Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
They'd decided that a Hogsmeade Weekend would be the best time for Snape to venture outside: fewer students about, and the first and second years could simply be kept out of the way. The fact that the Potions master semi-Emeritus would be leaving the confines of his quarters for the first time in over five months was not publicized beyond the immediate circle of his guards and carers, and the school as a whole wondered why it was being granted an extra Hogsmeade visit only six weeks after the Valentine's Day one: but it wasn't about to look a gift-Hippogriff in the mouth.
For the sake of their public honour, as well as his own nerves, he'd suggested an honour-guard of his Slytherins, which had been easy enough to arrange - the difficulty had been convincing them that having a buzzing swarm of people hovering around him would be bad, and whittling the volunteers down to a dozen. Hermione left them guarding the door, and slipped into the room, smiling at Neville. "We're ready when you are."
"Right... you stay with him, then, and I'll go check that the way's clear." He gave Snape - draped in clean robes and with unusually tidy hair which Aurora Sinistra had trimmed for him especially - a fond look and slid out of the door. "Out of the way... you don't have to guard him from ME...."
Hermione laughed at his weary tone, then went over to the bed. "I've been given permission to go about out of uniform outside, just for today," she said cheerfully. "In order, I suspect, to make this seem as informal and friendly as possible, for your sake. I'm quite glad - snogging you while I'm in uniform always feels a bit odd, and I do hope we'll find time for it while we're out."
"Snogging you, as you so fragrantly put it, when you are - out of uniform is definitely preferable." He cast an admiring eye over the robes she had chosen. Not only were they a mixture of deep greens and browns, subtly introducing one of the Slytherin colours without screaming it, but they showed her figure off to much better effect than the baggy black of standard school robes. "Help me into the chair, then."
She beamed, having noticed that appreciative eye. "Happy to.... I've arranged that honour guard, by the way. A dozen loyal Slytherins, headed by Draco. There were about thirty volunteers, but I didn't think you'd want that many people crowded around you." She pushed the chair close to the bed, and leaned over to help him into it, deliberately turning her head a bit so he could see the green velvet ribbon holding back her hair. "Draco fancies himself as your champion, I think. I don't mind if he helps, but I am your champion, thank you. We already discussed it."
"I don't think there's any law which says I may have only one champion - although it's to be hoped that only one wears my favour in hopes of my romantic favour - as I wear hers." Under his shirt, loosely looped around his upper arm and charmed not to slide down, he wore a wide, cherry-red satin ribbon, its ends embroidered with protective runes in a darker red. He reached out and touched the green ribbon with his fingertips, feeling a distinct lump in his throat. "You've no cause to be jealous of poor Draco, you possessive chit."
"I do so," she said, touching his arm gently. She'd put as many loving, protective spells on that ribbon as one strip of cloth could hold. "He can declare his loyalty and devotion to you to all the world. I have to be sneaky about mine... for a while yet, anyway." She kissed his cheek, easing him gently into the floating chair.
Snape clutched at the chair-arm rather nervously, feeling it bob and dip under his weight. He had never been good with heights. Not that three feet above the floor was high, exactly, but it felt it, knowing he quite literally didn't have a leg to stand on if the chair should tip over. "You're allowed to declare your... friendship, at least, your support, as much as Draco does. It's only the, um, incipient romance which I would prefer not to air publicly just yet. Not that - I mean, you're easily eighteen months over the age of consent in our world and two and a half years over it for a Muggle, even without the Time-Turner, so it's not as if - as if anyone could really justifiably complain. And I am not, exactly, even your teacher any more. But I'm not sure how Albus and Minerva are going to react, nor do I want to insult them by having them find out through a third party and think we were hiding it from them. Even if we are."
He settled back gingerly against the cushions and smiled at her, happy and sad together. "Besides, this feels all so - private, so - delicate. While we are still working out the details ourselves, I have no desire to see our - relationship, however you want to describe it, being gloated and pontificated over in the pages of the Daily Prophet. God knows, they were furious when I turned out to be a Martyred Hero after all, instead of 'treacherous Death Eater scum' - they'd just adore to get some scandal on me. And I would hate to see something so... curiously cleansing and light being paraded to the whole world as something - sordid."
"I know." She leaned down to kiss him gently. "I understand, I do. I just... wish I was ten years older, sometimes. Then it would all be so much easier, for both of us. You're right, it is still rather delicate just now, and we do need to get it all worked out, but... I love you, and I hate having to pretend that I don't. You've been alone for so long, and known to be so, I want everyone to know that you are loved and wanted." She touched his cheek lightly. "And I'm very proud of being with you. I know you don't believe it yet, but I am."
"That's very... Slytherin, to worry about the public face. It would mean a lot to me, to have it widely known that I - that somebody wanted me. That I wasn't just a make-do. Especially - especially to be wanted by somebody so fine. And if you're proud to be wanted by me - God knows why you should be, but if you are.... When we - if we decide that this whatever-it-is that we have is viable and durable, we'll have to go public about it with a flourish and a fanfare of trumpets, metaphorically if not literally - won't we?"
"You definitely aren't just a make-do," she agreed, tucking the soft Mackinley tartan blanket that Minerva had given him around his waist, the heavy woollen folds making the near-total lack of legs a little less painfully obvious. "And I am enormously proud of being with you, and wanted by you. I will wear your colours discreetly for now, but when you're ready to make an announcement...." She smiled down at him. "Anyway. Ready to go outside? I'll be right here, and there are twelve people out there who love you almost as much as I do and who have been desperately worried about you."
"Then I must do my best not to worry them any further by throwing a panic fit... I do so enjoy provoking people, but it would be - ungrateful, deliberately to upset someone who actually cares about me. And irresponsible, since it is my duty to care for them." Truth to tell, he felt rather choked. He hoped that his Slytherins would respect him, and expected that they would be at least moderately grateful for his protection and care - but the idea that they might actually love him for it was still very new. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be: lead on, then, and we shall go and muster the troops."
She kissed him again, feeling his hand brush the ribbon in her hair, and then she took up her position to the right side of the chair, steering it with one hand, the other ready to clasp his if she were needed. Guiding the chair to the door, she opened it and nudged the chair gently through.
Draco had made the necessity for quiet and calm very clear, so the frantic babble which was otherwise to be expected had been muted to a concerned murmur as they gathered round to gaze anxiously at him. Besides Draco, only Pansy actually approached the chair, trying to smile and failing badly as tears overflowed. "We're so glad to see you, sir" she managed, gulping a bit. "We d-didn't think we'd ever see you again, for a while."
"Most of you have seen me at least a couple of times since my return to Hogwarts, Miss Parkinson, but if looking at me gives you such unaccountable pleasure...." He gave her a flicker of a smile to soften his trademark sarcasm, and silently offered her the spare clean handkerchief he always kept for soggy, sobbing students. It had never occurred to him, until very recently, that anyone would care enough about him to be cut by his coldness. "It's very generous of all of you to give up the prospect of an extra trip to Honeydukes for my sake."
Draco grinned his spiky grin. "Don't worry, godfa' - I gave Goyle an order for sweets for all of us. He's getting plenty for you two, too. Even for Shortarse."
"That's - very thoughtful of you, Mr...." He balked at the surname, which had come to have such unpleasant associations. "Draco. And reasonably devious, or at least well-planned. Five points to Slytherin for showing proper Slytherin foresight."
Hermione beamed at Draco, who looked very pleased and just a little embarrassed at his godfather's praise: although he was already embarrassed enough on his own account. He and Neville had also been given special permission to be out of school uniform outside in the grounds where somebody might see them. Neville was dressed respectably in lightweight robes made of chocolate-brown linen: whatever else Neville might be short of, he wasn't short of money.
Draco would have preferred to wear his own dress-robes: but anything which he might actually choose for himself would probably look too much like something his father might wear, and be anything but relaxing as far as Snape was concerned; but Professor Slughorn had drawn the line at allowing him to be seen in public in Muggle clothes. Ron had taken great delight in offering to ask his mother to owl Draco his own old hideously maroon velvet dress robes, complete with tatty lace; to everyone's amazement Draco had accepted, on the grounds that they were something he could absolutely guarantee that his father wouldn't be seen dead in.
They didn't look as bad on him as Ron had clearly hoped, even though Ron had (probably intentionally) been a little over-generous when magically-adjusting the size. With Draco's silver-blonde hair and sharp chin, all that velvet and lace made him look like something out of a drippily-romantic eighteenth century Muggle painting. Nevertheless he looked mortified when he noticed his house-mates noticing him, and Snape gave him a small smile of encouragement. "I do appreciate," he murmured, "the... special sacrifices which you are making on this occasion."
Draco shot him an embarrassed grin. "Oh, you know me, godfa' - always at the forefront of fashion."
Pansy, meanwhile, had dried her eyes, and managed to give Snape a damp but genuine smile. "We've seen you in bed a bit, but we haven't seen you like this," she explained. "Up and around, you know, even if it's in the chair."
"And we're glad to see you, sir," Millicent agreed, giving him a shy smile that should have looked ludicrous on someone her size, but somehow didn't. "And that you're going out and getting fresh air and things."
