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
"Frankly, I don't see why I have to be consciously 'ethnic' just because the Race Relations industry tells me I should, leik. OK, my grandparents were from southern Sudan, and I hate the thought that cousins of mine are being persecuted, and I'm quite interested in the culture, in a vague sort of a way - but I'm from Newcastle. And isn't it rather racist of them, to insist that my genetic background is necessarily more important than where I grew up? After all, the Celts came from Turkey originally, and they don't feel obliged to.... OK. Bad analogy. Saturday night on Sauchiehall Street and it's wall-to-wall kebabs...."
"I don't care if it is a traditional Glaswegian delicacy - I categorically refuse to eat a deep-fried Mars Bar."
"You've got a piece wrong there" the older man said, reaching out his sugar-sticky fingers, and Snape slapped them away irritably.
"Yes all right, Horace, I can see it." He clicked the offending piece out of position and glowered at it as if it had personally insulted him.
"It's good to see you ah, amusing yourself - relaxing a bit."
"I don't know if I'm relaxing or driving myself insane - jigsaws! Does that sound to you like the sort of thing I do? But I get so restless, sometimes, I need something to - " To stop me from thinking, he thought, to keep me anchored in the present where I can fool myself into feeling like a whole person instead of a broken, crawling - but he was damned if he was going to say to Horace what he would hesitate to confide in Albus. "And even I can't read all the time."
"Yes, well, that was why - that is, I was wondering.... I'm not a young man any more, you understand, and they do so look to you, so I was wondering whether you might consider... resuming some of the, ah, pastoral aspects of being Head of House."
"I should have known if you came to see me it was because you wanted something from me."
"We are both Slytherins," Slughorn replied calmly. "But it isn't - only that. They respect you, Severus, far more than they do me - I would go so far as to say that they love you, at least in some cases. They would be far more pleased to have advice from you, and would be far more likely to respect it, and - well. It would please me to see you - recovering."
"Oh, of course it would - the sooner I get back in harness, the sooner you can get out of it."
"Not - just that, Severus. You were always one of my all-time favourites, you know that you were, and you know that I - well, that I usually choose my favourites because they have money, influence, connections, and you had none of those things, but you had a shining talent I have rarely seen before or since, and I nurtured that talent because it was something marvellous, not for what I could get out of it. Not primarily, anyway. To see my shining star, my - foray into altruism so - so damaged, it grieves me, it truly does. I wish I had been able to protect you."
"It's not your fault, Horace," Snape muttered, pushing the swivelling table off to the side and sinking back against the pillows. "No one could protect me. No one can protect me."
"Don't say that! Albus is doing everything - "
"Albus may do everything in his power, and still if the - if Riddle wins, you know what will happen to me. Torture, starvation, r-rape, that's just the start: after my - my defiance in surviving him, Riddle will make what they did to me last year look like a stroll in the park."
"Don't - pretend. He will have me pleading for death for decades, you know that he will. You know that it looks more and more as if it was students, our own students, Horace, who smuggled me into that damned store-room but we don't know who - I'm not safe, I'm not safe even here and sooner or later he will come for me, unless we can defeat him once and for all. Or unless you...." He held the other man's pale green gaze for a moment and then looked aside.
"Unless I - what, Severus?" said the fat man, wringing his hands. "I'll do anything - anything."
"You were my Head of House, Horace, you had responsibility for me, as I have for my Slytherins - and yes, I'll see them if you think they really need me, the older ones that know me best, at any rate. But promise me - if it starts looking like we're going to lose this war, promise me as my Head of House that you will kill me before they can take me again. Promise me."
"The longer - the longer this goes on, that I am not... recovered, the more guilty I feel for taking up so much of your time, Lovegood - yours and everybody else's."
"That's all right sir, I don't mind. It's nice to have a proper friend."
Snape blinked at her, turning that one over in his mind. Hermione was one thing, but Lovegood and Longbottom - he was a patient, a burden, a thing that they were doing, they were - they had been - his students and now they were his - what? His minders, his carers, passed from one unequal relationship to another. The idea that they might actively enjoy his company, that they might find these sessions with him a pleasure rather than a nuisance, was utterly foreign - and yet in a bizarre way, when he wasn't too tired or depressed or frantic to appreciate it, he realized that he found their company quite... congenial. Certainly nothing like as annoying as he would have expected it to be. And if that was the case, maybe it was the same for them. Maybe (whisper it) he wasn't as annoying as they would have expected, either.
[And Lovegood was such an oddity - at least as isolated as he had been at her age, and would have been as persecuted if she had ever given her would-be tormentors the pleasure of seeing her react to them particularly; but instead she sailed serenely on, a pale flame burning over the water, and her perfect self-containment impressed him as much as it baffled him.]
He frowned up at her thoughtfully, his long brows bowing like black wings. "Yes. Yes, it is."
"I don't know what you said to persuade him, dear boy, but Horace turned up at my office this morning in quite a state, and handed me the memory I'd been trying to get out of him for over a year."
"Oh, I was very - Slytherin. You would have been proud of me - or perhaps not."
"I am proud of you. Always."
"Then why do you allow him to undermine my authority? I told you that Potter does not belong in a NEWT-level Potions class. Bad enough that you let the little brute stretch the rules yet again and study with a private tutor in Hogsmeade - I suppose it's his own business if he wants to waste his father's money that way, and he might even scrape a pass, but thinking that his skills are sufficient to make him an Auror... they'll let him in if he even barely passes, you know they will, because of who he is and he isn't up to it. The stupid brat's going to get himself killed, first time out."
