It was a small gathering: the teachers, what was left of the Order, a few students who were here to support Harry. A number of people were doing double duty. Kingsley was representing the Ministry and the Order; McGonagall, the school and the Order. The Princes were as short on family members as the Potters; Harry knew all the faces.
Ginny stood next to him, pressing a slim hand into the small of his back. Ron and Hermione flanked him on the other side. It was absolutely pissing out of the heavens, a fucking downpour. If you ignored the awning of umbrellas charmed to hover over the gatherers, you'd assume Hermione's face was wet because of the rain.
"We are gathered here together to say goodbye to Professor Severus Snape. I want everyone to know that I'm not here because I'm Harry Potter, war hero." He tried to keep the scorn out of his voice and thought he'd succeeded until he felt a slight kick against his ankle. He gave Hermione the tiniest smile. "I'm here like everyone else. Just another wizard who woefully misunderstood this man and to whom I owe my life. To who-- " At Hermione's small cough, he corrected himself. "To whom you owe your lives."
He scanned the crowd. Most people were studying their feet, not looking at him. But he had McGonagall's full attention. She was touching the edges of her eyes with a ridiculously frilly handkerchief. Kingsley's attention was on the Quidditch pitch. Hermione gave Harry one of her tremulous smiles. He didn't think Ron was listening. He had a hunch to his shoulders, with his chin resting on his chest. But then again, they'd buried Fred only yesterday. Harry was actually surprised to see any of the Weasleys, but they were all there.
"Professor Snape would have been the first to tell you that I'm not good with words. In fact, he told me that I was an inarticulate arse about six times a week. So it's ironic that it's me being the one to speak about him. He didn't get to speak his piece to Voldemort." Even now several people stiffened at the sound of his name. "Yeah, Voldemort. Say his name. If I can say his name, when he killed my parents, my friends, and Professor Snape, you can.
"Professor Snape isn't going to get all the fanfare that Professor Dumbledore has. I think a lot of people still believe that he was Death Eater scum and got what was coming to him." This was going to be the hard part. "And last week you could have counted on me being one of them. Toasting his death. Making jokes at his expense. Trotting out all the old tried and true insults: the greasy hair, the robes with a million buttons, the certainty that if someone looked up vicious git in the dictionary there would be a single word. Snape.
"We'd be wrong. More than anyone here, I knew Voldemort. He wormed his way into my nightmares and head; at certain times I felt his vile fingerprints on my soul. I can't imagine doing that for half your life. Serving that evil, foul man in the hope that you would save others, and wondering at the end of it whether you'd have any humanity left.
"I didn't think I'd survive this." Harry motioned toward the ruins of Hogwarts. "I did." He looked into the faces of each and every mourner. "And you did, because of Severus Snape. I thank him. Even as I admit I hated him. That doesn't change the fact that he deserved to shout out his innocence and he was denied that. He left it to others. I think he'd have appreciated the irony that it's me who's speaking for him, establishing his innocence. I can see him rolling him eyes now."
That got a smile from McGonagall.
Harry bagged the rest of the speech and let his parchment fall to the ground.
"God damn it!" he shouted. "I didn't get to thank him. I didn't get to say I don't understand. I have a million bloody questions. None of us deserved to die because one bat-shit insane wizard decided he was going to live forever. But this senseless death in a sea of senseless ..." He turned his head away, struggling not to lose it. He hadn't cried at Dumbledore's funeral, but he'd attended six funerals that week alone, and, Merlin, he was so tired. Ron put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Okay, he could do this. He needed to do this for Snape. "He was a hero. He deserved the death of a hero. He should have gone down shouting out his innocence and his hatred of Voldemort and everything that sick, evil bastard stood for. Instead he has me, a piss-poor substitute at best, to speak for him. To establish his innocence and sacrifice. On behalf of the Ministry of Magic, I award the Order of Merlin, First Class, to Severus Snape."
"Hell's bells, you irritating woman. Stop that snivelling. I've lost my place twice in six minutes. And you are still on notice. Those tears will not help a jot. I haven't forgiven you, and I will never forgive you."
I was sitting in my favourite wingback chair in front of a robust fire, my hand on a cup of tea, the other hand propping open my book. Russian novelists take an enormous amount of concentration, and Minerva's honking and sniffing were most annoying. With Dickens one can multitask. With Dostoevsky? Not on your life. I shook my book a little to emphasize my point.
"Forgiven me for what, you horrible man?"
"This." I swept my hand to indicate my current and now constant state of affairs. Once the foremost Potions master in Europe, I was now reduced to an oil painting. "I suppose I should thank you for at least doing me in oils, and the Potions lab was a nice touch, but damn it, Minerva! I wanted to be dead in the ground, letting the worms feast on my rotting flesh. Not some decoration for your office."
That got a laugh. When she laughed, you could see just how beautiful she'd been.
The only person who could ever match me eyebrow for eyebrow was Minerva. She hiked up her right eyebrow until it nearly hit her hairline and said with a liberal helping of irony, "Severus, you are the last person anyone would choose as a decoration." She paused and when she spoke again, her voice was soft. "I wasn't willing to give you up just yet."
"You could have consulted me," I grumbled. "I never wanted-- this." I cast a weary glance at my new-yet-not quarters. "I was tired. Done for. Don't you understand? I'd hoped for that last and final sleep, frankly."
"Too damn bad," she snapped. "All headmasters have had their portrait painted--"
"As the Dark Lord's lackey, surely my tenure will be struck from the history--"
"I need your help and advice to get this place up and running. You're no good to me six feet under."
"The day that madman set his snake on me is the day I turned in my resignation. Now do shut up. One cannot read The Brothers Karamazov and make any sense of the characters with a caterwauling colleague in the background. Or foreground. Or whatever space it is you living types possess. If you please."
What were those Russians thinking? Perhaps not the wisest move to have all your names (more or less) end in "ov" or an "ova." Keeping the major characters in their proper worlds with their correct associations is something of a bother, and the minor characters, a Herculean task. Ah me. I'd have eternity, more or less, to get them straight.
"As I said earlier, Severus. It was a very fine speech," she iterated and blew her nose on a lacy handkerchief the size of a counterpane. Ensconced behind her desk with her own cup of tea, liberally laced with Firewhiskey, she would take a sip, sniffle, blow, then sigh, and start over again. If I'd been in her shoes, it definitely would have been liberal amounts of tea/Firewhiskey consumption and no sniffling.
I rolled my eyes and gave my book a pointed look, as if to say, "Do you mind?"
"You have the rest of eternity to read. Everyone was there. All the Weasleys, which considering they'd buried Fred the day before... "
I nodded to indicate my respect.
"Augusta Longbottom?" I inquired with snarky enthusiasm.
That got a stern, forbidding glare. "You are not amusing," she chastised in her schoolmarm best. "Your current one metre by two metre state does broaden the ammunition to a wonderful degree. Victory will be mine." This statement was followed by a most malicious grin.
"Oh, dream on, you shrunken hag," I sneered. "Augusta?"
"Really, that woman. She had on a robe that I swear was nothing more than a tablecloth that she snatched off a table after she Flooed into the Three Broomsticks."
I gave her the one eyebrow. She was currently wearing the most hideous tartan, of which at least three of the colours had no match in nature.
"That plaid. Would that such--"
"Don't say it. Since when did you become a fashion oracle, Mr Who-Never-Met-A-Button-He-Didn't-Like? At least my garments are hemmed, which is more than I can say for hers."
The rivalry between these two goes back decades. Minerva would never tell me exactly why she loathed Augusta, but I suspect, given her strictures regarding Valentine's Day, it involved some sort of shenanigans re that particular holiday and Fortesque Longbottom. I certainly hope that Minerva hadn't ever carried a torch for him; the man lacked both a chin and a backbone, but those sorts of childhood hurts scab over but never seem to heal. On that, I consider myself quite the expert.
Despite my strange half-life in a picture frame, many of the pleasures that I thought would be available to me are not--such as food. Apparently Minerva's thoughtfulness in having a teacup painted on my side table meant I was to drink tea for eternity. Which in hindsight was a blessing, because if she had put a plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pud next to me, I'd be looking at congealed gravy every day for the foreseeable future. A cup of tea is relatively benign. Unfortunately, it doesn't taste like anything. It is like drinking warm nothing.
But that was happily offset by retaining unexpected pleasures you'd naturally assume would not exist--such as wanking. I do not come with the usual accompanying fluids, but I do come, which is taking some getting used to. As tradeoffs go, not bad.
The one thing that I haven't lost, I am happy to say, is my pointed repartee with Minerva. In life, we were never happier than when verbally ripping each other to shreds. Death, apparently, only means that I can't brush the dandruff off of her shoulders, and she can't owl me wee vials of shampoo. Other than that, things are status quo.
"The Diggorys were there. Susan Bones, the last of that family, I'm afraid. The--"
"The Malfoys are under house arrest." She sniffed, as if this was not quite good enough for them. "They are forbidden from leaving Malfoy Manor pending an inquiry by the Wizengamot. From what little I've gleaned from Harry, his testimony will save them from Azkaban, but whether they retain their standing in the community is another matter."
"I'm sure they would have come if they could."
That earned another glare.
I had no lost love for the Malfoys. Lucius and I were friends only because once you pledged your troth to the Dark Lord, your friends were no longer of your choosing, and you clung to anyone who had power that might save you from a Cruciatus or an Avada Kedavra. Lucius was definitely a person to woo in that regard.
When Albus abandoned me to my fate, Lucius snapped me up as an ally against his sister-in-law, mad Bellatrix. My any-port-in-a-storm strategy meant that I spent twenty years trying to corral his over-reaching ego and avarice to suit my purposes. How exhausting. I lived long enough to see the sins of the father visited on the son. How depressing. Well, there was hope for Draco. His mother loved him deeply; he was yet young. Perhaps the recent scenes of horror at Malfoy Manor that he was subjected to on a daily basis finally got through that proud skull of his. Being a Malfoy didn't mean that you couldn't be burned if you put your hand to the flame.
Even though I despise Lucius, I could not help but experience a real pang of sympathy when after his release from Azkaban he came down the Manor's enormous staircase and marched into the dining room. His new robes hung in perfectly pressed pleats; he wore his prison pallor with pride. Expecting to be greeted like the prodigal son, he found that the Dark Lord was most displeased with his failings; his shock was only exceeded by his mortification. He wasn't released from Azkaban to triumph in the new order; he was released to be punished. The pride that kept his head held high during those months of incarceration was vanquished in the three seconds it took the Dark Lord to utter, "Lucius. Get Dolohov a cup of tea, would you?"
"The boy did you proud."
"Excuse me?" I asked, not having quite caught the gist of what she was saying, my thoughts still on Lucius' fall from "grace." All those who had been on the receiving end of that arrogance previously were now more than happy to assist the Dark Lord in keeping Lucius broken and humble.
"The boy. Harry. He did you proud."
When upset, Minerva's Scottish brogue becomes three times as thick so that she's nearly impossible to understand. Unfortunately, my years first as her student and then her colleague have given me an ear for it. She can trill to her Celtic heart's content, and I have no problem in discerning every word.
"He is no longer a boy," I snapped. "You rid the world of an evil boil on humanity's backside and it immediately propels you into manhood. Even though he is still rather short. Now if you please. My book."
I didn't bother to wait for answer, but opened to where I'd placed my thumb. Because I was done with this discussion. What did it matter whether Potter was, miracles of miracles, articulate for once in his sad life? Or whether I received a medal or a suspended sentence in Azkaban. Posthumously is posthumously. To put it bluntly, I am dead. People are idiots.
"He wishes to speak to you."
If I had blood, it would have run cold.
"No, absolutely not," I insisted and snapped my book shut. He'd seen everything. Seen me as a miserable, scarecrow of a child; a failure as a friend; a compatriot to budding young Death Eaters; with Lily.
"Knowing Harry, he wishes to apologise," intoned Dumbledore, who had the place of honour on the wall behind Minerva's desk.
I shot him a look laden with the appropriate amount of venom. Alive, it might have actually wounded him. Now that he was equally dead, it merely amused him.
"Oh, Severus," he chided me, giving me that familiar twinkle as he peered at me over his spectacles.
It was a measure of how pathetic I'd once been. A year ago that sort of gesture would have mollified me. Now, I ignored him. The days when Albus Dumbledore held any sway over me were gone. My death was a release in several ways, not the least was the end of my allegiance to that man. Another reason to greet death with open arms. Alive, my guilt so profound, I could never refuse him anything, which he mined for all it was worth, the bastard. I don't believe I had any soul left by the end; he'd successfully bartered it all away in his tireless battle against Voldemort.
I had come to the conclusion that only death would free me from both my masters. It is a sad commentary on my pitiful life that the "known" was so horrible, I gladly traded it for the "unknown." I reasoned death couldn't possibly be worse than life, ping-ponging between Voldemort and Albus, damned if I did and damned if I didn't. I had stupidly thought death would be the absence of anything. (Or I had wished that it was.) That it would be nothing more than sleep. Not this one-dimensional half-life. Where I felt alive but not. Where I didn't exist but did.
"You know what he's like. He will not give up," Minerva reminded me. "He will pester me until you concede. And I will pester you until you agree to meet him. Which means I shall be nagging you night and day."
This was said with a false smile and rather a lot of teeth.
"Nag away, you harpy. I shall escape to the Lake District. The huntsman in the portrait on the third floor has a very nice bit of countryside surrounding that hedge he's poised to jump over."
Yet another unexpected perk. The ability to invade other portraits.
She glared at me. I smiled back. With a false smile and rather a lot of teeth.
Damn it and blast. Gryffindors are the most irritating people on the face of this planet. If I were alive, I'd cheerfully kill every last one of them.
"Don't glare at me," he pouted. "I asked Professor McGonagall several times, and she told me you kept refusing to meet me. So I thought of here."
"What part of refusing to meet you wasn't clear? If I'd wanted to rendezvous with you in the Room of Requirement, I'd have said so. Death has not robbed me of speech. In fact, I shall speak now. What in the blue blazes am I doing here?" The cheap pine frame of this temporary portrait only added to the indignity. For Merlin's sake, it wasn't even varnished!
The room was empty other than a chair and a table groaning under the weight of several platters of food. Which, given the speed with which he was shovelling food in his mouth, looked like Potter had every intention of finishing. The other portraits had enlightened me to the events that had occurred as I lay dead on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. While I was dying from equal amounts of dust and snake venom, Potter and company were nearly incinerated in this room due to some exceptionally stupid wand waving from Vincent Crabbe. Since time immemorial, the Crabbes had been utter dunderheads, and Vincent didn't disappoint. That child had been as thick as two planks; in other words, perfect Death Eater material.
Potter stopped forking food into his gob for one tiny second. "I figured you didn't want to see me because of that bit with my mother and, yeah, I know that was private so we're going to pretend I never saw any of it. I wanted to give you your medal because Kinsgley asked me to, and, um, I'd like to read you my speech because I say some stuff in there I need to say to you. I I want you to hear it. Okay?"
I despise the word "okay." It is so American.
"No, it is not okay, but you have me by the short hairs. While in here, I can't even escape to another painting."
He rolled his eyes.
"Why do you think I insisted that we meet here?"
I didn't bother to hide my surprise.
"Can you not do that? Act all startled when I show evidence I have a brain?"
He had a point. Perhaps it was time to let go of all that. Given recent events, I needed to banish once and for all the notion that this was the ghost of that arrogant cretin James Potter haunting me in the form of his child, who--with the exception of his eye colour and his smile--was his spitting image.
"I will try," I agreed. "Although habits of a lifetime ..." At his forced cough I stopped. "I do not want the medal, and you do not need to make any apologies to me, Potter. I should think that we are more than even on that score. You could not have known that I was on your side. It was not for you to know," I reminded him.
He fussed with his food a bit and then commented in a small voice, "I can still smell the smoke. From the Fiendfyre."
"I can't," I quipped.
"That was really lame."
"You'd be surprised how obsessed all of us are about death now that we're dead."
"Is it ...lonely in there?"
He scrutinized me, taking in the detail of my painting. The laboratory, the bookshelves, the four-poster with its emerald coverlet.
There was no other word for it. I don't know what I expected, but somehow I never expected how limited it was. I was three-dimensional but in a one-dimensional world. There was nothing beyond what was painted. I could, yes, escape into other paintings, but my world was so small. Consequently, their worlds were different but equally small. What would happen once I read all my books? Read them again? And again? I refused to think about it.
"It is boring as well. I can no longer do magic. My wand is useless." I pointed at the beakers and cauldrons. "All those careful instructions by Minerva regarding my Potions laboratory were pointless. No matter what I do, all ingredients sit in a lumpy pile, inert, no matter how carefully I've chopped or how seductively I whisper the incantations. In a fit of rage yesterday, I stabbed my hand with a scissors to see what would happen. The scissors went in, as scissors are wont to do, but there was no blood, and the cut healed the second I wrenched the blade out of my palm."
His eyes were the size of dinner plates. "It didn't hurt?"
"Interestingly, it did, but I think it's due to some sort of racial memory. It is supposed to hurt, therefore it does. But the pain vanished the instant I pulled the scissors free. I can still feel here ," I tapped my head, "which is absurd. What is the point of being dead if you can still feel? My first clue should have been the vitriol that vile Walburga Black spewed at unwanted visitors at Grimmauld Place. You know as well as I, her rage and disgust were so palatable that they invaded every corner of that horrible house. And if you can feel rage, you can feel disappointment and disgust and impatience and irritation."
"Just another day, huh?"
"Humour does not become you, Mr Potter. Leave it to your betters."
"Yep, certainly can't compete with you on the humour scale. Seeing as you're renowned for it," he deadpanned. Quite successfully. Good God, Potter was growing up!
"I have my moments. A word of caution. Should you ever become the subject of a painting at Hogwarts, you must be careful of what you put in your portrait because you will see it forever."
Naturally, given his youth, forever to him was an enviable state. He responded to my grimace with a confused scrunch of his eyebrows.
"You dragged me in here. What is the purpose of this visit?"
"My speech." He held up a piece of parchment. From my vantage point it looked like nothing more than a series of smudges and ink blots. "I sort of lost it at the end and said ... But the gist... Can I read it to you?"
I refrained from pointing out that the likelihood of my being able to exit was slim to none. He took my lack of comment as yes.
He read it in a halting voice, and his cheeks were wet by the end.
Silly boy. No, he wasn't a boy any more, although not yet a man. He was in that twilight between youth and manhood, when his hands were strong and defined, but his cheeks still a little full. Another few months and that jaw would be prominent and sharp, all traces of youth gone.
I ignored the tears. I was not half surprised at the depth of his sincerity. I don't know what I expected, but I certainly didn't expect his forthright acknowledgment that we had been enemies and how he (and others) had wronged me. It spoke of a generosity of heart that I had not discerned in him. Oh, yes, there was the usual bull-in-the-china-shop passion, but underneath it all was also a magnanimous gesture of respect that he had never accorded me while alive. His eulogy was cliched and the language somewhat facile, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised and, shockingly enough, moved by it. Interesting.
"We were united in our aim. It is done. Thank you."
I wanted him gone. There was much he would never understand and much I never had any intention of telling him. It was best that he leave. He was no longer hunted by the past. His starring role in events that were not of his making was over. I wondered if he realised that. He could now move forward. Marry the Weasley chit. Have twenty children. Honour his parents by replicating their lives or the lives they were supposed to have. He was free.
He nodded and made to drape the ribbon containing my medal on the corner of my portrait.
"I don't want that decorating my frame for the next hundred years. Remove it."
"You earned it."
"Consider the source," I reminded him. "I can imagine Kingsley fought tooth and nail for that, and while I appreciate his generosity and honesty, I have no interest in parading my role in Voldemort's demise to all and sundry. My role in his death is not for public consumption. Am I clear?"
He nodded, but it was obvious he didn't understand.
"I am surprised a formal acknowledgement by the Ministry that I was not actually a Death Eater didn't result in at least fifty deaths. From shock. It's not like we had much choice. We did what we had to do. Are you displaying your medal at every opportunity?"
Harry shook his head. "No, I threw it in the bottom of my old school trunk."
"Feed mine to Giant Squid on your way out of the grounds."
It was a dismissal, perhaps too subtle, or he was just being his usual obstinate self, because he didn't get up, but continued to slosh his tea around in his cup until it spilled over the rim.
"Sorry," he said to no one and mopped it up with a napkin that magically appeared. "I have some questions to ask, but maybe later? About my mother and, uh, my father?" This was said with a blush and his usual stammer.
If you wish," I replied, knowing that Hagrid would sooner be named Minister of Magic than he'd return. He was young enough that the future would now obsess him. The past is only interesting to those who have sinned or have been sinned against.
