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Someone To Run To (17/32)


Interlude

"I want to feel love! Love is all beautiful! I never used to know that! I was a fool! […] We'll make an island for ourselves on land, and we'll have children and love them and teach them to love life so that they can never be possessed by hate and death!"

- - Lavinia Mannon in The Haunted from Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill - -


Part Three: 6th Year

Chapter Seventeen, In Which I Have a Good, Old-Fashioned Family Vacation


The day Ephraim Caudwell died from his wounds, I climbed out of the flashy, ostentatious, and utterly impractical car Sirius had purchased with the settlement the MoM had quietly offered him the day after the Battle of the Department of Mysteries for the, a) slander of my good name, b) inducing the Daily Prophet News Network to print libellous articles against myself, and c) some other random something-or-other than meant they paid us not to point out to anyone their stupidity in front of Azkaban South. It was bright red – an Ascari Ecosse – and horribly expensive as well. The dealer had been more than a little bug-eyed when out of a nondescript hackney cab had come myself (in a two hundred Galleon Greco and Mancini dress), Tonks (blonde and blue-eyed and in a business suit), and Sirius (dressed for the occasion in Armani, making me think that maybe, if the Blacks hadn't instilled in him their pureblood nonsense, they'd at least made him appreciate expensive things) and had positively gawked at him when he wrote the check for the full amount. But it was the sort of thing that would impress the Dursleys, if Sirius had been anything else but a wizard, that is. As were the suits and the expensive dress. Granted, with the impressive Black fortune Sirius had also bought a motorcycle he intended to charm to fly, a large terrarium so that Paracelsus would stop trying to sleep in peoples' sock drawers, and half-a-dozen kites, but this as serious. He wanted the Dursleys to know that the Blacks were money and that they were going to do what he asked not because it was the right thing to do (which it was), but because a company he'd controlling interest in the company that owned the note on their mortgage.

It was only by magic that all three of us fit inside, but, Merlin, was it everything that my wardens would have wanted, and Sirius knew that much at least. I could see the heads at windows as I walked, wearily, up the walk to the front door, Tonks and Sirius, coming after. A black leather briefcase in Sirius's hands was my only luggage, which Tonks would kindly dis-transfigure when I got to my…

My room. I grimaced at the thought, causing Tonks to look at me worriedly. They didn't know the extent of it – I had to keep telling myself this. They didn't know what horrible, wretched creatures lived within. They'd not make me stay here – if only for a week – if they knew. I should probably have asked Tonks, who'd at least be staying with me, to hold onto my wand – so I didn't curse these demons back to the deepest pit of hell, where they belonged! I held my tongue though, remembering I could protect myself now if need be. After all, hadn't I killed Lucius Malfoy, Death Eater extraordinaire? Hadn't I cast the torture curse on the woman most famous for its use? I was dangerous; I was a solider, a hero, the saviour of wizarding kind! I had nothing to fear from them, these worthless people who didn't deserve to be called "aunt" or "uncle" or "cousin," as convention would have it. Blood meant nothing – family was built, was made, clabbered together from loved ones and lovers. Still, as I rang the bell, and whispered under my breath to "Cousin" Tonks, "Morituri te salutamus." We who are about to die salute you.

She poked me in the ribs at that, then smiled in a way I figured she had to have learned from her aunt, dearest Lucius's wife, Narcissa, at the horsy woman who answered the ring.

"Mrs. Dursley?" Tonks asked.

Petunia kept her eyes on Tonks, not seeing me at all. I doubt she would have recognized me anyway, wearing clothes that fit and with my glasses replaced with contacts that actually had my prescription (Tonks's idea, as she claimed it was a miracle mine hadn't been broken or fallen off in the DoM, but I liked them, and not just because things seemed so much the clearer with them in). I'd let my hair grow out since last summer too so that it extended a few inches past my shoulders now, taming its natural wildness to a drastic curl with its weight. In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that Tonks's suit was an unusual shade of yellow for such things, I think we might have been confused for a trio of door-to-door Mormons.

I wish.

"I'm Jr. Auror Tonks," she pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, "That's Sirius Black," I couldn't hide my wry, Severus-learned smile as she realized what was going on, "and you of course remember Éléonore? Mind if we come in?"

Petunia looked like she'd rather have her teeth pulled right there on the doorstep. Tonks didn't care, nor did Sirius, and together they managed to push Petunia into the hall, drag me along with them, and sit us all in the living room, though Sirius and his cousin appeared to be the only ones wanting to have this conversation. Why couldn't we have just driven around London in his new Ecosse and pretended to be bank robbers or, I dunno, Mormons, I don't know. We had to come to Surrey and recharge Dumbledore's stupid blood wards to keep Voldemort from getting his hands on me for one more year.

