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
At least the Easter break meant that there were few students around, and he could sit out in the grounds with a few friends (!) and collect a little fresh air. Since fifth year he had always preferred to remain indoors, where he would not be reminded of the sun-dappled afternoons with Lily which he had thrown away in a moment of anguished rage, and where there were more crannies in which to hide from (or occasionally ambush) his persecutors - although he realized now that the reason he had rarely been able to sneak up on, or away from, the snidey little bastards was because they were able to spot him on their magical map.
The sun, in any case, tended to make him queasy. But the spring weather was fresh rather than oppressive, and six months stuck in his own sitting-room had rather given him a sickener for "indoors": so much so that he made his mind up that even after the students returned tomorrow, he would still take the chance to sit outside and read, at least while they were in class. He realized with a slight jolt that the actual six-month anniversary of his return from hell had passed unnoticed almost a week ago, amicably spent in sexual experimentation with Hermione, and teaching Potter to bottle something more tangible than glory.
Sitting with his back against the fateful beech tree, going over a NEWT-year revision timetable with Horace while Longbottom lounged on his stomach in the grass nearby, doing a little light revision of his own, and his Slytherin bodyguard lurked in the bushes in what they imagined was a stealthy fashion, Severus realised that despite the feelings of unworthiness and bone-deep dirtiness which continued to ambush him at odd moments and spill out in sudden surges of self-loathing, his state of mind had been through a sea-change. The memory of terror still hovered at the back of every breath, but it felt like a nuisance rather than a fundamental condition of existence. He was still traumatized, still struggling to regain himself, and he supposed he always would be: but trauma and recovery were now things he was fitting in in the spare moments of something approaching a real life, rather than being his primary focus.
He was even thinking of allowing the stone snakes around the fireplace to slither back into his life....
Even so, it was a relief to be able to talk to Minerva and not conceal his relationship with Hermione: to be able to tell someone less biased than Hermione herself about his dread of proving unworthy of her, and be given peremptory reassurance. To be able to rant and rave at her, when ranting and raving felt like the only alternative to suffocation, and not have to all the time watch his words in case he gave away what should have remained unsaid as he still must do, for the moment, with Albus - and wasn't that a conversation to look forwards to....
He extracted his faintly slimy quill from underneath Trevor, who was attempting to snuggle, and frowned. Why he should feel guilty about being less than transparently honest with Albus, who was himself as transparent as fourteen feet of lead plate, he wasn't sure; but the knowledge that to some extent it served the old goat right didn't make him any less uncomfortable about accepting Albus's comfort and companionship under what were to some extent false pretences - and he could hardly reject them without explanation. But at least he could now discuss his dilemma with Minerva, and be robustly reassured that what Albus didn't know, wouldn't hurt him (but then, like most Gryffindors, Minerva had always felt that rules only happened to other people).
And there was, perhaps, no point in telling Albus anyway. NEWTs were less than two months away, and the time was soon approaching when the inexorable turn of the school year would carry Hermione, and Longbottom, Draco and even Potter away from him, and he did not know how he would cope with their loss and hardly dared even to think of it, although he had confidence enough, now, to suppose that, like Adrian, they would make some effort to keep in touch. At least for a while.
If his "thing" with Hermione was doomed to die away once she had left Hogwarts, there seemed no point in complicating her reputation, and his own, by telling Albus about it. But he dared to hope that Hermione was the true gold and could be relied on, all the way, and Minerva seemed confident that she had meant what she had said about tenure: and in that case he was sooner or later going to have to admit to the Headmaster that he was carrying on with a student. Even if she wasn't, technically, his student.
Unless, that is, he put it off until after Hermione had left school, and then persuaded Albus that the relationship had only just begun; but that would mean telling an intentional lie, and that was a thing he had always hated to do - even though the life of a spy made it an absolute necessity at times.
It was a relief to Hermione, too, to be able to discuss the situation openly with Professor McGonagall. There were times when the stress of dealing with Severus's mental and physical injuries and her own uncertainty made her want to explode, and talking to Severus himself about it felt more than a little peculiar, not to mention recursive. But at least if she told the older woman she didn't know how to deal with X, and McGonagall admitted that she didn't either, it mobilised Hermione's bustling competitiveness and encouraged her to find a solution just to prove that she could, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
"I've been thinking," Harry said, laying the Ace of Clubs down firmly on Severus's Three of Diamonds.
"And what a novel experience that must be for you."
"I love you too. Hearts, by the way."
"Diamonds," Severus said firmly, playing the Ace of Hearts. "Last card. What have you been thinking, Potter?"
"Oh, I was wondering if - miss a go," he added vaguely, laying down the Seven of Diamonds, followed by the Seven and Eight of Spades and the Eight and Ten of Hearts. "Miss a go, miss a go, miss a go, last card and - out. Wondering if you'd consider, um, teachingmeOcclumencyagain."
After a brief pause while he wrung some sense out of Potter's gabble, Severus cocked an eyebrow. "And what, may I ask, has caused this sudden access of common sense?""
"Hermione said thatum, that it was stupid to worry about security leaks when the biggest one was right in my own head and Ron agreed with her, which he nearly never does, and, um, that now that you and I were 'making such good progress' - her words -"
"I was watching her when we agreed to play cards," Severus said sourly. "I half expected her to pat us on the head."
"You mean her 'good boy!' expression? That she gives you when you've done something clever against all her expectations?"
"I take it you've seen that one before."
"On a regular basis since first year."
"And you don't object to being treated like a badly behaved puppy who's finally learned a trick?"
"Usually I deserve it."
"So do you."
"... shut up and deal."
"Rolanda said you were really coming along well, Severus," Poppy murmured, working her thumbs in around his sharp shoulder-blades in a smooth, circular motion.
