Characters are property of J.K Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
Severus Snape was snoring, and rather loudly at that.
He had fallen asleep sitting upright in the wing-back chair with one leg slung over the armrest and his head pressed into the side of one of the wings. Sleep came for him sometime near the end of the stack of parchments and, after almost six hours of sound sleep, he still held the quill in one hand, as if the Sandman had crept up and caught him unawares. The tine of the quill had come to rest in a most unfortunate spot on the leg of his trousers—the same pair he had been wearing the day before—and a giant blot of ink had managed to seep onto the grey fabric mid thigh.
Severus made a drowsy, indistinguishable noise and swung his other leg over the arm of the chair in a miserable attempt to find some comfort, but surprisingly he did not wake. There had been a time in his life when Severus held a bit of contempt for those who slept easily, for those who closed their eyes and drifted off into their dreams only to wake again rested. He often fell into his nightmares, and would wake during the early hours of the morning with a racing pulse and sweat on his brow.
The dreams were particularly horrible shortly after he regained consciousness, enough so to be dubbed fully-fledged night terrors, and in those days he and his Healer had turned to potions to keep him under. Even sedated, he never woke up feeling refreshed or rested, but rather dragged himself out of dreams each morning feeling half-dead only to find no relief.
He had been quick to blame his episodes on the snake venom still circulating in his system, a natural bodily response to the toxin, but his Healer quickly informed him otherwise. She had not exactly called him mad or depressed, not directly of course, but she had used the Muggle term "post traumatic stress" when she had diagnosed his condition.
"What you've experienced is nothing short of traumatic, and it has compromised your ability to cope," Augusta had told him. "You have unconsciously buried what has haunted you, and you've managed to survive remarkably intact despite it all. You can no longer do that, Severus. You can no longer do that and hope to heal let alone carry on a normal life."
Facing his demons, his shame, and his guilt proved to be a challenge, but eventually, sleep came almost every night and lasted longer with few interruptions. As someone who had once had trouble going under with even the strongest sleeping aides, Severus soon discovered that he could fall asleep almost anywhere when his mind was clear.
Severus took a deep breath, wrapping his arms around his torso. He had left the window cracked, and the room carried a chilly bite. His head rested at an odd angle on his shoulder. He still did not stir even though his neck was craned in such a manner that would leave him feeling stiff when he finally woke, but rather curled into himself as much as the modest sized chair would allow. His rest was short-lived, however, as the first knocks sounded from beyond the closed door.
They were faint at first, just a few light raps with the knuckles, but they quickly grew louder and more defined. Though Severus was sound asleep, he was also a very light sleeper, prone to waking up at just the slightest outside commotion. He jolted upright in a mess of tangled limbs at the second forceful smack upon the door, and his feet kicked the nightstand, sending his neat stack of parchments to floor. The parchments scattered everywhere, some going under the bed, others sliding across the tiled floor.
"Oh for God's sake! Hold on, would you?!"
Severus straightened the parchments he could quickly gather as best as he could, and as the rapping on the door intensified, so did his agitation. He slammed the parchments he had managed to collect back on the night table only to have gravity pull them down again as he turned for the door.
"I said hold on!" he snapped just as the door swung open to reveal his Healer standing on the other side.
When she saw him, her smile vanished. "Well, good morning to you, too."
Augusta Barnes was a short-haired, hefty-breasted witch of seventy-five or so years, and always looked as though she was in a state of perpetual contemplation. The glasses she wore were either perched on the end of her narrow nose or pushed up in the spiky salt and pepper hair atop her head. Despite her appearance and the opinions Severus had once held for her, she was a good-humored woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Her disposition suited her well, especially well as far as her career was concerned, and Severus's case could bear witness to that.
"You look like hell, Severus," she said candidly, brushing past him. Augusta stopped once inside the room to survey the mess covering the floor. A few of the parchments had been picked up by the brisk breeze blowing through the window and were drifting here and there. A wave of her hand and the window snapped shut. "I see you've seen to the paperwork…"
"Not one word," Severus said, stooping to gather the sheets. Before he had seized hold of the first page, however, the parchments began to flutter upward and landed neatly in the center of his bed. He looked up in time to see Augusta place her wand back in the pocket of her robes.
"You're welcome," she said, the ghost of a slight smile on her face. "Now, shall we get down to business?"
It took Severus a moment, with his sleep-addled mind, to remember that she was supposed to fetch him for a meeting of sorts. "What's the purpose of this conference?" Severus asked. "Thomm was as helpful as a head cold when we spoke about it."
"That's because he had nothing to tell you," the Healer said, and Severus found that he was not overly fond of her tone. "The details were still being discussed. That said, I'm afraid there has been a bit of a delay."
He did not like the sound of that. "What sort of delay?"
"It's nothing to trouble yourself over. The third party involved has come into a bit of trouble—some nonsense over the cross-continental Portkey her Ministry had assigned. She should be along shortly." The Healer gave him an apprising look and pointed to the ink spot on his wrinkled trousers. "Pull yourself together and I'll see you in a bit," she said, and to Severus's annoyance, she slipped back out the door without another word.
Severus had half a mind to trail after her, demanding to know exactly when he would be allowed to leave, and even went as far as opening the door enough to peek down the hall. She was already gone, lost in the catacombs of offices and patient rooms.
