EPILOGUE - Part II

It was a beautiful morning as the clear night had promised, and when Serene woke up, she heard the blackbird sing that nested in the maple tree behind the cottage. For a moment she stayed where she was, still half in dreams, hugging Remus' pillow, taking in his scent. He got up earlier than she, and did not mind to fix breakfast. Ah, they were just perfect for each other, she sighed. Why had it taken her so long to recognise it?

When she opened her eyes, her smile widened to a delighted grin. The whole bed was covered with flowers, tiny bluebells, the kind that bloomed on the clearing by the forest pond. "Oh Lupin, you incurable romantic!" she shook her head and picked out one of the flowers to thread it into her long hair. What else could a witch want?

It took a loud knock at the entrance door to make her get up eventually. Wrapped into a robe, with open hair and bare feet, she tapped down the stairs and opened the door with a smile, expecting to see the wizard she was going to marry in ten days.

"Serene!" Abby Lupin beamed at her, obviously delighted to see her. "Jerome, come over here and tell the girl how lovely she looks today!"

Remus' father stopped unloading the broom and sat down the trunk on the doorstep. "Love becomes you," he smiled and carefully touched her arm. As an Empath he normally avoided to touch strangers, and Serene took the gesture for what it was - a welcome to the Lupin family.

"Where's our boy?" Abby turned and looked for Remus. "We were all set to come next week to help with preparations for the great feast, but when we received the letter, we decided to follow Remus' suggestion and come earlier."

Although she loved to have the Lupins here, a faint unease awoke in Serene's heart. The letter Remus had owled last evening …. The flowers on the bed … And where in the world was he?

"He wrote you should come earlier?" she inquired carefully.

"Actually, he specifically wanted us to come today." Abby smelled the jasmine that grew next to the door. "What a lovely house!"

"He said something about you needing family around you." Frowning Jerome studied the young witch's face. It needed not much empathy to feel that something worried her.

"Family …" Serene croaked. "He said I needed family?"

"Well, with the wedding and such," Abby went on and crouched down in the small kitchen-garden by the fence to pluck out some stray weeds. "Julia will come as well. Oh, the fun we'll have."

"Abby," Jerome said softly and touched her shoulder. "Forget it. She's gone."

His wife shot up and stared at the spot where her future daughter-in-law had stood only moments ago. Jerome pointed out the path along the lake that led towards Hogsmeade. "There she is, running as if the Grim was after her."

"Wedding jitters," Abby laughed delightedly. "Just remember our Helena. That girl was so nervous she forgot to put on her shoes and appeared barefoot at the ceremony."

Her husband decided that there was no need to worry her just now. Maybe Abby was right, maybe Serene was only nervous. Maybe Remus had turned and enjoyed a run through the forest right now.

But he doubted it, and suddenly the song of the black bird sounded of doom and dolor.

Serene stormed into Claire's office, not paying any attention to the house-elves who barely managed to save their lives by diving out of the witch's way. When she saw Claire standing by the window, nervously twisting the hem of her sleeve, she stopped dead.

"What is going on?"

Claire turned and gave her a desperate smile. "You tell me. Sirius disappeared this night, shortly before midnight. At first I thought he was going for a run with Remus. They do that once in a while, as you know. When he did not return for breakfast I sent word to Hogwarts, because I assumed he had a meeting with Severus. But Kiki just came back from the castle to tell me that Professor Snape did not show up for his first class this morning."

"Sirius is … was here, in your house, all the time?" Serene frowned. "I don't remember seeing him … Oh!" Understanding thawed. "The Fidelius charm."

"Only two days ago you talked to him in the garden, at the picnic and called him a stupid oaf for accidentally dripping custard onto your dress." Claire's bottom lip trembled. "He was with me all the time. But now he left."

"So did Remy." The red-haired witch's eyes froze over. "If this is some kind of antedated stag night, it's not funny."

A surprisingly strong wail from the nursery made her wince. "Was that Rose? I never heard her cry before. Is she ill?"

Wearily Claire headed for the door. "She's been restless and annoyed with something all morning long." Actually it had been the baby that woke her shortly after midnight. For the first time in her life Rose Winterstorm had not lived up to her reputation as the best baby in the wizarding world, but had screamed until her face was blue and Claire crying with desperation. All the elves had tried to calm the child, but she had wept and bawled until she fell asleep with exhaustion.

