It seemed like days later that the Charmed detention slips were completed, but a glimpse at Snape's grandfather clock confirmed that it had only been a couple of hours. Even so, Snape's eyes burned from peering at his work, and Lily arched her back to work the kinks out of it. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she then rolled her head back and forth, to the muffled pop of the vertebrae of her neck, and finally sighed.
By Merlin, she was beautiful, in a subtle way that nonetheless blew the flashy glamor of Andromeda Mealymouthed Frogbrained Tiffany Malodorous Brighteyes out of the water. He wanted to apologize to her for everything, ranging from calling her a Mudblood to trying to bargain with Voldemort to spare her so that Snape could have her after James' death. In hindsight, that last was especially disgusting, and left a foul taste in his mouth, and he wasn't even sure if there was a way to explain things that wouldn't make her hate him forever. He meant well, in a bizarre sort of way. He really did. He didn't have time to dwell on that for long, though.
"At least that's done," she said. "That felt like writing lines in detention with our Charms teacher."
"We'll each take some, keeping them hidden," Snape said, dividing up the stack of detention slips. "I'll be the one to give out most of them, but if something happens to me, you need to distribute them as widely as you can."
She nodded. "Hopefully, with all these detention slips on us, she won't be able to get her hooks into us."
"Don't depend on it," he warned her. "The Dark Arts can be subtle. Now lets go find Minerva."
He turned and headed for the door, but Lily caught his arm. He turned back, and saw her smiling brightly, pointing insistently to her mouth.
"Ah, yes," he said, and screwed a toothy smile into place, bolstering it by imagining inflicting the worst academic tortures imaginable on Andromeda. The expression that resulted was cheerful in a way that would have terrified any of his students.
"So," Lily said as they left the sanctuary of his office and re-entered the cheerful Hell that was Hogwarts Castle, "Where do you suppose this party for her will be held?"
"I imagine it will be in the place where all major holidays are celebrated-the Great Hall." He turned in that direction.
"Will my son be there?" There was a note in her voice that tied his stomach into knots.
"I imagine he will be," he said, "Just remember that our priority is getting into the Headmaster's office. But," he added, as she opened her mouth to protest, "If we see him there, we will retrieve him as well." He wasn't stupid enough to get between any woman and her child, no matter how many years had passed since they'd last met.
She closed her mouth, mollified.
The Great Hall had been completely redecorated since they'd left it, festooned in the Ravenclaw colors, with large images of Andromeda's face displayed prominently between banners proclaiming that "We Love You, Andromeda!"
The tables in the Great Hall were covered in a lavish feast, and half the partygoers were happily shovelling food around their grins, while the other half were gathered around a central focus-most likely the girl of the hour.
Egad, she was such an attention whore.
Snape and Lily grinned their way through the crowd, with Lily hanging onto Snape's arm like the two of them were Together. Of course they were. Why wouldn't they be? Andromeda had decreed it. She didn't even have the plausible excuse that she'd meant well-she just wanted her goddamn happy ending, by any means possible, and she was willing to rewrite the universe to get it. He was certain all the grinning faces were meant to be cheerful, but he knew in the pit of his stomach that behind those masks were a lot of scared people, crammed back into a dark corner of their own minds.
She was like Voldemort, without the restraint.
Abruptly, the crowd parted like the Red Sea before Moses (a fine wizard in his own right, but rather blown out of proportion by the witnesses) to reveal Andromeda, who was wearing platform boots, red fishnet tights, a black miniskirt, and a DragonForce tee-shirt under her school robes and house tie, for whatever ungodly reason. Even so, next to her radiant beauty, everyone else in the room seemed to pale to mediocrity. The colors of the decorations paled and muted, and Snape was hit with the near-crippling sensation that he would never be anywhere near as skilled a sorcerer as Andromeda was now, that she'd mastered more in her sixteen years than he had in his thirty-eight, and that he should just give up and worship her and get it over with. She wasn't even looking in their direction, instead chattering with some of the nearby faculty members.
He gritted his teeth behind his smile and tore his gaze away from her all-encompassing beauty. Near Andromeda he saw Minerva McGonagall, who was talking with Tom Riddle, while her body language suggested she was flirting with him, leaning in to take in his every word, touching him on the arm repeatedly, and so forth. Meanwhile, Riddle was gesturing to Andromeda in a way that, regardless of the actual topic of conversation, boded ill for the future of Hogwarts.
