Notes: When I first read the original Big Bang, Baby challenge fics, I loved them, and the concept behind them. I feel honored to have been able to participate this round, and despite the troubles I encountered and the lost sleep, hundreds of hours spent writing and stress over deadlines, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. This fic was beta read by the absolutely wonderful Rowena.
When they find him, cold corpse curled on the autumn leaves, no one is surprised. With lips peeled back and twisted into a snarl-smirk, black staring eyes filmed over milky white, vivid bruises like dusky shadows lurking in the hollows of his sallow and impossibly pale skin, he looks every bit the hunted criminal he is. The leaves beneath him are soggy but crisp, spattered with rusty drops in a radius of about ten feet, as if he were a rag doll that someone has shaken so violently the stuffing has come out. He is curled on his side, hands clawing at the air in a feral, desperate clutch, knees tucked to his chin to hold in a warmth that is no longer there. There is a puddle of black around his head that is matted with crushed foliage and greasy oils, not all of it natural. The corpse smells of unnatural things, dark things, and the sour, dusty smell of spoiled dried asphodel wafts over the clearing, covering an even sourer, brutal smell. Severus Snape has been dead for approximately four days.
There is a barrier surrounding him, keeping the bugs out, and the leaves beneath him are untouched by the seemingly torrential rains around him. Mad-Eye Moody throws his coffee cup at the corpse, and the other Aurors watch it bounce off of the air.
"Damn it," he growls, pacing next to the body.
His eye is rapidly scanning the forest around them for movement as they stare disbelieving at the corpse for signs of movement. The grove is silent—not even the birds twitter—except for the shuffling sound of Moody kicking the wet leaves.
"I think," says Nymphadora Tonks, her face a peculiar shade of green that both clashes with and compliments her shocking pink hair, "I'm going to be sick."
And she is.
Ronald Weasley has very few things in his life that he notices outright, much less notices enough to feel thankful for, but right now, sitting on a blanket under the wide night sky listening to the bonfire talk to him as he watches the light dance on Hermione's face when he thinks she isn't looking, he's thankful. He's glad that he's here, and that she's here, and that they'd been able to go to Bill's wedding earlier that day. His mum is sitting on another blanket nearby, sobbing into his father's shoulder about "babies" and "tarts". The atmosphere is cozy, despite the two elephants at the party: neither Harry nor Percy bothered showing up. Percy, he can understand. Percy is a prat, has always been a prat, will always be a self-absorbed prat. Percy can go hang for all he cares. Ron is seventeen and is dating the prettiest girl at Hogwarts, and he can't bring himself to care whether or not Percy feels like doing a bit of growing-up, himself.
What confuses him is Harry—Harry, who, Ron had thought, had managed to work through that hero complex and should have been here, dammit. Harry should have been here to ogle Fleur in her off-the-shoulder perfectly formed French silk gown with him, should have been there to cheer with Ginny after she caught the bouquet, should have been here to look sympathetic and suitably embarrassed when Molly threw her arms around Bill and cried, keeping him from leaving with Fleur until it was almost too late to catch their international portkey. Instead, Harry was off somewhere doing who knows what. It wasn't even that those horrible Muggles he lived with were stopping him—he just didn't want to come. Well, Ron thinks as Hermione reaches warm fingers to him and covers his hand with hers, if that's what he wants to do, so be it. But he should at least be here for Ginny, though, if he isn't for us.
The grasshoppers chirp happily in the grasses surrounding them, and Ron sinks back onto the blanket, staring up at the night sky and twining his fingers loosely between Hermione's. As she leans back on him, her weight is comfortable and warm, and they stare into the smoke rising from the bonfire as though they are divining the secrets of the universe. The grasshoppers are getting louder as the smoke thickens, and Ron ponders whether the wood on the fire is green. It smells odd, as if there were a small bundle of cedar or pine hidden beneath the stacked fire, and the grasshoppers get louder and louder. Sitting up and peering into the smoke in the east, Ron realizes that Ottery St. Catchpole is on fire.
