Disclaimer: © 2007 harmony bites and zeegrindylows. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the authors. This is an amateur non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by J.K.Rowling or any other lawful holder.
This story is dedicated from me to clare009—and by Grindy to refrainofdreams. It's meant as a Christmas giftee to them. Happy Christmas Clare and Steph!
This story actually grew out of an YIM conversation between me and zeegrindylows, my co-writer. I promised Clare a story based on her SSHG artworkWinter's Eve(which can be found on Deviant Art). I needed a reason why Hermione was barefoot. And still do—still owe Clare that story someday. But in the course of the conversation, one fleeting idea behind that caused a mention of It's a Wonderful Life. Grindy challenged me. She said if I'd do it, she'd co-write it. The result you see here.
Note on Source: Americans will probably recognize the source from which we adapted this story, Capra's classic Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life. The source from which the film was adapted can be found online if you google it—Philip Van Doren Stern's short story "The Greatest Gift."
We want to thank renitaleandra for her fantastic beta. My usual betas couldn't do it given the time constraints, and she bravely stepped in and betaed away even on Christmas Eve. Thanks also to lifeasanamazon for her Britpick!
An Unexamined Life
by ZeeGrindylows and harmonybites
The corridors of Hogwarts were decked with garlands of pine strung with fairy lights, and Professor Flitwick had charmed bells to chime at every turn of a corner. But the Christmas decorations brought Severus no cheer.
He bumped into a wall and leaned on it for a while, his cheek to the cool stone. He'd never before been drunk in his life. It was one way he strove not to be like his father. Not even in the worst days of Voldemort had he allowed the indulgence. But with the pain of his utter inability to protect his family from what was to come, he'd sought it out. The first drink had done nothing. The second produced a nice floating feeling. The third had given him what seemed like a brilliant idea. The fourth and fifth had been needed to give him that famous liquid courage.
Gripped in his hand was a vial of potion made with Basilisk venom. Not the most painless of poisons, but being quicker than Nagini's had been, it would do. Severus hoped it wouldn't leave too gruesome a corpse to find. He was of two minds about that. Would it be better if they never found him at all?
Something in him flinched at that idea. He'd promised Hermione that he'd never leave her, and he couldn't bear to have her think that he'd run from her. But he couldn't bear to think of her finding him, either. Would her eyes fill with horror? With sorrow? Or would she hate him? For her sake, it would have been better if he didn't face the choice between a dishonored life or an unmourned death. It would have been better if he'd simply never been born at all.
He paced a part of the corridor, back and forth—tightly, as if he were in a cage—circling between how to end his life and his regret of what a mess he'd made of it. How had it come to such a pass that he could be sure that even his children would be better off without him? A crack of light showing the outline of a door stopped him in his tracks. As he stared, the light grew until he found himself squinting, yet he also found himself stepping forward and fumbingly turning the knob.
Upon entering, he saw what appeared to be the cottage in Devon that Hermione and he rented for the summer, the first place where he'd had built nothing but good memories. There was the couch Miranda had transfigured into a pony last year. Right there on the wall, even painted over, he could see the singe marks where Hypatia, without even a wand, had first conjured fire in a fit of temper at three. And their eldest, Brian had been conceived … well, in any number of possible places about the rooms …
A warm breeze made the curtains flutter, tickling his nostrils with the tang of the sea. He could hear the faint sounds of the ocean, the plaintive cries of a curlew. Sounds that had once filled him with peace but now imbued him with melancholy.
He looked out the window. Sunset. Of course.
He held up the vial in the fading light. The potion shimmered as he watched the liquid gently sloshing. If one could not bottle fame or brew glory, at least he could put a stopper in disgrace and disaster. He uncorked the vial and breathed deeply. The smell was cloying, perfumelike. He touched the vial to his lips, and was about to tip the poison into his mouth when the vial shattered in his hand, sending shards of glass into his palm.
"Severus, you astonish me," said a voice behind him that made him shiver. For twenty years, he'd only heard that voice coming from a flat sheet of stretched canvas. Now, it resounded with a vitality heard only in life.
He swallowed and slowly turned. "How could you be—" He wasn't that drunk—was he?
"My boy," Dumbledore said softly. "This is the Room of Requirement. Obviously, you needed me—"
"Like I need a hole in my head."
"Yes, that would help you attain your goal. Though some Firewhisky seems to have got you off to a good start." Dumbledore regarded him out of his half-moon spectacles with an unblinking gaze, and the bright blue eyes seemed to seek out his like a searchlight, exposing all at a glance. He wore a robe of all the House colors, which, Severus thought bitterly, was probably the first time the wizard had ever united the Houses in his person.
