Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
"I'm not a visitor," the blond girl said calmly. "I've come to read to him. And it's not as if I have a social life or anything." Without waiting for permission she sat down composedly at Snape's bedside, her bracelets of bottle-caps chiming gently as she moved, and began to read.
"The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, although she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless colour of sea foam, but rather the colour of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea...."
Snape lay quietly on his own pillow in his own bed, and looked at her. Or through her, perhaps - it was hard to tell - but Poppy thought there was a flicker of life there, and at least he did not seem to be afraid of the girl. It was hard to imagine anyone being afraid of Luna... although it occurred to Poppy, watching her, that an appearance of harmless dottiness was probably a very useful thing for an investigative journalist to have.
Snape's rooms were surprizingly comfortable, in a slightly down-at-heel way. They had moved his bed out into the sitting-room, which was bigger, and had natural light. It lay close to the cliff-face, and two deep window-embrasures pierced the rock and looked out on the surface of the loch - from both sides. As the changeable Scottish weather came and went so the water-level rose and fell against the glass, occasionally rising so high that the little hinged panes at the top could not be opened, and fish and stranger things came and peered in at them in the green underwater light. In high summer the water would barely cover the sill, and the sun would dazzle and dance off the surface of the water.
Right now the water was halfway up the glass and the day was murky, but there was a fire flickering on the hearth, very firmly cut off from the Floo network, and Adrian had brought a real lambswool fleece to lay underneath the bottom sheet of the ramshackle old four-poster, to prevent Snape from developing bed-sores on his fleshless joints. In truth they could have used magic to float him on a thin cushion of air, but the fleece was warmer and more comforting and it alleviated everyone's feelings, slightly, to make him as comfortable as he could be.
At least he was much calmer since he had recognized Minerva, and even though he was still very dazed and confused he no longer shook and cried at every movement. There was at least one person with him at all times, and provided they were reasonably quiet and steady so, for the most part, was he, at least when he was fully awake. When he was dreaming, though, or drifting, he still twisted and howled in the brutal grip of memory, or bolted awake and straight into a hammering panic-attack, and he was appallingly weak. It was a good thing, really, that Lovegood had appointed herself as what Adrian called a Talking Book, because the man was unable to read for himself, even had he been coherent enough to do so. Fragile and wasted, he was unable to support the weight of his own head on his neck for more than a few seconds.
The second person to turn up uninvited, hard on Luna's heels and within an hour of Dumbledore's announcement, was Neville Longbottom, complete with toad. He looked as apologetic and meek as only Neville knew how, but he refused to be discouraged, although his face twisted when he saw the extent of Snape's injuries and his papery fragility.
"I thought you were really frightened of him?" Luna said cheerfully, looking up from her book and placing something that looked suspiciously like a bacon-rind in it as a bookmark.
"I am," he agreed, nodding fervently. "Terrified. But that's not the point. I've got a lot of experience of dealing with people who've -' He looked down at Trevor's warty back and his face twisted again, as if he'd bitten on something foul. "People who've been driven out of their minds by torture," he concluded sadly.
"Oh, I don't think Professor Snape is exactly out of his mind," Luna replied sunnily. "Just a bit - dislodged."
The third person to turn up - and the fourth, and the fourteenth - was part of a substantial delegation of Slytherins who had had a furious overnight council of war and appointed themselves death-or-glory guards to Professor Snape in the morning - just in time to intercept Hermione Granger, who was bustling downstairs, in her innocently managing way, to brush the professor's hair for him before classes. The instant she started down the torchlit corridor that led to his quarters she was pulled up short to find herself confronted by a slit-eyed, scowling Pansy Parkinson, wand out and ready.
"And just where do you think you're going, Little Miss Bossy-Boots?"
Hermione stared round in some alarm, and found herself face to lowering, gorilla-like face with Gregory Goyle.
"Are you going to tell us what you're up to, Gryff, before we feed you to the squid?"
Hermione drew herself up to her full height, which didn't make much of an impact in comparison to Goyle's, but still. "Firstly, you and I both know perfectly well that the squid is under strict orders not to eat students," she said tartly. "And secondly, I would like to know what makes you think it's any of your business." If they were bothering him, or trying to keep people from helping him....
