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
They covered the walls with hangings and tapestries in bright colours, until the room looked more like a fairground than a prison cell, and Dumbledore had a word with the stone serpents round the fireplace, who slithered rather sullenly up the chimney for the duration. That was the simple part of Snape's double request. The other was more complex.
To begin with, he passed the night fairly quietly in Albus's arms. He still came half awake, with a shudder and a moan of distress, four or five times between midnight and breakfast - but that counted as a quiet sleep, by present standards. But when Poppy came to take over in the morning, and Albus explained to her quietly that Severus would do better if he was held, their patient flushed with embarrassment, turned his face aside and muttered "Dumbledore - Albus - please: don't shame me with the rubbish I talk when I'm - not concentrating."
"You were concentrating like a cat at a mouse-hole, dear boy. Will you tell me now, honestly, that you don't think that being held would help you?"
Snape bared his irregular yellow teeth (knocked even more crooked than nature had made them by years of rough living) in a sudden snarl. "Ask honesty of a spy! A traitor...."
"I ask honesty of a friend."
"And when were you ever honest with me?"
"On alternate Tuesdays - during Lent. That isn't the point. What matters here is what will be good for you; what will help you to - cope with your injuries. Tell, please."
"Then yes - is that what you want to hear? Yes, I'm so fucking weak I need to be held like a bloody baby." He flushed even darker, screwing his eyes shut to hold back tears, but Poppy sat down next to him quietly and drew him against her.
"Severus, you must understand - you are allowed to be ill. He Who Must Not Be Named has gone to extraordinary lengths to disrupt your sense of self, your sense of who and where you are, and if it takes extraordinary measures to help you to - stabilize your awareness of your surroundings, that's not shaming, or even surprizing. Will you let us help you?"
"Please...." he said roughly, in his torn voice.
"Please yes, or please no?"
"Yes...." he said with a sigh, and she set a lifting charm on him (though in truth he was still so thin she hardly needed to) and carried him through to be bathed - and then tried not to weep as she washed him. He had always had such beautiful feet, for a man of his age - slender and shapely, like his hands.
It seemed to be quite true: if somebody sat with him and held him, round the clock, his periods of lucidity were longer and his deliriums generally less traumatic. Although "sat with" was a loose description: if he actually tried to sit up, properly, it made him so dizzy and faint that he almost passed out, so it was more a matter of somebody half-reclining with him, and the head of the bed was now permanently in giant-armchair mode.
The next complication was the little matter of who was to spend the night with him. Adrian still came at least three mornings a week to check on Snape, and today he had come in the evening as well, bearing food, so they left the man in his capable care and the six "regulars" held what Poppy Pomfrey called a "case conference" in her office in the hospital wing. The Headmaster outlined the situation rapidly.
"So you will appreciate," he finished, "that this raises certain - questions. I leave it entirely up to you whether you wish to continue to keep Professor Snape company under these altered conditions. We must also consider that it might be better if - well, if Madam Pomfrey or Professor McGonagall or I always stays with Professor Snape over night. There might be questions raised by the Board of Governors if, ah, a Professor was known to be actually sleeping with a student, even if only, ah, in the sense of sharing a bed!"
"Why?" Luna Lovegood (who had turned seventeen the previous week) said calmly. "We're all of age. And Professor Snape isn't exactly our teacher any more, is he? And it's not as if he's going to do anything, or anything."
"That letter -" Hermione muttered. "According to Harry, that letter from - from He Who Must Not Be Named claimed that Professor Snape was - well, that he was in a relationship with Sirius Black, but Harry doesn't believe it and I don't really think I do."
"Oh, Professor Snape's not gay," Luna said, with such certainty that nobody questioned it, "but he's very well-behaved." She beamed at them all with her slightly poppy eyes. "When he has nightmares, I get into bed with him and give him a cuddle anyway. This is just making it official."
"I do too," Neville admitted with a slightly sheepish smile, "and Hermione brushes his hair - what's the difference?"
"What the Board of Governors doesn't know won't hurt it," Hermione said firmly. "It's like Luna said. This is Professor Snape - he's not going to turn into a - a mad rapist or anything, even if he was fitter. He might hit somebody, when he's having a nightmare, and I'm sure he'll be very rude to us when he's better, but this is... work experience, isn't it, in case any of us wants to be a mediwitch?"
