But this rough magic I here abjure; and when I have requir'd Some heavenly music (which even now I do) To work mine end upon their senses that This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than did ever plummet sound I'll drown my book. Prospero, The Tempest, IV.i
"--essor Hunter, please wake up --"
"-- no improvement soon, I think St. Mungo's..."
"I'm fine, Professor Hunter, I just wish --"
Ah, now that was Neville. I had a pang of regret at causing him worry.
"...terrible business, I don't know how we can --"
"...really, Miranda, this is quite long enough..."
Warmth and pressure at my forehead, sliding upward, tangling and tugging at my hair: this voice low, husky, seemingly in my head.
"I need you to wake up. Please."
That last word rougher, an afterthought from one unaccustomed to asking favours.
It was tempting, that last: but in the end although it was terribly important and compelling, I couldn't quite place why. And I was so very, very tired: I wanted so much for the pain to stop. So I burrowed deeper into the blackness and waited to see what would happen.
After a bit, the voices stopped.
But I wasn't quite alone. There was something in the void, hovering just beyond my senses. Waiting. Biding its time.
For an Awfully Big Adventure, this is bloody boring, actually.
Whatever it was out there It sensed my thought, and a faint trace of amusement and exasperation wafted to me.
"What did you expect?"
I don't know. Not a limbo, certainly.
There was another hum of exasperation, gentle but unmistakable.
"You're waffling, you know."
I wasn't aware I had to make a choice.
"I'm not sure they know what to make of you at the moment. You're usually a fighter."
I'm just so tired. Let them decide.
"They can't choose for you. Neither can I."
There was a long pause, and then the crafty observation,
"But I can give you a nudge, if you like."
My sense of the Other slowly grew; I felt suffused with a sudden warmth, tingles raced along my nerve-endings, and I tasted the sweet-tart snap of lemons.
So this is it, I managed to wonder. No tunnel with a beckoning light, no visitation or welcomers -- Pity, that, I'd have liked to see Ian just once more.... It's only the random mis-fire of dying synapses --
And then I woke.
Bloody hell, why couldn't they have drawn the curtains?
"MADAM POMFREY!" I winced as an adolescent male shrieked in my ear, cracking into a higher register on the last syllable.
Neville Longbottom, I'd bet.
"Madam Pomfrey, she's awake!"
Pomfrey's adamant feet marched into the room, her voice carrying before her.
"Mr. Longbottom, this is an Infirmary, not -- Oh," she stopped herself, startled. "So she is."
I weakly shoved myself up onto my elbows.
"Oh, my dear, don't try to sit up yet --"
Too late. A wave of nausea hit me as her concerned face hove into view.
"Basin," I croaked, and she wisked one in front of me in the nick of time: I retched uncontrollably, but it wasn't very productive. I must have been out a long time.
"Back down you go," Poppy admonished when I'd finished, and she checked my pupils. "Make yourself useful, Mr. Longbottom, and wipe her face." She moved to check the pulse at my wrist.
"Professor Hunter -- you're awake --" he babbled as he inexpertly swiped at my chin, "-- and I'm fine, but Barrett isn't -- and, oh, Professor Hunter, the worst is --"
"Mr. Longbottom." Poppy glared at him. "Not now. Slowly does it in any case, but not now."
Something terrible had happened, then.
"I know --" I had to stop to clear my throat, and Neville had the presence of mind to grab a glass of water and help me sip.
"I know you're all right, Neville, you told me before," I assured him before I relaxed back onto the pillows. "I could hear sometimes, I just couldn't respond."
"You could?" He grinned. "Wizard. We thought --"
"Mr. Longbottom," Poppy said severely, and he subsided back into his chair, flushing at the rebuke but still unrepentantly grinning. Poppy gently patted my shoulder to get my attention. "Open up," she ordered, and deftly deposited a few drops of a solution on my tongue.
"Now." She looked at Neville disapprovingly, though the effect was spoilt by a tinge of affection. "She needs rest and quiet, and if you cannot refrain from chattering, I shall have to ask you to leave. Longbottom has been with you much of the time," she informed me as she adjusted my pillows, "and he is dying to tell you what's been going on -- but not now."
Neville's face flushed in pride at the commendation, I thought. I had a sneaking suspicion he'd spent far too much time here.
"What day is it?" I asked him cautiously.
I started to remonstrate with him, and stopped, thunderstruck: the mess at the folly had been on a Friday.
"Please tell me it's only been a week?" I appealed to Poppy.
