"Shh, shh!" the house-elf whispered, brushing back Severus' fringe. "Severus Snape is crying too hard. Severus Snape needs to breathe. Severus Snape is safe now with Mipsy, safe. Safe, safe," she continued, giggling before issuing a rather loud, alcoholic burp. "Safe and warm and soon to be fed. You just keep to your bed, keep to your—urrrrup!—bed, and everything will be all right."
Severus rubbed his face on his sodden pillowcase and opened his eyes, not surprised to find that he'd been crying in his sleep. Mipsy, who continued brushing his hair through her long, cool fingers, smiled at him. It was a firm smile in a wobbly face, and Mipsy herself seemed a bit unsteady.
"Have you any more of that?" asked Severus.
"No, Mipsy drank it all. Elf wine. Very good. Sweet. Today is her last day. Mipsy is celebrating."
Mipsy made a gesture that looked very much like a self-toast and burped again, and Severus felt himself want to smile, at least, he thought that's what he was feeling. It had been so long since his last smile that he couldn't be sure. He did, however, appreciate the feeling of being soothed.
"You're, er, very nice."
"Yes, Mipsy is. Now, be nice to Mipsy on her last day and dry up all your tears," said Mipsy, pulling a cloth that had just appeared out of the air and handing it to him.
"Oh, yes! Last day. Mipsy has cleaned and organised and protected and laundered and cooked and fetched and delivered and . . . and done so many good—hic!—things here, but now it is time for Mipsy to rest."
Severus passed Mipsy the cloth. "House-elves retire?"
Mipsy's ears waggled as if in consternation, but they stilled quickly. "Yes, retire. House-elves do that, young Severus Snape, yes," Mipsy told him, Vanishing the cloth. "We do all the things wizards do and more things besides. We are happy to do all the things." She brushed Severus' fringe back and peered into his eyes. "Why is Severus Snape not happy? Not happy to do any of the things?"
Lily. I . . . she's . . . no!
His lips trembling, Severus threw himself down upon his pillow, almost starting to realise that somehow without his noticing, Mipsy had dried it—and then he felt warm blankets being drawn up over his back before they were tucked in around his shoulders.
"Mipsy knows you need sleep, young professor. Mipsy will watch over you. Her last watch, over—urrp!—over Severus Snape."
A very light, warm weight settled against his side, and Severus, exhausted by a grief he was too ashamed to name, took comfort from it. "Th—thank you. Thank you, Mipsy."
"S—sleep now. It's time to sleep . . . now."
"Good morning, Severus Snape," a male house-elf said. "Mipsy is done with her duty. May we be taking her now?"
Severus realised that he was holding Mipsy's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze; she did not squeeze back. Oh. Oh, no.
He'd known Mipsy for all of ten minutes—no, known of her. She's been cleaning my rooms for months. Doing my laundry. Looking out for me. And I never knew her name before last night.
"May we be taking her now?" the male house-elf gently asked again.
Severus blinked at him. "House-elves . . . retire."
"Yes, Severus Snape," a female house-elf told him. "After work is done, when it is time, house-elves sleep."
"But Mipsy . . . shouldn't she have been with you before . . . ."
"Oh, Mipsy was!" a younger, androgynous house-elf piped. "And then Mipsy was with you!"
"Last day. Last duty!" several of the elves supplied.
Severus looked down at Mipsy, whose smooth face wore a tiny smile, and stroked one of her still-warm ears. "She looks peaceful."
"Mipsy is, she is! She was a good house-elf."
"'Last duty'. She stayed with me."
"Yes, Severus Snape. An honour for her," said the female house-elf who'd first spoken to him.
"An honour for me."
The house-elves gasped as Severus rose, taking Mipsy up in his arms. Wrapping the coverlet around her, he asked, "Where do we take her? I wish to help you lay her to rest."
Severus had never seen so many waggling ears.
The older male house-elf who'd first asked to take Mipsy stared at him. "Severus Snape is not a house-elf."
"House-elves take care of house-elves, silly," a young elf said, earning him . . . or her? a cuff to the head.
The elves gasped again and drew back. "No," Severus repeated, more quietly, "don't hit each other. I don't like it. Mipsy . . . she wouldn't have liked it, either."
"That is maybe being so, but Mipsy was old, very old," a young elf with wide eyes remarked. "You is wanting to help? Elves?"