Neville nodded agreement. "The Board of Governors lets us get splinched or or blown up or trampled by hippogriffs or dropped off brooms or, or menaced by basilisks - it's not going to shut the school down if I get a black eye while I was... seeing if I wanted to be a healer."
Afterwards Hermione, whose turn it was to sit with Professor Snape, walked back down through the castle and the tunnels that threaded the cliff-face. As she nodded politely to the Slytherin guards and stepped through the wards into Snape's quarters she could see him lying back against Adrian's shoulder, a fork still loosely clasped in his hand. He was making some progress, now, in being able to feed himself, though his muscles were still too weak to do so for more than a few minutes without tiring. Adrian's cheerful voice was just saying "...called a Carry-Oot, only this is more of a curry-oot, leik."
Snape's cracked voice replied quietly, "I remember - before. You brought me wine. Why?"
"Because you needed something to remind you that you were still human."
"Did it make a difference?"
"To your survival prospects? Not much, probably. To your state of mind? You tell me."
"Yes," Snape said quietly - and then, in an odd voice as if he were quoting something, "It is only goodness which gives extras."
Hermione came further into the room, feeling slightly like an intruder, and sat down at the edge of the bed, half on and half under the covers. "Miss Granger," Snape said rather stiffly. Straight-backed and rigid with embarrassment, he permitted himself to be handed into her arms.
The final problem was that he snored. Like many men with large but narrow noses he suffered from sleep apnoea, which meant that left to his own devices he snored in a rising crescendo, followed by a long, ominous silence and then a noise like somebody unblocking a drain. Sitting up in a chair beside his bed all night was one thing; lying beside him and attempting to sleep was quite another (except when it was Albus, who snored three times worse, and was more likely to keep him awake). Fortunately Madam Pomfrey managed to come up with a commercially-available potion which helped with the worst of it.
"I did not know that I was so empty, to be so full" said the Lovegood girl's bright voice, and Poppy Pomfrey smiled at the thought. She felt her own heart painfully full, sometimes, when she looked at Severus and saw that he was alive, and something at least approximating to sane.
He was losing focus, now - drifting asleep, still unable to remain conscious for more than an hour or so at a time. Luna put the book carefully face-down on the bedside table and settled back comfortably with him curled against her side, and Poppy smiled again and went to get the bottle of eau de toilette from the bathroom. Although Severus objected sullenly to a process which he seemed to regard as "girly," he admitted that dabbing a little of it on his skin made him feel less hot and sticky - always an issue with anyone on long-term bed-rest.
As she came back into the room the peaceful scene fractured into nightmare, as Snape gave a miserable wail and arched his spine, throwing his head back and baring his teeth in a sudden convulsion of distress, and then tore his arm out of Luna's embrace and started clawing at his own skin with his re-grown nails. Poppy hurried anxiously to his bedside but before she had time to do or say anything Luna said sharply "Professor!" in a hard voice which cut like a blade, "come back to me - now!"
He wailed again, tearing at his own neck and chest with such violence that, weak as he was, he somehow managed to rip the ageing nightshirt but Luna's firm, carrying voice said "Come on - out of it!" and at that he opened his eyes with a gasping sob. The two women, the young and the older one, held him between them until his breathing steadied but he was still shaking hard, his eyes flickering from side to side, trapped halfway between dreaming and waking.
As his eyes came back into focus he swallowed as if he was trying not to be sick. "Never - never believed," he said jerkily, "never believed the priest, talked, talked about Hellfire, never believed God the Father was as vindictive as V-Voldemort but when I was, when I was - thought I was in Hell, that it was going to go on for all of fucking eternity...."
"Language, Severus!" Poppy said automatically, without thinking about it, and he glared at her wildly, but Luna smiled brightly and said "According to my father's research, Hell is an abode of fire-demons, located eight hundred and seventy-three yards below Mount Etna."
"That's not - not actually as mad as some of the stuff your father comes out with, Lovegood" Snape said shakily. "Compared to the one about the three-legged Rockensnicker, it's nearly sensible."
"Thank you," she replied gravely, and drew him back down against her, and her voice talked down all the days, threading through the pattern of his slow martyrdom, telling him about a great bull without eyes, and a girl with a flower on her forehead, and a dry skull drinking the ghost of wine.
At least they had an excuse, now, to get him some new and less abominable nightshirts, without making him feel that they were impugning the old ones.
