Severus opens his eyes.
The autumn light that streams in the window beside the bed is too bright, almost painfully so, but when he attempts to close his eyes once more he is assailed instantly by the sharp, anguished memory of Lily's lovely green eyes in the Potter boy's face, shimmering with unfallen tears. Severus had been so certain that was the last thing he'd ever see in his brief, unlamented life, and, in contrast, the pain engendered by a mere sunbeam is a weak thing indeed.
The bed in which Severus lies is not his own, but he slowly recognizes it as belonging to that class of bed most commonly found on the private wards of St. Mungo's. He, himself, is more familiar with the less luxurious hospital beds provided to children from families with few if any Galleons to their name...or the beds grudgingly assigned to those witches and wizards whose maladies have roots in Dark Magic.
Severus hears a tune being hummed softly somewhere in the vicinity of his pillow. It's reminiscent of the songs Poppy used to sing as she worked in older, less anxiety-ridden times. He tries to turn his head, but all he gets for his efforts is a stabbing sensation in his neck, painful enough to bring tears to his eyes.
The humming stops and he hears a strangely familiar voice. "How are you feeling this morning, Mr. Snape?"
This is Severus's first real indication that something is not right.
For one thing, he has never known a single member of the staff at St. Mungo's to be capable of addressing a patient without employing the first person plural. "What would we like for breakfast, Professor Snape?" they say, as if they were planning on getting under the covers to share a packet of chocolate-covered digestive biscuits and a pot of tea with him. "Have we moved our bowels today?"
But grammatical anomalies pale in comparison to the fact that the mediwitch currently occupied with the potions chart floating beside his bed should not have been alive.
It's possible that more than one person might be graced with a similar riot of strawberry-blonde curls and a crooked smile like hers, but it was unlikely that another witch of that age would have a sixth finger on both her hands. "How did a freak like you get sorted into Slytherin House?" one of her fellow First Years had asked after her sorting, and Severus - a newly appointed Prefect - had steeled himself for a flood of tears, but the little girl had just smiled and said, "All the better for when I'm named Keeper on the House team."
She'd made the team in her second year. Severus had far more important concerns than Quidditch by then, but he took a break from NEWTs revision to attend the Slytherin/Gryffindor game, and was amused - despite himself - by the unfettered joy on her face when Slytherin won the game...and the Quidditch Cup.
When next he saw her, she was laid out on the ground beside her mother, her father, and her two brothers in the wake of an attack by his fellow Death Eaters ("Let this serve as an example to all blood traitors!"). Her face, finally, was joyless. Lifeless.
Yet here she was, alive somehow. Cynthia Haynes, he remembers all at once, and Severus tries to speak her name out loud - "Haynes," then "Madam Haynes," but the only sounds that come out are wordless whispers...breathy huffs of air.
"Not yet, I'm afraid," Haynes says. "Your chart says it'll be at least a week before we can even consider removing the silencing spell, which I happen to know you've already been told."
Severus frowns. He doesn't remember being told anything of the kind, but when he tries - unsuccessfully - to tell her this, she hands him a book that has been lying on his bedside table. "Come on now, Mr Snape...you know how to use this. The charm ensures privacy; even if somebody were to attempt to read a conversation which wasn't any of their business, they'd be quite unable to do so. Now, would you like a cup of tea?"
Instinctively, he opens his mouth to reply, but she shakes her head. "Open the book, then think about your answer."
Turning to a blank page, he thinks "What I'd like is a cappuccino and some profiteroles."
Haynes glances down at the page and smiles. "I'll check with the kitchen, but I'm sure that can be arranged. And now, Mr Snape," she says. "Perhaps you'd like to take a short nap so you'll be more rested during visiting hours this evening."
He snorts. Even if St. Mungo's had been persuaded to admit him as a patient, he didn't think it likely that he'd be receiving guests anytime soon.
"And who, precisely, do you imagine will be paying me a visit tonight?" He thinks, directing his trademark sarcasm at the page. "Aurors, perhaps?"
The mediwitch tilts her head to one side for a moment, then waves her wand slightly in a familiar diagnostic pattern. Apparently, there is no immediate cause for worry, because she replaces the wand in its sleeve, but she lays her hand on his shoulder.
"The Healer discussed this with you yesterday, Mr Snape," she says. "This concern about Aurors coming after you...it's really nothing to worry about. Brief delusional episodes are one of the possible side effects of the potions you've been given, which is why we're keeping you here in hospital for a bit longer. In any case, Healer Jenkyns left a note on your chart that the delusions and the memory issues you've been experiencing should both be gone by Thursday at the very latest." She smiles. "I'm sure Lily will be as pleased as you with this news."
The name has to be a coincidence, but Severus can't keep himself from asking.
"Lily," says Haynes patiently. "Your wife."
It had been a year and more since the final battle, and Hogwarts still hadn't been set entirely to rights. In the days and weeks immediately following Voldemort's defeat, many witches and wizards had volunteered their services - magical and otherwise - to help with repairs to the school, but as time passed, the crop of willing volunteers had dwindled away to almost nothing.
