I really put my heart and soul into this fic, so I'm grateful to all who read and reviewed. This story was so long in the making, it's odd to think that it's actually done now. Here's the end. I hope you enjoyed it.
Severus knew the smartest thing to do would be to go to the DMLE, say he had heard they'd wanted to question him, and give himself up. There was even a slight chance that action might help prove his innocence. But as he walked into Hogwarts' grounds, he knew that would simply be walking into the trap Lucius had set for him ten years ago. He'd be damned if he would make it that easy for him.
Instead he spent the next few hours thinking if anything could be done. He walked through the outer areas of the Forbidden Forest even as his body shook in fear and panic, his mind trying to overcome all that was happening and just think.
Stopping to rest on a large stone, he put his head in his hands and began to realize exactly what would happen.
The Aurors would find him. He couldn't hide forever, after all. He'd be taken before the Wizengamot and tried for his crimes as a Death Eater, and the public would call for his head.
He remembered his last trial, when Albus had spoken for him, defended him and told the Wizengamot of how he'd aided the Order in the first war. But Albus wasn't here now. His great defender was gone, and Severus wondered now whether the memories would have made a difference in the first place.
He could imagine Harry speaking in his defense, perhaps Minerva and a few others as well. But there was no real evidence that he'd helped anyone before the Final Battle, only memories of training Harry that wouldn't stand up against Lucius' testimony. He'd been an excellent spy, after all, leaving no evidence of his efforts.
And even the Final Battle itself... he could imagine Lucius arguing that Severus had switched allegiances once he discovered which side would be victorious. Everything was so neat and clear, Lucius couldn't ask for his prosecution to be any easier.
They'd take him to Azkaban, and he prayed Harry wouldn't bring the children there. He put his head in his hands as he imagined seeing them from behind bars, their terrified faces looking at him as Dementors passed by. He knew exactly what that would do to them. No, he thought, it wouldn't come to that. He'd tell Harry to keep them away from prison, even if that meant...
He'd never see them again, he realized, and his heart ached even as a small part of him wondered if they'd be better off.
And Harry... He could already see Harry visiting him every weekend, not giving up hope that he could somehow deliver Severus from his prison. Though it had surprised him day after day, Severus had no doubt that Harry loved him and was endlessly loyal to him. He would stay by Severus' side, even as he diminished, as the Dementors destroyed his mind and his soul with his most terrible memories, until there was nothing left but a shell.
He hardly noticed when it began to rain, the freezing water pelting Severus even through the dense canopy of trees. He rather thought it fit that it was raining, as it had been all those years ago when he'd come to Hogwarts expecting to die.
But there was no savior this time. There was only Severus and a future he couldn't bear to contemplate.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, a white streak flashing through the dark forest of his mind. Shaking with fear and cold, he got to his feet, leaving the Forest and walking towards the lake. He knew now what he had to do, what his only recourse would be.
The Wizengamot had the power to destroy Severus' life, but they'd be destroying his family along with it. He knew Harry wouldn't stay away from Azkaban, and the toll that would take on him and the children would be devastating.
Approaching the edge of the lake, Severus realized he had the power to stop that, the power to save Harry and Jonathan and Elizabeth from suffering further.
The rain soaked through his robes, leaving his hair lying flat against his face as he stared into the deep, dark water of the lake. He'd never considered taking his own life before, not even when he had lived in despair before Harry had returned to Hogwarts. He hadn't understood why anyone would possibly want to commit suicide, the ultimate act of selfishness.
But this act wouldn't be selfish. This would be done from the desire to spare those he loved from even more pain. He looked down into the water once more, his boot meeting the edge of it, and made his decision.
Lightning flashed through the sky, the water becoming harsh and choppy in the storm, and Severus took his first step into the lake. He called up memories he wanted to take with him into darkness: Harry on their wedding day, the day Jonathan had come into their home, the day Elizabeth had run into his cloak.
Holding back the thought of how much he'd miss them—knowing that line of thinking would weaken his resolve—Severus advanced into the water, his head up and arms at his side, readying himself to die. His mind's eye was picturing Harry with a broad smile on his face when suddenly a flash of lightning revealed a boy on a broom flying through the storm.
Looking up into the sky, Severus saw the rider—no doubt a student who'd stayed over the holiday—fight against the wind and rain, then take a plunge not three feet from where Severus was standing.
"Idiot!" Severus hissed, pulling himself from the darkness so he could save the moron, and waded into the water after him. How the boy knew this area of the lake was shallow three feet in, Severus had no idea, but he pulled him up by his collar and dragged him to the edge of the bank.
"Flying during a thunderstorm," Severus muttered, his shaking hands grasping a black and yellow robe bearing a badge with a badger. "Stupid Hufflepuff, you'll catch your death out here."
With a strength Severus hadn't credited, the boy shook off his grip and walked the rest of the way to dry land. With broom in hand, the boy looked up and grinned, then said, "Hello, Professor Snape! I'm here to help you."
With a groan, Severus looked across the grounds, first to see if any Aurors had come to Hogwarts to search for him, then for Hagrid's hut. Casting aside his plans with great reluctance, he grabbed the Hufflepuff by his collar and began walking towards shelter. "Stupid boy. You're the one out riding a broom through lightning. You'll catch your death if you don't get out of this cold."
"That's a bit unlikely," the boy said, but walked with Severus to the hut regardless. Upon reaching it, Severus knocked on the door and waited for a response. He'd leave the boy with Hagrid, he thought, then determine what he would do from there. He had no desire to kill himself with a student looking on, and now that his mind was somewhat clearer, he knew he couldn't allow any child to see his body dragged from the lake.
A moment passed and there was no answer. Realizing that the freezing rain must be chilling the boy to the bone, Severus took it upon himself to enter Hagrid's cabin, and started a fire.
Grabbing hold of his irritation, Severus pushed all other thoughts aside as he dealt with the student. "Care to tell me why you were out in a thunderstorm, boy?" he asked, venom in every word. "Or are the colors you're wearing explanation enough?"
A quick search of the cabin revealed a few blankets, and Severus tossed them at his charge before casting a drying spell on both of them. He stoked the fire and set about making tea, or whatever passed for tea to Hagrid.
Tea brewing, he sat down on a stool and put his head in his hands. He'd make sure the boy wouldn't freeze to death, wait out the storm, send him back to the castle and figure out what he'd do from there. He could only hope the Aurors wouldn't find him by then.
Looking up, he noticed the boy was grinning at him with an odd enthusiasm, and though he knew he was a student, Severus couldn't immediately put a name to the face.
"I'm so happy to be here, Professor Snape," the boy said. "I don't want you to worry a bit. I might be new at this, but I'm very eager to help you. Everything's going to be all right."
Ignoring the idiot's words, Severus took in the rest of him, searching his mind for a name. He was undoubtedly a seventh year, but his robes were odd, nothing like Severus had seen, at least for a very long time. And the broom he still carried was...magnificent, even to Severus' eyes. If Harry were here he'd no doubt be asking for its specs, and, storm or no storm, begging for a ride.
And yet his face looked familiar.
"What's your name, boy?" he asked, curious now.
The grin increased and the boy asked, "Don't you remember me, Professor? I'm Cedric Diggory."
Thunder crashed dramatically, and the tea kettle began to whistle while Severus searched the boy's face for the truth.
"Cedric Diggory has been dead for over twenty years," he said, then stood to pour the tea. "Whatever prank you're playing, it isn't wise to make light of the dead...especially not with me."
The boy who was not Diggory smiled and said, "It's me, Professor, I promise. Oh, and no tea. Don't need it."
Slamming down the pot, Severus turned to not-Diggory and took him in, trying to remember the last time he'd seen Diggory before he died. To his surprise, the image wasn't a difficult one to recall. That had been a very important day, after all. He could see, even now, Harry shouting the Dark Lord's return as he stood guard over Diggory's body.
"You're even wearing his robes," Severus said, looking the Hufflepuff uniform up and down. Great pains had been taken to ensure they were exactly as Severus recalled, not a splatter of blood, but grass stains from shoulder to waist. "Those were the robes he wore for the last challenge of the Triwizard Tournament."
"Well, I didn't have a lot of time to be fitted for new ones before you tried to kill yourself," Diggory said, his voice nonchalant even as Severus' heart skipped a beat.
Was it possible that Diggory's ghost haunted the lake and no one had discovered it until now? No, that was impossible, Severus thought as his trembling hands clenched from the memory of grasping the boy's robes. "I don't know what you're talking about, but it would be wise to end this charade now," he said, searching his mind for an answer to the mystery standing in front of him.
"Professor," the impostor said, rising from his seat, "we don't have a lot of time. This would go so much easier if you would just trust that I am who I say I am, okay?" At Severus' continued silence, he sighed and said, "On my last Potions' assignment you wrote 'Acceptable for a Hufflepuff, but your handwriting looks as though an owl attempted to nest in the ink.' Remember?"
Barking out a dark laugh, Severus said, "You want me to remember what I wrote on an essay twenty years ago?"
Another sigh, then Cedric said, "Okay, I guess you don't really need to believe me for me to help you. Look," he said, then stepped closer to Severus, "I'm here to tell you you can't kill yourself. I don't know how, but I think all of this is going to work out in the end."
Baring his teeth, Severus seethed. How dare this boy think he could say anything about his life? And though he'd been standing on the edge of the lake, how could he have possibly known he'd meant to kill himself?
"Okay, I can see this isn't going to work." With what seemed like regret, the boy said, "When you were twelve, you stopped Professor Slughorn from poisoning a bunch of sick kids with a botched potion."
A chill ran down Severus' spine that had nothing to do with the cold. He had nearly forgotten that had ever happened. That event had taken place over forty years ago, and he had never told a soul about it.
"Because I just spent the last few hours getting to know you. You've had a very, er, interesting life, to say the least."
"That's putting it mildly," Severus said as he looked on this person with new eyes. "I never told anyone about that," he said as his freezing hands clutched his tea cup.
"I know," Diggory said, "that's why I said it. I knew you'd have to believe me. I've been sent to help you."
Reaching out, Severus made contact with Diggory's shoulder, his fingers pressing into the yellow wool of his robe. This was certainly not a ghost he was speaking to, and yet Severus had never heard of spirits being able to return from the dead to help the living. He had either gone mad, which was possible, or he was experiencing something unheard of. "You're not a ghost?"
