Severus had been reinforcing the preservation spells on the jars in his office when Phineas Nigellus Black burst into the usually empty portrait frame on his wall announcing that Dumbledore was dying.
Severus hadn’t asked any questions; he’d grabbed the bag in which he kept his vast supplies of healing potions and rushed to the floo. He found Albus slumped on a couch, Mustang hovering over him with his wand trained on Albus’ right hand, a hand over which Fawkes was crying, perched on Albus’ lap. Albus’ fingers were blackened, somehow not healed despite having a phoenix crying liberally over them.
As he approached, Severus cast the most complete diagnostic spell he knew. The first thing the spell showed him was a powerful stasis charm wrapped around Albus’ whole hand, and what Severus discovered proved it had been the best course of action Mustang could have taken.
Mustang stepped out of Severus’ way without a word. Severus set the bag down and waited until all the results from the diagnostic spell had appeared —nothing good, he noted grimly— before asking Mustang to remove his charm. Severus immediately set to chanting the healing spells more likely to have any effect on this particular curse.
“There’s a vial with a golden potion in the bag,” he said without looking up from Albus’ hand. “Make sure Albus takes all of it.”
He heard Mustang move, and shortly after Mustang was keeping Albus’ head tilted back while he carefully tipped the potion down Albus’ throat. Albus’ skin was sickly pale, his eyes were lidded shut, and his breathing was heavy. However, as the potion settled and the healing spells acted, he lost some of his pallor and his eyelids fluttered open. Fawkes flew off to his usual perch, freeing Albus’ lap and giving him back some range of movement.
“What in Merlin’s name happened?” Severus demanded as soon as his concentration wasn’t required for any more spells.
“I... was a fool. Sorely tempted...”
“Tempted by what?” Severus asked, but he wasn’t the only one who spoke.
“You knew the horcrux is cursed. What were you thinking?” Mustang demanded.
Albus’ expression turned more pained than it had been, and understanding dawned in Severus. Albus hadn’t wanted Severus to know what had cursed him. For who else would dare create a horcrux but the Dark Lord himself?
Albus closed his eyes, a gesture that often heralded a refusal to give any more information. Thus, when Albus replied to Mustang’s question, Severus was understandably surprised.
“The ring… Marvolo’s ring is no mere heirloom. It surprised me. I wasn’t expecting…” Albus trailed off, his head turning sideways to look past them, at something on the floor by Mustang’s feet.
Severus turned to look, and immediately found a gaudy ring with an inlaid stone. A stone carved with a symbol Severus had only seen drawn in fairy tale books and highly speculative essays.
“You can’t be serious,” Severus breathed out, and the only reason he didn’t dismiss the possibility altogether was because the one implying it was Albus Dumbledore.
“I am very serious, my boy. That is, without a doubt, the Resurrection Stone.”
Severus was vaguely aware of Mustang tensing up next to him, but his attention was soon focused solely on the ring lying innocently on the floor.
The Resurrection Stone, the dream of many a wizard, said to be able to breach the veil between life and death. Unable to bring people back to life despite what its name implied, it could, however, bring their souls to the world of the living as a shade, allowing communication with the dead. Allowing for conversation, for a new chance to apologize—
A crackle of light snapped Severus out of his thoughts. The stone floor rose, wrapping itself in a fist around the ring and hiding it from sight.
Somehow, at some point, Severus had taken a step forward. He stepped back, startled.
He looked first to Albus, who was falling back to the couch as though he had been in the process of standing up, then to Mustang, crouched on the floor before a quickly-sketched transmutation array, a piece of chalk clutched in his right hand.
“I’ll be taking care of that ring,” Mustang said, voice firm and leaving no room for arguments. Severus had heard him speak like that once before, during a conversation about Potter’s occlumency lessons.
Severus had no intention to argue. In this room the only one who hadn’t been ensnared by the ring was Mustang. Mustang, whom Severus suspected might be the only person aside from Albus who had known about the horcrux.
Severus’ mind, now free of the shock and the ring’s fog, was trying to make the most sense of the situation, to fit it with the puzzle pieces he already knew.
“This object you have me looking for,” he started slowly, looking at Albus, “would you happen to have any idea what it looks like?”
