Chapter Twenty-two

Three days later, Alex was leaning on the counter of Borgin's Curiosities, merrily registering the last sale of the most successful day she'd seen yet when a shadow fell across the log book. Her eyes never left her work as she spoke a cheerful greeting.

"Hello, Lucius."

Unnerving silence was the only response she received, and yielding to his unspoken request, she redirected her gaze into the face of a changed man. It was Lucius, certainly; same mouth, same hair, same perfect skin, but the face was a bit too gaunt and his eyes, haunted, the eyes of a man who had been through hell and lived to speak of it. According to Severus, this wasn't far removed from the truth. Alex shuddered at the grim picture Snape had drawn in her mind, recounting the punishment to which Lucius had been subjected for his perceived failure at recruiting her. As the contract she'd forced him to sign had required the cooperation of Voldemort and all of his Death Eaters on pain of their most cherished member's death, each of them had been permitted to discipline him in turn. She could not suppress the swell of pity when she imagined the unmerciful agony that he had suffered because of her.

Over and over, she had reminded herself that he had forced her hand; but then someone had forced his, that malevolent entity called Lord Voldemort. Lucius was, in her opinion, a slave to his will, a prisoner. What was it Severus had said? 'An unwilling warrior.'

There was no removing the picture of his punishment from her mind any more than she could forget the extreme relief she'd seen in his eyes when he finally acquired the means to save his son and the gentle strength with which he administered the antidote. What kind of man could he have been if Voldemort had not twisted him?

When at last Lucius spoke, his voice was soft, almost gentle.

"My mediwizards examined my son shortly after your dramatic departure. It seems that I erred in my judgment. You were bluffing."

Alex saw no reason to hide the truth, now. She welcomed his knowledge of it, actually. It only strengthened her point. "Of course I was." She closed the log book softly and folded her hands on the counter before her. "The potion wasn't deadly, just really painful. And, I hated having to go that far." She gave him a stern look. "Unlike you, I'm not ruthless."

His response was matter-of-fact, unheated. "That is a regretful weakness. Nonetheless, you harmed my son. It won't take long, Miss Borgin, for me to find a way to break these bonds, and when I do---"

"I know," she interrupted. "I know you will, Lucius."

"Then know as well that you will come to know anguish as a close, personal friend."

"I know," she repeated softly. "And, I live in absolute dread of that day."

"Then, why do you remain?" he asked, genuinely curious.

She sighed deeply. "Because this is my home, the first one I've ever had. This is my store. These are my friends, and I can't let you take that from me. I refuse to run from you."

With the ghost of a smile and a shake of his fair head, he changed the subject. "I've been sent here to deliver a message."

"And, what message would that be?"

"The Dark Lord is willing to forgive your impudence. As ever, he respects your instinct for self-preservation. If you change your mind, he will still have you."

"Oh, I'm honored," Alex answered with the tiniest hint of sarcasm. "Regrettably, I---"

He held up his hand, such a simple, commanding gesture, and she quieted. He smirked at her compliance. "He rarely gives second chances, Alexandria, and never allows a third. Don't answer just yet. You've no idea how complicated things are about to become. Save your answer for later, when you've learned more of both sides, when you have discovered what this war is really about. Because you will have to choose a side eventually, Miss Borgin. You can't hide in here and expect the conflict to simply pass you by."

Alex lowered her eyes to the counter. He was right, of course, though she wasn't about to admit it. She hesitated a moment before asking, "Would you like to come upstairs and talk?"

He raised a noble eyebrow. "You want to talk?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes. You know, like civilized people?" She smiled warmly. "Come on, Lucius. I have a bottle of red wine I was saving for a special occasion. We can open it together and talk about Voldemort." Lucius winced slightly and swept the empty shop with nervous eyes. "Maybe you can help me understand why you chose to be on his side, and why you think I should do the same."

"Madam Borgin," he began softly, fixing her with a menacing glare. "The fact that I am incapable of tearing your lovely head from your shoulders does not preclude the desire to do so. I do not wish to spend a lengthy amount of time in your company, suffering from an itch that I cannot scratch." He leaned in a bit closer, fixing her with a look a pure malice. "At least, not yet."

Alex met his gaze unflinchingly. "I never wanted to be your enemy, Lucius. I still don't. All I ask is a better understanding of you."

