Two owls swooped down from the crowd that was circling overhead and flew towards Severus Snape. One he recognised by the distinctive black markings around its eyes and ears. Lined up behind it was an ordinary post owl, the sort that never delivered mail to Severus. He accepted the envelope from the first owl with appropriate decorum and allowed it to select the biggest sausage off his plate as a reward. Forcing himself not to glance up at Dumbledore, who seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to him these days, Severus turned to the second owl.
That owl wanted money, of course. Severus fought the urge to growl at it. His bag with the too-few coins he'd been able to save throughout the year was safely locked away in his warded trunk. He hadn't carried it around school with him since last year when Black had managed to sneak a cutting spell through a gap in Severus's protection spells. He wouldn't have cared so much, would have shooed the owl on its way, but the envelope bore his father's handwriting. He fingered his wand, trying to come up with a spell that would get him the letter without hurting the owl.
"Here." Evan Rosier leaned across Avery, ignoring the grumbling and the smear of bacon grease that left on his sleeve, to deposit a sickle in the owl's leg-pouch. Severus opened his mouth to object, but Evan just shrugged and smirked at him. "Still owe you from last week's poker game."
Severus swallowed his objection and smirked back. "We're playing again Friday night. Want to join us a lose and bit more of that ridiculous allowance of yours?"
"I might at that," Evan said. "Much more fun than attending another one of Slughorn's boring dos."
"Bugger off." Avery shoved at Evan. "And get your clothes out of my breakfast. I'm trying to eat."
The post owl chose that moment to launch itself off the table. One of its wings brushed Severus's hair, ruffling it. He swiped at it impatiently and ignored the snickers from across the table.
Two envelopes lay on the table next to Severus's plate. The first was made of creamy, thick parchment. Beneath the elegant address was a familiar black seal with its dragons and stylised M. Another letter from Lucius. Severus stroked its slick surface before slipping it into his school bag to read later. The second made him want to cast Incendio. Long and narrow, made of cheap and thin white paper, it screamed of its Muggle origins. Averting his eyes from the scrawled writing and spelling mistakes, he crumpled the envelope into a ball and shoved it into a pocket of his robes.
"All right, Severus?" Evan asked as he rose to his feet and swung his book bag over his shoulder.
Grabbing his own bag, Severus got up from the table and fell into step with him. "Fine," he said as they walked out of the Great Hall and headed for the stairs to the dungeons. "A little surprised, I suppose. With Mum gone, I can't imagine why he'd want to write to me at all, never mind here."
Evan gave him a quizzical look and gestured towards Severus's pocket. "Perhaps a death in the family?"
"Hardly," Severus said. "There's no one left who'd want me at the funeral."
Looking uncomfortable, Evan cleared his throat. "I'll take your word for that."
They moved apart to walk down the narrow stairs to the dungeons, Severus following a couple of steps behind Evan. He ran his hand down the side of his robes and felt the lump in his pocket. Whatever his Da — Tobias Snape — wanted, Severus knew one thing was certain. It wouldn't be in his best interests.
"I'm sorry, Mr Snape, but you cannot stay at Hogwarts over the holidays. There's no point in adding your name to the list."
Slughorn's words and his smirk chased Severus all the way from the dungeons to Dumbledore's office. He stood at the bottom of the stairs and scowled at the gargoyle. "I need to speak with the headmaster," he told it, "and I have neither the time nor the patience to guess the current puerile password."
The gargoyle simply stared back at him.
Severus crossed his arms over his chest and glared back. He had no classes that afternoon, no homework that needed doing. Nothing that would prevent him from staying there until Dumbledore either returned to his office or attempted to leave.
He'd reached knotgrass in his review of potions ingredients when the gargoyle sprang to life and revealed the entrance to the staircase. When it was clear that no one was leaving the office, Severus straightened his shoulders and walked past the gargoyle.
The door at the top was open so Severus just walked right into the office. Dumbledore was sitting behind his desk, scratching away on a parchment with a quill that was missing more than a few barbs. He didn't look up or pause, which had Severus grinding his teeth in an effort to keep silent. He hated Dumbledore's stupid games.
Finally, Dumbledore placed the quill in its holder and set the parchment aside. He settled back in his chair and looked up at Severus, a grave expression on his face. "I cannot do anything to help you," he said, as if Severus had already asked his question. "Your father wrote to me and rescinded his permission for you to remain at the school while it is closed."
"I'm of age." The words burst out of Severus, sounding more petulant than he wanted.
