Author's Note: I cannot express sufficient thanks to elyaeru, who acted as beta for this story and whose wonderful editorial assistance was invaluable.
Also, the quoted poem taken from #5 of the Carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus. If you have issues with the translation, I'm the one to blame.
And the third tongue of flame, which shot from the wand, twisted with the others, and bound itself thickly around their clasped hands, like a rope, like a fiery snake.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, chap. 2
It held them – locked them – then slowly evaporated, leaving the couple clasping hands as they held each other's gaze. Bellatrix, whose wand had touched their hands throughout the vow taking, had moved away, although she continued to stare.
It took a moment before Snape managed to stand and help the stunned Narcissa to do the same. Her eyes were wet, her wild hair streaming; she stood for several minutes, too overcome to speak. Snape waited, his mind drained, watching, until Narcissa reached up to place her hands on his shoulders. She kissed him, first on the cheek, and then on the mouth. She held the kiss briefly, then was out the door almost before her sister realized it.
Twenty minutes later, Snape sat at his desk, his eyes resting on the multicolored potion jars. The flickering candlelight made the jars glow; in the dark room, they were beautiful, kaleidoscopic.
At this moment, he needed to collect himself. He had only a few minutes to be alone, to reflect. He had just taken a vow that was more durable than marriage, more stringent than any other oath within the realm of magic. What could have possessed him to do it?
The gleaming liquids that surrounded him receded into the distance, and Narcissa Malfoy burst into the foreground of his imagination. He saw her flowing platinum hair; he felt her soft warm hand holding his and her hot tears wetting his shirt. Her perfume still lingered on his clothing; he could inhale the fragrance with every breath. He remembered her lips on his cheek, and on his mouth, as she kissed him. Suddenly, he had a vision in which the vow taking ended with the two of them together alone; after Narcissa kissed him, he took her hand and led her to the couch, so that they might continue to kiss like lovers…
Snape stopped himself abruptly. He took several deep breaths, needing to pull himself together. In a few moments, he needed to brief Dumbledore. Directly after that, he had to attend the Dark Lord and perform the same service. He could not afford to be distracted.
There was a bedroom at Malfoy Manor that Narcissa had claimed as her own. She had used it for years as a combination office and private drawing room. However, with Lucius gone, she often slept there. The master bedroom reminded her each night of his absence. The last thing she would feel, as she tried to sleep, was a cold absence on her husband's side of the bed. Increasingly, she had been inclined to sleep elsewhere, in her own separate room.
After leaving Spinner's End, Narcissa was so agitated that she rushed to the first secluded place from which she could Disapparate. Arriving at her own door, she paused briefly to reinforce a charm that would prevent her sister following, then she ran through the mansion until she reached her room. Once inside, she threw herself on the bed, and did not move for several hours. She did not sleep. Instead, she endured a frenetic rush of mental images. She was a child, then she was giving birth. She was standing before the Dark Lord, then she was playing with a toddler Draco. She was wearing white gossamer, standing beside Lucius at their wedding. She was witnessing her life. It came to her in no order. The pictures cascading through her mind were hallucinogenic in their vividness as she lay, unable to resist them.
As the images were washing over her, there was a point when she became aware that a change of focus had occurred, so that the parade of memories had shifted to become a procession of terrors. Unfolding before her were those eventualities she most feared, those possibilities that filled her with the greatest dread. Narcissa watched frightful events unfold in her mind as if they were happening before her eyes. She saw her husband cowering in his prison cell before a Dementor, about to receive its hideous kiss. She saw her son begging for mercy before the Dark Lord, and then writhing under the torture. She saw the twisted, marked, mutilated body of her child. And then she saw herself, a faded woman of middle-age, her husband in prison, her son estranged, walking through the empty rooms of a mansion, friendless and alone. Narcissa turned to her side and wept.
When her tears ran out, and she lay exhausted, the images returned; and she saw herself again kneeling in Snape's house. She saw herself kissing him. In a moment of detachment, she wondered why did I do that?
But in her mind's eye, she watched as Severus prolonged her kiss, then took her hand and led her up a flight of steps to a dark room. She could not visualize the room, but she felt that it was full of warm sensation. As she lay on her own bed, this one image caused her to feel alive and comforted, sensual and feminine.
When, on the 7th of August, Narcissa returned from her shopping trip to Diagon Alley, she was beside herself. She was too angry at Draco to even look at him. Her mind, however, was on her husband. Her every instinct and desire was to bring the problem to Lucius, and leave it there with him. But that is impossible. He is in prison.
The voice in her head had a bitter, sarcastic edge. Now, when I need him – in prison. His son in this terrible predicament. Potter threatening me. And now Draco going off – disappearing, disobeying, refusing to explain himself.