The longer he scanned the hallway, however, he discovered he had neither the desire nor the state of alertness needed to search her out, but instead closed and locked his door once more before retreating into a small loo that adjoined his room. The washroom was modest, complete with a single wall-mounted basin near the toilet, and a stall shower stuck back in the far corner. It was hardly big enough for him, but it served its purpose.
Severus looked at himself in the mirror hanging over the sink—something he never did if he could help it—and was immediately reminded of why. The man in the mirror looked tired, well past the age of thirty-nine (he certainly felt older than thirty-nine). He squinted at his reflection, noticing the lines that had appeared near the corners of his eyes and the dark circles that he was certain would never truly go away without extensive magical interference.
At least the mirror can't agree, he thought, and turned on the cold tap. He splashed his face with the icy water and wiped away the excess with a sand-textured hospital towel before brushing his teeth with a spare toothbrush. He would shower when he returned home, without threat of someone barging in and demanding his attention before he had made it out of his pants.
Satisfied with the rushed morning routine, he emerged from the loo and promptly went to the window. Severus threw back the drapes and allowed the winter sun to shine on his face. It was going to be a good day despite the ink-stained trousers, the crick in his neck, and the postponed meeting with a mystery guest… or so he thought.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly given the hospital's track record of such things, the morning quickly faded into afternoon, and afternoon was dissolving into evening before he was finally summoned several hours later to one of the rarely-used conference rooms located in the administrative section of the Dangerous Dai Llewellyn Ward. The room was as monotonous as the rest of the hospital with its bare, white walls and neutral wood paneling. A large conference table was positioned in the center of the room, and when Severus entered he found he was the only one there, save for a Mediwizard that had been tasked to prepare refreshments. Rease Taylor, or so her nametag suggested, offered Severus a cup of tea, which he declined, and tried to make polite conversation.
The conversation turned out to be one-sided, with the Mediwizard asking Severus questions as she laid out the various biscuits and sweets on serving trays and two different pots of tea. "…Are you excited to finally go home… Do you think you'll ever return to Hogwarts…" When the witch realised she would be more likely to hear the table talk instead, she took it upon herself to answer for him between sneaking bites of food. "I bet you can't wait to get out of this place and start over... Hogwarts would certainly miss you if you decided not to return, Professor Snape…"
He passed the time by counting the lines in the wood grain of the table, waiting until she finally grew tired of talking to herself and left. It took another fifteen minutes before the loquacious witch named Rease Taylor gave Severus a disapproving look and withdrew, leaving him alone with the trays sweets and the hot tea.
Once alone, Severus eyed the tea and various glazed and powered sweets and felt his empty stomach rumble. He had turned down the afternoon and evening meals provided by the hospital in favour of eating something that did not taste like parchment when he returned home. He had not, however, anticipated the delay to stretch well into the evening hours, and was now feeling the affect of his stubbornness.
Even more tantalizing, the food on the trays did not look like the standard hospital fare, for which his appetite was grateful. Even the tea with its strong aroma— in contrast to the normal fare of weak breakfast tea—gave him an inkling that Augusta was going out of her way to be hospitable to their mystery guest.
They've even dragged out the porcelain china for this meeting. Severus peered over his shoulder, determined to remain steadfast in his decision not to partake in the frivolous nonsense of sweets and tea if he had an audience. He was alone as it happened, and he promptly selected a chocolate-glazed wafer topped with coconut shavings and popped the bite-sized morsel in his mouth.
It was easy to see why Rease Taylor had eaten one for every two she placed on the trays. Severus selected another, this one tinged pink with white frosting and little chips of chocolate. That one was strawberry— a flavor he found far too strong and not to his liking, so he selected another chocolate wafer to wash away the unpleasant taste. He had only gathered the wafer between his fingers when the sound of heavy, hurried footsteps echoed from beyond the closed door.
Upon hearing his impending guest, Severus dropped the thin biscuit on the tray and wiped his hands on one of the tea napkins, then hid the incriminating evidence in his trouser pockets. He straightened himself in his chair, making a special effort to look perturbed when the door finally swung open to reveal his Healer. Augusta scanned the room quickly once entering, as if searching for anything that might have been below standards. She had his discharge parchments tucked under one arm and what looked to be his medical file in her hand.
"Oh good," she said at last, "you're already here. I was hoping to speak with you privately before we begin."
"Only seven hours and thirty-six minutes late," Severus was quick to add, glancing down at his wrist as though he wore a watch. "I was told, by you in fact, that I would be going home today. Do you remember that? It was seven hours and thirty-six minutes ago in case you've forgotten."
"Are you finished?" Augusta shuffled around the table, depositing the files in front of the empty seat nearest him. The sharp sound the parchments made when they hit the table told him that she was in a foul mood. "I'm trying to get you out of here as quickly as I can."
"By having unscheduled, unnecessary meetings?"
"Not unnecessary. This is part of your discharge requirements." She produced a single slip of parchment from the bottom of the stack and placed it in front of him. "The purpose of this meeting is to induct you into the Silhouette Initiative. Here is the agenda for this evening, look over it quickly and I'll be back in a moment."
"Silhouette Initiative? What in seven hells is that?"
