I would have never left the office if I did not have to. But Severus was right; we could not afford to take any unnecessary risks now. One never knew when the Carrows could return, and if they found me in Severus's arms... No, I did not even dare think of it. And so instead of following the call of my heart, I arranged to meet Severus a week later in his house on Spinner's End, and after one last parting kiss I quickly left the office before I could change my mind.
As I had resolved, it was to the Slytherin common room that I next directed my steps, where I expected Draco to be. I had asked Severus for the password, and so it was into the midst of a group of surprised faces that I unexpectedly walked through the stone doorway. Still, none of the students looked quite as surprised as Draco himself, whose eyes lit up like Christmas lights upon sighting me, and he all but ran to greet me. We found an empty classroom then, so that he could hug me without fear of losing face in front of his classmates. And then we talked. We talked about poor Lucius, and how he was coping without his wand. We talked about the Dark Lord's gatherings Draco had missed while at school. We talked about the upcoming war, and how we no longer really cared who came out victorious, as long as our family survived. We talked about the discipline at Hogwarts, which now seemed more like a prison than a school. We talked about the students' mounting dislike of the sadistic Carrows. We talked about the growing unpopularity of Severus, who was believed to be encouraging them, and whose own treatment of students was not far from matching theirs. I wished I could tell Draco that Severus was only following the Dark Lord's orders (so he had told me when I had asked, and I had no reason to believe otherwise), not to mention secretly disobeying them when he thought them too cruel. But that would mean admitting that I had visited Severus, and I did not dare risk Draco mentioning this fact to his father. If only I could tell Draco the truth! After all, he was keeping nothing from me now, so it pained me not to be able to do the same. But no, it could never be. Draco would never understand that I could not make Lucius happy unless I had Severus. Sometimes it seemed a little twisted even to myself. And so I eventually left my boy with him being none the wiser, and with me feeling more than a little guilty. All I could do to make it up to him was to promise to visit him again soon, together with Lucius, perhaps.
As I walked back to Hogsmeade, however, all my guilty feelings were quickly forgotten as my thoughts turned back towards my meeting with Severus. Somehow I still found it difficult to believe that we would be seeing each other again. I guessed that after all those months of tears and despair I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel anything else. I suddenly felt as light as a feather. I wanted to skip, I wanted to dance. But since people would probably look at me strangely if I did that, I settled instead for buying a few items in the local shops to support my alibi, and then headed home in the highest of spirits.
I found Lucius sitting on the sofa, staring into empty space with a glass of Firewhisky in his hand. Poor, poor Lucius. So lost was he in his agonizing thoughts that he did not even glance up when I came. I knew that if I wanted to make amends, I could not have found a better time to start. And so I dropped my shopping bags onto the floor, swiftly crossed the room and took a place next to him on the sofa, draping my arm over his shoulders as I did so and placing a gentle kiss on his cheek.
"I'm sorry I took so long," I said contritely. "It occurred to me that I could visit Draco while I was there. You should come with me next time. The boy needs us. The school feels like a crypt now."
Lucius finally turned to look at me then, and I was shocked to see how strained he appeared. His eyes were bloodshot and it seemed as if he had not shaved for several days.
"That does not surprise me," he said gloomily. "The Dark Lord has mastered the art of undermining one's spirits to its finest points. If I could, I would bring Draco home straight away."
"We can ask him to come at Easter," I suggested. "The less time he spends at that cursed place, the better."
"Not that it matters," Lucius continued, as if he had not heard me. "Our days are numbered whatever we do. The Dark Lord has no use for us; he will sacrifice us at the first opportunity that suits him."
I looked at him, aghast. I knew that Azkaban had scarred him badly, but I had no idea that he harboured thoughts quite so pessimistic. It just went to show how much attention I had been paying him lately. Well, that was about to change now. Taking his hand in mine, I ran my thumb gently over his palm, saying, "Ssh, Lucius, you mustn't talk like that. The Dark Lord has other things on his mind now than punishing us. Also, Draco has rendered him a great service. Dumbledore would never have fallen had it not been for his help. Surely the Dark Lord is aware of that."
"If he is, then why did he take my wand?" howled Lucius, his face suddenly contorted with agony. "Why not somebody else's?"
"I think you should feel privileged that the Dark Lord had chosen your wand," I said soothingly, though I knew very well that what I was saying was complete nonsense. "I'm sure Bella would have given anything to have been granted such an honour."
