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Painted in the Worst Light

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"There's a gentleman in the sitting room asking for you, ma'am." The house-elf curtsied quickly and clasped her wrist behind her back. "It's Master Severus, ma'am. I is telling him Master Draco is being with Astoria, but he is saying he is to see you."

Narcissa set aside the book she was reading, her brow furrowing lightly. "Severus? Here?" She rose gracefully to her feet and paced for a moment. "How peculiar." She tapped her finger against her pursed lips as she thought. She'd not seen Severus since Draco's wedding and could think of no reason for the visit. "I would like a pot of strong coffee and a plate of raspberry biscuits brought to the sitting room in ten minutes' time." She inclined her head slightly. Thank you, Sintille."

Severus was standing at the windows looking out at the formal gardens, his back to her as she entered the room. His dark hair, longer now than when she had seen him last, was swept back and fastened at the nape of his neck with a silver clasp and he no longer had the air of a feral cat uncertain of his welcome clinging to him like soot. "Severus," she said, injecting a note of warmth into her voice. "What a delight. Please, have a seat and tell me what brings you to the Manor."

When he turned, she noticed he was carrying a largish box wrapped in silver paper and tied with a pale blue ribbon. "Narcissa. Good morning." Snape stepped forward and brushed a kiss on her cheek before sitting in a sapphire blue chair with delicate arms and legs. He set the box down carefully and watched intently as she perched on the edge of a matching settee. "As for why I've come, do you recall the date?"

"The date?" Sintille appeared with coffee and biscuits, which Narcissa served up properly. "It's the first of June. Draco's birthday is in just a few days. Why?" She waited until Severus had taken a sip of coffee before lifting her own china cup to her lips and smiled approvingly when he selected a biscuit to nibble.

"It's also the fifth anniversary of your testimony," said Snape as he set down his coffee cup. "I owe you more than I can ever repay."

Narcissa was astonished. She had known Severus Snape for over twenty-five years and, since the day he made the Unbreakable Vow to protect her son from the Dark Lord's vengeance, she had considered herself in his debt. It was one that she would never consider fulfilled. "But I did nothing. The Ministry summoned me. Harry Potter interrogated me. I said my piece. Judging from the reaction of the Wizengamot, I'm not certain I was of any assistance at all."

Snape picked up another biscuit and ate it whilst she spoke. "Hmm. I'm not certain you made any difference with the Wizengamot, but you did with Harry. Your testimony, he refers to it as a paradigm shift." He sipped his coffee and she would swear his dark eyes twinkled. It was remarkable!

"You speak of him as though you are still in contact with him," she observed. "Isn't he still with the Auror Corps?"

"He is. He is up for promotion to the head of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol." Snape leant back and crossed his right leg over his left. His deep blue robes rode up onto his ankle and revealed a pair of fashionable black boots of Minotaur leather. Very expensive, as Narcissa well knew. A cloak of the stuff would cost her half her vault. Snape blew out a breath. "Kingsley can't post the promotions list soon enough."

There was affection and exasperation there or her name wasn't Narcissa Black Malfoy. She arched an eyebrow and studied Snape intently. He was easily a stone and a half heavier than he had been during the weeks he was on trial. Some of the sallowness was gone; his skin had more of an olive cast, as though he was a regular acquaintance of the sun. His teeth, whilst still crooked, were much whiter and some of the potions stains had faded from his elegant fingers. For the first time since she'd known him, he appeared to be thriving. "How do you know this, Severus?" she asked quietly.

Happiness shone in the depths of Snape's eyes and he smiled unabashedly. "Did you not know, Narcissa? Harry Potter is my husband. We married more than three and a half years ago."

"Married? To Harry Potter? Oh, Severus." Narcissa was surprised by the tears that filled her eyes. They were a sign of sentiment, of weakness and she felt she should be ashamed of them, but discovered she wasn't. Moving swiftly, she tugged Severus into her arms and hugged him for a long time. "Draco will be delighted as well."

Snape patted her back awkwardly and when he sat down the confusion was evident. "Had we known of your," he searched for a suitable word, "affection for us, we would have invited you to the ceremony. It was quite small and we've made no announcement, but Harry is ridiculously overjoyed, and that's all that matters. I suspect he will, at some point, outgrow his exuberance, but at the moment, it shows little sign of waning.

"Oh, and he sent you this. He told me not to worry if it perished, you would understand all the same." Snape lifted the box and passed it to her. "I've no idea what it is."

Narcissa set it on the table and eyed it cautiously. She had half a mind of checking it for hexes and jinxes, but there was no way to do that without insulting her guest and it was clear that Snape was as curious as she was. The pale grey paper shimmered and it wasn't until she turned the box that she noticed the subtle imprint of flowers.

"And what of yourself, Narcissa?" asked Snape as she ran her finger under the beautiful blue bow and removed it. "Do you intend to grow old here alone?"

"My marriage contract did not allow for divorce," she replied as she set about removing the paper in one piece. "And Lucius will be released from Azkaban in another year or so. We will have many more years of 'married bliss' ahead of us. Besides, I still hold out hope that Draco and Astoria will return home and raise their children here."

To her surprise, the box opened along the long edge and, as she worked it open, the scent of fresh dirt filled her nose. What on earth...? The look she sent Snape had more than a small amount of confusion in it and it was hard to conceal her hurt and disappointment when she pulled out the sorriest excuse for a potted plant she had ever seen. There was a long, green stick about eighteen inches tall sticking out of the soil next to one brave stalk and a number of dead or dying sword-like leaves.

"I-I don't understand," she murmured and turned away to hide the ache in her heart.

Snape's jaw dropped and a dark flush rose up from the collar of his robes to his cheeks. "There must be an explanation. Harry is many things, but cruel is not one of them. Check for a note, Narcissa, I implore you."

Plastering on a brave smile, she searched for someplace to set the woebegone thing until a house-elf could see to its remains. There was nothing else inside the box except fresh dirt and the remains of a long, thin leaf. She examined the paper and discovered a small envelope nearly the same shade with her name written in sparkling blue ink that nearly matched her eyes.

Dear Narcissa,

I found a bed of these whilst weeding out the gardens at our new house. Sorry looking thing, isn't it? This one is the worst of the lot, but once Severus told me what they were, I knew I had to send it to you. It's called Narcissus poeticus and Sev thinks this one is some sort of Pink Lily. They're poisonous though, so be careful.

I know you must think I've gone completely mental, sending you a nearly dead plant, but, you see, I've never forgotten what you said at Severus' trial, about him needing love and light and warmth. This raggedy old plant reminded me of that and I knew I had to send it on to you. I reckon you'll just throw it out, and that's okay. The plant was just an excuse.

I did what you said. I loved him without condition. Still do and I expect I always will. I nurtured him and cared for him. I made certain that he knew that nothing could ever hurt him again, not beyond the everyday things anyway. I wanted you to know that your words took root. It's been five years and I thought you ought to see what you grew. He turned out pretty well, leastways I think so. I hope you do, too.