"The Headmaster made it our business," said Pansy, "when he told us to look out for 'suspicious activities in the vicinity of Professor Snape's quarters.' I'd say one of the Gryffindor trouble-makers turning up practically outside his door in a corridor where she's got no bloody business to be was highly suspicious, wouldn't you, Greg? What're you doing - come to gloat?"
Hermione bristled. "Coming to help, actually," she said with a bit of a sniff. Pansy always could get under her skin like nobody else. "I've been - " She caught herself on the edge of specifics and reined in her tongue just in time. He wouldn't want them knowing she'd been grooming him as she did her cat, surely he wouldn't. "- helping Madam Pomfrey," she finished, with barely a pause. "My parents are dentists... a sort of Muggle healer. And my sister's fiancé is a doctor. I'm no expert, of course, but I've picked up enough to be helpful."
She gave Pansy a rather nasty look. "And I don't start bawling my eyes out at the sight of blood, either, unlike some people." Maybe it was a bit unfair - they'd only been in third year - but Pansy's howling when Draco had gotten himself slashed by Buckbeak had been Decidedly Unhelpful.
"Oh, it's easy enough, isn't it, to watch someone bleed if you don't care about them - and don't try to kid on that you do. Ever since the Professor - ever since he disappeared, Potter and Weasley have been telling everyone that the Prophet was right and that he was a - a Death Eater who went back to his master. You all probably just think he got what he deserved."
"Nobody deserves what happened to him," Hermione said with quiet intensity. "And I don't expect you to believe it, but I've been working as hard as I can to help him, and Madam Pomfrey will tell you the same." She flicked back her hair impatiently. "And I'm late, so if you don't mind, I'll get on and you can look for something genuinely suspicious... like, for example, the immediate family of known Death Eaters lurking around his rooms waiting for a chance to finish the job."
Goyle loomed closer, cracking his knuckles - suddenly looking like a real threat instead of a comic-book one. "I don't blame you for your family, Mudblood, so don't you dare suggest that I'd hurt Professor Snape just because some of my family.... I'd kill for Professor Snape."
Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, I actually believe you," she said, a little surprized. "But that doesn't mean all your fellow Slytherins feel the same way... or anyone in any of the other houses who happens to have Death Eater relatives, and I know there are a few. There's bound to be some who aren't as loyal to him."
"I'm glad you admit it isn't only Slytherins who follow the Dark Lord," Pansy replied, equally surprized. "Like Sirius Black."
"Oh, Black wasn't a Death Eater," Goyle - who had access to inside information - said vaguely. "That was Pettigrew - another bloody Gryff. He stitched Black up. But Black tried to kill Professor Snape when they were at school. And Potty and the Weasel were friends with him."
"I wasn't," Hermione said sharply, but Pansy nodded grimly.
"You said yourself, there's people in other houses who have Death Eater relatives, who might want to finish the Professor off or hurt him again. We can't be too careful... if you've a right to be here, prove it."
"Oh, for heaven's sake... I can go through the wards, will that satisfy you?" Hermione said, rolling her eyes. She was getting worried... what if he realized she was late? They could never be sure what would upset him.
"All right then," Pansy said grimly. "You take us there, and Madam Pomfrey - or Professor Snape himself - can confirm your story. Or not."
"All right - but for heaven's sake, don't behave roughly or shout or anything around Professor Snape. Come on then; let's get this over."
Seizing her roughly by the upper arms, they frog-marched her down the corridor to Snape's door. 'Well, go on then, open the wards - since you say you've been here before."
Hermione, bristling, did so, and the door opened to reveal the great Albus Dumbledore fussily making a pot of tea while Professor Snape half sat, half lay limply against the shoulder of a tired-looking Neville Longbottom, who was saying in a low voice "That's all right, sir; there's no hurry." He appeared to be encouraging the man to hold a spoon and feed himself.
Pansy, startled out of any vestige of politeness, exclaimed "Merlin - another one!" and at the unexpectedly loud, sharp sound of her voice Snape gave a low cry and flinched away violently, jerking himself out of Neville's loose hold to sprawl on his side across the great bed, shaking like a frightened dog. In an instant Dumbledore was at his side, scooping him up to hold him firmly and murmuring reassurances. When the sick man had stopped gasping for breath, and his jolting shudders had eased to a thin trembling, the Headmaster finally looked up, hollow-eyed with strain.
