DISCLAIMER: As always - the world was created by J.K. Rowling, and I admire her deeply. (If only she'd write faster!) This is fanfiction, and not written in the intention to make money from it.
Well, as promised this is part 1 (of 3) of that epilogue to "Whole Again". As some of you will notice, I've finally overcome my common orthographical errors (ah, safe and save, relief and relieve, etc) - only to acquire new ones. German is still my first language, and will still interfere with my grammar, I am afraid.
If you are new to this - Whole Again is a multi-chaptered saga about Severus, Sirius and Remus, and about the women they love. Since this is the epilogue you will hardly understand what is going on. So I suggest you read the stories first (hint, hint) and the epilogue when you are done.
EPILOGUE Part I
The fire burned low and turned the warm colours of the soft rug in front of the fireplace into a meltdown of reds and gold.
It was a children's room, filled with books and toys, and the disarray told of joyful hours spent with games.
The wizard who came in from the adjoining bathroom looked rather dishevelled. A pink smear of finger paint graced his cheek. Obviously minding two very lively children had taken it's toll.
Over his shoulder he carried a squeaking little girl in pyjamas, while a three year old boy followed, jumping up and down, trying to pull his sister's pig tails.
With the help of physical strength, a slightly modified Quidditch manoeuvre and a few uttered spells the wizard succeeded to get both children into their bed and under the covers.
Two scrubbed faces eyed him expectantly.
"A story, Daddy! Tell us a story!"
He winced. "You know that Mommy is the one who's good with story telling. But Mommy is busy. Daddy on the other hand is good with ... with ..."
The little boy gave him a huge grin. "Good with making things that go boom!"
The wizard raised one eyebrow. "Exactly. I make things go boom. So if you don't go to sleep right now, guess what's going to happen?"
The threat, delivered in a low growling voice that even brought the most riotous classes to attention, made the children shriek with laughter and hide under their blankets.
Smiling to himself the wizard picked up on of the books on the low table and sat down next to the fireplace.
"No, Daddy. A new story!" demanded the boy.
"Oh please, Daddy, tell!" begged the girl and her bottom lip started to tremble - a sure sign that very soon begging would turn into weeping.
"Only one story, agreed?"
The children beamed up at him. "What's the name, Daddy?"
"Of the story, Daddy," the boy insisted. "Every story must have a name!"
The wizard settled into a deep chair between the two beds and frowned. "Well, if that is so, then this story's name is "Reginald".
"Daddy!!" both children protested giggling.
"Alright," he sighed and with a wave of his wand dimmed the lights. "This story is called ...
OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Claire stood by the high window that led to the terraces and looked out at the party in the garden. Who'd ever thought she'd have so many friends one day? And a husband? And an adorable daughter?
It was the third weekend of June, only days away from midsummer, and the air smelled of the roses that grew untamed all around the Winterstorm mansion. Cheers sounded over to the house, as Harry, Sirius and a few other children engaged in a fast spot of Quidditch, while Hermione sat on a blanket on the lawn, tickling Rose, and Serene and Remus swung a giggling Jonah on the swing the elves had crafted.
Laurel and Severus walked along the clear stream that bordered the Winterstorm estate and Claire could not stifle a laugh when she saw how the Potions master's hand slipped into Laurel's whenever he thought them unobserved.
Draco Malfoy sat under a tree and watched the scene with an unmoved face. Claire had insisted on inviting him, although the boy had fought with tooth and nail agaisnt leaving Hogwarts. She knew how fast a chosen retreat could become a prison and had no intention to let him sulk any longer.
She took the plate the elves had filled with freshly baked strawberry tarts and stepped out on the terraces to set the table. Soon everybody would be hungry, and could there be anything more enjoyable than feeding a party of friends?
And there would be many more parties to follow. Serene and Remus would get married on the full moon after midsummer, and then there would be Harry's birthday, and Halloween, and Christmas, and Rose's birthday. With a contented sigh she waved at her husband who stirred his broom in a narrow curve over the roof and shortstopped the Quaffle right before the chimney.
Pursued by Harry, Ron and Ginny he took off laughingly, and Claire went on with setting the table, humming a song Rose loved.
When a dark figure stepped out from behind the mighty oak that shaded the terraces, Claire forgot to breathe. "You!"
Ben bowed with a sneer. His once so pleasant face showed deep lines, the same signs that in the end had disfigured Lucius Malfoy's handsome features completely.
