This year was different.
I had far too much time to reflect on the last six months, and I was increasingly bitter. I couldn't bear to go to Lucy's as it was too great a reminder of what I'd lost; so despite the niggling certainty that she'd take my polite refusal as an acknowledgment of blame, I'd pled preparations for Spring Term (totally untrue). I salved my conscience by sending extravagant gifts for her and Paula. Eventually I'd have to mend fences, but at the moment I couldn't bring myself to deal with it.
I felt cold and empty, and I didn't much care who noticed or what they thought.
The Yule Feast passed uneventfully and Hogwarts emptied for the break, except for a few of the foreign students; the Weasleys -- Potter in tow -- had settled into Heart's Solace, Snape's Hogsmeade cottage (some cottage; "old pile" was indeed accurate -- and it had been named before he'd acquired it), so there was no Molly about to chivvy me into participating in anything. There was, thank God, no Yule Ball. I should have been obliged to make an appearance and engage in polite conversation, not to mention going through the motions of my little charade with Snape.
The staff party on the 24th had been bad enough. Headmaster had tolerated my antisocial behavior throughout the term -- I had, after all, made the required appearances for meals in the Great Hall -- but he drew the line on Christmas Eve. McGonagall (or rather, her head) appeared via my sitting room fire and told me in tactful but non-negotiable terms that I was expected in the staff room at six.
I agreed, of course -- what else could I do? -- and spent the next two hours in a totally unwarranted fit of self-pity, cursing often and volubly, before I grudgingly opened my wardrobe and pulled out the moss-green dress robes. They hung on me at first -- I'd lost more than a stone since last summer; but as I adjusted the embroidered fronts the seams suddenly shifted and snuggled closer to me.
Good God -- self-adjusting clothes. I was going to have to start buying wizarding clothes, when I felt up to it. And if I could find something remotely Muggle-ish.
I couldn't bear to touch the crimson robe. It seemed to glow with last years' memories, as if they'd somehow been incorporated into the fabric itself. For all I knew they had, and I wasn't about to torture myself with them -- my mind was doing quite a good enough job of that.
The gathering was, thankfully, relatively small. Sprout, Vector and Trelawney were off to family; Pomfrey was vacationing in Wales; and Hagrid was making a much-anticipated trip to Beauxbatons (whether for pleasure or business I wasn't sure, though he had asked me to help spruce up his wardrobe, so I suspected he'd gone sweet on Madame Maxime during the Tournament).
So the eleven of us -- for we included Filch and Mrs. Norris -- sat around and tried to be merry (with the exception of Snape) despite a distinct air of gloom.
Headmaster hadn't even made his usual effort with the décor, but he made up for it by planting elaborate prizes in the after-dinner crackers, and managed to see that each toy was tailored to its recipient. Mine was an exquisitely detailed miniature pewter dragon.
"Stroke his crest," Headmaster instructed me with a twinkle in his eye, and leaned forward in his chair to enjoy the event. I did as he said. Colour shot through the dull metal, beginning at its tiny claws; the little Welsh Green cocked its head at me quizzically and then belched, shooting a brief blast of flame an inch from its mouth before settling back on its haunches and reverting to its original state.
"Good God," I blurted out in shock, and slapped with my napkin at the cracker-tissue it had ignited. Headmaster and the others enjoyed my reaction immensely.
It was a cigarette lighter, evidently. Not only amusing, but faintly chiding: Headmaster knew I'd been smoking too much, and that I'd think of him every time I used it. I thanked him amid much joking from the rest of the staff -- to the effect that I'd have to hide it from Hagrid -- and then we turned our attention to the next victim.
There really wasn't much to do after that. None of us were in the mood for singing and parlour games, so Headmaster contented himself with a final toast.
"As I'm certain you all realise," he said quietly, "the stakes have risen considerably in the war with Voldemort since the end of last year. I admit that I am not entirely optimistic about the outcome." He paused to let the statement settle.
"In fact, it is wholly possible that we shall lose one or more of our colleagues despite our best efforts. This may be the last occasion on which we are so happily complete." His eyes ranged the room, looking from face to face, and settled, finally, on me before he turned away. "I ask you now to rise and lift your glasses in honour of the season and each other."
We did, and to my surprise he turned back to me and asked with a smile, "Miranda, would you supply something appropriate? Shakespeare would do nicely, I think."
I hesitated. "There is something," I said cautiously, "but it's not entirely complimentary to present company."
He knew the verse to which I referred, and he smiled again, his eyes warm. "We shall suspend our more tender feelings for tonight, I think. Go ahead, my dear."
