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 never remembered how the dreams started, partly because they happened with less frequency these days and he was quick to forget them when they did, but mostly it was because that was just the way of dreams.
Dreams, or in his case, nightmares, were really entities in and of themselves, capable of evolving and growing outside of logic and good, proper sense. When he was still hospital-bound, waking almost nightly from some imagined horror, his Healer or the on-duty Mediwizard would tell him it was only his imagination, the repressed terrors of his past playing over in succession in his mind while it was weakened by sleep. Their explanations sounded so very simple, trivial even, as though they had been meant to console a child, but Augusta and her staff did not have to suffer through the hellish nights as he did. After months of waking, drenched in sweat, and on the cusp of a massive cardiac episode, Severus started to listen, but for longer than he would ever admit he could have sworn the nightmares he suffered were as real as he was.
The nightmares rarely made sense to him, but always managed to leave him in the same wretched state when his subconscious had had enough and finally jolted him awake. It had been the snake at first with its dislocated jaws and jagged teeth. Nagini had almost managed to swallow him whole, like she had done with poor Charity Burbage, before Severus had woken in a right fit and had fallen out of his cot. Even now, when he thought on it long enough it would come back to him, the absurd clarity with which he could feel his face and bare, useless legs against the cold tiles of the hospital floor, and the hot tears that streaked his face, first out of fear and then eventually frustrated anger. It was an hour before the hospital staff found him and put him back to bed.
It did get better as Augusta said it would, though it happened very slowly. Nagini stalked him for months, like a malignant shadow looming just at the edge of his thoughts. Charity Burbage was there too, as silent as he had been the last night he saw her half-alive in the Malfoy dining hall. It felt like a bad joke, and even though the nightmares lost coherence with every second he untangled himself from unconsciousness, they still managed to leave a lasting impression on the rest of his day.
Severus looked to his window, watching as the wind and snow distorted the shadows cast by the streetlamps. The clock on the bedside table read eighteen minutes past three. He had only gone to bed two hours before, and had slept fitfully, fidgeting and groaning until the dreams had succeeded, and left him sitting bolt-upright with his heart hammering in his chest.
Forty-seven days, Severus thought, and rubbed at his tired, bloodshot eyes. He ignored the dampness that came away on his fingers and the shaking of his hands as he rested his head on the headboard and sighed. Forty-seven days without a single night terror would have been a new record, and he should have felt relief in that, but this particular dream had been different. This one had been new, and that troubled him most of all.
The dreams that seemed to play on loop were the easiest to manage. Charity Burbage no longer bothered him the way she used to, staring into his panicked face the same way he had stared into her lifeless one. He had atoned for those sins tenfold, and he had accepted the fact that her death, though tragic and unjustified, would still have happened even if he had been so foolish to intervene.
This new dream had been worse than that, and Severus still had no idea how to come to terms with it. He tried to imagine Augusta’s voice, could almost hear it pierce through the chaos in his head. She had always told him during the worst night terrors that the tightness in his chest would wane, that those thoughts would recede like the waters of a flash flood, and he would be stronger for having faced them. But Augusta Barnes seemed to Severus, in that moment, like a fraud peddling cheap talk because he did not feel strong or brave or better for having faced this new, fresh hell. No, what he felt was wrung out and more alone than he had been in quite a long time.
Severus shivered almost convulsively, and he pulled the duvet up around his shoulders despite knowing it was not likely to help. He closed his eyes and tried to think of anything else, to stave off the panic attack he could feel looming over him, but he could still hear her voice. She had been pleading with him at first, and then her tone had shifted swiftly to accusation when he only stood there motionless, stunned into silence. The sound of her voice playing through his subconscious had the power to paralyze him.
He closed his eyes to try to find relief, but only saw her staring up at him from the floor, his mind’s eye displaying a nearly perfect match of the dream. Twenty-one years old and fresh-faced, Lily Potter was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a generic nursery his subconscious had conjured up. She held a baby’s blanket in her lap, idly tracing the pattern of the stitching with her fingers. They were alone, just the two of them.
“There’s not one thing I could have done to change your ways,” she had said to him, then sighed. It was a sigh that could have meant a great number of things. “And I tried. I tried so hard, but you wouldn’t listen. You heard, but…you never…listened.” Lily brought the blanket to her nose and inhaled, as if to preserve and fortify a memory. It was such an intensely intimate moment that he had to look away. Then, “Tonight I’m going to lose it all, and it’s because of you.” Her words had been like ice, cold and sharp. Severus made to take a step toward her, but she had thrown the yellow blanket at his feet, and he stalled. “Do you understand that? Everything, Severus!”
Silence had followed that, and it had been far louder than anything else she could have said. Severus raised his wand hand and it was over in a quick burst of green light. As if it had been a dream within a dream, Lily Potter was lying on the floor, her green eyes staring up at him, though they could no longer see.
Severus opened his eyes again, the tightness in his chest and throat enough to suffocate him. He tried to breathe, though not without difficultly. Why did it have to be her? he thought miserably, seeing her dead, cold face in flashes. That had not been the first time he had cast the Killing Curse in his dreams, but the nameless, faceless victims had never, ever been her. But that was the problem with bad dreams. The subconscious tugged at the frays of the mind until it found that one thread that could be unraveled with ineffable efficiency, and there was no controlling it once the right string had been discovered. It was really only an act of self-betrayal, the mind fighting itself in a cruel, unwinnable battle of wills.
Unable to stand it any longer, Severus shoved back the covers and moved to the edge of the bed to make his escape. He could not simply lie there and allow his mind to run amok, not with it treading so dangerously close to another anxiety episode. He retrieved the long-sleeved night shirt from the floor that he had shed sometime during the night, and pulled it over his head before he stood and grabbed his wand off the night stand before he left the room.
