When the last brat had boarded the Hogwarts Express to return home for the Christmas holidays, Severus stomped off the platform with a scowl on his face. Because of the excitement of the Yule Ball, the train was practically empty. For the first time since taking the position as Potions Master, the Headmaster expected him to work over the holidays—and not on the Horcrux problem as he had anticipated.
Instead of hunting for pieces of the Dark Lord's soul, he'd been asked to patrol the halls in case some students succumbed to "holiday hijinks" as the old man had so blithely put it during the last staff meeting. Privately, Snape thought Albus had finally gone round the twist. He'd admitted to being the instigator of the rogue sprigs of mistletoe which floated through the halls catching students unawares.
"It's all in good fun, Severus," he had gently chided, his eyes twinkling with all the smug intensity of Gilderoy Lockehart. "I assure you they are charmed to ignore the staff."
At least Pomona had added her protest to his, although her objection had been drowned out by Igor Karkaroff. The former Death Eater turned Headmaster had stridently expressed his disapproval of Hermione Granger's obvious attempt to seduce the Durmstrang champion, Victor Krum. Poor Minerva had almost choked on her tea.
As exasperating as the last staff meeting had been, it was Albus' reticence over more serious matters that led Severus towards the Hogs Head, a bottle of Glenfiddich in hand. Snow crunched beneath his boots, but the winter sky dazzled with a cloudless blue that stretched to the horizon. After the long walk in the bright sunshine, entering the dingy pub held all the charm of a descent into the netherworld. Dark, dank and cold, it had all the appeal of the Viking's Nifleheim, but the Potions Master hadn't chosen the establishment for its atmosphere. Offering in hand, he searched for answers to questions he had been extremely reluctant to voice.
"We're closed," Aberforth gruffly called out as Severus' eyes adjusted to the gloom.
Ignoring the proprietor's brusque pronouncement, he placed the bottle of aged whisky on the bar. "Good thing you don't have to serve me, then."
Aberforth took a long look at the bottle and then clunked two rather grimy glasses onto the bar. After filling both, Snape sipped his, enjoying the smoothness of the fifteen year old whiskey. The grizzled wizard across from him stared intently at the glass in front of him but didn't drink.
"What do you want this time, Snape?"
Severus fought the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. Speaking to the younger Dumbledore was never easy, but the man seemed more confrontational than usual.
"I'd like to know if I can trust your brother."
Eyeing him for a good ten seconds, the older wizard threw back his head and laughed. "You must be desperate to come to me for advice. Are you desperate, Snape? Or have you finally gotten your head out of your arse and realized just how callous Albus can be when it comes to us ordinary mortals?"
"Perhaps," he hedged as he took another sip of whiskey. "Or perhaps I am simply more cautious with Rose's future than my own."
At the mention of Rose, Aberforth's face tightened into a grimace. "If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her anywhere near my dear brother. You know what he did to Ariana."
"I don't, actually." Snape replied blandly, finally reaching the purpose for his visit. "The last time we spoke, you said he couldn't be bothered to care for her. She died of neglect, then?"
"She died," the barkeep spat, glancing briefly at the large, empty portrait handing over the fireplace, "because Albus was too busy buggering Gellert Grindelwald to help her."
At Severus' blink, the bitter man grinned spitefully. "Didn't bother to share that with you, did he? Put's a slightly different spin on their duel now, doesn't it?"
"They were friends," he stated woodenly, distantly wondering if he'd been Confunded.
"Bit more than friends," the older man answered nastily. He appeared gleeful in his newfound ability to shock the unflappable Potions Master.
"But Grindelwald's politics . . . ."
"Was something my brother championed, at least at first. And, who could blame him? Filthy Muggles beat my sister to the point of insanity. Father went to Azkaban for punishing them, not that he could use that as an excuse. Mother spent the rest of her life hiding Ariana's madness from the world. When she died, Albus insisted on taking responsibility. I told him I would do it, told him I didn't care about finishing school, but he didn't listen to me. And she paid the price."
"What happened?" Severus asked quietly, the few sips of whiskey he had taken now burning the back of his throat.
Aberforth took the bottle of Glenfiddich and put it behind the counter. His blue eyes bored into Snape's darker ones as he warned, "My brother thinks very highly of himself, always has. Spent the summer planning to change the world, and never once considered Ariana's needs before what he and that monster liked to call 'the greater good'. In the end, she died because of it. You remember that, Snape, the next time he puts his own agenda ahead of your daughter's welfare. You think he Obliviated her last year as a kindness? Kindness to him, maybe. After all, a traumatized young witch doesn't bode well for Trelawny's blasted prophecy, now does it?"
