Disclaimer: The characters here and the world they inhabit are the creation and property of JK Rowling and her assigns.
Draco was glad to have the garden as an excuse to escape the house the next morning. Mother was gleaming with accomplishment when she arrived to gloat over Aunt Andie's many admirers. Professor Snape was in pain from so much exertion and from getting a chill in the nighttime air. Even from the garden, Draco could hear him roar at Mother to stop prattling on about Aunt Andie's prospects. If he strained his ears, he could make out Aunt Andie. She would either be trying to soothe Snape or remonstrate with Mother, perhaps both in the same breath.
Hermione arrived, looking fresh and smartly cheerful. Draco wanted her to stop so he could look for just a minute. “You don't want to go in there.”
He was rewarded, but briefly. “Why not?”
“He's not feeling well and it's making him mad. Mother can't stop talking, and it's making him even madder.”
“Maybe he won't mind me.” She couldn't help saying it archly. She remembered certain looks exchanged across the ballroom the night before.
Draco shrugged as he trimmed a vine and tied the remaining branch to a trellis. “Don't say I didn't warn you.”
Hermione walked down the hall to Snape's room and heard Draco's mother say, “Well if you're going to be so rude, Severus, I'll leave and then you'll have one less visitor while you're not feeling well.” She flowed out of the room. A minute or two later, a door of the house closed.
“Good riddance. Why did she have to come, anyway?” he muttered. “And why is she constantly trying to marry you off to someone?”
“It's the family pastime, Severus, to play matchmaker to unsuspecting pure-bloods. You're lucky to only be half.”
“You don't need a matchmaker.”
“Of course not. One match to a customer.”
“Just one?” Andromeda had finally gotten him under the covers, but now he raised up on an elbow.
“You're making yourself crazy. Calm down.”
“I don't want to calm down. I want to finish the discussion we were having last night. I need to know—”
Hermione looked over at the bed, where Andromeda was finally succeeding in fluffing Severus's pillows and smoothing his bedclothes over him. She was speaking calmly and soothingly to him. “I've got a potion that will help you rest and that's all you really need right now.”
“I need you.”
“I'm right here, Severus, and look, Hermione is here to visit.”
“Why didn't you say so?” came petulantly from the bed. Hermione took that as her cue to move forward.
“I'm here, Professor.”
“Oh... Hermione...” He tried to sit up and look full of energy, but it was easily a losing battle. “What were we working on?”
The girl looked at the older witch helplessly. Andromeda quickly said, “Severus, I think you were planning to take a day off today... perhaps read the paper and chat together?” She handed the professor a small glass with a pale rose-colored potion in it.
“Hm, I think you're right. That's what I recall,” he said. He took the glass and drank its contents. As he handed it back he smiled up at Andromeda and quietly said, “Thank you, my dove.”
Andromeda patted his hand and stepped away from the bed, saying, “I'm sure Miss Granger can tell you all about what happened at the ball while I clear this away. I'll bring the newspaper when I return.”
As she passed by, she saw the slight frown on the younger witch's face and whispered. “He's so unwell that he doesn't know what he's saying. Just start talking. I expect that he'll be asleep by the time I get back. I'll bring the newspaper just in case.”
When she peeked back in the room, Severus was asleep and Hermione was watching him. “He went right to sleep, just like you said. What was he saying? What were you talking about last night?”
This was the question Andromeda had hoped to avoid. “We talk about a great many things, I'm sure,” she prevaricated smoothly. “I imagine there's something that stuck in his mind and tomorrow he won't even remember. You were just as lovely as could be last night,” she said by way of additional misdirection.
“Thank you! I thought you were quite good-looking, yourself. All the older wizards seemed to think so. They made quite a mob around you.”
Andromeda laughed. “Perhaps. Some were old friends who truly wanted to get reacquainted. Others probably thought I was Trixie, back from the dead. Still others probably want to see the balance sheet of the Rosier trust fund that comes to me.”
“You can't be too suspicious, I suppose.”
Hermione sat quietly for a minute, clearly debating something within herself. Finally a side won. “Why did he call you his dove?”
The answer was a rueful snort. “It used to be my Patronus, but now it's just a fuzzy bird. I think calling me that is his way of mocking me. I'm not as talented a witch without Ted. Nymphadora lost her morphing abilities right after Sirius died, when Remus wouldn't talk to her. I guess it's in the family to lose control of our magic when we're unhappy in love.”
Something else bothered the younger witch. “Why was he so much better yesterday and now so poorly again?”
“Poppy thinks that he was feeling well enough that the excitement of the event allowed him to pretend to feel perfectly fine. She said it will actually be a few more months before the effects of the snake venom completely wear off.”