"Damn you!" she said, loud enough to make Draco turn his head. Under her breath, she muttered, "Your fault, Lucius. All yours."
She stalked into her room and threw two bags of purchases onto the bed, remembering that she was carrying her own bags because they had no house-elf -- Lucius had lost him. Over three years ago, her husband had somehow managed to leave the house with Dobby and return home without him. He actually put all the blame on a twelve year old child. She hadn't questioned it at the time, but, honestly. . . She shook her head.
Sighing deeply, she summoned paper, picked up her quill, and began to write a letter to Lucius at Azkaban. She had just begun to describe the encounter at Madam Malkin's when she threw down her quill. What was she thinking? All the mail into Azkaban is searched and read!
She tore up the letter, disgusted. Disgusted and slightly desperate. She needed to tell somebody about this.
After a few moments, she began a different letter:
I took Draco to shop for school at Diagon Alley today.
At Madam Malkin's, while Draco was being fitted for new robes, we had an incident. Potter, Weasley and that Mudblood came into the store and tried to pick a fight with Draco. Three against one, and Draco up on a stool being fitted. When I told them to put the wands away, Potter actually threatened me. What a truly horrible, arrogant, disrespectful brat he is! He told me they would find me a double cell in Azkaban with Lucius. People do not talk to me that way, Severus. I could easily have lost my composure. The little viper did succeed in drawing me into saying that he would be with Sirius before I would be with Lucius. It was the wrong thing to say, no doubt; but I could not help myself.
Then it got worse.
After we left Madam Malkin's, Draco disappeared. This was after I expressly told him he was not to leave me. I turned around, and he was gone. I did not see him again for half an hour. When he turned up, he refused point-blank to tell me where he had been. Not only that, but he got angry at me for asking. He accused me of treating him like a child. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? I stood in the middle of Diagon Alley as he walked away from me, completely ignoring my demand that he explain himself and show me respect.
He was rude to me, Severus. In his entire life, he has never been rude to me before. I do not know what to do. I would never ask you to talk to him for me. You're not his father. But I just don't know what to do.
After writing the letter, she hesitated, reading it over. It felt inappropriate. It felt entirely too close to the sort of letter she might write Lucius. She sat down at her desk, pressing her lips together, thinking hard. After several minutes, she tore the letter in half and began again. This time, she limited herself to a factual description of the encounters at Madam Malkin's, Draco's disappearance, and his refusal to explain himself. When she was done, she felt satisfied. The letter no longer felt improper. But now, she wavered between sealing the envelope and giving it to her owl, and adding a final line. Finally, she wrote, "If you would like to discuss this further, in person, I could meet you at an appropriate location, possibly Hogsmeade." Then she dipped her quill in ink and signed.
Exactly one week later, she received a two line response from Snape, thanking her for the information and advising that he would keep a particular eye on her son. It said nothing about meeting her.
Around the second of September, Narcissa received a second owl from Snape. It carried a letter describing an incident on the Hogwarts Express. The incident had involved Harry Potter and, Snape was almost certain, Draco. The letter closed by stating that with school in session, and with the writer's "other concerns" (Narcissa understood this to be a reference to his obligation to look after Draco), if he were to meet with her in person, he could venture no further than Hogsmeade.
After Narcissa read the letter several times, she reached two conclusions. First, it was obvious that Harry Potter, who had always been dangerous, had become more so. Second, perhaps this was how Severus Snape communicated his interest in seeing more of her. It seemed reasonable to think so. But, in any case, Narcissa knew better than to reply straight away. She didn't want to seem overanxious.
As it turned out, there was no real danger of an overhasty reply, because it took a full ten days to get the reply worded correctly. The note was carefully drafted to convey a half-casual tone exuding unconcern about anything except Draco, thanking Snape for his information and asking that he continue to keep her informed. Even though it was very short, it took a number of rewrites before she was satisfied with it. When she finally attached the letter to her owl's leg, Narcissa carried the creature to the doorway and cast him to the sky. She stood watching as he made a slight circle before gliding onto the familiar northern course towards Scotland, picturing the owl's recipient as she gazed at the soaring bird.
The next communication from Snape was a disappointment. In mid-October, a school owl arrived bearing a terse factual letter describing an incident in Hogsmeade in which a student obtained a cursed necklace and was severely injured. Snape had been able to treat the girl in time to keep the curse from spreading; but she was currently hospitalized, and Draco was reputedly under suspicion. Although he had no specifics regarding Draco's connection, he felt that she should be informed. She sank onto the bed in her small spare room staring wide-eyed at the parchment.
Her distress was compounded by the circumstance that Draco did not confide in her. She wrote to her son every week, as she always had, and sent food parcels. He replied once or twice a month with brief acknowledgments. She realized this year was different – Draco had these terrible obligations — but still, surely he must realize that unless his mother heard from him, she was nearly sick with anxiety.
