FIC: Wholly to Be a Fool' for femmequixotic Recipient: : femmequixotic Author:bluestocking79 Title: Wholly to Be a Fool Rating: PG-13 Pairings: Eileen Prince Snape/Tobias Snape, whisper of Severus Snape/Draco Malfoy Word Count: 9700 Warnings: None Disclaimer: These characters aren't mine; they're the property of J.K. Rowling. "since feeling is first" is by e.e. cummings and is also not my property. Summary: At the age of 65, Eileen Prince Snape is as surprised as anyone to find that she's finally developed an interest in being anybody's wife or mother. Author's Notes: Femme, I was delighted to get the opportunity to write an Eileen-centric story! I tried to work in as many of your likes as possible. The story does require a slightly different reading than the usual for the Snape family backstory, but I hope very much that you enjoy it. I especially owe thanks to my betas, D and D, for being speedy, insightful, supportive and willing to call me out on my stupidity when I need it. Extra special thanks to bethbethbeth for organising this wonderful fest and being such an awesome and understanding mod!
since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you; wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world my blood approves, and kisses are a far better fate than wisdom lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry -the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids' flutter which says we are for each other: then laugh, leaning back in my arms for life's not a paragraph And death i think is no parenthesis
--e.e. cummings, "since feeling is first"
The letter comes on a sunny day in May, at half past three in the afternoon.
Eileen Prince is gazing out the kitchen window, assessing the state of her garden as her hands busy themselves with the preparation of her customary afternoon tea. It's been an exceptionally wet spring, and the clematis looks to be in danger of drowning; Lord Neville has never much cared for the damp. On the other hand, the aconite has been flourishing, and Eileen makes a mental note to prune it back soon, lest the bossy thing attempt a hostile takeover of the garden. The pennyroyal will be ready for harvesting soon, and it's bound to be in demand; nothing brings out the foolishness in young women like the thrill of warm weather and summertime romance.
This much, Eileen knows from hard experience.
It is then that she hears the sound from behind her: a faint but determined tapping against the front window, fracturing the cottage's customary silence. Her hands still in their preparations as she resists the automatic urge to reach for the wand concealed in her pocket.
Although Eileen hasn't heard the insistent taptaptap of an owl's beak against her windowpane in several decades, she still recognises the sound instantly for what it means. For the better part of her early life, that sound heralded the arrival of the post-of letters and parcels, of unwanted change and unwelcome news. Years away from it haven't dulled the sense of foreboding that rises in her at that sound.
Despite the warmth of the sunshine, Eileen feels chilled.
She neither expects nor wants any post by owl. She escaped that world without a backward glance, carving out an existence that belongs neither to Muggles nor to Wizards, but only to herself. Only one thing - one person - has she left behind, and he can have nothing good to say to her.
Eileen finishes preparing her tea deliberately, thoroughly, leaving the heated pot to steep before she allows herself to turn and open the window. The owl she admits is a pathetic specimen, an undersized ball of fluff and feathers with a dizzy look in its yellow eyes. It turns upon her a beseeching gaze, nuzzling against her hand as she takes the letter marked with her name; the display of overt neediness fills her with instinctive revulsion.
"Go on, then," she snaps. "Don't expect any favours from me."
The little owl gives her a hurt look, but refuses to budge from the windowsill. Clearly, he's been instructed to wait for a reply.
Bugger. No chance of ignoring the letter, then, though that's exactly what she'd like to do. Her hand twitches around the parchment clutched in her fingers, longing to burn it to ashes with a flick of her wand, without risking a chance of reading the contents.
But the owl is sitting there, waiting expectantly for her reply, and though she supposes that she could simply Confund the bird and send it off, it hardly seems worth the risk of attracting the Ministry's attention. She's now merely an odd woman who lives alone on the outskirts of a Muggle town, dispensing her unerringly effective 'homeopathic' remedies; she has no desire to have the Ministry nosing into her business.
Besides, if Severus has found her here, it's clear that one Confunded owl will not deter him. Eileen knows that she is a coward, but she isn't stupid. Neither, as far as she can recall, is Severus.
The sound of her heart beats unnaturally loud in her ears as she opens the envelope. She scowls at the letter for drawing such a reaction from her, as though she can will away her panic through sheer force of will. It's a ridiculous thing, to be afraid of a silly little letter, but knowing this does nothing to erase her fear.
The letter is written in a neat, rounded hand and the aggressively earnest style of a swotty schoolgirl. Yet it is not the presentation of the letter that makes Eileen clutch the back of the nearest chair until her knuckles go white, it is the content. She reads the words over and over again, her mind attempting to rearrange them into an order that makes some sort of sense.
She can understand the news that Severus is seriously ill, and the announcement that he is in a coma. She can even absorb the story involving an enormous and venomous snake, preposterous as it sounds. She knows nothing of the life Severus has lived, after all. What Eileen can't understand is why this girl - this Hermione Granger - seems to believe that Eileen's presence can be in any way beneficial.
Significant Muggle research suggests that the best way to lure comatose patients to wakefulness is by speaking and reading to them. Close family members are especially effective; a familiar voice like yours might be very helpful to your son, the Granger chit writes. As Eileen reads the line over again, she snorts. There is nothing familiar about her voice to Severus; how can there be? They haven't spoken in more than twenty years.
There is nothing she can do to help him, she tells herself, though she feels a strange, strong pang of sadness to know of his suffering. What kind of life has he lived, she wonders, that it falls to a schoolgirl to handle such sensitive correspondence? Doesn't he have anybody else in his life in his hour of need, or is his long-estranged mother really the last link tethering him to the rest of humanity?
The idea seems unbearably sad to her.
