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The Never-ending Road

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Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, but loving someone deeply gives you courage.
--Lao Tzu

PART ONE: The Chamber of Secrets

Summer lay thick across Hogwarts, the sunlight like butter. Hagrid was reporting a record number of bowtruckle births; Sprout had gone to holiday in Egypt; Minerva was up to her whiskers in preparations for the upcoming term. Dumbledore spent the time being inscrutable and mysterious, but that was so typical of him it was hardly worth remarking.

Severus was enjoying a castle free from impossibly shrill little nitwits, grading, and everything that encompassed that most loathed of career pastimes, teaching. He avoided the staff room lest Minerva try corralling him into something bureaucratic and because Flitwick was revising his syllabi again. With the optimist’s incurable daftness, he could never comprehend that Severus would never do more as a professor than the minimum required. He was still using the same syllabus he’d drafted at twenty-one, which he’d drawn up a week before classes were due to start. The little buggers could learn something from it, or not, as they chose.

But today, the beatific absence of students wasn’t enough to ensure his mood was fit for human consumption: Dumbledore had finally selected a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Like the eleven times before, he’d called Severus up to his office, to ply him with tea and sweets and sour them with the news that, once again, he’d passed over Severus’s application in favor of some rank new fathead.

And this time, the selection was worse than usual.

“Gilderoy Lockhart?” There wasn’t a curse in any language Severus knew, magical or Muggle, that could possibly convey the depths of his loathing and revulsion. He said as much.

“Well,” Dumbledore said with a meekness that Severus didn’t believe for a second, “after what happened with the last applicant, I thought perhaps it would be best to choose someone whom it seemed very unlikely that Tom would possess. Jam doughnut, Severus?”

Severus ignored the doughnuts, which had pink icing on top and what looked like raspberry jam inside. A single bite would probably put him in a sugar coma, he thought longingly.

“And if he pops off, it’s no great loss,” he said as snidely as he could manage.

“Now, Severus,” Dumbledore said, but Severus fancied his heart wasn’t in it. How could it be? They were talking about Gilderoy Lockhart.

“The man is an eyesore,” Severus said. “Literally. He wears sequins.”

“I have a fondness for sequins myself,” Dumbledore said, his mustache twitching. His robes today were a deep twilight purple, embroidered with a glittering constellation map. Capricorn shimmered on his right sleeve, Lyra on his shoulder.

“Staff meetings should be very entertaining,” Severus said. “I can picture Minerva’s face even now.”

Dumbledore smiled, but then it faded, and his gaze drifted to settle on the logs crackling in the grate. The fire whited out his irises. Severus remembered a time when Dumbledore hadn’t fires in the summer. He was getting older.

The sleeping Heads of Hogwarts watched them from the corners of their drooping eyes. One day the man sitting in front of him would be up there, pretending to doze. Severus was always rather surprised by how much he didn’t like to think about it. He wondered if Dumbledore’s portrait would be half as clever, conniving and uncomfortably insightful as the real thing.

If Dumbledore died before he’d made an end of the Dark Lord, they had better hope so.

“Have you felt anything?” Dumbledore asked, his eyes so clear and bright it almost hurt to look at them.

The fire popped. Severus’s left forearm prickled with awareness, though not with the burning-cold ripple of primordial magic. He did not rub the Mark, but it took effort. “Nothing as yet.”

“Well.” Dumbledore sat back in his armchair, pressing his long fingers tip to tip. “It does seem too soon, after only two months . . . ”

Severus remembered the crumpled ruin of Quirrell’s body, the hole in the back of his head, the gory mess of his ruptured face, and felt the urge to smile. But he repressed it. Dumbledore would only become grave and say they should never cease to mourn the passing of their enemies, which was the kind of noble, maudlin rot Severus had no patience for.

“How do you think he fled?” he asked.

“I believe him to be something between spirit and corporeal, at this point.”

Severus wondered how the bastard had survived in the first place. Dumbledore, he knew, had his theories, but he was mysterious and inscrutable about them, the old bugger.

