The ghost appears just before tea, collapses in the doorway with a soft thud. Narcissa takes one step back. She casts petrificus totallus--a child's spell, but practical--and levitates him into the drawing room.
"Narcissa," Lucius says. "I thought I heard someone at the--"
Severus is half-dead. Perhaps more than half. "Less than fully corporeal," Narcissa says. She presses a finger against his wrist; it slips through the ghostly skin, but the sharp bone of his wrist presses back against her. "And yet not fully non-corporeal either."
Lucius casts a few diagnostic spells, though he's never been particularly good at them. His wand glows yellow. Blue. Yellow again. "Fascinating," he says. He looks almost obscenely excited. "I've never heard of such a thing."
"Should we call for the healer?" Narcissa asks. She brushes a lock of hair behind her ear. They've kept a low profile since moving to Tramonti, but a local healer agreed to a fidelius in exchange for a decidedly higher fee when they'd called him in to check Draco's case of dragonpox. She doesn't trust him, but he's bound to keep their secrets.
"I'm," Lucius says. He coughs. "I'm not sure he could help."
"The question is rather more one of whether or not he'd actively hurt matters," Narcissa says. Lucius wraps his hand around her wrist, rubbing his thumb against her skin. She leans into him. Allows herself to be comforted.
They lifted the petrificus as soon as they'd settled Severus on the settee, but he does not move. It is hard to discern whether or not he is properly breathing; his chest moves, but the effect is rather of a hummingbird flapping its wings. Impossible to focus on without casting a lentementus.
Lucius kisses her ear. She turns and kisses the corner of his mouth. He sighs. "I'll owl the healer," he says. "I doubt he'll do any good, but--"
"We can obliviate him before he leaves," Narcissa says.
"Yes," he says. "That would be best."
The village healer tuts and pokes, casts irrelevant charms and impossible spells. Pulls a worn book from a hidden pocket and consults with dead men. He is a fool, so of course he does not recognize that fact.
"Hm," he says. He shrinks the book. Returns it to his pocket. "Hm."
Lucius casts the obliviate; Narcissa thanks him for helping with her migraines as she presses a bag of galleons into his fat palm. "Grazie," he says. "Remember to take the potion I--"
"Yes, yes," Narcissa says, "I'll contact the apothecary directly."
They usher him to the door, lock and ward the house behind him. Lucius brushes a strand of hair away from his face. Sighs dramatically. Narcissa kisses him--a quick peck, nothing more--and walks back into the sitting room to check on their patient.
Lucius paces behind her. Severus remains preternaturally still, a slight hissing sound the only hint he may still be alive. His neck is a mess: shredded skin and muscle, incorporeal blood disappearing into the upholstery.
"Perhaps," Lucius says. He stops. Taps his finger against the wall. "Severus' library is."
"Draco," Narcissa says, "Yes. Of course."
"He may have burned the lot of them," Lucius says. He won't look at her; won't look at Severus, either, just stares blankly at the ugly wallpaper left to them by the house's previous owner.
"We really should redecorate," Narcissa says.
"He did threaten to do so," Lucius says.
They neither of them speak. A minute passes, maybe more. There's a scritching sound upstairs; the floorboards creak, and Narcissa calls for the house elf. "Emmy," she says, "Wake Master Draco."
The house elf pops away. Lucius brushes his hair back from his face; there's silver in it, Narcissa realizes, long silver strands that she doesn't remember being there before.
"We ought to make Draco take up an apprenticeship," Narcissa says. "Charms, perhaps."
"Charms?" Lucius wrinkles his nose.
"Something appropriate to his status," Narcissa says. "Practical enough that he'll be able to support himself should the Ministry succeed in its quest to gain access to our vaults, but nothing so gauche as a practicum in herbology or teaching."
"Dark arts would," Lucius begins. Narcissa shakes her head. Lucius presses his palm to Narcissa's cheek. She kisses him, and he runs a thumb along the shell of her ear. "No, no, you're correct, as usual."
There's a chill in the air--the manor is old and prone to haunting--and Narcissa resets the warming charms. There are footsteps upstairs. Water creaks its way through the pipes.
