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A Very Small Degree of Hope
"A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love." – Stendhal
Severus was not hiding. He simply wasn't hungry and it was merely a coincidence that he hadn't been hungry during mealtimes since the Welcoming Feast last week. And if he were peeking around corners more than usual, well, he had been a spy at one time and old habits die hard. What of it, if he were taking extremely circuitous and admittedly unused routes to get around the castle? A little extra exercise was good for a man of his age. Simple as that.
He was not avoiding the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. And Albus Dumbledore was a meddling old busybody.
"You can't avoid her forever, my boy," the Headmaster's head had chuckled from the fireplace an hour ago. He'd flooed to remind Severus that staff members were contractually obligated to supervise mealtimes at least once per week, so Severus was due in the Great Hall for dinner, whether he was hungry or not. "I realize that you never cared much for her as a student – though I can't imagine why, bright as she has always been – but she is your colleague now. Like it or not, you're going to have to find a way to get along with her. Or at least tolerate her."
Tolerating her is the least of my concerns.
Since the floo call, Severus had endeavored to distract himself with marking a stack of abysmally written Third year essays on the differing magical properties of eye of newt and eye of salamander. Formulating appropriately scathing remarks on their clear lack of interest or understanding was an activity designed to calm and order his mind, and was usually quite effective. But this afternoon, the red ink was left to gel in sticky blobs on the parchment as his thoughts drifted. Finally, he sighed, vanished the mess with a wave of his wand and shuffled the essays to one side. His heart just wasn't in it.
It was busy elsewhere.
Resting his elbows on his desk, he closed his eyes, leaned forward and buried his face in his hands.
He was not hiding. He was not avoiding. He was just… stalling. Just until he could sort himself out, do something about these insupportable, unfathomable, indefensible emotions.
How was he to face her, when the very sight of her made his face flush? How could he eat next to her in the Great Hall, with a flock of doxies swarming in his stomach? How was he supposed to carry on a conversation with her with his heart in his throat and his pulse pounding in his ears like a tympani drum?
He would not make a fool of himself over this… this… feeling. His pride, full of holes as it was, was one of the few things he could still cling to. He was sure that, given time to adjust, he could master himself – or at least marshal the appearance of it in public, while continuing to moon over her like a lovesick schoolboy in private. Yet now Albus had all but insisted he show up for dinner, and he wasn't ready.
He groaned into his palms, defeated. It was useless to deny it. He had looked the Dark Lord straight in the face and lied through his teeth with less trepidation than this, yet he could not bring himself to endure the company of this one insipid, beguiling, aggravating, charming, infuriating, captivating woman…
Of course, the worst the Dark Lord could do was kill me.
He did not think it would actually kill him if she scorned him, but he was fairly certain that he wouldn't wish to survive it. He'd rather she turn her wand on him than laugh at him. And if she were to pity him, he would probably turn his wand on himself.
He dropped one hand and scrubbed at the bridge of his nose with the other as another sigh escaped him. How in Circe's Circle had he been reduced to this vulnerable, weak-willed wreck?
Thinking back, he supposed it must have started with a single shining ray of hope.
"Hope is the dream of a waking man." –Aristotle
"Better you than any of us!"
Those had been the exact words. Spewing out of Mad-Eye Moody's mouth, they shouldn't have cut so deeply – Severus had always known, had always understood with perfect, painful clarity, that he was valuable to the Order only so far as he was useful. Yet when Moody had spat those words in his face, it had caught him completely off guard, and he'd reeled back as though he'd been slapped.
A number of the Order had gathered at Grimmauld Place one night, and had been engaged in a heated debate over certain risks and particulars that needed development, as it became clearer and clearer that the final confrontation between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix was eminent. Severus had Apparated there to check in before returning to school, after having been summoned to appear before the Dark Lord earlier that evening. He'd been hoping to catch Albus, but instead had been caught out in the midst of a discussion amongst some of his least favorite individuals over the complications of not having enough information from the Death Eater camp.
Merlin knows Severus had tried to stay useful, but the Dark Lord's circle had been tightening in those last months, until worming anything useful out of him had been like squeezing water from a stone. Moody, of course, was ever after an excuse to accuse Severus of treachery, blame him for the drought of information and pontificate on the idiocy of trusting a dark wizard to bring them anything they could use to defeat the Dark Lord. This instance had been no different than a hundred others. But Severus had been tired and frustrated, and scheduled to administer two sets of exams in the morning that promised to be corrosive and possibly explosive experiences, and he allowed, in retrospect, that he may have lost his temper at some point.
He had begun railing vitriolically back at the retired Auror about the unbelievable level of danger he faced just walking into the Dark Lord's presence with the knowledge he held in his head, snarling vindictively that if even one of them, Gryffindors all, had half the courage he had in doing it, they'd certainly never have had the ingenuity to pull it off. He'd tossed out at the end that they may yet be rid of him, since he was at his wit's end, and that if he pressed any further, the Dark Lord would certainly make him out, and would make him beg before the end.
"He'll do to me exactly what you've been itching to do to me since you laid that ridiculous whirling contraption you call an eye on me! But he'll make it last much, much longer. Don't you understand that, you gibbering old loon? I AM a traitor, to the Dark Lord! Have you any inkling of what awaits me if I'm caught?"
The old wizard's face had been boiling redder and redder, and finally he'd burst out and shouted it.
"Better you than any of us!"
Lupin had snapped Moody's name in censure – but the tone in his voice hadn't denied the words, only insinuated that they were something Moody shouldn't have said out loud. Snape had looked around the room at those gathered, and he hadn't seen a single inkling that any of them thought any differently. Even Molly Weasley, the motherly matron of Order headquarters, was fiddling with a loose thread on her blouse and refusing to meet his eyes. And of course he'd known it. He'd known perfectly well that not one of them would have batted an eye to learn he'd been tortured to death by the Dark Lord, that the only thing they'd miss from him was the occasional forewarning of Death Eater plans – and even then, many would be relieved to be unburdened of what little debt they felt they'd owe to him for his efforts.
He'd known all this all along, so it shouldn't have made his chest ache so hollowly, or his eyes burn with more than their usual overflowing, directionless rage. Yet he would rather have been writhing under the Dark Lord's wand than show them just how much it hurt, so he'd straightened to his full height, set his face in a stone mask, snapped something icy and spiteful, but pitifully generic, and feeling like a coward, had fled back to Hogwarts.
It had been well after curfew by that time, so he'd stormed in through the front door rather than making his way to his usual entrance, a small side door on the far side of the castle near the lake. He'd been so tired, and so angry, that he hadn't realized he wasn't alone in the corridors until he'd heard the voices echoing around the next corner. Instantly shocked into action by his inattention to his surroundings, instinct had taken over and he'd ducked into a nearby nook in the wall that housed a statue of Dorcus the Deranged.
A pair of Gryffindor prefects on patrol had rounded the bend just as the hem of his black cloak fluttered in to meld with the shadows.
"You're being ridiculous, Ronald!" Hermione Granger snapped primly, walking stiffly, her back ramrod straight in response to her apparent ire. "I can't believe you think I'd abandon my friends!"
"I don't think you'd abandon us! All I'm saying is I'd feel better if you'd hang back when the fighting starts. You know, tend the wounded or whatnot," Ron Weasley replied, in what would have sounded like a perfectly reasonable tone if he hadn't been unintentionally insulting his counterpart. "Girls make great nurses."
"I'm perfectly capable fighting!" Granger hissed, stopping to turn on the red-head directly in front of the nook where Severus had secreted himself. She pointed an accusing finger in the boy's face. "You make it sound as though women can't fight at all!"
Severus remembered narrowing his eyes in irritation, and had contemplated stepping out of the shadows and scaring both students into silence, but that would have begged an explanation as to why he was lurking around behind a statue in the first place. The moment for looming out of the shadows like a boggart had passed by then; if he'd done it then, he'd have look odd rather than frightening and he'd had enough of being the object of ridicule for one day. He'd decided to wait out their teen angst and then reward himself with a fifth of Old Ogden's and a vial of Dreamless Sleep.
That decision, he only now realized, had been the axis upon which his whole world had shifted.
"You know that's not what I mean," Weasley countered, looking disgruntled. "We both know you're brilliant with a wand. And there's Tonks, she's great, and you know Ginny's a demon with hexes. Loads of girls can fight."
Even socially awkward as he was, Severus knew the boy should have stopped talking right then and there. But a Weasley was never finished until he'd stuffed at least one foot in his mouth.
"'Course, you lot do have a tendency to cry over the least little thing. Can't stop when the hexes are flying to dab you face with a hanky. And you know you'll cry. You're too soft for your own good."
Granger's eyes had went dangerously wide, and Severus' mood had brightened just a bit in hopes that she might hex start hexing off pieces of Weasley's body. But she let him down by merely snapping back at him, her voice brittle with indignation.
"I would NOT! In case you hadn't noticed, I've been here all along beside Harry and you. I didn't cry any more than you!"
"You did! You cried when you read about those Death Eater attacks in the Prophet last week!"
"My eyes may have misted, but what's the harm? It's terrible what happened to those people!"
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing to be tender-hearted. It's great. You're great. But you can't find yourself feeling sorry for a bloke while he's trying to hex you to death! Face it, Hermione, you've got more than your share of soft spots, and they tend to make you act in an… an irrational manner!"
"Irrational? IRRATIONAL!" The girl had actually stomped her foot, wincing as the unyielding stone jarred her leg. "What's that supposed to mean!"
"Don't pretend you don't know," Weasley retorted, his reasonable tone long gone in response to Granger's determined fury. "Trying to free house elves? Dating Krum in order to 'foster international magical cooperation'" – he'd said that last in a high falsetto and thrown up his fingers in air quotes – "Blimey, Hermione, you never miss a chance to defend Snape, of all people!"
"It's Professor Snape!" Granger had ground out through gritted teeth. "And that's different! Why can't you fit it into your head that he's on our side? He puts himself at great personal risk for all our sakes, and all you and Harry can do is complain about him, just because he's vile to us in class. Honestly! I'm starting to see why he doesn't like you!"
"It's not just us he doesn't like," Weasley spat back, and the girl flinched visibly. "But he's so much better than your best mates now, is he? How can you even joke about that?"
"Don't be daft! But he's been our professor all these years! He's taught us all this time, protected us all this time, even after being defied and insulted and hexed and stolen from and set on fire!"
"Sure, not to mention being cruel and nasty to anyone who happens to be a Gryffindor, and playing favorites with his own house, and terrorizing anyone who so much as blinks the wrong way in class. Bet he gets some kind of sick thrill out it."
"And you know he didn't properly teach Harry occlumency. If he had, Harry would have been able to keep You-Know-Who out of his head, and Sirius might not have been killed!"
"Harry didn't want to keep You-Know-Who out of his head back then, he admitted that himself. And Professor Snape was the one who sent the Order to the Ministry after us, Ronald, or had you forgotten that? If it hadn't been for him, all of us might have been killed!"
"Come on, 'Mione, you can't seriously tell me you'd shed even a single tear if that slimy git got cursed in the back by one of his Death Eater friends. It would serve him right for straddling the fence like he does."
"That's awful, Ron! Of course I would! He deserves as much consideration as anyone else! I can't believe you wouldn't shed even a single tear for someone that's been a part of your life for so long, even as mean-tempered and unfair as he is! If he were to be… k-killed, I'd shed just as many tears for him as for any one of our friends and allies!"
"See! That's my point exactly," Weasley replied evenly, smugness smoothing over his ruffled fur, "If you'd cry over Snape, you're too soft hearted for battle. Now promise me you'll keep back when the fighting starts. I'll have Harry's back, and you can take care of all our 'friends and allies' with Madam Pomfrey."
At that point, Granger had emitted a high pitched shriek of fury, thrown her hands up in the air and stalked off down the corridor, the red-headed fool in tow, still demanding she acquiesce and play the damsel to his knight-in-red-and-gold-armor.
It had been several minutes after they'd gone before Severus had emerged from the dark corner where he'd been listening and gripping Dorcus the Deranged's crooked cape in a white knuckled grip. It hadn't been Weasley's disrespect that had had him holding onto the statue like a lifeline; that had been nothing new or shocking.
"He deserves as much consideration as anyone else!"
That's what the girl had said. She'd thrown it out passionately, but off-handedly, just another verbal weapon in a turbulent war of words with someone she actually cared about. They were just words. They hadn't meant anything; they couldn't have. He'd known he was just another teacher to her, certainly no more important than any other, definitely least preferred, and that she'd certainly disliked him as much as any of her peers. She was just a kind girl, much kinder than he'd ever credited her if she was sincere, though even he'd never be blind enough to call her soft-hearted. Her word had been a drop of water in a desert.
