by R.J. Anderson 2003
For Liz Barr, on her birthday
I was asleep when the news came. I hadn't meant to fall asleep, I wouldn't even have thought it possible under the circumstances, but hours had passed since Albion and the others had left, and I would swear somebody must have put a Cushioning Charm on the armchair because it had never felt that comfortable before. Not to mention I'd been up practically the whole night --
Anyway, I was asleep. A hand seized me by the shoulder, and gave me a shake; I snapped upright and scrambled to my feet, babbling, "Sorry, I'm sorry --"
"It's all right, Susannah," said the Director. Her plump, ordinarily rather jolly face had fallen into grim lines. "There was nothing you could have done."
Oh, Merlin. I knuckled the sleep out of my eyes, said thickly, "We failed, then."
Technically I should have said "they" -- I'm a strategic analyst and interdepartmental Ministry liaison, not attached to the Department of Aurors directly -- but the Director made no attempt to correct me. "Yes," she said. "And badly too, I'm afraid."
Imogen Crump was too practical, not to mention determined, to be upset by mere humiliation or even temporary defeat. Which left only one possibility. "How many?" I asked, feeling my throat constrict.
Six Aurors dead, out of an assault team of twelve -- and the Ministry only had fifteen. The next question was almost unbearable, but I had to ask it: "Who -- which ones?" Please, don't let it be him, I thought. Or Ron.
"I don't have that information yet," said the Director. "One of the Unspeakables brought me the news just now, and he'd got it second-hand from an Observer. But they're on their way back, and we should know soon." She sat down heavily in the chair opposite, wrapping her robes close about her, though the room was far from cold. "Don't blame yourself, Susannah. You did all you could."
We both knew I had. But we also both knew I was better at figuring out how things had gone wrong in retrospect than at getting them right the first time. Even now, Ron nearly always beat me at wizard chess -- even if he never beat me the same way twice. It was a good thing I hadn't been responsible for tonight's attack strategy, or I'd never have forgiven myself.
We sat there together in bleak silence, staring into the fire, until a series of loud popping noises from the corridor told us the Aurors had Apparated in. Imogen was the first out of her seat, striding to the door and flinging it open. Her face was as white and drawn as mine, and very likely for the same reason, but it crumpled into relief as she saw Ron standing there. He was smeared with blood and ashes, his robes hung in tatters, and one eye had swollen nearly shut, but he was alive. And just behind him, pale and exhausted-looking but otherwise apparently unharmed, was Albion.
The identities of the four remaining Aurors I noted almost mechanically; I was glad they were alive, of course, but their being here meant that the others were dead. And not only dead, but unrecoverable, or they'd have brought the bodies back. What had Margot done to them?
Ron shouldered his way into the room, whirled and addressed his team in a voice rough with emotion. "You did well, mates. You fought bravely and you stuck to the plan. Hickey, you'd better get Dawkins to St Mungo's before he has another of those fits. Trenchard, that leg of yours all right?"
"It'll be fine, sir," came a wavering voice from the back. "It's just -- it'll take a while to wear off, is all."
"Well, get somebody to look at it, anyway. Penhallow?"
Violet stepped out from behind the others, her eyes wide and haunted. One of her long black plaits had been singed clean off, leaving a raw patch on her scalp. "I'm okay," she said hoarsely. Her lips began to quiver, and she folded them between her teeth. Ron put a hand on her shoulder, replied with uncommon gentleness, "No, you're not. Go home. Get some sleep if you can. All right?"
She nodded, obviously not trusting herself to speak again, and Disapparated. The others followed in quick succession, leaving Ron, Albion, Imogen and me alone. Ron didn't even look back at his lieutenant, just turned to Imogen and said, "We need to talk."
"No," said Imogen firmly, "You need to call Hermione and take a shower, in that order. Then we'll talk."
Ron pushed a hand through his spiky red hair, his mouth twisting ruefully at the reminder. "Good point. Twenty minutes?"
