The next day, Dorcas left Moody’s office deciding that she’d better skip lunch or risk getting sick in the stomach. The thought of her uncle actively participating in Death Eater business had turned her into such a pile of nerves that she had a hard time telling the story to her boss without breaking down. Somehow, she managed to get it all out and was relieved when he handed her an envelope of documents to deliver to the McKinnons.
An afternoon with Marlene might get her head back into her work, instead of mulling over the mess of her family. At least that’s what she’d hoped for. But when she finally sat down across from her best friend in the McKinnon’s living room, she couldn’t help but recant the whole affair all over again.
“It can’t be him,” Marlene said, falling into the couch when Dorcas finished explaining what had happened.
“I know. I can’t believe it myself.” Dorcas tossed the packet onto the coffee table, too baffled about her uncle to comment on the froufrou maternity get-up Marlene was wearing. “I knew that he was doing special favors for Borgin & Burke’s, but that was all. He said he had a knack for getting things done. He even set up meetings for me with other sources for my investigations. It doesn’t make any sense. And if it was really him, why did he go through the trouble to send that message for me to meet him if he was going to pretend that he didn’t know me?”
Three years ago, her father had deserted his Auror’s post and taken the family to France, and now her uncle was suspected of spying for the other side. Or at least that’s how the Ministry viewed it. “He’s not even supposed to be in London. He should be on holiday by now.”
Marlene picked up her quill from the side table. “Are you sure it was really him?”
Dorcas frowned. “It looked like him. Sounded like him, even. Same clammy skin and everything. You’d have a difficult time faking that.” She shook her head.
“Not likely. He didn’t seem dazed and confused, besides not knowing who I was.”
Severus had asked the same questions. Moody too. It still wasn’t making sense. “Maybe, but for a man who used to clean out his combs with an old toothbrush and lint-wiped all of his overcoats every night, it seems unlikely. At least, that’s what my mother told me. He doesn’t let anyone near him. I just can’t see it.”
“I don’t know. Has he spoken to your mum recently?”
“I hope not. We’d agreed not to contact my parents after they left the country. It’s too dangerous.” As far as she knew, her family was laying low in Paris and she wanted to keep it that way. “Just watch out for him. I hate to say it, but under the circumstances, I don’t think you should allow him on the premises.”
“Don’t let anyone in who looks like Rookwood. Got it.” Marlene jotted a note down in her book. “What else have you got?”
Dorcas opened the envelope she’d brought with her and they reviewed the guest list together, or rather, Dorcas watched Marlene munch away as they went through the rest of the plans. Her stomach churned as they covered security protocols for the party. Eating was still out of the question, though talking things through with Marlene had calmed her down a bit.
Her uncle wouldn’t have turned to the Death Eaters, she had to believe that. Just like she’d started believing that her father might have had a valid point for running out on the war. After being around Severus and watching him struggle with the choices he had to make, she was beginning to understand why doing the right thing was harder than it seemed.
“Oh, and I almost forgot.” Marlene dug around in her pockets. “I should have returned these things when I left the Ministry, but with all the confusion after the attack, it slipped my mind.” She handed Dorcas her Auror’s badge and a small rusted key. “You’ll give those to Moody for me, won’t you?”
Dorcas stuffed the items in her bag. “Not a problem.”
“So…” Marlene gave her a curious look.
“Is he coming?”
Dorcas frowned, sifting through the pages. “Who? We’ve covered over twenty names in the last ten minutes.”
“You know who. The bloke with the travel cloak.” At Dorcas’ blank expression, she exclaimed, “Oh come on! The one in your flat.” Marlene pantomimed quotation marks. “He-who-prefers-not-to-be-named.”
Dorcas rolled her eyes. “That’s bloody awful, Marlene. You know I can’t tell you that.”
“He can come, you know. I’m inviting him.” Marlene smiled.
“It doesn’t work that way. I’ve told you already.” Dorcas tried to imagine what Severus would be like at a baby shower and snorted. “Besides, he’s not the tea and crumpets type.”
