Actions

Work Header

The Price of Magic

Chapter Text

The Price of Magic

 

An hour’s walk from King’s Cross, a street meets the train tracks and follows them north through the outskirts of London. Eventually the street comes to a dead end, at a block of flats caged with rusty fire escapes. Away from the shops and the traffic lights, the rundown brick building stands alone. It looks as though half a century ago, a drunken wizard had wound an extendable time-turner chain around its grimy foundations, and spun the mechanism forward year after year on a whim, finally leaving the building stranded in a time that’s not its own. Even now, the place has a furtive air, like the entrances to wizarding London that used to fill the city: entrances that could only be seen by those who already knew the secrets they hid.

But so much — too much — has changed. There’s no magic about this place, no secret doors: only cracked plaster ceilings and cheap silver paint peeling off the radiators. The stairways are just as narrow as they seem: soaked in cigarette smoke on winter nights, invaded in the summer by lost, dusty moths.

The inhabitants — mostly Ukrainian and Polish immigrants — are so used to the deafening roar of passing trains, that they notice it no more than the ticking of a clock. But apart from the trains, not much escapes their curious eyes and listening ears. They snoop and chatter about the late-night visitor to the lady from the fifth floor, they discuss the weather or the children, or they wonder why ‘that sour old sod’ from the third floor never catches the bus and uses candles instead of electricity.

Gossips.

I know about electricity. I can brush a piece of wool and feel the static bristle, but I can’t quite bring myself to touch the switch that lights up my lodgings. Candles are a habit left over from better days: tiny sources of protection to ward off the spirits and the chill, now that magic is scarce.

Scarce. Yes. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. And there’s no changing it, no matter how many candles I burn.

“When times change, you must change with the times or perish, dryg moi dorogoj,” Igor told me once. His grandmother Olga Karkaroff, Lucius’ great-aunt, threw malicious Impedimenta at any mention of ‘Malfoi’ but she tolerated Lucius (and me by default), always urging us to speak ‘po-rysshki, vnychek, po-rysshki!’ as if we were her grandchildren too. She was a right old bat; could’ve given Rasputin a run for his rubles in her impressive age of a hundred and sixty, if only she’d kept her teeth and could pronounce “Crucio” without it sounding like Parseltongue.

For all his spendthrift ways, Lucius made better preparations for the future than either Igor or I. This dingy flat — hidden amid Muggle squalor and shaken by the roar of passing trains — will never be mine. I owe this place, and my survival, to him.

It’s best that Igor didn’t live to see it all end like this; he’d consider this fate a mockery of our kind. I still think of him whenever I’m at King’s Cross. Whenever I see the unyielding bricks of the platform walls — never giving them more than a passing glance, never risking a touch — I remember the time when those walls led onto the countless platforms of Paris, Berlin, or St. Petersburg. I’m still here because one thing I’ve learned from Igor and Lucius — besides broken-down, Parseltongue Russian and passable French — is how to change with the times.

I have my books, my candles, and my work: a handful of letters addressed to H. Prince. I’m getting by; one might even say that I’m doing all right. I just wish that those dreams of old times — and of Lucius — would leave me in peace. I already have far more than my fair share of memories and war wounds.

The old woman from the sixth floor reminds me of Igor’s baba Olga. She hardly knows two words of English, and feeds me scones with raspberry tea in return for translating her newspapers. The tea tastes like diluted doxy piss, yet I return time and time again, braving the mothball smell and the neighbours’ gossip. Sometimes I wonder what they think of me: that I’m an ugly old sod with a big nose, greasy hair, and no future, just like the mirror suggests.

But even though the mirror here is mute, it still lies: though I look sickly enough, I probably have a century or more of ‘future’ ahead of me, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Unless the scar does me in much sooner; sometimes I dream I can feel it, clawing its way toward my heart, like a snake sinking its fangs ever deeper into my flesh. Perhaps it’s spreading; I can’t be certain without a diagnostic charm. I can’t cast a diagnostic charm without a working wand, and I can’t have a working wand without magic!

I might as well ask for the moon.

This is useless: chasing a dream like magic, yet wishing my dreams would end. Sometimes it feels as though my dreams are deliberately tormenting me; as if they’ve got a mind of their own. It’s not true, of course, and the mind that racks me night after night is my own: a fact that adds an extra twist of horror to it all. So, I’m begging you, Lucius — I’m begging me — don’t saunter into and out of my dreams, don’t leave me behind alone.

After an hour of attempting to relax by soaking in rusty, tepid water, and another hour of reading Dante until the words dance before my eyes and the candle melts, filling the room with its burnt, bitter tang — after I resign myself to solitary sleep — I still want to see you in my dreams.

But I cannot bear to run after you one more time, without ever, ever reaching you.

*

I wake with a gasp, tangled in sheets and itching with sweat. I untangle myself and lie staring at the ceiling; my gaze follows the contours of peeling paint for lack of anything more interesting to look at. There’ll be no more sleep for me tonight. My wand’s still under my pillow, just as I left it: thin, smooth, and oily at the handle from decades of use. Perhaps I should put it away, or snap it in half once and for all; it can’t be healthy to be so dependent on this one object, nightmare after nightmare.

At last I’m too bored to lie there any longer: I roll stiffly up to sit, haul myself to my feet and shamble down the narrow hallway and into the equally narrow bathroom. This nightmare is no different from all the others, I tell myself: only twisted memories, and the pangs of my own maimed conscience, as useless as the pain from an amputated limb. It’s finally over. I should splash cold water on my face, haul my hair out of the way, and face myself in the mirror.

I peer blearily into the glass. A pallid, scrawny face glares back. It deserves a punch in that dirty great beak for belonging to a coward.

Ugly sod. I need a shave.

What’s that? Something moves behind me, in the mirror. I whirl, staring, my heart in my throat.

All is dark, silent and still.

It’s nothing, just my ruined nerves. I’ve turned paranoid with age. It must be the reading, and the whiskey, and my own damn fault. I march back to my bedroom, determined not to…

A sudden breeze blows down the hallway, all around and past me, so fast and cool it almost feels as though it passed right through me. I shiver as tingles race across my skin.

I glimpse something pale in the darkness of my bedroom, and my chest pangs, icicle-sharp. I stride forward, tensed for an attack, but a moment later I jolt to a halt: I can only stand and gape at what is hovering in my doorway.

Harry Potter’s ghost!

“Snape! You’re alive!” He beams at me, a cheeky grin widening across his glowing face. “About time I finally found someone!

It’s all I can do to gather my scattered wits. A ghost! After all this time! But without magic, how…? At last I regain some of my lost composure, and narrow my eyes, examining him from head to toe. “What the hell are you doing here,” I bark suddenly, startling myself almost as much as him, “seven years after magic ceased to exist?”

Now it’s his turn to gape. “What? Magic’s gone?” He blinks. “And what d’you mean, ‘seven years’?”

I don’t bother to repeat myself; what good would it do? I arch an eyebrow — how easy it is to fall back into old habits — and give him a moment to let the idea sink in.

After a long pause, he scoffs, “Yeah right!” and shakes his head. “S’not funny! Stop confusing me!”

Apart from the opalescent glow, he looks exactly as I remember him, before everything ended. Skinny and small in a Muggle jumper at least two sizes too large. His shoulders are swathed in an unclaimed Auror’s robe stained with healing potions and blood. He must have gone into his last battle like this, with his ridiculous glasses and his scruffy hair, determined to win.

Clearly, his determination wasn’t enough.

How naïve we all were to stick a wand in a seventeen-year-old’s hand and point out the enemy. ‘Kill the bad man, avenge your parents, be a hero.’ Did anyone truly believe that brilliant strategy would succeed? It’s a pity that no one ever foresaw what would happen if the boy-hero actually managed to do his part.

A lot of things are a pity. Like this poor bloody brat: doomed from the start.

I should’ve taught him better. I thought that any regrets I’d had about that had died along with my dying magic, but I realise now — faced by Harry Potter’s ghost — that I thought wrong.

“M’tired of being lost and alone and I’m sick of waiting! Why didn’t any of you come back?”

“Come back where?”

“To Hogwarts, of course!”

Hogwarts! “Is it still there?” Impossible as it is to verify the news, my heart still leaps. Could Hogwarts truly have survived intact?

“Where else would it be? But why’re you asking me? Go see for yourself!” He frowns at me. “What’s so funny?”

I stifle my bitter, snickering laughter. “Ah, if only I could.”

“Look, you can just Apparate into the forest by Hagrid’s cabin; it’s not that far to walk,” he waves his arms emphatically.

“If I still had magic to Apparate,” I scoff, “I would in a heartbeat, but your little encounter with the Dark Lord took care of that.”

“What?” he gasps, shocked into a pearly pallor. “You’re a squib?”

“The term ‘squib’” I reach for my professorial voice, needing the distance it gives me from this bald description of my own fate, “implies the existence of wizards. These days, I’m a Muggle. Just like everyone else.”