I swallowed, took a deep breath, and began, letting my eyes meet those of the others.
'Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.'
My eyes fell lastly on Snape; for once his eyes were quiet, still pools, with none of their customary hardness or malicious glitter. They were almost... serene.
Amid murmurs of "Hear, hear," we emptied our glasses, and I heard Headmaster say, very softly, "May it be so."
Despite the lack of activities no one seemed to want to leave. We milled about quietly, discussing anything but the threat that overshadowed us; and finally I slipped away.
"Walk an old man to his rooms?"
Headmaster had stepped out after me. I turned and walked back to him and slipped my arm through his; he put his other hand over mine where it rested on his arm, and we slowly walked down the corridor, not speaking. We stopped in front of the great stone gargoyle that guarded his rooms, and he drew me to him and kissed my forehead with warm, dry lips.
"I won't say Happy Yule, my dear, but I will wish you peace." His eyes were tired, now, and heavy.
"The same to you, Albus," I managed to croak out, went on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and then fled.
The truth was that I was frightened. I'd seen Headmaster at his most absent, quizzical, pottering self: I'd seen him angered to the point of striking terror in those around him. He'd overwhelmed me with compassion, and shared my sadness.
I had never before, though, seen him so weary and so resigned to the possibility of failure.
I'd begun to think of him as omniscient; he'd always seemed to know my mind better than I did myself. It was like a child's first realisation that one's mum and da really didn't know everything; that they were fallible human beings like oneself. That there were things from which they couldn't protect you, let alone themselves.
When I finally came to myself again, I was in the dark: the fire had burnt down, the book had slipped from my fingers to the floor, and my tea had gone stone cold.
What am I doing? I thought in shock. I'd been doing this all term: hiding like a wounded animal, brooding in the dark, nursing my own pain at the expense of ignoring others' -- in short, killing myself by a slow process of suffocation.
The air in my rooms was stale and choking, and I had to get out. I kicked the book aside, pulled my stiff limbs out of the chair, grabbed coat and muffler, and left.
The Quad at Hogwarts more resembled a cloister garden, with neat beds of herbs and roses around a central font. As there'd been no festivities this year the beds were barren, the bushes brown and naked, and a light dusting of snow lay over everything. I walked purposefully along the paths until I had worn myself out, and then leant against the font and stared into the darkness of the arcade, trying to clear my mind of all thoughts.
I don't know how long I stood there, but eventually I was rudely interrupted.
"Brooding does not become you," Snape noted silkily in my ear, and I jumped. He had a talent for stealth -- the bane of students and, at the moment, me. I hadn't heard him approach, even with the crisp snow underfoot. I turned and found him propped casually against the font, directly behind me.
"It is, however, an activity of which I am overfond, so I should hardly criticize it in you," he added with his usual sardonic drawl. "And you have reason enough."
"How long have you been observing my brooding?" I asked testily.
"A good ten minutes. You look thoroughly chilled." He pushed himself upright and stepped onto the path below. "Shall we walk?" He extended a hand to me from the depths of his cloak. I took it and stepped down; he released me, and we began to stroll the length of the Quad.
"I meant to tell you," he said evenly, "before you escaped from that dismal meeting last night, that I have an errand later this evening. I probably shan't return for a few days." In other words, not to expect him for the weekly chess débacle.
"Thank you. I'll tell Filius he can stay longer --"
"I'd prefer you didn't," Snape said sharply. "No one but you and Headmaster must know I'm gone," he amended more reasonably. "The others think I'm brewing a difficult potion and can't be disturbed." We walked a while longer, and then he added peevishly, "Can't you get Flitwick something for his own rooms? His incessant humming is detrimental to your concentration."
Since Flitwick now had the grace to excuse himself at six p.m. or as soon as Snape showed up -- whichever came first -- this was totally unwarranted. I snorted. "You mean you have too easy a time trouncing me? That's not Flitwick's fault. I suppose I could get him a player; I hadn't thought of it. I'm sure he could rig it to work somehow."
"Simple enchantment, no difficulty for him. Just don't say anything to Arthur Weasley; it's quite illegal. Not that he'd turn you or Filius in, mind," he added dryly, "but he'd drive you to distraction to acquire one for himself."
We walked in silence for a few more paces, and I remarked, "I think that was the most depressing party I've ever -- well," I backtracked, "Merchant of Venice in York was pretty bad. But not quite in the same league."
