Justice For All

by kai

for Josan

March 2005


I.

September 1976

"Albus, how could you?" Minerva nearly shouted.

Head bowed, fingers clenched on the sill, Albus stood at the window of his private quarters, avoiding her glare. "What else can I do?"

"I should think that expelling Sirius Black would make for a good start." Thankfully, there were no portraits on these walls, otherwise, they'd have got an earful.

"No." He shook his head sadly. "That I cannot do."

"Will not, you mean," she snapped back.

He met her eyes; they reflected sadness but also resolve. "We need him too much, Minerva. If I expel him, then his family will swallow him up entirely. Assuming they don't kill him outright and promote Regulus to heir." He took a step towards her and touched her sleeve. "Should we manage to play our hand with care, then we will have the opportunity to divide the House of Black, Minerva. Think on that!"

"Play our hand!" she said, outraged. "This very mess is the result of you 'playing your hand'. Playing favourites, mucking about in pureblood politics, trying to undercut the core of Voldemort's financial and political support." She felt nauseated, recognizing her own complicity in the debacle. She could have been more severe with Potter and Black, been more pro-active, taken a harder line when their antics repeatedly pressed just shy of 'too-far'.

Albus made as if to speak but she cut him off with a sharp gesture. "And I have thought on it, Albus, believe you me," she continued, wishing she could strike that earnest, yet calculating look from his face. "And, as always, I am left wondering how it is that, Grand Cause or no, one Sirius Black is worth more than one Severus Snape?"

He sighed and dropped his hand. "I fear that Severus is already lost to us."

That gave her pause. Though they were being exceedingly discreet, Voldemort's agents were courting many Slytherin students--well outside Hogwarts grounds, of course. But Minerva refused to believe that Severus, as shrewd and street-wise a student as she'd ever encountered, could not see through the promised glory to the blood price they demanded at the back end of their deals. "You don't know that for certain."

"No, but--"

"And if he is not, then this...this justice of yours," she curled her lip, "might be enough to push him over the edge. Have you thought on that? " Abruptly, the fury that had roiled in her stomach all night and into the morning--ever since she'd learned of Black and Snape's 'adventures,' as Albus so delicately called it--uncoiled itself and struck for the jugular. "You took points, Albus," she shouted, "from a boy who narrowly escaped being killed. You gave naught but a caning and a detention--a detention, for Merlin's sake--to the boy who tried to lure him to his death. You then had the temerity to invoke a Life Debt between Potter and Snape for the sole purpose of extorting Snape's silence. And you did not see fit to consult with either student's Head of House beforehand!"

"You well know, Minerva, why I had to act swiftly."

"And you know, Albus Dumbledore, why I am doing my level best not to hex you where you stand!" She took a deep breath; it didn't help. "I appreciate that Lupin's life and freedom are at stake here. I accept that Black's connections can be useful to 'the cause.' That Potter's family, if not the boy himself, may represent a significant strategic advantage to us." And that Snape's lack of family connections, his charity status did him no favours here. "But what I do not accept, what I will not accept," Minerva took a single step closer to Albus and jabbed her finger against his breastbone, "is how you can fail to see what sort of horrific message about responsibility and worth that your actions will send to Misters Snape and Black!"

Albus refused to answer directly. "Potter has promised me that he will keep Black in line in future."

Minerva snorted and turned away lest she truly draw her wand. "Well, then. I feel so much better already."

"There will be no more incidents between the lot of them. They have given me their word."

"Their word, indeed." She looked back over her shoulder. "Talk is, as the Muggles say, very cheap. I realize that you believe you've done the best, for everyone involved. But at the heart of it, this is not fair. This is not justice."

"I know," he said softly. "Believe me, Minerva, I know. And I know how uncomfortable you are with injustice, in any shape it takes. But what else can I possibly do? I can't expel or suspend Black without involving the Board of Governors, and risk sending an entirely innocent boy to his death."

Not to mention getting yourself tossed out of Hogwarts on your ear! Minerva clenched her fists. "What you can do is to make things right."

He cocked his head. "What exactly do you propose?"

She firmed her lips and turned to face him completely. There was something about this situation that sat poorly with her, something beyond the naked injustice of it all. A whiff of something, perhaps of a something-yet-to-come, that, had she been in cat-form, would have had her hackles raised and her teeth and claws bared. "You failed in your duty to protect your students, Headmaster Dumbledore," she said gravely. "You failed Remus Lupin grievously, though you've managed it so he won't suffer fatally for your own mistakes. However, you have also failed Mr Snape most spectacularly, in every way that matters."

Albus stood silently, as if awaiting her judgement.

"And so, you owe him, Albus," she said. "You owe Severus Snape what you stole from him last night to save Lupin's life and to cover your own missteps. You owe him protection and justice, both."

He was silent for a long time, then he nodded slowly. "Very well, Minerva. It shall be as you say. If, and when, the time comes."

"Yes," she said, striding to the door, thoroughly disgusted with the conversation. "I will make certain of that."

*

She took to watching them all carefully in the months that followed.

Potter, at least, seemed to have grown up over-night. There were no more pranks and fewer jokes in class or in the Great Hall during meals. Lily Evans noticed the change as well. She actually allowed Potter to speak to her and to carry her books between classes.

Black was sullen and resentful. Lupin was still giving him a wide berth, though she suspected that he'd come around eventually; he needed his friends, Black in particular. And the two were somewhat 'more than friends,' if rumour had it true. Pettigrew's behaviour, on the other hand, disturbed her. Although so far as she knew, he had played no part in the so-called prank, she still caught him wearing a peculiar, smug expression from time to time when he looked at Sirius or James.

But it was Snape who worried her the most.

Outwardly, he hadn't changed one jot. He was still prickly, still an obnoxious know-it-all in his classes. Still the smartest student with the sharpest tongue and one of the fastest wands when it came to levelling a near-illegal jinx or a hex over some perceived slight or other. Although admittedly, his jibes were a shade more brittle and vicious than they'd been before.

And though it was clear that he hadn't breathed a word of what had actually happened during the night of the last full moon, his few friends--Rosier, Wilkes, and Regulus Black--knew that something was afoot; the consistently cool relations between Gryffindor and Slytherin House had taken on an arctic chill. The number of Quidditch injuries acquired during matches between the two teams had sky-rocketed. But otherwise, the status quo seemed to be firmly in place.

Regardless, something--she wasn't certain what, precisely--was amiss with Severus Snape.

His Head of House, Gilford Riles, could not--or would not--offer any additional insight.

"You know the type, Minerva," he'd told her, late one evening over tea laced with his favourite brandy. "They show up in every house, wizard and witch alike. Socially awkward, not the best-looking or most charming of the lot. Veritable lightning rods for the more popular students to pick at. Merlin's Beard, think about Pettigrew's fate if he hadn't fallen in with Potter and Black! At least Snape isn't doomed to academic mediocrity and has managed to make a few friends in his years here. Unlike that Randolph boy, in Hufflepuff. Or worse yet, that Ravenclaw, Esmeralda Watson."

She frowned. Adam Randolph had been another favourite target of Black and Potter. Evans had put a swift stop to their taunting of Watson in their Second Year. "Yes, but..." she said slowly, struggling to put words to her concern.

"But what? I'd say that he's bounced back remarkably well, given what nearly happened to him." Riles's eyes narrowed with anger. "As you well know, I'm not at all pleased with Dumbledore's decision--allowing a werewolf to attend the school, what was the man thinking?" He snorted in disgust. "But this is the best of a bad situation all around. I know you think the worst of me, Minerva, given my politics and my concern over admitting Muggleborns to Hogwarts." She murmured a protest, but he held up his hand. "But even I recognize how pointless it would be to press the issue, to have the werewolf put down over an attack that wasn't truly his fault. Even if it would force Dumbledore to admit his error."

She bristled at his casual bigotry but deliberately shrugged it off, allowing the discussion to move on to other, less incendiary, matters. Exams, House points, discipline, and Quidditch practice schedules. But in the end, after they'd wrapped up school business and before she departed, she felt compelled to revisit the topic.

"If you notice anything different about Snape, Gilford, anything at all, you'll let me know, won't you?"

He gave her a level look. "And I suppose that 'anything' includes any offers he chooses to accept from 'certain quarters', is that right?"

Minerva held her temper with effort; it would not do to alienate Riles who was, all things considered, rather moderate in his politics. Without his temperate influence, Voldemort's recruiting strategies would have paid much greater dividends in Slytherin House thus far. "No, Gilford. By 'anything' I mean anything worrisome. Behavioural or emotional changes. Difficulties sleeping, eating, increasing isolation."

Which was exactly the wrong thing to say.

"Do not think for one moment, Minerva, that Slytherin House does not take care of its own," he said flatly. "I bid you good night, Deputy Headmistress." Then he pointedly closed the door in her face.

And that was that.

*

Nonetheless, the unease persisted. Enough so that Minerva took to shadowing Snape's movements on her evening jaunts as a feline.

Had he been any other student, she would have likely been doomed to witness numerous trysts in the Astronomy tower, midnight raids on the kitchens, or attempts to sneak into the girls' dormitory. Instead, she spent most of the time in the stacks of the Restricted section and haunting alcoves near the potions laboratories.

Somehow, Gilford had managed to wrangle unlimited access for Snape to the student laboratory after hours; an arrangement that reeked of bribery, blackmail, or both. That Snape was an excellent student would not have carried an ounce of weight with Rainswater; the two wizards thoroughly despised one another. Even as a Fifth Year, the student had far outshone the master. And yet, Snape had the run of the lab, access to the Restricted Section--courtesy of Gilford--not to mention a hall pass allowing him to be out past curfew. Most suspicious.

For several weeks running, he spent every evening in the laboratory. The boy was nothing if not dedicated to his mysterious project. Some nights, one or more of his friends would accompany him down to the dungeons. Other times, he arrived and departed alone, his face and hair a sweaty mess and robes always stinking of charred bats' wings or brimstone.

