Girl In the War
It is for the best, Snape tells himself, that her hair is not red. Together with the eyes, it would have been one torment too many.
He watches with the same riveted fascination as everyone else in the Great Hall as McGonagall drops the Sorting Hat onto Rose Potter's head. When the gaping brim opens moments later on a cry of "Gryffindor," he is proud that this time, at least, he is able to restrain the groan that springs to his lips.
He keeps an eye on her through the feast, wondering if the father whom she so resembles would have been any less hateful if he had been born a girl. It is not long before she seems to notice him—she turns her head to gaze in his direction, and even from behind the badly mended spectacles, Lily's eyes pierce him.
He had expected that much—had steeled himself for it, even. It is Lily's smile— uncertain, but directed at him—that leaves his mouth dry, his heart racing with the promise of hopes long denied.
Not until after the story comes out over tea in Dumbledore's office—illustrated by the sword of Gryffindor, now returned to its case, and the Phoenix that warbles on its perch at his elbow—does Snape begin to make sense of the Potter girl's odd behavior over the last few months. Snape, like everyone else, had given Ginny Weasley up for dead when the message announcing her abduction into the Chamber had first appeared. How could he—how could anyone—have anticipated that a skinny, impertinent girl of twelve could battle the Dark Lord and emerge unscathed? That even a Gryffindor with more heart than brains could have been foolish enough to throw herself into the path of such dangers?
"Is it less," says Dumbledore in reply, "than Lily would have done for you?"
Snape is not mollified by this. Lily's daughter will not come to the same end as her mother. He has sworn it.
He storms out of the Headmaster's office to find Rose Potter at the business end of Lucius Malfoy's wand. He restrains his sudden terror long enough to school his features and direct a look of dark promise at the man who, in another life, he had called a friend.
"Leave her to me, Lucius," he says darkly. "I will see to her."
Malfoy sneers and turns away. Snape is left alone with the girl, who gazes up at him uncertainly. It is all Snape can do not to seize her by the shoulders and shake her until her defiance cracks, until she demonstrates some kind of awareness of the danger she has placed herself in.
"Twenty points from Gryffindor," he snaps, "for sheer suicidal stupidity!"
Hurt, confusion, anger flit across her face—Snape ignores them. She is used to consideration from him, used to being the exception to his vendetta against Godric Gryffindor and all his House, but no more. He will watch her more closely from now on—she has proved that she needs it, and he would not deny her.
"No! Professor, don't."
He is not sure what makes him hesitate. He has waited thirteen years to make Black pay for Lily's murder. He should end it now, before he loses his chance. But there is a note to the girl's plea, under the urgency, that he doesn't like to ignore—a trusting expectation that he will listen and be reasonable.
"Please," she says again, and he grits his teeth. He should never have consented to help Lupin teach her the Patronus Charm.
"I don't expect you to understand, Miss Potter," he says, his voice calmer than he would have believed himself capable of. "Do not interfere."
"They're saying Ron's rat is an Animagus, sir—someone called Peter Pettigrew," she says quickly. "Maybe they're lying, I don't know—but can't we see?"
Snape stares at her, dumbfounded, and this is all the opportunity she needs.
"What's the spell?" she says, turning to Lupin.
"Animagus revelio," says Lupin. "Er—better let Hermione do it, Rose."
And she does.
It is not, Snape thinks afterwards, the fact that his fantasies of revenge have centered on the wrong man for thirteen years. It is, rather, the look in the girl's eyes, as she sits on a bed in the hospital wing afterwards, clutching Sirius Black's hand and gazing up at him with a shy adoration that Snape knows she will never again believe he does not deserve.
Nothing, not even the Order of Merlin (2nd Class) can ease Snape's bitterness at losing that look to another, after all his labors to deserve it.
He does not attend the Yule Ball. He is not inclined to reveling at the best of times, and just now, with the scar on his arm growing darker by the day, he can think of precious little to celebrate. He belongs in the corridors with Filch and the ghosts, making life a misery for those who dare to enjoy themselves more than he does, and that is where he remains.
