Thanks go to my amazing beta readers, Ninkenate and Ozma.
Disclaimer--- What belongs to J K Rowling is J K Rowling's. Everything left is mine, I guess, but remember the old adage: "There is nothing new under the sun."
"Pen. Pen! Are you there, Pen?" No one called her 'Pen' except her brother, Paul.
She came walking out of her bedroom in the tiny two-and-a-half room flat and walked to the fireplace. "Paul, it's late. I have a meeting at a new Muggle orphanage tomorrow and I'm not going to get--"
"Pen, you need to Floo here immediately. I don't know what else can defuse the situation."
"What situation? Where are you?" She had been out with her friends later than usual on a work night. It was Gretchen Kanderby's birthday, and not only had she been out later than usual, she'd had two firewhiskies, one more than her usual before switching to butterbeer - when she had to drink.
"I'm at the Tattered Broom, two doors down on Knockturn Alley from Diagon--"
"The Tattered Broom! You know I wouldn't be caught dead there in the daytime; why would I come there at this time of night?"
"It's Specs. He's here and roaring drunk, or at least as roaring as the little mouse can roar, which is pretty loud tonight. He's who's going to be caught dead here in a few minutes. He just said things that have a few of the regular ruffians here about to Unforgiveable him, or something."
'Specs' was Paul's mildly insulting name for the only man she'd ever loved. He was the man who had promised her the world in a cauldron, and had left her following after his own ambitions. That was only partially true - she had left him because of the path of his ambitions, and he had not followed after her, like he had always done at Hogwarts when she'd led him towards the activities and decisions he'd always said had made him worthwhile to the rest of the world.
She said, "If he's streaming the quintessential bunkum he's proclaimed to the Daily Prophet this past year, I don't know who at that horrid place would be offended. They should be lining up to buy him drinks. Is that why he's drunk? Why do you keep going there? It's not safe for you, in the Auror Academy and all."
"We come here in a group and consider it part of our training. There're five of us and the crowd's a bit thin tonight. You'd be safe. But he's not 'streaming the quintessential bunkum' as you so quaintly put it. I wouldn't bother you with this but, well, I know you think... that is he's still... Pen, he's muttered your name a few times when he's not pontificating. No, it's no Ministry propaganda speech. He started with a toast to Dumbledore and has spent the last five minutes or more proclaiming the professor's virtues and those of Harry Potter. I thought that was the final turning point between the two of-"
"What happened between us at the end was only the last of many... Paul, I'll come through if you assure me it's safe." She turned from the fire.
"I'll just grab my bag. Fine. Stand back, I'm coming through."
She reached into a powder jar on her mantel and stepped into the fire.
She shouted, "The Tattered Broom!"
Penny was just in time. Had Paul called a few minutes later...
She grabbed his arm and stopped the next firewhiskey from following those that had gone before. The last one became his last. After taking the shot glass out of his hand, she used his arm to steer his line of sight towards her.
The three vicious looking wizards who were facing him on his other side, the ones with clenched fists and hands going for their wands, seemed to back away at her presence. Then she realized that her brother must be at her back, and surely his four friends as well, so she was not the cause of their shrinking away. But she would accept the respite from whatever quarter it had been given.
The man before Penny slowly turned his head to see where his arm had gone, as if wondering why it was not delivering the next mind-numbing, throat-biting blast to his mouth. He looked at her as one might look at a picture of a person, not the actual person. His spectacles were slightly askew - not just down on his nose where he constantly kept pushing them back up with his left thumb so as not to have to stop writing. Everyone else used their index finger or middle finger to push back their sliding glasses. Also, he insisted on calling them spectacles, while the whole world called them glasses.
His mouth was opened in a stunned look, exaggerated by the drink. His chin and lower lip quivered in unison, and he gulped his mouth shut. And then the deluge of words came - and the tears - he was a lousy, maudlin drunk.
"Oh, Penelope, oh, my angel! How I have fa-hail-hailed you-ho-ho-hooo," he cried, crying and sobbing. "I've failed yooouuu. I've failed my fam-leh! Aaa-haaaaa!"
He was disgusting this way, but all of her feelings - those she'd thought she'd successfully suppressed for the past year, came flooding back.
"The Minister said that I have failed him," continued her former beau. "But I told him, sniffff! I told him that all I did for him was drop the woman I still love, sell out my family, and Professor Bumdlebore, and Harry--Harry. Did I tell you, Penelope, that he saved Ginny's life her first year?"
"And I betrayed him - and asked his best friend, my brother, Ron, to betray him, too." He grabbed her arm and drew her face right up to his. "What kind of monster am I, Penelope?"