Hello people, Voldemort's kind of succeeded in ruining my life every year already, I don't know why they thought me staying at this ghastly place would help me out any.

"I thought you said you wouldn't be bothering us anymore."

For the first time in my life I commiserated with my aunt. "I'd not be here if I wasn't forced to, believe you me."

"Then why are you here?"

I pointed at Sirius and slumped morosely, on the hideous couch. Any other house with any other people I could handle for a week. Gods above, I'd gladly not have left Severus's rooms for a week – and, now that I was safely out of my Fifth Year and as unlikely as a gnat to make the requisite grade in Potions to continue with his NEWT classes, there was no moral quandary for him to stress over and generally ruin perfectly good snogging sessions with. After such an emotionally trying thing as the battle at the DoM, it was wonderful to finally find release for all those pent up feelings with Severus… Even now, filled with such rage towards the last of my blood relatives, closing my eyes and thinking of him calmed me. We were happy together and would be happy together forever after, and we'd marry, and have children, and love them, and never have to worry about Dark Lords or society ever again… Maybe it was just a little girl's daydream, but it was my own, and guys didn't just give girls sliver-and-diamond bracelets engraved with lines from Ovid's Amores unless they'd serious intentions for them…

I opened my eyes again in time to catch the hideous china figurine that was flying at my face. I caught it, but the sudden movement of my arm was enough to startle Paracelsus, who'd been comfortably resting under my sleeve.

"Mère, why is she shouting?"

"So early in the morning?"

Sus, contemptuously, told Par and Acel, "It'sss almost noon, layaboutsss."

"But it'sss so loud."

"And ugly."

"It hurtsss my eyesss," Acel cried dramatically.

"You've not even opened your eyesss yet."

"The shouting-one'sss presence burnsss!"

I flicked each of the heads – gently – and scolded, "What have I told you about fighting?"

Resentfully, "Not to do it," Par admitted.

"In public, where Mugglesss," Acel continued dreamily.

Sus finished contemptuously, "Might see us, or before breakfast, but we've already eaten."

"I haven't!" I informed them, taking the briefcase from Sirius, who was explaining still to Petunia why I had to stay, marching up the stairs to Dudley's second bedroom. Let them sort it out if they wanted me here so badly. Me, I figured I'd been grown up enough lately to justify a wonderfully childish mope in "my" room. Reaching the room, I wrenched the door open with all of my strength and smiled a little as it banged into the wall behind. It was hard to enter the room, given how many boxes had been stacked in front of the door – evidently the room had returned to its original purpose as a storage area – but I made it to the bed eventually. There I let Paracelsus curl onto a patch of sunlight there before moving to the desk. Sure enough, in the top drawer were a pair of screwdrivers I'd nicked ages ago to try to fix the alarm clock Dudley had smashed against the wall, oh, when he was eight, I think it was. Never did fix the clock, but a flat head screwdriver had so many uses…

"Now," I informed the Runespoor, walking back to the door. Four locks of varying types and strength stretched across the door jamb, "we have to stay here for a week."

"I thought you said."

"That we'd be staying with grand-père."

"While the sun isss at it'sss hottest."

I sharply jammed the head of the screwdriver between the metal of the top lock plate and the wood. "I know." There was a pleasant cracking sound as the wood splintered. I pulled back harder, then repositioned the screwdriver. "So did I. But Dumbledore and Sirius think that, for my own protection, I've got to recharge the wardsss here. Tonkssss will be covering the night shift with me, and Remusss and Siriusss and Severusss and Fleur will be keeping me company during the day, to make sure my wardensss don't mistreat me." Well, that was a lie; they would each be popping up in turns to keep me safe from Death Eaters, but they could keep me safe from the inside horrors as well. One day I'd have to tell Sirius – Father – and Severus the truth of what had gone on here, but not until they were old and grey, unable to exact any revenge that I'd not already taken…

"The bearded-one isss stupid to send you here for your safety, Mère."

Acel raised his head to watch what I was doing curiously, or else look at something in my general direction curiously. In the way that made me curious if there were different dialects of Parseltongue, he offered, "Fiat iustoque pereat mundussss." Let the right be done and the world will perish.

"This nest smellsss of pain and evil-doingsss."

I shook my head to rid myself of the hair that had fallen into my eyes, then slammed the screwdriver down again. The lock clattered to the floor. I started in on the next one. I could have just asked Tonks to charm them off for me, or use the screwdriver properly to remove them, but this was just so much more destructive and conducive to my childish mope. "Can't I just destroy thingsss with a screwdriver without Latin having to come into it?"

"No."

"Of course not."

"I thought you needed orange juice and vodka to have a screwdriver?"

