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Bad Oracle

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In the Forbidden Forest, it is generally imprudent to follow sounds one has heard in the underbrush. While most things that live there have carved their own territories, know to keep away from humans, and fall short of truly lethal, there is no end of discomfort one can suffer at the hands of the offspring of a half-transfigured beast released in the shame of night and a potion gone terribly wrong thrown out a window. Which is why Severus Snape does not follow the sound he hears until he finds it following him.

He stops in the middle of a clearing. It is at a sufficient distance that he is able to put down his basket of clippings, tucks the shears beneath them so it wouldn't crush the delicate petals and leaves, extracts his wand from his sleeve and assumes a dueling posture, and still is forced to wait fifteen seconds before the sound resolves into a woman, who, as it transpires, is cursing to herself.

"One thing the history books don't talk about," she pants as she emerges. "You're a leggy fucker and you're fast. God dammit. Didn't realize cross country training was required this time. What year is it?"

He hasn't been expecting anything at all, and yet somehow this still falls into the category of not what he expected. "Who are you?"

"Delphini," she says easily, flicking her blue-silver hair out of her face. Her trainers make a wet squelching sound as she comes closer; she must have trodden through several puddles. "Oh, put that away, you're a murderer but you're not stupid. You're not going to hurt me. What year is it?"

His wand doesn't move. "Nineteen ninety five. How did you get past the wards?"

She holds up an hourglass on a long, thin gold chain. "Time turner. What date?"

The exchange is useful enough to continue. "August. The first. Why are you here? What has happened?"

"You want to know what has happened?" she crows, bursting into peals of laughter, so long and so delighted that she has to wipe tears from her eyes. "Oh, you're great. I forgot. Excellent. I'm not from a few hours from now, you moron, I'm from two thousand and--let's just say I know a lot of things that you don't."

His suspicion is almost as strong as his curiosity, but his lip curls in a sneer. "Prove it."

"I know what your Patronus is," she says, her mouth spreading in a wolfish grin. "And I know why . Take me to Albus Dumbledore and I'll tell you both everything."

The Headmaster's office is, as always, a damnable nightmare, full of whirring and clicking and almost musical sounds just barely out of hearing.

Albus is there, of course, having elected to summer in his sanctum in preparation for a difficult year of covert war. The castle is mostly empty as most professors take the summer to travel, and the new Defense professor has elected to come only a week in advance of the term. A deplorable oversight, to be sure, but Albus won't even release the name so there is no one to castigate by owl even if Snape wished to. So no one sees the silver-blue haired wretch as Snape leds her up to the office, past the gargoyle, and deposits her wordlessly before Albus who is, even now, reading through the gossip column in the Prophet.

Albus lowers his paper. "And who is this, Severus?"

"She claims her name to be Delphini."

"Delphi," she interjects helpfully, falling into a chair. "For short." She's been playing on some flat screen, like a miniaturized television in the palm of her hand, and she doesn't look up; instead, merely props one foot against the edge of the headmaster's desk.

If this were Snape's classroom, he would take a hundred points for such disrespect. If he were truly at liberty he might take the whole leg. As it stands, he can merely scowl while Albus gazes, smilingly, on the girl while her device adds to the trills in the room.

She makes him wait several full minutes. Albus does not waver.

At last, she pumps her fist in the air silently, presses a button, and tucks the screen away in the pocket of her ripped jeans. "Had to finish that level," she says, unapologetic. "So. How many horcruxes have you found yet?"

Albus does a very good job of it, Snape will think later, when he inspects this moment with the wisdom of distance. Albus merely blinks, but the smile does not waver.

"I'm sorry, dear child, but I am quite unsure of what you're talking about."

"Hor-crux-es," she enunciates, letting her foot fall to the floor with an unladylike thump and and leaning over her knees. "You know, the thing that has ol' snakeface immortal. You've surely figured that one out by now. Six of 'em. Well, seven, if you count that one oopsie-doodle in the middle there that even he doesn't know about. But you've guessed by now, probably. Am I right?"

Albus steeples his fingers and looks to Snape who has, unpleasantly, a feeling of being evaluated.

The girl sees it. "Oh, I know you didn't want him to know, but that’s stupid. I've come to fix your plans because your plans are stupid too. He's on your side, we both know that. "

"And how do you know?" Albus asks, voice descending into a guarded but musical serenity. One hand goes inside one sleeve where, Snape knows, his wand lies.

"Read a history book. From the future." She pulls a glittering gold chain from inside her shirt again, the same show as the forest. "Improved time turner. You want to Legillimize me or something, make sure I'm telling the truth?" Delphi pries open one eye with her fingers and stares at Albus. "I know you can do that. You're an absolute hypocritical ass, by the way, you'll find that in my brain so I figured I should say it out loud. Just so as we're all prepared."

"Indeed," Albus says, for lack of anything else to say. "My dear girl--"

"Okay, different proof." She points to Snape, lunging up onto the arm of her chair so her fingertip is inches from his skull. "Let's play a game where we point out the asshole who got Lily Potter killed with something as stupid as a prophecy." One finger prods his skull. "I win."

Snape knocks her hand away. "You've made your point."

"Really? I don't know if I have. Let's play a game where we point out the moron who signed his soul over to the devil when he was seventeen." Another poke. "You're both awful at this."

"Enough," Albus says, all humor gone.

"Is it? Let's play a game where we point out the asshole who's been so in love with a dead woman that he's now spying for you on the most dangerous dark wizard to raise his flag in the past fifty years."

Snape wants to break the finger. He doesn't. Albus tends to frown on bone-breaking as a method of controlling others.

"How did you come by this information?" says Albus, all business.

"Like I said. History books." She kicks both feet up this time, heels touching down on the desktop, stealing more territory. "Long version? Harry 'boy who lived and also blabbed a lot' Potter gave up the whole sordid thing in his final confrontation with the Dark Lord." Delphi spares a glance for Snape. "There were a lot of people at that battle, but you were dead at the time, so it's only a little humiliating."

"Dead," Snape says blankly.

"Nagini," Delphi adds. "Very nasty. He had his reasons. Managed to give your long-lost love's son a whole heap of memories in the bargain though." She gestures to the ceiling, theatrically. "Said you died looking into those pretty green eyes of his, for reasons that became immediately fucking obvious."

It is strange, the bottomless sensation that can happen in the gut when one is told the exact circumstances and fallout of one's own death. Snape is sure his face is quite bloodless.

"You say this is in a history book, Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort," Albus asks, looking shrewd. “Was Voldemort defeated?”

"Yes, but you wouldn't know, you were dead too. Because of your ham-handed horcrux handling and your double-agent over here, actually." She juts one thumb at Snape. "The Dark Lord was suspicious. No better way to cement this idiot as his right-hand motherfucker than to let him off you in place of Draco."

"Draco," Snape says, face still numb. "Why would Draco--"

"To punish Lucius for a fuckup that he isn't going to get a chance to have." Delphi shoots a single, condescending look at Snape. "Again. Why I'm here. Keep up. Lucius is going to try to get at the prophecy on the Dark Lord’s orders. You know, he who will defeat the Dark Lord approaches blah blah blah born as the seventh month dies blah blah blah? The thing that started this mess? The Dark Lord wants it, right now. Badly." She snorts. "Idiot plan, if you ask me. Why go after a prophecy when you could just take over in secret?"

"I assure you that he is," says Albus coldly, in a voice typically reserved for intimidating recalcitrant Ministry officials.

"Yeah, sure, but not, like, as fast as he could have. He could have done it so much faster, taken the Ministry from beneath you, taken Hogwarts--he could have swept you off your feet!" Her hand makes a zooming motion, like a plane or a bird, skimming her legs. "But instead he chased after some bullshit prophecy. Thus: Idiot." She sighs, fluttering her hands. "Anyway, horcruxes. I know what they were-- are --where they are, how to destroy them. If you'd like to join me I'd be much obliged. Even let you take the glory."

Albus considers. "Why?"

Delphi levels her gaze at him, face gone serious for the first time. "Because Tom Riddle is my father. And he was shit at it. I'm a squib, so I'm worthless, and he threw me away in a muggle orphanage even though I'm his daughter, his only goddamn daughter." She grits her teeth. "And I'm angry. And I want him fucking dead."

There’s a moment of ticking and whirring--what passes for silence in the Headmaster’s office.

"Paradoxes," Albus says evenly, as if she hasn't said any of it. "The past cannot be changed."

Delphi blows a raspberry, all gravitas and fury gone. "Not an issue.”

"How?"

"Time turner. Very complicated. I don't understand it myself, never got to go to Hogwarts, never worked for the Department of Mysteries."

"Then how can you know?"

"Fucking tried it, didn't I?" She tilts her head one way, then the other. "Even though I executed that gross baby thing that tore out of the back of Quirrel's head, he kept coming back. Every time I went back to my own time it was worse, under the rule of Death Eaters." She swings her head around to peer at Snape again, affirming that they’re keeping up. “Do you know how time turners work?"

"Enlighten us both," Albus says generously.

She rolls her eyes. "Okay, so, the way a time-turner works is it's imbued with time, right, from one person--they don't call it dark magic because that stuff is very naughty but it's fucking dark as shit and that would be obvious to a child --and they shave some hours off their life and bottle them up in this precious little hourglass. Then they can go back a few hours, re-use them over and over again. And then we have these handy tools so we can hop back a little and, you know, let overachiever third-years take every single fucking class or whatever. Great use of a few hours off the life of an Unspeakable." She snorts to express her opinion of that particular policy, and then rummages in her shirt to remove the gold chain. For an instant, a neon lace bra flashes; she doesn't seem to care. "This thing was made with a whole life. "

"Whose?" Albus asks.

The makes a sour face. "Why do you care?"

"We should all care who sacrifices themselves for our benefit."

"Oh well done, another quotable for the books." She rolls her eyes. "Not one you give a damn about, Dumbledore, though whether or not you ever cared about anyone is hotly debated in my day."

But Albus can sense an important hidden truth as well as the Dark Lord himself. "I still would like to know."

"Mine, dumbass."

Snape starts. "How is that possible?"

"Because this is before my birth, before my conception--" she pulls a hyperbolic, revolted expression, fingers wiggling in the air-- "and it works which is basically all I understand about it."

"But that should not be possible," Snape insists.

She shrugs. "It works. Don’t ask me how. A friend made it, since I couldn't, she’s the one who explained it to me. And I'm here. Been back a bunch of times, actually, but it doesn't always stick."

“Why now,” Snape says, voice as even as he can make it. “Why not go back to 1980 and prevent all of this from starting.”

“You do remember what he was like back then, don’t you? Both of you do.” She looks almost grave as she ticks off his traits on her fingers. “Smart. Capable. Charming. Sneaky. Persuasive. You haven’t spent that much time with him after he died, though, so let me be clear: it is much, much more possible to kill him when he’s completely insane from having spent ten years in the fucking woods as a spirit strung up between life and death.”

Albus glances at Snape; Snape can only nod in assent. He has only had a few interactions with the Dark Lord since his return, and it is clear to every Death Eater that the Lord who died is …. Distinct from the one who has returned.

"You said you have tried more than once,” Albus asks. “Which attempt is this?"

"Twenty-three," she says, like it's nothing.

Albus makes a sharp movement and something, somewhere in the office, chimes in sympathy. "If you have attempted so many times, what has been your impediment?"

Delphi heaves a sigh. Lifting one hand she says, "Go too far back and it all goes off the rails and everything I know turns to shit. Gets too muddy. I lose the advantage of knowing everything.” She lifts her other hand, as if to indicate a timeline. “Go too far forward and he's got too much control to stop him, and sometimes a Death Eater will rise to take his place.” She looks sideways to Snape. “Once it was you, actually, other two times it was fucking Lucius because of course it was fucking Lucius, but Bellatrix and Harry fucked everything up all three times.” She shrugs, dropping her hands. “Act too soon or too late and he notices, starts making new horcruxes right, left, and center, and then I'm no better off than you sad fucks are." She gestures up, out the window, to Gryffindor tower. "Harry Potter is a wild card, too, he's a sneaky little shit who needs to be brought up to speed before you can account for him. He ruins everything half the time because we’re trying to do the same thing at cross methods, and he didn't know enough.” She points a finger at Albus. “He doesn’t know enough because you're planning on shutting him out like an idiot , which leaves him playing at your game instead of the real one."

But Albus is already shaking his head. "I'm sorry, but if you intend to interfere with my plans--"

Delphi interrupts, standing, "Yeah yeah yeah, I've heard all this before and it's a cool story, bro, but there's a horcrux in the castle. Wannna go destroy it?" She gestures between the three of them. "Like, as a team? We're a team now, this go round. I decided. Delphi and the Two Assholes. Like a shitty band out of Cardiff. A shitty, shitty Welsh post-punk band."

