Disclaimer: All the characters in this story belong to J. K. Rowling, not that I think any of you will think otherwise, but propriety must be adhered to. Of course, she'd probably be aghast at their behavior here, but then…somehow I don't think she's watching. ;)
Hoping Against Hope
Severus Snape paused with a book in his hand and glanced around his empty classroom. Who was he kidding here? Him…a teacher? He didn't have the faintest idea how to run a classroom or how to force-feed foolish students information that most of them hadn't the slightest interest in learning. This venture was going to be a disaster. There wasn't a doubt in his mind.
He glowered darkly and tossed the book down onto the polished surface of the desk in front of him. Not that he had the slightest choice in the matter. His new jailer had shown him down here with a smile and a twinkle in his eye and put him to work before the ink was dry on his contract. There was no going back. He'd made his choice; now he was going to have to find a way to live with it.
Without warning, he heard a footstep scrape against the stones by his open door. Stiffening slightly in anticipation, he raised his head, but he didn't quite dare to turn it and look, just in case it really was the person he'd been waiting for, the one he both wanted and dreaded to see so very much.
"Hello, Severus. Welcome back," said a familiar and welcome voice.
Briefly, he closed his eyes and carefully schooled his face into a haughty sneer before he turned to face her. "Professor McGonagall. Surprised to see me here?" He raised an eyebrow and stared at her. She hadn't changed a bit.
With a warm smile, she shook her head. "Not at all. Albus told me that you were joining us. Congratulations on becoming the new Potions master. I'm sure that you'll do well in the position."
"Did Albus tell you how I happened to get this job?" His voice was stiff and mocking, daring her to say what she must be thinking. She had to know why he'd been hired, after all.
She nodded, and her face saddened slightly. "Yes, he did," she admitted quietly.
"Come to gloat…to tell me that you told me so?"
"You know I'd never do that," she said softly. The eyes that held his in thrall were full of compassion.
Suddenly, he found that he couldn't stand to look into them for another moment and turned away from her to fiddle uselessly with the pile of books on his desk. "No. Of course, you wouldn't." His voice had lost its mocking edge and was now simply cool and almost toneless. "You'd have every right to, though. You warned me. I should've listened to you. I just wasn't in any mood to listen to anything you had to tell me when we last saw each other."
She smiled sadly. "I know. You had to make your own mistakes, Severus. As much as I hoped to spare you the pain of this one, I know that as well as anyone. It's part of growing up."
"Yes. Growing up." He turned back to face her once more. "And have I grown up enough for you to see me as an adult now…Minerva?"
A shiver ran through her as he spoke her name, but she didn't answer him. Though she tried, she couldn't quite stop her mind from returning to the last time she'd heard it on his lips. That night…
Abruptly, he stepped closer and lowered his voice, giving it an edge of intensity. "Has time passed leveled the playing field sufficiently yet?"
His words caused her to freeze in place, and he could see her entire body stiffen, before she answered in a quiet voice, "Time has continued for both of us, Severus. The playing field will never be that level. I can't stop time any more than you could speed it up, and you shouldn't want to."
"We're colleagues now. I'm not your student any longer," he said. He almost held his breath waiting to see how she'd respond. Hoping…
A flicker of longing darted through her eyes, but she turned away and rested a hand on the frame of the door before he could mark its presence. "It doesn't matter. I'm still older than your mother. I had hoped…." Her voice trailed off.
"That my feelings had changed?" he exclaimed angrily.
"That mine had," she whispered softly under her breath, squeezing back her sudden tears.
Not having heard her response, he stalked across the floor until he stood behind her so closely that she could feel the brush of his robes against her back, and the sweep of his hair against her cheek, as he whispered harshly in her ear without actually touching her.
"Well, hope no more. They have. You have no reason to fear that I will embarrass you by any sort of sentimental feelings of an inappropriate nature. As I said, we're colleagues now. Nothing more…nothing less. Go back to your domain in the sky, Minerva, and let me settle into the darkness here below. You mean nothing to me now, I assure you."
A sudden pain cut into her, and she drew a sharp breath at his words and nodded shortly. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you then," she whispered reluctantly.
He drew back from her. "Nothing you do or say disturbs me. Good day, Minerva."
Without another word or a backward glance, she left the room, and he could hear her footsteps moving swiftly up the corridor, taking her away from him.
Slowly, he returned to his unpacking with slightly trembling hands. "Liar," he whispered quietly to the empty room.
Minerva leaned back against the door of her bedroom and closed her eyes. Her confrontation with Severus had left her trembling. Seeing him again had been harder than she'd thought it would be. It still hurt to think about what he'd gone through after leaving school. Would he have done what he did if she hadn't rejected him? But what other choice had she had?
No. It was sheer hubris to think her actions could have had so profound an effect on him. Most likely, that night hadn't had any effect on his choices at all. Her influence wasn't likely to have been that powerful in his life. Nowhere near as powerful as his had been on her. His feet were already firmly planted on that dark path by the time he graduated; others had tried to dissuade him without success, but no doubt her rejection hadn't helped.
If she closed her eyes, she could still quite vividly remember awakening to find him seated on the side of her bed in the moonlight, his hand caressing her hair. As she'd sat up in confusion, she could still feel that same hand move to the skin of her bare shoulder as he pulled her gently against him and embraced her. His lips had descended onto hers and, Merlin help her, she'd responded!