There have been moments, over the years, when Eileen has felt the lure of curiosity, the desire to look in on what she's missed. At times, she has nearly succumbed to the temptation to leaf through an issue of The Daily Prophet, catching up on news and surreptitiously scanning the obituaries, birth notices and marriage banns, with an eye out for Severus' name. Each time, she has caught herself before she can go through with such foolishness, gripped with the fear that if she looks backward, she will freeze.
As a rule, she refuses to allow herself the luxury of dwelling on the past.
Still, she can admit to a healthy curiosity in the man her son has become in her absence. This is the perfect opportunity to satisfy such curiosity; if she doesn't take the opportunity now, she doubts very much that she will ever have the chance again. It seems unlikely that Severus will benefit from her presence, but if not her, then who? Tobias has obviously left the picture; she can't imagine she'd be contacted otherwise.
And perhaps-just perhaps-she can find the courage to say things to Severus while he slumbers that she would never dare to say otherwise. He can't hate her while he's sleeping, can he?
Although Eileen can see a thousand reasons why she has no business getting involved, she nonetheless finds herself searching for paper and pen to write a response to Miss Hermione Granger. In her mind, she is already working out the many arrangements that must be made. The cottage will need to be carefully warded, naturally, especially against Muggle curiosity, and if she asks, she's sure that Maggie's Jamie will come round to look after the garden for her.
Eileen has made a career of reinvention, escaping life's difficulties by running away and never looking back, but escape is not an option this time.
Against all instinct, she is going back to Spinner's End.
The street has changed depressingly little in Eileen's time away from it.
It's still lined with stiff little houses, every one as neglected and cheerless as the people inhabiting it. The old mill looms menacingly in the distance, blotting out the sun and casting a pall over the homes that cower beneath it. The pavement is worn and cracked and pitted, dusted with a potpourri of fag ends and the glittering shards of a broken bottle of lager, which Eileen grinds beneath her feet.
Ah, the charms of the old neighbourhood.
The landscape is unrelentingly grey, and not for the first time, Eileen thinks that Spinner's End has a way of draining all colour and light from the world, leaving nothing behind but the dried husks and hollowed-out remnants of dreams.
The walk down the cobbled street feels like the walk to the gallows-each step is more difficult for Eileen, each second heavier with the dread of what looms at the end of the street. She feels her shoulders hunching defensively and her face pulling into a sour, disapproving mask, as her memories pull her back into the ill-fitting costume of the woman she once was and hoped never to be again.
Yet as Eileen reaches the end of the street, she is filled with confusion. Moments ago, she was certain that she would never forget the appearance of that much-hated house without the assistance of a powerful Obliviator, but now the details of it escape her like water running through her fingers. She looks suspiciously at the houses, wondering why none of them fill her with any sense of recognition.
It's a Fidelius Charm, she realises. She can feel its magic now, buzzing against her skin. She should have guessed as much.
There's a girl standing at the end of the row, a bright-eyed, slender thing in her Muggle jeans, her curly hair frizzing in the humid morning air. She nearly glows with earnest enthusiasm, and Eileen decides that this is almost certainly Hermione Granger, and she is, without a doubt, Muggle-born.
She nods curtly. "Miss Granger."
The girl beams at her. Hufflepuff, thinks Eileen. "Yes, that's me. Thank you so much for coming, Mrs. Snape - it's an honour to meet you-"
"Unlikely. And my name is Prince," Eileen interjects, "not Snape."
Miss Granger stares up at Eileen and then blushes. "I - oh, of course. I'm so sorry. I hadn't realised that you were divorced - it was hard enough to track you down as it was, and anyway, it's hardly my business if you're married or divorced or - "
"There was no divorce. I simply prefer not to go by that name." Eileen offers no explanation; it is none of the girl's business. Besides, how can Eileen explain her choices when she hardly understands them herself?
"I see," Granger says, in a tone that suggests that she doesn't at all. "In any case, welcome. If you'll just please read this, then we'll be on our way."
Granger hands over a square of parchment, folded with painstaking precision. Eileen unfolds it with similar care, noting the exceptional quality of the heavy vellum and raising an eyebrow at the imprint of the distinctive family crest embossed at the top of the page. She can't help but find such fancy paper to be a profound waste of good galleons, but given the involvement of that family, she would expect no less.
A single sentence spills across of the creamy expanse of the page, written in a perfectly elegant, feminine hand: The residence of Severus Snape is Number 27, Spinner's End.
The instant she has finished reading the sentence, something clicks into place within her, and Eileen raises her gaze from the parchment to frown up at a house that has haunted both her nightmares and her dreams for some time.
It looks different from her memories, somehow - smaller, sadder. She has long thought of the house as a looming menace, a sort of Dementor that feeds on the people inside it, leaving behind their worst possible selves. This, however, is just another terrace home in a sea of them - somewhat worse for the wear, but hardly malicious.
That fact makes it easier for her to take this step than she'd thought it would be.
The door sticks when the Granger girl tries to open it, resisting her efforts as her face becomes red and she swears under her breath.
"I'm sorry," she apologises, "sometimes the doors shut and don't want to reopen, not even with magic. Luna thinks it's the house doing it, but that's just silly, isn't it - I'm sure it's only the wind. nngha! Aha, that's got it!" With a triumphant jerk of her wrist, the door is unstuck, unleashing a torrent of argument from the house itself.
" - as if you're one to judge! You wouldn't know a decent house if it fell on you, Weasel, after growing up in that pigsty your parents call a home!"
"It is evil! Not that you'd recognize it, of course, seeing as you ooze it from every pore. With parents like yours-"
The angry shouts of two young men ring down through the ceiling from the upstairs, causing Granger to wince. Eileen ignores the echoing argument, instead peering about the inside of the house, at once familiar and strange. It smells exactly as she remembers it, the hot, heavy air redolent of stale smoke and boiled cabbage and despair.