One evening, on his way to the lab, he encountered the Sixth Year Gryffindor Prefect. Lupin was ostensibly on rounds that evening but had clearly been hoping to chance upon Snape alone.

Their conversation was not pleasant.

Though Minerva twitched with the need to do something, she crouched behind a suit of armour and forced herself to passively witness the exchange.

"Severus, please listen to me," Lupin said, without preamble. "I didn't know. Honestly." The moon was only a few days past full, and the boy was slump-shouldered and haggard with shadows beneath his eyes.

Snape didn't even pause in his stride. "Fuck off, Lupin."

Minerva reflexively itched to take points for language, though she supposed she'd have to give them back since Snape had managed not to draw his wand and hex the other boy into the next week.

Lupin seemed genuinely upset. "Severus, please." He grabbed Snape's sleeve. "If I'd had any idea he would...that he was going to...I would have warned you. I swear it!"

Snape pulled away and whirled on Lupin. The two stared at one another in silence, then finally, Snape spoke in a deadly quiet voice. "For five years you and your 'friends,'" his sneer made the word an insult, "have made my life hell. And for no damned good reason, either. But that night, you all crossed a line."

Snape was only an inch or so taller than Lupin but it seemed as if his presence filled the empty corridor. It struck her suddenly that Severus Snape was no longer a gangly, awkward boy. A 'lightning rod,' in Gilford's own words, for jokes and pranks and ridicule. Somehow, in these past few difficult months, he had become a man.

"Know this, Remus J. Lupin," he was saying softly and with unmistakable menace. "Dumbledore bought my silence that night, but that is--and ever will be--the extent of it. So I'd watch my step if I were you. All of you."

He turned on his heel and swept off down the hallway leaving Lupin standing alone. For a long moment, Lupin looked strangely bereft. Then his expression hardened. He turned and walked back towards Gryffindor Tower, without a backwards glance.

Minerva had suppressed a hiss of concern and dismay; a line had been crossed, indeed.

Tonight, however, Snape arrived at the laboratory alone but did not linger. Eighteen minutes after entering, he exited wearing a hooded black cloak and carrying a small satchel.

She followed him down a rarely used corridor and up a short flight of stairs. He was leaving the castle!

Once outside, he looked around then cast a powerful Disillusionment charm on himself. Fortunately, she could still track him through scent alone.

He swiftly crossed the grounds then entered the Forbidden Forest. An owl hooted softly in the darkness, the Whomping Willow creaked ominously in the wind; Snape hastened his step. Five minutes later, he was well outside the anti-Apparition wards and had paused in a small clearing. Minerva decided right then that things had gone far enough. The boy likely knew how to Apparate and she couldn't risk his getting away. She wanted answers. Immediately.

In an instant, she re-formed as a woman, pointed her wand at Snape, and said, "Finite Incantatem!"

Unexpectedly revealed, Snape froze in the fractured moonlight, wand raised, and clutching the satchel.

"Going somewhere, Mr Snape?"

He scowled but didn't lower the wand. "This doesn't concern you, Professor."

"Expelliarmus!" After a brief magical struggle, Minerva snatched his wand out of the air and smiled thinly, rather surprised to have caught him so unprepared. "A student roaming the grounds long after curfew? Abusing the special privileges granted you by a member of my staff? Of course it concerns me."

"What do you care anyway?" he snarled. "It's not as if I'm one of your precious Gryffindors."

"Every student at this school is precious to me, Mr Snape. Even those who were not sorted into my House." She ignored his snort of disbelief. "Now explain yourself. Why are you sneaking out here past curfew? Where were you planning to go? What are you carrying in that bag?"

He said nothing, merely clutched the satchel in a white-knuckled grip and glared at her mutinously.

"Very well, then. Step lively, Mr Snape." She gestured briskly with her wand. "Back to the castle with you. I'll roust the Headmaster and Professor Riles from their beds and we'll all hash this out in my office."

That got a reaction.

"No!" he blurted. "I can't."

At last, they were getting somewhere. "Can't what, precisely?"

"I can't go back to the castle," he said, obviously frustrated. "Don't you understand? I have to go. If I don't, if I don't arrive on time, then..."

"Then what?" she snapped.

"Then things...things will go badly," he gritted out, as if she were prying each word loose with rusty tongs.

Her stomach clenched. "Badly for whom? For you?" she asked. "Severus, are you in trouble?"

"No!" he said, clearly struggling not to shout. "No, I'm not in any trouble. You don't have to pretend you actually give a shite!" She caught her breath at the bitterness of his words. "But I do have to go. Right now. Give me back my wand, Professor, and let me go."

"Give me one good reason, Mr Snape," Minerva said. "Explain yourself. Explain to me why you have stolen ingredients to--"

"These are not school supplies," he said, outraged. "I purchased them myself, with my own money!"

"Money you've made from these nocturnal jaunts. Yes I see."

"No you don't," he countered. "You don't see anything."

"Then make me see, Mr Snape. Convince me why I shouldn't drag you back to castle and cane you bloody for your actions tonight.

He looked away from her then, off into the darkened woods. The moonlight bleached the colour from his skin. That, coupled with the stark contrast of his hair, the set of his jaw, the hollows of his cheeks and eyes, and his face took on the aspect of a death mask.

Despite herself, Minerva shivered.

All at once, the stiffness drained from his posture; he'd reached some internal decision. He turned back to her with a look of abject misery. "Listen, Professor. If I don't deliver this potion tonight," he said, "if I fail to meet this deadline, then I shan't be paid." Minerva made as if to speak but he spoke over her, his voice a defeated monotone. "Without that money, I cannot pay this month's rent in full. Nor will I be able to pay the healer's or the chemist's fees."

Minerva blinked, utterly flabbergasted. "Rent and medicines for whom, Severus? Are you ill? Surely you realize that Madam Pomfrey will be entirely discreet should you require her services," she said, thinking of any number of unpleasant venereal diseases that a young man--even one so unlikely as Severus--might 'accidentally' acquire. "And no student is required to pay--"

"For my mother, damn you," he spat. "The money is for my mother!"

She took a very deep breath and then exhaled slowly. Like a small number of Hogwarts students, Severus came from an impoverished, though ancient, pure-blooded family. Their branch of the Snapes had suffered greatly from the grandfather's support of Grindelwald. Snape's father was a notorious duellist, gambler, and dabbler in the Dark Arts; his paternal uncle was no better. Mrs Snape, herself, was reclusive and rarely seen in social circles. Even so, Severus's story made no sense. Surely his father would see to any of his mother's expenses, gambling or no. "Explain to me why your mother needs money, Severus. Why you're paying rent of all things, not to mention medical bills."

His expression turned mulish and bleak. "No, I will not tell you that. You do not need to know. I've said more than enough as it is."

"Is this about the incident with Black?" Minerva ventured, still struggling to understand. To the best of her knowledge, Paloma Snape was, at this moment, safe in Keighley, in Yorkshire, with her lout of a husband. Why would she need either money or a healer? "You may not realize this, but I am most displeased with the leniency that the Headmaster has shown in this instance. If you wish it, I will see to it that Mr Black will suffer quite dearly for what he attempted to do to you," she said, feeling nary a pang of conscience that she was countermanding Albus's wishes in this matter.

"No!" Snape said, almost desperately, it seemed. "This has nothing to do with Black. Or Potter. Or any of them. Whatever you do to them will only make things worse. They'd just get in the way even more," he said. "Listen, Professor, I just need to deliver this package. Either let me go or not, but make up you mind about it, for Merlin's sake! All right?"

Outlandish though it seemed, years of dealing with adolescents suggested that, despite his evasions, he was actually telling her the truth.

"Please, Professor McGonagall," he pleaded, no doubt choking on his considerable pride to do so. "Just let me go. I need to go. Listen. I know how it looks. I know you have no reason at all to trust me but...please."

After his outburst, she regarded him steadily, taking in the trembling of his hands, the dampness in the corners of his eyes. All at once, she was reminded of just how young he was. Bluster and posturing aside, he was a full year younger than his peers. Whatever mess he'd got himself into--and she could investigate that later--the fact was that tonight, his need was urgent.

"Very well then," she said at last. "I will let you go, Mr Snape." He inhaled sharply. She held up her hand. "However, if I turn a blind eye to your little side work on Hogwarts grounds--assuming you manage to evade capture by someone less sympathetic to your plight than I am--then you must do something in return for me."

Oddly enough, that seemed to set him at ease. Slytherins and their damned quid pro quo! "Very well," he said, visibly regaining his composure. "Tell me your terms."

"They are, you will find, quite simple," she said, but he obviously braced himself anyway. "If you should ever you find yourself in need, Severus, in need of anything--anything at all, then you will come to me. Is that understood?"

He looked confused "Come to you? That's all?"

"That is enough, I think," she said, holding out his wand.

He took it gingerly then looked her straight in the eye. "Very well, Professor McGonagall. If those are you terms, I shall come to you if I have need. I swear it." From the tone of his voice, she suspected that she would be well into her dotage--or dead outright--if, or when, that time arrived.

Then he raised his wand and Apparated.

The crack of displaced air had barely finished echoing through the trees when an enormous barn owl swept down from the branches overhead to land at her feet. There was a whisper of magic and Gilford Riles took its place.

Minerva raised her eyebrow, though she couldn't honestly say she was much surprised. "Slytherin takes care of its own, is that it, Gilford?"

He nodded gravely. "Yes, Minerva. We do. Even so, I thank you."

Don't thank me yet, she wanted to say, "I'm still not certain I've done the right thing. Instead, she kept her peace and walked back to the castle beside him.

Though Gilford said nothing, the oddly companionable nature of the silence hinted that unknowingly, she'd just passed an especially rigorous test.

II.