It had seemed so like the dream that she'd been immersed in when his touch had drawn her back to reality that, for a few wonderful moments, she'd been a most willing participant in his embrace.
When reality hit, and she pulled away, he'd been hurt, but what other choice was there? He just didn't understand. He was her student! Her student…
"Mr. Snape! What do you think you're doing?"
"Kissing you…and you were enjoying it," he'd protested.
"I was asleep! I didn't realize that this was real. That a student would have the temerity to invade the bedroom of a teacher!"
"Please, don't get upset! I wouldn't ever hurt you…Minerva. You've got to know that. It was just a graduation dare. To go and bring back a token, to show that I'd been here."
"And how were you to display a kiss for your friends, Mr. Snape?" A strange pang of longing darted through her as she realized that he'd used her given name.
"No, I wasn't… The kiss was for me! I chose your room because I wanted to see you. I've wanted it for a long time; you had to know that. I just had to come, and when I did, when I saw you, I had to touch you. I couldn't help it. You kissed me back!" his voice was accusing. "You must've enjoyed it!" He'd reached for her again with an edge of desperation in his voice as he'd seized her shoulders and pulled her towards him once more.
Oh, how hard it had been to pull back, to stop him and send him away. She never did understand why that was. What made him so different? Many boys and young men had developed crushes on her throughout her fairly long tenure as a teacher. Not very many in awhile, she conceded. Since, after all, she wasn't exactly the stuff that adolescent dreams were made of anymore, which was one reason his attraction had been so surprising. For some unfathomable reason, she had been a dream for him, one she so wanted to share but simply couldn't. It just wouldn't have been right.
He'd been so angry and hurt when she'd sent him away with nothing but a handful of hairpins from her dresser. Although, perhaps a little grateful that she hadn't reported the incident, he'd still been upset that she'd rejected him, still protested that he was an adult and that was all that should matter. It was the only time he'd actually admitted his feelings. He'd always been such a secretive and cautious young man. He'd never been one to be open and honest about how he truly felt about anything, to show what could be interpreted as a weakness. But he'd dared to that night, and she'd shut him down. No wonder he looked back on that incident with bitterness. Was quick to tell her that she no longer held any fascination for him.
Now, he was here again. As a teacher…a colleague. He'd sit at the same table, walk the same halls, participate in staff meetings, and glare angrily at her with his beautiful eyes, and somehow she'd have to learn to live with it and go on. How would she find the strength?
If he appeared again in the moonlight of her bedroom, would she still send him away? Sadly, she knew she'd never find out. Severus Snape never made the same mistake twice.
Minerva's head pounded unceasingly. It felt as if a vise had been attached to her temples and was slowly being squeezed shut. She shifted uneasily in her chair. Would this meeting never end? Staff meetings weren't usually this tedious. Though, perhaps, it was the fact that she couldn't really keep her mind on the substance of the meeting that was so unsettling her today. With him sitting there across the room, there was no hope that she'd truly be able to focus on anything else. Why did she even bother to try?
He'd been here for a day and a half already, and she'd seen him a total of four times. During that painful meeting yesterday, dinner last night, breakfast this morning, and now at this interminable gathering. Yet in all that time, he'd never smiled. Not once. Had he lost that ability forever? Not that he'd smiled all that much when he was a student. She'd seldom seen a more serious and cautious young man, but he did occasionally smile when something interested him enough that he forgot that others might be watching and once or twice…at her.
His time with the Death Eaters had hardened him, obviously. That sad mistake had apparently taken all the remaining joy from his life, had crushed the last glimmer of hope and wonder in his eyes, leaving them cold and dark and bitter. Something else for her to hate that murdering monster for.
Now he sat alone in the far corner of the room, with a disdainful expression on his face and his arms crossed stiffly atop his chest, keeping the world at bay. And as she once more let her eyes roam over his solemn figure, her thoughts drifted back to the only conversation they'd had since he'd arrived. Young men with adolescent crushes on their teachers always come to their senses once they enter the world at large and meet other, more appropriate, women for their regard. Usually, they'll laugh about it later.
How many times had she heard returning students say, "Oh, I had such a crush on you when I was in school," followed by a laugh and a shake of the head to indicate how foolish they'd been when they were young. It always hurt just a little, and she'd tried not to think about it over the years.
He hadn't laughed when he'd seen her again, as she'd half expected him to, but he'd hurt her much, much more with his sharp mocking. No doubt he was ashamed that he'd ever found her attractive, wondered how he could have ever been so deluded. It certainly hadn't surprised her that he'd gotten over his crush. That was the way of such things, but she hadn't expected that the thought that he didn't care about her any longer would hurt so much. How had she come to care so deeply? And why, oh, why, couldn't her feelings have also faded with time?
Severus sat and tried to pretend that he was interested in what Dumbledore had to say, but it was all such tedious drivel that the truth of the matter was that it was a constant struggle just to keep his eyes open. His welcome to the teaching staff had been just as overwhelming as he'd expected. Flitwick had actually tried to shake his hand, as he no doubt thought proper, the twit. Sometimes he seemed much more Hufflepuff than Ravenclaw, but everyone else had merely nodded or stared noncommittally. The only one to actually attempt a sincere welcome had been Minerva, and that had been a disaster. Mostly of his own making, he reluctantly admitted to himself.
