For the Sake of Argument
Minerva McGonagall stood still and silent, looking around her in astonishment at the ancient stone arches and immense buttresses soaring high above her head into the darkness. Moonlight filtered through broken, empty windows and wide gaps in the roof, illuminating the shell of what had once been a magnificent church but was now nothing more than a ruin.
With a frown, she looked down at the tiny whisk broom she held in her hand with its cheery golden ribbon bearing the slogan: Tolliver's Travels – Take a Trip on Us. Had they given her the wrong Portkey? Clearly this wasn't her tidy little holiday cottage in Cornwall. How annoying.
Bending over, she set her carpet bag on the floor and carefully placed the small broom on top of it. Then she counted to three and picked the broom up again. When she'd begun using this travel service, they'd told her that setting the Portkey down would reset it, and when it was touched again, it would return the bearer to their point of origin if, for some reason, something went wrong during transit. In all the years she'd been using them, nothing had ever gone awry, but there was a first time for everything and this time something had very definitely gone wrong.
She held the broom tightly, waiting for it to activate and whisk her back to the transport office, where she intended to give the porter a succinct piece of her mind, but after a few more seconds ticked by and nothing happened, she decided that the thing must be malfunctioning on more than one level. It appeared she was on her own.
With a sigh of disgust, she dropped the Portkey onto the stone floor beneath her feet and picked up her bag. The whole reason for using the travel service in the first place was to make her life a tiny bit easier by eliminating the personal strain of Apparition, but clearly she'd wasted her time.
She'd never enjoyed Apparating; it made her dizzy and a trifle nauseous. Given a choice, she'd prefer to fly, but that wasn't practical over such long distances. Usually a Portkey was a satisfactory compromise, but nothing was without fault. If she wanted to get to Cornwall tonight, obviously she'd have to Apparate. Apparently she should have simply done that in the first place and saved herself the extra aggravation and expense.
Closing her eyes against the expected disorientation, she willed herself away to her cottage by the sea. Three fruitless tries and several moments later, she opened her eyes to stare at the nave of the abandoned church once more. A sudden frisson of cold fear shot through her body as she realized that someone had placed Anti-Apparition wards around the church.
Swiftly she bent and snatched up the whisk broom once more. How had someone managed to sabotage a commercial Portkey? She'd only decided to take her annual trip a few days ago. Yes, she always used the same service and yes, she was planning to go to the same cottage she always went to, but even so, it seemed incredible that anyone could find a way to substitute a Portkey that would bring her here for the one that should take her to Cornwall. Yet someone had managed it. What other explanation was there?
Shoving the broom into a pocket for later examination, she withdrew her wand and began to walk slowly down the shadowed aisle toward the doors at the far end. Her eyes darted back and forth in the darkness, straining to spot any sign that she wasn't completely alone. Why was this happening? Wasn't the horror finally over? Voldemort was dead, along with just about everyone she'd ever cared about. Couldn't she live out the rest of her days in peace? Was that really too much to ask?
The only sound she heard as she walked the length of the nave was the whistling of the wind through the gaps in the massive stones and the clicking of her heels on the floor. By the time she reached the doors, she'd begun to doubt her conclusion that someone had sabotaged her Portkey. The ruined church might be sheltered from Apparition for some entirely innocent reason, to guard against trespassers or further damage perhaps. For all she knew, there were other wards at work as well, wards that would keep people off the grounds and away from the building itself. Maybe arriving here was an accident after all. Surely if someone had brought her here deliberately they'd have shown themselves by now.
Feeling a bit less ill at ease, and having finally reached the end of the long aisle, she reached out and tugged on the handle of one of the massive oaken doors. Her misgivings returned when the door refused to move. She immediately cast an Alohomora on the lock and tried again, but it still wouldn't budge. Lighting her wand, she held it aloft in the gloom and looked around for another way out.