Severus made it as far as the staircase before the true realisation of his nightmare caught up with him. There, as he sat on the floor with his head pressed against the wall, his silver Patronus floated along length of the upstairs hall behind him. Unable to look at it directly, he watched the shadows the glowing, iridescent doe cast on the walls, and was seized by the irrational conviction that he had suffered a slight break with what was real. This had been a tiny fracture compared to the times he had fallen completely to pieces in the beginning. No matter how small, though, the needles of panic hammering into his chest and pressure building behind his eyes certainly made it feel more catastrophic than Severus knew it was.
“That wasn’t real,” he whispered to himself, and a single, traitorous tear slid down his cheek. He wiped it away quickly on his sleeve, as though it were indecent, and felt like an utter fool. The doe leapt over him and bounded down the stairs before it vanished through the wall. Severus’s eyes landed on the spot where the deer had disappeared, then, in a sudden fit of immature, self-righteous anger, he pounded at the floor with his fists until it hurt. That pain was real, and it caused clarity to flood his brain.
He sat in the dark, his bare feet resting on the top step, and nursed his aching hands. “Not real… none of it is real,” Severus said again, and this time he believed it. Augusta would have been proud.
The memory of Lily Potter prowled his mind, patient, eternal, and always waiting to strike. She had not surfaced in such a way since before the end of the War, and he had not realised it until the moment he saw her face that he had been grateful for her absence. To feel that way seemed wrong, and with each second he sat there thinking about it, the wrongness of it intensified.
“Fuck me,” was all he said as he stood and descended the stairs, an impatient hand running through his hair. The day was off to a fantastic start.
Three and a half hours later found Severus half-awake, sitting upright in his chair, Adelaide Harlowe’s Silhouette portrait, resting on his lap. He had planned on preparing a pot of tea, and smothering what drowsiness remained with each cup of caffeinated gold, but he had stopped to warm his feet by the fire, and had simply stayed there. Now he had a pain in his neck strong enough to vex the dead.
Severus stretched mightily, and the portrait slid off his lap and landed face down on the floor. He glared at it for along moment before he picked it up, wiped the glass front with his shirt, and sat it on the arm of the chair. He had almost gone through with something ridiculous during the small hours of the morning, but thankfully his good sense had told his nerve, in no uncertain terms, to keep quiet and not to even think about it. After all, he did not need Adelaide Harlowe. And he especially did not need her at three-thirty in the morning because he had had a bad dream, and did not feel like being alone with just his thoughts. As if to prove this to himself, Severus left the darkened portrait behind and shuffled sleepily to the kitchen for his morning tea and toast.
The kitchen table, which was made for four occupants but could only reasonably and comfortably accommodate two in the modest space, was pushed hard against a large window along the back wall—that way, his mother had once said, the tea in one’s cup would never grow cold in the morning sun. It had really only been planted there permanently because that was the one place it would fit. Severus, not being one for early morning nonsense or a blinding winter sunrise, had pulled the curtains and charmed them a dull brown colour to block the glare. He sat, spreading orange and bergamot marmalade on one side of his toast, thoroughly disconsolate.
He needed something to do with himself, a routine of sorts that would keep his mind from going places where it ought not go; otherwise Augusta would be carting him off to an asylum. It was nearing the end of February, when the weather was not quite sure of what to do with itself and would change at a moment’s notice from rain to freezing rain, and then finally to snow, so anything outdoors was out of the question. Severus had cleaned the house thoroughly from top to bottom, discarded what belonged in the bin, and organized what needed tidying, so that left little to do inside except for the rudimentary, everyday tasks he loathed, such as dish washing.
Severus took a bite of toast, then licked the marmalade from the corner of his mouth. Between bites, he caught himself recalling the nightmare that had resulted in slight bruising on his hands and the shadow in his mood, and frowned. He still missed her terribly—there was no point in trying to deny it—and he suspected there would always be a part of him that would never stop missing her or pondering the what-ifs and should-have-beens. This new abundance of time he had on his hands was only going to make those thoughts more prominent, it seemed.
When he had learned of her murder that fateful Saturday night in October, he felt nothing. It had been an awful, profound nothing—the sort of nothing that has the power to crush a person, make it impossible to think. He was twenty-one years old and foolish and irrevocably brokenhearted. It was as though the world had suddenly come to an abrupt, neat end. For a very long time he felt as though it had never stopped ending.
He had not dreamt of Lily Potter since he had looked into her son’s eyes and by extension her own the night he thought would be his last in the Shrieking Shack. He thought back to that night, trying in vain to pull his last encounter with the boy to the front of his mind, but it would not gain clarity. Severus could still feel the holes from where had laid himself bare, offering up the more private parts of his past to see that the job was finished once and for all. Turns out it had been enough to save his life, too, but that was beside the point.
The job had been finished, and Severus had kept his part of Dumbledore’s plan to keep Lily Potter’s son alive, but to this day he still felt very little, if any, reconciliation for it. He may not have been the one to cast the curse as he had in his new dream, but he had had a firm yet ignorant hand in it all the same. Severus had come to terms with the fact a long time ago that he would carry the burden of her murder on his shoulders, because that was, in his mind, the very least he deserved in the grand scheme of things. Severus stood, having no real desire to eat any longer, and dumped his partially-eaten breakfast in the bin. He put the saucer in the sink, along with the half-full pot of tea, wondering why he did this sort of thing to himself.
Severus retreated to the sitting room with a dull ache in his head, no doubt a result of too little sleep. The fire had almost smoldered itself out, but he did not trouble himself over it—the deepening chill about the house made him feel awake. Adelaide’s portrait was still where he had left it, sitting on the arm of his chair, placid and empty, and he picked it up when he sat down.
He wondered what Adelaide Harlowe did with her mornings and her afternoons before she gave him her evenings freely. There were times he considered asking her those questions, figuring out exactly how she came to be where she was, but then Severus would catch himself and turn his thoughts elsewhere. He could say he did not care all he liked, but deep down she intrigued him. He turned the Silhouette portrait over in his hands to examine the ornate black frame. It really was an impressive frame as far as frames went...
“Don’t be a fool,” Severus told himself lamely. Then he thought: You don’t need this.
