If there were one person Severus never imagined greeting him when he woke, it was Minerva McGonagall.
Sleep banished in place of something very much like panic, Severus scrambled to a seated position and pulled the covers up to his chest despite being in his habitual nightgown, buttoned up to the neck. McGonagall in a pressed tartan dressing gown stood at his bedside peering down at him with an indecipherable expression. Her hair fell steel-grey around her shoulders and she looked old. He blinked hard but when he opened his eyes, she was still staring, and the lines in her face were still deep.
“What is the meaning of this?” he snarled. Being stared at impassively by catty old schoolmarms was not part of any emergency protocol Dumbledore had ever spoken of when Severus joined the staff at Hogwarts. “Speak, woman!”
“Severus Snape, you will not speak to me like that,” she said, voice as whiplike as ever. “Tell me, what year is it?”
“Have you gone mad?” he said.
“The year, Severus, now.”
Severus may have been well shut of his school days and a professor in his own right, but he quailed to hear that tone. Conditioned like a dog. He’d sneer at himself if it weren’t so much more satisfying to sneer at her.
“1985! Now tell me the meaning of waking me this way!”
McGonagall’s mouth arced deeply downward. She pushed her spectacles up her nose. With a wave of her wand, his bedside table became a chair and she sank into it.
“Peace, Severus,” she said. “Let me think.”
“I was sleeping!”
“Look around you, Severus.”
Severus opened his mouth to snap back something scathing, but his eyes had adjusted to the light and he glanced around the room. Instead of his haphazard attempts at decorating in dark neutrals and antique furniture, the room had become lighter and brighter with white walls and gauzy curtains around false windows. The room was punctuated by cheery pops of sunflower yellow and robin’s egg blue. The antique pieces he’d gathered painstakingly from second hand shops in an attempt to feel like a real adult with a real home were gone, replaced by minimalist furniture with clean lines and no bloody character. There was art on the walls. And it was whimsical.
He was in someone else’s bed.
He yelped and sprang to his feet, wand at the ready.
“How did I get here? What have you done?”
McGonagall didn’t react with either her trademark withering glare or a tongue lashing. Instead she looked up at him with a smile that seemed more pained than joyous and eyes that shone suspiciously. She reached out a hand, but stopped short of her fingertips grazing his wrist. She pulled it back and pressed it to her heart before letting it fall into her lap. Somehow, seeing this deflated him, and he dropped heavily onto the side of the bed.
“Minerva,” he said. “Professor. Tell me what’s going on.”
“The year is 2005, Severus, and you’ve been dead for seven years.”
Severus shook his head.
“No,” he said. McGonagall leaned forward and caught his wrists in her hands, forcing him to make eye contact with her. Her grip was surprising in its strength.
“Severus, listen to me.”
“No! You’re lying to me!” He wrenched his wrists from her grasp and stood again. He turned his back to her and walked over to where his wardrobe used to be. There was a bookshelf there now, and it appeared to be full of works of Muggle fiction. He turned and walked back, but remained pinned by McGonagall’s gaze. He walked back again, and then again, and again.
Twenty years. Twenty bloody years gone like dust, like nothing. And he was dead. Somehow it wasn’t the relief he’d always imagined. Instead he felt…hollow. He assumed his death had been on the Dark Lord’s order, if not his very hand. Maybe there had even been another war.
“These rooms now belong to Professor Periwinkle Merriweather,” McGonagall said as he paced back and forth. Severus shoved a thumb into his mouth to worry at the ragged nail. It soothed the hot urgency of panic that rose to heat the back of his neck. “She has been teaching Potions for several years now. She was a Slytherin six years below you; I don’t suppose you remember her.”
“Of course I don’t remember some sticky-faced ickle firstie from my final year at school!”
In that same awful, soothing tone, McGonagall continued.
“She was doing a nighttime sweep and returned to her chambers to find a strange man in her bed.”
“Oh, Merlin.” Severus yanked at the greasy hanks of his hair as if it could somehow hide him from all the humiliation of his life.
“She’s got quite the level head, our Professor Merriweather, so instead of blasting you to oblivion she came to me. And here we are, Severus. You’re lucky my heart is hale.”
“How could this happen?”
“I’m not certain,” McGonagall said. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I was in my chambers marking third year essays,” he said. “Afterward I…” He slanted a look at her, and when she met his eyes his own gaze skittered away.
“I was the head of Gryffindor for decades, Severus, you cannot scandalise me.”
“I took a bath,” he said. She smirked at him. “I took a bath!”
“All right, Severus.”
“I read some of my book and went to bed and when I woke you were looming over me like some feline gargoyle.”
McGonagall sat back with an audible sigh.
“I’m not an expert on the vagaries of time magic,” she said. “And I’m not certain if you are the Severus Snape from the 1985 I experienced or if some alternate reality’s 1985 is missing its Severus Snape. Or even if you are somehow our Severus, brought back to life and restored his youth. We’ll have to unravel it all before a time paradox blinks our universe from existence. It would be best to consult the Department of Mysteries.”
Severus, who remembered too well the cold deprivations of Azkaban, suppressed a shudder.
“Let’s keep the Ministry out of this for as long as we can,” he said. “But I take your point that help is needed. We should inform the Headmaster at once.” He made an aborted trip to his wardrobe. When he turned back around, thwarted in his quest for his robes, he caught sight of Minerva McGonagall, elderly, reduced to a grey curl in her chair. “What,” he snapped.
“Albus is dead, Severus. I’m the Headmistress now.”
His breath rushed out of him and he sank again onto the edge of the bed.
“What,” he said. “How.”
McGonagall plucked her spectacles from her face and rubbed her eyes.
“It’s a very long story,” she said. When she put the spectacles back on, she wouldn’t meet his eyes. A chill took him.
“Was it the Dark Lord? Is he back?”
“He was,” she said, “and gone again, this time for good.”
Severus’s chest felt as if it were being crushed. Oh Lily, your boy.
“He lived, Severus,” McGonagall said, and he almost wept. “It’s a bit complicated, and not for the middle of the night when you’ve had such a shock. Same for the tale of Albus’s passing.” She stood, and once again she was the Head of Gryffindor from his memories, from mere hours ago when he’d seen her in the Great Hall for supper. Upright and lashed together, chin held high. “Come. Let’s let poor Professor Merriweather back into her chambers and find you a place to stay.”
The only free and prepared room in the whole of the castle was ensconced, apparently, beside the headmasters’ quarters. Of course, Severus thought with a sneer. Mustn’t let the snake slither too far. While the room was blessedly free of any garish red and gold decor, Severus found sleep elusive nonetheless. An inspection of his left arm had revealed a faded tattoo, silvery with scar tissue, but utterly ordinary, as if done decades ago in a Muggle tattoo parlour. No fell presence roiled beneath the surface, no heat burned him from the inside, and no sly movement betrayed what he was, what choices he’d made when he was young and foolish.
Severus was twenty-five years old, and he felt as though he’d lived a thousand years over. It occurred to him that the boy must be twenty-five this year as well, if the old cat spoke the truth. He sighed and turned onto his side. Of course she did—she was Minerva McGonagall, and whatever resentments he may have carried from his school days were long burned away by professional regard. If he grudgingly respected her when he began teaching three years ago, he had to admit that all his current regard for her was well-earned. She had iron control of her classroom, and could enforce it with naught but a look and pointed silence. And if he had shared a few drams of Scotch with her every few weeks, well. Who was to know? She had never lied to him, and he didn’t see a motive to begin lying now. He knew real grief when he saw it, and it was as plain as the age on her face: she had mourned him.
His mother would be about her age. He wondered where she was if she were to be counted among the living. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to find her and pitch himself into her embrace and stay there until things made sense again. He stood and resumed his pacing.
Tempus, he murmured with a flick of his wand. 02:17, the spell read. He couldn’t keep bothering McGonagall. The school would start coming to life in less than four hours anyway, but those four hours seemed an eternity to be without his mother. Not to know whether she was dead or alive. His thoughts skipped across all the people of his acquaintance: the Malfoys, the other teachers, Hagrid and Filch, all the Death Eaters who’d eluded Azkaban and all the ones who’d been locked away. Sirius Black. Regulus Black. The werewolf. People he’d gone to school with. People he’d met at Potions conferences. Lily. Petunia.
Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived, they’d called him, and now, despite a veritable death sentence, he’d somehow lived again. Twenty-five years old. He was probably insufferable, raised under the fawning eye of his aunt and uncle. He wouldn’t know Severus from Adam, despite the years spent in his classroom. A war hero twice over, no doubt a Gryffindor and all that entailed: arrogant, headstrong, reckless, wielding moral superiority like a potent wand. He probably had a witch on each arm and a roving eye.
Or was he already married and working on his third sprog? Did he look like Lily, Severus wondered, or his blasted father? He was older now than either of them ever got to be. Severus hated James Potter as wholly and purely as he’d loved Lily. He could never forgive him for terrorising him through all seven years of school. But now—now. Potter was more than two decades dead, forever a boy. Never got to see his son’s first magic. Never got to see him play Quidditch. Never had to watch him take up arms against an enemy bigger, stronger, and far cleverer than he could ever hope to be, and win.
Yes, Severus Snape hated James Potter. It was fact, like the stars, like the earth, like the nose on Severus’s face. But at half-two in the morning, in the year 2005, his own life restored to him like a miracle or a curse, Severus couldn’t coax the embers of his hate to flame. James was dust and bone; his son lived. Even when the most powerful wizard in the world painted a target on him, even when death came to collect, Harry Potter lived. Dumbledore said that was down to a mother’s love, but Severus wasn’t so sure. Most mothers loved their children, did they not? Most mothers would lay down their lives as Lily had done, even for the barest quixotic chance that it would buy the child time, if not his life. Lily’s love was wider than the sky, Severus knew—but no grander or purer than the love of most mothers. To survive the killing curse, to deflect it back onto its caster, there was something about the boy himself.
McGonagall had transfigured him a robe so he wouldn’t be walking around the castle in sleep clothes. He slung it on and swept silently from the guest quarters. He’d always favoured Hogwarts in the dead of night. Even the most enterprising curfew-breakers were usually in bed by this hour, and Filch too, so Severus could enjoy the solitude, the stone walls, the suits of armour, the shifting staircases, the fog beyond the windows of the astronomy tower, the rolling hills of the Highlands, the crisp, cool air. The moon was low and waning, dipping into the treeline of the Forbidden Forest. The black lake glittered its reflection back up to it, an illusion of tranquillity. Beneath its surface, an entire society to which Severus had no access.
A man appeared at the edge of the lake. It was unlike Apparition, the crack of which most people had to brace themselves against upon landing; besides, Hogwarts grounds were protected by anti-Apparition wards. This man simply appeared. Severus rubbed his eyes to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the fog or the hour or his own mind, but there the man stood, gazing into the waters. His robes, colour indeterminate by moonlight, breezed about his feet. Even from the distance, Severus could see the wind ruffling through his hair. His very familiar hair. Severus scowled.
He rushed down the astronomy tower and onto the grounds. The Scottish spring was cold and threatened to bring rain down on his head, but he only walked faster. His legs ached in protest and his lungs quailed too, but when he was in throwing distance of the stranger on the lake, he raised his voice above the wind.
“You’re not to be on Hogwarts grounds at this hour.”
The man whipped around. He was shorter than Severus thought he would be, shorter than James and of a height, perhaps, with his mother, though his shoulders were broad and he looked fit and athletic, compact rather than small. His complexion was creamier than James’s, whose mother had been Sri Lankan. His nose and cheeks were touched pink in the cold, but his hair was subcontinent black with unruly cowlicks everywhere. His eyes, even in the dark, even behind the spectacles, told Severus this was Lily’s boy. The shape of them, the colour, the way they widened when he saw him. Despite tricks of colouring, despite the shape of the jaw and the nose, all Severus could see in his face was his mother.
“Snape,” he said. “My God. How—”
“Spare me the theatrics,” Severus snapped. “How did you get here? What are you doing?” Tell me everything about the last twenty years immediately.
A smile touched Potter’s lips, but it was as sad as McGonagall’s. He turned his attention back to the lake. The robes, Severus could see now, were those of an Auror. The stiff collar was turned down, revealing the length of Potter’s neck. You would expose your throat to me? Severus thought. I, who killed your mother as surely as you killed Voldemort?
“I wanted it to be so, and it was,” Potter said.
With riddles like that, who needed Albus Dumbledore?
“How did you break the anti-Apparition wards?” Severus asked. The staff had to replace them without delay. He’d have to wake up McGonagall, and Flitwick if he was still here, and whoever else could help. Death Eaters could be readying to strike even now.
“I didn’t,” Potter said. “But I appreciate your commitment to constant vigilance.”
“That’s impossible,” Severus said.
“Are you always this infuriating?”
“Only on days I’ve been sacked,” Potter said.
“The great Harry Potter?” Severus said. “Sacked? I shall shout and rend my clothing in grief.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Snape. You can go back to your dungeons and sleep well knowing I’m no longer inflicting myself on the unsuspecting wizarding public.”
“Don’t tell me you’re about to pitch yourself into the lake,” Severus said. Even as he said it, he knew he’d have to dive in behind him to drag him out. He’d made a promise.
“You should be so lucky,” Potter said. “I just wanted a think, Snape. You’ll leave me be, won’t you?”
And with that, Severus was back in bed, face still chilled from the wind. He ran out again, legs and lungs burning as he pushed them to their limits through Hogwarts and its grounds, but when he got to the lake, Potter was gone.
Severus thought he wouldn’t be able to sleep at all, but his next coherent thought was elf. There was a house elf in a green tea cosy at his bedside blinking ponderous eyes at him.
“Headmistress is sending Treeby to collect Sir’s breakfast order.”
“Just black builders’.” His voice came out like rocks crushed to dust.
“Headmistress is tasking Treeby with putting ‘some meat on that walking skeleton,’ sir.”
Severus sneered and sat up to glower down at the elf, but Treeby remained unmoved.
“Fine!” he snapped. “One soft boiled egg.”
“With lots of brown sugar!” Severus snarled.
“And a copy of the Prophet.”
“For fuck’s sake!” Severus shouted. “What else could anyone possibly eat first thing in the morning?”
“The kitchens is preparing for breakfast in the Great Hall with many eggs, bangers, rashers, blood pudding, beans, toast, crumpets, naan bread, potatoes, falafel, corned beef hash, cabbage, apples—”
“It was a rhetorical question, you mite!”
“Sir is being very grumpy for his breakfast.”
“I don’t want breakfast!”
“Treeby is being tasked—”
“I know what Treeby is tasked with!” Severus snapped the covers off his body and stomped to the en suite. He turned around in the jamb to glower down at the elf. “You have my order, and if you bring anything I didn’t ask for, I shall fling it all about this room for you to clean!”
With a pop, Treeby disappeared, and Severus slammed the door. He did his business and stood before the sink to wash his hands. He kept his gaze resolutely downcast, and the mirror said nothing at all.
When he walked out of the en suite, the curtains had been thrown open and the hazy light of early morning streamed in to illuminate all the corners of his room. A small table and chair had been arranged in front of the window, a tiny vase holding sprigs of thistle and gorse placed amid the spread of his breakfast. Severus sat with a sigh and poured himself a cup of tea. He let the first sip warm him as he looked out the window. Above the Quidditch pitch, pennant flags in house colours whipped frantically in the wind and fog. He could see smoke rising from the chimney of Hagrid’s hut.
He needed to do several things today. First, he needed to ascertain where his estate had gone. To his recollection he’d not had much to his name—and he had been splitting his paycheque from Hogwarts and patents between a Gringotts account and a Muggle one—but as a teacher with room and board provided, he had few expenses and would have saved, at the time of his death, sixteen years’ worth of his earnings, which should have been a fine amount indeed. He scowled to wonder where it had gone, or to whom. If the world were merciful, the prospect of which he snorted at, his mother was alive and the recipient of his Gringotts vault in full. As for the Muggle money, he may still be able to access it, though he would need documentation of his identity and a convincing glamour. A glamour may be advisable in the wizarding world as well—no need for anyone other than McGonagall, who was honourable in her nauseating, Gyffindorish way, or Potter, who had his own problems, to identify him as a long dead 45-year-old man with questionable ties to the wrong side of the war. Wars. He needed to find out, too, what happened during the second war, which took not only his life but the Headmaster’s. That was second on the list, and seemed to go hand in hand with “find out what manner of wizard Harry Potter is.”
Third, but no less important for all its reliance on acquiring funds, he needed to find his mother. She had fled from Spinner’s End two years before he finished school, and in February of 1981, Severus came home from a Death Eater meeting to find his father facedown in a pool of his own vomit. He stared at the body for a long while before ringing the authorities. He sat on the stairs unseeing as the police and the ambulance came, as Tobias was removed from the house covered in a sheet. He nodded but didn’t hear the copper who knelt before him and explained to him the next steps, whatever those were. He didn’t move and didn’t speak as they left the house and the thin crowd of neighbours who’d gathered outside slowly dissipated. In the coming days, some of them would bring food to his door, but he never had a word to exchange with them. At the feet of the Dark Lord the following week, Severus implied heavily that he’d poisoned his pathetic, drink-sodden Muggle father, and he was glad for the favour it bought him.
He had only a vague idea of where to start looking for his mother. The Princes were an old family, Pureblooded with a shabby manor and modest fortune, and they’d long disowned their wayward girl. She wouldn’t run to them, he thought. Her own mother had been a Pureblood witch educated in elemental magics at Durmstrang. She had come from what was currently Czechoslovakia but would have been something else entirely by the time she came to England. Severus had heard little about her but that she was wild and proud and cold and odd. He could imagine her in early twentieth century Britain, foreign and bizarre, whispered about and ostracized, unable to slot herself into the starchy Edwardian society her arranged marriage had dragged her into, unable to provide a male heir or, indeed, any heir other than the sickly, disobedient female she’d whelped. Severus should have liked to meet her; he’d thought as a child that he might find a kindred spirit in her, but his mother had boxed his ears the only time he’d asked after her, and that had been the end of any talk of her at Spinner’s End.
Severus had long suspected that Eileen may have cousins in the Eastern Bloc countries, and a little digging would reveal his grandmother’s maiden name, where she was born, who her relations were. If Eileen were dead, he needed to know. And if she were living, he needed to know that too. He’d needed to know for far longer than the few hours he’d been wiling away in 2005.
He turned back to his breakfast. The porridge had stopped steaming, and he dumped all the cream and brown sugar into it. Mixing it together revealed more steam, and he watched the sugar melt into the porridge. He cracked his soft boiled egg and shook the Prophet open only to be confronted by a close-up of Harry Potter, eyes flashing and mouth twisting in an endless loop of frustration.
WHO WILL SAVE US FROM THE BOY WHO SAVED THE WORLD?
Reports from the Home Office are pouring in—Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, has been ousted from the Aurory amid allegations of dark magic. Sources who do not wish to be identified have stated, “He’s a madman, he is. My cousin’s wife’s brother’s flatmate who works in Magical Creatures said he saw Harry Potter turn a man into a scorpion! Just for disagreeing with him!”
Remember you read it here first, years ago: Harry Potter is unhinged. This reporter has been tireless in—
Severus stopped there before he went blind.
The Prophet had not improved in twenty years. Sensationalist pap—hints and insinuations, no facts, no reporting, no journalism. It was a wonder it was still in business. Actual words notwithstanding, Severus gleaned one important detail from the article: the wizarding world didn’t know if it wanted a saviour or a scapegoat, and Harry Potter would do nicely for both. He was a totem, not a man. Severus snorted and banished the newspaper from his breakfast table without bothering to glance through the rest.
Minerva arrived as he finished his egg. She sat next to him and directed her gaze out the window.
“What’s your plan for the day?” she asked.
“Don’t you have better things to do than babysit someone who’s come unstuck in time?”
“I didn’t know you read Muggle literature, Severus,” she said.
“War is war, Minerva.”
She hmphed and frowned down at the table top.
“I don’t know the half of it, do I,” Severus said, venturing a sidelong glance at her.
“It’s better that way, Severus,” she said. “Cleaner.”
“Cleaner? To take away my atonement? To…to bring me back to life in a place I can’t remember, among people who will never—”
“Yes,” she said. She met his eyes and the intensity there dried his words. “You’ll know it all soon enough, I imagine. Better to know than to feel. Better to be—” She shook her head and shrugged helplessly, looking outside again. He’d never seen her appear so naked. “—unencumbered by bitterness.”
“I am bitter,” he said. And raw and angry and—
She touched him then, dry little fingers closing around his wrist. Her presence was so large he often forgot how small she really was.
“I know, Severus. But you have all your life ahead of you. That’s a different kind of bitterness from that of a man who’s spent years staring down the end of the wand that will kill him.”
Severus swallowed all manner of hideous words and ground his teeth together. She let his wrist go and tilted her body away from him, legs crossing under the table.
“Your plans, Severus,” she said. “What’s first on the docket?”
“Are you helping me?”
“Yes, and don’t be a mule about it.”
“I don’t need your help,” he said.
“What did I just say?”
“I’m not a child whose hand must be held!”
“No, you’re my friend,” Minerva said, and Severus found his gathering steam dissipated again. His heart stumbled in its timekeeping. “You’re my friend,” Minerva said, “to whom I owe a great deal, and until now I’ve had naught but dust to honour in his name.”
“I’m not that man,” Severus said.
“You’ll do, lad.” She transfigured a saucer into a teacup and poured herself a cup of tea. “Now. Your plans.”
Outside, the Quidditch coach did lazy loops around the pennants alone. Children would come streaming onto the pitch soon enough, Severus imagined. He wondered if he could still fly himself. Broomless, carpetless—nothing but intention and concentration and a great lifting, body and spirit.
Abruptly he turned away and threw back the last dregs of his own cup of tea. Bitter and sweet all at once.
“Money,” he said. “I should have had a goodly amount; God only knows what happened to it.”
Another sidelong glance at her. Her mouth was pinched but she managed to look guilty anyway.
“What,” he said.
“Your assets were seized by the Ministry following the conclusion of the war,” she said. “And before we—before Harry could clear your name, vengeful people within the Ministry believed you owed restitution.”
“Potter cleared me? Of what, precisely?”
“He had a great deal of social clout at the time,” she said. “He still does, really. The gossip rags are as changeable as Madame Malkin’s wardrobe. In the days and months immediately following the war, the public ate up anything he said. Hounded him endlessly, of course, still does—but the upshot, Severus, is that you’re a hero these days.”
“A martyr, more like.”
“Just so.” Minerva sipped her tea.
“So before Saint Potter threw my dead body a parade, my money went to…”
“Well, Hogwarts,” Minerva said. Severus lifted a brow, and she sighed. “It was destroyed, Severus. Not just the edifice but all the spellwork around it. A thousand years of protection gone. It took years to rebuild. We brought in countless experts from around the world, and in the meantime children still needed an education. The donation of your vault is much of the reason we are able to sit here now, safe.”
“It wasn’t a bloody donation, Minerva.” Anger welled up again, but Severus didn’t know what it was directed at. He didn’t begrudge his money going to Hogwarts—better that than lining the Ministry’s coffers. But he was angry nonetheless, and had nowhere to direct it but at the woman seated beside him.
“I know that, Severus,” and God, but what he wouldn’t do for her to be tart at him instead of addressing him with these foreign, soothing tones. “But I’m thankful nonetheless,” she said. “Perhaps you’ll be pleased to find we’ve renovated the Slytherin common room to be more modern and comfortable, and the children no longer have to live in the dungeons.”
“We liked the dungeons,” he said, and cringed at how petulant he sounded. He folded his arms tightly around himself. Minerva levelled a flat look at him and he looked out the window again.
“There’s still money,” she said, “from your patents.”
He glanced at her.
“We call it the Severus Snape Memorial Scholarship,” she said. “It’s awarded to up to four students per year based on financial need, and it lasts throughout their years at Hogwarts. It pays for a wand, robes, books, supplies, and a bit of pocket money.”
The anger brewing inside him was rapidly turning into a knot in his throat. He flushed hot and did not have a name for what he was feeling.
“There’s nothing to say some of that money couldn’t go to the actual Severus Snape now,” Minerva said.
“No,” he said, voice hoarse. He cleared his throat. “No, it should go to the students.”
“There’s enough for both,” Minerva said. “You were—you are brilliant, Severus. You could have lived and lived well on your potions work and spell invention alone. It’s your money.”
“It’s Hogwarts’ money,” he said. “I should still have Muggle funds; I must merely find a way to access them whilst explaining away a seven-year absence.” And some deposits from the aforementioned patents should still have been coming in, unless his former self adjusted the way he was splitting it all. Severus could only hope the Muggles hadn’t got wind of his demise.
“You were abroad,” Minerva said. “Finding yourself, no doubt.”
“I’ll need a glamour.”
“Severus Snape, are you asking me for help?”
“No, I enjoy it. Please do so, explicitly. And politely.”
Severus heaved a great sigh.
“O Professor McGonagall, great mistress of transfiguration, will you please help me look like a bitter old man again?”
“Forty-five isn’t old, lad,” she said, but her lips curled upward and she was twirling her wand in her hand. “I know you know this. You did well in Charms, at least.”
“It would be better by you,” he said. “You know what I looked like, in the end.”
Minerva’s smile faded.
“Aye,” she said, her voice husky. “But I think we can give you a better fate, don’t you?”
Severus didn’t know what a better fate would look like. He’d got everything he wanted, hadn’t he? He protected the boy. He died a hero. He didn’t have to go on living with what he’d done.
Only it appeared he did, slate half-wiped as if with a dirty rag. His former life echoed all around him, and Severus could not make out the words.
After his stop at the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was fruitful and relieving in a way that made him recall quite suddenly the days he would get naught but a crust of bread to eat, Severus adjusted his glamour to look nothing like himself. He gave himself a golden, glowing complexion, sandy brown hair, and a blandly symmetrical face without any distinguishing features whatsoever. The nose was smoothed out and squared off and was utterly without note. The eyes he rounded off and lightened to a gutless blue. When he caught his reflection in storefront windows, he was pleased with how ordinary he looked. He could venture into Diagon Alley like this. He could stand at Platform 9 3/4 telling people to mind the gap. He could waltz into the Ministry with no one the wiser.