It took a moment, but Albus responded. Again.
“There is a likely possibility of it being the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff. It might even be the Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw, if Tom was diligent and determined enough to locate it.”
Of course, Severus deadpanned in his own head. If the Dark Lord was capable of creating multiple horcruxes (which Severus didn’t find anywhere near as unlikely as he should), then why wouldn’t he have desecrated some of the wizarding world’s most cherished legendary items as he did so?
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so much, Albus had agreed to Severus’ strong suggestion that he rest for the remainder of the day, allowing Mustang to take the ring and speak to Severus about the situation. He had simply requested Severus come back tonight for a talk. The fact that Albus Dumbledore was willing to give so much freedom of movement to anyone under his command was nothing short of unprecedented, and it led Severus to once again wonder who, exactly, Roy Mustang was.
They had walked to Mustang’s office in silence, the stone fist that held the ring floating before them. Mustang set it in a corner of the room and threw a quick barrage of spells at it.
“I’ll work on something safer later,” he muttered, before turning around to face Severus.
Mustang didn’t offer a seat, and Severus didn’t request nor take one. There was so much adrenaline thrumming through his veins that he doubted he would be able to remain still much longer. He intended to go blast off some corner of the school grounds as soon as he could spare the time.
“How long does Albus have?” Mustang asked directly. Severus was surprised Albus hadn’t asked him earlier despite his exhaustion, but perhaps for once Albus was willing to respect the limits of the human body. He must already be unconscious again.
“Twenty months, two years at most. He is fortunate we were there for him after he was cursed, or he would be dead by now,” Severus replied bluntly. The Dark Lord really took no chances with his curses; the only reason Albus was alive at all was a combination of Mustang’s level headed thinking and Severus’ knowledge of the Dark Arts and Potions.
Mustang nodded, and a relieved glint in his eyes told Severus he had been expecting a worse prognosis.
“There is another horcrux you should be aware of.” That was how Severus learnt that the Dark Lord’s bloody snake, Nagini, was a horcrux.
He needed to destroy something. Badly.
Albus’ morning was shaping up to be as dreadful as the rest of the week had been so far. It had started with a very early conversation with Severus in which they had discussed Tom’s plans for Draco Malfoy, and in which Albus had drawn a terrible promise from Severus. Their meeting had been cut short by Tom’s summons of Severus through the Dark Mark. Shortly afterwards, Albus had received news from Kingsley that the Death Eaters had attacked. A muggle bridge had been destroyed, and what the aurors suspected to be giants had caused havoc on the countryside.
Albus had called an immediate meeting of the Order of the Phoenix, and sent his own patronus to go fetch Roy.
Order members were still arriving at Grimmauld Place when Tonks’ jack rabbit patronus appeared and spoke five words in what might be the grimmest voice many of those present had ever heard from Nymphadora Tonks.
“Amelia Bones has been murdered.”
Silence fell in the kitchen. Many people just stopped moving, some of them staring at the place where Tonks’ patronus had just vanished.
From the back of the room, Sirius cursed.
The Order meeting dragged on.
It appeared that Riddle was trying to overwhelm both the Order and the Ministry by making as many moves at once as he could manage. It was a show of power, a way for him to prove that, despite his losses at the Department of Mysteries, he still had plenty of pawns to use in this war.
None of the Order members who worked for the Ministry were present. Even Arthur Weasley had been called to lend his wand to the cleanup tasks required after so many public moves. This left the Order lacking in inside information save for those first reports of events.
Two hours into the meeting an owl had arrived with the morning edition of the Daily Prophet, later than its usual release time; a grim affair surprisingly lacking in pro-Ministry propaganda that betrayed how little faith many people had in the Ministry these days. For once the newspaper served as a source of information, revealing the extent of the damage from the attacks. There was an entire page in which a reporter rambled on about the future of the Ministry now that one of its most important members had been killed, a page that must have caused disquiet in more than one person. It was clear whatever organism the Ministry had in place to monitor the newspaper releases hadn’t gone over the morning’s edition before it was printed and sent out; otherwise that day’s Prophet would have been half the length it was.
Not much was accomplished that morning.
