Well, that last chapter sure was dark, wasn't it? Time to start climbing up to the light. After all, when you've reached bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.
Harry Potter couldn't sleep. Not that night. Not after all he had seen. And he had seen things in the war. But this…wow.
He snuggled up close against Ginny's back, breathing in the scent of her hair. It still smelled like flowers after all these years. He inhaled deeply again, taking it all in. He snaked his arm across her ever-growing belly (seven weeks to go, bloody hell) and rubbed it slowly. His son was sleeping, and Harry didn't want to wake him, so he just let his hand rest gently on his wife's belly. Kissed her temple. Sighed.
No, he did not want his son growing up in a world that allowed things like this to happen to innocent children. That was not what he fought and nearly died for in the war. This wasn't the war he and his friends worked to build. But for fate and some dumb luck Harry had wound up on the right side of history. The victors. The oppressors. He was well aware of how easily, so very easily, he and his family could have ended up like those children. How close they had come, in the end. How close they had come to being imprisoned. Beaten. Raped. Used. Forgotten. It wasn't right that these children were subjected to it. And it would stop if he had anything to say about it.
The House Elf Bill of Rights had felt like such a victory. No longer would they have to do things like iron their hands or beat themselves in the face with hammers if they disobeyed their masters. Hermione had congratulated herself for that, felt like she had the moral high ground.
And then she learned how she worked for a society that oppressed children and robbed them of their humanity, and she felt her heart sink.
She lay in the first floor guest room at Grimmauld Place. She hadn't wanted to go home after that. Didn't think she could Apparate without splinching herself. Harry had agreed wholeheartedly. They had transfigured themselves back into, well, themselves, reiterated their determination. Then told Ginny everything. She was horrified at what they had seen, but not that they had gone. This was Ginny Weasley Potter, only daughter in a home with six older brothers, all of whom had been in the Order of the Phoenix. Married to the Boy Who Lived. It took a lot to shock her. Plus, she trusted Harry implicitly and with good reason.
Hermione sighed. She didn't know what Snape thought he was playing at. He had dared them to watch, dared them to commit to this in the face of unimaginable brutality.
She shook her head. Didn't he know, after all these years, to never dare a Gryffindor?
She and Harry had become more determined than ever to help, now that they had seen just a sliver of the reality. They would go back for more. They had refused to leave until Snape agreed to a meeting the following week. They would learn more, talk more. He promised to be honest with them in exchange for their promise to be discreet. Few people knew of his work and he wanted to keep it that way. Hermione would come in under the guise of her audit. Harry under the cloak.
Hermione couldn't help but smile to herself. Of all the things she had undertaken, she felt least sure about this one. Yes, she had even felt more secure that she and her two best friends, only teenagers, would be able to hunt down and destroy all the Horcruxes, break into Gringotts, and kill Voldemort. That had felt more sure than this. But that only made her want it more. And she couldn't help but smile.
Ron slept fitfully. After what Harry and Hermione had told him, he knew he couldn't help them. Not yet. The children of the people who killed Fred…and Remus...and Sirius...and Tonks...and Lavender...no.
He wouldn't admit to himself that he thought they deserved it, but didn't want to take the risk that he would share that thought anyway.
He knew it was the right decision, sitting this one out.
So why did he feel so rotten?
Severus sat in his office, staring into the fire off to one side, glass of firewhisky in his hand, bottle of firewhisky on his desk. Well, half a bottle now. Maybe a bit less than half. He would not sleep tonight. He was not sure he could. He was not sure he wanted to.
Typical Gryffindors had followed him into that horrible place, where he went every Saturday night to check on the girls. It broke his heart every time he was there. For every girl he could give money to so they could retire for the evening. For every girl already engaged when he arrived. He regretted that he could not get them out of that place. He had nowhere to put them. No way to support them. Hogwarts would not take them. Neither would the Ministry, not even in one of its glorified job-creation programs. The Ministry wouldn't let them back into the orphanage. And so they stayed.
