All Characters are property of J.K Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
Now that he gave it serious thought, St. Mungo’s had a sprawling campus once you made it past the magical barrier separating the establishment from the Muggles and the rest of London.
And it was always swarming with patients and next of kin and personnel. The grounds and part of the facility itself had been temporarily renovated to make room for the influx of patients following the Battle of Hogwarts. Two additional wings had been erected to the hospital to serve as emergency intake, and had since been renovated again into new offices for hospital staff. An infinity garden had also been placed in one of those wings to aid in healing and comfort and stretched out into a completely incased courtyard surrounded by dragon-forged steel and glass panes and a number of magical enchantments to ensure it remained standing despite proper physics. The board of trustees decided to make the changes permanent in the end, claiming some nonsense about new beginnings. In his comatose state, he had sadly missed the dedication ceremony and the festivities that followed...
Severus Snape was making his way through all of this, walking briskly through the giant terrarium-like structure, toward the west wing where Augusta’s office and the rest of the administrative aspects of hospital were now located. The deceivingly smooth cobbled pavement under his feet remained dry despite the incessant rain pounding silently on the glass suspended above his head. For that he was thankful, because he was not only in a hurry, but he was late as well, and did not have the time to deal with the inconvenience of rain.
As he walked, his mind wandered aimlessly back to Spinner’s End and the task he had to unceremoniously drop to see to this farce. It would be a miracle if the freezing charm he had placed over the current installment of Alihotsy Drought kept it from curdling in the cauldron. Severus was not sure he could endure another sleepless night, crushing Alihotsy leaves one by one, or reading over Hermione Granger’s revisions for yet another lead that was likely to lead them down the dead end of a garden path.
He reached the heavy door leading into Augusta’s building and let himself inside. The main corridor was an impressive sight, nearly three floors high with a wide assortment of deep violet-colored doors leading to what he assumed were Healers’ offices and conference rooms. It was eerily quiet compared to what he expected. Thick tapestries hung here and there off the lowest mezzanine, depicting the stoic portraits of prominent Healers of centuries past. The newer ones moved, the older ones did not. The entire room was extravagant, stopping just shy of garish. Overhead, a handful of charmed parchments, twisted and shaped into giant butterflies, flittered through air before finding their ways into letter slots of closed doors and what appeared to be brass personal post boxes lining the far wall. An ingenious way to deliver interdepartmental messages, really.
Severus had never been in this section of the hospital before, though it was a short walk from the adjoining building where his room had been. The sudden physical disparity between the room and outside left him feeling briefly dizzy. He looked down at the letter from Augusta in his hand to clear his head and began searching for her new office number.
The letter, or summons rather, had been delivered two days prior, and requested his presence for a routine follow-up appointment. The Healer had made it perfectly plain that this was not an optional consultation, and even went as far as to threaten him with sending her assistant to fetch him if he did not show his face at the appointed time. He was also to bring along his Silhouette frame, which had somehow bothered him more than her threat.
The voice came from overhead. Severus looked up to see Thomm Curwood, Augusta’s assistant, watching him carefully from the balcony of the top floor. The wizard batted one of the lower flying parchment butterflies out of his face with pathetic grace.
“Astute as ever,” Severus muttered, folding the letter before placing it back in his jacket pocket. He looked around for a lift or stairs, not seeing either. “Where’s Barnes?”
“Healer Barnes is waiting for you in her office, naturally,” said Thomm. The short, paunchy wizard pointed toward the far end of the corridor. “The lift is down that way and to your right. I’ve come to fetch you.”
Severus found the lift hidden in an alcove that had been blocked from view by a large statue of St. Mungo Bonham. It was waiting for him, the doors thrown open to reveal a sleek, burnished interior. He stepped inside the entirely glass car and the door slid silently into place. The car rose without a sound up the hoistway until it reached the third floor. When the doors opened again, they exposed Thomm leaning against the wall, picking absently at the cuticles of his nails.
“Where is everyone?” Severus asked out of genuine curiosity as he stepped off the lift.
“It’s a quarter past five on a Friday evening,” Thomm said, in a tone that suggested annoyance at having to explain something that should not have needed explaining. “Most of the morning staff are making their final rounds for the day, filling in the night staff, or they’ve already gone. This way, now. Office 117.” Thomm stalked off down the narrow corridor without a backward glance. Even with his head start the mediwizard could not keep up with Severus’s long-legged pace, and was trailing behind him slightly when they finally approached Augusta’s door. The plaque that was outside her old office had been transferred to this new one, and felt oddly reassuring and solid in the newness.
Thomm rapped on the door before opening it. “Mister Snape for you, Healer Barnes.” He vaguely gestured for Severus to enter the room. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, actually there is—sit Severus, I’ll be with you as soon as I send Thomm on his way.” Augusta pointed to a pair of empty chairs in front of her desk, as she approached the door, and Severus did as he was told, making no effort to hide his active eavesdropping. “This may take a while, and we’ve just received a new patient in the ward. An apparent Hodag Horn incident from his file. The poor lad’s out cold and could use some looking after.”
“Should I try to revive him through magical means or let things run their course?”
“If you were smart, you’d barricade the door and leave him be,” Severus announced, his tone one of bored indifference. “Someone roused from accidental Hodag Horn contamination can rip flesh clean from bone if not woken properly. The infected take on characteristics of the beast, you see.”