It wasn't true that enthusiasm for the project had disappeared entirely, but as the world returned to normal, less urgent tasks such as re-casting enchantments on the ceiling in the Great Hall took a back seat to more personal concerns such as career development and planning marriages.
It was an unconscious attempt to avoid yet another discussion of the latter subject which led Harry Potter back to Hogwarts, where he was currently engaged in not doing much of anything in the Room of Requirement.
"Surely you have something you'd rather do with your time, Mr Potter, than muck about in an old fire-scarred storage facility," the headmistress had said when he appeared at the school for the ninth day in a row, but the simple truth was that Harry really didn't have anything he'd rather do.
He had decided against continuing his formal schooling, unlike Hermione, and he had yet to settle on a career as Ron did when George offered him a partnership in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. And as for the aforementioned matrimonial planning...well, even Harry knew that a preference for hand-cleaning the almost infinite number of lost and mostly forgotten items in the place of Hidden Things to talking about marriage with his girlfriend as he'd promised he'd do was a Very Bad Relationship Sign Indeed.
However, he hadn't a clue what he was supposed to do to fix this. Hermione would have told him to talk to Ginny, of course, but talking about his feelings wasn't exactly one of his specialty subjects and really, the more 'honest communication' the two of them shared, the better the odds would be that he'd end up accidentally talking about the amazingly dirty dreams he'd been having over the past fortnight, not one of which had featured anybody with red hair. Harry, despite having only the most cursory knowledge of Oneiromancy, could see how short a future he'd have if the Queen of the Bat-Bogey Hex ever found out her boyfriend was dreaming about getting a blow job in the middle of Diagon Alley from some unidentified woman with long black hair.
At least he thought it was a woman.
He was almost entirely certain it was.
And so the result of Harry's indecision over jobs and school and family and all the rest was that he was firmly entrenched at Hogwarts, at least for the time being. He spent his mornings picking through the blackened rubble of the Room of Requirement, seeing what could be salvaged, while the afternoon was spent wandering about aimlessly, trying to figure out exactly what the hell it was he wanted out of his life.
It was in the midst of one afternoon's aimless wandering that he stumbled across a tarnished tiara, lying on the floor beside a very familiar acid-scarred cupboard - and within the cupboard, an even more familiar Advanced Potions book.
Harry glanced inside the back cover, seeing the words "This book is property of the Half-Blood Prince" precisely where he knew they'd be. However, when he skimmed through the pages, instead of seeing recipes for the Draught of Living Death and Felix Felicis and the dozens of handwritten spells and curses that Snape had written in the margins, the pages were blank, all the way through to the very end where, in the same small, cramped handwriting that he remembered so well, he read "September 1998? 1999? What in the name of hell is going on here..."
"September 1998? 1999?
What in the name of hell is going on here?
This is utterly ludicrous. Lily alive and my wife? It would be a fucking miracle if it were true, on more than one level, but it's entirely ridiculous. Impossible, and yet...I'm alive and, apparently, not a patient on the Janus Thickey Ward, so who's to say what's impossible and what isn't?
How long has it been? How long have I been here? Haynes has said nothing at all about the Dark Lord's fate or the roles I played - none of the staff at St. Mungo's has - but surely it hasn't been long enough for everyone to have forgotten the war.
I am wandless. I am unable to speak. I am a virtual prisoner, albeit one with pleasant gaolers.
I shall bide my time until my 'visitor' arrives.
It would have made perfect sense for Harry to discuss what he'd found when he joined his friends for dinner that evening, but somehow the timing was never quite right. In the first place, the Moon and Sixpence was a Muggle restaurant and wasn't particularly conducive to serious conversations about the magical world. Then, of course, there was the usual mayhem that ensued whenever Ron decided he'd be the one to order the starters, Ron still finding it difficult to accept the fact that Muggles and Wizards really did eat the same kinds of food. And finally, shortly after the main course arrived, Nigel and Luna announced that they were going to marry (reports of Luna's interest in Rolf Scamander having been just one more example of the Daily Prophet's typical journalistic ineptitude).
All of which meant that Harry never quite managed to get around to mentioning the Advanced Potions book that no longer had much of anything to do with Potions. Yes, Harry had more than learned his lesson about the danger of keeping secrets, especially where magical books were concerned, in the wake of his and Ginny's experiences with Tom Riddle's diary, but he honestly didn't think this was the same thing. It was a mystery to be sure, but for one thing, this had been Snape's book, and say what you like about Severus Snape, he had been no Lord Voldemort.
It was a damned lucky thing for all concerned that Severus's wand had been put away for safe-keeping, because if he'd had it to hand, there was little doubt but that he'd have ended up casting the Killing Curse before supper.
