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Someone To Run To (28/32 - Part Two)

 

I woke up again to the sound of Severus reading. "There were once three brothers who were travelling along a lonely, winding road…" I stretched a bit, my joints making small aches as they were forced to move, before returning to my foetal-like curl. I could feel Claudia, her soft head resting on my breast, moving a little as she breathed, her breaths already becoming deeper and slower as her father's rich, expressive baritone lulled her into the sleep that had escaped from me. I buried my face in her hair, smelling of baby soap and warm skin.

Emerald eyes flicking open, it took me a moment to process what I saw. A haze of cream and black blurred together before coming sheets and trousers – Severus was sitting on the bed, my legs tangled around his, presumably as I'd thrashed in my sleep, my head pressing against his hip, Claudia curled up between us. "…So the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence; a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death!" The story of the legendary Perevell brothers: Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus. It was the last in The Tales of Beedle the Bard Dumbledore had left to me in his will. I smiled a little at that – it was so like Dumbledore to leave me a book of children's fairytales – and listened.

"…Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate Death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from Death…"

As he spoke, I imagined the tale, a forest like the one in my dreams. A bridge, like the ones you saw in pictures of old plantations outside Charleston: white, low, and wide, spanned a deep, swamp-like river, some of the nearby trees submerged halfway up their trunks. You wouldn't see the opposite bank from the current, so wide and shadowy it was in my mind. The brothers crossed, Antioch first, then Cadmus, with Ignotus taking up the rear. Ignotus would be the shortest, of only average height and build, with messy, dishwater hair. Antioch, the eldest, would be easily tallest, several inches over six feet, with painfully straight dark locks and fierce blue eyes. My thoughts made Cadmus burly and red-faced, of indeterminate colouring.

Halfway across, when the side of the river they'd started on had finally disappeared in the mist and the one they were making for couldn't yet be seen, a black-cowled figure appeared before them. Deceptively strong, ebon-skinned hands curled like claws from under long sleeves, and amethyst eyes, bright with betrayal, shone in his sharply angular face. Hair the colour of bone escaped en masse from the hood of his cloak and, seemingly undisturbed by the presence of several of these strands in his line of vision, he began, congratulating the brothers falsely. He offered a prize to each, knowing the fallibility of wizards, and contained a laugh behind his thin lips.

For Antioch, he made a wand of great power, snapping a twig from an overhanging tree and, without further finishing, invested it with impossible strength.

For Cadmus, he picked a river stone that had been washed upon the bridge planks and held it tightly in his fist for a moment. To it he gave the power to temporarily raise the spirits of the dead, and the stone glowed black as his skin with its power.

"…And then Death asked the third and youngest brother what he would like. The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers, and he did not trust Death. So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility…"

In my dream vision, the silvery fabric Death pulled from an inner pocket looked exactly like my cloak, and he looked murderous to give it up. But he had promised, and Death never broke his promises. Distantly, I dream-searched for a reason why this might be so, but nothing exciting enough came to mind.

"…he boasted loudly of the powerful wand he had snatched from Death himself, and how it made him invincible. That very night, another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine-sodden, upon his bed. The thief took the wand and, for good measure, slit the oldest brother's throat…"

…pale hands, desire making them steady, gripping a jewelled dagger…

"…Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered. Finally the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her…"

…a phial rolling from a hand, now to clench no more, and smashing on the floor, a black stone engraved with the Perevell coat of arms falling amidst shattered glass and remnants of white powder…

"…only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly…"

Eyes still closed, I relaxed, practically purring in the cocoon of bodies and blankets my family had made. Claudia, deeply asleep, spread the fingers of one hand against me, as if reaching for something, and let out a sigh in her sleep; her other hand was clasped tight around my finger.

"Come on, Claudia," I heard Severus say, gently placing warm hands around our tiny daughter and lifting her slowly to him. "Let's get you in your own bed."

The sound of footsteps and a child being laid to bed drifted to me as I lay, languid on the sheets. Despite my odd dream, I felt more relaxed and refreshed then I had since… since Dumbledore's death.

Why did he half to die for me? I was ready, I was willing, and dying to keep Claudia safe – dying, like my mother had, to keep my daughter safe – was something I'd been willing to do. Still was willing to do. I know he said that death was the next great adventure, but couldn't he have stayed a while longer? I was searching through every spellbook in the land for a way to destroy something as Dark as Voldemort's Horcruces and had gotten so far to search for swords that could destroy the fragments. All I knew is that Basilisk venom had done one in; Dumbledore had destroyed another. I'd an ancient relic, a fake necklace, and the broken pieces of a ring in a box inside a larger one that held such feminine hygiene products that, of late, I'd not much use for. I was no closer to finding out who RABmight be or what s/he might've done with the real locket then before, still had to find whatever happened to Hufflepuff's cup, and figure out whatever the last Horcrux was before taking down the man I was destined to kill or be killed by.

