It had been the greatest shock of Severus' life to find that he had survived not only the war, but the attack from Nagini too. It was probably only because he had been thrown in a cell in Azkaban almost immediately after and hadn't had the time to properly process the whole thing that the shock itself hadn't killed him.
He had languished there for two years and had spent every single day praying for death, hoping that the wound in his neck, which had never really healed properly, would finally finish him off. He had thought he had known desperation and despair, but it was nothing compared to the time he spent rotting away in the hellish confines of his cell. He had nothing but his guilt over Albus' death to occupy his endless thoughts, nothing but the constant drag of days to build bitter resentment and an unassailable feeling that if there was a hell, he was in it.
He had fully intended to die there, to let the last vestiges of hope and his will to live simply seep from his body, but fate, it seemed had other ideas. Well, perhaps 'fate' was a rather grandiose title to give to Harry Potter, but it was one of the more generous ones that Severus had attributed to the boy over the years.
The first he heard about Harry's dogmatic attempts to get him acquitted came when a solicitor Harry had employed came to visit him and informed him that, in fact, Harry had been working tirelessly ever since he'd been imprisoned two years prior and, one rainy afternoon in August, had finally made something of a breakthrough.
'Breakthrough' had been the term the solicitor had used, 'total loss of sanity' had been Severus'. It transpired that the Ministry, in their usual short-sighted approach to matters, had believed that Harry would eventually let the matter drop if they dug their heels in enough. They hadn't banked on Harry's sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to back down and so, in a fit of what Severus was sure had been pique, they had finally said that they would hold a trial and would release Severus from Azkaban while they waited for a date. There was, however, a catch.
With no small amount of spite and, Severus was sure, in the hopes that their terms would make Harry give up and leave Severus where he was, the Ministry had agreed to let Severus out under one condition only – that he was released to Harry's guardianship, and his alone. Severus had been of the same mind as the Ministry, and had fully expected Harry to refuse point blank, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the boy had accepted the lunatic stipulation.
So it was that he was standing in the laughingly termed 'reception' in Azkaban, waiting for his Ministry escort to take him Merlin-knew-where. He hadn't been able to process the situation properly, and part of him was still deeply in shock that he was finally going to leave the foul place that, it wasn't too dramatic to say, had claimed a piece of his soul.
Two years in Azkaban had done damage to his mind and body in ways that he wasn't certain he would ever recover from. His health was poor; his wound, never having received proper attention apart from the initial action to ensure he would live, caused him pain almost every day, and the prison's enforced diet of watery porridge three times a day had seen what little weight he had drop from him.
He was a walking skeleton, dishevelled, filthy and utterly humiliated by the spectre he had become. Contrary to what others might have thought of him, hygiene had always been important to him, and to be robbed of the dignity of bathing and shaving had been something that had crushed him more and more the longer time went on.
A door slammed somewhere and moments later a man and a woman appeared in the reception, their robes indicating that they were Ministry employees. They approached the craggy man behind the desk, the woman casting a cursory glance at Severus, before she said,
"Is that him?"
"It's him alright," the guard replied. "Ready and waiting for you. Just sign this, and he's all yours."
He shoved a clipboard towards the woman and she accepted the offered quill, signing the top sheet of paper that was held in place then nodded at her colleague. The man stepped forward and placed a set of heavy manacles around Severus' wrists, looking up at him with a sneer and saying,
"Don't want you making a break for it now do we?"
As dubious as Severus was feeling about being released to Harry's stewardship, he had neither the magic nor the physical capacity to be making an escape of any kind. He had no choice but to let himself be taken to whatever fate awaited him.
The man and the woman flanked him and each took an elbow, and before he had time to prepare himself, he felt his world move sideways. His eyes closed themselves at the onslaught, and it was only when he smelt the alien scent of gloriously fresh air that he allowed them to open again. It had been so long since he'd seen daylight that the brightness sliced through his vision and made it blurry, and he squinted against the assault, just about able to make out the wonky stone house in front of him and the fact that it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
The man stepped forward and banged a heavy fist on the door and Severus hung his head to avoid having to look when the door opened. He was ashamed of the pale shadow he had become, and the thought of facing anyone he had once known, who had once known him, was utterly daunting.
He heard the old hinges creak open and his male custodian said, "Mr Potter, we have Snape here for you."
He still didn't look up, but he didn't need to to hear the surprising steel in Harry's voice when he said, "The man has two titles – Professor or Potions Master. Pick one and use it when speaking to or about him."
