Two Roads Diverged

by ISJ

Disclaimer: I, of course, do not own Harry Potter, which belongs to J.K. Rowling, her publishers, and Warner Bros. Studios. This fic is purely not- for-profit and all-for-fun, and I am attempting no infringement upon any legal copyrights. That said, I must also give credit for the title to Robert Frost, from whose famous poem "The Road Not Taken" the title was borrowed. Admittedly, a little sentimental for Severus Snape, but, hey, at least it's literature, so maybe he won't hex me too badly (yeah, right.)

Okay, enough of that. On with the fic.

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Well, he thought, this is just smashing.

'Smashing' was, perhaps, not the most accurate definition of Severus Snape's opinion on his current occupation, though it was a highly apt word for what he was doing to the milkweed stalks in front of him, muttering vehemently all the while. It was rare, indeed, to find Snape in a bad mood while making a potion. After all, the man retired to his laboratory after supper every night and concocted things just for the escapism of it. And, he couldn't help silently gloating, because the potions he made were much needed. He considered this aspect, at least, of being an active member of the Order to be almost cheating; he enjoyed it too much for it to be considered work.

He supposed, usually with a twist of his lip somewhere between a sneer and a grimace, that he made up for his fun by performing his 'other' duties.

But tonight was different. The brew he was preparing had been specially requested by Dumbledore for use by an unnamed member of the Order of the Phoenix (spy that he was, full intelligence was rarely granted him. It was not required to make potions and make them well, and, for him, knowledge was a deadly liability). It was a highly lethal poison, and, as it was meant to be undetectable to the natural human senses, was very difficult to make. And for Severus Snape to call a potion 'very difficult to make' was the same as the potion-makers at St. Mungo's Center for Magical Sciences dubbing the same potion 'impossible to make.'

Perhaps the only good thing about the whole situation was that at least Snape did not have to invent the potion himself; Dumbledore had located the early medieval-era recipe in a truly ancient handwritten textbook, held together only by the anti-entropic charms attached to its moldy pages. Had the Headmaster actually requested Snape to patent his own killing drug that met the same conditions and affected the same results, the Potions Master would have respectfully had a stroke right in the middle of Dumbledore's office.

As it was, Snape was concentrating so hard on the half-completed potion that he could feel his brain cells vaporizing one by one. He had perused the instructions so thoroughly and so often that he had long since memorized the required order of the ingredients' addition, but he dared not try his luck with his stressed mental faculties. So far the concoction looked fairly promising, a little thick perhaps; maybe the agent could use it in food instead of drink. But, as was the case with most potions, the first part of preparation was the easy part, by comparison. The rest of the process was to be grueling.

Snape transferred the weeping milkweed bits to a manual press. He slowly squeezed the opaque juice from the plants, collecting it carefully in a vial. He steadied his hand and added a drop, one of three required, into the simmering silvery potion. Sweat beaded on his forehead, partly from the heat shimmering like waves around the cauldron, partly from tension; he dashed it angrily away. Snape had no desire to find out what uncalled-for saline would do to a mixture like this.

Honestly, he shouldn't have been attempting a totally unfamiliar potion at such a late, weary hour and with no assistant. Literally any number of things could go wrong, and that number was growing larger and larger as Snape felt exhaustion begin to cloud his eyes. He blinked rapidly and shook his head to clear it, quickly but precisely adding the last two drops of noxious milk to the cauldron, stoppering the vial, and plinking it on his shelf. Despite the mounting heaviness of his limbs as his body reminded him that it was, after all, three in the morning, making a mistake was not an option; neither was quitting. There was no way in this world Snape was going to just let this potion spoil now. As to not having an assistant...Severus Snape could not truly see himself creeping shamefacédly up to, say, Madam Pomfrey, the only other semi-potions wise teacher in the school and muttering that he, Professor Snape, needed help with a potion. And he imagined he might have a slightly difficult time explaining why he was making a poison that had, likely, not been concocted since the year 1100.