If her animal self had been a bird instead of a cat, she could certainly fly out with all the holes in the roof and walls. Unfortunately none of the openings were particularly close to the floor, and she didn't think she could successfully climb up to any of them in the dark, even with the extra flexibility that the Tabby's form gave her.
Off to one side, down a cross corridor, she noticed another door, much smaller than the ones she'd been trying to open. So she turned and headed off to give that one a try. As soon as she pulled on the handle of the smaller door, it opened both easily and silently. The silence surprised her. One didn't expect the doors in ruined churches to open as if on well oiled hinges, but she dismissed the incongruity and slipped out of the church into the night with a deep sigh of relief, happy to have finally made her way outside.
Looking around, she found herself in a tumbled down cloister surrounding an overgrown courtyard. The brightly shining moon and the deep shadows it produced painted her surroundings in broad strokes of black and silver, creating a scene of remarkable beauty and eeriness, but she didn't take the time to fully appreciate it. Wanting to get away from the church as quickly as possible, she let the door fall shut behind her and headed off down the walkway. As soon as she'd taken a few steps away from the building, a rough, hoarse voice called her name.
The suddenness of it froze her in place. Tension and fear reasserted themselves in an instant. She dropped her bag and, raising her wand, she scanned the entire area warily. "Who's there?" she asked, trying and failing to keep her voice from trembling.
A shadowy figure she hadn't noticed rose to its feet from a bench in the middle of the courtyard and stood quietly facing her. The man, if it was a man, was dressed entirely in black and his face was shrouded by a hood. She took a single step toward the courtyard and held her wand in front of her.
When the person didn't answer, she repeated her question. "Who are you? Show yourself to me."
With a nod of agreement, the man reached up and lifted the hood from his head. The darkness still hid his face. However, before she could repeat her question for a third time, he slid a wand from a pocket, lit it, and held its light up beneath his chin, illuminating his features.
As she found herself gazing at an unexpected but long familiar face, her heart began to beat harder in her chest. "Severus!" she exclaimed in amazement. "Is it really you?"
"Hello, Minerva," Severus Snape replied in a rasping whisper. "It's good to see you again."
Slowly Minerva lowered her wand and stepped off the walkway into the courtyard, stopping a couple of paces away from the dark clad figure of the man she believed, until that very moment, to be dead and gone from her world forever. "I don't understand. How can you be here? Harry saw you die. He told us what happened in the Shrieking Shack. Everyone believes you're dead."
"Perhaps I am dead," whispered the harsh voice. "Haven't you considered the idea that I might be a ghost come back to haunt you?"
Minerva lifted an eyebrow. "Not seriously, no. I can see you're no insubstantial wraith." Tentatively she put out a hand and touched him. The fabric of his sleeve felt rough and cool beneath her fingertips, the arm beneath was firm and solid.
"Did no one even wonder what happened when my body couldn't be found?" asked Severus. "Surely they'd at least be curious, even if they didn't actually care what happened to me. Not that I'm truly complaining. Not having anyone looking for me has made disappearing much easier than I feared it would be."
"By the time we were ready to retrieve your body, the Shrieking Shack had been burned to the ground," said Minerva. "No one ever admitted setting it on fire, but no one spent too much time trying to find out who'd done it, either. There were too many other things to contend with."
"So you assumed it became my funeral pyre." Severus nodded. "Well, that eliminated the problem of having to dispose of the traitor's remains, I suppose. Very neat and tidy."
Minerva shook her head, sorrow gleaming in her eyes. "No. By that time we all knew that you weren't a traitor, Severus. Harry shared the memories you gave him. We all knew how wrong we'd been about you." She paused for a moment before adding, "I owe you the deepest apology. I'm so sorry for doubting you. I should have had more faith."
