Written for Shaychana for the Snape Rareslash Ficathon (Prompt Tales of Azkaban).
Many thanks to Rex Luscus for beta'ing
The sun had just started to slip over the horizon when the Knight Bus appeared and jerked to a halt at the outskirts of the village of Hogsmeade. A short, round-faced man with spiky mouse-brown hair peered out the window, then opened the front doors of the bus, stepping aside to let the solitary passenger disembark. As soon as the passenger took his first halting step away from the bus, the conductor closed the doors behind him - and with a shudder and a lurch, the Knight Bus popped out of sight.
Five Galleons, a second-hand robe, and a one-way ticket on the Knight Bus (hot chocolate not included) to anywhere in the British Isles; this was the bare minimum that Magical Law Enforcement was required by statute to provide to all exonerated prisoners.
M.L.E. was not required to ensure that newly released convicts were given medical examinations before being sent back out into the world. There was no requirement that M.L.E. secure employment or housing for their former Azkaban charges. And there was certainly nothing on the books demanding that M.L.E. locate and return the former prisoners' wands upon their release.
Generally speaking, however, the limitations of the wizarding prison system were of little importance in practical terms. In the normal course of events, when Azkaban inmates were granted their freedom, they were welcomed back to the world by friends or family members who saw to it that the former prisoners - regardless of the nature of the crimes for which they had been sentenced - were reintegrated into society as quickly and quietly as possible.
Severus Snape had always been an exception to the rules.
He had served only fourteen years of what would have been a life sentence if certain 'missing' evidence hadn't mysteriously turned up in the offices formerly occupied by the late Minister Scrimgeour, but every one of those fourteen years was visible on his face. Even with the hood of his robe pulled up over his head, Snape was a grim-looking figure.
Never an attractive man, age and the years of incarceration had taken away what few relatively good features he had once possessed. His eyes, which some of his more sympathetic acquaintances would once have said held a certain power, were now dull and void of life. He walked with none of his former grace, but cautiously slid one foot after the other as if uncertain of his ability to keep his balance, and he was slightly stooped, possibly as a result of being held prisoner for far too many years in a prison whose cells were notorious for being too short to allow even a man of Snape's height to stretch out fully when sleeping.
If anybody had been at the edge of Hogsmeade that day, watching as Snape walked laboriously towards the grounds of Hogwarts, clutching the edges of his robe to his chest as he went, they would have seen that his fingers - once long and elegant - were swollen and oddly bent at the tips, and his fingernails were ragged and filthy. Torn, grey rags were wrapped inexpertly around his feet (barely adequate protection for the mild early autumn weather), and as Snape was wandless - and likely to remain so for some time - there was little chance that he would be able to transfigure those rags to a sturdier form of footwear anytime soon.
For not even the most fleeting of moments did Snape imagine that he might come across a friend who'd be willing to perform the transfiguration for him. The very idea that any such friends existed was laughable.
When Euclidius Cartesia took over as Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the year following the defeat of Voldemort, one of his first acts was to make permanent the appointment of Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank as Care of Magical Creatures Professor.
There were many Witches and Wizards (mostly friends of Harry Potter) prepared to protest this act, which they saw as a slap in the face to Rubeus Hagrid, who had been, after all, a hero of the war, until they learned that Grubbly-Plank's appointment had come at Hagrid's own request. It seemed that witnessing the deaths of Grawp, Olympe Maxime, and Minerva McGonagall at the hands of his own former students wasn't something from which he had ever quite recovered. It wasn't that Hagrid was bitter or angry, not anymore. Bitterness and anger weren't really in his nature. But there was an emptiness at his core, all the more so now that even Fang was gone, and Hagrid knew better than anyone that sometimes it's best for a creature to just be allowed to go and lick its wounds in private.
