TMI_kiss-closeup

Someone To Run To (26/32)


Chapter Twenty-Six, In Which I Am Assaulted by Hormonal Teenage Witches and Wizards


"Caffeine," I told myself, "is what I need." Caffeine was the glorious god that had descended from the heavens – more useful then any angel, more dangerous and wonderful then Prometheus's fire – to help poor girls like me. Yes. Massive amounts of caffeine. And sugar, even though I was already feeling sick from only having ate pie and birthday cake all day. Weren't those supposed to be good for shock? I supposed I was in shock. Or hysterics. I dunno. My emotions reactions seemed off, even to me, and I had declared myself unfit for human company. I left Claudia with Mrs. Weasley in the parlour on my way in, saying I needed an adult half-hour, locked my bedroom door, and took the longest shower that even a magical hot water heater could deal with, curled up in the corner of the tub as the spray fell over my hanging head.

There were knocks and pounds at the door, but either I was stronger then they and their magics failed on the door or they respected me enough not to try. I don't know what I thought was more likely, or which I'd prefer. Still, it was nice, to be alone. Paracelsus was downstairs, singing along to one of the radios or attempting to teach himself how to read or something of the sort, so, for once, I was completely alone. Until the instant I was, I can't tell you how much I liked being alone, knowing I could find people when I was ready, not have them foisted on me against my will.

Foist. Such an interesting word. I wonder-

See? See what I'm talking about? Not fit for human company at all. Or werewolf. Or Runespoor. Is there anything else I'm missing? Owl. Not for owl company at all. I'm going absolutely sodding mad.

Oh well. Nice day for it.

I could have just walked out the door, left Azkaban South entirely. Maybe I even should have. I just traded Claudia for the vial of nex ranae reginae in Severus's pocket and asked them, coldly polite, to wait for me in the car. Then I closed all of the curtains on the first floor, and locked the kitchen door. When I returned to the living room, Petunia was still sitting in shock on the living room, not having moved since placing her thumb on the deed now in Fleur's unbreakable and un-break-into-able purse. There was a single russet smudge, the merest hint of blood, on her white coffee table; she didn't seem to notice it.

I set down two Sheriffs of Nottingham – a drink she enjoyed, a mix of vodka and apple cider – beside the stain, and sat on the chair Sirius had recently vacated. "I'm sorry," I told her, sipping mine and making a face at it. Perhaps it was just inexperience with alcohol, and what little I had with that having been quite a while back, what with me having been pregnant for most of the last year, but I thought it tasted foul. I think the Pumpkin Pixie the Twins – pumpkin juice and gin – served up the team after we won that last cup might actually have tasted better, and that's saying something. Anyway, "I didn't mean for them to go at you like that," I told her, placing my drink back down.

I expected her to say something, but she didn't. Just stared at me. I stared right back, and, after a moment, she looked back down. Her eyes are just like Lily's, I knew she was thinking. I hated it when people thought that. I was my own person, after all. That gave me the strength to continue.

I should have just killed her. That probably would be better, in the end. "Petunia," I said conversationally after a minute or so of thick, dank silence, "I tried to figure out once how much I should sue you for, when I came of age. I was never good with math; I didn't bother paying attention in primary school, you might remember, because Dudley never did and I couldn't let myself be better then Dudley. I read instead." Oh the things I read instead. "And I didn't take Arithmancy when I had the chance, so I've never really gotten much better. Fleur, though, is a genius at the maths; works at Gringotts, so she'd have to be. She's too junior to be allowed to be put in charge of a family account, but I've made it known that, when she's got enough years under her Prada belt, I'd like her to be in charge of the family money. Apparently there's a lot of it, what with the barony before the Revolution, and some apparently wonderful cremant d'Alsace brut rosé varieties of wine developed under my great-grandfather, Gabriel-Zacharie, and his father, Zacharie-Richard, in the 1860s and '70s. And something to do with north Africa after the war… but I'm not exactly sure. And then there's the Prince money… Severus's mum didn't take real good care of it, so it's not as much as it once was, only about forty or fifty thou more then the Potier fortune…"

I was rambling at this point, obviously, but couldn't help it. It wasn't like my dearest aunt had brought herself to say anything yet. Maybe Sirius had cast a silencer on her. I dunno. I didn't care, though. Maybe I should have. "So, anyway, I tried to figure out what maid service for ten years would cost, and cooking, and lawn care, and what not. And then there's inflation to deal with, and the exemplary damages, and so, in the end, I decided it would be more cost effective simply not to bother suing, as it would take a lot of money to hire the team of forensic accountants that would be needed to sort the mess out, keep said mess out of the papers, radio, et cetera." I pushed my highball towards her, noticing she'd drank hers quickly, as if in attempt to forget this day as quickly has possible. I had envied her that.

Pausing at landing, I remembered my reason for hiding upstairs in the first place and the need that had driven me to leave it for some hope of caffeinated release.

I had held up the now visibly half-empty vial of nex ranae reginae when she was halfway through my drink. I felt sick even then, at what I had done. "I know a lot of curses. Very few of them nice," I told her as her brain struggled with what the half-empty phial meant. Her eyes went wide as she realized the truth of it, and went to her throat, dropping the glass she'd been holding to her immaculate carpet. "But you are my aunt, and you took me in, no matter how much you'd have rather have taken me to an orphanage. You signed the blood protection for Claudia. And so I thank you, with this, and hope that the poison kills you in some dignified way you don't deserve." And I'd locked the door behind me on the way out.