"Ungh." As the massage progressed to his collar bones he let his head fall forwards, feeling the tension in his neck slackening off. He was severely out of practice at brewing large quantities of anything, especially the fine-chopping-of-enormous-quantities-of-herbs aspect of the process, and replenishing the hospital wing's supply of Sneeze-Ease in preparation for the hay-fever season had left his shoulders feeling (horribly like they had felt when he was hung up by the hands and left to dangle and be whipped but he wasn't going to think about that, and here he had Poppy's firm, kind hands to take away the pain and make it almost worth it).
"Yes," Poppy continued brightly; "she said you were already walking better than Sylvanus ever did with his replacements, even after all the time he had to practise."
"I should certainly hope so," he muttered. "I'd rather lounge in a litter and be carried like the cripple I am, than lurch about like a cheap wind-up toy robot."
"I'm sure you're already moving like quite an expensive row-boat," the matron said soothingly, and gave his shoulder a firm pat. "There - how's that?"
He rotated his neck cautiously. "Better," he conceded.
"In fact," Poppy said, a note of caution creeping into her voice, "Adrian and I were wondering - well, you've recovered so very well, Severus, really you have, all things considered and we were wondering if - that is, if you'd mind if we wrote a paper about your treatment, to be submitted to the Journal of Contemporary Medical Magic."
Severus could feel his mental gears lurch slightly. Part of him wanted to cry "No!" and push away the thought of strangers reading the details of his degradation - and it was hard to see how such a paper could usefully be written without going into at least some of the sordid details, nor in a way which would preserve his anonymity, since the basic fact of his destruction and resurrection must be known to the whole of wizarding Britain by now. Part of him still felt that he had no right to privacy or to resent what anyone might make of him; and in any case every miserable, intimate horror was already known to the slimy bastards who had inflicted it, which made the very concept of privacy feel meaningless.
But the third part knew that the treatments which had saved him might be used to save others, if they were known and researched, and something in his heart which had long been rusty began to stir and move, scenting the winds of knowledge and intellectual power. "I don't - know," he said slowly. "I'll have to think about it. But I'm sure of one thing: if I say 'Yes', I'm going to co-write it."
"I almost forgot, but while Longbottom was here yesterday... well, after what you were saying the other week, about whether or not you were of sufficient help to me, I decided to - make you something." He fished in the drawer of the bedside table, took out a roll of clean, crisp parchment and handed it to her, with a sideways look which was both teasing and bashful. Feeling suddenly nervous with anticipation, Hermione undid the green silk ribbon which kept the sheet rolled, and looked at the familiar small, spiky writing, which was less scrawling and untidy than usual. He had evidently made a great effort to be neat.
"Oh..." Hermione whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "Severus, that's... it's beautiful, I...." Talking was entirely insufficient. She kissed him, clutching the scroll tightly to her. "Thank you," she whispered between kisses. "I love you so very much...."
He leaned into her kisses and returned them with interest, drawing her close and then pulling her down onto the bed and rolling over with her until he lay half across her, recklessly happy. When he had kissed her breathless he put his fingers across her lips to indicate that she should keep quiet for a moment, and then propped himself up as best he could with the other arm, the wooden one, as alien and stiff as that still felt, and lay there gazing down at her. Her lips tickled as she kissed the palm of his hand.
"I suppose," he said seriously, "that I must love you, or I wouldn't have written it. Love - love is a difficult concept to define, especially for someone who has been so - cut off from all warmth for as long as I have been. But you are - shining to me, and I hate all those who would harm you, and I count every moment that I am not with you as wasted - so I suppose I must be as mad for you as one of your silly schoolmates, even though - even though my own emotions are all still somewhat at a remove from me. That's - something of an occupational hazard, for an Occlumens. But you've taught me what joy means, which - which I never knew before, even before I was.... And I don't just mean sexual joy - enjoyable though that is - but feeling...."
He moved his fingers out of the way and kissed her again, softly. "All my life, the future looked at best like a hard, lonely struggle, scrambling to get out of a dark place before it swallowed me whole, and ever since - since He returned I could see nothing ahead but the jaws of a long death - and nothing past that but endless flat nothingness, even if I somehow survived. But now - now when on one level I feel that I am - ruined, broken, degraded, thanks to you and at the same time I feel that the future is full of possibility; that my own ruin and degradation is something I don't have to face alone and that facing it in company might be weirdly enjoyable; that warmth and comfort and companionship are actually possible, even for such as me, and that life might actually become something to be savoured rather than merely endured."
She kissed him, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "I... feel very small and humble, hearing that," she said softly. "I want so badly to be everything you describe, and I'm very afraid of somehow failing you. I know you think it's a sign of insanity on my part, but I still don't feel entirely worthy of you." She smiled a rather wobbly smile. "And yet I don't recall ever being quite as happy as I am right at this moment. I love you, and you love me, and everything else seems utterly unimportant and irrelevant right at this second." She cupped his face between her hands, lifting her head to kiss the tip of his nose gently. "I had no idea you could be so... romantic. I like it very much."
He returned the favour, kissing her eyelids in turn. "I've always been a closet romantic" he said lightly - "and I don't mean I like to make love in cupboards, although I wouldn't definitely rule it out. Haven't you heard me waxing lyrical about some stinking, phlegm-coloured potion or other? How much easier to be lyrical about such a... delicious subject." Teasing, he flicked his tongue across her lips until she arched off the bed trying to kiss him back, and then began to kiss and lick in a long trail leading all the way down the curves of her chest and her belly - still not fully used to using the prosthetic fingers and fumbling awkwardly at the buttons on her blouse and skirt, until she assisted him with unsteady hands. As he held her knees firmly apart she thought, insofar as she still had enough attention left for thinking, that it was a very clever trick of his - to make her sing with his tongue....
