'The child is father to the man.'
How can he be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can:
'The child is father to the man.'
No; what the poet did write ran,
'The man is father to the child.'
'The child is father to the man!'
How can he be? The words are wild!
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918
The holy well that sprang up from beneath the grounds of Hogwarts was only as big around as arms might encircle, but it ran deeper than anyone had yet been able to measure. It lay behind what was once the school chapel, and it was marked by nothing more than a low ring of smooth stones around it, as centuries of headmasters and headmistresses were well aware that cautionary signs and dire warnings only encouraged attention from the intrepid and the foolish.
The water that filled the well was very cold and clear and still, and it swallowed the light, revealing no natural reflection. Nothing that fell into the well was ever retrieved, and nothing living had ever been glimpsed within it—not a fish or a frog or even an insect—until the evening in 1985 when a small boy was pulled gasping and sputtering from its waters.
At first, the ensuing commotion went unnoticed. It was the early days of summer, and the school grounds were deserted from the lake to the mountains. Shortly thereafter, however, a trail of water leading across a courtyard and into the castle caught the attention of Argus Filch. He followed it, mop in hand, grumbling: "Thinks just because he's staying the summer, he doesn't have to clean up after himself..."
His voice faltered as he rounded the corner, and then he halted altogether, staring in surprise at the sight that met him. The young miscreant himself stood uncertainly in a doorway. Professor Snape's face appeared—to Argus, who was very accustomed to gazing wistfully at it from afar—even paler than usual, and his expression was one of uncharacteristic bafflement. His hair was sopping, and so were his robes, but only to the chest, as though he had plunged head first into a pool of water. In his arms he held a small child of indeterminate sex.
Argus was a practical man above all else. No fewer than five very pertinent questions queued up on his tongue, but after a brief appraisal of the situation, he pushed them aside and instead grabbed the sodden child out of Professor Snape's grasp. He swung the thing upside down by its ankles and gave it three hard thumps on the back.
The child, its face white and its lips blue, choked and gurgled before spitting up a great mouthful of water. The splash against the stone floor was startlingly loud, and for a moment all three of them were stunned into silence. Then, finally having air to do so, the child began to scream.
That seemed to bring Professor Snape back to himself. The lost expression on his face sharpened into an impatient frown, and he found his feet again, pacing a short distance of the corridor and trying to push a stubborn wet lock of hair out of his eyes. "Shut up," he hissed when the wailing did not ebb.
The child ignored him, continuing to caterwaul. Snape then looked at Argus, his gaze piercing. "The headmaster can't find out about this," he said, his voice full of barely constrained panic. "No one can find out about this, do you hear me?"
Argus had not seen him look so rattled in a long time. Not since You-Know-Who had buggered off and all those long nights out and suspicious meetings with Dumbledore had come to an end. He'd seen the young man with his choler up more times than he could count, and he'd seen him in the depths of the devil's own sorrow, but he'd not seen him frightened. Not openly, in-the-soup frightened. So, still thinking practically, Argus let his mop lie where it was, and he turned the child right side up, settling it on his hip. The thing finally quieted, freezing cold to the touch and soaked to the bone, and Argus wasted no more time in setting off down the corridor.
"This way," he said over his shoulder, making sure the young professor was following him. He took them down a short and stealthy path to the bell tower, cutting through abandoned rooms and a few secret passageways in order to dodge the portraits, and then hurried up the winding flight of stairs to the set of rooms he kept as his own.
"The ghosts stay clear of here," he said. "House-elves too." He unlocked the door and ushered the professor into his apartments. Then he set the child down on the threadbare sofa and headed into the bathroom.
"Are you certain?" Snape asked. He had immediately backed himself up into the furthest corner of the sitting room, as far from the child as he could get, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
Argus collected all the towels he could lay hands on and started running a lukewarm bath. "The ghosts don't like the bells. And the elves know what I'll do to them if I catch them around here."
He came out of the bathroom and knelt down in front of the sofa. The child had thawed enough to start shivering, its teeth chattering violently. Whatever its mother had dressed it for, a dunk in the lake wasn't it. It wore some sort of cheaply made undershirt sized for a grown man and belted with a cravat to make a tunic, and on its feet were a pair of waterlogged shoes in desperate need of cobbling. Argus stripped the child off-discovering that it was in fact a boy-and set to getting him warm. The child let out a cry of protest and bit him, his teeth digging hard into Argus's arm, but Argus only grunted, shook him loose, and then wrapped him up in the towels and rubbed him briskly.
Another very pertinent question butted to the head of the queue as he looked back and forth from the sofa to the far corner where Snape was standing. Straight black hair. Heavy brows drawn into identical frowns over long noses. Eyes so dark you could hardly tell pupil from iris.
"Now what have you gone and done?"
Severus ransacked the Restricted Section, yanking everything off the shelves dedicated to blood scrying and temporal anomalies. He bypassed the sign-out sheet that Madam Pince had pointedly left out for any staff member—i.e. him—who had petitioned to stay the summer for purposes of professional development. He was meant to be writing a new Potions curriculum after four years of making do with Professor Slughorn's sloppy notes and denying that this was what he really did for a living.
The blackbird, dosed with gin-soaked raisins, did not struggle in his hands as he broke its neck. The tip of his knife delicately removed the bird's eyes, and he cast them into the holy well, where they sank slowly out of sight. He then poured in a grisly ten pints of blood and then three vials of tears. His own salt and iron mingled with those of the spring, forming a thin, pink-tinged film on its surface.
He had forgone Filch's offer of a bath and had made do with a drying spell. His clothes clung to him now, unpleasant and tacky as he carried his haul of books back up the bell tower, taking the stairs two at a time. He was maddeningly itchy and could feel himself taking a chill, but there was no time to waste on changing his clothes. The only thing more damning than a spell gone wrong was a spell gone wrong that one was not supposed to have attempted in the first place, with walking, talking evidence in tow.
He gazed into the water, his lips parted and his eyes lax. "Show me the past," he murmured. "Show me what I seek."
He carefully did not think of her, not yet. That had been his error last winter, the first time he had attempted this, on a cold New Year's Day when the headmaster was abroad. He had let his hunger consume him, his desire too sharp, too fixed, and instead of dipping delicately into the waters of the past, he had conjured the grim, muddy present of white bones and black earth: Lily's grave. The sight had left him sick and shaking, unable to hold the spell. This time, however, he was better read, better prepared.
"The mill pond," he said softly as the water began to swirl, teasing him with glimpses of the world beyond like shapes in the clouds. "The mill pond behind Spinner's End..."
To his dismay, the boy had not miraculously disappeared in his absence, although Filch was currently nowhere to be seen. He carried the teetering stack of books to the nearest flat surface—a small dining table—and let them drop with a loud clap. The boy, who was curled up amidst a nest of blankets on the sofa, sat up abruptly at the sound. He had been bathed and dressed in a cast-off shirt of Filch's, which was still too big for a nightshirt, even buttoned to the collar with the sleeves rolled up. It was only slightly less ridiculous than the charity box play clothes he had arrived in.
The boy watched him with wide eyes, and Severus ignored him, settling in at the table and paging hurriedly through the first book.
The mill pond had been drained when he was thirteen years old, after the mill had closed, putting a quarter of the town out of work in the process. He was nine years old the first time he took Lily there, and he had shown her how to walk along the narrow wall that served as an embankment, and even though she had been fearless, she had held his hand tightly.
"The mill pond," he said again, trying to imagine it as it was in his childhood: the faint stench of overgrown weeds and mill tailings, the scattering of abandoned glass bottles and water-bloated magazines, and the abandoned shopping trolley beached on the shore. The image swam into view, pale but recognisable on the surface of the water, and when he saw a small foot stepping cautiously along the wall, his heart leapt.
"Are you Uncle Titus?" the boy asked suddenly. His voice was grating and familiar, his tone plaintive and his esses and tees indistinct.
"What? You've met Uncle Titus. I don't look a thing—" He broke off, supposing it might be too much to expect the boy to have an intuitive grasp of the situation. "No, I'm not your uncle. He lives in Bolton."
"Oh." The boy drew his knees to his chest. "My name's Severus. What's yours?"
Severus had returned his attention to the book, which had an illustration of a Renaissance-era scholar gazing into a dish of water, in which lay the image of an ice age mammoth. "You may address me as Professor Snape, if you feel the need to address me at all."
"That's my name too!"
Severus pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed in deeply for patience. "I realise that. We're...kin."
"Please," he said, leaning forward to see. His breath fogged up the water as his heart pounded in his throat. He needed to see her one more time. Even if he couldn't speak to her, couldn't warn her, couldn't touch her. He leaned closer, trying desperately to see more, and he felt it when his own control began to slip and the power of the ancient spring rose up and took over. A small boy was peering down from the top of the wall, his eyes round with surprise, as if he could see Severus reflected in the water below. The child tried to retreat, but his foot faltered on the damp stone wall, and then it was too late.
The boy climbed down off the sofa and hesitantly crossed the room, walking in meandering loops until he came to the window. He began hopping up and down in place, trying to see over the ledge.
"Stop that," Severus said sharply, paging through another book and scanning for the words "mishap" or "foolish."
The boy heaved a dramatic sigh. "I'm supposed to be home before dark." He seemed to have no conception that there was a distance of three hundred miles and twenty years between his current predicament and home, as if a sprawling castle might have sprung up in walking distance of Spinner's End without his notice.
"I talked to your mother. She said you should stay here and be quiet."
The boy looked sceptical. "I'm supposed to be home before dark," he said again.
The boy tumbled off the wall, clawing frantically at the empty air. He splashed into the mill pond and then, somehow, the image inverted and the boy was falling slowly upwards towards the mouth of the well, flailing, drowning, the whites around his eyes bared in panic. Severus reached into the icy water instinctively, and what part of his mind was increasingly aware of exactly how wrong this had gone thought and hoped and prayed that his hand would pass right through the apparition. It didn't. His fingers grazed solid flesh, and then there was no choice to be had but to plunge himself into the water and pull the child out.
Severus momentarily shut the book around his finger and took a deep breath. "Your mother said you've been a pain in her arse and you're best out of the house for a while. She said you're to stay here and mind me, or else."
That seemed to have enough of a ring of plausibility to mollify the boy, who returned to the sofa and was quiet for a time. Severus re-read every text he had studied in preparation for the spell and then anything that remotely looked like it would contain a chapter titled "So You Went and Buggered Up Time."
"I'm tired," the boy announced.
"Then be quiet and go to sleep," Severus said.
The boy had wrapped the blankets around himself like a cloak and now peeped out from beneath a blue flannel cowl. "Can I sleep with you?"
"What? No. What is wrong with you?" Had that really been his level of self-preservation at four or five or however old the thing was supposed to be? He supposed it was a good thing he'd been an ugly child.
"How come?" the boy asked.
Severus narrowed his eyes. "Because you're a bed-wetter."
The boy's eyes widened, and his face went very red. "I AM NOT!"
Severus only looked at him knowingly until the boy retreated into the blankets, disappearing from view and shutting up save for a brief, whingy, "I'm hungry."
Filch returned not long after, bearing a tray of toasted cheese sandwiches and tea. He had obviously bypassed the house-elves and made the former himself, as the edges were burnt and the cheese was oozing out onto the plates. Filch put the tray down on the side table and then brought a plate and cup over to the sofa.
"Eat," he said.