Stunned, Severus stared dumbly at the embittered wizard. Taking his silence for disbelief, the weathered man hastened to convince him. "Didn't think you were the only one listening that day, did you? Unlike you, I heard every word that came out of that damn witch's mouth. Always wondered why my brother didn't offer to be Secret-Keeper for the Potter's when he moved them to Godric's Hollow, but I suppose he had his reasons."
"He . . . ." Severus trailed off, his voice strangled by doubt. Aberforth didn't give him a chance to collect his thoughts.
"Why do you think Sirius Black wasn't given a trial? At Albus' insistence, even the Lestranges went through the mockery of a trial. But, they weren't Rose Potter's guardians."
The blood drained from his face. Coincidence. It had to be coincidence. His mentor wasn't appointed Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot until six months after the last Death Eater trial. He couldn't be responsible for Sirius' false imprisonment.
The barkeep continued to hurl accusations faster than Snape's stunned mind could digest .
"Think he trusts you? Think he's happy that girl looks to you as a father? You know that's a lie, or you wouldn't be here asking me if you can trust him. He's not telling you the whole truth, Snape. It's what he does. Because no matter what he says, my brother truly believes he's above the rest of us. And if he thinks that slip of a girl is the only one capable of defeating Voldemort, then he'll use her in whatever manner he thinks best, all in the name of the greater good. You think about that the next time you wonder if you can trust my brother, Severus Snape."
Before the shocked wizard could react, the younger Dumbledore walked up the stairs without a backwards glance. The meager light from the few candles scattered throughout the bar abruptly sputtered out. Taking the hint, Severus emerged from the gloomy atmosphere of the Hog's Head to blink stupidly at the glowing winter sun.
Shaken, he walked back to the castle in a daze. Halfway there, he realized that he still didn't know the circumstances of Ariana Dumbledore's death. He only knew that the wizard to whom he had sworn his life was not the model of righteousness he thought him to be. A young Albus Dumbledore had, in fact, been swayed by the glib tongue of a Dark wizard. With that knowledge came the uncomfortable realization that he'd put Rose's safety in the hands of a man as fallible as he. And that thought threatened to destroy him.
"Were my robes ready? Dad? Dad? Professor? Can you understand me? Should I find Madame Pomfrey? Dad?"
A tug on his sleeve pulled him out of his fugue. Blinking, he looked down at Rose, who stood with him in front of the door to his quarters. Severus vaguely remembered walking into the Entrance Hall, but his thoughts had troubled him so much that he couldn't recall reaching the dungeons. He wondered how long he'd been standing in the hallway before she'd demanded his attention.
"I . . . . Forgive me, Rose. It slipped my mind."
Her eyes narrowed enough to create worry lines on her forehead. "You forgot? But, you never forget. Are you certain you're alright?"
"Perhaps I'm more tired than I thought," he finally replied. "Would you like to accompany me to Gladrags tomorrow? We could visit the Three Broomsticks for lunch."
Rose brushed his offer aside like a niffler hunting gold. "Don't lie to me, Dad. I know something's wrong. I wish you would just trust me for once."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he reluctantly confessed, "Healer Wellby has informed me that Sirius is to be released on New Year's Eve."
Her hand flew to her bracelet, and he watched her worried expression turn into a full-fledged frown. Had he not been harboring a much more damning secret, he might have felt guilty for burdening her with such news. Instead, all he felt was relief that Rose accepted his diversion without question.
"He still wants custody, then?"
"Want doesn't get."
Snape answered sharply in a voice reminiscent of his father and immediately regretted the slip. Rose's eyes briefly widened, but then hardened into a steely glint of determination that rivaled Albus Dumbledore's.
"No, it doesn't," she agreed with tang of bitterness that spoke of the many disappointments she'd experienced in her young life. "But wealth seems to. And, you said the Blacks are the wealthiest Wizarding family in Europe."
He abruptly realized they still stood in the corridor where anyone could overhear. Ushering her inside his quarters, Severus searched through his personal stores for an Invigoration Draught.
"Black is wealthy, but he's too much of a Gryffindor to bribe a Ministry official. And, time is on our side. In three years, you'll be of age."