“Y’mean… everyone? All over the world?” He whispers, too appalled to say it aloud, “Did… did I do it?”

Under that anguished stare I feel the need to tuck my wet, disordered hair behind my ears, or, perhaps let it fall over my face even more and hide my unkempt state. I’ve needed a shave since yesterday. I’m not even dressed. What kind of ghost shows up at sparrowfart and confronts a man on his way from the bathroom? Not one that knows the meaning of propriety. I stand straighter, gaining another inch of advantage over his hovering form; hopefully enough to cancel out my haggard appearance and worn nightshirt. Whatever I do, I mustn’t show him my anxieties.

“If you don’t know what happened, then no-one knows for sure. That tends to be the case when there are no living witnesses.” I take a deep breath, add briskly, “Now that I’ve satisfied your curiosity, I trust you can see yourself out.” I give an ironic little ‘after you’ wave at the nearest blank wall.

“Wait!” he frowns. “Seven years? What’s happening?”

This is precisely why I use an assumed name, why I don’t own a telephone. If I did make myself known, I’d never be free of fools who think themselves entitled to something from me, just because of past acquaintance or some misguided sense of camaraderie over our mutual state. Granted, this case is unique. What are the odds of an impossible manifestation materialising right under my nose after seven years? He isn’t supposed to exist at all, but The-Boy-Who-Lived apparently lived just long enough to become The-Ghost-Who-Survived. Ironic, yet I don’t appreciate that same irony dumping him on my proverbial doorstep.

“Nothing’s ‘happening’, Potter. The N.E.W.T.s are long over. In case you’re wondering, you failed due to simple lack of attendance.” All his classmates failed for the same reason; not that it matters any more, but it’s a question of principle now. “I refuse to change your marks posthumously.” With that, I walk past him and into my bedroom, and shut the door in his face. It won’t keep a ghost out, but when physical barriers are impossible, psychological ones will have to do.

“M’not here ‘cause of the bloody exams!” The damned door didn’t even slow him down. “Sod the N.E.W.T.s! If magic’s gone, I want it back!”

“Don’t we all?” I’d like my potions back too, as well as a peaceful morning without having to put up with stray ghosts.

“Mind you, that explains everything. I looked round Hogwarts for ages, and everyone was gone. I waited and waited and almost gave up, but then I dreamed about you and here you are!” As I stalk over to the wardrobe he trails after me, rambling like any other disturbed spirit. “I was worried everyone was dead ‘cept for me; course, I’m dead too only not dead and gone, you know… and then I saw you, and if you’re right about magic it’s bloody awful and I’ve got to get it back, but at least it all makes sense now!”

After everything I’ve sacrificed over the years, do I really have to give up my peace and privacy as well? There must be a way to banish a spirit without resorting to a spell. I’ll simply have to convince him to leave. It shouldn’t be too hard to expel this particular household pest: just apply large doses of scorn, with a dash of ridicule to ensure he won’t return. After all, what could any ghost — let alone Harry Potter’s ghost — possibly want from me?

“There’s gotta be a way,” he mutters, low and stubborn, before looking up at me and crying “You have to help me!”

“Help you with what?” I parry impatiently. Someone ought to teach him manners, but why should I bother to begin on such a never-ending task?

“Getting magic back!”

“If that were possible,” I reply in my most sweetly sarcastic parody of patience, “don’t you think it would’ve been done already?” Just how fixated is he on that preposterous idea? Either way, it’s time to end this nonsense. I bite out in my most dismissive voice, “Good day, Mr. Potter.” I allow a smirk onto my face and add, in the bored singsong of shop assistants, “Have a nice eternity.”

He glares at me, and for the briefest instant his eyes spark, Killing Curse green. “Don’t mock me!” Anger seems to lend solidity to his form; even his hair bristles with energy. “You oughtta be thankful I’m trying to fix it, y’selfish sod!”

“Mis-ter Potter!” I belatedly recall from somewhere that calling a ghost by his name only makes him stronger. Damn! “Unlike you, I still have a life. I would like to go about living it. Without you.”

“Haven’t you listened to a word I said? Hey, I’m talking to you, come back!” As I close the wardrobe door — no point in trying to get dressed right now with him gawping at me — he grabs at my shoulder. His hand goes right through me; I shake off the tingle and turn away.

So much for politeness and pleading! How soon he starts throwing orders around. The whelp never could accept it when things didn’t go his way. Typical Potter! I glare at the arrogant little bastard with the utmost loathing. I can’t possibly express my opinion of him to the fullest in the limited time of a single conversation. For once the brat’s had a bloody lollipop taken out of his hand and now he’s going to pout and whinge and whine and throw a temper tantrum. Stop the planet immediately; everyone coddle this child until he calms down!

I pin him down with my stare and advance until we’re chest to chest and he has to lift his head to look at me. It doesn’t occur to him to hover a few inches higher above the floor. Good. “You. Will. Not. Repeat. That. Outburst. Again! Understood?”

He glares up at me and doesn’t back down. “If you want to be a git, fine. But take me to someone who’ll listen.”

Have I somehow lulled him into ignoring the ‘Heartless Bastard, Do Not Disturb’ sign over my head? This won’t do. I hold my head high and glare down my nose; it’s time to show this insolent cretin his place. “I see. You want me to take your little hand and lead you across the road, so the nasty Muggle automobiles don’t drive through you? Let’s set a time, shall we? Is never good for you?”

“D’you think I want your help, you stubborn sod?” he interrupts before I even begin ripping his confidence into shreds. “I’m only asking ‘cause I’ve got no choice. Look, all I know is, I have to bring magic back.”

Magic? Didn’t we settle this already? “I am not being stubborn, you just happen to be incorrect, irrelevant, and deceased. Magic can’t be brought back, it’s as simple as that.”

“Nonono, you have to be wrong!” He shakes his head; it sends his translucent hair flying. “There’s got to be a way.”

Indeed. How silly of me to doubt it. “Oh, of course there must be, simply because the great Harry Potter said so.”

He scowls mulishly. “There is. Somehow. I just know it.”

I arch my eyebrow. “Do enlighten me.”

He appears perplexed for a second, deep in thought: high time he tried that! At last, he shrugs. “I dunno, just something to bring it back. Like a spell to fix things: only different, obviously, ‘cause you can’t cast without magic either.”

Yet another brilliant solution from the lips of the Boy Wonder! I’m not certain how many of these I’ll be able to stomach. “I see my efforts at school were not in vain. Thank you for this fascinating display of intellect.” I glance at the clock on my bedside table; it’s almost six. I want my clothes, my coffee, and most of all my privacy. What I definitely don’t want is to spend the rest of my life in vain attempts at talking sense into the most senseless brat in the Wizarding or Muggle worlds.

Potter, the irksome little moron, flops down on my chair, and regards me with a calm face. “Right, then, let’s see you do better! Go on.”

What else does the pest want? Hasn’t he bothered me enough? “For your information, fixing the world is slightly more complicated than ‘swish and flick’.” I rub my forehead, trying to ward off the approaching headache.

“Y’think I don’t know that?” he nods. “And?”

Who does he think he is? “I don’t know what you think you’re entitled to from me, but barging uninvited into my home in the middle of the night doesn’t improve your chances of getting it.”

“All right.” There goes that cheeky smirk again. “I can wait till after breakfast.”

How gracious of him! I glare until at last he gets the hint and rises, floating toward the door. “And what makes you think I’ll do anything for you then?”

“I don’t have to leave, y’know,” he scowls. “I can wait right here.”

Impossible pest. “Fine. I want at least an hour to myself.”

He narrows his eyes. “Thirty minutes?”

“An hour! In peace.”

*

Potter keeps his word. There is no sign of him on my way to the bathroom or the kitchen. Only when I put on adequate clothing, arrange my bothersome hair around my freshly-shaved jaw, sit down at the rickety kitchen table with a steaming mug in my hands, and breathe in the scent of coffee does he reappear. He flops down on the chair opposite to mine. The gesture would appear realistic, if not for the fact that the chair is pushed too far in, and his chest is now halfway through the table. Farewell, my sanity. Something tells me I won’t keep it for long, not with him around.

“Is that all you have for breakfast?” he eyes my coffee mug. “No wonder you’re skin and bones.”

Impudent pup! I have no need for a nanny, especially one this inadequate. “At least I have skin and bones.” I note the way he’s glaring at the mug in my hands. “Hungry?”

“You haven’t changed a bit. Still a heartless bastard.”

“At long last you noticed,” I reply dismissively. “Which is why, you insolent brat, you’ll regret ever speaking to me.”

“Well that won’t be anything new,” he scoffs. “I always did regret it! …Well?”

“Well, what?”

He feebly attempts to balance his elbows on rather than in the table. “S’been an hour already.”

“It’s been barely forty minutes. And anyway, how much time pressure should a ghost feel?” I arch my eyebrow and shield myself from his further inquiries with my coffee mug.