"I understand your concerns, Severus, I really do - but so far, Harry has shown a remarkable facility for not being killed. It is, you may say, his best subject."
"Huh. There's a first time for everything - and in this case, the first time will be the last time. And even aside from that, he cannot be anything in a NEWT-level class except a, a dead weight dragging the others back, and yet Horace has allowed him in to disrupt the progress of my other students - students who deserve better! Bad enough that thanks to my - my imbecility in allowing myself to be caught, they've had three changes of teacher in their final year, without having to cope with Potter's explosive bloody accidents as well."
"I gather that Mr Potter's potions have become mysteriously less volatile in the regrettable absence of young Mr Malfoy... in fact Horace tells me he is a remarkably able student."
"I'll believe that when I see it."
"Get that - bloody toad out of the bed before it - aah!"
"What? What is it?"
"It's bloody-well on me, it's in my nightshirt, get it off me - !"
"If you'd hold still for a moment I could! Don't be such a baby!"
By a supreme effort of will, Snape managed to stop wriggling long enough for Neville to plunge his hand down the neck of his shirt and come out with a struggling Trevor, then collapsed back against the pillows, panting slightly. "Oh God - how can something so slimy be so tickly at the same time? And - ugh, I think it peed on me...."
"Well, he wouldn't have if you hadn't thrashed about so," Neville said indignantly. "You scared him." They stared at each other for a moment, boy, man and toad, and then Snape began to laugh, weakly, and after a moment Neville joined in, and in another moment they were both laughing until their eyes watered, while Trevor blinked at them solemnly.
When he had got his breath back, Snape looked at the boy and sighed. Now or never.
"You don't know what it costs me to say this, Longbottom, but I'm sorry I was such a bastard to you." Neville looked up, startled, and opened his mouth to say something, but Snape ploughed determinedly on. "I - I know I was never exactly pleasant in any case - I never intended to be! - but I didn't think I was - such a monster as to be anyone's Boggart. Not - not a student, anyway." There were things he'd had to do to maintain his cover as a spy... but then he'd been behind a mask, and faceless.
"That's all right, sir."
"No it bloody isn't! Why was I - why was my nagging you so terrible? You must have known I'd never actually hurt you. You must have led a - a very bloody pampered, pure-blood life if me telling you you were a, an accident waiting to happen was the worst thing that'd ever happened to you!"
"But I didn't know you wouldn't hurt me, did I? When I was bad at magic my Uncle Algie used to try to drown me, or drop me off high buildings, to see if he could force more magic out of me. I thought you were going to - to poison me or something for being so useless."
"Good God. And your grandmother allowed this?"
"Oh yes. If we're being frank, sir, my Gran is a - a bullying, evil-tempered old bat. And you were so - you never let up, especially in third year."
"If we're being frank, as you put it, Longbottom, then I - I'll let you in on a secret. I suppose I owe you that. When I was... a couple of years younger than you are, Sirius Black set me up to be - to be eaten by Remus Lupin, when he was in his were form. The only reason I survived was because James Potter got cold feet about it and got me out at the last moment but I actually saw Lupin coming at me, neither man nor beast...."
"I - I did hear that Harry's father saved your life."
"Saved his own skin, more like it - he'd have been expelled for his part in it, Black would have gone to Azkaban and Lupin - Lupin would have been put down like a mad dog, although he insists he didn't know what Black was planning. But that isn't the point. The point is, Lupin is my Boggart, and having him actually there, in the flesh, all bloody year was...."
"Oh! That must have been - nasty. At least I only had to see you close up twice a week, not - not every meal and tea-break."
"I was climbing the walls - and looking for somebody to take it out on, because I always bloody do. And you can't Riddikulus away a thing that's actually there, and there'd be no point imagining him in grandmother's clothing... it would just turn him into the wolf from Red Riding Hood, which would be even worse."
"I'm sorry - sorry about that. I, I wouldn't have dressed the Boggart in my gran's clothes if Professor Lupin hadn't suggested it. I'm not sure what I would have done with it, but not that."
"No, of course not. Lupin used you, to mock me again the way he always bloody did, it was all - always the same, always being held up to ridicule by the bloody Marauders. They poisoned my bloody life, even before Pettigrew - did what he did."
"Would you really have poisoned Trevor?"
"I'm starting to wish I had. But - yes, I would have. But not - not fatally, you understand. There wasn't anything in that potion which should have been lethal. But seeing the thing turn puce and pass out might have taught you children that potions aren't a - a joke, that making careless mistakes is dangerous - and it might have taught you not to bring a pet into bloody class with you, especially one that's always bloody hopping off. I mean, honestly, Longbottom, what were you thinking? You were lucky he didn't end up in somebody's cauldron - or their fire!"
"I found out why Longbottom is so nervous all the time - poor little brute. Apparently his family used to amuse themselves by putting him in life-threatening situations to see if they could squeeze any more magic out of him that way."
"Oh - yes, that would make sense."
"What do you mean?"
"Apparently, exposing a child to severe long-term stress can in some cases result in permanent impairment of memory. I, ah, read about it somewhere...."
"Granger, are you actually trying to make me feel more guilty than I already do, or is it just a happy coincidence?"
