"Do I rate a chance to explain, or should I go back home and do further penance?" I asked patiently.
He quirked a brow upward, but stepped aside and let me pass. He moved around me to a table, swept a pile of books and two cups of scummed-over tea off the surface, and drew chairs over as I arranged the board.
This wasn't going to be easy. Simple statements of fact and feeling almost never worked with him: his demanding, inquisitive brain had to minutely examine the inner workings that motivated them. But it had to be done -- he could hold a grudge forever, and he'd never, in my short acquaintance with him, made the first move toward reconciliation.
"Your... vehemence took me by surprise, and as a result I lost my temper and didn't phrase my statement well," I began, eyes fixed firmly on the board as I placed the pieces. "I simply meant that I have not the least interest in Black -- particularly after his little trick."
"You've barely met the man. I fail to see how you can make such a sweeping statement," he coolly noted as he sat behind the black pieces.
"No, I don't know him, and I'm not bloody well likely to if you have your way, am I?" I said with no little asperity. "Perhaps you don't know me as well as you think, if you feel I'd be bowled over by charm and an attractive smile."
"The man is a menace," he said sharply, "and he has been the undoing of far more astute persons than you --"
I probably should have been insulted, but instead I stared at him in bemusement, and opened my mouth to ask a very impertinent question --
"-- And no, I shall not enlighten you," he said repressively. "Suffice it to say that no, I do not know you well enough to be confident in your ability to deal with his attentions. And, unfortunately, my regrettable rush to your defence almost assures that you shall be the recipient of them, if only to spite me," he added.
Ah. Well, setting aside the rather insulting implication in his last statement, I couldn't reassure him about Black's motives and actions, but I could about mine -- though part of me still militated against revealing a very private part of my character to him when he was so elusive and protective of himself.
Was. I have to admit the outburst in my rooms the other night was fairly spectacular.
I slipped into a chair.
"Why do you think I never married?" I asked calmly.
"I'd no idea you hadn't. Divorce is not unknown in the Wizarding World, if uncommon."
"I didn't, because I was married to my work," I told him patiently. "Firstly, I realised early on that the unsettled nature of my business was not conducive to strong, lasting relationships -- not without a lot of time and energy, and I preferred to put them into the work. And secondly, I simply never found anyone compelling enough to persuade me to change my mind on that score."
That expressive brow lifted again doubtfully. "I find that hard to believe."
"Oh, there was one who tried." I smiled briefly at the thought of Christopher. "I don't know what he saw in me, but whatever it was, he liked it. And I liked him, but that was as far as it went. It just didn't... click for me, mentally. And I've learnt that that's how it has to be for me. Not that I don't appreciate an attractive personality and features," I said idly as I moved my first pawn, "but it's not enough. I appear to be drawn more to the mind."
There was a pregnant pause as he observed me closely, and then he moved his pawn onto the field. "And unlike others, you chose not to settle for less?" he hazarded delicately.
"Why should I? I'm defined by my character, not by my relationships. I had fulfilling work, I liked the person I was becoming... if the right someone came along then they did, and if not --" I shrugged. "And my sister's experience certainly made me wary of jumping into anything. Nor am I the type to indulge in casual physical relationships. So you can imagine I was more than a little insulted at the implication that I would lose my head over a chance meeting with Black -- and that you would feel it necessary to warn me off."
Whatever your motive actually was...
"Perhaps I reacted hastily," he granted softly; I knew it was as close to an apology as I would get. "But as you correctly surmised, there is a history there. And you would be far better off if you limited contact with him as much as possible."
I hate it when others think they know what's best for me -- but ticking Severus off tonight wasn't going to get me anywhere but out in the corridor on my bum.
"I can't treat the man like a pariah -- he's more or less a staff member, and I may or may not have to deal with him on a regular basis. But you needn't worry that he'll charm me into forgetting my values and priorities. I'm well aware that 'Sweetest tongue hath sharpest tooth.'"
Although I think a very good exception to that platitude is sitting across the table at this very moment. No one could possibly accuse Severus Snape of being capable of honeyed words, but he has a bloody bad bite nonetheless.
Said exception was staring at me blankly: he hadn't got the quote.
"Perrault. From 'Little Red Riding Hood,' the original French version."
"Oh, forget it," I said irritably. "It's not important."
It's no fun flinging about quotes if your victim can't spot them, let alone place them.
He nodded, and drummed his fingers impatiently against the table top until I made my next move.
"I have been wondering," he drawled when I'd finished, "if, for the benefit of the faculty, Black might not offer us an opportunity... if you were to express an interest --"
"No," I said firmly, cutting him off; he glared at me. "I won't play these stupid games with someone else's feelings. It's bad enough that you and I have to do this willingly -- well, as willingly as possible, with Albus Dumbledore pulling the strings -- but I refuse to involve someone else in it. And I suspect he would refuse if he was told about it, don't you?"
"So, sorry, I won't. No matter how effective it might be -- or how much you might enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance," I said with a sharp glance at him.
