Chapter 2: A Crack in the Wall
It was long past midnight when Snape finally left the pub and with it, the Muggle village. His steps were surprisingly steady, despite the fact that the old landlord had kept refilling his glass over and over again. But then of course, Severus Snape could hold his liquor, had been forced to learn how to over the years. He was perfectly able to spend a night at Malfoy Manor, wining and dining without getting drunk yet at the same time drinking enough to not insult his host. He had his strategies for keeping a clear head. For a man in his position, this was imperative. What if the Dark Lord called for him in the middle of the night? It wouldn’t do showing up intoxicated. He had too much to hide, too many secrets to protect.
Nadezhda McKibben had been one of those secrets once, Snape mused as he made his way towards the forest. He had taught the girl white magic while the Dark Lord demanded that she be taught curses, and hours later, he had lied right into the Dark Lord’s face, telling him that the girl was making good progress, that she would be ready to take the Dark Mark before winter came. Yet even though the girl had never been branded, Snape still felt that he had failed her somehow. She might not have had her soul swallowed by Darkness, but he had seen her smile falter, and in the end, it had vanished for good.
And then she had vanished.
Snape sighed and looked back towards the village once more. The barmaid had not returned all evening, bereaving him of the chance to have a better look at her, and even though landlord Edmunds was a talkative man, he had not given Snape many clues to discover she was his long lost student or not. Of course, the young woman had shown up in the village at about the right time, didn’t have any family or friends who were looking for her, and those two facts alone made it very plausible that she was a witch on the run, a witch so desperate to get away from the Wizarding world that she would seek shelter in a Muggle village. But Snape didn’t dare hope. For certain, Edmunds would have noticed if he’d had a witch living under his roof for so many years. Nadezhda McKibben had never known the Muggle ways. Something as simple as using a light switch would have seemed odd to her, and she would surely have given herself away by flinching at the ringing of a phone or the moving, talking pictures in a television set. But then again, according to landlord Edmunds, the young woman who had come wandering into the village fourteen years ago had been in quite a state, both physically and mentally. Any odd behaviour on her part could have been explained by her current condition. She would have had time to learn how to adapt to her new surroundings. And Nadezhda McKibben had always been a clever witch.
A miniscule smile tugged at the corner of Snape’s lips. ‘Hope. Her name is Hope,’ Edmunds had said, and while Snape remembered the landlord’s words, he heard the echo of words spoken one and a half decades ago by a then sixteen-year-old girl.
‘Nadezhda is a Bulgarian name, sir. It means hope.’
Snape shook his head at himself. He should just let it go. Hope was common enough a name, and then again, this might simply be a coincidence. He should just forget what he had seen, what he thought he had seen, and walk away. He had been distracted all evening, had been thinking about Lily far too much and then simply wished to see her eyes in the darkness, those eyes which he knew so well. And Nadezhda’s eyes had reminded him of Lily’s already when she had looked at him for that very first time. The same colour, the same shape…
‘Good evening, professor Snape.’
Instinctively, Snape drew his wand to point it towards the direction from where the greeting had come, ready to defend himself. But when a dark clad figure detached itself from the shadows of the trees at the edge of the forest, he lowered his weapon just as swiftly. There was no mistaking the woman’s posture and her almost soundless steps. Some things never change.
‘Good evening, Miss McKibben,’ Snape said in a low voice.
His breath froze to ice in the cold night air like hers had, and Snape thought that he heard her teeth chatter. She must have been standing at the edge of the forest for quite some time.
‘You have been waiting for me,’ he stated.
The woman nodded.
‘How did you know I would come here?’
‘Magic always leaves a trace, especially in a place like this, where there normally is none,’ she started to explain. ‘I knew you Apparated here and simply hoped you would choose the same spot to Disapparate again. After all, wizards are creatures of habit.’
Snape couldn’t help but smirk. The woman in front of him had no idea about his habitual behaviour. She might remember how he kept his books and potions in a certain order on the shelves in his classroom and study, but she couldn’t even begin to imagine the rigidness of his daily routines, how even the buttoning of his robes in the morning had become a sacred ritual.
‘Are you a creature of habit, Miss McKibben?’ he enquired.
‘Most definitely,’ she answered. ‘Any means to keep one’s sanity, am I right? And it’s Edmunds now, sir. Miss McKibben vanished half a lifetime ago.’
‘Along with Nadezhda?’ Snape ventured to ask.
‘Did she ever exist?’ the woman questioned.
She looked up at him at the same moment the clouds parted. The pale moonlight shone down upon her face, and Snape’s breath caught in his chest. Her eyes were still as green as spring clover, and the coldness in them rivalled the chill of winter. Two precious gems, lifeless and cold, just like the emeralds that represented the House she had once been sorted into.
When was the last time a smile had reached those eyes, Snape wondered. Had they ever sparkled?
‘Why did you run? Tonight, I mean,’ he added quickly, noticing how ambiguous his question was. He knew why Nadezhda McKibben had run away fifteen years ago. Or at least, he thought he knew.
