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This is an odd little HBP-compatible one-shot, just a writing exercise with no point, like my other "Story" In the Garden. (I don't know if I will ever have the heart to write a DH-compatible story.) I meant it as a Christmas gift for those who have kept up with reading my story, Strong Poison; now it's belated, and has ended up as a strange, unstructured piece of holiday fluff featuring a very morose Snape. I hope you enjoy it anyway. It feels unfinished and it probably is, so I might add to it later on.

The haiku quoted by Hermione is from Basil Swift's Collected Haiku, as quoted in Colin Dexter's The Jewel That Was Ours.

I'm posting this for zuse, who has been very sweet about my other story, Miss Stewart Disposes.

/ \ / \ / \


It is your absence touches my sad hands

Blinded like flags in the wreck of air

-Carlos Angeles

The house was quiet these days. Snape felt quite at liberty to explore the hallways. He had never before had the inclination, but for days now he had been possessed of a peculiar restlessness, making his long hours in the library insufferable. The house was actually rather large, although its darkness and its inferior design gave it a cramped atmosphere. He wondered what the house would have looked like had the resident busy-body undertaken the task of decorating for the holidays. Snape shook his head, in the end; it wouldn't have worked out.

Snape paused in front of a family photograph. The Blacks had been a remarkably good-looking family. Even Mrs Black, standing aloofly as she did in the photo while holding the hand of a tiny Regulus, had once been attractive. Snape thought of Narcissa, and briefly missed her before deciding that he shouldn't. The affections of the past were all eclipsed by the circumstances of the present. He moved on.

He looked in and out of the rooms he passed, finding in them nothing worthy of interest—old furniture, faded photographs, footprints showing where Potter and his friends had already explored. There were, thankfully, no rats. He wondered if Miss Granger's familiar was responsible for that. Still, the dust in the place had escalated to such a level that Snape's robes were no longer their unforgiving black, but gray with dirt. He resisted the urge to sneeze as he turned a corner. This part of the house had little illumination even though it was the middle of the afternoon. He longed for the use of his wand which, though it was strapped to the outside of one thigh, was as useful to him now as it would have been, had it been all the way in his old rooms at Hogwarts—for he could use no magic, because he was in hiding.

In one room, he found a small book and pocketed it.

At the end of the passageway he paused, and gave a short laugh. Crookshanks the cat stared at him from beside the remnants of a potted plant. Snape held out his hand, and Crookshanks came closer before eventually pushing his flat face into Snape's trouser leg. Snape picked him up, cradling the weight gingerly in one arm.

"I think I know how you must feel," he told the cat.

/ \ / \ / \

Together, he and Crookshanks made their way back to civilization. In the kitchen he found a saucer and a bottle of milk. He watched, leaning against the sink, as Crookshanks made quick work of the milk he laid out. In the distance Snape could hear the sound of lowered voices and footsteps on the stairs; he looked up at the door, expecting company, until Miss Granger's familiar swatted at his leg and meowed. Obligingly, Snape bent to refill the saucer, and was unable to see Potter's expression as the boy came into the room.

"Oh, good, you've found Crookshanks," Potter said. "Hermione's been looking for him. Tonks is also asking if you would please make a batch of Rehydration solution. She says the vomiting is getting worse than ever and she's afraid of dehydration."

Potter was looking tired and drawn. He sat on the kitchen table and summoned a jar of cookies that Molly Weasley had thoughtfully delivered. From where he was standing Snape could see the wizarding decorations on the cookies sparkle. Potter bit into one morosely. In a way, Snape felt sorry for the boy. It was easier now to feel sympathy for him. These days, Potter was too tired to be irritable and was faultlessly polite. Snape cleared his throat.

"I've anticipated Nymphadora's request. I have a few vials ready. As for the cat, he was hiding in one of the rooms beyond the kitchens. I'd thought he was there looking for food, but he just seemed to be sulking."

"He must be hungry," Potter said. "I gave him the last of his cat food yesterday. I'm going to have to ask Remus to buy some." His face wore a mulish expression. Half angry and half tired, he bit off the end of one of Molly's Jolly Santas.