"I'm a Guardian," Diggory said cheerfully. "I'm your Guardian, actually, sent to help you. So, if we could get to the helping—"
Throwing back his head, Severus gave a long sigh. "It would figure I'd have a Hufflepuff as a guardian angel."
"Um, I'm not an angel, Professor. I'm Cedric. Cedric Diggory? Professor Dumbledore sent me here to help you. He saw what was happening and he's really concerned—"
"Albus?" Severus asked, cutting Diggory off and taking an enormous leap of faith in accepting he was who he said he was. "He sent you to aid me?"
"Yes," Diggory said with relief, putting down his broom and looking like he was greeting an old friend.
"Did he tell you about the memories?" Severus asked even as he forcibly kept optimism at bay, his heart whispering a prayer that his oldest friend could somehow help him. "Did he have something else hidden somewhere? Anything?"
"Did he give you any instructions?" Severus asked, not caring that he was making a fool of himself, pleading to a boy who'd been dead for twenty years. "Is there anything that can keep me from Azkaban?"
"I'm here to tell you that you can't kill yourself," Diggory said softly. "That your life is worth living and that you'll hurt so many people if you just give up."
Severus barked out a laugh as he sank into one of Hagrid's chairs. Trust Albus to send a soul down to aid him with no actual aid. "You might have saved yourself a trip, Mr. Diggory. I can assure you, the life I have in front of me is certainly not worth living—neither to me or to those I love."
"You can't think that," Diggory said, kneeling in front of Severus' chair. "Can you imagine what it would do to Harry if you killed yourself? Or your kids?"
"Yes," Severus said, as he imagined his own funeral. The press would call him a coward and a villain, and he could already imagine Harry standing over his coffin. As much as it still surprised him, he knew Harry loved him and his death would be painful for him. But a life spent in Azkaban would only draw that pain out for years, when it could be dealt with now. "I won't force him to visit me in Azkaban. He deserves...so much better than what I've given him."
There was silence for a moment, and Severus contemplated the fire and what he would do now. He was considering going into the Forbidden Forest when Diggory said, "Do you have any idea how much Harry loves you? It was an amazing thing to watch. You have no idea—"
"I know exactly how much he loves me," Severus said, thinking this was none of Albus' or Diggory's business. In a small voice, he admitted, "It's difficult to ignore. And because of that love, that devotion, I will not force him to mourn me for the next ten or twenty or however many years I live in prison." He swallowed around a lump in his throat as he considered Harry's life and what he wanted for him, how much better off he would have been without Severus. "At least this way he could move on, find someone else."
Diggory snorted and said, "Not bloody likely. I doubt there's anyone else for him, after you. And the children? There's no substituting a father, even if Harry were to find someone else."
That, at least, was true, Severus thought. Even if he'd been a poor father, his children would miss him. How he hated that Lucius was able to hurt his family through him.
"I suppose you're right," Severus said, and from the corner of his eye, saw Diggory cheer. "Regardless of my actions, my family will suffer." With a laugh he had a sudden realization and said, "Perhaps it would have been better if I had never met Harry. Then all of this would only be happening to me."
"Well, you 'met' when he was eleven years old. Or, if you want to think of it another way, seventeen."
With a scoff, Severus was forced to admit Diggory was right. If he were to truly remove his influence from Harry's life, he'd have to go back much further. Before their family, before their romance, before the Victory Ball. Even before he'd betrayed Lily.
And suddenly it occurred to him. "I believe you're right, Diggory. It would have been far better for all involved if I had never been born."
Thunder crashed and Diggory rose to his feet. "Oh, come on. You helped with the war—both of them—and you've helped hundreds of students. Of course it wouldn't be—" he cut off and looked to the ceiling, appearing to hear voices that were inaudible to Severus. "What do you mean?" he asked no one. "No, I don't think I need any help, I can—wait...that's possible?" Lifting an eyebrow, Severus watched as Diggory frowned at the roof beams, then nodded. "Really? Well, if you're sure. Okay." Then he looked to Severus and said, "Are you sure it would be better if you hadn't been born?"
Severus thought of his pitiful little life, of over forty years spent at Hogwarts, of professional failures and even his betrayal of Lily. He thought of how much pain he'd bring to Harry's life, regardless of whether he killed himself or spent the rest of his days in Azkaban. He thought of Jonathan and Elizabeth, both innocents who would be marked by the Snape name for the rest of their days.
"Yes," he said, the word uttered in a voice so low it could barely be heard above the rain. "I have accomplished nothing with my useless, pathetic life, except bring pain to those I love. Yes, it would have been far better if I had never been born."
Diggory sighed and lowered his head, crossing his arms over his chest. With great reluctance, he said, "All right, Professor Snape. You've never been born."
Another crash of thunder sounded through the air, shaking the hut and startling the men within it. "I never really knew the headmaster in life. Was he always this dramatic?" Diggory asked.
"What just happened?" Severus responded, standing up and feeling as though something had changed. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he knew he felt different somehow.
"You got your wish," Diggory said. "You've never been born."
"Albus Dumbledore might have been an extremely powerful wizard," Severus said with a snort, thinking now that he was wasting time better spent making plans, "but no one can alter reality. Not in that way."
Diggory shrugged, a guilty look on his face, and said, "I don't know what he's capable of, really. Especially from up there." He pointed to the ceiling once again and frowned.
"Well," Severus said, gathering himself to leave, "I suppose I can tell him myself shortly what a waste this has been, assuming heaven is where I'm destined." He reached for his wand to put out the fire, but quickly found it wasn't in his pocket. A thorough search of his robes revealed it wasn't on his person at all.
"Looking for something?" Diggory asked, his expression serious.
Severus searched the floor by the fire, then the counter space where he'd made the tea, though he had never once misplaced his wand in his life. Not since the day he'd set foot on the Hogwarts Express, becoming an instant target of Potter and Black.
"I seem to have misplaced my wand," he admitted, thinking perhaps Diggory had taken it.
"No, you didn't. You never had a wand," he replied sadly. "You never went to Ollivander's to buy one."
Biting his lip, Severus closed his eyes and concentrated, then tried to Summon his wand. When it didn't come to him, he frowned and began to worry. "Ever since the war..." he said, his words drifting off when he realized Diggory was still listening. He'd been able to Summon his wand since the war and had taught Harry to do the same.
"What have you done with it?" he finally asked, hating that he was at such a disadvantage. Though he was still intent on taking his life, he had no desire to die without his wand by his side.
"Nothing," Diggory said, and Severus was inclined to believe him. "I swear. You got your wish, sir. You've never been born. You really don't have a wand."
He would have laughed if what Diggory was proposing wasn't so ridiculous. Not wishing to have an argument with a spirit, Severus looked around for his wand for a few moments longer, once again attempting to Summon it with similar results.
"What are you going to do with a wand?" Diggory asked after a few minutes of frustrated silence. "I mean, you were planning on killing yourself. You don't really need a wand to do that."
"I thought you were here to stop me from doing just that," Severus said, straining to move one of Hagrid's armchairs.
"That's what I'm doing, er, what Professor Dumbledore is doing."
Panting, Severus stopped his search. Though he felt as though a piece of him were missing, he didn't have the time to try and find his wand. The Aurors were still coming for him, and if he didn't move quickly he would find himself in their custody.
The lake was no longer a possibility, and Severus had no desire to be slowly eaten by some beast in the Forbidden Forest. Realizing there were a number of potions in Hogwarts that would kill a man if mixed, he made his decision.
He'd go into his old rooms, allow himself a few moments to reminisce through the early days of his and Harry's romance, and let his body shut down. An elf-delivered note to Minerva would ensure no student would find him, and that would be the end of it. It would be a fitting end, Severus thought darkly. Hogwarts had been his own personal prison, after all. It made sense it would all end there.
Without a word to Diggory, Severus picked himself up, moved the various pieces of furniture back where he'd found them, and left the cabin.
The storm had died down. He was grateful for that much, but it also meant that the Aurors would have a much easier time finding him as well. Quickly, he began the long walk to Hogwarts, forcing his thoughts back to Harry and the children, and away from this odd thing that had just happened to him.
"So are you still planning on killing yourself?" Diggory asked, easily keeping up with Severus' long strides.
"Whatever I plan on doing is my own business, not anyone else's, and certainly not yours," Severus said, walking faster, praying he'd have time to once again make peace with what he was doing before he was interrupted. "I do not wish to have an audience. Go haunt someone else, idiot Hufflepuff."
"I'm not a ghost," Diggory said from Severus' side. "I'm a—"
"If you're truly some specter with powers far beyond what wizards are capable of, then perhaps you could turn back time and render Abraxas Malfoy impotent so his son never exists," Severus shouted, exhausted in body and soul, terrified of what he knew he must do. Diggory gave him a sad stare and Severus spun around, then raced up the stairs towards the Entrance Hall, every step feeling as though his legs would give out.
Ignoring Diggory, knowing that he might have only moments, Severus quickly walked the rest of the way to the staircase leading to the dungeons, his mind already readying himself for the end.
His steps slowed as he followed the familiar path to the dungeon stairway, his eyes playing tricks on him as he approached. He squinted, blaming the illusion as a play of light, amazed when his feet landed on the place the staircase should have been, only to find it filled in, new bricks standing out, proclaiming its destruction.
"The Board of Governors," Diggory said softly, his steps light as he slowly walked towards Severus. "After the war, when Lucius Malfoy passed his proposal to dissolve Slytherin, they filled in the dungeons." Severus stared at what had been the staircase he'd taken nearly every day for over forty years of his life. Leaning down, he touched the brick, simply to assure himself it was real, that he wasn't hallucinating. His legs gave way at the shock of what he was seeing, his hands falling onto the brick and scraping his palm.
"This wasn't here before the holidays," he said, not bothering to turn to Diggory. The brick was freezing cold and he felt its chill travel up his arm. "This is new, this is—"
"This has been in place for nearly twenty years," Diggory insisted. "It's been almost twenty years since Professor Dumbledore died and Slytherin lost its only defender."
Shaking his head, Severus asked in a whisper, "What have you done?"