"Your age is irrelevant. As long as you are a student at Hogwarts, you cannot stay without your father's written permission, which you do not have."
Sanctimonious bastard. Severus turned and walked to the door, where he paused with his hand on the doorknob. "It's always good to know that you have your students' best interests in mind," he said.
Not knowing what else to do with himself or his sudden and strange urge to talk with Lucius, Severus headed for the library. Books, at least, never judged him and found him wanting.
The message had come through Regulus Black on the first Friday in December. "He wants you to go to Hogsmeade tomorrow," Black had said when they'd run into each other going in opposite directions along the path between the greenhouses and the castle. "Usual time, usual place. He said you'd know what that means."
Severus had grunted an acknowledgment and kept his face expressionless to hide the smile that would have given everything away in a place where he could never be safe. He'd gone to push past, but Black had stood his ground, cocking his head and shading his eyes from the sun.
"I'm not stupid," Black had said, "and neither is my cousin. Be damn sure you're ready to handle the fallout if this goes tits up." Then he'd raced off to catch up with his usual gang of hangers-on.
Black's final words still echoed in Severus's mind as he waited in The Hog's Head. It wasn't an official Hogsmeade weekend, so the pub was nearly empty. Just a few regulars hunched over the bar or huddled near the fireplace. Severus had secured a table in a dim corner that was chilly enough that he kept his cloak on, but allowed him to sit with his back to the wall and ready access to the back door. An extra coin or two that he couldn't really spare had ensured the barkeep gave him a glass of red wine with barely a raised eyebrow at his school uniform. He'd just picked up his glass when a blurry form, wrapped in a cloak of shadows, slipped into the chair next to him.
"You're late," Severus said.
"And you hardly expected anything else." Lucius threw his hood back, shrugged his cloak off his shoulders, and allowed it to drape over his chair. Taking Severus's glass from him, he sipped the wine and grimaced. "Tolerable," he said.
Severus settled for drinking in Lucius's appearance. His hair hung sleek and loose around his shoulders. His tunic was dark green brocade, and his black breeches and polished boots left Severus wanting to touch him, to remind himself that he could.
Raising his arm into the air, Lucius sent a Galleon floating over to the bar with a lazy flick of his wrist. A bottle of wine and another glass came skimming back almost immediately.
"I was planning on studying this weekend," Severus said, running a finger around the rim of his new glass. Resentment bubbled over. "I've been summoned home, and Dumbledore refuses to let me stay at school, so it's not as if I'll get anything done over the holidays. My bloody father couldn't give a rat's arse whether I pass or fail my NEWTs."
"You shall not fail your NEWTs." The intensity of Lucius's gaze belied the indifference of his tone. "If nothing else, I will not countenance it. Too much depends upon your excelling at them."
Rather than respond with any of the inane thoughts that came to mind, Severus drank some of his wine.
"Still, it's a good thing that you'll be away from Hogwarts over the holidays." Lucius produced a large, oval silver card with a flourish. "With the mourning period for Father finally over, Mother has decided to once again hold a Yule Ball. You are, of course, invited."
Severus accepted the card with a nod and a queer thud-bump of his heart. Words were engraved upon it in dark green, but he couldn't quite make sense of them. "I can't—" he began to say, but Lucius placed a finger over his mouth.
"You can and you will," Lucius said. "As my guest. The only one of my choosing."
This time Severus didn't even try to stop one corner of his mouth from quirking upwards. "As you wish," he said.
Lucius placed an arm across the back of Severus's chair. "Let's talk about Yule gifts then, shall we? With your agreement, of course, I thought I'd buy you something to wear to the ball." The tilt of his head and the softness of his smile cut off Severus's usual objections. "I wish you to make me proud, to show everyone why I chose you to grace my arm."
"You're an idiot," Severus said, a thread of fondness in his voice. "No one who looks at me will ever understand that."
"That's their loss and my gain, then." Lucius brushed Severus's hair back from his face and tucked it behind his ear, making Severus glad that he'd taken the time to wash it thoroughly that morning.
Leaning into Lucius's touch, Severus kept his eyes open when Lucius kissed him. He wanted to stay in that moment, with Lucius, and create a lasting memory of it. No matter how much he wanted to, he still couldn't quite believe everything Lucius said or promised.
Hogsmeade on the last weekend before the winter holidays was hell. No other description was possible, Severus decided, as he stepped into the street in an attempt to avoid yet another gaggle of giggling Huffle-twits, both male and female. He stumbled, barely able to regain his balance, as someone's shoulder knocked into him.