"Harry stopped by to say hello."
I ignored him. Elizabeth Bennett had just refused Mr Darcy's proposal. The repartee in that scene! Could I mine it for some insult to hurl at--
"He said he'd seen you. Read you his speech. He read it to me. I hope you don't mind, since I wasn't able to attend your funeral. It was--"
"You are going to go on and on until I respond, aren't you?"
"Why are you so bitter, Severus? It all turned out well."
If I had a functioning wand, I would have killed him for that.
"Oh really," I purred. "I suppose you could look at it like that if you ignore the fact that everyone who was in the first Order, with the exception of Minerva and Hagrid, are now dead. Yes, Voldemort was killed. Finally. Chalk one up for our side. Should I run into Lily Evans in my rambles, I'll throw confetti and suggest a bang-up of a party. Oh, sorry, there's the little matter of being dead. At thirty-eight. Which even for a Muggle is a little young to be pushing up daisies and in wizard's terms a downright tragedy. I will be thirty-eight years old forever. And dead forever.
"Short of this castle blowing up, I have been relegated to a one-metre by two-metre existence for, conceivably, eternity. I have, since my death, gone through every book in my library once. I have started yet again. As it has been three months since I died, you shouldn't be surprised at my concern over what I am going to do with the rest my death? I cannot perform magic; I cannot do a single spell. And you ask why I am bitter? I never thought you a dunderhead, Albus, but you are now running neck and neck with Gregory Goyle, Sr., who we both know was a flaming moron."
He gave me a sharp glance. "You do not sleep, I've noticed. The rest of us sleep."
"Bully for you," I sneered.
Yes, the rest of the portraits nodded away in their respective frames, only to perk up for the odd five minutes and occasionally visit the other portraits. Me? I am awake. Always. I do not tire, I do not ache, I am. Sleep, I would kill for sleep.
"Interesting, that you do not."
"I can't, you bastard," I snarled.
"Severus," he chided, with something of his old snap.
"Minerva!" I bellowed. "Move me to under the staircase. As far away from him as possible."
"Severus, what would you have me done differently?"
He sat there in state in his familiar chair, the confidence, the sense of right so obvious in the set of his shoulders. This was one of those times when I wish I couldn't feel, when the pull of the deep black of a coffin and all that nothing was so inviting, so desperately wished for. Minerva, you heartless bitch.
"I don't think he realises yet quite how you played him. How you kept him alive long enough so that Tom Riddle was weakened and more insane, impairing his judgment at the last. It was bad enough you tied me up as a goat, but that boy? How do you think Lily would judge you? Or your precious James? The boy, infamous for all manner of rule breaking, who was this short of being a flaming hooligan. The very delinquent you made Head Boy in his final year. How would those two judge you?"
As I knew he would, he ignored my question.
"Need I remind you," he ground out and pulled the glasses down on his nose to look at me, "I asked no less of myself. I paid the same price." But that was not the benign study, the wise old man about to impart his well-oiled wisdom. If looks could kill.
"Through me!" I shouted. "If Voldemort hadn't killed me, I'd have survived a month before they threw me in Azkaban. The testimony of that boy would have meant nothing to the Ministry. With Voldemort gone and Lucius broken, they would have needed a scapegoat. Thank god Voldemort killed me, or I'd be probably be facing the Kiss within the week."
He didn't deny it.
"I suppose it's debatable whether your one enormously selfless act mitigates years of nothing but selfish acts. I have had that debate myself for the last twenty years. Except in my case the debate is the opposite: do years of selfless acts mitigate one enormously selfish act? All I have gleaned from years of endless soul-searching is that some things, Albus, are unforgivable."
His face flamed as if I'd slapped him.
"I forgave you," he reminded me.
I stared at him. I thought of that pathetic seventeen-year-old boy who'd been abandoned by the only two people he'd ever loved in this world. And how that young man took that betrayal and sold his soul to the first bidder.
"No, you did not." At that he shook his head as if to say I was wrong. "You welcomed me back, yes. There is a difference. A vast difference. You sent me back to him for my penance. Which in my case meant that my soul shrivelled just a little every single time I was called. I died a little every time. When I felt that snake venom poisoning my blood, racing through my veins, I thought, 'Finally, none of this piecemeal business anymore.' You cannot witness and participate in such atrocities without it killing you, Albus.
"Do you know that Charity Burbige begged mebeggedto help her before they killed her? After appropriately torturing her, of course. She called out my name repeatedly. Any more forgiveness on your part and I would be sharing a place in hell with him."
I remembered how for years I believed that Albus had forgiven me; that his faith in my allegiance was a measure of that forgiveness. I was a fool. He just needed me, like he needed Potter. Goats, we were nothing more than tethered goats.
"I did forgive you," he protested. "I understood, Severus," he said in a low voice. "You were not the only extremely foolish young man who made fatal mistakes!"
I'd been pacing the length of my portrait, my step-step-step pounding out every point. What was the use? I flopped down in my chair.
"Arrogance is a trait we share. It has been our undoing, I freely admit."
"I had no choice." I imagined him telling himself these half-truths, hugging himself to sleep at night thinking he'd done his best. Perhaps he had done his best. What a truly horrible thought. "What would you have me have done?" he shouted.
Anger in Albus is a rare thing. I had hit bone.
"The only thing that absolves you marginally in your role in my demise is that I welcomed my own death. I was so tired. Tired of parcelling out bits of my soul in reparation to Lily. To do anything to save her son. Take small comfort in that. Hug that meagre absolution to yourself. That is not your worst sin by half. You kept Potter alive long enough to kill him. He has not confronted you yet, has he?"
Albus did not reply, but there was a minute narrowing of his eyes.
"I thought not. But he will put it together. Eventually." I smiled. "He's still numb. Numb from grief and numb from joy. He lost many and he survived. But at some point he will start putting the pieces together--remembering. Because he is dogged. Because the very grit that led his mother to throw herself in front of her young son to save him runs in his veins as well. He saw, Albus. I let him see my memories. Our conversations. How you willingly sacrificed him. Most would view the sacrifice of me as fitting punishment. No one would forgive you for sacrificing him. In order to combat evil, you became evil. Minerva, move me," I ordered.
She sat behind her desk, paralyzed, her eyes darting back and forth between the two men she loved as brothers and who now hated each other. I certainly hated him, and it was obvious he now hated me--for exposing his machinations for what they were. The end justifying the mean. Always.
"How dare you?" he rasped. Oh, yes, he hated me. The scorn and disapproval in those eyes had, until now, been reserved for only one wizard.
"Being just one of your many sacrificial lambs, I think that gives me the right. We were both arrogant, Albus, but I was not initially ruthless. I learned to be ruthless because every ruthless act was a genuflect to Lily Evans. I did not do it for your forgiveness. I did it for hers."
"You look cold."
At those words, the fire in the grate ballooned up; flames licked at the stones.
"Thanks. There's a six-inch thick frost on the grounds."
"No feast this time?"
We were once more in the Room of Requirement. The table contained nothing more than a teacup, sugar bowl, milk jug, and a teapot roughly the size of a small dog. Wisps of steam curled out of the spout. Potter's ears and nose were a very unattractive red. It must be freezing outside.
"Nah. I'm having dinner in the Great Hall. I'm sort of scared. Well, scared isn't the right word, but maybe it is. I didn't think I'd feel this way, but I do. I mean, I've sat there loads of time myself, decked out in the same grey flannels and school tie, waiting for the tables to fill up with food. So you'd think I'd be right at home. But the idea of sitting at the Head table, being on the opposite side "
His voice trailed off.
"You can't come home again," I murmured. "Your recent travails have placed you beyond your peers. That is immutable."
He sighed. "Yeah, I get it. It's just that for once I'd like to be part of something, not looking in and feeling that who I am and what has happened isolates me. I'm like a kid with my face pressed to the glass, seeing and ...and that damn glass in the way. All the time."
I had no answer to that. His experiences were very different from mine, but we shared a sort of loneliness, as victims of fate often do.
"Anyway, when she heard I was coming to see you, Professor McGonagall asked me to dinner, and it's not like I can bloody well refuse. 'Sorry, Professor, feeling a little down today. I'll be sure to make it next time.' Don't think that would go over very well."
"She would train a beady eye on you and ask you what sort of nonsense was this."
"Sit at the Gryffindor table. They will lord it over the other students, crowing that they are the house of Harry Potter. It is a 'two birds with one stone' solution. One, you will prove once and for all that Gryffindors are posturing little brats, and, two, you may converse with your Miss Weasley."
He blushed at that. Wedding bells were in the offing no doubt. When he continued to sit there, silent, fussing with the sugar tongs, I pressed.
"You are here because you wish my advice on which fork to use?"
"G --" He caught himself. "Are you talking to Dumbledore yet?"
"Obfuscation will get you nowhere, and until you pass your N.E.W.T.s, it is Professor Dumbledore. Haven't you taken them yet? Now, why have you dragged me here? I must confess, I am a little surprised."
He fussed some more, blushed, and fidgeted in his seat like a five-year old.
"Potter," I growled. Not that I had better things to do with my time, but he and I were not the best of friends. We had reached a sort of detente because we had been united in our quest to defeat Voldemort, as we now both finally knew, but it was a flimsy truce at best. Despite my best efforts, he continued to seem more "James" than "Lily." Despite his best efforts, I appeared to be more "vicious git" than "git." We walked on eggshells with each other. I had done eggshells for the last twenty years, and I was done. One of the perks of my death should be, finally, to say what I want to say when I want to say it.
"I'm here because it's not like you haven't done loads for me in the past, and I know I've thanked you and if you say no then I won't be back, but I couldn't imagine anyone else"
I held up a hand.
"Get to the point, please. I may have the next decade to listen to this ramble, but you do not. Dinner will start in ," I looked at the clock that magically appeared, " five minutes. Speak."
He took a deep breath and then jumbled all his words together.
I couldn't help it. I laughed and laughed. Oh, the absurdity of it. When I could finally catch my breath, I stole a glance. His face was contorted in Gryffindor outrage; I hadn't taken his request seriously. He had mustered up the courage to confront the dead-but-still-snarling Potions master, and what did he get for his efforts? Guffaws.
"Come on, Potter!" I chortled. It was funny. In between snorts of laughter, I managed to squeak out, "You do realise what a ridiculous request"--had he gone mad? --"this is insane"--my stomach ached from laughing"--given our past relationship as student and teacher."
He finally got it. Merlin, he was thick sometimes.
"Yeah," he admitted with a rueful smile. "But I can't become an Auror until I pass. I did okay in everything else, but tanked in Potions."
I hadn't laughed like that in years. I put a knuckle to my eye, expecting to daub tears of mirth, but nothing. This damn half-life. Regaining my usual composure, I pointed out the obvious.
"Miss Granger loves to instruct. Ask her to tutor you. I'm sure she passed with flying colours." I laid on the scorn. As much I had to admit she was brilliant, it was that constant need to ballyhoo her brains to everyone within a forty-league radius that was irritating.
"Of course." Out of loyalty he tried to keep his voice neutral, but he wasn't sly enough to hide his envy. "We tried it for a few days, but it's too weird. You know, she and Ron are a couple now, and she's tutoring him because he failed as well, and with the two of them it's non-stop. Lots of PDA. All the frigging time. Can't keep my mind on my books when he's got his hands-- " he stopped and blushed.
Naturally, I could imagine where Mr Weasley had his hands. Miss Granger had a nice backside on her. But what in Merlin's knickers was PDA?
"What manner of acronym is this?"
"Acro...? Oh, public displays of affection."
We both grimaced at the same time.
"Disgusting," I murmured. There is no accounting for tastes, but what Granger saw in that young man was beyond me. He struck me as having nothing more than average intelligence, and given her brains, the future of such a relationship ...
"Yeah," he agreed. "I mean, I'm not saying that I don't I mean if you really like a girl, it's a bit of all right, but this is Hermione and Ron. They're like my brother and sister, so it's sort of a squick."
"I do not see them as relatives in kind, and it's definitely a 'squick,' as you so eloquently put it. All the time?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "It's a bloody distraction, especially since I have an idea on how to repay you. I wouldn't expect you to just do it."
I raised an eyebrow. The left one. My concrete resolve to refuse such an idiotic scheme was eroded a wee bit. Pay me? How?
"The textbook was burned in the Fiendfyre, but I thought that we--I mean, me--and the Half Blood Prince--we could take another copy and rework it. Then publish it. The book with your notations was a thousand times better than that second-rate textbook Slughorn was using."
This was an interesting idea. I scrutinized Potter's face, but it was blank. He took my silence as acquiescence, which, basically, it was, and then continued to play me like a violin.
"I'll put it under your name and then donate the proceeds to St. Mungo's. I don't need the money, I'm settled pretty well that way, but there are lots of people scarred by the war, especially the Muggleborns. I thought it might be a great way to fund their treatment, and whatever is leftover can be used for research to help those poor buggers--I mean, people--like the Longbottoms."
Yes, it was quite an attractive offer. To present Potions as it should be presented. To atone for all those poor Muggles I couldn't save, other than by killing them quickly and without panoply to end their suffering. And although a long shot, the chance to heal Alice and Frank. Or at a minimum, replace the emptiness that had characterised them for the last sixteen years. With a start I realised Potter knew me well enough to know I would be quite tempted by this arrangement. That was unsettling.
I studied him. He met my gaze but let nothing show.
"We will argue," I told him.
"Yeah," he agreed.
"There is something in each of us that irritates the other to an extraordinary degree. I will endeavour to keep my temper, but I cannot make promises. My bark is worse than my bite."
"Oh, puleaase," he scoffed. "Your bite is positively rabid and we both know it. You are the most foul-tempered arse I know, but Auror training starts at the beginning of January, and if anyone can tutor me so that I'll pass that test, it's you. Look, I'll try to rein it in, but if you jerk my chain and treat me like I have shit for brains--in other words, like you always do--then I can't guarantee I won't tell you what an effing sod you're being. If you cool it, I'll cool it. Okay?"
It was like a plague. American slang was permeating even the wizarding world.
"I am the essence of 'cool,' Mr Potter."
Now it was his turn to laugh.
When he'd finally stopped and was gasping for breath, I said, "If you are quite done. Speak to Professor McGonagall about your living here at Hogwarts for the next four weeks. You will need to put in a good six hours a day to cover your entire seventh years of Potions."
At that, all traces of mirth at my expense vanished.
"You will be here tomorrow morning. Eight a.m." That got the typical scowl. "Be on time. Now off with you. Miss Weasley will be wondering where you are."
"Thanks, I mean, thank you, Professor Snape."
I acknowledged his thank you with a nod.
At the door, he paused. "I've never heard you laugh before."
"I do on occasion. Not much has been amusing lately. And by lately, I mean for the last twenty years. Your mother and I were friends for a reason. I actually have a sense of humour, Potter. A rather biting and at times malicious sense of humour, but I do have one." I paused. "Don't spread it around."
That got me a smile and a crinkle of his eyes, so reminiscent of his mother when I'd say something amusing I had to bite back a gasp. I'd been so busy looking for his resemblance to the father that I couldn't or wouldn't see the mother. "I've never seen you smile at me."
"Not much has been amusing lately. And by lately, I mean for the last seven years." His voice had a saucy lilt to it, accompanied by an out and out grin.
That brought me up short.
"Touche," I said with not a little surprise.
I'd never seen Potter's charm. Plenty of people had remarked on it, but given the tenor of our interactions, I assumed people were lying to me in the hopes that I would treat him differently. When pigs fly, given what an irritating, rebellious cretin he was. But the charm was real. He'd inherited a soupcon of arrogance and word play (from his father), a sauciness (from his mother), but possessed a sweetness all his own. Hmmm.
"Very well then. Eight a.m. Tomorrow morning. Don't be late."
He groaned. "You're such a fucking sadist, Snape."
"Stop with the compliments; you'll make me blush. Now go."
He was still chuckling as he exited the room. With the click of the lock, I was dragged back to my place under the stairs, dark and quiet, and away from all the other portraits. Exile is really underrated. Now, how to tackle Potter's course of study? This would take some manoeuvring; we didn't have much time. I'd pick the most salient topics in the seventh-year curriculum, just enough to have him pass the Auror test, but then we'd have to review ...
"Are you talking to Professor Dumbledore yet?"
"None of your business and no. Now, we're going to take a break from the seventh-year curriculum and review a bit of your sixth year. This next section hinges on some of the sixth-year curriculum--"
"I did really well. Pretty near perfect marks, actually."
I looked down at him.
"Discounting Horace's near-insane homage to celebrity, you mean the Half-Blood Prince did really well. You merely demonstrated that you can read and follow directions. Which is an enormous leap forward, I must admit, because you never--"
He coughed with an inflection that sounded a lot like "Lily," with a bunch of phlegm around it.
This had become, through trial and error, our signal that one of us was stepping over the line. The invocation of his mother's name reeled in my venom and tempered his hostility.
"Right. When I first took over from him, after his initial retirement, the state of the Potions classroom fatally undermined my confidence in him. Forever. If he were half as dedicated to his Potions stores as he is to stocking his kitchen cupboards, I might have more faith. As it is. Now, did you follow the textbook verbatim?"
The Room of Requirement was fitted up like a mini-Potions classroom with cauldrons, beakers, and appropriate ingredients. Certainly the setup was more than adequate. We'd agreed to delay work on the textbook until after he'd taken the Auror test. Even so, we were trying to cram in nine months of study into five weeks. To say tempers flared was stating the obvious.
The first week was difficult in the extreme. I couldn't help but insult him when he flubbed elementary potions, and he couldn't help but turn sullen when I pointed out his failures. He suggested the coughing bit as a way to break this pattern, and it worked surprising well. The next week, we worked an extra hour every day to make up for the time we'd lost fighting, and by the third week we'd set up a rhythm. Classes began at eight in the morning and went until half ten; then a tea break for Potter. We'd resume at quarter to eleven and work until noon, whereby he'd leave and have lunch in the Great Hall. He'd return at one, and we'd work until four o'clock. It was, I admit, a brutal schedule, and for the most part he kept his grousing down to a minimum. The nearby presence of Miss Weasley, I imagine, had a great deal to do with it. So I was quite surprised when one day after a particularly long day--we'd both been coughing non-stop--he didn't race out of the room as was his wont, but shuffled back and forth in front of the worktable.
"A 'professor' attached to my name would be appreciated."
I was learning.
"Yeah, sorry. Professor Snape, can I ask you a question?"
"You may, not can. In constant demand, I am about to embark on a worldwide lecture tour across Europe to address the declining quality of asphodel due to a mould infestation that has crossed the Channel from France, but for five minutes I am yours."
It was a measure of how far we've come in that he was actually smiling at this and not whispering, "Fucking irritating sod," under his breath. He was learning, too.
"If this is too weird, let me know?"
I gripped the arms of my chair. With Potter one had to steel oneself for the unexpected.
"Can you teach me the spell for ..."
Mortified he looked down, but I could still see a furious blush darkening the tops of his cheeks.
"I shall state this flat out because the potential for disaster should we not be on the same page is enormous. A Contraception Charm. We are talking about a Contraception Charm. I am shocked, given Lavender Brown, that Professor McGonagall would be that lax. Didn't she supply you with the proper incantations?"
"Maybe," he shrugged. "But I missed that lecture somehow. Last year I wasn't there, and the year before I was off with Professor Dumbledore a lot."
He finally looked up at me, horrified.
"It's his sister."
"Point. Miss Granger?"
His expression was telling: not even I should have been that stupid.
"I don't want to be a git about this and not do it because I happened to miss that House meeting because I was out hunting Horcruxes and my roommates were too embarrassed to tell me about it. Plus, it's not like Ron is going to give me tips on how to bonk his sister. You're always pretty honest with me, and I think that you'd not think that, you know ..."
"Yeah, is this big sin."
He left off the requisite tag line: not compared to killing and torturing people.
Yes, rather small potatoes, and combined with the raging hormones of an eighteen-year-old boy, I had to wonder at his restraint up until now. On some deep biological level, war must trigger the primal urge to procreate. Recognition that all those who died must be replaced or we won't survive. Even for those of us whose sexual preferences do not run to women, the need to stick your dick somewhere was overwhelming. At least at the beginning of the war. After Lily was killed, I could barely breathe. Sex was unthinkable.
"In the grander schemes of things, no, I don't think it's some enormous sin. Even not in that context, I don't think it's a sin. She is of age?"
"You have discussed this with her? You are not pressuring her?"
He chuckled and began the hair carding. "No, other way around, frankly. I think we should wait until she's out of school, but she's really... " He paused, obviously not knowing how to phrase it without making her sound like a complete tart.
"Things are getting, well... out of hand," he finished lamely.