Now, when Serene and Claire entered the nursery, Rose lay in her basket and looked up at her mother unhappily, both fists clenched and her eyes already wet with tears.

"It's going to be alright, sweetheart!" whispered Claire and picked her up. The baby hiccuped and sniffled. Over the down covered head Claire's eyes met Serene's. "Something is wrong. Terribly wrong."

Serene flung back her mane of hair and looked down at her feet, for the first time aware that she wore no shoes and only a bathrobe. "Can I borrow a dress?"

Without waiting for an answer she went into Claire's wardrobe and sighed. Row by row the vintage robes of the late Mrs. Winterstorm, Claire's mother, hung there under their dust-covers. But before she could pick an appropriate dress, they heard the entrance door open.

Both women ran out of the wardrobe, and both of them stopped in their stride when they saw it was only Laurel and Jonah climbing the stairs. Both faces fell.

"Go play with Rose, honey," Claire mumbled and opened the door a gap. Jonah shook off his mother's hand and disappeared straight to the nursery, without losing a minute. The wailing of the baby stopped immediately and turned into soft sobs.

"I thought, we pay you a visit, since it is such a lively day and I won't have to teach any classes until the late afternoon."

Serene's eyes narrowed. With a sinking feeling she saw how the cheery mask crumbled. She knew Laurel too well - her friend was unable to pretend for long . She'd have made a pathetic spy.

"You knew!" she hissed.

"Yes." Laurel bowed her head.

"What are they up to?" Claire nervously curled a strand of hair around her finger.

"They decided to end this horror of threats and murder," Laurel said calmly. But under the restrained exterior Claire sensed the fear and panic that strangled their friend.

"To end it?"

Serene paled and stepped back to catch a hold at the banister. All she'd feared from the moment she'd recognised Remus had left, were confirmed by Laurel's dire words.

"They went into Voldemort's lair, didn't they?"

Laurel nodded.

For a long moment they stood there, each of them struggling with acceptance of the truth. Then Claire straightened. "Let's sit down in the living room and think about it," she said softly. "That they did not return by now, does not mean they ..."

Serene clenched her fists. "Don't say it!"

Laurel looked hat her friend with pity. "Severus once told me, the magic is not in the words but in the head and heart." She joined hands with both Claire and Serene. "Let's face it and brave the words. Something has happened, or else they would be back."

An elf appeared in the open door, hesitantly clearing it's throat. "Miss Claire?"

"Peagreen," Claire smiled, bravely disguising the deep sorrow that filled her heart.

"Professor McGonagall she sends urgent owl. She have Misses Claire, Laurel and Serene come by the castle very very fast." The elf threw up both tiny hands in a gesture of desperation. "Headmaster Albus, he be found by the gates, he be almost dead."

Serene drew in an audible gasp. "Did Minerva say anything else? About Professor Lupin or Snape?"

"About your Master?" Clare added, her voice strained with fear.

Peagreen shook her head so hard, the wispy tuft of green hair flew. "She been crying, was Professor McGonagall, she say nothing more."

"Crying." Laurel swallowed hard and went into the nursery to pick up Jonah who let out a loud wail of protest. "You can play with Rosy later." She turned to her friends. "Minerva never cries."

"Only if …" Serene did not dare finishing the sentence, not even the thought. McGonagall with her iron will and backbone would only allow tears when the unthinkable happened.

Claire nodded slowly, understanding without words. "Let's go." She scooped up the baby and felt the tiny hand touch her cheek almost comfortingly.

The four brooms had landed outside the Hogwarts gates, where Hagrid had found the Headmaster's lifeless body in the early morning hours, still tied to the broomsticks.

Now the big gamekeeper sat outside the hospital, dwarfing the furniture and clinging to his umbrella like a lifeline.

When he saw the three women hurry down the corridor, he blew his nose and gave them a shaky smile. "You should not take the children in there," he muttered hoarsely. "It's no pretty sight."

Without comment Claire deposited Rose into the gamekeeper's arms, where she looked even smaller than usually. Jonah frowned and stuck out his chin, annoyed with the arrangement.