Albus comes to his feet slowly. "Delphi," he begins, his tone lecturing. "There is more going on here than you could possibly--"

"Look," she cuts across him, a bit of frustration clear in the set of her squared shoulders. "I could do this alone. I've come close. I'm trying to do you a fucking favor, save some lives. Maybe even yours."

A quick calculus is performed on Albus' face. "In the castle, you say. Most peculiar. You'd think I would have known." He nods, making his decision: there is little risk in it and much to be gained. "Show the way, then."

Delphi's face splits into a wide grin that shows dimples in her cheeks. "Bring the Sword of Gryffindor. It'll do the job."

Which leads to Albus and Snape inspecting the tapestry of the dancing trolls while her squeaky trainers--still wet from the Forbidden Forest--take their loud paces up and down the hall, providing a bass for the profanities Delphi spouts.

"There. Come on." And there's a door she flies through, and they follow, past the heaps of castoffs of centuries.

She leads them unerring down and past and through, and then screeches to a halt to lift something in her hands--Snape’s wand is already in his hand and Albus' is too, an unspoken instinct between them--but she puts it on the floor. Albus inspects it, nods. The Sword slices the air, and there's a deeply nauseating sound somewhere between a hiss and a scream, but then it's over.

"Is that all," Snape muses.

"Don’t expect the others to be so fucking simple." She looks around, hands on her hips, as if she’s settled something. "Now what you have to do is get the kid here--"

"I do not think we will," Albus says mildly.

She groans. "Oh, come on! You need more proof?"

"It is not proof I require," Albus says delicately. "Merely--"

"You are this insufferable every time and every time it surprises me. Fine. Let's go to--" her mouth seems to seize up, like her tongue has lost it's will. "Fidelius. Right. Order headquarters. There's another there. Those are the two easiest and if you don't give me what I need after that you two are on your fucking own and have fun in the complete lack of the afterlife."

Which leads, of course, to Grimmauld place, wherein the elder Black brother greets them.

"What's this, then," he says gruffly.

"Something interesting has come up," says Albus, sweeping regally past them. “If you don’t mind, Sirius.”

Delphi sticks out her tongue at Black before swanning in Albus' wake, but Black’s lingering glare is for Snape, trailing in last. Black follows the trio up and up and up until--

"Don't go in there," Black says, startled at the door they've chosen.

"No worries, we're just raiding your little brother's room for spy buggery," Delphi says. Her still-sodden trainers kick in the door--for absolutely no reason, it was unlocked, Snape knows this for a fact--and the doorjamb breaks.

"Hey!" Black cries, trying to block her access. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Are you stupid or just boring?" she retorts, and shoves past him.

Snape decides, in that moment, that she may be inordinately irritating, but Delphi cannot be all bad.

Snape follows her into the room. He knows Albus well enough to know he would have Snape watch her. Albus himself has stopped to argue with Black--a good sign for Delphi, Snape thinks--and watches her rummage for a moment before coming up with a heavy golden locket.

"He does this every time," Delphi says conversationally to Snape, holding the locket to the light. "He's always very suspicious of anyone who wants to get into his brother's shit. Sentimental. But we're going to let him kill this thing all the same." She strides past Snape and leans back out the door, interrupting the nascent argument. "Hey Sirius, you adorable precious dumbass, did you know that you and your brother were on the same side? He was trying to kill the Dark Lord too, yknow?"

"What?" Black says, completely sidelined.

"The guy who killed your best friend and his wife and tried to kill your godson? That guy? Your brother was trying to take him down in the end. That's how he died. For this.” She gestures to the locket with a flourish. “It's part of what keeps him immortal, why he didn't die when he tried to kill Harry." She lifts the locket towards Black and it jingles merrily on the end of its chain. "Want to fucking kill it?"

Black looks paralyzed for half a second, and then says, "Goddamn right I want to kill it."

"Good man. Dumbledore, if you would?"

And the sword is handed over with an air of exasperation, the locket is placed on the floor, the sword comes down--that noise again, it makes Snape's teeth ache--and it's over.

"Sirius," Albus says after a moment, while Black is still panting and holding the sword. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to have a word with our young friend here."

"I don't even know your name," Black says, seeming dazed. "And I want to know more about Reg. How he died."

Delphi smiles that dimpled smile again. "I'll tell you whatever you want in exchange for sending Harry Potter to Hogwarts for the summer to take additional training."

She must have been a Slytherin, Snape thinks. Or should have been.

"You're his legal guardian, after all," she goes on, even as Albus tilts his head in an expression Snape recognizes as a managed, muted kind of horror. It has been a trap and, for once, it closes around Albus. "You can give permission. Demand it, even."

"Training?"

"Sirius--" Albus begins.

She shrugs, cavalier. "You know he's going to have to fight. He doesn't have a choice. Even I can't prevent that, and I know everything."

"Everything?" Black says, appraising.

"Delphini--" Albus attempts, but he can't break through her loud, shrill voice.

"Give your consent and find out," she challenges, tossing her head towards Albus. "Tell him that's what you want for Harry." She looks at Snape. "You, get out. Dumbles here is going to want to have a go at me, now I’ve proved myself useful but less tractible than either of you sots, and he won’t want to do it in front of either of you."

Dumbledore bears an expression of forbearance overtop a deep wariness. “Quite right, Delphini.”

“Let’s get cracking on the inside of my skull, then. Oh, and Snape, I'll expect you back tomorrow evening, round about five or so. There's going to be an attempt on Harry Potter's life so don't be late."

Snape, for lack of anything better to do and any contradictory orders, trades places with Albus. The door shuts. One more kick, then another--a squelching sound of the wet trainer being wedged into the doorjamb--and the door is well and truly shut.

Chapter Text

If Severus Snape had been asked to guess this morning exactly what kind of home Petunia Dursley lived in--formerly Petunia Evans, former sister of his former best friend--he would have guessed precisely Privet Drive. He also would have expressed precisely the revulsion he feels now. The moderately affluent suburb aspires well above its means and taste, boasting neat and dull little cookie-cutter houses where residents tend mediocre lawns and weed uninspiring flowerbeds and prune dull little round bushes Narcissa would call unforgivable. Having moved deftly and, once he was old enough to understand it, even seamlessly between worlds both above and below this one, he could identify the grasping, greedy middle class of it all, reaching with all its might ever upward.

Snape despises it on sight with more vitriol than even he had expected.

Thankfully, it seems Delphi does as well. "I'm gonna need you to do your fucking job better this time around so I can never see this godforsaken aluminum siding ever again,” she grumbles. “Come on, it's number four. He's in the flowerbed."

There is no point in taking the bait, and it's a weak taunt besides. Practically amiable by both of their standards. There are jinxes and wards on this neighborhood, invisible protections to keep out intruders, all of which Snape bypasses before they continue on in invisible silence into the sweltering late afternoon. He stays silent as they round the side of the house next door, giving Number Four itself a wide berth.

"There," Delphi mutters. "See him?"

For a moment, Snape can't. It looks more like there is a pile of rubbish, discarded old clothes laid out in the shape of a boy, until he is able to resolve the black hair. And then, it comes together. On the ground below the open window is one Harry Potter, savior of the wizarding world, boy-who-lived, a creature designed specifically and with intent to ruin Snape's every living moment since the day he was conceived, lying unmoving as promised in a dry flowerbed.

"What is he doing," Snape asks finally, after several long and dull minutes spent sweltering in the heat.

"Listening to the news. Your lot isn't telling him a fucking thing, so: muggle news. Like I said, he tends to meddle when you shut him out."

"Why would he be wearing those rags," he says.

"Same reason you did, when you were a kid." He can feel the air shift next to him; she has shrugged.

"Surely not," he snaps back, acidly. This does not fit with anything Snape knows about James Potter or his sainted son, and it's now no longer the heat or his heavy black robes making him uncomfortable. "The boy has a fortune."

"Have you ever tried to spend a fucking galleon at Debenhams?"

Snape opens his mouth to retort when the distinctive crack of apparition rings out on the sleepy street. His wand's in his hand before he can think, expecting the promised attack, but she's put her invisible arm across his chest, elbow digging into his solar plexus.

"Not yet. Watch," she hisses, and he does.

A few things happen very quickly. A woman's shriek rings out, Potter leaps to his feet and takes out his wand, colliding headfirst with the window with an almighty crash, causing yet another shriek. Potter staggers, but keeps his footing; a profoundly unpleasant-looking man reaches out the window to secure his hands around the boy's neck. Potter struggles and for a single, bizarre moment Snape wonders if this is the attempt on the boy's life they are meant to defend against. But no; accidental magic, a child's salvation but a salvation all the same, sparks out of the boy and the man drops him with a curse.

Potter keeps looking around, trying to find the source during a droll and unconvincing domestic exchange with a neighbor and then a far more furious one with his uncle. Petunia--for it can only be she, no one else on earth could have possibly been cursed with that face, it would be too cruel--appears partway through and they start in on him with vitriol together. The exchange only lasts a short while before Potter storms away, plainly furious.

Snape expects them to follow him, but Delphi's thin elbow is still pressed into his stomach. After Potter gains a substantial distance, she removes her arm.

"I know where he's going," she says easily, voice back at her usual speaking volume. "You and I are going inside. Wait til he rounds that corner, then lift the invisibility."

"I did not agree to confront his guardians," Snape says coolly. "I confess myself rather disappointed the man did not finish the job."

"You talk a big game, cowboy, but you somehow get really fucking upset every time Harry Potter dies. Eight or nine times it's happened, and every time you're a fucking mess." The voice grows more distant, moves toward the front door of Number Four. "Come along or get left behind."

Snape does not enjoy being left behind. He follows her to the stoop, where she is already hammering on the door, lifting the Disillusionment as he walks.

When the door opens, a very visible, very out-of-place Delphi throws her arms in the air with a broad saccharine grin. "Petunia, darling, it's been ever so long! Do invite us in or else your old pal Severus here will finish the job your sad sack of a mother started and turn you the rest of the way into a horse."

Petunia gapes. Her purple-faced husband, the strangler, gapes. Snape says with a quiet menace, "Petunia."

"Severus Snape?” Her face, already unpleasant, crunches up into a moue of distaste. “I thought--"

"Yeah, yeah, you hoped he was dead, that makes two of you, this conversation was funnier the first six times I heard it." Delphi pushes past them both easily. "Listen, Tuney, we'll be out of your hair in a tic and taking your misbegotten nephew with us besides but we need to fetch up his things. All right?"

There is some bluster but the promise of removing Potter from their home seems to have appeal enough, and of course there is a certain appeal to getting Snape (six feet of black wizarding robes looking like a spectre of death itself in this manicured segment of hell's front lawn) and Delphi (five foot nothing of too-old-to-be-a-teenage hooligan, silver-blue hair above yesterday’s slept-in sheer tee-shirt and visible neon braseirre above deliberately ripped jeans) off of their stoop as quickly as possible, one way or another. So in they go.

There is some more bluster from the strangler when the door is shut, but it's parried easily. The group is shown up the stairs to the smaller, spare bedroom. The only unusual thing about it is the catflap in the door; Snape hasn't noticed a cat, and it's a strange place to install such a thing, and he nudges it with the toe of his boot. It is as it appears: just an ordinary catflap, but one does not live a spy for so long without noticing irregularity.

They retrieve the boy's things without mishap, which Snape sends ahead of them to the castle with his wand--Sirius had done exactly as Delphi suggested posthaste, forcing Albus to send ahead to the Ministry for dispensation for the magic done in a Muggle home, which came back with trouble and delay but a manageable amount--all in all, it is only a minute before they are making their way down the stairs and turn into the hall toward the door.

Delphi stops and says, "Want to see something cool?" And then slams one foot into a little door to her left--a cupboard beneath the stairs.

The door pops open obligingly with a shudder and she reaches in and turns on the light. "A few ratty old toys, a book or two, a few bits of cast-off clothes--fucking rags by now--and of course the precious little cot where pampered prince Potter grew up. Practically a castle. Take a look."

Snape looks.

She speaks quietly for a moment, so only Snape can hear. "It's exactly what you think it is. The crowned savior of the Wizarding World was shut up in a cabinet for years, and he’ll get very angry if you bring it up because he is just as ashamed about it as you are."

Petunia is wringing her hands, now, as Snape turns his black gaze on her.

"We treated him," she says, "Very well. He was just--very difficult to raise. He was--"

"Keep digging, Tuney," Delphi interrupts cheerily. "Or didn't you put bars on the window when he was twelve and skip him loads of meals? He was already skinny."