Besides, it wasn't as if he didn't still have work to keep himself occupied; Professor Dumbledore had seen to that. One afternoon, soon after Hagrid had resigned his teaching position, Headmaster Cartesia had made his way down to the hut and assured Hagrid that he intended to keep Dumbledore's promise that there'd always be a place for him as Groundskeeper at Hogwarts. Hagrid wiped a tear or two from his cheek as he thanked the new headmaster, then started to settle himself back into his old life.
For a decade or more, Hagrid kept mostly to himself. Every so often, Harry or Hermione would send an owl to keep him up to date on how they were all getting on, but Hagrid got so used to being alone that after a while he didn't even notice the absence of other people.
And then one day, he did.
Two years, Hagrid thought with a start. It had been two years since any living being apart from him and maybe a random Niffler or two had set foot in his hut. If he'd been asked, even as recently as that morning, Hagrid would have said it didn't bother him a bit. But all of a sudden, his cottage seemed empty.
Hagrid put his mending back in the little wicker basket by the fireplace and took a look out the window. Like as not, he'd just been cooped up inside for too long. There was still another good hour or so of daylight left, and there was nothing like a brisk walk down by the lake to chase the gloom away.
Five minutes later, Hagrid was just skirting the third year Herbology students' crop of runner beans (being half-giant, Hagrid was never completely comfortable in the presence of magic beans), when he saw, standing in the shadows at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, someone who looked like a man Hagrid had never expected to see again: Severus Snape.
Except...this man didn't really look anything like Hagrid thought Severus would have looked, not even after so much time locked away. Hagrid knew from personal experience what it was like to spend time in Azkaban, but the Dementors hadn't been guarding the prison in years, and this man looked like he'd been Kissed, he was that lifeless. Nothing had ever seemed to touch Severus, not really, not even those times way back when that he and Hagrid had...no, nothing had touched him, and to see him like this, well, it just wasn't right, that was all.
Hagrid took a few steps towards the man, just to be certain that his mind wasn't playing tricks on him. He'd heard they were letting Severus go, but he hadn't really let himself believe it, and at the back of his thoughts was the worry that Severus would simply disappear before he reached him. Even without Severus using magic, it wasn't that hard to imagine; after all, he'd disappeared before - but there wasn't even a flicker in the man's eyes to suggest that he was aware someone was approaching him. He just stood stock still, staring blankly in the direction of the Astronomy Tower.
"Severus," Hagrid said when he was just a few steps from the partially hooded man. "Is tha' you?"
The man said nothing in return, but Hagrid could see the small tremors in the man's hands. He remembered that, right enough; just looking at Severus's hands was enough to make his own hands tremble in sympathy.
"Only, I wasn't sure if maybe a Muggle ha' somehow got lost on the grounds. The wards never have been as strong since...well, these past years anyway."
Still not a word from Severus, but his eyes were no longer looking up at the Tower; they were now directed down at the muddy ground beneath his rag-covered feet.
"Takin' a walk on the old school grounds to clear yer head, were yeh?" Hagrid nodded. "Good time o' day for it. Nice sunset over the lake."
Severus turned in the direction of the lake and closed his eyes.
"A bit bright if yer not used to it, I reckon," said Hagrid, stepping between Severus and the sunset. "So...I don't know about you, but I could just abou' murder a cup o' tea. Join me, would yeh...if yeh don't have other plans, that is."
Severus made a strangled noise that sounded as if it might have been meant to be a laugh, then he shook his head.
"N-no," he said, his voice barely a whisper. "I...no."
So many years had gone by - and so many questions were still unanswered - but Hagrid took another step closer.
Like he'd done so often almost two decades before, Hagrid stood within a hair's breadth of Severus, just waiting. And as if no time at all had passed between those long ago days and now - as if nothing at all had changed - Severus took a single, shuddering breath, then leaned in and lay his head against Hagrid's chest.
Hagrid raised his hand and lowered the hood of Severus's robe, then cupped the back of Severus's head in his palm. His hair was as smooth as a flobberworm, Hagrid thought, just like it always was.
