With many thanks to Apythia and Rakina for their advice and beta skills!
Severus had always called her his muse. She represented his true soul to him; the soul that no one else ever saw, the true Severus that had been visible to only one other, and that one was now dead by his own wand. A bitter smile twisted his thin lips as he realised that she could almost have been his Horcrux for she seemed to hold his soul in her hands. It was ironic really, since he had spent the last year hunting down the Dark Lord’s Horcruxes, secretly aiding that ungrateful whelp, Potter.
His muse had an almost unearthly beauty; her presence was as ethereal and delicate as the rising sun reflected upon the restless ocean. Surrounded by the thickest darkness, she radiated light. In her slender, white fingers, she cradled a burning taper, ready to light the dormant candles that stood around her. The flickering ball of evanescence that the taper threw out illuminated her face in heavenly gold. Yet the candle's light seemed insignificant and dull, a mundane thing that could not compare to the inner light that his muse radiated. All that he could see was her face, not pretty but as beatific as an ancient saint carved from cold marble, her silken hair and the two top buttons of the demure white blouse that she wore.
Severus had no idea of the age of his beloved muse. She looked young, in an ageless sort of way, but he knew that she must be at least a hundred years old. Whoever this ambrosial creature had been, he knew that she was certainly long dead, yet he had been obsessed with her these twenty years or more. He could remember with vivid certainty the very moment he had first seen her, for it was as fresh in his memory as the tender skin of her face.
He had been a younger man then, and altogether more bitter, but already doubting his decision to join the ranks of the Dark Lords minions. On a cold winters night, they had raided the house of one whom they dubbed a blood traitor, a pureblood witch of ancient lineage who had foolishly married a Muggle. Severus could no longer remember the name of the unfortunate witch or her aristocratic Muggle, and he had long ago blanked the details of the atrocities to which he had been party from his memory. What he did remember was that he had searched the cellars of the crumbling, old mansion for the witch's familiar. He had not found the cat, but he had found his muse. In the dust laden gloom, he had stumbled, cursing, over a pile of debris, and from that random pile of old toys and broken chairs that traditionally comprise the detritus of an English country house, she had called out to him. Muse had not looked then as she did now, her varnish had been cracked and dirty, obscuring her beauty but not completely hiding it, and the frame in which she had then abided had been an ugly rococo thing of heavy gilt that had not suited her delicate features. Despite these disfigurements, he had recognised her for what she truly was and had rescued her from the burning house.
Severus had spent many a night after that raid contemplating his stolen prize, wondering at first why an ordinary Muggle daub should so enthral him. She did not move or interact with him like the wizard paintings that he was used to; she merely smiled her enigmatic, painted smile. In the end, he had come to realise that her lack of movement added to the sense of tranquillity that she projected into his troubled soul, that the enigma of her smile was part of what made her so appealing to him. At times, he would sit for hours and contemplate her reason for smiling. Sometimes he longed to be that reason and wished with all of his heart that she could step forth from her frame and speak to him. Somehow his muse had given him hope in the darkness of his life, as though her light embraced and illuminated him also. She was a form of meditation to him.
So fascinated had he become with this little painting that he had cleaned and restored her to her former loveliness. He could have done it easily with the simplest of spells, but that seemed to show contempt for her simple grace, and so in the darkest nights of his young life, when he had been racked with guilt and agonising over whether or not to accept the redemption that Albus Dumbledore offered him, he had spent every spare moment painstakingly restoring her. His only concession to magic had been that when she was fresh once more, revealed in all of her former beauty, then, before laying her in a simple frame that complimented her loveliness, he had sealed her with a magical varnish that would never crack or go brown to distort the purity of her image. She had been with him ever since. He knew that it was foolish but he needed her, and when he had been forced to flee from Hogwarts on that dreadful night, the first thing he had done after Apparating to Spinner’s End had been to Summon her to him. He had known that the Summoning was a reckless act that could lead to his capture if anyone had noticed and followed her, but his heart had been knotted in his chest at the mere thought of another possessing his precious muse after his quarters were searched, as they surely must be.
