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
#12: Unsafe Harbour
[In which Snape and the shaman get where they were going to, only to face a very uncertain future.]
The black-haired woman placed a hand gently on the professor's shoulder for a moment, staring at his drawn face with an expression of confusion and pain. Then the mask of iron competence settled over her stern features and she rolled him forwards into the recovery position, stood up, muttered something about a stretcher and began on a complex gesture with her wand - but the scarred man seized her wrist and snarled "No - why bother? Just bind him and drag him, and I'll interrogate him as soon as we get back to the farm."
"Unhand me, Alastor..." the woman said, in a voice like black ice.
"I won't see you mollycoddling this - traitor, Minerva. It's beneath you - he's beneath you."
"Who is in charge here, Alastor?"
"You loved Albus - we all did - and this bastard murdered him in cold blood. He killed the best, the finest...." Tears sprang in the one brown eye, although how much was genuine grief and how much alcohol Lynsey wouldn't have cared to guess.
"Nevertheless. This is a sick man - pneumonia, if I'm any judge - and I will not have you harassing him. There will be time enough for that later, if he pulls through." She broke free of his grasp with a sharp tug and repeated the complicated gesture she had begun on before. Almost on the instant, the edge of the woodland contained a proper if old-fashioned looking stretcher, piled high with blankets and seeming as if it had been there all along, if only they would have noticed it.
There were plenty of blankets, enough for Lynsey to have one to wrap round herself - and bless the woman's common-sense, they were spelled warm, so at least she no longer had to worry that the professor would freeze to death. Minerva Whatever-Her-Name-Was gestured with her wand again and the professor drifted sideways like a stricken magpie, like a wisp of black night, to land on his side on the stretcher. Another movement of the wand and the whole mass of man and litter came up off the ground and floated at hip-height. The black-haired woman's expression was sternly practical, but her touch was light and suspiciously solicitous as she tucked the blankets up round her patient. As she did so she brushed his cold, bruise-discoloured cheek briefly with fingers which were beginning to show the signs of age, but he gave no indication that he was aware of her. Only the rattlingly harsh sound of his breathing showed that he was even still alive.
The stern woman placed one hand lightly on the side of the stretcher and began to walk steadily down the slope towards the farm. The floating litter and its passenger went with her, bobbing slightly, but her touch kept it level and fairly steady. Lynsey retrieved the professor's fallen wand, and fell into place on the stretcher's other side.
Now that the warming charm was gone, the cold bit through her thin shoes until her feet were numb with it. Stumbling a little on the steep, uneven ground under the snow, she noted that Minerva was moving the professor feet-first, so that any tendency to tip and line up with the slope beneath their feet would not leave him with his heels higher than his head. She was vastly relieved that he seemed to be in safe hands other than her own, and that it was no longer, thank the gods, her responsibility and her fault whether he lived or died. Injuries, at least non-life-threatening ones, she could deal with: but serious illness was well outside her area of expertise, and she was suddenly so tired that just keeping on her feet took all the energy she had.
And all the time, the scarred man paced beside the stretcher like an evil ghost. "Don't think that you'll escape justice, Snape" he said in a soft, gloating voice. "When you sit bound to your chair in front of the Wizengamot, there'll be no Albus Dumbledore to loosen your chains this time." He spat, viciously and accurately. Lynsey didn't dare to protest openly, having lost control over what felt like a very fragile situation. She prayed incoherently to any god that might listen that her professor would live, or that if he was going to die then that he was already unconscious - that whatever happened, he wouldn't slide away from life knowing he was being jeered at and spat on. She worked off her misery by transmuting it to spite, staring through Alastor Whoever and calling under her breath on the name of the son born too ugly to be seen.... She was rewarded by seeing him twitch nervously and roll his impossible eye back to look behind himself.
But she was grateful beyond measure when the black-haired woman spoke again. "Alastor," the woman said sharply, "you're drunk. Go. Now. Before I have to remove you."
"And just what do you propose to do with the Muggle, Minerva? Are you going to leave it - her - free to wander around and spy out all our secrets?"
Lynsey pressed herself as close to the stretcher as she could, and glowered at him. "I'll be staying with the Prof here. If it's all the same to you."
"Loyalty, Severus?" the man jeered softly. "How very ironic."
"I like him. Of course, I appreciate that I may have peculiar tastes...."
Behind her, the professor actually stirred on his litter, and murmured "Oh, thanks."
"You're welcome, Prof."
Lynsey had been half afraid that once the professor had stopped holding her hand and sharing his sight with her, she would no longer be able to see the little encampment as anything except cold ruins, and she would be left outside in that cold, unable to go with him. But she found that she had somehow been given a free pass to his world. The passages between the barns and sheds might be as chill and dark as the surrounding fields, lit only by moonlight reflecting off snow, but there was definitely activity going on inside the stone walls; and she could still see the baroque-looking little prefabricated blocks which lay dotted about in the spaces between the stone buildings of the original farm.
