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Return to Prince Manor by Snapegirl
Chapter 74 : The Precious Gift
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 21


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Nesmay hummed an old fae tune as she carefully washed baby Toria in the kitchen sink. The baby enjoyed the warm water, delicately scented with lavender and honey soap, which was tearless. Nesmay had placed her upon a huge bath sponge, which was soft against her delicate skin, and proceeded to wash her with a soft flannel that Severus used upon his glass vials, it was non-scratchy and when wet, like the softest selkie pelt.

Nesmay showed the baby how to splash with her small hands and blow bubbles. The fae girl giggled and sang silly songs to Toria that she recalled her wood sprite nurse, Nanny Bayberry, singing to her when she was little. "All around the raspberry bush, Robin Goodfellow chased that weasel! But nary a hair could he catch . . . until . . . Pop! . . . he got that weasel!" With every pop, Nesmay popped a large bubble above Toria's head, making the infant wave her hands and squeal.

"You like that do you, sweetling?" laughed the older girl. "I used to make Nanny Bayberry sing that to me over and over. You know, there really is a Robin Goodfellow too, only he prefers to be called Puck, and he's the queen's fool, because he always tells her the truth, no matter how unflattering it is, and can always make her laugh with his silly jokes. He taught me all about how to prank my stupid cousin Malchiar. And I'll teach you how to prank your big brothers, 'cause we girls have to stick together, right? Right?"

Nesmay tickled the baby's belly, making Toria squeak loudly.

"Hey, what's going on in here?" asked Draco, padding into the kitchen. "Great Merlin, Nesmay!" he gasped. "What on earth are you doing?"

The girl placed a hand upon the baby and turned her head. "Giving her a bath, what's it look like?"

"But . . . but . . . she's too little for that!" her oh-so-wise elder brother cried. "She could drown or catch pneumonia or something!"

Nesmay rolled her eyes. "Draco, for Merlin's sake! She's on a sponge, not in the water, it floats, dinglehead! See? And I'm right here, making sure she doesn't tip off. And it's very warm out, over seventy degrees, so she won't catch cold! Honestly!"

Draco placed his hands on his hips, giving Nesmay a patented glare of disapproval. "Did Julie say you could give her a bath? Why didn't you wait?"

"Yes, Julie said I could. And if I'd waited till you decided to get your lazy behind out of bed, I'd be bathing her right when your parents came home," his sister informed him tartly.

"Why's she need a bath? She doesn't look dirty to me."

"Boys! She's nearly a week old, of course she needs a bath!" Nesmay nearly threw up her hands in disgust, recalling at the last minute that she should be watching her charge. "I mean, I know boys can go for days without seeing soap and water, but she's a girl and that's just . . . gross!"

"Hey! I take a shower almost every day!" objected Draco.

"Hooray for you! It's a miracle." Nesmay shot back sarcastically. Then she grabbed a large velvety soft towel from the counter and gently placed baby Victoria on it. After rubbing her dry, Nesmay applied some baby lotion and dressed her in an adorable mint green dress with matching fuzzy socks. "There, love! Now you're all ready to greet Mama and Papa when they come home today," she announced, cuddling the baby.

"What do you mean, when they come home today?" Draco repeated. "Is Mum better then?"

Nesmay smirked at the baby before drawling insolently, "Didn't you get the memo, my lord Dragon? Oh, I forgot, you were sleeping."

"What memo? Nesmay, you little pest! When did you find out?"

"About fifteen minutes ago, when a shimmerling arrived. They should be arriving here . . . oh . . . in about an hour or so, after they finish having breakfast with Gram."

"An hour? Ahh . . . bloody hell!" swore the other, glancing about at the mess the house was in. Then he whirled and ran down the hall, shouting, "Harry! Get your arse up, we have to clean the house before Mum and Dad come home!"

"I told him they should've done that last night," whispered Nesmay smugly into Toria's ear. Then she sat down and began to feed the baby her second morning bottle, the first having been given at six in the morning.

Page~*~*~*~*~Break

After a rather reluctant Harry had been rousted out of bed by Draco and commandeered into cleaning the house, which didn't take all that long since the boys used magic to do so, they rushed to get dressed. Finally all of them were presentable and awaiting their parents' arrival.

When Severus stepped through the door into the manor, he felt all at once a sense of relief and comfort at finally coming home. Here at the manor, Sarai could recover from her ordeal fully, and he could find once more a sense of equilibrium. Or so he hoped. One eyebrow raised as he saw how sparkling clean it was, and his mouth quirked upwards in a pleased smile. At least his children had remembered to keep the house neat. A rarity with most teenagers he could name.