And that she was all alone.
It was a few days before Christmas. Snape sat across from Dumbledore, awaiting questions or dismissal. When Fawkes gave a soft cry, Snape found himself wondering whether the bird knew that all of their days sitting in this office – Dumbledore's, Fawkes, his own – were so severely numbered.
Dumbledore spoke first. "Severus, I'm truly surprised you cannot get the boy to confide in you."
"I've tried repeatedly. I've even ordered him to my office, but he avoids me. I know he is trying to arrange something on his own. He's told me as much, but I cannot tell precisely what."
"What happened after the incident at Slughorn's Christmas party?"
"I could get nothing out of him. I could not even determine whether Draco's story about wanting to attend the party was true, or whether he was up to something else entirely. Did you question Filch?"
"I did, but it was inconclusive, as one might expect."
Snape shook his head and said, "I will need to write his mother, of course."
"And what will you tell her?"
"The same as before. That his behavior is clumsy and suspect."
There was a pause. Then Dumbledore asked, "And when will you be seeing Mrs. Malfoy again?"
"I don't expect to see her again at all. As I said, the episode with Draco was, well, it was a fiasco. He clearly distrusts me. I don't know precisely why. Although it would surprise me if his aunt did not have something to do with his change of heart."
"Bellatrix? Really? I thought the two of you were such good friends."
Snape gave a short bitter laugh. The old man had such
a gift for irony. "She is convinced that whatever reticence kept me away from the Ministry last year could only have been motivated by disloyalty."
"But surely she realizes that you could not have maintained your important function spying on me for Lord Voldemort if you had suddenly turned up with her and Lucius and the others?"
"Yes, one would think that, wouldn't one? Logic has never been her strongest suit. But there's more to it. Bellatrix had always believed herself the Dark Lord's" – he chose the word carefully – "favorite. But that changed after the debacle at the Ministry. The Dark Lord was beside himself. It was difficult to tell whether he was angrier at her or at Lucius. However, since Lucius wasn't there, she bore the greater part of his wrath. And she lost her status. She is no longer his favorite."
"And you, so I understand, have taken on that role."
"Yes, I seem to have that honor, for the moment. But it was something of an open secret that Bellatrix nurtured fantasies of herself as the Dark Lord's lieutenant and consort, wrapped up together. The loss of status was an acute
loss for her. Knowing Bellatrix, I believe the pain it caused her was worse than any other possible punishment." He looked down at the Headmaster's desk for a moment, before going on. "I now sit at the Dark Lord's right hand." There was a tightness in his voice as he said the last statement, as Snape allowed himself to reveal the distaste he felt. "Bellatrix will never forgive me for that."
"But what about Draco? Why does the boy give you so much opposition this year? He used to like you. Certainly his parents favor you."
"His mother, yes, I think so. But Lucius, I would not be surprised if he feels the same as Bellatrix."
"That you've displaced him in Voldemort's favor? That you should have done more?"
"Both. And if Lucius feels that way – well, Draco idolizes Lucius," he said emphatically. "I mean, I would know. For six years, I have been his head of house, and I have been his teacher. He spoke constantly of one of his parents. It was not his mother."
Dumbledore sighed slightly. "I realized that, certainly, Severus. I had hoped, perhaps, he might turn to you as a sort of—"
"Substitute?" Snape glared at Dumbledore as though the Headmaster had made a joke that was in poor taste. “A substitute father, you mean? I think his mother may actually have an idea like that.” He shook his head. "I can hardly think of anything so totally misguided. I'm not you, Dumbledore. I don't have your personal attributes. And I don't believe I have a paternal bone in my body." He added, "And, it hardly matters in any case, considering Draco's attitude towards me."
They continued to sit. Snape, not having been dismissed, waited to be allowed to leave. But Dumbledore appeared lost in thought. After a moment, he gazed over his half-moon glasses and observed, "Narcissa must be having a difficult time. I remember her as a young girl very well. She never finished school, you know. She married Lucius when she was barely of age. There were rumors that she married so early because it was an arranged marriage. But they were untrue. I know that even as a girl, Narcissa had no tolerance whatsoever for being alone, and I always thought that was the reason why she married as early as she did. I always thought it was extremely fortunate that she and Lucius found each other because, whatever else one may say about them, I always felt they were a good match for each other. I was rather worried that if she hadn't married Lucius, she would have married one of the Flints or one of the older Crabbe brothers. Can you imagine that?"
"No," said Snape, quietly.
"You wouldn't remember, of course. You were only eleven or twelve at the time--"
"Sir, why are you talking
"Oh, no particular reason, Severus." The Headmaster turned his attention to his hands, which were steepled in front of him. His shriveled right hand gave them a bizarrely asymmetrical appearance. Snape, wondering whether the old man was pursuing an idea or simply pausing for effect, suppressed his impatience. After several seconds, the old wizard raised his eyes and asked, "Is it possible that Narcissa has developed an interest in you?"
