Note: This story takes place after the events of my Darkness and Light trilogy (consisting of "The Potions Master's Apprentice", "Personal Risks", and "If We Survive") and will probably not make a great deal of sense to anybody who hasn't read those three stories at least.
by E.H. Smith and R.J. Anderson 2002
Something had gone wrong today; she could see it in his face. It was there in the hard line of his mouth, the flat blackness of the eyes that did not quite meet hers, as he stripped off his gloves and slapped them down upon the table. He did not merely remove his rain-spotted cloak and hang it up beside the door; he wrenched it off and jammed it onto its hook. Then he turned to her and said in a tight voice:
"Gemma Stubbs died this morning."
"Oh, no," she breathed, and pressed her hands against her mouth. "Oh, Severus, I'm so sorry."
He made a dismissive gesture, but she could see the flare of angry self-loathing in his eyes. "It should not have happened," he said. "It was senseless, wasteful -" Words seemed to fail him; he sank into a chair and stared bleakly at the fire.
There was nothing you could have done, she wanted to say. The girl took a foolish risk, broke Hogwarts rules, deliberately disregarded your own sternest warnings... and besides, you knew nothing about it.
But none of those reassurances would help, and the last would be worst of all. Because he would already have convinced himself that he should have known about it, should have sensed Gemma's yearning for her fellow Slytherins' approval, should have realised the extremes to which that hopeless longing could drive her. Albus Dumbledore would have known, surely; Dumbledore would have saved the girl, and been all the more loved for it.
It was no good telling Snape that even Albus Dumbledore had not been omniscient, or omnipotent; even more pointless to remind him that he was not Dumbledore, and that no one (except, perhaps, Severus himself) expected him to be.
Silently Maud walked to her husband, laid her hands on his shoulders. Slumped in the armchair, his gaze still fixed on the leaping flames, he hardly seemed to notice her presence. His mind was working furiously, she could tell: weighing facts, analysing possibilities, determining with merciless precision the extent of his own blame. If Severus was at times hard on his students, he was infinitely harder on himself.
Gently she caressed the taut muscles of his neck, inviting him to relax. He did not rebuff her, but her probing fingers met only resistance, and in the end she knew herself beaten. She let her hands slide away, bent to kiss his temple, then went back to her work. If he had more to say, he would say it when he was ready.
Dinner, such as it was (ten months of marriage had done little to improve her mediocre culinary skills), did not take long to finish cooking. She hoped Snape would eat, but he might very well not; and under the circumstances she could hardly blame him. Well, if worst came to worst, she was hungry enough for two. It had been a busy day at the St. Mungo's lab, and she'd barely had the chance to grab a bite between potions.
She waved her wand, and a basket of hot rolls came floating out of the kitchen, followed by a slightly overcooked chicken pie and a bowl of rather limp-looking greens. When they had settled themselves on the table, she lit the candles with a murmured charm and said in a cautious voice, "Severus?"
No answer. She waited a moment, then pulled out her chair, sat down, and began mechanically spooning food onto her plate. Halfway through buttering her dinner roll she heard a barely audible sigh, a susurration of velvet robes, and the scrape of wood on wood; when she looked up, her husband was sitting across from her, with a twist to his mouth that was second cousin to an apology.
To hide her relief, she took a bite of the chicken pie (it wasn't too badly burnt, after all) and for a few moments they both ate in silence, eyes on their plates. Then she felt a touch on her hand, and looked up to see Snape regarding her levelly.
"I can't let this happen again," he said, his voice very soft. "You understand that."
She knew that look in his eyes; he had come to a decision. Slowly she put her fork down and turned her hand to grasp his. "You're the Headmaster of Hogwarts," she said. "We both know what that means."
"It has been... pleasant, coming here to be with you every night. But I see now that it is an indulgence I can ill afford. Too much time was wasted before I was able to join the hunt for Gemma Stubbs. If I had been there sooner..."
I might have reached her before the Dementor did.
The words hung there, unspoken, between them. In spite of coming late to the search of the Forbidden Forest, Snape had been first to locate the missing girl amid the dark and tangled trees - but by then Gemma had already fallen prey to a hungry Dementor. And Snape, unable to cast a successful Patronus Charm, had found himself powerless to rescue her until further help arrived.
It was no good to argue that Gemma Stubbs had been severely injured already, that she would very likely not have survived even had the Dementor not come to suck away her spirit and her hope. As far as Snape was concerned, it was his incompetence, his failure, that had doomed the girl - and for that, he would not soon forgive himself, no matter how hard Maud or anyone else might try to console him.
"You want to move back to Hogwarts for the rest of term," she said quietly.
He released her hand and picked up his fork. "I see no alternative."
"Well," she said. "There's just one problem."
His glance was both wary and resigned. "What problem?"
"How am I going to get up there every night to be with you?"
She had disarmed him, she could tell; no doubt he had anticipated objections, arguments, perhaps even a few tears. He knew she loved their quiet evenings together here in Hogsmeade, away from the demands of school and work. And indeed, she did. But the cottage would remain theirs, and she could always come back to it when she chose. Also, it was spring, and the end of the school year was barely two months away - after which she and Severus would have the whole summer together. And who could say what might happen by the time September came?
As Maud had good reason to know, it was quite possible for one's whole world to change overnight. She would not be surprised if Snape found that to be true for him, too. Seeing his look of blank astonishment, she managed to smile past the ache in her heart, and reached out to touch his face.
"What? You didn't think I was planning to let you sleep alone, did you?"
He cleared his throat, said a little hoarsely, "I would not have blamed you."
"Not a chance," she said, holding his gaze.
He raised his hand to cover hers where it lay upon his cheek, then turned his mouth against her palm and kissed it. Maud closed her eyes, feeling an old thrill run through her; and when she opened them again, there was a flicker of amusement in Snape's black eyes.
"I am glad to see," he remarked in a low voice, "that familiarity has not yet bred contempt."
No, thought Maud, not contempt. But she swallowed the impulse to speak, and only smiled back at him instead. A moment later, a little breathlessly - he had taken to nibbling the ends of her fingers - she said, "You still haven't answered my question."
He loosed her hand with a show of reluctance, and said, "About getting to Hogwarts, you mean. Well, I could send one of the horseless carriages down for you, but it's really much quicker - and more convenient - to come by broom."
"The carriage, please," said Maud, a little too emphatically. Snape's eyebrows lifted, and he gave her a shrewd look.
"You're afraid," he said.
She lifted her chin. "No. I just don't... I prefer not to ride a broom."
"Prefer is a little mild, isn't it? I've never seen you ride, ever." He paused, then concluded with a sudden, discomfiting certainty, "You never learned."
Maud was silent, picking at the vegetables on her plate.
"And how," Snape mused aloud, "would you have managed that? Flying lessons are standard for first-year students, at Durmstrang no less than at Hogwarts. And with Athena on your shoulder, you'd have been able to see in spite of your blindness, so they'd hardly have made you exempt -"
The memory still stung, ten years later. "They didn't. Severus, can we... not talk about this?" It had been one of the worst humiliations, the worst failures, of her life, and she would give a great deal to be able to forget it.
Snape, however, was not a man to give up easily. "So, then. Something went wrong. Badly wrong, I should think, to have disturbed you so deeply. And now, even now that you can see with your own eyes, you can't bear to get back on a broom in case it happens again."
Maud said nothing - which was, of course, a confirmation in itself. Snape pressed on, his voice soft but relentless:
"It's not like you to give up, Maud."
"Well," she said, keeping her tone even with an effort, "we all have our inconsistencies."
"Perhaps. But -" His dark eyes were intent, holding hers - "this is more than a quirk or a matter of taste. This is unfinished business."
"Life is full of unfinished business."
He flipped his hand dismissively. "Don't give me clichés, Maud. You know as well as I do that you need to face this. You've avoided it long enough: it's time you tried again."
Her head came up defiantly. "Are you offering to teach me?"
The promptness of the answer took Maud by surprise. It seemed an absurd sort of chore for the Headmaster of Hogwarts to undertake, teaching a twenty-one year old woman to ride a broom. And yet... there might be a simple reason for it. Now that the school had found a new professor of Potions, Snape spent all his time doing administrative and supervisory work and virtually never set foot in a classroom any more. Might he be itching for the opportunity to teach somebody something - anything - again?
It was also possible, Maud realised, that after his perceived failure with Gemma Stubbs, Snape needed some way to affirm himself again, a chance to succeed - even in so small a way as teaching his wife to fly. But with the Gemma incident in view, Maud couldn't help but be reminded that she was not the only one here with an unfortunate gap in her education. And perhaps... perhaps that was the key.
"All right," she said quietly. "But on one condition."
Snape's mouth being full, he said nothing; but an economical gesture of his fork invited her to continue.
"I'll let you teach me to ride a broom... if you let me teach you to conjure a Patronus."