"I told you, Professor. You were never born. You weren't around to save Slytherin, so Slytherin wasn't saved."
His plans forgotten, Severus crossed the hallway and walked into the Great Hall, stopping short at the sight of only three long student tables. Adrenaline fueled his steps as he ignored the ache in his body, looking away from the lie and making his way to the house counters.
Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were there, but Slytherin was noticeable only by its absence.
"You see? Don't you see how much good you did for the school? All those years of tradition, all the—"
"What have you done?" Severus asked, spinning around and grabbing Diggory by the collar of his robes. The smell of grass and sweat and late-spring outdoors invaded his senses in the dead of winter, and Severus' fear multiplied.
"I did what you asked," Diggory insisted. "You were never born."
Severus shook his head. "No wizard has that kind of power, alive or dead. And if Albus was capable of such a thing, what of the Dark Lord or any other dark wizard—"
"You don't have to worry about that just now," Diggory said, not seeming to mind at all that his shirt was cutting into the flesh of his neck. "Don't you understand? You've been given a great gift. Just an hour ago you tried to kill yourself, and now you'll get to see what the world would have been like without you. Isn't it amazing?"
Looking around the Great Hall, Severus thought the situation he was in was anything but amazing. The loss of that last, great table screamed at him and he wondered how Diggory could possibly be doing this.
"Have you Confunded me?" he asked, even as he knew that couldn't be the truth. He was the most powerful Occlumens alive; there was no way a long-dead Hufflepuff could control his mind. "Is this...some sort of charm? A mind-control spell?"
"No," Diggory said, putting his hands over Severus'. "This is what the world would be like without you. Don't you see..." he said with a sigh, as though he only then realized his words were falling on deaf ears. Turning to the farthest corner, he pointed and said, "Look."
In the darkest corner of the room stood a small, round table. It was shorter than the other tables in the Hall, and sectioned off as though only the most undesirable of students were placed there. Severus' face fell as his mind realized what he was seeing.
"The students, the ones that were sorted into Slytherin, were kept there for their first year," Diggory said, his voice soft as he took in Severus' expression. "The Board thought it best if they were put into a sort of probation so the professors could decide what house they should go into."
Slowly, Severus began the long walk to the table, his hands and legs shaking as though his body couldn't handle what his mind refused to. With caution and disbelief, he laid his hands on one of the chairs, needing to feel it was real in order to believe it.
"How—" he whispered, not able to comprehend what had been done to his students. "What did they do to them?"
"If the Board didn't know what it was doing, I'm sure Malfoy did," Diggory sighed. "It was exactly like you said: a generation of children was destroyed with the decision to end Slytherin. Only...it wasn't just one generation."
Severus didn't think he could feel any colder, but the hair on his neck stood on end at what he thought Diggory meant. "Every year?"
He nodded. "Every Slytherin sorted goes into probation every year. Every year the first years are kept to their own little dormitory, their own classes before they're resorted." He was silent as he looked to the sky again, Severus still not knowing what he was seeing. "Do you have any idea what it's like for them when they're put into other houses?"
Severus remained silent, his hands still firmly planted on the table.
"They're pariahs. All of them," Diggory said. "It's impossible for them to make any friends, and their school work suffered...terribly. The Board of Governors made sure that every Slytherin was treated just like you said, like a second-class citizen. It ruined most of them—"
"What are you doing here?" a familiar voice asked, and Severus was pulled from the darkness of his thoughts as he whirled around. "Who are you?"
Standing up straight, he felt his breath leave him in a rush as he found himself fixed by Minerva McGonagall's glare.
"Oh, hello," Diggory said in what was no doubt an attempt at innocence. "We were just—"
"Who are you, boy?" she asked, her voice much sterner and gruffer than Severus could remember. He looked at her in dismay as he took in the changes. This wasn't the woman who'd been his friend and colleague for thirty years, the woman he'd seen only a few hours ago. Her face bore far more lines than he recalled, and eyes that had always been stern looked cold and dead.
Perhaps sensing he wouldn't be able to smile his way out of this, Diggory put one hand in his pocket, then threw his broom over his shoulder. "We were just looking around. We'll be leaving now—"
She had her wand on them in an instant. "Not until you tell me who you are. Both of you. And why you," she pointed her wand at Diggory, "are wearing Hufflepuff robes when I know you aren't a student here." Severus watched as she squinted at Diggory as he had earlier, trying to remember the name that went with the face.
"A cousin," Diggory said, the lie sounding far smoother than it had any right to, "gave them to me. I just wanted to see his old school. This is my...father. We were just looking around, but we'll be leaving now."
Her eyes were like slits as she took in Diggory, then turned to Severus.
There was no recognition there. It was as though she truly didn't know him, as though she hadn't known him since he was eleven. Not able to help himself, he asked, his voice sounding lost, "Minerva?"
"Do I know you, sir?" she asked, her wand never lowering.
"From your great reputation, no doubt," Diggory said, grabbing Severus by the shoulder and forcing him to move. He nearly tripped over his feet, unable to take his eyes off Minerva's face. He couldn't fathom it, how it was possible...
"I'll see you to the door," she said, taking a step back as Diggory ushered him through the door of the Great Hall, then outside.
His thoughts in turmoil, Severus attempted to clear his mind, to throw off whatever it was that had been done to him, then looked back. Minerva's stern look never faltered, and he still saw no recognition in her eyes.
The door closed behind them with an empty bang, and Severus let himself fall back against it.
"How is it possible—"
"That she doesn't know you?" Diggory asked, leaning his shoulder against the door. "You were never born. You were never a student here, you never taught here. All evidence of your tenure has been erased. There's no Slytherin, no colleagues you pretend to hate..."
"Minerva has always been a formidable woman," he said, his breath coming out in pants. "She's always been...harsh, but not like that. Not like that," he said, knowing he was repeating himself, but not able to comprehend what he had just seen.
"She's had a hard life," Diggory whispered. "She cared for the Slytherins just as much as you did, but she wasn't able to protect them. Do you know how hard it is for her? To see those kids suffer year in and year out, unable to do anything to help them?"
Severus shook his head, incapable of understanding what was happening.
"It destroyed her. Don't you see, Professor Snape? Things would have been so much worse if you hadn't been around."
"And you? She didn't know you."
"You didn't either, at least not until I told you my name. It's been twenty years, after all."
Running his fingers through his hair with a shaking hand, Severus attempted to throw off his panic, knowing he had to focus his mind if he was to cast off whatever had been done to him.
"I don't know how you've managed to accomplish...such an elaborate hoax," he said, testing the strength of his legs and starting for the steps. "But even Albus can't affect an entire world. Whatever you've done, it can't be total. No one has that kind of power."
"Oh, for the love of—look, you've been given a great gift! Instead of poking it with a stick, maybe you could actually walk around a bit. See what the world would have been like if it weren't for you." Diggory sighed, then looked to the sky with a nod. "Why don't we go in to Hogsmeade?"
"And give the Aurors the gift of my person?" Severus said with a scoff, though now that the dungeons were closed, he had no idea where he would go next.
"There are no Aurors hunting you. Not now. You were never born, you never committed any crime. Come on, Professor," Diggory said, grabbing his shoulder and steering him towards the road to Hogsmeade. "Let's go into town. See all that's changed."
Not knowing what else to do, his mind still in a daze, Severus allowed himself to be manhandled, quietly walking the path next to Diggory.
"Gosh, I'd almost forgotten how beautiful this place was," Diggory said, turning around as they walked, seeming to take it all in. Severus frowned, eyes wandering over the gray sky, the below-freezing weather and dead grass. "I mean, you kind of forget how great the world is when you're in Paradise—"
"So there is an afterlife," Severus stated aloud. "You've no doubt ascended to a place for heroes, I imagine."
"Oh, um," Diggory seemed to flounder and hoisted his broom higher. "I suppose I shouldn't be talking about that."
Curious now, despite whether Diggory was exactly what he said he was, Severus asked, "What manner of angel has to fly around on a broom?"
"I'm not an angel, I'm—"
"A Guardian," Severus sighed, his body exhausted from stress and panic as he walked the familiar path to Hogsmeade. "My Guardian."
"Oh, right. About that. Um—"
"I'm not exactly a Guardian. Not yet," he said, scuffing up the back of his hair. "This is like a test and if I do well then—"
"Oh, Merlin," Severus groaned, and threw his head back to address the sky. "Even in death, Albus..."
"Look, I know I can do this," Diggory said. "And I have an incentive. If I help you I'll earn my wings and I can retire this here." He gestured to his broom.
"Yes, I imagine it's difficult to play Quidditch without wings."
"You have no idea," Diggory groaned, and Severus nearly laughed at the ridiculous predicament he was in.
He'd nearly recovered from the shock he'd received at Hogwarts when he walked onto the main road of Hogsmeade. The town didn't look so different from the one he'd left this morning, but there were a few things that stuck out.
"That pub wasn't there before," Severus said, noticing the seedy-looking establishment with wonder, both because it had appeared out of thin air and because Hogsmeade didn't welcome such dark places on its main road.
"It was constructed to meet with demand," Diggory said, his voice taking on its dark tone again. "Nearly half of all students sorted into Slytherin leave Hogwarts before their seventh year. A lot of them end up here...drifting."
Still unsure of exactly what was happening, Severus walked to the pub, his steps quicker and more certain than they had been, eager to find some flaw, something that would prove this wasn't real.
Walking through the door, he took in the offensive smell of cheap beer and smoke, saw men sitting in dark corners and scantily-clad women serving them drinks.
No longer caring how ridiculous he might appear, Severus turned and looked back out the door, confirming he was actually on the main road of Hogsmeade, then entered the pub.
As far as hoaxes went, this was an elaborate one, Severus was forced to admit. Though still doubting any of this was real, Severus attempted to blend in with the shadows, finding it easy enough to do in a place so dark. Glancing around for signs of law enforcement, Severus patted his pockets but found no change for a drink. He turned to Diggory to tell him they should leave, when suddenly his throat tightened upon noticing the man behind the bar.
"Mr. Kinsey," Severus said before he could stop himself, and went for his wand to Disapparate before he realized he'd lost it. The boy who'd stood his ground against Lucius Malfoy was behind the bar, looking tired and defeated, when he should have been climbing over it to arrest Severus.
