Would you believe it, but the journey through first year with adults who actually know how to adult is finished although the full journey has perhaps only just begun. The intention is most certainly to begin on second year, although my first port of call will be to go back through this piece with a fine tooth comb and smooth the writing out, particularly the early stuff. It's strange to realise how far my writing has developed in four and a half years.
Thank you all so very much for your support and kind words throughout what has been one hell of a long time when all is said and done. It's wonderful to see so many of my original reviewers - Me, my most steadfast fan, I was hoping you'd reappear - and indeed to have collected so many new reviewers as we have gone on. From what began as a random little idea has matured into something quite remarkable, and it has been wonderful to have so many of you sharing my vision along the - decidedly windy - road.
So, I hope to see you when we depart on our journey into second year, but for now - many, many thanks for the encouragement, the praise and the reviews. They have meant the world to me. It took us a while, but we reached the end eventually!
Chapter 35: The Boundary Between Two Worlds
The remainder of the year passes pleasingly calmly. There are no further mishaps like ogres leaping out of water closets, teachers possessed by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or mass-murderers on the loose on the Hogwarts grounds. I find myself remarkably relieved. All the way in the lead up through the final exams, I kept thinking that something must be about to go dramatically wrong. That is doesn't is a source of perpetual surprise to me. I'm not quite sure what I am dreading. Perhaps that Albus will finally completely lose the plot and get fire to the Great Hall during breakfast or that the centaurs will stage a revolution and take over the castle. The disturbing fact is that neither would surprise me overly.
It gives time for my mind to wander as I stand in front of a hall of first year students, all diligently scribbling their answers to their Transfiguration exam. It's been quite a whirlwind of a year and the pace isn't set to slacken any time soon. We have what seems to be a comprehensive battle plan for the new curriculum now and all students will be sent home with an information pack for them to read over the holidays. A second, more detailed, pack will be sent out to parents, for in my extensive experience of important notifications, such things otherwise simply do not reach the parental ear until the following school year and then I am subjected to a series of Howlers. It is not a lesson one needs repeating all too often.
The students are all too aware that change is coming and that the change is going to be big. It doesn't matter how quiet you try to keep these things, somehow or other word always slips out and once it's gone, there is no hope of holding back. The rumour mill builds and ignites and before you know it, Hogwarts is being closed down and taken over by Durmstrang and they are all going to be required to become Dark Wizards. The other disturbing realisation was how many students did not seem overly put out at that prospect and they weren't all Slytherin. Although that's quite an unpleasant realisation as well; at what point did Dark Wizard and Slytherin become two virtually interchangeable words?
If there's one thing that this year has truly taught me, it's that there's a lot that needs fixing in Hogwarts and indeed beyond our own turrets and towers. It's been easy to slide into a form of complacency teaching here over so many years and I had begun to take certain things for granted that I shouldn't have. That my Gryffindors cubs and Severus' young snakes are automatically mortal enemies for one. There has always been a healthy level of competition between the snake and the lion, but it is over the last two decades that that competitive spirit has edged into an onslaught of intolerance and hatred. If there is one thing this year has shown though, it's that there is no natural enmity between snake and lion, other than what we ourselves put there. Severus and I have proven that many times over.
It isn't just Hogwarts that needs to change though and with the luck of Merlin, we might have just about started down the path that leads to change. For good or ill, but, I would hope at least, for good. The scratching of quills to papers is almost soothing in it's normality; this at least is a sign that the world has not turned completely tipsy-turvy, wherever that delightful muggle phrase comes from. Amelia Bones is proving to be a formidable ally as she spearheads a wave of unrest throughout the Ministry. It isn't yet common knowledge that Peter Pettigrew has miraculously revived from the dead, just as it isn't common knowledge that the Ministry is holding a human body possessed by a Dark Lord. That doesn't mean that echoes and whispers haven't begun to spread however. A secret can only be a secret when only one person knows it, after all.
The wheels of justice move slowly, particularly when there are some highly influential people leaning on them to stop them moving at all. But turn they do. The first step has been to remove Sirius Black from Azkaban, although from Amelia's reports, the chances of him being fit enough to stand trial any time soon are slim. It doesn't matter that the trial should merely be an exercise in administration; after all, they have the man who was supposedly murdered. His living status calls the whole murder charge thing into question, rather, and without the solid evidence linking Sirius Black to that, they have no evidence at all of him being a Death Eater. And that's without veritaserum testimony from the rat.