"It's all right, Horowitz; I'll make sure your aunt knows you didn't take the sweets deliberately." He looked at the pale, sniffling boy and sighed. Without his steadying hand the Slytherins seemed to have become more disruptive and disrupted than ever this year, and there had been a rash of depression or stress-related incidents. This one had walked out of the shop with an un-paid-for pocketful of Honeydukes' finest; apparently because he had been so spaced on Dreamless Sleep that he had forgotten to pay, rather than because he was intrinsically dishonest.
There was still the question of how he had managed to get hold of full-strength Dreamless Sleep in the first place; but the little brute was far too good at brewing and too ingenious for his own safety. He'd be turning himself furry if he wasn't watched. "There is still the matter of the unauthorized potion. I'm going to assign you detention with Madam Pomfrey; you will assist her with potion-making for the hospital wing every Tuesday evening until the end of term, and she will explain to you exactly why recipes intended for adults are not always either suitable or safe for thirteen-year-olds."
"I thought - well, the conversation we had last month, about Equisetum and all, it was really interesting, you helped me to clarify my own thoughts, and I thought - thought I'd write it down, see, before they got all muddy again."
"Oh, but this is very good, Longbottom, very well argued - and if I say it, you know that I mean it."
"It's very good of you to look over it, sir."
"Oh, not at all - it's an unusual pleasure to read a student essay which is actually intelligent and original, even if a little - hard to decipher in places. Is that jam on that diagram? In fact, if you wanted to present this to the Bulletin of Botanical Magic I'd be happy to help you tidy it up and put in a good word for you. I really think this may be publishable."
Neville wriggled like a pleased puppy. "So you wouldn't mind if I wanted to talk to you about plants again and, and what research I want to do - I mean, even when it isn't, mm, therapeutic?"
"I'd be happy to, within reason." The really astonishing part was that he found that he meant it. "Indeed, I'm - " flattered, he nearly said, but that would be giving away too much authority, "pleasantly surprized that you would ask me, after our former - difficulties."
"There's no one else to ask, not - not an adult who'd be able to give me adult advice. I mean, not just about plants but... life stuff." He looked at Snape quizzically, seeing the lines about his thin mouth tighten. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean you were a last resort, or anything, honestly, I really like talking to you now you've mostly stopped biting my head off, it's just - well, Professor Sprout is always so busy with her Hufflepuffs, and so sort of bustly, I don't like to interrupt her...."
"Whereas I'm a captive audience with plenty of time on my hands - on my hand. Don't bother to apologize; we both know it's true. You can't talk about your ideas to anyone in your own family?"
"Oh, no sir. Everyone in my family - well, they're always - some of them worry about my parents, all the time, trying to find ways to make them well, and some of them pretend that all of us - me, my parents - just don't exist any more, because it hurts them to think about my mum and dad. Either way, they don't - there isn't time for me, really there isn't, I understand that, so I just sit in the corner and keep quiet. It's nice to have a - well, a grown-up or an, um, an older man - that I can actually talk to."
"You see, I told you you needed to exercise," Adrian said dispassionately.
"And would you mind bloody-well telling me how I'm meant to exercise hip muscles which don't have any actual fucking leg to pull against?"
He had ended up on his arse again. It was too much. The prototype prosthesis for his right leg, from the knee down, was coming along fine, he was a little wobbly but it was starting to feel something like a leg and he had thigh-muscles to move it with. But with no thigh-bone to bear on, the cut ends of muscles around his left hip had withered completely and there was no strength in them at all. The instant he tried to put any weight on the prosthetic left leg, down he went.
"Massage would be a start," the surgeon replied, taking his hand and hauling him rather unceremoniously back up and onto the couch. "Or even just - thinking about moving those muscles, you know? Concentrating on feeling them, on trying to move them, that might at least make them twitch a bit, and even moving them that tiny bit would help, if you did it regularly."
"I try not to think about them much - it's too depressing, and it gives me phantom sensation which - well."
"I know," Filius said, running a diagnostic spell across the failed leg and examining the result, "it must be very annoying. But now it would be a good idea to let those phantom sensations surface and integrate them in with the new limbs."
"You donít bloody know. Neither of you. It's not just - not just feeling as if the limbs are still there. If I let myself notice them, I can still feel them being bloody-well sliced off me, joint by fucking joint."
"Thank you. Your, ah, discretion is, as ever, appreciated."
"I didn't actually - uhm, do anything. Except go away."
"That's the point, Granger, isn't it? Do you have any idea how much - harder I mean more difficult you could make this for me, if you wanted to?"
"Well, yes, but I don't want to... I see what you mean. How do the others handle - uh, respond to it?" Hermione was blushing a bit... he made her do that a lot... but discussing it on a more clinical level at least helped get rid of the pleasant mental images of what he'd just been doing....
"So far, the matter hasn't - come up. As it were. It seems to be only your presence which, well... And before you ask - if you were going to - I don't know whether that means that it's only your ah, attractions which overcome the weakness of my otherwise still-incapable body, or whether it's only with you that I feel relaxed enough to allow a generic reflex to manifest itself. Either way - " He coughed, and flushed slightly. "Either way, I haven't yet had to ask Albus or Poppy to make a tactical retreat while I deal with an early-morning hard-on. Thank God."
Hermione shuddered. "That would be... I know it's not possible to actually drop dead of embarrassment, but if I ever had to say something like that to either of them...!" She shook her head, and smiled at him a bit shyly. "It's... sort of nice that I'm the only one," she confessed. "I mean, not that I want you to not be relaxed enough to have the generic reflex, or anything, but...."