"Yes, I is, I am, I want to help you, and Mipsy—for Mipsy. She was kind to me." Severus swallowed. "I want to be kind to her."
"Last duty. Honour. Good elf"—the murmuring went on but a moment, and then the kind, older female house-elf spoke.
"Mipsy was right to stay with you. You is, you are a good wizard. You will come with us and see elf matters and not speak of them ever?"
Severus nodded as the others gathered around him and took hold of his pyjama bottoms.
"Be ready, Severus Snape," said the older male elf. "House-elves is faster than wizards."
"How old was Mipsy?" Severus asked Noddy, who had come to see the newest teacher about not speaking of "elf matters."
"Master Severus asks a question."
"Yes, I do."
"About the age of a female house-elf."
"Oh. Oh, well, I suppose—"
"Is Master Severus needing anything of Noddy?"
Severus blinked in surprise. He wasn't used to a house-elf refusing or interrupting him.
But then, what do I really know of house-elves? he asked himself.
Nissy hadn't allowed him to help prepare Mipsy's body for burial, which of course he understood, but then the burial hadn't been at all what he'd expected—in that it had not been a burial: the long columnular room to which the elves had taken Mipsy had disgorged a heavy stone from very high upon its wall, Mipsy's body had been gently placed upon it, and then she had sunk down into the stone, becoming part of it.
Severus had felt stunned anew by the sight as the stone had then floated back up and replaced itself.
And that was that. No words. No other magic. Just . . . just merging with stone and becoming part of the castle.
Severus shook his head to clear it and saw that Noddy was near-glaring at him. "How old are you?" he asked Noddy, without intending to, and stifling a gasp as the house-elf grinned at him.
"Noddy is old enough to do his duty. Severus Snape, Noddy trusts, is old enough to do his?"
"Yes, er, I mean, thank you. You may go."
Severus felt foolish, overly grand, and a right git as the elderly Noddy took himself off with a mildly disapproving Pop! He didn't understand house-elves. How could he? He'd never seen one until he'd arrived at Hogwarts as a boy, and then he'd quickly learned to take them as for granted as everyone else did.
Mipsy was kind to me.
Yes, Mipsy had been kind enough to spare Severus her last moments of service, and because of that, he felt he should be more aware of the house-elves, all of the elves, who looked after him.
He felt a tear slide down his face.
"Nissy is telling Tizzy that Mipsy would be wanting her to take away your tears, Severus Snape," the young elf exclaimed, scrubbing at his face. "Tizzy is an obedient and helpful elf!"
Ow! Ow! "Er, Tizzy! Please, I'll—"
"You isn't liking—"
Severus caught Tizzy's hands before they could yank at her trembling ears. "You are a good house-elf, but I'd like to, er, to wipe away my own tears, if you don't mind."
"It is not for Tizzy to mind, Severus Snape." Her eyes wide, she thrust forth the cloth she'd been using.
She was so earnest that Severus had to smile. "Thank you, Tizzy."
Tizzy beamed at him so brightly that Severus half-imagined light radiating from her teeth.
"Oh, Tizzy! Tizzy is not supposed to be in here without her Nissy! Severus Snape, Nissy is—"
"Don't be sorry!" Tizzy interrupted. "Severus Snape is a good wizard. Severus Snape is kind. Severus Snape thanked Tizzy!"
Nissy, Severus saw, couldn't also help but smile.
"That will be all, Tizzy," said Nissy.
"Goodbye, Severus Snape!"
Before Nissy could apologise for Tizzy, Severus held up a hand. "Thank you, Nissy. Tizzy is fine. She is a good house-elf, if a little eager. I'm not angry."
"Severus Snape is kind. You is needing anything?"
"I am not needing anything," Severus thought, inwardly groaning at his diction. "Thank you for looking after me."
"Oh." Nissy's eyes widened and went glassy. "Yes. You is, you are very welcome, Severus Snape."
As Nissy left him, Severus took a deep breath, looked around his clean, orderly room, and exhaled. For the first time in weeks, he realised that he was welcome, that the house-elves had done everything that they could to make him feel welcome, and he did.
No matter that I don't deserve it, he thought.
But this time, when the sting of unshed tears itched at his eyes, he wiped it away.
For Mipsy's sake.