'Miss Granger wants us to do what?' Severus said in disbelief.
Charity Burbage beamed. 'She thinks it will help to make Muggle culture so much more accessible to the students, and I must say I agree with her. Now, Much Ado About Nothing is a quite well-known play amongst Muggles, written by Shakespeare,' she spoke the name in reverent tones, 'the most famous of Muggle playwrights, as I'm sure most of you would know. Miss Granger suggested this play in particular, because being a comedy she though it would be entertaining for both students and staff alike – the perfect send-off for the Christmas holidays!'
'It is, as I have already said to Miss Granger, a splendid plan!' Dumbledore said. Severus groaned inwardly; of course it was too much to hope for that the Headmaster should discourage the idea. Well, let the others get involved; he had not the slightest intention of doing so. He settled back in his chair, arms folded over his chest.
'Now, I have already taken the liberty of assigning some roles as I see fit,' Dumbledore continued, consulting a sheet of parchment, 'and I think you should each enjoy the parts you are to portray. Remus, the role of Claudio for you, and Pomona, you as Hero… Filius, the role of Leonato if you please, and Hagrid, Antonio… Poppy, Irma, if you would take the roles of Margaret and Ursula respectively…' His eyes moved down the list. 'Ah yes, and Severus is to play Benedick, with you, my dear Minerva, as Beatrice.'
If his eyes twinkled a little more brightly than usual, no one noticed; they were so very, very twinkly already.
Severus said irritably, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward, 'Headmaster, surely you cannot expect me to take part in this play-acting farce. I have far too much to do as it is.'
'Be a sport, Severus,' piped up Pomona. 'It sounds like it will be quite fun!'
Severus frowned at her but before he could say anything Dumbledore said, genially but with a firm undertone, 'Come now, my boy –you can see we are woefully short of male cast members as it is. I shall be casting some of the older, more responsible students in some minor roles, but we most certainly cannot do without you.'
'And will you be participating?' Severus demanded.
'Why yes, of course – I would not miss it for the world!' the older wizard said with a chuckle. 'It's been many long years since I took a spot on the stage – you may remember, Minerva, the production of Salad Days I put on, it must have been in your first or second year here as a student.'
'The one with the enchanted piano that made everyone dance?' Minerva said, closing her eyes with a shudder. 'Please, Albus, do not remind me.'
'Yes, well, some things are best left in the mists of time,' Dumbledore conceded, 'but at any rate in this production I shall be taking the role of Don Pedro. I have scripts for everyone here.' With a wave of his wand he distributed the small paperback books amongst the members of staff. 'Rehearsals commence in the Great Hall on Friday, once a week for the next six weeks or so. Of course not everyone will be required for every rehearsal - I shall add the appropriate dates to your schedules.'
That evening Severus settled down in his armchair to read this supposedly classic work of Muggle literature.
He permitted himself a small smirk at Benedick and Beatrice's verbal duelling in the early scenes – yes, grudgingly, he could see that Albus had his reasons for allocating those roles as he had. He and Minerva would have no difficulty baiting each other in such a fashion; why, it would scarcely even be acting. He read on, snickering slightly at the mental image of Lupin falling desperately in love with Pomona; how in the name of the gods that was to be rendered convincing he could not imagine. He read on…
The next day, after his last students had left, Severus made his way to the Transfiguration classroom.
'Minerva, have you read this preposterous piece of dramatic fiction?' he demanded, throwing down the shabby book on her desk.
She rubbed her temples a little wearily. 'No, not yet – I have not yet had the time. Why?'
'Apart from the fact that most of the so-called plot is patently ridiculous and lacks any sort of credibility, even from a Muggle's point of view, the characters you and I are playing become -' his face twisted as if he had just glimpsed a particularly feeble potion attempt by Potter, '—romantically attached!'
Surely she was not trying to repress a smile? But her voice was quite serious as she said, calmly transfiguring a couple of ink bottles into cups of tea, 'Well, Severus, it is just a play, after all. I don't see why you should be so upset.' She passed one of the steaming cups to him. 'I mean, we are not required to end up naked in bed together on the stage, are we?'
When he had finished coughing and spitting tea all over the desk and could speak again, he said in a strangled tone, 'Certainly not!'
She was actually smiling now, damn her. 'Well then,' she said cheerfully, vanishing the spilt tea and refilling his cup with a wave of her hand. 'I see no problem with that at all.'
The first rehearsal was not off to a good start, and they hadn't even taken their places on the stage yet.