"It is not an honour, Narcissa!" yelled Lucius, looking as though he would burst into tears any moment. "He's punishing me, I know it! He only got me out of Azkaban to destroy me completely! He took my wand, he's treating my house as if it belonged to him ... only Merlin knows what he's got in store for me next."
"He's got nothing in store for you," I said firmly, opting for a change of tactics as I realized that gentle persuasion would get me nowhere. "It's only you seeing demons where there are none. But even if you were right, even if the Dark Lord was planning to punish you further, what use is there brooding over it? Will it help anything? Will it prevent what's coming? No. So I suggest you get off that sofa and enjoy life while you still can. The garden's covered with snow; it looks like a winter fairyland. Let's take a walk in it. Perhaps the fresh air will help you clear your head."
And before he could muster as much as a word of protest, I briskly extracted the whisky glass from his fingers, seized his hands and pulled him up from the sofa. He swayed a little, but quickly found support in my shoulder, and so with him leaning on me we made our way into the hall. I called for the maid to bring us our fur-lined cloaks, and after we had thoroughly wrapped ourselves in them in order not to catch a chill, I led Lucius into the cold night air outside.
As I had advertised, the garden did indeed look enchanting. The snow glittered in the light of the lanterns scattered among the bushes, and crunched beneath our feet as we walked, arm in arm, along paths whose position we could only guess at. We did not talk. I had said all I had wanted to, while Lucius simply gazed around in wonder. He rather looked as though he was seeing the world for the first time. It did not surprise me; I dared not even guess when he had last taken a walk.
"Look," he said suddenly, pointing. "A squirrel."
I glanced in the indicated direction and indeed, a ginger squirrel was hopping in the snow, leaving little paw prints behind. I gave Lucius a smile, feeling strangely moved. It was as if we had gone back in time, and I was a young girl and he was courting me again. And at that moment it seemed to me that maybe, just maybe, there was still hope for the two of us.
And so it went on, day after day. In order not to let Lucius's mind wander into dangerous waters, I made sure to keep him occupied at all times. We went for long walks, we played wizard chess, we invited friends over to keep us company. Once we even had a snowball fight, believe it or not. Still, it was slow progress. There were times when Lucius fell into one of his fatalistic moods no matter what I did, and that was when he poured himself a generous amount of Firewhisky and the look in his eyes told me not to even attempt to stop him. But I was patient. Whenever things got too bad I thought of the upcoming meeting with Severus, and that is how I retained my will to keep going. After all, I could not expect Lucius to get better overnight. Sensing improvement, however small, was enough to keep me happy. I beamed every time Lucius's expression lost a little of its sombreness. I rejoiced at every glass of Firewhisky I managed to talk him out of. My heart skipped whenever a ghost of a smile crossed his features.
Keeping both Lucius and myself busy in this way, it so happened that the days flew by surprisingly quickly, and before I knew it I found myself heading towards Severus's house, all thoughts of Lucius momentarily left behind as my whole body filled with anticipation at seeing my beloved again. Well, no, that was not quite right. I did feel that way a week earlier, that was true, but now, after all I had done for him, it was no longer possible to completely erase Lucius from my mind. And so, deep down, there was guilt eating away at my conscience; guilt at leaving Lucius alone, guilt at lying to him about where I was going (shopping seemed to have worked last time, so I saw no reason why I should not use it as an excuse again, knowing Lucius to despise the activity, thus making it highly unlikely for him to want to come with me).
As I knocked on the door of Severus's house, however, I firmly pushed all uncomfortable thoughts to the very back of my mind, determined to keep them there until the meeting was over. There would be plenty of time to feel guilty later, but for now I would let nothing spoil the happiness that had cost me so much to get.
