When the gliding staircase transported them down to the corridor, they ran right into Neville and Harry, both on their way to dinner. Both boys were decked out in Quidditch robes and scarves and froze when they recognised Snape.
Laurel reached for his hand and pressed it encouragingly. Then she gave him a little push towards Harry and beckoned Neville to her.
"How are your parents?"
"Same as always," Neville shrugged. "My grandmother sends her best wishes. She really liked you, I think."
"So did I. I hope I'll meet her again."
Neville threw a nervous glance at Snape. "Did he force you to come back?"
Laurel chuckled. "No. It is a long story, but essentially I came back because I love him."
The boy blushed violently. "And does he? Love you?"
"I am about to find out in a few minutes," she whispered. „What do you think?"
He scrutinised the Potions master and frowned. "He looks horribly, as if he had been drawn and quartered. If Hermione is right and love hurts, then I'd say, yes. He must love you. Terribly."
Spontaneously Laurel drew him into her arms and kissed him on the cheek.
Snape stared at Harry and Harry stared back at the Potions master. Finally the wizard cleared his throat. "I suppose I am in your debt, Mr Potter."
The boy shrugged and nervously brushed invisible dirt off his Quidditch robes. "I didn't do anything. Or if I did, I don't know how I did it."
"Still - I owe you."
"And you hate it," Harry concluded dead seriously.
"Indeed. I hate it." The Potions master crossed his arms over his chest.
"I assume since you hated me from my first day in Hogwarts it doesn't make a difference really." Harry clenched his fists and tried to keep his voice down so Laurel and Neville would not hear him.
Snape's head jerked. "What makes you think I hate you, Potter?"
"Well, you made that obvious, didn't you? You wanted me expelled from school more often than I can count. You hated my father, you hate my godfather and you hate me."
The Potions master drew in a deep breath and looked helplessly at Laurel. She gave him a faint smile and embraced Neville Longbottom. Now if this was supposed to be a hint to embrace Potter, the hell he'd do. Instead he gazed at the boy intently.
"Your godfather and I have set our differences aside for the time being. And you are wrong to assume I hated James. True, I did not particularly like him. You do not like all the students in your year, I dare to say. How about Draco Malfoy?"
Harry snorted. "Hardly."
"I did not like James, but I respected his decisions. Maybe we can agree on that? We do not need to like each other. Anyway, liking each other it greatly overrated after all. But we can respect each other. At least until the war is over."
They stood, and neither of them would make the first move. But then Harry smiled, just a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Snape bowed his head, just a fraction, but enough to acknowledge the smile.
When Laurel took his hand, he exhaled in relief. The two boys scrambled off.
"By the way, 5 points off for each of you for being late. And rest assured, Mr. Longbottom, there will be a potions class tomorrow," Snape called after them and his voice was the old silky yet menacing instrument it had always been.
Laurel smiled to herself.
While the two Professors wandered off towards the dungeons, Neville and Harry stood and watched them until they disappeared down the stairs.
"He is back," muttered Neville.
"Yeah," sighed Harry, " for a moment I thought he had gone mad. He actually behaved like a human being."
They grinned at each other and ran off to dinner.
* * *
Snape's bedroom had been cleaned and aired by the house-elves. Nothing reminded of the sickroom it had been until lately but Laurel's books at the bedside table. Laurel lit a fire in the fireplace when she saw Snape rub his arms.
"You should really move to a warmer room. Preferably one that has a window," she remarked while she conjured a tray with cups and a tea pot. This time she got it right at the first try and she took it as a lucky sign.
"Severus? We need to talk about what happened in London. Before Ben attacked you," she said and passed him a steaming cup.
"I came … to …" He went to the fireplace and stirred the burning logs.
Laurel saw how hard it was for him and waited patiently.
"I came to surrender."
Her eyes clouded. "Severus, is this about power? About who of us is stronger and can make the other bid their will?"