Still, Severus seems to have put his own stamp on the place; he's covered over every inch of the peeling, rose-covered wallpaper in the sitting room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It's a drastic change, but Eileen decides that she approves.
She'd always despised that wallpaper.
The arguments continue upstairs, unabated.
"You leave my parents out of it! Your precious Potter wouldn't have been able to do a thing for the Headmaster without my mother's help, you stupid - "
"Help?!? Hah, that's rich! It's her bloody fault Snape's in this mess to begin with, isn't it? Hers and yours, asking him to take that daft vow because you're such a coward-"
"I'm so sorry for this," the Granger girl says in an undertone, ushering Eileen into the stifling warmth of the sitting room and levitating her suitcase behind them. "It's only that it's Draco's turn to sit with Professor Snape, and he can be a bit-well."
"YOU DON'T KNOW THE FIRST THING ABOUT HIM OR WHAT HE DID! YOU CAN'T IMAGINE WHAT HE DID FOR ME - FOR MY FAMILY - FOR EVERYBODY - "
"...sensitive," Granger concludes, with the brittle smile and tactful understatement of a diplomat. "I asked Ron to try, but Draco does tend to wear on everybody's nerves...we're grateful to him, of course," Granger continues, looking as though the words taste foul. "Of course we are. Without his family, we'd never have got Professor Snape out of the Shrieking Shack, much less set up safely here, and it was awfully good of Mrs. Malfoy to be the Secret Keeper, but Draco's just very..."
"He's just worried about the Headmaster, and he doesn't know how to show it. Still, he isn't very kind," says a wispy voice. An equally wispy girl emerges from the kitchen, levitating a tea tray before her. Her hair is blonde, and she has the somnambulant look of the eternally wise and the chronically stoned. Improbably, she appears to be wearing radishes for earrings.
"No, he isn't at all," Granger agrees. "Ms. Prince, this is Luna Lovegood, another one of your son's students. Luna, this is - "
"The Headmaster's mother, obviously," Lovegood finishes with a dreamy smile, setting the tea tray upon the table.
Granger suggests that Lovegood be mother, and then offers Eileen a seat. For an instant, Eileen is furious at her presumption: who is this silly little schoolgirl, playing at managing somebody else's home and offering Eileen a seat on her own sofa, so that she can sit and be offered tea from her own china?
But the anger passes as quickly as it's risen, and Eileen is left with the bittersweet realisation that if the furniture and the tea set aren't Miss Granger's to claim, then neither are they Eileen's. She forfeited ownership some time ago. The house and its belongings are Severus' now, and she and Granger are both intruders here.
She sits then, and accepts Lovegood's offer of tea.
Granger explains the things that were omitted in her letter, the things that Eileen hasn't gleaned for herself from back issues of the Daily Prophet. The entire story sounds unbelievable to Eileen, a complicated and contradictory narrative hinged on the most improbable coincidences. Some details are almost too much too absorb - the idea of skinny, sullen Severus as the Headmaster of Hogwarts, for example - but others are sadly plausible.
"...his prognosis is good, but there are so many other patients to be tended, and until the Ministry acknowledges Professor Snape as a hero, we all thought it best to keep him at home, where he can recover in privacy. Harry and I are working on Kingsley and the Ministry to get everything resolved as quickly as possible, and the others have been helping out, looking after Professor Snape and keeping him company. Madam Pomfrey says he'll come out of the coma when he's ready." Granger bit her lip, brown eyes brimming with sympathy. "We will do right by your son, Ms. Prince. He deserves that. We owe it to him."
Granger shines with well-intentioned nobility and high-minded ideals, and the set of her jaw suggests an unexpected steely streak of determination in her. She is a witch who aims to get things done, and she will not be denied. Eileen realises that her first impression was mistaken; Granger is no Hufflepuff, but is instead a Gryffindor crusader. Although Eileen has always had a more than healthy appreciation of the flaws of Gryffindors, she is surprised to find that she admires Granger's optimism and determination. She remembers feeling that same spirit once, long ago.
She wonders if life and youthful foolishness will squeeze it out of Granger as surely it did her.
She senses that some acknowledgement is deserved here, some show of gratitude ought to be made, but no suitable words come to Eileen's lips, and so she simply nods her approval.
The shouting upstairs dies away finally, followed by two sharp cracks of sudden Apparition.
"Stupid boys," Granger mutters, frowning. "Just like them to take off without notice." She sets her tea down on the table with more force than is strictly necessary. "But we'll manage, as always. In any case, I'm sure you must want to see Professor Snape for yourself!"
Eileen frowns, as her earlier uneasiness resurfaces. She's not quite sure why the prospect of facing her son fills her with such fear, but she can't deny that it does. For a moment, her dread is so intense that she considers Apparating without explanation, just as the arguing boys have done.
But she's come too far to back away now, and in any case, she's weary of running away.
"Yes," she lies. "I can't wait to see Severus."
The Lovegood girl escorts her upstairs, passing through a secret passage Severus has fashioned of bookcases and magic, like something from the detective novels she vaguely remembers him reading as a child. The staircase itself is unchanged, however, and with every creaking, narrow step, a memory surfaces of time spent within this house: stomping on the stairs in fury after yet another screaming row; tiptoeing down them with her suitcase on the way out, never intending to return; rushing up them in fits and starts, as she and Toby were too busy undressing one another in their rush towards the bedroom-
Eileen shuts down that memory swiftly and without remorse. Best not to think on it; that time is long gone.
Upstairs, she sees more evidence of the changes Severus has made to the house: a different colour of paint on the walls, a new bathroom added through the miracle of Wizardspace. Severus himself has been installed in the bedroom Eileen once shared with Tobias, although she supposes that it's a fitting place for him now; as the master of the house, it's only right that he inhabit the master bedroom.
