“You know there’s a portrait of you in the Headmistress’s office?”
Severus paused in reaching out for the salt. Then he pulled his hand back and regarded Harry. Harry didn’t return the gaze. He had a book on Transfiguration theory propped up in front of him, leaning on the edge of the table, and was eating his potatoes while gazing raptly at the book.
Their acquaintance had, by now, progressed to the point where Severus could tell when Harry was deliberately avoiding his gaze. He waited, and sure enough, Harry’s eyes darted up to see how he was taking it.
Severus inclined his head and said, “I did not know there was. The last time I was in her office, I did not see it.”
“They just hung it last week.” Harry put the book down on the table and faced Severus head-on. Severus was grateful that, no matter what his desire to study for the NEWTs that he would be taking in the next year, Harry was honest enough to give his full attention to something this important. “Because he was Headmaster of Hogwarts, and a Headmaster gets a portrait. No matter what some people may think about it.”
“Some people opposed it?” Severus could well believe that. He did not know the full career of his counterpart from this universe—Harry’s memories were not the most reliable source, and Severus would not trust the papers or anyone else here, yet—but he knew that the man’s career as a spy was checkered, to say the least. And there was the matter of his killing Albus.
Harry had explained how that had happened, via Unbreakable Vow and debts that this Severus had not been able to work free of. It had not escaped Severus that Albus had likely deserved it.
This Albus. So had the one they had left behind, but his punishment had been different, and Severus did not care to dwell on it now. He moved on to more important matters. “Why are you telling me this?”
Harry gave him the kind of impudent grin that had caused Severus to want to strangle him several times, although he didn’t have the history with him that his this-universe counterpart did, and the Potters he had known in his own universe had all been Slytherins and therefore reasonable. Some things were just natural with this Harry, Severus thought, having heard the this-universe version of Minerva mutter about the same thing.
“Which question did you want me to answer first? That some people have been opposing it—which you’d think that you could have figured out for yourself—or why I’m telling you this?”
“You don’t have a limited amount of breath,” Severus said, twirling his wand between his fingers, “yet. So you can answer both.”
Harry ducked his head, and Severus stared at him. This Harry was the most unpredictable person he had met, sometimes, even after all they had fought and forged together. He would flash back and forth between moods like a salmon leaping through water from dark into light, and Severus did not know how to take him.
“I told you because I thought you should know,” Harry murmured. “And the people who tried to ban it were the parents with kids here, and some of the students themselves. They know that he was a spy now, but they still don’t like it.”
Severus nodded once, searching for words that would make Harry look up at him. “Have you been to see him?”
Harry’s eyes did flash up at him at that, and Severus relaxed a little. He always did better in conversations with Harry when he could see the brat’s eyes.
“No,” Harry said fiercely. “I don’t—I can’t forgive him yet, and I have all the Severus Snape I need. Here, with me.”
Severus reached for his teacup and sipped from it, then put it down when he realized that a betraying tremor was running up his fingers to his shoulder. “Then I suppose I had better go and see him,” he said, and stood.
Harry watched him all the way out of the Great Hall, nearly deserted at this hour in summer, but made no attempt to stop or accompany him. And that, Severus thought, his shoulders straightening once he was out in the corridor, was the way it should be. There were things one had to do by oneself.
They were both good at knowing which things those were for the other.
The door to the Headmistress’s office was unlocked, which made Severus wonder if he would have to explain, awkwardly, to Minerva what he wanted here. But when he stepped inside, he saw that she must have gone to answer an urgent firecall. The flames still had a bit of green in them, her morning’s work was spread out on her desk, but she was not there.
The portrait of his counterpart was.
It hung on the wall behind Minerva’s desk, a position that told Severus she must have been fonder of his counterpart than he had supposed. It was a position from which he could see, and comment upon, most of her writing. And of course he would comment. Severus himself would have.
“So you’re the one the brat dragged back.”
Severus felt himself go still. He wondered for a moment if it was because he had pictured himself starting this conversation, and then shook his head slightly. No, he knew it was because of the reference to Harry as a brat. He might think that way, but no one else was allowed to speak it.
“I came with him,” he said. “I would not let him go alone.”
The portrait showed his counterpart seated in a library, a high-backed black chair in front of dim and gloomy shelves. There was a single lamp on a table that looked to be made of ebony. Severus Snape, himself and not himself, was rising to his feet, laying aside a book that looked as though it was on Dark Arts. He paced to the front of the frame, and rested his hands on it as he stared.
Severus looked back, wondering what the next words would be. Portraits took a short time to awaken and recover their memories, and as the portrait was so recently hung, Severus thought that his counterpart’s mind might still be drifting through the shadows.
But the next words showed that he had recovered his memories as much as he ever would. “He was incredibly selfish in my lifetime. He was so late in discovering the right way to save the world that I died giving him my memories. You can associate with him after that? You can claim that you—protect him?” From the wobble in the portrait’s voice at the end, he didn’t know exactly what Severus’s relationship with Harry meant.