Hermione nodded, resting her hand on the back of the chair to steer it. "Speaking of which... Draco? You know the way we're supposed to take... would you lead us out?" Deferring to Draco's authority got her an approving look from Pansy, and she nodded politely. The Slytherins were important to Severus, and therefore she had to put old rivalries aside.
Snape gripped the chair-arm tightly as they moved off. It was ridiculous, they were on home territory and he was surrounded by his own loyal supporters (try telling the other houses that Slytherins could be loyal!), but doing any new thing was unnerving. Millicent Bulstrode at his left was a reassuringly massive presence - the girl could probably eat a Death Eater for lunch and spit out the bones - but even that cheerful thought made him flinch suddenly at the memory of Greyback eating (block it out, block it out) and he still found it difficult and frightening to go more than a few minutes without touching anyone, especially in such an unaccustomed situation. Without the anchor of contact his head started to swim and he could feel the memories piling up waiting to fall in on him - but he was damned if he was going to panic or ask to be held in public.
As they came out of the Slytherins' dungeon onto the little harbour under the cliff, and started up the steep passage through the rock, Hermione moved her hand along the back of the chair behind him so that he could lean his head against her knuckles. It was nearly enough.
Longbottom was to meet them at the greenhouse, and other than that there was no reason why he should have to speak to anyone outside his immediate escort. As they emerged onto the chilly but sunny lawn in front of the castle and started to bear right towards the greenhouses, he could see a small cluster of Hufflepuffs playing some complicated game with a ball and hoops down the slope to their left. They stopped playing and stared as the strange procession went past, and he could feel himself beginning to sweat, his tongue automatically starting to rub nervously at the scars inside his mouth. To be seen like this....
Hermione saw the Hufflepuffs, and reached down as unobtrusively as she could to clasp Snape's hand with her free one, giving it a gentle squeeze to remind him that she was right there. Pansy noticed, and gave Hermione an odd look - then, when Hermione had tipped her head in the appropriate direction, she saw the other students. She tapped Daphne Greengrass on the shoulder, and the two of them moved up to block the Hufflepuffs' view of the chair.
Hermione smiled gratefully, and Pansy nodded and managed a surprisingly pleasant smile in return. Hermione decided to take that as a hopeful sign. Their shared concern for Snape... and possibly for Draco... seemed to have done away with a lot of their mutual animosity.
Snape rubbed his thumb against Hermione's fingers without letting go of the chair, and watched the sun blazing off the glass sides of the greenhouses as they approached. He felt as if he had left his stomach somewhere a long way behind; sunny days and open playing-fields had unnerved him ever since he was a boy, when being "outside in the nice fresh air" just meant being a more visible target for the Marauders, and he hadn't even been out of his rooms for five months.
But it was - nice, really, to be out in the sun and not be a lone target for attack, to have his own friends (!) gathered round him so protectively - as if he might be worth something to somebody, like normal people. He noticed Pansy Parkinson noticing the moment of physical reassurance between himself and Hermione, and hoped fervently that he could trust to her discretion - the blasted girl had eyes like an eagle when it came to anything remotely sexual.
He wasn't sure what he felt about having Crabbe as part of his escort, considering that he had last seen the boy's father, his face contorted with savage delight, jeering and panting above him as the hot pain tore him and he whimpered hopelessly for mercy. And being surrounded by black robes again hit rather too close to home. But Draco had assured him that Crabbe and Goyle were both so furious with their fathers for their part in the torture of their favourite (!) teacher that they had arranged to take a flat together in Birmingham when they left Hogwarts, and intended never to go home again. And after all they were his black robes, weren't they? - his servants, his champions, not the Dark Lord's.
Neville Longbottom met them by the seventh greenhouse and ushered Snape and Hermione in, smiling a proprietary smile, as the Slytherins took up guard-stations outside, ranged in pairs all around the glass walls. This glass-house was one which was used particularly for tropical exotics and it was kept warm even in the bite of an early Scottish spring. At the centre, among all the heavy, heady greenery, Neville and Professor Sprout had set up a little table and a group of comfortable bamboo chairs, with bright cushions and a brocade table-cloth and a busy little copper kettle, making the whole thing seem more like a Victorian conservatory than a working environment. One of the ferns reached out a frond and tried to snag Snape's robe as he went past, and Neville slapped it.
"Oh, this is nice." Hermione beamed at Neville, who looked bashfully pleased with himself. "Tea and everything!" And right in the middle of all the greenery they weren't all that visible even to the Slytherins right outside. Good.
"Well, it's his first time out of the room in a while," Neville explained, giving his adopted father-substitute a proud look. "We wanted to make it as comfortable as possible. We thought tea in among the flowers and things would be properly restful, like."
"I know I like it," Hermione agreed, steering the chair over to the little table, careful not to settle him in direct sunlight. "Do you?" She examined Severus's face carefully for signs of stress or panic. A little strain, maybe, but not too bad....
"It's very... civilized. Pleasant." He thought that they both understood that he meant, not like being there. He moved his head restlessly, feeling strained without quite knowing why. "Help me to move across. I want to do the thing properly and sit in a cane chair, since you've arranged it all so... nicely." He shouldn't feel sad - he didn't, really. Was it just nerves at being out in the open? No, it was movement and change, anticipation - and he thought that for a wonder, what he was anticipating might turn out to be something good, but it made his breath catch in his throat even so.
Neville helped him into the cane chair and shoved the floating one out of the way behind some Ambling Azaleas, and Hermione beamed fondly at the two of them. It was so nice to see them getting along. Then Neville gave her an amused look and she blushed, realizing she probably had a very Molly-Weasley-ish expression on. "Yes, well... who wants tea?" She sat down in the chair beside Severus, reaching over absently to take his hand with her left one, reaching for the kettle with her right.
"Yes, please. Tea would be - agreeable." He noticed Neville noticing Hermione holding his hand with a soppy, beaming expression on his round face, and felt himself going slightly pink. He thought about extricating his hand and hiding it under the blanket, but he was damned if he was going to. Instead, he raised a sardonic eyebrow at the dratted boy and dared him to comment.
Neville grinned. "Tea for me too, please... unless the two of you would prefer to be alone?" He'd never say so, of course, but the blush and the defiant look as Hermione held Snape's hand affectionately were absolutely adorable.
Hermione blushed, too. "Perhaps later," she said, quite unable to meet his eyes and concentrating on filling the teapot. "Milk? Sugar?"
"Two sugars, please - just a little milk."
Snape settled back in the old-fashioned chair and tried to relax against the feeling of inchoate movement. If his life was changing, moving, that was good, wasn't it? He half shut his eyes, feeling the dapple of sun and leaf-shadow flickering across his eyelids, his hand resting loosely together with Hermione's as he listened to Longbottom prattling on about the plants around them. He was going to have to let go of Hermione's hand soon, if he wanted to drink his tea - he was damned if he was going to let them feed it to him as if he was a baby - but right now he was too warm and comfortable to move and it was pleasant to feel a little breeze riffling through his hair. There must be a skylight open somewhere, to allow the air to circulate.
Hermione glanced over and smiled at the unaccustomed peaceful expression on his face. She set his tea in front of him, quite willing to go on holding hands a little longer. At least Neville didn't seem inclined either to object or to tell anyone.
"Oh, and Hermione, you might want to prepare yourself for some awkward questions," Neville said, sneaking it in at the end of a happy lecture on the beneficial properties of certain tropical flowers.
Hermione gave him a startled look, glancing again at Severus. "What do you mean?"
"It's got about somehow... don't ask me how... that your homework standard has dropped so far that you're mostly getting Es," Neville said, his voice serious but his expression less so. "And there's a rumour that you actually handed in a Defence essay that was two inches short. There are concerns that you might have been Imperiused or something."
Hermione blushed. "Oh. That." She had better things to do with her time than homework, these days. Was that so wrong?
Snape woke up with a snap. "Hermione! If you've been neglecting your studies for my sake... I know you said you could walk the exams and I'm sure you could, but it would be a tragedy if the - the best scholar Hogwarts has produced in decades ended up with poorer exam results than she could have done, just for my bloody sake." He smiled tightly. "'Exceeds Expectations' is an odd mark, of course - it could be argued that in your case it must mean 'Even better than Outstanding', since everybody expects you to get straight Os. And in yours, Longbottom, it means 'Well, he hasn't actually killed anybody or blown up the castle yet.' But, seriously Hermione, I must insist that you not neglect your work."
"I'm doing perfectly all right," Hermione said firmly. "I admit, I haven't been doing all the extra work I usually do, but all the teachers know why. I think some of them are even quite glad not to have to mark an extra foot of parchment every time." She gave Neville a reproachful look. "I haven't been neglecting my studies, I promise. Just stinting on my essay time a little."
"I suppose that need not affect your final results... but I shall check up with Minerva, you know, and make sure that she's happy that you are still achieving your full potential. I may not be - I may not be fit to teach but I am still a member of the faculty, Albus has assured me so, and as such your academic progress is still my concern and my obligation." He was aware that he was sounding like a stuffed shirt - but really, it was no worse than the lecture Hermione herself would have given the Brats if they were neglecting their studies for their love-lives. How - bizarre, to think of himself as the focus of a distracting teenage romance!
