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
#7: Many Happy Returns
[In which Snape is once more footloose, if not quite fancy free.]
If they struck out at once for the mainland they would reach harbour not much before midnight, which would make finding a room impossible; yet they had no desire to linger near Azkaban for any longer than they could help. They told the crew, therefore, that they wished to head for the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, so that Lupin could paint there in the morning, and the skipper just nodded, looking puzzled and a trifle cross-eyed. Quite apart from the issue of Snape's safety, the sooner they got the crew out of sight of Azkaban, and could lift the glamour which prevented them from seeing it properly, the better. Lynsey just hoped they could see it well enough not to crash into it.
Snape himself was in a wild mood. He almost fell as he stepped onto the boat, and was prickly and grudging about being saved by Lupin's fast grab for his elbow; but as soon as they reached the comparative privacy of the forecastle he picked Dobby up by the armpits like a child and swung him up onto a bunk at eye-level.
"You!" he said with a choking laugh. "Elf. Ask me anything - anything at all - and if it's within my powers I'll give it to you. What do you want - the latest thing in kitchen equipment? Your own tiny little cable-knit sweater?"
Dobby looked back at him gravely - possibly wondering whether it was ethical to take advantage of someone who was teetering on the edge of hysteria. "Does Master Severus really mean that?"
"Of course I bloody mean it. I wouldn't say it if I didn't bloody mean it, would I?"
The elf flicked his ears back and forth uneasily. "Dobby does not know. But what Dobby wants - " He hesitated.
"Well - out with it, then."
"A cable-knit sweater would be nice, oh yes," he said, blinking his glowing eyes. "But what Dobby really wants is for you to be nicer to Harry Potter."
"Damn," said Snape, sobering up on the spot. "I did promise, did I?"
"Yes" Lupin confirmed, with a huge and slightly toothy grin. "You did."
"Damn." He sat down abruptly on one of the bunks, and a visible tremor began in his thighs and spread until it left him sitting with his shoulders slumped and his head bowed, racked by shivers. His hands wrung themselves together of their own accord, even when Lynsey stood next to him and, greatly daring, laid a hand lightly on his shoulder.
Harry drifted off without a word, and soon clattering noises could be heard coming from the galley. Neville sat down on the deck at Snape's feet, composed and motherly, and took Snape's hands in his own and began to rub ointment into them again, gently cleaning and salving the raw, oozing area where the first manacle had galled his skin, and smoothing over the tight grooves where the handcuffs had dug into him. His patient sat quietly, his face obscured by a curtain of matted hair, and let the boy do what he would.
"I'm sorry", Neville said sadly, looking at the angry red lines around Snape's wrists; " - sorry the blanket got you into trouble."
Snape lifted his head then and looked back at him, and his mouth tightened dryly. "It was a competent piece of work, Longbottom. It was only ill-chance that the stupid woman happened to fall against it."
"Thank you sir!" Neville exclaimed, beaming as if he'd just been given a medal. Even as he spoke, Harry ducked his head and entered the forecastle, smiling a wry and secret smile and carrying a tray laden with a full fry-up breakfast containing enough cholesterol to stop a rhinoceros, and a huge mug of treacly black coffee.
"There's more for you lot in the galley" he muttered, with a vague gesture of his head towards the open door. "Here you are - sir. You, uh, look as if you could do with a bit of feeding up."
Snape bared his teeth at the boy in automatic resentment, although it didn't put him off accepting the tray. "When I want charity, Potter - " Dobby cleared his throat in a meaningful way, and Snape bit off what he had been going to say with a visible effort. "Breakfast, however, is another matter. I - your cooking appears to be adequate."
As Neville and Lupin bustled off to fetch food for the rest of them, Snape applied himself diligently to scrambled egg, black pudding, bacon, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms and scalding hot coffee, and Harry folded himself down gracefully to the floor. Lynsey saw him glance at Dobby, and distinctly heard him murmur to himself "Oh, this is going to be fun."
