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
Harry was perfectly capable of moving Hermione out of his way. He was a lot bigger than she was, these days, and he could probably lift her with one arm if he really tried. But he wouldn't, and she knew he wouldn't, which was why bailing him up against a window had worked so well.
"Harry Potter, I am ashamed of you."
He squirmed, unable to meet her eyes. "I didn't... well, I did mean to, but I didn't know...."
"You knew it was someone else's memory you were poking your nose into."
"Yes, but...." Harry shuffled his feet. "I thought it was - you know - war stuff. Not... not personal."
"But it was. And you didn't even apologize, did you?"
"No." Harry hunched his shoulders, looking as if he was trying to pull his head into them like a tortoise. "Did he tell - "
"He didn't have to tell me you didn't apologize. I know you." She poked him in the chest.
"Why should I have to apologize, anyway? They were all lying to me, keeping secrets from me - Snape knew what Voldemort was after, why I kept having that dream, but he didn't warn me -" Harry, backed into a corner, had turned from penitent to defensive in the sudden way he often did.
"How can you say that? You know he was taking a risk teaching you at all. If V-Voldemort had looked through you and seen him telling you about the prophecy he'd have - he'd have done what he did do, only sooner." Hermione did not simulate distress or weep crocodile tears. She thought that sort of behaviour was disgusting and immoral. Allowing herself to cry when she really wanted to, instead of squashing the urge as she would normally try to, wasn't at all the same thing. "After everything he's been through... not just after he was captured but before, all the suspicion and resentment..." Her eyes stung and her vision blurred.
The defiance drained out of Harry like water out of a sieve. He hated to see her cry. "Hermione, don't, please..."
"Don't what?" She sniffed. "Don't expect better from you than to behave like a... a spoiled little brat who hurts other people and doesn't care at all?"
"I - I didn't mean to hurt him. If I'd realized...."
"What did you think he'd feel like? He's a real person, Harry, not some sort of, of thing." She could feel the tears threatening to start up again.
"It's not that I don't care, honestly...." He patted awkwardly at her shoulder. "I just... I should have apologized, I know that. It was just a bit of a shock, seeing something like that. Did he, uhm, tell you what it was that I saw?"
"No." Hermione wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "And he was really surprised that you hadn't. He thought we'd all have been having a good laugh at his expense, and he was really surprised that you hadn't thought it was funny and you hadn't told anyone."
"Of course I didn't tell anyone!" Harry sounded miserable. "I didn't want... it was bad enough I knew my dad was... was a bully and worse. I didn't want anyone else to know. Everyone always says I'm so like him, and I didn't...."
Hermione nodded, pushing back the remaining tears. Harry was always being compared to his father, and finding out that said father was some sort of awful thug must have come as a fairly nasty shock. "I do understand that, Harry. But you could have apologized. Or written a note or something."
"Yeah." Harry imitated a tortoise again. "I just... you know. He hates me."
"And you hate him."
"I did then, yeah." Harry sighed. "Not now. Not after... you know."
"I do know." Hermione relented enough to pat his arm gently. "Better late than never, though."
Harry looked at her as if she'd suggested he swallow a live frog. "Do I have to?"
"No. You can go on being a selfish git if you like."
He sighed. "That's not... well, all right, it is fair, but it isn't nice. Anything else you want to say while you're scolding me?"
This delicate, tentative attempt at an even vaguely sexual relationship was wonderful to him, fragile and perfect in the light of day - but at night, at night sometimes when the dreams stacked up like storm-clouds waiting to rain on his personal parade, then the remembered touch of Hermione's lips on his only served to remind him that he was dirty and useless, a house broken open and ruined, free for any thief to soil and ravage as they pleased.
The events of the previous summer lay like a great raw, red wound across his memory. Before and even at the time it had been largely undifferentiated, a single confused mass of savage pain, of hunger and exhaustion and sickening dread, but as his mind knitted itself back together and the world came more into focus so individual spikes of memory, a series of vivid little set-piece horrors, began to rise to the surface at unexpected moments, even when he was fully awake and by daylight - and suddenly seeing Draco like that last night, jarring loose the memory of himself twitching and jerking in agony in front of the boy's horrified face, had accelerated the process, like a chain dragging up rot and seaweed from the ocean floor, and there was - he could feel it - a little shudder of panic running through his heartbeat all the time, now, even when he was nominally calm. All of which explained what he was doing here rocking and whimpering, his fine linen shirt drenched with sweat, trying to stifle his own moans with a fist pressed hard against his teeth as the excruciating echo of that agony crawled along his nerves and Bellatrix's inane giggles rang in his ears.
He could hardly hear anything beyond the memory of her voice; panic had set his blood-pressure climbing so high that his ears were ringing with it, and he could hardly hear Longbottom's steady and steadying voice but he remembered - he remembered that Longbottom had as much reason to dread the sound of Bellatrix's viciously corrupted, jeering baby-talk as he had, and in a sudden surge of fellow-feeling he made a grab for the boy and held him close, closing his eyes and letting Neville rock him and pat him awkwardly on the back.
He swallowed and swallowed again, sweat prickling on his skin as he fought not to vomit on the boy's shoulder. But he could feel Longbottom's steady hand scooping the hair back from his face and from the back of his neck, letting the cool air get at his skin, and after a few minutes the kindness in the touch, as much as the coolness, smoothed away the worst of the panic and he was able to draw away and sit with his head bowed, shuddering. Neville got up, placid and unruffled, fetched a damp flannel from the bathroom and came back to sit beside the older man on the couch, wiping the cool cloth across his forehead and the back of his neck. Snape took it from him with a small nod and pressed it to his face, breathing deeply. "Thank you," he said gruffly, after a moment - although actually saying it still went against the grain.
"That's all right, sir."
"No it's bloody not all right." He turned his face away, letting the long hair flop back down to hide his features. "You wanted a - a father substitute, though God knows why you should think I'd fit the bill - and instead - " He made a sudden, violent gesture, raking at his own skin, at his empty shoulder, and almost overbalanced, so that Neville had to catch hold of him again to keep him from ending up on the floor.
"Hush now. Hush."
Snape shook his head jerkily. "I need - I can't - ah, God! I can't - can't get away from myself, dirty - can't get clean, you shouldn't - I did - did as I was fucking told. No one should want to be near me."
"So I always knew I was no-one." He folded down to sit on the floor at - what would have been his friend's feet, if he hadn't been maimed of them, and took the other man's thin hand in both of his. "Look at me now, sir, please. Professor?" After a moment Snape did so, his eyes bleak with shame, and Neville gave him an equally bleak little smile. "It's not as if I'm not - I'm used to the idea of a f-father as somebody - damaged. At least you can talk. And listen."
"There is that. Ten thousand useful facts about the uses of Old Man's Beard...." He swallowed convulsively.
"Would you like me to...? I know this really good tea, see, made with Rosebay Willowherb, and it would just - just calm you a bit, like, when you're feeling - excitable."
"You mean when I'm bloody p-panicking like some - hysterical bloody little yappy lapdog. When I can't - live in my own skin, because it feels so - "
"I find with those little dogs, when they have hysterics it's usually because they're trying to chew your ankles off."
Snape gave a little snort at that. "Many people would say that that was appropriate."
"They would, wouldn't they?" Neville said cheerfully. He gave the scarred hand a careful little pat. "You're not dirty, really you're not. That's just - just them messing with your head, like."
"I wish my head was all they'd bloody messed with. They used to - everybody used to call me - greasy, because my skin - now it feels as if they're right. As if I had - layer of dirt, contamination, all the time."
"Shush. Nobody else thinks like that, they all... it's like my parents. You know."
"A martyr to the bloody cause? I wish I could feel more - heroic, but I told - told - "
"My parents tried to talk," Neville said in a remote voice. "They didn't know the answers to what that Lestrange - woman - wanted to find out, so it was no good, but if they'd known, they would have told her. While they could still remember how. And that was only after a few hours, and they were - were Aurors."
"Are Aurors so much greater than lesser mortals, that you think they should have been able to - to hold out longer than I bloody did?"
"No but - I mean, that was their job. They were paid to be in danger. You were just - doing it because you thought it was the right thing to do."
"Somebody had to do it, and I seemed to be the only bloody candidate. And I had - a guilt to expiate."
"You didn't run away, though."
"Can't bloody run away now, can I? Can't even bloody walk away very slowly with an affectation of bloody nonchalance. That's - "
"I know what it means. I'm not thick, you know: I just look it."
"Sorry, I'm sorry, I shouldn't - burden you with this. Any of you."
"It's not a burden, it's - nice to be able to help, see."
"Yes, I do - see," and he thought that he did. The boy had grown up wanting to help his real parents and not being able to, but now he had something on which to act out his fantasies of rescue. "I'm sorry that you had to get stuck with - that you couldn't help your parents."
"I wish I could help them, but you're not - look, helping you, it's like poking Bellatrix in the eye, isn't it, and that's - nice, but you're not a, a substitute for anything. You're dead interesting when you're not snarling at people, and helping you - it's work, isn't it, I mean satisfying work, like coaxing a plant to grow, and people don't think a, a rare plant's got less rare or less valuable just because it's lost bits. They just... look after it more. When you were first... when you were so ill, it was dead cool, seeing you starting to remember stuff and getting your strength back and being able to sit up and all, and thinking that I helped."
"If I'm a plant I've been bloody comprehensively - pruned." He pulled a face. "I don't know whether the comparison is flattering or not, since I don't know what plant you had in mind. I refuse to be considered a vegetable of any kind, but I could certainly see myself as a Venomous Tentacula.... And I'm glad you - that you derive some job-satisfaction from this - debacle."
"I'm not sure what one of those is, but - yeah. I'm sure Hermione feels the same - you know how she does love to fuss over people - and I know for a fact that Luna says helping to put you right is like restoring a piece of art."
"Something by Francis Bacon, perhaps."
"Potter," Draco said stiffly. "Could I have a word?"
"Yeah - 'push off'," Ron muttered under his breath. "That's a word."
"That's two words, Weasley - or can't you count to two?"
"Stop it, both if you!" Hermione snapped, as Ron started to surge to his feet. "Yes, what is it Draco?"
Draco looked down at his shoes, scuffing restlessly at the stone flags of the courtyard. "I just wanted to say - " he muttered. "He - my godfather - he said - said it was you that thought of using Muggle techniques to keep him alive. You and Granger. Said he'd have died, otherwise. So I just wanted to - well - thanks. That's all."
"That's OK," Harry said awkwardly. "I don't - I mean, I know we've never - but seeing him like that - "
"Is Snape really your godfather?"
"'Professor Snape' to you, Potter - and yes, he is. What of it?"
"Nothing. It just - explains a lot, I guess." After a moment he shuffled his behind aside and patted the stone step next to him, for Draco to sit down. The blond boy did so, rather stiffly.
