by R. J. Anderson 2002
Severus Snape sat down heavily in the chair before the fire, pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Sixteen hours since this ordeal had begun, and he was exhausted, aching in soul and body. But all he had been doing was keeping watch, and brewing the occasional simple potion (decoction of motherwort, stamens of night-lily, skullcap, salamander blood, valerian). How much worse must she feel?
The sound of a low, almost guttural moaning drifted down to him from the floor above; he set his jaw and stared into the flames until the smoke (yes, of course it was the smoke) began to sting his eyes and he had to squeeze them shut again. He loathed this feeling of being so utterly helpless - no, worse than that, useless.
"Hold on, lovey. I'll be back in a minute." The now-familiar lilting accent, muffled at first, became clearer as the door to the upstairs bedroom opened. A little bird-like woman, with a feathery bob of grey-streaked reddish hair and a pair of gold pince-nez perched at the end of her nose, popped her head out from the top of the stair and regarded Severus inquiringly. "Mister Snape. Would you be having a spare, clean cauldron about? Or a wooden tub will do, in a pinch."
He gave her an incredulous look. "A cauldron?"
"Or a wooden tub," she repeated patiently. "Something of that sort. If it'll hold water and stand up to an Engorgement Charm and a Warming Charm, it'll do."
"I..." His voice sounded rusty. "There's an extra cauldron in the laboratory. But what..."
"Look, Mister Snape." Now he'd annoyed her. She stomped down two of the stairs, put her fists on her hips and cocked her head to one side, for all the world like a mother robin chiding a recalcitrant chick. "You don't worry yourself about my job. I know what I'm doing, and so does your Maudie, for all that she's having a rough time of it. You just Summon that cauldron and leave the rest up to me."
It had been a long time since anyone had ordered Severus Snape, Potions Master, veteran of the war against Voldemort, now Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to do anything. Instinctively he bristled, and his tone was biting as he replied: "If you require any kind of potion whatsoever, Mrs Mannion, I assure you that I am entirely capable -"
She let out an exasperated huff. "It's not for a potion, you silly vain creature of a man. It's for your wife. And for her sake, you'd best stop talking nonsense and do as I say."
Not for the first time since the little Irishwoman had arrived and taken over, Snape gritted his teeth. Rising, he strode across the room and up the narrow stair (which gave him the brief, petty gratification of seeing Mrs Mannion retreat before him) to the cottage's topmost floor. Pulling his wand from his robes, he made a curt sweep through the air and snapped, "Accio cauldron."
Immediately the door at the end of the hallway opened, and the cauldron - the largest currently in his possession, with a broad base and gently curved sides - came floating out. "Oh, that's grand," said Mrs Mannion admiringly. "Now then, Mister Snape, if you'd like to put your capable hands to work, you can make up a dose of potion for your wife. Three drops' tincture of lobelia. A touch of pulsatilla and some wild lettuce, too; and just the tiniest bit of cayenne, if you have it."
"She's not progressing, then." He knew his herbs, and their effects, well enough to guess what the potion must be for.
"Not a bit, the poor lamb." She glanced back at the bedroom door, where the sounds of panting and groaning - so unlike Maud's usual quiet restraint - could be distinctly heard. "But it's not uncommon, it being her first time and all. I'll do all I can to make her more comfortable and give her a bit of a rest, and then... we'll see."
"Very well." No doubt the hoarseness in his voice betrayed the turmoil he was feeling, but to her credit Mrs Mannion refrained from commenting on it. With the cauldron still floating obediently behind her, she turned toward the bedroom door, then stopped and added over her shoulder:
"You'll bring up that dose, then, when you're done." It was not a question, or even a request, for all that the words were mildly delivered. Nora Mannion was in charge here, and to her, Maud's welfare was the only thing that mattered.
Which was, after all, precisely what she'd been hired for, so he had better stop bristling at her high-handedness and carry out her orders - no matter how much it galled him to have to do so.
Snape turned, and walked stiffly back down the stair.