“He can hardly dominate England without a body,” he pointed out.

“No,” Dumbledore agreed. “He cannot. Which means that one day, he will need one. What form do you think he will take?”

“What are you asking?” Severus said. “Whether I think he’ll return as a giant centipede?”

Dumbledore’s mustache twitched again, but he asked calmly, “Is it your belief that Lord Voldemort—”

“Don’t,” Severus said, his voice jagged and brittle, “say his name.”

Dumbledore opened his mouth, but then closed it again. His eyes showed a terrible compassion, and Severus loathed it.

“Forgive me, my dear boy. Do you think Tom will possess a body, as he did this time?”

Severus forced himself to think of the Dark Lord, not as he’d been two months ago, a sickly, grotesque imprint on the back of a fool’s head, but as the wizard who had branded the Dark Mark into his forearm. The Dark Lord’s face had been as white as bone, his eyes tinged with red, like blood on the water, his hair curling and dark like loam.

Do you give me your devotion, Severus? Do you swear to me your loyalty? Do you offer me your soul?

Even then, it had seemed like love twisted into something it should never become; should never become, but could transform into so easily.

“That was a means to an end,” Severus said as the memory washed away like the light of a dying fire. “Quirrell . . . was weak. The Dark Lord would have used and despised him, and discarded him in the end, no matter what end it came to. He would consider no one truly worthy of holding him.”

“That is my belief, too,” Dumbledore murmured. “He will want his own form again.”

“There are ways to construct that. I can think of several without even trying.”

Dumbledore gave him one of his Looks, although Severus couldn’t tell whether it was meant to be stern, solemn, or approving. Necromancy was one of the Darker branches of Dark magic, something Dumbledore disapproved of exponentially, but there weren’t many in his circles of goodness and light whom he could discuss it with.

“How many other of his followers would know?” he asked Severus, who shrugged.

“Not many. Bellatrix. Lucius could find out without much effort, although study,” of anything not under a skirt, he added privately, “was never one of his interests. But the Dark Lord will know—he’ll only need to find a follower willing to assist.”

“And of those who escaped Azkaban, how many . . . ?”

“Of those who escaped Azkaban, none,” Severus said flatly. “But you had better hope Bellatrix stays locked up.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore agreed. “We had better.”

Then he smiled. It didn’t look like a forced effort, although Severus didn’t see how it could be genuine. “Well! Thank you, my boy, for your estimable insight. That is enough of darkness for one afternoon, I think.”

Severus thought he left the rest unspoken: There will be long days and nights of it to come.

“Have you written a new syllabus yet?” Dumbledore asked, a low-level twinkle glimmering in his left eye.

“Not since 1981,” Severus said, unabashed. “And I won’t, until the students become any less moronic.”

“Now, Severus—even you occasionally find the will to acknowledge that one of your students is very nearly intelligent. What about Miss Granger? Young Harriet Potter’s friend.”

And there it was. Severus had known they would come to it eventually. Dumbledore hadn’t mentioned the girl all summer, not since she’d climbed aboard the train with all the other foul little miscreants, but Severus had known it was a state of forbearance that couldn’t last. Well, he wasn’t going to take the bait. He wasn’t going to be tricked, cajoled, or entreated into sharing his thoughts about that girl. Dumbledore had tried again and again, all last year, and Severus had always managed to coolly deflect—

What do you think of Harriet, Severus? You had your first class with her today, I think?

He could still see it—that class—it was always disconcerting to meet the first years for the first time, to see how young they were; to fight off the rush of memories of being that young and not knowing into what dark and treacherous thickets the future would wind. The wizarding world was so small, it was always full of the same faces in different incarnations . . . but that class . . . Draco’s white-blond hair and eager smirk, a little carbon copy of Lucius, and the girl . . .

The first thing he’d thought—the first time he’d seen her, beneath the flickering brilliance of the banquet candles—he’d thought Potter with a rush of loathing so powerful, it had churned in his stomach, a physical presence. She had the same sloppy hair, the same thin face; and the glasses and shapeless school robes created the androgynous illusion of a small James Potter returned from the dead to remind Severus of everything he’d feared and witnessed come to pass.