A small arm ventured out and grabbed the sandwich and then disappeared with it back into the blankets. A few minutes of disgusting and overly loud chewing sounds ensued, and then the hand returned for the cup of milky tea. When the slurping had finished, Filch picked up the mound of blankets, boy and all. "Let's find you somewhere to sleep. It's getting late."
There was a small pause, and Severus could feel a gaze peering out at him from within the blankets. Then the boy said, very quietly, "Have to pee first."
A diversion was made to the bathroom, and then the two disappeared into one of the other rooms, through the door of which Severus had glimpsed the makings of a work room with a cot shoved in one corner. Some time later, when the boy had evidently been dealt with, Filch returned and hovered obtrusively over Severus's shoulder. Severus continued skimming The Man Who Was His Own Great-Uncle and ignored him.
"Your toastie's getting cold."
"I have rather more pressing business at hand, if you haven't noticed," Severus said.
Filch nudged the plate closer. "Can't study if you faint."
"I am not going to faint." This assertion might have held more weight if it wasn't directed at the person who had caught him just before he hit the floor after his first NEWT.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Filch leaning over to examine an illustration in Mirror to the Future, in which a beardless youth gazed unhappily into a pond to his future as a wizened beggar.
"I'm guessing that little boy ain't your bastard, then," Filch said.
Severus regarded him narrowly. He had not, admittedly, thought of that excuse, and now he felt slightly stupid for the oversight. "And why not? I am quite capable of having...of having impregnated a woman."
Filch merely looked at him patiently, with an expression he seemed to summon for Severus in particular. It was easy to forget sometimes that while the man might lack a formal education and any sense of proportion, he wasn't a fool. Finally, all Filch said was, "You've got that nick there."
He gestured towards Severus's hairline, and Severus pulled back, but Filch's hand stopped with an inch to spare. "Fell off a broom or something?"
"Out of a rocking chair," Severus said. He didn't remember the incident, having been barely old enough to walk at the time, but he'd heard the story from his mother.
"He's got one to match," Filch said, jerking his chin towards the room the boy had been settled in.
Severus was briefly silent and then admitted to himself that while a conspiracy of two generally only worked when one of the conspirators was dead, it would be doubly difficult to keep this information from both Dumbledore and Filch. "It was a small error. I'm in the process of correcting it right now, and there's no reason why anyone has to know about this."
Filch looked over the array of books. "Scrying? My granny used to do that with a saucer."
"I doubt your 'granny' employed this sort of method." He grabbed another book and began scanning through the index. When he could feel that Filch was still staring at him expectantly, he elaborated. "The usual method of scrying is no different than reading tea leaves or gazing into a crystal ball. The mechanism is unknown and seemingly random, and the viewer is left to interpret the image. There's an alternative method, however. One that involves special kinds of water: old springs, holy wells, blessed water and the like. A sufficiently powerful magic user can harness the power inherent in the water itself to be more selective in one's viewing."
"In other words, it's fiddly magic that you weren't supposed to be doing."
Severus pursed his lips. There was nothing codified, exactly, in Dumbledore's insistence that he keep his distance from old friends and experimental magic—except, of course, when either was requested by the old man himself. He had signed no contract and had made no oath. Yet the terms of his probation were nevertheless clear in his mind, and he knew that if his error were discovered, Dumbledore would be within his rights to turn him over to the Ministry for a full investigation. Worse, he had the suspicion that Dumbledore would not do so. He would shelter him, yet again. He would be disappointed, not angry. And Severus would be left with another item added to his running debt to the headmaster.
"It isn't forbidden, per se. It's merely...highly theoretical." It hardly counted as blood magic, or so he had told himself. Yes, technically speaking, it was classified as a dark spell requiring human sacrifice, but that was only in the minds of the unimaginative who did not possess sufficiently good preservation equipment and the patience to drain themselves of a pint of blood every fortnight for the better part of half a year. It was only now that he realised that perhaps there were other reasons the spell was rarely attempted. "I opened a window, and unfortunately something has come through. It's simply a matter of shooing it back out."
"You weren't mucking about with that well behind the chapel, were you? It always gives me the creepings. You ought to stay clear of that thing."
Severus pinched the bridge of his nose once again. "Thank you for that very timely advice."
"Eat your toastie," Filch said.
Severus picked it up and took a bite to humour him. It was still mostly warm, and it was actually rather good. "The anomaly will be gone by morning," he said, waving Filch off. Even if, he thought, he had to put the child in a sack with a few heavy stones and return him the way he had come.
The place that Severus was in was a castle. He didn't know that until he looked out the right window, but it was. It was also very big. Bigger than the library. Bigger even than the mill. He wasn't allowed to go out of the tower, Mr. Filch had said at breakfast, because there were ghosts and monsters that would eat him if he did, but he was allowed to go anywhere he liked from the bottom to the top, and there were lots of places to explore in between.
Severus had wanted to stay and watch Professor Snape and maybe get to look at his books, but Mr. Filch said Professor Snape had not got enough sleep last night and had a headache, and so Severus hopped down all the twirly stone stairs and then climbed the mountain of them back up. He looked into closets full of interesting things like paintbrushes and brooms, and then he found a box of chalk and drew pictures on the stairs for a long time. There was a brown-and-grey cat, and he carried it around in his arms until it scratched him because it did not want to go into the bucket he was trying to put it in. Then he put the bucket on his head for a helmet and took a broom with him in case the monsters came into the tower.
"What are you doing?" he asked when he found Mr. Filch sitting at the top of the stairs with a book balanced across his knees.
Mr. Filch looked up from his book. He was a big man, and he dressed like Da, in a shirt and trousers. Severus himself wore robes at home, but he wasn't allowed to wear them outside because Mam said they were very expensive and he'd ruin them.
"I'm working," Mr. Filch said.
Severus climbed up to join him, curious. Da went away during the day to work, and he never got to watch. "You're writing with a feather," he said, intending to point out that this was a very stupid thing to do.
"It's a quill," Mr. Filch said.
"I can write," Severus said.
"Is that so?"
He nodded, eager to show off. "Want to see?"
Mr. Filch turned the book to a blank page and then dipped the feather into a little pot. He handed the feather to Severus, who put down his broom and took it.
"Go on, then," Mr. Filch said.
Severus carefully began to write. The feather was bendier than a pen, but he managed to neatly print: S-E-V-E-R-U-S S-N-A-P-E.
To his pleasure, Mr. Filch looked impressed. "Look at that. Clever one, ain't you?"
"Yes," he said, handing the feather back. "What are you writing?"
Mr. Filch showed him long lines of squiggly little words. "This is a school, see? Someone's got to make a list of all the things it needs—ink and paper and chalk and what have you—and buy it all before everyone comes back in September."
"Like going to the shops?"
"Just like," Mr. Filch said, returning to his writing.
Severus sat swinging his legs for a little while. He saw the cat further down the stairs, but it ran away when it spotted him. "My da'll be angry," he said.
Mr. Filch frowned. "Why's that?"
Severus shrugged. "He always is."
"He'll be glad to see you, once we get you home."
He wasn't so sure about that. "I could walk. I can walk really far. I walked all the way to the train station once."
"You can't walk home."
Mr. Filch put his feather down and looked thoughtful. "You took a tumble into water, didn't you?"
Severus shivered and nodded. "It was cold."
"Well, I reckon the water carried you a long way off. Miles and miles. So it's too far for a little lad like you to walk."
He considered this seriously. It had been nice at first, the time he walked to the train station. Then he couldn't remember which way he'd come, and it was dark before he finally got home, and his feet and stomach had hurt, and Mam had spanked him, and Da had smacked him and shouted at him so loud that his voice was funny the next day.
"Don't you worry none," Mr. Filch said. "Professor Snape's just as clever as you are, and he'll get you home soon enough."
Severus flinched when Mr. Filch reached suddenly towards him, but the hand on his head only messed up his hair softly. It felt sort of nice, and he leaned into it. His shoulders loosened a little.
That evening, they had beans and bacon butties. Afterwards, Mr. Filch gave him some paper and a pencil to write with, and he made a list of all the things he would buy if he had money to go to the shops: a bicycle, and a dog, and a house just for him and maybe Mam, and lots of sweets, and books, and a car, and tropical fish...
It was quiet here. He wrote for a long time with only the sound of Professor Snape turning pages in his books and Mr. Filch checking things off a long list of more squiggly writing. It was so quiet that he didn't even notice at first when Professor Snape fell asleep in his chair, leaning back with his eyes shut and his mouth open. He watched Mr. Filch get a quilt and then carefully put it over Professor Snape's shoulders. Then Mr. Filch touched Professor Snape's forehead—and then he saw Severus looking at him, and his face got all red and funny.
Mr. Filch came over and herded him towards the bathroom and told him to brush his teeth before bed. Severus did so, even though he didn't much like it. The toothpaste came from a powder, and it tasted like soap instead of mint. He then went to the big dark room full of interesting things where he had slept the night before, and he climbed onto the little bed and burrowed into the pile of blankets. He meant to sneak out as soon as Mr. Filch was out of sight and steal the paper and pencil to write some more, and maybe even grab a book to look at. It was so quiet that his eyes struggled to stay open, however, and he fell asleep within minutes.
"You realise that's child labour," Severus said irritably, trying to ignore the interminable clinking and focus on the book he'd had Filch 'borrow' from the headmaster's office. He was back to reading, his experiments at the site of the well having gone poorly. The water had turned muddy ever since the boy had been pulled from it, and every once in a while, the well churned, over-spilling its banks.
Severus seemed to have—for lack of a better word—broken it.
Filch was polishing the staff silver, and he had set the boy up with the velvet box of cutlery to stack the finished utensils into the proper slots. Which the boy was doing. Loudly.
"Idle hands make mischief," Filch said with what seemed like a significant look at the growing stack of books and piles of parchment on the table.
Severus watched them for a moment and then frowned. "What is he wearing?"
Filch looked back at the boy, who was carefully sorting the dinner forks from the salad forks. "A smock."
"Under the smock."
Severus closed the useless book. "Where did he get robes from?"
"I bought them."
"I beg your pardon? Where? Why? What did you tell them at the shop?"
Filch continued to polish a silver sugar bowl, wearing an expression that insinuated Severus was being the unreasonable one here. "I didn't tell them anything. That would've been suspicious, now wouldn't it. I just bought the things and had them gift-wrapped."
"What does he need robes for? If you were running out of shirts, I could have found something."
"He can't go out in just a shirt."
Severus stood up, something he regretted when the room tilted as the blood rushed from his head. He had, against Filch's advice, skipped lunch. He grabbed the table and glowered. "He isn't supposed to go out at all!"
The boy didn't look up, but started unobtrusively counting a stack of spoons, his lips silently and deliberately shaping numbers. It was unnerving to remember, suddenly, doing the same thing himself when his parents were quarrelling.
"Just to the garden," Filch said calmly. "It's been four days. He's getting peaky."
"And what if someone sees him?"
"Hagrid's down the Hog's Head every day, summers."
"And if he comes back?"
Filch elbowed the boy. "What do you say if a giant idiot asks what you're doing here?"
"I'm visiting Uncle Argus," the boy said promptly.
"What about if he asks your name?"
"I say, 'None of your business,' and I go find you."
Filch looked at Severus as if to say, 'See?'
Severus did not, admittedly, wish to find himself suffering the after-effects of rickets. His neck felt suspiciously stiff, and he rubbed it. "Fine," he said and then, requiring the last word, added, "But you hardly needed to waste your money on robes." He looked at the boy's feet. "Or shoes."
Filch looked affronted. "Can't have him look like no one's looking after him."
"You just said no one was going to see him," Severus pointed out.
