A/N: Anything you recognize belongs to JKR. Again, I have to thank my amazing beta team, because you guys are great and I couldn't have done this without you. And thanks to YOU... yes, you the one who's staring at the computer screen, not the person behind you... for reading this!
Marlene was waiting for Dorcas again for the second morning in a row at the ground floor of the Ministry. She walked with her to the lifts, noticeably rounder and wearing comfortable flats instead of her favorite set of work heels. Dorcas gave her friend a smile. Marlene still wasn’t ready to give up her job, even with her due date getting closer. Even if it was sitting behind a desk all day. “Moody’s taking this whole thing very seriously,” she told Dorcas. “We’re supposed to go up in pairs or more. He has the whole floor secured and the rest of the building on alert.”
“Didn’t we do this yesterday?” Dorcas had immediately passed on Severus’ information about the plans to attack the Ministry to Moody. She wasn’t aware of how to get past the Ministry defenses, but that wasn’t her specialty. Moody had wanted to speak to her informant personally, not trusting anyone farther than he could hex them, but Severus had refused. Maybe after this was over, he might change his mind. He’d be a good addition to the Order, she thought. If his information was correct, Moody might ask for him again.
Of course, Moody was pretty upset that no one knew who the Death Eater informant was or exactly how they were getting in. Speaking of…
“Who’s not here yet?” Dorcas asked, wondering if the informant could be spotted by his absence.
“About half the staff. We’re early yet.” Marlene reached the lift doors first. “Get in. I’m on point.”
She wanted to argue because of Marlene’s condition, but let it go. This was the most excitement Marlene had had in months and Dorcas guessed that she was rather enjoying herself for once. Besides, Dorcas’ defensive shields were stronger than her offensive spells. She’d be more useful that way.
The lift stopped at the Auror’s Department and Marlene motioned for Dorcas to stay where she was. After Marlene made sure the way was clear, they were met with nods from the rest of the staff, who all had their wands at the ready, looking for anything suspicious or out of place. “Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of a sneak attack?” she whispered to Marlene as they made their way down the hall. No one had gotten any work done yesterday because of all the precautions that had been taken.
“Better safe than sorry. He said we have to be on guard constantly. And this makes for a good drill anyway.” She shrugged.
Marlene had reacted that same off-handed way when Dorcas told her about Mr. McKinnon becoming Karkaroff’s new target. She said that her father-in-law had been expecting some sort of retaliation for ages and was well-prepared. But it didn’t stop Dorcas from worrying about her best friend’s family.
Dorcas made her way to her desk, starting a list of recent no-shows in her head that she should look into as soon as possible. She checked desks as she passed through. The first empty one she found belonged to Rookwood. Strange, she couldn’t remember seeing him all week, and she still had questions for him regarding Mr. Burke.
She got to her desk and checked her belongings. Her snow globes stood in their little row on the shelf, undisturbed. Her papers were in neat stacks and her folios were alphabetically organized in the bookshelf. Nothing seemed out of place.
She took extra time to put her stacks of loose papers in a drawer just in case and rearranged her quill and ink set. Then she thought better of it and put that in the drawer too. She took a moment to stare at her empty desk. “An eternal optimist would find something positive to say about all of this,” she muttered to herself.
Suddenly she lost her breath as she was yanked out of her chair from behind and to the floor. “Stay down,” Marlene whispered into her ear before she could react. “The silent alarms were tripped.”
“I didn’t even hear you come over,” Dorcas whispered back, catching air in gasps.
“Shh.” They crouched behind Dorcas’ desk for what was the longest minute in her life while she tried to stay dead still. Then she heard it.
The distinctive cracks of apparition echoed through the office. She counted four of them.
The next thing they heard was Moody shouting, followed by colliding hexes at the end of the hall. Heavy footsteps were coming towards them and before she knew it, Dorcas had her wand in her hand.
She saw two robed men run by them and after they passed, she stood, ignoring Marlene’s tug at her robe, and took a shot with a silent spell. She missed, glancing a blow off the Death Eater’s shoulder.
He whirled around, his face hidden behind an ugly grimacing skull, and returned fire. She anticipated his response and ducked, but still felt a twinge on her upper arm as the hex rebounded off the cubicle wall and brushed past her.
She aimed straight at him and shouted her attack, not taking any chances with her unpracticed wordless spells.
Her shot hit the man’s chest and he staggered back a step, but it was too weak to take full effect. His wand pointed straight at her, but then she felt Marlene’s shield go up around them and was thankful that her friend had chosen to stay hidden behind the desk. Dorcas braced herself for the attack, adding her own Protego to Marlene’s, knowing that it still might not hold.
The Death Eater hesitated.
A jolt hit him in the middle of his chest and he toppled over backwards into an empty cubicle as Moody came running up to them. “That was the last of them.” The man down the hall dropped a moment later. “We got three. The one with the cane apparated out when I came to get you two.”