"Do I know you?" Kinsey asked, and Severus took in his stained clothing and the fatigue in his stance. This boy had been one of the first to trump Lucius, excelling at his NEWTs and going on to become an Auror. When Severus began to realize he wasn't about to be arrested, he stood bewildered at the changes he was seeing.
"No," Severus said, a new chill running through him as his old student glared at him, still not understanding how any of this was happening. Whatever Albus had done, it extended to his former students as well.
"Well, you want a drink or not? I don't enjoy people staring at me, you know?"
"We were just leaving," Diggory said, once again grabbing Severus by the arm and ushering him to the door. "Sorry to bother you."
"That boy," Severus said, as he stumbled out of the pub, "that man...is an Auror. He should have been fastening my hands, not serving drinks in a shady pub."
"Kinsey was one of the first to be sorted after Slytherin was destroyed," Diggory said as they stood in the middle of the road. "All the students were deemed too dangerous to teach Potions or Defense, and...well, you can see what happened to him. To all of them."
"How are you doing this?" Severus asked in a hiss, needing to know how any of this was possible.
Diggory gave a long-suffering sigh and said, "You were never born. Look around you. Was any of Hogsmeade like this when you woke up this morning?"
No, Severus thought as he scanned the road. There were other things he noticed now, things he hadn't seen before. The town had a different air about it, something more desperate, more squalid.
"One man can't make such a difference," Severus said in disbelief. "That alone tells me this is some elaborate ruse. And Slytherin..." He turned to Diggory, the glaring yellow of his robes standing out in stark contrast to Severus' eyes. "Slytherin would survive. The students would find a way. It wouldn't fail, not like this," he said, even as his thoughts ran back to that day when Lucius had made his first attempt to destroy Slytherin. Children were strong, especially those in his house, but not that strong.
He'd always known he was the only thing standing between Slytherin and destruction, and yet seeing evidence of what he'd feared for so long struck him with a fierce blow.
"What if Professor Dumbledore hadn't been born?" Diggory asked, shifting his broom on his shoulder again. "Who would have defeated Grindelwald? Who would have stood against Voldemort all those years? One man can make a great difference, Professor."
"A great man, yes," Severus said, massaging his temples as Diggory's words brought back feelings that had been lingering on the surface. The failure and disappointment, forgotten in his panic, came back to the forefront as Diggory's words echoed in his mind. "I am most certainly not a great man. Not even close."
Diggory sighed and leaned against his broom. "You couldn't be more wrong, you know. You just can't see it because of all that's happened to you, all the obstacles. But you are a great man, Professor. Just take a look around you," he said, waving his arms around. People stopped and stared at them, but Diggory paid no notice. "Look at this place, look how it's changed. Doesn't it mean anything to you?"
Severus scoffed and started walking down the street, unsure of where he was going but knowing he would find a flaw in Albus' illusion if he kept looking.
The buildings were more or less the same, he thought, as he passed Honeydukes and Zonko's and the little cafes students liked to frequent. But then he would spot a pub that hadn't been there the day before and an apothecary that looked less than reputable. He said nothing though his anxiety grew, wanting the illusion to end but also knowing he'd be arrested as soon as it did.
And still he couldn't shake the strange feeling. It was something niggling in the back of his mind, some instinct left over from his days as a spy, something which told him that something had happened to the world—to Severus himself—and had left it askew.
"What do you need to see, Professor?" Diggory asked some moments later. "Just tell me how I can help you and I will."
"No lie is absolute," Severus muttered, continuing his walk down the street, stopping in front of an old church and clenching his jaw in frustration. Suddenly, the wind picked up, tossing Severus' hair into his face. "I will find it and when I do—" His voice faltered as he took in a copy of the Prophet that was stuck in the iron fence of the churchyard, and noticed a picture flapping in the wind.
He'd seen that face earlier today, but it hadn't looked like this. With a growing fear, he leaned down and removed the paper from where it was tangled, taking great care not to destroy the article.
Child Murderer Dies in Azkaban
Horace Slughorn, who murdered seven children in 1972, died today after forty-five years of incarceration in...
He scanned the rest of the article, then took in the picture that had drawn his attention in the first place. It looked as though it had been taken at a trial, Horace looking exactly as Severus remembered in his youth. The picture showed him screaming as he was taken away from a courtroom in chains, the faces of the Wizengamot, who had no doubt just convicted him, looking vicious as they watched.
"This didn't happen," Severus whispered, unable to remove his eyes from the image. "Horace never killed anyone. I was there. I—"
"You couldn't stop him," Diggory said, taking the paper from Severus' hands and looking at the image himself. "You weren't there to stop him from killing those kids. No one was there. No one else wanted to spend their holiday making potions. Just you."
"No..." Severus said, his thoughts taking him back to that day, how terrified he'd been of his professor, of earning his ire and losing the place where he'd known he had belonged. "He was upset. His son had just died, but he didn't—"
"Seven kids died that day, Professor. Kids that would have lived if you had been there to help Professor Slughorn see he'd made a mistake. Don't you see?" He turned the paper around in his hands, folding it back to reveal the front page headline. "Isn't this enough yet?"
Department of Magical Games and Sports Loses Bid to Host Next Quidditch World Cup
Severus grabbed the paper, checking the date—January 8th—before searching the remaining pages for the real headline.
"What are you looking for, Professor?"
"Don't patronize me," he spat out, thumbing through the pages, searching for the article declaring Pearson's success in curing lycanthropy, or evidence that the paper was a fake. "You know exactly what I'm looking for."
"It never happened," Diggory said softly.
Throwing the paper to the ground, Severus closed the distance between their faces and shouted, "Pearson Pharmaceuticals cured lycanthropy! It was in today's paper! You can't erase over a decade of research—"
"Pearson Pharmaceuticals has been running in circles for the past decade, trying to find a cure," Diggory said, completely unaffected by Severus' shouting or the way he loomed over him with an unspoken threat. "They haven't found one yet because..." his words cut off as he looked past the churchyard to the cemetery in the back. With a roll of his shoulders, he pushed Severus away, then grabbed him by the elbow to pull him past the gate to the back of the church.
The wind howled and sent Severus' hair flying into his face as he scanned the grounds, noticing there were a few more headstones than there had been the last time he'd passed by. He walked past a vacant spot, following Diggory to a piece of earth that held a few stones, all of them covered by fallen bramble. Not able to cast a warming charm, he pulled his cloak closer around him, the sense memory forcing him to close his eyes and recall the touch of Harry wrapping it around him that morning.
His thoughts were disturbed by Diggory, who had to shout in order to be heard above the wind. "A thing like lycanthropy can't be cured by one man. It takes a team, Professor. Whether you realized it or not, you were part of that team...and so was Draco Malfoy."
The wind rushed by his ears, filling him with dread, as he realized what they were doing in the graveyard.
"Draco Malfoy was murdered by his father at the age of eighteen!" Diggory cried out into the wind. "He never married. He didn't live long enough to father any children—"
"That's a lie!" Severus shouted, his body shaking in rage and in fear. "Draco Malfoy is a hero! He helped create the cure for lycanthropy! He saved Harry's life during the—"
"Draco wasn't there to save Harry because you weren't there to save Draco!"
The cold January air swirled around him as Severus felt all the breath leave his body. He no longer had the freedom to doubt the world Diggory and Albus had somehow warped, not now, not if what Diggory was saying was at all possible.
Grim, grey eyes met his, and Diggory leaned down to remove some of the bramble covering the headstone. Memories of Harry plagued Severus' mind, his thoughts returning to the Final Battle, of what might have happened if he hadn't been there. No longer having the luxury of assuming this was all an illusion, Severus asked, "But what happened to—" Harry's name died on his lips as Diggory uncovered the stone.
There, underneath a small etching of a phoenix, was the name 'Draco Malfoy' and the years '1980 to 1998.'
Seveus shook his head, reaching out to touch the stone, needing to know it was true, that he hadn't gone mad, that all of this was really happening. Thoughts of Draco, someone he'd been proud to call his friend, flashed before his eyes: hundreds of lunches over a dozen years, play dates with their children, the satisfaction of having a colleague whose conversation always engaged him.
"Every man's life touches so many others. If you take one person from the world, it leaves a space. But yours, Professor...yours has left an awful hole, hasn't it?"
It wasn't possible, Severus told himself, knowing that if this was really happening, that meant Harry would be dead as well.
"The Dark Lord..." Severus started, his heart beating madly as he tried to phrase the question, the answer to which he most feared. "If Draco wasn't there, then Harry—"
Something occurred to him, something that he hadn't thought of while he tried to convince himself that none of this was real. There were some mistakes that no amount of magic could erase, stains that couldn't be washed away, sins that always left a mark. Slowly and with great fear, Severus held his breath, then took the left sleeve of his robe in hand and rolled up the cuff.
His eyes went wide as he took in his forearm, unblemished by the Dark Mark.
It had been nearly forty years since he'd last seen his arm unmarred by that mark, and the absence of it frightened him as he realized what was happening was possible. That Diggory or Albus might actually have the kind of power to completely erase his life.
Frantic now, his hand dove into his pocket, remembering one final thing. His fingers searched for it, praying for this one thing that would prove it was all an illusion.
"It's not there either."
"What?" Severus asked, searching his other pockets, praying he'd find it.
He turned out his pockets, searching for it, but Diggory was right. The picture of his family had gone, and in the space of a heartbeat, Severus realized the truth.
All of this was really happening.
"Call me Cedric, Professor, please."
"Cedric," Severus whispered, kneeling on the cold, hard ground, running his hand over Draco's name. "If Draco...what happened to Harry?"
"He...lived," Diggory said, putting his hands in his pockets. "He's alive."
Severus closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. He knew Harry was strong, that he'd never needed Severus; not in the way Severus needed him. But their children... Would Harry have adopted them with another man? Surely he'd have adopted Jonathan, but what if Elizabeth had not run into Harry's robes instead? He needed to see them, to know that they were better off without him. That the two children he loved with all his heart were well. "I want to see my family. Where—" he cut off as his throat closed. He took a deep breath, the biting, freezing air burning his lungs, then asked, "Where is Harry? Where are my children?"
