Severus Snape wakes in the hospital wing the morning after the full moon and is silent. The sunlight filtering through the curtains and screens drawn around his bed is soft and cool; early morning light. For a few minutes he can almost believe that the night before was a nightmare, until the twinge in his knees and forearms and the palms of his hands from running and falling and scraping himself raw on the damp stone of the secret passageway reminds him that it was real.
For a few minutes Severus lays back on the bed and clenches his eyes shut and tries not to let himself choke on the panic and rises and tightens in his chest; he breathes carefully through his nose and holds very still and eventually the panic ebbs away and he feels nothing but ill again. When he thinks about what’s happened it comes back, but the need to sort through the blazing terror of the memories outweighs the choking discomfort until Severus has exhausted himself all over again and curls in on himself under the blankets and drifts to sleep to escape it all.
When he wakes again, the sunlight has changed; Madam Pomfrey is shifting the screen around his bed aside as she comes to check on him; and Severus knows with deep finality that last night was meant to kill him, and that no one would have cared if he died.
In the Headmaster’s office Severus listens to the whole denouement as though he’s floating above it all and watching his own body leaning back amongst the squashy cushions. Professor Dumbledore had pressed a cup of hot tea into his hands as soon as Professor Slughorn had led him into the Headmaster’s office, and then further insisted Severus take a handful of lemon drops and calming caramels, and now they weigh heavy in the pocket of the thick dressing gown he’d been given in the hospital wing.
Sirius Black argues himself in circles in protest of what he’s done: that it was a joke, that he hadn’t been thinking, that none of his friends had known. He pleads for Lupin to be excused from consequences. He flinches from the coldness settled in Remus Lupin’s face and the anger in James Potter’s. Professor McGonagall argues sternly with Dumbledore about what should be done.
Severus notices the careful looks he’s being given; quick glances out of the corner of the eye, as though at some point he is expected to explode into righteous indignation. It’s not an unreasonable expectation with his temper, but whenever he considers what he might want to say--to rant and rail and accuse them of--he remembers waking up again and knowing they meant for him to die. He remembers every other time past when he was only left alone after he was made small and silent; hexed to the infirmary or curled up and sick with shame beneath a tree as, finally, finally, finally , the last person to care dismisses him and it’s all his own fault.
The only way Severus could become any smaller than the laughingstock he was made in front of the entire school--friendless and alone, the whole summer, spending as much time helping his mother and staying out-of-doors as possible to avoid his father--is if he were dead.
He stays silent--maybe if they get half of what they want they’ll stop--and when he can’t stand to sit and listen and watch himself be pale and drawn with shaking hands anymore, he tunes out the rising voices and waits for Dumbledore to dismiss him.
Professor Slughorn’s office is a cool room in the upper dungeons, finely appointed in green silk and stuffed full of accolades of himself and his brightest students. It has been a week since the Incident, as Dumbledore called it when he asked Severus for his silence, when Severus knocks dutifully on the frame of the open door during office hours.
Severus can tell his Head of House is hardly pleased to see him, but Slughorn smiles gamely and invites him to sit. They have never especially agreed with each other; Severus is a Slytherin to his bones but he has a terrible quarrelsome temperament and could never quite manage the cool reserve the House is known for. Brilliance is not an acceptable replacement for manners when one is poor as a churchmouse and everyone knows it.
After the stilted pleasantries and idle inquiries as to Severus’ health have been endured, Slughorn finally gets around to asking why he’s here.
It’s not much, Severus says, he’d just infinitely prefer the next school year if he could spend his every spare moment in the laboratory or the storeroom or the stillroom. That he wants to avoid everyone goes unspoken, but in a moment of inspiration Severus remembers that Professor Slughorn had been bemoaning his lack of assistants at the end of the last term and asks if the Professor had found someone yet.
The hope is that the prospect of Severus Snape being quiet and keeping out of trouble and not disrupting Slughorn’s busy schedule by being murdered--Severus had seen Professor Slughorn’s hands clenching and unclenching subtly in Professor Dumbledore’s office the morning after the Incident; had recognized for a few moments the bitter tension of one-of-my-own-is-threatened that pulsed in the blood of Slytherin’s loyalty, as distant and jovial a figure Horace Slughorn made himself to his students--and moreover, being useful and lending his talents to making Slughorn’s life easier, is enticing enough to accept.
It must show on his face, because Slughorn gives Severus a look that peels back the genial, fatherly mask and matches Severus one grand old snake to a fresh hatchling, before smiling with an “ Of course, my boy ” and filling in all the empty spaces and free periods in Severus’ schedule. Severus thanks him with all the sincerity of a death row inmate given reprieve and listens to Slughorn wax poetic about encouraging his talent in a constructive manner.
They both know, Severus feels, that Slughorn is getting the better end of their bargain, and is surprised when Slughorn adds, idly, that perhaps if Severus did well an internship might be found for him over the next summer. Something like gratefulness catches in Severus’ throat, and it is with terrible gentleness that Professor Slughorn dismisses him with a candid “ I know you do best when presented with a challenge, Severus, ” ringing in his ears.
Severus goes to ground in the dungeons as though everything save the classrooms, library, and Great Hall of Hogwarts have ceased to exist. He’s quiet in class and quiet in the hallways, and when--months after the fact: when Sirius Black has groveled his way back into his friends’ good graces; when the shock and horror of what nearly happened has worn off; when the burden of their punishment, so light as to be laughable, has been removed--the self-styled Marauders test the waters to see if there’s still entertainment to be had.
There’s no logical point to it, Severus thinks, when he can bring himself to think about anything that isn’t schoolwork or potions or anything other than what’s happened to him. Is happening to him, because James Potter will still fling a hex, now and then, for no more reason than Severus Snape being alive causes him affront. For a very short time during fifth year, Severus honestly believed that if he stopped being friends with Lily, then James Potter would leave him alone. He’d chosen friendship, and fought and clawed and payed back as much as he could when outnumbered, only to discover that Lily was only a convenient excuse. He never tries to talk to her again, he knows he’s made a mistake. It doesn’t make it easier to bear when the swaggering specter that features in most of his nightmares closes alongside him in the hallways.
It does make it easier to shut down, though, to be blank and quiet and stare through them all as though they were ghosts. After the first few times they prick and prod and Severus ignores them with a thousand-yard stare he doesn’t even have to fake they back away; confused and perhaps disappointed.
They watch him, for a while, but Severus is never anywhere. He attends classes and spends all of his energy in the potions laboratories and then draws the curtains closed around his bed to study until he manages to sleep, and repeats it over again day after day.
By the end of the term, Professor Slughorn treats Severus with a hand so gentle it seems almost despairing. He has nothing but praise for the diligent and exacting work Severus had done as an assistant, and promises that if Severus wishes he’s welcome to claim the position again for the next term. True to his word, Professor Slughorn has arranged an informal internship for Severus over the summer.
Doing ingredient sorting and preparation in exchange for room and board doesn’t seem like much, but there’s a very small allowance attached, and Professor Slughorn had spoken at length about the opportunity to learn something. Severus hadn’t needed convincing beyond the thought of an actual job and being anywhere other than home over the summer, but he listens politely while Slughorn talks about it.
On their last meeting of the term, Slughorn clapped him on the shoulder--slowly, because he’s seen Severus flinch enough times at sudden movement in the laboratory to know by now--and told Severus very sincerely that he hoped the summer holiday would do him some good, and that he’d come back to school in higher spirits for the fall term.