"We are in dire need of more funds," he announced curtly. "All I need is a signature, and I am off and won't disturb your little party any longer." He glanced through the rosebushes that rambled along the terraces and his face distorted even more. "Serene," he hissed. "And ... him."
"They are going to be married soon." Claire bit her tongue. It had probably been unwise to let Ben Olsen know that the witch he desired so much was to marry another wizard. Then again, sometimes the truth hurt more than any sword, and since she was short of arms at the moment, the truth it had to be.
"The document," she ordered with all the arrogance of the very rich and pure-blooded she could muster. A flourish with a quill, and her name certified the transfer of another 100.000 Galleons to Olsen and his "business partners."
"And now get out of here, Olsen," she snapped. "What shall my guests think if they see you here! You'll blow my cover, and then you can forget about the money."
He rolled the parchment and stored it carefully in his bag. "Your investment is safe with me, Mrs. Winterstorm. Any news of your husband?"
She shrugged casually. "Not lately. As far as I am concerned, he can rot somewhere. He deceived me, spied on me, let me believe he loved me. And that I don't suffer gladly, I assure you."
"Maybe we can find you a husband more ... suitable." Olsen's eyes bore into hers and she had put all her strength together not to show the fear that suddenly crawled into her heart.
A wave of her hand dismissed him, and while he strode through the garden, almost in sight of the laughing playing people, Claire's knees buckled and she sank down where she stood.
That was where Sirius found her a few minutes later.
"Claire!" His heart skipped a beat, when he saw her white face. "What's wrong? Are you ill?"
"Olsen was here," she whispered. "He wanted money. Sirius, he ..."
The tall wizard lifted her up without effort and carried her to a garden chair. "Did he threaten you? Did he lay his hands on you?"
"He promised me a new husband." Her voice hitched as the tension gave way to the tears.
Sirius clenched his jaws. He'd kill Olsen. No matter what Castor said, the next time he'd kill the bastard, and to hell with the consequences.
Serene and Remus watched how Draco played a game with Jonah, a game that involved two thumbs, a piece of string and some basic magic, and was way beyond the dignity of a sixteen year old. But both boys seemed to find it hugely enjoyable, and Rose, who lay safely in her basket next to them in the shade, watched them with an angelic smile.
"He is bonding very well with small children," remarked Remus. "But he still finds it hard to make friends with those the hat assigned to him."
"Give the boy a break." Serene nuzzled on Remus' ear. She felt so giddy with happiness lately, she wanted everybody to be happy. Even Malfoy who'd let her hang over a hellhole. "Maybe you can talk him into a game of Quidditch, while I take the little Potions apprentice here to the kitchen to wash some of the chocolate cake off his face."
She picked up the protesting Jonah, and carried him towards the house. Suddenly her legs turned to lead, and it felt as if two holes were burned into her back. She turned, and found herself face to face with Ben.
Her mouth was suddenly dry. The hatred in his face overshadowed any other emotion that might be there. Desire, jealousy, a twisted kind of love, all gave way to icy hatred.
"I hear congratulations are called for?"
She nodded wordlessly and sat Jonah down. As casually as possible, as to not draw any attention on the child, she pushed him behind her back.
"So you betray me, Serene." His accusation cut through her, and she knew he used a spell to make his voice as painfully as possible. "I'd have given you the world. More than the world."
"He is giving me his heart." She looked at him, and a tiny spark of pity let her reach for his hand. "Ben, I never promised you anything but friendship."
"Friendship!" He leashed out at her, and Serene felt Jonah wince, but the boy stayed well behind her and kept silent as if he knew the danger. "If I can't have you, he won't have you either." His eyes narrowed. "And since we can't count on you, I'll take business into my own hands now. Give me the child."
"No!" She stepped back and almost ran over Jonah, who squeaked in pain when she stepped on his toe. Raising her wand she sneered at him. "If you as much as touch him, I'll kill you, Ben."
"Expelliarmus!" The force of the spell threw the wand out of her hand, and now her body was the only shield between Ben and Jonah.
"Come to me, boy," the wizard ordered impatiently.
Jonah clung to Serene's legs and looked up at the stranger. He did not know him, but his voice did not sound friendly, and he had not been nice to Aunt Ene. He pushed his bottom lip forward in defiance and gave Ben a solemn stare.
"Tell him to come, or I'll hurt you. And him," Ben announced, and Serene felt her heart sink.
"Serene! Jonah! Back up!" a sharp voice ordered.
A fireball wheezed through the air, right before Ben's feet and set the hem of his robes on fire. Another followed, singing his sleeve, and the third one missed his hair only by inches.