‘Wouldn’t you have, sir?’ she wondered. ‘If a ghost from another life suddenly stood on your doorstep, wouldn’t you run?’
Snape nodded. He would probably have run to the end of the world.
‘I did not follow you,’ he pointed out. ‘You could be halfway to the highlands by now. Why did you choose to wait for me here?’
He saw her swallow and a muscle twitch at her jaw, but she held his gaze steadily. When she spoke, her voice was firm.
‘When I recognised you, I panicked. I never wanted to be found, especially not now, especially not by you.’
Snape frowned. Especially not now? Especially not by him? Whatever did she mean?
‘I have been seeing the signs for some months now,’ she answered his silent question. ‘That bridge collapsing last summer and nobody knowing why; the so called hurricane in the West Country and the everlasting fog; people disappearing or being murdered, people whose names I remember very well. And those Aurors that are patrolling the village… Well, let us say that some of them should learn how to talk a little more quietly.’
She broke off and took a deep breath, and Snape unconsciously tightened his grip around his wand.
‘I know evil is rising once again,’ the woman continued. ‘An evil so dark there is only one wizard who can be responsible for it. He is back, isn’t he?’
Snape nodded gravely and watched her rub her left wrist. Had her scars healed, he wondered. Or were they festering once more, like the mark the Dark Lord had left on his arm?
‘I guess he has a greater scheme and that he does not care about a girl who never even joined his ranks,’ she went on. ‘But when I saw you, when I understood who you were… Forgive me, sir, but I could not know whose side you are on this time.’
‘Do you know now?’ Snape enquired in a matter-of-fact tone.
‘No. I simply assumed that you would neither have let me leave the pub nor spend hours chatting with the landlord if you were looking for Nadezhda McKibben on the Dark Lord’s orders.’
‘Cleverly deducted,’ Snape pointed out, resisting the urge to hand out House points. The woman in front of him was not his student anymore and any sardonic comment from his side would be utterly out of place.
They looked at each other in silence for quite some time. Snape could easily have penetrated her mind, reading her thoughts in order to answer all the questions that were burning inside his own mind, but he refrained from doing so. He had no right to ask her any questions, about neither her sudden disappearance nor what she had been up to for the last fifteen years.
‘Aren’t you curious about why I came here?’ he asked instead. ‘To a Muggle village?’
‘I am sure you had your reasons, sir. Reasons that are none of my business.’
As little as her reasons for being in this village were any of his business, Snape concluded. He was curious, of course, but decided to bide his time.
‘Is there still something left in the Bunnahabhain bottle?’ the woman asked after a couple of moments.
‘A glass or two, I assume.’
‘Why don’t you come back and empty it one day? I’m sure Edmunds would be glad to see you again.’
‘Would you?’ Snape asked.
‘I promise you I won’t run away again. Good night now, sir. It has been a pleasure seeing you.’
‘The pleasure was mine, Miss… Miss Edmunds.’
Edmunds. Hope Edmunds. Her new name felt strange on his lips, but as Snape watched her disappear into the night, he came to the conclusion that calling her Nadezhda McKibben would have felt even stranger. That witch did not exist anymore, had not existed for over a decade. That he had happened to stumble across her that night didn’t make any difference.
But Snape could not deny that he was curious. Curious about why she had chosen to live in this village of all places, how she had been and who she had become, and when he returned less than a fortnight later, he had a hard time convincing himself that he was returning simply because he really wanted to finish that bottle of Bunnahabhain . He had been thinking about Nadezhda – about Hope – more often than he cared to admit over the last two weeks. But when he once more sat in the same dark booth he had chosen during his first visit, all the questions which he had so carefully formulated in his mind seemed to have vanished. This pub wasn’t the right place to ask them. It belonged in a different world, even in a different time. Hope was not the witch he had once known, and he himself seemed to be someone else as well. Maybe he was once more the little boy on a weekend excursion with his father, secretly watching the old fishermen who were sitting at the next table, hoping to catch a part of the wondrous tales they were sharing.
‘Slow night?’ Snape asked when he was served his drink.
‘I wish,’ Hope answered, her eyes wandering from the fishermen to the lone drunk who was talking to the landlord at the bar. ‘This is about as busy as it gets.’
‘How do you keep in business?’ he wondered.
‘Who says we do?’
She inhaled audibly through her nose and after having checked that all her customers were satisfied for the time being, she sat down opposite Snape.
‘There’s still some money,’ she explained in a low voice. ‘Old money.’
She didn’t need to say more. Snape had seen the muscles of her neck tighten and her hands start to shake slightly before she had hidden them under the table. She was using her heritage to keep the business afloat, old money, acquired through generations by one of the oldest Wizarding families in Britain. Old money that probably was her very last link to the life she had left behind.
‘Does Edmunds know?’
‘Of course not. I’ve been doing the books ever since his wife died. He has no idea, neither about how bad business is doing nor about the money. He doesn’t need to know.’
‘He will not hear it from me,’ Snape assured her and thought he’d heard her give a sigh of relief.