Snape, wondering if he heard correctly, took a moment to respond. "I can only assume that you're joking," he finally answered, very stiffly.
"I was not joking at all," said Dumbledore. "I was merely articulating what my observations and my intuition suggest to me." When Snape continued to stare at him, he continued, "Now I am not so vain as to believe I have any special instinct for such things. But if, by some chance, my– shall we call it a hunch? – turned out to have any substance, I would have particular concerns specific to each of the parties involved. For Narcissa, I think she might be overly motivated by the trait I described. She's been alone for six months, and that may be past what she can tolerate." Snape sat, waiting for the rest. Dumbledore smiled. "For yourself, I fear that you would act automatically, disregarding even your own best interest."
"It saddens me to think – and again, I may be wrong, but I believe not – that you would always turn away from any suggestion of – once again, for want of a better word, intimacy." Snape gripped his chair. "That is not a sacrifice I have ever required of you." Snape, his eyes back on Dumbledore, opened his mouth to protest; but Dumbledore raised his hand. "Don't mistake me, Severus. I have a high degree of respect for both your judgment and your discretion. And I stand in awe, at times, of your artfulness at striking a balance between opposing forces. But what worries me sometimes, is that I see you operate in a state of constant self-deprivation. I do not know one person who functions, day to day, in the same degree of personal danger that you yourself do."
"I survive, as the saying goes, one day at a time, Dumbledore."
"It concerns me that, in all these years, I have never seen that slightest clue that you experience either pleasure or joy. Since, as you say, you live a day at a time, perhaps you should allow yourself what comes to you in the course of a day or a night." He tossed a small book to Snape, which formed an arc and landed open in his hand. Magically highlighted, it read,
soles occidere et redire possunt.
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
Snape mentally translated:
suns can set and rise again
for us, once our brief light has set, there is
but one perpetual night to be slept away.
He read on, aloud, "da mi basia mille, deinde centum
– give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred." He shook his head. "Dumbledore, what is this?"
"The Muggle poet, Catullus. At the end of the day, love and death are in constant tension, always and forever. As you know, Severus, I myself am looking at death. It will come for me, as you predicted yourself, within the next five or six months. Regardless of the means, I will not live to see the end of summer, or the next year's Halloween feast. My sun will have set. But I can tell you this: I go to my death with a lighter heart knowing that, in the course of my long life, I have shared the joys of love with another being." Snape tensed at this, and looked away. "And that is despite the fact that, for me, it ended as badly as it conceivably could have."
Dumbledore seemed to go within himself, as if remembering. Then he pressed on, leaning forward slightly. "As my death approaches, I find myself thinking about the lives of those people who are close to me. This includes yourself. I hope that if you have a woman who sincerely wants you, you will consider carefully before you follow your own very prudent impulse to reject her offer."
Snape lay the book carefully on Dumbledore's desk. In a controlled voice, not looking at the other man, he said, "Headmaster, I've done a great many things for you. For fifteen years, I have done whatever you have asked me. I have not questioned. I have not hesitated." He raised his eyes to meet Dumbledore's. "My private life, how I conduct it. Leave that to me." He rose to leave, but Dumbledore's voice stopped him.
"Any of us could end our days, and very soon, in one of Voldemort's dungeons. Or we could be dead in the blink of an eye. It is possible that you might have occasion to regret, very severely, that you cut off so much of your life."
Snape, taken aback, said, "I have to go." Not waiting to be dismissed, he turned and left the office.
It was after midnight, yet Narcissa, unable to sleep, paced the large drawing room. The year was turning, there were signs of spring, and time was running out. Yet, so far as she knew, Draco was no closer to his goal than he had ever been.
She had received a letter from Severus, informing her of another incident. This time, it was the obnoxious Weasley boy that bore the brunt of it. But the poison had been administered by a professor, Slughorn. So why, why
was Draco under suspicion?
And another thought, nagging and far more disturbing: if the suspicions were true, and Draco was behind this attempt, how could he possibly survive, even with Snape's help, if he were capable of such incompetence?
She stopped suddenly, in the middle of her thousandth transit of the room. She needed to see Severus, to talk to him in person, to find out what exactly
was going on with her son. Snape's face came into her mind, involuntarily, and her pulse quickened.
She summoned her quill, ink, and parchment, and sat down at the long table to write, ignoring a fat packet of unopened letters from Lucius, smuggled out of Azkaban and delivered four days earlier. There was a place Draco mentioned in Hogsmeade; he said the teachers went there. She could suggest meeting him there, for a conference. That would work; it would be fine.
