There were several glances of disapproval, and some turned immediately into stares of outright loathing as he was recognized, but Snape ignored them completely. He tossed a Sickle into the glass bowl on the bar, the customary reparation for the insult of popping into the pub, and proceeded through the back to the Alley.
The Apothecary had moved from the building next door, which annoyed Snape greatly, as he had hoped to make his appearance in Wizarding London as brief as possible. The new shop had obviously been there for some time, and he felt oddly self-conscious about going inside and inquiring as to where the Apothecary had moved. He finally pulled his hood over his head and decided to hunt it down on his own; surely if there was still a Potions supplier in the Alley, it would not be hidden too deeply for customers to find it.
Indeed, quite the opposite was the case. Potions had seen a resurgence in popularity and the new Apothecary was twice the size of the old shop. A flash of insight crossed Snape's mind: perhaps the renewed interest in Potions soon after his departure from Hogwarts had not been coincidental. The thought made him smirk, although he doubted he had all that much to do with it. Modern Healing had come up with a number of breakthroughs during the Great War out of pure necessity, and had rejuvenated the field--and most of those had been concocted by his former students. He smirked again. The strange little ways one leaves an impact on society.
Prices had certainly changed in the last five decades, and the Apothecary's proximity to Gringotts proved disappointingly convenient. Four months of Hogwarts salary was nearly gone after he finished, and although he had enough left to buy a text at Obscurus Books, he couldn't afford a hot drink to take the chill out of his hands. Snape sighed. It was a long walk to King's Cross Station, and sleet was falling.
Snape hated the sensation of being watched, and thus felt a bit of relief when he stepped out into Muggle London. The awkward glances of strangers at his clothing were insignificant compared to the glares he received in the Alley. In some ways he wished he could simply remain in this world, to become just another anonymous face on his way home to a coldwater flat and a cuppa. There was nothing for it, though; he had nearly starved to death in these very streets after being released from Azkaban, and after this afternoon's purchases, he was as penniless now as he had been then.
He paused before the window of a music store for a very long time.
When the Hogwarts Express pulled into King's Cross Station a few hours later, he waited until all the students had left the platform before stepping out of the shadows to board. He locked his compartment both manually and magically, even though it was most unlikely that anyone else would be making the return trip to Hogsmeade. The motion of the train would rock him to sleep, and after a good long nap, he could stay up all night experimenting with his new purchases.
Snape knew more about the Atra Fulminis than any other living being, now that Wormtail had truly been blown to bits. He was certain there was a way to stop its progress. It would be a fine way to restore his name, finding a remedy for a high-profile curse like this one. Potter would probably insist on being involved, and naturally would hog the limelight, but it didn't matter. The name of Severus Snape would not shine so brightly, but it would spread much further on the back of the Golden Boy's.
The fact that he might help that wretched woman was of no consequence at all, or so he told himself as he drifted off to sleep.
Snape awoke to sunlight streaming through the windows of the compartment. He bolted upright, but recognized to his great relief the rear wall of Hogsmeade Station. Of course, nitwit; they keep the train in a siding when it's not running. He extracted himself and his purchases from the chilly compartment, ignoring the ravenous grumblings of his belly. He knew the pain of starvation, and this wasn't even a hint of it--and his next meal awaited only his presence at the staff table. Snape closed his eyes in awe that the world could be so miraculous.
For the next week, he spared time from potionmaking only for rushed meals and brief stretches of sleep. His mind was brimming with ideas and he was impatient to try them all before the holidays ended and the students returned. When the headmistress arrived to remind him of the Christmas Eve party, he made his best attempt to shoo her out of the laboratory.
"I assure you, Minerva, I shall put in an appearance; I have not forgotten."
"And when do you propose to do that, exactly? By the time you change, you'll be late as it is!"
Snape gawked at her, realizing she was dressed in her festive tartan robes. He knew better than to look around for a calendar--the nearest one was in his office up the corridor--but he made the effort anyway, certain that she was playing some sort of juvenile prank. "Are you saying it's Christmas Eve already?"
McGonagall rolled her eyes and folded her arms with a noisy huff. "Please do not suggest that you don't know what day it is."
