The Black Unicorn
He was definitely dreaming. He seemed to be floating. He had passed out, then…was he hallucinating? Perhaps the cruciatus curse had killed him, after all. He had heard her voice. Impossible….he was dead then. But did ghosts sound this angry?
“Albus, what in the hell is going on.” Her voice was cold with restrained anger. The voice sounded like the woman’s voice, but it simply could not be. Then McGonagall’s; he could hear the regular click of her heels along the stone floor.
“Esmeralda, hush for a moment. Albus is trying to think.”
“I don’t understand what has happened. Could someone please tell me what is going on.” Then Dumbledore’s voice.
“Admantia, still yourself until we get to the infirmary. Pomfrey needs to see Snape as soon as possible.” Then the voices were quiet. He faded into unconsciousness. Something woke him up. A hand was on his. Smaller than Dumbledore’s. A blurred face was looking down at him; he could not make out features.
“Is this crucio? How long was it on him?” Her voice was steadier, more collected. He could barely feel her hand; the curse had blasted his nervous system.
“Only for about 10 seconds. He will recover.” The hand stayed in his. He was fading again. But he had to make sure.
“Esmeralda?” The hand squeezed his, of this he was positive.
“Severus, yes. Just rest now, don’t try and talk.” He laid back. He was hallucinating, he was not dead. So this was what cruciatus was like. He faded away.
Albus pulled up a chair quietly next to the single infirmary bed where Esmeralda sat. They both regarded the figure in the bed resolutely but with worry. Esmeralda knew she should get up and get Albus a hot drink, bring him a blanket against the draughty infirmary, but she could not bring herself to leave.
“How is he?” Albus asked, keeping his voice low.
Esmeralda shifted her weight forward towards the unmoving figure on the bed. Dumbledore could see the guarded veil she kept over her expression; it had not been there earlier.
“Not good. Poppy is up as well. She went to prepare another draught of the clarifying potion. She says it will help him recover from the curse.” She paused. “Albus. Can you please tell me…what happened. I mean, I can look at you and see that you are absolutely exhausted. But all I know…is that Snape got hit with the cruciatus curse, on Hogwarts grounds, which should be impossible, by normal standards. I don’t know why, or how, or what’s been going on….I feel completely ignorant.” She ran her hand through her hair nervously, her eyes pleading quietly with Dumbledore.
“Esmeralda. We had a battle with Voldemort upstairs in my main rooms. It’s a rather complicated story. Would it appease you for now to tell you that this man is still in danger? This is the assistance I was speaking of earlier, my dear.” He closed his eyes briefly. Esmeralda was shocked at his fatigue. Whatever had happened had been very bad magic indeed. Suddenly she realized that both of them were lucky to be alive.
“Good God. You didn’t expect……him, or yourself, to live? Did you? Albus. When we’re through the worst part of this, promise me, you will tell me what is going on. Please.” She looked at him, very real anxiety suffusing her face. Albus squeezed her shoulder and nodded mutely. She did get up this time to go and get him some chocolate.
Dumbledore watched Snape. Severus lay unconscious, naked to the waist. The sheets around him were disheveled and sweat-soaked. A pale man even in health, the ghastly gray of the skin stretched across his cheekbones was worse than pale, worse than the shadow of ivory white that was his normal pallor. Esmeralda returned with a steaming mug of chocolate; she handed it to the older wizard. He took it, thanking the woman with his eyes. Albus leaned back in his chair. His tiredness made him look much older than he really was. His eyes closed and he spoke softly.
“He was furious. Furious, Esmeralda. Past all expectations of mine, you know. I thought I knew the depths of his insanity but it still chilled me.”
Esmeralda leaned over and wiped Severus’ forehead with a cool cloth.
“What were you both doing up there, Albus? To bring his wrath down on the both of you like this?” Her voice was quiet in the stillness of the infirmary.
Albus waved her off, and placed his hand on hers to let her know he wasn’t trying to belittle her concern.
“Esmeralda, please, let us concentrate on what is before us this night. Just know….that all of us, and especially Severus, are still in some danger.” She nodded curtly, unhappy that it had to be this way, but accepting. She couldn’t believe it….she came back, tentatively hoping for something….she wasn’t sure what, but before she could even get her bearings, she had been thrown directly into a drama not of her own making. The only thing comforting was that she could be of service. And it was becoming clear that Snape, whatever he had been involved in, was mired in serious trouble. He had obviously been through too much and where had she been? Off chasing dragons. She loved the dark creatures, but the one dark creature she should have noticed more tenderly had vanished into intrigue and pain. Voldemort never attacked without calculated and deadly intent.
Both Esmeralda and Albus feared what neither had addressed out loud yet: another attack on Severus. Esmeralda knew that that was why Albus was in the room; why Poppy had not left; why she herself kept her wand and her wits about her even though it was past midnight and early still, in the late dark hours of the morning. She wished for the steadfastness of Sirius, dead this past year. She wished for Remus, who had been exiled from Hogwart’s unjustly by the Ministry of Magic. Both Esmeralda and Albus snapped immediately out of their individual reveries as Severus, still unconscious, groaned behind clenched teeth. His right hand jerked around Albus’ left wrist so suddenly that he was thrown off balance. Albus hung on tightly, yelling for Pomphrey. She grabbed her wand and was at Snape’s side in a split second. Albus gripped Severus’ hand in his.
“Severus? Can you tell me what’s happening?” Severus twisted himself towards Dumbledore, his eyes open now but the pain in his face was like the pain of an animal, visceral, intense, wordless. His eyebrows contorted in his long, pale face and and his eyes tried to speak to him, but he was somewhere far away, in between this veil and the next.
