[HG/SS] Severus has always been the local Dungeon Bat. That was his moniker for as long as his hair has been greasy and his best known personality trait was being a git. What he didn't know was that he wasn't alone.
Beta Love: Sehanine
A/N: Um… I blame fever and gastroenteritis. (btw: a group of bats is sometimes called a cloud, just in case you didn't already know that heh)
Happy Thanksgiving, Americans!
Not neglecting One Step, just waiting on some inspiration.
Not neglecting Darkness either, just waiting on creativity. Authors, you know what I mean. Ugh.
A Meeting in the Clouds
Survival was not just a trait for snakes, Severus knew. There were many species that had some pretty remarkable survival skills. The devil worm, for example, could survive extremely high temperature, lack of oxygen, and pressure so high it would destroy almost anything. Most people probably wouldn't want to put that lovely creature on a crest and sing its praises. Survival was great and all, but did anyone want to look like a roundworm? Not bloody likely. Spiders were pretty darn effective predators and survivalists, but even the majority of Slytherin House started looking nervous when anything larger than a knut came crawling across the desk, floor, wall, or—Merlin forbid—window. Enter the acromantula, and all bets were off. Severus knew it was the one thing that would have Lucius Malfoy screaming like a little girl and hanging from the chandelier.
Someone would have paid for a picture of that, Severus knew. Pity he hadn't cashed in on that back when Lucius wasn't hiding away in the French Alps after selling his Estate and moving himself and Narcissa there for a "life out of the spotlight." Draco had married Astoria Greengrass and moved "off the grid" about as much as someone such as Draco Malfoy was capable of.
Whatever the universal quota for survival was, Severus figured he must have the lion's share, because he just kept surviving. Even things that would make most rational people throw in the towel and walk into the arms of death with glad tidings in their hearts. Perhaps, he mused, he made up for his apparent immortality with a lack of good looks. On reflection, Severus thought it was a fairly decent trade. Had the Dark Lord had his resilience, perhaps, the end of the Second Wizarding War would have come to a much different end… or perhaps it would still be going on.
Years had passed since the end of the second of two Wizarding wars, and Severus had celebrated the fifth year that no one came to pester him about his miraculous survival that no one other than Rita Skeeter really cared about. Potter, oddly, claimed that he did, but Severus didn't put much credit into it. He hadn't, at least, until the post-war hero named one of his sons "Albus Severus Potter," and Severus had fought very hard not to twitch when the formal baby announcement had hit the papers. Thankfully, the papers seemed far more happy to continue focusing on Harry Potter's life after the war than his. For that, he could only be grateful.
Life as a professor at Hogwarts had returned to normal, or at least, as normal as Hogwarts could ever be. Children were still children. Some of them were imbeciles. Many of them were dunderheads, and countless more needed basic English classes and penmanship to write an essay that did not make him want to start a bonfire using the horrible assignments that failed in even the basics of the Queen's English. Even his handwriting looked like Edwardian script at its best in comparison to the daily examples of wrong that looked like Hagrid had set his chickens loose over the ink pots and then told them to run across the parchment and hope for the best.
Severus stared out over the grounds, feeling the evening breezes calling him. Now, some decades after he had found out his birthright, he was finally able to satisfy some of the urges that had come with it. Tight, unwavering control had kept him from revealing his state to the Dark Lord. Only three other people at Hogwarts knew of his "condition" thanks to it coming on after the one event where everything had come crashing down.
After that glorious day of pain, humiliation, and betrayal, he had gained one more thing to curse his father for: the blood of a shifter. Thanks to some fluke of genetics, stressors, environmental exposure, and perhaps the planetary axis and alignment, Severus had found himself screeching in terror as his body transformed into a giant almost-humanoid black megabat and, if that wasn't traumatic enough, he had managed to get himself caught in the heavy draperies outside Gryffindor Tower. Fortunately, Minerva had found him, and she had sheltered him in secret until he calmed enough that he reached a point where his body reverted on its own. She knew. Poppy Pomfrey knew, and the Headmaster, of course, knew as very little escaped his knowledge inside Hogwarts.
Snape clenched his fist. Half-blood. Hah. After digging into his family tree, he found out the real reason his father drank. His father had discovered his genetic heritage shortly after being married. He came from a line of shifters. Bat-shifters to be precise. Sometimes, it skipped a generation, but his father had been one that was skipped over.
His father, who had left a journal buried under a thousand empty bottles of booze in the attic, detailed his descent into madness before he stopped journaling all together. His new wife was pregnant with his child: a child who would transform into a freak. He couldn't tell her. He couldn't reveal the truth, and when Severus was born, all he could imagine in his head was the boy's face twisting into muzzle—the sign of a beast. He began to drink to cope with the horror he had inflicted on his son and his wife. He drank to stop seeing her horrified face that he knew would come if he told her the truth. Then, he drank to forget why he drank. Then, the journals stopped, and Severus knew the rest. His father could barely keep a job, could never keep his temper, forgot his love for his wife, and felt too guilt ridden to bond with his son. His mother, on the other hand, had died having never gone up into his father's attic refuge. She had never known the real reason her loving husband had turned into a monster due to the alcohol. Instead of being a bat, he had become a different sort of monster. The fact that his father had chosen the attic as his refuge instead of the stereotypical males' "man cave" had a sort of irony all its own. Bats in the attic came to mind.
The even more bitter irony was, at least in Severus' opinion, was that Severus' mother would have likely forgiven his father his hidden heritage and accepted it. She was a witch, after all. She had her own secrets. The biggest vicious truth was, had both of them told each other their secrets, they could have made a decent home in the Wizarding world. Shifters were viewed much like metamorphmagi. They were highly valued for careers in subterfuge as their forms could not be forced by magic, however, Severus failed to see how being a giant overgrown bat was remotely inconspicuous. There was a little nagging voice in the back of his mind that said he was a giant overgrown bat, and he had managed to remain inconspicuous for decades. He promptly told that part of himself to shut the hell up.
Severus launched into the air, body reforming in an instant rather than the awkward transformations of his youth. His robes were swept up into the inherent magic of his kind, forming himself and what he was wearing into his bat-shape. If there was anything he could be thankful of, it was that he didn't have to derobe the change. More importantly, he didn't shift back into a human form as naked as a wee bairn. He had enough embarrassment in his life, thank you very much.
The air was clean and smelled of the nearby lake, but his sensitive nose could smell the distant sea just as well. He could also smell the ripening fruits of a nearby fruit tree and the glorious lure of the sweet smelling nectar that beckoned from non other than the Whomping Willow.
Maybe it was because no one other than a bat would smell it, but there was one thing the Whomping Willow would tolerate around itself: bats. He'd seen a hundred or so songbirds and squirrels get obliterated out of existence by the unruly tree, but bats, fruit bats or giant overgrown bats seemed to pass under the radar. Severus had even suspected that there was a symbiosis between the said angry tree and the bats: reproduction.
In exchange for providing a safe place to roost and providing a glorious nectar that could sustain Severus for an entire week on its richness alone, the willow would caress and dust it's hosted bats with a very thick coating of pollen. Said bats would then toddle off for other places, possibly other Whomping Willows, and do the same thing, serving as the vehicle in which to ensure the next generation of Whomping Willows. The nectar, which the tree allowed to drip from its gnarled nubs specifically when lapped, seemed very specifically tailored for symbiosis with fruit bats, and seemed to tolerate nothing else—not insects and not even hummingbirds or other nectar loving sorts. In fact, Severus noted, the willow provided perfect roosting areas both on its branches (because no one in their right mind would approach a Whomping Willow) and inside the crevices of its body.
One night, when he had seen someone approaching the willow, Severus had dived between the gnarls of the tree and into the larger crevice in the trunk. He figured he'd be in for an uncomfy stay there until the interlopers left, but much to his surprise, the inside was much more spacious than the outside. He was pretty sure that the tree customised itself to his needs, providing a warm crevice in which to dig his feet claws and relax while the tree did what it did best: express its anger towards anything that wasn't a bat. He wondered if Albus knew about this particular feature of the Whomping Willow. Pomona Sprout hadn't mentioned anything special about them, and she had been stunning and treating the resident willow for years. None of the journals had whispered of such a symbiosis, and Severus wasn't about to be the one to reveal it. It was between him and the willow… well he and all the local fruit bats. The last thing he needed was a bunch of Newt Scamanders and Pomona Sprouts of the world poking and prodding at one of the few refuges he felt safe in.
