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Severus had witnessed the process once before.

He remembers little of Great-Aunt Florence, the only Prince to have kept in touch with his disgraced mother.

At seven, Severus hadn’t understood why she and her shrapnel remarks were suffered in their house. His mother’s body would stiffen, each visit pushing her further into the refuge of stillness.

To Eileen and Severus, Don’t tell your father had become an unnecessary preface to her arrival.

Florence’s death had relieved them of her presence. Somewhat.

Her will carried an unusual request: a posthumous portrait. Unusual, Severus had learned, meant that few painters had the skills required for the task. Those who did, would only undertake the project for an usurious sum.

The workshop — a fourth-floor room in a side-alley off Knockturn — had been encased in a soundproofing charm. Crossing the threshold, Severus had chewed on dust and air to release the pressure in his ears.

Incongruous stacks leaned against the walls. Severus counted the tools of five trades crammed into the claustrophobic room.

"Jack of—"

A sharp tug on his arm silenced him.

The painter himself was charming: bright yellow robes and dazzling smile. Severus wondered if more than his reduced rate had convinced his mother.

It certainly hadn’t been his skills. The process of transmuting their memories and Florence Prince’s few personal objects into a portrait had taken four visits. Four afternoons spent sunk in a settee, breathing dust and offering increasingly insignificant memories to the overreaching painter.

The mixture of paint soaked in memories would cling to the canvas for a few minutes, sometimes mere seconds. Then pigment and silvery threads would dissociate and bleed down the canvas to the easel as if magic itself were repulsed by its creation. Each failure was marked by a shriek of pain from Florence.

At least the painter knew enough to soundproof his workshop.

Their third visit had seen some success; the attempt lasted almost fifteen minutes. Florence had cried, her sketched cheeks and throat appearing wet with tears and contorted with grief for her husband, dead for thirty-five years.

It made little sense to Severus until he remembered his father: eyes glazed with alcohol, mouth gaping in a flood of regrets. The undignified fraying of control that preceded the anger.

His mother’s body had seemed to melt at the sight of Florence’s helplessness, growing malleable and soft in a way he had never — and would never again — witness.

On the last day, they returned to Spinner's End with a portrait the size of a cereal box. Eileen had stuck it in a drawer and never taken it out.

Duty and retribution were sometimes one and the same. Serendipity understood spite.

 

*

 

Consciousness comes in pangs.

Muscles contract, knots upon knots raise the topography along his spine.

Memory trickles in, overwhelms.

There had been several moments of consciousness before this one. Severus remembers a luminous room. A pinafored woman holding a palette, a swirling Pensieve at her side. There had been others as well: Minerva, Poppy, Potter, the Lovegood girl.

He remembers the thrall of single emotions — grief, anger, pleasure, fear — before blinding pain.

Evidently, it had been too much to expect oblivion.

 

*

 

A woman smiles at him. Her black eyes are warm with satisfaction as they roam over his face. Severus frowns. She extends a hand towards him, fingers ghosting over his body. Severus jolts back, suddenly aware how close they are.

His back hits shelves — a crash, a metallic rattle, a trophy cup nudges his foot — and the edges of his vision darken. Panic rises in him at the threat of fainting. It has been years since his self-control could so easily be shaken. Blindly, he grabs the shelves to stay upright.

"It’s alright. Can you speak?" Her voice cajoles, caresses and clings like treacle.

Severus has the urge to wipe himself with sandpaper.

"Of course I can. What’s..."

His eyes adjust to the darkness. A darkness that frames the woman.

"Good, it seems we had enough. I’ve never had so much trouble fixing a portrait. But they warned me beforehand." Her smile is soft, indecently intimate.

Severus’ breaths are ragged. The thought unnecessary enters his mind, brings along a sliver of hysteria.

"I left no will."

"You were Headmaster. The war must have prevented you from setting materials aside, but we made do, didn’t we?"

She doesn't wait for an answer, instead retreats to a cluttered table.

The word charlatan crests on his tongue.

In the silence, Severus observes as she inspects her paintbrushes, reshapes the bristles with a press of her fingertips, as she places jars of pigments into a glossy wooden case. Her movements are deliberate, practiced: a closing dance.

Severus glances around the home he's been assigned and pushes past its hollow edges.

 

*

 

With the position of Headmaster come a number of duties and expectations.

It can take months for the Board of Governors to vet a candidate. Heads are elite; their expertise and counsel strengthen Hogwarts even after they’re gone.

 

*

 

As predicted, the Dark Lord put him in charge of Hogwarts.

He set aside a few days to pack away Spinner’s End, but had taken only his books. Banishing Charms had done the rest, and the house was left gaunt as he Apparated to Hogsmeade.

Albus had rested the model frame on his desk as a pointed reminder. Albus’ portrait had frowned sadly at Severus when he locked the thing in a bottom drawer.

"My boy, they’ll want to know."

Severus had taken a moment to respond, willing his jaw to unlock. "At your demand, I’m breaking my promise, Albus. Do not ask me to stay behind and witness the results."

