I stayed in my rooms for meals, avoiding the Great Hall -- not to impress on others that something was wrong, though it did that, but because I simply couldn't bear to sit across from Severus. He'd be there, I knew; and my presence would force him to exercise more chill, perhaps even a certain triumph. I could spare him -- and myself -- that, at least for one day.
It was bad enough to teach in front of the knowing stares of the Slytherins. My presence in the dungeons the night before had been noted, as well as my flight home. Malfoy in particular looked indecently smug: I wanted to smash his teeth in, to be honest, as horrible as that is for a teacher to feel toward a student. Instead I had to lecture as normally as possible, the sleeve of my blouse occasionally slipping down to reveal the bruises when I wrote at the board.
Neville Longbottom stayed behind after class. He was almost as upset as I -- I'd begun to wonder if he wasn't Empathic, because he picked up on my moods exceptionally well. I lied to him and told him I was getting a cold to explain my reddened eyes. He didn't believe me.
I felt more than a little guilty about that. I didn't mind deceiving the Slytherins, but Neville was another matter.
Trust the Hogwarts bush telegraph -- fueled largely by Slytherin and Gryffindor -- to cause more trouble. Headmaster had, of course, noted my absence from the Great Hall, and called me to his office that evening. Poppy Pomfrey was with him.
"Miranda," Headmaster began gravely, "Poppy and I are concerned for you. Would you terribly mind allowing her to examine your arms?" I searched his face for cues as to which way to play this (I didn't want Poppy involved), but nothing was forthcoming.
"Yes," I said firmly. "I do mind."
Pomfrey gawped at me as though I'd Transfigured myself into a snake: I usually submitted myself to her with little protest.
"Professor Hunter," she sputtered -- one always knew you were on Pomfrey's bad side when she gave you your title in private -- "there are stories going around --"
"Rumours, Poppy, started by bored students who don't know what they're talking about. I bruise easily, and I had a run-in with some of the goddamned vicious furniture you lot keep around here." (That wasn't a totally unlikely scenario: one particular chair in the staff room had the annoying habit of swallowing people into its upholstery. Flitwick absent-mindedly sat in it one morning, and two class periods passed before McGonagall entered the room and heard him squeaking in the chairs' depths.)
I was tired and strung-out, and the words came out with rather more force than was wise. Pomfrey froze in shock and anger at my bluntness: even Headmaster gave a startled grunt and straightened abruptly in his chair.
"Look, Poppy," I said tiredly, knowing I had to mollify her somehow, "I know you're concerned, but it's not what it appears, and there's no lasting harm done. All I can do is appeal to you to trust me and let me deal with my own business."
She glanced uncertainly at Headmaster: he shook his head and said faintly, "I'm afraid that will have to do, Poppy."
She sniffed her disapproval, gave me a long, cautionary look, and swept from Headmaster's office.
Bloody hell. If I'd known it would be that easy to discourage her, I'd have avoided the worst of this. All that fuss and trauma to Snape, for nothing.
Albus let me sit for a very long time before he broke the silence. That was fine: I used the time to berate myself for going overboard the previous night.
"You do not usually swear in public unless you're very surprised, or very angry --" he finally noted.
"And I lapse into my dialect when I lie -- yes, I've been told," I said bitterly.
I don't know how he kept his own considerable temper with me when I was acting the git, but he managed. Years of dealing with Severus, I imagine.
"He didn't really hurt you, did he --?" he asked cautiously.
I stared at him and tried valiantly not to scream. "How can you of all people think that of him?" I asked, deadly calm on the exterior, but churning inside.
He had the decency to look abashed. "Given the animosity that the two of you occasionally express..."
"Expressed, Albus. Past tense -- at least before the last couple of days."
His eyes widened slightly at the implication.
"Miranda, I never intended for things to come to this."
It finally dawned on me how patently ridiculous this whole situation was, how useless, and I was more convinced than ever that Albus' stated reason wasn't the true one, or at least, the only one.