"What do you know of it, you meddlesome fool? For all you know I was taking Pepperup."
Dumbledore shook his head, his eyes overly bright. "There has been far too much hurt between us, and I am keenly aware that it is mostly of my doing, but at least in the past there was always honesty."
Dumbledore sighed. He healed Severus' cut hand with a swish of his wand. "Really, Severus—on Christmas Eve, of all times …?"
"What time would be better?" Severus snorted. "Don't tell me the all-knowing wizard hasn't kept up with all that's happened this past week."
"The death of a child is a tragedy, but you're not responsible—"
"Once a Death Eater, always a Death Eater. Umbridge's pet Auror is very interested in the fact that it was McLaggen's boy who was killed. Given the way that he and Hermione clashed whilst she was in the Ministry, and my famous tendency to hold a grudge—"
"Yes, Hermione indeed. Think, man. Of her, of your children."
"For whom else would I do this?" Severus paced in front of the old wizard. He paused a minute. It seemed to take so much effort to enunciate each word. "Umbridge kindly owled me a copy of the next Daily Prophet. They're starting all the old rumors again, and with quite an interesting twist this time. Skeeter writes of the 'sinister implications' of how I took up with a former student so much younger than myself. She's actually suggesting that I must have used Dark Magic to attract Hermione, and that the relationship is probably scandalously 'long standing.' Now that Hermione is, as Skeeter puts it, 'mature' it's suggested that I might be looking elsewhere, that the accident was used to cover up …"
"My boy, as ugly as—"
"Nor is that all, my dear Albus. I received a visit from Lucius Malfoy today. He wants me to appoint him to Longbottom's position of Deputy Headmaster. He intimated that our Herbology professor's provision of the wrong potion ingredient to Professor Macmillan was no accident—that he and I colluded. He wants Draco to replace Macmillan as Potions master. I can't allow that. I shall not allow the Malfoys a foot in the door of this school."
"Then fight this. You're a good fighter."
Severus sneered. "Not this kind of fight. Not one that needs … popularity. If I'm gone, that will suck all the wind out of them. They cannot harm Hermione or the children if I am not acting as the scapegoat in every mishap at the school." He sagged against the wall. "When have I done anyone any good in the end?"
"I bonded myself to a madman who promised to eat death, and it consumed my dearest friend. I spent decades acting like a sort of Dementor, sucking the joy out of my students. I killed you." He poked at Dumbledore's chest with a finger.
"I asked you to. Severus, you've proved yourself a man who can a man that can admit his mistakes, feel remorse, make recompense. How few have the courage—"
"Ah, yes, courage, the cardinal Gryffindor virtue—"
"To pluck out the splinter in your soul, to let the wound bleed until it can be safely healed does take more courage than almost any man or woman—of any House—can boast. But if there's any sin akin to the refusal to make amends, it's the refusal to find yourself worthy of forgiveness, to lose hope."
Severus shut his eyes tightly. "Anything I've done to repair things is like bailing out a sinking ship with a teaspoon." He clenched and unclenched his fists. "I was in a rage when I came home from seeing Lucius. The children were decorating, chattering questions at me and … I was … cruel as of old. I could see the fear in their faces when I smashed a goblet on the floor. I should be able to recognize that expression. I used to enjoy bullying my students and took pride in commonly being their boggart, only this time it was my own child I goaded to tears. Even Hermione called me a bastard." He turned out to be his father after all. He was better off without his father; his children would be better off without him. "It would have been better if I had never been born."
Dumbledore's eyes widened. "Brilliant!" he said, stroking his beard. "Just the thing, my boy."
Dumbledore waved his wand over him. "It is as you desired. Severus Snape, you have never been born."
Miles away from Hogwarts, Harry Potter forced open the door to his office. He groaned. His desk was so covered with letters, memos, notes, Christmas gifts, and back issues of The Daily Prophet that it could no longer hold them all, and his floor was beginning to be equally swallowed up by the ever-growing pile.
He waded through the mess, and began to make an attempt at sorting things.
He'd been away these past two weeks chasing rumors that Rodolphus Lestrange was living in Argentina. Wild claims had been made that Lestrange had got hold of Voldemort's 'eighth Horcrux.' It was, in Harry's opinion, an absolute waste of time, and he was glad to be back in Britain, where he most definitely belonged.
Five minutes into his cleaning spree, he decided he needed a break. Digging through a newly formed and rather lopsided stack of Prophets, he pulled out the most recent issue. To his surprise, he was greeted by a photo of Severus, glaring up from the page with all the menace that Harry remembered from his youth.