"...bloody black crow. He needs a good..."
It took every ounce of self-control Severus had not to reach for his wand and try a few of his newest spells on them. He was too damn close to getting tossed unceremoniously out of Hogwarts as it was. Bloody Dumbledore and his double-standards. Severus sighed and quickened his pace, not stopping until he reached Dervish & Banges.
He needed a present for Lucius. A brilliant present. One that wouldn't result in the Malfoys curling their pseudo-aristocratic noses at him any more than they already did simply because he was a half-blood embarrassment to a pureblood family who had the nerve to be their son's friend. If they discovered that there was more to their relationship, that there had been since last summer when they'd let Lucius spend a month with Severus's grandparents... Stifling a groan, Severus turned to the shop window.
The gamba was still there, leaning against the wall. Severus stared at it, fingering the too-thin, too-light bag of coins in his cloak pocket. He knew how much Lucius wanted that particular instrument, despite his father's objections. He'd listened to Lucius wax rhapsodic about its provenance and the wizard who created it and the spells that protected and enhanced it, but no matter how hard he tried, no matter how many potions he'd sold or how much tutoring he'd done, he was still far too short of the money needed to purchase it. And that old bastard Dervish would never consider letting Severus take it now and pay the rest of the money later.
Severus snarled at the window display.
"I could lend you whatever you need, you know," Evan said with a smile and a shrug.
"What's the point?" Severus turned sharply on one heel and headed across the street. "It's not as though I'll be able to pay you back any time soon."
Evan caught up with him again outside Gladrags. "I don't care how long it takes."
"But I do."
Evan's acceptance was simple, undramatic, and it took Severus completely by surprise. He'd only just begun to build himself up, get himself ready to defend his ridiculous pride, and now it was all he could do not to gape at Evan.
"Come on," Evan said. "Let's go see if there's a table at the Three Broomsticks. I could seriously murder a Butterbeer."
Wrinkling his nose at the thought of that abominably sweet concoction, Severus said, "As long as you don't try and force that shite on me again."
"Dandelion and Burdock for you, yeah?"
"Since I actually have working taste buds," Severus said, smirking.
Evan rolled his eyes. "And yet you willingly eat haggis."
"Arse licker." The insult came from behind and stabbed through Severus.
He pulled out his wand and pointed it at Black and Potter. "Would you like to say that to my face?"
"Or what, Snivellus?" Potter sneered at him. "Go on. Hex us, why don't you? Hogwarts will be well shot of you when the headmaster hears about it."
A curse was on the tip of Severus's tongue when Lily's voice cut across the sudden silence. "James, Sirius, what are you doing? Stop wasting your time and get back over here. I need your help finding something for Remus."
"Bitch," Evan muttered. "Come on, Severus. There's a Butterbeer with my name on it."
His eyes still on Lily, who was focussed on Potter, Severus nodded. His heart ached, feeling too heavy and too big for his narrow chest. He watched until Potter made it across the street to her, until she smiled at him, bright and cheerful.
Then, as he turned to Evan, he caught a glimpse of the gamba out of the corner of his eye, the strings and the silver scrollwork gleaming in the sunlight, and his mood lightened. One day, if all went well, he'd make sure Lucius got the instrument of his dreams. Against Severus's will, one side of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile. For this year, though, he'd just have to settle for a present that showed how much Lucius meant to him. Even if he had to create it himself.
Severus shrugged. "I could always Obliviate them."
"Whatever that is when it's at home," Tobias said, anger flushing the veins on his cheeks. "I'd bet good money that it's no good for anyone but your lot."
Tugging on the sleeves of his oversized black jumper and wishing he had the extra layer of protection that robes provided, Severus headed for the threadbare chair opposite Tobias. He crossed his legs and did his best to appear comfortable sitting in this chair that had once been his mother's, rather than on the sofa as he had all the way through childhood.
They sat there, unspeaking, faces turned to the telly. Despite the familiarity of this non-silence, Severus's tension rose. Without his mother to act as a buffer between them, he had no idea how to behave. A hundred or more scenarios flickered through his mind, from his father having the nerve to try and make things right between them to Severus whipping out his wand and showing his father what was what. Eventually, though, the show finally ended, and Tobias turned to look at him.
"You've been happy as a pig in muck for years, crowing about that ruddy school of yours." Tobias's mouth twisted with disgust. "I don't suppose you've spared a single thought for what you'll do when it's all over."