The scream started in the back of his throat, the throttled scream of a grown man being tortured. Severus’ head slammed back against the headboard of the small bed and his torso arched up with such force that Esmeralda watched the length of his ribcage strain against the fragile skin of his chest in horror. Albus grabbed his right arm to prevent him from flying off of the bed and Esmeralda grabbed his left. Albus bellowed for Poppy and Pomfrey came running. And over it all Severus screamed raggedly, the fingers of his hands twitching and working. Esmeralda began to shake violently and she looked over at Albus. Without a word Dumbledore stood away from the bed as he was replaced by Pomfrey and he locked eyes with Esmeralda. “It’s cruciatus; I’ll find Voldemort and stop him; Esmeralda! Remember your own power! You….are…not….HELPLESS!” And Albus Apparated with a loud crack.
The whip of Albus’ words shot through her mind like lightening. Esmeralda stood up quickly, gathering herself and her resolve and moving intuitively rather than rationally. In her mind she went to that still, emotionless place where only purposeful action was allowed; that place she remembered all too well from that night in the Highlands of Scotland. She brought herself to her full height which had her towering over the bed, and she moved smoothly with her wand as she began the incantation. “Incantante semper ambidexteris; incantante semper nimbus constellatus; incantante arbor vitae, incantante mundis profundis, ignus incendiare….” As the earth, air and fire incantation unwound from the magic she called forth, Pomphrey watched in awe as the ceiling began to glow with a golden-white light from the strands of power being woven over the bed. It created an arcing net over the struggling form of Severus and as its light and intensity grew, so Severus’ writhing became less. The incantation, stronger than any charm, hex or simple spell, took all of her abilities to maintain. Silently she called on the strength of stone, the weight of earth, the deep powers that flowed through all things to create the magic that staved off equally powerful magic. Severus stopped screaming. His body fell back on the bed; Pomfrey looked up at her, her face pinched and her eyes wide.
“I think…..he’s alive…..Esmeralda….are you all right?”
She was sweating now herself, trembling with concentration to control the weight of the magic coursing through her body and through the conduit of her wand. She could not speak; she could only allow herself to be open to the magic and to let it to flow from its source. Her short, dark red hair was plastered with dampness and her long limbs shook from the effort. She nodded her head to Poppy that she was all right and continued concentrating. She took dim note of Poppy reaching an arm under the unconscious Severus and forcing the clarifying potion down his throat. She was only vaguely aware of Poppy keeping his head back; she knew only that she had to keep the channel open. No human could take another cruciatus in 24 hours and survive. She lost track of time; her sight was not the sight of normalcy; she began to see through the layers of time and form as the magic distorted reality. She lost feeling in her limbs, and slowly around her, the world went dark and quiet.
There was light, but it was blurred. It was warm, too….golden and warm and filtered as if through a cloth. She tried to sit upright and fell backwards immediately; she opened her eyes and drastically regretted the action; her head felt like it was splitting open at the seams.
She heard McGonagall’s voice. “Pomfrey! She’s awake!” Esmeralda heard footsteps hurry away from her and she realized she was in a bed; what time was it? She opened her eyes more slowly, minding the thundering headache. She sat up again and looked around carefully. She also was in an infirmary bed; she must have passed out during the spell. Damn it! Where was Snape? Albus? She heard McGonagall or someone’s feet clicking across the heavy stone of the infirmary floor. She turned her head up, squinting; it was indeed McGonagall; the concerned expression on her face was worrisome.
“Esmeralda! Merlin, I am so glad to see you conscious.” McGonagall bent over and embraced Esmeralda warmly. “We were worried about you. How are you feeling?” Minerva took her hands in hers and her gaze ran over the younger woman’s face, cataloguing for signs of illness; worried and anxious.
“I have a brilliant headache….but otherwise…I seem fine.” She changed the subject. “Minerva, where is Snape? Albus?” She sat up in bed gingerly, not wanting to provoke the headache further, and looked around the infirmary room very slowly. McGonagall sat down on the bed beside her.
“I believe Snape is in a private room right now; Albus wants to talk to you as soon as you are up for it. Esmeralda, what happened?”
“We…were waiting in the infirmary with Snape; Dumbledore and I were, you know, worried that Voldemort might try something. And he did.” She said wryly; she closed her eyes in fatigue. Her mind was fuzzier than she had at first realized. “I think you had gone downstairs on an errand for Albus….Voldemort blasted Snape with crucio; I don’t know how he got through the castle’s defenses……Albus had something earlier about his anger….but I’m not sure on that count, Minerva.” Esmeralda realized weakly that she was exhausted and emotionally wrung out. Minerva must have sensed her tiredness, for her questions trailed off, and she squeezed her old student’s hand in hers warmly. Esmeralda turned her head towards the window, thankful for the sun, now high in the sky and flooding the old, stone-walled room with glorious, warm daylight.
Minerva was quiet. She sat with her hands in her lap, looking out the window. “Well. You should go in there when you feel up to it. He’s not conscious yet, but I think it would….help him if you were in there.” Minerva looked at her, but her expression was politely blank. Esmeralda sat up though her head was spinning and groped for her shoes.
“Which room is he in?” She found her wand and threw her legs off the bed unsteadily. Minerva eyed her with some uncertainty, but helped her to her feet nonetheless. “Well? Which room?” Minerva took her down the hallway slowly. She was still worn and groggy from the power of the incantation and she moved as fast as her legs would allow.
Some time in the middle of the night they must have moved Snape down the hall and into the private room adjoining Pomfrey’s study, so that the experienced witch could keep an eye on him. Esmeralda felt better after the walk down the hall. She walked with more confidence into the room with Minerva close behind her. She moved more slowly as she crossed the threshold. Albus was seated in a corner, dozing. Severus was unconscious or asleep, she could not tell the difference, but he appeared to be resting. He was too pale, but his features were relaxed, smoothing out the scowl that he had begun to develop when they were in school, and he looked far more tired. His eyes had dark circles underneath them, and he was gaunt, even by his usual slender standards.