"So, ah - Hermione told me you'd decided to...."
"To give up being a trainee Death Eater and become a trainee virgin sacrifice instead?"
"Well, yeah - something like that."
"I heard," Hermione said brightly, "that you're going to be taking over most of Madam Pomfrey's shifts to sit with Se - with Professor Snape?"
"That's the idea, yes: it's a problem for her being away from the hospital wing so much, now that Quidditch practice has picked up for the big summer match, and especially with Flitwick being away. But I'm afraid that - well, seeing me unexpectedly, I mean if he wakes up suddenly, it could disturb him, so I'm going to have to make sure I look as unlike my father as possible - not that that's any bloody loss. I'll have to keep my hair short, and wear - not school robes, because they were at school together. What do Muggles wear? Whatever it is, at least I can be sure my father would never wear that."
"At our age?" Harry said. "Well - T-shirt and jeans, mostly."
"Well - jeans are like - sort-of workmen's trousers, quite tight and made out of this dull blue stuff. With pockets, and zips and things. T-shirts are like an ordinary shirt with short sleeves, except they don't have a collar or openings or things - they're stretchy, and you just pull them over your head. And they have, um, slogans on them, usually. Or funny sayings."
"Sounds ghastly - what am I supposed to do with my hair while I'm dragging this stretchy atrocity on over it?"
"Doesn't matter if you're going to cut it really short, does it? And if you're going to, um, stay the night with him the way Hermione and Neville do, you'll need to sleep in something your father wouldn't, too." He grinned. "Maybe something in baby blue, with bunnies on the pockets."
"Wouldn't work," Draco muttered, scowling. "My father does wear - shut up, Weasel. It's not that bloody funny."
By now, Severus rarely needed to be actively held during the day, except when the flashbacks overwhelmed his senses and threatened his still-fragile sanity: but he still preferred to be touching someone - sitting shoulder to shoulder, or holding hands. It was not so much, now, that he needed the contact to remind him of where he was, but that the knowledge that someone was willing to be near him held back the aching sorrow which he despised in himself, scorning it as mere self-pity although somehow that didn't make it any easier to abolish it.
At least now he no longer had to fret about Draco's safety, only about his exam prospects; and the boy's furious declarations of vengeance against anyone connected with his torture were as touching and amusing as they were worrying - though it was probably just as well that he didn't yet know about the involvement of Cormac McLaggen and his as-yet unidentified associates. It was nearly a week since the giant squid had confirmed that McLaggen's partners in crime were probably still at Hogwarts; two weeks since Snape had viewed his own torture in the Pensieve. If they had had a clear record of both girls speaking they could - at the cost of some resentment and disruption - have locked the school and then interrogated every girl and every squeaky-voiced schoolboy on the premises, to see if their voices matched those of his tormentors. But since they had nothing but a laugh to go on for one of them, Albus hoped to be able to identify the one who had spoken without alerting her, so that she could be watched to see who her associates were.
Minerva had come whey-faced and shaken from viewing the Pensieved memory, to admit that the voice sounded familiar but not familiar enough to place. Pomona, subdued but certain, insisted that it was none of her Hufflepuffs. Severus himself was fairly sure it wasn't a Slytherin, although his memory was still so riddled (or perhaps Riddled) with holes that he couldn't be as certain as Pomona. On principle, however, he objected to the assumption that Slytherin was the most likely place to look for a Death Eater, even though he knew there was at least some truth in it.
That left Ravenclaw as the main candidate, but Filius Flitwick was away, schmoozing a distant goblin cousin in Aberystwyth in the hopes of gaining entry to the Lestrange family vault at Gringotts which might, just possibly, hide Helga Hufflepuff's cup, and Snape was reluctant to have him recalled halfway through such a delicate and vital task. He had done quite enough damage to the cause already when he spilled his secrets to the Dark One, and it was enough, for his safety, to know that no Ravenclaw should be allowed near him.
Except for Lovegood, of course. He contemplated, as one might contemplate the suggestion that the moon really was made of green cheese, the idea that Lovegood might be his tormentor, but it was impossible to make it fit - even for a professional paranoic like himself. On the contrary, he considered asking her to view the Pensieved memory and try if she could identify the speaker as one of her housemates; but with over seventy female Revenclaws to choose from the odds were good that Luna, who was not much of a social animal, wouldn't recognize the voice anyway; and he was reluctant to subject her to such a horrific scene when there was only a small chance of success.
"Surely a - an Occlumens like you could re-direct your thoughts, stop yourself from falling into these - inappropriate episodes of self-loathing? If not then - well, Adrian talked about Muggle methods of learning to limit - harmful ideas."
"I don't doubt that I could, Poppy," he replied rather waspishly, "with or without your little case-conferences on my behalf. It's just that I don't care to."
"Why not?" she asked bluntly.
He turned his face aside and looked down, letting his hair fall forwards. "Because when I get into that - that mood," he muttered, "then I believe that I deserve my own loathing, my own disgust. I more than half do anyway."
"Severus - " She looked at him rather helplessly. "I can't believe that - you must know that you've more than atoned for your earlier mistakes, long since, and you are not - not to blame in any way for what they chose to do to you. Whatever - whatever form that - brutality took, it reflects on them, not on you."
"It's not that... well, not only that. But it still - hurts - I can feel them hurting me, they're in my head and I can't get them out and you know that I do still.... My joints ache, my muscles and my nerves still feel half raw, a lot of the time, even with all your potions, and when I'm in pain it - Longbottom was here this morning and I had to bite my own hand to stop myself from falling into that - babbling hysteria again, and begging him not to hurt me."
"You know that if you had, it would not diminish you in his eyes, or in mine."
He pulled a wry, flinching face. "Only because I could hardly sink any lower."
"Severus, look at me." When he did so she reached out with her left hand, very gently, and touched the side of his face, running her thumb along the scar that stretched from the corner of his mouth almost to his ear. "We all see - these are badges of honour, not of shame."
"It's - kind of you to say so," he muttered, and she tsk'd at him irritably.
"It's the truth, Severus. You really must stop punishing yourself - as if you hadn't already been punished enough."
"Oh, if it will stop you nagging me: that's really too much punishment, even for me." He flashed her a tight, flinching smile. "Longbottom wanted to feed me some herbal concoction he said would stop me feeling so 'excitable', as he kindly put it. But I'm not sure I'm quite that suicidal...."
"Come, now. He may be a sort of one-man mobile catastrophe where potions are concerned, but when it comes to purely herbal concoctions, not involving actual magic, the boy's a natural."
"Yes - but a natural what?"
"Don't be any more aggravating than you can help, there's a good lad."
Later on, lying curled protectively together in warmth and darkness, she murmured: "I'm going to miss this," into the fall of silky black hair. Severus stirred in his sleep and sighed, and she tightened her arm around him.
He took the tea, in the end, though his long nose twitched suspiciously over it, like a rat's nose, and he muttered sourly about the taste which, in truth, was not unpleasant, if a little bitter.
"Rosebay - Rosebay Willowherb, I mean, Rosebay's something else - well, it's good stuff," Neville said earnestly. "Good for your health and it's really - well, uh, soothing without being sedating."
"What else is in here? Valerian - there's no mistaking that - Chamomile... St John's Wort."
"You can tell that just from sniffing it?"
"I have to put this bloody nose to some bloody use. Sniffing out poisons and potions is about all it's good for."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, sir." Neville gave him a long, considering look. "If you ever get bored with teaching," he said, choosing to ignore Snape's hollow laugh, "you could have a great future as a wine taster."
"Do you know that's - that's actually not a bad idea." He let the bitter taste of the tea soak through him, and found that it did, to a degree, soothe away the cold persistent shudder which had turned his insides to ice.
"That's it now, come on!" Hooch cried, in a bright voice like somebody encouraging a not-very-intelligent pony, and Snape glared at her under his hair and considered telling her to sod off. But the faster he learned to walk again, the sooner he could be free of these irritatingly jolly gymnastic excrescences, so he took a deep breath, let go of the stone bench and managed three wavering, unsupported steps before he had to grab hold of Hooch's outstretched hands and lean on her heavily.
"Damnit!" he said rather breathlessly, as Hooch steered him to sit down on the edge of the bed. "I can't - "
"Don't worry about it, Severus. These things take time, and you are getting better."
Although he was perversely reluctant to admit it, privately he knew she was right. He might still be as wobbly and prone to collapse as a liquorice crutch but the more he practised walking - if you could call it that - the more he could feel what was left of the muscles around his left hip beginning to live and to move again. Even if he could still manage no more than a stiff-legged shuffle, swinging the prosthetic leg forwards without bending the knee. He could believe, now, at least, that he would some day be able to shamble adequately through his life like Sylvanus Kettleburn, although whether he would ever regain the silken stalk which had terrorised nearly a whole generation of nervous first-years was another matter.
"At least I didn't actually end up on my arse this time" he muttered, rubbing at the pseudo-muscles of his artificial right calf, and enjoying the sensation of having sensation below the knee; even if it did still feel a little odd and half numb, so that it quickly became irritating if he tried to wear it for extended periods.
Behind him, he thought he heard Rolanda murmur, very quietly, "And such a nice arse, too...." Ignoring the blush which he could feel creeping in around the edges he cocked a long, sardonic eyebrow at her, and she grinned back unrepentantly.
It was only much later that it occurred to him that as he overbalanced he had reached out and grabbed Hooch's hands with both of his, the natural and the prosthetic, without having to think about it.
"It's important to remember that Darkness in that sense is to some extent a matter of context. It's what you do with it that counts - as they say. There are some spells which are - intrinsically vicious, in their casting or in their effects, but there are others.... Many Dark spells call for the blood shed from a fatal wound, or - or from a rape, and you might say they are evil without qualification. Yet I know of no spell which requires the caster to have shed the blood in question, and one might come across a person who had been murdered or - and take a sample of their blood without doing any further harm, and use it in a spell to bring their attacker to justice. And where would be the Darkness in that? It would be... sinister, I suppose, but hardly evil.
"On the other hand - the potion which was used to make me... more responsive to sensation was invented for use by lovers, or persons suffering from neurological disorders, or craftsmen doing finely detailed work. The spell which kept me awake and aware for four bloody interminable months was devised to treat narcolepsy and petit mal, the potions which enabled them to keep me alive without fucking feeding me were intended for use in times of famine and the curse which can force the soul to stay in a body too savaged to support it was adapted, in fact, from a good and useful healing spell used to keep accident victims alive until help could get to them. A spell which has saved countless lives - including mine, in the event. Yet, in the wrong hands, all of these became - in the most literal sense - instruments of torture."