Then he was surrounded by his offspring, old and new. "Welcome home, Dad!" Harry said, hugging him. Severus was surprised that his son was as tall as his shoulder now, and perhaps might even attain his father's height one day. He hugged Harry back. Draco came next, and his blond adopted son could, almost, look him in the eye. Then Nesmay, his half-fae ward, slender as an aspen but livelier than a shimmerling. Her, he lifted off her feet in a hug, and she laughed and threw her arms about his neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I missed you, Severus!"

"As I did you, hedgehog princess," he answered, setting her back on her feet.

Only to be set upon again by a very rambunctious Cafall, who bayed and licked his face, clearly excited enough to forget the manners Severus had drilled into him.

Severus ruffled the ecstatic dog's ears and thumped him on the side before ordering him to "Sit!" and then to "Stay!" The dog immediately obeyed, but his eyes were glowing with delight.

Then he turned to see his youngest, who was being held in the arms of her mother.

Sarai had a look of adoration and love upon her face that he had only seen once before . . . on their wedding day. Then it had been directed full force at him. He glanced down at the child she held so lovingly, noting the dark crown of hair, and the changing blue-green eyes, tiny snub nose, and rosebud mouth. She was sucking one fist and looking up at her mother with curiosity. So small, so innocent. He felt his heart seize with an overwhelming need to protect.

"You've grown so much!" Sarai was crooning to her daughter, her bright green eyes luminous with tears. "Sev, look at her! She must weigh about ten pounds by now! Isn't she the most beautiful thing?"

He nodded. "Of course. She takes after her mother." He gently reached out to run a finger down her cheek. "I believe she's going to have your eyes, Sarai. Green as new spring."

"We'll see," the former Blade said, and she walked into the den and sat down, cradling her baby close. "How was she? Did she sleep for you? Was she colicky?" she asked her older children.

Draco, Harry, and Nesmay were quick to fill her in on how well-behaved Victoria was and how much they had enjoyed looking after her, even Draco, once he got used to her.

Severus stood beside the doorway and watched the homey scene, only now he was stricken with guilt and sorrow. Sarai should have held another baby in her arms also. The fact that she did not pierced him to the quick, and suddenly he felt his head begin to throb and he could not bear to be among them, not with the terrible image of his lifeless son in his arms.

He turned quickly and fled to his chambers down the hall, all the joy in his homecoming gone.

Harry looked up from his baby sister and noticed that Severus was gone. "Where's Dad?"

Sarai glanced about, also noticing her husband's absence, and murmured, "He's probably gone to shower and have a nap. He hasn't been sleeping well these past few days, he's been too worried over me. I wouldn't be surprised if he was passed out cold on the bed by now. He needs sleep badly." Then she turned back to playing with her daughter. "I, on the other hand, have slept for far too long and been neglecting you, my sweet one." She bent and kissed the baby on the forehead. Victoria gurgled and reached out a tiny fist to grasp her mother's dark curls. Sarai winced, then chuckled. "A good strong grip. Suitable to wield wand or sword as you choose, eh?"

"How are you feeling, Mum?" Draco asked.

"I am much better," Sarai reassured her blond son. "Though I still miss Alexander, I know he is in a better place, in good hands." She then went on to tell the others about her vision and how Aislinn had come to advise and reassure her.

"You really saw my mother?" Nesmay asked, her tone soft with awe, her eyes sparkling with sudden tears.

"Yes, child, I did. She sends her love and is glad that you have found a home with us," Sarai answered, gently patting the girl on the shoulder. "I know Aislinn will watch over my son as I shall her daughter."

"I'm glad, Sarai," Nesmay murmured, then she clung to the older woman, weeping.

Draco coughed, uncomfortable with tears, and said quickly, "Well, I'm going down by the lake. I think a meal of freshly fried trout is in order to celebrate your return home." He looked over at Harry, who also seemed uncomfortable. "Want to help, Harry?"

"Hmm . . .oh, sure." His brother answered absently, his mind was on the way his father had looked when he had seen Victoria. Severus had had the strangest expression on his face . . . astonishment mixed with pain. Harry couldn't understand why his father would look like that upon seeing the baby. Then he shrugged. Sarai, was right, his father was just tired. Harry was sure that when Severus woke up, he would love Victoria like the rest of them did, without half trying.

Harry Summoned his fishing pole with a wave of his wand, then followed Draco out the back door.

Sarai gently stroked Nesmay's spiked hair as the girl wept against her. The baby in her other arm began to whimper, not liking the fact that Nesmay was distressed. Even at such a young age, she's perceptive, Sarai mused, making a funny face at the baby. Toria suddenly belched loudly. "Goodness!" her mother laughed.