"Ain't the point," Filch said, holding a chafing-dish up to the light and squinting appraisingly at it. Beside him, the boy mimicked him with a butter knife.
It annoyed Severus, how easily in stride Filch had taken this. While on a certain level he was appropriately grateful that someone was disinterested enough in the situation to carry on and provide cooking and childminding services, he would have appreciated a little more panic on Filch's part, if only out of respect for the fact that Severus might have just derailed his own timeline.
'You'll figure it out,' is all Filch would say, and he largely kept the boy occupied and quiet as Severus pored over every text he could lay hands on. Severus would hear them out in the tower, the boy asking pestering questions and Filch grunting short answers in return. Filch told stories as he worked, fairy tales for the most part, but he related them as if he was gossiping about his neighbours at the pub. 'There was this girl, see? And there was a wolf...'
That evening, after a dinner of takeaway from the Three Broomsticks, Filch mercifully ushered the boy out and left Severus to his research. It was well past sunset before Filch disturbed him again, peeking in the doorway and knocking softly on the jamb, as though these weren't his own rooms.
"What is it?" Severus asked, refusing to look up from his book. He had managed to find a reference to a scryer who had fallen into his viewing pool whilst projecting the future, and he was currently chasing down the footnote.
Filch sidled up, found a blank scrap of parchment amidst the organised mess, and scrounged up a pencil stub. He drew a series of dots and then pushed the scrap towards him. "Which one's this again?"
Severus looked at it blankly, wondering for an instant if he had sped through so many books in so short a period that he had somehow lost the ability to process text altogether. Then Filch drew lines between the dots, and he grasped that it was meant to be a constellation.
"Capricornus," he said. "The goat. Why do you want to know?"
"Never mind me," Filch said, heading back out. "Back to your studying."
Severus listened to him descend the stairs and then heard the door at the base of the tower open and shut. After a minute, he stood up to stretch his legs and went to the window, peering down at the grounds below. He could dimly make out the sight of Filch sitting on the grass, packing a pipe with tobacco. Beside him, lying on Filch's outspread coat, the boy was gazing up at the night sky. The boy said something indistinct, and Filch shrugged, saying, "Doesn't look like one to me neither. More like a kite."
It was late when Filch came back up with the boy slung over his shoulder, fast asleep. He carried him into the back room and came out a few minutes later, shutting the door behind him.
"I give you another twenty-four hours before you punt him out a window," Severus said. He had finally found the reference he sought and had discovered it said nothing more than: On a winter's day in 1596, it is reported that John Cunliffe fell into a pool while scrying. He drowned. His vision was swimming, his eyes sore and tired, and the words crawled around the page like grey insects.
"Wouldn't," Filch said indignantly, straightening up the sitting room.
Severus glanced up. "This from the man who once threatened to stuff a student into an iron maiden and watch him die of gangrene."
Filch frowned at him. "The lad's only five."
"I believe the student in question was a first year."
"Five's not old enough to reason. Eleven's more than old enough to know better. You think those little bastards would try their nonsense at home with their parents around? They know they're doing wrong, and they try to hide it."
"Nonetheless. Shouldn't you be off chasing Peeves, not holding astronomy lessons?"
Filch broke out an expression that he had bestowed upon Severus on occasion ever since Severus had returned to Hogwarts as a teacher. It was a look that insinuated there was something obvious about the school's operations that Severus was missing. "Peeves ain't up and about in the summer. He's a poltergeist, not a ghost. Comes about on account of all the mischief and the...humours."
"Hormones. The word you're looking for is hormones."
"If you say so," Filch said.
"I do," Severus said, shutting his book and rubbing his eyes. "Just don't kill the boy. It occurs to me that I could very likely disappear from existence if you did so."
Filch glanced towards the door the boy was sleeping behind. He seemed to be chewing on something, but all he eventually said was, "He's a good lad. I like him."
Severus snorted and then found himself with the strength for only a feeble protest when Filch came over and bullied him into abandoning his research for the night.
"Off to bed with you too," Filch said, herding him out into the stairway and guiding him all the way down, back to the main corridors of the castle and towards the dungeons. "You'll sort this out in the morning, I'll bet."
"I don't suppose you have ten pints of human blood I could borrow?" Severus asked, yawning.
"No, sir," Filch said, shoving him through the door to his rooms. "And I sleep with a beater's bat, so don't get any funny ideas."
Severus was bored.
It was just after lunchtime, and he had already played on the stairs, and drawn pictures, and made friends with the cat, and played in the garden. Now he had done all there was to do, and Mr. Filch was fixing a golden picture frame that he wasn't supposed to touch because it was very expensive. Everything was terrible.
Severus hung himself backwards over the arm of the sofa, looking at the sitting room upside down until all the blood went to his head, and then he rolled off, landing on the rug with an "oof!" Professor Snape didn't pay him any attention. Severus got up and wandered around the sitting room, touching everything. He looked into the room where he slept, where Mr. Filch currently sat at the crowded work table putting flakes of gold back onto the big frame. Mr. Filch didn't pay him any attention either, so he wandered away again, back to the table where Professor Snape was reading.
"What do you want?" Professor Snape said. He sounded grumpy, but that was how he always sounded, so Severus wasn't sure if he meant it.
He crossed his arms on the table and hoisted himself up, feet dangling, to see all the interesting books and fancy brown paper. "Can I read one of your books?"
Professor Snape turned a page. The book he was reading was full of very tiny letters. "Are you capable of it? In all likelihood, no. Am I willing to let you pretend to do so? Also no."
Severus frowned, trying to grip the leg of the table with his feet to stay up. "You talk funny."
"He talks proper," Mr. Filch called out from the next room.
"I speak properly," Professor Snape said.
"I can read," Severus insisted. "I could read one of those books."
"You can read picture books and The Beano. Otherwise, you pretend to read real books because you think it impresses people."
Severus went hot in the face. "Do not," he said. He peered at the book Professor Snape was looking at. "That says 'water.' And that says 'the mir-ror.'"
Professor Snape made a rude sound. "Genius," he said, but he didn't sound like he meant it.
Severus carefully reached for a book. "I could read that one. It's little."
"No," Professor Snape said sharply and smacked his hand.
Severus let out a yelp and lost his grip on the desk, tumbling down and knocking over a pot of ink in the process. Professor Snape leaped up and pulled a wand like Mam's out of his pocket. At a magic word—one Severus hadn't heard before—the ink pot flipped over again and the ink ran backwards into it. Severus started to cry nonetheless. He couldn't help it.
"Oh, for pity's sake—" Professor Snape said loudly, glaring down at him. He looked like Da did when he was angry, his face all twisted up and his fists clenched. "This is why no one likes you, you know. Do you have the brain yet to grasp that, hm? It's because you're a snivelling, puling little—"
"I HATE YOU!" Severus shrieked.
"The feeling," Professor Snape said, "is very much mutual."
Then Professor Snape's big hand was coming very quickly towards him, and Severus did the only thing he could think of: he sank his teeth into it.
Professor Snape said a very bad word very loudly. Then Mr. Filch was storming over on big, stomping feet and pulling Severus up by the back of his robes. Severus twisted and thrashed in midair, his teeth gnashing, but there was nothing in reach to hit as Mr. Filch held him out at arm's length.
"What the bloody hell is going on here?" Mr. Filch thundered.
"I was only trying to help him up," Professor Snape said, his voice soft and smooth and lying. "Then the little bastard bit me."
"Uh-huh," Mr. Filch said, sounding like he didn't believe it.
Severus was carried through the air into the room where he slept, and he was dropped on the bed from high enough that he bounced. He curled up with his arms around his head and squeezed his eyes shut tight. "I HATE HIM! I HATE HIM!"
He shouted this over and over again until his head began to pound and he was crying so hard that he choked on his own snot. When he could finally make himself stop, Mr. Filch was still sitting beside him on the bed. Severus swallowed, his throat raw, and peeped out at him from under his arms.
"You done?" Mr. Filch asked.
Severus thought about it and then nodded. He wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Mr. Filch dug a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it over. "Wipe your eyes first, then your nose, else you'll get the rheum."
Severus did so. "I want to go home," he said. His voice was scratchy, and it hurt to talk.
"You can't, lad. Not yet."
"I could take the train," he said pleadingly.
Mr. Filch looked around like he didn't know what to say. Then he patted Severus on the head. It made him feel a little better. "It's a tricky thing. Do you remember that story I told you, about that girl and the briars?"
Severus nodded and blew his nose. "She poked her finger on a needle."
"Well, it's a bit like that. You were out longer than you thought, and now it'll take some doing to set things right."
Severus considered that. He didn't understand a bit of it.
Mr. Filch flicked him on the ear, but it didn't really hurt. "And no biting. Dogs bite. You're not a dog, are you?"
Severus hesitated, tempted to point out that he could be a dog if he really wanted to. But he shook his head. "No."
"Good. Don't let me catch you doing that again."
Severus leaned over, angling towards Mr. Filch's hand, hoping to be patted again. He was.
"Now you have a lie-down. I'll bring you some water in a bit."
He got up and left the room, and after a moment, Severus carefully crept to the door to watch and make sure he came back. The bathroom door was open, and he could see Professor Snape running his hand under the tap.
Mr. Filch took a box out of a cupboard and then went and grabbed Professor Snape by the arm, leading him back to the table. "Sit," he said.
Professor Snape sat. His face wasn't quite so frightening anymore, but he still looked cross.
Mr. Filch took a roll of bandages out of the box, as well a jar of something disgusting that Severus could smell from all the way across the room. "Now let's see what you've gone and done to yourself," he said and laughed a wheezy sort of laugh.
"That isn't funny," Professor Snape muttered. Then he hissed like a cat when goo from the jar was smeared on his hand.
"I suppose not," Mr. Filch said. He cut a bandage from the roll with his pocket knife.
"I suppose not, sir," Professor Snape said meanly.
Mr. Filch gave Professor Snape a funny sort of look. Professor Snape's shoulders went down.
"...you just call me that to humour me, don't you."
"Nah," Mr. Filch said. He wrapped the white bandage around Professor Snape's hand. "You've earned it, Professor. When you ain't brawling with five-year-olds."
"May I remind you that you once—"
"Five." Mr. Filch said.
Severus didn't know what they were talking about, but he noticed that Mr. Filch was still holding on to Professor Snape's arm, and Professor Snape was looking down at him doing it, and his cheeks were all red, and he looked as though he liked it.
Severus turned and threw himself on the cot with a jealous sigh. Mr. Filch was supposed to be his friend, and it was all the unfairness in the world that Professor Snape should get to have him and a hundred books too.
"You need a drink," Filch said, setting a bottle and two glasses on the coffee table. His tone brooked no argument; he said it as he had said many times, over the past three weeks, 'You need to eat,' or 'You need to sleep,' or after a particularly long research session, 'You need a bath.'
Severus didn't argue. He had spent twelve hours at the reading room in London yesterday and then had come back with every book the lending library would surrender to him. He had officially lost track of what time of day it was, but he thought a drink would be called for whatever the answer. He stood, stretching slowly, and rolled his head until his neck cracked. Then he joined Filch on the sofa, throwing himself down with a groan.
He supposed he should have found it odd that it was so easy to socialise with Filch. After four years of teaching, he still felt awkward in the staff room, surrounded by his former professors. It ought to have been just as uncomfortable with Filch, who had kept him for detention more than once as a youth, and he didn't like to think that he somehow felt naturally at home with a man who dropped his gees and cut his own tobacco. Perhaps it was that they were mutual exceptions. Filch certainly didn't seem to keep company with any of the staff, save Madam Pince and Madam Pomfrey on occasion, and Severus suspected he didn't break out the firewhisky with either of them.