"Is it not?" His smile was bitter. "I told you before I did not know how to handle this. It scares me. It makes me vulnerable. My whole life I fought to let nobody have that power over me."
"And what if you had the same power over me?"
"You really don't know?"
"You left me, Laurel."
"You told me to."
They stared at each other.
„All the promises we made ..." her voice broke. "I promised I'd never let you push me away and then I gave in so easily."
"Laurel," he groaned. "It wasn't you. It was not your life. Not our life. I … he … he broke his promise as well. He never came to get her."
"Pride. Too much pride and no trust." She took a deep breath. "This must not happen to us, Severus. Not in this life." Calm but determined she went to the fireplace and lit the candle on the shelf. "As long as this candle burns, we shall not hide behind our pride. Agreed?"
"No pride," he swallowed hard. To see her cry so desperately for the two people they might have been, had already shattered all the pride he'd had left.
„There is nothing I can offer you," he said hoarsely. "None of the things you desire." When she tried to protest, he rose his hand. "Let me finish this. It is hard enough as it is. The war will come, and soon. All the signs are there, and though Dumbledore and the Ministry both are prepared, no-one can say how it will end. Now that Voldemort knows I betrayed him I don't know what my role will be."
Absentmindedly he rubbed the mark on his arm. "But even if I can't be Dumbledore's spy anymore I'll keep fighting until it is over. If I don't make it I want you to go on and not look back. Promise me this."
She just stared at him and crossed her arms over her breasts. He took it as what it was - utter refusal.
He drew in a deep breath. "If Voldemort can rise to power again, all is lost. But if the Dark Lord is defeated I'll get my life back, miserable as it was. So, if I survive …
"No. I shall not wait until the war is over."
"Laurel, the danger …"
"The Potters knew about the danger, too. But they decided to live in the present. It was all they had. Dumbledore is right. We must not mourn a life we never had. But we also must not save all our happiness for a life that may never be."
"If that is so, I shall ask you to choose now."
She looked up and tried hard to hold back the tears. "To choose?"
"Between the life you always wanted, a house by the sea, a nice muggle husband, kids ..."
He nodded, face carefully kept void of all hopes.
"And if I choose you - there will be no house, no nice husband, no kids?"
His dark eyes betrayed the pain. "I fear I won't be a good father."
"You'll make a great father, Severus Snape," she whispered. "And our children will love you, as I shall love my husband." When he just stood there, she took both his hands and laid them against her face. "I know you must fight Voldemort or we all may die in the end, Wizards and Muggles alike. But if you get yourself killed out there I'll never forgive you, my darling."
He winced when she said the term of endearment. "Are you telling me to survive or else?"
Instead of an answer she kissed him sweetly, almost chaste.
"I missed you."
The words came out awkward and strained. Laurel dared not to breathe.
"I missed you," he repeated quietly. "And I need to know what I did wrong."
When she saw the hunger in his eyes, the raw desire, her heart fluttered. Her knees buckled and she had to sit down.
"Love - I don't understand the rules," he tried to explain. "You left, but not because I told you to." He frowned. "After all you never do as I tell you."
"You kept pushing me away. You would never let me touch you." Laurel bit back the tears when she remembered how he always seemed to petrify when she touched him. "Even when we .. had sex. From your reaction I figured you didn't want me."
He kneeled down in front of her chair and took both her hands in his. "I was not prepared for the situation. I did not know what you expected me to do. You were the first woman who ever …"
She laughed and could not keep the bitterness out of her voice. "Don't. You had women before me. More than just one or two judging from your skills."
"My … skills?" His eyebrows rose in honest confusion.
"Severus, you know exactly how to please a woman, how the female body reacts. Where to touch, how to touch, how not to ... You are either a very experienced lover or they have excellent books on that subject in the restricted section. It hurt to think that all those women had the right to touch you, hold you. And I was not allowed to get close. I thought … I thought that was your way of telling me I didn't mean anything to you." Her voice broke.