Hermione smiled at him, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. It was so nice, in an odd way, not to be the one giving that lecture. "I'll put more work into it," she promised. "Although I'm sure Professor Sprout won't thank you for making my essays longer again." Neville snickered at that, and Hermione grinned, reaching out to touch Severus's cheek when Neville glanced away. "I promise, I won't let you interfere with my studies," she said softly. "Unless you're inclined to be helpful and discuss them with me, because I always enjoy that."
"I am always happy to look over your essays on subjects on which I am qualified to comment" he said rather awkwardly, "and I won't feel offended if you want to work rather than talk. Lovegood already uses my head as a book-stand in any case."
"I think I can manage to study without actually putting my books on you," Hermione said, grinning a bit because that did sound so like Luna. "And I'll work while I'm with you if I need to, although I'll try not to. We usually have more interesting things to talk about than producing two feet on the transfiguration of inanimate objects into animate ones.... not that that isn't interesting, of course, I've always liked Transfiguration."
"I don't see how anyone could," Neville said, shuddering. "I hated it. It's so... vague. I could never work out where I was going wrong. At least with Potions I could see the mistake, even if it usually wasn't in time."
"The problem with mistakes in Potions though, Longbottom, is that you may end up reviewing your mistakes from the afterlife. At least errors in Transfiguration aren't usually lethal - unless you are Transfiguring yourself, of course. And Transfiguration from inanimate to animate is a fascinating topic, because no-one has yet managed to ascertain for certain whether the creatures so created are true living beings, with feeling and soul, or just a kind of tulpa - mere soulless simulacra."
He realized, with a sense of fragile grace, that he was perfectly content sitting here in the dappled sunlight, drinking tea with two friends (!), and for the first time since the Dark Lord had sent his ruined body back to Hogwarts as an object lesson the horrors of memory had no grip on him. It wasn't even that he had forgotten what had been done to him - but right now, among the sun and the flowers, it didn't seem to be relevant to anything. "Likewise, if you Transfigure a rabbit into a pillow, and then back again, where did the rabbit's self go in the interim?"
"When we were in fourth year," Neville said with a small shudder, "Professor McGonagall had us all turn hedgehogs into pincushions, and Dean Thomas's pincushion still acted if is - as if the pins hurt it."
Snape grimaced. "Sometimes the Transfiguration is definitely only partial, as in this case, and the - the object retains some signs of responsiveness, of consciousness. Sometimes the transformation seems to be complete and the object insensate - but who can tell? Wizards who Transfigure themselves always do retain some degree of consciousness and sensation throughout, but it's not clear if that is true of subjects who are Transfigured by someone else; and no one will admit openly to having performed an animate-to-inanimate Transfiguration on a human subject other than themselves."
He supposed he was lucky that none of his former Death Eater colleagues had had the intellectual curiosity to try it on him. Or had they, and the transformation had been so successful that he wasn't even aware of it? "If your Transfigured rabbit-pillow appears to be totally insensate, does it in fact retain any awareness, and if so is it suffering? If it does not, are you even sure you've got back the same rabbit you started with? These are important philosophical and ethical questions."
"They really are," Hermione agreed, making a face. "Vanishing things is even worse. Especially vanishing them permanently. I didn't mind the snails so much, but I still feel a bit guilty about the kittens, even if Professor McGonagall did promise they'd all been made out of catkins and probably weren't really alive. I enjoy Transfiguration as a subject, but I really prefer to stick to inanimate objects... well, that or minor changes. Or doing them on myself, of course.... I've always rather wanted to become an Animagus. Professor McGonagall makes it look so easy, and so much fun."
Neville sipped his tea. "This is why I prefer Herbology. Fewer ethical dilemmas - although mandrakes do worry me a bit - and hardly any explosions. I can live with things trying to eat me occasionally if I'm sure they won't explode."
"I can see the logic of that, I suppose," Snape said, inclining his head towards the boy. "Personally I prefer Potions, because whether or not the potion explodes is within my own control, whereas the things which might try to eat one have - private and unpredictable agendas. But then I have an excellent memory for the properties of the various ingredients, and very fast reactions. I would have been reduced to a smoking crater and a pair of boots long since, if I hadn't."
He sipped his tea thoughtfully. "Self-Transfiguration and the Animagus transformation are really two different things, yus kin. Transfiguration is a - a brute change, forced on matter by magic. To be an Animagus, however... as I understand it, it involves finding that part of yourself which is - which is in tune with the nature of the beast, whatever beast it is, and drawing it to the surface, so that the part of you which is human is pushed down... like a boat heeling over in the water, almost, your soul rolls over, it exposes its other side...."
"Like sculptors," Neville said thoughtfully. Snape looked at him quizzically. "They always say - if you want to sculpt an elephant, you get hold of a block of stone and then you cut away all the bits that don't look like an elephant."
It was a strange, even a ridiculous image, but he was feeling too peaceful to mock it and besides, he could see what the boy meant. "Yes - quite a lot like that. You peel away the layers and parts of yourself that don't look like a - preferably not an elephant, it would never get out of the door. A bear, a dog, a hedgehog - whatever form most expresses that part of yourself which is drawn to the beast. Often, a beast which... which has a magical, symbolic meaning which represents some part of the person's nature."
"I'd very much like to do that," Hermione said wistfully. "It sounds as though it might be rather uncomfortable, though... you might find out things about yourself that you'd rather not know. At least, though, if the animal form is a... a reflection of myself, it's not likely to be a bird." She shuddered. "I'm terrified of heights, and I loathe flying. I can't imagine any part of me opting to do it."
"I'd probably be some sort of food animal," Neville said reflectively. "Which wouldn't be so bad, actually, I imagine it's quite restful being a cow or a guinea-pig or something...."
"I'm not sure," Hermione replied seriously. "Guinea-pigs are quite excitable animals, and the males fight terribly."
"You don't fancy yourself as a great big roaring bull, then?" Snape said lightly. "I could see you as a koala, Longbottom - sleepy and slow-moving, but very strong and with an impressive bite. Or a steady, patient draught-horse.... My anti-fan-club in Gryffindor would say I should be a crow or a bat and I'd like to be something more impressive - a raven or an eagle, maybe, even though flying scares the arse off me too. But Minerva tells me I'd probably be a scrawny black and white tomcat with a convex nose, and she'd turn into a tabby and box my ears for me to keep me in line." He drained his tea, sighed and put the cup back on the little table with a definite click. "But knowing my bloody luck, I'd probably turn into a fish out of water, and drown in air. Or I would turn into a tomcat, and Mrs Norris would get the hots for me."
"I can see you as a scruffy cat," Hermione agreed thoughtfully. "Independent and ferocious, but with secret inclinations to curl up with someone nice and purr. Or maybe as a raven... you've got a very raven-ish sense of humour." She grinned at Neville. "And I think you'd make a very good canine, actually... one of those huge, fluffy Old English Sheepdogs that bounces around being comical and friendly right up until it feels called upon to bite someone's nose off."
"I could do nose-biting, I think. But what would you be, Hermione?"
"I'd like to see myself as a badger, perhaps - snappy and a bit myopic, sometimes, but hard-working and loyal."
Snape poured more tea for everybody, frowning thoughtfully; pouring tea was something he could do one-handed from where he was sitting, and it made a pleasant change not to need to be waited on, even in such a small thing. "I see you more as a meerkat, or a raccoon - all bright, slightly anxious eyes and clever paws and inquisitiveness. And Hagrid would be a bear, certainly - or even a goat - something that will eat almost anything. Have you ever tried his stoat sandwiches?" He blew across his tea to cool it. "But to get back to the Transfiguration issue - I'm not sure it even matters whether a kitten you make out of a catkin is a real kitten or not; the question, surely, is can what you made feel? Is it a - a someone, even if it's an artificial someone, or is it just a complex illusion of someone?
"It's part of the - the arrogance of the old bloody pure-blood families that hardly anybody ever seems to ask these questions. Albus says it will be their downfall, in the end, and I think he may be right. They don't even consider the - the power that the house-elves have, and yet those little brutes are.... And what, for example, gives Molly and Arthur the right to say that their garden is their garden, and the gnomes should all be evicted? The things have a measurable IQ, after all, and they lived there before the wall was built - so what law says it's the Weasleys' garden and not theirs? Just because they are small?"
"The gnomes I don't mind so much," Hermione said thoughtfully. "It's... more of a territorial war, with them, and they never get driven off for long. Skirmishing continues, but the majority of the time they more or less put up with each other. Vanishing living beings is... worrying. Or turning them into inanimate objects. Even if they are just simulacrae, how do we know they don't think they're not?"
Neville nodded. "I know what you mean about the pure-blood arrogance," he agreed, stirring sugar into his fresh cup of tea. "That... disregard for consequence. 'I will do this, now, and then I will be completely surprised when it has ramifications later.' You can't do that, with Herbology... plants aren't like Transfiguration or Potions. What you do now isn't just going to have consequences at the end of the lesson, it might have consequences at the end of a year, or ten."