Haynes wasn't the problem - or rather, Severus was still feeling guilty enough about the part he'd played in her death (regardless of the fact that she didn't actually appear to be dead in the slightest) to demonstrate a certain amount of forebearance in the face of her occasional poking and prodding. But he owed nothing to the seemingly endless stream of unfamiliar medical personnel who, for some unknown reason, all felt the need to drop by and observe him as if he were a particularly entertaining monkey in a Muggle zoo. He supposed that a wizard unexpectedly returning to full consciousness from a magical coma after such a long time (and...how long had it been?) was of some interest, but surely in due course Healer Jenkyns would publish a long-winded paper of some kind in The Journal of Unexplained Quackery or Things What My Colleagues And Me Really Had Nought To Do With Quarterly. But could the rest of the St. Mungo's staff wait until then? Apparently not, judging by the number of unwelcome guests Severus was forced to put up with all afternoon, few of whom (the Tea Lady and the Manager of the Gift Shop, as just two examples) seemed to have any legitimate reason to invade his privacy.
By the time his door was opened for the thirtieth time that day, Severus was so agitated that he automatically grabbed the nearest object to hand - a pillow, as it happened - and threw it with all his strength at the incoming visitor. His strength however - unsurprisingly after a long hospital stay - was not sufficient to the task, and the pillow fell harmlessly to the floor, some three feet in front of the blue-robed, red-haired witch who'd just entered the room. She knelt down to retrieve the pillow, then walked the remainder of the way of his bed.
"Feeling better then, Sev?" she said with a smile, before leaning down to kiss him.
It was a wonder, Severus thought briefly as his eyelashes fluttered closed and his heart started pounding hard in his chest, that he had survived longer than five minutes as a spy if this was the best he could manage in terms of hiding his reactions.
When he came to sometime later, mortified beyond measure, he was surrounded by Haynes and four others, all of whom were discussing precisely what it might have been that had caused him to...faint.
"Had he turned his head to the side?" one asked.
"Had he attempted to stand up?" asked another."
"Do you remember if your husband coughed just before fainting?"
In response to each question, Lily answered 'no' on his behalf - and just the sound of her voice after so long a silence was almost enough to cause Severus to lose consciousness for a second time.
"Has your husband ever been on the receiving end of a Curse or an Unforgiveable?" the first one asked, and Lily laughed in response. "I'm sorry to ask such a foolish question, Mrs Snape, but I'm sure you understand that we have to be thorough."
"Of course," she said, and even though Severus's eyes were still closed, he could tell she was grinning. "But no, I'm fairly certain the last time Severus was anywhere in the vicinity of even the mildest curse was over twenty years ago when he was taking his Defense OWL."
"Not even any recreational dueling with his friends."
"No, that's not a bit like him," Lily replied. "Severus generally isn't much of a daredevil."
Was it just his imagination or did the way she said "isn't much of a daredevil" sound suspiciously like "is a bit of a coward?"
He stiffened automatically. Lily - and he supposed he had to accept that this was Lily, no matter how little explanation there was for her presence - who hadn't lost the childhood ability to read his moods, squeezed his shoulder. "Darling, are you back with us again?"
Moving as little as possible in an effort to protect his damaged neck, Severus nodded. He could feel a flush bloom under his skin at having been called 'Darling' in front of these strangers.
Thirty minutes of medical poking and prodding later, most of which appeared to require that Severus be stripped of his hospital robe and suspended above the bed with his arse exposed to all and sundry, the indignity of having been called by a pet name no longer seemed terribly significant.
Through it all, Lily stayed by his side, stroking his hair and asking occasional questions of the various Healers on his behalf, just as he'd once dreamed she might do, once Hogwarts was only a distant memory and they were free to share a life together. However, the reality was far less comforting than he'd imagined it would be, and not only because nothing about this situation bore any resemblance to the manner in which Severus had once hoped Lily would first see his naked body.
In fact, it wasn't until late in the evening, when Haynes suggested Lily might want to go home and get some rest that Severus realized what felt so wrong...
She kissed me, but it was nothing like the careful, gentle kiss she'd given me that afternoon or the quick experimental pecks on the cheek we used to exchange when we were children. No, this was a kiss that held the memory of long nights of passion - hard and hot and feverish and..."
Harry slammed the book shut and grimaced. The idea of having to read about Severus Snape and his mother having sex was horrifying. He didn't even want to think about his mum and dad in bed together (holding hands and smiling at each other the way they did in photographs was about as much as he could manage to watch; the two of them actually getting naked together was another matter entirely) but adding Snape into the equation was just...Harry reached down to adjust himself, then shuddered. That was exactly why he didn't want to imagine any of this. The thought of accidentally getting hard with the image of one of your parents in your mind was creepy.
Except...who was going to read these entries if he couldn't do it? He could always ask Ginny or Hermione or even Ron to meet him at Hogwarts one afternoon, but they all had other commitments and even if they could take the time off, the truth was that Harry still wasn't ready to share this find with anybody else, not even his closest friends. It wasn't as if they'd had the Half Blood Prince's book with them, day and night, for a year. And Lily wasn't their mum. Harry was going to have to be the one to read these entries, no matter what was written in them.
"She kissed me, but it was nothing like the careful, gentle kiss she'd given me that afternoon or the quick experimental pecks on the cheek we used to exchange when we were children. No, this was a kiss that held the memory of long nights of passion - hard and hot and feverish and yet the only response it drew from me was unease and something that felt horribly like broomsickness...
What the hell? That git was lucky enough to be kissed by Harry's mother and it made him sick? What sort of freak was he?
