A/N: As always, many thanks to Procyon Black for her tremendous help.
A/N2 (7-31-06): I have changed chapter one; it is now the prologue. This epilogue will make much more sense in the context of the changed beginning.
A/N3 (9-8-07): I've made a few, very cursory changes to straighten a few contradictions between this and Ashes of Time.
November 1, 2001
Ginny entered the Black Family library and took her usual seat at the round table where the Order held its meetings. It was her favorite seat because, from there, she could view the portrait of the sleeping lady, which was probably the only pleasant view in Number 12, Grimmauld Place.
"Ginny, I didn't see you at Colin's party," said Fred, taking his seat next to her. "He was quite disappointed, you know."
"Ron had his own party with his other classmates," Ginny said. "At least five kids set the decorations on fire with accidental magic. Really, it was a good thing I went. Saved a lot of paperwork."
"The Auror office still so full of parchment?"
"Yeah," Ginny said. "Stuffed with it. And who gets to wade through it all? Us trainees."
"You could bring in little Ron and a few of his friends," said Fred. "Burn down the Auror office."
"Just like You-Know-Who?"
"Yes, just like Voldemort," Fred said, and turned his attention to the basket of biscuits that was always at the table.
Ginny felt an instinctive clutch of fear. It felt so incredible that Voldemort had died—died. She still expected to wake up from a dream at any moment. Everyone else, too, seemed to be in a dreamy daze of elation; strangers hugged each other and laughed in the streets, and there were parties in every other neighborhood.
As frenzied as everything was, Ginny found herself unable to share it. She had spent the hours following the final battle by simply staring at the remaining Order members in exhaustion. Neville had suggested going out, but neither she nor Fred nor Hermione nor any of the others had quite felt like it.
"Hello, Hermione," Ginny greeted.
"Good afternoon, Ginny," Hermione said, taking a seat and absent-mindedly grabbing a biscuit. "How were the parties?"
"It's a bit embarrassing, but I stayed home with Mum."
"No, I can understand," Hermione said, around a mouthful of biscuits. "Plus, somebody has to look after things when everyone's celebrating." She looked up at the clock and tapped her fingers on the table impatiently.
"So, Hermione," Fred called, from where he was enchanting the biscuits to dance in circles. "Any idea why Dumbledore summoned this meeting?"
Hermione hesitated. "Well, actually I do," she said, and gave them apologetic looks.
"Can you tell us?" Ginny said, not very hopefully. After Professor McGonagall had died defending Hogwarts during the siege, Dumbledore divulged more to Hermione than just about everyone else, except for Snape and Harry.
"It's about Harry," Hermione said.
Fred's biscuits dropped lifelessly onto the table. "Harry!"
Remus leaned forward eagerly. "Did Snape's potion work—?"
Hermione held up a hand for silence, and then covered her mouth with her other hand. "No, he's not been found," she said, words muffled by the biscuit in her mouth.
A pause. "Well?" Remus demanded.
Hermione glanced at the giant grandfather clock, which stood next to the doorway like a silent sentinel. She swallowed her mouthful of food. "The thing is," she said, "we don't really know if the potion worked."
"Don't really know?" Remus echoed, sounding anxious and annoyed, "how can you not know? Snape's potion was supposed to turn white if Harry is still alive, and black if he's—not."
"It's trickier than that," Hermione said. She glanced over at the grandfather clock again. "And it relates to the other potion we did, on—Voldemort."
Ginny stared blankly at Hermione and felt the beginnings of a cold, icy dread. "I thought he was…"
"No, he's dead all right—"
"Harry killed him, we all saw it—"
Ginny looked up and exchanged a helpless glance with her mum, who had come in sometime during the conversation. If Voldemort were dead, then the next step would be to forget him as thoroughly as possible. Who could possibly want to keep those memories alive?—the pain, the dread, the coldness, the pervasive and paralyzing fear—
"He is dead!" Hermione shouted. The crowd quieted, and the haggard anxiety gradually left their eyes. "At least, we're pretty sure he is," Hermione added meekly.
"I think," Mad-Eye Moody's gruff voice cut in, before the crowd could rise in protest and alarm once more, "we'd better have Professor Dumbledore explain to us what Miss Granger means."
Everyone sat back as Moody stumped to his seat, and Dumbledore entered, resplendent in celebratory robes of gold and white. He looked like an Egyptian priest, Ginny thought.
"Ah, biscuits," Dumbledore said, a cheery glint in his eyes as he took one of the treats from the basket and found himself an open chair.
He still looks old, Ginny thought. In the past years, it had seemed to Ginny that she could see the war weighing on Dumbledore's shoulders, thickening like a black cloud. The cloud was gone, but the vitality she remembered from long ago had vanished in the storm. Dumbledore looked whitewashed, almost as though he had been leached of blood; despite his effervescent smile, he was pale, and his hair was the color of a white-burnt sky.
"Albus," said Hermione, looking relieved to see the headmaster, "I was telling everyone about the two experiments we carried out, using Professor Snape's potions."
Dumbledore nodded, and held up a finger as he chewed and swallowed his biscuit. As he did so, Ginny looked around the table and noticed that Professor Snape was not there. Where could he be? Not on some spying mission, surely: most of the Death Eaters were caught in one fell swoop in that last battle, and he couldn't be occupied at some party…
"Yes, Severus's potions," Dumbledore said. Ginny wondered if the unconcerned tone of the old headmaster's voice was real, or if it was a bad attempt at levity, or if it was a very good imitation of indifference. With Dumbledore, it was impossible to tell.
"Severus's potions?" Remus prompted in his mild-mannered voice, though Ginny was sure everyone could hear the wolfish impatience underneath. "Hermione told us that one was done on Harry, and the other on—Voldemort."
"And that you actually weren't sure whether either of them was alive—or dead," Moody finished, his magical eye darting from Hermione to Dumbledore.
"That's all I said," Hermione said quickly, at the sharp glance Dumbledore gave her. "I didn't tell them about—the other thing."
Other thing? Ginny thought with sudden dismay.
"Albus, I think the time for secrets is over," Molly Weasley said. Ginny looked at her mother with some surprise. "This war has been going on for five years. You have kept secrets for much longer than that, I'm sure, but with the war it was necessary. Now the war is over—or so you say. If it is indeed over, then the need for secrets is over."
Ginny noted how straight and stiff her mum sat, and how pale her knuckles were, and so slipped a hand under the table to comfortingly hold her mother's knee. Ginny's mother had always been a staunch supporter of Albus Dumbledore, but after Ron, then George, then their father—it had all been too much, especially since two had died because Dumbledore had refused their ransoms.
"I apologize, Molly," Dumbledore said in his sad, tired tone of voice, "but Hermione has not divulged anymore than I allowed her to."
There was a pause. Ginny stared at the basket of biscuits—biscuits that, outside Number 12, Grimmauld Place, she had never been able to look at without a pang of unease and fear.
"We still do not know where Harry is," Dumbledore said gravely. "The few basic homing spells we attempted did not work. I thought it best, perhaps, to establish whether or not he is alive before continuing our search. We decided to use a potion that, though difficult to brew, usually gives very reliable results."
Dumbledore paused. Hermione leaned forward at her cue. "Basically, the potion functions along the same lines as do most tracking spells. We concoct the potion, add something connected to Harry, and wait for the results." She paused. "Of course, it would be best to use something that was part of the body, such as hair or fingernail clippings. However, even after using Scouring Charms, the amount of material connected to Harry was too little to give a reliable reading."
"What Scouring Charms did you use?" Moody growled.
"Verrere," Dumbledore said. He added, "It was very thorough. I performed it myself."
Moody sat back, though Ginny could see the skepticism on his face.
"So despite the lack of material, we were fortunate enough that the potion could function from substances that did not come directly from Harry's body," Hermione continued. She glanced about the table. "Professor Snape would be able to explain it better, but—"
"Where is Snape, anyway?" Fred interrupted. "Don't tell me he's at that Three Broomsticks party and is actually dancing up a storm at Rosmerta's?"
"He is quite safe from Rosmerta's charms," Dumbledore said with equal lightheartedness. Ginny felt a trickle of relief; the unasked question in Fred's remark had been answered. "Go on, Hermione."
"So instead of using materials that came directly from the body, we used other things connected to him," Hermione said. "We attempted first with physical things like his bed sheet and clothes and toothbrush, but those didn't work. Finally, we tried memories."
Memories! Ginny thought. That would be… unusual, to say the least. When it came to good, solid, incanted spells, there was very little Ginny couldn't do, but with the ambiguities of magical abstraction, she felt lost at sea.
"And the results were inconclusive," Moody said.
Dumbledore nodded his head. "With different memories from different people, the potion would turn black, white, or even grey."
Murmurs arose from the crowd. Ginny sat back and frowned. She had no idea what might be underlying the magical theories explaining the phenomenon, but she did wonder what memories they had used. It would make sense that memories of the schoolboy Harry Potter from years ago would elicit darkness; that person, even if the name and body were the same, was gone.
"Has that happened before?" Fred asked.
"Not in the records we found," Hermione said. "It was a very tricky potion, too, so there weren't very many records to begin with."
"But what can it mean?" Remus said anxiously. "He can't be alive and dead all at once. He has to be somewhere, he has to be—has to be somewhere."
"We do not know, Remus, but we must hope for the best," Dumbledore said gently.
"Hope for the best?" Remus snarled. "We've all been hoping for years, we've—" He stopped suddenly. Ginny glanced down at her hands. There was silence around the table, like the sounds of a cemetery in the hour before sunset. "I'm sorry," he said, not sounding the least repentant.
"The war may be over, but some things are changed indelibly," Dumbledore said slowly. He was, Ginny realized, using his wise-lecturer voice. "I am also sorry, Remus."
Remus said nothing. Dumbledore sighed, and looked at Hermione.
"Right," Hermione said and continued as though nothing had happened, "so we used the same potion to confirm Voldemort's death."
"And the results were inconclusive?" Moody growled.
"The potion was black, except for a tiny sprinkling of white in the middle," Hermione said. "But that is not to mean he's still alive," she added hurriedly. "Albus attempted the spell after Voldemort's first fall, and that time the potion was a much whiter shade of grey."
"So what does the white sprinkling mean?" Fred asked.
Hermione looked a bit uncomfortable. "We think it means that, due to his ritual, Voldemort's soul was so powerful and was such a conglomeration, if you will, of the sacrificial souls, that there will always be a bit of him around."
Silence greeted her statement. Ginny felt distinctly uncomfortable. It was bad enough that the scars and memories of Voldemort's reign still remained. She really did not like the idea that little bits of Voldemort were floating around in the air she breathed, the water she drank, the food she ate…
Mad-Eye Moody gave a cough. "Generally, one's soul disperses at death."
"Yes, usually that is what happens," Hermione said patiently, "but Voldemort doesn't happen to be a general case. Still, in almost every sense of the word, we've agreed that Voldemort is dead."
Ginny exchanged an uneasy glance with her mother, and then, in a movement that was mirrored across the table, looked at Dumbledore in questioning trepidation.
"Everything Hermione has said is correct," he said, laying his hands out on the table with palms facing up. "Voldemort is well and truly dead."
"But what about Harry?" Remus said.
Dumbledore's face became at once compassionate and sad, yet filled with noble hope. Ginny blinked; since when had she been able to so accurately classify the old headmaster's expressions? It was almost like a catalogue of masks.
"We can only wait and hope," Dumbledore said. "For now, at least, Harry is beyond the reaches of our powers. But have faith, Remus. Harry's abilities are greater than what you or I know." He turned his attention back to the rest of the Order, and smiled again. "Go forth, my friends. Celebrate." Then, in a subtle movement that Ginny only caught because of where she was sitting, Dumbledore shifted to address Hermione. "That will be all."
