A/N: Trigger alert for this chapter; reference to potion abuse
Ron straightened in his seat as someone sat next to Millie. His blue eyes narrowed. "What do you want?" the redhead demanded suspiciously. Nott ignored him, wrapping an arm around the girl's shoulders.
"Hey," he said, "how're you holding up?"
Shaking her head, Millie shrugged a shoulder, giving up on pushing her food around her plate with her fork. She hadn't really eaten anything since Fitz was poisoned. Her worry had effectively killed her appetite.
"You should eat, Mills," Nott coaxed, nudging her plate a bit with his free hand.
Frowning at his own plate, Ron couldn't help but wonder how it was any of his business. Why show any concern, now? Nott certainly hadn't seemed to care much when Millie was kicked out of their House. And what was with the arm around her shoulders, like they were close friends or something? He couldn't really think that would help comfort her at all.
"Not really hungry," Millie murmured quietly, pushing her dish far enough away that it vanished down to the kitchens. "I'm gonna go see Fitz." She shrugged his arm away and Nott obligingly moved back to allow her to stand to her feet.
"Should I come with you?" the brown-haired boy asked.
The girl looked down at him. "Do you know who it was?" she questioned instead.
"I have a suspicion. No proof."
Millie's eyes narrowed shrewdly – the most expression she had shown since the episode in Potions class earlier. It was almost as though she knew who the other Slytherin suspected and shared in his suspicion. Finally, she shook her head.
"I'm fine," she repeated the same thing she had said to Ron when he'd asked, "I'm just gonna go by myself." Stepping over the bench, she walked away. The two boys watched her go before looking back at each other.
"What's your problem, Weasley?" Nott demanded.
"What's up with you suddenly pretending to be Millie's friend?" Ron retorted.
The Slytherin scoffed. "I am her friend. Have been for years."
"Funny. Wouldn't have guessed that by the way you ignored her with the rest of your House."
"We had an argument," Nott stated flatly. "Not that it's any business of yours. Don't think that just because you've been friends with her for two months that you know anything about her." With a sneer, he rose from the bench and left the Great Hall.
Ron glared at him until he was gone. He stabbed at something on his plate but didn't bring it to his mouth. Dropping the utensil, he gave the plate a shove, watching with a bit of satisfaction as it disappeared from sight.
"Fitz?" Millie made a beeline to the cat, scooping him up gently and nuzzling her face in his soft fur. "Oh, lovey, look at you – you already look a bit better. Thank you," she addressed the last part to Hagrid, who had started to set some tea after letting the girl inside.
"Well, now, he ain't all better, yet. I 'spect it'll be another two or three days before he's back to his old self," Hagrid replied.
"But he is getting better," the girl pointed out, eyes still damp with the tears that had sprung to them upon seeing her beloved pet poking around at the things surrounding the bed Hagrid had set up for him. For his part, Fitz was content to let his mistress cradle him in her arms, far more interested in a nap than further exploration. "Because of you. So, thank you."
Blushing a bit at the repeated thanks, Hagrid ducked his head a bit sheepishly. "I'm just doing me job, helping look after all the critters 'round here," he insisted modestly. "How about some tea, then? And I've got a batch o' rockcakes that just finished cooling, if you're interested."
"That'd be great, Hagrid," Millie said agreeably. Carefully, she set Fitz in his bed where the cat curled up with a sleepy noise. She was unable to keep the relieved grin off her features. Fitz was going to be okay.
Finding her path blocked, the girl moved to walk around the obstacle, only for her housemate to reposition himself directly in her path once more. Teeth gritting in irritation, she crossed her arms and glared up at him.
"What do you want, Theo?" Pansy demanded.
"I know you're the one who poisoned Millie's cat," Theo stated evenly. She rolled her eyes at him and moved to pass him again. Reaching out with his arm, he pushed her back in front of him.
Huffing in annoyance, she snapped, "Oh, for Merlin's sake, Theo! What's it to you if I did?"
"What's it to me?" the boy echoed. With both hands, he deftly reached out and gave her a small push by the shoulders. "What it is, Pansy, is you messing with my friend. It's bad enough that your hare-brained stunt earlier this year could have killed her, but then you try to kill her cat?" He pushed her again and she batted at his hands.
"You have no proof, Theodore Nott," she snarled. "Stop it."