But, had Severus been honest with himself, he would have seen it as the farce that it was, a lie he had told himself so much he had started to believe in it. He had never before minded being alone, but that was the funny thing about leading a life of duplicity. Being alone simplified things, made them easier to manage. Above all else, the solitude kept him alive until he had finished what he had set out to do. Days like today, though—and they had been so rare in recent months, what with his recovery and rehabilitation, that he had almost forgotten what they felt like—the loneliness carved away at him the way the elements might erode stone.
For reasons he would not be able to explain later, Severus found himself picturing Adelaide's face; her deep-set eyes that watched him carefully, and her rounded lips, that when she smiled at him hinted at the slight gap between her front two teeth. The double spiral on his left wrist began to throb and sear before it faded into an uncomfortable stinging sensation.
Severus winced. Did she feel that every time?
Instead of staring at his own reflection, Severus saw the ceiling of an unfamiliar room slowly come into focus. Clear fairy lights hung in a limp cluster in a corner, casting the image in a golden hue. It was dim, but he could still see the webbing of cracks in the plaster where the ceiling met the wall.
"Miss Harlowe?" he said somewhat hesitantly at first, then again, louder. Out of frame, Severus heard the sound of shuffling, then what he believed to be bare feet treading quickly upon a wooden floor. There was distortion in the image, as though the room had spun suddenly on an axis, and Adelaide Harlowe came into view.
“Mister Snape?” Adelaide ran a hand through her bedraggled black hair. Severus felt a small pang of foolishness and guilt. He had woken her, apparently. “What’s wrong?”
He wondered that exact thing himself. Now that he had Adelaide back in her frame, Severus had absolutely no idea what to do with her. He rubbed at his head pensively. His mouth was completely dry when he said, “Forgive me for interrupting your lie in.” His tone was none too pleasant, and speaking to her have did not have the cathartic feeling he believed it would. On the contrary he felt like an imbecile. “But I need to ask you something."
"Of course,” Adelaide said. His less than cheerful greeting did not appear to faze her in the slightest. “Anything.”
"How do you take your tea?"
“My tea?” Adelaide made a face, as if she were trying to puzzle through whether he was serious or not.
Dear God, Severus thought. The regret for having picked up the frame in the first place was immediate, but there was not a thing he could do about it now that would not render him an even bigger fool. His mind began racing, searching for some sequence of words that would ease the awkwardness he had created. “Yes, I…I,” he stammered uncharacteristically before finally settling on: “I’ve grown tired of taking it the same way.” Severus fought back a cringe, forcing his face to take on a rather detached expression. Great work, you blithering dolt, he chastised himself. Fantastic excuse.
But instead of the snickering he had expected, Severus, much to his surprise, saw Adelaide’s lips begin to curl into a smile. “I understand,” she said gently. “It does one good to add a little variety every so often, even in something as minute as one’s tea. I take mine with honey and a dash of milk. You should try it.”
Severus sat silently for a second before mindlessly repeating the word, “honey.”
“Yes,” she replied, now seeming downright gleeful to be able to help him, if only in a small way. “I tried it once at a friend’s suggestion,” she managed, through a yawn. “Haven’t gone back to sugar since.”
Severus nodded with lame relief, but remained silent.
“How do you take your tea?” Adelaide added, seeming to sense the tension though radiating off him.
“Sugar and lemon,” Severus lied.
Admitting that they shared similar tastes in tea preparation felt like confiding something much too personal, like a secret that weighed on him heavily which he could never bring himself to share. As she smiled at him again, Severus suddenly remembered why the combination had come to him so easily, the sweet aroma of citrus and summer that followed Lily Potter around like a prim shadow. Thank God the black-haired girl hovering in front of him could not see inside his head.
Severus consciously pushed away those memories, feeling worse for having dragged them from the place they had lain dormant all those years. It was funny, in a sad, perverse sort of way, the way he could sometimes reflect on the simple things that stood the test of time regarding their friendship, regarding her. He should have known it was doomed from the start. Toxic was the word that came almost immediately to mind. Most relationships were. You could be fast childhood friends one day, and estranged acquaintances the next. And then there are just memories that, with age, start to dissolve into one another until all that is left is a blurred, tangled jumble of what was.
“Does that hurt?”Adelaide said abruptly. “Your hands. They look ghastly.”
Severus jerked back, and suddenly realised that, without meaning to, he had flashed the end result of his early-morning fit when he rubbed absentmindedly at the sides of his head. The bruising looked worse than it was against his complexion. The purplish hue that tinged the fleshy area between his wrist and little finger on both hands was shining brightly for his Silhouette to see, illuminating the degree to which he had relapsed during the night like an obscene beacon. He fought the urge to snap at her for noticing.
“No idea,” Severus said. He pulled his sleeves over the offending area. Feigning a sudden interest in a hard callous on his finger he said nothing else on the subject.
“That wasn’t there yesterday,” said Adelaide. It was not necessarily a question the way she phrased it. Severus glanced up at her face, noticing the tiredness in her eyes and sleepy demeanor had been replaced officious alertness. “You didn’t take a fall did you?”
Severus wondered if he truly appeared that delicate. “Well done, you,” he said, giving her a deep frown. “That’s precisely what happened.”
Adelaide shot him a look of unmistakable annoyance, which caused the hint of a smile to tug at the corner of his lips. When it became clear that she did not find this exchange a laughing matter, and even more clear that she was not about to let the subject go, Severus relented. “Fine. I may have lost my temper this morning, and I may have taken it out on my floorboards.”
“What made you so angry that you tried to beat up your floor?”
There had once a time in his life where Severus’s first instinct would have been to tell the young woman to mind her own business, but now he discovered that that notion vanished surprisingly quickly when he looked at the portrait and saw the genuine concern on her face. He sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose; a lame attempt to buy himself some time to think the situation through. Did he really want to do this? Did he really want to open that door and allow her to dissect what lay behind it?