"You know, I never thought of it like that," Hermione agreed, sipping her tea. "Disregard for consequences. Good way of describing it, Neville." Neville went pink with pleasure, and she smiled at him.
"Potions can have ramifications ten years later, believe me - depending on how big the crater was. But yes, you are quite correct, Longbottom. The pure-blood families - most of them are so used to being able to achieve anything they like with a wave of a bloody wand, so used to being able to just undo any mistake they may make, that they don't consider that some things - cannot be undone. Especially... psychological trauma. If a thing can't be mended in a few hours, they can't deal with it, so they pretend it doesn't exist. In Transfiguration - at least living or quasi-living things which get turned into inanimate objects do revert back later, unless one invests a great deal of power in fixing them. But one wonders what they experience during the Transfiguration. Do they cease to exist? Are they unconscious? If conscious are they distressed by the transformation? Do they feel pain? Even people like Minerva and Filius, who wouldn't dream of ill-treating a house-elf, think nothing of getting the students to turn a hedgehog into a pin-cushion and then stick pins in it without ever wondering whether they are doing it lasting harm. Because when you have magic, everything you do can be undone, can't it - except when it suddenly can't."
"It would be interesting... and probably necessary, from the ethical point of view... to actually try it on a person," Hermione said thoughtfully. "It's a dreadfully unnerving prospect, but Professor McGonagall could certainly do it without doing the subject any lasting harm. Physical harm, anyway - the emotional shock would be something else entirely. I'll talk to her, ask her if it's been done before. If it hasn't, I'm sure I could tolerate being a statue or something for a couple of minutes, just to see...."
Snape choked slightly and nearly spat out his tea. "My dear good girl - what did I just say about Transfiguring a rabbit into a pillow and then back again, and not knowing whether one had got the same rabbit back? Please - " he tried to keep his tone light, but the idea made his stomach clench and shiver - "do nothing so recklessly Gryffindor. Minerva could turn the statue back into a woman, I'm sure - but not necessarily into you. Even if it looked like you."
"But...." Hermione saw the carefully concealed fear on Severus's face and nodded, reaching out to take his hand again. "I won't," she said quietly. "I'm sorry."
"I don't really like the idea of animal experimentation," Neville said thoughtfully, "but sounds to me like the first thing you want to do is try it on a - a dog that knows tricks, say, and see if it still remembers them after it's been turned back. Then maybe on a human who's very ill and going to die really soon, so that if they get lost in transit - well, so they won't have missed much."
"I suppose that could work," Hermione said equally thoughtfully, still clasping Severus's hand tightly. "Or we could wait until a Death Eater menaces Professor McGonagall and then we'd probably find out. I'm sure she wants to turn them into something nasty."
Snape gave her a rather twisted grin, half wincing and half spitefully amused. "We could capture that bastard Pettigrew and experiment on him - so much more ethical and more deserved than using a real lab. rat." The thought of Pettigrew made him shiver slightly and tighten his grip on Hermione's small, warm hand. "I wonder - if I were to make the Animagus transformation and become, let us say, a tomcat, would I regain my limbs? - or would I still be maimed? If I was wearing Filius's precious prosthetics at the time, would they transform with me - or would I be left as some... monstrous hybrid?"
Hermione considered this. "I know Pettigrew had a missing finger in both forms," she said slowly, "before his hand was replaced with the metal one. But it depends, I think, on whether the transformation involves a straight translation from your original shape to the Animagus form, or whether it's more dependent on your state of mind... he'd bitten off the finger himself, and had accepted its loss, but if you didn't think of yourself as maimed, it might not carry over. I know Professor McGonagall doesn't seem to need glasses as a cat, anyway, and cats can be short-sighted... we could ask her."
"Minerva is I think long-sighted, not short... and I do think of myself as maimed. I've - learned to." He sighed and gave Hermione's hand another squeeze. "Even before I was. What I need is something that is grafted, that is truly a part of me, and we know that this is possible because - because He made a new hand for Pettigrew, much better than all Filius's charmed wood. I wish I knew quite how the thing was done."
"Maybe if we capture him, we can take it off him and find out?" Neville suggested helpfully. "Before we experiment on him?"
Hermione blinked, then looked suddenly thoughtful. "That's an idea, actually... if we could get our hands on it, I'm sure Professor Flitwick could reverse-engineer the original spell...."
"That would be quite poetic, wouldn't it? Considering that it was his bastard idea to whittle me down like this in the first place." He bared his teeth in a grimace and then relaxed again, a considering look on his narrow face. "It might be a solution for Albus too. Poppy and I have managed to keep that arm of his functioning but I haven't found any way of reversing the damage; and I know it still pains him, for all of Poppy's potions and spells."
Hermione nodded. "Madam Pomfrey's told me about it... I've helped with some of the easier brewing. It's nice, to be able to help, even in a small way."
Neville nodded in his turn. "Professor Sprout and I have been starting extra batches of seedlings for a lot of the healing herbs, we're going through them so fast." He rose to his feet. "In fact," he said, with a small and secret smile, "if you don't mind, I want to go and see how the Cameroon Blood-Wort is coming along. I'll, uh, leave you two to it, if I may."
Hermione went a bit pink and smiled. "That sounds like a good idea," she said demurely. "Shall we let you know when we're ready to go?"
"Oh yes - please do. I'll be... over there" he said vaguely, and wandered off, still smiling his secret smile.
"Well," Hermione said brightly, feeling suddenly awkward, 'this is... nice." Snape looked at her, his lips quirked and his dark eyes glitteringly amused, and she saw that the mottled scar across his right temple blended in with the dancing leaf-shadows until it disappeared completely.
"How... nice of you to say so."
She blushed harder. "You are a wretched tease," she said reproachfully. "You did, as I recall, specify having my arms around you while you relaxed in the sunlight among the flowers, but if you've changed your mind...."
"That sounds like an admirably good idea on my part," he said gravely, "but unless we're going to sit on the floor you'll have to do some Transfiguration-work on the chairs. I'd offer to do it myself, but working one-handed on a chair I'm actually sitting on would probably just tip me out on my arse."
"Probably." She stood up, moving her chair over beside his, and tapping both with her wand. The two obediently merged into a large, well-cushioned basketlike arrangement quite large enough for two. She sat down beside him on his left, snuggling up against him and sliding an arm around him. "There. Much better."
"Much," he agreed, leaning sideways into her embrace and stretching his arm comfortably along the back of the little sofa. He sighed and let his head fall back onto Hermione's shoulder, so that he was gazing up at the sky above the glass. Far above, circling lazily, he could just make out the outline of a Thestral, doing guard-duty. "I don't think I've ever had a real holiday, or - or leisure like this in my life. When I am... if Filius's prosthetics turn out all right, I'll take you down to the beach at Sandgreen some time, and we'll have a picnic. Except there's no sand there - the whole beach is made up of finely-divided white shell."
Hermione smiled, resting her cheek against the top of his head. "I'd like that, very much," she said softly. "I can't remember the last time I went on a proper picnic. And I'll take you to this little village in Wales where mum and dad and I went for a holiday once, when I was little. I remember thinking it was the prettiest place in the whole world, and there was a lovely bed and breakfast we stayed at. I'm sure it's still there... it was old even when I went."
"That feels so... strange. Like stepping into someone else's life, you know? Can the, the Greasy Git really have something so... simple and pleasant? I'd feel as if I was there under false pretences."
"I think it's high time you did have something simple and pleasant," she said, kissing his forehead lightly. "And I intend to provide it as often as possible. We'll do a proper couple's holiday... breakfasts in bed, kissing behind convenient trees, taking lots of pictures that don't come out very well but we don't care, all the nice normal traditional things." She smiled. "Although I won't make you buy a little plaster cottage for a souvenir, if you don't want to."
"Definitely no plaster cottages." He shut his eyes against the dazzling light of the sun, and contemplated the warm red inside his own eyelids. "It's not really practicable at the moment, I suppose - I'm too much of a target, and taking Thestrals to Wales.... But it's something to look forward to, isn't it, for when I am - better." He realized, with a sense of sudden lightness, that he did expect to get better. Not fully - there was no use pretending, even to himself, that he could ever fully cast off what had happened to him - but he did expect to be able to function as an independent person again, some day. The thought made him quite enjoy his current weakness and disability: instead of resenting it as an imposition and a prison he should, as Albus was always telling him, view it as an unimpeachable excuse for an extended holiday.
"It is." She felt him relax against her, much more than he usually did, and she snuggled closer. He actually sounded almost... hopeful. This had definitely been a very good idea. "When we've settled with Him, you and I are going to take a nice long rest... unless it happens before I take my NEWTs, in which case it'll have to wait until after those. But we will, somewhere very quiet where we can get some serious reading done."