I glared at my dear Runespoor and wondered not for the first time why Archimedes thought I might be a good parent for the egg his statue held. Not for the first time, I wished Severus was a Parsel Mouth, if only to give the snake some masculine presence in his life.

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I was searching the kitchen for orange juice when a knock came at the door. I was in my prison alone, for the moment. Tonks had had to leave for work about half-hour ago, while Vernon was at work himself and my aunt and cousin had chosen to keep scarce, for this week at least. Realizing the futility of my effort, I set my glass upon the counter, looked over at Paracelsus and saw that he hadn't caused himself any permanent harm with the toaster, and headed towards the front door.

Peeking through the spy-hole, I about squealed in joy. Yes, the day after next would be my last bloody day in this prison, but still I was counting the minutes until I could head back to HQ. That sobered me for a moment. Remus, who'd been the day before to watch after me while Tonks was at work, had told me Ari Caudwell and her children – Oliver, a Third Year Hufflepuff, and Alycone, who'd be joining me in Gryffindor for her Second Year in the fall – had been moved into HQ now that Ephraim was dead and buried. I think the excuse was that they worried that they wouldn't be able to feed themselves, but I knew what it really was. They wanted to make sure Ari didn't do anything drastic to get avenge her husband's death, even though every Death Eater that had participated in the battle were captured, save Bellatrix, who I'd tortured, who'd escaped with Voldemort. It was yet another thing to add to my list of things I needed to atone for.

Still, I opened my door with my wand fixed on the figure before me. "How do I know you're really Severus?" I was wearing a pink blouse and a white skirt, no shoes, and can't have looked more imposing then a housefly.

"Ovid," was what he offered by way of identification. I pushed the door open further at that and threw my arms around him. He pushed me inside before I could do anything too embarrassing, and locked the door behind us.

Sensing his mood, I let go of him and went back into the kitchen, where I found my dear Paracelsus had moved on from the toaster and was now investigating the coffee pot, and went back to searching for some sort of fruit juice. I'd a craving for something that wasn't carbonated, which was all the Dursleys seemed to have. Seemingly disinterested, "I didn't think you'd come."

"Someone has to watch over you, make sure The Girl-Who-Lived doesn't get into too much trouble."

I slammed the refrigerator shut with unintentional force. Back to that, were we? I'm only going to say this once, and you remember it, because it makes me turn all shades of Weasley red just to think it: the only one I've ever loved, ever kissed, ever… slept with has been one Severus Eteocles Snape. The only one I ever intend to love, kiss, and/or sleep with is the above stated Severus Eteocles Snape, despite is unfortunate middle name, and if that means I'm a spinster for the rest of my life, I really don't care. I've always known I never belonged to this era, to this world even. I would only ever give my heart to one man. I would only ever love once, and all else for me would mean nothing. I was old before my time, and I'd be an unmarried widow if Severus left me. I had lived a lifetime in the single year we'd been together. That was all I needed, though I wanted so much more. "So, what's been going on in the real world?" I asked, hastily changing the subject.

Without looking at him, I knew he raised his eyebrow at my lack of subtly, but he humoured me anyway as I went back to the fridge and started pulling out the stuff for a marinara sauce. "And I suppose this," I heard the movement of his arms as he gestured at the kitchen around me, "doesn't count for real?"

I looked up from the mushrooms I was washing and looked at the room around me. The mess of Azkaban South is a typical kitchen that you'd find in any house of this era – retrofitted in the '60s and due soon for another – with white laminate cabinets that were starting to peel and chipping doors of a nameless blue. The countertop was something plastic, but had lasted, and the cooker was the only appliance still original to the '60s, although it could not have may more years left in it. Still, it worked and cleaned up well, unlike the stainless-steel fridge or dish washer or random bits of modern technology that one didn't see at the Hogwarts kitchens, where meals were still cooked in giant hearths and bread ovens and all the washing was done by hand. No, these bits of machinery showed every grubby fingerprint, every stain, even after you scrubbed your hardest. And, believe me, I've cleaned these things in my time, and it would never be good enough. The pots and pans were Teflon-coated, the utensils I was coking with plastic-and-Teflon as well. Even the table Severus was sitting at was a fake wood, non-real thing. Everything in it was drawn from underground – something live and vibrant thing's corpse compressed for so long it became black and oily – and turned by some alchemical process to plastics that could be melted and shaped to form the countertop I cooked on, the pots I cooked with, the table I ate at, and the wrapping my food came in. And people asked what the living had to do with the dead, when everything they lived in was made up of dead leaves and dead trees and dead everything from so long ago! It was all fake, fake fake fake, and yet, oddly enough, it seemed more real to me now, as I shook the plastic colander I washed the mushrooms (which had come in a Styrofoam package and been covered in plastic shrink wrap) to drain the water, then Hogwarts ever had. Maybe Hogwarts had always been a dream of mine, where I imagined terrible, yes, but great things had happened to me. Maybe magic didn't exist, and it was just my imagination that I was a special girl in an already special world, and that I'd always been and always would be the Dursleys' cook and maid, and if I was lucky an abusive boy would take me away to be his cook and his maid and his whore… "Tell me of the things I've dreamed then," I said at long last. I found a canister of tang in a cabinet, and filled the glass (partway full of vodka, stolen from Petunia's own private stores behind the laundry detergent) I'd left on the counter with a measure of that. I topped it off with water straight from the tap. "Being here for too long makes me forget that anything else," anything better, "exists." I took a sip and made a face. I turned to Paracelsus then. "I thought you said it wasss supposed to taste good."