Severus felt a very unfamiliar and almost undeniable urge to tell her everything that had led up to the bruises that had captured her attention. It would have been so very easy to throw caution to the wind and blurt out every last detail—the loneliness, the dream of Lily Potter, the crushing responsibility he felt for the death of the only person he had ever truly cared about – everything…
“My thoughts…the past,” he said instead, with an impassive air. “And they made me angry. It was foolish.” That was sufficiently vague, he thought to himself. Not patently absurd, though still not the best. He hoped it was forthcoming enough to placate his Silhouette’s curiosity.
Adelaide’s expression relaxed into a fleeting smile and she seemed to give his response serious consideration before speaking. “You shouldn’t dwell on things that you can’t control,” she said. Her tone reminded him of Augusta’s—firm but sympathetic in its own right. “Nothing good can ever come from being a prisoner of your past, Mister Snape.”
“Yes, Miss Harlowe, I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, still with a hint of sarcasm.
She smiled outright at that. “I don’t doubt it, Mister Snape. You always take my advice to heart.”
A silence fell over them and Severus decided not to break it, his mind focused on the subtle trace of truth hidden within her attempt of wit. Though he would be loath to ever admit it aloud, Adelaide Harlowe, even with her tendency to offer unsolicited advice and the seemingly innate ability to make him uncomfortable in his own skin, was capable of moments of surprising insight. How she did it remained a mystery, but something told Severus it was purely coincidental considering she never appeared to pick up on the effect she had on him.
He could only hope she remained ignorant of those times she picked through the cracks in the walls—surviving them coming down seemed like a colossal undertaking he was not sure he could handle just yet, or possibly ever.
The clock on the mantel began to chime the first of seven hushed tolls, laying the previous pre-dawn hour to rest. Severus sat up in his chair and stretched. In her frame Adelaide yawned, the early morning catching up with her once again.
“Stop…” he said, only to have the rest of the words cut short. The contagious quality was automatic, and Severus found he could not help himself. When he gained control of his mouth he frowned at her. “Now look what you’ve started.”
“Sorry. Can’t help it,” laughed Adelaide. In the frame he could see that she had wrapped the blankets around her shoulders, and settled herself firmly in the center of her bed. He had half a mind to suggest that they continue their conversation later that evening, instead of behaving like pajama-clad teenagers at a slumber party, but she went on talking.
“I had a late night last night. I think I finally turned out the lights at half past three…” The sound of a blaring alarm cut her off. Adelaide glanced off to the side at what he suspected was her clock. She disappeared out of focus and came back seconds later with the silenced alarm clock in her hands. “It happens more than I’d like admit, but you’d think I’d learn considering seven comes entirely too early.”
Severus wondered what kept her awake at night, what hidden secrets accosted or graced her dreams when she closed her eyes. “Insomnia doesn’t discriminate.”
“I was reading, actually.” Adelaide fiddled with the black clock in her lap, winding the alarm dial back around to set it again. “It’s very easy for me to slip between the pages and lose all track of time. When I was younger, I’d barely look up from the words often enough to notice much of anything else.”
That was something Severus found he could relate to, though he did not tell her so. During his youth, his mother’s old school books had become his refuge. At Hogwarts, he had gravitated toward the library like a moth to flame. There was something about opening an long-unread book, smelling the ink and feeling the cracked spines and brittle pages of a well-used book that took him out of a world he hated and centered him in one he could tolerate. And of course there was the knowledge he gained through the years, and with it, the power, but that was something else entirely…
“I’ve not had much time for reading lately,” she went on, as somewhat of an afterthought. When she started talking, it was like turning on the sink tap—the words came at a slow, relentless pace seemingly untroubled and without end. “Not since I met you, anyway.”
“Such a travesty,” he said. Severus waited, studying her face with a single finger resting against his lips as he did so. He noticed a flush had crept into her face first, and knew was to follow. So easy to goad.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she blurted quickly. “Really, I only meant—”
“That having to look after a curmudgeonly shut-in has substantially interfered with your ability to enjoy yourself?” Severus interrupted, and saw that the young woman was becoming increasingly flustered with the direction the conversation was heading.
So easy, indeed. She nearly took the fun out of it all.
“No, Mister Snape, I wasn’t complaining. I didn’t mean to—”
“I know what you meant,” Severus finished for her. He could tell that she was on the verge of becoming genuinely upset and was compelled to end the charade of hurt feelings he had constructed. “There’s no need to apologize, Miss Harlowe. When you’ve been called the things that I have over the years, you develop a rather thick skin.”
“Just the same,” she said with a touch of pink still in her cheeks. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I wouldn’t have signed up for the Silhouette program if I didn’t want to devote the time necessary to it.”
“I have no doubt of the purity of your intentions,” Severus assured her. Then he smirked, quite broadly, and realised that was the first time since returning home that he had experienced anything close to an honest smile.
“I can never tell when you’re being serious,” Adelaide told him, shaking her head. With a sharp breath, she looked him in the eyes as though trying to detect what was going on inside his thoughts. “I think you pretend to be offended for the fun of it, which is terribly rude thing to do, by the way.” She folded her arms as significantly as Severus imagined she could, and frowned at him.
“I am a forthright man, Miss Harlowe,” Severus answered, circling around her accusation with deft precision. “Sometimes forthright to a fault, but I’ve found being blunt in most situations makes life easier for everyone, rudeness aside.”
Adelaide appeared to consider this, then she said with a wry smile: “Tell me then, if you are as forthright as you claim, why did you really activate your portrait this morning?”
Severus opened his mouth, but no words emerged. His mind raced to find some sort of response with which to fill the silence before things became excruciatingly awkward. Finding nothing, he decided his best option was to double down on the pretense he had originally put forward. “As I said, Miss Harlowe, I wanted to know how you take your tea.”
“Mister Snape,” she said in a tone of unmasked skepticism, “I admittedly don’t know you that well, but one thing I can say with a great deal of confidence is that you aren’t one to make idle small talk. So, what was the real reason?”
“You’re looking for some ulterior motive that I assure you doesn’t exist, Miss Harlowe.” Severus recognized he had said this with the tone of someone running out excuses, so he elaborated. “I was simply looking to remove a bit of monotony from my routine and hoped you might be able to provide it.”