He had sold his parents' home on Spinner's End years ago to help support these kids. To buy them their robes for school. To bail them out of Azkaban. To buy a teenaged prostitute a night of freedom. He had enough at his disposal to continue doing it for awhile; he slept in his office (what Glastonbury didn't know wouldn't hurt her) and had no other real expenses. But even if he could continue, it would never be enough.
The whole bloody thing made him feel powerless, and Severus Snape did not like to feel powerless. He felt like Sisyphus—push the boulder up the hill, watch it roll down, repeat forever. Every time he thought that he had saved, really saved, one of them, it would be the same story over again. Drugs. Prostitution. An unwanted pregnancy he had to brew a potion for. Crime. Violence.
And now those fucking Gryffindors wanted to be involved. Had called his bluff. Followed him in. Stomached (well, not Granger) what they saw. It had not scared them off but rather made them more determined than they had been before. Fuck. The whole bloody thing had blown up in his face.
A part of him, the part he never wanted to listen to, told him that this might not be such a bad thing. He was only one man and could not hope to save them all by himself. In fact, he had not been able to save anyone by himself. With the two celebrities (oh, bloody hell) involved, they might be able to do something. At least they wouldn't make things worse.
Or would they, said the voice in the back of his mind, the voice he couldn't help but listen to. They would draw negative publicity. They could further damage the children. Expose them to scrutiny that you would otherwise be able to shield them from for just a few more precious years.
Good point, Severus thought.
Shield them in a dungeon, pointed out the voice. Keep them locked away deep underground. Because it worked so well for you all those years, didn't it? Made you into a real model citizen, didn't it?
Can't argue with that, Severus conceded.
Severus shook his head. Here he was at three o'clock in the morning drunk off firewhiskey and listening to his brain war with himself with him agreeing and disagreeing. This was absurd. And for whatever reason—the hour, the firewhiskey, the events that had transpired—he decided to let Granger and Potter win. He would let the Gryffindors in. But if they so much as stepped one toe out of line, it was over. He would Obliviate them and send them away and set up wards not even Kingsley Shacklebolt himself could break through.
"The biggest hurdle," Severus lectured in his best professor voice, "is that these children learn very early on in life that they have no future. The moment they step onto the Hogwarts Express, they are targeted. It's already an overwhelming experience for them, having been kept away in here for most of their lives, and the other children are…merciless."
Granger and Potter nodded. "And it doesn't get much better afterward, does it?" Potter asked. "You mentioned that most of them don't make it past their third year."
Severus nodded. "Correct. It is abysmal. They are beaten, ridiculed, bullied…Potter, it makes what your father and his gang used to do to me look like camaraderie." Potter stiffened at this. Good. "Their Head of House turns a blind eye, Minerva doesn't know about it, and the other professors really cannot be bothered to intervene. The prejudice runs deep."
"What about Madam Pomfrey?" asked Potter. Severus shifted uncomfortably at the sound of her name. "Doesn't she help them when they are injured? Surely she notices and does something about it?"
Severus shook his head. "They trust no one. Not even her; she is an authority figure, and they learn very quickly that such figures are untrustworthy. Whatever injuries they receive, they tend to themselves."
"It's too bad they have no authority figure they can trust. Have you thought about going back?" Granger asked. "If you were Head of House again…"
"Granger, use that much-lauded brain of yours, will you? Yes, I could protect them. I do not believe I could stop everything from happening, but I know I could stop the worst of it, or at least ensure that the guilty parties are adequately punished. I know this because I did it after the first war, for the children of those Death Eaters." He sighed. "Unfortunately, this time around, Hogwarts will not have me back. And in truth, I do not wish to go back. I think I am more needed here."
"But if you could be back at Hogwarts, you could get them through their years there. Could at least help them graduate. Here, you do what you can, turn them loose in school, and—"
"And make myself available for the youngest ones, who literally have no one else. The Ministry has designated Glastonbury the emergency contact at Hogwarts for them. I am in no position to know what happens. I am entitled to no explanation. I had two choices: I could help those at Hogwarts, or help the ones here. I triaged the situation as best I could and made the closest thing I could to the right decision. Doing this allows me to stay here with these children, these defenceless children, and I will not abandon them. I will not let Glastonbury loose on these children."