I can imagine Miss Weasley would be quite aggressive. Like mother like daughter. Potter struck me as extraordinarily naive. His virtual death sentence had taken precedence over the usual adolescent high jinx.
I told him the incantation and made him repeat it several times.
"I'm going to speak to Professor McGonagall. She should have taught you this spell in your fifth year. I shudder to think any of the other students are as ignorant."
"Fifth year?" he sputtered. "Slytherins are shagging at fifteen?"
"You are refreshingly innocent. I sat all the Slytherins down in your fourth year and drummed the same spell into them. Of course, that was entirely due to the sexual shenanigans of... " I had divulged enough.
"Who?" he cajoled.
Did it matter anymore?
"Malfoy? Who'd sleep with him?" His face contorted in disgust.
"Indeed, I share that sentiment; however, he has a smarmy sort of charm. Apparently."
That young man would stick his dick anywhere. Not too picky. Which for the boys wasn't a problem, but I had been damned if Slytherin was going to have a pregnancy epidemic during my tenure as Head of House; hence, the lectures.
"Ron says it's b-b-brilliant. He's been swaggering around the Burrow for several weeks now. Finally I asked him what had him so puffed up, and he confessed that he and Hermione have been ...doing it for a while."
Taking pride in the fact he's no longer a virgin. And before the Boy Who Lived, no less. Yes, I imagine this would constitute a coup for a young man with quite a chip on his shoulder.
"Mr Weasley has always swaggered. In boarding school parlance, that's usually the sign of being well endowed or having a needle dick."
Potter laughed. "The endowed part. Like a fucking horse, actually."
"Language, Mr Potter!" I admonished. I did not want that visual haunting me for the next few hours. I opened my mouth to say that we were quite done for the day but then said he spoke, a voice so small, I almost didn't hear him.
"I really don't know what I'm doing."
I was sympathetic.
"No one knows what they are doing. Not even your Mr Weasley, swagger be damned." Although knowing Granger she had probably done copious research into all matters sexual and now could run a brothel should the occasion warrant it. "I suggest that you take an excursion into London and visit a Muggle bookstore. You'll find acres of shelves of how-to books. A word of advice. Have a rousing go at yourself beforehand. It will kill some of the tension. Most awkwardness and mishaps are the result of being too bloody excited. At your age, you'll have another erection in ten minutes."
I stopped right there. This is what death has done to me: I was imparting sexual advice to Harry Potter.
"Thanks, Professor," Potter said with a gentle smile.
"You should speak to Professor Dumbledore on these matters." I sniffed. "I am the last person who should be giving you sexual advice."
I left it at that. Potter was middle-class down to his trainers. Knowing I was gay would probably shock him into all manner of stammers and blushes and revulsions. If there is anyone more reviled than a homosexual male in boarding school, I have yet to discover it. I didn't need him haring off to scour off the queer, never to appear again. Now that he had broached the idea of a book, I was dead keen to write it. I needed something to do with my time or I'd go mad.
"He would be more appropriate," I added.
That got the arch-typical shrug. "You're honest with me."
"He isn't?" I said before I could stop myself. Because, no, he wasn't, but I didn't know whether their inevitable confrontation had taken place. In fact, I didn't want to know.
"Sort of," was all I got out of him. "See you tomorrow."
He was nearly out of the door when I stopped him.
"Potter, please don't take this badly, and I hope you will understand that I'm not dragging in any sort of Victorian sensibility about all this, but do you really think you are mature enough to have sexual relations? You are old beyond your years and yet not. You might... " I didn't know how to say this without making him sound like he was some sort of socially inept fool. "Sex is not just physical. Physical desire is often a result of something you want or lack in your life. Be careful. Wait a few months until you are sure. You have deep ties to the Weasley family. If this does not work, the repercussions will be enormous."
Having lived a similar life of hard knocks, I knew only too well how something seems like it's exactly what you've been looking for. How it seems to answer all your prayers. At Potter's age, I was willing to sell myself to Voldemort cheaply. I doubt Potter was any less desperate; he was yearning for love and a family. When Albus chose Black over me and Lily abandoned me because I had one foot in the Death Eater camp, I whispered, "Fuck you," to them both. I didn't need their love. What I thought I needed was recognition and validation. I got them, but at a price. More tears are shed over answered prayers. It was obvious what Potter prayed for in the dark silent part of the night.
He did not answer me, but gave me a jerk of his head that could have been an acknowledgment or a dismissal. Then he was gone.
He passed his N.E.W.T.S (as if there were any doubt with me as his tutor). His desire to have me in the Room of Requirement to tell me the news was so powerful, I was yanked from my comfortable hidey-hole under the staircase in Minerva's office and plopped into my temporary frame before he'd even arrived. I sat cooling my heels for several minutes before he tumbled through the door, a bottle of champagne held high. He was holding the bottle more or less upside down and not a drop spilled; it was empty.
Which certainly explains the tumbling bit and, yes, the stagger.
"I did it!" he crowed.
"Finished a bottle of champagne by yourself? Hardly worth bragging about. No eighteen-year-old worth his salt couldn't manage that."
"Git," he said. With affection? "Thanks and thanks and thanks. I shaved you a glasssh." He closed one eye and tried to peer into the bottle. It was debatable where or not he could even see anything, as he was five minutes away from being, as they say, "blind" drunk. The bottle was indeed empty. "S'all gone," he wailed. "How'd that happen?"
"No matter. I've given it up."
He threw the bottle in a corner of the room and didn't even flinch when it shattered into a million pieces.
"I passhed. Ron too. Now we can be Aurors and everything will be brilliant!" he shouted with abandonment and a bit too much volume. Swaying as the drink undermined his equilibrium, he grinned from ear to ear, so chuffed with himself that he couldn't help but beam at me. A chair materialized immediately, and he clamped down a hand on the back to steady himself.
"Might have overdone it," he giggled.
Potter had had more than his fair share of tragedy. I'm amazed that he wasn't drunk every night, celebrating the end of it all. At least in his cups he was a happy drunk. My experience with drinkers had, mostly, been limited to vicious drunks. Drink did not make my father happy; it only fed his day-to-day rage. I did not get smiles or giggles. The back of a hand was more like it. A lucky day was when it was only a foul word.
"You should sit. Before you fall," I warned.
"Can't. Huge party. At the Burrow. McGonagall ish walking me to Hogssheade to shober me up a bit and then Apparating me to Ron's. Shaid my bits would be spl.. spl splinched all over Britain "
"I strongly doubt she said bits." I hid a small smile at the thought of Minerva saying "bits."
"She bloody well did too. Bits. She said bits," he insisted. "Said if I did it half-cocked my bits would be all --" he threw his arms wide--" over Britain. All over," he repeated solemnly. "S'truth. Swear." He put his hand over his heart. It was all I could do not to laugh.
"I believe you. Swear."
He giggled. "Funny, Schnape. See why my mum liked you even though you're a bit of a bashtard. Wish you could come."
"Previous engagement," I deadpanned.
"No, really, they've got shome grotty painting over the fireplacsh ..."
I shook my head. "Nothing would be more of a wet blanket, on what I am sure will prove to be a riotous evening, than my presence. Even if it were possible, no. Have a good time."
I expected him to lurch for the door, but he didn't. He staggered over to my portrait and collapsed against it. He put his hand up against the canvas, and I couldn't help but reciprocate, matching him hand to hand. Even though he still had a bit of the schoolboy lurking in the curve of his cheekbones, his hand was now that of a man. His palm covered mine, but his fingers were shorter, shapely, and refined. He blinked at me several times and then smiled.
He pushed off from the canvas and wove his way to the door. Over his shoulder, he said, "Shee you after the holidays, yeah?"
"Yes. Our book."
"Your book. Merry Chrishmish, Profshessor!"
"Severus, Professor Elliot does not appreciate your snide comments while she is teaching. She says you are undermining her authority. At your instigation, I replaced that Mathers. I do not relish replacing her. Three Potions teachers in one year is a bit much, don't you think?"
She thought to quell me with her Scottish death glare. Hah!
"It wasn't my fault her predecessor was a total idiot. Although in comparison, he was a genius. Or perhaps an idiot savant would be a more appropriate term. And I couldn't possibly comment on her teaching, because that would imply she is teaching."
"Severus," she warned in a low voice.
"As to undermining her authority," I continued, "she doesn't need my assistance. Shall I tell you what occurred today during the seventh-year Potions class? Mr Banks wanked off; Miss Bowden wrote an impassioned love letter to Mr Swift--those two are shagging, you'd better have a word; Miss Potts painted her toenails bright yellow. As she has a tendency to jaundice, it seemed overkill, but who am I to judge? But for my shout of warning, Miss Roper--this year's sure-fire winner of the Neville Longbottom Award for the most exploded cauldrons in a single year--would have blown the entire dungeon to smithereens. In short, Minerva, Sybil Trelawny is more fit to teach that class."
The most damning thing I could say about a teacher.
We were having our nightcap together. As I drank my warm cup of nothing, she worked her way through two very fat fingers of Odgen's Reserve and a Cuban cigar. My death had liberated us from the usual conventions, and with nary a hesitation or blush, she suggested my popping in for a drink one night in her private quarters. Given my open calendar and her love of Firewhiskey but dislike of drinking alone, it had become a nightly event. She'd moved the badly painted still life that had hung over her mantle for decades (I found out later her mother had painted it) and replaced it with a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots--a distant relative and a Squib--sitting in an ornate chair.
Their connection was only by marriage. Bothwell was a cousin several times removed. He drank himself to death in that Danish prison for want of a wand. Much to her dismay, Minerva let slip that he had attended Hogwarts, having been sorted into Slytherin, not particularly eyebrow-raising given even the most cursory perusal of his history. Clearly, the man had been proficient at hand-to-hand combat and sex magic. The critical similarities are obvious. I mention him whenever Minerva's Gryffindor verges on the obnoxious and she needs a reminder of exactly what sort of stock she came from. They were not all saints. At which point, she threatens to reduce me to kindling. At which point, I say, yes, please. At which point, her eyes fill with tears, ruining the fun.
Her highness--something of a tart in life and in death--was conveniently carrying on a tryst with the huntsman on the third floor, which left her chair vacant every night. Should this love affair hit a snag, we would be in trouble, but for now, I'd visit Minerva around ten and stay for an hour while she finished her whiskey and cigar. We'd would pour through the Prophet for news (the Malfoys had been fined but not imprisoned), discuss the rebuilding effort (certain areas of castle resisted all restoration spells, suggestive of Dark magic), and bemoaned the desperate situation regarding teachers (Potions and Transfiguration teachers being very thin on the ground).
"Please, Severus," she pleaded.
"Even dead, I could teach that class better."
Now that my daily sessions with Potter were at an end, I found myself scrambling on how to fill the hours. Potter and I devoted Sunday afternoons to the textbook, but that left one hundred and sixty-four hours every week to fill. Naturally, I audited the Potions classes to see how the new teachers were faring. I was happy to note that, to date, my previous successor was a disaster and his replacement was, in fact, worse. I'd have rather seen Potter teaching it. That's how bad they were. First, that Mathers! Newly graduated from some American school, which confirmed (most satisfactorily) my long-standing contempt for the American system, his body of knowledge was comparable to that of a Hogwarts fourth-year; however, his successor, British down to her marrow, was even worse. I wouldn't trust that woman to brew me a cup of tea.
I sympathised with Minerva's dilemma, but it killed me (figuratively) to see them massacre what had been the most rigorous Potions curriculum in the world.
"Not that I want to lose your company, but how is your research coming?"
"Grim. I now have the knowledge to write a Ph.D. thesis on colour theory and magic, although my ability to wield a paintbrush remains limited to white-washing a fence. In the available literature, there is no precedence for my inability to sleep."
With help from Madam Pince and the grace of the Avignon Pope, who let me use the desk in his portrait while he snoozed in his papal throne, I spent every night in the library. I had commandeered a house-elf to help me turn the pages and ploughed my way through every relevant tome, and a myriad of irrelevant tomes, in search of an answer: why wasn't I sleeping? Albus snored away constantly, awake for ten minutes a day at the most, while I had twenty-four hours to fill with scarcely the inkling of a yawn tickling the back of my throat.
"Albus is nearly--"
"I know exactly how much Albus sleeps. His snores serenade me constantly."
"He ..." She stopped and took a big gulp of Firewhiskey, giving a shiver as it licked her bones.
"Dutch courage?" I queried.
"He thinks that you still owe a debt, or you believe that you owe a debt. You were taken before your time."
The very concept enraged me. I sprang out of Her Majesty's chair and began pacing, from frame edge to frame edge.
"Owe a debt? You have got to be joking. Owe a debt!" I shouted.
She held up a warning hand. "Sev--"
"Well, well, well, what else could I have done? Severus didn't suffer enough, is that it? Should I have taken a leaf out of Pettigrew's book? Chopped off a hand? Let my body be torn apart by werewolves? A shame that Lupin couldn't oblige. He missed eating me once; let's rectify that little oversight. Being a former colleague would have lent a certain Je ne sais quoi to the bloodletting, because bleeding to death by snake wasn't enough. Being a pariah for my entire adult life, while I sold my soul to Voldemort in service of Albus Dumbledore, wasn't enough. The very nerve--"
"Severus Snape!" she reprimanded. Reminiscent of the tone she had used on me as a student, the "r" in my first name was trilled to its maximum potential. In response, I reacted like a child, wrapping my arms around myself and pouting.
"Will you listen?" she asked with some asperity.
I gave a terse nod back.
"He does not believe that you are meant to pay penance for what you've done; not at all. It's that you have an agenda. You are the entity feeding this. He believes that you are not ready for your own death. You have unfinished business."
Merlin's balls, I was so ready. I wanted to be done. Done with it all. The memories. The failures. To close the chapter, finally, on that arrogant young man whose pride ruled him and robbed him of any potential happiness forever.
"No," I insisted. "That's impossible. I lay there as that repulsive snake fed off of me and wept tears of joy."
If I could have banked the pity on her face, I'd be a rich man.
Much to my surprise, he did come back. He didn't even wait for the New Year. On Boxing Day, during our nightly tipple, Minerva announced that Harry had owled her that he'd like to meet with me on the upcoming Sunday, around two, and was I free?
"Regrettably, no. I've a previous engagement. The hunter in the portrait in the library is lending me his gun. I am off to hunt lions and tigers and bears, oh my."
"I shall inform him that you'll be available at two." She then blew a mouthful of smoke at me.
"Are you talking to Dumbledore, yet?"
"No. It's three times counter-clockwise, not two."
"You might sleep if you mend your fences."
I gave him a snort.
He didn't respond but continued to mark up the book. We decided that the best way to proceed was to take an old textbook and mark it up, exactly like the Half-Blood Prince had done, submit that to the publisher, let them compile it, and then check it for accuracy. That would save quite a bit of legwork on our part. Once the sixth year was done, I had secret plans to do an entire series. Why not? If Potter abandoned me, and I had every confidence that at some point he would, I'd coerce Minerva to let me commandeer detentioned students. To have miscreants under my thumb again. Oh happy day!
We'd been at it for a couple of months. Every Sunday he'd have luncheon in the Great Hall with the Gryffindors, then we'd work for four hours, then he'd be free to commit obscene acts with Ginevra Weasley for the rest of the afternoon.
"Yes? I know it's ridiculous, but I'm still continuously shocked at how poor this textbook is. Certainly justifies why I never bothered with them, if their quality is on par, note the sarcasm, with this utter waste of parchment. Sorry, you were saying?"
"Can we finish up this spell," he pointed at the spell for Amortentia with his quill, "and then ...um, is it can or may?"
I rolled my eyes and then my hand.
"And then can I ask some questions?"
Merlin's balls. Right. We were halfway through the book. Even though Potter and I had established a nice rhythm, I could probably carry on with an older student. No discussions regarding James Potter and Lily Evans were complete without including the entire dynamic. In other words, I did not lust after his mother, because I was lusting after Regulus Black; and I did not hate his father for lusting after his mother. I hated his father because he was a bully. Well, not entirely true. Any relationship between James Potter and Lily was as effective of a death knell to our friendship as my joining the ranks of the Death Eaters. She and I jointly had a hand in the complete destruction of our relationship.
But it wasn't solely our faults.
Again, I had Albus to thank. The white-washing of Black's crime against me was the catalyst for everything: Dumbledore's betrayal, my subsequent shift in allegiances, her disgust at that shift. And, being in ignorance of Black's egregious behaviour, she had no choice but to put down my friendships with suspected Death Eaters as some sort of horrific character flaw.
Not that she was entirely wrong in that assessment.
I wonder if Potter ever told her of that night. Despite her obvious, deep affection for Remus Lupin, she kept Black at a distance, no doubt recognising that he brought out the worst traits in Potter, while Lupin brought out the best. But with Lily's unassailable moral compass, I can't imagine she would have glossed over Black's vicious attempt to kill me, like everyone else around me had. Unfortunately, no one else, with the exception of Potter and Lupin (irony of ironies), seemed to understand the magnitude of Black's thoughtless, selfish act.
So did Lily know? I'd like to think not. I'd like to think that if Potter had confessed to her what happened that night, she would have reached out to me, understood what pushed me toward the Dark Lord's greedy hands. I will never know. Perhaps such ignorance is bliss.
But all of this was old news. I assume he knew the basic story. The outline. The table of contents. With the exception of his mother, none of us would stand up to much scrutiny.
"There's no one else," he added in a small voice.
"No, there isn't," I agreed.
"You loved her."
It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, but not as you think." I might as well get this over with, confessed that as much as I did love her, I did not want her.
My deep love for Lily Evans never manifested itself sexually, which I thought, given my extreme innocence, was evidence of a pure, exalted love. Merlin's balls, I cannot believe I was once that naive. If I had even a remotely normal home life, I would have known that the absence of any physical desire on my part meant she didn't have the proper parts.
"But you loved my mother and that's why you hated my father," he stated, clearly convinced that this was the reason I despised James Potter. Of course, he was of that age when your brain was only used on the odd occasion and everything else was related to how it affected your gonads.
"Yes, and no. I loved her as a brother. I am unequivocally and absolutely homosexual, Potter, and the thought of touching your mother in anything but a strictly platonic manner gave me the dry heaves."
I had expected shock, disgust, surprise, a number of emotions. What I didn't expect was anger.
"Then why in the bloody hell did you hate me so much! If you weren't punishing me for my father taking her away from you"
You'd think we'd be immune to errant magic in this room. Apparently not. My frame began shaking in response to his rage and was in danger of crashing to the floor. Much to my amazement, he had grown up a bit. He reined it in without a harsh word or chastisement from me.
He sat in his chair, gripping his wand for several minutes, his head bowed. He still wasn't looking at me when he ordered in a low voice, "Tell me why."
"I have thought on this for many years--"
"Oh, say, seven?" he snapped.
I could have easily put him in his place, but I did not. His anger was understandable. As was my contempt for him. In my case, it was unforgivable, but certainly understandable.
"I loathed him, and I mean that, and you know that my ability to hate is not inconsiderable."
He gave me a look of incredulity. "The living, breathing expert. Yeah?"
"There are two reasons I hated him. First, your father and his friends tormented me incessantly. I am picking my words carefully so that you understand the full import of what I'm saying. I could not walk down a hall, put my foot on a stair, or cross the grounds in their presence without being their target. If I was lucky, it was only verbal; if I was not lucky, well, you saw just one example of that."
The last few months had erased out, finally, whatever vestiges he had of childhood. It was a man's face that scowled at me. Outrage warred with sympathy warred with anger warred with confusion.
"You have heard this a million times, no doubt, but you are the spitting image of him, save for your eyes."
I added privately, and your smile. I grabbed my teacup, because I had to do something with my hands.
"He could do no wrong in Albus' eyes. Yes, he received detentions. There were times when every evening for weeks was spent polishing trophies. Albus needed him, Black, and Lupin to fight Voldemort. I have not confronted Albus on this issue, but I suspect that your father, whose number of detentions over the years was only superseded by Black's, was chosen as Head Boy as a sort of bribe, if you will: to be at Albus' side when the war broke out. Albus was cunning beyond belief. It certainly sealed your parent's allegiance, as well as Lupin's and Black's. No one paid any attention to that little nobody, Peter Pettigrew. It is a measure of the Dark Lord's brilliance that he realised that often the most effective people are not the most gifted wizards."
At that Potter upended his chair and shouted, "My father was an excellent wizard, I saw his scores for N.E.W.T.s. and he was--"
I held up my hand. He stopped shouting, but it took some effort.
"Listen. I spent seven years watching him flagrantly violate rules, pull pranks on other students, and generally, put the aitch in hooligan, only to become Head Boy. You walked into my Potions class, and I cannot deny that it was deja vu. But not. You did not display any of his intellectual gifts, other than his astonishing ability on a broom and his arrogance. These are, unfortunately, minor in the larger scheme of things."
