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 woke the following morning sprawled across his bed, an empty Ogden's Old bottle in the crook of his arm, and one boot still on his foot.
He had had his fair share of hangovers in his youth, but he was certain this particular one put all the previous to shame. Severus moved to dislodge the bottle's neck from under his back, but found he was not willing to do much else on account of the sudden, sharp pain that brought forth a flashing constellation of stars before his eyes. He pinched his eyes shut, while his fingers worked in vain to alleviate the pressure headache building in his temples.
The best course of action at the present moment, he decided, was to simply lie there until he found it in him to do otherwise. Severus toed off the remaining boot with considerable effort, then pulled the bed linens over his head to block out the light streaming through the bedroom window.
"You've brought this on yourself," Severus said aloud, and winced at the sound of his own voice. He threw his arm over his eyes and took a deep breath. That somehow made the migraine rattling his brain inclined to behave, if only for a moment. In that infinitesimal span of time, when Severus did not feel as though a hot wire was embedded in his forehead, the events of the previous day somehow managed to weasel into his thoughts.
He saw the girl clearly as well as the look of utter shock on her face when he had told her, in the simplest terms, to fuck off. It seemed like the thing to say at the time, the alcohol and his bad mood dismantling what civility he possessed entirely, but now if the mid-morning light and throes of a particularly vicious hangover, it seemed a harsh thing to say. Severus could not imagine why he had not received a reprimand from Zella Shrout or worse, Augusta, for acting in the manner which he did. They were either discussing at great length what measures were to be taken, waiting for the most inopportune moment to dole out his decided punishment, or Adelaide Harlowe had kept her mouth shut about the whole confrontation. He considered the assortment of possibilities again, and was a little unnerved to find that the third option was not that ridiculous.
The question was why.
Severus heaved a sigh, tossed himself over on his side and pondered this, only to find his thoughts led him in a direction he did not like. Successful completion of the Silhouette Initiative—and ultimately his freedom from St. Mungo's—not only required his compliance, but the cooperation of his Silhouette as well, and from the manner in which Shrout had spoken of it, there was only one opportunity, one Silhouette to be bound to, one chance to for it to ever be successful.
Zella Shrout's words swept through his mind and the fog that the alcohol had left behind, cold, clear, and damning. The only way for there to be a mistake in the pairing is if you made it so.
Severus held the image of Adelaide in his mind, saw her face in flashes, and it was like a taking a blow to the chest. Had he just made it so? Had he, in his temper, shredded that single golden ticket out of St. Mungos? That was a sickening thought, and he realised he was going to have to get out of bed, as he could not stand the notion of lying there any longer only to speculate.
Severus threw the duvet back and put his hands over his eyes when the light of the new day smacked him in the face. He scrubbed away at what unconsciousness lingered and exhaled a thin, frustrated breath. His head felt like someone had closed it in a door, and Severus fought back the incredible urge to vomit once he managed to stand. He felt wrung out, stiff-jointed and sore. The double spiral on his left wrist throbbed along with his head, an ominous metronome of sorts. Severus scratched at it absently, and shuffled his way toward the loo filled with a creeping sense of unease, maybe even shame.
He made his way out of the bedroom and down the hall, realising along the way that he really should have waited to gather more of his bearings before trying to get his legs to cooperate. He kept drifting toward the wall, sometimes putting out a hand to steady himself, but he made it to the lavatory door unscathed.
The washroom was without a proper window, only a narrow slit filled with blue stained glass that depicted a rather crude rendition of a fox drinking water from a flowing stream. It was an ugly thing, but it blocked out the sun's rays, casting the modest space in a dingy blue light. Severus could appreciate that much at least. He did not bother flipping on the light switch that would have brought the three naked incandescent bulbs above the vanity to life; that would have been too much, he decided. And besides, there was enough light coming through the little blue window for him to find what he needed in the medicine cabinet.
Being Potions Master had its perks and having a fully stocked supply of draughts, balms, and elixirs, was one of them. Severus, as any responsible undercover agent would, had kept a substantial supply of potions on hand during the war, ranging from Veritaserum to Bruise Healing Paste. He was certain that there were a few phials of Pain Relieving Draught hiding amongst the array of bottles and tins in the mirrored cupboard. Severus opened the door, grimacing at the prolonged whine the rusted hinge gave in protest. He made an intense effort not to look at his reflection in the mirror; he felt like had been dragged through the seventh sanctum of hell, and therefore knew he would look the part without needing to see proof of it.