"I'm sorry Mr Potter, I – "
Harry apparently wasn't in the mood for apologies, nor for giving the Ministry officials any more of his attention than was necessary, and he cut the man off sharply, addressing Severus instead. "Come inside sir," he said softly, and Severus inclined his head slightly to see where he was going, stepping over the threshold and standing awkwardly in the porch a little way behind Harry.
"Mr Potter," said the woman, "there are several things that we need to – "
"I'm well aware of the procedure," Harry said firmly, and Severus found himself deeply uncomfortable to realise that the voice belonged to a man, with no trace of the boy he still held in his mind. "Everything will be done officially, have no fear," Harry continued. "My main concern at the moment is the Professor, so you can wait."
A wand was waved over the manacles on Severus' wrist and they disappeared as though they had been made of nothing more than smoke. Harry moved a little closer and still Severus kept his gaze pointed towards the floor as the man said, "Everything is ready for you upstairs. Your bedroom is the second on the left and you have your own bathroom attached. There are toiletries and clothing for you, please use whatever you need."
The idea of being allowed to bathe was overwhelming and Severus' feet moved towards the stairs of their own volition. He ascended them slowly, his body aching, the shock of being out of Azkaban for the first time in two years more than he could fully contend with. He heard his escorts move into the house, Harry continuing to speak to them in the same firm tones that seemed to brook no argument.
He moved to his assigned bedroom and stood in the doorway for a moment, trying to take it all in. The building was old, all bowed walls and crooked windows, and the bedroom itself was lovely. A small voice in the back of Severus' mind offered that anything would have seemed lovely after his hellish cell, but it truly was.
There was a large double bed, an antique-looking wardrobe with a matching chest of drawers beside it, a writing desk with a sturdy chair underneath it, and a modest fireplace in front of which was a comfortable-looking armchair. A large window let in a decent amount of light and Severus could just about see the view from where he was standing. He had been right; they were in the middle of nowhere. All he could see were rolling hills, old stone walls and a dense, thick forest off in the distance.
He moved into the room a little further and saw that there was a large pile of clothes on the bed, accompanied by a washbag, which, upon inspection, contained a shaving kit, nail clippers, a small pair of scissors, a comb, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and shampoo. He could have cried. He clutched the bag to his chest and closed his eyes tightly against the sudden rush of feelings at having this dignity returned to him, of being granted this small measure, the loss of which had robbed him of his humanity.
There was a piece of parchment on top the pile of clothes and Severus placed the wash bag aside with a shaking hand before picking it up, recognising Harry's handwriting.
This room is yours for as long as you stay with me, we can alter it to better suit your tastes and needs after you've settled in. The clothes are charmed to fit the wearer, I hope the selection meets with your approval.
The Ministry Stasi (here Severus couldn't help but feel a small glint of amusement) will unfortunately be with us for an hour or so, so please take your time to settle in and I will do my best to get rid of them by the time you come down.
There was a slight blot on the parchment, as though the quill had been held there a little too long, possibly in consideration of what was to be written next.
I can only imagine how difficult this is for you. I know what you think of me, but please believe that I want nothing more than to help, to make this situation right. I will endeavour to make your stay here as bearable as possible.
Severus stared down at the parchment, finding it hard to process Harry's words. Surely the man realised that being given over to the reincarnation of Voldemort's spirit would have been preferable to another second spent rotting in his prison cell? The thought alone of being allowed the simple dispensation of bathing was enough to render the situation infinitely more than 'bearable'.
Still, Harry had no reason to suppose that Severus' opinion of him was any different to that that he had projected for all those years, one that he had fostered and allowed to grow both for the boy's protection and his own. He had almost believed it himself as the years went on, indeed at times he was sure he had felt hatred and resentment towards Harry, but now…now those feelings had simply evaporated.
It hadn't stopped him from wondering, unfairly perhaps, whether Harry would crow over the circumstances, would hold his dignity to ransom in order to remind him that, but for him, he would have been left to his fetid fate in Azkaban. The tone of Harry's voice merely minutes before when addressing the Ministry employee had banished those rather ungenerous thoughts. He supposed he should have known, whatever faults Harry might have had, a love of gloating wasn't one of them.
He grabbed the wash bag and moved into the bathroom, feeling overwhelmed at the sight of the glass shower cubicle in the corner, modest bathtub, toilet and pedestal sink. He had had no such luxuries for two years; the only facility that Azkaban boasted was a shared toilet and tap that dripped fetid water.
He moved over to the sink and removed the shaving kit and scissors from the wash bag, then, with a feeling of deep foreboding, forced himself to look up and face his reflection. He'd been expecting it to be bad, but what he was confronted with was far worse. His black hair was matted and hung limply down to his chest, his skin was paper thin and stretched over his pinched, painfully thin face, and dull, bloodshot eyes stared out of hollow sockets.
