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
It was remarkable how quickly lying half bare like this had become a source of comfort instead of fear; but Hermione's kind warmth was nothing like his abusers' sweaty insistence, and her touch somehow seemed at least partially to cancel the other out. The warm dry silk of her skin, sliding against his, made him feel for a while as if he might really be clean again (or as clean as he had ever been), and not forever contaminated by their sweat and their relentless, pawing hands.
As they lay together quietly, his open robes wrapped loosely around both of them to keep out the March winds, and Crookshanks's heavy weight pinning their feet to the mattress, even desire seemed unimportant as the smooth heat of Hermione's body pressed close against his, warming the cold shiver in his belly and easing the frozen tension from his battered bones.
"And you're sure that the voice you heard was a Ravenclaw?"
"Moderately sure." He looked at the girl where she sat cross-legged on his stone work-table, nibbling on the skein of black and red liquorice which she wore twisted round her neck like a necklace, her grey-blonde hair escaping from its ties and a book on magical cryptozoology open across her knees, and sighed. "Neither myself, Professor McGonagall nor Professor Sprout recognized the - the voice of the girl who spoke, other than the vague familiarity one would expect to feel at the voice of any current student. Since it's likely that a house-master or mistress would recognise one of his or her own students...."
"And Professor Flitwick is away doing something extra-top-secret for the Order of the Phoenix" Lovegood replied, with her brightest and most open smile.
"How do you -? Never mind." Filius was not even officially an Order member, owing to his great age; but Albus trusted him and would call on his expertise where needed.
"I know everything," she replied, with a curling smile, and Snape snorted with amusement.
"'Everything' irrespective of whether it's actually true or not!"
"'Them as believes nothing'," Lovegood replied gravely, obviously quoting something, "'is seldom disappointed, but they do miss a lot of action.' So - do you want me to take a look at your memory, then, and see if I can tell who it is?"
He recoiled instinctively, his whole body flinching before he could suppress it. Clamping his nerves down ruthlessly he swallowed and then shook his head. "No. Definitely not. I couldn't possibly ask a student to look at such - material when there is no didactic purpose."
Lovegood made an irritated tsk-ing noise. "I do have an imagination you know" she said with some asperity. "I already know what they did to you - the gist of it, anyway. Actually seeing it won't make it any worse, particularly; and if students could do that to you, I'm sure I can stand to see it."
She looked at him solemnly for a moment, and then reached out and patted his arm gently. "It won't make me think any less of you, really it won't. And I don't like thinking that students who are still at this school - girls who are in my house - did that to you, and I don't know who they are or whether I might be sitting next to them at lunch without knowing it."
"But - would you even be sure of recognising them? Out of all the female students in Ravenclaw?"
"Oh yes: I know all their voices. I listen to them when they don’t know I'm there." She smiled a broad and faintly disturbing smile. "I listen to people a lot."
The blonde girl raised her face from the cloud-filled bowl and pushed it away from her. He wanted to be sick; his stomach knotted to ice and slime at the knowledge of what she had just seen and he wanted to crawl away somewhere and hide his shame but he forced himself to look at her, to see that hard, inward expression as her mouth tightened to a thin line and her rather prominent eyes narrowed. It occurred to him that even Bellatrix in full cry had never looked as deadly.
"Well?" he asked, forcing himself to sound brisk and competent although he was aware that he probably wasn't fooling anybody. "Did you recognise the speaker?" But then, he'd spent much of his life to date forcing himself to sound brisk and competent when he really wanted to crawl into a hole and throw up.
"Oh yes," Lovegood replied, still with that diamond-hard expression, although he realized it wasn't for him when she reached out without looking and looped her fingers lightly around his wrist, a loose tie tethering him to sanity (or what passed for it, in her case). "It's Padma Patil."
"I'd prefer that you not tell Hermione Granger about this - identification, Severus."
Severus looked down at his hand, which was trembling and white to the point of transparency; blue veins showing like a road-map through the waxy skin. "I assure you, Albus, that Miss Granger is - trustworthy. And discreet."
"It's not her discretion which concerns me, but her acting ability. I put it to you: would she be able to share a room with Miss Patil - Parvati Patil, that is - and hear her speak about her twin, and not give away any sign that she knew that twin to be - under suspicion?"
"No - no, I suppose not."
"The same goes, I think, for Mr Longbottom."
Snape looked up and gave his friend a quizzical look, half serious and half amused. "You're not concerned about Luna Lovegood giving anything away, then?"
"I think we both know that there is no doubt about Miss Lovegood's acting ability."
"I take it you're going to leave Miss Patil free and - give her the rope to hang herself with?"
"Quite. Since we don't know who the - the other girl was, I thought it would be best to leave Miss Patil free for a few weeks to see whom she contacts."
"And you can't legally justify using Legilimency or Veritaserum on her against her will, on the basis of something as flimsy as a snatch of a voice taken from the memory of a man who was - dazed - and...." He pressed his knuckles against his mouth, trying to fight the sudden surge of nausea, and Albus sat down at his side with a rather fussy gesture, and gathered him into the crook of his uninjured left arm. Snape leaned into the reassuring contact, squinting his eyes half-shut to screen out the sight of Albus's latest sartorial atrocity. The sight of so much lime-green satin studded with magenta hibiscus flowers was doing nothing for his stomach.
"I have to pull myself together," he muttered. "Horace has asked me to mark all his third-year essays on Exhilerating Elixir by this afternoon, and I still have seventeen of the damnable things to plough through. I'm tempted to offer to test it on myself: it might bring me out of this - idiotic shaking fit."
"I must confess I am concerned about Horace pushing so much of his workload onto you, when you are still far from well."
"I'm just grateful that I refused to handle the sixth and seventh-year essays from the outset, because of the - potential for accusations of favouritism. I don't know what I should do if I had to mark Padma Patil's...." He began to shake again, even held within the hoop of his friend's arm. "Oh God, Albus, was I so - so loathsome as a teacher, or so disgusting as a man, that my students felt justified in -?"
"Hush, now. You are quite safe, and whatever Miss Patil's motives were, I doubt they were directly personal. You may have made your students want to punch you in the eye occasionally, but I doubt that any of them would wish to...." He gestured eloquently at his friend's terrible injuries. "Be at peace now. Whatever her motives, I very much doubt that they were due to any fault of yours."
"Neville said that you've been having bouts of being obsessed with the idea your skin feels dirty, leik."
"Neville should keep his damned impertinent observations to himself" the older man snapped, glaring at Adrian under his formidably winged brows.
"Got to have my spies, haven't I?" Adrian replied complacently around a mouthful of pizza. "You'll certainly never tell me."
"And what would be the point if I did? You can hardly - make me clean again."
"Stop fishing for reassurance, ya tube: you know nobody but you thinks you're dirty."
"Unfortunately, it is my opinion that counts."
"I guess: but as for feeling dirty, I mean your skin, I wonder if it isn't more neurological than psychological."
"You mean... nerve-damage of some kind?"
"Mm. I know Poppy healed your lesions, better and much faster than a Muggle Burns Unit could have done, but even so - injured nerves take a long time to recover fully, years, and I wonder if it isn't just that your skin still feels funny, leik, everywhere it was burned."
"But I feel so - " He looked down, picking at the blanket fretfully. "I feel so dirty in myself, not just my skin, so - used."
"Well, that's probably inevitable, under the - well. Under the circumstances. It's bound to take you a while to get your sense of self properly back together. But I think you may be making it worse by interpreting a purely physical symptom as if it was proof of your own neurosis."
"Thank you so bloody much for that."
Adrian stretched and yawned, discreetly covering his mouth with his hand, and Snape looked at him with an annoyance not unmixed with envy. Newly returned from a week-long honeymoon in Prague, the young surgeon looked simultaneously sleepy and smug.
"Don't be daft. You're allowed to have neuroses after everything that happened last year: it would be a bloody miracle if you didn't. But I wish you'd let me refer you to - "
"No. Thank you, but - no. Quite apart from the security aspects, I prefer to deal with these things in my own way."