Snape just stared at her in wonderment. "Are you telling me that you are … jealous?"
"And what if?"
"You should know by now that I am a master of deception. And I recognised early on that most people are not interested in giving, only in taking. Oh, there were women. And I gave them what they wanted and they were content, they never found out I was not taking anything. It didn't matter when they touched me. My scars always hurt, whether they touched me or not."
"None of these women ever wanted to own my heart." His voice had lost all derision. His face was empty with pain. "But you do. And it scares me."
"Because you don't trust me?"
"Because there is nothing. No heart. Just … a void."
Her throat tightened. "Severus, don't do this to yourself."
"I will never be able to give you the love you deserve, Laurel."
"Love is a seed." Bravely she traced his lip with her fingertip. "It will grow, just give it some time. You don't need to give me anything. I only ever asked you to let me love you. But you are like a minefield. I keep hurting you, and you don't trust me enough to show me the way through."
"I am not the only one who keeps painful memories to himself. What happened in that other life, mirrored ours to a great extend, didn't it?"
She bit her lip.
"Laurel? Did you try to kill yourself? In this life as well?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I did. But it was … different."
"When were you going to tell me about it?"
"I know. But I need to know about it. For the same reason you need to know about what happened in my life. It is like you said. A minefield of pain. We have to grant each other safe passage."
Instead of an answer she rose on tiptoes and kissed him.
"I got a gift for you," he murmured when her lips brushed his cheek. "I wanted to give you this when I came to London."
Laurel tensed. "Not … not a ring …"
He sneered. "Do you really think that after what we just saw … what we felt … I'd give you a ring?"
She shook her head slowly. "No, you wouldn't." She took the small jar from his hand. "This is the gift? What is it?"
"Poppy prepared this for me a long time ago but I never used it. Allegedly it takes a away the pain or rather numbs it for a few hours."
"For your scars?"
"You need to apply it and wait a few minutes. But then … if you still want to touch me ..."
Her fingers closed around the jar and she held the gift close to her heart, like the precious thing that it was.
They settled in front of the fireplace, on the soft rug. Snape took his wand and sealed Laurel's palms with a spell, so the salve would not numb her hands. The ointment smelled strongly of cloves and cinnamon and felt cool to the touch.
When Laurel unbuttoned his shirt, he caught her wrist and gently kissed it. "Safe passage."
She sighed. "When I was fifteen, I tried to commit suicide."
He gingerly touched the faint scars.
She swallowed hard but kept talking. "I had a friend at school, my best friend, my only friend. When he fell in love with one of our classmates, I just couldn't take it."
"He was your lover?" He kept his voice carefully in check. But the mere thought of a clumsy youth hurting her, betraying her, let his anger surge.
"No. He was my friend. I didn't need a lover then, but I desperately needed a friend. I was so homesick all through my school years. Robert was my confidant, my support. He protected me. And I was sure that one day he would let me give him more than just my friendship." She looked down at her wrists and shook her head. "He never gave me any signs to misinterpret. It was all in my head. But it hurt nonetheless. I just couldn't bear the pain anymore. It drowned me, suffocated me. One of the teachers found me and called an ambulance. In the hospital I swore to myself I'd never again get into a situation when my emotions would push me that far."
She looked up at him. "See, that's why I had to leave Hogwarts. Why I can't go on if you don't let me love you."
Snape drew her in his arms and felt with relief how she relaxed against his shoulder. No matter what had happened, she still trusted him. Completely. He knew that now.
And he would trust her as well. Settling down on his stomach he rested his chin on his hands and let her apply the ointment to his scarred back. It felt good. Cool, soothing, and when she started to spread it, the touch of her fingers warmed his skin.
"You asked me once if I ever felt homesick when I was a child."
She remembered the first detention he had given her and her angry questions.