"It worries me," Minerva McGonagall said tiredly, rubbing her eyes. "I mean, in some ways it's good, that he will allow himself to be comforted in this way, that he can be comforted; but if you had known Severus before - such a very private man, and so unbending, abrasive even, and now to see him - crying, clinging, it's - devastating, really. A measure of how they - damaged him."
"I wouldn't worry about it too much - it's normal for people who're very ill or traumatized to be a bit sooky, leik, at first. Bob - my flatmate - he's doing Vet Science and he tells me it's the same with cats and dogs; when they're very ill they're all clingy and obliging and you can do anything with them, but as soon as they start feeling a bit better then it's all flailing teeth and claws again, and having to go three rounds to get them to take a pill. I'm sure when he's feeling a little better he'll be nice and disagreeable again, leik."
"You are certain - certain that he will get better?"
"I don't see why not. He's come this far.... He was as close to death as anyone I've ever seen that didn't have a head injury, and that lived, and he fought his way back from the brink, didn't he? I don't see why he should stop now." He scratched his nose thoughtfully. "You know, for a while there I was afraid I'd have to insist on having him admitted to an ICU, and that would have been a nightmare."
"Trying to explain all the - the curses to a Muggle hospital, yes."
"Not just that. The police would have wanted to know who tortured him - and what could we have said? Lie or tell the truth, it's Contempt of Court either way."
The next thing (but it was a very big thing), now that Snape knew where he was most of the time (or knew where he appeared to be, at any rate, for he still sometimes thought his freedom was only a dream) was to get him a wand. His own was long gone - used to torment him until Lucius got bored with that particular game, and then broken in front of him. The whereabouts of Ollivander was still unknown and in any case Snape was still far too frail to travel, and too ashamed of what he perceived as his weakness and his crippled state to allow any magical sales reps to visit him. But Dervish and Banges in Hogsmeade was happy to send over a selection of suitable wands for him to try "in the privacy of his own home."
If he was embarrassed at needing to be held to get through the nightmares, he was ten times more ashamed of collapsing trembling in the strong hoop of Albus's arms, the one whole and the one withered, overcome not even by fear but by a complex mix of emotions in which relief and grief were equally mixed. Fifteen inches, hawthorn, the core made from the wing-feather of a hippogriff - a springtime wood whose symbolic meaning combined cleansing with male sexuality, and the beast that stood for freedom and hard pride. Power, and a degree of independence, and a chance to defend himself from attack.
Just being able to call water into an empty glass, or Accio a book from the shelf, or light the fire in the hearth with a simple flick left him shaking and overcome, not sure whether to laugh or cry. And Albus Dumbledore sat and held him, and understood, and did not say, that the abuse he had suffered had left him feeling emasculated, symbolically if not literally, and having a wand again was almost like being made whole.
His Slytherins came to visit him, cautiously by ones and twos, but there was little that they could say. He was too weak, yet, for long conversations, and if they came hoping to be reassured by seeing him alive and getting better, they left saddened by seeing him so damaged and reduced. And although he was pleased to see them, and touched by their concern, he hated them seeing him - mortally ashamed as he was both of his scars and of his need to be held - so the whole experience was depressing and unsatisfying on both sides.
"It's not that I mind you lot helping him - much," said Millicent Bulstrode, scowling impressively after one such abortive visit, "but I wish there was something more we could do."
"Oh, but it's good for him to have people looking after him who aren't Slytherins," Luna said cheerfully. "It means he can shout at us without feeling guilty."
"I suppose," the older girl answered with a slow grin. "That does sound like him."
"You can see how - how bloody weak I am. Snivelling! - what you must bloody think of me, and even now I've got the bloody wand I can hardly use it. I can barely even lift it - and my magic...."
"You're not weak, sir - I don't know how you can say that you are. You beat them - all of them. Just having survived - that's a triumph."
"Don't be a damn' fool, Longbottom. I only survived because I was too fucking weak to fight them. Don't you understand, they forced me to live when I was so - fucking - desperate to die oh God, please, I need to die - "
"Hush now - not now, you don't. It's going to be all right now."
"Not - not all right you - idiot - can't get them out of my head oh God - "
"Would you be better if you asked the Headmaster to Obliviate you?"
"No! Stupid, stupid, no more - violations, amputations - "
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to be stupid."
"Not - your fault - mine, stupid, fucking, feeble - "
"Shhh now, shhh, you are strong; you could have died when Ron's brother and Professor Flitwick broke the curses but you didn't die, you lived and got sane again... sane-ish, anyway. Hush. Take a deep breath now - that's it, and another one...."