"Fair enough, I guess, but.... Y'know, sometimes I get the feeling you don't really want to get well."
"That's ridiculous Addy and you know it!"
"Do I, then? What does being well mean to you - seriously, leik?"
"Independence; self-sufficiency; being able to stand on my own two feet - even if they aren't my own flesh and blood anymore. Having to stand on my own feet. Isolation. Loneliness - damn."
"I'm sure - now they've noticed that they like you, your friends won't abandon you just because you're no longer so - so dependent on them. I certainly won't stop seeing you: just change the venue a bit, leik. There's some very fine pubs I want to introduce you to, once you can stand up well enough to fall down again."
Harry Potter usually erupted, plunged or charged through doors. Upon occasion he might stride, if he was trying to look dignified. This time, presented with his former Professor's door, he had suddenly and miraculously acquired the ability to sidle guiltily. He appeared around the door more quietly than anyone who knew him would have given him credit for.
"Potter," Snape said flatly, as he caught sight of the trademark lavatory-brush hair and stunned-bushbaby spectacles. By a supreme effort of will he managed to keep his tone merely dubious rather than outright hostile.
Hermione, with whom he had been having a quiet game of cards, looked almost as surprised to see Potter as Potter did to see her.
"Oh. Uh." Potter rubbed a hand nervously through his hair. "I thought Neville... I mean, it looks like you're busy. I can come back later."
The corners of Snape's long lips actually twitched up, very slightly. "Unfortunately, Professor Sprout called Longbottom away half an hour ago, to assist with some guerilla re-potting. Apparently the Striated Strangleweed had got the Honking Hogweed in a head-lock."
"Well. That's... bad, I guess." Potter shuffled his feet. "Uhm... could I maybe have a quiet word?"
Hermione suddenly stopped looking puzzled and started looking both proud and very amused instead. "Of course. We're not busy."
"Er... I meant with Professor Snape," Potter said, giving Snape an unwontedly pleading look. Whatever he wanted to say, he clearly did not want to say it in front of Hermione.
"I'm sure whatever you wish to say can be said in front of Miss Granger," Snape said smoothly. He was surprised to find that he actually felt a little guilty about ignoring Potter's pleading expression: but not half as guilty as he would feel if he deprived Hermione of the chance to witness Potter's chagrin when he sprang the identity of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince on him. "Unless, of course, you are volunteering to be the one to hold me if I should chance to have a panic attack?"
Harry shot him a look of nervous horror. "Er... no, that's all right. Hermione can stay."
"Hermione had every intention of staying," Hermione said, giving Harry the sort of look that weary older sisters have been bestowing on irritating younger brothers since time immemorial - a mixture of affection, exasperation, and amusement. "Go on, Harry."
"Well... uh...." Harry looked around at the tapestries, apparently seeking inspiration. "I thought I should... well, Hermione thought... I mean, I thought it too, but she's better at... at things than I am...."
"Miss Granger is better at a great many things than you are, Potter," Snape said silkily. Not, in his opinion, that it was hard to be better at most things than Potter: but he decided, for once, not to say it, in the interests of preventing the conversation from degenerating into the usual tedious hostilities.
And the boy had saved his life, after all. For an instant, he had a sense of absolute vertigo - of awareness of how far he had come, from the abject, degraded, dying thing which Potter's stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable had saved, to sitting here clean and safe and warm, fed and rested and hardly in any pain (the residual aches scarcely even registered any more) and sort-of-very-nearly-sane in his own rooms in his nice new robes, playing cards with an honest-to-God sort-of-very-nearly-an-actual-girlfriend and indulging in a little light Potter-baiting. The sudden warm rush of happiness and - ye gods - gratitude left him feeling positively light-headed.
"You wished to say something to me, Potter?" he said encouragingly, taking pity on the boy's discomfort; and then, because he was still Snape, added: "Or were you just looking for an antidote to the Babbling Curse?"
Harry relaxed slightly at that. "If I did, I'd have asked Hermione. She's been unhexing me and uncursing me and stuff for years." He looked around the room again, and then at his own feet. "I just... uh... look, I know we've had our differences, and I reckon you - " He caught Hermione's eye and almost visibly changed tack in mid-sentence. "I mean, you and I both deserved some of it, because we've been... uh... a bit intolerant and all that, me and you both...."
"You mean that you treated me like an automaton without rights or feelings, and despised me for trying to protect you from the consequences of your own stupidity" Snape snapped. Took a deep breath. Tried to recapture that fleeting sense of happiness and gratitude. "And I, I will admit, was far more - more aware of, and infuriated by, your laziness and lack of manners than I would have been had it not been for your unfortunate resemblance to your father, with all the - history between us."
"I mean that I've been a prat and you've been a bloody bastard," Harry said, a bit of spirit finally showing. "And I am sorry about that, a bit, believe it or not. I know I've been unfair to you - I even knew it at the time, sometimes. But you've been just as bloody unfair a few times, even if I did give you more reason to be." He took a deep breath. "The thing is - I mean, the thing I came in here to apologize for is - the Pensieve. That went a long way beyond being a prat, and I'm sorry. I really am. I didn't...." He ran a hand through his hair again. "I know it sounds stupid, but it didn't even occur to me that it might be anything... personal. I was so frustrated with all the secrets, and all the half-truths, and what with you being in the Order.... I thought it was more of the things I was supposedly too young to know. Something poor wee Harry should be protected from for his own bloody good."
"'Poor wee Harry' had the bloody - had Riddle looking out of his eyes like a human bloody periscope. If I had been hiding anything - politically sensitive, and He had seen it through you, I would have been dead meat."
"I know that - I just didn't think of it at the time. I wasn't thinking of a lot of things, at the time. But wasn't it more dangerous to leave that sort of stuff in your head where I might accidentally - well, you know, break into it, the way I did with...?"
"The way you saw my charming parents having a delightful little at-home tęte-ŕ-tęte? But that was just one of the memories I leave out as bait, so that anyone seeing it will think they've broken through into the real me...." He smirked. "If He couldn't break through my shields and find the real me, I'm damned sure you couldn't...." and trailed off, flinching. "At least, He - didn't, until he had me taken apart by experts. And you may be many things, Potter, most of them damned annoying, but I never marked you down as a torturer." As Hermione leaned forwards, quietly solicitous, and rested her hand over his, he muttered under his breath, almost too soft to hear, "Not like your father".
Hermione squeezed his hand gently. "He's trying," she whispered just as quietly.
Potter winced, though he couldn't have heard their whispered exchange. "No, I'm not a torturer, I'd never - do that."
He was uncomfortably aware that he had come close to it with Snape, a few times - had fantasized about making him writhe and jerk under Crucio, and it didn't seem remotely amusing any more. Still, he hadn't actually done it and he thought - hoped - that he wouldn't have. "And... I'm sorry, I really am. About prying into your memories, and seeing something I know you didn't want me or anyone to see." He looked down at his feet again. "If it makes you feel any better, finding out my Dad was like a better-looking, more intelligent version of Dudley was a punishment all by itself." He said the name "Dudley" as if it meant "Blast-Ended Skrewt" or something equally unpleasant.
"That would be your cousin; the one who makes Vincent Crabbe look dainty and refined?"
"That's Dudley." Harry scowled. "Only imagine he's the leader of his little gang, has started proper boxing training, and is unburdened by Crabbe's biting intellect."
Snape gave a little huff of laughter, and the beginnings of a grin flickered across his face. It was the first time he'd ever seen anything in Potter that he might actually like; but creative verbal bitchiness had always been one of his favourite pastimes, and one of the main planks of his friendship with Albus, insofar as what he had had with Albus prior to his immolation could be termed friendship. Then memory caught up with him, and he scowled.
"Your father and Black would have been easier to take if they'd been less intelligent: it might have made their cruelty less - inventive. And I could never, never get away from the bastards. I never knew how they did it, it used to drive me mad - nearly literally. I never knew they'd invented a device for spying on everybody in the castle, and I shudder to think what other uses they put it to."
"I - I don't think they...." Harry started lamely, and Snape raised his eyebrows.