Laurel stood by the fence, shaking with fury and nerves, her hand raised and ready for another attack.
With a puff Ben Dissapparated, leaving only the faint scent of smoke behind. Serene exhaled shakily, while Laurel raced to Jonah and drew him into her arms. While tears ran over down her cheeks, she kissed the child desperately. Jonah on the other hand could hardly keep still with excitement.
Eventually Laurel was sure that her child was safe and well, and let him run off. She winced when she heard him call for Snape. "Daddy! Daddy! Mommy throw fire. Jonah too!"
She allowed herself a moment of weakness and sat down in the grass. Serene crouched down next to her, her face still pale. "You saved us."
"I have not done this since ... oh, for years!" Gnawing on her lip she watched Snape and Remus running up the slope that led to the garden. "What did Ben want, Serene?"
"What he always wanted." Serene rose and pushed her hair back. Tears filled her green eyes. "I let myself forget for a while, but he came to remind me."
* * *
"This must end."
Sirius sat down his mug and looked at the two other wizards. "I am sick and tired of living under the Fidelius charm, my daughter not knowing me, my wife threatened by that bastard Olsen, and Harry in constant danger."
"I guess we agree on that." Snape gave him a scowl. "Although I quite enjoy to forget about you every time I turn away."
"Cut it out, guys!" Remus frowned. "You are worse than second years! This is too serious to waste time with bickering."
"Sorry," mumbled Sirius, and saw with satisfaction how Snape made the same gesture of apology. When he'd received the owl from Remus to meet them in the Three Broomsticks he had been busy making plans how to find Ben and let him pay for what the wizard had done the afternoon before. But three minds were better than one.
"They are after Harry, that much we know," Remus expatiated. "And Jonah."
They need the blood to complete the curse that will restore Voldemort's power."
"Can we get to them, Severus? Is there any way to go in there and attack Voldemort directly?"
Snape shook his head, and Sirius winced at the memory of the Death Eater assembly. "We'd be outnumbered."
"Can we get to Peter?" Remus thought aloud. "He is part of this curse, isn't he? Flesh of the servant or something? If Peter was out of the game, Harry would not be of any use for them."
"Voldemort is not short of servants, I assure you that," Severus said and rubbed his aching temples. "Even if not all of them are as devoted as Peter ..."
"What was the third one?" Sirius held up a hand. "Bones. The bones of Voldemort's father. Can we destroy the bones?"
"There is no method to get rid of mortal remains without a trace. Burning them, dissolving them in acid, don't think I have not considered it," Snape said, dismissing the idea. "But there'd be still a residue. Ashes, Traces."
"We could hide them, bury them in a place where he never finds them," Remus thought aloud. "But where?"
"Where would you hide a leaf? In a forest," Sirius quoted and took a sip of his butterbeer. "Where would you hide a dead body? In a battle."
"And a bone? In a graveyard." For a moment Remus' eyes lit up. Then he shook his head dispirited. "But if he finds only one bone, all is lost.
"There is a curse," Snape said slowly and stared into his mug. "The Disparatus curse."
Sirius frowned and looked at Remus who only shrugged. "I teach Defence against, not the Dark Arts themselves."
"The Disparatus curse," the Potions master said with a flat voice, "is not well known, and for a good reason. It bears a high risk as it backfires more often than not."
"Backfires?" Remus' eyes narrowed. Dark spells were not only dangerous for the target but also for the operator.
"It can be used to disparage something - a substance, a person, a memory - into the corners of the world. Literally."
Remus recalled the few facts he knew about the Disparatus curse. "Dust so fine it takes a lifetime to reassemble the cursed artefact."
"We'd win ... twenty, thirty years, at the most," Sirius shook his head. "Is this worth the risk of becoming dust ourselves?"
"Twenty years to see Rose grow up?"
The question hovered in the air between them, until Sirius bowed his head. "Worth it, I'd say."
"Then we should lose no time."
"But won't the grave be guarded? I am not keen to disturb a Death Eaters' meeting."
Severus thought about it. "We need to stake a diversion. Sirius, can you slip your brother a list of names and addresses?"
"And have the Aurors raid those houses at an appropriate point of time." Sirius grinned. "Castor and his Auror friends will like that."
"At least those who have not tainted their oath of loyalty yet."
"They must all know about it, as the exact time of the raid must leak to the Death Eaters."
"They'll be warned," Remus mused. "It would raise too much suspicion if all those houses would be found empty. So there'll be no meeting that very evening. Clever thought, Snape."
