NEAR GAIRLOCH, HIGHLANDS, SCOTLAND
There was a busy early-morning scene out of doors. Abrupt bell-like calls from nearby scrub-jays invaded the privacy of Severus's thoughts. The navy blue birds were battling enthusiastically at the edge of the windowsill, trilling insults at each other. In the distance, stray dogs barked in a much less antagonistic manner. Severus stood at the window, thinking about the progress he had made last night, if it could be called that, and about the later meeting. He started as the house came alive, foremost with the twins barreling down the stairs, making a ton of racket, as usual.
"Breakfast! Oi—breakfast! Don't dawdle! Peaky, ehhh, Longbottom?"
Ruckus, shouts, and short bursts of laughter echoed from the hallway outside his door. Severus scowled. He only stayed at the Weasleys' safe house on the nights before meetings, but he was tempted to give it up. The convenience wasn't really worth it.
Severus changed clothes slowly despite the fact that he was starving. He hadn't had time yesterday to eat after lunch and when he'd arrived back in Scotland, he'd been too tired to do anything but slowly climb the stairs and then fall asleep on top of his bed. But he'd rather go hungry for a bit than eat with that lot. Molly was always kind enough to save him a generous helping and to keep the coffee hot.
When Severus finally went downstairs, he found the landing and the dining room mostly empty. His shoulders relaxed a bit and he sat down at the head of the table, allowing Molly to pour him a steaming cup of coffee. Her hand was shaking and she set a heaping plate of mealy pudding, toast, and scrambled eggs before him. He nodded at her. "Thank you."
Molly adjusted her apron and then sat down in the empty chair next to him. She leaned against the edge of the table, turning her wedding ring around and around on her finger anxiously for a few seconds. She opened her mouth, clamped it shut, pursed her lips, and then looked out the window.
Severus raised an eyebrow at her. "Molly, will you kindly stop your worrying? You're going to give me indigestion."
Molly snorted, shaking her head, but she couldn't help the wobble in her voice as all of her worries came tumbling out. "This is a mistake. What if—what if when it happens, we're massacred? I couldn't stand," she paused, then whispered, "I've only three left. What if everything goes wrong?"
Severus opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sudden appearance of two more people in the dining area. With an inarticulate sound, somewhere between a grunt and a snort, he turned back to his food and started tucking in.
Ginny sat down next to her mom and reached for her hand. "Mum, it's going to be okay. We've been training like mad. We're strong. Voldy's ranks have no idea—"
Severus spluttered into his coffee. His voice rose indignantly, "VOLDY?"
Ginny smiled serenely at him. "Yes, quite the ring to it, don't you think? Makes him seem quite tame, somehow. Not near as frightening."
Of all the ridiculous—! Severus resolutely ignored Draco laughing in the doorway. "You—out. All of you. Merlin. Can't a man eat in peace?"
Draco sidled up next to Ginny as she headed out the door. Severus shook his head and glared at Molly until a small smile broke through the worry lines on her face and she stood up.
She sighed. "Quite right, I suppose. I shouldn't worry . . . I can't seem to help—" She shook slightly, but her shoulders squared resolutely and she wiped her eyes with the edge of her apron. Her voice drifted back to Severus as she headed towards the kitchen, "If only Arthur . . . ."
Severus glared down at his eggs and continued eating. Afterwards, he washed off his plate and silverware, preferring to do it the Muggle way at the moment, and dried them off with a towel. As he was pouring himself another cup of coffee, he could hear some of the gathering Order members chatting as they stood near the doorway, waiting for everyone else to arrive. With coffee in hand, Severus left the kitchen and returned to the dining table, taking his customary spot at the head of the table. He nodded at Minerva at the door, then turned his chair a bit towards a nearby window, focusing more on his thoughts than on the growing crowd nearby.
A local Order meeting was scheduled to begin shortly. Several Orders at various locations worldwide met every fortnight, with interchanging members depending upon which country a witch or wizard was in at the time. The Board, the organization of all of the top-ranked Order members from around the world, met all together once a month. The Board's meetings were much more formal, and if Severus was honest, suited him more.
On the other side of the room, Minerva stood tall, clutching her hat in her hand, and was asking Colin Creevey how his devices were coming along and how his week had been. Colin was working on extra security systems for safe houses, a magical variation of a security camera, and he was enthusiastic as he explained that he had gotten all of the bugs sorted out and had five ready to go, patting his leather backpack affectionately, and planned to finish several more in the next week.