"Come, now. Do you honestly imagine that Pettigrew, at least, would have resisted to urge to use the map to find out who was shagging whom in the fourth-floor linen closet? And they used it to home in on me like a pack of stoats on a rabbit." The grin flickered again, with an edge of smugness. "I will say, however, that in one respect your father and Black were less of a problem than your hulking thug of a cousin. Neither of them could punch worth a damn; as I proved on more than one occasion."
He looked at the boy speculatively for a moment, his head tilted to one side so that he looked like an inquisitive rook. Then he jerked his head towards the kettle in the corner. "Since you're here, Potter, you might as well make the tea. There should be enough for three." He gave Hermione a guardedly neutral look, wondering whether he was doing a good job in her eyes, or not.
Hermione smiled at him, and then her smile widened as her eyes tracked over to Potter. "Can you manage, Harry?"
Harry rolled his eyes and grinned at her. "Hermione, I make an excellent cup of tea. You know that." He headed over to the kettle. They had a tea-service more or less permanently set up in the corner of Snape's room, so nobody had to leave his sight to get some - or summon a house elf each and every time.
"I really do," he added, apparently detecting a shred of doubt in Snape's expression. "I've been doing it since I was big enough to lift a kettle. I can cook, too - mostly breakfast and lunch, Aunt Petunia generally did dinner herself. Another year or two, though...." He shrugged, busying himself with the tea things. "I'm not completely helpless, no matter what everyone seems to think. I may not be able to duel with Snake-Face yet, but I can take care of myself."
Hermione nodded, giving Snape's hand a gentle squeeze. "He'd make a much better housewife than I would, actually," she whispered, giving Harry a proud look. "You should see him clean. He can get a shine on a toilet bowl that even my mum couldn't."
"I'm not a bad cook myself." He pulled a wry face, half dour and half mocking. "When Dads was dead-drunk in the front room and Mums had locked herself in to have histrionics in the bedroom, it was cook or starve. But I prefer brewing." He paused, looking thoughtful. "That reminds me: when I was... taken I had three demijohns of cowslip wine on the go in that cupboard at the end of the Potions corridor. I wonder if they're still there?"
"Wine?" Harry filled the teapot and turned to give Snape a thoughtful look. "I haven't heard anything about it, and I usually would, so it's probably still where you left it. Would it still be any good? I don't know anything about wine, except that it tastes awful. Aunt Petunia's and Uncle Vernon's did, anyway. Is it hard to make?"
"It will either have improved with age, or blown its fermentation locks and coated the inside of the cupboard with yeast and alcohol. It remains to be seen which." He tilted his head back against the back of the sofa and looked down his long nose at the boy. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that your palate is too unsophisticated for wine, Potter; or perhaps," he added fairly, "that your relatives are too stingy to buy anything better than vinegar and horse-piss. But I could teach you to catch summer in a glass and the sun in a bottle, if you were willing to learn."
He smiled his fleeting, there-and-gone smile. "After all, we know that if you will only apply yourself you are capable of learning what I wish to teach you...." The smile spread, baring his yellow teeth in a shark's grin as he finished softly, "...since I gather you have found my notes invaluable in your quest to pull the wool over Horace Slughorn's eyes...."
Harry blinked at him. "Aah - I don't - " He looked at Hermione in confusion and she smiled encouragingly.
"He means the Half-Blood Prince's book, Harry."
Harry put the teapot down, very carefully, and then sat down on the rag rug in front of the fire, his arms wrapped around his updrawn knees, and looked from one to the other. "You mean to tell me that he is - that that book is... and you didn't tell me?"
"I've only known it myself since Friday," Hermione said apologetically, "and, well, S- Professor Snape wanted to be the first to tell you, and it is his book, so...."
Snape smiled his shark-like, politician's smile again. "And I was so flattered, Potter, to hear that you held my younger self in such... regard."
"Yes, well," Harry snapped, "you've changed a lot - sir. It's not surprising I didn't recognize you."
Snape flashed him a fleeting smirk, more natural this time and less like something on the hunt for prey. "Touché, Potter. I will admit to having changed, and not necessarily for the better. But I like to think I've kept my sense of humour." He considered the boy thoughtfully: the brat had been at least trying to be reasonably pleasant, for once, and it would be a pity to waste it for a punchline: however satisfying. "I should apologise to you, this time," he said abruptly, "for setting you up to receive my little bombshell: but you'll appreciate that I don't get out much at present. I have to make my own amusements where I find them."
"Yeah, well...." Harry scuffed his foot against the rag rug. "Can't argue with that, I s'pose." He sounded as if he'd like to. Then he sighed. "So much for hoping the Prince would have liked me," he mumbled. He sounded surly, if you only listened to the tone, but for once he was close enough and it was quiet enough that Snape caught the actual words to that mutinous mutter.
"You wouldn't have had much in common with him, Potter," Snape said abruptly. Potter looked up, his eyes widening in evident hurt, and the older man sighed. "But that's true of you and Granger here, isn't it, and you seem to manage. He - that boy - he would have liked anybody who seemed to like him, I think, but you probably wouldn't even have given him the time of day - being a Slytherin, and therefore already tainted in the eyes of every other bloody house." He rubbed tiredly at his eyes, unconsciously finishing by running his knuckles up and down the scar which bisected his cheek.
"You know when I started at Hogwarts, I was so stupid that I thought that your father and Black - everyone said they were good students, they got high marks at almost every subject the same way I did, I didn't even know that Slytherins don't mix with Gryffindors and I was so stupid I thought that if they were swots like me I might be able to talk to them, show them the spells I'd been working on, that they might like me for being clever instead of jeering at me the way the brats at primary school did but they just.... They weren't interested in what we were studying for its own sake, you understand, just for what use they could put it to, they thought I was - hilarious because I actually read books on magic and potions in my spare time, and I - I didn't realize how ridiculous I was, this ignorant, half-blood brat, exclaiming in wonder at things every pure-blood had grown up with from the cradle - as ridiculous as Arthur waxing lyrical over laundrettes and letter-boxes. But they soon put me right. They soon let me know exactly what a bloody laughing-stock I was."
Harry shrugged, and gave him a wry, lopsided little grin. "That's what put me off Slytherin, you know." When Snape blinked at him, he slid into a crosslegged position on the rug, resting his elbows on his knees. "Hagrid took me to get my robes and books and things, before I started. My aunt and uncle didn't want me to go to Hogwarts at all, and they certainly wouldn't have spent any money on it. They weren't even going to buy me a uniform for the comprehensive." He shrugged again. "I ran into Draco in Madam Malkin's. All the time we were getting robes fitted, he was going on about how he didn't think people who weren't from wizarding families should even be allowed into Hogwarts, because they didn't know wizarding ways and things. And he talked about a lot of stuff like Quidditch that I couldn't make head or tail of and I had to pretend I understood."
"I never knew you'd met Draco before the train," Hermione said quietly.
"Oh, I did... and then on the train it was more of the same. Told me I didn't want to sit with someone poor and common like Ron, when I'd spent my whole life being even more poor and common than that, sucking up just because of some stupid scar that I didn't even realize was important." Harry shrugged again. "And then he got sorted into Slytherin and Ron and Fred and George said they weren't surprised because they're all like that, and I thought they'd know, so... I dunno, maybe we would have got on. Sounds like you started out the same way I did, but going the other way."
Snape looked at him with renewed interest. "Draco has a certain amount of real prejudice against Muggle-borns and half-bloods; with his family background it could hardly be otherwise which, in fairness, I suppose was also true of Black. But mostly - he probably wouldn't thank me for saying this but he was terrified of coming to Hogwarts: he'd been home-schooled and he'd hardly even met another child socially before he got on that train. If you let him think you understood what he was talking about he'll have assumed you were a pure-blood like him, so he probably thought that by running down Muggle-borns to you he was, ah, 'sucking up' to you."
Harry blinked. "You think he was trying to impress me?"
