Characters are property of J.K Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
All things considered, Severus Snape was not looking forward to leaving his bed.
He rolled over, pulling the duvet over his head to block out the grey, cheerless sunlight, and tried to think of a good reason for a proper lie-in. He had always regarded days as more or less interchangeable. A person woke in the morning, trudged through the hours, dealt with a menagerie of people going about the same things—more or less, of course—and at the end of it all, that same person would stumble into his bed, only to wake up the following morning to do it all over again.
If a person was lucky enough, or unlucky enough given the circumstances, there would always be another day. When you were finished with one, there was another waiting to take its place, whether you were ready for it or not. For Severus, the previous week had somehow managed to morph into one absurdly long day, one filled with dust and boxes.
Several nights prior, as he sat in his usual evening sulk, Severus had finally discovered his problem. He felt like an unwanted stranger in his own home. Tobias and Eileen, though long dead, were still subtly woven throughout Spinner's End, and in such a way that left him feeling woefully claustrophobic. He saw his mother staring past the faded curtains covering the windows. He saw his father lying prone on the sofa, a lit cigarette poised to fall from his grasp once unconsciousness tightened its noose. Pieces of his parents, his childhood, his life leading up to the fall of the Dark Lord, and his convalescence could be seen everywhere his eyes lingered. He had ignored it as best as he could, and for as long as he could, but the notion was always there flinging itself at him like a stone. A home was meant to be a sanctuary, a place of respite from the world and all of its troubles. Spinner's End only left Severus with a strange feeling that spread like a malignant mist through his thoughts until it ruined his day.
Severus woke before the sun had risen on a cold Tuesday morning and, still in his night clothes, wandered the house for hours, opening drawers and bureaus and cabinet doors. He was merely looking, taking an inventory of parts of his past that he remembered and discovering items he had forgotten. A sort of mental exhaustion had set in before Severus had even thought of his usual cup of morning tea, but he had also made a decision. He could not live like he had in the past. He could not live in the house in its haunted state, even though the familiarity of it was what he had craved for so long. It reminded him of everything he wished to forget, and if he allowed it, he would be in a constant battle of chasing after his own mind.
Do not think of that. Do not look in that box. Do not open that drawer.
That, somehow, seemed more tiresome than sorting through his baggage. Severus saw to the private areas of the house first; the chest of drawers in the master suite he had claimed for himself and the boxes pushed to the back of the walk-in wardrobe. The moth-eaten and decades-old socks and sweaters he tossed into the fire, the same as the photographs he stumbled across, Muggle and magic alike. They were of no further use, except to feed the flames.
Thoughts of the past four days skittered across his mind like dead leaves. The entire second level of Spinner's End had been wiped clean, made a blank slate for him to do with it what he wished. There was not a trace to be found of his mother or his father, or his youth for that matter. The wardrobes and bureaus stood bare, the doors slung open in a silent plea to be filled again. Still, he caught himself noticing how oddly bereft and still the house had become, and scowled. Why the unending preoccupation of second guessing himself when it came to doing what needed to be done?
With more effort than he cared to admit, Severus rolled over again and stretched, feeling the muscles in his arms and legs tense and finally relax. The usual sensation of thousands of tiny needles sinking into his neck came and went, as it always did, and he grimaced through the discomfort. His hand went to his throat, and he rubbed absently at the skin that would never look or feel quite the same again, and wondered if he would ever feel like he used to, if the phantom pangs of his injury would ever subside. The cynical side of him was quick to point out that it would never be as it was, and he might as well get used to the idea.
"To the victor belong the spoils," Severus said. He untangled himself from the blankets and went downstairs for his morning tea.
Feeling uninspired, Severus put the water on to boil and planted himself at the kitchen table to wait. His list of things to accomplish for the day consisted of three things: see to the shelves and books in the sitting room, eat something other than beans and toast for lunch, and possibly take a nap before his nuisance came to call at a quarter past five.
Adelaide Harlowe had been a part of his life for a week now, and Severus had not even begun to learn how to live with his new attendant. Though she did not know the cause, she had noticed his change in demeanor following the sudden purge of his past, and had even gone so far as to describe him as somewhat tolerable. Severus wanted to resent her for the remark, but all he felt was indifference.
Steam roiled up from inside the kettle, and Severus watched as the wisps curved and coiled in on themselves before evaporating. It was in these unguarded moments that his thoughts always came back to the current situation of having to deal with her for the next six months. So far, their agreed-upon arrangements were bearable. Severus only had to set aside the time and be there when she appeared. Even with the so-called schedule, the idea of someone looking over his shoulder, listening just out of sight kept occurring to Severus, so much that he caught himself glancing about the empty room to discover where the person might be on a frequent basis. Their conversations were few and far between when she appeared, and did not last long when they occurred, but Adelaide did not seem to care. To say there was something oddly intrusive about the way she was content simply being there, waiting in silence, until he needed her was an understatement.