I wondered why I'd put the Perevell crest on the Resurrection Stone in my half-dream. Sure, the stone looked familiar, like the one in the Gaunt Ring, but that was only a dream thing. The Resurrection Stone didn't exist, and so my mind grabbed the first thing it thought might look at it to take its dream place. Which was exactly why Death's cloak looked so much like my own – it was the only cloak I knew of, and so Death's cloak would look like it.

Then I remembered how, in a dream of the analogue-Harry, Voldemort had found something he called The Elder Wand, which would, supposedly, make him stronger then he already was.

I jumped out of the bed.

Clutching the blanket tight to me, I rushed into the bathroom and closed the door with a crash behind me. Turning quickly, I fell to my knees and, a little too far for ease, stretched out to open the vanity doors. I paused for a minute, hand on the handle, wondering what I was doing. I couldn't be – a dream image of something did not make it true. But I'd dreamt of Draco and the diadem, and both had been real, hadn't they? I'd not even been truly asleep, just lightly dozing while Severus read aloud the story for Claudia…

All this and more rushed through my mind as I pulled the doors open, and my body leaned forward to reach the container in the back of the cabinet. I took it out in a rush, the box clanging against the pipe drain, and opened it even faster, removing the wooden box that held my sundry treasures. A mixture of trepidation and awe filled me as I lifted the latch, almost reverently, and felt a wave of Darkness pass over me. Torn between nausea and expectancy, I lifted the black stone from the velvet lining. The Perevell crest remained etched within its cracked body.

Curling my fingers over it, I pressed it hard into my palm, feeling the sharp, unfinished edges of the break draw blood as I held it tighter, screwing my eyes shut and hoping, just hoping, for something I did not know how to describe. A minute, two, I knew not how long I waited for some sound, some glowing light to give away the secrets of the possibly-fairytale stone. Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes with a sad sigh, and gasped when I saw the figure, ethereal but strangely tangible, and fell backwards on my heels, landing on my backside as the stone slipped from my grasp. The spirit of Albus Dumbledore smiled at me, and then flickered back into none-existence.

"Éléonore?" came a knock at the door. "Are you alright?"

"Yea," I gasped, struggling to my feet as I pulled a robe on over the sheet. I cracked the door open and peeked out at Severus. "I just tripped over this silly blanket. It's to be expected when you can't see your feet anymore."

I don't know why I lied to Severus, or how I could do it with a smile. He backed away from the door acquiescently, a hint of reticence in his movements, as if he was ashamed of himself for worrying so much about such an innocent sound. It wasn't until I'd closed the door and turned on the shower did I let the false expression fall from my face.

Tying the robe tightly about my waist, I bent to the floor and picked up the stone – dare I think it? the Resurrection Stone – and clasped it tightly. I forced all my sorrow and anger and despair into the Stone, all of my thoughts on Dumbledore.

He flickered into existence by the bathroom sink.

I wanted to run to him, throw my arms around him and sob, exactly like a little girl whose grandfather had just returned from the dead. I wanted to shout at him, yelling, "You think you can just leave whenever you want, like you're watching television here?" and tell him never to leave me again. But I couldn't, I just stood there and forgot how to breathe. Tears came to my eyes, blurring the shadowy, semi-solid figure still further. "G-gr-grandfather," I sobbed quietly, sliding to sit on the tub edge.

"Éléonore," he answered, his voice coming as if from far away.

I kept staring at him, the only feeling breaking through the numbness the growing pain in my palm. My mind was going, this can't be real, not this not this not this too, the thoughts running together like water, drawn to the lowest point in the road, puddling and growing with each passing second. At last, I choked out pleas, accusations, tears. "What did you do that for?" I sobbed, "I was supposed to die! Not you, never you – how could you leave me here, alone, to do all this? Minister? You were supposed to be that. Minister and headmaster and teacher and leader and I can't do any of those things. I don't know how. You just left me here to pick up the pieces knowing I can't, couldn't. Merlin, Dumbledore, how could you do this? How could you? You should have let me die! My life is worth so much less than yours – you're the hero, the leader, the great man. I don't know anything. I don't know how to destroy the Horcruces, how to find the cup and the other thing and the real locket – I've searched and searched and searched, and have about come to the point where I'm willing to hatch a Basilisk myself, just so something exists that I know can destroy them – I've found secret passage ways Dad and Sirius and Remus never dreamed of, burial chambers, treasure vaults; a room made of glass beneath the lake, where you can watch the giant squid and the merpeople – I've found rat skeletons and snake skins and bird nests and hidden prizes – I've read every book I could find that might tell me something, anything, about the Founders or Voldemort's history – but I can't find a way to destroy the monster who created this mess, not even now, when I'm professor and Minister and baronne and… and…" I felt my knees buckle and my back slide down the tub's edge, until I was sitting, on the cool tile floor, feeling tears fall upon my bare knees. I couldn't stop it, nor make my mouth form anything besides rasping, phlegm-filled breaths.