After breakfast, Snape stretched out quietly on the narrow bunk and lay dozing, half asleep and half awake, gazing at the sea through one of the ship's tiny portholes. Lynsey fetched a blanket and tucked it round him, and he gave her a quick flash of a smile. As Azkaban faded altogether from view she thought that he felt like weeping, and yet her sense of him said that he was, for once in his life, deeply happy.
As Marjorie's Fancy purred her way across the water the weather came on stormy and grey, and Snape began to look progressively less happy and more green. He wasn't the only poor sailor on the boat; both Neville and Lupin were already taking something they swore was called Ocean Motion Potion, and Lupin was happy to share. Snape twitched the end of his long nose like an opossum and swore the product was substandard and contained too little ginger, but he drank it anyway, and was soon back to looking merely yellowish and unwell instead of green and ghastly.
The boat was now more than crowded, but Harry and Ron could hardly leave on their brooms without confusing the crew even more. They joined Neville in the galley to "help" cook lunch and get hilariously in each other's way, while Lupin lounged on a bunk himself and pretended to be asleep. Officially he was still convalescing from his transformation the previous week, but in reality Lynsey suspected he just wanted to keep an eye on Snape, in case there were any unexpected problems, either magical or medical.
Lynsey hardly liked to let him out of her sight herself, even to visit the head. She had had Neville bring her breakfast to her on the forecastle, so she could stay with her professor, and after the business with the seasickness potion she sat herself down quietly on the floor with her back to him and leaned back against the edge of the bunk where he lay dozing. After a while he shifted softly and draped his long hand across her shoulder, and she put up her own hand to cover his.
They had been resting peacefully like that for some time and Lynsey had almost dozed off herself, relief leaving her limp as an unstrung puppet even though her position was not an entirely comfortable one, when she heard muttered voices through the partly open door. They sounded as if they were trying not to be overheard; but if so they were making a pig's ear of it.
"You never bloody bought robes like that for me" muttered Ron's unmistakeable, sullen voice. "I mean, God, nothing but the best quality for our dear professor. Silk."
"Yes, well, I didn't want to embarrass you, or I would've," Harry's softer tones replied.
"But you bought them for Snape!"
"And your point is...?"
Lynsey felt the professor's hand twitch under her own, ever-so slightly, and realized that he was awake. She turned to look at him, wondering if he would be angry or embarrassed at what they had just heard, but he gave her a cool, glittering look and quirked a sardonic eyebrow. Gazing at his bony face from only a few inches away, she smiled at him, and he gazed back, suddenly grave, his black eyes holding hers.
He put his hand up and touched the corner of her eye, very gently, and then shivered as if the cold had bitten him to the bone. "No one would look me in the eye," he said quietly; then his lips quirked slightly. "Well - no-one except Dobby, so I suppose I got - got extra rations, with eyes that size. You'd think, looking Dobby in the eyes would equate to at least four humans...."
Lynsey glanced away, briefly embarrassed, ran her thumb lightly over the abrasions which braceleted his wrist, and then looked back, holding his gaze steadily this time. "We would never have left you there, you know," she replied, equally quietly. "If the sentence hadn't been so - heinous I suppose Minerva might have put you on hold for a few months while she sorted out the war, but she would never have deserted you long-term - and as it was we just couldn't leave you a day longer than we could help."
Later on, they all collected together in the forecastle and lounged around playing cards. Harry proved to be an unexpectedly vicious and astute player, and cleaned out the pot.
And in the morning - another massive fry-up breakfast, which Snape ploughed through with the dedication of one determined to overcome an obstacle, and then the Farne Islands in the grey light of dawn. Chugging companionably to itself, the little boat rounded Northern Hares and then held position off Big Harcar, the island to which Grace Darling and her father had once rowed three quarters of a mile from the Longstone Lighthouse in violent storm, to save nine shipwrecked sailors. Lupin allayed suspicion by turning out a very reasonable watercolour sketch of the steep-sided island, while Lynsey showed Snape the nearly-finished sycamore wand.
