"What are you doing here?"
They spoke the words simultaneously, staring at one another, Harry as though he'd seen a ghost and Snape as though he'd seen a dung beetle in the bowl of soup he was carrying. Which, Harry supposed, was how Snape had always seen him: an annoying insect, a parasite even.
This was the last thing he had expected, sitting in the dining room of the Dusthole -- in appearance, a newly restored Muggle inn bearing the official name of the King's Arms, but in fact one long frequented by wizards, since it was situated just off the ancient Fosse Way from Exeter and the coast. Harry had chosen the inn because, despite its discreet broom closet and small owlery, he knew that on Christmas Eve the only visitors were likely to be Muggles on holiday. None of them would recognize the onetime hero of a quickly forgotten wizarding war.
As he had anticipated, the restaurant and parlor of the inn were nearly deserted, with the handful of guests already retired to their rooms and most of the staff off on holiday. Which left Harry alone with Snape. Ghost or Polyjuiced double or Geminio spell gone wrong, it was definitely Snape standing in front of Harry, holding the steaming bowl and looking as though he wanted to toss it in Harry's face.
"You -- you died!" Harry spluttered. "I watched you die, and I saw your memories and did what Dumbledore wanted -- "
Snape set the bowl down with such a clatter that it was a wonder the stoneware didn't crack. "I have no time for this nonsense. I am the cook in this establishment," he declared. And with that, he whirled and marched back through the double doors to the kitchen, which shut behind him and locked with an audible click.
Forty years old, and Harry still didn't know how to talk to Snape, not even a ghost or duplicate Snape or whatever it was that had been haunting him in an apron. Perhaps, Harry thought grimly, it should have been a comfort to know that some things never changed, no matter how much everything else did. "Hey!" he called loudly, but there wasn't a waiter to be seen and the old man at the bar who had taken Harry's order seemed to have disappeared. In fact, besides Harry, the only person in the large room was a slightly older man with several empty glasses lined up in front of him like a row of unlit oil lamps, who had looked up neither at Snape's entry nor at Harry's exclamation.
Scowling, Harry picked up a spoon and slurped the soup, even though he wasn't hungry. He hadn't been hungry before Snape had appeared. It was miserable spending Christmas Eve alone, but he couldn't bring himself to accept Luna's invitation to her family's dinner -- clearly offered out of pity -- any more than he could bear the thought of visiting Neville and Hannah at Hogwarts. He had hoped that spending a quiet Yuletide at the ancient stones of Dartmoor might help him clear his head, but the winter forest looked so dry and barren that it might have been under a curse. Harry's plans for the next few days -- to seek private solace at the ancient magical sites in nearby Glastonbury and Amesbury, away from the festivities of Christmas and Boxing Day -- offered little consolation.
Besides, he was obviously losing his mind. That couldn't be Snape. Even if Snape hadn't been dead, Snape would be, what, about sixty years old now? The man who had come from the kitchen with the soup didn't look much older than the Snape whom Harry remembered...the one he had watched bleed to death on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. Moreover, what in Merlin's name would Snape be doing working as a cook? In an inn that served Muggles? An hour or so on the latest model Firebolt from Harry's home in London?
The idea was mad. At least the soup was good. Not that that made it any easier to be alone at Christmas with a son in Azkaban.
The doors to the kitchen banged open once again. And again, there stood Snape, looking cross and carrying a tray with the rest of Harry's meal. The way Snape swung his arm about, the plates should have gone flying off, but they held their positions; the tray must have been under a spell.
Harry reminded himself to stop thinking of the cook as Snape. Even though, on second glance, the man looked even more precisely as Harry remembered Snape from all those years ago, despite the uncharacteristic apron and white sleeves. As he leaned forward to deposit Harry's platter of Cumberland sausage, Harry could see two puncture scars on his neck.
"If you're the cook, how come you're serving? Where's the waiter?" he asked somewhat belligerently.
"I sent him home. Not worth ruining his Christmas Eve for one late customer." The annoyed voice implied that, had Harry not been there, Snape -- oh, it might as well be Snape -- could have been somewhere else enjoying his Christmas Eve, too.
Even though it was ridiculous, since Harry was a paying guest, he felt guilty. Lately everything made him feel guilty, even those things completely beyond his control. "Have you had your supper?" he asked Snape.
"Will you be eating later, then, after work?"
"Don't be absurd. I'll need my sleep. Tomorrow this restaurant will be packed with patrons wanting goose and figgy pudding." Snape whirled, presumably to return to the kitchen.