I had never voiced this to anyone. Albus tacitly knew the mechanics of this dynamic, perhaps Minerva, but no one else.
"I hated you because you followed in your father's footsteps, abusing the rules, never receiving your proper due because, like your father, you were critical in the effort to stop Voldemort. If Draco Malfoy had hexed you with a spell--"
"HE WAS CASTING A CRUCIATUS AT ME!"
"Mr Potter," I said in my most lethal voice. "His sin does not expiate yours! To cast a spell of which you have no idea what it does and no idea how to reverse it, is the height of stupidity."
He had the grace to blush and used that moment of shame to upright his chair and throw himself into it.
"He nearly died," I reminded him. "But for me "
I left it at that. He did that combination nod and shrug he had perfected over the years.
"Thank you," he grumbled. "I can't stand the wanker, but I didn't want him dead."
"Shall I continue?"
"I watched history repeating itself. Desperately needing those four in the Order, he merely slapped Black's wrist for feeding me to Lupin. Twenty years later, Albus desperately needed your sacrifice to stop Voldemort; therefore, everything was basically swept under the rug. His slap on your wrist for that Sectumsempra spell convinced the Slytherins that Dumbledore cared not a whit about them, just as--"
"But Dumbledore stopped Malfoy from--"
"Yes, but by then the die was cast, our roles predetermined. It seems that both of us were acting in life's drama, of which the stage was decidedly Calvinistic in nature. You sinned and were not damned. I repented and was not saved. Alas. I find myself here, in limbo, unable to sleep, unable to die. I'm not even sure if I'm forgiven."
He rubbed his face, the palms of his hand defining a sharp jaw and a decidedly handsome chin.
"I forgive you."
I started at that. Maybe maybe that will be enough. If I've earned Potter's forgiveness, then what is left? Please, please let me sleep. I am not tired, but I am so weary.
I don't think he was even aware of the tears spilling over onto his cheeks. I longed to hand him a handkerchief. Fortunately, the room supplied him with one.
"I wasn't sure I was coming back. You know, after I died."
I let him mop up and then pressed my hand up against the wall of my portrait in an effort to get as close to him as possible.
"I can think of only one other person who has been as brave as you. Your mother sacrificed herself to save you. You could have looked like a house-elf and I would have taken out my despair and rage on you. The other reason? I hated your father because he didn't save her. For years, I had to endure his bragging, his cocksure posturing, his arrogance regarding his abilities, which were, yes, I must admit, formidable. In the end it was all for naught. He was so sure of himself, he became complacent and was wandless the one time in his life when he truly needed a wand. I know something about the sin of arrogance. It has ...was my undoing. He would not have survived--the Dark Lord was at the height of his powers--but if he had had a wand, it might have given your mother time to Apparate with you, save you both. For that, I cannot forgive him. Ever. I hated you because if not for you, she would not be dead. At least I tell myself that."
His eyes widened, and then he turned away from me and ran from the room. No sooner did the door shut than I was pulled back to Minerva's study, the gloom of the stairwell suiting my mood.
"Severus?" Albus cried out. "Is that you? How's Harry?" I didn't answer, and he fell asleep.
I did not.
He pulled me back into the Room of Requirement not two hours later.
The room was empty save for a chair. He sat hunched in it, much as a child would, his knees brought up to his chin, his arms clutched around his legs. He fit, but just barely, and I suppressed a smile to see the chair enlarge just a fraction. James Potter had been tall, nearly as tall I had been, but his son was a head shorter. It didn't take a genius to guess that the deprivations at the hands of his trollish relatives were to blame. One can't but help question Albus' decision to park the boy there until time for the slaughter.
His eyes were closed; his glasses were pushed above his forehead, catching his bangs, revealing the famous scar. I couldn't help but look at my own Mark. You'd have thought Voldemort's death would have erased it, some sort of physical manifestation that he was finally dead. No. Potter's scar stood out on his pale forehead. That scar might fade over the years, not so my Mark, magic and death having rendered it soul-deep as opposed to merely skin deep. When alive, I saw it as a physical manifestation of my stupidity, but now the prisoner of a portrait? Rather pointless.
He gave a brief nod to let me know that yes he knew I was there, but did not open his eyes.
"I've been crying, and my eyes are killing me, so... " He waved a tired hand in the direction of his eyes. "I'm crying all the time these days," he said in small voice.
"There are a number of healing charms... " At his frown I stopped. "I am here because?"
I expected some sort of verbal retaliation. There wasn't anything he could do to me, after all. Oh, he could refuse to work on the book with me, or desecrate my painting with the sharp end of a knife, possibly cast an Incendio and burn it (I wonder if that would work, would finally cause me to cease in all permutations.), but I was literally out of his reach. I braced myself for his invective.
"If he was such a bastard, why did she marry him?"
That did surprise me. My enmity toward him knew no bounds, and yet, not even I could deny that James Potter had loved Lily Evans as deeply as I had.
"He loved her."
He opened his eyes at that.
"Having had over two decades to consider this subject, I have come to the conclusion that he was hopelessly and irrevocably in love with her. The power of love, as Albus has so many times remarked. She was not won over by his looks, his intelligence, or his charm. Indeed, she remarked at least ten times a week that he was an arrogant sod put on this earth to annoy her. And she told him so. Frequently. Her rejection humbled him; a lesser man would have resented her for it. He did not. He continued to love her and not regret that love. For all his jumped-up notions of himself, he knew a superior being when he met one, and he never let her forget that."
The events that unfolded over the last twenty years could have played out differently had just one single thing been different. If Black hadn't rejected his family and become a Gryffindor. If Albus had not betrayed me for the sake of Potter, Lupin, and Black. If Potter had had a wand at hand that night so that Lily could have Apparated. And, of course, if Pettigrew hadn't betrayed his friends. But the one immutable thing that wouldn't have changed, no matter what speculation one might indulge in, was that James Potter and Lily Evans would fall passionately in love.
"When the arrogant are humbled," I said, "and willingly humbled, it is impossible to deny the power of that love. It is a gift beyond comprehension because they are willing to sacrifice every heartbeat in ten for the object of their love. Your father was one of the most arrogant people I have ever had the misfortune to meet. I see that smile. I'm the living, breathing, expert ..."
"When your mother rejected me because of my friendships with people like Rosier, I rejected her, hugged that rejection, and fed off of it. I let it eat at me, turning my love for her into a bitterness of the most astonishing proportions. When you mother rejected your father, continuously, he did nothing of the sort. He took that humiliation and swallowed it, because his love for her was more important than her rejection of him. As much as this pains me to admit it, in the end, he was the better man."
For the first time since I'd been marooned in this portrait I was actually grateful for my strange half-life self. Because my grief and rage over my stupidity was profound and had not lessened despite my death. The knowledge that I could do nothing, that I couldn't change anything anymore was somehow comforting. It was a sign that I was done. Break a chair, upend a table--all fruitless acts. The chair would instantly repair itself; the table, upright itself.
Yes, all of the players in that particular play or act were now done. It was time for the next act, the next scene. For this man before me must star, finally, in a drama of his own making, not a puppet whose strings were jerked mercilessly around the stage, Albus and Voldemort handing the control bar back and forth.
Yes, it was time to sleep like everyone else, and hopefully when I am back under the stairs in Minerva's office
The sound of a chair scraping startled me. Potter pointed his wand at me and my frame came off the wall. He did the most astonishing thing. He hugged my portrait. Wrapped his arms around as much of the frame as he could and embraced me. I could feel nothing, naturally, but I could hear his thank yous, his snifflings and sobbing.
Finally, at one point, when the caterwauling had diminished to mere sniffles, I said, "Potter, you are deluging me in snot. Please cease."
That got a muffled, "Sorry." The room must have a trunk load of handkerchiefs on hand, because three or four appeared in mid-air and were grabbed with alacrity. This was followed by nose-blowing and sighing and coughing. He did not put me back up on the wall, but propped me up and leaned against me, curled up much like he'd been in the chair. He put a hand up against the canvas and I couldn't help but follow suit.
"Can you feel that?"
"No. May I remind you that I'm dead."
"Git," he said under his breath but he didn't remove his hand and neither did I. The memory of what a man's hand underneath my own felt like would have to suffice.
"I loved Sirius."
"Yes, that was obvious."
"Why did he send you to the Whomping Willow?"
I never accorded Potter much acumen while living, and I was forced to admit that he really had far more on the ball that I ever credited him with. Because, of course, there had been a mitigating factor that only Black, Lupin, and myself were privy to. I had never told a soul, not even Albus. Not because I didn't want to, but because I knew exactly what a tightrope they were walking and what that exposure would do to them. Two boys caught with their pants down, and I mean that literally, in a boarding school? They would have been hounded and tortured. The entire male population of the school would have gotten in their licks.
When questioned by Albus, Black lied, sticking to his stupid story that I was an all around irritating git, never even hinting at what inspired such stupidity.
If Lupin hadn't been tethered to those cretin friends of his, he and I might have developed some sort of working, if limited, friendship. We had quite a bit in common. We'd both come from working-class backgrounds. He wasn't like brilliant Potter or Black, so he had to work for his grades; he was a swot and I was a swot. And while I was brilliant, I wanted to be more brilliant. We were both named Prefects for our year. I hadn't a clue why, although now it was abundantly clear. Like me, he appeared much older than his years. Unlike me, he didn't seem to be embittered by whatever horrific events had shaped his childhood; he was infuriatingly stoic. I assumed his parents had been abusive, like mine had been, but that he had found a different way to cope with it.
Therefore, I was not completely murderous when I couldn't find him for our rounds; I was merely completely irritated. In another of Albus' pointless attempts to foster inter-house relations by having Prefects from other houses do rounds together (it was as successful then as similar misguided attempts would be twenty years later), I'd been cooling my worn-down heels at our usual meeting spot for twenty minutes. Rather than wait a minute more, I decided to do them on my own. Bugger him; he would owe me.
Because my hormones were driving me barking mad, I assumed everyone else was equally tortured. The summer I turned sixteen was spent more or less wanking. Aside from the week I spent at Rosier's house as his guest, I did nothing but wank, read advanced Potions textbooks, wank, take long showers, wank, eat, wank, and sleep. I holed up in my room for weeks memorizing Potions and whacking myself raw. I saw my father and mother at meals and that was it. It was an arrangement that suited all of us.
I made for the Astronomy Tower because it was the choice snogging spot for Gryffindor, and that made it pitifully easy to dock points from those idiots, I couldn't think of any place more obvious, but then Gryffindors were ridiculously obvious, as opposed to the Slytherin snogging spot--the stacks in the library, far more clever. Inevitably, I would find one couple up there, and for a moment I was glad that Lupin had stood me up, because he had a way of making entirely too much noise as we made our way up the staircase. The randy couples would have separated by the time we'd actually entered the tower, their telescopes plastered up to their eyes, their swollen mouths a dead giveaway.
I cast a Silencio on my feet before starting the climb up to the top. Before I even reached the door, I heard panting and moaning. This was far beyond the snogging we usually encountered, and I was fairly salivating at the thought of all the house points I could legitimately dock if I found two students shagging. I made a minute and silent plea to Salazar Slytherin that both of these randy sods be Gryffindors, because it would be twice as sweet.
I stopped at the entrance to the tower. The moans were now muffled in counterpoint to the frantic whispers of the male student, encouraging the other to keep on doing whatever she was doing. "Yeah, oh yeah, just... I want, just like ...please. Love Love this, love you." My cock thickened and began grating against the cheap cotton of my underwear. I waited for a few seconds, privately relishing the desperate and dirty murmurings. I had never heard the like of it. People actually said these things to each other? The prostitute who had brought me to climax had been methodical and quiet--all in a day's work I suppose--and this passion was so foreign to me. To be so excited as to be incoherent! I was envious.
The moon was a week off from being full, so there was some light, meagre, but enough. When I stepped across the threshold I saw two bodies in shadow, one tall, lean form backed up against a corner of the wall, legs spread; the second form prone on his knees, sucking off the other. I knew in a thrice that they both were male. Most of us had gone through tremendous growth spurts that summer, the metamorphous from boys to men had begun. The long, lean back of the lover kneeling on the floor could only have belonged to a male.
I was not reviled or disgusted at witnessing that. On the contrary, it was a fantasy come true. I eased a hand underneath the front gap in my robe and shoved my hand down the front of my trousers. I had a little room; the clothes were hand-me-downs, of course, and didn't fit properly. I suppressed a gasp as my hand mercifully clasped my dick, now fully hard, straining against the fabric. I squeezed, ran a thumb over my slit, spreading the wet already there over as much of my cock as I could, and began to pull slowly.
I watched, mesmerised, inwardly cursing that there was so little light. I wanted to see a mouth around a cock, a tongue lapping the crown, a hand cupping a pair of balls. I had to make do with watching a dark head move back and forth in front of his lover; I strained to hear every obscene and delicious slurping interspersed with the encouraging and increasingly frantic whispers of the other lover. It all came to horrific end, of course, when the standing form finally jerked forward in orgasm and shouted out the name of his beloved. Even whispered it was impossible to mistake the name of the person who was making love to him, the passion and love in Lupin's voice when he cried out, "Sirius!"
I shouted out something in horror. It must have been Black who grabbed his wand and yelled, "Lumos," his wand raised, no doubt poised to Oblivate what he thought was some stupid third-year with their telescope in hand. When he saw me, with my hand down my pants, he froze. I froze. Only Lupin moved, he hitched up his trousers and then looked at me, a sad recognition in his eyes. "You, too?" he seemed to say. While one hand held up his trousers, with the other he reached out to stay Black's wand hand, and said to me, "Go, Snape. Now."
Looking back, I'm sure that Albus guessed that something like that had happened. Black was vicious and petty--two character traits I understood in spades--but only something as horrific as being outed in a boarding school would have prompted him to actually try to murder me, as opposed to hexing me within an inch of my life on a daily basis. But then that was status quo, wasn't it?
It was a measure of how frantic he was to conceal his leanings that he used Lupin as an instrument of murder. Surely, if his murderous scheme had gone through as planned, his lover and friend would have been executed, and he, at the very least, would have been committed to Azkaban for his culpability in the crime. As it was, James Potter displayed common sense for the first time in his life and saved me, and it was put down to Black being a stupid, nasty git. No one said a word about what happened that night in the Astronomy Tower. I doubt even Potter knew. He sported the cheerful and unabashed homophobia endemic to those for whom sports is a religion, and, I'd like to think, would have been as shocked as I was at the thought of Black sucking Lupin's cock.
I said nothing because I knew if I so much as breathed a word, Black would have cheerfully revealed my own proclivities. Although he was one of the most popular students in the entire school, he and Lupin would have been hazed unmercifully, but with Potter watching their back. As for me, I probably would have been beaten to death. Rosier and Lestrange would have fed me to the blood-thirsty mob. As much as I suspected that Potter was something of a troll in this area, he was their friend, and he was, as his never-ending passion for Lily demonstrated, rock-solid loyal. I imagine his mentality would have been, "Black and Lupin are disgusting poufters, but they are my disgusting poufters," and he would have defended them with every possible wave of his wand, regardless of his own homophobia.
It became our little secret. Now, mine alone.
Should I lie? Make up some ludicrous story, much as Black had done, to explain such an egregious lack of judgment? No, there was no shame in what they did. Not in my eyes.
"The fall Black tried to murder me, Lupin and I were both made Prefects. I was searching for Lupin because we were due to perform rounds. They were ..." How do I put this? "I found them in the Astronomy Tower. Insert a sexual act of your choosing. It will suffice."
He didn't respond, but I could hear the dry sound of his hand pressing tighter against the canvas.
"You are not surprised?"
He shook his head. "Thought maybe, yeah, they might have been lovers."
"Potter, does it bother you that I was a homosexual?"
He sat up to look at me; he didn't remove his hand, just shook his head. He lay back against me.
"So you caught them. Why did he set you up?"
"We never discussed it, but I imagine he was terrified that I'd expose them. Being homosexual myself, I can imagine his panic. In my time, to be homosexual in a boarding school was a form of passive suicide. You were lucky if you were only hexed. It seems different now."
I thought of Draco Malfoy and his trolling for anything that walked. He had still maintained his status as tacit head of his year, regardless of his sexual peccadilloes, but then he fucked anything, which said he wasn't gay so much as insatiable. If he'd only preferred boys, it might have been different.
"Stupid. It doesn't matter," he murmured and yawned.
"Back then it would have mattered."
Oh yes. I was curious if Potter pere knew.
"So letting Remus kill you, and then maybe he and Remus being charged with murder was preferable to people knowing that he was gay. Wow. Were you going to expose them?"
"I thought about it, naturally, but given my own orientation... "
Perhaps the first sign of real maturity I had ever displayed heretofore.
He didn't say anything for a couple of minutes and then asked, "Why do you think he married Tonks?"
"Lupin? Not that I was in his confidence, but I imagine he found someone who loved him, despite his being a Dark Creature. I suspect Black was a poufter of the first order. Lupin? Bisexual, obviously. "
"Power of love," he murmured, which was followed by a snore.
The room decided that Potter might get cold taking his wee nap. A fireplace with an enormous flame appeared.
Would that I could feel it.
Potter's forgiveness was nice in and of itself, but it did not release me. I did not sleep.
The pope graciously continued to let me use his desk, and every night was spent in the library researching. I point-blank refused to acknowledge that some sort of tacit life debt was tethering me here. Perhaps it had something to do with the manner of my death? And the only person I knew who had died but didn't die was Potter. I waited until we had finished the book before I asked my question.
"I know that you are escorting Miss Weasley to the train and then home for some sort of riotous event at The Burrow, but I would like to ask a question."
His eyes widened in surprise. I never asked questions; I always had the answers.
"What happened when you died?"
He cocked his head and studied me. "You think this might have something to do with your not sleeping?"
I bit back a sharp reply. I nodded.
"You were going to rip into me just then, weren't you?"
"For God's sake, Potter, answer the question," I growled out.
"Keep your knickers on. I don't like to think about it, okay? What happened to you?"
Not that I had any intention of telling him this, but dying was slow and painful and while you'd think that I would have been furious to end my life in such an ignoble manner, it was an acceptable outcome. Oh, not the pain part. I could have done without the snake teeth in my neck and venom poisoning my veins, but I did not regret that it was just the two of us in that room, me trying to say, to convey to him: this is why I am the way I am, this is your mother, this is the past that has haunted me and shaped me and please forgive me. It was something of a mercy killing.
The life force had seeped out of me as the seconds ticked by. I fed Potter all the memories I could of his mother, not having the time to edit which ones were important, which ones were fluff. Here she was at ten, and then at thirteen, and wasn't she lovely at fifteen? When I was near the end, when the room was so cold and the floor so unforgiving, I gave him my most significant memory of his mother, the one of her turning away from me, her disgust and bewilderment at the path I was choosing. Given that I was six seconds away from dying, I freely acknowledge that I had a marvellous hallucination and actually believed it was Lily's eyes, bright with forgiveness, looking down on me.
When it was over and I thought I had died, there was almost nothing, just a sense of barely being conscious. I can only liken it to that half second when you leave sleep but you're not yet awake. I lingered, God knows how long, never slipping back into sleep or waking up, until all of a sudden there was pounding and an incantation and then I was in my quarters, sitting in my favourite wingback, a fire in the grate, and Minerva McGonagall staring at me, a jubilant smile on her lips. "Hello, Severus," she had said and then burst into tears.
"Nothing. It was a sort of sleep but not. You?"
"They were all there waiting for me. My mother, father, Sirius, Dumbledore, everyone who had loved me. It was hard not going with them, but I knew I had to go back. Because of Voldemort. Because of Ron and Hermione and everyone else. All the living who loved me too."
That explained it all. There was no one to collect me. No one in this life cared, and apparently, no one in the next had either.
"Who was there to meet you?"
I said nothing, but the magnitude of such an empty existence must have shown on my face. This is what happens then when you die. Your soul is welcomed by those who loved you, and if you were not loved, you are stranded, your soul hovering for eternity. Unless someone has your portrait painted, and then you sit drinking warm nothing for eternity.
"No, you are not going there, Snape. I won't let you!"
His voice held all the belligerence that had characterised our previous relationship, a tone I hadn't heard in months.
"I don't know why there was no one waiting for you, but there must a damn good reason."
"Oh, really?" I sneered.
"Yeah, really," he snapped. "You don't know bloody everything. There would have been someone there. Dumbledore would have been there. My mother would have been there!" he shouted.
There was no trace of Potter senior in that face. Even with the dark hair and the chin, and the slope of his forehead that were his father's, he was one hundred percent Lily Evans at that moment. Lily Evans in the highest of dudgeons, ready to throttle someone within an inch of his life. I knew that mood intimately, given my personality, and I couldn't help but smile.