"Where's the annoyance?" Severus asked, putting his feet on the coffee table while Filch poured.
"Lad's in the garden, bug-hunting."
Severus looked back at the now-monumental stack of books on the table and sighed wearily. Then he picked up the glass and knocked the whisky back in two burning gulps.
"No use studying yourself to death over it," Filch said. "You'll figure it out."
"Obviously," Severus said and then paused, realising it sounded rather overconfident for someone who had just spent three weeks embroiled in absolutely fruitless research. "That is to say, it's obvious I will. I'm here. I'm not in the year 2005. My memories are still intact. I remember living with my parents in 1965. I remember starting school in 1971. Obviously, whatever I've altered, I will set it right."
Filch drank slowly, seeming to have a better appreciation for the whisky, which Severus assumed based on the intricate label to be the good stuff. It all tasted like cologne to him, personally. "So you don't remember this, then?"
Severus frowned. "What do you mean?"
Filch gestured around. "Being here. Going bug-hunting and all."
"No..." he said slowly. It had not entirely occurred to him that he should.
"Oh." Filch looked disappointed for some reason. Then he topped up Severus's glass and brightened. "Maybe he ain't really you, then. Maybe he'll still remember it, when he's home safe. He's had a good time, mostly."
"What? Of course he's me—I'm him—oh, you know what I mean."
Filch shrugged. "I don't know much about fiddling with time, but every few years, one of the little swots gets one of those Time-Turners on loan from the Ministry to take extra classes. They remember being in two times at once, else what's the point? So maybe he ain't you. Maybe he's the you what ended up here when he was five, and you're the you what didn't."
"It doesn't work that way," Severus said impatiently. In truth, he did not know how it worked, only that generally people who were five years old in 1965 were supposed to be in 1965 when they were five, and that he did not currently have the brainpower to re-imagine the universe as an arbitrary, wide-branching tree that threatened to bud in one direction or another based on any little cock-up. Fate had always been too precisely, neatly vicious to him. "I must have returned him—will return him—you know what I mean." He tried that again. "The child must be returned to a point in time before he originally disappeared. Ergo, I don't remember it."
"I suppose," Filch said. "But it seems to me either something happens or it doesn't." Then he elbowed him. "Don't frown like that. It'll all come right."
"Of course," Severus said, but his heart wasn't in it. He took another drink and then nearly spilled it when Filch's hands settled on his shoulders. "What are you doing?"
Filch nudged him over and started rubbing his back. "You're all wound up."
Severus only wound up further, tensing at the unaccustomed contact. Then he let out a faint, involuntary sound when Filch's thumbs dug firmly into his neck. He had never really seen the point of massage. Certainly, he had never gone through that ridiculous phase at school of soliciting and offering back rubs in the common room during study breaks as a stupid excuse to touch and be touched. Filch was no clumsy adolescent, however. He had very large, strong hands, and Severus's head was soon nodding and his shoulders slumping.
"Dear God," he said with a moan. His arms bloomed goose bumps and his nipples tightened as Filch worked his way down, hands squeezing at Severus's sides. He closed his eyes, losing himself in it for several minutes. He slowly relaxed, melting—until one of those hands ended up on his hip.
He opened his eyes. He held very still. So did Filch. He wet his lips. "Are you intending to blackmail me, Filch?"
There was a pause. Then Filch said, "What?" He sounded genuinely baffled.
"Or I suppose I could rightly blackmail you. The headmaster wouldn't be pleased to know you were aiding me. I could, hypothetically, demand whatever I wanted of you."
"You could," Filch said patiently. His hands lingered. "Or you could shut up and let me do what I was doing."
Severus hesitated. He would be a liar if he said he had never considered it. He wasn't blind to the way Filch had looked at him ever since he came back to the school, and usually he took a small thrill in feigning obliviousness. There was something...cheap about it, however. Not in the sense of tawdry, although that was there too, with Filch's coarse hands and even coarser voice and the fact, of course, that he was a man. He imagined that a liaison with Filch would be hard and rough and as straightforward as scratching an itch, and there was a certain appeal in that. But it seemed cheap in another, more wounding way. It would be too easy, too convenient, less trouble than being with a man surely should be. And what the hell was 'easy' when he was ready to mourn until his dying day for a love he could never have?
He was exhausted, however, and the drink and Filch's hands had left him dulled and soft. So he shut up, as Filch had suggested, and after a moment, the hand continued. He let Filch pull him close, and he let his robes come slowly unbuttoned. He let Filch touch him, let him pull him off with just as much skill with which he had rubbed his back, and afterwards, he let Filch push him down on the sofa and kiss him. He got his hands into the man's trousers and gave as good as he got, and afterwards, his heart lurched in his chest when he realised he could not remember the last time he had made someone smile.
"Ought to go check up on the lad," Filch murmured. He was lying on top of Severus, heavy and warm.
Severus stretched. He felt rather improved, to be honest. His head had cleared some, and his spine had uncoiled. "I'll go. I could use the air."
Filch budged over, and Severus got to his feet. His cheeks flushed slightly as he cleaned himself up, and then more darkly as Filch squeezed his backside.
"Don't get smug," Severus said.
Filch buttoned up, then folded his arms behind his head and looked smug anyhow.
The sun was behind the mountains as Severus set out towards the walled garden at the base of the tower. He looked around and saw no sign of the boy. The gate was open, however, and Severus followed the path out, cursing mildly under his breath. He was just beginning to worry when he finally spotted the boy some ways off. His pulse quickened when he realised the annoyance was standing over the holy well.
He hurried over. "What do you think you're doing? Get away from there!"
The boy spun around. He was clutching a large jar with holes poked into the lid. "I was only looking," he said. Then his nose wrinkled. "It tastes disgusting."
Severus opened his mouth and then shut it. He shook his head, at a loss. "It's salt water. You don't drink salt water."
"I was thirsty."
"It's salt water."
"I didn't know it was salty until I tasted it."
Severus looked into the water. The cloudiness was beginning to dissipate, but something about it unnerved him nonetheless. He couldn't figure out what it was until he realised the surface of the water was reflecting storm clouds that were not, in fact, currently in the sky. He thought briefly of what Filch had said and wondered if those clouds were somewhere else entirely, or if, somehow, in some other branch of time, it was raining at Hogwarts on July 22nd, 1985.
The water shifted subtly then, showing the reflection that physics demanded. A second reflection joined his as the boy peered into the water beside him. It seemed impossible, suddenly, that Severus had ever been so small. His memories of childhood were of competency, of clear thought, of culpability—not of seawater-drinking idiocy. This child, with his grubby hands and grass-stained robes and lovingly made home of leaves and twigs for his tiny insect captives, would cast his first hex in a mere four years, at his own father, the day the man broke his nose. In ten years, he would be a great innovator in the field of torture. In thirteen, he would be responsible for another man's death.
"Did anything happen when you touched the water?" Severus asked.
The boy's reflection shook its head. "I just put some in my hand. It was cold."
He crouched down, taking the boy's hand in his own and placing them both on the surface of the water. He waited for something to happen. He thought, perhaps, the power of the well might recognise the anomaly it had caused and draw the child in to correct it, but the only thing he felt was water. Cold water.
He withdrew his hand, and he meant to relinquish the boy's, but the child clung to him. "What?"
"Mr. Filch said I should say sorry for biting you."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Did he?"
"He said you should say sorry too. For scaring me."
"I didn't scare you," Severus said.
The boy merely looked up at him, still holding on to his fingers determinedly.
"Look," Severus said. "Neither of us has to apologise, and Mr. Filch doesn't have to know anything about it."
The boy still stared at him.
"Fine," Severus said, sighing impatiently. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry," the boy parroted.
Severus led the boy back towards the bell tower, sparing one look over his shoulder at the holy well. He thought of Lily, and he realised with a queer lurch of his stomach that she had been further from his mind in these past three weeks than she had been on any day in the three years preceding. Then, with an even more disquieting sensation inside him, he conceived of the world where the boy was from and supposed that as things currently stood, there was a Lily Evans there who would never have the misfortune of meeting Severus Snape. He wondered what would become of her.
"Professor Snape?" the boy asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"What is it?"
"What's the moon?"
He paused in his steps, frowning down at the boy. "What are you talking about?"
The boy looked up at him trustingly. "The moon. What is it? What's it made of?"
"It's a satellite. It's a big ball of rock and metal that orbits the Earth."
"Oh." The boy gave a hop and had to jog to keep up with Severus's longer stride when they continued towards the castle. "How does it stay up?"
"It doesn't stay 'up.' It goes around."
The boy's brow furrowed at that, and Severus sighed and slowed down slightly. "I'll draw you a diagram when we get inside."
"Where's Canada?" Severus asked Professor Snape. It was just after lunch, and Mr. Filch had gone away to the shops. It was hot out today, and the bright sunshine had made him sleepy after a morning of playing outside. He lay on the couch with some nature magazines, looking at them and yawning. He could read them, but they were mostly boring. They had good pictures, though.
Professor Snape was sitting at the table, as always. He wasn't really reading either, even though lots of his books were open. He was drawing with his quill and staring out the window, which meant it was probably all right to ask him things. "It's very far west of here," he said.
"Oh." Mr. Filch had taught him about north and east and south and west. Never Eat Slippery Walnuts. To the west was the town, although it wasn't the same town as back home. He wasn't allowed to go there. He wasn't allowed to go east either, because giant spiders in the forest would eat him or centaurs would take off his skin to make leather. He turned the page and looked at a picture of red rocks and funny trees.
"Where's As—Asu—" He faltered. "A-U-S-T-R-A-L-I-A?"
"Australia. It's very far south of here."
Severus flipped over, squirming up and peering over the arm of the sofa at him. "Mrs. Maddox next door is from Australia. Back home."
Professor Snape stopped chewing on his quill and looked at him. "No, she wasn't—she's not. She's Cornish."
"Uh-uh," Severus said. "Mam says she's from the south. That's why she doesn't know anything."
"She's from the south of England."
"Australia," Severus said. It sounded right.
Professor Snape's eyes went squinty. "I am not about to argue with you over whether Cornwall is in Australia."
"All right," Severus said. He took that to mean he was right and got back to looking at the interesting pictures. They were in colour and all glossy, showing tall green trees and snowy fields with big furry deer, and flat brown places with kangaroos. There were people too, mostly grown-up men, but ladies and children too. They all looked happy. He read the text slowly, his finger tracing underneath. "What's a pipe-fit-ter?"
"Someone who puts together pipes for buildings."
"Oh." He read on down the list. "What's a mah-son?"
"A mason? That's a bricklayer. Someone who builds houses."
"Oh. What's a lum—lum-ber-jack?"
Professor Snape didn't say anything for several seconds. Then he put down his quill. "What exactly are you reading?"
"Where did you get magazines from?"
"I found them under Mr. Filch's bed."
Professor Snape got up very suddenly and hurried over. His face was red, and he pulled the magazine right out of Severus's hands.
"No!" Severus cried. "That's mine!"
Professor Snape looked through the magazine. The red in his cheeks got darker and then went away. "Ah. Never mind. I thought it was...something else."
"They're magazines about Canada and Australia."
"No," Professor Snape said, looking at the front of the one he'd stolen, "they're pamphlets of some sort for tradesmen looking for work abroad."
