Chapter 16: And the Darkest of Days~~~
She barely made any sound as she slipped out of bed, but Snape still woke, due to the shift of weight on the mattress or the sudden coldness, he did not know.
‘Go back to sleep,’ Hope whispered in response to his drowsy mumbling. ‘It’s not even six o’clock yet.’
She tiptoed through the room as if she wanted to avoid waking up the man in her bed completely, and indeed Snape drifted off to sleep again. Had it not been for the creaking of the wardrobe and then the closing of the door a few moments later, he would certainly have slept for another hour or two. But by the time he heard Hope’s footsteps fade away on the other side of the door, he was wide awake.
Sighing contently, he rolled over to his side and extended his hand. The sheets where Hope had been lying a mere minutes ago were still warm, the scent of her hair still lingering on the pillow, and with a smile Snape remembered the sound of her breathing which he had listened to before falling asleep himself. It had been such a comforting little noise, the sweetest lullaby he could imagine. Now that it was gone, he already missed it and wondered how he would ever be able to fall asleep without it.
He sat up and switched on the bedside lamp as he heard the shower being turned on in the bathroom down the corridor. He found his clothes neatly folded on a chair and his cloak hanging over the wardrobe door. There was also a new set of clothes lying on another chair, a pair of black trousers and a crisp shirt which he didn’t recognise from his stay during the summer. When Hope had managed to put them there, was beyond him.
He pulled on the trousers and the shirt. He was in no hurry to be reminded of the Wizarding world and was already planning to stay at the pub for a day or two, maybe even longer. There was nothing for him to do at Hogwarts. Every single student had left the castle for the holidays, and he was not even sure that any of the staff had stayed. Apart from Filch, that was, and Hagrid, of course. But those two would do just fine on their own. Snape was sure of that. Certainly, Rosmerta would take good care of them at the Three Broomsticks. No, he wasn’t needed at Hogwarts, Snape concluded. He wouldn’t even be missed.
The smell of toast and coffee made his stomach rumble as he walked down the stairs to the pub, and as he came down, he found that there were already two plates and a bread basket standing on the counter.
‘Help yourself to coffee,’ Hope prompted him. ‘Breakfast will be ready in a minute.’
He hardly caught more than a glimpse of her as she slipped through the door that led to the kitchen, but Snape could see that she had braided her hair and that she was wearing a nice black dress. It was simple yet still too fancy to be worn in the kitchen all day. It wasn’t Sunday, so she hadn’t dressed up for church, and Snape couldn’t help but wonder if Hope had made herself pretty for his sake.
‘Did you sleep alright?’ she asked when she emerged from the kitchen, carrying a frying pan filled with eggs and bacon.
‘I slept very well, thank you,’ Snape replied, his eyes fixed on Hopes hands as she filled his plate. Her slender fingers, her perfectly manicured nails, so out of place in this shabby, little pub. Those hands should be leafing through old, leather-bound books and holding fine crystal glasses, he thought. They should be guiding delicate quills over exquisite parchment, not carrying cast iron frying pans. They should be nurturing a babe, caressing a lover…
‘Did you sleep well?’ he asked, clearing his throat and blinking fiercely in order to keep his mind from wandering.
‘I haven’t slept that well in a very long time.’
She filled his plate and then put down the frying pan on a trivet on the counter without having put any food on her own plate. She sat down on Snape’s left and watched him eat for some moments before she started playing with a piece of toast, tearing off small morsels which turned to crumbs between her fingers.
‘Aren’t you eating?’ Snape asked.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Hope replied.
‘A shame indeed,’ Snape pointed out. ‘This is delicious.’
He ate with gusto, as if the simple eggs and bacon really was the most scrumptious dish he’d ever eaten. And Hope kept watching him, still turning her toast to dust.
‘Will Edmunds not be joining us?’ Snape asked after a while as he picked up his mug.
‘No, he won’t,’ Hope replied quietly, putting down the remains of her toast. ‘He passed away a week ago.’
Snape almost choked at his coffee.
‘A massive stroke,’ Hope continued in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘He collapsed upstairs in his room and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.’
‘Why did you not say anything last night?’ he enquired.
‘Would it have mattered?’ Hope countered. ‘He is gone, and you were in quite a state as it was.’
His coffee mug still in hand, Snape stared at Hope, entirely at a loss for words. Her detachedness was rendering him speechless, and the look in her eyes was sending chills down his spine. So cold, so impassive. But then again, what else was he to expect? This was the woman who had not even flinched when she – a mere teenager at the time – had looked upon the mangled body of her own father, the woman who had looked the Dark Lord in the eyes without blinking.
‘Hope, I… Is there anything I can do?’ Snape asked, slowly recuperating from his shock.