"Miss Parkinson. Mr Goyle. Come in please and close the door. Quietly."
"It's all right, sir" Neville said steadily. "Look, see? It's Parkinson and Goyle. You know them." Snape looked, obediently - which was disturbing in itself. His eyes wandered across Pansy's face with a sort of vague, partial recognition, but when he saw Goyle he whimpered and pressed himself back against Dumbledore's chest, shuddering again, and Hermione hurried to his side defensively, knelt down on the floor and took his hand; a move which was not lost on Pansy. Nor was the fact that the Headmaster shifted to allow Hermione access, as if he expected her there.
"Your Dad's a Death Eater, isn't he Goyle?" Neville said thoughtfully. Goyle flushed dully.
"Yeah... sort of. What of it? I'm not."
"D'you look like your Dad?"
Goyle flushed even darker and looked down at his considerable feet. "Yeah," he muttered, as realization dawned. He looked up miserably. "But I'd never, never hurt the professor - "
"We know you wouldn't, Gregory" Dumbledore said gently. "I'm sure you want to do whatever is best for Professor Snape, and I'm sure he would know that too - if he was certain that you were you and not your father. But under the circumstances, perhaps it would be better if you waited outside."
Goyle nodded, once, hunched his shoulders and turned to go. As he left, Snape surprized them all by suddenly murmuring "...boy never stops growing. I worry about him, Dumbledore" and then looking at Pansy with intelligent focus and saying "Miss Parkinson," very clearly.
But when Pansy stepped forward to speak to him he looked at her blankly, his famine-sunken eyes wandering. "He does that," Neville said calmly. "He can't hold his focus for more than a few seconds, yet. It's nothing to worry about. At least he did recognize you, there."
"What makes you an expert, all of a sudden?" Pansy muttered sullenly. "What is this, some sort of Gryffindor take-over? Why weren't we asked to take care of our own?"
"This isn't a matter of inter-house rivalry, Miss Parkinson," the Headmaster said sternly. "Miss Granger has been of great assistance because, being Muggle-born and from a medical background, she has more knowledge of the treatment of long-term illness than most of we wizard-born folk. As for Longbottom - that is for him to tell you. Or not, as he pleases."
"I don't mind," Neville said sadly. "I don't see why I should be ashamed of it. My parents...." He looked at Pansy firmly. "My parents are - were - Aurors. When I was a baby Bellatrix Lestrange and, and some other Death Eaters tortured them both with Crucio until they got permanent brain-damage, and went mad. My family just.... Pure-bloods like us, we don't know how to deal with messy stuff like that, do we, so we just... sweep it under the carpet. They've been in St Mungo's for sixteen years, almost. I'm not going to let that happen to Professor Snape."
"Oh. I'm - sorry," Pansy said, discomfited. If someone had told her, in abstract, that Longbottom's parents were barmy she would probably have laughed, but hearing it from his own lips was different somehow. Seeing Professor Snape, who had always been the secure rock around which Slytherin House revolved, reduced to this shivering, emaciated shadow was horrifying and it was quite true, she couldn't think of anything to do with him except send him to St Mungo's and hope that someone there knew a quick way of putting him right, and she had enough sense to know that there wasn't one, and that he would simply end up on a long-term ward like - like the Longbottoms. And the two Gryffindors were being so gentle with him. She would never have believed it if she hadn't seen it.
"Thanks. It's not just us, you know, anyway. We've got a Ravenclaw too. Luna apparently just turned up last night and announced that she was going to read to Professor Snape - and nobody knows why Luna does the things she does."
"If you or anyone in Slytherin feels they can help with the Professor's care you are welcome to present yourselves to Madam Pomfrey," Dumbledore said. "But it will be up to Professor Snape himself, how he... reacts, whether or not the offer of help is accepted. His well-being must come before our petty internal politics, and there are certain matters to consider which...." He stopped and went slightly pink. "Which perhaps, ah, Madam Pomfrey should explain."
