Claire did not dare to turn her head while Sirius slowly made his way through the crowd. The relief she felt did not match the desperation that came with understanding what it meant for him to be present at this meeting. His ardent hatred for Peter had ruled his emotions for so long. There was no way he'd be able to withstand the chance to get his revenge now. And even if by some superhuman effort he could - since the incognito- charm had not worked with her, shouldn't it fail with Peter as well? After all they had been close friends once … And as soon as Peter recognised the wizard he had framed fifteen years ago, he'd call the Death Eaters on Sirius. No matter how strong or driven by hatred her husband might be, he stood no chance against all of them.
Where she had been afraid only for herself and the unborn child, she was now afraid for Sirius' life. The only hope was that the charm held and nobody found out who Professor White really was.
Sirius pushed the hooded figure away who stood next to Claire and took the place by her side. It was Malfoy's luck he had been called forward into the darkness behind the chapel, because had he been within reach, Sirius would have strangled him for bringing Claire to this meeting.
He reached for her hand. Looking down at his wife, he forgot about the location, the company and the less than fortunate circumstances. All that counted was that Claire was alive. The fear he had endured during the last hours had finally forced him to face the certainty that had built in his soul for weeks. He loved her. He'd never loved anybody in his whole life, and he'd rather kept it that way … but he loved her. She drove him mad, she never obeyed, she was stubborn and foolish … and he loved her for that, too.
Claire met his gaze and forgot to breathe when she saw the expression on his face. Nothing counted. There was no Voldemort, no Death Eaters, no mortal danger. There was nothing but him. There'd never be anybody but him. She'd never hoped to ever see that look in his eyes. But there it was.
Here in this place of death and evil and desperation. Here was love.
She sank into his eyes, let herself fall and drown in the blue depths of his soul. He drew her close and brushed her forehead with his lips in a gesture that was soothing and longing at the same time.
Then she recognised the robe he wore and her heart made a desperate leap. Black and white stripes, scarlet fastening ... The robe she'd hidden at the bottom of her wardrobe. The robe Serene had seen in her vision. Claire's fingers tug into his hands all of a sudden, so hard it made him wince. But he never took his eyes off her.
"Are you well?"
"With you by my side I am well." She would hardly talk because her mouth had go dry with fear.
"The Mark," she whispered. "You can't take it."
"You can't take it either." There was no reproach in his words, only calm acceptance of the hopeless situation. "Not even if it where not for our unborn child's life. I'd never allow it."
"You are a healer, baby. The Mark would destroy everything you give to others." He raised her hand to his lips. "What you give to me."
"It will destroy you as well, Sirius!" Her heart grew cold. "I'll never forgive myself. It is my fault you are here. I should have listened to Dumbledore."
"Whatever happened, Claire," he said so softly nobody but she could hear it, "and whatever is going to happen now … I want you to know that I love you."
Her lips trembled when she helplessly raised a hand to touch his cheek. For a moment he closed his eyes and savoured the caress.
"Sirius, I never …" Claire could hardly talk through the tears that choked her.
"Don't," he murmured. "We'll talk about it later."
"Why the delay?" demanded the hissing voice all of a sudden.
Claire winced. There was no way out.
Sirius let go off her hand and looked at the darkness. "Here I am ... Master … What do you want me to do?" His voice sounded calm and betrayed nothing of the fear he must feel, wondered Claire. They both knew that the Dark Mark caused excruciating pain.
If this was the punishment for her foolish endeavour, the fates were without mercy. She needn't be a clairvoyant like Serene to know what was about to happen. Sirius would receive the Mark - that was terrible enough. But as soon as he faced Pettigrew, he he'd try to kill him. And without a doubt get killed in the endeavour. With Sirius' death her life would end as well ... Her mind spun. Her heart raced like after a long run and the thunder in her ears was so loud she almost did not hear the hissing voice.
"You are the child's father?"
Sirius bowed his head.
"You wield power over this witch?"
The cold breeze got stronger. Claire shivered and rubbed her arms but she could not get warm. She knew, she'd never get warm again.
"Then come to me."
The crowd parted and the novices stepped forward.
Claire watched anxiously how Pettigrew turned his back to the crowd and prepared the potion in the cauldron. As long as he was busy wielding his wand and adding ingredients to the potion, Sirius was safe. But any moment now Peter would turn and recognise Sirius face.