Afterwards, when they were both pleasurably tired and sated, he held her close against his chest with her head tucked in under his chin, and lay there staring at the green waters lapping at the window-pane. "You mustn't think," he said quietly, "that you will be able to get it right every time - nor must you expect to. I am very badly - damaged, in my body, in my mind and in my spirit and I know this. There will be times when you fail me, and you mustn't expect it to be otherwise. Annoying as it must be for you even to contemplate, there are some arts where perfection is simply not achievable. But you've already helped me a very great deal, and I have confidence that you will go on doing so, and I'm not a, a dangerous potion which will explode if you add one extra kneazle-hair - I'm not going to go all purple and die if you fumble the occasional catch, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor, and I promise you now that I won't kill myself. You promise me you won't lacerate yourself with guilt if you don't always get it absolutely right every single time. Otherwise I'm just going to worry myself into a crisis over it - and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
"I know there'll be times when I can't help," Hermione admitted, her fingers tracing idle patterns on his chest. "I hate the idea, you're right, but I'll live with it. I suspect it would have been that way even if... all this... hadn't happened, and I'd somehow managed to convince you to get involved with me anyway. Some of those wounds are very old, and very deep." She paused, smiling a little. "Mmm. What would you have done if you hadn't lost your cover, if this had been just another year, and I'd lost my head and let you know how drawn to you I was? I suspect it would involve decaying Flobberworms, my toothbrush, and a horrified injunction never to say such a thing again...."
"I would have assumed you were mocking me," he said promptly, "and taken twenty points off Gryffindor for cheek. And for cruelty," he added quietly. "If you had actually managed to convince me you were sincere, I would have been deeply flattered - and deeply horrified. You were my student, for God's sake. It still - 'freaks me out,' as Longbottom would put it, to think that you were my student, and so recently, but at least now that I am... on extended medical leave, as Albus delicately puts it, at least now I'm not in authority over you. And, as you yourself pointed out, you are to some extent in authority over me, since without the prostheses I need your help even to go to the bloody lavatory.
"I would have been - oh, God, on the one hand I wouldn't have wanted to turn down the only person who'd actually wanted me for bloody years that wasn't a fucking Death Eater, and I would have been - so amazed, and I wouldn't have wanted to hurt you just for caring about me - and then I would have wanted to hurt you, for being bloody stupid enough to care about me, and for - disturbing my world-view. And the idea, the idea that I even might take advantage of my power over someone so much younger, that someone would even think that I might, and knowing that, that part of me wanted to take you up on it.... God, how I would have hated myself."
"I would never have told you on purpose, while we were teacher and student, not really" she said thoughtfully, kissing the side of his neck. "I mean, getting someone fired... or possibly lynched... is hardly an effective way of demonstrating your affection. But you might have found out anyway. If you had... well, I probably wouldn't have had any idea what to do. I would have dropped Potions, at least... I like the subject a lot, but it would have been bloody awkward at best for both of us, and you not teaching me directly might have helped. And in the long run it probably would have been best for both of us if you didn't know... on the other hand, given that neither of us has any guarantee or even much likelihood of having a long run, at this point, I would have hated for one of us to die without you knowing that you'd been loved."
"Oh, God, Hermione, I don't even want to think about a scenario in which you die and I don't. But... thank you. For the thought. If I - if I hadn't made it, last year, I would indeed have died thinking that I had never in my life inspired more than the sort of vague affection one feels for any long-term colleague except - well, except for Lily, and her love, if it was love, ended up as - not even hatred, I could have born hatred, but just - contempt." His mouth tightened in a flinch at the knowledge of how that had undermined him, for all the years until Hermione had come to give him back to himself. She frowned at him, but even he could see and trust that she did so out of anxiety for him rather than scorn, and he felt himself uncoiling in the warmth of her gentle concern.
"But now.... Even though - even though I still can't really believe that I deserve your love, or you, if fate has given me such an unearned gift then I am deeply, wondrously grateful for it. And if you had told me that you loved me after you left school, or at least after the final end of classes when I no longer had any authority over you, then I would have done... this!" he said, tilting her head back with his thumb under her chin, and bending to kiss her firmly on the lips.
Hermione kissed him back, snuggling against him happily. "And I hate the thought of ever losing you, too," she said softly. "But if it ever did happen, it would be so much worse if I'd never told you, if you'd thought you were alone and... and unwanted." She rubbed the tip of her nose very gently against his. "And you deserve far more love than any single person could give... and you have it, even if you have trouble believing it."
"I don't believe it - I can't believe it" he said half-seriously, rubbing his cheek against hers like a cat. "But maybe if you - and Minerva and all the rest of them - keep on telling me for a decade or two it will start to sink in. And in the meantime I am always open to - practical demonstration."
"You know, I've noticed that about you myself. And I, personally, am quite enthusiastic about the idea of demonstrating to you just how much I love you, as often as possible." She smiled, snuggling against him. "You are a daft lump of a man, as Professor McGonagall would put it, not to know how very loveable you are. I may have to draw you a diagram."
"Complete with numbered parts, you insatiable chit." He lay for a while and just looked at her, trying to recapture the reckless joy which he had felt earlier, but instead finding himself suddenly ineffably sad, knowing that whatever happened, all this constant companionship must suffer a sea-change at the end of the school year and what replaced it would be different, even if not necessarily worse.
"I answered your question," he said quietly, "so here's a question for you. You know why they.... It amused them not to feed me, then they could torment me without effort, just by making me watch them eat. They gave me just enough water to keep me alive, always fouled in some way, and they used spells and potions to sustain me and other than that, nothing at all to eat or to drink for four bloody months, unless you count - Only they miscalculated. They thought that they could keep me going like that almost indefinitely, but they found that they could not, and by that time my stomach was so shrunken that feeding me more than a mouthful would have killed me anyway. That was why they decided to cut their losses, cut me and dump me back at Hogwarts when they did."
