully human. I know. I've been there with him on the full moon."
"And that will need to happen once for a baseline, then once per tested formulation, and then a longer series if we find one that appears workable. The process will take at least a year, and in the summer at this latitude... It's not going to be a good experience for him."
"And he's already volunteered to let you do this to him?" James asked.
Severus nodded. "So long as we think we've got it right."
James sighed. Severus did have a point, and the less anticipation worrying Remus did, the better. "I won't tell him." He stretched. "Are you sure you're going to be all right tonight?"
"I'm drained, but I should be fine."
"I didn't mean the Fiendfyre."
Severus paused before answering. "Mum's alive. And wherever he is, he's proud of the man I've become. That's enough. It's more than I had this morning."
"You've got us, too," James reminded him quietly. "And together, we'll find all of them."
Severus smiled weakly in a way he wouldn't have a few years before and nodded with something that in better circumstances might have been not entirely unlike contentment.
"Do you think you need the sky?" James asked. "Not now, of course, but..."
"Next new moon?" Severus mumbled, eyes nearly shut.
"Next new moon."