Leaving Lynsey standing by the stretcher in the dark, listening to her friend's gasping breaths, Minerva went alone into a lighted barn full of music and laughter, which spilled out across the snow in a rush of golden light as she opened the door. After a minute or two she emerged again, clutching the elbow of a confused-looking middle-aged woman with scraps of tinsel knitted through her shortish hair, who was saying rather querulously "Professor? Professor McGonagall? What is this? Who - "
She had an amiable-looking, slightly plump face which nevertheless looked haggard with sorrow, as if she had been weeping quite recently, and soon might be again. But when her eyes lit on the professor, flopped limply on his stretcher as he was, her whole face lit up with incredulous joy. "Oh, God" she said quietly, almost to herself: "he's alive. He's alive."
"No thanks to Alastor" Minerva McGonagall replied grimly, "and not for much longer unless we get him to the hospital block now."
"We thought he was dead" the medic, who Lynsey had learned was called Poppy Pomfrey, said in a brittle voice as she rummaged through a cupboard full of old-fashioned-looking medicine bottles. "That - that creature made us hear him, screaming - on and on for days, for weeks, oh, God, shrieking, shrieking all through Christmas and we couldn't find him, couldn't find where they were holding him, not even Harry could - and when it finally stopped, we all thought that he was dead." Tears glistened in her rather round blue eyes. "We had to hope that one of our own was dead, because that would mean he wasn't in pain any more."
"He seemed to think you might all want him to be dead" Lynsey muttered, sitting tucked up in her blanket on one of the other beds, and sipping a mug of hot chocolate which McGonagall had summoned for her.
"Oh, oh - not like this" she said, evidently finding what she was looking for, and starting to pour out a careful measure into a wine-glass. "I don't know what happened between him and Dumbledore - nor do I want to know at this moment - but I wouldn't wish any of my children, not even Peter Pettigrew, to die like that. To die in such agony - what happened? How did he come to be here - and alive?"
"Um - it's a long story, but I suppose I happened. Basically. What's wrong with him?"
"Pneumonia. How long has he been like this - I mean feverish, breathless?"
"Three, maybe three and a half days? Not as bad as this, but getting worse all the time."
"'Walking pneumonia,' then - I think Muggles also call it 'atypical bacterial pneumonia.' Pneumonia with an unusually slow onset, anyway."
The woman slid her arm behind the professor's slim shoulders and lifted him, with obvious and aching tenderness, so that she could hold the glass to his lips. As she did so his eyelids flickered open and he murmured "Poppy..." and then something quick and muttered which ended with "...bloody hospital-wing again."
"Welcome home, Severus - and drink your nice medicine."
"Gah." But he drank it down, and his breathing calmed very rapidly. There were definite advantages, Lynsey could see, to wizarding medical techniques.
Some of the raw tension eased out of the professor as his breathing did, but when there came a loud bang on the door his shoulders hunched and he wrapped his arms tightly round himself again as a familiar voice bellowed "Snape! I know you're in there, Snape!"
Under her breath, Minerva McGonagall muttered something which sounded distinctly like "Fuck!" - albeit said in a very genteel, ladylike Scots accent. She looked questioningly at Madam Pomfrey, who muttered "We'll be all right here - just get that bloody fool out of here and keep him out - even if you have to break his legs in the process."
"Don't tempt me" McGonagall said grimly, and she strode to the door, opened it a crack and began a whispered but heated conversation with her countryman. In the end, she left the building (a stable-block, originally) altogether and the familiar sound of Scots voices, arguing volubly, disappeared into the night.
The medic sighed and placed a hand on the professor's shoulder. "He's gone now, Severus. I need you to drink another couple of potions - you'll recognize them I think, you made them yourself! - and then we have to get you cleaned up and treat these - lesions."
He nodded wearily. "I am in your capable hands as ever, Poppy. Just be - be a bit careful."
"When have I ever not been? But it won't just be my hands, I fear - I'm going to need an assistant, or at least it would greatly speed things up."
"Oh, God." He moved his head restlessly from side to side. "You must do as you think fit in your own sphere, Poppy, but at least let it be somebody - somebody steady. Not somebody who's going to curse me or gush at me."
"Under the circumstances - you must realize there's not many here who would be willing to do it, but Arthur I'm sure would if I asked him, if you prefer it to be a man...."
"No! No. If it has to be anybody, let it be a woman."
"Unless you would rather take a sleeping draught first...?"
"No! Definitely not. Don't be stupid."
"It was just a suggestion, Severus."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap. But it's hard enough having to be - manhandled like that. The idea of being manhandled in my sleep...."
"Will I do it?" Lynsey asked diffidently. "After all, I've already seen...."
"Yes. If you would." He turned his face away from her. "You've already had your hands all over me anyway when I was cramped, so it can't - get any worse."
"As bad as that?"
But it wasn't true, in fact, that she had already seen the full extent of his injuries - she never had seen him naked and in a good light, since even in the awful bonds in which she had first found him, he had been robed in his own blood. As she helped Madam Pomfrey to turn him this way and that and to work her way through a catalogue of wounds, salving some and mending others and cleaning him up by inches as she went, Lynsey tried to stop herself from speculating about the origin of every sore and welt and puncture, for fear she would complicate matters by throwing up, or weeping.