Shock almost had Severus gaping at Tobias. Instead, with as cool and collected an expression as he could manage, he said, "I've been invited to study for my Potions mastery by one of the best Potions Masters in Europe."
"Have you now?"
"If I accept the offer, I'll start a few weeks after term ends." Severus focussed on the sleeves of his black jumper, on not giving his nervousness away by playing with them and tugging on the cuffs to pull them down over his bony wrists.
"If?" Tobias laughed. The harsh rasping sound sent a shiver through Severus. It never boded well for anyone but Tobias and his cronies. "You'll not be turning it down, I'm sure. I hardly think they're lining up out the doors for you."
Almost biting his tongue in the effort not to rise to the bait, Severus stood up. "If that's all, I'm off upstairs."
"Sit down." When Severus didn't do as he was told, Tobias pointed at the chair and said, "I'll not be telling you again. Sit yourself down. It's past time you and I had a talk."
For a moment, Severus just stood and blinked at him. Then, with as much grace as he could muster, he perched on the edge of the chair. "If you insist."
Tobias made an abortive movement with his right hand to the side table, which was missing his usual whisky bottle and glass. Instead he clenched his fist and placed it on the chair arm, clearly trying to make it look as if that had been his intention all along. His heart starting to race a little, Severus twisted his wrist to loosen his wand from its forearm holster.
Eventually, Tobias said, "I suppose you've been wondering why I forced you to come home."
The answer being patently obvious, Severus didn't bother to respond. He merely continued to watch Tobias.
"Aye, well, as I said, you and I need to talk. Your mother's been gone a while now, and—" Tobias looked away from Severus, looking down at the chair arm and scratching at the loose threads in the upholstery "—I'm making a new life for myself."
"A new life?" Severus ground the words out. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Raising his head, Tobias met Severus's eyes. "You've never been that gormless, lad. What the hell do you think it means?"
"Who?" Severus shook his head. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
"And I'll not be telling you. You're here to get the last of your mother's things. Then, after your holidays are up, you're to leave and not return."
Pain, anger, and relief slashed through Severus. He'd wanted this, dreamed of walking away from Spinners End and never looking back, but it was supposed to be his doing. He was supposed to reject Tobias, viciously and with malice aforethought, not suffer through this calm cutting of ties.
"It can't come as a surprise, lad. Not after everything we've done and said to each other."
"You're a right piece of work," he said, with a derisive laugh. "Forcing me back here just to tell me to leave. You could have done that in a letter. Boxed up Mum's things and mailed them to me."
"And expect one of those damned birds to carry it? Not bloody likely, is it? Besides, it's not as if you had anywhere else to go." Tobias smirked at him. "I've heard you blubbering on to your mother about the way you're treated there."
"I have friends," Severus said. "Important ones."
"And the band played believe it if you like."
Severus shot to his feet and moved to stand over Tobias. "I can do magic now," he said. "Any spell I want, and no one's going to come after me."
"Do you think, after all those years of living with your mother, that I've not got the foggiest idea about how your world works? I'm a Muggle. Your Ministry's always going to care what you do to me." Tobias made a gesture of dismissal. "Off with you, lad, before you do something we'll both regret."
Kicking at an empty bottle, sending it skittering across the cracked stone to smash against a crumbling wall, Severus stomped through an alley. He paused at the other end and stared across the street at the park. It was worse every time he visited. More shite and broken glass scattered over the ground, fewer usable swings and slides. He didn't have the energy, the heart to cast the spells needed to fix it up again. If the Muggles wanted a rubbish tip instead of a park, they could have it. He was done with the whole lot of them.
Out of habit more than anything else, Severus crossed the street and went through the gates. His boots crunched on half-frozen grass and Merlin-knew-what as he made his way over to the swings. He ran his ungloved hand over the empty chains, crashing them together. Over and over again, each time doing it harder and making a louder noise. A couple walking their dog glared at him but said nothing, and when he scowled back, the man put a hand in the middle of the woman's back and hustled her away.
Severus laughed. The sound echoed back at him, rendered hollow and hopeless by the walls of the abandoned mill. He went to one of the few remaining swings and slumped down. It creaked at his weight, and he let his wand drop into his hand and cast a surreptitious strengthening charm. Putting it away, he swung moodily, scuffing his toes over the dirt and scrubby bits of grass, occasionally turning to wind up the chains and then letting it unwind and spin him around.
He'd been at it long enough for his fingertips to move beyond numbness and start to burn with cold when his fragile peace was shattered by a giggle. Unable to help himself, he looked up through a curtain of dishevelled and greasy hair.