FOUL PLAY AT HOGWARTS? HEADMASTER SUSPECTED OF SABOTAGE
By Rita Skeeter
Dear Readers, we are here today to ask you one simple question: ARE YOUR CHILDREN SAFE AT HOGWARTS?
Severus Snape, notorious ex-Death Eater, and now Headmaster of Hogwarts, is yet again embroiled in controversy after the death of a student in a Potions accident on Monday. Junior Professor Ernie Macmillan, 37, expressed his regret over what he termed "A tragic accident."
BUT WAS IT?
Upon further investigation, this reporter has learned that the source of the accident was an ingredients mixup. While demonstrating the proper method for brewing the Polyjuice Potion, Junior Professor Macmillan added redwort in place of boomslang skin. As any of us who completed sixth-year potions will immediately recognize, this addition is a recipe for disaster.
Macmillan is known as a conscientious and careful Professor. Therefore, we must ask again, was this truly an accident? Or, are more sinister things afoot at Hogwarts?
(Continued on pages 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 23)
He didn't bother looking for the continuation of the article. He was far too familiar with Skeeter's particular brand of mudslinging to need more than a guess at its contents. Instead, he turned his attention to another piece of paper he'd noticed—a letter from Hermione, marked 'urgent.'
Moments after Flooing in to Hogwarts, he found his arms full of a shaking Hermione. He patted her hair, hardly able to comprehend her words through her sobs. Her letter had begged for the loan of his Marauder's Map—which, in one shining moment of sanity, he had not given to his son James.
From the corner of his eye, he saw three faces peering at him from different heights through a crack in the door. Harry jerked his head, indicating to Hermione that they had spies among them. Brian Snape had already been sorted into Slytherin with Albus Severus—Harry was betting that before the Hat was through, Severus and Hermione's two daughters would join him there.
Hermione grabbed Harry by the hand and pushed him into an adjoining bedroom, then towards a dresser. She opened a drawer and pointed to the family clock hidden inside. "I didn't want the children seeing this," she said. Snape's hand pointed to 'mortal peril.'
Harry handed over the Marauder's Map and looked over Hermione's shoulder as she unfolded it, tapped it, and said, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
The name Severus Snape was visible in the Room of Requirement. "At least we know the git is all right," Harry muttered.
Hermione glared at him. "All right?" She tapped the clock with a trembling hand. "Then why is it pointing there? And don't call him that. You aren't eleven anymore."
"There's nothing in that room that can harm him."
"Oh, quite. Tell that to Crabbe's ghost. And there's himself—Severus has always been his own worst enemy."
"But he wouldn't do anything that would hurt you or the children." Harry clenched his teeth. "I already promised him that if he ever did—"
"You don't know what this week has been like—for both of us."
Harry looked at her bloodshot, swollen eyes. "I can imagine."
"Oh, and Harry, we argued, and I said terrible things—"
"Which I'm sure he deserved."
Hermione sniffed and stretched her lips upwards but it came out looking more like a grimace. "Yes, he did. But I didn't perhaps have the most brilliant timing."
Severus had become a friend, but that didn't mean Harry hadn't worried at times that the man was a 'dry drunk'—venom glands still intact—even if he kept his fangs retracted most times by sheer force of will.
And Harry had wondered over the years how often Hermione provided that will. Admittedly, he'd felt like that less and less often over the years. Severus seemed, against all odds, to be … happy. Even more extraordinary, Severus had made Hermione happy, and that was more than Ron had been able to do in the five years of their volatile relationship.
"Severus has more lives than any number of kneazles, and I promise—now that I'm home—if this wasn't an accident, I'll find out who's behind it." He grinned. "Things were so much simpler when we were students. I'd just suspect Snape had done it, or the next nearest Slytherin."
"Yes, and you were always wrong."
"Good thing I've seen the light, then." Harry heard a whirring sound and looked down. The hand on the clock spun around wildly, then settled on 'Traveling.'
"What?" Harry said, glancing back at the Map. "But he's still in the room."
The room dissolved around them, leaving only Severus and Dumbledore standing side by side. Severus had time only to realize he'd lost his alcohol-induced haze before things began to reappear, different this time—and all too familiar.
"What are you doing to me? What is this, Dumbledore?" he hissed through his teeth.
"I think you know," said Dumbledore, looking around with sad eyes at the interior of Spinner's End.
"I know that you're a mad old fool. Let me out. I want to see Hermione."
"Hermione has no idea who you are."
Severus blinked. "Don't be absurd. I'm her husband."