"Now see here," the purple-faced strangler says forcefully. "That was for the protection of our neighborhood. And his hooligan friends, they pulled those bars right off, damaged the house, it cost--"

"I don't care how much it fucking cost, Vernon!" Delphi sings out, railroading him with sheer volume. "You don't even have to be here, I'm just making a point for his benefit." She turns to Snape. "If you want to disembowel them please be my guest. No great loss there. Might make my job harder in the long run, but you do that on your own, Severus."

Petunia whimpers. Snape attempts not to derive pleasure from the pathetic, frightened sound and fails. He has never had a single ambiguous feeling toward Petunia Evans and Petunia Dursley is no different. The opportunity--the permission --is tempting.

But Albus does tend to frown upon cold-blooded murder, and Snape knows this to be a manipulation. "Let's be on our way."

"Have it your way." She looks over her shoulder and calls, "Thanks you two, you always put in such a stellar performance for this bit. Never get sick of it. You're just the fucking worst. " She gives a mocking bow and blows kisses into the air like an actress on stage.

Snape disillusions them both once more in the foyer and they make their way back up the street to the entrance to the development.

"Saw you notice the fucking cat-flap," Delphi says cheerily. "That was for meals. They locked him up after the whole fiasco with the Malfoy house-elf."

"You said there was an attempt on the boy's life," Snape says coldly. He does not enjoy being manipulated, and it is exceedingly clear this girl is attempting to do so.

"There will be!" she says cheerily, unconcerned with his clear anger. "Just wanted to give you the grand tour. He’s a fucking mess. You should know what you'll be dealing with when you train him."

Snape misses a step. "When I train him."

"Like Dumbledore's got time for that shit? Come on. He's the head Mugwump of the Wizengemot! Anyway, he agreed to it last night. Really backed him into a corner on that one."

He scowls even though she can't see it. "I am a professor with a number of other duties, both covert and otherwise, which you appear to be fully aware of. I do not have time to train that child."

"Negotiate with Dumbles, then. Besides, you've wanted to be Defense professor since--probably the seventies, right? That parade of incompetents are an insult. This is your fucking audition , and once I kill off the Dark Lord--which I’ll either succeed or fail at in a few months, on average--the position won't even be jinxed anymore. You can keep the job for the rest of your lonely miserable life."

Snape considers, for a moment, protesting the adjectives she's chosen to describe his life, but then thinks better of it. The truth cannot be an insult. "Is this an attempt at bribery?"

"It is if it's working."

She can’t see his face, so he puts all his scorn for the idea into his voice. "Then you surely know I despise the child."

"Not half so much as you hate yourself, but somehow you manage to face that motherfucker in the mirror every morning to shave." Her voice shifts from acidic to businesslike. “It’s necessary and it’ll move both of us closer to executing my dear old dad. You of all people should be sympathetic to that, more so than even good old Albus. And I’ll tell you all the shit I won’t even let Dumbledore in on, if you do it well enough. I’ve got loads of secrets.”

At the end of the lane, Potter has encountered a group of boys, one of whom has the misfortune to resemble the man whose house they have just left; clearly the boy’s cousin. One does not make it far in pureblood circles without being able to pick out a first cousin with reasonable accuracy, though lack of inbreeding does increase the difficulty in the Potter cousin’s case.

The boy and his cousin split off from the group and proceed back toward the house they’ve just left, up through an alley. They are talking, perhaps even arguing, and then the larger boy pipes up, miming and mocking: “ Don’t kill Cedric! Don’t kill Cedric! Who’s Cedric, your boyfriend?”

The boy has some kind of sharp retort, but it’s too weak to really stem the tide. It generally is, at that age.

“Dad, help me! Dad, he’s going to kill me! Dad, boo hoo!”

--Which Snape could have guessed at, if he cared to, though he hadn’t. It is an unpleasant revelation in a day full of unpleasant revelations. The fury in the boy’s spine is clear, his wand in his hand: it must be true. “Come and help me dad! Mum, come and help me, he’s killed Cedric! Dad, help me-- don’t you point that thing at me!”

“This grows tiresome,” Snape says quietly to Delphi. “I see no threats to the boy.” At the moment, the boy has his cousin pressed to the wall, the argument going back and forth heatedly. If anyone is the threat, it’s the one with the wand pointed at the Muggle.

“No threats besides the entire fucking world, you mean?” she mutters. "Now get ready. They’re coming."

“What, precisely--” Snape begins, but the way the light fades from the summer day holds his answer.

It’s not so bad as it was, anymore. It wouldn’t be, couldn’t be. He had been to Azkaban once, very briefly, as a young man. At the beginning of term in ninety-three, Snape had braced himself for that selfsame onslaught of darkness, of hopelessness. It had surprised Snape how easy it had been to bear with ten years more of Occlumency under his belt, with ten years more to become entirely comfortable with something he is too proud to call despair. No, the thing he notices now is the cold; the bone-chilling cold, and the darkness blotting out the sun.

“Dementors,” he asks under his breath, holding out his wand.

“Sent by the fucking Ministry itself by a rogue official who has it in for the brat.”

The cousin appears to be in hysterics now, by the sound of it. And then a scuffle--the boy yelling for his cousin to stop, the sound of a wand gone rolling--and then Delphi at his side says, with a disturbing cool and casual mien, “Are you going to let the Dementors suck their souls out, then? It’s fine if you do, but it does complicate things.”

The boy must have his wand back--there’s a pinprick of light--but he’s chanting the charm and nothing is happening and damn it all , this is not what he agreed to, it reveals far too much . But there is no choice. A promise has been made and must be kept. Snape steps forward, holding his wand aloft--

The memory he chooses is simple and correct and goes directly back where it came from when he is done with it, so cleanly it might have never been. All he knows, after, is that it is sufficient: the doe, that despicable image of his own vulnerability, bounds from his wand toward the two boys.

The second it’s gone to them, the moment the dementors fly off and the buzz of heat and traffic and summer return, he feels as though he’s made a mistake--some irreparable thing has been done.

“Well done there, Severus. Now it’s time to make ourselves known and take our prize.” Her voice is already moving away from him. “Oi, Harry! Hey Diddykins!”

There is nothing for it. For what isn’t the first and is certain not to be the last time, he curses himself, fate, and Albus Dumbledore, but he also does as she says. The girl becomes visible ten paces before him, approaching the pair.

Potter looks up at her from behind his absurd glasses. “What just--” Then his eyes focus further and an unsmiling Severus Snape fades into view.

“This unfriendly motherfucker just saved your life! Again! God, I bet that burns you right up.” Delphi crows, above him. “But guess what? We’re springing you from this well-groomed hellhole early, so it’s not all bad.” She extends a hand to help the boy up.

“Did Dumbledore send you? Are you with the Order?” Potter says as he comes to his feet, his tone betraying both eagerness and wariness in equal measure.

“Do I look like a Death Eater to you?” She juts a thumb over her shoulder to Snape, who is still standing silently, unsmilingly. “Company aside, I mean.”

For the first time the boy’s eyes flick over to the man behind her for more than an instant, and Snape is vividly aware of how out of place he is here. His scowl deepens, but he answers the boy in a cold tone: “The Headmaster knows we are here, Potter.”

Harry looks left and right, and then says, “I heard someone Apparate, and I thought--”

“Not the time or place, my dear Chosen One. We need to get the fuck out of here.”

Behind him, Dudley wheezes, which seems to bring Potter back to his senses. “Don’t we need to take Dudley home?”

She reaches forward and musses his hair, though it certainly doesn’t need it.  “You sweet thing, caring for that jar of pickled pig knuckle over there. Hey Diddy, you can find your own way home, right?”

There is no response but a vague whimper.

Delphi shrugs. “Sounds fine to me. Severus, if you would be so kind to get us the fuck out of here?”

“Wait,” Potter says, but no one listens. Snape grabs his arm in a visegrip, and Delphi grabs on as well. They disappear from the alley with a crack.

Chapter Text

“Do you think she likes being called the Fat Lady?” Delphi calls, not looking up, as Harry steps through the portrait-hole.

Harry hadn’t expected to see anyone in the Gryffindor common room, which felt something like relief for his throbbing skull. His first and entirely unexpected lesson in Occlumency hadn't gone well, and he feels his back go tense just hearing her voice. But he lets the portrait-hole swing shut behind him anyway. It's not as if there's anywhere else to run to. “What?”

“Wosserface. Portrait who just let you through.” She’s sprawled on a sofa, feet slung over the back, fiddling with the thing she--for some reason--calls a phone despite the fact it is perfectly clear it is some advanced version of a GameBoy. “Do you think she likes being called the Fat Lady?”

“I--” Harry approaches her, understanding at once he won’t be allowed to drop into bed anytime soon. “No bloody clue.”

She lets out a little bark of laughter. “Fair, fair. I fucked up your whole day, didn’t I? And the rest of your summer too. Pulled you right up without so much as a please and thank you, which people have been doing your whole life.”

Harry narrows his eyes. No one on either side of the war has yet even approached such an admission. And he finds it to be true--overdue, vindicating, and true. "Yes. You did.”

“Sorry. Would have sent ahead but I didn’t think of it.” Delphi nods. "I’m here now because I need to know how your first Occlumency lesson went.”

“Badly,” Harry snaps, flinging himself into a chair. “Snape’s useless. Why can’t Dumbledore--”

“Did he use the pensieve?” Delphi interrupts.

“--what?”

“Did Snape take out a bunch of memories and drop them in the pensieve?" She gestures, creating a round space in her lap. "That bowl what lets you see other people's memories?”

Harry thinks back. “Yeah," he says cautiously. "He did.”

“Clever boy. I didn’t tell him to do that." She wiggles her fingers into the imaginary bowl she created in her lap. "Also stupid boy. Now you know where to stick your nose if you want all his dirty laundry.”

Harry looks up at her, startled. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous? To the Order, I mean? With--the connection. You said that there was a connection, between me and Voldemort, and that's why I needed to learn Occlumency.”

She smiles. “Oh, certainly it’d be dangerous. Snape would probably be killed if dear old Dad sussed it.”

The way she says Dad causes a very complicated feeling to shoot through Harry, from the top of his head to the tips of his fingertips. Dad. By which she means Voldemort.

The first time she said it, several hours ago in Snape’s office, Harry had reacted by backing directly into a shelf full of Snape's pickled toads and shattering half the jars on the shelf, and Snape had reacted by repairing all the jars and glaring at Harry like he could melt his brain out through his eye sockets. It had taken a lengthy explanation--reinforced by Snape’s glowering and confirmations--to convince him that she wasn't dangerous.

Or at least dangerous to him.

Harry has learned today that he does not like Occlumency. He had known he would not like it since Delphi had first said the word, before she had even explained what it was or what it was for or--the real nightmare--who would be managing his instruction. Harry isn’t sure if he likes Delphi Riddle; he was still trying to wrap his mind around "Voldemort's daughter" and "not actively trying to kill anyone," let alone "trying to defeat her father and needs Harry’s help," and had for the moment settled on keep an eye on her. But she is offering up secrets right, left, and center--secrets and help that even Dumbledore can see the use in.

It is one of the constant truths of the past four years of his life that Snape hates Harry and Harry hates Snape. He might work for the Order, might save Harry’s life on occasion, but the way Snape treated Harry and his friends made Harry wish that Snape wouldn’t bother.

Harry does not like Snape, and likely never would. Did he deserve to die for it?

She is still watching him, waiting for a response. “Well? Are you going to go digging? I won’t stop you.”

“Well, it’s dangerous,” Harry says reluctantly, digging up the response any other member of the Order would want to hear. “I’ll keep my nose out of it, then.”

“For now,” Delphi says, smiling as if she’s heard his entire internal debate and approves. “At least until you get better at Occlumency.”

It’s so obviously suspicious that it can’t be a real ploy, but it still makes Harry straighten up and double-check that his wand is in his pocket. “I thought you and Snape were on the same side.”

Delphi puts up two hands like balanced scales and shrugs. “More or less. It’s complex. We’re working together, to most of the same goals, but the methods--christ, I keep forgetting you’re just a fucking kid.”

Harry bristles. “I’m not.”

“Yes,” she says firmly. “You are. You’re a child soldier, and Albus Wolfric Percival Brian fucking Dumbledore should be sent to Azkaban for radicalizing you and using you like a weapon. He might as well sent you on a children’s crusade.”

Harry finds himself wanting to shout, and it takes effort not to. “I’ve made my own decisions. I want to be part of this. I need to be part of this.”

“And Dad started it, right? Did Dumbledore tell you that? Dumbledore, who wants to use you to fight his war?” she mocks. “Did he tell you that you can’t say no? Very noble of him to convince you of that."

“No,” Harry says through his teeth, holding his fury barely in check. “He didn’t. Do you think I’d chose this, if I could? I didn’t. Your father did that for me. But me? I don’t have a choice.”