"Éléonore. You wonderful girl. You brave, brave woman. I'm so proud of you," the shade walked towards me, his long hair and beard slight more luminescent then I recalled, his star-and-crescent robes rather billowier. Kneeling, he sank to my eye level and put a hand (a distinct pressure itself, with more the weight of air behind it then of flesh and bone) on my cheek. Light, papery lips kissed my forehead. "I never meant for it to pass this way."

I hiccupped, the desire to cling to him as if I were a little child growing stronger, though I remained afraid that, if I were to hold him as I desired, my arms would pass through his thin construction, something more than a ghost, less than man. At last, the Stone tight in my bloody hand, I managed, "The Deathly Hallows."

Worry creasing his lucent face, "Ah, yes."

"The Ring was the Stone." Rather then curiosity or anger taking dominance of his features, shade-Dumbledore looked more like a child caught sneaking a sweet before dinner then a man confronted by a woman babbling what should have been nonsense. I wanted it to be nonsense, and for him to tell me so, even though, somewhere, I realized there was a logical fallacy somewhere in there.

"Can you forgive me? Can you forgive me, Éléonore, for not trusting you? For not telling you? Child, I only feared that you would fail as I had failed. I only dreaded that you would make my mistakes. I crave you pardon, Éléonore, my granddaughter. I have known, for some time now, that you are by far the better person."

I blinked, the last of my tears drying with surprise, and straightened a little against the tub, very conscious of my husband waiting for me in the next room and the impossibility of the situation before me. "What are you talking about?" Dumbledore was the kindest, best man I'd ever known after Severus…

"The Hallows, the Hallows; a desperate man's dream!"

"But they're real, or, at least, the Stone is."

"All three are real, and dangerous, and a lure for fools. And I was such a fool." I tried to protest here (was not Dumbledore the greatest sorcerer to ever live, excepting only Merlin? how could so great a man be called a fool, let alone by his own lips?), but he would not let me. "But you know, don't you? I have no secrets from you anymore. You know."

I felt like he'd confounded me, or maybe my last tenuous thread with reality had snapped and I'd gone mad, to wind up on a long-term care ward in St. Mungo's. A soft spray of water escaped the shower curtain and misted my head, distracting me further. "Er, no," I remonstrated the shade of the old man who might only exist in my mind, "I don't."

Blue eyes twinkled with hereto unseen life, "Master of death, Éléonore, master of Death! Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?"

"Of course," I said instantly. "You killed, yes, but not if you could avoid it. Voldemort – he's a sadist, or whatever the proper Freudian term is for people like him. I'd doubt he could even feel anger or joy when he tortures his victims, only I've felt it, or did before the tattoo I told you about. How could you even ask that?"

He sighed assenting, still kneeling before me, "Yet I too sought a way to conquer death."

"Not with Horcruces…" I defended, not knowing what he was talking about now.

"You are familiar, I believe, with 'The Tale of the Three Brothers,' are you not?"

Blinking again, "It's a fairy tale, Professor."

"The Elder Wand. The Resurrection Stone. The Cloak of Invisibility. Together, the Deathly Hallows, which, when united, will make the possessor the master of Death."

"Master of Death," I repeated slowly, as if I'd not heard him right. "But…"

"Think on it, Éléonore. Think on it with that brilliant mind of yours. Have you not seen a true Cloak of Invisibility? Not a simple travelling cloak, a Disillusionment Charm cast upon it, or else a Bedazzling Hex, or woven from Demiguise hair, but a true cloak. One that will not fade with the years, completely rendering the wearer invisible, enduring for all eternity – a constant and impenetrable concealment, no matter what spells are cast at it. Have you not seen such a cloak?"

I'd had my invisibility cloak for seven years, and it had been my father's twenty years previously, and his…

My mind still fought the possibility. "And the Elder Wand?"