"When I was a child I did everything not to be sent home for the holidays. As a second year I jumped off the Slytherin Quidditch stand and broke my ankle - just to make sure I could stay at Hogwarts for Christmas."
She kept stroking his backs, tracing the scars, and waited until he found words.
"My father was a very powerful wizard. Powerful and very easily annoyed. He used a belt sometimes and a wand at other times. Both left scars. But I guess all children have to go through that."
"No, they don't!" Laurel felt her heart go out to him. "Most parents love their children and would never hurt them. Didn't anybody help you?" She put some more ointment on the scars and spread it with swift soft motions.
"How could I tell anybody what he did to me? After all I deserved it. I made him angry. My mother had left when I was very young, and it was just him and me. Family. You don't betray family, do you?"
"You did not deserve what he did. You were only a child then."
"Dumbledore let me stay in Hogwarts most of the holidays and most summers, even though that made me a loner, roaming around empty school grounds. But there were times when even he couldn't refuse my father's wishes who called me home. After all I was Julian Snape's only son. His heir."
His voice was detached and cool and only the tension in his shoulders betrayed the inner turmoil.
"All those years I hated my father for what he did to me. And at the same time I yearned for his love. When I was admitted to Hogwarts I knew more spells than half of the seventh years. But not because I was so fond of learning. I knew those spells because I needed them to survive his mood swings. I was convinced that if only I lived up to his expectations he would stop punishing me."
"Severus, you did nothing wrong. You didn't deserve punishment, " she repeated gently.
He closed his eyes.
"When I was seventeen, he would not accept any excuses, he made me come home for the summer." His voice changed, grew strangely detached. "It was not about a girl. It was nothing important really. He had friends invited and … things got out of hand. He broke my arm and most of my ribs, casually, as an amusement for his guests. One of them suggested the Cruciatus curse and he complied. Then, as I lay there, one of them …" His voice broke. "You saw what happened. You felt it."
Laurel kept massaging his shoulders. All she could give him at this moment was her patience and her compassion. The memory of his pain and humiliation choked her. He remained silent for a long time, while she kept repeating the same soothing strokes over and over.
"I still can't talk about it," he stated flatly.
"You don't need to."
He turned his head, propped himself on one elbow and looked at her.
"They left me in a corner of the hall to die. Somehow Dumbledore got me out. He never told me how he knew what had happened or how he got my father to release me. He must have blackmailed him. From that moment on Albus was the only wizard I ever trusted. I barely survived. It took Poppy only minutes to mend my broken bones. But my back wouldn't heal. They kept me in levitation for weeks because I couldn't bear to touch the mattress. The wounds scarred eventually, new scars over old ones. The pain remained. It was then, when I decided to join Voldemort."
"I thought it might have been the incident with Lupin," she ventured.
"In that other life I … he … never saw Lupin change. But in my life James Potter virtually pulled me away from the threshold of sure death. It only reassured that I had to become one of Voldemort's soldiers.
The ointment numbed the scar tissue and made him warm and drowsy. When Laurel's hands started to lightly stroke his shoulders and work on the tense knots there, for the first time in ages he felt no pain at all.
"I felt trapped, surrounded by enemies. My father wouldn't mind if I died, Black tried to kill me just for fun. Dumbledore wanted to talk to me, but I refused. I had already made up my mind. I'd never be a victim again. The day I graduated I took the first step towards the Darkness."
"In that other life, he never turned back. But you did. What made the difference?"
"I am not sure. Maybe the memory of Dumbledore sitting by my bed in the Hospital."
"In that other life the Headmaster did not forgive you … him … for what he did to … her."
"But in my life Albus was there for me. I always knew that, even when I was intoxicated with power and hatred. One night we raided a village near Edinburgh for Mudbloods. I had hunted them down and watched the others do the killing. And suddenly I got a glimpse of my face in a window, and saw that I had turned into my father. A monster."