He sighed, again consulting his handwritten recipe copied from the textbook. The reason for the lateness of his activity was, unsurprisingly and not at all unusually, his inability to sleep. He was, almost invariably, kept awake at night, kept awake by...things. Maybe noises, sometimes real, sometimes imagined...maybe not noises. Maybe visions. Maybe memories. And, then again, maybe he was going insane. He would not be the first to suffer such a fate of all those who had lived a past like his.

Next ingredient: longlegs' venom. Snape grimaced and cast about for his old dragonhide gloves. The original creator of this potion must have truly hated whomever he'd been planning to poison.

After several moments of rummaging and swearing, Snape located at the bottom of his potion chest a tiny, dusty bottle of clear, greenish liquid that rolled sluggishly inside the glass. He yanked on the gloves, then realized how implausible and ridiculous it was to try to handle such a minute vial while wearing the clumsy things. Snape hesitated fractionally, then huffed angrily and pulled off the dragonhide gloves. For Merlin's sake, it was too late to worry about this. It wasn't like he was going to start slinging venom around like a first year; he would, of course, be perfectly safe without gloves, so long as he was careful.

Snape broke the wax seal on the neck of the vial and unscrewed the glass cap. Turning back to the steaming cauldron, he felt his hair lifted slightly by the rush of rising heat, recognized the usually comfortable but now unwelcome orange glare of licking flame. For a moment, Snape stared into the swirling, dancing fire, its light becoming golden sparks in his black eyes, which he could not tear away. The movement and color were mesmerizing, hypnotizing. And so he stood, transfixed, unmoving, the bottle dangling from his limp fingers as his weary brain lost its grip on reality and time.

And as his fingers lost their grip on the vial.

The bottle's silent fall seemed to occur in a slowed instant, the moment stretching on and on as he watched, fascinated, the glittering glass tumbling end-over-end down toward the bubbling silver depths. As the vial flashed in the firelight about halfway into its infinite descent, Snape's brain awoke, snapping back to reality and, like a damaged Muggle videotape returning to regular replay, accelerating time to her normal speed. With a cry, Snape threw out his hand, snatching futilely at the bottle, his fingers almost brushing the scalding surface of the potion. With a harsh oath, Snape drew his burned hand back, clutching it against himself as the vial broke the bubbling liquid with a plop and disappeared.

Two drops. Two drops of venom had been all that was required in that potion. Severus Snape's heart stopped as he realized that he had just fed the mixture an entire bottle.

For an everlasting second, nothing happened, and the silence screamed in his ears, punctuated by lazy pops as bubbles rose to the surface of the innocent-looking liquid. Then the shifting, shining surface heaved, hurling the stuff up and out of the cauldron with a thunderclap and an ear- splitting hiss. The flame under the kettle guttered and smoked, choking and turning green as the potion reacted with the fire. Quicksilver-colored fluid sprayed violently into the air with noxious grey-green steam like a corrosive, very possibly lethal, volcano.

Snape leaped backwards, nearly tripping over the hem of his cloak, trying to put as much distance between himself and the radius of flying, smoking material as the small space of the laboratory would allow. Instinctively, he threw his right hand in front of his face and squeezed his eyes shut, praying as he felt stone against his back that the potion's reactive violence was nearly spent. He felt two or three blistering globs of the acidic debris strike his upraised hand and drip off, leaving seared trails down his palm. He cried out as he heard more of the same gunk pattering like rain on the stone floor and wall behind him. There was a hissing sound around him that was growing in intensity, mounting to a rushing noise. Snape supposed it was the caustic potion eating into the stonework and, quite likely, into him.

With his left hand he groped for his wand, pulling it out and racking his brain for a helpful charm or defense spell or...something. He muttered a quick shield-spell, one intended for use against hurtling objects and which would probably prove useful enough for protection from an exploding potion. His eyes shut as they were, Snape did not see that as the electric blue- white barrier arched up in a cylindrical dome surrounding him, flying bits and globs of the errant potion got caught in the shield as it composed itself, suspended like black foreign bodies in a glowing cytoplasm.

The dome sealed up at the top, now an impenetrable force field buzzing faintly around the straightening figure of Professor Severus Snape. The man uncovered his face and opened his eyes, the corner of his mouth tugging up in a smug half-smile.