The door opened a few seconds later, and there stood Severus, looking like a black angel as the light from the house illuminated him from behind. He smiled at me and beckoned me to come inside, and I followed as if in a trance, forgetting everything and seeing nothing but him. No sooner had he closed the door than I rushed into his arms and laid my head on his chest, blissfully inhaling the scent that I remembered so well. He wrapped his arms around me then, and placed a kiss in my hair, and I knew I had found heaven. I felt safe, I felt cared for. I felt as if nothing would ever go wrong again, if only I stayed in Severus's arms. But of course I could not, and so after some time we broke apart, and when I looked up it was only to meet Severus's gaze which was filled with such tenderness that it made my heart ache. I reached out and, ever so gently, ran my fingers down his cheek, as if to assure him that I knew how he felt, and that I felt the same. He closed his eyes at my touch, and seeing him so yielding I found I simply could not resist him, and I kissed him softly on his slightly parted lips. He responded immediately, and his kisses were gentle, as if I were a delicate flower that could break if not handled carefully enough. One of his hands had found its way into my hair, and I could feel it trembling slightly as it stroked me, with touches as light as a feather. I responded in kind, softly caressing his hair and his face, reveling in the sensation of his cool skin under my fingertips, all the while returning his kisses, a mere brushing of the lips. And then he pulled away and our gazes met, and the look he had given me before was nothing compared to the way he was regarding me now. Never had I seen so much emotion in one look, nor such intensity. And never would I have believed that anybody could look that way at me. It lasted only a few seconds, but I knew it would be burned into my memory forever, and I would see it in my dreams for the rest of my life. For now, however, the look was gone, for Severus had lowered his head and pressed his forehead against mine, and so we stood together, for how long I cannot tell, at peace with the world, living only for the moment and for each other. And when the magic passed Severus took my hand and led me out of the room and up the stairs, until we found ourselves standing in front of a closed door on the second floor. With one swift motion Severus pushed it open and led me in.
The first thing I saw was a single black candle burning on a small table by the wall, casting a soft light on the room we had entered. The only other furniture in the room was a battered chair standing by the table, and a large bed with sheets that definitely remembered better times. I had never before considered why Severus lived where he lived, but now a sudden realization dawned on me.
"Is ... is this your room?" I asked. "Is this where you grew up?"
Severus looked at me for a second or two, then at last gave a slight nod, looking as though it pained him to do so.
"So that means your parents are-"
"Oh. I'm sorry." I did not know what else to say.
"There is no reason to be. I cared little for either of them."
"Why? They didn't treat you well?" I could not believe the conversation had taken such a turn. Severus had never discussed his life with me before, so now that I was given the chance to unveil some of the mystery surrounding him, my curiosity definitely got the better of me.
Severus, however, did not look at all thrilled at having to dig up old memories. "They argued," he said gravely, his expression haunted, as if he had gone back in time, back to being a helpless child, cowering in the corner while his parents exchanged insults. "All the time. They seldom noticed when I left the room to escape the shouting."
"Oh." I no longer wanted to find out more. I felt Severus's pain when he talked about it as if it were my own, and all I wanted now was for him to feel happy again. Therefore I told him to come to me, and when he did – reluctantly, as if he were afraid that I would hurt him, or worse, pity him – I pulled him into a hug and I stroked his back, gently, soothingly, until I felt his tensed body relax. And then we kissed, and before I knew it I was lying on Severus's old bed, and Severus himself had pulled off my scarf and was now tracing soft kisses down the side of my neck, while his hands explored my body with loving caresses. There was no need to rush. We took our time as we peeled off each other's garments, showering each newly exposed part of the body with kisses and gentle touches. It was as if every crease, every curve, every hollow deserved special care, and would wither without it. Still, by the time Severus's wandering hands reached the area below my waist, I felt that the time for unhurried and tender gestures was over. As he slowly traced his fingers over the black lace of my knickers I had become so aroused it almost hurt, and so I quickly shed off that last piece of cloth and then unceremoniously guided Severus to penetrate me. His own arousal already more than notable, Severus was only too glad to obey, and so he slid into me as my breath caught in my throat and I dug my fingernails into the covers. Waves of delight washed over me as I felt him start moving inside me, but it was not enough, I needed him to go deeper, to tear my insides if need be, and so I pushed against him with all my might, again and again and again, moving ever faster, until my body arched in a final burst of pleasure and I fell back against the pillows, black spots dancing before my eyes. Only vaguely was I aware of Severus coming a few moments later, breathing heavily as he collapsed on the bed next to me.