Severus put his hands behind his head, stretched mightily, and forced all thoughts of Adelaide Harlow into some deep, dark corner of his mind. Was it too much to ask for a solid dose of hot caffeine before his subconscious reminded him of just how remarkably frustrating his life had become?
Half an hour later, caffeinated and showered, Severus found himself standing in the sitting room, taking in a visual inventory of task one on his list. He inhaled through his nose and breathed out firmly, his eyes trailing the rows of books. The shelving units in the room were the last projects in the great purge, but now that he had come face to face with it and had almost succeeded in completely wiping the slate clean, he suddenly lost any desire for it. If any part of the house held the most value—academic, sentimental, or whatever—it was those shelves and what they contained. Spell books and bound grimoire and apothecary journals from his tenure at Hogwarts, handwritten recipe books and years-old paperbacks that had been bequeathed generations through the Snape bloodline (his father had inherited Spinner's End and all of its totems from his own father; the house and nearly everything in it was as old as the town and the mill itself.).
Everybody, Severus suspected, had their own secret primal reaction to their childhood home and what it represented, but he also wondered if most people disliked it as much as he did. Somehow he was sure there was a fatuous truth to the notion, though most people lacked the gumption to admit it, aloud or in secret. He took pride in the fact that he had finally admitted—after years of pretending not to notice—that this was his home, and he could do damn well what he pleased with it. With the happy thoughts of Tobias Snape turning somersaults in his grave, Severus rolled up his sleeves and started to work.
The floor-to-ceiling units had been bewitched over the years to accommodate the remarkable number of books they held. It was hard to notice, especially for someone who had grown accustomed to seeing the overstuffed units from infancy, but the books were stacked four deep, sometimes five on certain shelves. Three hours into the business of sorting through what he would keep, what he would donate, and what was fodder for the fire, Severus realised that he had managed to underestimate the task. He stretched out his legs, his back against the wall, and drummed his fingers in a droll rhythm on the floor.
He was not necessarily happy about the progress—he still had several shelves left to clear and organize—but he did feel unexpectedly liberated by the small dent he had made. The use of magic would have sped the process along, but Severus desperately wanted something to fill the void the days were slowly becoming. The longer he spent indoors, with little to occupy his time, the more difficult it became to quell the insatiable need to always be doing something with his hands. Of course there was also the unfortunate chance that the books would mix themselves up after they started to flutter like birds from the shelves once charmed. The current inventory stood at six full boxes that he would be keeping and rearranging, one box of would-be kindling, and two boxes that included paperbacks and a panoply of tragically outdated encyclopedias that he would be taking to the nearest Muggle charity bank.
The thought occurred to him that if his father had lacked absurd desire to maintain the guise of living above his means, and the nearly constant battle he waged to keep magic out, he would likely not be sitting on the floor thirty years later, sorting through these useless books by hand. Tobias Snape was not what Severus considered a learned man (he had never once seen his father crack open anything remotely literary, save for an Eagle comic magazine), but he had a streak of arrogance that rivaled even most cutthroat, and equally educated Pureblood families in the Wizirding world. Severus used to joke, when he had had a few pints too many, that Tobias was the poor man's version of Lucius, which the actual Lucius Malfoy did not find funny in the slightest.
And for what? Severus thought. He released an irritable sigh, and crossed his arms over his chest. There were times when they might not have had a pot to piss in or a functioning window to throw it out of, but they had stacks of worthless, tedious books because that was expected of respectable, normal people. It was an honest wonder Severus had turned out to be as studious as he had, but he supposed it was his subconscious effort to spite the old bigot.
On the far side of the room, the fire in the grate sputtered and spit and, for a moment, the flames turned a pale pearlescent seafoam colour. All thoughts of Tobias Snape were replaced with the drive of self preservation, Severus was on his feet, the business end of his wand aimed and ready to manage who or whatever was attempting to get through the Floo network. There was a loud bang followed by indistinguishable noises that sounded a lot like speaking. The flames flared one final time, regained their natural orange hue, and went out promptly in a plume of dark, foul smelling smoke as though doused with an invisible bucket of water.
He waited, anticipating a second attempt, but nothing happened. Severus glanced at the clock—just after noon—and found he had no idea who the would-be intruder might have been, or how they might have been so stupid as to try to come through in broad daylight without invitation. He had only just ignited the hearth with a wave of his wand, and double checked the charms in place to prevent unwanted guests when a familiar knock sounded at the door.
Suddenly it all made perfect sense.
He crossed the room in two strides, and all but took the door off its hinges when he opened the door. When Severus saw Augusta Barnes standing on the stoop, the icy wind licking at the flamboyantly lime green trench coat she wore, he thought he was going to take the civil road. When she smiled at him, it turned out that was much too hard.
"What do you want?" he half-spat, half-muttered. He turned around in an agitated flourish before the Healer had the time respond, and left her standing out in the snow.
