New Perspective 1
A/N: This is the final chapter – it was never intended to be a long story. If I say that its alternative title is 'Neville and the Borometz' perhaps that'll explain why I stop where I do.
Warm thanks to all my readers and reviewers.
If you thought I'd let Snape get off a little lightly in the last chapter... read on!
X X X
Chapter 9: A CHOICE
"For he who lives more lives than one,
More deaths than one must die."
Wilde (The Ballad of Reading Gaol)
"What are you waiting for? You've done your good deed for the day. What more do you want – House points? You've satisfied your curiosity - had a good gawp at the recidivist. Not a titillating experience, was it? Though, I dare say you can spice it up later when you regale Potter with your audacity. Get out, the pair of you. You've run your little errand of mercy – now go away and leave me alone."
How ungrateful can you get? Snappy, tetchy, miserable bastard! Impossible, obstinate man! Not a word of thanks. No acknowledgement. After everything they'd done he was still pushing them away. Rebuffed and offended, Hermione snatched open the door. She'd been willing to help, but she'd expected some kind of recognition. Neville, however,remained standing next to Snape. He understood male pride.
"Will you be able to manage, Sir? With the poultice an' all?" he said, being practical. "We don't rightly know where you're injured, Sir, but strikes me it could be tricky…" He tailed off into embarrassment, feeling that the mere offer of assistance was impertinent, bordering on improper and certainly unwelcome.
The two ex-pupils braced themselves for another rejection. They saw the master's jaw clench and tense. But his fingers were working on the grey curls of Hippogriff hair, unrolling, unwinding, straightening and smoothing, until at last he could run his hands along the length of the strands, with no knots, no kinks, no tangles. He held his life in his hands. Pulled first in one direction and then drawn back the other way, the silvery hairs slipped through his slowly stroking fingers, unhurried, repetitive, hypnotic… His eyes followed the motion, glazed and unfocussed.
Neville was nervously clearing his throat to repeat the question when Snape spoke. Not only had he heard the boy's offer but considered and evaluated it, and reached a decision - albeit reluctantly. There were times when necessity overruled independence. The accompanying sneer, however, was not encouraging.
"Congratulations, Longbottom. You have just volunteered yourself. I suspect you and I shall find the task equally disagreeable."
x x x
Potions masters prepare Potions; students watch and learn. Neither Hermione nor Neville would have dreamed of contesting the hierarchy. Yet, when for the third time in as many minutes, Snape laid aside his tools in order to deal with his dripping nose, Hermione stepped in.
"You sit down, Sir. You're not well. I'll do it. I know how."
"You have done your homework! Don't expect any extra marks for it," he sniffed. Ungracious as ever. But he ceded his place to the girl.
A selection of containers had been set out on the kitchen counter. Hermione recognised the ingredients: skullcap, vervain, larks' tongues, honeydew, prickly ash, sarsaparilla… A dark, stoppered glass bottle of pre-prepared tincture base stood awaiting the addition of Datura sap. Recalling both the recipes and methods from her time in the library, Hermione stripped the fresh leaves, chopped, measured, mixed, stirred, boiled the spring water and finally left the infusion to steep. Next, using a Barrier Charm to protect her skin, she turned her attention to shredding and grinding the Datura root. It was like an elongated, stringy parsnip, off-white and extremely fibrous; as she cut, it gave off the sour, sickly smell of rotten asparagus. When combined with the other poultice ingredients an exothermic reaction took place - the bowl and its contents glowed briefly, becoming warm and then hot.
Snape who, from his chair, had been monitoring her every movement with critical suspicion, observed the milky steam rising from the bowl.
"That'll do. Close the door behind you," he ordered. A curt dismissal.
"But, Sir! Don't you want me to - "
"The door, Miss Granger." It was non-negotiable.
Incensed, Hermione was sorely tempted to tip the searing mixture over his miserable, greasy head and slam the door, but she did neither. Tears of vexation burning in her eyes, she left the room in furious silence, too humiliated to protest. She stood, banished in the hallway, arms fiercely crossed, determined at the very least to eavesdrop on whatever it was that was so secret.