"You are not. You were never born, therefore you could never have married her."
"Dumbledore, I'm not joking—"
"Nor am I," said Dumbledore sharply, rapping Severus on the head with his wand. "Silence. They are coming."
Severus felt the familiar cold trickle of a Disillusionment Charm and watched as Dumbledore Disillusioned himself, as well. A moment later, Tobias and Eileen Snape entered the room, a violent argument already well under way. Severus flinched back, reminded all too strongly of his argument with Hermione. The bitter words that flew back and forth stung his ears just as sharply as they had when he'd been a small child.
"Worthless, lying little witch," snarled Tobias. "I should have known before I married you. I should have known you'd be good for nothing. You're not even fit for breeding." He spat at her, flecks of spittle flying across her unlovely face and marring it.
She stared at him, wild eyed, tears streaming down her face. "I never lied to you." She sobbed, her words part of a script that Severus had heard endless times before. "I never lied. I swear to you."
"You never told the whole truth!"
"I did! I did—eventually!"
"Not soon enough," growled Tobias, advancing on her. Severus could smell alcohol on his breath, and he knew all the signs. Tobias was in rare form, and his fists were going up again. "Maybe you're more of a liar even than I think. Maybe you're not a witch at all. A real witch could stop me from doing this—"
Severus turned away. He'd never been able to stomach the sight of his mother being beaten. Her cries were louder even than those he remembered. It made him feel sick. In the years since his father's death and Severus' reconciliation with his mother, he'd somehow managed to convince himself that those memories had been greatly exaggerated, as childhood memories so often are.
"Enough, Dumbledore," he said. "Why are you torturing me?"
"Because you need to see, Severus."
"I have no need to see this. I don't need you to warn me how much of him there is within myself—"
Dumbledore's hand fumbled invisibly onto Severus' arm and rested there for a moment. "That is not what I wish to show you."
How long they stood there, Severus did not know. Eventually, the horrible screams died down. Still, Severus could not look; not until he heard Tobias' heavy tread leaving the room. Then, he turned, and he nearly screamed himself.
His mother lay on the floor in a puddle of blood, her face unrecognizable and swollen, her chest barely moving. He could not breathe. Perhaps it was a boggart. Had Dumbledore somehow recalled to Severus' mind the boggart of his childhood, and caused it to come forth? He had seen enough people die in his lifetime to know that she, his mother, was dying.
"This never happened," he said hoarsely, clinging to what he knew the facts to be. "This never happened, Dumbledore. Why are you doing this to me?"
"It did happen," said Dumbledore very sadly, "because you were not there. Tobias felt no restraint and had not even the slightest compunction about beating his wife to death, the wife who was not only a witch and a liar, but barren. He suspected that she had somehow intentionally made herself so, to spite him. He intended to punish her."
"Of course I was there! My mother was not barren, Dumbledore, I am her son!"
"You are nobody's son, Severus. You were never born at all."
"If you're not mad, then I am. Let me out of here."
"Yes," said Dumbledore musingly, "perhaps it is time to move on."
Again, the room changed. Now it was simply a Hogwarts classroom, filled with desks. The door was slightly ajar, and in the hallway, Severus could hear a strange noise, like wailing. He went to the door. As Headmaster, responsible for keeping the peace in his school, it was his duty to investigate its source.
There was a huge queue of students outside, clustered around Hagrid. He was holding something—or, Severus realized, with a sinking feeling, someone. If another student had died, the ignominy and scandal would be unspeakable. He groaned.
But it was not for the Headmaster of Hogwarts to wallow in despair while there were students to be attended to. He caught sight of Marcus Flint and, taking time only to note that something was vaguely different about him, grabbed him by the shoulder. "What has happened?" he asked.
Flint gave him a cool, appraising look, then licked his teeth and shrugged. "Harry Potter is dead," he said.
"It's back to 'mortal peril,'" said Hermione, chewing on her lower lip. Her teeth had gouged through it, and Harry could see blood welling up before her tongue flicked out to clean it away. "Harry, what's going on?"
"I don't know," said Harry, frowning at the map. "I'd say it was an error, but—well, the map never lies."
"There's got to be a way that we can get in there and go after him."
Harry sat down, taking off his glasses and wearily rubbing his eyes. "I don't think there is, Hermione. Unless we know exactly what he was thinking when he went in, we can't get into the room after him. The most we can do is to wait for him to come out."
"If he comes out," said Hermione, voicing the thought that lingered behind Harry's words.
"When," Harry said bracingly, but he wasn't sure he believed it.
"Dead?" said Severus, aghast. "What's happened?"