Half an hour later, it was not without trepidation that Snape returned to the upper storey, the requisite dose of potion in hand. Though he had been in this bedroom a hundred times before - it was his as much as Maud's, after all, and they had even spent their honeymoon in this cottage - right now he could not shake the feeling that he was about to intrude on something intensely private, indeed almost sacred.
Behind that door was something primal and terrible and glorious and altogether female; there was youth and beauty and courage all refined to their very essence by pain; what part could a harsh, cynical middle-aged man like himself possibly have in that? Suffering he knew, of course, and endurance, but not of this kind. And he had always been more adept at causing pain than curing it. No wonder Mrs Mannion had banished him from his wife's presence as soon as she'd Apparated in; she'd seen, as his stubborn pride could not, how ill-equipped he was to do anything but interfere.
Best, then, simply to knock and leave the potion at the door. Though at the same time, part of him still rebelled at the notion that he, Maud's husband, her mentor, indeed her saviour if one chose to look back that far (something he rarely did, as it emphasised an unflattering difference in their ages), should now be relegated to a minor role at such a vital and transforming time in her life.
His life, too, if he allowed himself to think about it - though in all honesty, he had spent the last several months trying not to. Which was, of course, the reason he found himself so unprepared right now. Ordinarily his scholarly instincts would have led him to do at least some research into the matter, to prepare himself to take whatever role might be required of him; but in this case his usual thirst for knowledge had been curbed by ambivalence. It had been easier, and (he had told himself) ultimately kinder to Maud, to keep his focus wholly on the present, and not allow himself to brood on the uncertainties of the future.
In the last few hours, however, the flaw in that particular strategy had become painfully apparent. He could not shake the feeling that he should be doing something more to help Maud through this trial. But at the same time, he was all but convinced that there was nothing that he could do without disturbing the equilibrium she was fighting to achieve, tainting the sanctity of her struggle with his all-too-unworthy presence.
Either that, or he was just a bloody useless coward.
Torn by indecision - a foreign and altogether unpleasant feeling - he hesitated, one hand lifted to knock. Then without warning the bedroom door opened from within, and Mrs Mannion poked her head out. Her hair was tousled, and there were shadows under her eyes, but her voice was as crisp as ever as she said, "Well, then, that's fine timing. You'd best come in, hadn't you?"
"Is it..." His mouth worked dryly. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
The sound of Maud's voice, cracked and wavering with weariness, cut through the last of his doubts. Without another word he handed Mrs Mannion the beaker of potion, and pushed past her into the warm semidarkness of the room. "Maud," he said.
"Come here," she said, stretching out a hand to him. "Please."
She was sitting, breast-deep, in the cauldron that Mrs Mannion had so imperiously commissioned, faint curls of steam rising from the water around her. Her hair was pulled back in an untidy knot, damp strands sticking to her neck and forehead; heat and exertion had brought an uneven flush to her cheeks, and the eyes that sought and held his were glazed with weariness. Between that and the almost grotesque swell of her belly beneath the water, she had never looked less beautiful. And yet - looking at her, he felt a fierce surge of love and pride well up within him, and it was all he could do to keep his voice and his eyes steady as he spoke:
"How are you doing?"
"It's very -" she began, and then broke off with a gasp, her face contorting with pain. He waited, feeling helpless and acutely conscious of the midwife's silent presence behind him, until Maud was able to continue: "- intense. But the water helps, a little. I think."
"This should help too, lovey," said Mrs Mannion, bustling forward with the potion and tipping it against Maud's dry, half-parted lips. "Relaxes the muscles, lobelia does. Give it a few minutes, we'll check you again and see if there's any difference."
Obediently, Maud drank the dose, a slight widening of her eyes the only indication of its doubtless extremely unpleasant taste. For a moment after swallowing she held her breath, apparently fighting the urge to vomit; but then she let out a sigh and sank a little deeper in the tub, and Snape saw with relief that she was going to keep the potion down after all.
He wrapped his hand around hers, holding it tightly. "Tell me. What can I do?"
She leaned her head back against the rim of the cauldron, her eyes shadowed, imploring. "Just... stay with me, for a little while. I'm so tired..."