I do not know how long we lay there, both silent, me with my head resting on Severus's bare chest. My brain was too clouded to think, so I was more than happy to just listen to the steady rhythm of Severus's heart, and let myself be lulled into a trance by the rising and falling motion of my human pillow. All I knew was that I was perfectly happy, and that I had just had the best sex of my life. I had never come anywhere near this with Lucius, naturally. Strangely enough, though, it had never been quite so good with Severus, either, despite having had numerous opportunities to try. Feeling his fingers wander idly into my hair, however, I had absolutely no doubt as to the reason of our sudden improvement. It was something that had been missing before, but was present now in every gesture. It was something I had been long past expecting to experience. It was love.
I still could not believe it. Where did it come from? How did it happen that one moment we were meeting only for sex, and the next we found ourselves lost in each other's eyes? Yes, I remembered only too well how the change had come over me. But Severus? What had made him change his mind? Him, who had seemed so determined not to love again?
I could not bear it, I had to know. Even if I did not get an answer, I would never find peace if I did not ask. And so I pulled his hand from my hair and gently ran my thumb over his fingers for a moment or two, before finally finding the courage to address him and, upon his encouragement to go on, bluntly ask, "All those months ago, you said you could never love me. Why?"
Although I could not see his face, I heard him sigh, but the words I expected to follow did not come. I did not like the silence. Unlike the comfortable silence before, this one seemed strangely ominous. Perhaps it had not been a good idea to pose the question, after all. But just as I was about to apologize and ask Severus to forget I had ever said anything he suddenly spoke.
"There was a girl I used to know," he said, and his voice was sad and somehow distant, as if he had gone back to the past again in his mind. "We were children when we first met, but she was special to me, even then. We became friends. I hoped that one day she would return my feelings, but instead she went and married someone else. And then ... she died. But not my love for her. She will always have a place in my heart. Always."
He finished and I turned to look at him then, and saw that there were tears in his eyes. Watching him, I felt like crying myself. Had it all been only my fantasy, then? That he had come to care for me? To love me? Had all the looks he had given me been fake? All the kisses? All the caresses? Could he really have been so cruel?
As if he sensed my distress, he seemed to snap out of his reverie then, for he quickly wiped his eyes, and then turned to look straight at me. "I apologize," he said, sounding, to my relief, like his normal self again. "I have been a little too blunt, perhaps. But I shall answer your question now, and that should dispel any doubts about me you may have formed. You asked me why I had told you that I could never love you. The reason is simple – because at that time I sincerely believed it to be true. I had loved that girl all my life; it had never even crossed my mind that I could love another. But when Lucius returned and I found myself alone again I realized that I missed your company. It was nothing more than that at first. But as the days went by the feeling grew stronger. It was no longer possible to dismiss it as mere loneliness. But I was confused. My feelings for the girl had not changed, and yet I wanted you. I felt as if I were betraying her. And so I fought it. I tried to forget you. But my attempts turned out to be futile. Finally I realized I would have to learn to live with it. I decided to treat you as just another woman whom I had lost to another. And so it would have stayed, had you not come to visit me, had you not poured out your heart to me. Even then I had no intention of renewing the affair. There was Lucius, there was the Dark Lord. But above all, there was the girl. I still felt I would lose something if I gave my love to you. But then you said what you did, and I realized that I did not want to let another chance go to waste. The girl was dead, and I was alive. So I would live, while I had the chance. I finally saw that my memories of the girl, and my love for her, would remain the same, regardless of what I did. For that I wish to thank you."
He finished and lowered his gaze, as if unable to face me after revealing so much, as if convinced I would think less of him now. I wish I could have told him otherwise, but I was moved beyond words. I still could not believe that he had actually confided in me, that he had opened his heart to me. Even if he had told me that he loved he it would not have meant so much to me. And so at last I found my voice and, with tears in my eyes that were threatening to spill, managed to choke out, "And I ... I thank you for telling me all this. It can't have been easy, I know. And to think that I doubted you! You cannot imagine how much I regret it now. But ... for a moment there I really thought ... when you said ... you know..." I trailed off, unable to look Severus in the eye. I felt like a fool. How could it have ever occurred to me that Severus was faking his feelings was beyond me. Then again, I guessed it was to be expected. Nobody had ever loved before. Why should they? All my life they had told me I was nothing, and would become something only when I married. How could I hope to change these ingrain beliefs in a week? But, Merlin, I would try. Severus had already worked wonders on my mental state when we were seeing each other half a year ago, and he did not love me then. Surely the healing effect he had on me would work twice as well now that he did? Feeling him wrap his arms around me as he brushed his lips over my forehead, I did not doubt it.