The magazine Professor Snape was looking at was about Canada. It was worn and almost falling apart, but Professor Snape held it very carefully and turned the pages softly. There was a very good picture of a bear, but Professor Snape didn't pay it any attention. He was looking at the words instead, which were written very small.
"What is it?"
"Are you and Mr. Filch married?"
Professor Snape went all red again, and he made a sound like he was choking. "What? No, of course not. Men can't get married."
Severus frowned sceptically. That didn't sound right. "Da's married. To Mam."
It seemed funny to say their names. He hadn't seen them in a very long time. Weeks and weeks, practically forever. It made his stomach hurt a little to think about it.
"Don't be deliberately obtuse. Men can't get married to other men."
He didn't know what 'obtuse' meant, but it was the other part that made him frown even more. "That's stupid."
Professor Snape fidgeted, and his eyes went squinty again. "Yes, of course you would think so."
Severus smiled in triumph. "Because I'm smart."
"No," Professor Snape said, "because you're a socially isolated child with burgeoning inverted tendencies being raised by a mother who has convinced you that being different is cause for a superiority complex."
Severus blinked. "What?"
Professor Snape sighed. Then his mouth stretched into a funny shape, and Severus thought he was trying to smile nicely, only he wasn't very good at it. "Listen to me. One day, you're going to meet a girl. A very special girl. And you're going to...you'll change your mind, do you understand? You'll see the appeal of normalcy."
Then Professor Snape got an even stranger expression on his face. He went very still, and he looked like in funny books when someone got a brilliant idea and a light bulb popped up over their heads. He grabbed Severus by the shoulder so hard it hurt. Severus cried out, but Professor Snape didn't seem to hear it.
"Listen," he said again, his voice very rushed and hard this time. "I don't know if you'll remember a thing when this is all over, but if you do, remember this. Be good to her. Be good to Lily. Don't listen to John Mulciber, and for the love of God, don't fall in love with him. Are you listening?"
Severus squirmed, trying to break free of Professor Snape's grasp. His eyes stung. "Ow," he said quietly.
Professor Snape let go of him. His face was very white.
Severus hugged his knees to his chest. He watched warily as Professor Snape sat down on the coffee table with his hand over his mouth.
"Of course you're not going to remember," Professor Snape said. He laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh. "I don't remember it. Ergo you don't remember it. What's the bloody point?"
Severus didn't know what he was talking about. He thought he should say something, though. "If I got married," he ventured, "I'd marry Mr. Filch."
Professor Snape made another choking sound. He put his hand over his whole face and laughed that not-funny laugh again. "Oh, good God. You actually like him, don't you."
Severus nodded. Mr. Filch showed him things, and he didn't hit. "He's nice. He makes cheese toasties."
Professor Snape snorted and took his hand away from his face. "You may be the first person in the history of the universe to refer to Argus Filch as 'nice.'"
Severus uncoiled and turned himself upside down. He could see up Professor Snape's nose. "Don't you like Mr. Filch?"
"I suppose so," Professor Snape said. "But if I do, it's not because he's 'nice.'"
"That's stupid," Severus said.
"You're going to go far with that attitude." Professor Snape's voice was tight, like Mam's was when she said that. He took all the magazines away and crammed them into his pocket.
Severus sighed. Professor Snape was odd sometimes, he decided. Then he rolled over and closed his eyes. He supposed if he couldn't look at pictures, he would take a nap. Mr. Filch said a good nap made everything better.
"Stay out of my stuff," Filch said, seemingly apropos of nothing, given that they were both currently naked and spent and half-dozing.
It was a late night near the end of July, and they were stretched out on top of the quilt on Filch's surprisingly comfortable bed. The question of why Filch had a bigger and more comfortable bed than he did was one he felt needed to be addressed in the future, but at the moment he was deliciously sated and inclined to do nothing but lie back and allow Filch to continue stroking his thigh.
He opened his eyes. "And your 'stuff' is some working class euphemism for your...?"
Filch pinched his thigh. "My papers. Who do you think does your laundry?"
He had not, admittedly, given any thought to laundry, but he refrained from pointing this out. He realised, however, that he had left those pamphlets in his pocket. "I have better things to do than snoop through your personal papers. I confiscated them from the boy."
"Hmph. I'll have a talk with him."
Severus leaned over the side of the bed, looking for his clothes. "Why did you wait to bring this up until I was naked?" He wasn't accustomed to pillow talk, and the notion of potentially carrying out an argument naked was off-putting.
"Wasn't sure I'd get you in here if I brought it up first, now was I."
Severus snorted and pulled on his pants. He considered getting up entirely. The boy was mercifully asleep—and thus quiet—and he could theoretically spend a few more hours reading in peace. That said, he hadn't bent into that particular position in quite a long time, and he wasn't certain his legs were up to a graceful exit. He lay back instead, yawning. "Planning on relocating?"
Filch shifted uncomfortably and then shrugged. "Nah. Just picked them up somewhere."
Severus wasn't used to seeing him look discomfited. It was a novelty, one that he felt the need to prod at. "Six of them?"
"Shut it," Filch said mildly. He was silent for a little while, and then, more hesitantly, he said, "They've got these universities over there, see? Proper magical ones."
"I'm familiar with them," Severus said. He was developing some small enough reputation to correspond on occasion with Potions experts at St. Cyprian College and Three Rivers University.
"Well, turns out everyone goes and takes a profession, and there ain't enough tradesmen to go around. So they've got these firms to bring them over from parts elsewhere."
"Is the money better?" Severus asked.
"A couple of lads from the village have gone over the last few years. They're doing all right for themselves. They got set up with houses and all."
"So why not go?"
Filch fidgeted again. He reached into the bedside table and took out his pipe and tin of tobacco. "I've got a duty to this place."
Severus rolled over and regarded him more closely. "Let me guess," he said drily. "Dumbledore has something on you."
Filch snorted and gave him another one of those looks that suggested he didn't know a thing about how this place really worked. "I know things about Albus Dumbledore that'd turn your hair white. Think you're the first to go mucking about where you shouldn't? But Apollyon Pringle, him who was Caretaker here before me—now him, I owe. He gave me a job when I didn't have much luck going for me."
Severus sat up and fixed Filch with a sharp look. "What sort of 'mucking' are we talking about?"
Filch lit his pipe and puffed thoughtfully, giving him a sideways glance. "You wouldn't want me flapping my gums about the little one that easy, now would you?"
Severus sniffed. The smell of the pipe smoke was oddly soothing. "For the sake of my sanity, I will assume you've never had sex with Albus Dumbledore. Therefore you shouldn't be as inclined to keep secrets for him."
Filch said nothing for several moments, and Severus began to feel slightly queasy. Then the corner of Filch's mouth quirked around the stem of his pipe.
"Bastard," Severus said, aiming a kick at him. "Anyhow, didn't Apollyon Pringle die years ago? I heard somewhere that he was eaten by the giant squid."
Filch scowled. "School legend. He had a heart attack in the Great Hall."
"So I take it he doesn't really haunt the lake, luring students to a watery grave?"
"Nope. Moved on to a well-deserved rest."
"So what the hell does it matter? He's dead. He's not going to care whether you stay or go."
Filch gave him a long, silent look.
"What?" Severus said. He felt his shoulder blades draw together. To the best of his knowledge, no one but Dumbledore knew what had really brought him back to Hogwarts. The subtle inquiries from his colleagues over the past four years had borne out that they thought him jilted by a fiancée, or penniless, or simply ill-equipped for life outside academia. But Filch heard things, didn't he. Filch knew things that would turn people's hair white.
Filch shrugged. "Didn't say anything."
Severus stood up and grabbed his robes. "My reasons for staying here are none of your business."
"Didn't say they were."
A bolt of rage shot through him, making his hands clumsy as he struggled into his clothes. "Has it ever occurred to you that you're not the only one with a duty?"
Filch sat up. He was annoyingly at ease naked, despite his flaws. "To who? Dumbledore? Because let me tell you, lad, he's brought on all sorts here over the years—ones who wouldn't be here if they didn't owe him something, and they came to sticky ends, each and every one of them."
"I'm not here for him," he said. Lily's image flashed through his mind, and he was disturbed to think that the child—her son, Potter's son—would by now be the same age as the anomaly. Walking. Talking. Capable of rudimentary thought.
"All right," Filch said.
"It's none of your business." It was hard to snap, he discovered, whilst concurrently pulling on one's socks.
"It ain't," Filch acknowledged. "I was just thinking of the lad, that's all."
"What does he have to do with anything?"
Filch shrugged and then puffed on his pipe. He wasn't looking at Severus anymore, but staring hard at the wall, something flinty in his eyes. "I don't know who you're staying for. For all I know, you've got the right of it and everything'll go to hell if you ain't here to sort it out. But most people...people who ain't like us...they've always got plenty of people to look after them. But who's that lad got?"
Severus paused, one sock in hand. His shoulders sagged as the fight went out of him. "I'll get him back where he belongs," he said, although it sounded feebler to his ears than the dozen times he had said it before. He had opened a door, and every door that could be opened once could be opened again, even if he had to bleed himself again for another six months to send the boy back to the mill pond.
But Filch's words lingered. Who would be there to pull him out? He pictured the boy as he had first seen him, struggling uselessly in the water, seconds from drowning. There was an exception, after all. One door that could only be opened from one side. It was one that everyone passed through eventually, from which there was no return. Even ghosts never really stepped back over the threshold. They only left something of themselves behind, like shadows burned into the ground after an atomic explosion. That door only opened once, and Severus's life, as it stood, often seemed to be a long, dark corridor heading inexorably towards it with no chance for exit on either side.
"Come here," Filch said, putting his pipe aside. He grabbed Severus by the wrist and gently pulled him back onto the bed. "You look pale."
Severus didn't argue, but only because the light was low and he could pretend it was by accident that he ended up sprawled half on top of Filch, his head on a solid shoulder. He tried to banish the image of the boy floating face-down in the mill pond. He tried not to picture a small, redheaded girl walking past with her mother, only to turn with wide green eyes and see the still form in the water. Arms came around him, holding him tight, and he let himself be anchored by them, sensing that if he didn't, he might come loose and be just as lost in time as the child in the next room.
On the first day of August, Mr. Filch said that he and Severus would go to the city. Professor Snape didn't think they ought to go, but Mr. Filch told him not to give people so much credit for using their eyes, and that it would be good for Severus to stretch his legs.
"Put on your good robes," Mr. Filch said, putting on his coat.
"Which ones are the good ones?" Severus asked. He was still wearing Mr. Filch's shirt, which were his pyjamas, and he was picking at what was left of a bowl of porridge with milk and brown sugar. He had two pairs of robes, one blue and grey and the other brown and beige.
"The newer ones."
He made circles in the porridge bits with his spoon. "I don't like those. They itch."
"That's how you know they're the good ones," Mr. Filch said. "Now stop dawdling and get dressed."
Severus sighed. He dragged his feet to his room, where he put on the itchy robes. He came back out squirming. "They itch."
Professor Snape was doing something funny with a little glass jar of something red and a bowl of water. He crooked his finger at Severus. Severus shuffled over uncertainly. Professor Snape took him by the shoulders and turned him around. Then he reached under Severus's collar and ripped off the itchy peg loop. "Better?"
Severus wiggled experimentally and then blinked in surprise. "Yes."
Professor Snape looked at Mr. Filch. "Tags are an annoyance."
"See?" Severus said.
"Mm-hm," Mr. Filch said, but he didn't look like he believed it. He pulled on his boots, and off they went to the train station.
