Written for the "Your Favourite Couple" competition at the Harry Potter Fanfiction Challenges forum

Pairing: Severus Snape/Minerva McGonagall

Event: Breaking a new year's resolution

Prompt: Without

Minerva McGonagall pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders as she stared absently out of her office window at the twinkling stars. It was early in the morning on October 4th and it seemed that yet another year had gone by in the flash of an eye. It was funny to think how time seemed to literally speed up as she got older. Frankly, she would have preferred to forget about her birthday altogether; exactly how old was she now? She had stopped counting several years ago just because the thought of aging was depressing. Besides. Age shouldn't have to slow her down for any reason. She was at the top of her game as a successful teacher with a good job. So why did she continue to feel…down?

She had been unable to sleep for much of the past night; first she had been working to grade a large pile of Transfiguration essays but had eventually abandoned the project for another night when her concentration failed her. Not that it really mattered in the long run. The First Years would last another day without graded essays. After she had given up grading, she had attempted to sleep. It was about 11 o'clock at night when she first laid down but after a few hours of tossing and turning, she resigned herself to the fact that sleep would continue to evade her no matter what so she had climbed out of bed and taken up a position at the windowsill.

The starry night was beautiful. She could see the celestial bodies twinkling softly as their light were reflected off of the shimmering lake water in the distance. Every so often she could see a smear of brilliant light signifying the appearance of a shooting star. Out in the grounds, it appeared peaceful and still, almost as if the entire world was oblivious to the threats of Slytherin's heir. And that was really the way that she preferred it. Time had stopped, just for those few hours. It allowed her to reflect on what was really important. Which consisted of her trying to avoid the fact that it was now her birthday.

Ever since she had begun working at Hogwarts, Albus had made a special effort to observe the birthdays of all of his staff. Naturally, most of the students remained oblivious to the fact that these birthdays were anything but a regular day. But Albus had an annoying habit of trying to make everyone feel special with something resembling a surprise party. Annoying because the majority of the staff were getting on in years and preferred to pretend that there was no such thing as a birthday. Resembling a surprise party because everyone now knew enough about Albus to expect one. But Minerva had to admit that she appreciated his attention. At least she didn't make a big deal out of his affections like many of her colleagues did.

Briefly, she began to wonder if Severus had remembered what today was. Frankly, she wasn't entirely sure. Albus had been doing his best to ensure that the staff didn't mention the fact that it was her birthday so that the 'surprise' would have a bigger impact. But Severus had a tendency to live in his own little world when he wanted no part of real life. She really couldn't blame him.

Last year, she had given Severus a handmade card with enough Galleons for him to be able to choose himself a gift because she had no idea what to get him; Albus did so encourage the staff to give presents on these special days. But Severus had reacted so unexpectedly that she had been caught off guard. He actually seemed to be genuinely grateful. But not for the money. He was grateful that she had actually taken the time to make him a card by hand. Admittedly, she was not in the habit of crafty projects such as that so it was unusual for her to give such a gift. But his heartfelt thanks were more than she was prepared to deal with.

Reaching under the window seat, she came up with a small wooden box that her father had given her when she was a small child. It was plain and yet she had always said that it was one of her most beautiful possessions because it had been handmade with love. Minerva opened the box and pulled out a slip of plain white paper with the hasty scrawl of the Potions master upon the smooth surface.

It is my New Year's resolution that I shall repay your kindness to me on your own special day. Your birthday.

It seemed so unlike Severus to write such a note; she remembered vividly thinking this as she had first read it. Evidently he had slipped it under her office door on December 31st. She had read it with some surprise, not quite sure what he had been intending. Then, as the message began to sink in, she had begun to wonder what this message meant. And now that she had mulled it over for several months, she began to think that she knew.

Of course, she hadn't confronted him about it. What would she have said, anyway? No. She decided that it would be better just to let the matter rest and see what happened.

At breakfast a few hours later, she saw that Albus had slipped a card under her morning goblet of pumpkin juice. It was his usual style: cheery and happy with bright, bold colors that wished her many happy returns of the day. She hid her smile behind her napkin. Dear Albus. What would she do without him?

She risked a glance down the table at Severus. He was munching absently at a plate of eggs that sat before him as he read a copy of the Prophet. Either he was oblivious to her gaze or he was purposefully avoiding her. And she had a pretty good idea that she knew which.

Classes passed by uneventfully. It was a Friday and many of the older students had their minds on the upcoming Hogsmeade weekend rather than their lessons. Even the younger ones seemed unusually restless; she couldn't quite fathom what was wrong with them. It made much of the day seem very tiresome.