"It's a pleasure to see you too, Severus." Augusta saw herself in, closing the door behind her as she entered. Severus watched as her eyes roved over the sitting room before they finally came to rest on him; still as critical as ever. She had silver Floo Powder on the bridge of her nose and the left lens of her glasses. "You know, you really should open your Floo. I wasn't entirely expecting walking into a brick wall. "
Severus glared at her. "I wasn't expecting you at all."
There was a moment of suffocating silence. Augusta took off her glasses and wiped the residual glittery powder on the lapel of her coat. When she offered him a sideways smile, Severus realised she was content to wait him out if it came to it. As it happened, he was fully content with waiting her out also.
He needed something to do. Anything. Without thinking Severus went over to where the six large and very heavy corrugated boxes stood. He picked up one, placed it on another, and with little regard to his back and cracking knees, picked both of them up.
She must have caught a glimpse of his strained face the moment he picked them up because she said, "I think you've rather missed the point of not doing anything strenuous."
Severus hefted the boxes in his hands, carried them past Augusta, and dropped them near the door as though they had scalded him. He would feel that workout in the morning. "I don't recall you mentioning anything of the sort," Severus said. He wiped his hands on his trousers, and gave her a pointed look. "Come to think of it, you didn't say much at all. You left Thomm, of all people, to see me to the vultures who happened to be conveniently waiting to pick my bones."
"Had I known—"
He cut her off, quelling the urge to raise his voice. "You would have seen to the job yourself? That would have required you to extract yourself from Zella Shrout's arse for a moment."
A sour expression crept across Augusta's face, but she remained silent.
"And as if my scathing reception into society wasn't enough, you actually allowed the woman to interview with The Prophet. Anyone—anyone—with half a brain could have made the connection. I expected better from you."
Severus was not sure if the words stung his Healer like he intended them to—she looked at him for a long time, her hands knotting in the folds of her cloak. Silence hung between them; and then Augusta sighed.
"Severus, when I first met you, I had to admit to myself that you were somewhat of a paradox. I could not figure out how someone could simultaneously care so much about what people think, and yet could not care less about the people themselves. Why do you give them that?"
"I don't give anyone anything," he snapped. "My life is not public record."
"No, it isn't," the Healer agreed. "But your involvement with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter put an end to all that. You can't run from that, Severus. I've told you this. It's a part of who you are, and there will always be someone there to remind you of it."
"I suppose you're going to tell me to live and let live, right?" he muttered, feeling his already strained patience stretch a bit further.
"Actually, I was going to apologize to you for what happened with the crowd and for the articles. I don't have the authority to prevent publication. I wish I did, but I can only do so much to protect my patients. I will say the correspondent with The Sunday Prophet would likely have mentioned you personally had I not intervened on your behalf. "
The comment galled him and he frowned. "So it's a 'thank you' you want—"
"I want you to stop worrying yourself over how you think others see you," said Augusta, her tone implying that her own patience was running thin. "No one ever notices the ordinary, Severus, and I think your history alone, and what you've done for all of these people that have an opinion of you—whether positive or not—will always cast you in the spotlight." She paused long enough to reach out and place a hand on his shoulder. Though he would have liked to, Severus did not shy away. "You are, in their eyes, the eyes of this backward society, significant enough to notice. Use it to your advantage, and when the time comes, prove the bastards wrong. "
This was the part of his life that Severus knew Augusta Barnes, nor anyone else, truly understood. He wondered, as he stood there feeling her hand clutching the fabric of his shirt, if she had ever experienced the small torture of pretending to be oblivious to the looks of distaste or fear, or the wide arcs complete strangers would give him as a precaution. He would bet his handsome Ministry pension that she had never been clobbered in the head with a snowball, or attacked by strangers upon the release from a nine month hospital visit both in the flesh and in writing.
Severus had noticed the subtle shifting and scrutiny of his character in the public eye well before the Dark Lord's demise, and he had used it to play his part as a loyal follower to further gain a foothold in Lord Voldemort's council. Near the end, when it began to wear him down along with everything else, he had tried to liken those nameless strangers to the students he taught. It was a different thing entirely to witness such gestures from students, he had grown accustomed to them, had expected them even, given his harsh practices from behind the teaching podium and the general ignorance of the charges he was expected to instruct.
For a wild moment, Severus felt weak, on the verge of falling back into the episodes of anxiety he had somehow managed to control. He took a deliberate step away from her and walked to the window to clear his thoughts. He counted footprints she had left in the snow leading from the pavement to the front door, pushing everything else from his mind. It was too much, yes, but he had to be better than that if he was to ever be fully released from Augusta Barnes's care.
"You are not the person you were when I met you nine months ago, Severus, and thank God for that," Augusta continued, and he could feel her eyes on his back as he stared out into the snow-covered streets, "but you are back in a world that hasn't changed in the slightest. People are still very much afraid of what happened a year ago, and you were right in the center of it. That is the very reason I thought the Silhouette Initiative would be beneficial to you."
"Ah, yes," said Severus, turning around at last. "My St. Mungo's issued nanny."