"'If you were a lord, you should be my lord,
And the same if you were a thief,' said she;
'And if you are a harper, you shall be my harper,
For it makes no matter to me, to me,
For it makes no matter to me.'
"'But what if it prove that I am no harper?
That I lied for your love most monstrously?'
'Why, then I'll teach you to play and sing,
For I dearly love a good harp,' said she."
"Is that really the end of it?"
"Yes. But there are other books."
As the days ticked by he slowly relaxed into the idea of being held by this select little fellowship. He even stopped feeling awkward about letting the Gryffindor know-all see him in such a needy, dependent state, and started to quite enjoy having her hold him as she brushed his hair, although the knowledge made him miserably ashamed.
"I suppose," he said with a sigh, gazing at her with the dead weight of a lifetime's-worth of exhaustion in his eyes, "I have no right to resent - pity, even from students. I should be grateful that anyone would bother. Am grateful."
"Is that what you think it is?" she said, frowning at him. "Pity?"
"Concern," she said, still frowning, her hand drawing the brush through his hair in long, steady strokes. "And gratitude. Admiration. You may not ever have been - very pleasant to your students but you were a - a soldier, fighting for us all, and now that you've been - wounded in the course of duty, taking proper care of you and helping you to get better is the least we can do."
"Ever the sentimentalist, Granger - and rather too bloody optimistic. 'Better' is a relative term, isn't it?"
"Better than you've been, at least," she said, smoothing his hair back from his scarred face with a sort of painful tenderness.
"Don't patronize me!"
"I'm not. I wouldn't - ever."
"That'd be a first, then! You patronize every other bloody male in your life."
"Well, yes," she said, with the ghost of a grin, "but patronizing Harry and Ron - that's different."
Harry Potter came, crawlingly apologetic for ever having doubted his loyalty, and Snape stared at him silently with a faint sneer on his lips, enjoying his discomfiture and deliberately not making it any easier for him.
"I'm - glad you're getting a bit better. Sir." Harry said awkwardly, looking at the rug. It was a proper old rag-rug; slightly scruffy, like most of the things Snape owned, and he wondered who had made it. He couldn't imagine Snape sewing, somehow.
"Sit around discussing me in the common room when you've nothing better to do, do you?"
"Everybody - everybody is concerned about you."
"How... nice of them. I hear I have you to thank, Potter, for - thinking of using Muggle techniques to save my life."
"Well, yes, but - anybody with a Muggle background would have done the same. I'm sure if Hermione...."
"But it would have to be you, wouldn't it, Potter?" He turned his face aside. "If it hadn't been for you, I could have been decently dead."
"You see?" said Luna happily to Millicent. "It's good for him to have somebody to be nasty to."
His eyes were still tightly shut but he cried out harshly and struck out at her, hitting her on the shoulder. She ducked and caught at his wrist to protect herself and he screamed, horribly, shockingly, and tried to throw himself sideways off the bed to get away from her. She let go of his arm and seized him by the shoulders. "Severus! Wake up, damnit!" That evidently penetrated his panic to some extent because he stopped struggling and went limp - and then began to cry, the tears leaking silently from behind closed lids.
Minerva McGonagall watched helplessly, feeling grey and drawn. But grey was the key, wasn't it? She drew a deep breath, sighed and dwindled.
Wearing her other self, she padded on little, pin-clawed feet up her colleague's chest and nuzzled him under the chin. He put his hand up blindly and rubbed her behind the angle of her jaw. "Hello puss" he said vaguely. Then his eyes opened and he recognized her. "Oh. Damn." He looked away, his face flushed with shame, but he kept on stroking mechanically until the grey tabby who was sometimes also a woman curled up against him and purred like a tractor.
When the tickle of her whiskers told her that his breathing had steadied, Minerva stretched and then stretched again, lengthening back into human form in the circle of her friend's arm. He hugged her against him, as far as he was able, and she put her own arms round him in turn and held him tight, until he tucked his face down onto her bony shoulder and relaxed against her. "How bad was I this time?" he murmured, as soft as a sigh.
"Bad enough. There now, shhh...."
"I was dreaming" he said in that sleepwalking voice. "I was dreaming that I was still - there, then, and they came to take my other hand. I could feel it, I could feel Pettigrew with his little penknife carving each fiddly little finger-joint apart, one bone at a time, and I knew in a few minutes I was going to have no fingers left...."