Was it wrong of me? Was it? Was it truly? To encourage my aunt to drink a beverage laced with nex ranae reginae that she'd never have even had if I hadn't offered it to her? I'd killed Bellatrix Lestrange with such a… simple… pain-free curse. And the now-deceased Death Eater had to have been at least slightly worse then Petunia – Petunia had never killed anyone, at least, not that I knew of; - I could have done that if I wanted to kill her so badly. Since I wanted to kill her so badly. Instead I dosed her with a poison that could be anything from la morte di sogno, which, if she was so poisoned, would kill her next them she'd a bad dream to mfaransa mamunch, a slow death that would, very slowly, do much the same as a Dementor's kiss, though usually people hung themselves before they lost the entirety of their souls. It could be fast, or slow, or painful, or a gentle death in her sleep.

I still don't know why I did it. Out of all the things I could have done. Should have done.

There were voices in the kitchen I didn't want to deal with, but I also didn't think I could make it back up the stairs without some fizzy, sinfully drugged carbonated beverage, so, weighing the options of offending anyone with my currently inappropriate emotional reactions or having to drag myself up the stairs before enjoying sugary sustenance, I decided that the people in the kitchen were bound to be grown enough to get over my rudeness in time. To my surprise, the voices didn't stop when I entered, though it wasn't until I'd found a can of Muggle soda and downed half its contents that I started to pay any attention to what was being said.

"…frankly, Professeur, I care not the slightest."

"Then, mademoiselle," Severus taunted her, "you should have no problem staying within headquarters tonight."

Fleur was not one to be so easily dissuaded. "Personnellement, I 'ad thought you would prefer to 'ave une fête en l'honneur de la future mariée be carried out outside of your presence."

I didn't speak French, but I figured I'd the gist of it. "Let them have their party," I told asked as I helped myself to the better half of an apple pie. "Get a couple of cellular phones or something so have in case something happens and you need to call 'em back. If they won't work here, I'm sure there's a phone booth nearby you could use…. Or maybe portable floo?" my head spun with the possibilities. A lighter? A candle? You'd need something with a flame… I laughed a little before realizing that Severus and Fleur were talking about people possibly dying tonight because I'd turned seventeen and the outrageousness of having a bachelorette party in the middle of a war. Definitely not fit for human company.

Frowning, I headed with the pie tin, soda, and a fork which, from its size, had probably been more intended to the eating of small molluscs then pastries, to the door, "Just where do you think you're going, Alexandrie-Margaux?"

"Er, upstairs?" I told Fleur, trying to balance my burden as I turned.

"No, you are not. You must convince your 'usband 'ere that we are responsible, mature adults and 'ave been working very 'ard to destroy l'Obscurité and deserve a much earned break."

Furrowing my brows perhaps more then was necessary (and trying hard to think that far back), "Isn't that the excuse you used this morning?"

"Our 'excuse,' as you call it," she informed me, "for this morning was that l'héroïne de la Bataile de la Tour was in need of a much delayed celebration of many things, the least of which being 'er birth."

Groaning, I turned to Severus and quoted, "Don't ask, for it is forbidden to know, what final fate The Gods will give me or you. Don't play with Babylonian fortune-telling either. It is better to endure whatever will be. Whether Jupiter has allotted to you many more winters or this final one, which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian Sean on the rocks opposite, be smart; drink your wine. Scale back your long hopes to a short time for, while we speak, envious time will have already fled. Seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow."

"Horace's Odes." Then, clearly not appreciating how much effort it took me to think of something to say that actually made sense as a reply, "One of these days you're going to find a way to say all the thoughts in your head without resorting to somebody else's words."

I could only snort. Severus was as bad as I was and he knew it. I would never be the author that other authors had been – and, besides, they had leant their thoughts to the world, to put into words emotions and places and faces and thoughts that no one else could describe. I was sure Horace – or Dostoevsky or O'Neill – would not be bothered by my borrowing of a couple phrases, of the use of some words. Or, if in life they would have, it didn't matter now: they were the food of daffodils now. What a shame.

"And what do you mean 'them?'" Fleur asked, glaring at me from the table with icy eyes.

As patiently as I could mange, "I am sleep deprived, Fleur-flower. "I am sleep deprived and running only on a mixture of sugars and caffeine. I'm not fit for anyone's company. Plus-" I shouldn't have mentioned the sugar. Dropping the pie, fork, and unopened soda, it was all I could do to make it to the first floor bathroom in time.

Luckily I suppose you could say, most the Order was out of HQ on "business." I cursed the un-sipped caffeine for having betrayed me this way.

"I think."

"Mère, hasss."

"Gone crazy."

"No I've not," I insisted as Severus came to me with a beautiful vial of pale blue antiemetic. Potions Masters were the true gift of Gods. No. That was wrong. Potions Masters could make poisons like the one I dosed Petunia with. Well, something was a gift; I just didn't know what it was yet. I downed half the vial as quick as I could, then sicked it right up.

"Have you had anything besides cake to eat today?" he scolded me, chucking me a towel.

Glaring over the rim of the porcelain bowl, "I'm not a child, Sev'rus."

"You said yourself that sugar was-"

"Yes," I told him, not a bit patiently, "but I've also gotten maybe three hours of sleep in the last forty-eight, been on emotional rollercoaster that would send Disney into pangs of jealousy, hormones you could throw a rock at from space and hit, slipped a Mickey into my aunt's drink after trying to restrain myself from cursing her five ways from Friday, and…" I think there was something else. Some other excuse… I chucked the towel right back at him and leaned my head against the cool bowl. "Oh yes. I can't remember the last proper thing I ate…." Sadly, "I just want to go to bed."

"Mademoiselle Delacour is flooing Poppy."

"But I'm fine," I protested. His eyebrows arched at me, as if asking me to look at my surroundings and say that again. Pouting like a five year old, "Well, I will be."

He had the nerve to laugh at me. Laugh. Like I was funny or something. I hissed an explicative or eight his way, and even Sus joined in a moment later when the Runespoor slithered up his leg and said, "Père, you."

"Are in."

"Tra-Bull," before two of heads began humming along with the radio they'd left on in the parlour.