Get through that, he dared the poisonous fountain that, even as he watched, was decreasing in both size and fury. The cauldron, he saw, had been blasted completely onto its side; the fire had sputtered out underneath a large mass of the steaming glop. The last drips of the raining potion splashed to the floor in quivering gelatinous masses and Snape lifted his wand again to undo the shield and begin cleaning up the mess that his lab had become. Then he paused as his bleary eyes refocused on the foreground and he spotted the floating blobs arrested inside the barrier wall.

Just as he noticed them, they seemed to shiver. Then they squashed and disintegrated, particles spreading outward, permeating throughout the blue shield, which wasn't looking quite so blue anymore. Instead, it was beginning to look a sort of sickly green. Snape realized that the liquid drops sprawled across his field of vision were infusing their own silver- green color into the barrier and were starting to disappear. The Potions Master's brain, lethargic from many nights' worth of sleeplessness, ground slowly into gear, and he realized belatedly that perhaps he ought to be doing something about this situation. After all, the potion was still volatile, to put it mildly, and, considering what had just taken place, might just react badly to the shield-spell. And, of course, if that happened, he would be caught right in the midst of the fray.

But before Snape could do anything about it, the room outside the now green shield shivered in space and began to warp. Snape's jaw fell slack and he was frozen in morbid fascination as his wrecked laboratory grew dim and its shapes twisted. Then the whole scene dissipated before his eyes, just like so much smoke.

Snape blinked. The world outside his little bubble had, to all appearances, vanished. His open jaw worked noiselessly, like a fish's, and, for once, Severus Snape did not care what others might have thought of him just then.

Then, suddenly, even before he could manage to start worrying, muted colors and blurry shapes began to materialize around him out of the blackness. He blinked again and drew back slightly as a scene started to solidify around his green capsule.

The colors formed slowly around him, collecting into areas, clarifying into features. Furniture that he did not recognize, a somehow familiar hearth burning brightly, stone flagging identical to the floor in his own laboratory. Snape squeezed his eyes shut, fluttered them open again. No, his fried optical nerves weren't playing tricks. The details were becoming definite now. There was a matching set of silver-and-green upholstered wingbacks in front of the fire, an expensive-looking rug between them. Snape could not remember having seen these things before. The items on the mantel were similarly alien, and too...homey, too personal. Severus Snape possessed precious few mementos (none of which he saw on the mantelpiece), mostly because he had no desire to recall most of his own memories. The few he had were most certainly not on display in his lab.

But this couldn't be his lab anyway, could it? Where were the shelves of pickling jars and chloroform tubes? The dried, foul-smelling herbs dangling from the ceiling? There was the huge cauldron over against the right wall, though it looked rather dusty and long-unused. And there was the long, rough wooden table opposite him, littered with vials and trays and mortars of potions ingredients. Snape could even name a few, just by sight: daisy root, asphodel, bombardier acid, maybe, porcupine quills...

After that, he forgot to pay attention to the ingredients anymore. Because now there was a person standing in front of the table, his back to the still green-shielded Snape. No, two people, a tall, jet-haired man and a shorter brunette woman, their heads bent together in inaudible conference. Maybe they had been there all along, and Snape had not noticed them before.

He narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the figures. The man was his height, dressed in long royal blue robes that were impeccably tailored. His black hair was styled, combed neatly and curling right under his rather pale ears. The woman's face was turned just enough for Snape to see a perfect rose-ivory complexion and sculpted cheekbone, curving, he could see as she tipped her face toward the man, to a doll-like nose and full pink lips. Perfection. China doll, Muggle model perfection. Her long, thick, wavy hair rippled over tasteful emerald robes to her slender waist, the silken fall shivering as the woman giggled.

Snape jumped at the sound. Their speech was suddenly audible. The man was chuckling under his breath, chuckling in such a way that Snape blinked. That laugh sounded quite familiar, in fact. Snape knew that laugh, but not from having heard it before. At least, that's how it seemed, somehow. Snape's tired brain halted stubbornly, refusing to grind forward in this unexpected train of thought. So he merely let his mind rest as he watched the scene before him with interest.