"He's right through here," Lovegood murmurs. Taking a deep breath, Eileen steels herself and steps through the doorway.
The room itself is clean, neat and pleasant-different from what she remembers, but not in a bad way. The air is refreshingly cool here, in marked contrast to the stifling warmth of the other rooms in the house, and the silence is heavy, broken only by the soft, regular sounds of Severus' breathing.
"It's always so nice and cool in here," Lovegood observes. "The rest of the house is hot, even with Climate Charms, but it's always nice in this room. I think the house must want to keep Professor Snape comfortable."
Eileen snorts softly at the preposterous notion before finally forcing her gaze downward, towards the bed.
Towards her son.
In her mind's eye, she has never been able to envision him as anything other than a gawky fourteen-year-old boy, but she sees now that he is most definitely a man: his jaw is shadowed with dark stubble, and there are lines carved prematurely into his face by anger and stress and sorrow. Between his eyebrows lies an especially deep furrow, a sign that he has frowned much more than he's laughed in his life. Without thinking, she reaches out a tentative hand to smooth away the crease, as though she could erase his discontent with one simple touch.
He never did gain Toby's height or bulk, she notices, and he looks oddly fragile wrapped in a white nightshirt and white sheets, his inky hair pooled on the pillow beneath his head. The skin of his neck is lividly pink, angry and knotted with scar tissue-a permanent reminder of the snake's attack. Yet for all the changes time has visited on Severus, she can still see the face of the boy in the man: pale-skinned and plain, with his father's sharp beak of a nose jutting out over his mother's thin, ungenerous mouth.
More than anything, Eileen thinks he looks sad.
"I'll just leave you alone, then," Lovegood says, floating towards the door with her odd, off-kilter grace. "I'm sure you have lots of lovely things to talk about." She turns and walks away, leaving Eileen to sink down in the chair by the bedside and wonder what on Earth she's meant to do in this place. Mostly, she stares at Severus.
She understands almost nothing of him or the trials he's suffered-some of them, no doubt, due to her own dereliction of duty. She wasn't a good mother - she can freely admit as much - yet she also knows, when she is being honest with herself, that she purchased her own freedom at his expense, leaving Severus behind while she escaped the sucking hopelessness of a too-small life in a too-small house, where every word exchanged had a poisoned barb attached. Worst of all, she knows that she left him because, quite simply, he was part of the problem.
She'd never wanted to be a mother. She'd never really wanted to manage a home and a child, changing nappies and cooking dinners. She'd supposed that she would automatically love her child once he was placed in her arms - didn't all mothers feel that? Didn't everybody say that they did? And yet, when Severus' underweight, jaundiced form had been presented to her, Eileen had felt nothing at all, except a vague distaste for his squashed features and a dawning awareness of entrapment, total and profound. Each time she had looked at her son, she'd expected that this time, she would feel something other than resentment-this time, she would want him and treasure him and love him.
She never did.
She feels it now, though, nearly forty years too late. It wells up in her, a great surge of unexpected tenderness that she'd never guessed she possessed. It makes her want to do things are anything but natural to her; she feels an urge to smooth his hair and pat his cheek and take the time to learn why his face is so sorrowful, even in repose. For the first time, she feels the instinct to care for her son because he is hers, and he is in need.
She has never been good at nurturing anything but plants and grudges, but perhaps it's not too late to learn.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, her throat tight with shame. "I'm so sorry."
She can't remember the last time she apologised to anyone, for anything, and yet she feels lighter just for having said the words. She's sorry not only for the years she's been gone, but for the ones that preceded them. All she needs now is a way to atone-to her own satisfaction, if not to anybody else's.
She gathers her son's hand in hers, tracing the long, slender bones beneath pale, delicate skin, and sits with him in the darkness so that he won't have to be alone again.
Life settles into a sort of pattern, though it's very different from the routine Eileen is used to living. She is accustomed to a solitary life, to quiet and order and privacy.
All three of those things are in short supply at Spinner's End, which is too temperamental to be restful, too crowded to be private and too active to be ordered or quiet. The children pop through on some odd schedule that irritates Eileen with its arbitrary nature, but does at least ensure that Severus is never left alone.
The Lovegood girl is often present; she cheerfully volunteers that her house has exploded and is in the process of being rebuilt, so she prefers the atmosphere at Spinner's End. She sits with Severus for hours at a time, reading from issues of The Quibbler and any number of bizarre books about imaginary beasts and obscure conspiracies. She hangs strange talismans around Severus' room and installs a bowl of onions beside his bed, in the belief that doing so protects him from creatures called Nargles and Tringtillers. She's a mad spirit - Lovegoods always are - but she's a benevolent one.
Granger stops in less frequently, though regularly, often accompanied by the bespectacled and oddly unimpressive Harry Potter and a pair of flame-haired Weasleys. The quartet is irritatingly Gryffindor in attitude for Eileen's more Slytherin tastes, but they seem sincere enough in their desire to do right by Severus, and she is certainly in no position to reject their help. If pressed, Eileen can admit that their company is tolerable in small doses, though she'd like to knock a bit of sense into the Weasley boy's head, or at least stop him from entering shouting matches with Malfoy.
Others involved in the effort to help Severus come and go at will; Minerva McGonagall visits rarely, always with a pinched, guilty look on her face, and Poppy Pomfrey comes often to assess her patient's condition. Nobody, however, visits as frequently as young Draco Malfoy, who can reliably be found at Severus' bedside more often than not, at least when he's not artfully whinging about something. The boy has a talent for being an irritant, but nobody can question either his family's financial contribution or his devotion to Severus, and so he stays.