Nesmay sat up, dashing a hand over her eyes. "Sorry." She swiped her face with her sleeve. "I don't mean to act like a ninnyhead."

"Nesmay, if I had just found out that my long-dead mother had given a message to my stepmother that she loved me, I'd be crying too." Sarai said matter-of-factly. She fished in a pocket and handed Nesmay a handkerchief.

"I probably look a fright, as Gran would say," Nesmay rubbed her face with the cloth. She scowled down at her hands. "I shouldn't let my emotions run away with me. Gran always told me that a Highstar should maintain decorum at all times."

"I'm sure the queen would understand this once, Nesmay. Aislinn was her favorite daughter, you know, and she misses her still. You know, Titania once said to me that decorum was all well and good in the throne room, but in her private chambers she was free to scream, throw things, and cry just like everyone else."

"She did? I . . . can't picture her ever doing any of those things."

Sarai smirked. "I can. For she did, and I shared a cup of honey wine with her many a time afterward."

Nesmay's golden eyes widened.

"So you see, here at home no one will scold or laugh at you for indulging yourself in honest emotions, Nesmay."

"But . . . a Highstar is supposed to be brave."

"Even the bravest warrior cries," Sarai told her. "I know that better than any." She shifted Victoria in her arms. "I thank you, Nesmay, for taking such good care of Victoria for us. You and your brothers acted with great responsibility and maturity and I'm proud of you. So is Severus."

Nesmay felt as if she had won the laurel crown for excellence upon hearing those words. "I gave her a bath this morning. It was fun."

"Indeed. You'll have to show me how it's done."

"Don't you know?"

"I confess, I'm a novice when it comes to doing more than holding and dressing her," admitted the warrior wryly.

"I can show you. It's not hard."

"I bow to your expertise, Lady Highstar," Sarai said gravely.

Nesmay grinned. To have Sarai, one of the best warriors ever to dwell in the palace, praise her this way was no small achievement.

Page~*~*~*~*~Break

Together the two brothers caught about ten trout, a good enough number to feed everyone and have some for second helpings. Draco claimed he had caught more fish than Harry, six to his four, and Harry generously allowed him to say so, even if one of them had had to be thrown back. Harry was not in a mood to quarrel over something so trivial, he was too happy at the homecoming.

"No more getting up at the crack of dawn," Draco was saying as he cleaned the fish with a handy charm. "Finally I can sleep a bit before school starts."

Harry chuckled. "Yeah, you really need your beauty sleep, don't you?"

"Shut up, Harry." Draco mimed throwing a fish tail at him. "All I can say is I hope Dumbledore hires a decent Defense professor this year, and not an idiot, an incompetent jackass, or a crazy bastard."

"I wish he'd hire Dad."

"Yeah. Or Mum, for that matter." Draco said feelingly. "Either of them would be brilliant. With Old Tom gone, he can afford to hire someone who knows what they're doing, since the post isn't cursed any longer."

"That's right. I'd forgotten about the curse and that's why no Defense professor ever lasts more than a year. So . . . do you think he'd give it to Dad?"

Draco shrugged. "Who knows? He could . . . I guess it depends on whether he could find a replacement Potions Master. That's not an easy subject to teach either."

"I guess we'll find out when school starts." Harry remembered something else. "Hey, this is our OWL year and the year new prefects are chosen. Think you'll be one?"

Draco considered. "Maybe. It's not like I don't have the ability. You either, Phoenix. I don't know who picks them, though."

"I think Dumbledore does, with suggestions from the Head of House. At least that's what Katie told me."

"Speaking of girlfriends . . . have you told Katie yet about losing Alex?"

Harry shook his head. "No, but maybe I ought to. I wrote to Aunt Petunia and Uncle Sirius. Katie will flay me raw if I keep it from her. I just haven't had time to write while taking care of the baby."

"Me neither. But now we do, thank Merlin! I'll send Hermione a note after supper."

Harry nodded, then he rose and picked up his string of cleaned fish, hopped on his broom and flew back to the manor. It was good to have his parents back where they belonged. Perhaps now things could return to normal.

Page~*~*~*~*~*~Break

As Sarai had predicted, Severus had gone to shower and take a long nap, seeking solace in sleep. He slept for several hours. Upon waking, he saw his wife seated in the rocker, feeding their daughter. For long moments, all he did was watch them, his beloved warrior and the single surviving twin. The heartwarming domestic scene should have filled him with peace and joy. Part of him did feel that way. But another part felt fear mingled with guilt. What if he failed to protect Toria from something and she died? He knew he could not bear it if he lost his daughter as well as his son. He could still feel the fragile weight of his newborn son in his arms, limp and unresponsive. He could still recall the desperation and terror and then the gut wrenching grief that had followed. Now, he looked upon his baby daughter and felt his heart clench. He wanted to smother the child with love, yet at the same time never look upon her again.