"Quidditch." Flint scowled. "They're saying his broom was cursed. I think he just turned out not to be as good as they all said he was."
Severus frowned. Harry's broom had indeed been cursed once, but that had been years and years ago, and he hadn't died. He hadn't even fallen. There was no Quidditch match scheduled, and certainly not one in which Harry would be participating.
Flint walked away. Severus turned to Dumbledore to ask what the meaning of it was, but Dumbledore had disappeared—Disillusioned again, if the slight jostle of an invisible elbow at his side was any indication. Severus scowled at the invisible headmaster, who had no right to be there at all, and looked around for someone else who could explain.
But none of the students seemed to know, and most of them seemed to be inclined to simply ignore him. The press of bodies around Hagrid was so close that Severus could not get near enough to see for himself if it was really true. Harry dead? And killed at Hogwarts? It was unthinkable that the most popular and powerful Auror in the Ministry, the hero of the wizarding world, should somehow die at Hogwarts, especially not now. And if he'd died from a cursed broom—for Harry Potter to be murdered at his school was the worst possible thing that Severus could imagine.
He thought suddenly of Hermione, and how she would feel when she learned of it, and he groaned, his heart aching for her.
"This way," said Dumbledore abruptly, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him down a passage. Severus soon found himself sneaking up behind another Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Filius Flitwick, and, most improbably, Antonin Dolohov.
"He's really dead?" said Minerva, aghast.
"Alas," said the second Dumbledore, who was garbed not in the House-colored robes, but in the traditional purple that Severus recalled so well, "and at the hand of someone who is even now in the school."
"I do not understand," said Dolohov. "Dumbledore, it would take an incredibly powerful wizard to curse a broom, so strongly none of our efforts could counter it in time, and one with a vendetta against Potter. There is no student here with that sort of ability, and you can't seriously think that a professor would make an attempt on a student's life."
"Harry Potter was a great wizard," said Dumbledore sadly, "young though he may have been. There are those who wished him dead."
Minerva gave a loud sniff and wiped her eyes. "I'm glad that Lily and James aren't alive to see what has become of their son," she said, sniffing again. "Eleven years of abuse by Muggles, only to be killed when he finally makes it back to his own kind. I blame myself. I pushed to allow him on the Quidditch team in spite of his age—"
"That is enough, I think," said the Dumbledore who accompanied Severus, taking him by the elbow once more and leading him into a quiet passage. "Do you begin to understand?"
"No," said Severus, with complete honesty, looking back over his shoulder at the other Dumbledore and his companions. "I don't understand in the slightest, Dumbledore, except that I am clearly going mad."
Dumbledore smiled merrily at him. "Oh, I don't think there's cause to fear anything so dramatic as that. You are simply being given an opportunity, Severus—a very great opportunity indeed. You are being given a chance to see how the world would be if you had never been born."
"Ridiculous," said Severus promptly. "I'm going mad." Although, for a madman, he felt an extraordinary amount of physical well-being. He moved, for once, without the aches and occasional sharp pains that were a legacy of a multitude of injuries over the years. His hand went to his neck, finding smooth skin instead of the heavy ridges once there from Nagini's bite. A prickling chill ran down his spine. Surely—this could be so many things: a vision, a hallucination, a potion or boggart.
Dumbledore seemed to read his mind—or possibly his gesture. "You were never born, never lived, never suffered or were injured. If you went to a mirror, you'd find you look much younger than you did less than an hour ago."
"If I was never born, Lily and James Potter would have lived, Harry wouldn't have been raised by the Dursleys. Yet Minerva said—"
Dumbledore shook his head. "You weren't solely responsible for her death, and others put the Prophecy in play. Without you as our spy among the Death Eaters, Rookwood remained undetected as a mole in the Ministry ranks. His position in the Department of Mysteries allowed him to smuggle Voldemort there to retrieve Sibyll's prophecy. Indeed, Voldemort learned the whole of the prophecy, not only part because you withheld the rest when he immediately threatened Lily."
Severus snorted. "Trying to assuage my guilty conscience? Whitewash what I did?"
"Hardly. You have done your share of wrong, and you're the better for knowing so. Remorse can be a great engine for change. But not everything is within our control—not even mine. The test, I believe, is if in the end, for all your mistakes, you've left the world better for you being in it."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Did you pass?"
"I believe that's still under review. Perhaps helping an old friend can tip the balance?"
"You're daft." Severus knew he was in for it when Dumbledore favored him with that infernal twinkle before he waved his arm and Severus found the room dissolving around him yet again.