At least my husband knew better then to look at me for a translation. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the wall and smirked at me. Narrowing my eyes after a moment of dry-heaving as if I wished to singe him with my laser eyes, I asked him in no uncertain terms just what he thought was so amusing.

"You, of course." I think I might even have growled a bit at this. "You always surprise me with how strong you are." A questioning groan was my only reply. "To have gone through all of today, if you've been feeling this bad, without saying a word." His mouth tightened a bit, "Why didn't you tell?"

"Tell you what?" that unpleasant tickle in the back of my throat was starting to get… unpleasant. Oh yes, Éléonore. That was brilliant. Pure genius you are. I can see why Voldemort's soooo scared of you.

"He meansss the cupboard," Par decided to his.

"No, he meansss that Mère wasss feeling so bad."

"Acel, you're an idiot."

"Mère! Tell Susss to stop saying that!"

"Susss, please stop calling your brother an idiot," I managed.

"But he isss an idiot, Mère!"

At this point I banged my head against the wall and was disappointed when it did nothing to relieve the headache I was now getting atop everything else. If I was lucky, I might not toss up my intestines, like I felt I might. "I don't care if he'sss an idiot or not-"

"Hey!"

"-just don't call him one, okay?"

"Fine. Acel, sie sind ein Schwachkopf."

I shook my head at the Runespoor's antics and immediately regretted it. And that was how Madam Pomprey found me a moment later, hunched over the toilet. "Éléonore, it's been a month-and-a-half since I last saw you," she said, setting a carpet bag in the pedestal sink and perfunctorily putting two fingers on the inside of my wrist; "I was beginning to think I might be able to go on holiday after all. So, Severus, what trouble has she gotten into this time?"

Though she said the last bit with a smile, I felt myself grow angered irrationally at the comment. "She has done absolutely nothing but have a very exhaustive day." I wasn't sure what it was I intended to do after that – perhaps just head on back up to my room and deal with my inappropriate emotional responses there, - but I never made it.

"And so she," (Madam Pomprey emphasized this by putting a hand on my shoulder to keep me seated on the cool tiles), "is going to stay right where she is until I can figure out what's wrong with you."

"Do you want me to go through the list?" I almost said, and only did it because I knew that it would get me no where.

"How have you been sleeping?"

"Terribly."

"About how many hours?"

"Three, four at a time – Claudia's only just started sleeping through the night. Maybe six a night," I offered as I saw Paracelsus slide off Severus's arm and climb into Madam Pomprey's bag.

"Eating properly?"

"When I'm hungry." Or remember. I'd not been much hungry since Dumbledore's death, despite my stress cooking of pies and other pastries.

"You should be eating a lot more – if you're still breastfeeding?" I looked away at that and continued to do so as Severus, more confused then he ever would have let a student or any other professor see if the world was still spinning the way it was supposed to (which it mightn't be. Crazy things were happening… Poisoning Petunia and offerings of pseudo-legal positions in not-yet-exiled governments and whatnot…), assured her I was.

I think I laughed then. I know I've argued that I'm strong and capable. That I can take care of myself. That I've done things no grown person has done. Perhaps it seems contrary to argue the opposite just a breath later. Maybe it's only out of desire to be capable I argued so fiercely earlier. I doubt it, though. I think it's the desire to have the childhood that was ripped from me restored, to have someone take care of me even as I've a human-nestling and a snake-nestling to take care of. Everyone, even Severus, had tossed me Dumbledore's still-warm mantle without even realizing they'd done it. Head the Order? The British Government? It was madness. I could hear them shouting in my ears in future days, all of the Muggles and Wizards who didn't take up arms, who didn't fight against this coming Darkness, shouting, "It's your sin if I suffer! It's your moral failure!" and expecting me to take care of them, when all I wanted to do was finish my Seventh Year and graduate and maybe become a lawyer or a teacher or maybe be a homemaker until Claudia was old enough to go to primary school. Maybe grow apples – green ones – just because apples sounded so good right now, even as sick as I was feeling. But still the voices around me still would shout, "…You're so proud of yourself, you think that you're pure and good – but you can't be good, so long as I'm wretched." (But I'm not pure and good. I admit it. I'm awful. I'm evil. I'm a murderess and torturer and poisoner of blood kin. You, you Muggles out there who have no idea the war that the isle and, indeed, all the world, is facing, you are the lucky ones. You can rest safe in your beds at night and not dream of war and death and tragedy – or of boys with your name and your father's face in world so similar to your own it hurt to think about. You can have bachelorette parties without fear, birthdays without anxiety; weddings without homicidal gate crashers. And you, you wizards out there that won't fight the good fight, who might be murdered in your homes like the rest of us, who might wake up to find an owl at your door saying they've taken your husband, your mother, your son and here's their half-blood heart to remember them by, who might, after everything, say that it's all a lie, that Voldemort's not back, that I killed him sixteen years ago, that the people going missing aren't connected, they're just missing – it happens, - and the MoM has always had one crisis or another to work through – this isn't any news at all, - and that the people being murdered and the feral werewolves on the loose and the new restrictions on international travel aren't anything unusual – you I pity. You are lucky, in that you forget daily that we are fighting a war from which our fathers and sons and wives and cousins mightn't return alive, but you are unlucky too because, for some of you, at least, that day will come, and there will be that knock on your door saying, "I'm sorry ma'am, but…" and you fall crying to your knees, right there in the door and cry as if you think if you cry hard enough it won't be true, and have to listen as they tell you that someone you loved has died in something they won't admit either is war, or there won't be a knock, the door will just crash in and wizards and witches in black robes and bone masks will enter and offer you a lesson in pain and fear before they kill you, making you watch as all the others die… I'm the wretched one, you fools, for I can never forget, because maybe even now my aunt is dying of a poison I put in her drink and her son, my cousin, is looking on with fear, unable to figure out what is happening to the one person, I think, who loved him for what he was, not what she thought he was….). But still they will shout, "My misery is the measure of your sin. My contentment is the measure of your virtue. I want this kind of world, today's world, it gives me my share of authority. it allows me to feel important – make it world for me! do something!" (But do what? Where are the other Horcruces? How do I destroy the one I have? What do I do now, when the leader of the free Wizarding World died for pathetic little me?) "– how do I know what? it's your problem and your duty! You have the privilege of strength but I – I have the right of weakness! That's a moral absolute!"