She winced and tried to shake off the memory of Julian Snape reaching out and hitting him.
"I went to Dumbledore that very night and he gave me something I had not asked for. Mercy. Just like you gave me something I did not ask for. Love."
"It is called a gift, Severus."
He sighed and kissed the hand that caressed his neck. Laurel's fingertips brushed his cheek.
"You said, Madame Pomfrey gave you this stuff years ago? Why didn't you use it? It seems to be working just fine."
"I embraced the pain. I needed it as a shield. It reminded me of what might happen if I let my guard slip." He closed his eyes and surrendered to her touch. "I don't need it any more."
"Let me take care of you now," she whispered and kissed his neck, drawing a line of fire down his neck to his collarbone.
"I remember that very kiss," he moaned softly.
"Oh Severus, we … they … were so sweet. I know it ended cruelly, but …"
"They were too young."
"They knew nothing about life, nothing about themselves."
"Are we old enough, Laurel? Old enough to carry each other?"
Her lips brushed his.
"That first kiss …"
He buried his face in her hair. "That first night …"
"It was so much more romantic than my own memories."
"I … he … hurt her when they made love. Merlin," he sighed, "I can remember what a sixteen year old girl feels!"
"Then you should know that it only hurt a moment. And don't forget, I can remember what a guy feels. I am sure we can use that to our mutual advantage."
His eyes lit up. "You bet," he drawled. "I am a great tutor after all."
"And I am a great student." Her eyes locked on his and what he saw made his breath go faster. "Let me prove what I learned." Her hands drew circles on his back and for the first time since he could remember he did not feel any pain, just pleasure. He let her discover his body, allowed her to free him of the slacks, put hundreds of tiny kisses onto his stomach until he could not stifle a groan anymore.
She laughed softly. "I told you we'd make love as equals the next time we shared a bed."
"I did not complain," he murmured and undressed her, slowly, teasing her with every touch. "I am only taking my share."
Laurel grasped when his thumbs brushed over her nipples, encircled them. His hands wandered down her body, and again he took his time, marvelling about the soft skin, the warmth that radiated from her. She let out a gasp when his fingers slipped between her thighs and started to stroked her knowingly. She arched her back and enjoyed the sensation for a few minutes. Then she slid off him and a mischievous light gleamed in her eyes when she looked down at him
"My turn," she whispered. "I remember very well what you enjoy."
Without touching him, she started to lick the delicate skin at the base of his erection, soft laps, going up and down the hot hard flesh until he buried his hands in her hair and pulled her back. "If you don't stop right now, "he groaned, "we won't be equals but very sorry. I am only human after all."
She smiled against his stomach and stuck her tongue into his navel before she let him lower her on her back. He moaned softly when he slid into her, when she opened for him, welcomed him to her warmth. Laurel wrapped her arms around his back, nuzzling his ear, murmuring wordless endearments.
He watched her face, the flickers of pleasure move over it. And that stubborn mouth tremble for his touch.
He had stopped moving. Laurel clung to him breathlessly, desperate for release. "Severus?"
"I need to hear you say it."
His voice was so soft she had to pull his head close to her ear to understand the next words.
"Say that you want me."
It left her helpless with tenderness. Had that one moment of rejection, so many weeks ago, hurt him so deeply? She buried her fingers in his black hair, pulled his face closer, so close that all he could see was the all- encompassing love in her eyes.
"I want you, Severus. I always wanted you."
That did it. His hands, elegant and so skilled, raced over her body and took her to the edge. The thrusts got faster as she took up his rhythm, answered him with every breath. The frenzied pace of her heart against his only added to his need. So close. His fingers clamped down on hers. When he had her where he wanted her, moaning his name, riding the crest of passion, he helped her to let go. And in this very moment, she rather felt than heard it, breathed against the pulse at her neck.
"Mine. You are mine."
Only then he allowed himself to come in a shudder of release.
* * *