He was so stunned that for a few moments all he could do was stare back at his wraith-like self, horrified by the reality of what he had become, of the sub-human his incarceration had turned him into. He reached for the scissors and, without giving it too much thought, began to chop through the black clumps of hair, hacking it off until it hung just below his ears. He then chopped the scraggly black and grey beard back until it was barely an inch long, then lathered his face with shaving cream.
It was the most satisfying feeling he had had in years as he pressed the straight razor to his skin and began to scrape away the facial hair that he had always detested. He shaved slowly and carefully, aware that he had no magic with which to heal himself if he sliced through his skin. It had been so long since his skin had been free from the nasty, unkempt beard, and as he rinsed the last of the cream from his face, he was relieved to find that he recognised the man staring back at him from the mirror a little more than before.
The nail clippers were next, and he cut his browned, talon-like nails back to the short, neat nails he had always favoured, feeling himself become more human with each simple ministration. He peeled his filthy prison robe from his body, fully intending to burn it at the earliest opportunity, and chucked it aside before he stepped into the shower cubicle, taking the large bar of soap, the comb and shampoo with him.
At a later date he would most certainly be using the bathtub for a longed-for soak, but the thought of sitting in the filth from his own body wasn't appealing at that point. He needed to scrub himself raw, to obliterate the evidence of two years' worth of being made to live like an animal.
He wrenched the water on, and it was hot in seconds, pounding down on his skin in a way that Severus could almost dimly remember. He wetted the soap and began an intense and meticulous cleaning process, lathering every inch of his skin. It took several rinses and re-applications to remove the many layers of grime from his body, and eventually he began to see the pale, pink-tinged hue of his own skin beneath. He tried to focus on cleaning, not on how painfully thin he was, how his ribs and hipbones jutted out, how a stiff breeze would have knocked him on his exceptionally bony arse.
When his body had been attended to, he poured a huge amount of shampoo into his hands and massaged it through his matted hair. He pulled the comb through it, immensely thankful that it seemed to be sturdy, and spent a good twenty minutes brushing out the knots and dirt before washing it all out, then shampooing and rinsing several more times.
It felt wonderful, and watching all the muck disappear down the swirling plughole was more satisfying than he would have believed. He felt as though a fraction of his dignity had been restored to him, and although he wasn't sure if he would ever resemble the man he once was, this measure, which would be so small to some, had gone a long way to helping.
He turned the water off and stepped out onto the bathmat, grabbing a fluffy towel and gently dabbing himself dry. He was gratified to note that the towel came away from his skin as white as it had been originally, and he tied it around his waist as he moved back to the mirror. He wiped the condensation away and was fractionally better pleased with what he saw looking back at him.
He brushed his teeth five times, combed his damp hair again, then moved back out into the bedroom to inspect the clothes. They were mostly muggle, although there was a set of plain black robes included in the offering as well. He decided on a pair of soft black trousers and a grey jumper, which did indeed alter themselves to fit him the second he put them on. He had never been a big man, but the utter lack of meat on his bones was depressing.
Part of him wanted to hide upstairs forever, to lock the bedroom door and pretend that the rest of the world didn't exist, but he reluctantly felt that he owed it to Harry to show his face. He padded softly back out onto the landing and paused at the top of the stairs, listening to see if the Ministry officials were still there. He could hear Harry talking to someone, but as he listened, he realised it was Ron Weasley's voice he could hear.
"Don't let it wind you up mate, you know what these Ministry twats are like, and Collins is one of the worst. How badly did you threaten them?"
Severus heard Harry sigh before saying, "I might have played the 'Slayer of Voldemort' card, they got a little shifty after that."
Ron snorted and said, "I bet they did." There was a pause, then he asked, "How's Professor Snape?"
Severus was surprised to hear the man give him his title and to be spoken of with such civility. He knew that Harry's opinion of him was different to that of his schooldays, but he hadn't expected other people's to be.
"I don't know. We didn't get a chance to speak. I just wanted to get him out of the way of those pricks as quickly as possible, to give him some privacy, give him a chance to collect himself. They didn't seem to realise that he's a human being, they treated him as though they were delivering a piece of meat."
"That should be no surprise to you mate, you know what that department's like. The trouble I've had with them over Drake has been unbelievable."
Severus frowned, wondering if Ron could possibly be referring to Draco. It was unlikely, surely? Deciding that he couldn't hover on the landing indefinitely, he took a deep breath and steeled himself for whatever awaited him. He walked slowly down the stairs and found himself in a living room that was as charming as his bedroom, and in the middle of which stood Ron and Harry, arms folded, talking seriously.