"I never said it would be easy, considering your aversion to company," said Augusta. "But it was a better alternative, wouldn't you agree?"
"I suppose," Severus lied. He hated it, hated feeling like he was constantly under someone's thumb. "It was either her or Thomm."
"Your Silhouette is female." It was not quite a question, and it only added to his poor mood.
"Don't worry, I pity her also." The words simply came to him, and he said them without thinking. "Not only has she taken to the job as though meant for no other purpose, but she's also at a serious disadvantage being bound to someone like myself."
To that Augusta did not reply. She only shook her head at him as if to say he was being ridiculous, and left it at that. The two of them were treading the edge of another argument she obviously did not want to have. If she had learned anything at all, Severus suspected, it was to pick her battles carefully when it came to him. It also troubled him to admit Augusta Barnes rarely chose wrong in that regard, but that was beside the point.
Severus gave the Healer a look of dubious politeness after a moment, and walked back to the bookshelf to escape. The particular row he picked held the books that were strictly Muggle, and held very little value in his eyes. He would be hard-pressed to find a bookstore that would offer payment or even accept them as a donation given the age and condition of most. The longer Severus perused the titles and spines cankered with cracks and mildew spots, the more he wished he had not bothered with this shelf at all.
"May I ask what it is you are doing, exactly?" said Augusta after a moment. Severus looked over his shoulder to see that she had now taken a seat on the very edge of the sofa.
"What does it look like?" Severus replied, in a tone that suggested she was being rather slow. He summoned another box and selected the book directly in front of him. "I'm downsizing."
He placed the dog-eared copy of Landmarks of Southern Wales in the box for donation. His mother, tethered to Spinner's End by her husband and young son, had lived vicariously through the sepia-colored photographs. When Severus had grown old enough to keep a secret or at least lie convincingly enough to his father, she had Apparated with him for the first time to her favorite landmark—Cardiff Castle—to spend the day. It had been a pleasant day filled with candy floss and noisy queues, and turned out to be quite a memorable experience despite the initial shock of departure and his father's outburst that night when they had finally returned.
Severus winced inwardly at the memory, and quickly covered the book with another before the notion could gain a proper foothold. "I should just burn the lot," he muttered, though not soft enough for Augusta not to hear.
"The bibliophile in you wouldn't stand for it," the Healer said somewhat teasingly. "Besides, those books might benefit someone else down the road."
Severus smiled for the first time, though it was an inward sort of wry smile, and selected another book. "Tell me," he said looking back at her, "what you think the demand is for a third printing of… Knitting in the Nordic Traditions?"
Augusta grimaced, though Severus could not tell if it was in response to the prospect of such a dry read, or that he'd managed to catch one of those happy moments when he had outmaneuvered her.
"That's what I thought," he said, and continued to place more books in the box without so much as a second glance.
"It was obviously useful to someone in its time," Augusta offered. "Your mother, perhaps."
"My mother was a Pureblood witch," Severus snapped. "It was of no more use to her than a hole in the head. It was more than likely fished out of some secondhand bin by my father, along with all this other nonsense, nothing but a means to keep her—" he stopped himself, realising that he had been very close to shouting. The rest of the sentence crumbled to dust in his mouth as Severus threw the book in the box destined for the fire, refusing to give it a second thought. He looked out of the corner of his eye at Augusta, who appeared to be going though some great internal struggle with herself. Fantastic. Bloody fantastic.
"Severus, I didn't—"
"Never mind it," he said, cutting off what he knew would be a rambling attempt at an apology. "It's just a book, and they're both long dead."
Augusta looked as though she would have liked to press the issue further, but she spared him and stayed quiet. Her expression strongly hinted that all of the puzzle pieces had finally clicked neatly into place. Severus ignored it, and went back to putting the rest of the books in the burn box.
"Do you know why I paid you a visit today?" Augusta said. He had not heard her move, but she was behind him now, standing over him as she did when he was still deep in his recovery at St. Mungo's.
Severus turned and looked at her with expert nonchalance. "To annoy me?"
Augusta made an amused noise through her teeth. "To see if you had managed to prove me wrong. Again. In my experience, the hardest part of going forward with recovery is the actual living part of it, outside the walls of the hospital, I mean. If you want my honest opinion, part of me thought you wouldn't be able to handle it."
Severus frowned. "Thank you for the excellent vote of confidence."
"Would you just shut up and listen!" Augusta snapped. "Because you need to hear me say this as much as I need to say it." She waited, apparently to see if he had any more fight left him. Severus simply waved her on.
"I've never told you this, and I should have long before now," she said, "but I'm proud of you, Severus. Not just because you made me look like a fool in front of my colleagues when I told them you would likely never wake, or stand, or walk, but because you never looked back once you started, especially when a lesser man would have. God knows I would have had I been in your shoes. If anyone deserves to be happy it's you, and if setting this entire damn house ablaze and starting over from nothing does that for you, then I'd be glad to sit with you and watch it burn."