Severus cast a quick glance at the door to see a very unfortunate look plastered across Thomm’s face, his complexion suddenly chalky. When their eyes met, Severus gave him a contrite nod to drive the point home. The impertinent plonker.
“What? Is he serious?”
“No, he isn’t serious!” Augusta snapped. Though he could not see her from his seat, Severus could sense the intense glare she was directing toward the back of his head. “Just keep him under observation and breathing until I can tend to him myself.”
Behind him, Severus heard a half-muttered apology before the door closed, then Augusta’s voice: “You’re in a jolly mood. Not back five minutes and you’re already terrorizing my staff.”
“He deserved every ounce of it, ushering me around like an inept child,” Severus said, his tone far more unpleasant than usual, even when Thomm Curwood was the topic of discussion. “And you have to admit he did walk himself rather stupidly into that one.”
Augusta folded her arms, peering at him over the top of her glasses. It was an action Severus took with a very slight sense trepidation, fully expecting to be reprimanded further. After all, that was what happened nearly every time she had looked at him that way before.
“Flesh ripping…he should have known better,” the Healer said at last, the hint of a conspiratorial grin pulling at her lips. “Honestly, where did you come up with that rubbish?”
“You forget it was once my job to teach young, formidable minds the dangers of mishandled potions ingredients.” He almost succeeded at keeping the obvious sneer out of his voice.
Augusta squinted at him dubiously before she sat back down at her desk, leafing through the sheaf of parchments sprawled across its surface. “And by teach you mean scaring them senseless with grossly overstated lies?”
Severus offered a half-hearted shrug. “I doubt you’d find another technique as efficient.”
The Healer made an unimpressed noise, but kept further comment to herself. Severus watched her as she sorted the paperwork on her desk back into a large, ill-shapen envelope bearing the American Ministry sigil. One page at a time, they slid painfully slowly into the folder (which he soon discovered had his name scrawled on the front). He hated moments such as these, deliberate wastes of time when she would go about her business as though he were not sitting directly in front of her. It was all a ruse to get him start the dialogue, to spill whatever thoughts she believed needed to be said. He nearly conceded that she had outdone herself with the envelope. It really was a nice touch.
But he knew how to play this game. They had gone around in circles like this more times than he could remember. What he did remember, though was that he typically came out the victor. Severus found himself going still out of deep-rooted, irreversible habit, not so much as shifting his weight a fraction or giving any indication that any particular thought had taken up space in his mind. He just sat, waiting for her to finish, or start, or do whatever it was she intended to do. Had he told Augusta it was a favoured tactic the Dark Lord had used often, she might have taken a different approach, but that was not a thread he wanted to unravel at the present. Or ever.
At last, Augusta sat the envelope aside and retrieved a blank sheet of parchment from her desk drawer along with a self-inking quill. “So, tell me: How you are, Severus?” Augusta said delicately, and in a way he found irritating. When he did not immediately answer, she doubled down: “How do you feel you’ve adjusted to life outside of St. Mungo’s?”
He wanted to tell her that was an incredibly stupid question. He also wanted to ask what she had just packed away from a foreign nation that regarded him, but refused to give her the satisfaction. Instead, he said, “Fine.”
His Healer gave a troubled sigh and scribbled something across the page which Severus could not, to his great annoyance, see. “Just fine?” She did not even look up.
“Yes, fine,” Severus said. “Neither intrinsically good or bad.” In a way, he supposed it was truthful enough. Some days were always better than others. Those other days, though, which still came along with alarming regularity, left him feeling like he was treading in distressingly deep water. He would not dare tell her about those days. “Is there anything else?”
The older witch returned his firm gaze, her head cocked to the side in a way that he did not like in the slightest. When she completed her short study of him, Augusta cleared her throat. “On a scale of one to ten, one being highly dissatisfied and ten being totally satisfied, how would you rate your current place in life?”
Severus glared at her speechlessly, a moue of annoyance dragging down the corners of his mouth. After a moment, he relaxed, or rather slumped back with his head resting against the back of the chair, eyes upturned to the ceiling. With a deep, shuddering breath and as much conviction as he could drag up he said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
He did not have to look at her to know she was raptly scrutinizing every move he made. It was her nature, and he should have been ashamed. Severus swallowed a few times for the sake of theatrics and pressed on. “I can’t—” he trailed off, closing his eyes and throwing in an agonized pause for good measure. “Would you even believe me if I told you I’ve missed you terribly since the day I’ve left?”
When Severus opened his eyes, she was looking directly at him. Staring at him with a peculiar, strained expression, which only served to make him happier. He saw her jaw tighten and relax, as if she were about to say something, but had not quite worked out the specifics.
“You arse,” she said through gritted teeth.
Severus smirked at her. “I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to make this meeting worth your while.”
“And I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that your discharge can be revoked at any time,” Augusta said. She looked at him with a dangerous glittering in her eyes and a subtle grin slowly pulling at the corners of her mouth. In the early stages of their acquaintance, neither would have been good omens. “And at my professional discretion, of course.”
That was a sudden, horrible threat, and one that subsequently earned her a nasty look out of habit’s sake.
There was a silence that stretched between them until Augusta laughed at him, the sound of her rich, matronly mirth filling the room and his ears. There was something vaguely comforting about the familiarity of it, and Severus felt himself genuinely relax since his arrival.