Eileen is not quite certain where she fits in this strange configuration. She doesn't feel like a member of this society, but rather like an onlooker on the fringes, connected to them only by the common thread of Severus. Though she sits every day with her son and has halting, one-sided conversations there from time to time, she's painfully aware that her knowledge of Severus is limited and many years out of date; in an odd way, her son's former students know him better than she does, she suspects.
Her suspicion is confirmed one day when she hears Potter and Granger and the Weasley boy giggling together, as Weasley imitates her son's mannerisms and the other two reminisce about the evidently nasty detentions he used to dispense.
The thought amuses her somehow, appealing to her perverse senses of justice and humour, and she feels warmed to know something about her son that doesn't come from the pages of the newspaper.
The children apologise when they realise they've been overheard, of course, but truthfully, Eileen is grateful. The incident inspires in her a desire to know more about Severus, and if she cannot get information from his own lips, she can at least glean information from those who've known him. Slowly, carefully, she finds herself beginning to ask each of the visitors the same question: "Can you tell me about my son?"
At first some of them are reluctant to speak candidly; that much is obvious. It's clear to her that Severus was-is-difficult and even unpleasant, which is something that is no surprise to her, considering his parentage. But eventually, they all begin to share what information they have. The answers vary, depending on the person speaking, but gradually, certain patterns begin to emerge from the stories, adding layers to her mental portrait of Severus.
She learns that he is brilliant, creative and powerful, as well as petty, sarcastic and vindictive. She learns that he did terrible things for a good cause, without any hope of reward, and that he is capable of both unconditional love and terrible hate. Lovegood and the Weasley girl tell tales of his unexpected protection during his short time as Headmaster, and Granger professes her awe of his intellect. Harry Potter shares his grudging admiration of the Half-Blood Prince (Eileen snorts at the title) and his Potions book, while Draco Malfoy offers a surprisingly sincere account of the risks Severus took to save him, and the burdens he shouldered on the boy's behalf.
Through their words, she is beginning to know Severus, and through her questions, his students are coming to know her. Eileen is stunned to realise that she is beginning to feel comfortable in this bizarre company, no longer an isolated stranger. If she doesn't participate in their silly jokes, she at least tolerates them - some days, she even smiles.
As May turns into June, an intruder trips the wards, triggering a frisson of nearly electrical shock that alerts them all to the presence of a person seeking entrance to Spinner's End. Wary of the potential of a broken Fidelius and the possible danger to Severus, Granger investigates the matter by peeking out through the front window. Her wand is drawn, just in case; all of the children have reflexes more suited to professional duellists than to teenagers.
Grangers stares, her brow crinkled. "Is that-? But he never answered the letter; I thought he wouldn't come."
Eileen peers out over Granger's shoulder, her wand already in hand. There is a man in the street, staring around with a befuddled look on his face, as though he's desperately searching for something he can't quite remember. There is a suitcase clutched in one hand, and a crumpled-looking letter in the other.
Before more rational thoughts can stop her, Eileen opens the door and steps out onto the pavement, where she stops and stares. He's older, certainly-a bit stouter, his hair more silver than brown-but there's no question of who he is. That face, that build - dear Merlin, that nose.
"Toby?" she asks incredulously.
He turns at the sound of her voice and grins, shocked recognition clear in his eyes.
"Leenie!" he cries. "Where the bloody hell did you hide the house?"
For the first time in decades, the entire Snape family are under one roof. It would be a stretch, however, to say that they are in any sense 'together'; Severus is comatose, and although Tobias is in residence, Eileen rarely occupies the same space with him. Even the students seem aware of the tension, though they are-astoundingly, for a group composed largely of Gryffindors-tactful enough to refrain from mentioning it. By some unspoken consensus, it is decided that Eileen will continue to sleep in Severus' old room, and Toby will sleep on the couch for as long as he stays.
It is a struggle, but Eileen refrains from commenting that it ought to be awfully familiar territory for him, given the number of nights he was too pissed to make it up the stairs.
He's not pissed now, though, and she suspects that's half her problem. She hardly knows what to do with this sober, stable Toby, who's clearly made an effort to change his ways. She remembers him as a pathetic man, sunk deep in his dissatisfaction with life and seething with anger and resentment and jealousy. She can't remember which came first, his drinking and sulking or her own nagging and baiting, but she recalls quite well that the combination was toxic, especially after Severus' arrival. They'd never hurt each other with fists, but that hadn't been necessary; they'd managed to wound quite well enough with words.
Yet aside from his nose, this Toby bears little resemblance to the man Eileen remembers leaving. He's still tall and blue-eyed, true, but his eyes aren't rheumy and bloodshot now, ringed with dark circles from a fresh hangover. His shoulders are no longer hunched defensively, but are broad and proud, signalling a new ease and confidence. His lips no longer curl in a sneer aimed at the world, and though he is still slightly quiet and awkward, he's good-humoured enough to gain the approval of Potter and Granger and company, who had appeared poised to dislike him.
He looks like a man who is finally satisfied with himself and with life, and he wears the look quite well. Despite herself, Eileen finds the new Toby quite attractive; he reminds her, in fact, of the Toby she once loved and married.
This is precisely why Eileen is taking such pains to avoid her husband's presence. She doesn't want to remember just how nasty they both can be. She's not proud of the person she was then, but each time she looks at Toby, she remembers it once again.
She shouldn't want him again. She doesn't want to be vulnerable again, helpless to her own foolish desires. That part of her life is over, and she refuses to reopen it. Instead, she throws herself into a pointless distraction, trying to plant flowers and herbs in the little patch of earth in the back garden. It's an exercise in frustration - in all her years in this house, she has never yet managed to make anything grow - but there's something cathartic in ripping at the hard, rocky soil. Nothing will come of it, but that's beside the point.