He sighed and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "Here endeth the lesson for today, I think. I want to get you started on Occlumency, but that I think had better wait for another session; I confess I'm flagging. Tell me what you've been up to: it's all of thirty-six hours since you last gave me a proper update on your activities."
"Well...." She pulled a wry face. "I talked to Harry. Overall I think I made an impression on him - especially when I cried at him, he's hardly ever seen me do that - but then we got into another argument about the Half-Blood Prince and - "
"Oh, it's this old Potions-text he's got, that someone called the Half-Blood Prince has written in - notes about making changes to the recipes, stuff like that. He thinks it's wonderful, he practically sleeps with the rotten thing," she said, rolling her eyes; "and he's getting an entirely undeserved reputation for being good at Potions...." she added sulkily. She didn't like to be so obviously outshone in class at the best of times, and it really galled her to know she was being bested by a cheater - and one she couldn't even publicly expose without ruining their friendship.
"Good God - where did he get that old thing from?"
"Professor Slughorn gave it to him after he spilled acid on his own copy.... it was one of the old spares in the Potions classroom." She sniffed. "Whoever wrote in it was very good at potions, I admit... but Harry isn't, he's just using the book to make it look like he is. And there are a lot of unauthorized spells written in the margins, and he will keep trying them out on people.... Poor Ron got hung upside down by his foot at six in the morning, and goodness knows what some of the others do. I keep telling him it's dangerous, but he thinks the Prince is wonderful, he won't hear a thing against him...."
Snape choked slightly, and tried to turn it into a cough. "And he, ah - he admires the person who wrote in the book? Not just the - the information it contains, but the person himself?"
"If it was a him. I keep telling him, for all we know it could have been a girl."
"Oh, it was a him all right. And, ah - what do you think about the Half-Blood Prince?" he asked, trying to sound casual.
Hermione scowled. "I don't like him," she said firmly. Then she gave him a sheepish look. "He's better than I am at Potions," she muttered. "And some of the spells are... a bit dangerous, or at least rather nasty. But... honestly, what I hate most is that he doesn't do it like it says in the book, and he's RIGHT. I don't like losing, I don't like losing to someone who's being helped to cheat, and I really don't like it when not doing what you're told turns out to be right. And I REALLY don't like it when someone starts telling that to Harry, because you know what he's like. No wonder he thinks the Prince is wonderful, he's damned well encouraging him!"
"You have to learn, you know," he said mildly, "that just because something is printed in a textbook, that doesn't prove that it is right. Only that it was what the person who wrote the textbook thought was right, to the best of their necessarily subjective knowledge and at that point in time. The progress of knowledge absolutely depends on demonstrating that what was in the previous generation's authoritative textbook is wrong, or at best incomplete.
"Ordinarily, I would advise students to stick to what is in the textbook because students are... students, and their ideas are unlikely to improve on those of the previous generation's experts. But sometimes, if a student is very... gifted, they may surpass their tutors and come up with something both original and inspired. Longbottom, for example, has some extremely original and interesting ideas in the Herbology field...."
Hermione made a face. "I'm not good at being original or inspired," she admitted unhappily. "I like for there to be rules. I don't like to try to change things. It... allows for failure." She hung her head. "Which is very childish, now that I think about it, but... I hate to fail. I hate being seen to fail even worse."
"I know how it is to live in fear of humiliation, believe me," Snape said quietly. "And I hate to fail too. But not to use your abilities to the full is to fail, and you could be so much more than just a, a talking text-book. You are capable of being inspired, I think. You proved that when you blackmailed the Skeeter woman - oh yes, I saw that in your memories - and you proved it doubly when you thought of using the unicorn to save me; when you saw that the human circulatory system could be classed as a container full of liquid. But you allow your fear to hobble you.
"That was why I... that was why I used to get so angry with you in class - jumping up and down like a puppy waving your hand, 'Me sir, me sir,' and then when I asked you you'd give me some damned rote-learned answer straight out of the text-book when I knew, I knew that you were too like me for that to be all there was to you, I knew that you could have given me something that was real and yours if you'd only tried, and that in your own way you were being just as bloody lazy as Potter."
He frowned at her offended look. "I'm sorry, but you were. If Potter had given me a text-book answer I would have been pleased with that, because it would have meant he was working to the best of his limited abilities and was at least trying to stretch himself - but a text-book answer from you meant that you weren't stretching yourself at all." He looked away from her, his expression unreadable. "Did you really think that the Half-Blood Prince and his spells were - nasty? As compared, say, with the Weasley twins and theirs?"
Hermione tackled the easier question first, wanting to put off thinking about the rest as long as possible. "Almost as bad as the twins, I think.... I mean, I don't know whether he tested any of his on poor little first years or not - they did, you know, with the Skiving Snackboxes, I had to threaten to tell their mother to make them stop. And they did some very nasty things to people they really didn't like, Slytherins mostly... and as far as I know, the worst the Half-Blood Prince did was come up with a spell for hanging people upside-down. Not nice, certainly, but not in the same league as giving a Ton-Tongue Toffee to a Muggle, however richly he might deserve it. So not quite as bad as the twins, no."
She looked down at her hands, twisting her fingers unhappily. "And, well, I'm... more confident, with a textbook answer to fall back on. If it turns out to be wrong, then it's not really my fault. And you're right, it's a failing, and I can do better, but... what if I do worse?" She made a face. "I hate this. You make me drag out my own cowardice and confront it. And I am a coward, I know that. I'm afraid of taking risks intellectually, physically, romantically... I was almost sick after I kissed you, that first time on the cheek, because I was so bloody terrified that I'd made an irredeemable fool of myself in front of the one person who I wanted most to approve of me."
"I suppose we must both be glad that you didn't actually throw up on me" he said lightly. "That would have been - something of a passion-killer on both sides, I imagine. And you did it, which is what counts. You did the thing you were afraid of, and risked the failure - and inexplicable as it still seems to me, you seem to think that what you got as a result was worth it. 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained', remember? If you take the intellectual risks as well, I promise you that your gains will be worth the occasional failure.
"And you're no more of a bloody coward than I am. I used to hear the students whispering and giggling behind my back about why I was so thin and pale and, and greasy, and speculating that I might be a vampire, but really it was because I was so bloody frightened all the time, especially after - after He returned to His loyal bloody followers in the flesh - that I was... sweating with nerves, all the bloody time, and I could hardly keep anything down. Every bloody summons, I used to bloody-well throw up - with terror beforehand, and horror afterwards.
"And - " He stopped and bit his lip, looking away from her again. He was a bloody coward, he was so afraid of seeing distaste or disapproval turning those warm brown eyes cold to him. But it had to be done, he was a liar and a deceiver if he didn't, and he'd been a liar and a deceiver all his life but he didn't mean to be one to her. And perhaps she could still like the man, even if, like everybody else, she would have despised the boy. He forced himself to look up and meet her eyes. "I should be grateful," he said, with a forced and entirely unconvincing attempt at levity, "that you don't think I was quite as unpleasant and irresponsible as Gred and Forge."
It took Hermione a moment to work out what he meant, and when she did her jaw dropped. "You mean you wrote.... and Harry... oh, my," she said weakly. Then she giggled. "You know, I don't feel quite so bad about you being better than I am at Potions, I'm used to that... and oh, I want to be there when Harry finds out that he and Ron have been marvelling at how wonderful you are all this time! They love that book, you know, they think the Half-Blood Prince is marvellous. And since it was you, I can rather see the necessity for the spells. I mean, I was imagining someone like Harry's dad or something, who liked pushing people around, but I've always been a strong proponent of defensive hexing... well, at my size, it's not as if I can fight any other way."
She leaned over to kiss him, because he was giving her a rather peculiar look. "And you're not a coward," she said firmly. "Being frightened doesn't make you a coward, it makes you bright enough to know you're in danger. You went anyway, and you didn't break down or run away or anything, and that makes you one of the very bravest people I've ever met." She kissed him again. "And you do look rather better now that you're eating regularly... you're still awfully pale, though. You need sunlight. I wonder if we could get one of those magic window things put in down here? You could get sunshine through that without having to go out."
"I do get a certain amount of sun in here in the morning - but perhaps not enough. In some respects.... You know I don't like the idea of going out and being - being seen as the cripple I am. It's not so bad sitting up in bed or on the couch, but being seen publicly in a wheelchair, somehow... quite apart from the security aspects. But after five months this room is beginning to pall, rather. Perhaps I could sit up for a few hours in one of Pomona's greenhouses, when she isn't actually using them for classes, and Longbottom could show me his latest botanical monstrosity - or I could even visit Hagrid, perhaps, when the weather is warmer, and sit out in his vegetable garden and drink beer. I don't suppose I need to worry about security with that - Buckbeak or Weather-wing or whatever he's calling the brute now in the vicinity.
"And - I'm glad, very glad, that you don't blame me for my - childhood interest in hexes. The thing about Levicorpus - well, people were always on the lookout for Expelliarmus, but I found if you hoicked them up by the heel they tended to drop their wands anyway, and I did get a certain malicious satisfaction out of it. You didn't ask about the name," he added, pulling a face. "Prince was my mother's family name, and I thought, 'I may be less than a half-blooded wizard, but at least I can be half a Prince' and at the same time the Princes were such a - a bunch of snobby bastards, disowning Mums because she married a Muggle, that I really wanted to rub their snooty noses in it. Plus I thought it sounded like a good name for a hero. Stupid little twit."
He grinned suddenly. "And you're right: the idea of Potter and Weasley waxing lyrical about how wonderful I am without knowing it is bloody marvellous. When shall we tell them?"
"After he's apologized - which he's going to - and had time to relax and think the worst is over. Then we can casually drop it on them." Harry really liked 'the Prince'. It might even soften his resentment a bit. "It's not a bad name, actually... I mean, especially compared to what teenage boys generally come up with... or most of the Batman characters." She gave him her best adorably pleading look. "And... can I go with you, if you go out? I'd understand if you're not ready to be seen together in public, yet, but I'd really like to go with you. I could probably manage something a bit more dignified than a wheelchair, too... a nice tastefully regal floating chair, perhaps, that you can wave from if you do see anyone."
"I don't think I'm up to regal waving, really I'm not - the idea of being in this state and being - looked at by more than a handful of close friends at a time still feels too... humiliating. Threatening. A fine lot of good it would do to my reputation, wouldn't it, if I curled up in a ball and started screaming in bloody public? Perhaps if a party of my most trusted Slytherins walked with me I could feel.... I could kid myself that I really was a prince, with an honour guard, and not just this - helpless, mewling - " He rubbed his hand distractedly across his forehead, pushing his hair out of his eyes, and muttered "Shit" to himself.
