22. Not Snivellus
It was a cold night, and filthy leaves slid across the threshold into the hallway as the door flew open.
Snape remembered this. He remembered their muddy footprints on the clean path, his hammering heart, his hot breaths inside his mask warming him through the damp air. The curtain had twitched, the face of James Potter flashing at the window. There had been shouting upon realising the Fidelius Charm was broken. But there was nothing Potter could have done.
The Dark Lord was convinced others might be present, a protector sent by Dumbledore. His trust in Snape's new position at Hogwarts was already complete; he believed it was bearing fruit with gratifying speed. Snape remembered his own thankfulness at these first successes; he was getting used to lying to the Dark Lord. He remembered reading the note the Dark Lord had shown him in the shadowy street, and the words he already knew from Dumbledore, glad he hadn't been required to take the parchment into his shaking hands. But then he had watched as it was shown to Flintoff, a concession for devotional zeal, a reward for years in exile outside the Ministry's grasp, Flintoff pleased he would be a witness to this victory. Snape had hoped to be the only Death Eater there.
It had been Halloween, though he had barely noticed the Muggles' gaudy celebrations. He had thought nothing of the indistinct shouts shadowing through the cottage door before it had opened. He remembered the tight fear. No opportunity to warn Dumbledore. He remembered Potter point his wand, the flash of green as the Dark Lord crossed the threshold, he close behind, the brutal roar that he now saw had come from the Dark Lord.
But instead of Potter's body where he knew it had been, he watched himself fall to the floor.
'No!' the Dark Lord howled, his eyes blazing. He flicked his arm, and Potter's outstretched hands were empty, his wand smashing into the far wall. In the same second and without further movement, as though the Dark Lord had sent two spells together – such had been his power before he would become the creature he was – a crimson light slithered around Potter. It coiled around his waist and spread until it surrounded him head to foot in its creeping glow. It throbbed like blood, seeming at once to burn and hold him in place. The Dark Lord's nostrils flared. 'You will repay me for that, Potter.'
'So kill me.' Potter's voice was strained; he was fighting against something he did not know.
'Tempting. It's what you deserve, but no. You can still be of use.'
Potter made no reply, the Dark Lord's curse now making speech difficult.
'You will not rob me of my servant.' The Dark Lord savoured Potter's torment, watched the red-veiled pain of battle move through him. 'But the body needs a soul.'
Despite the spell's force, Potter glanced down. Lying still where he had fallen, Snape's younger self had become separated from the Death Eater's mask. 'Snivellus,' Potter breathed, and even through the Dark Lord's spell the loathing was unmistakable. His hate was so strong, even the curse seemed forgotten. And Snape saw a familiar expression, one he had thought he would never see again.
Potter looked pleased. He was dead, and Potter had been the one to kill him.
Triumph was settling over the man, that same filthy, arrogant triumph Snape knew so well, and the Dark Lord saw it and his loathing, and it amused him. 'It appears to be a fitting punishment after all, Flintoff.' He looked to Flintoff, and in that same instant Potter's eyes flicked to the staircase.
'Yes, My Lord.'
'I hope you will be happy in your new home.'
Something was dawning. Realisation or simple recognition of some unspeakable fate. It cost Potter to talk through the spell that held him. 'Not Snivellus.' Gasps, clawing at the air. 'Not Snivellus.' His eyes were alight with a fiery determination. 'Anyone but him.' And he wrung the last few words from his throat not with desperation, but with a heightened resolve. 'Kill me.'
The Dark Lord, who believed that there was nothing worse than death, dismissed this with a jerk of his wand. Potter's eyes widened in disbelief as the curse tightened around him.
It must have been over in a matter of seconds. But time seemed suspended as the shadow fell.
It moved between them unseen but felt, like a cloud passing over the earth. It was not possible that it was suddenly colder in the cramped hallway – it was only a memory and one lived by Flintoff at that – but Snape felt the chill of it. He felt Potter's vengeful soul torn from his body pass among them.
Only the Dark Lord remained unperturbed. With his wand he directed the lost soul and finished his terrible deed. 'Hurry now. I want to keep my Death Eater.'
Time began again. Potter dropped to the floor as the curse ended. Glasses fell. And Snape noticed that they were broken.
The Dark Lord was exhaling noisily. He was impatient.
Flintoff, for all his eagerness, was nervous, perhaps thinking back to Snape's warning of a guard. The eyes behind the mask were flicking about for something lurking unseen.
It was the movement at their feet that brought the skittish eyes to a stop.
Someone was exhaling – not the Dark Lord this time – and Snape realised it was him as he saw his younger self draw a hand across the floor, catching rotting leaves between fingers.