Toby doesn't complain about her avoidance, but the tension still reaches such levels that the house itself seems to be grumpy and irritable; if she didn't know better, Eileen would almost think the house was turning against them. Meals are inexplicably burnt to a crisp when the heat surges, taps run scalding hot and freezing cold without warning, and both the Weasley and Potter boys complain of trick steps on the stairs, causing them to stumble and fall and swear. The air in the house is sweltering, stubbornly resisting the influence of even the strongest Cooling Charms, and the doors sometimes slam shut and lock people out, even when they're supposed to be unlocked.
"It's like it does it on purpose," the Weasley boy complains, as Granger tends to the wounds he's received in his latest battle with the stairs. "The house is as mean as the old bat ever was."
"Ro-on!" chorus two feminine voices. Granger scowls and swats his sore arm, while his sister fiercely pinches his ear in a way that Eileen can only admire.
"You shouldn't talk that way about Professor Snape," Granger chides.
"Especially not in front of his mum, you git. Mum would have your head for that," the Weasley girl adds.
"'s true," he mumbles petulantly. "Sorry, Ms. Prince. But I still say there's something funny about these things happening all of a sudden. Maybe we've all been hexed."
"Don't be silly, Ron; it's just coincidence. We've all been on edge a bit lately, so we notice all the frustrating things more," Granger rationalises.
"That's not what it is at all," the Lovegood girl offers from her perch in the corner of the kitchen, where she is fashioning a new pair of earrings from pieces of carrot. "The house is just upset because its people are upset. It's a classic case of Structural Sympathetic Sentience."
"Luna," Granger says in the tone reserved for idiots and the insane, "there's no such thing."
"Of course there is; Daddy wrote all about it two years ago, about a house that fell in love with its owner and tried to lock out his fiancée. That sort of thing happens all the time to homes where there's magic."
"I've never read about it in any book," Granger insists, getting red in the face.
"Well, you wouldn't, would you?" Lovegood counters placidly. "The mainstream press is keeping it quiet, just like the Rotfang Conspiracy. But it's real enough. Houses absorb magic from their owners and respond to the owners' feelings. A house with SSS will do anything to protect its people and make them happy. But when something's off balance, there's no telling how the poor house will respond."
It's ludicrous, of course, just like all the girl's silly theories, and the others waste no time in telling Lovegood so. Yet it rings true enough to Eileen that it gives her pause.
"Out of curiosity," she asks, "how would your father recommend that you cope with such a house?"
Lovegood smiles placidly. "Why, you have to find what's out of balance, and then you fix it." Her gaze fastens on Eileen, unnervingly direct. "Once the people in the house are happy with each other, the house will be happy, too. It just wants what's best for its people."
A preposterous idea, obviously. Eileen doesn't believe it for a moment. Still, it's probably true that her cold war with Toby isn't helping matters, and after sternly reminding herself that she's resolved to stop being a coward, she decides to go upstairs and make a stab at reconciliation before she can talk herself out of it.
She finds Toby where he often is, sitting at Severus' bedside. For once, young Malfoy is absent, and father and son sit alone together in the blessedly cool room, the sunshine from outside gilding their pale faces. Severus is asleep, as he always is, but Toby's head is bowed, and she is touched to see his hand patting Severus' arm in a gesture of comfort. Before she can speak, however, she realises that he's already speaking, and she hangs back outside the door, out of sight.
"...mam won't talk to me," Toby is saying to Severus. "I reckon you wouldn't talk to me neither, given the choice. Can't blame either of you; I've done you wrong, and I know it. It's true. I was angry, that's God's honest truth, but I had no call to take it out on you-either of you. Your mam was angry too, you know, and I'm sure she didn't mean it when she did what she did. I shouldn't've blamed that on you, neither. That...shouldn't have happened."
Eileen stands as still as though petrified, both shocked and moved by what she hears. She couldn't bring herself to interrupt the words if her life depended on it.
"I just thought you might want to know your old dad's alive, and he's actually made something of himself. After I left, I went to stay with your Uncle Fred - you remember him, don't you? - and he gave me a job in his repair shop. I was miserable at first - didn't want to change my old ways, just wanted to forget. I almost did myself in that way, but I woke up this one morning thinking I should be dead. and I thought about what you'd said, really thought about it. You were right: I was pathetic. I realised I had to change, or I'd die. So. I changed. And here I am, sober as a priest and the owner of my own shop and everything.
"I thought you deserved to hear me say that you were right," Toby continues, his lips quirking into a small smile. "You never did mind hearing that. Hope you wake up soon, so you can hear me say it." The smile widens. "I hope your mam gives me another chance, too; I've got a lot to make up to her. I also hope she realises that she's not fooling anybody, standing out in the hall like that and pretending like nobody knows she's there, listening to everything I say."
Eileen glares, though she can feel her face heating. "You knew I was there the whole time, didn't you?"
Toby grins in a way that makes her want to both slap him and kiss him. "Course I did. No offence, love, but you've always been as noisy as a herd of elephants when you come up those stairs."
Eileen narrows her eyes.
"I meant every word, though," Toby adds. "I'd like to talk to you again, if you'll let me."
She doesn't want to believe him. She wants to hold tight to the familiar refuge of her anger, locking him out of her life and her heart.
She doesn't want to believe him, but she does.
"All right," she says.
Something has changed in Eileen.
Something that was frozen inside her is thawing without her permission, a process as uncomfortable as it is glorious. It feels like the searing pleasure/pain of warmth, after too much time spent in the cold. It's a painful thing, to come back to life, but oddly, she doesn't regret it. It's only now that she realizes how numb she'd become over the years. She hardly thinks of the cottage now, and she doesn't miss its silence.