"Not even Voldemort will take the risk to call them."
"I need a day to ..." Remus swallowed hard and raked both hands through his long hair. "I know I must not tell Serene. But I can't leave her just like this."
"One day," Snape agreed.
"One day," Sirius repeated solemnly. "So we'll meet at midnight, tomorrow."
Remus laid his hand flat on the table and Sirius covered it with his own. "Jamie liked to do this," he said softly and looked at Snape. "Claimed it was a Muggle charm."
The Potions master looked at the wizard who'd almost killed him and at the werewolf who'd almost eaten him, and who by a strange stroke of fate had become his ... friends.
He took a deep breath. "I guess we'll need all the luck we can get."
And his hand topped the others.
* * *
"Sirius!" Dumbledore beamed at his former student. "You look well! How did you get in?"
The young wizard rose from the seat in the Headmaster's office. Dumbledore himself had led him into the study only ten minutes ago, but of course could not remember a thing.
"I am fine," he sighed. "Headmaster ..."
"Albus." Snipping his fingers to double the small mount of cakes on the platter he just conjured, Dumbledore sat down. "I think it is time, you called me by my first name."
"Thank you." Sirius swallowed. He'd never get used to that, although the Headmaster had made the same offer several times in the past. He refused seat and cake and paced in front of the fireplace, while the older wizard watched with patience. Sometimes the right words had to work their way up from the legs until they reached the tongue, he knew. There was no point in rushing the process.
"Prof... ah, I mean, Albus." Sirius halted. Deep lines in his face told of some sleepless nights. "I am under the Fidelius charm."
"I thought so." The Headmaster nodded contentedly. "Either that, or I am loosing my mind. Between the two I prefer the charm."
"So you ... remember?"
"Not as such." A tea pot popped out of thin air and the smell of caramel and cream filled the room. Fawkes raised his head and eyed the cakes on the table thoughtfully, until Dumbledore pushed the platter away. "He's shedding. Must not eat too much sugar," he explained. When he saw the confusion in Sirius' face, he chuckled. "Ah, the Fidelius charm. No, I don't remember seeing you since you escaped from Azkaban the second time. And I don't even remember if we had this very same conversation ten minutes ago. But there were incidents ..." He rose from his chair and stepped to a trunk in the corner. After some rummaging in various drawers he produced a Gryffindor shawl. "This, I assume, is yours."
Sirius nodded and clenched his fists around the woollen shawl.
"I found it in my office a few months ago," the Headmaster continued. "The only explanation for it's sudden appearance was the Fidelius charm. Though I can't remember I guess I cast it myself, didn't I?"
"Yes. And it works just fine." Sirius sat down and buried his face in his hands. When he looked up, his blue eyes were dark with determination. "Is there any way to undo it?"
"Of course." Dumbledore took a bite of his cake and pretended not to notice how Fawkes snaffling the rest of it. "First of all the Secret Keeper has to cast a counter spell and then ..."
The expression in Sirius' face silenced him. He cleared his throat. "I see. Without the consent of the Secret Keeper, then."
"Without her knowledge."
"Hmm." Dumbledore stroked his beard and stared into nothingness so long, Sirius suspected he'd fallen asleep, eyes wide open. When the Headmaster sat up straight suddenly, the younger wizard all but jumped.
"There is indeed a way. After all, Secret Keepers could die, and where would that leave the ones under their care?" Baby blue eyes bore into dark blue ones. "But breaking the charm with force is complicated, risky and ..."
"There is not way back. Once the Fidelius charm is broken, it can not be cast again. There'd be no protection for you any more, you'd be visible for the Aurors and Death Eaters alike."
Images flashed through Sirius' mind, of dark back alleys and rain swept fields. Of cold nights and a grumbling stomach. Farmers shooting at him, merchants yelling at him. Always in hiding. No chance to catch his breath. And still ...
"It needs to be done. There is no alternative."
"There is always an alternative, child", the Headmaster said mildly.
"Not this time."
* * *
Remus looked up from the letter he wrote when Serene opened the door. She wore a night-gown, white as snow, thin as spiderwebs, and - as he knew from experience, - soft as down. The nights before he'd made sure she did not wear it any longer than until they'd reached the bed.
"Who are you writing to?"
She tilted her head, and the shimmering mane of red hair fell down her shoulders.
"Oh, send them my love, will you? I am so looking forward to seeing them at the wedding."
A shadow passed over his face, and for a moment Serene's heart refused to beat. Something was wrong. "Remus, are you ok?"