That struck home. He choked, reddened, and took a hasty sip of wine. "I am quite familiar with the Patronus Charm," he said sharply, when he could speak. "I do not require -"
"I've no doubt you're well acquainted with the theory, Severus. Quite probably you could even teach it." She paused, watching him closely. "But you, yourself - have you ever performed the charm successfully? Do you even know what your Patronus is?"
"Severus." Her voice was quiet, but unrelenting. "If you won't learn this, even from me, then don't reproach me for not wanting to learn to fly, even from you."
Silence. The muscles of his jaw tightened, his face hardening into mulishness, and for a moment she almost thought he would reject the bargain; but then he drew a deep breath through his nose, unclenched his teeth, and said, "Very well."
Maud bent her head to hide her smile - and then remembered with some chagrin that she had not actually come out the winner in the argument. In fact, all she had really accomplished was to commit herself to the possibility of two humiliating failures, instead of one. She knew what it was like to be Snape's student; how would she manage as his teacher?
Well, whatever the answer, it would have to wait at least until tomorrow. Already it was too dark, and too late, for them to start either one of their proposed lessons. And if she knew Severus, now that the two of them had finished their talk he would want to get back to Hogwarts as soon as possible, to avoid adding any further guilt to his conscience. With a flick of her wand she Banished the dishes to the kitchen, then said in what she hoped was a conversational tone, "So, when would you like to begin?"
"Tomorrow," he said, his face unreadable, "as early as you find convenient."
She should have seen that coming, thought Maud ruefully; it was Friday, after all. "Shall we say nine o'clock tomorrow morning, then?"
He nodded, and the lines of tension in his face eased a little. "We'll need a suitably private location..."
"Rathbogle Stadium?" The nearest Quidditch pitch to Hogsmeade, it was enclosed, remote, and with the local team already eliminated from the playoffs, it was unlikely that anyone would be there tomorrow. Maud had not set foot in a Quidditch stadium since the League Cup semi-final at Dartmoor two years ago, and her memories of that day were not exactly positive; but there was a certain grim satisfaction in the thought of facing down several of her personal ghosts at once.
Snape's mouth quirked. "Very well, then. I shall meet you there." He rose and pushed in his chair; Maud did likewise, and they stood a moment looking at each other before he leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
She wanted to take his face between her hands and turn her mouth to his and not let him go, but in the end she only opened her eyes and gave him a heartfelt, if somewhat wavering, smile. "Take care," she said.
He nodded, then turned abruptly and strode to the door. Swirling his cloak about his shoulders, he left the cottage without looking back. Maud stood a moment with her hands braced against the table, staring blindly into the fire; then she gave herself a little, reproachful shake, and went to put on a pot of tea.
There are worse things, she told herself as she measured red raspberry leaf and dried peppermint into the kettle, than a quiet evening alone with a book. Especially since, if all went well, she need not resign herself to many more solitary nights.
Maud sat down in the chair beside the fireplace, picked up the slim red volume she'd borrowed from the St. Mungo's library (Severus had not, she suspected, so much as noticed the title) and began determinedly to read. Tomorrow, she told herself, would come soon enough.
Perversely, Maud had been hoping that it would rain; but the next day's dawn arrived bearing every promise of a beautiful spring morning. Still, she told herself as she dressed and ate a hasty but substantial breakfast, the weather might yet be inclined to change...
Now, however, standing on the sun-warmed grass of Rathbogle Stadium, she looked up into the cloudless sky and gave a little grimace of resignation. A moment later, any further hope of escape was extinguished as her husband, a tall lean figure in moss-coloured robes, Apparated by the goalposts at the far end of the stadium and began walking purposefully toward her.
He carried two brooms over his shoulder, which made him look uncharacteristically athletic, and Maud entertained a brief, hopeful notion of seducing him; but as he drew closer and she saw the determined look on his face, she realised that any attempt to distract him - even that one - would be futile. She took a deep breath, smoothed down the front of her robes, and said with forced brightness, "Well, here I am."
"Really," said Snape, arching a black eyebrow at her. "I'd never have guessed." He swung the brooms down off his shoulder, handed the smaller one to her. "You're not usually inane, Maud, even in the morning. Is it excitement, fear, or the unsettling effect of my presence?"
He was deliberately provoking her, and ordinarily Maud would have made some retort, either in jest or rebuke; but as soon as her hand closed around the broom, all her muscles went rigid, and her jaw locked. Panic bubbled up within her, and she could scarcely even think coherently, let alone speak. This was worse than she had feared, even worse than she had allowed herself to imagine possible. There was no way she could do this...
"Maud." He spoke her name on an exhaled breath, dropped his broom and took her by the shoulders. "Look at me."
She couldn't move, not even to lift her head. The wood felt rough against her fingers, and the tarnished gilt of the Cleansweep name was barely legible upon the shaft: an old Hogwarts school broom, veteran of a hundred flying classes. Very ordinary, very safe. There was no reason to be afraid of it, no reason at all -
"Maud!" Snape's voice snapped out, urgent and commanding. He seized her face between his hands, forced her to look up at him. "Stop it. Now."
She stared at him a little wildly, her breathing rapid and shallow. His eyes were intent, black within black, boring into hers. "I will not," he said in a soft, measured voice, "let you fall. Do you hear me, Maud? I. Will. Not. Let. You. Fall."
But I didn't fall, she wanted to tell him, at least not at first - but all that came out of her mouth was a small noise of protest, and then to her frustration and shame her eyes welled suddenly up with tears.
This was all wrong, she thought desperately, it would only exasperate him, he'd think her completely ridiculous and unreasonable - but then his arms folded around her and he pulled her close against him, and she buried her face in his shoulder and wept with sheer relief.
"Tell me," he said a moment later, his voice low but authoritative. "Tell me what happened. Everything."
She closed her eyes, forced herself to take slow, even breaths, and answered shakily:
"It wasn't Athena's fault, not really - I should have known -"
Gently, inexorably, he guided her to a place by the stands and made her sit down on the soft grass, his arms still encircling her. "From the beginning, Maud."
She bit her lip, nodded, and tried again. "It happened on my first day at Durmstrang..."
"Students line up here," barked Master Polovtsy, pointing one gnarled finger at the ground in front of him. "All of you. Now."
Maud, her heart pounding in her throat, picked up the heavy skirts of her fur-trimmed robes and hastened to obey. On her shoulder, Athena gave a little hoot of alarm and dug in her talons, as though sensing her mistress's nervousness.
"No," said Master Polovtsy, waving an irritable hand at her. "No, no, no. Miss Moody -" He switched to English for her benefit, which only made him sound all the more condescending - "Zis not necessary for you. You may ztep aside and wait until odders finish."
Maud's head came up, her young face fierce with determination and stung pride. "I can do this, Master," she replied in her newly acquired Russian, enunciating the unfamiliar words carefully. "I may be blind, but through Athena's eyes, I can see very well. Please, sir, let me try."
The old teacher pursed his mouth and narrowed his eyes at her. Maud lifted her face to him imploringly, her hands clasped at her breast, and at last Polovtsy gave a little sigh and turned away. When he spoke again, it was to the whole class: "You will each choose a broom of the proper height, so -" He flicked his wand at the door of the shed behind him; it flew open, and a pile of brooms fell clattering to the grass. "One at a time, please. Do not attempt to fly your broom until you have further instruction."
Through the steady gaze of the little owl on her shoulder, Maud watched as the first student, a gawky hook-nosed boy, strode to the pile of brooms and sifted through them quickly, holding each one up to his chin until he found one the correct height. That boy knew what he was doing, she could tell: this first flying class would probably be his last. Maud, however, had no such confidence, and when her turn came to choose a broom, she did so with hands that shook a little.
"Now," said Polovtsy when they had all selected a broom, "you will take the proper stance..."
Over the next few minutes Maud watched and listened intently as Master Polovtsy demonstrated the correct method of mounting and dismounting their brooms, and instructed them in the basic principles of flight. "There will be no foolish acrobatics here," he said crisply. "You will each mount your broom, fly a short distance across the field, around that tree and back -" He pointed a crooked finger at a large, thickly needled pine standing alone some fifty metres away - "and then make a simple landing back at the starting point. Watch as I demonstrate."
With the ease of a seasoned Quidditch player Polovtsy straddled his broom and rose smoothly into the air. Slowly he glided over the field, giving the pine tree a respectful berth as he rounded it, then returned and landed lightly on his feet. "If you fly higher than twenty feet from the ground," he said, "you will lose marks. If you fly too quickly, you will lose marks. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Master Polovtsy," chorused the students, but Maud could see some of them rolling their eyes, even sneering, as they said it. Well, perhaps it was a silly exercise to many of her classmates, but Maud was grateful for the simplicity of it. With so little to do, surely there'd be just as little to get wrong...