Narcissa's Latin is rusty; words creaking as they translate into English in her head. She could cast a translating charm--Lucius, she notes, did so immediately upon opening his book--but she rather relishes the challenge.
"Nothing," Lucius says. "All I've been able to ascertain is that Severus is neither a ghost nor a poltergeist, at least according to the traditional definitions." There's a smudge of ink down his cheek. Narcissa doesn't point it out. When he drops his book to the floor, the book jumps back up. Bites him on the wrist.
"Merde," he says.
"Oh, hush," she says, "You're as English as I am. Now hold still, I'll need to—Emmy, bring me the potions from the cabinet under the washbasin in the main bathroom—really, Lucius, you're worse than Draco. Hold. Still." She takes his arm in her hand and starts casting diagnostic spells.
Lucius sulks. "Well," he asks, "Am I dying? Was that, that thing, fatally cursed?" Narcissa holds in her laughter. There's a line of paper cuts across Lucius's forearm, criss-crossing so they form a tartan to rival anything that McGonagall bitch ever wore.
Emmy arrives with the potions, and Narcissa hands her husband the bottle of analgesic potion. "One dose," she says, "No more. Then we'll heal your arm."
"Will it have to be regrown?" His expression reminds him of Draco's the time he ate a pepper Severus brought them from South Asia. Severus maintained to the end that it was meant to be an ingredient in a fertility potion to aid them in their ultimately futile quest to give Draco a younger sibling to boss around, but Narcissa has always had her doubts. Severus had smirked before tending to Draco with a numbing spell and a chocolate frog. The ghastly man; she's not quite sure why it is they're trying to help him.
Narcissa kisses Lucius's forehead. "You are lucky," she says, "That I love you." She sets to healing the cuts on his arm—they need to be healed one at a time, but it is otherwise simple work—and Lucius hisses as each cut closes. "It was a simple charm, nothing more insidious than that. Severus's mother probably set it so he wouldn't write any of his little notes in that particular volume."
She finishes, and Lucius leans back in his chair. Summons a bottle of Firewhisky and holds it up to her, offering. "No," she says. She gestures back toward her abandoned book and scrolls. "I think there might be something in here. I'll work a little longer."
"As you wish," Lucius says. He pours himself a stiff drink and settles in. He's always enjoyed watching her work.
Narcissa is in the bath. Her neck is sore, and her fingers are cramping.
"He's moving," Draco shouts. "The professor is moving!"
They've been taking turns sitting with Severus, so he won't be alone during any periods of lucidity. She sat with him through the night, poring over some of his marginalia. His handwriting is atrocious. The muggle pater must've taught Severus his letters; no self-respecting witch would allow her son to attend Hogwarts without a clearer differentiation between a's and o's. The arithmantical repercussions could be deadly.
Narcissa stands up and steps out of the tub; casts a drying spell on everything but her hair, which frizzes when she dries it magically. She pulls on her robe and takes a towel with her as she descends the stairs. She hops from the third step up onto the floor. She laughs, feeling slightly ridiculous, and walks more sedately into the library.
Severus and Draco are silently arguing. Draco's hand is on Severus's shoulder--"He keeps trying to sit up," Draco says, "but he's too weak, and he needs to rest"--and Severus is practically vibrating.
"Boys," Narcissa says. She towels her hair. Severus looks up in her direction, but he won't look directly at her. His eyes keep sliding away. She wraps the towel around her head and resashes her robe. It does dip a bit low in the front.
"Mother," Draco says. His fingers can't quite make purchase on Severus's skin, and he looks like he's going to be ill. "I can feel his bones. I should not be able to-"
"Draco," Narcissa says. "Go wake your father." The boy can still move as quickly as a seeker when he chooses to. His hair is getting long. His forehead high.
She sits down on the edge of the sofa. Presses her hand against Severus's shoulder and leans over to measure how deep they slip beneath the surface. Severus freezes. His skin turns a ghastly red all over, and he closes his eyes. His eyelashes are uncommonly long, for a man.
