Most of the guests had left Snape Hall after the accident, once Draco and Diamond had promised to let them know how the children were doing, but McGonagall had stayed. Timothy was good friends with Freddy and Seth. She felt it would be good for both boys if Timothy kept Seth company while she gave Severus a little more mature moral support than the younger generation could provide.

Now that the venom had been fully neutralized, healing spells were able to work. The swelling in Fern's leg had gone down and the awful blue-black discoloration had faded to a bruise the size of a galleon around the two fang marks. The girl was deep in an exhausted sleep. Moss was also sleeping in the bed beside her. The little twins' hands were tightly clasped. Minerva tucked the blanket up around them.

Severus's eyes refocused, the only sign that he had been communicating with Hermione. Minerva asked, "Is there any news?"

"Poppy thinks he's going to be all right, but she won't know for certain until he wakes up. She's going to examine him again this evening right before visiting hours are over. Why in Merlin's name he decided to sun himself where people were walking around, and how she managed to step on him-!"

"Severus, it was an accident. Yes, it could have been prevented. In hindsight, most accidents could have been. But now that it has happened, recriminations over honest mistakes will not help you or them."

He favored her with a curt nod. She knew that was as close as he would come to admitting that she was right.

There was a tap at the door. Severus opened it to find Timothy and Seth standing out there, all large dark eyes in pale faces. "Is Fernie all right?"

"Be quiet so that you do not wake her," he admonished, then stepped aside so that they could see for themselves. "You may go back and tell the others that Miss Goyle should make a full recovery."

Seth said, "They didn't mean it. They're not in any trouble, are they?"

Severus said, "Only that which their accident has created for them. We shall hope to minimize that."

"Yes, sir."

The boys returned to the great hall. Minerva said, "You should check on your daughter and rest while you can, my lad. It promises to be a long night with Mr. Burke. I will stay with these lasses."

Severus nodded. "Thank you, Minerva."


Hermione got home just after ten, when Poppy came back.

"Is there any news?"

Too tired to repeat it aloud, she wearily spun out her memory of her conversation with Poppy. They wouldn't know how much of his paralysis was permanent until he woke up, and Poppy wanted them there when he did.

She pulled off her robe and chemise on her way into the bath, and stepped into the shower. That was where Severus found her all but asleep on her feet. He shut off the water and cast a drying charm. She staggered to the bed and was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

Severus got a few hours' restless sleep, and then went downstairs to check on Fern. Minerva was in her cat form. Luminous yellow eyes regarded him without blinking as he opened the door. She stood and stretched, and then unfolded into human form as she leapt off the chair. She landed with a silent strength and grace that gave the lie to her years. "They've been sleeping all evening," she whispered.

"So has Hermione. May I offer you a firewhiskey?"

"That you may, lad."

Diamond and Draco were sitting by the hearth in the great room. Both of them bowed their heads as the two professors entered. Severus acknowledged them and poured two glasses of firewhiskey, then courteously sat and kept his eyes downcast until Minerva had taken her seat.

After a brief, polite conversation, the younger witch and wizard excused themselves to allow their elders their privacy. Minerva asked, "Is there any word of Mr. Burke?"

"We will know nothing until tomorrow morning. Madame Pomfrey wishes for Hermione and myself to be there when she allows him to waken."

McGonagall sipped the whiskey and enjoyed the pleasant burn. It settled her nerves nicely after the day's excitement. "You would think after having taught for fifty-odd years, I would no longer be surprised at the accidents that young witches and wizards contrive to have. I must say, though, I never would have imagined this one."

Snape had to agree. "Thank you for staying."

"You are more than welcome," she smiled.

They sat there quietly passing the time for a while after their glasses were empty. When they had calmed down enough to rest, Snape made sure she and young Timothy had rooms for the night, then he went back to bed.

He and Hermione had to be back to the hospital early the next morning. Hermione felt an ice-cold dread take hold of her heart when Poppy cast a light enervate to cancel the spells keeping Freddy asleep. Severus stood at her back, not touching her but giving her strength nonetheless. Hermione thought of Molly Weasley and silently asked Mother Helga for a little of Hufflepuff's brand of courage as the boy started to blink his eyes.

"Freddy, can you hear me?" Poppy asked. Hermione and Severus were both a little too familiar with the tone she adopted. It cut through the confusion of waking in a strange place to a serious injury.

He answered with a low moan. Hermione reached out to take his hand. "Freddy, you're safe now. Wake up and talk to us."

"Madame...?"

"Yes, I'm here. Open your eyes."

He did so, staring at her blearily.

Poppy took her place and started to run the neurological scans, in between reassuring and comforting the boy.

Severus breathed a prayer of thanks to whatever gods might still be disposed to hear him when the boy jerked his foot when the mediwitch touched her wand to his big toe.

Freddy moved his legs when Poppy asked him to, but he was weak and tentative. "That hurts."