Snape watched him with wary eyes. "May I ask what else is wrong, Mr Potter?" he ventured suddenly. "Apart from the usual. I have a feeling that more is bothering you than the shortage of cat food."

Potter swallowed, Summoned the bottle of milk that was still standing open beside Snape on the counter, and took a swallow straight from the bottle. Snape shrugged; it was Potter's milk after all, and Potter's kitchen. Still, he thought, the boy ought to be thankful that his busy-body friend wasn't here to scold him.

After a long silence, Potter answered Snape's question. "I'm just a bit tired of worrying, sir," he said. "It's been a week and Hermione hasn't even had the strength to stand up. I wish Madame Pomfrey were here. I trust Tonks, but Madame Pomfrey's taken care of the three of us since we were eleven and I suppose I'd just feel safer leaving Hermione with her.

"And—and Mr Weasley just came by to say hello to her but he really wanted to talk to me. He says I'm going to have to see the Ministry officials tomorrow. I'm going to spend the entire afternoon drugged with Veritaserum spilling my guts out to a panel and the head of the Wizengamot—telling them everything relevant about my involvement with Professor Dumbledore and Voldemort, and how I was a part of the plans of both.

"I'm not worried about giving away your location," he added tonelessly, and Snape nodded. "They don't really know about this house, or at any rate they don't know the use we're putting it to. But given everything that's happened I'm—I'm afraid… that they still won't believe us. That they won't give you your pardon or that there will be some other… I don't know! The Ministry seems to always find ways to disappoint." He chewed on his cookie miserably. He was twenty years old but at this moment he looked so very like the young James. Snape was surprised to find that the resemblance did not bother him as much. Not anymore.

He fished out another bottle of milk from the icebox (for an icebox it was) by the sink and tossed it to Potter, who caught it gratefully. Three years out of the Quidditch pitch and still good for a catch, Snape thought. I wonder if that is what he will choose to do when all this is over. I wonder about Ron Weasley's plans. I wonder about…

"There's no need to worry about tomorrow," he said, interrupting his own thoughts. "It will be a waste of your own energy. I suggest two options: that you go upstairs and rest in preparation—you have after all been at the sick bed all day—or that you begin organizing your thoughts. The Ministry will plan its questions for you, and it is best to face them with a prepared memory."

"You're right," said Potter, who had bit thoughtfully into a candy cane. It wasn't long before he was exiting the room, Crookshanks at his heels. Snape stared, forlornly, at the piece of sky that could be seen through the window over the sink. It was grey. He had been able to address one of Potter's concerns, but one remained.

An hour later, he heard voices on the stair. He briefly considered running out of the room to avoid the interlopers, but decided that he would be seen whatever his attempts to escape. He sat himself on the kitchen table and was determined to look vicious.

Ron Weasley slouched into the room. Snape felt his hackles rise, and then told himself he was being ridiculous.

Upon seeing him, the younger man was quickly on his guard. "Professor Snape," he said, without expression. Snape could imagine him wanting to edge out of the room. Deep inside, he grinned. Some things never changed.

"Mr Weasley," he said in bored tones.

They fell into a hostile silence, one standing and one sitting, both without anything to say to the other. As always when he was in the presence of the youngest Weasley boy, Snape felt the urge to close his hands around the younger man's throat. He knew the urge to be irrational, for the boy was not and could not be a threat, and yet he continued to find every one of the boy's movements, every breath he took and every syllable he spoke, to be wildly irritating.

Weasley advanced toward his mother's cookie jar, which Potter had left open. Forlornly (or so it seemed to Snape) the decorations on the cookies blinked and twinkled. Snape turned his head away, unwilling to see Ron Weasley masticate, as Remus Lupin stepped into the room, closely followed by Tonks, who was wiping her hands on a towel.

