Legally useless but conscience-assuaging disclaimer: not J.K. Rowling blah blah no money yadda yadda.
Thanks to all the "Dandelions" for their invaluable and encouraging beta-reading services, with a bonus eagle-eye award to Melanie, Jo and Liz. Any remaining errors or omissions in the story are entirely mine.
Not so very long ago, he'd thought it the most irritating sound in the universe. That nasal, hiccough-punctuated whine, sliding up to a high-pitched full-throated shriek of desperate need, of utter helplessness, of blind unreasoning demand. He'd lain awake night after night seething with impotent fury as that sound penetrated the walls of his bedroom, grating at his nerves, rendering sleep impossible.
For three weeks now the sound had persistently interrupted meals and conversations; it had turned formerly simple household tasks into complex feats of mental and physical juggling; it had aborted every attempt at marital felicity. More than once he had felt his fingers curling and uncurling with the itch to grab and throttle that sound into oblivion -- a shameful compulsion, he knew, but seductive nonetheless. In the first few days he had tried everything he could think of to stop it, but none of the tricks that had worked with his firstborn (now a precocious two-year-old, currently wearing out his welcome at the home of a family friend) proved adequate, and even his strongest charms unravelled in the presence of such wild and elemental magic. After that, he tried to ignore the noise; and at last resorted to taking long walks just to get away from it.
Right now, however, he would have given anything to hear it again.
His hands worked rapidly, feverishly, identifying bottles and ingredients more by touch than sight. Sweat slid down his forehead, dripped from his fiercely knitted eyebrows, fell sizzling into the fire. The laboratory around him was crowded with cauldrons, large and small, summoned and borrowed, evidence of what seemed a hundred failed attempts to end the unbearable silence.
And all the while she lay there at his feet, white and empty-eyed, so unnaturally still. Alive, but just barely. A rare illness, they'd said, difficult to treat, and in victims of her age invariably fatal. The combination of charms and potions that had saved his wife, unconscious but convalescing at St. Mungo's Hospital, was simply too harsh a treatment for an infant's frail body to survive.
So they had sent him home to watch his daughter die.
All night he had laboured, driven by obsession and guilt and rage, refusing to accept defeat. Calling on all his formidable scholarship and experience he had brewed potion after experimental potion, pausing only to lift the baby's impossibly tiny head and force a few drops of each new concoction between her lips. But just as they'd warned him at the hospital, none of his attempts had worked, nor made any perceptible difference to the waxy pallor of her skin, the doll-like rigidity of her limbs and features.
She would be dead by daybreak, if he did not find the solution soon.
There was only one possibility he could think of that he had not tried, one modification he had not dared to make. Until now he had shied away from it, hoping that some more conventional approach might yet suffice: but with so little time left to him, he could no longer delay. To make this last potion he must use methods and ingredients he had not drawn upon in years, with good reason.
Flesh, and blood, and bone. Purchased, at exorbitant sums, from the surly, red-eyed merchants of Knockturn Alley; stolen, in a desperate reversion to childhood habits, when commerce proved imprudent or impossible. The mere collection of those ingredients took time and strength he could little afford to spare, and by the time he Apparated home again his hands were trembling.
Beautiful, terrible, innocent things had died so that his daughter might live. If she lived.
Snape pushed back his sleeves and set once more, grimly, to work.
* * *
"Margot." His voice was a rasping hiss, scraped raw by exhaustion and anxiety. His thumb pushed down the baby's delicate jaw; with his free hand he raised the phial and tipped the potion down her unresisting throat.
It would work immediately, or not at all. With burning eyes he searched his daughter's face for signs of returned vitality, willing the fluttering, near-transparent lids to open, some colour to return to those sallow, sunken cheeks. For one awful moment nothing happened, and then --
The sound. That familiar, glorious sound of a baby's indignant shriek, breaking like a bubble from Margot's small lips and filling the room with its shrillness. Her stiffened limbs unfolded, began to flail wildly; her features contorted, and her face turned an ugly purple-red. Angry. Scared. Want. Now.
Snape made no move to pick her up, not then, not yet. Instead, he set the phial deliberately on the workbench, extinguished the fire beneath the cauldron with a curt sweep of his wand, pulled up a chair and sat down. He put his palms together, the tips of his fingers against his mouth, and closed his eyes...
Listening, with a satisfaction he would never have thought possible, to the sound of his daughter's cry.