“Is he going to be like this for a while, now?”
“No, Poppy just thinks he's suffering a little bit of a setback from too much exertion. In a few days he'll recover to about what he was like before the ball, and he'll continue to improve from there.”
Andromeda watched confidence return to the other witch's face and felt relieved. She had no idea what Severus really wanted, but she felt a guilty need to protect Hermione from hurt. Whether his attentions to her were sincere or simply a means of passing the time, she would deflect them as much as possible so that the future Narcissa had outlined might proceed.
Madam Malfoy was greatly heartened by the attention generated by her sister at the ball, and she began her campaign that week. She brought an eligible wizard every couple of days to have tea. For some reason no one could quite understand, she felt it was her duty to find an attachment for her sister. The bachelors had to be within a certain age range, pure-blooded, and with a certain amount of personal wealth. Of course, they didn't have to measure up to the Malfoy level. It might even be better if they didn't. After all, Narcissa wanted to keep her prestige within the family. Yet the men involved were expected to keep within certain parameters for a Black, even one whose first marriage made her a bit off-color.
Andromeda was already busy working with the Slytherin students, but kindly fed all these wizards their tea. She was assisted by the teens, who helped her fix sandwiches by the dozen, bake batches and batches of biscuits, and use the larger water kettle to brew all the tea necessary. After a word here and there with Draco, the students seemed to think it was their duty to help Mrs. Malfoy to straighten out Mrs. Tonks's life. Having been trained in pure-blood mating rituals since early childhood, this was a part of their world they could understand.
Andromeda was bewildered but accepted that this was now part of her life. It was ridiculous to her, but it seemed to make Cissy happy. The extra cooking and baking really wasn't a problem, but at some point she would have to go to the cellar and assess the damage to Uncle Alphard's wine collection. She wasn't sure where Narcissa found all of these men. By the look of things, a few went far between decent meals. Perhaps whoever gave Narcissa hints about their wealth was not being completely honest.
The students were surprising. There had been some difficult moments along the way, when she had been accused of being a blood traitor. Then again, the students had felt annoyed by what they saw as an intrusion into their lives. They were good at looking for opportunities to improve their situations, however, and quickly realized that Severus and Andromeda could teach them things. Andromeda was particularly surprised and touched by the amount of time Millicent Bulstrode wanted to spend in her kitchen. She was particularly good at baking and surprisingly capable at knitting, once shown the rudiments of the skill.
Severus fumed at the entrance of the interlopers, as he thought of Narcissa's parade of bachelors. Fortunately, Andromeda gave no indication that she returned admiration to any of them. It was scant consolation, since she gave no indication that she returned his admiration, either. All he had to go on was the kiss they had exchanged in the garden under the stars. Since that time, she had been careful to ensure that they were never alone. Perhaps that was a good sign.
Hermione came on her visits and worried as she left. Her professor was as perpetually angry as her hostess appeared to be serene. Andromeda encouraged the young witch to spend time in the kitchen, which allowed Hermione to pick up household spells. She remarked once or twice upon Severus's anger.
“I wouldn't worry about it,” said Andromeda. “Convalescing people tend to get angry when they feel ready to resume their normal life but their bodies aren't quite ready to back them up. In a few months, he'll be in a much better mood.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I'm sure of it. Poor Alastor was the same way as he recovered, in that very same room.”
“Do you mean Mad-eye?”
Andromeda laughed. “Yes, although we knew him for a while before the accident that changed his name.”
Hermione reflected that Andromeda must be old, if she knew Mad-eye Moody before his injuries. Somehow that thought was reassuring. She had started to pick up a certain sensation between Severus and Andromeda, but surely he wouldn't be interested in someone so motherly.
Of course, a mother would be useful. There was something else she wanted to talk over with someone. Maybe this was the time and place. “My parents say they want me to come for Christmas, after all.”
The older witch's happiness was genuine. “That's wonderful news! Have you made your plans, yet?”
“I'm pretty sure I'm going for a whole month. I'm just sort of worried. What if it doesn't work out?”
Andromeda nodded sympathetically. “I know what you mean. It would be nice to have some plan for a way to smooth things over, wouldn't it?”
“If you think of something, let me know.”
Andromeda finally got tired of her sister's endless line of eligible men and asked her to simply have one event to which she could invite several of the wizards she had in mind. “After that, nothing until the holidays are over, Cissy. This is exhausting.”
Narcissa acquiesced. Andromeda had been accommodating and perhaps she would find a wizard soon. If not, there was always the new year. She planned the afternoon in question like a general marshaling troops for a major siege.