"She would have been there," he repeated.
Yes, despite my foolish choices, she was that sort of person. I nodded.
"I doubt it," I scoffed.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," he said and groaned. "Do you know how many conversations he and I had about you? How he would defend you and insist you were innocent. Even when all facts... " he paused.
"Yes?" I beckoned with my hand. My sleeve hitched up a bit at that, and I could see the tip of my Mark. Yes, all the facts definitely pointed to my abiding guilt.
"Even when all the facts said you were the worst Death Eater on this earth."
"Actually, I was a superb Death Eater."
He rolled his eyes. "Want me to retrieve your medal from the lake? Anyway, he cared for you. I saw it."
"Like he cared for you," I sneered, realising a second too late that I'd said too much.
He went still, his eyes darkened completely with some emotion. We said nothing for several minutes.
Finally, in a stiff voice he managed to say, "Yeah, just like that."
I brought a hand up to the canvas. He saw it and his bottom lip began to tremble. Pushing back from the table, he made his way over to where I was hanging on the wall and reached up to splay his hand against mine. His body was leaning against me so I couldn't see his face, but my ears were in excellent working order, and I really would have to be dead (as in completely insensate) not to hear the anguish in his voice.
"I saw you and him, and you know I saw. And even if you hadn't shown me my mother and all that, and you'd only shown me you and Dumbledore, I would still forgive you, and I forgive him. He had to, Snape. There was no other way. I had a choice. I could have gone with the people who had loved me, but there were lots of people who loved me still fighting Voldemort, and I had to go back. This world I love--the magic, the people--is still here because Dumbledore was willing to fight for it."
I didn't say anything, but I was shouting internally, "You were a child! I was little more than a child when he chose Black over me!"
"He used us." Angry and petulant, my voice betrayed me.
"He did," he agreed. "He had to. You were in the tower that night. No one was immune. He even used himself."
Given that all I had to do with my time was waste time, I had debated this over and over, and surely there could have been another way. Surely, it didn't mean virtually handing over one misanthropic teenager to the likes of Voldemort or sacrificing the boy who'd looked up to you like a grandfather.
"He loved us and he would have been there. For you."
I said nothing.
"He wouldn't have entrusted you with his death if he didn't love you."
Was that true? At the time I thought it was solely to spare Draco Malfoy, to give that arrogant little wanker another chance. But maybe not.
"Potter, you will be late. The train."
He pulled away, wiping his eyes along the length of his jumper. He blushed.
"I'm still crying all the time."
"You've had that sort of life," I reminded him.
"Did you cry?"
"I cried when your mother died. Not before. Not since."
He scratched his nails across my painted palm.
"If you forgive Dumbledore, maybe you'll sleep. I've got to go. I'll be back when I get the proofs for the book, and we can go over them together. Okay?"
I gave him the patented Snape nod, slow and sure, and out the door he went. No sooner did the door catch than I was whisked back to Minerva's office.
"How was your meeting with Harry, Severus?"
Albus was awake. I could shoulder this rage for the next one hundred years, or I could forgive. It was no longer clear to me if my rage was predicated on events over twenty years ago or those more recent.
"Who was there escorting you to your death?"
Albus was never at a loss for words. Even death hadn't dulled that brilliant mind. But he was clearly astonished at the question. He said nothing for several minutes then replied, "My parents, my sister, a couple of maiden aunts on my mother's side. I'd like to think that Gellert would have been there if he'd had died before me. I was there for him. Why?"
"No one was there for me."
Again, there was silence for several minutes.
"That tells me that you are not yet dead, Severus. Your soul is trapped. I would hate to believe it is trapped in the portrait, but I cannot surmise that it is anywhere else. You do not feel dead?"
I shook my head and then realised he couldn't see me. "No. Do you?"
"Yes," he said simply. "I am but a shade of myself, a remnant, a shadow of Albus Dumbledore, which is why I sleep, and why I believe you don't. This is not me, Severus. It is nothing more than a memory. There is something keeping you here. You are trapped between worlds. I don't know why it is; only you can answer that."
"I don't know!" I shouted. I slammed my fist down on the end table. My teacup fell off, shattered, tea splashed everywhere, and then it was like it never happened. The teacup reappeared, its wee wisp of smoke wafting up. The painter thoughtfully had added that little detail.
"I thought that damn snake killed me. There was nothing, just this sense that I was on the verge of waking up, or falling back asleep. And then I found myself here, trapped in this fecking portrait. Did you think you would survive him?"
Certainly there no need to name "him." "Survive" and "him" in the same sentence could only mean "Voldemort."
"I never thought I'd see my fortieth birthday, frankly, although I never anticipated dying by snake; an Avada Kedavra, yes."
"And I'd never thought I'd see my eightieth," His voice had a teasing lilt to it, and it didn't take any imagination to glean that his mouth was turned up in that knowing smile of his. Even though I couldn't think of him lately without going into a rage, I missed him. The curse of intelligence is that you are often lonely. Minerva was quite smart, and could give me an intellectual run for my money, but Albus had been more than just someone to cross swords with. We shared the same intellectual passion for learning and the same awe for the terrible beauty that is magic. "It was obvious that you and I were going to be casualties. I had hoped that Harry would, perhaps, survive. He is an amazing child. Or young man, I should say."
"Yes," I agreed. "I always underestimate him."
I had assumed that he didn't quite understand Albus sacrificing him like that. I suppose it was too much to hope that Lily's child would be exempt from lining up with the rest of us who martyred ourselves for wizarding kind. Goats of a feather, killed together. As was his wont, I assumed someone would have had to spell it out for him: probably that Miss Granger, a speller-out sort of person if ever I met one.
But he did figure it out and did acknowledge Dumbledore using him unmercifully to defeat Voldemort and he still forgave. He even forgave me. I would have liked to have attributed that to his mother, but that dogged insistence and magnanimity of spirit was more reminiscent of his father. Damn it to hell and back. It has come to pass that I am even giving James Potter his due. Could this fake death be any more horrific?
"I would have been there, Severus," Dumbledore insisted. "You know that. When you are ready, when you have paid whatever debt is keeping you here, I will be there."
"That is what Potter said," I said wearily.
"He's very like his mother, don't you think?" he said in a sly voice.
"You are like glass, Albus." The man knew me so well.
"My boy, how could you think I wouldn't have been there?"
I couldn't answer. I was crying for the second time in my life, but without tears. I discovered that the absence of tears does not dull the pain.
I still did not sleep.
"You will select teaching assistants from the seventh years to help you avert classroom disasters in your classes with all the younger students. I have promised house points to those who volunteer--"
"It being the only way you could find any student who would work with me," I interjected. "How Slytherin of you, Minerva."
She ignored that.
"Your reputation precedes you, as always. I have covered the walls of the Potions classroom with blank canvases. You might not be able to do magic, but you can direct your teaching assistants and harangue the students from the wall. I imagine that you'll be just as effective as you were when alive. For the seventh-year students, I have recruited a former graduate to assist you--"
"Who?" I interrupted.
"Draco Malfoy. It's part of his parole. I talked to Kingsley. He could sit in Malfoy Manor doing nothing but watch his fingernails grow for two years, or he could help us here. No arguments!" she said in a testy whine.
I said nothing. The thought of being back in the classroom was hive-inducing, were I capable of getting hives--I really do dislike children; however, it would be something to do with my time now that the book project with Potter was finished. I longed to do the entire series, but he hadn't offered, and my pride prohibited me from asking him. Dear Merlin, even half-dead pride still dogged me. It was obvious that his first year as an Auror was fairly punishing, and then there was the Weasley wench. Perhaps I could commandeer Draco? Although a pill of the first order, he was intelligent and, aside from that overbearing Granger, one of the best Potions students I have ever had.
"Draco's job will be to roam the classroom and be on the lookout for those silly idiots deliberately trying to blow up their cauldrons to get out of class or the hormone-crazed lot who try to brew love potions on the side. What is it about this generation? I don't remember being this sex mad," she grumbled.
That brought to mind the chinless wonder, Fortescue Longbottom. Had Minerva acquired a worthy object of her lust, she might have felt differently.
"You can be assured that in my classroom no cauldrons will explode, and I imagine that I'll be just as successful at being a hormone repellent as I was before," I said with an evil smirk.
"No," she agreed and smiled in relief. "It's amazing we didn't have to turn one of the wings into a nursery given how lax that Elliot was. This is all your fault," she grumbled and poured herself another glass of Firewhiskey.
I knew it would be only a matter of time, of course, before she'd have to order me back teaching. Two weeks into the new term and we had already had the first inevitable explosion in the Potions classroom. Several students were temporarily blinded in the blast, which always tends to get parents' backs up. It took every ounce of restraint not to say, "I told you so." After she escorted the injured students to the infirmary, Elliot was fired on the spot. Minerva was now without a Potions teacher, and it wasn't even the end of September.
"I beg your pardon. I didn't hire that disaster."
"I didn't have a choice!" she shrieked, her brogue so thick that even I had trouble understanding her. "You died on me, and I didn't think ..."
That was worthy of both eyebrows raised to the heavens.
"I ...I'm sorry," she apologised "It's been a bloody awful week. First, that idiot nearly maims a bunch of third-years, and then I had to browbeat that horrible little snot --" She took a gigantic slug of Firewhiskey, her eyes fluttering closed as her tantrum was eased by the alcohol.
Lucius had been Minerva's pupil as well, of course, and her least favourite student. He excelled in Transfiguration, which only doubled her dislike. Horrible little snot could have referred to either of them.
"Malfoy pere or fils?"
"Fils. Pere is a horrible enormous snot. Narcissa gave her blessing. She looks as old as me. I didn't even speak to Lucius. Rumour has it he is drinking himself to death, if the gossip at the Leaky is to be trusted."
Yes, I can well imagine he might be committing that sort of slow suicide. Lucius cared for little else but power, and house arrest with only his library to amuse him was punishment indeed. Given that Lucius was the sort of power-mongering sociopath whose greatest pleasure in life was to feed off of other people's subservience, it must be quite unsatisfactory to have only his house-elves, his wife, and his son to order about.
Ironic, isn't it? Even with his near-perfect ability to lie, nothing he could say would absolve him of his involvement in the second rising of the Dark Lord, and yet this go around he was relatively innocent, nothing more than a butler after the Dark Lord had turned Malfoy Manor into Death Eater headquarters. Twenty years ago, however, he was absolutely complicit, putting the "D" in Death Eater. Yet all he had to do was claim that he had been under an Imperius and people believed him. Twenty years too late, but justice was finally served. An Imperius! People were morons.
"I've had the house-elves clean your old rooms. I didn't have anywhere else to put him." I heard the trepidation in her voice. "Young Malfoy, I mean."
"Fine," I conceded. It wasn't as if I could use them. Occasionally, I would flit back in there; a number of paintings remained on the walls. I was partial to the Italian masters of the Renaissance. Grand masters like Titan and Donatello were a little too enamoured with the female form, but there were lesser artists who were nearly as proficient and who had the added bonus of appreciating a nicely formed bicep or muscled shoulders on their saints.
"Monday," she reminded me. "You'll have to put your research on hold." Minerva spoke very distinctly without hardly any trilling; she must be drunk then.
"Yes," I replied, and immediately began to wonder how I was going to bring those children up to speed, since the previous year had been a total wash. I'd make Draco work his privileged arse off.
"You will treat the students with respect--"
"Like you did?" he asked, in that aristocratic sneer he'd perfected over the years. Now that the Manor had reverted back to the Malfoys, he'd reassumed that mannered persona that had been his trademark while a student. Arrogant sod.
Seeing his father being forced to kowtow to other Death Eaters, who previously Lucius barely deigned to acknowledge, had matured Draco overnight. The realisation that one's world could be yanked out from under you, that every day the Malfoys survived was another day in which they could be tortured and/or killed affected him profoundly. The sort of scorn that I used to hear in his voice when discussing Muggles had vanished when he witnessed a Muggle mother being tortured in front of her five-year-old son. Despite his arrogance, Draco was intelligent and, even more importantly, clever. That year, he lost the sneer, the swagger. Knowing exactly how high the stakes were, he kept his head down and his mouth shut. One slip up and he could be watching his own mother twist and writhe under the power of a Cruciatus.
Although I knew it was nothing more than being terrified out of his socks, I had rather liked the Draco who had emerged when Voldemort appropriated the Manor, and I was more than a little disappointed to see him reverting back to being an insufferable twit.
"I have earned my lifetime of discontent. If you think I was a bastard before, think how much my patience is tried living in this portrait. I don't care what they say to you. They can call you Voldemort's boy toy or his sex slave, but you will not hex students. In return, I will do my utmost to protect you from any--how shall I say this?--backlash."
Slouching against a lab table and barely able to contain his contempt, he yawned in my face.
"Draco," I snapped. "May I remind you that if a student or students take it into their heads to exact some retribution, it would be your wand against twenty. Treat them like you do the Malfoy house-elves and it will be a miracle if you survive to decorate your Christmas tree."
The sneer fell a notch, but he was doing his damnedest to keep it in place.
"If you don't buck up and actually work at this, I will make your life miserable. You think you're miserable now? Think again. I am a twisted son of a bitch, and right now I can do no wrong in Potter's eyes. If I say to Potter, 'Draco Malfoy isn't taking his parole seriously. Make him clean the outside of the castle with his toothbrush,' he'll put a bug in Shacklebolt's ear, and you will spend the next six months out there in the snow and hail and sleet scrubbing away. I also want you to know that given your naturally predatory nature--you'd fuck a cauldron given half a chance--you so much as leer at a student, and I will report you to the authorities. Every single student is off limits, do you understand? I don't care if they are of age. For once in your life, you will behave yourself. This is your chance, you dunderhead. Now, stand up straight, find your spine, and learn something."
"Looks really good, doesn't it?"
He slurped his pumpkin juice. I coughed. He mumbled a "sorry."
Already having worked his way through an enormous mountain of corned beef and cabbage, not to mention a harvest of potatoes, he cut himself a piece of apple tart so large it would have done Hagrid proud, and then emptied the entire cruet of cream so that the pastry was virtually swimming in a sea of white.
Pointing at the book on the table and nodding at the same time, he began to polish off his dessert, or should I say inhale it.
The book was back from the printers, and I had to admit that I hadn't been so chuffed over anything since winning the Cornocopious Englehardt Trophy for Matriculating Students for my N.E.W.T.s scores in Potions.
He turned it over so that I could see the spine. Standard Book of Potions, Vol. 6., by Severus Snape.
"Potter, it was supposed to have both our names."
"Oversight, I guess. On your part. Like anyone who knew me would buy that book. Potions wasn't my strong suit. It'd be a sure-fire way to ensure that it didn't sell."
I smiled. "Thank you, Potter. The students are due to receive their copies at the end of this week. It will make teaching the seventh years a bit easier."
"How's that working out, by the way? I must admit that I can't stand Malfoy, but he was pretty good in Potions. I just love these apple tarts. Molly's come close, but I've yet to eat an apple tart as good as what the house-elves make. I ran into him, you know. In the hall. He looks, I dunno different. His chin's not as pointy."
A moustache of clotted cream painted his top lip. There was no trace of "boy" left. His shoulders were now broad, his face all angular planes. Now that all this was behind him, his world was pretty much nothing but work, food, and passionate sex. I envied him. I spent the year when I was nineteen living on tinned soup, learning the Dark Arts, and paying for the odd whore when I could afford it.
"You need your glasses checked. His chin is just as pointy. Did you trade hexes?"
"Nah." He laughed and took another bite of tart. "Jush glared at each other," he mumbled around a hunk of apple.
"Manners, if you please. I hate to say it, but he'll do."
The first couple of weeks were difficult, but Draco had a sly sense of humour and could charm when necessary. He didn't fool me, his knuckles were white with strain as he held his wand, but his voice betrayed none of that anxiety. Potter had done him a great favour, broadcasting Draco's role in lying to Bellatrix and his parents when the trio had been captured, so the students didn't challenge him at every opportunity. He was slowly gaining their trust, and he and I were slowly building a real mentor/student relationship, not the manufactured one I'd fostered previously in order to appear partial to the Malfoys and ready to do Lucius' bidding at the word. Draco had gifts; whether he used them was now up to him.
Potter whistled. "That's a ringing endorsement coming from you."
I was on the verge of telling my pride to go to hell and asking Potter if he wanted to collaborate on another book--as much as it pained me to admit it, it doesn't do to write a textbook geared toward the brilliant; you must gear it toward the mediocre, and even Potter agreed that he was nothing more than mediocre in Potions--when he began coughing in an exaggerated way. Like he wanted to say something and couldn't.
"Your lung will hit the wall next go around. Speak."
"Getting married. Christmas," he said to the table.
Dilemma. Should I offer congratulations or suggest to Minerva that knitting baby booties might be appropriate.
"Congratulations are in order?"
He raised his head. "Of course, you git," he said with a laugh, blushing from the tip of his chin to his hairline. Ah, only embarrassment then.
"You are sure?"
His grin morphed into a grimace.
"Once again, you're dancing to that fucked-up drummer, Snape. You're like the last person I've told, and you're the only one who asked me if I was sure."
"Congratulations." I tried to put some cheer into my voice, but even to my ears it sounded hollow.
"What?" he demanded.
"Nothing. Go." I waved my hand in the direction of the door. "Minerva will break out the --"
"I already told her. What's the problem? Tell me."
There was no way to say this. No way at all that wouldn't alienate him and hurt him.
"Damn it, Snape." He threw his fork down. "I count on you to not feed me a line of bullshit. Okay?"
"You will damn me," I warned him, even as I mentally began cataloguing why this marriage was an enormous mistake.
"No, I won't," he protested. "Just tell me."
"You are young. She is young, barely out of school. Wait. Two years. By that time, the worst of the war detritus will have settled."
He picked up his fork to dive back into his tart. "Yeah, we're young. Hermione and Ron are getting married too. So what?"
"Hermione Granger was born old and has enough maturity for the both of them. Which is a blessing, because Ronald Weasley's emotional age will forever be thirteen." He didn't contradict me. "Are you are marrying the family or are you marrying her?"
"What?" he barked out and dropped his fork again.
"You are desperate for a family. You see her brother as your brother. This is certainly one way to create an instant family. Does she even know you? Is she marrying the hero or the man?" Once started, I found I could not stop, and all my misgivings regarding this union tumbled out. I had been this age. I had done very stupid things. I knew what it was like to be nineteen and think I had the world on a string. I ploughed on. "And then there is her character. I have watched her for a year now. She is very bright--one day she will be a formidable witch--and she is beautiful, I grant you--if you like that sort of thing. But. Potter, she is headstrong and quite spoilt. There is a pettiness to her that is not immaturity; it is a shade in her character. Give it another year at least."
He upended his seat he was so furious, and the food vanished; apparently his appetite gone.
"You are such a bastard!" he shouted. "You have no right--"
"You asked," I reminded him in a stern voice.
"You, of all people, talking about shades in a character." He let out an incredulous bark of laughter. "What in the fuck does it matter to you who I marry? I ... You ..."
He ran from the room in a rage.
I was whisked back to my perch under Minerva's stairs.
Well, so be it. Even though I had hurt him dreadfully, he might postpone the marriage for a bit. It had to be done, much as Lily had put a metaphorical hand on my sleeve to say, wait, what are you doing? I owed it to her to do the same for her son. There was no one else. Albus was snoring away, and the Weasleys were probably still leaping around their living room at the thought of Harry as their son-in-law.
I was the living, breathing expert on being nineteen and thinking it was all so simple. Naturally, I didn't marry the girl, but I certainly believed that my prayers had been answered by Voldemort. Of course, Ginevra Weasley wasn't plotting to take over the wizarding world, but I couldn't help but notice that the people she chose as friends were the attention seekers, the ones who snuck off to smoke cigarettes or who smuggled Firewhiskey into the dorm rooms. In addition, she had the same "go to hell" attitude about her that those loathsome twins had had. You could look at it as moxie or just downright insensitivity. She didn't spend her time with students like Potter, the sweet, generous types; in fact, she tended to make fun of them.
I couldn't help but wonder what in the hell was she getting out of this? It was obvious what Potter was getting. Marriage equals instant brothers equals instant pseudo parents equals sex with an attractive young woman equals happiness. It would plug very effectively all of the holes in his sad upbringing. I had wanted fame, power, and recognition, and yes, I did get them when I joined the Death Eaters, but at a horrific price. I hoped that he wasn't paying in similar coinage.
He did not come back for years.
Three years later he returned for a total of one minute. Again, his power was so manifest that I was pulled from a canvas in the Potions classroom to the Room of Requirement so quickly that I was thrown slightly off balance. I put a hand against my wingback to stop my fall. There was nothing in the room but Potter, not even a fire going.