Snape swallowed his bile at the whole situation and made a beeline for Minerva, while his mind spun to come up with an plausible reason to get her out of there immediately. Lily's arm tightened on the crook of his elbow, pulling him up short, and he turned to see her looking over at the Gryffindor table. Her smile melted from the fake smile to one of genuine affection, and he knew even before he followed her gaze that she'd found Harry. He leaned over to murmur in her ear.
"We can get him on the way out, Lily," he said quietly. "Right now we need to get Minerva."
"Severus!" he heard from his original direction. He turned and saw Minerva approaching him, and he quickly cranked his smile back into full gear. For her part, she still looked as happy as ever - that is to say, the bottom half of her face was just delighted, while the top half was scared out of its mind. "I trust you and Lily have had time to become reacquainted?"
"In a manner of speaking," he replied, deftly sidestepping the many levels of entendre that were somehow crammed into two sentences. He tightened his own grip on Lily's arm, and he felt her turn back to the matter at hand.
"It's the most amazing thing," Minerva said, as though the previous topic had simple ceased to exist, "Miss Brighteyes was just telling me about her tragic past…"
"Minerva," Snape said.
"…being raised by a cruel Muggle family who beat her daily…"
"Minerva," Snape said.
"… all because her magical powers started to manifest when she was just a toddler…"
"Minerva-I-need-to-have-a-word-with-you-right-now," Snape broke in quickly.
Minerva blinked, but he honestly couldn't tell whether she was put out or relieved at the interruption. "Yes, Severus, what is it?"
"Peeves is making a mess in the Entrance Hall," simply fell out of his mouth, followed by, "I need your help in stopping him."
"Oh," McGonagall said, sounding politely confused, "I thought Andromeda got rid of him."
"Well, he's back, and he seems quite angry about the ouster. Come quickly, before he breaks the chandelier." Snape honestly couldn't say for sure that there was a chandelier in the Entrance Hall, either before Andromeda's meddling or afterwards, but what was done was done. She would believe him or she wouldn't.
"All right," she said, "Lead the way. Excuse me, Thomas."
Riddle swept a low bow to her. Snape had been under the impression (from what the girl herself had said) that Riddle was head-over-heels in love with Andromeda, so either Andromeda was fine with some form of love triangle or she had the attention span of a gnat. Either way, Snape didn't recall hearing even rumors that Riddle had been a ladies' man. Charismatic, yes, but only in the same way that Darth Vader was charismatic-you paid attention to him because people who didn't tended to die.
Needless to say, Riddle was not on his list of people to free from Andromeda's influence.
Lily spoke up. "We need to bring Harry with us," she said, in tones that suggested she wasn't leaving otherwise.
Snape nodded. "Quickly." Lily headed off, angling for the Gryffindor table.
"I was just considering making Miss Brighteyes the next Headmaster of Hogwarts," Minerva said. "After all, she's been through so much. Did you know that her nine older siblings were devoured by dragons?" She shook her head. "And she had to see that, at the tender age of two."
"Hurry up, Lily," Snape muttered under his breath, maneuvering Minerva towards the doors. He didn't dare look to check her progress. Just act casual, Severus…
"And when she was four she started training in dragon hunting to avenge them."
"Then when she was ten she lost an arm to a Norwegian Ridgeback and discovered that she had the most astonishing healing abilities."
Snape's stomach turned. Not even full-blooded veela could heal that fast without some serious magic.
"Where ya going?" Andromeda's voice behind them made Snape's blood freeze. He whirled, still smiling desperately, trying to subtly interpose himself between Andromeda and Minerva.
Andromeda's eyes were orbs of polished emerald, shining as though from an inner glow of powerful innate magic. Somehow her tee-shirt now bore the phrase My Chemical Romance (whatever that meant), and instead of a miniskirt and fishnets she wore a pair of torn blue jeans. At this distance he saw that her nails and lips were painted an impossible blend of pink and violet that made his eyes water.
"Peeves," he said simply, "In the Entrance Hall. Causing trouble." Her gaze bore down on him like the Imperius Curse.
"I would have sworn I got rid of him!" Andromeda sniffed, tossing her head in a way that made her gleaming fiery-red tresses cascade across her back in slow-motion. "I'll get rid of him for you. I guess I have to do everything important around here. I hate being the best there is at everything!" She was smiling brightly as she complained through. "Being wonderful is such a curse!"