Tonight, she lay on the table before him. He had reverently taken her from her hiding place in order to seek inspiration from her smile. With a glass of Old Ogden’s in his hand, he returned her smile and saluted her with a toast before setting down his drink and picking up the slender blue potion bottle that was so puzzling him. Severus had stolen the bottle three days ago. The last time he had been summoned to the Dark Lord's presence, he had surreptitiously palmed it, thinking that perhaps it could help him to destroy the last Horcrux when he found it. The trouble was, that now he had it, he simply had no idea what the mysterious potion actually did. He knew that it must be valuable, or the Dark Lord would not have had it in his private chambers, but there was no label on the bottle to say what it did. Severus didn’t even know how to administer the potion or what its ingredients were. He had tested it and found many rather tedious ingredients: Salvia Divinorum, moonstone, Theobroma cacao, and then there was another ingredient, one that he did not recognise, but from the way it reacted to his tests, he knew that it must be extraordinarily powerful.
Severus spoke aloud, addressing the inert canvas without caring that this was proof of his own impending dementia, for he had long ago made the decision that the descent into lunacy might make a pleasant change from the horrors of his reality. “Well, my lass, what do you think I should do with this bloody potion, then?”
Muse made no answer; she merely smiled her enigmatic smile, convincing him that she knew and would not tell, just as she always did.
He snorted in morose amusement. “Oh well, I suppose its my own fault; I never could stand any woman who talked too much!”
Severus reached forward to refill his glass, but as he did so, he knocked over the slender blue bottle, sending it crashing towards Muse. The stopper came loose, drenching her face in the contents of the phial. Violently cursing his own clumsiness, he franticly reached for a cloth to mop it away before it could do her untold harm, his heart pounding beyond all reason in his distress. But as the golden liquid within came into contact with her canvas, she began to crackle, sizzling as the magic wreaked havoc upon her visage. Sickly green smoke poured from her, and Severus could not help but breathe it in as he scrambled to save her.
An untold amount of time later, Severus blearily opened his eyes, wincing as they watered and stung. He discovered that he was lying prone upon the cold floor of his rooms, and his body screamed in protest as he tried to rectify this undignified situation. As he attempted to scramble back to his chair, he remembered exactly how he had come to find himself in such a wretched position. His heart sank into his boots and he sank back onto the floor as despair smothered him. Muse was gone. Could he really bear to stand? To look at the damaged canvas upon the table top and know that she was gone forever?
As he felt the first genuine tear that he had shed in over twenty years prickle at his eyes, Severus was startled by the hand that reached out to him. He skidded back across the floor, instinctively reaching for his wand to repel the intruder. Yet something caused him to hesitate. He recognised that hand; it was slender, white, and decidedly feminine. No one he knew then, or was it?
Stunned as surely as though someone had hexed him, his eyes involuntarily drifted upwards, taking in the sombre yet practical grey worsted skirt of Edwardian cut that served as a backdrop to that hand, surveying the oddly familiar white blouse that covered the feminine form that stood above him. Finally, his meandering eyes reached her face.
His heart stopped.
He blinked in bewilderment.
It couldn’t be.
But it looked like her!
His muse. Here? In genuine, three-dimensional, honest-to-goodness flesh and blood. How? Severus was convinced that he must be dreaming; after all, had he not dreamed this same dream many times? Yet, somehow, this time it seemed real; there was an oddly visceral quality to it, a beating heart of undeniable reality that sang like a pulse beneath the disjointed skin of the vision that stood before him.
She truly was a vision, more sumptuous than any mere painting could do justice to and perfect in every imaginable way. Petite and pleasantly plump, she regarded him with perplexed grey eyes. The hair that had been a shadowed thing on canvas hung loose and thick down her back, auburn yet shimmering with a thousand colours in the dimly lit room.
Without being aware that he even did so, Severus found his feet again, helped by the hand she still offered, and stood towering over her, feeling as though he was in a care of magical creatures class facing some rare and magical sprite.