"Nearly." She patted my hand. "Good thing you decided to surface now. We'd have had to transfer you to St. Mungo's in a few days. You'd stopped taking fluids."
I turned back to Neville. "Where are you supposed to be now?" I asked him suspiciously.
He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Potions," he admitted defensively.
"Off you go, then," I told him softly. His face fell, and I added, "It's all right, Neville. Madam Pomfrey won't let me slip away."
He rose unsteadily. "Can I come see you after classes?" he asked.
I cut Poppy off before she could object. "Come see me tomorrow at lunch. You must have a lot of work to catch up."
He swelled visibly with pride, quickly bent over me, gave me a sloppy peck on the cheek, and darted toward the door.
He stopped and looked at me hopefully.
"Ten points for inappropriate language. I'm shocked at you, young man," I managed to croak.
He blushed. "What about the detention?" he asked.
"I'm still thinking about that. Go on, out with you."
He grinned, knowing damn well I wasn't going to inflict Snape on him -- or vice-versa -- and exited to the public ward.
Poppy chuckled as a blush rose to my face. "You've got a devoted beau there, Miranda," she said matter-of-factly. "He's been in here at all hours, like a lost puppy looking for its mother." She bustled about, clearing things up.
"Was he really helpful?" I asked.
"Oh, yes -- clumsy, of course, you know him -- but he appointed himself your personal nurse. Good thing, too, as Molly and I were rather busy with --" She abruptly cut herself off.
I let it pass. I wasn't ready to deal with it, whatever it was. "I wonder about him..." I mused, instead.
"I do too." She briskly straightened the bedclothes and urged me to take another sip of water. "Of course his marks would have to improve -- Potions especially. They don't let just anyone into Mediwizard school, you know. And the memory problems...." Her brow furrowed in thought, and then cleared. "At any rate, you're not to worry about him or anything else now. Try to sleep some more, and then this evening we'll get some food into you. Just broth, and perhaps a bit of toast," she added hastily: I must have gone green about the gills.
"Poppy." I stopped her before she could leave. "What happened -- I mean, with this?" I gestured vaguely to my head.
"Ah." She pulled up a chair next to my bed and folded her hands in her lap -- the only time I'd ever seen her in repose. "Skull fracture with intracerebral haemmorhage, possibly complicated by charming two Patroni. Some of us," she said with a sniff, "were amazed that you'd produced one, but at any rate, the stress of it didn't help."
"Oh. That's why I'm still here and relatively whole, then."
"I thought perhaps you had a higher opinion of my skills than that," she retorted, slightly miffed.
"No, it's just that -- an aneurysm killed my sister, you see, and I was afraid it might have been that."
"Oh, I see. That should have been noted on your records, you know. St. Mungo's can easily fix that sort of thing before it happens."
Damn. There was still so much I didn't know about the possibilities here....
"I didn't dare. I was afraid Social Services would take it into consideration when I applied for guardianship, so I never told my doctor."
And, quite frankly, I hadn't wanted to think about a potential time-bomb ticking away in my head. I'd made the best contingency plans for Ian that I could, and hoped I'd have the time to see him off on his own.
"If we can determine where an injury is, we can usually heal it. And with fractures if I can stop the bleeding quickly enough, I can limit the damage. We'll have to have you looked at by a specialist, of course, but it's fairly obvious your speech centres weren't affected."
I nodded woozily, and she reached over and patted my hand yet again -- remarkable, as she wasn't usually that demonstrative. "I think that's quite enough for now. I'll look in on you later." And with another twitch at the bedclothes, she hurried off.
"Glad to have you back with us, lass," he growled, and patted my shoulder roughly. "Good bit of work, that -- foolhardy, but it did the trick."
"Someday," I said wryly, "you shall have to tell me exactly what the hell I did."
"I'd like to know how the blazes you did it. Two different Patroni, one out of each hand," he said with obvious pride and satisfaction: I'd confirmed his long-cherished theory on Muggles and the Patronus Charm. "No one's ever done that in the history of Hogwarts -- probably the whole of Wizarding -- not even a pureblood. Not bad, for a Muggle with no talent." He took away the sting of the observation with a leer and a disconcerting wink of his good eye before Molly interrupted and ordered him out.
Finishing my meal to Poppy and Molly's satisfactions wasn't easy but I managed to keep it down, and on the strength of that performance I persuaded them to help me out of bed to a chair by the window so I could sit in the last of the days' sun. They brought me a book and tucked me up in a blanket, and then left me alone.