A veritable flood of emotion flitted across Severus' face as he stood and looked at her. None of it remained long enough to be remarked on, however. In an instant, his face was impassive once more and he shook his head slowly. "Perhaps…but it's in the past now. It's odd. I spent much of my first few weeks of freedom raging at all of you, gloating at the thought that finally I'd be vindicated. Finally you'd understand how you'd wronged me; finally you'd know the truth and feel ashamed. Yet now, when I'm face to face with you, listening to you express the remorse that I coveted so deeply, it no longer seems that important.
"I worked hard to play my part, to make everyone see me as one of the enemy. It was necessary. A spy is only of value as long as everyone truly believes that what they think to be true, is indeed reality. If any of you hadn't believed I was a traitor, we would not be standing here now, so how can I continue to begrudge you that belief?"
"Why are we standing here now?" Minerva asked, raising a hand to indicate the silent garden that surrounded them. "You are responsible for bringing me here, aren't you? Though I don't quite understand how you did it."
A familiar mocking quality tinged Severus' voice, softening its harsh rasp. "Bringing you here was not difficult, Minerva. You're shockingly easy to anticipate. You always use the same travel agency to obtain a Portkey to take you to the same cottage at the same time every year. A few well placed questions, an altered Portkey, a bribe to the right person, and here you stand. Child's play."
"But why, Severus? Everyone believes you dead, if that's what you want us all to think, why bring me here and give yourself away?"
"Can't you think of any reason why I might wish to speak with you, Minerva?"
Her heart began to pound heavily and she could feel the heat rush to her cheeks, but she held her tongue. There were indeed many reasons Severus might wish to speak to her, not all of them pleasant, but how was she to choose? It had been so long since they'd really communicated in any meaningful way that she no longer had any idea what might be in his mind…or heart. She suddenly realized as she stood and looked at him that she wasn't even sure what was in her own.
"Well," he whispered softly, "perhaps something will occur to you. Are you willing to talk to me for awhile? I give you my word that you won't be harmed."
She shook her head impatiently. "I never thought for a minute that you'd harm me, Severus, and yes, of course, I'm willing to talk to you. I'd really like to spend some time with you again."
The ghost of a smile slid briefly across his features. "Very well." He indicated a slightly wilted flower that lay on the bench where she first saw him. "This flower is a Portkey. It will take us to my home. I brought you here first in case you disagreed with me or if, by some accident that I failed to account for, it wasn't you who showed up, but there's no reason for us to stand here in the night air when we can go somewhere much more comfortable."
Severus nodded toward the walkway. "You might wish to retrieve your bag before we go."
With a nod of agreement, Minerva returned to the covered walkway and picked up the bag she'd abandoned when he called her name. When she returned to his side, she smiled a faintly nervous smile. "I'm ready when you are."
Without a word, he held out his hand to her and she grasped it firmly. Once they were linked, Severus reached down and picked up the flower from the bench. Instantly, they vanished into the night.
Once they stopped moving, Minerva looked around to find that they stood in darkness more complete than in the ruined church's abandoned garden. Glancing up, she could dimly see the tops of trees swaying in a slight breeze that she couldn't feel where she stood. They appeared to be in a small clearing with thick woods pressing close all around them. The air felt cool and clouds were creeping across the visible sliver of sky, veiling the moon in silvered filaments.
Severus' wand suddenly flared to brilliance, and he held it up to illuminate a faintly marked path that led into the trees. Without a word, he began to follow the path and, as he still kept possession of her hand, she simply continued silently along at his side, trying not to trip on any roots or uneven patches of ground. Their walk through the woods was a short one. In moments the narrow path they were on came to an end in a larger clearing, one that contained a small, rough hewn cottage with a cluster of warm candles flickering in the window by its door.
They crossed this clearing in a few steps. Then Severus opened the cottage door and ushered her inside. They stepped directly into a homely sitting room, with bookcases full of well used books, comfortable, if rather worn furnishings, and a cheery fire crackling in a stone fireplace. Severus immediately waved more candles to life and released her hand. "Welcome to my home, Minerva. It isn't much, but it's served me well so far."