And waltz into the Ministry he did. He headed straight to the Archives after flashing a perfectly symmetrical smile at security and the welcome desk. The witch sitting at reception even beamed at him, which only made Severus walk faster so he didn’t give into his urge to scowl at her. He felt watched, but he always did in the Ministry. Such was the price of being Severus Snape. His glamour was solid and it held fast; he tamped down on his overblown paranoia.
The Archives were beautiful the way a library is beautiful—clean lines and order, endless tomes of information at your fingertips. But only if you know how to access it. He decided to start in death certificates.
He found his grandfather, Septimus Prince. Dead at barely a hundred years old, 1982. The certificate said only “natural causes.” It listed his wife as next of kin: Elizabeth Prince. That seemed wrong. Anglicized, most likely. He would have to look up Czech names and hope something fit. He rifled through the next book and found nothing for Elizabeth Prince or Eileen Prince. He found his great-grandparents, and his great-great-grandparents, but he put the book back and made his way to S.
Under Snape he found nothing. Not even himself. He smacked his head against a shelf and shoved the book back.
He wound his way to marriage records. Septimus Prince of York, England (PB) married Elizabeth Bezdeda of Tisovec, Austria-Hungary (PB) on 2 March 1902. Their birthdates were listed as 14 September 1880 and 7 May 1885. Eileen wouldn’t be born until they were in their 50s. There would have been many disappointments, before and after. She should have been cherished, he thought. Not discarded like yesterday’s rubbish. He tried to tear out the page so he could set it on fire properly, but a geas of protection zapped his hand like a hex. He pressed the book back where it belonged and resisted stomping all the way over to S.
He flipped through the relevant tome and caught a new marriage materialising on the page. Space bloomed between two entries and gold script shimmered into existence. Hendrick Slatterly-Bings of Cambridgeshire, England (MB) married Gemma Nguyen of London, England (PB) on 7 April 2005. Today was a Thursday, and the two were a Pureblood and a Muggleborn—marriage at wandpoint, no doubt. Severus shook his head and kept flipping through.
When he got to where Snape should have been, there was nothing, not even an empty space. He snarled in frustration and threw the book at the marbled floor, only for it to snap upward and land in the hands of one Harry Potter, who had materialised as suddenly as he had at the Black Lake the night before. Severus felt a chill shudder through him.
“If you’re looking for anything about you or your parents, you won’t find them,” Potter said mildly.
“They have to have recorded my birth, Potter.” He resisted the urge to back away. “That’s my next stop.”
“Yes, but I took it all, you see.” Potter turned toward him fully and extended the book to him. Severus took it. Their eyes met; it was terrible and wonderful. Severus’s heart clattered.
“People, in groups, they’re stupid, yeah?” Potter said. “So after—after, I had to do what I could to protect you, even though you were dead.”
“You have my records.”
“And your mum’s, yes,” Potter said.
“You’ll give them to me.”
“They’re not very interesting,” Potter said. “You know when you were born. You know the details of your trial. I imagine at this point you even know when you died. So you don’t need them.”
The top of Severus’s head grew hot. He drew himself up as tall as he would go, which was a full head above Potter.
“They are mine and you’ll give them to me,” he snarled. Children usually scattered when he used that voice, but Potter only smiled. Faintly, as if at an old memory that hurt no longer. Electricity sang up Severus’s spine. He held his breath.
“Your mum wasn’t in the death certificates,” he said. “Neither was your gran.”
And he’d never find either of them if Potter had scrubbed all record of them from the wizarding world. There could be records in Czechoslovakia, but he doubted it, what with all the tumult in the region, and his parents’ married life occurring in the United Kingdom, and the very erasure of his grandmother’s true name. Severus felt liquid, boneless all of a sudden. Only locking his knees kept him upright. He was stranded here. Potter had gaoled him, motherless and alone, and seemed to think he was doing him a great service in doing so. Severus wanted to strangle him, but he imagined those impassive eyes staring blandly up at him as he did it. He also imagined what this Potter could do to him should he try.
“So that’s the long and short of it, I suppose.” Severus sneered. “The great Harry Potter has spoken.”
“So it seems.”
“How did you even know I was here?”
“I saw you come in.”
“My glamour is—”
“Glamours don’t matter to me,” Potter said. He unfurled from where he leaned against the shelving like a flower in bloom. “For my own part, I was just leaving the Ministry when you came in. I was invisible at the time.”
Potter smiled again, a funny little Mona Lisa thing.
“Oh yes,” he said. Severus thought he might go mad.
“Why are you here anyway?” Severus said. “Everyone and their mother knows you were sacked by now.”
“I needed to speak with someone, and I needed to do it discreetly.” Potter turned his back to Severus—and may as well have broadcast that he saw in Severus as much threat as a kitten—and made his way toward the exit. “Come on, Snape,” he said. “Are we going to find your mum or not?”
Despite how short Potter was, Severus had to jog to keep up, and suddenly the man winked out of existence again, or he would have had Severus not been able to feel the way his own sleeve was bunched up in some invisible hand.
“Stop that!” Severus hissed.
“Off we go,” came Potter’s voice, and the next thing he knew, Severus was outside in a drizzle in the middle of a vast moorland. In the distance was a city, and Severus presumed it was York.
“Fuck,” Severus said, and Potter appeared before him with a grin on his face.
“Oh, I like that,” he said. “How old are you anyway?”
“Older than you!” Severus said.
“Get rid of that glamour,” Potter said. “I want to see you. Didn’t get a good look last night.”
Severus’s muscles tensed up.
“You do it, Mr. All-Powerful,” he said, and Potter’s expression darkened before going blank again.
“It’s better if I don’t.”
“That hasn’t stopped you before now.”
Potter looked away and passed a hand over his face. The wind whipped his hair into a frenzy. He shouldered past Severus and made his way toward the ruins of some old manor house.
“Fine,” Potter said. “But you should know you look ridiculous.”
Severus scowled and trudged after him, shoes squelching all the while. Why would Potter, or anyone, want to lay eyes on his true face anyway? Severus knew what he looked like, and his glamour may be so boring as to make one fall asleep upon viewing it, but at least no one would feign vomit the way Potter Senior did regularly in his youth.
Potter’s shoulders were very broad. Severus’s thoughts caught on this as he trailed after him. For all his failure to achieve height, he was no less diminished in presence, and those shoulders contributed heavily to his general air of self-possession. He reminded Severus of Muggle rugby players with their compact and powerful bodies. The father was tall and lithe with perfectly regular-sized shoulders. The Evanses weren’t themselves anything but average in stature, though Petunia had always been taller than Lily. Severus wondered where this streak of diminutiveness came from. For his own part, Severus had narrow, bony shoulders and the willowy build of a boy, only stretched out to man-size. The result would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. He looked like nothing so much as a shadow, liable to disappear into a crack in the floor if he turned just so.
Potter, he thought, this particular model—he didn’t look like a shadow, or a caricature, or someone to make sport of. He looked like a man.
“We’re here,” said Potter, and Severus looked up to find himself at the door of a crumbling manor house that probably needed repairs fifty years ago and never got them. There was a hole in the roof, and the grasses had grown to waist height.
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where ‘here’ is,” Severus said. Potter looked at him. The spectacles magnified the eyes, and Severus turned away, squinting up at the door.
“This is where the Princes used to live,” Potter said. “At least I think so.”
“You think so.”
“That’s what I said.”
“And how would you know, when even I don’t?” Severus said. “You’re hiding something from my own bloody records, Potter.” Severus would have to find a way to get them himself. How to get into Potter’s home? How to find Potter’s home? And how to be sneaky inside it when the man himself could be anywhere at any time? He’d need to be let inside. He’d need to gain Potter’s trust. He’d need as much freely-given access as he could manage, but he was not a man others trusted readily. And yet here they were before what was left of Prince Manor, Potter helping him in his high-handed, Gryffindorish way. Perhaps gaining access to Potter’s home, Potter’s life, and whatever Potter took from him wouldn’t be as difficult as Severus supposed. He would have to rein in his sharp tongue and his urge to strangle. The urge to prostrate himself at Potter’s feet—that one might not be so misplaced. “That is,” he went on, softening his voice, “I’m sure you have your ways of finding such information. I ask only how you came by it.”
“Don’t hurt yourself there, Snape.” Potter stepped up to the manor doors and laid a hand on them. Severus could feel the tingle of magic cascading around them as sure as the northerly rain, and the doors swung open with a great creak. As he followed Potter over the threshold, Severus noted that he’d yet to see a wand in Potter’s hand, or hear the murmur from a spell from his lips.
They passed through the foyer and into a great hall with a cobwebby staircase, untold stores of dust, and all manner of debris strewn across the floor. Sunlight shone in from the gaps in the roof, but the rain was diverted, so at least some wards held.
The debris appeared to be made up of broken furniture, torn and yellowing parchments, bits of cloth, and even tree branches from Merlin only knew where. Severus dried himself with a wave of his wand and tiptoed his way through the rubbish to pick up some pieces of parchment. Personal correspondence with naught but the weather on the page, a bill from a creditor, a list of names as if for a dearly longed-for baby. The male heir his grandparents would never have, by the looks of it. Josef, Severin, David, et cetera. In the periphery of his vision, Potter was trailing a lazy hand along the walls looking for all the world as if he had neither worry nor care. Severus knew better.
Severus spent the better part of an hour wandering through the manor and finding much of the same. Damaged furniture, discarded clothes, the echoes of fading magic. There was nothing here. A bunch of rubbish with nothing to say about where his mother might be, or where his grandmother was from. A dead end for a dead man without even a legacy to leave. He found himself back at the beginning, too incensed at the futility of the whole venture to care about Potter fondling the walls.
“Snape,” Potter said suddenly, and his voice echoed between the stones. Severus looked up. “Take off your glamour. Now.”
Without hesitation Severus gripped his wand and wordlessly dissolved the glamour. Severus didn’t have time to parse the look on Potter’s face when he was revealed before him because at that moment the walls shifted and a trio of house elves emerged naked from the stone, as grey and stiff as the house itself. The first had a flat, elliptical dome and narrow, droopy ears. The second was stout and round with sagging jowls that dragged its whole face downward. The third was smaller than the others but its ears were so big the tips dragged paths through the dust on the floor. The three of them cracked and stretched and pinked up as if coming to life, and when they woke properly they narrowed their rheumy eyes up at him. He stepped back; the house groaned.
“Who is disturbing the master’s house at this late date?” the first said, its voice a crackle.
“Nasty, nasty, doesn’t let us get our rest,” said the second.
“It is being a wizard,” the third said through rickety gasps. It approached him, belly low to the floor as if it were a supplicant, and made a show of sniffing the air about him. “It is being a master.”
“No masters is being left, Archie,” the first elf said.
“The master is being dead all these long years,” the second wailed.
“It is smelling like Miss Eileen,” said Archie. “It is smelling like our poor mistress—” It said a name Severus couldn’t make out, a name that had only a passing resemblance to “Elizabeth.”
“My name is Severus Snape,” Severus said. “Eileen was my mother. Tell me where I can find her. Tell me where she might have gone.”
“Master!” the second one cried, and pitched itself at his feet.
“Its blood is being mud, Rigsby,” the first one said. “You is hearing what the master said.”
“The master is being dead, Gnarby,” Rigsby said. “The master isn’t saying anything for a very long time.”
“If you don’t want to serve me, I can send you to the halls of your ancestors,” Severus said with a sneer. Behind the recalcitrant elf, Potter was leaning against a mantel and watching him. Severus forced himself not to meet Potter’s eyes to glean whatever it was he saw when he looked at Severus. The first house elf held its chin up high.
“Then Gnarby is going to meet them with honour.”
“Fine,” Severus said. “I’ll deal with you when I’m done.” He directed his attention to the two elves at his feet. “You two. Are there any documents or items you’ve preserved that might tell me where my grandmother went, or my mother?”
Above them, the wind howled longer and louder. The manor seemed to sway as if it were a collection of twigs and leaves. Potter turned his face up to the hole in the ceiling.
“We is being very careful with Mistress’s things,” Archie said.
“We is always hoping she will be coming back to us,” Rigsby said.
“Get them now,” Potter said, and Severus knew suddenly that that voice had commanded armies. “Get everything important and get out now.”
“Do it!” Severus snapped, and Archie and Risgby popped away. Potter stood in the doorway beckoning Severus away, and Severus swept out, hauling up Gnarby by the nape. Potter rushed at his back and pushed him just as the rest of the ceiling caved in. Stars fell behind his eyes and dust filled his lungs. He coughed and coughed and spat up dust and only then did he realise he was in a heap with Potter and Gnarby both, and the other two house elves were pulling him off of them by his hands.
The manor crumbled before him and a great puff of dust rose in the air. Gnarby was muttering something incoherent, and Potter sat on his arse before the ruin, mouth hanging open.
“We is putting all of Mistress’s things in wizard space, Master,” Rigsby said, and Archie passed a carpet bag to Severus. He took it, only to stumble when it weighed about as much as Hagrid. He tapped a featherweight charm onto it and hoisted it onto his shoulder.
“Come along, Potter,” he said. “We’d best get going.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Potter said, his eyes huge. He turned them on Severus as if haunted. He looked simultaneously like the child Severus left in Dumbledore’s care and like an old, old man who’d gone to war and come back hollow. He was covered in dust, and the rain was turning it to mud on his skin.
Severus pressed his lips together. He trudged over to where Potter was sat dumbfounded, and held a hand out. Potter took it, and Severus pulled him up.
“I know you didn’t, Potter,” he said. “Let’s go eat something.”
Before lunch, Severus sent the elves to Hogwarts. When Gnarby demanded his punishment instead, Severus threw a glove at him. Gnarby burst into tears and flung himself to Severus’s feet. Potter broke through his thousand-yard-stare long enough to send him a flat-lipped look worthy of Minerva McGonagall herself, and Severus yanked the glove back and dragged the little elf up to his feet.
“You find my mother and you can serve a Pureblood witch again. If you can’t, there’s always the glove.”
Gnarby, sobbing, bowed low enough to touch his pate to the grass.
“Master,” he said, choking. He raised his hand to snap his fingers, but Severus grasped the tiny wrist.
“Wait,” he said. “Tell me my grandmother’s name. Slowly.”
“Ah—lish—beta,” Gnarby said, and Apparated away.
Severus looked at Potter.
“How do you suppose you spell that?” he said.
Potter nodded at the carpet bag on his shoulder.
“We’ll find out, won’t we?”
In a blink, they were clean in Muggle clothes and in the city, though Severus noted they were on the Muggle end of things. It was just as well—Potter didn’t want to be harassed, and Severus didn’t want to have to build a new glamour without Minerva’s foundation. He supposed one by Potter’s hand would do just as well, but that was neither here nor there, because they were on the Muggle side of York, and everything was very…neon. This century took some getting used to.
They chose an unpretentious Middle Eastern takeaway with a few rickety tables and no other customers to bother them. Severus seated himself in a corner with a full view of the door and the people passing outside. Potter ate like someone who’d never seen food before, shovelling food into his mouth without care to what would actually fit. He didn’t speak, and he didn’t look up at Severus while he ate, and ate, and ate, and a chill spread through Severus’s innards. Petunia didn’t fucking feed him, he thought. Albus, we sent the boy to be starved so badly he didn’t bloody grow.
Potter finished his meal in under five minutes.
“You should get some more,” Severus said lightly. “Blinking to and fro everywhere without a thought is thirsty work.”
Potter caught and held his gaze for a moment too long. Severus’s heart picked up speed.
“I know I shouldn’t do it,” Potter said. “It’s not right. But it’s just…easier.”
“What is it anyway, Potter?”
Potter tore his gaze away. Severus transferred a chunk of his own lamb kebab to his plate. Absently Potter speared it and shoved it whole into his mouth.
“It’s everything,” Potter said. “I have to—keep a leash on it. Sometimes I think I’ll just fly apart from holding everything together so tightly. And now they’ve sacked me. Rightly so, I guess, but what am I supposed to—” Potter cut himself off and his balled fist came down on the table. Severus put another hunk of meat on his plate and he ate it dutifully.
Severus cut what was left of his kebabs into tiny pieces and ate his meal neatly and methodically. For someone so eloquent with magic, Potter certainly didn’t have the same way with words. From what Severus could infer, he had some trouble with his magic, though it didn’t seem so from his vantage. Of course, his magic was intuitive, wandless and wordless and bigger than any other Severus had ever encountered, and that was including the Dark Lord’s and the Headmaster’s. Other wizards might call that trouble, but Severus was not other wizards.
“How did you know where the manor was, Potter?” Severus asked.
Potter sat back and gave the appearance of someone giving consideration to someone else, when in truth was staring beyond Severus’s shoulder and into nothing. Cars passed outside looking unbearably modern. The rain was coming down steadily. Umbrellas flipped inside out in the wind.
“I didn’t,” Potter said at last. “I wanted to go somewhere your gran had left any kind of paper trail, and then we were there.” Green eyes focused sharply then, and Severus felt split wide open, though no legilimency passed between them. “So you understand,” Potter said. “Why I have to—be careful.”
“And the manor itself?” Severus said.
Potter dropped his gaze to his plate.
“I was feeling it,” he said. “Looking for signs of life. What I felt was pain.”
“And house elves.”
Potter glanced up and smiled at last.
“And house elves,” he said.
“Thus, when you woke them…”
“I damaged the integrity of the house,” Potter said. “They had become too much a part of it. Its structure, its magic. They were all that was left holding it up. I didn’t know that going in.” He met Severus’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Snape.”
Severus wanted to be angry at Potter, a familiar sort of feeling, but because of him, Severus had more of his grandmother, and most likely his mother, than he ever could have hoped for. He nudged the carpet bag at his feet to make sure it was still secure. The manor was nothing in comparison. A crumbling ruin on its best day, and nothing he could inherit. He could hardly be angry that Potter offered him dust with one hand and gold with the other.
“No matter, Potter,” he said, gruff.
“D’you want to go look at all the stuff? We could go to my house.”
“I don’t need your—” Severus sealed his mouth shut. He should still be trying to ingratiate himself to Potter. Potter was benevolent now, but moods changed like tides, and the man still had Severus’s family records. “If it wouldn’t be an imposition,” he said. “Thank you for your assistance, Potter.”
Potter leaned back, arms crossed over his chest, a considering glint in his eye.
“When I saw you at the lake last night, I didn’t know you didn’t remember me,” he said. “I didn’t know you’d been, whatever, yanked forward in time, or restored to an earlier edition, or what have you.”
“You couldn’t see that I was—” Severus gestured vaguely at his face.
Potter’s mouth twisted in a facsimile of a smile.
“I saw that you looked well, Snape. But otherwise I was—preoccupied.”
Potter must have seen the look on his face because he unfurled to plant his elbows on the table and lean forward, close enough for Severus to see the shine on that famous scar.
“I bring this up because we have history,” Potter said. “You think I’m a stranger, but I know you. Logic tells me you don’t know me back, but the rest of me is going, ‘I see you, I recognise you, I have things I never got to say to you.’” He shook his head. “It’s not an imposition, Snape, it’s a gift.”
Severus had spent the last four years reckoning with himself. Radical honesty had lent him a clear eye, and he knew exactly what manner of man he was. He couldn’t imagine Potter, even as a boy, landing in his Potions classroom and receiving a warm welcome.
“You’ll never convince me I was a favourite of yours.” Nor you of mine, Severus didn’t say. The smirk that grew on Potter’s face said he heard it anyway.
“No,” he said. “I hated you as much as I could hate anyone, and the feeling was mutual. But in the end—you know.”
“You’ll find, Potter, that I do not.”
“I ought to know,” Severus said. “Since you took all the records and Minerva thinks I’m too delicate to hear about it, you should tell me before I go stand in the middle of Diagon Alley asking any passing imbecile.”
“You’d never,” Potter said.
“Tell me anyway.”
Trepidation crossed Potter’s face before he schooled his expression. He shifted in his seat. His gaze flicked beyond Severus as if checking for the kebab employees. He went very still.
“You’re clear to Disapparate, if you want,” he said.
He met Severus’s eyes.
“You killed Dumbledore,” he said. “On his order.”
Severus’s heart and stomach flopped about. He closed his eyes against a sudden vertigo.
“I had to appear to be returning to the Dark Lord,” Severus said.
“It had to look convincing.”
“No one knew.”
Severus opened his eyes and saw Potter’s, green as a spring day. Everything else seemed vague and out of focus.
“It had to be that way,” Potter said. “It’s how we won the war.”
Severus was vomiting at the Hogsmeade Apparition point before he realised he’d left the carpet bag.
As Severus approached the headmistress’s office, he considered all the passwords he’d have to try. Haggis—too obvious. Glenfiddich—probably not appropriate for children. A red, red rose—a contender, but he might have to try other authors, and he almost certainly lacked the grounding in Scottish literature she had. He also rehearsed a conversation in which he proposed she acquire a secretary. It was far too long in coming—other schools, the Head teacher had secretaries.
When he got to the office, the gargoyle didn’t even glower at him—the door simply swung open, and he was let inside. He frowned but stepped over the threshold. There was no one inside, though it seemed as if they should be there—Albus and his beautiful bird. He’d look up from behind half moon spectacles and smile. “Severus,” he’d say, warmly. Severus’s heart felt as if it were being torn into pieces.
A voice came from the wall.
“Is that you, Severus?”
Severus closed his eyes. His throat went hot and his stomach roiled again. He turned and faced him. His mentor. His victim. He was older, but he wore a lurid purple robe with sparkling silver stars on it and a droopy purple hat. Severus chuckled so he wouldn’t sob.
“You’re looking unusually well, Severus, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Thank you. You also look…”
“I do despair of my vanity,” he said, waving a hand. “Forgive a nosy old man, but how did this happen?”
“I’m still investigating,” Severus said. In truth, he’d forgotten all about it, single-minded as he had become in his search for his mother. And distracted as he was by the mystery of Harry Potter. He wondered suddenly if he should worry about some kind of time paradox. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of anything like this before.”
“Well now,” Albus said, looking for all the world as if he were shifting about to get comfortable. “I believe there were rumours of a girl in Provence who became her own grandmother…”
“Albus, I’m sorry.”
“Severus, no,” Albus said. “It is I who am sorry. I’m very sorry, my boy, for asking all I’ve asked of you. It was not fair.”
“It was war.”
“Still,” Albus said. “I hope you can forgive an old fool.”
“I don’t— I don’t even know how I could do it.”
“I begged, in the end,” Albus said. “I was quite shameless, I’m afraid.”
“To save Draco. To save Hogwarts. To save Britain.”
Severus hit his chest and then held his fist to his heart. He could feel heat pricking at his eyes and he wanted to tear them out rather than cry.
“Albus. Albus, what am I meant to do? How can I—” His breath left him abruptly, and he choked.
“Why, you’ll make your way in the world,” Albus said. “Same as anyone else. Only this time, you won’t have Tom looming over your shoulder.”
“I don’t know how I can live with this.”
“Severus, look at me.”
Severus looked. Albus smiled at him.
“You have done everything I ever asked of you, and far beyond any of my expectations,” he said. “You were my dearest friend, and I thank you for that.”
Severus’s forehead thunked against the wall next to the portrait. He wept until his head was pounding and his nose was blocked. He wept until the shadows grew longer across the office. He wept until he had nothing left in him. When he stepped back, Albus had left the portrait. He staggered into a chair opposite Minerva’s desk and sat there until she arrived.
“Ah, Severus,” she said. “I was just about to see how you were getting on.” She rounded the desk and took a seat, only to start when she caught a glimpse of his eyes, no doubt red and swollen. Severus rolled his shoulders inward and sank deeper in the chair. “Oh dear,” Minerva said. She snapped her fingers and a house elf popped in. “Tea please,” she said. “And digestives, dark chocolate.”
The house elf winked out again, and in a trice a whole tea service was arranged on the desk top. Minerva poured Severus a cup and pushed it to the edge of the desk. He took it without meeting her eyes. She warmed her hands on her teacup and blew over the surface, watching him all the while.
“What happened?” she finally asked.
“I killed Albus.”
“I thought—I thought things would be simpler. That I wouldn’t have to dirty my soul to do the right thing. I thought the worst of my life was behind me.”
“I suppose he told you that it was necessary,” Minerva said, and Severus nodded. “I suppose he told you it was a mercy.”
Severus looked up, and Minerva sighed.
“He was dying, Severus,” she said. “It was slow, and painful, and miserable. There was an opportunity not only for you to end it swiftly, as he looked into the eyes of a friend, but for it to further our cause.” Her eyes misted over and she looked away, pressing a hand to her mouth. “I hate that he didn’t tell me. I hate that I hated you.” When she looked at him again, her jaw was set and her eyes were clear. “It wasn’t a proper thing to ask of you. He wasn’t a proper kind of wizard, most of the time. But Severus, you ended his pain. It was mercy, lad. He was glad of it.”
“How much longer did it go on, after that?” Severus asked.
“About a year,” Minerva said. “It was—” She shook her head. “It was very bad, Severus.”
Severus drank half of his tea in one gulp.
“I met Harry Potter,” he said.
Both of Minerva’s eyebrows sailed upward.
“Did you,” she said. “And how is Harry?”
“I find him…odd.”
Minerva snorted. She broke a digestive into quarters and ate a piece. He waved her off when she offered him some.
“Now Severus,” she said. “I do believe that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said about him. Don’t fret, I won’t tell him.”
“He seems to like me. Or at least feel some kind of obligation to help me. Bloody Gryffindor.”
“He will try to save you if he decides you need saving,” she said. “Though perhaps he should do his best to save himself, just now.”
“It’s easier to look outward,” Severus said, and Minerva’s eyebrow arched eloquently. He looked away. “Do you suppose…”
“Do I suppose?”
“I left something of mine with him,” Severus said. “With all the—confusion. Do you suppose he would have kept it for me?”