"I wanted to tell you that you were wrong. Dead wrong. We are so happy. But you don't know the meaning of the word, do you? Lived a nasty a little life, in your nasty little rooms. We're going to have a baby that's how happy we are!" He thumped his chest, to emphasize the obvious. As if the fact he had a sex life was worthy of a rousing Huzzah. "A baby! So just take your questions and snarky asides and go to hell, Snape."
Then he left.
I didn't see him again for another three years, until after the birth of his second son.
I had never trusted the sort of circular fate that was the cream in Sybil Trelawney's coffee, but I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow when Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Black Malfoy were born on the same day.
Draco had proved to be a more than decent teacher. He had learned to tone down the arrogance so that people weren't alienated by it, but retained enough so that he developed an easy command over the classroom; the sort of ease that usually takes a decade to master. And he was a natural bully.
I should know.
He had been assisting me for several years now, way past the date of his parole. I turned more and more of the curriculum over to him as I worked on the subsequent volumes of the Potions textbook series. He had assumed Head of House duties in Slytherin and was becoming something of a fixture here at Hogwarts. Even Minerva was warming up to him. By that I mean she actually used his name, as opposed to referring to him as that "horrible little snot."
Therefore, I was not pleased when the last of the students had filed out the door for the end of another term, and he turned to me and did not say, "See you in September, Snape," as he should have. No. He turned to me and said, "I have to quit. I've knocked up Astoria Greengrass, and the bitch is insisting on marriage."
Hell! I still had three volumes to go, and I wasn't in the mood to train another assistant.
I gave him the look.
"I know!" he sputtered.
"I suppose it pointless to remind you that I taught you the proper spell to avoid such calamities when you were fifteen. Nor do I suppose it worthwhile to remind you that Professor McGonagall was on the verge of making you permanent staff."
He was too upset to even sneer at me. He merely nodded and hung his head.
"Marry her and stay. You will have to give up your duties as Head of Slytherin, but you two could keep a house in Hogsmeade. With me backing you up, Minerva will agree to anything. I will merely hiss the name 'Elliot' in her ear, and your position will be written in stone. The Greengrasses were on the right side in the war. You could do a lot worse."
He finally looked up, his face a tad less miserable.
"Teaching here has restored you in the eyes of some, but not enough. You leave and go out into the wizarding world, I guarantee you will still be reviled by the majority. Stay here and teach sons and daughters who will remember you as that witty Professor Malfoy, not the son of Lucius Malfoy, Death Eater. Miss Greengrass is not bad. Be grateful it was her who seduced you and not that utter lump of a sister, Daphne. Astoria has a brain, a passable face, and her family has money."
I put a decided emphasis on the word "money."
The subject of Draco's finances had never come up, but if his robes were any indication--not the latest fashion by half--money was an issue. There were rumours that the Ministry had had to make reparations to the Muggle government for the damage Voldemort had visited on Muggle landmarks and buildings, and had done so on the backs of Death Eaters' bank accounts. Lucius, ever the sort who would hedge his bets, would have socked quite a bit away in France and Italy, but whether he could touch it without leaving the country was another matter.
"And you will have a son. Malfoys haven't had girls in over one hundred years. A son, Draco," I reminded him. His weakness, like his father, was the concept of family--in a noblesse oblige way, not kiddies and border collies around the hearth sensibility.
"Because you were so randy that you didn't bother to utter a total of five words, you will now pay the price for such stupidity and wanton irresponsibility. You will honour your obligations to Miss Greengrass. No one ordered you to fuck her. There is a slim chance that she actually cares for you. Hard to fathom, but a possibility."
"You're such a bastard, Snape," he muttered.
"I try. My threats to you when you took this job pale in comparison to what I will do if you leave this woman in the lurch. Besides, you are not listening. A son. To carry on the Malfoy name."
The combination of threats and appeals to his vanity were usually successful in coercing Draco to pretty much do anything, and this afternoon was no different.
He sighed. "She's not bad. Mother likes her. You're right. Thanks, Snape. I'll tell McGonagall."
It was times like these when I was overjoyed I was half-dead.
When Potter finally returned, it was with Albus Severus in arms. I gave no more than a passing glance at the bundle and that only to be polite. I had been in the library, chatting with the pope when suddenly, in mid-sentence, I was whisked into the Room of Requirement. I would much rather discuss the politics of fourteenth-century France than endure one of Potter's tantrums, so my mood wasn't exactly sweetness and light.
Ignoring all my requests to the contrary, Minerva kept me abreast of the general status of the Potters and Weasleys. The arrival of children was always ballyhooed. Given the numbers of ever-increasing grandchildren, Molly could rest assured that her children were as fecund as she. Therefore, I had heard of the arrival of Albus Severus Potter, Minerva shaking with amusement as she relayed the name of the latest Potter child. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, "Have they gone mad?"
"Am I forgiven, or are you going to go into another rage with your infant son as a witness?"
Sat in a rocking chair, moving in a gentle back and forth, he had propped the sleeping baby up against his chest.
"Is the name okay?"
"Your life has been a series of putting carts before horses, and it's nice to know that some things never change. What if I had said that I found it absolutely abhorrent and asked you to change it?"
"I... wouldn't." He brought the child closer to his chest.
"It is ridiculous, especially combined with Albus, but as it's a fait compli, I can do little but sneer. Take special pride in knowing that he will be taunted and bullied his entire childhood saddled with a name like that. You should start calling him some atrocious nickname. If you begin now, it might stick. Something like 'Bud' or 'Hank.' I suppose 'Al' will do in a pinch. I've known several 'Als' in my lifetime, and with the exception of Albus Dumbledore, all of them have been complete and utter pillocks."
"You're ticked at me, aren't you?"
"I don't know what gave you that idea. And?"
"Do not act the simpleton; I don't have the patience."
"You've never had any patience, and okay, okay. Yeah, I mean, yes. You're forgiven." I glared at him. "I mean, I'm sorry I was such a wanker."
"What brings you here besides your apology--four years too late, I might add--and demonstrating your pathetic inability to name children. James? Please."
"Just thought you'd want to see your namesake."
I rolled my eyes.
"Okay. Maybe Maybe I came to say that just maybe you were right. We should have waited. And I've missed you and I'm sorry."
"But... " I flailed a hand in the direction of the child, not more than a couple of months old.
"The kids aren't the problem. It's me and her. Plus there might be other things that I don't really want to talk to you about."
The child started to wail, which was no surprise, because during his little confession, he'd began clutching the child to his chest.
"You're suffocating it."
He eased up, but the child was still whimpering. With a flick of his wand, a bottle appeared. I sat down. He fed the child, humming snatches of songs, talking in half-sentences, asking questions that the child couldn't possibly answer. (Still hungry? Which was ludicrous because even if he was capable of speech, the child was sucking on that bottle like it was the Last Supper.) Pretty soon the bottle was empty and the child was asleep. With a little sigh, a cradle appeared up, and Potter slipped the sleeping child under a wealth of covers. He gave the little cap covering the child's head a tweak so it was snug on his head; his hand was shaking.
"How are you doing? You're still here."
I made a grand flourish with both my hands to indicate that, yes, indeed, I was still here.
"Home sweet home? Draco Malfoy teaches Potions. I keep one ear open for any egregious mistakes on his part, and with my other ear and the rest of my faculties, I work on the next volumes of the Potions series. I have a dedicated house-elf who acts as a scribe. Please inform Ms Granger-Weasley. I'm sure it will enrage her. I help Draco teach, he helps me on occasion with the books. I have only two volumes left to go. I am the world's leading expert on magical printing presses, magical paintings, souls trapped in limbo, and fourteenth-century French politics, with a minor in Catholic theology. In other words, nothing has changed in six years. Now, on to you. You are miserable?"
"No," he denied, but it sounded half-hearted. When a bottle of Ogdens appeared along with a chair, table, and a large cut-glass tumbler, I surmised that miserable didn't begin to describe it.
I raised an eyebrow. It wasn't even noon.
"Oh, all right," he groused and threw himself into the chair. A teapot and accoutrements replaced the bottle of Firewhiskey; he didn't even glance at his teacup. "We are doing okay. Well, maybe not. I dunno what we are. It's just that I don't think she married me, you know? She seems constantly disappointed. It's hard to explain. I feel like I'm failing her all the time. Like I can't do anything right. The kids though, they're perfect. I'd have ten if I could." He glanced at Albus and smiled. "I don't know what to do."
Why was I, the least appropriate person on the face of this earth, giving morality lessons to Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter?
"Do you think just because I thought this marriage was ill-conceived that I would condone your ending it?
If I had slapped him, he couldn't have looked any more shocked.
"You've just finished feeding that child and you have the nerve to ask that?"
Startled at the contemptuous tone in my voice, he scrunched his eyes and began the hair-carding, a sure sign he was both confused and upset. Although far too old to cry--he was now, what, twenty-five?--the cords of his neck strained against the collar of his shirt and the hand not abusing his hair was shaking; he was shattering inside. I knew exactly how that felt: when you couldn't go back and the prospect of going forward seemed equally impossible. Stupidly, I pushed my hands against the canvas in a vain attempt to run a soothing hand over the strained muscles, to grasp his hand in mine, to gently run my hands through that ridiculous head of hair, to say physically what I couldn't say verbally.
You have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other.
What in the hell was I thinking? I pulled my hands back.
"Look at him," I said gently. "You do nothing. You learn to live with her. You raise your children to the best of your ability. She might not be a saint, but she is not an ogre. Is she abusing the children?"
"Of course not."
"Then, you've made your bed, lie in it. At least until they are finished with school. You will be young enough to start over."
"I ... I... "
I cut him off.
"Having had the one of the most abusive childhoods possible, I will state that I do not believe in the sanctity of marriage at all costs. If my mother had left that sadistic bastard I had the misfortune to call my father, then I might have respected her and retained my love for her. He was a Neanderthal who saw nothing wrong with backhanding a child whenever the mood struck him. She, on the other hand, knew it was wrong and couldn't stop him short of leaving him on my behalf. She didn't. You and your wife have no such dynamic. She is merely a selfish, spoilt girl--note the emphasis on the word girl--and you are a clueless young man. The two of you had no business getting married so young, but now it is done. If you no longer wish to be her lover, fine, but that does not give you the right to abdicate your responsibility to your children. She will mature over time."
He rocked the cradle, not saying anything.
"You enjoy being an Auror?"
"Then relish your job and your children. You are luckier that most men, and certainly not the first man to marry a shrew."
I waited for him to deny that she was a shrew, and when he didn't I realised how profoundly unhappy he was. The Ogdens hadn't been just theatrics.
"I ran into Malfoy out in the corridor. Our kids were born on the same day. Funny."
"If it's any consolation, he is as miserable as you are."
The acknowledgment that my harsh assessment of Ginevra Potter was spot on mended our fragile fences. He visited off and on over the next year, always with the children in tow. His second return visit, he couched his arrival in a few awkward phrases about his wife working weekends as a replacement Seeker for the Harpies, and how he had "kid duty" Saturday and Sunday, which only seemed fair since he worked all week, and was it alright that he brought the kids and--
I waved a hand for him to be quiet. As long as the Room kept spitting out cribs when they needed naps or toys to amuse them when they weren't tired, I didn't care.
We chatted about Ministry politics, Hogwarts politics, his cases, my students, how the series on Potions was nearly finished, and the research going on at St. Mungo's as a result of the sales of said books. We did not talk about his marriage or what I now deemed my permanent state as a portrait with a soul.
There really was no point in discussing either.
It was fascinating seeing Potter outside the milieu of Hogwarts. The children were part of his other life, a side to him I'd never be privy to. He was a wonderful father. Although he could have been taking care of kittens for all I cared, watching him change their soiled diapers, feed them, and tease them even though they couldn't possibly understand they were being teased, merely reinforced how abysmal my own parents had been and how tragic it was for him to lose his.
They must have loved him a tremendous amount, because their love sustained him during those bleak years while subjected to the abuse of those horrid Muggles. I doubt he'd have been a much different person had Potter and Lily lived. Their son would have been just as generous, clueless, and easy-going, with a relatively happy nature; however, I'd bet my wand, if I had one, that he wouldn't have married Ginevra Weasley in an attempt to recreate what he had lost. Having tasted love and then been denied it, he had nearly twenty years of it stored up to lavish on someone. Someones. But then she'd never been denied love, not in that household. For her, it was cheap, expected.
She was an idiot. I hated her.
"Are you absolutely mad?" I paced the length of my portrait, wishing for the millionth time that I had an extra ten feet. Even in my frustration, I kept my steps measured; if I stepped too far to the right, I would stumble into Nigellus Black's portrait (and I loathed that man); too far on the left, and I would enter into a former headmistress' portrait (who was an absolute bitch if you woke her up). "What in Merlin's name, given the unhappy state of your marriage, would cause you to bring another child into this world?"
"I'm not that unhappy," he grumbled and pushed his uneaten plate away. Potter refusing food was unheard of.
"Oh, really? So that lugubrious expression on your face every Sunday you turn up for tea is a commentary on the inferior grade of bread on the cucumber sandwiches? I shall have a word with the house-elves."
"Snape, please give it a rest," he begged. "It wasn't planned, it just happened. Because I was... Never mind."
"Fine. I have better things to do with my time than determine what goes on in that dunderheaded skull of yours." This was not exactly true, but I couldn't exactly beat it out of him, now could I? Pity. "Where are the children?"
He had never not brought them, despite my oft-stated all-purpose loathing of anyone younger than twenty. But Potter tended to time his visits during nap time and the Room readily supplied cribs. We would have a nice tea--or he could; I merely looked on in envy and tried not to remember that those little salmon sandwiches with the capers and cream cheese had been my favourite--and have our little visit while the children slept away the afternoon.
"At Molly's today. I ... I need to talk to you."
"You did talk," I pointed out. "To tell me that your wife was pregnant again."
A glass of Firewhiskey appeared. This time he did not banish it but took a gigantic slug.
"Things aren't so bad. You were right. Again." That was said with something of a whine, and, yes, right on schedule, there was the pout. "Why are you always right?"
"It's a gift and a curse. Continue."
"She's maturing, and I'm trying to listen and be a little more on the ball. We get along fairly well now, and if it weren't ... It would be okay if ..."
The conversations where Potter started off unable to finish his sentences always proved to be either emotionally draining or protracted. Usually both. I waved my hand and sat down.
With a grimace, he got up and began walking aimlessly around the room. I noticed with not a small degree of frustration that the room enlarged and contracted, depending on his stride.
"I ... Remember that Auror convention I went to a couple of months ago? That one in the States? New York City is brilliant, Snape. Have you been there?"
"I detest, and I do not use that word lightly, everything and anything American. It is nothing more than a nation of people who speak in slang and wear revealing clothes. And while I like the odd bit of nudity here and there, the people who reveal their flesh are, ninety percent of the time, the exact people whose flesh I wish I'd never laid eyes on. As in I'd rather plunge a fork into my eye. Which does not make up for the ten percent whose flesh I wish to ogle."
"Explains the buttons up to the hairline," he muttered in an undertone.
"Nothing." He said that with a breezy insouciance I hadn't heard from him in months, maybe years.
"I regret many things in my life; not having visited the United States is not on the list. It's not even at the bottom of the life. It's not-- "
He held up his hands in protest. "I get it. Sheesh."
I narrowed my eyes. "That sounds American."
"Maybe." He grinned.
"You were in New York at this conference," I prompted him. "Your eyes were assaulted by half-naked people, and your ears picked up enough offensive slang to last you a lifetime. And ?"
I never would have anticipated his next question. Never.
He dropped his head so that I couldn't see his face, but I had no problem hearing him.
"When did you discover you were gay?"
Despite my years as the most successful spy in the history of wizarding kind, this was beyond even my abilities. For the first time in my life--and one hopes the last--my eyes bulged out of my head.
He coughed and looked up.
"Are you asking this for yourself or for someone else?"
Pointing an anemic finger at himself, he said, "Me."
"Homosexual or bisexual?"
He more or less collapsed into a corner of the room, falling against the wall, his shoulders curving inward as if an Arctic blast had whooshed past us.
"Not sure. I've only, you know, with Ginny. I just know that with this, um, guy it was brilliant. It felt... " He flailed a hand.
The castle clearly adored him. Every single whim was answered. A stool nudged its way into corner between his body and the wall. I doubt he was even aware he'd sat down.
Potter was an adult; I trusted that my personal epiphany at the hand and mouth of a prostitute wouldn't shock him.
"I felt nothing with a woman, and like I'd died and gone to heaven with a man. So 'right' doesn't really apply. It wasn't so much right versus wrong, as lust versus ennui. But that was much later in my life. At sixteen I was ridiculously naive. Even more naive than you appeared to me at a similar age. Friends took me to a whorehouse for my birthday--"
"No!" he said, clearly shocked. "Really?"
"Really. Pure-bloods do that sort of thing. Rites of passage nonsense.
On my sixteenth birthday, Rosier and Lestrange took me to a whore house in Knockturn Alley. My ignorance on sexual matters was profound. The twisted dynamics in my parents' household was such that if someone had told me children were the spawn of squids, I would have believed them. But I played a very good game, hiding this innocence with the usual adolescent bluster and bravado. Is there anything more pathetic than a sixteen-year-old male virgin who tries to prove to everyone that he is anything but?
The whore who led me up the stairs worked me over for a considerable time, to no avail, and then threw up her hands and called in a male colleague. He touched me and within one minute I had the orgasm of my sad little life. The joy I felt at discovering that I was not sexually dysfunctional was immediately erased by the realisation that I was homosexual. Naturally, Rosier and Lestrange knew nothing. The whore was kind enough not to embarrass me in front of them as she escorted me out the door. Despite my poverty, I slipped her an extra Galleon for her generosity of spirit.
"Lucius took Draco to a famous brothel in France for his fourteenth birthday. It proved prophetic, as Draco acted like a whore for several years after that. As for me, naturally, they had paid for a female prostitute, as I hadn't given them any indication that I was anything but heterosexual. Indeed, not even I knew. My lack of response prompted her to ask a colleague to take over, who was a 'him.' Epiphany. Now, what leads you to think-- This conference?"
"My American counterpart in their Auror office. We spent several days together, comparing our organizations, strategies, went out for drinks and... " His voice trailed off.
"Sucked each other's cocks?" I finished for him in the same matter-of-fact tone.
He was so embarrassed, I imagine even his toes turned bright red.
"I've suspected I was that way for a good long time, but I was afraid to... So yeah. Epiphany."
"And the child?"
At that he looked stricken.
He was so predictable; he jumped off the stool and the pacing began.
"I freaked out. I mean, wouldn't you?"
Yes, I had "freaked out" as he put it, but in my own quiet, twisted little way. I had refused to touch myself for a year because every time I put so much as a pinkie finger on my cock, I would think of that prostitute and his mouth.
"So, me and Ginny you know, to sort of see ? And then the baby, well happened."
I had been wasting my time on Potions textbooks; I should have spent these years compiling a Potter dictionary.
"Sort of see. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume that you had a mental fit, and to convince yourself of your heterosexuality, you bedded your wife the minute you got in the door."
The pacing ceased and he flopped down. The stool scuttled over to catch him before he landed arse first on the floor.
"Pretty much," he mumbled.
"And, despite the irrefutable evidence that your dick actually worked with a female, rather spectacularly I might add, you are convinced you are gay."
We did not say anything for several minutes, but sat there with his head in his hands. After a while he raised his head. His glasses were smudged and his face wet.
"What should I do?"
"Do?" I asked, somewhat incredulous. Why was I having this conversation with him? Again!
"Excuse me, Mr Potter. You can and you will. You obviously have no problem sleeping with her given the proper motivation. You and only you can answer the question whether this is an attempt to free yourself from a less than perfect marriage, or that you've discovered a part of your sexuality that heretofore had been latent. I don't really care, but you will not, I repeat, you must not use this as an excuse to go catting around"
"I wasn't --" He stopped speaking, because it was obvious by the intense shame blanketing his cheeks that that was precisely what he was planning on doing.
"I do not think your 'epiphany' changes things in the slightest. You have now three children you are responsible for. Whether you sleep with women or men, it is still putting your marriage and your relationship with your children at risk."
"Why can't it ever be easy for me!" he shouted. "Why can't I just have my affairs and have the kids and--"
"Have your cake and eat it, too, hmmm?"
"No," he protested, and the pout reappeared.
"Shall I list why you can't? Because it's wrong. Because you have brought these children into the world and they deserve both parents. Because you took vows to honour your wife. You still love her?"
He hesitated. "I do and it's okay, and she's a fantastic mother, but it's not enough."