The feeling had rushed back in Potions class the next morning at the sight of that thin, Potter-like face and the name on the roster. He’d located the girl in the dank gloom of his dungeon, stared at her with naked hatred, he was sure, and she’d gazed back with wide, nervous eyes, not backing down but somehow making herself smaller, as if she was trying to preserve her dignity and her safety at the same time. Potter had never looked at him like that. Potter never would have. Potter had been smug and superior and would never have seen the need to shrink in on himself. He had never known what it felt like.

Severus knew that need. He understood it. And he’d remembered that somewhere, behind the mop of black hair and the ugly glasses, were Lily’s eyes, staring fearfully at him, the way she never would have done. She had stared at him in disbelief, in loathing, in contemptuous indifference, but never in fear. She never would have lowered herself to fear him.

This was all that was left of her, this wide-eyed little girl with horrible glasses, sitting in his Potions class. This was what he had given his future, since he was twenty-one, to protect: this little amalgam of two people whom he’d killed, with Lily-eyes and Potter-hair.

What do you think of Harriet, Severus?

She was the last of Lily, and he’d sworn to protect her. That was all he knew. It was all he needed to know.

He hated children, anyway.

“Miss Granger,” he said now to Dumbledore, in his sun-bright study—and he tacked on a sneer, to do the thing properly, “is not as big a dunderhead as most of the little monsters, I’ll grant you, but she lacks originality. She’s also too hungry for praise.”

Dumbledore looked amused. “Surely this isn’t coming from the Head of Slytherin?”

“She shouldn’t be so damned obvious about it.”

Dumbledore’s beard twitched in that way that suggested he was smiling broadly. “But she’s not so easy to crush, I think?”

“I wish she were,” Severus groused, envisioning six long years made even longer by the overzealous length of Granger’s essays.

“Miss Potter can only benefit from having a friend of such tenacious spirit,” Dumbledore said. “Raspberry scone, Severus? You haven’t touched the desserts at all.”

Something in the corner behind Dumbledore’s desk gargled what sounded like a death rattle.

“Your phoenix looks about ready to drop dead,” he said, grabbing a scone and crumbling it.

“Burning Day is almost upon him,” Dumbledore said. “But,” he rose from his armchair, delicately knocking crumbs off his beard, “he does need some help feeding, at this point—thank you for reminding me, my boy.”

Severus was saved from replying by the house-elf that cracked into the office clutching a standard-sized Muggle-looking envelope.

“A letter for Master Head Professor Dumbledore, sir,” squeaked the house-elf, bowing low and thrusting the envelope above its head.

“Would you take that, Severus?” Dumbledore asked, bending over his phoenix.

The elf held up the plain white paper envelope as if it were an offering to a prince of ancient Persia. Severus took it and, with the same wrist, flicked the elf’s dismissal.

“It’s Muggle post,” Severus said, turning it over as the elf vanished. He stared at the return address. “From . . . Miss Granger.”

The familiar sight of her tidy handwriting made his eyes ache. Too many bloody essays. He vowed to deduct an entire letter grade the next time she went a quarter of a centimeter over the required length.

“Miss Granger?” Dumbledore truly sounded surprised. “I would have thought she possessed an owl. Well, we live to be contradicted. Open it, Severus, would you, and read it out to me?”

Severus tore off the end of the envelope, blew the thing open, and unfolded the letter. Halfway through the first paragraph, he crushed the empty envelope. He was almost surprised by his own vehemence. He wouldn’t have thought he cared this much.

“Severus?” said Dumbledore.

“I knew it,” Severus said. He continued reading the letter to the end even as he snarled, “I bloody knew it.”

“Knew what, my boy?”

“Petunia,” Severus said, hearing the venom in his own voice over the echo of hers in his memory. You’re freaks that’s what you are “Once she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that the girl was a witch, all her old hatred and jealousy would return. I told you.”

