There once was a boy named Harry Potter, and he was known as the Boy Who Lived.
"Names are important," Hermione will tell him one day, ink-smudged hands shuffling the notes from her latest book. "Especially in the wizarding world. Magic can do anything, Harry—things it mustn't be allowed to. Names aren't just a way of conjuring magic. They're a way of setting boundaries, of nailing magic down in one place so we can control it."
'Control.' The word will click quietly in his consciousness with the subtle certainty of a key turning in a lock, and he will pause for a thoughtful moment before saying: "When I was eleven..."
When Harry is eleven, he is naive enough to hate only half of the name they've given him. He hates it because it means he's famous. He hates it because it means he's special. He is not merely 'that boy' or even 'the Potter boy.' He is 'the boy.'
Everyone knows who he is. The other students, whispering his name in the corridors. The strangers in the street, beaming at him and shaking his hand like he's someone off the telly. The lengthening shadows on his periphery: the faceless strangers who want to kill him. They all know him, but he doesn't know them, and there are no safe, dark places in which to hide, because the spotlight follows him wherever he goes.
"Do you remember those puzzles they had in reception?" he asks Ron one day in second year. "The wooden ones with the little cut-outs that you had to fit into their spaces?"
Harry is thinking about the modelling-clay-and-fruit-juice smell of Miss Clarke's classroom. The toy cupboard and the little painted jigsaw people on their pegs. 'Doctor' and 'Farmer' and 'Policeman.'
Ron frowns faintly. "What's reception?"
He shakes his head. "Never mind."
There is a cut-out called 'Hero' in the wizarding world, and no matter how hard they try to mash him into it, it is not the right shape for a short, slight boy with untidy hair and crooked glasses.
Only later does the full weight of the name grind into his shoulders. He is not just the boy who lived when he should have died. He is the boy who lived when everyone died. It is a subtle but crucial difference. The history of names and namesakes, of obituaries on yellowing paper, these things are an absence rather than presence in his life up until the night when the murders begin once more.
"Kill the spare."
That is why he loves Professor Dumbledore. He doesn't know that's the word for it—love—not then, but it is. Because Professor Dumbledore calls him Harry. Never 'The Boy Who Lived,' and not even 'Mr Potter' most of the time, as Professor McGonagall does in her cool, firm voice that reminds them all that she is not their mother; as Snape does, spitting out the words like they're poison in his mouth.
'Harry.' As if they're friends—or family. As if Professor Dumbledore, like no else in the world, really has known him his entire life.
Harry surreptitiously watches him one evening during dinner, wishing he could approach the head table without the entire school seeing him. Snape stalks in late and sits down beside Professor Dumbledore, causing something in Harry's stomach to twist around itself. He doesn't like to see them together. They look unnatural side by side, and the scant border of personal space between them makes him anxious, as if the family parrot has set down to perch beside an impatient vulture. Snape is dangerous, and Professor Dumbledore doesn't see it.
His cheeks flush hot in annoyance as their heads bend together and they exchange low murmurs. Professor Dumbledore brushes something off Snape's shoulder and gestures fancifully with his fork, smiling brightly—the sort of smile that always makes Harry feel like everything just might be all right after all.
That smile is supposed to be his. A sick taste fills his mouth, and he pushes the rest of his chicken away.
Professor Dumbledore is an important man. He's always away from the school on urgent business, and that is the reason Harry is lost and baffled all the time. That is why Harry is alone, even with Ron and Hermione beside him. If Professor Dumbledore weren't holding the rest of the wizarding world together with his bare hands, he would see how much Harry needs him. He would help him.
Professor Dumbledore's time is precious, and Snape steals it away out of spite. Or sabotage. As Harry watches, Snape leans in very close and whispers something in Professor Dumbledore's ear. There is a smirk on his ugly face.
Harry's hand clenches around his knife.
One day, many years later, he will remember this as he sits outside a cafe in London, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a chicken sandwich.
A gaggle of kids ambles past, and their loud chatter flutters around him. He leans back in his chair and watches them. School uniforms—secondhand trousers from a taller brother, a knee sock slipping down a skinny leg—and dirty trainers. The near-invisible glint of a fixed brace as one of them laughs. A breaking voice, a spotty cheek.