That's it? Ginny thought. Dumbledore reached for the basket of biscuits and took one. "These are very good," he said, and stood. "But I daresay the cake I had at the Leaky Cauldron was a slight better…"
He turned, and with unhurried movements, walked to the doorway. He paused before stepping through. "Voldemort is dead," he said. "You are disbanded." Then he was gone.
Ginny blinked at the doorway, not certain what had happened. She was troubled by a pervasive sense of anticlimax, or of disbelief. After announcing that Harry was gone and Voldemort was not completely dead, did Dumbledore really expect them to wander off in forgetful bliss?
"He's not telling us everything," Fred said, his voice inscrutable.
"So what else is new?" Tonks said in a tone of forced flippancy, from the other side of the table. "We only found out about the plan to reflect the Avada Kedavra after Harry was kidnapped." At this, she gave Hermione a somewhat accusing glare.
Hermione sighed in exasperation. "I'm sorry, but he swore me to secrecy. Honestly, I wish I didn't have to keep secrets from the rest of you—"
Ginny saw the split second instant of hurt showing on Hermione's face before it hardened into the implacable look of Dumbledore's second lieutenant in the Order of the Phoenix. "If you are so unsatisfied, I advise you to have a private meeting with Professor Dumbledore and his sherbet lemons." She paused, then added, "Harry understood."
Suddenly, a voice snarled: "DON'T"—Ginny jumped in her seat, and then recognized it as belonging to Remus—"say his name. Please. Not you."
Hermione bit her lower lip, and looked as though she wanted to say something, either to comfort the werewolf or to plead her case. But she only turned and left the room.
Nobody broke the silence for a heavy pause. "Well," said Fred, getting out of his seat, "I'm heading over to the Green Dragon. Anyone else going there?"
A few members stood, murmuring their goodbyes as they followed Fred out the door. Ginny stayed, watching them leave. It occurred to her that this might be the last time all the members would meet in one place. She thought about a future without Order meetings, without seeing these familiar faces arranged around the table. Instead of sadness, she felt a strong block of relief tumble through her mind. She had had enough fighting and secret meetings. It was time to move on.
"Come along, Ginny," Molly said. She glanced at the grandfather clock beside the door and straightened her cloak. "It's time we went back home."
Ginny stood, looking around and pressing the faces into her memory. Suddenly she realized that not all the Order members had been present, that this could not be called the last time the Order was together; Snape was absent. Where was he? Searching for Harry?
Ginny listened with half an ear to her mother's chatter about how the garden gnomes were stealing her potatoes, how she wondered if little Ron would like carrot cake. Somehow, Ginny found herself unable to imagine Harry in the Burrow playing with little Ron, Harry celebrating in the pubs, Harry doing anything besides appearing and disappearing without notice, commanding troops and reading reports. He had been such a part of the war, and with the war now over—
He'll be found, Ginny thought quickly. They were outside Number 12, Grimmauld Place, and the afternoon sun cast lonely shadows from the shabby Muggle houses and the ragged trees. The street was silent.
November 8, 2001
The door to the flat was the same green as the other doors, but it seemed almost cleaner, more smooth and polished. Remus took a deep breath and knocked.
A few moments later, the door swung upon. "Remus!" Hermione exclaimed.
"Hello, Hermione," Remus said with a crooked smile.
"Please, come in," Hermione said, sounding almost excited. She stood back, and both of them automatically performed the charms to check each other's identity.
"Some tea? Biscuits?" Hermione said, and was gone before Remus could respond.
Remus moved hesitantly to the sitting room. He was never comfortably approaching someone else's living space; there was too much of the wolf in him. The flat, Remus noticed, was very neat, very clean. From the wall hung paintings Remus thought were by Muggle artists, and on the mantlepiece were photographs, some Muggle and some magical.
"Please, sit down," Hermione said, indicating one of the chairs.
Remus sat, and watched Hermione pour tea the Muggle way and summon biscuits from another room. "I haven't seen you or anyone else, really, in a week," Hermione said, handing him a cup of tea. "I did see Ginny and Molly and little Ron, but that's all. How are the others?"
Remus thought uncomfortably of the parties he had been invited to. He had noticed that Hermione had not been present at any of the others, and hoped that it was because she was too busy. After all, Hermione recently had taken up the position of legal consultant for the Department of Justice. "Well, Colin Creevey and Natalie MacDonald are engaged, and Fred Weasley is teaching Transfiguration at Hogwarts."
"Oh," Hermione said, and attempted a smile. "Well, I certainly am out of the loop. I'd never thought of Fred as a professor. Anyway," she said, before Remus could say anything, "how are things coming along for you? I confess I'm simply swamped in paperwork."
Remus smiled against the dryness in his mouth and told himself to broach the topic he had come for, but he found himself saying, "So that's what legal consultant means? Paperwork?"
Hermione laughed. "They just want someone else to figure things out for them and decide how much food Lucius Malfoy should get in his cell. It's really rather boring."
"Ah, Malfoy," Remus said, feeling a shard of bitterness and hatred forming in his chest. "He got away with too light a sentence."
Hermione shrugged, but her reply was markedly neutral. "Being stripped of magic and being stuck in a high-security labor-intensive prison is very difficult for someone who abhors Muggles and was born rich. And there really isn't an alternative."
Yes, there is, Remus thought. One could kill him. Slowly.
"We fought to end a reign of terror," Hermione said, as though reading his thoughts, "and I'm not letting us begin another. Some casualties of the second war might have been avoided if we had been more… rational after the first war."
Rational? Remus thought disbelievingly. True, there were some—many—who did not deserve harsh penalties. Not everyone had joined Voldemort willingly. But others, such as Lucius Malfoy and Peter Pettigrew, were rotten to the heart.
"It mustn't have been a very popular choice," he said coolly. The Daily Prophet had run several entire issues full of tirades from wizards and witches demanding a harsher punishment for the former Death Eaters. He himself had thought of contributing, but had decided against it.
"No, it wasn't," Hermione said briskly, and then, with effort, smiled again. "Enough about me. What about you, Professor Lupin?"
Remus smiled. He opened his mouth and once again told himself to mention why he came in the first place, but instead he hesitated and said, "Nothing… really. I've been applying for jobs, but nothing good has come."
Hermione frowned. "You're quite famous for fighting against Voldemort, nobody could possibly be suspicious of you anymore…"
Remus shook his head. "Well, the rejection letters are much more courteous and apologetic than before." But they're still rejections, he thought. Voldemort's death was still too recent for him to feel bitterness, but that first rejection letter—to which he had unconsciously pinned so much hope—had poured cold water on whatever happiness was left after Harry's disappearance.
Harry, he thought. I came for Harry. Remus took a deep breath. "If you don't mind," he said, "I would like to talk about Harry."
Hermione looked at him without saying anything, and then nodded.
"After the Order meeting, I managed to talk to Dumbledore about Harry," Remus said. That in and of itself had been quite difficult, as Dumbledore seemed to have been too busy partying. That had frustrated Remus all the more: how could anyone party when Harry was still gone? There had been reports and headlines in the Daily Prophet about 'The-Man-Who-Defeated-You-Know-Who's unknown whereabouts, but they had seemed remarkably complacent, as though it was part of Harry Potter's fate or doom to disappear with his nemesis.
"What did he say?" Hermione prompted.
Remus swallowed. "He told me where Harry went." He glanced at Hermione. She nodded, her face expressionless. "He said that Harry went back in time." Hermione nodded again, still not saying anything. "My time."
"1977, to be exact," Hermione said.
"Yes," Remus said, and took another breath. "That was our last year at Hogwarts. Dumbledore told me that Harry went for several months as a Hogwarts student under the name of Jonathan Frost."
"Did you know him?" said Hermione. Her voice was gentle.
"Not very well, but—" He paused. Then, with a rush and not knowing why, he said what he had only half-told Dumbledore: "We were horrible. Mostly Sirius, though, and James never liked him at all. And I just played along, just let it all happen, not doing anything to stop it."
Hermione looked puzzled. "I'm sure you weren't all that bad, and you had no idea…" She paused. "But—forgive me for asking—why? I would think—wasn't he—" Realization dawned on her face. "He was sorted into Slytherin, wasn't he?"
"Oh. Well," Hermione said as comfortingly as she could, "you really had no idea who he would be, and Harry isn't—terribly approachable. I'm sure you weren't as bad as you think."
"But it must've been unbearable for Harry, that his own godfather would treat him so badly. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that Sirius acted like a—like a jerk."
"You were young; Harry would have understood."
Hermione blinked. "What?"
"Is Harry gay?"
"As in, homosexual."
"Yes, I didn't think you meant ebulliently happy," Hermione said slowly, thoughtfully. "To be honest, I don't know. None of us had the time for relationships these last years, and Harry has always been cautious about endangering someone…" Her gaze was fixed on Remus, and he could see her mind working. "He was—involved with someone in your time, wasn't he? Was it—who was it?"
"I wasn't sure then, but now, it's obvious," Remus said. "Severus Snape."
"Snape!" Hermione exclaimed. "Snape? But…" She blinked rapidly. It seemed to Remus that she had suddenly stumbled upon a great realization. "Severus Snape," she echoed quietly. "It… I think it makes sense…" Remus wondered, a bit resentfully, what she knew; why was it that Dumbledore always confided so much in Hermione, even when it was about Harry?
"You didn't know that?" Remus said. "So Dumbledore didn't tell you that?"
"No, not that part," Hermione muttered, still looking preoccupied.
Remus waited a bit, and then said, letting the impatience show in his voice, "Well? What do you meanit makes sense now? What else did Dumbledore tell you?"
A look that might have been apologetic flashed across Hermione's face (Remus couldn't tell, the expression was too brief). She said, "Not much more, but there were some things I could guess. And with what you told me, it fits together better." Hermione frowned, as though collecting her thoughts.
"Then what did he tell you?" Remus asked politely, feeling belatedly that his burst of aggravation had been unwarranted.
Hermione took a deep breath. "He said that, because Voldemort's soul was too strong to be destroyed after the body died, it combined with Harry's soul, which caused a disturbance that threw Harryback in time. By coincidence, Harry landed in the year that you, Severus, Sirius, and Harry's parents were in their seventh year at Hogwarts, and Dumbledore had Harry pretend to be a seventh year student under the name of Jonathan Frost. Jonathan Frost left before completing his seventh year, and Dumbledore has no idea where he is." Hermione paused. "But you know all of that already, don't you?"
Remus nodded. "That's all that Dumbledore told me," he said. So the headmaster didn't tell Hermione any more than he told me, Remus thought, and felt guilty again. He was just like the others—so quick to accuse Hermione of sharing secrets with Dumbledore and hiding them from the others. In a cool, rational way, he could understand why: they needed someone to blame, and as Dumbledore was unassailable, Hermione became the scapegoat. She knows it, Remus thought, feeling unhappy and wishing he could change it. But only Dumbledore might change it now. Only Dumbledore had that capacity, and Dumbledore—
To his mind came the image imprinted in his memory of Dumbledore, standing before the frosted window as he answered Remus's curtly stated questions, staring out at the snowfall, his voice soft and perhaps sad, perhaps regretful. Remus felt a bit disturbed. Even though in his mind and heart he knew Dumbledore was an old man weighed down by his burdens, he could not remember having seen Dumbledore look so lost and transparent, almost like a ghost made of thin, white paper.
"The fact that Harry's soul merged with Voldemort's soul explains a lot of things," Hermione continued. "For one, it rather explains why Severus's potion couldn't determine conclusively whether or not Harry was alive. The person we believe to be Harry is no longer Harry. It also explains why the same potion, applied to Voldemort, yielded a slightly positive result."