During the lunch break, a second owl arrived, this one bringing a special edition of the newspaper. Cornelius Fudge had finally been sacked, and to replace him the Wizengamot had chosen a man named Rufus Scrimgeour, who had been the head of the Auror Office until today. Despite how eager most of the Order had been to see Fudge lose his position as Minister, the mood was too sombre for anyone to show any cheer over it. Privately, Roy thought the Wizengamot had waited until Voldemort acted to dismiss Fudge, so that they could place the blame on his shoulders and have the new Minister arrive under a more hopeful light.
The articles praising Scrimgeour’s brilliant career and skills certainly suggested as much.
The Order meeting was finally over and Sirius thought its conclusion was way overdue. Nothing had been accomplished today, no useful reports given and no tasks assigned. It had been a grim affair that had reminded Sirius far too much of those last few meetings before the end of the first war against Voldemort, when loss after loss hit them and the days did nothing but grow darker. A few people had left Grimmauld Place less sober than they had arrived, but nobody had commented on it.
Only Sirius and Roy remained at the kitchen now.
“Want to stay the night?” Sirius had asked right after Dumbledore had called the meeting off, and Roy had agreed with an absent nod. If things followed the patterns from last time, then tomorrow there would be a new meeting in which their Ministry employees would report. Unless Voldemort attacked again.
“What do you say we do something useful?” Roy asked, voice calm but serious in a way Sirius rarely heard from him.
Sirius looked down from the ceiling to raise an eyebrow at Roy.
“Didn’t know there was anything useful to do,” he said, maybe more cuttingly than he had intended.
“We never did go over what you learnt from Kreacher,” Roy said.
“Not much to learn there. The little bugger used a loophole in an order to go crawling to my dear cousins.” Sirius had nearly wrung Kreacher’s neck out when he had heard Kreacher’s very unwilling answers to his questions. He had only refrained because he was better than that. Strangling a house elf in rage was something Bellatrix would do. Sirius was better than that.
“Yes, but why?” Roy asked. He leant forward on the table and laced his fingers before his mouth, fixing his gaze on Sirius. Sirius had the sudden impulse to sit up straight, and he could only guess how effective that look must be on Roy’s students.
But Sirius wasn’t a student, so he forced himself to remain slouched in his own chair.
“That’s no big mystery. Kreacher’s always hated me. He’s all for that blood purity bullshit my family used to spew.”
Roy hummed and fell silent long enough that Sirius thought the conversation was over.
“When you say your family, do you mean your brother as well?”
Sirius didn’t snort this time. It was a close thing, but that small, bitter part of him that always choked up when thoughts of Regulus came up stopped him.
“Yeah. Kreacher adored my parents, but he worshipped Regulus. He loves to bemoan that I’m the only Black left now.”
Roy hummed again. Sirius could see the figurative cogs in his brain turn, but he had never claimed to understand Roy’s overcomplicated head.
“If I remember correctly,” Roy began to say, slow and deliberate, “your brother disappeared near the end of the previous war. And from what little hints there are, it doesn’t seem like it was due to the Ministry’s actions.”
And there, in Roy’s nearly toneless words, was Sirius’ trouble with Regulus. His disappearance. The mysterious way in which he had vanished without leaving a single trace. The one fact that hinted Sirius’ little brother might not have been as on board with Voldemort’s bloodthirsty agenda as their parents had been. The one answer Sirius would never have, because Regulus was gone. And what if the rumours were true? What if Regulus had wanted a way out? What if—?
“Could you call Kreacher?” Roy asked, thankfully snapping Sirius out of that particular spiralling train of thought. It never led anywhere good.
“What are you planning?” Not that he cared for Kreacher’s fate —as far as Sirius was concerned Roy could go and burn him to a crisp— but he’d prefer to be in the know from the beginning.
“I want to talk to him. As things are, he is a threat to the Order, and keeping him confined to a cupboard isn’t a long-term solution.”
Sirius knew as much; the entire Order did. There had been more than one discreet suggestion to get rid of Kreacher, but it was an action Dumbledore wouldn’t condone, and everybody knew as much. It was why it hadn’t been suggested in any meeting since Kreacher’s treachery was discovered.