He looked her in the eyes, serious and sad. "If they had not - miscalculated, and if they had done as they had originally intended and posted me back to Albus as a Christmas gift, nothing but a, a torso and a skull, pruned of everything that could be pruned without killing me, eyeless, tongueless, lipless, gelded, unable to communicate in any way except by Legilimency, and even that only with someone powerful enough to overcome the lack of eye contact, and yet still - agonizingly aware, what would you have done then? Could you still have loved what was left?"
She considered the question... it was a serious one, and a sentimental or casual answer wouldn't do. "I could," she said, after a long pause. "It would have been dreadfully painful, but if you'd ever let me communicate with you, via Legilimency, and assuming that I could... I don't think I could have hidden from you how much I cared. It's your mind I've always been most drawn to, your wit and brilliance and hidden passion...." She smiled sadly. "I would have given you whatever comfort I could, tried to make it bearable for you... and let you go, if that was what you wanted." Her eyes filling with sudden tears, she rested her forehead against his. "I don't ever want to lose you, Severus... this was too close, I couldn't bear getting you back and then losing you again...."
"I don't want to lose you either, and I don't - oh, God, I don't want to think about the possibility of falling into their hands again. But the Slytherins - they do watch over me, and I am probably in less immediate danger now than I have ever been in my life. If - He - wins, which God forbid, we'd both be in appalling danger, and in that case I would certainly rather die than be re-taken. But...."
He moved to tuck her down comfortably under his chin again, so that he could hold her properly. "If I had ended up... like that," he said slowly, "I would have been begging for death. I mean, even after I knew I was free. But if you had shown me your mind, your love, your comfort, and assuming I was able to recognize them for what they were, then I would have wanted to stay, at least for a while - just to have more of that warmth and kindness, to ease the pain of what had been done to me. You know that - needing to be held embarrasses me, for showing such weakness, but what embarrasses me most of all is finding out how much I like it. I don't remember anyone ever holding me in that, that kind way ever before, and even if I had been stripped down to - what does the song say? - 'an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg' - still I would have recognized your kindness and wanted more of it."
"And I would have held you day and night, I would never have let you go unless I had to," Hermione said softly, nuzzling her face into his neck. "And I would have searched night and day for a way to make you well again... which scares me a bit, actually. If I were faced with losing you, I don't think there's much I wouldn't have been willing to do. And there are usually ways to get what you want, if you don't care what the price is going to be." It was the essence of Dark Magic, really... anything for a price. "I wouldn't care what happened to me, not if the alternative was living without you...."
"I'd care, though." He laughed, briefly and rather thickly, feeling choked with emotion. "And that would have necessitated another loan of Albus's time-turner, wouldn't it, if you were going to cradle me day and night and search night and day for a cure - unless you were planning to set up a day-bed in the library! And even so you would have had to let Minerva have a turn sometimes, you know - your muscles would have wasted if you didn't at least walk about a bit, and besides, she'd moan at you for monopolizing me." He sighed into her hair and rubbed his rather sharp chin against the top of her head. "Thank God it didn't come to that. Even if - even if you would have found a way to help me, in the end. A prosthetic hand I can just about live with, but I'd feel really... well, the idea of ending up with two independently rotating artificial eyeballs and a prosthetic widge is truly disturbing."
"You know - um, down there. It's what they call it where I come from."
Hermione grinned, wiping her eyes hastily as she propped herself up to smile down at him. "That is... actually rather adorable. I'm going to call it that now. And I could study while holding you, if I had a book-stand." She kissed him lingeringly. "I love you," she said softly. "I don't ever want to have to live without you. So you are to be very, very careful with yourself from now on, do you hear me?" She kissed him again, letting the kisses wander over his face. "Or I will be very upset with you. And I'll probably cry on you until you're soggier than Trevor."
"You're going to make me soggy now if you kiss me all over like that - not that I'm complaining but it's a bit -" He flinched slightly and Hermione blushed, remembering what he'd said about touching him too restlessly.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, "I didn't mean -" and he sighed and tilted her chin up with one long finger - one of the real ones.
"What did I tell you?"
"Not to touch you too-"
"Not that. Perfection not attainable, remember? And the information that you don't intend to live without me is worth a bit of fiddling about."
"I don't ever intend to live without you for more than a few days if I can avoid it," Hermione said seriously.
"I did wonder," Severus said awkwardly, "what with you finishing school soon...."
"But that's one of the beauties of magic," she replied with a smile; "it makes commuting so much easier. Quite apart from... but I don't ever want to live without you, so you have to be careful."
"I can't - you know that I can't promise you my own safety, in the middle of a war. But I will promise you to give my own safety a higher priority than I have done in the past, now that I know... that my survival and my well-being actually matters to somebody. To several somebodies, which is even more astounding, but to you most of all."
"I'm not asking for a guarantee that you'll be safe... just a promise that you'll try. May I?" she asked, leaning towards him, and when he nodded she kissed his eyes lightly, feeling his lashes flutter against her chin. "As I will. And I fully intend to survive this, and engage in a massive reform of social and school policy with you. Because otherwise we'll get bored, once it's all over."
"There's so many injustices and casual cruelties in our little world that ought to be, could be done so much better. Putting them right always seemed like such an overwhelming task there was little point even thinking about it, but with two of us, perhaps we could - make a start, at least. Everything mortal has to start somewhere."
"And we will have the advantage of being Great Heroes," she said cheerfully. "We're bound to, if we survive.... Harry will insist that I do, and I will insist that you do, and then we'll have clout to use to change the world with. Of course, what we do depends on whether you want to keep teaching. Do you?"