She folded the letter. Now that the decision was made, the letter written, she felt buoyant and euphoric. She enjoyed the feeling even as she realized how idiotic, unseemly, illogical it was. What could she possibly
expect from this man? He was known to have a temperament like acid. He had never been unkind to her, or to Draco, but that might be nothing more than a reflection of his respect for her husband, whose protégé he once was. Furthermore, Severus's own feelings toward her might be complicated by a number of circumstances. He could be bitter or angry that she ever drew him into the Unbreakable Vow. And yet, if he felt badly toward her, why would he go to the trouble of keeping her informed about her son; that was not part of his obligation.
Narcissa felt giddy; she was a fool, and she was about to make herself a bigger one. She pulled out her wand and summoned a tiny bottle, from which she drew a minute amount of scent and applied it to the parchment. Next, she performed a spell to conceal the fragrance from other than the intended recipient. Then, shaking her head at her own folly, she went to find her owl.
Snape folded the letter, placed it within his robe, and headed down the hall with determined strides. There were a few students lingering after their classes, but he ignored them. He walked quickly until he reached the stone gargoyles, to whom he spoke the password.
He found Dumbledore sitting at his desk, puzzling over what looked like a pile of correspondence. The old man looked up at once, surprised.
"Severus? You seem distressed."
"Headmaster. Forgive me, but I need to speak with you."
"Sit down, sit down," said Dumbledore, gesturing graciously. "And what would be so urgent?"
"I received an owl from Mrs. Malfoy just now, asking me to meet her this evening to discuss Draco's progress. At The Three Broomsticks," he added, extracting the letter and handed it over, "of all places."
"I see. But this is odd," said Dumbledore, reading the letter and squinting slightly. "I take it she's never actually been
to The Three Broomsticks."
"I'm guessing not."
"I note that she does not suggest including Draco in this conference. Why ever not?"
"I can't imagine." Dumbledore looked at him. Snape refused to blink. Finally, Snape added, "It's scented."
"Is it really?" asked Dumbledore. He held the parchment close to his nose, and sniffed. When he smelled nothing, he took his wand and flicked it slightly against the parchment, then inhaled again. This time, his expression was appraising. "Ah, Bettencourt's Three. Well, Severus, this would seem to settle the question of whether she likes you. She's willing to expend a precious substance on you. You can't get this outside of Paris, you know, and it's tremendously expensive."
"And you would know this?"
"Certainly." Dumbledore smiled maddeningly over his spectacles. "I'd say you have quite an interesting evening to navigate."
"Well, all right. It's March. Events are working their way towards resolution."
"That they are."
"Do you have any suggestions?"
"That I haven't already given you? I leave it to you own good judgment," Dumbledore replied.
"Headmaster, I don't have time for this," said Snape, a little too sharply. He checked his tone. "I have papers to correct. Potter has detention, which I would have to rearrange, and I don't like to do that. I need to arrange tutoring for half the fifth year if they're ever going to pass their OWLs. I don't have time to make a trip to Hogsmeade tonight." Snape picked up an item on Dumbledore's desk and immediately put it down.
"Severus, I'm overworking you if you can't get away for an hour or two." Dumbledore, watching Snape closely, had noticed that the younger man's hand was shaking. He said kindly, "But as to your other concern, let us not make premature judgments. Narcissa may want nothing more than to have a drink and a conversation with someone who knows Lucius, who knows her situation, and who also understands the unique situation Draco is in and how frightened she is about him."
"Of course, Headmaster," said Snape, permitting himself a slight inflection of sarcasm, which caused Dumbledore to smile. "I have absolutely no doubt that you are correct."
"So, you may find yourself offering a bit of tea and sympathy to your colleague's wife."
"I am not equipped for that."
"Then you will follow your instincts and do what is best, I am sure."
Snape nodded stiffly and turned to leave.
"Oh, and I needed to meet with Harry myself this evening, so it's good that you'll be rescheduling his detention."
Snape nodded grimly and left. If he was going to go to Hogsmeade and get back in time, he would probably have to skip dinner. He headed for his rooms to decide what he would wear.
"Professor," said the mirror in the Seventh Floor faculty bathroom, in an indulgent, vaguely motherly voice, "you really should dry yourself and put some clothes on. You're going to catch your death if you don't."
Snape leaned over a basin, suddenly and inexplicably too sick and weak to stand. The pain hit him instantly, and felt as though his stomach and intestines had suddenly folded in on themselves. He knew instinctively that his nervous system was seizing in rebellion. Or perhaps it was fear. He had to grab a fixture for support as he waited out the misery, until it had passed and he could stand up again.
He allowed himself a glance in the mirror – too pale, too thin,
he thought – before he took a towel and covered himself. He stood against a wall, still breathing heavily, still unnerved. Nothing will happen,
he assured himself. Nothing.