Laurel patted his head and kneeled down to look into his eyes. "You'll stay with Rose," she said gently and pointed at the half giant who stared at the baby with a mixture of fascination and utter horror. "Rose's mom is busy, and Hagrid will need your help if the baby starts crying."

Jonah nodded sincerely and climbed a chair next to Hagrid, while his mother and her friends entered the Hospital.

The room was dimly lit and so silent the steps on the wooden floor echoed.

Madame Pomfrey stood by a side-table and mixed two steaming potions. A sharp scent filled the air. The nurse nodded curtly at Claire, Serene and Laurel, and her eyes led them to the narrow bed behind a lowered curtain.

Minerva McGonagall sat on a stool, as always straight as a rod. Only on second glance they noticed that the older witch's shouldered shook in silent sobs. She held the Headmaster's hand in between hers like a precious fragile thing.

When Laurel saw Dumbledore, she winced. The old wizard's face was pale as death, the skin translucent and tightly drawn over the skull. Even his beard seemed to have thinned. The chest rose and fell in painful gasps as if he had a hard time breathing. Every now and then a hard tremor shook the lean body.

Serene raised a hand to her mouth and bit on the knuckles so she would not cry out loud. Albus seemed to fight for every other breath. Death had touched him and now only bid his time until the wizard's physical power ran out.

"What ails him?" she whispered.

Minerva did not look up. She'd sat here since Hagrid had brought Albus into the castle, and against all reason she felt as if only her fixed stare kept the tiny spark of life alight. "It is Nothing," she answered with a calmness that made the younger women feel clumsy and awkward.

"Nothing?" Laurel frowned. The old wizard's chest was bare, no dressing covered the black hole scorched through skin and breastbone. "This … is it a burn?"

"No." Numb with shock Serene stared at the wound. It reminded her of the portal Draco had opened on top of the Fifth Tower weeks ago. "It is exactly what she said. Nothingness."

Poppy glanced at her in surprise. "You are right. We have no remedy for it. It sucks out his life, his will to survive, much like a Dementor."

A shuddering sob from Minerva made her lower her voice. "I can't do anything for him, and it drives me crazy."

Claire touched McGonagall's shoulder. "I can try to make him comfortable." Her voice was soothing like a cool cloth, and really Minerva gave way and let the healer step between her and the sickbed. Concentrating only on the body in front of her, Claire held her hands inches over the heaving chest before she slowly lowered them.

At first there was no reaction at all. Then, gradually, the painful gasps eased, the breathing became softer, steadier.

Laurel put a hand on her friend's shoulder when she noticed how all colour left Claire's face.

"It's enough."

No answer.

Alarmed Serene grabbed Claire's hand and tried to remove it from the old wizard's chest. Claire seemed riveted to the patient, her eyes empty and glassy, her skin clammy.

"Claire!"

Only with combined forces they managed to draw her away, and even then Claire needed a long time to regain her conscience. Shaking her head aghast, she stared at the wound in the Headmaster's body. "This is evil," she muttered, rubbing her temples and shivering, suddenly cold to the bone.

Madam Pomfrey wrapped a warm blanket around her shoulders and forced a goblet with steaming liquid into her hands. "Hot chocolate. I want to see this empty before I let you leave," she ordered.

Sip by sip Claire drank the hot liquid, while Serene rubbed her shoulders to get her warm again. Because it could not do any harm, Poppy passed out hot chocolate to everyone. They were a fine assembly, Laurel thought by herself. Five women, all with puffy eyes and sorrow carved into their faces.

Minerva's eyes, red-rimmed from crying and still not missing any detail, met Laurel's. "Albus is not the only one who left around midnight, isn't he?"

"No."

"Severus, Sirius and Remus are missing as well."

The Professor did not inquire how it came that Claire knew of Sirius' whereabouts when the wizard was supposed to be somewhere far away from both Aurors and Death Eaters. Instead she kept her gaze on Albus' pale face, her voice low and strained.

"Ah Albus, you fools." She shook her head hopelessly. "So many years we waited. So many times we watched the lights in the darkness and we both agreed that it didn't need a hero to fight that last battle, but many brave souls. And now …" The words hitched in her throat and her hands clamped like steel around the Headmaster's limp fingers. "Now you go, the four of you, to be heroes and get yourself killed. Where's reason in that, Albus?"