"I'll leave you alone here with Hermione, for the night," she told Snape, easily snatching a half-eaten cookie from Weasley's hands without missing a beat. "I don't think you'll have any problems, but in case you do, there's always the Floo. I got her to eat something, but I don't think there will be any more vomiting. And you'd better give the rehydration solution by tonight, as well as the usual medication."

To Snape, it felt as though the floor had dropped out from underneath him. "You are leaving?" His voice sounded unnaturally high. "So soon?" He was disgusted with the panic that showed in his voice. Tonks gave a short laugh. He always felt as though she could see right through him; so could Remus, who shot him a smile even as he was talking to the Weasley boy, who was glaring at Snape.

"I'm certain you can manage on your own," she said, giving him a penetrating look. There was a long silence, filled with meaning, before Remus pulled Ron Weasley from his chair and made his and Tonks' excuses—and holiday greetings—to Snape. In moments all three were gone, and when they were, the house was silent once more.

/ \ / \ / \

The room was dark when he stepped in. He felt like an intruder as he fumbled in his pocket for a match. He longed, once again, for his wand. A small flame flared to life at the end of the lone candle he had brought. Keeping his eyes directed right in front of him, he advanced upon the lonely table at the end of the bed and, setting down the candle, arranged an assortment of vials that he had taken from his pocket. One of them was filled with the Rehydration solution that Tonks had requested. The others contained the medication that Tonks had so knowingly left him to administer. From beside the fireplace—in which there was no fire—Crookshanks' eyes glowed like two slivers of the moon. Snape felt in his pocket for the book that he had retrieved earlier, and placed it on the table.

"At day's end you came, and like the evening sun, left an afterglow," said a voice, softly, in the half-darkness. Snape suppressed the urge to jump in surprise.

"I didn't know you were awake," he said, not removing his gaze from the vials in front of him. His hands were shaking. He pressed them into the wood of the table to still them.

"Or else you wouldn't have come?" the voice said inquiringly. Snape allowed himself to look up. Hermione was propped up on pillows, looking at him with a look of such tenderness that he wanted to turn away.

"I thought that you were desiring my absence," he said quietly.

She looked at him with wide, amused eyes; he found them almost unbearably affecting.

"Never that," she smiled.

He gave her a small, one-shouldered shrug and tore himself away from the vials to half-kneel. Crookshanks had sauntered over and was waiting expectantly for a scratch behind the ear.

His mistress was watching them from her place among the pillows. "Thank you for locating him," she said. "I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to visit me. Speaking of which, he wasn't the only one I was waiting to—"

"I wasn't avoiding your sickbed," he interrupted savagely. "I just didn't want to stand in line. You had visitors day in and day out—"

"Why would you think that I wouldn't want to see you?" she interrupted in her turn. She behaved as though he hadn't spoken. He risked a glance at her face. She seemed genuinely curious. Crookshanks gave his hand a little nudge as though in encouragement. Snape ignored it. At the moment the cat was behaving like Tonks. He straightened and turned to look through the window at the night sky. He felt like his insides were being wrung dry.

"I cannot pretend, as you do, that our last conversation didn't happen," he bit out harshly. "Naturally I assumed, after the way that it ended, that…" He couldn't find it in himself to finish. Outside, a lamplighter was making quick work of the lamps on the street; the glow of the lamps resembled nearby stars.

"You walked out on me," she retorted gently from behind him. "You hardly gave me a chance."

"You had given me your answer," he shot back. "I assumed the conversation was over."

"Severus," she said, half-reprovingly.

Unable to resist any longer, he turned to look at her. The memory of being rejected by her stung, but how could he remain angry with her for something that wasn't her fault? Her features were half-obscured by the play of shadows and the dim light of his candle, but her expression was clear. He felt lost.

"I'm sorry that I reacted the way I did," she said when he continued to remain silent. "But you really ought to have heard me out."

"I know," he conceded. He balled his hands into fists and folded his arms before him, looking away from her and glancing through the window again. "I know, of course, that I shouldn't have asked it of you. It was a foolish question. I—I don't know why I asked it."

"Really?" she said. "Silly me. I liked to think you asked me to marry you because you wanted me to."