He opens his mouth.
"Severus," she says. She holds a finger above his lips. "Don't try to speak. We're still not sure—well, about anything, really, to do with you. Nagini likely did damage to your vocal chords, in addition to... the rest."
He opens his eyes. Looks directly into hers; she focuses on her memories of parchment and ink, Latin words slowly transforming into English, her love of her son and her gratitude to Severus for keeping Draco safe. He nods.
She doesn't ask why. Perhaps he can still perform Legilimency. Maybe he sees no other choice but to trust her; he's weak, practically defenseless, probably scared. Let him keep his secrets. She wipes the hair away from his face. It's greasy, heavy between her fingers.
"Oh," she says. He blinks. "Your hair," she adds, "I can touch it. I didn't realize."
"Severus, you're awake," Lucius says.
Narcissa jumps. "I didn't hear you," she says.
"I know, I know," Lucius says. He walks up behind her. Places a hand between her shoulderblades, rubbing a thumb against the sore spot at the base of her neck. "You're going to transfigure a bell onto all of my boots. I'll just buy new ones, you know. A never-ending cycle." It's an old joke. She smiles.
Severus scowls. She assumes he's making a scathing remark about money in his head, but as she can't hear it she won't take offense. "I was just about to report on our progress to Severus," she says. "I don't think it would be empty flattery for me to say that he's the most intelligent of any of us, and that we could use his assistance should he wish to be cured."
Lucius grins her favorite of his grins: shark-like and completely vicious.
"Lucius," she says.
"Don't worry," he says, "I can play nice."
"Of course," Narcissa says. She turns her attention to Severus. He looks even paler than normal, save for the blotches of red at his cheeks and ears. "Your handwriting is rather incomprehensible. Did you truly write your NEWTS like that, or is it some sort of code to keep we plebians from enjoying your insights?"
Severus opens his mouth, then snaps it shut. He lifts an arm--"Did you know he could do that?" Lucius asks—and tilts his hand from side to side. When he drops his arm, it slips beneath the surface of the sofa for a moment before resettling on top of the quilt she'd laid out for him.
Narcissa laughs. "A little of both, then," she says. "Well, I'll need your help translating."
Severus turns his head to look at Lucius. "Oh, no, old friend," Lucius says, "Narcissa is the worker bee in the family, I just supervise." Severus narrows his eyes. His entire body tenses.
"He just hates to do anything he finds even slightly challenging," Narcissa says.
"And I'm lazy," Lucius adds. He shrugs. "I'd much rather pay someone else to do the work for me."
Severus shakes, and his face looks contorted and strange. He's laughing. "Does that hurt?" Narcissa asks, and Severus only laughs harder. It almost looks like a fit, completely silent save for a soft hissing sound. "Only I can't recall you ever laughing at one of Lucius's bons mots before. I'm afraid you might be past any help now."
Lucius claps his hands. "Right," he says, "Which book was it you were working from, Cissy?"
Before she can answer, Lucius summons the correct book and starts setting up her quills and parchment on one of the levitating desks. He guides it toward the chair nearest the sofa and lowers it to the proper height. A pot of her favorite Darjeeling appears on the end table.
Narcissa runs a finger through a particularly lank clump of Severus's hair before standing. She wipes her hand against her robe. "As soon as we get you well," she says, "You are washing that hair until it no longer leaves oil stains on my linens."
Lucius sits down in the spot she vacates. He looks like he's forcing himself not to reach out, to try to touch Severus, and Narcissa kisses the top of his head as she heads toward the door. "Go," Lucius says, "Finish dressing. Severus and I are just going to have a little chat."
There's a potion involved, of course, and Severus can't brew. He hisses and turns colours, clacks finger bones against wrist bones, until they realize that there's enough wrong with the recipe as written that any attempts by Draco to brew it would end in failure. Possibly death. It's hard to tell how much is fact and how much is melodrama, with Severus.
They redouble their efforts to find a cure for Severus's voice. "If you could just tell us what needs to be changed," Narcissa says, "We'd have half a chance of brewing this properly. I did get my NEWT, and you always insisted that Draco actually earn his marks in your class."