Lynsey watched him as he turned the white wood over and over in his hands, his expression unreadable, and then called his tame lightning into the rod with a silent flick of his wrist. "They say the wand should fit the wielder, perfectly," he said, still sounding rather subdued. "My wand - my old wand - it was someone else's before me, and my parents chose it for me because it was all they could afford, and it would do." He sighed and pointed the wand at a drinking glass, which blew apart into shards. "My mother gave it to me in duty and my father gave it me in rage, and duty and rage and making do with things that don't really suit me have defined me ever since. It will be nice to have a wand which is meant for me alone, and which is informed by skill and care and friendship." Another subtle flick, and the glass was whole again.
Avoiding the lethally strong current through Piper Gut, they took the safer passage through Middin Gut and swung round south and west in a great curve, passing close by Inner Farne en route to Bamburgh, where the boat was to put them ashore. The green rolling slopes leading up to St Cuthbert's Chapel were wholly inviting, even in such grey weather, but Snape was desperate to get ashore and have a proper bath and they left the island unvisited. They could always come back out later on one of the little tour boats, if time permitted.
They arrived in Bamburgh at about eleven a.m., and took their leave of the crew rather awkwardly. They hadn't really had a chance to get to know them properly, since they themselves had too much to hide, and the men had of necessity spent much of the voyage in a magically-induced daze. They looked happy to be rid of their paying passengers, anyway, and Lynsey supposed the Gothy one had told the others that they were Excisemen. Harry looked even happier to get shot of them, since it meant he was no longer haemorrhaging cash.
As they walked up through the town Snape moved like a man in a dream, staring around him at the immense, towering castle on the rock, the stand of trees at the heart of the village and all the old-fashioned little shops and houses. In their turn, the villagers stared back. Dobby at least had made himself scarce, which was probably just as well, but Snape himself was quite odd enough to be getting on with - a tall, white-faced, bone-thin man in an academic gown, his face and arms marred by fading bruises, his long hair matted and clogged with salt.
It was fortunate that the guest house which Minerva McGonagall had booked them into had two bathrooms, since they all wanted at least to shower and rinse the salt out of their hair, and Snape seemed determined to spend most of the afternoon in the bath. Lynsey told the landlady that the big husky she and Neville had had with them last week was staying with friends which, again, was nearly not a lie, and took the opportunity to put the finishing touches to the sycamore wand. When it was done, Neville spelled it so that the criss-crossing net of wire which laced the handle fused into one piece with the straight silver core.
Minerva herself joined them mid afternoon and Snape finally emerged from his ablutions, scrubbed to within an inch of his life and still looking curiously subdued. Minerva embraced him without a word, her eyes misty behind their severe, square-cut glasses. He leaned against her as if he might fall and she murmured quiet, loving nonsense to him.
He had done his best with his hair, which was now at least clean and free from salt, but it was still very matted. Lynsey lent him her disentangling comb, and he raked it viciously through the knots until he got them into some sort of order. Afterwards they went out, all of them, to eat at a local restaurant. Lynsey had the impression that Minerva was deliberately easing the professor back into his freedom gradually, giving him the chance to steady his nerves before he rejoined the clamour and complications of the Order.
Sitting in a restaurant, she thought, quietly eating good food and drinking good wine, was the best thing for him at the moment; a bubble of peace and civility floating above the turmoil of the last few months. The man looked tired to death; which was not surprizing considering that in almost ten weeks there had been only five days (counting today and yesterday) during which he had not either been being tortured, in one sense or another, or on trial, or on the run; and less than three weeks during which he had had anything like enough to eat.
Currently, Minerva - who seemed to have been a bit of a goer in her wartime youth, to judge from some of her comments - was regaling him with the juicier tidbits from her surveillance of the Minister. Lynsey distinctly heard him exclaim "You're kidding!" more than once - and the three boys were all obviously straining to hear more, whilst pretending disinterest.
By the time they had progressed to dessert, Snape seemed a lot perkier; evidently a bit of spiteful gossip did him the world of good. He lounged back, twirling a glass of wine in his long fingers, and murmured, in a fair imitation of the Headmistress's dry Scottish voice, "Does your brother know that you're shagging his wife, Minister? Would you like him to know?" He took a healthy swig from the glass and added, in his own voice, "That is priceless, Minerva - but how on earth did you get the Skeeter monstrosity to agree to publish?" Lynsey saw Harry grin at hearing the journalist miscalled, and wondered what that was about.
