Chapter Sixteen: Revelations
"This was the most delicious meal I've ever eaten", Alexandra said and put down her spoon with a deep sigh of satisfaction, glad about the fact that she had donned a skirt with an elastic waistband for the occasion.
He had already finished his dessert some time ago and watched her affectionately.
"So you liked it here?"
"Oh, yes, tremendously, thank you, Severus."
As Severus had promised the food had been excellent and the small restaurant, situated in a picturesque hillside village next to one of the coastal salt lakes, its veranda providing a splendid view over the lake in the late evening light and now, as darkness fell, of the twinkling city lights of Narbonne and its suburbs, matched the quality of the food in terms of atmosphere and service.
"Shall we have coffee then?" he asked with a smile that by now she recognized as a symptom of his happiness.
She nodded and he signalled to the waiter who arrived at once. But instead of taking their orders he told them that the patrons at the table in the far corner of the room were inviting them to join their party for coffee.
Alexandra frowned. "What's that all about? Do you know anybody here?"
Severus' eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Who are they?"
"Je ne sais pas," the waiter said with an uncomfortable shrug and added that they gave the impression of being personages of great influence and that they had really been insistent on this invitation. He looked quite ill at ease and did all but implore them to join the table in the corner.
Severus let out a deep breath.
"Oh, very well, lets indulge them," he said roughly and got up.
The waiter smiled nervously and added that their bill had also been taken care of by these patrons.
Severus raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Carefully they wound their way between the tables, the waiter taking the lead.
They arrived at a large, round table in the corner; four people were seated there, one of them was a woman, one was sitting back, his face in the shadows.
A sandy haired, heavily built man with a large moustache got up to greet them.
"Mr Snape! Nice to meet you at last. And Ms Moody, isn't it?"
Alexandra nodded. They shook hands.
"I'm Douglas Dribblebanks from the British Ministry of Magic, Health Department. Let me introduce my friends here. This", he indicated the petite, perfectly groomed woman on his right, "is Madame Millefoux, my French counterpart."
The woman rose to shake hands. Dribblebanks beamed at everybody and continued.
"This is Henry Jenni, head of LesPotions Géantes the famous British-French-Swiss manufacturer of magical potions and Muggle medicines."
Another round of handshakes.
"And I understand that you already are acquainted with our most gracious friend Lucius Malfoy."
Alexandra gasped as the fourth member of the party leaned forward and revealed his pale, pointed face and sleek white hair. Severus showed no visible reaction, but Alexandra could feel him stiffen next to her.
Malfoy inclined his head gracefully.
"Good evening, Severus, old friend. Good evening, Ms Moody. What a pleasure to meet you again," he drawled.
He didn't get up. No handshakes this time. Alexandra clenched her fists. She would have liked to wipe the supercilious smile from Malfoy's face. What was he doing here? He should be in Azkaban.
Severus gave a curt nod of acknowledgement.
"Lucius," he said coldly.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
"Well, why don't you take a seat?" Dribblebanks exclaimed and they complied.
"Mr Snape, the purpose of our little meeting here, now that we have finally managed to find you thanks to the generous assistance of Mr Malfoy, is that we would like to make you an offer. We know that you are the inventor and the producer of this amazing salve that can cure skin conditions hitherto deemed incurable. As you can probably guess, we had the salve analysed by our most famous experts, and whereas they were perfectly able to come up with a complete list of ingredients, they failed to determine the correct method of mixing them together."
Here he cast a brief glance at Henry Jenni, who blushed slightly and wouldn't meet his eye.
"Therefore, as an important manufacturer of potions, LesPotions Géantes would like to buy your formula so that with industrial production and good marketing opportunities the salve can be made available to a large numberof sufferers."
"What makes you think I'd want to do that?"
Severus was reclining in his chair, the tips of his fingers put together, looking absolutely unimpressed.
"Eh…" Dribblebanks seemed taken aback.
"Alors, your producing this magical salve and selling it to Muggles is illegal, Mr Snape," Madame Millefoux chimed in. "If you continue doing this without ministerial permission we will fine you, the fine is very high and if you can't pay…" She shrugged and smiled maliciously.
"We have the means and the connections to procure a certificate of exemption from the Ministries without delay, Mr Snape. You haven't," Mr Jenni stated bluntly.
They all looked at Severus, snug, self-satisfied smiles on their faces.
Alexandra fidgeted in her chair, watching him anxiously, and saw the muscles of his jaw clench slightly.
"Very well, I can see your point. How long do I have to reach a decision?" he asked.
"We would think it best if we could be assured of your co-operation before parting tonight," Madame Millefoux said silkly.
"It's a far-reaching decision", Severus protested, "I'd like to think about it, to talk it over with – my future wife."
He cast a quick, side-long look at Alexandra, who stifled a gasp.
"Well," Dribblebanks looked around the table for approval, "I think we can grant you an hour. We'll wait for you here."
Severus gave a brief nod and got up. Alexandra followed suit.
"Come!" He took her arm and led her out of the restaurant, ignoring the curious glances of the other guests and the waiters.
They went through the narrow streets without speaking until they reached the very top of the hill, where a weather-beaten bench stood next to the old church. Alexandra, slightly out of breath, sat down, while Severus remained standing, his back to her, looking at the lights in the distance.
"Severus, what you've just said…"
"The bit about your future wife."
"Oh, that. Well…"
"You could have asked me before announcing it to these people. I think that's the way it usually is done and it's called proposal," she said, accusing his back.
He turned and sat down next to her, his face grave.
"I'm sorry. I intended to ask you with the coffee, but then…." He trailed off and shrugged helplessly. "Obviously I can't get anything right in these matters."