All of a sudden, Rose grabbed his arm. "You'll still be my dad, though, won't you?"
His potion stores forgotten, Severus turned to reassure the unusually clingy witch. "Unlike a guardianship, that will never expire. I'm afraid your children will have to endure a brooding bat for a grandfather."
She grinned just as he had intended, and they moved to less painful topics. Rose confided that Victor Krum had invited Hermione Granger to the Yule Ball. He listened attentively without divulging Igor Karkaroff's objections to the burgeoning romance. The lively girl's face clouded the few times she spoke of her onetime best friend, and Snape privately vowed to have a chat with the bookish witch. He considered two months far too long for the Granger girl to hold a grudge, especially when Rose had spoken under the influence of a toxic potion.
While she recounted Ronald Weasley's disastrous attempt to invite the Beauxbatons champion to the Yule Ball, Severus' attention began to drift. Rose finally noticed and insisted he get some rest. She promised to meet him in the Entrance Hall the next morning to accompany him to Hogsmeade. He made nothing more than a token protest, although sleep was far from his mind. After she left, he spent the rest of the afternoon and evening brooding.
He downed the Invigoration Draught in defeat at dawn the next day. No matter how much he tried to dismiss Aberforth's story as the bitter ramblings of a jealous sibling, more than a kernel of the wizard's tale rang true. Albus had an infuriating tendency to divulge only half a truth. Worse, once he'd reached a decision, it was almost impossible to sway him, no matter how reasonable the argument. And, he'd already sacrificed Rose's childhood to the notion of the greater good. How else could he justify the years of abuse she'd suffered at the hands of the Dursleys?
With no sleep and troubled thoughts, the Potions Master spent an extra few minutes that morning Occluding his mind. Only after he had hidden his inner turmoil did he attempt a smile. From the ghastly reflection of his bathroom mirror, he decided not to repeat the experiment. Hoping Rose would be too excited over her dress robes to notice his taciturn mood, he put a few dishes in the sink before leaving his quarters. And Merlin help the luckless student he might catch in the midst of "holiday hijinks" that day.
The morning of Christmas Eve, Severus Snape strode purposefully towards Gringotts. Though he safeguarded Rose's key, it was not her vault he intended to visit, rather his own. While his grandfather had been quite thorough in disinheriting his mother, a few select heirlooms were specifically entailed through the bloodline. As the only remaining Prince, he had inherited several magical artifacts he had assumed would sit idly in his vault until the day he died. Now, however, he intended to put a few to good use.
Approaching the front desk, the goblin regarded him sullenly. "Professor Snape. We did not expect you until late August."
Biting back a sarcastic retort, he responded coolly. "I am here to access my vault."
It was all too apparent that the arrogant goblin was not pleased, but he could not refuse such a request. Surrendering his key, Severus wondered not for the first time why the Ministry allowed the goblins such control over Wizarding finances. The two species had been at war far too many times for him to trust the arrangement. Still, their security was without equal.
Fifteen harrowing minutes later, Severus shakily exited the cart to enter vault number 820. The vault itself had been one of his few inheritances, and the gold residing within was a paltry heap compared to the size of the ancient chamber. Every galleon, sickle and knut had been hard earned, however, and he scooped up a large handful with more than a hint of satisfaction. Then, he turned to the roughhewn shelves cut directly into the stone.
One entire wall consisted of oddly shaped alcoves, the vast majority empty. He momentarily wondered what the bare spaces had once contained before setting his eyes on the seven that still held priceless treasures. Reverently, he fingered the heavy iron and steel sword that rested in its peeling leather scabbard. The ancient Viking runes hammered into the hilt briefly glowed in acknowledgement of his touch. Wistfully, he moved to the next treasure, a pair of wide, patterned arm rings fashioned from gleaming silver, their delicate, intricate designs marking them as feminine as much as the protective enchantments still palpable on the metal. With only the briefest hesitation, he wrapped them in a soft cloth before putting them in his satchel.
The next two shelves contained treasures of a more mundane kind. The first was crammed full of beautiful Viking jewelry, men's and women's; the second, more substantial shelf housed a battered helmet and shield. While they were undoubtedly precious, the items were strictly Muggle in origin and didn't hold his interest. Passing them by, he warily regarded the spear point that was pushed back into the farthest alcove. It, too, was forged of iron and steel, but unlike the sword, it did not react well to the touch of a Prince. No relative had been alive to warn Severus of this fact when he first inherited the vault, so he had learned that lesson the hard way. Giving it a wide berth, he stood on his toes to reach into the shelf above.
