A/N: A long absence, with my apologies. With life there come commitments, and I've had more than my usual share of late with my business travel and family.
A warning, to all, that there is mention of the death of a child in this chapter. It was alluded to in the letter from Hilda Smith in the last chapter, as she alleged that Severus was responsible for the murder of a Muggle child during his Death Eater days. There are also mentions of torture and rape as Death Eater atrocities. While there are no graphic descriptions, I did want to warn for it anyway. These are serious issues, not to be taken lightly or trifled with, and I use them to build the plot, not for gratuitous reasons.
He was angry. He was upset. His stomach hurt with it.
He didn't want to talk to anyone. To see anyone. Not Ron or Ginny or Luna or Neville. Not Minerva. Not Severus. Especially not Severus.
There was nothing Severus could say to make anything better. Nothing he could say or do to take away the ache in Harry's stomach as he thought about that Muggle family. Two boys, barely teenagers themselves, who had fought for their mother. The eleven-year old girl. The father, killed outright as he opened the door to see who was making the disturbance in the garden.
Harry didn't want to be angry with Severus. He wanted to be angry at Voldemort, and the other Death Eaters, and anyone who thought that magic made a person intrinsically better than someone not born with it.
It had happened a long time ago. A long long time ago. Probably even before Harry was born. Severus was young. An initiate. He had looked so…ill…when he'd explained it to Harry after Harry had read the letter. After Harry had read the letter twice, then lifted plaintive green eyes at him. What is she saying, Severus?
Harry had had no illusions that Severus had been a saint. He'd hated him the first five years he's known him. He knew he'd been a loyal Death Eater, at least in the beginning. He knew he'd had to have committed atrocities. Torture. Murder. Anything Voldemort demanded of him. Even while he was loyal to Dumbledore.
He's been there on top of the Astronomy Tower that night. Even though he knew what he had to do, and why, it has not been easy. He'd seen him kill Dumbledore. He knew Severus was capable of casting the Unforgiveables. Casting them…and making them stick.
A mercy killing. Just like that Muggle girl.
She probably wouldn't have survived. She'd seen her father killed, her brothers, her mother. Merlin, her mother. Her mind was broken, her strength nearly gone too.
Severus had saved her from…something worse. Harry knew that. Severus hadn't said it outright, but Harry realized it. He understood. He knew.
Severus had neatly hidden the hurt look on his face when Harry had stood up, looking ill himself. When Harry told him he had to go outside to think. To get some air.
But he hadn't stopped Harry. "I'll be here for you when you come back if you'd like to talk then," he had said, his voice measured and quiet.
Harry hated—hated—having it in his head now. The little girl. The same age as the first year Gryffindors. The same age he had been when Hagrid had shown up on that island.
But Severus—Severus had lived with that memory for twenty years.
What was it like for him to see the first years each year? To teach them? To see that little girl among them? Someone who looks like her, or had her eyes, or her hair, or her laugh.
Severus would not have heard her laugh.
Harry was sitting in the Quidditch stands, in the faculty box, high above the ground. He'd climbed here, knowing that if Severus were to come looking for him, he'd go right to his usual spot on the lake where there were always enough stones to hurl, or skip, or toss. Where he could work his frustration and anger out with rocks that felt no pain, into water deep but soulless.
Into the water that had taken Hilda Smith's life all those years ago.
The lake. What had Luna said the other day when they were studying together after classes outside in the courtyard?
Luna had said that if she wanted to know more about the girl that had died—the girl that had drowned in the lake—she'd ask the merpeople.
From his perch high over the grounds, he looked out toward the lake, thoughtful. It was not a warm day. The lake would be cold and he really didn't fancy a swim anyway. Even with gillyweed, or a bubble head charm, he'd still have to swim in those murky waters to reach the merpeople. And there were grindylows.
And even if he did find them, how would he communicate? Sign language? To ask if they knew anything about a girl who had died in the lake nearly twenty years ago?
Dumbledore spoke their language. Wouldn't he have gone to the merpeople first when it all happened?
He shook his head in frustration. Nothing was easy anymore. Nothing made sense. Jumping into the lake on some foolhardy errand wasn't going to make him forget the conversation he'd just had with Severus.
He was eighteen, not fourteen.
It was infinitely more difficult to be eighteen.
At fourteen, he could have—would have—stolen some gillyweed, jumped in the lake, sought out the merpeople and realized, when he got to them, that he had no way of communicating. He would have survived by sheer dumb luck. He would have expended his anger in adrenaline.