Harry Potter is not quite seventeen yet. It's close enough that he can taste the freedom, but he still has a few weeks to go. He's in his room, the floor littered with old and slightly yellowing copies of the Prophet, and he isn't sure why he bothers anymore. Someone is intercepting his mail, cutting out articles and interviews and sometimes even pictures, seemingly at random and certainly without his permission. They do a sloppy job, and sometimes he can read "De…Convic…Brutal…9 Mu…." If he plays this morbid guessing game, he can tell there's been a significant death toll over the summer. If it were only his newspapers, he would still be annoyed, but sometimes he finds whole sections of his letters magically erased, leaving nothing but blank paper behind. Yesterday he received a lovely sheet of blank stationary from Ginny, postmarked where she had been visiting the twins, he presumes.
He plans daily what he will do when he has gained his freedom. There's number twelve, Grimmauld Place, of course, a run-down house that's fabulously close to King's Cross, but Harry isn't sure he wants to base his choice on his return to Hogwarts—it isn't home anymore. He feels sometimes, especially in the mornings as he looks over the bleak landscape of ticky-tack houses shrouded in dew and mist, like some secret, hidden part of him has been hollowed out and all of the important bits thrown away. He wants to find these pieces, but he has no idea where to start looking. He thinks he'll try in Godric's Hollow, but he has a sneaking suspicion they'll be in Little Whinging.
In retrospect, it is obvious that he was not supposed to succeed. He doesn't know why this information shocked him when he first realized it, but now it is understood—common knowledge—like the fact that Aunt Bellatrix has murdered members of her own family before and that his mother isn't really mourning his father's recent Kiss but rather the knowledge that she damned them all. He thinks remotely that the world would, in fact, be a better place without him, because his being alive right now is the thorn in both sides. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes that Snape probably knew this, and wonders how he could let himself be manipulated the way he was, even if it was Narcissa Black Malfoy who did the manipulating.
He thinks vaguely about what he will do this autumn when his friends have gone to school. Once—it seems many years ago—he could see the whole timeline of his life laid out before him. He knew exactly what would happen: graduation, marriage to Pansy Parkinson, a child—an heir, his mind supplies. He has no idea when this changed. Now the future swirls before him formless and fluid as smoke, and some days when he peers into its depths he thinks he can see those images, distorted and twisted, misshapen into grotesqueries of happiness. Sometimes he looks into the mists and sees himself bloodied and battered, spread across a stone slab a sacrifice to the snake lord. Sometimes he sees himself dead in his bed in the morning and believes wholeheartedly—he knows—that he's seeing tomorrow morning and part of him is so glad he can barely keep his joy in. He's always so horribly disappointed when he wakes up, staring blindly at the ceiling. He wakes before dawn and watches the darkness through his eyelids as it fades slowly and suddenly sharper until the bright shell-pink light forces him to acknowledge that he is still alive.
The moment he turns seventeen, Harry can't immediately pack his things and leave the Dursleys. This isn't any sort of reluctance, affection, emotional connection; he can't leave a place he hasn't been at for weeks. He's living in a room at the Leaky Cauldron, third room on the left on the fourth floor. It's got a great view of the Alley, but there isn't really anything to look at. Over half of the shops are boarded up—Florean Fortescue still hasn't been seen in over a year. The few people around scurry from shop to shop like beetles escaping a bright light. Of course, that's only the people that actually come to Diagon Alley for what they need—most simply send away for it. It's depressing to watch the Alley during the day, and he has nothing to do, no ties to the world around him. He finds himself drifting into a nocturnal pattern. By the last week before school is supposed to start, he finds his eyelids habitually drooping at eight in the morning and unable to close at midnight. He thinks perhaps he should worry about the effect it will have on his studies, but as he doesn't even think the school will open this year he isn't terribly concerned.
When Remus Lupin suddenly shows up outside his door looking harried and much, much older than he had the last time Harry had seen him, Harry is so unused to the presence of another human being that it takes him a minute to remember to invite him in. Remus looks tired, his already graying hair seems more sparse and thin, and he moves so stiffly that Harry could imagine he's an inferati. He gratefully accepts the cup Harry offers, but despite the warm liquid some part of him still looked remote and cold. Sitting on Harry's bed, he looks so small and alone that Harry is suddenly struck by the image of himself as an adult and Remus as the child. He finds the words he wants to say won't come out; they're caught in his throat, stuck.