He chuckled a sad, retrospective chuckle. "That Hallow is by far the easiest to trace, its history a bloody swath that cannot be ignored, if you know what you're looking for. From Antioch – the eldest of the three Perevell brothers – it fell through numerous hands… It's part in the slaughter of Emeric the Evil by Egbert the Egregious… How Loxias took the Deathstick from Barnabas Deverill, and then was lost to time, its bloody trail going cold, no one knowing whether it was Arcus or Livius who killed their father, Loxias, and took the wand from him… No one that is, Éléonore, but me." His voice was cold now, a taste of venom I was not accustomed to tainting it.

A non sequitur, "You know of my sister's ill health?" he asked.

I moved my head slightly, indicating the negative as my brain tried to catch onto what he was saying. If my cloak was the Cloak from the tale, then surely somebody looking to unite all three wouldn't have given it to me willingly, anonymously...

"It is well enough… Though you cannot despise me more then I despise myself, I do not know if I could stand to see such anger towards me in your eyes and know that, somehow, you still loved me. Your forgiveness would be more punishment then I could bear…

"Suffice to say, my sister Ariana was in poor health. My father gone, my mother gave up her own life to care for my sister.

"I hated Ariana for it.

"I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory – not the lifetime of service my sister would need and which I, the eldest of us three, would be doomed to give after she'd stolen the life from our sweet mother.

"Do not get me wrong, Éléonore. I loved them. I loved my parents. I loved my brother and sister, but I was selfish, more selfish than you, who has given more than we had right to ask, could possibly imagine."

But I had imagined.

"When my mother died, I was left with the responsibility of a damaged sister and wayward brother. In anger and bitterness, I returned to my village, my thoughts screaming at the waste of it all. How I would die the obscure death my mother had, worn before my time, a martyr to a cause no one believed in, and never accomplish any of the things it seemed my destiny to do. and then he came…" Oddly enough, Dumbledore's eyes softened here, seeming the most solid thing about him for a moment before they grew hard once more. "Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, inflamed me. Muggles forced into subservience. We wizards triumphant. Grindelwald and I, together the glorious leaders of the revolution that would, with the logic of a child, make up for what Muggles had done to my sister.

"They'd destroyed my family, and because of that I'd few scruples, and my conscious allowed itself to be assuaged with empty words. For the greater good! So wrapped up was I in my beautiful distraction I didn't allow myself to see what Gellert Grindelwald was, though I know now I must have known it even then… And the heart of our schemes the Deathly Hallows! Such a fascination for two boys with more knowledge then was prudent and less wisdom then we thought! Where he saw an unbeatable army, I admit to seeing only the return of my parents with that very stone you now hold, and a lifting of responsibility from my shoulders…"

He was quiet for a moment, and I tried to process all he'd said. Deathly Hallows? Real? And Dumbledore (dare I think it?) one of the many thralls to their legend? No, not possible! I refused to believe it, even though I could see myself in him, knowing well what a temptation the easy was when so much was put upon you… (If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders - What would you tell him?)… Didn't Dumbledore, pinned down as I was now, deserve some childhood freedoms? What right had they to saddle him with such responsibility, or me? But, still, I could not see this gentle, grandfatherly soul questing after something like the Hallows. He was too good for something like that… and then I wondered if people thought the same about me.

"Invincible master of death, Grindelwald and Dumbledore! Two months of insanity, of cruel dreams, and neglect of the only two members of my family left to me. But reality, as it often does, returned, my brother shouting truths I'd worked so hard to ignore so that I would not forget them.

"We fought, Grindelwald joining quickly, partly to aid me and partly because of the poor temper I'd tried so hard to ignore. When we were done, Ariana lay on the floor… Which of us killed her, my sweet little sister who I hated and ignored when her only fault lay in being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I never learned. But Grindelwald ran… and I was left, once again, to bury the dead…

"…They say he showed remorse, in later years after I'd fought him and one, having learned, as I had, that he could not be trusted with power. Alone in his cell at Nurmengard, I hope he learned to feel horror and shame for what he'd done, so there'd be a chance, at least…" A chance for what he did not say, and he drifted off into memory.

After several minutes, during which I realized I'd been "in the shower" for a very long time, I managed to say something to this man, of whom I'd been dying to question for months. I could not help but feel a little guilty as I did so, his words of weight and the pain of responsibility still fresh on my mind. "Grindelwald found the Elder Wand. You beat him, and Draco killed you. Voldemort will kill Draco to get it, not knowing we buried it with you. He will come here for it, and soon."

Sadly, "Yes."

"I still haven't the slightest idea how to stop him, and if he comes here… if he comes here, people will surely die…"

As I trailed off, I loosed my clenching fists, raising them to my face, remembering too late the Stone clutched in one. "You are a true Gryffindor…" shade-Dumbledore whispered as he faded, leaving me to wonder if I'd just dreamed the whole thing up.