In the following months, Severus had taken pains to keep no personal effect beyond the functional and impersonal. The dummy frame had been left starved of memories, of letters, of childhood mementos, of any trace of his existence. At his death, Hogwarts would not be able to generate a portrait.

Severus had broken with tradition. But then, he had never been vetted.

 

*

 

He avoids his portrait, flits along the school’s paintings, and takes note of the books left unused in backgrounds, or lying on tables in pretensions of academia.

At first, he cannot sleep: a combination of impotent anger and horror at the idea of being observed by gawking children.

On the third night, he struggles against the compulsion to return, as if his oil-and-canvas body is tied to his frame. On the fourth night, he is exhausted enough to give in.

Afterwards, he seeks out alternate sleeping quarters. He tries four poster beds with closed drapes, nestles behind desks, turns the backs of armchairs away from view and settles next to roaring fires emitting no heat. A few corners from the Ravenclaw common room entrance, he finds a painting of a lakeside. Its tall grass and reeds hide him as he sleeps. He returns to his own frame only when exhaustion overwhelms him. Still, it’s like trying to sleep in someone else’s bed, and he wakes disoriented and confused, grasping at the strands of his mind. He does not dream.

Severus restricts his movements to the time between curfew and breakfast, draws from his knowledge of the castle to create routes between still lifes, and rarely crosses paths with waking portraits. He makes a single detour to visit a gaggle of dandies on the second floor and appropriates their quill and inkwell, which couldn’t have been put to good use. During the day, he settles inside a painting of the library’s inauguration. It takes up the entire wall behind Mrs Pince’s desk, detailed enough that he can hide from view in an armchair behind the stacks.

He tries to take refuge in old habits, makes disjointed notes in the margins of the rare monographs. Whenever he is able to lose himself in books, dissonance startles him out as he turns a page or caresses the cover. The paper may seem yellowed pulp and dust, but it holds not smell. It is as unremarkable to the touch as glass. His sensations seem designed to simulate life only enough to remind him that he is dead.

Severus is surprised more portraits don’t go mad, and develops — not sympathy — but a measure of understanding for Sir Cadogan.

That is, until he is awakened by a fat pony chewing on his hair.

"At last, Headmaster Severus Snape!"

Severus pushes uselessly at the animal’s head. "Get that thing away from me."

Cadogan ignores him, of course, and bows. "Sir, it is my great honor to deliver to you this message from the fabled Harry Potter." Cadogan looks at him expectantly as Severus scrambles to his feet and away from the pony. It looks at him mournfully.

"Well?"

"Erm, yes. Mister Potter has expressed the wish to engage you in conversation and desires to know when the Headmaster shall be returning to his abode."

The impossibility of contracting migraines, Severus notes, is one of the few benefits of being a portrait.

"Potter could speak to any of a dozen headmasters if he only bothered to visit the current head’s office."

Sir Cadogan puffs up, his face going red, and Severus cuts him off, in no mood to endure anyone’s righteousness. "I am at no one’s beck and call."

"Headmistress McGonagall also wishes to speak with you," Cadogan says, a true knight.

"You have my answer."

"Here now, Headmaster—"

"As you say, I am Headmaster. I can accept or decline as I see fit. You may convey my answer to the Headmistress and Mr Potter."

Cadogan struggles with the new instructions, but after a moment he gives a tentative bow.

Severus refuses to call it avoidance. He owes no one his presence. The Headmistress can find counsel from her rightful predecessors.

His frame, after all, has been left in the disused classroom.

 

*

 

Potter picked up a flair for the dramatic during the war. Two weeks after Cadogan’s dismissal, Severus is awakened by the sconces around his frame coming to life.

Severus’ armchair sits in a corner, back turned to hide him from sight. He sits still and waits.

"I know you're there. I could hear you snoring," Potter says.

Severus grips the chair’s arms and realises his mistake too late: he does not breathe.

"Oh, good. I thought I’d have to wait around another night."

Potter is perched on a stool by the painter’s table, eyes sunken in dark rings. A shimmering fabric spills over his lap.

"I figured an insult would get you out of hiding," Potter says without bite, as if they are old acquaintances reminiscing over a pint.

Deliberately, Severus draws himself up, walks to the forefront of his painting. "As much as I long to share jabs, Potter, I am no longer beholden to you. Leave me in peace to wait out madness, fire, or eternity. Whichever comes first." Severus grits his teeth. He had not meant to say so much.

Potter holds his gaze, eyes intense. Something at the back of Severus’ mind quivers, nebulous and out of reach.

"There’s a betting pool on for who spots you first. Some fourth years had house-elves camped here day and night until Hermione heard about it. Almost had a fit." Potter smiles, humour in his eyes.

"I’m glad I could provide amusement. Even in this state."

Potter’s face falls. He raises a hand as if asking Severus to stay. Severus scoffs. This is his home, canvas though it may be.

"No, I meant, S.P.E.W."

"Yes, I realise your brain is unable to keep up with your mouth."

Potter smiles again, unconcerned. Severus had expected a comment about his own hygiene, or perhaps his masculinity.

