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
Hermione was sure she'd never, ever been quite so embarrassed. Being sick on the teacher in front of her entire class when she was seven had hitherto been an unchallenged first in the embarrassment stakes, closely seconded by turning herself furry. But actually being naked in front of a former teacher, who she had found herself caring for far more than she should less than eight hours before... towel or no towel, she was so embarrassed it took hours for her muscles to even begin to relax from the mortified curl they kept trying to push her body into.
And that raised eyebrow and smirk... if he'd been in good health, she'd have slapped him, or at least wanted to! As it was, she'd managed not to do more than blush until she was relieved, and could go to her own room to whimper into her pillow.
Since there were six of them to sit with Snape, they divided up the day so that each day one person stayed eight hours overnight, one person had the day free and the other four each stayed with him four hours, workload and study-periods permitting.
It would be almost a week, therefore, before he and Hermione would spend the night together again, and that gave them both time to recover a little from their embarrassment: hers at having been seen dripping wet and very nearly naked; his at having been so emotionally open with a student, although he knew intellectually that she had probably heard most of it already, and worse, when she had sat through his raving deliriums.
And it did help; when his spirit felt like one huge festering abscess he had to admit that it did help to get some of the poison out into the open and find that neither Minerva nor the Granger girl recoiled from him, even when he wanted to recoil from himself. Even so, it couldn't be pleasant for someone so young and unsullied to have to listen to the sordid details, however much she might claim she cared about his injuries.
He knew he probably ought to be embarrassed about having seen her clad only in a towel, as well; but she had slender legs like a young deer and her hips weren't bad either, and the memory made him smile in the way that the coloured glass and the silvery chimes made him smile. And even though he knew she was doing her best for him, and he was mortifyingly grateful to her for it, he still couldn't help taking a certain malicious pleasure in being a cause of discomfiture in one of the Golden Trio.
So he was gravely formal, and only smiled reminiscently to himself when he knew she was nearly not watching.
"He hasn't said anything," Hermione told Crookshanks, who was curled up on her pillow. He didn't like her going away one night a week, but having her bed all to himself did seem to console him a bit. "But he smirks when he thinks I'm not looking. And I can't decide whether I want to slap him, or be happy that he's actually looking almost pleased, or... well, wish for him to want to see it again. Which is really, really embarrassing."
Crookshanks sniffed at his paw and licked it once or twice, evidencing massive unconcern. "You needn't look like that," Hermione said, waving a clean sock at him. "It's not as if you haven't spent hours watching me in the bath yourself."
The cat flicked his tail, giving her a disdainful look... and then he seemed to relent, rolling onto his stomach and tucking his paws under his chest, giving her his full attention.
"Thank you." She sat down beside him and scratched behind his ears. "I really don't know what to do about this. Just hope it goes away, I suppose. But... he's so important to me, and I don't even know why. Not that anyone ever does know why they care for someone, I suppose." Crookshanks licked her fingers, and she smiled. "Well, except for you. You love me because I give you sardines. I don't think that would work on him."
Crookshanks purred, butting his head against her hand until she found the itchy spot under the other ear. "I don't think petting him will work either, but I'll try," she said, giving him one last pat and picking up the schoolbag that now contained her nightgown and clean clothes for tomorrow. "I love you, kitty."
The cat curled up on her pillow, ignoring her pointedly as soon as she showed signs of leaving him.
Much later that night, she stroked Severus Snape's hair gently as he started to stir and whimper, and thrilled shamefully to feel him relax as the incipient nightmare was averted, cuddling against her. "You just aren't playing fair," she whispered, holding him protectively. "And you don't even know."
He stirred and mumbled. "Wha's it?" he asked muzzily.
"Nothing," she murmured, rubbing his back gently. Mental note - don't speak aloud, even when he's asleep. "It's all right. You sleep."
"Mm." He burrowed his face into her neck, drifting into sleep again.
"Please don't be embarrassed, Severus; I need to look at the - at where the limbs were severed."
"Does it make a difference?"
"Oh yes," Flitwick replied in his high voice, leaning his elbows on the bed and peering at the scarred crater where his colleague's left leg should be. "I have to be able to visualize the - the area of attachment, while I'm shaping the charm."