Harry thinks, suddenly and with quiet awe, 'I was fifteen.'
This thought weighs heavily in his mind for the rest of his lunch and all the long walk back to Grimmauld Place as he kicks a pebble along the pavement. It shifts uneasily throughout the afternoon and evening, making dinner a muted affair. That night, he stands in front of the basin in the master bath, staring at his reflection in the falling light. The thought rolls over with great effort, revealing its underside: 'They were only twenty-one.'
His mother and father, and Sirius and Remus. Peter Pettigrew and the other Death Eaters of the class of '78. They were twenty-one in the autumn of 1981, and all of them had their whole lives ahead of them until they didn't. Hardly more than teenagers, immortal and brave, and cowardly and foolish.
He climbs into bed beside Ginny and ponders the curious state of being older than his parents. 'Twenty-one,' he thinks again and closes his eyes.
Someday, perhaps, he will find himself holding a photograph, and he will peer down at the flickery image of a man with a pinched mouth and tired lines around his eyes, a man who was not really so tall or so fearsome, and he will think: 'He was only thirty-eight.'
But not today. Not yet.
There once was a boy named Severus Snape, and he was in love with a green-eyed girl.
"You were supposed to be a Michael," his mother announces on a cold and rainy Sunday when he is five years old.
She tells him this as though it's his fault he isn't one now, as she begins to mend a tear in his other shirt with the same short, angry movements with which she approaches every household task.
Severus is sitting at the kitchen table beside her, practising writing his name on his slate. His legs swing idly as he copies the smooth, serpentine S's from his mother's example. "How come?"
"Because that's what I wanted to name you."
"Don't say it like that," Da cuts in from the sitting room, newspaper rustling. "Don't say it like I gave him that ridiculous name. It weren't my loony brother we had to go and name him after."
Mam ignores him with a sniff. "Your uncle Severus died the night before you were born. And he wasn't loony—he just had a bad fever when he was a boy."
"How come he were locked up in the madhouse then, Eileen?" Da insists, and Mam starts jabbing the needle so hard through the cloth that she pricks her own finger. "How come he went and hit his head against a wall until he dashed his own brains out?"
"Don't tell him that!" Mam snaps, raising her finger to her mouth and scowling.
"As if you don't tell him worse!"
Severus slips out of his chair when the yelling begins in earnest. He drags his feet across the floor and goes out the back door without anyone noticing. Outside, he wanders aimlessly up and down the wet alleyway before finding a stick and jabbing at an earthworm until it's pulp. He wonders if that's what brains look like.
Several years later, he relates this anecdote to Lily, leaving out the part about the earthworm.
"'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,'" Lily says. "That's from a film called Romeo and Juliet."
He nods because it sounds so pretty when she says it, and he swallows down any rebuttal about lilies versus petunias. Lily is smart, and she teaches him nearly as much as he teaches her. She knows about books of fiction, and about Doctor Who, and about what going to school is like, even if it's only a Muggle school she goes to.
Most of all, she teaches him about kindness. It's a sweet lesson, at first. It's about smiling, and listening, and letting him climb into her room at night if his house is too noisy. Later, of course, he learns the truth of it. That kindness is something that is spread thin. It is unfickle; a betrayal. Someone who is kind will be kind to all without prejudice. It isn't at all like the intimacy of cruelty that he learned in his parents' home. You can be ambivalent, or resentful, or hateful to all the world, but you can only be truly cruel to someone you love. How else would you know where their most vulnerable places are?
He comes to learn, as well, that she and Shakespeare were wrong. Remus Lupin, the wolf. Sirius Black, brightest star in a dark sky. Peter Pettigrew, the runt. James Potter, as ordinary and simple as a red-bricked house on a tidy, middle-class street up the hill from Spinner's End.
A Severus is not the same species as a Michael, and the second love of his life is the only man who knows this; the only man whose capacity for cruelty surpasses his own.