He quickly used a charm to dry himself, then he began to summon his clothes and dressed.
At The Three Broomsticks, Snape stood for fully a minute scanning the crowded, noisy, rather overheated room. She wasn't there. Knowing Narcissa, he couldn't imagine why she had chosen the place; she could not have tolerated it for long. He stepped up to the bar and addressed the barman. "Was there a witch here? Tall, long blonde hair?"
"There was indeed, Professor," said the barman. He leaned in and said, "Snooty bitch. Dunno what she was doin' 'ere, anyway. One o'those pureblood, too-good-to-breathe-the-same-air-as-everybody-else types. She stood in a corner for five minutes, nose in air, and said she was waiting for someone. She didn't look well, but she refused a glass o' water … Then she passed out on the floor! My wife revived her, took her outside fer' some air, then when she felt better, my wife side-along'ed her to the Serpent's Tooth."
The Serpent's Tooth was an inn on the opposite side of Hogsmeade that catered exclusively to 'sensitive' purebloods who found it difficult to mix with those who were not 'their kind.' Even the staff, down to the chambermaids (they were chronically short of house-elves) were required to be pureblood wizards and witches, to ensure that their clientele was spared from association with any other sort. A large number of their Muggle-born and half-blood brethren, who were familiar with Muggle culture, found the name ridiculous. This included Snape, who had attended a summer performance of King Lear with Lily when he was thirteen.
When he arrived, the tall pale desk clerk was examining a ledger. The man raised his nose, sniffed the air, seemingly to smell whether a creature of less than pureblood had entered into his presence. He glanced up briefly, placed a monocle into his right eye, and irritably demanded Snape's business. He then went back to his ledger, not waiting for the answer. When Snape requested Mrs. Malfoy, the clerk asked, still without looking up, "Are you the Healer?" The question was asked in a bored drawl. Clearly, he felt Snape ought to have used the tradesman's entrance.
"Yes," said Snape softly, wishing to keep things simple. When the wizard made no response at all, Snape took his wand, pointed it at the ledger, and whispered "Levilibrum.
" The ledger was instantly suspended twelve feet in the air as the clerk gaped. Snape went on, as though nothing had happened, "I need you to take me to Mrs. Malfoy's room. Then, after I have seen her, I'm going to give a list of ingredients to someone on your staff, and I would like them to be provided immediately. I will need to brew the potion, and you may show me where I may do so." He paused, then asked, "Will there be any problem at all?"
He gestured with his wand and the book dropped with a thud onto the floor. The desk clerk, nervously assuring Snape that there would be no problem, got up from his desk and led him to the room.
Snape paused at the doorway before announcing himself. He heard Narcissa's voice asking him to enter. The room was antique and elegant. She was sitting atop a bedspread decorated by fairies that fluttered and changed their colors. Snape felt her forehead, checked her pulse, and then spoke a brief diagnostic incantation that revealed common ailments: it was negative.
"Exhaustion," he told her. "Possibly also a chill. And really," he went on, "I should never have agreed to meet you at The Three Broomsticks. That was not a place for you." She nodded gravely.
Snape located the Serpent's Tooth Special Guest's Spell for summoning the chambermaid. When the woman arrived, he directed her to put Narcissa to bed with a charm for to keep her warm. Then he went downstairs to see to the potion ingredients.
"What are we going to do, Severus? The time is running out."
Snape sat on the edge of the bed. Narcissa had recovered from her episode, but she looked no better. Her eyes were red, as though from weeping and her hands clutched at each other. The expression on her face was very much as it had been when she arrived at his door at Spinner's End so many months before – stress, terror, and despair. As he did at that earlier time, Snape picked up the glass and placed it in her hand. "Drink this, Narcissa. Please. Now. You need it."
"What is it?"
"A restorative draught. I added some tonic and sedative properties. You need to build yourself up, and you need some rest."
"If I fall asleep, we won't be able to talk about Draco."
"We can talk later. Tomorrow, if you like." He gestured. "Drink it."
"You're a Healer?"
"I know something about it. Drink it."
She took a small sip. "This is awful!"
He gave a thin smile. "It is terrible, yes. But I can't mitigate the taste without affecting the other properties. So you'll have to put up with it. Drink it."
But Narcissa had fallen back onto the pillow, and she was looking up at him. "Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?"
"If you like." There was a chair in the room, an ornate stuffed armchair. Snape shifted, about to push himself off the bed, to sit in the chair, when Narcissa took his hand.
Propping herself on one elbow, the pale woman took a small sip, shook her head with disgust, and lay back down. She rotated his hand so that his palm faced her lips, and kissed it. Snape felt as though a mild stunning spell had gone through him, but he said nothing, and did not move. His eyes went to the door. He willed himself to rise, to walk out it. But he did not move. He continued to sit on the edge of the bed.