Granger glared at him. Severus glared back. "It's not ideal, Granger, I admit that. But it is the very best I could do. Look me in the eye and tell me that you think I am doing anything less."
That shut her up.
"It seems," Potter said thoughtfully. "That their names are the biggest handicap. If they simply had different names, they might stand a chance."
"Minors cannot petition for name changes without a guardian, and if minors are wards of the Ministry, the Ministry cannot so petition," Granger replied, no doubt reciting something from some Wizarding legal text she had back at her office. Know-it-all.
"If Glastonbury is their legal guardian for purpose of Hogwarts, why couldn't Severus be one for purposes of petitioning on their behalf in a court to change their names?" Potter replied.
"I am not their legal guardian, Potter. I am more of what you might call a Muggle social worker. I monitor their progress, but consider me, if you will, a point of contact. A legal guardian, on the other hand, has authority to make all sorts of decisions for a child. I have no such authority."
Granger bit her lip in thought. "Maybe we could get you that authority."
Severus gave her his best please-don't-tell-me-you're-actually-that-stupid look in reply.
"I mean you could get a place, we could find you a place, and then you could continue all the things you do now. But in a real house. With windows and lights and everything. And you could continue to do this, but not under the guise of the Ministry. On your own terms."
"Ah, so Granger you would have me, what, adopt the fifteen children currently here full-time as well as the other fifteen or so who have since run away or dropped out? You would have me support that many children on my own? You would have me be called, what, Papa Snape, and I could preside over this large, happy family? My God, Granger, sometimes I wonder if I was wrong about you."
"That I'm an insufferable know-it-all?" She asked with a bored voice.
"That you were actually an intelligent person," Severus retorted. He did not realise that she interpreted it as a compliment. That she and Potter shared a look after he said it. He missed all that.
"Well I think we can all agree that institutionalising them has been one giant disaster," Granger said. "And no one else in the Wizarding population is willing to adopt them."
"Not even you two? For all your talk of saving them I hear nothing of you planning to adopt them yourselves."
Granger sighed exasperatedly as if she were talking to Weasley instead of him. "I can't adopt anyone, Severus, I'm a single woman. It's not allowed. Only married couples."
"Without children," Potter added. "Married couples with children are excluded, at least for now. Unless the children to be adopted are relations."
"So there you go—I can't adopt either, I'm a single man," Severus retorted. "What a fantastic waste of time that idea was."
"Hermione could get the law changed," Potter said. "She got a bunch of House Elf Rights laws passed right after Hogwarts. That's a population no one cares about but her. If she could push that through, she can push this through."
Granger snorted. "Right, I'll just march right up to the Wizengamot and tell them how this law needs to change and they'll just step up and do it." She rolled her eyes. "Harry, you remember how long it took to get that law passed. Years. Years of lobbying. Many of the wizards on the Wizengamot had House Elves, weren't prejudiced against them in any way, but were also afraid to change the status quo. In this case, you'd have the same problem only bigger—many of them lost family to the Death Eaters, they will be afraid to change an old law, and on top of it yes, they are all going to be biased against them. And with good reason, too."
"Fine!" Potter said exasperatedly. "I guess the only solution is for you to marry Severus here and adopt them together!"
He and Granger laughed hard at this suggestion. Severus did not.
"Right, problem solved!" Granger said through her laughter, wiping away a tear.
"If you two are quite through being idiots for the morning," Severus drawled, exaggerating the irritation and hiding the amusement in his voice. Potter and Granger stopped laughing and looked up him. After all these years, he could still command them with that voice. "I think adoptions are out of the question."
"Moving away from that, though not completely, is it possible for someone to just be a legal guardian?" Potter asked. He turned to Granger, who shrugged her shoulders.