"Professor Sinistra likesss them."

"And you didn't use orange juice. Maybe that makesss a difference."

"I think you made a Fuzzy Cosmonaut," Sus offered unhelpfully.

"You drink it then," I poured the drink into the now empty Styrofoam container and went back to chopping the mushrooms. Almost immediately the Runespoor crawled out from under one of the burners and Sus ducked his head inside, the other two looking on interestedly.

Maybe he sensed my own mood, or maybe he felt sorry for being cold to me a moment ago, I dunno, but I didn't notice Severus come up behind me until he took the knife from my hands. "Must you always savage your ingredients?"

"They're all going into a pot; it's not going to matter in the end what they look like." Nonetheless, I let him to chop the mushrooms, tomatoes, onions – all the while watching his hands as they worked, meticulously cutting it all into equal, perfect bits – and added the spices and olive oil when I wasn't watching him.

"That's why you'll never excel in Potions."

True. "That's why I keep you around," I told him jokingly, then sobered. It occurred to me then that, the way he was acting, something was wrong again. Another blasted moral quandary, or he was having what Tonks would call a "Remus Moment" and insist that he was too old, dangerous, etc, etc for me. Almost reflexively, I grabbed a sponge and began to wipe down the table and countertops. "What's happened?"

"Fudge was sacked last night – rather unanimously, though they were still arguing over who's to replace him when I left this morning."

It wasn't a murder. I don't think I could have handled another one. The Brockdale Bridge had been destroyed by Voldemort two days before, killing several dozen and covering the Muggle news with speculations about bridge funding and corrupt contractors. Emmaline Vance, a middle-aged, matronly woman that reminded me a little of Mrs. Weasley, though a little greyer, had been found raped, murdered, and mauled in a dumpster off Tottenham Court Road just yesterday. Hers was a little noticed death, as Amelia Bones, poor Susan's aunt, was found dead in a room with no windows that had been locked from the inside, with a thousand tiny marks all over her but none, even in combination, enough to cause the blood loss to kill her the same day. And, besides, there was surprisingly little blood found, most of what was coming from several different males. I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding and resumed my compulsive scrubbing. Dead things could never get clean, not truly. I should just burn it all and make the Dursleys' get new furniture… But what did I care what they ate on? They could eat in a sty for all I cared, they were pigs enough.

After a moment, I felt he was waiting for me to say something, so I gave a general, "Oh," and went back to scrubbing the table. Why did he have to bring up all the deaths again? There were just so many… How was one girl like me supposed to avenge them all? Would a single AK to Voldemort stop it all, make it all right? No, that wouldn't be enough either. What about poor girls like Susan Bones, who'd family been torn apart because I'd not the strength to kill Voldemort like I should of in the DoM? And Cedric's parents, what could I say to them to make the fact that their son had been cold and dead and buried a year now, when, had he lived, he might have-

Oh what's the use? I'm only a weapon, born to destroy The Dark Lord so others can be happy. And Severus, standing there, looking at me with those dark black eyes that understood me better than I understood myself and loved with such a strength as I was unworthy of.

"Something's wrong," he said, lowering the knife and walking over to me. I refused to look at him. People like me don't deserve people like him, so good and kind and willing to risk everything just to make the world a better place. Me? I just got people pulled into trouble and killed people's fathers and tortured people's wives, however much either of them deserved it…

"Nothing's wrong," I lied. Or maybe it wasn't a lie. This was the way things were supposed to be as I waited to become some other man's – some street thug, some pimp, some guy in a low-level job that'd never go farther because all he had he spent on drink – cook and maid and whore. Severus had an odd morality about him, one that'd make me untouchable for my youth and "innocence" and whatnot as soon as he got his head back on right and realized that he'd sex with a student (namely, me) multiple times in the last week of the school year, even if that student (me) was most likely (unless something bizarre happened, like they mistook Hermione's potions work for my own) no longer his student in particular after that school year. He was probably feeling so guilty that he came here today to break up with me – if that was the correct term for whatever our together was – and wanted to "just be friends" for the rest of our, probably (mercifully) short lives.