Hogwarts will be a different place next year, however. Some things won't change of course; the Houses will remain intact and I can't imagine our ghosts will be going anywhere. Peeves of course is an ever present nuisance whether you like it or not. The structure will change though and the classes with it and perhaps we can build something far more lasting on this foundation of memories, stone and magic. With the new faces of course means that we will lose some old ones. Professor Binns will stay in the castle, but after lengthy discussion with staff, ex-students and Bill Weasley, it has been decided that teaching is not a suitable role for a ghost. It doesn't surprise me that the goblins can strike a mighty hard bargain, and that was one of the earliest concessions. For the goblins sponsorship and expertise, the teaching of the magical history and the goblin rebellions had to change. I believe there is a phrase that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Trying to teach a dead one didn't even bear thinking about.
One other thing crosses my mind as I smile fondly down at the rows of students, all equipped with Anti-Cheating quills. With time up and quills down, I go in search of Severus. My feet walk without any conscious thought towards the dungeons and I find myself standing outside the main dungeons. I knock, even as the finely dressed Slytherin in an adjacent portrait vanishes, undoubtedly to inform Severus of his company. The door opens and the form of the Potions Master himself looms over me. I refuse to take the step backwards that propriety would suggest, instead tilting my head up to catch the younger man's eye. He gives a begrudging chuckle and takes the step back into his lair, in order to face me more squarely.
"Anyone would think that you had gained a fondness for the dungeons," he remarks snidely as he steps back once more, gesturing me through into his quarters with an expansive swoop of his arm. "You spend almost as much time down here as I do these days…"
"I'll have to be careful or rumours will start," I reply dryly as I step through the doorway. "I do actually have a purpose to my visit, Severus. The Dursleys."
"Ah…" Severus goes paler than should be possible as a reaction to two simple words. "Yes… About that…"
"What with one thing and another," I continue, meeting his gaze steadily. "And the absolute chaos this year has somehow descended into, that family completely slipped my mind. What did you do with the Dursley boy?"
The silence is resounding, but I allow it to build up around us. There's something in Severus' expression that I can't quite place, but it puts me in mind of having taught him all those years ago. As the silence grows and expands, I refuse to look away from the younger man's hooded gaze and he surprises me by giving ground first. He looks down to his feet, looking like nothing more than a guilty schoolboy taken to task by the Headmaster. It's as his gaze flicks to the side that the realisation hits me like a solid fist to the stomach.
I know what Severus has done with the Dursley's. I should have known all along.
I walk silently across the room, moving across to the opposite counter. I stop in front of a cage that now holds three distinctly thin looking rats. Two adult rats, one obviously longer than the other, huddled miserably in a corner. Two adults and a smaller specimen, slightly more gangly looking, scuffing around in the wood chips.
It does not escape my notice that Severus has not moved from his position near the door. He could be a statue for all the motion that he makes. Some habits die hard, I suppose. Like those of a child freezing in the hopes that his father won't see him. Or an adult, playing a deadly game with one of the world's greatest psychopaths. Move too quickly at your peril.
I kneel beside the cage and watch the three rats silently for a long moment. Without standing, I turn my head and meet Severus' gaze without flinching. I don't know what he sees in my gaze, but I can read the guilt on him like an open book. Another revelation for the year. When did I learn to read the most closed off adult I know so well? And why don't I feel more angry?
"Dudley," I say quietly, watching the rats carefully. The smallest creatures head rises suspiciously at the name, but it then goes back to scuffling the ground. "Dudley Dursley?"
This time the small creatures head comes up and it seems to look directly at me. I might be imagining the gleam of intelligence in those beady blue eyes, but as it twists its strangely delicate head to look between Severus and myself, there's no mistaking that there is something more at work here. It pads over to the front of the cage and chitters at me briefly, then sits down. It's the sitting that really confirms my suspicions. It doesn't sit like I would expect a rat to. Instead it sits back on its hind haunches and just stares at me. And it is not an it. It is a he.
Opening the front of the cage, I put a hand into the cage and the rat turns its head sideways before scampering up onto my fingers before resting in my palm. I've never had a cause to closely inspect a rat before but this little creature is beautiful in a delicate and vulnerable way. It's tiny claws dig into the skin of my palm, scratching slightly.
"Dudley Dursley?" I repeat quietly, unsure of how sensitive a rat's ears are. It chitters at me as its tail wraps lightly around my hand. "I'm going to put you down on the floor and wave my wand over…"
The small creature squeaks at me and runs up my arm until it sits on my shoulder, chittering at me frantically. Capturing it with my other hand, I gently raise it up to my own eye level.
"It's ok, Dudley. I am not going to hurt you." I speak slowly but softly, wishing I knew more about a rats hearing range. "When I wave my wand, I will be able to turn you back into your natural form. I promise you, that is all I will do. Nothing else."
The rat that appears to be Dudley stops chittering at me and, taking this for consent, I put him down on the floor in front of me. It only occurs to me now how much of a fool I am going to feel if this rat is quite literally just a rat.
"Transfiguration?" I ask Severus quietly, noting his returned nod.