"The stress broke her," they'd say. I couldn't give them the satisfaction, could I?

I'll just repress this and go to bed. It'll be a silly dream by morning that I can forget about.

Hallows don't exist.

Evil doesn't exist.

The world is a decent, good place.

These lies playing in my head, I stumbled out of the bathroom and into bed.

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The next week my mind was obsessed with the Hallows, my mind running through the possibilities their existence presented.

The Cloak had fallen into my hands. No, not fallen… it was an inheritance. If it was a family heirloom of sorts, passed down to me from my father and his, was it not possible that it had, for however long it existed, been passed through so many hands to me from Ignotus Perevell. And the Stone! The awful, terrible, wondrous stone that could bring the dead to some seeming of life! So far I'd only used it to bring forth Dumbledore just that once. But the desire grew with each unbidden thought for the power of the Stone. It might not be life, but enough, perhaps, to say goodbye.

My parents, unknown to me but for their dying words – I could tell them how much I loved them, and missed them, and everything they had missed. How I longed, with words I could not express, to call them forth from the black recesses of the Stone and know that love I'd been denied. I'd so many questions to ask them, so much to-

But that was a pipe dream of the greatest size. How could I, knowing how they'd "return," knowing they'd not be themselves. Shadows little better then the echoes that Voldemort's wand bore that night in the graveyard. I couldn't just bring them back, not when I was responsible for their deaths. Why would they want to see me, except to listen to me beg their forgiveness for getting them killed? What daughter was I, to do that to them? I was nothing like they'd have wanted – those beautiful, perfect people, Light and good and so in love. McGonagall had told me about them, and how they'd be happy if I was happy, but… You can't just tell your dead father you married his childhood enemy and are pregnant with his second child. You can't just call up your parents and tell them you'd killed people, people with families and lives that I'd stolen from them just like Voldemort had stolen from them. You can't just tell them you poisoned your aunt, that you contemplated killing them even as you sat in their clean, Muggle living room, the visions of their torture both terribly cathartic and impossibly awful. I don't know much about parents; what little I've learned is parenting Claudia. But I imagine that I'd be more than a little mad if she told me she'd done the things I'd done, mad and angry and disappointed and I don't think I could have stood it to have these parents I've never known look at me with disappointment heavy in their eyes…

I admit to going through the next week like the somnambulant, no more aware of what was going on around me then anything I could imagine. Everything seemed so heavy, tangible after Dumbledore. My hands (simple and slim, nails a little jagged from nervous nail-biting, interestingly callous from Quidditch but beginning to soften from lack of practice; scarred a little from where the chipped Stone had drawn blood) seemed an impossible burden to bear, weighed down by flesh and bones and veins running like a poorly wired house throughout. The movement of my feet became an Olympian task, the mechanics of which I became painfully aware of: the ball of the femur swivelling in the hip joint as the knee bent, the angle of the ankle becoming obtuse as the toes push off; the pendulous motion of the opposite leg as it swung forward, heel thudding to the ground; the foot rocking forward, pressure moving from heel to toe as the process is repeated… The desks I sat at, the quills in my hands, the students I taught and the ones I had classes with, all seemed so painful, ultra-real, as if carved from stone. It made death seem tangible, and real.

Was it real? Was I going mad, seeing ghosts that were not there? I longed to ask Severus, but could not think of any way to bring up the Stone or shade-Dumbledore without Severus thinking I'd snapped under all the pressure, finally going mad. If the headmaster had been alive, I would have gone to him, but a painting and what the Stone might bring were all I had of him, and I despaired of asking such pseudo-real things to prove to me my sanity.

But still…

But still! Still I went through my days, teaching and attending classes and growing bigger every day. I scarcely noticed November sliding chilly into December, or the pre-end-of-term madness that overtook Hogwarts students and staff alike. However real I bloody-well felt, my mind seemed to be detached, my thoughts coming from a place slightly behind and to the left of where I should be, crossing into my body as if through a heavy veil. My thoughts, my words, my actions, all of these seemed to be clouded. Not to say I wasn't in control; I recognized myself, but felt strangely distant as I did every day activities: I read. I taught. I ruled the British Wizarding community from the school kitchen with my KoRT. I played with Claudia.

Remus remarked, somewhat sadly, at one point that week, that as I played on the floor of the nursery with Claudia, I looked as much like a child at play as my daughter did.

And then I woke up.

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It was 2 December, 1997. A Sunday. Hogwarts was buried in three feet of snow and, though the sky was clear now, the bitter chill of Scottish winters kept the banks as fresh and crisp as if it'd fallen only a moment, not days, before.