He grabbed my wrist, extricated the sponge, and lifted me onto the countertop so that my eyes were level with his. "Something's wrong," he stated again. Then, more timidly then I'd ever heard him speak before, "Are you pregnant?"

I looked at him askance. "That would be a bad thing?" Honestly, I'd never given any thought as to whether or not our multiple unions had resulted in a child… though, considering the contraceptive potions I'd taken, it was hardly likely. Still, it had never occurred to me that Severus would see a child as a "wrong" thing. Maybe unfortunate, young as I was, but not something to be the first "wrong" thing he would think of when I was trapped as I was in a place that I hated with people that I hated when I should have been with people I loved in a house papered with pictures of me and newspaper clippings of my deeds, or in Severus's rooms at Hogwarts. What I wouldn't give to stay in that island of dreams and happiness forever, not having to worry about this "real" world and all the fake, dead things within it!

"You're only fifteen!" I knew it. That was going to be a problem… Always a problem! Was it not that we loved? Wasn't that all that mattered?

"Sixteen in a month's time," I said with a calm that I did not feel. "But, no, I don't think so."

He could have had the grace to look less relieved. "Severus," I asked timidly and cursing myself for not just coming out and saying it. I gathered my Gryffindor courage and proceeded. "What are we?"

His hands were still on my waist, where they had griped to lift me, and I felt their hold grow tighter. "What do you mean?" I had the feeling he'd been dreading this question. Spies didn't have girlfriends. Heroines did not date spies, but rather handsome young heroes and/or princes. But I had this idea that love would save us – save us both from the hell-holes of our past, from the war before us. Love would make the fact that I'd killed men and tortured women make the reality of war less traumatizing. That, if we did not allow ourselves this compulsion, that we'd both become as cold and empty as the monsters we fought and, when the war was at last done, we'd be nothing but corpses that happened to have once been men, all our emotion lost to us in time… We wouldn't even be in pain, like we were now, but would just be…

"I mean, where do you see all this going? I mean, I know you love me," I fiddled with the bracelet he gave me and tried to look into his eyes, "But what is the plan? Are we just going to go on like this?"

Severus was silent for a long moment. I couldn't look into his eyes after all. I just stared at the spot just above his collar, where I could see the flesh of skin I had known with my hands, my mouth and wished to know again… I loved Severus, I knew he loved me, and I wasn't going to let him just throw that away, but I'd no idea how to make him stay, how to keep loving me. I'd been so little loved in my life, I don't think I could handle the loss of it… Then, finally, he kissed me fully on the lips. "I want whatever you want."

"That doesn't help me any," I kissed him back, shamelessly undoing his shirt buttons as I did so in the joy I felt, so I could put my hands on his strong chest and heal the scars that covered them with a thousand kisses and a hundred more. "Would it be so bad, really, if I got pregnant?"

"Didn't work out so well for Margaret Beaufort."

I pouted. "She was only thirteen when she gave birth to Henry VII – not a fair comparison at all. It's more," I thought for a moment, at a loss for a second, "more Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow, or Anna of Denmark." They'd married at fourteen; Sophie'd her first child at sixteen, like I'd be shortly. She was a scholarly woman… They both had come from such large families and had large ones of their own, like the Weasleys. It must be nice to grow up like that, never alone, knowing that you were loved… But, now, I wasn't pregnant.

With a laugh, "Did you spend your entire childhood closeted away, reading?"

"No – I cooked and cleaned too…" and I'd still be if Hagrid'd not saved me. "But, really, Severus, do you see marriage? Children? Do you even want any of that? I'm not saying that's what I'm asking for – I just want to know."

"I've never given it much thought, honestly." But that was a lie. He had to have thought about it too, an only child like he was, from a family just as cruel as Azkaban South. He had to have known when he was making love to me that a child could be born of it, that even the best contraceptive potions weren't foolproof.

"How does a white picket fence and herd of little Severuses sound?"

I felt his nose crinkle (my intended effect) as one of his hands left my waist to duck under my skirt. I liked the feel of his hand as he pulled it upwards, running it along the sensitive flesh of my inner thigh, and tingled with it. "Delightfully dreadful."

"Especially if they have the Prince nose."

"Or the Potter hair."

I was working on his belt buckle now, which was a hard skill to master, believe you me. "Or brooded half as much as you do."

"Or had your moodiness," he continued. One hand was toying with the band of my underwear, the other on the small of my back and pulling me closer.

"I am not moody."