“So you went with tea? Really?”
“Yes, I went with tea,” he snapped, feeling more and more like a fool.
“But why tea?” Adelaide pressed. “You could have lead with any number of things; what sort of books do you read…do you like your cottage pie with beef or lamb?” She stopped talking and was glowering at him with the expectation of a response. “Well?”
“I picked the sodding tea because I needed to hear someone else’s voice, besides the one in my head always reminding me of my mistakes!” Severus stopped talking at once, regretting the hateful, telling rush of words and the prying girl in her frame for putting him in the situation to begin with. Adelaide, at least, had the decency to look marginally bewildered by his response.
“Are you satisfied now?” Severus demanded. There was a deliberate sneer in the question. He wanted very much for a hole to appear beneath his chair and swallow him up, though he refused to allow his demeanor to express any notion of that.
“Yes,” Adelaide said carefully. “And you should be too.”
Severus released a deeply scathing sound. “And why’s that?”
“You can’t tell me that you don’t feel even slightly better for having admitted that aloud,” she said. “You don’t ever have to hide behind an excuse to talk to me. No matter how ridiculous you think you’ll be, and believe me when I say you will never ever be seen as ridiculous in my eyes, you may talk to me when the need strikes you.” Adelaide extended a hand as if she was trying to reach out and touch him, and the image in Severus’s frame juddered before finally becoming still again. She was holding it now, he realised, the frame or mirror or whatever it was that displayed him when they met. “You can trust me, Mister Snape.”
When he remained silent, jaw clenched and stoic, Adelaide went on:
“I get it, I do. You didn’t want me in your life and made it a point to tell me so the moment you met me, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Deciding whether or not to trust a person isn’t easy, and I know I’m asking a lot of you, but surely even someone as cynical as you can see the reason why.”
Severus looked away, unable to meet her eyes. He did know why.
“I may not know you as a close friend would, and we may never reach the point where you can confide in me the things that trouble you above everything else, but I do know that you deserve a chance to be happy,” she said, making good use of his sudden lapse of voice. Had he been looking at her, he would have seen the pleading smile she gave him, the earnestness with which she looked at him, but he went on staring at the wall as though it contained some hidden truth.
“Look at me, Severus,” she said after a moment. The sound of his given name being used so freely got his attention and he did look at her. “It’s entirely up to you, and you should never do anything you—”
“Stop talking,” Severus interrupted. “You should know very well that I’m not going to do anything I do not wish to do. I called upon you today because I wanted someone to talk to, I admit that. And, yes, I know that you are available to talk whenever I wish. I understand the details of our arrangement quite well, and—” Severus took a deep breath. The next words that he spoke sounded so foreign leaving his lips that he scarcely believed they were his own. “And I do trust you, Miss Harlowe. At the end of the day, however, I am who I am, and who I am is an extremely private person. That fact has nothing to do with trust—” Severus was stopped short by a series of three sharp knocks on his front door.
“What in God’s name?” Severus wondered aloud. He glanced quickly at the clock sitting atop the mantel and it read a few minutes shy of eight. “I have to go. We’ll finish this conversation later.”
“Of course,” Adelaide replied cordially. “Same time as usual?”
“I suppose,” he said, his attention firmly elsewhere.
She flashed him a brief smile. “If you need anything thing else before then, you know where to find me.
Severus sighed. “Yes, I know, Miss Harlowe.”
He did not wait to hear what she was about to say in response to that. Severus shut off the Portrait, stuffed it between the cushions of his chair and walked toward the door from which three more knocks, louder this time, had just emanated. Becoming increasingly annoyed, he reached the door and, against his better judgment, opened it. He had no idea who he had expected it to be, but he was especially surprised to see his former colleague and current Headmistress of Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall to appear in his doorway.
“Severus,” she said politely. She looked him over from top to bottom, a slight smile curling her lips when her eyes came to his toes. “It’s good to see you.”
“Minerva,” he replied with a curt nod. He had no idea what the reason for her visit might be, but he was sure that whatever it was, he wanted no part of it.
“Well,” she said sharply, “Are you going to stand their gawking all day or are you going to invite me in? It’s cold out here.”
Severus stepped back, the snow and icy wind blowing in around his ankles and up the legs of sleeping trousers. “If you insist.”
“I hope you haven’t eaten yet.” Minerva said as she swept past him. Severus watched her as she took off her gloves, stashed them in a pocket, then looked about the room intently. “I’ve arranged for us to talk over breakfast, if that is something you’d be interested in.”
“If it’s hidden up your robes, I’m afraid I’d rather not,” Severus said dryly, which earned him a firm glare.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Minerva snapped. She spun around and headed for his kitchen without another word.
“By all means,” Severus mumbled when she was out of earshot. “Make yourself at home.”
In the kitchen Minerva had busied herself with finding cups and setting out the plates and utensils. “Winky and Izzy will be here shortly,” she said to him when he came into view. “If I remember correctly, you take your eggs scrambled with cheese and buttered toast.”
“What are you doing, Minerva?” Severus stood in the doorway with his arms folded across his chest.
“I’m setting the table, naturally.” Minerva pointed her wand at the window and the curtains fluttered back to reveal the snowy fenced-in garden at the back of the house. Sunlight poured into the space, and she smiled at him benevolently. “Unless, of course, you’d rather eat out of the serving dishes like an uncultured baboon.”
“Yes, I can see that, thank you,” Severus groused. “What I’d like to know is why.”
“I am willing to bet my wand that you haven’t had a decent meal since you left Hogwarts.” Minerva sat down at the table, placed one of the wrinkled, off-white napkins she had found from God only knew where in her lap, and gestured for him to do the same. “I also know your cooking is a step shy from Hagrid’s if it doesn’t involve beans and tea and toast.”
Severus made a face, an impending barb taking shape on the tip of his tongue, but a loud popping noise issued from the sitting room before he could make proper use of the insult. Two House Elves dressed in tea towels featuring the Hogwarts crest came bounding down the hall, balancing a wide assortment of trays and dishes in their spindly arms. Severus flattened himself against the wall to keep from being knocked in the knees as they passed.