‘Edmunds does not know anything, does he? About who you are and what you are?’ he asked, keeping his voice low.
‘Of course, he doesn’t,’ Hope interrupted him and then quickly lowered her gaze as if to collect herself. No matter how many years had passed, her upbringing was still very obvious. Good girls do not interrupt. Good girls do not lose their composure.
After a few moments, she once more lifted her gaze, looking imploringly at her former Head of House.
‘As far as Edmunds is concerned, I do not remember anything about my past. I appeared out of thin air one day, owning nothing else than the clothes on my back. No money, no memories. There is nothing for him to know. Nothing at all. Do you understand?’
His eyes never left hers when he nodded, and once more, Snape promised not to utter a single word. Her secrets weren’t his to tell.
He watched her cross the room and listened to her chatting with the fishermen as they took their leave, saw her replace the drunken man’s empty glass with a plate of pie and mash and imagined the ghost of a smile on her lips as the man started to eat. Most probably, it was not the first time that she made sure he didn’t drink himself into a stupor.
‘A regular customer?’ he asked as Hope brought him his second pint and the man staggered out of the pub half an hour later.
‘Hm. A widower. His wife passed away years ago, but he still comes here to drown his sorrows as soon as he gets his hands on some money.’
‘And you make sure he does not spend the lot of it?’
‘If he doesn’t sober up before morning, he won’t be able to go to work,’ Hope explained. ‘No work, no pay. He has a son to take care of, you see.’
‘It is very kind of you to feed him and send him home even though his drinking would earn you money,’ Snape pointed out.
‘I need to do something good in this world, don’t I?’ Hope replied, her voice suddenly filled with so much bitterness that it made Snape shiver. As did the look in her eyes.
‘I am certain you have done plenty of good,’ he tried to appease her, but Hope slowly shook her head.
‘Not enough, sir. Not nearly enough.’
‘Don’t you listen to her, stranger. She’s being far too modest for her own good. And what are you doing drinking ale? Don’t you and I have a nice bottle of Bunnahabhain to finish?’
The landlord sat down opposite Snape, in the same spot Hope had sat less than an hour ago, and patted her arm in a friendly gesture.
‘Hope, darling, why don’t you go and fetch that bottle? And lock up while you’re at it, would you? I doubt we’ll get any more customers tonight.’
Had the man not noticed the look in Hope’s eyes, Snape wondered. How could he not have? But maybe, Snape thought, he knew what to look for while Edmunds did not. For he knew that look, saw it in his own mirror far more often than he wanted to. That look filled with self-hatred and desperation, overshadowed by endless guilt. What on earth had happened to the girl he had once known? What had taken away her innocence and her hope?
‘She is my ray of sunshine, my Hope,’ the landlord started. ‘I don’t know what I would have done without her. When my wife passed away… She was my everything, you know. My sun, my air. If it hadn’t been for Hope, I would have followed her to the grave. But Hope took care of everything. Me, the pub. I owe her a lot.’
‘You don’t owe me anything. You gave me a home when I had nowhere else to go. The least I can do is tend your bar.’
Both Edmunds and Snape looked up at Hope, who was suddenly standing beside them once more, the landlord seemingly a little more surprised than Snape.
‘I sometimes wonder how you manage to sneak up on people like this, dear one,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s almost as if you appear out of thin air. Poof! Like magic.’
He gesticulated like a Muggle Wizard who was pulling flowers out of his sleeve or a rabbit out of a hat, and Hope tilted her head, giving him the tiniest of smiles.
‘Are you sure you should have another drink? You seem to be imagining things already. There is no such thing as magic.’
The landlord laughed heartily, thereby missing that Hope’s hands were once more shaking as she put down her tray.
‘Will you not be joining us?’ Snape asked as he noticed that she had only brought two glasses.
‘I’m afraid not. I can’t hold my liquor.’
She was trying to make it sound like a joke, but her smile was so fake that Snape saw right through it. She didn’t want to be there anymore, so much was clear to him.
‘I’ll count up the till and go to bed if that’s alright,’ she addressed the landlord.
‘Are you sure?’ Edmunds enquired. ‘It’s still early. Have a cup of tea and sit with us, dear.’
He sounded concerned, but Hope still shook her head.
‘Tomorrow will be a much better day if I retire now,’ she pointed out. ‘Good night, father. Sir.’
‘A barmaid who cannot hold her liquor?’ Snape mused after Hope had gone upstairs. ‘That is quite unheard of.’
‘Oh, she can hold her liquor alright,’ Edmunds pointed out. ‘I’ve seen her drink sailors under the table. But there are days when…’
He broke off and sighed.
‘She is a gentle soul, my Hope. Fragile, to say the least. She hides it well most of the time, but sometimes I can tell that there is… a shadow, something from her past that keeps her from smiling. I don’t know what it is, and sometimes I think that I don’t want to know.’
He looked up at Snape, his brown eyes full of worries.
‘Do you mind if we have that drink some other time?’ he asked, pointing at the glasses and the bottle. ‘I think I’d better go check on Hope so she won’t do anything stupid.’