The cabinet had been bewitched years ago by his mother to accommodate a large quantity of items, and as such, the back of the cupboard extended at least a foot past the point physics should have allowed. The cupboard supported three shelves as well as a rack hanging from the top. The deep-set rows were crammed with a great number of bottles, phials and the occasional Muggle hygiene product. Though somewhat dingy, the items were still arranged exactly how he had left them, which meant the Pain Relieving Potion would be somewhere on the middle shelf for easy access.
The pounding in his head made it difficult to think about anything else, but Severus managed through squinted eyes to find four dumpy, dust-covered bottles, each displaying the name of the potion on the labels and the brew date: Potion No. 058 Pain Relief; Monday, the twenty-ninth of September 1997.
Roughly one year and six months aged, Severus thought, carefully running through the calculation. He contemplated this number, though fleetingly. It was a long time for a potion to sit in a cupboard, especially one in a drafty washroom, but he was desperate for relief and tried his luck anyway.
Had he been more alert, he would have taken it as a warning when the cork on the first bottle refused to pop, sealed shut like a lid on one of his father's screw-top Kilner jars used to contain his personal brand of poison. Even still, it took several failed attempts before Severus grew tired of the physical exertion and lumbered back into his bedroom to retrieve his wand. With one well-placed spell and all the concentration he could muster, he vanished the cork from the bottle.
It was like running full speed into a brick wall, or being submerged unexpectedly in freezing water. The sudden sickening smell was enough to knock the wind from his lungs. Severus staggered backward, holding the bottle away from him with one hand, the other pressing the hem of his button down to his nose to block the odor.
The thick, puce-coloured glass had concealed the muck within, but there was no escaping the reality of it now. The potion was beginning to coagulate, and horribly so. Suppressing the urge to dry heave, Severus returned to the washroom, turned on the tap and dumped the tainted mixture in the sink basin. It swirled in the porcelain bowl, an iridescent kaleidoscope of muted colors before the cold water washed it away, and thankfully the smell along with it. He tried another, and another, and finally the last, but each opened phial yielded the same results.
Ruined. All of them ruined by age.
Severus stared at the last bit of tainted potion splattered across the basin and without thought roughly slammed the cabinet shut. The door bounced back from the force; the mirrored façade bowed and shattered. Along with the splintered glass, several different containers rained down from cupboard, having become dislodged.
The sound of the heavy bottles hitting the porcelain sink, shattering once they hit the floor, sent painful reverberations through his skull, as though a rogue Bludger had hit him in the side of the head. In that precise moment, Severus considered going back to his bed and sleeping the day and this current manifestation of hell away, but an intact bottle at his feet caught his attention. He stooped to retrieve the container, careful not to fall over from the vertigo.
It was a grubby plastic pill bottle with a label that read Extra Strength Paracetamol. Severus recognized it at once as a Muggle pain reliever his father insisted on using instead of faster-acting potions. He was no stranger to Muggle medicine, but he also knew it was a long shot at best, considering the limited shelf life and the extended release period.
"You've got a real shit sense of humor, you know that?" he muttered to whichever of the Fates might have been listening at the time. Without a better alternative, and a drilling ache in his head, he unscrewed the lid and popped three of the bone-white powdered ovals in his mouth, swallowing them dry.
In one of the few remaining shards of the mirror, Severus spotted the shower on the opposite side of the room. Perhaps some steam would help with the pounding that continued to resonate inside his skull. He turned the knob as far as it would go to the left to produce a steady stream of hot water before disrobing and stepping into the shower.
He emerged ten minutes later, feeling somewhat like his usual self, and retreated with haste down the chilly hall with a towel around his waist. Finding clothing proved to be almost as strenuous as finding pain relief. After several frustrating minutes of throwing moth-eaten sweaters, spare teaching robes, and ill-fitting trousers on the bed, Severus finally settled on wrinkled gray trousers and a navy button-down that had been supplied to him courtesy of St. Mungo's.
"Something else added to the list," Severus said, grimly eyeing the pile of discarded clothing. Reluctantly, he had to admit that new attire would have to be purchased, considering he had not only shed a few pounds over the last nine months, but also no longer required teaching robes.
Severus looked at himself in the mirror, not liking what he saw. His attention was immediately drawn to the Silhouette seal on his left wrist peeking out from the cuff of his sleeve. Agitated, he immediately conjured a bandage to cover the offending mark. He could already see the headlines of the Daily Prophet if his new brand was spotted:
Marked Again! Ex-Death Eater Severus Snape truly reformed?
But the trouble was, Severus reflected gloomily, that a heavily bandaged wrist had the potential to draw even more unwanted attention. The thick gauze strips left too much to the imagination, and he could see that headline too:
Spy-turned- Hero Attempts to Slit his own Wrists?