Silence… then a series of muted gasps that had her squirming until it dawned on her that it was Snape, painfully and with Neville's clumsy assistance, getting undressed.
Oh, really - how ridiculous. A Disrobing Charm would do that in seconds without any fuss. Neville, she assumed, could not perform the spell; Snape, with his wand subject to spot-checks, would not want to. He was still too scrupulously proper to strip off in front of a female student! A smile cracked through her annoyance.
Then a shriek, and Snape's impatient growl.
"Pull yourself together, boy!"
Neville was not destined for a career in nursing - a plant nursery was the closest he'd ever get.
Murmured instructions, the scrape of a chair being moved, demur, debate, denial…
"Just make the incision!" Snape's voice, sharp and strained. A grunt, an exclamation, a moaning whimper - what on earth was going on? – a clatter and a scuffle and the door was wrenched open as Neville made a second precipitate plunge for the bathroom.
Snape was sitting astride the chair, his uncovered back to the room. It was only too obvious what had prompted Neville's urgent exit. Hermione had been priming herself for a gaping wound, a hideous, infected, even gangrenous gash, but there was nothing so dramatic. Just a raised, red lump below the left shoulder, a huge, angry boil, throbbing like a Clabbert pustule and weeping a trickle of yellow fluid. The skin around the bump – an area the size of a soup bowl – was hotly inflamed, contrasting starkly with the pallor of the surrounding flesh, and stretched taut, bursting with pent pressure. It looked as though it might explode, as though there was an incubating baby dragon under the fiery skin, pulsing and ready to hatch.
"Oh my god!" Hermione rushed forwards. "It's an abscess, isn't it, Sir?"
He nodded. His hands were gripping the chair back tightly, his face ashen. It was too late for modesty.
"Damn Hippogriff. Bloody brute nicked me with his claw. I trust you have a stronger stomach than that squeamish squib," he hissed.
"Probably not, but I'll do my best." Dismay masqueraded as calm competence. Could she sustain it, or would she too end up making an unscheduled bolt for the bathroom? She didn't know any spells for this sort of thing; she'd have to do it the Muggle way. Just a puncture wound; it could have been much worse. But this was more than an infected bite at the base of Crookshanks' tail. Maybe it was just as well Narcissa had not been the one to get the Hippogriff hair. Steeping a few Datura leaves was one thing, but would she have been prepared to apply a poultice? Hermione didn't see the elegant Madam Malfoy as the Mungo Bonham(1) type. What would Snape have done?
Hermione was already washing her hands, scrubbing-up in this makeshift operating theatre. "You want me to… to lance it?" With a cloth held at the ready - this thing was going to erupt like Krakatoa – she poised the knife… and stopped.
"Well? What are you waiting for?"
"I… er… my hands are cold. I… I don't want to hurt you…" Hurt him? She'd have to touch him first, and she hadn't got her head round that part yet.
"You're the only one who doesn't! Get on with it!"
"Yes, yes… OK, keep still… I'll try not to…"
"Just do it!" The instruction was muffled as he clenched the chair back, burying his head against his right arm, holding his breath.
One clean incision and the wound was spurting, venting a glutinous, oily lava stream of pus, a putrid rancid mayonnaise that pumped from the cavernous crater, oozing in repulsive, pungent gobs down his smooth, white back.
"Neville!" she called. "Neville, get in here." The boy appeared in the doorway looking fragile. "Neville, talk to us. I don't want him passing-out - or me, for than matter! I need him to talk me through the next bit."
Averting his eyes from the gore, Neville shuffled past and squatted beside Snape.
"So, er, Sir… the, um, owl thing. How did you do that then, Sir? Owls all over the, er, country… Did you, like, Apparate everywhere with poison, or, um, what?" In the presence of his old enemy the garrulous gardener was tongue-tied.
"Wind dispersal… food chain…" Snape mumbled, forcibly focussing his mind onto something other than the pain. He shifted himself slightly more upright in the chair so that he could eyeball Longbottom directly. Hermione, conquering her revulsion, swabbed and listened.