"Oh, honestly," Hermione said briskly, standing up and giving Snape's shoulder an affectionate pat. "It's nothing to be that embarrassed about. What the Headmaster means is that Professor Snape becomes very... disturbed if he smells blood, so you girls mustn't go near him if you're menstruating."
"You girls? What are you, Granger, a boy in drag? That would explain a lot, but...."
It was Hermione's turn to go slightly pink. "I, ah, last summer, I had a contraceptive implant done. It's a Muggle thing. It stops me from...."
"From getting pregnant?"
"Well, yes. That too."
Pansy grinned a sly, delighted grin. "Little Miss I'm-So-Perfect - who would have thought it? Of course, we all knew you were snogging Krum when you were fifteen...."
"It's not about that!" Hermione said hotly.
"It's just...." She moved to stand closer to Snape in unconscious empathy and he turned his head to look at her, puzzled but concerned. "I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione said quietly. "I know how - how vicious some of the attacks on Muggle-borns have been. If I was - attacked, I didn't want to run the risk of becoming pregnant on top of that. If - you know."
"Yes," Pansy said, watching the Granger girl's protective body-language towards Professor Snape as she talked about the threat of rape, and wishing she didn't understand it.
The fifteenth visitor was the Bloody Baron, who had once been starved and tortured to death in a dungeon just along the corridor from these very rooms. He drifted through the wall, trailing his bloodstained robes, to hover in the corner, gazing down at his companion in misfortune, his expression unreadable. But then, it generally was.
Much of the time, he still did not know where he was or who anyone around him was - and when he did recognize them, his conversation veered alarmingly between the coherent and the hallucinatory. Sometimes he had long, earnest conversations with people who weren't there at all. At times Minerva despaired, and thought that his calling her by her name had been no more than a lucky guess; but when she was feeling more positive she could see that Dumbledore was right, and that the periods when Severus appeared to know whom he was talking to (whether or not his conversation made much rational sense) were getting both longer and more frequent, and his episodes of delirium were becoming less severe.
Longbottom had gone down to Dervish and Banges in Hogsmeade and come back with an elaborate mobile hung about with shells and shards of coloured glass and delicate, silvery chimes - and more charms for protection and harmony than Minerva had ever seen in one place before. It dangled between Snape's bed and the window, catching the thin November sunlight and refracting it into a kaleidoscope of coloured rays which danced across his pillow and often, now, he just lay quietly and watched it, listening to its faint quicksilver notes.
And he always seemed somehow to be there enough to listen properly to Luna Lovegood, even if he rarely spoke to her or commented on the story she was telling him. He could only stay focused for about fifteen minutes at a time before his eyes started to drift shut again, but while he was awake he listened as if he knew what was being said. That surprized Poppy, at first - a bustlingly practical woman herself, she wouldn't have thought Severus would have the patience for what she dismissively thought of as a "fairy story" - but the more she overheard, the more she thought she understood the appeal of the book's delicate, slightly sinister balance between joy and tragedy.
"No, no, listen, don't listen to me, listen. You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints."
Adrian, who apparently knew it well, was delighted and assured Poppy that the book was a Muggle classic and a great favourite of his, "even though it's Fantasy, leik, and not proper SF." He still came every morning, bouncing in demanding to know "How's my favourite patient, then?" He was explained to the now-permanent Slytherin guard-detail on duty in the corridor outside simply as "a healer" - and let them assume he was from St Mungo's!
He was, he said, taking "a self-taught crash-course" in basic physiotherapy in order to help with Snape's rehabilitation, although the man was still a long way from the point where that would be a realistic option. He hardly had any muscles to exercise; starvation had stripped him almost to the bone, and any attempt to feed him up was complicated by the fact that he had lost about eighteen inches of intestine - as well as being still almost too weak to chew anything, although at least they had managed to repair his teeth, now. Poppy was working on a spell selectively to grow back the gut he had lost - a comparatively simple matter of lengthening what was already there, as opposed to replacing, for example, an entirely missing limb. But it wasn't something she would care to get wrong, and she still had her regular duties as school matron to attend to as well.