Severus had only been on the train once before, when he and Mam went to visit Uncle Titus. This time they were going to a city called Aberdeen. Severus knelt up on his seat and pressed his nose to the window. There were lots of trees at first, and then everything was flat and green and surrounded by wood-and-wire fences.
"Sheep!" he cried, banging on the window. He yanked on Mr. Filch's sleeve, trying to make him look, but the train was moving too fast.
"I saw, I saw," Mr. Filch said, even though he was busy writing on a piece of paper.
"What are those?" Severus asked, pointing.
Mr. Filch looked out the window. "Cows," he said.
Severus frowned. "Cows are black and white."
"That's what you get raising lads in towns," Mr. Filch said, seemingly to no one and shaking his head. "Those are Anguses. The black and white ones are Holsteins."
Severus committed that to memory. He watched as the farms became houses and then as the houses became bigger buildings. The train pulled into the station, and they got off onto a crowded platform. Severus clutched Mr. Filch's trouser-leg, afraid of being swept off with all the people.
Mr. Filch took Severus's hand and tucked it into the pocket of his big coat instead. "Stick close," he said. "Don't want you getting lost."
Severus held on as they went up the street and then down a skinny alley. They went into a building that was bigger on the inside than on the outside, with marble floors and very tall desks. The people behind the desks were funny looking. He and Mr. Filch queued up behind a velvet rope, and Severus tugged on his pocket.
"Those people look like cats," he whispered.
"Those are goblins," Mr. Filch said. "Mind your manners."
Mr. Filch gave the goblin a note with a fancy stamp on it, and the goblin counted out stacks of gold and silver while Severus stared up at him. He really wanted to touch its ears. The goblin gave Mr. Filch the coins and then a lolly. "For the nestling," it said.
Mr. Filch put both the money and the lolly in his pocket. "You'll spoil your lunch if you have it now."
Severus was about to launch a fuss, but Mr. Filch gave him a piece of paper instead. "You can mind the list. Don't lose it."
It was a very important job, and Severus carefully crossed things off the list with a pencil as they made their way around the city. He was gratified to see that everyone at the shops knew how important Mr. Filch was. Everyone knew him to say hello, and they all asked who Severus was.
"This is my nephew, Sev," Mr. Filch would say, and he would pat him on the head before getting down to serious business.
They walked around all morning, down narrow streets that were made of stones and along bigger streets with sidewalks and cars. They went to the hardware store and the timber yard, and to the art store, where Mr. Filch bought oil paints and varnish—and crayons for Severus because he was good.
When Severus began to lag, Mr. Filch picked him up and put him on his shoulders. Severus held on tight. He was taller than everyone, looking down at the tops of people's heads. He rode through the streets, all the way to a pub, where Mr. Filch had to stoop to get them both through the doorway.
Severus raised a hand to touch the ceiling, and then Mr. Filch put him down on a tall stool. He looked around. He had been in the pub around the corner back home three times before, when Mam sent him to get Da. This one looked mostly the same, all made of wood and full of the smell of smoke and beer. The people were different, though. Everyone was dressed in colourful, fancy clothes. Most everyone wore robes and funny hats, and there was a lady in the corner with a little owl sitting on her shoulder.
"Two of the lunch specials and a red ale," Mr. Filch said to the lady behind the bar, who had a very long nose with a wart at the end. He looked at Severus. "What do you want to drink?"
"Ale," Severus said.
"He'll have a lemonade," Mr. Filch told the lady.
After bangers and mash and lemonade, they went out and Mr. Filch showed him the sea. The docks were full of much more interesting things like boats and machines, but Mr. Filch seemed to think the water was impressive, so Severus tried to pay attention to it, watching the waves as he crunched his lolly. The sea was very dark blue and pretty.
"A thing like that makes a man feel small," Mr. Filch said, and Severus nodded as if he understood.
He slept on the train on the way back and woke up when Mr. Filch prodded him. He walked sleepily back to the castle, where Professor Snape was still at the table, now surrounded by all sort of glasses and tubes and bubbling things.
Severus sat down with his new crayons and drew Professor Snape a picture of the North Sea, feeling sorry that he had stayed here alone and missed all the excitement.
In August, it started raining and would not stop. The days dragged on, grey and pale, with an endless tapping of fat raindrops, and Filch became preoccupied with hunting down leaks in the roof. Shut indoors, the boy grew intolerable, and Severus's research languished. He accomplished little but tracing long, perfectly parallel lines, or else drawing tessellating branches that soon filled entire pages.
"I want to go home," the boy whinged. He was lying on the sofa with abandoned parchment and crayons scattered around him. He was also kicking the arm of the sofa with a particularly irritating lack of rhythm.
Severus attempted to ignore him. He looked out the window, watching the raindrops scattering across the pane. They split like dividing cells, veering off into opposite directions with such decisiveness that it seemed impossible for it to be random.
"I want to go home." A kick. "I want to go home." A pause. A kick.
"Go out and play," Severus said wearily.
"Mr. Filch said I'd catch my death."
"I'm willing to take that chance."
"I want to go home." A pause. A kick. "I want to go home." A kick.
"Stop that," he said. He had a headache, and the rain made him feel exhausted.
"I want to go home. I want to go home." Kick. Kick. Kick.
He stood up.
The boy paused, looking at him as if taking his measure. Then he kicked the arm of the chair again, hard enough that something creaked.
Severus strode over to him and grabbed him by the shoulder.
"I didn't do anything!" the boy cried.
"You want to go home?" Severus said. He hauled the boy to his feet and pulled him to the door, where he wrestled shoes onto him. "Fine. I'll take you home."
The boy's expression turned doubtful. He squirmed under Severus's hand, but he followed without further protest as he was pulled down the stairs and out into the rain. Severus knew by the time he'd reached the lake that he had made a miscalculation, but the boy's chin was jutting out stubbornly, and he refused to give in out of principle. He dragged the boy to the school gates, and once he stepped foot outside them, he Apparated.
A surprised cry started in Hogsmeade and finished in Cokeworth, with a brief pause in between in which the two of them were nowhere at all. They appeared in the middle of Spinner's End, directly across the way from the block of houses where he had grown up. It was raining here too, but more lazily. The smell of it wasn't the clean, green scent of Hogsmeade, but something sharper and more pungent, and the water felt oily as it clung to his skin.
The boy looked around, brightening at first. Then his brow wrinkled. Severus attempted to see what twenty years of change had wrought in a matter of weeks. The cars were vastly different, for one thing. There were many more of them than there had been when he was small, and they were shaped differently, with crumpled up paper napkins and other trash crammed into the dashboards. There was no longer any pretence of tidiness when it came to the houses. There were no flowerpots, and no neat curtains in almost every window. There was trash in the street, and weeds grew out of the cracks in the pavement. A car screeched past them with its radio blaring.
The boy turned slowly around, frowning at the sign above the off-license. It had become Redmond's in the '70s, but the boy would have known it as the Premier. The boy shook his head timidly. "This isn't it," he said uncertainly. "It's the wrong street."
"No," Severus said. "It's the right street."
He took the boy by the shoulder again and led him to the front steps of their home. He had lost the key not long after his mother had left the place to him, but he kept it warded to his own blood, which was far better security in a neighbourhood like this. The wards parted obligingly for him as he touched the doorknob, but they seemed to hesitate at the boy's presence.
The boy wiggled. "That tickles," he said.
The door opened, and Severus stepped inside. The boy lagged back on the step, peeking around the edge of the doorway. "Mam?" he called hesitantly. Then, after a moment, even more hesitantly, "...Da?"
"They don't live here any more," Severus said, and he drew the boy inside and shut the door behind them.
The electricity had been shut off years ago, and in the rainy gloom, the house was all shadows. The boy stepped in, looking about as if he had never seen the sitting room before. He walked slowly around the room, looking for their father's chair, which Severus had put out on the kerb years ago. His fingertips trailed along one of the bookshelves, the contents of which were all Severus's own. Then he darted off up the stairs, which groaned dangerously even under his paltry weight.
Severus knew exactly where he was going. He followed him upstairs to his old bedroom. The boy was breathing very quickly, standing in the narrow space between the old wardrobe and the new desk.
"Where's my bed?" he asked plaintively. He stood on his toes, looking at the pile of books and papers that Severus had left here last summer. His eyes narrowed. "These are your things. Why did you put your things in here? Where are my things?"
Severus pressed his lips together. He had grown used to the grime of the place, but he saw it anew with the boy in company, marking the difference between the damp, rotting mess and the shabby tidiness of Filch's apartments. Then he said, quietly, "When you were four years old, you stole a toy car from Marty Kingshorn. Mrs. Kingshorn came around to ask your mother about it, and you knew you wouldn't be able to play with it without being noticed. So you pried up the loose floorboard in the corner, and you hid it there until you could bury it in the garden. You never told anyone."
The boy's eyes widened.
"This was my room in 1965. I was five years old then. And now it's 1985, and I am twenty-five years old, and it's still my room. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"This...this is my room," the boy said.
Severus turned to the pile of parchment and papers on his desk and dug out a copy of the Daily Prophet. He folded it to the front page and showed it to the boy. "It's 1985. Do you see?"
"That says 1984," the boy pointed out.
"I haven't been here in a year," Severus said, exasperated. "That isn't the point. It was 1965 when you fell into the mill pond, and it was 1985 when I pulled you out." He held up a finger. "There was one Severus Snape in 1965." He held up a second finger. "And there was one Severus Snape in 1985. Now there are two Severus Snapes in 1985."
The boy only stared at him, and Severus's temper flared. "Oh, for Merlin's sake, do you have a brain in your head? Are you listening to me? I made a mistake, all right? I buggered everything up, and now I don't know how to get you home. You're not supposed to be here! You're an anomaly!"
The boy retreated up against the wardrobe, his hands behind his back and his face white.
There's some mistakes in this world you can undo, Severus. Let me tell you now, having children isn't one of them.
He was seven years old when his mother told him that, her voice calm but her face curdled, her motions angry as she stood at the sink, scrubbing so hard at a stain on one of his shirts that she tore the collar right off. The sentiment was old by then, however. He could not remember a time when he did not know that his conception had been an accident. That it was his fault his parents were married at all, as if he had been born barbed wire, sunk into both their flesh and binding them unwillingly together.
Perhaps the knowledge had stung once, but in time he'd grown old enough to scoff at it. As if he had asked to be born. As if, he thought—some cold, uncertain feeling seizing him as he looked at the boy—he had ever asked to suffer for being someone else's stupid mistake.
"Where's Mam and Da?" the boy asked.
Severus leaned against the wall, his fingers tracing the sagging wallpaper and then rubbing at his eyes. "Da's dead. He died in 1974."
"Did he fall down?" the boy asked.
The house creaked in the damp, and Severus recalled the familiar sound of Da stumbling on the stairs. Of him passing out on the front step, or in the alley. The winter before the boy had fallen into the mill pond, his father had taken a stumble outside the pub and had broken his head on the sidewalk and spent a night in hospital. "No. He got sick in his liver."
His lips parted, and he very nearly told the truth: that she lived in Manchester with a man who didn't know that Severus existed. That she was happy, finally, after nearly twenty years of drinking to forget that her husband drank, after the years of her nails leaving gouges in Severus's face, years of sobbing in his arms like a desperate, wounded animal.
In exactly ten years, in the common reckoning of things, the boy's mother would find letters from John Mulciber under his mattress. She would find the magazine he had stolen from a shop in London, too. Who did it? She screamed it over and over, hitting him in the face with the paltry paper, leaving him shielding his head pathetically, backing up until she had driven him into the garden for the whole street to hear the scandal. Who touched you?