He watched her now without letting anyone else know that was what he was doing. He'd waited until she'd sat down, and then he'd selected a seat where she'd always be in his view while he pretended to listen to the Headmaster. It hadn't been hard to get the seat of his choice. All the other teachers seemed to be waiting for him to sit so that they could sit elsewhere. The fact that no one else wanted to be seated within three feet of him had been made quite clear when, as he'd sat down, two others who'd been considering sitting nearby had suddenly found reasons to sit farther away. Of course, the glower he'd tossed in their direction might have contributed to that. It was so difficult to be sure.
Teaching here would be nothing but laughs, though, he could see that already. The staff wished to pretend that he didn't exist. He hadn't the faintest idea how to actually teach Potions to a bunch of stupid prats. He now had to report on the Dark Lord's plans to Dumbledore while at the same time feeding lies to Voldemort about what Dumbledore might be doing within the walls of his little fiefdom. Yes. Life was just one jolly good time after another. He could hardly wait to get started.
Then there was Minerva, his personal goddess of wisdom. For as long as he could remember, no one had ever seemed to hold all the answers as well as she did, nor had been as willing to share them with him. He could still vividly remember approaching her desk after class one day with a question. Transfiguration was a fascinating subject, but one whose intricacies he often felt he missed. Unlike Potions, which always seemed so obvious, there was an intriguing mystery to Transfiguration very much like the woman who taught it.
"But where does it go?" he'd asked earnestly.
"Where does what go, Mr. Snape?" McGonagall had looked up at him in puzzlement as she'd laid down her quill and rested her chin lightly in one slender hand.
"The life force? The energy? When you transform a living creature into an inanimate object and then back again, where does its life energy go when it isn't living? It can't be destroyed or you wouldn't be able to bring it back again. So…where does it go?" He fixed his curious eyes on her with intensity.
She smiled up at him and the sun shone. "Do you know, in all the years that I've been teaching, you are the first student from a Wizarding family to ever ask such a question? It's usually the Muggle-borns who ask. They're more acquainted with Muggle theories of matter and energy conversion, and so they wonder how magic would affect them, but those raised in magical households very rarely wonder at such things. They simply accept it as a matter of course."
A frown crossed his face. Suddenly, he felt that he'd somehow done something wrong by asking. "Then you're saying that I shouldn't ask?"
"Oh, no. Not at all." Her smile deepened. "Wanting to know more is the sign of a curious, intelligent mind. You are obviously ready for a more in-depth study of the subject. I have a book right here, in fact, that should answer all your questions on this point."
She rose easily from behind her desk and moved to pluck a slim volume from her bookcase before turning back and offering it to him. "Why don't I let you borrow it, then when you've read it, we can discuss it together. Would that be acceptable?"
He nodded and accepted the book. "Yes. Thank you."
"Never be afraid to ask questions, Mr. Snape. How else will you learn what you want to know?"
How indeed? As he stood there with her book in his hand, he'd asked a further question almost without meaning to. "Do you ever wear your hair down?"
Her eyebrows had shot up her forehead in surprise, and her face had flushed a rather lovely shade of rose. "There is a difference between signs of intelligence and signs of impertinence, Mr. Snape." Though her voice had sounded more amused than offended, he could remember noting with relief. Then she'd shooed him away with a final smile. "Now, off with you. We'll discuss the book once you've finished it."
They did, too, and many more besides. During his time at Hogwarts, they'd had many discussions that had ranged over a myriad of subjects and had never ceased to interest and intrigue him. In Minerva, he'd found a kindred mind, though he never did see her with her hair down, other than on that one memorable night.
His lips thinned to a tight line. Did he ever take any of that generously offered wisdom to heart though? Well…yes and no. He'd almost always recognized the wisdom of her words, but somehow they'd never seemed to fit the reality of his life. Despite their deep understanding in intellectual matters, she'd never understood what his life was really like outside her classroom. How could she? It differed so greatly from her own, and he certainly never went out of his way to help her understand.
He'd been so sure that there was only one way he was going to be able to succeed, to be accepted, to prove his worth to the world. His overriding need had been to show all those who constantly made his life a misery that he was as good…no, better than they were. And that meant accepting Voldemort's help and support. He'd understood him…valued him. At least, that's how it had seemed at the time. Joining the Death Eaters had seemed like the only real option he'd had. The only place where he'd be wanted and respected. Somewhere he could belong and show his true value. Looking back on it now, it was such an obvious mistake, and she'd known the truth, the right thing to do, but he hadn't listened, and look where it'd gotten him.
At least she hadn't condemned him for his mistakes as others had. She hadn't turned up her nose at him and dismissed him as a bad lot destined to come to an unfortunate end because he'd strayed from that straight and narrow path that Hogwarts espoused. That path that only those with proper support and counter balances negotiated without trouble. Something that hadn't been offered to him.
He grimaced and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. A slightly unworthy thought, he reluctantly admitted. The support had been there. He'd just been unwilling to take it…then.
His eyes caressed her form covertly, watched her sit with her head slightly bowed, and her hands neatly folded, listening intently to Dumbledore's voice droning on in the distance. He'd hoped…foolishly…that now that he was an adult, and they were no longer teacher and student that she might… What? Look at him differently? Care about him? Acknowledge that he was no longer a child, but instead had become a man? Right. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen. She'd made that perfectly clear when they'd spoken yesterday. He'd always be too young in her eyes, and there wasn't anything that he could do about that.