He did not know what he had expected her to say, but it most definitely was not that. For the first time in a long time, Severus Snape found that he had absolutely nothing to say in response. When he tried, the words turned to mist in his mind before he could string them together to form a coherent sentence. Augusta seemed to notice his silent struggle and saved him from the trouble—just as she always had.
"You don't have to say anything, Severus," Augusta said, and that was when he noticed the single tear sliding down her cheek. She wiped it away on a crisp white handkerchief she plucked out of thin air. "Look at me. I've turned into a slobbering mess." The Healer gave him a stern pat on the shoulder, which seemed to be just as much for her as it was for him. "This is a happy moment, after all."
"Yes," Severus said. "Yes, it is."
Augusta sniffed and blew her nose on the charmed handkerchief. "My lunch hour is almost up, and you look like you've got your hands full here, so I'll leave you to it."
Severus watched as she headed toward the front door, his subconscious screaming at him to say something to her before she left. "Use the Floo, Augusta," was what finally slipped out, but somehow that was enough. She obliged, not nearly as emotional as she had been, and disappeared in a flash of bright green flames as soon as he had lifted the charm.
The rest of the afternoon progressed in a blur of musty book pages, numerous cups of tea—a few of which were spiked with something a little stronger than honey—and mental playbacks of the meeting with Augusta. Severus had absolutely no idea why the conversation aggravated him with such precision, but it did. What she had said began to pull at him the moment she had left, like an incessant toddler tugging at his shirt sleeve, the words slowly playing themselves over and over again in his mind in whispered tones. He had come to expect that things were strictly business between them; Augusta Barnes's job was to oversee his recovery and his job was to recover. It was that simple. Severus was content in keeping his gratitude for her and what she had done thoroughly contained because that simplified things. And she had to go and break the unspoken code he thought they shared to never, ever make it personal.
People, Severus found, were not satisfied until they had made almost everything personal.
He supposed he should have been appreciative for what she had said, and he supposed that there was a small part of him that did appreciate it, but it was an awfully small part and naturally suspicious. No one, apart from Albus Dumbledore, Lucius Malfoy, and his own mother, mind you, had ever said anything of the sort to him, and if he was being perfectly honest with himself, Severus was not convinced that any of the three of them had really, truly meant it. The whole ordeal left a sour taste in his mouth and had completely robbed him of the delight of finally having more shelf space than books.
In the end, Severus decided the obvious solution to his problem was to put it as far from his mind as possible, at least until he had worked up the nerve to say something to her that was not Floo-related. He sat down in his chair, still feeling like a colossal idiot, and closed his eyes for a much needed mental and physical reprieve.
"I should have used magic," Severus said to himself.
A dull, pulsing pain had taken root in his neck and lower back from the repeated bending and turning and lifting, but he had wanted the satisfaction of touching every aged spine, giving each useless book one final triumphant glare, as if to prove that he had conquered them and all that they represented. He had finally done it, and it was glorious to think that he now had the room and the means to replace every single one of those books that had been used as a meager attempt to stamp out magic.
Severus rubbed at his sore neck, his fingers tracing the length of subtle scar tissue that traveled from the base of his right ear to his collar bone. It was like some sort of perverse map carved into his skin that told the story of where he had been and what he had to do to get there.
Stupid fucking snake, he thought. I'll have to cover this before going into town.
Augusta had always said it was such a shame those battle lines made him self-conscious; he had gone through such lengths to obtain them, after all. But Severus knew that was easy for someone to say who did not have any.
For a moment he thought of fashioning a crude Portkey of sorts to whisk the four full boxes of donation books straight to the cellar of the secondhand shop, but decided that he would rather not risk the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office showing up to his door if some poor sod touched them before the spell had worn off. Instead, he pulled himself out of his chair with a groan and summoned his coat and boots. He had started the whole process without magic, and he could very well finish it that way, notwithstanding his throbbing back. He could do with some fresh London air, anyway.
Severus Disapparated from Cokeworth to London, the four shrunken boxes of books knocking around in his left coat pocket. He had no particular destination in mind, but had simply decided that he would keep walking until he happened upon the first establishment that looked like it needed what he had.
The pavements were bustling with Londoners going about their evening business. They all had the same look. Fatigued eyes, bodies hunched away from the cold February drizzle and half-frozen puddles of dirty snowmelt. From the looks of some of them, the customary weekday dance of dashing for the trains was soon to begin, which had a certain appeal it—they were often too preoccupied to notice what was going on around them. As he had anticipated none of the Muggles paid Severus any attention, except for the occasional half-uttered insult, or more rarely an apology, for treading too close.
Severus passed three cafes, the entrance to a swarming Tube station, and countless other shops that resembled those found in a typical retail park before he found a bookstore that had potential. It was not charming or eccentric by any means, but rather a hole-in-the-wall tucked between a television repair shop and what appeared to be women's clothing boutique. He would have easily passed it up had it not been for the flashing neon sign that promised payment for unwanted books. He had planned on donating the books, but figured he may as well get something for the effort he made to sort through and get the books here. That, and the ever-present rain had started to fall with renewed force. Satisfied, Severus ducked inside, and emerged almost half an hour later with two twenty pound banknotes in his pocket.