“On time as always, Izzy.” Minerva was out of her seat, removing a small tray of what appeared to be fried sausages from atop the small mountain of food the Elf carried. “You and Winky may leave the food and return to Hogwarts. Severus and I are fully capable of serving ourselves.”
“If the Headmistress insists,” said the Elf. He turned once he had deposited the food safely on the table, blue eyes bulging like tennis balls, and bowed to Severus. “Professor Snape, sir. Izzy prepared Professor’s favourite fried tomatoes.”
Severus sighed, realising that there was no chance of avoiding the situation now. “Thank you, though it was terribly impolite for Minerva to insist you do so.”
“Headmistress McGonagall didn’t insist, sir,” said Izzy, sounding mildly affronted. “She asked for a favour for a friend, and Izzy and Winky were happy help. Wasn’t that so, Winky?”
“It was so.” Winky, the other Elf, whose tea towel appeared two sizes too big, hiccoughed. “Any friend to the Headmistress is a friend to Winky, and Winky was glad to help.”
Minerva cleared her throat, smiling at both the Elves. “Off you go, now. Severus and I have much to discuss. ” The Elves obliged, giving one final curtsy to Severus, and with a single snap of their fingers, disappeared. Minerva took her seat and motioned for Severus to take the one across from her. “Do join me, Severus. It would be a shame not to eat when those two went to such great lengths to prepare you such a fine meal.”
Severus knew that the quickest way to get McGonagall out of his house was to humour her request, so he took his seat on the opposite side of the table. Besides, she was not wrong about the quality of his diet recently, and the fried tomatoes really were his favourite. He picked up his fork and moved some of the tomatoes and eggs from their dishes onto his empty plate.
“You look good, Severus,” said Minerva. She helped herself to some of the scrambled eggs steaming from the bowl. “How are you feeling?”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” he said. “Some days fair better than others, but I’m intact, so that has to count for something.”
“I read of your release in the Prophet,” the Headmistress offered. “Almost a year at St. Mungo’s—however did you stand it?”
Severus regarded her for a moment, then wiped his mouth on his napkin before he spoke. “I was unconscious for a lot of it. Seventeen weeks, they said.”
“That long, really?” Minerva shook her head, as is the tradition with good-natured old ladies when they heard something unfortunate. Then, “They were good to you?”
A sneer crept across his face. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, I suppose you are, ornery disposition and all.”
Severus was becoming increasingly annoyed by her earnestness. He shoved another forkful of food in his mouth and chewed to keep from telling her exactly how irritated he was.
“Things are slowly returning to normal at Hogwarts,” she said conversationally, as if Severus cared about the goings on at the school at all. “The castle has nearly rebuilt itself, though from time to time a plume of smoke can be seen hovering outside the left seventh floor corridor.” She sighed, then said, “No one seems to know why; we’ve checked it multiple times and never find anything.”
“Odd,” Severus said, making a great effort to sound as unconcerned as possible.
“Enrollment is up also,” the Headmistress went on. “And so far the House unity is holding—”
“My God, Minerva!” Severus was looking at her the way he might look at something uncomfortably lewd. “For my sanity’s sake, get on with it. Why are you really here?”
Her lips set into a thin line, and she set her fork down neatly beside her plate. “I was hoping we could chat before we got down to business, but since you insist.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “To put it rather bluntly, I didn’t stop by here today just to see how you were holding up. I’m also came to ask you for a favour. It’s perfectly understandable if you’d prefer not to—”
“I prefer not to,” Severus cut in, giving her a look that should have turned her to ice. How dare she! he thought, remembering with terrible clarity the last time they had spoken to each other. Amusingly enough it was the same night she had not only tried to burn him alive, but gore him to death as well. The scar was still visible from where one of her charmed and absurdly sharp daggers had nicked the outside of his right thigh.
“You don’t even know—”
“Doesn’t matter. The answer is still no.”
“Who do you think you are?” Severus demanded. The fork in his hand hit the table with a clatter. “You show up unannounced with this ridiculous pretense of checking on my wellbeing, feeding me even, only to spin it into something that benefits you. You could put Albus to shame, Minerva, and that is saying something.”
Minerva McGonagall lapsed into a stunned silence, simply stared at him with her mouth hung ajar. Severus was determined to drag this conversation out as long as he had to, to the bitter, awful end if it came to that. He took a long sip from his teacup and waited, refusing to give in until his former colleague made him or gave up and left. Was it so much to ask for the latter?
Severus’s casual handling of the conversation appeared to have struck a nerve with the Headmistress. “You don’t think I regret all of it?” she said. It was impossible to miss the quiver in her voice.
Minerva cleared her throat, and tried to flatten the invisible wrinkles in her robes before trying again, the second time more like herself: “Every day, what happened at the castle, what happened to you, plays through my mind. I honestly had no idea the depths to which your involvement ran on our side of things. I had no idea, Severus. None. And nothing I can ever say to you will make it right, and I would be a fool to think otherwise.”
“You tried to set me on fire,” Severus deadpanned.
“What was I supposed to do? Hand over Potter without a fuss? You and I were not exactly on the best of terms, Severus.” Minerva paused, closed her eyes as if to marshal the right words into place, then said, “Had I only known the circumstances—”
“But you didn’t,” Severus interrupted. His hand went to his throat, rubbing absently at the scar tissue hidden away under his shirt. He caught himself before he pulled his collar aside to show her exactly what the circumstances had cost. “Perhaps if I had actually been able to speak to the boy that regrettable meeting with the Dark Lord might not have taken place.”
This was met by more silence. Minerva sat her napkin on the table and gave a shaky sigh, in what Severus recognised as a last-ditch attempt to try to calm herself. In that same moment, and very much in spite of himself, Severus also knew he had crossed the line with that remark. He had been a man marked for the grave the moment he had sent Albus Dumbledore to his. It was a shame it had taken him almost a year after the fact to realise that unfortunate truth.