His frown deepened, falling into already well-etched and customary lines. Why couldn't he just forget about her? Other people had crushes on their teachers when they were in school. They'd all gotten over it. Laughed to think about it now. Why couldn't he? Why did he still dream about that kiss they'd shared that night in her room and long to experience another? It wasn't as if there hadn't been other encounters, other women in the meantime to drive that image from his head. Yet nothing that had happened to him since that night had had that greatly desired effect. Was he doomed to measure every kiss against that one? A kiss that hadn't even been meant for him. A part of him had always wondered whom she'd thought she was kissing before awakening to find herself in his arms. Though perhaps it was better not to know.
Damn it! She was an old woman, as she never seemed to tire of pointing out to him. As if that should end it all, as if age should always be all that mattered. But it didn't matter, at least not to him. When he looked at her, he didn't see the age, he saw the person. He listened to what she said, and how she said it. He admired the person she was. Who cared if she was older than his mother? She was what he wanted, and apparently, could never have. He'd better start accepting that or his tenure here was going to be even more painful than he already thought it would be.
Eventually life at Hogwarts fell into a routine. Somehow, he created a relationship with her that was largely made up of formal moments. Brittle snapshots to fill the album of his life. Bit by bit, they found ways of dealing with each other that didn't feel so bitter and painful. They learned what words to say, and what to keep private, and time passed onward.
Severus learned to manage his classes, his temper, and his antipathy towards most of his colleagues. He learned that spying was much harder in practice than it had been in theory, that trust was such a fluid concept, and that love was coated with pain and was clearly something he should be glad to do without. And yet…
Minerva learned not to notice the ache that she felt every time he walked into a room. She learned to appreciate his presence without letting on that it mattered. She learned that working side by side with this man was a challenge every single day, and that reality fades…but dreams remain.
One evening, on the cusp of winter, Minerva came to dinner with slightly reddened and puffy eyes. Severus had long since perfected the art of watching her without seeming to do so. All through the meal, he occupied his mind by trying to decide what might have hurt her enough to actually cause tears. One thing he never expected was to see Minerva McGonagall cry about anything. Granted, the traces of tears had been all but eradicated before she showed her face to the world, but he knew they'd been there. Nothing about her ever escaped his notice; for all that he'd carefully trained himself not to betray that fact.
It was true that she hadn't seemed herself lately. Her expression had been more sober and melancholy. Nor had she been as accessible as usual, he'd barely laid eyes on her in days. He'd thought that it might have been merely the gloom of the onset of this season of cold temperatures and darkened and shortened days, but apparently there really was something wrong.
The meal dragged on while he debated with himself about speaking to her afterwards. Their interactions no longer had the slightest element of the personal in them. He stayed in the depths of the castle and left the sky to her, as he'd promised at the start, but still deep within, he yearned to find that nexus where they could meet…even if only for a moment.
Sometimes, it seemed to him as if the more he tried to thrust her away from him, the more deeply entwined in his thoughts she became. There was no place for her in his life, and none for him in hers. That one fact stood out like a banner in the wind. Yet he'd still tear it down if he could, reshape reality to suit him if the opportunity ever arose, but he'd given up hoping that it would.
While musing silently on that which wasn't any of his business, he almost missed her departure from the table. Several people had already left, so she wasn't the first, yet she was leaving much sooner than she usually did. Most evenings, she lingered until the last of the students had straggled out, gossiping with Albus about everything and nothing under the sun. He rarely followed her out the door.
Yet this evening, his attention had wandered so far inward that he would have missed her departure entirely, if he hadn't glanced up by chance and caught sight of her slender figure slipping through the double doors of the Great Hall. Irrationally, he pushed himself to his feet and followed. When he came out into the entrance hall, his eyes skimmed the shifting stairs in search of her, but she wasn't there. Where else could she be? She always ascended. It was a constant to all evenings.
With a frown, his eyes dropped to ground level once more, and that's when he noticed her rapidly retreating figure. She was garbed in a dark cloak and was heading quickly towards the South door, there was no doubt it was her though, he'd know her anywhere. Almost no one ever used that door, certainly not at this time of the year. It led only to overgrown gardens and the cliff overlooking the lake.
The South gardens… Unbidden, a sudden memory tugged at his mind. He stood at a window high up in the castle and looked out towards the lake on a brilliant spring day. Studying while sitting undisturbed under a tree by the lake had always appealed to him. He rarely simply wandered and enjoyed the beauty of nature, but he'd always found its nearness an aid to concentration when he had work to do.
End of the year exams were upon them all, and he'd hoped to spend some time down near the lake while he worked on his Transfiguration revision. However, once he'd had the chance to glance outside, he'd seen them, and the luster of the day had faded.
Potter and Black, along with their sniveling toadies, Lupin and Pettigrew, were already holding court in the middle of the prime seating area. A rather large audience, consisting mostly of simpering females, naturally, was already gathering. Obviously going to the lake now was out of the question. With so many to entertain, he'd only be providing them with an easy way to further impress their sycophants with their prowess at cruelty.
He'd been so preoccupied with his dark thoughts that he hadn't even heard her approach. Suddenly, she'd simply been there, standing beside him with a smile on her face. The first clue he had to her presence was when she spoke to him.
"It's a beautiful day, Mr. Snape. Are you really going to waste it by staying indoors?"