But he was alive. Esmeralda sank heavily into the chair beside the bed, relief flooding her so unexpectedly that she sat down too fast. Minerva squeezed her shoulder.
“I need to go attend to some items for Albus; I’ll be back around dinner time. All right?” she whispered. Esmeralda squeezed her hand mutely, and Minerva left quietly. Esmeralda was thankful for the silence of the room; the last time she had seen Severus was that night, after the party. Now the older man before her, sleeping, seemed a very different person. Still the same long, black hair, but not as unkempt, not as greasy. She noted that he had, at last, grown into the hawk-shaped nose; his mouth, in the stillness of sleep was relaxed and full, his lips turning up slightly at the edges. Even the furrow of his scowl had smoothed out. His skin was like alabaster, the smoothest stone worn down to white. And she had forgotten the size of him; his litheness. One long, pale hand lay outside the covers. They were well-articulated, strong-looking hands. Delicate. She shook herself. He was very ill, and needed watchfulness more than anything else right now. She placed her wand in her lap, and wrapped her fingers around it, steadfastly. She remembered that night, the protection she had offered him. Her jaw set in resolve. She would watch and wait.
Severus dreamed. He was in some kind of den; it was very dark, but the darkness pressed on him gently, not oppressively. It folded around him like some kind of soft shell. There was another presence, but he could only feel it; the being was unseen, but palpable. It too, was dark; it felt…as if it had wings. There was a hot, clean smell, like the very heart of fire….smokeless, a tight, acrid scent of cinders and an enormous feel of power. But not evil, not possessive. It was very clear and open. It filled the den and he relaxed in the dream deeply, resting in the cushioning that the dark creature offered.
Someone was gently shaking her…..she roused quickly, sitting up in the chair. Her neck was twisted, it twinged as she opened her eyes to see who was doing the shaking. It was Dumbledore; it was dark in the room. Albus put a finger to his lips, hushing her, and she stretched cautiously. He motioned for her to follow him out into the hall. The room was dim; it must be evening. She looked over at the bed. Snape was still unconscious or asleep. She got up carefully and followed Dumbledore out into the hall.
She trailed behind Dumbledore and pulled the door shut, and walked over to him a little ways down the empty corridor. She rubbed her neck tenderly, and winced.
“What time is it?’ Dumbledore squeezed her knotted shoulder as she got closer.
“8:20 pm; you fell asleep around 6:00 pm; I didn’t want to wake you. You looked very tired yourself.” The older man’s eyebrows raised as he looked closely at Esmeralda.
“How is he doing, Albus. Is he going to make it?” She tried to make her voice sound less anxious than she felt.
“He is tougher than he looks. Yes, he will make it. But he’s got a good week of serious recovery ahead of him. You know…you probably saved his life. Where did you learn that incantation?” Albus was watching her intently. Albus’ intensity made her suddenly too aware of herself.
“My father….I’m an enchantress. He was an enchanter. He taught me….to sing and speak my spells and so forth. That seemed to be my…way of expressing magic. You probably don’t remember from school.” She looked at him sideways. Albus closed his eyes in remembrance.
“Ah. I do remember now…..I had forgotten….Minerva had told me about you….hahahaha.” He laughed throatily. “You were the one who was abysmal in Transfigurations…. ….Minerva was about to break her wand in half, she had been so frustrated at her inability to pull you through the class. But then one day you started singing ….you were an enchantress! Who knew! They are not common amongst us.” He smiled at her. He remembered. She smiled back, suddenly moderately embarrassed. “Well. Between the both of us, my dear, we pulled Snape out of the fire.” His clear blue eyes were warm on hers; she wanted to sink into him suddenly, and rest there; instead, he hugged her gently. He smelled like candles, and some other clean scent, slightly spicy.
“I’m going to stay up with Snape, but you should get some rest. I need to ask you to return to his room at 6:00 am. Is this possible?” She nodded in affirmation. He continued. “I will need to get some sleep at that point, but he still has to be watched. The….ritual we underwent needs another 12 hours to be fully binding. I believe it was only due to Voldemort’s rage that he was able to penetrate the defenses for a second time; when I found him, he was not strong enough to break through, but he was strong enough to throw the curse.” Esmeralda interrupted.
“Albus….why is Voldemort after Snape? What was he doing? And what ritual are you talking about?” Albus regarded her gravely.
“I had sent him….to gather information for me, Admantia. He encountered…some trouble with Riddle. It is a long story which I will tell you more about later, I promise. But now, really my dear, I must ask you to go get some rest.” His tone was adamant. She clenched her jaw, but accepted his silence. She left the infirmary.
Severus opened his eyes. The light in the room was blurry; he blinked, trying to clear the mist in front of him. That helped; his eyes still worked. His fingers….he could feel his fingers again. And his feet…he moved his hips. A gold snake of fire burst in his brain and he cried out.
“Severus?” Esmeralda slammed the book shut, her attention quickly on the man in the bed. She pulled off the gold-rimmed spectacles and watched him closely.
He tried to move his neck. Who was that? He turned his head; he did not recognize her at first. The woman was leaning over him.
“Severus. Are you all right? Can you hear me?” Her voice sounded intensely worried. Where was he?
“Where…am I.” He looked at her, his voice worked, and his neck did work. He was still hallucinating. He had recognized her. He closed his eyes and laid back, waiting for his mind to clear.
“Severus. I’m going to get Poppy.” When he opened his eyes again, the hallucination had faded. But his hips were still on fire. Everything else seemed to work, but he was very tired. He closed his eyes again.