"Except that Annia Rosier's been talking about it. You know she's a bloody damn gossip. Really, if you expect to keep anything a secret, she's the last person you should tell," Nott taunted.
"Fine. I poisoned the stupid cat. So what?" Pansy spat. She gave a startled squeak as the boy suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders of her robes.
"So, if you ever do anything to hurt Millie again, you will be very sorry," he promised.
"I-I'm not afraid of you," the girl asserted with only a faint waver.
Theo brought his lips close to her ear. "You know who my father is," he intoned darkly. "You should be."
"What's this, then. Picking on girls, Nott? Rather low, don't you think?"
"Just establishing an understanding, Malfoy," Nott returned dryly as he released the girl. "I'm sure you're familiar with the routine." Pansy straightened her robes, scowling up at him before glancing at Draco. The blond jerked his head in the direction of the common room and the girl quickly departed.
"You should watch yourself," Draco drawled, moving closer to the other boy. "People might start to question your loyalties."
"You should train your pets better," Theo countered. He started to stalk away, pausing only when his housemate called out to him.
"Bulstrode is considered little better than the blood-traitor," the blond pointed out. "You keep associating with her openly and she won't be the only one who's got to watch her back."
Nott didn't turn around, although Malfoy hadn't, either. "She's my friend. I'm not going to keep pretending otherwise just because she spoke the truth. If that brings me trouble, then fine. So much for House unity," he scoffed. He paused a moment before adding more quietly, "You might be proud of your father, Malfoy, but I am not proud of mine. Question that all you want."
Draco did look back over his shoulder at that, watching as his classmate moved off down the corridor. It was just as well that Theo hadn't turned around. Otherwise, he would have seen the troubled expression on Draco's face.
Ron's nightmare that night had been the worst in at least a couple of weeks. It had been a ghastly mutation between real life events and morbid imagination. He had waken, trembling so bad that he was scarcely able to steady the knife he wielded to help release his torment.
Gradually, he began to calm, the pain of the cuts he'd carved into the pale flesh of his forearm anchoring him to the present, providing him relief. He breathed slowly in and out, watching the blood trailing along his arm with a sort of vacant fascination. He still bled. He was still alive. Ready to endure another unending day.
A bitter laugh forced his way from his throat at this thought.
Setting the knife on his bedside table, Ron rose from his seat on the edge of his mattress. He pocketed his wand and moved across the room, bleeding arm held palm up to keep it from dripping on the floor. After checking to make sure the corridor was vacant, the boy moved on to the bathroom. As he leaned against the edge of the sink, he silently regarded the oozing cuts for a moment. Clotting was already bringing the bleeding to a standstill. He turned on the facet and placed his arm under the running water, using his other hand to scrub at the injuries and allowing the blood to flow once more.
His arm was starting to gain a notable collection of parallel scars. At first, Ron had been a bit confused. He had used a healing spell, which had never left a scar before. He had looked it up in the library. Apparently, like with the bite mark on his hand, self-inflicted wounds scarred even with the use of magic or potions to heal them.
That appealed to Ron, a bit. Now the hurt he felt on the inside was evidenced outwardly, as well. They were no longer hidden. Except that Ron knew that no one would understand. He had to wear long sleeves, now, so no one would get the wrong idea and assume he wanted to kill himself. Because he didn't. Ron didn't want to die; he wanted to feel better, and nothing else seemed to be working.
Content that his new injuries were clean even though he had sanitized the blade with a spell before using it, Ron took out his wand and murmured a healing spell. As the pain almost instantly receded, he felt a bit cheated. Maybe he should start letting them heal on their own. Then the pain would last longer.
Rubbing his thumb over one of the new marks as he walked back up the corridor, Ron paused outside his door. He gazed at the corner. Millie's room was on the adjacent hall. He wasn't sure which room. Not that it mattered. She was probably asleep. He hadn't seen her since dinner, though, and he hoped that she and Fitz were all right.
He went back into his room and crawled into bed. Staring at his shadowed ceiling, he tried not to think. Finally, he drifted back into a restless sleep.
He had dropped to his knees at the bedside, clasping the frail hand between his own. He was crying. He didn't intend to be crying, he just couldn't stop it. The tears had sprang to his eyes and started to trail down his cheeks of their own accord.
"Mum?" the boy spoke, trying to rouse her. "Mum, can you hear me? It's me. It's Severus. Mum?"