"Oh, Lord, Hermione, now you're asking me something. I honestly don't know. I don't know if I'll even be well enough to teach again - realistically. I mean - the limbs, yes, if Sylvanus Kettleburn could do it I'm quite sure I can, but I mean - psychologically. It's not a job for the nervous or the easily undermined.
"And - I always hated teaching. I only did it because being close to Albus made me valuable to, to Him, and because it meant that I could usually get out of taking part in the worst excesses by suggesting that Albus might see what I had done in my mind. It is - it's a ghastly job, really. You stand in front of the class and you give them your best bloody performance and they keep on talking and giggling and ignoring you anyway until you feel so invisible, so humiliated; until you lose your temper and shout at them, and then you have their hatred and scorn to keep you company instead.
"Yet, if I leave, who will care for my Slytherins? Especially now, when so many of them are having to make such - deadly choices. And perhaps - perhaps if I become a Great Hero some of the little bastards will actually listen to me. Or perhaps if I could have the DADA post... surely once Riddle is defeated the curse will be ended and Albus will let me have the bloody job that should have been mine seventeen years ago?"
"I think he would surrender the Headmaster's Office to you right now," Hermione said with a smile, "if you asked him. Certainly he'd give you the DADA job, once it's even remotely safe to do so. It would be a shame, though... you were a good Potions teacher, much better than Professor Slughorn. And you could be brilliant, if you tried. That speech you made when we started our first year... you so rarely give us a chance to see that passion and certainty, and you're absolutely riveting when you do. If you did a little more passion and just a bit less venom, you'd be amazing. As it is, nobody ever died in your classes, and only two other Potions teachers in the history of Hogwarts have gone for more than twelve straight years without a fatality. It's a dangerous subject. And I'd quite like to stay. I've had daydreams about teaching at Hogwarts for years." She paused and grinned suddenly. "Guess which subject?"
"History of Magic. Professor Binns is dreadful... and he hasn't updated his sources in decades. Now, especially, it's a frightfully important subject.... I don't know if you've noticed this, but wizards in general are appallingly ignorant of history in general and modern history in particular. I don't want to hurt Professor Binns' feelings, of course, but he simply isn't up to it, these days. I've always loved history, and I'm sure if it was made more interesting, and more, more immediate, people wouldn't sleep through it nearly so much."
"Huh. Old Binnsy could certainly do with livening up, even if he weren't already dead. And you'd probably be a very good teacher, if you think you could cope with being ignored half the time. Bear in mind that you did say that you hated to feel a failure - and students make you feel a failure all the bloody time, in my experience.
"And - I know I'm probably a very bad teacher, but it's difficult - difficult not to become venomous when you feel frightened and humiliated all the time. When I first started teaching I was just twenty-one, and the seniors in my classes had been juniors when I was a senior, and already knew me as the school bullies' favourite butt. It was - nightmarish, seeing them smirking, hearing them whispering 'Snivellus' behind my back, telling the younger ones how they'd seen me - hung up and stripped. I felt as if I was - surrounded by enemies and being held up to ridicule. Again."
Hermione touched his cheek gently, giving him the chance to see it coming and duck if he wanted to, and he gave her a tight smile.
"I did try, I did try to overcome that feeling that I was - surrounded by jackals waiting to pull me down. I did gradually learn, as you say, that if I - if I took the risk of exposing what a bloody geek I was, and tried to show the class what I found so... absorbing about the subject, at least some of them would try to understand and to do genuinely good work. But having Potter and Longbottom in the same bloody class just put the tin lid on it, as far as my nerves were concerned, and sent me right back to where I started. Potter - that sneer, that flaunted disrespect, that - obvious and deliberate decision not to listen to a bloody word I said, coming from that face, it just made me feel that I was sixteen again, trapped in the circle of my enemies and being - "
He stopped. Swallowed. Forced himself to go on. "As for poor Longbottom, he may have a truly delightful personality and a surprizingly good brain, but if ever there was a student who was likely to demolish my unbroken safety-record and the wall with it, he was it. I was on tenterhooks the whole time he was in the classroom - I just kept praying that he wouldn't take me and half the class with him."
"I wasn't just hissing instructions at him for the sake of Gryffindor," Hermione said ruefully. "I know you told me not to help him, but honestly, he might have killed us all if he wasn't being watched every minute, and you had the rest of the class to watch as well. I just had to keep Neville from making too many mistakes... and Harry, who used to start blindly dropping things into his cauldron whenever you said something particularly vicious. He doesn't think very clearly when he's angry, so please be careful about aggravating him if he's holding something fragile. Or dangerous.
"You're not a bad teacher, you know... personally, I don't think I could manage to rule by terror even if I wanted to, I'm too small and fluffy, but you did it quite effectively. We learned a lot, and we learned it quickly, because we didn't dare not to. And if you'd leavened the venom with a little praise when it was earned... I wouldn't say you'd be universally loved, but I'd go as far as 'held in general awe'. You're really very impressive when you lecture, you know." She smiled at him, and he smiled tentatively back, blushing a little. "And I'd love to teach History, if Professor Dumbledore would let me, even if I did have to wind up teaching people who remembered me as a student. I want to stay with you, that's the main thing, but I'd like to be... useful, if I'm going to be here. I get terribly cranky when I've nothing to do."
"Technically I don't think there's any reason why you shouldn't live here and work anywhere within easy Apparition-range, if you don't mind having to walk to and from the gates every day. But it would certainly be - pleasant, to have you as a colleague and be able to sit and drink coffee in the staff-room together. And I don't suppose you would have as much trouble as I did - the female teachers tend to get an easier time of it from the students in any case, and the people who remembered you as a student would remember you as - as bright, brave Hermione, the heroine of the Ministry battle, not the scrawny, greasy geek who was hung up by the heels and stripped in public while he was... in a specifically masculine condition. That was what made it so - degrading, but seeing Lily like that...."