She spends increasing amounts of time with Toby, no longer afraid of the memories that his presence awakens. It's a surprise to realise how many good memories she's had within her, locked away by guilt and bitterness. She remembers now that there were times when they laughed together, before things got bad, when they drank beer and played darts and dreamed about the sort of life they might have together. She remembers most of all a night in an alley behind the local, when neither of them could stand to be apart a second longer, and they had sex right there against the brick wall, where anybody could stumble upon them and see. It was a young and exceedingly foolish thing to do, Eileen knows, but she still recalls the thrill of it, the giddy knowledge that she could have such an effect on Toby, that she could make him as crazy as he made her.
He still makes her crazy, albeit in other ways. He is stubborn and taciturn and given to moping, even now. Yet he thrills her, too, as much as he ever did, and she is more aware of it with each encounter. His nearness makes her heart beat faster, and the heat of his touch lingers on her skin long after his fingers have left. She suspects that he knows these things, and is thrilled in turn by her reaction. Even casual gestures take on more weight, and glances acquire new levels of meaning.
By the time July seeps into August and the long, soggy days of late summer arrive, there is little sense in denying that there is something between them - and yet Eileen can't quite permit herself to believe it, either.
She is not at the time in her life to be giddy and in love. She is not meant to reconnect with Toby, when they've both already had their chances and blown them spectacularly. It's all wrong, she thinks, completely out of sequence. She had been content living life in her little cottage alone; why, then, is the thought of returning to that life such an unpleasant one now?
The matter comes to a head one day as Eileen and Toby are sharing tea together, reminiscing about crazy old neighbours from long ago and shared jokes from their shared past. The laughter flows easily, and Eileen enjoys the feel of it. It's been too long since she had a good laugh, and now she laughs until her stomach aches and the tears flow down her cheeks. It's a glorious moment, and it makes her feel alive.
Toby, too, has laughed himself to tears, and his face is creased with a smile of intense satisfaction. His gaze meets hers for an instant, lingering with an intensity that makes her blush.
"We're good together, aren't we?" he asks. "Now that we've got over ourselves, I mean. We're better than we were, both of us."
They are; it's true. She nods her agreement.
"I missed this," Toby continues. "All those years, I missed this - missed you, the way we were. I'd like to - I want to - " He breaks off, frowning in frustration. "I want to be happy together again. Don't you?"
Eileen pauses, staring at her teacup as though its contents might yield the answers she wants. But she has never been any good at Divination, and in any case, she's always put more stock in reason than in portents.
At least, she used to. These days, she's less sure about the hand of fate.
She looks across the table at Toby, patiently waiting for her answer, his anxiety betrayed only by the intensity of his gaze. He's still as sharp as he was on that first night all those years ago, when they were drunk on booze and sex and love and each other - yet he is also solid and wise in a way she never noticed when they were younger and angrier. Gone is the devouring insecurity of youth, replaced with an unshakeable assurance that speaks of ruthless soul searching and lessons learned. Has it always been there inside him?
It doesn't really matter, though. Who they've been is unimportant; all that matters is who they are now and who they can be with one another. There was a time when she looked at her husband and saw nothing but failure - his and her own. Now, she sees nothing but potential.
"You deserve to be happy," Toby says suddenly, his voice rough with emotion. "I just want you to be happy. When you used to smile at me, I always felt like I was ten foot tall. Like I could do anything I had a mind to do, and you believed I could. I want to see you smile like that again-it doesn't have to be for me, but it's got to be real."
Tenderness blossoms in Eileen as she searches Toby's face and sees nothing but sincerity. She wants to tell him that she knows what makes her happy now, and it's him. But she has never been very good with sweet words, only sour ones, so she smiles instead, letting it shine with the full measure of her satisfaction. The expression feels strange on her face, but she thinks that she might get used to it.
Toby smiles in return, his expression gratifyingly appreciative, even worshipful. "Like that," he marvels. "Just like that." He leans forward over the table, his eyes half-lidded and his mouth soft and sweet. For one heady, dizzying instant, Eileen is certain that he is going to kiss her, and she is going to let him.
The moment is shattered by whoops of triumphant shouting from upstairs, young Malfoy's voice ringing through the house for all to hear. He's so excited that his words run together, a mix of exuberance and expletives, but the gist, at least, is clear.
Severus is awake.
Eileen can't quite bring herself to simply stride into Severus' bedroom and plant herself at his bedside, as though she has some right to be there. There is a creeping fear within her that now that he is able to recognise and reject her, he will. She stays close to the door out of cautiousness, half-hidden by a clump of Weasleys, facing her reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall.
Tobias is beside her, his steady present a comfort. When he offers her his hand, she accepts it gratefully.
It seems almost surreal to see Severus awake and animated, his large, dark eyes glittering with intelligence and impatience and life. Although he is so weak that he requires assistance even to sit up, once he has been settled back against a mountain of pillows, he has the air of a king at his throne, regally surveying his eager audience. How he can manage to look imposing whilst in his nightshirt, his hair greasy and rumpled from sleep, is a mystery known only to Severus.
It's oddly charming to Eileen, and she has the ridiculous urge to ruffle his hair, though she's far too sensible to ever attempt it.
Severus has little physical strength and his voice is as yet little more than a rasping whisper, but Poppy Pomfrey is nonetheless delighted with the results of her examination and pronounces her patient on the road to recovery.
"As long as he's a grumpy pain in the arse, there's no cause to worry," she notes, nodding approvingly at the results of her latest diagnostic charms. "That just means he's getting back to normal."
"Sod off, you interfering old cow," Severus grumps, his face puckered into a scowl that rivals Eileen's own. It's utterly strange to see her own expression mirrored on another's face, a tangible mark of her contribution to his existence. She can't think why she never noticed it so many years ago, but now the resemblance is painfully clear. He is her son - their son, actually, the sum total of the very best and very worst they are capable of doing.