“It certainly makes everyone’s job easier if you think that, including mine, and if you don’t think that’s deliberate you’re a fool.” She swings her legs around and puts both feet decisively on the floor. “Either sock me in the mouth or don’t, but you know I’m not the one you’re actually mad at. You’re mad because you’ve got a rip-roaring headache, because Snape’s an asshole, and because once again you’ve been roped into handling some bullshit that would be much better suited to fully grown wizards.”

“I’m not a child,” Harry retorts. “I can handle it. I’ve been handling it.”

“Oh for fuck’s--I know you can,” Delphi says, rolling her eyes and spreading her hands. “You do. You’ve put up with more relentless bullshit by this age then most people run into their whole lives, and I know if I fail and die you’ll still pull it out.”

Harry glares, but he’s mollified, at least for now. “Then why not let me?”

She cocks her head, shrugging. “A lot of people die that way. A lot of people you care about. Could give you the full list if you like, but it’s fucking long. If you want to save them, then we’re on the same side, and I guess I’m sorry for being an abrasive cunt. Besides--anything beats the summer with the Dursleys, right?”

She isn’t wrong. Even taking orders from Professor Snape and--whatever Delphi is--is better than that. Harry heaves a sigh of defeat, rubbing at his forehead--which does ache. “Fine.”

“Good.” She rubs her hands together and comes to her feet. “He told you to empty out your mind before bed, right?”

Harry snorts. “Yeah, and when I asked how he meant for me to do that he told me to read this. ” He lifts a dusty tome from the satchel. “Like I could get through it before bed.”

“Right. Well: good news, kiddo. I’m pretty sure I’ve read that book too.” She plucks it from his hands and flips through a few pages to confirm the text. “Yep. Tonight the role of Hermione Granger will be played by yours truly. I’m gonna walk you through a way to clear your mind better than this book has anyway. So go do--whatever it is boys do before bed? I have no idea--and I’ll meet you up in your dorm.”

Which is entirely strange, but no stranger than anything else that has happened since the day he turned eleven, and at this point Harry doesn’t even have the energy left to protest. Once Harry’s dressed for bed, he ascends the stair to the dormitory to find Delphi cross-legged on Ron’s bed, playing with the screen again. She flaps a palm at him, not looking up. “Take your time and let me know when you’re comfortable.”

It seems there is no avoiding it, so Harry cautiously climbs into bed, setting his glasses aside. He can’t imagine how he’ll get to sleep with her watching, and he pulls the coverlet up to his chin.

A few minutes pass and there’s a rustle of movement. “God, that fucking level,” she mutters, shoving hair out of her face and coming to Harry’s bedside. “Okay. Ready? We’re going to do what the simpleminded would call guided visualization. I’m going to describe something, and you’re going to picture it. It’s a sequence you’re going to go through over and over and over again until you go to sleep. No variation, no additions, no skipping around. That’s how we empty your mind. With me so far?”

“How is this supposed to help?” Harry says, squinting. “With the war?”

“It’s Occlumency. The connection you have in your brains, remember? We need you to be able to keep him out before we can tell you the really hazardous shit, and nobody else wants to tell you the really hazardous shit except me. Therein lies the incentive structure for you to be good at it, fast. Got it?”

“Hang on. Haven’t you already told me the really hazardous--stuff?”

Delphi snorts. “Not even close. But you want me to, right?”

“Yes,” Harry says immediately. “But this is magic, how can you--”

“This is the kind of magic I can’t do, but I can coach you through. Even Muggles can read a book and grasp theory. Now close your eyes.”

Harry squints one more time, still unsure, but lets his eyes shut.

“First thing. Three deep breaths. Count up to seven, and then down from seven. This isn’t part of the visualization, it’s just to even out your heartbeat, it’s a yoga bullshit but it works.”

When he’s done it, he finds she’s not half wrong--he’s a fraction calmer, at little less rattled by the day.

“All right. Okay. Ready? You’re on a cliff. Imagine the cliff. What does it look like?”

Harry cracks open an eye. “What do you mean?”

Delphi makes a sound through her nose. “I mean you’re on a cliff and I want you to tell me what the fucking cliff looks like.”

Harry says testily, “It looks like a cliff.”

Fucking hell, kid, you really do have no poetry in your soul. Describe the fucking cliff. Is it windy? Is it craggy?”

“Why do I need to tell you what the cliff looks like if you’ve got all these secrets you’re so ready to tell me?”

Delphi puts both hands on her hips and paces a tiny circle in clear frustration. “Okay. Let’s try this again. Three deep breaths. No describing the cliff.”

There’s half a minute of silence as they both go through it together again. Then Delphi says, “You’re on a cliff. It’s a cliff next to the ocean. It’s craggy and windswept and you can see rocks at the bottom. Sharp ones. But you can also see, looking down, there’s the mouth of a cave. Do you see the mouth of the cave?”

Harry’s face is scrunched tight in concentration. “I guess.”

It must be enough. “You’re going to jump from the cliff and float down to the mouth of the cave, because you’re light as a feather. You can fly.” She takes a breath and her voice smooths out. “The mouth of the cave is damp and cold and dark, and there’s a big smooth stone wall in front of you. Do you see the wall?”

“Yes?”

Delphi’s voice drops into a lower register. “The wall wants something from you to let you pass.” Her hand goes to his, uncurls it from where it’s wrapped around the sheet. “You have to give it a drop of blood.” She draws a sharp fingernail down the center of his palm and then releases it. With his eyes closed, Harry can almost believe she has extracted a drop of blood from his palm to smear on the wall. “The wall opens. You can pass. Inside the cave behind the wall, there is a lake with an island at the center. Do you see the lake?”

“Yes.” And he does. It does feel like a kind of magic, following her slow speech, her hypnotic tone.

Her volume lessens, almost to a whisper. “There is a boat at the edge of the lake. You get in and it begins to take you to the island. There are people in the lake but they are all sleeping, placid, undisturbed. This lake is where you keep them. All your secrets. They are protected here. You get to the island in the center. Do you see the island?”

“Yes.”

“At the top of the island there is a bowl on a pedestal, and a shell. The bowl is full of a clear potion. At the bottom, something is glittering. The thing that is glittering is a locket. The locket contains all your secrets. This is where you keep them.” She takes a deep breath. “Here you are protected. Here you are immortal. Here you are safe.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Harry cranes his neck and says, “That’s it?”

Delphi nods once, sharply, a strange emotion moving across her face. “That’s it. When you get to the locket, you go back to the top of the cliff. It might help you to do this--” she draws her fingernail down his opened palm again “--to put you back there. But that’s the whole procedure.”

“That’s … strange,” Harry says lamely. “You are immortal?

“The Dark Lord is, yes. We are giving him a dream he might have, and hiding your secrets inside of it.”

It makes his skin crawl to think of serving up dreams for Voldemort. “Does Snape know you’re doing this?”

“Not really, but go ahead and tell him tomorrow if you like.” She shrugs. “It’s unconventional, he might say so, and it’s not as if he really trusts me. I don’t think he’ll really trust me until--” her face cracks into a sudden grin, gone as quickly as it comes. “Until later.”

Harry wants to know more, but there’s no way to ask but plainly. “Later?”

“That, my dear boy,” she says with a wink, “is for me to know and for you to find out. Now go through it for me. Narrate the whole thing back to me while you visualize.”

Harry does, and Delphi chimes in with gentle reminders when he misses a line. It takes several repetitions for Harry to retell it flawlessly, but when he does, she leaves him, instructing him to fall asleep as best he can and to think of the cave.

Harry breathes a sigh of relief, closes his eyes, and floats toward a cave mouth again.

The following week of Occlumency training of summer is exceedingly unpleasant. The days break into reading from a list of obscure texts Snape has assigned, most of which put Harry right to sleep, followed by a solitary lunch in the kitchens accompanied only by an overenthused Dobby telling Harry the entire business of the castle and a silent and still-woeful Winky, and then at least four hours of headache-inducing practical lessons with Snape, dredging up the worst of Harry’s childhood before dinner. Even sneaking out to fly during lunch once doesn’t raise his spirits--it merely incenses Snape, who cottons on to what he’s done immediately thanks to having his potion-stained prodding fingers sunk deep into Harry’s brain. The weekend has a bit of relief with a lie-in and more flying, this time with permission, but the evening lessons continue as ever. To everyone’s palpable frustration--most of all his own--Harry is rubbish at Occlumency.

Much as she might seem confident, the complete lack of progress seems to be wearing on Delphi equally. She stays in the Gryffindor common room sleeping on a couch and trying to add to Snape’s training after dinner--parsing his cryptic and sneering phrases for Harry when she can, elaborating when Snape has clearly expected Harry to pick it up on his own from his reading--but it’s not enough. Harry comes back the following Tuesday evening to find Delphi in front of the fire looking furious and slowly shredding a piece of parchment, balling up the fragments, and flinging each fragment into the fire.

“You’re on your own tonight. I’m liable to give you nightmares,” she snaps, not looking over her shoulder.

It’s a bit of a relief, but still. “Why?”

“Fucking Dumbledore, ” she growls, “Refuses to strongarm the goblins. I could throw him off the damn Astronomy tower myself.”

“They won’t let you into Gringotts? To get--whatever it is?”

“Oh, they’d let us in if he’d just do as I say. But it’d ruin relations, ” she says in a mocking, arch tone clearly intended to mimic Dumbledore. “And I can’t do it myself. Which means we’re fucking stuck. Unless I can convince him or Snape--or you --to sneak into Gringotts with me disguised as my mother or something and we fly out on the fucking dragon.” She glances up at him finally, one eyebrow arched. “Which we could do, if you’re up for it.”

Harry remembers the Horntail. “Not really.”

“Yeah, that’s what I fucking thought,” she says, sounding disappointed and flinging another fragment of parchment into the fire. “Goblins,” she adds under her breath with clear disgust.

Harry sits on the carpet beside her, in front of the fire. “What are we looking for, anyway? What do you need from the goblins.”

“Careful,” she says. “You had better be good enough at Occlumency to ask questions like that.”

Harry isn’t. Harry knows he isn’t. He makes a sound of frustration deep in his throat and props his elbows on his knees, flinging one of her scraps of parchment into the fire. “Fine, then. Lie to me, keep me in the dark.”

“Is that what you think I’ll do?”

“It’s what everyone does.”

“Harry, if you ask me a question I will fucking answer it, and I’ll give you the truth,” she says, uncharacteristically serious and offended. “But there are always consequences to knowledge.”

“Because of Voldemort’s window into my mind.” It’s not quite a question.

She shrugs. “There are consequences to every type of knowledge. Loads of them are negative. Most of them don’t have anything to do with my shitty father.”

“What can you tell me? Without--negative consequences?”

“I can’t promise you anything even approaching that level of safety,” she warns. “Ever.”

Harry has not broken the rules as many times as he has without hearing the yes hidden inside a non-refusal like this. “But you think you can tell me something?”

She looks into his eyes for a long moment, and Harry almost half-expects that rifling-through feeling of Legillimency now so familiar thanks to Snape. But it never comes. Finally, she looks back into the fire.

“There’s certain things we need to destroy,” she says finally. “The thing is, they need to be destroyed in a very specific order. The next one is in Gringotts, then the next one has to be--well, you'll see why. And then there's the one that's with Dad almost at all times, and then there's the last one, and no one likes that one ever but it has to be done .” She claps her hands together. "And then there's Dad and then we're done. That’s the whole shape of the war."

It sounds so simple, so easy, summed up like that. “Is that all.”

“Try to sound more impressed, I’m getting you done with it two fucking years ahead of schedule and with a whole lot of lives intact.” She tilts her head back and looks at the ceiling. “Here’s something else you can know, actually, if you’re in the mood for more truth. Do you want to know why I’m really here? Beyond the war, beyond just saving lives? The real, real reason?”

Harry knows an opportunity when he hears one. “If you’re offering.”

“Have you ever seen the pureblood family trees?”

“No. Should I have?”

“Not really. How much do you know about genetics? Did you ever do a punnett square in primary school?”

Harry squints, thinking. “Maybe? Something to do with peas?”

“All right.” She reclines fully onto her back the rug before the fire and begins to make her customary expressive gestures in the air above her, as if she is painting the ceiling. “So the basis--the thinking behind this pureblood supremacy rubbish--is that wizards are dying out because they’re intermarrying with muggles and muggleborns, that muggleborns are stealing magic from true wizards, all that complete fucking nonsense. Now, the bit about muggleborns stealing magic, that’s just idiotic.” Her smile cracks a little and for a moment she looks almost angry. “Ask Snape about it sometime, he’s got a fanfuckingtastic story about meeting a muggleborn girl on a playground as a kid. He’ll know the one I mean. Ask him how much magic she stole from him.” And just as quickly as it came--as quickly as it takes for Harry to know for a fact he will not be asking Snape any such thing--the expression passes, and she’s back to lecturing. “Anyway, as I’ve said, that bit’s rubbish and we can bin it right away. But the wizardkind dying out bit, that’s real, that’s happening.”