“As much as I appreciate your thinly veiled attempt of humour,” Augusta said once she regained her professionalism, “there is serious business we need to discuss this evening.” With a twist of her wrist a tin of tea biscuits, two cups and a visibly steaming pot of tea found their way from a nearby tea table to her desk, where they proceeded to prepare themselves before going back to their appointed station. “Over tea, perhaps?”
“Thank you, but—”
“It shan’t kill you to indulge an old woman with a spot of tea and an honest tête-à-tête.” Augusta nudge the cup intended for him closer before taking up her own. “How have you been?”
Severus frowned, deliberating on how exactly to approach such a question. It did not occur to him to lie. “I have been…busy,” he said at last, choosing the words carefully.
“Good for you. Busy means you’ve limited time to sulk,” she replied, looking faintly amused. “May I ask what it is you’re doing with your time?”
“Does it matter?” He shrugged, feigning indifference at her prying before going with a more sarcastic approach. “I’m not sitting at home contemplating how to end my miserable existence as you’d like to think. It’s a job, nothing more.”
“Well that’s something at least,” she muttered, sounding disappointed at his deliberate omission of details.
Severus leaned forward, finally accepting her offer of tea. He took a slow sip to gauge the temperature then grudgingly said, “Fine. If you absolutely must know I was approached by Minerva McGonagall with the prospect of mentoring a seventh-year student with their potions N.E.W.T. practicum.”
“You’ve returned to Hogwarts?”
At her enquiry Severus felt an almost ghostlike yoke of weariness and dread descend over him. “Hardly. As it happens the work load is not so onerous on my part to warrant my return to the castle on a regular basis. When I do have to intervene, the work is completed at home.”
Augusta squinted at him, as though trying to decipher what he said. “Your home?”
“What’s your point, Barnes?” He shifted moodily in his chair, surprised at how defensively the words had slipped out of him.
“No point, really,” Augusta admitted. “Merely surprised. If I recall you were quite adamant about refusing guests into your home.”
“I’m being compensated for my trouble.”
“I see,” was all the Healer said before turning her attention to her tea.
Something about her tone set about an internal litany of suspicion concerning her opinion of him. At the least, Severus had expected her to be satisfied with the news of his quiet prosperity, but in that very moment he came to the sudden realization that the only future she saw for him had been reduced to the same old singularity of Hogwarts, a future he did not want and had little hope to escape because that was all anybody ever thought he knew or expected of him. More irritating than that, though, was the fact that her response bothered him with such precision.
Severus looked away from her dismissively as though utterly unimpressed. Inside, however, he was kicking himself for giving the impression that he cared what she thought. “Had I known your plan was to heap scorn on me, I wouldn’t have bothered telling you.”
Augusta gave him a faintly exasperated look. “You know very well that I do no such thing.”
“Don’t you?” he snapped. “I don’t know how you thought things would culminate once I left this place, but—”
“You misunderstand me, as always,” Augusta interrupted. “I never expected you to go back to Hogwarts in any fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled you’re doing something with yourself, but I’m also quite stunned that you would take on that sort of responsibility so quickly after your discharge.”
Severus accepted the rebuke, reluctantly. “Are you suggesting I relinquish my mentorship?”
“On the contrary,” Augusta said, shaking her head. “I think more interaction with people is exactly what you need. Idle time has never been a friend of yours, nor has solitude. You’re not exactly programmed to handle it well.” The Healer traded her teacup for the thick envelope bearing his name. “Speaking of interaction, this is your file from Silhouette,” Augusta said, holding it out to him. “It was sent via cross-continental post this morning. I’ve already reviewed it.”
“I don’t doubt that you have.” A wry smile of amusement flickered across Severus’s face. He took the parcel, which was deceivingly heavier than it appeared, and allowed his gaze to travel over the envelope to look at Augusta directly. “Should I be flattered or concerned that my habits are being so intimately scrutinized?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Healer said, her tone as caustic as she could make it. “You’re not that important, and most of it is just gibberish any way, programme specific jargon I don’t understand.” She took of her glasses and placed them carefully on her desk. “I did want to see how you’re getting on, but I’m sure you’ve guessed the real purpose of this meeting has to do with Silhouette, more specifically a mandatory meeting to conduct a thirty-day review of your involvement with the initiative.”
“I figured as much,” said Severus. Inside the pocket of his jacket he could feel the corner of his shrunken silhouette frame poking into his ribcage. “It’s a pity Zella Shrout isn’t here. I would find this particular conversation much more entertaining if I were having it with her.”
Augusta gave him a satisfied look, which he did not like at all. “Well, then you’re in luck. Madam Shrout should be en route via Portkey from her American Ministry shortly.”
“Great,” he said with no sincerity whatsoever.
“You’ve lived through worse.” Augusta paused, then shifted her gaze to the large clock at the corner of her desk. “I apologize for the lateness of the hour, but with the difference in time in New York six o’clock aligned with the only time Shrout could acquire an official business Portkey destined for London.”
Severus opened the envelope and began leafing through the pages inside. He could not decide if it was a relief or a disappointment to find nothing that automatically garnered his interest. “Is this going to take long?”
Augusta heaved a sigh. “That I don’t know. I have no idea what necessitates a review, but I suspect Madam Shrout will have questions for you.”
“One of her more annoying qualities,” Severus observed, making no attempt to hide his displeasure.
“Are you going to behave yourself this time?” the Healer asked, somewhat half-heartedly. It was almost as if she knew the answer to that question before she asked it.
Severus looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “Honestly, I don’t know.” And you can’t make me.