"I'd like it to be... somewhere with a river, if possible. I don't know if you've ever.... There was this, this Muggle author called Dorothy L Sayers, in the 1920s, she wrote - detective stories, really, except that some of them.... Well, some of them were romances, really, with the detective element just as a sub-plot. But not - not sloppy romances, you understand. A real story about two very difficult, prickly, clever people. There was this one book, Gaudy Night, in which the couple - Peter and Harriet - are just... drowsing in a boat in the sunlight. It always seemed to me to epitomise some kind of, of unobtainable ideal. Just - being with someone you wanted and who wanted you, drowsing in a boat."
He opened his eyes, wincing against the stab of light, and turned to smile at her. "When it is a little warmer, and if Filius's prosthetics work out, we could of course go for a sail on the loch. But that whole mountain tarn thing doesn't quite fit with the scene I see in my mind. I want a quiet river, and trees hanging low over their own reflections, and no inquisitive things with tentacles."
"I've never read any Dorothy L. Sayers, but... that sounds nice. Very nice." She smoothed his hair, tangling her fingers in it just a bit. "I'm sure we can find a river. And a boat to drowse in." She smiled shyly. "I've had a few similar daydreams, except in mine we're on land. But we talk, and then you doze off with your head in my lap, and it's just... warm and quiet."
"In the story - in the story Peter is sleeping and Harriet is looking at him, this - prickly, difficult, hook-nosed - and she feels this enormous... tenderness, I suppose. She sees him as vulnerable, and it makes her feel protective not - not scornful. And it seemed - unimaginable," he said huskily, his voice low and almost inaudible, "that anyone would ever look at me like that. But you do, don't you? You really do want me, not just...."
"I really do," she whispered. "I want you, heart and soul and prickly, brilliant mind. And I know that feeling. I've felt it a hundred times, holding you, watching you sleeping, trying to keep the nightmares at bay for one more night. That's... in my daydreams you sleep in my arms, or with your head on my lap, and you don't have nightmares because you know that I'm there, that I'll love you and protect you no matter what. I know I can't keep them away for you now, but maybe one day I will be able to. And I keep trying; I will always keep trying."
"God, that would be nice, wouldn't it? To wake up feeling refreshed, instead of wrung-out and ill-tempered. But I don't know if you.... I've always had nightmares, for as long as I can remember, not just...." He settled down into the padded scoop of the sofa, so that he really was lying with his head in her lap, and smiled up at her - squinting slightly because of the sun-dazzle on the glass behind her head. The bright light cast her face into shadow and turned her brown hair into a crackle of flame. "Whether you can stop the nightmares or not, it's just - so much better, to wake up to, to kindness and calm words, instead of just - sweating through it on my own in the dark. It's almost worth having the nightmares, just to have your kindness afterwards - and if I'm still afraid to sleep, sometimes, at least I know I don't have to be afraid to wake."
She lifted a hand to shade his eyes, smiling down at him. "You'd have me with you afterwards, nightmares or not," she promised. "And I'm still going to keep trying to convince even the depths of your subconscious that I love you, and I will protect you, and that while I'm watching you it's safe to just sleep." She leaned down to kiss his forehead lightly. "And I like this even more than I thought I would. You may sleep this way as often as you like."
"You'd find your leg would go to sleep, eventually; but for as long as your circulation lasts.... But it's not really a matter of feeling safe or not-safe. At least - it is now, when I keep dreaming that I am - back there, but in general.... Sometimes it's about feeling personally threatened, but often it's just - horrible images. Some of them real things I have actually witnessed, some just - a canker of the imagination. But perhaps - perhaps having some nice things to dream about will push them back, a bit." He grinned at her suddenly. "Now, see, the disadvantage of this position is that it makes it very hard to kiss you."
She laughed, and leaned down again to kiss him lingeringly. It was a little awkward, but not too bad. "Mmm... a good point. But I like it anyway." She rested her free hand on his chest, smiling down at him. "Even if my leg does go to sleep. I love just... being with you, like this, quiet and content. I hope we get to do it more often."
"It's very... pleasant," he said drowsily. "I haven't had any leisure time for - well, not since I started teaching, really. And being busy, it stopped me from thinking too much about - about things. Now... now I have a head full of fresh horrors to run away from, but somehow, lying here with you, they just don't seem... all that important. You are - far more interesting."
"Good. I'm glad you think so." Hermione indulged in some happily melty feelings as she kissed him and smoothed back his hair. "I love you, you know." She tipped her head back, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her face. This was perfect. He was still unwell, still maimed, she was still too young and worried about letting him down, but this moment... this was perfect.
"They appear to have done us proud," Snape said, leaning companionably shoulder to shoulder with Hermione as he examined the vast pile of sandwiches and cakes and little nibbly things which the house-elves had provided. He was pleased to hear that they had fed his Slytherins equally well: he wouldn't want them to go hungry for his sake. "Look - crab with egg mayonnaise." Crabbe in particular had hollow legs and need to be fed like stoking a boiler. "And look - what are those things - the things that look as though they're filled with pus?"
"Vol au vents" Neville replied, helping himself to one. "I know what you mean - but they taste OK."
Hermione reached for a tiny cucumber and salmon sandwich. "They really do look revolting. It's like an adult version of a birthday tea, though, isn't it? Lots of nibbles, so you don't have to choose just one thing." She poured more tea, making a face. "And at least this isn't pumpkin juice. I suppose it must be different if you grow up drinking it, but I, personally, would like to find the originator of that custom and strangle them. Why can't we have fruit juice like normal people? We do get orange juice, sometimes - but what happened to pineapple, apple, grapefruit? - it's orange, pumpkin or lump it."
Snape relaxed against her as unselfconsciously as a dog. Dozing on her lap in the sun had been the first truly refreshing, untroubled sleep he had had since - since forever, really, and he felt luxuriously unstrung. "It's creeping Americanization, that's what it is - this whole 'Pumpkins are for witches' Hallowe'en business. When I was student, we still used proper traditional British turnip lanterns at Hallowe'en - in fact, I think I shall nag Albus about it and see if we can't get them back for this year. Mind you," he added, sipping his tea, "turnip juice would be even worse than pumpkin juice. But at least turnip pasties would be good. Or neeps, I should say, since we're in Scotland."
"Ugh. I've always hated turnips." Hermione smiled, leaning a little against him as she sipped her tea. "I think I'll start Transfiguring my juice, and I don't care if not everyone can do it. I want apple or grapefruit, not pumpkin. Or cranberry. Maybe I could get up a petition. I can't be the only Muggle-born who's developed a passionate hatred of pumpkins."
"Your Transfigured apple juice will of course be pumpkin again once you actually digest it - but I suppose it doesn't matter once it's past your taste-buds." He sampled one of the vol au vents, very cautiously. "Hum. Well, they don't taste as bad as they look. I'll give them that. The thing about turnips, though - they need to be done properly, which means mashed up with butter and pepper. I agree, the watery little lumps they serve you in Muggle schools are horrible."
"Did you go to a Muggle school then, Professor?" Neville asked with interest.
"Yes, I'm, ah - three-parts Muggle" Snape muttered awkwardly.
"You don't have to sound embarrassed about it - I think it's dead interesting."
"Thanks. One is never quite sure how the - the pure-blooded students will take it."
"There's nothing that great about being a pure-blood. I mean, it's nice, to know who all your ancestors were and that, but it's possible to overdo it. I mean, look at my family - as inbred as fancy spaniels, the lot of them. I'm the only one who isn't barking - and I'm practically a Squib."
"I wouldn't go as far as that, Longbottom, you're just a bit - unfocussed. And I do understand why, now, although I'm not sure what can be done about it. You're alert enough when it comes to vegetation."
"Mmm. Did you notice the gorse coming out in the undergrowth?"
"Oh yes!" Hermione said with enthusiasm. As they came down to the glass-houses she had seen the splashes of clarion yellow in the underbrush along the edge of the cliff. "It was lovely!"
"And you know what they say, don't you?" Neville replied with a grin. "When the gorse is out of flower, kissing's out of season."
Snape eyed him warily. "Explain, please. It's obvious you mean to anyway."
"Well - there's so many species of gorse, and they all flower at different times - so, basically, the gorse is only out of flower for about two weeks a year. Just long enough to give your lips a rest, really."
Snape and Hermione both went bright pink.
"Yes. Well." Hermione reached hastily for a vol au vent. "I always liked gorse. It's so tough and cheerful. And NO comparisons to my hair," she added sternly. "I already know about the resemblance."
"I like your hair," Neville protested. "It's so fluffy."
"That's an understatement," Hermione said ruefully. "Still, tying it up seems to help. I think I'll keep doing it, it's much more convenient this way." She turned her head so Neville could see. "I think the green ribbon looks quite nice, don't you?"
"It looks lovely on you, Hermione, and very... green. Don't you think so, Professor Snape?"
Snape coughed and went even pinker. "Hermione was kind enough to - to wear something indicative of inter-house solidarity."
"Uh-huh? Where's the red one, then?"
"Round my arm," Snape muttered, not meeting the blasted boy's eyes. "Leave it out, Longbottom." The brat was getting almost as bad as Dumbledore. "I don't tease you about your love-life."
"Only because I haven't told you about it yet" Neville replied composedly, snaffling a Scotch egg.