Hermione reached out to him, anxious and concerned, and he caught her hand and raised it to his lips in a suitably courtly manner. "And of course you may come. We don't need to tell them all, just yet, that we are - I believe that the correct term is 'dating' - but I should think that the whole school knows that you're part of the little team that has the delightful task of holding me while I scream my bloody guts out anyway. I shouldn't think anybody will blink or query it if you get to go with me and literally hold my hand, and it would be - nice, I think, to doze in the sun surrounded by greenery, with your arms around me. About as unlike - as unlike being there as it could get."
She smiled, brushing her fingertips gently over his lips. "I would like that very much myself," she agreed softly. "And I'm sure Professor Sprout could arrange an untenanted greenhouse... preferably one without any dangerously grabby plants. And maybe some flowers." She drew him close, kissing his forehead gently. "And if anyone does show up, I'll put an illusion on you until they go away, so they can't see you. You'd make a lovely rosebush... the incredibly thorny kind, with the tiny, dark-red roses that smell wonderful. You always do smell good, you know... even when you were doing your very best vampire impression, you smelled like herbs... and occasionally armadillo bile, but that probably wasn't your fault."
"No, that was Longbottom - he spilled a jar of the stuff all down my second-best working robes. And if I'm to be a rose with thorns," he said lightly, "then you shall be a flowering lilac - a really bushy one. Although the idea of one of my students actually smelling me like a rose is - unnerving. Flattering, but unnerving. If people are going to go around sniffing me I can see I shall have to be more careful about having a shower every day, in future, even if - even if my thorns will always keep most people from getting close enough to touch."
"Well, if you will loom like that over them, they're going to be able to smell you. It can be quite distracting, you know... there you are, being all sardonic and dismissive, and standing really close and smelling good... for a girl who already rather likes you, it's a definite attention-getter." She grinned rather naughtily. "And should you ever want to be absolutely certain that you smell nice, I'd be happy to join you in those showers... for quality control purposes." Then she blushed, because while she thought those things a lot, she was usually too embarrassed to say them aloud.
"Part of me - part of me finds that idea quite attractive" he said seriously, then grinned wryly. "Best not to ask me which part. Kissing you... kissing you is already - " He sat up straighter, so that he could look Hermione in the eyes, and made a strange, open gesture with his hand, half hopeless and half yearning. Hermione looked back at him, equally serious, and as he put his fingers under her chin to tilt her face she opened her mouth and leaned into his kiss.
After a minute or two he broke away, shuddering, shut his eyes and tucked his face down against her shoulder. "Sometimes - sometimes when I'm with you, particularly when I'm kissing you, I feel so - not just not bad but actively happy, much more so than I was before - before. But I can never tell when it - when the memory, the awareness of what I am, of what they reduced me to, is going to open up under me like - as if the ground suddenly fell away under my feet. If I still had any fucking feet.
"So... on one level I can think of only a few things nicer than sharing a shower with you, and several of the others would also involve getting undressed! But on another level I'm afraid that the knowledge that I was being seen, naked, or the sensation of being touched on bare skin in an even vaguely sexual context might suddenly send me into a screaming panic or, worse, cause me to lash out and hurt you. And I do know that if we are actually going to... progress with this whatever-it-is we have at present, I'm really going to have to try to overcome this - but I'm not sure how to even start, and the idea of doing so is as terrifying as it is attractive."
"I find the idea that it's as attractive as it is terrifying encouraging, though," she murmured, holding him gently. "And... well, we could always start slowly, with the bare skin, and try to... to get you used to it. I won't take it personally if you... don't react well, at first, but we can try...." She slid her hand up to cup the back of his neck gently, under his hair. This much, at least, she knew he could handle, especially while he was being held. "Would you like to? Try, I mean? I would...." She laughed ruefully. "I not only wouldn't object, I'd be positively delighted, if your hand wandered a little."
He nodded quickly and rather unsteadily - Hermione could feel the gesture against her shoulder, even though he made no sound. After a moment he murmured "Lie down with me, then" and she let him draw her down sideways to lie face to face with him. His eyes were shut and he wore an expression of forced calm, but his breathing was short and shallow. Another moment, and she felt him slide his hand under the edge of her shirt, and his long fingers splayed and pressed gently against the bare skin of her back.
Hermione shivered.... His hand was warm and faintly calloused, and was doing odd things to her breathing. She touched his cheek lightly with the backs of her fingers, deciding that it was best for him to take the lead for now. Touching him somewhere she hadn't before while he was still getting used to touching her might be a bad idea. "It's a little embarrassing," she admitted conversationally, "but my pulse is speeding up already. That feels... very nice."
"You feel very nice" he growled, running his thumb along the sculpted edge of her shoulder-blade, and firmly suppressing a lunatic urge to subvert the moment by tickling her. "But it isn't me touching you that's the problem, and we have to make a start somewhere. Touch me as I'm touching you, if - if you're sure you want to. If I tell you to do it, and I know you're going to, it shouldn't make me panic. Much. And you'll never know till you try."
"Well, if I'm being invited...." She started by sliding her hand along his collarbone, stroking the fine, warm skin, slipping it inside his shirt to explore a little further. And, just to distract him a little from the potential fear, she lifted her head and kissed his ear solemnly.
He stiffened a little at that and Hermione hesitated, afraid she had scared him already; but after a moment of uncertainty he relaxed back against her and murmured "I warn you, if you're going to do things that tickle I shall retaliate in kind." He feathered his fingers lightly across her back and down her ribs as he spoke, nearly but not quite carrying out his threat.
She giggled softly, unbuttoning his shirt to press her hand flat against his chest, just over his heart. "I think a little constructive tickling might help... ease the tension a bit," she murmured, smiling at him and pressing the tip of her nose to his. "I'd rather you associated this with giggling and squirming than anything more... painful."
"I'd rather just be... peaceful, for the moment," he sighed, stroking his hand smoothly back across the small of her back and bringing it to rest on her flank, just above the hip. "And if you're going to do that you're going to make me cross-eyed. Settle down a bit, do, and don't mess about."
"I'll try. But I'm a bit nervous too, you know." She undid a couple more of his buttons, sliding her hand slowly across his ribs and up and down his back. She forced herself not to flinch at the bumps and ripples of scar-tissue... there were so many... and drew her fingers slowly up and down his spine, as if he were a cat.
Severus hissed gently and arched his back, very much like a cat. "No, it's all right," he gasped when she hesitated, unsure whether he was pleased or scared. "It's just - intense. But not bad. You don't feel - you're not threatening. You don't grab or jab or demand. And you feel - perfectly made and, and female and - almost fragile. Like a, a flower, or a fine-stemmed glass." He had his eyes shut, and seemed to be talking to himself as much as to her. After a moment he drew his hand round and up across her stomach, cupped her left breast very briefly in a way that was more sculptural appreciation than sexual pass, and finally brought his fingers to rest fanned out against her ribs just below her armpit. He opened his black eyes and looked at her, slightly dazed. "Take your shirt off - and mine - please?"
She sat up to shed her blouse, tugging it off with rather nervous haste and blushing quite hard. This was officially Further than she'd ever gone before, and as much as she liked the idea, it was still a bit nerve-wracking.
Then she turned her attention to him, taking his buttons more slowly and carefully, smoothing her hands gently over his chest and stomach as they were revealed, keeping her touch light but trying not to tickle. Then she gentled her hands over his back, as she pushed his shirt down slowly, and along his arm as she tugged the sleeve free and set the shirt carefully aside, wanting to soothe away the memories of more painful touches.
Even so, he flinched slightly and shut his eyes as he felt her hands on his arm - remembering other hands which had come bearing a knife. After a moment he forced them open again and nodded reassuringly to her to continue. And she was... lovely. His intention in asking her to do this had been tactile and sensual rather than sexual, but even so the traditional tag "small, but perfectly formed" came into his head and his breath tightened rather.
He lay back and looked at her for a moment, then laid his hand lightly in the centre of her chest and allowed his thumb to stroke her right breast, ever-so slightly. The obvious increase in her respiratory rate was very flattering to his male ego. "Lie down with me again, then," he said softly, "and just - hold me. Let me feel you." He ran the last few words past his brain again and turned slightly pink. "I don't mean - slip of the tongue!" And God, even that sounded suggestive, and the thought made him even more embarrassingly pink - doubly embarrassing because she was now grinning at him as if he'd said or done something "cute".
"I mean" he said firmly, gathering up the ravelled shreds of his dignity, "that I want to get used to just - lying against you skin to skin, without any pressure."
She giggled again, lying down and snuggling tentatively against him. "I know what you meant... you're absolutely adorable when you blush, though." All that skin-on-skin contact made a definite difference, and her pulse was racing, but she tried not to be obvious about it, snuggling against him and - on impulse - shaking her hair forward so it lay against his arm and shoulder. There. She defied any of the smarmy Death Eaters to produce anything like the sensation of masses of soft, rather coarse curly hair. "I like this..." she whispered against his collarbone.
Snape settled rather cautiously into her embrace and slid his hand behind her shoulder, drawing her close. Her skin was fine and smooth and had the same odd cool/warm feel as silk, and her hair smelled of summer. His own hair, he knew, was still limp and lank - all Hermione's best efforts had only succeeded in lengthening the time it took it to get greasy again from two hours to twelve.
When he thought too hard about the fact that her skin was against his, not just under his hand but pressed close against his chest and stomach, he remembered other skin, coarse and sweaty, rubbing up against him, savage pain and crude laughter and a foul-tasting mouth he didn't want pressing down over his, and he started to shiver everywhere they touched - shivering with something more complex than simple fear. The worst, the most horrible thing about remembering their hands on him was that they had managed to make him aroused, nerves still firing automatically even when his mind was screaming - touch, even touch the thought of which turned his stomach, was still associated with sexual tension and sexual tension was associated with horror and with self-disgust in an unbreakable loop -
Except that this was Hermione, after all, who didn't feel anything like any of his tormentors (not even Bellatrix); Hermione who was smooth and warm and kind and so small that if they had been standing he would actually have had to bend down to rest his chin on the top of her head, as he was doing now, and who surrounded him in a blanket of warm, summery brown fuzz. Touching Hermione was all right; trembling because you were touching Hermione was all right; even trembling because when you touched Hermione you started thinking about touching her in more intimate ways and being touched back was all right; in future when he thought about being touched he could think about Hermione's kind warmth and her breath huffing against his chest, and not -
He sighed and hugged her closer, nuzzling that wonderful, ridiculous hair. "I like it too."
Hermione stroked Severus's back gently as he trembled, resting her cheek against his collarbone. "I love you," she whispered, sighing contentedly. "And I love being with you, just... holding you, like this." She was so happy right now that she felt almost floaty, and she savoured each moment of warm skin-against-skin.
For Snape's part, he could feel himself relaxing into the moment; somehow touching her was becoming ease and communion instead of tension. "It's really true, isn't it?" he said very softly. "You really do want to be - to be close to me emotionally, not just sexually. Not even primarily sexually. Why do you want to be close to me, Hermione?"