Augusta released a heavy sigh, her lips curling into a deep frown. "You'll find out soon enough. Now would you read the agenda, please?" The Healer gave the conference room another scrutinizing stare, her eyes landing on the dusting of biscuit crumbs sprinkled on the table, and said, "Have you been eating those sweets?"
Severus glared at her levelly, secretly wishing he would have swiped another one out of spite now that he learned they were apparently off-limits even to him. "That would be the work of one of your minions," he insisted. "I'm surprised there are any left at all."
Augusta made a rather exasperated sound, shook her head, and withdrew from the room as quickly as she had came. And Severus, instead of reading as he had been told, did not hesitate to pick up the chocolate biscuit that had previously tempted him.
Out in the hall he could hear two voices distinctly above the rest. One belonged to his Healer, the other he had never heard in his life. The voice was feminine—so that thankfully ruled out a meeting that included Thomm— and as its owner neared the conference room, its pitch rose to an impassioned volume and laughter spilled forth into like the dreaded waters of a flood. Whoever this woman was, she had already managed to irritate him.
"Severus," Augusta said as she appeared in the door, flanked by the mystery woman, "I would like to introduce you to Zella Shrout. She is one of the many creative minds behind the Silhouette Initiative."
Zella Shrout was a willowy woman with a lean frame and sharp features that appeared to have been chiseled from stone. The witch was all cheekbones as far as he could tell. She overtopped Augusta by more than foot, though Severus suspected her choice of obscene footwear was mostly to blame. Her wiry, auburn hair was pulled back in a loose knot at the base of her neck—the look of a working woman, as his mother used to say—and it aged her by fifteen years at least. Despite that, she had a certain confidence to her, which Severus remarked looked much like arrogance. She gave him a polite, professional smile revealing blindingly white teeth, much too perfect to be natural, and extended a hand in his direction—complete with gleaming red nails that could have easily been mistaken for bloody talons.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Severus." She had an odd inflection in her voice—American English perhaps—which only accentuated the abrasive qualities of her personality; her hand seized Severus's before he had even come to a full stand, and she gave it a mighty shake. "Healer Barnes has mentioned you, the decorated war hero and all. It's an honour, truly, and I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am to initiate you into the Silhouette program."
Severus fixed her with a deliberately indifferent stare. "I'm sure."
"We are fortunate to have Zella here today," Augusta said in an attempt to draw the focus away from Severus's curtness. "She has been with the program from its conception, working quite closely with some of our most skilled Healers from St. Mungo's to perfect its use as an assimilation program for medical purposes."
The American witch flushed an unflattering shade of crimson. "Augusta is far too kind, I'm afraid. I only take suggestions from those already matched with a Silhouette to those in charge. That, and I find Bonds for those like you, Severus—those who are new to the concept and the magic behind it. "
Severus frowned, uncomfortable by the idea, and the Healer added, "It's her specialty. Bond matching, as it's called. You're in capable hands, Severus. You needn't worry."
"I still fail to see why this is necessary." Severus cast a nasty look toward both women, feeling his blood slowly beginning to simmer through his veins. This is my life, damn it. I choose how I live what's left of it. "I don't need this so-called assimilation service. I don't want it."
"On the contrary, Severus," Zella Shrout insisted. She gave him a pitying little smile and shook her head. "You are exactly the type of person who could benefit most from this program."
Severus took a solid step back and appraised her with deadly contempt, as though she were a bug he could easily squash. "I happen to disagree, Madam," he snapped, defiant. "You are not my primary caregiver, and as such, you have absolutely no authority to say what would benefit me and what would not."
"I understand your frustration," Zella replied, flashing another false smile.
"No, you most certainly do not." Severus gave an exasperated sigh and sank into his chair. "I have been here for nine months, I have been without my privacy for nine months, and now, when I am only steps away from walking out of this godforsaken place for good, I'm told I have to become part of some cocked-up assimilation program." Severus turned to his Healer, his only means to escape this nightmare, and said, "I will not have it, Augusta."
Augusta made a face, like she had had the misfortune of passing by a bad smell. "Will you give us a moment, Zella?"
"Of course," the woman answered, her smile widening. "I'll be right outside." The lithesome witch turned away in a flourish, her obscenely high heels clicking as she went, and walked out into the hall.
"I don't want to hear it," Severus warned, not bothering to see if their guest was out of earshot. He hoped she was not, truth be told. "This is a load of bollocks and you know it just as well."
Augusta Barnes descended on him like a malevolent storm cloud. "Would you rather have the alternative, Severus?"
"What alternative? You've yet to say anything on the subject—"
"That's because it is worse, and I knew you'd never go for it!" she shrieked, cutting him off. "My God, you'd think I was asking you to chop off your right hand."
Severus frowned. "I would rather."
The Healer took the seat opposite him, and gathered his hands in hers—a gesture of pleading Severus knew she often employed when she felt he was being unreasonable. He hated that she reminded him of a much better version of his mother. "I am trying to help you, Severus Snape."
"If that were the case, you would leave me be."
The Healer ignored his plea and sat straighter in her chair. "You have two options. The first is Silhouette, and I can assure you it is not nearly as horrible as you imagine it to be. The second, and I'm positive this is something you would rather cut your arm off than do, and it is to open your home to someone from St. Mungo's four days out of the week."
