He might have gasped at the sight of her, but all he could hear was the rushing in his ears.
There she sat, Lily Evans as she had never been. Older than she had ever become in his world, hair a deeper auburn than in adolescence, when the sun had lightened it to shades of copper and gold. Laughter lines around her eyes (she's happy… I'm so glad she's happy) and the familiar purse of her lips in concentration; her face was both familiar and utterly foreign.
Hermione looked between the two of them, her eyes lingering on his face. Watching his every expression. He'd told her everything. Every heart-wrenching wish and heart-breaking error as it related to Lily. It was ancient history, and in all truth, he had never expected to see either one of these women again. But now, here he was, the two women in the world whom he had loved (oh, god, loved), standing in the same room.
"Hello." Lily stood and extended her hand. "You must be Severus."
She didn't look surprised to see him, and he remembered that Hermione had told her the story, his story with the Lily of his world. He hadn't been pleased, and they had rowed about it, but in the end, he understood.
Her voice had deepened with age, and in an instant, his Lily and this Lily converged and then diverged again into the road not taken and the one that had been cut short.
This was not his Lily, and yet, through her, he could imagine what might have been had he made better choices. Would they have shared a lab, had a family together? Would she be greeting him with a smile and a kiss, had he chosen differently?
And most importantly, would he want her to? He looked over at Hermione, whose grip on his hand had become vicelike. He squeezed it, reassurance and reminder alike.
He reached his other hand forward to clasp Lily's. "I am Severus, yes. And you are Lily Evans."
Of course Lily knew who he was, and yet, she didn't look disgusted. She didn't flinch away.
"You knew me," she said, and Severus wondered what she really wanted to know.
Did he know her? This woman who had grown into a Potions mistress, who had mentored Hermione? Was this the woman he had loved as a girl, the woman he had unknowingly betrayed?
He looked at Hermione and his heart ached at the worry in her eyes.
This was the woman who had stood by him, who had searched this universe (multiple universes) to find him, to save his life. Thiswas the woman he loved.
He looked back at Lily and smiled.
"You?" he echoed. "No. Never."
They sat round the lab table, notes spread out between the three of them.
"So, you're trying to create a potion that will replace the Ministry's current Astrological methods," he said, just to be sure he had it right. It still irked him, this idea that the Ministry had so much control over the fates of the people it governed.
"Correct," said Lily. "There has been growing discontent around the results the Ministry has been obtaining. Especially over the past six months, interestingly enough."
"It was a problem before," Hermione clarified. "Wizards and non-magicals returning to the Ministry months or years later, complaining that their work was unsatisfying or their spouses unsuitable."
Severus snorted. "You do realise that even in worlds where no government decides such things that work is often unsatisfying and spouses unsuitable."
Lily laughed. "Yes, of course. However, in your world, do you need a formal court hearing to change them? To leave your job or break off a relationship and choose someone else?"
Severus shook his head. This put even Dumbledore's Machiavellian tendencies to shame.
"Does anyone know how the system evolved this way?" he asked. "I don't understand why the government would wantsuch a degree of control. Isn't it far more work for them?"
"It is," said Hermione. "But they believe, and we have all been taught, that it is worth the cost because it, at least theoretically, reduces chaos. And chaos is frightening."
He closed his eyes to think. Magical means of determining a person's fate and future. The foreclosure of choice.
"They are no less afraid of differences than we are in my world," said Severus softly. "They've just found another way to hide it."
"I don't understand," said Hermione.
"My world is filled with a history of prejudice and horrible, unconscionable acts of violence against those considered different—with different meaning 'less than'. Pureblood families are at an advantage because of their connections but also because society makes it so. Muggle-borns—that is, witches and wizards born into non-magical families—are educated, but there is a subtle prejudice that they carry with them. You have more to prove."
Hermione and Lily looked at one another. "We? Witches like Hermione and me?"
"Both born into non-magical families. Am I correct?"
"That doesn't matter here, Severus," Hermione reminded him.
"I realise that," he agreed. "But are you any more free to decide how to live your lives than the witch in my world born into a non-magical family but who has difficulty finding a job in her chosen field because it is dominated by pureblood families?"
"So a potion isn't the solution, is it?" asked Hermione.
Severus caught her eye and shook his head. "Not to determine each person's fate, no."
"They'll never agree," said Lily, slamming the lab notebook shut. "It's been this way for a thousand years."
A thousand years.
"I have an idea," said Severus. "Can we see the headmistress in her office?"