“He’s a good lad,” Minerva said. “We can Floo him from here, if you like.”
“Please,” Severus said.
Minerva stood to reach for the Floo powder, and then she threw a handful into the fireplace, calling, “Harry Potter, Godric’s Hollow.”
After a moment Potter’s head bobbed up in the green flame.
“Hullo, Professor,” he said. “How are you?” He craned his neck around until he saw Severus, and for some reason, he smiled. “And Professor Snape.”
“I’m well, Mr. Potter,” Minerva said. “Though an old woman does worry, you know.”
A wordless conversation passed between them in a series of complicated looks Severus couldn’t parse, and then Potter said, “I’ll be fine, Professor.”
“Severus is missing something, I think,” Minerva said.
“I have it,” Potter said. He stretched his neck out to look at Severus again. “You should come through. Or I could, erm. Pass it over to you.”
Minerva was making an imploring facial expression at Severus. He frowned, and she bounced her eyebrows in the fireplace’s direction. Severus groaned.
“I’m coming,” he said.
“Great!” Potter said. “See you in a mo. Bye, Professor!” And he ducked out of the fireplace.
Minerva handed him the Floo powder.
“Thank you, Severus,” she said. “He could use the company.”
“I don’t understand why I’m the company,” he said.
“Because,” Minerva said. “Whether you remember it or not, you were there.”
Potter lived in a cottage with hardly any personal effects whatsoever. A Chudley Cannons poster hung askew on one wall. A few framed pictures were scattered across side tables and the mantel: featured in most of them were a man with violently red hair and a tiny woman with a puff of hair bigger than she was. Severus dismissed the stray thought that this woman might be a girlfriend; a girlfriend would have made this house look more like a home. It was a lovely cottage in itself, but sterile. Severus wondered if all the furniture had come with the house. A bit hypocritical of him to think so little of its aesthetics, Severus supposed, but even he had attempted to express himself in the colours and furniture he’d chosen at Hogwarts. Spinner’s End was a different story.
Severus propped himself into the doorjamb to watch Potter potter about in the kitchen. He considered what he knew about the man. He had been sacked. He had done something for which he felt he deserved to be sacked. Minerva was worried about him, but not afraid. The Prophet was afraid of him, but not enough to stop attempting to instigate a blow up. His friends were somehow removed from his life enough to make him want to spend time with a dead man twice his age for whom he had no love lost but plenty of obligation. He could imagine himself somewhere and there he would be, no spell necessary. He could resurrect houses and make himself invisible. He was staring at Severus as though he couldn’t decide if he were a miracle or a joke.
“What,” Severus snarled.
“You looked very fierce, just now,” Potter said. “The tea will be ready soon.”
“I’ll know if you looked at my grandmother’s things without me,” Severus said, and suppressed a cringe. By Merlin, he couldn’t be civil even when he wanted to be.
Potter tilted his head and looked far too fond of him for Severus’s comfort.
“It’s not my stuff, so no, I did not,” he said. Under his breath but with a queer little smile on his face, he said, “You paranoid bastard.”
Severus pushed off the jamb and approached the kitchen table, where sugar and cream and honey and tiny spoons were arranging themselves with seemingly no effort from the wizard fussing with loose leaf and a teapot before him. Severus straightened them all to be even and parallel.
“You needn’t make a fuss over me,” he said.
“Merlin, Snape, it’s just tea,” Potter said. “And I’ve not had any yet today.”
Where Severus came from, people named Potter would hardly be making him tea, and people named McGonagall would hardly be shedding tears over him, colleague or not. It was like being dropped into a mirror, where everything looked only slightly off, and you stumbled to get your bearings. Severus couldn’t stop stumbling.
“Tell me something about yourself,” he blurted, and Potter looked up, both eyebrows raised in question. “Something I wouldn’t know.”
“Well, being as you don’t know me at all, I assume that’s everything,” Potter said.
“Just—something I can’t extrapolate.”
Potter straightened and looked him in the eye.
“There goes ‘played Seeker for Gryffindor,’ I guess.”
Severus rolled his eyes.
“Never mind, Potter,” he said. “It was an idiotic request, anyway.”
“No, let’s play,” Potter said. “You go first.”
“You want to know things, I want to know things. You go first.”
“Tit for tat, Snape,” Potter said. “It’s a bargain and I want my share.”
Severus ground his teeth together. He narrowed his eyes.
“I know your aunt,” he said.
“Something I don’t know, Snape.”
“How am I to know what you know?”
“You could be lying to get more out of me.”
Potter smirked and raised his hand as if swearing an oath.
“On my bloody honour, then,” he said. “I’m not a Slytherin, mind.”
Severus crossed his arms. Potter only looked amused, which aggravated Severus’s nerves.
“I achieved my mastery in Potions by apprenticing to a great wizard in Tibet.”
Potter grunted an acknowledgement. His eyes gleamed as if seeing Severus in a new light. What Severus didn’t say was that said great wizard was a blood supremacist, and his fine education was paid for by the Dark Lord. Severus wasn’t about to tell him that part.
“Now you,” Severus said, and diverted his gaze to the tray of tea accoutrements.
“I tried to save you but I was too late,” Potter said, and he picked up the serving tray and strode out of the kitchen without a backwards glance.
Severus turned around, unsteady, and watched him as he set the tray out on a low table before the sofa and placed the teacups on the edge, a respectable distance between them, and filled them from the teapot. He took a seat and gave himself a splash of cream and a heaping spoonful of sugar, and then placed the carpet bag beside him on the sofa. When he looked up, expression impenetrable, Severus became aware of his body, stiff as a house elf in a stone wall. He shook off the disquiet and joined Potter on the sofa.
Potter watched him shamelessly as he prepared his tea and took his first sips.
“For God’s sake, Snape, open the fucking bag.”
“I’ll open it when I feel like it!”
Potter huffed and set his teacup down.
“Do you want me to leave you alone with it?”
Yes, he bloody wanted Potter to leave him alone, but now that he’d said it, Severus couldn’t very well admit as much.
“Don’t put yourself out, Potter.” Severus sneered at him. “I am merely…preparing myself mentally.” He took refuge in his tea to avoid whatever that look on Potter’s face was.
“We could put Scotch in that tea,” he said when Severus had drained the whole cup.
“Hang your bloody Scotch,” Severus said, and opened the carpet bag. He peered inside and found a vanity and nothing else. He closed the bag and looked up again, frowning. Potter’s eyebrows were raised. Snape stood and brought the bag to a clear space in the sitting room, where he overturned it. The vanity and its matching chair landed on the floor, a heavy, polished cherry in late 19th century style. The mirror was polished and uncracked, and without meaning to, Severus caught a glimpse of his own visage there, as sallow and broken-nosed as ever. The dark, deep-set eyes and inky hair that set him apart as foreign in Cokeworth looked somehow at home in this mirror. But then, through his reflection, the mirror spoke.
“Oh dear,” it said with a gentle Eastern European lilt. “There are proper products for that tragic hair, you know. And we simply must do something about those eyebrows. Or should I say eyebrow.”
Severus spun the mirror around to face the far wall. It screamed like a child on a carnival ride, and then went silent.
“Maybe it can tell you about your gran,” Potter said from the sofa.
“Magic mirrors aren’t like that,” he said.
“What are they like, then?”
Severus sat in the chair and pulled open the first drawer. A delicately carved ivory hairbrush lay there, and a handful of little brushes and tools he could only assume were for cosmetics. Severus lifted the hairbrush up to the light to examine the carving: line after line of tiny elephants, holding each other trunk to tail.
“Snape?” Potter said.
“What,” Severus snapped.
“The talking mirrors,” Potter said. “What about them makes them unable to help you?”
“Don’t you know anything about magic?”
The sound of a teacup coming down too hard on a saucer made Severus go still, and he looked up to find Potter scowling at him from the sofa. The walls seemed to vibrate for a moment, and in that moment, Snape’s heart sped up.
“I know what was taught in school,” Potter said, sneering. “I know what the Weasleys have taken the time to tell me. I don’t know anything else about the culture and theories of magic, no.”
Severus set the hairbrush down and closed the drawer, careful to do it soundlessly and slowly, telegraphing his movements. He pivoted enough in the chair to face Potter fully.
“Your aunt did you a disservice, Potter,” he said, voice low.
“I know that,” Potter snapped.
Severus regarded him as impassively as he could manage. A man small in stature, who deliberately cultivated an unassuming presence. A man who felt familiar to Severus and foreign all at once. A man who knew too little about the history of his own people, and of himself. He was an unstable element in a compact package. Severus swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat.
“Despite the common enchantments to make them a bit cheeky,” he said, “a mirror like this isn’t a semi-sentient magical artefact with a memory or a personality, like a wizarding portrait.” The tension that had pulled all the air in the room taut eased. Potter was peering at him intently, both curious and on guard. “It is a mirror in every sense of the word,” Severus continued. “It displays one’s reflection, certainly, but it also reveals one’s innermost thoughts about oneself, even if those innermost thoughts are shaded. The mirror speaks only one’s own beliefs, especially regarding how one presents oneself to the world. It is—” Severus cleared his throat and turned back to the vanity, Potter’s gaze burning at his back all the while. “—impossible to hide.”
“And impossible to pump for information about anyone else,” Potter said, quietly as if in apology.
Severus hummed his agreement. He opened the second drawer, which revealed more wizard space, this time filled with books ranging from fifty years old to several hundred. Mostly arithmancy, astronomy, and ancient runes, by the looks of them, but when he flipped through they were in a different language. Czech, perhaps. He put them back; he could do the painstaking cataloguing and translation spell work later. He hoped there were rare volumes included, and maybe dark or uncommon magics he could study.
The bottom drawer revealed a cream-coloured satin box with a black lace ribbon tied around it in a bow. He untied the ribbon and lifted the lid and found the box empty. He suppressed a sigh and fished his wand out from his sleeve.
“Revelio,” he murmured.
He closed his eyes and gripped his wand. He focused on the low hum of magic inside him and imagined it expanding and sharpening, an extension of his will. Open, he thought. Show me.
The box stayed empty. Severus’s chest felt hot. He couldn’t divine a password for a woman he never knew, whose mother tongue he couldn’t yet identify, much less speak. House elves made him feel wrong-footed and embarrassed somehow, and he didn’t want to have to play the master and order them to help. They may not give up their mistress’s secrets regardless.
Potter’s looming behind him broke him from his reverie, and Severus glanced over his shoulder at him as if he were a hippogriff not to be spooked.
“Do you need help?” Potter asked.
Severus ground his teeth together. Resentment bubbled up in his guts even as he shoved the box into Potter’s hands. He wanted the contents of the box more than his pride. He hadn’t even had time to blink before the box was back in his hands and Potter had retreated to the sofa. He scowled but when he lifted the lid, there was a short stack of letters inside. They were not yellowed or faded. Age had not touched them. He could feel the spark of the magics that preserved them.
Alžběta Prince, each envelope read in Eileen Snape’s severe, exacting scrawl. Third Drawer Vanity, Powder Room, West Wing, Prince Manor, Yorkshire.
Severus’s heartbeat rabbited again. He lifted the stack from the box and placed it on the vanity. He took care in opening the first letter on thin Muggle paper.
1st September, 1971
Severus has sorted Slytherin, as I told you he would.
He opened the next several and arranged them chronologically in his hands.
12th March, 1973
The bed I’ve made is shabby, but what good are your goose down blankets and silken pillowcases when the walls are falling down around them, and the old man is mad as a hatter and spitting bile besides? Do not speak to me of unsuitable men. Do not speak to me of the superiority of wizards.
Parents believe their children ignorant of the intricacies of the marriages which produced them. It is a kind of delusion that helps them sleep at night, one into which I cannot enter. I am glad Severus is at school, despite all his difficulties there, and despite my motherly longing for his presence by my side. I cannot bear his eyes when he is home. I cannot bear the way he gets between his father and me. I cannot bear for him to see how weak I am, though we both know the truth of it. There is my delusion. There is the damage I pass on to him.
As long as the old man raves on in that ruin you call a manor, I cannot return. You know why. Do not insult us both by pretending otherwise.
22nd January, 1974
How can you ask me for sympathy when you extend none yourself? What I may or may not feel for your plight is meaningless—I am far from you, in spirit if not geography, and that is on your head. Thus, any question of my human emotion can have no effect on you. Why would you want it, I wonder, when it is not feeling which informs the depth of one’s care but action? You say my heart is hard when you are the one who stood by stone-faced whilst Himself turned me from the steps of my home and the home of my ancestors before me.
It is at your feet that I learned to be hard.
3rd December, 1974
I loved my husband once. Can you say the same? I stay because there is a child who would have no home in the halls of my fathers, and I have nowhere else to go. What is your excuse?
Severus is doing as well as can be expected. He is a deft hand at Potions. He is a Beater on the Slytherin team. He is still a half-blood.
17th June, 1975
End this and come to me.
Spinner’s End is modest, but it has to be better than this.
Severus had to temper himself from tearing through the rest of the envelopes in his haste. He held his breath and unfolded the final three with as much care as he could muster.
15th November, 1975
You excoriate and defend him in the same breath. Meanwhile, I am not permitted to speak of the shadow his cruel character has cast on all of us. This is not a discussion; this is a gale whipping a lighthouse. There is nothing left to say but to tell you my door is open.
You could meet your grandson. His magic is strong. He has your eyes, and your inventor’s heart.
9th April, 1976
I thought there could be no more indignities yet to endure in my life with Tobias, but I find myself faced with one more trial. Tobias is worse than ever. If I yet have magic in me, I can barely feel it. There is no protection, not from spells nor potions.
My boy is grown, and I see in him the kind of darkness I once saw in Father. I fear this path he is taking. I fear I am the one who sent him down it.
I have failed him. A mother cannot be strong for her child if she is not first strong for herself. I see that now.
There is to be another child in six or seven months’ time. I cannot consign this one to the fate I set for Severus. I will not.
Before, I asked you to come for your own sake. Today I ask you to come for mine.
30th April, 1976
Conisbrough, midnight. Take nothing. Burn these letters.
Severus gasped for breath. He felt light-headed, and the letters fluttered to the surface of the vanity as he heaved in air.
“Snape!” Potter said. He came to his side in an instant, but stopped short of touching him. He stood there in Severus’s peripheral vision, hands hanging loose at his sides. He was oddly comical in his impotence.
“They ran,” Severus said. He pushed the letters toward Potter, not caring anymore what secrets Potter might have access to. He had a brother or a sister. His mother was alive somewhere. His grandmother may yet live as well. Potter may be his only means of finding them.
Potter leafed through the pages, expression darkening with each letter.
“They left you,” he said.
“They were frightened.”
“They left you.” There was a definite growl in Potter’s voice. Severus shut his eyes. He nodded, the smallest dip of his head.
He stood and propped his hands against the edge of the vanity. He breathed hard and then sent the mirror spinning. When it stopped in front of him, and the reflection of his face opened its mouth to say something, his fist darted out and cracked it. He hit it again, and again, until his hand was shredded and shards of glass glittered across Potter’s floor.
Panting and halfway to sicking up his own heart, Severus sank into the chair again. He bent until his head hung between his knees.
He heard Potter banging around the kitchen and then he was knelt beside him, wrapping up Severus’s hand. Something hopped on his back. Severus’s eyes flew open and he jack-knifed upward in time to see a chocolate frog making its way across his body.
“Sorry,” Potter said, looking sheepish. “You should eat it before it melts on you though.”
Severus tried to glower but there was no heat behind it. All the broken glass was gone. He caught the frog and put the whole thing in his mouth. It stopped wriggling when Severus’s teeth crushed its hollow body and broke the charm. The flavour melted over his tongue and Severus’s shoulders relaxed.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“Do you want me to restore the mirror, or—”
“Hang the fucking mirror!” Severus snapped. He couldn’t look at Potter, his wide green eyes, his parted lips, the flush on his cheeks.
“Yeah,” Potter said stupidly. Severus watched him fold up the letters and place them back in their envelopes. He stacked them up again in their box, covered it, tied the ribbon, and put it back in the third drawer. He hovered at Severus’s side.
“For fuck’s sake, would you sit down!”
“I’m trying to help you!”
“Help me by sitting down!”
Potter huffed and stomped over to the sofa, where he plonked down with as much grace as Hagrid landing a flying motorcycle. Severus drank his tea and listened to the blood rushing in his own ears.
“We could go to this Conisbrough, Snape,” Potter said after a long while. “We could track them.”
“It’s a castle in Yorkshire, and it was thirty years ago,” Severus said. “They were meeting there to go somewhere else. There’s nothing to track, Potter.”
“I could,” Potter said. “I could find the trail.”
Potter was spared the lash of Severus’s tongue by the fireplace roaring to life. The woman from Potter’s pictures stepped out, puff of hair just barely dusted with powder. Severus stood, and the woman stilled when she saw him.
“Professor,” she said. “You’re looking well.”
“I wish people would stop saying that,” Severus snapped.
“Snape, this is my friend, Hermione Granger,” Potter said. This Granger, a head shorter even than Potter, stuck her hand out and Severus shook it once before dropping it. “Hermione, Severus Snape. So now you see. How he is.”
“Merlin, Potter, did you tell people about me?”
“I’m an Unspeakable, Professor Snape,” this Granger said. “I promise I haven’t spoken to anyone else about this, but you understand he came to me for assistance in your case.”
“My case?” Severus said. “I don’t have a case!”
“You don’t think you might be causing a time paradox, faffing about with—whatever all this is?” She waved a dismissive hand at the vanity.
“Do you not wish to return to your time and reality?”
“Is it a different reality?”
“This is part of what Harry came to me to ascertain.”
“And have you ascertained it yet?”
“Answer my question first, Professor Snape.”
“I am not your professor,” Severus said. “And yes, I refuse to go back to a place where there’s a sword hanging over my head, a scant thirteen years before I’ll have to kill my only friend!”
Her eyes glinted as she regarded him without any sense of intimidation. He even thought she might look pleased. He recoiled, suddenly wrong-footed as if caught in something, but what, he did not know. She turned away from him and handed Potter a slip of parchment.
“It’s as we suspected,” she said, as if Severus weren’t there at all.
“Fuck,” Potter muttered, scanning the page.
“Don’t fret,” Granger said. “My theory may yet hold water.”
“And what theory is that, Miss Granger?” Severus said in his silkiest tones.
She looked at him, and then tilted her head.
“It’s funny what we become nostalgic for,” she said. She turned back to Potter, and Severus felt distinctly dismissed. “I’ll be in touch. Are you taking care of yourself, Harry?”
“Don’t worry about me, Hermione.”
“What would you say, I wonder, if I ever told you to do the same to me?”
Potter only shook his head. Granger reached up to cup his face, and Potter ducked down for the kiss she pressed to his forehead. Severus sneered at the display.
“It’s bad at the MLE,” Granger said.
“I knew it would be,” Potter said. “Charges?”
“It’s looking like.”
Potter cracked his neck and squared his shoulders, looking for all the world like a Gryffindor before a firing squad.
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
“Ron is doing damage control,” Granger said, and Potter turned away from her. Her mouth flattened. “Harry.”
“I can fight my own battles, Hermione.”
“Why should you, when you’ve got us with you?”
“You both have your own things, is all I’m saying.”
She sighed and went to the fireplace.
“Someday you’ll leave that cupboard, Harry,” she said, and disappeared into the fireplace in a flash of green. Severus glanced back at Potter, and had just enough time to spring backwards before Potter kicked the coffee table with all the force of his bodily strength and magic both. The thing exploded, shards of wood and glass and ceramics flying alongside hot tea and cold cream and sugar. The foundation of the cottage shook, a lamp crashed to the floor, and Severus landed on his arse, back clattering against the vanity. Potter almost glowed, buzzing with magic as he was. His hair rose up and undulated as if it were suspended in water, and all his exposed skin was sliced to ribbons, forehead to fingertips. Severus could see the glass embedded in his skin glitter through the blood as his chest heaved with the effort of it all. Severus raised a shaking hand to his face and found himself similarly injured.
Potter’s eyes were ablaze when they landed on Severus. The twist of his mouth was cruel, and without warning, Severus was back in the guest quarters at Hogwarts, skin in one piece, vanity safe at the foot of his bed.
Severus took dinner alone again, poring over each of his mother’s letters until he’d memorised them all. He inspected the books for clues, and was able to ascertain that they were in Slovak. There were no English notes in them.
“Rigsby,” he called, and the elf popped up before him, grinning widely.
“Oh, Master, you is here!”
“Yes, Rigsby. And Archie?”
The tiniest elf arrived, and they both appeared on the verge of flinging themselves at his feet again.
“I trust you’re enjoying Hogwarts so far,” he said to forestall the grovelling.
“Oh yes, Master,” Archie said. “Archie is finally making sweets again. Is master wanting a sticky toffee pudding?”
“Sticky toffee pudding is being Archie’s speciality,” Rigsby said.
“And laundering filthy clothes is being Rigsby’s!” Archie said.
“Erm, thank you, Archie,” Severus said. “I’ll take a sticky toffee pudding after our discussion.”
Archie grasped a long ear in each hand and wrung them together until they were twisted under his chin. His eyes were big and liquid.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said with a growl.
“What is master wishing to discuss?” Rigsby said.
“These are…valuable items,” he said, handing Rigsby the ivory hairbrush. “I should like to get them back to my grandmother; if that is not possible, they should go to my mother as her birthright, don’t you agree?”
Rigsby cringed away from him even as he clutched the hairbrush to his chest.
“Rigsby and Archie is not to be breathing a word of this to anyone,” he said. “We is making a promise to our mistress.”
“I know that, Rigsby, and my promise to you is this: you are not betraying her by revealing to me where she went all those years ago. You’re helping her, do you see?”
Both elves shook their heads frantically. Severus suppressed a sigh.
“What did she say to you, exactly?” he asked. “When she made you promise.”
“That we is never to be telling anyone what her plans are or what we is doing to help her,” Rigsby said. “Especially Master Septimus. That even if he is dashing our brains against the walls, we is to be keeping our silence.”
“I’m not Master Septimus,” Severus said. “Master Septimus is dead now.”
“You is being ‘anyone,’ Master Severus!” Archie wailed.
“And her plans are plans no longer, isn’t that right?” Severus said. “They were implemented almost thirty years ago. She never asked you not to reveal her whereabouts after her plans were finished, now did she?”
Archie emitted a strangled sound and whipped his little head into the edge of the breakfast table. Severus started, and then put his hands on the creature, stilling him and defending his dome from further assaults by table edge.
“I forbid you to do yourself injury, Archie!” he said, and the elf only wailed.
“Archie has failed Master!”
“Archie! Stop this!”
“Archie is needing his punishment!”
Frazzled, Severus lifted Archie up into the air and gave him a single, firm shake.
“No injurious punishments!” he snarled, and Archie went limp, tears streaming from his eyes. “If I want to punish you, I’ll—I’ll make you scrub cauldrons!”
“We is loving scrubbing cauldrons too well, Master!” Rigsby said, and Severus looked down at the squat little elf, who was barely containing himself from breaking his own fingers.
“Then I’ll—make you relax by the fucking fire, do you hear me?”
“In—in front of Master?” he gasped.
Severus set Archie down and looked down his nose at both of them gravely.
“Yes,” he said. “While I serve you tea.”
“No! No, Master!”
“Then you must cease doing yourself damage and you must do as I say.”
“But what, Rigsby?”
“But we is keeping our promise, Master.”
Severus let out his sigh and slumped back in the chair. He looked out the window at the pennants waving in the breeze.
“Tell me,” he said. “Were you Prince house elves, or did you come with your mistress from her girlhood home?”
“We is keeping house in Prince Manor all these two hundred years, as our mothers is keeping before us,” Rigsby said. “We is being proud to serve the Prince family.”
“But—” Archie said, and then clammed up.
Severus turned toward him again. He was wringing one ear.
“But what, Archie?” Severus said. Archie screwed his mouth shut and shook his head, the other ear slapping him about the shoulder.
“But Gnarby is coming from Austria-Hungary with Mistress Alžběta, Master Severus,” Rigsby said. “Master Septimus is giving him a new name, ‘suitable for proper English house elves,’ he is saying. But Gnarby is not forgetting where he comes from, who he belongs to.”
Severus hummed his acknowledgment.
“That’s good, Rigsby,” he said. “You’ve done very well. The two of you can go back to work.”
“Thank you, Master!” they both peeped, and popped out of the room. When he turned back to the window, Severus found they’d taken the dirtied dishes with them and replaced them with a steaming cup of tea and a sticky toffee pudding.
Those elves knew where Alžběta and Eileen had gone. Better, they had helped them leave—betrayed the master of their line to do so. Legilimency didn’t work on house elves because their brains and minds were too different from those of humans, and Severus despised the kind of violence he saw Malfoy use on creatures constitutionally incapable of defending themselves. Luckily, he had the necessary information now.
All he had to do was track Gnarby.
He didn’t want to go to the Shrieking Shack, but he couldn’t be disturbed, whether by Minerva or by house elves or by whatever was happening outside the window, so off he went to the site of his near-death. It occurred to him that while he was narrowly avoiding death by werewolf a scant nine years ago—or twenty-nine, as it happened—his mother was running as far as she could from his father and from him. She was gone by the time he came home that summer, and he’d had no one to rant and rail at about his ill treatment, the way he was discarded like so much rubbish by a Headmaster who valued his golden Gryffindors’ reputations above the very life of any given Slytherin, the way they’d got off with nary a slap to the wrist. The way he owed Potter, of all people, a life debt. He seethed and seethed—alone. Alone but for the father whose poisonous tongue and leaden fists were best kept drink-sodden and impotent. Alone but for his Muggle pen and paper, his long screeds to Malfoy, and the encouraging post he got back in elegant, calligraphic scrawl.
He should have known better. He should never have—
Severus shook his head. It wouldn’t do to get caught up going over and over every detail of his ordeal. He would find his mother. He would find his grandmother. He would find this hidden sibling, and he would not be alone anymore.