Setting her bag down beside the door, Minerva removed her hat and hung it on a convenient peg clearly meant for that purpose. As the night was mild, and she hadn't expected to be out in it for any length of time, she hadn't worn a cloak. She smiled as she looked around the room. "It looks very comfortable, Severus. It reminds me of your sitting room in the Hogwarts' dungeons before…"
"Before I moved into the Headmaster's tower? Yes, I never really felt at home up there, you know." He frowned in remembrance. "Especially not with Albus and all the other previous occupants always looking over my shoulder and commenting on my every move. There are no portraits hanging anywhere in this house. All those eyes following your every step at Hogwarts were highly annoying, particularly when you didn't want your movements being noted and gossiped about up and down the length of the castle hallways."
She nodded in agreement. One of the most useful things about being an Animagus was that it allowed you to move around without inciting much notice. Any time she needed to reach her rooms unseen in the wee hours of the morning, she simply became the Tabby and never had a problem. It was one reason that she'd come to him much more often than he'd come to her back when such visits between them had been common. Her smile faded slightly as that thought reminded her that their relationship had once been very different than the rather strained and awkward one they were left with now. Time had not been kind in many ways.
"Severus, what happened to your voice? Is it from your injury? Harry said you'd been attacked by that monstrous snake." Minerva shivered at the thought. She'd wanted to ask ever since he'd first spoken to her and she'd noticed how altered his voice had become. Its smooth richness had always been one of his most compelling features. The thought that the attack of that horrible creature might have caused him permanent damage made her very sad, though she knew that Severus would not want her pity.
Reflexively, Severus reached up and tugged his collar higher around his neck, trying to hide the still angry looking scar that covered one side of his throat. "Actually, I think the damage to my vocal cords is a result of the antidote I took to counteract Nagini's venom. It was very strong…as it had to be. I was ill for a long time while the poison and its counteragent fought for supremacy within my body. They say that sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease, or in this case, the injury. Since I'm standing here in front of you now, I can't say I fully agree with that, but there were moments, when the outcome was not so certain, that I did wonder if surviving was really worth everything I was going through."
"I hope you ultimately decided that it was."
"Oh, yes, once the convulsions eased, my fever abated, and the delirium faded away, I was glad enough to be alive. It was a victory over all those who wanted and believed me dead, and I savored it. I did wonder if my ability to speak was to be an enduring casualty of the battle, though. For three solid weeks after I realized that I was going to live, I couldn't utter a sound, but gradually it has been coming back. My recovery is almost complete now, with this one exception. I hope that eventually I'll be able to speak normally again, but if it never gets any better than this, I'll manage. Losing my ability to speak entirely would have been far more galling. Not that I'm talking to too many people these days."
"There's no need to hide, you know," she said gently.
"You think not?" The rasp in his voice intensified.
"No, there isn't. Harry told everyone the truth. You've been cleared of any wrongdoing. If you return and tell everyone you're alive, you'll be praised not vilified. You were awarded the Order of Merlin, along with all the other honored dead."
"Dead is the operative word here, Minerva. It's easy to praise the dead. They don't do anything inconvenient such as disagree with the prevailing viewpoint or expose the failings of the conquering heroes. Do you really believe that I'd be welcomed back with open arms? All is forgiven, let's be the best of friends? Do you think the Weasleys would invite me to tea? Would Potter suddenly regret his past behavior, come to look upon me as a beloved mentor, and name one of his children after me?"
Severus snorted shortly. "I think not. Perhaps they aren't quite as happy that I'm dead as they were when they believed me a traitorous villain, but they're all immensely relieved to have me gone and you know it. It's much tidier this way. No uncomfortable admissions, no embarrassment, no apologies for being wrong, given through gritted teeth and clenched jaws. No, I assure you I would not find any new friends to go along with my shiny new medal if I was to reappear. Some of them might regret their past treatment of me, but none of them would want to be forced to admit that publicly."