Are you deluded? Severus thought, staring at his reflection. He ripped away the material at once and stuffed it in his pockets. Think. You need something else. He walked across the room to his wardrobe and began rummaging through the top drawer, hoping to find a pair of gloves he had rarely worn, stashed away, and almost forgotten about. After a few minutes of searching had proven unfruitful, Severus moved on to the second drawer. As soon as he opened it, he was greeted with a possible solution to his problem.
It was an old Tissot wristwatch his father had won during a billiards game sometime during late sixties. The grimy thing had not worked in years, the coils and wheels inside damaged from excessive winding. The face was pockmarked with scratches and hairline cracks, as was the bronze-coloured casing. His father was immensely proud of the trinket. He had said it was the most valuable thing he owned; called it his most prized possession, and consequently never took it off his arm.
The shape and size of it had become imprinted in Severus's mind, though not because his father wore it constantly, but rather because he and his mother often had indentations and bruises of similar size and shape on the sides of the heads from a backhand brought about by one of Tobias Snape's explosive, drunken rows.
When the man had finally managed to drown himself in his liquor—Eileen Prince had succumbed to her grief and guilt not shortly thereafter, leaving her disgruntled son to see to the funeral arrangements for both of them—Severus took one final jab at his dead father by refusing him his most valued possession while he rotted in the ground.
It was an ugly, useless token of his youth, but would serve the purpose he intended. Severus fastened the broken watch to his arm, careful to conceal the pulsating double spiral on his wrist with the cracked leather band. It would be tossed in the bin as soon as its usefulness had run its course. With one final glance, he deemed the clothing choice not wholly terrible, and then made his way downstairs.
Severus swept through the sitting room, paying very little attention to the remaining piles of spent Howlers, and even less to the portrait lying face-down in the middle of his kitchen floor. The temptation to reach out and call upon her, to demand to know what her intentions were, was there, but he did not dare touch the frame, lest he actually activate the thing. He walked around it in a prudent circle instead to reach his coat slung across the back of a kitchen chair. The wide berth felt oddly reminiscent of that which he employed when his father still prowled Spinner's End, and for an instant Severus felt absurd.
"She and everything about her is inconsequential," he told the empty air, though he knew that to be an outright lie. He shrugged into his cumbersome coat and walked directly over the frame as he headed toward the front door, knowing full-well his fate was in her hands.
Where there was sunshine and crisp air in Cokeworth, there was freezing rain and a drizzle in London. Severus had Apparated to London instead of Diagon Alley directly, in hopes that the walk to the Leaky Cauldron would give him a chance to work off what was left of his hangover. The longer he walked, the steadier the rain seemed to fall and umbrellas began to sprout like monochromatic mushrooms along the pavements. Severus remained dry as he navigated the crowds, the grey veil of mist and ice evaporating before it could reach a single hair on his head. Even with the silent charm in place, he pulled the black hood over his head in an attempt to make himself anonymous, to blend with the soggy passersby as they rushed past to escape the worsening weather.
He could see The Leaky Cauldron though the bobbing herd of people, its ominous façade made invisible to those belonging to the real world. It looked precisely how he remembered it from his last visit, nearly a year prior. The establishment was tucked inconspicuously between what used to be the old bookshop and Muggle surveying firm, and as he found himself walking closer, Severus could feel a sense of dread interwoven with the familiarity. On the outside of the pub he was just another random stranger going about his own business, an unfortunate soul caught in the rain, his boots striking puddles the same as everyone else's. On the inside, though, his crimes had been weighed on the balance of perceived justice and had been found wanting. The image of Adelaide came to mind as he approached entrance, and Severus dismissed it just as quickly once his hand fell upon the door. It was going to be difficult enough to step back into a world he had been absent from for almost a year without thinking of her.
Severus entered swiftly, taking care to close the door without commotion, and walked without thinking through the dingy, dimly-lit interior. The scent of wood smoke and scalded cabbage soup permeated the space, wreaking havoc on his already weak constitution. The Leaky Cauldron had been known for attracting sizable crowds during the luncheon hour, and given the dull drone of idle chatter and clanging utensils, it was safe to assume that the reputation held true. Not taking a chance in the crowd, Severus kept his hood up and his head down—not an uncommon sight in a place that acted as a gateway to the other side—until he had found himself staring at the brick wall of the courtyard.
Three up, two across, he thought, and all but forced himself to tap the well-worn brick in the space three times with his wand. The brick dissolved with a silent shudder, taking those around it in a domino effect until Severus was looking through an archway that opened onto the soggy, cobblestoned streets of Diagon Alley.