He made a clearing on the dusty floor. Old blood stained the floorboards and resisted his Scourgify, but it was no matter. He would sit to the side so it could not contaminate the ritual. He laid out the ingredients he needed to burn, plucked from the potions stores and the greenhouses, and propped up the book he had lifted from the Restricted Section. He could hardly believe Professor Sprout and Madam Pince were still at Hogwarts, but he knew all their habits and was thus prepared to sneak around them.
Sage for wisdom. Rue for clear vision. Nettles for strength. Blue hyacinth for familial bonds and constancy. A day lily for mothers. A drop of blood from his finger for continuity. He crushed them with a mortar and pestle and set them on fire. The smoke rose, acrid and fragrant and rancid all at once, and he closed his eyes, leaned into the spire, and breathed deeply.
He thought of Harry Potter, terrible and beautiful, and dashed the thought away. He thought of Albus, and dashed the thought away. He thought of Black, Lupin, Potter Senior, and he dashed them all away. He thought of Lily. He thought of the boy he had once been. He thought of his mother. He thought of his father. He dashed all his thoughts away.
There was a lake in the Himalayas, bluer than anything Severus had ever seen in England. He had not known beauty before he saw it. He had not known tranquillity. He called it back to his mind now.
His breath was cool as it filled his lungs. He held it, aware of the beating of his heart, and let it go again, slow and steady in a measured stream. He committed his awareness to the breath in his body, to the pumping of his blood, until he had no thoughts and saw no images behind his eyelids. He felt, as in a dream, his consciousness sink deeper into his body.
There, in the deepest part of himself, was the pulse of his own magic. It was strong and warm and alive. It was the beating force of his life, whole and complete. Pure. Whatever the stodgy English translation for oneness was.
He sank deeper. There was nothing and no one outside the embrace of his magic. He was his magic.
He sank deeper.
He was also his history. The magic of his ancestors lived on here, in the core of himself. In his blood. In the spark of magic that became his life force. This is why wizards were always on about blood status. It wasn’t meaningless. It wasn’t nothing. It was an accident of birth, but it wasn’t nothing. There were whole histories inside him, if only he could access it.
Muggleborns, he knew, had magical history more ancient than they could trace. They had power from the very earth itself. But they didn’t have family, not in the wizarding world. This made them equals before God and Merlin, but not in the eyes of wizarding society at large. To a community like that, family was everything.
He had forgotten that.
There. His mother’s magic, wound like a thread through his own. And deeper, deeper—his grandmother’s. His grandfather’s. The elves that were bound to both their families.
Severus Snape opened his eyes.
And saw Harry fucking Potter. Severus screamed.
“It’s me, Jesus, Snape, it’s just me, stop, stop.”
“I’m sorry,” Potter said. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You’re bloody well disturbing me now, Potter!” Severus bellowed. “What are you doing here?”
“I went to find you only to discover you in this absolute shithole,” he said. “You couldn’t pick a better place?”
“I wanted not to be interrupted by dunderheads!” Severus said. “More fool me!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Potter said, and shoved a hand into his hair, making it stand on end. He was practically vibrating. “I wanted to see you—I mean, apologise. I hate that you saw me lose control like that. I hate that I hurt you.”
“Yes, well.” Severus didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t like that you hurt me either.”
“It’s just…” He shifted restlessly from foot to foot. Severus sighed and began to clean up the ashes of his ritual.
“Spit it out, Potter,” Severus said.
“It’s just that I have to keep such tight hold of it all the time,” he said. “And then it’s like, if I want something, if I think of it too pointedly, it just happens and I can’t control it and I know I’m not to be moving people around and popping about everywhere or exploding people or what have you, it’s just that I can hardly bloody help it when it gets too much.”
Severus stood and held the book in front of him loosely. He had to appear at ease with the thread of this conversation, even as he moved to protect himself.
“You’ve exploded people?” he said slowly.
Potter ceased his nervous pacing and looked up at him. His expression was laid bare to Severus for the first time, and all he could see was Potter’s desperation.
“No,” he said. “Maybe. No.”
“I don’t know! I must have. I fucking—must have.”
“What happened?” Severus said. “Start at the beginning.”
“They say I took Voldemort’s magic when he died,” Potter said, his tone pleading. “They say it must have drained from him and gone into me.”
“That’s not how it works, Potter,” Severus said, tired.
“Then how—why—” Potter’s fists clenched at his side. He hit himself in the thigh.
“Why were you sacked, Potter,” Severus said. Potter closed his eyes and turned away. “Potter. I cannot help you if you won’t tell me what happened.”
“Why would you help me?” Potter said.
“Why would you help me?” Severus said. Potter forced himself to meet Severus’s eyes again. “Here we are, Potter,” Severus said. “Whether we like it or not.”
“It was a string of things,” Potter said at last. “Leaning a little too hard on a suspect, forcing out confessions by force of will, being reckless and coming up unscathed. The men at the top didn’t like it. Said I was using my influence badly. Said I couldn’t be judge, Wizengamot, and Dementor. But a few weeks ago, Robards, that’s the head Auror, got a call from an old family friend—someone was interfering with their daughter, not yet six.” Potter shook his head and took up his pacing again. Severus’s lip twisted along with his stomach. “They got some woman Aurors to interview her, and some mind healers, and everything was done the proper way, all Is dotted, all Ts crossed, but we couldn’t get anything out of her but that she called him the shadow man. Obviously Robards wanted all his top teams on it, surveillance, protection detail, everything, no expenses spared.”
“But he barred you from the investigation because of previous behaviour.”
Potter nodded miserably.
“Said I was too big a liability for a case this delicate,” he said. “I was allowed to go over notes, Ron was allowed to bounce ideas off me, but that was it.”
“You didn’t like that.”
“Would you like that, Snape?” Potter stepped up to him, too close. Severus refused to cringe back. Potter was warm—too warm. Magic rolled off him in waves.
“No,” Severus said. He’d seen cases like the child’s a handful of times, in the Slytherin dorms as both student and professor. It was not to be borne. Potter’s magic subsided, his shoulders slumping as he searched Severus’s face.
“So if you could do something, you would,” he said.
If I could get away with it, perhaps, Severus thought. But that is the difference between a Slytherin and a Gryffindor.
“I would tread very lightly, Potter,” he said, and to his surprise, Potter snorted out a laugh.
“Yeah,” he said. “You would, wouldn’t you.” He turned and jerked the door of the shack open. Cool night air blew inside, and Severus watched him tip his face into the breeze.
“What did you do, Potter?”
“When I passed her in the halls of the Ministry one day, I touched her shoulder. I put a trace on her, and when the shadow man came again, I arrived in her bedroom. I was so angry, Snape.”
“You—hurt this man.”
“It was Robards’s brother.”
“He’d heard enough about procedure from Robards to be able to evade detection for years, no matter how tight the security.”
“You made sure he wouldn’t evade detection again.”
“He was dead by the time I alerted the protection detail, for all the good they were.”
“How did he die?” Severus asked.
Those broad shoulders rose and fell in a shrug too casual to be anything but calculated.
“The autopsy showed that his brain just—stopped.”
“And they’re saying it was you.”
“They can’t prove anything,” Potter said. “People have strokes all the time.”
“They’ll have your guts for garters, Potter,” Severus said. “The Head Auror’s brother.”
“It wasn’t just that,” Potter said, turning back to face him. He tipped his chin up. “Robards wanted it to go away. Wanted to transfigure the body into someone else. No jury would convict me for the murder of a paedophile, he said, and his family wouldn’t have to bear the shame of it. I had him on the ground, cowering before me, until he swore an Unbreakable Vow not to be an utter cock about this, without ever touching him. I liked it, Snape. Having him at my mercy. Meting out justice the way it should be met. I fucking liked it.”
Severus could only nod. Potter’s face did something complicated before he nodded at the book in Severus’s hands.
“What was that, anyway?” he asked. “I’ve never seen a ritual like that.”
“Blood magic,” Severus said. “Soul magic, some might call it.”
“Darkness in magic requires sacrifice more significant than the drop of blood I provided,” Severus said. Did Potter truly not know? Dark magic was not necessarily magic driven by ill intent, but a form of magic in which the caster must be willing to burn their own magical core. The effects were as explosive and dangerous as they were ecstatic and addictive.
Potter tilted his head.
“So, no,” Severus said.
Potter nodded, passing a hand over his face. He looked exhausted.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” he said.
“Yes,” Severus said.
“Are you going to go?”
“Not right now,” Severus said. “I’ll likely need an international Portkey and a good glamour to get it. I should square things away with McGonagall, as well. She’s been a great help to me and I do not intend to be boorish about that help.”
Potter stuck his hands in his pockets and rolled his shoulders inward.
“She’s a good cat, that Professor McGonagall,” he said. Severus snorted. Regret was written across Potter’s face. “So I guess this is it.”
“I suppose so.”
“Well, it’s been weird, Snape.”
Severus watched Potter hesitate before striding up to him and sticking his hand out.
“I hope we can be friends someday,” Potter said. “Equals.”
No one could possibly be your equal, Severus thought, and gripped the proffered hand. It was square and sturdy and firm, with callouses in all the places Quidditch players had callouses. Potter’s fingertips brushed the delicate skin on the inside of Severus’s wrist, and magic like electricity sparked between their two palms. Severus snatched his hand away.
“They’ve not marched you off to the gallows yet, Potter,” he said. “Buck up.”
Potter smiled, a sad little thing. He looked like neither of his parents whatsoever, Severus realised. They’d not touched darkness, not really. Darkness left its mark.
“We’ll see about that in the morning,” Potter said, and then he was gone.
It occurred to Severus later that he should have asked if Granger were going to bag him like an animal and send him kicking and screaming back to 1985.
Minerva looked harassed when she answered his post-breakfast summons in the morning.
“I had merely wished to thank you for your forbearance and your hospitality, but by all means, if you have something more pressing, Minerva,” he said.
She huffed at him, drawing up to her fullest height. He was taller than she but she had a way of making him feel small nonetheless.
“I’ll have you know unexplained time travel isn’t the only situation we have to deal with here, Severus Snape,” she said. He cringed at the frosty tone. “I have very little time on my hands, so, pray tell, why have you called me here?”
“I’m leaving,” he said. “I wanted to thank you.”
He was horrified when her face crumpled and her spine sagged. She removed her spectacles to rub at her eyes.
“Oh, Severus, I’m sorry,” she said. “Everything’s been such a disaster lately. The third year Hufflepuffs have propagated some kind of unbreakable giggle hex, Hagrid’s lost some hideously poisonous creature, the Head Girl is selling illicit potions, and now this nightmare with Harry, and I’ve not even been here to help you.”
“It’s no bother, Minerva,” Severus said. “I’ll be out of your hair soon enough, and that’s one less thing.”
“I don’t want you out of my hair, you silly lad,” she said, and then to his shock, her arms came up around him and she squeezed the air out of his body.
“Hrk,” was all that air said.
He patted her back with the pads of his fingers. She released him, eyes damp.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “Not for long, I hope.”
“Minerva, I can’t stay here forever,” he said. “What would I do, coach Quidditch?”
“We’d never play Quidditch again,” she said with a smile.
“Well, there’s an incentive,” he said.
“You could stay,” she said. “Defence is up for grabs again, and there’s no curse anymore.”
Severus shook his head.
“If I really get to keep this second life, I shall endeavour to do something else with it,” he said. “It’s an…opportunity.” An opportunity to do something he didn’t hate, and not in a castle full of ghosts, both literal and metaphorical.
“Aye,” Minerva said. “I’m a selfish old tabby.”
“Never that, Minerva,” Severus said.
“You’ll keep in touch?” she asked.
Severus raised one shoulder in a shrug. He’d never ‘kept in touch’ with someone in his entire life, but he supposed there was a first time for everything.
“Perhaps you’ll consider coming back to life on paper, as it were,” she said. “To help with Harry’s defence.”
“I know you don’t believe me, but your name has quite a bit of clout now. You’re a hero, Severus.”
“I was a martyr, Minerva,” Severus said, “and people like their martyrs dead.”
“That’s as may be, Severus, but Harry needs everyone he can possibly have in his corner. The people love him as much as they fear him, and this will not be an easy time.”
Unease stirred in Severus’s chest.
“What is it?” he said. “I just saw him last night.”
“Why, they’ve taken him into custody,” Minerva said. “I’ve already spoken to Kingsley, he’s Minister now, and we’re mobilising the Old Crowd, but you know what fear does to justice when the Wizengamot is involved.”
“The truth becomes moot,” Severus said. He stepped away from Minerva and shoved one hand under an armpit, the other pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let me think.”
“That fucking rag!”
“—is reporting that there’s to be no trial. Severus, they’re talking about Anima Colligationem.”
“What? He’s not a bloody house elf!”
“They’ve decided his magic is too unstable. They’re saying it’s—unnatural.”
“So enslaving him is the only option?” Severus was distantly aware that he was shouting. “Oh yes, these bastions of a fair and temperate justice!”
“Severus, for Merlin’s sake, I’m on your side,” Minerva said.
Severus dragged his hands through his hair. He swallowed down the scream that threatened to burst forth from his throat.
“It’s not unnatural,” Severus said, voice low and controlled. “It is not dark. It is not Voldemort’s, or Grindelwald’s, or anyone else’s. It is of the earth. It’s the very magic Britain is built on. They bind him, they bind themselves and we’ll all go down burning together.”
Minerva gazed at him as if she’d never seen him before.
“What did he show you?” she asked.
“I’ve felt it,” Severus said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t.”
Minerva shook her head.
“I taught him for six years, and I still take tea with him monthly, but no, Severus, I haven’t ‘felt it,’ as you say.”
Severus looked out the window. Children were tumbling out onto the pitch with all their protective gear on. The coach waited at the centre holding several brooms in each hand.
“He doesn’t even know what he’s got,” Severus said. “He represses it. He struggles.”
“Then he is dangerous,” Minerva said. “It is as they say.” She sank into a chair.
“He needs to be trained.”
“There’s no one alive who could do it.”
“That’s not true,” Severus said. “Even Mozart had to be trained, once upon a time.”
“Merlin, Severus,” Minerva said. “You always were one for high romance.”
Severus turned sharply toward her, scowling.
“I’m not being fanciful,” he said. “If his powers are growing, if he’s come into them more recently than he was your student, they are merely raw. They are manageable. He must simply be given the tools to manage, like any other virtuoso.”
“And who will do this for him?” Minerva said.
“There’s a wide world out there, Minerva,” Severus said. “Britain is a small island, with a narrow vision.”
“This still doesn’t solve the issue at hand, which is that the Wizengamot is about to bind his soul to Azkaban without trial.”
Severus glanced at his carpet bag, stuffed with his grandmother’s things and all the money he felt safe to travel with. His wish to see his mother again burned like real fire in his gut. So did the particular way Potter looked at him last night, saying goodbye.
Severus’s family would have to wait.
“Floo your Kingsley Shacklebolt,” he said. “We’re throwing a resurrection.”
Kingsley Shacklebolt, whom Severus remembered as a baby-faced Auror some ten years older than he with a quiet wit and a sharp eye, eased Severus’s way through the bureaucracy of the Archives and the legal rigmarole of declaring a previously deceased person alive again. Severus had never worked closely with the man, and he was certainly not obligated to provide Ministerial escort through the entire stuffed up process, but Severus had learned to recognise the look in the eyes of someone who knew him, who remembered him, and who believed they owed him something. If it would keep Severus from having to be at the mercy of Ministry parchment pushers, he was not too proud to capitalise on that. Because of it, Severus Snape was alive again in the space of a week instead of dragging on in purgatory for months on end.
Severus came back to life publicly via an interview with The Quibbler rather than The Daily Prophet, both because the latter was a rag not worthy of wiping his arse and because it amused him. He landed in the Prophet anyway, as he knew he would, under the headline, “A HERO’S RETURN.” There was even a picture on the front page, and he somehow looked mysterious and brooding instead of sullen and curmudgeonly, at least according to the one hundred and forty-seven marriage proposals he had received in the post. He was currently filtering for insanity, and most of his post now went straight to the bin.
Except when Minerva McGonagall brought it to his quarters with a bottle of Scotch and a smirk on her face.
Severus groaned and laid the last of his resurrection paperwork aside.
“Minerva, why do you live to torment me?”
“It’s just so easy, Severus.”
She set the bottle down on the table and cleared her throat. Severus sighed and rolled his eyes. She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, and pushed her spectacles up her nose. She unfurled the parchment with a flick of her wrists.
“‘My dearest lovelump,’” she read.
“‘Severus, I know you must be overwhelmed by my last letter and the sonnet I wrote you. I have been told my poetry is breath-taking, and I do so want you to keep breathing, my darling! How I long for us to meet at last, and set our ravening tongues together to writhe in that ancient dance, and fill myself with the completion of our fated love! I am moved to verse once again, dear one—I hope traditional rhyme soothes you, and if you become winded when you read it, think of me!'"
“Dear God, Minerva!”
“‘A hard-hearted Roman Emperor was he
“‘With a frightful temper his people did flee
“‘But there was well-hidden gold in his heart
“‘Only his true love’s touch could crack apart
“‘And she did so whilst coming, tee hee!’”
“What the fuck, Minerva!”
She didn’t hear him, of course; she was too busy howling with laughter. She tipped over into his bed, clutching her midsection and gasping for breath between laughs.
“She’s never heard of metre!” she cried, and pealed off again.
“Her ‘sonnet’ was seventeen lines!” Severus said. “About my prick!”
Minerva shrieked and pitched herself face first into the duvet while Severus scowled.
“Stop, Severus!” she said. “I can’t take it, oh Merlin, stop!”
“You’re winded,” Severus said. “Think of her.”
Minerva shrieked again, and Severus had to work to keep his own amusement at the sight of her rolling about like a schoolgirl from breaking his trademark glower.
“Why are you fishing through my post anyway?”
“Because it’s causing a veritable rubbish crisis in the Owlery, Severus!” she said, still laughing. “You can’t just stash it away—set it on fire, or something such.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Severus said. “Let the owls shit all over it and save yourself their bedding budget!”
Minerva sat up and held up the letter, grinning like a madwoman.
“She has a ghazal in here,” she said, “and something that looks like the ghost of E. E. Cummings had a fit whilst haunting a simpleton.”
“Have mercy on me, Minerva,” he said. “I’ve already died once.”
Minerva gave a happy sigh and fell back into the bed.
“What are you going to do, Severus?” she asked.
“Finish this damnable paperwork,” he said. “Get a few more items of clothing. Clear Potter’s name.”
“So just the usual things,” she said.
“Precisely,” Severus said.
The reason for the lack of trial, Severus learned, was that there were no charges. There was no proof of Potter’s having a hand in the sudden death of one Gareth Robards, and his presence as an Auror at the scene of the crime was neither surprising nor unwelcome, the acts he caught Robards committing being what they were. Likewise, his “intimidation” of one Gawain Robards, former Head of the Auror Corps now awaiting a corruption trial himself, was viewed by the public as their hero standing up to crooked dealings within the Aurory. Wizarding Britain loved Harry Potter, loved his righteousness and his swift action—but crowds gathered at the doors of the Ministry demanding his binding nonetheless. And the Wizengamot, populated by a complement of bigoted Pureblood wizards and witches older than dirt, was just as susceptible to public hysteria.
Shacklebolt was able to force through what he called character testimony. There was a horde of war heroes queued up out the proverbial door to vouch for Harry Potter, and a few surprise witnesses, as well. Severus would be the last in a strategic gesture. Severus wondered if that strategy was “bore everyone to death with tales of great deeds,” but that wasn’t his business. Politics and legalese—he’d leave that to Shacklebolt.
The night before the character witnesses were to take the stand, Severus received special dispensation to visit Potter in Azkaban. A perk of being a recently resurrected hero, Minerva said. They’d barred everyone but Shacklebolt and Granger from visiting, and those two only sidestepped the bar by their legal status, or lack thereof. For his part, Severus found it uncanny to have a name to trade on at all. Uncannier still was the way reporters and admirers followed him about when he was in public. He was getting to practice his glamour work after all.
Potter sat motionless in a barren stone cell with naught but a bedroll and a toilet inside. He stared resolutely out the window at the roiling sea beyond the walls of the prison, but Severus knew he knew he was there. He was thinner, and paler, and his hair was as greasy as Severus’s own. His spectacles seemed permanently crooked. Severus couldn’t countenance why, but looking at Harry Potter thus devastated him. At least the Dementors were gone.
“Why don’t you just leave?” Severus asked after a while.
“I don’t want to scare them more than I already have,” Potter said. His voice was scratchy. Severus wondered if he’d used it at all since being remanded here two weeks previously. Had neither Granger nor Shacklebolt been to visit?
“What would it matter?” Severus asked.
“I do want to be able to show my face again, Snape,” he said. “I have friends. I have—people who are as good as family to me.”
“You’ll never be able to show your face again if they place Anima Colligationem on you, Potter.”
At this, Potter huffed and shifted, his body creaking like an old door. He swung his legs over the edge of the bedroll, and looked Severus in the eye.
“You know, no one will even tell me what it really is,” he said. “Not even bloody Hermione. All they’ll say is it’s a binding spell, but no one will tell me why it’s such a big deal.”
Severus should have brought him something to eat. He cursed himself for not thinking of it. He couldn’t even call for Rigsby or Archie; they would be thrown into the crashing waves if they so much as touched a fingertip to the layers upon layers of protective—and repellent—magic around Azkaban.
“What do you know about house elves, Potter?” he asked.
Potter frowned but gave him a shrug.
“They’re like servants,” he said, and what little colour he had seemed to rise to his cheeks. “Hermione would say ‘slaves.’ Many of them work at Hogwarts or other kinds of places like that, but most old-money Pureblood families have them too, and they serve each subsequent generation. Happily, it seems, though Hermione would have something to say about that, too.”
“Hmm. This Granger, is she Muggleborn?”
Potter frowned harder.
“Yes,” he said, cautious.
“It’s nothing to me, Potter,” Severus said, and ignored the derisive snort that came from inside the cell. “I merely note that perhaps she doesn’t understand what they are, where they come from, or what they do.”
“Enlighten me then, Snape.” Potter spread his hands out and bared his teeth in an ugly facsimile of a smile. “I’ve got nothing but time.”
Severus crossed his legs and settled into his seat.
“Other places in the world teach their students about elemental magic,” he said. “British wizardry considers it uncouth and a bit scandalous, but that’s Britain for you. Stuck in the Victorian age.”
“What is elemental magic?”
“It’s what it sounds like,” Severus said. “Naturally-occurring magics, from the earth to the sea, from the trees to the clouds. Wizards cannot control them, though their very power originates from them, so many thousands of years ago. This is why they are feared—why the magics of centaurs and goblins and other wild, intelligent creatures that don’t have to go to school like good little witches and wizards are so taboo. You see how wizards try to regulate these creatures, but that’s like trying to put the moon on man’s schedule.”
Potter grunted, and Severus thought that might be a laugh.
“House elves are this manner of creature,” Severus continued. “They use this manner of magic. No—it would be wrong to say they use this magic. They are this magic, do you understand? They’re manifestations of earth magic. Forest magic. River magic. They are the very magic we cannot harness, Potter.”
Potter’s eyes were very intense. Severus couldn’t bear it. He trained his gaze to a spot behind Potter’s head.
“They were the little caregivers of the earth,” Severus said. “They made sure the soil was healthy, the water was clean, the fauna were thriving, every worm and flower and dung pile was in its place.”
“And then humans came.”
Severus flattened his mouth.
“They were so small, and so giving,” he said. “They never imagined they would be subjugated to the will of another creature, especially one so weak in its comparative power. They sought only to help. By their very nature, they are meant to care.”
“Jesus Christ,” Potter said.
“Slavery, Mr. Potter, is always a lucrative business. And how satisfying, not to have to do one’s own dirty work, yes? Wizards developed a spell that would chain an elf and all its progeny to a house, to a wizarding bloodline, rather than to the earth from whence they sprang, and it could not be undone. That spell is Anima Colligationem, and it would bind you to this prison like an elf to a hateful master.”
“And you’re sure there’s no breaking this spell?” The glint in his eye told Severus what he thought of that. Severus shook his head.
“Once they put that spell on you, Potter, all that lovely power pumping through your veins will be Azkaban’s.”
Potter’s lip curled and he pulled his legs up until he was nothing but a bony ball on the bedroll.
“So you’ve come to encourage me to get out while I can, Snape?” he said. “To be in exile the rest of my life, running from the bigots back home? They’d only take you in my place.”
“It should be a final option only,” Severus said. “If tomorrow’s little gambit doesn’t work.”
With a single stride, Potter was at the edge of the invisible barrier between his cell and the hallway. He pressed his hand against it. Severus had to look up to meet his eyes.
“If I run,” he said, “you’ll come with me.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” Severus croaked.
Potter leaned in closer. He gave off heat despite the barrier, despite the bone-shrivelling cold.
“If I run,” Potter said, lowering his voice, “you’ll come with me.”
Severus swallowed. He pressed his hand to Potter’s, and there was nothing between their palms.
“God help me,” he said, “I will.”
If the heroes’ parade of testimonies failed, they would have to get out quickly. Immediately, even. Severus trusted Potter would know that, and spirit them as far away as he could manage. That was probably the moon—Severus could only hope they would stay in Europe, at least long enough for him to find what was left of his relations.
He repacked the carpet bag and sat at his window as the moon rose higher and higher. He called Rigsby and Archie, but he did not look at them when they arrived. Black Lake glittered through all the fog. He wished there were a figure there to turn to him, and raise a hand in greeting.
“If I fail to return tomorrow,” he said, “you may stay on at Hogwarts or you may go to my mother, wherever she may be. Whichever is your preference.”
“Master Severus is leaving?” came Archie’s voice. It was tremulous and mournful, and Severus dropped his gaze to his hands.
“I was never going to stay,” he said. “I merely wished to let you know that it may be sudden.”
“We is not having a preference,” Rigsby said. “We is only wanting to serve Master Severus.”
Severus’s mouth twisted. He shook his head.