"So," said Remus, a bit hesitatingly, "although that means that the Harry we know has… changed beyond magical recognition, all that still means that Harry's still alive, right?"
"Ye-es," said Hermione. But Remus caught the note of uncertainty.
"You don't sound very convinced."
"Oh," said Hermione, flushing slightly and looking down, reminding Remus of the schoolgirl who was caught doing mischief with her two friends, "it's only that the potion Severus used isn't… erm… well-documented."
"It works, though, doesn't it," said Remus, "as it shows that Harry's still alive?"
"It would—seem so," Hermione said.
It would seem so, Remus thought with a surge of frustration. She still doesn't believe it; she doesn't think it's true. "Seem so? Only that it seems so—?" He paused, the frustration he felt choking him remarkably like a tight ball of unshed tears, glowing and howling with the anguish of a famished wolf. "Is he alive—or not?"
"He is, Remus!" Hermione exclaimed. Then her voice became gentle. "Believe in it. He is still alive. Only, he's been so changed. With Voldemort's soul in him, and twenty years of difference, it must be a—a very significant change. That's why the magic doesn't work very well. That's the reason."
Remus felt Hermione's voice pull gently at the anger and rage crying inside him. He was aware that she was speaking almost as though to a child, pitching her voice to the softness of assurance, assuaging his worries with the compassion in her eyes. I'm an old man, Remus thought, feeling bitter and cold, but the impression passed after he glanced up again and saw Hermione biting her lower lip in deep thought.
"Then why hasn't he come back if he's still alive?"
"I don't know," Hermione said, shaking her head slightly and looking up above Remus's head. "Harry wouldn't have allowed himself to appear while his younger self was still around—that never happened, and he has to follow the laws of time. But now…"
"Perhaps he—doesn't want to see us anymore."
"If he doesn't want to see us anymore, it wouldn't have been because of you and Sirius," Hermione said. Remus gave her a weary but appreciative glance. Trust Hermione to be as sharp as flint.
"But why wouldn't he come back? If not for my—our behavior to him, Sirius and James and I,then he should have no reason for staying away. He—didn't hate us before he went back in time. And"—somehow, it was difficult to admit—"there's Snape."
"Yes," Hermione said quietly. "There's Snape."
Suddenly, Remus felt a pang of sadness lodge itself in his heart. Damn you, Severus, he thought. I'd loved Harry like my own son all these years, looked after him, worried over him, fought for him. Yet Harry never saw me as anything other than Professor Lupin. I could never get close to him. But you— He loved you more than he loved anything else in the world. He loved you. A ferocious hatred bloomed in his heart, firing through his soul with unbearable pain. I hate you, Severus, Remus thought, and wished with wolfish rage to slash open the pale throat and sink his jaws into the thin chest. But images floated up from the depths of his memory, little fragments that meant nothing then and meant everything now—a brief touch, seen from the other side of the Great Hall; a momentary smile that seemed as natural as breathing; two heads bent together in quiet murmuring; the haunting grief in those dark eyes…
Then Remus felt his hate exhaust himself, because Severus loved Harry too. The jealousy was still there, vague and wistful as clouds reluctantly parting from the moon. But he was too tired and sad for hate.
"I'm sure he'll return," Hermione said in a hopeful voice.
"Yes," Remus said. He smiled his crooked smile and stood up.
"Leaving already?" Hermione said, and Remus felt a surge of pity at the sadness in her voice. He decided then to visit her more often; she did not deserve the resentment of the Order.
"I'd like some time to think," Remus said. He tried to smile again, reassuringly this time. "I hope you won't mind if I drop by for tea every so often," Remus said, hesitatingly.
"Of course not," Hermione said, but Remus thought the melancholy look remained in her eyes. "Harry will be back, I'm sure," she said quietly as she opened the door.
Remus nodded in agreement. "Yes," he said, and the door shut behind him. For a moment he forgot which way to go. He found himself staring down the corridor of green doors, gleaming pale under the dim fluorescent lights. Remus had the sudden impression that he was looking into an endless mirror, and all he could see were shabby dreams and longings, mingled with the half-forgotten memories of an old man.
He shuddered and took a few steps forward, stopped and turned around, and walked down the hall.
December 8, 2001
Hermione knocked on the charred stone wall where the portrait of Slytherin had been. She winced slightly; the stone was hard against her knuckles. She peered inside, turning her gaze from the scattered crates, all empty now, and the many scrolls and pieces of parchment that seemed to have rained from an invisible cloud, covering almost every surface in the room. "Professor Snape?" she called.
She stepped inside. Before Voldemort had laid siege and taken Hogwarts, Hermione had only been in Snape's quarters once or twice, but she remembered a clean, if slightly depressing, room, with no photographs and only one chair.
"Are you in, Professor Snape?"
This is more of a mess than the war room was, Hermione thought, remembering the stifling little room in Grimmauld Place where she and Harry and Dumbledore had tried to decipher each of Voldemort's moves. She didn't think Severus Snape would be the type of person to live in a veritable pigsty.
I'll leave a note for him, thought Hermione, and then smiled wryly to herself. Any note she left would probably be lost forever.
She stepped past a large, heavy table, also overflowing with parchment, and glanced into an adjacent room.
She froze. Snape was lying as though dead on the floor. His dark, tangled hair covered his face, and there was an empty chalice lying next to him.
Hermione whipped out her wand and slashed the air; instantly all the parchment flew aside. She knelt next to Snape's body, and searched frantically for his pulse—
His skin is still warm, Hermione thought, and felt relief pour through her body when she detected the faint throbbing against her finger. She closed her eyes, fighting back the memories of all those times when the skin had been cold, the body stiff, the search for the pulse only a useless gesture of hope…
He must've taken a potion, and not bothered to collapse on his bed like any normal person, Hermione thought, picking up the chalice. The bottom was still wet with a greenish fluid. Hermione sniffed it. She thought she could detect a whiff of chamomile, but beyond that she could not say.
If it's magical, I shouldn't disturb him, Hermione thought. She scooted back slightly, looking at Snape's thin body sprawled so unceremoniously on the floor. There was grey in his hair, and it occurred to her suddenly that Snape was already quite old.
Hermione sighed and stood, leaving the sleeping man to look into the other rooms. He must have a bed somewhere, Hermione thought. Or at least a chair.
Eventually, after wandering through the rooms and sifting through the scrolls, she found both a bed and a chair, both of which were buried under parchment and quills. Snape had never struck her as the type of person to let clutter accumulate, but then again, the end of the war brought many changes to many people. Perhaps Snape's sudden messiness was one of them.
Quite a few of these are quite ancient, Hermione thought with some surprise. She glanced at one such scroll, which was as wrinkled as the skin of an elderly man and had painstakingly illuminated letters written all over it. 'Hyd of geong swin, wac and fersc,' Hermione read, not knowing what it meant, besides that it had to do with pigs and skin.
She shifted it aside, and a piece of parchment, much newer, caught her eye, for the writing on it was clearly Snape's.
'AD 1196 – Christolph of Snape is born.'
Hermione's eyebrows rose. Might this Christolph be Severus Snape's ancestor? She knew there was a village in Suffolk called Snape, but she had never asked the Potions master whether there was a connection. Tracing it back more than eight hundred years would be quite impressive, but wizard families were more aware of their genealogy.
'AD 1207 – Christolph goes to Hogwarts and meets Simon Freegard.
AD 1213 – Christolph disappears into the Aurora Borealis.
AD 1871 – Christolph serves as a tutor for the Yeats family, and teaches William Butler Yeats.'
Hermione stared. This is incredible, she thought, quickly rereading what Snape had written. She had never read of a method of time travel besides using Time Turners or variations thereof. But this Christolph had disappeared into the Aurora Borealis, only to emerge six hundred years later to tutor William Butler Yeats—!
Hermione continued reading.
'AD 1902 – Christolph completes his little grey book.
AD 1904 – Christolph goes back in time.
AD 1261 – Simon dies in the Nest from the Gāst Cunnian spell.'
Gāst Cunnian, Hermione thought. Gāst was soul in old English, and Cunnian meant seek. She had never heard of it, but she was willing to bet it was one of the spells stashed away by the Founders in their Nest, hidden above the library. By the sound of it, it could not have been a very safe spell to invoke. I wonder how he knows that Simon Freegard died in the Nest, Hermione thought. There was no dead body when we opened it.
'AD 1262 – Christolph arrives.
AD 1276 – Christolph of Snape dies.'
She glanced at the dates: 1261 and 1262. They had missed each other by only one year. She did not know the connection between the two men, but they could not have been strangers. Perhaps they were close friends. Perhaps, even, they were lovers.
I hope they weren't lovers, Hermione thought, reminded uncomfortably of Snape and Harry. I've never met a more unfortunate pair.
'AD 1977 – '
The entry was blank. But Hermione could fill it in with her thoughts, from all the ponderings that would not leave her mind at peace in the past month. 1977, late August – Jonathan Frost appears. 1977, early December – Jonathan Frost disappears, presumably dying at Voldemort's hand. But between those two dates, who knows what had happened? Who could tell?
There was a sound from the doorway, and Hermione whirled around, wand in hand. She relaxed marginally when she saw Severus Snape standing in the doorway, wearing his customary black robes and giving her an unwelcoming glare.
"Good afternoon, Professor," Hermione said, beating down the sinking feeling that she was in deep trouble. She was no longer a student to be terrorized in his class, she told herself—although, she thought guiltily, she really should not have been reading what Snape had written.
"What are you doing, Miss Granger?"
Hermione stepped away from the parchment. "I, uh, came by to ask you a question, but you were sleeping, so I decided to wait until you were awake."
Snape gave a disbelieving sneer, and stalked to the table Hermione had been standing next to. Instinctively Hermione moved away. Though Snape's right leg had been shattered in the War, and he was so bent as to resemble a gargoyle's shadow, his stalk was still quite alarming.
"Well?" he demanded, glancing up sharply. "What did you want to ask?"
"I want to ask you if you were interested in becoming the next headmaster of Hogwarts," Hermione said.
Hermione shrugged. "I didn't think so. Fred Weasley will be the next headmaster."
"Fred Weasley?" Severus echoed in disbelief and, if Hermione heard correctly, deep disgust. "Why Fred Weasley?"
"Well…" Hermione made a wordless gesture with her hand. "He's certainly qualified—"
"Why not you?"
Hermione faltered, not expecting him to be so blunt, but smiled, though it took some effort. "I'm serving as the counsel in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and Department of Mysteries. I've always wanted to work in either of those two departments, though I'd also have liked the Department of Magical Interspecies Relationships—but in any case, I wouldn't have time to work in both departments and oversee Hogwarts."
"Drop your positions in the Ministry," Snape said curtly, his eyes trained on her with uncomfortable intensity. "Hogwarts is more important."
"Yes, but you won't believe how much trouble the Ministry is having right now," Hermione said, looking down at the little table she was standing by. On a silver plate was a biscuit, more crumbled than whole, and when she poked it, she found that it was as hard as rock. "They're—they're even having trouble deciding whether to use numerals or letters to designate prisoners! Hogwarts is important, of course, but without the justice system running smoothly, the entire infrastructure of the Ministry might fall apart. And the same with the Department of Mysteries. The Ministry has fallen apart only fourteen separate times in its history, and each time has been associated with mishandling of the objects within the Department of Mysteries, except for the time when Bojr the Belligerent accidentally flattened the newly-built Ministry complex in a Quidditch accident."
She stopped suddenly. Snape was looking impatiently at the ceiling, the walls. At her pause, he gave her a withering glance.
"If I did not know you well enough to know you were spouting utter rubbish, I would have asked you to leave and never come back."