“So what type is he? All you’ve told me was that he’s fascinated with the color of your eyes.” Marlene cleared her throat and began a sing-song mockery of Dorcas. “He said my eyes were blue!” Then she laughed. “What is that? Are you dating some bloke from the Ministry of the Obvious?”
Dorcas sighed. As much as she’d like to indulge in girly conversation with Marlene, her best friend wasn’t going to get anything else out of her. All she had to do was slip up one too many times, and Severus’ name would likely pop right out of her mouth, and that wouldn’t do. She distracted her friend’s curiosity away from the subject of the “mysterious flat mate” with a handful of bribery truffles, her only means of a dignified escape.
As she stepped out of the Ministry floo, she had to admit that Marlene’s friendly teasing had lightened her mood a little, as she imagined Severus trying to politely feign interest in Mrs. McKinnon’s inane chatter. But when she sank back into her cubicle chair, the heavy cloud of self-pity settled around her all over again. Even the miniature parade of snow globes above her desk couldn’t cheer her up this time.
She should be ecstatic about their pending success. If their plan succeeded, if they got Karkaroff and his team of Death Eaters, they’d be a step closer to defeating Voldemort and saving countless lives. But what if her uncle was among those arrested? There’d be no special treatment coming from the Ministry. No exceptions to the punishment.
And then all she could think about was Severus and how if he stayed in the country, he’d end up prosecuted for his involvement with the Death Eaters, and if she helped him leave, she’d probably never see him again. Either way, when it was all over, she couldn’t help wallowing in how much she didn’t want to be alone again.
“God, I am such a girl!” she muttered as she stacked the last reports together.
When she returned to her flat after work and found Severus in her kitchen, hovering over something that smelled suspiciously edible, she put on a smile and decided to ignore the world outside the walls of her flat that had obviously gone spare.
If she fought hard enough, she could pretend for another day that her uncle wasn’t suspected of treason, the man she’d grown attached to was a simple shop keeper’s apprentice and she had no knowledge of impending threats against innocent bystanders.
Stupid war. Stupid bloody Death Eaters and their stupid plan to take over the world.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Rookwood groaned at the pounding in his head as he came to his senses in the dark. This was supposed to be the big payoff for skipping out on his hard-earned holiday? The metallic taste in his mouth and the darkened room told him that his meeting with Mulciber had not gone as planned.
He tried to roll over and something clanked around his wrists. After a brief struggle, he managed to sit up. Being chained to the wall didn’t help.
They’d messed up his plans. Messed up his jaw too… Rookwood rubbed at his face until the soreness lessened a bit.
The lanky fellow with the crooked hair had come out of nowhere. He’d had one hell of a hook too.
Streaks of dim light painted the far side of the room. Must be in someone’s dungeon, he figured, squinting at the metal bars around him. The room had a vile stench, like a cauldron of boiled almonds.
He’d meant to meet up with his niece after the scheduled delivery. The extra favors for Burke had started raising too much suspicion and people at the Ministry had started asking questions. He’d panicked about them finding out what he’d done and the only thing he could think to do was take the bribery money and run with it, but the idiot had grabbed him first.
“Gonna check on your credentials,” Avery had told him, right before he’d knocked him out with his fist. As if the tattoo wasn’t enough. Rookwood’s arm still stung from the recently branded mark. If his wits were still about him, he’d have to guess that had been a few days ago. The floor was stone cold and the shackles around his wrists were starting to chafe.
This had not led up to the lucrative side job that Burke had promised him at all.
Dorcas was his only way out. He would have been long gone… out of the country even, if it wasn’t for that meddling twit. Giant, lanky, crooked-haired… half-brained might be too generous, he decided. Beady little eyes… like the ones staring at him from across the room.
“This place stinks,” he called out gruffly. “I’ve been stuck in here for days.”
The beady eyes were closer now, and he could make out Avery’s half-shadowed, crooked grin.
“Yeah, treacle tarts all round.” Avery snorted as he unlocked the cage and stepped inside. “Like yer getting some anytime soon. Har!”
“Did you get the tickets?” Rookwood asked. “From Mulciber, like I told you? I could have handled that just fine on my own.”
