Harry Potter & the Ritual of Merlin's Choice

Chapter 31

A piercing shriek sounded in the middle of the night, waking Dumbledore from a deep slumber.

Instantly alert, the headmaster jumped out of bed with the spring of a man half his age, and hurried through the door connecting his bedchamber to his office, where one of his many alarms blared and demanded his attention. The last vestiges of sleep still clinging to his mind, he struggled to locate the source of the noise and silence it. It annoyed him, waking disoriented, and being caught unaware. But, in the days since the anticlimactic final death of Lord Voldemort, he’d foolishly allowed himself to grow complacent, to be lulled into a false sense of security…

Recalling that night, he couldn’t help the slight smile that flitted across his face. Despite the grave difficulties in retrieving the last of the Horcruxes, despite the close calls, once collected, it had been the easiest to destroy. Harry had even—finally—let him do the honours, though not without first transfiguring the neck of a vial of Basilisk venom into a funnel with a hole large enough to accommodate a ring. All that had remained, then, was to tip it out of the sealed magical stasis bag they’d used to transport it. The vile artefact hadn’t had so much as a second to defend itself…

And while the headmaster hadn’t seen or heard from any of the Potters since that night, that minor detail was certainly no excuse for forgetting about his promise to Lily Potter, or about the Cruciatus-activated tracking spell that he’d placed on Frank Longbottom.

True, Bellatrix Lestrange was still in prison, but that didn’t mean that the Longbottoms were out of danger. There were plenty more of Voldemort’s key supporters still at large. In fact, ever since the massive corruption clean-up sweeping the Ministry of Magic had gotten underway in the wake of the veritable font of intelligence uncovered during the raid on Malfoy Manor, Death Eater arrests had pretty much ground to a halt…

He’d complained, of course, but the new interim Minister of Magic had been quite emphatic in her insistence that he keep his Order of Phoenix out of Ministry business. Nevertheless, if the Auror corps were so ineffectual that two of Wizarding Britain’s finest were being subjected to Cruciatus in their own homes, perhaps he should get the Order involved, regardless of her interdiction…

But that could wait. Unless he wished to deal with the not-to-be-underestimated wrath of one Lily Potter, he’d best rescue the Longbottoms first. There was no time to get a team together. Pausing only long enough to send off a brief Patronus message to the Potters, he converted the tracker into a Portkey, and activated it immediately.

The scene he appeared in the midst of was not quite what he’d been expecting.

For one, the dark warehouse that he found himself in bore no resemblance to Longbottom Hall. For another, neither Longbottom seemed to be a victim of an attack—Alice Longbottom wasn’t even present. Instead, what he found was Frank Longbottom and another Auror duelling both Lestrange brothers and another younger wizard, with straw-coloured hair—Barty Crouch Junior.

But it wasn’t the battling wizards that most drew his attention. Crumpled on the ground between the two parties lay a bundle of bloody cloth jerking spasmodically.

He stepped closer for a better look. Is that–? No, it can’t be—? But, yes…

A stream of cursed fire briefly illuminated a human face hidden among the soiled robes. The pain-wracked husk curled in on itself was Severus Snape.

Halfway across the country, Lily Potter burst through the fire at Longbottom Hall, her heart pumping wildly and her gaze frantic, followed, seconds later, by both her husband and grown son stumbling out of the flames, in quasi-unison.

They were greeted, not by the heated battle they’d been expecting, but by a confused Alice Longbottom dressed in her nightclothes, but nonetheless wielding a wand threateningly in their direction.

“Lily? James? What’s going on?” She lowered her wand only slightly as she recognized her unexpected guests, not ready to let her guard down just yet. It wasn’t like Lily—or James for that matter—to show up unannounced at four o’clock in the morning.

Lily frowned, confusion slowly replacing the panicked expression she’d sported on her way through the Floo, “Dumbledore sent us a message. He said that you and Frank were under attack, th—” her voice cracked, “that Frank had been hit with Cruciatus.”

Alice lowered her wand completely then. Surely, only the real Lily would persist with the foolish notion that she and Frank were fated to be attacked with Cruciatus in their own home. “You still on about that?” she asked, frustration leaking into her voice. “I told you last time. Frank and I can take care of ourselves. Besides, Bellatrix Lestrange is in prison; she’s not likely to escape just to attack us.”

Lily dropped bonelessly into the nearest chair, relief warring with confusion on her face, “But Dumbledore’s message…the tracking spell…he sounded so sure… he said—”

“Where is Frank?”

Harry’s interruption called attention away from his mother, and prompted Alice to get her first good look at him. Her eyes narrowed. The resemblance to James Potter was unmistakable, but so were the differences—and James was standing right beside him so… Her wand shot up again, “Who are you?

The elder Potters froze, a shared look of desperation passing between them, unsure how to respond, how much knowledge to trust Alice with.

Harry saved them the trouble of making up their minds, “I’m Harry Potter, James’ illegitimate half-brother.”

He smiled then, ignoring James and Lily’s matching dropped jaws, and Alice’s look of confusion, “It’s a long story.” Then not giving the witch time to ask, he changed the subject, repeating his question, “So? Where is Frank, then?”

Alice looked ready to probe further, but seemed to think better of it before the words left her mouth. Sighing, she shot Harry a final searching glance, before re-holstering her wand, deciding to trust him for now, “I’m not sure exactly. He’s on duty tonight.”

“So he might have been hit by Cruciatus, like the headmaster said,” Harry pressed.

Alice sighed. “It’s possible,” she answered, reluctantly. He was right. Cruciatus wasn’t something that you ever got used to, but when dealing with Death Eaters it was a distinct possibility. She’d been hit with it her fair share in the line of duty, including once while she was pregnant with Neville. She shuddered at the memory. She’d asked to be pulled off fieldwork the minute she’d returned to the Ministry—her job wasn’t worth the safety of her unborn child.