"Exactly what did you intend, then?" I rose, pulled up my sleeves, and shoved my forearms under his nose. "I had to push him to do this, Albus, do you understand? He didn't want it or enjoy it. Right now he hates both himself and me -- all the for the sake of this idiotic little charade." I jerked the fabric down over my wrists and paced the room. "You sit up here in your ivory tower like some chessmaster, pushing about your pawns --"
Oooo, I'm going to regret that one later --
"-- and I understand the necessity of it to some point, I truly do, and I know it can't be easy, but.... How many years has he gone through actual physical and mental pain for this business? Ten years? Fifteen? And now his privacy's been invaded; he's been forced to act in ways of which he'd prefer to forget he's capable; he's going through even more emotional turmoil, now -- and all for what? So some little shite will tattle to daddy Death Eater that Snape is behaving badly."
I finally ran out of steam and stood across the room, glaring at Albus: he was shocked and not a little angered, himself.
"I think," he said slowly, and with remarkable calm -- far more than I deserved, "that it's a good thing you never had occasion to defend your nephew to quite this degree, at least at Hogwarts. You protect your own, don't you?"
He might have been angry with me, but he'd managed to see through to the heart of the matter. I hadn't: I'd been too wrapped up in my own rage and distress to question why I was so upset on Snape's behalf.
Holy Fecking Shite. How could I let this happen?
I'd accepted the fact that I was attracted to Severus Snape: that the idea of a repeat of Yule Night -- and then some -- was far from unwelcome. And I'd known from the very start that his intelligence and the way his mind worked fascinated me, despite his terse, guarded nature and occasional nastiness.
But I hadn't accepted that I might be capable of loving him. That -- given the rage I felt at the moment toward someone I respected and cared for -- it was very likely that I did.
Sometime in the past four years I'd forgotten how easy it is to convince yourself that you're fond of someone when you're playing a role: part of you has to acknowledge your partner's attractiveness, or you unconsciously endow them with qualities that belong, in fact, to the character they're playing. Or perhaps loving Ian, and then losing him, had made me less guarded. Maybe I'd even wanted this: it's not easy to stop loving and caring, when the one person that was your world is suddenly gone.
But the fact was, I knew Severus wasn't some manufactured ideal. I knew he was unpleasant and demanding, occasionally vicious, and rigorously intellectual to the point of exhausting those on the receiving end of that intellect. He wasn't perfect or nice, not even remotely attractive by most standards, and had no charm other than a beautiful voice (when he wished it to be) and an unconscious grace. He had no commonly-accepted redeeming features at all, to be blunt. (Of course there was the acerbic wit, the loyalty and ethics, the little matter of courage, and, again, that incredible, exhausting intellect.... But I said commonly-accepted, didn't I?)
It didn't matter. Not to me.
And I was going to have to pay the price. I was the one mucking everything up now with inappropriate feelings -- no sense in blaming either Severus or Albus. It was my problem entirely.
"He's not mine, Albus," I said tiredly, when I'd finally mastered all the conflicting emotions his insight roused -- or at least shoved them back into their cage for the time being. "More to the point, he's nobody's -- and that makes it worse."
"Whether he is yours or not is not entirely his decision, Miranda," Albus observed. "And despite the aspersions to my character, I am gratified that someone other than myself is willing to fight for him -- even if I'm on the receiving end of the wrath."
"Don't start. I'm in no condition for a heart-to-heart at the moment," I grumbled, collapsing onto a window-seat. "Did he tell you why this had to happen now?"
"I know he was called a few days ago, and what transpired with other matters. He was close-mouthed about the two of you, but intimated that things needed to take a turn. But as I said, I didn't anticipate an all-out war, or...." he trailed off, uncertain how to characterise the bruised arms.
"He's worried some of the Death Eaters may try to get at him through me. Best to make the break spectacular, and with as much callousness on his part as possible," I told him.