One by one the students stepped up to the starting mark and followed Polovtsy's instructions. Some of them looked nervous, and wobbled on their brooms; others took off too hastily or sailed too high, and received a barked reprimand; but nobody seemed to have any particular trouble completing the exercise. So when Maud's turn came at last, she walked forward with head held high, conscious of Athena's slight but reassuring weight on her shoulder, and took her stance at the mark without hesitation. Even the sceptical mutterings of her classmates, and Polovtsy's penetrating glance, could not shake her now.
I can do this, she thought confidently. We can do this.
"Go," said Polovtsy brusquely, and with a slight kick of her heels against the grass, Maud rose into the air. Exhilaration filled her as she glided upward and forward, the broom carrying her easily over the heads of her classmates, the pine tree no less clear in her owl-borrowed vision than it would have been in her own -
- and then everything went wrong.
Owls are accustomed to flying, not to being flown, and in spite of all her training, Athena's mind simply could not comprehend the idea of sitting still on Maud's shoulder while the two of them were in the air. Bewildered, she reverted to instinct: her talons unclenched, her small wings spread wide, and before Maud even realised what was happening the little owl had soared free.
A wave of nausea crashed over Maud as the world tilted and spun, the pine tree vanishing and reappearing dizzily in her line of sight. Athena, confused yet loyal, had risen above her mistress and was flapping around her in circles, uttering little hoots of bewilderment. But with her vision still linked to the owl's, Maud could only see what Athena saw, and not where she herself might be heading -
"What are you doing?" shouted Polovtsy's voice from the ground, sounding very small and far away. "Crazy girl! Come down! You are too high! You are going too fast!"
Dizzily, helplessly, Maud clung to the broom as it bucked and shied beneath her, the wind rushing in her face and whipping at her hair. The tree was to her left - no, behind her - now coming up on her right - she was going over the top of it - it was behind her again -
An instant later she found out exactly where the pine tree was, as she went crashing through its branches. She heard a splintering crack as the broom shaft shattered - the far more awful snap of breaking bone -
Then her head hit the trunk, the unyielding wood smashing into her face like a giant's fist, and she knew no more.
"I spent three weeks in the infirmary," said Maud, swallowing hard, her eyes closed against the pain of the memory. "My wrist was broken, and my collarbone, and my nose... I lost most of the skin on the right side of my face, and when I fell out of the tree I fractured my skull as well. Durmstrang had a very good Potions master and an even better mediwizard, so they managed to heal the bones and prevent any obvious scars. But for a while they weren't even sure I was going to live..."
"And when you woke," said Snape levelly, "I suspect you weren't sure you wanted to."
She drew a long, shuddering breath. "In spite of everything they did, it still hurt worse than anything I'd ever imagined. And the humiliation - knowing that I'd just proved myself a helpless cripple in front of all my classmates, knowing that Master Polovtsy would never let me take another flying lesson - realising that I simply couldn't get on a broom again, even if he did let me - that was almost as bad."
"You have no classmates now. Nor anything to prove."
"And this time, your vision is your own. It's not going to fly away from you."
His arms tightened around her for an instant, wordlessly reassuring; then he released her and rose smoothly to his feet, holding out one long lean hand to help her up. "Very well, then," he said. "Let's begin."
"Feet firmly on the ground," said Snape, pacing around her as she assumed the proper stance. "Both hands on the broom. Look straight ahead..."
Forcing her mind to blankness, Maud obeyed his instructions. As long as she didn't think, didn't remember, didn't allow herself to give into irrational fear, it ought to be simple. She wasn't afraid of heights, nor of speed, after all; only of losing control and running into something, and Severus would never let that happen. Besides, now that she had finally confessed the long-buried secret of her flying phobia to someone, that ought to count for something, shouldn't it?
Snape finished his sentence: "...and gently kick off."
Maud drew a deep breath, tightened her grip on the broom, and pushed her feet against the ground. Or tried to, rather, but her legs refused to obey. Once more, all her muscles had locked into trembling rigidity, leaving her powerless.
"I can't," she managed to gasp. "I want to, I'm trying to - I just can't."
"Maud." Her husband's voice was crisp with authority and, as she had dreaded, impatience. "As I told you before, I will be right here beside you. There is no need to fear."
"Do you think I don't know that?" Her own temper was slow to wake and seldom got the better of her, but sheer frustration brought it to the surface. "I'm not a fool, Severus. Of course I believe you. But this has nothing to do with logic, or any kind of reason. My body simply won't co-operate." Angrily she thrust the broom away from her, sent it clattering to the ground. "There's no use arguing about it. Let's just go home."
His hands came down on her shoulders, gripping them hard. "I said, not yet. If you can't bring yourself to fly alone, there is another way." With a snap of his fingers he Summoned the fallen broom to him, joined it to the one already in his hand, and said "Copulo!"
Maud put a hand over her mouth, suppressing the impulse to giggle. Snape arched a black eyebrow at her, and opened his hand to show that the two shafts had combined themselves at his command, resulting in an odd-looking, elongated invention with a double set of bristles at the far end.
"A tandem broom?" said Maud, looking down at it in disbelief.
"Well, I could have lengthened a single broom, put an extra Cushioning Charm on it, and doubled its weight-bearing abilities. But why go to all that trouble?" With a crook of his fingers and a murmured "up" he set the new broom hovering between them. "Get on."
Dubiously Maud swung her leg over the shaft, feeling it dip slightly with her weight. "Now what?" she began to say, then gave a start as the broom dropped another inch and Snape's arms folded around her waist from behind.
"Now, you do nothing whatsoever," he said softly in her ear. She could feel the warmth of him against her back, the vibration of his voice deep in his chest, solid and reassuring. His hands shifted down to grip the shaft in front of her, his weight pressing her forward and his body folding protectively around hers. "Right now, I'll be in control."
Maud opened her mouth to protest that this wasn't necessary, he really didn't have to - and all at once they were floating, rising smoothly together as the ground fell away beneath them.
Flying, thought Maud, looking down with a mixture of astonishment and dismay, I'm flying.
And a remarkably tame flight it was, too. Down the length of the Quidditch pitch they glided, making a slow circle around the goalposts at the far end and back again. Not too high, not too fast... why, it was almost pleasant, now that she was getting used to the sensation. This was nothing like it had been the first time, with the cold wind tearing at her hair, and the ground whirling dizzily away beneath her as she spiralled out of control; this was warmth, and security, and a leisurely glide over soft grass in the arms of someone who very definitely knew what he was doing...
Her eyes popped wide open. "What are you doing?!"
Snape made no reply. His thin, mobile lips traced a burning line around her earlobe and down the side of her neck, and his hands - well, suffice it to say they were nowhere near the broom.
Maud drew a shuddering breath and gripped the broom-shaft hard. "You promised," she said weakly, her heart pounding as she realised that without warning, without her consent, he had abandoned all effort at steering and left their flight entirely in her control. They were drifting off-course now, well away from the centre of the pitch; if she didn't do something, in a few seconds they'd both crash right into the stands...
Desperately, instinctively, she leaned sideways, and the broom corrected its course, sending them gliding back toward the goalposts again. "Well done," breathed Severus into her hair.
"You're lucky," said Maud between her teeth, concentrating fiercely, "I don't elbow you right off this broom."
"You might find that difficult," he replied, his voice deep with amusement, and Maud had to admit he was right; his hands were entangled in her robes, the tips of his fingers brushing her skin, and she couldn't possibly have thrown him without falling off the broom herself.
"You're a horrible man," she accused, shifting her weight to the left now as they reached the goalposts, sending the broom into what she hoped would be a smooth turn and steeling herself against whatever new distraction her husband might be planning next. The broom wobbled, then steadied on its course, and she let her breath out in relief.
"Ah," said Snape with an air of definite and maddening self-satisfaction, "but you're flying, aren't you?" He brushed a kiss against the nape of her neck, then folded his arms about her waist and sat back a little, relinquishing all pretence of being anything but a passenger. "You know my methods, Maud."
"Yes, well, it's a good thing that little seduce-and-distract technique is something you've only ever dared use with me." She meant to sound acerbic, but in all honesty she couldn't manage it: devious as her husband's ploy had been, it had achieved precisely the right effect. She hadn't had time to be afraid, to second-guess herself. She'd been too surprised to do anything but react... and now that she'd already proven she could keep the broom safely on course, there was no more opportunity for worry, or for fear.
"Oh, believe me," murmured Snape, his voice throaty with amusement, "I've never been tempted to use it with anyone else."
"I'm relieved to hear it." Though it was hardly a revelation, as they both knew.
"It's only that," he continued in an almost conversational tone, "with you, it seems to work so very, very well..."
It was high time, thought Maud a little hysterically, that they brought this conversation down to earth. Gratifying as it was that Severus had such confidence in her newly gained ability to fly, she was far from being that secure herself. She made a futile, one-handed effort at slapping his hands away, then pushed the broom toward the ground, sending them into a slow descent. Only at the last minute did she realise she had forgotten how she was supposed to land, but by then the point was moot, as Snape simply rolled off the broom and pulled her onto the grass with him.