Neville sat silently, his mind far away. He couldn't seem to stop separating himself from the group, even his lifelong friends, since his rescue from The Tower three months earlier. The lanky boy was all tense lines where he was resting in an armchair in a corner of the room. Everyone talked around him, chatting, laughing, but he tuned them out. He couldn't feel anything, and while he knew that that should scare him, he couldn't manage the fear either. He rested his head back against the chair and closed his eyes. He did feel tired. That was something, he supposed.
Severus rubbed his forehead wearily. It had been a long night and the meeting promised to be a headache. New to the Order, McLaggen was likely going to be difficult, and Molly and the twins weren't going to be happy either.
The young hothead strolled through the open doorway, with Amelia and Susan Bones right behind. Victor Krum, Tonks, Nikolai Korsakov, Ginevra, Fred, George, Molly, Draco, Neville, Isa Bocelli and Septima Vector brought up the rear and began to gather around the magically- enlarged table.
Severus ignored the small talk as everyone finally took their seats. In the meantime, he waited for the rest of the senior members of the original Order to arrive.
Hagrid ducked under the door frame a minute later, out of breath, and there was a lively din while he was welcomed.
Finally, Aberforth and Kingsley trailed in, took the last two seats, and Severus glared around the table at them all, effectively shutting them up.
No one spoke.
That's more like it, Severus thought.
"I have been continuing my research," Severus began, quite reluctantly. He was not at all happy about the outcome. "Unfortunately, the potion that the Dark Lord wants is possible to create. I brewed it successfully last night. I will stall as long as possible, but we need to be prepared for the eventuality that there will come a day when the odds are stacked against us much more than they are now. Vector," Severus withheld a sigh and made eye contact with the dark-haired witch a few feet away, "update us on the matrix."
Severus took his seat and followed the dialogue as he mentally went over the inevitable outcome when the Dark Lord was given the Potion of the Empty Soul. It would make his progress with the Inferi look like child's play. The potion acted as a Dementor's Kiss, in a way, smothering the victim's soul, but instead of leaving an empty vessel, the mind would remain. Victims would essentially lose everything that made them who they were, but would be perfect soldiers, willing to follow the Dark Lord in every way. No consciences to slow things down, no regret to turn their loyalty, no fear to hold them back. It made the hairs on the back of Severus's neck stand up just thinking about what could happen.
He had been commissioned with the creation of the potion eighteen months ago and now that he had successfully stabilized the potion's recipe, he could feel the remaining days ticking away. The Dark Lord was already impatient, and the only thing that could aid in a delay would be a distraction.
As if in direct correlation to his thoughts, Septima Vector's summary was not encouraging, to say the least.
"The numbers have been inconsistent lately; that has been an issue for a few months now, but anonymous lines are complicating matters-"
"Anonymous?" Krum asked, his forehead crinkled.
"Sì," Isa Bocelli, Septima Vector's sister, answered. "It's a peculiarity of Arithmancy; occasionally factors will show up in your equations when you don't consciously add them. We're knackered; the two of us have been up all week trying to figure out what or who they are and what the implications could be."
"How many are there?" Molly asked.
Septima met Isa's eyes and then squared her shoulders. "Four."
Isa stood and joined her sister at the front of the room. "We are fairly certain now that each of these lines represents an individual person. And," she paused, meeting Septima's brown eyes in the low light, "we think that one of them is Severus."
Severus's brow furrowed. "I am already represented."
"Ye-e-es," Septima admitted and then paused. "But then, we made a startling discovery this morning. Your equation as it was is gone; and Isa made the connection that one of these new equations is almost identical to yours except for a few alterations, although . . . the line is now a completely different color."
Severus ignored the sharp stare from McGonagall and the many curious looks he was gathering from everyone, and frowned.
Septima pried, "Do you feel any different, Severus?"
He glowered at her and his temper rose when she smiled. "I find I am more irritated at the moment than I had been when I woke up this morning. And that's saying something."
Septima broke out into a grin. Confound that woman! What was with the teasing light in her eyes?