He would not have come here, to the highest vantage point outside the castle, to be alone. Far from anything that was dangerous, or distracting. He hadn't even brought his broom. He wanted to be alone. To think. To understand. He wanted his head to catch up with his heart, or his heart to catch up with his head.
He looked up at the castle. He could see Severus' office windows but the Headmaster's walk, as always, was hidden from view. Was Severus there now, looking for him?
I've lived with the image of that child in my mind for many years, Harry. I have no excuses to offer you, and no explanations that are suitable. I do not believe that what I did—ending her suffering before much worse could be inflicted on her—was wrong. I believe that my mistake, what was wrong, was my joining the Death Eaters, and that mistake led me to many more before I set myself right as Dumbledore's spy.
And then…and then he had stood and walked toward the window. Had stood there a long moment, back to Harry, looking out over the grounds. Harry had a fleeting impression of Albus Dumbledore standing there as well, with Snape beside him, both of them watching, watching a young boy hurl stones into the water.
But what I believe is inconsequential. You must determine what you believe, and if you can forgive me. The woman who wrote this letter would like me to suffer as much as she has. She obviously does not believe that I already have.
He turned then, and looked at Harry. Stared at him as Harry had stood, pushed back his chair, made his excuses.
Go. I'll be here for you when you come back if you'd like to talk then.
And Harry had gone.
He thought now about that letter. There had been a lot more in it besides the part about the little Muggle girl. There was the admission that Hilda had borrowed another name. There was the claim that the atrocities that were happening were not about him. Not about Harry Potter. The claim that they were about Severus. Severus Snape.
He squinted. Someone had just walked onto the pitch. They stopped and scanned the stands then started moving purposely toward him.
He recognized Ginny when she got to the bottom of the stands.
She took little time in climbing up to him, and when she reached the box, smiled at him as she settled on the bench beside him.
"How did you find me?" he asked.
"Snape said you'd be at the lake, and if you weren't there, to try the pitch." She leaned back, resting her upper back on the bench behind them. "I never realized what a good view they have from here. You can see the castle gates and the doors." She rested her hand on top of his. "What's wrong, Harry?"
"Didn't Severus tell you?"" he asked, a bit too sharply.
"No. Should he have?" she countered. She seemed perfectly at ease, raising an eyebrow at him and squeezing his hand.
"No." He relaxed marginally, leaning back and resting his elbows on the bench behind them, putting him more in line with her. "Another letter came today," he said. He knew his voice sounded harsh.
"I thought as much," she said. "What garbage was in this one?"
"It wasn't all garbage," he said. He wasn't looking at her. He was looking toward the castle, toward Severus' office, toward the secret walkway over his quarters. "She's trying to bring him down, Gin," he said, his voice low, almost fearful. "All this…this…stuff…that's happening—Hogsmeade, Hermione—she says it's because of Severus."
"Because of Severus? What do you mean?" She sat up a bit straighter and turned to look at him.
"They're trying to discredit him. Make him pay for being a Death Eater. She's…she's dredging things up. Things from his past." His voice had dropped again to almost a whisper. "They don't want him to be Headmaster. I think they want him in Azkaban…or worse."
Ginny continued to stare at him, her warm brown eyes understanding, waiting for him to finish.
"She told me he killed a little girl, Ginny. A Muggle."
She blinked. He knew she must be trying very hard to listen, to be there for him.
"A little girl?" Her voice, too, was low.
"He told me all about it. It was just after he joined the Death Eaters. It was a raid on a Muggle village. They'd…killed her father, her brothers. Tortured…raped…her mother. Made the little girl watch. Had used the Cruciatus on her. They would have…would have…done that…" He couldn't say it.
He felt hands on his face. Warm hands. Ginny's hands were as calloused as his own. She turned his face toward her, leaned her forehead against his.
"Oh, Harry. How horrible. How horrible for that family." She pushed a strand of too-long hair behind his ear. "And how horrible for Severus – carrying that around with him all these years. And having to tell you…"
He stared at her, surprised. …for having to tell you. And that was it, wasn't it? The perspective that he needed. He couldn't bring the Muggle girl back. The crime was not his to forgive. And the Severus he knew – his Severus – was someone entirely different. Someone who cared enough about him to tell him the truth. Who handed him the letter, albeit with trembling hand, when they had finally let him into the office, when he had so rudely barged in and demanded it.
It's mine. It's addressed to ME—Harry Potter—not to the Ministry of Magic or the Headmaster of Hogwarts!