Then another contraction seized her, and she made a harsh, half-sobbing sound; her fingers closed convulsively around his, gripping with a strength he had not believed her to possess. For one wild minute he wondered if she had actually broken something, and when her grip relaxed it was all he could do not to whip his hand away and inspect it for damage.
Mrs Mannion's voice came softly from behind him: "I'll just be off downstairs a bit, and have a cup of tea. You call me, Mister Snape, if anything seems to be amiss, or Maudie thinks I'm needed." And then, while he was still too surprised to react, she slipped out the door and closed it softly behind her.
Maud let out a sigh, and leaned her forehead against his still-throbbing hand. "I want all this to be over," she whispered. "I was excited at first, but now... I just want it to end."
"It will be over soon," he said quietly. "The potion will help, if you give it time."
"Oh, I hope so. Because I don't think... I can take much more of this."
He remembered how her eyes had shone when she wakened him early that morning, the barely-suppressed thrill in her voice as she told him she'd already been up for an hour, walked around the cottage and taken a warm bath, but that the contractions she was feeling had not diminished. Five interminable-seeming days past her due date, no longer charmed by the novelty of her burgeoning belly and indeed heartily sick of the heaviness, swelling and fatigue that went with it, she was more than ready to have this child.
If only he could feel half so certain.
Babies had never engaged his interest, not in the least; they were, in his limited experience, a loud and persistent nuisance, and best avoided. He had never been able to see why some people found them so charming: even when they weren't squalling or drooling or stinking of stale milk and faeces, their oddly proportioned features and fat-distorted bodies were hardly designed to appeal to a refined aesthetic sense. And they were so desperately, infuriatingly helpless. Incapable of logic, deaf to reason, capable of feeling only the most elemental pleasures and pains - there was no level on which he, Severus Snape, could hope to relate to such creatures in any satisfactory fashion.
Perhaps for some men the pride of having sired a child of their own, and passed something of themselves to a new generation, would have been enough to override their distaste; but Snape had never felt the need to prove his virility, and was far from confident that anything he might pass on to his son or daughter would be appreciated, by them or by anyone else.
Of course he had refrained from expressing these particular qualms to Maud. She had, after all, presented him with the news of her pregnancy as a fait accompli, and his immediate reaction had been less than positive; after the difficulty of working out that situation, it would have been needless cruelty to burden her with even more of his reservations. She knew of his concern that he might not be an adequate role model as a parent - which was still true to an extent, though less a source of anxiety than it once had been - but that was all he had told her.
Maud had been silent for several minutes now, save for occasional gasps and mews of pain, but now her low, hoarse voice broke into his thoughts:
"I'm so glad you came, Severus. I didn't want to ask for you in case... you would rather not, but..."
A sudden, sick feeling of guilt twisted his stomach. Was that the only reason she had not called for him - because she thought he would refuse her? "If I had known you needed me, Maud, I would have come. I swear it."
"I know you would. I just... thought you might feel better if I didn't ask, and if I could manage on my own, there'd be no need to burden you... But it does help, having you here. I need your strength..." Then she broke off and inhaled sharply, and he could tell that a particularly fierce contraction had gripped her. He seized both her hands in his, rapidly shifting position so that he could look at her more directly.
"Maud. Look at me. Breathe."
The eyes she turned to him were wild, the pupils unnaturally dilated, and she was panting like a wounded deer. He held her gaze relentlessly with his own, repeated in his most commanding voice, "Breathe. Slowly. Deeply. Look into my eyes, Maud. Nowhere else."
By some inhuman effort of will, she obeyed. Her breathing slowed, regulated, and in another moment the slump of her shoulders told him that the contraction had passed. "Good," he told her softly.
"Something's happening," she whispered. "Something's different. I feel... I feel like -"
He was on his feet and to the door before she could finish the sentence. "Mrs Mannion!"
Within seconds he heard the sound of boot-steps clattering up the stair, and the little midwife hurried past him into the room, not even sparing him a glance as she pushed by. She bent over the tub, pushing up her sleeves and laying both hands on Maud's distended belly. Her eyes narrowed keenly behind the pince-nez, as though she were looking at something deeper than her patient's skin.