Perhaps this was the wrong thing for Potter to say to someone who, because of horrible parents and his own stupidity, never had even the remotest chance of having even a quarter of what Potter had. You would think with his upbringing, he would think twice about jeopardizing what he had always wanted.
"You will make it enough!" I roared. "God, Albus, if you weren't dead, I would kill you. No matter how many Dark Lords you have vanquished or how many parents you have lost in the war, at some point in your life you will have to take responsibility for what you have done! Some things are not forgivable, Potter. You may ask for forgiveness and find yourself whistling in the dark. And you might think that your constant rule breaking--"
"Fuck, are we on about that again?" he groaned.
Never had I felt my constraints more severely. If I could, I'd have leapt from this portrait and boxed his goddamned ears for him.
"Yes," I said in a deadly whisper.
His head snapped up. Potter and I might have crossed some Rubicon in our relationship, but now he was speaking to the Snape of old, bitter and caustic.
"I hope to God," I said, "you don't find yourself like me, on your knees, begging someone to forgive you, and finding that even if forgiveness comes, it doesn't matter, because you can't forgive yourself. You are not the type to frequent bathroom stalls. You will meet men who will expect much more of you than a lunchtime blow in the men's of some Muggle pub. You will find yourself deceiving all of those around you. Lying and making excuses so that you can indulge yourself. I suggest that you think about all the times that Dumbledore indulged you and protected you and cosseted you in the service of vanquishing Voldemort. You did so when little more than a child. Congratulations. It does not give you a free pass. Now that you are grown, do you intend to carry on this fine tradition by deceiving your family, your in-laws, your friends--"
He held up a hand for me to stop. Whipping out his wand, he Accio'd me onto the floor and curled up against me.
I counted to ten, then twenty, letting the outrage seep out of me.
"I know how it feels, believe me. To discover that you march to a different drummer. Yet another manifestation that distinguishes you from your peers and dammit to hell, why?"
"Haven't I done enough?" he demanded, though his voice was weary.
"It's immaterial. Being the victim of child abuse did not absolve me of my culpability in your mother's death. I don't see why your being a victim of Voldemort's insanity and Dumbledore's ruthlessness allows you to ignore your obligations and duty. You might be gay, but you are still their father, and they will do better in life with two parents as opposed to half-time parents."
Shuddering, he wrapped his arms around my portrait.
I waited until he was composed and then said, "The second you married her and decided to have children that question became moot."
Several seconds later, I heard a muffled, "I don't want to lose the kids."
"Then behave yourself until they are out of school."
Sitting back on his haunches, he studied me. "Were you this hard on yourself?"
"You have no idea."
Learning forward he put his hand on the canvas. Again, I could not help myself; I followed suit and matched him, palm to palm. Although I knew it pointless, I tried to curl my hand to entwine it with his.
"Did Dumbledore forgive you when you came back?"
"Yes," I admitted. "Unfortunately, it didn't matter. There is literally nothing more soul-destroying than asking for forgiveness from yourself and finding that you cannot. I would not wish that on anyone, especially not you."
"Me?" he mouthed, confused and despite all that had happened to him, uncorrupted. He couldn't comprehend such self-loathing.
I nodded because I could not speak.
All these years, I railed in fury because redemption had been denied me. Even twenty years spent in hell, as Dumbledore's lapdog and Voldemort's chief henchman, was for naught. It could have been me shouting from the very pinnacle of the Gryffindor Tower: "Why can't it be easy for once. Haven't I done enough!"
I understood now why I was here. Why my soul was trapped. His profound despair was only second to my own on his behalf. One look at that hand on mine; one look at the man he had become and how much we had all failed him, letting him face that madman by himself, his realisation that he wanted men, his commitment to his children and his conflicted feelings toward his wife, and it became all too clear why I was still here.
To watch over him. For Lily. The final act of penance. The last genuflect. A generous and loving person, she would not have asked this of me. This purgatory was self-inflicted, my final offering to her. So that even as limited as I was, trapped in time and space, when I finally met her I could say:
I did my best. He lived a fine life. Forgive me.
I turned my head away and removed my hand.
"Go," I said in a low voice. "Your wife will be wondering what's kept you."
He backed out of the room, his glasses askew, watching me, my face now having reverted back to its normal inscrutable scowl. He held up his hand in a terse wave and was gone.
I fell into Minerva's office. The room was empty, silent but for the gentle snores of my fellow portraits as they slept their hard-earned final slumber.
No rest for the wicked.
I hugged this secret to myself for three weeks and then could bear it no longer. At the very least, I needed someone to tell me that my theory about why I was trapped here was not insane. At which point, I would, well, do nothing. But continue to endure. My lot in half-life. Regardless, I could not keep this to myself.
Albus was rarely awake these days. My anger and hostility toward him had been his only reason for staying awake, and now his eyes were almost always closed, his neck bent, his head resting on his shoulder. After that last conversation where we had resolved what I had insisted for years was the irresolvable--I am wrong on the rare occasion--he was now done with this earth, even as a memory.
He snorted, which was followed by snore.
Damn it to hell.
I slipped into his portrait and shook his shoulder.
I am petty enough that I actually enjoyed seeing him uncharacteristically surprised.
"Severus." Even as he wiped the sleep from his eyes, he smiled. "My boy."
With a terrific jolt, I realised that although he'd been calling me that for years, I hadn't realized, I had not realized, what he meant by this. That while he treated all the students and teachers at Hogwarts as part of his extended family, I was a special "boy." One of a handful that he considered his "children." Potter and I, and yes, damn him, Black, Lupin, and Potter were his sons; we were the children he had never had.
"You look upset, Severus."
You could say that.
"I have developed an explanation for why I am here, tethered in this oil-based colour-wheel hell."
He cocked his head, now completely awake.
"I remain to watch over Potter. I will be in this damn portrait until he dies. At that point, my debt to Lily will have been paid."
"Ah," was all he said.
"I suspected as much. A wizard's debt between yourself and your soul."
"Does he know?"
I shook my head.
"Now you know why it was so easy for me to die, Severus. Why I begged you to kill me. Yes, it was partly because of Draco, but really? My conscience demanded that I sacrifice myself as thoroughly as I sacrificed you all."
I wanted nothing more to grab a bottle of Firewhiskey from the bottom drawer in Minerva's office and drink myself into a coma. Would that I could.
"He needs you."
"He clearly needs someone." I glared at him, because really, this was his sort of bailiwick, not mine. "In what I would call fairly typical of his bull-in-the-china-shop mentality, he decided to prove his heterosexuality to himself by seducing his wife. It only confirmed that he is, indeed, gay, and now has another mouth to feed."
Albus didn't look particularly surprised.
"I cannot imagine Harry without children. They will sort it out."
"I have insisted that he stay with his wife and not cat around until the children are out of school."
"He did not like my advice."
"Why am I, a man who was put on trial for war crimes, the moral arbitrator for this generation? You should have heard my conversation with Draco Malfoy before his shotgun marriage to Astoria. He had the nerve to complain that she became pregnant because he couldn't be arsed to utter a simple Contraception Charm."
"Who else understands temptation and consequences better than you?"
I dismissed that with a snort. It was true, but moot.
"They will make their mistakes regardless. Despite my love for Lily, I joined Voldemort's merry band of Death Eaters without so much as a backward glance."
He dismissed that with a snort.
"We both know that was partly my fault. If Sirius hadn't been so terrified at your broadcasting his sexuality..." I started at that. Albus had known why Black had fed me to Lupin? "And if I hadn't been caught in the middle, and if she and James ..."
Truly, Albus was all knowing. It was a little annoying.
"A plethora of what ifs that mattered not."
"Does he know? "
"I beg your pardon? Didn't we just have this conversation?"
"Death did not make me stupid, Severus. You are in love with him, aren't you? The way you speak of him. Does he know?"
He was referring to Potter, of course.
"I speak of him in the same disparaging tone I've used for the last five years."
"Exactly!" he beamed.
Is this worth a second thought? Did I love Potter? True, I had been wanking off to the visual of him for years, but then he was beautiful. Only a fool wouldn't appreciate the curve of that jaw, the long line of that bottom lip, the set of his shoulders. Was it more than that?
"Don't be ridiculous, Albus."
"I know how much you love proving me wrong, Minerva, so I will give you this one for free. Consider it an early Christmas present."
The hand lifting her whiskey was shaking just a bit. I was worried about her. Poppy Pomfrey had died the previous autumn, and Minerva hadn't been the same since. Oh, she still was still feisty enough with the students and her shoulders remained straight and firm when she held court in the Great Hall, but in her room between the two of us? If I let the conversation flag for one minute, her shoulders would drop and her eyes would stare off into space.
"You know how I loathed Potter on principle because I believed he was his father reborn? I was wrong. Rejoice. The creature they call James is, in fact, a perfect replica. If I didn't know any better, I'd suspect the Dark Arts. Same exact arrogance, same insufferable abilities, same penchant for practical jokes at the expense of others. It is a time machine."
"Yes, he is rather like James, isn't he?"
"You like him," I accused.
"He has charm, you must admit."
"They said that about Crippen."
"Who is Crippen?"
"Muggle murderer. As per his grandfather, he has no ability in Potions. It's as if his brain--"
"Although he's brilliant in Charms and Transfiguration, you will allow."
"Paltry arts," I sneered.
"Paltry arts?" she shrieked.
It was harder and harder to get a rise out of her these days. I let her rant and rave happily for the next ten minutes on the subtleties and theories behind Transfiguration, and how Charms required a delicate sensibility, and how --
She stopped mid-sentence.
"You're winding me up on purpose."
"Yes and no. I do loathe that child."
"You do not loathe him."
"I most certainly do. But he detests me as well. We have a mutual loathing society going. It works quite well."
I had had a ringside seat watching the Potter enfants grow up and matriculate into Hogwarts as had their parents. James was so like his namesake that it was not a little uncanny. He and I had reached an understanding when he was ten, the year before he came to school. While Potter was fussing with Albus over something to do with his shoe laces, James had whispered to me, "My father likes you a lot. I don't." I had replied, "I don't like you either." Funnily enough, that was that. We freely acknowledged our dislike for each other and a sort of mutual respect developed.
The younger son, Albus, was very like Potter: sweet, a little apt to be taken advantage of. He hadn't inherited his father's ability on a broom, but he was much more intelligent. Which explained his Sorting into Ravenclaw. All the better, as his brother tended to torture him unmercifully. Within two days of arriving at Hogwarts, James had established himself as being the ipso facto head of Gryffindor for his year and those below him. Being sorted into Ravenclaw gave Albus something of a chance at establishing his own identity apart from that of his obnoxious brother. He also excelled at Potions, apparently having inherited Lily's facility.
Apropos of nothing, Minerva said, "I'm very tired these days, Severus."
I could not help but notice that she had aged an enormous amount in the last year. I, of course, had not aged at all. As the world kept marching onward and I did not, I began to feel more and more like a spectator. I likened it to watching a television show whose storyline spanned generations. The actors aged, but the audience did not.
"Yes, I can see that."
"Lily starts next year. A feisty child. She's a cross between Ginny and your Lily."
We had never discussed my deep love for Lily Evans, but at this point, there really was no point in hiding old secrets.
"More Ginny than Lily at this point." Yes, she was quite headstrong, but I thought it was more a reflection of her determination to establish an equal footing in the family and unseat that overbearing James a bit rather than a deep-seated character flaw. As many times as I'd seen her haul off and kick James in the shins, most of the time it was in defense of Albus. "Time will tell what sort of intelligence she has."
She poured herself another hefty three fingers of Firewhiskey. "The Potter marriage is not as sound as it could be."
I said nothing but raised my teacup.
"What would you think of offering Harry the Headmaster's job when I die?"
I dropped my cup.
"Your eulogy was very well received."
"Thank you for doing the honours. She was an amazing woman; it would have been impossible to do her justice."
"You managed. Who do you think was there for her?"
"Poppy. Albus. A brother who was killed in the first war. Her parents. Augusta Longbottom, who I hope was wearing the most hideous hat that the ether could supply. Minerva loved to criticize that woman. I would like to think that they will be sniping at each other for eternity."
"Should I take the job?"
The board had offered Potter the job per Minerva's recommendation. As much as the idea that he would be back at Hogwarts pleased me a ridiculous amount--in hindsight that should have been warning--what in the seven hells qualified him for the headmaster post? I said as much to Draco, who reminded me that Potter had put together Dumbledore's Army and had taught them the rudiments of DADA.
"If Potter could take that utter nincompoop Neville Longbottom and turn him into a decent wizard, he could probably run a school for angels in the bowels of hell with resounding success."
He had a point.
And his unqualified success in revamping the Ministry certainly boded well for dealing with teachers, cranky parents, and hooligans masquerading as students.
He still had not accepted it, and while the board was convinced that he would, I wasn't so sanguine.
"Do you want the job?"
He and I were now the same age, and the promise I had seen in him ten years ago was fully realized. Under Kingsley, Potter, and Granger, the Ministry had repaired the damage incurred under the disastrous Fudge years, and after giving it some serious thought, it was obvious that he would be a fine headmaster.
This was the first time Potter had asked me for advice me in thirteen years. After that afternoon where I told him to keep his dick in his pants, our relationship had changed. Being Head Auror demanded a great deal of his time, so he didn't come as often as he had when the children were small, but that was not the full story.
He ignored the question.
Yes, there was a distance now. He had resented my interfering, and our former bon ami had deteriorated into a tired duty on his part. The subject of his marriage was now verboten. Interestingly enough, the subject of my incarceration by canvas was now equally off limits.
"It might be weird with the kids."
We had moved into the Room of Requirement because Minerva's portrait was squawking about how he would be the perfect headmaster, on par with Dumbledore, and while he was a wonderful Head, the Ministry could now do without him
One grimace in my direction, and we continued our discussion in private. Unlike before, there was no tea set up and not even a chair had materialized. Potter was either all business or the intervening years had taught him to mask his feelings. What I would give for the ability to perform a little Occlumency right now.
"You are a fair person, and certainly not the first headmaster to have children present during your tenure."
"James is horrified at the prospect."
"That in and of itself would seem like a ringing endorsement for the idea."
He chuckled, his eyes crinkled up in mirth, and our eyes met. For one second there was that connection of old, that sense that we were so much on the same page. Then the shutters came back down.
"Do you think I could work with Malfoy?"
Surprisingly, Draco stayed at Hogwarts. The marriage to Astoria was not without its problems. Draco spent a number of weekends in the Malfoy flat off of Diagon Alley, where I suspected he spent most of his time in pubs trying to pull. But teaching had awakened a latent intellectual bent in him. The library here at Hogwarts was second to none, and when he wasn't on the prowl in London, you could find him in the stacks doing historical research on Potions. He was making a name for himself in a number of refereed journals.
"He is still arrogant, but tolerable. He is an excellent teacher."
"As good as you?"
"I say yes, I damn myself; I say no, I damn him."
He laughed and there it was again, a connection. We were regaining our footing.
"I guess Ginny could come on the weekends."
He said nothing for several seconds then,
"How would you feel about it? Me being headmaster."
When telling the truth can mean the difference between life and death, lying is almost second nature. I did not say, "I've missed you. It would be nice to see you on a more regular basis." What I did say was, "You have it in you to rival Dumbledore in a great many ways."
That did not get the blush I thought it would but a grimace masquerading as a smile.
"I was serious."
"Yeah, I know."
Potter did take the job. He moved me to the wall to the right of his desk and appointed me Assistant Headmaster, because as he said quite aptly, "What in the hell do I know about running a school?"
The board made a little bit of a fuss, but Potter made it a contingency of his hire, and although the war hero patina was a little faded, the shine from being Head Auror burned bright. I was hired. To facilitate my new reign of terror, magical painters were hired and canvasses began popping up all over the school. Potter let me choose my backgrounds; and I must admit I went a little hog-wild. Never having travelled outside of Britain, I requested scenes of Greek temples, the African Savannah, the Irish coastline, Italian vineyards, Norwegian fjords, a castle in the Loire, fields in Brittany, a Buddhist temple in Thailand, a monastery in the Carpathian mountains, peaks in Nepal, the Australian outback, glaciers in Canada. The world was my oyster.
The first year, Ginny Potter would walk up from Hogsmeade on a Friday night and leave after tea on Sunday. To the unpractised eye, their interactions were what you would expect from a couple who had been married for twenty years: comfortable, easy. But knowing Potter as I did, his smiles were empty and the conversation mundane. If it was anymore than, "Oh, James got detention again this week," I'd eat my picture frame.
Our interaction was puzzling in the extreme. One week, our collaboration as headmaster and assistant couldn't have been any more satisfying. The next, the emotional walls were up once more. I could not make hide nor hair of his behaviour, even going so far as to ask Minerva for her two cents. She rolled her eyes and muttered, "You are as thick as two planks," and went back to sleep.
Naturally, as Headmaster, Potter was much more lenient that I ever would have been, but his detentions were exceptionally inventive, some even diabolical. The students hated to do anything by hand that they could do by magic, so he would have them clipping hedges, washing dishes, sweeping floors. That sort of thing. I hadn't believed the Sorting Hat had actually considered putting him in Slytherin until he had assigned his first round of detentions. His most onerous were saved for his son James and Lily.
Who proved to be the most completely delightful hellion on the fact of this earth. I adored her.
And the first Potter ever to be Sorted into Slytherin.
Potter was distraught beyond measure.
"Slytherin!" he shouted after the feast. Pacing his room and throwing up his hands every three seconds with some sort of exclamation--"Ridiculous," and, "stupid hat," and, "bloody hell," and, "Ginny is going to kill me"--he would do himself a harm if he weren't careful. "How could I possibly have a child in Slytherin?"
"A possible attempt to reconcile the Houses after the war?" I murmured.
He looked so dejected that I almost said, "Come here." What I said instead was, "She is a first-class tartar. I say that in all admiration. It is not her I'm worried about."
"James is terrified of her."
"He shows a modicum of common sense every now and then."
In hindsight, I could not believe I was so stupid. Such naivete was embarrassing in the extreme.
At first, it was the occasional drink down in Hogsmeade. Then Ginny Potter stopped visiting on the weekends and that meant a tipple on both Friday and Saturday nights. Then as the weather warmed up, there was the sudden desire to take a walk after dinner every night. Then it was late lie-ins on the weekends. True, Potter had never been much of a morning person, so I can be forgiven for not seeing it as just one more piece of evidence.
Not that I was looking. Life was very busy. I patrolled the halls. Now that the Potions series was done, I was moving on to a series of textbooks on DADA. I tutored in my spare time; James had to be watched like a hawk (the boy had the sex drive of three teenagers. I made sure that Potter taught him the Contraceptive Charm and berated James at regular intervals to make use of it.); Albus was doing extra-curricular work in Potions; and Lily hated history and had to be bribed with tales about her grandmother as a student to get her to study. My days and nights were quite full.
As, apparently, were Harry Potter's.
It all came crashing down one afternoon in early May, the first fine day in months. From January through April, torrential rain had battered the castle walls with no respite. When the sun had finally shown its tardy self, it had no warmth and the narcissus stayed in the ground for weeks. Even though N.E.W.T.s and O.W.L.s were around the corner, the entire school was lolling around on the grounds, studying in the sun. I could hear the whoops and yelps of Quidditch practice through the open window as I sat in our office reviewing proofs. The last thing I was expecting was the pounding of feet on the stairs. It was Albus. Once he reached the top, he grabbed the rail of the staircase to steady himself. His face stained with tears, he was hyperventilating so profoundly that he had to choose between speech and breathing.
"L-l-l-l-l-l," he stuttered.
"This has to do with Lily?" I had no heart, so it could not, in theory, stop beating, but I could feel absolute dread. "Take a deep breath, then another; calm yourself, then speak."
At fifteen he was tall and gangly, with a tendency to stoop. His body had not yet caught up with itself, and he had that aching physical vulnerability of a young man on the verge of adulthood. He resembled Ron Weasley at that age, all arms and legs.
"Albus, breathe," I ordered.
He nodded, even while crunching his eyes shut, trying to stop the tears.
Finally, he was able to get out, "Lily. Quidditch accident. Bludger. She fell off her broom. They can't wake her up!"
"Madame Hooch?" I managed to get out without sounding hysterical, even as I was tamping down my own wave of panic. Lily was my favourite Potter child.
"She's tried a shitload of spells and none of them worked and they are taking Lily to the infirmary and I can't find Dad anywhere. I've looked and looked and looked and even James is crying and WHERE IS DAD?"
"You have looked in the library (nod), the grounds (nod), his chambers (nod), the kitchen (nod), the Great Hall (nod), the greenhouses (nod), the dungeons (nod), the Astronomy Tower (nod), the third floor (nod), Moaning Myrtle's bathroom (nod), the Potions classroom (nod), Professor Malfoy's chambers (nod) ..."