"I would think so, yes - especially after he found out who you were: he was certainly terribly crestfallen when the famous Harry Potter slapped him down on the train. That was part of why I - and we didn't know, either of us, that you hadn't had any wizarding education at all. If I had known I wouldn't have been so - offended by your inability to answer a simple question about potion ingredients that any wizard child could have at least hazarded a guess at, but I thought that you were simply - well, scorning the subject, and me, the way you had scorned my godson. And, ah, scorning your mother's memory, since she was outstandingly gifted at Potions." Nearly as outstandingly gifted as himself: but he forbore from saying so.
"Yes; Slug - Professor Slughorn said she was good. But I never knew - I never knew anything about her, before I started at Hogwarts." He shuffled sideways a bit, away from the fire which was becoming uncomfortably hot, and looked at Snape quizzically. "If, um, you minded whether I was scorning my mother's memory or not, why did you call her a - " He glanced at Hermione and flushed slightly. "You know."
"Oh, really, Potter, you're old enough to know what it feels like to want to impress a girl - unless your taste runs to boys! You must be able to understand what it feels like to want to impress a pretty girl with how bloody sophisticated you are, and then be seen by her in the most embarrassing - "
"Um, yeah. I used to have this really huge crush on Cho Chang, and she walked in on me once just after Neville's pet Mimbulus mimbletonia showered me with Stinksap." He raised his eyebrows. "So, um, does that mean that you and my mum...?"
"Not in so many words. But she was my friend, since we were children - my only friend, for a long time, and most of the other friends I made since turned out to be...." His mouth tightened as he made a wordless gesture indicating the scars which decorated it. "And she was - well, the only person I could actually talk to about Potions, apart from Horace Slughorn. I should have been content with that I suppose but she was - lovely. Every boy in the school, practically, wanted to impress her. Having her see me - like that - " He grimaced. "I suppose I should be grateful that she didn't stay to see me actually stripped. It's mortifying enough to know that you saw...."
"Um. I didn't, actually. I didn't see that much of the memory, just - up to when they were threatening to - you know. I never knew whether they did or not." He looked down, colouring slightly and fiddling with a strand of the rug. "I'm sorry," he muttered. He looked up again in time to see Snape give him a tiny nod of acknowledgement, his mouth tightening at the corners as he did so.
"I'm more sorry than you could believe that I lost what little self-control I had left at that point and insulted your mother when she was trying to help me," Snape replied soberly, "especially since - since I lost her friendship along with that self-control, and her friendship was... of great value to me. But - well, quite apart from being nearly ready to drop dead from shear bloody embarrassment, I was bloody terrified. Slytherin House at that time had more Death Eater sympathisers than all the other houses put together, and even those that weren't were nearly all pure-bloods, and I was this scrawny, penniless, common little half-blood, stuck there in the middle: I might as well have painted a bloody target on my back.
"I did have a few friends in Slytherin, of a sort," (of the sort who had later become prominent among his torturers, his abusers), "but they weren't the sort that could be relied on for backup - as they proved when they stood by while your bloody father dangled me upside-down and stripped me. I knew right then, if I hadn't known it before, that I was on my own as far as my own house went. I just about managed to hold my own because by that point they all knew I could come up with hexes and poisons they didn't know the antidote to, but if I'd let myself be publicly rescued by a Muggle-born, Gryffindor girl - God." He pressed his hand against his mouth, an unconscious, nervous gesture, staring at Potter over the back of it. "At least your father and Black couldn't get at me while I was sleeping."
Harry shuddered sympathetically. "When we were in first year, and lost all those points.... I hardly dared go to sleep at night, and the worst I could expect from Gryffindor was a bit of a thumping."
Hermione nodded. "It was just as bad in the girls' dormitories. I can quite see why you wouldn't want to risk it." She smiled at Snape, the tender smile reserved just for him. "As for Draco... he's awfully good at seeming self-assured. I was completely convinced until I slapped him in third year and he squeaked and sloped off."
Harry snickered, and didn't seem the slightest bit put off by Snape's chilly look. "It was funny. It really was. There was Hermione, the smallest out of all of us even with the hair, and Malfoy and Crabbe and Goyle all scampering off. If it had been me or Ron there'd have been a fight, again, and we'd have lost, again. But Hermione actually scared them off. It was hilarious."
"I didn't scare them off," Hermione said, putting her nose in the air. "You just don't hit girls, that's all. They knew that just as well as you did."
"Was that it?" Harry blinked. "I thought it was just the shock. You're so quiet, usually, that it was like seeing someone get savaged by a kitten." He paused, and his face softened a bit. "You know, you're a bit like my mum. Not to look at, but leaping in and shouting at people and not being at all impressed by things like how cool someone is or how good he is at Quidditch. You'd probably have got him," he jerked his head in Snape's direction, "into even more trouble than she did. It takes more than being rude to you to get rid of you. I know. I've tried."
"And you're lucky it didn't work, too. You only ever try to ditch me when you think something's going to be dangerous, and that's just when you need an eye kept on you."
"It's a dirty job," Snape said with a smirk, "but somebody's got to do it. Weren't you going to make the tea, Potter? I'd do it myself, but somehow magicked tea is never as good as the kind you brew yourself." When Potter had uncoiled to his feet in an annoyingly athletic and assured way and returned to the teapot, he gave Hermione a fond smile while the boy's back was turned. "If you'd rescued me, I probably wouldn't have got into too much trouble, so long as I made a show of trying to see you off: everybody would know that I'd had no choice in the matter once you'd taken me up as a Cause." And then added, very softly so Potter wouldn't hear it over the hiss of the kettle, "And even if I had got into trouble for it, it might have been worth it."
Hermione smiled, and when Harry was turned away she kissed her fingertips and brushed them against Snape's scarred cheek. "Well, nobody ever gave Harry trouble about spending time with a girl, as far as I know, and boys usually do. They seem to accept me as a sort of force of nature." He gave her a tight, fleeting smile in return and wondered if Potter was right. If it had been Hermione all those years ago, and not Lily, would she have continued to defend him, even after his unforgivable insult? Would she have accepted his abject, stammering apologies, as Lily had not, and not thrown him over, as Lily had?
"You are a force of nature. Well, a force of something. Intellect, maybe." Harry handed her a cup of tea. "I bet you've noticed, right?" He grinned at Snape, in what might be a fleeting moment of masculine cameraderie, while passing his cup. "I mean, I know you didn't ask her to join in looking after you. I asked her for help just once and next thing you know she's giving Professor Dumbledore orders and fussing over you just as badly as she does over me. There's no stopping her once she's decided to do things for your own good."
"Harry, you make me sound like some sort of... of meddling harridan like Umbridge who won't listen to anyone!" Hermione bit her lip. "I'm not like that, am I?"
"No!" Harry waved his hands in what was probably meant to be a placating gesture. "Umbridge was just a rotten cow who wanted everything her own way. You... care about people. A lot. And you won't stop even when they're awful to you, or being idiots, or trying to fend you off so you'll stop trying to protect them from their own stupidity." He smiled ruefully. "And I am glad that didn't work, since I'd certainly have died a horrible death at the Department of Mysteries if you'd let me go off alone."
Snape looked away, carefully. "And I, likewise, am very glad of her... assistance. Even the fussing." He frowned, tapping his long fingers on his cup. "It's probably pointless to point out, at this stage, that if you had been guided by me in Occlumency that whole fiasco at the Ministry would never have occurred; and in any case I bear part of the blame for having allowed my - disturbance over the Pensieve incident to get in the way of my professional duty to teach. If you would ever have bloody-well agreed to learn. And besides - "
He looked back at Potter then, feeling very tired. "It was probably for the best, since it forced the Ministry to acknowledge the fact of Riddle's return, even though it led to my - immolation and to - I did try to save him," he said abruptly. "I know you think that I - that I was glad of his death but I did try to save Black, the same way you tried to save your bullying thug of a cousin from the Dementors. The only difference is that you succeeded and I - failed."
Harry squirmed uncomfortably on his chair. "Yeah, well: it was safer to blame you than to blame Kreacher, wasn't it?"