"Oh."Eventually he added, "I was concerned when you didn't come to meals today, and then when Poppy confronted me about it...." he said in explanation.
"I couldn't bear to face him today, Albus. It hurt him terribly when I asked him to do this." I absently rubbed at one wrist. "It's only going to get worse -- the knives have to be out from now on." I had a sudden, horrible thought that pulled me upright.
"Good God, who told her?" I demanded. "Neville Longbottom?"
"Yes, but don't worry about that. She thanked him for his concern, and told him what you told her. More or less, that is. I shouldn't worry about any other repercussions -- Severus can take care of himself. And Poppy keeps her counsel when medical matters are concerned, so you needn't worry about gossip from the staff."
I fell back against the wall in relief. The little demonstration had been for the students only: I hadn't intended for it to make the rounds of the faculty and staff, too.
"For what it's worth, I am terribly sorry, Miranda," Albus offered quietly. "There truly was a practical reason for it. It helped buy us some time, and that's a precious commodity right now. He's been walking on a knife's edge, going back, and I suspected he wouldn't participate as... wholeheartedly in some of the Death Eater activities as he had before he came back to me.
"I admit, though," he added, "that I rather hoped that you and Severus would learn to be more companionable as well, but.... I couldn't have forseen this. I'm not omniscient, you know, contrary to common knowledge. And you two really are remarkably closed. Sensing your real emotions can be difficult at times."
Companionable. That was a loaded word, and a typical Albian understatement. I was right, then, and it was entirely possible he'd been indulging in a little matchmaking -- not romantic per se, but certainly in hopes that Severus Snape and I would become friends. And we had, I think, insofar as that intensely private man could.
We sat silently for a long moment, and then I volunteered -- somewhat grudgingly, but willing to let Albus know it wasn't a total fiasco -- "He showed me the Mark the other night."
"Oh." Albus digested this surprising development for a moment, and noted with the merest hint of pique, "He's never willingly shown it to me, after that very first time. Remarkably open of him."
"Incredible." We sat silently for another long while.
"As far as I know, he doesn't realise that I've... let it go too far," I told him, "so I'd appreciate it if you were discreet."
He gave a small snort of disbelief. "I rather think he feels much the same, if he's opening up to you to this extent --"
"Trust isn't the same thing as..." I muttered, and had to stop and begin again. "That in itself is extraordinary, and I've bloody well mucked that up now -- Let's drop this, please, I can't talk about it anymore," I blurted, voice thick, and I drew my knees up to my chest protectively.
No point in dwelling on might-have-beens....
Fawkes gave a little trill and fluffed his feathers as though ready to take flight.
"Thanks, Fawkes, but stuff it," I informed the Phoenix. "I'm not the one who needs it most. And I certainly don't deserve it."
It blinked in surprise and settled back onto its perch: if birds could pout, it was doing an admirable job.
Albus chuckled. "He doesn't hold grudges, but you'll have to make that up to him later," he informed me.
"I will." A cup of tea Levitated at my elbow: I threw Albus a dirty look -- he was entirely too forgiving at times -- but took it and sipped.
"Can you tell me one thing?" I finally asked him.
"Why do you coddle Black, when you're so hard on Severus?"
He chuckled again. "I wondered when you'd get around to that." He shifted in his chair, marshalling his thoughts.
"Sirius was one of Hogwarts' golden boys. He had every advantage that Severus did not: an intact if demanding family, popularity, looks, charm -- quicker than Severus to learn, though I fancy Severus is the more intelligent overall. He had everything, that is, except ambition and self-knowledge -- and we did not recognize that as his great flaw until it was too late to do anything about it." He sighed. "Barring an epiphany, Sirius will never be anything more than he is now. It's simply not in his character. And I blame myself for that, to some extent -- although I'm certain his years in Azkaban didn't help.