I'm almost defiantly sure I laughed then, as Madam Pomprey asked me more questions I didn't need to answer to know the truth: stress can do funny things to your body. I was seventeen and had done quite a many things and could do quite a many more if given time and the proper books, but they wanted me to save them. Not Severus, I think. He probably knew I needed him to save me and, if he didn't, then he wasn't the man I'd fallen in love with, though I didn't think that was the case. And maybe not some of my other friends in the Order, who knew me as a person. But the proverbial they, the ones who read and wrote the newspapers, the ones who'd heard my story as a small child and said, "I want to be like her, mummy, when I grow up," the ones who thought I hadn't needed to work to be strong and quick and full of spells – they wanted me to save them. From Voldemort. From themselves. From their past and their future, and all that lay between. They wanted that from me, as they'd wanted that from Dumbledore, who'd only been, what? Anyone? Only a hundred sixteen or so when he died, white haired and so very, very tired. They'd worn him out before his time, had taken his life and his life force… Had he ever been married? Fallen in love? I knew he'd a brother, but what of the rest of his family? His friends? Or had he lost all that he might have had as the years wore on and he became (in their eyes) less a human and more a hero… The only way I could escape it – my mind stealing, once more, Ayn Rand's words – was to shrug. I was one of the titans holding up their world, and, if I shrugged, I could be free… But, to be free, I'd condemn the world to Darkness, and I already knew I wouldn't do that. I was willing to do anything to keep more little girls from being orphaned…

"It's just a panic attack," I heard myself telling them. Give me a good night's rest, a cuppa, and a decent meal and I'll be fine." Any other time I would have been happy to have someone fussing over me, making up for all the days and nights in which I had thought I could never be loved, that I was unworthy of love or affection or even a kind thought, destined for a palace without a name because there were no places for monsters like me. But not now. I just wanted to sleep, and told them so.

"I don't think that's what it is…" Madam Pomprey said.

I noticed Severus wasn't in the bathroom anymore. The door was closed. I still felt awful, though I'd managed to keep down the other half of the pale blue potion for a solid three minutes now. From the tingle of magic I felt, there might even have been a privacy charm put on the door – but that could have been something left over from earlier in the day for some I-don't-ever-want-to-know reason – and now that I was starting to feel that I wouldn't regurgitate my stomach in tiny pieces, I was starting to feel better enough to worry that maybe I was wrong and something was wrong with me.

I was going crazy and probably deserved death or, at the very least, eternal torment for the lives I've taken. I probably deserved a lot of things. But I didn't want to die. I wanted to live. Bloody apple orchard and more grandchildren then you could shake a trout at and all that. My thoughts were just crazy ones, one I'd never allow myself to think if given half the option…

…Still, I hoped there was a hell for the good out there, somewhere, because it wasn't natural for me to think I could get away with being happy after all I'd done. Perhaps that was a normal thought for an unwitting murderess, perhaps to be expected after a childhood like mine…

And, besides, this was only stress. Possibly a bad case of the flu exacerbated by cake and caffeine in unreasonably large amounts. Yes, that was it. As soon as I'd rested and a proper meal in me, I'd be fine. I'd be able to nurse Claudia again and not go crazy thinking about my monstrous tendencies. I'd not cry at the thought of my self-immolation. I'd be strong again. I could fight again. I could find a way to destroy Voldemort and his Horcruces…

"I'm fine," I insisted. "It's just been a bad couple of days, I forgot the basics, but I promise I'll try and take better care of myself. Okay?"

Too busy trying to stand up, I didn't see the look that must have crossed her face at this comment. "Have you been taking any potions?"

Not seeing where she was going, "Er, no. Just that antiemetic a minute or so ago. Where'd Severus go?"

"To find a glass of whisky, I believe. No potions at all?"

"No." I was slightly irritated now. What was she getting at, and why didn't she just say it already before I snapped and said something I regretted. Or thought something else stupid. Ayn Rand indeed…

"Not even," a faint blush here, "contraceptive potions?"

Slowly, "I've been breastfeeding, Madam Pomprey."

She waved off the implication that I'd take something that might stay in my body long enough to hurt Claudia next time she fed and continued as if she'd said something very profound. Maybe she had, I wasn't thinking too clearly at the moment. "Yes, and while that does mitigate the risk somewhat…" Risk? Risk? What was she talking about? Why wouldn't she just tell me and let me sleep?

Sleep?

Sleep!

I felt my legs buckle underneath me, and next thing I knew I was sitting back on the floor, staring up at the exasperated nurse. "Oh, you think…?"

"Think? Dear Éléonore, I did the spell five minutes ago." Five minutes ago? She'd not even been here that long. At my insistence of this, she calmly handed me her watch and said, "I've been here at least half-hour. Might I ask what you were thinking about so intently that you didn't notice me telling you, five minutes ago, you're pregnant?"

Dumbledore. Ayn Rand. War.

Merlin's beard! "Oh-"

) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) (

In my defence, I'm not an idiot. I know the law fairly well, read books with big words in them, and, most importantly, have kept myself alive for seventeen years, which is more then I could say about some people. But it really had been a stressful forty-eight hours. That didn't assuage Madam Pomprey though, and she feared that I might miscarry if I kept up my current level of activity (which is to say, staying up most the night, partying through the morning, and poisoning relatives in the afternoon). And so came the demand for bed rest and Severus, ever one to not want to see me in pain, enforced this as strongly as one might imagine a former Death Eater might.