Severus leaned back against the doorway. Harry had told him the tale, now, of how he had saved his own world. “If he was late in discovering the right way to save the world, that was in part because neither you nor Albus told him. And you are not me. Your memories are not mine.”
The portrait was silent for a moment, his fingers flexing in a way that made Severus think he might hurl something, or turn his back and leave the frame. Then he shook his head and said, “What was different in your life? What made you able to escape the fate that overtook me, and probably all the other Severus Snapes in all the worlds?”
Severus snorted in spite of himself. “You are the only other one I have met. Who knows what the others managed to do?”
The portrait said nothing, and just stared at him in that devouring way that Severus knew he had once stared at Lily.
Severus sighed. “What was different was that my version of Harry Potter had a godfather who lived and raised him, and when that version came to the school where I taught, he was Sorted into Slytherin. I had to learn early on how to work with him, how to do something other than take points from him and dream of revenge on James. During those years, I came to see how little revenge truly meant to me. If James had still been alive, I might have taken some pleasure in corrupting his son or making sure that Harry Potter did not win the war alone. But the dead cannot feel the revenge you take, or know about it. And if Potter had been alive, Lily might have been as well. The thought held my hand.”
The portrait was pale. “And you never thought about revenge on Black?”
Severus smiled. “I had that each and every day, and through my own good offices, not through any Potter. I was vitally necessary to the Order of the Phoenix in that world, the second most powerful wizard they had, after Albus.”
The portrait did some more staring. Then he said, “I could not have brought myself to work with the brat.”
“I know you did not.”
This time, his counterpart bristled and stalked a few steps back and forth, before stepping as he remembered that his library was not big enough. “I said I could not have. I worked with the brat that was born here well enough.”
There, again, was that unpleasant frisson down the middle of Severus’s spine when someone else called Harry names. He countered it now with a faint smile. “So well that you died, as you said. And Albus died. And Black died.”
“I do not grieve for Black.”
Severus rolled his eyes, freely, since he was the only one here—in either form—to see. “But you should have thought of the effect it would have on Harry. If you wanted him to find the right answers and see in the right direction, the last thing he needed was the distraction of his grief.”
“How could he grieve that much for a man he knew for two years only?” demanded the portrait incredulously. “It didn’t matter one way or the other. Albus should have started training the boy earlier, I agree with that, but he also should have started living up to his responsibilities earlier. He knew from an early age that he was destined to save the world.”
Severus stared up at the portrait. He was sure that his face revealed his emotions, but that the portrait did not know what they were was clear enough from the way he shifted irritably, and finally called down, “What are you looking at me like that for?”
“You did not know,” Severus said softly. “You did not know that Harry didn’t know about magic until he came to Hogwarts.”
For some reason, he had not considered that. He should have, he could see now. Harry had dropped hints about the way that he never confided in either the Severus or the Albus of this world, and it was not as though he had told Severus the truth without prompting, either. But Severus had somehow decided that his counterpart in this world would be cunning enough to find out the truth. He might not care about it, but he would know it.
“Has he been telling you those ridiculous tales he planted in his mind when I trained him in Occlumency?” demanded the portrait in disgust. “He grew up with Tuney. She knew about magic. She would have told him.”
“Harry did not know that he was a wizard until Hagrid went to fetch him,” Severus said calmly. He was not going to tell the portrait about the Dursleys and what they had done. The portrait was malicious to Harry and might spread the stories further. But this misconception, he could correct. “Tuney was so afraid of magic that she never told him.”
The portrait narrowed his eyes. “He’s convinced you of his ridiculous lies, too, hasn’t he?”
“He is not a good Occlumens or Legilimens,” Severus said. “How could he come up with images that were good enough to fool me?”
The portrait was silent for a moment. Then he said, “He knew. He did not want to admit it, but he knew. And I never said that he had no natural aptitude. He merely did not apply it in the right way. He could have been good at Occlumency if he had put one half as much effort into it as he did into Quidditch.”
Severus gave a little shudder. The portrait saw it and smiled nastily at him. Severus had never known for sure what his sneers looked like from the outside. He was generally not in front of a mirror when he gave them. “Yes. Thinking about it now, are you? Aren’t you ashamed that he fooled you, tricked sympathy from you?”
I was thinking about how blinded with hate I might have become, if I had not known for years that Harry Potter was coming to Hogwarts and knew all about the wizarding world, so that I could expect a certain kind of behavior from him. If he had not been Sorted into Slytherin.
Severus did not think his counterpart’s life here had been easy. He had seen the Mark on his left arm, the Mark Severus also bore, and the deep lines of bitterness in his face. But he had not thought that it had been enough to dull the portrait’s intellect. That he would sacrifice clear sight, the suspicions that he must have, or at the very least, the images he would have seen in Harry’s mind of the Dursleys when he Legilimized him, for the sake of his hatred…
Severus could not comprehend it. Or only from a distance. That might have been the way he would have turned, had things not been different in his world, and had he not decided that surviving the war and the return of the Dark Lord was more important than tormenting the living. Perhaps his counterpart had never had a chance to learn that.