Narcissa, looking up at him, gently stroked his hand, and his wrist. Snape, acutely conscious of her touch, shifted his weight. He had to return to Hogwarts. He had papers to grade. He had students. He had to leave immediately. Yet, somehow, he could not make himself move. Narcissa sat up, reached over, and began to kiss him on the throat. Startled, Snape put his hands on Narcissa, intending to seize her gently and move her aside, so that he might leave. But his arms did not obey him. Instead, they twined around her body; and instead of pushing her away, his arms held her tightly against him. And it seemed as though his legs had not strength to stand. He was acutely conscious of the light in the room; that it was too bright. But before he shut his eyes, he saw an expression on Narcissa's face, a look of pleasure and happiness, as she reached inside his robes to embrace him, as she kissed his mouth, as she drew him onto the bed to lie beside her. And the voice in his head that was screaming 'you must not' was overborne.
She wrapped her arms around him tightly as she felt his comforting weight. Narcissa relaxed into a sense of total contentment, of complete safety. She kissed Severus gently on the neck and lay back while he recovered himself. He was utterly spent, unmoving.
Another second went by. Two. She ran her hand through his hair. He did not move. Her own breath began to come slightly, imperceptibly more rapidly with the onset of alarm.
"Severus?" There was no response. But this was not possible. "Severus! Wake up."
She pushed her hand between them, so that it was resting against his heart. Her eyes widened in horror as she felt its rhythm race weakly for several long seconds before it faltered, then slowed, and finally stopped.
The suppressed glee that permeated the Great Hall after breakfast the following day, when Professor Dumbledore made the announcement of Professor Snape's death, was both unseemly and almost palpable. At the Gryffindor table, students had trouble concealing their expressions of good riddance. Harry Potter wore an expression of grim satisfaction.
Ron was heard to wonder, quite happily, "I wonder what happened to him?"
Hermione said, "Really, Ron," and whispered, "Dumbledore's trusted him all these years. He's one of ours, after all."
"Hermione," whispered Ron in response, "you've sat in class and listened to him. He was a cruel mean-spirited bastard. You want to send flowers, go ahead, but I'm not pitching in."
Dumbledore listened carefully as Shacklebolt and Moody described their investigation. Distressed, he had them go over their findings repeatedly, fearing lest some small but important fact be overlooked. As they spoke, he fingered the small vial of Veritaserum that Kingsley handed him while describing how he placed it in the glass of wine he offered Narcissa, and watched her drink, before he questioned her. Shacklebolt was convinced she was had nothing to do with the man's passing. Indeed, although he despised the entire family, Narcissa included, he had to acknowledge that, in this one instance, he felt rather sorry for her. It had to have been a ghastly experience. As to Snape, both Aurors were utterly perplexed. Their best suggestion was some natural cause, possibly an aneurism.
After dismissing the Aurors, Dumbledore left his office and moved through the castle. He walked down many flights of stairs until he arrived in the dungeon where Snape had his office. He looked over the gleaming colors of the potion jars, his mind disturbed by recent events. Was he somehow responsible for Snape's death? Had it been wrong of him to encourage the younger man?
He walked over the Pensieve, which was resting in Snape's office. He had often loaned it to Severus, so that he could remove potentially dangerous thoughts before he went to his assignations with Tom Riddle. Could it contain any clues? Dumbledore glanced at the bowl, then he looked more closely. The calm liquid looked no different than usual, but then, it would not. Drawing his wand, he touched it to the surface, spoke an incantation, and stirred the waters very slightly.
He was somewhat surprised to see the basin form a scene. By the normal laws of the Pensieve's behavior, this scene should have been the last, or nearly the last memory that Snape created.
It was Hogwarts, in, of all places, the rose garden. And it was night, seemingly very late, as only Severus and a few others were stirring. Otherwise, all was still. The moon was not full, but it was either just coming into fullness or had just passed it; the large brightness illuminated the grounds.
The sky and air had a sense of spring – the roses had come into bloom and were giving off a scent that permeated the air; their perfume teased, threatening intoxication to come. Dumbledore impulsively touched a soft bloom as, to his left, his eyes fell upon Snape – except that he appeared to be no more than seventeen or eighteen. This was a memory of his youth, then.
Snape was watching, concealed by heavy blooms, completely rapt. He must, thought Dumbledore, have left his common room to retrieve a book or a potion ingredient – Severus was notorious for studying late – and seen the others by purest chance, and then hastened to follow. Dumbledore watched him shiver slightly in a black t-shirt and threadbare sweat pants, and bare feet. The Headmaster saw no wand; Severus had each hand on the stem of a rosebush as he stood in complete, intense silence, watching and listening to the others.