There'd never been any real reason for Hagrid to pay much mind to the lack of amenities in his cottage. A comfortable chair beside a good fire was really all he cared about - that and having a place to store ferrets, back in the days when Buckbeak was still a visitor - and living alone, Hagrid hadn't got into much of a nightly routine.
Having a guest changed things, though. First there was tea to be brewed and then a couple rounds of sandwiches to prepare (he couldn't really offer his special treacle to Severus, not with the state the man's teeth had got into). And then, well...by the time Severus had finished eating, the sun had gone down, taking the last of the late autumn warmth with it, and Hagrid wouldn't send a Skrewt out into a night like that, at least not any Skrewt that could barely stand on its own feet. So after a bit of scuffling back and forth about whether Severus was going to stay the night (and Hagrid knew that he never would've won that argument so easy, way back when), there was fresh bedding to look for, and of course it wasn't like Hagrid worried about the sheets getting dirty, but he reckoned that Severus would sleep easier if he had a bath and maybe had something clean to sleep in, and what with one thing and another, the evening hours all but flew by.
The night didn't pass quite so quickly.
Just like long ago, Hagrid knew he wouldn't be falling asleep until he was sure Severus was asleep, and Severus...didn't sleep. Hagrid sat in his chair, his legs propped up on the stack of logs that sat by the fire with a blanket pulled up to his chin, and watched as Severus curled up tighter and tighter as the night went on, his fingers clutching at the sheets. Severus never opened his eyes - not once all night long - but Hagrid knew that didn't mean anything. Twice, maybe three times during the night, the tension in Severus eased a bit and his breathing became more regular, but then, moments later, Severus's body would start to twitch, and Hagrid knew he was awake again. When the morning finally came, Hagrid didn't ask Severus what had kept him from sleeping the night before.
He just put a big bowl of hot porridge down on the table (no salt; Severus was strictly a brown sugar and sultanas man), and took a seat beside him on the wooden bench, watching as Severus sat hunched over his breakfast, wrapping one thin arm around the bowl as if somebody might come along at any moment and take it away from him.
(I don't blame you, you know...you bein' a little protective of yer food and all. )
Most Witches and Wizards who'd known Severus before his time in Azkaban would have found it odd that Hagrid wasn't glared at for just sitting back and watching the man eat.
(I remember back when they put me in there...there never seemed to be enough even for regular sized fellows.)
They would probably have found it even odder not to have heard Severus's voice beyond the single grunt that might have been a 'thank you for the porridge,' --
(Of course, back in my day, it weren't like anybody would ever really be hungry, what with the Dementors and all.)
--if it weren't for the fact that Severus saying 'thank you' would have been the oddest thing of all.
(It used to get so tha' some o' them big spiders would start to look mighty tasty.)
But Hagrid didn't find any of this strange, not in the least.
(Not that I could ever bring myself to eat one of them.)
And later that night, after Hagrid had - once again - fed Severus and helped him bathe...
(Used to race 'em, sometimes, though. Set two of 'em against each other...see which one was the winner.)
...and combed through his hair and given him a very familiar looking grey nightshirt to wear...
(It were cold in there, though.)
...Severus was able to remember back to a time when he wouldn't have found it strange either - back to the days when he was able to take for granted the fact that there was somebody who...
(I'm not saying that I had it worse, mind. I'm just saying...I understand, is all.)
For the first time in years, Severus slept through the night, held tight in the warmth of Hagrid's arms.
As the days passed, the two men settled into a routine.
Hagrid had some of Severus's old books and journals - the ones that Professor McGonagall had long ago locked away for safe-keeping - and he was happy to finally get a chance to return them to their rightful owner, but Severus wasn't showing much interest in returning to his old studies. Instead, he seemed content to take over the cooking responsibilities and spend most of the rest of each day helping Hagrid with whatever duties he had to take care of. Neither man said a word about the future; both had learned, to their costs, how little it took to tempt the fates.
Hagrid and Severus were on their third cups of tea of the morning when they heard a knocking at the door.