Severus shrugs. He's lost most of the weight he put on during his year as Headmaster; eating is almost impossible for him, though he seems to be able to ingest nutritional supplements and vitamin potions without trouble. He hasn't starved to death yet, at any rate, if such a thing is even possible for someone in his state. No one knows.
"Right," Narcissa says. She summons the St. Mungo's Encyclopedia of Healing Spells and Miscellany, 43rd. ed., Infinite Version, and a quill. "We'll start with the supposition that it was a combination of the bite itself and some reaction caused by Nagini's venom that caused your inability to speak."
He glares at her. Shakes his head.
"We need to start somewhere," she says. "And I don't hear you offering any hypotheses."
He gives her a two-finger salute.
"Low blow, I confess," she says. Severus pulls himself into a sitting position by sheer bloody-mindedness, and she sits down next to him. She opens her book to the chapter on Serpentes, Arachnids, and other Common and Uncommon Venoms. Levitates it so they both can read.
At the other end of the room, Draco sets up the wizarding chess board. Lucius sits down across from him.
There are notes in Draco's handwriting along the margins. Severus tilts his head in Draco's direction, lifts an eyebrow in question. Draco is very studiously not looking in their direction. Lucius makes a move, and a pawn shuffles to its new square. "It's the last match in a best of three," Narcissa whispers. "Let him enjoy his time with his father."
Severus turns back to the book and waits for her to catch up. He's probably finished reading the entire page, but he's either learnt patience or he recognizes the futility in trying to turn the page himself.
She skims past the section on preventative measures. Halfway through "Recognizing and Diagnosing a Snake Bite," she realizes that there's a notice-me-not on that particular section. Something to stop her from actually focusing-- "Severus," she says, "What precautions did you take? Did you write them down?"
He actually smiles, the prat.
"They're not going to be of much use if I can't read them," she snaps.
He lowers his head, and she pushes the hair back from his eyes. Sometimes she wonders if he actually wants to survive, or if he's trying to punish her, them, for something. There's a humming sound, barely audible, and she's simultaneously drawn to his side and repelled across the room. It takes all the power she has to stand her ground. To remain within her own skin.
He's trying to cast, she realizes: wandless, wordless, impossible. He's trying to counter the spells on his book. "You are a self-destructive idiot," she says.
He collapses against the back of the couch. Eyes closed, mouth open, unconscious. She stands up and lets him fall into a prone position. The book follows her to Lucius's favorite wingback chair. She sits, and the book settles itself in front of her. It bounces a couple of times, and Narcissa is suddenly reminded of her childhood crup.
For the first time since they started going through Severus's library, everything from footnotes to marginalia is perfectly clear. Instantly legible. "Stubborn git," she mutters. "Stupid stubborn shortsighted suffering self-important stupid stupid Severus."
The sound of a knight smashing its sword against a rook distracts her. She glances up. Lucius is pouting. "Draco," Narcissa says, "I'm sorry to interrupt you just as you're closing in on victory, but I'm afraid I need your assistance with this."
Lucius smiles, and opens his mouth. Draco casts a stasis charm and a corresponding jinx on the game. Lucius's shoulders droop momentarily, and he straightens them in an instant. They both stand. "Of course, mother," Draco says.
Lucius looks ill at ease. He follows Draco for a couple of steps and then stops. "Shall I order tea?" he asks. "Is there anything I can do to-"
Draco sets the dictoquill. Lucius continues to stand in the middle of the room.
"Tea would be lovely," Narcissa says, "But we have house elves for that, Lucius, do stop trying to seem more helpful than you are. I know you'd prefer no one realize you've a brain under all that hair, but I'm afraid you'll just have to give up the ghost, so to speak."
Draco stifles a laugh.
"Yes," Narcissa says, "Ghosts, Severus, very funny. Now sit." Lucius almost drops to the floor like a child before shaking and settling in a wingback chair. Draco carefully accios the chair from his childhood study.
She points her wand at the book. "Recito."