"You -" she gasped in outrage, but got no farther, as he took her face between his hands and bent his mouth to hers in a long, thorough and unhurried kiss.
For an instant or two she flailed against his shoulders, unwilling to reward his misbehaviour with compliance; then the warmth of the turf at her back and the relief of being safely on the ground again melted her resolve, and she found herself responding in kind. There were a few moments of profound silence, before she had sufficient breath and opportunity to murmur, "Severus -"
He released her and sat back, his brows lifted in a question.
"Not here," she said.
One corner of his mouth turned up. "No, indeed not. I think we have made sufficient spectacle of ourselves already - even without onlookers." His long fingers drew a strand of hair away from her face in a gesture that was almost tender; then he shifted himself fluidly onto his feet and extended a hand to help her up.
Maud took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. Then she looked up at him with a faint half-smile and said, "Thank you. So, then... shall we proceed to the second part of our lesson?"
His brows drew together in a frown. "That would be premature, don't you think?"
Oh, no, Severus. You won't get out of this so easily.
"I don't think so," she said, deliberately keeping her tone light, casual. "I think I understand the basics quite well now... perhaps I'll even try it again on my own, some time."
"Some time? I had thought you would be needing the skill a little sooner than that." He was trying to be patient, she could tell, but the slow tightening of his jaw gave him away. "Or have you changed your mind about -"
"Certainly not. But I never said I would fly up to Hogwarts, even if I knew how to fly. That notion was entirely yours."
"You can't still be afraid." His voice was flat.
"Not in the way you think, no. But there are times when riding a broom is the best and most sensible way to travel... and times when it might not be quite so... advisable." She paused, watching him sidelong, and added in the same deceptively calm voice, "Or comfortable."
A moment's pause, while he looked at her with narrowed eyes: then his face went slowly and absolutely blank, and she knew the clues were coming together for him at last. "The book," he said hoarsely. "By the fireplace. Last night."
"I thought..." He stopped, his mouth working dryly. "I thought it was for your work."
She couldn't help but smile. "Hardly. Not unless I were branching out into an entirely new field of medicine. Though admittedly, potions do have some application, as you no doubt observed last night..."
The canister of red raspberry leaf tea had been left on the mantelpiece, clearly marked; he must have seen it, but been too wrapped up in his own morbid thoughts to register the incongruity. After all, nobody drank that particular infusion for the taste, as any good student of Potions or Herbology would know.
"Maud." He took a step toward her, his expression unreadable. "You're not serious."
"Oh, yes." She spoke softly, but with emphasis. "So you see, now, why I'd prefer the carriage. It'd be one thing to fly over the lake and up the cliff to Hogwarts if there were just me to consider, but..."
"Enough." His voice was colourless. "Just say it, Maud."
She shouldn't be enjoying this, she knew; but considering the trick he'd just pulled to get her to fly unaided, it seemed so deliciously fitting. "Very well," she said, lifting her chin and looking him in the eye. "Severus...
"...you're going to be a father."
What an interesting choice of words, Maud, was Snape's first thought; and his mind - which had begun to wrestle with the concept a minute before, somewhat lessening the stunning impact of her statement - ran over all the other ways she could have phrased it. Nearly all of them started with "I." A few with "We." None of them with "You."
He knew that he was still staring back at her, frozen and tight-lipped and silent, but he could not think what to say in response. She'd cast it into his lap utterly. None of the replies she expected of him would come out of his mouth, and his first instinct, a complete denial of the new status she'd just bestowed on him, would be both childish and unrealistic. Finally, stupidly, he settled on:
The tension at the edges of her mouth eased a little. "It looks like December."
He did a quick calculation. "And… how long have you known?"
It must have sounded harsher than he'd intended, because Maud flinched slightly. "I didn't want to worry you," she said, answering the implication rather than the question. "I wasn't quite sure at first, and then…"
And then you began to savour the possibility of surprising me. He could hardly blame her, really; the look on his face just now must have been worth a week or more of keeping mum. It was unlike Maud, however, to keep secrets - even to be able to keep secrets, especially from him.
"So," he said, still feeling verbally incompetent. "How did this…?" Pointless line of questioning. Try again. "That potion you were taking. Did you miss a dose, perhaps?"
"No." She hesitated. "When I made the last batch, I… I'm not sure all the ingredients were fresh. I should have bought new supplies, I know…"
"Wait." He took her gently by the chin, forcing her to look right at him, and spoke in a silky, perfectly-controlled tone that belied his feelings. "Who, may I ask, trained you in advanced potion making? Was it Severus Snape, or Tony Gamble?"
She flushed. "It was you."
"I thought so. And what is the first step in making any potion? Check the quality of your ingredients." He dropped his hand and went on, his voice tight. "That should be automatic, Maud. It is automatic with you; I've seen it any number of times. You could not make such an error accidentally."
"I didn't think…"
"Oh, I think you did, though." He was growing angrier by the second, a profound sense of betrayal welling up in him. "You did this on purpose."
"No! I didn't know the herbs wouldn't work. I knew I was taking a chance, but it wasn't…" She seemed to reconsider the advisability of ending the sentence. "In any case, I didn't exactly do it alone," she went on, but he broke in again forcefully.
"It was alone, Maud. You chose not to consult me; you turned me into an unconscious participant, like… like an ingredient in a potion."
"I did consult you," Maud protested, reddening with impatience. "We talked about this, last summer. We agreed that we'd like to have children some day."
"And, if you recall, I aired some concerns about beginning our family in any kind of precipitous manner."
"You said 'not now' and I agreed. But every time I tried to bring it up again, you changed the subject." She lowered her head, added in a quieter voice, "I think it would always have been 'not now'."
"So you decided to… take a chance. A gamble," he added cruelly. She knew him far too well; that was the problem. If she had pressed him a few months ago, and suggested that they try to have a child, he would have put her off with promises of next year, or the year after, of a time when the pressures of his work were less. He hadn't intended later to become never, but in the end that might very well have been the result. He doubted he would ever have felt ready; he certainly didn't feel so now.
So Maud had taken the decision into her own hands, like a true Slytherin, letting the ends justify the means. Her conscience had manifested itself so far as to turn the choice into an "accident," but the responsibility was still hers. He should not have to accept any of it.
Except that he did have to. And - to be fair - he was a Slytherin too, and he had made choices similar to hers before, and put the burden on others. Even what he had just done in their broom-riding lesson was an example; he had forced her into steering the broom herself, perhaps before she had been ready. At least Maud carried the consequences of her choice in her own body. But then, the risks of the thing were hardly the same.
You're going to be a father.
He'd been focusing all his attention on the betrayal of that moment of conception, something that was already past and for which he could not, ultimately, help but forgive Maud - given the subtleties and tricks of his own nature it would be hypocritical not to - but what he truly could not conceive of was that something would come of it. Some one. The still-slim body of his wife, which had felt no different to his questing hands moments ago, would inevitably swell and ripen and change and produce new life: a child, not only hers but his.
He could, apparently, father a child; but that was an entirely different thing from being a father. There was terror even in the word. Unavoidable damage would be done to this son or daughter through him, he was sure of it. Either his actions or his example or the contributions he had made to the child's makeup, or all of them together, would blacken the young life as an invisible and creeping disease wilts and discolours the leaves of a plant, killing flowers and fruit and usefulness. There had never been a Snape, to his knowledge, who had been any kind of a success at paternity.
I can't do this, he wanted to cry out to Maud. But of course, he would do it; there was no going back now, and his sense of duty compelled him to take on the job, even if it was as unwillingly as he had taken on other, still more painful, roles in the past. He would do everything in his power to make sure the child and Maud were healthy, beginning with that carriage sent nightly to Hogsmeade - or, perhaps, it would be better to keep Maud away from the anxieties of his job and the inadequacies of his office bedroom. She would certainly be far more comfortable at home, and they could see each other at week-ends. Whatever she chose, though, he would never abandon her.
He became conscious that he had been staring past Maud's shoulder for several minutes. "Severus?" she was saying tentatively.
His eyes focused on her again. "Maud," he began, and stopped. There were times when his voice simply would not obey him, when the tone and the words emerged in a completely different form than he intended. He did not want to hurt her, and he could not help sounding as though he did.
She put a hand on his arm. "I'm happy about this," she said gently, but with a distinct edge to her voice. "I wish you could be."
His stomach plummeted. I cannot help but hurt her. He felt as though he'd injured her by his very existence, by his blind actions and his congenital doubts, by his love. Pretending happiness was out of the question. Silence would be just as wounding. Honesty was unthinkable.
Recalling the broom-riding lesson, he considered simply taking her in his arms and kissing her, as a distraction, but he was certain she would see through it. And it would be, of course, a temporary solution at best. Disturbingly, he found, too, that he did not really want to kiss her; it was, at the moment, too strong a reminder of what had brought this situation about in the first place.