"You really think you'll be able to make something that will - that will enable me to walk, at least?" Sylvanus Kettleburn had been similarly injured, and had coped so well with his prostheses that he had continued to teach for thirty years after his right arm was ripped away by a manticore, which he had been belabouring with one of his rosewood legs at the time, wielding it like a club. But Sylvanus had been fitted for false limbs within hours of losing the originals, while those limbs were still a clear part of his body's morphic field: not months after the event, when all that was left was a dull, healed-over stump which had forgotten how to be anything else.
"Oh yes - in time. But it won't be simple. Alastor, for example, he still has his own leg to just below the knee so the wooden limb requires no - no articulation, beyond the charm which makes the claws shape themselves to the ground. But a whole leg or arm - one that's actually real and fixed, that won't evaporate when the spell wears off and that's integrated into your own nervous system, as Alastor's eye is - that's going to take time. And I imagine you'll want something a bit more... realistic."
"If I had lost both legs at the hip it might have been interesting to end up with - with eagle's claws, or some such. I could really disturb all the little first-years, if I had talons." Sylvanus's habit of taking his false legs off in the middle of morning coffee-break and scratching the stumps luxuriously had also been pretty disturbing, if one thought about it - although he tried fervently not to. "But since I still have one leg to the knee I shall be content to be as, as human as I ever was; and I emphatically do not want to end up looking like a collection of spare parts flung together by a Victorian cabinet-maker."
"Like, as you say, Alastor."
Now that Snape could sit up and use a wand, at least for light work, he was finally able to read for himself - and even to return a favour, sometimes, by reading darkly dramatic poetry aloud to the Lovegood girl. It helped his voice, which was cracked and roughened and always would be, but which still had both passion and pace when he worked at it; and her wide-eyed admiration was good for his shattered self-confidence.
Of course, Luna Lovegood had a head-start in the wide-eyed department.
He could even write, if he wanted to, using the same swivelling over-bed table on which he had his meals, and weighting the parchment down with stone paperweights to prevent it from rolling up on him as he wrote. Thus equipped, he was able to work off some of his irritable energy by launching a vitriolic attack on the views expressed by a distinguished expert in the latest edition of Alchemical American.
But it wasn't enough - not nearly enough. Christmas was coming, and beyond the safe confines of his rooms he could feel the buzz of excitement building, and he remembered far too vividly what sort of Christmas Lucius had had planned for him, if his body had not failed him faster than expected. By now if he had counted the days right he would have been eyeless, tongueless - waiting helplessly to be gelded. The idea that if things had gone as Lucius and Pettigrew had planned what was left of him would still (still!) have been writhing and squealing on the stone floor while they flicked their wands at him in idle amusement, tearing his already flayed nerves with inventive agonies, or took more direct and personal pleasures the mere thought of which made his flesh crawl and his throat convulse with nausea... that idea set his heart racing and the blood pounding in his temples every time he allowed himself to remember it, and when that happened, even obliterating some harmless old American fossil's pet thesis was not enough.
Frustrated by inactivity, but too afraid and too ashamed of his own maimed ugliness to contemplate leaving his rooms, he had Hermione Granger bring some of the potions she was making for the hospital wing down to his chambers, where she could work at the stone bench in the corner and he could assist her (and incidentally exercise his muscles, what was left of them) by chopping and mixing ingredients on the over-bed table, and nit-picking at every move she made.
"He's driving me mad," Hermione said ruefully, stacking neatly labelled jars into a cabinet in the infirmary. "He niggles at every single thing I do. It's wonderful, though... there are moments when he sounds almost like himself again."
"That does sound wonderful," Madam Pomfrey said happily. "He's still so clingy, a lot of the time, even the occasional flash of temper is glorious."
"I know. Even if it is annoying." Hermione rolled her eyes. "I think it's helping him to feel useful, even in a tiny way. He's talked more than once about feeling useless...."
"He has." Madam Pomfrey rummaged through another cupboard. "I'm running low on the mildest Sleeping Draught, for the younger students. For some reason, they've been having a lot of nightmares lately."
"I can't imagine why." Hermione shook her head, closing the door on the neatly stacked jars of Bruise Balm. "Of course, we'll do that next."
"Thank you." Madam Pomfrey sighed, leaning against the cupboard. "You have been telling him that it doesn't matter if he's... useful... haven't you?"
"Of course I have. I just don't think he believes me." Hermione sighed in her turn. "I'll keep trying, of course."