He turned his head away, cursing himself for a coward in several languages. For Severus Snape was afraid . . .afraid to risk his heart only to have it broken again. He knew of only one way to prevent that, he had to distance himself from the baby, not grow too attached, lest it happen again.

"Sev? Are you awake?" Sarai's voice floated over to him.

For one instant he thought about pretending otherwise, then he turned over and looked at his wife, who had ten times the courage he did, for she was able to risk her heart over and over. "I am now."

"Would you mind holding the baby for a minute? I just need to use the bathroom."

He muttered something and sat up, allowing Sarai to place her in his arms.

"Now you be good for your dad, little one. Mama will be right back." Sarai told the infant, then she hurried over to the connecting bathroom.

Severus held the baby stiffly, refusing to look at her. He recalled how excited he had been just before the birth, that finally he would have a chance to really see his children grow, the chance he had missed with Harry. Now all he could feel was anxiety and sorrow and the ever-present fear that he would fail this child as he had her twin. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the infant, his jaw clenched and his eyes burning.

Sarai returned and sensed immediately that something was off. "Sev? You don't have to be so stiff, relax. She won't break, trust me!"

Her husband looked up at her. "Maybe you'd better hold her, Sarai. I'm still tired, and she seems to want you."

Victoria had begun to squirm and whine, sensing that the big stranger holding her wasn't happy.

Sarai gently lifted Victoria from his arms. "You just need time to get used to each other, that's all. The children have given her several nicknames already. Draco calls her little big mouth, because he says she has a scream worse than a thousand banshees for something so small. And Harry and Nesmay call her Toria, because Victoria sounds too formal for her. I think that's sweet, don't you?"

"Yes. They've done a good job taking care of her." Much better than I would have, he thought, sneering at himself. Then he deliberately closed his eyes, because the less time he spent with the baby, the easier it would be for him to pretend he didn't care.

Page~*~*~*~*~Break

Over the course of the next few days, Harry noticed that Severus hardly ever held the baby or even spent much time with her beyond the few minutes a day needed to occasionally feed and change her. Most of the time he was in his lab, brewing drafts for the next term, and the rest of the time he was absent from the manor, either harvesting herbs or visiting Alexander's grave. There was now an inscription upon the headstone, engraved there by magic.

It read: Alexander Severus Snape, August 6th, 1996. Beloved son and twin; gone to dwell in Paradise. A pair of angel wings was delicately etched above the name.

Sarai sometimes joined him at the site, though more often than not she was too busy with Victoria to have time or energy to mourn her loss. She threw herself into caring for her daughter, and that in turn helped her through her grief. She had always found that dwelling upon sorrow helped nothing, and so she did her best to not focus on it. She knew if she allowed herself, she would slip back into that sleeping grief-stricken state, and that she could not afford. As Aislinn had reminded her, she had a family who needed her, and she must live for them.

Severus, however, withdrew into a brooding silence, and refused to even speak to her about what was bothering him. Like a wounded animal, he went off to hide in his lab or the cemetery, and he snapped and snarled at any who came near. Draco and Nesmay avoided him, after enduring the sharp lash of his temper. Only Harry sought him out, enduring the glares and snide remarks while assisting him with potions.

Finally, one afternoon, a week and a half after Victoria's birth, Harry stomped out of the lab in a rotten mood. "I'm going flying," he growled, his eyes shooting sparks as he half-slammed the door shut behind him.

"Harry, try and be a bit quieter, your sister's sleeping," Sarai scolded mildly. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing!" her son snapped, then he shook his head. "Sorry, it's just . . . Dad's being impossible. He's like obsessed with making all the drafts perfectly and I didn't chop up the feverfew fine enough and he just went off on me and . . . I left. Let him brew his own bloody solutions!"

Sarai gently placed a hand on his shoulder. "Harry, it's not really you he's angry at. It's himself."

"Yeah, well, I wish he'd quit taking it out on me." Harry said indignantly. Then he Summoned his Firebolt and went to fly, letting off steam before he said something he'd regret.

Her mouth tightening, Sarai went into the lab to speak with her grouchy husband.

She found him dicing and stirring with a vengeance, and waited until he had finished adding and stirring the cauldrons before she attempted to talk to him. "Severus, we need to talk. Now."

He barely looked up. "Later. I'm busy," he said curtly.

"Not right now you aren't. Your solutions are steeping," she answered back. "It has to stop, Sev."