"Yes, it's really true." She drew back her head just a little, so she could meet his eyes. "I... I don't know why, exactly. It's like asking why the stars are there, or why water flows downhill. I care deeply for you. I'm also very much in love with you, and they're not entirely the same thing, although they are connected. And I don't know why I am, or what exactly it is that makes you so desperately important to me. But you are, and I want to... just be with you, as much as I can." She made a face. "It's hard to put it into words... maybe if you just looked..."
She concentrated on the complicated, sometimes painful emotions he inspired in her... the grief for his suffering, the almost frightening devotion that was willing to sacrifice all pride and dignity to follow him, the strange complete feeling of being with him that had nothing to do with sex... and the way she quite liked it when he used Legilimency, loved the chance to take him in and comfort him in a way that wouldn't frighten him, to show him how much she loved him without words getting in the way.
Since she had pulled back a little in order to look at him, she was no longer pressed against him so closely: but her arms were still partly around him, and the tips of her breasts brushed against his chest and made his skin tingle. And he no longer needed a wand and a spell to read her; now that he literally knew her mind, some kind of contact - eye contact, skin contact - and the will to see what she was seeing was enough. Devotion - there was always devotion there, and love, but for the life of him he couldn't understand why and just knowing that it was there didn't explain it. Frowning, he looked deeper, trying to understand the roots of her inexplicable need for him.
"You love your parents," he said dreamily, drawing her back in against him and feeling her warm smooth skin moving against his, her breath warming the hollow of his neck, "but you can't go home - you'd endanger them if you did, and in any case it was never - never a relaxing place. Always so busy and intense. You never fitted into the Muggle world very well anyway - too clever, too odd - and when you learned that you were a witch then you knew that you were irredeemably different and never would fit in. But you never entirely fitted into the wizarding world either."
She was hugging him so tightly now that he no longer needed to hold her close himself, and he relaxed his grip and let his hand stray to the back of her head, stroking her bushy hair as he would stroke a cat. "You were an exile, always, and you saw that I was equally isolated but I had - made a place to stand, on my own terms. And I became a - a fixed point to you, an idea of home, even if it was a home you didn't think you could have. Even after I was broken I was still a lodestone to you.... And I was enough like you that wanting me was like wanting to be the self you could be, if you only dared to be - and yet not so much like you as to make it seem incestuous" he added, with the ghost of a laugh. "Being close to me is like being whole, I think - like finding all the missing pieces of the puzzle.
"And you felt sorry for me" he said wonderingly, "and I can see it and it doesn't make me burn because you never belittled me. You could see how isolated I was and that just made me more admirable to you, because you knew how it felt to be isolated and you thought I was carrying it off better than you would have done. Which is debatable, since I dealt with it by taking my temper and my loneliness out on everybody around me - but when I was horrible to you you just assumed it was your fault, and I can't tell you how much of a bloody bastard that makes me feel. And seeing me hurt was - oh, God. This was one of the reasons I never wanted to get too close to anybody - because something of the sort was always bound to happen to me, and anyone who cared about me was only heading for grief."
She burrowed her face into his chest for a moment, just holding on tightly. "Not so much an idea of home as... as an idea of a place, in the world," she said softly. "It doesn't have to be a physical place, just... a place that's your place, in the scheme of things, where you fit. If that makes sense." She sighed, and sniffled a little bit. "And the grief is... worth it. To love you and be loved by you... no matter how much it hurts, sometimes, I wouldn't give it up. You... complete me. When we're apart, now, I feel as if something is missing. And I want to be able to give you the same feeling... now more than ever." With feather-light fingers, she touched his left shoulder. "Even if I haven't the power to make your body whole again, I'd like to make your heart so... or at least feel as if it is."
"My heart can never be whole" he said flatly. "Whatever happens, I'm never going to not have been that - abject thing, and I'm always going to know that all it takes to reduce me to that is sufficient pain, applied for long enough. Even if you Obliviated me of everything that's happened since last June, part of me would still know that it was so - and, frankly, I wouldn't want to be Obliviated, because the whole thing has brought me - many gifts, you not the least of them. I can't be whole, but maybe with your help I can - cobble something together that still works, and sometimes a broken thing that looks cobbled together, patched, botched can be just as strong, and more interesting, than the original."
It was his turn to pull back slightly, so that he could look her in the eyes, smiling and trying, he thought, to look as handsome as he was capable of looking, although he had no great expectations in that regard. "I used to know a Muggle musician who had a 'cello that was broken, and because she was a student, and poor, instead of paying to have it mended properly, or throwing it away and buying another, she nailed a strip of plywood over the gap and kept on playing. That shouldn't have worked - it was split right up the back - but in fact it sang all the sweeter. Make me sing, Hermione." And bent to kiss her, murmuring "I'll be your place to be, if you'll be mine."
"I want nothing more," she whispered, smiling and tearing up a little. "I love you... and I want to make you happy. Broken or not, you're the only 'cello I want." She snuggled up to him... and then paused, reaching for the wand she'd tossed aside on the bed. She pointed it at the door, and muttered a good strong locking spell. "There. I'd rather not have anyone wander in here and... er... see rather more than I want anyone but you seeing."
"Oh, Lord, yes. I'm not sure whether Albus would shout at us or twinkle - but either one would be mortifying."
Hermione blushed, the wave of red descending to below her collarbone. "Oh, just the thought of Professor Dumbledore catching me half-naked...." She hid her face against his neck. "I'm getting embarrassed just thinking about it!"
"And that's not even to mention the risk of the sight of so much... femininity giving the old man a coronary" Snape murmured contentedly, settling down comfortably against her bare warmth, and feeling a pleasurable increase in his own pulse-rate.
Hermione blushed even harder. "You shush," she muttered, kissing his collarbone. "Before I combust from sheer embarrassment."
"And that would never do. When I am... when we've - got the hang of being bare together, and showers and so on, and you agree that I smell suitably like a rose, then I mean to make you catch fire from something much more interesting than embarrassment. If, that is, that sounds agreeable to you."
"Very agreeable, yes. I like this too, though. Just snuggling up and being together. When you're comfortable with it, it'd be nice to sleep this way... maybe not exactly easy to sleep, given, uhm, our mutual involuntary physical reactions, but.... nice."
"It is... nice" he said, rubbing his cheek against her hair. "It - heightens the feeling of closeness and companionship, quite apart from the sexual aspect. It makes me feel - oh, God, cared for, accepted, acceptable.... But there is a sexual aspect, as you yourself acknowledge, and as such... I fear it will be a long time before I can actually sleep a night like this. If I were to dream myself - back there, naked and unable to keep them from - touching me, and then wake to find myself naked and being touched...."
"I know... but maybe someday we'll be able to. It's something to look forward to." She traced her fingers across his back, spelling out his name and then hers. "And we could always take it in intermediate steps... you know, start with me just not wearing much, then maybe me undressed but you not... it might be easier if you weren't the one who was naked, although I know even that will take time."
"Mmm - well, the idea of you naked is certainly an attractive one, and you don't feel - well, threatening. A nice, pocket-sized model, with everything in due proportion. In fact I wonder that you don't seem to find me threatening, when I am so much taller. I mean - I was. And I might be all right, if not now then soon, about sleeping in a nightshirt or light robes that were open - I mean, I wouldn't feel so, um, exposed if I woke to find you touching my chest and I could feel that I still had clothes on my back, my arm - it wouldn't feel so much like...."
"Good. We'll do that, then, when you're ready for it." She nuzzled his neck contentedly. "And no, you don't feel threatening at all. It's quite nice, actually, being small and tuck-in-able under your chin. It feels very warm and safe."
"People usually do find me threatening, even when I'm busting my bloody - back to protect them. The idea that you don't, that's... liberating, if that makes any sense to you."
"It does, in a way. And I did find you a bit intimidating before. But now... you're still quite capable of being threatening, even now, but it's...nice to know that you can. Because I know you're not going to do it at me, and I quite like the thought of having someone around to be intimidating on my behalf. Ron and Harry try, but they're no good at it, and... well. I like the thought of snuggling up under your arm and being... protected. Just like I'd protect you, if I was needed."
"So I'm to be an attack-dog, am I?" he asked, deeply amused. Abstractedly, part of his brain registered that he was hardly even noticing the skin-thing anymore, which must be a Good Sign, surely? "What kind of dog shall I be? A skinny, spiky Doberman, do you suppose? Or just a mongrel. And what will you be, when you're protecting me? One of those hairy little terriers, all spirit and sharp teeth?"
"Oh, you're lucky I like you... I don't let most people make jokes about my hair! But no, you're more like a tiger than a dog, all teeth and claws and menacing purr and stripes of light and darkness. And I may be a rather ordinary tabby, but that doesn't mean I couldn't savage someone for you if you needed me to."
"Oh, you would never be an ordinary tabby - any more than Minerva is." He shifted position so that he could smile at her teasingly. "You'd be like the cat in the poem.
"But you wouldn't rather have me... unstriped? It doesn't disturb you that I have... stains of darkness that will never be clean?"
"It makes me sad for you," she said softly, touching his cheek. "I know it hurts you. But... no, I wouldn't have you unstriped. You wouldn't be you, then, and all I want is you, just as you are." She kissed him firmly, by way of emphasis. "Stripes and all."
"Even though I've had to do... terrible things, at times? Even though, when I was young and more stupid than Potter will ever be, I did some terrible things I didn't have to do?"
"Even so," she said quietly. "I love you. You, as you are, stripes and wounds and all. I wish you were happier, that you understood why you mean so much to me... but I, for myself, wouldn't change you. You've been through so much, to get to this point, how could I want to take any of it away from you?"
Snape shut his eyes, his mouth pulled into a grim line. "It isn't for my own sake that I want to change the things I did - it's for the sake of the people I did them to. But - oh, God. Sometimes I think I deserved what happened to me - last year; that I deserved to be punished. Sometimes I think I can't live with the memories, that I would give anything not to spend my nights reliving torture and - assault - and not to have found out what I truly was. Then I think that that is intellectually dishonest, that if I am that - crawling thing it's as well to know it, and a lie to pretend otherwise."
He opened his eyes again and smiled at her rather painfully. "And then I remember that if I could change what happened, if I could go back and somehow avoid that - horrible - then I'd be whole, insofar as I ever was, but I'd lose all this along with it. I wouldn't have found out that you and Minerva and even Albus apparently love me, strange though that seems to me; I wouldn't have found out that you desire me, which seems even stranger - not that I'm complaining! Hell, I wouldn't even have found out that Longbottom has a brain."