"Of course I did!" he retorted, rather more harshly than he had intended; he recoiled from her expression and added hastily, "I do. But I—that is to say, under the circumstances—but my feelings pushed me to—" He stopped, conscious that he was once more making a fool of himself. He thrust his hands into his pockets and turned away from her, beginning to pace around the room.

"You must know," he said, "you must know that I never expected—never expected you to say yes. Especially given the circumstances. Fugitive from the ministry—my pardon hardly certain—nothing to offer you—"

"Severus," she protested, "you know that's not true."

"—and you only twenty, with your whole life ahead of you." He paused in his circuit of the room and looked at her. "I expect that if you hadn't been cursed at the end of that last battle, you would be out of here now, set up with a flat at some university or other. Moving on with your life."

"Is that what you really believe?" she asked him, sadly.

"Why not? It's certainly what you should be doing," he said, trying to be calm. "I never expected you to do otherwise."

"You're being unfair," she said.

"Perhaps it would be best if you and I just forgot about it," he added, wondering at his own savage, angry words. "About the—proposal. It shouldn't be too hard for you. And do me the favor of not telling Mr Weasley about it. He looked positively green, this afternoon, at the thought of me being left to tend to you and your illness, and looked ready to strangle me; I would like to live long enough to enjoy my pardon, should it be granted, without having to worry about your jealous boy-friend." He longed to wound her with his words, and only grew angrier—more desolate—as she remained calm, and even smiled at him.

"Is that why you're nice to Harry, but so vicious to Ron?" she said, sounding like she was laughing at him. "Do you honestly think he still has feelings for me?"

"Don't change the subject!" he retorted angrily. Crookshanks meowed reprovingly from his current spot under the bed. Hermione stopped laughing immediately, and looked genuinely contrite.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "Nothing about this is funny. But you've been so strange!"

This was not the way that he had envisioned this conversation would go. In the days since her injuries were inflicted, he had thought so hard and so often about how he would reclaim his dignity—how he would put her at ease, and tell her that she had no reason to be sorry, and that henceforth there would be no awkwardness between them. He had hoped to be calm, collected, and reasonable. He had hoped that, despite the end of what had been an undefined, all-too-brief, "relationship", she might still—like him. But in her presence now, he felt his self-control unraveling; he longed to hurt her more, despite her present vulnerability and complete lack of culpability. She was looking at him now with such soreness that he was instantly regretful. He really was the bastard they said he was. It wasn't her fault she didn't—love him.

Crookshanks seemed to sense the change in his mistress' mood. In moments he was in her lap; her lips were turned downward, and she was stroking his fur with one hand. It was so much easier for cats.

Snape felt two inches tall. Being angry with her for refusing him was a poor way to repay everything she had done for him. He tried again. "You've never given me any indication that what we had was going to extend past this—time in your life. If it was just a—a fling to you"—what a word, what a dirty little word. He couldn't bring himself to continue.

"Do you think me in the habit of throwing myself at men and abandoning them after only a few short months?" she whispered. "Is that what you think of me?"

"How am I supposed to know?" he shot back. "I've learnt what folly there is in making assumptions."

"Do you trust me so little?"

"Don't be so foolish. It's not a matter of trust at all."

"Then what is it about?"

"There are things," he struggled for composure, "that I cannot control. Things that don't have to do with trust. Like your feelings." At this she quieted, and he could only look at her sadly, from across the room, knowing that, at her lack of response, he must look like a kicked puppy. But her eyes were turned downward and she wouldn't see anyway.

He fished in his pocket for the book that he had earlier retrieved from Grimmauld Place's secret hallways, earlier. It was one of hers, he knew. He started forward, not stopping when her eyes, startled by his movement, went to his. He stopped at the foot of her bed and laid the book gently by her feet. "I do understand," he said, choking on the words. He felt like such a fool. He wanted only to withdraw from the room to a place—any place—where she couldn't find him. He moved to the door, and closed it, even as he heard her frantically calling his name from the inside. He would not see her again.