Gretchen lay in her bed with her eyes closed, idly tracing the runes on her staff.
She was waiting for Severus to come back from Harry’s house, where Rori would be spending New Year’s Eve. She thought about him stepping into the Floo in his tuxedo, black on black, and a smile spread across her lips.
They were going out to dinner at some fancy Muggle place when he came back. She was dressed in a velvet cocktail dress the colour of dark chocolate. When Rori gave her a hug before she left, she had stroked it again and again with her tiny hand.
The dress had been a gift from Severus, one of the many he’d presented her throughout their endless Christmas celebrations, first with the Grangers, then the Potters, the Weasleys, and Hagrid. Albus had followed them to and fro, seemingly to monitor her. Whenever she had gotten... buzzy... Albus had Apparated them away to some place where they could do their practice.
Gretchen didn’t remember what happened every time, but she could feel it just outside her mental reach. It was exhilarating. Three months ago, she’d had nothing, and now she had possibility after possibility.
She took a deep breath. Exhilaration! She couldn’t remember ever having felt that before. Gretchen couldn’t remember being angry at all, let alone enough to hit someone as she had with Severus. And confusion — that was new. She thought about Harry’s cell of a foyer. She still didn’t remember exactly how that worked, but she did remember feeling good when he held her hand, even if he had drawn her blood. Watching Rori open Christmas gift after Christmas gift had made Gretchen feel light and warm. The child’s excitement was contagious, and she was clearly doted on by everyone.
“Are you ready, Ms. Jones?”
Gretchen opened her eyes, turning her head to find Severus in the doorway of her bedroom. She looked him up and down, shameless in her perusal. It was about the only thing she could do that he never seemed prepared for.
Except for tonight. It was as if he knew he cut the most distinguished silhouette she had ever seen, as if he knew he was the only man she had ever thought more than twice about.
“Are you going to tell me who sent you that suit? Or where we are going?”
“It is a gift from our host, who has the most refined taste and the deepest pockets, I can assure you. As for your other query, I will only say what I have said already: we are going to answer your question. If you are ready, that is.”
“With Rori gone, there is no one left to primp me, and I wouldn’t dream of ruining her hard work.” Gretchen shifted and stood from the bed, balancing to put on the very high shoes waiting for her. They were enchanted, allegedly, but she still felt very dubious about spending the whole night in them.
For the night, she was using the exquisite satin harness that Ollivander had given her months ago. Severus had made sure the colour was charmed to blend seamlessly with her dress, although they had agreed that she would treat her staff as a walking stick once they had arrived.
They walked downstairs, and Severus helped with her cloak. Then, half a moment after he had secured his overcoat, she stepped up and wrapped her arms around him, ready for Apparition.
She smiled up at him, and he stroked his finger under her chin. “Are you ready for the next twist, Ms. Jones?”
Before she could even nod, Severus had them spun away from the cottage, and off to their destination.
Le Doré Paonne was about as posh and luxurious a restaurant as one would expect of Lucius Malfoy. There was a very long line to even enter the front door, although no one felt even a shiver of cold as they waited beneath elaborate heaters, perched on velvet settees for even a chance to sit at the bar. However, what most didn’t know was that there was a private entrance in the back, through a courtyard. The landscaping was exquisite, of course, and tonight, there was a very tall, dark, and handsome figure waiting with his hand on the velvet rope.
Severus could taste his anticipation at the thought of Shacklebolt’s first look at Gretchen Jones when he did not have any idea of the whole elaborate doings. All he knew was that Albus needed him to work the door tonight, and that it would be well worth his time... and silence.
Kingsley Shacklebolt was one of the two treats for Gretchen this evening. While she had met most of the key players of her young life, there were some teachers and fellow Order members who would have to come into play now. Severus did not relish the idea of presenting Gretchen to Minerva, who also didn’t know why he had travelled so much over the last few years. Perhaps he could get Albus to take that journey to Glasgow.