Severus. Though we had never talked about it, it'd never been my intention for Claudia to be an only child, as alone as I had been, and Severus. What Severus's thought on children were… well, I still wasn't sure. I suppose he was happy. No, that's wrong too. I knew he was pleased, but he, like I, hadn't thought for another child for a while yet. We wanted the war to be over, for one, and I wanted to be out of school for another. I didn't know if I could go through another year, my final year, of school like last; growing larger and larger as everyone else stared, trudging with a book bag and an aching back up and down devious stairs; unable to play Quidditch, as silly as that was… And it was so stupid too. To get pregnant unintentionally – to have one contraceptive failure – that could be explained away, as much as anyone did any explaining for that sort of thing. To become so again, not even a year later… This new one, as far as anyone could tell at this point, would be due in mid-February.

Merlin, I was going to have Irish twins.

It was so completely unfair. I mean, I'd read the books I'd been, too my embarrassment, been forced to order as Hogwarts, one might suspect, didn't exactly have a plethora of What to Expect when you're Expecting. I was all but exclusively breastfeeding, Claudia was (only barely) three months old, and I'd yet too… Oh, I can't think of any wonderful euphemisms for it right now. Just imagine I said something amusing about Quidditch pitches and maintenance… I guess the "contractor" needed more time to finish the "improvements"… No, that's not funny at all. Especially when the books told me that breastfeeding worked as a contraceptive like 99.52% of the time. Why, oh why do I have to be the random 0.48% that just has to go and make the statistic not-perfect? Granted, I'm not actually angry that I'm pregnant, only at the timing of it. Claudia won't even be one when her brother or sister is born!

Okay, I've gotten a hold of myself. It's just lying in bed all day get's boring fast, even if I can see the logic behind it; even if I felt that unbearable fear on the morning of Fleur's wedding when I saw a spot of blood that, luckily, lead to nothing worse then having to sit out of the ceremony…

The days turned into a week, and the most excitement I got was being allowed to "rest" in various rooms of the house after it became very clear to everyone but those who'd make my life very annoying if I didn't listen to their pleas that I didn't need to. I'd have preferred to go through the boxes in the attic, dust and clean as need be, cook, the usual, but my assorted family wouldn't have it. I was to rest "for the baby" (a phrase I grew quickly to hate). And if they frowned to find me tucked in blankets, leaning over a few if-they-only-knew-how-Dark tomes and scribbling away madly on a Muggle spiral notebook in the library while Alycone told the humming Paracelsus if he didn't stop messing around with the radio he'd find himself a three-headed toaster, RRUW be damned; or in the parlour with a cuppa and a law book, occasionally frowning and flipping through one of the many reference books pilled on the floor beside me or marking with azure ink in the margins some comment that struck me as important at the time, well, I didn't let it bother me. I might be forced to keep to bed, but hell I wasn't going to lie there and be bored the whole time.

Still, it wasn't so bad. The teasing I could handle, and blushed accordingly. It gave me an excuse, too, to just sit and watch Claudia, not wanting to miss a minute of her life. Every smile, every gurgle, every sleeping breath – those things were precious as gems to me, and I would fight to see her first step, her first day of school, her first beau, her first sigh; her first cold. However, since Dumbledore's death I had slowly come to the realization that I would, in fact, die. Not in the far off sense of "one day, I will die," but in the fact that, come of the end of this year or this month or this century, I would fight Voldemort and I would die. And that was why the idea that I carried life, however small within me, came as such a shock I couldn't process it at first. That was why I wasn't angrier at myself, because I was trying to squeeze a lifetime of living into however many days I had left. I knew if I told them this they would be angry at me, but it was true.

Qualis vita finis ita. Each life has an end that suits it.

Dumbledore was strong, was powerful, was good and kind and the closest thing I've seen to an angel on earth… I had almost hated him when he was alive, could have shouted at him as Maggie had yelled at Brick, "You see, you son of a bitch, you asked too much of people, of me, of him, of all the unlucky damned sons of bitches that happen to love you, and there was a whole pack of them, yes, there was a pack of them besides me and Skipper, you asked to goddamn much of the people that loved you, you – superior creature! – you godlike being!" (I can't help but drawing on other men's words; it is my sin, I know, but …leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise.) When he was alive, it was so easy for me to be angry at him. He wanted the world of me; he wanted me to fight Riddle, the boy he didn't stop when he could have, the boy he'd failed to save exactly as he'd failed to save Draco, when Riddle was probably the best person in the world (better then even Severus, as much as I hated to admit it) to understand what all I'd been through. A cupboard, a hut on a rock, a cat flap, a scar – what were these things to anyone else? Perhaps, because I'd grown up knowing my parents loved me… perhaps, because I had grown up hated… I hadn't turned out like him. But still, I pitied Voldemort.

He should have let me drink the potion in the cave! He should never have saved my life when Draco moved to take it! He asks too much of me even now, from that white tomb on the edge of the lake, where he can never be forgotten! Even if I am ready to take up his mantle, to lead, I didn't want to. He was supposed to stay with me… He was supposed to tell me what to do.

But he'd already done that, hadn't he? In dying for me, he'd shown me the ultimate sacrifice for the second time in my life, and taught me that I didn't need to deserve it to be worthy of it. I'd been right so long ago, Love was Death…

I shouldn't think like this. It really wasn't right to be so obsessed over death. I supposed it came from spending so much time reading books on Dark Arts and death. I couldn't stop, either, and give myself a bit of rest, not while I'd a Horcrux hidden in my vanity and no way to destroy it, a cup and a locket to find, not to mention whatever else Voldemort had made into a Horcrux and Voldemort himself. Unintentionally, I frowned at the book I was reading now – hidden safely in my room, with Claudia down for a nap and most the Order out on their day jobs, I was rereading Stranger in a Strange Land. I knew that, logically, I should probably be reading the serious stuff up here and the Hugo Award winners in their presence, but, in a way, that would be worse. They had to see me working. They had to see I wasn't stopping. I couldn't be the girl I wanted to be before them and was fast becoming what I had not been – and tried to shake such thoughts away.