He really had said it, once he’d muddled through the opening stages of his grief. He’d pictured Lily’s face if she knew her child had been handed over to her magic-hating sister, the one who despised her own ordinariness so much she couldn’t bear anyone else to be special; and the despair of knowing that Lily would never know what had happened had blocked out every other thought, including his embryonic consideration for the infant itself, until he had all but forgotten about her. At least, he hadn’t remembered in any immediate way. Sometimes her existence would bob to the surface of his thoughts, like flotsam stirred by the sea; but the daily currents of life had always pushed her away again, into the depths of his remorse and self-hatred.

Dumbledore rustled back over to the armchairs. “Severus, if something had happened to Harriet, I should know,” he said, with something so like gentleness that Severus saw red beyond the garish Gryffindor crimson tainting the room.

“Oh?” he hissed. “‘Sir, Harriet hasn’t answered any of my letters, nor any of Ron’s. I must have written to her twenty times and told her over and over how worried I was, but I haven’t received a single letter and Ron wrote me that Harriet had received a letter from the Improper Use of Magic Office for an unauthorized Hovering Charm and I’m more worried than ever because we haven’t even covered Hovering Charms, as they’re not till this year—’”

He broke off, his eyes narrowing at some telling flicker of emotion in Dumbledore’s face. “You knew about the letter from the Ministry.”

“My friends there keep me reasonably well-informed, yes,” Dumbledore said composedly.

“Well?” Severus brandished Granger’s letter at him. “And how well-informed are you about this?”

“You believe Petunia Dursley is refusing to let Harriet communicate with her friends?”

It sounded petty and exactly like Petunia, and the small nature of the offense made his anger seem ludicrous. He knew that. But he remembered the girl at the Sorting Feast, her hair cut short and horrible, wearing those ugly plastic glasses, smiling like she expected to be told to stop, eating like she expected to have the food taken away from her, and the decades-old echo of Petunia’s words had run through his head: “You and that Snape boy, you’re freaks, that’s what you are—it’s good you’re being kept away from normal people, for our safety.” He would never have put it past her to drill the same vindictive trash into the girl’s head, but it had only taken one look to tell him that Petunia had sunk even further than he’d imagined.

It had been a long time since he’d been surprised by what cruelty any one person was capable of. And he bullied children on a regular basis.

“I wouldn’t put it past Petunia to burn the letters in front of her.”

Severus couldn’t define Dumbledore’s expression, but it reminded him of being nine years old and wishing he had never told Lily that he hated going home.

“What would you have me do, Severus?” Dumbledore asked, his tone inscrutable.

“Threaten Petunia,” he said without a trace of irony. “Or let me do it.” Oh yes; he would enjoy that . . . he’d never been able to threaten Petunia the way he’d wanted . . . he’d always had to hold off. . .

Dumbledore gazed across his study at a closed cabinet, the doors of which were carved in a raised pattern of vines. In there, he kept photographs of members of the Order, personal snapshots that they’d sent him. He had one of Lily. Severus knew it was there, but he’d never looked at it. He was sure she would be standing in the circle of Potter’s arms, perhaps even on her wedding day.

It shouldn’t still have hurt, but it did. He despised himself for feeling it. He wished he could crush the ache that flickered inside him every time he set eyes on her daughter, but not once last year had he been able to.

“Yes,” Dumbledore said slowly. “Yes, I think you should go.”

At first, Severus was sure his ears were deceiving him. “What?”

Dumbledore looked at him, as bright and unreadable as a one-way mirror. “You should go to the Dursleys.”

Severus stared, then picked up his cup and looked pointedly down into it. “What was in this tea?”

“An update from Miss Potter would not go amiss.”

Severus set the tea cup down hard. “You’re not afraid I’ll relapse?” he said bitingly. “It wasn’t too long ago it was my job to threaten people in their homes.”

Dumbledore’s gaze was calm and deep, like the lake at midday. “I think that was a long time ago, my boy."

Some things will never be long enough, whispered a cold voice inside Severus.

“You’ve never permitted me to even know where they live.” He felt perversely determined to show Dumbledore why he shouldn’t give Severus what he wanted. Why he should keep Severus away from the temptation of being cruel to someone he despised.