He jumped in surprise, and then was annoyed at himself for doing so. Hadn't he been told his whole life that he needed to pay more attention to his immediate surroundings or people could sneak up on him and cause him harm? Obviously, he hadn't learned that lesson properly, and it was embarrassing to prove it so starkly, especially in front of her.
With a quick wiping of the black scowl from his face, he turned to confront his teacher and tried to answer simply.
"I was thinking of going to the lake, but I changed my mind. It's too crowded there to get any studying done, and I do have a lot of work to do."
She stared at him for a moment then she glanced out the window, as well. She obviously saw the Marauders, as they called themselves, talk about giving yourself airs, but he wasn't really sure, at least, not then, if she truly understood why he'd changed his mind.
With a warm smile on her lips, she turned back to him and said, "It does seem a bit crowded out there at the moment, but that's no reason for you to have to linger inside. Perhaps a different venue would work as well. There's a perfectly lovely set of connected courtyards on the South side of the castle with hidden gardens and secluded benches, perfect for spending some time outside when you'd really like a bit of privacy. The gardens are somewhat overgrown. People seldom venture there anymore, but the sunshine should shine as brightly as at the lake."
He'd taken her advice, and found it exactly what he needed. Those gardens were still a favorite place for him to go when he wanted to be alone. He'd revisited them soon after returning to the castle to take up the position of Potions master. Never in all the times he'd gone there, though, had he found her there as well. Though she must use them occasionally, for the way she'd spoken of them had certainly implied fond and intimate knowledge. Even then, a part of him had hoped that she'd sent him there so that they could share that place. He'd wondered if, when she'd directed him to them, she knew whom she was giving him refuge from, and if she knew, whether she'd still have done it.
She must have, though. It hadn't been more than a day or two later when she'd been the one to come upon him backed up against a wall with the four Gryffindors arrayed before him. None of them looking too tidy.
She'd taken points from all five of them for fighting, not just him, he'd been pleased to see. What House you belonged to had never been the overriding factor as far as she was concerned. It was one of the things about her that had always made him trust her. She was fair to everyone…no matter what. Throughout his remaining time at Hogwarts, that had always been the case. As much as he respected Dumbledore, his partisanship always found its way to the surface in a conflict, but not so for Minerva. If you were guilty, you were punished, whether you belonged to her House or not.
The distant sound of a door closing brought his mind back to the present. Why was she heading out into those overgrown gardens at this time of night and in such frigid temperatures? With a puzzled frown on his face, he crossed the entryway, removed a cloak from the closet, and followed her off down the hall.
When he came to the door at the end of the dimly lit corridor, he paused. If she was right outside the door when he opened it, she'd know that he'd followed her. He hesitated with his hand on the doorknob. Would she be angry? What difference would it make? He was concerned about her, but did he really want her to know that?
Ever since their very first conversation, he'd made a great show of pretending that she no longer meant anything to him. He'd held out his hand that once, and she'd turned away from him, as she'd sent him away years ago. What point was there in approaching her again?
He withdrew his hand and turned away. He shouldn't allow his vulnerability to her to be seen. It was the act of a fool. Reluctantly, he retreated down the hall a few feet, only to pause and turn back again. His eyes bored into the wood of the heavy timbered door, seeking to penetrate its thickness and see beyond its shield. If he left, turned away and simply went back down to the dungeons, as he knew he should, this would eat at him all night. Something, or someone, had hurt her, and he simply had to know what or who…and why.
Refusing to think beyond that need, he paced back to the door and quickly pushed it outward. When he stepped out into the tangled brambles of the frost covered gardens, he stood silently for a few moments and took in his surroundings. The walls of the garden were tattered and overgrown, ragged teeth of stone that formed dark angry shadows against the dim sky beyond. The beds surrounded so snuggly by the wall, that had once contained flowers in warmer days, now contained only hardy weeds that bowed forlornly in the cold wind. Beyond the walls, an overgrown path led out towards the cliff and straggled along its edge to look down on the ruffled surface of the dark lake beyond with its sprinkling of swaying silver patches of light, reflections of the waxing moon above.
Swiftly, he moved from one cloistered courtyard to another, but Minerva wasn't in the garden. She must have taken the path along the cliff. Pulling his cloak more tightly around him to shield himself from the brisk, ice laden wind, which cut into his face with the sharpness of needles, he retraced his steps on the crumbling flagstones and headed off into the night towards the cliff path.
He hadn't gone far when he spotted her huddled form sitting quietly on one of the marble benches facing the lake. He stopped and simply stared at her for a moment, trying to ascertain her mood, and was caught watching when she turned her head abruptly and looked his way.
Fresh tears had plowed glistening trails across her cheeks, and she moved immediately to wipe them away and straighten up. He moved closer and looked down at her as she reined in her emotions and hid them away in their usual hiding places.
"Severus," she exclaimed in a slightly ragged voice. "What are you doing out here?"
Lies flooded immediately to mind in excess, but, for some reason, he ignored them all, and instead, he sat down next to her and said the first thing that sprang to mind before he could stop himself.
"I was worried about you so I followed you from dinner."
The truth seemed to disarm her, and she looked rather taken aback. "Oh." Her eyes searched his for a moment, then dropped to the damp handkerchief that she was twisting tightly between her slender fingers. "I'm fine; there's no need for you to be concerned."