There came a knock at my door and, hurriedly stuffing the book under my pillow, I called them in, glad for any and every excuse to distract myself these days. Well, it'd only been a week, but bed rest was bed rest and I tired of it quickly. "Come in."

A bushy brown head of hair popped through the door, turning a moment later to reveal Hermione's rich, caramel-coloured eyes searching the room for my presence. Seeing me lying atop the covers, a light coverlet balled into my lap more for a prop while reading then for warmth, with an empty tea cup and half-eaten scone on my nightstand; she frowned a little and pushed the door open wider. Though her jeans would have been considered by Fleur to be a season or two out of style and her tank not nearly as provocative as most the girls our age wore casually, I was struck momentarily by how grown-up she looked. My oldest girl friend, a little older then myself, I shouldn't have been surprised. Not to say she looked liked she'd blossomed overnight or anything physical like that, no, I mean her eyes. They'd been light, before, and gentle. Now they had the same suggestion of having seen too much that so many from the first war had. Acel called it a sign of an old soul; I called it a sign of too long a war. Maybe we were both right.

Behind her, with a tray in hand, was Ron. Good old Ron. He was tall as ever, his firebrand hair still showing signs from its pre-wedding cut, and, though his trousers were rolled up at the cuff in the heat, his shirt seemed a bit too tight, revealing with worn hems that this was not intentional – though, I must add, Hermione seemed rather pleased with the outcome. I could easily imagine what my husband would say, all of which would be far from kind, but would be the kind of humour both of us were guilty of enjoying.

Seeing the smile I did not immediately realize had come onto my face, "That glad to see us? I guess old Snape hasn't been letting you out much," Ron said, delicately for him.

I might have ignored his slight, but Hermione didn't, giving him reproving glance that caused him to play wounded as he leaned back against the bed. "Éléonore needs to keep herself rested, Ron. Your mother only let us up here because we promised to see that she ate." I noticed she didn't admonish him for slighting Severus. If that was a sign of her trying not to fight with Ron about such integral parts of his existence or if she just didn't care for my husband enough that it wasn't worth bothering with formalities over the hols, I didn't know. I didn't much care, either. I loved Severus that was enough for me. Slightly indulgently, Hermione smiled at the two of us.

"So," I asked, trying to keep the conversation away from the reason I 'needed' to keep myself rested in the first place, frankly embarrassed I'd managed to get myself pregnant before I could do any sort of family planning or what you call it, "what've you two been up to?" I considered raising my eyebrows suggestively but thought that mightn't help my own case much as I, quite clearly, had been doing whatever the appropriate Quidditch metaphor was here. Instead, "What's been going on in the real world?" I asked them.

For a moment my mind spun in two very different, very painful directions at those words. Only a year ago, I'd spoken them to the man who was not yet my husband in the place that was no longer my prison. They seemed just as false as they did now, as I lay here in bed while "adults" took in news of the war downstairs. But, also, I'd an image of the white tomb at the water's edge and the wizard within it who I'd loved as a girl loves a grandfather, a student a mentor, a friend a friend filled my mind. And there, in the emerald eye of my mind, with the picture of death's cold end, I knew that, inside, though his magic was strong and men had been embalming their fathers since the dawn of time, the body of the man who'd been Albus Dumbledore was rotting. It might be slow, it might not even be noticeable yet now, only two months since the soul or whatever had put that sparkle in his eyes had fled, but it was happening. Autolysis, distension, putrefaction – these were only fancy words for the decay that was undoubtedly happening beneath the marble-capped tomb. (What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere, the smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and ceas'd the moment life appear'd. All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.) He was becoming part of the grounds, the atoms that had once bound together to create him separating and joining with others, sharing a little of what he'd once been with the place he loved. Thinking this, it was hard not to think that Life was Love was Death, and I was trying to compress seventeen, eighty, a hundred and thirty years of living into as little time as I'd left.

I noticed then they were waiting for me to comment on something they'd said. "Really?" I choked, figuring it was the best possible non-answer available.

"Yeah," neither seemed to have noticed my momentary lapse in sanity. Claudia was still asleep, Paracelsus curled up beside her, and my friends were here. I could be happy. I could be carefree. I could not think about Voldemort for a while. "Right in his office too." Immediately my ears perked up, trying to catch who they were talking about. Scrimgerour? Were they telling me the Minister of Magic was dead and I was, essentially, in charge of British Wizarding society, even if they didn't know I'd been the one named the DMLE proxy, even if they didn't know Hopkirk was dead? Or was this someone else, another man with an office? Thicknesse? If only we were so lucky. Or-

Hermione continued the dialogue, such as it was. "I overheard Hestia downstairs: it was poison." Poison? Petunia then? But, no, they had said "he" and "office," so it couldn't be her. Who then? "There was a note, too, with the crystallized pineapple."

Wait? But that would mean- "What did it say?" I implored her. If Slughorn had been poisoned… It wasn't exactly Voldemort's style, but I could see why he might want the teacher who'd confirmed for him the existence of Horcruces dead without his name attached to it, so that no one would think to look for the reasoning behind it. I wondered if there were any poisonings of wizards and witches who might have shared more details with young Riddle in his past…

"Nothing really helpful," causally leaning forward to examine the offerings Mrs. Weasley had laid out for me and a smallish-sized army. Picking up half a turkey sandwich, Hermione thrust it into Ron's waiting hands before taking the rest for herself. "Something to the effect of, 'From your favourite student,' or something like that. Everyone knows how Professor Slughorn loves crystallized pineapple, and 'favourite student,' could be any one of the Slug Club…"

Ron made a rude noise at the mention of, well, pretty much everything in the sentence. "Am I the only one who thinks it's a little too lucky that he just happened to have a bezoar handy, and could reach it before the poison set in?"