“Hello.” His own voice rang in his ears, sounding like a nervous teenager out on a first date; he’d never been any good at this.
She made no response other than to regard him warmly. Encouraged by the fact that she had not run away screaming, he tried again.
“My name is Severus. And you are…?” Still no response. He gave it another go, despite the fact that he now felt utterly foolish. “Perhaps I could just call you Muse?”
She smiled at this, a warm and gracious smile that lit her whole face, bathing him like a blessing. The smile heartened him, so he lifted the little hand that he still held in his own to his lips and kissed it with all of the tarnished gallantry that he could muster.
To his surprise, she moved closer, and as he straightened back up, Severus found grey eyes sparkling with amusement only inches from his own. Wrong footed, he hesitated, only to find himself being tentatively kissed, gentle lips claiming his own. After he had reminded his heart to carry on beating, Severus began to return the kiss, and found her lips yielding to his own, far-more-demanding, mouth.
She tasted of turpentine and chocolate, the most heady and bizarrely erotic combination that he had ever experienced. As he gathered her soft form into his arms, he made vague notice of the fact that for all her solidity, she weighed no more than the painting that he had so often lifted from the secure chest in which he guarded it, but it mattered not as he carried her towards his waiting bed, his teeth ripping the top button from that enchantingly demure white blouse so that he could nibble on her neck.
Severus woke and stretched luxuriantly, remembering the events of the night. In all of his many sexual encounters, he had never once known himself to be loved until last night, when he had known it as certainly as he knew moonstone from cinnabar. He had not even known that such fervent tenderness existed until last night, when she had silently tutored him in the art of blissful euphoria. He could still smell turpentine, chocolate and sex intermingled on the sheets as he reached out for her, but he reached in vain, for she was not there.
Panicking, he sat bolt upright in his bed. Even as his lips formed the word “Muse!” and cried it out into the cold silence of his shabby chambers, he knew that he had been swept up in a foolish hallucination, no doubt the result of the potion fumes. Glad that there was no other soul present to ascertain the depths of idiocy that he was plumbing, Severus hauled himself out of bed and padded into the other room, knowing that sooner or later, he would have to get things over with and assess the damage that his drunken clumsiness had inflicted upon the one possession he cherished above all other things.
He was pleasantly relieved, therefore, to discover that the little canvas lay undamaged on his desk. Severus picked up the treasured image that was the closest thing he still had to a friend since the death of Dumbledore and ran his calloused fingers over the varnished surface. Even though he was relieved that she was unharmed, he could not suppress a tiny pang of disappointment at the realisation that the heady, intense euphoria of the previous night had been nothing more than a dream. He laughed at his own foolishness; it had not been the first time that he had dreamed that his painted lady was real, for she had always been real to him, but last night it had seemed unquestionably so. He shrugged off his disappointment and gazed again at her image.
As his eyes surveyed the familiar image, he was struck by the fact that her smile seemed different — still mysterious and enigmatic, yes, but now there was another quality to those lips; they seemed redder, as though rubbed by stubbled kisses, and the smile itself was a little more...knowing?
Bending his head closer to examine the painting more thoroughly, alarmed that perhaps the potion had done some damage after all, Severus noticed two things simultaneously. As he brushed his hand over the canvas, one long, auburn hair drifted from where it had clung to his arm, and the top button of her demure, white blouse was missing, exposing her tender, white throat and the suggestion of crooked teeth marks in her flesh.
Galvanised by hope, Severus’ hands flew to the slender, blue bottle on the desk, knocking papers and quills this way and that in his anxiety. One drop. One drop of potion was all that he needed to reproduce it. Even if it took the rest of his life, he would find the elusive ingredient and reproduce the potion—he could have his sweet muse forever by his side!
With shaking hands and quivering heart, he held the bottle up to the light, forcing the long suppressed optimist in his soul into action, but to no avail.
The bottle was empty. Not a single trace remained.