By this time, she and her brother had him out of the Tattered Broom, and almost to the Leaky Cauldron. They stopped on the way for Percy to be sick into a dustbin. His breath was rancid, and he smelled of the sweat and vomit the drinking had caused.
But he had said that he still loved her.
Penelope Clearwater and her brother somehow contrived to send Percy Weasley through to his "posh flat in a better part of town" as he had put it. They flopped him on his bed face down, and still in his robe. Paul left her knowing that Specs would never take advantage of her.
She sat in the chair by his bed and made the decision regarding the question he hadn't asked.
She would help the man she still loved.
That morning, after the students had all left on the Hogwarts Express, the three had listened to the prophecy in its entirety. She'd been the first to speak after the headmaster had outlined the program. The other male present would have been the obvious one to speak first. She had jumped in ahead of the second, clearing her throat to reserve her place in the conversation, then she straightened her tartan skirt. None of them were in their official teaching garb. He was seething, if the tick in his left eye was any indicator, and she spoke, not only out of her concern for the Head's decision, but to allow him time to lower the blood pressure making his eyes bulge. A lowered blood pressure or a stroke - one would come soon based on the vein popping out on his forehead.
She said to the third person in the room, "Headmaster, the plan is well thought out, but this particular series of potions - are you sure? I remember the last time..."
"Minerva, the last time, you and Alan could not have made me prouder. You and many of your classmates wear the Order of Merlin in various grades because of the success of that potion series and the necessary program its administering demands. We know so much more now about how to manage and channel its side effects, which all have their benefits too, as you recall.
"Besides,' he continued. "I was also there the first time the series was administered. We knew little of the consequences and yet, we were able to accomplish so much."
"You were able to accomplish so much, and a few of your classmates. But remember Aberforth and the goat."
"A small anomaly from before the program back then, and who knows all of the truth of that matter - certainly not my brother. If that were the only problem to arise this time, we would be truly..." The headmaster looked off to the mountain-view from one of his office windows completing the sentence, if at all, in his mind.
"But what of Philby, and Norton," she gulped and continued, "and what of Tom? Who knows how many this time will enlist from any particular--"
"The results we experienced with those three," the headmaster interrupted, something he rarely ever did, "are the reason we will expand the staff to the size I have outlined. I will offer the opportunity to all that have qualified, and can qualify before next school year."
She knew she would never talk him out of this, and perhaps she shouldn't keep trying, but there was one more question begging to be asked, regardless of who it upset - present company included. 'Even those qualified from Slytherin?"
The silent - thus far - third person in the office leapt to his feet and began to speak tersely and with great vehemence before the headmaster could respond. "That's MY HOUSE you're speaking of, old woman!"
His last two words went a long way to ending his anger. He had never-- And he never would have-- But he had--
"Forgive me, Professor, Headmaster. Madam, you know I hold you in the highest--"
"It's all right, Severus. I provoked you, and I knew I was doing so. I apologize to you, but you know there are, shall we say, extra dangers with a few of the family members in your house that might qualify for this program."
His gaze was nearly as fierce, but the rest of him was under control now, his words were evenly measured and well thought out, but the vein still throbbed its undeterminable warning. "Few, if any, who can qualify and are from those families, will even consider joining this program. Mr. Zabini would be an excellent candidate perhaps, but.... Shall we say that I will interview and confirm the sincerity of each volunteer, whoever they may be?"
He looked down at his hands. They were gripping the arms of the chair as if trying to rip them from their places. He relaxed them and his whole body.
The Potions Master turned his gaze. "Headmaster. I have the gravest of doubts - but I've expressed them before to no avail. Are you sure about him? He can't be the one... that is surely... and you know how this will only feed his ego."
He looked into the unmoving stony faces before him.
"I am as sure of him, Severus, as I am of you."
The younger man lowered his head and, after a long pause, made an uncharacteristic admission. His words surprised the other two, and were respected all the more because of his candidness. "Headmaster. Professor. I fear losing almost all from my house to... Neither of you can know... no one can help me. It is a decidedly Slytherin matter. But please allow me as many... whoever I can gather--" The long pause resumed as did the mutual silence.
He sat up straight as if making a decision. "I commit myself to this program. If Paladins are what you want, then Paladins I will endeavor to provide and help train. Ask what you will of me, Headmaster."
He stared out the window at number four Privet Drive, and saw nothing of the beautiful sunset or the sunrise the next morning, but he rarely blinked and did not sleep during the hours of the night. He had been there since they had arrived from the station. He had ignored the call for dinner, given to him once, but loud enough. The owl had flown out of that window immediately upon the opening of her cage, but she had not returned. But the parchment had been waiting on his desk for him.