The novices stepped one by one into the ink-black darkness behind the chapel. Screams rose over the graveyard, sounds of such incredible terror and pain, Claire had to bite into her hand to not scream as well. Sirius was the last to receive the Mark, and when she heard him cry out, she could not hold back the tears any longer. Laurel had told her what the Dark Mark had done to Severus, how it had been like a tear in his soul where coldness would seep in until he was almost dead inside.
She fell to her knees in the dirt and hugged herself, rocking slowly forward and back. All she could think of was the baby, so young and innocent of all the errors its mother had committed. And Sirius, her love, who had suffered so much already and now made this sacrifice so she and the child would live.
Sirius stepped out of the darkness, seeking her gaze, holding on to her eyes like a life line. His sleeve was torn off and the Mark showed prominently. His skin was of an almost translucent paleness, as if the creature in the darkness had seeped every spark of life and warmth out of him. He moved slowly, in pain, but he could move on his own accord and did not crawl like some of the others. The crowd that gathered at the first row of headstones would not let him pass. Some of them tried to shake his hand or pat him on the back, but he seemed numb and oblivious of everything around him.
Claire still kneeled and stared at him like an apparition. Not even the pain and the terror he just experienced had changed the expression of love in his eyes.
Sirius still faced her when Peter Pettigrew turned and gave a sign that all the preparations were complete.
"And now," the rasping voice out of nothingness announced, "the ritual. My servants have faithfully provided what I need."
A wizard stepped forward and handed Peter the bone they had dug out from the grave earlier.
"Bone of the father, unknowingly given," the crowd recited.
The potion wallowed up and the rising stench of decay made the crowd step back.
Pettigrew's silver hand flashed in the light of the fire when he drew a black dagger from his sleeve. Claire watched incredulously how he put his right hand on the flat surface of the stone next to him and with a deep breath hacked off his thumb. Blood sprayed over the marble, and Pettigrew screamed in pain.
"Flesh of the servant, willingly given."
When the member was added to the potion, the stench got so bad that some of the hooded figures started to wretch.
A Death Eater wrapped a bandage around Pettigrew's bleeding hand. Pale, but determined Pettigrew then picked up the bundle and started to unwrap the cloth. The child still did not move. Raising the dagger over the little boy's heart, Voldemort's servant looked at the hooded figures expectantly.
"Blood of the …"
Claire paled in horror. They'd sacrifice the child! They take his blood right here, in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Sirius, who's eyes were still riveted at her face, turned to the sacrificial scene.
Pettigrew's hand froze in midstroke. The pale eyes bulged in shock.
His voice shrieked over the graveyard and frightened up the expectant crowd of Death Eaters.
"Don't you recognise him? It is Sirius Black!"
Peter had almost dipped over the cauldron in his haste to get a better look at Sirius' face.
"Black?" The hiss from the darkness let the hair on Claire's neck raise. "Malfoy? You let my followers be invaded by Dumbledore's spies? You are getting negligent. First her baby and now her husband …"
"My Lord, no!" Malfoy's voice trembled with fear. "I checked his credentials."
"He is Black! Hold him, don't let him get near me!" Peter brought the cauldron between him and his enemy. The sacrificial dagger and the little boy still lay on the headstone, now completely forgotten.
"What are you talking about, Pettigrew?" snarled Malfoy, gratefully using the opportunity to get away from his lord. He left the dark sphere behind the ruins and ran towards Peter.
Sirius stared at his childhood friend and took in the changes in Peter's appearance since they'd last met. The silver parts gave him an eerie look, but the eyes were the same. Nervous, frightened and bold at the same time. He'd once believed that Peter was one of the courageous guys he knew. After all there was hardly a student at Hogwarts who was more frightened than Peter. Afraid of every shadow, every ghost, every teacher. And still he made it through the day, was even able to have fun and make friends. Sirius considered this incredibly brave - and it probably had been. He had tried to protect Peter just like he'd protected his younger brothers. But then there'd come a day Peter had cracked and given in to the fear, and had sought a more powerful friend. Only now his protector was the greatest threat …
"I've known Sirius Black in school as well. This wizard bears no resemblance whatsoever to him," shouted Malfoy in anger.
"Don't you see it?" shrieked Peter and held the ladle up like a sword. "Don't you see it is him?"
Sirius leaped at him, and dipped over the burning hot cauldron.
Suddenly all hell - or what was not gathered of it on the graveyard yet - broke loose. Out of nothing Aurors in their uniform robes Apparated between the headstones and moved in onto the stunned Death Eaters. White light blazed from their wands and lit up the scenery.