"You did not deserve what happened to you!" she said sharply. "Whatever you've done, you'd paid for it long before you were discovered. Years and years of knowing it was coming, of walking a knife's edge of fear and suspicion, of being alone...." Her eyes filled at the thought of how miserable he'd been, for so long. "You worked so hard to make up for your mistakes, you did more than most people would ever dream of doing to atone for them, and you did NOT deserve what happened to you! And you're not a thing, no matter what they told you or made you believe!
"And yes, Neville has a brain, and Professor Dumbledore loves you and Professor McGonagall loves you and I love you and believe me, you would have found out that last one eventually because I'm rotten at keeping secrets and it probably would have got a bit obvious when I'd left school and had to start finding new ways to see you. And if I could I'd risk meddling with time to rescue you the minute they caught you, so you didn't have to go through all this, because I would love you anyway and I'm s-selfish enough to want to believe that that would be enough."
"It would have been, I think. It would have taken longer, if I had not been - broken like a smashed vase and then put back together differently - and if I had been well enough still to be teaching I couldn't possibly have taken you up on it uh, physically until you finished school. Certainly not unless you agreed to drop Potions, so that I was at least no longer your teacher. But just knowing that somebody found me attractive, and cared about me enough to save me...." He sighed and shook his head, stroking his thumb gently across Hermione's bare shoulder. "It's an appealing idea - but the trouble with meddling with time is that you can never be sure you won't end up with something even worse. Suppose you had been killed saving me? God knows, I'd rather suffer this than have any serious harm come to you, and I would have been eaten alive with fresh guilt which would have soured my disposition even worse than it was already.
"And...." He looked down, unable to meet her eyes. "I see myself as having been reduced to just a, a thing, at the time if not now. Everything that I value about myself, everything that makes me me, my intellect, my pride, my willingness to take risks for what I believe and to take the consequences - even my capacity to hate, all of it was stripped away from me. I was so far gone, I was fucking grateful to them if they ordered me to do something which didn't actually hurt. However... humiliating. You - you saw me when I was... brought in. Crying, cringing, with less self-control than an infant, without a thought in my bloody head except whether I was going to be hurt again - how can you say that I was still a, a person?" He became aware, abruptly, that looking down meant that he had a distractingly clear view of Hermione's cleavage, and forced himself to look up again, colouring slightly.
"I did see you when you were brought in," she said quietly. "And nobody... nobody, you stubborn man... could have expected you to be coherent or even remotely sane after you'd suffered so horribly. The human mind can only take so much, even one as disciplined as yours. Not to mention the prolonged sleep-deprivation, the starvation, all the potions and hexes... sleep deprivation alone can completely unravel a person's mind, let alone all of it put together. Not being Superman, invulnerable and indestructible, doesn't make you a thing. It makes you a person, with all the same weaknesses that the rest of us have.
"Anybody would have been in the same state, and most people would have got to it a lot faster than you did. It doesn't make you weak, and it certainly doesn't make you less than a person. You went through more than most people could survive with even a shred of themselves intact." She held him tightly. "But you came back to us... despite everything you'd suffered, you managed to make yourself come back, instead of just... surrendering, when the spells finally came off and you could. And it would have broken our hearts to lose you, but nobody would have blamed you, not a bit... but you didn't, you held on and you started trying to put yourself back together. Not one person in a thousand could have been so brave."
Snape hugged her back, finding the skin-to-skin contact comforting now instead of frightening - a proof that he was connected to someone, and not cast adrift in his own nightmares. "Keep telling me so," he sighed against her hair; "keep telling me so and I might one day believe it."
"I'll tell you so every single time you even think anything so silly," she murmured, rubbing the tip of her nose gently along his collarbone. "Deserving it indeed. Brave, adorable, silly man." She loved being able to say things like that, knowing he wouldn't laugh....
"Dear practical, sensible Hermione, you do make it all seem much more - manageable, somehow." And then he did laugh - a genuine laugh, if slightly cracked.
"I couldn't just give up and die, could I? Minerva ordered me to stay - and I can't possibly disobey her when she does her Deputy Headmistress voice. She's so much more intimidating than Albus. And there were so many... nice things, intriguing things, colours, smells - I'm told that was mainly your idea, and it was a good one. It reminded me that the world wasn't just - pain and misery and the cold dark. Not to mention Adrian: that - weird accent of his is so hypnotic I had to stay to hear more of it, and I couldn't disappoint him by dying after he was so pleased with himself for saving me. In fact he tells me he 'whispered' me - whatever that means."
"I can see that," she said, nodding. "I know I certainly wouldn't have dared die after she ordered me not to. As for the nice things... Adrian started it, bringing wine for you to drink. You couldn't handle more than a sip or two, but you liked it. So then I tried to think of other things that would be as NOT like that place as possible. Like washing and brushing your hair for you, and giving you the softest blankets we could find... the shell and stained-glass mobile we put over your bed was Neville's idea. He thought bright colours and chimes would help."
"It did help. There were no - colours there. Except blood. And it.... I've always been quite - ascetic. Where I come from, anything else would probably be seen as - well, soft. But after... after months where there was nothing good at all, nothing pleasant, nothing that wasn't - dirty or horrible, just to have some things that were nice, to have people actively wanting to do nice things for me, to have - pleasure instead of misery, even in small ways...." He bent his head and kissed the point of her shoulder. "I think I've developed a taste for it, rather."
"Oh, good. Does that mean I get to keep fussing over you and indulging you? Because I really like doing that." She shivered happily at the kiss. "I intend to make your life as pleasant and as nice as possible, from now on. An ambition I share with quite a few people, I might add, but I'm not sharing the semi-naked cuddling part. Only I get to improve your day in this particular way."
Snape shuddered delicately. "The idea of getting semi-naked with any of the rest of them is either appalling or terrifying." He thought about it for a moment. "Lovegood would definitely be in the 'terrifying' category. And... I'm so used to people deliberately making my life more difficult that I just accepted it as natural. The idea that there are people who care about how my life is and actively want to make it better is... as if a weight had been lifted off me that I didn't even know I was carrying. It might be - nice to go on being fussed over, within reason, so long as you let me fuss over you too: I've never really had anybody whom I could indulge, before."
"My goodness...." She blinked, and smiled suddenly. "I would like that very much. I'm... usually the one doing the fussing, not the one getting fussed over. It would be very nice to be fussed and indulged a bit, sometimes, especially by you. It'd be wonderful, actually." She gave him a rather lingering kiss. "We could take turns... or just commence a mutual fussing campaign and see who is reduced to soppy pet names first. I definitely think I could enjoy a campaign of mutually assured contentment...."
Being kissed in such an obviously sexual way while his skin was bare made his pulse hammer and race, but he found when he could breathe again that there was more pleasure in it than fear, and he felt suddenly extremely motivated to overcome his own terrors and progress to more intimate activity as fast as possible. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" he murmured, returning the kiss with interest, until he felt Hermione shivering in the curve of his arm. "Seriously. You're always telling me that I deserve some kindness and care for all the - sacrifices I've made, but then so do you. You are always the one pulling the Idiot Boys out of trouble and worrying about injustice and the sufferings of downtrodden house-elves - it's high time somebody took care of you, for a change. On a basis of mutual understanding and full equality, of course. It would be nice to have that kind of - reciprocal partnership. To care for and be cared for...."
"It really would," she agreed, cuddling against him. "I'd... I feel a little guilty for it, but I'd really like to have you take care of me. It was always part of your appeal, actually... the fact that you were stronger and older and a lot bigger than me and I wouldn't have to mother you. Because I quite like doing that for Harry and Neville, who haven't got mothers of their own and who are really very sweet about it... but I'd like to not always be the one doing the looking after. I'd loathe always being the one who's looked after even worse, though, it's so bloody condescending, being treated like I'm made of porcelain. But... caring and being cared for, looking after each other... that would be wonderful."
"I must confess," he said thoughtfully, "that I'd quite like to be mothered - since my own mother never did anything of the kind. But not all the time, certainly - that would make me feel all hot and small - and besides, Minerva and Molly and Poppy have all already volunteered for that job. No, what I need is somebody who is on my level - neither parent nor child - and who I can feel is on my side, as I am on theirs." Lily, as much as he had loved her and as much as she had been his friend, had been too critical and contrary to offer much in the way of support, and Avery and Mulciber had had a talent for sloping off whenever he needed actual backing against actual hexes - even before they had metamorphosed into jeering torturers. He pulled a face. "The thing I always envied the bloody Marauders for, in fact, although in the event their little Gang of Four was more show than substance, and riddled with treachery. But you and I really could be a, a team. I'm even prepared to tolerate Potter and Weasley, provided they don't monopolize your time too much. Especially as it seems they actually rather like me, when they don't know it's me - that really is the best joke."
"I will always be on your side," she promised. "If you'll be on mine. We can look out for each other, and... and guard each other's backs. I'd like that... and actually, they've been complaining a lot about how much you monopolize my time. They're not used to having competition for my attention." She grinned. "And they think you're wonderful, if they don't know it's you." She paused. "Although... is there anything really dangerous in there?" she asked worriedly. "Harry's tested a couple of them on Ron, and I don't want him to get really hurt...."
"Hum. Well, you have to be a bit careful with Levicorpus - the hanging-upside-down-by-the-foot one - because obviously it wouldn't be safe to drop the - ah, subject from too high up, or onto anything hard. And the Two-Foot Toenails hex can cause some damage if the person is wearing really thick shoes. But the only really dangerous one is one called Sectumsempra. It...."
He paused for a moment, pressing his cheek against her hair and trying not to think about how scared and miserable he had been when he invented that curse. "You must understand, Hermione, that I was - that I felt myself to be - isolated, and very much outnumbered. Sectumsempra is a slicing hex, but more controlled than most: equivalent, if you like, to wielding a flick-knife. It will cut - anything organic, really, wherever you point your wand. If you really wanted to, you could prune roses with it. But it was designed to - well, to cut people, and if you actually cut something off them it won't normally regrow.
"I know that sounds bad - but it was one of the few spells that would work on a werewolf and not just heal instantly and, well, you'll understand why I thought I might need it. And so long as you're careful with it it doesn't cut very deep, and used properly it was intended to be defensive rather than offensive, to just - give somebody a little nick, to scare them off with, really. Potter might even find it useful to defend himself with, the next time he runs his silly neck into some Death Eater's noose. But if he used it clumsily - especially if he doesn't yet know much healing-magic - there's a risk he could take someone's arm off or hit an artery or an eye or something and do somebody real damage."
"A real duelling-curse," Hermione murmured, hugging him reassuringly. "The closest you could get to combining Muggle and Wizard duelling, I should think. And... like I said, under the circumstances, I understand that you needed to protect yourself. I'll warn Harry again about testing things on Ron, though, and you can warn him about that one when you tell him." She curled closer. "And from now on, you won't feel isolated or outnumbered, not if I can help it."