"I fail to see - "
"Kreacher was in my power, wasn't he - I could do anything to the little shit. Anything I liked. I could order him to do anything to himself, and he'd bloody do it." He met the other man's burning-black eyes, steadily. "You were right. Sir. I'm not a torturer - and I don't ever want to be."
"He's right," Hermione said quietly into the sudden, charged silence. "As far as I know, he's never done anything worse to Kreacher than be a bit sharp with him."
Snape put his cup down and looked down again, letting his hair flop forwards to hide his face as he turned his narrow hand this way and that and stared at it as if fascinated. "There are times when I've had to be," he said quietly. "Had to be a bloody torturer, to preserve my cover. But God, I didn't want to - the only way I could do it was to imagine that it was Him that I was hurting, and pray he didn't see that in my mind." He looked up then, staring rather wildly at and through both of them. "Oh, God, I never wanted to - "
"We know that." Hermione slid an arm around his shoulder, snuggling against his side. "Shhh... don't fret over it now, it's long past. And you'll never have to again, ever."
Harry, for a wonder, didn't look either disdainful or pitying. "I never wanted to either, that was the trouble. If I'd blamed Kreacher, if I'd taken to punishing him... I was afraid I wouldn't want to stop. It'd be the first step, you know?"
Snape nodded jerkily. "Yes. When I - it was part of why I joined the Death Eaters, I was so - I wanted to strike back, to hurt the people who had hurt me. But I saw, I saw the others, Rosier, Avery, boys I'd been at school with, I saw how once they'd started to learn how to hurt they didn't want to stop and I didn't want to be like that." Avery's desire to hurt, indeed, was still a raw and recent wound, and his mouth tightened at the sting of memory.
"Regulus, too: he was a cocky little pure-blood who thought he was better than everybody else but when it came to it, when he saw what they were really doing, he didn't want to be like that. He wanted to patronize Muggle-borns and half-bloods and keep them as servants but he didn't want to hurt them. He didn't want to hurt anybody." The phrase "Unlike his brother" hung on the air, unspoken.
Harry nodded. "I understand that. I do. I've... there's been times when I've been tempted." He looked down into his tea. "I used Crucio once. Just once. It didn't work properly."
"Was that during the Ministry battle?"
"Yes," Harry said shortly. "Bellatrix."
Snape raised his eyebrows. "In that case, I would think your impulse was entirely understandable. And the fact that it didn't 'work properly' - well, the fact that it worked at all shows you were getting the inflection and the gestures right, and loathe as I am to admit it, you've never been lacking in raw power. So it must be a deficiency of concentration and will which caused the spell to fail: and frankly, if you can't summon the will to really want to hurt that slavering, sadistic - you'll probably never really want to hurt anybody, except in self-defence." He looked at the boy thoughtfully for a moment, and then gestured at the cards lying abandoned on the occasional table in front of the couch. "Would you like us to deal you in?"
Harry blinked at him for a moment, and then smiled. He had never smiled sincerely at Snape before, and the unselfconscious grin lessened his unsettling resemblance to his father. James, conscious of his dignity, had never looked so much like a small child presented with an unexpected treat. "I'd like that. Thanks."
Hermione explained the rules in her "bossy" voice as she dealt, and Harry's grin widened. Snape eyed him with caution: a caution which was only reinforced when the little brute managed to double Blackjack him during the second game and he felt called on, reluctantly impressed, to say "Shot!" and then stiff him with the fourth Two at the earliest opportunity. But then, Blackjack had always been a fierce game, and if it provided an outlet for their ancient hostility, that was probably a Good Thing.
They had just finished the sequence, and Snape had come out ahead by the skin of his teeth with eleven winning points after twelve surprizingly hard-fought games, when Neville came in, late and a little battered but looking very pleased. While Harry was distracted by greeting Neville, Hermione stood up, surreptitiously brushed her fingertips over her lips again and touched them to Snape's cheek as she moved away. She had a quiet word with Neville - the phrase "very civil" was audible if you were trying to eavesdrop. He looked at the two dark-haired men, the older and the younger, and grinned, and they shot him matching glowers which made him grin all the wider.
"I suppose," Hermione said reluctantly, "that I'd better get back up to the common room and finish my Transfiguration essay. Now that Neville's back."
"I'd - ah, better come with you," Harry said hastily, still uncertain about being left with Snape without Hermione to protect him.
Hermione's lips quirked. "He won't eat you, you know. But you can come with me if you like: I want to be there when you tell Ron who the Half-Blood Prince really is. Please?"
"Yeah, well, that's...." Harry scuffed his shoe on the hard stone floor, and Neville looked at him with interest.
"Oh, really? Who is it?"
"Long story. You'd better - uh - ask Professor Snape about it," Harry muttered. He gave Snape a nervous, uncertain smile. "Well, goodbye sir, it's been - very interesting."
Snape quirked an eyebrow at him and smiled his flicker of a smile. "It's been absolutely fascinating, Potter. Do come again." The amazing thing was, he found he meant it. For the first time he had some inkling as to why Hermione had always seemed to enjoy the boy's presence. When he wasn't being sullen and resentful, Harry Potter could actually be rather good company.
And wasn't that an amazing thought. Not just that he could spend over an hour with Potter and hardly want to kill him at all, but that he was even considering weighing people up as potential companions, just like a normal, acceptable person with actual friends and an actual social life. Almost as amazing as the idea of going to a pub with Adrian for no purpose except that he enjoyed the boy's company and Adrian, inexplicably, seemed to enjoy his.
"You're kidding me mate, right?"
"No, honestly, the Half-Blood Prince is - "
"This is a wind-up; it has to be. I mean, come on - Snape?"
"Is it true?" the blonde boy snapped, pacing the room like a cut-price panther.
"Is what true?" Snape said warily.
"That it was that - that - arrogant-overbearing-stuck-up-pea-brained-muscle-bound-sweaty Gryffindor throwback McLaggen and two current students who brought you into the castle and dumped you in that - that - I can't even say it."
"It's called a 'store-room', Draco."
"It's called a fucking 'torture-chamber' - I can't even go in there." Draco shuddered, going to shove his hands into his pockets and missing because the pockets on the jeans were higher and further forward than he was used to. He folded his arms instead, scowling.
"Don't be foolish. I could understand it if I had died there but, demonstrably, I did not; and you need to be able to go into the student supply-cupboard. You can't expect other people to be forever fetching things for you - amusing as it might have been to get Potter to do so in third year." He rubbed distractedly at the scar across his cheek, feeling the slight rasp of returning stubble. "But yes, it - it seems to have been McLaggen and two current female students who - conveyed me in."
"When I find out who they are, I'm going to kill them - I swear this."
Snape wasn't sure whether to be touched, amused or alarmed by Draco's passionate protectiveness. "Whatever happened to Not Hitting Girls?"
"I'll make an exception in their case, I swear I will."
"Then it is perhaps fortunate that I was unable to identify the pair of them" Snape said smoothly. This was probably not a good moment to point out that up until he had seen it applied to the living flesh of someone he was fond of, Draco had accepted the torture of dissidents from the Death Eater ranks as self-evidently necessary and right. "How did you find out, anyway?" He knew the Slytherin guards at his door had been briefed by Albus that two of his attackers were probably still on the premises, and to be especially wary of young, female visitors; but he didn't think McLaggen had been mentioned by name.
"All the guards know. I think maybe Longbottom warned them in case - you know, in case that bastard sneaked back into the school on a pretend visit to his girlfriend or something." The scowl deepened. "I almost wish he would, so we could catch him and - "
"I will certainly be easier in my mind when we have identified both of his - associates." He patted the couch next to him. "Sit down now, do: we still have a lot of catching up to do on basic healing potions and on advanced antidotes."
As his godson stalked across the room, all wounded fury and protective rage encased in blue denim and white trainers, Snape quirked an eyebrow at him. "How are you finding the - ah - Muggle clothes?"
"They make me feel as if my legs have been starched," Draco said ruefully, "and I don't even want to consider what they're doing to my, um, personal areas. But they do have their compensations."
Draco's expression was a very adolescent mix of embarrassment and pride. "As I was coming down the corridor, Millicent whistled at my bum."