His fingers gripped the cool soapstone set and a smile briefly graced his face before he carefully pulled the comb and mirror out of their resting place. The ancient enchantments on the two pieces were particularly clever. The comb was nothing more than a comb, albeit a comb charmed to style hair in precisely the manner the user wished. The silver set into the carved soapstone mirror, however, had a far more useful purpose. It reflected the best qualities of the beholder. While such a device might be treacherous in the hands of a vain witch, he thought it would do Rose a world of good. She still had a tendency to belittle her talents.
With the soapstone secure in his satchel, he thoughtfully fingered the last item, a protective silver amulet shaped like a hammer. The runes enchanting it were broad and masculine, and he regretfully put it away after giving it a careful examination. He wished he could give it to Rose to wear hidden around her neck, but Viking magic was too gender specific to make it useful to her. The thought that he could wear it himself did not once enter his mind. Though his mother had been a Prince, he had never met any of her kin. He considered himself more of a caretaker of such powerful artifacts rather than their true owner. Though, he put that inclination aside for the benefit of the two women he cherished above all others.
"They say the sword was forged in Alfheim itself."
Turning, he did nothing to betray the fact that he had forgotten the unwelcome presence of the goblin. Instead, he recognized the creature with the barest of nods.
"They say entirely too much. I continue to allow Gringotts to house such rarities on the understanding that no one learn of their existence. If I ever hear the slightest whisper of rumor that I own such treasures, then I shall close my account and no goblin shall ever look upon them again."
The stooped old goblin sneered down his long, crooked nose. "You'll hear no word from our kind, Professor Snape. We take the matter of security very seriously at Gringott's."
"I am certain Nicholas Flamel would disagree."
There was no other word for it—the proud creature bristled. "Only a fool would consent to have the existence of his most precious possession emblazoned on a Chocolate Frog card. You are many things, Severus Snape, but a fool is not one of them."
There was no reply to be made for such a comment. Snape silently endured the return trip, possessively clutching his satchel to his side. He was not about to part with his heirlooms because the cart bounced as if it were suddenly attached to the rails with springs. When he finally returned aboveground, he had the urge to kiss the marble floor. Living and working in the Hogwarts dungeons was one thing, descending miles underneath the earth quite another.
Bidding his escort a curt, "good day," the Potions Master headed to Knockturn Alley. Although the sun peaked through thin clouds, as soon as he crossed the line separating Diagon Alley from the more nefarious section of Wizarding London, the world dimmed to a dull gray. The tall, close buildings leaned towards him, but he ignored the claustrophobic atmosphere as he strode purposefully down the narrow street. At the end of the alley, he entered a tiny shop squeezed between two empty buildings.
The sign on the door read The Nefarious Nook, and it certainly lived up to its name. Severus walked into the tiny, cramped space to find an ancient book and a thin scroll on a small, rickety table. Otherwise, the dusty shop was empty. Picking up the book, he flipped through the vellum pages, but quickly realized it was too generic to suit his needs. Carefully putting it down, he took the other in his hand. Even with a preservation spell, the fragile reed parchment threatened to crumble as he carefully unrolled it. As soon as he began to read, however, he knew it to be the one. He placed a pile of galleons on the table. The first book disappeared along with his hard earned money. Slipping the crumbling scroll into his satchel, he Disapparated on the spot.
At precisely a quarter to midnight, the fireplace in Severus' quarters flared green. Narcissa stepped out of the cold hearth with a vibrant smile on her face. Handing several elegantly wrapped packages to Severus, she removed her long ermine cape to reveal midnight blue robes that sparkled with elegant silver accents.
"Cissy!" Rose kissed the older witch on both cheeks before cheerfully asking, "Why am I encased in soot every time I use the Floo, but your white cloak doesn't have a spot on it?"
"Severus!" she demanded as he added her gifts to the small pile already underneath the tree. "You haven't shown her the Soot Repelling Charms? How like a man. Don't worry, dear, I'll teach you the spells. Severus might be a genius when it comes to Potions and Defense, but Charms are a bit tricky for him."
