Updated: 6 November 2005
disclaimer: Books, fortune and empire belong to JK Rowling. I only dally with her characters.
Remus woke the next morning to the sound of soft snores in the bed beside him. With a smile on his face, he propped his head on one hand and watched as Severus lay sleeping, his lips parted, his face relaxed. Mornings were becoming his favorite time of day, particularly when they started like this.
He leaned over Severus' sleeping form, careful not to let his hair brush against Severus' face. Lips hovering above Severus' lips, Remus waited until Severus was inhaling again, and pressed a sudden, fierce kiss to his lips. Severus' eyes sprang open, darting about wildly, then drifting shut again after they focused on Remus' face.
Severus lifted his hand to the back of Remus' neck, pulling him closer. Remus needed no urging. He moved to straddle Severus' hips, kneeling so that he could feel Severus' cock as it woke as well. When he finally pulled away from the kiss, Remus was grinning down at Severus, his hands braced on either side of Severus' head.
"Good morning," he said brightly.
"Good morning," Severus replied, stifling a yawn.
Remus shifted to rub his stiffening cock against Severus', and Severus groaned, turning his head to one side. "Should I have let you sleep?" Remus asked, rocking back and forth.
Severus caught his lower lip between his teeth. "This isn't fair," he whispered. Remus smiled to feel Severus' cock twitching against his.
"What isn't fair?"
"You catching me off-guard like that."
"Ah," Remus said, working a hand between them. Severus lifted his hips, pressing against Remus' hand. "See, I thought it was a trick I was going to have to remember." He lowered his lips to Severus' again, and Severus kissed him back this time. "Not much to say?" Remus asked, pulling back again.
"I told you that you caught me off-guard," Severus muttered. "Half awake. Haven't had any tea yet. Bit randy..."
"I'd say more than a bit," Remus observed.
"You'll be lucky if I just go back to sleep."
"And what if I don't want you to go back to sleep?" Remus asked, wrapping his hand around both their cocks.
Severus groaned again, groping at Remus' arms. "You're cruel," he whispered as Remus stroked them.
"I thought you liked waking up like this?"
"Shut up, Lupin. Just—ah, yes. Just do that."
Severus' hands were trailing over Remus' arms, and Remus trembled from the combined strain of holding the position and desire. Grinding against Severus, he stroked them harder, and a gasp and a groan later, his hand was joined by Severus' hand.
With his jaw clenched and his eyes squeezed shut, it would have been as natural an assumption to think that Severus was in pain as it was to believe that he was suspended in pleasure. If it weren't for the way his breath caught in his throat and the way his hand jerked when his face seemed the most tense, Remus might have doubted his own assessment of the situation. If Remus had such doubts, though, Severus shattered them every time he lifted his hips.
It was frantic, desperate and over as quickly as it had started, leaving both of them panting and covered with a sticky film of sweat and cum. Remus shoved his hair out of his eyes and leaned down to kiss Severus, but Severus rolled out from under him.
"If you're not a certified lecher, you should be," Severus said as he rolled out of bed and reached for the door.
"Where are you going?" Remus asked, watching Severus' bum with a curious fascination. He'd never spent any time at all ogling other men's bodies, and it was almost as much a matter of academic interest as it was physical attraction.
"To the washroom," Severus replied. "Shall I detail for you what I'm going to do in there?" He lifted an eyebrow in Remus' direction, daring Remus to ask it.
"Not necessary," Remus replied. He locked his fingers together and stretched his arms high above his head. "I'll just come with you."
Severus' mouth dropped open, but Remus leaned forward to kiss him preemptively. Severus ducked away. "I haven't brushed my teeth," he protested.
"Nope," Remus agreed. "And you haven't had a shower and you're an absolute mess. Now ask if I care."
"You're not really going to follow me into the bathroom, are you?"
Remus slid his arms around Severus' neck. "I thought that since you need a shower" –he kissed Severus' left eye—"and I need a shower"—he kissed Severus' right eye—"that we might make a more"—he kissed the bridge of Severus' nose—"efficient job of it"—his lips lingered against Severus' lips—"if we did it together."
Severus rolled his eyes and started down the short, narrow hall again. "You can't possibly want anything again already."
Remus followed him into the bathroom and turned on the shower. After a moment's hesitation, Severus cut on the water and began brushing his teeth. When the shower water was running warm, Remus held out a hand to Severus. "Coming?"