Lying curled up against Hermione like this, breathing in gently in the quiet early morning, he could smell the faint coconut perfume of the shampoo she used and that scent reached straight down into his hind-brain and dragged up recollection like the rotting timbers of a shipwreck - the memory of himself twisting mindlessly as hot needles jabbed through every trembling nerve and jeering voices - Cormac McLaggen's voice, Padma Patil's voice, the shrill, mocking laughter he could not identify - echoed around him and the greying sky swung and wheeled over his upturned face; of needing desperately to scream and not even being allowed to whimper as the blinding agony of his opened belly burned him up without ever consuming him, blazing on and on through an eternity without limit, however frantically he prayed to die, and of a singsong voice and blunt, black fingers that whisked the worst of the pain away at a stroke; of scorching, stinging fire across his skin and the same kind touch moving from place to place, laying something rubbery and odd across that burning that dulled it down to mere discomfort; of a hot, bright point of pain on the inside of his elbow that somehow brought water and food into his parched system; a unicorn -
God, he remembered it, Hagrid's comforting growl and the white beast shining in his eyes like the moon, Minerva making him a blanket of warm air and Adrian's square fingers smoothing salve across his dry, bleeding lips, and he had been so tired, so unimaginably tired and yet not able to sleep, but this was the next best thing: Hermione's small hands moving across his scalp, working that same coconut scent into his hair and brushing, soothing, talking quietly until he was floating easily on the soft surf of her voice, the first peace and the first ease he had had for four miserable interminable months but the careful hands and the steady voice knew what they were doing, he could let go of the strings of himself at last and just drift, and feel perfectly safe to do so....
Sighing, he tucked his head down against Hermione's shoulder, inhaling the warm scent of her hair, and drifted off to sleep again, smiling.
Rolanda Hooch clapped her hands sharply and walked backwards away from him, her yellow eyes alight with enthusiasm. "Come on - that's it! That's it! Once more!"
Breathlessly, he lurched towards her. It would be hyperbole, he thought, to call what he was doing "walking", since he still couldn't get the damned left leg to bend at the knee properly, but at least he was managing not to fall over as he inched his stiff, erratic way across the room for the third time.
He nodded once, too out of breath to reply, and folded down rather suddenly onto the wooden bench in front of the stone work-bench. What a confusing language English was, he thought distractedly, making one word do the duty of several! - but he knew how it felt. Right now, he felt as if he'd been doing the work of ten: but at least he had motivation. Even knowing that he would have to have an Order bodyguard with him for the foreseeable future, the prospect of going on a Geordie or Glaswegian pub-crawl with Adrian was a far better inducement than the promise of a return to teaching the dunderheads and lethal incompetents who made up two-thirds of any Hogwarts class.
And since when did he become the sort of person who saw an evening in someone else's company as a pleasure to be anticipated rather than a chore to be endured - and who had people around him who viewed his company the same way?
"You wanted to talk to me, Headmaster?"
"Yes, I did. Really, Horace," the Headmaster said, looking down his long, crooked nose at his short friend as they strolled side-by-side along the fifth-floor corridor, "I know that you used to be Severus's House Master and you may feel that that still gives you a certain authority over him; but I really can't have you imposing on his good nature by getting him to do your work for you."
"But it's good for him," the other man replied complacently. "It makes him feel needed, and - well, you know how he is: he thinks that complaining about losing his limbs and so on would be unmanly. But moaning about me giving him too much work is permissible, and he does so like to have something to complain about....
"Besides...." He fluffed his moustache out thoughtfully. "Isn't 'Severus's good nature' a bit of an oxymoron?"
Severus covered his eyes with his hand, and rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose. "I do appreciate," he said with strained patience, "that the question has a certain academic interest; but trying to decide on the correct colour for nothingness is really not the point of the exercise."
"I'm sorry." Hermione ran a distracted hand through her hair. She was sure it was standing up almost on end, she'd done that so often. "I just can't seem to get the hang of thinking of nothing. I don't even know how to begin - I've spent my whole life trying to cram as much thinking in as I can. I've never tried to stop it before."
"You've never tried to find a - a point of stillness within yourself? What about when you stand in the owl tower watching the sun sink behind the forest, all that - fire and green darkness framed by a lacework of stone?" He coughed slightly. "For example."
Hermione smiled at that - his poetic side still surprised her a little sometimes, but she liked it. She had to shake her head, though. "Not really. Sometimes I'll have a peaceful moment, but even then I don't stop thinking entirely." She frowned, thinking back. "I think the closest I've come is with you, actually. When I wake up in the night, and you're still asleep, and it's all warm and comfortable and quiet. Then I just snuggle down and go back to sleep. But I'm still thinking about you, and hoping you get a good night's sleep, and being happy that I'm there at all."
"Oh! - that's... interesting." He cleared his throat, carefully. "I - well. The same, as it happens." The knowledge that Hermione lay and watched him sleeping in just the same way that he watched her made him feel all warm and peculiar and more than a little unnerved. "But do you not find that if you are...."
Damn. There were no words in the language properly to explain a thing which, to him, had always come perfectly naturally; a facility which had saved his sanity many times when he was a spy, even though the stress of recent events had made it more difficult to achieve.
Frowning in concentration, he tried to think his way through explaining something which was both as natural and as indescribable as the colour yellow. "If you are - looking at me, and you are not properly awake yourself, do you not find that the moment is like - turning on the point of a dream, like a gyroscope, moving and balanced, like - sliding without effort across a frictionless surface?"
"Sort of." She frowned too, trying to pin down the exact memory of how it felt. "I still think, but... it's like raindrops on glass, if you know what I mean. Sliding across the surface of my mind, without really having any effect, and then sort of fading off again. Does that make sense?"
"It makes perfect sense," he said with relief, and would have felt like kissing her even if he didn't already feel like kissing her. "Remarkable as that seems." At last they were getting somewhere! "Now that - sliding off, that is very much the effect you need to produce, but you need to turn it outwards and make my thoughts slide away, instead of your own. Can you do that?"
"I'll try." She sighed. "I'm rubbish at this, but I will get better. I will. Although it might be easier with someone else."
"Is my teaching so - inadequate, then?" he snapped, suddenly bitter. "I know I failed to teach Potter, but I thought that you at least would be prepared to work with me on this."
"I am!" She reached out to touch his hand, wishing she'd remembered how badly he was likely to take that. "It's not that. It's just... harder, to keep you out of my thoughts than anyone else. Because I don't want to keep you out. It's the closest we can be, at least right now, and... I like having you there. Being so close to you." She smiled tentatively. "Anyone else, I'd want them to stay out. With you, I have to keep reminding myself not to welcome you in."
Snape swallowed hard, trying to suppress the sudden mental image of Hermione welcoming him in, and hoped she hadn't noticed. "It is - pleasant, to be so close, yes. Although I have to wonder if... well, if you manage to break through into my memories, as Potter did on at least one occasion, whether you will still - be so happy to be close to me. You never know what you might find," he added, nearly making a joke of it.
"I think I would." She smiled. "I sort of hope I do, actually. It feels... good, knowing that someone's seen what you think, seen your secrets and your flaws, and still for some odd reason seems to fancy you. I like it, anyway." She rested her chin on her hand. "And I'd like to give you that feeling. So let's have another go, shall we?" She tried to call up that rain-on-the-window feeling... not trying to quiet her thoughts this time, but putting them aside and covering them over with a wall of glass.
The idea of what she might see if she actually did breach his memory - both what he had had to do as a spy, and what had been done to him - was deeply unnerving. To have his shame laid bare and still be deemed acceptable might mend something, but he could not expose her to such scenes - she was so much less hard-boiled than Lovegood - and suppose she couldn't even look at him, after seeing that?