"No, no you silly girl, faster than that - and add the Hart's Tongue with every seventh stir." Caught up in his own frustration at not being able to do the whole thing literally single-handed, unnerved by the lack of direct physical contact and angry with himself for being unnerved, he brought the knife down sharply on the bracket fungus he was busy dicing and over-reached himself, jarring his fingertips against the chopping-board and bending back the newly-grown nails.
It was too much - too like one of the endless catalogue of horrors lodged in his head. With a hoarse cry he shoved the over-bed table away from him, sending it and everything on it crashing to the floor, and curled up on his side with his eyes squeezed shut and his fingers pressed to his mouth, licking frantically at the bruised nail-beds and trembling in panic.
Hermione was at his side in an instant. "Professor - sir - come on now, shhh...."
She laid her hand lightly on his forearm, sick with care but not wanting to startle him as he turned his face away from her, muttering "Not my hands - please, please not my hands."
"Shhh, shhh, it's all right, nobody is going to hurt you, you just - you just hit your hand against the table. Shhh."
They sat there like that, quietly, while the cauldron bubbled away on its own in the corner. After what felt like forever Snape's breathing steadied and he opened his eyes to see Hermione watching him with gentle, anxious concern. Perversely angry, his snatched his arm away from her and snapped "Idiot! - you've let the Breathe-Easy boil over. Now we'll have to start again."
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I didn't like to leave you while you were...."
"While I was what?"
"Well - distressed."
Snape dropped back against the pillows, shutting his eyes against her cloying, doe-eyed concern. "You think I don't have a right to be bloody distressed?" he snarled, dimly aware that he was being irrational but hating her pity - hating his own self-pity worst of all. "Look at me!" He clawed neurotically at the mottled brand across his temple, at the long scar which bisected his cheek. "I used to - I used to - when I was, was dis-stressed I used to sit with my knees drawn up and, and - " and wrap his arms round them and rock like somebody mad, like a crazed child but he couldn't say that, not here, not now, "but I can't even fucking do that any more because without a lower leg I can't - " He turned his face towards where his left arm should be, panicking, drowning....
"Of course you have a right to be distressed." She gently pulled his hand away from his face, keeping him from digging his fingernails into the scar across his cheek. "I'd debate whether that's sufficient reason to be rude to me when you know quite well I can't call you names in return, though. If I could, I would be seriously tempted to call you an interfering bossy-boots who thinks I can't chop daisy roots without having my technique criticized." She assumed a reproving expression, watching him anxiously. Sometimes he responded better to tartness than to sympathy.
Snape came within a hairsbreadth of replying "I'll be rude if I feel like it," but a last thin vestige of commonsense told him that sounding like a brattish three-year-old would not improve his position here. Instead he drew a long, ragged breath, and then another. "You may - retaliate in kind if you wish," he said unsteadily. "You can't possibly call me anything worse than what I've already called myself: you haven't the vocabulary."
"I really don't," she admitted ruefully. "I'll have to start looking up swear-words in my spare time, I suppose. But I'll be honest with you when you're being irritating, if you like." She wanted to gather him up in her arms and hold him protectively, but she crushed the impulse, instead tugging a tangled lump of blanket out from under his shoulder in as business-like a way as she could manage.
"If you really think that 'bossy-boots' is an appropriate expression to be used by one adult to another then you really do need to broaden your linguistic horizons, Granger," Snape replied sourly. He still felt shaken and unsteady, but her sharpness had at least broken him out of his spiralling panic. "Perhaps I should give you lessons in profanity - at least then I'd be serving some bloody purpose.
"As for being irritating...." He let himself fall back against the pillows, his eyes shut. "I live to annoy, Granger - surely you know that. And I have some much - better words for myself. Cripple, coward, whore, ingrate, useless burden - "
Hermione laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Now I, personally, disagree with all those words except the first one," she said firmly. "Which, given the circumstances, is hard to argue with. But the others... you are none of those things, and someday we're going to manage to get that through your stubborn head." She straightened the twisted neck of his nightshirt. "Although irritating you certainly are. Madam Pomfrey says you do it because you think it's funny to make people twitch."
He felt like crying - he was crying, he couldn't help it, he could feel the hot tears leaking out from under his closed lids, but at the same time.... He made a strangled noise, half cough and half sob, and his lips twisted. "Adrian says that I - that I '...like toys that don't need batteries - wind them up and watch them go.'"