"You haven't the capacity to understand a man like me, Miss Borgin."

A familiar voice answered casually. "That's very true, old friend. She does not."

Severus Snape, right on time for her tutorial. Lucius nodded coldly in greeting. "I'll take my leave, Miss Borgin." He brushed past Severus, purposely shunting him to the side with the movement. "Good day, Severus."

He hadn't yet past the window before Alex lost all restraint and threw herself into the potion master's arms. "Oh, Severus, your timing is impeccable!"

Roughly, he shoved her away, glancing out the window to ensure that his associate had indeed left. "Miss Borgin, please! Our relationship is not common knowledge."

"What are you babbling about? Our relationship was your master's idea!" What a lucky break for me, she thought.

"I was ordered to train you to fight, then coerce you into joining us. I am expected to do much more than simply bed you at every opportunity."

Alex rolled her eyes at his practicality. "But we haven't had the opportunity in so long," she whined.

Severus answered her with a scowl, still watching the window like a hawk. "It's been slightly more than a week."

"Far too long!" Alex pounced him again, kissing him fiercely, and despite his objections, he couldn't help but respond in kind, backing her into the counter and pinning her there mercilessly. Tongues danced, hands explored freely and Severus Snape fought the temptation to take her on the stone floor with the sunny window offering a view for anyone who cared to see. She was right. It had been far too long.

Panting and slightly disheveled, he finally broke away long enough to give an abrupt and breathless order. "Upstairs."

She didn't need encouragement, taking the steps two at time with the potions master close at her heels. Still, they barely made it to the bed, clinging together in a knot of rapidly unveiled flesh, furiously flinging away clothing as they moved. A mere week had been enough to allow Alex to forget the intensity of which the potion's master was capable. She reveled in it now, felt every sharp pain, every tender caress over bruised flesh as if it were the first. Merlin, but he was a perfect lover!

When it was over, and they lay together in silence, having finally caught their breath, Alex ran her fingers through his tousled hair affectionately, a gentle smile on her lips. How many people were allowed to see him this way, totally at ease, open, almost smiling? Not many, she imagined. How lucky it was that she had found him, the traitorous 'friend' of her enemy, her lover, her teacher--- if they ever got around to the lessons. Maybe today they'd have some time.

"What are you thinking about?" He asked in that silky baritone.

"You," she answered with a fond look.

"And, what are you thinking about me?"

"I'm thinking that you're handsome," she kissed him sweetly on the forehead, "and smart," this time the tip of his nose received a quick kiss, "and a little scary," her lips met his own with a gentleness she rarely displayed.

Snape's mouth turned crooked in that quirky smile of his, so rarely seen by others. "I'm scary?"

"Yes, you are."

"You haven't even seen me duel."

"Soon, I hope. I could really use the lessons."

"It wasn't my idea to leap directly into your bed, Madam," he answered in mock defensiveness.

She snuggled a bit closer, basking in his warmth. "You didn't put up much of a fight."

"Indeed." A single eyebrow lifted. "You are a persuasive woman."

"Indeed," she mocked.

His face resumed it's customary seriousness. "Are you really afraid of me?"

"A little, yeah," she answered honestly.

"Why?" he questioned softly. "You know my motivations. You know that I will not harm you, indeed your contract ensures that I cannot."

"Not physically, maybe, but you're still more capable of hurting me than anyone I know."

"How so?"

She took a deep breath, readying herself for the plunge. "I'm afraid I've grown--- fond of you, Professor."

Snape's eyes snapped open. "We agreed---"

"That we wouldn't look beyond the physical, I know." Alex stroked his face lovingly. "My head is well-aware. My heart's having a little trouble with it."

"Alex, involving your heart in anything we do is unwise. I've explained this to you."

"Then, you feel nothing for me?"

Severus shifted uncomfortably, propping himself up with a pale hand tangled in black hair. "Alex, I cannot afford to feel anything for you," he stated, not gently, but with less acidity than usual. "I am charged with the task Lucius could not accomplish, bending you to the Dark Lord's will. He expects results, and he expects them quickly. He wants you in his service or he wants you dead, now more than ever. My position is precarious at best. I can buy myself some time with reports of my progress, but he will want a decision, soon. Each day that you delay makes my position that much more tenuous. Do you not realize that he would use your 'fondness' for me against you? Do you think he would hesitate a moment to torture me in order to force your hand?"