“I should’ve known better,” the Headmistress said at last. She stood regarded him with a brief look of sadness, and started to walk away. “Forgive me for intruding, Severus.”
“I want to hate you, you know.” Severus stretched in his chair, his long legs taking up more space than was reasonable in the modest kitchen. “When I was at St. Mungo’s, after I woke up and I spent weeks upon weeks alone, I tried as hard as I could.”
Minerva turned to face him. “What an awful thing to say, Severus Snape. What have I ever done to deserve that?” Severus’s mouth opened to utter a response, but she cut him off before he could. “Other than try to set you on fire,” she said pointedly.
Severus let out an involuntary chuckle. “I want to hate you because seeing you brings up every horrible thing I’d like to forget. I see you and I think of all the lies I had to tell, all the betrayals I had to act out. I look at you and I see what it has cost me.”
He held up and hand and she stalled. “Let me finish while I have the mind to say it. I want to hate you, but I can’t bring myself to, because I realise that you were just another pawn in this fucked game, just like I was. But, really, you didn’t deserve it. I signed up for it to atone for my past mistakes, but you were conscripted. I realise that vital information was withheld from you, both by myself and by others, and that that was unfair to you.”
“I could have helped you.” Minerva took a step closer to him, her expression one of deep regret. “I would have gladly helped you.”
“And it could have killed you in the process.” Severus looked out toward the garden, watching the white, blossom-sized flakes fall steadily toward the ground. The snow was beginning to drift. “I would not have been able to stand that on my conscience, especially if it was something I could prevent.”
There was a claustrophobic silence, as if all the air had been sucked out of the room, then Minerva said, “What a spectacular reunion this has been.”
Severus glanced up at her, feeling an odd sense of relief. “The food wasn’t terrible. That has to count for something.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” she replied and half-smiled at him. “As soon as I return to the castle, I’ll send Izzy to fetch the mess.”
“That’s it, then? You’re not going to tell me what you wanted me to do?” Severus stared at her, arms resting behind his head. “Your blatant lack of bravado is quite the disgrace to your House, Headmistress.”
“After that I would not have thought you’d be willing to still hear it.”
“Don’t mistake my curiosity for enthusiasm,” he told her quite plainly. “And know before you begin that I’m making no promises that I’ll agree to help you.”
Minerva scowled as she took the seat across from him again. “Naturally.”
Severus poured himself a fresh cup of tea, complete with a splash of milk and a spoonful of honey, and waited. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“As I mentioned before you interrupted me, enrollment has increased since Voldemort was defeated. Many Muggle-born and Half-blood students that were forced to go into hiding during their seventh year have returned to finish their required course work. This means there is an influx of students completing N.E.W.T level written and practical examinations.” She paused to pour tea for herself. “My faculty has taken on as many students as they can handle within their subjects, but there is still a handful of students without a professor to oversee their progress.”
Severus gave her a puzzled look. “Surely you aren’t trying to outsource?”
The sugar spoon in her hand banged loudly against the white cup. “Of course not! I have picked up the remaining students to advise, which brings me to why I came here. The students that will be sitting for Charms and Transfiguration I can handle, and that takes care of all of them but the one who is sitting for Potions. This particular student has decided to go a rather different route with her practical exam, and has decided to venture into uncharted territory by trying to develop something new entirely.”
Severus scoffed. “Are they trying to fail on purpose? Who on earth would decide that is a good idea, given the time frame?”
As soon as Minerva said her name, all of the puzzle pieces fit neatly together—his running into her at Culpepper’s, the overheard conversation with the clerk, the unsolicited advice and the book he had sent her…Why! Why did I do that?
“I have been with her from the start,” the Headmistress said. “And I have helped her as much as I can within my knowledge of what she’s trying to achieve, but I’m reaching my limits, Severus. I need someone to help me fill in the gaps so I can help her with revisions and offer suggestions when the time comes.”
“Why can’t Slughorn assist you?”
“Believe me, I have thought about it, but he is already advising ten other N.E.W.T-level potions students in their practicum, so asking him to basically take on another charge wouldn’t benefit any of them. And Hermione Granger is not what you’d call a traditional student, so I can’t very well insist that a staff member, who is already stretched thin with obligations, take on another because I no longer have the capacity to advise her.”
Severus frowned. That had been the second time he had heard mention of Hermione Granger’s so-called nontraditional status. It irritated him that he still had no idea what that truly meant. “Is she a student or not?” he asked before he could control himself.
Minerva took another sip from the tea cup. “Yes and no. Miss Granger does not live on the grounds, nor does she have the normal class load of a usual Seventh year student. She is living in a small flat above Tomes and Scrolls. You know it—the bookshop in Hogsmeade. I always suspected she would return in full fashion,” she added as somewhat of an afterthought. “But she didn’t. You see, the Ministry awarded her N.E.W.T levels in three of the four core disciplines for her involvement in the war.”
“How in seven hells did Shacklebolt manage that?”
Minerva shrugged, though Severus suspected she knew more than she was hinting at. “It was all very clandestine. Turns out our new minister cut some corners with the Examination Authority with regards to Mister Potter and his friends. As you can probably imagine, Potter and Weasley accepted with very little fuss. Miss Granger on the other hand…let’s just say old habits die hard.”
Of course they do, Severus thought.
“My usefulness has run its course unless Miss Granger has discovered a way to transfigure her project into something successful. I need your help because you are the best I know when it comes to the inventive aspects of potion making.”
“So what do you need me to do exactly?” Severus asked, certain he was not going to like the response he received.
“I would like for you to take a look at this as a start.” Minerva pulled a folded slip of parchment from a pocket in her robes, and held it out between them. Severus eyed it with contempt, as if it contained something sinister, then finally snatched it out of her hand when she shook it at him. “She gave this to me yesterday morning during our advisory meeting,” she said. A look of determined self-satisfaction passed over her face, and stayed there much to Severus’s disappointment. Then she said, “Miss Granger mentioned something about a book you had sent her a few days ago that helped her with a few of her smaller revisions.”