DAILY PROPHET - July 22, 1979

"Explosion at Muggle marketplace linked to Death Eater activities"

by Daniel Wexcomb

Terror struck again last week, this time in a Muggle marketplace, just outside of Notting Hill. Sixteen people were killed, including several women and children. The Dark Mark was seen, floating above the carnage.

The Ministry has only just released information of this latest atrocity to the Daily Prophet for an exclusive. According to an anonymous informant within the Ministry, Aurors were forced to Obliviate numerous witnesses at the scene and a statement was issued by Muggle authorities attributing the deaths to an anti-government organization well-known amongst British Muggles for its violent acts.

*

With a final look over her shoulder, Minerva carefully unspelled the door to her small London flat then stepped inside. She sighed and tossed the Prophet on the table in the hallway. The old hedgewitches were right: bad news always came in threes.

First came word of the Ministry crackdown. Curfews in Hogsmeade, selective monitoring of owl post, and expanded powers of search and interrogation for Aurors. Next was the gruesome death of Gilford Riles, whose funeral she had just attended; it seemed that moderates and fence-sitters had no place in Voldemort's vision of the world. And now, this latest bout of Death Eater violence.

Minerva took a deep breath and shrugged out of her formal summer over-robe. The foyer was cool and dark, in marked contrast to the mid-summer heat outside, but her shiver had nothing to do with the temperature. Murders, mutilations, disappearances. Dark Marks hovering above devastated homes and businesses. The wizarding population, running scared and forced to take sides. And at every turn, Voldemort seemed to be one step ahead of the Ministry and the Order. She couldn't help but feel that time was running out, for all of them.

Both wizarding and Muggle mail had arrived in her absence. The former lay in an unruly heap on the table, knocked askew by the newspaper she'd just thrown. The latter lay in front of the mail slot at the bottom of the left-hand sidelight. She sighed once more and gathered up both piles. Best to get all of the bad news out of the way first. Then, early hour be damned, she'd indulge herself in a few fingers worth of Glenmorangie. By Merlin, she'd earned them!

She toed off her shoes and collapsed with relief on the worn sofa in the parlour with the mail beside her.

There were several owls from former students seeking letters of reference; a few letters from parents of current students regarding remedial or advanced coursework for their children; a note from her cousin Duncan, inviting her to a fundraiser for St Mungo's Childrens' Wing, and other, non-urgent miscellany. No Order business, of course. They were far more discreet.

As for the Muggle mail, she had bills, bills, and more bills. Water, electricity, credit cards, taxes. The trials of keeping a flat in a Muggle neighbourhood!

The final piece of mail, however, was a bit out of the ordinary. The envelope was unremarkable, except for the lack of return address. Her title of 'Professor' and her name and address were neatly typed, apparently using a Muggle typewriter, in the centre. A cancelled postal stamp occupied the upper right-hand corner.

Nonetheless, something about that innocuous white envelope made her hair stand on end.

With great care, she set the envelope on her tea table then cast a number of spells in quick succession and increasing complexity and strength.

Ten minutes later, she sat back against the cushions, utterly perplexed.

So. It wasn't a letter bomb, of the sort favoured by Death Eaters out to make a point to the Muggleborn or Muggleborn-sympathizers.

It also wasn't obviously cursed or tainted with Dark Magic. In fact, it contained no magic of any sort, so far as she could ascertain.

Still wary, she walked to the opposite side of the small room, cast a shielding charm, and then pointed her wand at the envelope and said, "Alohomora!"

The flap lifted obediently and a sheet of cheap white paper, of the sort that could be found at any Muggle stationery store, wriggled itself free.

She levelled her wand at the paper again. "Dictatum!"

A moment later, the spell methodically recited the text of the letter and Minerva felt her blood run cold.

Mind your words, the disembodied spell-voice said. There is a spy amongst you.

*

Albus's bushy white eyebrows lifted. "Curious," he said, examining the letter and its envelope. "Very curious, indeed."

"And?"

"And, what, my dear?"

Minerva set her tea cup on the saucer with a firm clink. She'd known Albus Dumbledore a very long time; too long for his bland, unconcerned facade to fool her. "And, what do you think we should do about it?"

"Assuming that it's genuine."

"Yes. Assuming that."

"Well, let us think on that a moment, shall we?"

Minerva cast her gaze skyward. Playing for time, eh, Albus? Since the arrival of the letter had cleared her schedule for the rest of the day, she could go along. "Very well. Let's."

Albus steepled his fingers. "Given that the note is typewritten, we know that this someone is familiar with the Muggle world or Muggle technology."

"Not exactly a short list. We had eight Muggle-born students in last year's class, alone. Not to mention the six who had one Muggle parent."

"True," he said, one long finger tapping the end of his nose. "But why would such a person be knowledgeable enough about Riddle's organization--and the existence of ours, for that matter--to either know of, or deduce the presence of this hypothetical spy within out midst."

"Someone with a foot in both worlds," Minerva mused aloud, then sighed, remembering Gilford. "A moderate perhaps?"

"Riddle and his ilk are not very kind to moderates."

"A pureblood with a guilty conscience, then," she snapped, annoyed with the magnitude of Albus's understatement. He and Gilford had butted heads often enough, over the years, but the man was dead, for Merlin's sake! Even Albus couldn't be so petty as to append a post-mortem, 'I told you so'. "Someone on the fringes of Riddle's camp. Or maybe just far enough in to hear rumours, a bit of boasting over drinks one night."

"Could be, could be." He took a sip of his tea, then leaned back in his chair. "Though, assuming this information is genuine, I can't help but wonder why he or she chose to contact you. I'm a far more obvious candidate, publicly known to be an enemy of Riddle, why not contact me instead?"

It was a question that Minerva had spent a good half-hour considering before she'd finally Apparated to Hogwarts. "Perhaps you're too high profile, Albus. Perceived as unapproachable. Not to mention, you don't have a flat in Muggle Britain." That gave her a shiver. Whomever had sent the letter knew where she lived and was possibly tracking her movements. "It's common knowledge that owl post is being monitored; a letter delivered by Muggle post is less traceable."

"Yes, yes. Possibly." He pursed his lips. "But there are ways around monitoring of owls, if one is sufficiently inventive enough. And he or she must be aware that you are allied with me, that you would bring this matter to my attention. Why choose such a roundabout route?"

Why indeed?

But something about Albus's phrasing gave Minerva pause; she covered her hesitation by taking a sip of tea.

That she opposed Riddle's agenda was hardly a secret. And as Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts, she could certainly be seen as Albus's ally, even if one weren't aware of the existence of the Order. But would she have automatically contacted Albus had the letter contained a less serious warning? Might she have waited to see if the information had borne fruit before alerting him?

Was it a foregone conclusion that she would pass along any future message? Albus was a superb Legilimens, but she'd had many years practice in misdirection as an Unspeakable and as his Deputy. Would her mysterious informant have simply assumed that she would pass along the information?

Was there another, less obvious, but far more significant reason that she'd been chosen?

"Good questions, all, Albus," she said at last. "But, unfortunately, I have no answers. At least not yet. I admit that we could better evaluate the credibility of this information if we knew the identity of our...informant. Regardless, we must consider what steps to take if he is telling us the truth." He; for some peculiar reason, she was certain that it was a 'he'.

"Agreed," Albus said thoughtfully. "Who might our spy be? How might our informant have become aware of his or her duplicity?" He waved his wand and conjured a second pot of tea. "How closely is he associated with us? What sorts of secrets is our spy privy to?"

"Precisely," Minerva said, mentally scrolling through the list of members of the Order. They were a committed bunch, of course. One had to be in this dangerous political climate. But there were weak links in any organization. Men and women who were vulnerable to blackmail, who might break under torture, who had conflicting family loyalties. Others were outright terrified, and she was aware that quite a few did not wholly embrace the directives set down by Albus or the senior leadership. "Let's examine our 'membership' one at a time, shall we?"

Albus nodded and they spoke in hypotheticals for several more hours, eventually dispensing with the tea in favour of whisky and brandy. They went through the list of their associates, from the most intimate to the least. They started with the youngest, least tried of them, and continued on to long-time friends who'd stood with Albus against Grindelwald. Hours later, they were still left with more questions than answers.

Albus stood at the window to his office, watching the newly risen sun lighten the sky from indigo to amethyst to robin's egg blue. "I think that, a single letter, even one with such alarming contents, is simply insufficient cause to take any overt action," he said slowly. "And regardless, we must exercise extreme care, lest we alert our hypothetical spy that we know of his existence."

"Or inadvertently jeopardize our informant's position, yes. So, we wait," Minerva said, rubbing her gritty eyes. She felt strangely uneasy with their decision. There was something about this situation that made her twitch. A premonition, perhaps. A feeling of catastrophe almost upon them.

"Yes. We wait and we watch," Albus said, turning to face her. "At least until your secret confidant provides us with something a bit more meaty than: 'Mind your words.'"

Minerva took a deep breath and tried to shrug her uneasiness aside; so far as she knew, there had never been a true Seer in the McGonagall line, going back well over 900 years. Even so, there was a familiarity to the feeling in her gut, to the pattern of these latest events. A sense that a something that had been set in motion long ago was now rushing towards its conclusion.

It wasn't the least bit rational, but she knew that very shortly, another plain white envelope would appear in the post. And this time, there would be more than enough 'meat' in it for Albus to act.

*

July 29, 6:48pm, Canterbury, 19 Primrose Street, second floor, room 3A, thirty-seven in attendance. Alice Longbottom, McGonagall, and Moody absent. Are you all mad to gather in such large numbers? Amongst other things, absurd plans were made to convince sympathetic goblins to monitor certain key accounts. The Ministry failed, you had a chance, but now that he knows, your chance is gone. The goblins will stay bought. You lot are fools. I warned you to mind your words.

"That enough meat for you, Albus?" Minerva said tartly, handing him the letter.

He scanned it and sighed. "Well, convincing the goblins was a long-shot at best. At least this narrows down our possible suspects."

