"It's not the dead ones…" she said aloud, "It's the living who haunt the graves of the dead. At least, show yourself."
Minerva closed her eyes and leaned her head against the cold marble behind her. Patiently she waited in the cool night air if anything would happen.
All was quiet for another few seconds. Then she could again make out the faint noise of the man's steps on the ground. Grass rustled. A dry leaf caught on the hem of long, dragging robes. Someone took in a deep breath. Finally, Minerva heard the soft sound of a light fabric being handled, as if somebody was taking off his cloak.
"Good evening, Severus," she said without opening her eyes.
"Good evening, Minerva," he replied cautiously.
Wearily she opened her eyes and looked at him. He stood about seven feet away from her, his wand drawn, and a silvery Invisibility Cloak clutched in his left hand. His face looked unnaturally gaunt in the moonlight, with dark rings under his eyes and hollow cheeks. Snape's expression was blank, but he pressed his lips together into a thin line. Clearly, he was on his guard.
"You won't need that wand," she informed him evenly. "I do not plan to attack you."
"How did you know that I would not attack you?" he asked while lowering his wand a little.
"You had plenty of opportunities while spying on me in the past few weeks. Instead, you even made sure I would not catch a cold," she said acidly.
"It was a chilly night," he answered evasively, as if that explained everything.
They stared at each other for a few moments. Minerva knew that her gaze was anything but friendly, and in a childish, triumphant way she enjoyed how Snape seemed to have a hard time looking her in the eyes.
"And I didn't mean to spy on you," he protested. "We just happened to be in the same places at the same time… and I could hardly have taken off that cloak in your presence."
"Oh, you could have. I do know you are on our side."
"You know that?"
His eyes narrowed while he mustered her suspiciously. Minerva bit her lip. Talking to him was not easy.
"I do know. I knew when Harry finally showed us his memory of that night. Albus would never have begged an enemy for his life."
"That is true."
"It was so plain, so obvious that you were with the Death Eaters – but if Albus had believed it, he would not have begged. He knew you were not one of them. And he pleaded because he wanted you to do something he could only ask you to do, something he could not order you to go through with."
"You knew him remarkably well," Snape said slowly, a trace of sadness in his voice.
Minerva smiled humourlessly.
"Oh yes, I did," she spat out, almost contemptuous.
"I have known him almost all my life, have worked with him for forty years, have known how to read his every gesture. I did know him very well. I even knew he was hiding something from me in the months before he died."
Snape finally pocketed his wand. Carefully he came closer to her, although she shot a look of pure venom in his direction.
He placed his Invisibility Cloak on the marble step next to Minerva, then he cowered down in front of her. Unable to bear this closeness she turned away from him.
"Minerva?" he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Please look at me."
She swallowed hard. She wished for him to go away, to stop acting politely, to simply evaporate into thin air. His presence at this grave was nothing but an enraging insult.
"Minerva?" he demanded again.
"What?" she snapped.
With a sudden movement, she turned back to face him again. She wanted to transform into her cat shape and claw at his face. Oh, maybe she would not even transfigure herself at all and just use her fingernails to scratch his eyes out of their sockets.
"Minerva, I – " he started, as though unsure what to say.
His gentle, subdued behaviour was infuriating. Now he even reached out and took Minerva's hand into both of his. Minerva found that she was so rigid with cold and anger that she could not draw away. And it felt surprisingly good to have someone mourn with her.
"I know that it does not make much of a difference," he said, "but I did not want to do it. When he asked me to, I did say no."
"Oh, I am sure of that," she snarled. "And you are right, it does not make much of a difference. It does not make any difference. You did it all the same."
This time, Snape looked away from her face. His gaze rested on the white tomb behind her. They remained silent for a long time.
She knew that she had hurt him. Minerva looked at the younger man in front of her. It felt good to know that her harsh words had wounded him – but actually it did not feel as good as she would have expected.
Snape did not move. His eyes remained fixed on the plain white sarcophagus behind her back. Although his face did, as usual, not betray much emotion, Minerva thought that he looked tired and worn out. It was obvious that he felt guilty. Why else would he have come to the grave that often? Like Minerva, he was in mourning.