It was bad enough that Pomona's recruit to be her replacement, the infamous Neville Longbottom, had tried to dig up one of the willow saplings that had started to grow nearby and keep it in the greenhouse like some sort of freakish bonsai tree. He was hoping to condition it to be "more agreeable." Everyone always knew when he tried to move the willow sapling because he'd sport a broken nose until he went to Madam Pomfrey to get it reset and healed. Idiot. One could not condition the whomping out of a Whomping Willow.
Thankfully, Neville left the other two saplings that had started to grow near the original willow alone. They had actually grown quite fast in the first couple of years, and every so often the main willow would lean over and caress its offspring before going back to flinging squirrels that were unfortunate enough to pick the wrong tree to climb. There had been reports of squirrels landing as far as the Black Lake. Swimmers had reported it raining rodents on a number of occasions, and Snape could only shake his head over it. Severus pondered why evolution didn't seem to instill some sort of survival instinct about Whomping Willows into the local fauna, but he came up with nothing. Some mysteries, like why the human race survived adolescence, remained a mystery.
On the bright side, more Whomping Willows meant less visitors to this particular area, and that pleased him.
Severus let out a long, mournfully isolated but inviting screech as he flew. He enjoyed flight, but every flight always reminded him that he was very much alone. He had always been alone; that was no secret. Sure, there were other fruit bats that sometimes shared his roosting spots, but there were never any others like him, specifically. His father had so loathed the very idea of his birthright that he'd made sure his son never knew he had any other surviving family. Snape was not exactly a common name, but there was no telling, even if he found one, if they were inheritors to the bat-gene. That would make a lovely conversation starter. No thank you.
He would call each night, but each night no call would answer him. He felt very much like the world's loneliest whale who sang a 52-hertz song in world full of whales that sang their song in lower registers. Despite the loneliness, his ears would swivel, searching the night for an answer that never came. For a shifter who took the form of a highly social bat species, he was an utter failure, but to be fair, he wasn't exactly the huggable sort as a human, either. Maybe, it was karma.
Severus soared for over an hour, content, at least, that the moonlight allowed him see quite clearly without having to resort to echolocation. Despite it being natural to bats, it was a bit discombobulating to the human mind, though, part of him wondered if it was because he'd never learned it early enough in life to gain much practice. Most fruit bat species, he knew after much research, did not echolocate. The Egyptian fruit bat was the exception, but when it came to magical shifter bats, for all he knew it was completely normal to be a giant fruit bat that also used echolocation. He could cast silent and wandless magic too, and that was hardly textbook fare in Muggle or Wizarding education.
He landed in one of the large fruit-bearing trees in the Dark Forest, attracted to the succulent smell of the ripe fruit. His rear claws clutched onto the branch, causing it to bounce a little from his weight. His wings fanned out as he grasped one of the large fruits and tore into it with his teeth, savouring the sweet flesh. He made soft squeaking sounds of pleasure as he ate, enjoying the fruits of the season. He knocked a few of the high fruits down to the ground while he was there, knowing the centaur would appreciate the harvest from the high places they could not reach.
He was getting ready to pluck another fruit and devour it when he caught sight of something that made him freeze in place. Two glistening eyes stared at him from another branch. There was a bat sharing the tree with him—a bat like him. The other bat was frozen in place, staring at him with her mouth still latched onto a piece of fruit she had been devouring. A she-bat! Not only was there another of his kind, but it was female!
She was staring at him, fearful and suspicious. Severus felt a twitch in his gut. He had to make this meeting count. It was the first of his kind he had met in any circumstance. As a human, he was pants at social interaction, and he had a feeling he was equally horrible at bat socialisation. What should he do?
They stared at each other in silence, frozen in place.
Severus swallowed hard and decided he had to do something other than hang on the branch like an complete idiot. He plucked the nearby fruit in his wing claws and hugged it to him. Then, he slowly moved down the branch with his foot claws, making what he hoped was soft, reassuring squeaking noises.
Her eyes grew wider, and she remained frozen in place, but she she did not flee.
Slowly, in what seemed like centimeters at a time, Severus crept closer, and finally, when he was within range, extended the fruit to her. He squeaked an invitation, hoping he wasn't calling her mother a bedswerver or a cumberworld.
After what seemed like an hour, the female dropped her half-eaten fruit and slowly hooked her wings around the offering and pulled it towards herself. She very slowly bit into it and started to chew, eyeing him nervously.
Instinct told him that he had to impress her, groom her to set her at ease, and prove to her he was trustworthy, but how could he do such things when the majority of people out in the world didn't even think he was trustworthy? He extended his wings, flapping them in display in an attempt to look impressive instead of inept. He still felt inept.
The female watched him closely.
Severus displayed more, using his wings and stretching them far out to looks as impressive as possible.
Had she moved closer? Was he imagining it?
Instinct told him that even though she was the only female bat around, and he was the only male to be found, ultimately it was up to her to accept his presence. Bat courtship was simple and straightforward. Males attempt to attract female. Females decided if a male was the right bat for her. Females either leave or allow the male to wrap their wings around her and accept the courtship. It was straight forward for bats, but Merlin only knew if it was the same for bat-shifters. Rising instinct said yes, but… hell, why did things always have to be so complicated? Hell, part of Severus didn't even want to impress her for courtship as much as the driving need for companionship of his own kind. He could live with that… anything to ease the ache of loneliness that festered in his gut. Courtship would be an added bonus, and his inner fruit bat was somewhat adamant that he needed to take care of that as well.
There had been a time when Lily had been the keystone to not being completely ostracised from society. In her he had been given a friend that wasn't afraid to assault his person with random hugs and unasked for advice. His father had always tried to beat the desire to have friends out of him, and it wasn't until later that he realised why. Knowing the reason for his father's drunken brutality didn't make the situation any better, but it did make some of his rantings more sensical.
"Won't have you knocking up some girl and turning her into a monster too," he had yelled on many occasions. "This filthy line ends with me, do you hear me?"
Was his condition something that could be passed on? His father seemed to think so. Somehow, Severus doubted it was as simple as getting some girl pregnant. His mother, after all, hadn't turned into one. Though, for all he knew, it was because his father skipped out getting the genetic family gift. Severus had bled all over the Dark Lord's floor, and Lucius had patched him up a number of times. Lucius hadn't developed any cravings to devour crates of fruit or shown any propensity to dangle upside down from tree limbs, so Severus didn't think that blood alone was the key. If his father's assumption was true, there was more to it than just "knocking up some girl," bleeding over someone, or some combination thereof.
None of that mattered, however. What mattered was there was a honest-to-Merlin female of his species dangling from a tree branch and eyeing him with nervous curiosity. Hundreds of bat facts whirled in his head and did nothing to assuage his nervousness. Most bats were polyamorous, but he had a feeling that his species was not. Surely their numbers would be much greater if such were the case. The wing flapping acrobatics seemed to attract her, and that was a positive sign. He engaged in a little more, watching her for signs of interest.
She watched him with fascination, the scent of nervousness easing slightly. Her ears flicked forward to focus on him. She was still nervous, and he couldn't blame her. If she was anything like him, she would have thought she was alone. Yet, Severus had been calling during his flights for years, and no one had answered him. There hadn't even been a hint. Had she been so afraid of being discovered that she didn't call back? Maybe she was not local. Maybe she had just come into the change like he had in his teens. So many questions filled his head, even as her scent seemed so terribly familiar, as though he'd known it before.
Instincts drove him to move, memorize her scent, and make contact, and Severus found himself struggling. Making contact was not his typical first choice. He never remembered it being anything but awkward, yet, his inner bat seemed determined to prove him wrong. His wings flapped enticingly, flashing the span of his wings and the glint of moonlight off his wing membranes and fur.
The female perked. Interest. Then, as if realising something, she shrunk back from him, suspicious.