When Severus finally opens his mouth to speak, the words that come out are in a Tyke accent so discomfiting, Narcissa has to force her hands into fists so as not to give into the temptation to cover her ears.
"Mam," Severus says. His eyes are glassy, unfocused. His voice cracks and scratches. "Is da down the-"
"Severus," Lucius says. He stands over Severus, hands pressed against hands. "Severus."
Severus shakes. They can't hold him down. They can only watch as he shakes and shakes and shakes; Narcissa half-expects his bones to vibrate their way through his skin and out of his body entirely.
"Draco," Narcissa says, "Go and fetch us-"
"I am not a child," Draco says, "Don't send me away. I can help."
Narcissa sighs. "On the bookcase nearest the window, there is a grimoire on the," she says. She stops to think. Skims the bookcase in her mind. "On the second shelf from the top. It snaps. Hold your hand over the spine for a full thirty seconds before picking it up." Draco nods, half-runs across the room. He traces the row of books with his finger. Careful not to touch.
He holds his palm to the spine, letting the book sense his magical core. The book leaps into his hand, and he winces. Silently. Narcissa tries to ignore her memories of a young boy who would cry out should a bee so much as fly past him. He holds the grimoire out, and it opens itself to the correct page.
"Here, this is the spell," Draco says. He glances back and forth between his parents. "It needs to be cast by two simultaneously."
Lucius presses his palm to the small of her back. "I should cast," he says. "Draco and I--this sort of magic isn't your strength, Cissy, or else I'd certainly--while you try to keep Severus's bones from dancing their way into the kitchens."
Narcissa sits on the arm of of the sofa; she can't quite manage to balance properly, and she feels rather absurd. She moves to the floor. Kneels so she's close to Severus's head and rests her hand on a spot near his ear. His hair tickles her skin when he moves, and she can't quite tell whether it's real or a memory. His mouth opens: a silent scream, spit that barely whispers against her cheek.
She focuses on the strand of hair stuck to his lip. The spit at the corner of his mouth.
Draco and Lucius begin to cast. Soft as her Aunt Walburga's old wireless, the one that hissed and whispered the news like a secret. Severus vibrates faster than a hummingbird, the movement tickling her skin where they touch. Smoke wisps up from his chest, forehead, groin.
"Hurry," Narcissa whispers. She presses her mouth against Severus's temple; it burns, and she jumps back. Licks her lower lip. She hums silently along with the spellcasting, remembering an old wives' tale that such things add to the potency of a spell.
Severus's skin goes black. Cracks open in long strips, up and down his entire body.
Narcissa clutches her wand. Her fingers begin to ache. Severus's face contorts with pain—sharp memories of the Dark Lord's endless cruciatus, Lucius's face blending into Severus's, Draco screaming while Dulciber ran his sharpened fingernail down Narcissa's neck—and Narcissa can barely refrain from casting an anesthetic spell.
She has never enjoyed pain. Something Bella, her beloved sister, couldn't understand.
Draco and Lucius stop casting. There's a bright light, and Severus's body levitates off the sofa. Narcissa opens her mouth, starts to say "anesth-," as Severus bursts into flames. Lucius pulls Narcissa back. His arm is warm across her chest, comforting; behind them, Draco sobs.
Ash fills the air.
She inhales, coughs. Bile fills her throat, and she bends double, hands over her stomach, as she vomits onto the priceless antique rug.
Her familiar silk sheets feel like a shroud where they wrap around her legs. Her head feels too heavy when she lifts it from the pillow. Draco snores next to her, lightly drooling, arms reaching out as if to comfort her.
She presses her hand to his. His fingers are long, like his father's, and his skin is soft.
"He is rather remarkable," Lucius says. He is sitting up on the opposite end of the bed, a copy of the Daily Prophet open in front of him. The ends of his hair are damp, curling slightly. "You were, ah--ill, shall we say?--and he sprang right into action. Cast an anti-nausea spell, gave you Dreamless, levitated you into bed. It was--"
"Oh," Narcissa says.
"--remarkable," Lucius says, again. He closes the Prophet.