There was, obviously, some damage. My left leg and arm were very weak, and I'd required a lot of support to get to the chair. The words on the page -- Donne, and it looked like Snape's copy -- sometimes blurred as I tried to read, so I contented myself with leafing through to find my favourites and filling in by memory when my eyes would act up.
Pomfrey popped her head in occasionally to check on me, but it was a good hour before another visitor made it past her: the sun had faded, and the lamp beside me had lit itself. The door behind me opened and I heard the sussuration of a long robe sweeping behind its owner, who closed the door with an uncharacteristically quiet snick and stood at the end of the ward, observing me.
I knew who it was. I kept my eyes plastered to the page (even though the words were, for the moment, hopelessly blurred) and waited for him to make the first move.
"So." He invested the monosyllable with heavy sarcasm.
I ignored him, knowing it would irritate him immensely.
After an interminable moment he strode across the room and leaned against the window sill in front of me, directly in my line of sight, and flicked his teaching robes into order in that vain, protective fashion that drove me mad.
Back to full Potions Master mode, I see.
"You decided to return, after all," Snape drawled. His face -- what I could see of it through the blur -- was closed and inscrutable, his arms plastered across his chest. I marked my place with a finger and gently closed the book: his eyes snapped downward and noted it with a flicker of consternation, and shot back up to my face.
"I thought perhaps I ought to," I said carefully, and looked straight into his dark eyes, "as you asked so nicely." His sallow cheeks flushed, and with a pang of pity at his embarrassment I added "eventually," to let him off the hook just a bit. "I even think I heard please. I might have been delirious, of course."
He snorted, and then his face hardened: his hands dropped to the sill and he leaned toward me.
"What you did was stupid and dangerous, and could have got both of you killed," he said, every deliberate word dripping acid, "and I would be grateful if you would refrain from meddling in future."
After a moment's shock I placed the book on the table to my left: his damned observant eyes caught the gracelessness of my left arm.
"Yes, it was foolish," I admitted, replying to his venom with softness for once. "But no, I cannot promise you that I will behave any differently. Do you think," I asked gently, "that you're the only one with the right to act recklessly with your life when others are in danger?"
That shocked him. The blood drained from his face, and he slowly leant back.
"It's hardly the same thing," he muttered.
"It's exactly the same. We're both meant to protect and educate these children, and the fact that we have wildly different methods of accomplishing that is a minor consideration."
"I am talking," he said through gritted teeth, "about choosing to deal with it yourself, instead of finding one of us. Someone who could have dealt with it more... efficiently." Magically, he meant.
"By which time, Neville would have been dead," I countered quietly. "It all happened very fast, by the time I got there. And Barrett would have gotten what she wanted. What would have happened then?"
He didn't answer that, but pinched at the bridge of his nose (trying to ward off the headache I was giving him, no doubt). "How much do you know?" he finally asked quietly.
"Nothing. Poppy's not allowed anyone to talk to me about it." I closed my eyes and concentrated for a moment. "I remember... Barrett telling Neville that she meant to breach the wards around the school. That she'd do what you wouldn't and deliver Hogwarts to Voldemort, and that she needed the Power to do that." I opened my eyes and looked up at him again. "She meant to sacrifice him for that, Severus, and there just wasn't time to be sensible about it. She said she needed his magic, poor as it is. I'd have stepped in front of him if need be, and with any luck it would have bolloxed it up for her."
"Enough to give us time to stop her, at least," he admitted. "You can't hide the calling of the Power, not the amount she'd need." He sighed and dropped his hand back to the sill. "That's why the Dementors were so close, then -- we wondered about that. Too coincidental."
"What happened after?" I asked him.
"It's what happened bef --" he stopped himself.
There was something he wasn't ready to tell me, and I was just going to have to be patient.
"The Dementors were already gathered outside," he finally explained. "She'd been able to open enough of a gap for them to slip through and the castle was under attack. But when you disrupted the ritual --"
"Wait a minute," I interrupted him. "Back up a bit. Dementors, plural? Enough to attack the castle?"
"Yes -- not those from Azkaban. The Ministry's Magical Law Enforcement Squad keeps... packs of them in the major cities, to help control the criminal element," he said with a grimace. "We haven't determined how yet, but this group escaped from their keepers at the Aberdeen office and made straight for Hogwarts. Luckily they sensed the students were in the common rooms and clustered outside them in the corridors. It was easy enough to pick them off, under the circumstances. There were some significant injuries, but no fatalities," he explained testily. "I was about to ask you, did you try to save her?"