"What does?" he asked wearily. "My brewing potions for school? It's part of my job, sorry if it inconveniences you," he said bitingly.

"No, I mean your attitude with your children," she returned frostily. "I know you're hurting, but you shouldn't take it out on them. Or me."

Exasperated, he lifted his head. There were dark circles under his eyes and he looked weary to the bone. "I'm trying not to, damn it all! Why do you think I'm staying out of everyone's way? I just need to be left alone, can't you see that? Or must I spell it out for you?"

"Left alone to do what, Sev? Brew till you drop? Beat yourself up with guilt until you snap? Hurting yourself won't bring him back. You need to let him go." She made as if to hug him, but he drew away.

"You don't understand. I can't forget what happened. He died in my arms, Sarai!"

"Severus, he was dead before you tried to revive him," Sarai said gently. "Auriane told me so. Sev, it does no good for you to dwell on the past. I know you miss him. So do I. But it's not your fault he died."

"No?" he spun on her, his eyes blazing. "All of my bloody magic and I couldn't save one little child! My own son! What good am I then?"

"Of no good to anyone like this," she retorted. "Behaving like a curmudgeon to your family won't change anything, Severus Snape. I carried him for eight months, do you think my loss is any less than yours? All of us are grieving over what happened. Sev, don't shut yourself away. Let me help you."

He shook his head stubbornly. "You can't."

"You damn stubborn jackass!" she swore at him, then she left him alone as he'd wished.

Dinner that night was a rather silent affair, no one felt much like talking, and the only ones who ate anything were Draco and Nesmay. Harry felt the tension between Sarai and Severus like a sharp blade beneath his ribs, and as a result barely touched his dinner.

He went to bed after playing a few hands of Dragons Wild with his siblings, but sleep was a long time coming.

Severus brewed late into the night, assuaging his grief with exhaustion, and when he came to bed, Sarai was sleeping. He quickly undressed and leaned over to kiss his wife gently on the lips. She did not wake and he curled up beside her. He tossed and turned before finally falling asleep.

He woke once, and saw Sarai feeding Victoria. He quickly shut his eyes and waited until she had put the baby back to sleep in the cradle, which was now next to their bed. As she snuggled next to him, he opened his eyes and murmured a sincere apology for his snarky attitude. "You were right. It's myself I'm angry at. Forgive me?"

She hugged him. "Of course, beloved. But you need to forgive yourself. There really was nothing you could have done. All we can do is accept it and go on. We still have Harry, Draco, Nesmay, and Victoria, Sev. Don't shut them out. They love you and need you for their father."

He muttered something that sounded like "I'm no good for them", and she smacked him on the back of the head and hissed, "Go to sleep, you boneheaded fool of a sorcerer! Maybe you'll make more sense in the morning when your mind's not clouded with sleep. I love you."

He drifted off listening to her breathe, but when he woke the same knot of guilt and grief was still lodged within his heart.

Page~*~*~*~*~Break

Harry helped Draco and Nesmay hang the laundry to dry on the clothesline outside, still puzzled and anxious over his father's attitude towards Victoria. He wondered why he alone was bothered by it. Maybe he was making something out of nothing? "Draco, have you noticed anything . . . strange about the way Dad acts around Victoria?"

"What do you mean? He's been in a rotten mood lately, but then again, having your son just die is enough to put anybody in a rotten mood." Draco answered, hanging up a pair of socks.

"No, it's not just that. Have you noticed that he doesn't seem to want to be around the baby? He hardly ever holds her or anything." Harry clarified. "It's almost as though . . . he doesn't like her."

"Don't be ridiculous, Harry!" Draco scoffed. "Of course he likes her—she's his daughter. He's probably just uncomfortable around her, like I was. I mean, Dad's not really the hug and kiss babies type, like Dumbledore."

Nesmay nodded in agreement, clipping a shirt to the line. "I know plenty of fae men at court who turned white and ran away when a nanny asked if they wanted to hold their baby. They were afraid they would drop it or it would puke all over them. My Uncle Oberon used to say he only wanted to know his son when he was past that stage and could learn how to talk and hold a sword."

Harry snorted. "I won't tell you what I think of your uncle, Nesmay, since I'm sure you can guess. But Dad's not like that. I threw up all over him repeatedly last summer when I had anxiety attacks and he never acted all disgusted or anything. This is . . . I don't know . . . it's almost like he's avoiding her."

"Maybe seeing her reminds him of losing Alexander," Nesmay remarked. "My aunt Morgana told me that for awhile she cried whenever she saw me because I reminded her of my mother."

"I guess so," Harry sighed. Still, there was something else that was bothering his father, he was almost certain of it. It couldn't just be grief that kept him away from his daughter, because Sarai was grieving too and yet she seemed to draw comfort from holding Victoria.