Diagon Alley could not have been more different since the last time he had laid eyes on it. The shroud of fear and darkness had been yanked away with the fall of the Dark Lord, revealing the kaleidoscope of color and organized chaos that was the beating heart of Wizirding Britain. The rain could not dull the colours, but somehow seemed to ignite them when the glint of winter sunshine managed to fight through the swirling clouds above. Door chimes rang out in a cacophony as witches and wizards alike darted in and out of shops, largely ignoring the somber skies overhead. Shrieking children trailed after mothers with arms pull of parcels. Street vendors called to those who passed, promoting their latest tonics and salves with the promise of grandiose effects.
Severus, in his pursuit of Culepepper's Apothecary, kept to the curtilage of the shop fronts in an attempt to remain unnoticed. He slipped like a shadow past a horde of laughing passersby who had stopped to admire the latest exploding trinket in the glittering window display of the shop belonging to the surviving Weasley twin. Farther ahead and despite the cold, a queue had coiled in front of Florean Fortesue's Ice Cream Parlour which forced him to move out into the open street—a location he found to be wholly unpleasant given the multitude of people going in every direction.
Twice he collided with darting strangers, and both made quick, apprehensive eye contact before they disappeared once again into the fray. Whether they recognized him or not, Severus refused to give it further thought as he continued toward his destination.
Culpepper's Apothecary sat on the less-crowded south side of Diagon Alley, the bright eggplant-coloured façade striking against the grey backdrop of the sky. Simple signage hung suspended from a matching pinstriped awning, depicting a single cauldron over flame. Wisps of charmed steam floated upward in a perpetual spiral. The apothecary was a welcome sight, even if he preferred J. Pippin's Potions in Hogsmeade.
Severus read the hand-painted sign on the door, silently mouthing the words 'Enter with caution and use sense when opening what is closed' before letting himself in.
The inside of the apothecary, Severus reflected, still reminded him the cramped home of a senescent Potions master, prone to leaving all manner of bottles and jars and phials on every available flat surface. The room was longer than it was wide, hardly suitable for the considerable hoard of patrons inside, and held several lengthy rectangular tables and shelves of varying widths and heights. The heat was also stifling, and after a few moments indoors, Severus was forced to remove his hood to find relief. Dusty placards poised on brass posts were placed here and there to act as a general guide to what ingredients, salves, ointments, and draughts were strewn below, but it took someone with a certain finesse to browse the collection without out assistance.
Severus retrieved a woven shopping basket by the door, walked to a tall shelf furthest from the till and those waiting in line for help, and began picking up the bottles one by one, reading the inscriptions. He had only managed to read the label on the fourth bottle before an agitated voice rang out from behind him.
"You don't understand," the female voice insisted. Several of the other patrons had stopped to stare at the commotion. "I need concentrated Alihotsy root, the fluid not the paste."
Severus froze, the frosted glass bottle in his hand slipping slightly from his grasp.
He knew that voice. He had heard it for six years in his classes. He moved between the two rows of shelves closest to the counter, though he was absolutely certain he was correct, and saw Hermione Granger standing by the till.
She had a look of concentration on her face, everything around her pushed to the back of her mind like a nagging afterthought. It was a look not much different than Severus had witnessed when she sat in the third row of his sixth year Defense class. It was easy to imagine the cogs turning in her head as she stared at the piece of paper in her gloved hand, then to the opened catalogue upon the counter.
Some things never change, he thought, and placed two nondescript blue bottles in his basket.
Behind the counter the clerk, a stout man with a considerable midsection and receding hawkish hairline, shook his head. "Alihotsy root is a controlled substance, Miss. The root, especially in concentrated form, addles the brain. It's nasty business, nasty business indeed if not handled properly. The leaf itself, however, is more suitable for everyday brews—much safer for a young lady like yourself. "
Severus could not help but peer around the shelf he was browsing to watch this particular exchange unfold. Some things were better seen than heard, after all. Hermione Granger, just as he expected, bristled, the empty hand at her side clinching into a fist. The clerk continued on, oblivious to the sudden, swift curdling of her disposition.
"If you'd like to look at the catalogue, you'll find we stock over thirty species ranging from Common Alihotsy to East Asian Alihotsy."
Hermione threw one of her hands up and accompanied the gesture with a shrill bark of laughter. "Are you serious?"
"Oh yes, Culpepper's offers a fine selection of—"
"Is it also commonplace for Culppeper staff to run roughshod over customers?" Hermione insisted, cutting him off.
The clerk shuffled his feet, crossed and uncrossed his hands, and looked genuinely confused. The unfortunate fool still has no idea, Severus thought, and turned to hide the slight curling of his lips.