I couldn't remember a time after my sixteenth birthday, upon which date I had an epiphany about where my true sexual interests lay, that I'd willingly kissed any female, but...this was Lily. Surely that made a difference?
Severus Snape wasn't attracted to girls.
Which...was interesting, but wasn't relevant to the more pressing mystery, which had nothing to do with Snape's sexual orientation and everything to do with whether it could be possible that he and Harry's mother were actually alive somewhere - or whether this was an elaborate and extremely unfunny prank thought up by somebody with even more time on their hands than Harry had.
It seemed unlikely that he was going to find an answer just sitting on his bum in a magically-convalescing storage room in Hogwarts, especially since he had no idea when - or if - any new entries were going to show up in the book. But what could he do instead? He'd already learned the pitfalls of starting a mission without having a real plan in place. Although Harry's instinct was to take off on his own and begin a search for the late-but-possibly-not-entirely-gone Severus Snape right away, he suspected that if he did that, all he'd get for his troubles would be another near-endless stay in a tent in the middle of the Forest of Dean, and this time it would be without the company of Hermione or Ron. Maybe...a little distance was required.
With one last look to see if a new diary entry had somehow appeared in the past five minutes, Harry put the erstwhile Potions book back into hiding, and for the first time in weeks, forced himself to Apparate home before the sun set.
Harry had to admit that leaving Hogwarts early was the right decision, if only because he needed to breathe a little more fresh air than he'd been getting recently. He stopped off at his flat to feed his new owl, Sachar, and then Apparated to Weasley Wizard Wheezes to spend the rest of the afternoon with Ron and George. Ginny dropped by when she finished work, bearing four pumpkin pasties and four bottles of Butterbeer. George teased her mercilessly about her adolescent tastes, in return for which she turned his hair purple, the four of them made a pilgrimage into Muggle London for pizza, and nobody even mentioned the word "wedding" in Harry's presence.
All in all, it was one of the most relaxed days Harry had had for a long time, so good, in fact, that when he woke the next morning, he considered not going back to Hogwarts for a while. He knew that nobody - not even the headmistress - would care one way or the other if he stopped his renovation efforts for the time being, and honestly, the more he thought about the Advanced Potions book, the more Harry worried that the entries he'd been reading might somehow have been culled from his own imagination. He knew Hermione thought he never really listened to her when she talked about post-traumatic stress disorder and survivors guilt and all that Muggle psychology stuff she was studying, but he did. Mostly. At least enough to know that he did feel guilty about Snape's death.
Although...even if his subconscious wanted Snape to finally have a good life somewhere, he couldn't even begin to figure out why he'd be imagining his mother choosing Snape willingly. Where was his father in all this? There was no way his subconscious would ever wish his own dad out of existence. It made absolutely no sense.
Unless he was having some sort of weird delayed encounter with Oedipal desires, and his subconscious had killed his father so that he - in the person of Severus Snape - could ...gah!
He really had to stop listening to Hermione talk about her psych classes.
The answer, of course, was just to focus on the magical restoration work and forget about everything else, and that's precisely what Harry resolved to do when he arrived at Hogwarts at nine o'clock that morning.
His resolution lasted until precisely 9:32 a.m., at which point he pulled the Potions book out from its hiding place in the wardrobe and found a new entry.
James Bloody Potter. I should have fucking known.
Harry sat heavily on the floor. His father was alive?
"James Bloody Potter," Severus thought furiously at the book. "I should have fucking known."
"Sev, come on. Put the book away and talk to me."
Severus looked up at Lily, then raised an eyebrow and pointed at the bandage wrapped loosely around his swiftly-healing neck.
"Darling, you know what I mean," Lily said. "We have to discuss this."
No we don't, Severus thought angrily. We don't have to talk about this. Or rather, I don't have to. I have no fucking interest in talking to her now or in the future about why she allowed James Bloody Potter to move into my fucking house. The only thing I have any interest in is hearing that my fucking nemesis has packed up and moved out.
He would have said all this and more if it hadn't been for the damned silencing spell.
And if Lily hadn't been looking at him with such an unhappy expression on her face. God damn it! Almost two decades of suffering from the part he'd played in her death - two decades of missing the person who'd been his only real friend - and in less than a week, he was making her miserable.
"I know you aren't terribly fond of James...."
And that, he thought, was the fucking understatement of the century.
"...but he truly didn't have anywhere else to go this time. Even the shelter refused to take him in after, well...I'm sure you remember." Lily sat down on the edge of Severus's bed and took his hand in hers. "It's just that he's been quite supportive while you've been in here - he's been a good friend, you know? - and I want to support him as well."
Severus was altogether certain that it would be a wretched mistake to even participate in this conversation, but he couldn't help himself. He opened the book to a fresh page and thought, "And what about Black?"
Lily frowned. "Sirius's family? Darling, they were transported or whatever we're calling it now five years ago and Grimmauld Place was seized by the Ministry. As for Sirius, well..."
"The Healers still haven't been able to find a means of transfiguring him back. He was warned - repeatedly - about how risky it was to try to transform into his Animagus form with his magical reserves so depleted by his...illness. You know Sirius, though...always so stubborn. And now he's up on the John Dolittle Ward, but...all this happened ages ago, Sev. Please don't tell me you can't remember."
Of course he couldn't remember, and there was no particular reason to lie about it, except that Lily looked absolutely distraught and Severus couldn't stand the idea that he'd been the one to put that miserable look on her face. As fucking usual. So he performed the contortions that were required to mold his face into something resembling a 'pleasant' expression, and patted Lily's hand.
"I'm so glad you're back with me, my darling," she said quietly, before leaning down and kissing him.
Severus closed his eyes.
The feeling of broomsickness had not lessened in the slightest.
If it weren't so sickening, it would almost be amusing.
Lily came back tonight, dragging James Bloody Potter after her as if she were a sleek Muggle fishing boat towing rotting chum in its wake.
Puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Greying stubble on his chin. A set of robes shabbier than anything even Lupin had ever worn in public.
How the mighty had fallen.
There was Potter - a Knutless wretch - and I couldn't even enjoy it properly.
He looked too damned much like his son.
The hideous irony of it all, that after seven years of loathing the sight of the boy because of his father's actions (and yes, I can admit to such pettiness, if only to myself, now that I'm dead), I now find it impossible to dredge up any emotion but pity for this pathetic version of James Potter, and all because my last memory of Potter - of Harry Potter - is of the honest sadness in his eyes when he realized that I was about to die.
Except I'm not dead.
And Harry Potter...where is he?
"Are you all right, mate?" Ron asked, nudging Harry in the ribs.
"Hunh? Oh...yeah, I'm fine," he said. Except he wasn't...not really, but what would be the point of telling them that? All that would happen is that his friends would start asking questions that he couldn't answer, and either he'd get mad and storm off or they'd get mad that he wasn't opening up to them. Well, Hermione would get mad that he wasn't opening up to them. Ron would just think he was being a prat, and Ginny would get that worried expression on her face again, the one that made her look a little like her mum, although sort of in a good way. "I'm just tired, I think."
"Well of course you are," Ginny said matter of factly. "Who wouldn't be, spending every day in that horrid, dirty room. You really need to take a break, Harry."
"I will, Gin. Honestly," he said with a smile that he hoped looked more sincere than it felt. He was trying to pay attention to his friends, but all he could think about was Snape in that hospital bed, wondering where his former student was just when Harry was trying to figure out where Snape was. How strange that both of them were thinking the same thing at the same time - that had to be a first. "So...does anybody know anything about Scrying?"
Ordinarily, that kind of weak non sequitur would have raised immediate suspicion in all three of his friends, but Ron was on his fifth Firewhiskey, Ginny was basking in the glow of her normally stubborn boyfriend having given in to her about something without an argument, and as for Hermione, all requests for information were met with the kind of pleasure usually only seen when somebody has been given an exceptionally nice birthday present.
Thirty minutes later, Harry had learned way more than he'd ever wanted to know about Scrying except how to use it to find somebody, which was the whole point of the exercise.
"...which is called Dowsing by some people."
He blinked. "Isn't that just when you're looking for water or something?"
"Very good, Harry," said Hermione, sounding eerily like B.F. Skinner in that old black and white filmed lecture about "positive reinforcement" she'd made them all sit through earlier in the year. "In any case, the techniques are somewhat the same, and since you're a wizard, a crystal or a mirror should do just fine."
"I think Divination seems very woolly," Ron said in a falsetto voice. "A lot of guesswork, if you ask me."
Hermione scowled at Ron. "You know I said that long before I understood the way various forms of Divination intersect with Psychology."
Ginny grinned. "You might as well give up, Hermione. He remembers every word anyone ever said."
"He does?" Hermione said, then turned to Ron. "You do? Since when have you had an eidetic memory!"
"Oh. I don't. Not really," said Ron, going a bit red. "I just...."
"You just...? Hermione said encouragingly.
"Well," he muttered. "I just remember every word you've ever said."
By the time Ginny had stopped laughing and Hermione had finished sniffling about how "sweet" Ron was and how he was "the best boyfriend ever," nobody remembered Harry had mentioned the word "Scrying" at all.
Haynes tells me that the Minister for Magic dropped by to pay his respects this afternoon while I was napping. She said she asked if she should wake me, but he told her to let me rest...that he'd come by the following day and we could have 'a nice chat.'
He left behind a small pot of lobelias and impatiens.
Haynes treated the visit as perfectly normal, but I'm not so complacent. Since when does the Minister for Magic come by for a chat...or bring me flowers?
And someone purporting to be my publisher sent a note via owl, which said in part: "...the public is clamouring for a book about how, without a thought for your own safety, you rescued the orphans from a Hungarian Horntail. The merest hint that such a memoir is being considered has brought sales of Gilderoy Lockhart's new book to a screeching halt, which I'm certain amuses you as much as it amuses me."
Contrary to what Madam Paige Bynder might say, I am fully convinced that my injuries are not the kind one typically sustains from an encounter with a dragon, and no, I am not amused. Not in the slightest.
What the hell is going on here?
Determined though Severus was to get some answers the following morning, it appeared that the rest of the world had conspired to make sure that no such answers would be forthcoming. Even Lily seemed unable - or unwilling - to provide sensible responses to what should have been the most elementary questions, up to and including the nature of the work in which he was engaged. He was able to ascertain that he spent most of his days at the Ministry, but apart from the fact that he was apparently quite well known and quite wealthy, the only thing Severus was able to establish with any certainty was that Potions played no part in his vocation.
"Oh heavens no," Lily laughed. "And thank goodness for that. Can you seriously imagine spending your whole career like that old fraud Slughorn, operating under the delusion that Potions work was actually as significant as he made it out to be? Of course you were a better brewer than he was, even when you were a boy, but fortunately you found more impressive interests than that incompetent buffoon."
Inwardly, Severus bristled at the slights against his erstwhile profession and against his old teacher. Horace Slughorn was many things - a great number of them uncomplimentary - but incompetent he was not. However, despite the mocking words, Lily's tone was gently amused, as if this was a shared joke of long-standing between them. As if she expected him to appreciate the scorn she held for her former Potions professor.
None of this made any sense, particularly since Lily rarely had a negative word to say about any of their teachers when they were in school, which Severus, at fifteen, had considered entirely unnatural.
"...tell you that they're extending their holiday for another week." Lily paused and took a seat in the chair beside the bed. "Darling, you look like you haven't heard a word I just said."
"Ridiculous," Severus thought at the book. "You said they've extended their holiday."
Lily raised one eyebrow, something she had obviously learned from him. "And do you have any idea whose holiday I'm talking about?"
"You don't seriously imagine I'm going to dignify that question with an answer, do you?"
"So the answer is no, then," Lily said with a laugh. "Our parents, Sev. In France? Remember?"
He tried to keep his face expressionless, but it was damned hard. His childhood had been fairly wretched, but he couldn't help choking up just a bit at the idea that his parents were somehow still alive - and with Lily's parents in France, of all places.
"My father in Paris. Unbelievable," he thought to himself, but apparently the charm considered that thought part of his conversation, because the words appeared instantly on the page.
"In Paris?" Lily said distaste plain in her voice as she looked up from the book. "No, there are far too many Mudbloods in Paris. The Wizarding enclave in Côte Vermeille is quite French enough for the four of them. Anyway, my darling...it's time I was getting on with my day. Enjoy your visit from Tom, and I'll see you this evening."
The instant she said the name, Severus was absolutely certain he knew the identity of the current Minister of Magic.
As Lily leant down to bid him farewell, he could feel the gorge rise in his throat, and this time it had nothing whatsoever to do with her kiss.
He's gone, for now, but the poisonous miasma that surrounds him - that noxious atmosphere made up of self-aggrandizement, hatred, and deceit - remains.
What have I done?
Is this world the one I wanted to help create when I was a teenager?
Is this world the one I have helped create?
I should have been drowned at birth.
Harry sat cross-legged on the filthy floor, the Advanced Potions book resting heavily on one knee and a canvas rucksack on the floor beside him, crammed full of paraphernalia related to Scrying, as well as a pensieve and the vial of Snape's memories.
He was unable to move. He was barely able to breathe.
He should never have taken that last look at the book. if he hadn't, he wouldn't have realized that it no longer held just the private musings of an individual, but had transformed, instead, into a transcript of all the conversations that had taken place in Snape's vicinity since the moment he awoke. But Harry had opened the book that one final time, and now there was no way to unsee what had been seen.
A wizarding society in which Tom Riddle - who should have been dead - served as Minister for Magic. A society composed entirely of Purebloods...and where had all the Muggleborns and Half-Bloods gone? Had they never existed in that reality or did their absence signal something far more ominous?
This Lily Evans Snape - he couldn't bear to think of this woman as his mother - the worst kind of bigoted Pureblood. This James Potter, who had turned his back on every opportunity of contributing something to his society. This Sirius Black, whose complete and utter lack of sense had led to a form of imprisonment worse than anything the warden of Azkaban could devise.
And Severus Snape - his Snape, dammit - who had been given a new life, but a life even more devoid of hope than the one he'd survived for almost forty years.
Harry took a deep breath, then started pulling out the items in his rucksack, one after another, and laying them out on the floor. A crystal, a candle, a small bowl and a bottle of water, some smooth white pebbles, and finally a hand mirror. It was time to put everything he had learned from Hermione to the test.
His very first attempt looked like it was going to be a success, with a blurry image appearing instantly in the rippling waters of the bowl, but try as he might, Harry couldn't get the image to solidify into a recognizable shape. Abandoning the bowl of water, he tried each item in turn, but each attempt brought the same result. Each time, Harry could see a large, dark, inanimate object, but the image was indistinct, never quite clear enough for Harry to say for certain what it was.
Finally - although without holding out much hope - he set the pensieve in front of him and filled it with the bright, whitish-silver liquid that contained Snape's memories. Harry knelt down before the pensieve, the Advanced Potions book held tightly in his arms, and waited. At first, the cloud-like liquid swirled within the bowl, exactly as he had expected it to do, but almost immediately its movement began to slow, then finally ceased altogether. A moment later, an image appeared upon that smooth shining surface - first dark and blurry, but quickly solidifying into what appeared to be a wardrobe.
Harry growled in frustration. How the hell was an image of a wardrobe supposed to help him locate Severus Snape? He shook his head; clearly this process required somebody who was more in tune with the 'world beyond' or at least somebody who was more adept at interpreting symbols.
Deciding to give up for the day, Harry stood up, brushed the dust off the back of his jeans, and went to put the Advanced Potions book back in ... the wardrobe. The very wardrobe he'd seen reflected in the pensieve.
Impossible. Completely impossible...and yet, what other option did Harry have? If he was going to find Snape - and by this stage in the proceedings, the alternative was unthinkable - he had to try everything, no matter how ludicrous it appeared on the surface.
Feeling like a complete prat, Harry - still holding the Advanced Potions book in his arms - opened the door to the wardrobe and climbed in. He took a deep breath of the musty, strangely antiseptic air before shutting the door behind him.
Shaking uncontrollably, he only managed a few seconds inside before childhood memories of being locked into the hated cupboard under the stairs came flooding back. Unable to remain inside a moment longer, Harry threw the door open and stepped back out into --
--a dimly-lit, empty corridor in what looked to be St. Mungo's.
The silencing spell has just been removed, but there's nothing I wish to say to anyone.
I am to be discharged first thing in the morning.
The morning cannot come soon enough.
He had been fighting the urge to flee for the past 24 hours, but where could he run? Spinner's End? Muggle London? Was there anyplace he'd be safe? Before he could make any decisions, he needed more information, he needed money, and above all, he needed his wand.
The wand had to be close by. He had learned to cast a proximity spell when he was just a boy about to enter Hogwarts for the first time, and there was no reason to imagine he wouldn't have cast a similar spell here. Testing out his newly-healed vocal cords, Severus said, "Expiscero my wand,"and within an instant, the bedside table drawer opened. However, instead of the wand his mother had bought for him at Ollivander's on his eleventh birthday, the drawer contained a wand that was almost as familiar. It was fifteen inches long and carved from elder wood, with a core of Thestral tail hair - and it had once, in its long, storied history, belonged to Albus Dumbledore.
For the first time in more than twenty years, Severus Snape burst into tears.
It was at precisely that moment that Harry Potter - the Boy Who Had Never Lived in This Reality - walked through the door.
Harry had never been particularly good at comforting people. He'd learned over time to say the right words when Ginny was unhappy about something, but generally speaking, other people's unhappiness just made him uncomfortable. However, seeing Snape - for whom Harry had rarely felt anything but animosity - in such pain that he was unable to completely staunch the flow of his tears, even in the presence of a long-time adversary, touched something deep in Harry that had never been touched before. Instinctively, he lay the book down on the bed, then sat beside Snape, and without thinking about what Snape's response might be, put his arms around the man.
It has to be admitted that there was a brief moment during which Snape thought about hexing the boy - the young man - for his effrontery, but the sheer relief of being held by somebody who knew who he really was and seemed not to be entirely disgusted by it was so overwhelming that for what proved to be an embarrassingly long time, he could only cling to Potter's shirt and allow himself to be held in the warmth of his embrace.
When the two separated, there was an awkward silence, with neither willing to meet the other's gaze.
Finally Harry, still looking at the floor, cleared his throat. "So, um....I read the diary entries."
Snape laughed hollowly. "Of course you did. It would be impossible for anyone else to do so, but nothing's impossible for the great Harry Potter. Were you entertained by them?" he asked bitterly. "How long did it take you to realize that this monstrous reality was created by my teenage desires. Did it amuse you to learn exactly how base and shallow my desires are?"
Snape frowned. "What?"
"Snape, you haven't wanted to live in a world like this since you were, what...fifteen? Sixteen?"
"Seventeen," Snape muttered.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Fine, you were seventeen. But I'll bet even then you didn't really want things to be this way."
"Don't presume to imagine you know me, Potter," said Snape petulantly. "I most certainly wanted to be a Pureblood."
"Did you?" Harry asked, thinking back to the angry pride in Snape's voice on the night of Dumbledore's death as he acknowledged that he was the Half-Blood Prince. "I'll bet you didn't want to most of the time, even though it would have made your life a hell of a lot easier."
Snape didn't reply. In another person, this might have signaled silent disagreement, but in Harry's experience, Snape rarely did anything silently, least of all disagree.
"Pleasant as this discussion of my failings has been, Potter, would it be too much to ask if you know whether it's possible to get me the hell out of here before the mediwitch's 3:00 a.m. rounds?"
"I think so, but...there could be a problem."
"And the nature of that problem?"
"You're dead," Harry said. "I mean, not to be too blunt...."
"God forbid you ignore the subtlety for which you Gryffindors are best known."
"Shut it, Snape," said Harry impatiently. "The point I was trying to make is that getting through the passage between the two realities is pretty straightforward, or at least it was for me, but you have no way of knowing what might happen if you try to go back."
"And you had no way of knowing what would happen when you came into this reality, did you?"
"You never existed here," Snape said. "What makes it so different for you, Potter?"
"I had to come."
"Why? Tell me why!"
Harry stood up and paced across the room, then spun around and glared at Snape. "Because you're important, dammit. Because you're probably the person who's had the most important role to play in my life."
"Not Weasley or Granger?" he goaded. "Not your little girlfriend?"
"Shut up, you stupid bastard," Harry snarled. "I'm trying to tell you something. You are important to me. I fucking care about you. I couldn't leave you here, all alone. I had to try...to try, oh fuck you."
Harry leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, and shut his eyes tightly.
"Potter," Snape said quietly.
Eyes still closed, Harry grunted in acknowledgment.
"I have to try to return. It may be dangerous, but believe me when I tell you that I would rather die than stay here in this world I once thought I wanted."
"Okay then," Harry said, opening his eyes again and nodding to Snape. "Let's give it a try...together."
It would have made for a more dramatic ending if Tom Riddle had intercepted Snape and Harry just as they were heading toward the storage room that contained the wardrobe from which Harry had emerged...or maybe if Snape had made it safely through the passage, only to find that somehow Harry had been left behind. Instead, however, the two men stepped into the wardrobe - Harry taking Snape's hand in his own "just in case" - and in a few exceedingly anticlimactic moments (during which Harry wished harder than he'd wished for anything before that this time, things would be right for Snape), they stepped out the door and back into the Room of Requirement.
"Well," Snape said, taking a deep, shuddering breath. "It appears I'm back among the living."
"I don't suppose you have any idea how that's possible?"
"Not a clue. So...are you ready to leave? We still can't Apparate until we leave the school grounds, but I think I can get us out of here without anybody seeing us, just in case you're not ready to...well, just in case you're not ready."
Snape nodded his assent, and the two men stepped out into the corridor and headed for the back stairs. They had reached the second floor when Harry cleared his throat.
"I think I left your Advanced Potions book on the hospital bed."
Laughter was not at all what Harry had been expecting as a response.
"That's bloody brilliant, Potter. With any luck, they'll think I was the victim of a curse from some master of transfiguration with a grudge against me. Maybe the book will end up in a bed on the ward in which Sirius Black is being housed. And speaking of housing...I suppose my first order of business should be to see whether my old home is still standing. If it is...."
"Spinner's End?" Harry interrupted. "The house is still as you left it, yeah, but it's a little...look, I thought maybe that you'd like to come home with me."
"I meant what I said before, you know. I...care about you. Just give me a day or two to talk to Ginny. She'll understand, honestly."
"And what is it that Miss Weasley is supposed to understand?" Snape said slowly.
"About you and me."
The expression on Snape's face was a peculiar combination of horrified and intrigued, but eventually horrified won out. "Potter, there is no 'you and me.'"
"But I know you like men - I read it in the book - and...."
"Stop right there. I am not in the habit of discussing my sexual orientation with my students."
"Snape, I haven't been your student for years now."
"Be that as it may," Snape said. "Don't be a fool. Do not discuss this with Miss Weasley. Go home. Go home, Harry - without me - and instead of making your existence more complicated than it needs to be, decide what it is you want to do with your life now that you've saved the world."
"And you," Harry said. He knew he sounded sullen, but he couldn't bring himself to care. "Don't forget that I saved you."
"That would be extremely unlikely. I seem to have made quite a habit of owing Life Debts to members of the Potter family. Or...perhaps you're suggesting that I might pay off my Life Debt by fucking you?"
"God, no!" Harry said, "That's not what I meant at all. I just thought...."
"Not now, Potter," said Snape forcefully. "We're not having this conversation."
"Can I Floo you, at least?"
"No. Not until after you figure out what it is you really want." Snape looked back toward the castle, taking a quick glance at the Astronomy Tower for the first time since...that night. "Take your time. You're too young to make a decision like this, Potter. Choosing to spend your life with a murderer would be...you're still a teenager, for god's sake. A bad decision now could fuck up your entire life."
Harry's eyes widened. "Don't tell me you're actually comparing my wanting to be with you to your joining the Death Eaters when you were a teenager?"
The expression on Snape's face was unreadable.
"I suppose I am," he said.
They walked together in silence, side by side, but when they reached the gate, Harry lay his hand on Snape's shoulder. stopping his progress.
It should have been easy for Snape to shake off Harry's hand, but for some reason he didn't make the effort.
"What is it...Harry?"
"Would you kiss me?" he asked. "It'll, um...help with the decision-making process."
"That was quite possibly the worst attempt at seduction that I've come across in decades," Snape said, shaking his head.
For a long moment, Harry held Snape's gaze. "Does that mean no?"
In answer, Snape lay his hands on either side of Harry's face and slowly drew him closer. Harry closed his eyes, but Snape tapped his eyelids with his long index fingers. "Open your eyes, Potter. If we're going to do this, you're going to damn well know who it is you're kissing."
At the very moment that Harry opened his eyes, Snape closed the space between them. His lips - softer and warmer than Harry could ever have imagined - pressed against Harry's own.
Just for an instant, just long enough to draw a breath, Harry released Snape, and in that very instant, the soft pop of Disapparation told Harry that Snape was gone.
(Art by Venturous)