But even a drop of water is irresistible to a man dying of thirst.
One of Severus' more pathetic day dreams in those days – one that he would hex his own arm off before ever admitting to anyone, for any reason – was that, if he should be cut down in the line of duty, the members of the Order would honor him the way they had honored that imbecile, Sirius Black. Something embarrassingly weak and, yes, needy inside him had longed to believe that they would finally acknowledge him as one of their own, even if only in memory. In his most maudlin fantasies (usually when he'd had a bit too much fire whiskey) there would be someone to cry over the loss of him. Since he was dreaming impossible things, it was usually Lily Evans he'd imagined crying for him, and she wasn't dead and he wasn't to blame for it. But in reality, anyone would have sufficed, so long as someone cared… It was a selfish, silly, childish wish, an entirely foolhardy one considering how much effort he put into pushing people away. But emotions and dreams are rarely a matter of logic.
That night, he had walked out from behind the statue and found himself staring down the corridor in the direction Granger had disappeared, thinking about that stupid dream, berating himself for connecting the girl's words with his own idiotic yearning to be accepted. It was ridiculous, irrational and pathetic, that warm, almost agonizing feeling that had prickled from the core of his chest into his extremities at the thought that someone, anyone, gave a fig whether he lived or died; the idea that someone might mourn him had made him feel as though perhaps he were not totally alone.
He hadn't realized the danger he was in back then. How could he have? She was nobody to him, just a know-it-all Gryffindor child with a tangled mass of frizz sprouting from her head and a book permanently attached to her nose. No sane, thinking person would have, could have, fathomed that he might ever…
In any case, it had never mattered, not in the larger sense. He'd always have done what needed to be done, whether there was someone to miss him or not. It shouldn't have affected anything in the least.
But after that night, Severus had never again spoken a cross word to Hermione Granger in class, even if it meant missing chances to belittle her for her incessant hand waving or occasionally ignoring the illicit advice she foisted on other students while brewing. He'd known all the while that the right and logical thing to do would have been to take advantage of her naiveté, run her into the ground, take every last house point he could wring from her, punish her for ever being foolish enough to waste a moment's thought on someone like him, even that little bit… and yet, totally inane, and groundless as his behavior was, every time he'd seen her face turned attentively in his direction, he'd heard those words…
"He deserves as much consideration as anyone else!"
…and in spite of himself, all his anger, and under that, his loneliness, dulled and faded into the background, and at those times all he'd felt was hope.
"While there's life, there's hope." –Cicero
The second blow had been driven home just after the final confrontation with the Dark Lord.
Severus' role had been relatively simple, if extraordinarily dangerous. It had been executed almost completely in the proverbial dark. Dumbledore had felt it best not to include 'unnecessary details' in his instructions to his pet spy, just in case Severus should be 'compromised' at any point leading up to the endgame. So without warning, Severus had been handed a silver pin, which had been charmed into a portkey, and had been instructed to get close to the Dark Lord. Upon seeing the signal, he was to stick the Dark Lord with the pin and activate it to transport him to the desired location, at which point Severus' part in the plan would be 'over'.
Severus had not had the masochism to ask, but he had felt fairly secure in the notion that in this situation, "over" was to be considered synonymous with "dead" – whether he activated the portkey for the Dark Lord alone, or held on and was transported to the second location as well, the only two possible options had been to be cut down as a traitor by his fellow Death Eaters, or swatted like a biting fly by the Dark Lord when they landed. Dumbledore had to have known it. They had all known it. But Severus was had only ever been as valuable as he was useful. Once his uses had run out, he was perfectly expendable. This plan had merely reflected the practical reality of that theory.
Moody's words had echoed in his memory as he donned his cloak and mask that night when he was called to assemble with the rest of the Death Eaters to storm the castle.
"Better you than any of us!"
Then on their heels he'd unguardedly recalled Hermione Granger's words…
"He deserves the same consideration as anyone else!"
… and he'd found himself, oddly enough, agreeing with Moody.
Curious things will run through a man's head when he's walking to the gallows. While he had had thoughts of many things – of Lily, of their childhood, of old wishes and regrets, of the frog livers he'd left half-chopped on his work table in preparation for the Fourth year potions assignment next week – for some inexplicable reason, what had dominated his thoughts in that quiet before the storm, was that he was glad it was him that would die rather than Hermione Granger.
The confrontation had been remarkably quick in the end, or so Severus was later informed. When Dumbledore's bird had streamed across the sky in a blaze of phoenix song – trust the old man to come up with such a gaudy way to signal a covert operative to strike – Severus had simply lunged forward and jabbed the pin straight into the scant meat of the Dark Lord's shoulder. He'd then done his level best to hold on, having decided for himself to make his last stand amongst the Order and see to the plan carried out to the end, so far as he was able.
But for a single lucky shot, he probably would have died that day. It was an odd thing, the knowledge that he owed his survival to Lord Voldemort.
As it turned out, the sharp prick of the needle had startled the reptilian wizard so badly that he had jerked around and, half by accident Severus later thought, caught his attacker in the jaw with a clenched fist just as the portkey was beginning to spin away from the ground. As a result, Severus, rendered unconscious by that strong right hook, was flung ignobly across the battle field in an ungainly parody of the phoenix soaring above, to land at the top a nearby rise and tumble down the other side into a stand of trees on the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest.
By the time he'd come to, it had all been over for hours. The portkey had worked just as it should, embedded as it had been in the Dark Lord's flesh. Apparently Potter had performed a magic similar to that with which his mother had conjured defeated the Dark Lord the first time – by acting as a willing sacrifice. But when the curse hit him, rather than killing or leaving another mark, it had been conducted like an electrical current through the boy's curse scar, and, like an electrical current in a closed circuit, it had arced straight back to its origin. There had even been relatively few casualties on either side. At the moment the Dark Lord had died, anyone with a Dark Mark on their arm fell down in a swoon of driving pain and disorientation. By the time any of them had regained the wherewithal to put up a fight or run for the hills, they'd found themselves bound, wandless and swarmed by Aurors. It could not have gone better. The Dark Lord had died by the force of his own hatred, the Boy-Who-Lived had lived once again, and, for having engineered the whole affair, rumors of Dumbledore's power and omniscience were ratcheted up from epic to legendary.
As for Severus, he had regained consciousness as the sun was beginning to set amongst the sparse vegetation to find himself very much more alive than previously expected, though with the side of his face swollen to nearly twice it's proper size. Disoriented and astonished, for a long while he'd simply lain in the bed of dead leaves and absorbed the fact that he was still breathing. When, at length, lying in the brush had become more uncomfortable than moving, he'd hauled himself upright, clambered weakly back up the rise from which he'd tumbled, and searched for some sign of victory or defeat. He'd stood there, clinging to a tree trunk, and had gazed out the wide sweep of ground below that had been crowded with the dull roar and press of combat when last he'd seen it. However, by then it had been empty of any trace of activity, and silent except for the low, hollow moan of the wind. There hadn't even been any bodies left.
In that moment, alone atop the hill, his gratitude and relief at his continuing existence had stuttered and all but evaporated.
They had had time to take up the dead, but hadn't bothered to come looking for him.
Severus had seriously considered turning on the spot and leaving; just pointing himself in the opposite direction of everything he'd ever known, and walking away until he found some place where he didn't know anything or anyone, and no one and nothing knew him. He'd played his part, and his use had run out. What did it matter that he'd survived, he'd wondered? For all either side had known or cared, he might as well have been dead.
It couldn't have been any lonelier than that barren expanse of field in that long cold moment in the lengthening shadows.
It was mere happenstance that kept him from actually going; if he hadn't reached for his wand and found it missing, he'd probably have Disapparated on the spot. However, he'd lost it sometime during his impromptu flight out of commission. Capable as he was, he wouldn't have gotten very far without it. So, aching and stiff from hours lying on the cold ground, feeling extraordinarily sorry for himself, and only vaguely wondering – or caring at that point – which side had won the day, he'd begun searching the undergrowth.
Milling about amongst the trees, he had almost failed to notice the small movement through the dusk gathering in the depression of the land below the rise. Luckily he was looking down in his search, and he'd spotted her: Hermione Granger, face streaked with sweat and dirt, robes tattered, hair wilder than ever, hurrying through the gloaming of the low land, lit wand drooping at her side like little star in the twilight below. There she'd been, craning her head back and forth, and though her expression was lost in the semi-darkness, it had struck Severus as though she must be searching for something.
As he'd watched, she'd suddenly slowed, then put on a burst of speed, and then skidded to a halt. Cautiously, almost reluctantly, she had circled an apparently unremarkable patch of ground, before slowly crouching down, hand outstretched, only to rise once more with a dark, slender something in hand: his missing wand.
She'd had her back to him as he picked his way out of the tree line and down the hill toward her, standing curiously still, shoulders hunched, bushy head drooping, totally oblivious to the world around her. So when a twig had snapped under his boot, she'd gasped, startled, and whirled to face him, her riotous hair flying away from her face. It was in that moment that he had seen it. As she'd turned, quick as a wink, yet slowed in his memory to a frozen moment, the shattered twinkling of a single tear had broken from the trail on her cheek to hover in midair, suspended in the last rays of the failing sun, sparkling like a tiny jewel. Then it had gone, lost to the gathering night, and time would resume its normal rhythm.
"P-Professor!" she gasped, her jaw falling open, her red rimmed eyes lighting with surprise and something else that he couldn't quite decipher, but which never failed to snatch away his breath when he recalled it. "I thought… that is, you never returned after… and you weren't amongst the Death Eaters… everyone thought… but I just couldn't… I…"
After her stammering fizzled out, they had just stared at each other for a long moment, he as shocked as her. Because she had actually cried for him. She'd come looking for him when he hadn't returned, had believed him incapacitated, or worse, and had come alone into the oncoming dark to search for him. Deeply moved as he'd been by her defense of him, he'd always believed deep down that her words were just bravado and lip service. Even if she'd meant them in the heat of the moment, there had never been any reason he should ever have expected her to follow them through. Yet there she had stood, caught scouring the battlefield for him, tears still dripping from her chin to wet the length of his wand, which she had been clutching like a talisman. She'd believed him dead. And she had cried because of it.
He'd lost a piece of himself to her that day. And as much misery as it would come to cause him in the ensuing years, he could never bring himself to regret it.
For Severus could still have left in that moment, even after having been spotted and his survival confirmed; he could have taken his wand, said something cruel and breaking to her, and disappeared, never to be heard of again. It would have been best, kindest, smartest, most proper course, for himself and everyone else for whom he had already outlived his welcome. But – and the ugly irony of it was not lost on him – her tears had lit an aching fire in his chest, and as the hope she'd kindled the previous year glowed brighter. And for that, he had not had the strength to bring himself to walk away.
"Sir, you're hurt," she observed to break his reverie, real concern on her face as she'd eyed the swelling along his jaw. "You shouldn't Apparate with a head wound. Let me take you side-along back to the castle. I mean…" here she stumbled over her words, as though mortified with herself for the presumption, "I mean, if you'd trust me to do it."
She'd lifted her chin to glare defiantly at him, and though the effect was ostensibly ruined by the reddened puffiness of her eyes and nose, and the tear tracks in the dirt on her face, somehow he'd caught himself fighting not to smile at the picture she made. More importantly, he'd found that, all unwisely and without any solid foundation he could rightly identify, he had been sorely inclined to do as she asked and put his trust in her.
All he had been able to think in that moment was that she had said she'd cry for him if he died, and when she'd believed him dead, she had done it, and to this day, all he really knew for certain about that moment was that he had once again felt relief and gratitude that he had not been killed.
He'd rationalized to himself that he had no real choice but to comply with her request – his head was quite bruised, after all – and clung to his transparent reasoning quite tenaciously as he'd stepped beside her and surprised her by taking her hands and staring down at her, wordless and expectant. He'd denied to himself long and hard that his faith in her was anything more than purely rational, assiduously rejecting any notion that he'd found himself wanting to be closer to her, talk with her, trust her – to stand close by her side and let her sweep him away.
But that flickering ember she'd unintentionally kindled that night in the corridor was steadily growing into a crackling flame as she fed it little bits of tinder with her words and her tears and her kind, genuine heart. Yet even then, even as he began to feel the effects of the gentle glow she'd ignited inside him, it had not boiled up to a true blaze – it was not yet the inferno of passion and pining that it was destined to become.
"Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man." – Nietzsche
The final straw would not come for another year.
After the Dark Lord's defeat, the Dark Mark was gone from his arm, nothing but a faded white scar left to show for the greatest mistake of his life, and as such Severus had found himself cast adrift, at a loss as to what to do with himself. His part in the Dark Lord's defeat was made public, though thankfully not his motivations, and though he was given his share attention – and scrutiny – over the victory, once the jubilations died down and life slowly returned to normal, so did the general population's tacit avoidance of his company. (Minerva, Filius, Hagrid and Albus alone had gone out of their way to express their felicitations on his continued existence – though not one of them had come looking for him in all those hours he'd lain unconscious in the woods, so it was hard not to take their well wishes with a generous measure of cynicism.) He supposed he could have left the school, gone out into the world and done something else with his life now that he was free to live it as he wished. It would have been understandable, expected, and Merlin knows his student's would have thanked him warmly for it as they helped him pack. Yet somehow he just couldn't manage to make himself go. Hogwarts had been the center of his world for most of his life in one capacity or another, so that even with all the hard and painful memories that lurked around every corner, his roots had grown deeper into the castle's foundation than his scars into his mind and heart, and he could not bring himself to leave.
That, and, of course, there was always, always hope, scant, foolish, formless, but undeniable. Back then, he hadn't really understood what it was. Stubbornly clinging to what passed for normality and continuing to inflict himself on his coworkers and students long after anyone thought it desirable or necessary without really knowing why, he would not understand that it was a new, even more foolish and hopeless wish than any that had come before, until exactly one year after the victory.
On that evening, one year later, the Order of the Phoenix had gathered at Headquarters to celebrate the anniversary of their glorious triumph. The place had doubled as Harry Potter's home ever since he and his class had sat their NEWTs fourteen months before, but it was still a place various Order members tended to congregate frequently, and the possibility seemed quite real that the boy – the young man – would never get to use it as a private residence. Not that Severus cared in the slightest. He never set foot in the place if he could help it.
That evening, he had not, in fact, been able to help it. Albus had insisted that Severus 'get out and be sociable'. His reasons were unfathomable as ever, since there had been no misapprehension that anyone would welcome his presence, or miss him if he was absent. Yet Severus had grown used to following Dumbledore's cumbersome commands, and was apparently too set in his ways to change. That was how he ended up skulking in the darkest corner of the sitting room at Grimmauld Place, listening to one person after another give speech about bravery and courage and good triumphing over evil, while the rest raised their glasses and cheered. It hadn't exactly been the longest forty-five minutes of his life, but it was a near thing.
Once they'd all finished officially congratulating themselves, and had dissolved into a milling crowd to mingle and laugh and rehash old stories, Severus had decided he'd done his duty to his employer and had felt well within his rights to sidle out into the night and slink back to his dungeon.
That hope had been dashed when he'd reached the door and found it had been charmed to prevent him from leaving. The old man always had been a controlling old menace.
Instead of storming back into the midst of the party and demanding to be set free, he'd opted the path of least resistance, and had instead made his way down into the basement. A makeshift potions laboratory had been set up there during the war, and though it wasn't often used any longer, it had been maintained and fairly well stocked by the menacing yet shockingly capable old house elf that still haunted the crumbling house. Severus had busied himself with checking the various perishables, on the basis that if he was forced to stay, he might as well put his time to good use. He'd needed some distraction anyway. Because, he'd been grudgingly forced to admit, the one possible bright point of the evening, that which had swayed him to stand quietly and endure the inane prattle on heroism and virtue and black-and-white ideals of right and wrong, had been the hope of seeing her for the first time in so many months.
Yet she had not come.
He hadn't liked to think, as he skimmed the film off the surface of the jug of horklump juice, why she would have missed this gathering where so many of her friends and friendly acquaintances would be gathered in once place. But he could have helped it if he'd really tried. He had heard, in passing conversation at the high table some weeks prior, that she was engaged to be married. To Ron Weasley. Just thinking of it had been enough to bring a disgusted sneer to his face, and make him slam a jar of bat livers down on the work bench with enough force to slosh the sticky suspension all over the scarred wood.
Yet in spite of the insupportable fact of her determination to waste herself on that fool, even disappointed as he had been that she would throw her future away so easily, still he had found himself hoping to see her one last time before she became confined as a brood mare and short-order cook for the flock of red-headed menaces that her fiancé's family was notorious for spawning. He'd had an unaccountable impulse to talk with her, perhaps reminisce with her like the people upstairs did with each other, in such a way as indicated their sense of belonging… which was completely irrational. There would have been be nothing for them to talk of or reminisce over, except his excessive punishment of her and her friends as their professor, or their defiance of him throughout their school career. There had never been the least camaraderie or belonging between them, other than his one-sided regard for her indiscriminate kindness. He'd been completely unable to understand his own thinking. The fact that she had not been in that sea of unwelcoming faces, even for just a glance if not a conversation, had been a far more crushing a blow than he'd been able to explain to himself. But he'd wished for it, all the same.
Wishing was not something that had ever proven useful to Severus. In his experience, wishing for something was mostly just asking to be disappointed. So he was understandably incredulous when, moments after he'd entertained that train of thought, the basement door had creaked open and light footfalls had pounded down the rickety old steps. And who should appear at the mouth of the stairwell, but Granger herself.
She wore understated dark green robes, modest but flattering. Her hair, once so unmanageable, had been tamed into gentler curls so that it fell in voluminous curling waves to frame her pretty face, which seemed to have lost its last vestiges of childishness along with the rest of her figure. Even the way she walked, with a new measure of self-possession that lent her an everyday grace, bespoke blossoming adulthood. Her warm brown eyes were downcast under a troubled brow, so she did not see him staring, stricken with the woman she had become since their last meeting. Looking at her now, he could not quite picture the irritating, bucktoothed, frizz-headed eleven-year-old with a hand waving frantically toward the rafters.
The warmth of her fire that lived in his chest flared brightly as it connected to the woman in front of him and burst outward into his extremities, then finally into his head, and his eyelids fell closed as he had finally, at long last, recognized the net he'd been snared in.
She chose that moment to look up and notice him.
"Professor!" she said, her face instantly brightening, just for him, causing his heart to leap painfully in his chest. "I didn't realize you were here. "
"I am not here by choice, Miss Granger," he snapped, cringing inside and despising himself in that moment for his incontrovertibly sour disposition. "The headmaster has forbidden me to leave until the festivities have run their course."
"Oh, I see," she replied, and her eyes and tone had become somber once more. He was tempted to jab himself with one lionfish spines he was inspecting for causing the light to leave her face. "That's a bit overbearing of him." Severus could only grunt in agreement, forcing himself to continue moving lionfish spines from the bench to the jar, though he'd stopped even attempting to actually count them. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you; I'll just let you get back to it."
He very nearly begged her not to go. Somehow, he managed to produce something less mortifying, though equally outside of his character.
"You obviously came down here for a reason. You are not bothering me."
Surprise registered on her face, then it softened, and he had to look away so as to avoid letting his hopes climb her expression. She was just kind, nothing more. Nothing more. His heart contracted so hard that it hurt to breathe.
"You're right, I did" she sighed, turning to watch him with a steady, thoughtful expression until he was forced to turn and fetch down a jar of doxie to keep from doing something rash. "I suppose you're not the only one who came down here to hide."
He glanced up incredulously at her at that presumptive comment, and she shot him a rueful, unrepentant smile that caused his fingers to spasm around one of the doxie eggs with a tiny crunch that thankfully was only audible to him. Swallowing against his suddenly racing pulse, he gave his best to be more engaging company. His best, admittedly, wasn't much.
"What possible need could you have to hide from amongst that gaggle of loud mouthed Gryffindors upstairs? They all like you well enough, I'm sure," he'd murmured as he pulled down a bin of dried valerian sprigs and began picking out the rotted bits. Curiously unable to stop his disobedient tongue, he added without meaning to, "Won't your husband-to-be miss you decorating his arm?"
Granger grimaced at that and Severus very nearly banged his head down on the table in frustration with himself. He had never been able to talk to a pretty girl, or a lovely woman, as the case may be; the prettier she was, the worse his mouth cocked things up. Hermione Granger had never been a great beauty, but right then, all grown up, and smiling just for him, he found that she was the loveliest, most charming woman he'd ever laid eyes on – which seemed only a guarantee that he must offend her irrevocably in the near future.
However, to his amazement and profound relief, her rueful smile returned, even though her brow knit and her eyes dropped to examine the stone floor.
"No, actually, I don't imagine so," she confided him, stepping farther into the room and pulling an empty basin and a jar of pickled eels off the far end of the shelves. She fished a pair of silver tongs from one of the cabinets and began counting slimy creatures out into the basin. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, opening his mouth to say that he didn't need her help – that she shouldn't ruin those figure-flattering robes to help him count pickled eels – but she saved him from detriment and humiliation as she spoke again, cutting him off. "I might as well come out with it, since it will get around soon enough. It turns out that Ronald and I aren't really right for each other."
She dumped the basin of eels back into their jar, before taking up the quill he'd laid out in he center of the table and marking down the numbers she'd counted, never noticing the way Severus' hands stilled mid stroke in counting scarab shells.
"It's not that we don't care for each other," she chattered on, oblivious, "We do. It's just that we've got so little in common, other than our friends and fighting Voldemort."
Severus cringed at the sound of that name, even knowing the old snake was dead and rotting, but even in his discomfort, his mind began unconsciously scrabbling about for things that she might discover she had in common with him… It came up inauspiciously blank. He knew so little about her. And he suddenly found he wanted desperately to know more.
"But the attraction only survived through the excitement of the war," she'd continued to confide, completely unaware of the massive paradigm shift that was taking place four feet to her left. "And once it ended… it ended. We were talking it through, and that's why we were late. Well, talking, shouting…" she sighed and started scooping the clots of the flobberworm mucous out of the next jar with a strainer. "We've come to the understanding that we'll always be friends – or more accurately, we'll eventually be friends again – but we aren't right as lovers anymore. So no," here she turned another sad little smile on him, and his heart had ached at the picture she made as she looked up at him, even with her slender fingers dripping sticky green slime, "since he's not my husband-to-be any longer, I don't imagine he's very keen on seeing me at the moment. It will blow over, but I really don't think any of the Weasleys want to see much of me right now."
Severus, his count of scarab shells hopelessly lost, could only turn away and stare sightlessly at the workbench, processing her words and trying to temper the sudden, fierce elation at her admission.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I don't mean to be such a bore," she went on, mistaking his silence for irritation. She set the jar aside, vanishing he unusable mess and stepped up beside him.
He was forced to clench his jaw and dig his fingers into the wood of the bench to keep from turning to look at her, because he was quite certain that if he had, he would have said or done something incredibly stupid, like tell her she could never bore him, that she could stand there and read from the muggle telephone book and he'd be a captive audience for as long as she would have him. Fortunately, she didn't expect much from him – smart woman – and continued talking.
"It's really none of your concern, is it? But here I am unloading all my troubles on you. We always seem to be causing you trouble, my friends and I. I suppose it's because on some level we always knew we could trust you. That's why we kept pushing you. Harry and Ron would never admit it, but you never let us down. Not once."
Severus had to struggle to breathe normally when her delicate little hand came to rest on his upper arm. Without his permission, his head had turned so that he was looking straight down into her warm brown eyes.
"I don't think I ever really thanked you. For everything you've done for us. I don't think anyone has. That's not right. None of this" here she'd gestured vaguely towards the ceiling, and the party going strong overhead, "would have been possible without you." Her eyes were as soft as her voice when she spoke, and he'd been assaulted by a sudden urge to lean down and kiss her. "Thank you so much, for everything."
And just like that, he suddenly understood what it was he had been hoping for all that time.
He was in love with her.
Yes, damn it all, in love. Completely, irrevocably, undeniably in love. With her. With irritating, exasperating, chatterbox, know-it-all, kind, brilliant, beautiful Hermione Granger. Desperately, passionately, had been for ages, and hadn't even known it. All his hope had been radiating outward from that simple, impossible truth.
He was still unsure to this day how he'd forced his mouth to form an appropriate reply. Probably because he assumed she expected one, and he had been all but frantic to please her.
"Thanks are not necessary, Miss Granger. I did nothing more than was my duty, nor any more than anyone else."
She glanced at him sidelong, and then turned back to picking through slices of kelpie liver.