"Those are your choices." Her tone was firm, and Severus hated it. "It would be not only unprofessional of me to let you leave without any form of assistance, but irresponsible as well."
"I don't need—"
"But you do, though you won't admit it." She brushed a strand of his hair out of his face, and he deflated entirely. "Your short-term memory is not as it once was. You still have night terrors and the anxiety episodes. I cannot allow you to leave unless I know you have someone watching over you." She gave him a motherly pat on the cheek as if silently telling him to buck up, and said, "Zella Shrout is a shrew, I'll give you that, but hear her out before you make a decision."
"And if I disagree?"
"Then you might as well unpack your bag," Augusta answered, her face irritatingly placid. "I won't allow you to leave."
And there it is. Severus had wondered how long it would actually take her to play that card—turns out not very long at all so long as he was thoroughly impertinent. He was quite certain he would never like a word of anything Zella Shrout had to say, but seeing as that his release relied on his concession and his cooperation, he was left with no choice but to play along... until he could come up with a better idea, that is. "You make it difficult for me to tolerate you, do you know that?"
"I do it for your own good." Augusta stood, straightening the front of her lime green robes. "I'm going to fetch our guest now, so please try to behave yourself. You'll only make matters harder for everyone involved if you insist on acting like a fusspot."
A little honest loathing never hurt anyone. Severus started to fling back an unsavory remark in retaliation, but his Healer gave him a firm glare before she opened the door and walked out. Severus frowned, a single hand going up in defeat and annoyance. He found he could not gather the effort to complain.
"I think we're ready to begin," Augusta said from the hall. Then Severus heard the other witch's heels click on the tiles as she approached. The sound reminded him of his impending doom, the same way those Muggle bombs would tick down the seconds to destruction. He was certain Zella Shrout was about to drop an explosive of her own, completely blowing up whatever hope he had of leaving St. Mungo's peacefully.
"Excellent!" The witch trotted into the room and took a seat directly across the table from where Severus sat. She placed the black case she had been carting around on the table and drew her wand from her sleeve. One tap later, the latches clicked open and she began pilfering around inside. Zella drew out a thick, bound booklet of parchments and one small, rectangular shaped box. "Alright, Severus," she said at last. "First order of business: how much do you know about Silhouette?"
Severus yawned, covering his mouth with his hand, then replied with feigned interest, "Apart from the fact I have no desire to become part of it, nothing."
Zella gave him a cheerful smile, undeterred. "That's what I thought. Most people who seem to find issue with it have no understanding of what it is or the good that it brings. Silhouette is revolutionary in terms of magic. Wizardkind has yet to see anything like it." The witch slid the top page off the mountainous stack in front of her and pushed it over to Severus. "As you can see from this general overview, the program was modeled after what Muggles call Artificial Intelligence programs, and when I say modeled I'm using the word in the loosest sense. They haven't a clue what they're doing with it, and we've perfected it in ways the Muggles could not."
Augusta glanced at Severus uneasily, and he rewarded her with a nasty glare. The thought made his skin crawl. "Artificial Intelligence?" he repeated. "How can intelligence possibly be artificial?"
The witch threw back her auburn head and released a high-pitched laugh. "Precisely, Severus! Now you're catching on! You see, that's where the Muggles get it wrong. They have their fancy computer programs that they claim can detect their environments and make informed decisions based on a number of factors. It's all nonsense. True intelligence can't be replicated by gears and bells and whistles. Oh no, it takes real people. It takes magic, and that is why Silhouette is so successful."
"It truly is unprecedented," Augusta remarked, and from her tone, Severus could easily detect her ploy to shovel on flattery by the trowell full.
"That it is." Zella reached for the black box and slid it from its lid. "I know what you're thinking, Severus, and I would be lying if I said I did not share those same thoughts at first, but I'd like to show you exactly what I mean."
This should be good, he thought. The entire notion seemed ridiculous, and though he would be loath to admit it aloud, he was secretly counting down the moments until he could tell her so. "By all means," Severus replied. He gave a curt smirk and folded his arms over his chest. "Enlighten me."
"This is my personal Silhouette portrait," she said, lifting the object from the box. When she spoke, Severus could not help but compare to her a pompous parent swollen with pride for their firstborn. It was an absurd attachment to have with inanimate object.
The frame was clear—crystal, Severus suspected, given the way she held it with an obscene amount of care—and the clean, stylized lines of the rounded edges exemplified the shimmering rectangle of black in its center. Zella held it out for him and Augusta to see, and when she released it, the frame floated mid-air as though suspended by an invisible hand. "Exquisite, isn't it? I designed this one myself, and my personal secretary and dear friend from the States is my Silhouette. Do say hello, Caroline!"
The clear sides of the frame were suddenly illuminated a bright shade of blue, and unexpectedly the image of a young woman, fair-skinned and blonde, appeared where the black rectangle had been. She smiled happily out at the three of them and waved.
"I use my Silhouette as a means of quick communication for work purposes," Zella explained. "If I need to know the name of a contact, or the identification number of a person we employ as a Silhouette, I simply activate the portrait and Caroline is there to assist." Zella, who looked immensely pleased with herself, turned to Severus. "So, what are your thoughts?"
"I think it's preposterous, if not entirely pointless." Severus leaned in closer, as if about to share some clandestine secret and said, "And I can assure you I have no patience for pointless things, Madam Shrout."