“Y’said you’d explain. How do I bring magic back?”

If the dunderhead had been half this persistent with his studies, perhaps I could’ve done something to improve his vacant mind. Very well. This might finally pummel a clue into his phantom brain.

“It is no more possible to restore magic than it is to make a Muggle into a wizard.” Magical power isn’t just something that can be turned on and off like electricity. It’s taken and given, like the air we breathe or the water we drink. It comes from the earth and into the earth it returns, continuous as a heartbeat. Once that heartbeat stops, it’s all over.

“Why not?” he shrugs. “There’s gotta be some way.”

“If there was a way to fix squibs there wouldn’t be any in the first place.” What were we teaching our students at Hogwarts? A first-year should have been aware of this.

“But there has to be. S’just, difficult maybe, or risky, so no one tried it before. Or maybe no one’s figured out how, ‘cause like you, they all thought it’s impossible. But it’s not. And I’ll prove it to you!”

I am haunted by an imbecile! The empty bottles lined up at my feet show more comprehension than him.

“If I broke it — or even if I didn’t — I’ll fix it. And you will help me one way or another.” he announces, and melts into thin air before I have a chance to reply.

Good riddance.

*

“Snape! Oi, Snape?”

I walk past him without giving him a second glance. I’ve humoured him once. He can’t expect me to do it every time.

“Fine! If you’re gonna be like that!”

Inwardly, I smirk. ‘Ignore him, and he will go away’ sounds like the perfect plan.

*

“The cabin boy was Tipper…”

Perhaps not such a perfect plan after all. Damnation! It’s been three hours. The little devil has already sung this the same obnoxious tune at least a dozen times. Which one of the gods (sadistic bastards that they are) did I annoy badly enough to deserve a tone-deaf ghost in my loo?

“That dirty little nipper…” resonates down the corridor.

Impossible whelp!

“He stuffed his arse with broken glass…”

In the kitchen, I drop my head on my hands and try to block out his singing. He is so horribly off-key he can’t possibly be doing it on purpose.

“…and circumcised the skipper!”

That’s quite enough. My patience wears thin by the time he yells all about the cook and the ‘crup named Rover’.

“Wrong verses,” I grind out through clenched teeth.

The singing stops. “What?”

“You may be a rotten singer, but you’re no Johnny Rotten.”

A dishevelled head appears through the bathroom door. “Huh?”

“You forgot the second mate,” I sneer at him.

His eyes widen. “Next thing you’ll be marking my songs. It’s not Potions, y’know.” He waves his hands emphatically, and then pauses with a wicked grin. “So did I fail? What’s my sentence, Professor? Reckon I’ll just have to serve detention right here: a hundred repetitions till I get it right.”

I glare, gesturing at the bathroom door. “Go on then, you might as well start now.”

He glares back, all determination. “Oh, I will.”

*

“A-WEE-EEE-EEE-EEE-ah-WEE-OH-WIM-OH-WEH!”

What the hell was that? I’ve just stopped tossing and turning in my bed to yet another verse of Henery the Eighth (‘I am, I am! Second verse, same as the first!’) — damn the brat! — and now he’s finally changed his painfully limited repertoire to this banshee screeching.

From the loo comes a bellow, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the LIIIIION SLEEPS TONIIIIIGHT…” This must be the first time in my life I’ve been jealous of a lion. A fictitious one, what’s more.

Can my neighbours hear him? I suppose not, lucky sods. It’s 3 AM and no one’s pounded on the wall yet.

This is ridiculous.

I kick the door open. “Are you leaving any time this century?”

He looks up from the toilet tank with a nasty smile. “Brilliant acoustics in here! Reckon I know now why Myrtle liked to haunt loos.”

Little guttersnipe! “What are you playing at?”

“Ohhh nothing! Y’don’t mind me staying here for a week — or three — do you?”

“Don’t mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you, I’m mocking you back. And did you know, ghosts don’t need to sleep?” His grin is sharp with malice. “Hope you like my singing. There’ll be more. A lot more.”

Creative little bastard. “Is that a threat?”

“Now, how can I threaten?” He taps his lips with his finger in mock-consideration. “I can’t even touch you. ‘Course, that means you can’t touch me either. Or throw me out on my ear. Too bad.”

“Just what makes you think I won’t be capable of ignoring you?”

He shrugs, beaming. “I’ll just sing louder. As for the loo, feel free. I can’t really stop you, can I?” He leans forward and stares pointedly at my crotch.

The brat must think himself clever for targeting my essential needs. A few days without sleep, and I’d have to reconsider my options in any event. Throw in his nasty little voyeuristic streak … it’s crudely effective, I have to admit, if only to myself. “Desperate, are you?” I fling the words at him with as much loathing as I can manage.

He beams up at me. “No. Not any more. Actually, I’m having fun.”

*

I don’t remember my dreams. If I had any, it was probably a nightmare about a stray ghost caterwauling in my bathroom. Of course, Potter doesn’t need to visit my dreams; he’s perfectly capable of turning my reality into a nightmare all by himself.

I try not to make any noise as I get out of bed: it wouldn’t do me any good to let him know I’m awake. God, look at what the little bastard’s done to me already! He’s only been here a day, and already I’m being forced to sneak about my own house like a thief. How pathetic this is, hiding from a ghost. It has to change.

I manage to get as far as the wardrobe, but the damn door’s creaking is enough to wake the dead. Not that this particular dead needs waking. The loud clang from the kitchen just proves my point. So does the “Whoops!” that I hear over the clatter of something glass and heavy hitting and rolling against a hard surface.

I reach in to select a shirt. “Stop pretending you’re a poltergeist, or I’ll make you pick up every single piece.”

Silence never sounded so guilty. He must’ve already wrecked my kitchen then. But at least that means the bathroom is unoccupied for once. Good.

*

“Good morn…” Potter pokes his head through the wall, not a minute after I step into the shower.

I jump at the invasion. My foot slips; I overbalance and grab the shower curtain. Three plastic rings snap one after the other like torn buttons, but the rest hold me upright. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would’ve cracked my head open as I fell. My heart pounds and I can almost feel it tugging at the scar tissue below it.

He freezes, startled, torn between looking away and outright staring; when he notices my glare his glance jumps away from me at once. “M-morning,” he stammers out. “Ow. All right?”

The nitwit could have killed me right there; I could’ve broken my bloody neck! Of all the idiotic things he could’ve done, this is by far the most inane. “Don’t you have any damn sense of privacy? Or any sense at all?”

My furious outburst is too late to derail his curiosity. He’s noticed; even now his gaze keeps darting down from my face. Oh, not that far down, only as far down as my chest. “Bloody hell, did a lorry run you over?”

I grab a towel and clutch it to my chest like a shield. “None of your business! Get out!”

“Fine, you old prude! No need to yell!”

“If you didn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, I wouldn’t have to yell!”

“Right, then, I’ll be in the kitchen trying to become blind and deaf, since dead isn’t enough for you!”

Couldn’t he have vanished before now, and saved me all this trouble? By the time he disappears, my towel is soaked through. I shut off the water and examine the damage done to the shower curtain. I shouldn’t feel guilty in the slightest. Potter shouldn’t stick his meddling head through my walls with no warning whatsoever. I don’t know what disturbs me more: the loss of my privacy, the genuine concern that managed to slip into his expression before my reply banished it, or the fact that I was caught clutching a towel to my chest like a bloody maiden aunt. Perhaps it’s my fate to continually hide some scar or mark from prying eyes.

I pull my shirt over my wet skin, hurrying to conceal the wide line of pale, wiry keloids running diagonally from my right shoulder across my chest and back. Another set of scars circles my left elbow in a thick, hideous band. To him it probably looked like I was hacked in two by an axe and glued back together with scar tissue. No wonder he ran.

I miss my robes, the kind that covered me from neck to feet and shielded me from the public gaze. Instead I adjust my shirt — too thin and tight for my tastes — button it at the neck and pull the sleeves as low as I can over my hands. They are too short for my arms: pathetic by Wizarding standards. I look like a Knockturn beggar who’s just traded his only cloak for a bottle of Ogden’s. What has become of me in this pit? I’d rather not think about it.

*

Potter remains quiet for the rest of the day. He lurks in dark corners, leaving the dust unstirred, or crouches next to the narrow gap in my curtains, gazing at the world outside with a look of curiosity and desperation. He watches the trains make their way across the labyrinth of steel paths and blinking lights, probably wishing to be spirited away on one.

He finally abandons his perch on top of a newspaper stack next to the radiator, but his gaze flicks back to the window every time he hears the teeth-rattling roar. In between the passing trains, he eyes my bookshelves, reading the titles systematically: starting from the very top, going from left to right, top to bottom with his head crooked onto his right shoulder, reciting hurriedly, as if trying to capture the words before they escape his lips. He gets past the dusty works of Byron, stumbles upon an empty place on the shelf, and proceeds to Goethe, then Shakespeare. I remind myself to put a volume of Dante back in its rightful place, and while I hunt for it under the bed among the dust and the stubs of burnt out candles, he passes over Tolstoy and Twain, Voltaire and Wilde.