"Give it a rest, Harry. Dad will come around. He just needs time," Draco said.

Harry said nothing, but resolved to ask Sarai about it once he was done here. Severus' apathy frightened him on a deep inner level, for it reminded him of how Petunia and Vernon used to ignore him or pretend he didn't exist. He knew all too well how much that hurt and he never wanted that to happen to his small sister. Sarai will know what's wrong. She knows my dad better than anyone, except my mum.

He found Sarai in the kitchen, making lunch. Nesmay and Draco were playing with Cafall, who incidentally adored the baby. The big hound grew very upset when she cried and laid beside her cradle at night, guarding her. But right then, he was enjoying the fine summer weather and tracking a hidden decoy Draco had hidden in the woods for him, with Nesmay accompanying him as his hunt partner.

Harry made sure Severus was nowhere near when he broached the matter to his stepmother. "I just don't understand why Dad would act like that around Toria. I mean, how can he not love her? She's adorable and she's his baby. The minute I looked at her I just wanted to hold her and protect her."

"Harry, your father was the same way when he held her the first time. I know, I saw. But then came the stillbirth and everything changed. Your dad still loves Victoria, Harry. Never doubt it. But right now he's feeling very insecure and he's allowing that to affect the way he looks at things."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he blames himself for not being able to save Alexander. He feels guilty that he couldn't revive him, even though that's something that was in the hands of the Creator. He's also scared to death that something might happen to Victoria and he'll lose another whom he cares for. He was the same after he lost Lily."

"He was? He told you that?"

"He didn't need to, Harry. I was there, both when he found out that your mother had married James Potter and afterwards when he learned your mother had been killed by Voldemort. And no, he didn't confide in me in the beginning, only after he had battered himself into shreds in a kin-sa-dor session and then he finally shared his broken heart with me. Back then I was just his mentor, but he trusted me."

Harry bit his lip. "There's something I never understood, Sarai. If my dad found out about my mum's marriage to James Potter, why didn't he ever go after her? Show her that he was still alive and all? Why let her stay with a man he hated?"

"I asked him that once. He told me that it was better if he remained dead to her. That she was probably happier with Potter and he could only give her an empty bed and black mourning clothes with his occupation. Again, his insecurity was his undoing. I think he felt he didn't deserve your mother. And he was also hurt and betrayed by her. She barely waited three months before she agreed to marry Potter. Of course, none of us knew Lily's real reason for marrying in haste. If your father had even suspected she was carrying his child, he would have moved heaven and earth to bring you both back. But as it was . . .It took him a long time to get over his feelings of inadequacy, Harry, and trust me. Even longer before he was able to allow himself to feel love and give his heart to me. But I waited, because he was worth waiting for and I loved him. I still do."

"Guess you'd have to in order to put up with him," Harry teased.

Sarai laughed. "If you love someone, Harry, you learn to live with their flaws. He does it with me. There's a rare few men who'd agree to put their boots beneath a warrior woman's bed. Most men find me a threat to their . . .uh . . . pride and manhood. But not your father. That's one reason why he's the only one for me." Sarai sat down and drank a glass of merlinna juice along with her stepson. "Right now though . . . he's fighting every instinct in him that's urging him to give his heart to Victoria."

"In Merlin's name, why?"

"Because he's afraid he'll lose her. Like he lost Alex and Lily. He thinks if he locks away his heart, he won't get hurt. He's wrong. All he's really hurting is himself, by denying himself the pleasure of his daughter. A part of him knows that. But there's another part of him that denies it, and that's the part that struggles with him now. He wants to reach out to her, but at the same time he's afraid he'll fail her. It's a dreadful thing, to be at war with yourself like that."

"That's why he's been such a . . pain-in-the-arse?"

"Yes. I've told him as much. But he's stubborn, like a mule. He listened, but hasn't taken my advice yet."

"But it's not good for him or us to be acting like this. Toria needs to know her dad."

"And you three also need him back." Sarai acknowledged. "So, Mr. Snape, what shall we do about it?" There was a challenging gleam in her eyes now.

Harry smiled then bent to whisper something in her ear.

"I see. That may work. But now we have to figure out the right time . . ."

Page~*~*~*~*~Break

Harry wasn't sure who he felt sorry for more—Toria, because she didn't know Severus as her father the way he did, or his dad, for tearing himself apart over things that couldn't be changed and might never happen. But he watched and waited all of that day and the next for a chance to put the plan he and Sarai had concocted into action. Finally, that Friday afternoon, he saw his opportunity.