Poppy said, "It might for a while, but at least you can feel them now, right?"

He nodded. "Like I'm wrapped in cotton, but my legs are there at least. Master Snape, it wasn't Fernie's fault. She didn't mean to step on me. Is she all right?"

Snape replied, "She is. You must have greatly restricted the amount of venom that you injected. It was also very good thinking to tie her shoelace around her leg. That served to slow the spread of poison very greatly. She was also adamant that the incident was entirely accidental and that you were not to be shipped off to Azkaban."

Freddy winced and said, "Yes, sir, but did the Aurors listen to her?"

Poppy and Hermione laughed and it even got a smirk out of Snape. He commented dryly, "Yes, you young miscreants appear to have so far escaped the Aurors' notice."

Freddy looked Poppy in the eye. "Madame Pomfrey, will I be able to walk?"

She made it a practice of never lying to children. "Yes, but I don't know yet how well. What I do know at this moment is that your spinal cord is carrying signals across the break. That is the greater part of the battle. The reason why your legs are not working properly is that there is still some swelling, which is squeezing the nerves. I am going to give you a Muggle pill called cortisone, which will help relieve that. I know what you probably have heard about Muggle medicines and most of the time you would be right. This medicine, however, does not have a magical equivalent, and it is highly effective for short-term use. We shall let the medicine work for a few days, then see how you are doing."

"Is that why I feel like I'm wrapped up in spellotape?"

"That probably is because you are under a binding which prevents you from taking your animagus form at the moment. You need to wait a few days until your insides finish healing before you transform."

He asked in a small voice, "Did I almost die? 'Cause I remember my Mum and Da were there."

"You had quite a close call yesterday," Poppy said. "You had us all pretty scared when we first found you. You're going to be all right now! But for a few minutes there, I shouldn't be surprised at all if your parents came to you and let you know they were watching out for you." She tapped her wand on his bedside table to summon a glass of apple juice and some clear broth. "Now I want you to try to finish those."

"Yes, Madame," he said.


That evening, Freddy was allowed to go home. The prednisone did the trick, and after a few days, he was able to walk normally. Thanks to a combination of magical healing, and Poppy's willingness to use things that worked even if they were from the Muggle world, he escaped serious consequences of what could have been a deadly misadventure. From the moment he returned to Snape Hall, the four children were inseparable.

Hermione remembered the incidents of her own second year. Ron, Harry, and she had truly understood how easily one or more of them could have died, and nothing after that had ever been the same. Life became more immediate. They treasured one another more.

McGonagall was happy to agree to show Katie wizarding Aberdeen, so she spent a few days there before returning to London to begin working in Madame Malkin's shop. Not too long after that, she introduced a new line of clothing that was designed to travel between the wizarding and Muggle worlds without raising eyebrows in either place.

Robe and dress ensembles with less ornate lines and hems that reached just below the knee were the most popular. Another practical item was a very Muggle jacket with a hidden wand pocket in the sleeve. Katie had also seen Hermione and Diamond working in the lab. She had designed a tunic with long sleeves, also with an easy to access wand pocket and several other very useful pockets, but with close-fitting cuffs that wouldn't get in their way or present a danger around the burners, as robes were likely to do. Worn with heavy slacks and boots, this very safe and practical outfit flattered the figure while still preserving the modest, professional image most career witches wished to project. Away from the bench, one could comfortably wear a robe over the outfit.

School age girls began wearing the tunic over ripped jeans with the clunkiest army boots they could find in Muggle surplus stores, a fashion statement that clearly took the toughest aspects of both worlds and threw it in the face of prejudice. If their parents winced, they had something in common with parents in the Muggle world. Parallel worlds were slowly converging, one tentative step at a time, careful to toe the line of the secrecy laws while cheerfully tossing the spirit of the law right out the nearest window.

At the same time, those rebellious kids had decided it was cool to respect the old traditions and call each other sir and madame. Honor and pride were back in style, and so was achievement. The generation that had saved their world felt like they could do anything. They had setbacks, not failures.


That attitude infuriated Bellatrix LeStrange. The Death Eaters had always traded on terror, but this new breed of wizards and witches weren't terrified anymore. At one time, the spectacle of the morsmordre hanging in the sky and the sight of dark-robed, masked wizards had sent people fleeing in a panic. Now it would be a call to arms. She no longer could mass the numbers to challenge the might of the Aurors, especially now that they were likely to be reinforced by an irate and far from helpless citizenry.

Rodolphus counseled, "Have patience, beloved Lady. Our plans at Durmstrang progress well. Soon five young wizards and witches will join us to take the Mark from your wand. We will rebuild our numbers, and then the wizarding world will once again tremble before us. All the world will one day prostrate themselves before your dread glory."

She stroked his cheek with a pale, bony hand. "Your faith in me pleases me greatly, Rodolphus. It shall be as you have said. I shall rule, with you as my consort. I treasure every new subject, but they are still young. They have much to learn before they will be ready, and that takes time. In the meanwhile, the wizarding world has forgotten who we are!"