People started to yell and run in all directions, fighting for the few escape routes. Sirius froze, his hands around Peters scrawny neck, Pettigrew's face was already blue. Claire, who had been pushed back by a Death Eater and was holding on to a stone for dear life so the crowd would not trample her, saw Sirius face get all empty. He'd told her before the Aurors would not take him back to Azkaban alive. And certainly not with a Dark Mark on his arm. So he'd die in the raid, would not fight back. Would not defend himself but rather attack the Aurors so they'd finish him off ... Right now the only question for Sirius was how to take Peter with him.
She screamed in pain when one of the escaping Death Eaters ran her over. At once Sirius let go of Pettigrew and turned to her. A blaze of white light hit him right in the chest. For a heartbeat he stood. Then a shiver went through his body and he fell.
* * *
An insistent knock on his door woke Remus Lupin. He was still feeling the after-effects of the last full moon and it took him some time to surface from the wild dreams of running and hunting. He reached for his wand clumsily and mumbled "Lux". Rubbing his eyes he tapped to the door bare footed.
When he opened he saw Serene, in her night robe, her open hair flowing freely over her shoulders. Raw desire hit him so suddenly he forgot to breath. For the span of a heartbeat he let himself believe she'd come to him. Then reason took over and he fought to get his breath back.
"It is three in the morning, Serene. What's wrong?"
She'd been crying, he noticed. His beautiful heartache had cried … She hardly ever let her feelings get the upper hand so something dreadful must have happened.
Serene looked at him, taking in the dishevelled greying hair, the kind eyes, the bare chest, and had to dig her nails into her palm to suffocate the need to just hide from reality in his embrace.
"Sirius," she managed. Her voice was hoarse from crying. "It has happened."
Remus grabbed her shoulders, careful not hurt her. Around the moon he tended to underestimate his powers.
"Serene? What has happened? What are you talking about?"
"Azkaban. They took him back to Azkaban. I've seen it. I tried to warn Claire." Her breath came in gasps. "Why doesn't anybody ever believe me?"
Remus went back into his room without another word and returned minutes later, fully dressed. He wrapped a warm plaid around Serene's shoulders and drew her close to him. For once she did not flinch but went limp with exhaustion. Her rubbed his cheek against her forehead and felt guilty for enjoying this moment so much while his best friend was in mortal danger. He had no doubt that Sirius was in trouble. Serene had been right about Severus a few months ago - and Sirius … well, he knew Sirius …
"We have to tell Dumbledore," he said softly and let not go off her hand until they reached the Headmaster's quarters.
Dumbledore expected them already. His face was drawn with worry and he had misplaced his glasses. "Percy Weasley just sent an owl," he said. "Rumour has it that Aurors raided a Death Eaters meeting near Glasgow tonight. They only got hold of a handful of people. Pettigrew, Malfoy and everybody of any importance managed to get away. But according to Weasley, Claire and Sirius are amongst those taken to the Ministry for interrogation."
* * *
Claire sat in a cell and tried to breathe. For the baby, she told herself, breathe for the child. Since she'd seen Sirius go down like a felled tree, she'd not been able to cease shivering. One of the Aurors had been so kind to lend her a cloak. They'd searched her for a wand and found none, but they'd taken no risk and cuffed her wrists with magical cords.
Nobody had answered her questions. Only a dozen or so Death Eaters had been caught and herded together amidst the stones. When the Aurors had finished searching the graveyards and had not produced any more prisoners, they transported everybody by Portkey to a courtyard in the Ministry. From there they were taken to cells, where they had been locked away and left to their own devices. Claire had been waiting for what seemed like hours now. She had never been arrested before, but certainly there had to be procedures? Did she have the right to see a lawyer before the trial? Or would they just let her rot in this lonely cell without a trial like they had done with Sirius?
She was cold, hungry and sick with worry about Sirius. The flash had hit him right in the chest. What if he was dead? Involuntarily she sobbed. He could not be dead. She'd know it. He was part of her, and she's know when part of her died, wouldn't she?
A polite cough outside the cell made her jump. Running to the door, she rose on her toes to peek out of the small barred window, when she heard the lock open. In stunned surprise she recognised Ben Olsen, Malfoy's counsellor who she'd last seen at Gringotts where he bagged the gold she'd donated to the Dark Lord's cause.
"My dear Ms. White." Olsen kissed her grubby hand and made a tiny nod towards the Auror who stood outside the open door. His face warned her to let him play his part.