“You’re good, loyal house elves,” he said. “Dismissed.”
They disappeared, and Severus put on his outer robes to walk out to the Apparition point. There, he reached into his innermost self and found the thread that he’d identified as Gnarby, and he Apparated.
He had been to Conisbrough Castle once as a child. When he was very small, his mother would take him to the sites of ancient castles and standing stones and tell him stories about Hogwarts and magic and legendary kings and queens and witches and wizards. The visits stopped as he got older; with the gift of hindsight, Severus could see that these little trips were free or next to it, and a way to teach him about his own magical heritage out of his father’s earshot. By the time Severus was old enough to know he’d be off to Hogwarts someday, the visits stopped, and the atmosphere in Spinner’s End grew bleaker. Tobias must have been on the dole by then, and pissing it all away on drink.
The keep was the most striking thing about the castle, and about the only thing he remembered: a great hexagonal structure, jutting out into the skyline like no place else his mother had ever taken him. At its door he landed and placed a steadying hand.
It was late, the air crisp and the sky black but for the glittering stars. He heard nothing so much as his own breath, the rush of his own blood in his ears. The rustle of wind in trees was remote. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and pressed his hands to the keep’s stone walls. The thread that was Gnarby within him pulsed and grew warm, though he couldn’t grasp at it yet. Severus tried to sink into himself, but he couldn’t shake the image of Potter in Azkaban. Potter’s sunken cheeks and blazing eyes. Potter, reaching out his hand.
“Fuck,” Severus muttered, and broke away from the keep. He staggered forward and tipped his head up to look at the moon, waxing away. Maybe Potter could see it too.
The crack of Apparition startled him from his fancies, and with a snarl he had his wand at the ready. His mother stepped out from behind one of the keep’s buttresses.
“I’d chastise you for your language, Severus, but I think I’ve lost the right,” she said.
Severus’s wand arm fell to his side as if a puppeteer had cut its strings. His breath left him, and his words too. She was older, and time had been cruel to her in a way he couldn’t have anticipated with only Minerva for comparison. Her face was haggard and her hair seemed but a collection of steel-grey wires, pulled severely back in an unkempt bun. The nose he’d inherited from her was even more prominent than it had been in her youth, as if the ravages of time had drawn the skin tight around it to give the jowls something to sag with. Still, she was unmistakable.
She stood several metres away from him, still and upright as if allowing him to assess her.
“‘Youth restored,’” she said. “I see the Prophet wasn’t exaggerating this time.”
“Mam,” he said, and cleared his throat. “How did you…”
“Gnarby, and thanks ever so for returning that sour little blighter to us, woke me to tell me he could feel you tugging at him. I thought you deserved to have someone meet you halfway.”
“What, now that I’m fêted in the Daily Prophet?” Severus snapped. “Now that I’m not an embarrassment and a source of shame? Now that I’m all grown up and not your bloody problem any longer?”
Eileen’s mouth stretched in something that passed for a smile, where the two of them came from.
“Now that you’re alive,” she said. “Now that I get a second chance I don’t deserve.”
Severus’s heart was threatening to explode from his body.
“I hate you,” he said.
“It’ll eat you up inside, if you let it,” she said. “Believe me, I know.”
“So let it!” Severus shouted, and the clap of it reverberated through the castle grounds. “Let it. What does it matter to you? Why do you care all of a sudden?”
“I’ve had many years to think about what I did, Severus.”
“From where I’m standing, it looks like you had more than twenty years to fix it and instead you let it lie.”
“I’m not asking for forgiveness, Severus.”
“I’m asking for an explanation!”
Eileen pulled her outer robes around herself more tightly. She tucked her hands into the voluminous sleeves.
“You have a sister,” she said, and the tightness gathering in Severus’s chest threatened to split him in two. “It’s funny; she’s older than you now.”
“It’s very un-fucking-funny, Mother,” Severus said.
“I know, Severus,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Why her?” Severus said. “Why not me?”
“One’s mistakes have a way of revealing their depths long after one has committed them,” she said. “My mistake with you was in trying to make you appealing to my father, in the hopes that he would accept you into his home, leave you a legacy. I even named you for him. I never considered how cruel that home was, and how empty the legacy. I can say only that I was doing my best for you, Severus.”
“Your best wasn’t even passingly adequate,” Severus said. He wanted to vent his spleen, rant and rave and make her cower, but as the words passed his lips, all he felt was a childish petulance. He turned his face away.
“Yes, I know,” Eileen said. “That’s why I had to leave, you see? I couldn’t put another child through it. I had to do better. I’m sorry you had to be the experiment that taught me as much.”
“Did he—did he force himself on you?”
Eileen sighed. She wasn’t looking at him, either.
“By then, he didn’t have to,” she said. “I would allow him to do what he would whenever the urge struck him because it kept him docile and put him to sleep. I was forty. I didn’t know it was possible for me to fall pregnant anymore. More fool me, I suppose—a witch has all the time in the world.”
An old rage ignited inside Severus. He had spent his adolescence dreaming that someday he would kill his father—not even in some civilised, wizarding way, but in the brute manner of a Muggle in a fury. Bones cracking, blood flying—that was the only way he deserved to go. Severus wished the old man were alive now just so he could kill him properly.
“Don’t be that way, Severus,” his mother said. Was it his face that gave him away, or merely her keen assessment of his character and his thoughts, not dulled for the three decades that had passed since last she’d seen him? “I don’t regret it, you know. Tobias. You. Your sister.”
“How can you not?” Severus demanded. “I bloody well do.”
“I can’t imagine the world without the two of you in it,” she said. “Why are you tracking us, if not to find her?”
“I had to know,” Severus said. “And I needed a place to go to, in case of—in case.”
“You and that Potter lad.”
Never missed a thing, his mam.
“Don’t,” he said.
“You never could stay away,” she said. “From either the mother or the father.”
“If they put that curse on him, the Ministry signs its own death certificate,” Severus said. “It’s over for any magic that comes from Britain. That’s you, and me, and her, and most likely everything we know. This is not about Lily, or her husband.”
“And not about your heart, either,” Eileen said. “Only truth, justice, Queen and country.”
“It’s a long way to come just to mock me, Mother.”
She stepped up to him, finally, and a spindly hand emerged from her sleeve to touch his cheek. He shuddered into the contact, and leaned in.
“Oh, my darling,” she said. She hadn’t said such a thing since they’d stopped visiting castles. “I want only for you to be cautious. You love so fiercely, and so freely, when you allow it.”
“You don’t get to tell me how to be, Mother.”
“No, of course not.” She receded from him. She fished about in a pocket and then presented him with a slip of parchment. “We’ll be ready for you,” she said. With a crack, she Disapparated.
Severus stared at the moon for a long while before taking a deep breath and unfurling the parchment.
Alžběta, Eileen, and Matilda Bezdeda live at Cauldrons’ Pass, Carpathian Mountains, Slovakia-Ukraine.
By Merlin, Severus thought. Czechoslovakia is no more. All hail Slovakia-Ukraine.
The hall of the Wizengamot was a crush of bodies, some shouting, some whispering. The din of it would have been nauseating but for the way Severus was able to set his mind apart. He sat in front, alongside a line of people he should have known, but of whom he had met only one Hermione Granger, a woman who disquieted him. Beside her was a gangly fellow with a shock of red hair and a passing resemblance to a pair of students Severus had once had, and between him and Severus was a tall man, broad of shoulder and chiselled of jaw. Severus saw Frank Longbottom in that face, and Alice in his bearing. Severus couldn’t bear to look at him. Minerva sat beside Severus himself, and beside her was a tall, solid woman Potter’s age of no particular beauty, who held her head high and her back straight. A man who could only be Draco Malfoy sat beside her, and snuck glances around her at Severus when he thought he wasn’t looking.
A clamour rumbled through the crowd when Aurors brought Harry Potter out in a yoke and chains and sat him in a circle of protection at the front of the court. Severus caught his eye. These inferior wizards and witches thought they could contain him with a charm and a bit of dust. Severus felt his mouth twist, and Potter suppressed a smile and flicked his gaze away.
Kingsley Shacklebolt, a harder man than Severus remembered, less quick these days to flash his blinding smile, raised his hands to silence the rabble.
“This is a farce,” he said. “All of British wizardry should feel the shame of this day.”
“Mr. Potter must be made to answer for his crimes!” came the shrill screeching of the head of the Wizengamot, Odelphos Mungroot.
“What crimes, Mr. Mungroot?” Shacklebolt said. “The man who delivered us from the greatest evil of our time stands in chains before us, without even the dignity of charges.”
“The public has spoken!” Mungroot cried.
“There is nothing here, Mr. Mungroot. This is a mockery of the judicial system designed to protect the citizens of this country—worse, it is an abuse.”
“Minister, your ridiculous parade of character witnesses is the mockery!”
“Mr. Potter has been denied due process, which is his right under the law,” Shacklebolt said. “It is my right as minister to rectify that by any means possible. And mark my word, Mr. Mungroot. The Wizengamot will pay for its wilful disrespect and dismantling of the law of this land.”
A rumble came through the crowd, and Shacklebolt raised his hand again. His gaze never wavering from Mungroot, whose white beard seemed to frizz out further the redder his face got, Shacklebolt said, “I call Unspeakable Hermione Granger to the stand.”
The expressions of the members of the Wizengamot rippled between fear and awe. A chill went up Severus’s spine. Granger was sworn in, and Shacklebolt asked for her statement.
“I will read a list of names,” she said, and produced a scroll from her sleeve. “These are the dead of the first Wizarding War, which Harry Potter ended.” Severus’s heart dropped, and his vision tunnelled. He looked at Potter, who held his head up and met his gaze. Look at me, echoed about his head. The names cascaded around him like distant thunder, and Harry Potter, across the floor, starving and yoked, never abandoned him.
Countless minutes later, Granger pulled out another parchment.
“These are the dead of the second Wizarding War, which Harry Potter ended,” she said. She began to read off the names, and Severus could feel the way Minerva clenched her fists in her lap. He leaned his shoulder into her. Potter held his gaze.
After a long time reading names, Granger got off the stand. There was silence in the courtroom, but for muffled weeping in the back.
“Auror Ronald Weasley,” Shacklebolt called.
The ginger took the oath and the stand. His breath came quickly as he took out his prepared statement.
“There are things you should know about Harry Potter,” he read without looking up. “He has atrocious taste in pasties. His fashion sense is deplorable. He will never win a ballroom dance contest.” Laughter rose up in the crowd, but Ronald Weasley was not smiling. “He will also never abandon a friend, even if they have abandoned him first. He will never see suffering and turn away, no matter who is doing the suffering. He has reached his hand out to enemies and made them his friends. He has delivered us all from the reign of a tyrant, and even then, it was his mercy that saved us. It was his humanity. If we forget that, if we strip him of his freedom and his magic, we lose our humanity.” Weasley rolled the parchment back up and looked up to face the court. He squared his shoulders and tipped his chin up. There was only a resounding silence.
Finally, Shacklebolt thanked him, and called Professor Neville Longbottom to the stand.
“The truth no one wants to face is this,” Longbottom said, his soft voice encouraging intimacy. “The circumstances which created and then venerated a wizard as twisted up and damaged as Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort, are circumstances which thrive to this day. Blood supremacy. Sexism. Classism. Social isolation. Child abuse. The Wizengamot knows it. The wizard on the street knows it. The child at Hogwarts knows it. And yet we do next to nothing to address these ills in our culture, and seek only to punish victims should they dare to speak up.
“There is even the contingent, not insignificant, which prefers this manner of ruthlessness in their dealings with those who are deemed less fortunate. This contingent has deluded themselves into believing it is moral fortitude which conveys upon them their good fortune, rather than accidents of birth or circumstance. I daresay a society which allows its most vulnerable citizens to languish is a society which has already lost its soul. If Harry Potter deserves a lifetime of confinement to Azkaban and the binding of his magic, then do not I? Hermione? Ron? We all fought. We all survived to see the blood on our hands. And if you did not, honoured members of the Wizengamot, that is your shame to bear, not ours.”
Longbottom stood of his own accord and took his seat beside Severus. Severus forced himself to look at him.
“Well done, Professor Longbottom,” he said gruffly. Longbottom’s brows knitted downward, but he offered his hand. Severus shook it.
“Professor Snape,” he said. “What a world.”
“Healer Millicent Bulstrode,” Kingsley called, and the woman next to young Malfoy rose to take the stand.
“I’m not a great hero,” she said. She had no bit of parchment to read. She looked out at the crowd, at the Wizengamot, at Severus, and made eye contact with each person whose gaze she caught. Good girl, Severus thought. “I’m not anyone special. I was surprised to be approached by Minister Shacklebolt and Professor McGonagall to speak on Harry’s behalf. I tried to think of why. I was at the Battle of Hogwarts, but so were many students. I fought on their side against many of the students of my own house, Slytherin, but not all. It didn’t feel honourable. It didn’t feel heroic. It felt necessary. It felt like my life and my future depended on it. I had watched, all through that last year, as Neville Longbottom and Ginny Weasley mounted a rebellion inside Hogwarts to match the hard, lonely work Harry Potter and Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley were doing outside of it.
“I’m just a regular sort of person. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Regular people are called upon in extraordinary circumstances. Regular people are asked to be the best versions of themselves, and they get that choice: do I rise to the occasion and make my own fate, or do I do nothing and allow history to buffet me about without my say so? That choice was one I made watching Longbottom and Weasley, and listening to Lee Jordan and the Potterwatch. In the end it seemed to make itself: throw my lot in with them, or lose my dignity and my self-respect by inaction. Evil is enacted by lesser choices. This, what you’re doing to Harry Potter now—this is not a lesser choice. This is a wilful evil, and if you do it, you will be stained by that evil.”
“Thank you, Healer Bulstrode,” Shacklebolt said. “You may be seated.”
She set herself back down next to Malfoy, who squeezed her hand. Severus took a fortifying breath.
“Headmistress Minerva McGonagall,” Shacklebolt called out. Minerva took the oath, and took the stand.
“Mr. Potter was once a boy whom the wizarding world failed.” She met Severus’s eyes, an apology in hers, and his heart swelled and flopped about. “He was not the first, and he will not be the last. Despite the privation to which he was subjected, he has within him a great well of love. He has found a family here, among his schoolmates. He takes tea with his old head of house every month without fail.”
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Mungroot sputtered, “but are you suggesting that because he takes tea with an elderly schoolmarm, he cannot be capable of great tyranny?”
The crowd gasped, no doubt having been taught by that elderly schoolmarm themselves, and Severus found his own fists clenched before him. Minerva merely arched a brow at Mungroot, and Severus decided right then and there that he loved her madly.
“We are all capable of great tyranny, Mr. Mungroot, as you are taking pains to remind us of even now.”
“How dare you!”
“You are not permitted to interrupt the character testimonies, Mr. Mungroot,” Shacklebolt said. “That’s another censure. Proceed, Professor.”
“My testimony is that the Wizengamot should look inward before casting about for someone else to blame when social ills make the community restless,” Minerva said. “My testimony is that the media and the Wizengamot have become so fixated on Mr. Potter as a symbol and a legend that they are now incapable of viewing him as a man, as one cog—a crucial cog, but a cog nonetheless—in the greater machine that was the war effort, and in doing so, have whipped the public into a dangerous frenzy.
“Like all of us, he has his gifts and his shortcomings. To put aside modesty, Mr. Mungroot, I am the greatest practitioner of Transfiguration in Britain. With the barest effort I could turn you into a mandrake and chop you up for potions ingredients. But it is not I whom you wish to draw and quarter today, nor Unspeakable Granger with her Arithmancy that looks more like art, nor Professor Longbottom, whose very touch could grow a garden into a jungle to swallow us whole. No—it is Harry Potter who threatens you, merely by virtue of being in the papers. This is not a precedent you wish to set, Mr. Mungroot. You will not like what is possible at the other side of it.”
The crowd rumbled again, and whispers passed furiously between members of the Wizengamot.
“Thank you, Professor McGonagall,” Shacklebolt said. “You may step down.”
Minerva took her seat between Severus and Healer Bulstrode. She patted Severus’s knee as Shacklebolt called up Draco Malfoy.
Severus saw the Malfoys on occasion, and had last seen Draco Malfoy holding court before a gaggle of house elves, who were meant to be seals and elephants and lions in the great circus in his mind. Severus couldn’t see that boy now. While he had the Malfoy colouring and the sharp severity of the Black countenance, Draco Malfoy seemed humbled in a way Severus couldn’t imagine his parents instilling in him. Not for the first time, Severus promised himself he’d get a full accounting of the war—preferably from several sources.
Draco took the stand and fussed a bit until he was comfortable, and his hair was in the right place, and his robes were just so. He looked at Severus, and then his gaze skittered away. He cleared his throat, leaned forward, and said, “I tried to kill Professor Dumbledore.”
Severus’s heart stopped. There were no gasps around the room, no roars of outrage. This was common knowledge, and Severus had none of it.
“I gravely injured Katie Bell,” Draco continued. “I let Death Eaters into Hogwarts. While Professor Snape was securing his place as the Light’s secret weapon, I was fleeing—a coward, and a failure, and a child. For years I had needled Potter. For years I taunted him for his scar, for his dead parents, for his blood, for anything else I could think of. I thought he was my enemy. I thought, this scrawny little git threatens my family, my way of life, my values, just by existing.
“I would learn, that final, awful year, who my real enemy was. I would learn that I wanted Potter to win, that I needed it—but I still had no way out. If I turned from the Dark Lord, he would kill my mother, and my father, and everyone else connected to me. I couldn’t even admit to myself that I hoped Potter would win. It seemed like if I did, it would all come crashing down.
“And do you know what he did in the end? This speccy little sod, to whom I had never offered a kind word? While Fiendfyre raged all around us, he put out his hand. He pulled me onto his broom, and Goyle, and he tried to get Crabbe too. He tried to save us—he did save us. The people on both sides, on every side, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, he saved us. He saved you, Mr. Mungroot, and you, Madam Tolshot. He saved you, Mr. Grackletree, and you, Madam Langley, and you, Mr. Bantom. He saved us all. How short your memories are.”
Draco craned around to face Potter, whose expression revealed nothing.
“You’re too noble to say it, so I will,” Draco said. “We owe you. We owe you our lives. We owe you our loyalty. That’s what they’re so scared of. There are some debts no one can pay, so they’re trying to punish you to squirm out of it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Malfoy,” Shacklebolt said. “That will be all.”
Draco came back to his seat, hand pressed to his face. Healer Bulstrode slung an arm around his shoulder, and he sagged against her.
Shacklebolt met Severus’s eyes and nodded.
“Severus Snape,” he said, “please take the stand.”
Murmuring broke out all around him as he made his way to the stand and laid his hand on Merlin’s wand to vow to speak the truth.
“My reputation precedes me,” he said, and scattered laughter travelled around the courtroom. “I will let my reputation speak for itself: I am the only person in this room who knew the inner workings of the Dark Lord Voldemort. The depths of his depravity, the filth down to his very core. The war, the blood and death and assaults on human dignity—these were mere tastes of the evil he was capable of. If all the cogs, as Professor McGonagall called us, had not turned just so, we would not have the luxury of this particular miscarriage of justice. Britain would be hollowed out like marrow as he plumbed her for power. He would have Pureblood women as broodmares, and those with Muggle blood as things to be toyed with in any way he, and his followers, wished. He would drain the magic and the will from anyone with Muggle blood, and if you think being Pureblooded would save you from his grasp, think again.
“You would be his slaves, not permitted freedom of movement or freedom of thought. When he ran out of Muggleborn children to suck dry, he would turn on your children. He would turn on you. Your neighbours. Your brothers and sisters. Your husbands and wives. He would consume the world because he was a black hole. There was nothing within him to call a soul. There was no sympathy. No human feeling. Wizards, witches, Muggles, blood supremacy—window dressing, and all of it exploitable in his bid for power. Wizards and witches like you would have handed it neatly to him, to your doom, but for one man and his small army, populated mostly by children and the elderly.
“I will be plain, since even you, Mr. Mungroot, are hesitant to name what we’re doing here today. You fear you have another Dark Lord on your hands. You fear Harry Potter has a power you cannot fathom, and you fear that he will rise to take Voldemort’s place. Because, what? He did what every Auror is asked to do when they take their vows to protect the citizens of this country? I can tell you, definitively, that Harry Potter is so unlike Lord Voldemort as to be a different species. He is no more capable of subjugating the people of the wizarding world than you would be capable of turning down the offer of a chocolate frog card with your dubious visage upon it.”
“How can you guarantee this, Mr. Snape?” Mungroot demanded. He had gone hoarse and his shoulders slumped. Hope rose in Severus’s chest. They had won. He looked at Potter, whose cheeks had flushed with a bit of colour at last.
“To know him is to know goodness,” Severus said. “Can the same be said of you?”
“Get off the bloody stand,” Mungroot snarled, and the crowd erupted. Cheers and boos and stomping and clapping rose up in a furious clatter, as exhilarating as it was nauseating. The crowd poured onto the courtroom floor, buffeting Severus about like a fish in a wave. Severus saw Shacklebolt, Granger, and the scattered Aurors attempting to erect barriers, but soon he was too swallowed up by the crowd to see anything.
Suddenly Potter—Harry, free of his bonds—lifted him above the waves and locked eyes with him. In the space of a breath, they landed in Harry’s cottage.
Harry buried his hands in Severus’s hair and plundered his mouth even as his back thudded against a wall. Severus grabbed fistfuls of Harry’s hair back and thrust his own tongue into Harry’s mouth. Harry moaned into the contact, shoving his thigh between Severus’s and kissing him with a passion Severus had never thought capable of being turned upon his homely person.
When he broke away, he was panting.
“You lied on that witness stand,” he said.
“What did you expect me to do,” Severus said, “tell them you could have them all act out your fantasies like little dollies at the snap of your fingers? Where would that get us?”
“Nowhere good,” Harry said. “This has to end.” Before Severus could crack in half at the loss, Harry scrubbed his hands through his hair and continued. “I can’t be like this all the time—a raw nerve, ready to blow. You have to help me figure out how to get a grip before I become everything they’re afraid of.”
“I’ve a few ideas,” Severus said, and Harry tilted a crooked smile at him.
“There you go,” he said, “taking care of me again.”
“Did I, back then?”
Harry stepped up to him, set his nose against Severus’s pulse point and breathed deeply. His hand swept up Severus’s chest until it rested above his heart. Severus’s eyes fluttered shut.
“Yes,” Harry said, “but not like this.”
The kiss was gentler, but no less heavy with desire. Severus’s prick swelled beneath his robes. He hadn’t known kissing could be so intoxicating; previous experience had taught him it was nothing to seek out on its own, but now he wondered how he would ever stop. Harry’s hands slid down to settle on his hips, and he ground his own hardness into Severus’s. Severus brought his arms up to lock around Harry’s back, pulling him up against him. They kissed and strained against one another until Severus saw stars cascading behind his eyelids, and then Harry pulled away, panting.
“Come on,” he said, and pulled Severus by the hand through the sitting room and up the stairs into his bedroom, which boasted a large bed and soft lighting. They stood at the foot of the bed looking at each other, and then Harry began to disrobe, starting with his glasses. Silky black hair covered his chest and narrowed to follow the midline of his abdomen before flaring out again below his navel. Despite two weeks of minimal food, his arms and back were still muscular, and Severus could see that his chest and abdomen had been toned before and would return to form with a little feeding. He shucked the trousers he wore under his robes and Severus could see he was similarly gifted below the waist. Severus felt real hunger for him, even as he despaired of removing his own robes. Severus reached his hands out as if without his brain’s volition, and he ran them down Harry’s sides. His skin was smooth and warm, a lovely rich brown against the fish-belly white of Severus’s hands. He landed on the crest of Harry’s hips, and Harry shivered when he drew his thumbs reverently over the dip beneath them. His prick lengthened and grew thicker.
“Now you,” he said.
“Don’t hang me out to dry here, Severus,” Harry said.
“I am not half so lovely as you,” Severus said. “You mustn’t…get your hopes up.”
Harry shook his head and stepped up to him, close enough to feel the heat of his body. His heavy prick brushed against Severus, searing him through his robes. Severus closed his eyes and tipped his head down, and Harry pressed his forehead against Severus’s own. He breathed in the musky, male scent of him and let Harry unbutton him. Slowly, his robe fell away, and then his undershirt, his trousers, and his pants, until he stood naked before Harry. He didn’t open his eyes. Harry murmured his name, and he felt Harry’s hands stroke through his own chest hair, across his nipples, and downward to settle on his hips.
“You are devastating,” Harry said, and Severus drew a sharp breath. “That’s better than beauty, I think.”
They were kissing again, and it was like being submerged in that lake in the Himalayas—consuming and freeing and life-affirming. Severus found himself being borne down into the bed as Harry nosed over Severus’s skin, breathing him in. When he got to Severus’s straining prick, he hummed out a note of appreciation and swallowed it to the root.
“Fuck!” Severus cried. He thrust upward helplessly, and Harry choked but eased him back and kept sucking. Severus scraped his nails over his nipples, twisting and yanking them as Harry bobbed over his lap. He could feel Harry jerking himself beside his leg, and he wanted so badly to see it, to feel it when Harry came. As if he’d stolen into his mind and plucked the thought directly from his head, Harry rose up, Severus’s wet, throbbing prick slapping onto his belly, and loomed over him, eyes intense.
“Turn over,” he said, voice gone hoarse. Severus felt a thrill travel through him. He had never been penetrated before, but he was suddenly gagging for it, scrambling to his hands and knees, arching his back and pushing his arse up like a wanton, greedy thing. His blood was in a frenzy and he fancied he could feel it pounding in his arse, begging for Harry’s touch, his cock, the very force of him.
Harry rubbed long lines down Severus’s back until he took hold of Severus’s cheeks and spread them apart. Severus’s face burned; he turned it into the bedding as if he could hide from the embarrassment even as he spread his legs to give Harry a better view. He wanted Harry to see him, all of him. He wanted to be seen and known and wanted and by Merlin he felt that way now, for the first time, arse in the air and a beautiful man inspecting it. His hole clenched in anticipation. Harry blew a light stream of air over it, and Severus muffled a groan in the bedding.