“You’re welcome to wait up with me, till Frank gets home, if you like,” she offered, gesturing for James and Harry to join Lily on the couch. Then, not bothering to wait for them to take her up on the offer, she sunk unceremoniously into the worn love-chair by the fire, “I’m not likely to get back to sleep now that you’ve gotten the thought of it into my head.”

She had only just sat down, however, when she suddenly shot up again, “Where is Harry?” she asked sharply, nervously, “Your son Harry? I hope you didn’t leave him alone to come rushing needlessly to my rescue.”

Lily shook her head, struggling not to over-react to the question, “Harry’s friend Luna is watching him.” Surely, Alice was not accusing them of abandoning their child?

James didn’t manage quite the same level of restraint, “Of course not!!” His tone was barely level as some of his indignation at the perceived reproach leaked through, “We would never leave our baby alone!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Alice smiled apologetically, sinking back into her seat.

Pulse calming, as his anger slowly drained away, James allowed his wife to gently guide him onto the couch between herself and their son, and, before long, a pensive silence fell over the room, as the four of them sat staring at the fire and waited, each lost in their own thoughts.

It was in that position that Frank found them, four hours later, when he arrived from work. If he found it odd that his wife was up and waiting for him, he showed no indication as he greeted her with a kiss, then launched into an account of his night, “You won’t believe who Fearghus and I caught the Lestrange brothers torturing last night! Severus Snape. I was so sure—”

Behind him, Lily gasped. No! Not Severus…Through her son’s stories, she’d just started getting used to the idea that he’d turned a new leaf, that she might be able to forgive him without getting her heart broken again, and now… She hadn’t had the chance to tell him yet, to forgive him in person, he couldn’t be…

Frank turned towards the sound, startled, his eyebrows rising as he noticed, for the first time, the guests seated on their couch. “Huh? What are you doing here?”

“Dumbledore sent us a message—”

At the mention of the headmaster Frank scowled, cutting James off mid-explanation. The old man should count himself lucky that the tracking charm he’d cast hadn’t been caught during Frank’s weekly curse-check, or Chief Warlock, or not, he’d be up on charges for interfering with an Auror’s ability to perform his duties. He’d had no business tagging an Auror with a tracking charm. Just his showing up at the scene of tonight’s attack, though perhaps useful in dispatching the Lestranges more quickly, had caused a terrible headache for Frank to clear up.

“Is Severus alright?” Lily’s worried question pulled him out of his angry musings, “Where is he now?”

Pushing aside thoughts of the headmaster, Frank took a deep breath before responding, “He’s in a bad way, Lily. They’d probably been at it for hours by the time Fearghus and I got there. By the time we got him to St Mungo’s, he was barely responsive. I’m sorry.”

A set of Aurors stood guard outside the door to Severus Snape’s room at St Mungo’s, but any indignation that Lily might have initially felt at that fact soon faded, when the pair insisted on verifying her and Harry’s names against a list of approved visitors before letting them through. The Aurors were there to protect him until such a time as it was determined that he was no longer in danger of further attacks, not because he was in any sort of legal trouble.

When, after respecting the formalities, Lily finally entered the room with her son trailing behind her, it was with trepidation: her steps slow and hesitant, afraid of what she would find. Frank’s report hadn’t exactly been encouraging, nor had the update the sentinels had given her.

He was pale; Severus had always been pale, even as a child, but this was different. This was the stillness and pallor of someone at death’s door. She took another hesitant step forward and caught sight of Headmaster Dumbledore, already seated at Snape's bedside in silent vigil, his habitual twinkle noticeably absent.

"How is he?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Still unresponsive," Dumbledore sighed, his voice strained, "They have no way of being sure of the exact numbers but the healers suspect that he was under the effects of sustained Cruciatus for several hours before anyone arrived on the scene."

"He's expected to recover though?" asked Lily, plaintively. He had to. She hadn’t had a chance to apologize yet, to tell him that she forgave him. He just had to.

The silence that followed the question was heavy, charged. Given his knowledge of the Longbottom case, back home, Harry suspected the answer was no, but he held his tongue. Lily needed to hope right now, not to have her hopes dashed by uncertain foreknowledge. Who was he to say that Snape wouldn’t recover, that Snape couldn’t recover?

It was the Headmaster that finally answered, "The healers say they won't know the extent of the damage until he wakes up, even then there may still be some improvement during the first couple of weeks, as the swelling in his brain goes down... "

Once more the silence was heavy. Though he knew it was neither the proper time nor place, Harry couldn’t help asking, "You cast a tracking spell on Frank Longbottom. Why didn’t you cast one on Snape, as well? You knew he’s been in danger since the moment he double-crossed Bellatrix Lestrange?"

"Severus knew the risks he was taking. He has always been able to take care of himself," answered Dumbledore.

"I'm sure Frank Longbottom has always been able to take care of himself as well, what with being an Auror and all..." responded Harry, "didn't stop you from adding a bit of insurance in his case...insurance that he’s quite mad at you about, by the way."

"I admit I may have been overconfident in Severus' ability to defend himself against his fellow Death Eaters, that hardly makes his condition my fault," was the unapologetic response.

"You still consider him a Death Eater!” Lily shouted, breaking up the argument with a reproach of her own. “You still consider him nothing but a pawn to be used to serve your purposes—despite what he has done to prove his loyalty, despite the risks he took to help you destroy You-Know-Who. You still consider him a Death Eater!” She glared at him fiercely, then grabbing the chair he had just vacated, sat down, hard, refusing to meet his gaze, “And that's why, if he never recovers, it will be your fault!"

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