"You always cry for no reason then?" His dry tone accompanied a gentle hand, which lightly touched her cold damp cheek.
She closed her eyes and shivered at the unexpected contact. It had been so long since they'd touched in any fashion. She'd hoped that she'd put those feeling of longing behind her, but this moment of contact brought them flaring to life once more. Would they never leave her in peace?
As she said nothing, he dropped his hand to his lap and simply waited. Waiting was something he knew how to do. He didn't like it; his impatience to know, to control, to have, would always cry for ascendancy from within, but he'd resigned himself years ago to the usefulness and necessity of patience. Waiting others out was almost always effective eventually.
So they sat silently side by side as the wind chilled them thoroughly and the harsh beating of their hearts raced to compete with the sounds of the night for supremacy. Finally, Minerva embraced herself tightly, running her hands up and down her trembling arms seeking to bring forth some warmth.
With a frown, Severus moved nearer and slid his arms around her shivering body pulling her close. She stiffened and began to pull away, but he refused to let her go. "It's cold. If you insist on staying out here in this wind then at least take what protection I am willing to offer. It will warm me as well, you know."
His sharp tone seemed to hit home, and she stopped resisting, allowing herself to relax slightly against him. He could feel the sharpness of her chin as it pressed into his chest and the softness of her bosom as it, too, was pressed against him, felt her hands steal slowly up his back to embrace him more tightly than he expected.
"What made you cry, Minerva?" he asked softly.
Without moving her head from his chest, he could feel her sigh and shift herself closer still. "I…received some news today. Unpleasant news. Nothing to concern yourself with."
He laid his face against the top of her head and quietly breathed in the fragrant scent of her hair, as he let the silence do his work for him.
"I've been feeling rather alone lately," she whispered finally, ceding him victory. "Alone, tired…and old. My last, my only remaining relative died yesterday. A cousin, whom I hadn't seen in years. Tears for him are irrational. I know that. He'd been in pain for some time. His death was the kind thing; yet, I haven't been able to hold them back ever since I heard." She sniffled. "It's foolish. I know…"
"No. It's not foolish. Family is important. Their passing is always difficult even if you didn't really get along. It still leaves an emptiness in your life where there was a connection before." He hesitated. "But you don't need to feel alone unless you want to."
Slowly, she turned her face up to his, seeking his eyes with hers though she couldn't read his expression in the darkness. Without thinking about it, as the opportunity presented itself, he took advantage and dropped his face the few millimeters it took to claim her mouth as his.
She leaned into the kiss, clutched him to her fiercely, and returned it with sudden need, just as she had on that long remembered night. She wanted him as much as he wanted her, it was suddenly so clear to him, and his heart leaped forward. Then, just as she had then, she pulled back and turned away, forcing her body out of his arms and up onto her feet.
"No. I'm sorry," she breathed with a strangled voice. "I shouldn't have done that. Please, forgive me."
Snape jumped to his feet and seized her by the arms, forcing her to turn back to him. "Damn it, Minerva! Why do you continue to pull away? I can feel your desire like a beacon. It draws me to you. That kiss was real; you wanted it as much as I did, then suddenly, you simply shut down. Why? I'm not a child anymore, nor one of your students. I'm a man. Why can't you see that?"
The tears were back, clear and sparkling. Hanging from her lashes, blurring her vision, freezing on her cheek in the bitter wind.
"I do, Severus. I do," she whispered faintly. "I'm so very aware that you're a man."
"A young man." Her voice was firm and determined. "A young man just beginning his life. So many things have gone against you, so early. You deserve so much better. You deserve a young woman in your arms, not some lonely, tired old maid who's older than your mother."
"I don't see you that way. I never have. Don't you understand that?"
A puzzled expression stole across her face. "It's what I am. What else could you possibly see?"
"A strong intelligent woman. One of the very few who has ever been worthy of my time. The only one of true value that I've ever met. You're the only woman I've ever wanted, Minerva. The only one…"
She dropped her gaze, and stood silent and still in his grasp.
"I'm still wasting my time, aren't I?" His voice rang with bitterness in the frosty air.
Once more, she was going to reject him. He knew he should beat her to it, reject her first, sneer at her and say something cutting and sharp, but he simply couldn't.
"Very well. You've made your choice. I won't bother you again," he stated with harsh finality.
Her face came up, and she stared into his eyes, dark against the silver of the moon. She wanted to respond to him, but nothing came.
Abruptly, he dropped her arms and shoved her away from him as if her touch burned. Then he spun on his heel and strode off into the night. As his footsteps crunched loudly on the frosted ground and took him away from her, panic seized her heart.
"Severus!" she cried. He stopped in his tracks, waiting, yet still poised to flee.
Words failed her as she stared at the stiff lines of his back as he stood so straight and unyielding in the cold wind, then she returned to the moment she could never forget, to try to explain, to try to reach out. "When a teacher is awakened in the middle of the night by a student sitting on her bed, she really has no choice but to send him away…even if it hurts her heart to do so."
His back stiffened. He didn't turn back towards her, but she was pretty sure that he was listening so she continued, "It's different with adults though. When a woman awakens in the night to find a man, that she…cares for…sitting on her bed, odds are that he'd be invited to join her. At least, that seems likely to me." Her voice died away, not daring to say any more, praying that it wasn't too little, too late.
His head bowed briefly, then he continued away from her without speaking, leaving her alone in darkness of the wintry night.