"What happened tonight is most regrettable. But I convinced the authorities that you have been framed by a wizard who wormed himself into your confidence, making you believe he was a perfectly honourable Professor at Hogwarts. While in fact he is a Death Eater and bears the Mark."
"He is alive?" Claire's teeth chattered with cold and exhaustion.
"Alive and soon on his way to Azkaban."
She swallowed. "But … shouldn't there be a trial or something?"
Olsen's eyes warned her not to insist any longer. "The Minister himself has reviewed your case and is convinced you are innocent. As for White … The Ministry need time to gather evidence, and there is no safe place for these despicable wizards but Azkaban."
The Auror held open the door, and Olsen offered Claire his arm. She'd gladly refused but felt too weak to be proud.
"Why can you get me out and not Sirius?" she whispered when Olsen led her down the ward.
"It is hard to plead innocent for somebody with the Dark Mark on his arm." The counsellor scowled. "And Malfoy only advised me to free you, not Mr White. You have to admit he became quite inconvenient lately. Too many questions."
"I need to see him." She stopped dead.
"Impossible. They interrogate him at this very minute. And as soon as they are done he'll be on his way to the North Sea."
„I demand it!" Claire looked at him as arrogantly as she could muster. "There are things I need to ask him. Business things," she stressed. Maybe if they thought that Sirius was involved in the Winterstorm business … But Olsen knew that she was the only one who had the authority to dispose of the Winterstorm fortune. "I need to talk to him."
She answered through gritted teeth. "Pettigrew accused him of being Sirius Black only seconds before the Aurors Apparated in."
"So I have been told."
"Well, is he? Is he really an escaped murderer?"
Olsen frowned. "It is possible. There are charms, very elaborate ones, that can distort the face so nobody would recognise it. The old guys at Hogwarts could probably manage it."
"Sirius Black!" She put all the scorn of a woman betrayed in her voice. "I need to hear myself that he deceived me all this time."
Ben Olsen shrugged and went to talk to one of the Aurors. At first the wizard refused blankly, then Olsen passed him a small pouch. A few minutes later Claire was brought into a windowless room with no furniture but a table and two chairs. Obviously this room was used for interrogation.
Sirius sat on a chair, his hands tied by magical cords behind his back.
She turned to Olsen. "Alone." Her tone let no doubt she'd not allow him to stay and listen.
"Five minutes," warned the counsellor and closed the door.
Claire sat down at the chair opposite Sirius.
He smiled shakily. "Bad luck, eh?" he said. "The Mark says I am a Death Eater, and I can't tell them who I really am."
She said nothing, just looked at him.
"It won't take long, Claire." Even now he tried to comfort her. "They say the Dementor's kiss is painless. But even if they take everything away that was good and right in my life, you'll be the last thing I remember."
"You are pathetic, Sirius." Claire gave him a disdainful smile. "I know you think you love me, but you'd love any woman who'd provide you with dinner and a willing body, wouldn't you?"
He stared at her.
"Narcissa told me about your girlfriends at school. The losers. The weak ones. You picked them so nobody would see how damaged you were yourself. Just not strong enough to match with a girl who would not desperately need you for your looks and your reputation."
"You are right." His voice was void of any emotion. Where she expected disbelieve there was a terrible acceptance in his eyes, as if he'd feared this blow to fall for a long time and was almost relieved it finally happened.
"And then you married me. The squib. You had nothing to offer. All I expected of you was to protect me. Dumbledore said you'd be my bodyguard. "She shrugged. "I had my doubts, I remembered you well enough from school."
Raising from the chair she turned away so he would not see her face. "And just look where you got me. You could not protect me from being arrested in this dreadful place. Just like you could not protect Potter and his wife. Good Godric, just to think they made you Harry's godfather!. They had no idea who they trusted their child's safety with." Claire faced him with clenched fists. "But I do. I will care for my child alone, and I'll protect it with all my power."
She closed her eyes and stabbed the dagger right into his heart. "I don't need your love."
And turned it. "I wanted a baby, that's right. But what would I need you for now?"
And opened her eyes again to watch him bleed …
"My child will survive. It won't die like your brothers and James and Lily. Everybody in your care dies. But not this child."
Sirius just sat there, never flinching, baring his soul to her assault without defence. She'd succeeded.
His eyes were dead.