I had Claudia swaddled in her warmest clothes, I was sitting on comfortable rock by the lake edge, watching with one eye the students who'd transfigured ice skates try to skate the thoroughly frozen pond (occasionally laughing at those unfortunates whose skates turned back into trainers halfway across), while Claudia, playing in the flurry at my feet, remained the at the centre of the other. Severus sat beside me, a thermos of hot chocolate wedged in the small space between us. In the distance beyond, snow-frosted tent roofs rose, ribbons of grey smoke billowing with the wind.

Closing my eyes for a moment, I rested my head on my husbands shoulder and felt his arm wrap more tightly around my shoulders. It was the most intimate of PDAs – public displays of affection – he'd allow himself, and I didn't mind. My thoughts were, for the moment, centred on my love of him and our growing family. I'd been teasing him just a moment before on middle names for the baby. His eyebrows had gotten more and more expressive with each ridiculous name I suggested – which had been my intention all along – and, finally, letting loose a laugh that caused several of the older students in our general vicinity to stop in their tracks and fall upon the ice.

Paracelsus, who'd been draped around Claudia's shoulders like some snake-skin version of the fox furs women in old movies sometimes wear, poked a head up after a moment of comfortable silence, and asked me to tell him a story.

"What kind of story?" I hissed to the Runespoor.

"A story about you, Mère."

I was surprised and my tone must have shown it, for Severus looked up from the book he'd brought, curious. "About me?" I asked, explaining to my husband, "He wants me to tell him a story – about myself."

"Yesss. You have."

"The most exciting."

"Adventuresss. Tell us one."

All heads together, "Please."

I blinked at them.

Acel decided, after a long moment, that my blinking wasn't a good enough answer, and pulled his brothers with him as the Runespoor tried and failed to jump me.

"Acel, you stone-eating, egg-stealing-" Sus cursed beneath three feet of snow, Par joining in for once, milder oaths of his own drifting up to my ears, before I took pity on the creature and pulled it into my lap, or, rather, what pregnancy had left of it. The middle head looked so sad and pitiful; I lost self-control and asked her what story he'd like to hear.

Which is how I came to tell him about Riddle's diary and my battle with the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. When I came to the part of my tale (after many interruptions by varying heads and a quick English summary of what had just passed between us to the non-Parselmouth) where I pulled Gryffindor's sword from the Sorting Hat, something in me shuddered. As if my mind were a tightly stretched rubber band, my consciousness snapped back into my mind. Leaping to my feet, I paused only long enough to give Paracelsus a pat and Severus a peck on the cheek before racing off as fast as my pregnancy waddling would allow.

Dumbledore had said I was a true Gryffindor for pulling forth his Sword.

The Sword!

In more time than I could stand, I arrived at Dumble- no, McGonagall's office and breathlessly gave the gargoyle the password. I'd not realized I was leaning on it until it began to rise, stumbling awkwardly as I climbed onto the nearest stair, feeling searching for breath as it wound to the headmistress's office.

Basilisk venom destroyed the diary Horcrux.

I'd slain the Basilisk with the Sword of Gryffindor.

The Sword was made of goblin steel.

Steel was an alloy made of, mostly, iron.

Iron clung to all kinds of magic.

An object, made largely of iron, would take up whatever magic it was immersed in. An intensely magical object, such as Gryffindor's sword, would deeply drink from a magical wellspring, taking the magic deep within its blade.

I pounded on McGonagall's door, rushing inside when it flicked open of its own accord. "I need Gryffindor's sword," I panted, eyes darting about the room in search of its case.

The office, however, had changed a great deal since the headmaster's death, and the cabinets littered with small silver instruments and odd-looking thingamajigs now held books and photographs in mismatched frames. The one closest to me was an old black-and-white, taken in the late forties by the way the couple was dressed. A woman in her early twenties beamed up at a man not much older. After a moment's reflection, I realized the woman must have been McGonagall, the man with her the husband I'd occasionally heard the Order speak of. Edward, I believe his name was. Edward-something-or-other. She'd kept her maiden name. He didn't mind. He died of a heart attack the year before I started Hogwarts. Another, still older, seemed to be a portrait of her parents. A third was of the Quidditch team after we won the cup Third Year.

Looking up from her papers, looking over her glasses in a patented professorial way, she set down her quill. "Have a seat, Éléonore, and take a biscuit."