"Was that how - " She stopped and took a deep breath, trying to control the tremor in her voice. "Was that how it was done? Piecemeal, like that?"
"Yes... Pettigrew's bright idea" he said slowly, still half asleep. "After - after they'd had me for a while - weeks, I suppose, though it was hard to have any idea of the passage of time - he got bored because I wasn't, wasn't aware enough any more. I was just crashing from one pain to another like a beast in the shambles, just - reacting, mindlessly. But he wanted me to, to grieve over what I'd already suffered and anticipate what was to come in more than that - animalistic way. No offence meant."
"None taken" she said shakily.
"So he decided to - whittle me down to nothing, one joint at a time. Starting with the top joint on the little finger of my left hand, you understand, and then working his way round. Every second day he took another piece of me - he chose the interval himself, it gave me time to be suitably horrified in advance without ever growing numb to it - and then forced me to watch as my own flesh and bone was fed to Nagini. Or to Greyback, which was just - repulsive."
"That was why - why you asked Dumbledore to cover the snakes?"
"Yes. I know they're - traditional, for Slytherin, but they just reminded me of - of - And of course, taking my flesh and bone only strengthened the spell-hold they had over me, so that I couldn't take any action against their will - not even to end my own life."
"Oh, my dear." She held him close, rubbing his back gently, and he gave a breathless, bitten-back little sob and started to shake.
"Pettigrew made sure I knew - it wouldn't stop there. He and Lucius told me - told me all the time - that after they'd taken my limbs it would be my ears, my eyelids, eyes - one at a time, you understand - and then my nose, teeth, tongue." By now he was shuddering until his teeth chattered. "M-my lips. Nipples" he added, colouring slightly. "Then I was to be gelded, and finally emasculated, and if I was still breathing what was left was to be flayed - in instalments. It was only because I - because I became so exhausted I no longer reacted strongly enough to satisfy them that I was spared that."
"Thank God - thank God that they did stop, that you still have your right hand and your sight and speech and...."
He gave a thick, horrible laugh and pulled away, sitting up straight so that he could look her in the face and sneering at her in his misery. "Don't be a damned fool, Minerva. It wasn't an act of kindness, that they left me a hand until late. Lucius - Lucius arranged it, he told them all that I had only ever been good for one thing and for that I only needed a mouth and an arse and one hand and they all laughed, they all laughed, they'd each bloody-well had me at least twenty times over already and they knew it was true." He turned his face away sharply. "I am nothing, Minerva - nothing but an empty vessel for them to - penetrate."
"You are not." She took him by the shoulders and shook him, trying to get him to face her, but he hung loosely between her hands like an unstrung puppet, his head flopping horribly to the side. "Blast you, Severus, look at me!"
He laughed again, wildly, screwing his eyes shut and twisting his head back over his own shoulder, his mouth curling in bitter self-mockery. "Nothing" he repeated harshly - "Nothing but Lucius's fucking damned whore."
"Severus Snape, I order you to look at me" she snapped, and for a wonder he did so, though his hair hung in straggles across his face and he looked deranged and panic-stricken. She shook him again. "Look at me. Now, you listen to me young man. You," she said fiercely, "you are one of the most able and worthwhile people I have ever met. You are clever and brave and skilled and, and witty and don't you ever forget it. Do you hear me?"
"Yes miss" he said meekly, and then gave her a shaky smile before collapsing forwards into her arms. As she folded him close and began to croon over him he laughed against her shoulder, more naturally this time. "You haven't changed, Minerva. Apart from being a bit bonier, and a few extra wrinkles, you're still just the same as when I was eleven."
"Laughter-lines" she replied firmly. "Never tell a lady she has wrinkles: they're laughter-lines." He permitted himself to be persuaded to swallow a few mouthfuls of water, and then she drew him back down against the pillows and held him in her arms and rocked him and murmured to him until they both fell asleep.
Don't worry, he is going to feel better about things, eventually - but it's a slow process.
Once again, quotes in italics are from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
"Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers." Said by Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1892 story The Naval Treaty, from the collection Memories of Sherlock Holmes.
"Sooky" is a common Scots and northern English word which I would guess is derived from "sucky", as applied to a human baby or a lamb which is cuddling up trying to suckle. It means being clingy and dependent and pleading.
This chapter has been slightly edited in accordance with the new backstory in Deathly Hallows, to show Snape getting used to the idea of saying "Albus", rather than "Dumbledore" as was formerly his habit.
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