In the end, he willed himself to move, detached Maud's hand from his arm, and walked over to where the tandem broom lay on the ground. "Well," he said, forced good humour in his tone, "we won't be needing this," and Banished it to the edge of the pitch, with a little more force than was perhaps necessary. "Shall we get on with the second part of our lessons, then, or would you prefer to go home? I'm sure you need your rest."
Maud stared at him, disbelief in her eyes. "I'm fine," she said, a bit coldly. "But you, I think, are not. We can go home if you'd like. I doubt you're in any kind of condition to conjure a Patronus right now."
He barked out a mirthless laugh. "I am in at least as good a condition as you were to ride a broom."
"No, you're not. Severus…"
"Yes, I bloody well am! Now, Maud!" he snarled.
A minute ago, he'd had no intention whatsoever of continuing with their task. Now, barely in control of himself, knowing that he was as far from finding a happy memory as he'd ever been in his life, he was determined to go ahead.
Maud looked around indecisively. "I hadn't even thought…" she began. He realised then that she had made no plans for this part of the lesson. She'd imagined that her news would put the stopper on the day for them; she hadn't figured on the volatile solution blowing the morning apart.
He sighed, showing his disapproval of her unpreparedness, and his lip curled up in what was almost a sneer. "You need to transfigure something, I believe. Verto Dementor is the spell you're looking for."
He would not, actually, have known of that spell's existence off the top of his head - never having had the slightest desire to turn something into a Dementor before - but he had chanced to pass by the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom the previous evening while Remus Lupin had been giving special lessons in Patronus casting to a group of advanced students. If not for his damnable pride, he could have joined the class. Instead, he had walked away as soon as he discovered what was going on, only remaining long enough to see a many-tentacled silvery shape burst from Dennis Creevey's wand, and hear his cry of amazement and triumph.
And if he can do it, I can.
"Now, what to use for our little experiment? Broom, rocks, grass: not much here. I believe it needs to be something animate. Let me see…" He knew he was babbling slightly; once he'd managed to get his tongue moving, though, it seemed somehow imperative to keep talking. Maud was still looking at him fixedly, as though marshalling her forces, and he knew that a well-chosen word from her could stop him cold, force him to confront demons worse than Dementors, stab both of them to the heart. He could not let her interrupt.
She opened her mouth to speak, and just then, he saw it: an owl, flapping lazily across the sky above the stadium. He held out his wand and Summoned it; it came cartwheeling out of the air, wings beating in resistance to the spell, determined to keep to its assigned mission. Finally, it lost control, rolling to the ground in a ball of white and brown feathers. He picked it up; it struggled against him briefly, but a quick Calming Charm put a stop to that.
"I believe I know this owl," he said thoughtfully. "Yes," he went on, unfastening the envelope attached to its leg, "it belongs to Miss Weasley. Isn't this charming; look who it's for, Maud. 'Harry Potter, care of Mr Sirius Black, Cafal's Den, Trethewey, Cornwall.' With little flashing pink hearts. Shall we have a look?" He put the half-comatose owl on the ground and made a motion with his wand as if to unseal the envelope.
Maud stepped forward and ripped the letter out of his hand, a look on her face he hadn't seen in years. "What is wrong with you?" she whispered fiercely. "You're… I don't even recognise you." She shook her head. "Yes, I do. Professor Snape, Potions Master, unfair detentions a speciality. 'Twenty points from Gryffindor, Mr Potter, and if you say another word, I'll make it fifty.'" Her chin set defiantly, she looked him in the eye. "It was a pretence then, and it's a pretence now. I know you too well for this."
He glared at her, fists clenched; and then, biting his lip hard and controlling his temper, looked away. "It is not a pretence, Maud," he said harshly. "It's who I am. Inside. Treacherous and petty and vindictive. Selfish, cruel, unsympathetic to weakness. Twisted." His voice caught.
There was a moment of tense silence, and then, quietly and with the faintest note of hysteria, Maud began to laugh. "Granted," she said finally. "But even with that catalogue of faults I didn't think you'd go so far as to read someone else's post."
She held out the letter to him, her face serious again, trusting but still cautious.
"I have done so in the past, you realise," he replied, taking it from her and giving it another contemptuous glance, then shoving it in his pocket, "in the right cause. At the moment, of course, it would be an unworthy distraction from… the matter at hand." His mouth was dry.
Maud's hand stole to her stomach briefly in an unconscious gesture of protection, and his heart turned over. "Unsympathetic to weakness," she repeated. "Weak in the sense of flawed, or in the sense of defenceless?"
"Maud, I…" He could not go on.
"Because I think it might matter," she said, her voice unnaturally calm.
He stepped forward and took both her hands in his. "Weak in the sense of insufficient, I think. Not having accomplished what one is capable of. Not having lived up to potential." He tightened his grip. "Not wholly defenceless. I will not damage our child purposefully. But it is a very small virtue on which to base such a responsibility."
"It will do," said Maud slowly, "to be going on with." She smiled. "Does it help to have said it now? 'Our child.' It's real, Severus. It's going to happen. I think we have to start with that and move on. I've been feeling rather insufficient myself, you know. I'm not at all sure I'll make a good mother."
"Whereas I," he said, his lip quirking up, "am quite convinced I will be a terrible father. Our child is assured a brilliant start in life." It wasn't helping in the least to say it. All it did was strike terror into his heart, repeatedly.
"I think you may find," she told him, "that instinct will take over to some extent. Just as it did on that broom, when you let go suddenly and left the steering up to me. I simply knew which way to lean, and how far. Despite the… distractions."
He felt cold. "Instinct is exactly what I am afraid of. Or perhaps it's more… habit. Conditioning. I was not offered the best paternal example myself."
"You've never told me very much about your father."
"I know. There was no reason to tell you." He looked at her, considering; her eyes spoke volumes to him. Quickly, instinctively, he moved his hands, still holding hers, so that they rested on her stomach, on the beginnings of their child. Then he leaned over and kissed her forehead. If she wanted to hear, he would tell her; and whatever she thought of him afterwards, he would at least have been honest.
He let go of her and stepped backward a pace, gesturing to a spot on the sun-warmed turf. "Would you like a seat?" he said, a touch of sarcastic humour escaping him. "A witch in your delicate condition should not be left standing."
Maud snorted, sounding dreadfully like her uncle, but sat down, wrapped her arms around her knees, and smiled up at him. He took his place on the ground nearby, but not touching her. The owl had fallen asleep; he picked it up and passed it over to her, wondering fleetingly how she would feel when and if it came time to transfigure it into a Dementor. It did not, of course, resemble Athena in any more particulars than its possession of beak and feathers and its general owlishness; but he still felt a twinge of guilt at his having chosen this, of all possible subjects, to become the personification of horror and depression. We all have our ghosts to face.
"I know you grew up in Manchester," she prompted him, "and you were… not very well-off." Maud's small fortune inherited from her parents was a source of some embarrassment to her, he thought, when she compared it to his more meagre means of support; the difference bothered him very little, as he had always had enough Galleons in Gringotts for his needs, and no one whose opinion he valued could truly think he had married Maud for her money.
He laughed grimly. "Poor. We were dirt poor. Of course we needn't have been. My father was gainfully employed; he was a sailor, with the Magic Merchant Marine. He only came home every few months, and somehow his pay hardly ever made it quite as far as our door. My grandmother did what she could; she used to mix love potions and the like - some with rather questionable ingredients - and put curses on people for money. But we never had much." Maud was looking at him evenly, holding the owl in her lap and stroking its feathers. He felt a sudden rush of gratitude toward her for displaying no pity whatsoever. Of course, he had never shown any to her, and her childhood had not been exactly easy.
"Where was your mother?" she asked, when he had kept silent for a time.
"She died," he said shortly. "When I was quite young. I barely remember her."
"How did she die?"
His mouth went suddenly dry, and he couldn't answer. How do I say this? He put his head into his hands, and then looked at her sideways, his gaze involuntarily sliding to her waistline.
"Oh," said Maud quietly. "I see." She paused, then spoke again, carefully. "And did the baby die too?"
He nodded. My brother. Or sister. They never told me.
There was a silence, then Maud said firmly, "I'm not planning on dying, you know."
He shook his head. "No. I could hardly allow that, after all the trouble I had getting you in the first place." She smiled. He was glad to see that the matter seemed not to bother her in the slightest. "The circumstances are completely different. You won't lack for anything you need; my mother lacked for… just about everything, I expect. Even in her day - and it was not that long ago, you know - childbirth was quite safe, at least with a trained midwife in attendance. She did not have… that luxury."
Husband at sea - literally, though had he been there, the same would have been true metaphorically - mother rushing to find help, with little Severus in her arms. Unable to Apparate for the pain. Unable to use a wand.
He had imagined the scene many times, and it was odd that he had not associated it with Maud as soon as he had heard her news. But this was… another world.
"So it's not your mother's death that's bothering you?" Maud asked.