The dark-haired man shifted his weight and held up a vial to measure it by eye. The way he moved was familiar, too, but...he wasn't sure why. The woman watched her companion, the tilt of her head and the angles of her body suddenly seeming to Snape coquettish and coy. Flirtatious. Her hand moved gracefully along the table and crept up the man's arm, curling around it. She snuggled close to him as he added whatever was in the vial to, Snape supposed, a cauldron in front of him.

The Potions Master scowled in something like disapproval, though he couldn't think of a real reason he should disapprove of the couple's familiarity, especially if they were married. But something about the woman, about the way she moved, the way she leaned upward now to whisper something in the man's ear, screamed harlot.

The blue-robed man laughed outright at whatever the lady had had to say. She giggled obediently, and Snape knew then that she was not worth the pricey robes or hair combs she was wearing. She had the audacity to giggle, like a schoolgirl; it set Snape's teeth on edge and he dragged his glare away from her, back to her companion. He was lazily stirring the potion with his right hand as with his left he tapped the girl under the chin.

"Now, my dear," he intoned, his voice barely muffled and tinny through the barrier wall. "What a thing to say."

And Snape froze. That voice...oh, yes, Snape knew that voice. Knew by heart its practiced, though unusually cultured tones, adjusted exactly to carry a precise measure of seduction. Knew to whom it belonged long before the man turned, the movement altered slightly but still bearing traces of punctuated sharpness and brevity that Severus could personally recall. Before the Potions Master mentally changed the entire scene, darkening the room and clothing the man in black, lengthening the hair, now that he could see the figure properly. Before Snape was facing the black-eyed, pale- skinned, hook-nosed mirror image of himself in custom-made blue robes.

Severus forgot to breathe. When he did remember, he held his wind anyway, terrified now that the man had turned and seen him. How in Merlin's name was he supposed to explain this? To himself, no less? He didn't even know yet what had happened, why he was here.

But...the man hadn't seen him. How could he have missed a six-foot greasy black wraith inside a poison green column standing in the middle of his cozy Potions lab?

But, regardless of the absurdity, the mirror-Snape made no indication he so much as noticed his guest. The clone picked up a potions textbook lying on an upturned cauldron and swiveled back toward his steaming brew to continue.

Snape's brain had received its much-needed wake-up call at this revelation and was now running full-speed, analyzing data and considering possibilities as quickly as it ever had. Himself. He was watching himself. Another quick glance around confirmed that he was still in the Potions lab at Hogwarts. Aside from the décor, nothing in this room was different. But he was different, to be sure. First of all, appearance. Cleaner-cut, better kempt. Secondly, attitude, demeanor. This Snape held himself differently, straighter and more proudly, suggesting self-confidence and comfort, two luxuries Severus Snape had always lacked. Also, position in life. The stylish (and garish, he thought with a sneer) clothing worn by the man and his partner, not to mention the rather plush, though spare, furnishings, testified to money, another pipe-dream, a wish only in Snape's world.

These were huge differences. Nearly insurmountable. But the real question was, Who was this phantom? And where had Snape (with the considerable help of his gone-off potion) landed himself?

Obviously, the reaction of the potion and the shield (assuming it had neither killed him nor rendered him unconscious, either of which would be far more likely) had rent a hole in some vital aspect of existence and carried him safely through. It would not be the first recorded incident involving unleashed magic and its dire consequences. Now, was it a hole in time? Possibly, but unlikely. Since Snape had, unfortunately, already lived his past, this scene would have to be futuristic. But the clone-Snape did not appear much, if any older, than Snape was currently. In fact he seemed slightly younger. Also, Severus Snape could not ever see himself becoming the poised, proud, style-savvy man that stood before him. The attitudes between them were too vastly different to be the attitudes of the same man. Besides all that, those nick-knacks on the mantel were part of a collection years, possibly decades, in the making, and Snape owned none of them.

