His Draught of Delicate Poison
Thou are not lovelier than lilacs, - no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou are not more fair
Than small white single poppies, - I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist, - with moonlight so.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink – and live – what has destroyed some men.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Severus Snape entered the study of number twelve, Grimmauld Place with a certain amount of trepidation. The entire wizarding world had been turned on its collective ear, and any summons from Albus Dumbledore most likely represented a headache he could well do without.
The Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry smiled at his Potions master, and gestured for him to be seated. "Sit down, my boy, sit down. I don't have to ask how you're doing, you look very fit. How are your lovely sisters?"
Snape disposed his long limbs in the chair across the desk from Dumbledore and raised his eyebrows. "My half-sisters are in good health, Headmaster, and they will no doubt shorten my life span by fifty years." Feeling that the proprieties had been observed, he said, "You implied that it was urgent?"
The study door opened and a house-elf entered, bearing a tea tray; Minerva McGonagall followed the house-elf into the room, indicating that she wished to have the tray placed on the desk. The elf complied and bowed himself out.
"Good afternoon, Severus," Professor McGonagall said. "I trust your sisters are well?"
Snape closed his eyes in a gesture of long-suffering patience and replied, "Blooming, Minerva, thank you."
McGonagall seated herself next to Snape and began to pour tea. "The oldest girl is subject to the Law, is she not?"
Snape accepted a cup of unsweetened tea from the older woman. "Skye is nineteen years old. She is indeed subject to the Law."
Minerva passed a cup of tea, liberally sweetened and lightened, to Dumbledore. "The war was a tragedy – a travesty – for all of us. Why the Ministry felt it was necessary to further complicate our lives – to intrude, and invade our privacy! – I will never understand."
Dumbledore surveyed her over the tops of his half-moon spectacles. "We lost too many of our best and brightest in fighting the Death Eaters, Minerva. The Ministry felt it necessary to encourage those who survived to begin at once to heal the wounds we were dealt."
Snape snorted behind his teacup, and Minerva immediately spoke in support of his incredulity. "To encourage us to heal the wounds! You mean to force us into marriages and childbearing! It is outrageous!"
Dumbledore tried a smile. "Scarcely to force us into anything, my dear. We are both past the ages specified in the Law."
Snape muttered something, and Minerva looked over to him. "Well, Albus, you cannot say the same for poor Severus! He is certainly in the pertinent age group!"
Snape placed the teacup on the table between his and McGonagall's chairs. "My situation is in a fair way to being resolved, Minerva."
Dumbledore turned a sharp blue-eyed stare upon him. "In what way is your situation resolved, Severus?"
Snape sat up straighter in his chair. "I offered for Fleur Delacour this morning. She and her family have accepted my suit."
Dumbledore and McGonagall stared for a moment too long before hastening to extend their congratulations.
Snape flicked his fingers impatiently. "Yes, thank you. The wedding is planned for September." His thin lips tightened. "You asked to see me today for a particular reason, I believe, sir?"
Dumbledore put his teacup back on the tray and folded his hands on the desk before him. "You know how we are situated here, Severus. Minerva and I have six girls living here …"
Snape interrupted. "What became of the boys?"
McGonagall said, "Sirius was able to rent the house behind this one; the back gardens are separated by a gated fence. He and Remus are looking after the boys over there."
McGonagall was surprised to note that Snape could tighten his mouth even further. "Why isn't Black living in his own home?" he inquired waspishly.
"Sirius Black left this house when he was sixteen years old and never wanted to come back," Dumbledore said, in a tone of quiet reproof. "As you well know, Severus, it was a cruel punishment for him to be confined here for months on end. He is much happier across the way."
Snape shrugged impatiently. "Yes, fine, good for Black. Why did you wish to see me, Headmaster?"
There was a knock on the study door, to which Dumbledore responded, "Come in."
The door opened and the unmistakable Weasley red hair peeked around the door.
"Yes, Miss Weasley?" Dumbledore said.
"Pardon me, Headmaster. Katie and I were wanting to know if you or Professor McGonagall need anything from Diagon Alley? We have some errands to run there this afternoon."
McGonagall spoke up. "You're not going alone, Miss Weasley?"
"No, ma'am. Professor Lupin is going with us – and some of the boys."
"Is Professor Lupin here now?" Dumbledore inquired.
The study door opened wider, giving all of the occupants of the room the opportunity to see the small crowd milling about in the hallway. Lupin was speaking quietly to Seamus Finnegan and Neville Longbottom in the sitting room doorway, while Katie Bell fastened her cloak about her shoulders. Lupin looked around and spied the gathering in the study. Striding across the hallway, he entered the room, smiling at McGonagall, and offering a handshake to Snape. With the Headmaster's eyes upon him, Snape had no choice but to stand and shake the werewolf's hand.
"Severus! Good to see you. I hope your sisters are well?" Lupin said in his hoarse voice.