None of the three younger women dared to say or do anything, face to face with such abysmal desperation. Only Poppy was alert and practical enough to gently ease the patient's hand out of Minerva's.

"Get some rest," she suggested softly. "There is nothing you can do, and the school needs you when …" She did not need to finish the sentence. They all knew that the chance to see Albus Dumbledore resume his duties as Headmaster where as thin as the faint breath that was the only sign of life.

When Serene entered the backroom of her shop in Hogsmeade, she knew at once she was not alone. She'd left it to Jerome to comfort Abby after she'd told her future in-laws what had happened, and had sought refuge in her favourite place, amidst beautiful fabric and silk.

Her wedding-robe hung of it's stand, fairy-like, shimmering as moonlight. With a finger she traced the intricate embroidery at the bodice, and froze in midmotion, when she heard Ben's voice.

"A white wedding dress." A soft chuckle, void of any humour or warmth. "And in virginal white."

"Ben," she said and turned slowly. "I knew you'd show up sooner or later to brag."

"Brag?" He sneered at her and gave the stand a hard push that shoved it back against the wall. "I did not come to brag. I came to offer you a deal."

Hot hope shot through her heart and made her giddy for a moment. Then she remembered who she was talking to. "A deal concerning Black, Snape and Remus?"

Olsen tilted his head back and laughed. "Ah, that's my girl! Offer her one finger, and she wants your hand, your arm, your elbow!" The laughter died as suddenly as it had risen. "Black took the Dark Mark to spy on us and he'll pay for it. And Snape …" he folded both hands and scowled. "Let's just say, the Dark Lord wants to settle that bill himself. But Lupin ... him we can spare."

Serene swallowed and dug her nails into her palm to remain calm. "You'd let him go?"

"Not exactly." His eyes shone like that of a cat who'd finally cornered the mouse and was intent to have his fun with it before he killed it off. "I'll trade him."

Her eyes widened in shock. He did not need to say it, she knew very well what he wanted.

"Harry."

"Right. Potter." Ben stared fixedly at a point over her shoulder. "You could have had the world for delivering him to us. Now all you get is the werewolf."

The glance she gave him was cold as ice. "If I bring you Harry, I want Remus. Immediately. Unharmed and free to go. And the others."

Ben shook his head and crossed his arms. "No. Only Lupin. And I grant you this - if you try to frame us, or even if you are late, he'll die most painfully!"

"How do I know you let Remus go?"

A shrug and a scowl warned her not to try his patience. "You don't. But if you refuse to bring the boy, I'll assure you Lupin will die."

"When?" Nausea made her grip the side of the work table.

"Tomorrow night."

She paled. "Ben! This is impossible, and you know it." Her hand flew up. "I beg you …"

"Not!" Suddenly the mask fell. The hatred that burned in his eyes made her retreat instinctively. "You … whore! Don't you dare to beg me for that man's life! I'd gladly tear him to shreds with my very hands. Maybe then I'll forget you let him touch you."

Madness, thought Serene and pressed a hand to her mouth. He'd finally cracked.

"Voldemort gave him to me, and believe me the prospect of torturing Lupin to death is a sweet one. But I'll refrain, and this sacrifice will secure my position at Voldemort's side. I'll bring him Harry Potter, and then our battle is won."

Her hand closed around the muggle scissors, just in case. She knew he'd be faster with a wand than she, she'd watched him fight a few duels with Snape in their time as students. But he'd not expect a blade, would he? But killing him here and now would not better Remus' situation ...

Ben clenched his fists and a blue vein on the side of his neck pulsed dangerously. "Tomorrow by midnight," he spat. "If you are late, Lupin is dead meat."

She nodded, dazed with fear. "How shall I find you?"

"I'll send a broom, strong enough to carry you and the boy. And remember - if anybody follows you, you'll have to dye that dress." He pointed at the wedding robes on their rack, and bowed with a sneer in her direction. "To black."