It was half past nine by the time they got up there, and the evening light made the room glow golden. No wonder Hermione had looked so shocked at the sight of his office. This room felt like an extension of McGonagall herself, books and artefacts that reminded him of those that Dumbledore had always kept. More than that, though, it was the tapestries on the walls and the small tokens of regard that lined the edge of her desk. Sculptures and pieces of glass and stone—found objects he imagined students had given her over the years. The sorts of things a teacher kept in memory of students and their attachment to one another.
Even if students in his world had been liable to such acts of generosity of spirit, his desk would have been bare. He knew this, and he knew that it wasn't only because of the role he had chosen (had needed) to play, but also because of his natural reserve and caustic tongue. He had grown to fit the mask he wore, and it had grown to suit him. Still, now that he had discarded it, could discard it, he found himself longing for those luminous moments, the bright light in the student's eyes when he finally understood, the proud set of her shoulders when she'd succeeded.
He could never be a teacher here; it wasn't allowed. Maybe in a hundred years, when their world had changed, too. In truth, he wasn't sure that was what he wanted, anyway. One thing he knew for certain: he wanted to have the time and the opportunity to decide for himself.
The three witches stood waiting, side by side, as he looked around the office.
"Pardon me," he said, clearing his throat carefully. "This room feels entirely different with you occupying it," he said to McGonagall.
"I can imagine," she said. "I understand that you took the post under some duress. I don't imagine you had time to settle into it and make it your own."
"I didn't," agreed Severus. "But I see that I might have enjoyed it, had I been given the opportunity."
The headmistress smiled. "I admit, it's difficult to imagine a wizard behind this desk."
"He was a marvellous headmaster," said Hermione softly.
"You were hardly there," Severus said with a half smile.
"So what? I didn't need to be there long. I have eyes."
She had seen him protect the students. Saw him worry over their safety and hers. She had seen him struggle to deliver the final, essential, piece of information to Potter, even as he lay bleeding, lay dying.
It didn't matter that Lily and Minerva were standing there. The wave of gratitude and adoration that swept through him was too powerful to resist. He stepped forward and gathered Hermione in his arms and buried his face in her hair. She snaked her arms around him and held him tight, the two of them holding fast to each other even as their worlds shifted beneath their feet.
Lily's sniffle roused them, and both he and Hermione pretended not to notice the other women wiping their eyes.
"What do you need to do?"
"I need to ask the Founders if there is a way to put things to right." He looked at the stained glass windows glowing with the evening light. "I want to know if it's possible to undo what was done a thousand years ago."
They stand by the hearth, talking in low tones. He takes in the room with his eyes and his heart and my own heart breaks for him and all that he's lost.
"What do you think, Rowena?" I ask, watching her watching them. "They will ask us. What do you want to tell them?"
She pauses, considering. Rowena never was one to answer without a healthy dose of contemplation.
"I say, move forward," says Godric.
"That is what you always say," says Salazar. "So, hush. Wait for Rowena. She has actually been thinkingabout this. You know, thinking?"
Godric just huffs and goes to fiddle with a spell he's been working on over in his glass frame. Rowena smirks and pulls her hair back into a tie. Even wrought in glass, it gets in her way.
"It has been a thousand years," she said. "I suppose it would not hurt to give them a chance, hmm?"
None of us say it, but I know we're all thinking it. Giving them a chance means believing that we've all learned what we needed to learn. That we recognise the cost of our beliefs, especially when we impose them on those around us.
Which reminds me.
It's hard for me to believe, but in a thousand years, I haven't ever said it out loud. Not in so many words.
"Salazar." He looks at me, his face blank. "I am sorry." I whisper, but the sound of my voice fills the glass with sound and feeling. "I was only trying to help."
He crosses through Godric's frame and Rowena's into mine. His face is still immobile, and for a long moment, I'm not sure what he is going to do. And then, slowly, gently, he takes my hands in his. His head is bowed and we both look down at the ring he still wears on his index finger.
"I, too, owe you an apology, Helga," he says roughly. "With the perspective of a thousand years, I can see that what you did has benefited us all in the end."
I squeeze his hands and smile. He pretends not to see my tears as he leans forward to kiss my forehead.
"Now," he says, "let us offer this witch the ingredient she has been missing."
The glass was clean, clear and bright, just as it had been when last she'd gone through the portal. The Founders sat facing the room, as if they were prepared for their request, perhaps even knew what they needed.
"Welcome," said Slytherin. "It is good to see you well."
Severus swallowed thickly and nodded. "I admit," he said, "I had not anticipated seeing any of you again. Not after—" He cleared his throat.