“Kreacher!” Sirius barked out.
There was a stretch of silence, the clearest sign of rebellion a house elf could show to a direct order fron their master, and then a loud crack accompanied Kreacher’s appearance before him in the kitchen. If looks could kill, Sirius would be dead.
“We have some questions for you. I’m ordering you to answer them. You can’t use magic or attempt to harm us in any way,” Sirius snapped at him.
Another stretch of silence, then Kreacher nodded with as much reluctance as he was capable of showing when faced with a direct order.
“Tell me, Kreacher,” Roy began. His voice wasn’t conversational as Dumbledore’s would have been. No, instead, it reminded Sirius of that planning session from before the Department of Mysteries.
“When you ran off to work with Lord Voldemort,” Kreacher flinched at the name, “did it occur to you that he is most likely to blame for Regulus Black’s disappearance?”
Sirius expected Kreacher to fly into a rage at those words, to attempt to lunge at Roy for daring to utter Regulus’ name before the power behind Sirius’ orders froze him. What Sirius wasn’t expecting was for Kreacher to flinch again and recoil as though he’d been struck, nor for his large eyes to widen almost impossibly.
A long silence followed, but this one Sirius suspected had nothing to do with any sort of rebellious behaviour.
“Master Regulus—“ Kreacher finally spoke, but he choked off the rest of his words. Instead, he shivered.
Master Regulus would have understood, Sirius’ mind provided. And it was true, wasn’t it? In a way. Any pureblood supporter would believe so, any pureblood supporter would reject the possibility that Regulus might have tried to flee. Especially Kreacher, who had always loved Regulus above any other in the family. If anyone was to refuse the possibility that Regulus could have changed his mind, it would be Kreacher.
And yet Kreacher had cut himself off. Refused to say the expected words.
“Kreacher,” Roy’s voice cut through the kitchen, softer than it had been before, and Sirius watched Kreacher’s body stiffen, “do you know what happened to Regulus?”
Kreacher was still as a statue, not even breathing. Only his eyes moved, up from the floor to look at where Roy was sitting, then sideways to Sirius. Sirius had no idea what his face must look like, he had no idea what he even thought of this conversation that wasn’t going anywhere he had expected it to go. Whatever Sirius’ face looked like, though, was enough to make Kreacher crumble.
Sirius had stormed off of the kitchen with a bottle of firewhiskey. After listening to Kreacher’s tale, Roy expected Sirius would pass out drunk in Buckbeak’s room. Nobody could blame him for it. Sirius clearly needed some time alone, time to grieve and fight whatever demons had ensnared him as Kreacher spoke. And Roy could do nothing but wait for him to work through his grief. For all his skills, Roy Mustang had never been one who knew how to deal with other people’s grief in a tactful manner.
Yet there was something Roy could do.
He turned his back to the door and his eyes fell on the crumpled form of Kreacher on the floor. He’d fallen there sobbing, as though a marionette whose strings had been cut, as soon as Sirius had left the kitchen.
Roy walked over and lowered himself to one knee before Kreacher.
“There is only one reason anyone would want to destroy that locket, Kreacher,” he said as softly as he could manage, which admittedly wasn’t as soft as he probably should be right now. Kreacher looked up at him and sniffled, but he didn’t speak. “Destroying it is a step to kill Lord Voldemort.”
Horror took over Kreacher’s face, and he let out a long wail right before he started slamming his forehead on the floor, insulting himself as he did.
Roy reached down to hold him still, and Kreacher thrashed and continued with his insults for a long minute before he stilled.
“It’s gone,” Kreacher whimpered. “Kreacher couldn’t destroy it, and it’s gone!” Kreacher renewed his efforts to hurt himself and Roy had to physically pull him off the floor and hold him aloft to stop him.
“It’s not,” he said, but Kreacher didn’t listen. ”Kreacher, look at me,” Roy ordered in his most authoritative voice. Kreacher froze and did as told. “The locket isn’t gone. I’m working on a way to destroy it.” Not entirely true, but before Roy could think much about it he found himself with an armful of newly-sobbing house elf swearing his services to help destroy Lord Voldemort as Regulus Black had attempted.