A hole in space, then. Or, his limited knowledge of theoretical physics suggested, a break in the space-time continuum. He had crossed a barrier into another place, another time...a place and time similar to his own, but altered by something. Maybe by a whole series of things. An alternate world. An alternate life; therefore, an alternate Hogwarts, an alternate career, an alternate Severus Snape. He was seeing Severus Snape as he might have been. Perhaps he was seeing Severus Snape as he actually was, only in a sort of parallel universe, different because of different choices or circumstances.

Which meant that the difference could, potentially, have been in one of his own decisions or choices. It could be because of him that this universe was parallel but not identical to his own. Why, the possibilities were endless, mind-boggling. This Severus Snape, the proud man in blue, could have decided to go to a different school than Hogwarts. Or maybe he had just studied different subjects, like Divination, Arithmancy, and Potions, instead of Potions I, Potions II, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Perhaps he had never been friends with Lucius Malfoy, or (I certainly hope this was not the case, he thought) never been enemies with James Potter and Sirius Black. Merlin's beard, the alteration could simply lie in a choice made or left unmade about what to eat for lunch! It would be almost impossible to determine.

Snape's brain hurt to think about it. Arithmancy and Divination never had been his best areas of study; he much preferred to deal with solid facts and definite ingredients rather than probabilities or predictions.

And, in the end, while this information was useful for, say, a scientific essay or even a textbook, it wasn't really helpful at the moment. Amazingly, throughout Snape's cogitations, both the man and woman had had ample opportunity to discover their unwilling spy but had made no cry of surprise, no demand of explanation, no regard of him whatsoever. So the potion-shield both time-warped and invisibility cloaked. A shame, really, that this effect wasn't really a plausibly repeatable one; its patent would fetch a hefty royalty.

Snape couldn't suppress a smile. Yes, always a Slytherin, looking for ways to exploit and gain, even in the midst of a crisis such as his.

With that thought, Snape suddenly realized just what a crisis this actually was, and the smile fell from his face as if slapped away. He had breached a wall in existence, in reality. He had intruded where no one from his world was ever meant to go. The disastrous connotations of this occurred to him then: there were now two Severus Snapes in whatever universe into which he had stumbled and, therefore, none in the parallel universe he had left. And while Snape could hardly imagine his absence to create a world-stopping problem, two of him, two very different versions of him, in the same sphere of existence would undoubtedly have very severe repercussions.

Of course, there might be no side-effects after all, if he was as good as incorporeal in his invisibility shield anyway. Small consolation, though; it would be a horribly solitary state of being, to not exist, for the next forty years or so.

Not much more lonely than the life he lived now, he thought cynically. But at least he had been visible to his peers.

Snape shook his head angrily at himself and his wallowing, a growl escaping him that he quickly stifled, as he had no idea whether the barrier were soundproof or not.

Luckily, the couple were talking together again and wouldn't have heard him anyway. As his brain was currently out of ideas and he felt a distraction from his self-pity was in order, Snape focused his hearing on their soft tones. He had little compunction about eavesdropping in any case, and since he was, technically, eavesdropping on himself, any lingering scrupulous thought on the subject was swiftly brushed away.

The woman was speaking, her tone sultry by habit and not by intention. "I always knew you were destined for greater things, darling," she simpered. "You are underappreciated."

Both Snapes could hear the underlying hint in her flattery, one noticing with suspicion and one with pleasure.

"Not really, my pet. My services are of use here; I am paid well."

She snorted, her lower lip protruding in what might be considered by some to be an attractive way. "Well? Hardly well. You deserve better; we both know it. Everyone does, including the Headmaster."

Snape grew still. He wondered if their headmaster was Albus Dumbledore.

The mirror-Snape laughed, coldly, as he corked a blue bottle and shelved it, selecting another. "Professor Dumbledore? You realize you are suggesting that he is aware of his surroundings."

Severus Snape's breath caught. His eyes became cat-like slits, their unfathomable black depths glittering dangerously. What did his clone think he was playing at, insulting Dumbledore so? Everyone, everyone knew that Dumbledore was the cleverest, wisest, most perceptive man one was ever likely to encounter, though he often let on he was a simple dullard.