He ran a weary hand across his brow. "All I really want at this point is a little peace. To be able to live my life on my own terms for a change, I think I've earned that much, don't you?"
Her heart clenched at the pain and fatigue she heard in his voice, and she nodded her agreement. "Yes. Of course you have, but whether you believe it or not, you've also earned people's gratitude and respect, and I know that there are many who would want to thank you for what you did, what you endured, if they could. I won't deny that things would probably be a bit awkward at first. As you say, it's always difficult for people to admit they were wrong, but I think you'd find that more people would be happy than unhappy to know that you'd survived."
She straightened up and gazed deeply into his eyes. "I certainly don't mind admitting that I was horribly wrong about you, Severus. The only thing that made me feel worse than discovering how wrong I'd been was the realization that I'd never be able to tell you how much I regretted not trusting you and beg your forgiveness. At least I have that chance now. I'm sorry you feel you have to deny it to anyone else."
Silence stretched between them as he stared at her for a long moment before finally turning away. "If you were not different than other people, Minerva, you would not be here now. But I'm forgetting my manners. May I get you something to drink? Tea, perhaps?"
"Tea would be lovely, thank you."
"Tea it is then." He waved toward the sofa by the fire. "Please, have a seat. I won't be long."
Instead of sitting down, she watched him leave the room, noting a slight stiffness in his steps. She had a feeling that whatever he said, his recovery was less complete than he was willing to admit.
With a tired sigh, she wandered over to the nearest bookshelf and began to peruse the titles. She recognized many of the books as ones he'd had at Hogwarts and wondered how he'd managed to reclaim them, remembering his rather dramatic exit from the school. He certainly hadn't managed to take anything with him that night.
She frowned thoughtfully. Come to think of it, she'd been the one to pack up his belongings and place them in storage after everything was over and done with, and there really hadn't been very much to store. Perhaps he'd spirited away many of his more treasured belongings well in advance of leaving the school. He must have known that whenever he left Hogwarts, it might very well be in a hurry, having already been forced to flee in haste once before.
Turning away from the bookcase, she noticed a small table tucked into the far corner of the room that held a cluster of framed photographs. Curious, she crossed the room and looked more closely at them, discovering to her surprise that she was featured in several.
In one corner there was a picture of Severus's mother with a sullen expression on her face. It seemed a shame that Severus couldn't find a photograph where she was smiling, but when she thought about it, Minerva realized that she'd never seen a picture of Eileen that showed her smiling. That thought made her sad for both Eileen and her son.
Next to that picture stood one of Severus and Lily Evans Potter when they were fairly young children. Generally Severus wasn't much for smiling either, but he'd certainly managed on this day because both he and Lily were grinning from ear to ear as they stood on a rather bleak looking playground, their obvious happiness providing a sharp contrast to the dismalness of their surroundings. She wondered what they'd been doing that had produced such happy expressions, but perhaps it was simply being together that had caused it. When you're young, just being with someone you like can often make you tremendously happy, and she knew how much Severus had cared for Lily, what he'd sacrificed for her.
Yet that picture, a picture that must have meant a lot to him, was hidden behind three other pictures in which she, not Lily, was the focus of the shot. The first one showed her dancing with Severus at one of the fancy balls they'd had at Hogwarts over the years. She stared at the photograph, watching the tiny couple swirling around the dance floor as she tried to determine exactly when the picture had been taken. After a few moments, she decided that it must have been at the dance Albus had insisted on having one Halloween several years after Severus first joined the staff. Cares sat a bit lighter on everyone back then, when most people believed Voldemort was gone for good, and the school had celebrated several holidays in a more festive manner for a time.
In the picture, she wore a gold gown that she'd never dare to wear now, but it had looked rather nice at the time. Severus had worn black, of course, and the combination of the bright gold of her gown against the black of his robes was striking. It had been a lovely evening. She'd almost forgotten how lovely, though clearly Severus hadn't.