He still had time before he would have to return home to deal with his Silhouette, so Severus drifted back the way he came, stopping only once at a tiny, but well-stocked Italian delicatessen for the advertised meatball soup. He bought an order to go, and made his way to the alley behind the shop where he could Apparate without being seen.
Being that the house stood at the end of the street, Severus knew the chances of him being seen were little and less, so when he opened his eyes, he was staring at his front door. That was one of the few perks of Spinner's End—there was hardly anyone left to see, and even fewer who would be taken seriously if they saw something.
Severus turned and looked up the snow-covered street—the mill chimney standing cold and severe just at the horizon—and sighed. The day was edging closer and closer to a quarter past five from the look of the harsh, looming shadow casted by the smoke stack. And he still had to see to the books that had survived the purge before his attention was required elsewhere.
Might as well get on with it, Severus thought, though a slightly anxious part him wondered what he would do to occupy his time once he finished. He let himself in, kicking the snow from his boots as he went to work.
He ate the soup from the polystyrene container with one hand and went through the books with the other; it was easy to fall back into the old habit of having work as a supper companion (He had done it for years at Hogwarts, against Albus Dumbledore's insisting that he show up in the Great Hall for more than Welcome and Leaving Feasts). The current task, he found, proved to be much more enjoyable than grading third year essays, even if he was sitting on the floor.
The work began by sorting the books into piles according to their subject matter, then came the organizing of each of those piles into alphabetical order by author's last name. Book after book was put back into place, and though he appeared to be making decent headway, Severus had barely put half of the first stack into the cases.
"There must be a hundred or more, those books."
His heart nearly leapt from his chest, and Severus looked over his shoulder, spooked. Adelaide Harlowe was staring at the books, her head turned at an obscured angle as she mouthed the titles.
"So many shelves…" she said, as though speaking with an old friend. "From the moment I saw them, I wondered what someone like you filled them with."
"You would do well to make yourself known before you start slinking about in the house, Miss Harlowe," he snapped.
"It's Adelaide, please," she said, offering a rueful smile. "And sorry. I thought you heard me." The portrait edged closer to where he sat. Severus tried to go back to the business of examining the titles between occasional spoonfuls of meatball and broth, but suddenly found he was no longer the mood for either.
"It must have taken you years to collect so many," Adelaide said. She looked at him with rapt eagerness, as if it would coax him into talking. Severus turned up the flimsy white polystyrene bowl and swallowed what little of the soup remained. Why did everyone insist that he talk?
"No longer than it would take one to collect anything else," he said, defeated. He had never before felt his lack of privacy more keenly than at this moment, cross-legged on his sitting room floor surrounded by his displaced books and this unwanted houseguest gazing back at him.
"How many do you reckon you have?"
She could pester the tentacles off a Grindylow, Severus thought. He sighed, then said, "I've never felt the need to count them."
"Pity," Adelaide went on smoothly. "That would've been interesting to know. There seem to be a lot less compared to yesterday."
"I'm downsizing," Severus said.
"No harm in that I suppose, though I've always been rather fond of books," said Adelaide casually. "I've always preferred them to the telly. There is very little imagination in films and programmes these days"
Severus gave her an odd look. Not a Pureblood, then.
"You've heard of a telly, right?" Adelaide said after a moments reflection.
"I'm a wizard, not an idiot," he said sharply. "I know what a television is."
"I wasn't implying that you were an idiot," she said defensively. "I know that you are quite intelligent. I just know that some wizards aren't familiar with Muggle technology. I assure you, I meant no offense." When Severus offered no reply, Adelaide continued. "The only thing I find worth watching these days is the news, most of which is depressing—people fighting and killing other people over tiny strips of land. Personally, I've seen enough fighting to last a lifetime. I'm sure you have too."
"Indeed," he said. "Which is why I prefer not to discuss the War or anything related to it, if you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind," she assured him. "Honestly, I don't like talking about it either. We can talk about whatever you like. I'm here to help you, you know."
That struck him as ironic, and before he could catch his errant tongue he said, "For someone who doesn't like to talk about the fighting and killing, you picked a fantastic career with this ridiculous initiative.
"I wouldn't necessarily call me doing this a career, but I disagree," Adelaide said. "I may not like to talk about it, but that doesn't mean I won't. I was told when I was selected for this particular branch of Silhouette that it would likely mean helping the victims move on from what happened to them."
"I have done my part, Miss Harlowe," Severus said flatly. He pulled another full box toward him and began reading the titles and sorting them into piles, hoping she would take the hint and drop the subject altogether. "It's everyone else that needs to do the moving on."
"And they will with time," she said, sounding a little too much like his Healer. "We're coming up on a year since Harry Potter put an end to You-Know-Who, and I suspect once people see he's not coming back the old fears will start to settle, and everything can get back to normal."