Draco was taking a nap and Nesmay and Sarai were playing some odd fae boardgame called fidearch, which was sort of like chess and checkers combined, using round polished stones for counters. The object was to remove or steal all your opponent's counters and take over her kingdom. It was a war and strategy game, and both half-fae women were playing intently.

Toria was in her bassinet, dozing, and Harry quickly picked her up, holding her wrapped in her soft pink blanket against his chest. She nestled right against his shoulder and made him smile. Dad's going to have to hex all the boys arms off when you're old enough to date, kid. That's if Draco and I don't turn them into toe jam first. All right, the coast is clear, time to find Dad. I think he went outside and I can guess where he'll end up.

:Why guess when I can tell you, Harry?: sent Smidgen. The shimmerling popped into view, perching on his shoulder.

Would you mind checking and seeing if Dad's at the cemetery? I really need to talk to him.

:Not at all, Harry. Wait right here.: Smidgen blinked away.

About five seconds later she reappeared, purring. :You were correct, Severus is at the cemetery. Poor man, he is so distressed!:

"I know. But hopefully I can make him remember that there's still something here to be happy about," his son said thoughtfully. "Thanks, Smidgen."

:Good luck, Harry!: she sent, then she settled on the sofa back and began to groom her lush black fur.

Harry headed outside, Victoria held close. He knew the way to the cemetery, he had been back and forth often to place flowers upon the small grave and look at the other graves of his ancestors. Some of the gravestones were very ornate, others were simple, depending upon the person who was buried beneath it. Sev Prince's headstone bore a handsome harp upon it and the inscription: He travelled far and wide, but his heart always belonged at home, may he Guard well the gates. Sev Prince had lived to over 300 years of age, and in a way, he lived still as the manor's Guardian. His wife and children were buried beside him, and so were his grandchildren.

He found Severus seated upon the ground in front of his son's tiny headstone, just staring off into the distance. His face seemed expressionless . . . until you looked into his dark eyes and saw the tempest raging there. A maelstrom of guilt, grief, and pain lived there, slowly sucking what remained of joy and happiness away.

Harry flinched upon seeing it. He had taken the long way around, coming upon Severus from the lefthand side, moving stealthily through the trees, his Invisibility Cloak thrown over him, halting a foot or so behind the grave. He crossed his fingers and prayed that this would work. Then he tossed his hood off and stood looking at his father, who stiffened in surprise, then flashed him an annoyed look.

"Harry, why are you here? I don't wish to be disturbed at the moment."

Harry drew in a breath before replying. "I know, Dad, and I'm sorry I'm intruding but . . . there's something I need to say."

Severus made an impatient gesture. "By all means, say it then. You shouldn't be bringing the baby out here, it's chilly today."

"I know. But she's warm enough, I'd never let her get sick," he said, his tone faintly accusing.

Severus scowled. "Just what are you implying, young man?"

Harry winced at the stern tone, but he had prepared himself for his father's anger. None of this was going to be easy to say, but it needed saying. For both of their sakes. "I'm implying that maybe you've forgotten the most important thing this baby needs, Dad. She needs a father."

Severus started to open his mouth, ready to give the impudent teen the rough edge of his tongue for his insolence, but Harry held up a hand.

"Wait, before you tell me off, just listen for a minute. All right?" When he had received his father's nod in return, he continued. "I know it's been hell for you these past two weeks, what with Alex dying and Sarai being so sick and all. I know that's why you let us take care of Victoria. At first I was kind of nervous, and Draco was even worse than I was, but once I really got used to her, I found that she wasn't all that hard to care for and even easier to love. All of us fell in love with her, Dad. Just like you did. But now you're pushing her away and I don't understand why. She's a little baby, and she deserves to grow up with a father who loves her and wants to be with her."

"Harry, right now I'm not fit company for anyone, but especially her—"

"You can be. But you're afraid of letting her get too close to you, just in case she dies," Harry interrupted. "But she won't, Dad. She's a fighter, she's got the Snape stubbornness in spades. Like you and me. You told me before she was born that you wanted to do all the things with her than you never had the chance to do with me. Are you going to give that up because you lost her twin? I'm really sorry I lost my brother, but Toria's still here, Dad. Don't make her pay because her twin's gone."

"I wasn't. You don't understand . . ."

"Maybe I don't understand what it's like to lose a child, but I do understand what it's like to grow up with people who pretend you don't exist. And it really sucks, especially when you see your cousin getting all the attention and you sit there wondering what in hell you did wrong."

"I would never treat one of my children the way your uncle treated you!" Severus snapped, incensed.