"I should have known you'd betray us." Sirius narrowed his eyes and stared at his former friend and classmate. Either he'd lost his sense of time, or the Death Eaters had concentrated darkness and night at their lair permanently. He could barely make out anything further away than a few meters. "Was it worth it, Wormtail? Was it worth giving up your life and sacrificing James' and Lily's?"

His voice dripped with disgust and contempt. He knew it was Pettigrew standing before him, but there was nothing he recognised of the timid boy who'd shared their dorm. The whole body appeared to have been replaced gradually by metal parts, and only the left side of Peter's face was still of soft flesh and able to show emotion.

Right now, while he slowly circled the stakes the prisoners had been tied to, the human side of the face showed only hatred. The flickering shine of the fire in the middle of the graveyard reflected in the metal. But when he turned to Sirius, there was something - only for the bat of an eyelid - a trace of shame.

"What would you know about life, Black?" he sneered, his voice slurred by the partly rigid side of his mouth. "You always had everything I wanted. Success, girls, self-assurance."

Sirius only closed his eyes, while his thoughts went back to his younger days, so filled with insecurity and fear. How could Peter believe it had been only him who'd suffered during his teenage years? He was sure Remus had not had it easy, as well. What had instilled such petty envy and jealousy in Peter? What had awakened the wish to torture?

Voldemort's second in command had taken his time with him. Obviously being the Dark Lord's companion had taught Peter a great deal about pain - and he'd clearly enjoyed not to be on the receiving end for once. While Ben Olsen had rushed Remus through a rapid succession of Crucio curses, Peter had considered every move, every step to achieve the desired result. Agony.

Sirius had refused to give the metal man the satisfaction of hearing him scream, although he'd come close twice. Only the fact that he could hear what Voldemort did to Severus had kept him silent. His tongue was swollen and raw from biting it. All he wanted was being left alone now but Pettigrew's next words made his eyes open wide.

"Ben says he saw your little wife today," Peter chuckled and probed with one of his clawlike fingers the depth of a wound in Sirius' right arm.

"Claire:" The beloved name was out before Sirius could reign the impulse.

"Claire, yes, that's her name." Peter smirked. "It is kind of hard to keep all the names apart, isn't it, Padfoot?" The claw dug deeper and cold sweat appeared on Sirius's forehead. "But I must say, respect, old boy! That lady hates the guts of you."

Sirius managed to keep his face noncommittal with an effort. Of course Claire had kept up the pretence of him and her having nothing in common but a short unhappy marriage. Still it hurt. He knew she'd lied to Olsen's face and he was proud about her level head, but it hurt.

"On the other hand," Peter continued, "it is us who should be grateful about the way you betrayed and discarded the witch. It made her a devoted follower of our Lord Voldemort. More even, a rich devoted follower."

"I don't give a damn," mumbled Sirius when the claw ripped the wound open, although all his senses screamed with the pain.

"She'd even pay a considerable sum to see you die." Disappointed by his victims reluctance in expressing his pain, Pettigrew stepped away. "And once she's received the Dark Mark, witch will by tomorrow midnight, she and the Winterstorm fortune will be ours. But you'll be dead by then, so that should be of minor interest for you."

Sirius froze amidst the heat from the fire and the burning agony Pettigrew had inflicted. Claire was to come here? Oh Merlin, could she be so foolheaded?

He glanced around him desperately, trying to make out more than flickering shapes. To his far left stood Remus, tied by silver chains. The stench of silver eating into the Werewolf's flesh was unmistakable. The soft moans of pain Sirius could hear once in a while, had to be Remus' then.

Snape hung on the stake between them, at least Sirius thought the dark figure to his left was that of the Potions master.

"Snape!" he whispered but got no reply.

His head sunk. He felt warm blood trickle down his arm from the fresh wound. All was lost. He could only hope to be dead by tomorrow night. For Claire's sake.

Laurel kissed Jonah's cheek and tucked him under for his nap, and for once he closed his eyes without protest. It was obvious he pretended to be asleep, because he felt how upset she was. That her distress was affecting the child, made the whole situation only more strenuous. Her temples throbbed. She'd kept her daily schedule, although teaching first years the difference between a Goblin rebellion and a goblin riot was the last thing on her mind. But with both Professors Snape and Lupin missing, she had felt obligated to stick to her classes.