The professor bit his lip throughout, and tried not to flinch or make any sort of fuss; but he kept his eyes tightly shut, and blushed furiously when it came to dealing with injuries of a more intimate nature. The fact that someone seemed to have scalded him by throwing boiling water over his belly and thighs was the least of it: the latest round of torment had obviously included some very malicious sexual games which, she knew, was all-too common in any use of torture, and probably only to be expected where Lucius was involved. "Lucius and Bella?" Lynsey murmured softly, and he nodded convulsively and whispered "Macnair, too - s-sometimes others." She feared that any too-overt gesture of sympathy would embarrass and destabilize him, but she put her hand over his and squeezed gently, as she had done in the caves, and he gave her a tiny nod in return.
He had at least two, maybe three cracked ribs, and many of the lesions which he and Lynsey had previously repaired were judged and found wanting, and needed to be re-opened and disinfected properly. But Madam Pomfrey complimented them both on the very neat, clean job which they had made of removing the Dark Mark. And mortified by the whole thing though the professor was in theory, and despite his avowed dislike of being handled, by the time Poppy Pomfrey had worked soothing salves into the soles of his feet and - very gently - into his swollen fingertips, and they had progressed as far as bracing his sprained shoulders with magically-adjusted elastic bandages, shaving him and washing out his long hair until it fanned out clean and silky across the pillow, he was at least three-quarters asleep and as bonelessly relaxed as a drowsing cat. Lynsey had a terrible urge to rub him behind the ears, just to see if he would purr - but she restrained herself with some difficulty; knowing how touchy he was about being teased, and not wanting to spoil a rare pleasant moment for him.
When he was finally sleeping the drugged sleep which Poppy had given him, the two women stood in silence by the bedside, looking at their handiwork. Shaven, he looked younger, scrawnier and less piratical - and even beakier, if possible. His breathing was still very rough but he no longer seemed to be in any danger of drowning in his own fluids, and Poppy pronounced herself well pleased with him, medically speaking.
"In fact," she said, "he has fewer severe injuries than I would have expected, given the - given what we heard, and the length of time...."
Lynsey looked away. "He told me that they tortured him almost to the point of death and then healed him again so they could start over - several times. He - that one - told him that he could keep dragging him back from the brink like that for a year or more. This is only the most recent round of injury."
"That - that guy with the eye, he was pleased about it, and wanted to make him suffer more. He hates him."
"Mad-Eye always hated Severus: he always thought he would turn on us in the end, and I suppose he was.... I don't know. I'm not sure if I care."
"From what he told me, I would say he was always loyal to the Order, and he did whatever he did because it was the only way he could maintain his cover and go on spying. Doesn't the fact that the - the Unnameable One tortured him as a traitor prove he was on your side all along?"
"Mad-Eye and, and Harry are certain it means that Severus was entirely self-serving, and betrayed both sides. The rest of us.... We were less sure, but the Aurors are going to want to take him in for questioning in any case. And that's going to be trouble."
"He's had more than enough bloody trouble, these last few weeks, to last him a lifetime."
"I meant trouble for them" the woman said grimly; "and for me as well, because I shan't allow it. When he - when Harry said Severus had killed Dumbledore we all hated him, of course we did - but even then, I wondered if Harry could have got it wrong. And when we heard - heard him being - hurt I didn't care what he'd done or hadn't done, I just wanted to hold him and make it better. I've known that boy since he was eleven, and anybody who touches him again is going to have to come through me."
"What was he like, as a kid?"
"Like a little stray black kitten - scarred and scared, but all prickles and sharp teeth, and always poised to hiss."
"Not much change there then."
The old stable made quite a good hospital ward, all things considered: each converted loose-box being big enough for two narrow beds and a shared bedside table between them. The end of the somewhat makeshift ward had been curtained off, to allow the professor his privacy, but when Lynsey awoke she could clearly hear the sounds of someone being sick into a basin on the far side of the curtain. Ah, the delights of Hogmanay. The professor was still profoundly, dreamlessly asleep, sprawled half on his side and half on his face just as he had been the night before, and his breathing seemed reasonably easy; so she left him to enjoy the first proper rest he had had for weeks, and took her scruffy, sweaty self off in search of breakfast and a shower, although not necessarily in that order.
Madam Pomfrey spared the time between dispensing hangover cures to direct her to a door at the side of the main farm-house. Towels and soap were already laid out, although no proper shampoo (did they really wash their hair with soap? - no wonder the professor's hair kept coming back greasy within a few hours). By the time she had scrubbed herself as clean as the slightly primitive materials would allow, an unseen hand had laid out fresh clothes for her, including - thank the gods - clean underwear. Her own robes had been removed, and she supposed they were by now good for little more than rags. At least her best dress-cloak had survived the professor's use of it almost unscathed, apart from being stained with blood from his poor back, and a little fishy in places.