"No. Not more than it ever has, at any rate." He sat still for a moment, feeling the warmth of the sun on his back, while he gathered his thoughts. "My grandmother took care of me as best she could, but I think her affections died with her daughter. She did teach me a good deal - she was a strict taskmistress - and she sent me out to gather ingredients for her potions, in any way I could manage, and let me help her mix them. In an odd way, I managed to acquire more formal training in magic before I started at Hogwarts than a good many more fortunately situated young wizards did." He smiled wryly. "Possibly, she was a bit like your uncle in that. She had her own ideas of constant vigilance, of course."
"Self-defence," Maud murmured.
"Indeed. And I needed it, in that environment. Very occasionally, my father, in a drunkenly effusive mood, would teach me some new curse he'd picked up in Africa or India - although he was usually too sozzled to get it right - and he did remember my existence in the odd moment while in some foreign port, and purchase a gift, generally wildly inappropriate for my age and interests, and bring it home. Frequently, though, it was sold or given away somewhere along the way. And he used to bring my grandmother exotic potion ingredients. I suspect he stole them out of the cargo."
Maud shook her head wordlessly.
"All part of the Snape family tradition, you know," he went on, unable to keep the bitter edge from his voice. "A very old magical family, but not perhaps a very well respected one."
"Traditions," she said, "are made to be broken."
"Not as easy as one might think. Particularly in our world. But thank you for the thought." He drew a deep breath. "Up to a certain age, I was stupid enough to keep trying to please my father. Eventually, I figured out that it was useless. It was not a matter of one great impact - like running into a tree - but of a cumulative effect, many small disappointments. There was one day, in particular, though - I think I was nine…"
November. And cold: somehow he could remember the way his gloveless hands had turned red and raw, almost better than he could remember anything else. He'd been scraping barnacles off the boats in the Irwell, and gathering various other slimy unspeakables for his Nan's concoctions, and now he was running home, his finds cradled in a ragged and soaking cloth. He had to get her to teach him the Drying Charm.
He slid in at the front door, calling out, "Nan! Nan! I've got them!" and hoping she had a hot cup of tea waiting for him. His grandmother looked up, black eyes flashing. She had a knife in her hand, and she was carving tiny slivers off of a bone-white, pointed object: bicorn horn, he thought. Which meant…
"Your dad's home," she greeted him, gesturing with the horn. "Came home first this time, so I got this before he flogged it." He thrust the wet bundle at her, and she unwrapped it. "Eh. Not bad. Three batches' worth, I'd say. Keep us busy."
He ignored her. "Where's Dad?"
"How would I know? Probably went back to the docks, after drink and women. The Griffin's where he usually ends up." She looked at him keenly. "Don't you go down there. No place for a child. And I need t'other hand with the potions tonight." But he was already out the door, running again, shoving his freezing hands into the pockets of his ripped and filthy Muggle anorak.
It took him well over an hour to find the pub; he had to avoid certain streets frequented by gangs of magical pre-adolescents whom he'd managed to alienate at one time or another, and there were, of course, areas that neither wizard nor Muggle would venture into without adequate protection. He did have a wand with him - his grandmother had a habit of "borrowing" wands from her customers when their attention was distracted, and then, later, "divining" their location, a lucrative sideline that had left them with a number of unclaimed spares. But even though he was armed, none of the curses he'd been working on were adequate to attack several people at once, particularly when they were larger than him and moved quickly.
Finally, in a street near the Ship Canal, a sign made itself evident out of the damp, foggy air: a large and gaudy griffin, red and black, snarling happily as it guarded, not a pot of gold, but a pint of ale. None of the Muggles passing even looked up; the Griffin was an exclusively magical pub, and out of their notice. He sidled through the door with a practised air of invisibility, and looked about.
It was a busy place even at this early hour; nearly every table was filled with wizards, and a few witches, in varied dress and differing states of intoxication. A tall, heavy, black-bearded man stood behind the bar, pouring drinks and using his wand to send them flying into the hands of customers.
His father was sitting at a corner table, still in his sailing clothes, a half-empty pint in front of him, obviously not his first; and poured all over him was nine and a half stone of blonde witch overflowing her tight robes. Severus approached the table cautiously.
His father looked up from nuzzling the blonde witch's neck, and his bleary eyes came into focus. "Boy," he said, a bit unsteadily. "I know you. You've got your mother's eyes. Damn it." His mouth went back to what it had been doing for a moment, and then, as he became aware that his son was still standing there, made itself available to speak again. "Did your Nan send you? Because if she did, you can tell her to sod off."
"No, she didn't. I found you on my own."
"Smart boy. My son," he said, gesturing expansively for the benefit of his companion, and nearly knocking his drink over. "Have a seat. Shove over, Daisy," he said, hefting her more firmly onto his lap, thus clearing space on the bench next to him.
"Maisie," she corrected, giggling. "What's the boy's name? You can tell he's yours; look at that conk."
"Severus. After my granddad."
She snorted. "You never told me yours, come to think of it. Even funnier, I bet."
"Tiberius," he stated flatly, as if daring her to challenge it.
Maisie giggled again, and hiccuped. Severus took a chair on the other side of the table. "Get the boy a drink, Dick!" his father called out, and the barman responded with a preoccupied wave.
At that moment, there was a loud explosion on the other side of the room. A large and unusually clumsy raven flapped up from a seat that had been, until that moment, occupied by a wizard in black robes, and took a perch on the clock over the bar. It croaked experimentally several times, then said, "Oh, sod it, no bloody wand," in a hoarse voice, and put its wing over its head. Tiberius laughed loudly.
The raven's nonchalance was not echoed by a woman at the same table, who leapt to her feet yelling drunken curses. Most of the patrons ignored her completely, but the response from one of her companions had half of them on their feet. He pointed his wand at her, snarled, "Crucio!" and she began to scream; barely as soon as she'd hit the floor, the barman called out, "Expelliarmus!" and two wizards with a strong resemblance to gorillas took the offender by the shoulders and marched him to the door, tossing him into the street.
Severus was a bit shaken, but tried hard not to show it. His father downed the rest of his pint and set the glass on the table with a loud thump. "Another, Dick!" he called out. "That was going a bit too far, if you ask me," he said to his son, with an air of conspiracy. "Leastwise in public." Another pint of ale floated down in front of him, and a glass of butterbeer hit the table by Severus's left hand.
There was a silence at the table broken only by slurping and Maisie's giggles. "I learnt a new one, Dad," Severus said after a moment. "Want to see?" Not waiting for an answer, he pulled out his borrowed wand, keeping it under the table. He looked over at the door, where the banished Cruciatus caster was re-entering the pub, determined and furious, and shot a quiet curse in his direction. The wizard's legs stuck together as if they were wrapped in ropes, and, unable to balance himself in time, he crashed to the floor, helpless. The gorillas carried him out again, presumably to dunk him into the canal.
Severus looked back at his father proudly. "Leg-Locker," he began. "I learnt it off of…" but then his voice trailed away. Tiberius had his arms around Maisie and his attention had certainly not been on his son's accomplishment. He pinched her, and she squealed and slapped his hands away ineffectually. "Never mind," said Severus, and took a long draught of his butterbeer.
"What?" said his father vaguely, coming up for air. "You still here?" He glanced over to the bar, where Dick was evidently trying to catch his eye, and looked anxious. "Er. You could do me a favour, like."
He knew his father too well not to be suspicious. "What?"
"I stopped by the house first. Stupid idiot, me. Your Nan confisc my pay. Haven't got a ruddy Knut on me." He gave his son a conciliatory grin. "I'm not asking you for any, mind. I know you're a dab hand at levitation, though; suppose you could just lift a few Sickles out of someone's pocket, eh? They're all squiffed; no one'll notice a thing. For your old dad?"
Severus froze, not knowing what to say; luckily, he didn't have to say anything in the end. Maisie, who had been sitting with a rather glazed smile on her face through this last speech, seemed finally to put two and two together, or, at least, to realise that Tiberius was unable to do the same.
"What?!" she screeched. "You… you bleeding skiver! I ought to…" She pushed her way out of his lap, pulled her robes into order, and slapped him across the face. Then she whipped out her wand and held it threateningly in his direction, but seemed to reconsider and shoved it away again. Whirling on her heel, she marched off toward the door.
He stared after her, rubbing his jaw, then lazily took out his wand. Maisie had been stopped in the doorway by a tall wizard in purple robes, who was leaning very close and leering at her. Tiberius aimed carefully, and let loose a jet of blue fire that neatly goosed Maisie, pushing her into the tall wizard with a shriek.
Tiberius let out a guffaw, and Severus looked back at him. "Did her a favour, really. It pays to advertise." He shook an unsteady finger at Severus. "Let me tell you something about women, boy. Easy come, easy go." A shadow passed over his face. "Like your mother."