"He's a tough one, Zella," remarked the woman from the floating portrait.
Severus shot the blonde a deadly look, and she immediately dropped her gaze, red-faced. Severus did not tear his eyes away from the frame, hoping she would look up again so he could give her a double dose of his annoyance. However, as he studied the woman in the frame, an idea came to him, and one he hoped would work in his favour.
"Caroline, is it?" he asked, and the blonde gave him a nod. "Tell me, how do you feel about being at someone's beck and call, or would you prefer I refer to you as a house-elf instead?"
"I am not at someone's beck and call, sir. Nor am I an elf," Caroline answered in a surprisingly cold voice, poorly hidden anger in her eyes. "This is a part of my job, not something I do twenty-four hours a day."
"So all Silhouettes are personal secretaries who punch a clock?" Severus quipped. He was quite pleased to see the beginnings of a frown taking root on Zella Shrout's face.
"They are whatever their Match needs them to be," Zella said before the woman in the portrait could respond. "That's the beauty of the magic behind it. The magic knows what is needed, and it alone bonds the Silhouette to their Match."
"She's right, Severus," Augusta supplied. "From what I understand, the program has several facets currently operational, ranging from assistants, like Caroline there, to those who are employed to be personal tutors to struggling school children."
"And why would I need either of those things?" he demanded, but as he did so, the Healer's true reasons dawned on him almost as quickly as the words had sprang from his tongue. How he had missed it before he did not know, but now the real reason behind this impromptu meeting was clear. It was not about his anxiety; he had learned to manage that part of his recovery well enough. It was not the night terrors either. They came very rarely now, and were mild compared to those he had endured straight off. This was something different. This was something neither of them had any business meddling with.
"I am in that great of need of a nanny, Augusta? Is that it? Severus Snape the miserable social pariah—" Severus cut himself off, feeling a stifling heat rise up in his face.
"You have been through more than any one person should have to endure—"
Severus's fist came down hard on the table. "And I have overcome all of it!"
"And this will help you continue to do so," the Healer said. "You have improved leaps and bounds, there is no doubt in that, but your recovery is far from over."
Zella cleared her throat. "As I understand it, Healer Barnes intends for you to use your portrait not much differently than I use mine. It is really not as bad as you'd think, and it's quite helpful, actually."
"It seems to have escaped me that I've become so weak-minded that I need someone else to think my every thought for me."
Zella Shrout's mouth opened and closed, then opened again though no words came out. The Healer simply shook her head, her fingers working the apparent tension from between her eyes.
"I have had all of this nonsense I can stomach," Severus told them, his expression one that carried all the sweetness of soured milk. He stood without saying another word and exited the conference room.
He had not managed to make it to the end of the long corridor before he heard the door he had just walked through click shut. Severus stopped mid-stride and turned to face the person who was no doubt his Healer, intent on giving her a fair piece of his mind.
Augusta Barnes was faster by far—a surprising thing for her age. "Over the course of your recovery, how many visitors have you had?"
Severus was not expecting her to lead with that. "I don't c—"
"I didn't ask you if you cared," Augusta snapped. "I asked you how many visitors you've had, and before you try to latch onto the idea, neither I nor any of the clods from the Ministry count."
It had never dawned on him before that apart from Kingsley Shacklebolt and his Aurors and undersecretaries, whose visits were few and far between, if not somewhat mandatory, he had not received a single visitor. There had to have been someone he was not bringing to mind, but for the life of him, Severus could not say who.
The early days of his recovery were lost in an impenetrable fog, though Severus was not entirely sure whether the blame fell on his lack of consciousness or his substandard ability to recall information shortly after his eyes finally opened. When he woke there were no flowers or boxes of sweets, no notes or letters wishing him a quick mending. There was not a single person waiting to speak with him that was not there out of some professional obligation. There was only the stench of overcleanliness and the bare grey-white walls of his recovery room. To say that he did not value his peace would have been a lie; Severus equated the speed of his recovery with all of the extra time he had on his hands. It was impossible to see how that was a bad thing.
"I fail to see the point you are trying to make." Severus turned his back to her with the hope that she would disappear when he turned around, and began to pour himself a cup of tea from the nearby serving cart.
"I'm trying to tell you that you have no one in your life apart from your Healer, and it should not take someone of my expertise to see that that is a harmful thing."
The teapot in his hand hit the mobile serving station with a heavy clattering, tepid tea sloshing out of its spout and onto the lace doily upon which it rested. "Spare me your sage advice, Augusta. I'm in no mood for it."
The Healer ignored that. "Severus, this lonesomeness of yours will only lead you to trouble. It will undo the progress you've made over the past nine months. I have seen it happen more times than I'd like to admit, and more often than not, those who most need to reach out to others are those who simply cannot do it."
"And you think forcing me to confide in a complete stranger will help me reach out?" He gave a bitter laugh. "You forget who you're speaking to, it seems."
"I think it will coax you out of the shell you've encased yourself with."
"I don't need anyone, I have never needed anyone."
"To hell with that!" When the Healer's voice rose several octaves higher some passersby took notice, casting the two of them quizzical looks. Augusta seized Severus by the arm and ushered him into an empty patient room, closing the door behind them. "You look me in the eye right now and tell me that your seclusion was not out of necessity. That part of your life is over, Severus Snape, and as soon as you accept that fact, the sooner you can focus on building a normal life for yourself."