"Does it really?" Minerva took her customary seat on the chair nearest the hearth in his private sitting room. The walls had no portraits to carry tales. "Our spy could have spoken to any of those in attendance. I must agree with our informant, our security is deplorable," she said, with an edge to her voice.

Albus always insisted that a certain level of trust was essential for the smooth operation of any large-scale operation such as the Order. She, Broderick Bode, Frank Longbottom, and Alastor Moody vocally disagreed with him as to the extent of that trust. Moody, of course, was always on about 'Constant vigilance!' He would have parcelled the information out in tiny bits to a very select few, under the Fidelius, if he had his way. Frank was little better. But given their backgrounds as Unspeakables, Minerva and Broderick preferred the Muggle, Damon Runyon's approach: 'Trust, but verify.' And despite what she'd told Albus, she had a mental list of certain Order members who'd been in attendance that evening who she planned to have watched very closely in the coming months. Verify, indeed!

He rubbed his fingers over his eyes. "We've had this discussion before, Minerva..."

"And we're going to have it again, Albus. Right now," she said, tapping her fingers on the leather-covered arm of the chair. "Calling such a large meeting was a mistake. Had our spy been more interested in striking a crippling blow than in gathering intelligence, the Order would be in complete disarray now." And given the Ministry's ineptness, Riddle would be almost entirely unopposed.

After a brief hesitation, Albus took his own seat heavily. "Very well," he said after a long moment. "I yield."

Minerva blinked. "Pardon me?"

His lips quirked. "Given this latest development, I agree that you--and Alastor, Frank, and Broderick--have a point. Please draw up a new security plan that we can use as a starting point."

Unlike Albus, she felt no need to say 'I told you so,' subtly or otherwise. Instead, she reached into her satchel and pulled out a roll of parchment. "Keyed to our usual password, of course."

He snorted and took the scroll good-naturedly. "I should have known that you would anticipate me."

"Yes, you should have."

"And I suppose I should be fortunate that I didn't ask Moody to prepare me a similar report."

She raised one brow. "Oh, I incorporated his input, I do assure you."

Still smiling, Albus shook his head and stashed the scroll in one of the many pockets in his robe. Then he rose slowly and went over to Fawkes's perch. The phoenix awoke and extended his head for a scratch. "Well, at least we know our informant is genuine. No doubt this message was intended to establish his credentials with us."

"No doubt."

"Although I still believe that it could be an elaborate ruse." Albus ruffled Fawkes's feathers a bit then stroked the bird's cheek. "It is clear we have a spy amongst us, but I am not yet convinced of the intentions of our informant."

Minerva leaned her head against the back of the chair and stared at the wooden beams along the ceiling. They'd had this particular conversation before, as well.

"The spy, himself, could be the author of the letters. He could intend to force us to change our security measures, our operating procedure. To sow dissent amongst us," Albus continued. "All to Riddle's advantage."

"Yes. But keep in mind, if our information is genuine, such changes could also compromise his position. Depending upon how closely he is associated with Riddle, or this spy, his life could be at risk."

Albus frowned and halted his ministrations; Fawkes squawked in displeasure. "You truly believe these notes to be genuine," said, giving her a piercing look.

"I do."

"Your certainty surprises me, Minerva."

She shrugged. There was no good way to explain to him how or why she knew.

When the letters had arrived and proven to be un-magicked, she'd examined them using her more acute feline senses. Though they'd been touched by multiple people and the traces of oil and rust hinted that they'd been run through Muggle machinery, she'd thought she'd caught the faintest of scents. Curiously familiar yet maddenly unplaceable. One that called to mind darkness mixed with equal portions of desperation and sincerity.

Albus resumed his attentions to Fawkes but sounded thoughtful. "I will be more convinced of his authenticity when, and if, our informant chooses to reveal something noteworthy of Riddle's movements."

Minerva said nothing tonight, though she decided that she might not refrain from an 'I told you so', or two, next time around.

*

Elphias Doge's childhood friend, Merrimont Ficus, owed his life, and that of his wife and six children, to the information contained in Letter Number 3.

Their house was burnt to cinders and the Dark Mark left hovering above the smouldering ruins, but fortunately, they had not been home at the time. An unexpected bout of food poisoning that evening (courtesy of a deliberately tainted batch of biscuits baked by Edwina Doge) had sent his wife and eldest son, via Floo, to St Mungo's. The rest of the children were swiftly packed off to stay with their aunt in Edinburgh while Ficus made a nuisance of himself with the healers.

"Go ahead, Minerva," Albus told her later that evening. "Say it. I know you've been waiting for the chance."

Minerva bit the inside of her cheek and smiled.

Frank Longbottom and three Auror trainees, including Sirius Black, owed their lives to the information in Letter Number 4. Several hours past midnight, they were pursuing a suspected Death Eater down one of the seedier lanes off Knockturn Alley. Suddenly, a trap was sprung; the air was filled with shouts and spell-fire. No fewer than twelve zealous Voldemort-sympathizers, accompanied by a pack of trained attack-crups, surrounded them, with murderous intent.

Fortunately, Frank had thought to give each of his team an emergency Portkey that evening, and though they were a bit singed, the four wizards survived.

Letters 5 and 6--which Minerva had neglected to mention to Albus--saved the lives and livelihoods of moderates, Juliet and Gawain Richardson, owners of Richardson's Rare Artefacts and Antiquities, in Diagon Alley. An anonymous tip prompted Ministry officials to seize three Dark artefacts from the Richardson's private inventory. Artefacts that were being sought by Riddle for use in a Blood Rite. Though they paid a hefty fine, they considered it money well-spent to not be caught betwixt the interests of Voldemort, Dumbledore, and the Ministry.

Based on information in Letter 7, Lily Potter was able to locate, then deactivate the detonation charm on a phial hidden in a rubbish bin. Had the two potions in the phial successfully combined, the explosion would have been devastating. Twelve anonymous Muggles and three vocally anti-Voldemort half-bloods on a platform in Victoria Station never knew how close they had come to being blown to bits that evening.

And so it went, throughout the remaining weeks of the summer.

A letter would arrive. Minerva would examine it carefully, and decide upon a course of action. In some cases, such as that involving Frank and Ficus, she took the letter to Albus. Others, she handled herself, if a greater degree of discretion or delicacy was required. Especially those involving political moderates.

The twelfth letter arrived a week before she was to return to Hogwarts for the start of the new school year.

Its message chilled her in a way that none of the others had:

If Black gives a toss about his brother, tell him to discreetly warn the fool not to do something fatally stupid.

*

Sirius Black had grown somewhat taller and more broad in the shoulders since leaving school but was no less reckless, arrogant, or headstrong. Qualities that Frank complained about constantly whenever she had him over for tea.

"He would make a fine Auror, Minerva," he'd say, "If only he'd calm down, take a moment to think before he goes off, half-cocked, on some wild tangent or other. That, and get rid of that boulder-sized chip on his shoulder!"

This evening, all those qualities were in evidence and then some. Even his continued association with the rather mild-mannered Remus Lupin hadn't managed to rub the sharp corners off the young man.

"So, Regulus has got himself into a jam, eh? Got in over his head." Sirius leaned against the mantle-piece in Albus' sitting room and crossed his arms. "Can't say I'm the least bit surprised. Stupid prat."

Minerva suppressed a sigh and took a sip of her tea. His attitude was one of several reasons that she'd hesitated before contacting Albus about this latest letter.

The Black family publicly supported Voldemort, however the Order didn't know for certain how deeply their youngest son was involved. Was Regulus merely a hanger-on, or had he been sponsored into the terrifying inner circle of Voldemort's Death Eaters? Albus--and numerous others--believed the latter.

Albus had even tossed out the idea that Regulus might be their informant. That by cultivating Sirius, setting the older brother up as successful, anti-Voldemort role model for the younger, the Order had truly managed to fracture the House of Black.

Minerva had been unconvinced.

For one thing, there was no reason why Regulus would have chosen to contact her instead of Sirius, for instance. Then, there was her recollection of Regulus Black, himself. Even as a Seventh Year, he'd been a callow young man. The letters evidenced a level of sophistication, subtlety, and focus that she doubted even a decades older Regulus could have possessed.

Something also troubled her about the tone, the phrasing, of this latest letter; they had seemed almost...familiar. That, coupled with the faint scent she'd caught from the pages brought to mind someone she'd known before, and whoever he was, that someone was not Regulus Black.

Regardless, the content of this latest letter had disproved Albus's pet theory; Regulus was definitely not their informant. But that fact was not likely to matter much to Albus, hence another reason she'd hesitated.

Albus did not trust the motives of their informant--and was baffled by her own inexplicable belief in his sincerity. But Voldemort was gaining power. To turn the tide of the war, the Order and the Ministry needed someone on 'the inside.'

Any attempt to infiltrate Voldemort's camp was risky and unlikely to succeed. Though it was known only to Albus and a few other members of the Order, Riddle was a skilled Legilimens, able to detect lies and well able to ferret out those who had conflicting loyalties. There was also the problem that any of the morally upright individuals who might volunteer to become a spy would be revolted by the acts of murder, torture, and mayhem that Riddle inevitably demanded of his followers; he or she would be unable to play the loyal sycophant for long.

Therefore, the Order needed someone who was already in place at Voldemort's side, but who was willing to change sides. And ideally, Albus wanted a known quantity, someone he knew to be trustworthy. Someone he knew beyond a doubt that he could manipulate, Minerva thought darkly. If Regulus Black was truly planning to leave Voldemort's service, Albus would do everything he could to recruit him, to convince him to remain in place and become an agent for the Order.

Quite honestly, Minerva didn't believe that the Regulus Black she'd known was up to a task of that magnitude.

Then too, her reluctance stemmed from the content of the letter itself. She could read between the lines easily enough. Even if Sirius Black didn't 'give a toss' about his brother, the author of this letter did. And he had placed his trust in her to see to it that Regulus was as protected as possible, and that he would have someone to run to should the need arise.