Severus worked even harder. He launched off the branch and snatched the largest and most deliciously smelling fruit he could find and landed again, transferring the fruit to his wings in mid landing. He offered it up, holding it in his wings like the crown jewels.
The fruit smelled heavenly. It's ripeness was perfection. He knew from the smell of it and the way it yielded to his touch that it would be perfectly sweet. He wafted the scent towards the female bat using his wings. He was not above using bribery to get his foot or wing in the door, and he was Slytherin, so it was most likely par for the course. It seemed to be working. She was relaxing.
She slowly, little by little, foot shuffled towards him. Her nostrils worked as she scented the air and, perhaps, him.
Severus, very carefully, extended a wing to rub the fur on the back of her wings, making soft clicking sounds and squeaks.
She blinked slowly and inched a little closer. Slowly, she approached and took small bites of the prized fruit offering. She seemed to savour it, and then she squeaked at him, nosing the fruit with her nose and looking him.
Oh so slowly he leaned in and nibbled on the fruit at her invitation, sharing it with her. She watched him and then ate with him, sharing the fruit between them. She nestled closer, and he drew his wing around her body.
At first, she froze, eyes wide, mouth frozen on the fruit, and just when he figured she would flee, she nestled in closer.
Severus felt a shiver of ecstasy as the feel of her warmth touched him. He enfolded her with his wings, fruit and all, using his teeth to gently groom the fur on her neck, head, and wings. The bliss of the contact was enough to set him to tears. The feel of a warm body against his moved something inside him. He knew he would do anything to preserve this feeling of closeness and intimacy. He knew that had his father felt anything like this with his mother that being parted from it would have broken him… self imposed exile or no.
The female made soft squeaking noises of contentment, and Severus snuggled into her, memorizing her scent and the feel of her. He groomed her gently, using his tongue and teeth to put her fur in order. And, just when thought the bliss of having another to share his nights with couldn't get better, she groomed him back, the sensation of her kneading his fur and skin with her teeth sent ripples of pleasure through him.
Reciprocation. She snuggled into him as she groomed his fur.
How long had it been since anyone had given Severus Snape the simple comfort of companionship? He had always been a horrible sort, he knew. He was not the type to welcome anything of the sort, at least on the outside, and no one had ever wanted to be near him long enough to know his inside—not since Lily, and even Lily—
He couldn't help but stiffen at the memory of Lily, and the moment it happened he knew he had sent the wrong signal. The she-bat froze in her grooming of him, having sensed his change in demeanor and the change of his scent.
He was about to groom her back and assure her it was not her when a crunching noise of feet on the forest floor practically deafened him. It didn't take a genius to recognise Hagrid's thumping footfalls. The she-bat wriggled out from his wing embrace and let loose from the branch, diving down into the darkness of the forest to cloak her departure as the prized fruit they had been dining on fell to the ground with a splat. Every fibre of his being screamed at him to give chase, but the arrival of Hagrid at this place meant only one thing. Sunrise was coming soon, and he would be expected at the morning faculty meeting.
Gazing longingly into the darkness where the female bat had retreated, all he could wonder was if he would ever see her again.
Days passed, and nights passed with no sign of the female she-bat that shared the fruit tree with him. He flew there every night, calling. He would hang himself on a branch and display, flapping his wings and showing off as best he could, trying to show that he was still interested, but her scent was already fading, and even the lure of the wondrous fruits couldn't bring her to the tree again.
Severus began the long chore of flying fruits to the Whomping Willow and storing them in the niches inside, casting a stasis on each one to keep them perfect. Winter would be coming soon, and while the willow was good about providing protection even in the winter months, nectar was something that only flowed well during the non-snowy seasons. Still, the expansive inner refuge inside was warm and inviting, and he filled the many crevices with as many variants of the fall fruits as he could. Many bats, he knew, hibernated in the winter months, so it made sense that the willow would provide a place to do so and not have to worry about feeding its guests, but his species was hardly a typical example of a bat.
Equally oddly, the willow never seemed to run out of space to host its pollinators, and Severus never had to worry about being crowded out by a cloud of other bat species. They seemed to work their way into the smaller crevices and leave the large one for him.
He kept hoping to see the she-bat again, but part of him speculated that she had left for greener pastures. The last thing she had experienced had been his rejection, even though he hadn't meant it to be. Her being a transient could explain why he hadn't seen her before then. He wasn't sure, not really, but a part of him remained hopeful that one day he would see her flying against the moonlit sky or silhouetted against the tree branches.
The faculty meeting was as boring as they usually were until the discussion of one particular student came up. A boy named Dexter Young was causing trouble in every class he was in. He was, Severus hated to admit, worse than James Potter for pranking, worse than Seamus Finnigan for blowing things up (often in his face), and worse than Neville Longbottom for making disastrous potion results, having accidently created a semi-sentient glue out of ordinary ingredients, a paperclip, and some of his chewing gum. The entire class ended up stuck together for a few days until Severus could develop a counter solvent that wouldn't dissolve the children along with the glue. Needless to say he made some enemies there, especially when it was time to use the bathroom. He couldn't fly to save his soul, having crashed into a number of people so hard they ended up in the hospital. He couldn't remember what to do in Care of Magical Creatures and ended up getting Fang angry at him, and Fang wasn't even magical. The boy managed to "accidently" drop an entire shelf of books in the library over onto some poor witch's familiar that sent her into a catatonic coma state for a month due to the psychic distress. Her parents were considering withdrawing the girl for a year so she could get therapy. The boy was, unequivocally, a walking mine-field of disaster. Severus, himself, had warded all of his rooms specifically against Dexter Young, just in case his walking in the room caused something horrible to happen.
Minerva was at her wit's end, knowing that if things didn't change, parents of other children were going to be demanding answers or retribution, and the last thing she wanted was the boy to be strung up in a lynch mob's fury. So far, everything he had cataclysmically done was proven to be accidental, but the frequency of it made many of the professors at Hogwarts think he was born under a very unlucky star. The fact he was a prankster just made it even worse for his reputation.
It seemed, oddly enough, that when he was concentrating on doing a prank, his skill at brewing became astronomically better. He had managed to, quite deftly, to transform the entire Head Table into anthropomorphic cats for a day by spiking the pumpkin juice. After being dragged to the Headmistress' office, however, it turned out he had botched that as well, having meant for the prank to only go to the Hufflepuff table, not realising he had spiked the wrong batch of pumpkin juice. When the professors, in pure cat spite, had become even more strict to their students that day, it was more than Hufflepuff that came down on Mr Young with the kind of retribution only a student body could come up with.
The door to Minerva's office opened with a creak, and all heads turned up to see Professor Hermione Granger storm into the room with an uncharacteristic snarl on her face. She was sporting a set of perfectly functional dragon wings that were so expansive that when she tried to turn, she knocked one of Minerva's objects off the tables.
"Honestly!" Granger hissed. "How is it he cannot grasp the most simple of equations but he can accidently cast magic that gives me fully functional dragon wings?"
"I was wondering what had kept you, dear," Minerva said with eyes full of sympathy. "We were just discussing Mr Young."
Hermione's lips pressed into a firm line. "Back at the Ministry we had an anti-magic room that was charmed specifically to block all magic, jinxes, curses, and the like. I'm tempted to make one here and stuff him into it."
Minerva winced at the simmering ire of one Hermione Granger. Hermione's normally wild hair had started to writhe like serpents as her magic rose with her emotion. Her newly acquired dragon wings shook with some fury and they were evolving into something scarier with each each passing moment.
"If I may," Snape said, gesturing to the wings. "I, too, have been the victim of one of Mr Young's pranks and sported a wonderful pair of what he thought made great vampire bat wings for a week."
Hermione slumped her shoulders, and her wings flapped, almost clipping Filius Flitwick off his seat. "Sorry, yes, please." She mumbled something under her breath.
"Hrm?" Snape asked.
Hermione sighed. "Nothing. I just… bat wings would have been more natural."
Snape's eyebrows lifted.
Hermione gestured in a folding motion. "Bat wings fold closer to the body," she explained. "Dragon wings… well look at these things!"