Isa watched him curiously. "Did you know, Severus, that only something truly monumental could cause the shade of your line to change? Much like when a wizard's Patronus changes, this takes something very . . . integral to who you are."
After an interminable silence, Isa continued. "For example, falling in love . . ." but she stopped short at the black look on Severus's face.
Titters traveled around the table.
Oh, right, hilarious, Severus thought. That's wonderful.
"Wipe that smile off of your face this instant, Vector," Severus hissed. "Idiotic women. Of course you wouldn't consider that it means that I might be forced to drink an altering potion, one created by my own hand?" His hard eyes cut the two Arithmancers to the quick and they straightened, suitably chastened.
"Ah, right," Septima eventually muttered, the playful light gone from her eyes. She and Isa had spent a happy few hours wondering who Severus might be destined for. There had been a bottle of wine involved, naturally, but now she saw quite clearly that they were reacting to the equation in the entirely wrong direction. "Porca vacca."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Indeed." He cleared his throat and, deflated, Vector and Bocelli retook their seats.
His only physical response to the news was a sudden numbness in his hands. He flexed his fingers under the table and forced himself to sit up straight. He had schooled his features for so long that there was no visible reaction noticeable on his face, but inside, he felt sick. It must happen soon if it was already affecting the Arithmancy Matrix.
Silence reigned at the table for a time until McGonagall cleared her throat. "It is imperative, Severus, that you only deliver the potion after you've created a successful antidote."
Severus nodded. Of course. He was already working on it.
The meeting was further derailed a moment later when McLaggen spoke up after several back-and-forth whispers with the twins, who he was sitting next to. "Do you mean to tell me that you're going to turn traitor again, give away all of our secrets, and probably turn into He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's greatest weapon? And we're just going to let you sit here?"
McLaggen's outburst did not garner the reaction that he expected.
The table grew tense and quiet, and Cormac glared down the table at Snape, who met his gaze squarely, his stare colder than an arctic gale. Cormac didn't flinch, but many would have. Instead, his temper continued to rise and he almost shook in his chair from rage. The world had gone to hell and the Order was next, that was clear enough. Merlin, why did his timing have to be so ridiculously bad?
McGonagall looked down her glasses at McLaggen, her stern eyes making him sit up straighter than ever in his seat. "The circumstances are less than ideal, but Severus Snape is beyond reproach, even," her eyes grew a bit hard, "from the likes of you. Where there is a problem, we will find the solution. We don't toss people out like trash." She paused. "Not even when their mouths work faster than their brains." She spared a look at the Italian sisters, though it was not unkind, just of the reminding sort. Cormac's hands balled into fists under the table. How dare she! He barely heard her next words, but tried to focus around the red that was encroaching upon his vision. "Perhaps now would be a good time to assign our new junior members?"
"Indeed." Severus paused and his hard gaze upon McLaggen turned reflective and he had to repress a smirk. These meetings were the bane of his existence, this was true enough, but they had their moments. He was going to enjoy this. "Shall we start with our outspoken champion for the cause himself? McLaggen, you will join Victor Krum and Colin Creevey at Safe House Four. Your duties will include scouting, rescue operations, as well as caring for those refugees under Number Four's roof." Severus ignored the look of contempt that McLaggen was throwing Creevey's way and turned towards the twins. He should have separated them a hundred years ago. "Fred, you are joining Number Four's team as well." The twins started and began to protest, but Severus cut them off. "I expect the four of you to work together fluidly as a team. Krum and Creevey are in charge. They'll guide you through the particulars after the meeting." He turned to the other Weasley twin. They were staring at him with identical looks of alarm on their freckled faces. "George, you will be joining Safe House Three, working alongside Longbottom, McGonagall, and Miss Lovegood. Report to McGonagall in regards to your new duties." Severus withheld a sigh at the glowering looks aimed in his direction. The twins had almost bungled several rescue missions because they wouldn't focus on the task alone when they worked together. Enough was enough. "Ginevra, I expect you to step up and take over the Messrs. Weasley's duties here at Number Two. Report to me after the meeting and we'll go over specifics." At the youngest Weasley's nod, Severus stood. There was only so much meeting that he could take. "If that is all? I have to get back to work."
Cormac pushed away from the table, a growl building in his throat as he unfolded his long body, a fierce scowl highlighting his features. He was burning up. He began to unbutton the top few buttons of his shirt and began dividing his way through the small crowd towards the front door.