He does not see Rose Potter until the Ball is nearly over; she is seated on a bench in a darkened classroom corridor on the second floor, knees tucked up to her chest beneath the long skirt of her green velvet dress. He automatically looks around for George Weasley, hoping to bring the total of points deducted from Gryffindor for illicit snogging up to an even hundred for the night, but there is nobody else around.
Snape stands silent in the shadows for a moment, watching her, her skin deathly pale and tinged with blue in the light of the moon. With her hair swept up on the back of her head, one could look at her in profile and imagine she was a boy.
How much simpler his life would be if she were a boy.
He has just opened his mouth to send her on her way when the scar on his forearm begins to tingle again, distracting him with a familiar frisson of dread. Rose lifts her hand in the same moment and rubs absently at the scar on her forehead.
Then she lowers her hand and looks up, and sees him. "Professor," she says, her voice wary.
"Miss Potter. I never congratulated you on your very impressive performance in the First Task." Snape takes half a step into the light, aware that there is more than a shade of bitterness to his voice. "I confess I rather expected to hear from you myself on the subject, but I suppose Professor Moody was able to assist you amply."
"What makes you think I needed anybody's help?" she retorts automatically, bristling. "Sir."
Snape gives a minute shrug of his shoulders, as though it hardly matters to him. Inwardly, he curses. "You should not be here," he says, indicating the nearly deserted corridor with a jerk of his head.
"Not breaking any rules, am I?" she retorts. "Just sitting quietly."
"Nevertheless," he says. His scar prickles again; he rubs at it idly through the sleeve of his robe. Glancing out the window, he sees Karkaroff crossing the snowy courtyard, no doubt in search of him again.
The girl obeys him, sulking and reluctant, and as he watches her go he is not certain which of them he is protecting her from.
"Protest all you like, Miss Potter!" Snape finds himself shouting, his hands splayed across his desk as he leans down to glare at the girl's eye level. "I do not believe for a moment that you are applying yourself. It is beyond the realm of possibility that Occlumency should defeat the capabilities of a young person who produced a Patronus at thirteen and threw off the Imperius curse at fourteen." He straightens, attempts to control his breathing; the girl continues to seethe, staring up at him through her heavy fringe.
"You will not leave this room until I see progress." He raises his wand. "Again!"
It is, like every time before, entirely too easy.
Down he falls into the well of Rose Potter's memories. The scenes of her childhood fill him with a familiar bitterness: there is the cupboard again, there is Petunia Evans raising a wooden spoon (reminding him again to say a word in Dumbledore's ear before the girl returns to Surrey for the summer)—there she is, catching the Snitch at her first Quidditch match—there she is in a bathroom, looking into a mirror as Pansy Parkinson's face looks back—there she is in the hospital wing (no telling what year that's from)—
Then, abruptly, the memories take a darker turn. Now she is tied up and helpless in the graveyard as Pettigrew draws her blood—now Dementors appear from the clear summer sky over Little Whinging and swoop down upon her and the fat boy who is her cousin—now Sirius Black is opening his arms and welcoming her to headquarters—now Black is holding her again—
—and one of his hands is knotted in her hair, as he presses Rose up against the wall of a bedroom in Grimmauld Place. His breath stinks of Firewhiskey; he bends his head, his lips inches from hers, as the fingers of his other hand dig into her hip, and her heart beats faster, fear and excitement and dread coursing through her body. She is breathless, speechless, unable (or unwilling, it feels the same) to tear away, not sure what to say, frightened Sirius will not hear her if she says no—
"Protego!" she cries, and Snape is thrown violently backwards, landing hard against his desk.
He does not feel the bruises that are no doubt already forming. Snape's hands scramble for purchase against the wooden table as he pushes himself upright again.
He stares down at the miserable, hunched form of the girl on his office floor. Rose is sitting with her knees folded under her, rubbing her arms, her eyes bright with tears. She does not look at him.
"What—" Snape's voice is hoarse. "What was that?"
"DO NOT LIE TO ME!" Snape shouts, and the girl flinches back.