Bezoar? Then Slughorn wasn't dead? "What poison was in the pineapple? Do you know?"

Hermione did. "La pozione paralizzata."

I frowned and summoned a book of Italianate poisons Severus had been reading the night before – he'd mentioned la vasca fuoco, the "fire-bath," as something he thought might be able to destroy a Horcrux, and easier to contain then an artafyrus – to my hand and searched the index for the paralyzing poison. "Bezoars are expensive," a small one went for a hundred fifty; one that could actually stop a poison of the amount it would take to kill a person was easily twice that. "You would keep them locked up." Severus did. They were locked up in a separate box inside his (locked) potions supply cabinet inside his (locked) office. "Tightly locked up. Hard to get to." Unless you're someone who thinks you're likely to be poisoned – which, when you're a decently paid Potions Master with lots of high and mighty students fawning over you for getting them where they are, you're not likely too – you don't keep a bezoar of that size where just anyone can get it. "So the question is, how fast does la pozione paralizzata take to work?"

Hermione took the text from me, muttering to herself, "Mistletoe… sassafras… germander… pennyroyal… It's all common enough stuff," she spoke louder now, twisting a lock of hair around her finger in frustration. With detached amusement, I saw how Ron watched this and made note to tease them both mercilessly about it later. "Organic, too. I'd say fairly quickly, but that's just a guess."

"Not time to unlock everything then…" I remembered how Dumbledore had found him just a year ago. "He poisoned himself," I announced softly, banishing the book back to its place on the shelves. I remembered too late that my wand was under my pillow with Stranger in a Strange Land, but the book went anyway. No one else seemed to notice this oddity, so intent were they on what I just said.

"What?" asked Ron.

"You don't think…?" Hermione said at the same time.

There was a moment, and then Ron burst out laughing. "Honestly, Ronald, what has gotten into you?" his would-be-girlfriend asked. Frankly, I was curious too. I mean, I knew he disliked Slughorn, but laughing at his self-poisoning…? The noise woke Claudia and, against healer's orders, I got up myself to get her, taking her into my arms and bringing her and a bag of toys to the bed.

"The curse," he said obliquely. "On Defence teachers. Slughorn's going to be in no position to teach next year, so Snape's going to go back to teaching potions," and finding a Potions Master who'd teach was a harder job then finding a DADA teacher with Voldemort's curse on it, "and we'll have another new teacher."

Both of us saw the logic in it, of course, but only Hermione sighed. She may not like Severus all that much, but he'd taught her a lot. Myself, I was overjoyed at the curse I barely remembered hadn't killed, incapacitated, or similar my husband as it had done with all those who'd come before… "I wonder who McGonagall'll find," I mused aloud before the topic, at last, changed to happier things.

) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) (

"This is the stupidest, most idiotic, bird-brained, ridiculous, daft, ludicrous, idiotic-"

Evenly, "You said idiotic already, Éléonore."

With a huff, "Well, it's twice as idiotic as anything else I can think of," and continued onwards, "absurd, preposterous, outlandish, nonsensical, outrageous, inane, irrational, foolish, ridiculous, bizarre, unreasonable, ludicrous – I've said ludicrous already, haven't I?" Severus nodded. Alive with nervous energy, I stopped my pacing and took the seat directly across from him. "I don't like this," I told him, wringing my hands; "I don't know why I agreed to this in the first place."

"Because you wanted to confuse the nestlingsss?" Par offered.

Snapping, "You stay out of thisss."

"You asked a question, Mère."

"Oh, go climb a tree!"

Acel was curious when he used his "turn" to respond, "Why would we want to do that?"

I untangled my fingers from each other and flung them in the Runespoor's direction, half-hoping in my anxiety that bolts of lightening would stream from them.

"You woke up, screaming aloud, a prayer from your secret god," Par chose to answer me. My fingers slowly curled in on themselves, making a rough choke-hold shape.

Acel continued, "You feed off our fearsss and hold back your tearsss."

"Oh, shut up!"

"Give usss a tantrum and a know-it-all grin."

"Just when we need one, when the evening'sss thing.

"Hush, you sons-of-a-biscuit you!"

"Oh, you're beautiful, a beautiful fucked-up man."

"You're setting up your razor wire shrine-"

"Hey!" Sus shouted, not at all amused to find that he, along with his brothers, were now being shut inside one of the coffee table drawers.

Answering my earlier statement, Severus continued as if I'd not just hissed an incomprehensible argument to a three-headed snake, "So you don't have to deal with that all day. What was Paracelsus singing, by the way?"

I shrugged, "I'm going to have to break his radio." The pounding in the drawer grew louder at that, but he had to know it was an empty threat, one made several times and never carried out. "After I cripple you for suggesting to McGonagall I do this."

"Only cripple?" he asked mildly, swirling his drink in his hand as if to take in its bouquet. It was only water, but seemed to be a nervous habit of his own, one not often indulged in of late, what for the usual reasons.

"I'm not going to deprive my children of their father. Moody gets on well enough with only one leg and an eye… I'll do it opposite, though, so you can be different."

"How kind of you."

"Which eye is he missing, his left or his right?"

Amusedly, "I don't believe I can recall at the moment."

"Pity."

"Indeed."