"Wait," Harry called after him, watching him pause without turning back. "I'm not very hungry and there's enough food here for two. If there's nobody else you need to cook for now, why don't you join me? It -- it smells delicious."
Still Snape did not turn around, and Harry thought perhaps he would ignore the invitation altogether. He glanced in the direction of the Muggle drunk, frowning. Then, slowly, he glanced back.
"I can't help you, Potter," he said distinctly.
Harry leaped to his feet, upsetting his teacup which sloshed over the tablecloth. "I knew it. I knew it was you!" he cried, his voice unnecessarily loud in the empty space, as Snape snatched a carefully folded napkin off a nearby table and mopped at the spill. "What are you doing here? As a cook? In Somerset? How come you let everyone think you're dead? You don't look any different -- it's like you traveled through time -- I can't believe it -- "
"Sit," Snape ordered, and like a frightened first-year, Harry dropped into his chair. "I used three fresh eggs in that. I expect you to eat it." Picking up Harry's knife, he cut a chunk of sausage and Yorkshire pudding and spooned gravy over it, pushing the plate toward Harry.
Sheepishly Harry took a bite. Like the soup, the sausage was superb -- rich with Moorish flavoring, on a bed of mash in Yorkshire pudding with thick port gravy. Blushing faintly, Harry grabbed at the folded napkin and place setting on the empty table beside him. "It's good," he said. "You should have some." He nudged the utensils in Snape's direction.
"I know it's good; I made it," Snape said crossly, yet he cut into the sausage and placed it carefully onto the plate, then cut himself a bite. Harry watched him chew for several moments before realizing that he was staring.
"How come you haven't aged?"
"Potter, what was my profession in my previous life?"
"Your previous...!" Harry set his fork down with a clatter. "Were you actually dead...how did you come back...how come you look the same...?"
With a dramatic roll of his eyes, Snape sat back and regarded Harry. "Potions," he said distinctly. "Even you should be clever enough to figure this out. Do I look like an Inferius? I did not literally return from the dead because I never died. I do not appear to have aged as quickly as you have because I spent many years in magical hibernation. I don't imagine you studied it because you skived off your seventh year at Hogwarts." He sounded almost smug about this.
"I'm sure there's so much the Carrows could have taught me under you as headmaster," Harry shot back. He couldn't help it. Snape! Alive! And not a bit changed! Even though Harry had imagined that, if Snape had somehow survived, everything would have been different, once the war was over, once Harry knew Snape's secret concerning Harry's mother, once Voldemort was no longer a threat...
Snape had cut himself a larger bite of the sausage and was chewing with evident pleasure. "You don't look quite so much like your father now," he said with his mouth full.
"My father was half my age when he died. Go back to the magical hibernation. How does that work?"
Swallowing the food, Snape reached over to take a cup from the next table and filled it from Harry's teapot. "It's a form of stasis. Rather like sealing objects in a sterile time capsule and removing them many years later. In my case, the spell was designed to release me only after my body was restored, but because the snake that bit me carried a curse of enormous power, the effects of its bite lasted longer than I anticipated."
Harry's head was whirling. Snape had anticipated that Voldemort might eventually try to kill him. Snape had made extensive preparations to survive. Snape had given Harry what Harry needed to end the war, but he had not let Harry, nor anyone apparently, know his plans. Snape had chosen to disappear from the world, and when he returned, had chosen a different life...
A life, apparently, that suited him. Harry watched Snape dig his fork into the vegetables on the platter. "Eat some of this, Potter. You're no use to anyone wasting away."
The past months -- the events that had brought Harry to this Christmas Eve alone at an inn -- came crashing back. "Do you know what happened?" he asked, pressing his own fork into the fluffy mash and examining the lines it left as though they were ancient runes. If there was a hidden message in the symbol the tines had created, he didn't know how to interpret it.
"I know what The Daily Prophet reported." Snape's fork lifted away a pile of the mash, cutting through Harry's designs. "Although I also know better than to believe The Daily Prophet."
Even though it was a statement that Snape might have made years before without any sort of discomfort or pity motivating him -- a statement that anybody might have made, really, since the Prophet's reputation for accuracy and fairness had been blemished since the days of Rita Skeeter -- it struck Harry as the kindest thing Snape had ever said to him. And one of the kindest things anyone had said to him in months, really. His throat threatened to close over and he took a swallow of tea to cover it, knowing that he was not going to be able to choke down any more of Snape's excellent Yorkshire pudding.
