October 1998, London
When the tawny owl tapped on the window of the third-floor room at St Mungo’s, the young Healer who had been tidying the room following the departure of its occupant only a few moments before opened the window to let it in. She took the letter from its beak, gave the bird an owl nibble and sent it on its way. The letter was addressed in a firm, flowing hand to Severus Snape, the room’s former occupant. The young Healer sighed. It was probably too late to catch him – he had left in haste, with the distinct air of a man determined to get out of the building as quickly as possible. And who could blame him? He’d been here for five months, the poor man, almost all of it in a coma. She put the letter in her pocket, intending to send it on later. But it was a long shift, and she was tired, and there were two young children waiting for her at home, so when the letter fell out and slid under a cabinet as she was hastily changing out of her work robes that evening, she never noticed.
December 1998, Caithness
The December air was crisp and smelt of snow. Minerva took a deep breath, savoring the clean bite with its slight sea tang. The coast was never far away, no matter where you were in Scotland, and yet somehow one could never smell it at Hogwarts. She had missed it. She knocked the snow off her boots as she opened the door to her cottage, feeling the welcoming warmth of the hearth and the enticing smell of the fresh-baked oatcakes she’d left cooling on the counter. A good long walk along the shore of the loch always gave her an appetite and freshened up her thoughts. Merlin knew she could do with a few new thoughts...
She put three of the oatcakes (a perfect chestnut brown, Isobel would have been proud) on a plate with a wedge of golden cheddar, poured herself a small (but not too small – she was, after all, on vacation) glass of whisky, and settled herself on the sofa in front of the fire with a sigh, determined to relax and enjoy her solitude. Snow began to spatter against the window.
They had done right, she thought as she sipped and nibbled, not to attempt the usual elaborate festivities at Hogwarts this year. The tree had gone up in the Great Hall, of course, and the end of term feast had been held as usual, but the mood had been quiet and thoughtful rather than madcap. Hardly a student among them had not lost a friend or family member; for twelve of them, orphaned by the war, Hogwarts was now truly their home. Those twelve remained at the school (discussion was already underway about where they would go during the summer), but once the feast was over all the others had gone home as had many of the staff. Beloved as their school was, for many of them it had too recently been the site of battle and death, and all of them seemed to feel the need for home, for private time with family and loved ones.
The whisky warmed her pleasantly and the cheese and oatcakes were rapidly transformed into nothing but crumbs, but Minerva’s mind, perversely, would not let her relax. As headmistress she had fully intended to remain on duty through the holiday, but Poppy had insisted. “You’re looking worn to a rag, Minerva,” she had said sharply. “You’ve been driving yourself far too hard, ever since – well, you know. You need some time. Take it.”
Minerva’s eyes went to the shabby, comfortable chair at the end of the sofa where Severus had sat so many times over the years. Since May, of course. Since he had nearly died. Since she had learned how wrong she had been, how terribly, terribly mistaken. It shamed her now as it had then, to realize how badly she had erred in understanding him. Love, as her minister father used to say, might surpasseth all knowledge but certainly did not guarantee it.
She rose from the sofa to put another log on the fire and remained kneeling before it, gazing into the flames. A year ago this very night she had been in the Hospital Wing at Hogwarts with Susan Bones, the latest victim of Amycus Carrow’s sadistic views on “education.” A sound behind her had caught her attention and she turned to see Severus standing in the shadows. Her brief flicker of surprise turned almost immediately to anger. “Have you come to inspect your handiwork, Headmaster?” she asked quietly.
He had made a brief motion with his hand, as if to ward off her words, but she went on relentlessly, feeling a righteous fury in finally speaking her mind. “You are a coward, Severus Snape,” she went on, her voice low but intense. “A liar and a traitor and a murderer, but most of all a coward. You ally yourself with brutes who torture children. Don’t pretend that you care what happens to this girl, or to any of them. You disgrace the office of Headmaster – you disgrace the name of wizard.” Her voice broke then, choked by the twist in her heart as her old love for him cried out in sorrow and pain.
He had said nothing, made no defense, only gazed bleakly at her, his dark eyes unreadable, then turned in a swirl of black robes and departed. Now, looking back, she knew how badly her words must have hurt him.
Restless, she rose from the sofa and walked slowly to the window, pulling aside the red-and-gold curtains. The snow was falling thickly in the early dusk, but what she saw in memory was a square of summer sky framed by white walls. That had been her view through most of May, June, July and August – every moment not occupied with overseeing repairs at Hogwarts, she had been at St Mungo’s, in that room on the third floor, waiting and watching as he slept on and on in the coma that held him motionless. Looking at his thin, exhausted face and closed eyes, lashes dark against his pale skin, she had thought of all the nights he had slept beside her, the unsuspected secrets he had carried. The thick bandages swathing his throat reproached her wordlessly, evidence of how near he had come to death in their common cause. She desired nothing more than to see those dark eyes open, to tell him how deeply he had been wronged by all of them – by her in particular, whom he had trusted above all others. To ask his forgiveness.