"Your flaws, such as they are, are scarcely in the same league... we shall see." He curled his lip, automatically falling into teacher-mode. "I do not think we need to worry about you breaking into my memory just yet." He pointed his wand, frowning in concentration and forming the thought "Legilimens" -
- although there were a thousand more interesting things to do than teach. His half-formed awareness of Hermione skated smoothly sideways and he found himself unexpectedly fascinated by the dazzle of sunlight dancing across the water outside his window and really, he was looking forward to the planned trip outside with almost absurd pleasure, as well as with anticipatory dread: he had not been outside in what Albus persisted in calling "the nice fresh air" since he had ceased to need the ministrations of the unicorn, and then his mind had not been tracking -
- any more than it was now. He wrenched his attention back onto Hermione with a snarl, as irritated as he was impressed, and drove his will at her with blunt force, breaking through into -
- Severus was a good teacher, she had always thought so, even if he had a filthy temper. He would teach Occlumency with the same grumpy thoroughness that he had Potions -
- which Slughorn was not nearly so good at, not at all, he hadn't even noticed how hard she was trying or told her where she was going wrong. All his attention had been on Harry, who was cheating but -
- he had been so small and anxious, when they started. About her size (and she knew she was small), jumpy and disinclined to be trusting. She'd been delighted when he let her look after him and fuss over him, and -
- it wasn't fair, she and Ron had done more to protect and help Harry than anyone, and yet so many of the older ones still thought they could be shut out of things, as if they were babies, as if they hadn't -
- faced the giant chess-set, and she broke out in a cold sweat just thinking about it, as logic she was too frightened to grasp was wielded by Ron, of all people, to keep them from being killed, and then -
- he was kissing Lavender Brown and Hermione felt as if someone had thrown icy water over her, angry and hurt and strangely numb as she turned and fled from the common room to create flights of unreal birds -
- Charms, now, you knew where you stood with that - it was logical in a strange and lopsided way but it was logical -
Severus shook his head like a dog coming out of deep water, feeling slightly dizzy. "Horace doesn't think you are going wrong," he said absently. "His standards are geared towards getting you through NEWTs so he sees an adequate result as - adequate. Mine, however, are geared at keeping you all alive in a war situation in which you might each be the only potion-brewer you have access to."
He rubbed tiredly at his temples, narrowly missing poking himself in the eye with his own wand, and tried to shuffle his scattered thoughts back into some sort of order. "That was - a definite improvement on your earlier poor performance." Hermione beamed at the nearly-a-compliment, and he scowled at her. Grumpy in-bloody-deed. "The visualization of a sheet of glass was more successful than your earlier attempts at clearing your mind, and with practice it may become an effective mental shield.
"However - once I had broken through the shield, your memories formed a continuous chain of logical connections which made it easy to - " His mind abruptly balked at the word "penetrate", coming so soon after Hermione's comment about welcoming him in. "Nervously randy" was not a good frame of mind in which to perform Legilimency. "I was able to follow a long succession of images which led me further and further in. In this case, there was nothing hugely damaging, although if I were truly Tom Riddle's man I might be interested to see how deeply Potter depends on you. But I could as easily have found myself looking at your memories of discussing the prophecy." She hadn't misled him down harmless tracks deliberately, had she? Surely not.
"Harry doesn't rely on me as much as he used to, but it's still a lot." Hermione nodded, frowning a little. "I could see what you were seeing, sort of... I felt the memories leading into each other, but I couldn't stop them. It's like having everything indexed, isn't it? Someone who wanted to could go straight to the most important memories because they're all in order, like books in a library. If I was like Harry and all my books were in a big untidy pile on the floor tangled up with Quidditch equipment, it would be harder to find something specific, right?" She loved Harry, but his mind was horribly disorganized and she was sure Severus had noticed that.
"It's certainly harder to track coherent thought-processes in somebody who doesn't actually have any." He frowned, unconsciously stroking his fingers across his lips and then rubbing gently at the scar which cut across his cheek. "But yes, the - orderly nature of your mind could present a serious danger. However: it may be possible to build a defence out of that very order."
"Really? How?" Hermione was relieved at the idea of not having deliberately to disorganize her thoughts. She hated untidiness, and she wasn't sure how well she'd cope with having it actually inside her head.
"By intentionally setting up a chain of logically-interconnected memories which in fact lead round in a circle, without branching off at any point. Or, possibly, by encouraging your thoughts to lead into a bottleneck which will cause the reader to stall. A series of complex Arithmantic calculations in which the complexity is the point of interest, and no significant information is derived, for example. Or - " He stopped, blushing.
Hermione made an expectant, encouraging little noise and Severus ducked his head, refusing to meet her eyes. "I have to say that if the person who is attempting Legilimency is male, you can generally throw them completely off course by directing your thoughts towards matters of... feminine hygiene. Unless, that is, they are exceptionally perverse, even by the exacting standards of the - of Riddle's little cronies. I would prefer, however, that you not, um, do so on this occasion. I am still...." Disturbed by the sight of blood, he thought, but even thinking it in the privacy of his own private head was enough to make him feel rather pale around the gills.
Hermione felt her face getting hot. "I'd rather not do so on this occasion either," she admitted. "Aside from knowing that... that... bothers you, it's really quite messy and undignified most of the time, and my hair is messy and undignified enough without you knowing about the bodily functions. In, you know, detail."
He looked as uncomfortable as she felt, and she dropped the subject hastily. "I like the general idea, though. I can think about Arithmantic calculations all day, and I have loads of memories that would go straight there. And if I set up several chains that stop with an Arithmancy loop, wouldn't it sort of create the illusion that that's all I think about? I mean, everyone knows I'm a bookworm and a hopeless swot. If I make up chains and loops that all go back to my schoolwork, and maybe toss in some fights with Harry about schoolwork, which I've had lots of... maybe I could make it seem like I'm a sort of bossy academic type who just helps Harry with his schoolwork and coaches him in Charms and things and wouldn't be told anything really important?"
"Or wouldn't be interested in hearing it. Yes, that's possible. If the - if He ever really seriously decided to sift through your mind He would rip you apart and scatter you like a burst pillow; but if you make what's in your mind seem dull and not very relevant he might not bother to put himself to such exertion, and a lesser Legilimens such as Bellatrix could be completely distracted.
"Very well." He steepled his fingers, although the prosthetic arm still felt awkward and numb. But practice was vital, however irritating. "We will try again, and this time, see if you can direct me into a recursive loop. Only - don't put too much weight behind the glass wall. That may sound strange when I've spent all bloody afternoon coaching you on how to project it, but you don't want to give a hostile Legilimens the impression that you're trying to shut them out. It needs to feel natural, like." His ears caught up with his tongue and he cursed under his breath: Adrian's tricks of speech were obviously starting to rub off on him.
Hermione nodded. "All right." She smiled at him. "And... thank you. For explaining it, and for being so patient." And for sounding like Adrian, which was unfairly endearing.
"It's easier to be patient with somebody who wishes to learn, and who isn't radiating hatred at me from every pore. Although - well, with Potter, the way Albus saw it was that if I succeeded in teaching him to exclude me and therefore also the - Him from his mind, that would be a positive result; and if he failed to exclude me, at least I would be able to assess the degree to which - Riddle - was infiltrating him."
He scowled, fiddling with his wand. "As it happens, of course, the one thing the little shit did manage to keep from me was the degree to which he continued to dream that - Legilimens!"
Caught unawares, Hermione's mind yielded to him and for an instant he saw a flash of her own memory of the Department of Mysteries, a circular room beginning to turn like a cog-wheel, doors ticking past as blue flames streamed sideways from trees of candle-light, before the smooth glossy surface of her mind caught the point of his attention and began to slide it gently sideways, towards....
- she was five years old, and her father was showing her the inside of an old-fashioned clock. The cogs and gears clicked and whirred along in perfect time, and she felt as if she had discovered some great secret of the universe -
- seeing the Library at Hogwarts had given her the same feeling, and she'd explored for hours, running her hands along the spines of the books, certain that here she would be able to learn everything about everything and blissfully unable to decide where to start -
- and there was always more and more to learn, and the panic of exams was so much worse in her third year, so very much worse, and she'd been sure she would fail -
- Harry and Ron always dismissed her fear of exams, they didn't understand that she cared about doing well... they didn't even care about their own classes, let alone hers, they'd never listened to a word she had to say about -
She'd intended to steer that thought into Arithmancy, but she inhaled just then and smelled him, so close, and it slipped into -
- they had never appreciated him, never, and they would never understand why just being near him made her heart beat faster, or why she was sure she would never feel quite the same about anyone else because nobody else could possibly be as brave and vulnerable and clever and obstinate and diffident and patient and impatient and crotchety and adorable as he was.