It’s seven in the evening and I don’t have to watch the idiot puttering about. “Stay here!” I bark at him as I put on my shoes. I don’t believe the brat will obey me, so I wait outside for a good minute, prepared to greet him with my most menacing glare. Surprisingly, he listens to me for once, and doesn’t follow.

I climb the draughty, echoing stairs to the sixth floor, and politely tap twice on the scratched up door so similar to mine.

Yelizaveta Vasilyevna is home, as usual. “Dobryi vecher.” She nods in greeting, pulls her usual dirty-grey shawl over her shoulders, and offers me some tea.

It’s not long until she asks me what’s happening. The question gleams shrewdly in her dark eyes, even through the heavy-rimmed glasses held in place mostly by the mole on her left cheek. She eyes my face with discomforting concern and takes a guess. “Gosti?”

Guests? She isn’t too far from the truth. Potter creates so many complications, he can easily pass as a regular human invader. “Da, gosti,” I agree.

I ask her what gave her the idea as she wobbles on her weak legs, barely squeezing her short, round body through the narrow hallway. I follow her to the small kitchen, an extensively decorated mirror image of my own, and pull a tall, bulky stool to the table as she sets down the teapot, a jar of strawberry jam, and a plate with lightly-toasted slices of bread.

“Sudya po litcy, synok, eto libo pohorony libo grabezh, libo gosti naehali,” she declares. It’s true. I can see how the invasion of unwanted guests would rival funerals and robbery. In some cases guests can be the worst of the three.

Also, a neighbour heard me yelling at someone today, she finally admits, with a mysterious smile and a questioning glance.

There’s no hiding the obvious. I wonder if she heard me herself, or if her daughter — who lives on the same floor as I — passed the news up the grapevine. “Yes,” I confess, “Just one guest, but trouble enough for three.”

She tuts over my unlucky fate, and tells a long, gory tale of her relatives from Odessa who showed up out of the blue supposedly for a weekend yet stayed for a month. They ate all her food, kicked her cat, and finally disappeared into the night with her silver. At the end she warns me to lock away my valuables.

I assure her that this guest wouldn’t steal.

“Just wait,” she replies with scepticism that would rival Alastor Moody’s; she stresses that it’s best to be vigilant now than sorry later, before adding, “Chaiy?”

I turn down her offer of more tea.

She sighs, sets down her ever-present knitting and refills my cup anyway, before pulling out a bottle from her kitchen cupboard.

“Only one,” I warn her. “I’ll have to go back soon.”

She nods and adds the alcohol to my teacup until it nearly overflows; only then does she do the same to hers.

“Na zdorovie.” Our cups meet with a cheerful clink.

I feel comfortable with alcohol soaking into my blood in this warm and well-lit space, in silence broken only by the subtle click-clack of knitting needles, in the company of this old woman, who reminds me sometimes of Igor’s grandmother but most of all reminds me of myself. Like me, she is a stranger in a strange place, an accidental survivor of many things haunting her past. We understand and support each other in our own subtle ways of vodka mixed in tea, eccentric habits, and stories of people long forgotten and far away.

I decide to stay longer: it shouldn’t hurt anything.

*

It’s late when I unlock the creaky door to my flat. It seems unoccupied, but when I light a candle, the first thing I find is my mail — which I’d left in a neat stack on the table — scattered all over the hallway. “Potter!”

“‘Bout time!” his weak voice comes from the kitchen. Insolent twerp!

“What did you do to my things?”

He comes drifting down the hallway, colourless in the candlelight. He’s in his school robes this time, neat and proper like the good little student he never was. Even the hideous Gryffindor tie around his ethereal neck is muted to the hues of coffee and cream. “I didn’t break anything.”

I arch an eyebrow.

“Not a thing,” he insists. “This place is one giant cupboard. Couldn’t you have at least left a candle burning?”

“Why? Surely you weren’t planning on reading in my absence.” Next thing he’ll try to convince me that ghosts need light to move about and wreck things; preposterous little imp.

As he comes closer to me, his form brightens and becomes opaque, his features acquire an additional level of detail. The stack of empty bottles along the wall rattles as he passes over them. “S’not like I could do anything,” he grumbles. “Couldn’t you bloody warn me you’d be gone that long?”

“Couldn’t do anything? Then what’s this?” I point at the papers on the floor and eye him suspiciously.

He grows uneasy under my stare. “Practice! I thought I’d be able to tidy them up before you came back!”

“Don’t lie to me. How well can you move objects?” I’d like to know, before all my possessions are broken and scattered on my floor like one of my bottles this morning, purely to provide him with a bit of ‘practice’.

“I can only move small things, though even that’s not bloody likely to happen now, not with you skiving off for hours and hours.” He glares through his glasses at me and, curiously, it reminds me of Yelizaveta’s accusing glances when I don’t visit for more than a month.

Perhaps he hasn’t made as much of a mess as I’d thought. “If you were feeling weak, you could’ve followed.”

“I didn’t know the place that well,” he shrugs, “Didn’t want to lose my way back.”

How can a ghost lose his way, when he can walk through walls? “Try again,” I sneer.

“All right, I wanted to see if I could get by without having to put up with you! Happy now?”

“I see, and how did ‘getting by’ go?”

He looks away. “I’ll keep trying.”

“You do that, as long as it doesn’t involve that racket you call singing. No clutter. No more surprises. I don’t want to see or hear you till morning.”

He shoots me another murderous look and floats off.

Briefly, I wonder about the intricate detail and accuracy with which mere wisps of light and energy have re-created Potter’s face, and all its expressions. He’d be an interesting subject for study, this last ghost, if he wasn’t the ghost of the most irritating student I’ve ever had the displeasure to teach. Perhaps I should take Yelizaveta’s advice regarding unwelcome guests. If I had any silver, it would have been locked up long ago, but the only valuables I have now are my books. I can hardly picture the whelp trying to carry my entire library out the door, even out of spite.

I fall asleep with a ridiculous image of Potter trying to balance a stack of heavy volumes in his arms. He fails to concentrate and the books tumble through him one by one. Clatter. Thump. Plop. I must’ve drunk too much at Yelizaveta’s: the mental image shouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as it is.

*

The kitchen’s too bloody dark, just like the rest of this place. Mine for the night, is it? How generous. Did he really think I’d stay there just because he said so? Bollocks to that! Does he expect I’ll jump through hoops for him like a bloody dog? No, I don’t reckon he thinks of me as a pet, ‘cause people like their pets. And he doesn’t like anything or anyone.

No, I’m like a bottle to him. No noise, no accidents, no trouble at all, just like one of his empty bottles. Fit only to glare at, stick in the corner, and forget. And why not? He’s been doing that to me as long as I’ve known him.

It’s freezing! Well, it’s not anything Snape or anyone else’d notice, but that’s how it feels to me. It’s always chilly if I’m more than arms’ length away from him, and even then it’s only lukewarm. Unless he’s being a right bastard, and then it doesn’t matter how close I force myself to get to him, it’s really bloody cold!

Oh, sod it! Walls or no walls, I’m going closer. Maybe if I go invisible he won’t notice me. If I hide behind the chair. Or the bookcase. Is he asleep yet? He’s not moving.

Yeah… I think he’s asleep.

Funny, though, I don’t remember him looking so normal before. He’s not even frowning. Just an average bloke. Tired. The hatchet-faced bastard turned into a weary old bloke after all. Maybe with a century to catch up on lost sleep, he’ll be more like Dumbledore.

Ha! I wish.

Then I wouldn’t have to crouch here on the floor waiting for his breathing to calm down and deepen. Waiting till I’m sure he’s too deep asleep to notice me, huddling closer to the warmth I absolutely need to survive. Bloody stubborn git!

It’s not like I’m going to stay here long, just till I’m strong enough. It’s not my fault I’ve got to be near him all the time. He’s the one making it difficult, not me!

It’ll just be a minute. Don’t you wake up, y’greasy git. Sleep.

*

Potter isn’t hovering uselessly at my side as I brush the patch of spilled salt (surely his doing) off the table. He isn’t lurking in the cramped bathroom, just waiting for me to walk in. He isn’t pacing aimlessly next to my bookshelves or counting my books. As I sit down in the creaky armchair, inhaling its musty leather scent, I glance at the nearby window just in case. No, Potter isn’t at the window either.

Perhaps he’s gone for good. Ha! What an empty hope that is. Chances are, he’ll stick his prying nose through the nearest wall any minute now, and carry on with his irritating act as if nothing’s happened.

I feel prickly, uncomfortable, almost as if there’s an itch on the back of my neck that I can’t quite reach. I stay seated, forcing myself to continue flipping through the scientific paper that arrived in the post yesterday. The writing is already speckled with my red ink, and there’ll be more corrections before I’m through with it. It shouldn’t take more than a day to verify the citations, and then I can send it back.