Severus nodded as he placed his hands on the back of her wing blades. For a moment he had wondered how Hermione would know anything about bat wings, but he realised the witch had researched wings like any other subject in life—thoroughly.
The moment he touched her wing blades, however, even though they were the "wrong" species, he felt a surge of warmth from her body and a visceral response in his body. His long fingers spread across the wing membranes as he tried to concentrate on the counter spell he had developed.
He remembered his she-bat and the soft press of her warmth against his body, her nervous snuggle into his wings, and the almost ecstatic pleasure at being close to one of his own kind.
Hermione began to relax. Her hair stop writhing, and her dragon wings began to sag and fold more naturally. Whether she realised it or not, she leaned into his touch as he chanted the counterspell. Gradually, the wings pulled into themselves and disappeared.
Severus pulled his hands away, wincing slightly as the warmth from her body lingered on his hands. "Your extra appendages should not trouble you anymore, Professor Granger," he said after a moment.
Hermione turned slightly, her eyes flicking to his. "Thank you, Professor Snape." She gave an awkward nod of gratitude and turned her head away, slightly flushed. She scooted over on the shared sofa and tried to look inconspicuous.
Granger had been hired in under Septima Vector, and after a successful apprenticeship, she had replaced her as Professor of Arithmancy. Their paths had not crossed much, and despite their not being at each other's throats, she had given him a wide and respectful berth. Sometimes, it seemed she wanted to say more, but then she would turn away. Snape always figured it was some awkward apology for their role in the war and having believed him a murderer, but he didn't bother asking.
As the faculty meeting went on, mostly focusing on how to deal with Dexter Young, Snape rubbed his fingers together. Granules of white and yellow powder covered his fingertips—pollen. She had been near the Whomping Willow. Had she been following him?
Anger rose in his chest, unbidden. The Whomping Willow was his one safe place. Was she following him? Did she think he was up to something, even now? Even after all he had done? He curled his lips in disdain, the familiar feel of scorn filling his mind where before he had felt the soft and comforting warmth. Anger he was used to. Mistrust, scorn, and distaste were familiar friends.
As the meeting concluded, his ire had risen to a point that it could not be suppressed. It was too close to home and his feeling of safety. To think that the know-it-all was sticking her nose into the place no other would even bother angered him. As soon as the other professors had left the hall, he cornered her, slamming his hands around her like a cage.
"Why are you following me, Professor Granger?" he hissed. "Do you have some project that begs your attention? Feeling like my pardon due to your best friend was not worthy of someone like me? Did my survival offend you? What is it that has you following me?"
Granger looked taken aback, confused.
"Don't play dumb with me, Granger," Snape growled. He held up his fingers and rubbed them together. White and golden pollen from the willow coated his fingers. "I know you were where I was."
Hermione's eyes flicked over to the pollen, and for a moment it looked as though she relaxed, but then her jaw tightened. "I was not following you, Professor Snape."
"Liar," he scolded, his nose practically shoved into her face like a wedge. "I know where you have been. You think me a fool? If, for some reason you find some altruistic reason to stick your nose into my business, then unstick it, Professor Granger. I do not want you in my affairs."
"You made it quite clear at the end of the war what you thought of me, Severus Snape," Hermione said coldly, a strange fire building in her eyes. Her expression was both fury and pain. He recognised it well. He saw it every day when he looked in the mirror. "Do not think yourself so special that I would follow you around. And if I did check up on you, for some strange and temporary weakness thinking things might have changed, consider me reminded why you never came back to meet me and that your promises are empty."
Hermione's response, so filled with vitriol that it caused Snape to pull away in uncertainty, stumbling backwards and pulling his hands away from the wall that caged her. She clenched her teeth at him, anger causing her hair to begin to writhe again. Her fury was righteous, and for once, Severus had no idea what promise he had made that he would have broken. Back then, she was a student. What promise could he have… would he have made to a young witch who had only just reached the age of majority? More importantly, why didn't he remember doing so? Granger wasn't the type to lie. That much he knew. Even when she tried, she was as transparent as a Seer's crystal.
Hermione's eyes flashed golden with the call of her Arithmancy, and she glared at him. "I don't care what the numbers say. It's obvious what you think of me. She pulled a chain out from around her neck and snapped it off with a jerk. She thrust it into his hands and closed his fingers on them with a steel-like grip that belied her small hands. "I waited. I waited over fifteen years for you to come back and retrieve this. I waited over a decade for you to keep your bloody promise—the one promise you swore to my face you would never renege." She stared into his eyes, the fire in hers burning into his colder black eyes. "I was a fool, and I will live my life alone rather than suffer the likes of you again."
With one last glare, she spun on her heels and glided away with the same dramatic swirl of her robes that he was known for.
Severus stood, staring at the wall where she had been. There were questions, so many question, that begged for answers. He stared down into his hand to the broken goblin silver chain that she had snapped as easily as one would snap a dry twig. On the chain lay three rings. One was the ring of his mother's family—his birthright from his mother's side. One was the friendship promise ring he had given Lily so long ago that she had thrust back at him the night he had inherited his father's birthright. The third was a ring of shining silver that seemed to embody the moon itself. As he held it between his fingers, the ring formed into the gnarled and twisted branch of a willow twig. Runes shimmered on the inner band :
To you, I shall always return - Severus
The moment he touched the ring, he felt a jolt of electricity and a pain so keen he could barely breathe.
She hadn't been at the Whomping Willow to spy on him.
She had been waiting at the Whomping Willow for him, taking only a night to feed herself when the lure of the fruit trees became too much to bear.
Severus clutched the rings to his chest with a moan of pain and hustled down the hallway corridor. He needed answers, and there was only one person in Hogwarts that had a nose longer than his that he couldn't help sticking it into his business.
"Severus, my boy," Dumbledore's portrait greeted. "What brings you here today?"
"Did you know?" Severus blurted, his fists clenched. He thrust the three rings and the broken chain out in front of him.
Albus' face became sombre. "Of course, my boy," he answered grimly. "You gave very specific instructions."
The old Headmaster shook his head. "I was not permitted to say anything until you came under very specific conditions."
"What were the conditions?" Severus demanded.
The portrait Albus stroked his beard. "Voldemort must be defeated and unable to return. Hermione Granger must have survived her quest to help Mr Potter," Dumbledore listed, "and you must come to me either asking the proper question or wielding proof of your past."
Severus' hands shook. "What was the message?"
"Look behind my portrait, Severus," the wizened portrait wizard replied.
Severus frowned, and grabbing a nearby chair, stood on it to get to Albus' portrait. He flipped it over to see a small box had been placed behind it. It was a box with no lid, but when his fingers touched it, the box opened, exposing a small vial. Memories swirled within.
He plucked the vial with his fingers and moved the portrait back over. "Was there anything else?
Dumbledore shook his head. "Only that you hoped you wouldn't be so stupid as to Obliviate your memory of the letter leading yourself here for some stupidly Gryffindor reason."
Severus flinched. He had a feeling that he'd be engaging in some serious self-flagellation for the next… rest of his life.
The young she-bat was flying circles around him, literally, making small squeaks of happiness as she barrel-rolled around him. She touched wings with him every so often, darting around around the Whomping Willow's branches with adorable squeaks and clicks. He extended one wing just as she passed, and she slammed into it with a squeak. He folded his wing around her and pulled her close, muffling her squeaks of protest before she snuggled into him and gave a resigned but happy click.
They clung to the branch together, and lapped at the nodule of nectar the Whomping Willow was providing them. The willow caressed their bodies with its branches, coating them with pollen, ensuring that if they should run across another willow somewhere, they would also deliver its pollen to it.
Hermione sneezed, rubbing her nose against Severus' furry chest, and Severus stared at her disdainfully as she squeaked at him cutely. He huffed in her face as she groomed his chin in supplication. Severus sighed and groomed her ears as he thought back to their first confrontation.
"I know what you are, Ms Granger," Severus had said to the young Gryffindor witch as she froze in place in the Hospital Wing bed.
Hermione stared at him with panicked and wide eyes.
Severus reached over to her school robes that were folded by her bed. He fingered the white and golden grains of pollen. Slowly, he pulled something out of his robes and handed it to her. He extended it to her.