‘He is being laid to rest today. If you, um…’
Hope broke off and cleared her throat.
‘Would you come with me?’ she requested timidly.
‘Yes. Yes!’ Snape replied without having to think twice. ‘Of course I will come with you.’
Snape saw a muscle twitch at her jaw and caught a glimpse of a tear at the corner of her eye, a little drop of water at the edge of a frozen lake. But when Hope blinked, the little tear disappeared, and Snape hardly dared imagine the flood that would ensue once the ice melted and the water broke free.
Snape recognised most of the people who had come to take their final farewell of Edmunds. The three fishermen, the blond boy and his father, an elderly lady and her spinster daughter who would visit the pub every Thursday to sample Hope’s delicious Shepard’s pie. Even the other mourners were customers or people with whom Edmunds had done business: the butcher down the street, the grocer. Even the barber had come to pay his respect. It was a small party, all more or less close to the landlord, and after he had been laid to rest, they all came to the pub to have a drink in his honour.
‘He has been such a wonderful man. So kind and generous. We will miss him dearly.’
‘I will miss him, too.’
Hope shook the butcher’s hand, and the stout man drew her into a cordial embrace.
‘If there is anything you need, anything at all, let me know.’
‘Will you keep the pub open?’ wondered the little old lady as it was her turn to speak to Hope.
‘I see no reason to close,’ Hope replied. ‘Not just yet anyway.’
‘Anything you need,’ repeated the butcher. ‘I can give you a loan if you need money.’
‘Thank you. To all of you, thank you.’
Once more, the butcher wrapped his arms around Hope, and even the old lady joined in.
‘Poor child,’ she cooed. ‘How will you cope all on your own?’
‘I have managed before,’ Hope replied quietly. ‘I will be alright.’
She most probably would, Snape thought quietly as he watched her shake hands and accept hugs and pats on the back. As she said, she had managed before. But the people gathered in the pub had no idea just how strong the landlord’s ward was. They had no idea about what she had seen and what she had been through already at an age where most youngsters barely had left school. But how much more would she be able to carry? How much sorrow would she be able to live through before she broke?
Sinking into the shadows of his usual booth, Snape kept a close eye on Hope. She was putting up a brave face, keeping her back straight and her head held high, just like she had done half a lifetime ago, on the day her father had been laid to rest. She had been perfect that day: self-controlled, poised. She had played the part of the grieving daughter well. But whereas she had held no love for Duncan McKibben, Snape knew that she meant it now when she said that she would miss Edmunds. She had cared a great deal for her foster father, and Snape was quite certain that she would have stayed with him even if she’d had somewhere else to go.
She carried herself well all afternoon, caring for her guests as she always did, refilling glasses and plates and every now and then stopping for a friendly word. But as the hours went by, Snape noticed her shoulders slump. By the time the last guest left the pub, she seemed to have become several inches shorter.
‘How about you have a seat and I will make you a sandwich and a cup of tea?’ Snape offered.
His voice was soft, yet the look in his eyes made it clear that he would not take no for an answer, and Hope in her turn didn’t look like she had the strength to protest. She sat down at the bar, closing her eyes for a moment, and Snape made for the kitchen, taking far longer than necessary to make a sandwich. He wanted to give Hope time to collect herself. He didn’t want her to think that she needed to be strong for him.
‘Will you manage?’ he asked as he served her a simple cheese sandwich and a cup of strong, black tea a few minutes later. ‘With the pub, I mean?’
Hope took a small bite of her sandwich, put it back on the plate and then slowly wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
‘Hopefully,’ she replied quietly. ‘Business has been alright for the last couple of months. All the bills are paid, and Edmunds managed to put away some savings. I’ll get by. Unless the customers stop coming, that is.’
‘Why would they stop coming?’ Snape enquired. ‘They seemed sincere enough today. I am quite sure that they very much appreciate both your service and your food. Much more than you appreciate mine, anyway.’
For a moment, Hope seemed at a loss to what Snape was referring, but as her eyes followed his to the sandwich that she had barely touched, she gave a short laugh.
‘I’m sorry,’ she started. ‘I didn’t mean to...’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Snape interrupted her. ‘I know that there are days when food is the last thing on one’s mind. Food, drink, sleep. I know there are days when even breathing seems unnecessary and irrelevant.’
He pushed the plate to the side so she wouldn’t feel obligated to eat just to make him happy, and then he looked at Hope, once more with that look that suggested that he was about to give an order rather than make a request.
‘The dishes can wait until tomorrow. I think you should take a long, hot shower and then do not much more than drink a cup of tea and go to bed. It has been a long day.’
‘Indeed it has,’ she agreed. ‘But... if you don’t mind, I’d like to go for a walk. Alone. Just to clear my head.’