When finally convinced that no one had, she broke down in tears. She could likely have borne the fact that he would become a Death Eater, but knowing her only son was a sodomite was somehow too much to bear. One more thing that she hadn't imagined when she had married a Muggle and dreamt of a life like in the films.
He took a deep breath. "Mam's dead too," he finally said.
The boy's eyes welled up with tears, and he gave an ugly sniffle.
"Don't..." Severus said. "Don't cry."
The boy wiped at his eyes with his sleeve and then sat down abruptly, an expression of abject misery on his face. Severus awkwardly sat down beside him. There was hardly enough room, and he was wedged in with his legs folded and his arms crossed. His hands fidgeted as the boy sniffled again, and he considered advising the boy to never take up smoking, because then your hands would still try to light a cigarette five years after you had quit, even when you didn't have one on you. He supposed it wasn't the time or the place, however.
He put an arm around the boy instead, and he listened to the empty sounds of the house settling in the rain. He tried to imagine his parents' reactions when their five-year-old son never came home. They would have assumed he was dawdling, at first. Then, perhaps, that he knew he was late and was trying to evade a spanking. By bedtime, surely, his mother would be on the front step shouting his name.
What then? Would they have gone out looking for him in the morning, asking after him at the corner shop or walking along the railway tracks, fearing the worst? Would they have gone to the police—would they have dared to, unrecorded as his birth had been and as strange as their home was? Would the neighbours notice, in time, that the Snape boy was never hanging about in the street any more, and would they think of the noisy rows in the night, and would they wonder...and then suppose that it was none of their business?
He wondered if his parents would weep. He had little doubt that they had both loved him in their own way, as best as they were able to love anyone. But they would be relieved, wouldn't they. Even if they mourned, they would secretly be relieved to be rid of him and his strangeness, his half-ness, caught as he was back then between Muggle and wizard. They would be relieved for the quiet, for one less drain on their time and their money, and they would have no more reason to stay with each other, for who would expect it of a couple who had suffered so great a loss?
"Come on," Severus said uncomfortably, faced with a five-year-old who had theoretically done a favour to everyone he would ever meet by disappearing. "The bookshop on Mill Street is still there. We can go look, if you'd like. I'll buy you something."
It was an hour later when they returned to the castle. The rain had let up some, and they were more damp than wet when they entered the rooms at the top of the tower. Severus was in desperate need of a drink, and the boy was clutching something called The Big Book of Space, which Severus had not strictly paid for, not having had quite enough Muggle money in the coffee tin at the house.
"Went shopping, did you?" Filch said warily, taking in the state of both of them.
The boy dropped his book and went straight to him, tugging urgently on his shirt. Filch scooped him up, and the boy wrapped his arms tightly around his neck and started to cry. They weren't the big, showy tears of a tantrum, but something quieter and more pathetic.
"What's this now?" Filch said, rubbing the boy's back. "Hush."
Filch then frowned at Severus, a question on his blunt face, but Severus looked away, unable to watch. If there had been any doubt left to him before today that the child was no longer the boy he had been at five, he knew it now.
He left them to it, and he went back out in the drizzle, walking to Hogsmeade to buy a packet of cigarettes.
Summers, in Argus's opinion, were for sleeping. Not that there wasn't plenty of work to do in between terms, but in summertime it could all be done in the daylight hours, with no Peeves to sabotage every lick of labour he managed and no night-time patrols needed to catch sneaky little brats out of bed before they could make mischief or fall off a cliff or drown themselves in the lake. Ten months out of the year, he was lucky if he could catch a few hours of sleep spread out over the day, but in the summer, when the castle was quiet, he slept the whole night through, and his eyes stopped hurting, and his nerves weren't so frayed, and the headache that lurked at the back of his head from September to June went away.
Nonetheless, he had a sense for things not being as they should at night, and so it was that when he opened his eyes suddenly a little after midnight, he took it seriously and sat upright. He took stock of the situation. The young professor was sound asleep beside him, snoring softly. Snape had taken over the bed after his and the lad's trip home. Not, Snape had hurried to assure him, because he wanted to screw, but because Argus's bed was supposedly more comfortable than his own. He didn't say it, but Argus privately thought the lad found it steadying to be a tease, and so he'd let it go and had bedded down with him with his nightshirt on and everything above-board and proper.
He carefully got the beater's bat out from under the bed and got to his feet. Cautiously and quietly, he crept out into the sitting room. It was dark, and he couldn't see or hear anything amiss at first. Then he noticed that the door to the work room was ajar, and when he scanned the sitting room again—at about half the height—he spotted a small, pale, guilty face under the dining table.
Argus put the bat down and crouched, his knees protesting slightly. "What're you doing under there?"
The lad shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, come on out. Under a table's no place to be at midnight. 'Least not until you're old enough to drink."
The lad crawled out, and Argus soon spotted the trouble. Wordlessly, he ran a bath, and then he went and stripped the blankets off his old cot and found the lad another shirt to sleep in.
"Better?" he asked, when the lad was out of the bath, clean and dry.
The lad nodded.
"Back to bed?"
The lad shook his head.
Argus was not inclined to coddling, but the way he saw it, the lad had just been orphaned, even if it was some years after the fact. He went and built up the fire. Then he sat down in his armchair and put the lad in his lap. "Just for a few minutes, all right? Then it's off to bed with you."
He put an arm around the lad, and the lad curled up under it, his head on Argus's shoulder. It was cosy, and it took him back to when he himself was a lad, second-eldest of six and in charge of his little brothers and sisters. Back then, he'd sworn he'd not have any of his own, after a boyhood spent changing nappies and wiping snotty noses. Then life went and carried on, and it turned out it wasn't much up to him, because there wasn't any demand for a middling-aged poofter of a Squib.
Here he was, though, wasn't he. In front of a comfy fire, with a sleepy little lad on his knee and a young professor in his bed. Not that it had a hope in hell of lasting, he knew that. He wasn't stupid, and he wasn't enough of a heel that he didn't feel a little sorry, being happier than he'd ever been in his life on account of Snape and the little lad's misfortune. But for the moment, all he could do was try to commit it all to memory so he could remember it when it was over.
"Tell me a story?" the lad asked.
Argus thought and then faltered, unable to think of one at first that didn't start with an orphan, or dead mothers, or grannies getting gobbled up. That's what stories were generally for, to warn little children about all the dangers that waited for them away from the hearth. The lad already knew that, though.
"There was this lad," he said, "and things were rough on him for a while. But everything worked out all right in the end."
There was a pause, and then the lad said, "That's a stupid story."
Argus chuckled. He could see the young professor around the edges in the lad. They were both clever, but not in the airy-fairy way that most of the staff were. Professor Snape might put on fancy talk (not like the little lad who, to his amusement, talked Northern), but at the end of the day, he was a plain-spoken fellow who'd call stupid stupid. Snape saw the world for what it was, and he might be a sour bastard on account of it, but Argus was a sour bastard too, and he'd take that over simpering and smiles any day.
"All right," he said. "How about this? There was this prince, right? And he was a right ar—plonker, so this fairy comes by and turns him into a beast..."
The lad fell fast asleep somewhere between the girl falling for the beast and the whole curse getting sorted out, but Argus figured that was good enough to be going on with. He meant to carry the lad back to bed, but his own eyelids were heavy. He settled the lad more firmly against him and told himself he'd get up in just a moment, but the next time he opened his eyes, the first morning rays were sneaking in through the window. Mrs. Norris had joined them sometime in the night, curled up between him and the little lad, and she was purring softly against Argus's dead arm.
Professor Snape was watching him from the doorway of the bedroom. He had obviously been up for some time, having washed and dressed, even though he usually seemed to lie in when he the choice of it.
Maybe if he'd had a full night's uninterrupted sleep, Argus wouldn't have said what he did. He was still half-dozing, however, and more comfortable than a man who'd slept in an armchair had any right to be. He looked down at the sleeping little lad just a touch wistfully. "I don't suppose you've got a Plan B?" he asked.
"I do, actually," Snape said. "But you're not going to like it."
Then he crossed the room to retrieve his cloak and boots, and he slipped out the door, closing it very quietly behind him so as not to wake the lad or the cat. He didn't come back for six days.
It was a Saturday afternoon when Severus returned to the castle, and the weather was almost picturesquely fine. The skies were clear, and the sun was warm, and songbirds were flitting about the hedgerows, glutting themselves on late summer fruit. He might have taken it as an omen if he believed in such things, but as it was he'd had his fill of divination, and so he simply climbed the stairs of the bell tower, grabbed Filch by the arm, pulled him into the bedroom, and drew his wand to lock and soundproof the room.
He pushed Filch on the bed and climbed on top of him, unbuttoning his shirt. The annoying thing about sex, in his experience, was that while a baseline of celibacy was perfectly tolerable, once you went and started having it on a regular basis, you only wanted to do it more.
"Where were you?" Filch asked. He sounded out of sorts, but his hands were already obligingly working their way into Severus's robes.
"Later," Severus said, unbuckling Filch's belt.
"Long story, is it?" There was a reproachful note in his voice, and Severus supposed he could have placed a fire call sometime over the last week, but there had hardly been time, with all that needed to be done.
"Not entirely," Severus said, getting a hand in Filch's trousers. "But I want to have it off, and I'm not entirely sure I'll get my way if I explain first."
Filch paused, seeming to consider that, and then rolled Severus under him. "Fair enough."
Afterwards, Severus lay with his eyes heavy-lidded and his breath coming hard. The bedding was rumpled and limp, and the sun was glaring in through the window. Slowly, the tension crept back upon him, and he removed Filch's arm from around his waist and sat up. He unsteadily got dressed and retrieved his satchel from outside the door. Then he tossed the thing to Filch and sat down at the end of the bed, hands on his knees, waiting.
From the corner of his eye, Severus watched as Filch took out the contents one by one. An information package from the Wizarding Repopulation Initiative. A visa in the name of Argus Filch and one dependent, Severus Prince Snape, born June 24th, 1980. Two train tickets to Liverpool, and then a berth on a ship to Canada.
Filch read everything over once, then twice. Then he looked up, his mouth thin and fidgety. "Thought there'd be...tests. Magic ones."
Severus rolled his eyes but did not disabuse Filch of the notion that everyone didn't know he was practically a Squib. "You have an impressive resume. And a very effusive letter of recommendation from Albus Dumbledore, which I'm sure he would have gladly written himself if he were here."
"What's a 'Heritage Restoration Expert' when it's at home?"
Filch looked dubious.
Severus shrugged. "It was as much news to me. Apparently the ability to patch a magical portrait or bang a dent out of a suit of armour or whatever it is you do is a valuable skill in the New World."
Filch frowned. "You forged my signature."
"False. I transposed it from your school contract."
It earned him a snort, but Filch hadn't said no yet. "Shouldn't you have changed the lad's name?"
"Every innocent explanation should have a believably guilty one behind it. If anyone sufficiently acquainted with either of us should find out about this, then you've been paid off to raise my bastard son."
Filch gave him a sceptical look.
"I am quite capable of having had a bastard son," Severus said rather defensively.
The look held.
"People I have not performed fellatio on believe me capable of having had a bastard son," he amended.
Filch rolled his eyes but did not press the point. "And Mrs. Norris'd be able to come? She wouldn't have to go into quarantine for ages?"
"I lied and vouched that she was a delightful animal."