They turned to face him and Severus couldn't tell who was more surprised by the appearance of each man in the room. It had only been two years, but both Ron and Harry seemed to have shed any last vestiges of boyhood that might have lingered, and two young men were now facing him. Ron, he imagined was probably shocked by his haggard appearance, but Harry looked as though he was pleased to see that Severus was somewhat altered from the bedraggled creature who had gone up the stairs.
"Professor," said Harry, moving forward to shake his hand. "Did you find everything ok?"
"Yes, thank you," Severus said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. He had had little enough reason to use it apart from the couple of meetings he'd had with Harry's representative.
"Please, come and sit down," said Harry, directing Severus to the sofa in front of the fire.
"Hello sir," said Ron, shaking his hand also as he moved to sit down.
"Mr Weasley," Severus said with a polite nod.
Harry and Ron settled themselves in the armchairs that were placed either end of the sofa, and Harry ran a hand through his messy hair before saying, "I know this must all be overwhelming, there are so many things that we need to tell you about, but I think it's best to just let you get settled before we get into anything."
Severus nodded, happy to go along with that for the time being, and Ron picked up the conversation, saying, "With your approval, we've arranged for a Healer to come and see you tomorrow. We're aware of how badly your health must have suffered, and we'd like someone to take a proper look at your wound."
Ron was more adult than Severus could remember him being. He carried himself with confidence and his voice had a low, pleasant timbre to it. His hair was a little longer than it had been before and curled slightly around his ears. He gave off the air of a man comfortable in his skin, his sharp blue eyes serious and intelligent.
"That's fine with me," Severus replied, privately relieved to learn that he was to see a doctor. He was concerned about his health, knowing that it had deteriorated greatly during his time in Azkaban.
"Hermione and I will be along in a day or two to talk you through what's going to happen next," Ron continued, "and if you have any questions at any point, please ask. For now though, we really hope that you're able to use this time to recover. We know it won't be easy," he said softly, and Severus was rather bewildered that the man had managed to convey sympathy without making him feel pitied.
"Where am I exactly?" he asked, the small glimpse of scenery he had spied through the bedroom window not having given him much of a clue.
"The edge of Dartmoor," Harry replied. "The southwest edge to be precise."
"This is your home?" Severus asked, and Harry nodded.
"I bought it a little over a year ago. It was a muggle place originally, so it's decked out with electricity and a few muggle appliances. Hopefully that will make life a little easier for you while your magic's still on lockdown. Believe me, we're working on it."
Severus frowned and looked from Harry to Ron before saying, "You both speak as though this is a procedure you've gone through before."
Ron and Harry exchanged a glance and Harry gave a resigned nod, saying, "We have. Things in the wizarding world are…very different, most would argue that they've changed for the worse. I'll explain it all properly when you've found your feet here, but Ron, Hermione and I have…made it our business to become involved in these matters of justice."
"Justice," Ron scoffed. "Rather the complete lack thereof. We've been fighting the Ministry every step of the way, and we're going to carry on doing so."
Severus was surprised by the passion in the man's voice, and as solicitous as Ron was being with him, something told him that it wasn't solely there on his behalf. He said nothing, but filed the thought away to be investigated at a later date.
Ron sighed and said, "I should be on my way, I said I'd only be gone for half an hour or so. I'll be back the day after tomorrow."
"I'll see you out," said Harry and Severus went to stand, only to be ushered back down as Harry said, "No, no, you stay there, let yourself get used to a bit of comfort again."
Harry and Ron removed themselves from the living room and Severus heard them carry on a softly-spoken conversation in the porch, but he didn't trouble himself trying to listen to it. He was still feeling rather shell-shocked at being in a place with plumbing and furniture, a place that smelt of furniture polish and sandalwood where he could hear the gentle song of a thrush somewhere in the distance.
He flexed his fingers along the fabric of the sofa he was sitting on. It was nothing particularly special, but it felt like the finest silk to Severus' raw, calloused fingers and the simple fact that he was sitting on a sofa rather than on his filthy, cold palette, the only piece of 'furniture' in his cell, was something of a revelation in itself.
He looked around the living room, taking in the comfy-looking armchairs, walnut coffee table, muggle television and two large, heavily-laden bookcases. In his life he had seen many more opulent and luxurious settings than this, but none of them had ever made him feel so elated. The thought of being able to sit on a sofa and read a book felt like the most decadent activity he had ever dreamt up, and he realised, in that moment, that something in him had altered forever.
Harry came back into the living room and sat back down in the armchair, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He sighed and then said softly, "I can't imagine what this must be like for you. I hope you know that…whatever might have existed between us before, whatever grievances or grudges, for my part…I consider them to be in the past."