She lay down beside him, tucking an arm gently across his ribs. "That sounds like you, yes," she said softly, fighting down an urge to kiss him. "And you're awfully good at it... it must be so frustrating to have all of us refusing to be wound up because we're so worried about upsetting you. I promise, you haven't lost your touch, I'm just getting better at biting my tongue."
Snape rolled over against her with a sort of choking laugh. "That's - reassuring, and you're quite right: I really, really need a fight, and everyone's being so bloody - careful and considerate around me, it makes me want to scream." He tucked his face down against her shoulder and held her tightly. "Oh God, Granger, I can't do this."
"What can't you do?" She pressed her hand against his back with a steady and steadying pressure.
"I can't - can't even sit and dice toadstools for more than two bloody minutes without somebody holding me. Stupid, fucking weakling. Stupid fucked weakling."
"Actually, you lasted a good five minutes," she said, rubbing his back gently. "Which is an improvement on a few weeks ago." She felt horribly guilty about it, but she couldn't deny that it felt nice to have him nestled against her, his face nuzzled against her neck. "You're getting better, even if it is painfully slow. And I could let Ron in, if you want someone to shout at to take your mind off it. I've always found him a very effective verbal target."
"That's - not a bad idea" Snape said with a slightly cracked laugh. "He's almost bound to say or do something annoying, isn't he? Tiresome boy. But oh, God - " He clutched her even tighter, like a drowning man holding on to a spar, until she had difficulty breathing. "I'm so fucking tired of myself. I feel like a - a dead weight that I have to pull everywhere can't stand, can't do magic worth a fucking damn, can't even get to the fucking lavatory unless someone else carries me, can't be on my own for - all right, for five minutes without panicking, do you have any idea how - " He choked and turned his face to the pillow, away from her. "I've lived on my own all my life, and now I can't bear it. You tell me, Granger, what bloody purpose do I serve - like this?"
"You don't need to serve any purpose. You're not a... a kitchen implement," Hermione said, reaching up to smooth his hair lightly. He didn't flinch when she touched it anymore, not as long as he knew it was her and he wasn't having one of his fits of panic. "You're getting better, you really are. It just takes time...."
"Fine," he snarled, hunching his shoulders. "Time, that's what everyone says. How much time, Granger? Six months, a year, ten years, a century? At what point does the time invested in me become - ridiculous?"
"It doesn't, it never does. Really, you must believe - " She became aware that behind her Minerva McGonagall had come in silently, her tartan dressing-gown draped over her arm.
"Miss Granger," the older woman said quietly. "What is wrong?"
"The - " bloody idiot, she nearly said, but she managed to bite it back just in time, "Professor thinks that he is... not of any practical use, now."
"I'm quite capable of speaking for myself, thank you" he snapped.
"But not of thinking for yourself, apparently" McGonagall said smoothly, "if you're going to go off on daft ideas like that."
"Oh, come off it, Minerva" Snape said rather shakily. "Even if - even if I may some day be capable of resuming some of my teaching duties, you have to admit that - that preserving my miserable life represents a very large expenditure of resources for very little return."
"I admit no such thing," the Deputy Headmistress replied composedly. "Dinna be so foolish, man. You, yourself, are all the return we ever sought - just you, alive and as close to whole as we could get you."
And later, later when he sighed and shifted unhappily in his half-sleep she curled against him and purred, just for him, and when he drifted towards waking in the half-darkness of the firelight it was to find a warm, furry bundle lying stretched along his chest, and leathery little cat-pads pressing against his nose and lips.
Crookshanks nosed Hermione's ear cautiously, and she rolled onto her back, sniffling and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm fine," she told him, pulling him into a hug which he tolerated with more than usual patience. "I'm just frustrated. I want to help him, and I was utterly useless today. It was... awful. He was so miserable, and I couldn't DO anything."
Crookshanks tucked his head under her chin and purred. This was his standard response to her inexplicable bursts of shedding salty water and making peculiar sounds, and she smiled, scratching behind his ear gently. "Aw.... Thank you, Crooks. I know you love me. I just wish... well, things I shouldn't wish." She kissed the top of his head and sat up. "But you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to make a list. That always makes me feel better."