Snape considered refuting Narcissa's sweeping statement, but in the interest of holiday cheer, he merely banished her cape to the closet with a nonverbal Charm. Her warm blue eyes danced with mirth as she rewarded him with a lingering kiss. For once, he wouldn't have minded the roving mistletoe.
Rose ran to answer the knock at the door, most likely as a way to escape the overt display of affection between the witch and wizard. Her guardian hid a smile as he and Narcissa gleefully took advantage of the few seconds of privacy. However, they quickly broke apart when an indignant, "What are you doing here?" could be heard at the door. The latecomer gave an equally indignant reply.
"I was invited, Potter, just like you. Or did you think my mother would visit Hogwarts for Christmas and not wish to see me?"
Severus rolled his eyes while Narcissa ruefully shook her head. Celebrating Christmas together had been a spur of the moment idea. Considering the teens' continued feud, he hoped the attempt wouldn't blow up in their faces like a badly brewed potion.
"Rose, invite Draco inside before we are discovered by Mr. Filch. I need not remind you that you are both out past curfew."
He heard loud grumbling on Rose's part; they both knew she had tacit permission to visit him any time she wished. However, she obeyed his command, and soon Rose and Draco stood in the unusually cheerful sitting area as far apart as the laws of physics would allow. Temporarily ignoring the two, Severus waved his wand to light the fire. Soon, the room took on a cozy glow, although the atmosphere remained tense.
Draco had dressed formally, much like Narcissa. His robes were a bright Christmas green rather than the more subdued shade representing Slytherin House. Severus caught his ward stealing glances at the sight of the young Mr. Malfoy wearing something so festive more than once. Whether out of nostalgia or so deeper emotion, Rose had squeezed herself into the scarlet sweater Mrs. Weasley had gifted her the year before. The Potions Master had discreetly enlarged it to allow for her more mature figure as soon as she had walked into his quarters. For his part, Snape wore black robes, but had pulled out a classic suede set in deference to Narcissa's tradition of dressing for the holiday.
When the clock struck midnight, they gathered around the holly bedecked tree, steaming mugs of hot chocolate in hand. Rose and Draco placed themselves on opposite sides, but thankfully had stopped glaring daggers at each other. With a loud crack, additional presents appeared, making the pile of gifts the largest Severus had ever seen. Not wishing to dwell on his less than happy childhood, however, he didn't mention that fact.
By far Rose had received the most packages. Once Narcissa had sorted them by name and placed them next to their intended recipients, the young witch appeared embarrassed and ill at ease. Tugging on her bracelet, she haltingly suggested that she open most of them in the privacy of her dormitory.
"Nonsense," Narcissa immediately replied. "Half the fun of sharing the holiday with those we love is to share in their delight."
The teen flushed, clearly taken aback by the older witch's open statement of affection. Heat crept up Snape's neck as well. For the briefest moments, he fantasized that the widow Malfoy would consent to become Mrs. Snape, but immediately put those tortuous thoughts out of his mind. According to Rose's vision during the summer, the Dark Lord knew him to be a traitor. Until that monster was vanquished once and for all, he would not jeopardize her life in such a reckless manner.
Rose carefully peeled back the paper of her largest present, and he concentrated on her reaction as she uncovered a stylish, red dragonhide valise with black trim.
"It's charmed to hold as much as you need without adding weight to the bag. I thought you might find it more practical than your trunk when you visit friends over the summer."
She let out a gasp of surprise before bolting from her seat to embrace Narcissa. "Thank you, Cissy! It's beautiful!"
When Rose returned to her place, both witches were suspiciously teary eyed. Neither Severus nor Draco dared comment. Draco, in fact, slumped in his seat, his shoulders hunched. Perhaps fearing her son felt threatened by the attention she had showered upon Rose, Narcissa quickly requested he open his present from her. Dispiritedly, he picked up the small, flat package only to stare at her quizzically when it revealed the picture of a Firebolt zooming around a Quidditch pitch. His pale blue eyes widened in shock.
"Mum? You . . . you bought me a Firebolt?"
Narcissa leaned over the arm of Snape's tiny sofa to kiss Draco's cheek. "I know what flying means to you, Draco. I hope it gives you many happy memories, sweetheart."
Severus noted that the dazed boy didn't even notice her use of the dreaded "sweetheart". Narcissa had debated giving Draco a Firebolt since the Quidditch World Cup. Her great-grandfather Cygnus Black had been killed in 1943 while trying to set a new speed record on a Comet 183. His namesake, her father, had instilled in her a healthy fear of racing brooms, and nothing at the moment came close to the speed of the Firebolt.