Red and black, wrapped in warm coats, wearing thick lined gloves and boots, Severus hated them both in that instant. James Potter and his Lily, flaunting themselves with their hand-holding and smiles. As he watched, Potter released Lily and moved away to jump up and catch a tree branch. He swung for a second and then scrambled up into the tree. Lily stood below, her head tipped back, watching him.
She'd brought Potter into their park. The thought was still blasting through Severus when she turned and saw him. Severus stiffened under her scrutiny, not so much as blinking at her stare. Then her upper lip curled into a familiar expression of disgust, and she looked away. Even worse, she reached a hand up, towards Potter, and called to him, bringing him down from the tree along with the few remaining dead leaves. Lily wrapped her arms around Potter, kissed him, and then they left without so much as a backwards glance.
Muggleborns and Gryffindors, Severus decided, were worth about as much as Muggles. Pulling out his wand, he lurched to his feet and Apparated to his bedroom.
Casting a couple of spells, he shut the curtains and dimmed the room to twilight before pulling off everything but his underpants and crawling under the covers with his wand. He curled up on his side, overwhelmed by the acrid scent of dust and stale smoke, by a sudden yearning for his mother. For her thin, rough hands and her voice made raspy by the cigarettes she'd smoked one after another.
The room was even darker when he woke up, swimming out of a strange dream filled with chains, Potter, Lily, his mother, and piles of old books and miles of parchment. He scrubbed at the sleep crusting his eyes and found himself looking at the boxes. An urge to Incendio the whole lot swept through him.
"Just look through them," he murmured. "Find out what's in them first. Then you can destroy it."
He sat up, the covers falling down to pool around his waist, and retrieved his wand from under his pillow to levitate the first box over onto the bed. The sellotape was yellowed and beginning to unstick in places, making it easy to strip off and open the box.
It was full of pictures, Wizarding and Muggle. Some were framed, some were in shoeboxes and envelopes, and the rest had been shoved in willy-nilly. He reached in and pulled one out. His mother, young in a way he'd never known her, ducked her head so that she could hide behind her long fringe. She sat cross-legged in the Slytherin common room, a chessboard in front of her.
Severus ran a finger down the edge of the photograph. His mother glanced up and then ducked her head again. "Where did you go?"
There was, of course, no answer. Not from a photograph, even the Wizarding kind. Severus tossed it back into the box and used his wand to reinforce, seal, and ward the box. Then he shrank it and sent it skimming over to his trunk before turning to the next box.
A quick glance was all Severus needed. He Banished the box and its well-worn and neatly darned linens decorated with the Prince seal. They'd abandoned his mother and him in this Muggle hellhole. While he wouldn't hesitate to trade on their name, he was damned if he'd use their cast-offs in his home no matter where he ended up.
The third box, which was full of shrunken baby clothes, met the same fate as the second.
The fourth was larger than all the others but weighed almost nothing when Severus reached for it. He shook the box lightly, and it rattled. Metal against metal. Wood against metal. Wood against wood. Even more curious, he stripped off the sellotape and opened the flaps.
The box was nearly empty, holding only three things, none of which had been properly wrapped for storage. His mum's wand rolled towards him as he tipped the box to get a better look. Reaching in, he held it for a moment, remembering the time she'd snuck him into the attic while his father was at work so she could check to see if he really was a wizard. The wand seemed old and tired in his hand now, rather than alive as it had back then. He laid it on the bed next to his own and pulled out an old pocket watch. He flipped open the lid and then closed it again, holding the watch against his heart. There were two dials superimposed upon each other and four hands, two represented the hour and the minute, one had Severus's picture, and the fourth was black. He placed that next to the wands.
The only thing left in the box was a cane. Severus didn't think he'd ever seen it before, but it had clearly come from his mother's side of the family. It fairly hummed with magic when he grasped it. Banishing the box, Severus laid the cane across his knees. The black lacquered wood of the shaft was smooth and silky. The silver serpent head exposed vicious fangs. What appeared to be real emeralds shone from its eyes.
Severus ran his fingertips over the back of the serpent's head and around the bumps of its collar. The head shifted, turning in his grip, and he twisted it further until it came off. There was a cavity inside, with just enough space for a wand.
The cane, he decided, was not only perfect for Lucius, it was also a wonderful present to himself. If he gave it to Lucius instead of spending what little he had left on something far less perfect, Severus would have more than enough money to stay at the Leaky Cauldron until it was time for the Malfoy Yule Ball.