"I've never heard of it, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not possible. They still might have to live here; it would just give an outside person the right to make their legal decisions, rather than the Ministry."
"Would it change anything about their situation?" He turned to Severus now to ask this question.
Severus thought for a moment before responding. "If I had the legal right to make certain decisions for them, I could get them out of here."
"Would that have any impact?"
"It might. I could at least get them away from the Ministry. I could get their surnames legally changed, try to do that quietly without attracting the attention of the Prophet. Anything less than that would completely defeat the purpose. Then they would need to get away from London."
"Sort of like a witness relocation program?" Granger said. Both men looked at her quizzically. "I read about it, in Muggle America if a person turns witness against a dangerous criminal they will often change their names, change their appearance, and move them to a different part of the country to keep them safe from retribution."
"Well, whatever you want to call it, that might give these kids a fighting chance, wouldn't it?" Potter asked eagerly.
"I can look into it. I've got some books back in my office. No one will notice I've taken them."
Severus smirked. Typical Granger.
"And just where," Severus said, "would you suggest we do this? I don't have space for fifteen minors. Or the funds to do this."
"Ah, but that's where I come in," Potter said happily. "If we have a fundraiser, as a guardian you would be entitled to receive many of the funds. Families who currently have money from prior fundraisers received funds proportional to the number of children they took in. Most only took in one or two or maybe a sibling group of three, according to Hermione, anyway. And we can find you space to do this. Hire people to come out to help you. I mean, getting out of this dungeon alone will make them feel more human, won't it?"
Severus knew the truth of that statement more than Potter would ever know. Which was why he had retreated to the dungeons almost as soon as he had been free of them. Again.
"And, while I haven't spoken with them yet, with your leave I think I can think of a few other volunteers, proper volunteers, who would be willing to help. Who know where we're coming from and understand the situation."
"What—your little dueling club?" Severus sneered.
"Dumbledore's Army is what it was called, and yes, some of them. Many of them lost their families in the war. It's possible a few could be willing."
"You know, I think this is an awful lot for us to digest," Granger said suddenly. "Severus, why don't I go do some research and Harry will do some as well and we'll come back next week?"
Severus nodded. "Next week then, same time." Granger and Potter offered their hands but Severus only stared back at them. Such familiarity from these two. Was it impossible for them to keep it professional?
"We were too bloody optimistic again, weren't we?" Harry asked as they stepped toward the front door leading out to the street.
Hermione nodded. "Quite. Thought we'd best quit while we were ahead. Leave before he had a chance to get angry about something, force him to consider it."
"Well played, Miss Granger."
"Not bad yourself, Mr. Potter. I think we might have even made some headway. He didn't immediately throw out the idea of becoming legal guardian to them. When it comes to Snape, I take it as acquiescence."
"You may be right, he didn't even find a way to insult me. And he always finds a way to tie in an insult to me."
"Besides, I really do need to research. In the Muggle world, it was actually quite common for centuries in Britain, for one person (usually a wealthy man) to have wards and heirs who weren't his blood relatives. Perhaps the Wizarding world has a similar process we could look into."
"I've got it!" Hermione slammed down the heavy leather tome happily on Snape's desk. He jumped with shock.
She and Harry looked down at him, beaming, while he looked up, scowling. Clearly he was not thrilled about their little pop-in. Especially more than two weeks since they had last met with him.
"Do I need to fix my security charms again?" He asked sharply. He had relented and modified his security measures to let her and Harry through the barrier. Reluctantly, Hermione was sure. He seemed to enjoy knocking them flat on their arses every opportunity he could get.
"Not at all. Here, look at this," Hermione flipped through to the right page and turned it around so Snape could read it. "Unmarried, single people can become legal guardians for orphans under Wizarding law. No adoption is necessary, merely control over legal affairs. They can live here or with you. You can petition on their behalf for just about anything. And there is no limit on how many you can do this for."
"Brilliant, Hermione is, eh Severus?" Harry asked proudly.