Serene had returned home to gently inform the Lupins of Remus' fate, Claire had brought Rose back to Winterstorm Manor, and Poppy had coaxed Minerva into getting some rest. On Professor Flitwick's offer Laurel had gratefully accepted the excuse from lunch in the Hall and stayed with Jonah. But there'd be another class in the afternoon, and after that she'd meet again with Serene and Claire. They had to come up with a plan. Time was running out.

Tiredly she cleaned the table and decided to sit down again. She'd not slept last night, and needed only a moment to gather her courage and her wits.

Her head resting on her arms, she fell asleep.

When she saw Severus sitting in his chair by the fire, she knew it was only a dream. Some part of her mind, still reasonable, told her so. Nevertheless her heart beat faster. When she tried to say something, he raised a hand.

"I don't have much time, Laurel."

His face was pale. Blood had tried in the corner of his mouth, and the words came painfully slow. The dark eyes burned into hers. "They might hear us. So you need to listen, carefully."

"A riddle. Sometimes we see what we want to see." He rose from the chair and winced when he strained the left leg. "Sometimes we see what we fear to see. But it's the truth that will set us free."

His finger touched her cheek, and in the dream she cried the tears she'd denied herself in her waking hours. "Remember what makes you different, love. Use it."

She reached for him, tried to hold him back, but he faded away like morning fog.

When Laurel awoke, she felt confused and dazed, but the image of the Potions master and his words stayed with her all day.

Laurel looked up when the door opened and the unveiled hope in her eyes broke Serene's heart. Jonah ate his dinner unusually calm and orderly, as if he felt his mother's despair. Serene kissed his cheek.

"I'll read you tonight's story, alright?"

The boy hugged her and gave her a big kiss. "Mommy, too." Then he whispered into Serene's ear. "Mommy has aua."

"Aua?"

"Mommy cries."

Serene looked up quickly. "Mommy is only tired. So I'll tuck you in and then I make your mommy better." She only wished she could. In fact she'd make her friend's grief and despair only worse by telling her about her decision.

Jonah gave Laurel a hug and went to bed, not without throwing a last glance at the Potion master's empty chair.

When Serene returned from the nursery after half an hour, Laurel still sat by the table, deep in thoughts. Only when Serene sat down next to her, she looked up and gave her a grateful if forced smile that did not reach her eyes.

"I did not want Jonah to see me fret," she said. "I thought I could pretend all was well, until he was asleep."

"He misses his father, too." Serene took her hand. "I bring bad news. I wish I could spare you, but I can't."

Laurel winced and could barely suppress the instinct to clamp her ears. "Severus. He is dead?" Her voice hitched. "He can't be dead. I still … feel him."

"No. Not that." Serene shook her head. "Let's wait for Claire. This concerns both of you."

In silence they waited, and when Claire eventually entered, Laurel's nerves were unbearably strained.

She ushered her into a chair, set a cup and saucer in front of her, pushed sugar and milk over the table, and snapped her fingers to put up the kettle again. Then she stared at Serene.

"Claire is here. Now talk!"

Serene sighed and laid both hands flat onto the table. Avoiding to meet anybody's gaze, she searched for words.

"Ben showed up at the cottage," she said softly.

Claire's head jerked up. "He paid me a visit as well."

"Had a busy day, our friend," scowled Laurel.

"He offered me Remy's life. For a price." She looked up, her face void. "I'll deliver Harry."

"You can't do this, Serene," Laurel protested sharply, while Claire could not hold back the tears any longer. "You know what will happen to the boy as soon as they can lay their hands on him."

"They'll kill Remy. Ben told me twice and he was not joking, believe me." She stared out of the window Severus had charmed into the dungeon walls for Laurel. "I can't live without Remus." A shiver went through her body. "I simply can't."

"But can you live, knowing you had to sacrifice Harry? Can Remus live with it?"

Serene pressed her forehead against the cold window pane. "If sacrificing Harry could save Severus, would you give it a second thought?"

Laurel paled and her hands gripped the armrests of the chair. Would she? Could she buy the life of the man she loved by destroying the world. "It is not just a life for a life," she said slowly, "but Remus' life for the defeat of the Light. Many more deaths. Innocents. Children. Squibs."