She shook herself. This would never do. She needed to let it go, let it all go. Hadn’t he made it clear he did not want to see her, talk to her? Turning from the window she went to the little tree in the corner of the room, idly reaching out to touch this ornament, then that one. From the time she and Malcolm and Robert were born, Isobel had found or made an ornament for each of them every year until she died. Here was Minerva’s first, a small cross of woven golden straw with “1935” written on it; there the last, a crystal snowflake, “1981” delicately inked on the center hexagon. Severus had been enchanted with the idea when she had explained it to him on their first Christmas together, and had immediately suggested they revive it by giving each other an ornament each year. She ran her eyes over the tree – yes, there was the tiny pewter cauldron she had given him that year, and hanging beside it his gift to her: Santa, sporting a Campbell tartan in place of his traditional red suit. And there...
She smiled, despite the ache in her heart, at the sight of a small silver jingle-bell suspended on a red-and-gold braided loop. Severus had given her that on their second Christmas. “Belling the cat?” she had asked archly. “Yes...because I always want to hear you coming,” he had murmured suggestively in that dark, silky voice, pulling her against him and into a kiss that left her breathless. They had missed dinner entirely that night, as she recalled.
Her smile faded. Where was he tonight? In that barren, dilapidated house in Spinner’s End? It broke her heart a little to think of it. He had been a lonely child, a solitary student, a colleague who kept his own counsel (but he shared his life with me...or I thought he did...); increasingly estranged even among the Order as the months went on, entirely isolated as Headmaster that last terrible year after Albus’ death. Alone at the end, when Nagini tore at his throat. And alone when he woke. That, she found hardest to forgive herself for.
When the fall term began she had returned to Hogwarts. Filius had offered to serve as acting head so that she could stay in London, but she had refused. The call of duty was too strong – and Severus of all people, she felt, would understand that she had to answer it. She had returned to sit with him whenever she could, but she had not been there when at last he roused from his coma, and the message from the Healers came late – he had been awake for two days by the time she heard. Unable to get away (there had been a serious crisis involving harassment, even cruelty, towards some of the Slytherins which required a swift and thoughtful response), yet she had written immediately: Severus, please – wait for me. All my love, Minerva.
But he had not waited. When she arrived he was already gone, no one knew where. He had refused to see or speak to anyone, they told her, had ignored the Healers’ urgent recommendations that he was not yet well enough, and vanished. Without so much as a fare-thee-well.
For the first time, she admitted that her sorrow was mixed with anger. Was he really unable to forgive her, when it was his own skill at deception that had made her treat him as she had? Didn’t she deserve his charity? Had not all they’d shared – the laughter, the challenges, the companionable silences, the joining of hands and mouths and skin that spoke a deeper truth than words – earned her at least the courtesy of a goodbye? But the anger faded as quickly as it had flared up. Whatever he had felt for her, it had died in the war as surely as Mad-Eye or Remus; she would have to accept that. With a sigh, she lay down on the sofa and pulled the comforter over her. She would just doze a while by the fire and then go to bed...
In the depths of the night, something woke her. She yawned and stretched, cat-like, wondering what had disturbed her sleep. She pushed back the comforter and rose, added a log to the fire, and stirred the embers until fresh flames leaped up.
There was a soft knock on the door.
When she opened it, Severus Snape stood there, the full moon glittering on the snowflakes in his black hair. In the light that streamed from her door she saw that his face was drawn and tired. “You were the hardest of all,” he said without preamble, his voice low and rough with exhaustion and lingering injury. “My last memory of you when I woke was of our battle in the Great Hall. Do you know how desperately I wanted to simply drop my wand that night and let you blast me where I stood?”
Words would not come. She watched him, waiting.
“I have been so afraid that you would never forgive me,” he went on, his eyes never leaving hers. “I am not certain I can ever forgive myself. The things I had to do, Minerva, the vile, terrible acts I had to witness, unable to stop them or even protest...”
“Severus...” she said helplessly.
“All this time, I thought...” He held out a piece of parchment towards her and she recognized his name in her own handwriting. “This came to me only this morning. Someone – one of the Healers – found it. Under a cabinet. I would have waited for you...” His voice broke, and she saw that he was weeping.
“Oh my dear,” she said, understanding everything. Without a moment’s hesitation, she reached out and drew him in.