Severus did not know what to say to that, so he said nothing at all.
"I am only asking you to give it an honest chance," Augusta continued. "Six months from now, should you still find my motives wrong, I will gladly take whatever coarse language I've earned."
That got her a scathing look from her patient, who for a moment looked as though he would have liked to protest. Instead Severus sank down onto the empty cot, his head in his hands. Six months. Twenty-four weeks. One hundred and sixty-eight days—he made himself stop there, certain the sheer number of hours and minutes would make him curse the day he had been found in the Shrieking Shack.
"Don't fight me on this, Severus." Augusta sat down on the bed beside him and pushed her spectacles atop her grey-streaked head. "You have no hope of winning."
Severus felt his defiance fall to pieces. She was right after all. He had absolutely no hope of winning unless he was content on furthering his stay at St. Mungo's. There was no use in complaining either, and his current situation could easily testify to that fact. His objections would simply fall on deaf ears.
"I know you've survived far worse. This is nothing." Augusta slid her arm over Severus's shoulder and gave an encouraging squeeze, paying no mind to his sudden silence. The Healer was on her feet after that, turning for the door. "Six months will come and go before you realise. Now come along so we can send you on your way before night falls."
Severus had learned to read the faces of those around him from an young age, but in that moment it would not have taken even a single day of practice to see that Augusta Barnes was not going to take no for an answer. He rose sullenly to his feet and followed her out into the hall.
When they had arrived outside the meeting room, Zella was having an intense conversation with the woman in the floating portrait, an infirmary- issue teacup and matching saucer trailing behind her as she paced the length of the room. "—soon as the Healer is able to get him to cooperate I'll be ready to cast the spell and complete the activation."
"Everything is in place according to the Healer's wishes," the voice from the frame said.
Augusta cleared her throat before Shrout or her assistant could elaborate—as wise as it was intentional, Severus suspected. The three witches had probably discussed him and the best course of action at great length.
Shrout said something unintelligible and the portrait went dark, though it kept its place some feet above the floor as if suspended by an invisible hand. "Now," said Zella, "where were we?"
"I think you were about to prattle on and make a valiant attempt to ruin what's left of my life," Severus said, slowly giving the words time to reach their mark. It did not take long. Zella gaped at him, an odd mixture of shock and vexation that was most unflattering for her face. Augusta gave him a sharp, disapproving look, and said something from the corner of her mouth that mildly resembled the words 'embarrassment' and 'ashamed'.
Severus ignored them both and sat down in the chair nearest the sweets. He picked up two of the chocolate coconut confections, appraised them for a moment, then popped both in his mouth, all while both women stared at him. "Get on with it, won't you," Severus said finally. "I would like to go home."
Zella Shrout seemed to gather her wits, or at least Severus thought that was the case as he watched the stupid expression she wore melt away into one that looked a lot like determination. "Of course," she said politely, though it was a forced sort of pleasantry. Zella handed him another sheet of parchment with the heading: Silhouette: The Ins and Outs and Even Those Pesky In-Betweens, and began reading the document verbatim as he pretended to follow along.
Severus listened vaguely as she read about the history of the program, how far it had come, and the direction its creators had intended it to go (he almost suggested where he thought it and all of those responsible should go, but ate another biscuit instead). The testimonials came next, and those, Severus found, were even more ridiculous than the premise itself. Finally came the laundry list of features, and each of those—which were customizable to any given Match—seemed more pointless than the previous.
"So," Zella said at last, "I'm sure you would like to see your very own Silhouette portrait. It was designed specifically for you, and I think you'll be pleased."
Not bloody likely, Severus thought as she snapped her fingers, only to have a thin, black box materialize out of thin air. The silver ribbons attaching the lid to the base untied and landed on the table below along with the lid.
"This was beautifully constructed with you in mind," said Zella. She gingerly extracted the frame and held it out for him to examine. "Minimalistic and timeless in detail and design, but sleek all the same."
Severus could hardly see how the detail was minimalistic when he finally saw the thing. It was slightly larger than the crystal frame belonging to Shrout, and unlike the clean, stylized edges of hers, it had thick, black, beveled edges complete with ornate carvings. The almost metallic looking picture mat around the darkened rectangle in the center made it look even more preposterous. It reminded him of the frame surrounding the screaming portrait of Walburga Black at Grimmauld Place, and he found he hated it even more after the unfortunate comparison was made.
"You must have questions," Shrout began, placing the frame in front of him. "I would be more than happy to address any misconceptions or concerns before we begin the activation."
"Yes. I do have concerns and several of them in fact," he snapped. "To start, how am I to pay for this?"
"Your Ministry of Magic has already agreed to cover the expenses, per their agreement to assist those who played a substantial role in your Wizarding War. This qualifies as part of your treatment." Zella's lips curled over her teeth in another falsely reassuring grin. "I won't be taking anything from your pockets."
Though not for lack of trying, Severus thought. Zella Shrout was a businesswoman first and foremost, trained to sell and persuade until the buyer relented, or in his case was forced to relent against his will. Nothing was ever free, and he was starting to believe this was how fate had decided to settle the score, as if nearly dying was not enough.
