Chapter 1 : Vitality and Weakness
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Severus was resting in an armchair in the semidarkness of his quarters. The whole of his dungeon drawing room was lit by a single candle, placed on a stool by the wall and enchanted so that it emitted emerald green light. There were no windows but all the walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with shelves and shelves of books; some of them were leather-bound, others were covered in cloth and still others in fur. The most frequent word in their titles, glistening in silver and from time to time reflecting the green of the candle, was Potions. Apart from the ebony-made bookcase and black velvet armchair with silvery stitching, the room contained a huge oak table with a quill, a bottle of ink and piles of empty parchments laying on it.
Severus was sitting with his eyes closed. Leaning on the armrest, his slender fingers were ever so slightly caressing his pale forehead. He was deeply engulfed in his own thoughts, contemplating the events of the last few weeks. First there were the injured to be attended to and Madam Pomfrey worked day and night dealing with those who had wounds from the battle. Many of them were caused by magic so dark that Severus had never heard of before and the unfortunate victims were left to bear awful scars for the rest of their lives. Though only slowly recovering from his own injuries, those of both the body and the soul, Severus dedicated himself to frantic work, brewing all kinds of potions round the clock. Among the most needed were Draught of Life, Pain Lessening Potion, and Draught of Dreamless Sleep, all of which he administered in person, day and night, to the erstwhile warriors.
Severus was in great need to forget. There were so many things in his life that he was only too eager to let fall into oblivion. The battle, what preceded it for many years, and also what followed afterwards. At the same time he was only too well aware that the things he wanted to forget the most would stay with him forever, haunting him in his sleeping and waking hours. There was no escape from the memories, other than death, and he was not yet ready for that, and so Severus took at least temporary refuge in alleviating the pain of the others.
When the healing was done the funerals of those killed in the battle followed. The funerals and the mourning. Severus was sure he would never fully recover from what he had to endure at the funerals. And there were so many of them. The innocent victims being given all kinds of honors and the greatest of all, for those whose relatives wished it to be so, was that they could be buried on the Hogwarts grounds along with the former headmasters and headmistresses of the school.
But all of this came only later. It was after Severus's last talk with the Dark Lord when everything went blank.
Stop it, Severus! That's past! You can't change it! With these thoughts putting an end to any further reveries, Severus rose from the armchair and dragging his still weakened body he crossed the room to confront his books. He intended to pick up one, The Masters of Potion Making through Ages most probably, and spend another of his solitary evenings reading it. While with his hand still mid-way to grasping the book he sighed heavily and let it fall again. Dead and gone. With a sudden feeling that he could not survive yet another evening on his own he turned his back on the library, the last meaningful thing in his life, and walked away with no clear sense of direction. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. In a low voice, a voice which was full of misery, resignation and sadness but with a whiff of melody buried deep down, in a voice such as his students had never heard him speak, Severus uttered: "Pulfer."
No sooner had the word stopped echoing in the dark dungeon that a small cracking sound followed and with that a little creature Apparated in front of Severus.
"Master, Sir? Would me master be wishing something nice for eat? Or would me Master be wishing go to sleeping? Would me Master Professor be desiring a hot bath?"
Seeing the pointed ears, orb-like eyes and small bent-low figure, no one could be mistaken that Pulfer was an old house elf. Some would say that "old" was an understatement as it was rumored that Pulfer was as old as Hogwarts itself. Not even Nearly Headless Nick or Grey Lady could recall a time when there was no Pulfer around. He simply was a part of Hogwarts as much as the Black Lake or Forbidden Forest, serving one Potions Professor after another. He had spent the last sixteen years as the personal house elf of Professor Severus Snape.
He wore a torn and ragged tea towel tied at his waist with a piece of no longer needed string, which far too much resembled one of Professor Trelawney's twines. Actually, in the last sixteen years that Severus had been teaching and living in Hogwarts, he registered only one change in Pulfer's appearance and that came two years ago when Pulfer, all of a sudden at Severus's call, Apparated in front of him wearing askew a violet knitted hat claiming: "Pulfer be free but Master Sir Professor still having his elf." Though rather perplexed and not having a clue what that was supposed to mean, Severus let the incident pass with a mere smirk. Eventually, he contented himself with the fact that though free, Pulfer was no less eager to get Severus's meals, make his bed and prepare his baths or from time to time to dye his robes an extra shade of pitch black. Severus understood that Pulfer simply adored the notion of being free-yet-fulfilling-all-of-his-Masters-Professor's-wishes house elf without a clear idea of what being free exactly meant.
