Chapter 24

The sickening sensation of falling, of his stomach lurching up to his throat and his heart lodging somewhere around his ankles ended with a crunch, a frisson of pain in his knees and jarring his bony hips. He pitched forward onto his hands, into something that had the consistency of a pile of autumn leaves and the smell of old blood.

For a moment, Severus was content to remain still, but soon the noise of something moving through leaves made him open his eyes and lift his head. He found himself looking into a mirror, if the mirror had shown him as he had been twenty years ago, down to the worn robes and hollow eyes.

The young man crouching in front of him looked just as startled as he felt, and they both scrambled backwards until Severus was on his back, his shoulders held up by his elbows and he viewed the young man through the V of his legs. The young man, for his part, stared, then, as if he suddenly remembered himself, sneered.

"What do you want, old man?"

Severus nearly sputtered. Old man? Old man? How dare he? Of all the insolence! He levered himself upright, dusting himself off, but silver mud clung to his clothes and he looked about him.

He was in a copse of trees, white barked and silver. The sky was red and black, unlike anything seen in nature, crazy geometric patterns that made the eyes look away, anywhere but there. A slim river of quicksilver and someone who was barely more than a child glowering at him were all that could be seen. The rest of the landscape was barren, desolate, and looked almost like pieces of a theatrical set. If one spent too much time studying the landscape, he had the alarming sensation that he'd be able to see the wires and pulleys, perhaps a well-meaning wizard with wand in hand just offstage directing the sequence of scene changes.

Severus couldn't help himself; he laughed at the absurdity of it. This was the inside of his tortured, troubled mind? This was where his memories were locked away, hidden and guarded by a gangly youth who had just started to charm his whiskers off his cheeks?

The young man's sneer never left, but Severus found the entirety of it preposterous. He studied his younger self, limping to one side to study the image's left side, then back around to the right, half in wonder, half in flabbergasted astonishment.

"Merlin. No wonder no one ever gave me the time of day. Did I make that face at everyone?"

It was the young man's turn to sputter. He stooped and came up with a handful of silver leaves, flung them at Severus's face. Snape attempted to dodge, but even in his own mind, he wasn't nearly as fast as his younger self. He staggered backward, eyes and nose covered in the memory of a girl who wasn't Lily Evans.

His home was an awful place, dank even in the summer, and freezing in the winter. He watched the world from a dirty window, children who played with one another and ignored him entirely.

He told himself, as his mother told him, that he was better off here, inside, where it was safe. Where he was surrounded by books on all sides, where learning was more important, infinitely more important than play. Someday, he would be a great man. Someday, none of this would matter…

But in the way of these things, 'someday' was a long way off and at the moment, ducking outside to run seemed more important than almost anything else he could think of.

His mother couldn't watch him always, nor could any of her strange, terrifying relatives. A father not to be seen, a family that barely warranted the name were not to be had. A young Severus could, occasionally, slip out the side door and no one would be the wiser.

Not often, no. When he did, a girl would be waiting for him, with red hair that curled around her face and brilliant blue eyes that laughed. Her name… he couldn't recall it. But she would grab his hand and pull him into a game that the neighbor children played. When he was with her, they didn't dare call him names or they would be skewered on her sharp tongue. When he was with her, it didn't matter that he was an awkward boy, all long limbs and a nose too large for his face, who couldn't remember the rules of the games they played. She talked him through the games, amused more than puzzled by his ignorance. When she laughed, she encouraged him to laugh with her.

Severus wiped the memory from his face, blinking in the red light of his mindscape. His younger self glared at him, readied another volley of leaves. Abruptly, the humor left Severus.

"What do you hope to accomplish?" he called, schooling his voice to a crispness he did not in the least feel. "They're my memories."

"You created them. You killed and murdered," the young man shouted. "You never knew what you had!"

On that point, Severus had to agree. When he was young, he'd had no idea. "True enough," he muttered. He'd wanted esteem and power. Eventually he had both, but not in the way he wanted them. A hundred fairy tales with morals like, "Be careful of what you wish," clattered through his mind. He shook his head.

The young man took a step forward. "Do you want these?" the young man called, brandishing a fistful of leaves. Severus studied the young man's unscarred hands and looked down at his own, brutalized though they had been. Suddenly, he wondered. Did he?

The memories he had were terrifying. He was not a nice man, rarely ever even a good one. Could he stand to know all that he had done? Before he had gone to Albus, he'd done awful, reprehensible things. He knew, but he didn't know the particulars. The look on Albus' face, on Minerva's when they spoke in hushed tones about all they had done to him, all they had made him do for the sake of the Order was enough to show him that he didn't want to know.

"No," he heard himself whisper. "But I need them."

The young man launched himself at Severus. This time, he was ready, and he sidestepped, but not far enough. The young man clipped him on the shoulder and sent then both tumbling, falling into the river in a tangle of robes and limbs. Viscous memories poured over both of them and suddenly Severus was fighting to stay afloat while his younger self tried to drag him under, holding him down against the onslaught of memory.

Horrors surrounded him – men he had killed, women he'd brutalized. Children he'd terrified. Many had screamed, some had fought back, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Had more done so, perhaps he would have died before it came to this.

That was the answer. Severus looked up to his attacker, who had his hands wrapped firmly around his throat and was holding him under. In his mind, he could not drown, he didn't think. He reached up until his own hands were wrapped around his younger self's neck and pulled him down. The dreamscape abruptly shifted around them and the river deepened, swallowing them both.

A/N: Rendered hopelessly AU or not, I decided that this was worth finishing. I make no promises as to the update schedule, but after searching high and low, I cannot, for the life of me, find the old files, so I'm rewriting the next few chapters from scratch. Expect four more chapters before this is done.