Minerva rubbed her aching eyes; she wasn't certain that she was up to that particular task, herself!

But in the end, despite her reservations, the scope of the situation--it's implications and potential for far reaching consequences--had convinced her to involve Albus.

She was quite coming to regret the fact, too.

"Sirius, I realize that you and your brother have been at odds for quite some time, but the information we have is quite reliable. He is planning to defect," Albus said. He leaned forward in his chair and rested his cup and saucer on his knee. "Surely you can find it in your heart to help us to help him."

"He's a fool. He's always been a fool. No one just walks away from Voldemort! Not unless they have a death-wish."

Apparently, even Albus's patience had its limits. "Yes," he said with a hint of steel in his voice. "Which is precisely why we need your help."

For a wonder, Sirius took the hint. He moved away from the mantel and flopped down on the chair that Albus had conjured for him. "All right," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm listening. What do you need?"

"Do you know how deeply your brother is involved with Voldemort?"

The young man rubbed his stubbled chin. "I'm not sure. But honestly, this is Regulus we're talking about," he said with a shrug. "He was never the sharpest quill in the box, nor much of a leader. Always trailing along behind Snape, and those slimy cronies of his, Rosier and Wilkes. I can't see anyone trusting him with more than just enough rope to hang himself with."

Albus was not pleased. "Are you quite certain?" he said intensely. "This is very important, my boy. Do you believe that Regulus is a Death Eater?"

Sirius frowned. "Honestly, Headmaster, I don't know. I suppose that it's possible, but..." He trailed off uncertainly, seeming lost in thought, then his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You said you think he's planning to defect. How do you know? And surely you don't think that...you can't be planning to..." Unlike Regulus, his elder brother was always quick on the uptake. "No." He shook he head. "Regulus, a spy? Are you mad?"

Minerva stiffled a snort; at least she and young Black were on the same page in this regard. Rather than pour herself another cup of tea, she chose a glass of whisky instead and settled back to watch the show. Although she knew for certain how the evening's entertainment would end.

"No, I assure you, young Sirius, I am quite sane," Albus said sternly. He set his cup and saucer aside and stood, towering over the young man. "Desperate, perhaps, but entirely sane."

But Sirius was shaking his head even as he rose. "Even if Regulus is a Death Eater...sir," he appended hastily. Minerva smiled; at least it seemed that Frank had managed to beat a measure of respect into Sirius's stubborn head. "And I agree that, given the Galleons my parents have 'donated' to Voldemort's cause, it's likely...but he's a terrible liar, not to mention a coward." His lip curled a bit and he gestured sharply with one hand. "I just can't see him as a spy. You wouldn't need Veritaserum or an Unforgivable to make him talk. The smallest hint of trouble and he'd likely piss himself and give the entire game away!"

Minerva crossed her legs at the ankle and admired the pure amber colour of her Glenlivet. She'd argued the same points with Albus for hours, albeit using less scathing words, to no avail. Albus wanted a spy and he would get one, logic, good sense, or ethics be damned.

"Well, then, Sirius," Albus replied taking a single step closer. "I suggest that you think of some way to make him less so, because we need him. As you know, we are at a critical juncture in this war. We need an entrè into Voldemort's inner circle. We need information. And I believe that your brother may well be the means by which we can gather it."

The young man looked positively gob smacked. He took a step backward. "Me? I'm in no position to do anything. The Blacks disowned me. I haven't spoken to Regulus since I left school. It would look suspicious if I suddenly tried to communicate with him now!"

Albus merely smiled; Minerva had quite come to dislike that particular baring of teeth. "True. However, you do have a number of relatives who are moderates. Through them, you should be able to make contact with Regulus without arousing suspicion. Perhaps convince them that you, yourself, are having second thoughts about siding against Voldemort."

Expressions of outrage, distaste, and out-right fear flashed across Sirius's handsome face. "Listen, Headmaster," he said, once he'd found his voice again. "I do want to help. After all, he is still my brother, even though we've never got along. But I honestly don't see how this plan can possibly succeed."

"As I recall, you and James Potter were quite resourceful and skilled at conspiracy and misdirection while at school," Albus said with deceptive mildness, stroking his beard. Sirius paled, no doubt reminded of his outstanding debt to the Headmaster. "Between the three of us, I'm certain we will be able to formulate a workable, successful plan."

Sirius looked to her in entreaty. "Professor McGonagall?" he said, his grey eyes wide and dark. "What do you think? Do you think this can work?"

She briefly bit the inside of her cheek to avoid voicing her true opinion. "We do need the information, Sirius. And I admit that it is a quite risky venture. However, I will be involved every step of the way," she said, deliberately holding Albus's gaze. "To ensure that Regulus is as protected as possible, given the gravity of the situation."

From the corner of her eye, she saw Sirius frown. "I don't like it sir, ma'am. If Regulus wants out, then I think I owe it to him to help but...I just don't know that he's up to something like this."

"This is war, Sirius," Albus said, holding Minerva's gaze in turn. "We cannot afford to waste any opportunity to gain an advantage over our enemy."

Minerva neither looked away nor blinked. Albus knew exactly where she stood on the matter. The unknown author of the letters had placed his faith in her and, rational or not, she would do her best not to disappoint him.

Though she had the sinking feeling that this time, she would.

"All right," Sirius said with resignation. "Let's talk. Then I'll send out a few owls and see what I can do."

*

The next afternoon, Minerva returned to her flat to pack a last few items and to close it up for the rest of the school year.

With her foot on the top step, she paused; there was a book-sized package in front of her door. As with the letters, there was no return address.

The back of her neck prickled; she was being watched.

Minerva glanced over her shoulder casually but saw no one. After a moment's hesitation, she concealed the box with a muttered spell and surreptitiously wanded it through the opened door and into her foyer. The damnable thing could be a Portkey!

Once inside, she subjected the package to the usual rigorous magical and feline inspection.

Twenty minutes later, she lowered her wand, satisfied. As she'd suspected, the box was from their informant and was not a Portkey. But unlike past communications, the package nearly vibrated with magical energy. It also contained something oddly fragrant.

Still a bit wary, she cleared a space in her kitchen and erected a series of wards within which to unwrap it.

Shortly thereafter, a polished ash wood box--the source of the magical aura--sat upon her kitchen table. Within it lay the usual type-written note. However, in addition, three freshly cut flowers--one with dull brown petals, another with numerous, bright yellow ones, and a third, small, frothy purple bloom--lay atop it, clearly the sources of the fragrance.

A wave of her wand and the note lifted itself free. She read:

Though you depart for Hogwarts today, we are not yet finished, Professor McGonagall. As you value my life or the information I provide, conceal this box. Do not reveal its existence to anyone.

Deep in thought, Minerva tapped her forefinger against her chin. The box, clearly a much-cherished antique, was a Lovers' Secret Heart. They were once popular with love-struck, pure-blooded teens whose parents had betrothed them, usually at birth, to someone other than their adolescent heart's desire. In recent times, as love-matches had become more common, the small chests had quite fallen out of vogue. If she was reading its magical signature correctly, this one was designed to operate at great distances.

Gingerly, she touched the odd bouquet of flowers that lay inside, realizing that they were as much a message--if a rather quaint one--as the letter itself.

An old, faded book in her parlour, a gift from her grandmother, provided the needed bit of insight.

Ash wood for prudence--a common enough choice for a traditional Secret Heart chest; wall-flower for fidelity in adversity; mourning bride to signify an unfortunate attachment followed by a devastating loss; and perhaps most telling of all, sweet-scented tussilage: justice shall be done.

Minerva smiled thinly. Oh yes, indeed, whoever he was, unlike Regulus Black, their informant was the genuine article. A man who had made a poor choice--his allegiance to Voldemort--and had lost someone dear to him as a result. A man who had vowed to see to it that his loved one would be avenged, that justice would be done.

Exactly the sort of man Albus hoped to recruit.

She felt a sense of rising excitement. Her informant held the mate to this box. If he hadn't disabled the reciprocal spell--or if she could reactivate it--she could send him a message in return!

Just as suddenly, her enthusiasm was doused, as with cold water.

Yes, this man was exactly the sort who Albus sought. Crafty, canny, capable, and deep within Voldemort's circle, most likely a Death Eater. A man well able to feed the Order critical intelligence and yet remain undetected, well-able to take care of himself.

A man who'd trusted her, time and again, to do what was right, what was just.

And therein lay the rub.

Minerva was not convinced that Albus would be quite so scrupulous with such a weapon in his hands.

She pressed the flowers between the pages of her grandmother's gift then stroked her fingers over the smooth surface of the lid of the Secret Heart. Its magical aura conveyed the fleeting impression of hope and happiness, of bright sunlight and the heady fragrance of orange blossoms. Her parlour felt cold and cheerless by contrast.

Shrugging off the uncomfortable mood, she cast a Notice-Me-Not spell, keyed to her signature alone, upon the box then tucked it into her satchel. It was much more difficult to ignore the gnawing anxiety beneath her breastbone, her constant companion lately, and the conflict that the box evoked within her.

Even with the choice tid-bits of information their informant doled out, they were losing this war. Each day, more good men and women were maimed, killed, or forced--through fear, intimidation, or outright blackmail--to accept Voldemort's terms. The Ministry's frantic and heavy-handed measures were too little, far too late. But, if she could communicate with him, get him to share specific intelligence, so they could devise a strategy, if he could be persuaded to...

...No. She shook her head.

For the moment, she would do as he had asked. If or when Albus proved that he could be trusted with Regulus Black's defection, she might make him aware of the box. Until then, it would remain her secret.

III.

January 1980

Several hours past midnight, Minerva was finally able retire to her rooms. The few children who remained in the castle for Yule were safe in their Common Rooms, if not actually abed, and her unpleasant business with Albus was concluded. Though she had the inevitable administrative chores to complete before classes resumed at the end of the week, what was left of the night belonged to her alone.