"I'm sorry, Miss—"
"As you should be," she snapped. Red-faced, the clerk tugged at his collar, but kept silent. "Lady or not, I need the root fluid, not the leaves, and I have clearance from the Ministry—the Wizarding Examination Authority if you want to be specific about it." She retrieved from her bag a crisp envelope with the Ministry seal and thrust it at the wizard. "If that isn't enough, I also have a letter from the Headmistress of Hogwarts who has agreed to oversee the completion of my N.E.W.T. requirements." Keeping with the bravado of her house, she smiled at him. "Liabilities, personal or otherwise, included."
Severus could not suppress the small nod of amusement, and slipped further down the narrow aisle before she could notice him.
The clerk looked at the envelope, then around the shop, as if looking for someone to agree with him. When he realised he was on his own, he scuttled back behind the till and disappeared through the adjacent storeroom door. Several loud bangs and bumps rang out from the opened door, and moments later the clerk appeared with a number of colored bottles in hand. "I wasn't sure which one you needed," he said, somewhat out of breath, "so I brought the different potencies we have in stock. What sort of brew are you planning?"
"It's for an Alihotsy Draught," Hermione replied in a tone that suggested she was only half-listening. Severus cast a sideways glance through a space between patrons and saw that she was scratching something off the parchment she held. "I'll need the strongest concentration you have, though it will still probably be lacking."
The clerk, after a moment's reflection, gaped at her. "The roots will be enough to cause madness; complete and utter lunacy!"
Hermione looked up from the sheet of parchment, her expression one of pure annoyance. "It's meant to cause hysteria, is it not?"
"Well, yes," answered the clerk, thrown, "but not to the point where it could kill someone."
"I have no intention of killing anyone," Hermione answered impatiently, as if this was a conversation she had regularly. She sighed and rubbed the sides of her head. "I'm trying to develop an antidote, a proper one that will render Glumbumble Treacle obsolete. If the draught is weak, the antidote will be weak."
"Pardon me, Miss," the wizard said, doubtfully rubbing the graying stubble on his chin, "but why render a perfectly good antidote obsolete?"
"We rely on an insect for the antidote," Hermione said matter-of-factly. "And it is a species that may very well face extinction should the right conditions align. Does it not make sense to have an alternative, especially when Alihotsy leaves are used in several different potions?"
Two points to Gryffindor, Severus thought before he could help himself. The mental of image of her in his classroom, sitting three rows back between Potter and Weasley came to mind, but thankfully dissolved just as quickly. He had absolutely no desire to play host to the occasional, darting foray into what he considered one of the most volatile points in his life. Severus turned his attention instead to the portly clerk, who he noticed looked absurdly astonished by the young witch's logic.
"And this is for a N.E.W.T. level assignment? Seems a bit advanced for a student."
"I'm not what you'd call a traditional student," said Hermione, and Severus heard forbearance in her tone at the clerk's prying.
Not a traditional student. What does she mean by that? Severus edged closer to where she stood, still taking care to keep out of sight. It had not dawned on him until that moment that she was alone. He looked around the apothecary, noticing the absence of prepubescent laughter and chatter. The staff would never make the long journey to Diagon Alley with a large group, nor would they allow a student to travel there by themselves during the term. Hermione Granger was either breaking the rules or the rules had been bent to accommodate her specifically.
A small part of him, much to his surprise, was intrigued by this painfully misleading statement, but to Severus's disappointment, however, Hermione quickly dismissed further questioning from the clerk by changing the subject.
"Which is the strongest potency?"
The clerk examined the bottles, the metal frame of his glasses resting on the tip of his sweaty nose. "Purple bottle," he said and handed it to her. His dubious expression was lost to Hermione, but Severus realised it easily enough. "In terms of amount and the effects of the given intensity you want, this will knock a grown man on his backside with one whiff of the fumes."
"Highly potent…" Hermione said, reading the label verbatim. "…evokes a larger response in limited quantities."
"Dangerous if not handled properly," added the clerk.
"There is no price. How much is this?" Hermione asked, as though she had not heard a word of his warning.
"Twenty Galleons for the two ounces in the purple bottle. The green one is less potent, less expensive. It's only fourteen Galleons. Would you like to see the sample?"
"No, this will do," Hermione said, and fished around in her bag, producing moments later what appeared to be a sachet of coins. It landed with a heavy thud upon the counter.
The clerk contemplated the coins on the counter as though they had simply appeared out of thin air. He opened his mouth to speak, but before the stumpy wizard could utter one final, fleeting protest against the sale, or even offer a receipt of payment, Hermione Granger had stowed the bottle in her bag and swept away. The clerk watched her go with a mixture of rapt fascination and annoyance, and reluctantly began sorting the coins in the till.