Eileen is not certain that she can bear it if he asks her to leave.
Circumstances are explained to Severus: his illness, his rescue, his convalescence, his prognosis and prospects. Against all odds, the last two are excellent: Poppy anticipates that Severus will make a full recovery, and the Potter boy is clearly proud to announce that within two weeks, Severus will receive not only a full pardon, but a handsome pension and an Order of Merlin as well. She suspects that it rankles Severus to owe gratitude to an eighteen-year-old Gryffindor, but it's obvious that some grudging part of him is grateful.
Potter's news is remarkable, and yet what draws the greatest reaction from Severus is not his near-death-that he seems to have expected - or his remarkable reward for his bravery, but rather the fact that anybody bothered to save him at all, much less care after him as they have done.
Eileen watches Severus' expression, an arresting mix of incredulity and awe, cynicism and tentative appreciation. He is exactly like the boy she remembers from long ago, hungry for recognition and yet unaccustomed to receiving it. In that moment, she hates herself for what she and Toby have done to Severus. No person ought to be so shocked to realise that his life has worth.
In the next moment, Eileen pushes aside that regret and resolves to do better in future. What's done can't be undone, but their future is wide open.
It's more than obvious, the moment Severus spots his parents' faces in the crowd of well-wishers. His eyes widen almost comically before narrowing down to a potent, knife-edged glare, his lip curling into a disdainful sneer. "You! What are you doing here? Why now?"
"I asked them to come-" Granger begins to explain, but Toby cuts her off.
"You needed us," he says simply. "That's why. And we're not going anywhere, neither."
After a long, gobsmacked moment, Severus shuts his mouth and turns his back to Eileen and Toby quite deliberately, pulling his blankets up to his neck as some sort of shield. It's a gesture more worthy of a sullen teenager than a grown man, but as he turns, Eileen sees the ghost of satisfaction in his expression, faint but real. Toby's vaguely amused snort beside her suggests that he sees it as well.
Their Severus is angry with them, no question of that, and he has good reason to be. The next weeks will undoubtedly be filled with sulking and snide remarks and accusing silences, as he makes known his grudges - he is their son. All the same, Eileen has the distinct impression that he is not unhappy to see his parents at his bedside.
Young Malfoy clasps Severus' hand with a possessive, protective air - and just what that's about, Eileen dares not wonder just yet - but Severus' dark eyes are fastened on the mirror beyond him, on the reflected image of a plain, old couple holding hands. Severus does not order them out of his bedroom or out of the home he has refashioned from the ruins they left him, and his expression speaks not of hatred, but wonder - wonder, and a spark of hope.
Somewhere inside Eileen, something that has long been cold and empty fills with a rush of warm, potent feeling, like a spring gushing forth from a rock. She closes her eyes against it, feeling her throat tightening and tears threatening, though she can't recall a time when she has felt happier. Toby squeezes her hand in support, her smaller hand engulfed by his larger, rougher one.
When she opens her eyes, the woman in the mirror is smiling back at her.
Poppy Pomfrey proclaims that Severus needs his rest, so everybody reluctantly retreats to the kitchen. Young Malfoy sulks at being parted from Severus' bedside, but perks up considerably at the prospect of playing host. Such is the concentrated force of his charm that he persuades even the Granger girl to set aside her principles for the day, in favour of having the Malfoy elves prepare a spread for their impromptu celebration.
In short order, the kitchen is filled with canapés and salmon mousse and - much to Toby's satisfaction - sausage rolls. It is also crammed with bodies and smiles and stories, and with laughter that is as much about relief as levity. It is infectious, and though the space is too small and Eileen has never had a liking for company or crowds, she doesn't mind it just this once, especially when she can feel the warm security of Toby's hand on her lower back.
There is something to celebrate, after all: their son is awake, and he doesn't hate them.
After more Weasleys arrive - Eileen can't keep them straight; they're one big mess of freckles and carroty hair - the noise and warmth become too much for her, and she escapes into the garden to cool herself and settle her jangled nerves. She has felt so much today that she feels vaguely achy and hypersensitive, unaccustomed to so much strong emotion after so many years without.
The concrete is as barren as ever, but in her sad little scrap of garden, the first fragile seedlings are painfully poking their heads out of the rocky soil. Against all her expectations, seeds have taken root in this place, a small cluster of tender green against the gloom. They're far from the hardiest or most beautiful plants she's nurtured over the years, but they're a welcome start. Eileen resolves to tend them well.
The door clicks open, and she turns to find Toby stepping out, carefully closing the door behind him. It's safe to shut it now; the house hasn't locked anybody out in weeks.
"Thought I might find you out here." Toby's voice is as warm as summer, soothing Eileen's achy places and teasing other, more secret places in her. He sidles up next to her, smelling of cigarettes and strong black tea, his fingers tangling themselves with hers. The sun glints off the sliver of his hair, and there's a heated gleam in his blue eyes. He's neither young nor handsome nor charming, but then, neither is she.
She finds it doesn't bother her in the slightest.
"Are you happy then, Leenie?" Toby asks.
It's such a stupid nickname; she can't think why it gives her such a thrill each time he says it. It makes her feel young, like she's twenty-six again, with a world of potential before her. It makes her feel entirely foolish, a thing she swore she'd never be again.
But Toby's hand feels so perfect in hers, and when he finally takes her in his arms and kisses her against the sun-warmed bricks of Spinner's End, she thinks that perhaps foolishness has its place after all. Through the thin fabric of her blouse, she feels the house actually purring, at last content with the state of its people.
"Yes," she murmurs against Toby's smirking mouth, hooking one leg around him to pull him closer to her. "Yes. I've never been better."