"Twenty-five. In my office."
I started at the sound of my name, looked up (it was a long way up, but I was used to that) into Ron's scarred, battle-weary face. "Look after him, will you? Make him some tea, or something." He lowered his voice and went on, "Drug him if you have to. He won't go home, but he can't go on like this."
"He" was clearly Albion, who stood staring at the fire without expression, his eyes blue-shadowed and his pale hair falling into his face. In spite of his six feet plus of lean height and the proud, strong bones inherited from his father, he looked like a lost child, and my heart went out to him. I had never seen Albion Snape vulnerable, much less uncertain, before. "Of course," I said.
Ron gave my shoulder a squeeze, traded an indecipherable look with Imogen, and strode out. For a moment the Director remained, gazing at Albion. I was abruptly reminded that she was a close friend of the family, had known Severus Snape's firstborn son since his birth, and that she must be longing to comfort him. But in the end she only murmured, "Take care, you two," and shut the door gently in her wake.
There was a profound silence, during which I chewed my lip and wondered what on earth to say. A few hours ago Albion had left the Ministry with head high, his face grim but resolute, to capture his errant sister. None of us had doubted then, least of all him, that he knew what he was doing. He and Margot had grown up together, after all; learned to anticipate each other's moves, counter them, in a way that no mere analyst or strategician could match. Capturing her would no doubt be difficult, but we had all felt sure that with Albion's help, it could be done.
Apparently, we'd been wrong.
"What happened?" I asked quietly. He would tell me that much, surely; it was my business to know, and I'd find out sooner or later anyway.
He started, as though he'd forgotten I was there, and turned hollow eyes to mine. "What do you think? We failed." Then his hands curled into fists and he added with sudden bitterness, "No. I failed."
There was no point arguing with him about it: for all I knew, he might be right. "Come here," I said, and held out my hand to him. "Sit down, and tell me. Everything."
He ignored the proffered hand, but turned and slumped into the corner of the sofa, pinching the bridge of his nose as though it pained him. "She knew we were coming," he said, his voice muffled behind his palm. "I don't know how, but she knew. We'd barely made it inside the grounds when she raised an anti-Apparition ward and set the hounds on us. Not ordinary dogs, either -- enormous black creatures with searing hot breath and flames where their eyes should be. We all fought, but it was a tight battle, and one of them knocked my wand out of my hand. I tried to grab it back, but the hound got there first, and took off with it. It didn't run very fast, though, so I was able to catch up -- I should have known then that something was wrong."
"But you didn't."
"No. I didn't." No excuses, no attempt at self-justification -- that was classic Albion. Right or wrong, success or failure, were all that mattered; questions of why were irrelevant. "I grabbed hold of its collar -- and got Portkeyed straight into Margot's inner sanctum. Where, I'm sorry to say, she promptly tried to kill me."
His mouth twisted in a bleak mockery of a smile. "You expected her to gloat? Offer a bargain? Try to win me over to her cause? So did I. Obviously I overestimated her respect for the ties of blood, however, because she put her foot on my chest and pointed her wand at my throat, and I know she would have killed me right then, except--" He stopped then, eyes closing, and the next word came out in a near-whisper: "Malcolm."
My stomach flipped over. Albion's younger brother had been my schoolmate, my friend; we'd even dated once or twice, though nothing came of it. It was in his company that I'd first met Albion, through him that I'd found my first job with the Department of Secrets. And six weeks ago he'd taken a sabbatical, and none of us had heard from him since. "What -- what about him? You mean he was there?"
"He saved my life." The words were thick with disbelief. "My little brother, scarcely more than a Squib, that nobody but my mother and Imogen ever took seriously. All he said to her was, 'Let him go. For my sake. Please.' And she turned and walked away."
"You mean --" I could barely speak the words. "He's with her? On her side?"
"No." The denial came flatly, but the conviction in it was absolute.
"Then what was he doing there?"