Severus watched his former student leave the Apothecary and disappear down the winding path toward the hub of the alley. He waited several minutes to make absolutely certain she was gone before he paid for his things and left himself. It had been sheer dumb luck that she had not seen him inside the shop, and he had no intention of taking the chance of crossing her path out in the alley.
He proceeded to the counter where a small queue of two other patrons had formed and waited his turn to pay. The five minutes it took the clerk to properly see to the other customers seemed to pass excruciatingly slow, and on more than one occasion, Severus found himself checking the broken watch on his wrist, as though it could have willed the time to go faster.
Behind him the door bell chimed again, signaling either a departure or an arrival, though he did not turn to determine which because the clerk had waved him forward in the exact moment. He had no sooner placed his shopping basket on the counter than Hermione Granger swept past him as if he had not been there at all.
"Excuse me," she muttered to the clerk, not bothering to watch where she was going. Her arm was buried down to her elbow in the beaded bag hanging from her shoulder, searching frantically for something. "I believe I've forgotten my list."
Severus knew at once that he ought not to have said a word, should have simply allowed her to shoulder past without acknowledgement. It would have saved him from what he knew was coming: the awkward, deeply familiar situation of forced pleasantries and the chilly silences that followed. It was too late now. Hermione had frozen upon hearing a voice that did not belong to the clerk, and slowly turned to look at him.
She drew a hand up to her mouth, her brown eyes widening almost comically. "Professor Snape. I—I didn't see you there. God, I'm sorry. I almost ran into you."
"A usual consequence from not watching where you're going," Severus deadpanned.
"Yes," she said, sounding somewhat flummoxed by her own voice, as though she was secretly castigating herself for the lapse. "Yes, I suppose so."
"Your list, Miss," said the clerk suddenly. Hermione jumped, trying with little success to stifle a gasp with nervous laughter.
She took it without offering thanks or a sideways glance and shoved it the back pocket of her denims. "I heard you were being released from the St. Mungo's. The—" Hermione paused and looked at him, as if she were searching for something in his face. It was unsettling at best. "The Daily Prophet," she whispered, "confirmed it with this morning's edition. Front page—Wait! Professor Snape—"
But Severus Snape was already heading for the door, the sound of the bell chiming as he passed into the soggy streets of Diagon Alley. The sleet was falling steadily now, the pavement underfoot becoming treacherous from the freezing slush. He did not turn around to see if she was following him, but kept his pace steady as he headed toward the designated Apparation point.
The shortest route to the Apparation point would take him past the headquarters of the Daily Prophet. For a moment, he thought of bypassing it in favor of a much longer journey, but his desire to escape the busy streets of Diagon Alley persuaded him otherwise. It was a matter of minutes later when Severus passed the building that he so wanted to avoid. Try as he might, however, he could not resist the urge to look at the enormous poster that hung on the side of the building. The large advertisement always depicted the front page of that day's edition of the Prophet, and Severus felt a flash of cold fire dash down his neck when he saw that what Hermione Granger had told him was true.
The headline 'Martyr or Master Manipulator?' ran in a flashing, grandiose loop along the top and bottom of the banner. There was even a photograph of him being escorted from St. Mungo's in front of a crowd of hostile onlookers. Much to Severus's embarrassment, the photographer had managed to capture the exact moment a murky clod of half-frozen snow was hurled from the crowd only to smack him squarely in the face. Watching it made him wince all over again, the scratch below his eye giving a sudden tinge of pain. Severus felt his face flush at the sight of the banner, but his true humiliation did not come until he turned around to find a sizable number of people staring at him.
The contempt being projected at him by those who had gathered was palpable. He could hear them whispering to each other and saw mothers cautiously move between him and their children as if there was some danger that he would murder them on the spot. Exercising every bit of restraint he possessed, Severus turned away from the crowd and continued toward his destination without saying a word.
When he reached the Apparation point, he could still sense the suspicious stares of several passersby that had managed to put two and two together. For some reason he could not explain, Severus was compelled to look down at his wrist and the watch he had worn to conceal the new brand on his skin, hoping to avoid drawing undue attention to himself. He looked at the scarred face of the watch with disgust and inadvertently thought of his father. Just like everything else in my life, it didn't do me a damned bit of good. He unclasped the band of the watch and let it fall to the pavement below before vanishing with a loud crack.