Harry strode along the corridors, on his way to see Neville in greenhouse three. Ginny had Flooed through to take care of the children while Hermione had headed to the library to do research on the Room of Requirement, with the clock tucked under one arm, and the Map gripped in her hand. She said that, after checking some references, she'd try the ghosts and the portraits. She was determined to find a way in, or at least to find out what could be happening to Severus.
He frowned. Something was different than he remembered, something he found it hard to put his finger on. Despite the urgency of his errand, he stopped for a moment to lean on the wall and observe. If he was to figure out what had happened here, he needed to understand the new currents in the school. As he stood there, one girl out of a giggling gaggle of them—he believed that was the correct term—broke off from her group and ran to him, breathless.
She gripped a book tightly, then shoved it toward him, as if she was trying to out run her nerves. Harry was familiar with all the different responses to his presence, this one common among them.
"C … could … could you sign this for me, sir?"
"Hogwarts, A History? Am I in there already? Who should I inscribe this to?"
He gave her a sharp look at the name, noted the Slytherin tie, then signed the book with a flourish and handed it back to her. "My best friend loved this book when she was a student here."
"Professor Granger. She's my favorite teacher."
Harry peered at her closely. She could be a fifth year. "Did you know Sean McLaggen?"
She blinked back tears and her voice was choked. "Yes, sir. He was very brave—he shoved Professor Macmillan aside when the flames in the cauldron flared."
Hermione told him it had been a demonstration—and if it was true that Sean McLaggen put himself in danger, he probably wasn't a specific target—assuming it wasn't all a genuine accident. "Did you notice anything … odd?"
"No." She hugged the book to her. "The Headmaster, he'll be all right won't he? There are these rumors that he's close to being arrested."
A voice to his right said, "Harry Potter's the Ministry's top Auror—he'll set things to rights—the Headmaster will be all right. Isn't that so, sir?"
A Hufflepuff tie. That a Slytherin would be concerned about Severus wasn't surprising, even if he, Harry, hadn't expected to have a fan in Slytherin himself—aside from Albus Severus and Brian—but a Hufflepuff?
It finally clicked into place what he had found odd. The groups he'd come across had been mixed. Even the students having lunch in the Great Hall had been mingled together, not keeping to their own House tables. He hadn't been back at Hogwarts, except for brief visits, for years, hadn't had a chance to note the changes, although Hermione, and even his own children, had hinted at them. There were even Muggle-borns now in Slytherin who were open about their ancestry.
Must count as one of the signs of the apocalypse, that. And Severus and Neville were at the heart of the change—a change under threat because of this tragedy.
"We'll set things to rights." He had kept saying something like that in the last couple of hours to Hermione. He wished that he truly believed it.
When the room stopped spinning around him, Snape sat down on the floor and squeezed his eyes shut. Wherever they were smelled fetid and dank. He could feel rough stones against his back, and a dull clanging and rattling reached his ears. He drew in his knees and wrapped his arms around himself, shivering. "Enough … just enough. I don't know what you're playing at, but none of this is real. It's shadow play, no more substantial than a boggart or the visions of the Mirror of Erised."
"Which I had to hide after Lily died, because you'd spend every hour you could in front of it, preferring dreams of a life with Lily to reality. You promised me after I found you with it that even if you came across that mirror again, you'd turn away, wouldn't dwell so much on your dreams that you forgot to live. But now, dwelling on nightmares of what might never be, of things just as ephemeral as those happier fantasies, have shut your eyes to life again."
A hand shook his shoulder.
"Severus," Dumbledore whispered, "open your eyes."
Reluctantly, he did, and rather preferred the view with them shut. Azkaban.
Dumbledore put a finger to his lips and Disillusioned them again, as traveling as they did seemingly dissolved the spell. Turning the corner was what Severus was coming to think of as Doppledore, Dumbledore's counterpart in whatever alternate universe he'd been dragged into. He was accompanied by a prison officer with jangling keys. The 'real' Dumbledore pulled Snape to his feet with surprising strength and, with a push, urged him to follow the two figures—which they did, following the other Dumbledore into a dark cell the officer had opened.
Severus squinted as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light.
"Hagrid," the other Dumbledore said softly. "I'm sorry there's no good news."
The half-giant's head scraped the low ceiling as he tried to rise at Dumbledore's presence. "Beggin' yer pardon, Headmaster."
"It is I who should be begging your pardon. It should be clear from Ginevra Weasley's disappearance and presumed death that you are not responsible for all that has transpired at Hogwarts."