I couldn't help it any longer and snorted at our silliness, jumping back out of the chair and beginning to pace in front of the crackling yet cold fireplace. It was oddly strange to be back at Hogwarts knowing Dumbledore wasn't here. Well, he was, but in no way that was useful to anybody. Grass could appreciate what he was now. Me, I could only stare and weep. So many of the others here felt the same way, it was as if a cloak of mourning had descended had settled in the mortar of the stones, pervading every inch of the school until it was not so much as unusual as the way things were. It was my home, as much as any other place in the world was my home, and it offered safety for Claudia and the yet-born "Tertiary Beneficiary" I carried within me. It was a school, yes, and a boarding house and a library and much else besides, but it was primarily a home. Sadness had crept into that home at the loss of its patriarch. Logically I knew Hogwarts had lost many a headmaster and headmistress in its days, but I wondered nonetheless if it had ever lost one who meant quite so much quite this way. I couldn't think of any other heads murdered by one of their own students (and cringed wildly at the memory), but Hermione might. Hogwarts, a History had never interested me.

After a moment, "I thought you wanted be to 'rest,'" I informed him, a unable to stop myself from sounding put out at the two weeks I'd been made, much against my will, to 'relax' and 'enjoy myself.'

"I thought you were tired of resting."

"I thought you didn't care if I was tired of it or not."

"I thought you didn't care what it took, so long as you were allowed to get out of bed."

"If I recall, I there isn't much you actually could do to stop me."

"If I recall, there isn't much you actually did to stop me, either."

"And let you ruin your chance to pretend to be imposing and officious? Never."

"How kind of you."

"What? No comment? No, 'What do you mean, 'pretend,' Éléonore? I am a scary, dominating wizard who always gets my way no matter what?'"

"I'm not going to indulge your juvenile whims by arguing with you."

"'Juvenile?' I do believe that this was your idea in the first place."

"Mine?" he raised his eyebrows in amusement as I balled my fists. "Minerva is headmistress now. I merely offered… a peer recommendation."

"You could have suggested another Potions Master – what about Michelle Mayer? I remember you mentioning her once. Couldn't McGonagall have convinced her to take Slughorn's place?"

A slight crinkle of the nose betrayed his strong emotion, "No."

"Just because she had one idiotic idea that managed to get published in Potions Monthly-"

"It was one idiotic article filled with many idiotic ideas. Besides, she has a pretentious accent that would drive you back to this before the first day was out."

I considered this, then switched arguments. "What about Remus? Could you have convinced him better to come back?"

He seemed torn between wanting to correct my use of the word "you" and explain why, exactly, it was a bad idea to put a werewolf inside a school that was already teetering on the edge of danger. "He wouldn't have wanted to."

"What! You told me you asked everybody else before-"

"Éléonore, you're panicking again."

"Yes. What gave it away, the tone of my voice or the fact that my hands seem to have taken on a life of their own?"

"While your sarcasm is appreciated, now is not the time-"

"If you can't find a time for sarcasm, you obviously aren't looking hard enough. Even the dead have their little jokes."

Setting his glass down, he stood in the same motion and headed to the door of our rooms. "You're impossible to talk to like this."

"I blame you."

"Of course you do." Opening the door, "We should leave before the carriages start to arrive."

"Must we?" Without even looking at him, I grabbed my – Tonks purchased – violently turquoise robes and walked into the hallway. "I suppose, somehow, this could be worse."

"I can think of ways."

"Try me." Surprisingly, he laughed, but said nothing more illuminating then, "I'm sure Minerva will inform you soon enough."

Myself, I pouted on our journey up to the great hall. I'd no reason to pout other then I felt it was the best course of action available for me, and was content to annoy everyone around me because I was bloody annoyed at myself. " Tonks would be better."

"Tonks would have turned half the First Years into various waterfowl before the first week was up."

True. "Sirius?"

"You can't honestly think Black would-"

"No." I sighed again and took the seat proffered for me in the great hall, only dimly appreciating how Severus pulled it out for me before insinuating himself between me and the rather odd Arithmancy professor. "Still, I can not like it, can't I?"

"You thought it was a good idea at the time. Something about making sure your classmates didn't kill themselves battling evil due to the incompetence of-"

"And I'm known for making such excellent choices, am I?" Luckily, the great hall began to fill up with people by this point, even if my mind was filled with various thesauri-worth of words for just how stupid this was. Severus knew how self-conscious I felt about all this, not to mention the fact that I am, once again, two-and-a-half months pregnant (due 23 February this time, a month before Claudia turns one, oh joy of joys), and have recently been named Most Influential Teen Star for the somethingth time in a row, in addition to being Proxy Head of DMLE and all those other annoying things that put me apart from the crowd. How… inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning doubled-headed coins, betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past… only I remembered most of my sins…

I noticed a few curious glances from my friends and classmates as they entered the great hall, clearly not expecting me to be seated at the head table with my husband. Then again, most of them thought I was crazy for marrying him, or he'd accosted me and got me pregnant and Sirius had made us marry, or something ridiculous along those lines. I didn't really care, but it was kind of annoying to deal with. I put on my best "nothing's wrong" smile and tried not to worry through the sorting and sundry of announcements McGonagall gave. I missed the "Nitwit, blubber, oddment, and tweak," Dumbledore would have brought to the table…

But I refused to let myself think on that. Instead, I waited for what I knew was coming. "…aware that Professor Slughorn became ill over the summer," that was one way to put poisoning yourself to keep away from Voldemort, not that he'd been able to move enough to tell us the truth of it, "and so Professor Snape has chosen to return to his position of Potions Master."

The expected murmurs filled the room. Some eyes, like Hermione's, would be counting the number of chairs at the head table and seeing who was new. Some were, probably, already deducing what my presence at a table otherwise filled with familiar faces would mean.

After a moment of this, the new headmistress continued. "Taking his place as Defence Against the Dark Arts professor will be Éléonore Snape."

Chapter Twenty-Seven.