“If you embarrass me again—
There was a sudden booming shockwave of air and noise in the room that drowned out her threat. It all transpired very quickly and as is often the case with unexpected events, it took the span of several fraught heartbeats to register what had happened. Severus had left his chair, which he had somehow managed to overturn in his haste to vacate it. Augusta’s desk had been reduced to a pile of parchments, and the Healer, whose reflexes were not on par with his own, had her hands clapped over her ears. In the far corner of the room Zella Shrout, American witch and current bane of his existence, stood with a small, glowing briefcase clutched franticly to her bosom. She was still visibly reeling from being flung from one continent to the other in a matter of seconds.
Augusta was out from behind her desk, tending to the woman, who kept insisting she was alright despite the very noticeable wobble in her step. Severus ignored them both, righting the heavy chair, and wondered how entertaining it would be to watch Shrout vomit all over Augusta’s new floor. When the Healer escorted her to the seat beside him with a cup of tea, however, Severus realised, with little grace, that the resulting sick would probably splatter on his shoes.
As she sat the shimmering briefcase down, Zella Shrout offered Severus a drunken little bob that might have passed as a curtsy or a bow before finally taking the chair to his immediate left. “Careful not to touch that,” she warned needlessly. “You’ll find yourself in the New York City Portkey terminal.”
The woman was just as insufferable as he remembered from their last meeting with her overabundance of confidence that treaded the knife’s edge of narcissism. There was also, her manic enthusiasm for her beloved programme, which he found to be nothing short of impractical and interfering. Twenty years ago, I would have hexed you where you sit with the greatest pleasure, he thought at her. Then, “Pleasant travels?”
Zella offered a cool smile, then looked away. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice, Healer Barnes. If things go as planned,” she continued, giving Severus a faintly patronizing nod, “I should be out of your hair and you’ll be home to your dinner in no time at all.”
“That sounds perfectly agreeable, wouldn’t you say, Severus?” Augusta said, with an authority that Severus decided not to test at the moment. The two of them clearly shared the same desire to be done with this business.
“Of course,” said Severus, with brittle enthusiasm. It took a deliberate effort not to sneer.
“Excellent. I trust that you followed my orders and have brought your Silhouette frame.” Zella Shrout spoke to him directly now, but did not give him the time to respond. “We’ll get to your Silhouette in a moment. In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.”
Severus leaned back in his chair as comfortably as it would allow. He looked briefly to Augusta, who had a firm expression on her face, and decided to take the road of civility. “My thoughts on what?”
“Your experience with the program, of course. I’ve been wondering if your previous feelings toward Silhouette have changed for the better.” Zella Shrout steepled her fingers in front of her, gawking at him in a way that grated heavily on his nerves. “So, let’s hear it, Severus. What do you think?”
“If you want my honest feelings, Madam Shrout, I still think this is a stupid waste of my time,” Severus said, spreading his hands in mock confession. He knew better, given the previous look his Healer had given him, to speak so candidly, but there was no need to be circuitous about it, courtesy aside. If she wanted his opinion she would surely get it. “I can think of several other things I could be doing besides sitting here pandering to your ego.”
Zella Shrout had been smiling a little, but when he looked at her again the grin on her face faltered, replaced for a moment by honest, ugly anger. “That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.”
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Severus deadpanned. If Augusta could have reached him, he would have likely been kicked in the shins for that one.
Zella let out a breath. “Is it your Silhouette you are unhappy with?” she asked, nonplussed. Severus wondered how someone could be so preternaturally irritating without breaking into a sweat.
“Miss Harlowe is not the problem,” he acknowledged with some surprise. It was true he had come to find her company tolerable, and he was certainly not about to share that. “It’s the fact that I have to take time out of my day to come here for this nonsense. I conceded to this ruse with the understanding and expectation that it would be my Silhouette I would be dealing with. Never was it mentioned to me that I would have to disrupt my already irregular schedule to take part in these monthly appraisals.”
“I can assure you, these programme reviews are in your best interest,” Zella said bitingly. “Especially given the recent information logged concerning your compliance.” She held out a hand, beckoning toward him impatiently with her fingers. “I’d like to see your frame, please.”
Severus looked to Augusta, his frown turning into a full-blown scowl, and she simply nodded for him to acquiesce. He dipped a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulling the shrunken frame from its hiding spot and placed it into Shrout’s outstretched hand. “I trust you can you manage the reversal spell.”
For the second time within ten minutes Zella fixed him with a frigid smirk, her unnaturally white teeth bared in obvious disfavour. “I can handle a great deal more than a simple Engorgement Charm, Mister Snape.”
As it happened, Zella Shrout did know her way around the Engorgement Charm, nonverbally and with a mere snapping of her fingers, no less. The fact that she had brought his frame back to its original dimensions with little effort diminished the hilarity he found from her finally refusing to call him by his first name.
“This may sting,” she told him sweetly. She placed her wand upon the glossy, beveled edge and strung together a series of words too quickly for him to work out the origins. The frame began to shimmer, light dancing in the corners before it began to swim inward…and then the sting hit him like hammer.
He had expected to feel something, given her weak warning, but nothing could have prepared him for the terrible sensation that tore its way up his arm. His initial branding had not been so severe. Severus threw his head against the back of the chair, his heels digging into the marble floor, as if he could gain some leverage. He ventured a look at the seal on his wrist only to see it writhing in such a way that reminded him of the other brand he wore.