Usually, Tonks loved her job. Sometimes, though, she truly hated it.
After today she didn’t want to be alone, and she most certainly didn’t want even a second left with her own thoughts. Amelia Bones’ death had been hard on everyone, certainly; Tonks had respected her greatly, but above any personal feelings, Amelia’s death had put an end to the hope that the Order could count on the Ministry’s assistance to fight this war.
Yet it was the bridge that haunted Tonks.
She refused to close her eyes for fear of seeing the child. There had been many victims, both dead and injured, for the Death Eaters had attacked at the busiest hour in the morning. Tonks had seen many dead people over the years she had been an auror, and while she wouldn’t say she was used to it, she had certainly developed a certain skill to detach herself from a case. No amount of skill would have prevented her from throwing up when she saw that little boy strewn over a broken vehicle, his body ripped to pieces as though someone —a giant— had ripped him in half and tossed him aside. The terrified mask the child’s face had become in death told Tonks more than she would ever have wanted to know about his death.
She called for Grimmauld Place at the Ministry’s fireplace with barely enough conscious thought to remember to keep her voice low. She didn’t want to go home. Her parents would try to make her feel better, Tonks knew, but the only thing that might help her was to get completely plastered, and that wasn’t something she could do at home. Sirius, though, would understand. He would be more than willing to get Tonks drunk and keep her company while she wasn’t really fit to be around people.
Tonks stumbled through the fireplace and fell to her knees on the kitchen floor, barely managing to stop her fall with her hands.
She heard chairs scrape across the floor, and wondered vaguely if she had arrived during the meeting before Sirius crouched in front of her, a worried expression on his face.
“Tonks? You okay?” Sirius asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Tonks didn’t reply. Her eyes caught on who was standing behind Sirius, lingering by the table, and her tenuous control on her emotions snapped.
In hindsight, throwing her wand at Roy wasn’t the smartest move, but she needed to throw something and her wand was the only thing she had on hand.
“You idiot!” she accused, nearly choking on her words. “Don’t you dare hide again.”
Roy blinked. Tonks had never thought she would see Roy Mustang looking, for all accounts, at a loss for words.
She snorted. Then burst out laughing. If there were tears running down her face, the boys had the courtesy not to mention them. Sirius helped her to her feet and to the table, and Roy set a bottle of something alcoholic and very strong in front of her.
Tonks would remember very little of that night, and wake up on the couch with Sirius and Roy sprawled on armchairs nearly.
When Kreacher brought them coffee and a light breakfast, Tonks was fairly certain she must still be drunk.
Rufus Scrimgeour had hoped he wouldn’t become Minister for Magic. He knew the Wizengamot had been debating between him and Amelia Bones to replace Fudge, but he had honestly hoped Madam Bones would be given the job. She was a very competent woman, had always been a good boss, and she would have made a fantastic Minister. Rufus much preferred his old job as an auror, to be on the front lines fighting while others took care of the bureaucracy.
But now Amelia Bones was dead and Rufus had been made Minister for Magic. With no other competent candidates, he had been left with no choice but to accept.
He didn’t think Ministers usually spent their first night on the job waiting outside of the office of the headmaster of Hogwarts to be allowed in for an audience with the man, but Rufus knew Albus Dumbledore was the person best prepared to fight this war. Thanks to Fudge’s foolishness, the Ministry had spent an entire year in denial. Now that the war had openly started, they were woefully underprepared to fight it. Dumbledore, meanwhile, had a group of highly competent people already working to oppose the Death Eaters. Even more competent than Rufus had thought only weeks ago. He had seen the aftermath of the battle at the Department of Mysteries.
The gargoyle moved aside to reveal the staircase that led to Dumbledore’s office.
Rufus steeled himself. Dumbledore was unlikely to be amenable to Rufus’ proposals. Not that Rufus could blame him, given the events of the last year, but he hoped that reinstating Dumbledore to all his former positions would help ease the path to a common understanding.
The Ministry could use Dumbledore’s great influence and reputation. They could use Harry Potter’s public support. And the aurors would benefit greatly from knowing whatever spell Roy Mustang had used at the Department of Mysteries.