"You're staring," he says archly, sitting down next to Albus at the head table and waiting for his plate to appear.
"Ah, Severus—I feared you wouldn't be joining us. This roast chicken isn't to be missed."
The charge is not denied. He follows Albus's gaze to the Gryffindor table and then glances quickly to the side to see the fondness and infatuation in Albus's eyes.
It curdles his mood, which was sour to start with. "Am I going to look inside that boy's head one day soon," he says softly, baiting Albus into moving closer to hear him, "and see you doing something scandalous?"
Albus brushes a dried flake of gold from Severus' shoulder and smiles that monstrous smile of his. "You've been brewing, I see. I think you've been taking on too much—you're overtired."
It is meant as reassurance as much as reproach, he thinks. Of course Albus will never do anything. It would be wrong, and it would ruin the pristine little fantasy he has of the boy anyhow. But he wants to, and in some other world he would, and that is betrayal enough for Severus tonight.
Briefly, a hot pang of jealousy stabbing through his stomach, he thinks of all the ways he could ruin that boy for Albus. The things he could tell him, the things he could show him in those hated and futile Occlumency lessons. The truth about his father, and the truth about his mother, and the real reasons Albus Dumbledore never allowed him to be adopted by a loving family.
He thinks, not for the first time, about just what Albus would do if he seduced the boy. The notion is unlikely but curiously satisfying. He has never been attracted to youths, of course, and one with the face of James Potter appeals to him least of all...but he would not have to look at his face, now would he?
He pictures the scrawny, graceless creature bent over a desk, robes hiked up, mewling as Severus makes use of him—and he lets Albus glimpse the thought and watches him shift uncomfortably.
Severus takes advantage of the momentary lapse and leans in to whisper sweetly in his lover's ear.
When he draws back, the boy is glaring openly at him across the room, and the sight of those green eyes quells any bitter arousal he might have been fostering. He sits back in his chair and is silent for the rest of the meal. He does not know it then, but those eyes will one day be the last thing he sees on this earth, and when the time comes, the sublime cruelty of such a death will rock him gently to sleep like a mother's familiar lullaby.
There once was a boy named Albus Dumbledore, and more than anything he wished to be a hero.
He is a great believer in the power of stories.
Albus is a precocious child: early to speak, early to read. At the age of three, he startles his mother by one day pronouncing aloud every sign in the marketplace. By age five, he is dragging chairs into his father's library to pull down from the shelves volumes half his own weight. He is rarely seen without a book in hand, not least from the time when his sister is born and children come to outnumber parents in the Dumbledore household. He reads fairy stories and histories, atlases and encyclopaedias, and he decides early on that he shall be the hero in the tale of his own life.
Were he the eldest of three brothers, he might at some point have wavered in this certainty. Youngest sons of three always surpassed their elder brothers, after all. But Ariana is a girl, and Aberforth is solid and sensible and dull. They are named for him, after a fashion, recreations of his parents' first successful experiment. Three children whose names begin with A—their mother's little apples, as she calls them. But he is the original, the heir, the remarkable.
He revels in the things that make him different. His copper locks, never cut from their boyhood length. The chalk in his voice, preserved where his brother's accent eventually dulled to suit Godric's Hollow. The secret appeal of another boy's mouth and shoulders. He embraces affectations, and fills journal after journal with his boyhood exploits, and recklessly falls in love with poems and paintings and philosophies.
Eventually, he falls in love with a young man, and he kills his sister.
He can never know, of course, who fired the curse. Not for certain. But he is the protagonist, and the necessity of his tragedies will be borne by him and him alone. He loved his sister. She was an innocent, a princess in a tower. He would have protected her to the end of his days, and if there were a way to turn years in reverse, he would give his life to save her.
That is not, however, the nature of time. It is not the nature of stories.
The young hero must be driven from the comforts of home, and more often than not, this separation is as painful and bloody as birth. Ariana's death and Gellert's betrayal are twin wounds. Without bereavement, he would not have saved thousands—perhaps millions—of innocent lives. Without forsaking romance for principle, he would never have learned to love the whole of the world.