'Get up, Severus. You have work to do.'
Snape watched himself rise.
If Snape had seen much in his lifetime that had sent lesser men screaming their incompetence and inviting the Dark Lord to cast them forever from his side – or worse – here then was his own great test.
'You remember what you're to do, Severus?'
Something registered on the blank face, and Snape wondered, heart in his throat, whether his younger self did indeed remember everything that he was to do tonight.
The Dark Lord did not wait for an answer. He had other matters to attend to.
Snape looked back at himself, unable to tear his gaze away. He should be going up the stairs. It was why he had come, why he had worked so hard to gain the Dark Lord's confidence so that he could always stay near him. So why wasn't he moving? He was simply standing there, insensible, as though he had been placed under an Imperius Curse. Snape watched himself, horrified more at this than at witnessing his own death a moment ago. His incessant heart was hollowing out his chest.
He knew the thing in front of him could not remember why he was really here.
'Do something,' he heard himself say to his younger self, and as if beckoned from some nearby place of waiting, called out by this piteous voice, a tide of anger swept in to fill the emptiness in his chest. 'Get up those stairs and save her you FOOL!'
But he was as immovable as the memory, as the events. Snape felt a rawness that he had not felt in a long time.
'My Lord.' Flintoff was staring back at him, unsure what to do.
'Leave him,' the Dark Lord said. 'He will recover. Do not speak of this to anyone – I do not want Severus distracted.'
They moved off, and an unmistakeable sound pierced the silence. The baby's cry was suddenly stifled, and the Dark Lord looked up the stairs and smiled. 'Stay here. The child is mine.'
Snape remembered then. Across the hall the Potter boy was still standing by the pram at the wall, staring down at the floor where his father lay.
The boy looked up – and at Snape's younger self. His face grew even whiter.
'POTTER!' Snape left his own side and started toward the boy. 'We're leaving.' He grabbed Potter's arm.
'Coming around, Snape?' Flintoff, who had taken off his mask, was at the window, holding the curtain aside. He was craning back to where Snape still stood senseless, but blinking now, confusion clouding his face as though he were straining to remember.
Upstairs, a floorboard creaked.
'What,' he spoke. 'I don't –'
Flintoff stared with a mixture of curiosity and fear. 'You were out. He knocked you out.'
The younger Snape was looking down sightlessly at James Potter's body. Muffled voices could be heard somewhere above.
'I wish he'd get on with it.' Flintoff was peering out of the window again, his quick breaths betraying his anxiety.
'I don't remember.'
Flintoff looked back at him, and then it happened.
The boom was so loud the whole of the floor above had surely been destroyed. The air all around hummed, and through the window a wave of green lit up the night sky. The entire house convulsed; wood fell in splinters all around them through streams of dust. A chunk of masonry plunged harmlessly to the floor through Snape as he watched himself blink and slowly begin to register that something was happening, as though everything were on a delay.
'Get out!' Flintoff was yelling as plaster fell, coating his hair white. He shielded his head and blasted out the front door, which was cracking in its sagging frame. 'Snape! Run!'
Snape stared at himself staring at James Potter's body being rapidly covered in debris. 'Run,' he heard his younger self mutter. 'I'll hold him off.'
Flintoff yanked him through the door just as a large beam came crashing down, and Flintoff was already hurtling into the night.
Snape could not remember when the boy's arm must have slipped out of his hand. He wasn't holding it when they flew out of the Pensieve and landed in his office, Potter falling over a chair and he slamming into a shelf. He thought he had cut himself at first, then realised the liquid at his back was cold. He repaired the bottle before the contents leaked out completely.
He strode to the Pensieve. His breath misted the surface of the memory.
'You said –' Potter's stare was wild. 'You said "Run". You said –' Lips flailed, unable to form the words.
'It's your own fault, Potter.' Snape felt hot with fury. 'You should not have goaded me.'
But Potter wasn't listening; he was shaking his head. 'I wanted to.'
Snape bridled. He should have felt triumphant at the confession – but there was nothing about Potter's sickly demeanour that said the boy had really wanted any of it. Potter was lying; he was taunting him again. 'So you admit it?' Snape taunted him back. 'You goaded me into it?'
The boy looked back blankly.
'Say you wanted it. Dumbledore will know of this. The Headmaster will know the truth of you – your lies, your scheming—'
'I wanted to know the truth. I needed – I had to. Didn't you too?' His mouth stayed open as if he were gasping for breath.
Snape found himself matching it.
'Dumbledore wanted us to see,' said Potter. 'Didn't he?'
