Chapter 7: Consolation
Narcissa Malfoy's gardens were the part of the imposing manor with which she was most reasonably pleased: aside from the aisles of medicinal herbs and plants essential for basic potion-making, there was an amazing variety of pale coloured orchids, which posed a stark contrast to the few, but majestic and well placed, bushes of blue roses. Their centre housed a gazebo that sheltered a round crystal table, and the overall impression was one of artificial harmony, an imposed perfection which felt unnatural. It was there Narcissa was used to have tea with her private guests.
That evening she handed Severus a slice of bran and fig pie, which she knew to be his favourite, and an enigmatic half-smile fluttered on her lips while her manicured hands lifted a teapot, immaculate porcelain adorned with coppery runes, to pour ginger tea into two small cups.
Her hair, of a honey blonde so different from her husband's silvery mane, was held back with a small ring of entwining hawthorn twigs, in a manner that was fashionable lately among noble women. The symmetry of her features displayed a cool kind of beauty which people were more apt to appreciate in inanimate works of art than in another human being, but the occasional lovers she collected never seemed too put out by this, nor by her rarely passionate temperament, although to be sure the lady didn't keep them around long enough for such problems to arise. As for Lucius, Severus remembered that his sexual preferences leaned more toward teenage boys he could control than complacent wives distantly related to him, and this lack of interest (or his presumption?) prevented him from suspecting her as one would suppose he would.
The only thing that had ever sparked a desperate affection in her heart was her blood-kin, with particular reference to her sisters and her only son, Draco; but Narcissa was able to put them aside as well, if she was so inclined. She liked to cultivate her solitude, and the only means of independence she had was her ability to keep an emotional distance.
Death Eaters were a close-knit unit, bound together by beliefs and bloodlines but more strongly yet by the ceremonial magic they had shared, because every ritual, Dark or light, created bindings which went beyond the material realm. Severus took little satisfaction in participating in the social gatherings organized at each of the Wheel of the Year's turnings by those social circles whose acceptance had once been denied him. It was probably for her cautious, detached nature - similar to his own - that Severus drew enjoyment from Narcissa's company on those occasions, and it was because of that that he allowed her now to lead the conversation, indulging with good grace her need to deepen his knowledge about Draco's most recent explosions of wild magic and her intention to organize a private feast for the Winter Solstice.
"You will be present, naturally. I can't imagine you would miss having a laugh at Egram Ruthven's expense. It seems he came back to England with the intention of finding a spouse. Chances are he will find himself on Messaline's carnet before he can hear of her previous marriages."
Messaline Zabini had been Head Girl the year Severus was sorted - a strikingly beautiful Ravenclaw famous for being already engaged from the age of fifteen to a man who might have been her grandfather. Not many had been surprised that the old man had barely lived six months past their nuptial ceremony, but this certainly changed when her second husband, of a younger age and more consistent patrimony, went the same route. It was singularly amusing how her recent decision to reclaim her maiden name and impose it on her son had given rise to more rumours than her shady reputation. He would genuinely regret not witnessing the hassle her provocative presence usually caused - but not enough to miss one second of the upcoming festivities with Lily. She had always been very fond of Christmas time.
"A shame I will be forced to decline your invitation, then. I'm among the teachers designated to stay at Hogwarts for the whole break this year."
"Your absence will be noticed with sadness." Narcissa said it without irony or warmth. She would send an invitation all the same, as etiquette demanded, and he would write back the same excuses with identical motivation.
"I must confess this isn't simply a courtesy visit."
Narcissa tilted her head to one side, intrigued but not noticeably displeased or surprised. "It isn't?"
"I met Regulus Black recently." This seemed to shake her; her smile thinned as she averted her gaze from his and slowly placed her cup back on its plate.
"How is he? "
Her question sounded as if she was on the verge of faltering, and Severus understood she was ashamed of that weakness, because circumstances obliged her to show indifference toward her cousin as much as toward her sister Andromeda, who had committed the much greater offence of marrying a Muggleborn. It was her husband who had almost murdered Regulus.
Severus scoffed, pretending malice. "I suppose it came to your attention he was being cured at Hogwarts last summer."