"Oh, Severus, stop it."
He looked at her with a sad smile.
"So - would you like to marry me?"
"Yes, Severus, with all my heart."
She put her arm through his, snuggling up to him.
"What am I going to do with their offer?"
"Accept it, of course."
He looked at her sceptically. "Of course? Honestly, I don't think so."
"Well, they have the means of ruining you and they are going to use them. Didn't you hear that woman? On the other hand they are really keen on that formula, you can sell it for a very good price, make them accept your conditions if you are clever with the negotiations."
"I'll lose my independence."
"You'll lose that anyway if you marry me."
He smiled wryly, still not convinced.
Alexandra took his arm.
"Severus, this is not about personal feelings, these people are unscrupulous, they mean business. Do you want to go to prison again?"
He didn't answer, only closed his eyes.
"Don't be stupid. Take their money, make the best of the deal."
"You are so insufferably pragmatic!"
"Well, you asked me for advice, didn't you?"
When he still curled his lip disdainfully, she continued.
"By coming to France you wanted to make a new start and you've managed quite well so far. But do you always want to hide, do you want to work in secrecy and on the edge of legality for the rest of your life? If you accept their offer you have nothing to fear from the authorities, you can make a fortune if you co-operate with them. Money doesn't make you happy, but it helps you to lead a comfortable life. And what may even be more important for you is that you certainly can make a name for yourself in the world of potion-making by associating with this potions giant, build up a reputation that can be of advantage for your future – our future," she added shyly."
He stared straight ahead, saying nothing. Alexandra looked at her watch and sighed.
"The hour is almost over."
He nodded gravely and at long last turned to look at her.
"If I accept - will you help me see it through?"
She exhaled with relief.
"Yes, of course. After all I'm your future wife."
When they returned to the restaurant, the table in the corner was the only one still occupied.
The restaurant staff were already busy preparing the tables for the next day. As Alexandra and Severus approached the waiting party, four faces were watching them eagerly and couldn't quite hide their apprehension.
Severus offered Alexandra a chair and then sat down himself, slowly and without deigning a look at the others. He blatantly enjoyed the effect of suspense he created. After some interminable seconds he raised his head and looked around the table with a noncommittal, neutral stare.
Dribblebanks practically squirmed in his chair, Madame Millefoux fingered her necklace, Jenni was drumming an impatient tattoo on the tablecloth and even Malfoy was running a finger around the inside of his collar as if it suddenly had become too tight. Finally Jenni couldn't stand it any longer.
"Well, Mr Snape?"
Severus answered with a raised eyebrow and allowed some more seconds to pass.
Then he leaned back and crossed his legs.
"I accept your offer."
Alexandra could see anxiety give way to relief on the four faces turned towards Severus.
"Splendid, Mr Snape, absolutely splendid!" Douglas Dribblebanks beamed around the table.
"Then we're all going to meet at the notary in Paris on Monday to discuss the conditions. Three o'clock, this is the address."
He handed Severus a small roll of parchment.
"And now I think some celebration is in order. Champagne, Mr Snape? Ms Moody?"
"No, thank you." Severus got up abruptly.
"It's been a long day, I'd like to go home. Just one question."
He smiled and added conversationally, "Lucius, just how did you get out of prison?"
Dribblebanks blushed slightly and started fingering his moustache. Madame Millefoux stared at Lucius, eyes wide in shock, Jenni looked from Malfoy to Severus and back again, his mouth hanging open. Obviously these two had been ignorant about Lucius' stay in Azkaban.
Malfoy's eyes narrowed, but with an effort he managed to keep the arrogant expression in place when he answered.
"My solicitor pointed out several procedural errors in my trial. He can be very convincing. That and my offer to help the Ministry find you made them release me."
Severus smiled bitterly and nodded to himself.
"How did you know about my whereabouts?"
"Oh, you told me about your cottage in France yourself."
Malfoy chuckled. "Oh, yes. It was the night Sirius Black escaped from Hogwarts, you were beside yourself with fury and came to Malfoy Manor to give vent to your anger. You may not remember the occasion as for once you got roaring drunk and kept telling me that you would chuck up your job at Hogwarts, where you had been treated so unfairly, that you would leave England for good and make a new start in France."
A painful expression crossed Severus' face. For several moments nobody moved or spoke. Then Severus roused himself from his thoughts.
"Well, Alexandra, shall we go now?"
She agreed, eager to be gone from the presence of these people.
It was already well past midnight when they stepped out on the street and went downhill to reach an apparition point, their steps echoing between the silent houses. Most windows were dark, the village was asleep. When they reached the last flight of steps leading down to the shore of the lake, Severus stopped short.
"It's all my fault. Roaring drunk indeed! If I had not allowed old childhood enmities to have such an impact on my adult behaviour, I would not have lost control that night and they would still be looking for me in vain. I fear that I have just given up the control of my life. Everything is going to change completely," he shouted angrily.
"For me as well," she remarked softly, "it's the start of a new life, Severus, stop being angry with yourself. Take it as a new beginning, a new chance."
He breathed hard, staring over the dark water, saying nothing. The only sound were the waves lapping against the shore, the soft gurgling of the water between the boats tied to some wooden poles.
Finally he sighed.
"Perhaps you're right," he said slowly, "the start of a new life - our life together."
His eyes returned to her, in the orange light of the streetlamp they were not unfathomable, they reflected the wonder and love that had sounded in his voice.
"Our life together," he repeated and pulled her in his arms. A soft plop and the place where they had stood was empty.
Phew! I've really done it! I've managed to finish the story before the release of HP 7.
Thank you for staying with me, for your patience and your feedback.
Once again thanks to J.K.Rowling for creating these wonderful characters.