When he arrived back at Spinner's End, his heart was racing. The sight of the still-ruined sitting room, the stench of burnt parchment—it smelled like hatred, vitriol made absolute—made his insides lurch. It was suddenly too hard to contain the volatile mixture of fury and despair. Severus felt his knees give way, and he slid down the door and onto the floor, his head in his hands.
He just sat there, declining to think, and for a while it seemed to help. Severus had always relied on a certain emotional disengagement, had learned to depend on it from an early age to stop the out-of-control world he found himself in. It had become a staple in his adult life—his ability to cope as his Healer often said—pushing the stress, the death, the deceit, the lying to some dark corner of his mind and leaving it there to rot.
Severus closed his eyes and listened to the silence. The sickeningly tight feeling in his chest was beginning to ebb. He had escaped it, the glaring, reproachful eye of the public, but sooner or later he knew he would have to face them and the dark allegations they still clung to.
His heart gave a painful leap and Severus looked up, startled. Adelaide Harlow was staring at him from her floating portrait. She wore a troubled expression, her blue eyes striking against a spectral-like complexion.
"I heard you Apparate," Adelaide offered. The frame floated into the sitting room, casting the space in an eerie glow. "I've been waiting to speak with you about yesterday evening."
Severus felt the fragile illusion of resuming a normal life give a little, perhaps even crack down the middle. This was the moment he was sure it would shatter; the edges razor-sharp so he would never be able to forget how he had squandered his chance. This was the moment she would cut him loose. He knew he ought to say something, anything to try to dissuade her, but he did not because he also knew whatever he managed to say was likely not to matter. With that reasoning, Severus remained on the floor, his insides churning and his head throbbing with renewed force, and waited in silence for his sentencing.
"Are you alright?"
"What?" Lost in his own head, it took Severus a moment to wrap his mind around what she said. He was vaguely aware that she had asked him a direct question, but the nature of it had thrown him, completely.
"I asked you if you were alright." She looked concerned now, as if she thought he was not in his right mind. "I beg your pardon, but you look like you've gone through hell."
And it was with that simple, outward observation that the dam broke. The tight, pinched feeling in his chest returned, intensified to the point it was painful to draw a full breath. He hated that the corners of his eyes were suddenly damp. He hated that she was able to see right through him, certain if she could others would have done the same.
Hell indeed. She did not have the slightest clue.
"Don't tell me you haven't seen the latest edition of the Daily Prophet. 'Martyr or Master Manipulator?!'" he snarled. "I'm plastered across the front page. Herded like livestock, pelted with snow for world to see. Do you have any idea, any concept of how that feels? To be treated like—"
Whatever Adelaide Harlowe had been about to say died in her throat. Not that she had to say a word considering her face gave her away. She had seen it, Severus had no doubt, had probably gone a step further and read the attached article. "It's alright—"
"It's far from alright!" Severus shouted, and it felt shameful, yet satisfying to hear the words echo off the walls. "My life has been overturned, and I am hanging on to the edge of what it used to be. I can feel it—I can feel that there is a part of me that longs for nothing more than to simply let go and watch as I shatter to ruin." He released a choking laugh that sounded more like a sob. "How fucked is that? How fucked am I to even consider it?"
"You aren't fucked. You're just human."
It disoriented him, the idea that such an obscenity could slip so effortlessly from a female mouth, let alone the one attached to the strange, young face floating in front of him. She had said the word without hesitation, and in a tone that conveyed clear warning that she had meant what she said and for him not to take it lightly.
"People can only break you if you allow it," she told him, and Severus turned his face away from her, stared out at the sitting room without really seeing anything in it. He wiped the corners of his eyes with the back of his hand; it seemed stupid now to keep up with the pretense after he had laid himself bare not moments before.
"You don't think they already have?" Severus's voice was strained and rough, had an odd edge to it even, as if he had been surprised to hear himself say the words aloud.
"No," said Adelaide, the corners of her mouth twitching up in a half-smile. "No, I don't. If the Dark Lord couldn't manage it, what makes you think any clod off the street can?"
Severus sighed tremulously and tipped his head back to stare up at the ceiling. He noticed the delicate lacing of cobwebs covering the lone, dated light fixture hanging in the middle of the room. It had been years since the old wrought iron thing had responded to electricity right; in his youth it would burn out incandescent bulbs faster than they could be replaced. In a sad, distorted way it reminded him a lot of himself— a useless shell of something that once had a purpose. His purpose, whatever it was now, was lost to him.
"Do you think they have?" Adelaide asked, and Severus snapped back to reality. "It doesn't really matter what I think, Mister Snape. They're just empty words to you if you don't believe them yourself."