‘I understand,’ Snape replied. ‘Take all the time you need.’
‘Will you be here when I come back?’
‘Of course, I will.’
‘Thank you,’ Hope whispered, gifting Snape with a sad little smile. ‘For everything.’
Snape shook his head, but Hope insisted.
‘This is the second time you attend a wake for my sake. Surely you must have better things to do.’
‘It might have been my duty as your Head of House to attend your father’s wake,’ Snape agreed. ‘But I am not your teacher anymore and you are not my student. The only reason for me to be here today was because I wanted to.’
He watched after her from the window by the door as she headed down the wintery road that led to the lake. She had undone her braid, and her black hair was now hanging down her back. Snowflakes got caught in it, for some moments resembling stars in the velvety black sky before they melted and vanished. She would catch a cold, Snape thought, and considered for a moment going after Hope with a hat or an umbrella.
‘Mother hen,’ he muttered under his breath and turned to pick up some dishes and carry them to the kitchen. Hope was a grown-up woman, more than capable of taking care of herself. But as the snowfall grew heavier and she hadn’t returned after over an hour, Snape grew worried anyway. She wouldn’t be doing something stupid, would she, he wondered, almost immediately shaking his head at himself. But then again, even Edmunds had feared for Hope’s wellbeing at times. She had promised him that she would never hurt herself, but now Edmunds was gone and along with him the promise Hope had given him.
As the clock struck ten, Snape put down the rag he’d been holding and headed for the front door. He never even went upstairs to fetch his cloak, and had someone asked him later if he had locked the door, he wouldn’t even have been able to answer that simple question. For it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all, except Hope.
The snow was wet and heavy, and despite there only lying an inch or two on the road, Snape found it strenuous to walk through it. It seemed to take him hours to get to the lake, whereas it normally only took about ten minutes, and the night seemed to become darker by the second. The moon and the stars were hidden behind heavy clouds, and Snape shuddered, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours remembering his mother’s tale of the land of the fairies. But while he wouldn’t have minded losing his way the previous night, while he indeed would have welcomed a chance to slip away, he was now fighting the darkness with all his mental power. He couldn’t get lost. He mustn’t. He had to get to the lake. He had to get to Hope.
Had she wandered into the darkness as well, he wondered. Was she trapped in limbo already, still trying to find her way back but already forgetting where she was supposed to go and where she came from? What if he couldn’t find her?
‘Get a hold of yourself man!’ Snape chided himself. It was but a fairy tale. The road under his feet was real, and it would lead him to the lake without any detours. And the darkness, as impenetrable as it seemed, was but a creation of his own mind.
By the time the lake came into view, the snowfall had ceased, and the moon was breaking forth from between the clouds. Its light was pale but bright enough for Snape to make out the footprints that were leading down to the water and onto the frozen lake. He could perceive a crack in the ice a few yards from the shore and heard the water lap over the surface. Coming to a halt, he opened his mouth to call for Hope, but no sound left his lips, and for some moments, he stood rooted to the spot, his mouth still open and his heart hammering in his chest. Surely, after having lived by the lake for more than fifteen winters, Hope would know that the ice was still thin at the end of December, too thin to carry the weight of an adult. Surely, she wouldn’t venture onto it... Or had her knowledge of the ice made her do just that? Had she expected the ice to break under her weight and had therefore deliberately walked out onto it?
Without any plan, Snape broke into a run. He was well aware that there was no chance for him to find Hope if she really was under the ice. And even if he did find her, it would be too late. But the voice of reason was silenced by panic and terror, and Snape had come all the way to the very edge of the lake when Hope called out for him.
‘Severus, don’t! The ice won’t hold your weight!’
Snape spun around, straining his eyes to make out her form in the darkness. She was standing mere feet away from him, at the edge of the water. How he could not have seen her earlier was beyond him, but as he laid eyes upon her now, he was so relieved that he almost sank to his knees.
‘The footprints,’ he brought forth, panting. ‘The crack in the ice. I thought... I feared...’
Hope came closer, her steps so silent that she could have been floating above the ground. The moonlight gave her pale face an eerie glow, and had it not been for her red-rimmed eyes, Snape would have wondered if he was gazing upon a ghost.
‘I know this ice. I know it doesn’t carry an adult before mid-January.’
‘I was afraid that you were aware of just that,’ Snape admitted. ‘I feared you might...’
He broke off, unable to put his fears into words. They seemed silly now. Hope was strong, Snape knew that, but he also knew that even the strongest of persons could be consumed by their grief. He knew it only too well. How many times had he not played with the thought of putting an end to his miserable existence? As Potions master, he had all the possibilities in the world. It would be only too easy. His passing would be swift and painless. But every time he as much as approached a bottle of poison, he saw a pair of green eyes in front of him and remembered why he had to struggle on, for whom he stayed alive. But Hope, whom did she have? Who gave her the strength and a reason to carry on?