Fever-bright eyes had opened sluggishly, moving to rest upon him. "Sev," she breathed softly, lips pulling into a wan smile just for him before she frowned. "What are you doing here? You should... be in school."
"It's winter hols, mum," Severus said a bit sharply. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, although it was unclear who he was trying to comfort. "Why didn't you owl me that you were sick? I could have come home. I could have found you a healer – I'll find one, now!" He rose to his feet, but her weak grasp on his hand stayed him.
"There's... no money for healers. Even... if there were, your father... 'd never pay," she told him.
The teen angrily swiped the tears from his face with his free hand. "Then, I'll make the potions for you, myself!" he exclaimed. "You know I'm good enough to! I'll make potions for you. I'll make you well, again!"
She sadly shook her head. They didn't have money for potions or ingredients, either, or she'd have made them herself. Even if they did, there was one other problem. "Too late," Eileen murmured. "I'm sorry, love. It's... too late..."
Severus turned in his sleep, just as he had in yanking his arm away from his mother all those years ago. He toppled out of bed onto the floor. Fingers scrabbling against the floor as though seeking purchase, the Potions Master simply lay there for a moment in a heap of limbs and bedding.
It was the end of November and his least favorite holiday was fast approaching. What he wouldn't give to skip Christmas, just one year. The approaching holiday would be the worst one in years – he just knew it.
Pushing himself up off the floor, he left his bed in disarray and went straight to the bathroom. He showered, letting cool water flow over him in a vain attempt to wash the memories away. There was no way he could get any sleep like this. The dreams continued to plague him and at the moment it seemed they would never go away.
After getting dressed, he proceeded directly to his private lab, wet hair tied back from his face. He was going to make himself a batch of Dreamless Sleep whether Poppy liked it or not. And really, it was none of Poppy's business. He was grown man. Severus just wanted to be able to sleep unmolested. Was that so much to ask?
He tried to ignore the voice in his head as he set up the cauldron.
"Severus, please – can't you see what you're doing to yourself?"
The Potions Master started putting together the necessary ingredients. Moving around his worktable, he pulled out the tools he would need, adding them to the collection on the table.
"I want you to promise me, Severus."
He began grinding beetle carapaces into a fine dust with well-practiced motions.
"Your... history with this potion makes you particularly susceptible to a relapse. Promise you'll let me hold you accountable on this."
"I... I promise."
Snape's hand shot out, sweeping a glass jar onto the floor where it landed with a satisfying smash. Abruptly extinguishing the flame beneath the cauldron, he swept from the room and stalked out into the corridors. Sleep was no longer possible, least of all that night. The students already thought he was an ill-tempered bat who never slept. Might as well live up to expectations.
Millie was practically bubbly when Ron emerged the next morning to find her and Mrs. Norris waiting for him. "Fitz is getting better!" she exclaimed, relief practically emanating from her in waves. It was almost overbearing, really, although Ron understood the reason for her cheerfulness. He almost asked what she had meant when she referred to Fitz as 'Nick's cat,' but sensing that that might kill her mood, he put it off again.
"What's with you and Nott?" he asked instead as they sat down at the Gryffindor table a short while later.
"Hm?" Millie looked up from feeding Mrs. Norris a bit of sausage. "Oh, Teddy? We're friends. We were kinda fighting, but I guess he's forgiven me, now." The girl shrugged a shoulder before turning her attention to putting food on her plate.
Teddy. So that's who she'd been referring to. He wasn't sure how he felt about sharing her friendship with the likes of Theodore Nott. Nott senior was said to be a right nasty git and it was rumored that 'Teddy' took after him in that regard.
"Are you okay?"
Ron looked up to find Millie's hazel eyes settled upon him worriedly. "Yeah. Fine," he said, then admitted, "Had a nightmare last night and couldn't really get back to sleep." He poked at his food.
"You have nightmares a lot, don't you?"
It wasn't really a question, despite how it was spoken. Ron could tell by the knowing expression on the girl's face. He answered, anyway.
"You should ask for a sleeping draught. It would help."
"They're not that bad," the redhead lied.
Millie frowned, clearly not believing him. "Well, if you ever want to talk –"
"I don't," Ron interrupted sharply. She looked a bit stung and he sighed. "Can we just eat? I'm just tired."
"Yeah," Millie murmured softly. Ron was slightly pained to note that her cheer had tapered off significantly. They turned to their breakfasts and continued eating in relative silence.
To be continued...