Hermione shut her mouth and swallowed. All the arguments she had composed in the sleepless dark of the night to convince herself in the morning that she was doing the right thing vanished at once.
"Fred Weasley is a dangerous fool," Snape said. "He embodies all the worst of you Gryffindors: narrow-minded, reckless, vain."
"You're judging him too harshly," Hermione said. "Fred is opinionated, but he would never do what he thinks is the wrong thing…"
"And you leave it to him to decide that?" Snape snapped. "Go on, fool yourself. I want to see whether you can keep fooling yourself when another dangerous idiot proclaims himself the next Dark Lord." He folded his arms and unfolded them in rapid succession. "I cannot understand how you would cede the position of headmistress so easily. You disappoint me, Miss Granger."
"Why don't you become headmaster, sir?" Hermione retorted hotly. She was not about to deny the truth in Snape's words, but they stung too much for her to let them pass. "I'm sure your judgments would be judicious."
"Yes, so you are finally admitting that my treatment of you while you were a student was balanced and justified," Snape said dryly.
Hermione sighed. Silence fell between them. She was surprised by how much Snape had admitted in that one statement, and troubled by what his words had forced her to realize. She did have qualms about Fred's leadership, but what could she do? The others did not take to her as they did Fred; perhaps it was her closeness to Dumbledore during the war, her remaining when Ron died and Harry disappeared, her being a Muggleborn. There was nothing she could do.
"I wish Harry—"
She snapped her mouth shut, cursing herself for saying the name in front of Snape. But she realized belatedly her action somehow made it worse. For a moment neither said anything, and Hermione wished that Hogwarts would somehow let her quietly Apparate away, or at least swallow her up into the ground.
Snape turned and gave her a rather inscrutable look. "Please attempt to be sensible, Miss Granger. I am not about to have a seizure at the mention of Harry Potter's name."
"I—I didn't think so," Hermione stammered. "I just thought that, perhaps, Harry would make the best headmaster of us all."
Snape gave a brief shake of his head, as though to dismiss the notion. "Don't be a fool. He would wish to remain unknown." Snape looked down briefly. "He'd had enough of all this tomfoolery."
Hermione bit her bottom lip. She had the strange feeling that they were talking of different people. The Potions master was staring at something unseen, a frown on his brow, as though he were remembering something, and Hermione watched with a bit of sadness as a little smile (was it a smile?) flickered at the edges of Snape's lips.
"Professor Snape," Hermione said, taking a deep breath, "I'm sure you're already aware, but there was something I wanted to—point out to you about the potion you created to confirm that Harry was still alive…?"
Snape looked at her sharply. "What about it?"
"Well, I did some research," Hermione said, looking back down at the stale biscuit on the little silver plate. "It's called the Ealdor Potion, isn't it?" She waited, and thought that perhaps Snape was not going to respond. But he gave a curt nod of his head, and Hermione went on. "I read that it had its roots in some very ancient druidic magic, and thus was very powerful, though it is not very… accurate. Of course, the stronger the memory is, the better the potion will work. However, if the practitioner had extremely powerful emotions for the person he or she is trying to seek, he or she may see a mirage."
Hermione paused, and tried to gauge anything from Snape's face. His gaze, though, was fixed on the wall behind her, and Hermione was not even certain that he heard her. "The most famous instance of this is when Isolde attempted the Ealdor Potion on her beloved, Tristan. Instead of confirming that he was dead, she saw an illusion of his living body, and… well, reliable history ends at that."
Snapegave a humorless chuckle. "So you, too, believe that he is dead?"
"No, that's not what I meant!" Hermione exclaimed, beating herself inside for the waywardness of her words. "I was simply wondering if you had taken into consideration—"
"Did you also believe that I would not know that already?"
"I—well—" Hermione floundered, her desire to placate the man clashing with her honesty. Of course he'd know! Hermione berated herself. He's the Potions master, for goodness' sakes! "I just—I just wanted to remind you, I meant no offence…"
"Remind me? Did you really want to remind me, or did you want to make sure that a lovelorn fool"—he spat out the word—"would not blind himself with illusions?"
"None of those, none," Hermione said wretchedly, miserable because what Snape said was true. She could still remember the look on Snape's face as they first performed the Ealdor Potion, mere hours after Harry had disappeared. Snape's face had been that of a man sick with no hope of recovering, with the haunted eyes of one touched by dementors. After Hermione and Dumbledore had failed with their memories, Snape had stood for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the bubbling depths, before lifting his hand to draw out a memory. His hands had trembled like a leaf. Snape's hands never shook. Even after being tortured by Voldemort, the Potions master had been able to brew the most difficult of concoctions. But they had quivered as the brilliantly shimmering memory melted into the potion and glowed white, almost as though the radiance came from the memory and not the potion. And seeing the wordless longing and anguish on the thin, sallow face, Hermione had felt unease uncoiling in her mind.
"Now you truly insult me," Snape said coldly. "Please leave, Miss Granger."
Hermione stood still, unable to move. Snape turned with a cold fury, parchment fluttering away as he stalked out the room. He stopped in front of the portrait hole, and slammed it open with an astonishingly brutal force. "GET OUT!"
Hermione reached out with her left hand to grip the edge of the table. Feeling the hardness under her hand gave her strength. "No," she said.
Snape glared. Hermione returned the gaze defiantly, though the fingernails of her right hand dug into her palm as she gripped her wand.
"I think that you forget, Miss Granger, just what sort of man I am," Snape said in a slow, menacing voice. "I may not have been one of the fools who followed Voldemort to his death, but I am assuredly a dangerous man. I have killed more people than you or Dumbledore suppose, and I am now the darkest wizard alive." He stepped closer, and Hermione clenched her jaw. "I suggest you leave, Miss Granger. Now."
"I think," Hermione said through gritted teeth, "you forget who I am. I am not your student anymore. I saw less of the battlefield than many, but I played my part in the war. I may not understand you, and I probably will never understand you, and I may still be—terrified of you, Professor Snape, but I am"—Hermione swallowed—"your friend."
Snape made a scoffing noise, and sneered. Hermione rushed on before he could say anything. "I don't care if you think I'm a fool, but I am not going to let you"—she made a swift gesture with her left hand, indicating the mess around them—"let you become more bitter than you already are, angrier than you already are, and I won't let you bury yourself alive, and if Harry or Jonathan or whoever were here, he'd not let you either."
Hermione kept her head tiled in defiance, though her heart was pounding madly like marching drums in her ears. She hoped she had not gone too far.
Snape was breathing unsteadily. His face looked too white, and he was hunched like a statue that had been lashed by centuries of weather, beaten by the cruelties of neglect. Slowly, though, he took his wand out of his robe. With a swift movement, he lifted it above his head—Hermione stiffened and made ready to dash out of the way—and swung it behind him. The portrait door creaked shut.
"What would you have me do, then?" Snape asked. She could not see his face, hidden as it was behind the thin curtain of hair, but his voice weighted heavily with a bitter weariness. "Drop my search?" He gave a hollow, mirthless laugh. "The world is content with its savior dead."
"That isn't what I meant," Hermione stammered, stumbling because what Snape said was true, cripplingly and terribly true. The Daily Prophet was filled with mentions of 'His Sacrifice' and 'the tragic ending,' and Hermione had squashed the Ministry's plan to construct a memorial for The-Man-Who-Defeated-You-Know-Who. But what struck Hermione the most was that members of the Order, despite their stout declarations of hope, did nothing. And Dumbledore—the only one who might have led the Order in its last quest—was in Saint Mungo's, sitting on the floor and playing with sweets. "I didn't mean for you to stop, that wasn't my intention at all—"
"Then you are wasting my time," Snape interrupted. "I mistakenly believed you had something to say."
"You know what I mean!" Hermione said irritably. "I don't want you to be consumed by your search. If—I mean, when—Harry or Jonathan or whoever comes back, I'm sure he'd want to find a living being, instead of—instead of an exhausted… shell."
Hermione let her voice trail off. It upset her to say those things, because she could see how they tore into Snape's soul, almost as though she were kicking an old proud horse already near its death.
"It would be wonderfully convenient for him to be dead," Snape murmured.
Hermione frowned. "What do you mean?"
"As long as he lives, Voldemort does too," Snape said. He looked up, and his eyes were as calm and clinical as his voice. "It would be best if he died. Then the memories may die as well."
"Don't say that! And anyway, it's not true. Voldemort isn't alive—we tested it with the potion, and he's certainly quite dead."
"The potion functions on the body, not the soul," Snape said coolly. "And I'm certain you know about the mysterious deaths of Terrance Lestrange and Emily Matellan."
Hermione swallowed. "Yes, although… I couldn't find anything specific, only that the two of them had died under mysterious circumstances." She paused a moment, wondering if Snape might elaborate, but the man remained silent. "Nevertheless, in the past twenty years, there hasn't been any trace of that sort of—incidents."
"Perhaps he has been dead for twenty years," Snape said.
"You mustn't think that!"
"Why do you try to convince me when you yourself believe that Harry Potter is dead?"
Hermione was taken aback. "I—that isn't what I believe." She paused, words coming in jerks. "Not exactly, as in—that certainly isn't what I think, based on the limited information that I have, that he—Harry Potter—is not alive…" She trailed off, and glanced at the ground, the walls.
"Tell me, has Lupin given up hope?"
Hermione bit her bottom lip.
"That is as I expected."
The Potions master sighed and walked out of the room. At a slower pace, his limp became more apparent, and the crookedness of his back made him seem twice his age. He's an old, old man, Hermione thought. Older than anyone I know.
Snape gestured faintly at the portrait door in a clear sign of dismissal. Hermione hesitated, but there was nothing she could think of to say. Snape was right. It was simple as that. And everything Hermione had said had been futile words attempting to change a changeless fate.
She moved numbly towards the door, but stopped halfway. Snape was shifting through the scrolls on his table, and a few leafs of parchment fell to the floor in an ever-burgeoning stack, like dead lives piling under the branches of a tree.
"Severus—" Hermione began. She stopped, but the Potions master made no sign of having heard her. "I would just like you to know that—you have always been very good to me, and I appreciate that." She paused again, and lingered, wishing for some sign that he heard her. "I would just like you to know that I am… very grateful." A silence. Another piece of parchment drifted to the floor. "Thank you."
As she climbed out of the portrait hole, Hermione felt her throat knot with unshed tears. She could not get the memory of his bent and tired form out of her mind. Dumbledore, who was many decades older, and was now as mad as a hatter and as carefree as a toddler, seemed practically green in comparison.
I hope you come back, Harry, Hermione thought, but it was an aimless comment, the same way she found herself talking to Ron after he had died. He needs you so much.
Suddenly Hermione saw an image of the old Potions master sprawled on the floor again, but this time his lips white, his body stiff, his skin cold. Next to him would be his wand, and Hermione could see the words written on the parchment—Gāst Cunnian, the Soul-Seeking Spell.
Hermione stiffened, and had the overwhelming urge to turn around and dash back into Severus's quarters and check to see if he was still alive. But she curbed the impulse. It was only her own imagination, she told herself. A creation of remorse and sadness and pity. She continued her way down the dark, empty hall.
July 31, 2002
Severus Snape stepped into the lift, and moved directly to a corner. A tired-looking old witch with a cloud of white hair stood in the other corner, and a wizard with patched robes stood in between.
"Third floor," the monotonous voice of the lift intoned as Severus gripped the worn bars along the walls, steeling himself against the nauseating movements. "Potion and plant poisoning."
The wizard with the patched robes slipped out even before the doors had stopped moving. They remained open, gaping in a way that made Severus feel strangely exposed, before closing with the same sluggish movements.