Minerva did not know what to do. She wanted to get up and leave him in his agony, but part of her held her back. Minutes passed while she tried to make up her mind. Her body ached from sitting rigidly on that icy stone step. Shivering with cold, she leaned back once more and closed her eyes again. She did not want him to see the tears she fought back.
Snape had noticed how cold she was. His hands wrapped tighter around her right and rubbed it gently. The touch was almost reassuring. Minerva looked at him again and saw that he deliberately avoided her gaze.
"Severus?" she said, in a much softer voice than before. "It does make a difference. I am sorry I said that."
"No, you are right," he replied.
His voice was heartbreakingly impassionate. Minerva blinked more tears away. He pressed her hand harder.
"You are right. I did it all the same."
"It does make a difference," she repeated, as if talking to a child. "I know you cared about him. I know you must have been desperate, I know you did not want to do it. Why else would you come here almost every night?"
She let go of his hands and pulled her cloak tighter around herself. This conversation was exhausting.
Snape stood up again. He walked a few steps away from her and turned to look into the direction of the castle. He did not answer her question. She could not see his face but assumed that he looked at the high Astronomy Tower.
She quietly watched his silhouette outlined in the beautiful moonlight. The last time she had seen him – in Harry's memory – it had also been night, but the light she had seen him in had been the green light of his Killing Curse. It was deeply disturbing that she now felt almost relieved to have met him again.
"What I do not understand is why you did not tell me before, why he did not tell me…"
Minerva only realised that she had spoken her thoughts when she heard her own voice. Snape turned back around again.
"I could not tell you, Minerva. I wanted to tell you, but the Headmaster ordered me not to. He told me he would take care of the matter. He said he would leave you a message that you would find after his death."
Minerva did not reply. She had known his answer would be vague and evasive, yet she was disappointed. He owed her an answer, but she did not feel strong enough to insist on it. The cold made her lethargic.
After a few seconds she realised that Snape was still staring at her.
"What?" she asked irritably.
Snape hesitated for another second, then he walked towards her and pulled her up resolutely.
"Do get up. You are almost frozen stiff," he said harshly.
He took off his own black cloak and put it around her shoulders. Minerva was so surprised that she did not protest.
"There," he said brusquely. "And now we will walk a little so you warm up again."
"But you need your cloak…" she objected vaguely.
"I can always put this thing on if I get too cold," he shut her up while snatching the Invisibility Cloak from the stone step. "And now let's go."
He strode off in the direction of the Forbidden Forest, where they were least likely to meet anyone. After hesitating a second, she followed him.
They walked in silence for at least ten minutes. First, Minerva almost stumbled over every root sticking out of the ground, but presently she got better. Moving about did her good. She even wrapped Snape's heavy cloak tighter around herself and soon stopped shivering.
"Yes. Thank you."
They walked on, making a big detour to avoid coming close to Hagrid's hut. Minerva felt her strength and alertness slowly come back to her.
"Severus?" she suddenly asked. "I did mean what I said before. Why did you not tell me about your plan?"
"And I did answer. It was the Headmaster's plan, not mine. I thought it best to let him deal with it."
"That's not quite true, I think."
"What do you mean to imply?"
"I thought we were – well, friends."
She stopped and grabbed his arm, forcing him to turn around to her.
"You must have realised what a shock this would be to me. Why did you not warn me?"
"Because the Headmaster told me not to. Believe me, I would have preferred if the Order had know of this."
"I am not talking about the Order – that many people knowing, that would have been a security risk. I am talking about me only."
Minerva knew that it was childish to insist on answers, but with her new-found strength, she felt that this might be her only chance ever to learn to what decisions the two men had come. She was desperate for any information Snape might be able to provide on Dumbledore's choices.
Snape's expression was not friendly, but she thought she detected a trace of pity in his eyes – which only made her more angry.
"Minerva," he said slowly. "I think we both know the answer to that. Don't make me say it. You know why he did not dare to tell you."
"No, I do not know," she said stubbornly.