"I think we both know that's not true," she replied quietly. "They never treated you like you belonged, even though you were risking yourself the most. And it wasn't from fear of losing you that they kept you at arms length. It was out of selfish egotism and pride. None of them have ever given you the appreciation you deserve." Her voice was filled with quiet conviction as she ended her monologue, and though they'd both kept their faces trained firmly on the workbench, he could clearly see on a sideways glance, the blush rising high her cheeks at her sweeping statement.
Merlin, how he'd wanted her in that moment, as they'd worked silently beside each other, her declaration hanging in the stagnant air around them like a fragrant garland. He felt sure he hadn't desired her before that day, but right then, he'd wanted her in every possible sense, and he knew from that moment on that if he could find a way to have her, he'd never be fool enough let her go like that brainless prat, Weasley. It was impossible, of course, and nothing short of an extremely powerful Confundus charm could make him forget that. Yet she'd made the impossible real for him before, and his poor, foolish heart had cracked open with hope that she could do it again, and…
No, not this time. He'd known that he mustn't let himself get carried way, then or now. A man like him did not merit so many miracles and even such a woman as she did not work them so often as that. Just one look at her, young, hopeful, oblivious as she'd stood beside him that evening, smiling with the same kindness she'd show anyone else, had said it all. He was no one special to her – it was she who was special in her undifferentiated kindness to one and all, even a bitter, biting man like him. She may be kind, polite, respectful, but she would never have him. It was impossible, and he must be content with the absolution and appreciation she had given him. Somehow, he would have to subsist.
Yet, even as she'd wiped her hands on a towel and bid him an airy good evening in counter to the weighty atmosphere she'd created, explaining that she really should greet some old friends, and walking back up the stairs and out of his life – even as he enumerated all the ways in which it was impossible and insupportable – he had not been able to bring himself to kill that formless, indefinable hope that now raged like a wild fire behind his ribs and seared his veins like molten gold.
He would continue to languish in that impossible hope that her insightful words and sweet, unpretentious smile provoked until it burned him to ash, because that was a better fate than the cold, brutal reality that she would never see him as he saw her. A fool's hope and hopeless dreams would keep him warm as he huddled around them on long lonely nights in the years without her that followed.
"Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets." –Miller
That night had been over four years ago. Severus had been certain that as time passed, the flame he carried for her would fade and crystallize into something achingly beautiful but finite and finished. He'd intended to enshrine it firmly in the realm of memory, as he had done with his love for Lily Evans. But as the days and months passed, and the longing never diminished, he'd been forced to admit to himself that her fire warmed him in new and unexpected ways. It wasn't like the heat that Lily had lit in him; that had been bright and immediate as the sun, burning and blinding him even as he longed for it. This warmth that Granger – Granger of all people! He could scarcely believe it, even now – had engendered was like the slow-burning steady warmth of a hearth fire that pushes back the darkness without overwhelming it, and drives the chill from the bones on a cold lonely night. He could constantly feel the ache of that bone deep cold, and he longed for her warmth.
Last summer, she had discreetly applied for the once again vacant Defense Against the Dark Arts the post – Professor Allisby had, remarkably, lasted nearly five years in the post before returning to his career as an Unspeakable, proving once and for all that the curse on the position had been broken. The Headmaster had thought it a great joke to keep her appointment a secret until after the Sorting Ceremony, as a surprise for all the staff members who'd hailed Granger as the best student any of them had ever taught. The old man had had hearty laugh at the exclamations of surprise and delight on his coworkers' faces, which caused a chorus of cheers and laughter from the assembly of students. Severus did not know what his face had shown, but he hadn't stuck around long enough for it to matter. He'd muttered something about a headache potion that needed brewing, and then he'd bolted like a fox with a pack of blood hounds baying at its heels.
Her appearance that evening, when she'd suddenly stood before him like a dream brought to life, would be forever etched in stone in his memory. The years had made her even more beautiful. Her mien was confident and uniquely graceful, yet her countenance was open and approachable. She'd bloomed more thoroughly than anyone could have imagined looking at her as child, a true ugly duckling becoming a swan.
He'd ached for her all this time. Yet now that she had appeared before him, he didn't know how to bear her presence; not without alienating her and making an utter fool of himself.
So as he sat at his desk one week hence, head in his hands, mind whirling, he did not know how he was going to walk into the Great Hall and sit down beside her and pretend that he had not thought of her each day and dreamed of her each night since they'd last spoken. If he were to look her warm brown eyes, as he had that night four years ago, he was not altogether certain that he could stop himself from laying his heart out at her feet. Or worse, simply folding his arms around her, and brushing his lips against hers, lightly, once, twice, then claiming them with all the bruising force of his pent up longing as he pressed her against him…
"Oh, Merlin," he murmured, trying to push the mental image away, dropping his hands and letting his head fall backwards to stare sightlessly that the rafters. "What am I going to do?"
The one thing was certain of was that he must not do all that he longed most to do. No matter how wonderfully warm and willing she could be in his rather active fantasy life, he had never been more certain of anything than that she would not welcome or appreciate his feelings or attentions. He lived in dread of her discovering him, and not only for the painful myriad of possible forms her rejection could take. Though he hardly understood it himself, the truth was that the finality of her inevitable rejection would also mean an inglorious end to that fiery seed of hope that torments every unrequited lover who still craves for the object of their admiration. Bittersweet and painful, it was still a paradise to be allowed to hope, even in such a hopeless case as this, compared to the alternative. Once he heard her words of rebuff, that seed would be extinguished forever. He could not bear the thought of that. He could not allow it.
He would just have to find a way to maintain his composure, keep his distance and limit their interaction. He had no choice. He had undertaken many more difficult and dangerous errands in the past, and deceived warier and wilier individuals. Surely he was capable of convincing one hopelessly honest Gryffindor woman that he had no special feelings for her.
Just then, there was a knock at his office door. Severus glanced at the clock and grimaced. Time had flown by while he sat there lost in thought and the dinner hour had arrived. Apparently Albus had decided not to leave his compliance to chance and had come to collect him personally.
With a huff, Severus thrust himself to his feet, making an effort to bury his turbulent passions by concentrating on his exasperation with the headmaster. Scowling magnificently, he stormed to the door and threw it open.
That was how he found himself staring down into the warm brown eyes of Professor Granger.
She startled at the suddenness of his appearance, but recovered herself quickly, and offered him a genial, if tentative smile.
"Good evening, Professor Snape," she said, sounding rather more formal than was strictly necessary. "The Headmaster asked me to… or rather, he suggested that… that is…" she sighed, and glanced away down the hallway, then looked up at him almost pleadingly, as though he might be able to tell her why she was standing in the doorway to his office. "The Headmaster told me to come down and remind you that dinner is about to be served."
She shrugged apologetically, as if to say she was just as much a victim of the Headmaster's inconceivable behavior as he.
Severus spent several seconds contemplating various ways in which he could murder Albus Dumbledore and get away with it, before forcing himself back to the crisis at hand. Apparently his employer, convinced Severus was trying to alienate his colleague out of distaste, had taken it on himself to force her company upon him. Dumbledore should have realized that such a tactic would never have worked if Severus truly disliked the woman; it would only have served as a form of torture to his unwitting sacrifice, Miss Granger. Even as it was, with his heart trying to pound its way through his ribcage and his arms aching to dart out and pull her close, his first instinct was still to verbally eviscerate her and send her running back up into the light of day where she belonged, away from the darkness and dank in which he dwelt.
Before he could open his mouth to do some form of irreparable damage, she spoke again. She was always saving him in the oddest ways.
"If I may, Professor," she began, shifting nervously on her feet and avoiding his eyes, "I know that you and I have never been on particularly cordial terms, b-but… well, I think the reason the Headmaster sent me down here is because I've…" her face twisted up as though she had something unpleasant in her mouth, "I have to confess I've been avoiding you this past week. Not," she went on, too hastily to let any possible implications sink in, "because I'm averse to your company, sir, but it's rather because I've been unsure of how to work with you professionally or interact with you socially. I… oh, bother…" she muttered, face flaming.
Severus just stood there, jaw locked, unable to say or do anything for fear of what words or actions his body might decide to manifest without his permission. After a pregnant pause, during which she seemed to gather up her courage, she straightened her spine, looked him hard in the eye, and, in true Gryffindor form, balled up what she was trying to say and all but threw it at him.
"I-I think we should start over!" she practically shouted, then scrunched her eyes closed, either in embarrassment over her own theatrics, or as though anticipating some verbal or physical blow. When neither fell upon her she opened her eyes and bit her lip as she glanced anxiously up at him. "I know you probably see me as the same know-it-all nuisance as when I was a student, but I have matured somewhat since then, and I'm sure that if we let bygones be bygones, we could learn to get along. At least, well enough to keep the Headmaster from pestering either of us…" She pursed her lips suddenly, her brow drawing down as she finally turned the full force of her gaze on him. "Will you stop just standing there and say something?" she demanded tartly, crossing her arms and hunching her shoulders defensively.
He blinked down at her. What could he say? Hope, that exquisitely smoldering seed, was burning a hole in his chest.
"That would… be… acceptable, Miss Granger."
Just like that her face smoothed out and she stood straighter and he nearly became light headed with the radiant smile she bestowed upon him. Right then and there he vowed to learn the secrets of putting that smile on her face as often as possible.
"Wonderful!" she breathed, clearly relieved at his quick compliance. "Well then, may I escort you to dinner, Professor, before the Headmaster sends a search party for us?"
As Severus fell into step beside her, glancing at her from the corner of his eye every now and then, the painful burning in his chest began to ease ever so slightly as his mind caught up with the reality that he was allowed to be there, that she had asked him to be there, if only just to foster a bearable working relationship. A knot that had been pulled tight in his gut seemed to work itself loose and his breathing seemed to come more easily, enough that he found he could speak.
"How do you find the experience of teaching, so far?" he found himself asking.
He immediately regretted opening his mouth. Severus was, admittedly, a complete hack at natural human interaction; he could flatter a superior, or intimidate a subordinate, but equality was too delicate a balancing act. So to his ears, it was an inane, frivolous kind of question, of the sort designed to instigate agonizingly generic impersonal dialogue to fill awkward silences. But it was the only thing he could think of that they currently had in common. Hadn't she said that night in the basement of Grimmauld Place, that she liked a man she had something in common with? Maybe… he nipped that line of thought in the bud. There was no conceivable way he could impress her with such drivel…
Yet amazingly, it worked. That single question was like dropping a lit match on a haystack; the whole thing went up and suddenly Granger was talking animatedly a mile a minute, about her successes, and her setbacks, about certain students she thought were promising, others she knew would give her trouble. It was an odd thing; he distinctly remembered her constant chatter being the most annoying thing about her as a child. Now, it was comforting, almost soothing to listen to her ramble on with nervous amiability. With the burden of filling the silence – and inevitably ruining any hope of civility with his tendency to snap and snarl – lifted from his shoulders, her easy acceptance of his presence at her side sent all his worries sinking below the surface of his mind, and though the nervous tension humming through his frame refused to slacken, he found himself enjoying her company more than dreading it.
As they started up the stair case, she began asking him questions, mostly about teaching, nothing deep or dramatic, but about things that concerned them both, like lesson plans and chaperoning rotations for Hogsmeade weekends. Most shocking of all, he found himself replying and reciprocating, and though he sounded stilted and forbidding to his own ears, Granger didn't seem to mind, or at the very least was determined to forge some kind of cordiality in spite of it.
By the time they had reached the Great Hall, they were having a genuine conversation. The kind he'd heard traded amongst the other professors, or between members of the Order… It was so surreal a development that his head was spinning as he sank into his chair, separated from her – with a polite word from her, a small nod from him – by the seating arrangement at the High Table. He couldn't even summon up the indignation to return the openly amused expression the Headmaster directed at him with anything more than a cursory sneer. As he took his gaze away from the Headmaster, he caught Granger looking in his direction. She glanced at the Headmaster, and offered Severus a conspiratory smirk before turning back to her conversation with Aurora Sinestra.
That burning seed of hope in his chest felt as though it had cracked open and spread its vines throughout his body, not burning now, just warm. That warmth twined with the warmth of Granger's sudden new nearness, and drove back the worst that all-pervading chill of loneliness from his bones. It was pathetic really, how quickly she'd turned all his fears away in the course of a single brief interaction. He'd get around to berating himself for being so weak-minded and dropping his guard so carelessly later. At the moment he was too busy making sure his hair fell forward to adequately hide his face as he picked at his potatoes, or the little upward tilt that he could not seem to wrest from the corners of his mouth would have ruined his fearsome reputation with the student body.
