Chapter 17: Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot~~~
Standing by the window, holding the steaming cup in her hand, Hope watched the snow fall, every now and then craning her neck to see the children that were building snowmen in a front yard a bit further down the road. Snape observed her from across the room where he himself was having a cup of tea at the bar. It had taken him quite a while to persuade her to have a break before the first guests arrived for their New Year’s Eve dinner. There were still things to do, Hope had argued, and when she had finally accepted the cup he had held under her nose, Snape had been satisfied with his small victory. To try to persuade Hope to sit down with him now would be a waste of time. She would keep standing and check up on her work as soon as she had finished her tea. Not that it was necessary, for she hadn’t missed anything. She had cleaned the tables so thoroughly that the wood shone with polish and had decorated them with white roses and tiny silver stars. There were glasses standing on every table, both for wine, beer and spirits. There were plates and cutlery and neatly folded napkins. The counters in the kitchen were laid with plates that waited to be filled, and from the pots on the stove came the promising scent of a delicious feast. Whoever came to the pub that night would dine like a king and most certainly be treated like one as well. Hope would make sure of that. And Snape was confident that he would enjoy the New Year’s party in this little Muggle pub much more than he had ever enjoyed a fancy New Year’s gathering at Malfoy manor.
‘What are you smiling at?’ Hope asked as she turned away from the window.
‘This,’ Snape replied, making a sweeping motion with his hand to include the whole of the pub. ‘Everything looks perfect, and you will be the perfect hostess tonight. I was just thinking that Narcissa Malfoy could learn a trick or two from you.’
‘How is Narcissa?’ Hope enquired, a tiny frown appearing on her brow.
‘She is getting by,’ Snape replied slowly, wishing that he hadn’t mentioned the lady of Malfoy manor. He wasn’t keen to talk about the war and the effects it had on people, and surely, Hope wasn’t keen to listen either. But now she had asked, and it would have been rude not to answer.
‘The war is hard on everyone,’ he declared. ‘But Narcissa is tough. And she is a Slytherin. She will make it through it. I am quite confident of that.’
‘Narcissa has been kind to me,’ Hope said softly. ‘I would hate to see her come to harm.’
Then she put down her cup on the nearest table.
‘You never gave me an answer the other night. About the war.’
Her voice was still soft and so was the look in her eyes, and had he wanted to, Snape could have denied her an answer even now. She wouldn’t insist on him answering, he was certain about that. Most probably, she wouldn’t ask a third time either. But would it be fair to leave her in the dark? Soon he would leave her and return to the world she knew so little about. Should the worst happen, should he never be able to come back, wouldn’t she have the right to know what had happened to him?
‘The dark powers are becoming stronger and more numerous by the day,’ he began in a grave tone. ‘The resistance lacks a leader, someone who will lead them into battle and who they can follow without any doubts. Dumbledore put all his hope in Harry Potter, the Chosen One. But no one has seen the boy for months, and hope is fading. The light is fading.’
‘And you?’ Hope asked. ‘What is your role in all of this?’
‘I cannot tell you,’ Snape answered, sadly shaking his head. ‘No one must know.’
Sinking her teeth into her bottom lip, Hope nodded. The muscles at the back of her neck tightened, and from one moment to the other, her eyes came to resemble those cold, lifeless emeralds Snape both hated and feared. He couldn’t bear to look at them and turned his head. His heart grew heavy, and it seemed to him as if the air around him was becoming colder. It almost felt as if a Dementor was approaching. The only thing missing was the sound of its rattling breath. Yet instead Snape heard footsteps behind him, soft and light, and felt a small, warm hand being laid upon his shoulder.
‘I know you can’t tell me,’ Hope whispered. ‘I know you mustn’t. And I know that I have no right to ask, just as I know that there is no point in asking you to stay here.’
Snape swallowed and turned around, his black eyes locking onto her green ones. The look in them had once more become soft, and Snape did his best not to blink, wishing that he could look into those peaceful pools for the rest of his days.