"I ought to be more embarrassed, not less, having to admit to my - predicament to somebody I know is, um, at least potentially interested in me, but you're always so reassuringly... practical. Albus, Poppy, Minerva - they've known me since I was eleven, and admitting to such a thing - well. It would make me feel as if I'd been caught in Filch's cupboard with my pants down, or - I suppose after - after Lucius and co. had finished with me last year you wouldn't think I had any sense of bodily dignity left, but I've always had a thing about feeling - exposed, ever since James Potter and his bloody Marauders stripped me and hung me upside-down in front of half the bloody school." His dark secret - one of them, anyway - but there was no point in concealing it, since it was certain that Potter would have lost no time in regaling his sidekicks with the full, humiliating details of what he'd seen in the Pensieve. "And Lovegood and Longbottom are both so... so young. Whereas you seem... older. I mean, I know you are about a year older than them anyway, but even allowing for that."
He frowned at her, his brows drawing together. "Or perhaps you make me feel younger. Either way, the fact that you have... expressed interest in me makes me feel more on a level with you, and less like a dirty old man, than I would if I had to, ah - in front of Lovegood. Even if she would take it in her stride." He sighed and smiled wryly at her. "It's probably the fact that Lovegood feels almost like my daughter and Minerva like my mother which keeps it from happening when they are present, whereas you... and you can derive from that what you will."
"I derive some comfort from knowing you don't think of me as either a mother or a daughter," she said honestly. "And I should hope not as a sister, either. Between Harry and Neville, I'm quite well equipped for honorary brothers just now - and you know that's not how I see you." It was... odd.... now that he knew. He seemed a little wary, sometimes, or puzzled, but he didn't shoo her away or forbid any of the little liberties she'd got into the habit of taking, like brushing his hair or cuddling up to him while they discussed Arithmantic theory.
"I'm not - sure how I see you," he said honestly. "But not as a sister. At least - I've never had a sister, but I really don't think.... And I have thought about the fact that you - that you don't find me entirely repulsive, physically speaking."
"I don't find you repulsive at all," she said, meeting his eyes squarely. "I never have, and I'm certainly not going to start now." She reached out to touch his cheek tentatively, brushing the narrow scar with her fingertips. "I hate that you've been hurt so much, and that the scars go on hurting you, but they don't repel me. They make me want to... to fix it, somehow, to make you happy again so you don't mind them anymore, if I can't make them go away for you."
"You're labouring under a misapprehension, Granger, if you think you can make me happy 'again'," Snape said lightly. "In fact, I've always rather prided myself on never having been happy."
Hermione assumed her best know-it-all expression and bossiest tones. "Well, then, I'm just going to have to do something about that. I'm sure I can organize some happiness; I'll write up a list, draw a nice coloured chart, maybe get a few reference books...."
He snorted at her. "Little Miss Management - or do I mean 'Mismanagement'? You will find that happiness is even harder to organize and to pin down with, with books and pie-charts than sexual attraction is. And Merlin knows, that's elusive and unpredictable enough. I don't suppose for one moment that you would have chosen to be attracted to a, a sour, ill-favoured cripple twice your age if you'd been in the driving seat of your own emotions, any more than I - " He stopped, and became suddenly very interested in his own fingernails.
Hermione blinked. That had sounded... promising. "Well, that would depend on who he was," she said slowly. "If he were a complete stranger, then no, probably not. But I liked you before... all this... and while I probably wouldn't have chosen to feel the way I do about you if I'd had a choice, that's only because I'd never for one minute think that you'd feel the same way about me, and unrequited yearning is painful. It's certainly not out of character for me, caring about you; I don't think I've ever dated anyone who didn't sulk and growl and make nasty comments. If you weren't a bit sour and cranky I wouldn't know what on earth to do with you."
"I do not sulk" Snape replied, bridling slightly, "and I resent being compared to your other...." He stopped again, feeling that he was edging out over some sort of abyss, without even knowing how he had got there. "The implication is that you would - that I would seem like a, a rational choice to you, if only I were inclined to reciprocate."
"Well, of course." She gave him a shy smile. "You're brilliant and brave and intellectual and you're stubborn, so I wouldn't have to worry about pushing you about, and you have a horrible temper so I wouldn't have to feel bad that I do as well, and you're... uhm...." He was staring at her, and she blushed deeply, looking down at her hands. "You're really, uh, very much my type."
Snape looked away from her. "I ought to feel insulted," he muttered, "since that brackets me with Ronald Weasley, the Red Moron. But I have thought about what it would be like if I were able to - to respond in kind." Out of the corner of his eye he saw the blasted girl stiffen and look up at him, suddenly as alert as a terrier at a rabbit-hole. As she opened her mouth to speak he looked back at her and made a dry face.
"I can't even claim to be experienced enough to have a type, except - except 'nothing like Bellatrix'." His eyes darkened as he flinched abruptly from the jagged upsurge of memory, then shoved it firmly down into the depths again. "My type as you call it would certainly include 'not a student' and 'significantly less than twenty years younger than myself', and trust me when I say that 'significantly less' does not mean 'four months less'... but now that you are not, strictly speaking, a student, or at least not my student, the age-gap doesn't seem as insurmountable as it perhaps should."
"You'd never be in the same bracket as Ron. You're completely different," Hermione said positively. "It'd be like comparing a... a picture book and a grimoire. They both have words and pictures, and I like reading, but that doesn't mean I like them equally." She drew a deep breath. "Is my age really all that important?"