“I trust you, Severus,” Dumbledore said.

The words were like a chain.

You should never trust a Slytherin, Headmaster. “The address?”

Dumbledore told him.

As Severus wound down the twisting staircase, he found himself wondering if Lily had told her sister what he’d done to destroy their friendship.

He found himself hoping she had told Petunia everything. 


 

“Maybe I should give myself a prison tattoo,” Harriet said. “What do you think?”

Hedwig fluffed her feathers.

“Fluff them this much for yes”—Harriet held her thumb and forefinger a couple of centimeters apart, then widened the gap—“this much for no.”

Hedwig tucked her head under her wing.

“That’s less than helpful, you know,” Harriet said, stroking her fingers over Hedwig’s head. Her owl hooted moodily.

“I know,” Harriet sighed. “I’m sorry, I really am.”

They were locked up in the Dursleys’ smallest bedroom, with extra bolts on the door and bars on the window. Technically Hedwig was supposed to be trapped in her cage, but Harriet had picked the lock with a broken quill nub she’d found in her jeans pocket. She couldn’t let Hedwig out to fly—the stench of owl droppings said that, if nothing else—but she could at least let her out of her cage.

“I dunno how I’d make one, anyway,” she said, petting Hedwig, whose talons were clamped onto Harriet’s footboard. Harriet hoped they were leaving marks, and that Aunt Petunia wouldn’t find out until after Harriet was safely concealed on Platform 9 ¾.

But then she looked at the bars and the way they cut up the sky and remembered Uncle Vernon’s purple, piggy face looming close to hers, hissing, “You’re never going back to that school . . . and if you try to magic your way out, they’ll expel you . . . ”

“I know what it would be, though,” Harriet said dully. “Hogwarts. A nice remember-me-by, since I’ll probably never see it again.”

Hedwig gave her a peevish, yellow-eyed look, as if to say, Please, are you being melodramatical again? Although it might have been, It’s all your fault if we don’t. Maybe even: Not to mention that we haven’t had a proper meal since they locked us in here.

Their last meal had been a bowl of stone-cold tinned soup. Harriet had given Hedwig most of the soggy vegetables, since Hedwig was the more innocent one of the two of them. Although it hadn’t been Harriet who had smashed the pudding and brought the owl swooping in to terrify that stupid Mrs. Mason; it had been that bloody house-elf.

Dobby. Just Dobby. Dobby the house-elf. That’s how he’d introduced himself. He’d given Harriet the peculiar experience of not only meeting him—which had been very peculiar—but also of feeling sorry for someone at the same time you’d gladly have wrung their little green neck. She’d thought she had it bad at the Dursleys until she met Dobby . . .

Hah. That meant more than one thing, now.

She’d pestered Hedwig with questions and theories about Dobby and what he could have been about. A great danger at Hogwarts? What could that be? How did he know? Why would he go to the trouble of trying to warn and protect Harriet, who’d never, of course, met him before?

Hedwig had no contributions to make besides ruffling her feathers and going to sleep, but Harriet didn’t have anything else to do or anyone else to talk to. At least now, though, she had no one to talk to because she was shut up in Privet Prison and not because she didn’t have any friends. Dobby had been the one hoarding her letters.

Hermione and Hagrid and Ron must be worried. At least, she hoped they were, because then she might not be left here to rot. Maybe Hermione would figure it out somehow . . . or find Harriet, somehow . . . or let a teacher know . . . although Harriet wasn’t sure the school could do anything if her legal guardians wanted to keep her here . . .

She was just imagining Hermione finding her bleached bones lying on the floor of the Dursleys’ smallest bedroom when she heard the floor outside her bedroom door creak. Was it time for dinner already? Her stomach ached with hunger, so hard she felt nauseous. She’d been smelling Aunt Petunia’s roast chicken for what felt like hours. Not that she’d get any of it, that was for sure.

She sat up straight when something outside the door went clickickickickick.

The locks were being undone all at once.