Harry sits up straighter. “Is it?”

“Look around you. Look at all the empty classrooms. Look how big Hogwarts is.” She frees her hair from behind her shoulders in some kind of exasperated motion, flicking it above her head. “Now look how many people are in your class. Every year the classes get smaller. Grindlewald’s war didn’t help matters, and Dad’s first salvo took out even more. Yours is the smallest class is Hogwarts history. The next smallest is Ginny’s, then Fred and George’s. Wizardkind is fucking dying out, and they have been desperate to stop it for over a century.”

Harry shakes his head. “You can’t be agreeing with them, though. You can’t think that muggleborns--”

“Oh fuck no. Their pureblood bullshit is exactly the problem.”

“What?”

Delphi gestures with both hands toward Harry as if she’s considering taking his head between her palms. “Wizardkind is dying out because all anybody wants to do is marry their first cousin and produce maybe one sickly kid with a pedigree longer than a dragon’s cock.” She ticks them off on her fingers. “Take the most notorious purebloods you know, and they’re the only children in the family: Draco Malfoy, Theodore Nott, Blaise Zabini and his mother’s eight--maybe she’s still on six at the moment, who knows--but all those husbands and only one child to show for it? Ridiculous. Your grandparents on the Potter side had a hell of a time producing your dad, didn’t manage it til they were getting up there in years, which is why you didn’t have them to grow up with. Bellatrix never managed to pop out anyone but little old me despite how badly she wanted to be of service to Rodolphus, but turns out the Lestrange bloodline is straight fucking poison. It’s rumored both those boys were cooked up in cauldrons anyway, which has all sorts of drawbacks--chief among them, sterility.” She sees Harry’s momentary confusion. “As in, can’t get knocked up, or can’t get anyone knocked up, depending. Witches can do a baby up in a cauldron, though, with the right stuff.”

“That’s disgusting.”

She shrugs. “It’s dead useful if anyone could do it right. Rumor has it that’s how Draco was cooked up too, that Severus helped Narcissa do it, but Draco can pop out kids all right--has one, when I’m from. Takes a talented potions master to produce a viable heir that can have heirs of his own, I suppose, if it’s true."

"That's really disgusting." But it latches onto something Harry knows, and he wants to understand very badly. “My Aunt Marge bred dogs. Horrible ones. But she kept on about tracing them back to a show dog that had won something, or a blood lines that had shown something else. The way she talked about all the things they had to do at the veterinarian--it’s like that, isn’t that?”

Delphi nods vigorously. “Exactly. Same holds for wizards. And runts and stillbirths and squibs like me turn up, all kinds of revolting defects, so going the cauldron route makes sense if you’re desperate.”

“So--” Harry tries to wrap his mind around it, past the revulsion. "So why not just go the cauldron route all the time? If the usual way doesn't work."

“The gene pool’s still garbage no matter which way you cook the baby up, and all the purebloods always want a true heir--no introducing any genetic diversity that could make the offspring more stable. But without enough variation in the genetics, there’s only so much you can do before you just stop being able to make a viable infant at all, by any method. There’s loads of lines that’ve gone extinct like that--Prince, Gaunt, Blishwick, every single fucking Founder in the book, and you had better believe people were slavering to pop out kids with names like Gryffindor when they could back in the fifteen hundreds. But they couldn’t.” She looks at him, spreading her hands helplessly. “It’s an ideology that does exactly the opposite of what it aims to do. And wizardkind is in real danger, the population’s already so small that if you only marry other wizards and witches you’re just dredging a kiddie pool of cousinfuckers and compounding the issue.”

Harry wrinkles his nose. “I think. But that’s not--I mean, my best friend, Ron. He doesn’t--I mean, you have heard of him?”

She smiles, a coy crinkling at the corner of her eyes that tells him she knows more than she’s telling. “I’ve heard of him, yes.”

“Well, he’s one of seven. And there’s twins--”

Delphi reaches up and ruffles Harry’s hair. “Look at you, little scientific mister counterpoint over here. Sure, there are exceptions, and most of them are Weasleys. Seven fucking kids!” Delphi whoops, slaps her knee. “Seven pureblood kids and never a bigger lot of blood traitors you’ll find this side of the Atlantic, in both the Weasley and Prewett line. I’d bet a hundred galleons Lucius Malfoy shrieked like a goddamn teakettle every time he saw a new birth announcement, and I’d pay a hundred more to see it myself. But by and large, the global trend is down.” Her finger describes a downward arc. “I didn’t just look at your class and your friends, and seven Weasleys can’t fight the trend of a dozen other pureblood families having one or no children. There’s tons of meticulously kept data on this going back hundreds of years in those painstaking family trees, and I dug up as much of it as I could get my hands on. Massive undertaking, could show you my notes if you like.”

Harry imagines reading over another one of Hermione’s essays--this one even longer, and full of references he doesn’t understand. “Not interested in more homework, thanks.”

“Didn’t think so. You’re the kind of kid who wants to read the abstract, not the article.”

Harry is fairly certain he’s been insulted, but he lets it pass. “What does this have to do with the square?

“Punnett square. Turns out being a wizard is a pretty dominant trait--fully ninety-five percent of half-bloods turn up magical--and plenty of muggles have a bit of wizard in them, which is how muggleborns actually turn up. Which means, in short, we need to eliminate blood supremacy right now if we want there to be magic in a hundred years.” Delphi sighs, pressing her thumbs to her eyes and pitching her voice up. “ But Delphi, why didn’t you just bring this impeccable fucking science that your amazing research and your pal down at the Oxford genetics lab turned up to Dad and have done? Well, my fun-size chosen one, I have tried that, and all it ever did was get both my eyebrows singed off.”

Harry starts. “Hang on. You tried to go to him first?”

“Harry.” She comes up on her elbows, rolling her eyes. “Of course I went to my dad first. He didn’t raise me or anything--the Rowles took me first, and once it was clear I didn’t have any magic the muggle orphanage took it from there. But I’m still his daughter, and purebloods are nothing if not motivated by blood connection. He’s one of the most powerful wizards of the age, not even Dumbledore disputes that. Easiest way was to go to him myself.”

His suspicion shoots up again in a way it hasn’t since the first day they met. “And you survived?”

“I am his daughter. There’s a test for that kind of thing. An old one. Not very nice.” She tugs up a sleeve and points to three little starbursts near the crook of her elbow. “See?”

“You went back and talked to him three times?”

“Five. Only got so far as to do the test three times. Turns out dad thinks of me, his exceptionally beautiful and intelligent scion, as a potential usurper. Or a disgrace, if it comes out I’m a squib. The other two attempts, they just--” she waves her finger like a makeshift wand, “ avada kedavra this and crucio that, which is all they ever do.” She flops back on the carpet. “Very welcoming lot, the Death Eaters, particularly when you try to lay out a case where you argue everything they think and believe is wrong.”

“And so you’re here, fighting him instead.”

“Turns out diplomacy is not my strong suit.” Her voice is flattened with irony, and she’s glaring at the ceiling. “Who’d have fucking guessed.”

Suddenly the scope of what Delphi has been through--of what she has been trying to do--seems more daunting than it ever has before. “How did you get out, those five times?”

She eyes him. “How did you ever get out of your assortment of tight scrapes?”

Delphi keeps doing this; answering questions she doesn’t want to answer with more questions, and Harry’s had it. “You know how I did it, you said you’ve read everything about me in books. How did you do it?”

“Luck and the magic of better wizards, same as you.” She sighs. “If you need me to be specific, I have a time turner, so one twist and I can get out of just about anything if I have both hands free. And I took up running after the first one, so I’m fast. I know everyone’s secrets and futures, so I know how to manipulate them. Sometimes other people pull my bacon out of the fire, if I’ve gone on a recruiting run. And on a few occasions, I have gotten very, very lucky.”

Harry does not want to admit in the least that he has been lucky, but for the first time, he considers that he may have been. He looks into the fire and lets the silence stretch on as it crackles.

“I’m no good at Occlumency,” he says finally.

“Which doesn’t make any sense, because Snape is.” She rises again, sitting up next to him. “You should be. Your childhoods were--well. They were close enough. You got strangled, he got--all sorts of other things. Ask him sometime.”

It gives Harry pause to think about Snape’s childhood being miserable as his own. "I doubt it."

"No, you're right. You had no friends when you were little. He had," she holds up a single finger before a suddenly sharp expression, " one friend. Would you like to know her name?"

The more she tries to drag Harry toward asking about Snape, the more he doesn’t want to even see the man ever again. If he’s curious, he’s certainly not asking after it, and it shows in the frustration on her face every time Harry deflects. “Fine, then. I should be good at it. What am I doing wrong?”

Delphi gives him a long, measuring look. “Harry, what happens inside your head when your shitbag of an uncle strangles you? Or when they shut you in the closet without supper? What did you think about, where did you go?”

“That was just the once,” Harry says quickly. “The strangling, I mean. It’s not all the time.”

Harry.

He shakes his head. “I-- It’s stupid.”

She snorts. “Oh, that means it must be something entirely fucking wholesome.”

“I came up with it when I was just a kid.” Harry puts his chin on his knees, and expects Delphi to say you’re still a fucking kid but she doesn’t--just regards him with a sudden and expansive patience. She has been more vulnerable than he’s ever seen her, and it seems to need some kind of exchange, some kind of recompense. “You can’t laugh.”

She solemnly crosses her two fingers in an x over her lips. “Promise.”

He’s never put it into words, and now, facing down the idea of not only putting it into words but saying those words to another person--he doesn’t want to do it. “This matters? For the war? It’ll make me good at Occlumency, and then you’ll be able to tell me everything?”

She looks torn, for a moment, and then she sighs and shuts her eyes, rubbing the space between here eyebrows with her fingertips. “The truth?”

“The truth,” Harry says firmly. “Please.”

“The truth, then, is that I wish like hell I could promise you that everything I’m doing will work. I’m fucking making it up as I go, and I’m not Dumbledore--I’m not going to lie to you or keep things from you. But I’ve failed too many times to make promises.” She looks up at him. “Depending on what you tell me, it might be the key to Occlumency. Or it might be nothing. Even if it is what I think it is, it might not work, for any number of reasons.”

Which isn’t the answer Harry wants, but it does sound like the truth: reasoned, measured, and plain.

Harry takes a deep breath. “Aunt Petunia said they died in a car crash.”

Delphi watches, waiting. “And?”

“So when that kind of thing happens, when things go fuzzy, I always tried to think what it’d be like, living with them instead.” Harry presses his forehead into his knees so he doesn’t have to watch her laugh. “That’s how I got to sleep at night. Pretending I was living with them.”

Harry looks up after a few long breaths of silence, and Delphi isn’t laughing. She also doesn’t look terribly sympathetic, either. She looks careful, calculating. “Yes. That should work,” she says slowly. “Not exactly the same as Snape, unless I miss my mark, but it should work.”

“Should--for Occlumency?”

“Yes. Next time Snape tries to bust into your mind, I suggest you go there--to where you went when you were in the cupboard, or when you’re about to be socked in the mouth. Go be with your loving family who never met my dad or the wrong end of a lorry.” A sudden grin, all dimples and something that could almost be called malice, cuts her face in two. “You’ve got pictures of your mother, yes? Make sure you visualize your mother especially.”

Chapter Text

It is very early. Too early for visitors, and the castle is empty. And there is a woman in Snape’s office.

The first thought is Narcissa , with the white-blonde hair and the finery of the robes--they are well-tailored, a shimmering gray fabric of high quality that even Muggles made suits of, giving it a kind of bland, expensive anonymity. It is from Narcissa and Lucius he had learned to identify such things so long ago, and it seems Narcissa’s taste. But the woman is too short, and Narcissa would never pull her hair back into that severe and inelegant ponytail, and even in the low light of predawn the tips look more blue than silvery-blonde.

Which can only mean one person. The damnable girl.

Delphi turns to face him, snapping shut a compact and smacking her lips that have just been slathered in some sort of colorful product.

“Good, you’re finally here,” she says, without preamble. “You like my makeup? It’s from the future. I drank three red bulls and followed a YouTube tutorial”

He inspects her face more closely, still trying to catch up and perhaps blink the sleep from his eyes and parse the gibberish. She has been painted and groomed almost beyond recognition, eyebrows drawn sharp and severe and so full as to be reminiscent of the Muggle 80s. There is some kind of shimmering powder dusted down her cheekbones and the tip of her nose, like a child who has gotten into the powdered moonstone, and her cheekbones and jaw are carved with shadow, rendering her just short of skull-like. The cumulative effect is clearly deliberate, and entirely alien.