Sometime after midnight, but before dawn, the parchment fell from his fingers. Its fall was no more noticed than the soundless electric clock in the kitchen, or the ticking of the mantel clock in the living room.
I trust your train trip and drive to the Dursleys' home was pleasant and uneventful. Misters Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy were released from their "constrictions" and are safely home. I am grateful that you have such faithful friends.
Harry, I consider myself the oldest of your many faithful friends. I am also the one who has failed you the most - as I have served you and preserved you the most.
Most children grow up with loving parents, to some degree or another, and think them perfect, or infallible, or at least omnipotent. You grew up with no one loving you, and daily demonstrations of your aunt and uncle's imperfections - often gross imperfections.
Then you entered our world and heard of your dead parents' true lives and true fates. Within that same conversation, even before you learned of their fate, I believe, you learned of the wonderful Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts. What are Hagrid's words? "Great man, Dumbledore, great man." I believe that's how he expresses it.
You learned from Percy Weasley that first night that I am a bit mad, but brilliant. Since I have spent years using all of the tools and magic available to me as headmaster to promote and extend the illusion of greatness, you had come to expect that I was somehow faultless. Even the problem of Alastor Moody not being Alastor Moody in your fourth year did not dissuade you from my infallibility.
And now I have spent a year ignoring you, confusing you, and helping you in the most illusory ways. Finally, I tell you of my culpability in denying you the information you should have been told years ago.
Well, I am undone, and truly sorry, Harry.
And except for keeping you a little better informed the last few months leading up to your O.W.L.s exams, I would have done it all the exact same way, given the same circumstances.
I am fallible and will go on making mistakes. I wish that were not so, but it has been, is, and always will be so.
You will fight Voldemort, and I believe you will defeat him, if for no other reason than the alternative is unthinkable. Goodness has always ultimately triumphed over evil, but a lot of good men and women have lost their lives in the process. This is a timeless truth.
Few have known ahead of time that they were the deciding factor. You have been given the dubious gift and the magnificent burden of knowing you are the deciding factor - you will make all of the difference as to whether the world goes forward in darkness or light.
Now I must ask the nearly impossible from you - but not impossible at all. I have great plans for you and all of your fellow Hogwarts' students, but most of all for you.
But there is a price that you alone must pay that they will never understand.
The price? You must trust me.
All of them learned of a parent's or guardian's failings at a young enough age, and in a simple enough situation, to have recovered from the discovery of the parent's human-ness, and be able to grow through the shock with little ill effects.
You have been shown my failings late in your life, relatively speaking, and the effect of my failings have been to cause the death of your godfather and the traumatizing of your world view.
At fifteen, almost sixteen, you are perhaps more mature and world-wise than any other young witch or wizard in history, but:
...you are still too young to decide the most important things in life all by yourself!
I should have told you more about your life sooner - I have admitted that and confess that gross error again. But you have to trust me like you have in the past. Trust in proper authority - human and flawed as I am - is essential for you to go ahead with the best plans for your life.
I cannot try to sway your decision with additional information - good, bad, or indifferent.
You must do what I confess I would also find difficult - trust me without me telling you why.
To tell me that you trust me, and to activate the program for your life that is the best I can provide to help you succeed with your burden, please sign your name at the bottom of this parchment. It will activate all things necessary.
Once again, I am contritely sorry, Harry. Once again, I am proud of you. Once again, please trust me.
A. P. W. B. Dumbledore
The soon to be sixteen-year-old ate a lonely half breakfast/half lunch at 10:21 AM. He slept through the afternoon and ate a silent dinner with his wary relatives. He began another night of sightless staring out of the window.
And still the parchment lay on the floor unsigned.
Author's Notes - Some of the events, attitudes, and back-history of primary characters in this tale are those created by other fanfic authors I admire. Acknowledgement of those stories will occur when they are mentioned, and all references are used with the authors' permission.
The "Alan and Minerva" Reference - Minnie Burns and Alan McGonagall are a young couple much in love in the War with Grindelwald tale, Oversexed, Overpaid, and Over Here. It is written by B. Nonymous, a Professor's Bookshelf author on SugarQuill.net. Most of his events will not be used in my story, but some of his constructions will be.
Snape's Fear - Ozma, another Professor's Bookshelf author on SugarQuill.net, has written a delicious series of stories called the Squib Tales. In these stories, she painted a picture of Professor Severus Snape that I didn't want to believe possible. After reading her stories, I like and admire him to a degree that I, as a Gryffindor at heart, never thought I would or could. I particularly like her explanations of Snape's Slytherin ways of trying to guide his house students away from the Dark Lord. Ozma also creates an odd sort of friendship between Snape and McGonagall that I think about when I write those two together.