Pomfrey had gotten the man out of bed and to the bathroom, and had forced him to take the potion. She had shooed Esmeralda out of the room while she performed these tasks. When she was allowed back in, Snape had either passed out again, or had fallen asleep. Pomfrey had changed his sheets; Esmeralda could help with that. She took the old sheets from Poppy as Pomfrey straightened the blankets around Severus.
“Poppy….is he unconscious, or asleep?” Esmeralda motioned to Snape. Pomfrey bustled efficiently.
“He’s asleep. The worst is over, but he might hallucinate a bit. And his legs will be the last to recover. He took two partial crucios…” She stopped moving, and pondered. “….4-5 days? To recover the use of his legs?” She finished folding the blanket. “Knowing Snape, it will be more like 3-4 days. He’s a willful, stubborn man.” Pomfrey shook her head, and her eyebrows clenched. The expression did not seem a positive one. “What Dumbledore sees in him….well.” She clamped shut on her opinion. Esmeralda’s interest was piqued.
“What do you mean.” She asked, as casually as she could. Pomfrey looked up at her.
“You mean you don’t know?” Pomfrey was genuinely surprised. Esmeralda shook her head. Poppy gave her a meaningful look. She paused, but then she went over to Snape, and carefully moved his left arm from outside the covers. There, on his left forearm, underneath the hair, was the Dark Mark. Esmeralda stopped cold.
“What…what does this mean.” She tried to keep her voice steady. Pomfrey eyed her. “When he was younger, much younger, he went over to the dark side. But…something happened, he repented or some such, the story is not clear. I’ve never gotten the whole tale to be honest, Esmeralda. But one thing is sure: Dumbledore trusts him. I have no idea why; it’s true, the man does work in mysterious ways…..but….anyone who would do that, who would take that mark…..I would keep out of his way if I were you.” Poppy’s expression was troubled. Esmeralda put his forearm back gently under the sheets. Her worry and concern deepened. That Dumbledore was a staunch ally of Snape’s was more than helpful. But what had this man done? She could feel her impatience for information pawing at the door. She would just have to wait. She sat back down in the chair, deeply alarmed.
It was the third day. Esmeralda’s shift started at 6:00 am. She and Dumbledore had fallen into a routine of sorts, keeping a guard over the ill man. The door was closed; she knocked lightly and opened the door before anyone answered. She expected to see Dumbledore and she expected to see Snape asleep. Instead, Albus was nowhere to be seen, and Snape was awake now, and sitting up in bed. The shock of seeing him awake, brooding as usual, conscious…..it affected her more than she liked. She continued moving into the room, but with much more caution. She saw that he had seen her, and recognition had washed over him, but he was not looking at her. He seemed too rigid where he sat upright in the bed. Snape put his teacup down into the saucer resting on his lap. His voice seemed casual, but there was a quaver in it that was not normal. Perhaps the crucio, she thought.
“Esmeralda. What…are you doing here.” Esmeralda heard the click of the teacup leaving the saucer, the polite sip, then the cup clicking down again. His tone was surprised, shocked….but primarily it was angry.
“Dumbledore…asked me to watch you. We were worried about you, Severus.” She changed the subject. “How are you feeling?” He was not looking at her. His eyes seemed to be permanently fixed on the wall in front of him. He didn’t reply immediately.
“Well. I’m awake. My hips are on fire, but it’s better than it was yesterday.” Esmeralda suddenly found it very difficult to look at Snape and instead focused her attention on the bright sunlight flooding the room from the small window; Pomfrey had the west wing to herself, lucky woman. Esmeralda shifted the books in her lap; she had brought several tomes with her to research for her syllabus, but that was suddenly forgotten. He continued. “How long was I unconscious?” He finally turned to her. His black eyes glittered at her intensely. The room became suddenly too close. She looked slightly off to his right, trying to meet his gaze, but unable to.
“You were unconscious for…about 2 and ½ days. More or less.” She heard rather than saw him lift the teacup.
“Albus told me that someone else helped stave off the second crucio when they brought me back to the infirmary. But he had not told me who. I had….assumed it was McGonagall.” He sipped the tea. “Did you save my life?” he asked, suddenly. Esmeralda glanced over at him. He had turned away from her again; his eyes were hidden by the curtain of black hair that fell lifelessly from his head. She noticed obliquely that there were strands of silver mixed in with the black.
She hesitated. “No. Well, yes. Maybe…..I seemed to have passed out during the incantation.” Why was she being so evasive? She noticed with growing anger that it was far easier to deal with him when he was unconscious.
“I see…..” he said slowly. He retreated entirely behind words. “You just decided to perform one of the most complicated incantations in the middle of the night to regale the empty infirmary with your fascinating skills as an enchantress, to no apparent end.” Color flooded her face. “There’s no reason to be so vicious. I tried to break the curse, but I obviously passed out. Frankly I have no idea if I helped or just made it worse.” That wasn’t true….Dumbledore had already told her what she had done. Her insides were churning with too many unresolved emotions. She was so rattled that she actually took his sarcasm seriously. But suddenly it was just too much. “I can’t be having this puerile conversation…..” she stood up, unable to stop herself. She moved over to the window. She had not been ready for the morass of emotion that filled her….fear, arousal, anxiety over his past. The chiseled lines in his face were still. His black eyes watched her quietly. She was the same. As tall as he was, a hugely strong presence, and older now. Her hair had gone from the gold-red of youth to the more muted darker red of middle age, but the passion and fire was even stronger than before, tempered by time and experience. She had scars on her right hand that he didn’t remember; her emerald green robes prevented him from ascertaining the extent of their damage running up her forearm. She stood in that maddening way of hers, her legs spread akimbo and her right hand on her hip, her head bowed forward in frustration and the left hand in her hair as usual, that quick flip of one hand through her hair venting annoyance, exasperation, and frustration all in one. He realized in cold, steady shock that he had missed her, terribly.