Snape just stared back at them, blankly. Expressionless. Hermione knew from experience that this could be very good or very bad.
After a long time he gestured for them to sit down and he spoke. "To my chagrin, you have both shown a remarkable willingness to help some very needy children, and I cannot help but give you both my esteem for that.
"You both, no doubt, know that I am a man who does not make promises lightly and I only do so if I am confident that I can fulfill them. These children have very specific needs. They do need what you are offering. But at this point I am hesitant to accept because of a few obstacles you have not addressed.
"If I do this, I will be leaving this job. If I fail, the children will be back here and without me. I cannot risk that.
"You have not proposed a place to house these children or how to fund their cost of living.
"Both of you have jobs. Reputable caretakers, counselors, healers…they refuse to come here. How do you propose addressing those needs?"
He stopped and looked at them. Well, at least he hadn't yelled at them or insulted them. He hadn't exactly said no. Progress.
Hermione smiled politely while Harry's eyes lit up in inspiration.
"You remember Grimmauld Place?" Harry asked. Snape's eyes flickered. "Of course you do. Well, I live there currently with my wife. We're due to have a baby in a few weeks. We've been staying there because it's unplottable and still protected by the fidelius charm. Most of the secret keepers are…well…anyway, it's very secure. Yes, it's in the middle of London, but it is very difficult to find. Ginny and I think it's too big for us, and I've never loved living there, but only because of my memories. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. We managed to finally get rid of Mrs. Black's portrait…and if you put two children in each bedroom…" He trailed off, waiting for Snape to interrupt him and tell him how idiotic his plan was. When it didn't happen, he continued. "Anyway, I believe in this cause and I would be happy to donate the house to it."
Severus couldn't believe his ears. Potter was offering him his house? His large, spacious London house? For the children of the people who tried to kill him.
Potter could be too fucking noble sometimes.
"You are going to move out and give up your house…just like that?" Severus repeated slowly.
Potter nodded with a fucking grin on his face. "You're welcome to come over and check it out before you decide. Anytime, really. We'd love to have you over. And Hermione will be there, of course. Practically lives there anyway." Potter cleared his throat. Severus wondered why he had singled out Granger as an enticement for him to come over.
"If you do want to have a look at the house, there are a few other people I'd like to speak with and bring over to meet with you, but only if you're amenable to it," Granger said. "To help you, that is. Neville Longbottom, for one. Now I know," she added quickly, seeing the look on Severus's face. "I know that you don't think much of him. But don't forget, he too lost parents in the last war. What happened to his parents is no different, really, than what happened to the children whose parents were Kissed. I know him, he will probably want to help. He's got a fairly full schedule at Hogwarts, but as he's not a Head of House he can probably give some of his afternoons or weekends. He's become a very good teacher, he could shoulder some of that responsibility from you, free you up for other things."
"And Luna Lovegood," said Potter. "I know she's a bit…well, you know, but she is also tremendously insightful and has a knack for getting at the heart of the matter. I think she could get some of the kids to talk, or at least figure out what they need. She lost her mother very young, and her father never made it out alive from the war. She also knows what it feels like to be ostracised by her peers and what it's like to spend years in isolation at Hogwarts. If you can't get a proper counselor in there, she's definitely the next best thing. Plus, she's a Ravenclaw."
One less Gryffindor, thank God.
"We haven't spoken with them yet," Granger added quickly. "But we know them both well enough to know that they would likely jump at the chance to help you. And we know what you need."
They looked at him with such earnest hope in their eyes.
"Haven't the two of you played world saviour enough in your little lives?" Severus spat. "Is it not enough that you have the admiration of the entire Wizarding world, you now have to turn these children into a pet project?"
"This is not some pet project!" Granger snapped. "We understand, this is a commitment. Commitment is something the two of us happen to understand better than most."
"Trudging through the woods and sleeping in a tent, with no contact with the outside world whatsoever, to destroy Horcruxes when we didn't know where they were, how to destroy them, or even what all of them were, until we had found and destroyed them all," said Potter.