"And Severus?" she asks. She remembers fire, smoke, the bile crawling up her throat.
Lucius folds the Prophet in half, then in half again. "He did not," he says, "That is to say."
Narcissa nods. Severus is dead. Draco begins to stir, fingers twitching against hers.
She waits until his eyes flutter open to lean forward, kiss his forehead, whisper "I love you" against his skin; it is all rather demonstrative of her, but the moment seems to require it. She slips out of bed. Her cheeks feel flushed. She closes the bathroom door behind her and leans against it, unsure whether or not she is about to cry.
She performs her ablutions and ties her hair back with one of Lucius's hair ribbons. She asks Emmy to fetch her her simplest robes, the ones she wears while brewing simple tinctures. She dresses quickly. Efficiently. When she returns to the bedroom, Draco is still abed and Lucius is looking at his son like he is a stranger.
Perhaps he is. Perhaps they all are, after a fashion, strangers.
"Draco," Narcissa says, "Darling. I should like to clean out the library this morning."
"We do have elves," Lucius says. He stands, adjusts his robes so they lay flat. The Daily Prophet returns from whence it came, likely a neighbor's windowsill, and Lucius smirks. "They do so dislike it when we do their work for them."
Draco yawns. Stretches his arms over his head and swings his legs over the edge of the bed. He clamors toward the bathroom without so much as a word, his hair a tangled mess down his back. Lucius walks up behind her, hand hovering over her shoulder.
"We can breakfast after," Narcissa says. She turns to face him, lifts her head for a kiss. They have been together for twenty years, give or take, and he still kisses her like they may never kiss again. His mouth tastes of mint. She bites down lightly on his lower lip.
"Full English, I think," he says, pulling back from her. He kisses her once more, a gentle press of lips, and summons their wands from the bedside table. He places hers in the palm of her hand, and her muscles relax. "After."
Draco joins them, wand held in front of him like they're going into battle. The descend the stairs together. The hall still smells of smoke, and bergamot. Narcissa forces herself to breathe. She is pleasantly surprised when she does not choke.
"Cissy," Lucius says. His voice breaks, sharp and tight. He stands motionless in the doorway.
"Not hardly," says—that voice, that distinctive diction. Narcissa pushes past Lucius, and Severus Snape is sitting on her slightly singed settee, none the worse for wear, reading one of his own books and nodding his head in greeting.
Draco slips into the room behind her. His wand still held high. "Professor?"
"Mister Malfoy," Severus says. His voice sounds of sandpaper. He presses his finger to mark his page, closes his book and sets it down next to him. "I should like to thank you for your assistance."
She starts moving without conscious knowledge of the fact, feet taking one step and another without her permission. Severus stands when she reaches him. She slaps him; he winces, and she slaps him again. His skin flushes. She presses her palm to his cheek, and the skin there is warm, slightly dry (a surprise, she would've thought his skin would feel as oily as his hair), perfectly solid. She rubs her thumb against the grain of his stubble, and he shivers.
"You prat," she says. His eyes widen, and she could laugh at him were she not so angry. "You sodding, fucking, horrible, prat, tell me you didn't know."
"I swear," he says, "I didn't."
She kisses him. It's over almost as quickly as it begins, a hard press of lips before pushing herself away. He teeters, sits down on the edge the sofa. She stalks over to the window; it's barely daylight, the sun just slipping over the horizon.
"Severus," Lucius says.
"Lucius." She hasn't heard that tone from Severus since he was at school, Lucius's tiny dark-haired shadow. Even after the Dark Lord's first fall, he'd always sounded decisive, sure: an act, surely, but a convincing one.
Lucius's footsteps, and the telltale creak of the sofa settling under another person's weight. Narcissa presses a thumb against her wrist, holds it there for a count of five. She exhales. Inhales. Focuses on her breathing until her emotions are properly under control.
"I find myself unsure whether I ought to cast you out onto the streets or welcome you home," Lucius says. He pauses, rather more for dramatic effect than any sense of discomfort. "I detest feeling like this."
Severus doesn't respond. Narcissa cranes her head, trying to catch sight of them reflected in the window.