Snape grunted. "I don't think Albus sees much point in sugar-coating things anymore. The situation is only going to get far worse."
"I sensed that. No, he hasn't said anything to me outright," I told him in response to his quizzical glance, "but you've had several errands to run this term, haven't you?"
After a short, slightly shocked moment, he spoke. "There are times," he said dryly, "when you are entirely too perceptive for your own good."
"I rather thought that's one reason Headmaster brought me into this," I countered.
"What else have you deduced?" he said tightly. "Or rather, intuited: your logic is haphazard."
"About what? The situation is pretty obvious; no one even bothers to hide it from me anymore."
"Then tell me," he said in a decidedly calculating manner, "about me."
"It would amuse me, and I'm in desperate need of amusement. From the beginning, if you please."
You'd think I'm a student defending a statement in class, I thought indignantly. Very well; he demanded my reasoning, from the beginning, and he'd get it with no punches pulled.
"You are universally disliked, with one or two exceptions, by colleagues and students alike -- and not simply because you are one of the less congenial people I've ever met --"
His mouth twitched slightly at the understatement.
"-- but it goes a bit further than that. Something -- what I now know is your past association with Voldemort -- obviously shocks everyone and gives them cause to mistrust you. In fact, Headmaster's insistence that you can be trusted is the only reason they tolerate you. Not to mention that you keep the Slytherins in some semblance of control," I said snarkily, "all evidence to the contrary."
"I take it my colleagues were the source of your speculations," he interrupted bitterly.
"No, actually. They may suspect, but either they don't know for certain or they've not been keen to tell me," I said carefully, keeping the gall from my own voice. I am, after all, a Muggle, and have to be protected from some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Wizarding World. Nothing had changed from my first year, in that respect.
"Quite frankly, at first I simply wrote you off as an unpleasant git; by spring I'd decided there was more to it than that, but I didn't know anything for certain until Headmaster confirmed the link with Voldemort."
Snape stopped dead in the middle of the path and faced me.
"Of course you are well aware of the Death Eaters?" he asked abruptly.
He took a step closer, looming above me: I had to crane my neck to see his deeply shadowed eyes. It was a familiar tactic to intimidate -- I'd seen him use it on students, in the corridors.
"And you've deduced that I was a Death Eater," he said, harshly, but low. "In fact, I still bear the Mark by which he calls us to him."
So that was the scar I'd seen on his arm, when I bandaged his shoulder.
"I was not a spy to begin with -- I was committed to the Cause. It is not a matter of mere support," he continued, and his words were clipped and dispassionate. "I did whatever he required of me. I have tortured and killed in his service, and I did so willingly. Often with pleasure." His eyes glittered malevolently.
He's trying to scare the shite out of me, and he's largely succeeding, I thought vaguely.
"You have no speculations as to why the leopard changed his spots?" he remarked with grim amusement. "A sudden resurgence of conscience? An epiphany about the nature of good and evil, perhaps?"
"I don't know, and I don't care," I finally said when I thought I could speak without my voice shaking. "This is a business relationship, not a courtship. If you truly want me to know you'll tell me someday; don't feel obliged to satisfy anyone's idle curiosity, least of all mine. It's none of my business."
He was surprised that I'd accepted his revelation with apparent equanimity, and that I hadn't flinched.
"At any rate, now you're Albus' man on the inside," I noted softly, and ruthlessly shoved away the unbidden image of Snape as James Bond. (It really wasn't at all funny, but my humour tends to short-circuit in stressful moments.)
"Only one of several," he admitted. "And this is very dangerous knowledge for you to possess. I should Obliviate you, were it not for this idiocy we must play out."
"It's not the type of thing I'd broadcast, you know," I said irritably.
"I wasn't implying that. But Veritaserum could compel you to speak."
"I'm hardly a target. But if it worries you that much, talk to Albus. If the two of you think it's necessary, fine. But if I'm to play a role in all this, however peripheral, I'd just as soon do it eyes wide open, thank you very much."
He was evidently satisfied with my resolve, for he took a step back, still searching my face: his eyes were no longer cold, but merely assessing.
"Why?" he asked bluntly.
"Haven't really got much left to lose, have I?" I said testily. This was old ground, and I didn't want to go back over it.
"I would very much like to know," he countered softly, "that is, if you are finally prepared to tell me the truth. I suspect I know your reasons, but I should like confirmation."
His insistence irked me, but he'd asked nicely, for Snape.
"I could have taken Ian away from this; could've found work in the States and waited for this to blow over. But the children here don't have that option. In fact," I admitted, "it's pretty obvious that they're safer here than in their own homes.