Severus had only asked that he remain there in his office while he read it.
He gave her a small smile. "You're right."
Ginny grinned. "Of course I'm right." She pushed another lock of hair behind his ear and smoothed her hand down over his head, working her fingers up under his hair and massaging his neck. "You can't let her get to you like this, Harry. What our parents did in their past, good or bad, is part of their past, not ours. Harry, even my own mum…"
"That was different," he said, his face taking on a hard look. "That was Bella. What she did…"
"What she did was attack me, and mum defended me. Mum killed her defending me. It wasn't because of her past actions, or torturing Hermione. It was very in the moment, Harry, wasn't it?"
"You're also really smart." He smiled and pulled her down toward him. Moments later, she was straddling his lap, and she was kissing him. He pulled her more tightly against him, kissing her lips, her chin, her neck, trembling in the cool afternoon as she ran her hands up his back, under his shirt.
And on the Headmaster's walkway, Severus stood beside Auror Reuben Peace and sighed.
Peace put down his omnioculars. "I think you can stop worrying about him now. Can we go inside and talk about that letter?"
"We can talk about it here," answered Severus, continuing to watch the two distant shapes in the Quidditch stands.
Peace glanced at him and frowned. "Don't you trust them?" he asked.
"How old were you when you first had sex?" asked Severus bluntly.
Peace smiled tightly. "Point taken. I was still at Hogwarts." He leaned back on the inside wall and pulled the letter out of his pocket. "So – who was on this raid with you?"
"There were at least eight of us, maybe ten," said Severus. His eyes did not waiver, staying fixed on the stands. "I was the only new recruit. I wasn't yet nineteen. I don't remember everyone. Malfoy. McNair. Crabbe or Goyle. Several who were killed before he fell the first time – Carney, Hampstead."
"If Hilda Smith is indeed Estelle Smith, she would have been only eighteen at the time of the raid then. Possibly still at Hogwarts. How would she have known?"
Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. He held out his hand to Peace, who handed him the omnioculars. Severus lifted them to his eyes. "Very smooth, Harry," he muttered.
"Still at it?'
"My question, then?"
"I gained a reputation as a result of that evening. I spoiled their fun. I was labeled as both a pouf for not letting them have the girl, and an idiot, for killing a child with Pepper-up Potion."
Peace raised an eyebrow. "Rape is an act of violence, not…"
"I know what rape is, Reuben," interrupted Severus. His hands gripped the stone rail, his knuckles white. "But no matter—I had the reputation from that point forward. The child died because the potion I gave her, that they expected would revive her so they could rape and torture her before they killed her, killed her before they could have their fun. Nearly all the Death Eaters knew the story, even those that weren't there. Some thought it was a mistake on my part. Most thought I was an inept brewer. Any of them could have told Estelle. Her future husband included."
"So she wouldn't have been there."
Severus shook his head sharply.
"She was not there."
"LePointe—her husband. Did you know him?"
"Know him?" Severus shrugged. "I knew who he was. I knew very little of him."
He was fidgeting now, and turned away from Peace and began walking the well-worn pathway. Peace pushed off the wall and followed him.
"What do you make of the end of her letter?" he asked. "What demand are they going to make of you?"
Severus kept walking. The walkway was too narrow to comfortably walk two abreast so Peace was a pace behind him.
"They will ask me to resign my post. They will threaten to reveal the murder of the Muggle girl if I do not."
"It was a mercy killing. Surely the public…"
Severus stopped and turned to face the Auror.
"How many mercy killings am I allowed, Reuben?" he asked softly.
"And then they will reveal the information anyway, and I will be forced to resign even if I did not do so when they made the request. Too many people know of it, and while they may not think to reveal it now, they will certainly be able to corroborate the story."
"Is anyone alive or out of prison that was actually there?"
Severus shook his head. "I think not, but cannot be certain. It does not matter. Harry knows. You know. I cannot deny this. I will not."
"And you're sure they'll ask for your resignation?" Peace's voice was still clinical, but there was an edge to it. "We need to involve the Minister, Headmaster. This is becoming more political than criminal."
"If they don't ask for my resignation, they will ask for something else." They had reached the front of the castle again and Severus stopped walking and looked out toward the pitch again. "I will not be blackmailed," he said firmly. "I will resign now, before they can carry this any further."