She rummaged in her trunk, locating the only contraband she ever smuggled into Hogwarts each year - a couple of plain exercise books and a little stack of pens. Writing in bed with quill and ink was a recipe for disaster, as she'd learned in her first year, so she'd decided to sacrifice her Magical Authenticity on this one point.
When she'd arranged herself comfortably - curtains pulled around bed to make a warm, dim cave, Crooks snuggled up under her raised knees, and her wand lit and stuck in her hair - she stared at the blank page in front of her.
After a moment, she wrote down "Ways to Eliminate Unsuitable Crushes" on the first line.
Then she underlined it.
After several minutes, and the rejection of "talking self out of it", "using anti-love potion" and "avoiding him", she sighed and crossed the heading out. Talking herself out of it plainly wasn't working, she couldn't avoid him, and if he caught her using a potion...!!!
She replaced it with "Ways to Help Professor Snape".
This was more productive. She managed to come up with "Give him more to do - make him feel useful", "Discuss Arithmancy + other intellectual subjects - keep mind off other things", "Provide new reading material if possible", and "Find someone for him to shout at - regular basis?" before running out of ideas.
After staring at the short list for a long time, she sighed and turned to a blank page. Making lists usually made her feel better. Writing things down tidily always helped her to sort out tangled emotions, she'd even made a list of pros and cons about the in-potentia relationship with Ron, and whether or not she should continue trying. But this guilty yearning feeling was proving unusually recalcitrant. Lists could not tame it, apparently.
She sucked meditatively on the end of her pen, and then... why not? Nobody need ever know... and hadn't Jane Austen once said of love that "one good sonnet may starve it quite away"? Something like that.
"You wore your distance like a cloak-" No.
"Thy disdain cannot deter my -" Closer, but no.
She chewed on the end of her pen, digging a hanky out of her pocket in case she needed it again.
"Thou didst wear distance like a cloak, a shield...."
"You're very patient with me," Snape said quietly, as Hermione Granger prepared to hand him on to the Lovegood girl. "Both of you. And I do - I do appreciate that. If you.... It was quite - pleasant, talking about Arithmantic theory the other night, and if you have any similar questions you shouldn't feel... inhibited from asking me about them."
"Oh, I won't!" Hermione said happily. "Feel inhibited, that is."
"It's not - when I get angry, it's not really you I'm angry with. It's myself."
"I know," she said seriously. "I do understand."
He bared his rather horsy teeth in a brief snarl, although he was more amused than angry. "You do, don't you Granger. Do you have any idea how annoying that is?"
"Oh yes," Luna said solemnly, perching herself decorously on the side of the bed.
"I suppose this is my penance for teasing you."
"Yes," said Luna, nodding.
Hermione, as usual, didn't go home for Christmas. She was too obvious a target, Harry Potter's Muggle-born friend... she hadn't dared go home since she was in third year. She tried to at least spend a few weeks with her parents each year, but she'd insisted that they take holidays together rather than staying at home. Kingsley had removed their home address from her records, and magic was never used within a mile of the Granger household. Most wizards had no idea how to locate a Muggle aside from actually going out and looking. She hoped staying away would be enough to keep them safe.
Luna Lovegood, on the other hand, would be returning home for Christmas. Fond though she was of Snape, she explained solemnly that her father was always rather sad over the festive season, missing her mother, and if she left him to his own devices he would be even sadder.
Ron was going home for Christmas too, for a wonder. Although nobody liked to say so out loud, there was an unspoken feeling that the war was hotting up and that this might be the last Christmas that all the family (except Percy) might be able to attend. Harry could have gone with him, but he too feared there might never be another complete Weasley get-together and he felt that his presence might be an intrusion. So he stayed, awkwardly, in the place which was the nearest thing he had to a home, with the people who were the nearest thing he had to a family. He wondered what that made Snape.
Neville, on the other hand, was outstandingly happy to have a good excuse not to have to spend Christmas with his grandmother, although he arranged to Floo from Hogsmeade to St Mungo's on Christmas Eve to visit his parents. He came back silent and subdued, his normally open face carefully blank, and stared at Snape as if he was afraid the man would evaporate if he took his eyes off him.