"I don't have to pay for it, fine." Severus regarded the frame as though it might suddenly spout legs and run up his trouser leg, or worse, reveal the howling matriarch of the Black family, then asked, "But who is to say I won't be matched with a complete lunatic?"
"I don't think—" Augusta began, only to be cut off rather quickly by Shrout, and Severus was pleased to see a pointed look directed at someone other than him for once.
"We screen every applicant, and select only those of impeccable intellect, social skill, and personality." Zella spoke in the voice of someone explaining something plainly obvious to a stupid child. "You have nothing to fear. Whomever you are matched with will be in their right mind, and they will be compatible. "
"And if there is a mistake in the pairing," Severus pressed, "will I have to go through this ridiculous process until you find someone that works?"
"Once the Bond has been made, Severus, there can be no more attempts," Augusta said.
Zella confirmed the Healer's statement with a grave nod. "The magic is absolute, the magic is certain. The only way for there to be a mistake in the pairing, as you put it, is if you made it so. The magic the program is founded upon, while new, has very old roots. Old magic is temperamental at best, and it is not easy to forgive, especially if one attempts to break the bonds it creates."
"Think of wands and how they behave," Augusta supplied on cue. "Especially when the bonds they share with their owners are tampered with."
"Exactly right," Zella said. "No replacement wand will ever be as good as the wand that chose you above all the rest. Silhouette is exactly the same, and for that reason we do not offer the option of multiple Bonds. There would be no point, because when you harness that age-old magic as we have done the results are amazing. The magic somehow knows what a person needs even before they realise it themselves."
The premise was ludicrous, and Severus made a great effort not to show his contempt, choosing instead to pick up a random parchment on the table and pretend to be mildly interested in its contents. That too, proved to be equally tedious because it turned out to be a much more diluted version of the parchment she had read only minutes before.
"Whenever you're ready, we can begin the activation," Zella told him after a moment. She poured another cup of tea, and filled it with enough honey to draw flies. "The whole process should take less than an hour, as I'm sure you'll want to conference with your Silhouette before you leave."
"I would prefer to do this without an audience if you don't mind," Severus said, casting a sideways glance at what was to become his frame. "I think I can manage it well enough on my own."
The two witches exchanged a look, but Severus went back to his reading before they could hassle him over the matter further.
"We will know if the portrait is not activated." Zella's voice was suddenly hushed, and Severus peered over the parchment to see her looking at the Healer instead of him. "When a portrait is activated outside of a session we receive immediate word from the Silhouette that they've begun their duties."
"I don't think we'll have any reason to suspect," Augusta said with chilly courtesy. "Severus will follow my orders."
"Could you please not talk as though I am not sitting directly in front of you?" Severus crushed the parchment in his fist. "It's offensive."
Zella gave him a curious look. "It's only a precaution."
"I think what you mean to say is a means to guarantee compliance." Severus tossed the crumpled parchment on the table, though he would have liked to have launched it at her head. "But whatever the case, I appreciate neither."
Severus was pleased to see Zella force herself to smile. "If Healer Barnes agrees, I see no reason why that wouldn't work." The witch paused to take an annoyingly loud sip of tea before she stood. "All that's left to do is the bonding spell, and that can only be done by someone properly trained and with authorization."
Severus started to cross his arms over his chest, ready to bombard her with another round of questioning, but Zella Shrout had produced her wand and had it pointed directly between his eyes. He was too shocked to resist, though it would not have mattered had he been expecting it. It was all over in the span of breath, though it seemed to stretch the ages.
Severus felt himself seize up in his chair and the wind in his lungs abruptly expel. He found he could not move, could not think, due to the subtle tremors that started in his feet and stole up his legs. The sharp pain shot through his chest and down his arm next, coming to settle over his left wrist. Severus was certain he was falling into a state of cardiac arrest, but the world went black before he could mention a word about it. He came to seconds later, consciousness hitting him like a hammer, and he sucked in a colossal gulp of air only to have it trigger a coughing fit.
"Not to worry, Severus," he heard Zella say over his hacking. She gave him a forceful clap on the back and said, "What you are experiencing is a natural reaction to spell. You'll be fit as a fiddle in a minute or two." Zella's hand snaked down his arm and grabbed his wrist, her outrageous red nails racking across a stinging welt that had appeared.
Severus jerked his arm out of her grasp and tried to stand, but when his legs failed to cooperate, he settled with pushing the chair backwards a prudent distance with his feet. "…the bloody hell… you do to me…" He was reaching for an indignant tone, but did not quite achieve it due to his wheezing.
Zella ignored his colorful turn of phrase, and spoke to Augusta. "The worst of it's over. He's bound with his Silhouette, and quite strongly from the look of that seal."
Her words went in one ear and out the other as Severus stared down at the afflicted wrist through the flashing constellation of stars wheeling in front of his eyes. There, etched into the shallow skin above his veins, was a bright red weal that spiraled on both ends. It was beginning to darken at the center, the deep shade of violet moving outward. The longer he looked at it, the more Severus realised that it thrummed in time with his pulse, like something very much alive. His insides took a roll forward once the familiar connection was made. I've rid myself of one mark only to be bound with another.