The uncomfortable feeling grows stronger throughout the day and, it seems, lingers in the very darkness settled in the corners of my room. I set the corrected paper aside and pick out a thin volume from the lower shelf. Reading isn’t a guaranteed cure for paranoia, but it should be enough. I’m not yet so deranged as to think that the walls are watching my every step or conspiring behind my back.

The room grows darker. I light another candle and pull the curtains shut. Afterwards I settle back into the chair, and try to see if a book can distract me from my troubles. I read Evgeny Onegin in silence, flipping the pages through human lives, wants, and duels, through the senseless death of another young idiot written in flawlessly structured verse.

I’m not even past page nineteen when the sensation intensifies. It’s nothing definite yet, just something unpleasant in the back of my mind, like a hissing whisper I can’t fully understand or a stranger staring over my shoulder.

I’m not alone, am I? I’m also not that paranoid. Not just yet.

I don’t permit myself the weakness of a single glance over my shoulder. Instead, I merely drawl in my most bored voice, “Stop sneaking about like a rat and show yourself.”

“M’not sneaking!” He materialises behind me and gives the book on my lap a questioning glance. “What’s that about?”

Infuriating as always! He has no respect for privacy whatsoever, but at least that nagging sensation of being watched has gone. I stare sightlessly at the text, trying to put the entire work in terms that a nitwit like Potter would comprehend. “A waste of a mind, and of a life.” Why do I bother?

“Oh.” He leans over my shoulder and squints at the letters trying to make sense of each one. “Oh-n? Co-something. Bo-da?” It’s embarrassing, like watching a house elf trying to decipher ancient runes.

“Oni soshlis’, voda i plamen’, stihi i proza, lyod i kamen’,” I finally quote, just to prevent him from mangling the lines beyond repair. Igor did teach me something, after all.

I take my hand off the page on the right, revealing the English translation. So verse and prose they came together…

“Ooh, wicked!” He grins approvingly at me, as if I’m a brat who finally managed to recite my first spell and he’s my Professor. “S’poetry, then, right? I knew it!”

I give him a sour look. “Go on, then,” I grumble, “I’m sure you’re just dying to ask some more senseless questions. Get it out of your system.”

“Maybe I will,” he bites his lip and keeps on staring. “Where’d you get your scar?”

That was unexpected. Why does he always have to pry into things that don’t concern him?

“M’not trying to piss you off. I’d just like to know.” He shuffles one foot in front of the other and looks down.

So be it. He’ll regret ever asking. “Apparation wound.”

He blinks in disbelief: the Earth is round?! But… innit flat? “Y’ mean you splinched?”

‘Splinched’ is such an odd word for a microsecond temporal slice through tissues caused by the tremendous effort of a body struggling to remain intact when the Apparation process unexpectedly halts. ‘Splinched’ doesn’t cover the half of it, but it’s not a completely incorrect term. “Essentially, yes.”

Potter glances at my chest; disbelief and embarrassment flicker in his eyes. I should’ve let him think I was run over by a lorry, the brat wouldn’t have known better. Now he probably thinks I couldn’t handle a task so simple that even he performed it correctly on his first try.

“Never seen one that bad before,” he finally says.

What did we teach the dunderheads at Hogwarts? Oh, my mistake, we didn’t. We just patted them on the head and let them loose into the world with their shiny new Apparation licenses and the wind blowing between their ears. “They don’t get ‘that bad’, Potter. With proper treatment, they disappear completely in less than a day.”

“Yours didn’t.”

“There were complications.” Yes, the complete lack of said proper treatment, and my own rotten luck. “The scar tissue has spread over the years.”

“S’not so bad. Just a scar, you can’t even see it most of the time.” He tosses his head and his fringe flicks up; for a moment his own scar flashes, almost as briefly as the lightning it resembles.

He, of all people, is trying to protect my delicate feelings from being hurt! I can hardly believe the farce my life has become. “Appearance is the last thing on my mind.” It was the chest pain and the blood I was coughing up for weeks afterwards that had me the most concerned, but that’s nothing Potter needs to know about.

He frowns in a feeble attempt to put two and two together. “Apparation involves the whole body. That scar isn’t just on your skin, is it?” He looks up and waits for confirmation.

“Congratulations,” I sneer. “You’ve successfully managed to remember something from your sixth year.”

“But I thought wounds like that were fatal!”

He actually looks worried. On my behalf! But it’s nothing he should lose any of his non-existent sleep over. “Then I’ve been doomed for a long time.”

“M’not joking! Have you tried to find help?”

Stubborn wretch. Help? Of course. The only thing likely to be of any real ‘help’ was mixed and bottled by my own hands, placed on my Potions shelves at Hogwarts, which is as good as no help at all by now. Does the little sod think I can still wave my wand and make all my troubles disappear? My life was never so simple, even when I had magic.

“I’ve had the scar for years and, as I’m sure even you’ve noticed, I’m still alive.” It’s much more than Potter can say for himself.

He ignores my scowl, as usual, and flops down on the floor next to a burning candle. “Does it hurt?”

His concerned little Gryffindor routine is getting on my nerves. What does he care about my aches and pains? And, more importantly, when did he become comfortable enough with me to ask such a question? “Not enough to irritate me.” I emphasise with an arched eyebrow, in hope that the hint is not overlooked.

Some hope; my hint is left unnoticed in the dust as Potter joyfully skips ahead to yet another senseless question. “When’d you get it?”

He is rather thick at times, the meddlesome fool. Yet again I’m forced to lower my expectations of his common sense. If this continues, I’ll end up burying them in an unmarked grave for good measure and be done with it. “You might call it a souvenir I received in Diagon Alley. It was slightly after your time: by my calculations, less than an hour after.” I deliver the final blow with a flourish. It’s no more than he deserves. One point to the suffering owner of common sense; aggravating ghost: nil.

Just as I thought, Potter doesn’t bother me with any more questions after that.

*

“Have you at least got a conscience?”

I crack open my crusted eyes and blink blearily upwards. Instead of the dark, peeling ceiling I’d expected, I see Potter: hovering over me, his arms crossed and his head tilted in an inquiring look.

“You know. Like a voice, inside of you, that says something’s got to be done ‘cause it’s the right thing to do. Even an utter bastard like — even you must have one.”

Of all the ridiculous arguments I’ve ever heard, this has to be the most inane. ‘The right thing?’ Blasted Gryffindor ‘logic’! “The only ‘voice inside of me’ has been asking me for years to rid the world of idiots, and enjoy the rest of my existence on the resulting empty planet. Care to assist me with that?”

“Sure,” he grins, “But only if you help me first.”

“It wasn’t an offer, you nitwit!” I glare, “There are no voices!”

“Well, there are now I’m here,” he declares, as that blasted grin actually widens.

“Oh joy!”

He snorts amusement at my sarcasm, but then his expression abruptly sobers. “I… I s’pose I can see why you wouldn’t want to help me.” His shoulders sag, defeated. “It’s ‘cause it’s all my fault to begin with, innit?”

Presumptuous child. What do I care about his woes? “I appreciate you’ve set this special time aside to confess your former sins, but frankly I’d rather sleep…” I throw him a suspicious glare and sit up. “Wait a minute, what do you mean, it’s your fault?”

“I… I didn’t mean to!” he wails. “I thought I was saving the world; I didn’t mean to destroy it! I didn’t even want to fight him, but I had to and I told myself it’d be worth it and then our wands just blew up and — dammit, Snape — I thought I killed everyone!” He’s incandescent with anguish in that moment: as terrible as lethal combat, as bright as curselight. “‘Till I saw you, and you’ll never know what a sight for sore eyes you were… how wonderful it was, to see just one of us, still alive…” He extends his hand, as if to poke me, but his fingers sink right into my chest with an icy tingle. I draw breath to put a stop to his invasion of my personal space — of my very person — but he’s already pulled back. Pleading and defiance clash oddly in his glare. “Don’t you see? Now I can still make it all better, ‘cause even if you are a git, at least I’m not alone any more.”

I take a deep breath. Stubborn wretch, why does he have to make it so difficult for me to ignore him? “Stop giving yourself so much credit. You certainly didn’t destroy the world — I’m not even sure you’re to blame for destroying its magic — but I assure you, the world has gone on turning without you. It doesn’t need your help any more than I do.”

“Oh.” He blinks and a slow smile stretches his lips. “Right. Um. Thank you!”

“Why on earth are you thanking me?”

“For saying it’s not my fault.” He beams. “Actually, you’re the first one to say anything to me — till today, I didn’t even dare hope there was someone alive out there.”

“Why would you even think that?”