"I couldn't. I'd already called the Patronus to distract her. I only tried a second time in desperation, to protect Neville. I'd no idea I could manage two."
He nodded. "It was a question of priorities, then. I didn't think you would have.... She's dead, you see," he added heavily after a long pause. "The Dementor administered the Kiss, and would have done to you and Longbottom, as well."
"Pity," I said softly. "But you know, I can't feel that sorry for her, Severus. If you'd seen her... she was pretty far gone. I don't think there was much anyone could have done, short of locking her up in a psychiatric ward. Even you."
He gave me That Look.
"I know, you were her head of house... but I don't think she'd have allowed you to help her. She had a grudge against you, I think. She spoke as though...." Something niggled at me and I froze, my eyes focussed somewhere about Snape's kneecaps.
"Miranda --" Snape blurted out in alarm, and he started to reach for me.
"No, I'm fine --" I waved him away irritably, and he sank back to the windowsill. "Those were her words. You wouldn't give him Hogwarts. Not couldn't. I wonder --"
"It's a moot point," he said with a dismissive flutter of his hand. "She can't be questioned about it, and I doubt Longbottom can enlighten us further. I will speak with him again, if you like, but it's water under the bridge."
Coming from someone absolutely unable to let go of loose ends, that was rather remarkable, I thought.
Maybe he's finally learning to let go of some things....
"I think Barrett's father may still be alive, though. She said he was in hiding and helped her plan what to do. Do you think he might be responsible for the Dementors--?"
"It's possible," Snape allowed. "I'll... turn the information over to those who can use it." It was a painful admission for him.
He turned away to look out the window, and it suddenly struck me as to what was different. Under the tense, blank expression he was oozing misery, so badly he couldn't help but telegraph it. I mentally kicked myself for not noticing earlier.
"There's something else you're not telling me, isn't there?" I pushed gently. "Even with Barrett giving the Dementors a means in they know they're not allowed at Hogwarts, don't they? Albus has forbidden it."
He paled even further, if that was possible: swallowed once, convulsively, and cleared his throat before trying to speak -- and couldn't.
"He's gone, isn't he," I said tiredly, and Snape turned back to me, features again well-schooled, but his eyes dull.
"Dumbledore is dead," he confirmed. A spasm made the lines around his mouth tighten, and it took him a conscious mental effort to smooth them.
That was the worst thing of all, as Neville had started to say. I'd half-suspected it: there'd been something familiar and comforting about the Presence in my mental limbo. I wouldn't put it past Albus Dumbledore to have lingered as long as he could to see that all was well, or to have one last little bit of mischief.
I rather regretted not taking a sherbet lemon from him, now. Although I think he managed it nonetheless, there at the very end.
"Attacked in London, outside the Ministry," Snape continued flatly. "The Dementors were set loose at the same time."
Suddenly my head was too heavy for my neck: I closed my eyes and let my head drop to the back of the chair, and managed to hit the still-tender wound behind my ear. I winced, and bit back a hiss of pain.
A brusque hand at my shoulder pulled me forward, adjusted the pillow behind me, and pressed me back; with a rustle of robes Snape returned to the window and we sat in silence.
There was no point in saying anything, no need for potential banalities like 'I'm sorry'; the intensely private man leaning beside me in the evening gloom would neither appreciate nor tolerate an acknowledgement of his grief. For his sake I forced down the moisture at my eyes. I wasn't at all sure he could bear to deal with my grief as well as his. Time enough for that later.
"So Minerva is now officially Headmistress," I finally said, desperate to get him to say something, anything, and to distract myself as well.
"Yes, contingent upon approval by the Board," he sighed, "which is why she's been too busy to see you for more than a few minutes this week. And we've both been dealing extensively with the Ministry, which hasn't helped." Tired, he ran a hand over his eyes, and then through his hair -- a sure sign with him of distraction at best, and distress at worst. "You shall have to deal with the Ministry in a few days. They want very much," he said with more his accustomed acidity, "to learn how a Muggle managed to produce a Patronus."
"The theory's Alastor's department, not mine," I said wearily. "As far as actually doing it's concerned I barely remember calling the first, let alone the se--" I had to stop for a tremendous yawn, "-- second."
Snape suddenly stood, bent to me, and grasped both my elbows. "It will wait. Pomfrey will have my head if I tire you...." His voice trailed off, and I looked up at him.
