My thanks to everyone who has read "Never Alone" and my particular gratitude to those of you who have left a review. I appreciate all of your comments. Simply put, this story is a ridiculous bit of fluff that I wrote for myself over a long, miserable Christmas when I needed a little solace; it was never meant to be taken as a serious interpretation of characters or canon events. There is also no MM/SS or RL/SS intended; just friendship of a sort.
The most frequent complaint I received was that the situations I wrote could not possibly have happened in canon, but this was never meant to be a canon-compliant story. Professor Snape was treated quite shabbily in canon on a disturbingly regular basis and Never Alone was my small attempt to somehow make amends. Professors McGonagall and Lupin and Madam Pomfrey were all acting rather out of character, admittedly, but their actions were a reflection of how I wish he had been treated and not representative of how I believe the canon characters would have genuinely reacted.
This is the final chapter. Although it is brief and lacks a definitive ending , I do hope it's satisfying nonetheless for everyone who has followed the story. As before, I have no claims on either the characters or the setting; all belongs to JKR.
Professor Snape stood in the doorway of the Great Hall, his gaze going to the Enchanted Ceiling which was reflecting a brilliant blue sky with faint white clouds scudding by. For the first time in over two weeks, he was feeling like himself again and would have nearly been cheerful had it not been for the fact that the students were due back later in the morning. In anticipation of their return, the House tables had been replaced, as had the head table, so at least he wouldn't be forced to sit through breakfast while being glowered at by Potter and his minions.
He tensed as he heard footsteps descending the main staircase and he glanced over to see Remus hesitating at the bottom of the stairs, a host of fresh scratches and bruises standing out against the pallor of his skin. The injuries to his face indicated that perhaps the Wolfsbane hadn't been as effective as usual in controlling the feral aggressiveness during his transformation, but it had still served its purpose. They considered each other for a moment before Remus smiled faintly and said in a hoarse voice,
"You're looking well this morning, Severus."
"I wish I could say the same for you."
Lupin's smile faltered and he opened his mouth as if to reply, but instead he dropped his eyes and walked past him into the hall, moving toward the head table.
Keeping him within his sight, Snape made his way to the front of the room, considering his options carefully. Remus had taken a seat at the very end of the table, well away from the other staff members. There was a vacant chair remaining between Professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey but he was in no mood for their fussing this morning. He could also turn around and return to his room, but Poppy had already caught his eye and was motioning him over. With a resigned sigh, he took the indicated seat between them.
"Severus," Minerva said as he sat, quickly turning her attention back to the cup of tea she was pouring. She was never terribly communicative in the morning and even less so today, her expression both grim and resigned, mirroring his own emotions concerning start of term. In contrast, Poppy was studying him intently, an overly-bright and rather fake-appearing smile creasing her face.
"How are you feeling this morning?" she asked, her chin propped in one hand, her other hand somewhere underneath the tabletop.
"Poppy, I know exactly what you're doing," he said, accepting the teapot from Minerva. "And if you don't put your wand away immediately I shall snap it in half."
"Well," she sniffed, tucking the wand away. "I see I needn't bother checking your vital signs after all. You're obviously back to normal."
"Stroppy as ever," Minerva agreed, stirring her tea vigorously. The clanking of the spoon against the cup grated against his already frayed nerves and he willed himself not to grab it from her hands and toss it across the room.
"Remus looks dreadful this morning," Minerva said, glancing along the table towards him where he was nibbling delicately at a slice of toast. "Will he be fit to teach tomorrow?"
"He'll be fine," Poppy reassured her. "Poor man had a wretched cold and couldn't take Pepperup so it's lingering a bit."
Professor Snape listened absentmindedly as Poppy and Minerva continued to fuss over Lupin. With their attention diverted, he began to apply himself to the first meal he'd been able to manage in days. It was pleasant to be left alone to his own thoughts and he was feeling rather content until Lupin began to cough - a hacking, congested sound that made him wince in disgust.