He grinned ferally (that seemed to be the only way he could manage it, or at least the thought of mischief was the only thing that could elicit a grin from him). "I never claimed I had no personal interest as well," he retorted.
"And you never would have if I hadn't called you on it, Machiavelli. It is your turn," I replied mildly. He gave me another glare and a disgusted grunt, but didn't refute the statement or bristle unduly at the tease.
"Besides," I noted, "I rather think he's used to getting what he wants by exercising all that charm. It should be quite enough of a blow if he finds I'm resistant to it. If -- I'm not convinced your prediction is accurate."
"We'll see, won't we?" he muttered, and moved a bishop onto the field.
It happened again on a Saturday -- though morning this time -- and Potter, Granger and Ron Weasley were the ones who discovered it. Hagrid was off on another of his increasingly frequent trips; the kids had gone looking for him -- not knowing he was gone -- and found the hut in shambles: crockery destroyed, furniture overturned, and a spotty trail of blood leading out the door. Their first fear was, of course, for Hagrid, and they'd run to tell Headmaster. Only after he told them Hagrid was away did they realise they hadn't seen Fang.
Alastor and Severus tracked the blood trail through the forest and down to a bluff at the lake's edge; and when they came to the inevitable conclusion, Headmaster called on the Merpeople to recover Fang's body.
I gingerly set my glass on the side table: my stomach couldn't take it, especially as I hadn't been able to attend dinner. The thought of food still made me ill, and I hadn't even seen the carnage. Severus had.
"So they probably used Stupefy," I noted faintly.
"I should think so. Docile as he was, I shouldn't want to put my fingers in his mouth, even with good intent," he muttered. "Then Mobilicorpus to get him through the forest. Most of the cutting was done on the bluff." He stopped to take a deep breath and let it out in a strained exhalation.
"Was there anything --?" I began, and shut myself up immediately. I'd wondered if the body had been mutilated in the same manner as the hare's, but it suddenly seemed like a crass and morbid question, somehow, when applied to Fang. He may not have been human, but he was harmless and liked by all (or tolerated, in Severus' case).
He shook his head, understanding my train of thought and unbothered by the question. "He wasn't gutted, but the abdomen was pierced. The limbs were bound, and a canvas bag weighted with stone was attached."
So they knew what they were doing, and it was premeditated. "Either they didn't want him found or they wanted the searchers to have a great deal of trouble recovering him," I noted.
"The latter, I think -- are you going to drink that?" He'd drained his glass, and was clearly ready for more: I handed him my untouched tumbler, and he sipped, more moderately now. "There was no attempt to hide the blood trail or the mess... there was quite a bit, at the end."
I shivered from a sudden chill up my spine, and then the implication of his words struck me: for there to have been that much gore, the heart would still have been pumping. "He was still alive?" I asked in horror.
"Of course. Stupefy doesn't kill -- it doesn't even block pain," he explained with remarkably little impatience in his voice. "He would need to be alive, for the individual's purpose."
"What purpose?" I asked stupidly.
"This goes beyond sadism. There were dark runes carved into his pelt," he grimly elaborated. "Someone is playing with dark magic, trying to call Power. There were errors, but it was a near thing -- they're coming very close to attaining some competence."
I shivered again and slipped from my chair to the hearth rug in front of the fire, more for the comfort value than actual physical warmth.
"It rather narrows down our field of suspects, however," he observed, and wearily explained when I threw his a questioning glance. "There's a reason we call it Defence Against the Dark Arts. No dark magics are taught at Hogwarts -- but they are at Durmstrang."
Good God -- so Severus had more than enough reason to be distressed: the culprit was probably from his house. I dropped that line of inquiry. Useless to push him about it, and cruel as well.
"Poor Hagrid," I whispered as I drew my knees up to my chest. "This'll destroy him entirely."
"He's due back tomorrow. We cleaned up the remains as best we could, but..." his voice trailed off, but something in his tone gave me pause.
"You like him, don't you?" I ventured softly, keeping my eyes fixed on the flames. "I mean, you genuinely like him, not just tolerate."
The man behind me was silent, and then admitted, "He was one of the few to take a real interest in me as a student," he admitted, voice rough, and then added more harshly, "though it wasn't enough to redeem me, of course..." I heard him take another swallow of whiskey.
He's well on his way to legless, I thought. He'd already had a glass in hand when I appeared at his door, as, again, he hadn't shown up for chess. He'd been in his shirt sleeves, and hadn't bothered to put his coat on when I entered, as usual -- he was either too distraught or already too drunk to care. And oblivion was obviously his goal, or he'd have chosen brandy over whiskey.
Best get this back on a less personal footing, then.
"Why the change in m.o.?" I mused, and Severus let out a confused grunt. "Sorry -- modus operandi."
"Oh." He considered it briefly, dark eyes hooded. "Message. To all of us. You can't watch forever. Raising the alarm is useless. I'm still here, still intent on my goal, and you won't catch me." He snorted, and then added acidly, "That's what I would mean by it."