'…as if it is not enough that he-' Severus pointed at Lupin '- has already undermined my credibility by dressing me as that gods-forsaken disaster Longbottom's grandmother-'
'It was just a Boggart,' Lupin said.
'Shut up, Lupin – as I was saying, as if that was not enough, you want me to play this, this fatuous, sentimental half-wit-'
'Actually, I think the character of Claudio is the really fatuous and half-witted one,' said Lupin encouragingly, 'so-'
'SHUT UP, LUPIN – Headmaster, how can you expect me to be taken seriously by my students after this?'
Dumbledore smiled in his infuriatingly benign manner and said, 'Severus, my boy, with your inimitable capacity for striking fear into the heart of all your acquaintance – excepting perhaps myself and Minerva – I am certain that you will have no difficulty in continuing to command an appropriate level of terror and respect from your students.'
Severus shot a glance at Minerva, but she was tending to Pomona, who appeared to have swallowed an Every-Flavour Bean the wrong way and was having a coughing fit. He opened his mouth again, but, receiving a raised eyebrow from Dumbledore, made do with hurling himself into a chair and glaring ferociously at anyone who dared look his way.
'Places for Act One, Scene One, please everybody!' Dumbledore called., clapping his hands.
As first rehearsals go it could have been worse. Lupin and Pomona threw themselves into their roles as lovers with (to Severus' mind) disgusting fervour, and most of the other cast members made up with enthusiasm for what they lacked in stagecraft.
There were a few slight hitches – most notably, Filius squeaked his opening line 'I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina' with such gusto that he fell off the table on which he was standing, and Hagrid had a tendency to knock things over – as well as some delay while Dumbledore patiently convinced the two fifth-year Ravenclaws (who were playing Conrad and Borachio) that no, they would not be hung up in chains for calling Mr Filch (who was playing Dogberry) a cockscomb or an ass, so long as they only did so within the context of the play.
Gradually, it became easier for Severus to immerse himself in the part of Benedick, especially since Minerva was in fact quite a good actress. She delivered her lines with spark and conviction. As the rehearsal wound along Severus found that he was almost enjoying himself – almost.
Until, that is, they came to the very last scene.
'A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts,' Severus declaimed, waving a scrap of parchment about. 'Come, I will have thee, but by this light,' he tapped the parchment, 'I take thee for pity.'
'I would not deny you,' Minerva responded primly, 'but by this good day I yield upon very great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.'
'Peace! I will stop your mouth,' Severus said, and then realised what he was supposed to do.
Full on the mouth.
In front of other people.
He muttered an eloquent and very unscripted curse under his breath and gave the older witch, who was looking at him expectantly, a quick peck on the cheek.
A chorus of 'Boo!' erupted from the other cast members – luckily, only the staff remained, the students having been sent to bed some time earlier – and Severus glared at them in exasperation.
'I apologise if my interpretation is disappointing to the theatre critics,' he said, with the most biting sarcasm he could muster, 'but if you were hoping for a reprise of the libidinous canoodlings of those two-' he gestured at Pomona, who giggled, and at Lupin, who had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, 'you will have to get used to disappointment!'
To his surprise it was Minerva who silenced the babble of argument that began to break out. 'I think that's enough for one night,' she said crisply. 'We'll have another run through in a couple of weeks, after we've worked some more on the individual scenes, I imagine, Albus?' The Headmaster nodded, smiling. 'Good, then let's all get to bed – it's late and after all there is Quidditch tomorrow, and Merlin knows I will need to be on my toes to rein in Mr Jordan's colourful commentary.'
As the staff meandered out of the Great Hall, Severus found Minerva at his side. 'I was wondering, Severus,' she said quietly, 'whether you might perhaps feel more comfortable rehearsing that final part in private at some point – in my rooms, perhaps - just the two of us, no hecklers or distractions.'
'There is nothing I would like less!' he snapped. Something flickered across her face – disappointment, and could it be hurt? – but so quickly that he barely had time to register it before she said, dryly, 'Ah well, I suppose we can always, what's the word, improvise on the night itself, if we don't get any practice beforehand.' She gave him a brisk nod. 'Good night, Severus. Sleep well.'
The next day, following the Quidditch match, Severus found himself close behind the insufferable Weasley twins, who were talking together in low voices. He listened, of course; there was almost invariably a profitable deduction in Gryffindor House points to be made from their conversations.
'…perhaps we could whip up some Polyjuice, and put those Ravenclaws out of action for one of the rehearsals-'
'You can't just whip up Polyjuice, it takes ages-'
'Well, Transfiguration of some sort? They'll be in costume anyway…' Fred (or George, he could never tell and rarely cared) paused, with a dreamy and beatific expression on his face. 'Can you imagine, Georgie,' (it was Fred then) 'saying that to Filch… "You are an ass!"… and no consequences, nothing he could do about it, all one hundred percent legit!'