“You’re soppy over him,” said the portrait then, in the tone of voice that said he had never thought he would be speaking that word. “Why?”
Severus looked up. He still did not want to reveal very much about the universe he had come from, the universe Harry had been summoned to, in case the portrait used it against him and Harry. But he did say, “We fought together, and Harry saved my life.”
For some reason, that seemed to upset the portrait more than the sneering answer Severus could have given. He picked up a book and opened it, but his fingers trembled on the pages, and he slammed it down instead a second later. “And it doesn’t matter at all that he was too late to save me?”
Severus stared at the portrait unblinking, long enough to make sure that he really did look back. Then Severus shook his head. “Of course not. Why would it matter to me? I never knew you. I would not have known about the way you lived or died at all if Harry hadn’t shown up in my universe. And he did not hold me responsible for your faults, so I cannot hold him responsible for yours.”
The portrait stared back, mouth slightly open. Then he shut it and said, “You don’t care about me.”
Severus half-shrugged. “I am interested in your life. And Harry and I have been defending your reputation to the papers. I was the only one who could figure out some of the passwords that you left your notes and the evidence that would prove you innocent warded under. So I am guarding your posthumous reputation.”
“But you don’t care enough to stop treating Potter like a god,” said the portrait.
Severus leaned forwards slightly. “I am you, in some ways. We led different lives, but not so different that I couldn’t guess your passwords. Would you care, in the same situation? Would your loyalty to someone you had never met, the version of yourself from an alternate universe, overcome your loyalty to someone you had fought beside?”
The portrait produced another winning sneer. “I fought beside no one. Albus was my master, alternating with the Dark Lord. There was no one who could understand, no one who was my equal in the way you’re talking about.”
Severus watched him for some moments, wondering if the expression on the portrait’s face would change, if this was a test of sorts. But it didn’t. His chin remained stubbornly upheld, his lips pressed together, except for the sneer that exposed some of his jagged teeth. Severus silently noted that another difference between them was that he had better teeth than his counterpart did.
“But I did have one,” Severus said. “I had more than one.” It was true that his relationships with the Albus and Minerva of his world had changed beyond reckoning, but he did not see why he owed that particular explanation to this portrait. “And I have one now. We are different. You cannot expect me to care about what you would have preferred when I am not you and you cared nothing about other people.”
That made the portrait recoil, one hand rising as if he would grasp at his heart. Another difference between us, Severus thought, is that I am not as easily shocked.
“I cared for Lily,” whispered the portrait.
Severus raised his eyebrows. “As did I. That does not mean that I care more about the dead than the living, that I can feel no tenderness towards Harry because of my past tenderness towards her.”
“You talk as though those words belong on your lips,” sneered the portrait, and answered Severus’s next question before he could answer it. “Tenderness. Caring.”
Severus still watched him, not sure what to say. They were not words he would have spoken in conversation with anyone else, even Harry, unless the situation was dire and they were alone. But he could speak them. There was no blockage in his throat or heart that mandated they not be spoken. Was there one such in the throat or heart of the portrait before him?
Strange, Severus thought then, that such prejudices and blocks endure even beyond the physical organs ceasing to exist.
“You are not me,” said the portrait, his voice laced with something Severus would have thought was anger a short while ago and now was sure was self-pity, instead. “I thought you were. I thought you were the one person who might understand.”
Severus gave him a sharp grin. “I do understand you well. The mistake you made is in thinking that understanding might lead to sympathy.” He paused, then added, “And more sympathy for you than I have for Harry.”
“Go,” said the portrait.
Severus would not have obeyed the command, except that he saw no point in prolonging the conversation. This was himself, the version of himself that might have been, but his intelligence was lost to bitterness, his clarity and the formidable strength he might have possessed to brooding.
Severus did look back once before he left the Headmistress’s office. The portrait was engaged in staring at a book again, but Severus knew, even only seeing his face in profile, that he was not reading it.
Severus half-nodded as he turned to face down the stairs again. Perhaps the greatest difference between us is that I am alive and he is dead.
At the bottom of the stairs, he met Harry, who gave him a would-be-unconcerned glance. Severus sniffed at him and held up one finger. Harry came towards him obediently, and looked up into his face as though the gaze would be enough to make him give up his secrets.
“How did it go?” Harry asked.
Severus looked at him, and then smiled, surprising himself. “Not well,” he answered. “He despises me for finding a peace that eluded him in life.”
Harry’s shoulders drooped a little. “Oh. I hoped—I hoped you might have made friends, or something. You seem lonely here, sometimes. You need someone who can understand you.”
Severus’s lips trembled even further into a smile, and he reached out and placed his hand on Harry’s shoulder.
Harry was an intelligent young man. He looked up at Severus, and said nothing further, instead clasping Severus’s hand where it rested on his shoulder.
Severus shut his eyes and bowed his head. He had been wrong, he thought, although not as profoundly as his portrait.
No, the greatest difference between us is that I have Harry.