He did not expect the tongue that followed.
He shouted and jerked in place, but Harry held him steady and lifted his head to say, “Let me do this for you Severus. I promise it’s good.”
“It’s not—safe.” Severus was breathless.
The feeling of Harry laving his hole was unlike any other sensation Severus had ever experienced. His blood was pounding and he was nearly dizzy with arousal, his prick full to bursting but all his desire somehow focused on his arse. Harry alternated between sucking his hole and laving it, flicking it with the tip of his tongue and dipping inside. Severus was delirious with the pleasure of it. How had he not known? How had he missed this?
By having fucks—furtive and shameful and quick, often paid—not lovers. Not soft touch, nor gentle words, nor good care. Not the open vulnerability of being facedown before a stronger man who nevertheless touched him as if he were something precious.
Severus was jerking his prick and rocking back into Harry’s tongue, moaning out his ecstasy and content to stay this way forever when Harry pulled away. The pad of one finger circled his hole, which gave without protest. There was slick on that finger, and it slid easily inside him. The sensation was odd—intimate and foreign, neither bad nor good, until another finger joined it and stretched him open. He moaned to be filled up, and he felt liquid squeeze from his prick. He moaned and rocked back.
“Like that?” Harry murmured.
“God, yes,” Severus said. Harry bent and nuzzled kisses into the small of his back and down over his cheeks, and even swiped his tongue against his stretched hole again. He pulled the fingers out and pushed them back in again and Severus moaned, his eyes rolling backward. Another finger joined in and stretched him further, and Severus wondered for a wild moment if Harry would put his entire hand in. And for that wild moment, he wanted nothing more.
Harry crooked his fingers and pressed gently on his prostate. Severus’s breath left him and he saw stars. He pushed back into the contact, and Harry obliged him.
“Get in me or I’ll come,” he moaned.
“Come then,” Harry said lazily, pumping his fingers in and out, dragging his fingertips against his prostate with each thrust.
“No, no—I need you,” Severus said.
“Fuck,” Harry muttered, and removed his hand.
Severus wasn’t bereft for long. He felt the head of Harry’s prick nudge against his hole. He clenched against it involuntarily. Harry ran soothing hands down his sides.
“Bear down against it,” he said. Severus frowned but obeyed, and Harry’s prick slid in with barely any protest.
Severus’s shaking arms failed him and he tipped forward onto his shoulders, which pressed Harry further inside him. Harry’s cock bumped Severus’s prostate and electricity exploded through him again. He sobbed his pleasure into the bedding.
“God that’s good,” Harry said, voice tight. “You look so fucking good like this, Severus, you’ve no idea.”
He pulled out and eased back inside, slowly at first and then with increasing urgency, until he was fucking him with abandon. Severus felt as if he were possessed by the force of his own desire. He was meeting each thrust and forcing Harry deeper and deeper into himself. Harry tangled one hand in Severus’s hair and gripped it close to the scalp. Severus shouted and gave himself up to it, knees sliding farther apart on the bed until he was flat on his belly. Harry hauled him back up to his knees and the change of angle pushed Harry’s cock directly into Severus’s prostate. Harry drew back and slammed in again, and again, and again. Severus moaned and clamped hard on Harry’s cock, jerking himself mercilessly.
“Come on,” Harry was saying, “come on, Severus, come on my cock, come on—”
Severus’s cries grew louder as his arousal sharpened, and then all breath and thought and sight left him—he was coming in great spurts across his hand, across the bedding, the fire of it overtaking his entire body. He shook and collapsed, Harry’s prick gone from his body but Harry himself still on top of him, still holding him, still murmuring nonsense in his ear.
“That was so fucking good, Severus, you’re so fucking good, God I can’t stand it.”
Severus wriggled onto his side and Harry slid off of him. He groped back and found Harry’s prick, still hard, and pulled his leg up to his chest as he guided Harry back inside him.
“God, Severus.” Harry locked his arms around Severus, his chest to Severus’s back, his mouth sucking kisses along Severus’s throat. It was only a handful of strokes before Harry stiffened and gasped in his ear, and Severus felt the pulsing of Harry’s cock inside him.
Severus craned around enough to give him a sloppy kiss, but he stopped Harry when he moved to extricate himself from Severus’s arse. Boneless, Harry sagged behind him, prick softening but content to remain where it was, and Severus let himself fall into the hazy half-sleep of orgasmic lassitude.
When they rose from their stupor, Harry declared himself “ravenous,” and absconded nude to the kitchen. Severus, feeling a lightness he hadn’t known he was capable of, fussed with a sheet at first, but then cast it aside and joined him. Harry was banging around pots and pans, and Severus was mesmerised by the bobbing of his bare arse.
“What are you making?” he asked.
“What are you in the mood for?”
“I’m not—that is, I’m not the one who was recently incarcerated in a veritable wonderland of human rights violations, so I think your ‘mood,’ as it were, trumps mine.”
Harry snorted and snuck a glance at Severus before turning his back to him again to dig around in the pantry. Severus’s breath caught. It was going to be a strange adjustment, this requited feelings business.
“Scrambled eggs on toast it is,” Harry said. “Do you want cheese?”
“No,” Severus said. After a moment, he added, “thank you.”
“You don’t have to become a totally different person for me, you know,” Harry said, plucking four slices of bread from a loaf. He expertly cracked four eggs into a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper, and set to whipping them with a fork by hand.
“I am bitter and full of contempt, Potter,” Severus said. “I have seen what these attributes bring to a—relationship. Allow me to attempt to better myself after a rare glimmer of self-reflection.”
Harry held his hands up in surrender. He was smiling, leaning a hip against the cooker. He looked lighter now. Unburdened. Severus’s heart swelled. He cleared his throat and turned his attention to the cabinets.
“You make eggs, I’ll make tea,” he said. Harry stole a kiss and laughed as he slid past him, skin to skin. Severus felt almost drunk with it. No one had ever been playful with him before. No one had ever been affectionate. His previous assignations had been about getting off and getting out. He wanted to grab on with both hands and keep this moment, this feeling, from slipping away.
“What do you want to do now?” Severus asked over eggs and tea.
Harry, hunched over his plate and scraping food up into his mouth with both knife and fork, paused to answer with his mouth full.
“I thought you said you had ideas.”
“Ideas only, Potter,” Severus said. “Nothing yet concrete, and besides, it’s your power, and your choice in where we begin our search for the techniques to harness it.”
“What are my options?” Harry said, waving his fork and knife around. “I’m out of my depth here, Severus. I didn’t know there was any harnessing it, and then you come back and say there is, and you’ll help me, so help me, yeah?”
“What were you going to do before all this?” Severus asked. “It certainly seems to have come to a head without my involvement. You can’t have been blind to it.”
Harry’s shoulders rose and fell as he shook his head.
“I was just going to keep holding on,” he said.
“That wasn’t working, Potter.”
“I don’t know, all right?” he said. “I don’t want to know.”
Severus breathed out and raised his mug to his lips. Harry watched him avidly. Severus’s eggs were half gone; he pushed his plate toward Harry, who speared the food from Severus’s plate without looking.
“The West has a frightful disconnect from the very magic that makes us wizards,” Severus said. “Puritanism and individualism gone rampant, I suppose. I believe our best chances lie in investigating and studying foreign modes of magical scholarship—populations in Asia, Africa, Central and South America come to mind first, but there are also the indigenous magics of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, isolated islands in the Pacific, and so on. We could even go to Sri Lanka, if you wish.”
“What’s in Sri Lanka?”
Severus tilted his head, drawing his eyebrows together.
“What?” Harry said.
“Sri Lanka is where your grandmother was from, on your father’s side,” Severus said. “It would have been British Ceylon when she came here, but still.”
Harry’s eyebrows rose, and his cheeks flushed.
“Oh,” he said.
“No one told you this,” Severus said.
“No.” Harry shoved the final corner of a piece of toast in his mouth and chewed methodically. He gazed past Severus’s shoulder without seeing. “I have a few pictures of my dad. I guess I assumed he was Indian.”
Severus hated them all suddenly—Petunia and Dumbledore and McGonagall and even his past self. Harry Potter was a grown man who didn’t even know who he was, and whose fault was that? Severus never expected to be in this position: doling out morsels of Potter history to the scion of the family, who was now his lover, and he had to be fair about it.
“He was a late-life child born to a wizard of English and Welsh extraction and a witch of Sri Lankan extraction,” Severus said. “It was most likely an arranged marriage, as the times and their social class would have dictated. Like many Purebloods, they had difficulty starting a family, and your father was a child very longed for and thus very spoiled. They were elderly by the time he came, and had little energy to run after a child as wild and spirited as James Potter.” Throw me a parade, I managed not to scoff his name, Severus thought. “While I was away attending my apprenticeship, your grandfather took a stand against the tide of Pureblood Supremacist rhetoric growing in the Ministry and was killed for his trouble, most likely as a warning to other Purebloods who might be tempted to defy the Dark Lord. Your grandmother, I am given to understand, simply faded away in his absence.”
Perhaps theirs was a love match after all, Severus thought. Even if the love came later.
Harry was staring at him. There was a crumb clinging tenaciously to the corner of his mouth.
Severus shifted under the scrutiny.
“Would you like to go?” he asked. “To Sri Lanka?”
“Maybe,” Harry said, and cleared his throat when it came out like a croak. “Do you suppose I still have family there?”
“It’s possible,” Severus said. “Second cousins and the like. It wouldn’t hurt to check.”
“And someone might be able to help me with my magic.”
“You may find your magic has a certain harmony in a place tied to your heritage,” Severus said. “Obviously that goes for your British heritage as well.”
“Do you think that’s the reason?” Harry said. “A British wizard on British soil.”
“If that were true we’d all be a right mess,” Severus said with half a smile. Harry snorted. “While we are all imbued with the magics of our homes, I expect you are, as usual, a special case.”
“Why all the extra?” he said. “Why me at all? Just because Voldemort marked me his equal?”
“I don’t believe so,” Severus said. “I don’t think he could have marked you at all had you not been born with this capacity. When he came, you would have simply died, like any other baby.”
Harry nodded and dropped his gaze to the empty plates before him.
“There’s something in me,” he said. “Something wrong.”
“No, Potter,” Severus said. “Harry.”
Harry looked up. His eyes were wide and lush, like a meadow in the springtime. They looked almost electric against the toffee-brown of his skin, offset by the pitch of his hair and eyebrows. Severus leaned forward. He wished he were the kind of person who could reach out and touch, but he wasn’t.
“Listen to me,” Severus said. “It is a gift. You are a gift.”
Harry shuddered and dipped his head, eyes closed. He leaned across the table, and all Severus had to do was bend a little, and their foreheads were resting against each other.
“Sri Lanka,” Harry murmured.
“Sri Lanka,” Severus said.
They were still and silent for a long time, breathing the same breath. Severus imagined himself merging into Harry, a single skin, a single heartbeat. He committed this feeling, this oneness, to memory.
In the sitting room, the fire roared to life.
Harry and Severus sprang apart at the sound of footsteps, and before Severus could turn around to see who interrupted them so, Harry had sprung to his feet, face a thundercloud.
“Hermione!” he said. “A little bloody privacy!”
Severus, half turned toward their puff-headed intruder, cringed around his exposed genitals.
Granger rolled her eyes.
“Don’t be so precious about it,” she said. “Oh dear, normal human body parts, however shall I go on.”
“Harry. I have to take him in.”
Severus whipped his head around to face him. Harry was flushing red down his entire body. The air in the room seemed to crackle.
Granger held her wand at her side, shoulders square and chin raised as if facing a firing squad.
“You have to let me do my job, Harry.”
“I have to do no such thing,” Harry said, and his voice was low but there was a force behind it that magnified its quality through Severus’s ears and into his body. By the way she staggered, ever so slightly, it was the same for Granger. Harry’s hair began to frazzle outward. Severus stood.
“Harry,” he said, low and urgent. “Listen to me. You have to set aside your thoughts and find within yourself—”
“He’s going to rip apart the fabric of space and time, Harry,” Granger said over the rushing of Severus’s blood in his ears.
“He hasn’t yet,” Harry said, “everything is just bloody fine.”
“He doesn’t belong to this time, Harry. He doesn’t belong to you.”
“Take a deep breath and hold it to calm your magical core—”
Harry held up a hand and Severus’s mouth sealed shut. He didn’t even look at him. His blazing eyes were trained on Granger. Granger, whom Severus now knew was one half of the pair of Harry’s best and closest friends, the only one who was at his side for the whole of the war, and someone so formidable in her own right that she was already a fully licensed Unspeakable at age twenty-five.
Don’t do this, Severus wanted to say. Don’t do something you can’t come back from.
“Are you challenging me?” Harry said.
“This doesn’t have to be a fight, Harry.”
“You come to my house, you presume upon your open access to my fire, and you come with your wand out,” Harry said. “From where I’m standing, that looks like a fight.”
“I’m talking about the fabric of reality, Harry,” Granger said.
“STOP SAYING MY NAME!”
Magic, hot and wild, rolled off of him like crashing waves. Severus found himself pitched to the floor. A series of tooth-rattling slams echoed throughout the house, and every window in the cottage was gone, replaced by stone. When he looked up, Granger was gone too, and Harry was dashing past him and up the stairs. Severus staggered to his feet and into the sitting room, where there was no more front door or fireplace. Harry rushed back down the stairs and shoved his clothes in his arms.
“Do you have all your things?” he asked as Severus dressed hurriedly.
“Yes,” Severus said.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.
Severus could think of only one place.
“Cauldrons’ Pass,” he said. “Carpathian Mountains, Slovakia-Ukraine.”
Harry landed on his feet in a verdant paradise framed by water and mountains and a great blue sky, but Severus was pitched into the grass with as much grace as a Bludger and about as much force. He groaned as Harry hauled him to his feet.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “International borders bungled my landing.”
Severus grunted and pressed a hand to his chest.
“Are you all right?” Harry asked, suddenly in his space, hands skimming his chest.
“I’m fine,” Severus rasped. “Hard landing, as you say.”
“Shit,” Harry said. “I never bloody think—”
“Potter, stop,” Severus said. “I’m fine. We’re here.” He looked up. The mountains were so tall, clouds ringed them like ruffled collars, and the air was so clear he could still see their snow-capped tops. Harry looked around and seemed to see the beauty of it for the first time. Some twenty paces away was a cabin. Goats milled about. Birds were singing. Severus felt like he could was smelling grass for the first time.
“We should knock on the door,” Harry said after a while.
Trepidation stayed Severus’s hand. Or feet. He found himself unable to approach the cabin, and his mouth was sealed shut against all that wanted to spill out. What if I’m not really welcome? What if we’re turned away? What if she never wanted me? What if I bring shame and ruin to their door, as I always do? What if—
Harry’s hand came to rest between Severus’s shoulder blades. It was a steadying weight, and Severus exhaled. His breath shook, and he dragged air back in.
“What was that you were trying to get me to do?” Harry said. “Before I put Hermione on her arse in the Orkneys.”
“Is that what happened to her?”
“She’ll be fine,” Harry said with a curl of his lip.
“It was a technique for clearing one’s mind enough to look inward and parse one’s own magic,” Severus said. “I learned it in Tibet.” He shook his head and twisted his mouth into a rueful sneer. “Stupid, I suppose, to attempt a quick tutorial on someone who’s never tried it before and has already lost control.”
“I was in control,” Harry said. “It just…wasn’t good enough.”
“You have to be able to do it,” he said. “It’s the very first thing.”
“You used to say that to me,” he said. “‘Clear your mind,’ like it meant anything. Like I should just be able to do it without knowing what it meant.”
“Why would I say that to you?” Severus said. “I thought I taught Potions.”
“You also taught me Occlumency, briefly,” Harry said. Severus blinked at him, and Harry’s crooked smile came out as his head dipped forward and he shrugged as if in apology. How could the slayer of the Dark Lord be so self-deprecating? “I wasn’t good at it,” he said. “We ended the lessons and I never learned. But I should have. I should have kept going.”
“You were a child,” Severus said, and swallowed. “Why did you need Occlumency?”
Before Harry could say it, a sudden chill of terrible knowledge settled over Severus.
“You were a horcrux,” he said.
Harry’s eyes dimmed and his mouth flattened. He nodded.
“He could see through you,” Severus said.
“And make me see things,” Harry said. “Real things—and unreal ones.”
“It’s over now.” Harry’s hand dropped from Severus’s back and he turned away to face the river that carved its delicate path through the valley.
“That’s how you lived,” Severus said.
“The first time as well as the last, yes,” Harry said. “Is this what we need to discuss right now?”
“It’s a lot to take in, Potter,” Severus said. “Give me a moment.”
Harry turned back around.
“Does it change things?” he asked, and gestured frenetically into the space between them. “With you, or—or with my magic? I told you, I told you they said his magic went to me—”
“No, Potter,” Severus said. “Take a bloody breath; it doesn’t change anything. Your magic is nothing like his, I’ve told you this. If anything, his magic falling away not only from you but from Britain is what made the fullness of your magic possible.” He waved his hand at Harry. “Just. Let me sit with this.”
Harry stared at him for a moment, his face full of things Severus couldn’t parse, before he turned away again, hands on his hips, head tipped back to look at the mountaintops.
If Severus did have to go back to 1985, this information could change the course of the war. It could prevent the second war outright. The Dark Lord need never rise again. All those names on Granger’s second list, and Severus recognised a fair few family names as well as given ones, could live. Albus could still be Headmaster. Severus could himself avoid an early death. Harry wouldn’t have to carry the haunted look of a man who never properly came home from war. Severus could go to his hateful little Muggle neighbourhood, pluck him from Petunia’s talons, and save him from a life of deprivation.
Severus could never touch him in desire again.
He closed his eyes. It would be worth it, he knew. What was his happiness, anyway? Fleeting, and often false. And it would be better, to give it up willingly, while whatever had sprung up between them was still warm with affection and a shockingly mutual attraction, before it could devolve into sour contempt as it would surely do. It would be better to remember something beautiful than let it burn to ash, and all his heart with it.
He could do away with the Dark Lord with Albus’s help. He could raise a happy, healthy boy who had a full belly and father—no, an uncle, for what was Severus but Lily’s brother?—who loved him. He could set Harry free.
“I have to go back,” he said.
Harry whirled around to face him.
“We just got here,” he said. “We haven’t even knocked on the door yet.”
“I mean to Granger, and her Department of Mysteries,” Severus said. “I mean to 1985.”
Harry’s face fell and then went blank.
“Severus,” he said. “No.”
“I can fix it, Harry,” Severus said. “I can make things better than what they are.”
“There’s no guarantee of that.”
“The Headmaster. Your Remus Lupin. The other Weasley brother. Think, Potter.”
“You’re the one who’s not thinking!” Harry said, throwing his hands in the air. “What if Hermione sends you back and you slot back in with no memory of any of this?”
“If there is the slightest chance—”
“What about the Prophecy?” Harry shouted. “What about the fact that it has to be me?”
“What about me, Severus?” Harry deflated like a sail without wind. “What about what we have?”
“You’d find someone better,” Severus said. “Someone who knows how to—love someone else. Properly. You’d never know about all this, and you would be happy.”
Harry laughed as if he were crying, as if it were the least funny thing in the world.
“Fucking bollocks, Snape,” he said. “You know you can’t muck about with past events. And my happiness? Please. You felt yourself experience a little bit of joy and you’ve got to sabotage it. Very you, Severus; I should have expected it.”
“We’re mucking about with past events right now, Potter!” Severus said. “Maybe it can’t change. Maybe nothing can be different. But if I don’t go back and we wake up in a black hole tomorrow, how is that bloody better?”
“At least we’d be together!” Harry’s hair had gone frazzled again, and he was waving his arms about like a madman, but the pulse of his magic was steady and calm. Severus’s chest felt full. He let himself breathe, and Harry finally looked up at him, expression desolate.
“You don’t mean that,” Severus said, quietly. “The whole world—the whole universe. I’m not worth that, Potter. Harry.”
“You are,” Harry said, and then repeated it as if to convince himself.
Severus stepped up to him and smoothed his fringe back from his forehead. That famous scar stood out pale against his skin, bisecting his eyebrow and terminating on one high cheekbone like the crackle of electricity after lightning. He was more beautiful than anything Severus had ever seen before.
“Thank you,” he said, “for showing me how it could be.” He tried a smile, but it came out wrong. “For being willing to chuck the universe and everyone in it for me. But I can’t. You can’t, you incurable Gryffindor.”
Harry lunged into a kiss and took his breath away. He kissed Severus as if he were devouring him, and Severus surrendered into the force that was Harry Potter.
“One night,” Harry panted into his mouth when he broke away. “One more night with you, in your mother’s house. Please.”
Severus never claimed to be a strong man.
He nodded, and Harry was kissing him so thoroughly he missed the creak of an opening door, and the clearing of a throat. Harry jumped away from him as if he’d been electrocuted, his colour high. Severus whirled around and found a long, spindly woman with a sheet of glossy black hair hanging around her face leaning in the doorjamb. She smirked and crossed her arms.
“Took you long enough,” she said in an accent that was somehow both English and gently Eastern European. “In with you, or we’ll make you feed the goats.”
Severus glanced at Harry, who looked as if his eyebrows were going to fly clear off his face. He nodded in the cabin’s direction, and Severus turned back around. His sister was looking at him with an expectant expression on her face. Exasperated too, he thought, only because he knew what that looked like on a face like theirs. The nose was large in the narrow face but its slope was gentle rather than hatchet-like, and she had thick, bold brows that arched severely over her dark eyes. The cheekbones were high and prominent, and the mouth surprisingly lush. She was pretty in a sharp, severe way, Severus thought with some surprise.
“Stop being ridiculous and come eat some food,” she said, and Severus felt Harry’s hands on his back, pressing him forward up the walk and over the threshold.
The inside of the cabin was larger than the outside. It was done up in dark wood and grey stone, the walls a light but sedate green. Severus’s sister, Matilda, led them through a foyer and a hallway, a dining room and a sitting room until they arrived in the kitchen. At the cooker, an old woman swathed in heavy robes sat on a stool, stirring what smelled like a stew. She looked up as they entered, and Severus saw flint behind the clouding of her eyes. His heart threatened to break from his ribs.
“Babička,” Matilda said, “they’re here.” She beckoned him with a roll of her wrist, and Harry shoved Severus forward. “Come. Severus, this is our grandmother, Alžběta. Babička, this is Severus.”
The stool scraped the floor as she stood, Matilda taking her place before the simmering pot. She was small and her back was hunched, but she had held her head high and put her hand out, palm down. Severus grasped it and squeezed.
“Vítáj vás, Severus,” she said. “Welcome.”
“Grandmother,” he said, because he didn’t dare either the familiarity or the Slovak word. “I have been looking forward to this day.”
“I as well,” she said, and her thin, colourless lips twitched up in a small smile. A tension eased in him, and he forced his shoulders to relax. She looked at Harry and then back as Severus raised one severe eyebrow.
“Ah,” Severus said, and made a note to kick himself. He cleared his throat. “This is Harry Potter.”
“His legend precedes him,” she said, extending her hand. Harry shook it with more vigour than seemed necessary, but Alžběta’s smile only grew wider.
“Pleased to meet you, madam,” he said. “It’s an honour to be welcomed into your home.”
“The honour is ours, Mr. Potter,” she said. “You have brought our Severus back to us.”
“He did that on his own,” Harry said. “He insisted upon my not helping, in fact. He’s very clever, your grandson, and his magic is very strong.”
Alžběta grunted, and Harry’s cheeks flushed pink.
“This is not what I mean,” she said. Harry ducked his head, and snuck a glance at Severus, who could feel his own expression devolving into a scowl.
“What,” he snapped.
“Never mind that,” Alžběta said. “You are hungry, yes? Food now. Rest. Talk to your sister. And then: practical matters, with your Harry Potter.”
“The stew smells wonderful,” Harry said quickly. He was pointedly ignoring Severus now, and Matilda threw a smirk over her shoulder.
“The stew’s not ready yet,” she said.
“Many hours,” Alžběta said.
“Oh.” Harry sagged.
“It’s for supper,” Matilda said.
“You sit,” Alžběta said. “This part must be done by hand, by people. Then Seldáko will watch over it.”
“Gnarby,” Matilda said.
“Pah, those preposterous English names,” Alžběta said, miming spitting on the floor. Matilda grinned and rolled her eyes before turning back to the stew. Severus stared after her dumbfounded. He had a sister. He had a sister who was attempting to forge a familial bond with him, as if they had had the same experience wrangling a curmudgeonly Slovak grandmother all their lives. He loved and hated her in equal measure.
“Where’s Mother?” he asked suddenly.
“She likes to take walks,” Matilda said. “For her constitution.”
“She will return when she returns,” Alžběta said. “You never said when you were coming, and kept us waiting all these weeks. For now, Obložené Chlebíčky. Seldáko!”
The house elf formerly known as Gnarby popped into the kitchen, and scowled at Severus.
“Chlebíčky for our guests,” Alžběta said. Seldáko bowed so deeply his forehead touched the floor, and then he disappeared. “Sit, sit,” Alžběta said with a sharp downward gesture of one hand.
Severus and Harry sat at the table, and she sat across from them, studying them with cloudy eyes that missed nothing. Severus straightened himself under her scrutiny, and then their meal landed before them: a veritable smorgasbord of sliced bread with all manner of toppings, spreads, vegetables, meats and eggs.
“Eat now,” Alžběta said, and Severus knew there was no arguing with her.
Harry tucked in with neither shame nor hesitation. Severus was going to have to talk to him about table etiquette, but now was not the time, with Alžběta looking at him as if his stuffing his face was the greatest gift she’d ever been given. Severus took his time picking a piece of this chlabeetchky, or however it was pronounced. He chose one with a spread and a hard boiled egg and a grilled red pepper, and another with slices of ham and tomato and a gherkin.