But something in the shape and focus in the eyes--Tom Riddle’s own unsettling eyes, if he is being honest with himself, which is not a thing he makes a practice of--is recognizable without a shadow of a doubt. That is the thing to focus on.

“You look prepared for politics,” he says finally.

“I am,” she says. “We’re going to Gringotts.”

“Gringotts,” Snape says. He had wanted tea before he got to work, and despite the fact that it is summer, there is still work to be done--for Dumbledore, for the Dark Lord, for the school year, and beyond that, a stack of periodicals and research and correspondence and the boy’s complete lack of progress in Occlumency lessons. There is no time for this girl. “Why.”

“Because it’s the only plan I could get Dumbledore to buy in on, and both of us are stuck playing by Albus’ rules,” she says, scowling. “Are you ready or do you need to primp?”

Snape has required primping exactly as much as he has given his trust, and he is not about to begin either with Delphi Riddle when she spontaneously appears unaccompanied and unsummoned in his office. “I will contact Albus.” He steps toward the fireplace, but Delphi steps into his path.

“He’s at the Ministry, trying to avoid getting the Defense professor you’re scheduled for this year. She’s a real monster, you don’t want her in the school, believe me on that.”

“And yet.”

“Albus knew you’d be like this. Here,” she says, extending a roll of parchment.

The note goes into more detail than Delphi had, outlining the plan. Snape frowns at it, then reads it once more, and moves his wand over it. The spell returns a valid result; the note is, as best as he can tell, legitimate. He looks back up to Delphi, whose arms are crossed and is watching his face with tight-lipped intensity despite all the color and sparkle she has painted on. “Albus agreed. To this.”

“His idea, wasn’t it? Came up with it when I clarified that the other option was to break in and fly out on the dragon they’ve got chained up down there. Which is what Harry would otherwise do in 1998.” She flicks her fingers up, as if to say there’s no accounting for taste.

“If word gets back to the Dark Lord--”

“I know. A bank robbery would be easier to cover up. But this way preserves--” she makes a face. “ Relations. With the goblins. Which are important historically at this juncture, because they could fuck this whole impending wizarding war up if they really wanted just by seizing everyone’s funding. Or worse, just one side’s funding--our funding.”

Which does follow, unfortunately. Snape mentally runs down the list of necessary preparations, then narrows his thoughts to the ones that he would want to personally review--ones Albus might overlook or leave to Delphi herself. Albus did always like to take the high view and leave the details to his colleagues. Frequently that colleague has been Snape. Occasionally it has been others, to Snape’s detriment. Snape has made a practice of knowing and reviewing all the details, especially now, living in the Dark Lord’s pocket once more, as the war demands. “The paperwork?”

She wordlessly produces another scroll, rolling her eyes. “Have at it. It’s all in order, I wasn’t raised by a pack of wild Muggles, unlike some chosen ones I could name.”

It is entirely too early to review banking documentation with any kind of speed with the required detail, but Snape does it anyway, bent over his desk while Delphi paces across the room. It is odd to see her nervous, but here she is, tapping a foot, staring at the seam in a bookcase, pacing.

There is nothing for it. Snape watches her pace for several seconds after he finishes his second read-through and then says, “This all seems in order.”

“You don’t like it.” He rerolls the parchment and does not reply, but she takes an urgent step forward, taking his silence as agreement. “That makes two of us, Dracula, but what choice to either of us have? We’re at the whim of Albus fucking Dumbledore and this is the way he wants to play it.”

“Which does not resolve the problem of  news getting back to other Death Eaters. It relies on more lies than I am comfortable with.”

She spreads her arms. “I look like my mother’s daughter.”

Snape does not say you are also as insane as she. “It could jeopardize my position.”

“Not that much. You’d just be on orders. Narcissa would be more scandalized at her sister and Roddy for hiding a child, and Bella herself is in Azkaban and can’t contest that she had a bastard out of wedlock, and Andromeda--well, who cares what Auntie Dromeda thinks.” She flashes a dimpled smile. “And the real explanation is: fuck Bellatrix. Death Eater infighting, right? Perfect excuse for you. You fucking hate Bella.”

He does not ask what kind of book could possibly chronicle his decades-long dislike of Bellatrix Lestrange, nor why her own daughter might relish the information so. The reason is clear; the girl hates all that she was born to. She is not alone is the sentiment. And while it is true that Death Eater politics frequently accommodate such backbiting, this stretches the imagination. “Such an explanation will not buy long with the Dark Lord, if the news goes back to him.”

“He bought the line about unworthy Quirrell, didn’t he? Feed him another one of those. Half the reason he busts Mum out is to bulk out his army and to get access to the vault. With access to the vault, he half doesn’t even need her.”

Snape hates that he must point off the obvious. “She is your mother, and not only of value for her ability. As much as I believe the Dark Lord incapable of sentiment--”

Incapable of sentiment? Are you stupid? He’s the most sentimental Dark Wizard anyone’s ever heard of. He made a horcrux out of his own ratty old diary. He made a temple to the locket--the one he inherited from his Slytherin forebears. He’s sentimental as fuck.

“Regardless,” Snape says repressively. “I find it difficult to believe he will not mind such an aggressive move against one of his most faithful.”

“Dad minds less than you think. He’s totally fixated on the prophecy right now. He won’t mind you two feral cats going at it in the alley. Dumbledore agrees. It’s all there in the note.” She smiles again, that tight and unpleasant smile. “And if this works, I won’t need long to put together the rest. If I’m very good--and I am very good--the next time you’ll see my daddy dearest, he’ll be a head rolling in the dirt.”

---

The private office they are shown into is, like all goblin offices, completely free of any personal decoration. Snape knows that they are all like this. Goblin sense of ownership does not extend to space; to a goblin, an office can no more belong to a goblin any more than the air inside of it can belong to any one goblin. The early hour ensures that the activity is muted, and there are few to observe their passage.

The goblin who reviews their paperwork does so with the efficiency of an expert, faster than Snape himself had.

“A bastard born out of wedlock to Bellatrix Lestrange,” he says, looking up. Goblin faces are hard to read, but Snape would call him intruiged.

“Rodolphus, Rabastan, and Bellatrix herself are all in Azkaban. Extenuating circumstances dictate that she could be offered special access to the vault, as is her right,” Snape says.

The goblin does not look at Snape. “I presume you are familiar with the penalties associated with fraudulent inheritance claims?”

Azkaban. Or death, if the inheritance spell goes wrong. They frequently do, whether by accident or by design, who could say.

“I am,” Delphi says, her cheek trembling slightly.

With the bored affect of a middle-manager, the goblin unfurls one long-fingered hand. “Your wand, then.”

Delphi’s head turns to Snape. “You didn’t tell him?”

Snape replies smoothly, “I was unsure I had to.”

The goblin looks between them, his expression growing displeased. “I require your wand.”

Delphi goes more rigid in her seat. “I don’t have one.”

The goblin is startled by this deviation. “We cannot certify your identity without a wand, let alone that you stand to gain access the Lestrange vault.”

“You can,” she replied coldly. “I thought we had sent ahead.”

The goblin straightens, appraising her--the fine robes, the face, the cool and stiff demeanor, and then he spares a glance for Snape. “Surely you must know we cannot have your-- companion perform the spell.”

Her voice is rigid, regal--there is some of the pureblood etiquette training in the crass thing after all. “I know. He’s a witness. To accompany me, considering my--condition.”

The goblin straightens, then descends from his seat. “I will have to consult with others and fetch a wizard in our employ.”

The nod Delphi gives is sharp, her eyes fixed to the back wall.

“It may take some time.”

Another nod.

The goblin closes the door behind him as he leaves. There is a second of brittle silence Delphi’s hand comes to her face but hesitates--she is wearing a pound of carefully-applied cosmetic--and then drops back into her lap. Her other hand reaches into her robes and removes a slim back packet.

The hand is, Snape cannot help but notice, trembling slightly.

“I fucking hate this shit,” she mutters, tapping a black cigarette free of the packet. She fumbles with the lighter she produces from its place, crammed inside the half-empty packet. It takes so long that decency almost demands that he light the cigarette with his wand before she gets it.

“Do you customarily smoke while on business in the offices of other people?”

“What are you going to do, dock points?” She takes a deep drag and filling the room with the scent of clove and tobacco. “We’ve got a problem.”

“Why.”

Letting the cigarette dangle from her lips in a move that speaks absolutely of lower class in a way all the cosmetics and robes in the world can’t cover, she pulls open her robes to go fishing once more. The time-turner comes out. A blue and harsh light is emanating from the hourglass; the sand inside it seems to stutter up and down, mid-trickle from one bell to the other.

“Goblin magic. Didn’t realize they’d already put that in place at this point in the timeline.” She blows smoke out of one side of her mouth, away from him. A modern, Muggle courtesy. “Can’t go back while we’re in here. Which means I can’t fix things if they get fucked.”

“There will be no need,” Snape says dismissively.

She plucks the cigarette from between her lips and holds it, smouldering, with the same hand as the the time-turner. She gives the gold device a shake, distributing ash across the edge of the desk. “This is the only thing that’s stood between me and that lovely green light more times than I can count, Gatsby. I don’t like being without it.” Her free hand flicks the hourglass with a fingertip. A discordant chime sounds when her fingernail hits the glass, a sound rife with stymied magic. “If Dumbledore had come, they’d have let him do it. I think Dumbledore thought they’d let you on his word--he did say he sent ahead. Now we’ve got to contend with whatever cut-rate wizard they drag up here to do the heritage spell.”

Snape’s anxiety spikes like a shower of sparks. “Dumbledore’s note said you were certain it could be accomplished. They will not forego the test.”

“It’ll come back legitimate. I am her daughter.”

There are spells on this room, as there are on every office in Gringotts, insuring privacy to the occupant whenever the door is shut. Snape looks over his shoulder once more to ensure the door is completely closed; it is. They have security enough to discuss it, then. “If the wizard performing the test has reason to distrust us, they might distrust the result. What aren’t you telling me?”

She looks at him over her arm as she ashes onto the desk once more, smoke curling past her face. Her free hand stuffs the useless time-turner back inside her robes. “You know how it’s supposed to go?”

“Yes.” He has suffered it once, at the hands of the Dark Lord, to prove his bloodline on the Prince side. The result has been a painful thing, but the glowing, throbbing purple that had lit the veins of his arms and hands had lit up the name Prince like his birthright on his left arm, and had been the result they had been looking for--proved his worthiness of blood. It had been the first step to becoming a Death Eater.

The rest of that evening is best left forgotten.

“I’m one-quarter, because the Dad’s a half-blood. Means I come up mostly blue, little bit of purple, better than most.  I don’t come up red, if that’s what you’re worried about. But--” she takes a drag, pursing her lips and blowing smoke through her nose. “It’s a bit greenish.” She wiggles her fingertips. “At the ends.”

“Green is not a result that the heritage spell provides.”

“I know that green isn’t a fucking result, Severus.” She takes another drag and scowls at the almost-gone cigarette pinched between her fingers, as if accusing it of being too short. “It surprised me the first time too. Had to do quite a bit of quick thinking.”

“And?”

“And it didn’t fucking work that time, or the other two times, which is why I’m fucking here, sitting next to your sorry ass.” She takes the final drag of the cigarette and then stubs it out violently on the desktop, leaving a smear of ash. “I spent some time with you that go-round, you said it was probably because I technically hadn’t been born. So, blue for the pure, a splash of red for the mud, and a bit of sickly avada kedavra green on the edges because it’s all mucked up in time and I’m technically dead, or never lived, or whatever.”

It sounds like a bad guess, even from an alternate version of himself. “And they have accepted this result? Dumbledore has accepted this result?”

“Dumbledore said he’d handle it and then ran off to the Ministry.”

Snape is considering, planning for the worst, now--trying to understand her abilities. “Surely you are adept enough at deception to manage this minor issue.”

“I tend to tell the truth, believe it or not. Never tried to pull this big of a con before.” She sweeps the butt of the cigarette and all the ash into her palm, and rises, moving to the desk and opening a drawer to dump it in. “I shouldn’t have trusted Dumbledore. He fucks things up by trying to be clever instead of efficient.”

“And what would have been efficient?”

She shrugs, producing a black handkerchief from a pocket to wipe her hands clean. “You have access to Narcissa and are familiar with the Imperius Curse. Narcissa could have access to the Lestrange vault if we worked it right. It could be that easy.”

“It could also send me to Azkaban.”

“If you let her remember it. Two spells.” She holds up two fingers, which doubles as a rude gesture, which surely must satisfy her. “Easy. It’s not as if she’d go to the fucking Aurors , not in this political climate and not with her allegiances being what they are.” She drops the hand once more, gesturing broadly. “Or the Malfoy boy, same technique, more tractible, less talented, more of a tosser, with the tradeoff that his ability to pass muster is little more questionable. Or you could even spring Bellatrix and get her to do it herself.”