"The food chain, boy. The great beasts at the top – lions, Manticores – through to the birds and smaller mammals, invertebrates and, lamentably, you at the bottom." A halt for breathing and nose-blowing. Hermione was amused to hear the answer becoming a lesson - after so many years the instinct to instruct was ingrained. "An application of a systemic, uniquely bubotoxic(2) pesticide spread by the wind… slugs eat plants, small rodents eat slugs, and… come on, Longbottom, engage a modicum of logic. What do owls eat?"
"Owl treats? Oh, I see, Sir - mice and voles. Wow. But what about Kestrels? They eat mice…" Neville had grasped the essentials if not the entire strategy.
"Since when have Kestrels been owls, Longbot- aaah!"
A hissing intake of breath, and then Hermione felt Snape's locked muscles slacken suspiciously beneath her hands. His head slumped forwards onto his arm.
"Neville! He's going to faint. Splash some water in his face. Quick! I can't do it – I'm covered in gunk. Or slap his cheeks. What? I don't know. Just do something!"
Hermione had had to squeeze the wound. It was the only way to get rid of the pus. Squeeze till it bled. Neville jumped into action, dousing him with cold water; Snape spluttered and stirred.
"Oh, I'm so sorry! This is really bad, Sir. I don't know if I can… You need a Healer for this." The abscess had eaten away deeply into the flesh; Hermione was sure she could see the white bone of his shoulder blade at the bottom of the pit.
"Use the tincture," he whispered hoarsely. His smarting eyes flickered and rolled.
"Neville! Give him something else to think about. Distract him. Tell him… Tell him about the Borometz!"
"Yes, well, you see, Sir… I just happened to be doing a spot of gardening, when…" Neville began his tale. Hermione dabbed the tincture in and around the blood-welling cavity, feeling Snape twitch and flinch as the antiseptic mixture stung.
Hermione moved over to the counter and picked up the bowl; it was still hot.
"Pack it," Snape gasped, his attention sliding from Neville. "Pack it with the poultice, and seal it. Use Suturo! (3) The herbs will be absorbed…"
Hermione took a deep breath. This was revolting; it was like stuffing a chicken. As gently as she could, she pressed the paste into the wound. His skin felt alternately hot and cold, burning and clammy by turns, a thermal lighthouse, signalling danger. Snape moaned, and swayed on the chair.
"Look, Sir!" Neville cried. "Look, I've got the tail somewhere ... here, in my pocket. You can hold it, Sir, feel it, a Borometz tail…" He pushed the furry scrap into the Professor's hand, curling the long, cold fingers over its softness, and held it there, Snape's hand clasped between his own.
Perhaps it was the legendary magic of the lamb that eased the pain and brought the first, faint living colour back to the grey cheeks; perhaps it was the warmth of human contact, after being so alone for so long.
"Drink this while it's hot." Hermione handed Snape the newly strained infusion and stood over him, sternly Pomfrey-esque. "Bless you," she murmured as he sneezed yet again. "Pity you didn't think to bring something for that cold while you were about it."
Scowling at the Muggle benediction, Snape sipped and gave a baleful sniff.
"It'll be the Hippogriff wound, messing up your resistance I expect," said Hermione. "You'll feel better once the antidote kicks in." He was in for a rough night and they both knew it. "But you've really got to look after yourself – keep warm and eat properly and… and drink fluids and so on." She tried to remember the sort of things her Mum said to her when she was ill. Standard, textbook stuff. It sounded lame and stilted and trite, even to herself, but what comfort or advice could she offer the Professor? He'd ignore it anyway, whatever she said. He already knew what he ought to be doing.
Neville had helped a sore and shaky Snape back into the sitting room while Hermione tidied up the kitchen. Now she pulled up the cloak that was slipping off his thin shoulders – all the while asking herself why she was caring for a man who would, in all likelihood, be poisoning her drinking water at the earliest opportunity.