"I presume it is not true, at the very least, that Theodore Lupin harbored a secret fascination with Fenrir Greyback?" asked Snape in precisely the same tone with which he had dismissed the Prophet.
Harry swallowed again. "I don't really know," he said. "I thought I knew Teddy...he's practically family. Was." Like Peter Pettigrew had been to his own parents. At least Snape hadn't asked about James yet. "I thought he considered himself part of my family. We all thought it."
Snape frowned skeptically. In his own mind, Harry heard the words of his own daughter, words he wished he had considered more carefully at the time: It would be lovely if they got married...Teddy would really be part of the family then.
"I never worried about what it meant to Teddy that his father had been a werewolf," Harry added guiltily, filling the silence created by Snape's scowl. "When Victoire, that's Bill's daughter, started seeing another boy at Hogwarts after Teddy had left school, he still kept coming round to see Bill. Fleur thought he was trying to get Victoire back. I thought he just wanted to be a Weasley and have all those cousins, like I once did. None of us thought of Bill as any sort of werewolf; I'd let myself forget how he got those scars. But I guess Teddy didn't want Weasleys for family so much as he wanted the closest thing to a werewolf for a father-in-law."
Snape was rhythmically poking his fork into what was left of the sausage, leaving oozing puncture marks. It made Harry's stomach flip over, and he looked away. "You believe it's possible Lupin's son did seek out the werewolves, then," Snape surmised.
"There was enough evidence...the Prophet didn't have to stretch the truth about that. I never got to ask Teddy myself." An odd sort of satisfaction filled Snape's dark eyes. Angrily Harry remembered how much Snape had loathed Lupin -- how he had always believed him a threat. "Would you stop doing that!" he snapped, gesturing without looking at the sausage.
Flipping the sausage over, Snape dug into the Yorkshire pudding. "The egg tastes better mixed with the juices," he said calmly, cutting another bite.
How ironic that Harry would be paying for supper for the chef. Harry's mouth twisted into something approximating a smile, which made Snape raise an eyebrow.
"I'm not certain I understand the connection between wishing to understand a father who was a werewolf and wishing to make a Horcrux. I presume that that part, at least, was true, or the Quibbler would never have done something so outrageous as to explain the principle behind the technique," mused Snape.
"It's true. I'm the one who told Xenophilus and Luna, because the Prophet wouldn't even print the word 'Horcrux.' I warned the Ministry after the war that hiding Tom Riddle's secret was going to come back to haunt everyone; if they'd exposed it, and shown Voldemort's weaknesses for what they were, it would have looked a lot less attractive to anyone tempted to try the same thing. But I never thought..." Teddy. James. "I didn't think it would happen again so soon, and that we'd be so unprepared."
"You haven't touched your vegetables," sniffed Snape, sounding for a moment like Molly Weasley, a thought that made Harry simultaneously amused and painfully homesick. The conflict must have shown on his face, because Snape added, "Don't you feel well?"
"Not really. It's Christmas Eve and I'm alone in Somerset. How do you think I feel?"
"A quiet Christmas Eve is what I wished for," Snape replied, beginning to gather the plates. "But if you feel ill, I have a potion in the kitchen that will settle your stomach."
"You still make potions, then?"
"Only the ones no one else can produce as effectively. Cooking isn't so very different from producing potions, and I've taught myself to be an expert at both."
Familiar smugness filled the voice; that, too, made Harry feel both amused and sad. Snape. Alive. Maybe there was hope for everyone. "I -- I never thanked you," he said awkwardly, helping to collect the teacups.
"The food has already been charged to your room."
"Not for the food, you git!" That got Snape's attention. "For...my mother. And me. And all of us, really." A thought struck Harry, a bit of madness that made him smile in earnest for the first time all evening. "You're the one who saved us from Voldemort. I just did what you told me in your memories. So, really, you're the hero and they should put your statue in front of the Ministry."
Something akin to sympathy flickered across Snape's face. Even in this remote location, he must have heard that Harry's statue had been defaced and people were calling for its removal. "I chose my path out of loyalty to the only person who ever showed me any understanding," he said. "It was entirely selfish on my part, Potter, as were all my subsequent actions. Now, if you want that potion, bring that teapot with you."
Harry's hands were full with the cups, saucers, and spoons. He made the teapot float along behind him as he followed Snape through the doors to the kitchen. The silent, lonely Muggle drunk by the bar never once glanced up.