Snape hesitated for a second before he replied. His face was set when he finally answered her.
"Because you loved him," he said cruelly.
"You would not have accepted that he was about to die. Look at you now – your grief has overwhelmed you to a point where your old self is hardly recognisable any more. If you had known he was planning his death, you could not have pretended that everything was as usual, and your behaviour would have endangered his whole plan. That is why he did not tell you, and why he forbid me to tell you."
Minerva felt as though he had slapped her in the face.
"How dare you…" she hissed.
"I dare because it is true," he said quietly. "I did not like it, Minerva. But you know that I did always follow his orders."
Minerva broke off. Words failed her. She hated Snape, hated him for being so loyal to Dumbledore, for being so damn right about what he had said and done. He had murdered the love of her life, and all she could do was admit that he had always been on their side, that he had been Dumbledore's man trough and through, and that he had been right to follow his orders.
It was not fair. She hated him all the more because there was no reason to hate him. Trembling from head to toe, Minerva gasped for air. Again she had to fight her tears back. Snape's face showed nothing but compassion. He slowly turned away from her to allow her some privacy, and this last act of kindness was too much to bear.
She flung herself at him, crying with misery and rage. Back in her head Minerva knew that it was not Snape she was furious with, but Dumbledore. But it was Snape who was there standing in front of her and who did nothing to defend himself. All use of magic was forgotten. Minerva had not even thought of drawing her wand. She tore at the front of Snape's robes and pounded his chest with her fists. All she wanted to do was hurt him, but with each blow, she felt guiltier about it and cried harder.
Snape stood still, receiving her blows quietly as though he thought he deserved them. Only after a minute or so he raised his arms and held her carefully, drawing the hysterical woman closer. Minerva collapsed against his chest and cried like a child. He muttered something she did not understand, but his voice was soothing. It was so unfair that he of all people should be the only one who could truly understand her grief and comfort her.
It felt so good to be held like this, to be able to cry freely. And it felt so wrong.
"Don't touch me," she said without letting go.
"I am sorry – "
He immediately released her and took one step back.
"It's alright; I know you meant well. It's just that you – and I – I should not seek comfort from you –"
"I know it is inappropriate," he said earnestly. "The murderer comforting the one who grieves most."
"Severus, every time I look at you I think of him. I – I know you did not want to do it. But I so hate you for it," she explained helplessly.
"I understand," he said, almost sounding a little sad.
"I know it is unfair, but – "
"But you can't help feeling so. Minerva, I do understand. I would not expect anything else from you. You loved him. And he loved you."
They exchanged another helpless look. Minerva was embarrassed about her emotional outbreak and started walking again. At least that gave her something to do, and she did not have to look at Snape all the time. Without a special destination, they ventured deeper into the Forbidden Forest.
"I didn't know that you – knew this. To that extend," she said after a while.
"Minerva – " he sighed, "Do remember, we were friends of a sort. And the Headmaster was my friend. It was not that hard to work out that you loved each other."
She nodded and blushed a little.
"I should not be that surprised," she mumbled. "Not too long ago I overheard Arthur and Molly speculating about this – it seems many knew that Albus and I had a secret relationship."
"Many thought so," Snape agreed. "But I think that was speculation mostly. I don't think a lot of them actually knew."
"Did Albus – did he know that you knew about us?"
"Yes. When he ordered me to… you know, when he told me to do it I asked him whether you knew of this plan. In fact I told him I did not think it fair not to tell you."
Minerva smiled. Snape had been a true friend once.
"He asked me why I wanted to tell you, and then I told him that I suspected the two of you to be a couple. He confirmed that, and told me to stay out of it."
Minerva nodded. She could picture the scene very well. Albus would not have lied to Severus, but it had always been their agreement to keep their relationship secret and not to let other people get involved in their personal matters.
"So what now?" Snape deliberately changed the subject. "What do we do now?"
"I don't know," Minerva replied. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"I suppose I could continue to give you information on the Dark Lord's activities – Potter might need that…"
"He would not listen to anything you or I say."
"The precious little brat ought to have learned by now to listen to the members of the Order."
