Once again, the Hogwarts Express was a godsend. Having spent the night on a hard wooden bench, warm enough but with a tumult in his heart, the luxury of a soft, flat surface and the repetitive clacking of the wheels finally soothed him into a much-needed sleep. This time he was fairly certain the arrival at Hogsmeade would be noisy enough to waken him, and he was correct. Though hungry, he waited to disembark until all the students had left the station, not at all eager to be spotted amongst them.
In retrospect, he supposed he could have Apparated with the eggshells, but it wasn't worth the risk. He wanted them to arrive at Hogwarts with all of their magical properties intact, and the best way to assure it was to hand-carry them. Draconists like Weasley had special Portkeys for transporting materials, but their methods were a Guild secret. It was quite a monopoly, but a necessary one; the dragons would be harassed to extinction by poachers if all one had to do for a tidy profit was snatch up a bit of their flesh and Apparate.
Regardless, he was home again and that was all that mattered. Snape had twelve hours to go before the inevitable piling-up of essays and lesson plans; he intended to use them efficiently. Once again, he was grateful for the genius of Salazar Slytherin, who had cleverly put both the laboratories and the kitchens in the dungeons. Coffee and sandwiches would get him through the night.
Snape's first love was Potionmaking, and though he had strayed in Muggle London, his art embraced him without judgment or reproach. By dawn he had used half the eggshells. Several concoctions had to be discarded, but these had paved the way to better experiments and thus were regrettable but not worthless. He brought a few cauldrons to the classroom and kept busy as the students prepared their own draughts, and by lunchtime, he was ready for the first test.
He took the tumbler to her room, knowing full well her precise routine for eating lunch and exiting the Great Hall at the same time every day. He expected that she would return to her room, and he was correct; a series of scales were already issuing from the piano, undoubtedly a warming-up exercise. Snape knocked on the jamb of her open door.
This time she jumped, nearly upsetting the piano bench as she apparently tried to leap to her feet and turn to face him at the same time. "Sneak!" she shouted, pointing her hand as though hexing him into some abandoned level of Hell, if only her wand had been in it. This time, however, Snape wasn't having any of it.
"Pendragon, I knocked," he observed crossly, closing her door and traversing the room. "I daresay I'd be standing directly behind you unnoticed if I had truly been sneaking. Why do you leave your door open, silly girl, if you are so easily startled?"
"Potter sometimes comes to listen. He's too polite to interrupt." She glared at him pointedly.
"Fortunately, I am not," he said with a wry grin. "I'm sure if I just came in and sat down, waiting for an appropriate point to make my presence known, you would become quite undone when you discovered me." He pushed the bench out of his way with his knee, edging between her and the piano.
"What are you doing?" she snarled, backing away. He set the tumbler on top of the piano and pulled her close, one hand again on her neck, the other firmly clamped on her hipbone.
"Quieting you down, child. Be still now."
"I tire of this, Snape! I should never have cooperated the first time! Let me go!" She pushed against him with her remaining arm and nearly wriggled out of his grasp, but he had survived a half century of courtyard scuffles though nonviolent self-defense. The punishment for fighting in Azkaban was severe, and the only way to avoid it was to leave one's attacker unharmed. For many, that meant simply taking the beating, but Snape was quite certain that he would not survive long if he chose that tactic. He persuaded Lucius Malfoy that the two of them should study a Muggle martial art called Aikido, and Narcissa had obligingly sent them manuals from every Muggle shop she could find. It hadn't saved Malfoy's life in the end, but it spared them both from considerable torture.
It was also proving quite useful now. Pendragon managed to knock his chin rather hard with her head, but he restrained her more tightly so she couldn't repeat it. Once again, her thrashing slowed, then stopped, but she continued to arch away from him, nearly pulling him off balance. "If I let you go, young lady, you shall fall right onto your back," he said. "Is that truly preferable to my embrace?"
"If I concede again, you'll continue to impose this on me. A bruised behind is well worth it, to be rid of you."
Snape let her slip from his grasp. In a rigid arc, she fell away like a logged tree and did not attempt to catch herself, not even grasping at his sleeve. She'd really do it! he thought in amazement, even as he flicked his wand to prevent her head from cracking on the stone floor. Another flick and her trajectory reversed, swinging her upright, whereupon he caught her in an even tighter grip.
"Enough nonsense, child. Be still."
She sighed in an angry huff. "Why do you harass me, Snape?"
Taking a deep breath, he knew it was time for honesty. "Because, child, unlike anyone else living on this earth, I understand the curse that has touched your mind. And... I would help you."