Automatically, I did both, the changes to the room falling on my like a great weight. I'd known Dumbledore was dead for months now – Herne and Hecate, I'd watched him die – but the replacement of his odd gadgets with these frozen fragments of another's life did something for me that not even his lifeless body had done. There was an air of something unfinished in the funeral, as if Dumbledore's part in the world was not yet done; I'd imagined that the headmaster's office had remained as it was, enshrined as we waited for our grandfather to rise from the dead and save us once more. Perhaps my avoidance of this office – not an easy thing, considering I was Professeure Snape now – was a type of denial of his death. The office had changed, Hogwarts grieved and moved on, and Dumbledore was entombed in white marble not far from the lakeshore I'd been sitting at minutes earlier, gone forever.

Or maybe not. I could use the Stone, bring him back again…

I shook my head furiously, refusing to let that thought gain ground. That Dumbledore wasn't real. Or, if he was, not real enough to bother with. After all, real people didn't make up conspiracy theories from children's stories…

"Did," the headmistress asked me, setting down her quill and looking quite pensive, "do you run all the way up here from the dungeons?"

Honestly, "No." Her lips pursed as I continued, "I was out by the lake."

"You're going to end up getting you and your baby killed if you keep doing things like this."

"Like what?"

"Exhausting yourself like this, teaching classes from balcony banisters," I was so going to kill Hermione when I was done here; who else would have told McGonagall about that? "The usual."

"I'm not suicidal. Can I have the Sword? I promise I'll get it back to you… eventually"

"You're not planning to decapitate any of the student body are you?"

"Er… no?" Not the greatest answer, but I ask you how exactly you go about explaining that you think the sword in question is now enchanted with the venom of the Basilisk you killed with it four-and-a-half years ago, and you need it so you can destroy the Horcrux hidden inside a box of tampons. The problem was best solved by not addressing it at all.

Perhaps because she'd taught the Marauders, she didn't ask me to elaborate. "You did find it; you might as well make use of it. The Sword's in the cabinet behind you." I waddled to it, pulling the doors open and quickly finding what I needed. Turning back to thank her, I was surprised at the next words to leave her mouth. "Are you prepared for your class Thursday evening?"

"I have a class Thursday evening?"

"Yes, the SE class Severus said you agreed to teach. I know it's a bit much to ask you to do, given the recent turn of events, but-"

My mind tried and failed to find this memory, or any words I could attach to "SE" that made sense. The only two options I could think of were sanitation engineering and special education. After a moment, I offered the latter of the two, causing her to sigh.

"Considering your recent… developments… I thought it of importance to have someone… explain certain… things to the students. And since Poppy has her hands full with the infirmary and you are the youngest female professor, I thought it might be more… helpful if such a class was taught by you."

"What? Oh- Oh!" Please tell me that McGonagall did not just say what I thought she did.

She had. "If it makes you feel any better," she offered as, blushing and exhausted, "Severus is 'offering' the boys' Sex Ed class."

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

Thursday came more quickly then I could imagine, what time that wasn't filled with classes spent trying to figure out if, like I'd presumed, the Sword of Gryffindor had taken up the magic of the Basilisk venom, and if it was enough to destroy the fowl thing lurking in my vanity. My mind went less often to the thing hidden with it, the greater monster.

All the tests that Severus could think of, all the magic I could think to try, however, did not tell us anything about the Sword that we did not already know. Deduction told us the venom must be inside, but the only way to test my theory it was to slay something that sword alone could not kill.

Severus was leery, torn between the desire to see his former master destroyed and that of ensuring we didn't die in the process. Who knew, he said, what would happen if we were wrong, and the Sword was just a sword? We might inadvertently release the nth of Voldemort's soul trapped within. Tom Riddle, escaped from the diary, had nearly killed Ginny and set a Basilisk on the rest of the school, and that was a shadow of the weakest Horcrux. The diadem… Voldemort was a stronger, greater monster when he'd made this one and, though the sliver of soul was smaller, a shade of a twenty-something Dark Lord was something no one wanted to deal with, if we failed.

I, on the other hand, was ecstatic. I would have taken sword to diadem the moment I returned to our rooms if Severus hadn't already been there, untangling Claudia from the mess of jackets I'd forced upon her. At last – at last! – after so many months, something solid to show for what I'd done. I wasn't a failure, not at all – perhaps even a worthy heir to Dumbledore. I'd a Horcrux now and a way to destroy it, and so what if I'd not found the cup and the real locket yet and the other thing, I was on my way there. I wasn't without hope. I could do this. I could! I remembered the Elder Wand, Dumbledore's wand, and how, if the story was real, it was buried in that white marble tomb by the edge of the lake, so pure and cold, and how Voldemort wanted it. The villain would be coming to the school, my home, in attempt to solidify his power. He'd destroy my KoRT, he'd take the wand, and kill me and everyone I cared about for good measure, and then there'd be no way to stop him…