The young wizard broke out into a wide, unguarded smile. "I'll be the envy of our House! Potter has the only other Firebolt at Hogwarts!"
Rose snorted at that, reminding the Slytherin of her presence. The grin faded a smidgen, but not enough to hide his excitement. "Just you wait, Potter. Slytherin's bound to win the Quidditch Cup next year now that we're evenly matched."
"In your dreams, Malfoy."
Draco scowled at her for a moment, but didn't escalate the exchange into a full-fledged row. Instead, he urged Narcissa, "Open mine, Mother."
"After Severus opens one, Draco."
Snape chose the package closest to him. Reading the inscription on the tag, he noted with some surprise that Hagrid had sent him a gift. Wary of the older wizard's idea of a present, he carefully undid the string tying the package closed.
For a moment, he wondered if the half-giant had given him dodgy food. Then, he pulled out one of the twenty corked vials secured inside the rusted biscuit tin. Squinting, he read the almost illegible label: Unicorn Hair. Astonished, picked up another: Acromantula Venom. Ignoring the curious questions, he rifled through the box. Powdered unicorn horn, dragon scales, mermaid tears, thestral hair, squid ink—Hagrid had given him a fortune's worth of Potions ingredients.
"I never knew the oaf was so wealthy," Draco tactlessly remarked. Severus regarded him scornfully, but Rose came to the kindhearted wizard's defense before he could open his mouth.
"You are such a git, Draco! Hagrid spent weeks collecting those ingredients himself! Unlike you, he's a true friend."
The fair-haired teen's cheeks burned with anger, but he pointedly ignored Rose. Snape had to admire his restraint if not his opinions. "Would you open my gift now, Mother?"
When she held up a small cut crystal bottle filled with perfume, Draco proudly informed her that he had used half a year's allowance to purchase it. For an instant, pain flickered over Narcissa's delicate features, but then she gushed unreservedly over such a lavish gift. Her son didn't notice her momentary discomfort, and basked in his mother's attention.
Once Narcissa had carefully tucked the perfume bottle in her robes, Rose opened her gift from Hagrid. Draco's mood appeared to be much improved, for he didn't make one snide remark about the tin of homemade rock cakes she received. Severus, however, couldn't hide a smile.
"I'm certain Fang would enjoy a visit over the holidays, Rose."
Her eyes alight with mischief, she replied, "It would have to be several visits, I'm afraid. Even Fang couldn't eat this many in one go."
"I bet the Weasel could."
The teen stared at Draco with an unreadable expression on her face. And, then she grinned. "He does hoover up his food, doesn't he?"
Having scored a minor victory, the young Slytherin promptly reached for a package to open. Severus waited for the inevitable reaction when Draco held up two slim tomes.
Sure enough, the teen couldn't mask his grimace of disgust, although he did keep his tone respectful. "These are Muggle books."
"Technically," he allowed. "However, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli were wizards, not Muggles. Both wrote about tactics rather than spells or potions; thus, their work has fallen out of favor in the Wizarding world."
"Tactics?" Draco asked eagerly, his earlier antipathy forgotten. "What sort of tactics?"
"The sort of which Salazar Slytherin would be proud," he answered with a smirk. "Read the books, Draco. I look forward to discussing them with you."
Narcissa squeezed his hand in appreciation. Ever since Black's Obliviation, Draco had been left without a male role model. While a few hours spent discussing philosophy couldn't replace Sirius' presence in the boy's life, it was a start.
Knowing two of his four remaining parcels were from Albus and Minerva, Severus deliberately picked the one with the most elegant bow, correctly guessing that it came from Narcissa. Opening the sturdy wooden box, he stared at the small cauldron in amazement.
Blinking, he realized he hadn't said a word. Looking into his love's anxious blue irises, he tenderly kissed her hand. "Forgive me, Narcissa. I am seldom at a loss for words, but your gift has simply rendered me speechless. I have never seen a platinum cauldron outside of a museum."
"You are pleased, then?" she asked anxiously.
"More than pleased," he assured her with a devoted kiss. Then, before either teen could ruin the moment with a cheeky comment, he picked up the box containing the Prince bracelets. "Perhaps you would like to open this one next?"