"Well, I think you should, if you're going to keep teasing us about ours," Hermione countered, blushing a bit herself. "And I happen to like green. It's my favourite colour, after pink. I just don't wear it often because the whole house-loyalty thing makes even wearing a hair-ribbon of the wrong colour a big political issue."
"Daft, isn't it? Look at me - I'd have been just as suited in Hufflepuff, really. I don't see why I should only be allowed to date Gryffindors, either - and that's all I'm telling you."
"Oh all right, fine. But I'll find out," Hermione promised, grinning. "Sooner or later. And I nearly got put into Ravenclaw, myself." She patted her hair. "But now I'm going to do my bit to defuse inter-house tension by wearing a bit of green. And nobody but you two really needs to know that I have more than one reason for it."
"I expect Lovegood has already worked it out," Snape said sourly. "She's horribly observant - it must be the tabloid journalist in her. And we're entirely dependent on Albus's sense of fair-play - and you know how far that takes us - not to wander around being invisible all over the bloody place."
"He wouldn't risk it. He knows how much being sneaked up on bothers you now, even more than it did before." Hermione patted his hand gently. "Madam Pomfrey was very firm on the subject of people being invisible around you. Although you're probably right about Luna... and Pansy saw me holding your hand on the way down here."
"You noticed that, did you? Blasted girl. At least she's unlikely to talk to anybody outside Slytherin - that is one advantage to inter-house rivalry - but it does mean I'd better have a word with Draco sooner rather than later."
"Why does it matter who knows, really?"
"You ought to know - you're the one who's keeping your love-life secret here, Longbottom."
"Touché, I guess."
"I still can't.... I don't like being - looked at. Like this. And if we went public - the whole bloody world would be looking at me, it would be on the front page of the Daily Prophet before you could say 'knife' and I don't - we don't even really know where we're going ourselves, yet, and it would be so much harder to, to know what to do if I felt the whole bloody world staring in at me.
"If we decide... if we decide that this is - permanent, then I will announce it in my own time, properly. But I won't have people finding out as if it was something I was ashamed of - and I still hardly can believe that Hermione is even serious about me, though she assures me she is."
"And one day I'll convince you," Hermione said softly, reaching out to touch his sleeve where, underneath, the red ribbon was tied around his arm. "I'm going to keep trying until I do." Neville was beaming fondly at them again, and she went a bit pink. "Honestly, I don't know why you think it's so unreasonable. We've discussed the importance of being able to use words like 'bibliophile' in conversation."
"I'd believe her," Neville advised. "I've seen that look on her face before. It's not worth even trying to argue with her when she gets that look."
"Of course, you've had almost seven years of being bossed about by Hermione, whereas I only started recently. But if I believe her I can only think that there is no accounting for tastes."
"Now you're just fishing for compliments - you only say things like that so she'll tell you how wonderful she thinks you are."
"And what if I am?" Snape replied calmly, helping himself to another crab-and-egg sandwich. "In my position, I'll take all the compliments I can get. I wonder if the house-elves would bring us a beer, if I asked? You're both of age, so I can't be accused of corrupting your innocence." Too much beer, of course, might raise the embarrassing issue of having to be helped to reach a lavatory - but there was one at the back of Greenhouse Four, to save Pomona Sprout from having to trek all the way back to the castle when she was working out here.
"They'd probably bring one, unless Madam Pomfrey has told them not to." Hermione shuddered. "And I don't know about Neville, but even if you wanted to corrupt me with it, I would refuse. That stuff tastes horrible. Wine is one thing, I've had that now and then, but beer... ugh."
"Beer is an acquired taste - one which one usually acquires in one's late teens or early twenties, if one is going to. It may be something to do with one's taste-buds maturing... and in any case, one beer is very different from another, both in taste and in consistency. Far more so than with wines."
"Dunno," Neville said cheerfully. "I've liked it since I was nine - d'you think they've got Old Peculiar? Since you're offering."
"I've only ever tried it a couple of times, and I thought it tasted dreadful both times," Hermione said firmly. "I'd much prefer a nice white wine, if I was going to be drinking. But you two may indulge, if you like." She leaned over to pick up the small bell that had been left on the table "in case miss or sirs want anything else", and rang it.
Dobby appeared almost immediately, beaming all over his wrinkled little face. "Is more food wanted, miss? Dobby will be happy to bring anything that is required, at once!"
Hermione smiled. Dobby was weird, but very endearing. "Would there be any beer on the school grounds, Dobby?" she asked politely. "Neville would like something called 'Old Peculiar', whatever that is, and Professor Snape would like...." She gave him an inquiring look.
"Black Sheep, for preference, Dobby, or something similar - but almost anything that isn't lager will do. Any beer, that is. And Hermione - will you drink wine, then?"
She was about to refuse, when it occurred to her that there was a level of symbolism to sharing a drink, and instead she nodded. "White wine, if possible."
"Dobby will bring them at once," Dobby chirped happily. "We is having all those things, just in case they is ever wanted!" He disappeared with the usual cracking sound.
"I've always wondered," Hermione said thoughtfully, "how it is that house-elves can Apparate on Hogwarts grounds but humans can't. It doesn't say anywhere in Hogwarts: A History. House-elves aren't mentioned in it at all, actually."
"The author probably left them out because they weren't considered important, any more than the kettles and the laundry. But really, they are... a different order of being. So far as I know the only restraint which works against them is the one which binds them to service: without that, they might do as they please and we could do nothing to stop them. As far as I understand it they are somewhere halfway between a corporeal, flesh and blood being and an animus loci - the occult personification of a place. In this case, usually a house. As late as the thirteen hundreds some wizards worshipped them as minor gods."
"There are lots of Muggle stories about them... they're called brownies or household gods or any number of things, but now that I know about house-elves, I'm quite sure that at least some of the stories are about them." Hermione nibbled on a dainty triangle of sandwich. "They're such illogical creatures. I still don't understand why they cling so fervently to that binding, why they seem to like being made to work themselves to a thread for people...."
"Oh, I agree," Neville said solemnly. "I mean, I can't imagine anyone giving up all their waking and sleeping hours to care for some crabby sod who needs waiting on twenty-four hours a day." Hermione glared at him, and he grinned unrepentantly. "I really can't. Honest. Why would anyone do something like that?"
Hermione blushed and tried to pretend she hadn't. "But some of the wizards are so... so unpleasant to them. So ungrateful."
"Give it up, Granger," Snape said with a smirk: "you're only digging yourself in deeper. But the house-elves - they are to some extent expressions of the house they serve, it's in their nature to serve. It's innate - 'hard-wired', Adrian would call it."
Neville nodded, reaching for a cocktail sausage. "Their contract of service is like a, a sort of marriage or adoption between a house-elf family and a wizarding one. If their 'partner' turns out abusive, like the Malfoys, then you're right, it should be possible for them to - well, to divorce their wizarding family. But if the two families are getting along OK, they don't want to be tricked into accepting clothes, any more than a happily-married husband or wife wants to be tricked into a divorce."
"Oh." Hermione looked down, fiddling with the edge of her sandwich. "I - didn't think of it like that."
"You weren't to know," Snape said, pulling a face. "The house-elf contract is one of many aspects of wizarding society which is not examined at Hogwarts, or explained to the Muggle-born - you're just expected to find out on the hoof, as it were. But many house-elves would be reluctant to seek a - a divorce, as Longbottom put it, even if their wizarding family do ill-treat them, because as with a human divorce, there's always a sense of failure in admitting that the relationship hasn't worked. Dobby is unusual in being detached enough to see that the problem lay entirely with the Malfoys, and not with him."
He flinched as Dobby himself re-appeared with a whiplash crack - there was always that small chance that what was coming through that warp in the world would be a Death Eater, not a house-elf, and his nerves had been raw even before his nightmare captivity. Regaining his composure he murmured "Thank you, Dobby. That will do admirably." Evidently the cellars didn't have Black Sheep ale, but Dobby had used his initiative and brought a very similar beer called Old Speckled Hen.
"Dobby is pleased to be of service, Master Severus. Must go now - Harry Potter is wanting Dobby for something."
"You see," Snape said thoughtfully, sipping his beer, "even Dobby was only able to free himself from his inbuilt servitude to Malfoy Manor by developing an almost equally slavish attachment to Potter. What you failed to understand, Hermione, with all that S.P.E.W. business, is that even the rebels and the free-thinkers like Dobby don't want to not be servants - they just want appreciation for their work, and to be able to change masters if they don't get it.
"Not," he added, putting the beer down and making a wide dismissive gesture, "that I am in any position to talk. I dedicated myself body and soul to the Order for seventeen years, and for all the thanks I got I might as well have been a house-elf, until I was... worn down to this." He gestured again, indicating the emptiness where his left arm should be.
"I always thought that was pretty bad of the Headmaster," Neville said seriously. "Sending you into danger like that all the time, and you a friend of his."