He released her mind, and Hermione closed her eyes as she blushed peony-red. "Er... that wasn't where I meant that to go."
The object of her adoration cleared his throat, carefully. "That was - certainly an effective way of distracting me from your memory of the Department of Mysteries, if a little... unorthodox."
He flashed her a whimsical, fleeting smile, which was somehow made more charming, not less, by the thin scars streaking outwards from the corners of his mouth. "Ought I to be concerned that you can smell me from several feet away? It would be - irredeemably adolescent and crass to sniff my own armpits, but - " He made a dismissive, self-deprecatory movement of his head and smiled again, a silly, embarrassed little smirk. "It's a matter of masculine pride, you understand, to know whether I smell suitably like a rose or merely - sweaty and unwashed."
"It's partly the oils that Neville made for you, and the shampoo I got you... and partly just you." Hermione was still blushing a bit. "I doubt anyone else would even have noticed, but I sort of... uhm... concentrate on you. And I've got quite a decent sense of smell, even if it's not as good as yours." She smiled. "And... well, I suppose you could tell that smelling you doesn't prompt any negative thoughts. Quite the opposite."
"And you," he said gravely, "smell like hope, and summer, and coconut shampoo, and a hint of clean laundry. Do you want to try again - Occlumency, I mean - or have you had sufficient mental exercise for the afternoon?"
Hermione laughed. "After all this time, you still haven't learned not to offer me more lessons? I always want to keep going, unless I'm actually falling asleep in my chair." She looked him over thoughtfully - he looked a little tired, but not too bad. It was so hard to tell with him, though. "Unless you're getting tired, of course. Then we could always move ahead to the snuggling up and talking, which I also like quite a lot."
"I have sufficient energy for one more attempt, I think, but I am becoming...." He gestured at his left shoulder with his hand - the real one. "Irritatingly aware of Filius's - ah - handiwork."
"Still," Hermione said brightly, "you've managed it for three hours: that's good, isn't it?"
"It's progress, of a kind, certainly. Look away, please." He was squeamish enough about the prosthesis on his own account, without having her seeing him slide his hand inside his robes, open the buckle and draw off his own suddenly-motionless left arm, which an instant before had been flexing and grasping. With a small shudder of unease, he took up his wand and banished the dead-looking, dismembered thing to the safety of the wardrobe, where he wouldn’t have to look at it until tomorrow's exercises. "Once more then, please, and then we can commence - snuggling. Legilimens!"
"Them as believes nothing, is seldom disappointed. But they do miss a lot of action!" is a quote from the short story A Wind from Nowhere, which appears in the anthology of the same name by Scottish children's author and playwright Nicholas Stuart Gray.
To "give someone enough rope to hang themselves with" is to leave them free to act, in order that they may incriminate themselves.
I assume Snape probably brews his own country wines because nettle wine was one of the items in the bottle-puzzle he set up to guard the Philosopher's Stone. The cupboard which he is using for that purpose is, in fact, the same cupboard in which Hagrid kept baby Aragog.
In the sort of north Derbyshire/south Lancashire area that Snape probably comes from, people tend to call their parents "Mums and Dads" rather than "Mum and Dad"; and "Shot!" (probably contracted from "Good shot!") is a general exclamation meaning "You scored a good hit and I'm impressed" - whether it's a verbal hit or a goal in football or whatever.
This chapter has been re-edited in accordance with the new backstory revealed in Deathly Hallows, to show that Albus and Severus had not been very close friends prior to Snape's torture, and to comment on Snape's friendship with Lily. Part of the scene between Harry, Snape and Hermione, where Harry asks about the nature of Snape's relationship with his mum, has been substantially re-written.
The game which Snape, Harry and Hermione are playing is called British Blackjack. The rules are as follows:
The dealer deals seven cards to each player, including him/herself, and then places the remainder of the pack face down in the middle of the table, and turns over the first card, placing it to the side of the face-down block. The player on the dealer's left starts.
The object of the game is to get rid of all the cards in your hand. Each successive player has the option of placing one of their cards on top of the uppermost face-up card, if it matches it either by number or by suit. For strategic reasons they may if they wish choose not to play a card which they can play, but if they cannot or do not lay down a card, they must pick one up from the face-down block.
The following cards have special meanings:
If a player plays a two, the player next after them must pick up two cards, unless they put down another two, in which case the player after them picks up four, and so on, to a maximum of four successive twos played, and eight cards picked up by the person at the end of the chain. Once a two has been played, and the next player has picked up two, the two which is face-up in the centre thereafter becomes a normal card and the third person may lay a card down on it by number or suit, without being forced to pick up two.
If a player plays a black Jack, the next player must pick up six cards, unless they have another Jack to play. Playing another black Jack forces the third player in the sequence to pick up twelve cards, unless they have a red Jack. Laying a red Jack on a black Jack neutralizes it, and the next player may play another Jack, if available, or follow suit. If there are only two people playing it is advisable to be wary of playing a black Jack unless you have the other black Jack, or a red Jack, or you know the other black Jack has already been played - otherwise the other player may "double Blackjack" you.
As with twos, if Player One plays a black Jack and Player Two picks up six cards, the black Jack face up at the centre of the table has been neutralized and Player Three may follow it with a Jack or by suit, without having to pick up six.
A seven reverses the direction of play. If the very first card turned over is a seven, the player on the dealer's right starts, rather than the dealer him/herself, unless there are only two people playing, in which case the dealer starts. An eight causes the next player in line to miss a turn: if there are only two people playing and the first card turned over is an eight, the dealer starts play. Again, sevens and eights only affect the player next in line after they have been played. Once somebody has been skipped, or play has been reversed, they become normal cards.
If there are only two people playing, sevens and eights each effectively mean that the other player misses a turn, and one may then play them off in long runs, ending by either playing a normal card, or picking one up, or going out. For example 8H, 7H, 7S, 7C, 8C, 8D, 10D.
Aces may follow any suit and any neutral number, and may then be followed by any suit named by the person playing the ace. That is, you can't use an ace to neutralize an active two or Jack, nor can you lay an Ace on a "special" card such as a two or an eight and then say that it is a two or an eight, and expect the next player to act accordingly. An ace remains an ace. But you can e.g. put the Ace of Diamonds down on top of a Four of Clubs, and then say you want to be in Hearts. You can also lay an ace on a two or a Jack that has already been played out.
Some players deliberately bluff at this point. If you are getting low on cards and you know the other player has an ace, you may play an ace and ask for a suit which you don't actually want, knowing that the other player will probably then use their ace to change the suit away from the one you just named in order to prevent you from (as they think) going out - with a one in three chance that they'll choose the one you really wanted.
When all the face-down cards have been picked up, the top card from the block of face-up cards is taken and placed face up on its own, and the rest of the block re-shuffled and laid face down.
If you get down to having only one card in hand you must say "Last card" at once, before going out (if you can go out) or before the next player has made their move. If you fail to say "Last card" you must pick a card up on the next round, even if you could otherwise have gone out.
Normal scoring is as follows: for each round, if there are only two players the winner gets one point and the loser none. If there are three players, the winner gets two points, the second person out gets one and the third gets none. And so on. The overall winner is usually the first person to ten points if there are two players, to eleven points if there are three, twelve if there are four and so on.
If there are more than two players it is possible for two or more people to finish the game with a winning score - out of four players, two of them may finish the final round with twelve points, for example, even though one must have got there first. In this case it is customary for both (or all) the players with winning scores to proceed to a tie-breaker round.
There is no theoretical limit to the number of people who could play, although if you have more than four or five players it may be advisable to play with two decks, so that one is not constantly having to re-shuffle the pool. This makes it possible to lay eight twos or four black Jacks, which means somebody could be forced to pick up twenty-four cards in one go.
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