It is the nature of epiphanies to shock and amaze; this was no exception. I knew. I knew down to the marrow of my non-existent bones. No matter. This was Lily.
"Albus, you do know where the Room of Requirement is, yes?"
"You must go there, begin pacing along the hallway, and desire, like you've never desired before, that you enter that room and that you wish me to be there. If you don't wish for me to be there, then the room will not provide me with a portrait and I cannot enter the room. Are we clear?"
Given what I am sure would greet my eyes, he would need me.
It was not a surprise, but it was a shock.
Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter occupied the most sumptuous of beds (that must have been Draco's desire), at the tail end of a fuck. Potter was topping, his back shiny with sweat, his hands curled around Draco's, arm to arm, Potter's torso to Draco's back. They were moving in an easy rhythm, evidence of an intimate knowledge. I suppose it a blessing that they weren't talking, but then again, it was obvious that they had been fucking for a very long time and knew exactly what the other wanted and needed. Potter slowed down, nudged Draco's knees apart just a bit more, and with a swivel of those slim hips, shoved back in.
"There?" he asked in a low throaty voice with all the confidence in the world. I would replay that voice in my head for years. Oh, yes, there. Draco moaned his appreciation. I could see Draco's thighs shuddering, hear their panting escalating; I bit my lip to keep from crying out as Potter began to speed up his thrusts.
I am not sure what caused Potter to look up. I suppose Albus might have made a noise or shrieked, something like that. I must confess that all my attention was on these two lovers, every movement, every grunt they made. Something brought Potter's head up, and I would imagine it was a groan of horror that Albus let out at seeing his father fucking another man.
Once their eyes met, Albus ran from the room.
Potter's head snapped up to look at my portrait. I do not know what he saw on my face, but I do know I have never seen him more upset or stricken, and that included the day he witnessed my death. He mouthed a "no," and was about to say something else when I cut him off.
"Lily has had an accident. She was hit in the head by a Bludger and tumbled off her broom. She's unconscious and they can't wake her up. She's in the infirmary."
At the time, I believed that Draco had wished me to leave, but later, after some thought, I decided that it must have been Potter. I fell into my portrait and didn't move for hours, the grief was so tremendous.
"She's all right. A pretty severe concussion and a broken leg, but she's okay. Ginny's with her."
I should have said something but I couldn't. I was afraid that if I started talking, I would say horrible things. Words that I had no right saying.
"We're separated. The children don't know. She's away most of the summer playing with the Harpies, and I'm here during the school year. So we'd thought we'd wait until Lil is out of school to make it official, but-- "
I could not listen to this anymore. Because it didn't matter. Because he was alive and I wasn't, not really, or not alive enough. And it didn't matter if they were separated, because it wasn't me in that bed and it never would be. It was as if Potter had taken his wand and carved out my heart with it. My chest hurt. Why, why could I feel this?
I stood up to leave.
"Wait," he begged. "I've hurt you, I know. I saw. On your face. I sort of thought you might feel that way about me, but I never really believed it until I tried to I didn't know how to-- "
"You love him?" I found myself asking, even as I dreaded hearing the answer.
He shook his head. We were back to having one's cake and eating it too.
"I'm lonely. He's lonely."
I wasn't condemning him for this. If anyone understood the stupid things one does when lonely--cultivate Death Eaters for friends is one example--but my expression must have conveyed something different because he snapped, "I thought I'd have this colleague with benefits thing. Keep it simple. Nothing serious." He gestured toward the frame. "It's not like you can step out of that thing, so... Look, I've broken it off. I thought we could keep it secret, but it's obvious that we can't, so yeah. It's done. I've already talked to him. He's being a perfect jerk about it, surprise, surprise, but we have to work together, so we will. I'm sorry. Okay?"
I had a horrible thought.
"Your marriage is over and yet you are not pursuing anything serious."
"No." The hair carding began.
"Because of me?"
"You and the kids."
"Potter, I am a portrait. Portrait!" I screamed.
"You not just a portrait," he protested. "And I care about you. I think you care about me."
"No," I lied.
"Look, I know you're ticked because of Malfoy. I said I was sorry-- "
I have done some difficult things in my life but never as difficult as this. I could not look him in the face. To do so would acknowledge the deep affection I saw there. Potter was always an open book.
I had wanted this without even knowing I wanted it, and now that I had it, I was nearly sick from it.
"I refuse to be a party to your neurotic compulsion to sacrifice yourself at the drop of a hat. I see that you have every intention of continuing this half-life with me, conversations and tete a tetes over tea in lieu of a real relationship with a man you can feel and touch and love. Instead you are willing to have these pathetic physical affairs, this benefits business. No, I will not let you. I resign. Do not look for me. I am going on a world tour. Forever. I will not be back."
I could hear his voice calling me as I marched from my portrait. "Snape, please! " It must have been my imagination, but I walked miles and I could still hear him.
For several weeks after this last confrontation, he searched for me among the portraits, but there were thousands of paintings in the castle, and I could leap into any one of them at a moment's notice. And then he stopped, just like that. As Potter never knew the meaning of the phrase "giving up," I would like to think that his acceptance of my decision was out of respect.
Despite my determined resolution to stay in complete exile--a pox on Potters--I had not counted on the smarts and tenacity of Lily.
Six months after Albus had fled from the Room and I had vowed not to be Harry Potter's hair shirt for the next fifty years, she snuck into the library after curfew using that blasted Invisibility Cloak. She had threatened the other portraits that she would turn them into sad clowns on velvet if they didn't help her, and they caved in completely and had divulged my whereabouts faster than you could say "watercolour."
"Professor, I know you're here. I need to talk to you."
I had refused Lily once; I could not refuse her granddaughter.
"I'm here in the Forbidden Section. The pope on the third floor--do you have any ideas how many portraits of popes there are in this blasted castle?--and I are having an argument on the most effective way to poison your enemies. He's part Borgia, so he has a slight advantage, but then experience isn't everything. Lily?"
The light from her weak Lumos showed she'd been crying. Even when she had broken her leg, she hadn't cried.
"Please speak to Al. He's still being all horrible to Dad about that business with Professor Malfoy. Hasn't spoken to him in six months. The entire summer he gave him the cold shoulder. We all thought it would stop when school started again, but he's being the world's most perfect bastard, and he's not like that. So, it's dire. Yes, I do know what happened. They tried to keep it from me, but I can worm anything out of Al. I just cry and he caves. But he's torturing Dad and won't forgive him and it's killing him. Dad, I mean. Actually both of them."
My service to family of Potters and Evans would never end.
"Albus, what is this nonsense about not speaking to your father?"
He glared at Lily, who stuck her tongue out at him.
"Lily, take the cloak and come back in thirty minutes. By that time, I will have either gotten through to this dunderhead or I won't. Don't use the east corridor, Peeves has set a trap for marauding students and you will be doused with red paint should you cross his path."
She threw the cloak over her head with a practiced air and disappeared. Obviously this was not the first time she'd snuck around the corridors after hours.
"Nothing to say. Professor," he finished politely.
"It is his betrayal of your mother? I understand they have separated some time ago. They should have told you, naturally, but if she is not mortally offended, why are you taking her part?"
"Not that," he mumbled.
Do I play the authority card here and demand he address me with respect? I think not.
"We have established that it's not the fact he was cheating on your mother, because he was not in fact cheating. Was it a general all-purpose shock that he is human and has had sex more than a total of just three times?"
He rolled his eyes.
"He is not cheating and he is allowed to have sex. Do you care that he is bi-sexual?"
That got another eye roll. Where did that leave us? Oh, oh no, I hope not
I said in my most gentle voice, "Is it the fact that it was Draco Malfoy?"
Like his father, he was incapable of masking his emotions.
"He is your professor," I reminded him.
I got back the most pitiful, "I know."
Even I, possibly the most unattractive teacher to ever sit in the Great Hall, had had to deal with my fair share of crushes.
"It's not really fair to take your frustration and disappointment at being unable to enter into any sort of relationship with Professor Malfoy out on your father." I put a decided emphasis on the word "professor." "You are but sixteen' surely someone your own age --"
"Everyone my age is either straight or stupid," he complained in that same sort of whine his father had perfected by age thirteen.
Still, I couldn't argue with his assessment.
"I don't disagree, but that has nothing to do with punishing your father because he had sex with a man you find attractive."
"He doesn't even like him. Much. He told me that. As if that didn't make it a hundred times worse, because I can't have him because I'm too young, and it's inappropriate," he sneered. "He just has to crook his finger "
Of course, the fact that I had had this exact same conversation with myself over the last six months was supremely ironic.
"At sixteen, your father wasn't crooking any fingers. You cannot have any sort of relationship with Professor Malfoy until you are out of school, and it is not fair to punish your father because he can. Because he is forty years old."
I saw him waver, the injustice of being young, warring with his innate sense of fair play. Albus was so like his father. You just needed to appeal to his exaggerated notion of fair play and he gave in. Eventually. He dragged an arm across his eyes, which looked wet in the light. To weep over someone like Draco Malfoy. The boy's heart was pure marshmallow.
"At some point, and I hope it's soon, you will be mortified to think that you thought Draco Malfoy was the slightest bit attractive. He has his moments, but by and large he's something of a selfish prat, although a good teacher. You father needn't be privy to your attraction for Professor Malfoy, but as he did not know, by ignoring him, you are hurting him dreadfully and punishing him unfairly. Go talk to him."
"Thanks, Professor." He began to turn around and then stopped. "Are you still mad at him?"
I sighed. "I am not mad at him, Albus."
I watched him shuffle out the door, so young, so sweet. I picked up my book and began to read again, admittedly doing a very poor job of ignoring that little voice that said, "As he did not know, by ignoring him, you are hurting him dreadfully and punishing him unfairly."
That night, very, very late, I snuck into his room to make sure he was breathing.
"Thank you, Snape."
I did not respond.
Although I easily eluded her father, I could not escape her. Lily hunted me down to help her with her homework or to help her study for her O.W.L.s or her N.E.W.T.s, or to chat, catching me up on the family gossip. Most of the news was old hat, because portraits really have nothing to do but eavesdrop on conversations and gossip among themselves, but I relished spending time with Lily. It wasn't before long that we had a standing date every Friday afternoon in the Forbidden Section of the library.
It was lovely to talk to someone whose every other sentence didn't begin with "before the war," or "after the war."
Potter and his wife formally divorced. Lily's reaction was, "About time, since they've been miserable forever. Plus, Dad is so gay." James followed in his father's footsteps, became an Auror, and was engaged to an American girl no one liked. Now that the divorce was out in the open, Ginny Potter was dating Oliver Wood, which was also, "About time, since Oliver's wanted to tap her ass forever."
Before I knew it, both James and Albus had graduated and now it was Lily's turn to leave.
I would miss her greatly. She and I had the deep friendship that I should have had with her grandmother but for my wounded pride.
June 16, 2025
"Since I won't see you for a while, I'm going to break this stupid taboo thing we have going on regarding my father."
I raised an eyebrow and put a thumb in my book.
"Do not give me the eyebrow, Professor Snape. We do too have this stupid taboo about my father. You never stop me from talking about him, just like he never stops me from talking about you, but you never ask about each other. He stopped seeing him--Malfoy--years ago. He Firecalled my mother to tell her I was okay and then broke it off with him. There hasn't been anyone since, and I don't think there will be."
For most of the last term I had been living in a painting hung in a filthy corner of the Forbidden Section. I had started with the very first volume and was working my way across the shelves. I was now on the letter "cee."
"He told me at the time. He's the most ridiculous man I've ever had the misfortune to meet. I'm glad to see that you did not inherit any of that masochism."
"No, Al got it all. We all have high hopes that Teddy beats it out of him. Dad pretty much has the martyr market covered."
"Teddy Lupin? That's new."
"It's not official, but they moved into this grotty flat with one chair and one bed between them, but sixteen feet of bookshelves filled with books. I think they have sex, but I can't be sure. I have this sneaking suspicion that their idea of foreplay is to read each other the Tables of Contents from books chosen at random."
"And you, Miss?
She flipped her haira sure sign that she was debating how to answer that. The smile that always signalled mischief appeared.
"Scorpius Malfoy asked me out on a date. We didn't even read the menu."
"Saucy minx. Your father dislikes him on principle."
She snorted. "It's not Scorp's fault Dad had an affair with Professor Malfoy and alienated you forever. Anyway, I've only got two weeks before I leave for China. How much can happen in two weeks?"
Oh, to be that innocent.
"You've come to say good-bye, then."
It was her turn to nod.
"Yes, I can't stay. Dad's got a carriage waiting for me. Seems like yesterday that I was being ferried across the water by Hagrid."
"We all feel like that. Seven years pass very quickly. They have offered you the apprenticeship in China?"
"With the stellar letter of recommendation written my behalf from Professor Severus Snape, foremost Potions master in Europe, dead or alive? I shudder to think what would have happened had they awarded it to someone else. It was a very nice letter, Professor, thank you."
She had her father's smile.
"I will write," she promised and put her hand up to the portrait. I followed suit.
"You look like your grandmother in this light."
I spent the next few decades flitting from portrait to portrait. When I become bored with travelling, I'd repair to the library and read until the sight of print made my eyes swim, and then I'd be off again. I lived in Portugal in a fishing village for quite a while, and then spent a couple of years helping an Irish farmer till his fields. I taught myself to speak Italian, Mandarin, Farsi, Spanish, German, and Portuguese. The mezzo soprano had a very comfortable sofa. I discovered a heretofore unknown passion for opera. I studied Buddhism, and the African Savannah was always worth returning to again and again.
Sometimes at night I couldn't help myself; I would slip into his room and listen to him sleep. Or hover on the edge of a portrait, catching glimpses of him as the years rolled by, listening to him converse with staff, tease students, berate Peeves, weep for Hagrid when he too finally died. It wasn't that long before everyone from my generation was gone. On the night of Arthur's funeral, he lay awake, hour after hour. I didn't dare move for fear of discovery. At some point, he said, "I know you're there, Snape. Ron is pretty broken up. Arthur was like a father to me. I never thought I'd say this, but it was kind of a blessing that Molly went first. George is going all stoic, which is a nice way of saying he's gone mental again. Bill's doing ..." on and on into the night until he fell asleep.
His bed stayed empty save for him. I was something of an egotist, but I couldn't quite bring myself to believe it was all for me.
Harry Potter didn't live nearly as long as his peers. Some say it was his Muggle blood. Some say it was the repeated torture by Voldemort, that the abuse at the hands of that madman weakened his heart. Some say that he never recovered from the shock of seeing his only daughter marry Scorpius Malfoy.
All I know is that one day I was enjoying the sun in Greece, admiring the exquisite handiwork of Greek stone masons, and the next minute I was back in that stasis between life and death. Awake but not, asleep but not.
And then I was back in the portrait.
But not alone.
Potter was there. Young. And blushing. I would guess he'd been painted back when he was in his early forties.
"You are here," I said, stating the obvious.
"In my portrait."
He nodded again.
"You are dead?"
"Sort of. Not really. My portrait's there." He pointed to the left. I peered around the edge of my frame into his. His portrait was a replica of my Slytherin bedroom, dominated by an enormous bed quite big enough for two men. Generally, I wasn't the sort of man to leap to conclusions, but I would say he had an agenda.
"I'm sorry. I know I am sounding like an idiot; actually, you're the one who is sounding like an idiot. What does 'sort of' dead mean?"
"Like you. 'Sort of' dead?"
I stared at him.
"Yeah, I can't really die until I pay my debt to you. Which means you can't die either."
"Smug does not suit you. What is the nature of this debt?"
"I hurt you, very badly. You would never let me apologise."
"You didn't need to apologise." That came out much harsher than I intended. "You were separated from your wife"
"Stop it!" he shouted. "The apology is only part of it. Seeing me with Draco hurt you so badly that you went into exile for the next thirty years. It had to do with us. With you dying too soon and me getting married too early and, just ...shit, you know? If you hadn't been killed there might have been something. Between the two of us."
A nice thought, but no.
"I was hurt, yes, but that's not why I left. You were martyring yourself to a relationship that was pointless. For the record, if I had survived, the last time we would have voluntarily been in the same room together would have been receiving our Order of Merlin."
He thought about that for a second. "Maybe."
"I do not make a good first impression."
"Or millionth impression. But somewhere around the two-millionth mark, you hit your stride."
"Snape, I've missed you. I've missed you so much. I'd like to think that I'm paying off everyone else's debt, including my own. I'd like to think that for however long this will last, we'll make the best of it. You deserve some happiness; you earned it, damn it! And I think I'm the one who might be able to do that."
"You did always have a jumped-up notion of your abilities, Mr. Potter."
And because he knew me, he didn't take offence, but said with affection, "Git. This must have some sort of weird magical logic about it, because I'm here. I... " He paused, thinking about his words. "I'd like to have you to myself for a while, before I have to share you with Albus, Minerva, and my mother. To finally touch each other and not be separated by paper and time. I think we could be very happy for a bit, together, before we truly and really die. Or go wherever Albus and the others whose portraits are here really go to, after they fall asleep. Do you know?"
I shook my head. "I am the world's living breathing expert on pretty much everything at this point but death."
"No matter, whatever happens, we'll be there together. Finally."
He held up his hand, in the air, as if pressing against a piece of canvas. Given all that had happened, the misunderstandings, the anger, it was a bold move. Rash. Reckless. What if I turned my back on him? Typical.
As per the usual, his gamble paid off. Not that he deserved for it to work.
I stood up, and for the first time, matched my hand to his. I curled my fingers and wound them around his. He sighed and leaned his forehead against mine.
"Thank God," he mumbled.
"Why are you young?" I leaned forward and pressed my mouth against the corner of his mouth.
"Tease. Had my portrait painted when I was forty-two. Didn't think you'd want to fuck an old man."
I pressed my mouth against the other corner.
"So sure of yourself? Clever."
"Nope, I'm really clueless about that sort of thing. Dumbledore suggested it. Also told me about the debt."
Albus. Thank you.
"I thought so."
I pulled back to look at him. Bringing my other hand up, I finallyfinallycupped that cheek.
"Are we good? I wasn't sure this was a good idea and you're bloody impossible to read and then Draco was there and you weren't there and I was so desperate and I hated myself for doing that to you and you just left and I missed you so much and Lily told me that you were setting me free and I didn't want to be free but--"
I put a finger to his mouth. "I have no choice but to stay until you say so, but there is no question of anyone forgiving anyone else."
Potter always struck me as a hugger, and sure enough his arms wrapped around me. To feel his body pressed against me, solid and not so much warm as just so there. Not a fantasy. Not a wish.
He had known happiness in his life. Not a tremendous amount, but I do think the very early years of his relationship with Ginny had been happy ones. I had never known it, and I was now drunk with it. The feel of his back as my hands travelled up and down the length of his back. His hair, oh, I needed to feel his hair and run it through my fingers.
I was literally starved for the feel of him, the touch of him.
"I want... " I whispered, and couldn't finish the sentence, because I wanted all of him.
"I know. Come on."
He pulled me into our bedroom. I had had many fantasies where I undressed him, button by button, but he had another idea. He shucked his clothes in ten seconds flat and then lay on the bed. He spread his legs and his arms and offered himself to me. "Come here. Touch me. Everywhere. Anywhere."
I ran my hands over his body again and again. I lapped at his earlobes, licked his armpits, nuzzled my nose in his groin, burrowed my tongue into him, and hung on every word and sound he made as I tried to sate a hunger of over thirty years in duration. I had never had given myself to someone so freely, and it moved me to tears to see his body arch so easily into my hand, his mouth so open, as hungry as I was. That bottom lip was now mine.
The sex was strange, bereft as it was of sweat and semen, and I do have to admit to missing the earthy and tart smell of a man in heat, but no matter. The magic that dictated that we should remain in this neverland between life and death seemed unconcerned with human limitations. My cock slid easily into the beauty and heat of him, my rough hand on him gentling his own orgasm. I would not want to repeat these thirty years, although I must admit learning all those languages has come in handy, but it did not seem as timeless and onerous as it had been now that I finally had an armful of Potter and his lovely leg slung over one thigh. I was loathed to give him up anytime soon.
I wanted to kiss him under a Greek sky. Wrap my arms around him in the mist of a potato field. Tell him that I wanted to suck his cock in Portuguese. Demand that he fuck me in Chinese. Give each other blow jobs on the beach in Thailand.
"How long do you think we have?"
"A year? Ten? I'm new at this portrait thing."
I ran my fingers through his hair. Soft, like ropes of silk, just as I knew it would be.
"Have you ever been on a safari?"
Sequel to this is Birthday Wishes