Kneeling before her, he watched as she uncovered the pair of ancient silver bracelets. "They're beautiful," she breathed, studying the intricate runes on etched into the wide silver bands.
Originally meant to be worn as arm bands, the bracelets automatically shrunk to fit her slender wrists, covering her scars completely. When they settled around her, Narcissa's skin was briefly bathed in a warm, silver glow. Severus worried that she might find such magic cloying, but she smiled in childlike wonder.
"I have never felt so cherished."
"They are meant to protect, not possess," he assured her, touching the center rune on each to demonstrate how the bracelets opened. "I hope you will wear them as a token of my affection. They predate the Prince family crest. I assure you no one will recognize their origin."
Tears glistened in her eyes. "I love you, Severus Snape, and one day everyone shall know it."
Leaning forward, he pressed his lips briefly against hers, Rose and Draco's presence all but forgotten. "As soon as it's safe," he breathed softly in her ear, amazed yet again by her devotion. "But for now, wear them as a reminder of my love for you."
"Oh, look! Neville's given me chocolate gobstones!"
Snape could feel his ears turn pink as Rose loudly gushed over Longbottom's gift. Luckily, his hair hid much of his embarrassment. As she squeezed his hand, Narcissa's lips quirked in amusement. They'd both acted like besotted teens, but were too happy to care overly much.
"That's a pathetic gift, Potter. I'd toss it if I were you."
The young witch glanced disdainfully towards the Slytherin's rapidly dwindling pile of presents. "At least my friends care enough to send me gifts, Malfoy."
"I have friends!" he angrily retorted. Snape stifled a sigh; détente between the two had obviously ended.
"Crabbe and Goyle," he responded immediately.
"So? Between them, they might have the intelligence of a troll."
"At least they're loyal, Potter, which is more than I can say for the Weasel and the mud—Granger."
"Draco!" Narcissa admonished, but Rose was so incensed that she didn't hear.
"Loyal?" She shrieked, her eyes narrowed to dark green slits. "Like you, you mean? Or have you forgotten that you compared me to bait? What was it you said? Oh, yes, I remember. You said you wouldn't cry when I was eaten!"
"I was scared!" he unthinkingly roared. "You might be Saint Potter, but that doesn't mean you're invincible! If something were to happen to you, I'd . . . ." He abruptly turned away.
"You'd what?" she demanded. "Contact Rita Skeeter to proclaim to the world 'I told her so'?"
Severus winced at the scathing tone in Rose's voice. In the heat of the moment, she obviously had not understood the significance of the boy's silence.
Whipping his head around to face her, the young Malfoy's mouth opened in mute horror. "Merlin, no," choked out, his voice suspiciously raspy. "Rose, you have to believe me. If something happened to you, I'd be . . . ."
"You'd be what? Well, Draco? You may as well say it. Don't pretend to take my feelings into account now."
"Fine," he spat out. "It's not as if you've ever taken my feelings into account. I'd be gutted, alright? If something happened to you, Rose, I'd be absolutely gutted."
Narcissa gripped his hand so tightly he feared his fingers might be crushed while Rose stared blankly at her son. Snape understood her anxiety. He, too, wished to intervene, but years of teaching had convinced him of the futility of such an attempt. He could only hope that his ward displayed the generous compassion he so admired in her.
"You. . . you would?"
"Don't look so surprised," he sneered nastily. "Or do you think I'm simply my father's son after all?"
His accusation brought a pained frown to the Rose's face. "Of course not! I know you're better than that! I just thought . . . ."
Suddenly speaking to the floor, she tugged violently on her bracelet. "I thought . . . . Look, I know how dangerous it is for the people closest to me. Voldemort killed my parents. A dog almost killed Dad when he saved me from . . . when he saved me. Sirius spent years in Azkaban only to be Obliviated. Ron was taken into the Chamber of Secrets. Hermione was Petrified. Marcus Flint tried his best to kill you. I just thought . . . well, I understood if you didn't want to be around me anymore, especially when a Death Eater managed to infiltrate Hogwarts."
"You're mental, Potter. You know that, don't you?" Before she could take offense, he added in a rush. "I wasn't worried about myself. I was terrified something would happen to you, you death-defying idiot."
She looked up sharply at his words, staring stonily at Draco for several heartbeats. Gradually, her glower transformed into a smirk.
"Oh, open a present, why don't you?"
When he opened a set of chocolate gobstones from Vincent Crabbe, they both erupted into fits of laughter.