'I reckon heaven is a bit like that,' George said in the same awed tone.
'Mr and Mr Weasley,' Severus said in his most dangerous voice, and the two boys each leapt a foot in the air. 'Unless you are interested in further, immediate exploration of the heavenly realm – assuming you make it there, which I doubt – I would curtail this discussion and get yourselves out of my sight. And,' he added, 'if I get the slightest inkling, the very slightest, you understand me, that you have in any respect been spying on or interfering with the rehearsals, cast members or production itself, I will personally ensure that the pair of you are in detention for the remainder of your sorry school careers. Do I make myself clear?'
'Yes, Professor, yes sir!' said the twins hastily, and Severus watched with a warm glow of satisfaction as they hurried away as fast as they could without actually running.
As the next few weeks of rehearsals progressed (with a tacit understanding that the line 'Peace! I will stop your mouth' had been cut from the script), Severus found that he had increasing difficulty getting to sleep. Scenes from the play, especially those involving Minerva, replayed themselves over and over in his mind, much as he tried to push them aside. What was the point of being a master Occlumens if he could not banish these disruptive thoughts? It was ridiculous!
Tonight, after Minerva had finished her speech ('…Benedick, love on! I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to your loving hand…') and left the stage, she had winked at him. Winked at him! Severus groaned and tried unsuccessfully to find a more comfortable position in which it might be possible to fall asleep.
It was lucky, in a way, he mused, that it was Minerva playing Beatrice and not one of the others… Pomona for example, or gods help him, Sybil Trelawney… that would be beyond insupportable. He shuddered at the very thought. At least he quite liked Minerva, inasmuch as he liked anybody. She had always been courteous, even kind to him; despite their eternal House rivalry they actually got on relatively well. Merlin knew he would rather spend time with her than with any of the other staff members; she was someone with whom he could have a real conversation. And a drink. They shared the same taste in single malt.
And she was not bad looking. Even as a student he had thought so, and now he thought about it some more he decided she was really still remarkably attractive… that black hair, those green eyes… and it might actually be quite nice to find out what it felt like to kiss her lips…
With a jerk of horror Severus sat bolt upright, tearing himself back from the edge of dreaming.
He needed to get a grip.
There was no way, not in any hell he could think to name (and there were quite a few), that he was falling in love with Minerva McGonagall.
With a growl he cast away any thought of sleeping and threw on some robes. He needed to move, to clear his head. But stalking the corridors of the Castle gave him no relief. Mentally he went over and over each interaction he had had with Minerva, on stage and off, over the last couple of months. No, no, surely not – surely he was overthinking things to the point of delirium – but there had been signs – was Minerva trying to tell him that she was in love with him? Gods! She had suggested a private rehearsal… of a kissing scene… in her rooms. Severus reeled and clutched at a gilded frame to keep himself upright, not even hearing the irritated complaints of its rudely-awakened occupant. She had propositioned him. She had propositioned him. No, no, NO! – he was going mad, that was all, clearly he was going mad –
'Are you all right, Severus?' Lupin asked, in some concern. He was out patrolling the corridors for the last time before curfew.
'Go away, Lupin,' Severus snarled. 'I am going insane and I would prefer to do so without your objectionable furry presence.'
Lupin was undeterred. 'Anything I can do, before I go away and leave you to it?'
'All right, then.' Lupin hesitated for a second, seemed to come to a decision, and added, 'But if I were you, Severus, I'd just tell Minerva how you feel – I think you'd find that she would be quite – umm-' he quailed under the black scowl the other man gave him and finished in a hurry, '—well, just try it and see is what I'm saying.' And then he ran.
If Severus had known Lupin's hasty departure was more to hide the grin on his face than for any other reason, he would have been less than pleased.
The performance was now only two days away. Over the last couple of weeks, Filius and his Advanced Charms students had been working on sets and lighting; Minerva's Transfiguration classes had been working on props and costumes.
Over the last couple of weeks, Severus had been working on maintaining a façade of normality.
'For the love of Merlin, Minerva,' he said, eyeing the pile of swords and flowers and masks that lay on her desk in the staff room, 'please tell me that none of these items has been within ten feet of Longbottom.'