When she emerged from the shower-room, clean, clothed and slightly damp, she found Professor (!) McGonagall waiting to escort her to breakfast. She wasn't sure whether this was a kindness or a security measure. Everybody in the canteen - which was in one of the rococo Portacabins - reared back from her as she passed and then whispered to each other behind their hands, as if she had two heads - although if it came to that some of the other diners were so odd-looking that she wouldn't have been a bit surprized if some of them did have two heads. One of them looked at least eight feet tall. And the clothes! She was all for flamboyance and self-expression in dress, but at least the gaudy or swashbuckling costumes which one saw and wore at any SF convention had a certain sense of style. Many of this lot looked as if they had been playing in a very strange dressing-up box, possibly one belonging to a fashion-designer who had done too much acid in the Sixties, and had grabbed whatever came to hand without any regard to what suited them or what went with what.
McGonagall sipped her tea decorously, not looking at Lynsey, and murmured "I would like to ask you.... I would like to ask you what, if anything, Severus has told you about his part in the death of Albus Dumbledore."
"Not a great deal" Lynsey answered, realizing that McGonagall had in fact joined her for breakfast in order to pump her for information. She would have to think carefully about what she said - honesty was one thing, but she was damned if she was going to incriminate her brisk professor.
"Has he actually told you, in so many words, that he himself killed Dumbledore?"
She thought about that one seriously - and found that after all the truth would probably suffice. "Not as such, no. He told me once that he fired on the man, but he's never said in so many words that he killed him. At one point I thought he was going to be more specific but then he said he wouldn't talk about it there, which I took to mean there were things he didn't want me to know about while there was a real risk I might be captured and tortured."
"I still find it hard to believe - yet Potter is adamant that he saw him kill Dumbledore. But I would still prefer to hear his version of events before I pass judgment - preferably without Alastor Moody hurling his weight around. He may be a fellow Scot, but the man makes me want to slap him. Do you know, we had an impostor pretending to be him for the best part of a year, and we didn't notice, because even though the man was a Death Eater he was scarcely more unpleasant than the original?"
"Having seen the original, I could believe it: though I realize he was somewhat - um, 'under the weather' last night. But look - the one thing the Prof did say, repeatedly, was that this man Dumbledore ordered him to kill him. And that he - the professor - was very angry with Dumbledore for asking him to do such a thing."
"Harry didn't say anything about that, but perhaps...." She frowned, and speared a piece of black pudding as if she hated it. "Dumbledore always trusted Severus absolutely implicitly, you know. He would think that the sun would rise in the west, before he would think that Severus would betray him."
"Well - I trusted him implicitly as well, right from the get-go."
"And you donít wonder whether that might be a little - suspicious? In such a skilled Legilimens?"
"You think he might be doing something to make people trust him unwisely?" She took that out and looked at it from all angles. "Nah. If he could do that, why wouldn't he have done it to the rest of you? I don't rate either myself or this Dumbledore bloke as particularly easy to influence."
"But then why...?"
"Well...." She thought about explaining god-sign and divine knowledge and instinctive knowing, and decided to give it a miss, for the moment. "I suppose I trusted him because he showed me his feelings and they seemed very raw and genuine, and they were generally to his credit. Even when he was vicious, he was vicious with reasons."
"I'm not sure he's ever shown me his true feelings about anything, except gloating when his team beat mine at Quidditch. Why would he have shown his intimate feelings to you, whom he has known for - how long?"
"Since Saturday evening."
"Whom he has known since Saturday, and not to the colleagues whom he has known for decades?"
"Well, it was.... He was in distress - distraught, even, at times - and, and fleeing through endless tunnels underground in the dark was - weird, like living a shared hallucination. It made us feel, both of us I think, as if we were already in each other's heads, so there was no reason not to be honest with each other."
McGonagall started buttering a piece of toast, studiously avoiding looking at Lynsey. "I do hope that you are right - to trust him, I mean. If you had asked me, when I heard how he had killed Dumbledore, whether I wanted him dead, or to suffer, I suppose I would have said 'Yes' - but hearing him in such pain wasn't satisfying. It was lacerating. When the - when the screaming stopped, and we all thought that he had died - like that - it was... dreadful."
"I supposed that snake-features did that - let you all hear the professor screaming - because he knew it would humiliate him; but he didn't seem to have gotten around to telling him that little detail until Lucius Malfoy did so, so why - "
"Terror tactics" McGonagall replied succinctly. "It's all of a piece with murdering some poor Muggleborn family and then sending up the Dark Mark - it lets us know that we are helpless even to defend our own. And we were helpless. If you hadn't - done whatever you did, which you must tell me about later, Severus would have been left there to suffer until his heart gave out, or until we finally defeated He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named - whichever would have come sooner. Even with Harry - even with Harry's sporadic - access - to He-Who's mind, we couldn't work out where he was, so we could do nothing to save him. Remus Lupin was trying to find some sort of a lead through the British werewolf community" (Lynsey's mind took a leap at the concept of the British werewolf community like a horse attempting a gate that was too high for it, and fell back floundering) "but apart from Fenrir Greyback they are not generally very deep in He-Who's confidences, and he had drawn a blank so far."
"Madam Pomfrey said that this Harry person was sure the Prof was a double traitor - would he have tried all that hard to find him?"