"Your children?" Diggory said, narrowing his eyes and tilting his head, as though he could see through to Severus' heart, to every failure he'd felt as a father, to every insecurity, to every fear. "What do you—"
"Where are my children!" he shouted, dragging Diggory's body down by his collar, and hitting his head against Draco's stone. "Where are they? I don't know how you've done all this, but I know you know! Tell me where they are!"
"They're exactly where they would be if you hadn't adopted them!" Diggory shouted back, straining as Severus' hands wrapped around his throat, his feet sliding against the cold, hard earth. "They're at the orphanage."
Severus' eyes went wide and he released him, standing up and grabbing for a wand that still wasn't there. Realizing he couldn't get to the orphanage without it, he turned to Diggory, pulling him to his feet by his collar. Diggory seemed resigned for Severus to argue, beg, or threaten his way into that orphanage; it hardly mattered what he had to do, he had to reach his children.
"I can take you there," Diggory said, holding out his arm for Severus to grab. "Just...don't do anything drastic, okay?"
Hardly able to do anything else, Severus nodded and readied himself for the discomfort of Side-Along Apparition. The sensation never came, and with a blink of his eye they were standing in front of a snow-covered cottage, a place Severus had never seen before.
"This is a place for the older children. The girls' room is over here," Diggory said, gesturing for quiet as they walked through the yard, their feet crushing the snow as they went. "Look..."
Careful not to get too close to the window, Severus peered inside, hardly realizing he was holding his breath as he did so.
The room was tidy and well-kept, if very small for the number of beds it held. It was empty and Severus thought he could hear the sound of girlish squealing approaching, and he bent his knees to conceal himself.
And then he saw her.
Elizabeth ran into the room, the other girls chasing after her, and though Severus couldn't tell what they were saying, it was clear they were intent on taunting her.
She grabbed hold of herself around her small chest and put her chin down, standing in a corner as the other girls continued their jeers. Without realizing it, Severus began to rise from his squatting position, not able to watch this for a moment longer, when Diggory put a hand on his arm to keep him there.
"She doesn't know you," he said sadly. "She doesn't have a father, and she's not likely to ever have one."
Just then a woman entered the room, her hands on her hips as she broke up the awful scene, shooing the other girls out before turning to Elizabeth. With a tired smile, she put a hand on her small shoulder and Severus felt his heart clench as he noticed Elizabeth's tears. The woman comforted her for a moment, her words going unheard by Severus, before a sound from the other room had her running, leaving Elizabeth alone.
There were no words, Severus realized, nothing to ask Diggory, no accusations to be made. There was just his daughter, crying, alone in an orphanage with no one to love her.
"He's with the boys," Diggory said. "Professor, can you imagine what it would do to that little girl if you—"
"Be quiet," Severus whispered, unable to take his eyes off his daughter, trying to resist the urge to go to her and take her in his arms.
"Do you want to see him?"
"No," Severus said, even as he forced himself to turn away from Elizabeth and follow Diggory to the other side of the cottage.
He almost didn't recognize him, this boy with short brown hair, this boy who was playing a game of Exploding Snap by himself. He seemed so lonely and so isolated sitting on his bed when Severus knew he'd be happier reading or working on his latest potion.
"I know you feel like you haven't been the best father," Diggory said, his tone reverent in contrast to Severus' swirling emotions, "but these kids love you. They need you."
He felt his heart break anew as he watched Jonathan throw down his last card in frustration, then tuck his knees under his chin. Severus watched as Jonathan looked out the window, not seeing Severus, his eyes revealing his loneliness.
"That boy...he's going to be brilliant at something some day. Maybe potions, maybe something else, but..."
"I'm sure your son would be incredible at whatever he chose to do," Diggory said softly. "But that boy on the bed isn't your son."
"My family, the family Harry gave me—" His thoughts were torn from his children as he looked down at the ring finger of his left hand, which he only now noticed was unadorned for the first time since he'd married. Severus had never been a good father, but Harry had been an excellent one. He couldn't imagine what would have happened to keep Harry from adopting the children.
"Where's Harry?" he asked, running his fingers over the place where his ring should have been. The feeling of what had changed suddenly came to him: no Dark Mark, the weight of his ring gone. Everything had changed with just a few words from Diggory.
"There's something you need to understand, Professor," Diggory said, running a hand through his hair and looking far more disturbed than he had even a moment ago. "Voldemort—"
"The prophecy," Severus muttered, realizing that if all this were true, if he had never been born, that he had never delivered the prophecy that would lead to Lily's death. But if that event had never happened, then Harry—
"Harry defeated Voldemort," Diggory said, putting a hand on his shoulder in an awkward effort to comfort. "That was his destiny. But it happened...differently."
Removing himself from the equation, Severus thought over the last two wars, trying to determine what could have possibly happened. "Where's Harry?"
"Voldemort learned about the prophecy, but after the time he would have learned it from you. Rookwood was in the Department of Mysteries—"
"Where's Harry?" Severus asked again, dread growing in his heart.
"When his parents died, Harry was four," Diggory said forcefully, looking Severus in the eye as he begged him to understand. "He was four when they threw him in the cupboard. He didn't grow up the way he had when you knew him. He remembered his parents, he remembered having enough food and a bed and a mother who loved him—"
"Where's Harry!" Severus shouted, once again grabbing Diggory and throwing him against a leafless tree. "Take me to him! Now!"
"Draco Malfoy wasn't there to help him," Diggory said, pulling his arm away for Severus to take again.
The snowy landscape faded away and Severus recognized a building on the far side of Hogsmeade. He turned around, having no idea which flat could be Harry's, and waited for Diggory to tell him.
"Which one?" he asked curtly, knowing he was not above pounding on each door until he found Harry.
"He was injured in the Final Battle. It was much worse because Draco wasn't there. Do you really need to see this?" Diggory looked to the floor and put his hands in his pockets. "Professor, I don't want you to see this if you don't have to. Can't you stop this now?"
"Which one?" Severus asked again, Diggory's words causing his anxiety to grow. Harry had survived the Final Battle, that was no great surprise. But there was something within him that was desperate to see him, needed to know that Harry still existed in this terrible world. He had to know that Harry had survived without him, that even without the children he could be happy.
Happy without Severus.
With a long-suffering sigh, Diggory said, "He's in number four, but—wait, Professor!"
Severus didn't wait. Not knowing what he would say if Harry truly didn't know him, he ran to number four, pounding on the door even as he realized the sun had long since gone down.
A moment passed and no one answered, and Severus nearly lost his nerve. What would be waiting for him on the other side of the door, he wondered. What would he do if he saw Harry in the arms of another man, a greater man than Severus, someone who was actually worthy of Harry?
His poor children had suffered in his absence, but Harry... Somehow Severus knew Harry would have been better off without him. Suddenly he thought he could feel the wards come down, then watched as the knob turned to open the door.
It was dark inside and Severus couldn't see a thing, let alone Harry. Using his shoulder, he tried to push the door open, only to have a wand pointing in his face a second later.
"Who are you?" a gruff voice asked from the darkness. "What do you want?"
Stilling at the sound of a voice so familiar and yet so different than the one he was used to, Severus looked up and was barely able to make out Harry's face in the darkness.
All words left him as his body went rigid, as his thoughts slowed and chest ached at seeing Harry's damaged face.
A terrible, angry-looking scar that ran from his forehead to his chin marred the brightness of his left eye, a burn scar disfiguring the other cheek. His shoulders were slumped and he held his wand in a shaking hand.
"Well?" Harry asked, his voice sounding hoarse from disuse. "Answer me. What do you want?"
It was then that Severus looked into his eyes, not able to hold back a reaction. Harry's eyes—which had always been so expressive, so bright and full of life that Severus could always find strength in them—looked dull and lifeless. They were the eyes of a man defeated.
"Are you from St. Mungo's?"
Not trusting himself to speak, Severus nodded his head, unable to stop his staring. How was it possible that this had happened to Harry? How could Severus' influence have possibly prevented this?
Harry lowered his wand and coughed out a dark laugh. "They sent a new guy to check in with the Boy Who Lived, then? Well, you can tell them my standard response: bugger off. I'm tired of all of you poking and examining me when there's nothing you can do to fix me."
He backed up a step to close the door and Severus noticed how he leaned heavily upon a cane and how his left arm lay lifeless at his side. Not knowing what else to do, only knowing he couldn't leave Harry like this, Severus put his foot on the threshold.
"Harry—" he whispered, not knowing what to say, or what could be done. He only knew that he couldn't stand to see Harry like this. Not when Harry had saved him, shown him a love he had never dared to hope for, given him a family of his own.
"Do I know you?" Harry asked, peering at Severus as though he was seeing him for the first time.
"Yes," Severus whispered in response. "Yes, you know me," he said, praying that all this could be undone. That he could have his life back, that he could have Harry and their children back, that he would never see Harry with that look in his eyes ever again.
Their eyes met and for a fraction of a second, Severus thought he saw a flicker of something, a recognition of what existed between them that even magic couldn't take away.
"No," Harry said slowly, blinking and turning away from Severus. "No, I think I'd remember you," he said, looking at Severus the way he'd seen Harry look at reporters. "Now leave. I don't know what they told you, but I can still use this," he said, bringing his wand up to point at Severus' heart. "You people have taken enough from me." Suddenly his face twisted, the scar tissue looking like it still pained him, and Severus wanted nothing more than to take him into his arms. "When is it going to be enough?" Harry asked, looking down to the ground.
Not knowing what to say, Severus remained silent, their eyes meeting one last time before Harry slammed the door in his face.
His hands shaking, his entire body a tightly wound coil, Severus stood there facing Harry's door, unable to deny the truth any longer.
By Merlin, what had he done?
"Diggory!" he shouted, turning and running to where he'd left him, only to find he was no longer there. "Diggory!" He looked around, but for the first time while on this terrible horror show of his non-life, Diggory was nowhere to be found.
The world seemed as though it were spinning around him, and all Severus could think was that he wanted to take it back. He didn't care about his life, but he couldn't force away the image of Harry's dead stare, of Elizabeth crying with no one to comfort her, of Jonathan's loneliness.