"I assume you know why I'm here," Remus begins after a long pause, "It was only the front page of the Prophet for a month."
"I don't get the Prophet anymore," Harry interrupts, shrugging. "I got tired of getting more holes than paper."
Remus's mouth folds oddly, and Harry realizes it's a sheepish grin. "Sorry about that, Harry. You know we were—"
"—Only doing it for my good, right?" Harry finishes wryly. "Yeah. So what did I miss?"
There is a tense silence as Remus tries to work out what to say. "Well, you know…" he trails off. He stares at his hands in thought before looking Harry in the eye. "We found him."
"Snape. We found Snape."
When Tonks picks up the report, her hands impulsively go slack. She can barely focus her eyes on the folder because she's so tired. This is the third night in a row she has been sitting here at her desk in the Ministry office past one in the morning, always analyzing the Snape case. Her hands are shaking and she knows that if she has to look at those pictures again, she will just fall apart. She will shudder to pieces and cry for days. She's seen death before, even deaths of those she loves—Dumbledore, a voice in the back of her mind whispers. She shoves it away brusquely. The point is, she reminds herself sharply, that she has never seen so obviously violent a death quite so close up. Even…even that death was clean, somehow. Ugly, cruel, and horrifying, but clean. And even though she believes with all her heart that the bastard deserves whatever it is he got, she doesn't like being the one in charge of figuring out what that was.
The photos are the hardest part. There are photos of Sn--…the victim, she reminds herself, curled up in the barrier. Her first deduction is that whoever placed him there wanted him to be found. There was enough respect—respect? She could never respect the man who killed one of the greatest wizards ever born—that the killer had wanted to protect him from nature, but beyond that…. The milky eyes glare up at her in nothing more than righteous anger. It's obvious that he knew the killer, probably felt superior to him—considering, of course that Sn—he has always felt superior to whomever he was speaking. She remembers those eyes, unwillingly, staring at her in potions with an unreadable look as she sat on her stool. A Gryffindor, especially one who should have been a Slytherin…he had obviously wanted to fail her. His contempt for her and all her family stood for sizzled in the air as he tried to pin her to her seat with his gaze and force her to fail. Once, near the last month of her seventh year, she fancied she finally saw understanding in his eyes—he said she was stubborn and pig-headed, but would probably make an exemplary Auror—and she fancied herself with a crush on him for all of two days, until she heard him congratulating a Slytherin on "beating the Mudblood scum" on their recent coughing draught. She thinks she might have seen a bit of self-recrimination in his eyes as he saw her, but it is gone quickly, dismissed as a trick of the memory.
Back in the photos, the Squad of Impenetrable Defenses, SQUID, is drifting in and out of the frame nervously. Tonks flips through the pictures, shuddering as the scene reveals itself: SQUID, taking the complex spell off of the corpse; various Aurors looking on in horror as the body begins to decompose…rapidly; the bridge of Snape's nose sinking in; the corpse putrefying; the flesh liquefying; the insects blooming out of the body cavities to spill in writhing, wet puddles next to the corpse; even Moody looks disturbed as the body dissolves into the ground. It is apparent that although beneath the spell the body seemed fresh, Severus Snape had been lying in the woods for far longer than initially thought.
I don't care where you go but you can't stay here, Draco thinks to himself, eyes hardening as he looks at the little house on Spinner's End. The Ministry hasn't declared the corpse found yet, but he knows it is only a matter of time and he wants to move on before the lot of them is caught. His mother is still sick with grief—yes, grief, he says sharply to the voice that taunts him in the back of his mind. The voice sounds startlingly like Aunt Bellatrix, and it whispers rude things to him whenever he thinks of his mother in the house on Spinner's End—she cannot move. Some mornings he finds her curled up in a ball next to the fireplace, her face wild and her hair pale, eyes rimmed in red like kohl and fingernails bitten to the quick. She reminds him of the bean sidhe, and the sound of her mournful wails at night chill his blood. He knows the power in names, and imagines that this is why she never calls out for his father. It's not, the voice says silkily.