The older woman frowned. "Harry hates Severus, it's true, and he thought he wanted him to suffer - but even so, what he heard, and what he sensed through his mental link with Tom Riddle, sickened him I think. To the best of my knowledge he did try to pinpoint Severus's location, as far as he was able - even though his intention was to finish him rather than to save him. And if he is guilty of murdering Dumbledore - well, finishing him might have been more humane."
Lynsey felt her stomach lurch at that. "What - what will happen to him now? And to me, for that matter."
"There will certainly need to be a full investigation. If he is found to be guilty of murder, then - he could be executed, or he could be confined to Azkaban. For life, quite possibly."
"Dear gods - he told me a bit about Azkaban. It sounded - dreadful."
"It is," the other answered grimly. "But at least the Dementors no longer rule there. It would be fantastically cruel to expose a man like Severus to those."
"Well - let us hope it doesn't have to come to that. As for you - "
"He - he told me you lot might wipe my mind, but that there was a chance you might give me auxiliary status and let me keep my memories."
"Perhaps. If you agreed to go away somewhere quietly and not take any further interest in our world and not come to Alastor Moody's paranoiac attention again, you would stand a better chance of being allowed to keep what you already know: but the longer you stay here, the more you see, the more likely it is that the Aurors will see you as a threat."
"I - I don't want to leave the professor. Especially not if - "
"Think about it, Lynsey. If the Aurors wipe your memory you're not going to be much help to Severus anyway."
"No I - call it a pagan thing if you like, but I'm not permitted to be a coward, and pagan or not I wouldn't walk out on a friend in trouble. I will sink or swim with him."
"Please don't take this amiss, but Severus seems a curious choice to inspire such - devotion. He's not the easiest of men to get along with."
"But he.... Oh, look - I like my friends to be nice, to be kind, but I also like them to have a bit of an edge to them, to keep them from getting bland. The professor I grant you may be a lot more edge than sweetness, but he just - appeals to me. Really he does. He reminds me of a surly, snappy stray dog that my auntie took in when I was little."
"And did the dog get any better-tempered for being 'taken in'?"
"Not a lot. But he had bags of character - even if most of it was horrible."
When Lynsey returned to the sick-bay it was mid-morning and her professor was awake, and partially propped up with pillows. The scratches on his face were still livid: werewolf-inflicted injuries being apparently very hard to heal, although Lynsey privately suspected that this had at least as much to do with the bacteria under Greyback's festeringly grubby fingernails as it had to do with anything more mystical. Werewolf claws, at least, did not carry contagious lycanthropy in the way that their teeth (for which, presumably, read saliva) did.
The bruises - artificially faded by one of the ointments which Poppy Pomfrey had used on him - were very much better; his breathing though still harsh was deep and fairly even and his colour was no longer quite so deathly white: but he looked inexpressibly sad and tired. When he caught sight of her, though, his expression lifted for a moment into surprize and pleasure - and then flitted as rapidly to alarmed concern.
"O'Connor! Are you - are they holding you here as a prisoner?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think they're used to having a Muggle around, are they? They're treating me like an unexploded bomb - it's quite funny. Why do you ask?"
"What do you mean, 'why do I ask'? You're here, aren't you?"
"Oh, what did you think - did you think that I was going to leave you as soon as we were above ground?"
"That would be the normal course of events, yes."
"Good gods - you really did think that I would do that to you, after all we had been through together. What the hell do you take me for?"
"I just assumed that - now that you at least were free to go, you wouldn't want to...."
"Wouldn't want to what?"
He shrugged, looking frustrated. "To stay here with me any longer than you had to."
"I just told that bloody lot that I would sink or swim with you - are you telling me now that you'd rather I went?"
"No! No, but - why would you want to stay?"
"Why wouldn't I? Damn' fool man."
"But - why?"
"You're my comrade-in-arms, I guess - and I happen to enjoy your company, and to care about what's going to happen to you next. Is that so very hard to understand?"
"Nobody else ever did - except for Hagrid, who collects monsters, and Dumbledore - but I always suspected that Dumbledore just liked the - challenge that I represented. I had to be brought into the fold and socialized, like a stray cat."
"If you tried to keep a stray cat in a sheepfold it would just climb out over the wall."
"See, Prof, that's why I like you, right there - because you're clever and unsocial and you can laugh at yourself, even if you're touchy about anyone else doing it. I mean, what the hell did you think I felt towards you - after all we've done together?"
"Pity," he replied, bleakly. "That was what I asked you for, after all - to pity me enough to finish me."
"Well - I did pity you. Under the circumstances, it would have taken a heart of stone not to. But I can assure you that pity was overtaken by liking and admiration very soon. I'm impressed that you even remember what you said to me, anyway - you were so far out of it, then."
"I remember everything I said to you, and that you said to me. I remember that I was - rude, abrasive, domineering, when you were trying to save my life."
"But, see, that was what first made me like you! I thought it showed great strength of character."
"Actually I thought 'We've got a right one here' - but it amounts to the same thing."