Dorcas froze as the shields came down. “A cane? With a silver tip?”
Moody swore. “That was him? Karkaroff?”
Marlene got up from behind Dorcas’ chair and stretched out her legs and back. “How did they get in? They shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Moody shook his head. “Someone knew too much about our security.” He waved to the man on the floor across the hall. “Identify him before the Mediwitches come. We’ve got the other two and if we can figure out who these blokes are, maybe it will tell us who was behind the attack. And this,” he shook a finger at Marlene, ”is your last day. Tomorrow you start your leave. No more arguments.”
Marlene frowned, rubbing her belly. “Fine.” She looked at Dorcas. “Do you want me to…?”
“No,” Dorcas shook her head. “He was trying to kill me. I need to make sure he’s really dead.”
Dorcas leaned over the twisted body, his cloak caught awkwardly around his limbs. The hood had fallen back a little, revealing a bit of brown wavy hair. A dark red puddle oozed from under his shoulder where he had taken the curse. Moody’s blast had gone right through him. She knelt down and tried to pull herself together, because she would actually see a face under there, and it would put a name to the evil that had tried to take her life.
She grabbed at the mask, forcing her fingers to work before her instincts told her to do otherwise. As soon as it came free, it dropped from her hands and she scrambled back in shock. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from the hollow eyes that stared lifelessly up at the ceiling. She couldn’t move. Didn’t know if she was still breathing.
“Marlene,” she called out weakly, seeing flecks of light as her vision started to tunnel inward. She grabbed at the desk for support. “I…”
“I’ll do it.” Marlene said and stepped forward until she saw the vacant gaze of Josef Graves staring up at the ceiling and the look of shock on her friend. She stopped short. “Oh Dorcas, I’m so… so sorry.”
Malfoy Manor stood out against the sky, a beacon of intimidation. Each of its three levels rose taller than the last, giving it the illusion of having grown from the hill where it sat. Though the mid-February air was cool, Severus swatted away a dab of perspiration from his face with the back of his hand. He’d promised himself that he was through with these people. But the towering rooftop pavilions with their ornate balustrades beckoned and the throbbing stain on his arm wouldn’t allow him to turn away.
He approached the entrance, noting the gleam of freshly polished brass at the top of the stairs. Fresh beads of sweat formed below his hairline as he took a second step, and then another. Dorcas said he should try to get closer to them - the last thing he wanted - exactly the thing he was doing as he climbed the grand stairway to the main entrance.
At the landing, he heard the muffled wailing, presumably from an upstairs room. He looked up at the sealed windows above the entrance as he remembered the pain and the probing and the promises to obey without question.
It was time.
He grabbed the knocker with a slippery hand and let it fall against the door. It opened, and he could clearly make out a high-pitched wail as Lucius ushered him in. "Severus. How nice to see you."
As they climbed the stairs to the upper level, Severus threw a nervous look down the long gallery hall, trying to locate the source of the sound. “Am I late?”
His host ushered him into a private sitting room and closed the door, cutting off the noise. "Not at all. My son is resisting his afternoon nap." Lucius walked over to the bar, his usual stately demeanor lessened by a weary frown. He poured himself a drink. "Would you like something?"
Everything you’re not telling me. "No." he replied, trying to remain civil. “Thank you.”
Severus’ arm was still burning with the summons when he stepped back into the gallery hall and met up with Avery and others he recognized from unnamed meetings over the years. He rubbed absently at the receding discomfort of his mark, barely visible after the burns had healed, but apparently still quite functional.
He scanned the faces around him, some resolute, others fearful and trying hard to hide it. These were mostly Malfoy’s men. A few still hadn’t shown - he looked for Rosier and Wilkes, but Karkaroff’s cane was already pointed in the air. He paraded up and down the gallery and berated the lot of them, talking about “expectations” and “infiltration” and issued a demand that “the next mission will not fail.”
Karkaroff had worked himself into a twisted state of rage. He lost no time in blaming everyone present for the failure of his team to cripple the Auror ‘s Department. The three men who’d gone with him, including a new recruit out to prove his loyalty, were dead. And he spent a bit of time going on about Alastor Moody, now that he’d come face to face with the man bent on seeing him fail.
Karkaroff insisted that the Death Eaters had a spy among their ranks.
“Who else knew of this morning’s mission?” he demanded, scanning the room. Severus stared blankly ahead while Avery fidgeted nervously beside him. Karkaroff’s cane clicked on the marble floor as he approached Severus. “You,” he accused, “come with me.”
Severus followed Karkaroff down the hall and into a private office. Karkaroff waited long enough for the door to shut behind them and then turned on Snape. “What do you know?”