His thin lips quirked into an almost-smile, Severus went to get dressed. He'd leave from his bedroom and never have to suffer his father's presence again.
Once at the bottom, he hesitated and looked around. The bar was crowded with holiday shoppers. Families filled the booths and most of the tables. The regulars were huddled around a few tiny tables that had been shoved into the darkest corner, shadowed by the staircase.
"You look as though you were born to wear those clothes."
Severus swung around, grabbing for the bannister when his satchel pulled him off balance. "Lucius," he said, only just managing to keep the relief out of his voice. "You're on time."
"Some things," Lucius said, placing his gloved hand next to Severus's, "are worth the effort."
Feeling awkward and uncomfortable, Severus pulled his arm away and hiked the satchel further up his shoulder.
Indicating the door, Lucius said, "Shall we? I would prefer not to stay in—" his upper lip curled as he glanced around "—this place any longer than absolutely necessary."
"There are far worse places, as I'm sure you're aware."
The supercilious amusement in Lucius's voice made Severus want to pull his wand and wipe the smirk off his face. "Bugger off," he said as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances.
Lucius's smirk grew. "Later. After the ball."
Heat bloomed in red points on Severus's cheekbones. Pulling his cloak more tightly around him, wincing when the bottom of the cane caught the edge of his anklebone, Severus stalked towards the Diagon exit. After a brief pause, he could hear the rapid click of boots on the flagstones as Lucius followed him.
By the time Lucius caught up with him, Severus had recovered his composure and was waiting in the small courtyard behind the Leaky. To his annoyance, Lucius merely smirked at him again and held out his arms.
"I'll need to Side-Along you," Lucius said. "Otherwise, the Manor would bounce you back."
Severus grimaced. "Since I have no desire to be Splinched," he murmured, moving into Lucius's arms.
"That would definitely be a pity." Lucius drew their bodies together. "There are parts of you that I would dearly miss."
"Only parts?" Severus rolled his hips against Lucius's.
"Some more than others certainly," Lucius said, sliding one hand down to cup Severus's arse. Tilting his head, he kissed Severus.
Severus licked at Lucius's lips, curling his tongue around Lucius's, as the world twisted around him and he was dragged into the squeeze of Apparation.
"I'll hold you responsible, then, if your mother takes insult at not being introduced to me when I arrived." Severus placed his satchel inside the wardrobe and tried not to seem as impressed with the room as he actually was. Removing his cloak, he hung it up on one of the pegs before reaching in to retrieve the cane. He stood there for a moment, with his back to Lucius, and slid his hand up the shaft. As his palm glided over the wood, he was tempted to keep it for himself, pretend that he'd left Lucius's gift behind.
"You're welcome to remain for the rest of your holidays," Lucius said, interrupting Severus's train of thought, "and to return here after you leave Hogwarts."
"After—" Severus gripped the head of the cane, tightening his hand until the pointed edges bit into his hand.
"This is your room." Lucius's voice seemed to come from far away, even though Severus could feel him move closer. "For as long as you wish, Severus."
As if in a daze, Severus leaned the cane against the back of the wardrobe and turned around. Lucius was standing a couple of feet away, concern etching furrows into his brow.
"Your family could hardly want a..." Severus trailed off, silenced by the sheer volume of insults with which he could possibly end that sentence. Half-blood. Mudblood. Muggle-raised. Ugly. Poor. He pinched the bridge of his nose to prevent himself from saying any of them.
"My friend," Lucius said. "My lover." His hand, ungloved and warm, gently drew Severus's fingers away from his face and brought them to his lips. "Why would my family not want you here in our home?"
"Do you really have to ask?" Severus yanked his hand free. "You know who I am, what I am. I'm so far from being up to the Malfoy family standards that I'm surprised they didn't insist I go around to the back and come in through the kitchens."
"You're up to my standards, and I am the Malfoy family," Lucius said. "Do not insult me further."
Severus stared at him. "You..." he started, then shook his head. "I may never understand," he finally said.
"You don't have to. Suffice it to say that I find intelligence far more arousing than mere surface beauty. I've told you that before, and I will tell you again. As many times as is required for you to believe me."
"I cannot give you an heir."
"Enough," Lucius said, placing a finger over Severus's lips. "That is my problem, and my ancestors have been inventive enough to come up with more than one acceptable solution over the centuries."
Sucking Lucius's finger into his mouth and curling his tongue around it, Severus released it with a pop when Lucius pulled it out.
"You." Lucius shook his head. "What am I supposed to do with you?"