He stands—paces from one side of the room to the other. His hands are bunched into fists inside his robes, his nails digging into his palms. "How long has he been—why didn't you tell—what has he done?"
She remains silent. Snape seizes a glass vial of Calming Draught and hurls it across the room, where it shatters against the runes painted over the office door. "Answer me, Rose!"
Nearly a minute passes, and the only sound in the room is their ragged breathing. He takes a close look at the expression on the girl's face—and decides it is all the answer he needs.
"I will kill him," he says quietly.
And that, typically enough, is all it takes to bring Rose leaping to her feet. She points her wand at him—the hand is trembling, but the aim does not waver.
"Don't you dare!" she yells. "He didn't mean it, he didn't do anything—he's just lonely, all right, he was in Azkaban for so long—and he says that I remind him—" Her voice breaks. "You can't do anything to him. I love him."
"He is your godfather!" Snape hisses, fury warring with a sudden despair—because it wasn't supposed to be this way, not this time, he was going to do it all differently, do it right, not lose her all over again—
"That's what I mean!" she shouts back at him, and his knees nearly buckle with relief. "He's all the family I've got! Please, Professor, just forget about it." Her shoulders sag; she takes a step backwards and collapses in a chair. "I can't lose him."
But she does.
It is the easiest matter in the world to arrange—indeed, it might not even be Snape's fault. After all, nothing would have kept Black from his goddaughter's side once he knew she was in danger—and if Snape knew well enough how Black would react to his carefully worded advice to stay out of danger, what does that signify? It isn't as though Snape could have said anything else. He isn't a monster.
And if Rose chooses to blame him, let her. It is his job to look after her—to protect her. Even from herself.
Snape knows before he steps through his office door that someone is inside already, lying in wait for him. He enters anyway, though he draws his wand first, concealing it in the drape of his sleeve.
He is prepared for an assault of some kind, but not for this—not for hands seizing the front of his robes, as though mere magic is not capable of conveying all her outrage, not for furious green eyes that glitter with hate or fever or delirium as they stare up at him in accusation.
"You!" Rose Potter yells, and shoves Snape away from her with such force that he lands hard against a shelf filled with delicate glassware. A few empty vials topple over the edge and shatter on the stone floor between them; neither of them look down. "You sold my parents to Voldemort! You're the reason he went after them in the first place, you're the reason Neville's Mum and Dad were tortured!"
He stands motionless, watching as she raises her wand and points it at him. Her chest is heaving, her face white save for two spots of hectic color, high on her cheeks. Her nostrils flare, her mouth is contorted angrily, and even in his panic Snape appreciates the sight before his eyes: He suspects that Rose Potter, looking exactly the way she does now, will be the last thing Voldemort sees before she ends him.
"I trusted you!" she hisses, so low and sibilant that for half a second you think she must be speaking Parseltongue. "All these years! Why did you bother? Why did you pretend to care about me? If you'd had your way, I'd have died when I was a baby! You could have let Quirrell kill me, you've had loads of chances since then. Why'd you have to—why did you make me—" Her voice is still steady, but tears are rolling down her face. She hasn't lowered her wand. "What's your game, Snape? I wasn't much good with the Unforgivables last time I tried, but I'm up for a spot of practice, if you're feeling tongue-tied."
Snape opens his mouth to speak, fully expecting his voice to fail him. "What do you want me to say, Miss Potter?"
"I want you to tell me WHY!" she says, taking a step backwards and half tripping over an overturned work bench before falling back into a chair.
"I have waited," Snape says slowly, "fifteen years for the day when you would ask me that question. Yet in all that time I have never been able to think of an answer."
They stare at each other for a long moment. Snape's pulse begins to calm slightly.
"You hated my parents," says Rose, her voice hoarse. "You wanted them dead."
"I did not." Snape does not bother to elaborate; the details would serve no purpose, save the unburdening of his soul, which no doubt deserves its burdens.
"Then it was me you wanted dead."
"It was an academic question. You hadn't yet been born."
"Why?" There is more anguish than anger in the question this time.