"Thank you. Although whether I will still feel outnumbered, even with you at my side, will depend on the scale of the opposition.... However. You know Potter - I don't think that a generic warning that the Prince's spells could be dangerous is going to stop him, especially as most of them aren't. And it would be just like the little sod to do something drastic before I get a chance to speak to him. Find a chance to flick through the dratted book and find Sectumsempra - it's in the left-hand margin somewhere near the middle of the book, as I recall - and then tell him you worked out what the Latin means."
He coughed and coloured slightly. "Technically, yes. But, um, one of the meanings of Severus is "cut off" - probably in the sense of "isolated," but I chose to interpret it as "cutter." So, um, Sectumsempra was my way of saying "Sever forever." It was a bit... adolescent of me, I know. But of a piece with calling myself the bloody Half-Blood Prince in the first place."
She gave him a rather awed look. "You can create new spells and make puns in Latin. That's... wow. Almost as inflaming as snuggling up half-naked, honestly. Anyway, I'll find it and warn them - of course, I may first have to explain the idea that Latin words mean things."
"If you can teach them that any long word has meaning it will be a start. How will they ever learn to make their own spells, if they don't understand at least pidgin-Latin?"
"Oh, god, NEVER suggest that to them!" Hermione said, giving him a horrified look. "Create their own spells? Them? They'd burn the castle to the ground, stone or not! If they want new spells, you or I can make them!"
"I take your point, but they must know it's possible - the Gred and Forge Conglomerate do it all the time, and they know that I - in my guise as the Prince! - invented my own hexes. It's only idleness which has prevented them from burning the castle about our ears already, and if either of them is doing a Charms N.E.W.T. - are they? I don't recall. Anyway, if they are, Filius teaches elementary spell-design as part of his standard Seventh Year course."
"Knowing it's possible and thinking of doing it themselves are two entirely different things. They know it's possible to get an 'O' in Potions but you don't see them doing it, do you? And yes, they are doing Charms. Drat it. I'll keep a very, very close eye on them... and no, I won't do their work for them, I'll just be ready to put out the fires." She sighed, and snuggled up to him. "Do you think you and I could do some spell-inventing together? Sometime when we have time? It would be fun."
"It would, indeed, be very interesting - but then you would have to get away from just doing things by the book, and be prepared to be original and, sometimes, to fail."
"I know. And it's a scary thought." She smiled at him. "But I trust you not to laugh at me... at least, not just for making a mistake."
"That would somewhat depend on how risible and egregious the mistake was. If it was very risible I would either be gravely sympathetic or tease you unmercifully, depending on my mood at the time."
"I don't care how well my accident elicits laughter," she said firmly, giving him a kiss for actually using "risible" in a sentence. "If you laugh, I'll do my best to visit similar consequences on you." She grinned suddenly. "I've always had a secret dread of causing some terrible accident to happen to my hair... turning it purple, or making it bigger, or something. Even my nearest and dearest wouldn't be able to help laughing."
"Now purple might quite suit you, depending on the shade of course. A bright purple or a mauve would look hideous, but a nice aubergine or an amethyst would be... intriguing, especially if it went purple, um, everywhere. You could start a fashion. And you've got me wondering now whether we could come up with a Medusa charm, to make the locks of your hair writhe around like snakes - that really would impress the little first years! Of course, you might need a cat-comb to separate them afterwards...."
"Definitely not purple... although a nice deep green might suit me." She tickled his chin with the tip of a curl. "And it's a sign of your terrible influence on me, I think, that after picturing the terror of the little firsties, I then went on to immediately think of the potential uses for self-writhing hair. I could let my hands AND my hair wander...."
Snape flinched, slightly but definitely, in suddenly renewed awareness of his position here, half-naked as he was. "I am not ready, quite yet, to think about - hands, wandering much. Not when I'm still getting used to - well, being touched on my skin like this without it hurting. Although I suppose being felt up by a manic self-propelled bottle-green teasel would be unique enough not to bring back any - unfortunate associations. I'm not sure about green, though - if you got the shade wrong, it might make you look as if you were growing mould. Or moss. Although actually moss-green might be quite nice."
"A teasel?" Hermione protested. "A manic teasel? It's not THAT bad! See if I let you play with it any more." She pouted, and then kissed the tip of his nose very gently. "And I'm sorry about the wandering hands bit... I'm getting a bit, uhm, distracted with all the half-naked snuggling, and I forgot you probably weren't ready for that yet. The hair might actually be better, though, your horrible comments about it aside. A bit tickly, maybe, but certainly different."
"Half of me is ready," he said earnestly; "very, very ready. But the other half still wants to curl up into a ball and shake and I don't want to risk provoking it into actually doing so, yus kin. It's not - well, not really the image a man wishes to project when he is... courting" he murmured, ducking his head and kissing her along the line of her shoulder. "Even if there is something... oddly comforting and reassuring about reliving all that - terror and shame and self-loathing while knowing that you'll hold me and tell me not to be so foolish. And I can't make up my mind whether that's bad of me - enjoying offloading my own idiotic traumas onto somebody so much younger than me, when it should be my place to comfort you - or whether I should be pleased to provide you with another opportunity to show off your skills!
"And I like your hair" he added, burying his face in it and breathing in the coconut scent of the shampoo she used. "It's so... uninhibited, even when the rest of you is being starchy - as if part of you is always escaping from your own control and running wild. It gives me hope that you may prove to be equally... uninhibited in other ways. When, that is, I've recovered enough to be less bloody inhibited myself, of course."
Hermione blushed, but snuggled up to him in a pleased way. "I rather think I will be, once the nerves wear off and I stop feeling as if I've, I've managed to stumble into an exam on the most important subject in the world starkers and woefully underprepared. I'm glad I'm getting to do it, even by the inches I know you need, but I'm even more nervous than usual about making a poor showing.
"As for the curling into a ball and shaking, and you liking having me here... I'm glad you do. I like having me here, too. The thought of you reliving the pain and fear and everything without me here to comfort you is much worse." She stroked his back gently, drawing idle patterns with her fingertips. "Besides, your traumas aren't idiotic, they're extremely sensible and solidly founded. Which makes facing them and coming to terms with them even more difficult, and you're not to blame yourself for needing time to face them. And you'll get your chance to comfort me, I promise you - I generally try not to do it in front of people, but I cry like a waterworks with embarrassing regularity. Especially when I fight with Harry and Ron, and I'd probably produce absolute rivers of tears if I had a real fight with you."
"Then I shall endeavour to curb my natural inclination to pick fights with all and sundry, at least where you're concerned. Even though it would please me to comfort you," he murmured, rubbing his face against her hair, "I would hate to be the cause of your needing to be comforted. And I'm glad you think I'm not just - being fucking stupid and feeble and - useless when I start to panic. And, well...." He squashed his own nerves back down with a ruthless hand and, greatly daring, nibbled delicately at Hermione's ear. "This is one exam where turning up starkers will earn you extra points, believe me."
"I don't mind arguing... but no fighting, please," she agreed, shivering as he nibbled on her ear. "Mmm... I like that, though...." She drew her fingertips around the edge of his ear, since she couldn't reach to nibble it in response. "And I don't think you're stupid, or feeble, or useless... I feel as if I am, sometimes, when I want to comfort you and I don't know how, but never you. You... awe me, sometimes, with how strong you are. I couldn't be a tenth as brave."
"I don't know if it's bravery, in my case, or just force of habit" he replied honestly. "Thanks to my bloody father, and Harry's bloody father - and godfather - and bloody, bloody Lucius, I spent most of my formative years absolutely bloody terrified, being slapped around and humiliated. In the end, you get so used to being terrified that - well, you don't exactly stop being scared, but you get so bloody used to it that it doesn't bother you any more."
He rolled over onto his back, reducing the physical contact between them - but this way, he could look at her, and he did so, stroking her hair back behind her ear and gazing at her seriously. "And you are being brave, Hermione; very brave indeed. It takes more courage than I have to express love to someone you are almost sure will reject you - and a very great deal of courage to become... involved with someone as damaged as I am. To take on the burden of caring for someone who may always be - fractured, in mind as well as in body."
She went pink, looking rather pleased. "It did take a lot of courage to tell you how I felt," she admitted. "But getting involved with you didn't. Broken or not, you are you, and thus all I want." She rested her hand flat on his chest, just over his heart. "And you're not a burden. You're going to be one hell of a challenge, I know that - it's in your nature - but I can't imagine you ever being a burden. And I'm going to try to get you out of the habit of being afraid, if I can. Do you think it would be too dreadful to have to get used to being adored, instead?"
"It's a terrifying thought" he replied, half serious and half teasing. "Being adored - it's such a responsibility. Suddenly my miserable scrap of a life isn't just my own, to use up and throw away as I please - someone else's happiness depends on my survival; on my recovery, insofar as that is even possible. And the idea of being openly admired is so unnerving it makes me want to pull my head into my shoulders like a tortoise and hide. But I could learn to live with it, I think!"
"I hope so," she said seriously, smoothing his hair back from his thin face. "And you're just going to have to get used to the idea of being admired. It's going to go on happening, I'm afraid, if you will persist in going around being a hero. Don't be too heroic, though... I would be broken-hearted if I lost you now, you're quite right about that."
Snape turned his face to the side, rubbing his cheek against her hand like a great cat, and then looked back at her, his face unreadably neutral. "Then I will promise you, here and now," he said softly, "not to kill myself, unless I am in enemy hands with no prospect of rescue or escape - and hope I do not live to regret it. I know that at the moment - at the moment my mood changes from hour to hour, sometimes... lively and full of hope, especially when I'm with you! - sometimes a, a quagmire of self-disgust which I can't help thinking is justified, even when I'm feeling brighter. But you must realize, as I do, that in the future there are likely to be - long periods, months, when I sink into black depression. Just as there will probably be long periods when I feel quite - adjusted, and no longer want to claw my own skin off in revulsion, even a little bit."
Hermione opened her mouth to protest, and he pressed his fingers to her lips. "Shhh. I'm giving you my solemn promise, I won't top myself just because I - feel that I am something too disgusting to be allowed to live, or that you and the whole world would be better off without me - and so you will always have your chance to chivvy me out of it, and in fact I have fairly firm confidence that you'll always succeed. Eventually."
Her eyes had filled with tears when he made his promise, and she leaned over to kiss him lightly. "And I'll feel guilty for holding you to that promise," she whispered, "for wanting you to go on despite everything you've already had to suffer... but I will hold you to it all the same. I love you so much it hurts, and I will keep loving you even when you're at your bitter and unhappy worst. I don't ever want you to leave me." She sniffled, wiping her eyes hastily with her hand. "And I'm sorry, I did promise I'd try not to be terribly sentimental."