As for Snape himself, the awareness of what had been planned for him ate into his bones until he became increasingly depressed and anxious. "Christmas Eve," he muttered, rubbing the heel of his hand across his eyes, and running his tongue neurotically along the scars inside his cheeks, as he did whenever he was especially anxious, now. "Christmas Eve, and I should have been down to Midnight Mass in the village. I'm so - tired of myself, of being so bloody tired all the time...."
"You know the priest will understand that you are ill. I could send an owl to him and ask him to come and see you later, if you like."
The younger man ducked his head, embarrassed, although trusting this new Albus not to curl his lip at him was starting to feel almost natural. "No I - not ready to be seen yet. Not - like this."
"Then light a candle. It's almost midnight now; light a candle, and I will too - to give thanks for your return to us."
"Such a narrow escape - such a narrow escape," he said fretfully, his eyes glassy with fear as the reflected glimmer of the candle-flame burned in them, fever-bright.
"Narrow or not, you did escape it, dear lad. Shush now, don't fret - you did come back to us, you did keep your hand and your eyes and your - faculties, and no-one will take them from you. You're home and safe."
"I don't know, Albus - don't know.... Sometimes I feel as if - as if there were two timelines, two ways it could have gone, and this one is only a dream or a - some sort of a fragile interim experiment, and I'm going to wake up on Christmas morning and find myself back in the other timeline, trapped in that - ruined shell. Trapped and burning."
"You will wake up nowhere but in my arms. Wherever you are, I will be with you."
"I'll hold you to that, old man." He pressed his face against the white beard and held on tight, and when he woke it was to the heavy scent of Neville's gift to him - three dozen winter-blooming hyacinths, flooding the room with their colour and perfume.
Hermione Granger had defied expectations and found him an old music box... no Muggle contraption that tinkled out a tinny version of a single tune, but a box of polished rosewood filled with small compartments, each of which produced a different, flawlessly performed piece of music when opened. [The charms on the box had recently been either replaced or strengthened with some vigour. Flitwick had always said she had talent.]
Snape stared at it and ran his fingers fluidly over the surface, listening to the soft notes stepping down through the measure like a fall of water, and feeling embarrassingly breathless and overwhelmed. He had never in his life woken up to gifts, beyond the occasional pity-present from Albus, but this was something else, something that really felt meant. Even Albus' gift felt as if it was really meant - and it occurred to him that perhaps it always had been, and he had failed to notice.
And there were the hyacinths, a thing Longbottom had made with his own hands, their scent filling the room until he felt sleepy and drugged; and Minerva had called by first thing and presented him with a bottle of very elderly and dignified Cognac, which he had no intention of sharing with the younger generation. Lovegood had bought him his own illustrated, hardback copy of The Last Unicorn, with the pictures spelled to move like wizarding ones, so that he could see that "oldest, wildest grace" for himself. He had only dim memories of the flesh and blood unicorn that had saved his life - but this one, perhaps, had helped save his sanity.
Poppy, practical and kind, had made him a bed-jacket with simple fastenings which could be operated one-handed, and Adrian - who was very sensibly spending Christmas with his fiancée - had sent him an enormous box of chocolate liqueurs (easily enough to share), and another of maple brazils. This was not even to mention the tinful of Molly Weasley's excellent home-made mince pies. Feeling pleasantly sinful as he spoilt breakfast with sweet pies and alcoholic chocolates, he wondered guiltily if he should have returned the favour. But he had never anticipated this... outpouring of generosity.
"I did wonder," he said, frowning, "- wondered if I should still try to send a gift to Draco; this will be the first Christmas since he was born that I haven't. But I thought - well, receiving a present from the traitor might get him into too much trouble with his father. Or worse, if Lucius - if Lucius has already forced him to take the Mark."
"He will understand, surely," Poppy replied seriously, as she helped him to wash. "Coming from such a family, he'll surely understand the - political ramifications."
Filius Flitwick was left to preside over dinner in the Great Hall, for those other staff and students who were staying on - although he promised to be down later to see "dear Severus." The six - including Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall - minus Luna but plus a rather uncomfortable Harry all chose to have their Christmas dinner with Snape in his quarters, since he was still far from well enough to join the festivities in the Great Hall. They were all pleased - and Harry was secretly relieved - when Hagrid managed to thread his vast bulk down the winding dungeon corridors and join them. He perched himself on the end of Snape's bed, which creaked alarmingly, and helped himself to about a gallon of beer. Fang helped himself to half a turkey, and disappeared with it under the bed.