He sighed and rolled over onto his back, pressing the heels of his hands - both the natural and the prosthetic - against his forehead. "I don't know how to do praise, Hermione - I really don't. It's not just that - not just that until these last few months, nobody in my life ever really praised me - well, except for Horace," he added honestly, "who praises almost everybody, and Albus occasionally, telling me how brave I was being - but that was just him being manipulative. That doesn't help, certainly - my opportunities to hear what praise would sound like, even directed towards somebody else, have been strictly limited. But mostly it's cultural. Where I come from, the height of praise is 'Not bad.' Sometimes, I think I am praising my students - by my own standards, I am - but they don't even seem to notice."
"Well, that is a problem, but not an insurmountable one," Hermione said thoughtfully. "We've just got to get the idea circulating among the students. Then the older ones will tell the younger ones as they show up that 'not bad' means you're impressed, and once they get the idea that it's possible to impress you, they'll try harder. Like Professor McGonagall, only more so. We could have the Slytherins start circulating it - the Ravenclaws will listen, and pass it on, and it should filter its way around the school eventually - especially now, when everyone's feeling sympathetic because you're so badly hurt."
She smiled at him faintly, her face full of teasing affection. "And I warn you, there are times when any woman will expect more than a 'not bad', whether it's your way or not."
"You don't think that yowling like a tomcat, taking the Lord's name in vain and shouting your name at a moment of... erotic crisis constitutes praise enough, you insecure baggage?"
"Oh, that will do nicely... but I don't recommend those for those crucial moments when I ask you how my new hairstyle looks. I'm bound to have one at some point."
"But surely the expected male response to that is to grunt 'Very nice, dear' without taking one's eyes off the Quidditch?"
"Well, yes, but that one always ends up with said male sleeping on the couch, at least in the metaphorical sense. A sensible male immediately provides sincere praise in the happy knowledge that this will greatly increase his chances of sex in the immediate future." She grinned at him. "And you know, Ron probably would have grunted 'very nice' without looking.... I think I had rather a lucky escape there, really."
"Oh, he would - and you did." He quirked an amused eyebrow. "But surely you would never banish me to the couch, since you seem to find me so... irresistible?"
"Oh, I would... otherwise you might get the idea that you're so utterly adorable when you do that eyebrow thing that you can get away with absolutely anything." She grinned again, kissing him lingeringly. "It'd be a real struggle, mind, but I'd force myself."
"Doing what eyebrow thing?" he said, doing it. The kiss had made him feel quite breathless again, and embarrassingly eager. "If it would be such a struggle for you to keep your hands off me...." He rolled over onto his stomach and propped himself up on his elbows, both the real and the false, so that he could look down at her. His long hair fell in curtains around his face as he gazed seriously at her suddenly puzzled eyes. "Hermione - are you really serious about - about wanting me to make love to you fully? About wanting me actually to, to take your virginity? Because if you are... serious, Beltane is only a week away, and I can't think of a more auspicious date for it."
Hermione blinked... and then gave him a very bashful smile. "Could we? Really? I'd... I'd love to, I really would. I've told you more than once that I'd never expect anything from you, or ask you if you didn't want to, but if you do... uhm... please?"
He let himself drop forwards so that he was lying on his chest with his head pillowed on his arms, looking at her sideways. "On one level the idea terrifies me," he said candidly, "but I want not to be terrified, I want to be able to overcome it, and I want - very much - to be able to make love to you freely and fully without - without feeling that Lucius and that bloody shower are still exerting control over me. I want to reclaim my own skin, my own body - and then make you a free gift of it, for as long as you continue to enjoy it."
He reached out idly and twirled a strand of her hair around his fingers. "That's not just rhetoric. I want - I need to know that it's my bloody decision who gets to touch me - that way - and who I touch; and my decision is that I want that person to be you." He gave the strand of hair a gentle tug. "Can you contain yourself until Beltane, do you think?"
"I'll do my very best to hold out that long," she agreed, reaching out to brush his hair back from his face gently and steadily, without fussing him. "And you know I'd hold out longer than that if you wanted me to, right? Because I love you, and I don't ever, ever want you to feel as if I'm... like them. But... I do want to. I want you to be... well... the first." She blushed a bit. "Even if I am worried that I'll be bad at it."
"But naοve inexperience is half the charm of a virgin," Severus said with a sly grin. "It makes a man feel very grand and important and wise - and reassures him that she won't be able to tell if he's bad at it. And you've already demonstrated that you're a very quick and very... thorough learner: so think of the fun you're going to have, improving your technique!"
"That is going to be a LOT of fun," she admitted, grinning back. "And I'm sure, as good a teacher as you are, I'll learn a great deal very quickly." She paused, nibbling her lower lip. "And... please don't hesitate to... uhm... give me suggestions?" she said tentatively. "I know it might be difficult, given... well, what you probably associate being told what to do with... but I promise I will not construe suggestions as orders, and I'll probably be grateful for the hints on how to progress."
He winced visibly. "I know you're just running with my own bloody metaphor, but seriously, I don't even want to think about myself as a teacher in this context. Awe and terror and venom are not - not the gifts I want to bring to the bridal bed. And we're going to have to learn together anyway - given that my own experience of consensual sexual intercourse is largely confined to shagging Narcissa Malfoy behind Lucius's back, and frankly, after Lucius anything male with a pulse would feel like Casanova. It doesn't give me a very clear standard against which to measure myself - as it were."