Rookwood tried not to gag as Avery leered a little too close. The git must have rolled around in almond butter, he stank so badly. “Isn’t that proof enough? You’ll let me out so I can do the next mission?” He hoped to God that he hadn’t missed it.
“Nah, you’re staying right here.”
Damn. His eyes shot around the room, searching for something that would get him out of here. He needed to get to his niece.
Avery dangled the key in front of him. “Looking for this?” he taunted. Rookwood swore out loud this time and lunged against the chains.
“Burke vouched for you, just like you told me. One of them dependable types, he said.” Avery grinned. “But Karkaroff changed his mind. He tells me he’s done taking chances with Ministry blokes, that Graves’d been a real tool and all. Got my friends killed.” He spat on the ground near Rookwood’s feet.
Rookwood’s eye twitched. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. “I’ll get you into the McKinnons’ place. They trust me.” He grappled for something he could use. “My niece is there.” She’d always been a sweet girl. She’d help out her dear old uncle, wouldn’t she? “She’ll let me in, I swear.”
And then she’ll get me out.
He winced as Avery reached out and plucked at his balding head, snickering again. “Ain’t got much of these left, have you?” The lanky git towered over him and all Rookwood could do was seethe in his chains.
“There’s a new man on the inside. Me and Mulciber, we’re gonna take it from here.” Avery held up the single hair. “I got what I need, just like last time, old man. You get us through this one with yer pretty face, and we’ll let you in on the next go round. Maybe even let you keep all yer fingers when we’re done!”
The beady eyes turned away and somewhere across the room, a door opened, letting in the sound of plaintive wailing. Then a click, and silence.
Rookwood stared after his captor in disbelief. The dolt had left the cage open. His arms jerked against the chains, but it was no use. He was bolted to the wall and they’d taken his wand.
He’d been stupid to think he’d outwitted the Death Eaters and their attempt to blackmail him. Stupid to trust Burke and his offer in the first place. But he wasn’t stupid enough to die. He’d do whatever it took to get out of here. And then he’d disappear, exactly as he’d planned.
While Dorcas was preparing to face who-knew-what kind of perilous threats at the McKinnons, Severus stood in front of the full length mirror, attempting to steel himself for what was certain to be a mind-numbing afternoon at Malfoy Manor. His visit with Karkaroff had earned him an invitation to an elite pureblood affair, strangely enough at the same time as the McKinnons’ gathering. The formal robe Lucius had lent him for the occasion hung stiffly on its hanger, another weight he’d have to bear if he wanted to win the acceptance and trust of the Death Eaters.
He’d almost convinced himself that playing along with them would get him another step closer to stopping Karkaroff. The justifications had turned over in his head too many times to count. He’d been strangely compelled to explain to Dorcas why he had to get more involved, though she didn’t really need much convincing. Not even her acceptance of his predicament could still the uneasy stirring in his gut.
Severus fixed the last of his shirt buttons and picked up the pair of silver cuff links, another gift from Lucius. The man seemed extremely interested in Severus’ sudden attempt to move up in the ranks, and was giving him every opportunity to succeed. He still made noise about helping Severus find a new place, but on that, Severus had repeatedly declined.
He’d considered it a small miracle that Dorcas hadn’t thrown him out long before now. Arse-faced Avery set his flat on fire nearly two months ago. He fidgeted awkwardly with the cuff links, swearing to them under his breath, wondering why he hadn’t paid closer attention to the charm for forcing inanimate objects to behave better. He was perfectly content to remain where he was. And quite frankly, he had a perfectly logical explanation for not taking the earliest opportunity to leave.
He simply didn’t want to.
The reality was that he’d imagined what it used to be like to come home to an empty flat, having no one to argue antiquated potions theory with late into the night. He’d tried to dismiss the moments fixed in his mind that kept coming back to him at strange times, like when she’d allowed him the time to heal, or when she kissed him back for the first time, surprising the hell out of him that he hadn’t been hexed into oblivion for his unintentional forwardness.