"Working for ten years to liberate House Elves in the face of everyone, even my best friends, saying it could never be done."
"Skipping out on your last year of school," added Severus.
"To defeat Voldemort and ensure that future generations could attend their seventh year of school, regardless of blood status or family name," Potter snapped. "We gave up a lot to do that. And we're both willing to give up a lot to do this."
"No matter how long it takes," added Granger. "Severus, we know you don't like us. We're Gryffindors and were thorns in your side for seven years. We set you on fire, stole from you, stunned you into a wall, insulted you to your face and behind your back…among other things. That's fine. You don't have to like us. But put aside your own animosity toward us and think of them," she gestured behind her to the corridor that led to the common room.
Severus slammed his fist on his desk and stood up to tower over them. "Are you suggesting that I am not considering their needs first, Granger?"
She stood up stiffly, trying to meet his eye but still having to tilt her head up to do it. "I am suggesting that perhaps you are considering rejecting the best offer these children will receive in a long time because of some old grudges and misconceptions from a very long time ago."
Silence turned into a staring contest. Finally, Granger conceded and said, "Come on, Harry. Severus, our offer remains open. Contact us when you have made your decision."
Without another word, she grabbed Potter by the arm and led him outside.
"Infuriating man!" Hermione cried as soon as they were back at Grimmauld Place. "Can't let go of his stupid grudges for the sake of some very needy children. Can't accept after all these years that you are not your father." She stopped her foot and made an exasperated noise.
"Maybe he just needs some more time to come around to it," Harry suggested.
"I don't doubt that he does, and he should think about it anyway, but does he have to be so intransigent for these reasons? After everything that has happened, after all the time that has passed?"
"Maybe it was a bit much, me offering Grimmauld Place like that," Harry pondered.
"Yeah, what was that all about? I didn't know that you were planning to do that."
Harry shrugged. "Dunno. He brought up some good points about housing and such. I really don't like living here. It would be big enough for his needs, and…"
"I owe it to him, for one. I owe him much more than a house, that is. Because of him I was able to survive, find the sword, destroy the Horcruxes. Because of him I lived and was able to have a family, something he really hasn't ever had himself. I know, it was impulsive, and not thought-out, and I haven't even spoken to Ginny about it, and it probably put him off. At best he probably thinks I'm 'nauseatingly naïve and imbecilic' or something like that, and at worst he probably suspects me of having ulterior motives."
"Why he could still think that of you is so far beyond me I can't even understand," Hermione said with exasperation.
"We've never exactly given him a reason to trust us," Harry pointed out. "Or to like us. Even though we were all on the same side, we were pretty much enemies."
Hermione nodded. "Yeah, I mean, imagine Draco Malfoy showing up and offering you free reign over Malfoy Manor. Would you jump at the chance?"
"Thank you," Harry said sarcastically.
"Comparing me to Malfoy."
"Oh come off it, you know what I meant."
Harry patted her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Suddenly they heard a tap on the window behind them and they both spun around, drawing their wands. Seeing it was an owl, they sheathed their weapons and Harry went over to the window to take the scroll from the owl. He unrolled it, smiled, and handed it to Hermione.
It was unsigned, but there was no question it was from him. She recognised the spiky handwriting from the margins of an old potions text and the message was short and to the point, like the man who wrote it.
A little on the lighter side, yes? A very talky/thinky chapter. Next one will have more action.
Hermione began her House Elf crusade in their fourth year, when she was about fourteen or fifteen. She's now about twenty-four or twenty-five in this fic, so that's where the ten years came from.
Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time he managed to do so, it would slide back down the hill and he would have to start over.
Thank you again to everyone who has read and reviewed and added to alerts and faves-makes my day! I would love to get as much feedback as possible-this is my first foray into creative writing in several years, so whatever you have to say (good, bad, ugly-but not too ugly!) let me know!
Coming up: Severus visits Grimmauld Place, but does he trust what he finds there?