Severus vaguely heard Augusta inquire on his behalf, to which Zella Shrout said:
“Oh, this is perfectly normal. The magic, once bonded, doesn’t like to be forced by a third party. It tries to resist outside interference, you see, which is what he’s feeling now.”
He was certain the entire left side of his body had gone numb, or that he was somehow dying neatly from left to right, internal organs and synapses shutting down as the wave rolled over them. “You could’ve asked me…” Severus ground out through his teeth. He forgot what he had intended to say after that.
“I could have, but then I wouldn’t have been able to test the validity of your bond.” The American witch regarded him thoughtfully. “It helps,” she said, taking a deep breath through her pointed and perpetually upturned nose, “to breathe through the effects, if you can manage.”
He would have listened, if only to provide relief, but his mind had stopped working, tumbled by the merciless spasm that gripped his hand like vice…
And then there was nothing.
It was all over, the only evidence of his trauma the slight quaking of his fingers clutching the armrests. Severus eased himself slowly up in his chair, mentally preparing himself for Shrout’s impending verbal lashing, or his incarceration for killing her where she sat—which ever came first—only to be stopped by the sound of a familiar voice calling his name.
“Did you hear me?” he heard Adelaide ask again, this time more firmly and clear. When he looked up, she was watching him from her frame, stricken. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” he said, suddenly hit with a gut-churning sense of disquiet. This was the first time anyone besides himself had seen the woman in the frame. In some perverse way it seemed to reinforce his current place in life, one of those terrible moments of clarity when one realizes that something is not just a figment of an overly imaginative mind, because others can now see it, too. He had to remind himself not to take his blistering dislike for Shrout—or any of this—out on her.
Softly he said, “Did you feel that?”
“I did,” said Adelaide. When he looked at her more directly, he noted the flush high in her cheeks. “I thought something might have been wrong with you. What was that?”
“That, Miss Harlowe,” Zella said, turning the frame around to speak to her directly, “was a Cogency spell.” She gestured lazily in Severus’s direction. “It tests the strength of the bond you share with our friend here. The sturdier the bond, the harder it is to get it to yield. It appears, given that you also felt the reaction, that you’ve managed to somehow solidify what was already very strong.”
Something in Shrout’s undeniably patronizing tone suggested she was not at all pleased with this revelation, that it was in some way a falsehood. Not that it is any of your fucking business, Severus thought. “I thought your intentions were to speak to me about my compliance, my opinion,” he spat, giving her a withering glare. “I fail to see why any of this pertains to Miss Harlowe directly.”
Zella sighed. “I suspect she has a great deal to do with it. And I must say, I am very disappointed in her.”
Severus glanced at Adelaide, who had gone still in her frame, then back to Zella Shrout’s frowning face, thoroughly flummoxed.
“Did you even bother to read the agreement under which you are employed?” Shrout continued. Severus thought she was speaking to him until she produced a large sealed envelope with his name scrawled across the front, its twin currently sitting in a heap on the desk, and tossed it theatrically before the frame.
“Of course, I read it,” Adelaide said quickly. “I’ve read it multiple times.”
“Then do you care to explain why you’ve saw fit to ignore Healer Barnes’s suggestions for time logged within the programme?” The American witch sat back in her chair looking much too pleased with herself for Severus’s liking. “There are a handful of days in which you have not spoken for more than a few minutes at a time.”
“If I may explain,” Adelaide said. Severus saw her glance at Augusta sheepishly before their eyes met. “I think I may speak for Mister Snape when I say after our first meeting, we, meaning he and myself decided to take things day by day. There have been some evenings where we’ve cut meeting times short to adapt to our schedules.”
“That was not within your purview to decide,” said Shrout, holding up a single finger, as if she were scolding a child. “Not only did you did not have the authority—”
“She had my authority,” Severus cut in, his voice like ice. Zella ripped her gaze away from the floating portrait to look him squarely in the face. “I don’t want nor do I expect Miss Harlowe to rearrange her life to accommodate whatever suggestions were made without consulting either of us for our input or approval. She and I both have lives outside of this, and she and I are both free to do as we wish, your sodding schedule notwithstanding.”
“More than enough accommodations have been made for her already,” said Shrout, looking as though she had just tasted something sour. “Miss Harlowe knew what she was signing up for when she contacted us.”
“This is absurd,” Severus hissed. It would have been nice to shout. “You do know that you are dealing with a living person, right?”
“A very important person, actually, because she’s also a Silhouette, Mister Snape.” Zella Shrout sipped her tea, unfazed. “And as such, she has a crucial job she must see to exactly. She is bound to the contractual agreement of the programme, personal life notwithstanding. Her schedule is to fit yours, not the other way around. And your schedule should be the one prescribed by your Healer. If this is something that can’t be resolved, the bond might have to be terminated on my authority for misconduct.”
Severus was lost for a moment, trying to work out whether Shrout’s comment was one of subliminal indifference, frank lack of acknowledgement and regard of the lives of those she employed, or a deliberate flex of power to show that she essentially held control of both them in the palm of her hand.
“Pardon me, Madam Shrout,” Augusta interrupted carefully, “but I’m afraid I must intercede on Severus and his Silhouette’s behalf as well. Now is neither the time or place to go into further details of her contact—”
“It’s absolutely not the time or place,” Severus snapped. “And the bond won’t be terminated unless my six months are finished or I say otherwise.”