Severus had no answer for that, or perhaps too many answers. The moment seemed to stretch between them, reaching almost to the snapping point when Severus said the only thing he could think of to change the subject, "I have something for you."
"Do you now?" Lucius arched a brow, his grey eyes glinting with interest.
Pivoting on one heel, Severus picked up the cane and balanced it across both his hands before turning back to Lucius. "For you," he said, holding it out like an offering.
"Oh." Lucius took the cane with reverence and examined it. He cupped his hand around the head and stroked the fangs before twisting off the head. "Do you have any idea how rare these are? How on earth did you find one?"
"I suppose I simply looked in the right place," Severus said, shrugging off the question and Lucius's inquisitive look.
"If it's as real as I think it is." Lucius handed Severus the shaft and pulled out his wand. He stood for an instant, with the head of the cane in one hand and his wand in the other before bringing them together. There was a flash of light and then the two were joined as if they'd never been separate. A rare smile curved Lucius's lips, and he leaned in to kiss Severus. "Tonight," he said, "after the ball, I shall thank you properly for this gift."
Severus stepped forward, kissing Lucius again, crowding into him, using the feel of his body, the desire he felt for him, to erase all of his fears and worries about that night and the rest of their lives.
The bower he found was small and dark, filled with shadows cast by the trees that surrounded it and the light from the single flickering torch.
Dropping down on the bench, Severus ran his fingers through his hair and then sat with his elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands. He was in over his head with this ball and the Malfoys' friends, and he knew it. Six and a half years of navigating the labyrinth of Slytherin mores and manners was nowhere near enough to anticipate, never mind understand the expectations, attitudes, and behaviour of upper-class purebloods. They'd all been friendly enough and willing to overlook the occasional social gaffes, but he'd seen Aldous Yaxley and Cygnus Black rolling their eyes at him more than once.
Being with Lucius felt so right, so good when it was just the two of them, but Severus hadn't the foggiest idea why he was there when they were around Lucius's peers.
You're neither use nor ornament to anyone, lad.
As Severus's granddad's voice echoed through his memory, he tugged at his hair and then released it. "You're not a waste," he told himself. "You've built your own life, your own friends, your own future. You're not just riding someone else's coat-tails, depending on a reputation built by someone else hundreds of years before you were born."
He got to his feet and stood there for a second or three as he tried to finger-comb his hair into some semblance of order. Then he straightened his back and shoulders and walked out of the bower.
Lucius was waiting for him, dressed in black velvet, leather, and lace, and looking so beautiful that Severus's breath caught. One of his shoulders was resting against a post, and he was toying with his cane in a failed attempt at nonchalance. His head snapped up as Severus approached.
"I don't suppose you're lost?" Severus asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Hardly. I was merely—" Lucius trailed the silver serpent head down the front of Severus's robes, the weight leaving a strange ache behind "—wondering why I was alone at my own ball."
"In search of company, then."
A twist of Lucius's cane had Severus's robes caught in the silver mouth. He was dragged towards Lucius, brought so close that he could feel Lucius's breath on his cheek. "Not just any company," Lucius said. "I have standards to maintain after all."
The ache in Severus's chest turned to warmth at the realisation that he'd been missed. That despite the pureblood parents parading their sons and daughters around the ballroom like breeding stock, he was the one Lucius had missed. "I would never want you to lower your standards," Severus said, brushing his knuckles over Lucius's cheek. "The Wizarding world might never recover from the shock."
"Indeed." Lucius leaned into Severus's hand.
"We can't have that now, can we?"
"It would be... disconcerting."
Severus kissed him. Gently at first, then he licked Lucius's lips, sighing into his mouth as Lucius opened for him, moaning when Lucius thrust his tongue into his mouth and took control in the way that always made Severus feel wanted, needed.
They stayed like that, kissing and holding each other, being held, until the music coming from the ballroom changed, slowing down and becoming quieter.
"We have to return to the ballroom," Lucius said, clearly reluctant. "Mother would never forgive me if I missed the Yule blessings."
"I certainly don't want to be responsible for displeasing your mother." Severus shifted closer to Lucius and was rewarded by Lucius tightening his embrace.
"Mother doesn't handle disappointment well. Her response can be lasting."
"Sounds like something to be avoided."
"Indeed." Releasing Severus, Lucius reached up and tucked a lock of hair behind Severus's ear. "Shall we?"