Narcissa nodded; it was no wonder that she knew in spite of each other's situation in the past year which had seen Severus inside Malfoy Manor without the matter being mentioned or acknowledged in the slightest. Lucius was on the school's Board of Governors, which meant he had a privileged channel of information regarding the projects conducted inside Hogwarts, even the ones kept under wraps, which came to his ears eventually, even if sometimes significantly late.
"His health has greatly improved," Severus said in a thoroughly revolted and yet bored tone, as if he couldn't imagine a less proficient way to spend his time than talking about Sirius Black's younger brother, "but I found myself assisting him during an instance of delirium." He disregarded the curiosity flitting across the blonde woman's face; it wouldn't be wise to disclose too many details about Regulus' current condition independently of the unsoundness of the information he was intent on spreading.
"Why would he be raving?" There was once again a sense of guilt and helpless concern in her inquiry, a testament to her awareness that she wasn't supposed to care - a tool he could easily use against her to redirect the conversation into the path of his choice.
"As I've already said, he is hardly in mortal peril," he said as if it was the only part of the news that would hold any possible relevance to her. The briefest furrowing of her brows in response could have indicated flickering anger as well as frustration. "But you will find it far more interesting to know he had given out more than a few indications about a certain diary Lucius received from the Dark Lord before his fall."
Narcissa blanched and instantly retreated behind a mask of ineffable vapidity. She entwined her fingers first over her lap and then under the table, her stance a just a touch straighter and stiffer. Her gaze was cast downwards for a short moment but when it met his anew, her mental barriers were up and steady. While they both knew Severus was capable enough of breaking through them, he couldn't do so without alerting her and so violating her hospitality. Nonetheless, her voice was candy-sweet and the curve of her lips unfazedly demure.
"I suppose it would be pointless to deny in the face of a wizard so expert in the mind arts."
If anyone had raved about potentially relevant novelties on his watch, he would have been a fool to not use Legilimency both to assure himself of their soundness and to learn more.
"Dumbledore knows nothing of it," he assured her, "but I think Lucius brought on your family more danger than he realized in agreeing to guard that artefact."
"When the Dark Lord favours you, personal risk is something one must accept."
With calculated swiftness, Severus grabbed her wrist, pinning her slender hand under his larger palm. The gesture startled Narcissa noticeably and she looked up at him with bewildered eyes, seemingly enraptured with the tumult she found reflected in his pale, gaunt visage.
"I should stay silent," he snarled in a low voice, maintaining a balance between struggling self-control, suppressed emotion, and a nuance of self-loathing, "but how can I, when I value your friendship so?" He felt the woman tense under his rough hold, and while silence stretched between them her full attention was on him.
"What is that diary?"
"From the little I was able to deduct, a Darkling."
Her pupils dilated with fear and horror, to which Severus could relate only too well. A Darkling was an extremely dangerous artefact of Necromancy. Its inner dynamics and forms could encompass an extraordinary variety, suiting the Necromancer's deeper inclinations, but it had only a single purpose: it had to look like an innocuous enough object to be camouflaged inside an adversary's house or living environment so it would absorb, day after day, the life force of local inhabitants until it evolved into an animate creature similar to an Inferius, which the wizard could use as a living reservoir of magical energy. It was a magical equivalent of a rechargeable battery, very appreciated in Dark rites.
"Lucius wouldn't -"
"He wouldn't have known."
"It's not possible. Why would he punish us so? This family has done nothing but serve him most faithfully," she muttered, but from the fine trembling of her fingers, Severus was sure she was on the verge of believing him.
"Our master was rightly exigent with his followers. Who can tell how Lucius could have failed to please him? And what could I possibly gain from lying to you, Narcissa?"
"You tell me, Severus. Why would you want something our lord entrusted to my husband?"
Her flaring defiance didn't impress him. He knew the basis for his lie was well-grounded: all he had to do was give her an excuse to want to believe.
"Why should I bother to gain something which would cost me my life in the eventuality of our lord's return?" He caressed the back of her hand with his thumb, feeling her shiver in response. "You were always a good friend to me, Narcissa. Allow me to deserve your alliance."