The lift lurched upwards once more, and Severus gritted his teeth, feeling in that moment an intense hatred for all things Muggle. In the course of reconstruction after the war's end, many wizards had looked to their Muggle counterparts for inspiration. The results were, in Severus's opinion, disastrous.
"Fourth floor," the voice uttered. "Spell damage."
The doors opened. The old witch tottered out, one hand touching the wall as she made her way slowly out of the lift. The doors began to close while the witch's fingers were still on the door, and the lift lurched as the metal doors drew back. Severus tapped his fingers impatiently against his arm, but he relaxed infinitesimally; finally he was alone.
The door closed. "Fifth floor," said the lift. "Visitor's gift shop."
The neatly decorated gift shop, with its stands of roses and lilies, and the café that smelt of freshly brewed butterbeer, was empty, except for one person, clothed in the scrubs of a hospital worker, staring out into the night over a mug of butterbeer.
The lift's doors closed again. "Sixth floor," it said, and Severus heard the magical voice give a yawn. "Special guests floor. You'll need identification, sir."
Severus stepped forward and tapped his wand against an indented area of the wall.
"Have a good visit, sir," said the lift, and the doors slid open.
The hallway was long enough to seem a long way, but short enough so that Severus could see the end, where his reflection looked back from the night-darkened window. He heard the door close behind him, followed by the faint whirring as the lift descended into silence.
It had taken him a long time to finally make this visit. At first, he had not believed that Dumbledore had truly gone mad. Moreover, he had been occupied with researching spells, incantations, potions that would help him find Jonathan. Then time passed so quickly, and one day, Hermione Granger showed up—once again, uninvited.
"You ought to see him, and really you have no right to deny him a visit," she had said in her typically defiant Gryffindor tone.
"Perhaps you are not aware of it, but you are not my keeper," he had answered coolly. But it was the sort of remark he always made, and by then both of them knew it. "I will visit him, soon, but unlike what you might think, I am extremely busy right now."
"Soon? You said that last month," Granger had said.
"I will visit him when I wish," Severus had said with cold finality, and Granger had retreated meekly. Watching her go, he had wondered if he felt pity for her: Miss Hermione Granger, deputy headmistress under Fred Weasley, ministry counsel under Amelia Bones, everybody and nobody's friend.
But the thought of visiting Albus Dumbledore, who by all reports was well and truly mad, pressed on him like a shadow that refused to leave. It still seemed incredible that the irritating old fool had truly and finally gone insane. The satisfaction of a peace undisturbed by the headmaster's frequent calls for tea and the demands of teaching suddenly became hollow. Granger, Severus realized, was his sole visitor.
A few nights ago, he dreamed that Dumbledore had been cured of his madness and had returned to his office at Hogwarts. He dreamed that Dumbledore was inviting him once again for tea, which invoked feelings of annoyance and irritation: he was looking for Jonathan, he had no time for Dumbledore's antics. But all the same he wandered up the halls, stalking through the empty corridors and having the strange feeling that he and Dumbledore were the only people in the entire castle. Everyone else was gone.
He had mounted the spiraling red staircase, and looked at the walls as he waited. There were portraits there that were not there before, paintings of all sizes and shapes, but the canvases were empty. The ornate frames stared blankly at him as he passed them, glinting dimly in a light that illuminated his step and left everything else in darkness. He peered closely at the empty canvas, for it seemed that something moved behind the blankness, but he had reached the tall oak doors, and they swung open upon his approach.
The room within was bare, bare and white, stripped of portraits of previous headmasters, devoid of the ornate furniture Dumbledore kept, empty except for a bed in a corner, a Muggle toilet, a dirty sink. The light was sickly with the fluorescence of flickering Muggle lamps. It was a room in an asylum.
Severus had felt a surge of dismay; how could they put Dumbledore in so horrible a place? Dumbledore had led them all against unimaginable odds; what was the meaning of this? He looked around for some sign of the headmaster, but nobody was there. Severus turned around, and instead of doors he found a blank wall, staring at him like the other three blank walls. He was trapped, trapped in this bare and nauseating room, like an insect in a pool of poison. He felt at the walls, stumbling from wall to wall and groping like a blind man for any crack or hidden door, but then Dumbledore's voice rang with solemn finality, "It's hopeless."
Severus turned. Dumbledore, resplendent in garish purple robes, was standing in the middle of the room. His expression was stern, unforgiving. "Give up, Severus, my boy," Dumbledore said. "You are trapped in here forever."
No! Severus had shouted. I must go, I am not finished, I need to find Jonathan! Let me out, you old fool!
"Why must you search, my boy?" Dumbledore had asked, sounding puzzled, the echo of his laughter ringing in the room as though it were a cavern deep underground. "It's hopeless. You will never find him. He has moved on. He has left you."
The last two words reverberated as Dumbledore laughed, but it was not Dumbledore's laugh that Severus heard, it was Voldemort's, pounding into his head like the thud of black waves against a black shore, suffocating him as he remembered the way the monster bruised him while pleasuring itself in his mouth, his body, his skin.
Let me alone! Severus cried silently, reaching up to the ceiling as he felt himself pressed against the wall by Voldemort's laughter. Jonathan, where are you? The world seemed to shift, and suddenly he was sliding down the wall into an eternal pit, down, down, down the slippery walls and into the empty air. The white ceiling shrank farther and farther away until it was the size of a playing card, swallowed by the darkness and the fluttering echoes of his cries—
Then he had woken up, tangled in his sheets and on the verge of vomiting. After that, he decided to visit Dumbledore.
Severus paused and looked at the door in front of him. 'Albus Percival Wulfric BrianDumbledore,' it said in gold-gilt letters. 'Clearance required.'
Severus drew a circle with his wand against the indented area of the wall. There was a loud beep, conspicuously piercing in the silent hall. 'Please enter, Severus Snate,' the automated voice said.
"It's Snape," Severus muttered under his breath, and turned the knob irritably. The door opened. Inside, it was dark. Severus stepped inside. Albus is probably asleep, he thought, blinking in the darkness as the door shut softly behind him. Where's the bloody light? he thought crossly, refusing to succumb to the panic of déjà vu. His hands groped along the walls, and finally, he felt one of those silly Muggle contraptions, and flicked the switch.
Severus stared at the sight that greeted him. Instead of one of those ridiculous Muggle fluorescent lamps, light flooded from a window at the far end of the room, so that it appeared to be mid-afternoon. The room was large and spacious, and furnished exactly the way Albus Dumbledore's Hogwarts office had been: the portraits of the headmasters were there, as was the massive desk, cluttered by silver instruments.
So the healers advised a familiar environment, did they? Severus thought with an edge of contempt. On Dumbledore's table there lay a plate of fancy biscuits, half of which had been reduced to crumbs. Severus turned and saw, as he had expected, the partially hidden door which led to Dumbledore's private quarters.
Severus opened it. He felt for the light switch, flicked it on, and a gentle light emanated from the small chandelier attached to the ceiling. Severus frowned. The door to Dumbledore's bedroom was open, and he could see the large canopied bed, but it was empty. In fact, it looked completely untouched.
Where can the old coot be? Severus wondered, looking into the bathroom. It was empty. The living room, with its large purple couch and dominating painting of a fat, dozing woman, was empty. The closet was empty.
Severus hurried into the main room and stopped next to Dumbledore's enormous desk, looking out the fake window at the idyllic scenery of the sloping green grounds, the still blue lake. The silence was broken only by the tick of the grandfather clock. He is not here, Severus thought. Perhaps he was never really mad and only hid before escaping. Indeed, it was foolish to think that anybody could contain a wizard of Dumbledore's caliber, even if mad—
Severus felt something grab his ankle. He leapt back and slashed his wand. "Reducto!" he shouted. The desk rattled, and he remembered belatedly that anti-magic wards had been placed around the rooms. Laughter filled the air.
"Did I scare you?" said Dumbledore's voice from under the desk. "I did, didn't I? Admit it, I scared you!"
Severus moved to the other side of the desk and looked down. There, wearing only a thin purple nightgown, the tip of his white beard sweeping the floor, crouched Albus Dumbledore.
Dumbledore collapsed into another fit of giggles. "I like your nose!" he gasped. "It's just like a big, overstuffed bird! Have you ever met Augusta Longbottom? She's got a vulture-hat just like your nose!"
Severus sneered. "Very funny, Albus."
Dumbledore sniggered. "You're an adult, aren't you? Only adults talk like that, or kids who nobody likes."
It was very odd, Severus thought, to see Dumbledore with an impish grin on his lined and wrinkled face. "You could say I'm both," Severus said dryly. "Tell me, Albus—do you still remember who I am?"
"I don't remember you, but I remember your nose. It got changed into a flamingo's beak once. It was very, very, very pink."
"Ah, so you knew about that," Severus said.
"Oh yes," Dumbledore said with a glint in his eyes. He was playing with a sherbet lemon in his hand, and Severus noticed that lying on the ground in from the headmaster was a chessboard, covered with sweets. "I know everything."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Everything?"
"Everything worth knowing, that is," Dumbledore said, wearing a peculiarly arrogant expression on his face. "Nobody cares what the ingredients are for the Polyjuice Potion, you know. Or the Dreamless Sleep Potion. That's for amateurs."
Severus smiled thinly. So this was the madness of Albus Dumbledore. Hermione had never told him what the madness entailed, and he had always had the image of an old and broken man, or an inanely smiling fool, unhinged by the lifting of shadow. He had not expected Dumbledore to keep in his madness that singular insight; in fact, Severus had privately hoped it would be the first thing to go. Damn the old coot.
"Let's see, then," said Severus, tilting his head challengingly. "Who is the current headmaster at Hogwarts?"
"Why, Armando Dippet!" Dumbledore retorted contemptuously. "Everybody knows that."
"Ah. I'm afraid that you're mistaken, Albus," said Severus. "The current headmaster is Fred Weasley."
"You're fibbing!" Dumbledore said crossly. But then a sly smile went over his face. "Freddie Fred, Freddie Fred," he hummed in a singsong voice. He reached down to a small bowl of sherbet lemons, took one out, and put it on the chessboard. "He'll make an excellent headmaster. Everyone loves Fred. Too bad George died. Otherwise there might be a joint headmastership."
"Hermione Granger suits the position much better than that fool," Severus snorted.
Dumbledore shook his head. "Poor Miss Granger. She's just like an adult, so serious and earnest about everything. Plus, she's got no good friends anymore. She won't do."
"She might have had more friends if you had not singled her out," Severus said coldly.
"Oh, come on," Dumbledore said in a whining voice. "Don't blame me for everything! I'm awfully sorry and didn't mean for it to happen. There." Then he giggled. "Neville Longbottom would've made a splendid headmaster. Too bad he died."
"Yes, too bad he died," Severus repeated dryly. It was on the verge of his tongue to ask, What about your beloved Harry Potter? Would he have made a good headmaster? But he kept silent.
"The other day, I played a trick on poor Miss Granger," Dumbledore said with a snigger. "Would you like to hear it?"
"Oh, come on," Dumbledore said, crossing his arms sulkily. "If you listen to it, I'll let you tell me a story."
"I don't want to tell you any stories."
"But everyone has a story to tell," Dumbledore protested. "Well, if you don't tell me your story, I'm going to make one up for you. And," he threatened, "the main character will be your nose."
"What a thrilling premise," Severus said. He peered at the chessboard at Dumbledore's feet. For the first time, he realized that there were words scrawled on the wrappers of each of the sherbet lemons.
Dumbledore thrust his arms over the chessboard, and covered the checkered expanse with the wide sleeves of his nightgown. "Tsk, tsk, no peeking," he said with a mischievous grin on his face. "This is my little secret. I've been working on it forever. You're not allowed to look at it yet."
"All right," Severus said. "I won't pry into your secrets."