“Bellatrix is trained in the mind arts, as is Narcissa, as I’m sure you know. And Azkaban cannot be broken into. Or out of.”

“Azkaban is broken into--and out of, January next. Accelerating Dad’s timetable, exploiting the same weaknesses? Easy.”

The way she keeps saying easy is beginning to do more than irritate; as if his years of service were merely to lay a red carpet. “You proposed these solutions to Albus?”

“Do I look stupid to you?” She slumps back into the chair, crossing her arms. “Of course I fucking didn’t tell Albus to use Unforgivable curses or break my dear old insane mom out of Azkaban. I tried to get him to use his leverage on the goblins to make an exception, let him into the vault, maybe imply some kind of danger to the bank from the thing we’re trying to get a hold of. He has leverage enough to do it--he managed to negotiate protections for goblins during Grindlewald’s time, and they haven’t forgotten it. But Albus won’t do it, which leaves me spinning my wheels here and telling you all the other ways it could be done without his blessing.”

And the logic behind that is daisy-chained so neatly for him, he must say it aloud. “Because you believe these other methods may still have to be employed, if this goes wrong. What makes you think I will be more amenable to these methods than Albus?”

She has the decency to look a little pleased that he’s followed her before she speaks. “Because, Severus, you’re a Death Eater, you’re a Dark wizard, and you’ve had a whole lifetime of hard choices to figure out exactly how far you’ll go to get the job done.” The implication is clear: you will go as far as is required.

There’s something else there, though, something he must puzzle over, something he must tease apart. She’s being talkative and Snape has not been such a useful and deft spy for so long without taking advantage of situations such as these. “You neither respect nor trust Dumbledore, but he forms the crux of your plans. He opens doors for you, surely, permits access to the locket and the diadem, and he offers access to the Potter boy, which you clearly feel you require for reasons that are opaque to me. Why would you bend to his whims? Why would he bend to yours?”

As he says it, Snape realizes what, exactly, he is chasing. Albus is bending to her whims, based only on the promise of defeating the Dark Lord and--whatever happened behind that closed door, in the Black house. The conclusion is clear; some transaction has occurred, and Snape dislikes this kind of mystery when it skirts so close to his affairs.

“I’m not keeping half so many secrets as you.” She spreads her hands. “Albus promised to do everything in his power to help me destroy Dad. I promised to give him the time-turner when I’m done with the job. A fair trade.”

The possibilities for Albus with a time-turner are dizzying, but not terrifying. Years of collaboration have bought trust, on that account, at least as much as Snape is capable of. “Do you know what he intends to use it for?”

“He didn’t share.” She takes her seat once more. “Best guess? Based on historical narrative and some secrets that come to light later on, he won’t use it at all. He just wants to make sure I don’t have it, and that no one else has it either.” She shrugs. “Or he wants to see his fascist boyfriend again,” she adds, as an afterthought. “Same way you’d do just about anything to see Lily Evans again.”

The first part dovetails perhaps uncomfortably well with what Snape knows of Albus. Perhaps the girl does know how he operates well enough. The second disappears, echoing down a deep well that he does not care to follow. He consciously has to think about unclenching his jaw, about the exact location of his wand, about how difficult it would be to explain away a corpse here and now.

There is no point in anger, not against so dangerous an ally as Delphi. But she can sense his resistance and pursues it.

“I could do it, you know. Bring you back to her, or her to you.” She leans sideways, almost crawling onto the arm of the chair to speak directly into his ear. “I can go back to 1976 right now. Spring, wasn’t it, that day by the lake?” She snaps her finger before his face, hoping to provoke a response.

The intimidation is not unfamiliar, nor unexpected. He gives her nothing. That memory had gone into a box, and that box had been sunk into the ocean.

She pushes on anyway. “We could do it and be back before we fucking want for lunch.”

He considers the offer as dispassionately as he is able. He is, at least, able to recognize the danger in it. The words come out through gritted teeth when he finally allows his gaze to turn toward the girl: cold, disapproving, and final. “I doubt that.”

“I’ll offer you the same bargain I offered Albus.” One finger makes a spiral motion next to his face, as if to hypnotize him. “You can have it. You can have everything you want. When I’m done, I’ll give up the time-turner willingly. To you.”

Albus, at least, is worth talking about. “Denying Albus his prize would be more unwise for myself than for you, but it would be very unwise on your account all the same. You would risk his retaliation?”

“If this goes tits-up or worse because Albus is a cryptic smug motherfucker?” She sticks out a hand, as if waiting for him to take it and shake on it, like some backyard bargain between schoolchildren. “That was part of our agreement, too: if he fucks up, all bets are off. Same terms for you. I’ll take those odds.”

He glances at her palm, then up at her transparently hopeful face once more. “You are hedging.”

“I haven’t survived doing this shit twenty-three different times by putting all my eggs in one basket, least of all Dumbledore’s.”

He narrows his eyes. “And what do you recieve from such a deal, I wonder?”

“In exchange for--no more questions. No more threats. No more distrust. I get to do what I know will work, and you won’t like all of it--but that’s how you operate, isn’t it?” Her face is greedy, now, hungry. “Albus can’t like everything you get up to. You have some leeway.”

“Very little.”

“Enough of it to pull one over on him, if you have to to get where I’m going. All I need is a tiny little leap of faith.” Her face splits into another broad, dimpled smile. “Let me a little leeway. Give me the same bargain Albus gave you.”

And for an instant--for the first time since the mid eighties--he finds it possible to imagine that he could ever serve another loyalty than Dumbledore’s. The temptation is real, and cleverly executed.

If he were a simpler kind of man, he might be chasing that impulse. She is asking for so little--just a measure of faith. He can imagine the scenario it would arise: she does something that seems insane, he objects, she says, you promised you’d trust me --and she either accomplishes their goal or does not.

But she has sidelined him, dragged him away from something using the blunt tool of his weakness --the very weakness that has him still under Dumbledore’s thumb, under the Dark Lord’s thumb, serving every want but his own. Snape had, until this point, assumed her nerves were half for show, what with how deftly she has turned from expressing them when the moment suited. But it occurs to him that she might be truly, sincerely scared that this will not work; that she will have to start over once again. How tiresome that might become, after twenty-three attempts. Tolerating Harry Potter’s presence all these years has been a trial of itself; saving his life half a dozen times when the boy insists on pursuing danger has driven Snape half-mad. Snape himself is very nearly sympathetic to the plight.

But there has been no other choice.

And that slides into place more than any other suspicions he has held against this girl, both the ones he has expressed passionately to Dumbledore to no avail, and the suspicions he holds even tighter to his chest. “Tell me,” he drawls. “How many times, out of your twenty-three, have you managed to obtain the Cup?”

Her mouth opens, and then snaps shut. “Enough times,” she says, her voice even.

“Liar.”

“Oh, fuck you, ” she snaps. An ugly flush rises in her cheeks, and Snape knows then that he has her.

“It would be difficult,” he continues, not responding to her muttered profanity. “Without Albus or someone else with access to Hogwarts, the diadem would be difficult to obtain, if not impossible. Without Black freed from Azkaban, the wards on the Black house would be difficult to crack, despite your heritage as an heir to the House.”

Her teeth are set and she’s looking straight ahead, stonefaced. Snape is the kind of man who knows how to seek out a wound. And for all she’s said, it is worth knowing how she takes retribution.

“I may not know what the other horcruxes are,” he says softly, lazily, the kind of tone he takes to terrify students. “But I do know you have not yet been equal to the task.”

“Is that your answer, then?” she says, her gaze snapping sideways and her face contorted into a grimace.

Snape allows himself a cruel kind of smile. “I find your promises wanting.”

“Fine,” she snarls. “Live out your shitty lonely life and die in a shack, then, you ugly virgin.”

Which is the simplest confirmation possible that she has nothing but the time turner to offer, nothing but his secrets to threaten him with, and nothing at all more to say. But he has more to say to her, and relishes doing so. “You need us. Myself, Dumbledore, even the Potter brat.” He leans back in his chair, satisfied. “I suggest you change your tone, if you care to keep any of us.”

“You can be bullied. That day when you were 15 by the lake, for example--”

He cuts across the transparent diversion. “Your techniques are threadbare. Do they work on Potter?”

Her grimace shifts as her jaw works, swallowing that truth. Her eyes fix across the desk, away from him. “Dumbledore would order you if you try to tap out. He knows I’m his best shot. That’s why I’m here.”

“Dumbledore can give all the orders he likes,” Snape scoffs. “I am not a servant.”

A new, grim countenance tugs at her mouth. “He’d fucking Imperius you to darn his socks if he thought it would inch him closer to the win.”

Snape considers his reply exactly long enough him to hear a hand on the doorknob.

“This isn’t over,” he says, straightening in his chair and looking over his shoulder as the door opens.

The goblin escorts the young wizard in and Snape stands, trying not to look relieved. Albus had sent ahead after all, and someone was ready, someone in the Order, someone who was completely plausible--already a Gringotts employee--and would not mention any irregularity in the result. All of Delphi’s worry was for naught. The only benefactor is Snape himself, and that is enough to make him suspicious all over again.

“Professor,” Bill Weasley says, looking as at ease as he can for a man untrained in subterfuge.

“Weasley,” Snape responds coolly.

The goblin closes the door. “The heritage spell, Weasley. Do be quick about it.”

“You’re not going to tell me what it’s for, Halfang?” Weasley says jokingly, but the way his eyes move over Snape’s it’s clear the question is for them both.

“No,” the goblin says.

The rest of the visit is efficient.

The spell is painful but Delphi does not make a sound under its duress and the green--at the edges, as she said, like the embered edge of a burning parchment--is barely noticeable under the violet light. Her hands where the green shines brightest remain below the edge of the desk and when Weasley flicks his eyes up to Snape as if to ask is this all above-board he gives an imperceptible nod. Which is likely all he has truly been sent to do; between the two of them and Delphi, Albus had likely not even felt the need to be exacting with his plan.

The trip down to the vault is quick, and the cup comes without complication into Snape’s own pocket. Quickly--so quickly it feels almost easy, which is irritating in an entirely different way--they are walking back into Diagon Alley.

“Twice,” she says, marching ahead of him and not looking.

It takes a moment to reframe what she might be referring to, but Snape follows quick enough. “Only twice, out of twenty-three attempts.”

“You asked.” She squares her shoulders and glances over one of them to him. Her face is rueful. “Took a year of trips to even get this far. First time I managed it, Sirius helped. Second, your favorite student and his two best friends and I managed to get in and back out. Messy business both times.”

“And?”

“And what? I failed. Sirius is a mess, you should know. He’s too high-maintenance, not worth the trouble. Second, the littlest boy Weasley bit the dust, and Granger lost her shit. The Chosen One didn’t hold up too well that go-round either.”

He keeps his voice smooth and unjudgemental. “You find those losses unacceptable?”

“Yes. Christ. Yes, they’re unacceptable.” Her head snaps around, and the look in her face is ugly enough to be sincere. “I’m not a fucking butcher, Severus.”

And when she says it that way, Snape would be hard pressed to tell if it isn’t the truth.

Chapter Text

“Are you prepared?” Snape says that afternoon, wand pointed at Harry.

Harry has been fighting back against this exact attack with all his might for a solid week and found no purchase, found no enlightenment in the books Snape offered, found no help in Snape himself. But for the first time, Harry has a strategy. For the first time, Harry feels truly prepared. He had thought of all the ways Delphi’s advice of the previous night could have been a trap and come up blank, so he'd spent the morning looking through his photo album of his parents instead of doing the reading.

If Delphi’s right, what he’s done is better than studying. If she’s wrong--Snape will know, but Harry can’t possibly any worse off than he already is.

Harry nods.

“Very well. One--two--three-- Legillimens.

Harry was five and had been sent to his cupboard without supper when he first dreamt this oldest fantasy up, and has no sense of what his mother and father have looked like. But he didn’t need to. And Harry--fifteen year old Harry, who has a photo album full of photographs of his parents smiling, moving, holding him--has the imagination and photographs to craft the dream into something tangible. It's not really unlike the dreamy, hypnotic narration of the cliff and cave sequence Delphi had given him before. But instead of secrets, hunger goes in a box in the cupboard under the stairs, and the box stays shut.

I’m at home with my parents, he thinks, his mind going soft and dreamy and disconnected almost by instinct. We’re about to sit down to a big Christmas dinner. Mum is smiling and holding Dad’s hand, and my plate is full, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be.

The image solidifies and wavers, and Harry can sense Snape pulling at it, looking for holes, looking for a way around--realizing it is not real.