"Just so long as you continue to resist the urge to call me by any twee pet-names.... As for military heroism...." He sighed and pulled a face. "I've shot my bolt as a spy, haven't I? - and although I feel guilty about not feeling guilty about no longer being able to fulfil my function etc. etc. I can't honestly say I'm sorry. I could still fight, in theory and if I get the hang of Filius's prostheses well enough to allow me to move freely - but I might be more of a liability in battle than a help. I don't know how I'm going to be if I run into Lucius or - or any of the others who... used me, I don't know if I'll react with murderous fury - which could have its uses, yus kin, and I like to think I'd make quite a good berserker - or whether I'd... well. Collapsing in a quivering heap and sobbing for mercy in the middle of a fight might create a useful distraction, but I don't really fancy it. It's not how I want to appear in the history books!"
"I don't think any of us would let you go into battle, even if you had the best prostheses in the world. They're far too intent on killing you... or hurting you... and they're going to have to go through every one of us to do it now. You've done more for us than anyone could ever have asked or expected, and now you get to stop doing it and rest while we carry on with what you started. To lose you now would cost us more in morale and... and hope than could possibly be gained by you taking the risk."
"You're going to hate me for saying this, but it almost sounds as if I ought to let myself be captured, in order to inspire a daring raid on the - on Riddle's stronghold. Don't worry," he added hastily, seeing the distress in her face; "even I'm not that bloody masochistic, and I wouldn't do that to you - or to the others, for that matter. As strange as it still seems to me, that anyone would care."
He brushed a lingering tear off her cheek with his thumb, feeling rather sentimental himself although he was far too northern to admit to it. "Oddly enough, even after..." - he gestured eloquently at the emptiness where his left arm should be - "and despite - despite spending a lot of my time wanting to claw my own skin off, I probably feel less bitter at present than I have ever done. Because it wasn't - it wasn't the bad things that had happened to me which made me bitter, as bad as many of them were; it was the fact that so little that was good had ever happened to me. It was - the grinding certainty that nobody really cared whether I lived or died, except for the ones like Black who had an active preference for my death; the, the feeling that I was despised, unwelcome, whatever sacrifices I might make for the cause.
"But now...." He pressed his thumb gently into the corner of her mouth, causing her to smile. "Now I know that there are people who do care whether I live or die - and who want me to live! Now I am beginning to build up a, a store of good things, good memories, to keep in a kist and take out and look at when I feel cold - your loving me, Minerva singing to me in the night, Adrian bringing me wine when I had hardly a thought in my head, to let me know he saw me as a real person even so, and not just an item of work - and I wonder, why should I be bitter? I have some - some sweetness now, to sweeten me, and I should be glad of that. Am glad of it."
"I do care, and I do very much want you to live," Hermione murmured, turning her head to kiss his thumb gently. "And I'll make you as many good memories as I can... everything from snuggling up together half-naked just being close, to baking for you. I can bake, you know. I make quite good macaroons." She smiled, still a little teary, and touched his face lovingly. "And any time the good memories aren't enough, you only have to call me to have me right by your side for as long as you want me... and classes be damned. You're more important. And I have never said that to anyone before."
"Good Lord - I'm flattered, truly. But new-found affection or no new-found affection, if I make you fail your NEWTs Minerva will skelp me!"
She laughed, and kissed the tip of his nose. "Oh, I could sit my NEWTs right now and pass, really. All that obsessive studying, you know... but don't worry, I won't let you hurt my schoolwork too much. If you ever did really need me, though, during the day, I'm far enough ahead in all my classes to miss one or two without any trouble, so you mustn't hesitate to call me if you want me."
"Dear God, you really must love me, if you'd settle for a mere pass for my sake!" He hooked his arm behind her shoulders and pulled her down against him, skin on skin, then rolled over with her to kiss her properly, slowly and deeply. "I could get a taste for this," he murmured into her open mouth. "I really could." The part of his nature that was still hot and alive suddenly wanted to go much further, much faster, but commonsense told him that if he tried it, freezing panic would overtake him in short order - and a large part of him still expected Hermione to change her mind, and he had no desire to rush her into anything she might not be entirely sure about.
She laughed, returning the kiss lingeringly. "I do indeed love you more than the prospect of getting all O's on my NEWTs," she agreed, smiling up at him. "And I could definitely get a taste for this myself. We should definitely try this bare-skin experiment again as often as possible."
"Most definitely. And - once I get - used to it we could progress to... showers. And things. Definitely things."
"Bail" means among other things an enclosed courtyard or a barrier which divides a stable into individual stalls, so to bail someone up is to back them into an enclosed space.
Old Man's Beard is a common British hedgerow plant, Clematis vitalba, which has little white flowers which smell like vanilla, and white, fluffy seed pods.
Francis Bacon was a rather louche, alcoholic, promiscuously gay British artist who tended to paint wild, distorted scenes of red-faced people screaming - his Screaming Popes series is especially well-known. At his death, there were a lot of people pontificating (as it were) about the deep inner meaning of his contorted style, but two comments by friends of his especially stood out.
One said that Bacon did all his painting while suffering from a hangover, which I thought explained a lot. The other said "You think his style is distorted and surreal? You should have seen the people he hung around with - they really looked like that."
The calming tea which Neville brewed really exists and really works. It's known as Dee's Tea and was invented by my friend Dee Suil-Levanne who is among many other things a qualified herbalist. It consists of twelve parts Rosebay Willowherb leaf (known in the U.S.A. as Fireweed) to four parts St John's Wort leaf, one part Valerian root and one part Chamomile flowers. It's very soothing and has no known harmful side-effects, other than slight drowsiness if you drink a lot of it. But you do have to make sure you get Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) and not Great Hairy Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum), which is slightly poisonous.
To "hoick" something up or out is to tug on it in a rough, abrupt way.
To feel your breath tighten (which I am told is an expression Americans don't use) is to feel your ribs constrict so that breathing becomes rather forced.
"She moved through the garden in glory because...." - poem by Richard Garnett.
The real "Gang of Four" were four close associates of Chairman Mao, who were arrested after his death and accused of having been among the principal architects of China's disastrous Cultural Revolution.
"Yus kin" is a north Derbyshire expression, from the sort of area Snape probably comes from. Literally, it means "You are kin to me:" metaphorically it means "You understand what I'm saying." Referring to your parents as "my Mums and Dads" is also a Derbyshire thing.
A kist is an old-fashioned word for a chest - in the sense of a big box, not a bust.
We've had complaints that Snape shouldn't be as self-aware as he is here, and also that he and Hermione are being too "fluffy". To begin with, Snape has spent years fooling one of the best Legilimens on record (either Voldie or Albus, depending on which side you think he's on). He wouldn't be able to do that if he simply closed his mind to them, because neither of them would trust him if they couldn't read him. Whichever of them he is fooling, he must be able to open his mind up and let them see a totally convincing, natural-looking set of thoughts and feelings and memories which have in fact been subtly and invisibly edited: and I don't believe he could keep that up for ten minutes unless he is exceptionally well-aware of the contents of his own head.
As for them being "too fluffy", how do readers think a plain, socially awkward, lonely, traumatized and sex-starved middle-aged man would react to finding out that a personable eighteen-year-old girl fancied him madly? How do they think a love-struck eighteen-year-old would react to finding out that the object of her affections fancied her back? No doubt if they stayed together for a long time there would be things about each other which they would start to find annoying and which they would have to work around, because frankly everybody on earth is annoying in large doses; but at the moment they have only been dating, or whatever you want to call it, for less than two weeks and are still in that first flush of infatuation where all the love-object's little mannerisms look endearing rather than irritating. It would be totally unrealistic to have them snapping and snarling at each other just because some readers have a "thing" for snarly!Snape - or because some people think that the idea that a couple might actually like each other and get on well together is in itself unbelievable.
With regard to the person who said that Sirius did endanger Harry, by trying to get him to sneak out to visit him in hiding, it's very easy to make that mistake; Dyce and I both did so ourselves, until we re-read it. Sirius was being such a prat that it's easy to miss it, but he didn't ask Harry to sneak out: he asked Harry to meet him in Hogsmeade during the next Hogsmeade weekend. He sulked because Harry was trying to protect him from danger, and was refusing to condone him, Sirius, taking stupid risks with his own safety; but the only danger he was putting Harry into was that of getting into trouble for consorting with an escaped convict, if Sirius was caught.
Note that Dyce's solo post-HBP HGSS story Accountable is currently in progress on fanfiction.net, and being updated twice a week. It's a lot less dark than Lost and Found but full of interesting incidents and lively, believable characterization. Get on board, if you aren't already.
A new chapter of whitehound's solo story Sons of Prophecy is also imminent, and should be appearing either on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day.
This chapter has been re-edited in accordance with the new backstory revealed in Deathly Hallows, to show Flitwick trying to retrieve the Hufflepuff cup from Gringott's rather than from a mine-shaft, as we originally had it, and to comment on Snape's sense of guilt and on the fact that he did have friendships at school, but they weren't very supportive. The comments about Sectumsempra have also been adjusted.
The conversation between Snape and Hooch about his progress with the 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.
I (whitehound) originally assumed that because Sectumsempra can be translated as "Sever Forever", and because Snape referred at the end of HBP to Harry stealing his spells, plural, Snape himself must have invented Sectumsempra, despite the fact that it was written in his book without any workings-out. But the revelation in DH that the name describes its action, and the casual way Remus refers to it as if it is a well-known spell, makes it more ambiguous. In my solo stories I have decided to have Snape not having invented the spell, but having simply adopted it because of the name. In this story, though, I left it as his own invention, since we had already written the conversation between him and Hermione about it.
Why would young Severus want to invent, or even learn, such a nasty spell? Well, the fact that Sectumsempra prevents missing bits from being regrown isn't as bad as it sounds, because we've plenty of evidence that the wizarding world can't usually replace missing bits anyway.
Then, we know werewolves are immune to most magic, because Snape had to be rescued from Remus. Were-Remus turns into a beast with paws who cannot hold a wand, so if magic worked on him Snape could simply have Stupefied him, and wouldn't have needed James to save him. We can also surmise that werewolves probably heal almost instantly - partly because tradition says that only silver can kill them, and partly because we know that in were-form Remus bites and scratches himself, and outside the realms of fanon there's no mention of him being scarred. So young Snape might well have felt that he needed such a spell which interfered with magical healing for protection from Remus - and we now know that the first time we see him use it, during the underpants incident, was after Sirius tried to feed him to the werewolf.
If he invented that spell, or was taught it or a predecessor by his mother, when he was much younger, he might have had another reason. Growing up, as he probably did, somewhere in the Manchester area he would have started school while the notorious paedophile serial killers called the Moors Murderers were operating in that area. He or his mother might well have thought that a defensive spell which produced wounds which looked as if they'd been made by a Muggle weapon could be a literal life-saver.
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