"Aye," she said a moment later, drawing back and shaking the water from her hands, "between the warm water and that potion, things are moving along nicely. Feeling like you want to push, lovey, is that it? Well, on the next contraction, you just go ahead. It's time."
Snape held his breath.
As it turned out, however, he needn't have. Maud's hands clutched whitely at the sides of the cauldron as she leaned forward, panting and groaning with effort, only to sink back again into the water as the contraction passed. A moment later it was the same again. And again. And again...
"Something's wrong," he hissed at the midwife what seemed hours later, when he was sure Maud was too intent on her pushing to hear him. "Surely the child should be here by now."
"Oh, bless you," said Mrs Mannion, sounding amused. "It doesn't all happen at once, you know. No, your Maudie's doing just fine." She gave her pince-nez a twitch, peered keenly down into the water. "In fact, the babe's crowned, though of course you can't see it, not from where you are. But you feel it, lovey, don't you?" she added encouragingly to Maud. "It won't be much longer now."
Snape folded his arms tightly across his chest, resisting a sudden, savage urge to bite his nails. Maud's face was white with exhaustion and strain; she didn't look as though she had the strength to push much longer. What was wrong with this blasted midwife? Why didn't she draw her wand, use some sort of charm to force the baby out?
"Slow and easy does it, now," murmured Mrs Mannion. "Pant and blow. Put your hands down, give yourself a little support... before you know it, you'll be holding the babe..."
Maud's arms slipped into the water, and she crouched down until her face nearly touched the surface. Snape saw her eyes close, her brows fold together in concentration; then all at once she gave a strangled cry, there was a surge of movement, and -
"Oh, my dear!" cried the midwife delightedly. "You've done it!" She plunged both hands into the tub, heedless of her sleeves trailing in the water, and helped Maud lift a pale, squirming object to the surface. "Well, would you look at that. A fine, contented little boy - and such hair!"
The child lay in Maud's arms, dark eyes open beneath a wet, moon-pale fringe. He did not scream and writhe about as Snape had expected; instead, he looked almost contemplative, his unfocused gaze turning slowly from Maud to Mrs Mannion and back again. His arms and legs were surprisingly long and lean for a baby's, as well; in fact, Snape had to admit that on the whole, this new son of his was... almost... attractive.
"Now the babe's well born, we're safe to use a charm or two," Mrs Mannion was saying to Maud, stroking her hair with one hand and patting the baby's with the other. "Never a good idea to use magic on children in the womb, you know; all too often they've magic of their own, and the best-laid spells can go wild." She glanced back over her shoulder at Snape. "You were wondering about that, I'll warrant."
"I was, yes." He was surprised by how even his voice sounded, in spite of the erratic pounding of his heart. I have a child. A son.
"Well," said the midwife matter-of-factly, pulling her wand from her belt and making a swift gesture ("Oh!" said Maud, startled, and then relaxed in obvious relief), "in a bad situation, sometimes it's worth the risk casting a charm to help things out. But I always try all my other little tricks first... ah, there's a good lad."
The last was directed, of course, to the baby, who had managed to worm his way up to Maud's breast and was now nursing with solemn vigour. "Latched on the first try," continued Mrs Mannion, "that's a good sign." She glanced up at Maud, who was gazing at the baby in wonder. "Not hurting you, is he?"
Maud shook her head slowly. The colour had returned to her cheeks, and all signs of her former weariness seemed to have vanished. "No," she said. "It just... pulls a little."
"That's how it ought to be," said the midwife with satisfaction. "We'll work on that in the next few days, just to make sure you've both got it right, but it's a fine start you've both made, and I'm well proud of you." She made another pass with her wand and murmured a few words, then straightened up, wiping her hands on the skirts of her robe. "That's taken care of the cord. We'll let the babe suck a few more minutes, then we'll get you both out of that cauldron and into some nice warm clothes."