Everyone in the room was looking at him now. “I will not come back here,” said Severus his tone firm, despite the undercurrent of desperation he was desperately trying to mask. “You will not force me into coming back here. Do you understand me?”
Zella Shrout drew back in her chair, as though he had struck her. “This is a blatant disregard for the core principles of the programme.”
“Your principles are shit,” said Severus, with no penitence for how savagely the word left him. “You can’t toy with people’s lives and expect them to sit idly by.”
Augusta gave him a swift, beseeching glance. “I think what Severus means to say was that we don’t see reason to terminate the bond between him and his Silhouette. After all, it is meant to be adaptive, is it not? I was under the impression that as he continues to show progress…”
By virtue of Augusta’s earlier stricture, Severus forced himself to tune out the current conversation before his temper could gain potency and boil over. He did not have to listen to this—not only because he no longer cared what either of them had to say on the matter, but mainly because Zella Shrout had absolutely no right. He did not have to stand by and watch while another person tried to tighten an additional noose around his neck. He could afford to be iconoclastic, unburdened by the demands of what others thought he should do as for once in his life—it was his due, and he was collecting it.
The conversation had collapsed into a series of ultimatums and promised compromises on his behalf by the time Severus stood up without comment and turned to leave. It was quite extraordinary how satisfying it felt to truly not to give a damn, but not nearly as satisfying as the look his abrupt exodus garnered from Zella Shrout.
“We’ve not discussed your next steps,” Shrout said, then louder when he refused to acknowledge her, “We’re not finished here, Mister Snape.”
Severus stopped in his pursuit of the door, turning. It behooved him to stand his ground, to put an end to any notions that further intrusions would be tolerated. The floating frame flew to his outstretched hand without command, breezing past Shrout’s head with enough force to cause her to flinch (he could not have said whether he or Adelaide were responsible for that).
“We are finished. I am leaving and I’m taking Miss Harlowe with me. Healer Barnes has reviewed my appraisal in depth and can pass along any relevant information I may need, though I suspect there won’t be any for the remainder of my probationary period with Silhouette.”
Zella glowered at him. “That is not for you to decide. As a Match—”
“Irrelevant titles aside, I think it is for me to decide, Madam Shrout,” said Severus, and an idea revolved in his mind, suddenly clicking into place. “Should you feel the need to intercede on my behalf again, I’ll be sure to do the same for you. I suspect your department head, or whomever it is you report to would be interested to know of your penchant for interfering with the successful recovery and rehabilitation of an Order of Merlin recipient for valor. I wonder how much money your programme would lose if my Ministry were to stop footing the bill due to dubious supervising.”
The threat had been nothing more than a risk, an attempt to see if she could be goaded further, but Zella Shrout only stared at him in a fuming silence. She made an odd grinding motion with her mouth as though she were eating her upspoken words. Clearly, she had underestimated the lengths to which he would go to be left alone. Severus looked past the blonde witch to his Healer, who had an equally astonished look on her face and delivered the final blow:
“One final request before I leave, if you can arrange it.” He waited until she dipped her head forward in acknowledgement. “Madam Shrout is not to have any contact with my Silhouette without my express permission, or unless Miss Harlowe deems in necessary to complete her duties per her contractual agreement. I should think grounds for patient confidentiality and wellbeing supersede tedious formalities at this point.”
He held up the frame, displaying a silent, wide-eyed Adelaide to the room. “Do you need to speak to Madam Shrout for any reason going forward?”
Nobody said anything. The room seemed to be twice as small as it had been before he put the girl on the spot. “I don’t know,” she said in a timid voice. “Usually contact is limited with Silhouettes and Matches for the effect of full immersion—at least that was what I was told during my training. If I do need to talk to Madam Shrout, it’s usually because there is a problem I can’t fix or if I feel my Match is in danger in anyway.”
“And do you expect there to be any problems, any danger?” Severus pressed.
Adelaide smiled slightly. “No, sir.”
“Thank you for your professional opinion, Miss Harlowe. We’ll talk later.”
Adelaide took the hint and the portrait faded to black almost immediately, leaving just the three of them in the undoubtedly curdled atmosphere of the office. “I’ll be in touch to see that the changes have been finalized to my treatment plan,” he told Augusta coolly, putting the frame back in the interior pocket of his jacket. He cast a quick glance at the American witch, who had gone stock-still where she sat. “Madam Shrout, I hope this is the last time we have to endure one another—for your sake.”
She offered him a false, conciliatory look, somewhere between a grimace and a smirk. “Enjoy your evening, Mister Snape.”
As Augusta attempted to salvage what was left of the meeting, Severus left her office and as he walked toward the lift and found himself—against the dictates of his usual manner—grinning like a fool.
Later that night Severus sat at his kitchen table while a steady rain beat against the back of the house, eating a cup of cold takeaway dumplings with one hand and writing a list of notes with the other. The disastrous meeting and his potions work for the day over, he was free to turn his attention fully to his forthcoming meeting with Hermione Granger and was making a record of what to do should her newest offering prove fruitless.
When Severus agreed to take her on, he knew options would be limited considering the parameters she had set for herself, but now, with so very few possibilities written on the parchment, it was plain their plans going forward were little and less. He was running out of ideas, and that was a difficult pill for a learned Potions Master to swallow.
“Fucking hell,” he said quietly into his polystyrene bowl. Severus pushed the parchment aside for his copy of Scamander’s omnibus of magical wildlife. He made it halfway through the first page of the massive index when he heard his Silhouette frame chime to life at his side.