He was staring at the top of my head, one brow lifted in disbelief.
"What in Merlin's name has Pomfrey done to your hair?"
I reached up to check it out: with my luck, she'd shaved me bald and I hadn't noticed.
Nothing was wrong.
"Washed it, presumably," I said irritably. "It does this if I don't straighten it as it dries." She'd done it while I slept, too, so it was not only wavy, but exceptionally frizzy as well.
"Good gods, you look like Granger on a bad day," he muttered.
Coming from someone the students called a "greasy git," that was rich. (Not that the epithet was fair: he always looked presentable first thing in the morning, at breakfast, so I suspected it wasn't a question of hygiene.) That being the case a nasty retort wasn't in order, and I was too tired to come up with one anyway, so I settled for a glare.
"Never mind, come along," he urged, and pulled me to my feet. I managed a few steps, but that damned left leg was dragging: with no warning but an exasperated sigh, Snape bent and swung me up into his arms with a grunt.
"Severus, I'm not an --"
"Quiet." It lacked his usual bite, but was a command nonetheless. "You most certainly are an invalid, at present," he stated categorically as he deposited me in the bed and deftly flipped the covers over me. He crossed back to the table, retrieved the Donne, and pulled the chair over to my bed.
His uncustomary consideration was beginning to alarm me.
"Don't you have papers to mark, or something?" I asked hurriedly.
"Thanks entirely to you, no," he retorted witheringly. "Longbottom blew up half the classroom after you sent him back this afternoon, including my desk and the papers on it."
"Has he missed much work?" I asked worriedly. "I know he can't afford --"
"He and half the Gryffindors are well behind, yes. I was informed," he said with a glare, "that they had devised a rotating schedule so they might sit with you, and for some unfathomable reason Minerva and Poppy allowed it."
The vision of normally cowed Neville defying Severus Snape popped into my head, and I started to giggle uncontrollably.
"I am so pleased you find that amusing," he drawled,"although I'm not certain unrestrained merriment is entirely good for your health at the moment. Perhaps I should inflict something suitably dismal upon you -- the Elegies, perhaps?"
"The Elegies are fine," I assured him, once I'd caught my breath. "It's the sonnets I dislike. Too pithy."
One dark brow quirked upward at such a shameful admission -- and then went up even more as he realised, finally, that I'd been teasing. (Sarcasm and dry wit were his forte; silliness and teasing were not, and I think he was a bit disconcerted to realise that I'd been twitting him quite deliberately and mercilessly over the past eight months or so.)
"How, by the way," he asked as an afterthought, "did you get out to the folly? Minerva had warded the exterior doors so no one could exit."
"There's a secret passage in the Ravenclaw corridor, behind the statue," I told him promptly.
"And who informed you of it?"
Tired as I was, I wasn't about to get Neville in more trouble with Snape: he sensed my hesitation and he added, "You do realise I'm now officially the Deputy Head?"
Pulling rank on me, hmmmm?
"Name: Miranda Dierdre Hunter. Rank: Junior Professor, Hogwarts School. National Insurance Num--"
"Enough." He glowered at me briefly. "As if I couldn't guess," he muttered.
"You never guess," I noted serenely. "You may suspect, but you never guess, and you won't act on suspicion alone."
But he would act on the information he had. Several Gryffindors were going to be quite miffed when they found their favourite escape route blocked.
Snape expressed his disgust with me with a grunt, stretched his long legs out before him, and flipped through the book, perusing and discarding until he found what he wanted.
"Since she must go, and I must mourn, come Night, Environ me with darkness, whilst I write: Shadow that hell unto me, which alone I am to suffer when my Love is gone. Alas the darkest Magick cannot do it, Thou and greate Hell to boot are shadows to it..."
His low voice, devoid of its usual silky veneer of menace and sarcasm, was soothing as velvet on the skin. It was also (given my exhaustion) incredibly and regretfully soporific, and I barely had time to wonder how many nights this past week he'd spent reading to me, how many minutes bent over my head whispering in my ear, before I drifted off to sleep.
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No, I don't believe Miranda's serious about not liking Donne's sonnets. I just think she likes to see that eyebrow go up.
'Since she must go': Donne, Elegy XII, "His Parting From Her."
Snape's hair: it's the potions work, gotta be -- I don't care how JKR explains it: my Snape's too fastidious. And he runs his hands through it, hence the messiness.