"I developed a habit of ignoring the arbitrary passage of days a long time ago, Minerva," Snape said pointedly, while adjusting the flame under the nearest cauldron. "I found that it led only to madness. I have been engaged in my research of late, and I apologize for that. I honestly did not intend to avoid the party." He took in her skeptical gaze and set down his wand. "Honestly," he repeated contritely. "I can't leave now, but I will come upstairs as soon as I am able. I am sorry, Minerva."
He meant it too; he knew these idiotic rituals were important to the headmistress and did not wish to be petulant. She apparently saw the sincerity in his eyes, for her posture relaxed and opened again. "Very well, Severus. Do put on something... else. I know festive is far too much to ask, but you must have something a bit less... dour."
He had nothing else but the rags he wore as he departed through the gates of Azkaban. "I shall Transfigure this into something more presentable," he promised.
An hour later, everything that required his attention had received it and Snape dashed up the stairs to the gathering. At the entrance to the Great Hall, Snape realized he was still wearing his teaching robes and lab apron. He made an honest attempt to fulfill his promise, but current fashions were entirely out of his purview. In the end, he banished the apron back to the lab and removed the stains from his robes. I'll just have to make up for my antiquarian appearance with my sunny disposition. With that thought, he was able to enter the room with a grin.
It was the typical drearily maudlin affair, with far too much sentimental music and gaudy decoration, but the hors d'oeuvres were actually quite good. By that hour most of the guests had already imbibed too much hot buttered rum and egg nog, so it was easy for Snape to slip into huddled conversations and make his appearance, then slip back out unnoticed. He reckoned he'd completed the duty rounds before half an hour had passed.
Unfortunately, McGonagall caught him during his attempted escape and foisted a platter into his hands. "If you must leave so soon," she said sullenly, "you can at least take this up to Professor Pendragon. She's not feeling well and could not join us this evening."
Snape had no wish to disturb Pendragon, as he was quite certain he knew why she was indisposed, but there was no way to get around this delicately. He hoped fleetingly that there would either be more music, or that her chamber would be dark; either would give him an excuse to simply set the platter on the landing and leave. But he was not that lucky; not only was her door outlined in thin blades of light, there was no music, only a rasping of labored breath. Biting his lip, Snape rapped the door with his knuckles.
"Pah... Potter?" Her voice was raspy. Something in the room fell to the floor with a clunk.
By Hecate! "It is... only me, Professor. Do you need help?"
"Go... 'way... away."
This is ridiculous. If she's found dead with my tray of sweets on the landing, I'll never hear the end of it. "No, Professor. You sound unwell. I'm coming in. Do not hex me." He steeled himself and tested the door, finding to his great surprise that it wasn't even latched.
"Pendragon." She was sprawled on the floor before the fire, pushing up on her remaining elbow in an apparent attempt to crawl. Her scars did not extend past the collar of her nightdress, but her lips were blue from cyanosis.
"Please," she coughed between breaths. "Potter."
He returned to the party and found Potter, who had also been hitting the buttered rum, but charged up the marble stairs unerringly when he heard the news. Snape followed but remained on the landing before her chamber.
"What is it, Pen? What's happening to you?"
"Moved...down...around." There was a long pause as she caught her breath from the effort of so many syllables. He heard Potter belt "Diffindo!" and a sound of rending fabric, then a steady stream of swearing. It was more than Snape's curiosity could bear.
Potter had propped her up against the ottoman but, judging by the wringing of his hands, he clearly had no idea what else to do for her. Snape understood what she had meant by "moved down." Apparently the curse had finally given up its attempts to strangle her, recognizing that there were other ways to cut off her breath. She looked as though she were in the crushing grip of a boa or python, for her chest was a mass of constricting blue coils.
Potter picked up his wand and set it down again, spreading his fingers like the tines of a rake, as though trying to fathom whether he could physically pull the scars apart. "Wait," Snape said. Pulling his wand from within his robes, he strode across the room and knelt beside Potter. He rested the tip of the wand on the center coil and softly muttered, "Sectumsempra!"
Potter gripped Snape's arm painfully hard, but let go as the blue scars split immediately along a vertical line and retracted, whip-like, to what remained of Pendragon's right shoulder. She uttered a weak cry of pain, followed by an enormous intake of breath.
Without a word, Potter picked her up in a single graceful swooping motion and carried her through a door in the back of the parlor.