“You’re late,” said Severus thickly, through a bit of dumpling. He wrote down a page number and circled it for good measure.
“I’m sorry,” said Adelaide. “I wish I could say I have a good excuse, but I only lost track of time.”
Severus shot her a sideways glance. “I should take this gross malfeasance up with your superior.”
She laughed. “Do I even have a superior now?”
“You’re welcome, by the way.”
The frame floated from its place at his side to the other side of the table, giving the illusion that Adelaide was sitting across from him. He looked up to see her smiling at him. “That was brilliant. Terrifying, but absolutely brilliant.”
I wouldn’t have thought you would’ve approved, he thought, surprised by her reaction. Then, “It was nothing she didn’t deserve.”
“Oh, I know that, but can you honestly blame her though for wanting to pry?”
Severus fixed her with a revolted look. “Have you gone insane?”
“No, I’m being serious,” Adelaide explained. “I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the thing about people, isn’t it? Anytime a person builds walls to keep others out, they suddenly have that greedy need to see what’s on the other side. It’s human nature to want to know something that’s not meant for you. Madam Shrout is no different. She saw some war-torn hero, shrouded in secrecy, and she needed to know more. She just had better means to attempt it than most.”
Severus lifted an eyebrow. “And what of you, Miss Harlowe? Do you share the same need as our Madam Shrout?”
He studied her pale face in the frame as she considered this, and discovered a small part of him was anxious of her answer. Where Zella Shrout and the rest of the world were on the spectrum, Adelaide Harlowe had somehow managed to place herself on the opposite end, a strangely welcome escape from the crowds, the prying eyes, and the lips that favoured lies over the truth. Severus was not sure he would ever come to explain how she was different from the others she had aptly described, but she somehow was.
“I wouldn’t mind knowing more about you,” she said at last. “But I also understand if that’s something beyond what the constraints of our arrangement allow. And as far as Zella Shrout is concerned, I don’t think there’s any chance she’ll try again. I’ve had very limited contact with her as it is, but it wouldn’t have taken a stranger long to tell you had her backed into a corner.” Adelaide cocked her head to the side and said, “Would you have really done it? Reported her for meddling?”
Severus considered the question, staring down into his empty supper bowl. He wondered if she had seen through the ruse, but quickly dismissed the thought, remembering how stricken she had looked to be put on the spot. “To be truthful, I didn’t know she had anyone she reported to. But as they say, I leapt before looking and happened to stick the landing.”
“How often do you fly by the seat of your pants?”
“The seat of my pants is hardly any of your concern,” Severus said. He tossed his dumpling bowl in the bin and stretched mightily to relieve the stitch in his side. “But to clarify, that is not typically how I operate.”
The kitchen went quiet then, the only sound of rain pelting the window with renewed force.
“How long have you been sitting here this evening, pouring over that book?”
“Not long,” Severus lied, ignoring the throb in his back. The true amount of time he had dedicated to his new job over the course of the previous two weeks was likely staggering, even by his standards. He was certain the very chair he was currently sitting in had developed a rather uncanny imprint of his behind. The tedious amount of note pages and reference books he had read over and over were beginning to run together, the words blurring quicker each time he turned a page. As if to add insult to injury, he yawned on cue.
“You should really rest,” said Adelaide. “Go to bed early.”
“Yes, I should,” he said, but he did not move from the table. Instead he flipped another page of the book in front of him, forcing himself to draw his focus from Adelaide to the words.
“Or take break at the very least. I can’t imagine you’d be much help to that student of yours completely knackered.”
He looked up at her to say he did not have time, but faltered when her expression brightened. “Have you considered doing something fun for a change?”
Severus could not recall the last time that three letter word had been uttered in his presence. He looked back down at the page, not remembering where his eyes had left. “If this was your way of weaseling into a game of twenty questions, I think I’ll pass.”
“I was thinking something more cerebral than that. Chess perhaps? You seem like the type to have a set lying around somewhere collecting dust.”
He was intrigued, the thought of a break so very tempting, so much that he had almost said yes. The word was on his tongue, but somehow never made it past his lips. “People who play chess are only trying to convince themselves they’re doing something smart when they’re really only killing their time.”
She worked her bottom lip between her teeth. “So, is that a yes?”
“I don’t have a set,” Severus admitted. He closed the parchment in his book, marking his place for later, and turned his full attention on her. “And I don’t know if you’re aware but, chess against oneself isn’t exactly a droll affair.”
“I could play, too,” she offered. “You could move the pieces as I tell you. Think of it as quicker version of correspondence chess.”
Severus had to admit she was terribly insistent tonight, and he was surprised to find it was having a disastrous effect on his will to refuse her. “As tempting as you attempt to make it, I still don’t own a chess set. Haven’t in decades.”
Adelaide made a slighted noise through her teeth. “You’re a wizard, conjure one!”
The two of them exchanged a look. The notion of agreeing to such a ridiculous folly was enough to leave him feeling unsettled, but the restless side of him, the one itching for some semblance of normalcy, something else besides the tedium he had settled into, was enough to force him to ease out his chair, and once he had relented to her command he was lost.
Severus headed for the cupboard in search of a long-forgotten token from his youth; an ancient set of silver cutlery. He found it where it had always sat, sitting atop the highest shelf beside the tins of beans.