"Headmaster, don't be foolish. There isn't a soul in Wizarding Britain who isn't aware of your past. You have been forgiven, Headmaster. Twenty years ago you helped a child die a quick and peaceful death instead of suffer horrible atrocities. Your actions these past years certainly make up for…"
"I am the Headmaster of a school full of children. How many parents of eleven year old children will forgive me the death of an eleven year old twenty years ago? Will forgive me for even being there to begin with? No matter that my role was simply to keep the victims alive so they could be tortured even longer?"
"It was a long time ago."
"Not long enough that I have forgotten. Not long enough that my sister has forgotten."
"Still, we should wait. We don't know what they're going to ask."
Severus pursed his lips, shook his head slightly. "Minerva and Shacklebolt should be here. We need to move quickly – but not too quickly. I have an idea that may at least buy us time."
On Tuesday evening, when Harry opened the door at the top of the stairs between Severus' office and his quarters, Severus was standing next to the fireplace with the box of Floo powder in hand.
"Leave your bag on the sofa," he instructed calmly. "It will be here for you when you return. Do you have much homework tonight?"
Harry froze in place.
"When I return? What about you?" he said carefully. "And where are we going?"
"You trust me, Harry?" asked Severus. He held a tired smile in his eyes.
Harry walked cautiously over to him, dropping his bag on the sofa along the way.
"I'll go first. Follow me, please."
Severus handed Harry the box of Floo powder after taking a handful himself.
"Shell Cottage," he said, very clearly. He stepped into the flames and spun out of sight.
"What's going on?" Harry's voice rose as he shook the ash off of his robes and looked around the familiar sitting room.
The oil lamps were burning, the cottage was warm and he could smell something – road chicken, or lamb perhaps. He glanced around the room, a lump forming in his throat. A crocheted afghan hung over the back of the chair and there were books stacked on the tea table.
He walked into the kitchen, glancing up the stairs as he passed them.
The little elf bowed low. He still wore Regulus' locket, and it dipped forward with him.
"Headmaster Snape is on the porch," he said in his gravelly voice.
Harry gave him a puzzled smile and walked through the kitchen and onto the porch. Severus was seated at the table which was already set.
"What's going on?" asked Harry.
"It's Tuesday. We're having dinner together—as we always do," replied Severus. He motioned to the chair opposite him. "Sit. We have some important things to discuss, Harry, and I wanted to do so in private."
"Your quarters are private," protested Harry. But it was a weak protest. It was already dark, and the moon wasn't out yet, but he could hear the ocean out beyond them and already it was wrapping him in a comforting blanket of calm.
"Shell Cottage is a more appropriate place for this conversation, Harry," answered Severus. "Sit."
"How is Miss Granger?"
"Hermione? Is this about Hermione? Are you sending her here to live while she recovers?"
Severus held up a hand.
"No. She will remain at Hogwarts. I simply am interested in your assessment. I have seen her, of course, and spoken with her, but you know her better than I. How is she doing physically? How are her spirits?"
"She's getting stronger—healing fast. She's in good spirits and glad to be back at Hogwarts. She's bored to death, though. Severus, and wants to get back to classes. She's already talking about signing up for more since she'll be here full time now. What's this all about? Why are we here?"
He leaned back from the table as Kreacher slid a plate in place in front of him.
"Thanks, Kreacher," he said, watching as Kreacher placed Severus' plate and ambled slowly out of the room.
"And why is Kreacher here? Severus?"
Severus took a bite of roast chicken.
"I'm going to be living here for a while. Kreacher will be staying with me."
Harry's fork froze midway to his mouth.
"Living here?" He put his fork on his plate, food untouched. "What do you mean?"
"I am stepping down, at least temporarily, as Headmaster. We will claim a relapse and a need for a sabbatical to gather my strength again. Minerva will serve as Headmistress in my absence."
Harry stared at Severus, trying to put it all together. He wanted to scream out No! and ask a thousand questions and tell Severus how ridiculous this was. He was fine. Well, tired, to be sure, but he hadn't had a relapse and didn't need to recuperate by the sea.
But he swallowed. Gathered his thoughts. He speared a potato and sighed.
"Just start at the beginning."
And Severus did.
Severus stayed firm. He would be safely away from his position as Headmaster when any news about his first mercy killing hit the press. Minerva would already be in place as his replacement, with the blessing of the Ministry and the Board of Governors. Any demands made of him by anyone would be made to Severus Snape. And Severus Snape would not be in any position to speak or act on behalf of Hogwarts.
"There will be an announcement in the Prophet tomorrow, Harry. This is it. I am not going back to Hogwarts tonight."
Harry stared at Severus.