"That's quite all right," Snape said, thinking fast, "No need to trouble yourself with this - the Grey Lady saw a unicorn up in the Seventh Floor Corridor, and it looked terribly lost."
Andromeda brightened without actually changing her expression. "A unicorn?" she chirped merrily, in a voice lilke the songs of birds. "Such beautiful and shy and pure creatures unicorns are! Not to worry - I'll rescue it and lead it back to safety! I'm the best there is at handling magical creatures, after all." She sighed in exasperation at her own wonderfulness and trotted away. Only when she was out of sight did Snape release the breath he'd been holding. If he was lucky, she would be running around the Seventh Floor Corridor for hours looking for a unicorn that didn't exist. Otherwise, he'd at least bought them a few minutes to make their escape.
"What's this about a unicorn?" Minerva asked. Snape caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and glanced over to find Lily waving. She had Harry (still stupidly grinning) by the wrist, and as she caught his eye she gestured towards the door. He nodded.
"I'll explain later," he told Minerva. "Let's go. Quickly." He put an arm around her waist and herded her towards the Entrance Hall.
"The Riddle boy has been such a delight now that he's all better," Minerva continued on as they passed through the door. "I wish I was half as talented as Andromeda…"
The heavy double doors banged shut, muffling much of the noise from Andromeda's self-congratulatory party. Snape sighed in relief and flexed his facial muscles to release the grin. He turned, making sure that Lily and Harry were also safely away. Lily nodded at him, grasping her son by the shoulders, and then turned back to Harry. Snape's stomach twisted as she smoothed back Harry's fringe, getting her first good look at him since he was an infant.
Well. He couldn't dwell on the past right now.
"There's no telling how long we have," he said to Lily, "I'll get Minerva protected, and then I'll take care of Harry. I imagine…. you have a lot to discuss."
Lily glanced at Snape and nodded. He turned back to face Minerva, whose eyes were darting around anxiously above her smile. He pulled one of the detention slips from his sleeve.
"Minerva," he said, and her attention focused back on him. "Keep your eyes on me. Concentrate. And whatever happens do not scream." He pressed the detention slip into her hand.
Her vision cleared almost instantly, and she gulped in a huge lungful of air. Snape quickly clamped his hand over her mouth, but unstead of screaming she seemed to be merely taking several deep breaths, nearly to the point of hyperventilation.
"Minerva?" he asked. "Minerva, I need you to calm yourself. Something terrible is happening at Hogwarts and I need your help. Now I need your help to get to the bottom of this." She nodded behind his hand, tears of horror brimming in her eyes. "Now I can explain as much as I know, but I need your assurance that when I take my hand off your mouth you will not scream. Can you do that?" She nodded again. "Good." He pulled his hand free of her mouth, and she let out a quiet whimpering noise.
"S… Severus?" she asked quietly.
"That's right. I know I look different, but I'm still Severus Snape."
Minerva frowned. "But…. I thought you died. I remember attending your funeral."
"I know," Snape replied, wincing. "She brought me and a lot of other people back from the dead. You remember Lily, right?" He gestured to the witch in question, who inclined her head.
Minerva didn't seem much assured by this. If anything, her expression became more troubled, as though she knew in the core of her soul that this shouldn't happen. She turned back to Snape, her face flooded with questions. Right now, though, he was certain that he couldn't answer most of them.
"We need to get into your office so we can talk with Dumbledore's portrait," he said. "I can fill you in on as much of the situation as I know of on the way. But for right now…"
He turned to Harry. While the circumstances were not ideal, and honestly the gesture was a false pretense, he was going to make the most of it.
"Lily," he said quietly, "do forgive me, but I've wanted to do this for seven years now."
"Do what?" Lily asked, frowning.
Snape drew himself up to his full height. "Harry Potter," he intoned in his best Evil Potioneer voice, and Harry turned to him with a cautious note in his cheerful smile. "You are displaying a level of obnoxious chipperness unbefitting a seventeen-year-old wizard who's been through the rise of a Dark Lord, the death and torture of several allies, and a Wizard War. You are a thorn in my side, your father was a self-important jerk, and your socks don't match. The penalty - detention!" He pushed a detention slip into Harry's hand.
Yes it was childish, but damn, that felt good.
Harry blinked several times. His smile faded as the color drained from his face. Snape dodged back as the boy doubled over, dry-heaving. Lily was instantly at Harry's side, her arms around him. She glared at Snape.