"Severus is another matter entirely. There are some who, against all odds, make something remarkable of themselves. Despite the disadvantages he's had, Severus has always had that potential because of his strong will and intelligence. And to a large degree he's succeeded in fulfilling it, because he's willing to make amends for his mistakes -- most of them, at any rate. But he's always needed challenge and guidance to bring out the best in him, and someone to temper his less-admirable traits. I regret," he softly added, "that the life he's been forced to lead -- that I've sometimes encouraged him to lead, for the greater good -- has exacerbated those less-pleasant qualities."
I took another long sip of tea. "So in terms of their characters, it's 'to whom much is given, much will be required,' then."
"Precisely. I am very proud of him, appearances notwithstanding."
"It might be a good time," I suggested delicately, "to reassure him of that."
Another long silence stretched between us.
"I could," Albus suggested hesitantly, "arrange a floo connection between your rooms, so you could at least speak --?"
It was tempting.
"Best not," I said faintly. "It's hard enough as it is. If he needs to reach me, he'll manage it."
And if he doesn't want to, the unused connection will haunt me and drive me mad.
I unbent my stiff limbs and rose, placing the teacup on the sill. "I take it I'm not sacked, then?"
"Of course not. Firstly, it's not an official Hogwarts matter. And secondly why should I, when I know you'd defend me just as vigorously? I don't need the Sorting Hat to tell me that."
Good. I hadn't managed to wreck two relationships at once, then. Albus Dumbledore was the closest thing I'd had to a father and mentor in a very long time, and I thought losing him as well would be the final straw.
"And your Patronus," he continued with a smile, "is not a lioness for nothing."
I had no intention of going into that: we'd never had it out about his complicity in that little débacle.
"I'd better get what rest I can, then. Tomorrow's going to be horrid."
He nodded slowly.
"I am sorry, Albus." The tears that had prickled behind my eyes all night threatened to spill over; no matter how angry I was, I still cared deeply for this man. "I wasn't at all fair to you."
"I can be remarkably thick at times," he admitted almost cheerfully. "An occasional ticking-off does me good. Minerva's never shy about it, and I don't see why you should be."
"There is the little matter of Headmaster/Employee, you know," I retorted matter-of-factly, "not to mention respect for ones' elders."
He gently shook his head. "Bollocks -- though I appreciate that you recognise the distinction, and I know you wouldn't violate it without extreme provocation. You and I are old souls, Miranda. If your practical sensibilities can admit the possibility of reincarnation, you'll understand why I rather suspect the tables were turned at some point in the past."
I gave him a Snape-worthy quirk of a brow. "Are you telling me you're letting me off on grounds of karmic payback?"
"Not entirely, but something like that. And I appreciate that you waited to blow up at me in private -- I doubt I ever gave you that consideration."
I shook my head to clear it. This was one of Albus' more quirky and mind-boggling statements, and I wasn't in any shape to fully examine or challenge it. "At any rate, you've more to worry about in this life than my or Severus' feelings," I said dismissively. "'...the problems of three little people....'"
"Casablanca," Albus pounced on the quote. "Wonderful film -- last I saw in a Muggle cinema. Severus reminds me of Rick, at times."
"I'm hardly Ilse Lund," I said dryly.
"Granted. You're wrong about the principle, though, dear heart," he said gravely. "The problems do matter, particularly when two of my favourite people are involved. Forgive an old man his short-sightedness."
I couldn't avoid Severus, but I could ignore him until I was able to face him with a kind of cool equanimity.
Snape. Think of him as Snape, again. Get this back onto a professional footing.
It was a small, silly thought, but it helped. And self-censoring myself for the week it took until it became automatic provided welcome distraction.
That in itself wasn't unusual. That Viktor was at Hogwarts at all, and in my class, was: I'd thought he was the equivalent of a Seventh at Durmstrang, and should have been out by now. He'd explained to me, haltingly, that Karkaroff had coddled him to the extent that he felt ill-prepared to leave school and, given the mess that Karkaroff had left behind, he'd requested that Headmaster accept him as a student.