“Do you like twenty-first century, Severus?” Alžběta asked after she’d stared at him for minutes on end.
Severus finished chewing and swallowed before wiping his mouth.
“I’m afraid I’ve been rather too preoccupied by certain events to explore much,” he said.
“Events,” Alžběta said with a scoff. “Coming back to life is so busy.”
“Well, yes,” Severus said. “There was finding you, which, by the way, was not easy, and then Potter’s unlawful incarceration, and dealing with the press—”
“No more Lord Imbecile,” Alžběta said with a wave of her hand. “No more drunkard father. No more memory, even, of the worst of your life. Freedom, Severus, is not a gift to be taken lightly. You should be enjoying yourself. See the world. Get some colour. Have some sex.”
Matilda guffawed into the stew, Harry began to cough, and Severus felt his face flame.
“Your drunkard father, he is dead, yes?” Alžběta asked.
“Erm. Yes,” Severus said.
Alžběta nodded once, eyes narrowed.
“Lena, perhaps she will return to England,” Alžběta said. “It is her home, as this is mine. It is a long exile, I think.”
“She could have returned any time she wanted, as far as I can tell,” Severus said. “She obviously wished to stay away.”
“You do not understand her circumstances,” Alžběta said. “No matter. Tell me your plans.”
“No, enlighten me of these circumstances,” he said. “No more equivocation, no more changing the subject. She left me in England with that drunkard father, not yet seventeen years old. That’s the choice she made. She could have taken me with her. She could have sent word in a way he wouldn’t have seen. She could have done anything but leave me with no way of knowing if she were alive or dead!”
Alžběta sat back and considered him. Matilda leaned back against the cooker and stared. Harry pressed his thigh against his. The silence was oppressive.
“She had no magic left,” Matilda said when it became clear that Alžběta would remain mute on the subject. “Just enough to keep her alive, but her core was drained away. Babička’s too.” Alžběta squared her shoulders and tipped her chin up. Matilda said, “The reality of living with Tobias was one of survival, by any means necessary. All of her magic went to keeping her alive, and then me, and there was none to spare for spellwork.”
“The house elves,” Severus said.
“They defied Septimus and Apparated Mamička and Babička here to Cauldrons’ Pass, which was placed under Fidelius. He could not find them, but the elves were bound to Prince Manor and had to return. Who knows what horrors he subjected them to before he finally died.”
“I had one second cousin, black sheep,” Alžběta said. “She helped us and never said a word. Matilda was born. It took many years to heal. Many years.”
“I was left with Tobias too,” Severus said, his voice hoarse. “I was there, too.”
Harry’s hand ghosted along Severus’s back as if unsure of its welcome. He drew it away only to press his side wholly into Severus’s. Severus allowed himself to sag into the contact.
“A fact for which I am sorry, Severus,” came his mother’s voice. Severus looked up to find Eileen standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “There are no adequate apologies. I know that. Shall I beg? Shall I get on my knees? I will, if it would appease you.”
“Empty gestures are meaningless to me,” Severus said.
“Then what would you have me do, Severus?” Eileen said. “It has been many years, even by your count. Are we to sit here in the kitchen and allow you to berate us until we dry up and blow away? Or do you want help with your—” She waved in Harry’s direction. “—little problem?”
Severus looked at Harry, who seemed caught out, defensive. His shoulders were tense, like a rabbit about to bolt. But he let Severus hold his gaze, and an understanding passed between them.
“Potter’s magic is immense, and it is raw, as if mined from the very bedrock of the earth,” Severus said. “Potter is also—he has not had an easy life.”
Harry frowned at him, and Severus forced himself to turn away from him and meet Alžběta’s eyes.
“He must learn to look inward,” Severus said. “He must learn not to suppress his power but to balance it. I would request your advice on where to go and whom to consult, for his journey will be a long one. He will start in Sri Lanka.”
“Severus…” Harry said, but Severus ploughed on.
“It is much to presume, but I would ask that you watch over him, when I’m gone.”
“Severus, no,” Harry said.
“And where are you going?” Eileen asked, as tart as Minerva McGonagall.
“Back to 1985,” Severus said. “Merlin willing, I will be able to change things. But if not, he will need family, and though I have no right to it I would ask that you be his in my stead.” He glanced at Eileen. “Consider it a debt paid.”
“Do not meddle with the vagaries of time, Severus,” Alžběta said, her voice suddenly amplified. Severus cringed and turned wide eyes on his grandmother. “Your best laid plans could end with every witch, wizard, Muggle and Squib in chains. No, you are not going anywhere. 1985! Pah.”
“I’m already unravelling everything just by—”
“You are not!” Alžběta said, and though she never raised her voice the words boomed through the cabin. “Do you see down is up, white is black? Do we melt in ice, freeze in fire? Has a hole been blown in the world? No!”
“Severus, you were the linchpin of the war,” Harry said, pitching his voice low. “If you had disappeared in 1985, we would not have won. This reality wouldn’t even exist. You’re not destroying anything.”
“Maybe I did disappear, but I did the proper thing and went back, Potter, think.”
“Tell him, Mr. Potter,” she said in that timbre that rattled Severus’s teeth. “You tell him how he came to be here.”
Harry closed his eyes and tucked his chin into his chest.
“I wished for you,” he whispered. “I wished for you and you came to me.”
No one said anything. There was only breath, and the bubbling of the stew.
“I don’t understand,” Severus said, after a long while.
Harry shook his head and cracked his neck, looking skyward. When he finally met Severus’s eyes, his face held an apology.
“It wasn’t purposeful,” he said. “I just… wanted someone who could understand me. I’d gone over and over every little thing about the war, the final battle, even your death on that filthy floor in the Shack—”
“I died there?”
“—and I got stuck, I suppose, on this idea that if I’d just been faster, if I’d just been smarter, if I’d just trusted that you were Dumbeldore’s man like he always said you were, you would still be here and you would know what to do with all my—with everything. You always knew so much more than me. You always protected me, even when I hated you. Even when we set you on fire or told the world you were a murderer. You were always there, Severus. And I wanted so badly for you to still be here.”
Severus shook his head. His limbs felt like jelly. Harry wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“So I’m, what, a shade? A dream given shape?”
“Please share, Potter, what the great Granger thinks.”
Harry’s face smoothed into an expressionless mask, and Severus looked away.
“She thought I’d split you, like a clone or something,” Harry said. “She thought that specific desire of mine—for someone who understood me, and for that someone to be you—resulted in a copy of Severus Snape, my own age, not yet encumbered by all he would be asked to do. In which case, you are still in 1985, you are still laying the groundwork for the upcoming war, you are still waiting for me to grow up so you can do what needs to be done. But you’re also here, because my magic—because I am uncontrolled, and on the brink of disaster, and need so much help. I’m sorry, Severus. I never meant—”
“You never mean,” Severus said, lips twisting in a sneer that bared teeth. “You never meant to kill that rapist. You never meant to throw me on my arse in my quarters the first night you saw me, nor after your argument with Granger. You never meant to turn the manor into dust, nor lob Granger into the Orkneys. And yet you didn’t raze Azkaban to the ground when they imprisoned and starved you. Your scabby, sociopathic relatives are still alive and unscathed. When you move someone you care about, it’s never to the middle of the ocean, or into a trash compactor. You never mean to lose control of all your rage, except when you want to.”
“You took my death from me!” Severus shouted, jumping to his feet. “You took my redemption! You took my rest! I was meant to die for her! For you!”
Severus panted, his head throbbing, his heart threatening to burst from his gullet like a bad meal. Harry stared up at him impassively.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me,” Harry said. “But you don’t have to go back to 1985. You could live now—for yourself. For all the things you missed the first time around.”
Severus closed his eyes and turned away. He gripped the edge of the table and leaned forward, breathing deeply. He counted his heartbeats.
“How did you know,” he said, low and dangerous.
“I…” Harry floundered.
“Not you,” Severus said, and lifted his head to meet the flint of his grandmother’s eyes. “How did you know?”
“It is plain for one such as me,” she said. “I am one hundred and twenty years old. Trained in elemental magics. Close to earth. I feel it. You, in him. And him in you.”
Severus ducked his head again.
“Is not a bad thing, Severus,” Alžběta said. “This magic. This second chance.”
“He can’t keep doing this,” Severus said. “One day it’s me, the next day it’s the Ministry. One day cauldron cakes, the next day London. We need a plan and we need it right now.”
“Severus, I won’t,” Harry said, and Severus straightened to look down at him. His eyes were wide, his colour high. He looked astonished. Severus licked his lips.
“You won’t mean to, Potter,” he said. Harry closed his eyes and turned away.
Matilda was nowhere to be found. Eileen still hovered in the doorway, and Alžběta remained seated before him, cool as a dungeon in autumn.
“Do you know of any masters here in Slovakia-Ukraine who could provide Harry’s first lessons?” Severus asked. “He needs a connection to his own magical core and the ability to clear his mind before we can go anywhere else.”
“I am right here, silly boy,” Alžběta said. “No need to go to Ukraine.”
“Ukraine?” Severus said.
“Why Ukraine?” Alžběta scowled. “I say I am right here, you do not want my lessons?”
“It’s not that,” Severus said. “I thought we were in Slovakia-Ukraine.”
“There is no such place as Slovakia-Ukraine,” Alžběta said.
“What about Czechoslovakia?”
“No such thing as that either,” Alžběta said.
“Severus, we’re on the border between Slovakia and Ukraine,” Eileen said. “That’s what I meant when I wrote that note.”
Severus scowled. He knew he should have gone to a Muggle library some time in the last few weeks.
“The Muggles have done away with the Berlin wall,” his mother continued. “The USSR is no more. The Eastern Bloc countries are independent now. You are in Slovakia. To the west are Austria and the Czech Republic. To the south: Hungary. To the north: Poland.”
“You go away for twenty measly years and everything has a new name,” Severus said, and Harry snorted.
Alžběta stood and clapped once.
“I am old,” she said. “I am napping now. You rest, you take a walk, you have supper, you talk to your sister and your mother.” She pointed at Harry then. “And tomorrow, our lessons begin.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Prince,” Harry said.
“Pah! Did Severus not say we are your family now? I am Babička, you say it.”
“…Babička,” Harry said, and he was smiling.
“Miláčik,” she said, leaning over the table with its mess of Chlebíčky remains to pat Harry’s cheek. When she was done with Harry, she took Severus’s face in both hands. “Welcome home, Severus.”
Severus found Matilda smoking a cigarette on the lake shore, about half a mile from Cauldrons’ Pass. He joined her and watched the late afternoon sun throw light glinting across the lake’s surface. She thrust the pack of cigarettes out at him, and he plucked one from the half-empty box.
“Filthy Muggle habit,” he said, tapping it with his wand for a light. He closed his eyes on the first inhale; it had been almost ten years since he’d had a fag.
“There’s a Muggle village not far from here,” Matilda said. “I went to primary school there, and made friends there, and picked up filthy habits there.” She had a sly sort of smile, crooked, one corner tilting up as she peeked at him sideways.
Severus grunted and shoved one hand in his robe pockets. The sun shone, and the day was warm, but the breeze was cool enough to raise gooseflesh.
“Why didn’t they go somewhere wizarding, I wonder,” he said.
“The wizarding quarters here are unforgiving,” Matilda said. “I don’t know about UK, but here, a Pureblood witch who left her husband and another who married a Muggle?” She shook her head and threw her cigarette into the grass, grinding it with her toe. “They would be outcasts. And I’m half a Muggle, besides. It’s good to know where you come from.”
Severus was reminded of another lake, another mountain range, another continent. He tipped his face into the breeze. He puffed on his smoke.
“Durmstrang?” he asked eventually.
“The finest school in Europe,” Matilda said.
“And what do you do now?” he said. “What are you, twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”
“Twenty-eight,” she said. “Late birthday. I work in medical Potions research at a firm in Bratislava. We fiddle with formulas to make them better, safer, stronger, more efficient.”
“I should like to know more about that,” Severus said.
“I’m sure you would.”
Severus glowered at her, and Matilda laughed.
“Not everything’s an insult, Severus,” she said. “You should come on a tour of the laboratory with me. And if you end up staying here a long time, I’m sure my employers would hire you on, perhaps in development department. This is your passion, yes? Inventing new potions?”
“I—yes.” Severus frowned in thought. “How did you know that?”
Matilda lit another cigarette and took a long drag.
“When I was small, Mamička would put me to bed and tell me a story. Two, if she was feeling generous. She had a million of them; I think she would make them up on the spot. Little Severus and the Girl Next Door. Little Severus and the Dirty Cauldron. Little Severus and the Malfunctioning Broom.”
“That’s…” Severus shook his head. He didn’t know what it was, but it made him quail even as he felt his heart expand.
“Little Severus was very brave, even when he was afraid,” Matilda said. “Little Severus learned valuable lessons about listening to his mother and cleaning up after himself and being nice to friends even when he didn’t feel like being nice to anyone. She had a few pictures of you, those still Muggle ones. I would ask her when you were coming to live with us. And she would say, ‘soon, darling.’”
Matilda flicked hair out of her face.
“Not very sporting of her,” Severus said.
Matilda gave a single-shouldered shrug.
“I got older, I went to school. I heard all about Severus Snape, and the terrible business in Britain.”
“All the way in Bulgaria?”
“An Igor Karkaroff was our deputy headmaster,” she said, and Severus’s stomach dropped. “And then Headmaster, later. There were rumours about him, and rumours about him became rumours about everyone who served that Voldemort. Eventually, the boys of my school, and do not ask me why not the girls, got to go to Hogwarts for the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Your Harry Potter was in that tournament, not yet fifteen.”
“And I was there, I suppose.”
“It’s a long story, I think,” she said. “I understand the night he won is the night Voldemort returned. It was a set up. That’s the phrase, yes? Set up?”
“Yes,” Severus said. He was suddenly thirsty and wanted Harry badly. Harry was eating some more, and then intended to rest. Two weeks in Azkaban had taken their toll, on his body if not his magic. For his own part, Severus had found himself restive, and too curious about a sister he did not know.
“I waited for you to come home all my life, Severus,” Matilda said. “When I finally realised you were sixteen, almost seventeen years older than me and never even knew of me, I mourned. Can you believe it?”
Severus was silent, staring out over the lake. The mountains looked like an oil painting. He felt as though he could reach out and touch them.
“Sometimes I think I’ve spent my life counting my regrets,” he said. “I think that’s what he did—the older me. I think it made him into someone hard and cruel. Harder and crueller, I should say.”
“You think I would have hated him, had I known him.”
“I can’t say,” Severus said. “I like to imagine he would have welcomed the idea of you, but it’s entirely possible he would have blamed you for our mother’s absence from his pitiable life. Even now, being close in age—we have no shared experience, nothing that ties us together. What is our relation really, but an accident of circumstance? We may be blood but we’re not—”
“Brother and sister.”
Severus looked at her. She was a mirror—his life with an X chromosome. His life without the poverty, the father so free with his fists, the blood prejudice, the wrecked face. And yet he knew nothing about her. He could not conceive of himself without all of it, and thus he could not conceive of her.
“It has been a lonely life,” Matilda said. “I do not mean to compare—I know I cannot fathom what you have been through, in this life or in the one lost. I mean only to say that like you, I grew up an only child near Muggles, half-foreign and tasked with keeping secrets from any friends I did make. I grew up with a mother so battered by life that she sometimes shut herself away to weep or stare at a wall, who needed a great deal of rest and healing. While I didn’t lack for love, I lacked for company, and often affection. You were as real to me as any other lonely child’s imaginary friend, only I knew you were out there waiting for me, and if I could just reach out…”
Matilda trailed off, inhaling deeply of her cigarette. She held the smoke in her lungs and then exhaled slowly in a great, lazy plume, like a dragon.
“Did you ever try?” Severus asked. “Finding him?”
Matilda uttered a noncommittal sound. She tucked a hank of hair behind her ear.
“I always planned to,” she said. “But I came of age when the news out of Britain was dire, and Mamička begged me not to go. Your dark wizard had returned, though no one would admit it. I kept telling myself I’d wait another year. Then the whispers came that he had taken the Ministry, and I had to wait another. Then you—you know. And then—” She shrugged and took another drag. “And then it was too late.”
Severus’s cigarette was finished. He threw it into the grass and ground out the flame. Matilda offered him the box again, but he waved it away.
“In some other life, perhaps we had each other,” Severus said. He saw Matilda’s mouth twist in her funny little half-smile.
“All our alternate lives,” she said.
“Without the age difference,” Severus said.
“Without the drink.”
“Without the house on the wrong side of town.”
“Without blood supremacy.”
They looked at each other, their smiles gone, their matching eyes taking each other in as if to commit every minute difference between them to memory.
“Little Severus,” Severus said, “and the Nostalgia for Something That Never Was.”
“Sounds like a bestseller,” Matilda said. Severus snorted. Matilda nodded behind him, and Severus turned around to find his mother approaching the lake.
“What are you lot talking about up here?” she said. “Plotting against me, I hope.”
“Oh yes, big plans,” Matilda said. “A veritable coup.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said. “Your young man’s dead to the world, Severus. We should discuss next steps.”
“I’ll check on the stew,” Matilda said.
“You don’t have to go, darling,” Eileen said. “You may have input we need.”
Matilda raised her hands as if in surrender.
“And I’ll give it, Mamička, all in good time,” she said, walking backwards. “You two need some time.”
“You shouldn’t smoke,” Eileen said. “Don’t think I don’t know you gave some to Severus.”
“I’m the big sister now,” Matilda shouted from a distance. “It’s my job to corrupt him.”
Eileen shook her head and joined Severus at the line where grass became rocky shore.
“I smoked before she was ever born,” Severus said.
“I know it, love,” Eileen said. He watched her watch the water. She had the kind of mouth that arched downward when she smiled. “She has a beau, out there in Bratislava,” she said. “She hasn’t told us, but it’s obvious if you know her.”
“Why does she still live here?”
“Guilt, I imagine,” Eileen said. “A family trait, I think.”
She shook from her sleeve a box of cigarettes. Severus rolled his eyes.
“‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is a time-honoured tradition of parents everywhere,” she said. She lit the cigarette and took a long drag.
“She seems…” Severus gestured helplessly. What word was there, for someone of whom one was wildly envious, but felt a great and unfounded affection for nonetheless?
“Yes,” Eileen said. “A bit of an odd duck, but happy, I think. Happier than us, anyway. I think my mother and I have made her a bit shy of romance, but she seems to be finding her way.” Eileen looked at him sidelong. “That Potter boy looks at you like you hung the moon.”
“And I suspect the only reason I haven’t seen you look at him the same way is because you’ve been very careful not to look at him in our presence.”
“I don’t—” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “It can’t end well. I know that. But for whatever reason, I can’t stop. I don’t want to.”
“You should allow yourself this, Severus,” she said. “A little slice of happiness. And why not?”
“Because he’ll tire of me,” Severus said. “Because I’m hateful and acerbic and someday I’ll bite his head off and he’ll throw me out on my arse, possibly literally.”
“Not because he’s on the brink of madness?” Eileen said. “Not because he’s the most powerful man in the world, and could enslave you if he thought about it hard enough?”
Severus shook his head. The prospect of what Harry was capable of should have frightened him. It should have him running screaming for the mountains in the distance. He knew what it was to be in the thrall of a powerful wizard, what it could turn him into.
But it didn’t frighten him in the least. Worse, it excited him. He didn’t know what that made him. He had to believe he could pull Harry back. He had to believe that power like that could give the world a Merlin instead of a Voldemort.
“If it ends,” Severus said, “it will be because he willed it.”
“You mustn’t—” Eileen sighed and shook her head. “You mustn’t let him treat you badly,” she said.
“Mother, I am perfectly capable of being the one who treats him badly. In fact, I imagine it’s nearly inevitable.”
“You can’t hurt him like he can hurt you, Severus,” she said.
“I was a spy, Mother,” Severus snapped. “I can bloody well hold my own. And you can’t even decide what you want. You tell me to keep him and to leave him in the same breath. I didn’t come here for relationship advice from the most miserable witch in Europe.”
Severus began to walk up the shoreline, and Eileen followed.
“So,” she said. “Sri Lanka.”
“His grandmother came from there.”
“Sinhalese or Tamil?”
“I’m not certain.”
“Buddhist or Hindu?”
“He’s going to want to find family, Severus,” she said. “You need a way to narrow the field.”
“He can feel it in the earth,” Severus said. “He could have felt you, if I’d asked it of him.”
Eileen said nothing. They trudged along companionably. The sun dipped lower until the valley was awash in orange and pink.
“There is a master of Transfiguration who lives outside Anuradhapura,” she said.
“Minerva is a master of Transfiguration,” Severus said. “He’s comfortable with her.”
“Is that old tabby still at it?” Eileen shook her head. “Even so, it is not the art of Transfiguration Potter needs to study. It is the art of being. Of knowing the inner nature of a thing, especially oneself. Stillness. Oneness. This is what the magics outside Britain teach us. McGonagall can help no more than she already has.”
Severus rankled to hear his friend so insulted, but he knew it was true. The problem with Western wizardry and British magical scholarship was that the divorce from the elemental teachings had left them reliant on innate ability rather than cultivation and development of skill. Even Severus, with his ease in Potions, had been stunted in this way until he went to Tibet. Hogwarts taught magic as will, magic as intent—it did not teach magic as a life force, as a way of connecting not only with the world but with oneself. This Transfiguration master in Sri Lanka would not dally with parlour tricks; he or she would teach Harry how to be in his body.
“Do you have a name?” Severus said.
“Only a given name: Mahesha. Mother has passing knowledge of her and has sent an owl. I expect she will consent to taking on a student; Mother is very, erm, forceful, even when she is polite.”
“Good,” Severus said. “I expect it will take a long time.”
“Yes,” Eileen said. “What will you do during all of this?”
“There is demand for the services of a Potions master everywhere,” he said. “Also, everywhere we go will have different, and likely useful, ingredients one cannot find elsewhere. I confess I am looking forward to it.”
“Could get a top up yourself,” Eileen said.
“Reacquaint yourself with your own stillness, Severus,” she said. “It never hurts.”
“Have you thought about after Sri Lanka?”
“Mother, I’ve barely thought of Sri Lanka,” he said. “We’ll be here for Merlin only knows how long while your mother wrangles some semblance of peace from him. And if there’s family in Sri Lanka—” He shook his head. “He may want to stay. I have to prepare for that.”
“You’ve never ‘barely’ thought of something in your entire life,” Eileen said with a scoff. “You look at every avenue, every back road, every view from the hills. You’re a satellite, Severus. You always were.”
“There are hundreds or thousands of cultures in the world and all of them have different approaches to magic,” he said. “I can think of some twenty off the top of my head that would be useful, but I’d be remiss if that’s all I offered him. I will need to do research and let him direct his own education. Likewise, I cannot discount the fact that I do not know what will happen in Sri Lanka, either with his family or this Mahesha. Either may have valuable contacts among wizards and witches we’ve never heard of. To say nothing of whether or not he’ll wish to remain associated with me.”
“Is this strangling the meticulous planner in you?” Eileen said.
“I am trying not to be rigid,” Severus said. “I am trying to let things happen as they happen. I am trying to grasp at happiness, Mother.”
“Good,” Eileen said, nodding. “That’s very good, Severus.”
“You should try it sometime,” he said.
“I don’t want for anything anymore, Severus,” she said. “I’m as content as I’ve ever been. And today I saw my two children standing side by side conversing when not even a month ago the very thought of it was naught but a cruel dream. Who could ask for anything more?”
Severus nodded. They walked until the sun melted like a lolly into the horizon, and then they turned around and headed back the way they came.
After dinner, Harry went off with Matilda to tend to the goats, a prospect about which he seemed inordinately excited. Perhaps it was a dream of his to shovel dung. Eileen gave Severus a pat on the cheek and retired to her bedroom to read, and Severus took the opportunity to bring the carpet bag to Alžběta’s bedroom.
She bade him enter, and he found her sitting at an antique writing desk, quill in hand and a stack of parchments to the side. Spectacles were perched low on her nose, and she peered at him over them, eyebrow arching when he presented the carpet bag.
“Your things, Grandmother,” he said.
“It is a courtesy, Severus, to call a witch by what she wishes to be called in her own home.”
Severus dipped his head.
“Babička,” he mumbled, embarrassed.
She sat back and straightened, smugness tilting up her lips.
“Now,” she said. “What do you have for me?”
Severus opened the carpet bag and tapped his wand on its mouth. The vanity and its chair popped out and clattered into place before her desk.
“Do you want me to put it somewhere in particular?” he asked.
Alžběta stood and circled the vanity, inspecting it first with her spectacles on and then without. She checked each drawer, and spun what used to be the mirror around.
“I can fix that,” Severus said. Alžběta only grunted and sat in the chair. She pulled out the book drawer again and took each book out one by one, running her hands over the covers and leafing through the pages. She stacked them on the vanity after each inspection. There were almost fifty of them.
Severus didn’t know what to do with himself. Should he creep out the door and let her reunite with her things in peace? He thought she might object to his leaving without saying something, but he also didn’t want to interrupt her. Unsure what to do, he stood motionless to the side, bored, wondering what kind of Potions ingredients he might find in the mountain flora tomorrow.
“Tell me, Severus,” Alžběta said suddenly, not looking up from her book. “Do you like anything other than Potions?”
“‘Like’ is rather a strong word,” he said.
“You are proper Eastern European,” she said.
Severus suppressed a smirk.
“I like reading,” he said after a moment. “Muggle stuff, usually.”
“They do have a way with the creative arts,” Alžběta said. “Wizards, they don’t teach literature. They don’t teach writing. Is a shame for us. What else do you tolerate, Severus?”
“Academically, I suppose Arithmancy,” he said. “Ancient runes. Herbology. I have an interest in but little natural facility with Transfigurations. Astronomy and physics interest me.”
“Flying?” She half turned towards him, pinning him with her gaze.
Severus’s heart skipped.
“I am serviceable on a broom,” he said.
“And not on a broom?”
“I—” His voice cracked. “Yes.”