Still, a wait of less than a week was unbearable, and Severus said I was acting like a child waiting for Christmas to come. I didn't quite understand the analogy until later, remembering back to my classmates in happier days, but perhaps it was apt. Maybe not. Every step I drew closer to destroying the Horcruces, I drew a step closer to that inescapable moment of life-or-death, beyond which nothing was certain. My life was only measured by the extent of my delay, and the longer this grew, the less likely by success became. I wanted it to come, that final moment, when it was just me and whatever was left of his tattered, ruined soul. I wanted to look into his dark, blood-red eyes and have him meet mine, Killing Curse green. I wanted that moment of death or release, of future or ceasing to be. I wanted it. I wanted it to come so I could be free. I danger of destroying a Horcrux seemed almost paltry compared to that.

To be honest, it was the desire to do something – something tangible, besides give orders and make payroll arrangements and draw up plans for defence of the castle, always defence – that bit me hardest. For ages it seemed I'd done nothing but research and trivial theorizing. I may be a teacher and some semblance of a legislator by trade, but they were not my natural callings. I knew, deep in my blood, that I was a fighter. And I had fought – but not in so very long. And here was a war, itching for a hero, and where was I? Pregnant and teaching and making plans for battles I wouldn't figure into, except in the giving-orders sort of way. That's now how I fought, and it rubbed at me. My hands were itching to destroy something.

No, no, that wasn't right. I wanted to be in the midst of battle, where things were too crazed and every second a panting, heart-thudding, instinctual fight for survival. There was no thought, no planning, no fear, just adrenaline and the intimate knowledge of death. No Hallows, no Horcruces; nothing to worry about, excepting death. And I was strong, and skilled, and death would not take me easily. Such simplicity was what I truly wanted, where my feelings could vent and my worries fade in the heat of the moment.

The days of peace and slumberous calm are fled.

So it was that I arrived in the Room of Requirement thinking on ways to have Severus distracted and Claudia out of the way while I tried to destroy Ravenclaw's diadem with Gryffindor's sword. I was surprised to find most of those required to attend – McGonagall had made it mandatory for Third Years and up – already there, but only in a dim way. I can't believe Severus actually told McGonagall I'd do this. Though, granted, it'd probably be better this "Sex Ed" class coming from me rather then any of the other female professors – a woman older then your mother telling you some of these things. Still, my only comfort was knowing that Severus was in the same position with the boys… I hoped to God that this was McGonagall's idea of a joke on the two of us, or punishment, or whatever – no, that Sirius had taken Polyjuice to make him look like Severus and convinced her of the "necessity" of preventing more teenage pregnancies at Hogwarts. I'd tried to bring up the subject with Severus a couple times, but between the Sword and everything else, there hadn't really been time. I settled for thinking angry thoughts about him, before bursting into giggles imagining him in front of the majority of the male student body.

"Oh Ely, no," came a loud cry from somewhere I, too busy trying to figure out how you killed a diadem, couldn't tell. I tensed at the sound, and if my stomach had been aching less, I might have even ducked into a defensive crouch. It wasn't a moment later that I realized that it was Ginny calling to me as she hurried to my side, wrapping me in a quick, one-armed hug before grabbing both my hands in hers. "Please, please tell me they're not making you go through this torture too. It's not right – especially you. I mean," she let go of my hands long enough to gesture to my belly, "hello. You could practically teach the class."

"I-" I began, to be quickly cut off.

"Do you know who is? I figure it's probably going to be Madam Pomprey, but there's good money on McGonagall taking it too."

"It-"

"And then the boys! That's going to be awful! Everyone figures it's going to be Flitwick or, worse, S-"

Finally deciding rudeness was going to be the only way to break her exuberance, I interrupted. "Is there any money on me taking the class?"

"-and then- What? Er, some, I think. Rodmilla Vane is doing most the bet-taking; you'll probably want to ask her. Why?" I raised my eyebrow Snapishly at her. "I'm going to go change my bet," she whispered, stepping away before returning quickly. "The boys?"

"Severus," I told her, sotto voce.

A carefully caught snort of laughter, then, "'Kay. Thanks."

Vigilantly waiting until Ginny had laid down her money (at 9:2 against, I later learned) and lazily had found a seat, I walked into the pit of the lecture hall the Room of Requirement had become and began my stint on the seventh terrace of Mt. Purgatory. Which, I must admit, less emotionally damaging then any of the circles of Hell. Even if I was probably going to get a thousand copies of What's Happening to my Body and My Body, My Self for Christmas.

 Chapter Twenty-Nine.