But what if I need you? he thought.
You're eighteen, he told himself. You don't need to have your dad around all the time. Your friends don't, do they?
"You can write to me, like you used to," said Severus, somehow understanding the look in Harry's eye.. "Give the letters to Poppy. She will be checking in on me daily, to keep up appearances. And you will Floo here, on Tuesdays, and we will catch up on the week."
Harry toyed with the chocolate cake Kreacher had served them.
"What will you be doing here?" he asked with a sigh. "Won't you be bored with nothing to do?"
"I will keep busy, and I will look forward to your letters," answered Severus.
Harry nodded reluctantly. He didn't like this.
"You could just deny it, you know," he said. "They'd have to find a Death Easter who was there, someone who would volunteer a memory, to prove anything. And then all they'd see is you giving her that potion. They'd never be able to identify what it was. It could have been Pepper up! She could have had some reaction to it…"
"Harry." Severus' voice was firm. "Think about what you are saying. You are suggesting that someone give the Ministry a memory of a group of Death Eaters torturing and killing a Muggle family—parents and children. And in that memory they will see a young Severus Snape, dressed in Death Eater Robes." He met Harry's eyes and held them, shaking his head. "No, Harry. If the accusation is made, I will tell the truth."
"But they all know you were a Death Eater!" exclaimed Harry, frustrated. "They all know what that means, Severus. And you've been cleared of all crimes you committed while you were in Voldemort's service. They can't stick it on you."
"They can't put me in prison for it," said Severus, calmly. "They can't punish me through the legal system. You are correct. That is what my exoneration has bought me." He held up a hand as Harry once again opened his mouth to protest. "But faced with specific incidents of my past, regardless of my exoneration, they are under no obligation to keep me on as Headmaster of Hogwarts or to guarantee me a job of any kind."
"But…" Harry's voice trailed off. "It's not fair," he said, knowing he sounded childish and petulant.
"Harry, I may be gone for some time. I may, in fact, not return to Hogwarts. I will not be there to watch over you as I had hoped. I believe you are safe at Hogwarts—at least safe from outside forces who may want to harm you. But the only way to be truly safe is to be safe from yourself as well. Safe from acting impulsively. From over-reacting."
"I'm fine," said Harry quickly. "I didn't go jump in the lake to try to talk to the merpeople on Saturday, did I?"
Severus stared at him. "Why ever would you have even considered…"
"I didn't!" exclaimed Harry. "That's the point. It would have been stupid. They couldn't have told me anything about Hilda's death. I can't even speak their language, can I?" His voice was getting louder.
Severus had an odd look on his face. He dropped his head into his hands and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he so often did when presented with this side of Harry. He changed the subject. "You need to control your magic, too. You will promise me to act always as if I could walk in the room at any time, overseeing whatever it is you are doing."
"Well that will keep Mrs. Weasley happy, anyway," muttered Harry.
Harry looked up at Severus, ready with another retort, but it died on his lips.
Severus was worried. Legitimately, genuinely worried.
He nodded. "I'll be fine. It will all be fine. You're making too big of a deal out of this. No one will care, Severus. Too much time has passed already. They know a different side of you."
"Says the man who had to leave the castle for several hours when he heard what had happened from my own lips."
"I needed to think about it! To put it all in perspective!" He faltered. "It was just…just that I'd never thought of you like that. Not with those details. Not…not…"
"Not as a real Death Eater," supplied Severus very quietly.
Harry nodded and looked down at his plate.
"And if it took my son several hours to think about it, and another twelve to actually come back to me to talk about it, what do you think the reaction of the general public will be? The people who will read about this in The Daily Prophet?"
"You're a war hero, Severus…"
"The people who do not love me as you do?"
They stared at each other a long time.
"I'll speak up for you. I'll explain it all. They'll listen to me. I'm the Chosen One, right? The Boy Who Lived Again?"
"We will wait," said Severus, forcing calm back into his voice. "We will see what they demand."
And when Harry had been sent back through the Floo, and Minerva had met him on the other side to sit him down again, to discuss the very same things he and Severus had, Severus let his tired body drop into the old hammock on the porch, and fell asleep breathing the salty air and dreaming, dreaming sea dreams of a life that began not in the wretched house on Spinner's End or the mighty halls of Hogwartgs Castle or even at the knees of Albus Dumbledore on a windy hillside. No, he dreamt, instead, of a life that began not two and a half years ago on a warm July day when Harry Potter stepped backward into a Muggle street… into the path of his uncle's car.