This started out as a story about Professor Sinistra, but then of course Severus Snape showed up again, as he has a tendency to do in my stories…
She had loved the stars for as long as she could remember. When she had been only three years old, her father had taken her out one night and shown her the Milky Way. Millions of stars, he had said. Millions and millions, whirling in a cosmic dance. And we are a part of it.
For her fifth birthday, she had asked for a telescope as a present. Whenever there was a clear, cloudless night, she would take it out in front of their small, reed-thatched cottage in the highlands, and look up into the night sky. By the time she was six, she knew how to find whatever planets were visible at the time and could name most of the major constellations.
Orion the Hunter. Cassiopeia. Ursa Major. Softly, she would repeat the names to herself, rolling them around in her mouth like shiny pebbles. Pegasus. Leo, the Lion. Lovely words. Her father would tell her the stories behind the names – how poor, frightened Andromeda had been chained to a rock by her father to placate the hunger of a horrid monster. How she had waited for the inevitable, pale and motionless, her long hair blowing in the breeze. How Perseus, son of Zeus, had seen her, and had been struck by her beauty. He had rescued her, of course, and they had married, and now they lived forever, next to each other in the sky. For each constellation a different story.
The most magical night of her life had come when she was eight. Her father had woken her up at one in the morning. I have a surprise for you, he had said, and his eyes and cheeks had crinkled in an I-love-you kind of way. Armed with a thermos of hot, strong tea, a blanket, and two sleeping bags, he had taken her to an empty field far out in the country, away from all light pollution. There, they had lain on their backs in quiet anticipation. First, there had been one shooting star, then another. Within fifteen minutes, they were coming one on top of the other, streaking across the sky in all directions, the fiery death of star-stuff. She had snuggled against her father's shoulder, star-struck, in love with a universe that could create such beauty.
When, finally, she had come to Hogwarts, she had spent a lot of time on top of the Astronomy Tower. The other students had laughed at her – silly Stella, the only student who would go up the Astronomy Tower on her own to actually look at stars. She had let them laugh. Up there, on a clear, moonless night – that was the closest she ever felt to heaven, to eternity. Standing there, she thought she could almost feel the Earth moving, flying through space, part of the cosmic ballet, magic of a most ancient kind. There was a yearning in Stella Sinistra's heart when she looked up at those twinkling diamond lights, so unfathomably far away - for what, she did not know, but the sweet ache would pierce her heart.
When Vigillio Spectro, the professor who had trained her, had decided to retire, she had been offered the position as Astronomy mistress. At first, she had been filled with enthusiasm. She had stood in front of her class wishing them to see the ancient magic that set the stars in their courses. What she had found instead was a room-full of bored students who were interested in learning only as much as they needed to pass their O.W.L.s.
She had told them the story of Andromeda and Perseus, and when she had finished, her eyes shining with wonder all over again, one of the third-years had raised his hand.
"Is that going to be on a test?" he had asked in a bored voice.
Year after year she had labored, until the stars had stopped twinkling for her. Now, when she looked at Andromeda, all she saw was a fourth-year essay, and the rising of Venus reminded her of nothing but last week's butchered attempt by the fifth-years to chart planetary movements.
Not that the movements of the planets boded well. Mars kept intruding on the affairs of men, and war was threatening the very existence of the school she considered home. Death and destruction - so much pain, so much darkness. Small wonder she didn't care to look at the stars any more.
If Stella Sinistra would have looked up at the sky that night – really looked – she would have seen that it was beautiful. The Milky Way stood out so bright that one could imagine the chariots of the gods racing across it. But she was so busy putting the dust covers over the lenses of the student telescopes and carrying them to the small storage room at the top of the tower that she didn't even notice when the door opened just a crack and a cloaked figure stepped through.
When she had stowed the last of the instruments and locked the door, she turned, ready to go to her warm bed and comfortable room. A hot cup of chamomile tea before climbing under the covers would not be amiss. The nights were chilly in the middle of November.