Hermione eyed the dragonfruit with disbelief. "For me?"
"The craving gets a little out of hand, doesn't it?" he asked. "Sometimes, in the middle of the day, with hours until the next meal, all you can think of is sinking your teeth into a ripe mango."
Hermione nodded, her hands wrapping around the dragonfruit reverently. "Professor, how did you know?"
Severus showed the pollen on his fingers. "Not just any kind of pollen, is it, Ms Granger?"
Hermione swallowed hard. "No, sir."
"Whomping Willows are very special trees," Severus noted, "but I don't think anyone who wasn't a bat would know—but not just any kind of bat."
Hermione nodded. "Are you going to… report me, Professor?" Hermione's eyes were filled with fear.
"No, Miss Granger," he replied.
She looked at him with such raw relief that it tore his heart to think of betraying that look.
"How long have you known, Ms Granger?" Severus asked. "That you were different."
Hermione looked out the window where the night sky beckoned. "Since I was little. I fell… out of a tree in my parent's garden. It hurt so much. My parents found me, crying… a baby bat crying for its parents and not understanding why the world suddenly got so much bigger. They held me close, wrapping me in their wings until I stopped crying. I changed back when I was calmer. I was so afraid… afraid what my friends would think. They told me I was special. When I got my letter, they said that proved it." Hermione stared at her hands. "How did you—"
"I had had a very bad day," Severus replied, "not so unlike falling out of a tree, only I had no others to tell me what I was."
Hermione looked horrified. "I—I can't imagine. I'm sorry."
"It is nothing," Severus said with a wave of his hand. He stared out the window. "It must be hard… being away from your family. Your cloud."
"Mum said she and dad would always be here," Hermione answered, tapping her chest, "and if I closed my eyes, I could feel their wings around me, but sometimes—sometimes it's hard. I don't fit in. I study so hard so I can do well and so people think I'm not worthless, but all it does it make people whisper behind my back or in front of me. They think I can't hear them talking."
Severus said nothing.
"You don't have to be nice to me, Professor," Hermione said, taking a deep breath. "I know you despise my hand waving and my teeth. I appreciate you not telling anyone my secret, but I don't want you to think I'll tell anyone if you don't pretend—"
Severus held up his hand. "No, Miss Granger. You have secrets, yes? Secrets you must keep?"
Severus sighed. "I have many secrets. One of many is that I cannot be," he began, making a face, "kind to you when anyone else is around. Do you understand?"
Hermione frowned. "I think so."
"I will make you a deal, Miss Granger," Severus said softly.
"You will continue to annoy me in class, and I will continue to insult your intelligence and give you detentions," Severus said, raising an eyebrow as her face contorted in displeasure. Getting detention was hardly what she wanted for herself. "I will ensure you serve those detentions with me."
Hermione lifted her head, comprehension starting to creep into her eyes.
"I will be your cloud away from home, if you permit it," he said, "but only in secret. Do you understand?"
Hermione stared out the window and then looked back at him. "I understand."
"It is important that no one finds out about your extra abilities, Miss Granger," Severus said. "Do you understand why?"
Hermione frowned a little. "Because I'm a Mudblood."
Severus shook his head violently. "No!" he spat adamantly. "It's because you're special, Miss Granger, and no one can know. They will use it against you, or they will try to use you against your friends. There are dangerous people out there, and they would turn you against your friends."
Hermione swallowed hard and nodded. "I understand."
Severus inhaled loudly and exhaled. "You can trust me, Miss Granger," Severus said softly. "Please believe that. One bat to another."
Hermione seemed to be biting her lip, debating on what to say next. "I set your robes on fire first year," she said all at once, staring at him guiltily.
Severus stared at her, his eyebrows furrowed tightly.
Hermione looked guiltily down at her lap.
Severus made growling sounds, and Hermione looked up at him fearfully. Her eyes widened as she realised he was laughing at her. The corners of his mouth, usually severely slanted downward quirked upward in a subtle smile. "And you stole polyjuice ingredients from my personal stores, Miss Granger. Would you like pointers to make sure you do not blow yourself up while brewing it?"
Hermione blinked at him with wonder. She nodded up and down, as if afraid to say it outloud. She seemed to realise something, and she concentrated, causing the long claw of her index finger to form. She sliced open the dragonfruit and offered him half.
Severus' expression softened. "Thank you."
She smiled up at him, and Severus felt the ice around his heart melt. Whatever came, they would face it together.
Severus watched Hermione grow up. He saw their evening flights together, saw the crevice the Whomping Willow had made for them to hide in together. At night, he was the mentor he could never be to her during the day. She would lead him on merry chases through the clouds and the forest. They would find their way to the fruits of the forest and share them together. She would verbally dump all of her experiences on him, get excited over things only a young person could, and then look at him expectantly like he would understand.
He didn't always understand, but bent an ear regardless. Sometimes, she would be angry at him for hurting her feelings during the day, and he would always try to explain himself. Sometimes she understood, and sometimes she said she didn't care. She was tired of being treated like less than human. She always forgave in the end.
At first, he had offered to be her surrogate cloud to ease a little of his own inner pain of loneliness, knowing that she too would feel it. Later, however, he realised he truly cared. The young she-bat had become important to him.
It wasn't until he realised that when he called out into the night that he was calling for her that he realised something had bound them together. She sang to him in the night sky, her soft squeaks replying to the song he called to her. It tore at him. He, the very much older bat, and she, the younger bat with so much more ahead of her—provided they both survived the war.
He knew that eventually they would have to part. Potter would lead her on some quest and need her help, and Severus would not be there anymore. Eventually, Dumbledore or Voldemort would ask him to something that would be the line drawn in the sand, and the world would go pear-shaped.
The Dark Lord was growing increasingly paranoid, and it had taken every bit of power to his Occlumency to keep his secrets safe. The one thing he knew he couldn't afford the Dark Lord to know was about Hermione. It wouldn't be long before his Lord would bring in Fenrir Greyback to guard his spoils like a violent hound trained to kill. Fenrir would be a problem. Fenrir would smell her, ask questions, taunt him over it. It was something he couldn't afford. It was also something he didn't not want her exposed to. She had enough on her plate.
He could only hope, that when the war was done and Voldemort was no more, that could repair the rift that would undoubtedly come to pass.
But each time he tried to tell her that soon they would have to part, the she-bat would snuggle into him and squeak contentedly, and all his resolve would fly off into the night without him as his wings enfolded her in a protective embrace.
"No!" Hermione cried, almost shrill enough to be ultrasound bat squeaks. "No! Please!"
"Miss Granger," Severus placated. "This must be done. We must part. If Fenrir scents you on me, none of my lies will save you. The Dark Lord will use me to find you, and I will have to deliver you to him. I will have to… or everything I've done for the past decade will be for naught." He grasped her hands that she was beating on his chest. "Please. Hermione. Listen. Listen. I will return."
He pulled something from his robes and placed it in her hand. "I will return. When all's said and done. I will find you again. I swear it. This is my mother's ring. This was Lily's ring—the only friend I ever had… before you. The third is a promise. When it is safe. When everything is done. I will meet you in the willow. Our special place. Our hidden place. I will come back for two of those rings, and if you still insist on binding yourself to me, I will give you a real ring that you can wear proudly. I swear it."
He held her hands in his. "But, Hermione... If, at any point, you fall in love with someone out there, hold tight to it, and don't let go, do you hear me? Put the rings in our special place, and I will know that you have found love out there in the world we're fighting for. I will know you are safe. I will know that you are happy. That is all I want for you."
Hermione shook her head adamantly. "I've heard your song," she lamented. "I've always heard your song. I cannot sing for anyone else."
Severus closed his eyes, his hand brushing her cheek. "You are young, and the young can change their minds. Let this time between us be a test, but do not think finding that you changed your mind a failure. We will always be a cloud together. No matter what happens. And maybe, when you meet that special someone that can accept all that you are, perhaps that Bulgarian Seeker, I will be there to bat-sit."
Hermione let out a choking laugh.
"This bond we have," Severus explained. "I know you think it gives us no choice, but I am giving you a choice, Hermione. Use this time where we cannot be together safely, and if it's meant to be, then it will be."