The second picture showed her standing quite close to Severus. She had a happy smile on her face and while she watched, the Severus in the picture slipped an arm around her counterpart and bent down to kiss her. Minerva felt her cheeks flame as she watched the tiny couple kiss and felt a pang of longing for those long ago, happier days.
Although both the first and second pictures were rather personal, it was the third picture that truly brought back a vivid and very intimate memory. This picture wasn't anything remarkable to look at. In fact it was the sort of shot that no one would pay any attention to at all if they didn't know what happened as a result of that singular moment in time. She and Severus were pictured sitting together in the stands quite obviously watching the outcome of a game of Quidditch, a game in which Slytherin had triumphed over Gryffindor.
They often used to sit like that, side by side, having made a wager on the outcome of the match and wanting to make sure that whoever lost would pay up as soon as possible. For many years before Harry came to school, she'd lost the wager more often than she'd won it. This was clearly one of those times.
The smirk on Severus' face as he looked at her gave no doubt as to exactly which wager was at stake. He'd never looked quite as sure of himself over a wager again. Instead of money, this had been the first time they'd wagered something a bit more personal. It had been Severus' idea, and at the time, she'd wondered how he dared to be so bold, but then he thought he knew what she'd do. She smiled in fond remembrance. He never made that mistake again.
Severus had suggested that the loser of the bet could either wear the colors of the winning team publicly for a week or privately for a night, submitting to the winner in any way the winner wished until the sun rose the next morning. Naturally, despite his teasing and innuendo, he expected her to choose to wear Slytherin colors in public. She smiled as she recalled his expression when she'd whispered in his ear at dinner that she chose the private option, and that she expected him in her rooms at ten o'clock that night and he'd better not keep her waiting.
He hadn't. That night had been the start of something thoroughly enjoyable that had continued on and off through most of their remaining time at Hogwarts, until the circumstances of the last few years had altered their relationship quite drastically.
Severus' hoarse voice brought her out of her reverie with a jolt. "Thinking about the past, Minerva? Do the pictures remind you that we once had a different sort of relationship than we have now?"
Minerva turned to see him standing behind her, studying her carefully. A tray with a steaming teapot and two china cups now sat on the table by the sofa.
I've never forgotten that," she replied softly. "Not even last year when we were so at odds."
"Didn't you? I was never sure." Taking her elbow lightly in his hand, he pulled her close to him for a brief moment before turning and leading her to a seat on the sofa. Once she was comfortably settled, he sat beside her and began to pour out the tea.
As she watched him fix a cup exactly the way she liked it, she spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, "I wanted to hate you, you know. You'd killed Albus, my dear friend for so many years, in what appeared to be cold blood. You'd openly revealed yourself to be a Death Eater, following in the steps of the most evil creature I've ever known. Your betrayal appeared to be absolute. It didn't seem possible that there could be anything left in you of the young man I'd once known and cared for. Yet, even with all that had happened, all that I'd come to believe about you, I never could quite manage to hate you. I didn't dare trust you any longer, but hate you… No. I simply couldn't."
As she finished speaking, he handed her the tea cup and she nodded her thanks. In the weighty silence that followed her remarks, he fixed a cup for himself and, picking it up, he sat back and looked at her thoughtfully. "I'll admit I wondered occasionally if your public statements were what you really thought of me. You argued with me at every turn, outrage and contempt fairly dripped from your tongue at times, but sometimes, when I expected to see hatred and anger in your eyes, what I saw instead appeared to be puzzlement or even sadness.
"I knew that might be nothing more than wishful thinking on my part, of course, but it gave me hope just the same. Hope that I hadn't destroyed all your affection for me. I really did want to tell you the truth, Minerva. Of everyone I knew, you were the only one I thought might believe me if I did, but I couldn't take the risk." The harsh rasp quieted slightly as he asked, "You do understand that, don't you?"