It was then that she saw him.
"Can I help you?" she asked. It was unusual for a colleague to come up here at one-thirty in the morning. Only slightly insane Astronomy professors were up at this time of night. And only because they had to be.
He turned with a start when he heard her voice.
She would have recognized that pale face anywhere. Severus Snape, the Potions master – his black shape blocked out the starlight where it was silhouetted against the night sky.
"Severus. What are you doing up so late?"
He turned back around, and looked up at the vast expanse. "I just wanted to look at the stars." His voice was thin and distant.
"Look at the stars?" she echoed him, one eyebrow raised, not sure what else to say. She had never taken him for much of a romantic.
"It's been so long…"
She stepped up next to him. After staring at the stars for over an hour with her students, it was the first time she truly looked at them that night. She pointed at a reddish dot near the western horizon. "That's Mars." She sighed. Maybe one day she would be able to look at the red planet without feeling trepidation again, but not now. There had been too many losses.
He pointed the opposite direction. "The Big Dipper. I remember that one."
Stella nodded with a smile. "The one constellation that most everyone knows."
"Is that Cassiopeia?" He looked up at a W-shaped constellation that was right overhead.
She nodded again. "Cassiopeia, the queen. And there is Andromeda, her daughter, right next to her. See?"
He shook his head. Stepping close to him, she stretched out her arm. "Look, right there. That bright star – that's Alpheratz, her head. Can you see it now?" He leaned in towards her and bent forward, following the line of her arm and index finger.
"I think so…"
Stella looked at him again. It was hard to make out an expression on his face, but this was a strange mood he was in. She didn't know what to make of it. She had heard his voice so many times over the years – strident, smooth, commanding, irritated, reduced to a silky whisper, coming out as an angry snarl. She had never heard him sound so – lost.
"Do you know the story of Andromeda?"
He shook his head, looking out towards the dark horizon.
"Would you like to hear it?"
When he didn't answer, she pointed at Cassiopeia, and began. "Once upon a time in the country of Ethiopia, there lived Cassiopeia, a beautiful queen, with an even more beautiful daughter. And she bragged of her own and Andromeda's beauty to all who would listen. 'I am lovely, but Andromeda is more beautiful than anything alive, more beautiful even than the sea nymphs, the Nereids,' she said. 'No one compares to her.' When the Nereids heard of that, they complained to Poseidon, god of the sea, and he got angry – so angry he sent a horrible monster to ravage the coast of the country, devouring and destroying wherever it went. When the wailing inhabitants of the country came before the king, he consulted the Oracle, and the Oracle declared that Andromeda must die, to appease the hunger of the beast. And so they chained her to a rock that jutted out into the sea, and left her there. She stood motionless, tears running down her beautiful face, scared, waiting - just waiting for the monster to arrive…"
"Waiting," he repeated the word softly. His voice had a far-off, distant quality. "Waiting for what seemed like forever, knowing the monster will get her eventually, but not knowing when. Knowing that death is hiding somewhere under the surface, lurking, teasing her, 'any time now'… And knowing that she has to stay there on that rock, because if she doesn't, many others will die. And so she waits…" His voice trailed off.
"The story doesn't end there, though," Stella said gently. "Look over there." She pointed to a cluster of stars just a little bit over. "That's Perseus, the son of Zeus. He falls head over heels in love with her, kills the monster, and sets her free."
"Good for Andromeda." His voice was bitter now, acidic, anguished.
Stella didn't know what to do, but no one should sound like that. So hopeless. So alone. So she did the only thing she could think of. Cautiously, carefully, she slid her hand into his, expecting him to pull away. When he didn't, she wrapped her fingers around his, warm against his cool skin, and leaned her head against his shoulder. His hand closed tightly around hers, as if, just this once, he needed something to hold on to.
Right then, a shooting star fell across the sky, a streak of brilliance, almost reaching the horizon before it went out. Stella hadn't wished on a star since she was a little girl. But this night, she did.
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