Minerva coughed, delicately. "It would seem that Ms Skeeter is an unregistered Animagus." This time it was Lupin who flushed, and Lynsey wondered what that was about, too. "Hermione Granger apparently found out about this during her fourth year and has been using the knowledge to - ah, influence Ms Skeeter."
"Ha. So the very prim-and-proper Miss Granger resorted to a little light blackmail and put an intellectual half-nelson on the First Lady of Libel - how very... Slytherin of her. And there's no need to bristle, Potter," he added without looking round; "I mean it as a compliment." He turned to Lynsey then, his eyes sunken in and smudged by shadow but glittering with malicious amusement. "Somebody else I hear was being quite Slytherin; Lupin tells me you were smarming round that bastard Heggarty, trying to get him to be - nicer to me, or something equally improbable."
Lynsey looked back at him soberly. "Did it work?"
"Somewhat. He wasn't quite so - so rough, towards the end."
"Good. I might keep in touch with him - Christmas cards and so on - do you people send Christmas cards? You never know when a contact like that might come in handy; though I feel a bit guilty - "
"Don't be. He doesn't deserve - " The shutters came over his face again for a moment, and he sighed and put the glass back on the table with an audible click. "I should be - all of you - I hate to say it but you've all been...."
"That's all right," Lupin said with a grin. "We won't hold you to actually saying it - will we Harry?"
"No, of course not," Harry said virtuously, and Snape shot him a poisonous glare. "I'm just glad," the boy added, "that in the end I didn't have to kiss up to old Scrimgeour and pretend to be his Ministry poster-boy just to get you out."
"Harry Potter having to be polite to somebody for once," Snape said silkily; "now there's an image to conjure with."
"Hey," Ron said, without much rancour, "he can report you to Dobby now if you're nasty to him."
"Was I being nasty to you, Potter?" Snape said, raising his eyebrows. "I thought I was merely - making an observation."
Harry looked back at him levelly and pursed his lips in that same small, secret smile. "I wouldn't have been very good at it, anyway."
They slept the night at the guest house and Lynsey, with her extra awareness of the man, could feel her professor's exhausted, incredulous relief as he sank into the embrace of a proper mattress. And then, in the morning, they went their separate ways. Minerva, Neville, the professor and Ron were all leaving together; Snape having been invited to stay with Ron's parents, since his own house was no longer secure and his bank balance, such as it was, was still impounded by the Ministry.
Lupin stayed behind for the afternoon, having really got into the painting thing, and wanting to take a tourist boat out to Inner Farne, even though they were few and far between in February. Harry stayed to keep him company, since Lupin seemed to be a special friend of his; and Lynsey stayed because when she finally parted from them, this strange cul-de-sac in her life would be at an end, it would close over - her life would get back onto its normal track and it would be as though all of them, even the professor, were just a dream she had had. So she hung around, feeling scraped-thin and despondent, and went out to the island with them and had a look at St. Cuthbert's Chapel, and then made desultory conversation while Lupin painted.
She declined Lupin's offer to Apparate her to St. Andrew's, feeling somehow that that would be pathetic, to cling on to the last trailing shadow of the wizarding world to that extent, and the forty-minute bus-ride to Berwick and then two hours on the train would give her a chance to adjust; to shake off the wonder and strangeness of the past two months, a little, and remember whom she used to be.
Besides, she had always loved the stretch of line just north of Berwick, where the train clung to the edge of the cliff, and one could look out of the carriage almost straight down into the sea.
She was back home and trying to persuade the cats that they knew her by nine p.m., and all the world seemed horribly empty. She had to resist the temptation to 'phone her professor at once to see if he had arrived safely; he would surely want some time to settle in. But that was, at least, one blessing: that The Burrow had a working 'phone. And surely she would see the professor again in March, anyway, to go to the Runrig concert.
Why was it that now that he was free, and safe (after a fashion), she still dreamed about him trapped and despairing in the white room? By the next day, Friday the 20th, she was climbing the walls. She needed to settle, to finish the website she'd been working on on the boat, and it ought to be so much easier now that she had access to the tower PC again instead of just the laptop - but the restless feeling of dislocation made it impossible to focus. By mid afternoon she gave in to temptation and called the professor.