"It is and it isn't. You're half my age, and I won't pretend that doesn't bother me, but you're not a child. You're officially eighteen, more than of age both as Muggle and witch - and given the time you spent using a Time-Turner, in terms of your actual maturity you must be closer to nineteen than eighteen."
"I've been risking my life on a semi-annual basis since I was twelve years old," Hermione replied thoughtfully. "I haven't felt like a child since I was about fourteen. Going down into a dark hole to face a convicted mass-murderer because I knew Harry would go anyway and someone had to protect him because he's a heroic idiot... I was nearly pissing myself with terror, but I went anyway. And once you start being a grownup about things, you can't really go back."
"You've faced things no-one so young should have to face, but still you are very young, and you are still a little - naive in some ways. And that concerns me: I don't want to feel that I might be - taking advantage, nor do I relish the idea of waking up one morning to find myself grown out of. On the other hand, as a companion your intellect more than makes up for any - deficit in experience. And please believe me, that's rare - and very refreshing."
"That's one of the things I like about you, too. I can talk to you without having to stop every couple of sentences to explain things." She pulled her knees up under her chin, giving his concerns the serious thought they merited. "And I can't imagine you ever being grown out of. If anything, I think you're someone I'd need to grow into... you can converse on my level, but I can't manage yours, yet. And as for taking advantage... given our current positions, I'd be more worried that I was taking advantage of YOU.... I mean, I've been nursing you for months, you might feel... I don't know, obligated, or something."
"That's not - totally stupid. Not because.... After everything that - if anybody approached me sexually, now, I don't know whether I'd shy away like a scared cat or submit like a bloody machine with no right to refuse. I can't make up my mind which would be more embarrassing - the robotic whore, or hiding under the bed and hissing. I am sure that if it comes to it I'd rather be imposed on than impose on someone else, but it disturbs me to think of someone as fresh and, and clean as you are going with somebody as shop-soiled as I feel myself to be."
She reached out to take his remaining hand, sliding hers under it instead of over, so he could lift it away if he chose. "I would.... not be happy, precisely, because I've been daydreaming about being with you for a long time... but content, without that," she said slowly, choosing her words carefully. This was terribly important, and she would rather bite off her own tongue than hurt him - especially over this. "If you didn't want to, if you kept on feeling that way about it.... I'd be thrilled if we did, of course, no matter how slowly and carefully we had to take things, but I can certainly live without it. If I could just... be with you, every day, love you and be loved by you...." Her face felt all hot, but she carried on. "Then that would be enough. I'd rather that than ever risk hurting you."
"That's - very kind. I mean I'm - touched, truly. But I... I don't know if I could live like that. You know I do still have - desires. That was where we came in, wasn't it? With my bloody reaction to waking up next to you? I don't know if I could stand wanting and not having - but I'd be afraid of having and then feeling so - dirty. Remembering that they made me into this - crawling, tainted thing. This - obedient puppet. Half a bloody puppet...." He scowled down at their joined hands for a moment and then glanced up at her out of the corner of his eye, curiosity and hope warring with shame and embarrassment. "Did you really mean that, Granger, that you would be... thrilled...?"
"I...." Hermione thought for a moment. "All right, in order... I'm glad, I admit, that you don't want to do it that way. I just... I wanted you to know, and believe, that I would never expect you to... well. Anything, really. I don't ever want you to do anything you don't want to, just because you think I do. And as for you being tainted...." She reached out to touch his cheek tentatively with her free hand, just the merest brush of fingers. "I don't see you that way. You're.... It's hard to put into words. You're like... a sword, of the very finest steel. Broken, but still bright and shining and... and incorruptible. You can be damaged, but never tainted." She looked down at their hands, feeling very silly, as she always did when she tried to be poetic. "And as for the third part... yes, I would. Be thrilled, I mean. Very nervous about accidentally hurting you, and nervous in general because I never actually have, but quite ecstatically happy anyway."
"I wish I could see myself the way you see me - I wish I could be the way you see me. But I am surely tainted by the things I have done, even if - even if not by the things which have been done to me. I wish I felt that I was - worthy, of what you're asking: but surely you could do so much better. Especially if you are... if it would be your first time."
"I couldn't possibly do any better," Hermione said firmly. "You are brave, brilliantly intelligent, noble to a fault, a gifted wizard, and you don't make bewildered-puppy faces when I talk about anything interesting. I love the boys, I do, but try to discuss anything more difficult than Quidditch with them and their eyes glaze over. Besides, I don't want anyone else, I want you." She reached out to caress his cheek again, smoothing his untidy hair back before drawing her hand away, and he shifted slightly to follow her touch. Then something he'd said rang a little bell, and she brightened, unconsciously making the "aha, I know the answer" face he'd seen hundreds of times in class. "And you know, seeing yourself the way I see you is actually a really good idea... I mean, if you used Legilimency you could, couldn't you?"
"Truthfully? You would permit the, the 'great bat' to invade your mind, to see your innermost thoughts, and not push him away? Do you really trust me that much, you foolish girl - knowing what you know about me, and what you don't know about me? I never had you down as the reckless type."