'Great gods, no.' She frowned ruefully. 'Although I do think you are too hard on that boy, Severus – and his was certainly not the only unacceptable work I've seen today. No need to worry though, I have of course sorted through them all and kept only the most stable ones. There should be enough, I think.' She took off her glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose, then gave him an unexpected smile. In fact, it was as close to a grin as he had seen on her face since the first time Gryffindor won the House Cup after their long run of losses. Merlin help him, that smile did things to his insides that Severus had not even believed were possible. And it made her eyes sparkle so.
'I am really quite looking forward to our grand stage debut, aren't you, Severus?' He could not seem to come up with a coherent answer, but it appeared that Minerva did not expect one, nor did she notice his distraction, because she continued almost at once, 'I suppose I had better get these props down to the Hall.'
'Allow me,' he said, finding his tongue at last. His hand brushed against Minerva's as he gathered up the props, and the flare of sensation that went through him at the touch almost made him drop them again. Cursing himself for a fool, he hastened to collect everything together so he could get out of the room as quickly as possible. He was astonished to feel Minerva squeeze his shoulder gently and plant a very, very light kiss on his cheek. 'Thank you,' she said, and swept out of the staff room before he could reply.
And then The Day Itself dawned. Posters had appeared around the school, depicting each cast member dressed in costume, waving and winking (except for Severus, who was scowling). The house elves had been given their instructions regarding the moving of scenery. The dress rehearsal the night before had gone smoothly.
Breakfast time saw the Great Hall buzzing with even more excitement than was usual on the day before the Christmas holidays. At the staff table Filius sat on his pile of cushions, nose buried in the script one last time. Pomona and Lupin were rattling off their lines to each other as fast as they could. Severus took his usual seat and helped himself to a piece of buttered toast, but after one bite found he could not eat any more. Minerva was not yet at the table. It was ridiculous that he should mind so much; really, he must get control of himself. But he could not stop himself from scanning the Hall for her tall upright form. He poured himself a cup of tea from the large silver teapot, drank it down, and poured himself another. No, he really could not eat anything this morning.
'Not hungry, my boy?' Dumbledore said cheerily. He was halfway through a large bowl of porridge liberally topped with brown sugar.
'The porridge is really very good this morning.'
'I don't want porridge, thank you!' Severus said in exasperation, trying not to explode.
'Ah,' said Dumbledore. He peered over the top of his glasses at the younger man. 'Yes, nerves, I expect. Or "stage fright", as I believe it is called in the business. Perhaps you should speak to Poppy – I'm sure she would be happy to dispense you some of the Calming Draught she gives to students before their exams.'
Severus gave the beaming Headmaster a murderous look, which was blithely ignored, and made himself take another bite of his rapidly cooling toast. He caught sight of Minerva at last; she was at the Gryffindor table, speaking sternly to – of course – the Weasley twins. To Severus' chagrin his heart actually skipped a beat as she sat down beside him.
'Stage fright, Severus?' she asked, indicating his scarcely touched breakfast.
Severus rolled his eyes and said 'Not in the least,' in what he hoped was his normal arrogant manner, and took another bite. It might as well have been cardboard for all that he could tell. Minerva's presence was simply too distracting for him to concentrate on anything else. The sound of her voice, as she chatted to Pomona about her plans for Christmas, was like the most intoxicating music. And the scent of her… mint and parchment and heather and vanilla all rolled into one delicious bouquet. He had never noticed how good she smelled before…
Severus shook his head to clear it and regarded his half-empty teacup suspiciously. But no – he poured it himself, and there was no way that anyone would be deranged enough to fill an entire teapot with Amortentia and serve it at the staff table. The effects would be catastrophically noticeable straightaway.
With a certain sense of resigned misery Severus admitted to himself that it was just him.
He was in love.
He caught Minerva looking at him out of the corner of her eye as she drank her own tea.
Ah, gods. He may as well take the plunge. 'Minerva, might I have a word with you after breakfast?'
'Oh dear, Severus,' she said apologetically, dabbing her lips and standing up, 'I'm afraid I haven't the time right now – there is so very much to organise for this evening, as I'm sure you're aware. Is it urgent?'
'…No,' he said, striving to make his voice as indifferent as possible. 'No, I suppose it can wait.'
'Well then, perhaps before the performance. I will see you backstage.' And she walked swiftly off, leaving Severus to grind his teeth.
The day passed in a paradox, simultaneously far too quickly and far too slowly for his liking.
A few of Severus' braver Slytherins told him to 'break a leg', and were duly quelled by his assurance that, if he heard them utter that absurd Muggle phrase one more time, legs would be broken – but not his.
As he made his way to the Hall to dress for the performance he passed Miss Granger, who had the temerity to squeak at him 'Good luck, sir!', running off in terror before he could reply.