Slowly she nodded her head. "Yes. I do."
A relieved smile crossed his face to be quickly replaced with a smirk as Severus lifted his cup to take a sip of tea. "You know, I saved your life more times than I could count last year."
That comment took her aback and she stared at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Both of the Carrows wanted you dead, practically from the moment they stepped into Hogwarts. Neither of them was used to having anyone stand up to them. When you have the backing of the biggest bully in Wizarding history, you tend to believe that you can do anything you wish, and anyone who gets in your way can be swept aside with impunity. You were a large and annoying thorn in their sides from the very beginning. Not only did you openly oppose me, but you treated them with disdain at every turn. Your opposition gave courage to the rest of the staff, fostering a rebellious attitude among them all."
His smirk broadened. "Now I never expected anything less from you, but the Carrows thought that once I was Headmaster and Voldemort controlled the Ministry, that everyone else would be so frightened of them they'd do whatever they wished without complaint. Fools. Amycus in particular became quite obsessed with his desire to be rid of you. I was truly afraid for awhile that I'd be forced to eliminate him before the year was over. Not that ridding the world of Amycus Carrow would have bothered me, but it would have been difficult to explain to the Dark Lord, and I walked a very fine line between trusted minion and traitorous enemy as it was."
Minerva settled her teacup in the saucer she held in her lap and gazed at Severus in astonishment. "You know, the thought that my life might have been threatened never occurred to me, though I suppose it should have. Carrow was an odious cretin, and I knew he was dangerous, but I think my anger over the entire situation and my need to protect the students blinded me to any personal danger I might have been in."
He gave a short, sharp laugh. "None of you Gryffindors have a particularly strong sense of self preservation. You all throw yourself into danger without thinking it through first. Such as when you charged to Hagrid's rescue a couple of years ago and almost got yourself killed as a result."
Minerva bristled at his implication that she'd acted rashly. "Someone had to stand up to Umbridge! Hagrid needed help."
"Did he? As I recall, he managed to escape her inept minions with little difficulty while you ended up in St. Mungo's, leaving the rest of us to worry over whether you'd survive or not. If you had to charge to the rescue like that the least you could have done was arrange for someone to go with you."
"There wasn't time." Minerva drew herself up and stared at him.
He leaned closer. "Nonsense. You knew she was planning something. There was no need for you to throw yourself headlong into danger that way without summoning help. It's always seemed to me that to be truly effective, bravery must be tempered by prudence. After all, what good do you do anyone if you get yourself killed without accomplishing your objectives? You should have been more careful then, and you should have behaved with more caution around Amycus Carrow. If I had been as much your enemy as you thought I was, you wouldn't have lasted a month as his fellow professor, I guarantee it."
"I am who I am, Severus. I will never be one to shrink from danger or responsibility, not even when it might be the more prudent move," she said simply.
"No, I suppose not," he agreed as he sat back with a faint sigh.
They exchanged tentative smiles and then she dropped her eyes from his and replaced her teacup on the tray. "You are right, however. I probably should have been a bit more cautious than I was. I have to admit that there were a couple of times when I clashed with him, and you intervened, that caused me to wonder if everything was as it appeared to be. When a punishment wasn't as severe as I expected, or when you seemed to maneuver things in such a manner as to allow something to pass that I never thought would, a doubt would flit through my mind, but I always dismissed it, told myself I was being ridiculous. After all, you'd shown your true loyalties; I had to be imagining things. I let my anger blind me to the truth."
She looked up at him again. "Perhaps if I had questioned more and assumed less, I would have understood what was really going on."
His dark eyes gleamed as he stared at her. "It's better that you didn't. As you say, you are who you are, and I wouldn't change that for anything. It's why I dared to bring you here. You and no one else."