The parchment was covered in willowy script, with blobs of ink dotting here and there where an apparent mistake had been scribbled out. The first impression he got from the work was that it felt rushed, very unlike the work she completed the last year he had her as a student.
“At a glance, some of the components are questionable, and the spell work and preparation...” Severus trailed off. His eyes swept across the page. “The spell work and preparation look all wrong, much too basic for what she’s trying to accomplish here.”
Minerva made a face. “Wrong? What do you mean wrong?”
“Wrong. Incorrect. Insufficient. How else can it be put?” Severus sat the parchment on the table in front of him. “I can’t be certain without looking at the work in greater depth, but what she has there will never work as she means for it to. It has qualities of a restorative draught, which, as you know, work to lessen effects over time. Those draughts are time-released and are typically given in several doses within a specific window. Anything containing Alihotsy must be dealt with immediately, given its rather strenuous effect.”
“How can you tell that?” Minerva asked
“This is a concern, for one,” Severus said, and pointed to a word in the center of the sheet. “Bishop’s Lace, especially the pulverized umbels she’s using here, is known for its extended release properties. That’s the only reason it’s ever used, and it is used predominantly in restorative draughts.”
Minerva McGonagall looked immensely troubled. She picked up the parchment, adjusted her glasses so they sat perilously on the end of her nose, and studied the words. “I should have caught that.”
“Yes,” Severus agreed. “You should have.”
Minerva was quiet for some time, her gaze darting here and there on the parchment. “What do you suggest I do?”
He shrugged. “The sensible thing for you to do is broaden your understanding of antidotes and how they work. Then you need to tell Miss Granger to start over.”
“But she has less than four months!” Minerva said. Her expression was as if he had slapped her across the face. “That is preposterous.” She shook her head furiously. “No, I can’t do that. It will wreck any chance she has of completing anything at all.”
Severus, who remained unperturbed at her sudden shock, took a drink of tea. “Other than finding someone who knows what they’re doing and can properly instruct her away from the pitfalls, you don’t much of a choice.”
“Horace will have my head,” said Minerva, though Severus suspected she was talking more to herself than him.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Minerva,” he chided. “Horace will gripe to your face, but behind closed doors he’ll be delighted to have her as one of his shining totems, complete with the photograph to prove it was all true.”
“Which is precisely what I’m afraid of,” snapped Minerva. Severus had to admit that comment came as a bit of a surprise. “Hermione Granger deserves a great deal more than her picture on the mantel. Horace is fully competent, don’t get me wrong, but she does not need to be coddled because of her talent.”
Severus scoffed. “And refusing to tell her to start over isn’t coddling her?”
“No, it isn’t,” the Headmistress said firmly. “The blame lies with me entirely that she is even in this situation, because I haven’t the sense in my head to detect mistakes when she makes them. I will not punish her for my lapse.” She looked at him, almost in the same beseeching way Albus Dumbledore had managed to perfect, and sighed. “Do I have to admit flat-out that I am floundering, because if that is what it takes then I will gladly confess my ineptitude without a single excuse.”
“Would it possible to have that writing?” Severus said.
Minerva glared at him over her glasses. “Will you help me or not?”
A week ago, he would have dismissed the idea as complete and utter nonsense, but Severus found himself actually giving the request serious consideration, much to his own surprise. The fact that the student involved was Hermione Granger, someone Severus had never had a great relationship with to say the least, did give him some pause. However, for all the things about her that annoyed him, she was quite bright, as evidenced by the project she had chosen to take on. There was definitely a need for a new antidote, and her idea to use Alihotsy was especially keen. And Minerva was right about Slughorn, too. He was a perfectly capable potioneer, but his interest in the project would have more to do with adding another accomplished witch to his collection, rather than on the actual advancement in the field that the project would represent. Severus massaged his temple, trying to balance the welcome distraction the project may offer—something to fill his glaringly empty days as well as shift his focus from his past demons that insisted on haunting him day in and day out –with the aggravation that his involvement was also likely to bring, aggravation that he could do without…
“No,” Severus said, as simply as if he were discussing the weather with a random stranger. “I won’t.”
She opened her mouth, as if to protest, but what Severus said next stopped any flow of words. “I won’t help you, because there’s no need for you to be involved. You have enough on your plate, Minerva, without playing middleman between Miss Granger and myself. If I’m to be involved, I may as well do it directly.” Severus sighed. “Of course, that is contingent on you agreeing to give me access to the castle.”
“Are you certain this is something you wish to do?” When he offered her a curt nod, a look of surprised satisfaction appeared on Minerva’s face. “Very well. You will have all the access you require, Severus, of course. Though she would never say it to my face, Miss Granger will be delighted that you’re assisting her instead of me, all the good I’ve done her so far. She has always spoken rather highly of you—still does actually.”
Severus found that hard to believe, but let it slide.
“Thank you, Severus. Truly. You may have saved her chances after all.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Provided she prepared to work to see that it happens.”
“I haven’t any doubt of that,” Minerva insisted. She glanced above his head at the simple clock hanging on the wall. “I’m to meet with her today at ten to discuss revisions. Can I tell her to expect you Monday morning, or do you need more time?”
“Monday will be sufficient,” said Severus. “It isn’t like I have much else to occupy my time, what with no bidding to do these days.”
“Hogwarts looks forward to your arrival. You’ve been gone far too long, you know.” She stood, taking one last inventory of the remnants of their meal, then added, “I’ll send Izzy straight back to collect the breakfast dishes.”
Without another word, Minerva was gone, having Disapparated where she stood, and there sitting at his kitchen table still in his pajamas, Severus wondered what in hell he had managed to get himself into.
It has been a while, huh? I have been working on this chapter for the last three months now, and it feels good to finally be able to post it for people to read. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting to paper, so to speak. This story is written for Thorned Huntress, who has been a solid trooper and supporter while I waded through my thoughts to get the words where they needed to be. As always, reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated.
Have a very Merry Christmas and New Year. Next chapter January 2016!