"The seal will fade as soon as you terminate your bond, and bear in mind once it is terminated, it is over," Shrout told him when she realised he was giving it a thorough inspection. "You've a double spiral, one of the strongest bonds that can be formed with magic. It's a Celtic symbol, the double spiral. It's often used to symbolize the equinoxes, a day when night and day are equal, perfectly balanced."
"I know what a damn equinox is," Severus snapped. "Tell me what means."
That appeared to strike Shrout as amusing and she grinned. "It means your match is damn near perfect for—"
The crystal photo frame belonging to Shrout made a sudden noise as it came to life, the blue light nearly bright enough to blind. The witch named Caroline looked somewhat discomfited as she stared out at the three of them, and Zella fell silent upon seeing her face.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Caroline said rather quickly, almost stumbling over the words, "but there is an urgent matter with one of our Silhouettes."
"Not to worry," Shrout gave her wand a wave and the various parchments fluttered back into the briefcase. "We've just finished here. Give me a moment to gather up my materials and I'll see if I can't steal away for a few minutes. "
"You can use my office if you need privacy," Augusta offered. She stood and hastily moved toward the door. "It's down the corridor - first door on the left. You should see my name on the outside. I'll see Severus on his way, and join you shortly to finalize paperwork."
Augusta turned to Severus and said, "Thomm will be along in a moment to deliver your wand and escort you to the Apparition point. Do behave yourself, and congratulations Severus. You've earned it."
Augusta slipped through the door and Severus was left alone to brood. It will be as if I've never left, he thought, staring down at the slick-surfaced portrait in its box. The black frame surrounded by the silver matting gleamed, so much that he could see the room's reflection off its surface.
"Mister Snape," Severus heard from behind him. He turned to see Thomm in the doorway. "It's time to go."
Under normal circumstance Severus would not have allowed the tone in which Thomm ordered him along slide. As it happened, however, he found he did not care, and swiveled around in the office chair listlessly. "My wand?"
"Waiting for you at the Apparition point." Thomm gave his own wand a rather extravagant flourish— much more than was necessary in Severus opinion—and the Silhouette portrait vanished. "Along with your other things."
Not a moment too soon, Severus thought as he eased himself out of his seat. He followed Thomm down the hallway and became acutely aware of the roar that was growing outside. Five wizards, some hospital security and a few Mediwizards, were waiting by the doorway to escort him to the Apparition point. Thomm scurried off before one of them opened the door that led Severus to his long-awaited freedom. When the door was opened, Severus saw the source of the noise he had heard, as a throng of reporters stood between him and his destination.
"Damn you, Augusta," he said as the first flashbulb erupted. Severus knew it was not her fault that the press had learned of his impending discharge; the Senior Healer of the Dangerous Dai Llewellyn Ward had done everything in her power to keep his recovery as confidential as she could manage, but even she could not control those who eavesdropped and sold their secrets—patients, visitors and wayward staff alike—but as he did not know the names of those who had sold him out, Augusta would have to take the blame.
The explosion of light was followed by the thundering sound of voices, and dozens of them if the noise was any indication. Some were screaming his name (the journalists), but most were screaming obscenities. Another flashbulb flared right beside Severus's head, nearly blinding him, and he grabbed an arm belonging to one of his escorts to keep from losing his footing. The floodgates opened not long after that, and the crowd descended.
The throng pressed inward, and some even reached for him, despite the wall of hospital staff flanking him. When they found that they could not touch him, they resorted to throwing the frozen snow that covered the ground. It took one of the icy clods hitting Severus in the face, breaking the skin just below his right eye, for the Mediwizards to not only quicken their pace, but to cast a Shield Charm as well. The charm worked to deflect any projectiles, but their poisonous words slipped though like water in sieve.
Traitor… Murderer… Coward…
Severus had heard it all before, but that did not mean it stung any less. He had thought he had put all of that behind him, but one never could completely lay old wounds to rest. They would always resurface, as most horrible, hidden things do, and when they did, they were often just be as sharp and just as painful as if they were brand-new.
And then, as if to prove the point, someone screamed, "Fuck you, Snape," taking special care to draw out the single syllabic word to an outrageous yowl. Severus glanced back over his shoulder, catching a quick glimpse of the red-faced man he had never seen in his life. The colour was high in his cheeks, his chest heaving as he looked on with something very close to hate written all over his fat face. The man caught Severus looking at him and yelled the phrase again, this time his expression lighting up with satisfaction when he realised he had been heard.
Severus wiped a trailing droplet of blood from his face— he was sure from a distance it might have looked like he was wiping away nervous sweat, and that would not do. He looked straight ahead with his head held high. No, he thought. Fuck you. Every last one of you.
"Hold tight, Mister Snape," one of the nameless Mediwizards yelled in his ear, drowning out the slurs. "We're nearly there."
And so they were.
In the next breath, Severus felt himself being compressed and twisted, slung sideways, then upward in a violent, sickening motion. The street began to flatten and fold in on itself and finally shrink as he and the Mediwizards were spun into a state of nonexistence.
Severus's feet touched the frozen ground a split second later some fifty miles away, and without so much as the sour warning in the back of his throat, he promptly vomited on the front stoop of Spinner's End.
Author's Notes: Now that Ashwinder is up and running again, I can get back to posting! I hope you enjoy! This story is for Thorned Huntress, cheerleader extraordinaire and kick-ass friend. Next update to come in a week or so.
As always reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated!