I've decided to arrive at Hogwarts early this year, mostly to avoid people, but also because I'd like the day to do some sketching of the grounds and the castle. I've had the foresight to arrange for a room in the almost certain event that Snape boots me out at midnight again, despite my generous offer to the contrary when he was in London last year.
I Floo from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, then Apparate to the edge of the grounds. I stand and take it all in with a childish anticipation and admiration that I don't think will ever diminish. As I walk through the gates, I wonder if every returning graduate feels this way.
Walking into the entranceway, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust from the bright sunlight. I am immediately aware that something must be wrong, for Professor McGonagall is sitting on the lower steps of the main stairway, her eyes closed as she leans against the wall. I have never seen her in such an unguarded moment, and suddenly I feel a twinge of apprehension. Hearing my footsteps, her eyes snap open and she jumps up and starts toward me.
"Harry, I was waiting for you. The Floo station in Hogsmeade said you'd just arrived. I was hoping you weren't walking." She looks tired and drawn, but manages a smile for me in spite of it.
"Professor," I greet her, shaking the outstretched hand. "What is it? What's wrong? You look terrible."
"Thank you for the compliment, Potter. Still tactless as ever, I see." But I know she is not really offended. "It's Severus, Harry. He's badly injured, attacked during the night on his way back from Hogsmeade. He's out of danger for the moment, but in for a rough time of it." She pauses, and I notice she's trying to control her emotion. "I tried to reach you at the station in Diagon Alley, but you'd already gone."
I'm on the defensive now. "I still would have come anyway, Professor, whether he's up for it or not."
She looks puzzled. "It never crossed my mind that you wouldn't come, Harry. Given the circumstances, I was just going to suggest you Floo directly to my office."
Oh. Now I am embarrassed. I've assumed that she would think that I'd use the opportunity to evade our annual arrangement.
But strangely, it's all I can do to keep myself from bolting up the stairs to get to the infirmary. I'm desperate to see him, to see for myself that's he's still breathing, to see him smirk and tell me what a self-centered little twit I am. Even though I think all this, I swear the Headmistress has heard it, for she smiles and shoos me up the steps, which I take two at a time.
I wave at Madam Pomfrey, who points me toward a bed in the corner. I slow my approach as I navigate around the privacy screen, and then stop short at the sight of the two men sitting at the bedside. They both stand when they see me, and as one of them says to me, "Mister Potter," I realize that we've met before. They're Aurors. I shake hands with each one in turn, then sit in a vacant chair.
"How is he?" I ask, not able to take my eyes from that face.
"He'll live, although we weren't too sure about that until a few hours ago. We still think he should be at St Mungo's, but we've been outvoted on that." The two of them exchange a glance. I smile, thinking how Madam Pomfrey and the Headmistress would know that Snape would hex them both if they allowed such a thing.
"What happened? Did you see it?" I ask them.
"No. They caught him between here and Hogsmeade late last night. He got away somehow, kept his wand too, and got as far as Hagrid's before collapsing. As badly as he's injured, it's near miraculous he got that far."
I'm listening, but I'm staring at him while they run down the litany of injuries: four broken ribs, lacerated liver, contused kidney, multiple soft-tissue abrasions and contusions, orbital fracture, multiple hits of the Cruciatus Curse. I shudder as I hear this last one, then the words become a blur as the enormity of what he's suffered overwhelms me. The physical trauma alone is staggering, but to have borne the Cruciatus in addition is incomprehensible. He might still die, I think, looking at him. Maybe he should be at St Mungo's. What was he doing walking alone at that time of night? But they didn't get his wand, good for him. My mind is racing, and then I notice that the two of them are looking at me apprehensively. I force myself to stop hyperventilating.
One of them says to me, "He takes unnecessary risks."
I agree with this, but feel obligated to come to his defense as he cannot speak for himself. "He's aware of the risks. And he usually is very cautious. It will be interesting to hear his side of things."
As they turn to leave, one of them tells me, "We could've prevented this. You know he called us off, don't you? Maybe now he'll reconsider?"
I smile, shaking my head. "Not likely, but I'll talk to him."
I sit there beside him for the rest of the morning. People come and go - not many - it is July after all. I can't keep myself from staring in horror at his face. One eye is purple, the swelling extending down his cheek to the lower lip that is split nearly in two. The other injuries, the ones I cannot see, are the more serious. Madam Pomfrey is busy with him all day, administering potions and applying salves and bandages. I help her as best I can, matter-of-factly handling his broken body. I touch him almost reverently, knowing how he would abhor the contact were he aware of it. That the man has been so demeaned, so brutalized, so victimized, makes my eyes swim. And as the shock of it begins to lessen, I feel the first, faint stirrings of rage. That he should have survived the war, only to be reduced to this in the aftermath...
Despite all the surface clutter, I feel a deep connection to this man, a connection that had begun the first time it was laid out before me that he had chosen to protect me. It had been made stronger by countless other actions, long held secret, then revealed to me by the Headmaster just months before his death. Year after year, he'd put himself in harm's way for the Order and myself. Until now I'd had only accidental glimpses of what this has cost him. But the connection endures, somehow stronger with each passing year. It is buried, I admit, under layers and layers of prejudices and sarcasm, resentments and remonstrations, accusations and ill-will. I am as guilty as he is for this sad state of affairs. Perhaps this epiphany will change how I treat him. But perhaps not.
As the day lengthens, we are mostly alone except for Pomfrey, and I am increasingly anxious that he is not yet awake. Pomfrey is worried too, I can tell. To pass the time, I read aloud to him from "Graphic Design: Urban Applications." It is all I have with me.
I am sternly commanded to report to the Great Hall for dinner, but find I cannot leave him. So I am left alone with a promise that something will be sent up for me.
I hover over him, adjusting pillows, checking poultices, even daring to tuck his lank hair behind his ears. His face is slack, so devoid of any trace of the practiced expressions he takes care to keep there: the sneer, the scowl, the smirk, the scoff. I try to will one to appear and fail. Standing there looking down at him, I recall in a flash that look he gave me before leaving last year. It had confused me, as had much of his attitude toward me that day. I've thought about that day far more that I like to admit. I had lost sleep over his simple acknowledgment that we both had, in our own way, chosen the same path, to define ourselves by our choices rather than by reacting to our circumstances. He had looked me full in the face as he'd said it, and for only the second time in my life, I had felt truly seen by someone. Dumbledore had been the only other. But I knew he was right about the choices we both had made, and over time have become comforted by the thought that at least one other person understands.
I'm exhausted now and pull up a chair to sit near the head of the bed. Leaning forward, my elbows on my knees, I prop my chin in my hands and stare at him. I don't expect a response. This is probably why I say it anyway. "Come on, Severus, snap out of it."
His eyes flick open at the sound, and take me in, fully aware, then drift shut again. I think I'm imagining it, so I try again. "Severus, wake up."
The eyes remain closed, but the mouth does not. "I heard you the first time, Potter."
I'm out of my chair, running for Pomfrey's office and the Floo.
He's only been awake an hour, and already I'm wishing he weren't. Propped up on a pillow, he's talked almost nonstop, peppering Pomfrey with questions about his injuries, berating the Aurors for asking stupid questions, and dressing down the Headmistress for summoning me early.
"But she didn't call for me to come early," I tell him firmly. "As if I'd come." I let him think about this, then add, "She did try, but I was already on my way. I planned to come early from the start." He's waiting for me to explain, the black eyes glittering. "I wanted to spend some time on the grounds, working...sketching the castle, if you must know." He's always been able to tell if I'm lying, and I see that he's satisfied, and can it be, disappointed? I wonder about this, then force myself to stop. The man is a skilled Legilimens, after all, and I don't want him mucking about in my head.
Several hours later, Pomfrey has literally worked all the magic she can, and he is perched tentatively on the side of the bed. They have exchanged some loud and heated words, but he is determined not to spend the night in the hospital wing. McGonagall has tried to persuade him that surely the Headmaster would understand the special circumstances this year, but he's silenced her with a withering barrage best summarized by "Mind your own business and do not presume to tell me mine". I hold my tongue through all of this, knowing I can only make things worse by agreeing with them, although I believe that their suggestion to postpone "our anniversary" is the reasonable course of action. If I refuse to help him and take their side in this, he will still leave. Better that I should be with him, miserable as that promises to be.
It takes the three of us the better part of an hour to get him safely installed in his own bed in the dungeons. Pomfrey is instructing me for the third time on which potion to give when and what salve to apply where, when he interrupts in irritation. "Oh for pity's sake, Poppy, I made the damned potions myself. I can bloody well tell him how to use them." After repeated reassurances that I know what to do, and that I'll Floo immediately if anything seems amiss, the outer door shuts just as the tower clock begins to strike the midnight hour.
Settling back on the pillow, the black hair spread out over it, he waits until the last stroke, then says softly, "Happy Birthday, Potter."
He is asleep almost instantly. And I am stuck in the bedchamber with not even a chair to sit on. But we are "in the same room". Ha. I appreciate the irony. Without even the toss of a Galleon, I am relegated to sleeping on the floor once more.
But I shouldn't complain about the floor, as this is not a night that I'm meant to actually sleep. As Pomfrey has repaired much of the physical damage, and as the shock of these injuries resolves, the aftermath of the Cruciatus becomes more pronounced. He mumbles in his sleep, sweats through his gowns, and claws at his skin with his own hands. He shakes violently for interminable minutes, then is so still that I'm afraid that he's stopped breathing altogether. He fights me as I pour potions down his throat, then barely resists as I change yet another gown. I am loath to touch him like this without his permission, but know it must be done. He can hex me tomorrow, and probably will.
Towards morning, he has the first of what I know must be a seizure. When this first one occurs, I stand transfixed as his eyes roll up and his back arches off the bed. I am torn between running to the Floo for help or attending to the man myself. As he begins to shake violently, limbs flailing wildly, I make my choice and move to the bed. Pressing him under me, I try to keep him there. I pinion his arms with my own, and use the rest of my body to contain his legs. I ache with the effort, amazed at his strength when he should be so weak. Feeling him begin to relax underneath me, I move off him and survey the damage. The lip wound has reopened, and he is covered in sweat and vomit, as am I. Sighing, I start from the beginning again - potions first, then cleansing, then dressing. It seems I have just finished, when he seizes again...and again. I soon lose count of how many times.
A house elf has popped in with a breakfast tray and an inquiry from Pomfrey, but I growl him away. I desperately need to sleep, but I know it is not yet safe to do so.
The seizures become less frequent, and are now no more than brief spells of shaking. Exhausted, I move to the head of the bed and sit beside him, my back against the headboard. Pulling him up against me, I fold my arms across him, his back against my own chest. I can control his upper body this way, protecting his head and neck. The legs can kick all they like. I lay my cheek atop his head and settle in for the next one. When it starts, I hold him tightly. As I feel him trembling less violently now, pity replaces fear. God only knows how many times he's suffered through this, more than likely alone. I think to myself that I'm glad I am here for it this time. He will not be happy about this when he finally wakes up, but I don't much care. I am the protector now, and with this thought, I finally fall asleep.
I awaken slowly, feeling stiff and sore. I can only imagine what he will feel like when he awakens. He is completely relaxed now in my arms, and breathing normally. Reaching a hand up to his face, I feel that his skin is warm and dry. I breathe a well-earned sigh of relief as I cautiously slide out from behind him, turning as I do to lower him onto the pillow.
I am startled to see that he is awake. I wonder for how long. The swelling has subsided enough that he can open both eyes now, but I turn away before I can read what is in them.
Neither of us speaks as I walk to the tray that the house elf left hours before. Warming the tea, I bring him a cup and a potion. Without his permission, I sit on the edge of the bed and wait while he boosts himself up.
Without a word, he takes the vial with a trembling hand and downs it. Taking it back, I then offer the tea, but he needs me to hold it to keep it from spilling. I am overwhelmed by his vulnerability, and even more amazed at his acceptance of my witnessing it without comment.
I sense that a line has been crossed, that I should say something. I don't know what, so I ask, "How are you feeling?" There is something unreadable, yet familiar in his face. It is the expression of last year, that look of seeing me. I have to look away.
"Probably almost as well as you do."
I thank him silently for this tiniest bit of sarcasm, where now I can feel the tips of my toes touch bottom. "Well, you're going to eat now, Severus, and then if you can manage, you're getting in the shower," I tell him firmly.
"I'll eat and shower when I bloody well feel like it."
Ah. Feet firmly on the bottom now.
He manages, without my help, to both shower and eat. I stay close by in case he needs me, but he doesn't. By the time he makes it out to sit with me by the fire, the evening is well under way. We have a rather clinical discussion on the effects of the Cruciatus Curse and the treatment thereof, but we do not touch on his or my very recent experiences with either. He does not bring up the subject of the attack, so neither do I. He accepts without comment the potions when I bring them and even permits, with only minor criticism, my applying the poultices. We hear the fireworks begin out on the grounds, and our eyes meet for a moment. I go for the Glenlivit and we share our annual toast. We are somber, for although the war is over, it still seems very much with us tonight.
It is nearly midnight, and I move to gather up the belongings that I brought the night before. I hesitate when I pick up the sketchbook that I have left by his bed. Seeing this, he looks at me, a question in his eyes. I shake my head, and tell him once again, "No, I don't think so. I'm sorry." He inclines his head slightly, then looks away.
Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I chide gently, "Try to be a little more careful, Severus."
The tower clock is striking twelve as I walk to the door. I turn to look back.
"See you next year, Harry."
I smile at this, then nod. Opening the door, I find Pomfrey and the Headmistress waiting outside. "He's all yours," I tell them. "Good luck."