He drained his glass. "So you won't help me out here?" Severus hesitated, then shook his head. "Bugger it. What good are you, then?" He seemed to suddenly notice that he still had a wand in his hand, and pointed it waveringly at his son. "I could make you do it."
Severus stared back, frightened but stubbornly defiant. "Never amount to anything, you won't," his father went on. "I wouldn't think you were mine if you didn't have that nose." He looked at the wand as if considering punishments, but the effort of intimidation was too much to maintain, and finally his eyes rolled up and his head fell forward onto the table. Severus looked down at him in disgust, his stomach churning. Then a large figure loomed up next to him, and he turned to see Dick, the barman, standing by his chair.
"Rat-arsed again, I see," he said, in not unfriendly tones, removing the pint glass and the wand from Tiberius's grip. "And skint." He looked at Severus as if considering his potential. "You want to work off your father's tab, lad? Because I could use a hand back there. There's glasses need to be washed, floor to be mopped. That clock's going to need cleaning." He gestured at the raven's perch. "And I could use someone who can get off a quick Leg-Locker without looking like he knows who's doing it, too. How about it?"
He thought about his grandmother waiting for him, and the long depressing evening that promised at home, waiting for his father to stumble in the door. Or not. He nodded briefly, drained his butterbeer - after all, he would be working for it - and followed Dick to the kitchen.
"Your dad's not the worst of them by any means, you know. At least he's quiet. Some of this lot…" He shook his head. "That's not a crowd you want to get in with, believe you me. You going to sea like your father, when you're old enough?"
Severus shook his head firmly.
"What then? What're you good at? Besides curses."
He didn't know what to say. "I help my Nan with the potions sometimes. I'm not bad at that."
"Good! You get the washing up done, I'll teach you to mix a few drinks. Not that there's much call for the fancy stuff in here."
Severus nodded, and sank his chapped and reddened hands into the dish-water.
"I began," he said, bringing his thoughts with difficulty back into the April sunshine, "to spend more and more of my time at the pub. I could eat better there, for one thing; my grandmother was an indifferent cook at best - which, by the way, is why I was not in the least surprised to find that such a brilliant Potions student could barely heat soup without burning it." Her answering smile brought some hope to him. "I learnt to wash dishes without getting my hands wet, and to spot trouble before it started. My father soon figured out that I was working for his drinks, and took full advantage, but he was there very seldom. And Dick paid me adequately, and was always fair in his treatment of me."
He picked a blade of grass and rolled it between his fingers. "When I got my Hogwarts letter, everything changed. It was the opportunity I'd wanted - the chance to leave Manchester, to learn something more than love potions and gin fizzes. I had enough money saved to get to London and buy my books and supplies. I left, and I barely said good-bye to either Dick or my grandmother. My father was somewhere off the coast of Brazil, I believe. I never went back."
He smiled ironically. "Not that Hogwarts turned out to be the paradise I'd thought. But it was an escape. I swallowed knowledge like my father had gulped down pints of beer, and that was, a good deal of the time, enough. For a while." Stop. Don't burden her any further.
"I saw Dick one more time," he went on. "While I was a Death Eater. I had an assignment - never mind what kind - in Lancaster, and went to a pub called the Katherine Swynford afterwards with my… colleagues, and there was Dick behind the bar. He'd bought the pub a few years before, finally got himself away from the Ship Canal. Still had the raven. Still liked to send pints flying across the room. I don't think he recognised me." I bloody well hope not, anyway.
"And your father?" Maud asked.
"I have not the least idea what became of him. And I don't care," he answered her. "I regret not seeing my grandmother again, though. She deserved better of me."
"She deserved what you were unable to give her. Much like you deserved what your father was unable to give you." A look of perfect understanding passed between them. He held his breath, waiting.
"Well," she said finally. "My first job was as a spy, you know. There are a number of interesting Moody family traditions as well. And every family has its black sheep."
He laughed. "At least one branch of my family started out in the town of Blacksnape in Lancashire. I think that gives you a pretty good idea of their reputation. Perhaps, though, there has been a white sheep here and there in the lot. I'm afraid I cannot count myself as one of them."
Maud looked generously doubtful. "In any case," she said, "I can see why you might find it difficult to conjure up a happy memory. Under certain circumstances, at least."
Her voice was steady, but there was a note in it that made him wish he'd kept his insecurities to himself. He waited until she turned to him, and then held her gaze for a long moment. Her eyes closed, and she swallowed convulsively. When she opened her eyes again, there were tears in them.
"I'm sorry," she said. "What I did was wrong. I don't blame you if you let me take full responsibility for it." She looked away. "I didn't understand. I didn't realise how bad..." She bit her lip, and swallowed; then her chin came up and she went on with a kind of fatal resolution, "But I'm not asking for your forgiveness. I'll go. You come home when you're ready - if you are - and we'll talk about it then. I hope."
He couldn't move, could barely even breathe. Maud went on: "There certainly isn't any point to going on with the lessons. I don't think I have anything to teach you." She looked back at him, her eyes red-rimmed and full of a self-loathing he was not used to seeing on her face, only on his own.
Shaken though he was, he kept his gaze locked on hers, not allowing her to escape. Finally he reached out and touched her face. "Give me a try. I think I might be able to manage it," he said hoarsely.
She opened her mouth, looking as though she were about to protest, and then shut it again. "Very well," she said after a minute.
A thought occurred to him. "Will you be all right? I mean, because of…"
She gave him a desperate look. "Severus…" Whatever his face was communicating to her seemed to be reassuring enough, as she went on, "I'll be fine. Don't worry." He stood and held out his hand to her, and she took it and rose easily from the ground - a startling vision of how she would move in another half year seized him - and then bent and picked up the owl. It was still asleep. She stroked its head absently. "Are you quite sure you want to do this?" she asked.
"Of course," he returned, with more self-assurance than he felt. He drew his wand and looked at Maud expectantly.
She drew a deep breath, and then assumed a lecturing tone, the effect of which was somewhat muted by her continued petting of the owl. "As you know, the Patronus is a projection of the positive feelings inherent in a individual, so you must be concentrating on a very happy memory when you recite the incantation." She gave him a second's glance. "To conjure the Patronus, you simply speak the words…"
"I know what to say," he interrupted her.
"Mmm. Do you have a happy memory in mind?"
"Yes," he said firmly, as he cast about for a likely one.
Maud put the owl down on the ground, and they both backed away from it ten paces, wands at the ready.
"Verto Dementor!" she called out, and an arrow of thin purple flame shot from her wand toward the oblivious bird. Its body dissolved upwards, transfiguring into a tall, hooded form, dark and threatening, one scabbed and rotting hand clutching its cloak. The Dementor moved toward them, gliding silently; the sound of its rasping breath filled the air, and the sunlight dimmed. Snape felt cold, and Maud standing next to him seemed suddenly at a great distance, as though across a widening abyss where only the faint echoes of their voices could reach one another.
He tried hard to focus his scattering thoughts on the moment when he had first kissed Maud, but he could not hold her in his arms in memory without the picture of Maisie squirming on his father's lap intruding, and, to his horror, he found that the blonde woman he embraced had changed from one to the other. It was as though everything good and pure had been sucked out of the experience, leaving him with only filth. Maisie giggled and pinched him on the cheek, and his father laughed drunkenly, and Maud floated away on a broom; the sound of a baby crying echoed on the squalid air. Like father, like son, whispered a voice, soft like a feather stroking across the surface of a potion. Except you're better at it. Manipulation. Trickery. Persuasion. The dark arts. His left arm began to burn.
A clear voice cut through the shadows in his mind, like a bell pealing. "Expecto Patronum!" His vision cleared in time for him to see a silvery-white figure burst from Maud's wand and stride toward the Dementor. With a sudden coldness in the pit of his stomach, he remembered what her Patronus was. He wanted to close his eyes and not see, but he could not help keeping them open.
The Patronus shrugged back the sleeve of its robes in a gesture as familiar as Snape's own heartbeat, and pointed its finger at the Dementor, which cowered and shrunk away. As Maud called out, "Reverto!" and the Dementor turned back into an owl, the Patronus looked over its shoulder at Snape, and his breath caught in his throat as he saw his own features, transformed and glorified, but recognisably his, regarding him from that supernatural face. He could see in its glance, he thought, both brotherly acknowledgement and a kind of awful pity; only then did he close his eyes, and when he opened them again, the Patronus was gone.
A sense of longing and loss filled him, along with an obscure guilt; he felt simultaneously unclean, as foul and rotting as the Dementor, and somehow redeemed by the notice of Maud's protector. He became powerfully aware of what the deprivation of Maud's childhood must have been, that her unconscious mind had seized on him as a symbol of deliverance. You couldn't have picked a nice unicorn, now, could you, my love?
She was staring at him, tense and ashen-faced. "Severus, are you all right?"
"I'm… fine," he replied. Anything but fine, really, and she knows it quite well. "I'll do better next time."
"I don't think…" she began, and then stopped. "You know," she said after a moment, still tight-lipped, "I believe you did that on purpose."