There were other things too, but it all came down to the fact that he wasn’t willing to walk away.
More than that, he found himself wanting to smooth the worry from her face as she fretted over the security plans for the McKinnons. And as she spoke about Marlene and how much the family was looking forward to the new baby, he felt her desperate need to imagine that it would somehow turn out alright.
He considered a few more swear words to try on the stubborn links. But then soft fingers took over and eased them closed for him. Dorcas helped him with his robe too, telling him how respectable he looked. He meant to tell her something similar, but the airy Muggle dress she wore had him floundering wordlessly for something decent to say.
And before he could think too much on what he’d rather be doing with her than letting her go anywhere, she had kissed him gently and told him not to worry. Then she was gone. So he pushed away his doubts and allowed himself to hope, for Dorcas’ sake, that the day wasn’t going to end as badly as he feared.
As much time as he’d recently spent around Lucius and his upper crust associates, he was still unable to make sense of the incredibly affluent affairs they seemed to crave. When he arrived in the gardens at Malfoy Manor, it was as he expected, a stagnant congregation amidst clotted cream and butter sandwiches. It was entirely out of the question for the aristocrats to act as if they were enjoying themselves. And on that point, he decided that he would fit right in.
The youngest Malfoy made an unhappy appearance in his frilly gown with his stoic caretaker. When the babe was passed over to Lucius, the tyke bunched up his blotchy red face for an all-out bawl, but was quickly whisked out of his father’s arms by the attentive nanny, who managed to shush the child before he made an embarrassing outburst.
Severus scanned the blur of faces, but he didn’t want to get any closer to than he was obliged. A few people that he was more or less familiar with greeted him in passing. Karkaroff strutted by, giving Severus a short nod on his way to the scones with a small entourage following behind.
Severus did a double take. The mission was today... now... and there were others that were rumored to be involved, drinking tea and eating petit fours instead of preparing to wreak havoc. Confused, Severus stepped closer to Karkaroff’s audience to see if he could figure it out.
Karkaroff was in the middle of boasting to his attendees how he had a part in how fearful the general public had become. All Severus received for his trouble was an earful of woefully boring factoids about the decline of the British Muggle economy due to the increase in randomly fatal accidents.
Then, after a disturbing “pop”, the pock-faced man staggered up to Karkaroff. “They got me,” he croaked. “Even with Snape’s voice-altering potion… I sounded just like that old man and they wouldn’t let me in.”
Karkaroff scowled. “Did you see him? The inside man?”
The fake Rookwood nodded, and then croaked again. “Shit. I hate this stuff!” He shook himself all over and shimmered and contorted and became Avery in ill-fitting clothes. “That’s better.” He spat on the ground and looked around, meeting Snape’s stare, and grinned. “Worked like a charm, but tastes like piss,” he said, finally sounding like himself. “Could ya fix that next time?” He turned away and wandered over to a few of his pals who’d abandoned the tea cart for the liquor bar over by the topiary garden.
Good old Avery. Still hadn’t learned to keep his mouth shut. “Yeah,” Severus heard him brag, ignoring the crystal and taking a swig straight from the bottle. “They won’t know what hit them. When the party’s over and all their guards have left, BAM! We go in and torch the whole place. Brilliant, isn’t it? Karkaroff’s got himself a new man on the inside, the barmy rat!”
They’d changed the plan, Severus realized. Now what? He tried desperately to think of a quick way to get word to Dorcas without getting himself killed... by either side.
Avery swore loudly, startling Severus out of his frozen panic. “Does it have to hurt like that?!” The lanky dolt rubbed at his arm and disappeared, followed by a dozen others around the room.
This was the best chance he had. If others were leaving, he might not be missed. Severus made use of the commotion and found an empty hall. He signaled Dorcas and apparated back to the flat, hoping that he wasn’t too late.
For a full minute, Severus paced frantically in the flat, worried that Dorcas was either too distracted to receive his message, or maybe the Death Eaters already had her and she couldn’t respond. He had half a mind to apparate straight to her – wherever she was – hopefully surrounded by Order members somewhere… and if that was the case, it would be no good because they’d use their twisted black-and-white logic to hand him straight over to the Ministry and he couldn’t let that happen. He’d had enough punishment for things he couldn’t control.