Severus Snape had not ever stopped considering sexual intercourse as a rather debasing necessity. The belief had deep roots: as a child he had always been rather resentful of his parents for forcing him to take notice of their extracurricular activities. The walls of their modest habitation in Spinner's End had been too thin: when Tobias came back from the mill fatigued and irritable or completely inebriated from one of his foolhardy nights, it was nearly impossible to stay insensible to the undisguised, demanding forcefulness with which he dragged Eileen away from any activity in which she was already engaged (be it sleeping or cooking or sweeping the floor) to their bedroom. Severus had loathed her acceptance of that brutal treatment as much he had been unable to understand it. But after he was sorted into Slytherin it had been simple, so simple, to consider sex as only another means to an end and not mind about being used and abused until he could obtain something out of it.
It came as a surprise to learn that his disposition hadn't changed after the fall of Voldemort.
In the end, Narcissa gave him the Horcrux and took his hands after he had tucked it inside his robes, praying with him that it would be destroyed. He brought her hands to his lips, promising that she had no reason to fear for her family any more, and didn't protest when she pulled him wordlessly into her private chambers. It wasn't the first time Lady Malfoy had welcomed him in her bed - there had been a few similar, inconsequential occurrences over the years of their acquaintance - and Severus had resigned himself to not comprehending the preference Narcissa had accorded to him, but he had waved it off as an ulterior demonstration of the Black genetic appetite for inner and external ugliness. It would explain the unwavering Bellatrix's lust for the Dark Lord's inhuman physique, or the broadcast veneration of her cousin Sirius toward James Potter.
Sexual intercourse was a powerful, if temporary, mystical bond and it was easy to exploit in ways Narcissa hadn't the knowledge to imagine. His mind touched hers as constantly his hands did her naked flesh and her thoughts skimmed on a surface so clear that he could almost literally read them.
It was simple enough to taste her skin and move into her eyes without losing sight of his end goal, to plunge inside her memory while the heat of their bodies melted into one haze, pulling and tearing at it in places so very subtly that her suffering danced on the edge of her awareness...and then when it was over in a tangle of sweaty limbs and immaculate silken sheets, he rolled to her side, vaguely pleased with his ability to so completely disengage his body from his mind that he could carry on two activities so different with equal satisfaction, but slightly irked by the contrast his yellowish pallor posed to the glowing candour of the sheets. It made him look as if his skin was grimy.
He turned his face to confront two cerulean, lucid eyes and a swollen rosy mouth. He pulled at her memory again, willing his mind to tend the cord of an invisible arrow, dissolving her awareness of their most important object of discussion and of his fraud in a dusty mist.
"Oblivate," he whispered against her lips, fisting his hand in her blonde mane.
It was a spell so much smoother and more precise when guided by Legilimency.
It was intensely satisfying to listen to Tom Riddle's diary's high-pitched screams of agony while Albus Dumbledore pierced it through with Gryffindor's blade, showing a strength unexpected in a man of his age. Severus had avoided touching that abomination as much as possible, and the relief he had felt at handing it over to Dumbledore had been shamefully palpable. Severus' smirk fell when the Headmaster, contemplating the now empty pages, asked how Lucius Malfoy would deal with the disappearance of the object.
"Narcissa' s recollection of our encounter differs significantly from mine. I've blurred her memory of her late adventure with Regulus for safety as well. When Lucius eventually notices, there will be no way to trace it back to me."
Albus nodded, but the wrinkles on his ancient visage seemed to deepen. "If we are to give credit to Regulus Black's colouring of past events, it's likely Voldemort commanded others among his key enforcers to keep other Horcruxes in their custody."
"Do you think he has willingly made more than two?"
Even from an ex-Death Eater's world-weary perspective, the idea of anyone inflicting such a violation on himself was revolting.
"If his soul was so unstable as to splinter and attach itself partially to Neville the night the child was marked, he must have made more than two or three." Seven or nine was the most likely number; thirteen would be been too much even for Tom Riddle's megalomaniac aims, and those were the numbers with the highest magical symbolism.