He occupied himself with sealing wax and string, and attached the scroll carefully to the leg of the owl that perched expectantly on the armrest of his seat. "All is well, my darling."
"Are you sure?"
He rose and opened a window for the owl. The soft breeze of a June evening invaded the room, made parchment rustle and quills rise. Serene stepped closer to Remus and embraced him from behind, her chin resting on his shoulder. He grabbed her hands and raised them both to his lips.
"I am sure." He cleared his throat. "You know I consider us married long since."
Her teeth nipped the tender skin at the side of his neck. "Don't think you can get out of the wedding, Lupin," she laughed softly.
"No, seriously." He turned around. "You are my mate, my wife, my love. The ceremony will only attest this in the eyes of the public."
"Ah, and there I was, fantasising about living in sin with you," she smiled, the suspicion forgotten when he started to kiss her thoroughly.
He tug on her tresses playfully. "I think I can pretend. Tonight."
* * *
After dinner Severus watched Laurel tuck Jonah in. They'd have to buy a bigger bed for the boy soon, he thought absentmindedly. And sooner or later the issue of his own wand would not be postponed any longer. He'd send an owl to Mr. Olivander to inquire about children's wands. Not the toy variety, but something that worked while it was to weak to cause any severe damage. With a smirk he remembered the explosion in the lab. The child showed an uncanny interest in potions - at least if they were explosive.
Laurel read a book to him now, a silly story about ducks and a dog that looked a lot like Sirius Black. As almost every night Snape stood in the door and watched the two most important people in his life. Who'd have thought there was so much happiness to be had? He was living on credit, he assumed, since the few good deeds in his life could never balance the joy and love he'd experience over the last two years.
And maybe it was time now to pay back some of the credit fate had granted him.
When Laurel closed the book, Jonah had sunk back into his pillow and hardly managed to keep his eyes open. She kissed his forehead and whispered: "Good night."
"Night." He turned until his stuffed toy-snake had a comfortable place under the blanket as well, and looked at Snape.
The Potions master nodded and gave his son a smile. Rituals. The only ritual he'd know as a child himself had been his father beating him whenever he became aware of his son's presence. Rot in hell, Julian, he thought and banned the memory into the darkest corner of his heart, where it belonged.
With a slight wave of his wand he conjured an elf fire in the air over the bed. The small globe of soft blue light was not bright enough to keep the child awake but gave him a feeling of security.
"Good night, Jonah."
Deep regular breathing told him that the little boy was already asleep. All the better, because what came now was only between Laurel and him.
She smiled at him, when opened the door for an eager house-elf, serving two chalices and a dust covered bottle from the Hogwarts wine cellars. "What is the occasion?"
"Being together?" He uncorked the wine and filled both fragile glasses. "You know I am not good with words, Laurel ..." His eyebrow rose, when she snorted.
"Sure. You are absolutely dire. Don't forget I heard you talk about potions, Professor, and "bottle fame, brew glory" will one day find it's deserved place in English poetry," she teased him and took the chalice, but not without taking his hand as well and drawing him down next to her on the comfortable couch next to the fire. "And when did you ever need words with me?"
He smiled and touched her nose with one long elegant finger. "Only too true. I just meant to say that maybe I don't tell you often enough how much you mean to me." He gestured towards the closed door of Jonah's bedroom. "How much all this means."
Laurel's eyes grew soft. "I know without words," she assured him.
Severus sat down his glass on the side table and raised his wand. "Accio."
A scroll sailed through the air from it's place on a desk, right into the wizard's hand. Laurel eyed the parchment doubtfully. Various seals tangled from it, and the bright green ink reminded her of official documents. Only the Ministry used green ink, as it was almost impossible to forge - well, impossible for anybody but a Potions master. "What is this?"
Avoiding her gaze, Severus unrolled the scroll and conjured a quill. "I want you to sign this at the bottom," he said casually. So casually Laurel knew right away something was wrong."
"What is this?" she repeated, her brows knitting in suspicion.
"It's a document I had my solicitor prepare. It gives you access to the Snape family fortune, the estate and the bank account at Gringott's. And to my personal vault there as well."
"Does it?" She said it slowly, while her brain worked furiously. Severus had hated his father and had always refused to touch as much as a sickle of the family money. "And what am I supposed to do with it?"
"I want you to sign this, Laurel." His voice was carefully blank, without impatience nor anxiety. Any other witch would have gladly signed, but not Laurel. Aware of this, he'd come prepared for a long argument and could only hope that in the fire of this battle she'd forget about the war behind it. "If anything ever happens to me, I want you taken care for."