"You're not a bat, and I've never called you that. And it wouldn't be an invasion, not if I suggested it, which I did, so there you are." She was getting flustered again, and she paused and took a deep breath. "Look, the only reason we're even having this conversation is because I'm utterly incapable of pushing you away even when I probably should, for your sake if not for mine. So I wouldn't now. And...." She gulped, going pink yet again. "And, well, love requires trust, and if I want it I should certainly offer it. So... yes. I'll permit it... actually, I'll request it. I don't know if I can explain it properly, and just showing you is better."
"Love?" he said oddly, and sank back against the cushions, staring at her under his brows. Without noticing he was doing it, he lifted his hand away from hers and bit reflexively at the knuckles, then after a moment he nodded tightly and then reached out and brushed her hair away from her forehead in his turn. "Very well." Still not taking his eyes off her, he fumbled rather awkwardly for the wand which lay on the bedside table and turned the tip towards her, his grip on the pale brown hawthorn (a hard wood, and very thorny) light and almost diffident. "Legilimens."
When he had seen the world through Harry's eyes like this, two years ago, he had shied away from looking at any image of himself - already withering in the force of the boy's bitter scorn [a scorn which, since his breaking, had been replaced by guilt and pity, and he wasn't sure which Potter incarnation made him more uncomfortable - either way, the boy made him feel as though he had something sticky on the back of his neck]. Now he wanted to shy away for a quite different reason. It had never occurred to him that his casual sarcasm towards the bossy Gryffindor brat would distress her any more than the same remarks in the mouths of her classmates, but he saw himself in her eyes now as a goal to be striven for, a rôle-model whose approval she craved and whose sneering dismissal cut her to the bone. Severus Snape, Uber-Geek - he had expected to be despised, as most of the students, he felt sure, despised him, but Granger, it seemed, aspired to be him. Good God - what did she think he was?
Brilliant, his image in her mind whispered back: confident enough to display his intellect openly and not apologize for it; self-contained enough not to care who approved or disapproved of him; graceful and skilled; courageous, cunning, commanding. At the thought "cunning" he caught the tail-end flash of another memory - a beetle in a bottle - and started to grin, bitterly amused, remembering his graceful, self-contained, courageous self shaking and vomiting with terror before every summons and surely, if half of what he thought he had just picked up concerning a certain tabloid reporter was true, Granger was herself rather more the manipulative, cool-headed Slytherin - rather more the thing she thought she saw in him and sought to be - than he was himself. Perhaps, during this strange interlude where he was still part of the school and yet no longer her teacher, they could swap ends and he would appoint her as his rôle model. God knew he could do with one - especially now that he no longer knew who or what he was going to be.
He bit back the grin with an effort - he really, really didn't want the poor girl to think he was laughing at her. Poor, brave girl - he mentally slapped himself on the wrist for thinking it, but she was being brave, letting him see her most embarrassing thoughts - daydreaming about him, good grief, though he was pleased to see that her fantasy version of himself was realistically abrupt and matter-of-fact. At least she wasn't expecting him to break out in mushy spots. And the attention that she had paid to him - he'd never realized, never noticed how she worried about him, watched over him, noticing the dark circles under his eyes, fretting about his tempers as being some sort of symptom instead of hating him for them, praying and praying every time he disappeared in the night that this time, this time wasn't going to be the one that he never came back from....
The daydreams turned serious very suddenly and he shut his eyes and flinched away from her, almost losing the contact as his stomach tried to climb out of his throat in revulsion, seeing/feeling her sprint through the infirmary door with Potter at her side in a gabbling panic (Potter, panicking? about him?) and that was himself, himself, himself laid out on the bed like something long dead, horribly dead - not even a whole corpse but half of one, almost limbless, maggots spilling from a belly split like rotten fruit and stinking, skin barely covering the sharp bones, bruised black and eaten into by corrosion, blood on his thigh that he was shamefully, miserably aware of the reason for, smearing the sheets he lay on, blank, dilated eye unseeing in a face like a bearded skull, the mouth horribly slit back almost to the ears in a clown's nightmare grin, gaping open in silent, frozen agony....
...but when he wrenched himself back to face her again, forced himself to look straight at the wreckage of himself through the girl's eyes, instead of the disgust he expected - which he felt for himself - he saw/felt one great tearing jolt of horror and heart-wringing, desperate concern, as if something precious, beautiful, priceless was shattering into a thousand pieces in front of her and then she was - competent. Competent in a special way - Potter's voice babbling "There must be something - something we can do" and her voice saying steadily "There is" and she felt, he knew it, exactly the way one felt when the cauldron was one and one third of a second away from exploding but you knew precisely which ingredient, out of the fourteen ingredients which you could reach within one second from where you were standing, would turn the contents into a simmering brew instead of a twenty-foot-deep crater. Exactly the way one felt when the Dark Lord was sniffing for answers and terror was towering overhead like a wall waiting to fall on you and crush you but you knew exactly the lie to tell, the sweet-spiteful words to say, to turn Him onto a new and less productive trail.
And if she felt like that, if she knew what it was to feel like that, maybe they could understand each other very well.
And she had never, not for one moment, felt disgusted by him. She could hardly look at the gut-wound and the maggots, even out of the corner of her eye, but she looked straight at his crippled body and his ruined face, ten times uglier even than nature had made him, had seen the blood leaking out of him and understood it and yet thought nothing except that somebody she liked (!) and admired (!!) was injured and needed to be put right. Sorrow and anxiety and relief - relief that he had come back alive, in whatever condition. Vast, overwhelming relief that his ordeal was over and he was back safe among people who loved (!!!) him.