"Good morning, Headmaster," Hagrid said to the man standing uncomfortably on the doorstep. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Perhaps there is, Hagrid," Cartesia said. "Might I come in for a moment?"
"Oh, o' course, Sir. Where're my manners? " Hagrid stepped aside to let the headmaster into his home. "Would you care for a cup o' tea, sir?"
"No need to trouble yourself."
"No trouble a' all. I'll just fetch down another cup an' then...."
"Please, don't put yourself out. I shan't be staying long enough for tea," Headmaster Cartesia said, taking a few steps into the room. He glanced away from Hagrid and met Severus's silent gaze. "And good morning to you, Mr. Snape. It's been quite some time since last we met, hasn't it?"
"Yes," Severus said hoarsely. "Almost thirty-five years since I was in your NEWTs section of Arithmancy."
Cartesia nodded. "Time does move quickly, does it not?"
"You'll forgive me if I beg to differ." Severus's voice was raspy, his knuckles white around his cup.
Hagrid lay one hand over Severus's hands, then gently took the cup from him and set it down on the table. His old broken down wand wasn't much good at Reparo these days, and Severus had already shattered two cups since he'd arrived.
"So was it...a social call tha' brings you here, Headmaster?"
"Not precisely, Hagrid," Cartesia said. "I wanted to speak with you about...well, about the By-Laws, actually."
Hagrid took a seat next to Severus. "I'm not exactly catching yer drift, sir."
"The By-Laws of Hogwarts, Hagrid. The rules governing the behavior of all Hogwarts' staff."
"Have I done something wrong?"
"Not as such," Cartesia said, looking more and more uncomfortable as the moments passed. "However, we have a school full of impressionable youngsters, and I'm certain you understand that we must act in the best interests of the students when..."
"Excuse me, Sir," said Hagrid, his fingers curling up until they started to leave marks in his palm. "Are you trying to say that just because Severus here is a man..."
"Of course not, Hagrid! We're not as unenlightened as all that." The headmaster wiped his damp palms on the side of his robes. "However...students will talk, and we've already had quite a lot of owls from parents. I'm sure you understand what I'm saying here."
Hagrid frowned. "Can't say that I do, sir.
"Oh, for God's sake, Hagrid," Severus muttered. "He's talking about the fact that you're harboring a convicted murderer under your roof."
"No I'm not!" Hagrid said indignantly. "You were...everybody knows the truth now. You're innocent; it's all official like!"
Severus shook his head. "I was exonerated, Hagrid. That's hardly the same thing as being declared innocent."
"Mr. Snape is correct, Hagrid. Unfortunately, there's still a stigma attached to those who have been exonerated. If it were up to me...well, I'm afraid we have to take parental concerns into account."
Hagrid looked back and forth between Severus and the headmaster, but all he could see was the same look of resignation on both men's faces.
Once upon a time, Severus would have fought this.
Of course, back then, Professor Dumbledore would have been fighting in his corner.
"I'm sure you understand, Hagrid," Cartesia said briskly. "And of course, whenever Mr. Snape here is in the area, you're more than welcome to, er, take the afternoon off and visit him in Hogsmeade. And now, I must be taking my leave. Duty calls, you know. Good day, Hagrid. Mr. Snape."
And with that, he was gone, leaving Hagrid and Severus alone once more.
The following afternoon, the two men walked together into Hogsmeade. They ordered lunch at the Three Broomsticks, then went over to Martin and Hyde's to buy Severus a new pair of boots and a second-hand wand before hailing the Knight Bus.
Only a single ticket was purchased, however.
Rubeus Hagrid and Severus Snape had each shown great courage in their day, and it was likely that both would do so again in the future. Neither man, however, had the luxury of ignoring the realities of life. Hagrid had a job and a place to live, and in the post-Voldemort political climate, that was more than could be said for most folk with giant blood. And Severus? He had a house in the north of England to put to rights, over a decade's worth of research to catch up on, and a life to reclaim.
Besides, the bus ticket that Hagrid had purchased for Severus was a return, good at any time.