The Hall was now ranged with rows and rows of theatre seats before a raised stage hung with curtains of the deepest red velvet. Fairies of all colours cast their light upon it. A part of the hall behind the stage had been transformed into two dressing rooms. Minerva and Severus stepped out of them at the same time.
When he saw Minerva in her costume (a vaguely sixteenth-century Muggle peasanty shift dress, he had heard Charity call it – he suspected Miss Granger would have conniptions if she heard her carefully-researched designs so described), with her long black hair shining loose on her pale shoulders, Severus caught his breath, thinking he had never seen her look so beautiful. He noted with a slight lurch of his stomach that Minerva was taking in his own outfit of (vaguely sixteenth-century Muggle military) well-fitted breeches and loose shirt with what appeared to be an approving gaze.
'You look very nice,' she said with a nod.
He gave an ironic half-bow and said, with immense understatement, 'As do you.'
Her eyes twinkled almost as much as Dumbledore's. 'We had better take our positions backstage, I suppose. Break a leg, Severus.'
Somehow, he found he didn't mind the absurd phrase so much, coming from her.
The Hogwart's production of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, most famous of Muggle playwrights, was really going quite well. No one had forgotten their lines (rather to the disappointment of the house elves who were waiting to provide prompts). Filius had not fallen off a table; Hagrid had not broken any scenery; the Weasley twins had not caused any discernible disruption. The students and other staff who made up the audience even laughed in many of the right places.
And now the whole thing was nearly over. Severus was almost sorry – almost.
'A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts,' he said, waving the scrap of parchment. 'Come, I will have thee, but by this light,' he tapped the parchment with the now-familiar movement, 'I take thee for pity.'
And then he heard Minerva say, 'Peace! I will stop your mouth,' and she grabbed him by his shirt and kissed him like he had never been kissed before.
There was a shocked silence, quite a long one, and then the Hall rang with cheers and whistles and applause, but Severus did not even notice, at first because he was too astonished, then because he was too interested, and finally because he was just a bit too desperate for air.
Severus made it through his last remaining lines of the scene without stumbling and without quite knowing how.
Then the curtain fell, the stage lights went out, the house lights went up, the audience was leaving in a cacophony of chatter and footsteps and banging seats. In something of a daze Severus found that he was in the dressing room, changing out of his costume and back into his customary black, nodding polite thanks for the congratulations of the other cast members ('Splendid, Severus, splendid!' Filius squeaked, and Dumbledore patted him on the back and said 'A masterful performance, my dear boy!'). He made non-committal noises in response to the others' happy anticipation of the after party that would be taking place in the staff room. Finally, he found himself alone.
Or not quite alone. He could hear someone humming.
Severus moved aside the curtain that separated the women's dressing room from the men's and saw Minerva still seated in front of the mirror. She had just set down her hairbrush and was braiding her hair with swift sure fingers.
He moved to stand behind her. Their reflected eyes met each other in the mirror.
'A good performance, I think,' Minerva said. 'It seemed to go down well with the students – don't you agree?'
He gave even less of a damn about the students than usual. 'Minerva-' he began, but broke off. He had never before been so at a loss for words.
She stood up. The rather form-fitting and low-cut robe of dark green silk she wore did little to improve Severus' ability to string two words together. 'Would you care to escort me to the after party?'
At last, here was a question he could answer. 'Merlin's beard, no!'
Taking up her wand, she said with a small sigh, 'Very well then, Severus, I shall see you in the morning.' He saw that she was trying, not altogether successfully, to conceal disappointment, and swore at himself for his clumsiness.
'No - Minerva – wait.' He caught one of her warm hands in both of his own, and took a deep breath, knowing at last what he needed to say. 'I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?'
And that smile, that intoxicating smile that lit him like a fire, spread over her face as she said, 'It were as possible for me to say I love nothing so well as you – but great gods, man, it's taken you long enough to realise it!'
There was only one thing Severus could say to that.
'Peace!' He pulled her close with one arm and took her chin in his other hand. 'I will stop your mouth.'
And he did.
A/N – I had a terrific amount of fun writing this and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, even if it is a bit eccentric (as my husband described it when I told him about my idea.) Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespearean play, and if you haven't seen the film with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice, you should.
Also 'Salad Days' IS a real English musical, about a magic piano that makes everyone dance. It's from the 1950s, not terribly well known (or so I believe) but very funny with great tunes, and is referenced in the Monty Python sketch 'Salad Days'.
Thanks again for reading and please leave a review – I appreciate them so much!