"No one can help me."
"Perhaps not, child, perhaps not, although the spell I cast on Christmas Eve seemed to do some good."
She was already too tense to stiffen, but she lurched in surprise. "You lie! That was Potter, I saw him! He carried me to my room!"
"Yes, he carried you, after I broke open the curse that was stealing your breath. You will ask him the next time you see him, and you will know the truth. For now, though, all that matters is that I do mean to help you, child, and I can. But you must find your focus. Now be still!"
"SILENCE, child," he admonished, pushing her face into his robes and holding her there, motionless, until the stiffness broke down and once again she laid her head quietly on his chest. He didn't move a muscle, having learned her limitations on the first go-round. Once her breathing, too, had slowed to a calm pace, he spoke in a direct, no-nonsense tone.
"Can you think clearly now, Pendragon?"
"Yes." She sounded quite surprised at her admission.
"Good." He maintained his hold a few more minutes before continuing. "Can you consider the possibility that I want to help you?"
"Um... Can I... What?" She shook her head hard, like a wet puppy, as though attempting to dislodge a loose thought. He expected he would have to quiet her again, but she sighed and pressed her forehead against his chest, hiding her eyes. "I can see that it would be foolish of you to hurt me, unless you're homesick for the confines of Azkaban. I doubt that you want to help me per se, although I'm sure you'd love to be recognized and rewarded for helping me. Have I answered you?"
"You have. I have no desire to return to prison, Pendragon. I would not risk my freedom by harming you." Yet, anyway. "I've brought a potion. It is not poisonous, and I think it will help you. I ask you to consider taking it."
She stiffened, but he expected as much and held on tightly, careful not to move. Once again, he waited in silence until she composed herself.
"I'll take it, Snape, if you tell me the meaning of all this. How do you make me feel so... coherent? For that matter, how do you know so much about the Lightning curse?"
"Fair enough, child. I will explain those things, and more--after you take the potion. I will let go of you now, to Summon the tumbler."
"Only with one hand, if you can manage it, Potioneer. As much as I hate to admit it, I prefer your hands on me." Snape smiled weakly; he knew this was but a hint of her former demeanor, but he could already see why Potter was so fond of her. He silently performed the Accio,, realizing that he had no choice but to drop his wand in order to catch the tumbler without calling his left hand into play. It didn't matter; he'd become accustomed to wandlessness in Azkaban and was never truly unarmed, after all.
"Calming Draught?" she said dubiously, sniffing the contents.
"Modified. Taking it by nose is not sufficient, Pendragon. Drink." She frowned, but she took the tumbler and sniffed again. The dragon shells made it sulfurous and pungent and she wrinkled her whole face with disgust at the smell, but she resolutely emptied the tumbler in several quick gulps.
It worked a bit too well, as her eyes immediately glazed and she slumped against him like putty. Snape made a sincere but ineffective attempt to catch her, but there was no right arm under which to brace his grip, and he was instinctively loathe to take hold of the remaining flesh on that side. He ended up lurching her rather awkwardly to the piano bench, but once it took up her weight, he managed to tug her left arm around his shoulder and hoist her over to the armchair.
"Who'zere?" she slurred, patting his face clumsily as he pulled away from her. She caught hold of the end of his nose and gave it a rather obnoxious wiggle. "Snuffles? Goo' boy," she mumbled with a wide, giddy smile, presumably mistaking him for some childhood pet. She slouched deep into the chair with her knees wide apart to keep from falling to either side, singing something in Chinese (or horribly garbled English, it was hard to tell). Snape rolled his eyes, mentally calculating which ingredients he would cut back for the next attempt at this potion.
He heard young voices echoing up the staircase; it was time for afternoon classes to commence. Snape dismissed her students and quickly put up a cancellation notice on the blackboard, then dashed back up to Pendragon's chambers. Fortunately she had some Floo powder, so he was not forced to run down the marble stairs to the dungeons. He decided to teach his first afternoon class since it was clear that Pendragon needed to recover a bit, but he cancelled the remainder and returned to her office after the hour was up.
She answered his knock with a weak "Enter," and he let himself in. Her eyes were tired but bright, with a spark of cheer that he'd never before seen in them. "Good!" she said, surprising him even further. "I wasn't sure if you'd be back!"
"I promised an explanation if you took the potion, did I not?" he chided, albeit gently.
"You did," she said with a pleased grin. "Sit down and live up to your word, then." She undulated her upper body and Snape knew that she would have indicated the other chair with a broad sweep of her right arm, if it had been present.