"The battle was long and bloody," said Hufflepuff. "Many were lost, but ultimately, evil was vanquished. At least for the time being." She smiled.
"It does rear its head again and again, doesn't it?" muttered Godric.
Slytherin laughed. "Don't pretend to complain, Godric," he said. "It gives you plenty to do, doesn't it?"
Hermione might have said the expression on Gryffindor's face was cheeky had he not been one of the Founders. She blushed and smiled at Severus, who looked dumbfounded.
"He was better behaved in your universe, Severus," said Hufflepuff.
"Marginally," muttered Slytherin.
Hufflepuff smiled. "You did have so much on your mind."
Hermione looked over at the headmistress and Lily. They were standing just beyond the desk, watching.
"Astonishing," murmured McGonagall. "Absolutely astonishing."
Godric bowed. "Pleased to see you again, Headmistress."
"Gryffindors," muttered Severus, and Sytherin laughed.
"She'll have no idea what you mean by that," Slytherin said. "But for what it's worth, you're absolutely right. Transparent, the lot of them." He laughed again.
And there they all were. Smiling and relaxed, and for a moment, it seemed as if the world, or worlds, as it were, might all line up and be all right.
Ravenclaw sat, indulgent, watching them, and Hermione saw her catch Hufflepuff's eye.
The light-haired witch cleared her throat and the room grew still.
"Lovely as it is to see you all, and delighted as I am to see Severus here, alive and well," she said, "there is something you need from us. Am I right?"
Hermione nodded. "You are."
"Tell us," said Ravenclaw.
"You are aware, of course, of how this world governs," Hermione began.
"We are," said Ravenclaw.
"It poses a problem for us," Hermione continued, gesturing between herself and Severus, "but in truth, it has been a problem for our world for a long time."
"We are aware of that," said Hufflepuff.
"Each of the universes possess some, hmm, imbalance," said Slytherin. "Reflecting a part of the whole but not encompassing all of its potential nor all of its possibilities."
That would explain a lot, thought Hermione. Her own world's overbearing protectiveness at all costs; Severus's world's negligence and focus on power.
"Can it be repaired?" she asked.
"I told you she was a Gryffindor," murmured Gryffindor, none too subtly.
"She's ambitious; she should be in Slytherin," said Slytherin.
"Brilliant," murmured Ravenclaw in a singsong voice.
"And ever so loyal," said Hufflepuff with a smile.
Severus huffed and Hermione looked over at him with a grin.
"You enjoy having them fight over you?" he asked, but his lips were twitching in that way he had when he was trying not to smile.
"No," she said. "I love having proof that your House sorting system keeps people from embracing different parts of themselves. By your system, you belong in Gryffindor for your bravery, Slytherin for your cunning, Ravenclaw for your obvious brilliance and Hufflepuff for your persistence… spying for decades, Severus?"
"It would seem," interrupted the headmistress, "that we have lived for many centuries with access to only a fraction of the potential of the universe as a whole. Am I correct?"
Helga nodded. "You are. And I am afraid that is my responsibility." She held her head high. "I acted with the best intentions, and I do believe that ultimately, splitting the world saved it from destruction. However…" She paused.
"Until very recently, the universes have become increasingly distorted," continued Ravenclaw. "As the tendency gains momentum, I fear what might happen."
Hermione felt a knot in her stomach.
"But I thought that over the last six months or so, the rigid rules of this universe had been loosening," said Severus. "And certainly the last six months or more in my universe were extreme."
The headmistress came closer to the windows, as if to address the portraits and people together.
"Yes," she said. "Over the last few months, we have noticed changes in the population. In their requests for more autonomy. In their dissatisfaction with the status quo."
"Ever since I passed through the portal and returned?" asked Hermione.
McGonagall paused. "Possibly."
"Would you lot know anything about this?" asked Severus.
Slytherin smiled. "We would, indeed," he said. "It took you long enough to ask."
"My potion?" Hermione repeated, confused. "Why do you need my potion?"
"If you want to know how to mitigate the damage of what has been broken," said Hufflepuff, "we can show you. But we need your potion."
"It has not worked thus far, has it?" asked Ravenclaw.
"No," said Hermione. "It hasn't." She looked to Lily, who smiled encouragingly.
"We're getting close, though," Lily said.
"You are missing an ingredient," announced Slytherin. "That is why it hasn't worked. But hurry, your opportunity for today will soon pass."