To think it could be so easy, so relaxing, so enjoyable, to simply talk with someone. Severus decided it probably wasn't – rather it was talking with her that was so pleasing.
He sighed earning an odd look from Pomona to his right, which he roundly ignored. Hermione Granger would never love him; considered logically, it wasn't something he could even pretend about. In fact, the distinct possibility existed that perhaps he'd never even persuade her to like him. She was a kind-hearted woman, who happened to have cried for an awkward, ugly, unpleasant man when she'd believed he'd died in the line of duty, but desired nothing more of his company than a workable professional association. Yet she had granted him the right to walk beside her through these ancient halls of his home from time to time. While that would never truly be enough to satisfy the cumbersome craving that gnawed at the blackened lump that he suspected housed his ill-used heart, it remained a singular prize. It was more than he'd ever had any right to hope for, and he'd be grateful for it if it killed him.
"My main hope for myself is to be where I am." –Harrelson
Time began to pass, as though nothing in the world were out of the ordinary, even though for Severus it would never be the same. The days passed into weeks, and then into months, and their paths crossed again and again in a series of moments, charmed and frustrating, strung together to fly past in a blur of mingled comfort, amazement, anxiety, wonder and always, always that bittersweet, golden glow of fleeting hope.
"Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all." -Dickinson
"Good afternoon, Professor Snape."
"What is it, Professor Granger?"
"Have you read the article in the latest article of Pioneering Potioneers Quarterly, on that new method for infusing diricawl quills in Lethe river water?"
"I was wondering if you could explain the thought process on the last three steps of the infusion. I can't understand why the temperature should be so high right up until the last step."
"I… I'm… that is… I am very busy, Miss Granger. Why not just go look it up in the library? The Restricted Section, perhaps? I recall you were always looking for the least excuse to tear around in there as a student. Why not make full use of it now that you have it at your disposal?"
"I can't see why I should go there, when I could come to you instead."
"You can't see why... you mean you actually came here first? Without even checking the library?"
"I am sorry, I can see now that you're very busy. My apologies, I won't bother you again."
"No! No, don't… I mean… come, sit down; I'll try to summarize the rationale behind his heating variance…"
"With thee, sweet Hope! resides the heav'nly light,
That pours remotest rapture on the sight:
Thine is the charm of life's bewilder'd way,
That calls each slumb'ring passion into play:"
"Oh! Good evening, Professor Snape!"
"You startled me! I didn't realize anyone was up here. No one ever comes up to the Astronomy Tower when it's this cold out."
"I was making my rounds. And you'd be surprised how often the students make the same assumption you did about the relative solitude to be had up here when they are up to no good. A warming charm is proof enough against the cold when you don't want an audience. Which begs the question of what you are doing up here all alone after curfew?"
"I am no longer a student, Professor, and have the privilege of going wherever I like, whenever I like. Please do not treat me like a child."
"No… I wouldn't dream of it."
"If you must know… well, it's a little embarrassing. It's just… I always enjoy seeing of the first snowfall of the season before it's disturbed. It's so quiet with the snow covering everything; it gives everyday things a feeling of mystery. And it's so rare to see it before it's all churned up by foot prints. I like to look out over it, let it make my mind quiet, and just think about whatever comes to mind."
"I hadn't realized you were so… whimsical."
"Hmph! Judge me if you must, Professor, but I won't be sorry for it."
"Not at all. I was merely thinking that you're full of surprises."
"… You have no idea… Anyway, I thought I could get an excellent view of the landscape from up here."
"…Very likely. Now if you'll excuse me…"
"I've always loved snow. Don't you?"
"It's cold and wet and inconvenient."
"And charming and picturesque and fun to play with."
"I shall take your word for it."
"No, come over here, stand beside me… Look there, at the way the moonlight sparkles on the ice. Isn't the view from here beautiful?"
"Oh, honestly! If you're going to mock me, you may as well go inside and get warm. You're not even looking at the snow!"
"I assure you, madam, I am quite warm where I am."
There is nothing so well known as that we should not expect something for nothing, but we all do, and call it hope. -Howe
"Would you be willing to trade patrols with me this evening, Professor Snape?"
"I know, I know, but I'm terribly behind on grading essays for my Sixth year advanced class. I intended to have them done before dinner, but I needed a break this afternoon. I had the Second year Hufflepuffs practicing Disarming hexes today and…"
"Say no more, Professor Granger. I remember all to well the effects of multiple Disarming hexes."
"Yes, well… I did apologize for that."
"Though of course it's nothing to the dangers of having one's robes set on fire…"
"I… oh! How… how did you…?"
"Know? Hmph. One hears things in the corridors…."
"But I never said anything…!"
"…not to mention, Albus knew about it from – well, however it is he knows about nearly everything that happens in this castle – and he told Minerva over brandy one evening – you may as well know they found your pyromania quite amusing. Minerva then let it slip to Filius one day after Slytherin trounced Gryffindor in the last Quidditch match of the season, and she was in a high dudgeon and running off at the mouth - you know how she gets. And Filius mentioned it to me two Christmases ago in the staffroom after he'd had too much of Hagrid's homemade dwellberry wine."
"Oh… well then… Professor, I am so sorry, all I can say in my defense was that I was a child and I thought…"
"Don't waste your breath, Miss Granger. Let us say that all's well that ends well, and call it water under the bridge."
"Alright… that's very kind of you… um… why do you do that?"
"What have I done? I thought we were discussing your transgressions."
"No, no, I mean… why do you call all the rest of the professors by first name, but you still refer to me as 'Miss Granger'?"
"…I suppose it is because I've never received permission to call you by your first name. Is that not why you continue to refer to me as 'Professor Snape'?"
"You're right. Seems silly, doesn't it? Very well, I'd like you to call me Hermione. May I have the same privilege and call you Severus?"
"… You may."
"Excellent. Now that's settled, I really should get back to my office and finish my marking. Thank you for taking my rounds."
"I don't recall agreeing to that yet."
"Really? I'm certain you did. Think hard, it will come to you."
"I'll owe you one. Again."
"You really should be more careful about making deals with the devil, Miss Granger."
"It's Hermione, remember? And you're hardly the devil, even if you are the head serpent. Now, good night, Severus."
"N-No. No… it's nothing."
Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
"Severus! Good that I caught you! Minerva said you're going down to the village?"
"I am. I only realized this morning that my stores of aconite are running low."
"Aconite? Are you still brewing the Wolfsbane potion for Remus, then?"
"Unless you know another Potions Master that the Headmaster has under his thumb, then yes, that dubious honor stills fall to me."
"You're so lucky! Don't look at me that way, you know what I mean. From what I've read, it's a remarkable process and I've always wanted to try it myself. But as you so astutely observed, I'm no Potions Master."
"Hmph! Perhaps I should teach you to brew it, and the Headmaster can come to you for Lupin's monthly dose."
"Would you? Really? Do you mean it?"
"What? You really want to learn?"
"Have you forgotten who you're speaking to? I'd be delighted to learn! And only think – it would be just like old times, Professor. "
"Er, yes, well… ahem… as you wish. I begin brewing Thursday evening, so as to complete the process in time for the full moon, so be in the Potions classroom directly after dinner if you wish to see it done from the beginning."
"Thursday after dinner, got it. It's a date. ...Oh! Severus, are you alright? The footing can be tricky on this slope, take care!"
"It's fine! I'm perfectly fine! Unhand me, madam, I can walk perfectly well on my own. Just what was it you chased me half way across the grounds to say to me, anyway?"
"That's right! I was going to ask you to bring me back some ink and quills. My fourth year Ravenclaws accidentally set my desk on fire this morning, and all my writing supplies went up in smoke. But seeing as I've come this far already, perhaps I should simply tag along. Who knows, you might find another rough patch to trip over, and then where would you be without me to rescue you?"
"I said I am perfectly capable -!"
"Relax, Severus, I was only teasing. You were supposed to smile, you know."
"I do not make a habit of smiling while being ridiculed."
"No, you don't make a habit of smiling at all, though you should. I happen to know that you have quite a nice smile when you think no one is looking. Perhaps in return for my Potions lessons, I should endeavor to make you smile more often. I do like a challenge! Now, tell me more about the preliminary steps in brewing Wolfsbane…"
"Hope is sweet-minded and sweet-eyed. It draws pictures; it weaves fancies; it fills the future with delight." -Beecher
"Miss Vernsby! Mr. Lorcott! Ten points from Ravenclaw, and ten more from Gryffindor! There is to be no snogging on the roadside! I'd send you straight back to the castle, if I didn't think you'd hole up in some dark corner and turn a punishment into a romp! Now get moving down to the village, or it will be detention! Move!"
"I had no idea Lorcott could run that fast. I wonder if he interested in trying out for Chaser."
"I'll thank you not to put any ideas in his head, Hermione. Gryffindor is already ahead by two wins. Give the rest of us a sporting chance."
"You're just sore that Wellbart missed the snitch last weekend."
"Minerva still hasn't finished strutting over it."
"You didn't have to be so hard on them, you know."
"The Slytherin Quidditch team? I hardly yelled at them at all, and a week of detentions with Filch will build character."
"No, I meant Vernsby and Lorcott. You didn't have to scatter them like pigeons. It is Valentines Day, after all, and they weren't doing any harm."
"You say that now, but you've never seen the mountain of paperwork involved in a student turning up pregnant during the school year. Paper work for all the staff. I assure you, you would be singing a different tune if you had."
"Pregnant! Does that happen often?"
"Not particularly. Only twice during my tenure. But that was more than enough. I wore through half a dozen quills last time, and three cauldrons of headache relief before the Howlers stopped coming, again, to every teacher on staff."
"Oh my… well, on that note, I think I'll go have a drink."
"Children will do that to you."
"Oh stop. If you're so driven to drink by your students, you can join me then. Three Broomsticks, or Hogs Head? Or perhaps we should brave Madam Puddifoots? I think I saw Lorcott and Vernsby duck in there. We could go take the table next to theirs and frighten them a bit more."
"What a delightful way to spend a day, terrifying children into abstinence."
"You have a better idea? I mean, for two unattached individuals stuck chaperoning a horde of randy teenagers on Valentines Day?"
"None. But pink and frills do not agree with me."
"You'll survive. Come on."
"Ugh… never mind, Severus, let's get out of here."
"This was your idea. Besides, did you see the look on Lorcott's face as he ran out of here? Never mind Chaser, he'd could do as a Seeker. Do not tell Minerva I said that."
"Mum's the word. I had no idea it would be so… pink."
"I did warn you. Hadn't you ever been in this establishment before? Surely you ended up here with at least one of your young men during your school days."
"Merlin no, I'd never date someone who would think I'd enjoy … this… Besides, just how many 'young men' do you think I had back then?"
"I do not make it my business to keep track of my students' trysts."
"Well, for your information, I only ever dated one boy while I was at school, and only for a short while. Victor Krum, in Fourth year."
"Indeed? Quality over quantity? Not the worst plan for choosing a potential mate. Not a very attractive young man, but he's got money and fame. Well done, it's almost Slytherin."
"Shall I take that as the compliment I'm assuming it was intended to be?"
"By all means, do as you please."
"And I don't know what you mean, I found Victor quite attractive, even if it wasn't in the traditional sense. And… and I'd watch what I say about others if I were you, because quite a few of my friends have said they thought he bore a striking resemblance to you."
"Whmph... Ahem… pardon me, what?"
"Don't choke on your tea over it, its not that bad. But see what happens when you to talk about people? You end up insulting yourself."
"I'll try to remember that…"
"Anyway, what about you, Severus? Did you ever escort a young lady into this… this establishment during your school days?"
"…No. No one."
"Hmmm. Well then, we're each other's first. I can think of far worse company for enduring this pink nightmare we've consigned ourselves to. At least neither of us is daft enough to enjoy it."
"Indeed. Far worse company…"
"Here's to chaperoning hoard of randy teenagers on Valentines Day. Cheers."
Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. –Chesterton
"Look, I appreciate the offer, but I really must be getting back to the school. I'm sure Madam Rosmerta will be happy to set you up with another round and there are plenty of others in the pub to sit and have a drink with."
"School? You ain't no little girl there. I've got me an eye for something ripe and ready, and you're it, lass."
"Erm, I'm flattered, I think, but I'm actually a teacher, and I do have class in the morning, so if you'll excuse me…"
"Where's the rush, lovely? Night's still young. Kick back and get to know old Darrel a bit better."
"Please, let go! I'm not-!
"Professor Granger, what are you doing here? It is getting late. Should you really be lollygagging about a pub on a school night?"