Severus guided Gretchen through the courtyard. She leaned a bit on her staff, looking very natural with it. His hand was at her back, and she let him guide her. It pleased him at the same time that it worried him. Hermione had never let him guide her. She would rather charge through life half a pace ahead of him, trying to see what was coming so she could face it head on. Of course, that had been his young warrior-bride. The gossip she had endured at the beginning, and then when the prophecy was partially leaked, and on and on, had been a tide for her to stand against, which she had done with little complaint.
He couldn’t imagine Hermione doing anything for his attentions. Severus shook off his thoughts. He had noticed a few paces back that Kingsley had recognized him. Now they were stepping up, and Severus just caught the look of utter astonishment on the usually cool and collected Minister’s face.
He wasn’t gaping like a fish, per se, but it still felt good to get one over on Shacklebolt.
“H-he-how are you this evening, Mr Snape?” Shacklebolt asked as he unlatched the velvet rope, allowing them through to the private door.
Severus stopped on the other side of the barrier, and nodded to Shacklebolt. “My guest for tonight, Gretchen Jones, and I have the chef’s table, I believe.”
A world of understanding passed over the other man, who smiled, now, at Gretchen. He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. “A most lovely guest, if I may. I haven’t laid eyes on someone so lovely in many years.”
Gretchen blushed and stuttered her thanks. Shacklebolt watched her closely as he moved to let them through the door, his gold earring glinting in the light. This distracted her, and she stumbled in her high shoes. Severus caught her, but she reached out for Shacklebolt with her free hand. He caught her as well. She looked up at him, awe and wonder on her face. Her lips moved as if to make a word.
“Let’s go inside,” Severus urged, not wanting to draw undue attention.
She obeyed, leaving Shacklebolt outside the door. As Severus took her cloak to have it checked, inspiration struck, and Gretchen turned and wrenched the door open.
He only had enough time to turn before she was wrapping her arms around him. Severus followed out the door, holding it wide. He watched as Shacklebolt returned her embrace, holding her tightly.
“Hermione?” he whispered.
She shook her head and pulled away. Her staff came out from behind Shacklebolt’s back — she’d gotten very adept in keeping it with her of late — and used it to support some of her weight. “Not yet,” she whispered.
“The chef is waiting, sir.”
Severus turned to the maître d’ and nodded. “Gretchen?”
Shacklebolt nodded and shared a look with Severus. As she turned to walk in and followed the man to their private table, Severus crooked his finger. Shacklebolt nodded, looked around, and pulled out his wand. A quick spell later, and he was dressed in something much more appropriate for a guest.
The two men shook hands, and the door clicked shut behind them just as a plate shattered in the kitchen.
Two voices let out the same exclamation, “You!”
“Lucius Malfoy,” Gretchen hissed at Severus as he strode toward their table by kitchen. “You brought me to see Lucius sodding Malfoy for New Year’s Eve?”
“Ah, so you do remember him,” Severus replied. His tone was mysterious, and he as he looked at her, she had that vision of him as a great, gawking bird deciding how to act.
Gretchen’s head was spinning. She put her fingers to her temple. Her other hand was clammy, but she felt power moving through it as she held her staff. She looked back at Severus, and he looked a great deal like his daughter did when he was telling Rori off for mischief. There was a lack of repentance that was beginning to get under Gretchen’s skin. She was so angry, she could hardly see straight.
“You will recall that you once asked Draco if his father was a Muggle, and as I told you earlier, we are here to answer your question.”
A carving board hit stainless steel, and everyone turned to look at Lucius. He levelled his gaze on Severus and said, “I hardly think it is fair, Severus, to leave me in the dark about your companion this evening, all things considered.”
His voice exposed a bitterness that Gretchen most often heard from old couples, as if Lucius had often nagged at the point of being uninformed time and again. She knew he was a powerful man, and expected that to him, the greatest power would be knowledge. To be ambushed like this would be an affront, and that they were in Lucius’s own territory must have been like salt in a wound.
Severus, though, was looking quite like the cat who’d caught the canary. “I think, brother, that you will see the method to this madness.” Then, he turned toward Kingsley and nodded once.