"I do believe that I started out my attempted seduction with the assurance that the way you handle your shrivelfigs alone is a very promising sign," Hermione pointed out, brushing a stray strand of dark hair from his cheek with a featherlight touch. "But I quite like the idea of learning together... I'm told there's always an element of that anyway, since no two partners are ever exactly the same." She paused and frowned. "Although if I'm not better at it than Mrs Malfoy I'm going to be very put out. She always acts as if I smell bad, the few times I've seen her. Whether she ever finds out or not, I'm damn well going to show HER who's better, at least at this."
"My dear good girl" he said, grinning and giving her own hair another slight tug, "you've already proved that you are much better than dear Cissy; like most pure-bloods, she thinks her hands are just there to wave a wand with - and I do mean the wooden kind. Not that - " He frowned, not wanting either to upset Hermione or to be disloyal to a friend. "She's not a bad sort, Narcissa, really she isn't. And she dotes on Draco. She's just.... She never was a very stable girl anyway, and then her parents married her off to Lucius just because he looked like a good catch. And it's not that.... He's not - vicious to her, and believe me I know how vicious he can be," he added with a shudder. "If anything, she rules him. I do believe he thinks that he loves her. But he loves her as he loves his Manor, as he would love a beautiful ornament - something which contributes to his own prestige.
"And so, you see, that's all she has. She has to believe that being a pure-blood makes her better than everybody else, that Muggle-borns are scum, that sleeping with a less-than-half-blood like me is dangerously daring, because otherwise she's just a, a sad, silly woman trapped in a joyless marriage her parents forced her into, waiting to see if her husband's political ambitions will get him killed, and their son along with him."
He sighed and then smiled again. "But be that as it may.... We haven't actually slept together since Draco was an infant, and in any case she was never any competition for you, believe me. You've already proved yourself a ten-times better and more inventive lover - as recently as twenty minutes ago, I do believe... and I do believe you're even more insecure and competitive than I am!"
She blushed. "I really am," she admitted sheepishly. "Uhm. I absolutely hate losing or failing, and... well... I went out with that - McLaggen creature in order to demonstrate to Ron that he wasn't the only one who could attract a complete idiot, and if that's not just stupidly competitive, I don't know what is.... Thank you, though, for the compliments. And I don't... dislike her, exactly, I just can't help being jealous of anyone else you've... well... wanted to be with. Because I know how it feels, to have someone pick someone else... someone stupid and self-absorbed, even... over me, and the thought of going through it again bothers me."
"Hermione - " he started. Sighed. Started again. "My dear girl - credit me with some taste. Believe me, the Lavender Browns of this world couldn't begin to compete with you, in my eyes. Are you likely to run off and leave me for McMillan? And Narcissa - I'm fond of her, I suppose, but we were never in love, or anything like it. We were just - two rather lonely, dissatisfied and sexually frustrated people who happened to have been at school together.... Plus, of course, you will understand that under the circumstances I derived immense and thoroughly malicious pleasure from cuckolding Lucius without his knowledge!"
She laughed at that last. "I'm sure you did, o sneaky Slytherin. And I don't... really worry about it, not with you, it's just that the previously instilled insecurities do prickle sometimes. And she is prettier than me," she added rather sheepishly. "I know it's silly to let that bother me, but sometimes it does. I can't imagine her ever holding you through one of your nightmares, though." She curled closer to him, resting her cheek against his arm, warm and alive and slightly furry against her skin. "I love you," she said softly. "And I want to keep that particular part of your heart all for myself.... just as, I hope, you want to keep that part of mine."
"Oh, Lord, yes. I mean, if you loved somebody else I'd, I'd forgive you, I'd think it was understandable, even - but I'd be absolutely sure you'd prefer them over me and leave me, and then I'd be miserable and probably horrible, and drive you away anyway. Best all round if you love only me forever and ever, I think."
He rolled over onto his side so that he could get at her better to kiss her, and looked at her candidly. "If I am honest, I have to say that Cissy would hold me through a nightmare - but she'd be terribly sentimental and tragic about it afterwards, and make me feel about five years old and five inches high. She's kind enough, at least in intention - but she doesn't have your humour or, or anything like your sparkle. And - you said it yourself, if you'd wanted a pretty-boy you could have had one for the asking. Narcissa may - conform more closely to the traditional idea of prettiness than you do, but if I'm going to be spending a substantial part of my life looking at someone's face, which I hope and intend that I am, I want that face to be full of interest and character; not just a, a bland, unchanging Sindy doll. And you, at least, never look as if you've swallowed a wasp. Credit me with having as much ability as yourself to prefer true substance over mere window-dressing!"
Hermione beamed, tearing up just a little bit. "I would... very much like to spend as much of my life as possible looking at your face," she admitted. "And I can't imagine loving anyone else in at all the same way as I love you. You're... complicated and prickly and fascinating and very sweet at times, and you have this tendency to make other men seem simple and flat and rather boring by comparison." Narcissa was, suddenly, entirely unimportant. And perhaps an object of pity, for having been foolish enough to give him up. "It would be like... like going back to playing jacks, after learning chess. Although I'm awful at chess," she added honestly.
"That's one of the things - one of the many things which annoy me about Weasley. The fact that he's so good at chess proves he does have a brain, and it's not as if - well, he's not autistic, or anything like that. It's not that he has this one island of brilliance and is otherwise retarded. He's just too bloody lazy to apply his brain to anything that doesn't immediately interest him." He reached out and doodled gently on the skin of her arm with his fingernail. "But I suppose I should be glad he is lazy, since his loss is my gain. If he'd been a little more on the ball he might already have swept you off your feet and carried you off to his lair - instead of you coming freely into mine."