Severus scoffed. She never ceased to amaze him with her absurdly optimistic outlook on life and the people in it. What a fool she was.
"You don't ever come back from something like that," he told her. "I lived through the Dark Lord's first rise to power and the fear he left in his wake smoldered through to the second coming. You talk of this supposed change, but even you refuse to speak his name. As I said, you don't come back from that, Miss Harlowe. You just can't."
And to Severus's great satisfaction, Adelaide fell silent, the truth of his words sinking in its claws, ripping her happy little outcome to shreds. Good, Severus thought. Serves her right.
They sat in silence, Severus sorting his books, the portrait floating just out of his field of vision, until Adelaide's innate ability to handle him seemed to reassert itself. Severus had to admit it took her longer than he would have thought.
"I'm not afraid of the name, not anymore," she said, her tone stilted, almost rigid. "And you're right. Old habits die hard, but the point I'm trying to get at is that they do eventually die. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not six months from now, but they will." Adelaide smiled meekly. "I mean it's already started, what with Silhouette up and running now."
Against all principle of politeness and courtesy Severus laughed at her. "Is that what they tell you people when you signed up for this? Such world changers you are." He glared at the portrait, her fact cast in the same uneasy blue-white light, then said, "You have no idea what you're doing."
"No, I don't," Adelaide said, keeping right along with him. The raw irritation in her voice did not go unnoticed. "They told me nothing apart from whether or not I had been selected. I had no warning when I was bound to my Match, except for a basic profile that listed little more than a name and the terms of the Bond. I thought they had forgotten me…" She paused, and held up her left wrist, revealing a brand that matched Severus's. "But this seared itself into my skin five months later, and here we are."
Severus opened his mouth and closed it again; the sight of the double spiraled mark left him with the feeling of having been winded. The ever-present habit of not being able to find the words was starting to grate on his nerves. Instead he turned his attention to the books in front of him that had become lost in the conversation. He put at least ten on the shelves before he finally said, "I was told even less than you."
"That's not surprising," Adelaide said. "How the Initiative works, the magic I mean, is very clandestine. Though I suspect that is in large part to protect the Matches, the people like you. When the terms of your contract are up, or whenever it's decided to terminate the Bond, I'll be dismissed from Silhouette entirely. One Match, One Bond," she went on dutifully, and without much conviction. "No further contact."
"I see," he said. And he did see, more or less.
"Thinking it would be immediate, I volunteered almost four months to the day after the war ended," she said conversationally. "I wanted to help, and the opportunity presented itself shortly after I made up my mind that I had to do something."
"Valiant of you," Severus said. After the words slipped out, he noticed how terribly he had done at disguising his cynicism.
Adelaide shrugged. It was the sort of shrug that could have meant a great number of things. "It felt like the thing to do, so I did it."
"You don't have to explain yourself to me," he said. What he really wanted to say was that he could not have cared less, but figured it would probably do him well to remain civil. It was not really her fault that they were in this situation, after all.
"I know I don't, Adelaide said. "But I still think you deserve to know, you being required to deal with me and all. I didn't sign up for this for a laugh, or for something to occupy my free time with. I did it because things need to progress, and if I can help just one person do that, then that's better than most can say."
Severus contemplated the portrait without enthusiasm; something in Adelaide's expression made him feel tired, and if he was being honest with himself, a touch guilty too. He quickly shut that thought down, burying it deep where it belonged. Reluctantly and resentfully, Severus could not help but feel real empathy for the girl, though for the life of him he could not explain why.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes with the hope of finding the same mental escape he had earlier, only to have his thoughts interrupted by an obnoxiously loud pecking noise at the front of the house. Severus looked up to see an enormous eagle owl perched on the flimsy trellis supporting the empty window planter. An absurdly ordinary white envelope was crushed in its beak. With some effort, he brought himself to his feet and went to open the window. The owl, eager to escape the weather, hopped inside without invitation and dropped its cargo to the floor with very little regard to Severus's out stretched hand.
Severus retrieved the crinkled envelope and offered the lone remaining chunk of meatball that had been forgotten in the bowl as payment. The owl declined with an unimpressed hoot, and proceeded to relieve itself right there on the windowsill before it turned and disappeared out in the cold February sleet.
"Oh, dear," Adelaide said. Her hand jutted up toward her mouth in a weak attempt to mask the grimace growing on her face. "You'd think they would have the decency to be out of doors before they did their business."
"You think?" He shot back, irritated with the altogether disgusting prospect of cleaning away owl droppings on top of everything else. "Those damned birds…" Severus produced his wand, and removed the offending pile from ledge and the wall. The putrid dung bomb-like smell was likely to linger for a while, effectively zapping what decent mood he had. "I ought to mail the mess back as a receipt of delivery."
Adelaide cleared her throat, a weak attempt to get his attention.
Severus, ignoring her, turned the letter over in his hand in search of a return address or at least the name of the sender. It was unnaturally heavy, and there were no discerning marks. Nothing whatsoever except the words 'Professor Snape' written on the front in blue, willowy longhand.