Maud nodded abstractedly, her gaze still fixed on the child she held. "Hello, little one," she murmured, and the baby gave her an owlish blink in return. Snape could practically see the bond forming between them, and felt a sudden acute pang of loneliness, which he ruthlessly suppressed. This was no time for self-pity, or self-doubt, tempting as both might be.
Mrs Mannion's brisk, capable fingers moved over the baby in Maud's arms, prodding gently, flexing the limbs. "Everything in its place," she pronounced a moment later. "And a fine colour to him, too. All right -" with a snap of her fingers she Summoned a pair of bath towels from the bed - "let's get you out now."
Finally, a chance to prove himself useful. Snape strode forward, arms outstretched to help the midwife lift Maud from the cauldron - and found, to his utter surprise and dismay, a towel-wrapped bundle thrust into them instead. The baby gazed up at him from within the swaddled mass.
"There you are, Mister Snape, your son," said Mrs Mannion over her shoulder, throwing the other towel around Maud's shoulders and helping her climb out of the cauldron. "Best get used to holding him, you'll be doing enough of that in the next few months. By the way, have you thought of a name?"
He and Maud had discussed a number of possible boy's names, among them her late father's and her uncle's - Snape himself had no relatives he cared to commemorate - but now that he was faced with this strange, sober child with his knowing eyes and Maud's white-blond hair, they all seemed somehow inadequate. This baby was not at all what he'd expected. It was certainly nothing like any other newborn child he had known - though, admittedly, he'd known precious few - and as Snape looked down at the small grave-faced creature in his arms, he felt a strange sort of acceptance come over him. Not love, exactly; if that particular emotion came at all, it would have to be based on a good deal more than a few short minutes' acquaintance. No, it was more like... recognition.
There had been a thought in the back of his mind, some months ago, of another name they might use. But he had left the idea unvoiced, telling himself it was folly, presumption. Besides, it was unfair to burden a child with such an illustrious name, and expect him to live up to it. But now he realised that with only a little change, he might give his son a name of his own, and yet still honour Albus Dumbledore's memory as he had always, deep down, yearned to do.
"Yes," he said slowly, shifting the child in his arms. Maud, sitting gingerly on the edge of the bed with a towel wrapped around her, looked up, her eyes finding his and holding them. She would not gainsay him, he knew. In fact, he felt sure that she would approve.
"Well, then?" said Mrs Mannion curiously.
One corner of Snape's mouth turned up. "His name. His name is..." Then he had to stop and take a breath, because the air in the room suddenly felt heavy with significance. What would this child become? Well, let it be something better than his father, at the very least. He owed the boy that. He owed Dumbledore that. Dumbledore, who had given him back his life in a hundred ways, and in whose debt he would always remain. For his memory's sake, as much as for Maud's or the child's or even his own, Snape would do everything in his power to be the man - and the parent - that he ought to be.
Maud and the midwife were still looking at him expectantly. Snape let out his breath.
"His name is Albion."
A/N: Well, that's it - the last of my fanfics for quite some time. I'm taking a few months off from writing for my own maternity leave (by which you may conclude that this story was composed in the classic vein of "Write What You Know" - although I did get the idea for this fic before I was pregnant myself, and as I'm writing this note I have still not had my baby yet).
As always, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my beta-readers. For this fic, I was ably assisted by veteran D&L betas Erica and Melanie, as well as by a few new volunteers - Liz E., Barbara, Liz B., Meril, and Emily. Each and every one of you made a difference. My heartfelt thanks also go out to all my faithful and encouraging readers, especially those who took the time to send comments and criticisms on my earlier stories - I really appreciate it.
Now for a few endnotes:
The information on childbirthing herbs and other natural techniques for relieving pain and helping out a stalled labour was gathered from the Midwifery Archives. The name "Albion" may be a variant from "Albus", but it is also the mythical name for England. "Biddy Mannion" was the name of a midwife (some sources say goddess) in Irish legend, and "Nora" just sounded right for the character. Her appearance and mannerisms are based on those of a dear Irishwoman I know and love, but will leave nameless lest she be horrified at me using her in this way.
And finally, if you're still reading this, I hope you enjoyed the story!