"If I didn't know better," the second lover he takes murmurs to him one night in a Paris apartment as the warm summer breeze rustles the curtains, "I would think you can read my mind."
He can, of course, but most of the time there is no need to. Human beings are predictable, at least to one who has learned the shapes and signifiers of narration and character as thoroughly as those of the lexicon. Here, now, is the prodigal son. Here is the miller's virgin daughter. Here is one who sets the story into motion. Here is another who provides exposition when the tale becomes muddy.
This rare literacy is the reason for his fascination with Severus Snape. At the time of his death, he has kept company with no other lover for half as long, for all that half the time he can hardly muster affection for the young man.
Severus is...contrary. He is anarchic.
Albus has searched for some phrase that runs opposite to deus ex machina and has at times fancied coining a term for it himself, but the only candidate he can conjure is Severus Snape. Severus claws ungainly at the flow of events, fighting against the current of the story's imperative.
The young man is born into poverty, but he learns no virtue from it. He is ugly, but he is neither stupid nor kind. He is childish one moment and mature beyond his years the next, growing and regressing by whim. He falls in love with a young woman and pays courtly love when he should woo, and wounds when he should pay courtly love. He commits wicked acts with fair intention, and fair acts out of selfishness, and when he is forced to read poetry, he strips away the words and counts feet and caesurae until he has found the meter through mathematics, and those bare bones are all he admires.
Albus spends days, weeks, months at a time studying the text that is Severus Snape: the tone of his voice, the peculiarities of his habits, the movement of his hips. He tries for fifteen years to decipher him. Attempts every language and every genre, to no avail.
"You're staring," Severus says, slipping into his seat beside him.
There could not be two people more different than Severus Snape and Harry Potter. Oh, they have more in common than they might think: unloving guardians and secondhand clothing and impressive tempers. But a shared structure does not make one sonnet another, nor does it make an unsolvable arithmantic equation set in iambic pentameter a sonnet at all.
His eyes sweep over handsome young Harry. He has grown so much in this past year, from a Wart into an Arthur. His limbs are lean and strong, his complexion hale, and his eyes clear. He is becoming a young man, and he'll soon fall in love if he hasn't already. Not with the young woman who was enamoured of the unfortunate Cedric Diggory. No, that wouldn't be right. With Miss Granger, perhaps—or, no. With Miss Weasley. A Ginevra for an Arthur. It is too apt not to be.
He can all but taste the jealousy and dark lust on the air as Severus—neither Mordred nor Lancelot nor Uther—leans close, his lips brushing against Albus's ear as he whispers:
"You disgust me."
Albus, who has never forgotten a word he has said in his life, shivers with desire. And he thinks, then and there, that the only thing that would make the story more perfect than Harry one day weeping over him as he dies—is if Severus is the one to kill him.
There once was a boy named Albus Severus Potter, although there very nearly wasn't.
He is born too early, undersized and blue, and is rushed to hospital where he spends the first night of his life kept alive by a tangle of spells that make his heart beat and his lungs draw breath.
His mother sleeps nearby, finally having succumbed to her exhaustion and a potion for the pain. His father sits by his institutional cradle, fingertips tracing the quarantine bubble that separates them.
"Albus Severus," Harry Potter intones quietly. "After the two strongest men I've ever known."
He says it as if it's a blessing, but it isn't. It's a plea, a bargain with whatever forces might be listening. Never mind that he promised his wife that there would be no more phantoms at the naming ceremony. Ginny wants to call him Felix.
"Albus Severus," he says again, closing his eyes tightly and wishing with all his might.
Let him be a child who asks for death watch beetles instead of an owl. Let him draw sniggers. Let him be too quiet, at least until the reins on his temper snap. Let him be a boy who locks himself in the attic with a book when the Quidditch match is on. Let him be too smart for his own good. Let him be gay. Let him be eccentric. Let him be unpopular.
Let him be heartless. Let him be frustrating. Let him be strange, and let him be mad, and let him be angry.
But let him be a survivor.
Albus Severus Potter, knowing only cold and light where there was once warmth and darkness, opens his eyes and clenches his hands and begins to squall.