Her heart began to beat faster, and she suddenly felt the need to look away from the warm intensity of his gaze. Her glance fell on the table full of photographs and everything clicked into place. "You put those photographs there just for me, didn't you? To make sure that I remembered our past together."
"That was my hope, yes," he spoke softly and the harshness of his voice was barely noticeable.
She turned back to him once more. "Why is it so important that I remember how things used to be? What do you want from me, Severus?"
"Of everything that I hated about these last couple of years, and there have been many, many things, I hated losing my relationship with you most of all. The time for pain and deceit, half truths and outright lies, is finally over. You and I are among the few to survive it."
Shaking his head wearily, Severus continued, "My obligations are finally at an end. I'm a free man for virtually the first time in my adult life. I've paid my debts as best I could, taken responsibility for my mistakes and tried to make up for them in the only way I knew how. The scales of my life are as balanced as I can make them. At long last, I can look to the future, now that it appears I actually have one, which is something I never even dared to dream about for a very long time.
"So I've spent a lot of time over the past few weeks, looking back, sifting through my life and wondering what on earth I was going to do next. And as I was thinking about the past, I came to realize that the times in my adult life when I've been the happiest were the times I spent with you." His lips twitched ever so slightly. "No one has ever been more fun to argue with than you, Minerva."
Amusement quirked her lips in return. "You do enjoy a good argument. It almost seems to be an aphrodisiac for you."
His smirk broadened and his eyes gleamed warmly. "Well, that depends on who I'm arguing with…"
She laughed. It felt so good to laugh again. She'd begun to think she'd forgotten how.
His smirk faded to a more genuine smile. "That's really why I brought you here."
"So we could "argue"?" She could feel the heat creeping slowly up her neck to flood her cheeks with warmth again.
"If you wish, I certainly wouldn't mind," he replied sincerely.
By now her face felt as if it was on fire and her heart was once more beginning to pound.
Severus slid a bit closer on the sofa, close enough for his leg to brush against hers. Tentatively he reached out and gently stroked her cheek with his fingertips. She gasped at the feelings that simple contact evoked. His touch was cool and welcome on her flaming cheek, and she brought her fingers up to capture his hand and hold it in place for a moment longer before reluctantly letting it slip away.
"I was hoping that you might be willing to give up your holiday in Cornwall this year and stay here with me instead," he said. "It would give us a chance to get to know each other again. Perhaps we could find some new things we might enjoy arguing about."
The offer caught her by surprise. There was no doubt he'd managed to rekindle the attraction she'd always had for him, but was she ready to take such a step?
"Are you sure that's really what you want?" she whispered. "You can begin a completely new life now. Go anywhere, do anything…be with anyone you wish. Someone young…"
He laughed. "I'm not sure I'd go that far. Women have never fallen at my feet and begged me to choose to spend my time with them. And age has never been of any particular significance to me, you know that."
"Oh, but…" He laid a finger against her lips and stilled her voice.
"I know what I want, Minerva. The question is…do you want the same thing?"
Did she? Neither of them were the same people they used to be, but that didn't necessarily mean that they couldn't start afresh and forge something new from the embers of the attraction that obviously still smoldered between them. Should she stay and find out?
As she hesitated, he leaned closer and brushed his lips ever so lightly against hers. That simple, delicate touch felt so right that suddenly all her uncertainty dissolved, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do. When he released her and gazed questioningly into her eyes, she smiled and pulled him back into a deeper, longer kiss that left no doubt what her answer would be. When they parted this time, she gently brushed aside a stray lock of his hair and rested her hand on his cheek.
"All right, Severus. Since you think I've become so set in my ways, perhaps it is time for a change. I imagine that Cornwall can do quite nicely without me this year. Do you really think we can find new subjects to argue about?"
He gathered her close again and as he lowered his lips to hers once more, he smiled and murmured, "When we set our minds to it, Minerva, I have no doubt that you and I can do anything we desire."