"You had no face to me then."
"Oh, so it's different now, is it?"
The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. He takes a step towards her; she raises the wand, but does not curse him. He takes another step forward, then another, until he is standing inches from her chair. She gazes up at him, tears glittering against her skin. He sinks to his knees.
"Forgive me," he whispers, and leans forward, his hands circling the back of her head, tilting her face forward. She does not resist him; her wand stays fixed between them, the point of it digging into his neck as he kisses her softly, gently, years of need and frustration melting away in the redemption of her lips opening under his. He tastes the tip of her tongue, the edge of her teeth; he brushes the smooth skin of her neck with the back of his hand. Her long hair tangles around his fingers, coarse and thick, nothing at all like Lily's.
"I—" She breaks away to breathe softly against his lips. "I have to go—Dumbledore's waiting for me—"
She stands; he does not speak. He remains kneeling as the door opens, then closes behind him. The imprint of her tears are wet and cool against his face. He does not move again for a long time.
On his second trip to Grimmauld Place, Snape comes prepared for Moody's jinxes. Trust a Gryffindor to think a phantasm could frighten him, when he had looked into the eyes of the living man and watched the light leave them. But then he is supposed to be a traitor, like Pettigrew, with a few pitiful scraps of conscience thrashing about in a great sea of cowardly self-interest. No doubt Pettigrew would piss himself at the sight of great dust clouds in the shape of Lily and James.
The house is eerily silent; even Walburga Black's portrait has ceased its muttering. Snape stands in the moonlit foyer and takes from his pocket the Hand of Glory he stole from Draco. The soft golden light of the candle spills out all around him, creating no shadows as he steals through the rooms that show signs of recent habitation.
He already knows where he will find Rose, so he doesn't waste his time looking for her. Granger and Weasley he finds in the largest bedroom; he casts Muffliato and other spells of the kind to ensure their sleep is not disturbed.
He turns then to the bedroom door with Sirius Black's name on it and Disillusions himself before pushing it open, silencing the creaking hinges with one spell and muffling his footsteps with another.
Rose lies sprawled on top of the dusty velvet bedclothes, fully dressed, as though she had fallen asleep studying the piece of paper that has fallen onto the bed beside her. She wears jeans and a man's white dress shirt that is acres too large for her; no doubt she found it in Black's closet. It gapes wide at the collar to reveal the slender column of her neck, the hollow at the base of her throat, the swell of her breasts. She twitches suddenly, and Snape raises his wand, but she does not wake; her mouth opens and she moans softly, flinching. He wonders how long it has been since she slept without nightmares.
Snape shuts the door behind him and points the wand at the sleeping girl. "Silencio," he mutters. "Immobulus." She grows suddenly quiet and still, as though he has killed her. Snape edges nearer the bed perching on the edge by her feet, and begins to call her softly.
"Miss Potter," he says. "Rose. Wake up. I need to speak to you."
Her eyes open instantly; they are wide, fearful, panicked, and suddenly Snape remembers she cannot see him. He points his wand at the candle on her bedside table, lighting it, then removes the Disillusionment charm on himself. He regrets it for an instant when he sees the fear in her eyes give way to fury.
"Do not be frightened, Miss Potter," he says. "I have no intention of hurting you. I am going to give you your voice back; if you create an uproar I will take it away again."
He breaks the Silencio, and a second later she speaks.
"You killed him," she says.
"Yes," says Snape.
"I'm going to kill you," she says.
"Perhaps I will let you," Snape says.
He stares down on her for a moment, and she stares back up at him, chest heaving, mouth slightly parted. He forces himself to look away.
"If, however," he continues, "you can bring yourself to forego that satisfaction for awhile, you may find I can be of some use to you."
"I've only got one use for traitors, Snape," she says sharply.
"I am not—!" He shuts his mouth, controls his breathing with an effort. His hands clench in his robes. There is no point to this. He knew how it would be. He did not come here to absolve himself. "There is much you do not understand," he amends.
"You want me to trust you, is that it?" The girl's voice is thick with derision.