That was it. She needed to get out of the room, get some air, for just a few minutes. Her face was too hot.
“Esmeralda.” Snape’s voice was guarded.
“What.” She bit down on the word, hard. Her hand whipped through her hair again. She did not turn around. Snape’s eyes lingered over the jut of her jaw as it remained clenched.
“I detest being unclothed like this. Would it be beneath you to go to my rooms and procure one of my nightshirts for me.”
“Brilliant. Yes. What’s the password.” She nodded her head quickly, grateful to get out of the room. Too tired to govern her despair, she felt suddenly deflated.
“Bubos.” He replied.
She clucked in disgust, grabbed her wand and swept out of the room without looking at him.
Her robes cracked and flapped behind her like complaining sails on a dark sea. It must be fatigue. It must be her overwrought state of mind. She finally got down to the dungeon where Snape hid himself and his concoctions. The air down here was damper and cooler, and she felt her temper settle somewhat in the muffled quiet of the hallway. Briefly she understood the attraction these halls had for him. “Bubos.” She uttered succinctly,and the heavy wooden door to Snape’s office creaked open just a bit.
She had never been in Snape’s rooms before. Suddenly the years that separated them – God, was it – had it almost been 20 years? Since school? Since Lily had been murdered?
She closed the door behind her and sank down into one of the upholstered armchairs. She began to weep, first out of grief, then out of rage. Hot tears spilled over her cheeks and she breathed raggedly. Snape’s attempt to keep her at emotional bay after such a personal ordeal, watching him endure cruciatus, and now Lily – and what had reminded her of her friend, of Lily Evans, walking into this dusty, oppressive place?
She gathered herself together. As quickly as the storm of emotion had come, it left, and she moved over to Snape’s desk, wiping her face with the flat of her fingers. Oh, and there they were, on the bookshelf to the right of his desk, where no student could see, but a visitor or he himself would be able to view the portrait. “Lumos.” Her wand lit up the study nicely. Here she was, and here Lily too, much younger, laughing and hugging one another. It must have been a photo snapped after a Hogwarts school dance. Esmeralda’s hair was shoulder-length, vibrantly gold-red, and she was wearing her favorite silk lavender gown, the one with the tight bodice. Esmeralda smiled. And Lily beside her in the photograph, in a burgundy gown and her own darker red hair done up with finesse into a bun. What a pair they had made. Snape always hovered in the background, even back then. He had been so aloof, so maddeningly haughty…she remembered the nose that always seemed too big for his face –his alabaster skin and his greasy black hair. The hands that were too big for his body, like a puppy that had not quite grown into its feet. He was always on the edge of their class, the quiet, overly studious Slytherin. But when she had tentatively reached for him, like that night, at that particular dance, he receded like smoke, as if too afraid of himself or embarrassed at what he was to stay and talk. When Esmeralda thought back to the dance and that night, her recollection had been of a shy young man in retreat of himself – she was too loud, too happy – and when she and Lily got together, really, the noise had been incessant. But she remembered – was her memory embossing the events? She remembered asking him to dance, laughingly, pulling on his hand where he stood so still next to his Slytherin co-horts, his face mask-like. She remembered no eyes rolling in disgust, no sneer, no caustic comments. She remembered only quiet stillness emanating from him, as if he was caught between two completely different worlds.
He had not refused the dance, but throughout his jaw had been tight. And he had hardly spoken. But she remembered the warmth of his hand in hers as they waltzed politely, and the gentle pressure of his palm at the small of her back.
She snapped out of her reverie. Yes, and then he’d gone over to the dark side, become a Death Eater, repented and turned spy, though why Dumbledore trusted him implicitly she did not know. But she would find out soon.
Merlin, but she needed a stiff drink, a hot bath, and sleep. In that order. Where would a man like Snape keep clothing. She pulled herself away from the photo and the memories and went into the side room directly behind his desk. Off to the left was a cramped but oddly neat bedroom. It smelled vaguely of hair pomade and some other, spicier scent – like cardamom she thought, or no, not quite that – all-spice berries. And the underlying musky scent of a man. The room smelled good. She stepped in tentatively. The bed was over by the window, a heavy thing made of mahogany and neatly made. To her immediate right as she came through the door was a tidy chiffarobe. She opened it and again the smell of Severus – a subtle and dark scent – enveloped her. There were nightshirts folded in a comfortable stack alongside his formal and day-wear robes and she grabbed one and headed back for the office, suddenly feeling like she had lingered too long in someone’s most private memory. She was on her way out when she knocked a book of off his desk. She made an impatient noise and stooped to pick the thing up. Underneath the book and scattered now on the floor were what? Three…no, four letters. Odd. She picked them all up and rifled through them without thinking, getting them re-organized, and slowed as she saw the names of the addressees. There were four of them – one addressed to Albus, one to Remus Lupin, one to the estate of Sirius Black, and – one to E. Admantia. She went still. She needed to get back up to the infirmary. This was not her business. These letters were not meant to be found, unless…someone was going through his things. Her impetuousness grabbed her before her mind could step in and stop the action, and she walked over to the door and pulled it tightly shut before she could think it out. Still clutching the nightshirt, she picked up the stack of letters.
She could not believe it. This reiterated to her that Snape had not expected to survive, in fact he had been quite prepared to die. Esmeralda stared at the neat, spider-like handwriting for several frozen minutes. She should put these letters back and get upstairs. Now.
“Damn it to hell.” She ripped the letter open.
“Esmeralda:” it began. She noted briefly that what was not said in the salutation struck her deeply.
“You are reading this because hopefully I am most assuredly dead. I want you to know that, of all the mistakes I have made over the last 20 years, and you will remember my credo – no regrets, what is done, is done – that I must admit here in this most intimate of letters that I do have two of these detestable items.”
“Good God,” she thought.