“Why? Why?” He waves his arms. “I looked everywhere, all over Hogwarts, and all I ever found was dust’n’cobwebs. And most of the time I couldn’t even go to some parts of the castle just ‘cause it was the wrong time of the bloody day! I mean, what kind of idiot sets up ghost wards on an eight-to-five schedule!”

I cough to cover up something; not a chuckle. Though I’m surprised that the wards, along with the castle, survived through the blast, Hogwarts still doesn’t matter any more. It might as well be on the moon. “One of those ‘idiots’ would be me.”

“You? I can see why the girls’ bathrooms need it — and maybe the dorms — but the classrooms?”

“We were concerned about ghosts interrupting lectures.”

“Right,” he scowls. “And the library?”

“Madam Pince wanted absolute silence during opening hours.”

“Uh-huh. And the Great Hall during full moon nights?”

“A rather spirited group of ghosts tried to organise an orgy to celebrate the full moon. The Headmaster thought such a spectacle would be unsuitable for impressionable young eyes.”

“Whoa, wicked! Hadn’t thought of it.”

“Kindly do not!” The last thing I need is a ghost like him getting more ideas to bother the world.

*

In the morning he stands at my kitchen table — right in the middle of it — bending over a half-empty bottle of whiskey and a stack of letters, sniffing around, like an exuberant pup allowed inside on account of bad weather, only soon to be tossed out again for bad behaviour and mud on his paws.

“Prince?” Apparently he hasn’t forgotten how to read, wonder of wonders. “Is that what they call you now?” He looks up. His owlish glasses sit crooked on his nose, translucent as the rest of him.

I suppose it’s too late to ignore him in the hope that he’ll grow bored and find another poor sod to bother. “Sometimes.”

“Professor Prince… Yuck.” He scowls. “Snape suits you better. Why’d you change it?”

Too many people in this world, former students or foes, still remember ‘Snape’: people I hope never to hear from again. The Prince, however, is not so infamous. “It’s my mother’s maiden name.”

“Oh,” he nods. “It’s… er, noble.”

Before I can sneer a suitable comeback he squints at the top envelope. “What day is it?”

“Wednesday.”

He rubs his forehead. “And year?”

I tell him the date. His eyes widen and he glances out the window as if I’d said a snowstorm is expected today.

“Yes, it’s still 2005 outside.”

“Bloody hell!” He pokes his head through the window, then through the wall dividing my flat from the neighbours’, and surfaces with a wince. “So y’weren’t joking about that ‘seven years’ thing. I s’pose you really are planning to live the rest of your life as a Muggle, after all.”

I snort. “Well, of course I’m not planning to!” I’m already doing it, you naïve fool; I’ve been doing it for years.

Said fool’s face lights up like a bloody Christmas tree. “You’re not? Really?”

It’s high time he stopped living in a fairytale. “Our homes are gone. Our wands are kindling. We are Muggles scraping by in a Muggle world. What else would you suggest I do but live my Muggle life?”

“You can always leave!”

Where else would I go? “So can you,” I hiss. “In fact, why don’t you?”

He glares, ready to lunge, but then simply shakes his head. “It doesn’t work that way, or if it does, I don’t know how. I never haunted anyone before.”

Just perfect! I’m being haunted by an amateur. “Then, unless you figure things out soon, this coexistence of ours will be painful.”

He drops his head. “I’m trying! Believe me, you’re the last person in the world I want to haunt.”

That truthful confession has more effect on me than any of his Gryffindor ‘logic’. With a weary sigh, I admit, “The feeling’s mutual.”

“So what now?” he murmurs.

What indeed? “Do you even have anywhere else to go?”

He shakes his head with such resignation; it might even be true.

I suppose he could be telling me the unvarnished truth, for once. Ghosts can’t move too far from the place they haunt and, logically, it would be the same if they’re haunting a person. Not that logic’s any help, since logic suggests I’m stuck with him, for the time being at least.

“Lovely, a ghost of my very own,” I toss over my shoulder as I walk out of the kitchen. It’s the closest thing to a welcome he should expect from me.

He splutters in surprise and drifts after me into the bedroom. He circles round until he’s hovering right before me, pierced by narrow beams of sunlight from a gap in the curtains. Only once we’re face to face, does he announce boldly, “I don’t belong to you.”

I smirk at that. Whatever he might claim, without me he is nothing, and he knows it. It’s pleasant to be in charge once more. “And so, you contradict yourself yet again.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I give him a slow, malicious smile. This is how it’s done, little amateur, watch and learn. “Only that you’re too quick to declare your independence when you’re an overgrown will-of-the-wisp, forced into following me about like an unwanted cur.”

For the moment, he appears to be out of cheeky retorts.

“I do hope you’re house trained,” I add, just to see him wince.

It could’ve been worse. At least I don’t have to worry about breakages from the sheer overabundance of his awkward fluttering about. With Potter’s clumsiness, an insubstantial, accident-proof body is a real improvement. Improvement? Ha! I never expected to be bothered again, either by the vagaries of ghosts or by the impossibility of improving Potter. How absurd!

*

So, verse and prose, they came together.
No ice and flame, no stormy weather
And granite, were so far apart…

I find even Onegin doesn’t distract me from my troubles any longer.

“Oi, Snape. Why’d you keep all those newspapers?” What is the brat blathering about? He points at the stack of old, yellowing newsprint in the corner.

Why should I explain myself to him? I pointedly ignore him as I stand up and put Onegin back in its place on the shelf.

He frowns in concentration, and with a subtle rustle, the top sheet lifts up and floats down onto the floor. The brat doesn’t give up, does he?

“May 1998,” he declares, as if the date is in any way significant. “And another one from May.” He concentrates, and more newspapers fly off the stack, spreading dust and the acrid scents of cheap paper and ink.

“Stop that at once!” I will not allow him to cause any more mess.

“Look, even the Daily Prophet.” He looks particularly pleased with that discovery. The paper twists and turns, caught in a non-existent whirlwind. “What d’you know: Gringotts in ruins and my photo on the cover. Was it the final edition? I’m curious, where were you that day?” he asks in loudly accusing tones, “Did you find a hidey-hole to cower in as soon as your Mark stopped itching?”

He can malign me until the righteous fury starts fizzing out of his nostrils like steam, I don’t give a damn. Potter, however, could use a fast introduction to some cold, hard facts. “Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to Diagon Alley? I was there, and there was no hole left to Apparate into. Witches and wizards exhausted themselves trying to restore some semblance of order, but they couldn’t recover from the resulting magical fatigue. Buildings whose foundations were upheld by magic had collapsed, and the Floo network had shut down. I survived, and if that’s cowardly by your standards, I couldn’t possibly care less.”

All is quiet. Then the papers rustle once more, caught by the draught. “Oh, bravo!” Potter golf-claps three times. “Did you keep the Prophet as a souvenir? Bet it’ll be worth a fortune someday.”

“Perhaps it will.”

More papers fly up in the air and circle my room, rapidly filling it with whispering rustles. It’s like standing in the middle of a whirlwind, only the air stirred by the floating papers isn’t strong enough to carry them this far. Potter eyes the room littered with Muggle tabloids and other more reliable sources of information. Then he moves closer; his feet sink into the papers or step through them. There’s a dangerous glint in his eyes. It strikes me how much he looks like his father used to look, just before he did something especially vicious and cruel.

“You’ve kept them just for that then? No other reason at all?” He sneers at me, maliciously, in a way I’ve often seen in the mirror. “A dirty big stack of papers, and all of ‘em from ‘98. Coincidence? Bollocks it is!”

Even his father never smiled so deliberately, just gloated in his make-believe superiority. I square my shoulders and glare back at him.

“You’ll help me, Snape. Y’know why? You want magic back as much as I do. You’re just too much of a coward to do anything about it besides collecting old rags!”

“Don’t call me COWARD!” I roar amid a sudden rushing whirlwind of newspapers.

The wind fades, and the sheets of newsprint flutter to the floor. “I was right then,” Potter declares softly, with a look of intense satisfaction on his face. My floor is covered in crumpled, torn paper. Silence hangs in the dusty air, piercing and harsh, filled with paper cuts and stirred up memories.

One point to the persistent prat for being too observant for his own good, not to mention mine. “Don’t count on too much effort on my part.” And that is all the acknowledgement he is going to get. “Clean up my floor!”

He snorts. “I’ll clean up your newspapers if you’ll clean up your sodding whiskey bottles. How much do you drink nowadays?”

Perceptive little bugger. “Is this your Golden Gryffindor Good Deed for the week? Or do you always strive to help the needy in such a manner?” I will not allow anything he says to affect me. It doesn’t. It won’t. The brat must’ve drawn one too many erroneous conclusions. I can handle my liquor. And what the hell do I care about what he thinks of me?

“I’m surprised you haven’t gone up in flames from one of your candles yet. Can’t be good for you,” he mutters.

Ah, then I shall comply at once: Saint Potter, my eternal gratitude goes to you for fixing my life with your off-handed remark. I should relieve him of his annoying little fantasy that the world revolves around him, but it’s not worth the effort. It’s time to get rid of him once and for all.