"Moreover, I suspect that what happens in this world affects the other, despite everyone's wishes to the contrary. Even given the little I know of Voldemort," I hazarded, "I doubt that he'd stop with the Wizarding World; God alone knows what he'd do with the Muggle World, given half a chance."
Snape processed this silently, and then admitted, "I think that's an accurate hypothesis."
I turned and continued down the path, and after a moment's hesitation he joined me.
"A Muggle statesman once said, 'The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing,'" I noted.
"Edmund Burke. And he wasn't Muggle," Snape volunteered; I glanced at him. "At least, there was Wizarding blood in there somewhere, though I don't believe he ever developed it. Albus would know," he added with amusement.
I let the facetious comment pass unremarked and steered the conversation back to other matters. "So you'll be going more frequently, then."
"Regrettably, yes. Albus and I anticipate an escalation in... hostilities fairly soon." He sighed heavily. "I wish, for your sake, that he would tell me why in bloody hell he wants you involved. I don't believe it's entirely for my benefit."
(That was an outright lie. Of course it wasn't for my sake: he was dying to know Headmaster's secret agenda -- as was I -- and it irritated him that Headmaster wasn't telling. I knew the feeling.)
"I think --" I began, and then abruptly cut myself off.
"Nothing." He snorted derisively, and I added defensively, "Look, it's just intuition, as you said -- I always try to justify things like that, it's a holdover from Acting --"
"You justify everything but my motives, it seems," he said sarcastically, and his tone told me he'd caught me in the fib.
I had tried, of course, but I'd given up. I knew nothing at all about his past, and while I could predict with some accuracy how and why he would react to things now, I'd no idea why the young man twenty-odd years ago had chosen to act as he had.
"You've generally been correct about everything else," Snape continued. "You might as well get on with it." He stopped in the path again and turned to me, arms folded across his chest.
I hated it when he went into Potions Master mode. He reminded me of my secondary-school maths teacher. It would be embarrassing, because I knew he would find it vastly amusing -- but he wouldn't give up until I confessed.
"I think... he wants there to be someone else who knows what's going on -- roughly, of course -- someone not in the direct line of fire, in whom you can confide, if necessary, when he's gone." There, I'd spit it out.
Snape's reaction was as extreme as I'd feared. His eyes widened, and he let out a scornful, "You're joking, surely."
He stared at me for another long moment, and then threw back his head and laughed honestly and loudly: it rang through the Quad and bounced off the stonework of the arcade.
"I told you it was just a feeling," I sulked.
"You're wrong," he choked out when he'd regained some measure of control. "Utterly, absolutely wrong -- you must be --"
"I don't think so," I said sharply. "He's tired, Snape -- exhausted -- and at this point I wouldn't put it past him to do something drastic if it would end all this sooner."
He sobered as the full impact of what I'd said registered. His dark eyes locked with mine, and he suddenly looked shocked and lost.
"I sincerely hope you're wrong."
"So do I," I said savagely. "You have no idea how much I pray that I am. Don't you dare say anything to him --" I warned, and he cut me off.
"I won't." He ran an agitated hand through his hair. "It simply never occurred to me that Albus would...." He left off the thought as something above my head on the other side of the Quad caught his eye. "Bloody hell." He grimaced. "Did you know Hooch's rooms overlook the Quad? No --" he ordered sharply, and I curbed the impulse to look behind me. "Don't."
"Well, if you hadn't laughed your fool head off...." I noted reasonably.
He shook his head and slowly stepped toward me with a glint in his eyes.
Uh-oh. Something very, very bad was about to happen: the time for payback of the many teasings I'd inflicted upon him was evidently upon me.
"On the other hand," he drawled, "it's an excellent opportunity to add artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative -- do forgive me," he said, smirking; and then he pulled me close to his body as he lowered his lips to mine.
After the initial shock, I did what any good actor would: I reciprocated and wrapped my arms around his torso, beneath the cloak. It wasn't the worst stage kiss I'd ever had, by any means: he was slightly hesitant, but clearly determined and inventive. He's had a brandy tonight, I thought idly as his lips left my mouth and moved, insistently, along my jawline and then below my ear, as he pulled aside my muffler for better access.
"Is she still -- don't do that," I jumped and whispered sharply, "unless you are entirely serious --"
He laughed shakily against my neck (which did nothing to improve matters as far as my knees were concerned), and then he wrapped his arm tightly around my waist and cradled my head in his other hand, fingers threaded through my hair.