“This is not an easy letter for a man such as myself to write. A large reason this letter is being written is because of Sirius Black. Like me, the man was severely misunderstood. Unlike me, he had nothing for which he needed to be forgiven. He was an innocent man. In death, I regret most grievously not allowing him to apologize to me (I refer to the infamous Sirius/Lupin event which you no doubt will remember me vindictively recounting at every opportunity). Sirius tried to discuss the incident with me several times after the War, probably at great personal cost to himself but I, blinded by the comfort of my anger and triumphant in my wronged state, ignored his requests to correct what obviously weighed so heavily in his heart. I hope I will have a chance, in death, to reconcile with him, even if this is an utterly romantic and foolishly Gryffindoresque sentiment. It is important to me now.
And this brings me to my life’s next regret. Esmeralda, had I been less of an arrogant fool, less of an ambitious man who was all too easily lead astray by those whispering sweet lies into my ears – if I had not been so eager and greedy to at last be part of a powerful faction – only too late did I thoroughly realize my stupidity and arrogance – I would have told you, in some way, how much I have loved you. Instead I willingly allowed myself to undergo a kind of living hell by engaging in a ritual with Voldemort that, over the last 6 months, has destroyed my humanity.
I go to my death most gladly, and I want you to know clearly why I requested Dumbledore to lift the bonds – he and I were quite aware of the fact that I would die – I wanted to leave this earth at least knowing I had tried to take action in the right direction. I am lost completely at this point. I have no forgiveness for myself anymore, and if it were not for Dumbledore’s blasted kindness and annoying sense of loyalty I would not have even succeeded at this last attempt to undo the evil which I have invited upon my being.
I am not looking for pity, a shared or mutual feeling, or anything of the kind. Even disgust is tolerated at this point. But I had to be clear with you.
Always Your Servant, Across All Time,
She was reeling and numb. She realized that she had stopped breathing and the dizziness brought her back to her mind. Finally she decided that it would not be appropriate, now, when the both of them were so fatigued to confront him with the letter. She had to act quickly. She bolted from the room and fairly sprinted back up and across to the infirmary wing. Her mind raced with excuses….she had bumped into Flitwick, Hagrid, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hooch, anyone, and had had a long chat…..she raced down the corridor and stopped short. Arranging her robes and running her hand through her hair, she knocked lightly on the door. There was no answer. She pushed the door open gently and looked in.
“Snape?” Snape was asleep, curled on his side. With his face relaxed, he looked younger and more tired than she remembered seeing him. Vulnerable. The desire to touch his shoulder and move the curtain of hair out of his face was maddening. Instead, thankful that she didn’t have to lie directly to him, she quietly placed the nightshirt at the foot of the bed, and she went to find Minerva. McGonagall could help her deal with the contents of the letter better than anyone.
As usual, the Three Broomsticks was crowded, close, hot and loud. Minerva had agreed to meet her for dinner, and the two now sat nursing strong drinks. Esmeralda had ordered a muggle drink she had grown fond of while in the Scottish Highlands, and Minerva had a tumbler of firewhiskey.
She had let Minerva read the letter. The transfigurations instructor said nothing for a long time. She sipped and thought. And sipped some more. Before she had left the infirmary, she had gotten assurance from Dumbledore that he would watch over Snape and later, Esmeralda would take a watch over the man that night. But now she was trying her best to quash her first impulse, which was to confront Snape with the letter.
“Well, frankly and no offense meant, Esmeralda….it just isn’t like you to not act immediately. And emotionally.” Minerva hid her eyes in her drink as she took another sip.
Esmeralda huffed. “Don’t you think I know that? Great stones, Minerva! I am going against my own nature to deal with this productively, for heaven’s sake! That’s why I needed you!” She hissed.
“Aye, there’s no need to get a head of steam up about it. Esmeralda….” Minerva dropped her gaze again, this time to her hands. “This is a very intimate letter. He has loved you for a long time.” She paused. She did not know what to say.
Esmeralda’s cheeks went crimson. She looked anywhere around the room but at Minerva. She clenched her jaw and finally picked up the glass of single malt scotch and placed it soothingly at her temple. She put the scotch down and wondered why in hell’s blazes did Rosmerta keep a fire going in the dead of August with a huge crowd of warm writhing bodies about. She didn’t want to think about any kind of feeling she might have for the man. He had made bad decisions in his past. Criminal. A bad man. He had done horrible, unthinkable things and…she remembered who he was. His gentleness that night.
Minerva changed the subject. “What do you want to do? Severus won’t stay put for long. You’re going to have to talk to him about this in three or four days, he’ll be back down in his study before he’s well, you know.” She paused, waiting for a reply. “Esmeralda?”
“Yes, yes, I hear you. I’m sorry, Minerva. I come to Hogwarts to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, and all this happens.” She ruminated, her eyes distant. She was remembering the cry, so full of despair that had come to her over the summer, one week before she received Dumbledore’s letter. “I never expected it, but…” her eyes narrowed, putting pieces together. “Why did Albus contact me this summer? Maybe he knew Severus was at some kind of turning point.”
Minerva drank. “Aye, that would be just like the old fart. Typical.” She rolled her eyes. “But meanwhile, what are you going to do about Severus? And that’s another thing.” Esmeralda looked up, not quite following. “In this letter, he’s reconciled completely to dying and he also expresses a hopelessness that would be melodramatic coming from anyone but him; that’s very worrisome, Esmeralda. Do you know what you’re getting into here?” She had missed McGonagall’s musical Scottish lilt. Esmeralda gestured with a hand that she in fact, had no idea. The hand went through her hair. She was obviously miserable.
They thought in silence for a bit. “While we’re asking each other personal questions, can I ask you something?” Esmeralda acquiesced, nodding. “When did you…know you were attracted to him?”