Serene winced. She'd never wasted a thought to the fate of those among the wizarding community who where born magicless. Not until she'd met and befriended Claire. Deep in her heart she knew Laurel was right. Neither Remus nor she herself could live with such a burden of guilt.

"But what can we do? How can we get there, if not through Harry?"

Claire looked up, suddenly deadly calm, her clear grey eyes cold as ice. "I'll be there."

Laurel's brows knitted when she stared at the petite blond woman, who radiated such steady power. "With the Death Eaters? Are you crazy, Claire?"

"I have been there before," said Claire, raising one faire eyebrow. "I'll attend the execution tomorrow night. My attendance is requested by the Dark Lord himself. Or more specifically, my money is requested."

"It is too dangerous!" Serene grabbed Claire's shoulders and shook her hard. "Have you lost your mind? You are a squib! What if they force you to take the Mark? It will probably kill you right on the spot!"

"Serene, you are not the only one who is willing to sacrifice her soul for the man she loves," Laurel said softly. "But Claire, Sirius would not want you to do that. Think about Rose."

"Rose needs a father." Claire's words left no doubt she'd made up her mind and would not be persuaded otherwise. "And if I have to buy him, I will."

"Buy him?" Serene repeated after her, incredulously. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"They want the Winterstorm fortune," Claire shrugged. "They'll get it, if I get Sirius. I'll claim that I want the privilege to take revenge for the shame he brought to the family name." Her hands trembled and she folded her arms to keep them still. "I'll buy the other two as well."

"Claire …" Laurel shook her head. "I don't think ..."

"It won't work." Serene's throat ached when she had to make her friend face the bitter truth. "It is Peter Pettigrew who claims Sirius, and Voldemort has already granted him permission to kill him. And Severus …" She avoided Laurel's glance. "Severus is …"

"Voldemort's." The word came soft, far too calm. "The Dark Lord promised him he'd pay for defying him."

"Yes."

"Is there nothing we can do?" A teacup shattered against the dungeon wall, and two pairs of eyes widened in shock when Claire pushed her chair back and banged her fists against the table. "You are witches, damn it! Is there no spell, no curse we can use? I don't care whether it is black or white magic, Fair or Dark Arts!"

"Dark Arts!" Serene's spat the words out and her green eyes shot fire. "There is no art in this, it's plain old blackmail and duress!" Her hands shook so hard she had to set the teacup down. "Do you remember, Laurel, when we were students and Remus used to teach us all that stuff about Vampires and Boggarts and Kappas? It all seemed terribly romantic, then. Even when Dumbledore told me his little parable about the darkness and the light, it sounded … thrilling. And now it comes down to death and destruction."

"How could you ever find anything like that fascinating?" Claire stared at her friend in disbelieve. "Just to remember the one Death Eater's meeting I attended gives me the creeps! even the air there smelled of evil."

"It's power that's fascinating," muttered Serene, "not evil per se. To live without restraints, without rules. I see what attracts some to Voldemort." Her cheeks reddened in shame. "Why it attracted me."

Claire's hand covered hers. "I did not mean it like that.

"But it is the truth. And only Remy stood between me and them."

"Do you believe in dreams, that they can give you some kind of … vision?" Laurel rubbed her burning eyes. Something in Serene's recollection of Lupin's lectures had made her think, and a question she'd pondered all day long, had found an answer. A foolish one, but still an answer.

Serene shrugged. "I never cared much for visions, you know that. But I … dreamed of Remus, once. Long before I actually met him."

"Did you dream of a way to free the men?" Claire's practical sense brought them back. "There is something ... maybe …"

"What are you thinking of?"

"Something that happened in our first year at Hogwarts." Suddenly breathless with anxiety she grabbed Serene's sleeve. "Listen …"

When she was done, she looked at them insecurely.

Serene frowned and shook her head. "This is risky."

"It's risky and completely crazy." Claire nodded solemnly. "And that's why it is going to work." She gave them a shaky grin. "I hope."

Laurel's face broke into a smile the first time since Severus had left, and she rose to get more tea.

"I can only hope that this is what you meant me to do, my love," she said softly to herself while her fingers caressed Snape's favourite mug. Then she turned to her friends, her mind made up, her back straight. "The truth will set us free ..."