"-- is she still watching?" I finally got out, breathless.
"Bloody hell, woman, I've no idea -- wrong angle for visuals," he muttered indistinctly, and returned unerringly to the precise spot I'd warned him off.
He's really thrown by this too -- that's three 'bloody hells' in five minutes --
"Stop that," I said through gritted teeth and fought the urge to press closer to him.
Christ, it wouldn't take much practise for him to --
I banished the thought as soon as I realised I'd had it.
He finally obeyed me and worked his way up to my temple. "Still there," he whispered in irritated amusement. "Plastered against the window."
"Funny -- I never had Hooch pegged for a voyeur --" I managed before he turned his attention back to my mouth: he didn't let up until we were both thoroughly winded.
"I think retreat is our best option," I noted reluctantly when I'd caught my breath. He smiled -- an honest-to-God smile -- pulled my muffler back over my head and stepped away; and, taking my hand in his, he pulled me along behind him through the arcade and back toward the Great Hall.
He did not let go of my hand, but eventually slowed enough that I didn't have to trot.
"If I were you," he whispered idly, but with great amusement, "I should anticipate a dressing-down by Minerva in the next day or two."
"Oh, thank you very much," I hissed. "You won't be here to get your fair share, of course."
"Thank the gods," he agreed irreverently, and stopped short before my door. "At least the exercise brought some colour back to your cheeks," he observed, and laughed when the comment raised another blush. I pulled my hand out of his.
"I fail to see anything remotely --" I stopped, thunderstruck, and continued in shock, "'Artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise --'"
"-- 'bald and unconvincing narrative,' yes," he finished smoothly, and lounged against the door jamb. "Flitwick isn't the only musical literate here, you know. Although my tastes are decidedly more refined. Oklahoma, indeed," he noted disdainfully.
I snorted and turned to open the door.
"I wonder," he drawled, and I froze as he reached over to brush a blunt, gentle finger across my heated cheek, "whether your blushes are occasioned by the necessity of the action or the probability that it will never happen again?" He smiled wolfishly and his black eyes glittered in challenge.
My jaw dropped: he moved his hand and insolently closed my mouth with insistent pressure beneath my chin -- and kept it there until I jerked away from him.
"If you think I'm going to enlighten you," I said icily, "then you're a fool. And whatever else I think of you at the moment, I don't think that. Good evening." And I stepped into my rooms and slammed the door.
Damn him. I could hear him laughing as he made his way back down the corridor: I'd given him precisely the reaction he'd wanted.
I marched to the bath to splash cold water on my face, and then looked in the mirror.
"Well, well, had a bit of a sn--"
"Shut up," I told it ruthlessly, and it did. (I was normally quite polite to it.) My face was still furiously pink; my mouth was swollen, and my lower lip tingled where Snape had nipped at it as his parting shot in the Quad.
Not inexperience, then, just out of practise --
That thought sent me totally 'round the bend. I was enfuriated with myself; I'd allowed him to throw me totally off my game. I went to the kitchen, splashed what little poteen I had left into a tumbler, and took the glass and my wounded sensibilities to bed. I had trouble sleeping -- again -- but at least this time it was due less to grief than to overwhelming frustration.
I damn well hoped Snape was frustrated, too: he'd held me so closely in the Quad that I had evidence to suspect he was.
Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, I thought as I finally drifted off. Who'd have thought he'd turn out to be so... sexy?
The old nightmare was back -- but with a twist: instead of waking at the moment of the crash, I'd found myself back in the Quad, with Snape's capable hands caressing my shoulders, his mouth nuzzling my cheek.
I felt drowsy and warm and safe; and then, quite deliberately, he'd moved his lips to my ear and lovingly whispered in his most silken, seductive voice,
'I have tortured and killed... and I did so willingly. Often with pleasure.'
Then he pulled away just enough to look in my eyes, smiling, and his gentle hands moved from my shoulders to my neck and squeezed.
It took a twenty-minute shower in the hottest water I could stand to stop the shaking. Going back to bed was out of the question: I had to prop myself upright on the sofa to fight nausea.
My conscious mind had managed to dissociate Snape from the horrible acts he'd undoubtedly committed as a younger man: but my subconscious had decided, oh so kindly, to remind me that they were really one and the same person in a particularly vivid fashion.
A Dreamless Sleep Draught was definitely called for every night from now on.
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'artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative': Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado. It says something about Miranda's state of mind -- or Snape's snogging skills, and possibly both -- that it takes her so long to pick up on the quotation.