"It must've happened immediately after the last night patrol. Could Hagrid have let slip to one of his classes that he was going?"
"Could and probably did. Never tell him anything you don't want half the student body to find out within 48 hours."
"I know that," I said dryly. "I just thought if he remembered --"
"-- it might narrow the focus? Possibly. If he's in any shape to recall."
We sat silently for a few moments, and then Severus laughed bitterly. "I can hardly blame you now for your lack of enthusiasm for wizarding. It's not enough that we have homicidal maniacs killing entire families -- the very children themselves are vicious and corrupt. Best run back to your safe, ordinary world, Miss Hunter." I could sense rather than see his sneer: the effect was only slightly marred by the faint slurring of his words.
I almost snapped at him -- particularly over the reversion to Miss -- but decided against it. He was teetering on the edge of a precipice, and I wasn't in the mood to shove him over it. I settled for a glance of benign reproof.
"Don't be an eejit. You know things every bit as horrible happen Outside as well," I said lightly, and turned back to the fire.
A moment later he leaned forward and nudged my shoulder with the glass, by way of apology, I suppose: I took it, sipped, and returned it to him. He'd leant back so I rested it on his knee, and though he took it back readily, he deliberately brushed his fingers along the back of my hand as we exchanged the glass.
I am not prepared to deal with this tonight. Not with this man in this condition.
Maybe not ever.
But I gave it a few minutes before I rose from the hearth rug: I wasn't about to let him think I was afraid of him. Or aroused. From one deliberate, probably manipulative touch of his hand.
Even if I was.
"As neither of us is in the mood for chess or conversation --" I began as I turned to move for the door.
Severus' hand shot out, seizing me by the wrist. "Don't go." It was a command, delivered with his usual arrogance, but he softened it with the explanation, "The distraction is welcome." He seemed to notice for the first time that he held my wrist, and dropped it as though burnt.
Interesting, some part of my brain noted with considerable trepidation. He'll touch me deliberately, but any instinctual move...
"Very well..." I cast about for something that would calm him -- he was far past amusement tonight -- and I moved to the far bookcase where I knew a smattering of poetry was crammed in with the drama. "Not Shakespeare, I think..." I murmured.
"Donne. Holy Sonnets."
I turned back to him, highly amused. "Do you wish to be more depressed tonight? Frankly, I don't think that's possible."
His dull eyes flickered with something -- a rueful acknowledgment of truth, perhaps -- and he reiterated firmly, "Donne. The Holy Sonnets."
I found and pulled the volume from the case and moved to the chair, but he waved me back to the floor before the fire, and Summoned a candelabrum to the table so light would fall on the page. I settled myself, found the required section, and began.
"Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay? Repaire me now, for now mine end doth haste, I runne to death, and death -- "
"Stop. Not like that."
I sighed, marked my place with a forefinger, and turned to him in question.
"Are you ashamed," he asked, "of your accent?"
"My dialect, you mean?" He nodded. "No; it's just that I worked so much in England," I explained as patiently as I could, "and it was easier to use the Received Pronunciation there. It's habitual now."
"And there was less prejudice because you did?" he shrewdly guessed.
"That, too," I admitted.
"I want to hear it your way," he demanded.
I shrugged. "I hope you've memorized these," I said dryly, "or you won't understand half of it," and I turned back to the book.
"Which part?" he said, stopping me yet again before I could even re-open the book.
I puzzled at that for a second. "Of Ireland?" I hazarded, and he grunted an affirmative. "Connemara. Near the sea."
"Is it lovely?"
"Not lovely, no. Beautiful in a wild sort of way. Rugged. God-forsaken."
"Do you ever go back?" His voice was still low, wrapped in silk, but unconsciously: I didn't feel that he was manipulating me. I was torn between delight and discomfort at his uncharacteristic interest, even if it was only motivated by an attempt to forget the day's events.
"No," I replied slowly, "not since my grandmother died. I still own her cottage, but an agent lets it out for me, to vacationers. It was the only way I could afford to keep it." I debated the wisdom of my next admission, and then went ahead anyway. "I've no family left, and no friends there worth seeing, so..." I shrugged again, and glanced back at him to see if he was satisfied.
He was staring at me lazily, black eyes sleepy under heavy lids. He nodded an acknowledgment of the answer, and with an economic, graceful unfurling of his fingers motioned me to read. I resettled myself, opened the book, and read in my thick, native dialect.
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'Received Pronunciation': Also known as "elevated" or "educated" English. As she explains, Miranda has her reasons for using it. Whether we realise it or not, most of us change our standard of speech depending on the status of the person whom we're addressing: we may use more elevated speech with our bosses or authority figures than we do with family and friends. Miranda has simply made a conscious effort to use received pronunciation on a regular basis.
'Thou hast made me': John Donne, Holy Sonnets, I.
Just another useless piece of trivia: Connemara is in the Gaeltacht -- a region where Irish Gaelic is still spoken and used regularly, which is why Miranda claims it as her first language when cussing out Moody and Snape.