And later - combing the mats out of his hair and washing it for him, even in his mindless unresponsive state, and feeling the first stirrings of a vast and physical tenderness, wanting to touch him, afraid to do so in case it hurt him in one sense or another - holding him close while he shook and raved his way through some idiotic panic or other and not feeling scorn or even pity at his self-evident weakness but feeling split open to her soul by the emotional closeness of it... realizing that she enjoyed the closeness and wanted more of it, and being ashamed in case that meant she enjoyed his suffering, his vulnerability.
Realizing rather suddenly, a sudden hot epiphany, that she wanted to be closer to him in a very physical sense which made him blush to the roots of his hair, and then being ashamed of that - ashamed to want him in that way when she was so sure he would never want her, so that she saw her wanting as an offence, another imposition on someone who had already suffered so many impositions in that line - suffered what made him flinch and shudder even to half think about, even filtered through the lens of her shining gentle concern which somehow saw him as something fine that was torn and wanted mending, that was worth mending, rather than as something irreparably dirty.
Ashamed to tell him how she felt because she really thought that he would think she wasn't worthy of him - his brain was running out of exclamations - because she thought that he would laugh at her, even now, even now that he was this, for daring to think that he might just possibly enjoy her company or find her physically appealing.
Well, you would have laughed, part of him said treacherously. Well - yes, but only because I would never have believed that she was serious but she patently was, although what impressed him the most, he thought, was not her obvious care for him - amazing though that was in so many ways, still she was a person who cared, after all, and he still couldn't make his mind up whether she was in love with him personally or simply in love with being in love, for which almost anybody vaguely suitable would do - no, what amazed and impressed him the most, what made him want to say "A hundred points to Gryffindor" and really mean it, was that when she saw the extent of his injuries she had not gone on blindly trying to fix them with her own limited medical skills but had freely admitted her limitations and called in her half-sister's young man - as pleasant and competent a young man, he had to admit, as one could hope to meet anywhere; a young man in whom assurance had never soured into arrogance and whose effortless self-confidence - if he were to be as honest with himself as Granger was being with him - left him green with envy.
As the mental contact slipped out of his grasp, he blinked rather dazedly at his companion and asked the first thing which came into his head.
"Really a cat-comb?"
"Yes, really a cat-comb," Hermione said, smiling a little at the startled note in his voice. "I've had a lot of practice, you see, with Crookshanks.... I had the tools, and I know how to get mats out without hurting too much because if I do he bites me." Having him search her mind had felt... bizarre, and unnerving, but not entirely unpleasant. He had been so close, and she treasured the moment of intimacy even if it was an odd one, for there might never be another. She'd seen the images he'd called up, although she'd only got vague hints about his reaction to them. But he hadn't laughed, or flinched (except at the medical bits, which was understandable), so it wasn't as bad as it could have been, even if he hadn't exactly been encouraging.
And having him know made saying it easier. "I do love you, you see," she said quietly. "I wouldn't necessarily have chosen to - certainly not right now - because you certainly didn't think of ME that way, and you can be a real pain when you're in a mood, which you usually are, and right now really is a dreadful time for it, but... I just do. I've tried to make it go away, and I can't, and I've tried to reason myself out of it, and I can't, and... well. I don't expect you to reciprocate, I never did, and I wasn't ever going to tell you. But... if it came as that big a shock, then maybe it's a good thing I did. It's... reassuring... to know that someone cares about you that way, and that much, even if you don't feel the same way about them, because at least then you know it's possible for someone to love you and want to be with you.... Well, that's how it was for me, anyway, I know it might be different for you. But I'm still glad you know that it's possible."
And she should shut up now, because her eyes were stinging and starting to cry all over him wasn't going to help anything. She wanted so badly for him to care, to have even a hope that he'd love her as much as she loved him, someday, but Hermione was a realist at heart. He probably wouldn't... maybe even couldn't, at this point... and then she would just have to live with it. People didn't die of broken hearts, after all, although they might wish they could at the time. She would cope, and she certainly wouldn't cry on him or do anything else to make him feel even worse.
Snape frowned, and wished - among all the other things that he wished he still had - that he still had his proper, House Master's robes, with the extra handkerchiefs and the peppermints for comforting distraught students. "I suppose I should be grateful that it was you and not Hagrid wielding the cat-comb. But that's the problem. I mean...." His lips twitched upwards self-mockingly: Granger wasn't the only one who could get slightly tongue-tied about emotional matters. "Pot calling the kettle black" he said lightly. "I thought we'd already established - with a practical demonstration - that I find you... physically appealing, but you seem determined to doubt it. And although you seem determined to think yourself unworthy of me, I see so much of myself in you in some ways that being attracted to you feels a little - narcissistic."
He sighed and shut his eyes: it was easier to think that way. "What can I say to you? I'm not in love with you, I don't know if I could come to feel as you feel - I was in love once, when I was younger than you are now, and I thought that I would never feel that way again, but I wouldn't rule it out so - resignedly. That's just self-defeating. I've certainly... I think highly of your intellect; your company is, for the most part, bracingly unsentimental which, believe me, is a relief at present; and far from being bad timing, if there was ever a time when I needed reassurance and a little - flattery, this is surely it. I feel perfectly safe with you; it's demonstrably true that I'm attracted to you physically; you don't make me feel any more ashamed than I already am about that or about any of my other - weaknesses. On the contrary, you make me feel like a real person with a future which might be almost bearable, and not just a, a crying, mindless thing lying on the floor waiting to be hurt. It seems to me now that I could, quite happily, lie down with you every night and wake up in your arms every morning, whether or not we actually...."