“When did I ever say I was attracted to him?” Esmeralda was indignant, but Minerva’s look said clearly that she knew Esmeralda was lying. They both began to laugh, the drink going straight to Esmeralda’s head, and she quieted. “Well. Actually, I remember clearly. It was a gentle feeling and it crept up on me, you know? When you’re young? It was at…..this dance. I want to say it was a Christmas dance, but….no….I think it was during Fall. Yes, Halloween. We danced, I made him dance with me, and there was something, Minerva, something that he didn’t say or do that just….affected me.”
“Mmmmm. I know that feeling.” Minerva finished her drink, her cheeks flushed.
“I could ask him to dinner. Show him the letter, talk to him about it. That way he couldn’t run away.”
“Where? HERE? At the Three Broomsticks?” Minerva was incredulous. “The entire WORLD will hear the whole thing!”
“No, no. I was thinking of a little café that I frequent in muggle Paris; they know me there. They wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I showed up with Severus AND they’d give us a quiet table, and best of all, I’ll use a portkey. That way he can’t run!” They both snorted into their drinks, giggling insanely at the thought of a terrified Snape running for the restaurant doors.
“You know, Minerva, it really is good to be back. I’m actually looking forward to teaching. To seeing the creatures in the forest. Even looking forward to working with Hagrid.”
“It’s good to have you back. Your work with the Norwegian Ridgebacks is legendary, you know. Who knew that an enchantress’ voice could do all that?”
“Well, they were helpful in the War.” Minerva marveled at Esmeralda’s ability to understate her role in things.
“What was it like, flying on the back of one of those monsters?”
“It wasn’t a MONSTER, it was the mother of an entire herd, the queen! Her name was…..Fafnaulda.” She drained her drink. “And it was terrifying.” She added truthfully. She covered her eyes with her right hand. She did not want to think about Fafnaulda right now. The pain of her loss was still too great. She felt Minerva’s eyes on her, but the other witch was circumspect.
“I’m sorry, Esmeralda. I should not have brought that up.”
“It’s fine. All right? Fine.” Suddenly she needed to stand up, to move, to get out of that too hot and close atmosphere, anything to distract her from going over the events of that horrific night. Minerva drank the rest of her drink, watching her friend with worried eyes. Esmeralda stood up and arranged her robes around her, her jaw set tightly, and the two witches left the establishment, somber now.
She was back in her small quarters. It was 11:30 pm. She had enjoyed unwinding with Minerva, memories and all, but she wanted to at least get some sheets on the old bed before she had to report for her shift with Snape at 12:00 am. After accepting the Dark Arts position, she had requested living quarters within easy walking distance of Hagrid’s hut and the Magical Forest. She felt uneasy being around too much humanity, and needed to be able to at least see the Forest to remain sane. She had only just arrived 2 – was it three? days ago and she was not unpacked yet. Nor had she had time to pull the dust covers off of any of the furniture. She hadn’t even had time to get sheets on the bed. Did Dumbledore time these things, she wondered?
She was late. Her heels clicked rapidly against the granite floors as she made her way towards Pomfrey’s office. She heard Albus’ resonant voice chatting amiably.
“And then he Apparated! Too embarrassed to even discuss it! I laughed myself silly.” She walked in, tapping briefly on the door.
“Sorry I’m late. I stopped off at the library to get something to read.”
“Think nothing of it, Esmeralda. Severus and I were just marveling at the Ministry and their odd ways.” Albus stood up slowly, his eyes merry as usual. “Well! I will leave you both to it. I find myself looking forward to a nice nap.” Dumbledore exited gracefully, squeezing her shoulder as he left.
She composed herself and walked into the small room. She put the books down on the table next to the bed, not meeting Snape’s eyes. She glanced at him quickly. He was leaning into the pillows of the bed, his head relaxed, his eyes regarding her. His expression was still. “Thank you for the nightshirt.” His voice was formal. She waved him off.
“It was no problem.” She thought of the letter, and she felt the flush start at her throat. She changed the subject rapidly in her head. “I brought you two books on rare potions.” She started instead. She took the chair next to the bed and picked up one of the leather-skinned tomes, leafing through it with too much interest. Her eyes ran over the words, not seeing a thing. “I thought….you might be bored. Probably you know these two by heart, knowing you, but the ingredients looked interesting, muggle ginseng, aconite, gingko fruit, I assumed you’d be fascinated. Really, wild creatures are my interest so I could be completely off in the wrong direction about these books, but I must admit I’m out of my league, give me a book on the spelunking goldhoarders of Kentucky and I’d be mesmerized, but potions they’re ghastly, they’re beyond me, I have no idea….” Snape interrupted, his glittering black eyes still. But she could see a small grin lurking at the corners of his lips. The dark circles under his eyes were still there. “Has living among dragons made you go completely daft?” She stopped. She knew she was babbling. “Sorry. Well, I know you don’t like to be bored. I’m tired, Severus, for god’s sake.” She finally snapped at him. Worried, concerned about the letter, aroused by his presence, even in his weakened state….irrationally she thought of Hagrid, and the comforting darkness of the Forest and she suppressed the great urge to leap up and fly out of the small suffocating room. But she did not drop her gaze and beyond her control, the flush started creeping up her neck and over her cheeks. If Severus noticed he didn’t let on.
“You did save my life. Albus told me what happened.” Severus had arranged his face into that careful, cool mask that Esmeralda remembered. “You always did have a knack for severe under-embellishment.”
“Did I. I’m glad. God knows this school would be lost without their potions master.” She went cold at her own tongue’s spite; that was completely cruel and sarcastic.
Snape went on. He leaned back into the pillow, the side of his face to her. His profile was aqualine now, very Roman. He continued quietly. “I did not expect to be alive.” He stopped. Was he actually fidgeting with his hands? “I am grateful for your help.” He swallowed.