Upon returning to her room, the first thing she did was try to stop her heart from beating so fast that she thought she might faint. She felt alternately hot then cold, and her hands were trembling. Honestly, you'd think she was a teenager going on her first date. A date that she didn't even know for certain was going to happen. She'd issued the invitation, but she had no way of knowing if he'd take her up on it. Still, she might as well make it as easy as possible for him.
With a wave of her wand and a few muttered spells, she removed the wards that protected her quarters. Then, very deliberately, she unlocked the door. Putting out the candles in the sitting room and letting the fire die down if it wished, she walked into her bedroom and brought up the candles there.
Then she moved over to her wardrobe and opened the doors to get at her nightgown. She looked at the three gowns that hung there and sighed. Flannel. Well, good heavens, what else had she expected? She knew what hung in her closet, after all. It had been many, many years since she'd invited a man to her bed, or gone elsewhere to share one, and gowns that were attractive were often not the most comfortable ones.
She stood there and gnawed on her lip for a moment as she considered her options. Making up her mind, she closed the wardrobe and walked over to her dresser, opening the bottom drawer. Carefully, she pawed through the clothing inside and pulled out a white batiste gown that she hadn't worn in a very long time. In fact, the last time she'd worn it, a lovesick young man had appeared at her bedside in the light of the almost full moon.
She carried it across the room and laid it out on the bed, eyeing it critically. It was a bit worn now with a hole at the hem. Still, she wasn't the Transfiguration teacher for nothing, now was she? With the application of a few carefully considered spells, the gown was soon as good as new, and after undressing and taking a quick shower, she donned it once more and moved over to the dressing table to brush out her damp hair.
Deciding not to braid it tonight, she ran the brush through its fullness until the ebon strands gleamed softly in the candlelight. "Nox," she whispered quietly and all light vanished in an instant except for the warm light from the sitting room fire, which cast a low reddish glow through the doorway. That illuminated things enough for her to make her way across the room to the window where she drew back the drapes.
The silvered light of the waxing moon filled the room with its dazzling brilliance, and the setting was complete. Now, all she had to do was wait and see if he'd come. The hardest thing in the whole world to do. She glanced at the glowing face of her clock…a bit after eleven. Would he come?
Three hours later, he still had not, and she couldn't keep her eyes open or her sadness at bay much longer. So she slowly turned back the covers, crawled into her lonely bed, and clutched her pillow to her breast while tears of disappointment crept slowly down her cheeks. He was the foolish dream of a deluded old woman apparently, and he'd finally had enough of her and her uncertainties, and why not? He'd probably had a nice glass of brandy and a good laugh at her expense as he'd imagined her waiting futilely here for him. Was this his revenge for her sending him away all those years ago? If so, it was most effective indeed.
The next thing she was aware of was the touch of a hand as it stroked her cheek. Still slightly dazed from having fallen into such an uneasy slumber, she groggily raised her head to see him sitting there staring down at her in the dim light. The moon had followed its preordained path through the sky and no longer shown its bright face directly through her window, and in the somewhat darker room, it was impossible to see the expression on his face as he watched her silently.
Slowly, she sat up and whispered softly, "Severus? You came after all… I'd given up hope…"
His voice was low and quiet as his hand continued to stroke her cheek gently and then moved slowly down to caress her bared shoulder. "I almost didn't come…"
She shivered at his touch, so cool on her sleep warmed skin. "What changed your mind?"
With gentle insistence, he drew her towards him and slipped his arms around her body, tilting her face up to his as his lips touched hers softly, and he murmured, "The memory of this, and the hope that this time would be different. That this time, you'd allow me to show you just how much you mean to me, Minerva."
Her heart caught in her throat at his words as he embraced her fiercely and kissed her with a deep longing that she returned full force. When their initial passion had been spent, she drew back and ran her hands across his linen clad shoulders as she smiled up at him. He'd discarded his usual black robes and was wearing only a white shirt and dark trousers. The shirt was open at the neck revealing a few tempting dark curls, which she reached down to stroke gently. Then without consciously thinking about it, her fingers left the curls and began to undo the line of small buttons that held the shirt together, not stopping until she'd opened it completely.
"I'm so glad you came," she said simply.
He caressed her hair lightly and then dropped his hand to the edge of her nightgown, fingering the fabric with a delicate touch. "I remember this gown. You were wearing it that night…weren't you?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I'm surprised that you remember."
"I remember everything about that night," he said.
Slowly, he began to undo the row of buttons that marched down the front of the gown, and her heart began to beat faster. Once he'd run out of buttons, he slipped the straps off her shoulders and let the light material fall to the bed, baring her to the waist.
She held her breath and waited.
His hand reached out and slid around the curve of her breast to let it settle heavily into his palm, his thumb rubbing gently against the hardening nipple, and with the warmth of his touch, she began to breathe again.
Time fell away as clothing was shrugged off and warm skin was pressed firmly to warm skin.
He ran his hands slowly over her body, caressing the curve of her hip, making her jump at a light touch on the back of her knee, noting the fact that her breast fit so well into the curve of his hand, tasted so right in his mouth.
A smile touched her lips as she held back a bit and allowed him to explore while she reveled in the long missing feelings that he brought back into her life with the touch of his body on hers.
"Are you glad you came?" she whispered softly. Wondering. Sometimes when you desire something for a long time, finally attaining your goal can be…disappointing.