‘There have been many nights when I stayed awake, staring into the darkness, convinced that I did not want to see the sun rise again. But there was always a reason to get up in the morning. Charles, our son, Edmunds...’
Hope’s voice was so feeble that Snape reached out for her, fearing that she would collapse. Charles was out of reach, in a world she had fled and without any memory of her, and little Severus and Edmunds were both gone. How forlorn she must feel, how terribly alone. But Hope stood tall, and what Snape saw glittering in her eyes was the reflection of the moon and the stars, not tears.
‘What is going on in the Wizarding world, Severus?’
‘Why would you want to know now, tonight of all nights?’ Snape asked, slightly taken aback. Hope had made it clear many months ago that she did not want to know anything about the Wizarding world or the war that was shaking its very foundation. And he had been glad not to tell her. Not telling her had always meant being able to forget everything for some blissful hours, even days. Not telling her had meant being free.
‘I need to know where this war leaves you,’ Hope explained. ‘I need to know whether or not there is a chance that you will come back to me once you’ve left. I need to know if there is hope.’
Snape swallowed drily. What was he supposed to tell her? That he was standing with a foot in each camp and that his chances of surviving the war were less than slim? It was the truth, of course, but was the truth what she needed to hear now? Would the truth not bereave her of the very last scrap of hope she was holding in her hand and leave her standing with nothing?
Brushing a strand of wet her from her cheek and carefully tucking it behind her ear, Snape looked deeply into her emerald green eyes.
‘There will always be hope,’ he said quietly, and for the duration of a heartbeat, he managed to believe it himself.
He laid his arm around her shoulder to lead her away from the water and back to the village, and as they walked, he felt her shiver.
‘You are cold,’ he pointed out and pulled her closer, relishing the feeling of her slender body against his. It felt good to hold her, to protect and shelter her, and as she later asked him to share her bed once again, Snape didn’t need to think twice.
Once again time seemed to run slower than usual, and the clock on the wall seemed to have all but stopped ticking. But this time, Snape did not mind. For as much as he cared, this night could last for ever. Hope was lying beside him, drifting in and out of sleep, but while she had been stiff as a board the previous night, perched on the edge of the mattress and pretending that she wasn’t there, she lay now relaxed on her side, curled up under her blanket like a kitten. Whenever she woke up, she looked at Snape, a ghost of a smile flitting over her face, and he stayed awake to watch over her and to make sure that he didn’t miss a single one of those rare smiles.
‘How do you know?’ she suddenly asked. The church bells had just struck three.
‘Know what?’ Snape asked, his voice just about as sleepy as hers.
‘You said earlier that you knew that there are days when nothing matters. Days when even eating and sleeping seem irrelevant. Days when you have to force yourself to keep breathing. How do you know? What did you lose?’
Snape drew a long, steadying breath. He saw Hope struggle to keep her eyes open and knew that she would very soon drift off to sleep once more. When she woke up again, she might have forgotten her question and he wouldn’t need to answer. For he knew that the answer would hurt. Himself and maybe even her. But looking into her green eyes, he took a chance, praying that answering her question would be redemptive.
‘I had a friend once,’ he began, carefully weighing every word before he spoke it. ‘She was my everything, my strength, my salvation. When I lost her, my world was shattered. My very soul was split in half, any reason to go on vanished into nothingness. I was desperate and willingly leaped into the abyss that was opening up before me.’
‘You lost her on Halloween, didn’t you? All those years ago.’
‘She died that night,’ he replied, feeling the old scars in his heart once more opening up and starting to bleed. ‘But I lost her many years before that, on a sunny afternoon by the Black Lake.’
He broke off, suddenly finding it hard to breathe and wishing that Hope would have never asked, that he would never have answered. It hurt so much, even after all those years.
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he tried to shut everything out. The memories, the pain, everything that he had been so careful to lock away for so many years. But he failed. One after another, treacherous tears escaped from under his dark lashes, ran down his pale cheeks and trickled onto the pillow, and he didn’t have the strength to neither hide them or dry them off. Had it not been for Hope’s tender touch, he might have drowned in them.
‘It is alright to mourn,’ she said, gingerly slipping her little hand into his and then holding on tight. And Snape squeezed her hand in return, silently pleading that she would not let go.
‘I loved her,’ he brought forth, every syllable a great effort. ‘I loved her more than life itself.’
‘I know,’ Hope whispered, bringing his hand to her chest and cradling it like a little child. ‘I know you’ve loved. And I pray that you haven’t forgotten how to.’