She did not look forward to the task that would fill those hours.

After a hot bath and a cup of tea, she sat down at her desk with a blank sheet of parchment and freshly trimmed quill and wondered how to begin.

She could summarize the Order's progress against Voldemort during the months of September, October, and November as: One step forward, two steps back, though Cynthia and Rafe Quentin, the Order's lead arithmancers, insisted that their fortunes were due to change.

The less said about the events of December the better: word of a spy within the Order had finally broken. The organization was now in danger of being torn apart by suspicion, animosity, and the inevitable finger-pointing.

But it was the needless death of Regulus Black, mere days ago, that gnawed at her the most, tonight.

To his credit, Sirius had done his best. He'd renewed contact with some of his more moderate relatives, managed to convince them that his allegiance was wavering, and eventually, had been able to communicate with his brother. Though she had little solid evidence, Minerva suspected that their informant had had a hand in making that possible. In any event, after several exchanges with Regulus, Albus had his spy.

Unfortunately, as she and Sirius--and Alastor and Frank--had feared, Regulus wasn't an especially good one. The information he provided was either uselessly vague or so detailed and personally relevant that it would have revealed him to be a traitor had they acted upon it. Mere months later, unbearably stressed by his double life, Regulus had panicked and tried to run. He wound up dead in an alley, his throat cut.

Minerva sighed and dipped her quill in the inkpot.

I am deeply sorry for your loss, she wrote, feeling as never before the crushing inadequacy of those particular words. I did my best to protect him, but in the end, my best was not enough. Tightening her grip on the quill, she tried not to think of how very often, in the past few years, that her best had been insufficient. I sincerely apologize that I have failed you.

Quickly, before she could reconsider, she folded the square of parchment, placed it inside the Secret Heart, then closed the lid.

"Summitto, she said, tapping it with her wand. The message was gone in a flash of light and magic.

*

Though she sought it, sleep never came. Instead, she sat before the fire, wrapped in a thick woollen blanket, unwelcome tears blurring the dancing flames until the room lightened with the arrival of dawn.

The hour before breakfast brought the reply she dreaded. She opened the Secret Heart with shaking hands and read:

You have not failed me. You did what you could, more than any one else would have done. Thank you. I know that you unravelled the blocking spell some time ago. I know you have questions. You might as well ask me what you will. If I can answer, I shall do so.

The dried tears made her face crack and itch, but Minerva allowed her slight smile to widen nonetheless. Beneath the ever-present despair, she felt the tiniest flare of hope.

*

"How long, Minerva?" Albus demanded. "How long have you been able to contact him directly?"

She shrugged, unmoved and entirely unrepentant. "That is irrelevant. Of greater importance is how we choose to proceed based on that knowledge."

Albus wasn't ready to let it go. "Irrelevant?" He gestured so sharply that Fawkes startled from his perch with an outraged squawk. "You've had a means to communicate directly with our informant for how long? This is what Cynthia and Rafe were talking about! We could have been devising a strategy during that time. We could have been organizing our resources. Don't you realize--" He abruptly broke off his tirade and turned to regard her thoughtfully. "Of course you realize what we could achieved had you...had you trusted me with this information," he continued more quietly, "but you didn't."

Fawkes circled the room once, then alighted upon her shoulder. She conjured a fully laden tea tray and fed him a chocolate biscuit. "I trust you to do exactly what is necessary."

"'What is necessary,'" he echoed with a wry twist of his lips. "You are quite damning with your exceedingly faint praise, Minerva."

"You have a great skill, Albus, to manipulate others until they agree, willingly--as if it were their own idea, even!--to do as you wish. But in your single-minded zeal to achieve a goal, I do believe that you sometimes lose sight of the human cost of your plans. And neglect to fully consider the frailties of those whom you choose. Willingness is not enough," she said, with an edge to her voice. "The men and women you select must be appropriately skilled as well."

"You mean Regulus Black." His white eyebrows swept together as he frowned. "You set him as my test, did you?"

"I did." She manoeuvred Fawkes to the back of her favourite chair then sat down and poured Albus a cup of tea. "You took a great risk with him."

"And I failed." He heavily took his own seat opposite hers and reached for the proffered cup.

Minerva didn't mince words. "Yes."

For a long while, neither of them spoke. Albus stared into the crackling flames, his tea untouched.

Finally, he broke the silence with a humourless little laugh. "You are a very shrewd witch, Minerva," he said with a hint of admiration. "So then, my dear, given that I have failed your test, why bring this to my attention now?"

She took a long sip of her own tea, then said, "Because the situation has become dire. Also, you will be far more careful this time."

He snorted, not fooled in the least. "And?"

"And because he has offered," Minerva snapped.

"Ah. Has he now?" That thoroughly unpleasant smile graced Albus's face once again. "Well then, let us contact Alastor and Frank. Together, perhaps we can devise a strategy that is less risky to our informant, but that will pay us greater dividends, shall we? One that will meet your standards for fairness and safety."

Minerva firmed her lips and fed Fawkes another biscuit. "Yes, Albus, let's get on with it." She was determined that this time, she would not fail the unknown man who'd placed his faith, and his very life, in her hands.

IV.

May 1980

Under the Fidelius, with Minerva as Secret-Keeper, the senior members of the Order were made aware of their informant within Voldemort's circle. While Frank and Alastor continued their efforts to reveal the spy in their midst, Minerva and the others worked through the last months of winter and into late spring to devise a strategy that could best make use of their hidden resource.

Inevitably, speculation arose, within their inner circle, as to their informant's identity. Alice Longbottom, an exceptional investigator, and possessed of a rather dark sense of humour, was particularly intrigued.

Early one Sunday afternoon in May, while Minerva corrected the latest batch of Third Year transfiguration exams, Alice checked spelling on the First Year exams and indulged herself in one of her favourite past-times. Past-time number three, to be precise, given that hexing suspected Death Eaters was out of the question since she'd been placed on maternity leave and because she and Minerva had exhausted the latest in society gossip an hour ago.

"Sweet Merlin, a Death Eater with a typewriter!" she said, tucking the quill behind her ear and rocking her chair on two legs, despite her pregnancy; Alice enjoyed living dangerously. "Can you picture it? He returns from some Dark Revel held in a bat-infested cave or gloomy graveyard. Sweeps off that awful white mask, stows it away in his sleeve. Then sits down to bang out a letter to you filled with dire and dreadful and treasonous tidings on a rusty old Muggle typewriter like some mad poet!"

Minerva couldn't help but laugh.

"Then, he seals the envelope, dons appropriately Muggle clothes--appropriate for an insane pureblood spy, of course--and scurries down to the Post Office--constantly checking his backtrail and casting Disillusionment charms the entire way, of course--to mail out his latest missive to his dear old Transfiguration professor!"

Something in the wording froze the smile on her face.

"Minerva? Minerva, what's wrong?" Alice leaned forward again and grabbed her forearm. "You've gone white as a sheet."

She closed her eyes and held up her hand for silence, trying to focus on that elusive something.

For months now, in her nonexistent spare hours, she'd tried to discover the identity of her mysterious correspondent...and the source of her maddening belief in his sincerity. She had filled countless scrolls of parchment with names and the possible connections between them. But she'd taught for twenty years. Even restricting the list to Slytherin purebloods, the number of her former students was daunting.

It was a measure of her curiosity and unease that she'd even tried her hand at divination. To little effect. She knew the man, that much was clear--from the cards, the mirrors, the tea leaves, as well as her far-more-reliable gut instinct. He meant her no harm, had suffered the death of someone dear to him, and now was determined--possibly honour-bound--to bring down Voldemort. If nothing else, the flowers he'd sent had told her as much. As to his name, however...

"Damn," she said softly as, yet again, his identity slipped out of her grasp.

Alice tilted her head. "Thought you knew who he was for a second, eh?"

She pressed her fingers to her temples and nodded. "It's as if the knowledge is right there, but is somehow just out of reach."

"Could he have placed some variant of Confundus charm on the paper, or the box, do you think?"

"I don't think so. If he did, it's incredibly subtle. You've examined the letters. Did you detect even a hint of anything magical?"

"No, not a thing. And the dratted man even used plain water to seal the envelopes. So much for using fluid-based identity spells--even if we had a sample to compare it against!" Alice drummed her fingers on the table for a moment then said, "Well, at least we know for certain who it's not." She gave Minerva a broad, conspiratorial wink.

"We do?"

"Oh yes." Alice was clearly near to bursting with a delicious secret. "It is most definitely not Rosier or Wilkes."

Suddenly, Minerva found it very difficult to breathe. "What?"

"Exactly," Alice said smugly. "The Ministry is keeping it quiet for now, but baby on the way or no, I've still got my hand in at the Department. They were killed early this morning. Frank is to report it at tonight's meeting."

Rosier and Wilkes. Regulus Black. And...

Dear Merlin!

Minerva marvelled as the last bit of the puzzle fell into place with a near-audible click.

Rosier, Wilkes, Regulus Black, and their frequent companion: Severus Salazar Snape.

It took every ounce of will for her to shrug casually. "Well then," she said, choosing the next exam from the stack and dipping her quill into a pot of red ink. "I suppose that it's two names down and only several hundred more to go."

While Alice laughed then changed the subject, nattering on about baby names, Minerva blindly stared at the exam. Rather than the badly researched and poorly spelled explanation of Blenchett's Third Principal of Transmogrification, in her mind's eye, she saw a distant, moonlit evening. A desperate young man clutching a satchel, telling her an outlandish story about rent due and medical bills owed. She vividly remembered the promise he'd made to her, to seek her out were he ever in need.

And though she was neither dead, nor in her dotage, Severus Snape had honoured his promise.

Unbidden, a slight smile curved Minerva's lips; she returned to her marking.

V.