"Taken care for!" Her voice trembled with righteous indignation. "I hold a job, my dear man! And after all you told me about your father, I am not interested in his money."
Snape let her go on for a while, inserting some argument as fuel now and then. When she finally had to catch her breath, he took her hand. "You don't need to take the money, love. But think about Jonah. One day he'll want to study, attend University."
"He's not even two years old, Severus!" she laughed.
"He grows fast. I want him to have the best education money can buy. The rest - a family, a mother who loves him - you'll manage on your own."
His mouth closed over hers, and with shocked surprise she felt something - a desperate need - she'd long thought stilled in him. And then she knew.
"You are saying good-bye," she murmured softly against his mouth.
He did not answer, at least not with words. But the tight embrace told her everything. Her hands fisted around the wide sleeves of his robes. Resting her head against his shoulder, she repeated: "You are saying good-bye."
Her eyes stayed dry, even when her heart shrunk into an aching lump of ice. "You would not go if you saw an alternative, would you?"
He kissed the crown of her head.
"Let me go with you, Severus."
His thumb brushed over her cheekbone, stroking away yet unshed tears. "If something happens to me, who'll take care of Jonah? I know how it feels to grow up and have nobody who loves you."
Laurel could not stifle the sob that rose when she imagined him dead. "And who'll love me?"
For a moment there was nothing else. The scent of her, the feel of her warm body pressed against his.
"Even if you get killed?" Her voice ached with sudden bitterness. Oh, her head knew he had no choice, but her heart would never accept it. How could he leave her? Why couldn't he let somebody else go and do what had to be done? Just once.
His finger gently lifted her chin. "We both knew this day would come. And I take every hour we had as a precious gift. And even if worse comes to worst, I'll love you."
"If you don't return by midnight tomorrow, I'll come to get you."
His hands closed almost painfully around her wrists. "Don't! The risk is too high. Promise me to think of Jonah's welfare first."
Laurel looked up at him. His eyes were shadowed, his face even paler than usual. She knew him well enough by now to know he was running on nerves and fierce determination. He'd made his decision, and no reasoning would make him change his mind.
"You won't go alone, will you?"
"Lupin and Black will come with me. We agreed that this must end. Now." He lowered his head, and his dark eyes held her captive. "Don't think you can evade that easily. Promise me you won't do anything foolish. And you'll think about Jonah."
"I will." She let her forehead sink until it touched his cheek. "I'll think about Jonah's happiness." Which meant she'd make sure her son was safe, when she'd come after her man. "Severus?"
"Hmm?" His kisses tickled her eyelids. It tasted salty, and his heart ached at her courage. She would not cry, not now.
"Let's say good-bye. The good way."
"The only way." He lifted her up, effortlessly and so swift it made her laugh even in this black hour, and carried her to the bedchamber.
And when he left by midnight, silently and like a shadow, Laurel lay in the great four poster bed that had always been a safe haven, felt hot salty tears run down her cheeks, and stared into darkness.
* * *
When the tall clock in the living room stroke midnight, Sirius kissed the face of his sleeping daughter and carried her to the bedroom. He'd held her all day, had played with her, sung her songs he remembered from his childhood, taken her for a walk. He'd shown her bees and birds and the squid in the lake, had changed her diapers and fed her her bottle. How could he fill one day with memories to last a lifetime?
And still, this was all he could give her. And before she'd fallen asleep she'd smiled at him.
Gently he placed the baby in Claire's arms and kissed his wife's mouth. Taking in her scent, he almost changed his mind. Wasn't this all that counted? To be with Claire, with Rose? Maybe they could leave together, escape this madness, find shelter somewhere else? And at the same time he knew he would not budge.
"I love you, Claire," he whispered against her mouth.
"Mhm." Her sigh brushed his lips. "Love you too."
With a last caress he stroked a fair curl out of her face, traced Rose's cheek with his finger, and left, without looking back for it would have broken his heart.
* * *
When Sirius arrived at Hogwarts, he waited at the broom shack as appointed, and after a few minutes saw Remus and Severus leave through the side entrance that led straight to the dungeon. Both wizards carried for the ritual they were going to perform once they'd found the right grave - a small cauldron, various small parcels and bottles, and four torches.