"But it was my fight at least as much as his, Longbottom, and I was willing to be risked. At least, he - he exerted pressure on me to become a spy in the first instance, but I had every reason to comply, both the personal, to - to protect a friend and to expiate my own guilt, and the political, because I had realized already that Riddle's dream of a resurgent wizardry was more of a bloody nightmare. And latterly - after Riddle's return he did give me a choice, whether to resume spying or not, and should he have refused to accept my compliance? What would you think of a - an army officer, who sent other people's sons and other people's friends into danger, but kept his own friends safe? Quite apart from the fact that neither running nor hiding would have done me much bloody good."
He picked up the beer again and stared into its murky depths. "No, I have no quarrel with Albus for using any weapon he could against - Riddle, and I don't blame him in any way for what has happened to me. I knew the risks, and I accepted them; to complain now would be like a - a soldier moaning because pitched battle turned out to be more dangerous than a walk in the park. I took the King's Shilling - in a manner of speaking - and I knew what I was doing.
"But it would have been - nice, you know, to get even a little appreciation from someone other than Albus before I was carved into bloody pieces - instead of them all looking down their bloody superior oh-so-clean noses at me." He sighed and turned to Hermione, raising his glass and smiling at her sun-dazzled eyes. "To your very good health."
"And to your own daily increasing health." She lifted her glass to him and sipped her wine, returning his smile. "I never looked down my nose at you," she pointed out. "And I wouldn't have even if I were tall enough."
"Neither did I," Neville agreed, tipping his own glass to Snape. "I was too bloody terrified of you. It would have been like trying to look down my nose at an avalanche or a tidal wave or some other unstoppable natural force thing that could crush me without effort." He grinned at Hermione. "And you were always trying to impress him."
She grinned sheepishly. "I really was. And he just wouldn't BE impressed, it was so frustrating."
"Occasionally I was - but I was damned if I was going to show it. Childish of me, I know, but I don't really have any choice about looking down my nose at people - it's the only way I can see past it." And let them wonder whether he was serious or not! "And just because I could crush you without effort, Longbottom, doesn't mean I would. Hermione assures me that I have a delicate touch where it counts," he said, delicately, "and in any case it would be like trying to squash custard."
Hermione blushed, and Neville snickered. "I'm not going to comment on your delicate touch... but I'm going to take the custard thing as a compliment. Soft and bland I may be, but I like the thought of being unsquashable."
"And you sneer so well, it would be a shame to waste it," Hermione conceded, giving her beloved's nose a fond look. In her decidedly biased view, it was perfect exactly as it was. "You smile quite nicely too, though, on the rare occasions when you do it. I like it, anyway."
"I've never had much to smile about, if you think about it. But this is...." He made a wide inclusive gesture, nearly slopping his beer. "For the first time... for the first time I feel as if Adrian is right and I really am going to be - all right. If not quite yet, then eventually. And I have never - except sometimes at school I never had anything like - " He stopped, cleared his throat. "Just - sitting with friends" he went on in a rush, "talking. Having friends to sit and talk with." He took a sip of beer to cover his embarrassment, although he found that his hand was shaking slightly. "Albus doesn't really count. He's fond of me - I do believe that, now, or at least that he's fond of me now - but it's hard just to have a natural conversation with him, because he's such a bloody game-player."
"I know what you mean. Uh... Neville, would you look over there for a moment?" Neville looked away as requested, and Hermione leaned over to kiss Severus's scarred cheek gently. "And I intend to do a lot more sitting with you," she said softly. "And picnicking, and reading, and drifting around in boats."
Neville nodded, looking back when it seemed safe. "And you have me for a friend, too... I may be custard, but I certainly don't play games. I'm dreadful at it, even if I wanted to try."
"It's one of your good points, Longbottom - that you say what you mean, and mean what you say. But I could teach you to play canasta, if you like! And I did mean it as a compliment, really. There's a quote from Les Miserables: 'Triumph of that which yields over that which thunders... glory to the mattress which nullifies a cannon.' If you keep on smiling agreeably and side-stepping the question it makes you almost impossible to pin down: Lovegood is a pastmaster at it. Or do I mean pastmistress?" He smiled crookedly. "I've never been very good at it myself - I've got too short a fuse, and I always start getting snappy."
"I can't do it either," Hermione admitted. "I always wind up shouting at people for being stupid... Harry and Ron, usually."
"Dithering can be very useful, too. But yes, I see what you mean about being friendly and ducking the question. I can do that, except when I get nervous." Neville smiled. "And I'd like to learn canasta. Is it difficult?"
"Immensely - if I taught you an easy game you might beat me, and I think we both know how competitive I am."
"Ahh, that explains why you're teaching me instead of Hermione." Neville grinned. "I don't know if you've noticed, but she's one of the most competitive girls in our year. She can't touch Harry or Malfoy for sheer competitive fervour, but she's still pretty determined." Hermione flicked a grape at him and he ducked, grinning.
"Why yes - part of her interest in, ah, 'landing' me is, apparently, so that she can swank about it in front of every other heterosexual female student in the school. She tells me I'm considered a prize catch."
Hermione blushed furiously. "Well, you are. You're so absolutely impossible to get... or you always seemed that way, anyway."
Neville gave her a startled look. "What, really? He is? I thought everyone was terrified of him."
"Oh, most of them are. But there's a certain appeal to the idea of... uh... taming the tiger, you know?"
"Oh. I see." Neville grinned. "Can I be there when you start swanking? I want to watch."
"I assure you, you'll be one of the first to know," Snape said dryly, smiling and gazing into the depths of his beer.
"And this one," Neville said, touching the deep-red bud of the rose which wound itself around one of the wooden pillars which braced the roof, "this is Souvenir du Docteur Jamain. She shouldn't really flower this early, but Professor Sprout has been bringing her on - and the scent! You can smell it already, even though she's hardly opened yet."
Snape took a deep breath of the heavy, heady scent and nodded to himself, closing his eyes. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he began to sing:
The song should have been as pretty and floral as the words but somehow it had a sinister purr to it, as his roughened voice curled itself around the notes.
"Severus!" Hermione exclaimed. "You didn't tell me you could sing!"
He looked down, grimacing. "I used to be able to sing, but now my voice is...."
"It still sounds good," Neville said firmly. "The rasp just gives it added timber, like."
Snape snorted. "I think you mean 'timbre', Longbottom - if there's one thing I've never been accused of, it's having a wooden voice."
"So, you and Professor Snape, you... get on well?"
"... fine. Why do you ask?"
"Only I couldn't help noticing that the two of you seemed to be getting on... very well."
Hermione tried not to blush, she really did, but her face went pink anyway. "I don't know what you mean," she said loftily. "Of course we do get along, I wouldn't still be nursing him if we didn't, but...."
Pansy gave her a knowing look. "And holding hands with attractive older men, that's just part of your nursing technique, am I right?"
"It was the first time he'd gone outside since he came back," Hermione said defensively. "I was being reassuring!" Her blush intensified. Pansy was entirely too good at that I-can-see-right-through-you expression.
"Ri-i-ight," Pansy drawled, and grinned.
"Oh, all right, it's not just...." Hermione sighed. "Come on." She towed Pansy into the nearest available privacy, which happened to be a broom cupboard. "Please don't spread this around, it's not... something that's supposed to be general knowledge yet. It's... not exactly.... well, we're still working out exactly... uhm... stop looking at me like that and say something."
Pansy's pug-like face contorted briefly into a scowl. "If I thought for one second that you were taking advantage of him - but you're not, are you? He looked quite pleased to have you there - I suppose there's no accounting for tastes."
"He was... pleased, yes. He couldn't imagine why I would care for him, but he seems to be glad that I do." Hermione fiddled with the edge of her sleeve. "And I do. I care a great deal, actually."
"A Gryffindor caring about a Slytherin? That'll be a first, then."
"Oh, it would not," Hermione said rather tartly. "Honestly, the way people carry on about the whole House thing, you'd think we'd all sworn oaths in blood to always hate our opposing house or something. Yes, I care about him. I'm quite mad about him, in fact. And whether he's a Slytherin or not is completely irrelevant. I like him because he's clever and brave and subtle, not because of a fundamentally unimportant school House designation. I know you and I have had our differences," she added, still rather crossly, "but that had nothing to do with you being a Slytherin. I disliked you on a purely personal basis." Because Pansy had been a rude, snotty little cow, to be specific, but she was really trying hard not to start fights with the people Severus cared about, so she didn't actually say so.
"The same, actually - I'd probably have disliked you just as much if you'd been in Slytherin. But Professor Snape appears to like you, why ever he does, and what the Professor wants - matters." She pulled a wry, pained face. "He matters. For a lot - for a lot of Slytherins he's been the only important adult in our lives we didn't have to be scared of, and if a scrawny, toffee-nosed little Gryffindor is what he wants, that's what he'll have. After - after what happened last year... whatever he wants, we'll back him. All the way."
"I am NOT scrawny," Hermione retorted. "Not anymore. I know I used to be. And he says I'd have made quite a good Slytherin." She counted to ten silently and then sighed. "And he does matter. He matters terribly, to me at least. That's partly why I rescued Draco, because I knew Severus wanted him back and if he wants something I'll do whatever I can to get it for him. That and Draco looked so scared," she added. "I don't like him either, but I wouldn't have gone off and left anyone unrescued who looked like that." It felt a little like bragging, but she wanted to remind Pansy that she, at least, had been overcoming barriers of house prejudice to help others.