The woman giggled again. "Of course not. His awareness extends not even far enough to bother about his clothing," she clarified with a haughty sniff, delicately smoothing at a non-existent wrinkle in her robes. For a moment she was still, but she was obviously not one to allow a subject intriguing to her petty desires to die prematurely.

"But still, witless though Dumbledore obviously is, any fool would see that you are a Master of greater caliber than you are given credit for. You are stifled here, my darling. Why don't you just leave? When last I checked, the researchers at St. Mungo's were clamoring for your attentions."

"Ah, yes. True, it is a tempting prospect, my dear. But you see, I too have plans, plans greater even than St. Mungo's"

Behind his barrier, Snape leaned forward slightly, straining to hear every syllable. Not strictly a necessary action, really, for the two in front of him were making no attempt at subtlety or secrecy in their brazen speech. Anyone who walked in the room would have heard their words. This perhaps more than anything proved the disassociation of these two realities: Severus Snape was nothing if not careful in everything he said and did.

The woman leaned toward her companion also, anticipation obvious in her tense stance and excitement barely veiled in her voice. "And, what is this plan, darling? What are you thinking?"

"Can you not guess?"

The woman applied two seconds to a minimal amount of thought, then shook her head. "Tell me," she begged, her voice an eager whisper.

The man finally ceased his attempts to complete the potion, turning his face fully to his companion. His lip was quirked up in a smug half-smirk; his black eyes were like a snake's, cunning and calculating.

"I am not so overlooked as you believe. Several of the Board of Governors have decided to sit up and take notice, and, according to Lord Malfoy, they like what they see. They know as well as I that Dumbledore won't be around much longer. They are already looking for someone to replace him."

Dim as the girl was, even she could not miss the direct suggestion. Her eyes grew large and greedy. "You? But of course! Why did I not suspect? Oh, darling, do you really think...?"

The man smiled completely now, the kind of smile that sent shivers down the spines of the righteous. He reached out to twirl a lock of the woman's hair, his finger delicately tracing the curve of her jaw and pausing to tap her chin.

"I know. I have assurances from Lord Malfoy and six other Governors. McGonagall will be bypassed without her even knowing about it until I hand her letter of termination to her. The second Dumbledore dies or finally proves himself senile, I shall take his place. The old fool and his lackeys won't see it before it is far too late for them."

The woman fairly squealed with delight, clapping her hands together and pressing his fingers against her mouth.

Across the room, Professor Severus Snape's blood boiled. He took an unconscious step forward, the only thought in his mind to strangle his likeness with his bare hands. He barely managed to restrain himself and arrest his movement before he staggered out of his shield, remembering himself at the last second. Quickly he shuffled back; he had no idea what might happen if he set foot outside the barrier wall, assuming he even could. If there was any chance he might return to his own life, that chance lay inside this bubble anyway.

Snape's anger, however, was unabated as he glared daggers at the man laughing before him. How dare he? How could he possibly ever accuse Albus Dumbledore of being a fool? Severus Snape owed the Headmaster an immense debt, a debt impossible to pay. Dumbledore had saved him, saved his life, saved his sanity. He was a saint, a miracle in human form. His savior. He was no fool.

Then, suddenly, it hit him, like an electric shock. Of course. That must be it. This universe, this...reality. The difference between this life and his own did, in fact, lay in Severus Snape's choices. Or, rather, choice.

He was seeing his life without the stigma of the Dark Mark. This is what he would have been had he never been a Death Eater.

The certainty of this realization was only reinforced when his copy reached up his left hand to pluck a vial from an overhead shelf and the blue sleeve fell away from the pristine white skin of his flawless left arm. Snape's eyes were frozen to the place where the faint grey outline should have been. No sightless eye sockets stared back, no motionless viper flicked its tongue at him in mockery.

So, this is what his world would have been like. What he would have been like. Suave, popular, rich, poised for a position of power, and with a beautiful woman. Anything and everything he had ever desired. What were mere fantasies for him now could have been realities. For a moment, his greedy Slytherin heart grew sick at the prospect of what he had lost. Then he remembered what he had heard, and he knew he had lost nothing of importance.