Hermione stared at the ring that was formed like a willow branch. She read the inscription and clutched the rings tightly in her hand. "I will miss you."
Severus frowned. "You may be the only one in this entire school."
Hermione huffed. "It's your own fault."
"Hn," he agreed.
Hermione looked skyward. "Fly with me? One last time before—" she blinked away a tear.
Severus was already in the air, his great wings beating against the moonlit sky. He gave a long screech as he began his song to her. Hermione was in the air chasing after him, squeaking her softer rely as she barrel-rolled around him, brushing her wings against his as she flew what would be their last dance together for many years.
"If you're watching this," Severus watched himself say into the mirror, "then the war is over, and you're still alive. More importantly… she's still alive."
"If she didn't survive her quest with Potter, then it made no sense to remind you of what you had lost. All I can hope for is that while you are watching this memory, that you haven't done something stupidly Gryffindor that prevented your reunification where she threw your rings back into your face."
Severus watched his reflection stared back at him. "You're going to feel horribly guilty, and less the kind of bat you think you should be. I know because I already feel horribly guilty, and a horrible example of trustworthiness. Obliviating yourself is a horrible idea. What if you miss? What if you accidentally wipe out the memory that leads you to this message? This is a horrible plan, and the only reason I… we… whatever. The only reason I'm going through with this is because it protects her. The Dark Lord cannot know of us. He cannot know of her. He will turn her into a weapon, or he will break her. He will murder her parents and friends. He will destroy her and remake her into monster, or some broken fanatic like Bellatrix."
Severus' reflection stared back at him. "There will come a time soon, when you will Obliviate yourself. It will be a time when you cannot risk him knowing. All I know is that she must survive. If she survives, it's all worth it. Even if she finds someone out there in the world that she can trust with her secret and you find your rings in the willow—it will be enough to know she is happy."
He closed his eyes. "But a part of me… prays that the moment you view this memory, you will fly to that crevice inside the willow—the one she always favoured because of that damnable mossy entranceway—and find her there, waiting for you instead of just finding the rings."
His reflection opened his eyes. "We did not act upon our bond, I swear it. We had to be sure it was her true choice to be with us. We had to be sure it wasn't… transference or something the magic was somehow drawing us together. You've seen the memories. We've taught her. We've supported her. We were her cloud away from home. We gave her a chance to find love outside of us and choose someone… choose a fate of her own making. If it is meant to be, she will be waiting for us, and by the gods, Severus Tobias Snape, you will hold her tight to you and you will never let go. She is our cloud. She is our heart. No matter what her choice is, it is her happiness we desire, and we will not fault her for what she chooses!"
Snape's reflection fidgeted with the buttons going down his chest. "We promised her we would return. We swore it!" Black eyes stared. "At the base of the gryphon that guards the Headmaster's office, between the paws, trace your sigil upon the metal there. There you will find the potion that will reverse the effects of the Obliviate. There is enough there to restore your memories fifteen times over in case you were extra stupid. You will also find the ring you promised to have if you found her there waiting for you."
His reflection scowled. "Now go fetch the potion, drink it, take the ring and find her, idiot. Explain to her that you Obliviated yourself to save her, and if you're lucky, when she's done hexing you into the next century for being an inconsiderate bastard, pray that she forgives you."
Severus pulled his head out of the Pensieve and sucked in his breath, clutching his chest in pain. He slid down the side of the cabinet and sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands with a moan.
After scraping himself off the Headmistress' office floor, he found the potion and drank it. He clutched the small wooden box that held the ring he had custom made for her. He flew out to the willow, frantically searching the willow for the mossy crevice that they had shared together so many years previous. But this time, the crevice was empty. No she-bat waited for him within. Her scent was still there from her previous vigil—waiting for him to decide when it was safe to meet up again.
How many years had she flown there each night after the war… waiting for him to return?
The potion he had brewed had revealed all. The Dark Lord had summoned him right after Minerva had driven him from Hogwarts. He was shattered and broken, and his thoughts were of his murdering his Headmaster and his young she-bat. He Oblivated himself the moment no one was looking, not having the time to be subtle and precise. He had Obliviated everything connected him emotionally to her… including breadcrumbs that would have led him to the letter pressed in his favourite book at Spinner's End—the letter that would have led him to the Headmaster's office for the vial of initial memories. After the war had ended, he had no desire for the things that had once interested him. He hadn't picked up his favourite book. He never found the letter. He never remembered Hermione as anything… but the annoying know-it-all swot he loathed.
When the war was over, she had remembered, but he had not.
In a chance meeting, he had met her in the fruit tree, and had shown interest in her, bringing hope to Hermione that he was ready to return to her. She had flown back to the willow, waiting for him to return, but he had not come. He had not known what crevice to enter. And then, as the ultimate slap in the face, he had accused her of spying on him.
He flew out of the crevice and back towards the fruit tree in the forest, but all but a few of the fruits were gone. Those that remained were shriveled and inedible. No she-bat clung to the branches. He called out over the forest canopy, singing the song he now remembered, but no reply answered him.
Finally, in a last ditch effort, he pulled out an action from his past and parked himself out in front of Hermione's chamber portal entryway and begged the portrait to tell her he was there. When the portrait told him she had nothing to say to him, he parked himself against the wall and waited, praying it would not end like it had with Lily.
Severus was nodding off as the portrait moved aside and Hermione's door opened. He had neglected his patrol for the first time in… ever, his hair was even messier than usual, his eyes were bloodshot, and his skin was about as pale as alabaster.
The angry witch glowered down at him. "You really know how to send confusing signals, Professor Snape," she seethed through gritted teeth. "I'm done playing. You've made yourself quite clear, and I will not be lured into thinking there is a change so you can—"
"Severus," Snape said hoarsely. "Please. Severus."
Hermione's jaw tightened. "I will not presume familiarity with you, Professor."
"Hermione, please," Severus pleaded, his black eyes meeting hers. He saw her flinch as he used her given name. He extended a vial between his fingertips. "I Oblivated myself before I went to see the Dark Lord. I didn't know. I swear… I didn't know. I just found the message I left myself. I would never have kept you waiting. Please. Just look at them. That's all I ask."
Hermione stared down at the vial with a cold expression.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Hermione slowly reached out and plucked the vial of memories out from between his fingers.
"Come in then," she said, her face changing from ice to a more resigned expression. "I'll dust off the Pensieve."
"I sang for you," Hermione confessed, her face sombre and stark against the firelight of the room. "Every night in the Forest of Dean." Her hand went to her throat as if searching for something, and Severus realised she was automatically reaching to touch the chain with the rings she had worn for over fifteen years.
"I almost Obliviated my parents before they went to Australia because of the war," she admitted, "but Viktor helped me smuggle them out and leave a trail of them moving to the Americas."
Severus stared into the fire. "Ten of the Death Eater inner circle and about a hundred lesser Death Eaters were apprehended in a sting by the American D.M.L.E., their Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Unlike our Department's use of Azkaban, if they see you commit acts of Dark Magic, once you are apprehended, they Obliviate magic from your mind and permanently transform you into an endangered species. It is very different from the magic of an Animagus, they do not get to keep their minds. Mulciber was one of the ten that went. He and his surviving squad are now bringing back the West Indian Manatee."
Hermione shook her head. "I was right to be concerned about my parents, then."
"Viktor did well in working with the Americans," Severus said. "They caught even more groups of snatchers that hoped to do what the others could not and perhaps get into the Dark Lord's graces."
"How did they confirm that so many people used Dark Magic?" Hermione asked, curious.
"Americans have a fancy for technomagic," Severus replied. "Unlike here, where we are adamant that Muggle and Magic cannot mix. They set up magic cameras and traces on the house they set up to be your parents, put in two people to pose as your parents, and then let the idiots dig their own graves."
Hermione blinked and said nothing more, simply staring into the fire.
"My last thought was of you," Severus confessed. "I was desperate that the Dark Lord not find out about you. I couldn't get you out of my mind. I knew—my Occlumency was not going to be enough when it came to you. I had planned it to be controlled, but then Dumbledore returned to Hogwarts before I could—" He trailed off, closing his eyes in pain. "It was my fault. I held onto your memory too long. It was the only thing that kept me going, knowing you were out there, fighting for the future."