"I could be asleep, Pad." James Potter yawned, scratching his uncombed black hair.
"No, I want an answer." Black was fully dressed. (The instigator, thought Dumbledore)
"What business is it of yours?" Potter faced Black, looking both humorous and defiant, a huge black cloak revealing pajama bottoms.
"Sirius?" came a small, tentative voice.
"Shut up, Peter. I think you should knock off Evans, Potter." Sirius tone was calm, measured, definite.
"What? What? What are you talking about, Sirius?" There was a hint of defiance creeping into Potter's voice.
"Okay, Prongs, here it is." Potter sat down with an exaggerated air of giving Black his full attention. "I've been dating Mary McDonald, who, as you well know, is Evans's best friend."
"So, what she tells me is that all your efforts to impress Evans have started to pay off. And she has started to really like you."
Potter's tone changed. He sounded almost humble. "Really?"
"So I've heard. And you've been out with her, now, what, three times?"
"So I promised Mary I'd have a talk with you. What exactly are your intentions with Evans?"
"What?" Potter stared, his tone offended.
Dumbledore glanced at Severus, who stood like a statue, except that he was breathing rapidly and his hands were beginning to constrict against the rose branches.
"I mean, if you're planning to get as much as you can, and then drop her--"
"I don't do that."
Sirius recited, "Helen Vance. Marian Krober. Alice Hazelton. Delphinia Moody. Want me to go on?"
"No, and what's your point? That was all different."
"My point is, Evans is different from all those other girls, and she really likes you." He hesitated before going on. "Also, you might say I'm looking out for you. Because Evans will hex you from here to China if you, um, abuse her affections. Of course, in that case I might have to help her do it."
Severus blinked, swaying slightly, and grasped the bushes more tightly, unmindful of the thorns, never removing his eyes from the young men in front of him.
"Damn it, Pad" – James grabbed Sirius arm and pulled him close enough to whisper into his ear while Peter stood by with a disgruntled expression on his face. As he whispered, Sirius began to smile and shake his head with incredulity. When James let go of his arm, Sirius turned to face him.
In the muted light of the moon, Dumbledore saw blood beneath Severus's right hand that was pressed onto the rosebush.
"All right, mate, if you're serious about that – because I don't see you as a one woman man."
"Well, you're going to be wrong."
"Fine, Prongs, my man." He seemed to consider for a moment, then turned to Peter.
"Peter, get your wand out." Peter, confused but obedient, took out his wand.
In a single gesture, Sirius, grinning, grabbed James right hand in his own and Peter's wand hand in his left. He held Peter by the wrist, holding his hand so that Peter's wand touched his hand.
James, seeing what he was doing, tried to pull away, but Sirius held tighter; and, after a moment of hand-wrestling, managed to rotate his hand and hold it still so that Peter's wand touched the point where both hands joined.
"Okay, mate. Moment of truth. Do you promise to be faithful to Lily Evans from this day forth, forsaking all others?"
Dumbledore looked at Severus. He was gripping each rosebush so tightly that the thorns had pierced both hands, causing blood to run down the bushes and onto his wrists. Utterly oblivious, Severus watched James and Sirius, as they contemplated their spell. His eyes were wet, although not, Dumbledore knew, from pain. He continued to shift his weight in a manner that put Dumbledore in mind of a horse that was about to bolt.
Then James, furious with exasperation, spat, "You
have a lot of bloody nerve, Black!"
Sirius ignored his friend's tone and continued as before. "Are you ready to put your money where your mouth is, James Potter. One more time: do you promise to be faithful to Lily Evans from this day forth, forsaking all others?"
"I'm willing to make my promise to Lily. I'm not giving in to extortion, you sick git."
"All right, James. Last time, or I will personally
tell Lily I tried to get you to say you'd be faithful, but you kept worming out of it."
"You're cutting off my circulation, you bastard."
"Do you promise to be faithful to Lily Evans, from this day forth, forsaking all others?"
For several seconds, there was silence. Then, just has James was releasing his grip, Severus burst out from behind the rosebush, taking three long strides to where Peter and Sirius stood. He grabbed Peter's wand, barely touching Sirius's hand in the process, and whispered rather than spoke the words "I do." His blood stained Peter's wand and Sirius's hand, although neither yet realized it. In a barely audible voice but still gripping the wand, he said, "Faithful. Lily. Forever."
There was again a pause, during which Sirius and James appeared too amazed to move and Peter simply puzzled. Then a wire of flame came from Peter's wand and wound around Severus's and Sirius's hands, coiling in a strange spiral before it evaporated into the air.
In the moonlight, it seemed to Dumbledore that Severus's intense face appeared somehow beatified, as he stood in the receding shock of the moment. In a second, he recovered himself enough to run away, and Sirius and James roared with laughter.