It was clear that the portraits weren't going to say another word until they had the potion in front of them. And so Lily moved quickly through the Floo—saying, "I'll get it, Hermione; you stay here," —and brought back a stoppered flask of liquid, its colours shifting with the light. Now violet, then blue, and with a tilt of the flask, vibrant greens and yellows, until with a twist, the oranges and reds pulsed within it.
"Magnificent," murmured Slytherin. "Well done."
Hermione blushed and took the potion from her mentor and brought it closer.
"Open it," said Slytherin, "and hold it in front of the windows."
With a glance to Severus, who nodded once, though he looked just as baffled as she felt, Hermione unstoppered the flask and held it up to the fading light flowing through the windows. It was nearly sunset, and the colours of the descending sun pierced the glass.
Retreating light… red and orange, tinged with blue… flows through the portraits. Green and orange-red, blue and yellow glass, absorbing the light, twisting it. Transforming it… until it touches the potion…
"Oh!" gasped Hermione.
The light had converged, a swirl of colour as if a rainbow had been twisted together over and over again. Like water, it flowed from the window into the open flask… which turned from a kaleidoscope of colours to a brilliant white.
The potion seemed to pulse in Hermione's hand as she held it there while the sun finished setting. Nobody could look away. It reminded her of the light in the portal, like memory, thought Hermione, or perhaps the silvery white of Severus's Patronus when it brought Harry what he needed most.
"What is it?" Hermione asked, her voice hushed.
"That," said Salazar Slytherin, "is what the essence of the universe looks like."
"When it's whole," added Hufflepuff.
"What do I do with it?" asked Hermione.
"One drop," said Slytherin. "If you take one drop, the influence you have already had on the universes by travelling to them will increase exponentially."
"There is no way to bring the worlds back together. It is their fate now," said Hufflepuff. "But you can seed them with pieces of the others. Let the seeds grow."
"Our hope is that this will ultimately bring balance and health to each of them."
"There was one where it looked like all the witches and wizards had gone," Hermione said. "When I was looking for Severus, I saw it."
The Founders looked at one another and Hermione thought she might have seen some moisture in Slytherin's eye. But he was made of glass, so that couldn't be right.
"We don't know how change will happen, or if it always will," said Ravenclaw. "And it is not your job to make it so. Just travel to each world. Be who you are. Ask your questions and listen to the answers. Bring bits of what you learn with you as you travel." She smiled. "You will join the worlds together with your touch."
"Travel across the worlds," Hermione echoed. "Well, we can't stay here, because of Severus." She stopped short, her heart pounding. "Well… well, we can't stay here."
The room was silent and it took her a minute to realise what she had said.
She didn't even know if Severus wanted to be with her. Had no idea what he wanted and whether she was welcome.
"Can we have some time to discuss this?" asked Severus into the silence.
"Of course you can," said Hufflepuff. "You have the potion. Just one drop, remember. You only need one drop."
"Also," added Ravenclaw, "you may dose anyone you meet in your travels who you believe is suited to the task."
"What task?" asked Lily.
"Adaptation," said Hufflepuff.
"Revolution," said Gryffindor.
"Transformation," said Slytherin.
"Revision," said Ravenclaw.
"Across the worlds," said Hufflepuff. "They can repair themselves if given the chance."
Severus let out a long breath and Hermione looked at his face.
His eyes were shining.
Her rooms were dark when they returned, but neither rushed to light the lamps. The potion glowed with its own luminescence; and it was enough. Without a word, they sat side by side, watching the potion—looking like no less than memory and soul, heart and mind, made tangible. All of it held in the palm of her hand.
Just like she held his heart, he realised. Had done so ever since her eyes had blazed, indignant at Dumbledore's treatment of him, determined to right the wrongs. Determined not to leave him alone ever again. Even when she'd gone back to her world—had been sent back by him—he'd felt her presence through the hum beneath his skin. The day he'd seen her again in the glass, really seen her, and she'd seen him, too, the day before the night his world ended, he had felt peace for the first time in months.
"Will you stay with me?" he asked softly, though his heart was racing. "It's a lot to ask. It means leaving here."
Hermione reached over and placed the potion on the table in front of them and took his hands in hers.
"I don't want to stay here if it means being without you," she told him, and it felt as if the universe was inside him, lighting him up more brilliantly than any Patronus.
By the light of the potion, which glowed with the brilliance of seven reflected moons, he kissed her. She leaned into him and her lips were so soft. He lifted his mouth from hers and dropped kisses along the line of her cheekbones, her scent filling him with sunlight and the smell of rain.