* * *
Severus entered the dungeon from the side entrance to avoid the ghosts who loitered in the hall. Laurel sat up waiting, although he'd left her a brief note to go to bed and not worry. When he opened the door to the living room he took in the warm light, the woman in the deep chair by the fire and knew he was home. Out there was nothing but hell and destruction, but here was home. And this woman who for reasons completely out of his grasp, claimed to love him …
Laurel's eyes widened when she saw his drawn face.
"Was there a summoning?" she worried and put the book aside. Cupping his face with both hands, she tried to check if he was injured. He did not move, just stood and let her touch him, caress him, make sure he was whole.
"No summoning," he said, his voice soft with exhaustion. "Worse."
"Claire went with Malfoy to a Death Eaters ceremony."
She gasped in shock.
"Sirius took the Mark." He listened to himself talking and could hardly believe it. He'd seen Sirius step out of the darkness with the skull grinning on his bare arm. He'd tried to remember how he'd felt when he'd been made a Death Eater so many years ago, but all he could remember was the pain. Even now with his arm numbed by the potion, the Mark seemed to burn to the very core of his being.
He shook his head to scare away the memory. "They both got arrested, Laurel," he whispered hoarsely. "I could not help them." He groaned and almost tumbled. "Merlin, I always hated Black, but I never wanted this to happen!"
"I know." Laurel drew him into her embrace and soothingly stroked his hair. "I know."
A faint whimper came from under Snape's cloak, but he did not react. So Laurel carefully pulled the heavy material back and saw the small bundle of cloth that he'd tied to the numb arm so he could hold on to the broom with his right hand.
"What is this?" Laurel untied the bundle. "Severus, this is a child! Where'd you find it?"
He rubbed his forehead. "Pettigrew was about to slaughter him when the Aurors busted the meeting."
Laurel wrapped the cloth off the child's limp body. "He is unconscious."
"Draught of dreamless sleep," Severus mumbled and fell into the chair by the fire. "There was so much confusion at the graveyard. Enough time to sneak in and grab the child before Pettigrew thought about it."
Laurel stroked the small boys fair curls. He felt warm, but not feverish. Severus was the one who looked as if he had a fever. She wrapped the child in a blanket and went into the bedroom, where she put him in a makeshift bed in a laundry basket.
When she returned to the living room, Severus still sat where she had left him, limp with exhaustion.
"Your arm hurts," she said softly. "And you are burning."
Just to know that he needn't pretend with her was such a relief. "I feel as if a dragon got the better of me."
Laurel conjured a wet cloth and a goblet of water, which he drowned like a man dying with thirst. "What would they need a little boy for?" she asked softly while she cleansed his face and hands of grime and dust.
"His blood." Severus had almost drifted off into sleep. "Must talk to Dumbledore. Find a way to get those damned fools out."
"In the morning." Laurel kissed his forehead. "Now you go to bed and sleep. There is nothing we can do for them now."
* * *
Claire held her head up high, when Olsen walked her down the long corridors of the Ministry. She pretended fear of flying as she had earlier when Malfoy picked her up. Olsen let her ride on his broom with him and she held on to his shoulders and closed her eyes. The cold nightwind helped her to concentrate on what had to be done. When the sun rose in the east Olsen landed in front of Winterstorm Manor.
"Thank you very much," Claire said politely. "I'd ask you in, but it is early and my husband has just been arrested. I don't want the neighbourhood to talk."
"Of course. "Olsen bowed his head. "I hope the next time we meet will be under more agreeable conditions."
"What will happen to Siri … to my husband?"
"Without a doubt he's in Azkaban already at his hour," shrugged Olsen and started his broom. "Malfoy tells me it was really a marriage of convenience. But you carry the pure-blooded child you wanted, and now Mr. White is not needed anymore, am I correct?"
She gave him a cold smile. "My marriage is not your business, Mr. Olsen."
"Ben." He took her hand to his lips and kissed it briefly. "You are right. Your marriage is not my business, but your widowhood will be. Just consider how far you could rise in the Dark Lord's realm with the right wizard by your side."
"The right wizard. Would that be you?"
He shook his head. "I must disappoint you, Claire. I have my hopes set elsewhere. But I am sure that Voldemort himself will find somebody for you. A wizard with a head for business. And with a fitting bloodline, no doubt."
He took off and disappeared behind the roof of the Manor.
For a moment Claire just stood and stared into nothingness. She felt as if she had aged for years since she'd left her house. Sighing, she turned and climbed the stairs, step by step, knowing that only when she'd safely closed the door behind her she could dare to fall apart and cry out what was left of her heart.
* * *