"Whatever you say, Éléonore," he said, a hint of condescension in his tone. I could feel him pressed close against me, a welcome warm that only a bit of cloth separated me from, and I could feel my veins beginning to course with the familiar desire. With a sigh, I slipped off the counter and went to stir the sauce. As much as having sex in my aunt's kitchen seemed the perfect revenge, I wanted nothing good and pure to become tangled up in this hell-hole, and maybe he realized this – I don't know, only that he continued to let me torture the veg that was to go into the pot without comment.

Severus looked around him then, as if examining the house in which I was raised. "This was not what I was expecting the home of the Baronne of Calais to look like." It was a house of dead things, and I just another dying thing within it.

"It's not my home, that's why – it's just a house I grew up in, if you could call it that." For some reason this irritated me even further, and dropped the last of the veg into the pot. Why couldn't I just leave? I'd take any risk if it meant I didn't have to be here.

It was then I heard a car pull up in the drive, and a thrill of excitement ran through me. Becoming dizzy, I turned to face him so fast, "Severus?" I asked. "That's my aunt." He nodded his understanding. "Can I tell her you're a vampire?"

He looked at me strangely then, "Why?"

"Because it'd be fun?"

"Sometimes I don't understand you at all, Éléonore."

Paracelsus, lifting his middle head from the now empty mushroom container, chose to speak up then as I faked a look of sorrow. "You can tell."

"Her that I'm."

"Hic." I glared at my baby Runespoor and asked myself why I'd thought it was a good idea to listen to any recipes he gave me, whether spied on from Professor Sinistra or not. But I only shook my head and disposed of the dregs of his Fuzzy Cosmonaut. After all, what could one say at a time like this?

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I didn't end up killing the Dursleys, though, for which I am amazingly surprised. At the end of the week I was taken away to HQ, where the normal, dreamlike business of dealing with the reports that were coming in daily of people who'd gone missing or been found, dead or near so, and the plots and plans that Voldemort was hatching. They no longer tried to hide much from me, the Order; only things they knew would upset me unnecessarily, like a Muggle girl Alycone's age that'd been found hanging from shackles in her own home, dead and clearly raped by multiple Death Eaters before getting to that point. I found out anyway – it was hard to keep anything from anyone in HQ if you hung around it long enough. But Sirius, Remus, Tonks, and I were the only full-time residents… though Ari, Oliver, and Alycone were making a run for it.

With her husband dead, Ari seemed thrown back into the war she'd managed to move past so many years ago with a suddenness that she was unprepared for. She was angry, at first, desperately sad and angry. She was not a dueller, but she knew the law front to back, and threw herself into legal battles with a ferocity that made us Gryffindors pale. She brought up the charges on Dolohov's estate for the murder of her husband personally, even though she was not a criminal attorney, getting everyone at Dunn, Hastings, and McGully involved in some aspect with either that case or one of the hundred others she created in those first few weeks after Ephraim died. There were charges against the Ministry for failing to properly secure their building from Death Eaters, for failing to acknowledge the war, for general incompetence… charges against each of the Death Eaters involved, including several in Sirius's name on my behalf. Then there were the charges against Umbridge, against the ex-Minister Fudge… It all made even my head spin.

Ari was at her office so much that Oliver and Alycone, suffering in their own ways, were seemingly forgotten in their mother's pain. Since the "adults" were all busy with the war, I did my best by them, the way I did my best for whoever was in HQ at the time. With Mrs. Weasley at the Burrow this summer, Andi busy at The Sleeping Dragon, the adults of the house busy as bees with one thing or another, and myself without anything, even homework, to do until OWL results arrived, I took over the care of the house. I supposed I should have felt like a slave girl again, cooking and cleaning and generally doing everything that everyone else was too busy to do, but it was different. HQ was, despite it all, my home. I was Sirius's adopted daughter, this was Sirius's house, and it all needed to be done someway or another. So I put food on the table, made sure everyone who was in the house ate, found beds for those who crashed here after assignments, helped Oliver with his summer homework at the warm, real kitchen table, and generally didn't allow myself a moment to think about how much I hated the Dursleys and hated myself for letting it be that people like Ephraim Caudwell and that Muggle girl Alycone's age had to die.

But it was there. A blinding thing, when it bubbled over. When Victor Talbot, a Ravenclaw who'd graduated my Second Year and was now working at Dunn, Hastings, and McGully as well as for the Order, so much as mentioned where I could overhear something about one of Ari's cases, I felt the monster rise within me. When I saw Alycone, red-eyed but trying not to show it, lying on one of the couches in the library reading her Sino-Japanese comics, I felt the fiend within me burn with rage. When I flooed for Madam Pomprey or Augustus Pye to patch someone up, or listened to the Order meeting as I bustled about the kitchen, aware of the few weary eyes on me as I cooked dinner for those who'd be staying without the benefit of magic, stupid RRUW, or generally looked at any of my tired and world-weary friends, who looked like they'd waken up to discover their nightmares were real. The work keep the hate and worry at bay, though I always knew when it was there, growing inside of me like a parasite.