"But don't you want to?" Dumbledore needled. He lifted his right arm slightly, and Severus saw that the sherbet lemons were arranged in the form of a chess game; there were some pieces on the sidelines, and one or two empty wrappers. "My secret is really special. It tells me everything and anything I'd ever want to know."
"What, are you doing divination with sherbet lemons?"
Dumbledore made a scoffing sound. "Divination is for old ladies with too many cats and too many teabags, like Aunt Cassandra."He sat back and lifted his arms dramatically, like the raising of a curtain. "This is my storyboard. I collect stories, you see."
"I prefer potion recipes," Severus said, looking dispassionately at the curly letters adorning the wrappers. He saw a few names he recognized—Hermione Granger, Amelia Bones, and Molly Weasley; but there were others he had never heard of, such as: Mohini Chatterjee, Ghost of Roger Casement, and Toggy.
Dumbledore reached into a corner of the desk and took out a battered quill. "You won't have to tell me a story; I'll just add you to my collection and make up a story myself," he said. "But you do have to tell me what your name is."
Severus gave a thin smile. "You know everything, don't you? Do you mean to say that you do not even know my name?"
"Your name isn't something worth knowing," Dumbledore dismissed. "I bet it's something horribly gloomy, like Mordred Muddlemurg, or Nurville Norrowcooper."
"It is very gloomy," Severus said. "I want to see if you can remember it."
"Remember? You're funny! I've never even met you, how would I remember your name?"
Severus smiled enigmatically. "Ah, but we have met before."
"Really?" Dumbledore demanded. He crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his chin. His dangling beard flopped over the chessboard. "When? Where? How? What? Why? Whither? Wherefore?"
Severus paused. Keeping with reason with Albus Dumbledore was like trying to fish the moon's reflection. He wondered what sort of insane response he could conjure to match Dumbledore's twisted logic, but the old wizard shouted, "Aha! You're stuck, you're lying. I can always tell when somebody is lying. We've never met before, but you just want to say that we have. Since you're lying, you need to pay your penalty. Now"—Dumbledore held his quill expectantly—"what's your name?"
Severus gave a bitter twist with his lips. How ironic it was that someone should not know his name, and that that person should be Albus Dumbledore. But the thought was an illusion, he told himself. It was impossible to tell what of Dumbledore's words was truth and what was lies. That, at least, was not surprising.
"Severus Snape," he said.
"Severus… Snape…" Dumbledore muttered, squinting through his half-moon spectacles as he wrote the name with painstaking care. "That is a gloomy name. In your story, you'll laugh only once or twice each year, and that'll be because you're laughing at someone else."
Severus held his silence, but he was drawn to a small circle of sherbet lemons, arranged at the center of the chessboard. His heart skipped a beat. 'Harry Potter,' said one of them. 'Tom Riddle,' said the other. 'Lord Voldemort. Jonathan Frost.'
"Who—who are these?" Severus asked, his voice catching as he pointed at the ring of sweets.
"Oh, people," Dumbledore said with a vague gesture of his hand. He set the sherbet lemon with Severus's name in one corner of the chessboard. "Miss Granger mentioned them to me, and they seemed to have the oddest story. They're all one person, you see, but they couldn't decide on one name, so they chose four."
Severus reached down and, with only the slightest hesitation, picked up the one with Jonathan's name.
"Hey!" Dumbledore called sharply. "What're you doing? You're going to mess up my secret! Put it back, put it back!"
"No need to panic," Severus sneered, reaching down and setting the sherbet lemon in its original position. It was only a sweet, after all. But his heart was still pounding, speeding the rush of blood through his head. "Did he—they—have any interesting stories?"
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled furiously. "Ah hah," he said. "You want me to tell you about them, don't you? That's what you wanted all along, isn't it? Admit it!"
Severus smiled thinly. "Very well. I admit it."
Dumbledore smirked, then made a peculiar noise, which Severus recognized was a muffled laugh only after the old wizard had doubled over in laughter. "Guess what? I'm not going to tell you anything!"
"Very amusing," Severus said. He had to push down the overwhelming urge to reach out his hands and strangle the irritating old meddler. Dumbledore's ability to incite murderous rages had not changed at all.
"Yes, don't you think it's hilarious?" said Dumbledore, still snorting with laughter. "See, I tricked you twice, fool on you!"
"This is boring," Severus said abruptly. He had been in an uncomfortable crouching position, and now he stood up and stretched his back, trying to clear the ache in his joints. "You actually don't know a single thing, Dumbledore. I was a fool to believe you could help me."
"Hey!" Dumbledore shouted, reaching out with both hands and grabbing the hem of Severus's robe. "Did you just say that I don't know a single thing? You're the idiot here! You're just a sore loser!"
Severus shrugged contemptuously. "I am. What of that? Let me go, you idiot."
Dumbledore tightened his grip. "I won't! I won't!" he yelled, pulling insistently at Severus's robes. "If I let go, will you promise to stay for a while?"
"Of course not," Severus snapped. "Let go. Now."
"Fine!" Dumbledore cried. He let go and curled up into the corner. The nightgown lifted enough that Severus could see the old wizard's thin legs, covered by a spider web of bluish veins. They looked like spindles, as skinny as a young child's. "Go ahead, leave me alone," Dumbledore said angrily. It was difficult to see in the shadow cast by the desk, but Severus thought the old wizard was blinking back tears. "I'd have told you all the stories you wanted only if you played with me. Nobody wants to play games with me—nobody."
"Maybe you should play a different game," Severus said in a neutral voice. It was pitiful, this wreck that Dumbledore had become. In a way, it was frightening. Dumbledore had seemed so invincible, so everlasting, although everyone knew it could not be so. But more than that, the old wizard had known so many of Severus's secrets, and with Dumbledore lost in madness, Severus was more alone than ever.
"I don't know any other games," Dumbledore said sulkily. "And anyway, I made up this game by myself. Why don't others want to play it with me? It's a perfectly fun game. I bet you haven't played a single game in your entire life. You ought to play with me."
"I will not know how to play it," Severus said.
Dumbledore dried his eyes and sniffed loudly. "I can teach you."
Severus shook his head. It was late, and he was tired. His back hurt. "Find another playmate."
"Nobody plays with me!" Dumbledore whined. He blinked his eyes rapidly. Severus felt a sharp splinter of disgust; he hated infants, and people who were reduced to tears as easily as small children. He knew that his bastard of a father had hated tears as well, but the notion had only made him view such sickening sentimentality with greater rancor.
Severus stood, and tried again to work the pain out of his back. As he did so, he felt the lump in his pocket, soft and squashy. Reluctantly, he returned to his crouching position.
"I thought you were going," Dumbledore said, glaring sullenly through tear-stained spectacles.
"I am. But here," Severus said, digging into his robe pocket and pulling out a pair of soft, woolen socks. "These are for you. Someone told me long ago that you wish you had more socks." The socks themselves were a horrible maroon color, and Severus could not remember when he had gotten them (most likely a Christmas gift from the old headmaster). He had never worn them.
"Socks?" Dumbledore said, a frown appearing on his forehead.
"Yes, socks," Severus said in a voice he knew would make anyone else ruffle indignantly. But never Dumbledore.
The old wizard sniffled and took the two shapeless pieces of maroon. Then, he smiled, a light that enveloped his face with an innocence Severus had never seen before. "Aw, gee. Socks! These are the woolliest socks I've ever had."
Dumbledore kicked off his fluffy pink slippers and quickly pulled up the two tubes of wool. "Aren't they so handsome?"
"They look very fetching," Severus agreed.
Dumbledore gave a sheepish look, and he said, almost shyly, "Thank you, Mr. Snape. Who's the bloke who told you I liked socks?"
Severus answered with only the slightest hesitation. "Harry Potter," he said, and pointed at the sherbet lemon with Potter's name.
"Oh, really! I wonder how he knew," Dumbledore remarked, wriggling his toes and looking at them from his crouched position. "Clever fellow, he is. Or perhaps I told him." Dumbledore giggled. "This is the nicest thing anyone's done for me, besides Miss Granger giving me all my sherbet lemons. Really I should tell you a story for that." He paused and smiled slyly. "Would you like that, Mr. Snape?"
"I would, actually," Severus said, working hard to keep his voice calm, untroubled, unbroken.
"Whose story shall I tell?"
Severus reached down to the chessboard and was about to pick up the sherbet lemon, but Dumbledore batted Severus's hand aside. "Nuh-uh," said the old wizard, shaking his head in a movement of mock-disapproval. "No touching."
Severus sneered briefly, but he found it hard to control himself with his heart pounding so madly in his chest. "Jonathan Frost."
"Ah, the mysterious Jonathan Frost!" Dumbledore exclaimed, rubbing his hands together in delightful anticipation. "So you want to hear about him, do you?"
"Yes, I do," Severus said dryly, trying his best to hide his impatience. "Why else would I have answered with his name?"
"You might've been trying to trick me, who knows?" Dumbledore retorted. "And be patient! A story can't be told in a rush."
Severus sighed. He leaned back slightly, supporting his weight with his hands, and arranged himself in a cross-legged seating position. He relaxed his hands, which had been clenched in fists. "I'm ready."
"Good, good," said Dumbledore, who adopted the same position. "Now, the tale of Jonathan Frost starts on a dark stormy night. He appeared one day out of nowhere in on a wide dark plain, a moor if you like, with nothing on him except for the clothes on his back."
Severus nodded. "Well? Go on."
"Patience!" Dumbledore hushed. "Anyhow, Jonathan Frost wandered for days and days and nights and nights until at last he came upon the biggest castle in the land. That castle was, of course, Hogwarts castle, and the headmaster was Armando Dippet."
It was on the verge of Severus's tongue to contradict that statement, but he stopped himself. This Dumbledore was insane. It was inevitable that some facts slid.
"What happened next?"
"Well, Jonathan Frost wandered through the halls. He had never seen so many beautiful moving paintings, or so many tall suits of armor. Of course, he might have seen them before, but he really could not remember. I think he had a very bad memory, you know."
"Really?" Severus said skeptically. Jonathan, though no Granger, had not been stupid.
"Actually, he was usually quite clever, but being dropped in the middle of nowhere made him rather confused," Dumbledore amended quickly. "At any rate, he came to a statue of an ugly gargoyle. Jonathan and the gargoyle stared at each other for quite a while, until the gargoyle, who was very unused to people staring at his ugly mug, finally spoke.
"'What do you want?' it asked in a horribly grating voice.
"'I want to pass through,' Jonathan answered.
"'Well, if you want to do that,' the gargoyle said, standing up and beating its fearsome wings, 'you will have to answer my three riddles!'
"Of course, Jonathan was frightened, because the gargoyle's wings were bigger than anything you'd ever seen, and the gargoyle's teeth were so sharp they could cut your bones like they were butter—"
"Can we skip this part?" Severus interrupted shortly. "For one thing, I don't think Jonathan ever talked to the gargoyle. Secondly, the gargoyle has no wings, and it is missing most of its teeth."
Dumbledore shrugged his shoulders elaborately. "Well, Jonathan might have talked to it on his own, and the gargoyle was probably different from what you remembered—"
"It was the same," Severus said in a steely voice. "If you remember, Jonathan and I were in the same year at Hogwarts."
"Oh, really!" Dumbledore said in surprise. "Were you in the same house? You look thoroughly like a Slytherin, or a Ravenclaw, but I've never met Jonathan, so really I can't tell—"
"YOU NEVER MET HIM?" Severus roared. He swiped his hand across Dumbledore's chessboard, and all the carefully arranged sweets scattered over the floor. "You were making all of that up, weren't you?" he hissed furiously. "You odious little—monster!"