As soon as their baggage was securely stored on the brooms, they made their way to the main gate. The night was clear and the moon already high, although the full moon was still more than a week away. Snape shot Remus a careful glance, but the werewolf seemed composed and determined. Sirius on the other hand burned on a short fuse - leaving his wife and daughter behind had not helped his patience. Snape bit back an acidic retort only when he noticed the deep sorrow behind the other wizard's eyes.
The main gate loomed white in the moonlight - and to their surprise it was already open.
When they halted in suspicion, a figure stepped out of the shadow by the gatepost and barred they way.
Albus Dumbledore gave them a faint smile. He wore hat and cloak, and his ceremonial insignia that proclaimed him one of the masters of his profession, and Sirius thought that while they had all chosen black like thieves in the night, the old wizard looked like a valiant knight, prepared for battle.
Prepared for battle.
He threw a quick glance at Remus and found the same thawing suspicion in his friend's face. But before he could speak up, Severus took a step towards Dumbledore and rose his hand forbiddingly.
"With all due respect, Albus, you are not coming!"
The Headmaster met the Potions master's furious stare with calm insistence. "What were you going to use to get rid of the bones? The Disparatus curse, I assume?"
Sirius nodded wordlessly. He loathed to admit it, but Snape was right in this. It was one thing to risk their own lives, but an essentially different thing to risk the life of the wizard who was Voldemort's greatest enemy.
"Well, this curse is very complicated and not often used," the old wizard continued casually. "But if I recall the formula correctly, it says something about "the corners of the earth", doesn't it?"
His eyebrows rose when he looked at his students. Grown men, but still his students, and so very young. He'd see them grow up, lose whatever childish innocence they'd had, become hardened by life. His children. No way he'd leave them alone in this.
"The earth has four corners," he added calmly, when none of them said a word. "That's why the Disparatus curse requires the presence and co-operation of four wizards."
Remus grit his teeth. The Headmaster was right.
Dumbledore's cheerful smile let Snape wince, but he had no other choice but to follow the old wizard's advice and board his broom.
"Let's go, boys. No time like the present."
* * *
It was a long but undisturbed flight, north over small villages and the outskirts of a larger city. Remus stirred his broom alongside Snape's and took a glance at the Potions master's face. It was white as parchment, brows drawn in concentration. Somebody had once called Severus Snape Voldemort's "Hound and Hunter", and that was exactly what he reminded Remus of at this very moment - a hunter. Determined to track down his game.
When he prepared to fall back, Snape gave him the perversion of a smile. "Ten more miles, I'd say. You should be able to pick up the stink soon."
The werewolf's nostrils trembled. Indeed, there was a faint smell in the cool night air, something ... rotten. Not just the usual mix of decay, humidity and fertile soil any graveyard provided, but something ... evil.
Remus turned his head and gave Sirius a wordless sign. Without further discussion they took their position on both sides of Dumbledore to shield his flanks, and the Headmaster, well aware of the candid manoeuvre, let them connive.
In a wide circle they surrounded the area, eventually spiralling down to their target.
The graveyard was just as Severus remembered, and the memory was enough to tighten his throat. It had been at this very place where he'd taken the Dark Mark, and the air seemed to echo of agony still.
A slight touch on his shoulder made him startle, but when he turned it was just Dumbledore standing behind him. "You stepped away from this, Severus," he said gently.
The Potions master took in the rows of weather beaten stones and the centre of the graveyard, where around one grave evil spread like a vile disease. Nothing grew there, no blade of grass, no flower. Even the earth seemed barren.
"Part of me is still here."
He shrugged to get rid of the paralysis certain memories evoked and went to help Remus tie their brooms together.
Sirius unpacked the ingredients Snape had brought and placed them next to the cauldron. Then he drew his wand to light the torches - but to no avail. He tried again, but the wand remained dead and useless.
"They locked the place," he grit his teeth. "Locked it to all magic but theirs."
"Of course they would," Dumbledore nodded. "Just like we did bar Hogwarts to Apparition. Still, we can proceed without wands. There is enough magic in us, I wager, and in the ritual itself."
It was clear without question which of the many graves was the one they sought. In the middle of the barren area the earth was slightly dented, as if it had been opened again and again - as it had, Severus recalled with a shudder.
Positioning the torches at the four corners of the grave, Sirius dug in his pockets and produced a handful of Muggle paraphernalia. "Harry gave these to me," he shrugged when he saw Remus' frown. "After all the Muggles need to light candles without magic, too. And they use these little sticks for it."
He threw Remus the matchbox.
The Muggle way proofed successful, and as soon as the torches were lit, the darkness seemed to recede beyond the graves, reluctant like a animal disturbed from sleep.