He glanced at her and then looked away, making a rueful face. "I'm immensely grateful to you - and that's the problem. I've never really felt grateful in my life before - I've never really had anything to be grateful for. Even my - my best friend when I was a child wanted me more for what I could teach her about magic than for myself, I think, and Albus only saved me from Azkaban for the use he could make of me. But now I have so many people to be grateful to, so much to be grateful for, and I can't tell whether what I feel for you is a true attraction with any sort of staying power, or just gratitude and - and wanting to reassert some measure of control over my own sexuality. This is not even to mention the fact that Longbottom seems to have decided, more or less unilaterally, that I am going to be his father-substitute, which means that if you and I were to.... It would make you, in some sense, his stepmother - an idea which I find frankly disturbing."
Hermione laughed suddenly at that last, then smiled and shook her head at his startled look. "Believe me, that would be the least of my worries.... I love Neville dearly, and he's desperately in need of mothering. I do it a bit already... between the two of us, we did get him through Potions alive, didn't we? I could quite happily go on with it. As for the rest...." She reached for his hand again, holding it gently. "I didn't expect you to suddenly fall into my arms and declare that, good heavens, now that you've given it a moment's thought, I AM your one true love after all. If you had, I'd have to have your head examined... or, at the least, I'd know that it WAS mostly gratitude, and that it probably wouldn't last. As for the charge of being self-defeating... haven't you ever wanted anything so very badly that you didn't dare to even hope for it, in case it didn't happen?"
She took a deep breath. "I just.... Whether it works out for us or not, I will be here for you, whenever you need me. Or whenever you just want to discuss Arithmantic probability-calculations." Moving slowly and carefully, so as not to startle him, she leaned down to give his cheek a brief, gentle kiss. "Although I can't promise to be bracingly unsentimental ALL the time, I shall do my very best," she continued, straightening up reluctantly. "And should you find yourself wishing to fall into my arms at some later date, when you're sure about how you're feeling...."
He caught her hand awkwardly and thought about kissing it: settled instead for giving her fingers a gentle squeeze. "I'm more likely to edge tentatively towards your embrace than fall into it, especially in my current condition. But it's certainly a - a possibility. When I feel a little more settled. You've given me a great deal to think about."
And he would, wouldn't he? On heart-cold nights when he felt the cell walls still around him, when he knew that he was still and would always and forever be that whimpering, violated thing, waiting to be whittled down to nothing and crying for a respite which never came (except that it did, didn't it? in the end), he would be able to warm himself with the knowledge that somebody thought that he - he! - was something admirable and shining. And maybe he could somehow edge towards being what she thought he was, instead of what he knew himself to be....
She smiled at him, reaching down to smooth back his hair. "Thinking is good. I've always enjoyed it." Then, because the conversation was sliding towards a natural close, and he probably did need to think about it, she pulled away reluctantly and stood up. "And I think we both need a nice hot cup of tea," she said, in her best impersonation of Molly Weasley. "Which is, as you know, a cure for all emotional ills, especially when accompanied by a biscuit. The strongest variant, of course, requires the biscuit to be covered in chocolate... want one?"
There was a time, on the other side of nightmare, when he would have sneered at her simplistic solutions and forced jollity. But that other self was a thousand years ago, and right now a hot sweet drink and Granger doing her bouncy Edwardian nanny impression were part of the framework of blessed domesticity and safety which he could cling to to keep himself from drowning. "Thank you," he said gravely. "A cup of tea is, as you say, a universal panacea - but I would prefer Rich Tea biscuits to chocolate, if possible. They don't melt and make the tea taste funny if you dunk them."
Christian tribes living in southern Sudan tend to be very, very black, which is why Adrian is. They have suffered considerable persecution over the years, both from their own (Moslem) government and from independent Arab militias, although the situation isn't entirely one of armed soldiers terrorizing innocent civilians, since the southern Sudanese have (understandably) responded by fielding their own armed rebels.
Many historians believe that the Celts are descended from tribes in Scythia (an area north of Turkey). Something over three thousand years ago these proto-Celts split and headed in two directions, with the majority spreading throughout western Europe, and the remainder winding up in the Taklamakan area of China, where three-thousand-year-old Celtic-looking mummies have been found, complete with tartan clothes and Scythian-style tattoos and headresses.
"The Red Moron" - reference to the famous World War One German fighter-pilot Captain Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron.
Hermione probably only gained a few weeks'-worth of extra age by using the Time-Turner, but as she is officially less than three weeks short of eighteen-and-an-half at this point, the extra few weeks could be enough to tip her down the slide towards being unofficially nearly nineteen. In fact, those two or three weeks are probably balanced by the time she spent petrified, but she's forgotten about that.
N.B. Dyce and I have had some queries recently about why we have portrayed Snape in the way that we have, so I have posted an essay called Reserved!Snape - Canon or Fanon? to explain our reasoning.
This chapter has been re-edited in accordance with the new backstory in Deathly Hallows, in order to include the fact that he did have that early friendship with Lily and had been in love once; to make him a year younger than the evidence in OotP had suggested; and to move the date of the werewolf "prank" back to early-to-mid fifth year. I've also changed the reference to being caught with his trousers down to being caught with his pants down, after a discussion on the Yahoo group Loose Canon concluded that wizards in general, and Snape in particular, probably don't wear trousers.
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