Narcissa brought her own house-elves over to help, despite the outraged cries of Andie's pampered Birdie. The house was decorated over Andromeda's outraged cries, and her cries became howls as her sister sent her up the stairs with new robes. An hour later, the younger sister walked through the dining room and drawing room, nodding to herself. Everything was ready. The house looked grander than it ever had, the food was perfect, and the guest of honor—Narcissa looked around and couldn't find her sister.
“Draco, go tell your aunt that the guests will arrive at any moment.” She looked out the window. “In fact, a particular guest is already here.”
The young wizard went up the stairs and knocked on the door. “Aunt Andie, mother says you need to come down now.”
He heard a voice saying something like, “I don't think I can, Ted. No one could replace you.”
“Here, let me try.” Draco turned and saw who was standing next to him. He decided to go down the stairs.
“Andromeda Black, open the door this minute.”
Behind his back he heard a muttering, an Alohomora, and a shriek as his grandmother breached his aunt's bedroom door. He didn't wait to see what would happen next. He had peeked around enough corners in his own home to know.
“Mother, I'm warning you...”
“Ah, my dear, don't you look lovely in that robe. You still have your looks.”
“Whatever happened to your birthday jewels? They would be brilliant against the black. I really should congratulate Narcissa on hosting this party.”
“Mother, if you don't leave my bedroom, I'm not coming down.”
“Yes, you are, my dear, because if you don't, I'll just send the richest of them up here, and it will all be over as far as society cares.”
“You can't do that.”
“Narcissa checked into it for me. It appears that even at your age, I have the right to arrange a marriage for an unmarried daughter. There's a gentleman coming who was a few years behind me at Hogwarts. A Hufflepuff of course, but then you seem to like them. At least his blood is pure.”
“Mother, you wouldn't...”
Druella Black fixed her daughter with a stare. “I will do what must be done for the family, and if I decide that means you should marry Barnaby Fudge, then the contract will be signed.” There was a silence and Andromeda waved a hand, opening the chest on her dresser. “That's my good girl. My, I'd forgotten just how beautiful this necklace is...”
Half an hour later, Andromeda was standing in the hallway. Her mother and sister greeted guests as though the cottage belonged to them. They flattered the mothers and sisters of the visiting wizards shamelessly and passed the wizards themselves on to her. Behind her back, she heard a running commentary.
“Have you ever seen anything quite so sad, Draco?”
“What do you mean?”
“If your mother and grandmother have their way, your poor aunt will be forced into an arrangement with one of these upstanding citizens. Look at that one. He's barely standing up as it is.”
Draco snickered, causing his aunt to turn and give both wizards a glare.
“Aha, here comes one who supposedly has one of the largest vaults in Gringotts. However, it's said that his first wife was quite disappointed to discover his lack of assets on their wedding night.”
Draco couldn't hold back the laughter until his mother turned and looked at him. He resolved to be better behaved, but Professor Snape had endless remarks to make, commenting upon every wizard who arrived to visit Aunt Andie.
From Narcissa's point of view, the party was a success. The wizards were all dashing and Andromeda was more charming than her sister had ever seen her. She wore sapphires that Cissy hadn't seen in twenty-five years along with a black set of robes that set off her pleasing figure. She sat where she was told and smiled gratifyingly. She poured the tea and kept the plates of the wizards filled. Narcissa sighed with relief. Her sister would soon return to pure-blood respectability and it would be to her credit.
The only trouble was Severus. He stood near the door and frowned at everyone, making snide comments left and right. Andromeda said his convalescence was difficult on him, but enough was enough. Narcissa finally encouraged Draco to take him to the garden. Both wizards looked to Andromeda for clemency, but she shrugged helplessly. With the disruptive influence gone, the afternoon progressed beautifully. When the tired Narcissa finally went home, she was delighted with the results.
Severus was tired of Narcissa's constant stream of eligible older bachelor wizards. He had grown tired of the way Andromeda slipped out of his room as soon as she finished a task. He was tired of the ache he felt within himself, wondering if she felt the same way. He decided to take a positive step forward.
After the visitors finally left, he sought her out and found her in the sitting room. “Andromeda, I would like to speak with you.”
She looked up in surprise and a little apprehension as he sat next to her on the couch. He softened his tone. “What are you doing?”
She shrugged. “I just sat down for a few minutes. It's been so hectic, lately, with all the visitors.”
“You can make it stop.”
“Narcissa seems to think it's important, and my mother is threatening to sign a marriage contract on my behalf.”
“Can she do that?”
She shrugged again. “Cissy says she can. It has something to do with an unmarried daughter.”
“You've been married, though. As a widow, you should have your own rights.”