Alex sighed in exasperation. Honestly, the thought had never occurred to her. "Doesn't this guy ever give up? I am not choosing a side in a war that has nothing to do with me!"

"Is that what this is all about? Is it not personal enough for you that you've been tortured, manipulated, almost killed, forced to torment the child of an enemy? Your own lover has been charged with the task of corrupting you, Alex. Is that not personal?"

"I hate arguing with you, Professor. You have the annoying habit of making really good points. What do you think I should do?"

Severus blinked a few times, slowly. She had the most exasperating gift for doing the unexpected. How was he supposed to advise her? Shouldn't she be going to Dumbledore or Nina for that? He sighed. "Alex, I'm in no position to tell you what you should do. There's too much at stake for me. My opinion is biased in the extreme."

"Let me guess, then. You think I should join the Death Eaters to get Voldemort off your back and act as a spy, or maybe a virus, corrupting them from the inside, causing dissention in the ranks. Is that it?"

"You're over-simplifying a complicated situation, Alex."

She lay back on the bed, keeping one hand splayed on Snape's stomach, needing the comfort of a simple touch, and staring at the ceiling in contemplation. "You have some time before I need to make a call, and they have no way of hurting me until I do."

"Draco Malfoy can harm you, and he is furious."

Alex snorted. "He's just a kid, Severus. Besides, he knows that I didn't really poison him."

"And, you think that this matters to him? Where you view that as a sign of good intention, he views it as a sign of weakness. You humiliated him and his father, and noble families are notoriously proud. You've made a dangerous enemy in that young man."

"I'm not shaking in my boots over some pampered son of a wealthy noble."

"That is faulty judgment on your part. Draco is almost a full-grown wizard, and he was raised to be a killer. You confessed that he nearly defeated you at the manor."

Alex rolled her eyes. "I told you that he caught me off guard, that's all."

Severus shifted the subject, feeling that this was setting his temper on edge. "The Dark Lord does not need to be a threat to you to persuade you to do his will. He has other methods at his disposal." He quieted for a moment considering the option that he knew his 'master' to be considering even now. If he ever discovered that Alex had grown 'fond' of Snape, he would use the knowledge to his full advantage, and was probably just waiting for Severus to get little closer before he did so. Voldemort was notorious for forcing compliance through the torture of loved ones. And if he ever discovered that I care for her, as well--- He shuddered at the thought. No. He would keep that locked away in a mental vault that Voldemort could never reach.

That thought was deadly.

"We should get to our lessons sometime today, Alex, if you are truly serious about learning to use your new wand like a real witch."

Alex rolled over to face him with a rare glint of anger in her eyes. Learning to do that would aid her tremendously in holding her position of neutrality in the coming war. "For one of the few times in my life, Severus, I'm dead serious. Let's get to work."

And, they did.

- THE END -

I have a sequel for this story writing itself relentlessly in my head. Should I write it down and post it or would that be overkill? Feedback, please.

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Mage Kitty: Thank you for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Beloved Slytherins, indeed.

PPP(): It's OK to cheer for Draco. I did. About your review for 21, I have now placed the Alien movies on my 'Need to See' list. Thank you for reading.

Fleur K: I'm glad that you enjoyed the last-minute twist. Snape does indeed care, in his own stressed-out way. Thank you for reading.

Kitora Crysta: Delicious, huh? You're such a sweetie! Thank you for reading.

Lady Jenilyn: Thank you for reading. I'm warmed to know that you enjoyed it.

Rycca: Draco is a fairly scary guy when he wants to be. If I decide to post the sequel, there will be much more of Draco and Lucius in it. And, yes. Alex is the queen of the pickle. Thank you so much for reading.

Intel Ewok: I will probably delve into the 'friendship' between Severus and Lucius much further if I post the sequel, so maybe I can explore that more deeply. Thank you for reading.

Siverfey: I'm glad that you enjoy reading Alex in action. I had butterflies the whole time I was writing it. Draco is complicated. I adore him. I despise him. I think of him as a little brother I'd love to take under my wing. He has so much potential! Thanks for reading.

Thank you all so much for reading and reviewing. This experience has meant more to me than I can express to you.