‘I would love to stay,’ he said honestly. ‘There is, in fact, no place on earth where I would rather be than here with you. You give me peace. You give me hope. And I refuse to give up on either of them.’
‘There will always be hope. You said so yourself.’
Snape gave a weary smile. He wanted to believe it. By Merlin, he did.
‘Your key, do you have it?’ Hope asked, and Snape nodded, producing the little piece of metal from the pocket of his trousers and holding it out in the palm of his hand.
‘Keep it close,’ Hope prompted him, closing her fingers around Snape’s which in their turn closed around the key. ‘Remember that you are welcome here whenever you wish to return. Always.’
Time seemed to stand still for a moment as they both gazed upon their entwined hands. Snape felt a tingling in his fingers, faint enough for him to forget all about it in a heartbeat. But when Hope let go of his hand and he opened his fist, the key felt warm on his palm.
‘What was that?’ he asked. His voice was but a whisper. He hardly dared breathe.
‘Magic,’ Hope replied with a smile that made her green eyes sparkle like emeralds in the sunlight. Then she turned and crossed the room to unlock the door. The first dinner guests were about to arrive.
The evening was a success. There was food and drink aplenty, the diners laughed and sang, everyone feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside, a feeling that did not come from the food and drink alone. For there was something hanging in the air, a notion of joy and happiness that no one could really explain. But it made them forget the mists that had hung over the village for the better part of the year and the feeling of gloom that had inhabited all their hearts for far too long. Every now and then, someone proposed a toast, and more than once, it was dedicated to their hostess.
‘To Hope!’ rang the voices through the pub.
The ambiguity of the wording couldn’t have been more obvious. Certainly, everyone was cheering for the landlady who made everyone feel like royalty that New Year’s Eve. But no one could deny that there was indeed a feeling of hope and optimism in the air, bathing them all in a soft, silvery light. Even Snape managed to forget his worries for a while. He was sitting in his usual booth, not really feeling like mixing with the other patrons but still enjoying the atmosphere. And while everyone else was occupied with their meal and drink, his eyes were on Hope. She was manoeuvring smoothly between tables and chairs, carrying plates and glasses, never too busy to stop and exchange some friendly words with her patrons. She was the perfect hostess, just as Snape had predicted. In fact, not even Narcissa Malfoy could have lived up to Hope’s standards. For Hope had something Narcissa sorely lacked, an honest, heartfelt cordiality that made people smile and feel at ease. And she herself seemed entirely unaware of her gift.
‘Is this how you normally spend your New Year’s Eve? Hiding in the shadows?’
Snape looked up. He had been so absorbed in his musing that he had not noticed Hope approaching him.
‘I am not hiding,’ he replied. ‘I am observing.’
‘You might have to explain that to George. He wants you to come over to their table and have a pint with him and the lads.’
Snape turned his head to look past Hope and saw one of the old fishermen holding up his glass towards him.
‘They don’t bite,’ Hope said. ‘Come on, make an old man happy.’
For a moment, Snape hesitated. He wasn’t normally of the social kind. But the old fisherman seemed to be very keen to have some new company. It surely wouldn’t hurt. And indeed, they turned out to be kind men, George being the most talkative of them all. He was also the one who drank the most.
‘When are you going to take our darling Hope out for a date?’ he slurred out after his third pint in Snape’s company.
Snape looked at him, puzzled.
‘Hope and I are friends,’ he explained. ‘I doubt that a date would be an appropriate pastime.’
‘Friends my foot!’ George exclaimed. ‘I’ve known Hope since she was a wee lass…’
‘No, you haven’t,’ one of his companions interrupted him. ‘She was almost twenty when she came here.’
‘She was a wee lass,’ George insisted, trying to focus on Snape again. ‘Just a wee lass. I know her well. And I know that she wouldn’t look at you the way she does if you were just friends.’
‘And how exactly am I looking at Severus, if I may ask?’