From the doorway, Kingsley was the only one smiling in the room, and he was looking at Gretchen again as though she were... well, she couldn’t say. He seemed very pleased, anyway. Every so often he would shake his head, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came.
Severus moved to pull out Gretchen’s chair, and relieving her of her staff when she very reluctantly sat. “If you’d be so kind as to have a seat, I’m rather peckish,” Severus said.
Gretchen didn’t like not having her staff in hand. She didn’t know any spells, per se, but she could at least clobber the blond git with it.
Severus bowed a bit toward her and moved to take his chair. “You will recall, Gretchen, that you asked what Lucien Malphred had to do you with you, and I thought there was no better way to discern that than a visit and a meal courtesy of the man himself.”
“It’s likely poisoned,” she said, toying with the corner of her napkin and refusing to look at Severus as he sat across from her.
“He wouldn’t dream of it,” Kingsley interrupted. “I think I can make a pleasant evening very much worth his while.”
“How so?” Lucius asked quietly, and Gretchen got the sense that he was restraining a great deal of desperation.
Kingsley looked at Lucius for a long moment before turning to look at Gretchen again. “Perhaps... supervised visits with your family at their home.”
“Their... magical home?”
“As long as we are very clear about Miss Jones having a splendid evening.”
Without sparing her a glance, Lucius replied, “But, of course.”
Gretchen watched Lucius as his temper turned in an instant. For several minutes he flitted about his kitchen, gathering ingredients and utensils and setting them up with almost compulsive precision.
Kingsley slipped away while Gretchen watched Lucius gather his things. When she looked back at Severus, he was pouring himself a glass of wine, and she noticed she had very full one as well.
Severus lifted his glass. “To beginnings.”
Gretchen touched her glass to his. It had only just clinked when the first plate was presented to each of them by the chef. The meal had begun, and everything was made for them by hand, from scratch, by Lucius himself.
When he was able to separate his focus from his work, he told the story of his life since the marriage law was passed:
“What you must know, first and foremost, is that I was very close to the Dark Lord, closer than all but my wife’s sister. As the saying goes, the closer I got to the Dark Lord, the more I was sure that I was more his enemy than friend.
“I had believed when he first disappeared that young Harry Potter was the next great Dark wizard. I kept my thoughts to a very select few, my wife and son among them.
“Yet, the Dark Lord returned, and he was most displeased with my failure of allegiance. However, he knew I had much to offer him, so he began to demand his due. I was helpless to resist.
“Unlike some, I could not simply jump ship. I certainly would not be Dumbledore’s man, not for all the gold in Gringotts. Thus, my fate was sealed. I had to live under the rule of the Dark Lord, a life in a gilded cage, or wait for Potter to defeat him.
“I looked for ways out for my son, I even tried to marry him off and fulfil the Dark Lord’s prophecy, but the Dark Lord trusted me and my son not at all. Thus, my one time protégé became my nemesis.”
As the sixth course was cleared, Severus interrupted. “Yes, Lucius. I’m a terrible, deceitful excuse for a wizard. You can barely stand the sight of me, et cetera, et cetera.”
Lucius ignored him and turned to Gretchen. “He married, fulfilling the prophecy, and they had a daughter, and within months, the Dark Lord was destroyed.”
“You... wanted me to marry your son?”
“Of course not,” Lucius hissed, making Gretchen remember her mistrust of him. “I wanted my son to be saved, at the very least. If he had fathered Aurora—“
Gretchen held up her hand, stopping Lucius’s thought. She couldn’t conceive of it¬, and didn’t want to think of any world where she and... Draco Malfoy...
Luckily, Lucius immediately diverted the conversation. “Without the Dark Lord, his minions were disorganised, and many were apprehended immediately. I, however, was not. Once Severus had confirmed that his wife was with child, I began my preparations.
“The morning the news broke, my family and I went directly to the appropriate officials to meet our fates. Of us, my crimes were the most dire, and were handled accordingly.
“The worst punishment, they decided, was to banish me to live here, amongst the Muggles with nothing to my name. My wife and son could come and go as they pleased, but I could never set foot in my world again.