Severus tried unsuccessfully to swallow the bitterness that rose in his throat while Albus continued to fill the air with words he would prefer to never hear. "Regulus will ask Cornelius Fudge for a special pass to enter Bellatrix and Rodolphus Lestranges's vault at Gringotts, since Rabastan - their appointed heir - is in Azkaban, supposedly to recover a family heirloom his cousin took from him. Given our Minister's respect for old nobility, I imagine he will be forthcoming; but even so, it isn't to say we will find what we seek."
While the Ministry had, in theory, full authority on patrimonial propriety of those who received a life sentence to Azkaban, there were rare precedents of interference with the Goblins' administrative policies at the wizarding bank, which would keep the Ministry from claiming his goods until Rabastan was deceased or Kissed.
"Perhaps Felix Felicis could smooth over the process and render Regulus more persuasive."
"Probably, Severus, probably."
Severus spent the remainder of his day within Hogwarts' walls coping with a bizarre but inescapable feeling of alienation from those around him. It was evident to him - however ill-disposed he was to dwell on it - that while no Auror would obtain the diary using the means he had utilized, no Death Eater, reformed or not, would have taken on that task without coercion or a chance of personal gain.
While he wouldn't hesitate to consider himself a Dark wizard, it had became very apparent that he lingered, metaphorically speaking, in a no-man's-land. Narcissa had indeed demonstrated respect and a maternal kindness to him in his youth, inciting him to prove that the pure blood in his veins overpowered its taint, treating him like an equal in spite of her suspicions regarding his origins. Yet he hadn't hesitated to betray her acceptance and his appreciation of it by taking a conscious decision to endanger her, because there was still a war in motion and he had chosen the opposite side of the fence, in spite of his anything-but-moralistic motivations. He had set himself a goal at the very beginning; but the path toward that had changed him and he didn't know how much or when it had begun, and now his goals were different. There was no imperative to protect Lily any more, not like before, but somehow it made no difference. He had tasted freedom, and there was no turning back to being a slave. He was still a Death Eater, yet he wasn't.
"Your gloominess is scaring even Slytherins today." Lily slid onto the seat beside his at dinner, grinning as if she was in a playful mood.
"I try to stay in shape."
"You manage admirably well."
He glared at her half-resentfully, searching her expression for any traces of ill-meaning irony and finding none. Lily seemed either to not notice or to dismiss his reaction, filling her plate with an abundant portion of black pudding and attacking it with gusto.
"I take you had a good day."
"Charity and I took Harry for a long walk outside, almost to the edge of the Forest. We met Hagrid and went over to his hut for tea."
Severus had seen the two women going out of the castle, chatting as if they were old friends, each one grasping one hand of the child who stood between them. It was good that there was at least one other person of her age Lily could talk to besides him. In retrospect, he could see why it would cheer her up: she spent far too much time playing recluse with her brat inside the medical ward.
Her voice lowered as she leaned her head toward him. "He thought Harry was the cutest child he had ever seen."
It was a compliment she couldn't have heard often, and even if such a comment could only have come from a half-giant obsessed with all sorts of dangerous and sickening beasts, in seeing how it had moved her, Severus felt a glimmer of reluctant gratitude for the rough groundskeeper.
"Well," he felt bound to admit, stabbing his roasted duck a bit too forcefully with his fork, "he does have your eyes. It more than makes up for his appalling resemblance to his father."
He slanted her a glance, suddenly regretting having said what might pass for an insult, but Lily looked anything but offended. Her grin grew wider, as if his opinion had amused her, and she leaned over again, ruddy tresses spilling over her shoulders and contrasting so pleasantly with her black robes. "I promise I won't tell anyone you said that. It would so ruin your reputation."
Seeing that impish expression on her face again after so long, directed at him, caused something in his chest to shake and break free - like an echo of the girl she had been, calling back a fragment of him which was supposed to have died and decomposed. It was that fragment that responded to her humour in kind, with a voice that to his ears sounded most unlike his own. "Nobody would believe you anyway."
It must have been just the right thing to say, for once, because Lily gave a snort of laughter that seemingly lit her up from within. Severus felt disoriented, as if at the same time he couldn't breath and yet too much oxygen had rushed to his brain.
It wasn't a completely undesirable sensation.