"I don't know." He spread his hands in a helpless gesture, and I was once more struck by how unsure of himself he seemed. "He didn't look like a prisoner, either. Maybe... he has some sort of plan. I wouldn't have expected it of Malcolm, but then, I've just... been reminded... that I don't know my family as well as I thought." He paused, added bitterly, "Especially Margot. I knew she was ruthless, I knew she was using Dark magic, but -- I underestimated her."
"We all did," I said quietly.
"Yes. Well." His lip curled into a sneer, an expression I'd never seen on his face before but which made him look for a moment alarmingly like his father. "You didn't end up leading six Aurors into a death trap. Do you know what those hell-hounds really were? Transfigured lethifolds. By the time I made it out of the Manor and found Ron and the other four, there was nothing left of my team. Nothing."
"Lethifolds!" I was shocked. "But they're only found in tropical climates --"
"Not any more, thanks to Margot. She had them imported, no doubt at Draco's considerable expense, and experimented on them until she got the results she wanted. Malcolm told me, as he was letting me go."
I let out a breath. "If she's that powerful, how are we going to stop her?"
"We aren't, apparently. There aren't enough Aurors left for us to mount a second attack, and even if there were, it would be suicide without the element of surprise. We don't have enough Ministry support to call in reinforcements." He gave a mirthless laugh. "We'll be lucky enough to get out of this without the whole department being shut down. I can just imagine what The Daily Prophet's going to say when they get wind of it. And my father--"
"What about him?" By now Severus Snape must have realised that his daughter was making a serious bid for power, and Albion's opposition to the venture would hardly come as a surprise. At Hogwarts, Albion's strict adherence to, and enforcement of, school rules had been legendary; if he hadn't refrained from actually looking to get people in trouble, or been anything but fair with those stupid enough to get caught, he might well have been hated for it.
"It's just -- I've made things difficult for him. He can't defend me without condemning Margot. And it's too soon for that." He pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I'd hoped that even if we couldn't capture her, we might at least bring back evidence against her. But we've got nothing. Six Aurors dead and we can't even prove she killed them. Such a bloody waste--"
His voice cracked on the last word, and I realised how close he was to breaking down. Albion the calm, the poised, the confident, whose polite affability made a positive impression on nearly everyone he met; until now he'd been untouchable, imperturbable (indeed, Margot seemed to be the only person capable of getting under his skin) and wholly independent. We'd worked together, bantered and exchanged ideas and occasionally butted heads, but I'd never felt as though I was getting to know him. In fact, I'd wondered if anyone did.
Well, maybe now was my chance. I sat down beside him, put a hand on his arm, and pulled the first of several long-cherished theories out of my mental hat. "You haven't failed him, Albion. Or Margot, for that matter. You can't be responsible for the honour of your whole family."
His head came up at that, his eyes hardening. "You don't think so? Well, somebody has to be." I raised my eyebrows at him, but said nothing, and after a moment he went on more quietly, "You don't understand -- I'm the firstborn. They look to me, all of them. Wanting me to be something more, something better, something different. My father always feared his children would grow up tainted; it was my job to show him he was wrong. My mother taught me to be honest and to do what I believed was right; I swore I wouldn't let her down. Margot wanted a challenge; I gave it to her. Malcolm wanted an example; I tried to be that for him. But now --"
"Now what?" I asked incredulously. "You've proved you aren't perfect? That you make mistakes? That -- heaven forbid -- you might actually be something less than superhuman? Fine. But how that amounts to dragging your family's good name through the muck I can't begin to imagine. The only one who's even come close to doing that is Margot."
"Yes, of course it's Margot!" he snapped. "That's exactly why I was supposed to stop her!"
"You were supposed to stop her? Not the Resistance, not even the Aurors -- just you?" A rush of anger pushed me up to my feet, whirled me around to confront him. "Well, no wonder you're upset, then. I guess being nearly killed by the naughty little sister you were planning to punish, not to mention saved at the last minute by the little brother you'd never thought was up to much, would be a blow to your pride."