Severus took a small spade from his pack. "I'll try to dig up one of the remaining bones. The ritual will be easier to perform if we have them at hand."
When Remus offered his help, he only shook his head. "It's silver. I would not touch it if I were you. But you can start drawing a circle around the grave. Make sure it encompasses all of us and all the four torches."
The Potions master crouched down right on the grave, but before the edge of the blade touched the soil, a shout from Dumbledore made him rise his head - and that saved his life.
Sirius, who had busied himself with the cauldron, saw in shock how the old wizard leaped over the gravestone and pushed Severus out of the line of black fire, that suddenly erupted from the stone. For a heartbeat both wizards seemed to be frozen in mid-air, surrounded by darkness. But while Snape tumbled backwards unharmed, the Headmaster sunk down in a panting heap, and the smell that filled the air, brought cold sweat to Sirius' forehead. He remembered it well. He could still pick it up in some of his night mares. The Dementors of Azkaban had smelled like that. And if desperation and hopelessness had an odour - this was it.
Within a bat of an eyelid he was at Dumbledore's side, as was Remus. The Headmaster seemed unharmed but for a palm-sized area where his coat and robes had been burned and the blackened skin showed.
Severus sat up sat up and groaned. "A booby trap." A glance at Dumbledore's lifeless body sufficed to make him fear the worst. "Is he ... dead?"
Remus felt for the wizard's heartbeat. It was there, but way too fast and panicking like that of a small bird in mortal danger. "Not yet. But he needs help, and fast. We must get him out of here."
Sirius rose and cocked his head. There was something, a faint hissing sound that had not been there minutes ago. "Too late," he said calmly. "They are coming, and we can't Disapparate."
Still numb from the impact Snape kneeled down at Dumbledore's side and helplessly stroked the old wizard's cheek. "Don't die on me, Albus," he whispered. "Not now."
Remus' mind raced. His werewolf senses ran riot. The threatening scent of Dementor, the darkness that veiled the moon ... One of the torches had gone out and fallen on the broomsticks ...
"Padfoot!" His voice was sharp and imperious. "Remember! After graduation when you were so drunk you could not walk back to our flat ..."
"The brooms!" Sirius caught up with his friend immediately. "You and James and Peter tied me to your brooms and they delivered me home, without a rider."
Snape barely raised his head when they moved Dumbledore's body as gently as possible under the circumstances. "They are coming," he muttered. "We failed."
"Get a grip, Snape!" Sirius gave the Potions master a merciless shake and noticed with some satisfaction how the rough treatment brought some colour and anger back in the wizard's face. "Help us!"
Together they tied Dumbledore to the four brooms, using shreds of their cloaks instead of magical ropes. The construction seemed fragile, but it was their best bet.
Remus gave the leading broom a gentle pat on the bristle. "Take him home," he ordered.
Deeply relieved they watched the brooms and their unconscious load take off, circle the graveyard and disappear in the darkness.
Sirius let out a shuddering breath. "What now?"
Severus shrugged. "We wait. The bobby trap will have called them. It's my fault, I should have expected something like this."
"Ah, sod it, Snape!" Remus' eyes flashed amber. "We were well aware of the risks, weren't we? And blaming yourself won't get us out of here."
"Nothing will," the Potions master replied shortly. "At least not alive."
Sirius nodded. The Dark Mark on his arm burned like fire. "They are coming."
Out of the darkness beyond the rows of half sunken grave stones a voice whispered like an icy chill.
"I knew we'd meet again, Severus. You should have let me know you were coming.""
"Did you knock before you entered?"
Remus tried to pierce the darkness but it hung like a thick blanket and disguised everything more than five meters away. Coldness crawled towards them and seeped slowly into their bones, just like it had when the portal was open. So this was Voldemort. Remus swallowed hard. Nothing Sirius and Severus had told him about the Dark Lord had prepared him for this ... complete absence of warmth.
The whisper turned into a hiss. "And you brought your friends. Quite a menagerie we have here, don't you think, my faithful servants. The snake. The dog. The wolf. Come and see."
The shadows parted, and hooded figures became visible, dozens of them, forming a slowly tightening ring around the open grave. When the three wizards stepped closer together to guard each other's back, an wheezing laughter chilled the air so much a passing night bird dropped dead to the ground.
"Ah, friendship! How very ... touching."
A hissing joyless laugh.
"Let's find out if you still stand for each other when pain gnaws at you."
A moment of silence.
Severus closed his eyes.
* * *