Technically then he was a Seventh, but had elected to pick up some lower-year classes that weren't offered at Durmstrang -- like Muggle Studies. (I think you can imagine how much that tickled me -- a former student at a notoriously isolationist school wanting to take my class, and showing no signs of being anything but utterly sincere.)
As he had a significant problem with the language, it wasn't unusual for him to remain after class to go over the material with me. He didn't do well with written essays, but he could usually demonstrate verbally that he'd grasped the material. Between myself and Hermione Granger's tutoring, he was doing well in my class. He also had a sincere appreciation for education, knew he was at a disadvantage, and was determined to remedy the situation. That meant a lot to me.
Oddly enough he'd refused to play on the Quidditch team, preferring to concentrate on his studies. Snape had been livid at losing Slytherin's best chance at trouncing Gryffindor; McGonagall had been relieved, and I'd been ecstatic at the thought of one perfectly capable Quidditch player who preferred to study.
"Yes, Mr. Krum? What about the Second World War is puzzling you?" I asked him with a smile.
"Is not class," he mumbled. "You haff time to talk about someting else --?"
"Of course." He knew I had a free period.
He shifted uncomfortably. "Is about the... the killing."
"About Fang, you mean?" I said calmly.
"I'm happy to help you however I can," I said, "but wouldn't your Head of House be more appropriate?"
Something like panic flared in his eyes. "No," he blurted out. "Professor Snape is... is friend off Karkaroff. And Malfoy."
I opened my mouth to correct him, and then shut it with a snap.
Jaysus. I'd forgotten for the moment that Snape was pro-Voldemort as far as the Slytherins were concerned; and I couldn't trust Krum with the knowledge that he wasn't.
Brilliant, Miranda. When will you get through your thick skull just how high the stakes are, here?
"Then perhaps Headmaster would be best," I suggested.
"No. Malfoy has me votched; I go, it vill be seen. This," he said with a nod at the classroom, "is good excuse."
"Very well," I told him softly, "why don't you close the door. And put a Silencing Charm on the room, while you're at it."
He nodded a jerky approval, drew out his wand, and did as I'd suggested.
"Now, what's your concern, Viktor?"
"They say," he began haltingly, "that there vere... runes used."
"So I've heard."
"Other teachers... haff been looking at us funny," he said.
"The Durmstrang students?"
"Yes. They know ve are taught such tings. But, Professor --" he said earnestly, "ve are not the vons."
Why couldn't he have brought this up a week ago, when Snape and I were still speaking?
I stifled a sigh. "Viktor, how can you be sure?"
"Malfoy is big man in Slytherin -- he tinks so -- but Durmstrang peoples still look to me," he explained. "Ve -- ve took vow to each other not to use some magics ven ve come here. Is a -- a --"
"A point of honour?" I suggested gently, and he nodded in relief.
"Point off honour, yes. Ve are bound to the vow. Is not von off us."
If he was telling me the truth -- even the truth as he knew it -- this was disturbing.
"Have you seen anything odd going on in Slytherin, Viktor? Odder than usual, at least?"
He shrugged eloquently. "Vat is odd in Slytherin? Is like all Durmstrang."
I smiled at the comparison. "I mean, anyone behaving covertly -- ah, unusually? Besides Malfoy and his crew?"
"Well, Viktor, I'll tell Headmaster. And for now, keep your eyes and ears open for anything suspicious and let me know. All right?"
He nodded in relief. "Tank you, Professor." He lifted the charm, gathered up his books, and left.
I made my way up to Albus' office for the second time in a week. Snape would be very interested in the information -- but he couldn't get it from me.
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'...the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.'" Casablanca, 1942. I must admit the idea of Dumbledore going to a movie theater really tickles me. Don't know why. That's the only excuse I have for an unnecessary and totally flippant Muggle insertion.
*Author smacks Miranda upside the head.* What were you thinking, woman? 'Ohhhhh, no, got to do this right, damn the unforseen consequences.' I really do want to smack her, sometimes. Then again, Life is full of unforseen consequences.