He certainly could understand how he was feeling. His own cough had persisted for days and was just now beginning to ease, but it made it no easier to listen to while he was trying to eat. Only one thing had proven effective, and as much as he despised the source of the sweets, for a few miserable days, they had been the only thing he could tolerate. He wasn't sure why he was still carrying the bag around in his pocket, but there were still a few sweets remaining.
"Would you kindly pass these to Professor Lupin?" he said impatiently, handing them over to Poppy. "Perhaps then I can finish my breakfast in peace."
"Really, Severus," she admonished him. "You sounded just as bad, if not worse, when you were ill."
"Yes, but as I recall, I didn't inflict my presence upon everyone else at the breakfast table."
Remus studied the bag where it rested on the table, hesitant, it seemed, to even look inside. But Poppy and Minerva were making sympathetic noises, urging him to try one. Excellent. Let the hens cluck over him for a while.
"You're coming along to meet the train this morning?" Minerva asked, turning back to him. "I know how you must have missed the students."
"Nothing would bring me greater joy," he said dryly.
"Except perhaps an untimely locomotive accident?"
He pushed his plate away with a heartfelt sigh. He wasn't in the least surprised to find his appetite had disappeared.
Professor Snape stood with his hands clasped behind his back, watching impassively as the students trailed off the Hogwarts Express. No one acknowledged him, except with an occasional wary glance, until the Weasley twins made their appearance. As they loped past, one of them, George perhaps, raised a hand in a friendly greeting. Snape resisted his first impulse, which was to turn and look over his shoulder until he realized belatedly they had been waving to him. He managed a stiff nod in response. What had happened in the span of two weeks? Had the entire world gone mad while he had been shut away in his room?
Just as he convinced himself it had been a bad idea and was preparing to leave, the student he had been waiting for stumbled off the steps to the platform.
"Miss Sullivan," he called. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
He had to suppress a sudden surge of irritation as Gloriana froze in place, her face losing color, her eyes widening in fright. Was he that horrifying? She looked as if she were going to bolt, or worse yet, faint dead away. This was precisely why he never bothered getting to know his students.
Gloriana tripped over her own feet as she approached him, nearly falling headlong, and he was forced to reach out a hand to steady her. She flinched backwards from his touch and stumbled again. He would have to make this quick or the girl would do herself a real injury.
"I trust you had a pleasant holiday?" he asked, trying to keep his voice low. All she could manage was a convulsive swallow as she stood staring up at him, her mouth gaping open slightly.
"Y...yes, sir," she finally quavered, a bright blush beginning to creep up her face.
"I wanted to thank you," he said, hoping that no one else could hear, "for the scarf."
And with that, and even more unsettling to him than her previous frightened expression, she suddenly beamed up at him. "You liked it?"
He searched his mind for what he could tell her that was still honest. "It was very thoughtful."
He became uncomfortably aware of a group of young Hufflepuff girls beginning to gather nearby. Even a pointed look in their direction did not have the desired effect of scattering them and they remained where they were standing, their faces expressing a mixture of curiosity and dread.
"And are you..." She faltered slightly, but seemed to draw fresh courage after glancing back at the group. "...are you, uhm, feeling any better, sir?"
He was speechless for a moment at her impertinence, but as he prepared to excoriate her for it, he thought back to the miserable day when the soft warmth of the scarf she had knitted for him had been comforting and he reconsidered his harsh words.
"I'm quite well now, thank you."
Her eyes were wide and shining and filled with...what exactly was that look she was giving him? He certainly wasn't accustomed to having students look at him in that manner. He didn't know how long she would have remained there, staring up at him, if he hadn't cleared his throat, startling Gloriana out of her daze.
She quickly ran to the girls who were still standing nearby and began relating something to her rapt audience with enthusiastic arm gestures. As they moved away, heading for the path leading to the castle gates, he could distinctly hear giggling and a few of the bolder girls were stealing quick glances back at him as they walked.
He scanned the platform for stragglers, and with a sense of dread, heard someone walk up behind him. It was Minerva. Of course. He wasn't sure how long she had been there or what she had chanced to overhear, but judging from the look on her face, equal parts amusement and surprise, she had missed nothing of his conversation with Gloriana.