It was not all that bad, though, for all it sounds like it might have been. There were moments of joy that could be captured, moments of happiness only slightly tainted by the shadow that had settled fully over magical Britain.

My OWLS, for instance, where not only did I get the expected O in Defence and D in HoM, but also scraped an O in Charms. Despite the fact that I only got these grades, I'm sure, because of my fanatical searching for ways to protect myself from Voldemort's intrusions and from Fourth Year's attempt to keep me alive through the Tournament, I was thrilled with my grades – meaning I could do whatever I wanted with them, if I ever could figure out what I wanted to do. I baked a cake that night, to go with dinner, but of course no one asked why I might be baking one, whether or not there was any special significance for one to be present. It was just a few scragglier members of the Order anyway, the type of people I doubt Sirius would have let me be around if they weren't Order members, and I didn't care what they thought or not. I did wonder now and again what they thought, these Knoctern men and women, about The Girl-Who-Lived making their dinner and cleaning up after them, but it was not a strong worry.

What I was worried about was, that, though easily nine o'clock, none of the adults of the house had come home. Oliver and Alycone had long ago eaten (the latter in the library with her comics and Quidditch magazines) and the noises drifting from upstairs had grown dim. Ari I could understand, in a way, and Victor Talbot had been sent on occasion to fetch his boss from her offices and see she got some sleep and a decent meal, at least, but Victor wasn't due to report for another day or so. The others, though, made me think that something was terribly, terribly wrong. I worried so deeply about them and what might be happening I barely paid attention to the casserole I was dishing into three plates, loading with bread and other offerings, and setting in the cabinet charmed to keep dinners of these sorts warm for whichever of my family happened to be gone for it that night. I was searching for the wizarding version of Tupperware when I heard a hissing come from behind me:

"Put that out!" Par hissed with all the determination of a ten-year-old telling off his five-year-old brother at Mudungus Fletcher, who'd lit his fluxweed pipe and now was spewing the foul-smelling smoke all about my clean kitchen.

Acel continued, "Mère doesn't like it when scale-lessss."

"Onesss spit smoke in her cooking-place."

Dung looked at me askance as Sus tried to knock the pipe from his hand with a particularly violent sway of the head. "He wants you to put out your pipe."

"Ah, com' on, Ely. Can't a bloke 'ave a smoke after 'is supper?"

I'd had this argument with him at least a thousand times, or so it seemed. "I never said you couldn't smoke, Dung, only that you're not to do it in my kitchen." I found my Tupperware and began spooning the leftovers into it. Par and Sus continued to glare with unblinking snake eyes at him, while Acel appeared to be trying to stick her head into the bowl of the pipe.

After a moment more, he snuffed his pipe, gathered his rags about him, and left, muttering, "Aye, Gen'ral Potter ma'am," under his breath. Sus hissed at him, and he hurried out.

I took his plate and put in the pile of others to wash, and before long I was left alone in the kitchen, Sirius, Remus, and Tonks still not home… I went into the basement, but another load of wash into the basin and was again surprised, as I'd no right to be, having known I was a witch for six years, when it started doing itself. What was dry, I folded, and carted upstairs to the proper rooms.

"Aly," I reminded the girl on my way up, "I'm going to the market tomorrow; is there any thing you need?" She shook her head without looking at me. I'd long since stopped bothering to ask if she wanted to come with. I crossed the hall to her brother's room and knocked on the door. Peeking my head in (knowing well from the Weasleys how messy teenage boys could be), I asked the same of Oliver.

Somewhat embarrassed to ask, "Could you get the stuff for the pudding you made last night again?"

"Sure. You wanna come with?"

"Sure," he said, again with a pink tinge to his cheeks. I just shook my head and continued dropping laundry off in rooms (putting Tonks's in Remus's room, for no other reason then to be contrary) and picking up wet towels and discarded socks as I went. Kretcher, by rights, should be doing this, but he'd not left the attic in a month and wouldn't have done it anyway. I didn't mind.

So I carted the laundry down, washed the dishes, and sipped tea in the kitchen until the floo rang. Someone had to be about, in case something happened…

"Operator?" a voice I knew to be Kingsley's asked.

I answered, "What's your emergency?" and was inordinately pleased that he knew of Muggle culture enough to get this, at least, and smiled at him as he chuckled grimly.