He stood there in the cold and the dark, thinking of his friendship with Draco and how it had grown over the years, of the Slytherins who needed his protection, of friendships that he'd nurtured for decades, all gone now.
Never in his dreams had he thought he could have had such an impact, that the life that had been all but meaningless to him could have affected so many others. But as Harry's face burned itself into his memory, he knew he was wrong.
He wanted them back. Even faced with a lifetime in Azkaban, he knew he needed his life back.
"Albus!" he cried to the sky, the clouds obscuring the stars. "Albus, I take it back. Diggory!" He spun around on the street, not knowing what to do, where to go or what could be done.
The only thing he could think to do was return to the place where this terrible mistake had all started.
In fear, he ran towards Hogwarts. Hogwarts, the place that had been his prison for more than half his life, seemed like his salvation now. He thought about his life, how useless it had felt even hours ago, how meaningless he'd thought it. And now he wanted it back. Pathetic little half-life it might have been, but he'd had Harry and a family and people who needed him. For their sake, he needed it all back.
He ran the entire distance from Hogsmeade, his lungs on fire, his legs aching as they hadn't in years. Panting, his soul in agony, he reached the edge of the lake and cried, "Albus, I take it back! Please, Albus, I want my life back! I don't care about myself, but please give me Harry! Our children!"
But the air was quiet, the soft ripples of waves on the lake its only response.
"Please, Albus, Diggory..." he roared across the water, listening for something, anything. "Please..." he whispered, burying his face in his hands.
What had he done? His chest churned, his insides squirming while his mind tried to think everything through. But, just as the wind whipped his robes around his ankles, his thoughts whirled and rushed, refusing to pause. Despair bore down on him, so painful it crucified him against a wall of loss, of agony, of all he had thrown away, and his every breath became ragged, tearing at his throat. He was lost now, with no home, husband or children to anchor him, to give his life meaning. Worse than that, he had condemned everyone he had ever cared about to misery.
What the hell had he done?
Flashes of memory swept through his mind, recalling images of cherished scenes, of memories of times past, which flew out of reach before he could caress them. "No! Please!" He tried to latch onto them, to Harry's smile, to the children playing together, to keep them close before they also left him, like they had never existed.
Noises squeezed through the narrowness of his throat—noises he hadn't made since he'd been a child—emerging as a running murmur of pleading, the shameless wail of heartbreak Tears rolled down his cheeks and his hands tore at his hair as his body shook with emotion in a way it hadn't for decades.
The tears fell without ceasing, down his cheeks and onto his chin and neck. Suddenly, a drop of wetness fell onto his nose, then another and another as the sudden rain, falling hard now, shared his pain. They fell onto his shoulders, lying as though a weight was there, and he gasped, his mind stilling as a part of him began to remember how he'd felt such a thing before, how he'd felt the same sensation of being comforted.
The last time Albus had helped him undo a terrible mistake.
Slowly, he removed his face from his hands. "Albus?" he whispered, the name like a prayer, and the drops of rain pressed down harder onto his shoulder, as though a hand laid there. The despair lifted somewhat and he felt hope return, fearful of allowing it inside, but not willing to let it escape him either.
A new sensation ran through him, then he felt something else, a familiar weight on his left hand.
Terrified of what he wouldn't see, Severus looked down and there, on the third finger of his shaking hand, was the simple band of gold Harry had given him under a starry Arabian sky. With a groan of overwhelming relief, he reached out to feel it, his fingertips touching it, then running it over his lips and face to confirm it was really there.
"Yes," he whispered, then rolled up his left sleeve. The faded, black mark looked back at him and Severus thought he had never been so happy to see it.
"Oh...yes," he said again, reaching down into his pocket and finding his wand. "Yes." He held it in his hand, feeling a thrill of a different kind run through him as it sang for him once again, just as it had the first time all those years ago.
And one last thing—
Reaching into his pocket, Severus quickly found a folded piece of paper. With more joy than he'd ever felt, he opened it and saw the picture of his family—a family Harry had given him—looking back at him. With a bark of hysterical laughter, he traced the hair that took up nearly an eighth of the page, and the lightning bolt scar that accompanied it, before putting it back into his pocket as though it were the most precious thing in the world.
With a whirl, he spun around to take in the sight of Hogwarts in the dark of night. He smiled as he felt a strange sensation run through him, as though he were eleven years old again and was seeing it for the first time. He began to walk towards it slowly, his steps gaining momentum as he felt a weight being lifted, as though he was running towards freedom and not from it.
This place which he had hated so passionately, this place that he'd once thought had taken so much from him seemed so different now.
As he ran up the stairs, he felt his throat clench and held his breath as he made his way towards the stairs to the dungeon, exhaling deeply when he met them.
"Thank Merlin," he whispered reverently, dropping to his knees to touch the rough stone. Slytherin hadn't been destroyed. The children in his care had been preserved, generations of tradition hadn't ended.
And as he stood up and walked to the Great Hall, a new sensation flooded his senses: pride. Slytherin had always been a weight on his back, something that he knew had to be done, a burden meant for his shoulders alone.
But as he took in the four great tables, as he looked at the fourth hourglass that currently had the highest level, a deep satisfaction filled a place he'd always felt had been empty.
No, he hadn't cured lycanthropy, and perhaps the dreams he'd once held for his life would never be fulfilled now.
But he had this. This would be his greatest accomplishment, this was his life's work, the thing he could point to when his life had ended and he'd tell himself he had done some good in this world. He wouldn't be ashamed to die now, not when he knew he'd won this small victory.
He'd saved Slytherin when no one else could, and the sudden gratification at the thought filled the empty space in him to overflowing.
But he hadn't done it alone.
Suddenly, the need to see Harry and his children was absolute. He needed to see with his own eyes that all had not been lost before the Aurors took him to Azkaban.
The sound of his boots filled the Great Hall as he made a mad run for Hogsmeade, muttering a prayer under his breath that everything had been restored.
He Apparated from the gates of Hogwarts to the main street of Hogsmeade, standing in the freezing rain and looking for the now-absent shady pubs, and breathed a sigh of relief. His fear somewhat quelled, hope renewed within his heart, he again reached for the wand in his pocket and Apparated home.
Not caring that the Aurors were probably waiting for him inside, Severus ran to the door, slamming it open as he called out, "Harry! Jonathan, Elizabeth!"
"Daddy!" Elizabeth screamed from the kitchen, running for Severus with her arms wide open.
He stopped in his tracks as he watched her running towards him, taking in her sweet face and the way her eyes lit up when she saw him before jumping into his arms. He quickly picked her up and kissed her cheeks, wrapping his arms around her and thanking whoever was responsible for returning her to him. Burying his nose in her hair, he squeezed her tightly, unable to stifle his sigh as he took in the smell of her peach shampoo and the feel of soft cotton in his hands.
"Dad!" he heard Jonathan shout, and freed an arm to pick him up as well.
"Jonathan," he said with a grunt, only to put him down a moment later. "Merlin, boy, what is your father feeding you?" He used his free hand to ruff up his long hair, taking in his smiling face. Something occurred to him while looking down on his son, something that should have been said some time ago. It had only been awkwardness and a sense of failure that had stopped him, but Severus saw his son now with new eyes. Leaning down so only Jonathan could hear, Severus looked him in the eye and said, "Son, you could never be a disappointment to me."
He watched as Jonathan's bottom lip quivered for a moment before he nodded and buried his face in Severus' robes. Grateful to have his son returned to him, Severus patted his shoulder and held him close.
Suddenly someone was clearing their throat, and Severus finally noticed the five Aurors who were standing in his sitting room. A small part of him smirked with a slightly sadistic pleasure that the DMLE had sent five men to escort him to the Ministry when any other man would have warranted two.
The pleasure took a different turn when he saw a familiar face. "Mr. Kinsey," Severus said with a happy sigh as he took in his former student.
"Professor Snape," he said, and Severus saw how hesitant he was to do his duty. "I'm very sorry, sir, but—"
"You're here to arrest me."
"We're here to take you in for questioning, actually—"
"That's fine," Severus said, looking around the house for the one person he needed more than any other. "I'll just be a moment. Harry!"
"Severus?" he heard Harry call from another room, his voice intact and hopeful, just as Severus had known it for the past fourteen years.
Not putting Elizabeth down, Severus began a walk towards the voice, when suddenly Harry was standing there in the doorway, his body whole, his face unscarred, and his eyes...
"Severus!" Harry sighed, then ran to him, mirroring Elizabeth's jump as he took Severus into his arms.
"Harry," Severus whispered, shifting Elizabeth to his hip so he could grab hold of him, the smell of home and family and a love he'd never again take for granted flooding his senses. "Oh, Harry," he said again, running a hand through his hair and kissing him—beautiful, familiar lips meeting his in joy and desperation, telling each other without words the depth of emotion between them.
"Severus, I think we've figured out what to do," Harry said, but Severus could hardly pay attention. He was too busy running his hand over Harry's face, needing to know he was real, that the nightmare had ended and he hadn't let slip the most important thing in his life.
Unable to help himself, he grabbed Harry to his chest again, holding him tight, unwilling to let go. "Harry," he said with reverence, whispering his name as though it was an endearment in itself.
"Severus, are you all right? What's gotten into you?"
"Dad, we figured out what to do to save you from Azkaban!" Jonathan said with a shout of excitement, and Severus watched as Harry wrapped an arm around him, bringing him in closer.
"No one person's testimony is enough to clear you," Harry said, as Severus put aside his relief and joy to hear him. "But if everyone—"
"Put the Pensieve in here, Rubeus," he heard Minerva say as she opened the door to their home. "This way everyone can—oh! I see you've found Severus."
"Minerva," Severus said with a smile he was no longer able to keep from his face. The sight of it must have been shocking, if Minerva's expression had anything to say about it.
"Severus," she said, her shoulders falling somewhat, but her tone losing none of its fierceness, "I'm so sorry for what happened. But my word still counts for something in the Ministry. So do the voices of many others." She drew herself up and held her wand to her temple. "I recall several meetings in those last days before the Final Battle. One meeting in particular where you gave Albus specific plans on how Voldemort would attack, how many Death Eaters he had at his disposal, and exactly what he planned on doing to Harry." She concentrated and added a silvery wisp to the Pensieve.