"Professor Snape! Oh thank goodness… I mean, how nice to see you this evening."
"Yes, well, the evening is over. Let's go, we must be getting back to the castle."
"Look 'ere, man! Step off, this bird's mine. You go find yourself another."
"I am not a 'bird', and I am not -!"
"Trust me, I am doing you a favor. She talks a mile a minute and nags twice as fast. Come along, Professor. It's past curfew."
"Damn it, Severus, was that really necessary?"
"Wasn't it? Don't tell me you were enjoying that drunkard's attentions. I hadn't realized that was the sort of man you fancy."
"What a thing to say! What were you even doing at the Three Broomsticks? I thought you said you had tests to mark."
"I… forgot that I'd finished them yesterday. Gryffindor's marks were so low that I do believe I blocked out the memory."
"Oh, very funny. Look, it's not that I don't appreciate the help – though I can look after myself – but did you have to treat me like a misbehaving student? Everyone in there was laughing at me!"
"Terribly sorry you didn't like my methods."
"You don't sound sorry."
"And what would you suggest, so that I may come to your rescue correctly next time?"
"There won't be a next time, I can take care of myself! And I don't know. Isn't there some sort of code amongst men that you don't try to steal another man's date? Pretend to be my boyfriend or something."
"Alright, 'man friend', 'lover', does it matter? It would only be for show…You don't have to look so miserable about it, Severus. I realize I'm not exactly a prize, and apparently I nag – yes, I caught that, thank you so much –but I'm sure no one would think less of you for lying to a drunk in order to defend my honor. Which does not need defending, because I can take care of myself! I am the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. I think I can handle of one inebriated cretin with wandering hands."
"'Boyfriend'… preposterous. Someone like you, with me… No one would ever believe it."
"Oh, that's nice! I know I haven't had a proper date in a while, but I'm not that unappealing, and… Oh honestly, it doesn't matter! I can take care of myself!"
" 'Relax, I was only teasing. You were supposed to smile.' "
"Incorrigible man! – sigh – You know, I do believe you were, even under that scowl and sarcasm. That's rare enough that I'll forgive you, but just this once. Next time you decide to save me from a drunken rogue, you have to buy me a drink, and get into a duel in my defense. That's the proper way it's done."
"Anything for you, Hermione."
"You can stop teasing now, Severus."
"Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us ... It lends promise to the future and purpose to the past. It turns discouragement to determination." –Smiles
"Finally! That's the last of the marking, and I'm off for the Christmas hols!"
"Can you really call it a holiday when you won't get a moment's peace in that mad house?"
"Grimmauld Place is not a mad house."
"Train station, then."
"Well, lucky thing you'll have plenty of peace and quiet here."
"I still don't understand why you won't come for the Christmas Eve party."
"Most of the rest of the Order will be there, Severus."
"Wouldn't it be nice to get out of the castle for once, and see some familiar faces? I know you'd be perfectly welcome…"
"That's enough, Hermione!"
"You don't have to be cross, I'm only…"
"Only being intentionally obtuse! I'd be 'perfectly welcome'? Even you, who seem to see nothing but good in people, cannot be that blind. There will not be one single solitary soul at that gathering that would welcome my company, and you know it."
"They all expected me to die that day, and now that I'm still around, none of them know what to do with me. So they ignore me. And I prefer it that way. I was never their friend, and I had my own reasons for joining the Order. I don't expect anything from anyone. I leave them alone, they leave me alone, and everyone gets on just fine."
"… It's not right. I said that ages ago, on the first anniversary of the victory. It's not right that none of them appreciated all you did for us. It's not fair."
"Life is not fair. Don't tell me you hadn't noticed yet. And what makes you think that I want any company from you and yours, Granger? Are you so arrogant as to think everyone's angling for an invitation to your little soiree? While I'm sure it will suit you lot just fine, I've been invited to much classier gatherings in my time, and I can say with certainty that I will still prefer my solitude to all the blathering and blustering and bother of associating with a crowing crowd of self-absorbed Gryffindors."
"Oh, I see. Is that so? Well you just enjoy your peace and quiet, you insufferable man!"
"…Please stay… don't you know that's what I meant? Don't go to them. Stay…"
"What are you doing here, Hermione?"
"Wha…? Oh… good evening, Severus. What time is it?
"Nearly midnight. You shouldn't sleep in the staffroom, you'll catch a chill."
"Did you conjure this blanket, then? How thoughtful. I didn't know you cared."
"You weren't meant to be back before Boxing Day."
"Eh? Oh, um… it seems I… forgot to enter the last of my exam scores. Thought I'd get back here and slip it under Minerva's office door before she realized it was missing."
"You said you finished all your marking already. Don't try to lie, you're terrible at it."
"…Very well, then. I though I'd come see how your peace and quiet was going."
"I thought I made myself clear earlier. I don't want you pity,Granger, so if you think to do I'll thank you for your charity, you can just take your condescension and shove off."
"You're very self important, aren't you? What makes you think I want your company any more than you want mine?"
"… Then why are you really here?"
"I told you, I came to find some peace and quiet. My oh-so-mature ex-fiancé, Ronald, turned up at the Grimmauld Place with his new girlfriend. Apparently now that he's a famous Quidditch star, beautiful Italian models from Witch Weekly are suddenly willing to give him the time of day, and it's gone to his head. He kept finding excuses to walk past me with her on his arm."
"Why on earth should that bother you? Weren't you the one who decided it had 'ended'?"
"Well, yes. And I suppose I'm happy for him. But a girl never really likes to find she's been replaced. I just wish he weren't being such a prat about it. And the rest of the Weasleys didn't like to see me very well either. Not that they were uncivil, just… uncomfortable, as though I didn't fit with them anymore now that I'm not going to join the family. Then there was Harry and Ginny, and Neville and Luna, and everyone else. They were all brilliant, and it was great to see them, but they're wrapped up in their own marriages and children. Did you know Remus and Tonks are pregnant again? It was a good time for a while, but it felt… how would you put it? Alone in a crowded room?"
"So you ran off, and came back here."
"I did not run off. Gryffindors don't run off. I made a strategic withdrawal."
"And that led to you drooling all over the staff table in the middle of the night, how?"
"I was not! And, I suppose… I just didn't want to be alone."
"But I'm the only staff member that remained over the holiday. Even the Headmaster is gone."
"I am aware of that."
"So… you did want my company?"
"Hmph! Well, what if I did?"
"… Then you appear to be at cross purposes."
"What? Nonsense. Just because I want some peace doesn't mean I should have to be lonely."
"No… I think I understand why you stayed here, Severus. You know, after the war, when your role in the Order was finished. Because it's sort of restful here…"
"Oh, of course, you mean with the hundreds of magical children running about wreaking havoc on a daily basis?"
"Don't be such a cynic. You know what I mean. I know you do. You don't particularly like teaching children…"
"Noticed, did you?"
"…and you could have done something else. You're brilliant at Potions, you could have left and done research or contracted with St. Mungo's or the Ministry, anyone! Actually, you're brilliant at a lot of subjects; actually, you could have done just about anything you liked. But I think I understand a little now. After being here again for so long, and as a teacher instead of a student, I don't think I'd want to leave either. Even if it is a big drafty old castle, it feels cozy. Almost like home."
"…I suppose that's part of it."
"Oh? What's the other part?"
"Some kind of ridiculous, untenable …hope."
"Really? Hope for what?"
"… maybe just some conversation…"
"What do you mean, Severus?"
"Never mind. I happen to know Septima has got a bottle of Old Ogden's stashed in one of these cabinets, and I'm having drink, if you'd care to join me? Ah, here it is."
"Sounds lovely. It is rather chilly in here. Won't she mind?"
"What Septima Vector doesn't know won't hurt us."
"Hmmm, Slytherin logic?"
"It has served me well in the past."
"Hah! I'm sure. Cheers."
"…You don't have to be lonely to find peace either, you know."
"…Drink your fire whiskey, Hermione."
"Ah, there's the bell! Happy Christmas, Severus!"
"Yes. Happy Christmas."
"He who has never hoped can never despair." -Shaw
Over a year and a half after that evening when she'd appeared outside his office door, as Severus watched the stone gargoyle leap aside to reveal the staircase to the Headmaster's office, it hit him just how quickly time can pass when you're happy. He was not exactly happy; he was often frustrated and irritated, and his chest ached with longing and the relentless pounding of his heart when she smiled or spoke or merely approached his general vicinity. But he was near Granger… Hermione… and the days had never flown by so quickly.
Perhaps that was also why the last few days had seemed to crawl.
It was the last week before the summer holiday. Everyone was in high spirits with the excitement of the end of term, and restless being cooped up indoor due to the unseasonably wet weather. An ominous peal of thunder rattled the stained glass in a nearby window. Severus was equally agitated, but for his own reasons.
"Do come in, Severus!" the Headmaster called as he raised his hand to knock.
Severus scowled and entered. Nearly a quarter of a century working for Dumbledore, and the former spy still wasn't used to being quite so exposed as the old wizard made him feel. Twenty-five years… he suddenly felt rather old.
"Good day, Headmaster," he greeted grimly, moving into the old wizard's domain.
The windows between the portraits were darkening quickly with the oncoming storm, and the rich colors that draped the room were bathed prematurely in buttery candlelight. It made Severus feel wrong-footed somehow, and tightened the unease in the pit of his stomach by another degree.
Dumbledore was ensconced behind his desk, and set aside his huge, downy purple quill to give his attention to the new arrival.
"What can I do for you this dark and stormy afternoon, Severus?"
Severus couldn't help the pained grimace that flashed across his face at having come all this way to ask, but it was too late now.
"Have you any idea where Professor Granger is?"
Dumbledore's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and the twinkle in his eye intensified until Severus very nearly turned on his heel and swept back out the door, rather than be the subject of the Headmaster's amusement.
"What an unusual question, coming from you. Though perhaps not, now that I think of it. For two people who started off avoiding one another like Dragon Pox, the two of you seem to have become quite friendly." Dumbledore continued to twinkle at him, even as Severus felt his countenance darken with irritation. The Headmaster chuckled and shook his head, as though it were all simply too amusing. "I'm afraid I don't know precisely where Professor Granger is at the moment, Severus, though I would know if she had left the grounds. Was there something in particular you needed from her?"
"I wasn't aware I needed a particular reason to seek out a co-worker," he grumbled testily, embarrassed without quite knowing why. "But if you must know, I've been trying to speak with her for several days about the cross-disciplinary revisions in her lesson plans," he confessed grudgingly – it was true, even if not the real reason he was desperate enough to see her that he would subject himself to the headmaster's scrutiny. "However, I haven't been able to locate her for several days. She hasn't been in the staffroom or in the Great Hall even once, her office door has been locked." – and empty, or had been when he'd dismantled the wards to check – "I would have begun to worry that she had taken ill, but for hearing from the students in passing that she has still been teaching her classes."
The headmaster popped a lemon drop in his mouth and folded his hands over his beard, eying Severus thoughtfully.
"Now that you mention it, I believe you are correct, Severus. I too had noticed that she has been absent from the High Table these past few days."
"Which returns us to my original query. What has become of her?"
Dumbledore's speculative look sharpened, and he began stroking his beard absently, clearly mulling something over.
"As I said, I haven't seen our young Defense professor. But as to what's become of her… I have it on good authority that she met with her former classmate, Ronald Weasley recently – in fact, just before she began to become scarce company. I've also been privy to the knowledge that Mr. Weasley ended his relationship with that pretty young lady from Witch Weekly that he had been quite seriously involved with. Now, whether these two incidents are related, or related to her conspicuous absence, I couldn't say for certain. But if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say perhaps Miss Granger is taking time to do some thinking."
Another rumble of thunder rippled through the air outside the castle. The fine hairs on the back of Severus' neck stood on end, as they will when the looming, swollen skies churn overhead and rouse something primitive and fearful in the animal brain of every human. But he couldn't quite convince himself it was the building storm that made his heart stutter and his forehead breakout in a sweat with the first stirrings of something very like panic.
"Well then… If you'll excuse me, Headmaster."
"If you should find her, Severus, please do remind her of her contractual obligation to attend meals in the Great Hall at least once a week! And try to stay indoors; the sky looks like it's about to burst!"
The door thumped shut, cutting off the end of his sentence, so Severus didn't see the knowing smile that lit the old man's face, nor did he hear when he said softly, "Good luck, my boy."