"How do you propose to remind them, my Lady?"

Bellatrix smiled coldly. "If they want to live like Muggles, then let them die like Muggles. Those young people who were not suitable to invite into our ranks? I have a use for one of them. Choose one who truly believes in our cause."

"As you desire."

"And, my sweet? Have someone find Theo for me. I want him to build a nice surprise for the shoppers in Diagon Alley."

Rodolphus smiled and bowed low over her hand, then backed away several steps before he turned to have Theodore Nott summoned. He had always thought Voldemort had made too little use of Theo's surprises.


A week later, Hermione and Diamond rounded up the girls for a shopping trip one Sunday afternoon. They had two portkeys. Marigold, Tamira, Sheila and Penthia went with Hermione, while Diamond brought Moss, Fern and Moire. Hermione took them to the candy shop first, and then let them go to Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes. She rattled off a list of the things that were off limits (to the little kids, anyway, she was prepared to cut the older girls some slack as long as they didn't set off anything too messy or malodorous indoors.) Then she chatted with George and Fred's wife Angelina while the girls darted around between harmless jokes, fireworks, and a large cage full off Pygmy Puffs. The adults paid no attention to the various things that blinked, beeped and whirled overhead in crazy circles.

Hermione rolled her eyes as she realized she was going to be zookeeper to a tribe of Pygmy Puffs. And she was going to have to lay the law down to Severus before he even thought about making any snarky remarks about turning them into potions ingredients. It was entirely for his own good. Considering the sappy looks the girls were giving the little beasts, it could be decidedly hazardous to be perceived as a threat to the creatures. With a long-suffering sigh, she told Fred, "You'd might as well give me a large bag of puffskein kibble."

He and George flashed her identical grins. "We just love..."

"...large families!"

Fred told her, "I'll bring this stuff up to your house after work, if you want."

"Would you? I'd appreciate it."

She pretended not to notice a few things sneaking out of the bags and into little girls' pockets.

From there, Hermione took the girls on down to Madame Malkin's while Diamond went in the apothecary's with their order for the laboratory. Hermione saw Katie waiting on an elderly witch.

Madame Malkin clapped her hands. "Oh, my! School clothes already?"

"No, that we have. We're looking for something for summer."

"Right this way, ladies," the shopkeeper smiled.

None of them noticed a short, thin teenage boy enter the shop and head straight for a rack of bargain robes in the back of the shop. The adults were quite busy keeping track of the younger teens. The old lady left with her purchase, and Katie came over to help wait on the girls.

Diamond came in and corralled Penthia and Moire, who had discovered a rack of lingerie that was much too old for the two of them. She sent them back to the front of the store towards more suitable garments.

A soft hiss in the back of the store caught her attention. She looked up to see magic sparking around a black ball the size of an orange which was floating in front of a teenage boy. She jumped out into the aisle between everyone else and the boy, and screamed, "PROTEGO!"

Hermione threw herself on top of the littlest girls, bearing them to the floor with her. Penthia and Marigold's shields went up a few heartbeats behind Diamond's.

Then the shop blew apart.

Diamond's protego held through most of the blast, but when it finally failed, she was thrown through the air with all manner of shrapnel. Thanks to her, the younger girls' shields held. The worst of it went over Hermione's head.

Madame Malkin was thrown to the ground. She screamed as a large cabinet fell, crushing her legs.

She looked up to see the boy, somehow still alive though he was obviously fatally injured, raising his wand to her.

"-av-"

Malkin was a split second faster. "AVADA KEDAVRA!"

A second later, she was the one still breathing.

People flooded the shop, casting aguamenti on the fires that were starting and getting injured people out of the building.

Severus touched on their link, wanting to know what was happening. She spun out an image of the street, and moments later he, Draco, Erik, and Kender arrived, wands out. The little boys had been left behind to "guard the baby."

A squad of Aurors led by Alastor Moody apparated in, and healers from St. Mungo's weren't far behind them.

Diamond was shaken, possibly mildly concussed by the blast, and had some superficial cuts and bruises, but she seemed stable. The only one severely injured was Madame Malkin, but she was more hysterical that she had cast an Unforgivable and killed someone.

Moody grabbed her and shook her out of it. "DAMMIT don't you dare go into shock and die on me over some fuckin' Death Eater who was trying to kill you!" He pointed at the morsmordre hanging over the shop, faint but still visible in the broad daylight. "It was SELF-DEFENCE!" He roared.

The next thing he knew he had an armload of weeping shopkeeper.

One of the Aurors flicked his wand at the morsmordre and it disappeared in a series of green flashes. The crowd that had gathered in the street roared their approval.

Diamond shook off a mediwitch's attempt to fuss over her. She wasn't going to stay on her back a minute longer than she had to, when for all she knew another attack was imminent.