"Nothing so absolute," he says silkily. "But if you could suspend your disbelief for a moment, it would be convenient." He lets the words sink for a moment. "I have a message for you from Dumbledore."
The name acts, as he knew it would, like a charm. She is desperate for guidance, bereft as she is of all her mentors.
"Take the bind off me," she says, "and I'll listen."
For a second, he considers doing as she says, but the fierce gleam in her eyes warns him off. "Later," he assures her. "For the moment I would rather not expose you to temptation."
Her eyes glitter strangely. "What about your temptations, Snape?" she says in what he recognizes as Lily's archest tones. "Sure you haven't got me all trussed up for some other reason? Maybe last time we got cut off a little sooner than you wanted—"
Snape smiles at her coldly. "It crossed my mind," he says, and fancies that the expression that flits across her face is not entirely fearful, "but I am not Black."
She flushes, ghosts of old misery in her eyes. "What's Dumbledore's message?" she says in a grating voice.
He must go carefully from here; the temptation to reveal everything at once is...stronger than he anticipated. "I cannot tell you yet. No, listen to me," he cuts her off as she opens her mouth again. "You must hear it at the right time. In the end, you must come back to Hogwarts. In the end, but not before, do you understand? When you do, you must go to the Headmaster's office. There is a hidden compartment behind Dumbledore's portrait. There you will find what you need. You must not confront the Dark Lord before you have done this, do you hear me? It is your only chance of victory."
He stares down at her, as though by the force of his gaze he can impart to her the importance of what he has told her. Words he cannot say dance on the tip of his tongue: you will die, you will live again, I am no traitor, I am yours...
"Why should I believe a word you say?" she whispers.
"I could have killed you as you slept," he says. "Think about it."
The look in her eyes is calculating. "You could have killed me a long time ago. You better believe I've thought about it."
"Oh?" Snape arches an eyebrow. "Any conclusions?"
"There's something you still want from me," she says, and Snape finds himself holding his breath. "I don't know what, exactly, but it's always—always been like this between us. You've insulted me and hurt my feelings and taken points from Gryffindor every chance you got, but you never—never really pushed me away, never let me come to harm." Snape looks away, but she keeps on, relentless. "And after you—you killed him, I assumed you must have been spying on me all this time, but that doesn't—if you're here now—"
She stops. Snape's hand tightens on his wand. Several moments pass before he can speak again.
"I am going to release you," he says, when he can look at her again. "And if you do not stop me, I will leave. I will not fight you. But I repeat: you will need a friend at Hogwarts. It will be better if you let me go." Snape points the wand at her. "Finite incantantem."
He has braced himself for this moment. He tells himself that he is prepared for anything she might do. He expects her to leap from the bed and grab her wand. He expects her to point the wand at him. He expects her to find that Killing Curse comes far more easily to her than she would ever have liked to believe.
He does not expect to have all his expectations overthrown. He does not expect Rose Potter to sit up on the bed slowly, as though unsure of her own strength, and reach out for him with a trembling hand. He does not expect her to grasp his shoulder and pull him across the bed towards her. He does not, never would have dared to dream she would circle his neck and shoulders with her arms, or lean heavily into him, resting her head on his shoulder, pressing the softness of her slight body to his chest. Never would he have allowed himself to imagine his own arms tightening around her, or the heat of her body warming him as he has not been warm for months.
Rose turns her head; Snape feels her breath against his neck, feels her lips against his skin, just beneath the jaw, then against his cheek, against his lips. He makes a sound that might be a groan, might be a sob, as she cups the back of his head in her hands, then traces the side of his face with her fingers. Her head is bowed; she does not meet his eyes as she places a hand against his chest. It tightens there, as though to seize the heart beneath.
"I'll let you go," she says, "if you promise me you'll come back." Her voice is hoarse. "Promise me you'll live."
Snape's hands tighten on her shoulders. He hears the quickness of his breathing, feels the hum of her pulse, and all the years of his life seem to coalesce in a single moment.
He lifts his head, gazing down at the girl before him.
"Look at me," he whispers.
And she does.