"Why don't you come back with us," she suggested gently, "at least until you're better. You could claim sanctuary with the Order - "
"The Order! I haven't exactly seen them beating a path to my door with messages of support. I don't see them joining the thronging queue of well-wishers…"
No, they had been conspicuous by their absence. The Weasleys – too preoccupied with Bill's convalescence and the wedding; Remus and Tonks – ecstatically wrapped up in each other; Shacklebolt - chained to his Ministerial desk; Mundungus - released from Azkaban and maintaining a low profile for his own nefarious reasons; Hagrid - vindictively unforgiving; Moody - Dark Detectors working overtime, out for vengeance; McGonagall - overburdened with the responsibilities of her new Headship… Which of them had given a thought to supporting their former colleague?
"Half of them wouldn't think twice about turning me in to Scrimgeour. They've never trusted me. Why should I trust them? They're a bunch of judgemental fools too short-sighted to see beyond their immediate misconceptions. Sixteen years! And still they question my loyalty to my master."
It's not the loyalty that's in question, it's the master.
"So what will you do?" Hermione asked.
"Do? Rejoin the Dark Lord. What else can I do? I should go now. My absence will be noted." The bitterness was undisguised. "My master's work is not yet accomplished. And he will not achieve his task unaided." He took another mouthful of the healing infusion, grimacing as the scalding liquid scoured his raw throat.
Neville tasted his own mug of plain hot water without enthusiasm. There wasn't a morsel of food in the house, not even tea - Snape hadn't been joking when he'd told them he didn't want the place to appear inhabited. Neville was puzzling over what the Professor had just said. The pronouns had left him confused.
"Let me get this straight. You are talking about Dumbledore here, aren't you, Sir, and Harry?" He hesitated over the names. If he were wrong this could be an unfortunate question.
"You already know the answer to that, Longbottom. You wouldn't be here if you didn't." Sharp words, but the tone was spent and tired. "I'll spell it out for you if I must: I served Dumbledore while he was alive. His death has altered nothing. Is that clear enough for you, boy?"
So that's what it took to get a straight answer out of Snape – despair.
"And what about Harry?"
"Potter? That arrogant brat'll need all the help he can get." A bolt of animosity scorched across Snape's face. He'd promised to assist the boy, not like him.
"So, if it wasn't for Harry… …you'd be free to leave? To stop spying?" Hermione read the implication like a death warrant. The extent of his self-sacrifice shocked and chilled her.
Shivering, Snape drew the cloak around himself more closely.
"To die for one's beliefs - what greater test of loyalty can there be?"
"You don't mean…?" Hermione was horrified.
"No. Nothing so noble. Not yet… Not while I still have a role to play."
But, truly, is this any kind of a life…? A life of dissimulation and subservience; criminalised, condemned, despised, ostracised, abandoned…
Hermione crouched down next to his armchair.
"You can trust us. We'll talk to people, Sir. We'll make them see. We'll find a way. There must be a way…"
The tuft of white fur between his fingers caught her eye. He was still holding the tail of the Borometz - as though his life depended on it. Sensing the direction of her gaze, he too looked down at the little tail. With trembling hands he held out the tiny, woolly talisman to return it to Neville.
"You have been granted a rare privilege, Longbottom. Choose wisely."
Neville's hands remained deliberately folded on his lap. For the first time ever he met the Professor's eye with assurance. He had made his choice.
"You keep it, Sir. You need it now. I want you to have it. And later, maybe, you can pass it on to Harry."
Snape's throat tightened along with his grip on the tail.
Without thinking, Hermione reached out and touched Snape on the knee.
"I don't like leaving you like this, Sir. Isn't there anything we can do?"
His hot hand covered hers and closed around it, drawing strength from her concern. He allowed himself that much.
"Yes - you can go home. It is dangerous for you to remain here. You've done enough for one day."
The two of you have already done more than you will ever know… You have given me Hope.
A/N: I have left it deliberately ambiguous as to how magical the Borometz really was. Where does one draw the line between magic, faith and superstition?
1 Mungo Bonham – founded St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies in the late 1500s early 1600s.
2 Bubotoxic – harmful only to owls
3 Suturo! - It took immense self-control not to add "And keep the stitches small!" (Does an implied Rickman allusion still count? cf. RHPoT)