“I wasn’t informed of the plan.” Severus spoke quietly, the pit of his stomach clenching. He kept his mind blank as Karkaroff tugged at the corner of his sanity, showing Snape images of the assault on the Auror Office. Severus saw flashing pictures of the Ministry, the Aurors ready with their wands, running down the hall and dodging hexes, a Ministry girl popping up from behind her desk and then a fleeting image of one of the Death Eaters aiming at her from across the hall… he couldn’t tell if she’d been hit or not. Severus caught himself and tried to stop his mind from latching on to anything familiar, but then she was there, sitting at the table with him in the Leaky Cauldron. “You know that girl from the Ministry,” he heard Karkaroff say. Severus flinched inwardly as the image changed to Dorcas arguing with him over a Potions assignment in school as his peers scoffed at him for being paired with a pushy girl. That’s all it is, he kept repeating to himself, giving Karkaroff what he wanted. He didn’t break. He couldn’t.
And then he was cold.
“You didn’t know anything,” Karkaroff agreed and stepped back. “How is the project?”
“On schedule,” Severus reported, shaken. “I was working on it before I was called here. I was hoping to get it farther along by the end of the day.”
Karkaroff squinted at him and Severus felt the uncomfortable tug at the edge of his mind again, probing, searching for confirmation. He relived waking up stiff from sleeping wrong, starting in on his work hours before the shop opened. He remembered pausing briefly to reach for an apple from his robe pocket.
Karkaroff delved deeper this time and Severus reeled from the intrusion, fighting to show him only the lab and Netterheim and the blue vial. When the release came, his head throbbed and he noticed that his hands were shaking.
“Very well,” Karkaroff said, satisfied. “The Potions Master has come to his senses and allowed you to continue your research at the shop.”
Severus took deep breaths. “He said it wasn’t as dangerous once the preliminary tests were over.”
“Yes,” Karkaroff said. “The tests. How unfortunate for you.” He stared hard at Severus, who stood shaken, yet firm in front of him. “It was a necessary intrusion. You may return to your work.”
Severus kept his head down as he left the room. Lucius was leaning against the gallery wall, a slightly relieved expression on his face. He fell into step beside him and put a hand on Severus’ shoulder as a greeting. Severus nodded curtly, forcing his legs to move steadily forward without faltering.
“I was wondering,“ Lucius began. Severus came to a full stop beside him. “...if you’d like to come by later this evening. There are people I would like to introduce to you.”
Severus looked at the man in front of him critically. “Is this a business meeting, or a social gathering?” he inquired.
Lucius removed his hand from Severus’ shoulder. “It is merely an invitation. I thought you might like to take a few hours’ leave from your work.”
"Perhaps another time.”
Lucius eyed him. “Surely you can step away for an evening.”
“I have plans."
Lucius half-smiled. "Another time."
Severus felt a lurch in his stomach and only hoped that his plans wouldn’t include finding Dorcas’ body in the morgue.
Avery brushed by them and paused long enough to give Severus a nasty look. Severus hardly had the energy or the interest to know what lay behind the git’s increasing hostility towards him. If he let himself care, he would feel sorry for the idiot because soon, Avery would have more pressing things to worry about.
Avery knew something he shouldn’t. It was exactly what Karkaroff was looking for, and all he needed was to have an excuse to dig deeper. The man was extremely skilled at uncovering half-truths, almost as good as the Dark Lord himself... fortunately not as good as Severus was at hiding them.
And Severus could do more.
Only a handful of people knew of Severus’ ability to see into the minds of others. Back in school, Severus had gently prodded more than once into Avery’s head and discovered a few of his disturbing hidden habits. Avery was so unfocused, he never felt a thing. (If they hadn’t messed with Severus’ socks, he wouldn’t have slipped up and said anything and his dorm mates would never have been the wiser…) Severus didn’t find it necessary to cause pain. The things people feared the most were often floating just beneath the surface.
Karkaroff didn’t waste effort on easing his way in when he dug for the truth, often pushing hard if he encountered resistance. Severus had withstood the intrusion with significant resolve and willpower because he had the skills and years of practice. But Avery had no talent at mind games and hardly the resolve to withstand the least bit of discomfort. Karkaroff would tug mercilessly at Avery’s insecurities to uncover the slightest hint of betrayal. Each thread of doubt would be traced to its source, and Karkaroff wouldn’t stop until he had pulled out all the facts, even the ones Avery had forgotten. He’d force his way into Avery’s mind and twist it inside out until he was satisfied.
Whatever was left of him would need hours, perhaps days to recover.
Severus continued down the hall as the door behind him snapped shut with Avery inside and the hall grew quiet. Knowing what was coming next, he quickened his pace in the momentary silence. As he reached the stairwell he heard it: the low moan, the rise in pitch and volume like a hoarse banshee. By the time he stepped into the front hall, he winced as the sound changed – a painful scream. Another moment of silence.
Severus didn’t wait for a house elf to escort him. He let himself out and closed the door behind him, breathing a sigh of relief that he’d come this far and was still able to turn his back on that house and those people as he whisked himself away.
The sky was clear. A gentle breeze wafted over the neatly trimmed grounds of Malfoy Manor and all was still.
Then the true wailing began.
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