“I can only hope.”
“You should probably see someone who can advise you on the law.”
They sat in silence for a while, and she sighed. “I wonder what it's like.”
“You wonder what what's like?”
“I wonder what it's like to have a mother who just loves you, who lets you do what you want, not that she would spoil you, but who's supportive and... and...”
“Someone to rely upon?”
She nodded. “At least not someone I have to question, legally.”
“I don't know, Andromeda, but I believe your children have known.”
She turned and looked at him with a whisper of a smile on her face. “Thank you.”
“My mother had too many of her own troubles to be that sort of person for me.”
“Don't be. My dove, you've been that person for me since I've been here, but I confess I don't think of you as a mother.”
She looked up in surprise. “Oh...”
One of her hands fluttered. He captured it within both of his. She looked at him again.
“Tell them you found someone. Tell them to stop bothering you.” He brought her hand to his lips and then turned it.
She closed her eyes and let out her breath as he kissed the palm of her hand. “It wouldn't be true.”
He held her arm gently as he kissed the inside of her wrist and started moving toward her elbow. “You've found me, my dove, and I've found you.” She shook her head, and he chuckled. “You don't think so? Why do you tremble when I do this? Why do you sigh with pleasure?”
“Maybe I do, but it's just not possible.”
“You have a future.”
“I have a present, and I intend to live it fully before worrying about some shadowy future.”
He reached her elbow, and wrapped an arm around her waist. “I want to make love to you, my dove. I want to bring you life and joy after all you have suffered. Let me be the one you can rely upon. Let me care for you. Let us share this.”
Somehow she managed to put some space between them. “And then you will go when your future comes. Where will that leave me, Severus?” Her face was troubled. “I'll be all alone again. Cissy wants me to have a future of my own.”
“With one of those men who keep talking about your trust fund and potential for childbearing?”
She sighed. “Where did you hear that now?”
“They talked a lot about it in small groups all over the garden. What would you tell me if I asked?”
She shrugged. “My trust fund is in good fiscal health. My potential for childbearing...” She shook her head. “Let's just say it's extremely doubtful.” She sighed and looked toward one of the windows. “I guess I'm a good prospect for an aging widower whose many children are already fighting over his estate.” She tried to chuckle, but it sounded like a sob. “I think I should adjust to being alone. I have Teddy to care for, after all.”
His hands moved to slide back over her hips. “You'll never be alone if I have anything to say about it, Andromeda.” He grasped at her in vain as she stood and edged toward the door.
“I can't, Severus. You should consider what you will wish to have done when your future does start. You should consider what the witch in your future will hope about you.”
“My dove, I assure you—”
“Just think about it, Severus. It's more than just the pleasure of a moment or even some short period of time. It's your whole life.”
He came upon her again that night, when she stood outside watching the stars. “I've thought about it.”
“Then you know that it cannot be.”
“I know nothing of the sort,” he responded. He leaned down and tasted her lips. She was so surprised, she was unable to close her mouth firmly. As a result, she was kissed thoroughly. For a moment, she forgot. She only knew the joy of sharing such a moment with another person. She moaned and allowed it, allowed him to take glorious advantage of a weak moment.
The ache within her became unbearable. Oh, how she missed it. She wanted this, all of it. Something within her shifted and she threw herself in his arms, pressing against him, her body making promises that it longed to fulfill. He pulled her tight to himself and she rediscovered the joy of merging herself to him.
Except that it wasn't him. This wasn't her husband. This was a different body, different arms. The lips that kissed hers came from a different angle. It was the man who wanted to become her lover, but who had other commitments and could never be her husband.
She pulled away and covered her mouth with a hand. She counted ten before she was able to start breathing again. “I'm so sorry, Severus. I lost—” What did she lose? Did she lose control, her senses, her mind? She shook her head. “I wasn't myself. It won't happen again. I won't let myself forget that you have a future, and I must content myself with memories of the past.”
She started to move away, but he put his hand on her arm. “It will happen again,” he whispered. “You know it will. We can't be alone without it happening, and you know that. It's why you've been avoiding me. We want each other, Andromeda. If I tried to force the issue, you wouldn't refuse me.”
She should say something, deny it, but the thought of his hands on her bare skin came over her in a wave. He was still talking. “I won't do that. I can tell that you're still mourning your husband. I'll wait, my dove. I'll wait until you're ready. It won't be long.”
She turned and looked at him. She should say something, reassert her fidelity to Ted. She could only open and shut her mouth until she felt idiotic. Still searching for an answer, she turned and went to the house.
A/N: Thank you for such kind reviews! Thank you, too to Trickie Woo for beta reading!