Sitting quietly in a sort of triangular space between Minerva, Poppy and Hagrid, Snape himself wasn't quite sure what he felt about the whole thing. It was the first time since his return to Hogwarts that he had been dressed in robes instead of in a night-shirt or a hospital gown; the first time that he had sat on the bed instead of in it. The dress-robes were his Christmas gift from Albus - loose, flowing black silk with a slight grey-brown tint to it like a raven's wing and a fine tracery of darker embroidery around the neck, of a far better cut and quality than he could ever have afforded for himself, and they covered the space where his legs should be so well that the absence was nearly not noticeable.
And he had always hated Christmas - had felt like the spectre at the feast, the eternal outsider, congenitally unable to unbend enough to join in the ridiculous jollifications, despite Albus's best efforts. Like the Bloody Baron, perhaps, a real spectre at the feast, dour, taciturn and empty-eyed where he hovered half in and half out of the wall - but he could hardly be an outsider at a party at which he was apparently both host and guest of honour, and there were worse ways of spending an afternoon than eating too much turkey and drinking too much port (especially when one considered the alternatives), even if he was too tired to join in with much of the conversation, and when his still-wasted muscles slackened and he started to sag, Hagrid was there ready, with surprizing sensitivity and tact, to prop him up.
Furthermore - another small triumph, another milestone reached and passed - he had managed to cut up his own dinner, using his wand and a slicing hex, without making a godawful mess of it. He was mildly irritated at how triumphant and independent and, ye gods, grown up that made him feel.
He looked at the little group of - students, for God's sake, students were always The Enemy, even when he was one, but somehow these were allies, friends even - Granger, Longbottom and four strapping Slytherin sixth- and seventh-years - Bulstrode, Heggarty, Longchamps, Fitzgordon - who he knew had all stayed over Christmas expressly so they could continue to guard him, a fact which amazed him every time he thought about it. Crabbe and Goyle, too, but they had eaten upstairs with Pomona and Argus and the rest, out of regard for the effect which their too-vivid resemblance to their fathers might have on his nerves, and then taken up their posts in the corridor. He felt guilty about their necessary exclusion, but grateful for their tact.
And Potter, of course. Sitting there looking awkward and vaguely sullen, parked between Granger and Longbottom. As his gaze passed across them Hermione (Granger, he told himself firmly, Granger) looked up and smiled and he smiled back, thinking "I'm smiling at a student! - it must be the port" - but they weren't just students any more, none of them, not even Potter - a constant thorn in his side and a reminder of his own guilt but he owed the bloody boy his life and the son, unlike the father, had had no conceivable ulterior motive in saving it, even Potter was an ally of sorts so as his gaze slid across the boy's he made a supreme effort and managed - OK, not a smile, definitely not a smile, but the mild interrogative quirk of an eyebrow and a polite tilt of the head, and Potter frowned for an instant and then nodded back.
If somebody had told him a year ago that he would be entertaining Harry Potter in his own quarters, and being tolerably civil to him, he would have thought they were mad. But if somebody had told him six months ago that he would be spending Christmas enjoying (tolerating, anyway) a social gathering, alive and comparatively pain-free instead of - oh, God, he didn't want to think about the alternatives, but at least he seemed to be firmly in the right timeline, he still had a hand, and sight, and the warm room didn't seem to be about to dissolve away into nightmare (please stay real; please, please let it be real).
"I brung yeh some - some sloe gin," Hagrid said expansively, brandishing a massive slice of Christmas cake. "'S not much, I know, but I made it m'self."
That meant it would be about a hundred and forty proof, and almost lethal. "Thank you, Rubeus," Snape said gravely, staring into the ruby depths of the port. "I do appreciate it. I'm only sorry that my - disabilities have prevented me from returning the favour." As if buying presents for anybody except his godson - or receiving them from anybody except Albus - was a thing he had ever contemplated doing before. "Next year, perhaps."
"That's all right, Severus dear," Poppy said from behind him, her voice blurry with sherry. "Jus' - just having you back with us is enough of a Christmas present."
His hand started to shake. He watched it, clinically, from what felt like a great distance as the shaking grew wilder and more convulsive, as his teeth started to chatter, as the port spilled over the back of his white hand and pooled on the sheets like blood and the glass shattered in his grip and real blood followed it....