"I used to have a big thing about Draco, until I found out what a manipulative little shit he is," Pansy said dispassionately. "But you're right, he was in a very nasty position. His dad told him - told him the Professor had been killed, and Draco refused to take the Mark because of it. He was afraid his father would force him.... So, you don't like Draco, but you'll put up with him for the Professor's sake, and I don't like you much but - the same. Anybody who's all right with the Professor is all right with me, I guess. D'you think you're going to marry him?"
Hermione blushed furiously. "We're not even dating openly yet! How on earth would I know if we're going to make it permanent? I mean... what if he changes his mind when he's better? Or finds someone he likes more than me?" Her voice got unintentionally woeful at that last suggestion. She knew Severus thought it was unlikely, but it worried her a lot. Now that he was a hero, he would find that he was more popular than he'd thought, and there was bound to be competition. "And Draco's actually improved a lot since we retrieved him. I think the shock did him good."
"You're not wrong there. It made him see what's - what's really at stake. What the Death Eaters are like. But it's very romantic, you and the Professor, in a funny way - secret trysts among the flowers and everything...."
"It has been rather romantic, in spots. I do like romance, even if I don't always admit it." Hermione smiled at the thought. "And I do care, very much... you don't need to worry about me breaking his heart, or anything. If... whatever it is we have, I'm not entirely sure how to define it yet... does end, it will be because he wants it to, not because I do."
"I don't think he'd turn out to be a heart-breaker - he's more the obsessive type. Smouldering with secret passion, and that - he might get a bit jealous and possessive, though. I've had ones like that - it can be a bit of a pain."
"It can," Hermione agreed, speaking from the experience of Ron. "I think I'd like it if he did it, though. Caring enough to be jealous over me. Of course, you'd know more about that sort of thing than I would." Damn, that had slipped out... Pansy had definitely Been Around, to put it mildly, as Hermione decidedly had not. She smiled wryly. "Being a scrawny, toffee-nosed bookworm, and all," she added, deciding it was better to concede a bit of her dignity than offend Pansy just when they were almost getting along. "I haven't... well... dated a great deal."
"You've not missed much - there's a distinct lack of talent at Hogwarts, and the few good-looking boys there are nearly always turn out to be gay. Especially as - well, hardly anybody outside Slytherin would date a Slytherin, and we're all climbing the walls, frankly. Especially now. A lot of us... it's bloody-well true what the other houses say, a lot of us do have families with a foot in the Dark Arts, some with parents or aunts or cousins who are Death Eaters. And after what they did to Professor Snape.... Nearly all those with Dark-connected families have dumped them or told them where to get off, and the few who are still loyal to the Dark Lord... frankly, I wouldn't be surprized if there's a murder done before long. I wish - I wish the Professor was well enough to be back in charge. He kept the lid on it for years, but now he's sick it's all going to blow."
"Oh dear." Hermione gnawed worriedly on her lower lip. "That's not a good thing... and I'll have to tell him, now that I know. He'd be furious if something happened and I'd known it might and hadn't warned him, and I wouldn't blame him for it, either. I'm not sure what he can do, though. Is there anything I can do? Hex some obnoxious Gryffindors for you or something? The last thing we all need is for more people to get hurt, everyone's hovering on the verge of panic as it is. And Slytherin house has been through quite enough already."
"It's already... the fact that two Gryffindors and a Ravenclaw are working with Draco to help Professor Snape has made some Slytherins believe we can work with the other houses and not be spat at, although I don't really see it myself. But the real problem is inside Slytherin. The ones who - the ones who are loyal to Professor Snape, that's most of us, are scared the ones loyal to the Dark Lord are a threat to him and if one of them puts so much as a toe out of line.... I wish I knew what to do."
"I'll ask him. He might have a suggestion... although I'm not going to let him exhaust himself or set himself back." Hermione frowned. "He's... he's better, a lot better, but he's still not... well. But he's under guard, every minute of the day, if that helps. Not just the guards at the door but - we, the people who sit with him, we don't even go to the bathroom without leaving the door open a crack so we can keep watching him, and the house-elves and the Bloody Baron check up on us while we sleep. The Death Eater supporters might want to threaten him, but it wouldn't be easy. We've done our best to make it impossible for anyone who might possibly be a threat to him to get to him."
"It's about bloody time someone took care of him, instead of him always taking care of them" Pansy replied with a scowl, and Hermione found herself unexpectedly warming to the girl - even if she did look like a pug in an alice band. It occurred to her suddenly to wonder whether Pansy had made fun of her looks when they were younger because she was almost the only person in their year who was plainer than Pansy - except for Millicent Bulstrode, of course, and no-one wanted to insult her in case she decided to get physical about it.
Pansy looked down at the floor, looking rather miserable. "I really don't want to disturb him when he's - not well, but you're right, he'd be furious if we treated him like a little kid and kept him in the dark. It's his house, after all. His, um, party of resource."
"I know." Hermione reached out to pat Pansy's shoulder awkwardly. "And I am doing my best to take care of him... we all are, but I'm the one who's mad about him, so I put in some extra time." She smiled a bit ruefully. "I'll tell him about it, on my next shift, and see if he can come up with anything to help. Meanwhile, maybe pointing out that he's under constant guard would help?"
"They must know that - most of the guards on him are Slytherin anyway. It's - probably none of them would be stupid enough to try, really. But even the idea anybody in Slytherin could be - OK with what was done to Professor Snape... I'm afraid somebody's going to say something they won't get the chance to regret, you know?"
Hermione thought for a moment. "Maybe you could sort of subtly spread the word that he'd like to handle any further attempts on his life himself?" she suggested. "I imagine there'd be a certain amount of roughing up involved even so, but if the general idea was to grab anyone who hinted at wanting to finish him off and drag them before him, there'd be less risk of them getting badly hurt.... and I think he would want to deal with it himself, especially if the alternative was going to get his loyal students in a lot of trouble."
Pansy gave her a sly grin. "Who'd've thought a Gryffindor could be so sneaky? The ones who mutter in corners about him being a traitor who deserved what he got would be shitting themselves at the idea of saying it to his face. They know he could hex their balls off without raising a sweat. Even the girls!"
Hermione smiled sweetly. "He does keep telling me I'd make a good Slytherin."
"Damn - he really does have the hots for you, doesn't he?"
Ron actually cut the lace off his dress robes in GoF, but we're assuming that either his mother mended them (with Reparo) or he did it himself, in hopes of making Draco look sillier; although in fact Draco has the looks for lace.
Although the highest-numbered greenhouse which is actually named in the books is Greenhouse Three, we are told in HBP that when it is misty Harry and co. have trouble locating the correct greenhouse. This suggests that there are a lot more than three of them, and/or that they are all mixed up with other appropriate buildings such as potting sheds. The fact that Harry and Hermione use them as cover when approaching the Whomping Willow in PoA also suggests that they extend quite a long way, so either they are very large or there are a lot of them. They are probably used for a lot more than just teaching Herbology classes - growing fruit and veg. out of season for the kitchens, for example - so I'm guessing there are many more than three.
"A great big roaring bull" was what the Great God Om was trying to turn into when he instead got stuck as a tortoise for several years, in Terry Pratchett's novel Small Gods.
Sandgreen, with its beach of white shell, is a real coastal area in Galloway in southern Scotland. For complex reasons having to do with the climate, the train-journey and the extremely English-sounding name "Hogsmeade", I think Hogwarts is more likely to be in the Galloway Hills than in the Highlands.
For those who don't know, a vol au vent is a little dollop-shaped puff-pastry case, a couple of inches across. In the centre, sometimes with a puff-pastry lid, sometimes exposed so you can see it, is about a teaspoonful of filling which is usually a sort of pale grey paste made from chicken and mushroom. It really does look like pus - but they don't taste too bad. They used to be a staple of old-fashioned, up-market British teas - wedding receptions, office parties and so on - although they've now largely been replaced by things like spicy chicken wings and miniature spring rolls. Snape's family were too scruffy to go to posh receptions, so he hasn't seen them before.
Crab with egg mayonnaise (that is, hard-boiled eggs chopped finely, seasoned and mixed with mayonnaisse and sometimes chives) is an especially delicious combination.
"It is immoral that a mattress should have so much power. Triumph of that which yields over that which thunders. But it is all the same; glory to the mattress which nullifies a cannon." - quote from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, describing a scene where mattresses were hung on the walls of buildings under siege, to fend off cannonballs.
"Go down, you blood-red roses" - this is a variant version of the chorus of the traditional sea shanty Blood Red Roses, a good version of which can be found on the Yet Another Digital Tradition Page.
The next chapter is going to take a while, because only about a third of it is already written.
This chapter has been re-edited in accordance with the new backstory revealed in Deathly Hallows, to show that Snape did at least have some friends at school, that Albus was not a very close friend prior to Snape's being injured, and that Albus did strong-arm Snape into becoming a spy in the first instance, even if he agreed fairly willingly.
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