Severus walked along the path at Lucius's side, oddly reassured by the tap of the cane on the stones and the knowledge that in only a few hours, Lucius had become attached to his gift. They talked quietly. Lucius focussed on Severus, ignoring the others who joined them, and by the time they reached the terrace, Severus once again felt ready to face Carmilla Malfoy and her guests.
"You look like you need this as much as I do." Lucius handed him a tumbler. Fire sparked inside the amber liquid, leaving trails of red behind.
Clinking his glass against Lucius's, Severus said, "Slainte," and took a deep drink. The firewhisky burned lightly as it went down, its warmth combining with the blessing and leaving him restless, twitchy, no longer sure why he was there.
He glanced over at Lucius, who seemed focussed on the couples moving around the dance floor. Tossing back the last of the firewhisky, he went to put it down on a table, ready to head back to the terrace, to the air and the freedom available in the shadows.
"Dance with me," Lucius said, holding out his hand to Severus.
"Dance?" Shock had Severus stuttering the word. He slanted a meaningful look at the elegant men and women who were whirling around in a dance he barely recognised, each step and bend creating an eddy of colour and rhythm. "Out there? With me? Are you mad?"
"Perhaps. But not about this."
"You should have accepted Narcissa's invitation to dance. She would be a far better partner for you than a black and greasy snivelling crow."
"Don't." Lucius came nearer and ran his fingers through Severus's freshly washed, not-yet-greasy hair. "I chose you, remember. That day in Hogsmeade, when you faced down the Marauding Morons to save Regulus from his own idiocy with a spell of your own creation."
Severus shook off Lucius's hold. "I would have taught you the spell."
"And it wouldn't have been enough." Lucius came so close that Severus could feel the warmth of Lucius's breath against his cheek when he murmured, "I wanted you. The man whose mind worked along those twisted lines, who was willing to defend a lower classman to whom he wasn't related."
Every cell in Severus's body came alive at Lucius's touch, at the insistent possessiveness in his voice. Goosebumps trailed down from his ear. "You're mad," he repeated. "I'll never belong in your world."
Making a derisive gesture, Lucius said, "I am my world. Malfoys set the trends. They don't follow them."
"And you wonder why—"
"Severus, Lucius, just the men I was looking for." Evan interrupted Severus, clapping a hand on each of their shoulders. To Severus's dismay and relief, Lucius stepped back.
"Did you require anything in particular?" Lucius asked. "Or are you simply here to interrupt us?"
The flex of Lucius's hand on the cane caught Severus's eye, and he looked upwards to see that Lucius's lips were pressed together into a thin line. Without hesitation, Severus moved to stand next to and slightly behind Lucius, offering protection and support. He was rewarded with a shift of Lucius's stance that had their arms touching.
"A little of both," Evan admitted, "but mainly because Lord Voldemort has requested the honour of an introduction."
Voldemort. The name was well-known in Slytherin House, but Severus only knew what almost everyone else knew about the man behind it. Discussions of pureblood politics at their most extreme were not something to which a half-blood was invited. "I can wait for you outside," he said.
"You misunderstand me," Evan said. "The Dark Lord is interested in both of your futures. He believes that you have much to offer his cause, and that he has a great deal to offer you in return."
His curiosity piqued, Severus glanced at Lucius.
Lucius met his gaze and arched an eyebrow. When Severus gave him a tiny nod, Lucius turned to Evan and said, "We're willing to listen."
Close enough that their shoulders and hands occasionally touched as they walked, Severus and Lucius followed Evan through the ballroom and across the hallway to one of the smaller public rooms. There were only a few people in the room, and Severus recognised all of them except the dark-haired man sitting in an armchair by the fire. Lord Voldemort, he presumed, as Evan led them towards him.
Pain was a distant companion when Severus woke up, rather than the vicious parasite it had been when he closed his eyes and fell into darkness. He lay still, keeping his eyes closed, as he carefully flexed his fingers and toes. When he was satisfied that he could feel and move everything, he assessed his surroundings. Cleansing potions, blood, and that indefinable smell he'd recognise from years of being at Hogwarts reassured him that he was in the infirmary rather than St Mungo's. The fact that the noise seemed so far away indicated that he was in one of the few private rooms.
Still, he wasn't alone. There was breathing close by, steady and rhythmic, familiar even after all these years, and a weight on the bed to his left. Lucius had survived and was sleeping.
Severus slid his left hand carefully across the top of the covers until his fingers were touching silky blond hair. Then he closed his eyes again.
The discussions, the complicated questions that they'd avoided asking and answering for so many years could wait until they were both awake. For now, Severus decided, it was enough that Lucius was there.