He shifts, smoothes down his robes. The scene is too casual. He feels thrown off his axis. For the first time in months, he doesn’t know what to expect.

"Why are you here, boy?"

Severus catches the glare, gone in an instant. Yes, he realises, this is what threw him off. Potter runs cooler. The attempts at aloofness are clumsy, but there is no denying his arrogance has been tempered. Severus avoids Potter’s eyes, focuses on the sunken cheeks, the raw knuckles.

"I know you didn’t do it for my sake, but thanks." A short pause, before Potter adds, "Even though you were as nasty as possible while looking out for me."

"'Didn’t do it for your sake'?" Potter glances to the side and back in a second. The boy is getting good. "Do not lie to me, Potter."

"You don’t remember dying, do you?"

"Of course I know I’m dead, you nitwit!"

"No, I mean, you don’t remember it happening? The painter used my memory, but she said it probably wouldn’t transfer."

"It did not."

Potter looks down at the blank wall beneath the portrait, his eyes distant as he whispers, "That’s good."

"Potter."

"You gave me memories, so that I could—" Potter’s smile holds no trace of humour now. "Some of them were about my mum."

Lily.

This time Severus has no object to throw at Potter’s head. His fists clench.

"Out." Barely a breath.

Potter seems to recognise the look. He nods, shimmers out of view.

Severus waits for the door to open and close as his control frays. He knows his voice will crack.

"Thanks," Potter repeats.

"Out!"

"Nox."

 

*

 

In January, Minerva leaves him a note. The parchment’s right edge is black and curls in on itself from a scalding sticking charm.

 

Severus,

I expect you’ve had enough time to fume and sulk. Come by my office.

Minerva

 

He sleeps in the reeds that night.

 

*

 

In the months after waking as a painting, Severus compiles lists. Or rather, a list: a few letters addressed to parents, spare robes, dragon skin gloves and apron, his wand. No matter how he approaches the equation, he always falls short. Nothing of significance to be transmuted into a portrait.

He has no idea which memories he gave Potter, but he could not have been in his right mind.

You don’t remember dying, do you?

No, but something shapeless hovers at the back of his mind, gains substance each day. By March, Severus wakes to the phantom of warm liquid surging through clenched fingers, his own eyes staring back at him.

Severus realises that, like Aunt Florence, he has only himself to blame.

 

*

 

In the evening, he takes the long way, slips into the sitting room adjacent to the Headmistress’ office, and stops short. Minerva sits by the fire, socked feet propped by the hearth.

Candles hover above her shoulders, illuminating her book. She is grey even in the warm glow of firelight.

"You summoned me, Headmistress." His voice rises on the last syllable, almost a question.

Minerva does not start, gives no sign of surprise at his arrival. Not as grey as she appears, then.

"You know we cannot move your portrait to my office in your absence." Minerva pins him with a stare. "Don’t you?"

Severus smiles at the familiarity of vying against Minerva.

"I do." He did not, but files away the shred of contentment brought by the knowledge.

"Is that why you’ve been avoiding human company for eight months?"

"I’m surprised my company was desired. After our last encounter..." Severus lets his voice peter out, a bluff. Waiting is a dangerous gamble against Minerva, but he has played for higher stakes.

Minerva settles against the back of her chair. Her hands fold and refold in her lap. "I owe you an apology."

There. "I'm not here for an apology."

Minerva rises. Up close, Severus can see every new line the war has carved into her face. She stands a little shorter, it seems. More of her hair gleams grey in the dim light. He does not want to ask it of her.

"I didn’t want to be made into a portrait. You know this."

Minerva looks to the side, to the dummy frame. "There was no telling where your intentions lay, Severus. You were not the only Slytherin to surprise us." Her mouth twists down in self-disapprobation.

"The awards are of your doing?"

It had been jarring to see the background chosen for his portrait. Not a potions lab, nor his, but shelves of Special Awards for Services to the School in the names of Slytherin students and alumni.

"Each one was earned."

"Through noble deeds, no doubt."

"Are you asking me to defend Slytherin house, Severus?"

"No. My only concern is the reason for my presence here, in this form." Severus motions to his body, arm jerking at the elbow.

Her mouth pinches. "Headmasters—"

"I held the position for Albus, to carry out his orders. It is done."

Minerva’s expression hardens against the flicker of firelight. Severus waits and knows he will push her if he must.

"Hogwarts needs all its strength. We wanted—"

"And my wishes, Minerva?" Petulant echoes.

Minerva blinks, draws back. Severus recognises the signs as a wave of recollection drags her in its undertow. Her expression softens, but he can only see pity there.

Again, Severus wonders precisely which memories he let slip to Potter.

"Burn me."

Minerva examines him, gaze searching, as Severus wills himself to endure the scrutiny.

"If that’s how you wish to collect your debt." Her voice is clipped.

Severus nods. Softening the blow would be futile.

"I am not truly him."

"Perhaps." Minerva looks down, slim socked feet peeking out from her robes. Her wand is invisible under her hands. "But you’re all that’s left."