Hermione shook her head. "You should have told me, you idiot," she replied. "I would have understood, if you had just told me, left me a letter, a vial of memories in the willow, something!"
Severus looked sullen. "I'm afraid I do not think as clearly as a I should," he noted, "when it comes to you."
"That much is obvious," Hermione maintained, voice dripping with the disdain that seemed to come from Snape's own voice.
"Now you sound so much like me," Severus observed sadly.
"I learned from the best," Hermione said with a sniff.
"If I could turn back the clock and shake myself, I would have," he replied with a grim expression, "a hundred times over I would have. Hexed myself, slapped me, or sent myself a letter."
Hermione stared into the embers of the fire. "I do not know if this can be fixed, Severus. There was a time when all I did was long to see you, and then, there was a time when it was enough to know you were alive, but every day that passed when you were alive but didn't even give me the time of day broke something in me. I forgot how to sing. And I waited, still. I forgot what my name sounded like in the wind, but I listened anyway. There were times I heard you calling out in the night, but it wasn't for me." She trailed off, a tear sliding down the side of her nose before she wiped it away.
There had been a time when Hermione would have sat nestled against him, grabbing a book from her shelf and begging him to read it. Now, she sat across from him in a small chair that barely had room enough for her. He remembered her face, eyes filled with wonder at whatever he could teach her, her homework strewn across his floor as she escaped her friends, and he remembered the peace that her presence had brought him night after night so very long ago. He remembered her nervous freak-out session as she fretted what to do when Viktor Krum had asked her out to the dance, and the laments she had over how Ron never seemed to understand her. He remembered the first hint of the bond when she had turned seventeen… the day everything had changed. It was the day when she was no longer a child. She was no longer a pup, and then he had broken off their contact to keep her safe. Then, a year later, he had Oblivated himself in haste, erasing her memory from his mind—his glorious, strong, brilliant she-bat. He had helped save the Wizarding World, but the price had broken the bond between he and his precious she-bat. He had broken the bond. He had broken her, and he had no one to blame but himself. He was the master of horrible choices done for whatever the reason.
"I need time, Severus," Hermione said quietly. "I need time to sort it all out in my head."
Severus closed his eyes painfully and nodded. "I understand."
He returned to his chambers feeling far more alone than he had ever felt, and his mind trekked down the lonely path of rationalising that it would have been better for him to have never survived the war. At least then, he reasoned, she wouldn't have wasted almost two decades waiting for him.
His heart was heavy, and his hand clenched the small box in his hand as his chest ached with emotion.
"You were never one to accept the gifts you were given, Severus," Dumbledore's voice said sadly.
Severus looked up. Portrait Albus stared at him sadly. His hand was stroking his beard, and he looked as sombre as the night he had found himself cursed.
"Come to gloat, old man?" Severus supposed.
"No, Severus," Albus said, standing. "You may think the universe desires your pain, but the truth is, every time you are given a gift, you cast it aside as though the price of keeping it is too much to bear."
"So you are here to gloat," Severus snarled at him.
Albus looked weary, even in his portrait. "I am here to give you clarity, Severus. One last gift from a dying man."
"You are already dead, old man," Severus answered.
Albus stopped stroking his beard. "Not when I buried something for you atop the Astronomy Tower, Severus. Look to where the sun and moon cast their gazes to the ground. I left you something there for when your future looked the most bleak."
"You tell me this now? Now?!" Severus seethed.
Albus shook his head grimly. "You swore me into secrecy that night, Severus. The night I was to tell you. You swore me to remain silent on anything involving Hermione until Voldemort was dead, she survived, and you came asking the right questions."
"I asked you no questions, Albus," Severus accused.
"I fear, my boy, the question you are asking is very loud," the portrait Albus answered.
"And what question is that?"
Albus stroked his beard, no twinkle in his eyes. "'What if the world was better off without me?'" he answered.
Severus stared at the portrait Albus.
Severus found another sealed box in a hidden compartment under the giant telescope atop the Astronomy Tower, revealed only when he touched the symbol of the solar eclipse and traced his sigil upon it. The box contained a very ornate scroll case decorated in… bats.
Severus examined it closely. There was an hourglass set in the scroll case. When he opened the case, a piece of parchment fell out.
He tentatively picked it up and unfurled it, reading the ornate hand of Albus Dumbledore:
Severus, my boy,
If you are reading this, then things must seem very dark indeed, as I left instructions for my portrait to reveal to you this location when things looked the most bleak for you.
I know I have been a harsh taskmaster at times. I asked too much of you many times. I asked you to do things no man should ever have to ask another, and I am truly sorry.
This scroll case is yours. It is very special. It is of my own making. I made it in the hopes to warn my past self not to put on that ring, but then I realised that I had long since over-lived my life. Nicolas and I… we both lived far longer than we should have.
Instead, I have crafted it for you. There are two sets of dials. The ones on the left are the date. The ones on the right are the time.
Enclose what you wish in the case. A letter or whatever you think will convince you that you are the one sending it. When you close the case, press in the ruby and the emerald on the end caps. It's a one way trip, Severus.
If it works, my boy, you will never know it worked.
Make it count.
Make use of the time you are given.
Yours, an ever grateful friend,
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
Severus stared at the ornate case dumbly, letting the letter from Albus Dumbledore fall from his hands.
It burst into flames, carried off into the night sky.
As Severus Snape lay in bed at St. Mungo's, he let the copy of the Daily Prophet lay across his lap. Potter had cleared his name. Miraculously, he had survived. He should be relieved, even happy now that the Dark Lord was defeated in a not-coming-back-ever sort of way, but all he felt was empty, as though something were horribly missing.
He had searched through his belongings, and the ring of his mother and the old ring he had given Lily in friendship were gone—his last physical connection to the reason he had wanted a better world was gone.
Aurors had come to cuff him to his bed with magical shackles. Then, a few days later, they came to remove them, apologising and giving him thanks for making the world a better place. A few days after that, he got a letter from the Headmistress of Hogwarts, reinstating his teaching position, apologising for doubting him and subsequently trying to kill him, and asking if he wanted his position as Headmaster reinstated. Severus wrote back saying he was perfectly fine with his teaching position. The Headmaster's position could go jump in lake.
Severus just wanted to crawl back under the rock he was comfortable under and try to make the emptiness in his chest go away.
The scroll case landed in his lap in the middle of his lunch.
Sighing with annoyance, he picked it up, frowning and raising his brows at the same time at the design on the scroll case. He twisted the case and startled himself as two vials came rushing out into his lap along with a parchment scroll. He eyed the nearby potted plant, pondering if he should pour the contents into the soil in case someone was trying to poison him.
He eyed the vial of swirling memories with suspicion and the dark vial of something that looked very unsavoury with equal suspicion. He unrolled the scroll and began to read.
Dear me, er you, I mean… bloody hell. (scratched out)
Read and heed this well.
You were wrong.
Take this pensieve memory and see exactly how wrong you were.
Then, take an hour to self-flagellate yourself most thoroughly and then drink the second potion. It's nasty. It's your fault. Deal with it.
Now. Done sniveling over yourself? Hate me now? Good. Now change your future and erase my existence. Go out there. Find your she-bat and grovel at her feet and beg for forgiveness.
And don't forget the ring, idiot.
Sincerely, your angry future self,
(Parchment bursts into flames)
(small ring box falls out scroll case and whacks him in the forehead)
(scroll case disintegrates, setting his lap on fire)
Severus stared at the vial of swirling memories and rubbed his head and nursed his wet lap, where he had dumped the remainder of his glass of water to put out the fire.
The message had to be legitimate. Only he could torture himself this effectively.
Severus wobbled a little as he flew, his body strained from attempting to fly so soon after being discharged from the hospital, but he was on a mission that demanded it be done sooner rather than later.
The Whomping Willow was waiting.