"Don't you think that was a bit much?" she demanded.
"You act like I knew he was going to get sick to his stomach," Snape returned. "So far he's the second one to receive a detention slip. I just…" He caught the look on Lily's face. "Okay, fine. Potter, how are you feeling?"
Harry gagged once more and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his robe. "Like I just came from one of my Remedial Potions classes," he said weakly. Lily touched Harry's face, and he looked up, peering into his mother's eyes for the first time in nearly his entire life. The transformation on his face was magical, going from nauseated misery to once-in-a-lifetime, miraculous disbelief in a matter of seconds. "…Mum?" he whispered.
"Hello, Harry," Lily said, her eyes sparkling with tears of joy.
"Mum!" Harry flung himself into her arms, and the two hugged each other fiercely, enjoying the bond between mother and son, the sort of blood bond that not even death could possibly break.
Snape watched the reunion in awkward silence. While he was more-or-less satisfied to have reunited mother and son, it could have been done under better circumstances.
Finally he cleared his throat. "As willing as I am to let the two of you catch up," he said delicately, "We have other things to do."
Only now did Harry seem to truly notice Snape. "Wait a second," he said, "I thought you - I saw you die! What's going on?"
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose, just knowing that he was going to deal with variations of "I thought you died" for the rest of the day, at least. "Yes, I died," he said. "Yes, I'm back. Yes, I know how it happened. Yes, I'll be explaining it to you. No, we don't have time right now. We need to move before Andromeda gets back. Any questions?"
"What needs to be done?" Harry asked. A very practical question, Snape thought.
"We need to find out how much Dumbledore knows about her," Snape said. He turned to Minerva. "His portrait is still in the Headmaster's Office, correct?"
She nodded. "It should be," she said, "but you know how mysterious he likes to be."
"It's our only chance," Snape said. "Lead the way. I'll fill you and Potter in on what we know so far."
By a coincidence that would have been more astonishing under other circumstances, the explanation of the situation as Snape knew it, plus the respective questions of the newest members of their little group, took exactly the length of time required to travel from the Entrance Hall, up several flights of stairs in the Grand Staircase to the third floor, and from there to the gargoyle that marked the entrance. Accordingly, Minerva and Harry had gone from disoriented and confused to merely worried - a more useful mental state, all things considered, as it would allow them to start coming up with solutions to the Andromeda problem.
"So she's better than everyone at the school," Harry summarized.
"It would seem so," Snape replied. "Whether by actual talent or otherwise, I have yet to determine, though."
"And she brought a lot of people back who ought to be dead," Minerva said.
"Yes," Snape said, "though I'm not sure if their state could be considered living, or simply extremely cheerful Inferi. Right now we four seem to be the only ones not under her control."
"So how can we stop her?" Harry asked.
"That's what I intend to find out. Any other questions?" Snape said, as they drew level with the statue in question.
"Just one," Harry said. "Do you know your braid is dragging on the ground?"
Snape looked back and found that his hair had grown at least another foot since Lily had braided it. He frowned and reached back to touch the nape of his neck where the braid started; it was still reasonably snug. He sighed and snatched up the hair rope, looping it over his shoulder.
"She seems to like me with long hair," Snape summarized. "Merlin alone knows why."
"That's odd," Minerva remarked, but when Snape looked she was staring at the gargoyle. "The gargoyle seems more… real than anything else in the hallway."
Snape looked. He could make out every detail of the gargoyle statue, from the rough texture of the stone from which it was carved to the detailed texture of its half-folded wings, the grooves in its horns, and the way its talons seemed to dig into the pedestal on which it perched. Around its alcove, the stone walls of the corridor seemed insubstantial and generic, like somebody had papered the walls with masonry-patterned wallpaper, right up to the alcove's archway, which seemed by comparison to be so real it almost glowed.
"Oi," said the gargoyle. "Are ye gonna stand there gawping at me, or d'ye have the password?"
"Cockroach clusters," Minerva said. The gargoyle inclined his head to her and shuffled aside.
The four of them headed inside.
Snape noticed the release of mental pressure almost instantly once he crossed the threshold, similar to the sensation of his own wards sealing in his office. He glanced around as the others followed him in, and saw that Andromeda's influence not touched the office at all. The floor was made of polished oak, the desk of artfully aged cherry-wood, and the tomes, trinkets, and doodads that Dumbledore and the other headmasters before him had collected over the centuries were in place on nearly every horizontal surface. The place had a familiar, safe smell of old parchment, candle wax, and lamp oil that conjured memories of Snape's own tenure as a student, and then as a teacher at Hogwarts. Everything was bathed in a golden glow that, after brief investigation, proved to radiate from Fawkes, Dumbledore's pet phoenix.