"Why are all of the members of the Order so interested in my half-sisters?" Snape demanded.
Lupin quirked an eyebrow at the affronted Potions master. "Are we? Forgive us, Severus, but we never knew you had sisters until recently. We are anxious to meet them."
Snape scowled. "I hardly think it likely, Lupin."
Dumbledore spoke up quickly. "We don't have any commissions for you in Diagon Alley, Remus. Have a pleasant afternoon!"
Lupin took the hint and beat a hasty retreat, herding Ginny Weasley from the room, and galvanizing all of the young people out into the pleasant sunshine. McGonagall closed the door behind them with a snap, and turned to Snape.
"We need your help, Severus."
Snape felt a sinking sensation, but offered a face of polite interest to her. "How can I be of service to you, Minerva?"
Dumbledore spoke up. "You know how important it is for us to help the young people over this difficult time as much as we possibly can…"
McGonagall interrupted him, speaking forcefully. "We feel it is our moral duty to give them every chance to pair off with a partner whom they can truly love – with whom they can live happy, productive lives…"
She cleared her throat, showing some discomfort. "It is also our aim to keep them relatively chaste until they have contracted a betrothal…"
"Which means that you are closely chaperoning the girls and allowing the boys to run wild?" Snape inquired nastily.
Dumbledore smiled at him. "Something like that, Severus. You understand that Minerva and I have been serving as the house parents for the young witches residing here – it gives them the opportunity to attend the Ministry-sponsored social functions this summer, to meet the young wizards in natural circumstances…"
Snape stood abruptly. "There is nothing natural about this whole damnable business! I would like to see the Muggle government attempt something like this! There would be rioting in the streets!"
McGonagall crossed the room and lay a quieting hand upon the younger man's arm. "But we aren't Muggles, Severus. The Ministry had the votes necessary to pass the Marriage Law. If our young people don't marry and reproduce, we will die out in less than four generations! Surely you see that it is our duty to make this happen, for all wizard kind."
Snape glared down at her. "To make it a requirement for all wizards between the ages of seventeen and seventy marry for the purpose of reproduction is barbaric!"
McGonagall fired back at him. "What about the witches? All witches between the ages of seventeen and fifty! It is difficult for both the young men and the young women, Severus."
Snape struggled with himself for a moment. "I am still at a loss to see what any of this has to do with you asking to see me today."
Dumbledore smiled at him and indicated with his hands that Snape and McGonagall should sit down, which they did. Dumbledore then busied himself pouring out more tea for each of them.
"Severus, I must travel to Bulgaria for the International Confederation of Wizards Congress. I am requesting that you bring your family here to live while I am away, so that you may assist Minerva with the young women and their courting."
"That's impossible, Headmaster. Since my father's death, the care of his wife and my half-sisters falls to me. Both my father's widow and my eldest sister are subject to the Law. They are, necessarily, my first priority."
Dumbledore stirred milk into his sweetened tea, studying Snape astutely. "This house is large enough to house you and your family in comfort, Severus. Living in town will give you the opportunity to see your fiancée more frequently, as well as give your eldest sister a chance to mingle with the other young people who have gathered about for the Ministry functions." Dumbledore made eye contact with Snape and spoke in a stern voice. "As you know, the entire purpose of opening this house, and having the young women stay here, is to protect them from Death Eater retaliation. We haven't put all of them in prison yet, Severus. If I am to go away, I need someone here, in my place, in whom I can place my entire trust. Will you help me?"
Snape felt the dull knife of obligation and duty twist in his gut. Would he never be free of these bonds? Would he ever be permitted to make a choice based entirely on his own desires?
"Yes, Headmaster, I will do as you wish."
Dumbledore beamed at him. "Excellent! I knew I could count on you, my boy."
McGonagall stood, and crossed behind him, patting him on the shoulder as she passed. "Thank you, Severus. I will feel so much better, knowing you are here to help me protect the girls."
When she reached the door, she turned back to him. "Albus is leaving on Monday next. Can you have your family moved in by then?"
"Yes, I believe I can."
Dumbledore stood and crossed to the door also. "Oh, Severus, by the way, Miss Johnson will be leaving us this weekend; her engagement to Oliver Wood was just announced. Hermione Granger's parents are going to Ibiza for the summer, and Miss Granger will be coming to us for the two months they are gone."
Dumbledore and McGonagall both turned in some alarm at the sound of shattering china and discovered Snape wiping the spilled tea from his trousers with his handkerchief.
"I will take care of it, thank you!" he snarled at the two interfering busybodies, as he wrapped his bloody hand in the handkerchief and waved his wand with a jab that caused the shards of china to imbed themselves in the wooden desktop.
A/N: Yes, this story is wildly AU (Alternate Universe). It is loosely based on a Regency Romance by Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy. Between Georgette Heyer and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you have about 90% of my teenage inspiration!