For a moment he stared at me, his mouth a little open, as though I'd winded him. Then he said in a strangled voice, "That's what it looks like, doesn't it?"
"It certainly does." If I'd paused long enough to acknowledge his naked honesty, it would have disarmed me; but I had my momentum now, and I wasn't about to let him slow me down. "You know, Albion, not everything is about you. Oh, there's no question people look up to you -- you're the son of a war hero who also happens to be Headmaster of Hogwarts, you got top marks in all your classes and captained the Gryffindor Quidditch team, you're well-spoken and well fit and have more natural magical ability than most people can ever hope for -- but do you really think that does anything for the rest of us? We can never be you, or anything like you."
He said nothing, only looked down at his hands. I went on: "You may find this surprising, but most people would rather be exploited than ignored. Do you know why Margot's so popular? It's because she makes people feel important. And not just in the way Tom Riddle did, offering them power and encouraging their bigotries. No, she acts as though people's opinions, their abilities, however small, are actually worth something to her. Whereas you --" I made a helpless gesture. "You don't seem to need anybody. And the only time you really take an interest in people is when they've gone wrong and you think it's your duty to correct them."
"I see." From most people that would have been a dismissal, or at best a meaningless "I hear you" sort of phrase; but he sounded as though he really did see, and it hurt. I was taken aback by his meekness; I had, after all, just criticised him pretty harshly. Perhaps even too harshly, especially considering what he'd been through tonight...
"Oh, Merlin, I'm sorry." I thumped back down on the sofa beside him and buried my head in my hands. "I don't know where that came from. I was supposed to make you a nice cup of tea."
"No," he said quietly. "No, don't apologise. Why should you? You're right."
There was an odd note in his tone that made me look at him sideways. Through the lattice of my fingers I could see his expression closing down as he retreated into himself, blanking his face of emotion. I opened my mouth to protest, but as it turned out I didn't need to; he only managed a rough approximation of indifference before his features contorted again, and a choked sound came from his throat. For one awful moment I thought he was going to cry, but then I realised he was simply furious, with the world and with himself (and possibly with me as well, though even now he was too polite to admit it), and he was so used to suppressing his feelings that he simply did not know what to do.
"You might," I said tentatively, "try throwing something."
He gave a laugh that was half-sob, wrenched a pillow off the sofa and hurled it toward the fire. Startled, I leaped to my feet a second too late to save it, and it went up in a gout of sparks. "I meant something we could fix later," I said blankly.
"There was nothing else to throw," he snapped. "You didn't bloody well make me any tea."
I stared at him, and then I collapsed back down and put my head on his shoulder and laughed, a rather hysterical sort of laugh, but it came as a relief nonetheless. He smelled of sweat and brimstone, and I could feel him stiffen a little at my touch, but he didn't push me away. He waited until my manic giggling had subsided, there was a moment of silence, and then a shudder ran through his body and he said:
The rawness in his voice was impossible to ignore. I raised my head, and had barely a second to wonder why his face seemed suddenly so close before his arm whipped around my shoulders, crushing me against him, and his mouth clamped down on mine. For a moment I froze in something like panic -- he's gone mad, I thought, he must have gone mad -- but it didn't seem to put him off. Quite the opposite, in fact, because he slid his hand up my back and tangled his fingers in my hair, cradling my head in his palm so that I couldn't have pulled away even if I'd wanted to. He was breathing hard, his lips hot and restless and unexpectedly desperate, demanding a response; I heard myself gasp, all the blood in my body came surging into my face, then my mouth betrayed me completely and I gave in.
We kissed, and kissed again, and as his other hand slipped around my waist, long fingers splaying out against the arch of my back, I gave up my last shreds of self-possession and melted against him. He was still tense, the muscles in his arms and chest like steel, all that obsessive energy focused on my mouth. If I had been thinking I would have murmured a joke, tickled him, anything to make him relax; but I was not thinking, and the strategic part of my brain seemed to have Apparated away.