At once, he realised that he recognized the handwriting, knew it from somewhere but could not exactly place it, and he also realised this particular lapse would irritate him the rest of the day if he allowed it. Severus tore irritably into the envelope only to have a Galleon and two Knuts fall to floor, one of which rolled off the carpet and under the sofa.
Severus quickly counted to be another Galleon, three Sickles, and a handful of Knuts inside the envelope as well as a slip of neatly folded parchment that appeared to be someone's stationary. Eleven pounds… he thought, running the math mentally.
"Granger," Severus muttered, at last. "I should've known she couldn't leave well enough alone."
"Is there a problem?" Adelaide asked.
"Hermione Granger, that former student of mine," he said, sounding very tired. "I paid her for the apothecary order she purchased and delivered over a week ago, and she didn't have change at the time. I told her not to worry with it, but of course, she didn't listen."
"Perhaps she was trying to do what she thought was the right thing?" Adelaide looked at him critically for a moment, then said, "Not everyone is out to get you in some sinister plot, despite what you may think."
"The point is that I told her not to worry about it. I didn't need or want the change, and made that fact perfectly clear to her."
"But she knew that it didn't rightfully belong to her," Adelaide pressed. "So, she sent it back. Why does that bother you so much?"
Severus cast an incredulous look in Adelaide's direction. "I want to be left alone. Why can't you wrap your silly head around that?"
Adelaide seemed nonplussed by this answer, as if she had been hoping to learn of some deep-seated wrong that had been done by this former student. But there was no such mystery to be revealed. He had spoken the truth. Severus sat down in his armchair and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. The beginning of quite a strong tension headache was becoming more and more pronounced.
"I don't believe a word of anything you just said," Adelaide told him suddenly. Severus looked up to see her glaring at him. "Nobody wants to be alone, I don't care who they are. That's just an excuse, and a poor one at that."
"An excuse for what?" he asked sharply.
"I don't know," she said. "But there is clearly some reason that you have chosen to do all you can in order to push people away. What is it that plagues you to the point that you would turn the most harmless of gestures, such as returning your change, into a major inconvenience?"
"There is nothing that plagues me, Miss Harlowe," Severus said bitterly. If there was, it certainly was not any of her business. "Some people are simply introverted and I happen to be one of them. I've never seen the need for idle conversation and insincere pleasantries. I prefer solitude—I find it easier to think, easier to read, and easier to work when I'm alone. I don't know what I need to do to prove to you that I'm telling you the truth, but I can assure you that you are wasting your time searching for some demon within me to slay. It doesn't exist!"
"You don't have to prove anything to me. It's yourself you have to convince. I just want to make you see that you don't have to go through life alone. I would be willing to bet that there are people out there that respect you and even some that would likely enjoy your company if you would let them. You could have friends if only you chose to reach out to them or let them in when they did the same to you. Maybe you should consider the possibility that the only thing keeping you from being happy is yourself."
Severus looked at Adelaide with stunned silence. In all the time that had known her—which was not very long, mind you—he had never seen her get this worked up about anything. He found it somewhat surprising that she seemed to have finally grown a backbone, but he found it equally annoying as well. He glanced at the clock and noticed, to his relief, that his allotted hour for conversing with his Silhouette had expired three minutes prior.
"Your time is up," Severus said dryly, standing from his chair. He wanted to be rid of her before he did or said something he would come to regret.
"I suppose it is," she said, still with a twinge of aggravation in her voice. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."
Before he could tell her that was hardly going to happen, the portrait faded to black and fell into one of the boxes of books it had been hovering over. Severus all but stomped over to where it had fallen and jerked it from the pile of books onto which it had landed. He had half a mind to activate the portrait again just for the satisfaction of having the final word in that unpleasant exchange, but the title of the book just underneath where the portrait had been caught his eye—The Extended Compendium of Practical Applications of Indigenous Magical Flora. For reasons he would not be able to explain afterward, Severus leafed through the index and confirmed what he had expected—the book contained an entire chapter on the Alihotsy plant, complete with supplemental footnotes and additional resources.
Later, as he lay awake, listening to the sleet hit his bedroom window, Severus wondered if it had been the exhaustion or the strong desire to prove Adelaide Harlowe wrong that drove him do it. Not that either mattered, of course. There was nothing that could be done about it now. The book containing the sources Hermione Granger would most likely need was probably halfway there by now.
Author's Notes: I know the chapter is late, and I apologize to those of you who are following and waiting for an update. Real life these last few months has been simply a nightmare. Six weeks ago, I lost my grandfather to a battle with cancer, bought and moved into a new home, and finished up one of the most stressful internships I've ever agreed to become a part of. Long story short, it was like my own personal Hell. Things are settling, though somewhat slowly. I ask that if you are reading along to be patient. Updates are coming, and I hope to get on some type of schedule again with frequency. As always, reviews are welcome and greatly appreciated. Happy reading to all!