Severus clutched the small box in his mouth, slightly disconcerted that he was drooling over it. He fluttered towards the mossy knob on the willow, slammed into it, almost bouncing off the mossy surface. He squeaked profanity at the offending knob, but then looked for the opening to the crevice. Wedging himself into the niche, he shimmied his way in, growling slightly as the small box tried to get stuck in the entry way.
Once he was in, however, everything became larger than life. The inside was lined in fruit piles, horded for the long and fruitless winter. Local fruit, berries, and even some exotic fruits smuggled in from Hogwart's meals lined the inside of the tree.
Severus felt strangely nervous. This is where his memories told him to go, but he hadn't seen the she-bat since the year before she left Hogwarts on her quest with Potter. What if he was wrong? Again? He squeaked plaintively, unsure of himself. He dropped the box he had in his mouth and placed it on the floor of the crevice.
They hadn't consummated the bond. There was still a chance for her to make a difference choice. Yet, the letter seemed convinced that it had been his not meeting her after the war that had caused everything to go wrong.
A rustle at the entrance caught his attention, and he turned to face it.
A wing entered, then a muzzle. The bat gave a soft squeak of protest as moss squeezed her body a little due to the overgrowth. She attacked it with her muzzle, pulling the excess away from the hole to give her more leeway to enter and spitting out the clumps towards the outside. She then pulled a rather substantial mango in with her, and so intent was she on her task that she rolled it right by him until it came to a stop next to a rather large pile.
The she-bat squeaked triumphantly and seemed to sigh to herself. She groomed herself fastidiously.
Severus squeaked nervously, and the she-bat squeaked in terror, jumping to the ceiling of the crevice and clinging to it with wide, frantic eyes.
She stared at him.
Do or die time, Severus. Get a move on.
Severus spread his wings and flapped them, showing them off, wafting his scent towards her. He screeched the lonely call that held her name woven within. He fluttered, he twisted his muzzle into batlike version of a smile. He jumped up and down, flashing his wings, folding them, unfolding them, and chittering. He flapped as he opened the box, exposing a fresh, golden date. He fluttered and danced around the box, eying the she-bat the entire time. He snatched the date in one foot, and flew up to the ceiling and clung to it with one leg. He held the date as he continued his flapping and serenading.
Slowly, she moved closer to him. Closer!
Her nose worked as she smelled the ripe date with interest. Dates didn't grow in the area. They were special treats that even Hogwarts didn't bring in except in dried form.
Slowly, she wing and toe-walked towards him, and she sniffed the fruit with interest and took a small bite, watching him carefully.
Severus flapped his wings in interest. showing off his wingly assets and, perhaps even more importantly, interest in her. He rubbed his scent glands from his wings over himself and flapped vigorously, singing his song to her.
The young she-bat nibbled a little more on the date, squeaking softly in response to his song. He slowly wrapped his wing around her, and she tolerated it as she worked on his fruity offering.
Hermione startled as her teeth clanked against something inside the date. She licked her muzzle nervously, peering at the offending date with curiosity.
Embedding in the date was a shining ring formed into the delicate bodies and wings of two bats joined in a circle of flight.
She stared at him, wide eyed.
Severus opened his wing in invitation, nervous, but hopeful.
The she-bat squeaked excitedly, burrowing unto him with her warm body and hanging together with him, allowing his wings to surround her altogether.
Tenderly he groomed her fur with his teeth and tongue.
The moment her wing spur went through the ring, it magically resized snugly around her upper digit as a tiny, miniature sculpture.
He shivered with pleasure as the she-bat snuggled into his neck and chest, sharing her warmth as she shared in his, reunited at last.
"Mum!" a small voice called. "Mummy! Watch!"
Hermione looked up from her morning tea and grinned as her wily son waved his hands as he hung upside down from the nearby fruit tree. He let his legs go straight, transformed in mid fall, and swooped up to grasp a peach from the tree. The young bat snatched the peach with both claws, did a loop-the-loop, and beat his wings furiously towards her.
The young pup squeaked at her, dropped the peach onto her plate, and looked triumphant.
"That's a wonderful trick, love," Hermione said, giving her pup a small kiss to the nose. Is there one for your father, or do I have to share?"
Challenge accepted, the young bat pup streaked off to the tree again, snatched another peach from a limb, and came wobbling back. The peach was a bit large for him, but he struggled until he got to the table and plunked the overly large peach onto his father's breakfast bowl. The peach landed with a splat into the oatmeal, and Hermione raised an eyebrow at her son.
The young bat squeaked sheepishly before flying into the tree to dangle by one foot and look busy eating his breakfast.
Severus walked out to the outdoor breakfast table with the Prophet in hand. He eyed his breakfast cereal with a raised eyebrow. "Hn," he observed.
Hermione grinned at him. "He has your determination, love," she countered.
"Your audacity, wife," Severus noted.
Hermione stuck out her tongue.
Severus muttered softly about maturity.
Severus looked up towards the tree and grunted. "He's excited to get to spend the rest of the year with his grand-bats. They were kind enough to offer to house him while he's going to primary school until he's old enough to join his batty sister at Hogwarts."
Hermione pshed, tapping his nose with her finger. "I see what you did there, sir."
Severus winked. "Did you now?"
"Mmmhmm," she replied, smiling. "My parents love him to death, and I think they are so glad I found a nice, talented bat to settle down with."
"I'm not sure about nice," Severus grunted. "Jury is still out."
"You survived the grilling by my mother," Hermione sniffed, "and you out flew my father. You arrived to the dinner with a box of ripe avocados and bananas. You passed every test."
Severus gazed at her with a smile about his eyes. "The only test that mattered was with you, love.
"Speaking of tests," Hermione said, eyebrow arching. "I think it's time to decide who gets to dump cold water on our daughter so she's ready to go to Diagon Alley and get her supplies. Harry is going to meet us with James and Albus since Ginny is at a game this week. Ron and Lavender are still in Spain at that conference, so Molly and Arthur are taking Rose and Hugo."
"Couldn't we just… ship her in a cauldron to the gates?" Severus drawled.
"Severus Tobias Snape!" Hermione exclaimed, practically in bat screeches.
Severus fanned his hands in appeasement. "I shall dump water on the bed barnacle," he conceded. "I swear she is the laziest fruit bat this side of the equator. I'm fairly sure you slept with the milkman, and you mated with a sloth while I was trying to convince Flitwick not to make me Headmaster."
Hermione scowled at him. "There is only one bat in my life for me, you horrible man, and it is you." There was mirth in her eyes, but she looked like she was about to punch him.
Severus stood and opened his arms to her, and she stood and entered his embrace. He pet her hair gently. "Now, now, my dear Deputy Headmistress," he crooned. "We must be put on our professorial face for the upcoming year.
"We have a willow to tend as well, Headmaster," Hermione agreed.
"Indeed," he said warmly, kissing the top of her hand as he brought it to his lips. "First things first. I will dump the aquarium on our daughter."
"Merlin!" a female voice cried from the upper floor window. "I'm up, dad! I'm up!"
Severus winked at Hermione and pressed his lips to hers with a tug of a smile on his lips. She grinned back at him.
"I'm glad you came back to me, Severus," Hermione confessed.
Severus looked upward and smiled. "Sometimes it takes a good look into the future to realise what you have in the now," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps, I should be more relieved that you did not marry a Bulgarian Seeker, or end up with Ronald Weasley."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "You and Viktor are good friends, Severus, and you know that he is madly in love with his wife. He is a good friend You, however, are my mate. That is what is most important to me."
"You are as mad as box of frogs," Severus quipped.
Hermione leaned in and placed a kiss upon his mouth. "You love me."
Severus stared into her face. "I do."
She beamed at him. "After the daughter is on the train, and the son is nestled in with his grand-bats, we should fly to Hogwarts together. It's been awhile since we stretched our wings for the distance."
Severus' eyes widened. "Since our last… mating flight."
Hermione grinned at him. "Hrm, imagine that." She pecked the end of his nose with a kiss and bounced off into the house.
Severus swallowed hard and adjusted his collar. As he straightened his teaching robes and stared up to watch his son hanging from one foot at he devoured another peach, he knew he had done right in the end to the one that had really mattered.
A/N: Happy Thank-goodness-that-was-a-happy-ending-giving Day!