“Very well. I’ll take you to see one survivor, and that’s it. After that, you will stop pestering me altogether. You can haunt someone else or go back to where you came from; I don’t care one way or the other.”

He didn’t expect an easy victory, did he? Surprised, he looks up, “And the bottles?”

I growl, “Don’t push your luck.”

“It’s a deal then,” he shrugs. “Take me to see someone and I’ll leave you alone.”

I hide a triumphant smirk. I can’t shake his hand or hold him to an oath, but this will have to do. My luck is finally changing for the better.

*

When I walk back in from the kitchen, the newspapers are swept into an uneven pile in the corner. He’s huddled next to the radiator, head down in apparent exhaustion. His translucent form flickers like a candle on a windy day. It doesn’t look as though he’s up to doing much more.

“That’s enough.” It’s not that I’m taking pity on him. I simply doubt I can expect any more from a ghost. If numerous detentions couldn’t hone his cleaning skills back when he was a student, it’s a lost cause by now.

“Bossy git,” he gives me a defiant look before collapsing next to the newspapers. He glances at the old headlines and snorts. “Did the Muggles really think you were immigrants?”

That’s nowhere near the strangest rumour the gossip rags ran that summer: banner headlines were screaming about everything from cloning experiments to alien conspiracies. “Muggles believe whatever their government tells them.”

His eyes widen. “So their government knew?”

“Indeed; they did their best to make sure we were properly disarmed and compliant, before tossing us out onto the street.”

“Why didn’t you fight back? All of you, together!” he sputters indignantly.

Always fighting something; how predictable. If he wasn’t already dead by then, his attitude would have changed that in a day. “You didn’t live to see that summer. We were homeless, powerless, unable to pass back through the wards. To survive, everyone had to fend for himself.”

He frowns, quiet and still. Didn’t expect that, did you, Potter?

“The government officials offered us food and shelter, in exchange for confiscating our surviving magical artefacts and putting us into a ‘rehabilitation program’. There was no other choice.”

“Why’d the Muggles take wands and things? S’not like they could use ’em,” he frowns with all the persistence of a child demanding his favourite toy.

I let out a weary sigh. “No. But that way, they could ensure we wouldn’t.”

He’s silent, no doubt contemplating the reality of ‘unfairness’ on such a mass scale for the first time in his life. It’s taken him long enough to notice the ways of the world. Finally he glances at my bed in the corner, at the rumpled blanket and the thin pillow that I know is hiding a twelve-inch stick of birch wood.

“You kept your wand.”

He noticed. If only he’d paid this much attention to his Occlumency lessons, things might’ve turned out differently.

“I had a choice that the others didn’t.”

He raises an inquiring eyebrow. “What choice?”

“That’s none of your concern.” At last, the brat’s beginning to recognise when to stop his irritating inquiries. Good. Tomorrow I’ll do as he asks, and maybe then he’ll leave me in peace. I suppose it wouldn’t kill me to tolerate his presence until then.

*

It’s so dark. I smell mud and mould. Where’s my wand? For the last seven years I’ve muttered incantations while I clutched that useless bit of birch, and now — when magic’s crackling and swirling inside me again, eager to be used — the bloody wand’s not on me.

Something creaks in the distance: I know it’s at one end of the narrow tunnel I’m crouching in. Now I can hear a impatient scraping noise, like a dog pawing at a door. I know this place. This won’t end well. It never does.

The creaking intensifies. Perhaps I can still escape, if I run hard enough. Or perhaps if I stay right here and wait for the beast, it will all end faster.

Blindly I stumble into the moss-covered walls; hanging roots scratch at my face. A clammy breeze breathes chill against my neck. My heart hammers so loudly it echoes in my ears. I hold my breath, trying to be quiet. Hah! As if it couldn’t smell my fear. As if there’s anywhere I could hide in here. The creaking rises to a crunch of splintering wood, and then there’s the fast, quiet drumbeat of running paws. Too late, the hunt has begun. The beast is out. It can move so much faster than I could ever run through this low tunnel.

But I run anyway; terror has me, as surely as the beast will have me, and I can’t help myself. I trip over a rock and nearly fall; I just manage to catch myself and stumble onward, panting, desperate, faster, faster! It’s catching up to me; if I turn round I know I’ll see its eyes glowing yellow. There’s a hungry, predatory growl. If only I had my wand! I turn a corner — yes, the mouth of the tunnel is there, a circle of sweet light — but the beast is close, too close; I feel a gust of air against my back. Someone help! Let it end quickly.

The light ahead of me moves, changes shape, and suddenly I’m no longer alone.

“Potter!”

His ghostly form shines much brighter than I’ve ever seen; pale tendrils of energy unfurl around his head like an aura. It’s hard to tell where his messy hair ends and those fine threads begin. “Take my hand.” He stretches his arm out at chest level, offering his hand to me, palm up. His voice is calm and confident; and without even willing it, I reach for him.

take my hand

I expect my fingers to slide through him, as always happens with ghosts, but the hand I touch is solid. It doesn’t feel warm and supple like human skin, but like putting my hand against a ward: sparking with stray energy, strong but very slightly yielding as his magic reacts to mine. His fingers wrap firmly around my wrist, and a sharp tingling spills through me at the contact. My arm jerks involuntarily. He gives a small, tense smile, and nods, satisfied. “Close your eyes.”

With the sound of the monster’s running feet behind me and the feel of Potter’s grip firm on me, I comply. A ferocious snarl, right at my back, hits me with fetid breath and terror. HELP ME!

Silence. Even Potter’s hand in mine fades into nothing.

*

What just happened?

I was braced for agony: claws and fangs tearing into my flesh, merciless jaws crushing my bones. My throat was tensed to scream, desperate and choking on my own blood; and then I expected to wake up in my bed, safe and sound (and sweating and shaking). I thought my nightmare would be over.

But instead of devouring torment, I feel nothing. Instead of blood and sweat and beast, I smell chalk dust and ink. Instead of my own dying cries and the growls of the beast as it eats me alive, I hear the soft, familiar scratch of a quill against parchment. With an effort, I force my eyelids open.

My hand drifts down to rest on the smooth surface of my Potions worktable, next to a porcelain cup full of crushed wormwood. A bag beside that reeks of asphodel. The walls are lined with shelves full of bottles and bags of dried and dead things: snake skin and tarragon, bergamot and absinthe, all flawlessly arranged in their proper places. Everything is as it should be, except for one thing.

I am still panting, shaken by my race with the werewolf. The beast is familiar, but this dream is brand new. For that reason alone, I should probably be more worried than I am.

A single student sits where a crammed classroom terrified into silence should have been. He looks calm and orderly enough, but he doesn’t quite suit his surroundings, like the stuffed vulture on the top shelf that I’ve wanted to get rid of for years. He’s making entirely too much noise for one person, with his sighing, the scratching of his owl quill, and the way he shifts back and forth on his chair. All those unpredictable little sounds are a bother.

But not nearly as much of a bother as he is.

He’s neither a ghost nor a firstie with awful spectacles and a penchant for trouble. His robes have texture and colour, his red and gold tie are bright once more. He looks just as he did before the final battle, hidden away from the Dark Lord’s eyes in ‘temporary headquarters’. Eleven or seventeen makes no difference to me, I tell myself; he’s the same arrogant nitwit who trailed after the Order members like that attention-starved cur Black, demanding to know where he was and why the Headmaster felt the need to hide information from him. As if a direct dream-link to Voldemort wasn’t a good enough reason for a thousand Obliviates.

His quill-point scrapes dryly against the parchment. Something isn’t right, but I can’t decide what it is. I’m not supposed to be here and neither is he.

The scratching stops. Potter looks up, curious as ever. “Sir, what’s next?”

“Silence!” Impudent brat! No student should dare to interrupt my lectures. Twenty points from Gryffindor ought to teach him. I’d better make it thirty, for prying into things he shouldn’t meddle in.

“Fine! If you’re gonna to be like that, next time I’ll leave you in your bloody tunnel!” He rises to his feet. “I pulled you out of a nightmare, the least you can do is show some gratitude!”

So it is Potter after all. The brat who invaded my flat can also wander in and out of my nightmares any time he pleases. He’s just full of surprises.

“What is this place?” I look around once more, just to make sure that Potter wasn’t annoyed enough to let the beast in to resume its interrupted meal.

“Hogwarts, of course,” Potter replies with all the wide-eyed earnestness of Miss Lovegood explaining nargles to my first-years. “Welcome back.”

I remind myself that I only have to endure his presence until tomorrow. It won’t hurt to explore, while I’m here. I dip my finger into a soft leather bag filled with brown powder, rub the fine grains between my fingers, and sniff cautiously. Sure enough, it feels just like cinnamon and certainly smells like it, but logic tells me that my senses are being fooled in a most intricate way. “This isn’t real.”