He felt a surge of gratitude for her understanding, and for her untruth. "Well," he returned, his lip quirking up just slightly, "I must admit I did want a look at it." His face must have betrayed him, because she studied him in apparent concern. "It's quite… impressive," he went on, trying to strike a reassuring note, "although it did shake me up for a moment." More than the Dementor did, he thought. I knew what I was like ugly. I didn't know what I was like beautiful.
"Shall we have another go?" he said quickly. Now. Right away. While I still have the courage.
Maud nodded wordlessly. They both looked at the owl, which was slumbering peacefully, apparently none the worse for its adventure. Snape tried to fix his thoughts on some stronger - and less easily twisted - happy memory. The moment when he had learned of Voldemort's death, and had seen the Dark Mark gone from his arm: perhaps the fiercest joy he had ever felt in his life. That should do it. He gestured his readiness to Maud, and she pointed her wand at the owl, and called out "Verto Dementor!"
The owl transformed again. In its Dementor form, it moved toward them, and a cold breeze blew out of the darkening sky. Snape could feel despair pulling at him; desperately he summoned the moment of triumph over Voldemort, but it seemed meaningless, empty. It had not been his victory; he had only been tossed by the winds of fate like so many others, waiting for a champion to save them. Harry bloody Potter.
You could have had a victory, had you not betrayed me, Voldemort's voice came mesmerisingly, but he was too smart to fall for that one again. He flew down out of a tower on a broom, mind full of anger and hatred, and could not stop himself before he crashed into a tree. Splintering pain: someone had hit him over the head with a chair, and he would never, ever be the same. "Crucio!" called a high-pitched voice, and he writhed in agony on the ground, helpless. There was a lake at his feet, mirroring the trees; he looked in and saw that he had the face of Gemma Stubbs. He cried out for someone to save him: a champion, a father; but no one came.
Maud's Patronus. I need to see it again.
He opened his eyes. He was lying on the ground, his body curled tightly, shivering. The Patronus strode after the Dementor; it shrank away, and Maud turned it back into an owl, which blinked sleepily and ruffled its feathers. The glorious silvery-white figure turned and looked at him again, with pity, contempt and a hint of impatience, then vanished. Maud flung herself onto the ground next to him and seized his hands.
"Severus, you're not ready for this! We can try again another day. There's no hurry." She pulled him into a sitting position; he was still shaking uncontrollably. She brushed the hair out of his eyes. "Let's go home."
he snapped. "I'm going to do this. I won't be beaten by an owl." He struggled to his feet. Maud looked extremely hesitant, but she began to lift up her wand again, likely having realised that they were in no real danger from a false Dementor and that one more failure would most certainly do him in for the day. And it would be a failure, if he didn't do something to break the cycle. He still had plenty of unhappy memories to go.
He pointed his wand at Maud. "Expelliarmus!" he called out, and her wand came flying out of her hand into his. Before she could react, he turned, utterly unprepared for what was about to happen, and thrust his wand in the owl's direction. "Verto Dementor!"
It welled up again, like a bad dream. The depression and horror were doubled this time, but he fought them off; he would not, could not give in. Maniacal laughter screamed in his head, pain and guilt and despair surrounded him. He wondered futilely if he could battle a Dementor in any other way than the Patronus - Leg-Locker curse? Do they have legs? - and, for some inexplicable reason, remembered the day he had spoiled the antics of a particularly annoying customer at the Griffin by gifting him with donkey's ears. I don't think a Dementor would care, somehow, he thought, having no idea why this incident had come to mind.
Dick liked it, though.
He recalled the barman's gruff admonitions to the asinine customer, his explosion into irrepressible laughter once they were both in the kitchen, and the pat on the shoulder he'd earned. It had been such a little thing, and it had made him happy all day. It still, in memory, made him happy now.
He shouted it out without any forethought, while the memory of Dick's laugh was still fresh in his mind, and had no expectation that such a tiny snippet of happiness could produce anything more than a fizzle of silvery-white stuff, if that. He was astounded, therefore, to see a vast, fierce-looking creature bellow out of his wand and lunge at the Dementor.
It was, naturally, a griffin; he laughed out loud at the sight, thinking how perfect it was and how ridiculous at the same time. He realised that he had been half afraid to find out what his Patronus would be; it seemed much more appropriate to have it be a snake, the symbol of Slytherin and of servitude to the Dark, or something uncompromisingly nasty, like a manticore or a Lethifold. A griffin was so… noble. Though they were not friendly creatures by any means: they guarded their treasures - whether buried gold or barrels of crafted ale - with tenacious persistence and bloodthirsty determination, and they seldom let go once they bit. There was a certain rightness to the representation. Eh. Not bad.
The Dementor was huddled in a black heap on the turf, while the griffin Patronus stood over it, growling silently. Snape pulled himself together and called out, "Reverto!" and the Dementor was gone, replaced by the still somnolent owl. His Patronus came over to him and looked down its beak straight into his eyes. It seemed to approve. There was something of a family look to its beak, he thought, a bit of Dick in the size and presence of it, and perhaps a hint of Dumbledore in the eyes. He nodded to it, and it nodded back, and vanished.
Maud had been staring open-mouthed at him. He turned to her now, and held up his hand - wait - then moved to pick up the owl. It appeared undamaged and unperturbed by its experience. Taking Ginny Weasley's letter out of his pocket, he reattached it to the owl's leg, then performed an Enervate spell to wake the thing up enough to fly. It looked rather insulted, spat a pellet into his hand, and then took off, heading in the general direction of Cornwall.
He brought Maud's wand to her, and handed it back without a word. She was smiling broadly at him, starry-eyed. He wrapped her in his arms, gazing reverently over the top of her head at the brilliant sun reflecting off the stands of the Quidditch pitch, and then he bent his head and kissed her. No ghosts distracted his attention.
A minute later, far too soon, she pulled back to ask, "How did you do that?"
"I'll show you again," he murmured, and she laughed.
"No," she said, pushing him away. "The Patronus."
He considered. "I think," he said slowly, "I was acting on instinct. Perhaps it's underrated." He put one arm around her shoulders, and let the other hand rest tentatively on her stomach. "One never knows."
"No," Maud agreed, putting her hand on his. "One doesn't."
It might come all in a rush, a formidable protector against demons. Or it might be a good many little things, one after another. There would be successes and failures both, as with any job. He wondered if being Headmaster of Hogwarts was in any way a preparation for fatherhood. It seemed very much the same thing in a lot of ways.
"Could you take the rest of the day off?" Maud asked.
"I don't think I have much of a choice," he said. "We have… a great deal to discuss."
As always, heartfelt thanks go out to our loyal team of beta-readers, all of whom took time away from their own creative projects and busy schedules to look over and comment on this work in process: Teri K., Melissa A., Susan H., Melanie S., Jo P., and Alec D. Specific thanks are due to Susan for her invaluable advice on all things related to Manchester, Alec for providing some much-needed information about Russian grammar and pseudo-Scottish place names, and to Cally P. for enthusiastic promotion of the idea that generated the story in the first place.
RJA: In case you couldn't tell already, the half of the story written from Maud's POV was mine; all other material was by Erica H. Smith, who has much better things to do these days (hint: a really superb original novel in progress), but was kind enough to spend some time skulking about Snape's brain anyway. Thanks, E.
I don't have too many in-line notes for my part - I even seem to have missed my obligatory Alan Rickman reference. Though I ought to mention that the line "She wanted to take his face between her hands and turn her mouth to his and not let him go" is me channelling Laurie R. King again, as a similar line occurs in the Mary Russell novel A Monstrous Regiment of Women. Red raspberry leaf tea, which tastes like wet cardboard, is a uterine toner, as most midwives or those who have had midwife-assisted births would know; and I'm really sorry about that copulo joke, but it really did seem to be the only appropriate Latin word for the idea of combining two objects into one, so what could I do?
EHS: Thanks as usual to R.J., who not only came up with the basic premise for the story but gave me much of the inspiration for my part as well. I could not get through a story, of course, without at least one mention of tea (and not that awful raspberry leaf stuff), or without a couple of references to my own fics. I am so happy for Dennis.
Someday I may even give into the impulse to write something more about the Magic Merchant Marine, but for now I should at least make clear that my unexpected choice of profession for Snape's father and a number of his forebears stems from the brief appearance in a novel by Patrick O'Brian (set in the early 19th century) of an A. Snape, master of the brig Intrepid Fox, bound from the Guinea Coast to Bristol with a cargo of elephant's teeth, gold-dust, grains of Paradise, hides, and skins, as well as, I'm certain, many far more magical items cleverly concealed from the very Muggle eyes of Jack Aubrey.
I will also note for posterity that although I named Snape's bar-tending mentor without really thinking about it, it did occur to me later that this does mean three of the most important male figures in Snape's life end up being... Tom, Dick, and Harry. The unconscious mind works wonders.