She stood up from the bed, staring—and then took a step back when the last lock wrenched open so hard that pieces of wood flaked to the carpet and the door banged inward.

Hunger must be making her delirious, because the dark shape filling the doorway looked like Professor Snape.

The Snape-delirium stepped into the room, his face locked down in rage. Harriet had never seen him this angry—she’d never seen anyone this angry—but she was pretty impressed with her imagination, because this Snape looked damn scary.

His eyes moved across the room like they wanted to peel it apart. Over the crooked wardrobe, the drab wallpaper, her messy bed, her desk with Hedwig’s dropping-covered cage. His expression flickered when it scanned past her, but he spent a lot more time glaring at Hedwig’s cage than he did looking at Harriet. Her imagination was probably drawing on what it knew: Snape had almost completely ignored her all last year.

Then he turned away. Her heart jumped, thinking he was leaving, because even if it was just her going crazy, Snape was a part of Hogwarts, of magic, and she missed all that so terribly.

But he wasn’t leaving. He was looking down at the cat flap in the door, where Aunt Petunia had pushed her food through.

When he turned back, the expression on his face made Harriet’s skin tingle with cold.

For a moment, he looked straight at her, in a way that was so fierce it was almost like hatred.

“Where are your things?” he asked. It was just like class: he spoke just above a whisper, but you heard every single word. They cut into your ears like winter.

“Erm . . . my school things?” Her voice came out thin and high. When he just stared at her in that fierce, unnerving way, she said, “Er—downstairs in the cupboard under the stairs.”

“Get whatever you need out of this room and come with me.”

You didn’t ask Professor Snape Why, you just did what he said. She stuffed her few blouses, trousers, socks and knickers into her old Muggle rucksack (trying to block the knickers from Snape’s sight), and then went to coax Hedwig into her cage. Except Snape was in the way, standing between her desk and the bed, looking out the window. At the bars.

He didn’t say anything, and Harriet didn’t either. She just coaxed Hedwig onto her arm, glad she’d thought to pull on a windbreaker when Hedwig’s talons prickled her through the nylon.

Snape picked up Hedwig’s cage and swept out, the hem of his robes slithering into the silence.

Silence . . .

Harriet followed him into the hall, straining her ears. She could hear the telly going downstairs, playing a car commercial, but she didn’t hear any real voices or movement. The smell of gravy and rosemary from Aunt Petunia’s cooking hung thick on the landing. Her mouth watered painfully and her stomach ached with sickness and longing.

Professor Snape had magicked open the cupboard door and hauled out her trunk, and was bent down looking inside the cupboard as if to check that was all she had.

“It should all be there,” she said. “Erm. Sir. I haven’t been in it since school was over.”

“Very well.” Snape slammed the cupboard door so hard it seemed to shake the house. Harriet winced.

When he moved to pick up her trunk, she saw the Dursleys.

They were sitting at the dining room table, eating dinner. Aunt Petunia had knocked over her wine glass, and it had spilled across the table and run over the edge onto the carpet. It had happened so recently that the wine was still dripping off the table onto the floor.

It was the spreading stain and the fact that Aunt Petunia wasn’t moving to clean it up that chilled Harriet the most.

She stepped slowly past Snape, fully into the room. The Dursleys’ eyes followed her—their wide, locked-open eyes. Dudley’s fork was stuck in his mouth, his hand glued to the handle. Aunt Petunia’s hand was caught in mid-air where it must have struck her glass. Uncle Vernon was twisted half around in his chair, as if he’d been about to rise when Snape had frozen him. He’d frozen all of them.

The tinny laughter on the telly jangled in the silence.

Harriet met all the Dursleys’ eyes, one by one as she walked up to the table. She didn’t say anything, and they couldn’t.

Then she grabbed a leg of chicken off the platter in the center and said coolly, “See you next summer.”

Back in the hall, she found Snape standing with the front door open, his bottomless black eyes glittering.

“Come.” His voice was so cold, the edge of it burned.

Harriet stuck the drumstick between her teeth, steadied Hedwig, and followed him out the door.