Snape sent her and Draco home with the children, while he and Hermione joined Moody and the Weasley twins. Moody asked Hermione, "What did you see?"

"Not a lot. The boy who set off the blast was behind me. I heard Diamond put up a shield, and then the blast went off. I knocked down the three littlest girls and covered them up as best I could. Penthia's shield was sort of over us, too. Then the boy started to cast a killing curse, but Madame Malkin beat him to it."

Moody said, "I told her he was a Death Eater, Severus, but do you think he really was, or just some nutter who knew how to cast the morsmordre?"

Severus scowled. "He might have been either, but Bellatrix has too few followers to send one on a suicide mission."

"So you think Bellatrix is still alive and behind this?"

"I can't imagine anyone else going out of their way to let us know the Death Eaters are still in business, can you?" Severus asked.

Alastor bit out a lurid oath. "No, more's the pity, I can't."

Hermione said, "It was a terrorist suicide bombing. Muggle extremists do it all the time. They send some fanatical low-level member of the organization to walk into somewhere crowded and set off a vest full of explosives."

Fred said, "I know Bella's crazy, but nobody's going to blame a magical explosion on Muggles."

Severus told him, "Of course not, but she wouldn't be above using a strategy that has been effective for Muggle terrorist organizations. We should find a better place than the middle of the street to talk about it."

Moody nodded. "See about your family while you've got the chance. The Minister will probably call an Order meeting at the Residence tonight, or I miss my guess."

They returned home and got the children settled. Diamond had pushed her own emotions down below a calm facade of Slytherin stoicism because her little sisters needed her to be strong for them. Hermione came up to her and it was like the changing of the guard. Draco put a snifter of brandy in Diamond's hands, which were only now beginning to shake.

Snape told her, "You probably saved your foster sisters' lives today, and you put your life on the line to do it. Well done, Miss Halstrom."

"Thank you, sir." She straightened. Plain-spoken praise was a rare thing for Snape, and it did her a world of good.

"What did you see?"

"It happened very quickly, Master. The boy had a device of some sort, a black ball a little larger than my fist. It was fizzing like the larger fireworks do before they explode. I suppose I thought it was some sort of fireworks, so I cast a shield. But then it went off, and it was so much more than a wizarding rocket. I couldn't block all of it. I knew that my shield was going to fail and I was so afraid the little ones would be hurt...and then I was lying on a pile of robes. I suppose the explosion must have knocked me off my feet, but I don't remember. Then there was...that horrible green flash. I couldn't get my feet under me to see who was dead and my hand...just wouldn't close around my wand...even though someone in there was throwing AKs. It must have been only seconds, but it felt like forever until I could get myself together."

Snape told her, "A large explosion like that is as effective as any stunner. You did well to shake off the effects as quickly as you did. What did the healer tell you?"

"Nothing, she wanted me to lie still. But things were still somewhat confused, sir, I wanted to be able to defend myself."

"Quite," Snape agreed. "Mr. Malfoy, see Miss Halstrom to her quarters and make certain that she has not sustained a serious concussion. Stay with her and wake her every hour. Miss Halstrom, I regret that a pain potion is contraindicated until we are certain that you do not have a head injury."

Diamond bowed her head. "I'm all right, sir. But a bit of a lie-down does sound good right now."

"Let us know if you have any nausea or double vision."

"Yes, sir."

Severus and Hermione noticed the way Draco put his arm around Diamond's shoulders as he took her upstairs to her room. They also noticed that Diamond made no attempt to dislodge it. Severus commented, "I think this close call may have encouraged our Draco to put himself forward."

Hermione said, "It's about damn time. All I can say is, he'd better treat her right. If I see the Ferret pop his head up for just five seconds, I'll hex him into next week."

Amused, he said silkily, "Ah, the lioness defends her pride. You need have no fear for Miss Halstrom. She is quite capable of standing up for herself, and remember, she was in Slytherin House with him for several years."

"So she has informed me," Hermione conceded. "They do make a nice couple."

Her husband smirked. "One would think you were a Hufflepuff, with your determination to see everyone paired off."

"That is more a female trait than one belonging to any house," she said.

"What troubles you?"

Hermione said, "I let Bellatrix LeStrange escape alive and now look what's happened."

"I have no regrets that you don't think in terms of the killing curse, Hermione. That is the difference between you and our dear Bella."

"Tell that to Madame Malkin. She had to do what I hadn't the stomach for, and that's my fault."

"No, it's Millicent Bulstrode's fault for having the courage to jump in front of your wand to apparate out with her Lady. By all rights that cutting charm should have done for Bellatrix. I wonder what her followers did to save her. The pity is that I can no longer serve the Order as a spy, because we are in desperate need of information."

Hermione said vehemently, "You are well out of it. I will not share you with Bellatrix. Spying on one maniac was enough for any one lifetime."