They couldn't really expect him to work with that lot! Cormac's face, red with his growing temper, darkened as he glared around at the congregated group, though he didn't bother making eye contact with anyone. What a ragtag group of imbeciles.
Colin Creevey, as short and as bubbly as he had always been, bounced over to Cormac with a wide grin. "Hello, Cormac! I didn't get a chance to say hi to you earlier. It's good to see you!" Colin ignored Cormac's baleful and affronted stare and continued on blissfully. "I am looking forward to working together. You'll like the house. How have you been? How is your family? Has . . ." Colin paused, a flicker of hurt appearing on his expressive face as Cormac just turned and stalked off, ignoring both him and his rapid-fire questions.
Er, well, maybe he's having a bad day, Colin thought amicably and turned towards Krum who was standing quietly nearby. "Hello, Viktor. Have you had a good day? I know you've been busy."
Krum nodded at Colin, looking over his shoulder at McLaggen, who had thrown open the door and gone outside into the bitter wind, one would presume, to cool off. McLaggen was yanking on the collar of his shirt and undoing the buttons on his shirt sleeves, rolling them up to his elbows. He looked to be growling under his breath. Krum's eyes narrowed. "Vat one iz goingz to be trouble," he muttered, feeling a tension headache building.
Colin looked over his shoulder and out the window to where McLaggen was pacing across the porch, his face stormy at best. "He's not so bad."
Krum snorted. "Creevey, you vould think vat Voldemort iz not so vad."
Colin grinned, teasing. "I am sure he has his good days and his bad days."
ALLERFORD, SOMERSET, ENGLAND
Hermione stood stock still in the kitchen, where she had been washing dishes. The doorbell rang again.
"Hello! Hello?" an old, trembly voice called out.
Christie left the bathroom, drying his hands on a hand towel as he approached the front door. His bright sea-green eyes met Hermione's startled ones as he passed by the archway leading into the kitchen, and then he was out of her sight, and, she realized with rising panic, answering the door.
"Mrs. Chaikin! Mrs. Schultz!" Christie exclaimed warmly, stepping back. "Let's get ye in ou' o' this nasty weather. Wha' brings ye here?" Christie led them in towards the kitchen, enthusiastically stomping the snow off of his heavy boots and ignoring Hermione's panicked and imploring eyes.
"Wallll, hello, dear!" one of the old ladies cried as she noticed Hermione at the sink. "You must be Christie's neice, Brigidette!" The two ladies convened around Hermione and started shaking her hand and asking her how she was enjoying their small corner of Somerset.
"Oh, er," Hermione paused, staring around bemusedly, "it's lovely, of course, I am enjoying it here very much." She smiled, but her gaze was sharp upon Christie, full of warning, and he chuckled, clearly enjoying himself.
"We were very sorry to hear about your parents, dearie," little old lady on the right said, her blue, blue eyes staring at Hermione from beneath her large framed glasses.
Hermione managed to make small talk for a few minutes, shooting warning glances in Christie's direction every chance she got, and when the two were situated at the kitchen table awaiting a cup of tea, Hermione snagged Christie's shirt as he tried to make his way around her. Turning her back on the little old ladies, Hermione laid the full force of her darkest scowl on Christie's unrepentant face and hissed, "Brigidette?!"
Christie waggled his eyebrows at her, grinning all the while. "Aye, lass, a simple name doesnae suit ye," he whispered. "Shall I make the tea?" he asked after a moment, gesturing to the teapot held aloft in her hand.
Hermione huffed. "Nevermind. I'll make it." And she shooed him away.
Hermione got the water ready for the tea and shook her head. Christie was too precocious by half. She couldn't help but smile the tiniest smile, though.
She knew, she did, that someone was bound to come over at some point or see her through a window; it was better to have a story in place, it was true. But, Merlin, she would have appreciated it if he had warned her. She shook her head and sighed, then turned around with a smile as the teapot started whistling.
She and Christie were going to have a little talk later.
A/N: Thank you to my beta, DavrosFan, for all of his amazing input and behind-the-scenes plotting! And thank you guys, so much, for reading! I check my traffic stats with joy, hehe.
*porca vacca literally means "pig cow" in Italian, LOL, but is used as a light expletive to mean "Crap!"