The papers were shuffled, and Filch read them through once more, his lips moving faintly.
"Well?" Severus asked impatiently. "Because if you're not willing to do it, I am going to have to move on to Plan C, and nobody is going to like Plan C."
Filch read over the paperwork again, a queer look on his face. Then he put his trousers on. "Don't be stupid," he said. "'Course I'll do it."
Severus let out a hard breath. "Fine. Good. I'll pay for his upkeep, of course. If you send me an address when you're settled—I was assured housing would be arranged—I'll send a portion of my wages, and you won't have to—"
He broke off when he was smacked across the back of the head with the information package, hard enough to sting. He rubbed the spot resentfully.
"You sure about this?" Filch asked.
Severus suspected from his tone that he wasn't speaking of the money. "I...am attempting to do what's best for everyone involved. He seems to like you. You don't seem inclined to throttle him. And I suppose you're just principled enough a man that I don't have to worry about you taking liberties when he's older."
"Oi!" Filch said indignantly.
"As I said," Severus reiterated, "you have your principles."
Filch was silent for a long moment, and Severus briefly worried the man would say something embarrassing. He only heaved a soft sigh, however, and then muttered, "The lad'll miss you."
"He despises me," Severus said.
"He thinks you hung the moon. Hasn't shut up about you since you left."
"It was a week."
"A week's a long time when you're five."
"Then I expect he'll forget about me soon enough. If you're going to miss me, you can just come out and say it."
"Goes without saying," Filch said, and a tentative hand found Severus's waist, squeezing softly.
Severus lay back, the exhaustion of the last week overtaking him. Calling in some rather expensive favours from several individuals he was no longer supposed to know was nothing compared to dealing with international bureaucracy. He hadn't been lying, however; apparently some people found Filch's employment history more impressive than his own, and the matter of a five-year-old in tow was little impediment.
He made a faint sound of protest when Filch tried to settle the blankets over him, but it was to no avail, and eventually he dozed off for a short time. When he awoke, it was to the smell of food—takeaway from the Three Broomsticks, if he wasn't mistaken—and the sound of Filch and the boy talking seriously out in the sitting room.
The boy said something too quiet for Severus to hear.
"No, I don't think so. But you know what they've got up there? The Northern Lights."
Severus got up and pressed his ear to the door.
"What's the Northern Lights?"
"It's what you'd call a Queer Phenomenon. I've seen pictures of it. The sky goes red and green...well, I reckon we'll see it."
"What's it made of?"
"I don't rightly know. You ought to ask Professor Snape."
"Is he coming too?"
"No," Filch said. "It'll just be you and me."
A moment later, footsteps approached, and Filch rapped smartly on the door. "Stop eavesdropping, Professor. There's hotpot if you want it."
Severus opened the door and glowered at him. Then he came out and sat down at the table, which had been cleared of his books and papers, and he ate. Afterwards, while Filch bustled around the place, packing, he sat on the sofa with the boy perched beside him and tried to explain how the aurora borealis worked.
"I trust you had a productive summer, Severus," Dumbledore said upon his return in late August, having cornered Severus in the library.
Severus looked properly overworked, he hoped, having crammed a summer's worth of effort into the last week of the holiday. Potions texts were piled around him, and six ink pots, each with a different colour of ink, were lined up in front of him for the purpose of colour-coding his schedule for the year. "Yes, Headmaster," he said. "I think you'll find my new curriculum is much more stringent and less...self-indulgent than Professor Slughorn's."
The headmaster patted him on the shoulder. "I hope you didn't spend all your summer with your nose in a book."
"Hm," Severus said with feigned distraction. "I did manage a few excursions to the city, and home, of course."
"Good, good," Dumbledore said, appearing pleased at his utter lack of imagination.
Filch's absence wasn't discovered until later that day, but it was the topic of much discussion during the pre-term staff meeting. He had apparently written up a formal letter of resignation and left it stuffed under the door to the headmaster's office, thanking all of them profusely for years of employment, but humbly stating that he was moving to the wilds of Canada and they could all deal with Peeves themselves from here on out.
It was agreed, of course, that there should be no hurry to replace him. It was a little embarrassing in this day and age for the school to keep that sort of position, even for the purposes of charity. Obviously, there were special cases—here, a look was sent towards Hagrid that, despite the man's size, managed to go over his head—but there was no need for a servant to carry out jobs that the house-elves could surely perform much more efficiently.
This attitude lasted exactly two weeks, by which point a small section of the roof in the east wing had collapsed, Professor McGonagall had sent two portraits out to London for restoration at what turned out to be a quarter of the term's budget, a series of fires had been set by Peeves, two first-year students had to be rescued from the Forbidden Forest, and it was discovered that due to a peculiar aversion to their own reflections, house-elves did not do windows.
Despite a persistent clanking in the pipes that ran above his office, life returned more or less to normalcy for Severus. This was, he reminded himself, a good thing. His classes were marginally less painful with the introduction of his new lesson plans, although he found himself faced with just as many blank and incurious expressions as in years prior. His off-hours were quiet—almost too quiet, he thought once or twice before correcting himself—and utterly without excessive annoyance. He should have been relieved, if not outright smug with the pleasure of a misdeed successfully suppressed, and yet he found himself increasingly discontent as the summer faded away behind him.
On the first day that the damp autumn chill settled in, he went out for a walk. Filch chided in his head that he would take the ague if he went out without a cloak, but he did so anyhow, and he walked out to the empty ruins of the old chapel, to the holy well. There he stood for a time and gazed down at the water, which seemed to have returned to its former state. He tilted his head this way and that, but he could see nothing but dark blue depths.
A heralding raindrop fell from the sky, landing in the well. The water deigned to ripple, casting circles outwards from the disturbance. Severus followed them with his eyes, thinking of round tower rooms and the endlessly repeating cycle of the school year. Then, with a pang deep in his chest, he thought of Lily, and he realised with a rough, humourless laugh that up until this long, strange summer, he had half-convinced himself that time really was circular. This place had not changed from the time he was a child to the time he was a man, and it probably would not change between now and his own death, and some part of him...some part of him had been certain that if he only waited here long enough, the past would come around again and he could fix it all.
He crouched down to examine the water more closely. Then, unable to help himself, he dipped a fingertip into the water and then touched it to his tongue. It did, in fact, taste disgusting. He stood up, shaking his head at his own foolishness, and went inside where it was warmer.
The first letter from Filch did not arrive until the beginning of October. It had been sent by Muggle post, and Severus was forced to make his way into the village to pick it up at the post office. It was, he supposed, a more discreet way of communicating than having the letter dropped into his breakfast at the head table, but he had in fact caught a cold after his excursion to the well, and the unintended errand put him out of sorts.
He brought the letter back to the castle and with appropriate caution bypassed his own rooms and anywhere else he might be suddenly disturbed. He went instead to the bell tower, and there he sat in the dining chair he had occupied for the better part of two months, looking out across the now-familiar room. All the furniture had been left behind. Filch had packed lightly, having enough to wrangle with a cat and the boy, and almost everything he had owned belonged to the school to start with.
It seemed at first as though Filch might walk through the door at any moment with a bag of takeaway, and the annoyance would burst out of the back room with some ridiculous question or another. After a moment, however, the closed-in smell of the place truly registered with him and he noticed the thin layer of dust collecting on the table. It was only another abandoned corner of the castle now.
He had not intended to notice their absence.
The letter was sealed with a strip of reflective tape, and he pried it open and removed a folded-up piece of paper and a photograph. He unfolded the former, revealing a drawing of what appeared to be a lopsided building comprised of the better part of a red crayon. The building was surrounded by vaguely humanoid figures nearly of a height with it, all of which were smiling maniacally. Someone with better fine motor skills and an ample amount of charity had written along the bottom: Our Kindergarten Class by Severus S.
The photograph, he studied closely. It was in colour, but motionless. Both Filch and the boy were in it, which made him wonder with a brief spark of jealous curiosity who had taken it. The pair stood in front of a pale green Victorian-style house with white trim and a rime of frost on the roof. There was a small red bicycle leaning against the front step, and Severus spotted the profile of a dust-coloured cat in an upstairs window. The trees surrounding the house were half bare, and the street in front of it was covered with brightly coloured leaves in red and orange and yellow. Filch stood awkwardly with one hand shoved in the pocket of his brown coat and the other holding a paper coffee cup, from the top of which steam rose, obscuring part of his face. The boy was beside him, only his eyes visible between the mound of his muffler and a blue bobble-topped knit cap.
Severus turned the photograph over with a surprising ache in his stomach. On the back, in the telltale hand of someone who had learned to write with a quill and was now trying to make do with a biro, was nothing but an address: 26B Blackberry Road, Elm Hollow, Ontario. He already knew what remained in the envelope, but he tipped it out slowly nonetheless, unable at first to even contemplate the invitation. The machine-cut key clinked onto the table, brass and shiny and obviously new.
He sat back, studying it. He was aware, in retrospect, of the many moments upon which his fate had hinged—those places where, in this life at least, he had chosen one fork in the road and eschewed another. These sites were usually glimpsed over his shoulder, unseen for what they were until he had already passed them, leaving him to desperately fight the passage of time, trying to claw his way back and undo what he had done.
Now, however, he was aware that he sat at a juncture. He looked at the photograph again, his thumb tracing the edge of it. He had a job here. He had a life, and he had responsibilities. He had made the intelligent choice.
Choice. He considered the word, and he imagined those hypothetical worlds that had branched from the one he knew, or from which the world he knew had branched. Then he thought of Lily and for a moment entertained the notion that in most of those worlds, he might just be true enough to her memory to throw the photograph into the fire where it belonged. The key would sit untouched in the drawer of his desk, buried by years of paper and oddments until, one day, some favour to Dumbledore would go awry and it would be thrown out along with the rest of his things by some disinterested stranger. Perhaps by whomever they would inevitably hire to replace Filch when this place fell apart. The symmetry of that pleased him.
The image in his mind flickered. Lily rolling her eyes at him. Lily shoving him. Lily calling him an idiot with fond exasperation. A thought came to him slowly, insidiously, and incredulously.
She would have liked the boy.
It took several moments for him to accept the idea, but when it set down, it settled firmly. She would have thought the boy was sweet, God help her, utterly oblivious to the fact that it wouldn't be long before he learned how to twist Filch around his little finger. The brat would take up shoplifting soon enough, if someone didn't keep a close enough eye on him. The smoking wouldn't be far behind, and worse to follow. Yes, it was all crayons and bicycles now, but Filch couldn't have any idea of what he was actually dealing with.
"There are other worlds," he said quietly, prodding the key with a fingertip and sending it spinning in place.
Those other worlds had to be far more sensible places. Certainly, very few of them could contain more than one Severus Snape at a time. He briefly envied them, and then he supposed it only stood to reason that in these more sensible worlds, there were Severus Snapes to spare who stayed and carried out their duties at Hogwarts. There were probably dozens of them, perhaps even hundreds. So did it really matter if one, just one, tended to duties elsewhere, owing to exceptional circumstances?
He touched the spinning key, halting it. He thought of Filch's hands on his shoulders and mouth on his skin, and of takeaway and toasted cheese sandwiches, and of the boy's stupid, half-promising questions. Then he folded the drawing back up and placed it in the envelope along with the photograph. In other worlds, perhaps, he was slightly less selfish a man, but in this one...
...in this one, however, he put the key in his pocket and then, before he could reason himself out of it, went down to his rooms to pack a trunk full of his warmest clothes and draft his letter of resignation.