"I will not disagree with you," he said. In the old days, he would have been expecting his Mark to burn and summon him to his lord's side right about now, to celebrate a "victory." Those celebrations still haunted his nightmares. He was not sorry that his spying days were over. At the same time, he might have had the chance to prevent this attack, or another one like it.

Nothing was more useless than "might have been." Besides, he had no doubt about one thing. His Lady of Light would never consent to share him with anyone, Bellatrix LeStrange least of all.

Hermione went upstairs to get Carrie, and they and the children spent the afternoon together in the Great Room. Children are quite resilient, and from their point of veiw no real harm had been done to their side. They were easily assured that the Healers would be able to fix Madame Malkin right up. Broken bones were not much cause for concern to magical children, after all. Hermione and Severus were appalled that they had taken witnessing a killing curse in stride, as Diamond would also have been. Death, even by the foulest of dark magics, didn't horrify the younger children who remembered nothing but wartime. They had already seen it all before. At the same time, none of them showed any interest in studying the Dark Arts.

"They've seen enough of evil that there is no lure of the forbidden," Severus said. "It was for this very reason that I argued Dumbledore was wrong to stop teaching the Dark Arts. Those who wish to learn will find the path. Better that they see it for what it is before they are tempted."

Hermione bowed her head. "Yet, I could never teach the Dark Arts to a child, even if I weren't bound not to."

He touched lightly on her memory of Bartie Crouch, disguised as Moody, torturing a spider with the Cruciatus curse. "Our lord would have been most displeased with Bartie for turning an entire year of Gryffindors against the Dark, I think." His amusement came through clearly. "But that is not your purpose. You tempt them to the Light, my Lady. You do not know your allure."

"I almost think that you are serious."

"I am. Do you think that I alone would lay down my life for you? Even the children recognize the Goddess in you, though they do not realize or understand yet what it is that they see."

Hermione shuddered. She didn't want that calm declaration that he would die for her. She could never live with that. "My hope of survival lies only in yours, Severus. Tell me you understand that! I cannot lose you. I would be utterly lost."

He put his arm around her and drew her close. "Do you think I was any less terrified when I thought you might be hurt, or worse? Never doubt that I would always somehow find my way back to you. Death has no more power over us than we give it."

Hermione calmed herself, but she had been forcibly reminded today that she could not keep her loved ones safe.

Their DA coins warmed, with a message that the Order was meeting at the Minister's residence that evening. Diamond was also invited.

Hermione said, "I'd better tell her, she's going to take this seriously."

"She should. Jumping into the path of an explosion is the kind of thing that impresses Gryffindors."

Hermione completely ignored his snarky attitude. "You're right, it does," she replied, proud of her house and of Diamond.

"So help me, if Minerva says anything about sorting too soon, by the gods I'll hex her. That girl is Slytherin to the bones. She would have been wasted as a Gryffindor."

Hermione's reply was an indelicate snort. She hadn't been around to hear Dumbledore make that particular remark to Severus on a couple of occasions, so she didn't have the full context for his attitude. She certainly knew full well what Diamond would think of anyone's suggestion that she should have been sorted into any house other than Slytherin. "Minerva will say no such thing," she snickered.

She found Diamond and Draco talking in quiet, concerned voices. They were justifiably worried about the situation with the Death Eaters heating up again, when they would find themselves on the front lines of any troubles that resulted. Hermione said, "The Order of the Phoenix is meeting tonight. Diamond, you are invited to attend."

"Me? But why, Madame?"

Hermione said, "You got a better look at that nutter than any of the rest of us. I'm sure they have all sorts of questions for you."

Diamond wasn't fooled. If that was all they wanted, they could have got a better report from a pensieve memory. Draco excused himself when Hermione did.

Diamond felt much better after a shower. She looked in her closet. It was a damned shame that the Death Eaters had disrupted their shopping expedition because she didn't have anything suitable for something like this, with the Minister for Magic in attendance, no less. She laid out her best silk blouse. It was a little worn at the cuffs and elbows, but she quickly repaired that. She wondered if she was expected to wear her Order of Merlin, but decided against it since the only time she had seen her Master and Madame Snape wearing theirs had been at the Memorial. Instead she chose the plain silver chain that she usually wore with the dark green blouse to represent her house colors. A few taps of her wand shined her boots. She didn't have a gown, and wouldn't have felt comfortable in one anyway. Her dueling leathers were of the highest quality. They had been damaged on several occasions, but the repairs were scarcely visible. She carefully scourgified the supple breeches and jerkin, taking care to polish the clasps and buckles.

A suitable robe took a little more thought. She had never had occasion before to wear a formal one over her leathers. She turned her best one a deep brown to match her leathers. It was a little too full for the current fashion. That was easily remedied. Another tap of her wand pulled her hair up into her usual crown of braids, but that seemed too plain, so she wove a set of green and silver ribbons into the plaits.