A knowing smile teased one side of his lips. "Does reality match the dream, you mean?"
A sharp exhalation of breath was forced from her as he dropped his mouth to her breast and began to suck and nibble on the tender flesh. "You could put it that way, I suppose," she breathed once more as he began to kiss his way down her body while his hands continued to trail gently over her sensitized skin.
He lowered his dark head between her legs and fastened his lips to her moist flesh causing her to gasp sharply and arch her entire body at the intensity of the sensations that suddenly exploded within her. "Oh, yes," his low voice drifted up to her. "Even the most vivid dream can't compare with reality…"
She couldn't agree more. No dream could possibly compare with this feeling. With each shiver, each moan, each touch of his mouth on her most intimate flesh, he brought her to heights that she'd never quite attained with anyone else. That she'd thought beyond her reach forever.
Once she'd come back down to the reality of the soft sheets beneath her back, she felt he'd had enough of an advantage, and it was time for her to do some exploring.
He'd returned to face her, looking quite satisfied and sure of his abilities, and why not? She'd certainly made no secret of her enjoyment of him, and what he could accomplish with that talented mouth of his.
She kissed the base of his throat and nibbled along the flesh of his shoulder. "It's quite amazing actually. I'd have thought that tongue of yours was so sharp that it would have cut me to ribbons with a touch instead of giving me such pleasure," she murmured.
A low pleasant laugh rent the air at her comment, and she shivered at the unexpected sound of it. In all the years she'd known him, she'd never heard him laugh…not once.
"I'll admit," he said with a smile in his voice, "that cutting and drawing blood is something that my tongue has far more experience with, but that's not what I want to do to you. Pleasure is what I want to give you, Minerva, always. Please, believe that."
"I do," she answered. "I only desire to return the favor as well." Her hand had been stroking along the velvety soft skin of his erection as she'd been kissing her way down his torso. Now that she'd reached it, she took him into her mouth, curling her tongue around that firm column of flesh, she slowly drew him in deeply and then allowed him to almost escape her before bringing him back, eliciting a deep moan from the depths of his being.
Suddenly, he grasped her head and gently pulled her up to face him again, kissing her eyelids and cheeks and lips with fervor. "I want to come inside you, Minerva. Not in your mouth, but in the depth of your body. That's what I've waited so long for. That's the dream that I want to make real."
Gently, he pressed her back against the pillows and kissed her deeply. Reality surpassed the dream. No dream had tasted like this. No dream scented the air with love. No dream warmed her skin with the eager touch of loving hands, and no dream ever matched the blissful sharpness of that moment when he penetrated deeply into her body to fill her completely with the warmth of his being.
Time held its breath for an instant as they stared into each other's eyes and knew that this was right. That their fears had betrayed them, but moving past them had been the right choice…for both of them.
Slowly, they began to move together, instinctively in harmony. Rocking back and forth, sliding flesh against flesh, building a tower of dizzying sensation...merging…completing.
When they returned to reality once more, lying in each other's arms, allowing their hearts to slow and the deeply satisfying feeling of release to work its magic on them, Severus pulled her more tightly against his damp chest and ran a hand through her tangled hair bringing a fragrant handful up to his lips.
"I told you I was no longer a child, Minerva." His voice was smug in his satisfaction.
As she raised her eyes to his, a hint of concern flickered in their depths. "I know, and I told you that I'd noticed…didn't I? Oh, Severus, there's never been a doubt in my mind that you're a man. A very desirable man. The only one I've wanted for a very long time, if I'm to be honest. I was just afraid…"
"Of what?" He frowned.
"Your feelings for me began while you were still my student." She smiled a brittle smile. "I was the focus of a schoolboy crush. It wasn't the first time. No matter how much I might have wished otherwise, crushes of that sort never lead to anything real. I assure you, I've seen it happen many times, and it always ends the same way. I was afraid that once you attained what you thought you wanted, you couldn't help but discover that it wasn't what you hoped for at all."
"I see. Well, this is very real to me, and everything I hoped for. I hope you realize now that your fears were groundless." His finger lightly traced the curve of her cheek and burned a path down the side of her slender throat to stroke the pulse at its base.
Hesitantly, he continued, "You say you wished otherwise? Does that mean that you had feelings for me back then, as well?"
She nodded. "Yes. I'd realized by your seventh year that my feelings for you were decidedly inappropriate for a teacher to have for her student. I savored our conversations. Every moment we spent together was precious to me, but I had to stop myself from spending too much time with you when others weren't around. Though I told you about the place where I went for solitude, encouraged you to make use of it, I had to be careful never to venture there when you were there yourself. Especially once I realized that you were attracted to me, too. I was sure that once you left Hogwarts and met other, younger, more attractive women, you'd no longer wish for someone like me. That last night…sending you away…was the hardest thing I've ever done. All I really wanted to do was lose myself in your embrace. I wanted to pull you down into my bed and make love to you as I'd been dreaming about, but I knew that I couldn't. It would have been wrong."
His embrace tightened, and he pulled her closer. "You were dreaming about me that night?" he asked in surprise.
"Yes. You were leaving. I thought that the only place I'd ever see you again was in my dreams."
"Well, you were wrong for once, Minerva."
She nodded happily, her cheek resting against his chest as she listened contentedly to the beating of his heart. "Yes. And nothing has ever made me happier."