A relentlessly gungho-sounding woman with a slight trace of an Irish accent answered the 'phone, and could be heard shouting for "Severus." When his familiar smooth, slightly insinuating voice came curling down the line Lynsey felt faint with relief; he was real, he was still there, the wizarding world itself was somehow still out there at the other end of the wire, and hadn't nipped off from her own and gone floating off, balloon-like, to where she would never find it.
"You arrived all right, then.... How are you feeling?" she asked, wishing she could think of something more original to say.
"I am tolerably well," the rich voice replied. "Molly and Arthur have been very welcoming - although I wish Molly would stop treating me as if I was five years old."
Lynsey distinctly heard the woman's voice say "I heard that, young man." She didn't have to see the professor to know that he was rolling his eyes.
"And - the wand?"
"So far, it seems to perform very well."
She fell into a pattern of calling him every couple of days, on any pretext or on none. Once, he asked her in an odd voice "Why do you keep on 'phoning me?" For a moment she was poised on the edge of being shattered, of being cast down - but he hadn't sounded hostile, and she knew how hostile he could get. She asked him carefully if he wanted her to stop.
"No - no, of course not," he said, sounding frustrated, and she was reassured; it was hardly likely, in his case, that he was just being polite. "But - why?"
"I told you," she said. "I like talking to you. I like you."
He gave a soft huff of laughter. "Then I should be glad that you have - peculiar tastes. Arthur and Molly - they're good people, and although I wouldn't say it to them I am more than grateful for their hospitality, especially when.... But Molly tends to talk at you, not to you, and Arthur wants me to explain how washing machines work. As if I'd know. I left the Muggle world almost twenty years ago - and my family didn't even have an indoor lavvie!"
The following day, he actually 'phoned her - wanting, he said, "an excuse to get away from the madhouse for a bit. It's noisy enough," he said glumly, "when it's only Molly and Arthur and the two young ones and the goddamned ghoul and the chickens, although Potter and Granger are here half the time as well. At least Granger talks about things that are interesting, even if she can't keep her mouth closed for two minutes together. But it's Ronald's eighteenth the day after tomorrow, and since it's the first birthday he's been at home for since he was eleven and nobody knows who'll still be alive this time next year, the whole bloody family is filing in early for the celebrations - including Fleur. Except Percy, of course, and he was the only one who didn't live his entire life at screaming-pitch."
A few days later when she spoke to him he seemed tired and discontented. "It isn't," he said, "that they aren't welcoming; Arthur especially has been the soul of kindness. But I'm not sure that kindness is... I'm not a bloody invalid. And the younger ones... the twins remind me altogether too much of James and Sirius, except that they are more overtly criminal; and I may have achieved some kind of uneasy truce with Potter, but Ronald Weasley's dislike of me is palpable. He's making a valiant effort to tolerate me because he feels sorry for me, for pity's sake - and I suppose it is for pity's sake, but I detest being an object of pity - but I can see the strain in him every time I open my mouth, and he's going to be just joyous tonight when I turn up as the bloody spectre at his birthday feast. And I know Molly won't let me just sit it out."
"It sounds like it's putting quite a strain on you."
"Yes. But I - I don't really want to be on my own, at present. Not after - "
"Also, loathe as I am to admit it I'm still quite physically weak, and likely to remain so for some time. I suppose I could ask Minerva - or even Lupin, God forbid - if they could put me up for a few weeks; but I don't like having to go to them cap in hand like a bloody beggar."
"You could always come here," Lynsey heard her own voice say, although she wasn't consciously aware of having intended to speak, and the words came out in an awkward rush. "You could always come and stay with me."
Piper Gut and Middin Gut are channels which separate Big Harcar from the islands to either side of it: Piper Gut has notoriously strong currents.
An Exciseman is somebody who works for the Department of Customs and Excise.
A half nelson is a wrestling hold, also used as a general slang term for backing someone into a corner.
The time elapsed since Severus left the Muggle world has been reduced to comply with his age as given in Deathly Hallows.
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