From a box on her nightstand she took a dagger with the dragon's head crest of the Halstroms worked on the hilt in emeralds and onyx. She rarely carried it, but she was head of her family. If she were right about the reason why she was being summoned tonight, she would need it with her. But she decided it would be too presumptuous to wear the crest openly, as if she were certain that she would be needing it. She turned it in its sheath, so that only plain silver showed.

One thing was missing. She found a silver sickle and spun it out into fine thread. House pride was one thing, but she was an adult now. She was first of all the Halstrom now, no matter if she was temporarily the last of her line. A final pass of her wand, and the silver thread embroidered itself into the familiar dragon's head on the left bodice of her robe. She slipped her wand into its wrist sheath.

It was almost time. She said a final prayer to the gods and her ancestors, then settled her robe around her shoulders and went downstairs.

Hermione gave her a little nod. Diamond was only eighteen and there was still some prejudice against Slytherin House among some of the older Order Members. It was just as well that they were reminded who the young woman was besides Snape's second apprentice. Let them see the Slytherin warrior who had led the defense of Hogsmeade, and accounted for Fenrir Grayback.

Diamond had never been further inside the Ministry than the office where she had got her apparation license. She had never even seen the outside of the Residence. The first thing she noticed was that there were quite a lot of Aurors around. She wondered if that was a response to this afternoon, or if they were always there.

She had met most of the Order members at Snape Hall, but they seemed an entirely different group of people when they were gathered as the Order of the Phoenix. There was no precedence here, as Head of the Order Minerva McGonagall was first among equals. Once the door was closed, Harry Potter didn't stand on his rank either. Diamond decided that here, they all preceded her.

There was a gossip session and she got a chance to observe them all. Hermione, Harry, Tonks and Ron naturally formed one group. Severus, Moody, McGonagall and Arabella Figg were another. The older Weasleys were a third group. At the moment that was Molly and the twins, because Charlie was in Romania and Bill and Fleur were in France visiting Fleur's family. But these weren't mutually exclusive cliques, and the conversation often crossed over between groups, as did the jokes and banter of long-time brothers and sisters in arms. Diamond sensed rather than saw the presence of warriors who were now here only in spirit, but their magic still flowed through their living compatriots like phoenix flame.

Diamond sat quietly in the corner and listened to the various conversations around the room until McGonagall drew the meeting to order by asking, "What do we know about what happened this afternoon?"

Moody said, "We found enough bits of the explosive device to identify it as one of those damn things Theo Nott used to like to throw, only he apparently put a lot more work into this to blow the hell out of a whole shop like that."

Hermione commented, "I wonder if he knows he nearly killed his daughter!"

Harry said, "It wouldn't be a bad thing if Moire never found that out."

Moody said regretfully, "Too many Aurors outside the order know he's the one makes those little presents, Harry. It's already out."

Tonks said, "We traced that kid who blew himself up, his name was Johann Ritter. He has a record with the German Aurory for purchase of a controlled substance and petty theft, and an incident involving a Muggle-born witch who kicked his arse then turned him in for attempted rape. He was still a student at Durmstrang, because his family paid the girl off to keep her from pressing charges. The Germans are investigating his known associates, that kind of thing, and they should be back to me on that in a couple of days."

Ron asked, "Do we know yet how long he was in the country?"

"No, probably he either apparated across the channel or used an illegal portkey, because there's no records either with us or the Muggles."

McGonagall asked, "Have we any idea why he targeted Madame Malkin's shop?"

Moody shook his head. "Nothing yet. I suspect it was along the lines of them hitting Diagon Alley in broad daylight and there's nothing we could do about it. I don't know what Madame Malkin ever did to attract the notice of Death Eaters."

Harry said, "Maybe it wasn't her. Does she have any family?"

He shook his head. "The healers asked her that at St. Mungo's. She told them she hasn't any relatives. They listed the crippled kid who works for her as her next of kin."

"That's Katie Bell. How is she?"

"Looked all right to me," Moody replied. "She was sitting with Madame Malkin the last I saw."

McGonagall asked, "Miss Halstrom, would you mind telling us what happened?"

Diamond went through the story again, and answered the Order's questions about the bomber. Moody had a couple of sharp, intelligent questions about how long her Protego had held, and exactly what happened when it failed. She hadn't even thought about that, but it was important because it helped determine how powerful the explosive device had been.

McGonagall said, "Before we continue any further, Diamond Halstrom, have you any oaths or obligations toward anyone?"

The rest of the Order moved around to get a clear view of the two witches.

Diamond answered steadily, "I have. I am apprenticed to Severus Snape. As well, I am head of my family, and carry the sacred honor of my name upon my magic, my life and my soul. These responsibilities I will not shirk."

If she was startled to find someone so young who had sworn her whole existence to uphold her family's honor in this day and age, McGonagall didn't blink. She lived proudly under such an oath herself, but she hadn't sworn it to the McGonagall until her fiftieth birthday. She understood that Diamond had probably taken her vows on her parents' graves. "I find these obligations commendable and fully acceptable," McGonagall replied. "If anyone here has any just cause why Diamond Halstrom should not be offered membership in the Order of the Phoenix, or any grievance against her, I order you to speak now."