And finally, a crack, and Dorcas.
"Severus?" She looked confused, rubbing her wrist. “Nothing happened. I was helping Marlene’s mother wash up the last of the platters and then I got your message. What...”
"There's no time," he breathed. "Alert the Order! Do whatever you have to do and get Marlene out of there! They're planning something big and it's happening right now! Give this to Moody!" He shoved a piece of crumbled parchment at her with the scribbled details he remembered from Avery’s conversation. And then he stepped away from her, trying not to grab onto her and keep her from going anywhere near that place.
She chanted something low and the parchment vanished. Then she turned abruptly on the spot.
The last of his resolve broke and he followed, a breath behind her, hoping it wasn't too late. He appeared in a small wooded lot behind the McKinnon property and ducked behind the trees to stay out of sight; he needed to make sure Dorcas hadn’t walked into something she couldn’t handle.
A heavy mist hung in the air. Severus waved his hand in front of his face, attempting to stifle a cough that would draw anyone’s attention. After a moment, the mist thinned and he watched a heavy blanket of dust settle over the whole estate... or what was left of it.
Dorcas stood alone in the middle of a smoking mess, the front lawn now a field of desolation. A shallow crater dipped under the outline of where the house used to be, and an odd spark died at the base of the one remaining foundation, the last of the protective wards giving up.
Severus’ eyes followed the swirling ash up into the sky and saw the green beast above, hanging over it all. He scanned the area for any sign of Karkaroff or anyone else, but they were gone. The attack had been swift and calculated. The whole place was leveled.
He took a step towards Dorcas, but the air crackled and he was forced back behind the trees as more Order members appeared and crowded around, blocking his view of her. Then a large man with a purposeful gait strode up to the small group and took charge.
Severus’ arm burned. The Death Eaters were calling him. Probably wondering where he’d gotten off to. He didn’t know if he could leave this place, with Dorcas in the middle of all the devastation.
He ached to go over and tear her away from them so he could be the one trying to comfort her, let her abuse him for being too late… for not knowing enough in time to save them. The Order was everywhere and there was nothing he could do here. It was over.
He finally turned his back on the ruins and answered the Summons.
The crowd at Malfoy Manor was smaller, only the elite guests of Karkaroff and his minions were present. Severus was ready with some excuse about a piece of unavoidable shop business, but no one seemed to care about his brief disappearance or the fact that he’d returned. He’d made a point to show himself to Lucius, who looked quite put out by the drunken mob on his veranda. Severus found a quiet corner and after a few unsuccessful attempts, his rowdy peers went off to revel in their hands-down victory over the McKinnons and the Order without him.
The elation of the Death Eaters over the tragedy made his head spin – he’d seen enough to be sick - and finally after a few hours, he found the opportunity to excuse himself and leave.
The flat was quiet. He checked the mark on his wrist – Dorcas should be here somewhere… then he heard a soft pop and she appeared in the living room, exhausted and pale, wet trails down her cheeks from the tears that she didn’t try to hide.
“Dorcas, are you…” He trailed off as she wordlessly turned away from him and went up the stairs.
He hadn’t been fast enough. Actually, if he’d not acted when he did, Dorcas would have been there during the attack and he would have lost her. Though from the looks of things, he might well have lost her just the same. She was right to blame him. He deserved it. He couldn’t stand that he’d tried and failed. Again.
He stopped by her closed door, wondering what to do. He didn’t hear a thing. Maybe she didn’t want to see him. Maybe she was already asleep.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Feeling empty, he went to his room and for the first time in a week, he slept alone.
A/N: Is it Chapter 11 at last? I cannot believe it. Probably neither can you. Unbelievable. As always, thank you to the consistency police, without whom this story would be an absolute wreck. You know who you are. Take a bow.
Oh, and I bet you smell that... those are cookies baking. Marlene tells me that by the time you finish leaving a review, they will be ready.
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