What troubled Severus far more was that recently it had seemed that Pulfer's old age had started to show. So it happened more and more that Pulfer carried out his Master's orders in a rather mysterious and not always precise manner. First there were just hints. Once, being asked to bring Severus his hibiscus tea, he brought a gobletful of Firewhiskey, though Severus was well too known for his repugnance of any such beverages. The situation became graver when, on Severus's calls Pulfer Apparated three times into Professor McGonagall's Headmistress office instead and demanded, at exactly six in the morning, to be allowed to fix her dinner and prepare her bed. On the third such occasion Professor McGonagall could not bear Pulfer's insistence any further and let her discontent with the "ill behaving Snape's creature," as she put it, be known. Though busy preparing for her morning classes she went so far as to bring Pulfer in person and in a totally un-magic fashion to Severus's office, stressing that Severus should teach his servant proper manners and proper magic.
"No, Pulfer," Severus wearily answered his elf's previous questions. "I don't want to eat, sleep nor take a bath. But why don't you take a seat and-"
"Oh, Pulfer be happy, Master Sir. Pulfer will sit down with Master Professor," interjected the little creature and immediately, conjuring a chair out of thin air, settled himself down comfortably. At this demonstration of eagerness and vitality Severus merely rolled his eyes and withdrew himself back to the previously abandoned armchair. I'm so tired. Even Pulfer, old as the world itself, seems to have more energy than I do. Oh, shut you up, Severus! Enough of self-pity! You're disgusting! Always complaining about how life is unfair! Put yourself together, for Merlin's sake! Such were the thoughts running one after another at Avada-Kedavra speed through his mind, while he directed his empty look at little Pulfer and continued with what he had to say before being interrupted.
"-and keep me company for the eve-"
And again, "Master Professor, so happy Pulfer is be, Sir!" came another exclamation before Severus could finish his thought.
Starting to feel more irritated by the elf's presence than by his own loneliness, Severus completed his original idea, "ning," with a blank expression on his face. And before the elf was given the slightest chance to express his gratitude and appreciation, Severus with a wave of his wand hand cut him short. Then he continued, "with the beginning of the new school year still far ahead, there's only little for you to do in the evenings," and with the students gone even less for me, Severus finished in his mind. "Is that so?"
Not particularly waiting for the elf to answer, Severus went on, "I've heard that you are rather skillful in playing wizarding chess, aren't you?"
Again, Pulfer was only too eager to express an extensive amount of gratitude at his Master's praise, but Severus could not bear his exclamations any longer. With as hard a look on his face as he could conjure in spite of his utter weariness and in a hollow voice, he uttered, "From now on, I won't hear any thanks from you. Take it as an order!" There were some people I wanted to thank me or express their acknowledgement and understanding but this has never come. At least not in the way I wanted it. So, please, spare me those from you now.
Pulfer's ears drooped significantly and his eyes widened at the tone of his Master's Professor's voice. Yes, people said that his Master Professor was a rude man, never hesitating for a moment to offend anyone within earshot with a remark full of venom. But he was not like that with his Pulfer. Never. Not even when Pulfer burned his Master's Professor's beloved black cloak while performing the Smoothening Charm on it. Not even when once, and now Pulfer chuckled slightly at the memory, he was supposed to bring his Professor Master an important potion ingredient to his class, but instead he happened to bring him his washed laundry. Not even then did his Master Professor address Pulfer so sharply yet with such an empty look on his face.
Pulfer was well aware that his Master Professor had changed within the last month like never before. Since the last battle and all that followed, his Master Snape was so much withdrawn, all the time wearing an expression which revealed weariness, exhaustion and was it – concern? Rather resignation, Pulfer realized. His favorite Master Professor was evidently suffering and it was not only from the weakened and apparently still aching body which has not recovered from the duels of the battle yet. His mind and soul seemed to be tortured far more.
Severus must have noticed that Pulfer was struck by the abruptness of the order. Caring as he was for his old elf, he was seriously thinking of apologizing. But then . . . Life has never been easy on anyone. No one has apologized to me either.
Not waiting any longer for Pulfer's answers as to whether he really had time in the evenings or whether he really was good at wizarding chess, Severus moved his armchair closer to the table and to where Pulfer was sitting, still rather daunted. With a graceful movement of his wand Severus conjured up a chessboard with two sets of men. He badly needed someone to keep him intellectual company. Severus was used to being on his own physically, but intellectually, that was a different matter. During the school year there were at least the students. Though usually they were just a bunch of dunderheads, some of them were surprisingly clever. Severus was, of course, way too reluctant to admit that to himself and even far less willing to say that to the students. Whom he was specifically thinking of at the moment, was . . . Miss Granger. How fiercely she was fighting in the battle, in the end. And her essays. The one in which she elaborated on a brand new potion for healing those affected by tampered memory charms. What was it she wanted to brew together? The root of a mandrake and an extract from the bud of a simple rose? Yes. And it worked! I was impressed, to say the least of it. She really had a mind for potions. I might have at least insinuated at that fact when she was still around.