Silence.

"Diamond, is it your desire to join with the Order and serve the cause of Light even unto death?"

"It is."

"Do you come to us of your own free will, without reservation?"

"I do."

"Then step forward and be oathbound."

She did so. Together, she and McGonagall knelt facing each other and laid their wands side by side. McGonagall drew a black-handled dirk from her boot and cut her palm. Diamond drew her dagger, turning it so that the crest faced it, and kissed it. Then she cut her own palm and they joined hands so that their mingled blood dripped onto their wands. She repeated after McGonagall, "I, Diamond Halstrom, do solemnly swear to serve the Order of the Phoenix in its aims to combat the Dark and to defend the innocent, to stand firm in battle with my brothers and sisters, and to maintain the secrets of the Order. I will obey my superiors in the Order in all that is for the greater good. My fortune, my magic, my life and my sacred honor I do pledge to the cause of the Light. So mote it be." A magical cord bound their hands.

"I, Minerva McGonagall, renew my oath to the Order of the Phoenix, first made to Albus Dumbledore on June 17th, 1943. As Head of the Order I do solemnly swear to keep all that which you have vowed in the highest esteem, to hold your honor and your family's honor as precious as my own, and to do my utmost to be worthy of the trust that you have placed in me, before the gods and these witnesses. So mote it be." A second cord wrapped around the first, then both cords disappeared into their hands. When they released their grip, the cuts on their palms had healed without a mark, and the drops of blood had disappeared from their wands.

"Rise, Diamond. My brothers and sisters, come forward and greet our sister."

Everyone came forward and greeted her with a handshake or a hug. After that, there was a lot of speculation about what the attack on Madame Malkin's had signified, and the purebloods had a lot of questions about similar terrorist acts in the Muggle world. Hermione reminded them of the plane crash over Lockerbie in 1988, as the magical world had been aware of it. Although they really hadn't understood the significance, the murder of two hundred and seventy people not too far from Hogwarts had not passed without notice. Now she explained the whys and wherefores of such a despicable act of cowardice. Now the shadow of terrorist bombings had come to their world as well. Two or three times, someone came to the door and Harry had to excuse himself to deal with something that couldn't wait.

If Diamond had expected her world to be altered now that she was a member of the Order, she would have been disappointed. Instead, by the time the meeting broke up, she was tired and her head was pounding, and the wine she had drunk to celebrate had probably not been a good idea. Hermione saw her growing pale and yawned hugely. "Oh, my! Excuse me, but this has been one hell of a day. Do you mind if Diamond and I leave early? We should check on the children anyway."

They were excused, after another brief round of handshakes and hugs. Severus stayed. Hermione and Diamond walked out past the wards. Diamond said, "Oh, my Goddess."

"It's a bit overwhelming, isn't it? I remember when Harry, Ron and I were inducted, and I'd been expecting it for months."

"How could anyone have doubted our Master after that? That binding is so strong, Madame, no matter what my circumstances I don't think I could ever again feel alone. We are all bound by the same oaths, aren't we?"

"Yes, we are, but...Diamond, most of the people in there are Gryffindors. When we made those vows, we meant it, have no doubt about that. But we Gryffindors don't stop to count the cost of things before we do them, if it's the right thing to do. What's the point when we're going to do it anyway? I really doubt that they understand what would happen if someone forswore himself, because it's just never crossed their minds to do it. The only other bindings they ever had anything to do with are a few very old-fashioned marriages-and then, of course, that damn-fool marriage law. But this was before that was passed. What you've heard about Gryffindor bloody-mindedness is true. Most of the Order were simply taking for granted that Severus is a powerful enough wizard to overcome the binding if he wanted, but at the time we didn't understand that it just doesn't work that way. No Slytherin would make that mistake. A magical oath like that isn't just words to you. You take every single word seriously and you never do anything without being aware of the potential cost." Their heels clicked on the brick path to the street.

"And at the time they were distraught mourning Professor Dumbledore," Diamond said thoughtfully. "If they honestly didn't stop to think, then maybe...I can see where they were coming from."

"Dumbledore never would have set up such a ruse if he hadn't believed we'd fall for it, would he?"

"No, of course not."

"He arranged things so that Harry saw exactly what he was supposed to see. No one was going to dispute his word as an eyewitness. And then, of course, there was Alastor. He and Severus had been rivals for years. He was quick to believe the worst. I don't think he came round until Professor Dumbledore's ghost spelled out for him what really happened. Believe me, for a while there, I was terrified Alastor was going to find Severus and one of them wouldn't walk away."

"I guess I just never realized how much difference there is between our houses. It puts a lot of things into perspective."

"Different strengths are a good thing, because we complement each other," Hermione said. "But I don't think the founders ever intended us to be at each other's throats over it."