DAILY PROPHET - August 25, 1981

"Crouch confident that victory is only a matter of time."

by Alyssa L. Youngman

According to Bartemius Crouch, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, "Victory is assured. It's only a matter of time before we have You Know Who fully neutralized."

Crouch's brave words aside, members of the public, especially business owners, remain deeply sceptical.

"Don't know what the man is smoking--or what planet he's on for that matter--but he's mad, make no mistake," said Diagon Alley pub owner Wenceslas Crockwocket. "You Know Who and his pals are pickin' us off one-by-one. Bad for business, it is, and Crouch's damned Hit Wizards aren't making so much as a dent."

Crockwocket is not the only worried citizen to level criticism against Crouch's efforts.

Drake Ellingsworth, owner of Ellingsworth's Fine Teas and Specialty Potions, Hogsmeade, was quite forthright and emphatic in his opinion. "Crouch's bloody Aurors are a thousand times worse than You Know Who. Six times this week I've had them in my shop, poking around, rooting through my inventory--as if tea is now some dangerous controlled substance!--harassing honest, paying customers. And always expecting special treatment! A cup of tea, a plate of biscuits, or a love philtre, gratis, naturally. And for what? The Dark Mark was raised over three shops in my neighbourhood this month alone! Customers are scared, business is down, and so far as I can tell, He Who Must Not Be Named hasn't been deterred by Crouch, not one jot!"

Mrs. Brice-Simpleton, Headmistress at Laurelton Academy primary school, Nether Wallop, expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing the human costs of Crouch's failures. "The students are simply terrified. Many have parents or older siblings--or even classmates--who have gone missing or turned up dead. I can't decide if Crouch actually believes the pap that he's been telling the press or if he's complicit in this absurd belief that You Know Who isn't winning that's being perpetrated by the Ministry at large."

Clearly, Mr Crouch has a long hard road to convince wizards and witches that his efforts are being effective.

*

London in late August was hot and sticky, though the dark clouds gathering overhead and the distant snarl of thunder promised a bit of relief come afternoon.

All in all, the unsettled weather suited Minerva's mood perfectly.

The Order's espionage project--ostensibly headed by Albus, but vigorously micro-managed by Minerva herself--had achieved some modest success. More Death Eaters, including Karkaroff and Dolohov, were captured, interrogated, and sent to Azkaban. Aurors had located and confiscated multiple caches of Dark Artefacts, and the lives of numerous witches, wizards, and their families had been saved by the information that their informant had provided; Minerva carefully never referred to him by name, even in her thoughts.

Unfortunately, even with those successes, Voldemort's choke-hold on wizarding Britain had not been broken, no matter how adamantly the Ministry claimed it to be so. Then too, there was the fact that, even after two years, Alastor and Frank still had not uncovered the traitor within the Order. Worries bred like doxies in the draperies!

Minerva quashed the urge to sigh and tucked the paper under her arm. The war and her associated frustrations and concerns could go hang. At least until she'd perused her mail and had had a cool bath. Followed by a refreshing glass of lemon barley water, of course.

But the moment she touched the door knob to her flat, she realized that idle pleasures would have to wait; the war had just arrived on her very doorstep.

For a long, tense moment, she stood completely still, wand drawn--despite what any nosy neighbours might think--and thinking hard. In all likelihood, a bomb, a Death Eater, or an even worse fate awaited her within.

But if whomever wanted her dead, why telegraph their intentions? The front door was unlocked and her wards had been breached, flamboyantly so. There'd been no attempt to hide either violation.

Then, too, the familiar white envelope--sans stamp this time--held down by a corner of the porch mat, also gave her pause.

Sweat trickling down her spine, she knelt and retrieved the letter. This time, she felt an unfamiliar frisson of magic as she lifted the flap. Clearly it had been spelled for her eyes alone.

I know that you have no reason at all to trust me... it began, and Minerva smiled, if a bit grimly. So. Her spy had dropped by for a visit.

It could be a trap, of course. Voldemort could have discovered his identity; he could be long dead, having been tortured into revealing the extent of his duplicity and her location. She could be next on Voldemort's list of loose ends to tie up.

Alternately, something far more dire and sinister could be afoot, something that had driven him to finally meet her face-to-face.

She snorted at her hesitance. It could be literally anything at all, but she would never know unless she took that final step!

There was nothing much to be done for it. She'd lived a full, mostly satisfying life, all things considered.

Tightening her grip on her wand, Minerva slowly opened the door and then stepped through.

*

Like Sirius Black, Severus Snape had changed over the years.

He'd not yet grown into his nose and his hair was still long, lank, and straggly, as if he'd spent all morning hunched over a cauldron--which he probably had--but he was a few inches taller, broader in the shoulders, and, Dear Merlin, the horror she saw reflected in his eyes!

He politely rose from her sofa when she entered the room. Like her, he was dressed casually, in well-worn, though contemporary Muggle clothes; his hands were empty, held loosely at his sides.

"Professor McGonagall," he said softly.

She decided to get straight to the point. "Mr Snape. I take it that there is something urgent that necessitated your breaking and entering of my flat? Something other than my immediate death, I presume?"

That garnered no visible reaction. Either he'd known that she'd guessed his identity or he didn't care; and his demeanour certainly suggested that she'd live to see another day. "Yes, there is," he said. "Shall we secure the premises first?"

Minerva nodded and together, they set about spelling the flat for silence and protection against eavesdropping.

He'd always been a knowledgeable and talented wizard, but she blinked in dismay at some of the spells he cast.

"Expecting a Final Strike, Mr Snape?"

"One can't be too careful, Professor," he said, tracing yet more glowing symbols over the walls of her sitting room. "I should have done this for you long before now. It is unconscionable that I left it so long, after all that has transpired."

When his incantations took on an increasingly Dark aspect, she stood back and left him to it. There were certain spells that, despite her years as an Unspeakable, and her rather wild youth, she simply did not have the temperament, or the necessary...initiations to cast.

Nearly an hour later, the flat was as secure as they could make it and the summer storm was upon them. The room grew dim enough that she turned on the lamp. Rain lashed the windows, and thunder rolled over their heads like doom.

"Tea?" Minerva asked, conjuring a tea service and taking her customary corner of the sofa.

Snape loomed a bit uncertainly for a moment, then shrugged and perched himself on the edge of her only chair. He took a deep breath and started right in. "I am sorry to disturb you this way, Professor, but it was unavoidable. What I must say to you could not be trusted to a letter."

"So I gathered." Minerva poured them both a cup. His remained untouched. For Merlin's sake, did he think she'd doused it with Veritaserum?

"He now knows of the prophecy and has had it analyzed by his own experts."

"Prophecy"? Minerva set her cup aside with a frown. "What prophecy?"

Snape seemed surprised. "Surely Dumbledore has told you of it."

"No," she said between gritted teeth. "I suppose that it must have slipped his mind." Dratted man, keeping secrets again! Although to be fair, she'd gathered a wealth of her own during this war.

"Well then," Snape began a bit warily, as if sensing her annoyance, "this is what I know. Sometime last year, Sybill Trelawney made a prophecy to Albus Dumbledore, one that appears to be genuine."

"Trelawney," Minerva said under her breath. Snape's revelation explained a lot. After Clarissa Runemacher had retired, the staff and Board of Governors debated whether to continue offering Divination as a course of study at Hogwarts. Albus had been rather adamantly against it. Then, in a surprising reversal, he'd hired Sybill Trelawney--the batty old fraud, her tenuous kinship to famed Seer Cassandra Trelawney notwithstanding--to fill the post. Now Minerva knew why.

"Rumours of the prophecy's existence have been circulating for some time within...certain circles, but only recently was I able to discover what it entails." His eyes were shadowed. "In summary, last year, Trelawney predicted that, towards the end of July, a child with the power to defeat the Dark Lord would be born."

"Last year, late July..." She set her teacup aside and briefly closed her eyes. She could remember it so clearly, then. Alice and Lily, both tired and yet joyous, cradling their newborn sons in their arms; their husbands looking on, nearly bursting with pride. "I am aware of two children born during that month, Mr Snape."

"I know," he said, looking down at his clasped hands. "Neville Longbottom and..."

"And Harry Potter," Minerva added when he trailed off.

He looked up at her then; she nearly flinched at the enmity in his dark eyes. Nonetheless, his voice was bland and yet terrifying in its implacability. "And Harry James Potter, yes," he said. "Would you care to place a bet on which infant is likely to be his downfall?"

Minerva sniffed, then reclaimed her cup and took a sip of tea.

"No? Neither would I," Snape said quietly. "Hence, this unexpected meeting with you. He'll be coming after them soon, you realize. I am here to make certain that James Potter's son remains very much alive. " He clenched his fists and his jaw tightened. "Unlike my father, Professor McGonagall, I always pay my debts."

And you also make good on your promises, no matter how absurd or inexplicable they might seem at the time, Minerva added to herself.

*

Severus Snape was as infuriatingly tight-lipped and suspicious in person as he had been during their two-year correspondence. Getting the smallest bit of information from him was like squeezing blood from the proverbial stone, without the benefit of a wand!

It took her fifteen minutes to convince him not to depart once he'd disclosed his knowledge of the prophecy, the Dark Lord's lethal intentions for the Potters and the Longbottoms, and his suggestions to neutralize those plans. That task accomplished, it took another ten to ascertain that he did not know the identity of the spy within the Order, and to assure him that the tea had not been tampered with, though he refused to touch the biscuits outright. It required an additional, very harrowing, twenty minutes, to pry loose enough information to understand how he'd come to be her informant in the first place.

All the while, he paced and paced and paced, back and forth, in front of the tiny fireplace in the sitting room. In turn, Minerva worried.

"You're in very deep, aren't you, Mr Snape?" she said, watching his restless, but oddly graceful lack-of-progress from her corner of the sofa.

"As deep as it is possible to be," he said, rubbing his left forearm again.