Severus was taken with a strange sensation of déjà vu as he exited past the gargoyle, at the Headmaster's request, same as the one he had seen fit to orchestrate between Hermione and himself that first week of her tenure, only in reverse this time. He had an uncomfortable feeling of having been managed by the wily old wizard, but he couldn't quite put his finger on how.
All this conjecture was quickly overridden, however, by the buzzing disquiet at the base of his skull, elicited by the thought of Hermione talking with her former paramour. He needed to see her. Just to reassure himself that she hadn't... hadn't… He knew that someday he would have to face this. It would be absurd and insanely selfish to think she would never see someone socially, never find someone else, never… He stopped that line almost physically excruciating thought and tried to concentrate.
Where would she go if she wanted to be alone to think?
His feet were already carrying him in the proper direction before he'd consciously made the decision to go.
The door to the top of the Astronomy Tower stood ajar, and for a long moment, he simply stood in the shadows of the doorway and watched her where she leaned against the parapet. The tempestuous wind lifted her generous curls, as shapely and tempting now as they had been ponderous and fuzzy in her youth, away from her dear, lovely face like wings. They fluttered around her fitfully without disturbing the stillness of the thoughts she was lost in.
Suddenly, she spoke.
"I know you're there, Severus."
She was as uncanny as the Headmaster when she did that – and she did it more and more these days – yet rather than making him feel defenseless, it felt welcoming. With her, he wasn't exposed – he was known. He very nearly smiled as he stepped out of the shadows and silently walked up to join her at the parapet. But the uneasiness that still sat like lead in his stomach kept him from it. It churned restlessly like the roiling clouds that hung low and bulging overhead. They stood quietly together for a long moment, and even after all this time, Severus was amazed at how warm it made him feel just to be allowed to that. Like he belonged. Today, however, it also filled him with foreboding, because the more precious something was, the more terrible the damage when it was lost. His fingers gripped the stonework to keep his hands from shaking.
At length, she broke the silence, and he was almost relieved at the breaking of the tension, even though it meant the dagger poised over his heart was driven home.
"I spoke with Ronald the other day."
He didn't say anything for a long moment. Just tried to keep breathing. But he couldn't remain silent forever, because he could feel she expected an answer. And he would always want to please her, no matter how far short his ineptitude inevitably left him to fall.
"…Let me guess," he drawled, grateful that his voice dripped only sarcasm and disdain as he forced it past his lips, "he came to you on bended knee, spouting poetry and begging you to take him back?"
He'd vocalized it because it was what he feared most to be true. He'd brought it into the open to hear it contradicted. Not confirmed.
"You could say that." She sighed, her face troubled. She wouldn't meet his eyes. "He proposed to me again."
Severus felt his world tilt alarmingly. He firmly grabbed hold of his emotions before they could run away with him. It was a near thing.
"He's always been a fool," he observed cryptically, aiming for an exaggerated, mocking calm. He wasn't quite satisfied when it came out sounding soft and faintly sullen.
She did look at him then, and the small, sad smile on her face made his throat tight.
"I'm thinking of saying yes."
Another wave of dizziness came and went, and Severus was suddenly watching himself take an unintentional step towards her from somewhere outside his own head.
"You can't be serious," he heard himself hiss, and there was venom in his voice. That wasn't right. He wasn't angry; just desperate. He wanted that sad little crestfallen smile gone. He didn't want to hurt her. More words tumbled out anyway, acidic in their derision. "You said years ago that you have nothing in common, that it wouldn't work out because you were nothing alike, and now you're going to throw yourself at his feet the minute he comes sniffing again? Where's your pride? Your sense? Here I thought you'd finally developed a thinking mind between your ears and now you're just going to throw it away. Has the parchment dust gone to you head, or have you finally left your brain wedged in one of those damnable library books?"
Hermione sighed heavily, and stood away from the parapet.
"It's not a loss of reason, Severus," she said dully. Her composure in the face of his jeers sent an icy spike of dread through him. She should be angry, or hurt. She was too calm – no, too resolved. "Rather, it's a decision based on logic. I care about Ron. I like him; he's a good man, though I don't love him like a woman should love the man she intends to marry. I don't think I ever shall…"
She turned to face him, and amidst the calm, there was something hollow and lonely in her eyes. It drew an answering throb from the hollow, aching chasm in his chest.
"…but I'm not getting any younger. All of my other friends from my school days have married and started families. Everyone expected that Ronald and I would follow suit. They still half expect it to happen, probably think I'm being unreasonable… maybe I have been." She looked away. "He'd make a fine husband. And it's not as though anyone else has ever shown any interest. But who would? I'm a plain, bookish, nagging, know-it-all school teacher. I should thank my lucky stars a famous Quidditch star like Ronald Weasley would still look twice at me, much less ask me to marry him…"
Severus found his body was moving without his permission again, and before either of them knew it, he had swept up in front of her and was looming over her with what would have appeared to be menace, if not for the pained expression on his face.
"Be silent!" he snapped, but the command in his voice was cut with pleading. "Even if I must endure talk of such nonsense as you marrying that freckled oaf, I still will not hear you insult yourself. You really have left your brain in a book if you believe that nonsense! Hermione," he choked on her name, trying to stop himself; but the dam had broken beyond all repair. "Any man would be lucky he to have you, and any man worthy of you would know it! You are clever, and kind, and talented, and charming, and I…" His head dipped slightly, so that they were nearly nose to nose as he tried to find the air to keep breathing. "I…"
Her eyes were so large from this angle, and so deep that he could drown in them. Her jaw was hanging open in bewildered shock, soft pink lips parted just slightly. He was so close he could feel her breath against his face.
He shivered, and it seemed to wake him from whatever mad dream he'd drifted into.
What was he doing?
Stiffening, he took two awkward steps away from her warmth, searching the ground so he didn't have to look at her face. A sudden blast of wind shot through the new made space between their bodies as the sky rumbled, and he shivered again. Merlin, what was he thinking? What had he done? He couldn't allow her to know…
"S-Severus, what… were you…"
All his hope was fizzling inside, drenched by an inundation of heated, careless words, and the vapors that billowed up from the extinguished ruin to blind him to everything else. He'd made an utter fool of himself, just as he'd vowed never to do. He'd spoiled everything.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, backing away.
"Severus…" said repeated, holding out one hand toward him in an almost unconscious gesture. He didn't even register it.
"I wasn't… I shouldn't… Forgive me."
He was through the doorway and halfway down the stairs before the astonished young woman could speak another word.
"Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment." –Bonaparte
For a few long moments, Severus did not think about where he was going, only flew down the staircases in no particular direction, just away. The only place he wanted – needed – to be was behind him, and it was the last place in the world it could bear to remain. So he moved forward, as though he could outrun the reality of what he'd just done if he just kept moving.
The first coherent thoughts to return were, strangely, ones of amazement; he was simply stunned at how badly wrong everything had gone in such a brief period. Then, once the initial blow began to clear from his mind, he gradually found that he was enraged with himself. How could he have lost control of himself so utterly? How could he have let those traitorous words spill from him like vomit at her feet? How could he have humiliated himself – and probably her as well – so badly? How could he destroy what little regard she had for him, and trade all his futile, formless, priceless hope away for despair and emptiness in a single stroke? How could he be such a bleeding fool!
Devastation and rage swirled together and reacted to form a storm inside him that put the one brewing in the sky to shame. The expression on his face sent students, ghosts and even portraits running from his presence, though he hardly registered their being there, any more than the walls and windows. He was completely lost in the maelstrom that had was sucking his heart under and dragging at his mind in the void it left. As such, it wasn't until he reached the main descent to the first level that he arose out of his fog of self-recrimination just enough to realize that someone was calling his name. His head jerked around, back up the staircases in the direction he'd come.
Hermione was sprinting down the steps after him, a look of grim determination on her face, and her mouth was open, and she was shouting something in that shrill voice she used when she was fed up…
"… erus Snape, if you do not stop this instant and listen to me, I will hex you into next Tuesday! I will!"
For a moment he felt a blank shock. That really wasn't what he'd been expecting, though come to think of it, he didn't know what he had expected. Then, irrationally, he felt a small fraction of his anger transfer to her. Nagging wench! What was so great about her anyway? She's so kind, so smart, she's the only person that makes me smile, who wants to see me smile, and she makes my heart so light… But what right had she to order him around? She was going off to marry Ronald-bloody-Weasley and spawn hundreds of dumbly grinning, red-headed Gryffindors. No, not dumb. Her children would never be anything but brilliant…
Severus took a moment to allow that he might be in a bit of an unbalanced state, and that he should probably calm down before he did anything he'd regret later.
Then, true to form, he went with his first instinct, which was always to burn bridges. Narrowing his eyes dangerously, he made a very deliberate turn, and with his back ramrod straight, continued his rapid descent towards the main thoroughfare. The screech scandalized frustration that echoed down from above put a vindictive little smile on his lips as he swept past a few gaping students congregating in the main corridor, and started towards the entrance to the dungeons. It vanished a moment later, however, as a sizzling purple hex whizzed past his head and struck one of the torches on the wall in front of him. Two nearby portraits shouted in indignation, while Severus whirled, wand already out, to see Hermione Granger bearing down on him like an avenging fury.
"Stop ignoring me!" she shouted.
The few remaining students that hadn't scattered at the sight of Severus' black mood, now made themselves extremely scarce in a hurry, and he faced her down the length of the corridor alone. Unfortunately for both of them, having hexes thrown at him did nothing to improve his mood.
Baring his teeth, all the sane, rational thoughts, which were screaming at him to be reasonable and think this through, shoved viciously aside, he threw a bright blue hex in her direction, and watched with satisfaction as the windows lining one side of the hallway bowed inward and formed a wall of glass to halt her pursuit. But with a flash of her wand, the wall of glass disintegrated to sand. Severus quickened his pace, and with a flick of his wand, the grains of sand became a horde of beetles that swarmed up her legs. She shrieked, though equally in outrage as in disgust, and suddenly the beetles whirled upward and became a whirlwind that tried to suck him back towards her. In turn, he managed to turn the wind solid, and it splattered all over the walls as an oozing blue paste, but not before he had been dragged off course by the gale, and his escape route to the dungeons cut off.
Both of them were angry now in earnest, the original upset half forgotten in the heat of dueling out their respective anxiety and pent-up frustrations. He shot a Leg Locker jinx at her, but she countered that with a derisive snort and tried to capture him with a Stickfast charm. He stepped quickly aside, darting down the corridor, and she pelted after him. As they neared the main doors, he sent a nest of snakes after her, and she turned them into bumblebees and sent them right back at him. He summoned the fire from the torches on either side of the doors and burnt the bees to ash, which he then gathered into a cloud and sent swirling around her in a smoke screen. She conjured water into the ash, and it all splattered to the floor in a black rain to swamp at her feet. Quick as a wink, Severus melted it into a pool of gluey mud across the expanse of the corridor, cementing her in place. Grinding her teeth, undeterred, Hermione conjured vines from the soupy mud, and Severus nearly fell flat on his face as they shot out and wrapped around his legs to yank him backwards. He quickly cancelled his spell, destroying the vines, but loosing Hermione at the same time.
Feeling cornered as she herded him into the Entrance Hall, he shot a sticky net of spider web at her from the end of his wand, and that should have done the trick once and for all, but she caught the webbing in midair with her wand and spun it into a rope, which she sent whirling after him like a lasso. Instinct flared, unencumbered by cogent thought, and before he knew what he was doing, he dodged to one side and launched a burning hex at it. Only then did he realize that the burning rope was recoiling towards its creator.
The entire duel up to that point had been fast paced and rapid fire, and had spanned no more than half a minute of furious wand play. Now the seconds seemed to hang motionless as they stretched out before him. All he could think in that endless instant as he watched the burning rope wind itself into a gooey ball of flame and rocket towards her was that he'd done it again – hurt the woman he loved, completely by accident but in a way that would have been totally avoidable if he'd just once stopped to think before he let his temper run away with him…
She realized her danger almost as soon as he did, eyes widening, then hardening with focus on the danger at hand, but all too late. Her wand arm arced up to deflect the sizzling missile, too slow. His wand rose as well, but not even a spell could it couldn't fly fast enough to reach the fire, and it wasn't a spell that was torn from his throat in any case.
Suddenly, a river of water burst from the far end of the corridor. The flaming wad of webbing was well extinguished and disintegrated as the torrent thundered over them, struck the main doors wide open and washed both combatants clear out the front entrance.