Severus had had ample time throughout his incarceration to consider his feelings where Harry was concerned. They were complicated, there was no denying that, but whatever acrimony and bitterness he might have once felt seemed now pointless and, he had to admit, rather pathetic. He was also acutely aware that, were it not for Harry and his willingness to not only fight the system but also to open up his home as a refuge, he would still be rotting to death in Azkaban. Even he, with his limited capacity for gratitude and appreciation, would have been unable to continue to hold rancour towards the man.
"I would also prefer to see old bones laid to rest," he said eventually, and Harry seemed relieved to hear it.
He nodded, as if to confirm things silently to himself, then pushed his glasses a little further up his nose and said, "I know it'll probably take some time to adjust, but while you're here please treat this place like your own. The kitchen's through the door on the right and there's a little library just off from the corridor. We've also managed to get them to agree to a restrictive ward of a 30-mile radius, so you're free to come and go from the house as you see fit within those parameters."
Severus blinked at him in surprise for a moment before saying, "I'm not under house arrest?"
The wry smile that Harry gave him was one that he had never seen on the man's face before, and Harry said, "Ron can wield remarkable influence when he wants to."
"Mr Weasley was responsible?" Severus asked with a frown.
Harry nodded. "I wasn't kidding when I said things had changed." He braced his hands on his thighs and said, "Would you like some tea?"
After drinking putrid water for two years, tea sounded like an offer of manna from heaven and he nodded mutely. Harry rose to his feet and moved off through the door he had indicated earlier into the kitchen and Severus heard the kettle being filled, followed by the clinking of china. Curious to see the kitchen, he stood up and moved to the doorway, hovering on the threshold as he watched Harry set about making the tea.
The kitchen was much like the rest of the house, slightly wonky with bowed walls and exposed beams. The work surfaces were dark wood and the cupboards were a slightly olive-green, with an imposing fridge wedged in the corner. There was a small table and chairs in the centre of the room and Harry looked up from his task and indicated for Severus to take a seat before he filled the teapot and levitated the cups, milk and sugar over to the table. He brought the teapot over and sat down next to Severus, filling both cups with tea and indicating for him to alter his own as necessary.
Severus had always drunk tea black in the past, but the idea of doing so now turned his stomach. He felt the need to taste sweetness again and so added a splash of milk and a healthy spoonful of sugar before lifting the cup to his lips and savouring the smell. He took a measured sip and was overwhelmed by the alien sense of heat and flavour, before letting it slide down his throat. He couldn't stop himself from smiling slightly, feeling as though the small action that so many would take for granted was one of the most delightful things he had experienced.
"We'll have to be careful," Harry said, stirring his own tea thoughtfully, "with what you eat. Eating watery porridge for two years won't have done you any favours and your system will take time to adjust. Maggie, the Healer, will recommend a proper course of nutrition for you when she sees you tomorrow, she's well-versed in dealing with cases like this. We've used her many times."
"How many times exactly?" Severus asked, curious to know what exactly had been happening in the world during his imprisonment and how Harry had come to be involved in it.
Harry wrapped his fingers around the cup in front of him looked down at it, chewing his bottom lip slightly before saying, "At last count, we'd managed twenty-one cases."
"Twenty-one?" Severus repeated, astounded. "You've freed twenty-one people from Azkaban?"
Harry looked up and met his eyes, his own sombre and serious. "After the war…the climate was…well to say people were paranoid wouldn't be too dramatic. The Ministry was facing a serious backlash from the public and was being heavily criticised for the way it had handled things and its lack of involvement in bringing down Voldemort. So, it did what it always does – it reacted."
"How?" Severus asked, and something in Harry's face told him that he wouldn't like the answer.
Harry paused and scratched at the slight shadow of stubble on his chin before saying softly, "They rounded up every living Slytherin and placed them in Azkaban."
"You're joking," Severus said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Harry shook his head and said, "Some were guilty, that's undeniable, but many were innocent, some had even fought at the Battle of Hogwarts and yet there they were, thrown into a cell and branded as traitors. Most weren't even granted a trial, just as you weren't, and so we set about trying to overturn things, trying to make things right."
"Just you, Mr Weasley and Ms Granger?"
"That was how it started," Harry said with a crooked sort of smile, "but now…well it's fair to say that we manage something of a full-scale operation."
Severus paused for a moment, allowing all the information to penetrate his thoughts, shocked and deeply troubled by what he had heard.
"There's more, isn't there?" he said eventually. "More I don't know?"
"Yes," Harry said softly, "but there'll be time for all that later."