He was suspended in his thoughts by a sudden cough.
"Professor Master, Pulfer knows that he not should interrupt his Master's thinks, but the men are restless."
And really, the men, which Severus had placed in their positions on the chess board, were fidgeting, only too eager to start the match. Severus sighed and motioned the elf to choose his side. While Pulfer seemed to be totally immersed in thoughts as to which set of men his Master Professor might be wanting so that he could take the other one, only to please his Professor Master, Severus finished his previous idea. I do need someone to keep me company and to rejoice with me in intellectual debates again. Otherwise, I will lose the remaining thread of sanity I have, the penultimate thread of which left my life the night Albus Dumbledore pleaded with me to mete my promise on the top of the Astronomy Tower.
"White!" was the exclamation bringing Severus fully back from his meditations on Albus Dumbledore, Hermione Granger and maybe even on Harry Potter. But Severus was not yet ready to admit that he even so much as thought about him, certainly not after how Harry Potter had treated him during their last meeting at the funerals.
Acknowledging the elf's choice, Severus contented himself with starting second and the wizarding chess commenced. After half an hour of brisk and ingenious turns between the Professor and his servant and after the majority of men lay badly damaged all around the board, Pulfer suddenly exclaimed, "Master Professor must go and take his nice hot bath! Pulfer maked it ready." Doing so, he hopped down from the chair, trying to usher Severus into the door leading to his bathroom and completely forgetting about the unfinished game.
Utterly surprised at being so abruptly brought out of the depths of his mind, which had been fixed on the game, Severus shook off the little elf's attempts. Even this slight movement seemed to cause him considerable pain. "I beg you pardon?" he whispered in a quiet hollow voice, looking at Pulfer with the same empty eyes as before.
"Master Professor must go and take his nice hot bath, because the water not be hot no more in a while," was what Pulfer offered as an answer. It seemed as though all of a sudden Pulfer's mind started meandering around his daily routine, causing him to forget that at present he was rather a company than a servant of Severus, to say nothing of the fact that there was no bath ready anywhere; it was yet again one of the shifts of Pulfer's mind. Severus's eyes reflected the sadness that overtook him at the elf's statement and with a sigh he turned them towards his aging elf, saying in a low voice, "Yes, Pulfer I will take my bath, don't you worry."
Apparently satisfied with his own persuasive skills and happy as he could be that his Master Professor had come to his senses about the nice hot evening bath, Pulfer bowed low and Disapparated with a crack.
Severus remained silent and motionless for a while and then very slowly took Pulfer's white Queen, moving it in front of his own cornered black King, "Checkmate, Master Professor."
Why does everything have to be falling into pieces? Even as his servant's mind was starting to have its light and dark moments, Severus was only too afraid that in future there would be far more of the dark moments, full of oblivion and confusion, than those of the light.
Getting up from the armchair and making the chess board and the heap of defeated men disappear with another of his graceful wand movements, Severus set off for bed. It was past midnight anyway. He was not so much tired as sad and fighting a strong and sudden urge to plunge himself into his Pensieve and relive some of his better days. Not that there were many of those, rather few he had to admit, but nonetheless there were some. For example when he had been with Dumbledore, discussing possible counter curses or potions that might alleviate the effects of that horrible course Dumbledore had so foolishly imposed upon himself. A fool! ran through Severus's mind. Why, in the name of Merlin's cloak, did he have to strike the ring?
With this memory of his former headmaster and intellectual companion Severus entered his bedroom. The room was as soberly equipped as the one he had just left, with one slight difference. Already a long time ago, Severus had enchanted the ceiling so that it constantly reflected a night sky with constellation upon constellation of silvery shining stars. While performing the charm so many years ago, Severus had made sure that the night sky resembled, to the very last star, the one which was deeply burned in his memory. It was the very same sky Severus's eyes fell upon when he was leaving Lilly's and James' house sixteen years ago, stepping out with them onto their verandah. It was his last true happy memory. Actually, one to which he owed the fact that he was still able to perform his Patronus, regardless of everything that had happened since. He had meant the sky as a reminder of all the wonderful memories of that last evening with them and also as a warning against that which had followed and had turned his life in a completely different direction.
While still contemplating Lilly's beautiful eyes and James' broad smile on that last night with them, something in Severus's mind suddenly clicked and he knew that there it was again and that there was no way back. One of his all too frequent flashbacks was ready to materialize in front of his eyes, ready or not Severus might have been for it. In one moment Severus was perfectly aware that he was standing in his bedroom, remembering Lilly and James, and in another his mind and senses became clouded and he was back in the Shrieking Shack, talking to Voldemort again. As so many times already in the last month, and with a scream of agony, Severus fell under the weight of this memory to the floor and motionless, succumbed to reliving it for yet another time.