said Luna's bright voice, unexpectedly serious and resonant,
A cruel poem, it seemed to Poppy, to read to someone who had been so desperately hungry for so long, and she felt her eyes misting with tears.
the purring voice went on,
There was always somebody with him. Always. At first, Albus, Minerva and Poppy divided the time equally between them but it was difficult to do that and keep up with their other duties. Up to a point Minerva, in particular, was willing to let duty go hang and just spend all day every day with him but Severus himself, as he slowly came more into focus, started asking repeatedly, fretfully, "My students, who's teaching my students?" and they couldn't very well tell him that no-one was. For the sake of his peace of mind, as well as the students' education, she had to be able to tell him (truthfully - he would know if she lied to him) that she and Dumbledore were splitting Potions classes between them, as well as their regular work, until they could find a replacement for the errant and unstable Ms Sweeney.
"Do not boast, old woman. Your death sits in that cage and hears you." "Yes," Mommy Fortuna said calmly. "But at least I know where it is. You were out on the road hunting for your own death."
Reluctantly at first, but with increasing confidence, they began to let Granger, Lovegood and Longbottom take a turn at sitting with Severus unsupervized - trusting them to summon help via one of the house-elves if anything went wrong. He seemed to be all right with them - which was to say, no worse than he was with Dumbledore et al. Longbottom and Granger both seemed to be very good at managing his moods, and Luna just kept him placid by reading to him all the time.
Sometimes, for a change of pace, she read him abstruse research papers from the latest Potions journals, or bizarre snippets from The Quibbler - but it was Beagle's The Last Unicorn which held his attention the best.
"How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?"
"Was that - was that Parkinson and Goyle, in here the other day?" said Snape's hoarse, ruined voice. "I thought I dreamed that they were here." Dumbledore smiled at him, pleased that he was actually remembering something from more than a few hours ago, and commenting on it fairly sensibly.
"Yes, dear boy. Seven - no, eight days ago. They came to make sure we were taking proper care of you."
"Oh. That was - kind of them, but I'm - disappointed that - " He stopped, colouring slightly.
"What are you disappointed about, dear boy?"
"No I - I've no right to expect...." he said dully. "Stupid." He turned his head and shifted awkwardly, as far as he was able to, simultaneously listless and restless.
"If there's one thing you have never been, it's that. A little foolish at times, perhaps, but never stupid. Tell me."
"I thought - thought that Draco might have wanted to see...." He flushed miserably, ashamed of his own presumption in thinking that his godson might care about him.
"Severus...." Dumbledore said gently. "I'm sure he would have come, but Draco isn't at Hogwarts any more. His father withdrew him; we think possibly because he didn't want the boy to see you when you were - brought back."
"Oh - oh God, Lucius will want him to take the Mark! You have to help him, Dumbled'dore!" His tongue stumbled over the multiple consonants in his weariness and his weakness, and the older man clicked his own tongue in irritation.
"Call me Albus, child, if you prefer - it's easier to say. If I can help Draco, I will. For all his faults, I do not believe Lucius would deliberately endanger him. Shh, now, don't distress yourself. The best thing you can do for any of your Slytherins right now is to rest and grow stronger. Will you eat a little?"
"Very well, D-Dumbledore. Albus. If you insist."
"I do - on both counts."
"Feels strange...." the young man murmured drowsily. "Y'r Headmaster...."
"But I hope that I am also your friend - or, if I have not always been so in the past, then I do intend to be in the future."
"Pity?" the other man jibed, his mouth twisting. "I suppose pity is all I'm bloody worth."
"Say rather that coming so close to losing you has made me realize the value of what I would have lost and the, the courage you showed in a rôle which I at least partially forced on you. None of which alters the fact that you need to eat."
"Very well - Albus. If you insist." But when he had tasted it he turned his face away and said sourly "What is this slop?"
Dumbledore beamed at him delightedly; for a moment there he had sounded quite like his old sulky, ill-tempered self. "It's ah, puréed, low-salt - a bit like baby-food, I'm afraid."
"It tastes more like dog food - you should give it to Lupin, and see if he barks. If you must feed me slops and - and nourishing drinks that taste like bloody cardboard at least ask the house-elves to make me a proper hot posset. Finty knows how - and tell him not to scramble the egg this time."