Snape's stomach crawled. Did the boy really believe the Headmaster would have wanted him to see such horrors? He clamped his jaw shut and turned away. There was a Pepper-up Potion on the shelf. He pulled out his wand and focused on summoning it.
'McGonagall,' Potter exclaimed. 'She said to see her. About exams.' He almost stumbled getting up.
Snape stared at the boy's feverish, distant look. He could not let Minerva see him in this state. The idiot boy would blurt out everything. 'Sit.'
'But she said—'
'Professor McGonagall will wait. Take this.'
The silence that filled the small room only made it easier to hear the cacophony of destruction that still rang in Snape's ears. It seemed implausible that the desk, the chairs, that every bottle and book on the shelves around him should be in the same place as he had left them, as though nothing had occurred.
'It was so fast,' Potter said. Silence again. Could Potter hear it too? 'Like he'd planned it all.' He lifted his head. 'D'you think he did?'
Snape arranged his face. 'No, Potter. The Dark Lord did not plan that.' The boy wasn't thinking straight; he was still in shock. 'Drink.'
'Your father killed me. You saw it plainly. I suppose the Dark Lord planned that too?'
The boy's face went slack. He looked about to be sick.
'I swear, Potter, if you do not drink the potion, any mess you make, you will clear up yourself, and without your wand. Now drink!'
Potter gaped at the Pepper-up Potion in his hand as though it had just appeared there. He was clumsy in bringing it to his lips and used his sleeve to wipe his mouth. He recovered a little. 'That wasn't your memory,' he stated after a moment, gazing into his lap. 'It was that Death Eater's, wasn't it?' Then he said, carefully, 'Did you… Do you remember any of it?' The boy wisely kept his head down.
The mess of brown scruffy hair and, beneath it, the round steel-rimmed spectacles pushed out all other thoughts. Snape's voice came out as a whisper. 'I remember nothing of it.'
'The Dursleys can't lie any more. No one can. I've seen it now. And you.' Snape found the eyes turned on him. 'You don't need to lie any more.' Potter was searching him as though not really seeing him. It reminded him of the way Black had looked through him as he had lain dying on the street in Hogsmeade. 'He would have killed him anyway, wouldn't he?' said Potter. 'It wasn't him he wanted, was it? He wanted a Death Eater. Not my dad. He just used him. He was just there. He just happened to be there. It was you he wanted,' he said, and Snape steeled himself. 'He wanted you to carry on working for him.'
No question was posed; therefore Snape felt no compulsion to respond with anything beyond a forced hint of disdain. It felt uncomfortable. But there was no time to reflect as Potter ploughed on unfazed. 'But you didn't, did you?' he said. 'I mean, he thought you were, but he was wrong wasn't he? You weren't on his side then, were you?'
The boy was waiting. Surely he did not expect him to answer?
'Dumbledore said you weren't—'
A sudden knock jerked Potter's head toward the door.
Snape gathered himself and went to open it. He found Draco on the other side. 'Draco,' he said so that Potter heard.
'Sir. Can I have a word?'
'But it's important.' He glanced beyond him into the room, and Snape was thankful Potter had fallen into a chair behind the door. 'Is it safe to talk?' he whispered, but absurdly loud; Potter would have had to have been deaf.
'I'm busy, Draco.' The boy plainly felt entitled to keep imposing on him his ideas for how to insinuate his father back into the Dark Lord's favour. Superiority was evidently hereditary. Snape stared until the boy got the message, then saw Draco's slow nod. He left without another word. Draco would be hard to deal with this coming year.
Snape closed the door and found Potter still wide-eyed and paler than ever.
'I didn't – I didn't mean what I said about telling Draco.'
Snape stared. 'Telling Draco what?'
The little colour there was in Potter's face vanished. He started babbling, his breaths coming in gasps, and Snape thought Potter would really be sick this time. But it became all too clear what he had meant. The dim-witted boy must have considered telling Draco the truth about his escape from the Dark Lord, that it had been him that had rescued him. A childish attempt to make him pay for what had been done to his father. 'Whom have you told?' asked Snape.
'No one. I wouldn't. I wouldn't.' Potter made a ham-fisted attempt to control his breathing. 'I haven't even told…'
'Don't worry, Potter. I know you don't have the nerve.'
'Sir?' Potter was gasping again. 'I think I'm – gonna be—'
'Drink the potion, Potter. It will settle your stomach. Drink it all down.' He watched the boy consume it in loud gulps. The colour returned to his face and his breathing calmed. 'Better?'
Potter nodded. He looked up. 'They don't think – they don't suspect – do they?'
'No, I dare say Draco is after another little chat about his father. Besides, the prime suspect is still Wormtail.' He turned to Potter's anxiety. Why was he telling the boy this?