Hagrid sobbed, wiping his nose on his grimy sleeve. "Poor lass. Nah, yer not to blame. An' yeh have ter tell Neville he's not ter blame either, yeh mind. They give me his messages, but I can't owl back." Hagrid sobbed again, then blew his nose on his robe. "The boy's saying as how he's 'almost a squib' he makes fer a poor 'chosen one.'"
Having heard enough, Severus left the cell. He could hear Dumbledore following after him. He turned abruptly, colliding with the old man. "And just what's the point of this?" he asked. "How does my not being born possibly lead to this?"
Severus sneered. "Yes, Harry, our hero. He was the necessary man, Dumbledore, not me."
"Severus, we each touch upon many lives. Yours touched Harry's at several points. He would have died several times over in his first year without you."
Severus took a shaky breath. "So you turned to Neville next as the possible savior named in the prophecy? Of course you did. You believed that perhaps Voldemort had yet to mark him as his equal." He grunted. "Neville Longbottom, a Gryffindor tried and true."
"Which was the problem."
Severus quirked an eyebrow. "You astonish me."
"I know I have not always been appreciative of the qualities of the other houses, particularly Slytherin."
Snape snorted at that. "No. Really?"
"Yet it was the Slytherin in Harry that often won through. A certain disregard for rules, the sort of ambition that saw himself as the one that could, that must make a difference. Neville is brave, but he didn't take the steps Harry did to investigate the heir of Slytherin, and Neville wasn't a Parselmouth with the ability to enter the Chamber of Secrets. He was also a very solitary boy, no part of any trio."
"Harry always was the glue between them all."
"More than you would suspect."
"What of Voldemort?"
"You have but to ask, my boy."
Severus groaned, anticipating just how he was going to get the answer to his question as once again his surroundings dissolved around him.
Dumbledore reapplied the Disillusionment Charm as soon as they reappeared. Gritting his teeth, having determined not to be shaken by whatever sights would meet him next, Severus' resolve was shaken as soon as his senses steadied, showing him a room that couldn't be farther removed from Azkaban. High, gilded ceilings sported a fresco depicting Salazar Slytherin taking leave of Hogwarts: Malfoy Manor.
But what really rooted him to the spot was the sight of the young man at the center of the room, surveying his surroundings with piercing eyes. Voldemort. But not the Voldemort of the slit nose and red eyes as Severus remembered him in later days, but one seemingly untouched by dark magic. This was Voldemort as he appeared from his school photos of his days as Head Boy at Hogwarts. This, realized Severus, feeling sick, was Voldemort restored out of the pages of the diary that sucked the life out of a young girl.
About him were, unmasked, many of the inner circle of Death Eaters—but there were faces there that even by this point should have been in Azkaban—or dead. The Lestranges were there, Barty Crouch, Jr., Rookwood, Dolohov, Mulciber, Rosier, Wilkes. Faces, he slowly realized, of Death Eaters that he had helped capture, or had informed upon.
In a corner, Nagini slurped milk from a china bowl. If only the damn snake had done his job, Severus would be free of all his problems today. At his thought, Dumbledore frowned, as if every thought of Severus' own flitted through to his brain without benefit of Legilimency. Severus sighed. If that were so, the old man would probably keep putting on these shows forever until he deemed Severus had learned his lesson.
"Dobby," Lucius said, in a low, menacing voice, "I told you our best wine. Now, I suggest you hurry to the cellar and back, or I'll feed you to the Master's pet."
Dobby scampered off, bumping into Rookwood, and giving a high squeak as he Disapparated, no doubt in search of that best elf-made wine.
Voldemort breathed deeply and beamed at all in the room. "Dumbledore, it seems, will be able to keep Hogwarts open—for now. But we are not displeased. It can be even easier to gather together all the pretty eggs to crack when they're all in one basket." The smile, the voice, were charming.
Somehow that was far more frightening than the snakelike face and hissing voice Severus had known. Charm, Severus knew, could ensnare and bewitch, could be far more dangerous than a visage of horror and a voice to freeze the blood.
His heart pounding, Severus hoped there really was no sense in which what he was experiencing was real.
"Harry, I just don't know what happened. I'm at my wit's end," Neville said. "Don't you think we've gone over and over this? Both Ernie and I contributed our memories to the Pensieve. Severus and the two of us roamed there for hours and hours, looking, going back two days before the incident, trying to find the smallest clue."
Ernie Macmillian kept running his hand over his face. "I just wouldn't make that kind of mistake—even if Neville had supplied redwort rather than boomslang. I prepared the ingredients myself, in front of the whole class." His voice rose, taking on a whining quality. "I'm a Potions Master—trained by the two most illustrious Potions Masters in Britain, if not Europe. Yes, I understand how these things can happen … how they happen …" he muttered to himself.