"And I might be your husband," Harry said from his side, "but I was there the day Dumbledore asked you to return to Voldemort. The day he was resurrected." He added his memory to the Pensieve, then kissed Severus. "A memory can't exaggerate."
Looking up, astonished, Severus noticed several other members of the Order, all braving the cold, bitter rain to come into his house and stand in a line to the Pensieve now sitting on a table in front of his family.
What appeared to be two or three people turned into more than a dozen as they all filed inside, casting warming charms on themselves as they stood in a line, all just to aid Severus. There were people he hadn't spoken to in years, people he'd swear had hated him, all standing there waiting for their turn at the Pensieve. Some were smiling at him, some gave him a solemn nod, but they were all there for him.
"Hello, Severus," Lupin said with a grin, then moved his wand to his temple. "I was there the night before the Final Battle. The night you returned from your meeting to tell us Voldemort was attacking at dawn." He pulled the memory from himself and said, "If that's not concrete evidence, then I don't know what is."
"Oh, thank God," Harry whispered from his side.
"Thank you, Remus," Severus said, smirking at the surprised smile that graced Lupin's face. Suddenly, he recalled that something grand had happened for Lupin today, something that he'd had a hand in. "I expect you'll be taking on a few more of the older years now that that little monthly problem of yours is soon to be resolved?"
If Severus had never spent a moment researching lycanthropy, the look of relief Lupin gave him was enough to tell him exactly what that disease had cost him. With a wide grin, Lupin nodded his head, and said, "Yes, I think so, Severus. I imagine I will."
With a sparkle in his eye, Lupin left and Ronald and Hermione Weasley stepped up, Ronald giving him a slow nod and Hermione smiling at the children. "We remember what happened after the Final Battle," she said, wand to her temple. "How you rarely left Harry's side, making potions for him nearly around the clock."
"That's a bit of an exaggeration," Severus said, the entire room chuckling at his protest.
"Still," Ronald said, "you were there. If you were such a loyal Death Eater, why would you bother saving Harry's life if he killed your master?"
"Guys," Harry said, "thank you." As they added their memories, he whispered to Severus, "Around the clock?"
Other members came and donated their memories, people he hadn't seen in years, people he'd forgotten had been in the room when he'd done or said a particular thing. Still they came: Dedalus Diggle, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher, Arthur and Molly Weasley, looking on him as if he were an old friend. Kingsley Shacklebolt greeted them with a smile, sharing his memories of the Final Battle, of things Severus hadn't known he'd witnessed.
Moved not only by their enthusiasm, but by the sheer number of people now standing in his sitting room, Severus could only give a nod and a thank you as they passed by, contributing memories that would hopefully save his life.
Severus lifted an eyebrow in surprise when Alastor Moody reluctantly limped towards the table, scowling as he said, "You might be a—" Noticing Elizabeth still in his arms, he grumbled, then said, "I don't want you to misunderstand what's going on here, Snape. If these people are giving their memories to help you, it's not because they like you." With a twist of his lips, he said, begrudgingly, "It's because we owe you. We'd have been caught by surprise that last night if it weren't for you. I was there when you helped secure the door to the Entrance Hall." Severus met his scowl as Moody added the memory, then joined the others who had congregated around the Aurors.
"Don't—say anything!" Harry said, putting a hand on Severus' arm as he took a step towards Moody. "There are Aurors in our sitting room, if you've forgotten. And speaking of..."
Harry reached a hand out towards the advancing Aurors, fidgeting with obvious anxiety as they approached Severus. "Wait, please. I know you have a job to do, but—"
"Draco's here!" Severus heard someone shout from the back of the room, and he smiled as he saw a familiar blond head of hair approach him through the crowd. As the crowd parted, he saw Draco's smirking face, his cloak sodden with rain.
"I came as soon as I heard," he said, Astoria and his children in tow. "I'd like to say I'm surprised by this, but then..." his words trailed off as he shook his head, thoughts of his father's treachery no doubt on his mind. "Listen, all of you," he said, turning to the Aurors, then back to Severus. "Severus, I'd be dead if it weren't for you, dead by the bastard who started all this." His face took on a look of extreme displeasure as he raised his wand to his temple. "You pushed me out of the way when my father tried to kill me, then you told me where to find Potter." The silvery mist left him. "Merlin knows what would have happened if it hadn't been for you."
"Thank God we'll never have to find out," Harry said with a broad grin on his face.
"Well," Draco said as the Aurors approached the Pensieve, "I'm hoping that word of this leaks out, that people actually remember what really happened, what Lucius tried to do. And maybe over time...they'll ease up on the Slytherins and you two."
"It's possible," Severus said, watching as the Aurors stood next to him, knowing they were hearing every word. "The Wizengamot has already cleared him from any charges, but—"
"Lucius Malfoy might control the press, but he doesn't control everything," Kinsey said stepping forward. "If word of this gets out—and it will—it might be enough to change things around here. Maybe not overnight, but..." Watching as Kinsey rubbed his thumb over the wand in his hand, Severus saw a shadow of the boy he had once been return to the man standing in front of him. Severus spied Moody and Kingsley standing in the corner, watching. When their eyes met Kinsey's, he saw the question being asked, and Severus held his breath as he waited for the answer.
Kingsley turned to Moody and lifted an eyebrow, then made a gesture with his chin. Rolling his eye, Moody stepped forward and said, "You take those memories to the Wizengamot. Have them look at them, then ask if they really want to put their Aurors in harm's way, bringing in Severus Snape."
"Yes, sir," Kinsey said, his shoulders sagging with relief, even as his confidence returned.
"And if anyone says a word, tell them I said to do it," Moody said with great reluctance as Kingsley laughed.
"I will, thank you, sir. Professor," Kinsey said, turning to Severus with a nod, then extended his hand, "it was good to see you again."
Feeling his heart leap in his chest, Severus took in the sight of that hand—a hand that wasn't reaching out to arrest him—and took it in his own as he felt a weight lift from his shoulders.
Though he'd begged for his life to be returned to him, it hadn't been for himself. He'd known he was asking for a life that was over, only wanting its return for the sake of Harry and their family, for Draco and the Slytherins. He hadn't considered the possibility that his life would be returned to him whole, and with something he'd never had before. The possibility of gaining his freedom and his pride, of knowing that he'd affected so many lives, seemed like an impossible gift.
"You can stay if you'd like, Kinsey," Harry said, looking back at the clock. "We're going to be celebrating your old Head of House's birthday in a few minutes."
With a smile, Kinsey conjured a glass vial and began to remove the memories from the Pensieve. "I'd love to, but I want to make sure this gets to the Wizengamot as soon as possible."
"Thank you, Mr. Kinsey," Severus said, breathing again as he realized he wouldn't be going to Azkaban, that the gift he'd been given had been far greater than he had imagined.
"No, Professor," Kinsey said, walking to the door and taking the other Aurors with him, "thank you."
He watched as Kinsey left, a sense of pride running through him at the knowledge it was with his help that the boy he'd once taught was an Auror today. It was an odd feeling, but an incredible one, and he grasped Harry closer to him as he watched the door close.
"Um, Severus," Draco said, pulling Severus from his ruminations. He looked sheepish for a moment before he removed a manuscript from his robes. "I, uh, saw the paper today. I'm sorry if it caused you any...stress."
"On the contrary, Draco," Severus said, ignoring a smirking Harry. With no little amount of awe, he remembered it was just this morning that he'd felt such jealousy towards Draco for his success. That feeling felt so distant now and he marveled at how much could change in a day. "I couldn't be happier for you...or more proud. You were my student once, after all. Your successes only reflect my skills as a professor."
A genuine smile graced Draco's face and he nodded, and said, "Well, of course. But just in case you wanted a bit more than just vicariously sharing my victory..." he drifted off, then showed Severus the manuscript.
There was the title, A Treatise on the Cure to Lycanthropy and under that, thirteen names.
Severus' name was number seven.
Gently, he set Elizabeth down and took the manuscript from Draco's hands, hardly able to believe what he was seeing.
"How?" he asked.
"What do you mean 'how'?" Draco said, his tone incredulous. "Did you think I was telling my boss that I was the one coming up with all these incredible ideas to get us out of the ruts we got ourselves into? I'm shocked, Severus."
"Oh, my God," Harry whispered, grabbing hold of Severus' arm. "Severus..."
"But Pearson..." Severus said, at a loss for words. "The paper this morning—"
"Yeah, Lucius runs that paper, if you recall. I believe they have standing orders to deny you any good press. Pearson's having a word with them tomorrow."
Again words failed Severus. He stood there mute, just staring at the parchment in his hands. His mouth opened and closed several times, but still no words good enough to express his amazement came to him. With a shake of his head, he gave up the attempt and settled for waving the manuscript through the air.
"Well," said Kingsley's voice from somewhere to his left. "Severus Snape stuck for words; and just when I thought Severus had run out of surprises. Now I'll be able to say I was present when the impossible happened."
The ensuing laughter freed Severus' tongue. "Draco," he whispered, running his finger over his own name, unable to take his eyes from it. "Thank you."
Smirking, Draco responded, "You were part of the team, Severus, whether you realized it or not."
Harry held onto his arm, then said, "Kids, why don't you go play with Ali and Vicky," and Severus was grateful his children wouldn't see him so overwhelmed.
"Ow!" Victoria cried a moment later. "Uncle Harry, Jon pulled my hair!"
"Ugh," Harry groaned. "I'll handle it," he said, running off to deal with the children, leaving Severus alone with Draco.
"Draco, I have no idea what to say," Severus said, giving him back the manuscript. "I never expected this."
"Obviously," he replied with a snort. "Well—there could be a chance things might change around here. And if they do..." he put his hands in his pockets and gave Severus an odd look, "would you consider finally leaving Hogwarts? Coming onto Pearson full-time? I really didn't take credit for any of your ideas. They're absolutely salivating for you over there."
It was the offer he'd always wanted, Severus realized, an offer that would come with no strings attached, unlike Lucius' transparent bribe ten years before. Unable to respond, Severus stood silently, his thoughts in turmoil.
"I'm going to have a long talk with Jon later, but at least he's behaving at the moment," Harry said, coming up to Severus' side and wrapping an arm around him. The warmth of the embrace, the ease with which Harry held him, comforted Severus and left his mind suddenly very clear.