“That was many years ago. At first, I floundered, but I would not be a stranger in a strange land for long.” He wiped his hands with a kitchen towel, two gourmet puddings having been completed just moments before. “Now, I am once again at a zenith.” He lifted the two plates from his work table and gracefully brought them to the diners.
Gretchen, who could not remember having a finer meal in her entire life, eyed the beautiful milk chocolate sphere as it rested inside a stand of perfect looking raspberries.
“This, Miss Jones, is my most carefully guarded recipe. I believe that you are quite fond of raspberries?”
Lucius stepped around behind her, leaning a bit as he handed her an impossibly dainty silver fork. “This is raspberry infused milk chocolate, organic, grown in hot houses that I rule with an iron fist. It is a truffle. It is meant to pass through your lips and rest on your tongue where it will melt. I encourage you to savour it. Rush nothing.”
“Why doesn’t Severus have the same?”
“He likes ice cream.”
Gretchen could almost see the frown on Lucius’s face. It must be a bitter pill to swallow that he could make such delicacies, and Severus only wanted something as simple as ice cream. She spared a glance as Severus took up a spoon for his vanilla ice cream, before engaging once more with her own sweet.
“And the berries? Are they garnish only?”
“Heavens, no. Also to be savoured, but after, when the beautiful juice can cleanse your palate.”
She couldn’t stand to wait a moment longer, and stuck the fork into the truffle. The tines went in as if the chocolate was half melted, although it seemed solid enough when she put her teeth to it. Gretchen placed the whole sweet into her mouth on her tongue.
It was heaven. It was divine. It was... magical. Gretchen opened her mouth to say as much but all she could do was sigh and hum as it melted into her tongue.
She opened her eyes and felt as if a veil had been lifted from her world. Severus was eating his ice cream and watching her carefully, a determination and sadness behind his eyes. Lucius was watching her, and he looked like Severus did when he was anticipating a difficult potion coming to perfection. In the corner, Kingsley stood with a broad smile on his face, and he nodded.
Lucius leaned closer to her. “It’s nearly midnight. Wouldn’t you like to take Severus into the courtyard?”
She looked across the table and then back at Lucius. “I certainly would.” Pushing back from the table, she offered Severus her hand, and he followed her. He looked like an anxious teenager being led away by the girl he fancies. She smiled back at him.
Behind them, she could hear Kingsley and Lucius negotiating under their breath. She didn’t care. She wanted to get outside before midnight. Her strides lengthened and soon she was in the chilly night air. She didn’t have her cloak or her staff, so she turned and leaned against Severus for his warmth and strength.
She looked up at him. He was paralysed now. He looked down at her, desperation in his features. Around them, people began to chant: ten, nine, eight—
Her arms wrapped around his shoulders. Her shoes were tall, lifting her closer to him, but her arms raised her up further. Seven, six, five—
She smiled at him, and his eyes were pleading. She wasn’t sure what for, but she could guess.
Overhead, fireworks began to bloom, popping and shimmering in the night sky.
She pressed her lips against his, losing the cheering crowds and fireworks and everything to his kiss. His arms wrapped tightly around her, but Severus never took more than she offered.
She gave of her whole self. She had missed kissing him so much. He had been such a part of her life for such a short time, and yet she needed him desperately. Again and again she opened herself and devoured what she could until the world swooned around her.
“Get her staff!” Severus shouted.
He was still holding her against him, but now his breath was in her ear. It was soothing and pleading and demanding. Then his strong hand wrapped hers around the staff. Like a ship dropping anchor, Gretchen’s body lurched but stilled.
“How are you?” Severus asked, brushing hair away from her face.
Gretchen smiled and said, “Splendid.”
Lucius Malfoy’s victorious chuckle filled the courtyard, and Severus led her to a bench where Kingsley was waiting and watching, his face betraying his utter amazement. The pale cloud of light in the courtyard began to dissipate, and Gretchen sat between Severus and Kingsley for a long time, as she came back to herself.