As the water dissipated, both Severus and Hermione, sprawled on the ground, coughing and soaked through in the chilling gale of the coming storm, looked up to see McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout standing at the top of the steps, arms crossed, or hands on hips, glaring down at them like a pair of misbehaving students. Minerva held up one hand to display a pair of wands clenched in her fist. Both Severus and Hermione immediately looked down to find theirs had been confiscated.
"I don't know what this is all about, but if you're going to brawl in the corridors like a pair of tavern drunks, you can bloody well take it outside." Minerva reproached them, her baroque thick with disapproval. "And stay out, until you can remember how to act with a dignity befitting your positions as professors at this school!"
With that, the three Heads of House turned back inside. The doors slammed shut with an impressive whoosh! and thunked resoundingly as the bars thudded into place, and they were locked out.
For a long moment the two of them just sat there, panting and glaring at one another.
Then the sky opened up, and dropped down upon them in a driving rain.
"Oh, why not?" Hermione shouted up at the heavens, throwing her hands up and letting them fall at her sides. "Just bloody brilliant!"
She made no attempt to shield herself – apparently she'd decided to take a philosophical bent on the situation, for she could hardly be any wetter than she already was. Severus, on the other hand, feeling no great desire to be equitable about the situation, or anything at all, climbed to his feet, then dragged her to hers and pulled her out of the rain, into the relative shelter under the arch of the doorway.
For what seemed like a very long time, they just stood there in silence, shivering and staring at the rain striking the flagstone. The longer the silence stretched, the more uncomfortable he became, but this time all the anger that had shielded him from his humiliation had been well and truly spent. He'd just missed injuring her terribly; if the other professors hadn't intervened, she could have been killed. The rope of ball of fire flashed across his mind, and it wasn't just the wind and water that made him shiver. When he'd conjured that fire, the image he'd had in his head had been that ember of hope he'd so carefully nurtured, just as he'd envisioned it in his mind's eye, and which he had thought completely extinguished. It had flared into reality with his magic, but turned ugly with his anger, and had nearly immolated everything he wanted to preserve. He felt gratitude and shame in equal measures. He also felt like an utter fool. And even now, just standing beside her, the both of them water-logged and freezing, he felt her warmth and longed lean in closer. What a pathetic, pining wretch he was.
Not to mention he'd all but professed his undying devotion atop the Astronomy Tower while she was about to accept marriage to another man. Severus cringed inwardly as the full force of that monumental fiasco fully sunk in. He wanted the ground to open up and swallow him right then and there. What must she think of him?
He couldn't stand to wonder any longer.
"I'm not, you know," she interrupted. He felt her turn to look up at him, but he kept his eyes fixed determinedly forward. "I'm not any of those things."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not kind, Severus. I figured it out after you ran off, and it made me so angry. You must think I'm dull and completely witless, if you think I'd grow fond of any old person that happens to cross my path. I'll have you know I'm extremely selfish. So selfish that even while my best friend was fighting for his life, I was worrying almost entirely about someone else. So selfish that I drove my fiancé away, one of my oldest friends, and hurt him because I couldn't let go of a school girl crush.
"And I can't be very clever," she went on, turning to face forward again and crossing her arms over her chest, "or I wouldn't have given up an excellent job as a Curse Breaker to take a teaching job, just to be close to the object of that silly schoolgirl crush…"
Severus' head turned magnetically, pulled as though it were on strings, and gradually she came into his field of vision. What? What was she saying? Her cheeks were flushed, but there was a look of flustered determination on her face as she stared out into the downpour.
"And I can't possibly be all that charming, because I never managed to catch his eye. No matter how often I sought him out, and tried to be engaging and interesting and charming, he never took the slightest interest in me. The more I talked with him, the more that silly, inescapable infatuation of mine filled out and became… so much more… but he never showed the slightest inclination that he saw me as anything but a silly girl that hung about and nagged him…"
Now she turned her head towards him again, and her eyes filled with trepidation.
"…at least," she went on in a small voice, "I had thought he'd never noticed. I was so sure of it that I'd finally given up hope and almost consented to marry someone else. Until one stormy afternoon, he nearly hexed me to death in the entrance hall and we got locked out in a rainstorm…" she trailed off, wry, hopeful little smile twisting her lips.
Severus opened his mouth to speak over the clamoring myriad of thoughts and emotions vying for precedence in the front of his mind, and then closed it, shook his head, and tried again. No words would come out, and he felt sure he probably looked like a fish, but he couldn't be bothered with that, because he was trying to make sense of what she was saying, and he couldn't think for the fiery, nearly painful burning glow of hope that was burning up from where it had been banked inside him…
He suddenly felt hot, restless, breathless. Turning away, he stepped out into the rain, and walked a few paces away. She couldn't. She couldn't mean what she was implying – what she was outright saying. Hope flared brighter, insistent, but he couldn't wrap his mind around it.
What was it he was hoping for? What was it really? Faces flashed through his mind, of people who wouldn't meet his eyes, and a lonely hill where he'd stood alone, forgotten by the world, except for one ragged girl with tears in her eyes. What was it she was offering to answer that hope with, what really?
His heart was pounding with the ache of wondering, and his breath shuddered as he drew deeply on the air and ruthlessly fought against it being consumed by it.
She'd said she would cry for him, and she had. He had come to trust her, and then he had come to know her, and validated that trust. Now she was saying… but she couldn't. And though he knew her and trusted her, he couldn't bear to believe it, when it couldn't be true… His hands clenched into fists against the pain of wanting things he couldn't have.
"Severus, why won't you listen to me?" she demanded hotly, dashing up behind him, but stopping short of actual contact. The strained uncertainty coupled with breathless longing in her voice stopped him in his tracks like none of her spells could have.
When she spoke again, she sounded slightly hoarse, but defiant.
"At least let me say it properly before you tell me what an idiot I am! I'm trying to say I… I… I love…"
He rounded on her like a striking snake. He grabbed her roughly by her arms, just below the shoulders, jerking her close so that he loomed over her dangerously. She had to arch her neck to look him in the eye.
"Do not toy with me, woman!" he snarled between clenched teeth. "You can't… it's not possible! You can't…"
His breath was coming in pants as his lungs struggled to keep up with the hammering of his heart. And he was awestruck to realize hers was equally ragged, and her cheeks pinked becomingly at his proximity. Her wide-eyed expression of surprise at their sudden change of posture, melted into something glazed and lidded as her gaze dropped from his eyes to his mouth. They stood swaying, nearly nose to nose, breathing each other's hot breathe in the frigid rain for a seeming eternity as something electrical and hypnotic built in the space between their bodies, undeniable but insurmountable, a delicious, suspenseful swelling of something liquid and searing about to spill over the edge of something towering and final. The teasing closeness of her form, the softness under his fingers, and the unspoken words he refused to let her voice, promised to drive him mad if something was not done immediately.
She saved him from his madness, as she was always saving him in the oddest ways, by surging up onto the tips of her toes, thrusting her hands against his chest for balance, fisting her fingers in his sodden robes and pressing her lips sweetly against his.
Fireworks exploded behind his eyes, as the hope he'd been fighting to understand rushed over him and took form. Suddenly, he understood just what it had been that he'd been hoping for all this time, and all he could think was oh, so that's what it was…
The air rushed out of his lungs in a gust through his nose at that monumental comprehension dawned. He probably breathed again at some point, but breathing suddenly seemed so completely unimportant. His eyes fluttered shut and he pressed back against her lips, pouring as much of his longing and hope and love as he knew how into his kiss, since he despaired of ever find the words to do them justice.
And if the rain ran warm against his cheeks as she pressed close against him and raised one hand to trace delicate fingertips, bold and intimate, along his jaw, it was certainly torrential skies playing tricks, because he certainly would not be caught dead shedding tears of elation and relief like some lovesick fool kissing his beloved in the middle of a rainstorm, even with the rainstorm to wash the evidence away…
The kiss broke after a dizzying eternity when the need to breathe did in fact assert itself once more. He didn't give her time to pull away, or fade away if this were a dream, but released her shoulders only to draw her against him with one arm, the other pressing her head gently into the crook of his neck as he tried to process the reality of the situation. He sniffed loudly with the tears he was not shedding, and rolled his eyes heavenward in embarrassment as he felt her smile against the crook of his neck. But he didn't let her go.
"We're probably going to freeze to death out here," he commented after a long moment of just standing, delighting in the feel of her in his arms. "Seems a bit of a shame really."
"A terrible shame indeed," she concurred, pulling back enough to look up at him with a playful little smile that made his heart stutter again in his chest. "Perhaps we should find a warm fire someplace quiet a-and… get out of … these w-wet clothes."
The blush that lit her cheeks as she stammered this bold insinuation stirred him almost as much as the words themselves. Heat flooded his veins and he felt his eyes darken, at the thought of peeling clinging wet fabric away to reveal creamy flesh… but he tensed his grip on his self-control, and on her body for a long moment, and then slowly released her. The nervous tension that had entered her form fairly screamed that she was trying to please him by rushing into something she wasn't ready for; trying – and he nearly laughed out loud at the irony – to entice him into staying by her side.
Though his body tightened almost painfully with the tantalizing promise of the offer, he'd be damned if he took more than she was truly willing yet to give – not when she'd already given him more than he'd ever hoped for already.
"Let's get inside, at any rate," he replied, trying to keep his voice light, but suspecting failure, as he seemed unable to pry his gaze from her face, the sight of which would always cause his chest to constrict in the most wonderful way. "That is, if we can get Minerva to open the doors."
She smiled, part in self-deprecation, as though she could read exactly what he was thinking, but part in a pure warmth directed solely at him. Helpless against such allure, he felt an answering smile tug at the corners of his own mouth as he took her hand in his and pulled her towards the castle. Just the feel of her small hand in his larger one nearly overwhelmed his senses. He ran the pad of his thumb over the back of her hand as she fell into step beside him, enthralled by the little shiver he felt it jolt through her. Though he would probably end up tripping or walking into something or falling flat on his nose, he couldn't seem to take his eyes off of her as they walked, hand in hand out of this surreal dream of rain and gentle touches, and back towards the real and waking world of the school.
He would not rush. He would not trade this away for his pride and his temper. He would not ruin this, as he'd so doggedly ruined so many other good things life had inexplicably thrown in his path. Even buzzing with euphoria as he was, he was enough his jaded, cynical self to realize that there was a myriad of reasons why this couldn't possibly work – all the same reasons he'd believed it should be impossible in the first place, and more – but he was also selfish enough that he knew he would do whatever it took to make her happy, so much so that she never realized that she was far too good for him. He would get this right, and he would savor this moment right now, and each one after it that she granted him.
He'd finally understood what that burning seed of hope had longed for and so long been denied – and what had finally satisfied it so that it burned away the barren loneliness and settled to a solid, steady glow that no longer quite burned. Not merely for her to accept him; but for him to accept that he could have her.
He pulled her to a stop in the doorway and looked down at her, still not quite sure she was real. Partly to reassure himself, partly just because he could, he brought her hand up, still clasped in his, he pressed his lips to the back of it, cheeks flushing with the mix of embarrassment at his own sentimentality, and the way his heart burst at the feel of her warm wet skin under his lips.
Then he held her hand against his chest so she could feel how hard his heart continued to pound. He swallowed hard, drawing courage from the steady blaze of hope that, like phoenix fire, had risen from its ashes as love that was loved in return. He met her eyes with nervous determination.
"I love you, Hermione."
Even after all she'd said and done, he was still amazed when his declaration caused her to gasp and her eyes to flutter shut as a slow blissful smile to bloom on her incomparable, perfect, beautiful face.
"About time you did," she replied, and though she meant it to sound prim and scolding, her eyes opened alight with an answering reflection of the warmth glowing inside him, and her fingers flexed possessively against his so that it reached him as gentle teasing, and made him smile in earnest without even realizing it. "I've loved you for ages."
Even as his head bowed at the power of the emotion those words shot through him, the great doors, apparently triggered to open when they learned to get along, shuddered, thumped and swung wide. Hermione laughed at the wonderful irony and then tugged him forward. Together they stepped into the castle, the place they both called home, and Hermione, his beautiful dream, bedraggled and dripping on the flagstone, was still beside him, real and warm, her fingers curling around his as she smiled up at him.
What more could anyone hope for?
"Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope." - Angelou
A/N: And that's that! Hope you enjoyed it! This is the first Hermione/Severus story I've completed, so yay! Though I fear I may have grown a tad rusty from all this time without writing... Considering these factors, I can't really see how you can possibly resist leaving a review! Constructive criticism is most welcome, however flames will be shot out of a canon into the sun. Reviews make the world go 'round, so thank you in advance for feeding my muse!