“Real enough,” Potter grins. “I made it.”

Most cautiously, I sniff the powder again: once, twice. The scent turns to chocolate, then coffee. I glance at my fingertips; instead of cinnamon they’re coated now in finely-ground coffee beans. “You ‘made’ this?” I throw him an openly surprised look.

He must’ve noticed my fascination because his grin turns quite smug. “I made all of it. Do you like it?” He spreads his arms and turns slowly, pointing here and there, very much like a young artist who’s spent the last seven years of his life painting a chapel and only now has a chance to show off his handiwork.

The level of detail is astonishing, for a dream. “Quite accurate,” I have to give him that. Everything in this room is impeccable: not just its appearance, but the sounds, the scents, the cool and damp in the air. If I didn’t know better, I could swear I was back at Hogwarts again. In fact, it seems so real that I have to restrain myself from looking for a narrow phial with an inconspicuous label on the third rack from the door, fifth shelf down: the phial whose contents would rid me of my scar. This isn’t real, I remind myself; it’s just mind games, and I’m capable of dealing with those.

He smiles as if those two simple words of mine are the highest praise. “I had plenty of time.”

“Can you create anything?” I tear my gaze away from the marvellous illusions around us, and watch him pace aimlessly.

“Anything I remember well enough.” His voice rings through the silent room and echoes faintly off the ceiling.

He claps his hands, and the surroundings come to life. They vibrate, flicker, and finally turn into the dungeon stairway, then the infirmary; the infirmary’s pristine walls shift into the murky entrance to the headmaster’s office, and then everything changes back to my classroom. “You haven’t seen half of it yet,” he declares; he seems a bit tired now, but he’s still just as proud.

I’m a bit light-headed myself from the kaleidoscope-sudden changes of surroundings. I steady myself against the table, and look with an almost paranoid wariness at all the jars, bags, and bundles of dried plants scattered across its surface. What else could they turn into? The small leather bag starts smelling of cinnamon again.

Cheeky brat. “Any similarity between this and my classroom must be a mere coincidence. I don’t recall you ever paying much attention in my presence.”

He throws me a stubborn glance with his lips pressed together in a thin line and his chin sticking out: quite the rebellious young fool. “I did, actually. If I wrote things down it helped me remember.”

Oh, really? As if those were actually Potions notes he’d scribbled on his parchment during my classes. “A likely story.”

“Knew you wouldn’t believe me.” He shrugs and alters the surroundings once again. I recognise this new place as the stone steps leading up to one of the many Hogwarts doors, the kind that serve as an exit but never as an entrance. I open the door and look out at a broad sky ablaze in a glorious sunset. The air smells of moss and fog, and has the crisp freshness of wide-open spaces. A faint breeze carries the scent of heather from the hills. It’s warm enough to be late spring or early summer. The bright orange sun hangs low above the forest and paints the ancient stone towers behind us in gold and pink.

Young blades of grass poke through the cracks here and there in the greying stone. The spread wings of the twin gargoyle statues cast long purple shadows across the heavy wooden door.

I settle down on a plinth where a stone gargoyle rests. I lean back against its rigid, sun-warmed claws and chest, tilt my face up, and just breathe: slow, deep lungfuls of that fresh, lukewarm air, such a pleasant change from the London smog. It’s been a long day, and there’s something about this place that’s welcoming; it feels like the sort of escape from humdrum routine that I haven’t had in years. Besides, it’s my dream; I have a right to sit down if I wish.

“Nice, innit? I used to hide here a lot.”

I smirk at that. What troubles would a ghost have to escape from anyway?

Potter skips down over a couple of high steps, long-limbed and awkward, then changes his mind halfway through and claims the vacant gargoyle next to mine. He climbs its ridged spine as if climbing the branches of a tree, and settles down right between its wings, before giving me an inquiring look. It implies a question: How’d I do? I pretend not to notice his childish act. He hasn’t done too badly, especially if he’s doing an impression of a knight-wannabe toddler who finally managed to tame his first mount, a rocking thestral. Mind you, if he’d faced the right direction, he’d appear a bit more of a rational toddler. Alas, it’s too much to expect from him.

He looks to the west, shielding his glasses from direct sunlight with the back of his hand. He starts to murmur, low and imprecise. He doesn’t seem to care if I’m listening to him; for all I can tell, he might be addressing the statues or the sun.

“Things happened at Hogwarts. Always changing so fast, never for the better.” I catch him saying. “This is… as I remember it. As I want to remember it. But the real Hogwarts…” He shakes his head slightly, and smiles the sort of smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “The house elves disappeared, and Peeves was a menace without the Bloody Baron around to keep him in line. He threatened to raze the whole castle to the ground all by himself.”

He chuckles at his own words and glances over. When I don’t respond his shoulders droop. “I s’pose you just had to be there.”

He continues, in a desperate and ragged tone, as if he’s a firstie, fighting back tears of homesickness. “It just kept getting worse, never better. I couldn’t get onto the Quidditch pitch, not even to the sheds, and Merlin only knows what shape the brooms’re in. I couldn’t even read, ‘cause the library was warded and the Gryffindor commons were overrun with moths and I couldn’t even shoo ‘em off and the spiders spun webs across the corridors and I couldn’t get rid of a single cobweb I was so bloody helpless!”

I let him rant. Perhaps he’s just content to have another listener besides the gargoyles. When he runs out of steam, I simply let the silence stand, a mute yet eloquent commentary on his outburst.

He looks down at me from his perch, and his face slowly acquires a hint of colour about the cheeks, as his gaze slips away from mine. When he continues, his voice is quiet and pensive once more.

“Some things stayed. The Squid’s still in the lake, nothing kills that thing. And all the owls — they left the Owlery for some reason — they were roosting everywhere.” He blinks and looks at me forlornly, more at sea now than he ever was, even when he arrived at Hogwarts for the first time. In a very small voice he concludes, “Mine was never with them.”

What? Well, I am not his bloody owl’s keeper. The brat seems to have lost whatever marbles he had left. Was he alone all those years with only moths and spiders and owls for company? I imagine that’d be enough to turn even a rational being into a lunatic. Someone like Potter never stood a chance.

The lunatic in question seems to be waiting for an answer to some unspoken inquiry. I clear my throat. “Was anyone else at Hogwarts with you? Other ghosts?”

“Nobody.” He shakes his head. “Just Peeves and the portraits, but they hated me as much as they hated Peeves.”

That explains it perhaps. The brat was alone for years. Who knows what that did to him?

“I reckon there were others,” he says suddenly. “The mandrakes. Peeves said they lost their voices after … well, you know. And it must’ve been a relief, really. Anyway, he said they had their own little village made out of gardening pots in Greenhouse Three and used these odd little signs to tell each other off. I couldn’t even get past the greenhouses’ wards to see if he was talking a load of shite. But then one day as I was trying to look through all the smudges and stuff on the glass, I could see Devil’s Snare spreading inside. So that was it, no more mandrakes. The Devil’s Snare would’ve overgrown them. And I couldn’t even see if they were real before they were all killed.”

His grasp of reality seems shaky at best. After this little show of his, I wonder if Potter is madder than I thought. All ghosts are insane in some way; but then, so are people. We all have our little fixations, and this might just be his. It doesn’t matter. He and his mental quirks will be leaving tomorrow.

I settle down and get as comfortable as I can with the gargoyle’s paw digging into my back.

The sun sinks slowly toward the horizon, casting reddish highlights on purple and yellow clouds. It occurs to me that in this dream world of his Potter is probably controlling the sun. I find the thought ironic.

Potter runs out of things to tell me, and subsides to simply lie stretched over the gargoyle spine. His gaze is distant, fixated on nothing visible: probably a mental image of a mandrake civilisation arising like Fawkes from Hogwarts’ ashes. Just as I think that he’s not paying attention to me at all, he gives me a mutely eloquent look and nods toward the setting sun. And so, together we watch the make believe sunset on the make believe steps of a make believe castle.

It’s an oddly peaceful dream.

“G’night,” he murmurs when the last rays of the sun fade away, and as darkness falls I sleep, deep and free of further visions.

***

 

Dryg moi dorogoj (Rus.) — my dear friend
Po-rysski, vnychek, po-rysski (Rus.) — In Russian, grandson, in Russian! (Olga’s ‘s’s sound like ‘sh’s).
Dobryi vecher (Rus.) — good evening
Gosti (Rus.) — guests.
Sudya po litcy, synok, eto libo pohorony libo grabezh, libo gosti naehali (Rus.) — Judging by your face, son, it’s a funeral, or a mugging, or some guests showing up.
Chaiy? (Rus.) — Tea?
Na zdorovie (Rus.) — Cheers (To your health).

The H. Prince pseudonym is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

So, verse and prose, they came together.
No ice and flame, no stormy weather
And granite, were so far apart.
At first, disparity of heart
Rendered them tedious to each other;
Then liking grew…

   — Pushkin, Evgeny Onegin