"Professor," Draco says. She half-expects him to cast a jelly legs jinx, or a stinging hex. She can hear him swallow, pitch his voice into a careless drawl. "I should like to speak with you later this evening, if you're amenable. I have my studies to attend to at present—I'm starting my healers apprenticeship this autumn, have I said?--but there are some things I'd like to discuss with you."
Narcissa turns. Draco looks at her, chin titled high, and she smiles. He grins at her, and it hits her in the solar plexus, her son, smart and handsome and grown. How is she supposed to bear this?
"Of course," Severus says. His voice skips between words, a barely perceptible creak. Lucius summons Emmy with a whisper, requests a large pitcher of water. She pops back into the room with it, disappearing again with a crack.
Draco tilts his wand, a warning, and walks out the door. He takes the steps two at a time.
"I do," Severus says. Lucius pours him a glass of water, passing it into his hand. Severus drinks it greedily, turning the glass between his hands when he is done. "That is to say, I do apologize. I did not know, I--"
"Was there a phoenix?" Narcissa asks. She is careful to modulate her voice. The glass of the window is cold against her hand; the insulating charms need to be renewed, though they won't be rehiring that charlatan who did them the last time. She clasps her hands together. Rubbing them together for warmth.
Severus shrugs. He can be such a petulant child.
Narcissa crosses the room in four steps, counting them out carefully to keep herself from screaming. "Severus," she says. She sits down next to him, legs almost touching. He doesn't look at her, so she places her hands on his cheeks and turns his head to face her. "Was there a phoenix?"
"No," he says.
Lucius lifts the glass from Severus's hands and places it gently on the floor in front of them. He leans in to speak with his mouth against Severus's ear. "You don't sound particularly sure about that," he says. Severus flinches.
"It's impossible," Severus says. He holds his hands carefully in front of him. It's almost as if he's afraid to touch, to do something wrong, like they feel naked without something to hold. She wonders what happened to his wand. They'll need to procure him a new one. "The headmaster—Dumbledore, that is—had a phoenix as a familiar, but it disappeared when I killed. No, it's impossible."
Narcissa runs a hand through his hair. Her fingers come away slick with oil, and she briefly fantasizes about washing his hair in their sunken tub. "Perhaps," she says, "But perhaps not. This entire affair reeks of phoenix magic."
Lucius laughs, a light chuckle meant to diffuse the mood. "Ah," he says, "But isn't that all beside the point? You are here. Alive, as are we. Why waste time arguing about the methodology, when we could just enjoy the outcome."
"Not arguing," Severus says. He relaxes almost imperceptibly, his posture slightly less stiff. He smiles, and his mouth is as crooked as his teeth. "We were merely debating: an intellectual pursuit, Lucius, which is why you likely do not recognize it."
Narcissa leans against him, watches as Lucius carefully does the same on Severus's other side. Severus shivers, large wracking jerking movements, and Lucius casts a warming charm under his breath. Severus keeps shaking. Narcissa takes one of his hands and holds it between her own; Severus hyperventilates, looking panicked and embarrassed in equal measure.
"Breathe," she snaps, sharp and unsympathetic as she can make it. Severus swallows. Nods.
"Touch," he says. His teeth chatter, and he struggles to form words. "Not in, not for months, not."
"Too much?" she asks. Lucius sits perfectly still, waiting for Severus to dictate terms; he understands far more than he'll ever let on, and she reaches across the back of the sofa for his hand, careful not to touch Severus in the process.
Severus holds his breath for a moment, exhales loudly. She can feel him tensing and relaxing every muscle in turn. "No," he says, wonderingly. She marvels at the lack of artifice in his voice. "I just need a moment to adjust."
She weaves her fingers with Lucius's; their wedding rings touch, and his skin is soft and warm. Severus clasps her other wrist hard enough to leave a mark—she bruises so easily—though it doesn't hurt. His skin is cold, rough. Were she to look down, she's sure his cuticles would be jagged and potions stained.
The clock in the foyer chimes eight times. Breakfast appears on the sideboard.