He quickened his pace to walk away from her, avoiding eye contact and hoping she would leave the matter alone, but she easily fell into step beside him.
"That was very kind of you, Severus," she said. "But I believe you may have an admirer now."
"Minerva," he warned, gritting his teeth in irritation.
"It's to be expected, really," she continued in an offhand manner. "Brooding and mysterious are still attractive qualities to a girl her age. She's too young to understand how much trouble your type can be."
"Unless you'd care to find out just how troublesome I can be," he said in a low tone. "I suggest you drop it."
They walked in silence until they neared the castle gates and Gloriana, still giggling with her friends, whirled around and waved enthusiastically at him.
"Fifty points from Hufflepuff, Miss Sullivan," he muttered and Minerva smothered a laugh.
"If I were in your place," she said, "I'd be particularly horrid to her at the first opportunity. There's no telling what damage she could do to your reputation if word gets around you were pleasant to her."
"I wasn't pleasant," he insisted. "I was merely acknowledging her gift."
"Mmm. You're not wearing it, I suppose?" she asked, giving him a sidelong look.
"I was ill, Minerva, I didn't take complete leave of my senses."
"That's odd," she said. "I heard differently from Madam Pomfrey. And she thought the color quite flattering on you."
"Poppy should find another diversion instead of spreading idle gossip."
"Speaking of Poppy," Minerva said, "She received a late Christmas gift yesterday and she's invited me 'round tonight for a little fortification before term begins." Minerva's tone was nonchalant, but her expression was beseeching as she looked over at him. "I don't suppose you'd care to join us?"
"There is not enough alcohol in all the country to prepare me for another term," he said. "No, thank you."
"You are feeling better," she said softly. He heard the note of regret in her voice and remained silent, knowing by the familiar look on her face that she was not yet finished.
"Don't misunderstand me," she said. "But when you were ill, there were moments when it was pleasant to not be kept at such a distance."
He stood aside to let her walk through and turned to ensure there was no one lagging behind before locking and warding the gates securely.
"You haven't changed a bit, you know," Minerva said.
"How so?" He never appreciated the reminder that she had known him from a very young age.
"You're still unable, or perhaps unwilling, to recognize the good in yourself."
He scoffed. "Sentimental nonsense."
"But it isn't," she insisted. "You're held in higher regard than you even realize. Poppy and I were thrilled to have an opportunity to help you; you so seldom allow it. And even if there are students who consider you frightening enough to be their boggart..."
And at this Snape narrowed his eyes at her. She had wasted no time in telling him of the form the Longbottom idiot's boggart had assumed, as well as the method suggested by Lupin of eliminating it. Despite her assurances, he knew exactly what others thought of him. The appearance of the vulture-topped hat at the Christimas luncheon had proven that well enough.
"...there are others who think quite highly of you; enough to send you cough drops when you're ill and to knit a scarf for you."
They ascended the main steps side by side and Minerva glanced over at him, her voicesoft as she spoke. "There's never any need for you to be alone, Severus. Not unless you wish it." Her eyes held his for a moment and with a sigh, she disappeared into the interior of the castle.
He raised his voice to call after her. "What time?"
Minerva reappeared in the doorway, her eyebrows drawn together in confusion. "Pardon?"
"Must I spell it out? What time are you and Poppy meeting tonight?"
"Around eight, I believe," she said. "Does this mean...?"
"It means," he said, interrupting her, "that someone responsible should be present to chaperone, if only to spare everyone the spectacle of two drunken old witches carousing in the castle."
The smile that lit her face then was so unexpected and girlish he was forced to look away in embarrassment.
"You really should get out more, Minerva, if the prospect of sitting in the Infirmary and drinking shrivelfig brandy fills you with such delight."
"It's not that at all," she protested, and then she frowned as a thought seemed to strike her. "Just a moment. How could you have possibly known that Poppy received a bottle of shrivelfig brandy, unless...?"
"Eight o'clock, Minerva," he said, striding past her, catching only a glimpse of her bemused expression as he followed his Slytherins down the stairs to the dungeons.