Harry had the impression that he'd been repeating that to himself for hours. The usually fastidious Macmillian looked like he'd slept in his clothes. His hair was uncombed, under his eyes were circles so dark he looked like he had been punched.
Neville gazed directly at him. "This is my cockup, or mine and Ernie's, if it's anyone's, yet it's been Severus that the Aurors have been all over. What's going on, Harry?"
When the world next re-formed around Severus, they were in Diagon Alley. It wasn't long before the start of term, judging by the clear blue skies and warm weather, sometimes seen in late summer, and the number of young people in Hogwarts uniforms carrying books. His eyes scanned the crowd idly, then froze on one bushy-haired figure as she came into view.
He swallowed his half-cried call of her name, stopped his half-step towards her. This was not his Hermione. She was a girl, rather, and only in her early teens, if that.
Back when she had been his student, Severus had barely registered Hermione's existence except as a hanger-on of the golden boy, a girl who constantly parroted her textbooks as if she'd cast a spell to pour out their words from her mouth. Now he gazed at her, and even though at this age she was like a seed to the blooming flower, his chest compressed, making it hard to breathe.
Ignoring Dumbledore's call to him to stop, he wove in and out of the crowd, trying to get closer, finally drawing close to her as she stood by a shop window.
Severus had noticed something odd about her gait. She had appeared to be limping.
"You weren't there to make the Mandrake Draught," whispered a familiar voice beside him, seemingly out of the air. "The Hogwarts Potions Master, Dolohov—"
"He's a Death Eater—he probably deliberately contaminated it." His eyes widened, and he turned his head towards Dumbledore. "He was at Hogwarts because he's Potions Master? You didn't—you hired him?"
"Well, not precisely myself, you understand."
"Your other self did. And I always thought that the curse on the Defense Against the Dark Arts position explained how you could hire people like Quirrell and Crouch without noticing what was under your nose."
"In Defense Against the Dark Arts, as well as with Potions, the problem, alas, was often finding anyone qualified—especially with Defense Against the Dark Arts, which had the deserved reputation of being cursed, and which we were forced to fill anew every year. And Mandrake Draught, like Wolfsbane, is very difficult to brew—"
"So Dolohov could have just botched it." Severus felt sick. If this were even an alternate version of events, then someplace, somewhere there was a Hermione, his vibrant, active Hermione, who was … "The disability isn't permanent, is it?" he asked, his voice thick.
"Over time, this kind of injury ordinarily lessens."
Hermione plucked the sleeve of a passing redhead. "Ron."
"Hermione." The boy's voice wasn't ever particularly warm, but now it sounded colder than Severus had ever heard it before.
"How are your mum and dad doing?"
Ron shrugged, his mouth turned down. "Dad won a bundle of galleons, and we had a good time in Egypt with Bill, trying to forget that Ginny ever existed."
"Oh, Ron, I'm sure it's not like that. They just probably wanted a chance for the family to all be together—"
"Together?" Ron's laugh held no mirth. It sounded rusty, as if he were corroded inside.
No, Severus, realized, Weasley's voice was not cold. It was numb, with the kind of brittleness that would crack at any warmth, so you pushed any aside before it could touch you. Severus had heard that tone in his own voice enough times to recognize it.
"Together is what we'll never be. Percy blames Dumbledore, and I—"
"Why, that's ridiculous—"
"It's not ridiculous!" Ron shouted. People around them gave them sidelong looks, and Ron brushed roughly past Hermione, causing her to drop two of her books.
Without thinking, Severus stooped down and picked them up, then handed them to her.
He stared at her, and she returned his scrutiny with equal intensity. "Do I know you?" she asked, with a spark of the curiosity that he had learned to find so endearing.
He swallowed, and, not trusting himself to speak, just shook his head.
"Hermione Granger." She held out her hand confidently, straight out.
Her hand was so small, so warm in his. He took a bit longer to let go than he should have, and she gave him an odd look, then a small smile, before she turned and limped away. Every halting step she took twisted his gut tighter in sympathy.
She'd be all right. She was Hermione Granger, and in whatever universe, Severus was sure that meant she'd sweep all aside. He wished he could call her back and tell her that—that no matter what, he knew she'd overcome anything life could throw at her, apologize to her for not having seen how brightly she shone as a student, for all the small cruelties he'd inflicted on his own Hermione when she was that age.
And, if Voldemort was on the rise, for all the much greater cruelties he wasn't in a position now to prevent.
To be continued