Severus snorted in spite of himself, his face still turned toward the ceiling. Do I? He sat as if suffering from a sudden attack of paralysis and thought of how to respond to her. Part of him felt the impulse to take offence at the presumed accusation, but there was something about her expression that prevented it.
"It's never simple," Adelaide added before Severus had managed to say anything at all. "Not really something you can explain on a whim to a complete stranger. It's one of those stubbornly rhetorical questions we all have to work through all on our own."
The frame descended further and she was suddenly staring into his face. Adelaide smiled, a faint, delicate gesture he had not expected but knew he did not deserve. Try as he may, Severus could not help but stare back, his hands shaking slightly at his sides. As it turned out, vulnerability and an extraordinary hangover were a fickle mix that did not agree with him.
"At some point, we all find ourselves in the midst of a crucible," said Adelaide. She looked away, as though struggling to form her words. "Some people… some of the unfortunate ones don't make it to the other side alive, but there are a certain few who do manage to survive. Even then, they still manage to lose themselves in their struggle to survive. There are people that make it to the other side much the worse for wear, but they have overcome. It often isn't the most intelligent or the strongest to make it to the other side of whatever hell they've faced, but those who best respond to the change laid before them."
"What could you possibly know of survival," he snapped. "You and all of your years of—"
"I know a great deal more than I ever wanted to, I can assure you of that, Mister Snape," Adelaide said. "I know there are days when you feel like you'd rather die than keep up the charade. I know the anger you feel. I know the envy you feel toward those who've managed to forget and move on. It's the reason I'm in this frame."
Severus could sense the sudden change of her mood, could see soft lines form in the corners of her mouth as the frown on her face deepened. It was like knowing a gale was coming from just the feel of the air.
"Don't presume you are alone in your struggles," she continued, her face crumpling as if she were about to cry. Severus pretended not to notice anything amiss. "I once sat where you sit at this very moment. There were days when I nearly charmed boards to cover the windows of my flat so I wouldn't have to see the sunshine and know I had to go through another day of the life I lived then."
There was a long silence after that, and Severus waited, expecting her to elaborate on her own personal trials—people often did that, he found, especially when they were trying to make him understand that he would eventually find himself whole again—but she never did, and this somehow made him feel oddly at ease.
"I do want to apologize to you, though," Adelaide said at last. "For intruding so rudely the previous evening. This transition, if I may be so bold to say, has not been easy for you. I didn't help matters by prying when you wanted peace. These things take time."
Adelaide smiled at him again, and the sadness that had been on her face melted away into a sort of mysterious wistfulness. "I don't want this arrangement to end, because I wouldn't be where I am today if someone had given up on me," she said. "But I will tell you that I considered it a great deal out of my own selfishness and the anger I felt after what you said to me."
Severus found he could not articulate a response to that, but Adelaide did not seem to require a reply.
"I've never been on the receiving end of such words," she continued, "but I remember what it was like to say them to someone else. I remember saying such hurtful things to the people who were trying to help me because I felt as though what I was going through was none of their business. It was my doing, it was my fight regardless of the fact I was tired of fighting it. Tell me if I'm wrong," she went on, "but there is a weight, isn't there? A god-awful weight of something so huge you cannot even comprehend, and it feels as if it is slowly eating you alive from the inside out. The slightest bit of pressure makes it seem as though you could break to pieces."
Severus scoffed, though the sound of it was not nearly as derisive as he had hoped. "You label it as though it's something commonplace."
"I do no such thing, Mister Snape. I merely call it what it is. Think about it, you've only just left the hospital yesterday after nine months of recovery, and in the midst of those idiots to boot. You came home to find no reprieve because of the Howlers, and now the Prophet article. This is a lot of adjustment in just the span of hours, and there comes a time when we all say things that we shouldn't because that's simply all we can do at the present time to muddle through." Adelaide gave him a level look and continued. "You need not confuse my understanding of why you did it with my acceptance of it, either."
A frown found its way to his face, and though he was not particularly fond of being lectured, Severus did not protest. The only way for there to be a mistake in the pairing is if you made it so, he thought. It's her or St. Mungo's. There was one nagging question that still remained: which was the lesser of the two evils?
"You are far too forgiving for your own good," Severus said at last, making his way to his feet. He was unsure of whether she was willing to humor him but was too tempted not to try.
Adelaide grinned, apparently realizing that was as close to an apology she would receive.
Author's Notes: This story may be for Thorned Huntress, cheerleader extraordinaire and kick-ass friend, but I am deeply thankful for those of you who have decided to join Severus for this ride, whether it be by your follows, your favorites, or your reviews. That said, I hope you enjoy the latest update! As always reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated. Next chapter to come in a few weeks!