"Stop this. It's not funny anymore."
"It isn't meant to be funny."
"What are you doing?"
"I told you—I thought showering together would be more efficient than—"
"Will you get out of here so I can take a piss?"
Fighting a laugh, Remus nodded and cut off the water again. "Of course." He went back to the bedroom again and began cleaning up their mess.
As he was straightening the sheets and making the bed, he heard the sound of water cutting on in the bathroom again, and crept back down the hall, opening the door carefully so as not to make any sound. He eased the shower door open and stepped inside, circling his arms around Severus' waist.
Severus jumped, his arms flailing as he tried to find something to hold onto, his feet slipping wildly about on the wet shower floor. Remus pulled him close, steadying him.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" Severus shouted, shoving his dripping hair out of his eyes. Everything about his expression spoke of displeasure this time, and Remus had no doubt that the anger was sincere.
"Joining you?" he asked hopefully.
Severus closed his eyes and took a step back, hissing as he hit his head on the shower head. "Why are you doing this to me?"
Remus reached for Severus' head, frowning as he moved limp, wet hair aside to look at Severus' scalp. Severus tried to jerk away again, but Remus held him in place. "I'm sorry," he said, letting Severus go after he'd satisfied himself that there was to be no gush of blood. "If I'd realized you were going to kill yourself trying to get away from me, I wouldn't have come in here."
If it weren't for the sound of the water spraying them, it would have been an awkward silence. As it was, it was merely an awkward lack of conversation. After a moment, Remus stepped out of the shower again. "I'll just—Yes." He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but was certain that it wasn't going to involve the shower. At least, not until Severus was out of it.
He was only in the bedroom for a few minutes before the water cut off and Severus appeared in the doorway, a towel around his waist. No words passed between them, though the silence was almost tangible and it was no coincidence that neither was meeting the other's eyes. At length, Severus cleared his throat. "I'm out," he said unnecessarily.
Remus took that as his cue to grab a shower of his own—being sprayed with a little water had not gone far towards washing away the sticky film that lingered on his body. Still without speaking, he headed for the bathroom and showered quickly, conjuring a toothbrush and a comb and putting both to good use before returning to the bedroom.
He wasn't expecting to find Severus in there, and certainly not in bed, but when Severus gestured for him to join him, he didn't argue. Severus had changed the bedding, and sliding between the crisp sheets was a pleasure matched only by the realization that the rift between them had already mended.
Severus yawned again and settled his head on Remus' chest, and Remus smiled, sifting his fingers through Severus' damp hair. "Comfortable?" he asked, deciding that his best course was to avoid what had happened a few minutes ago.
"Mmphmm," Severus murmured.
Remus draped his arms around Severus. "What chance we can stay like this all day?"
"Virtually none." As the first coherent and relevant thing Severus had said all morning, Remus found that one oddly amusing.
"Until noon, then?" he asked, surrendering to the smile but keeping laughter at bay.
"Possible," Severus replied. "Much more likely than all day."
They fell quiet again, and Severus dozed, and Remus might have though he wasn't sure about it. Fifteen minutes might have passed, or perhaps an hour, but it was an unwelcome roar from downstairs that pulled Severus out of bed.
"Is that the Floo?" Remus asked, only to be waved to silence.
"Keep quiet," Severus whispered. "If you hear me drop something, Disapparate."
Severus grabbed up his dressing gown and hurried downstairs, still knotting the belt around his waist. Remus pulled his own robe over his head and by the time he heard Severus' voice downstairs, he had located his shoes and had his wand in hand as he crept barefoot to the top of the stairs.
"Lucius," said Severus' voice. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Why, Severus, you look like you just rolled out of bed," came Lucius' reply. "Or did you? Come to that, you don't look like you're in the best of moods for a man who's spent the night—"
"What do you want?" Severus interrupted.
Remus sank onto the stairs, leaning his head against the wall, feeling marginally guilty for eavesdropping, even though he'd have been hard pressed not to. He didn't dare walk through the sitting room to leave through the front door, and he didn't dare Disapparate when he was sure Malfoy would hear it.
"Touchy, aren't we?" Malfoy asked. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
"Ahh. I see," Malfoy said, sounding very much like a man who'd had an epiphany. "You were more pleasurably occupied when I called."
"If you have something to say, get on with it," Severus said, sounding as though his patience was wearing thin. If Remus had been on the receiving end of that tone, he'd have been wary. "Else, go away. It's too damn early."
"It's almost eleven," Malfoy pointed out, not sounding at all concerned. "Manners, Severus. Surely your mother raised you better."
"Good bye, Lucius," Severus said pointedly.
"Wait, I'll stop teasing. Really, Severus, this isn't very comfortable on my knees like this. Go tell her you'll be back in a minute, and let me come through. You've my word that I'll behave."
There was a hesitation, and Remus tightened his grip on his wand.
"Come on, then," Severus said, and the fireplace roared again. Remus stood, readying to Disapparate, but there was no crash to indicate Severus had dropped anything, so he stayed, still ready.
"I've been talking with Fudge," Malfoy said, a chair protesting as he settled into it. "Do you know of Delores Umbridge?"
Remus knew of her, and his fist tightened around his wand. She had been the driving force behind the most limiting legislation against magical creatures in more than a century. There were few people he could honestly say he hated, but she held the distinction of being one of them.
"I know of her, yes," Severus was saying cautiously. "Why?"
"Well, unless that old coot gets wind of it and manages to pull one of his signature miracles out of his arse, she's going to be the new Defense teacher this year. Fudge has started seeing our reasoning. He's called a special session of the Board of Governors this afternoon."
"An assembly of the Board without the Headmaster?" Severus asked. "How'd he manage that one?"
"Oh, you know how unreliable owls can be at times," Malfoy replied.
Remus felt a surge of temper and he gripped his wand with both hands.
"You don't look terribly happy," Malfoy said.
"You know I want that post."
Remus was a bit taken aback by Severus' blunt tone, and it finally struck him that Severus was talking to Malfoy as a friend. That was an elusive concept.
"Be patient, Severus. Do you really think Fudge is going to this much effort to put a Defense teacher in Hogwarts? Give it a year, old boy. Give it a year."
Remus frowned and narrowed his eyes; he was ready for Malfoy to leave so he could talk to Severus again.
"Anyway, the reason I came—you said you don't want anymore surprises. So, it won't be a surprise. I expect that Narcissa and I will be hosting a celebratory dinner this evening. As I see it, you have two options. Either don't be here to receive the invitation, or be prepared to be your usual charming, sociable self and impress those people who are finally going to have a bit more say about what goes on in Hogwarts. If you're half as clever as you were in school, you'll choose the latter."
There was another squeaking, and then footsteps.
"Well, I'll let you get back to your... er... rat killing," Malfoy said. "Give her bum an extra smack for me and pity how cold my bed is. Really, Severus, you've no idea how lucky you are not to be bound to duty to carry on a line."
Severus didn't say anything, but the fireplace was roaring again. "See you this evening," Malfoy said. "Expect your invitation around five."
The fireplace quieted and there was no sound at all. No footfall, no words spoken, no indication that anyone was still there. The silence stretched on interminably, and at last, Remus edged towards the door, peering around the frame.
Severus was sitting by the fire, his elbows propped on the arms of his chair, fingers steepled in front of his face, staring straight ahead. "You're supposed to be keeping out of sight," Severus said, still not turning his head towards the door.
"He's gone, isn't he?"
"Bit too late to be worrying about that, isn't it? Yes, he's gone."
Remus settled onto the sofa. "You're going to tell the others, aren't you?"
"Tell them what?" Severus replied.
"Do you know Umbridge? Really, Severus, there's no choice. She can't have that post. She—"
"There's not a damn thing I can do about it."
"If Dumbledore knows, then—"
"He won't do anything either," Severus said. "Did you hear what Lucius said?"
"He said that Fudge is gathering the Board of Governors to make a decision to put that troll in Hogwarts and he doesn't intend Dumbledore to have the chance to make a case against it!"
"He said that Dumbledore has no idea—"
"But you're going to tell him!"
"—and if Dumbledore shows up at that meeting, how do you think Lucius is going to think Dumbledore found out?"
"So you're not going to tell him," Remus said flatly.
"Of course I'm going to tell him, you troll-brained half-wit! Give me a bit of credit, if not for loyalty at least for intelligence. After all, you know about it, so a clever spy—and I do like to think I'm a clever man, Lupin—would never bother himself with holding back information that is going to surface anyway!"
Remus leaned back and folded his arms, staring blankly up at the ceiling. After a moment, he felt a hand on his arm.
"Shall we go back upstairs?"
"I'm not in the mood," Remus muttered, closing his eyes.
Severus exhaled slowly. "Allow me to rephrase, then," he said. "We should get out of the sitting room before I have another surprise visit from someone who doesn't need to know you're here."
"Are you expecting another visit?"
"I make it a point to have no expectations, one way or another. Reduces the risk of events not turning out as I planned. Come on."
Remus allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, and he followed Severus upstairs, his mind numb. "Is that what it's always like?" he asked as they reached the bedroom door.
"You find something that is useful, and you can't use it because if you did, then someone would know where the leak was?"
The sound of the springs as Severus sank onto the bed was the only sound in the room. Remus joined him, the bed moaning under their combined weight as Severus lay back, gesturing for Remus to join him. "I think I just figured you out," Severus said, wrapping an arm around Remus' shoulders.
Remus looked up at him questioningly.
"You hear the word war, and your head is filled with images of glory," Severus said, his tone neither sneering nor malicious for once. "You imagine charging the enemy, brandishing a sword, banners streaming behind you. You see the honor and dignity of fighting—perhaps even dying—for something that is good and right and just."
"Would you fight for something you thought was wrong?" Remus asked.
"No, and you missed the point."
"What was the point, then?"
Severus rolled onto his side, scooting out from under Remus and propping his head on his hand. His eyes darted back and forth as though he was reading Remus' soul. "There isn't going to be any hill, Remus," he said after a moment. "There will be no glorious confrontation between light-clad armies of good and shadow-draped forces of evil. There will be no banner to fall in a muddy field, no page-turned unlikely hero to pick it up and raise it high for the disheartened troops to rally around. This isn't a crusade, there's no line to defend. Our successes are going to be measured in the headlines that never make the Daily Prophet."
Remus opened his mouth to protest—of course he wasn't expecting knights in shining armor or simple peasants taking up garden hoes to defend their land. He wasn't daft. Severus stayed his protest with fingers placed lightly over his lips.
"When Fudge finally deigns to inform the headmaster of this new appointment, he will already know. He'll be a step ahead, not a step behind, and that's a battle won."
"I suppose this means that our chance of spending the entire morning lingering in bed have just been reduced," Severus said, curling his fingers against Remus' cheek.
"I suppose so." Remus captured Severus' wrist, holding his hand in place as he kissed his palm.
"I tend to doubt we'll see each other again for a few days," Severus said, brushing his thumb across the bridge of Remus' nose. "Don't take unnecessary chances," he said. "Don't try to be a hero. Don't try to worm your way to the top right away. You'll accomplish more by staying alive in the background than by getting yourself killed in the spotlight."
Remus nodded again.
Severus leaned in to kiss him, and Remus settled against him, wishing he could spend the rest of the day lying in Severus' arms. Part of it was fear, part of it a desire to escape the war and the Order, part of it a simple longing to savor more of the link between them. He didn't wait for Severus to break away, though—their kiss ended on Remus' terms, and it was he who said goodbye, Apparating back to Headquarters without a word.
As expected, a dinner invitation arrived by owl a little before five, and Severus, as luck would have it, had nothing more pressing in store for the evening than an interlude with a book that he supposed he could put aside for the sake of a celebration. It was to be an informal dinner, the invitation said, so when he arrived at the Malfoy mansion with a dozen white roses in one hand and a box of imported cigars in the other, he was wearing his best robe that wasn't a dress robe. The roses he gave to his charming hostess, who was a vision in pale lavender with her hair falling loose around her slender shoulders. The cigars he presented to his host, with gracious thanks for the invitation. The entire scene was so carefully contrived that it might have made him nauseous if it hadn't been so amusing.
Pretense lasted only until he was standing in the drawing room, though—he'd not been able to formulate a concrete plan that would take him past the front door, so he was winging it as he accepted a snifter of brandy and was presented to the Minister.
That was an awkward meeting, certainly. Fudge looked at him as though he were a rabid dog, and Severus had no difficulty peering into the chinless Minister's mind. Distrust at the forefront, layered atop memories of being shown a Dark Mark and a rather uncomfortable image of Severus howling with rage and accusing Potter of helping Sirius Black escape a year before.
"Smile, Severus," Lucius whispered through a false smile of his own as Fudge walked away towards a group he obviously considered far more important. "He won't be Minister much longer. Come, there are important people you need to meet, and I won't have you sulking in corners this time. Is that quite clear?"
There were faces at the Malfoy manor that Severus had not seen in years—old school mates and classmates, former students, parents of former students, parents of former friends. Gaius Melsby, the handsome Prefect who had been captain of the Slytherin Quidditch team when Severus was a first year was now a senior official in the Department of Education, and the two of them had a lengthy discussion about the gap in performance among NEWT students and whether there was any pattern to it.
"I would suspect that it has something to do with the performance of the student in his previous classes, though I'm not certain of it," Severus mused. "My students know that I only accept the brightest of the bright into my NEWT-level Potions class, and if they want to sit the exam, they had best attain that Outstanding mark. I have only had one student earn an Acceptable on his NEWT in the last ten years—the others have had O's and E's."
"Then you attribute your success rate to the caliber of student you accept. Interesting. Perhaps the push should be to raise the bars on the OWLs, then. Logically, any student who earns an O on his OWL should be able to earn at least an E on his NEWT, and any student who earns an E on his OWL should be capable of passing the NEWT. That's certainly the expectation of the Ministry."
"Don't let Severus be too modest," Narcissa said, suddenly appearing at Severus' elbow with a glass of sherry. She placed a feather-light hand on his arm and smiled up at him. "Severus is a brilliant teacher, and if all the teachers at Hogwarts had his intuition and his ability to judge a student's abilities, Hogwarts would be held up as the international model for education in our world."
"Well, I do wish that he would apply some of his skills to the less apt students, then," Melsby said. "Hogwarts might have a one-hundred percent pass rate among NEWT Potions students, but the number of students who sit the exam is really quite abysmal compared to the other European schools."
Severus was about to defend his decision to only accept Outstanding students, but Lucius appeared by his side as well, quieting him with a meaningful look.
"Forgive me, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation," Lucius said, snapping his fingers at a passing house-elf and pointing at Melsby's half-empty glass. "I must say that I agree with you, Melsby—not many students are capable of living up to Severus' high expectations, and there are likely those who are left behind as a result."
"Quite," Melsby agreed. Severus fumed in silence.
"My wife did make quite a good point, though. Severus has exceedingly high standards, and he is quite an excellent judge of character. As much as I agree that we ought to be giving all our children a chance to succeed in their studies, I am not so sure the same generosity ought to apply to teachers."
"Mmm, quite," Narcissa said, taking a delicate sip of her wine. "You know, I have heard that in Beauxbatons, there is a board of elite teachers who are very actively involved in the appointment of new staff."
"Yes," Melsby said. "We have been looking at that model. Peer review, they call it. There's been a bit of discussion about implementing a similar system at Hogwarts—this is all under the table, mind you, Snape."
"Of course," Severus said, keeping his tone neutral. Leave it to Lucius to turn a philosophical conversation into a political one.
"I should hope so," Narcissa said. "Really, the last few years have been full of abominable appointments from Dumbledore. I know he has his friends in the Ministry, and I know he has his enemies, but this is not about politics. This is about our children's safety and their future, and I must say that if one more year passes with such ridiculous antics as we've seen in the past few years, my son will not be attending Hogwarts after this term." There was a finality to her voice that Severus thought was genuine. Narcissa was a vicious mother hen when it came to Draco.
"Ah, yes. The Defense post, you mean," Melsby said.
"Yes, the Defense post," Lucius replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "The Defense post and the Care of Magical Creatures post—"
"And that horrid ghost teaching History of Magic!" Narcissa added.
"And not to mention that fraud who's teaching Divination. Really, the faculty roster is starting to read like the billing for a three-ring circus!"
"And yes, let's talk about the Defense post," Narcissa said suddenly. "Incompetent fops for the last decade! And that werewolf!"
"Now, Narcissa," Lucius said, placing a hand on her arm, "I'm sure Melsby has heard quite enough about Remus Lupin. A most unfortunate circumstance, indeed."
"Indeed," Melsby said, looking uncomfortable. "I must say that between Lupin and Moody, there is a reason the Ministry decided to take desperate measures this year."
"I still shudder to think what could have happened with a werewolf in that school," Narcissa said. "A werewolf! If I had any respect for Albus Dumbledore, I certainly lost it with that stunt."
"Now, surely you're not suggesting that Dumbledore knew Lupin was a werewolf when he appointed him?" Melsby asked.
Severus took a sip of his wine, but gave no outward indication that he was even particularly interested in the line of conversation.
"Do you think Dumbledore had any knowledge of it, Severus?" Lucius asked.
Severus shook his head slightly. "I wouldn't venture to guess what the headmaster knows and does not know."
"Well said, Snape," Melsby said, lifting his glass. "Well said."
"I'm just thankful that Severus sussed it out and alerted us to it," Narcissa said. "Really, either way, it doesn't say much for Dumbledore, does it? Either he knowingly hired a dangerous Dark creature to teach our students, or he was too blind to see it."
"Ah, are you the one who worked it out?" Melsby asked. "Never knew who was responsible for that. The werewolf admitted to it, and he was fined two thousand Galleons for the offense. I believe that took care of any wages he earned while at the school."
If any of his conversation partners had been paying careful attention, they would have seen a reaction out of Severus at that announcement. Two thousand Galleons was not quite a year's wage for an inexperienced teacher, but it was close. Severus had never considered that the ramifications would have been so harsh for Remus. If he were perfectly honest with himself, he'd never cared.
"All the same," Narcissa said, taking another sip of her wine, "I must say that I hope Dumbledore retires soon. And I truly hope that whomever the Ministry chooses to replace him will be more responsible."
"More responsible and a better judge of character," Lucius added with a smile. There was nothing subtle in the way he looked at Severus, and Severus didn't believe for a moment that Melsby didn't know he'd just been told that Severus Snape would make an excellent headmaster. But then, that didn't bode badly for his prospects—Slytherins never denied that getting to know the right people was an advantageous career move.
Melsby considered him for a long moment before he finally said, "We'll have to carry on our conversations another time, Severus. I'd be quite interested in hearing your thoughts about the Ministry's proposed changes to the curriculum."
Severus smiled and inclined his head. "I'd be honored."
Before dinner was served, Severus had three more invitations for the remainder of the week. The Parkinsons had insisted that they be allowed to prove that their hospitality was 'just as hospitable as Narcissa's'; the Dalrymples had been horrified to hear that he'd never been to a concert at Cheshire Coven and had refused to take no for an answer; the Prescots had simply refused to be outdone—at least, that was their story, though Severus had no doubt that the real reason they were vying for his attention was the same reason all the others were. They had school-aged children whom they thought they could curry favor for.
Severus accepted all the invitations, even though each one he agreed to was one more day he could count slipping away from his purported holiday.
Dinner itself was the sort of affair that only those who know families such as the Malfoys could ever claim to understand. It was a sixteen-course symphony that began with honeydew and ginger granitas while the guests found their seats and exchanged pleasantries with their dinner partners, then soared into a medley of mint-laced fruits. A sinfully luscious foie gras was followed by a dish of dark, bitter chocolate, which blazed the way for a mixture of greens drizzled with a tart vinaigrette. A simple soup of vegetables and pasta was a welcome break for over-stimulated taste buds. After the soup, the meal began to spiral to new heights of rich delights. Tomato-basil bruschetta followed by roasted salmon, a creamy aubergine soup, then a chilled salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. By the time the main course arrived—pheasant stuffed with wild cranberries and truffles—Severus had eaten enough dishes with odd names and consumed enough accompanying wines that even he forgot his signature scowl and was laughing at the charming antics of the young woman at his side.
It was almost two hours into the meal before the salad forks returned, this time for a sweeter and more delicate mixture of greens garnished with raspberries and a dressing based in ginger. Ripe, flavorful berries tossed with cream forged the way to dessert, which was a crème brulée so decadent that it should have secured any of them a place of honor in the fourth circle of hell. Shortbread served with fresh melon slices and drizzled with honey seemed delightfully light after the rich main dessert, and as they parted the table with crystal goblets of lemon champagne sorbet, all the guests were commenting on how delicious the meal had been.
Lucius, for his part, was beaming, and even with his senses dulled by such a dazzling performance of tastes that should not have blended so well, Severus could see the Malfoy he had worshipped when he was barely more than a child. Lucius loved to throw the parties that everyone talked about for months, and he had the self-satisfied look of a man who knew that he'd succeeded.
The first time Severus had attended one of these dinners had been when he was seventeen. He'd almost forgotten it, but as he took a champagne glass from a passing house-elf and trailed behind a group of witches and wizards who had not seen the Malfoy portraits as often as he had, he remembered vividly. The Malfoy Manor, with its Tudor styling and Louis XIV décor, had been the first glimpse a greasy-haired boy who'd never had a book that hadn't belonged to someone else first had ever had into the life of luxury that he knew existed.
Even now, with as many years as had passed and the knowledge of to decades to tether him to reality, Severus couldn't help but run a hand over a polished banister of carved mahogany. He couldn't ignore the seductive voice in the back of his head that whispered that this was the life he should have had. It wasn't the emerald-crusted mirrors or the inlaid marble floors, it was the gallery of portraits, pale-haired, pointy-faced Malfoys looking down upon their admirers like kings and queens of old. It was an heirloom vase on a pedestal, handed down for twenty-seven generations. It was the familiar way Lucius pointed at a portrait and spoke of his great-great-great-aunt Carlotta who had the iris garden planted in 1887.
Had his mother not turned away from her family to marry a Muggle, this was the sort of life he imagined he would have lived.
This was what had lured Severus to the Death Eaters to begin with.
Just remember why you walked away, he reminded himself. The summer heat suddenly seemed stifling, and he had to get away.
He found refuge on a first floor balcony, looking out over the valley behind the Malfoy manor. As he stood breathing deeply, his fingers curled around a glass of Madeira, he grappled with his thoughts and emotions. The more things changed, the less they seemed to, and the less they differed from the past, the starker the relief between what had long since flown and what lingered. He'd be lying if he said he did not want the power and prestige and respect that being a close friend of the Malfoys could offer him, and while he had few compunctions about lying in general, he'd always thought it an exercise in futility to lie to himself. Not acknowledging what he stood to gain would only set him up for failure—he had to acknowledge it, and to counter it with what he stood to lose.
He closed his eyes, and sifted through his life.
He had a decent and respectable job that paid well enough, though not well enough by half for what he had to put up with. Still, he'd have left Hogwarts years ago if he had detested teaching half as much as he pretended he did.
He had a questionable past and it was best not to tempt too many people into peering too closely at how he had come to have that post. His was a life built on a foundation of lies that would crumble if he ever gave anyone reason to start looking carefully. A lie that was convenient and easy enough to believe, but far too easy to disprove.
He had Dumbledore's trust, and unshakable as that trust was, it was not something he'd earned overnight. Severus had spent years watching the headmaster, looking for ways to endear himself to the old lunatic. And one day, he'd realized that he'd earned that trust he coveted, and the irony was that it was no longer necessary. The world had conveniently and happily forgotten that there were Death Eaters, the Dark Lord had been defeated and there was not so much as a whisper that he still existed, the trials had ended and justice had been served as far as everyone was concerned. It was a time of healing, and Severus Snape, a former dark wizard in his mid-twenties, no longer needed the protection of Albus Dumbledore. Such sweet irony, and the day he'd realized it, he'd laughed out loud in the middle of the Great Hall, and all the students had stopped eating and stared at him.
More ironic still was that in working to earn Dumbledore's trust, Severus had come to respect the headmaster, and then to love him, so that by the time Harry Potter came to Hogwarts and Dumbledore entrusted Snape with the disagreeable task of seeing to his safety, Dumbledore's trust had not been misplaced at all. That trust was, perhaps, the one thing that Severus could depend on. He didn't want to lose it, for any reason in the world, and that might be enough to see him through sixteen-course feasts with the Malfoys and the thrill of being accepted into the society that had tossed out his mother and allowed him entrance only as long as he gave them no reason to question his stories.
He had Remus Lupin, in a manner of speaking. In some ways, it was almost laughable to include a man he hadn't even been on speaking terms with as little as a week before, but in other ways, it might have been the most powerful of his ties. Dumbledore trusted him implicitly, and would forgive him many transgressions before declaring his trust misplaced. Whether he ever intended to use that information or not, Severus had a decent guess that he could fuck up royally at least twice and still convince Dumbledore that he was sincere—knowing that was the result of a calculating lobe of his brain that he couldn't shut off as easily as he shut off his other thoughts and emotions. Lupin, by contrast, was still struggling with knowing that Severus was having dinner with the Malfoys when it wasn't strictly necessary. That trust was fragile, and Severus knew that he could destroy it with one careless word. Just as Lupin could destroy Severus' trust in him with one careless word.
The combination of Dumbledore's unshakable trust and Lupin's fragile faith formed the lynchpin of his ties to what he knew was right. Without those two, he wasn't sure any of his reasons could counter what Lucius Malfoy could offer him, let alone what the Dark Lord could do for him.
There was a sound beside him, and Severus looked to his right to find Narcissa standing at his elbow, her diaphanous lavender robe billowing in the wind, her hair lifting from her shoulders as the breeze caressed her face. He put his thoughts aside to make room for the far more pleasurable memories that seeing her like this brought him. It had been years since he'd seen her with her hair down, and for a moment, it took his breath away. She'd worn it like that in school—pulled back at the sides and secured with silver combs.
"You haven't aged a day in twenty years, have you?" he asked, then squeezed his eyes shut as he realized he'd spoken aloud.
Narcissa laughed. "I certainly hope I have," she said, lifting her glass to her lips. "I was such an awkward girl."
"Were you? When?"
She smiled, but the laughter faded from her eyes. Perhaps she did look a bit older than she had the day she'd married Lucius, though Severus stuck to his insistence that it wasn't by much. Perhaps it was because her pale hair swallowed any silver threads that might have been laced into the gold. Or perhaps her slight figure and delicate features simply peeled years off her age, whether she needed it or not.
Or perhaps his perception was merely skewed by too many classmates who'd aged far too quickly.
He gave himself a mental shake as he realized that he was staring at her, but as he turned to look at the fading sunset again, his mind wouldn't refrain from pointing out that she was staring at him, too. He cleared his throat and swallowed the rest of his wine.
Narcissa was far too feminine and refined to do anything so crude as snort, though if anyone else had made the noise she made, Severus would have called it just that. From her, it was a disdainful sound. "Inside," she replied. "Where else would he be when there are Ministry officials to be impressed and connections to be made?"
"Good old Lucius," Severus said. "Never misses an opportunity, does he?"
"No," Narcissa said, not sounding at all impressed. "And I'm afraid Draco is following a bit too closely in his father's footsteps."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, don't play innocent with me, Severus. I know what he gets up to at school. Do you think it's coincidence that he surrounds himself with the sons of his father's friends? And that girl, Pansy. For heaven's sake, I want to pull her aside and have a good talk with her. She's far too young for Draco to be lavishing her with jewels."
Severus' lips curled into as close to a smile as he ever came. "Seems I remember another young Slytherin girl who wore diamonds at a rather inappropriate age."
Narcissa's smile seemed less and less fond as she shook her head. "When I was that age, I knew everything and everyone. Of course, the world was a circle that spread all of ten feet around me, but that hardly mattered."
Severus, being neither feminine nor refined, did snort. "It is with great authority on the matter that I assure you nothing has changed in the last two decades in Slytherin house. I have the distinct pleasure of presiding over two hundred students for whom the world extends no more than ten feet from their epicenter. They'll learn, just as we did."
"I hope they don't learn as we did," she whispered. She looked up at him suddenly, and he noticed for the first time that there was a faintly pink softness to her eyes, and that her eyes were uncommonly bright. "I thought we had put all this behind us," she said, her eyes darting through the open doors to the party within. "There are faces in there that I'd never wanted to see again, and some of what they're talking about..." She trailed off, and Severus' breath caught in his throat.
"What are they talking about?" he asked.
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "You've made a life for yourself, Severus. Dumbledore won't live forever, and you're in an excellent position in the school. You've earned the trust and respect of people on both sides of the lines we keep drawing in the dirt. Don't tell me I'm the only one who doesn't want to see a return to the old ways."
"Narcissa, don't," Severus said. "Such talk is treason."
Her face hardened as suddenly as water freezing into ice. "Then go and tell the Dark Lord," she snapped. "May his enemies suffer at his hand and his power... grow through their bleeding." She tossed her glass against the balustrade and it shattered, falling to the ground in a glittering cascade as she turned and stalked back into the house, her robe floating on the wind behind her.
Severus looked out over the balcony again, playing over their conversation in his mind. He was certain she'd just told him that she was not a faithful servant of Voldemort after all, and he felt a surge of combined fear and adrenaline.
The stakes were higher than they had ever been before.