Dumbledore was huddling in a corner, pulling himself into such a small ball that his beard seemed to cover his entire body. "Y-you broke my g-game—" he whimpered. Tears flooded his eyes. "I—I worked so hard on it, every d-day, and n-now—"
"Damn your game!" Severus snarled. He stared at the old man. Dumbledore was a sniffling wreck, staring back with watery blue eyes petrified with fear. His lower lip was quivering, and his whole body seemed frozen with terror.
"Albus, are you truly, truly mad?" Severus barked. He wanted to slap the tear-streaked face, smash his fist into the nose and break the twinkling half-moon spectacles. "I will go mad—mad if you keep up this—this sickening joke!"
"Don't hurt me!" Dumbledore cried hoarsely, bringing his hands up and trying to hide his face behind them. "I'm sorry, I w-won't tell stories anymore, just don't hurt me, p-please don't hurt me!"
"How did you know my nose had been turned into a flamingo's beak?" Severus demanded. "Tell me!"
"I made it up!" Dumbledore sobbed. "I made it up, don't hurt me, I won't—I won't ever mention your n-nose again!"
Severus gritted his teeth. He reached out and pried the old man's arms apart. Dumbledore was quite strong for his age, but Severus was stronger.
"Nooo!" Dumbledore squealed, squeezing his eyes shut. "Don't hurt me!"
"I'll chop off your fingers if you don't open our eyes!" Severus hissed.
"Then open your eyes!"
Dumbledore's eyes fluttered open.
Severus waited. Nothing happened. Dumbledore was blubbering and whimpering like an idiotic baby. Severus then remembered the anti-magic wards, and cursed them with as many expletives as he could summon.
"LEGILIMENS!" he roared, tightening his grip on Dumbledore's wrists so hard that his own hands were quivering, trying to summon every last drop of magic in his body.
The anti-magic wards broke. Severus found himself hurtling into Dumbledore's eyes, and he gasped with the impact of his entrance. All was white. A blinding white light burnt Severus's vision, and he with a cry brought his hands to cover his face. Gradually, painfully, Severus felt his eyes begin to adjust. He looked around in wonder. He could hear, distantly, Dumbledore's wails ringing in his ears. There were faint shapes in the whiteness, like ghosts in the mist. He stared, squinting his eyes, trying to make out what they were. Were they human? They seemed to have arms, legs, faces, bodies, but they moved so fast, like withered leaves caught on a gale, and there were so many…
That isn't Dumbledore's voice, Severus thought with a start. That is an alarm.
He pulled himself out of Dumbledore's mind. A shrill noise was pulsing in the air, and Severus could feel a heavy string of magic draw around him like a noose.
"Resolvo!" Severus commanded as he jabbed his wand into the air. The magic of the room teetered for a moment, and then dissolved into nothingness. Severus clambered onto his feet, cursing the pain of his back, and stumbled to the entrance, nearly slipping on one of those sweets. He paused in front of the doorway; there was a strong magical net hidden there, one that was too tightly knit for him to break immediately.
From down the hall, he could hear the sound of pounding footsteps, belonging to six or seven people. Severus gritted his teeth. Those six or seven might be easily dispatched, but more would certainly arrive. His contributions to the war were well known, but he was far from trusted, and there would be no Dumbledore to defend him if he were caught.
Damn it all! Severus thought as he dashed back to the massive table where Dumbledore still hid, blubbering. The window was well warded, too, but the walls— Severus held his wand out to taste the tendrils of magic in the air. The wall was unguarded.
"Reducto!" Severus hissed. The wall next to the window blasted open. Severus cast a lightness spell and a layered notice-me-not charm on himself, and stepped out through the jagged hole, turning around as he did so.
Several wizards, common security staff by the looks of it, had entered the room. But they had not seen him, and were now crowding in front of the hole, casting detection charms randomly into the air. Severus smirked grimly, and floated down. Ending the lightness charm, he ran to the perimeters of St. Mungo's wards, cursing his aching back as he did so, and apparated away.
Severus stumbled down the corridors. The pain in his back had become a ceaseless throb. No wonder hunchbacks were sometimes called 'cauldron cats;' the horrible posture of many Potions masters rendered them into bent and broken creatures who could hardly walk.
He met no one as he went through the hidden ways into the dungeons. Hogwarts might have been torn down by Voldemort after the siege, but the dungeons, which lay underneath, were for the most part intact. His quarters, of course, had been destroyed, but the secret passages had remained.
"Anguifer corvus," Severus barked at the portrait.
The painting swung open, and Severus staggered through. It had been months since the last time he had so exerted himself, and already he felt far more tired than before. He was getting old.
The little grey book lay on his bedside table where he had last put it, though it was now hidden by a steadily growing pile of scrolls. Sweeping the parchment aside, Severus flipped open the book and picked up a quill.
'Christolph,' he wrote. 'Hurry, I have no time.' He set down his quill and swept his wand in an arc. Scrolls and parchments and books fluttered and tumbled away, leaving an open space in the middle of the living room.
Severus glanced back at book. 'What is it, Severus?' Christolph had written.
'I have no time left anymore. I am going to attempt the Gāst Cunnian.'
Severus straightened and pointed his wand at the fireplace. "Adoleo!" he commanded, and the fireplace leapt to life. "Accio yew," he called, and from another room, a branch of yew, still bearing its red berries, floated into his grasp. He threw the sprig into the fire and turned back to Christolph.
'What happened?' Christolph had written. 'Severus?'
'I went to visit Dumbledore, and ended up hurting him. I escaped St. Mungo's, but I left my name when they requested identification,' Severus scribbled. 'They could be here right now.' He ran a hand over the mantelpiece and snatched the necklace of the pentagonal rose and pulled it over his head.
'How badly is he hurt?' said Christolph.
'It does not matter. I hurt him, I ran. The world will never let me go. I will be locked away for a long time at least, without magic, forgotten. I would rather die.'
Severus pointed his wand at the fire. "Stinguo," he said, and the fire curled up and disappeared. He reached into the fireplace and cupped the hot ashes of the yew in his hands. Carefully, he sprinkled a circle of ash in the space he had cleared.
'They cannot lock you away forever,' Christolph had written. 'And perhaps it will give you time to think.'
Severus gave a humorless laugh. 'I have thought for twenty years. All other spells have failed. I have waited too long to do this.'
Severus reached up to the space above the mantelpiece and tapped the wall. The stone shimmered and faded away, revealing a small shelf. A grey ring lay on the shelf. Severus picked it up with care and slipped it onto his finger.
'It is your choice, though if I could have you way, you would have found it in your heart to forget. I wish Simon had forgotten.' Severus pressed his lips together thinly. There was no time for an argument; he was going to proceed with or without Christolph's consent.'But it is your choice, and it too will bring me peace.' Peace, Severus thought, wondering if that was what death could bring. It would be too bitter an irony that death would yield anything other than emptiness. 'Perhaps he is not dead.'
Severus smiled grimly. 'I will find out. What of what you asked of me?'
'I hold to that still.'
'It would be hypocritical of me to say so, but perhaps you should stay.'
'Indeed it is hypocritical. Still, thank you for the thought. I have decided. I have thought for more than one hundred years.'
'Very well.' Severus paused. It seemed fitting to write a farewell, but Christolph remained silent. 'Good-bye.' Severus wrote. He set down his quill without waiting for a reply, and lifted his wand. "Accio ointment!"
There was a clanking sound, and slowly a large basin floated through the air and landed with a thud on a pile of scrolls next to the ash-circled clearing. A bit of the liquid spilled out, and it glistened darkly in the dim torchlight.
Severus glanced back down at the page. 'Good-bye,' Christolph had written. 'And hurry before I become sentimental.'
Severus smiled wryly. 'Very well.' he scrawled. He pointed his wand at the fireplace. "Adoleo," he commanded a second time, and a fresh flame rose from nothingness. Severus shut the book carefully, picked it up with both hands, and laid it gently on the fire. The grey covers glowed a blazing yellow in the flames, shriveling quickly to blackness before the pages caught and blossomed in a burst of light.
Severus stepped back from the fireplace, and turned, approaching the basin of ointment. Quickly, he stripped until he was wearing only his undergarments, and stepped into the liquid. It tickled him, soaked through what little he was wearing, and sighed over his skin. Shutting his eyes, he ducked his head in the ointment, and he felt the potion caress his face.
He emerged, breathing hard and blinking the ointment from his eyes. It felt as though a second skin were clinging to him; he could not feel the air anymore. Stepping careful so as not to disturb the ring of ash, he stepped into the circle and swept his wand.
"Adoleo," he commanded, and the white ashes glowed, brightened, gave birth to a steady white flame that rose in anticipation.
Severus raised his wand into the air as far up as he could reach. "I summon the wild powers to take my soul and send it on its quest to find the man I know as Jonathan Frost," he said in a clear voice. Heat was spreading up his legs, body, engulfing his hands and his wand. Opening his eyes, he saw a white flickering distort his vision, casting a veil between him and the steady fire of the yew ash.
"I am a hawk: above the cliff.
I am the bush: that burns with light.
I am the hill: where sleeps the Sun.
I am the air: the winds bring by…"
He was beginning to sweat. Briefly he wondered if the ointment was wearing thin, or if it had sat for too long to retain its effectiveness, but the heat seemed to find a nest in his body, burning with a corresponding fire.
"I am the sand: a glittering fire.
I am the yew: the dead let grow.
I am a pyre: the—"
There was a pounding sound. "Professor Snape! Severus!" Granger shouted, her voice muffled by the walls. "Let me in!"
Damn it! Severus swore. Instantly he felt the flames recede, and the heat he had felt so clearly faded until it was nothing more than a shadowy fever.
"I am a pyre: the passage makes," he continued, raising his voice and trying to ignore the pounding from the portrait door. "I am a lake: where secrets—"
"Severus! I know you're in there!"
Severus shut his eyes and concentrated on the flickering flame, trying to put everything else from his mind. "Where secrets hide. Who but I can softly tread the—"
"Severus? It's safe, they're not looking for you!"
Severus stumbled. Abruptly the flames went out. The white fire that had surrounded him vanished like mist carried by wind, the blaze of the yew ash shrunk into nothing, and Severus shivered, feeling suddenly and nauseatingly bereft.
"At least answer me, for goodness' sake—"
Severus shuddered. It was cold; his skin felt clammy from what was left of the ointment. But more than that, the emptiness he felt opened a vast expanse in him that drained everything and left him a numb and shivering wreck in the middle of a cold, empty room.
He stabbed his wand into the air. The portrait door swung open and slammed against the wall with a bag.
Hermione Granger blinked. She was wearing only a pale blue nightgown, and on her head was a hairnet which replaced the strict knot usually holding together her unruly hair. One hand held a candle, and the other hand held a wand.
"Severus? Are you…"
Severus thought what he must look like: wearing only his old and thin undergarments, slumped in the middle of the room, surrounded by ash and a mess of scrolls, parchments. He found it difficult to care.
"You interrupted me, Miss Granger," Severus said coldly.
"I'm sorry," Hermione said, lifting her nightgown and stepping over the threshold. "May I ask what you were…" Her face tightened with worry. "Don't tell me you're doing that Gāst Cunnian spell."
He gave her a sharp look. He had thought the only records existed in the Nest, and those he had removed. "How did you know?"
"I guessed," Hermione said. "You look—horrible. Are you all right?"
"Close the door," Severus grunted, clambering to his feet. Sooner or later, he thought, my back will kill me.
Hermione flicked her wand, and the door closed. "By the way, about the situation with Albus—what did you do to him? He was bawling like a baby when I got there."
Severus picked up his robe and wrapped it around his body. With the ointment sticking to his skin, he felt dirty and clammy, and the robe did nothing to keep out the cold. "I overturned his chess board and attempted Legilimency."