And in that moment of clarity, Severus understood he had everything he'd ever wanted with him. Regardless of whether things changed or not, he was still responsible for generations of children's futures. Suddenly, the thing he'd hated for so long took on a new light, as he realized he'd answered his calling at the age of twenty-one. And all these years he'd been denying it, thinking he was meant for something greater when really he'd been unable to see the importance of what he'd originally misjudged.
And then there was Harry...
He had no desire to sacrifice even a moment of his time with Harry. Not one meal in the Great Hall, not one late-night marking session, not one stolen kiss or conversation between classes.
He had everything he'd ever wanted. And he'd had it all along.
The life which had been restored to him suddenly seemed like the grandest of gifts. Closing his eyes for the space of a heartbeat, he thought back on the nightmare he'd just lived through. He saw Elizabeth weeping, Jonathan alone, Harry scarred and broken. When he'd begged for his life back, it had been for their benefit. Now, after all this time, he was finally able to embrace his life for himself.
Opening his eyes, he looked down on Harry, whose eyebrows raised almost comically as he wondered what was happening. "Thank you, Draco," Severus said, his eyes never leaving Harry's, "but I believe my place is at Hogwarts." He gave a small smile as Harry tilted his head with a silent question, frowning as he looked towards Draco.
Nodding his head, Draco gave a knowing smirk and said, "Well, as long as you're going to be researching on the side, I might as well tell you about our next big project."
"Yes," Severus said, his hands already aching to solve another problem, but his mind not yet ready to let go of his current euphoria. "I look forward to hearing about it."
"Thanks for showing up, Draco," Harry said, his tone resolute as he extended his hand.
With a smile, Draco took it, and said, "You're welcome, Harry. I see Elizabeth finally showed you how to tie your shoes."
"She did, actually," Harry said with a proud smile, "and congratulations on not eating your children. I know it must have been tempting for you."
Draco chuckled and said, "That was a good one, Potter," before he turned around to mingle with the crowd.
"That bastard," Harry muttered under his breath.
Severus grumbled, rolling his eyes at how two grown men still behaved so much like children, and put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Some things never change."
Stopping in his tracks, Draco turned from a conversation he'd just begun with Lupin and said to Severus, "Oh, I almost forgot. Horace said to say hello. He said to tell you he has a bottle of wine he's waiting to share in celebration of your victory." Then Draco turned with a smile, and continued his talk, Severus once again wrapping his arms around Harry, holding on for dear life.
"Well," Harry said, turning around in his arms and running a hand through his hair, "this has been one hell of a day. What happened to you?" he asked, putting his hands on Severus' shoulders and returning his embrace.
Severus was just about to tell Harry he'd share the entire story later when the clock began to chime the hour, and everyone present began wishing him a happy birthday.
"Happy birthday, Severus," Harry whispered and kissed him. His waist was then hugged by an excited Elizabeth and a nearly bouncing Jonathan.
"Is it time for presents?" Elizabeth asked.
"Yeah, why don't the two of you go get them?" Harry said with a laugh, smiling after them as they ran up the stairs.
At the sound of a herd of elephants running around on the top floor, Severus lifted an eyebrow.
"What? It's your birthday, Severus," Harry said, poking him in the chest. "You get presents."
"Father?" Elizabeth said as she came down the stairs, holding something large and wrapped in bright yellow paper in her hands and giving it to Harry. "What's this?"
Frowning, Harry unwrapped the object and his eyes went wide. "Oh...wow," Harry said, and Severus watched as he took the most splendid broom he'd ever seen from the ridiculous paper. "It's a broom, sweetheart, but I've never seen it before. Where did you find it?"
"With Daddy's presents."
With a knowing smile, Severus took the broom in hand, and ran his fingers over the handle, finding a tag hidden in the bristles. Though he knew to whom it belonged, he couldn't help the smirk that twisted his lips when he saw the handwriting, and—though it had been twenty years—recognized it immediately. It really did look as though an owl had tried to nest in the ink.
I thought the kids (and Harry) might enjoy a ride on the broom. I certainly don't need it anymore!
And remember: you've done a lot of good, but you're not done yet. I'll look forward to seeing you, much later.
"Severus?" Harry asked in amazement as he read the note over his shoulder. "What—"
"A gift from a mutual friend, Mr. Potter." He turned to his children and said, "Your father will show you how to ride it tomorrow when he might actually have a chance of not falling off."
"Later, Harry," he said, interrupting Harry's bumbling, even as he took the note from Severus' hands. "Right now I believe our guests require refreshments." He took a look around the room and its inhabitants and frowned. "If they somehow acquired proper eating habits in the years since the last Order feast, of course."
Harry continued looking at the note, astonished, as the broom was being passed around by the guests. "Is this real? How—oh my God!"
There, beneath the fold of the note, was one hastily-written line, the handwriting also familiar to Severus.
Aside from Harry and the kids, I would be more than happy to live in a world where you never existed.
"That bastard," Severus said, grabbing the note from Harry's hands, as Harry was running a finger over the line reverently.
With a look of awe, Harry took it back, and Severus was reminded of why it was so easy to love him. When faced with something impossible, something that required an incredible leap of faith, Harry had no problem diving in head first to believe, whereas Severus had needed to see it with his own eyes.
Copying Severus' smirk, Harry leaned up, note in hand, and said, "Some things never change. You're going to tell me about it, aren't you?"
Taking Harry's face in his hands, Severus kissed him lightly and whispered, "Later. It's a very interesting story...one I'm sure you'll be horrified to hear. Now," he said, looking for one guest in particular, "perhaps Molly would help us cut the cake?"
"Why do you assume we made you a cake?"
"You always make me a cake," Severus said, finding Molly in the crowd and silently asking her for help.
With a warm smile that never ceased to amaze him, Molly nodded and went into the kitchen with Harry, allowing Severus a moment to reread the note in his hands.
Reverently, his fingers traced the words, his heart thankful for the miracle he'd received. Never in his most imaginative dreams did he think he could ever find himself so content. The life he'd once had to justify to himself on a daily basis now looked far brighter for Diggory's help. He folded the note and put it in his pocket, knowing he'd have to thank his Guardian the next time he saw him.
"Well done, Mr. Diggory," Severus muttered under his breath. "Well done."
"Everyone!" Draco said, standing on a chair and commanding the floor as Harry entered the room with an enormous chocolate cake, Molly trailing him with a tray full of drinks. Severus thought he heard Harry mutter something about attention-seeking ferrets when Draco took a glass and lifted it into the air.
"I'd like to propose a toast!" he said, and everyone raised their glasses. "To Severus Snape—the greatest man to ever pass through Slytherin!"
Severus watched as every person raised their glass, smiling at him and repeating Draco's words.
As he looked on in wonder, Harry nestled into his side and whispered, "To Severus Snape—the greatest man I've ever known. Happy birthday, darling."
Severus grumbled at the endearment, but accepted Harry's kiss all the same. Entwining his right hand with Severus' left, Harry leaned closer to him and snuck a hand to the small of his back, using his hip to move Severus in a gentle sway. As their guests began to pass around cake and enjoy their drinks, Severus found himself easily distracted by Harry's touch, ignoring everyone around them as they moved.
"Such a romantic, Potter," Severus said, rolling his eyes as he realized what Harry was attempting to do.
"Am not. I just love you, is all. You bring it out in me. So I was thinking..." Harry said, his voice soft, "after everyone's gone, after we put the kids to bed...you, me, a little dance in the back garden?"
Severus smirked, and if his hand moved to Harry's shoulder, it was only because he had a stray piece of lint there.
"I believe you promised me a different sort of dance for my birthday. On my hands and knees, as I recall, then you riding me to completion," he said in his bedroom voice. "And besides, I don't dance, Potter. Not for another thirty-seven years, at least."
"Thirty-six," Harry said, spinning them in a circle. "And it's your birthday, so we can do both. Today was a very big day for you."
"It's freezing outside, and it's raining," Severus said, leaning down to put his cheek against Harry's. "And I don't dance."
"No, of course not," Harry said, and Severus could feel his smile. "But this won't really be dancing. More like a swaying...in light circles. Dancing in the loosest definition."
"Oi, someone put on some music for Snape and Harry to dance to!" Weasley called out over the crowd. "They just look barmy dancing to nothing."
The crowd laughed and someone turned on the wireless, a light jazzy tune making the perfect accompaniment to their movements.
"A very big day," Harry said softly, his motion stilling. "I'm so happy for you, Severus. Pearson, your freedom...did you get everything you wanted?"
Whether he realized it or not, Harry had asked a very large question, but one Severus felt he should answer, especially now. Looking around the room, he took in friends, old friends he'd never known he'd had, people he hadn't known had cared about him. He watched as Jonathan played a game with Alistair, trying a little too hard not to look at Victoria, and as Elizabeth watched him and Harry with a smile.
Then he turned back to Harry, running a finger over a cheekbone, then taking him into his arms. The one good thing in his life then turned into the best thing, he realized as his heart filled to overflowing, his soul singing as he felt his embrace returned. "I already had it."
Casting a quick look over Harry's shoulder, Severus grumbled under his breath as he saw Jonathan pinch Victoria, then rolled his eyes as he heard Draco prattling on about how often he had to pry him and Harry away from each other on their dinner dates. Glancing around the room, he noticed Moody was muttering to himself in a corner and he swore Hagrid was about to break one of their nicer chairs.
With a sigh, Severus realized the holiday would be ending in a few days, and soon their sitting room would once again be filled with Slytherins, at least for a while longer.
No, his life wasn't perfect. But it was so much better than the alternative, and so much better than he'd ever thought it could be.
Holding Harry closer, Severus kissed his cheek, and felt his hope renewed, the holes in his life filled up as he reflected on his greatest gift. Silently, he thanked Albus and Diggory, knowing he'd thank them again one day.
But not for a very long time. After all, there were still miles left in his shoes: students to teach, potions to create, children to raise, a husband to enjoy life with. And besides all that, despite their current swaying, he still owed Harry a dance.
Looking down at Harry and their family, Severus thought that Paradise could wait. For now, he was more than happy to enjoy the heaven he was in.