"Ron may be able to play chess, but what he is is Gobstones," Hermione said firmly. "Simple, direct, requiring skilled handling and prone to making a huge mess of everything. You, on the other hand... you are three-dimensional chess, full of surprises and layers and a tendency to suddenly move the entire conflict to a different playing field altogether." She giggled a little as the doodling tickled the sensitive skin inside her elbow. "I would have grown out of Ron, I think... I can't imagine ever doing that with you."
"And I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear you say it. Seriously."
With reference to the previous chapter, an e-mailless person called Ishfet wanted to know why I had made Severus Catholic, and why Hermione had been given a mixed Quaker and Jewish background which would be "exoticism squared" in a secular British society.
To begin with, I make Severus vaguely Catholic in my stories because of his very un-British colouring. Recent immigrants aside, in nearly all cases Britons who have dark hair and dark eyes also have quite dark skin, and Britons who have dark hair and fair skin have pale eyes (John Nettleship, the guy on whom Snape was mainly based, actually has black hair, fairish skin and grey eyes). The fact that Snape has black hair, black eyes and ivory skin suggests that a major part of his genetic origin is probably either North African or Spanish. I don't know enough about Islam to write him convincingly as a Moslem, even a lapsed one, and to write him as a Moroccan Christian really would be distractingly exotic; hence I write him as of part Spanish extraction, and Spaniards are usually Catholics. Also, most of my family are (Irish) Catholic, even though I'm not, so it's a background I can write without having to faff about doing a lot of research.
As for Hermione, "Granger" sounds as if it could as easily be Germanic as native, and a high proportion of Britons of German origin are Jews. A high proportion of British dentists have also traditionally been Jews - try Googling "The Jones Dental Dynasty". But I felt that if she actually was Jewish as such, even if very assimilated, there would have been some mention of it in canon; so I made her only part Jewish. I made the other part Quaker because Dyce, who writes most of Hermione for this story (as well as other bits such as most of the Slytherin common-room sequence, and most of the card-game in this chapter), is a Quaker and her attitudes will inform her interpretation of Hermione. I was surprised btw that anyone could consider that either Jews or Quakers were "exotic".
As for the secular British society, I don't know where Ishfet is from but the way it works is that even though most Britons are not religious at all, religious identity tends to be something you are born into. A high proportion of Britons do identify culturally with the religion of their forefathers and will say "I'm Catholic/C of E/Quaker" or whatever, even if they haven't seen the inside of a church since their cousin Alice's wedding in 1983. Even though I personally am a practising pagan, and my mother gave up Catholicism before I was born, I still identify myself as "of Catholic origin", and were I to take an interest in football I would automatically support a Catholic team (football in Scotland is very much divided along sectarian grounds).
Anyway, Mediaeval castles do have chapels, and even if only one student in every fifteen or twenty has any sort of religious belief, that still means there are around forty students with a professed religion, of whom probably about twenty-five will be some sort of Christian; so there would be sufficient demand to keep the Hogwarts chapel in use.
"An eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg" - from the early 19th C Irish anti-recruitment song Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.
Widge is a Derbyshire dialect word for a penis - also called a widgie in other areas of the north of England.
Sindy is a British equivalent of the Barbie doll, first produced in the 1960s. She was originally more girl-next-door and less glamorous than Barbie, but still rather vacuous and bland.
Note that the conversation between Snape and Flitwick about fitting him for prostheses in chapter #08, and between Snape and Hooch about how well he is managing the prostheses in chapter #15, have been re-edited to add comments about Sylvanus Kettleburn, Hagrid's predecessor as Care of Magical Creatures master. It was mentioned en passant in The Tales of Beedle the Bard that Professor Kettleburn had had only one and a half natural limbs left during the whole of the time that he worked for Dumbledore, so it seemed natural that Snape, being similarly maimed, would think about his former colleague. So you don't have to re-read whole chapters just to find out what's been added, the alterations are as follows:
"You really think you'll be able to make something that will - that will enable me to walk, at least?" Sylvanus Kettleburn had been similarly injured, and had coped so well with his prostheses that he had continued to teach for thirty years after his right arm was ripped away by a manticore, which he had been belabouring with one of his rosewood legs at the time, wielding it like a club. But Sylvanus had been fitted for false limbs within hours of losing the originals, while those limbs were still a clear part of his body's morphic field: not months after the event, when all that was left was a dull, healed-over stump which had forgotten how to be anything else.
"Oh yes - in time. But it won't be simple. Alastor, for example, he still has his own leg to just below the knee so the wooden limb requires no - no articulation, beyond the charm which makes the claws shape themselves to the ground. But a whole leg or arm - one that's actually real and fixed, that won't evaporate when the spell wears off and that's integrated into your own nervous system, as Alastor's eye is - that's going to take time. And I imagine you'll want something a bit more... realistic."
"If I had lost both legs at the hip it might have been interesting to end up with - with eagle's claws, or some such. I could really disturb all the little first-years, if I had talons." Sylvanus's habit of taking his false legs off in the middle of morning coffee-break and scratching the stumps luxuriously had also been pretty disturbing, if one thought about it - although he tried fervently not to. "But since I still have one leg to the knee I shall be content to be as, as human as I ever was; and I emphatically do not want to end up looking like a collection of spare parts flung together by a Victorian cabinet-maker."
Although he was perversely reluctant to admit it, privately he knew she was right. He might still be as wobbly and prone to collapse as a liquorice crutch but the more he practised walking - if you could call it that - the more he could feel what was left of the muscles around his left hip beginning to live and to move again. Even if he could still manage no more than a stiff-legged shuffle, swinging the prosthetic leg forwards without bending the knee. He could believe, now, at least, that he would some day be able to shamble adequately through his life like Sylvanus Kettleburn, although whether he would ever regain the silken stalk which had terrorised nearly a whole generation of nervous first-years was another matter.
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