"That he might, but he would not listen to me. Nor would anyone else. I am not a member of the Order any more."
Snape stopped dead again and stared at her incredulously.
"I thought you were their new leader."
"If they have a new leader, it might be Mad-Eye. I don't know. You see, I made the mistake of saying that I do not believe you to be a traitor. I was lucky they did not have me locked up in St Mungo's right away."
"Of course, that is hard to believe… but if you figured it out..."
"I am considered, as Arthur put it so neatly, 'mistaken in my mind'. The think me mad with grief."
"Every one of them?"
"Well… Hagrid is undecided whether to believe me mad or not, and Poppy thinks that I simply suffer from shock and hallucinations. Miss Granger apparently also is not fully convinced of my state as a mental patient. But the rest think me insane, I am afraid."
"That can't be true."
Snape shook his head disbelievingly. Minerva shrugged.
"And if you want another piece of bad news, Hogwarts will not re-open."
"The reason being…?"
"That one Death Eater at large is a former teacher, who knows the secret entrances to Hogwarts and might come back."
"Finally, the Ministry has decided to be cautious," Snape said dryly.
They walked on and soon returned to the edge of the Forbidden Forest not too far away from Hagrid's hut. No light shone through the windows.
"Think Hagrid is asleep?" Snape asked.
"Most likely. I comforted him with a large amount of brandy this afternoon when I told him Hogwarts would close."
Snape made a sound as though suppressing a small laugh.
"I will walk you back to the castle then."
"You don't need to. The grounds are safe."
"Maybe, but you are still wearing my cloak and on such a cold night, it would be impolite to take it from a lady."
Minerva smiled wearily. This was typical for Severus Snape, her friend. He would show politeness and understanding in those moments when one would expect it least. Together, they walked to the large front doors. There, Minerva took off Snape's black cloak and gave it back to him.
"Thank you," she said earnestly, knowing that he knew she was talking about more than just a warm garment.
He only nodded, and wrapped himself in the cloak. Then he looked at her again and studied her face.
"So you are all alone."
Snape's voice betrayed pity again, but this time it did not make Minerva angry. On the contrary, it felt good to have someone finally understand her situation. He would know, he was all alone himself.
"I have you," she said earnestly, fully aware of the absurdness of the situation.
Snape knitted his brow.
"I am the only one who knows that you are no Death Eater. And you are the only one who knows that I am not insane."
"That is true," he said hesitatingly.
"Not much to go with," Minerva said wryly.
"But better than nothing."
"Maybe.." Minerva wondered, "maybe this will be of some help in the future."
"We will see. I shall contact you whenever I learn something that could be of use – that is, if you want me to."
"Yes," she sighed. "Yes, I think I would like that."
"I will go, then."
Snape unfolded his Invisibility Cloak and started to put it on.
"Good night, Minerva," he said before he disappeared entirely.
"Good night, Severus," she replied.
Then she opened the front doors and heard his steps hurrying away.
"Good night, Severus," she whispered again into the dark night. "I do not know if I can ever entirely forgive you, but I know that you are my friend."
Minerva felt much stronger when she walked back to her rooms. The healing process had finally begun.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A/N: I know this ending is a bit of a cliffhanger, but hey – I do want you to read the next story in the Trilogy.
And yes, the chapter title is a quote from the prologue of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". The way Slytherins and Gryffindors are supposed to hate each other has always reminded me of the Capulet/Montague feud.
In the next fic, you will read what happens while the Trio searches for the Horcruxes, how Minerva and Severus try to sabotage Voldemort's plans, and how (un)successful they are. We need some plot action now, and I promise if you are a connoisseur of dark, violent, angsty fics – you will not be disappointed.
But: JKR's 'Deathly Hallows" is due to be published in less than one week. Folks, I know none of us will be much interested in fanfiction for a while. So while I swear I will continue the trilogy, I cannot tell you when the second and third story will be published. If you're interested, maybe you should add me to your author alert list.
Happy reading 'Deathly Hallows' everyone! (And don't forget to feed other authors, too – I still crave reviews….)