The bird in question gave an unhappy chirp.
"Of course!" Harry said. "Phoenixes are extremely good creatures, with the power to repel evil - it makes sense that Fawkes would be able to keep her away!"
Minerva reached up and stroked Fawkes' breast. "Good boy," she said fondly. "I would have thought you'd left after Dumbledore's death."
"He did," said a familiar voice from the wall above the Headmaster's desk. Everyone glanced up to find Dumbledore's portrait hanging there. "It seems that he felt the need to return a bit over a week ago."
"Albus," Snape said, relieved at the relative presence of the former headmaster. "Are you aware of what's happening at Hogwarts?"
"Indeed I am," Dumbledore replied cheerfully. "As a matter of fact, she tried to bring me bac k to life."
"What happened?" Harry asked.
"I declined." Dumbledore made the act of refusing Andromeda sound as fundamental as crossing the street. "Being in this state has given me a marvelous perspective on things, far beyond what even most wizards of my level can really understand."
"Salazar Slytherin said you might know what she was," Snape said. "Do you?"
"Indeed I do," Dumbledore said. "Why don't you sit down and relax for a bit? You have much to learn. Minerva, there's some tea in the jar to your right, and a kettle over the fire. I'd brew some up myself, but you understand that there are things that portraits can't do for the living." Minerva nodded and started making tea. "As for the rest of you," Dumbledore continued, "The chairs are, I imagine, every bit as comfortable as they ever were. Once the tea is done, I shall answer as many of your questions as I am able."
As she started brewing tea, the others settled onto the various chairs, ranging from spartan wooden chairs designed to be no more than a place to rest in between tasks, to deep-cushioned easy chairs so soft that one might be inclined to fear taking a nap in one lest it eat you.
"It's so good to see all of you," Dumbledore continued, in tones reserved for small-talk. "Lily, you're looking especially well, considering your state of health for the past sixteen years."
Lily offered a pained smile.
"Harry," Dumbledore continued blithely, "I haven't seen you properly in over a year. How are you?"
"Terribly confused by this whole thing, sir," Harry replied.
"Quite understandable," Dumbledore smiled. "After all, things should rightfully have gone in a very different direction. And Severus… my goodness, she did a number on you, didn't she?"
Snape scowled. "I don't understand why she's doing all this - or why my hair has been getting so bloody long. It's unmanageable."
"Well, I imagine it is every young witch's dream to have a handsome Potions teacher with a tragic backstory, silky hair, and a nice-looking backside."
Lily clapped a hand over her mouth, Harry had a coughing fit, and Minerva nearly dropped the kettle.
"I'd rather not have people commenting on my backside!" Snape snarled, reddening.
Dumbledore put up a placating hand. "Have no fear, Severus," he said. "You are still as talented a Potioneer as you've always been, no matter how capable you are at holding people's attention, or by what means. Now," he said, swiftly changing topics, "You want to know what it is you are currently facing."
"Yes, please," came a ragged chorus of slightly relieved voices.
Dumbledore smiled, and then looked very grave. "What I am about to tell could be very disturbing. The being that you are currently facing is extremely powerful and otherworldly, and if you are not careful in handling her, she could destroy everything that you know to be true, everything that you hold dear. She is worse than anything any of you have encountered thus far."
"Worse than Voldemort?" Harry asked.
"Far worse," Dumbledore agreed. "For while Voldemort was capable of many great and terrible things, he was still bound by the laws that governed magic. Miss Brighteyes is a creature that does not respect such laws - does not even acknowledge that they should apply to her - and as such she is potentially the most dangerous being our world has ever known."
As he spoke, darkness crept into the corners of the office, snuffing the candles, and even cornering the healing glow of Fawkes' plumage. Lilly hugged herself as a chill crept into the air.
"Does this being have a name, then?" Snape said, the hope in his voice tempered by caution.
"Yes," Dumbledore said. "Although the species is legion, they all fundamentally answer to a single name."
There was a distant rumble of thunder, and half the candles in the office went out.
"Its name," said Dumbledore, "Is Mary Sue."
End Chapter 3.