Malcolm and I had kissed once, just before we graduated from Hogwarts, and it was sweet and tentative and so completely devoid of passion that we both burst out laughing. We'd both known then, if we hadn't guessed it already, that the two of us weren't meant to be anything more than friends. This, though -- this was the most unabashedly sensual kiss I'd ever had in my life, and the awareness of Albion's lips, his body, the sheer force of his presence, was overwhelming.
Then all at once his tight embrace loosened, and he pulled back, breaking off the kiss. I made an incoherent protest -- it came out as a whimper -- and opened my heavy lids to see him staring at me, his eyes full of black flame. "Susannah," he said, his voice low and uncharacteristically rough. I gazed back at him, speechless. He raised his hands to frame my face, thumbs brushing my eyelids closed, and I felt his breath warm my lips as he bent his head once more toward mine. But instead of kissing me he paused just before our mouths met, and his tongue traced the swollen curve of my lower lip before he drew back again.
Whether it was an apology or a request or the world's most maddening tease I did not know and frankly, did not care; I lunged at him (in a manner I would no doubt find deeply embarrassing in retrospect), pulled his head down, and forced his mouth back against mine. He gave a short laugh and kissed me again, long and thoroughly, while his hands encircled my waist and his thumbs traced electricity up and down my ribcage. And then -- and then --
It was over.
"I'm sorry," he said, and he almost sounded like he meant it. "I should have warned you."
Trust Albion to concern himself with fairness and good manners -- even though it was ludicrous to apologise under the circumstances. "That wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable, though," I replied, and was pleased with how steady my voice sounded. If only my heart would stop galloping, I'd be fine.
Pretending surprise would have been false modesty on Albion's part; I'd left him in no doubt of my enthusiasm. "True. And even though you said I was an insufferably arrogant, self-righteous prig, you also said I was 'well fit', so I thought you probably wouldn't mind too much... oof."
I had punched him (though admittedly not that hard) in the stomach; my cheeks were flaming again. "You weren't supposed to notice that."
"Wasn't I? Then consider it stricken from the record." His face grew serious. "I don't think I can retract the kiss, however."
"No?" I tried to make it sound casual, to give him an escape if he wanted it. There was, after all, the possibility that it hadn't been about me: that he'd been reining in his passions so long that they were bound to break free eventually, and I'd just been the girl who happened to be there at the time. I didn't think I could bear it if that were the case, but there was no point hiding from the truth just because it might be unpleasant.
He picked up a strand of my hair, winding the curl around his fingers and letting it spring back. "No. Or did you think that came out of nowhere? I noticed you the first time I saw you, but I never expected anything to come of it."
That was saying something, to be sure: we'd known each other for nearly ten years. "You mean, you never planned to let yourself make anything of it." I'd been Malcolm's girlfriend, after all.
He gave a wry grimace. "Quite."
I reached up, touched his face. "It's going to be all right," I said softly. "You might not be the hero of this story, but we still haven't got to the ending."
His eyes were almost tender as they looked into mine, but when he spoke it was with a familiar crispness: "Shut it with the inspirational speeches, Gammon. I want my cup of tea."
Under other circumstances I might have given him several rather rude suggestions for what he could do with his cup of tea, but he was plainly in need of it and besides, Ron had given me a direct order. So I kissed him lingeringly, unfolded myself from the sofa and went off to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
When at last I returned, a tray of tea and biscuits levitating more or less steadily before me, I found him curled up on the cushions, his features slack with weariness and his breathing slow and even. His eyes were closed, a drift of white-gold hair nearly obscuring them, and one hand dangled limply over the edge of the sofa.
For a moment I hesitated, not quite sure what to do. Then I set the tray down gently on the tea-table and sank into the armchair beside it, to watch till Albion should wake.
Or at least, that was the intention. But when the Director came into the room some twenty minutes later (or so she told me), I, too, was fast asleep.