Minerva closed her eyes against the ache in her chest. Though she had suspected that he was a Death Eater, she'd still held fast to an irrational bit of hope that there was another explanation for his intimate knowledge of Voldemort's plans.

"Why, Severus?" she asked, dispensing with formalities. She rose and went to stand directly in his path, beside the fireplace, one hand on the narrow mantelpiece. "I would have expected you, of all people, to see through his lies, his hateful bigotry."

He halted a few feet away from her and wrapped his arms around himself, as if he'd taken a sudden chill. "Does it truly matter?" he said in a low voice. "Everyone believed that I was damned long before he asked me to join him. At least this way, I suppose I've earned my place in hell."

The well-aged bitterness in his voice left no doubt as to who he meant by everyone; Minerva felt that ache again, and nodded to herself, acknowledgement of her own complicity in his damnation. "Yes, Severus, it does matter, at least to me," she said after a moment, placing her hand on his arm. "Will you please tell me why?"

For a long time he said nothing, merely stared towards the windows, watching the storm. Its fierceness had abated and the sky had lightened a bit. The rain had become steady, rather than torrential, and the occasional growl of thunder was far off, in the distance.

Finally, he turned to her; his eyes were bleak. "What wouldn't you do, Professor McGonagall, to save the life of someone you loved?" he asked. "I know you had a son, once. I know that he was struck down and killed by a wizard who'd thought to 'teach you a lesson'. If someone had come to you, while your son lay dying in St Mungo's, if that person had promised you a cure, if he promised you the secret of immortality, would you take it? What wouldn't you do, Professor, to save your son?"

Minerva took a deep, shuddering breath, steeling herself against the inevitable pain and the flood of memories that followed. "Your mother?" she asked, already knowing the answer, though still, after all these years, not understanding it.

The muscles of his jaw bunched and his eyes were bright. "Yes, Professor, my mother."

"But, Severus, I don't understand," she pressed, shaking her head. "Your mother died during your Sixth Year."

Minerva remembered the event; it had caused no end of staff room gossip. According to the obituary written by Barnabas Snape, Paloma Snape had died in her sleep at age 32, while Severus was still a student. Given her husband's reputation, few believed that her death was due to natural causes. Barnabas, himself, had died in Severus's Seventh Year, under suspicious circumstances. Rumour had it that he'd owed money to a cadre of Dark goblins. Because he'd just come of age--and because the Ministry couldn't be bothered with penniless orphans--Severus had successfully petitioned the court for rare, emancipated status, rather than becoming a ward of the Ministry.

From Severus's thunderous expression, Minerva supposed that she--and the rest of the Wizarding world--had been gravely mis-informed.

"No, she did not," he said fiercely, "She died two years ago, July 13." He reached into his shirt pocket and offered her a much-folded, yellowed sheet of Muggle newsprint.

The headline read: "Bomb blast in London marketplace leaves sixteen dead, eight wounded." Beside the gruesome photo were the names of those killed. She scanned the article carefully, looking for a clue, but gave up; none of the names were familiar to her.

"Fourth one down," he said quietly, his voice thick with suppressed emotion. "Mary Gabriel."

She frowned. "Who?"

"Mary Gabriel. Better known as Paloma Maria Gabrielle de Malfoi Salazar Snape. My mother, Professor McGonagall."

"Dear Merlin! That's why you needed the money. In your Sixth Year. For rent and medical expenses, you said." And she recalled this bombing all too well. It had been reported in the Prophet and had coincided with the first letter she'd received from him. His mother, first, last, and always. The reason he'd joined Voldemort and the self-same reason why he'd turned his back on him and had become a spy; Minerva blinked back tears.

"Yes." He swiped at the corners of his eyes and looked away from her. Nonetheless, the words came tumbling out. "I knew I had to get her away from him, before he did something...before he killed her. And she was so sick, but he wouldn't help. He couldn't beat it out her, he wouldn't send for a mediwizard. 'She can die, for all I care,' he said. 'What has she done for me except whelp a disgusting, useless creature like you?'" Severus laughed, a harsh, ugly sound. "He'd long since gone through her dowry, of course, so there was no money left. It was just a matter of time before he'd get rid of her. And I knew he'd never look for her amongst the Muggles..."

"Severus," she said helplessly, clasping his cold, limp hands in hers.

"...and the flat, Professor McGonagall," he said, as if she hadn't spoken. "It wasn't grand. Four flights up, hardly bigger than a cupboard. But it was sunny, and she could sit at the window and watch the people on the street below. She said it made her think of home...of Spain. And it was close to the doctor and the marketplace, you see. So she could walk down and buy groceries when she was feeling well, or when I couldn't get to it myself. But then he ordered the strike on the marketplace, and I couldn't warn her time. I couldn't get there!" His fingers spasmed over hers. "Ten of them put on their cloaks and masks, raised the Dark Mark, and--." He broke off suddenly, shoulders shaking. He tried to pull away from her, as if he'd realized that he'd revealed too much.

Minerva held him fast.

Barely sixteen years old and the terrors he'd faced, the things he'd managed to achieve! And he'd done it with almost no support, beyond that supplied by Gilford...or Lucius Malfoy.

How could she possibly condemn him for taking the help, dubiously entangled or no, that Voldemort had offered? Especially when offers from legitimate sources were likely to have been thin on the ground for a student from a background like his. What price wouldn't she have paid to save Aodán, to have her family whole again?

"I am so sorry, Severus," she said, at a loss for how she could mitigate the horror or ease the self-loathing in his eyes.

He ceased struggling and stood, head down, his hands held limply in hers. "What's done is done, Professor. I cannot bring her back. I as good as have killed her myself."

"No, Severus, no," she said fiercely, willing herself to believe as much as him. "You have saved many lives with the information you've brought me."

His eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened painfully on hers. "Not the one life that mattered, Professor," he said, his voice flat and hard. "My mother is dead because of my stupidity. All I have left now is hate and revenge."

Oh yes, she understand those twin desires all too well. She'd wanted to rip the man, who'd slain her son and destroyed her marriage, limb from bloody limb with her bare hands. She'd wanted to tear her own hair, put her wand to her temple and cast the Killing Curse, if only to somehow atone for the deadly consequences to Aodán for having done her job as an Unspeakable too well.

But she knew what Severus could not yet know: revenge would not bring forgiveness. It would not bring peace or ease his self-loathing. Only years--decades--could heal those wounds, and maybe not even then. More importantly, she knew that his single-minded quest for revenge could make him reckless, desperate; it would ultimately lead to his death.

Unless that was his intention...

Minerva felt a thrill of alarm.

No. He would not become another Regulus Black, not while she still drew breath.

But she had to give him something else. Already, his expression had become shuttered, he'd pulled his hands away, he was preparing to leave. She could not allow him to walk out her door, back to his deadly, solitary pursuit of revenge without something more than self-hatred to sustain him. With nothing other than death as reward.

What did she have to offer him, though? Sympathy? Compassion? A too-intimate understanding of the nature of his suffering?

The answer came in a blinding flash.

The Lover's Secret Heart he'd sent, almost certainly a cherished keepsake from his mother. It had held mourning bride and tussilage: an unfortunate attachment followed by a devastating loss, necessitating a quest for justice.

Justice.

If nothing else, she could do her best to give him that. Albus Dumbledore owed him that much. Perhaps in so doing, the interests of the Order could be advanced, he might find something more sustaining than vengeance to live for, and she might protect him somewhat--from himself, from Albus, and from Voldemort.

"But you have something else, too, Severus," she said urgently. "You aren't alone in this any more."

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Like you, I want to see him brought down. You and I have worked well together these past two years, haven't we?"

"Yes...?" He looked wary.

"Well, then, I already know that you're a fair hand at research, and I suspect that yours is the talent behind quite a few of his recent innovations," she said; he looked down at his hands. "But the question is, how are you at teaching?"

"Teaching!" His head snapped up. "Professor, what are you talking about?"

"Maartens and Rainswater have retired. And so, we have two staff positions opening up at Hogwarts this fall. Potions and Defence Against the Dark Arts. Two subjects with which I know you are quite well-acquainted."

Severus blinked. "You must be mad!" he said. "Dumbledore would never allow it. Why would he help me?"

"Because," Minerva said evenly, "because you have been instrumental in the success of our efforts thus far, at great risk to yourself--"

"But I've done nothing! Sent a few letters, given you a few names and dates, nothing more."

She spoke over him. "--also, Albus Dumbledore owes you a debt, Severus, and I fully intend to see that he repays it."

"Debt, what debt? He owes me nothing."

"To save Remus Lupin's life, he bought your silence and ensnared you in a Life Debt to James Potter. Neither Riles nor I were pleased with that particular bargain. Gilford is dead, but I am still here, and still quite willing to call in that marker on your behalf."

Severus stared at her, clearly dumbfounded.

"Think on it, Severus," she continued. "What better way to increase your worth to him, to gain access to more privileged information, and to ultimately defeat him, than to become a 'spy' under Albus Dumbledore's very roof?"

And if it provides me the means to keep an eye on you--to better protect you!--then so much the better, she appended silently, with no little satisfaction.

"I don't--that's simply brilliant, but..." He shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe you would do this for me."

By way of reply, Minerva merely smiled.

Given the flare of hope in his dark eyes, she supposed that her smile had rivalled Albus's in its wickedness and resolve.

Finis.


Fandom: Harry Potter

Rating: PG-13

Pairings: None.

Category: Gen, drama, angst.

Series/Sequel: A prequel to A Matter of Trust: First Things First

Date: 03/22/05

Summary: Why Severus trusts Minerva and how Severus came to be a spy for the Order.

Warnings: None.

Disclaimers: Own'em? Nope.

Notes: Fair warning: this is less a story and more a series of vignettes strung together. Many thanks to Luthien and Josan for the beta, the consistency check, the place names, and the Britpick, and to Nym for additional help with place names.

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