I raise my wand and begin. It doesn't take long, although it takes longer than it would have if I were undoing my own transfiguration. First the rat expands and elongates, it's delicate clawed feet changing into what could be a stillborn babies tiny hands and feet. The process snowballs, the short blonde fur sucking back into the pink skin, shoulders and a neck appearing as the head puffs out like a balloon and thick strands of hair materialise. It's a strange process to watch and yet I can't spare all that much attention for it, so engrossed am I in my work.
Finally, I stop, feeling oddly drained and weak, as though I had used as much magic as I might normally have used in a week. In front of me sits a scrawny blond haired boy, his blue eyes watery as he blinks uncertainly. As I watch, he raises an arm instinctively to catch the side of his head, only to stop, looking puzzled.
"It's…" the boy sounds the words out carefully, as though he has almost forgotten how to speak. "I've gone deaf…"
"No, you have not," Severus remarks abruptly, ignoring how the boy shoots onto his hands and knees and scrambles behind me. "You have merely lost the ultrasonic hearing that rats rely on. It will seem odd at first but you will readjust in time."
I look from the youngster virtually clinging to my legs to the brittle looking man in front of me and I sigh, shaking my head.
Later, after having deposited the boy with Poppy, it occurs to me that I made no effort to rescue the adult Dursley's from Severus' tender mercies. But then the image of Harry, limping into the Great Hall those beautiful green eyes wary and afraid, comes into my mind. Harry curled up on a bed in the Hospital Wing, reciting the set of rules that made him less than human to the people who were meant to care for him and protect him. Harry, scrubbing cauldrons until his hands were raw and bleeding, flinching at sudden movements, hiding in the background. Harry, my Harry, our Harry. Harry, who deserved so much better than those wretched excuses for humanity. The scars, the bruising, the old breaks and fractures and malnutrition.
I think of all this and I think of two miserable rats curled in a corner of a cage and I am not sorry.
Perhaps that makes me a bad person. To be brutally honest, I don't care. I don't care what happens to the Dursley couple. And if they have to live the next twenty years as Severus Snape's lab rats then that is no more than they deserve. They can burn in the muggle hell and damnation for all I care. But then, perhaps being in Severus' care is a fate worse still. I would not normally consider myself to be vengeful but I can only hope so.
I watch with pride as my young cubs jostle their way into positions at the end-of-year feast. Albus claps his hands together and the babble slowly dies away. I catch Severus' eye and smile. This year, we have managed something that has never been done before in my memory at least.
"Another year gone!" Dumbledore announces cheerfully, smiling benignly as he looks across the sea of faces before him. "And what a year it has been! And what a year it is set to be! But enough of that now. We have more important things to concern ourselves with before sinking our teeth into the marvellous feast before us. For, as I understand it, we have a House Cup to present! Now, this year something quite unusual has happened…"
As Albus speaks, Severus and I stand up and walk forwards in unison. We stand either side of Albus, each in front of our own house, but our gazes meet and we smile.
"Now, the points stand as thus: in fourth place, Hufflepuff, with three hundred and fifty two points; in third, Ravenclaw have four hundred and twenty-six; but both Slytherin and Gryffindor sit at four hundred and seventy two and so we have a tie-break!"
There is a moment of slightly stunned silence before both sides of the room erupt in a storm of cheering and stamping.
"So, unless someone would be so kind as to lose their House ten points at this late juncture?" Albus looks across the hall expectantly, before sighing heavily. "Not even our illustrious Weasley twins? No. Ah, well. Then I suppose we have Hogwarts first ever House Cup draw!"
The grins that split across the faces of my cubs is wondrous to behold as the hangings above them become scarlet and gold, with a towering Gryffindor lion. The sight of the green and silver banners on the other side of the hall do nothing to diminish their joy.
It's with a surprisingly light heart that I watch my first years clambering into the boats that will take them back across the lake. Such a magical tradition. I've always felt it to aptly depict the line between the muggle and magical worlds, once crossed at dusk and once at dawn, crossing a boundary between the two worlds. I well remember my own first crossing into Hogwarts and the sheer wonder of it.
My eyes land on the dark, messy hair of Harry James Potter as he climbs into one boat, closely followed by Mister Longbottom, Weasley and Miss Granger. I feel a presence behind me and know without looking that it is Severus.
"He isn't much like James at all, is he?" the younger man says surprisingly softly and it's with nothing short of amazement that I realise his dark, glittering eyes are tracking my young cub across the Hogwarts lake.
"No," I agree softly. "I don't suppose he ever had a chance to be."
"Well, he's got a chance now," I can hear the smirk in the words. "Let's just hope he doesn't seize it with both hands."
"You know Severus," I respond lightly as the boats get smaller and smaller in the distance. "That certainly wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen."
"No…" he mutters thoughtfully, putting a hand lightly on my shoulder as he speaks. "In the grand scheme of things, I suppose it wouldn't."