One of the potions which Poppy Pomfrey had given him was evidently intended to make his damaged fingernails grow back in - but unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, it made his toenails grow as well. The first Lynsey knew about it was when he half woke from his doze, tried to shift himself under the blankets and let out a thin whimper of pain, turning even whiter than he was already. The mediwitch heard him and came running, without having to be called. "Severus - what is it?"
"Feet. My nails - the slightest pressure - "
Poppy rolled back the blankets and found that his artificially-overgrown nails had caught against the sheets, so that he whimpered again as she lifted them free. "Why - ?" He bit his lip and turned his face away.
"They, um, ripped his toenails out and then regrew them - several times" Lynsey muttered. "They're really sore."
"Oh, Lord, Severus, I'm so sorry - "
He glowered at her. "Donít fuss me, Poppy - just cut the bloody things before they catch on anything else. Or give me my wand and let me do it."
Indeed, Poppy used a wand to trim them, severing the extra horn as neatly as he himself had cut Lynsey's robe, four and a half days and an entire lifetime ago. She was relieved to see it, since the use of anything as mundane as scissors would have put painful pressure on his inflamed nail-beds - and intrigued to see the mediwitch carefully gather up all the toenail-clippings and seal them in a small jar, which she left for him on the bedside table. Fingernail-clippings went into a separate jar: normal, intact nail had grown in far enough that Poppy was able to pare away all the ragged, broken portions and leave his fingertips looking almost normal.
The broken fingers were also now knitted back together, although still very stiff and sore. As Poppy rubbed salve into them and gently massaged the frozen joints, he muttered something about bloody fussy interfering women and tried to pull his hand away. She smiled at him. "Why, Severus - you've mellowed. You're not nearly as strident in your complaints as you usually are."
The comment was obviously meant kindly, but he snarled back at her, bitterly serious. "I can't manage the volume to be strident any more" he said savagely. "Spend two weeks parched with thirst and screaming your guts out, and see what it does to your voice."
"So, tell me, Prof - what the hell was all that about you calling me a 'filthy little Muggle?' Were you trying to distance yourself from me for some reason, or what?" Poppy had brought her a proper armchair, and she was currently flopped back in it, feeling pretty weary herself.
He looked away from her, biting his lip - which she understood as being almost an apology. "It was - when I was - when I was sixteen I was - attacked by a, by a gang, using Expelliarmus and then Impedimenta to render me helpless. Someone tried to, to defend me but I was angry and embarrassed and I - insulted them. For being kind to me. Last night - I was so fevered I hardly knew where I was or when I was, and it felt as if history was repeating itself and I couldn't break free from the damned script. But you did." He turned his head and stared at her with his unfathomably dark eyes. "I was rude to you. I was rude to you, and you didn't leave me."
"Man, if I was going to dump you just because you were offensive, we'd neither of us have made it out of the mines. Get real. And besides - people who are ill or stressed often lash out and say stupid things - you, especially, because lashing out seems to be your default setting. It's not worth worrying about. So what happened before? When you insulted the person who was trying to protect you?"
"They left," he said woodenly. "The gang had their fun with me."
"Well, I call that pretty poor-spirited, Prof."
"Do you think I don't know that I behaved badly?"
"Not you - the other bod. If you go to help someone who's being ganged up on, it should be because ganging up on someone is wrong and you care about right and wrong and fairness and honour and all that jazz - it shouldn't be because you expect the rescuee to be grateful."
"So what would you have done, in h - in their place?"
"What I am doing. Stuck up for you regardless, and then picked a private bone with you about it afterwards, one on one."
"But what if what I said was - unforgivable...."
"Then it would have been a very big bone. Don't distress yourself." She sighed and rubbed the heels of her hands across her forehead, mentally reviewing the events of the previous night. "I'll tell you what, though. You picked a bloody good time to pass out my lad - leaving me on my own to deal with Mad Jock McMad, the winner of the All-Scotland Mr Mad Contest."
"Insofar as I was conscious enough to take it in, I was impressed by how well you handled him. Even Dumbledore had difficulty manipulating Mad-Eye."
"All part of the rich tapestry that is modern witchcraft - if I can't wrong-foot somebody out of a fight I should take down my shingle. But I was afraid you were going to blow it by making some sarcy comment about my claiming to be a defenceless woman."
"I nearly did - but I 'got your message'."
"'Men have died and worms have eaten them, But not for love' - but to die for a punchline, that would be some sort of a record. It would have to be a really good one to justify it."
"It wasn't as good as all that - I'm not up to my usual form, just at present."
As morning wore on inexorably towards lunchtime, a variety of people turned up in sickbay who seemed to have only spurious reasons for being there, or none. It was quite apparent that most of them had come simply to take a look at the professor. At Snape, Lynsey thought, at Snape - one thing she had learned this morning was that about half the people she had been introduced to by Minerva were Professor this or that. Here in the wizarding world it seemed to be not, as she had assumed in her Mugglish innocence, the title of a senior University lecturer, but simply another word for teacher. She would have to learn to think of her friend by his given name - spiky little birds or no spiky little birds.