"Oh, I shall - as soon as...." As soon as I've checked with Poppy or Adrian that it's safe for you to have, he thought, but didn't say it. "I'm pleased to see you taking an interest in your food."
But Snape looked away from him, his eyes starting to drift as he lost focus. "I shouldn't," he muttered. "I should eat up and be grateful for what I'm given. I am grateful - oh, God, Albus, just to have a bed again, and be clean... I don't want to be a burden."
"You're not a burden," his new-found friend and sometime employer replied firmly, "and you may have anything you want that's within our power to give." And thought, Please don't ask me to kill somebody for you, although if it was one of this frail, ruined young man's torturers he'd be sorely tempted to do it.
"Then may I have - have some tapestries, not anything with eyes, and no - no snakes. Please no snakes." His eyes had lit on the carved serpents over the fireplace. "The stone - the stone walls - I know it's - stupid of me, weak, but when I'm - often, often I can't tell where I am and the walls look like - look like a cell. Like - there. Oh, God." He started to shake again, tears welling in his eyes although he tried to suppress them, angry at his own weakness. "Damn, what a useless - can't stop - crying - "
"Hush." Dumbledore gathered him up and held him close, smoothing his hair back from his face. "Hush, now. You shall have all the tapestries you want, but these walls are the walls of Hogwarts, not of a prison cell," (although they had been that once, his memory reminded him uneasily - there were good reasons why this part of the castle's underbelly was known as "the dungeons"), "and even if they were a prison why, I would be there with you, and blast all your enemies to smithereens for you. Smithereen - isn't that a good word?"
For the first time since his return, almost a month ago now, Snape actually laughed at that - even if it was only a wheezy little chuckle. "You would, wouldn't you Albus; you could blow their damn' - balls off for me." Still trembling slightly he shut his eyes and leaned against the older man, burying his face in the silver beard. "If you're holding me, they can't touch me. I wish...." he said drowsily.
"What do you wish?"
"Wish you never had to let go of me. Stupid - stupid I know, but if somebody - holds me, it makes it easier to... to remember where I am. Not - there."
"That isn't stupid of you. Not stupid at all. If you think it would help you to focus, somebody shall hold you all the time, for as long as you want. Do you want that?"
His friend nodded dumbly against his chest, and then muttered "Damn, oh - damn! Why do I have to be so fucking weak?"
"Because you are exhausted and ill, dear boy, and starved to a shadow. You can't expect not to be weak. Let yourself be weak, for a while, and rest."
The book which Luna is reading to Snape, and from which the quotes in italics are taken, is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I couldn't find my copy when I originally wrote this chapter, and so Luna is quoting the poem about the king's daughter somewhat out of order with respect to its position in the book, as it should come somewhat after "How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?" But we can assume she digressed into poetry because Snape was losing the thread of the story-line.
To make a British hot posset, take a mug full of medium-hot milk and stir into it a whole raw egg and a teaspoonful or two of golden syrup (or honey if preferred), sprinkle nutmeg on the top and drink immediately, before it cools down. The milk must on no account be very hot when you add the egg - otherwise you end up with a mugful of sweet, runny scrambled egg.
Although we are re-editing this story to make it compatible with the new backstory in Deathly Hallows, we have invested too much in our version of the Bloody Baron to change him now. For present purposes I am assuming, therefore, that the Grey Lady is a fantasist who is lying when she says that the Baron was her rejected suitor who killed both her and himself. It's a fudge, OK - but no worse than some of JKR's own fudges.
An even more major canon problem is that our version of Albus Dumbledore is very much kinder and warmer than the one we see in Deathly Hallows. However, given that he spent his teens regarding his sister as a burden and then a century racked with guilt over her death, it seems possible that he would be capable of guilt and grief over Severus's injuries when he was actually hit over the head with the reality of his suffering - and guilt and grief might grow into real affection. So I think our version of Albus in this story could be canon compatible, even though he's stretching it a bit.
This chapter has been slightly re-edited to reduce the degree to which Dumbledore thinks of Snape as having been his friend prior to his disappearance, and to show him moving towards real friendship now, and encouraging Severus to call him "Albus" rather than "Dumbledore".
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