By then they had reached the apparation point. Hermione would have offered to take Diamond side-along, but the girl simply drew her wand and turned her body into the force of the spell, disappearing with hardly a sound. Hermione followed, visualizing the courtyard because that was where Diamond always apparated.

They went inside and found Draco waiting up. He reported, "Everyone else has gone to bed."

"Stay with Diamond, she still has to be awakened every hour until tomorrow afternoon." Hermione dragged herself up three flights of stairs to check on the baby. Lali had already given Carrie a bottle, so even though she was bone-weary Hermione had to express her milk. Then she checked on Fern and Freddy, both were peacefully asleep. Finally she turned on the taps and sank into a blissfully hot bath.


Diamond came back from the bathroom in her most modest pajamas and bathrobe, and started to tend to her boots and dueling leathers. Draco told her, "Go ahead and lie down, I'll take care of that."

She left him to it, only taking the time to put her dagger back in the carved wooden box where she stored it at night. "Thanks."

He sat down in her overstuffed reading chair and opened a book.

Diamond tossed and turned for a while. "Oh, for Brigit's sake! I don't know how I'm supposed to sleep with you sitting there!"

Draco laughed. "I suppose I could go to the Great Hall."

"Or I suppose you could read to me," she suggested with a smile.

"I could. What would milady like to hear?"

"I've been reading some Muggle poetry that Madame likes," she said. "The book is on the desk there."

"It must be this one, then. Who was this Byron fellow?"

"Rather tragic poet who lived a couple of hundred years ago. He died quite young, only in his thirties I think. But there's something about his poetry that just..." she shook her head.

Draco let the slim volume fall open naturally, and read the verse he found there.

"She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:..."

By the time he finished, she was half-asleep. "All that's best of dark and bright," he repeated in a whisper. "So you are, Diamond."

"I'm never as good as that poet's romantic ideal," she answered.

"Not always, but I will say that you are the best of either dark or bright, whichever you need to be."

She laughed softly.

"If you don't go to sleep, how am I supposed to wake you in an hour?" He teased.

To his surprise, she reached for his hand briefly before she closed her eyes. Draco extinguished the candles and read quietly by a dim Lumos.


Severus apparated onto the balcony and let himself into their apartment. He summoned an elf to ask about the young people. Winky had accepted clothing last winter, and remained at Snape Hall as a free elf. He found dealing with her to be much less obnoxious than having the other silly creatures threatening to iron their ears at the slightest suggestion they had displeased him. In order to get anything done, he had to watch himself to avoid seeming to criticize as carefully as he ever had when attending Voldemort's court. Winky just ignored him most of the time, but she could give as good as she got on the rare occasions that he did push her past her ability to tolerate his attitude. He rather thought Hermione had something to do with that.

She told him that Master Draco was watching over Missy Diamond, and that Missy Hermie was in the bath. He dismissed her with his thanks and wondered, not for the first time, where house elves went. That was one of the mysteries of house elf magic, one that no amount of exploration by generations of wizarding children had ever managed to solve.

At first, he thought Hermione had gone to sleep in the tub, but she looked up, smiled when she heard him come in, and gestured a silent invitation. Momentarily, he joined her, after sniffing to be sure he wouldn't smell like an apple tree or any such thing. She laughed softly. "How did it go?"

"After you left, it was more of the same. The general consensus was that it was bloody bad form of Bellatrix to survive after you tried so hard to send her off."

"Mmm. Yes, quite."

He kissed her, a pastime to which she never objected. She tasted Ogden's Old. "A few drinks with Alastor, then?"

"It was Minerva who found the first bottle," he said, "And any number of people were passing them around."

"I suppose we're in for it again," she sighed. "What now?"

"Really, nothing, until we hear back from the German Aurors about that young fool," he replied.

Hermione shook her head. "He couldn't have been sixteen," she said. "His poor mother must be going through hell. I wonder if she even knows her son is dead."

Without realizing he was doing it, he held her tighter against him. "She raised a swine, an absolute idiot who blew himself to hell and gone. He tried to take you and our girls with him. I've scant pity for that!"

"We're fine," she said quietly. "No one had worse than scratches, other than Diamond's little knock on the head."

Mere words failed to reassure him that all was well. It was an hour or more before they ever made it to bed, and they left quite a mess of splashed water and sopping towels on the floor. Morning and responsibility would return too soon, but for the night, it was just the two of them, safe at home. Hermione remembered the sound of the blast, so unbelievably loud in a confined space, and snuggled close to her sleeping husband. She caught a glimpse of the waxing moon through the fluttering curtains and knew that her family was safe under the Goddess' watchful eye, for the night at least.

TBC

AN: The poem "She walks in Beauty" was written by George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron (1788-1824). To the best of my knowledge, it is in the public domain. I have quoted only the first four lines, but the rest of it is readily available on the Internet. -BuckeyeBelle