Many of those who came found an excuse to wander up to their end of the ward and simply looked, in silence, while the professor bowed his head and hid behind his hair - hating to be on show (although in truth "the Muggle witch" was clearly nearly as big a curiosity as he was). A few, however, came and spoke to him briefly, with varying degrees of warmth - most seemed to be testing the waters in some way, but there was a slender, mild-looking middle-aged man with thinning red hair who seemed genuinely concerned and pleasant.
If Lynsey had thought about it in advance, she would have expected the professor to be more relaxed now that he was back among familiar faces, and could eat and sleep without fearing ambush: but he actually seemed sadder, more wary and far more subdued than he had been in the wild freedom of combat and the intimacy of the dark. In fact, he held himself as stiffly towards his fellow wizards and witches as if his personality were somehow one huge psychological bruise. Quite apart from whatever misunderstandings might exist between him and these people concerning the fate of Albus Dumbledore, he did not seem to her like a man who felt himself to be among friends; and she very much doubted whether any of them knew that he could sing. She felt a fierce, directionless, protective rage against the lot of them.
It was unfair to include Poppy Pomfrey in that blanket condemnation, however. The mediwitch was becoming increasingly irate with their unasked visitors, to the point that she put a hex on the curtains which cordoned off the professor's end of the ward, such that anyone who parted those curtains without her permission would grow Shakespearean-looking ass's ears and a pig's snout. After a few people had tried it, word evidently got around. And when Alastor Moody turned up again like the inevitable bad smell and tried to get access to "that traitor," she actually smacked him with a spoon and sent him on his way with an earful of hissed invective which even the professor would have had trouble matching.
When Minerva McGonagall turned up and announced that she wanted to interview Severus in Harry Potter's presence, to determine what really had happened to the putatively late Albus Dumbledore, she was given equally short shrift - although without the smack. "You may see him later this afternoon, if I think that he is well enough. And Minerva! - keep that fool Alastor out of here if you value your life, or I'll hex him into next Tuesday fortnight, and you along with him."
"Very well, Poppy - but it's imperative that I do speak to him today. If he is innocent - if in fact he was only acting under Dumbledore's orders - then the quicker it's established the easier he will be in his mind - and the sooner we can start preparing a defence case which may keep him out of Azkaban" she added grimly.
"I appreciate your concerns, Minerva, but this place has been like King's Cross Station this morning with people coming to gawp at him. Let me get some lunch into him and then let him rest for a few hours, for pity's sake - he's run out of the end of his strength, and a hundred miles past it."
But he was too stressed to rest properly. "I detest being a bloody freak-show" he muttered, gazing at his hands where they rested on the blanket. "And I absolutely bloody hate knowing that they're all speculating about what was done to me to make me scream so loudly - when I donít even want to have to think about it myself, yet."
"The whole lot of them look like a circus freak-show to me, Prof - and not in a good way. I'd far rather be in here with you."
He gave her a hooded, amused look. "You don't class me in with the freaks, then?"
"Oh, no - you're just an ageing Goth. Compared to some of my other friends, you're nearly normal."
"Do you consider me a friend, then?"
"I'd like to, I think - if that's OK with you."
"Yes it's OK with me." But he looked more puzzled than pleased: his hands were clenched, and the sharp frown-line between his arching brows only deepened.
Lunch arrived out of thin air with a literal bang, in the hands of a creature so unexpected and bizarre that Lynsey yelped and felt as if she had levitated six inches from a sitting start. It looked something like a furless, tailless tarsier about three feet tall. This apparition gazed at her reproachfully with fluorescent-green eyes about eight sizes too big for it, and creaked "No need for Muggle miss to scream at Dobby - Dobby is just bringing Master Severus his lunch."
The professor bestirred himself from his contemplations and said "Thank you, Dobby" very gravely. The little being went into positive transports of delight, fawning on the professor and offering to bring him anything he wanted - although a hopeful request for "Whisky, please" was met with a prim lecture about doing as Madam Pomfrey told him.
In the end, a full stomach achieved what mere tiredness could not, and the professor actually dozed off after he had eaten. He at least looked content to be warm and fed, even if nothing else in his life was easy. Lynsey caught the strange little servitor waggling his enormous ears back and forth in what looked like anxiety, and gazing at the sleeping man with an expression of real concern, insofar as she could read such an odd face. "You seem to be quite - fond of him, Dobby?" she murmured.
The - house-brownie, was he? - looked at her solemnly with his enormous, mesmerizing eyes. "When Dobby was owned by Master Lucius, Master Severus was sometimes polite to Dobby."
"Sometimes was plenty: Master Severus was the only one of Master Lucius's friends who ever was polite to Dobby."
"I get the impression 'Master Lucius' doesn't have friends as such - just surviving victims."
"That is very true. Once, Master Severus even distracted Master Lucius from beating Dobby."
"Yes, well - Master Severus has cut Master Lucius up good and proper, this time."
The creature flashed her the most incredibly evil-looking grin she had ever seen, with far too many sharp teeth in it. "Clever Master Severus" he said, and disappeared with a loud crack.