Snape had always wondered about what could have happened. Daily he questioned his existence, wishing he knew the alternative. By apparent freak accident, he had been shown. Now he knew: he could have been an even slimier, more rotten excuse for a human than he already was. Had Dumbledore never had reason to rescue him, Severus Snape would have been as greedily narrow-minded as Lucius Malfoy and his other ex-Slytherin goons, as unaware of Dumbledore's strength as they were. He would have resented the most noble of wizards any world had ever known.

But the Headmaster had rescued him, and more besides. Snape had made horrible choices in his life, but Albus Dumbledore had forgiven him. Why, Snape did not, and likely would never, know. Dumbledore's mercy seemed boundless, but his justice, when imparted, was always swift and complete. And to think: had Snape not been first Dumbledore's enemy as a Death Eater and then his true friend, he would have been in the least enviable of all positions-that of underestimating Headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

Nine feet and a universe away, the mirror image of Severus Snape took the woman into his arms in celebration of their golden future, kissing her deeply. Inside the green shield, the man in black turned his eyes from the sight, his gaze coming to rest on his well-hidden left arm. Carefully he pulled the cuffs of his shirt and waistcoat up, exposing the ugly, shadowy tattoo that marred the flesh there. It was an object of hate and loathing and fear. These emotions and others equally strong and unpleasant were inseparably attached to the Dark Mark. But now he knew for absolute certain- it were better he had this scar on his life and past than that he were foolishly unaware of mercy, grace, and the value of a true friend.

Snape's eyes were glued to the Mark. His right arm, acting of a will not his own, reached over and placed his palm over the ugly blemish, whether to hide it or embrace it he never knew. After a few seconds, the tattoo seemed to grow warm, then hot, though not with the accompanying pain that always signaled a Summons. Instead of drawing his hand away, Snape only pressed harder as the mark became scalding, searing his palm. His bit his tongue against a cry of pain and squeezed his eyes closed.

The burning agony rendered him almost unaware of a gust of air whipping his hair wildly around him, and of a rushing hiss that enveloped him. Blinking his eyes open, Snape saw with wonder the unfamiliar Potions lab melting away into the blackness from whence it sprung. The colors faded into mist and non-existence. The embracing couple disappeared behind gathering tendrils of darkness. Snape felt extremely dizzy for a few instants; then he snapped back into equilibrium as, around him, the room snapped into focus.

The green shield had dissolved into thin air. His eyes blurred; he blinked them rapidly until he clearly saw stone flagging at his feet. Slowly lifting his eyes, afraid of what he might see, Snape caught an acrid scent hanging in the air. Around him, the room was dim and smoky; the fire in the hearth had burned down to glowing embers. In a glance, Snape took in his surroundings. The bare mantelpiece, the conspicuous lack of both armchairs and rug. The clinging cobwebs in the corners. The warzone of coagulated silver-green potion globules adhered to every surface, thick especially in the vicinity of a violently overturned, charred cauldron.

Snape knew he should feel happy, or at least relieved, but he felt more or less empty, devoid of every emotion except a pervading, consuming calm. Maybe it was just because he was so tired, he suddenly remembered, weary to the core of his very bones. Maybe the potion had become some sort of antidepressant when it had gone off.

Then Snape looked down at his burning right hand still clamped over his left arm. Slowly he pulled the scalded hand away. The Dark Mark was silent, innocently translucent. His right palm was burnt, but the raw patches there were not in the skull-and-serpent form of Voldemort's brand. No, the burns, he suddenly remembered, had been made by flying spatters of acid. The Mark had never been alive, not really. It was as if he had never really left his own lab. It had probably all been a dream.

Maybe he was going insane.

And, then again, thought Severus Snape as he searched for his wand to start cleaning up the lab, maybe, just maybe, reality was more benevolent than he'd always thought.

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And that's it, folks. Please review and tell me what you think! And, if you could not tell, my mental images of Severus Snape and his existence draw heavily from the Severus Snape in R.J. Anderson's awesome Harry Potter fanfictions, particularly the Darkness and Light trilogy. If you have not read these...why are you still here?! Thanks for reading! -ISJ-