"Severus!" Hermione chided as she crossed her arms and sighed. "I knew you were horrible with children, so I told you that when you visited Albus, I should go with you."
I don't remember that, Severus thought, shivering. But as he reviewed his memory, he realized that she had, indeed, said that. I must not have been paying attention, he thought.
"Do you have any tea here?" Hermione asked, looking at him concernedly. "Or should I summon a house-elf?"
"I don't wanttea," Severus said shortly. "What happened after you got there?"
"Everyone else was crowding around that big hole you made, but I went to the identification registry and saw your name. I wiped it out right away, because I knew you wouldn't hurt Albus intentionally, and goodness knows what they'd to do you if you were caught. Here," said Hermione, moving briskly to the fireplace. "Do you have any wood? You look very cold. Oh! Was this a book?"
Severus felt a pang ricochet through his heart. Christolph was gone. The one person he had talked to unfailingly for twenty years, who did not push him to talk, who was his family—was gone. "Yes, it was," Severus said, clearing his throat. "And… I don't think I have any wood."
"Toggy?" Hermione called.
With a faint pop, a house-elf appeared. It wore a clean tea-cosy and Severus presumed it was male. "Yes, Professor Granger, ma'am?" the house-elf squeaked, and looked around at the mess with goggling eyes.
"Get some firewood for Professor Snape, and some tea, and biscuits, while you're at it," said Hermione. "Thank you."
"Yes, yes, and no need for thankses!" Toggy squealed, and disappeared with another pop.
"I'm not a professor anymore," Severus said, wrapping his arms around his chest and crouching on his bed. He made a gesture at the only chair in his quarters, and Hermione gently shifted aside the scrolls before sitting. "I don't think I've seen more than three students this entire year. And I would have avoided them if I could."
"Once a professor, always a professor," Hermione murmured.
Severus snorted. There was a silence between them, and Severus wondered at the fact that there was only a slight trace of discomfort. It was strange not to feel awkward or annoyed in another person's presence. "How did you know I was performing the Gāst Cunnian?"
"I saw it on something you wrote, once," Hermione said. She ducked her head slightly, perhaps blushing from what she considered a misdeed. "I didn't mean to, but… Anyway. It said that Simon Freegard died from using the Gāst Cunnian, and as the spell means 'Soul Seek,' it sounded like the sort of spell one would use to find someone else." She hesitated. "It can't be a very safe spell, can it, to involve soul magic?"
"It works only if there is a strong enough—connection," Severus said. "Otherwise, the user is unhurt. You are right in saying that the usage of soul magic makes the spell dangerous. Literally, the soul is sent out to seek a corresponding soul."
"And if the target soul is dispersed in death—" Hermione began, but stopped.
"Then the seeker's soul disperses as well," Severus finished dryly.
Toggy appeared then, bearing a stack of logs twice as tall as itself and a large silver platter. Whoever decides the portion amounts should be cursed, Severus thought, looking with faint nausea at the veritable mound of biscuits.
"Thank you, Toggy," Hermione said, levitating the stack of firewood into the fireplace. "Um, Severus, may I—"
"Go ahead," Severus said. He flicked his wand, and the pile of scrolls and parchment tumbled off the only table in the room.
"Put it there, please," Hermione instructed. Toggy levitated the platter onto the table, letting it settle with a gentle clink, and then disapparated with a deep bow.
"Tea?" Hermione offered. Severus said nothing. As expected, Hermione poured him a cup anyway. "It's very good," she said, levitating the teacup and saucer to Severus's bed. "Jasmine tea."
"I prefer green tea," Severus muttered, but took the cup anyway. The scent, he admitted, was rather pleasant, and the warmth of the teacup crept comfortingly into his hands.
"The biscuits are very good too," Hermione said. She blew gently at the steaming liquid and sipped delicately from her cup. How like Minerva, Severus thought. "What if the target is in a different time?" Hermione asked, still looking down at her tea.
"Then the seeker's soul is smeared across the years and lost," Severus replied. "Yes, that is what happened to Simon Freegard."
"That doesn't sound very pleasant," Hermione said. She had stopped sipping at her tea. Severus watched her set her teacup on the table and fidget with her hands. "Severus," she began, and stopped, then continued hesitantly, "there will never be a time—when you have nothing to lose."
"Nothing to lose?" Severus repeated, twisting the words with his bitter scorn. He set aside his teacup and glanced, unintentionally, at the merrily blazing logs in the fireplace. A sharp sting of regret went through his heart as he thought of Christolph, and he clenched his hands. But he lifted his head and said coldly, "That, Miss Granger, is for me to decide. And some things are worth what might be lost."
"Jonathan Frost would not have wanted to you to take this risk," Hermione said with sickening patience.
"Jonathan Frost's opinion matters little," he snapped.
Hermione subsided into silence. For a moment, Severus thought she would retreat as she usually did and begin talking about something inane and harmless.
"Why did you hurt Albus?" she asked.
Severus looked at her in surprise, and then turned his gaze down to his hands when she lifted her eyes.
"You were asking him about Jonathan, weren't you?"
Her voice was gentle, insistent, almost like Dumbledore's, but he had known her too long to suspect her of deceit. "Yes," he forced out. "I did."
"And he told you a silly made-up story, didn't he?" Hermione let the silence answer the question. "You haven't let go of him at all, Severus," she said quietly. "Pardon me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that he's haunted you for at least as long as I've known you. But… perhaps it is time that you let him go—"
"Let him go?" Severus hissed, and then gave a humorless laugh. "Do you think I would forgive him so easily? Do you know what he—what that monster has done?"
Hermione looked at him with some confusion in her eyes. "You mean, Harry? Or—Jonathan?"
"They are the same person," Severus snarled. He found that he was surprisingly angry, enraged by a fury that he had always twisted into bitterness before it could consume him. But he was too tired to fight the tide. "I will not mention that he killed Terrance Lestrange and probably killed Emily Matellan. I am selfish; their deaths mean little to me. But he, in all the power he absorbed from Voldemort, had the ability to change the future. He could change the future—but he did not. He did not."
And look at me now, Severus added in his heart. Look at me. A pathetic old man. Pitiful, broken, battered, forgotten, despised, distrusted. He shut his eyes and remembered with a shudder the feeling of Voldemort's hands moving over his body, Voldemort's breath burning against his skin like the touch of a cadaver. You knew it would happen, Jonathan, Severus thought. And you let it happen. You let it happen.
"Yes," Hermione said in a quiet, almost inaudible voice. "I know."
Severus shot her an incredulous glance. "What do you mean, you knew? Did Dumbledore tell you?"
Hermione shook her head. There was too much compassion on her face, Severus thought with another surge of anger. Keep your pity for yourself. "I think Dumbledore suspected, but I only knew when I calculated the amount of power Harry would possess after absorbing Voldemort's soul." She paused. "I realized, after doing the calculations for time travel, that he would have enough power to change the future."
Clever girl, Severus thought reluctantly. He took a deep, shuddering breath. The immediate days after Jonathan had disappeared had been—terrible. He could only remember a haze of misery, of a pain so raw that both his daytime thoughts and nighttime dreams had been soaked in memories and nightmares. He had been certain that Jonathan had died, murdered by the same monster who plundered his body for its own lust.
But even certainty had cracks. After Voldemort's first fall, Severus had waited while the others celebrated madly, waited for Jonathan to return with a hope that dangled him by a delicate strand. After all, Jonathan had promised—promised to tell Severus all after everything was over. The waiting stretched for a week, a month, a year, until that hope thinned and shriveled like a sapling in winter.
"I've also wondered," Hermione continued, "why he didn't change the future."
Severus looked up, broken out of his reverie. "And?"
"You must remember, he had Voldemort's soul in him," Hermione said. "And he was always… he was never happy, I don't think. Not after Ron died."
"Yes," Severus murmured, remembering how Jonathan seemed to have something haunting him constantly like a ghost visible only to him. "He had dreams, too. Voldemort's memories."
"Yes," Hermione said. "Perhaps he thought that—perhaps he didn't really believe he could carve happiness for himself. He'd always been stuck with a fate he didn't want, and perhaps—for all the power he had—he never really believed he could change things."
Severus nodded slowly, reluctantly. Perhaps. Jonathan had had such an air of fatality, and there had been times—frightening, then, but understandable now—that he had clung to Severus with an almost frightened desperation, an aching despair. But I was young, Severus thought. I would have done anything for you. Could you not have believed for me?
"And maybe he was frightened by his power," Hermione said. "On some level, he must have known that his power came from Voldemort. He must have known that that power was—tainted. If he changed the future for himself, who knows what else he might have done?"
He had already killed with his power, Severus protested. The line had already been crossed. The deed had already been done.
He shook his head. Why did he not wish to forgive, to forget? He knew he should not dismiss the logic of Hermione's statements, knew that he—the cold, calculating Slytherin that he locked himself into—should be weighing out his emotions in accordance to logic, but no. He wanted no logic. There had never been any reason in the meaning of pain, in his life of madness. It was a joke of cosmic proportions that he should fall in love with Harry Potter and remain deceived and pining for twenty whole years. A joke, that was all. Madness.
"Perhaps Harry—or Jonathan, whoever—is still alive, and perhaps he's just waiting for the right time to come," Hermione said. "But… you can't live in a limbo, Severus. This is your life. Can you, perhaps, try to forgive him, and perhaps forget him—just a little bit?"
Severus shook his head. It was too much to ask for, he thought, far too much. But he only lifted his head tiredly and stared into the flames of the fireplace. "I thank you, Miss Granger, for your concern, but I am quite exhausted."
"Of course," Hermione said, putting her teacup onto the table and standing up. She smoothed the creases from her nightgown. "Well," she said hesitantly, "good night, Severus."
"Good night," he said.
He heard Hermione make her way carefully through the mess of parchment, heard the portrait door swing open, the pause as she looked back. Then there was a gentle thud, and he knew he was alone.
He pulled himself into a tighter position. It was cold. The fire did little to warm the air, or even light the room. Shadows flung themselves over the walls and ceilings, hiding the corners in darkness.
Severus laughed weakly to himself. Forgive? Forget? He would be laughing if he were not so tired, or if the thought were not so ridiculous. Granger made it sound like some sort of conscious decision, that with a snap of his fingers, Jonathan Frost would cease to exist. Or perhaps it was some neatly-packaged spell that would snake through his mind, swallowing all memories of that limitless pain until he was left with nothing but a ray of eternal sunshine.
He stood up. In the center of the room, he could still make out the outline of the ash circle. The basin of ointment was still there.
"Verro," Severus intoned. The remnants of ash whispered into the fireplace, pulled by an unseen wind. "Recursus," he said, pointing his wand at the basin. It lifted into the air, and, swaying slightly, floated out of the room.
Whoever decided the portion sizes should be cursed, he thought again, looking blearily at the stack of biscuits. He turned to face the mantle. The little shelf in the wall was there; he had forgotten to reseal it.
His fingers went to the ring on his hand, but just as he was about to pull it off, he stopped. Then, slowly, he drew his hand over the wall and shut the hidden shelf.
He returned to his bed and sat down with measured movements. He glanced down to his hand, where the ring glinted dully in the firelight. It fitted snugly, comfortably, as though he had worn it everyday for the past twenty years. Gently, he traced a finger over its surface.
Twenty years was not too long a time, he thought. Very well. I will wait.
"Stinguo," he said, pointing his wand at the fire. With a quick curling of flames, the fire went out, and shadows reclaimed the room.
A/N: Once again, I would like to thank all the readers and reviewers who have made this journey with me. Knowing that I have touched someone somewhere with the words I've written is tremendously gratifying. Thank you.
A/N (9-8-07): It's not over yet. The sequel is 'Ashes of Time.'