"There's been a sighting of the Carrows in Gloucestershire – Kempley, last I heard – and-" And, most likely, he was stuck in the Auror office doing paperwork and surrounded by Jr. Aurors that were no better trained then tapioca, and he needed people who actually knew how to handle themselves among dangerous, dangerous people.

"Say no more. I'll have Hestia and Elphias check it out," and did just that.

And I was left to worry, mistress in a house of children, and wait for… maybe news, maybe the arrival of the ones I loved, maybe even Godot… and watch the clock on the mantle count out the days and hours…

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There were trolls in the West Country.

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A family of five (a man with spectacles and a hair plug, a woman who dyed her hair blonde against the grey, a fifteen-year-old girl, a twelve-year-old boy, and a Muggle-born who'd have received his Hogwarts letter in two days time) burned to death in their Kempley home. At least one appeared, to the medical examiner's astonishment, to have spontaneously combusted from the inside out.

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Fenrir Greyback and his pack were running in Shropshire. A group of Aurors tried to run them out of Felton during the new moon, during which time three Aurors suffered broken bones, Tonks a broken nose, and only five "cubs" were actually captured. The other thirty or so ragtag werewolves escaped, coming off much better in the fight.

The youngest of the five was a boy no older than three, was called Raul. From what I understand the oldest, a girl my age who answered to Dianica, was rather attached to the adorable, precocious boy more so than even her other three captives.

At the changing of the guard, Dianica quickly snapped the necks of the other cubs – Raul first – so that the evil non-werewolves wouldn't hurt them or try to turn them against their pack. Though they watched her carefully after that, she was found hanging by a scrap of her own dress one morning not long before my birthday. Remus, who had tried talking to the girl (being the most civilized werewolf any of us knew), said it was a waste, and kept to the upper floors of the house for days.

Though I never said anything, I felt that it was a brave thing for the girl to do – probably the hardest thing she had to do in her life, something that she thought, however wrongly, had to be done to protect the cubs she was put in charge of. Perhaps Raul was even her own child, the ages were right, and she didn't want to see him tortured, or whatever she thought the MoM would do to her baby boy, and crying out to her to help him, save him, not knowing she would have been powerless even to tend his wounds in that cage.

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And so it went on, until I found it was my birthday, and a party was thrown in my honour and presents given in the formal dining room that Andi had worked, in her spare time, to turn into a festive place, brightly lit and beautifully decorated, with the Triwizard Cup severing as a vase for a handful of summer blooms. Severus snuck into my rooms that night (feeling like a "bloody teenager" when he did so, which amounted to once or twice a week) and made love to me in the shower. I could have sworn that the lines the tiny tiles made in my back as I pressed up against the wall showed through my shirt the next morning, the way Sirius was watching me, but nobody said anything, if anyone knew. I did, however, find a box of contraceptive potions and a pamphlet for St. Bernard's on my pillow the next evening, but it's better than being threatened with marriage to Fred again…

Time wore on, and I was named Quidditch Captain, for which another party was thrown, for which Sirius cooked and, the next morning, landed half those in attendance in bed or over the porcelain throne with food poisoning – something which was, to my sorrow, repeated after Sirius's "Éléonore, Oliver, and Alycone go back to Hogwarts tomorrow" bash. With me on the Hogwarts Express (however ill it made the three of us), I worried over who'd cook proper meals for them from now on, and hoped I left enough in the fridge for them to make it through until Mrs. Weasley had time to check in on them.

Despite the war, I thought, with some relief as I fled the first meeting of the "Slug Club," which no one, for God knows what reason, thought to warm me of, and join Alycone in the nearest girl's loo, that things were, despite all the death and all the hate and all the fear, despite Voldemort and the prophesy, life was getting better. I was loved, I would never – ever – be going back to Azkaban South again, had learned to drive Sirius's Milan red Ascari Ecosse with a fake licence that said I was twenty, and a beau in Severus that I never could have imagined years previously. I was happy…

It was a strange feeling.

…an only lasted until the Welcoming Feast, which was unappetizing after what I'd managed to keep down from the Slug Club's lunch, when Dumbledore, out of nowhere announced: "We are pleased to welcome a new member of the staff this year. Professor Slughorn is a former colleague of mine who has agreed to resume his old post of Potions Master." My whole body went numb as I realized what this meant; my eyes caught Severus's, who was looking back at me from the Head Table, and tried to force the feeling of betrayal I felt onto him, just so he'd realize how angry I was at his deception… How long had he known? A week? Maybe two – I'd not seen him in that. Blast him and his morals, I'd … I wanted to cry. "Professor Snape, meanwhile, will be taking over the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher."I put my head into my arms on the table, and tried to think, cursing Sirius the whole time as the nausea rolled in me.

Chapter Eighteen.