“This is probably the nicest thing I own,” he told her, though he could not have said why he felt provoked to do so. Severus sat the heavy polished, cherrywood box on the table and opened it. Inside, organized carefully into fork, knife, and spoon-shaped slots, was a tarnished silver set of cutlery. He picked up a spoon, analyzing his blurred reflection on the back. “These have never been used that I can recall.”
“A family heirloom?” Adelaide pressed. In her frame she craned her neck to catch a better look.
“No,” he said, his tone flat. He placed the utensil back in its spot. “The opportunity to use them never presented itself.”
Before she could inquire further on the matter, Severus placed the tip of his wand upon the chest. He had only attempted the required spell one other time during his life, and that was for his Transfiguration O.W.L. It had been difficult to charm the stationary set into a functioning chess board, but as soon as he spoke the spell, the Latin rolling off his tongue with ease, the chest morphed into a magnificent chess board and its contents intricately detailed pieces.
He picked up the black queen, holding it before the frame for his guest to see. “Does this suit your standards, Miss Harlowe?” She simply stared at him with her mouth hanging slightly open. “I call black,” Severus announced as he took his seat. “White plays first, so I believe it’s your move.”
“Queen’s pawn to D4,” Adelaide said with a fair bit of confidence. Severus moved her pawn as instructed and then moved his own knight in response.
Adelaide was still staring at the board, her finger tracing would-be paths through the air when she said, “It took me longer than I’d like to admit to learn how to play this game. My father used to sit with him just as we are now. I’d reach for a piece and he’d either shake his head or nod whether it was a good move. That pawn there to C4, if you would.”
Her moves are all for the quick kill, Severus realised. He countered her move with one his own, playing out the most obvious moves to come in his head. “Then you’ve never really learned to play for yourself.”
Adelaide laughed. “He destroyed me plenty early on that I had to learn or face defeat every time we played. I’m not a grand master by any means.” She pointed at a knight and Severus move the piece forward. “But I can hold my own well enough.”
She fell silent as he contemplated the board. Severus was keenly aware of her eyes following his movements, and when he finally moved his next piece, he waited to see if she would take the bait. “Did you ever manage to win?”
“A handful of times,” Adelaide said, absently. Severus saw her trace the path of her next move with her finger, and knew it would not be long now before she would make the fatal mistake. “That piece to your rook.”
“Pity wins?” he asked as she drew first blood by capturing one of his pieces. Severus sat the rook aside and played his next move, further encouraging her to risk everything for the chance to end the game quickly.
“No,” she replied matter-of-factly. “He wasn’t the sort to let me win at anything.” Severus nodded with a hint of suspicion. “What about you,” she probed. “Did you learn to play from your father?”
“No,” Severus replied dryly. “He was far too busy finding the next bottle he was going to pour down his gullet to learn how to play himself, much less teach me. I learned from my mother.”
“Oh,” she said meekly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to open up old wounds.”
That’s a wound that’s never likely to close. Severus dismissed her apology with a wave of his hand. “Just make your next move.”
“Queen to C6,” she directed. “Was there anything you and your father did together?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, his words drenched in sarcasm. “We had a wonderful game where he would come home drunk off his arse and yell at us for absolutely no reason. We played quite often.”
Severus moved another of his pieces, effectively blocking out any significant aide she could hope to call upon. She did not notice. “It was, but that was life as I knew it.”
The frame bobbled a little in the air where it floated, casting shadows across the board. “No, it isn’t,” said Adelaide, her tone firm. “Nobody should have to endure that. You deserved better.”
“An empty, needless platitude.” Severus was suddenly desperate to draw her attention back to the game. The conversation had somehow meandered to a topic he did not like to be reminded of, and one he certainly did not like to be dissected. “Enough about me,” he insisted. “Tell me where to move you, so we can get on with it.”
“You should do that more often,” Adelaide said.
Severus did not look up from the chessboard. “Do what?”
“Open up to people a little—rook above your knight, there.” She gave him a level look which he did not see, her mouth pulled up in a strained smile. “Despite what you think, it’s not a bad look for you. I know it’s not always comfortable—the truth rarely is—but it can’t be as difficult as spending your life running from what it is you try to keep hidden.”
Severus was poised to deliver the winning move, but made the stupid mistake of looking up at her. Their eyes met, and there he felt something stir in him he had not felt in years. For an agonized moment he wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to tell her every horrible thing he had and had not done, every mistake he had made and tried to rectify, everything. The thought of releasing the deluge of inner turmoil he kept locked away without any kind of filter or judgment… There was not a single day that went by that he did not wonder what it might feel like to flay himself wide-open, consequences be damned.
But today would not be that day, and probably not the next or even the one after that. The hard armor a person had amassed over the years was not something that could be easily shed; the knots and layers would need to be untied or cut away entirely before anything beneath could be revealed. Severus cleared his throat, his face carefully neutral. “Do you know what you should do, Miss Harlowe?”
“Call me Adelaide, please. I’d like to think we’ve reached that point, don’t you?”
He moved his bishop to place her king in check mate, and leaned back in his chair to relish the look on her face when she realised she had been bested. “You should strive to be a more competent chess player, Adelaide.”
Hello all! I hope this update finds each of you well. Life is good, though the words come slow. I want to thank those of you that continue to follow this story, despite the inconstant updating schedule—I’m trying to do better. If you’re following along, I’d like to hear from you! As always reviews are welcomed and greatly appreciated. Happy reading to you.