He heard Minerva calling his name from a long way away, but he only knew that he had fainted when he came round again to find Hagrid holding him up while Poppy rather fuzzily cleaned and healed the cuts on his fingers, and everybody else chattered anxiously. He lifted his head, trying to shake off the dizziness, and found himself facing Potter's green-glass gaze, so like and so unlike Lily's. The boy looked thoughtful and vaguely pitying and Snape turned his face away, ashamed of his own weakness.
"Severus," Minerva's voice said again, clearly. "Severus, what happened? Are you..." all right, she nearly said, but that was a ridiculous question.
"I - I'm not - " He took a deep breath, inhaling the dreamy scent of hyacinths and the unmistakable leather-and-armpits smell of Hagrid. Everything appeared to be moving far too slowly and his own voice seemed to come from a long way away.
"Severus? What is it?"
Another breath, his eyes fixed on the Headmaster although it was Minerva he was answering. "I was to be... they told me I was to be Albus's Christmas gift. If I hadn't weakened faster than they expected. When they had - cut everything off me that could be cut without killing me, what was left was to be impaled and, and sliced open and set up on the lawn, with a silencing charm on me - knowing them, probably with a bloody Tarantallegra as well, so I couldn't even minimize the pain by keeping still." He flinched, shut his eyes, forced himself to open them again. "The Silencio was to have been set to end at dawn, so that - so that my screams would wake the school on Christmas morning."
Minerva made a sick sound and she was in good company, there were expressions of horror all round and in another life, perhaps, he would have enjoyed shocking them all but Albus only looked back at him with quiet concern, and Hagrid's warm, furry voice at his ear said "Tha' part'd neh'v've happened, not 'less they sealed yeh in a bubble. Fang'd've smelled yeh at once, if they'd brought yeh in on that side o' the school injured, an' I'd've found yeh in ten minutes, tops. In fact 'sa wonder the squid didn' intercept yeh, if yeh came in ov'r th' lake."
Snape shook his head violently, trying to clear his thoughts. "That's - interesting question. The giant squid is forbidden from eating students but you'd think that it would...." Sallow-white though he already was, he paled visibly. "Dear God. Could it have been students who...?"
"Oh Severus - what an awful thought!" Minerva said, paling herself. "But perhaps the squid was just... sleeping. I suppose it does sleep?"
"Dunno," Hagrid replied thoughtfully. "I'll have teh ask him."
Feeling tired and faint and slightly the worse for alcohol, Snape settled back against the half-giant's warm, hairy bulk and let the conversation wash over and past him. The idea that it might have been current students, students who were still at the school, who had connived at his torture and ferried his broken body across the loch was horrifying - and yet as he fell asleep in Hagrid's arms he felt oddly soothed to think that if the worst had happened, if the bare remnant of his still-suffering corpse really had been set up like a horrible banner on the lawn on a cold Christmas morning, those same strong arms would have enfolded him in minutes, and carried him in to the warmth and kindness of the infirmary. To know that kindness, perhaps, had always been waiting for him at the end of pain.
Note that there is nothing dodgy about Snape enjoying the prospect of Hermione nearly naked. The age of sexual consent in Muggle Britain is sixteen and the age of full majority eighteen. The age of full adulthood in the wizarding world is seventeen. Hermione is eighteen years and three months old, and Snape isn't her teacher at this point - he's her patient.
This chapter has been slightly re-edited to point up the fact that Albus had formerly been quite dismissive of Snape's problems, and that Harry's presence makes Snape remember Lily, in order to bring it in line with the new canon backstory in Deathly Hallows.
The conversation between Snape and Flitwick about fitting him for prostheses has been re-edited to add comments about Sylvanus Kettleburn, Hagrid's predecessor as Care of Magical Creatures master. It was mentioned en passant in The Tales of Beedle the Bard that Professor Kettleburn had had only one and a half natural limbs left during the whole of the time that he worked for Dumbledore, so it seemed natural that Snape, being similarly maimed, would think about his former colleague.
The writer duj has written a poem called Attribute/A Tribute, to accompany this chapter. It is based on the structure of Emily Dickinson's poem Pain (but IMO is more powerful), and shows Snape struggling to cope with the weight of memory. The court referred to in the poem is his own self-judgement.
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