An hour or so later Lynsey, herself taking a nap tucked up in the armchair, became aware that the professor was awake and watching her, smiling to himself. She could feel the tendrils of his mind-contact drifting gently around her. "What?" she said sleepily, and he started and to her surprize blushed.
"I was just - remembering" he muttered. "I prayed and prayed to Our Saviour and Our Lady to let me die - but instead the Lord sent me - an angel with a drum, to break my chains." He looked positively guilty about having been caught having a grateful or sentimental thought.
She smiled and ducked her head in embarrassed self-deprecation. "I could have drummed it better with a bodhran instead of a bloody plastic lunch-box, but we make do with what we have to hand" - and oh, treacherous, her mind slipped in a little sideways awareness of that other ad-hoc improvisation and she looked up quickly and saw that he was staring at her with a suddenly hard expression, his face white and pinched.
"The wand - what is it?"
"Chopstick" she said, succinctly and unhappily. "For eating with, you - "
"Oh - oh, no"
"It's a very good chopstick - it's got inlay and everything."
"No" he said through set teeth. "No. Surely not. I looked in your mind - you weren't trying to deceive me. Didn't seem as if you were trying to deceive me."
"I wasn't - well - I was trying to manipulate you. But for your own good."
"Your mind said 'wand' - I swear your mind said 'wand.'"
"Absolutely sincerely, Prof - I told you. To me, a wand is any piece of wood or metal or stone which feels right in the hand - a chopstick is as good and as real a wand as any other if the buzz is right. Why does it matter so much?"
"Damn" he said, turning his face aside in his misery, and she could feel the waves of heat coming off him - a mixture of fever and furious embarrassment. "I thought I'd done something so clever - so bloody brave - and all the time I was making a fool of myself again. Setting myself up for - another humiliation. I deserve to be a laughing stock - I am one to myself!"
"No - Prof - listen to me."
"So you can make a fool of me again?"
"But, look Prof, this just proves my point. The wand doesn't really matter, it's just a neutral focus. The, the virtue and the grace, in the old sense - the true and singing power - that's in you. The wand just helps you to direct it."
He looked back at her then, sweating and glassy-eyed with fever. "Do I have a true and singing power, do you suppose?"
"Oh, gods yes - you're buzzing with it. When you're charged-up, the world twists around you as you walk through it. You'd make a terrific shaman."
"It's true I'll admit that some of what we were looking at - singing-magic, and re-shaping oneself into the tool of the moment, and so on - did seem to come very naturally. It felt as I imagine coming home would feel. But I'm still going to need a new wand - and one that isn't a bloody chopstick!"
"I could make you a new wand, if you liked. It's one of the things I do."
"A Muggle wand?"
"If you like. A Muggle wand seems to have worked well enough for you so far."
"Where would you get the materials, in the middle of a war? Our wands have a core of unicorn hair or phoenix feather or dragon heart-string...."
"I wouldn't know where to begin. But if you want a contrasting core, I could bore the pith out of a nice bit of white sycamore, and run silver through it."
"Do I have the soul for silver, do you think?"
"I'm sure of it."
She knew she should be resting herself, before whatever the New Year would bring: but instead she sat looking for a long time at the thick short lashes lying against the gaunt pallor of his cheek. India-ink on ivory. As the music spilled through her mind she felt infested with sorrow. "So let me take you down to the dancing floor//We can walk out on the crowd//Let us waltz away what's left of the living years...." - a dreaming song about old love and enduring joy which was, she knew, miserably inappropriate. But her internal soundtrack must have had some reason behind it, and it was also about turning one's life around - "Just leave behind that wretch that you have been//With that fool that I'd become" - as well as being pregnant with inchoate grief and a vast, diffuse, inexpressible tenderness.
She only realized that she had been singing it aloud under her breath when the professor stirred and murmured "Runrig" without opening his eyes. And she remembered what she sometimes forgot, that he was not some strange alien being but a man of her own generation - a Derbyshire lad who had grown up in her world, in the Muggle world; who had lived in Galloway since he was a child, even if it was in a strange, semi-detached cul-de-sac rotated ninety degrees off from the rest of Scotland; and who must have listened to the same music, seen the same films; at least until the life of the school had closed over him utterly. It would not perhaps be surprizing if Runrig appealed to him: it was music full of passion, but it was a strange, sideways passion, stripped of sentimentality - music that induced feelings of awe and fear and majesty and numinous sorrow, rather than anything tamer and more bland.
And perhaps, after all, he would even know what a Klingon was.
And tomorrow or the next day or the day after that they might kill him; they might take away even her memory of him; and she would grieve forever without even knowing whom it was she mourned.
And Runrig were still playing the music in the head:
"There's a lighthouse
Shining in the black
Standing in the dark
All the world's a ship
Shipwrecked on the seas
Breaking up in pieces
We're clinging to the reef
There's a lighthouse...."
To be "under the weather" is a polite Irish euphemism for being seriously drunk.
Mad Jock McMad, the winner of the All-Scotland Mr Mad Contest, was mentioned en passant in the British historical comedy series Blackadder.
The two Runrig songs which are quoted at the end of this chapter are, boringly enough, called The Dancing Floor and The Lighthouse.
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