"But you are, Dad! And you don't even realize it because you're too busy tearing yourself apart over something that can't be changed," Harry said, blinking hard. "Alex is dead and that's really horrible. But look at what you've still got. You've got a beautiful baby girl here that needs you just as much as I ever did. Here's your chance to give her what you couldn't give me." Abruptly, he thrust the baby into Severus' lap. To his relief, his father instinctively caught her and held her. "Don't throw away the best gift ever."

Harry stood and quickly pulled on his cloak, making his way back across the cemetery before Severus could recover from the shock. He heard his father call his name twice, but he ignored it. He wasn't going to take Victoria back. If his father wanted to bring her back in the house, he could do it himself. He just hoped he had done the right thing.

Severus just sat and stared down at the infant in his lap, which he held so carefully. A part of him wanted to demand that Harry come and take her away, but another part, the part he had been suppressing so hard, whispered that it was all right, the baby belonged here with him. Victoria waved her small fists and made odd little noises, reminding him of a hungry piglet.

"Your brother had some bloody nerve!" he muttered crossly. "Lecturing me like that! Who does he think he is? He forgets, I'm the father around here."

The baby cooed up at him in agreement.

"Well, at least you know better than to argue with me, right?"

He gazed into his daughter's bright eyes, eyes that reminded him of two women who had loved him unconditionally, eyes that were innocent and knowing, and suddenly feelings of awe, tenderness, and love washed over him in a wave, drenching him with fierce clarity and inescapable truth. It smothered all the doubts and the fears he had harbored, sweeping them away beneath its inexorable tide, shattering them into bits and pieces. Gone were the anxiety and dread that he might fail this child as he had her twin, there was no room in heart for such things when he was consumed with overwhelming love for the new life in his arms.

Shame pricked him sharply for an instant, but it too was eclipsed by the awe he felt as the miracle he had created smiled up at him. "Perfect," he whispered. Sudden tears gathered in his eyes and ran slowly down his cheeks. "You are perfect. I was a fool and worse to ever try and deny you. My little Victoria. My perfect precious gift." He bent to brush his lips across her forehead.

Her skin was petal-soft, like rosebuds just starting to bloom.

Harry had been right, he admitted ruefully. She was so innocent, so beautiful, so . . . . intent on yanking his hair out.

"Ow! That hurt!" he cried, the sudden sharp tug jerking him out of his reverie.

His eyes watered, and he gently pried her tiny fingers from his hair. She squalled angrily. He started to laugh, very softly. "Mustn't pull Daddy's hair, little big mouth. You can't eat it, you'll choke." His daughter continued to bawl. "Hush. You have my temper all right, may Merlin help me." He reached up and secured his hair in a tail with a rawhide hair tie. Then he placed the baby on his shoulder and patted her back. "There now, just because I won't let you stuff my hair down your throat is no reason to throw a tantrum, silly girl."

The baby continued to wail.

Thinking fast, Severus plucked a flower from his son's grave and Transfigured it into a soft rag doll. "Here, say hello to Lady Snapdragon, who can beat ten Unseelie with one hand tied behind her back. She'll protect you from all those monsters under your bed. Look, she's smiling at you, Toria sweetling!" He thrust the rag doll, which had a face that was both sweet and almost severe, with bright orange hair and a dress to match, at his infant daughter.

Toria was fascinated by the bright color and soft texture and grabbed Lady Snapdragon and stuffed her arm in her mouth, her tears drying instantly now that she had something new to focus on.

Severus smiled and held his daughter close. I'll need to thank Harry for being brave enough to tell me when I was making an ass out of myself. Sarai too. The manor chose well, for my son is wiser than I am and far more perceptive. He gently touched the dark fuzz atop Toria's head, ignoring stoically the thread of drool running down her cheek onto his shirt. "Someday, when you're older, my girl, I'll bring you here and tell you about your twin, who's in Paradise with Mama's cousin Aislinn. But right now you have to get to know your daddy all over again." He lifted the baby and held her above his head, giving her a special smile. "I love you, Toria. And I promise I'll never give you reason to doubt it."

His daughter looked him in the eye, gurgled loudly, and bonked him in the nose with her rag doll.

"Merlin's pants, young lady! Beating up your father is not allowed." Severus exclaimed, waving a finger in front of her nose.

Toria squealed with laughter, or at least that was what it sounded like to her besotted father, who abandoned all of his natural reserve and discipline to snicker at his baby girl, the precious gift he had almost given up, until one determined teenage boy reminded him to count his blessings.

So, what did you think of Harry and Sarai's solution?

I have a few more questions for you.

Should Sev become the new DADA teacher next term, or should it be someone else, like Lupin, Sirius, or even Sarai?

And, if Nesmay ever attended Hogwarts, which House do you think she belonged in?
 


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