She broke away reluctantly and lifted the potion flask again, looking at it as if through a prism.
The Universe. Whole, right here in her hand.
They had already traversed worlds together, braved the chasms between them to find one another. The universe inside them? Simple, by comparison.
Hermione placed her fingertips around the rim of the glass and then brought one to the centre. A single, shimmering drop of potion hung in the air between the flask and her finger, and she brought it to his lips. He opened his mouth and she released the drop onto his tongue. It tasted of air and earth, fire and water woven together, warming him as he swallowed. In an instant, she had another drop at her lips and he watched as she placed it on her tongue.
"Severus," she whispered, capturing his mouth again with hers.
"I'm here," he answered her, and it felt as though by saying so, he was remembering that she was there, too. For him. All for him.
He wrapped her in his arms, for the first time ever, with no fear pushing against his skin. No worries about the world outside, and no fears that letting himself love her could destroy them both. This time, he could give himself to her whole. Like the universe cradled in a crystal flask, his heart was complete.
They fell asleep beneath her covers, bare skin against bare skin. She had her arm around him as if he might slip away while she slept, and he wondered if she, like he, had lain awake night after night in the dark, wishing he could reach out and touch her.
There would be no more waiting. No more longing. No more loneliness. They held the universe inside of them.
The sun rises, sending brilliant yellow light streaming through us, through the windows and into the Hogwarts of seven worlds.
Here, the light touches the headmistress's desk as she considers a request for a male faculty member to join her staff. There, a young man—the saviour of his world—memorialises a wizard he believes dead, a wizard he finally recognises as a hero. In another world, witches and wizards who never knew themselves to have magic awaken, bit by bit, recognising the magic that lives in their blood.
One by one, seeds of change are planted and we witness their blossoming from within our home of pigment and glass.
Centuries will pass and we will watch each one of our gardens bloom. We will watch over them all.
Original Prompt: (Placed at the end of the story.) Mirror universe - parallel universes. In one, HP canon runs as we know it - Snape is Potions Master and spy. In the other, the wizarding world is at peace, and at Hogwarts, Potions is being taught by one Professor Hermione Granger. The two professors begin to be aware of one another when shadowy images appear, very faintly perceptible, in reflective surfaces such as mirrors, windows, water, wine in a glass, etc. Each becomes fascinated by the phenomenon, and curious. Gradually, they come to see that they are aware of each other. How are their worlds parallel, and in what ways different? How do Hermione and Severus begin to communicate? How does Professor Granger come to believe that she a) should and b) can help Professor Snape? What happens after the end of DH?
I am incredibly fortunate to have a veritable Quidditch team (if you include reserve players... ahem) of alpha readers, beta readers and cheerleaders. I simply could not have written something of this scope without them, and they deserve so much credit for making this story work. Each one brought a unique point of view or expertise to the process and helped me immensely as I groped my way through the world-building and character development and searched for plot. (I'm always searching for the plot. Just ask them.)
So, here goes. :)
First of all, thanks to Dicky for writing such an intriguing, brilliant prompt and for being awesome in general... I was highly motivated to write something that would be deserving of her as a recipient. *squishes her
Massive hugs to subvers, lady_rhian, and bluestocking79 for alpha reading/cheerleading and general "yes, this works" all the way through. You were my rudders.
Giant hugs to lifeasanamazon for her detailed and insightful Britpick and for gobs of encouragement at a time when I really needed some.
Thanks to the mods and especially to scatteredlogic for making sure the complex coding worked on this monster of a story. *hugs
Immense thanks to drinkingcocoa and juniperus for close reading for content, consultation about the Middle Ages, illuminated lettering, and canon characterizations and millions of other details that they wouldn't let me get away with faking.
Enormous gratitude to annietalbot, sc010f, and pyjamapants for helping shape the spreadsheet that allowed me to keep the universes straight and clarify the elements that shaped each one, for reading draft after draft, beta reading, close reading, listening to the moans and groans about world-building, and generally reassuring me and guiding me all along the way. You guys deserve medals. Really. Big medals.
Finally, juno_magic wrought her incredible magic in two massive ways for this story. First, she did the coding (which took days) that created the gradient color background that gave the story (as originally posted on the SSHG Exchange on LJ) its visual punch. She also did the most in-depth editorial read that I've ever experienced. It was massive, detailed and absolutely invaluable not only for the story, but also in pushing me as a writer. I don't think there are enough words to express my gratitude to her. Juno, you humble me.
Ladies, you all humble me.
*standing ovation to the alpha/beta/cheerleading team