That evening she made her way back to her office, thankful that the long day was nearly over. Between the misdeeds of the students (particularly the Weasley twins) and her confusion towards Severus, she had had quite enough. The fact that Severus had seemingly broken a resolution was unlike him; he may be unpleasant at times but he never broke a promise. And, the fact that he had began to hurt.

It had been a pain that had begun when she spied him at breakfast, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world. It had only increased when he had spent the entire day avoiding her. And now…now, it was an ache that she felt in the deepest recesses of her heart. She hated herself for feeling this way. Why should it matter to her if Severus remembered her birthday when she herself wanted so badly to forget about it?

She opened the door to her office, grateful for the peace of the small room. A quick wave of her wand lit a fire in the hearth and she sat back at her desk to enjoy the warmth. Briefly she considered working on the Transfiguration essays again. She really didn't feel like doing so but her professional nature won in the end and she took one essay from the top of the sheet and began to read.

A knock on the door interrupted her work and she looked up half in surprise and half in annoyance. "Come in!"

It was Albus who entered, not unexpectedly. "Good evening Minerva!" He said cheerfully. "I hope that you've had a pleasant day!"

Minerva straightened her back and gave what pleasant nod she could muster. "Of course, Albus." She said shortly, not really in the mood to discuss how she felt with Albus.

"Would you be willing to come down to the kitchens for a bit of hot chocolate with me? I'm lonely for company." He had such a puppy dog look in his eyes that she knew it was pointless to refuse him.

They had nearly reached the kitchens when Albus made an unexpected turn. Minerva, still quite tired after her sleepless night, wasn't quite awake enough to register where they were now headed. She blinked several times in confusion but knew better than to ask Albus. When he was excited about something, which he obviously was, there was no way to get him to reveal more than he wanted you to know. Better to save her strength.

Had she been more awake, she might have realized that they were on their way to the Great Hall. In any case, she knew where they were the moment Albus stopped her in front of the doors and whirled around to face her. "Happy birthday, love."

He threw open the doors to reveal the interior of the Great Hall. The entire room was decorated with Gryffindor red and gold with the occasional trimming of her preferred tartan. The long student tables were empty, though they were smartly decorated with red and gold tablecloths to add to the general festive appearance of the room. All members of staff were standing in front of the staff table with smiles on their faces. Including Severus.

She felt tears of gratitude and slight embarrassment well up in her eyes and make their presence known in the form of a lump in her throat. It may sound more than a little cliché but their presence made her feel loved. She stood in blatant astonishment for a long moment, just drinking in the scene before her. Then Albus gave her a gentle prod in the direction of the staff table.

"Go on," he whispered gently. When she turned to face him, she realized who he was looking at and that it wasn't her. He was looking at Severus.

Severus was standing awkwardly to one side; not quite looking at her but his eyes seemed to be boring through her. It was as if he was feeling some immeasurable amount of guilt. Guilt?

Almost reluctantly, she started towards him, if only because she could feel the eyes of everyone else in the room staring at her. Their stares, though certainly not unfriendly, made her uncomfortable enough to stop in her tracks and begin greeting her colleagues. As she exchanged greetings and thank you's, she briefly glanced over at Severus, who still refused to really look at her. After what seemed like ages, Albus (ever the matchmaker) decided that it was time for the two to be alone. He began to hustle the staff out of the room as though they were a flock of sheep, pausing only to give her a sly grin and a knowing wink. Then he was gone and she was alone in the Great Hall with Severus.

"I suppose you think that I owe you an apology." He spoke first, though not quite as reluctantly as he had appeared before.

She didn't comment but involuntarily put her hand into the pocket in order to touch his rather cryptic note.

He cleared his throat and awkwardly scratched at his dark, greasy hair. "Well, I suppose that I do. It's not often that I break a resolution. Particularly one as important as the one that I made to you."

"I think that you had better explain yourself."

He offered a shrug. "Didn't the note speak rather for itself? I had such grand plans for you. Silly of me to forget, really."

"Then you really did forget?"

"Yes." He hid his face from her by looking away; she could have sworn that she saw him blush. "I'm sorry. Is there anything -" A gleam could be seen in his dark eyes as he turned back to face her.

Before she could react, he was at her side, pulling her in with both of his strong arms and holding her close. She gasped quietly at his sudden movement, almost hating herself for enjoying the strength of his arms. But not quite. They stood there together for a long moment before he reached down at offered her a smooth kiss on her lips. It seemed to altogether last a second and an age. She allowed herself to melt into him, enjoying every moment of it. All too soon, the kiss ended and she found herself leaning her head against his chest, breathing in his scent.

"Happy birthday, Minerva."

"Thank you, Severus. Just….thank you."