George chuckled and accepted the cup of strong black coffee that Hope was offering him before he kindly patted her hand.
‘You smile at him, poppet. Don’t you try and deny it.’
‘Don’t embarrass the girl, George! If you can’t keep quiet, we’ll have to take you home,’ his companions warned him, and George started laughing and telling tall tales about his latest catch of fish. Soon it almost seemed as if he had all but forgotten about his statement. But Snape hadn’t forgotten, and by the looks of it, neither had Hope. For she now barely met his gaze, and when she did, she quickly turned away again.
A drunk mind speaks a sober heart, Snape thought as he watched George sway out of the pub, supported by his two companions. Could it be that the old man had seen something he hadn’t? Did the little rare smile on Hope’s lips mean more than he understood?
With a slight frown on his face, Snape made to return to his booth to gather his thoughts and analyse the situation at hand, but all of a sudden, the whole pub seemed to be on their feet. Coats were being grabbed and flutes filled with sparkling wine, and soon everyone was on their way out to hear the church bells ring in the New Year and to admire the fireworks the mayor had promised. The only ones staying inside were Snape and Hope.
Snape cleared his throat.
‘You have dazzled them all,’ he pointed out. ‘They will talk about this feast until midsummer.’
‘It has been my pleasure,’ Hope replied, filling two glasses with sparkling wine. ‘It has been lovely to see so many smiling faces.’
She handed Snape a glass, but instead of accepting it, he tilted his head to look at her, narrowing his black eyes.
‘You do not look very happy,’ he stated.
Forcing herself to smile but failing miserably, Hope drew I breath through her nose.
‘It is almost midnight, and the New Year is less than five minutes away,’ she said. ‘This means you will be leaving soon.’
Snape’s mouth fell open.
‘I wasn’t planning to leave tonight.’
In fact, he had not been planning anything. During the course of the evening, he had even managed to ignore the fact that he would have to leave at all. But it was true. The first of the students would return to Hogwarts in time for dinner on the first of January. As headmaster, Snape would be expected to be there.
‘What’s the point of delaying your departure?’ Hope asked, lowering her eyes. ‘It won’t hurt any less if you wait until the morning. On the contrary.’
She had been speaking quietly enough for Snape to pretend that he had not heard her, and he was grateful for it. For he did not know what to tell her, and the more he thought about it, the clearer it became that she was right. Him leaving would hurt. It would hurt immensely.
Hope set the glasses on the counter and took her shawl and a worn winter jacket from a hook on the wall.
‘It belonged to Edmunds,’ she explained, handing the jacket to Snape, still avoiding his gaze. ‘Will you come outside and watch the fireworks with me?’
She didn’t join the crowd that had gathered on the street outside the pub but lingered on the doorstep, her shawl tightly wrapped around her shoulders, and Snape came to stand behind her, close enough to smell the scent of her hair, close enough to see the muscles at her neck tense up each time she took a shuddering breath. She was holding back tears, and Snape, too, felt a lump form in his throat. He did not want to leave. Not now, not the next morning, not ever. He wanted to stay at the pub, close to the woman who had been nothing but kind to him, who had accepted him with all his flaws and shortcomings without asking for anything in return. But he knew that he could not stay, knew that he mustn’t, and he realised that Hope had been right: him leaving would hurt even more if he stayed another night.
‘Happy New Year,’ he whispered into her ear as the church bell struck twelve and the fireworks started to go off. His left hand was resting on Hope’s shoulder, and it took all his willpower not to lean in and brush her cheek with his lips. For he knew that a peck on the cheek would not be enough. If he kissed her on the cheek now, he would come to claim her lips, her body and eventually her very soul. She would willingly surrender to him, and he would offer himself to her in return, and when he left in the morning, he wouldn’t be able to do so without breaking both her heart and his own. And so Snape withdrew, pulling his wand from the back pocket of his trousers, and with a crack which everyone except Hope believed to be part of the fireworks, he Disapparated.