Alžběta’s smile was crooked, just like his, and Matilda’s.
“Is family trait, I think,” she said. She closed her eyes and turned back around as if there were still a mirror in the vanity’s frame. “I used to fly far up above my city, or to the mountains, or a lake. The thrill of it, and the peace.” She ducked her head. “It has been a very long time since I have flown.”
“We should go again,” he said. “Together, perhaps.”
“My flying days are over,” Alžběta said. “We do not speak of the men we married in this house, but your father, your grandfather, they destroyed the witches we were. Eileen, drained half to death and still holding on because of something so silly as love. And me, trying to keep your grandfather’s rages from shaming the Prince name, letting him take and take and take, as if my magic could make his less volatile, until it was all burned away, the heart of me.” She pulled out her hairbrush and held it up to the light to inspect the elephants. “Yes, my flying days are over. As are the days I cared what I looked like.” She set the hairbrush down and laid out the little cosmetic brushes. “Maybe you or Matilda have a daughter,” she said. “And she can have these things. They are very nice, very good items, these things. But I am old now, and they seem silly. Matilda will think so too, but maybe not a daughter, someday.”
“I’m not likely to have children, Babička,” Severus said. “Harry and I…” He thought she understood. She certainly seemed to, earlier. And Eileen would have said as much to her, wouldn’t she?
Alžběta snorted again. She held up each brush individually. The delicate elephant carvings wound around each one.
“You and Harry have long life ahead of you,” she said, “full of wonders, and sadness, and trials, and joys. One hundred years, one hundred and fifty. Maybe you find baby on your doorstep, or maybe you find a way to make a baby by yourselves. You do not know, especially with Harry Potter.”
Severus couldn’t imagine wanting a baby. A little girl to give his grandmother’s antique brushes to. Olive-skinned with black hair that licked upward here and there. Green eyes. Severus turned away from the sight of his grandmother frowning up at her old brushes. What would he and the world’s most neglected saviour ever do with a damned baby, and a girl one at that? A ridiculous fantasy.
“Better to bring all this to Matilda’s door,” he said gruffly.
“‘Shut up about babies, Babička,’” Alžběta said with a chuckle. “This is how my granddaughter speaks to me.”
“Yes, well,” Severus said. “Just give me time.”
“Time, time,” Alžběta said. “A gift of yours, yes?” She passed her wand over her little library, and the books shrank. She took out the box of letters and emptied out the envelopes. She placed the books inside, waved a featherlight charm over it, and handed the box to Severus. “Take this to library across the hall. They will slot in where they belong.”
Alžběta glared at him. He took a deep breath.
“Babička, do you have enough magic to teach Harry?” Are you and Mam even really witches anymore?
“No great magic needed to look inward, Severus,” she said. “And if anyone in this part of the world knows more about magic theory than me, I should like to meet them. Some things cannot be lost, miláčik.”
“I’m sorry he took so much from you,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to marry him at all.”
Alžběta got up and tottered into what he assumed was her en suite. She returned with a mirror, and set it on the vanity. She laid her hand and her wand on it and closed her eyes, leaning forward and muttering in Slovak. The mirror expanded like a cracking egg, punched from the inside. Finally, it was the size of the frame, and Alžběta, panting, sank back into the chair.
“You put up,” she said. He lifted the mirror and stuck it into the frame with an ever-fastened charm.
He looked into the mirror and saw himself, tall and angular, all long lines, behind the stooped and tiny curl of his grandmother. He saw the continuity between them—the shape and quality of their eyes, the arch of their brows, the cascade of silken hair, even the bony ridge of their noses. Had hers been dashed against the hearth of that crumbling manor house? Had hers taken the fists of her husband as his had taken his father’s? Or was a witch’s punishment for being near a wizard while he hated himself more insidious than mere physical violence?
Alžběta’s reflection said something in Slovak, and Alžběta smirked into the mirror. Severus braced himself for what was coming from his own.
“A cock up your arse suits you, darling,” it said, and Alžběta howled with laughter. Severus’s face burned and he tensed up like a coil. “Oh, don’t be that way,” the mirror went on. “You’ve colour in your face and lost the gaunt chic look. And you finally found the shampoo, I see. Will tweezers be next? I wait with bated breath.”
Severus’s hand darted out and flipped the mirror around, carefully this time. Alžběta was gasping for breath between laughs.
“Bloody menace,” Severus snarled.
“Oh, I have missed her,” Alžběta said, wiping her eyes. “She is right, you know.”
“She is an annoying little charm and nothing more,” Severus said.
“You are hale,” Alžběta said. “In body and in magic. You are even happy, I think, if you will allow it. This is good, yes?”
“Maybe I’m always like this,” Severus said. “You don’t know.”
“I know my kin,” Alžběta said. She stood and staggered; Severus held her up and helped her get into bed. He snuffed the candles, and picked up the box on his way out.
She called to him as he crossed the threshold into the hall, and he turned around.
“I don’t know from romantic love,” she said. “But I am envious, I think.”
“It might all burn up tomorrow,” Severus said.
“Be less a Slovak in this, miláčik,” Alžběta said. “And less an Englishman, too.”
“What am I to be then?”
“Just a man, Severus. Just one of God’s creatures, with blood in your veins and a heart that beats.”
“Good night, Babička,” Severus said.
Alžběta had a library that rivalled the restricted section of Hogwarts, and each book came equipped with a translation charm. His mother’s work, he supposed. She may have been conversational in Slovak, but he doubted her literacy extended to heavy theoretics in all the subjects available here. One book posited that Transfiguration and Potions were essentially the same, and that at one time in this part of the world, they were a single art. Severus wondered if Minerva had ever read this.
The house was silent and still when he emerged from his reading. A peek out the window told him it was dead night. The moon was high and threw pale light through the valley.
“Tempus,” Severus intoned, and the spell told him it was just after midnight. He peeked into the bedroom he and Harry were given and found it empty. He padded down the stairs and found Matilda outside, smoking on the front steps. She pointed beyond a small hill to the right with her cigarette.
“He’s out there putting up wizard space,” she said. “I think he doesn’t fancy getting in your pants with your entire family on the other side of any given wall.”
“Merlin,” Severus muttered. He hoped it was too dark to see his flush. Matilda smirked and held up her pack of cigarettes. Severus waved it away. He had a national treasure to kiss, after all.
“He’s not how I thought he’d be,” Matilda said. “He’s…just a boy. A bloke.”
“You thought what,” Severus said, “that he’d be some pillar of truth and honour? Perhaps wearing a cape.”
“Something like that,” she said. “Our press doesn’t dwell on him the way I assume yours does, but we get the big stories. I thought he’d be taller. More self-assured. Less nervy. I thought he’d have a perfect smile and a devastating charm, or something. But you see him properly, don’t you?”
He looked down at her, her brows knitted, cigarette dangling from long fingers.
“I should—” He gestured toward the hill. Matilda stood and threw her butt away. It disappeared when it hit the ground.
“I have work in the morning,” she said. “I’ve never been good at sleep.”
“Me neither,” Severus said.
“Good night, Severus,” Matilda said, and closed the door behind her.
Severus trudged past the goats and over the hill to find Harry had put up what appeared to be four walls constituting a space the size of a broom closet, and no ceiling. He shook his head and made his way down.
Inside was bigger, of course, but not fancy. A simple room with a bed, lit by candles. There was a door that led to an en suite. Harry was barefoot on the bed, sweeping his hands out as if to catch the sky above him.
“I must assume we will not be rained on in the night,” Severus said. Harry whirled around and dropped his wand arm.
“A modification of Impervius,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many stars. I would hate to miss them.”
“It is rather idyllic here,” Severus said. He toed off his shoes and sat cross-legged on the bed. Harry dropped onto his arse to sit facing him.
“Hi,” Harry said.
“Hello,” Severus said.
“I like your family,” Harry said. “It’s a proper family, I think.”
“After a fashion,” Severus said.
Harry shrugged. Severus supposed finding a trio of sharp-tongued women who gave him food and called him pet names was better than anything he’d have got in his own home.
“Matilda and I have a friend in common,” Harry said. “She was a year behind Viktor Krum.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“Oh, right. He’s a professional Quidditch player, but I knew him for a little bit when he was at Hogwarts for a tournament. He took Hermione out a few times.”
“Merlin save him.”
Harry grinned, but his smile faded as quickly as it came.
“Do you think she’s searching for us?” he said.
“She’ll realise soon enough that the world isn’t ending,” Severus said. “Surely Unspeakables have better things to do than chase after wayward heroes and dead men.”
Harry reached out and pulled Severus’s hands to rest on his knees. He slotted his sturdy fingers between the long spindles of Severus’s own.
“Are you mad at me?” Harry asked.
Severus sighed and turned his hands over so Harry’s palms slid against his.
“It’s not so simple as that,” he said. “It is foolish to be angry that I get a second chance, and yet I am irritated at missing so much context, and that I didn’t get to see my mission through, even though I did, and I died for it. I am worried for your state of mind and I fear the day you do something you cannot live with. I am baffled as to why you would choose me, of all the people in the world, to be your companion, and I am waiting for it to end like a man counting his final seconds to the guillotine. It all churns together into something unnameable. Am I mad at you, by Merlin, Harry.”
“You’re mad at everything,” Harry said.
“I have always been thus,” Severus says.
Harry sighed and swept his hands up Severus’s arms and shoulders to cup his face. He set his forehead against Severus’s and breathed him in.
“I could send you back,” Harry said. “If you really wanted. I would hate it and miss you forever, but I could do it.”
Severus hushed him and nudged his mouth against Harry’s. Harry opened for him easily, and melted into him. Severus bore him down into the bedding, and then their clothes were gone. Severus settled on top of Harry, Harry’s legs open like a cradle for his body, and kept kissing him. Harry kissed as if he were drowning. Severus was hard, and he could feel the heat of Harry’s prick searing him. He steadied it with one hand at the base, and then bent down to suck it into his mouth. Harry gave a shout and tangled his hands in Severus’s hair.
Severus bobbed slowly, rhythmically over Harry’s cock, and on each upstroke he dragged the flat of his tongue over Harry’s slit. Harry was moaning loudly and Severus could feel the tension in his thighs as he tried not to thrash. Severus gave himself over to the rhythm, savouring the stretch of his jaw, the sea-salt musk of Harry’s flesh, the way the head fit against his soft palate as if it were designed to be there, the smell of him, the soft springy silkiness of his pubic hair. His own loins felt heavy and tight, his blood pounding, and he shoved a hand between his legs to close around his own prick. He tried to limit himself to squeezing, but soon he was jerking himself roughly, incensed by Harry’s moaning and hair gripping and the occasional hiss of his name.
Harry lifted his legs up and abandoned Severus’s hair to hold them open by his knees.
“Severus, Severus, Severus,” he was saying. “Please. Please fuck me.”
Severus gasped for air as he rose up on his knees. Harry was panting, his colour high, his lips swollen, his arse on display. He was the very picture of wanton dishevelment, and Severus thought his heart and his cock might burst in tandem at the sight. He remembered what Harry had done for him before first penetrating him (was it just that morning? A lifetime ago?) and suddenly needed him to feel it, needed to show Harry how it felt for him. He bent over and licked a stripe over Harry’s arsehole, and Harry gave a strangled shout.
Harry was clean, and smelled only of his own scent and clean skin, deeper here. Severus gripped his cheeks and spread them wide and pushed his face closer, licked him most thoroughly, and sucked his hole until it slackened and relaxed even as Harry himself shouted and swore and twisted in the sheets. He tasted sharp and salty and musky and Severus wanted more. He pushed his tongue inside and Harry shouted. He sealed his mouth over the hole and sucked until Harry screamed. He pulled back, flickering his tongue over the slack hole, and Harry rocked up to meet every swipe.
Finally Harry’s hands returned to Severus’s hair, only to push him away.
“Enough now,” Harry said, panting. “Fuck me, Severus.”
“Wait,” Severus said, and Harry whined, holding himself open. Severus smirked at him. He wiped his face and then directed his wand into his own palm and muttered, “Lubricus.” Slick appeared in his hand, and he swiped it over his fingers and then pressed those fingers inside Harry. Two at first, and then three, and he pushed gently at the walls of his arse to open him up. Harry’s mouth was open and his groans were continuous now, head thrashing on the pillows.
He bent over Harry’s lap to suck his prick into his mouth, and Harry gave a shout. He fucked him steadily, curling his fingers up against his prostate, in rhythm with the suck and drag of his mouth and tongue over Harry’s cock. Harry’s hands came down to clench in Severus’s hair, and Severus only sucked more greedily and pressed inside with more force.
Finally Harry yanked Severus’s hair up and demanded to be fucked. Severus rose to his knees and extricated his hand. He snubbed the head of his cock against Harry’s arsehole. It was wide, and hardly looked as if it would fit, even loosened as it was, but with a whimper Harry bore down and Severus’s prick was swallowed up as if it belonged there. He breached both tight sphincters until he was all the way inside, his balls resting against the cheeks of Harry’s arse, and Harry moaned, clenching around him. A mottled flush had overtaken Harry’s chest, and his prick was leaking into the hair on his stomach, and he held it as if staving off an orgasm.
“Fuck,” Severus said, and rolled his hips. Harry cried out and jerked his prick. He looked up into Severus’s face, expression wild and desperate.
“Severus, please,” he said. Severus lunged down for a kiss, and pulled Harry’s legs to rest over his shoulders.
Severus fucked him with abandon, his pace punishing, his sweat flying, his mouth saying things he’d never remember. Harry’s legs bounced where they lay on his shoulders and he moaned with every thrust. He abandoned his cock to wrap both arms around Severus’s back, holding him close. Severus dragged his mouth across Harry’s cheek, down his neck, over his collarbone and his shoulder, he fucked him as if he were trying to merge with him, as if they could be a single thing, never to be parted. Harry yanked his head down by his hair and plundered his mouth. When Harry wrenched away to gasp for breath, Severus felt his arse clench around his cock, his hands scrabbling at Severus’s back, and then Harry’s breath hitched, all sound stoppered as if he were choking. He squeezed his eyes shut and then keened as his body tightened and then shook, cock spurting an arc of come over his chest and onto his own chin without ever having been touched.
“Fuck,” Severus said. “Oh, fuck, Harry.” He sped up his thrusts and then lost the rhythm, shoving helplessly inside him as he felt his own orgasm tightening around the base of his spine. Harry was panting and dazed, come-striped and slack-jawed in the ruined bedding, but he stroked his hands down Severus’s back and he blinked hazy green eyes up at him and Severus was gone.
Severus returned to his senses on his back with nothing between himself and the wide blanket of stars. Harry was tucked into the crook of his arm, one hand resting on Severus’s belly. The candles had gone out, and there weren’t even tendrils of smoke to prove they’d ever been lit.
“We should stay awhile, I think,” Harry said.
“Take your first lesson with my grandmother before you make any promises,” Severus said. “She may yet have you running for the hills. Or mountains, as it were.”
“Do you think we can go up them?”
“People go up Everest, Potter,” Severus said.
“I’ve never been up a mountain.”
“The Highlands are mountains.”
“And I’ve never been up a Highland, either,” Harry said.
The world shifted, and suddenly they were up there, on a mountain in the cool of the night air on a bed of soft grass, overlooking the valley and the lake. Cauldron’s Pass was a dot in the distance.
“I just wanted to see,” Harry said. “And to be with you, up here, where we can be alone.”
“We were alone down there,” Severus said, but he couldn’t be angry. He stood and stretched, and looked down at the glittering lake, the sleeping valley. The moon was low; Severus felt as though he could reach out and pluck it from the sky. “It will be better in the daytime.”
“We’ll climb it properly,” Harry said. “Like a couple of Muggles getting a workout.”
“You could have brought me here anytime you wanted, couldn’t you?” Severus said. “Fidelius be damned.” He turned to face him, and Harry met his eyes. There was resignation there. “Why didn’t you? You could have saved yourself the trouble of finding the manor and loosing the house elves.”
“That wouldn’t have been satisfying to you,” Harry said. “You like to do a thing and make sure it’s done properly.”
“I was already trusting you,” Severus said. “Far too much, even.”
Harry smiled faintly. He stood and joined Severus overlooking the valley. He was warm, and Severus shivered at the touch of his hand on his back. He leaned against him, and Harry kept stroking his back, his hip, his arse.
“I wanted to get to know you,” he said, after a long while. “I wanted you to know me. I wanted you so badly, I needed to buy myself the time it would take to get you to look at me the way I wanted. Are you angry?”
In answer, Severus leaned down to catch Harry’s mouth in a kiss. He cradled his skull in his hands and kissed him so deeply he forgot he was naked, and cold, and halfway up a mountain in Eastern Europe. How could he be angry when he had this?
They settled back in the grass, and Harry warmed the patch of land they lay in. The sky was not black, but a deep purple-blue just shy of it. Countless stars glinted like jewels far away and long ago. Ursa Major was there, and Cygnus, and Andromeda, and Cassiopeia. Severus thought he even saw Lacerta. He pointed them out to Harry until his eyes drooped.
“I could free them.”
“What are you talking about, Potter?”
“The house elves,” he said. “The Anima Colligationem. I could end it.”
Severus sat up and rubbed at his eyes.
“Harry, it’s unbreakable,” he said. “Others have tried, and they have failed.”
“I’m not others,” he said. He sat up and ran a hand through his hair, sending it sticking upward in every direction.
“It’s a very old kind of blood magic,” Severus said, “renewed and strengthened with every generation. It is iron clad. The very attempt could kill you.”
“Would ending it destroy the country?”
“No, but nonetheless, I cannot allow this.”
“Severus.” Harry leaned in closer to him, put his arms around him, squeezed him until Severus shuddered and sagged and returned his embrace. “I wished for you,” Harry whispered, “and you came to me.”
Twenty years and a thousand horrors—that was what Harry had spared him. How? A whim. A thought. A passing fancy. Why? That Severus could not countenance. He’d been turning it over and over in his mind like a stone, worrying at it endlessly since Harry had first said those words to him. Why? Why?
His blood knew the truth of it and pumped wildly through his veins as if to rollick and scream out its good fortune, but his brain refused to form the word. Boundless as that sea of stars. Endless as the sky.
Severus tucked his face into Harry’s neck and squeezed him.
“Let me research the spell properly,” he said. “Let us go about this deliberately. No more whims. No more impulsive acts of instant gratification.” He pulled back and brushed the hair from Harry’s eyes before he pushed his hands back into Harry’s hair to cradle his skull. “If this is to be done, it must be clean. It must be unimpeachable. It must not damage you.”
Harry nodded, his lips parted, his breath coming quickly. His eyes gleamed so green, though the candles had been left down in the valley, and there was no light but that of the moon above.
“Severus,” he murmured.
Severus’s breath caught. He cupped Harry’s face and swiped his thumbs over his cheekbones. He felt as though he were weightless and rising, the whole of magical history echoing in Harry’s lighted eyes. Merlin, he wanted to say.
“Harry Potter,” he whispered.
It was a prayer.
Minerva had the Scotch ready for her guest’s prompt arrival: a Bruichladdich 25-year single malt, for nights one might wish for a smooth, mellow burn after one raises one’s glass.
At precisely 8 o’clock, Hermione Granger stepped out of Minerva’s fire and dusted off her robes before taking her customary seat in the wingback across from Minerva’s own.
Minerva poured a very restrained two fingers into each glass and presented one to Hermione.
“Thank you, Minerva,” she said. “Every day I swear I’ll leave the Ministry.”
“And every day you go back to the Department of Mysteries, happy as a clam.”
Hermione clinked her glass to Minerva’s.
“Sláinte,” she said. Minerva echoed her and they both sipped. Hermione made a face as if ecstasy pained her and hissed, “God, that’s good.”
“Aye,” Minerva said.
“I really mean it this time, Minerva,” Hermione said. “The Ministry is a wasteland of incompetence and nepotism. Would that I were independently wealthy.”
“What would you do, I wonder, without the great questions of the wizarding world to worry over with that dirty great brain of yours?”
Hermione snorted, shaking her head.
“Relax,” she said. “Sleep. Take up a hobby.”
“Never,” Minerva said, and Hermione slanted her a little smile as she lifted her shoulder in a self-deprecating shrug. “Anything you can discuss?”
“I suppose I can tell you I’m blocking a measure to ‘research’ how Muggleborns get their magic,” Hermione said with a roll of her eyes.
“Och,” Minerva said. “What blockheaded numpty brought that proposal forward?”
“Crane-Gardins, of course,” Hermione said. “And of course he’s couched the whole proposal in language that makes it sound as if all of this is designed to help Muggleborns.”
“It never is,” Minerva said. “It always becomes a machination by which Purebloods seek to prevent Muggleborn births. Always.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Hermione said. “I’ve read British Wizardry: A History. Thrice.”
Minerva shook her head. She savoured the burn of another sip.
“Crane-Gardins is proving a perpetual thorn in your side,” she said.
Hermione expanded and deflated with a deep sigh.
“He’s nothing I can’t handle,” she said. “He’ll learn what it means to challenge me.”
“Speaking of challenges,” Minerva said. She produced a letter and held it up. Hermione’s face lit up.
“Ah! Is that Snape?”
“Indeed it is.”
“I brought one from Harry, as well.”
“Shall I read it aloud?” Minerva asked.
“Please!” Hermione wriggled in her chair until she was slouching comfortably, holding her glass of Scotch on her belly, eyes closed.
Minerva tore open the envelope and unfolded the parchment from within.
“Dear Minerva,” she read. “This correspondence is long overdue, for which I can only apologise. My mother berates me—apparently I should have informed you that I, and Harry, were safe straight away. My defence is a feeble one: I am not accustomed to answering for my actions to one who cares for me, and thus I did not consider that I would be missed.
“I left in Hogwarts’ care two elderly house elves, Rigsby and Archie. They will serve the school with great dedication. It is my hope that they are happy there, and will not feel compelled to leave Britain in search of me.
“We have found what remains of my family in Slovakia, which is a real place currently unencumbered by communism. Alas, it is a parliamentary democracy. My grandmother, Alžběta, still lives, as well as my mother, Eileen. I also have a sister, Matilda, who is nearly thirty years old and attended Durmstrang. I have promised not to hold this against her. I believe you would like her. She intends to visit Britain soon; despite the long shadow our father cast, it is a part of her history she has not yet been free to explore. I hope I was not presumptuous when I told her she should take tea with you, the finest witch I have ever known.”
Minerva’s voice broke. She took another sip of her Bruichladdich and cleared her throat.
“Your Mr. Potter is doing well. He has spent the last several months studying the art of looking inward with my grandmother. His magic is stable, and he is less quick to anger. He smiles more. It has been seven weeks since he rattled the windows or transported someone without a thought. Sometimes, I find him deep in thought before the lake, and I know he is thinking of home. I wish I could take his pain away, but some pains are forever. I know this, I live this, and still I try. A quixotic endeavour, I suppose. This is the labour of companionship, and I do it gladly.
“For my own part, I spent my time in Eastern Europe harvesting rare ingredients in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Czechia, and Ukraine, and experimenting with potions to heal injuries to magical cores, whether drained or burned away. This requires two separate formulas, one of which is a potion in stages, but there is art in the complexity. Initial testing has been quite positive, and I hope to patent both formulas within the next year.
“We have recently arrived in Sri Lanka, where Harry will study under Mistress Mahesha. Perhaps you have heard of her? I do hope so. I should like to discuss her mode of scholarship with you, despite my shaky grasp of Transfiguration theory. She is the first in a hopefully long line of masters whose expertise we will seek in granting Harry total control over his magic. We do not know yet how long we will be here, or where we will go next.
“Sri Lanka is beautiful—lush and full of architectural spectacle. The people are kind and eager to help, though we draw stares. Harry hopes to learn Sinhala or Tamil, and also to trace any family he may have left.
“I cannot say when we will be back for a visit. I can say only that I think of you often, especially when I see a graceful cat, holding court before us mere mortals. Harry sends his love.
“Ever yours, Severus Snape.”
Hermione hummed out her satisfaction. When she opened her eyes, they were dewy, and if Minerva’s were damp as well, neither made mention of it.
“I’m envious,” Hermione said. “You got the one with a way with words.” She waved around Harry’s letter with a rueful twist of her lips. “Harry’s says, ‘Sorry I dumped you in Orkney, pip pip, doing well, traveling the world, Snape has a great cock, sending my love.’”
Minerva burst out laughing.
“He did, the cheeky fucker.”
“You should send back a letter that says he owes all his happiness to you and you’re expecting a long-distance firecall for your trouble.”
“I still can’t believe my gambit worked,” Hermione said.
“You know Harry,” Minerva said. “All instinct and action. He needed an impetus to leave home and experience more from the world, and he needed that impetus to be the threat of immediate danger—from himself, or from outside forces.” She took another sip, and another, and then tipped the rest of the Scotch down her throat. “It’s only a shame your arse got bruised in the process.”
Hermione chuckled and drained her glass as well. She splashed another finger into both glasses.
“Orkney was quite nice, actually,” she said. “I’d never been before. Maybe I’ll take a holiday there someday.”
“Hermione Granger, on holiday?” Minerva said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Someday, Minerva,” she said. “Someday it’ll be me in that tropical paradise, sending you rude letters.”
“To someday,” Minerva said. She knocked her glass into Hermione’s once again, and they laughed at the slosh of the Scotch over their fingers.
Half a world away, Severus Snape watched Harry Potter roll up his trouser legs and wade barefoot into the clear water of the Laccadive Sea. Severus felt warm for the first time in his life, as if the cool and damp of his northerly upbringing had finally seeped from his bones. Harry looked up and shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand, grinned, and raised his other to beckon Severus towards him.
“Come in, Severus!” he called out. “The water’s warm!”
Severus set his book aside and stood. The white sand warmed his feet, and the heat of the sun spread across his skin. He’d be red and gold as a Gryffindor this time tomorrow, sun protection spell or no.
Harry whooped and pitched himself backwards into the water. Severus’s mouth curved upward, and he met his lover where the sea lapped at the shore.