Bellatrix has taken over the house. She complains daily that it's no place for the last hope of the "most ancient and noble House of Black." She sleeps in his bed, she eats his food, and most insultingly, she uses his ingredients. Boomslang Skin, bicorn horn, leeches, he watches her take them all out of the carefully ordered cupboard. She has been doing this every day for a week, and though he prefers to pretend he doesn't know what she's doing, he finds himself compulsively cleaning up after himself—he leaves no hair or fingernail behind himself, not even an eyelash, for fear that someday he'll wake up not himself.
As he stands outside the house in the cold early morning, he feels as if he's been bewitched. There is a distinctly unreal feeling about what he is doing. Other children may have been tempted to run away, but he was always too…good. Loyal. Something. Maybe, he realizes, he was just too stupid to think of it, or too unimaginative. He squarely ignores the thought of what his leaving might do to his mother, already near-mad with the loss of the other man—men, Aunt Bellatrix whispers in his head—in her life. Perhaps if he doesn't think about it it won't be true. All he knows is that it doesn't matter where he goes; he can't stay here.
Standing here, on the top of Stoatshead Hill overlooking the remnants of Ottery St. Catchpole, Hermione feels as if she's drowning in place. She's never in her life been so horrified, never seen anything so dreadful or bloody. An entire village is completely destroyed—both Muggles and Wizards alike. She wonders sometimes if what saved the Weasleys wasn't perhaps the bonfire that made the house look to be on fire already, or maybe it was just the invitations to the wedding, which stated that they would all be in Ireland. Her back feels stiff and cold at the thought that they might have been saved by the assailant's desire to kill them all in one go.
Ginny hasn't stopped crying since the mark appeared, and Molly is so tense she's snapping at everyone, even the twins who've been kind enough to put them up for a while. Hermione knows that perhaps she had best go home, stop taking up so much bloody room, but she's afraid—deathly afraid—that she will be followed. She has not told her family where she is despite the knowledge that the aftermath of the event was televised. She doesn't want an owl marked to her to be the clue that causes the killer—or is it killers?—to find her. There's so much Gryffindor courage running through her veins right now that she muses she may very well be Hufflepuff. After all, she's showing stunning loyalty, isn't she?
Some people deal with trauma by getting angry, some sad. Hermione's own mother baked sweets for a week when she heard about Voldemort's return, which is quite out of place for a dentist. Hermione, though, studies. She studies daily, for all of the day and a good bit of the night, often straight through meals. She's already finished memorizing the first seven chapters of her advanced ancient runes book, and is wondering if she mightn't be able to ask to test out when school begins. Though she's promised Ron and Harry that she would hunt horcruxes with them, she imagines that without Harry around, the point is probably moot. She also cringes to herself when she remembers Professor Dumbledore's withered, blackened arm and that it was the result of horcrux hunting. I could never take my NEWTs like that, she thinks, and is immediately abashed that she would be so petty.
Ron doesn't understand her at all. The past few weeks have been an enormous strain on their tender new relationship. She feels as if all of the spider-threads holding them together—Harry, her mind supplies—are slipping away, leaving her awash in emotions that books can't explain. She's losing it, she thinks, and "it" is any number of things: Harry, Ron, her childhood. Ron is so angry right now. He thinks that everything's Harry's fault, as if Harry were responsible for all of the destruction. Hermione knows that he thinks that Harry could have stopped them; he puts entirely too much stock in Harry, and far more responsibility on his shoulders. Ron expects that Ottery St. Catchpole might not have been destroyed had Harry been there. Hermione tells him this is rubbish, and he slams doors for an hour, shouting about how she doesn't understand. She knows he thinks she can't because she's Muggle born, and she tells him so once. His face turns sour and he storms away looking more like a pureblood Wizard than she has ever seen him.
"It's not close to your home, Hermione!" he shouts at her later.
"It is, though!" she replies. She wants to tell him, "I'm afraid to read the Prophet because my parents might be dead! I haven't talked to them in weeks!"
Instead, she says, "You are my home, and your family, and when it's close to you, it's close to me." That's Hermione Granger, always showing her kind side. Ron hugs her close to him, sobbing in her hair and she lets him touch her later, as if the fight had never happened.
London in the summer—it's so humid and warm that Hermione feels she might misstep and swim off into the sky.