She stared at him. “Why did you not expect to be alive?”
Snape ignored her. “When did you get those scars? The ones on your right arm?” He looked gaunt. He probably wasn’t eating, she thought.
“During the War. It’s a long story. Don’t try to change the subject, Severus. It’s just not like you to speak in circles. What *are* you talking about?” She leaned towards him, trying to see his face. But he withdrew from her.
“It’s……complicated.” His face grimaced as if in pain. “I don’t want you to…..become involved.”
Suddenly anger squirmed just beneath her emotional surface. “Why not? Maybe I want to be involved.” She shot back. “You assume a lot, Severus.”
“I….” He paused. He seemed very tired. He swallowed, trying to still his face. “You could get hurt,” he hissed, the words coming out in a rush.
“Oh, for god’s sake, I’m a grown witch, I can bloody well take care of myself!” She’d had enough of these insinuations. She stood up and paced the floor, raking her hair with her fingers, green robes billowing. “Will you stop talking around me like I’m a child!”
“Before you rampage to anger will you listen to me! Esmeralda, this is not some vague threat. I….” He paused again. “….this is extremely difficult to discuss.”
She gesticulated wildly, overwhelmed by frustration. “Severus, I am not some swotty little nancy puff. I have trained dragons. I have lived with the most powerful magical creatures on the planet. As I last recalled I even took them into the War or *do* I need to recount that for you! God knows you’ve probably been shut away in that hole of yours downstairs for the last umpteen zillion years with your rancid teeming pots and couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to something that didn’t promise vile headaches when drunk.”
His eyes were closed. “Voldemort is stronger than any dragon.”
She stopped pacing. She sat down and faced him. “Severus. What happened between you and Voldemort?” The question came out of her before she could clamp down on it, and like a bolt the poor timing hit her too late.
Snape was clearly exhausted and she could see now as she calmed down that it was neither the time nor the place to have this discussion. “Esmeralda. Can you help me out of this bed. I need to use the facilities.” She gentled immediately.
“Right. I didn’t mean to yell.” She finished awkwardly. He motioned with a hand that it was forgotten, and he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He panted with the effort. She could see sweat start out on his brow and she berated herself. “Here.” She sat down beside him and got her right arm underneath his left arm and around his torso. She could feel him tense up against her.
“Wait a minute.” He was still catching his breath.
“Tell me when.”
“All right.” She heaved up and she could feel Snape trying to use his legs and they completely buckled under him. He clamped down on a groan. She stood still and took his weight over her shoulders. He was heavy, but not unmanageable. He smelled like a sick animal, slightly sour, mingled with that other smell, the smell in his bedroom. She began moving him towards the bathroom. Gingerly he tried to use his legs. He cried out and Esmeralda stopped. “Does it hurt a lot?”
“Nerve, nerve damage. Yes it bloody hurts. But..” he tried to get at least one leg under his own weight. She could tell he detested the help. “But it’s better than yesterday. I could not get out of bed.”
She got him into the bathroom and on the toilet and discreetly removed herself, shutting the door behind her.
She waited until she heard the muffled growl that told her he was through. She went in and got her weight under him again, and got him to his feet. He still could not stand on his own, and slipped, grunting. She caught him around the waist and he grabbed the edge of the sink. He was far more ill than she had realized.
“Damn it, Snape, I should have gotten you a bedpan.”
“No. No!” He panted. “I….just need to rest for a moment.” He leaned heavily on her shoulder, one hand on the sink. She waited, growing increasingly worried.
“All right.” His breathing wasn’t good. He pushed away from the sink and one leg held for a second before he buckled, staggering. Esmeralda caught him and kept him from pitching forward. Her back screaming, she took most of his weight and hauled him slowly into the other room. When she got him back to the bed he was ashen and breathing with effort. She took one look at him and headed for the door.
“I’m getting Poppy.”
When they got back he was on his side and breathing heavily. He was covered in sweat.
“Merlin, Severus.” Forgetting everything, she sat down next to him and covered him with one of the blankets. She squeezed one of his hands but weakly he pulled away from her. She froze.
“No. It’s not safe.” His voice was muffled, but Pomfrey heard.
“He’s hallucinating. That happens sometimes with cruciatus. The pain, you know. Victims have neural flashbacks.” She was efficient as ever, preparing medicine and checking his pulse. “The pain can be so intense that they have no idea where they are.”
But Esmeralda, stilled now on the bed beside the sick man, knew that he was not hallucinating.
She got back to her room at 7:00 am, pulled off her clothes and collapsed into bed, blank from fatigue. Though Severus had appeared near death’s door to her, Pomfrey assured her that his symptoms were normal and that he was recovering nicely. She got a nasty lecture on top of it for inciting him and another private one from herself for the same thing.
She pulled the sheets over her, noticing blearily that it was going to be a beautiful day.
In the dream, it was night. He was over her, sinuous and warm, and she groaned like an animal as he entered her. He pressed against her protectively, covering her naked body with his own. The darkness sheltered them with quiet, with shadows. His breath was gentle on her throat as he rocked against her slowly. They coiled around each other, like serpents, like dark creatures, and his hand found hers in the darkness as she moved with his rhythm.
Something changed then – the weight of him became suffocating, and his hands, suddenly cold, gripped her wrists cruelly. He rammed into her and she gasped in shock and pain. A voice, cold, hollow, ringing with madness, hissed in her ear.
“Stay away from my black unicorn. DO – YOU – UNDER – STAND – ME – DRAGON – BITCH?” With each syllable he shoved into her violently and horror flooding her into action, she arched her back with everything she had to get the thing off and the creature on top of her just laughed.
She woke up in a mass of twisted sheets and wet with perspiration. She was shaking. It was all she could do to get to the shower to scrub the nightmare off of her.
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