Potter looked disgusted. 'I wouldn't want Wormtail saving me.'
Snape peered at the boy as he wiped his nose on his sleeve. It hadn't been that long ago Potter had been expressing the same revulsion at being liberated by him.
'I can – drop some hint,' said Potter, his anxiety plain again. 'So he overhears. About a Portkey. Something.'
Snape stared incredulously. 'Given that we have already established that you are at the level of Troll when it comes to lying, Potter, I don't think that will be necessary – or wise.'
It was odd that this boy had not questioned the supposed dream sent by the Dark Lord urging him to save his hated teacher. Odder still that he had listened to that urge.
Colour was creeping back into Potter's face as he looked down at the empty bottle in his hand. He seemed to be hardly breathing at all now.
'I'm – sorry I went into your memory that day.' He raised his head and, blinking, met him with defiance.
Snape stared back. Idiot boy, speaking of that now! It had been easy to see in his thick skull earlier exactly which memory it had been. The boy had simply stood there after he had confessed and handed it to him. The school lake, the public humiliation, the terror of impending loss that he should have felt that day. He felt the fury rise again. But Potter was refusing to look away. 'And what did you think of your father? Amusing man, wasn't he?'
'I didn't think it was funny.' Potter was hurt. But there was something in his insolent gaze, his refusal to avert it, that was unsettling. His hurt didn't appear to have been caused by the remark about his father, and it was only after a moment Snape realised that it was because the boy was willing him to see – to see that he meant what he had said. Snape turned his head.
His eyes fell on the Pensieve, still full. The boy made him think of that horrible day again. The revolting word James Potter had forced from his mouth before stringing him up with his own spell. And now here the man was, forever with him, torturing him still with his presence; he would never really be free of him. He had his magic. And something more insidious. He could turn into the stag they called Prongs. He had his soul. He would carry it until his death.
But watching the man's end today seemed to make something plain. He had spent the last year trying to disentangle James' life path from his own. He shared none of the man's memories, mercifully. But the clear contrasts between their childhoods compelled him to examine his own miserable upbringing. Or at least they made it harder to carry on so successfully disregarding it.
But perhaps it didn't really matter. Perhaps defining oneself according to one's past was altogether overrated. He glanced back. Potter was gazing down again at the bottle in his hand.
If, he considered, he had been a different person fifteen years earlier, couldn't the same be said of half an hour ago?
'Do you need more?' he asked.
Potter looked up from the empty vial. He appeared much calmer than earlier. There was a quietness as he shook his head, and for an instant Snape had the sense that there was much less of the young boy about him than he was accustomed to seeing. His father had never had that difficulty; immaturity was less bother and promised more fun. But these years seemed to be defining Potter more decisively than Snape cared to think. Not that he had ever given thought to it before – nor would he again. Surely Dumbledore did?
He took the empty bottle and felt Potter's gaze as he strode to the tall glass cabinet. 'Aren't you having any?' Potter said. Snape ignored his boldness and whispered a cleaning charm on the vial. The boy provided his own answer: 'But I suppose you've seen worse.'
There was that lack of boyishness again. He could have mistaken it for brazenness, except there was a certainty in his words that would not be ignored. He focused on the glass door at Potter's reflection. But in the dim light there was just a boy. It could have been any boy without the clarity of Potter's defining features, the features he had grown to detest.
He fixed an ambiguous gleam in his eyes and turned. 'Yes, Potter. I have seen worse.' Since the Dark Lord's return, he had. The slower the death he had to witness, and the better he had known the victim in life, the more he felt something leaving him despite his best efforts to contain himself with Occlumency.
There was a heavy silence as the boy simply stared. He had a horrible feeling that his exercise in complacency was being wasted. There was empathy creeping into the boy's look, he could swear it. The boy must certainly have seen some things of his own during these years at Hogwarts. 'I think Professor McGonagall has been waiting long enough.'
Potter got to his feet unsteadily and came forward to the door.
'Potter. Do you have the reading list I gave you?'
It was obvious the boy did not. He looked around uncertainly at first, then his gaze fell on the Pensieve. 'I think I – dropped it.' He seemed transfixed – perhaps imagining having to return there to retrieve it. But of course if he had dropped it in there, it would have been expelled along with them. Snape peered at the floor and spotted it by a table leg. He scooped the parchment up and handed it across.
Potter took it. He hesitated. The red-faced defiance was seeping back. Then he opened his mouth. 'Thank you.'
He had already gone before Snape could order him to get out.
The door stared back accusingly at his glare and forced it away across the room to the gently shining Pensieve.
Because the frightening thing was that he could not be certain he would have.