The image shreds, though, and suddenly Harry is in second year, and the basilisk is coming toward him, and his eyes are shut tight--

No. No . Harry pushes back. It’s snowing and I could go play in it, if I wanted. I have a jacket that fits and gloves that fit, that never fit anyone else. We’ve made a snowman today and I drank hot cocoa that my mum stood over the stove stirring--

Abruptly, the sensation stops. Snape is standing before Harry once more. There’s something odd in his face, something almost--no, Snape certainly wasn’t afraid. That isn’t fear, even if he could imagine the expression on his professor’s face. But there is something. “That was not a memory,” he says, his voice colder than it had been.

“No,” Harry says. “It isn't. Sir.”

Snape stares him down for another moment, and Harry almost wonders if he's performing another, subtler kind of Legillimency--but it passes, and his lip curls into the too-familiar sneer. “Congratulations, Mister Potter,” Snape says. “You have mastered the rudimentary basics of Occlumency.”

When he says it, he makes it sound like it’s not much of an accomplishment. But it is. Harry holds to that truth fiercely: he managed it, he defended against the attack the way he was meant to, he has done it and Delphi was right. He doesn’t trust himself to say anything in return for fear it’ll come out profane as Delphi would make it.

“It is unconventional, but functional. You will naturally need to find a defense that is not so unforgivably obvious in its falsehood for it to be a real defense,” Snape continues, unmoved by Harry’s visible and fierce pride.

“Like what? Sir.”

The dark eyes flash for a moment, and there it is again--not fear, but not anger either. Something else, stranger than both. “Perhaps the inclusion of individuals who are not deceased,” he says, tone going colder. “Particularly those who the Dark Lord himself did not murder in with his own wand.”

Which is not quite well done or good job but Harry had given up hearing that from the potions professor somewhere around the second week of his first year, and the violent rush of pride he feels rising in his chest is enough on its own.

And if it weren’t, the little leap and the string of triumphant vulgarity Delphi gives that night is. But she doesn’t offer any further insights, just says keep it up. And then, looking oddly triumphant, she adds, and I’ll meet you outside his office tomorrow after your lessons. Go up to the common room and then double back to Snape’s office. I’ll meet you. Bring your Invisibility Cloak. I’m going to show you something you should have known for years now.

The next day he’s able to throw out Snape with something approaching halfway reliability. There’s a way to tense himself up both inside and out, as if he’s about to be struck across the face and must bear it. Staring into Snape’s black eyes it’s not hard to imagine he might be hit. This is merely fundamentals the professor says, and you will have to stop flinching, but it keeps sounding like you are winning this war and Harry takes the victory for what it is.

And that victory was delivered by none other than Delphi herself, so he doesn’t give a second thought to following her instructions. He passes through the common room, fetches the Cloak but does not wear it--she’ll have to see him to find him--and begins the trek back down to the dungeons, mulling over potential excuses should he be found lurking by Snape. He’s almost in high spirits as he makes his silent way towards Snape’s office. As he rounds the corner, he can hear a spoon ring against a teacup so he knows Snape must still be there.

Harry is so preoccupied that he doesn’t hear the person who’s been following him until a bony hand clenches his shoulder.

--The hand feels like the one from the graveyard. The one that had touched him and scorched fire across him, the one that had stolen his blood and Cedric’s life and some unnamable thing that Harry didn’t even know he had until it was gone. Harry spins, wand out, ready to fight--

Delphi lets go right away and ducks out of an instinct Harry himself recognizes, dodging a hex that hasn’t been cast. Harry opens her mouth to apologize but one of her fingers urgenty taps against her lips, the other hand gesturing frantically toward the open door--right. Snape. Whatever she wants to show him, Snape mustn’t know.

Harry nods, pulling the cloak around his shoulders. This must be why she told him to bring it. Though, it occurs to him, the cloak is a secret, how could she have known--

Delphi smiles, pointing to Harry’s chest and then pantomiming pulling the hood up.

It can’t hurt. He knows the cloak as well as his own wand, but he’s still curious. Why? he mouths, before he pulls the hood up.

Delphi presses a finger to her lips again and grins to the wall at his left, and then steps past Harry into the doorway of Snape’s office.

She doesn’t speak loudly, but she doesn’t go out of her way to mask her footsteps or her tone. “So. How are the lessons going, in your estimation?”

There is a clink of a teaspoon being set in a saucer, and a pause. Snape’s voice is quieter, but Harry can make it out. “The boy is mediocre in the extreme, as he always has been.”

“Man.” She shakes her head--Harry can watch her ponytail swish until she steps fully into the room. “I really did think it would work this time.”

Snape must chew it over in silence for a moment. With no small measure of suspicion, he asks, “What, precisely, are you referring to.”

“I figured--I show you the bullshit he grew up with, and you’d maybe go, oh yes I grew up with this kind of bullshit, I am a human being capable of feeling sympathy . I showed you his uncle choking him, for chrissakes. The cupboard under the stairs. The catflap.” Her voice becomes introspective. “But I think you might have seen this all in the original timeline too. Didn’t you? When you would have given him these lessons, in January. You saw all of it and still don’t feel a whit of kinship, do you?”

“What do you expect of me?” Snape says dismissively. “Sympathy?”

“Yes, because no one’s ever had it worse than you,” Delphi says acidly. “Everyone’s dad sucks, Severus. At least yours was a drunk.  Vernon Dursley is sober as a priest. He and Petunia Dursley chose to do what they did to that child with a clear mind. How does that feel, I wonder?”

“Need I remind you whose father we truly need to address?” A sound--Snape, perhaps, snapping shut a book or a roll of parchment, as if to close the matter. “We are not here to work on me.

“You will find yourself sorely fucking mistaken on that account,” Delphi shoots back. “We are definitely here to work on you, because you’re at the middle of this damn war just as much as the kid is.”

“Am I really? ” Snape says, the sneer audible in his tone. “I don’t believe that is what you told Albus Dumbledore. That is, in fact, likely not what you have told anyone. I am beginning to think you have altogether too many secrets.”

“Said the kettle to the pot.”

“I am a spy,” Snape says, as if explaining to a particularly stupid child. “You are aware of the nature of spying? Secrets are my stock and trade. You, however--”

“I am not asking you to build a monument to your love for Harry fucking Potter,” Delphi interrupts, exasperated, “I am asking you to respond to a single fucking emotion like a goddamn human being!”

There is the sound of a chair scraping, as if it’s been shoved back violently from the desk. “You have been training the boy nights. I know it; he would never have so much as read the text that fast, let alone mastered its contents in the space of a week, no matter how much training I left him,” Snape says, fast and sincerely angry, now. “You are playing at a greater game you cannot possibly understand, even with foreknowledge; you are changing the timeline as you move through it and you know less and less with every passing second. Do not think I do not see it, even if Dumbledore does not.”

"You had one feeling in the late seventies and you need the rest of your life to recover from the trauma, is that it? Pathetic."

Footsteps and the swish of robes, and Snape’s voice is so low and dangerous that Harry tenses, where he’s hidden behind the door. “Has the headmaster gone into your mind to see what you are truly after, I wonder? I think he has not.”

“You do tell Harry everything, in the end.” Delphi’s voice is soft and dangerous, now. “Sirius could do it. Lupin could. Even Pettigrew has enough of the dirt. But the version they tell wouldn’t put you in such a flattering light, now would it, Severus?”

“I am uninterested in what is flattering.”

She goes on as if he hasn’t spoken. “Dumbledore won’t do it himself, but he’ll make you in the end. So you’re going to do it either way.”

“I would sooner die,” Snape grits out, a real fury in his voice now.

“You do that, too,” she taunts, pressing her point. “Looking into those pretty green eyes, in case you forgot--”

The crash of a jar shattering is followed by a second--this one flying through the door.

Harry flattens against the wall by pure instinct. And--yes, here she comes--

“You have worse aim than a storm trooper, you cut-rate Heathcliff,” Delphi shouts as she careens out the door and up the hall, faster than Harry can even see.

Harry holds his breath, half-expecting Snape himself to follow. Harry counts off the seconds for a full minute, then lets out a thin thread of breath and peers carefully around the corner of the doorjamb.

Snape is standing there, halfway to the door, his jaw working with an anger Harry recognizes too well, the kind of fury he’d only seen glimpses of--in the Shrieking Shack with his wand on Sirius, most memorably. He’s clenching and unclenching his fists like even he isn’t sure if he’s going to chase Delphi down the hall or stay in his office. Then he straightens stiffly, touches two fingers to his temple and rubs there like he’s got a headache or he’s about to pull a memory free with his bare hands--an odd and vulnerable gesture he wouldn’t do if he’d known Harry was watching--and turns away toward the window.

As Harry slowly and quietly threads his way back up to the Gryffindor common room where he suspects Delphi will be waiting, he tries to work through what he’d heard and why Delphi wanted to him to hear it. He’d barely understood half the conversation--it was more about Snape, some kind of secret from his past, something he needed to tell Harry but would, someday. Something from his school days, if Pettigrew and Sirius and Remus all knew it too. And maybe further back; she’d talked about Snape’s childhood. Something about his father, about sympathy--was he raised by someone like the Dursleys?

But Harry doesn’t care if Snape was raised by a pack of rabid wolves in Siberia or a particularly nasty set of sharks in the Pacific or Aragog in the Forbidden Forest. It would explain a lot of things, but it doesn’t matter . Not to Harry.

And based on what he said, it doesn’t matter to Snape either. Which is stranger, but also understandable; the way Delphi talks about the Dursleys doesn’t make Harry want to talk about it either.

So it doesn’t matter to either one of them. Why does it matter so much to Delphi?

And Snape had said something too, something that he suspects--something that Harry, too, suddenly suspects. What hasn’t Delphi told Dumbledore?

Harry begins to assemble a list of questions that start with Why exactly do you think Snape is central to this war besides the fact that he’s a bloody Death Eater and passes through what do you think Snape thinks you’re up to and finally ends somewhere around and if Snape’s so good at Occlumency why does Dumbledore trust him .

She doesn’t let him ask a thing when he gets there, though. When he steps through the portrait-hole, she comes to her feet and spreads both her hands in front of the fire, lending a red glow to her hair and her movements.

“Let the record show,” she announces to the room--theatrical, broad, loud-- “that I did not want to do it this way, but Severus Snape, being what he is, left me no fucking choice.”

“Hang on,” Harry says. “What was that all about? I thought you were trying to show me something, but I couldn’t make sense of it.”

“Did that sound like it went down as fucking planned, Harry?” she says, exasperated. “Dragging information out of Severus is like trying to milk a cat. I was hoping he’d confess to something in your earshot that’d really get you going and then my work would be done--I’ve been hoping I could pique your interest that way for over a week now--but I’m going to have to do this the hard way.” She lifts the flat phone device she carries everywhere to her face, and its cold glow illuminates her hungry, wolfish expression. “Hang on, I want to record this,” she adds..

Harry watches her tap out a sequence on the tiny screen, and suddenly another question bubbles to the top of the list. "How does that work, then? Electronics don't work at Hogwarts."

"Well look at you, little detective," she says, stepping forward so she can reach out a hand and ruffle his hair. Harry flinches out from under her hand and she seems utterly unfazed. "That's why you grow up to be head of the Auror office."

"I--what?" Maybe a week ago he’d have pursued it like a terrier; now, he’s not so easily distracted. Something bigger is going on, and he’s not going to let go of it for scraps. “I don’t care about that. It’s changed anyway, like Snape said. How does that thing work here?”

“Magic,” she says.

“What kind?

She looks up, surprised. “Uh--a ward, kind of. A highly specialized warding plus a linking charm to my time-turner so I can still, yknow. Use the internet from the future.” She cocks her head and flashes a smile at her own cleverness. “Clipped the spell out of a parenting magazine, actually, Muggle Mothers Monthly . That’s how they do it for all the muggleborns and half-bloods at Hogwarts in my day. Parents want to be able to call their kids. Tried to do things without this for way too long and it was fucking miserable.

“And you did it yourself?” Harry tries to keep his tone light.

Her look is sharp when she glances up from the phone again, her eyes narrow and cold in the blue light. “No,” she says. “Of course I didn’t. I’m a squib. Which you know.”

“Who did, then?”

“You don’t want to know,” she says, looking back down.

Harry clenches and then unclenches his fists. “Who?”

“I said. You don’t want to know.” She sets the glowing device down on the table. “It’ll only make you feel bad.”

Harry squares his shoulders. “Tell me or I leave.”

“And go where?” she scoffs.

Harry turns on his heel and marches toward the door, and it only takes two steps to hear her calling after him.

“All right. All right. ” She crosses her arms. “Amos Diggory. I worked as his nurse for a while. Not a lot of jobs for squibs, so you take what you can get.” She pauses and then says, a little maliciously, “And you can imagine why he’d want to send someone back in time with a time-turner.”

Harry’s back is to her, but he knows she can see the way his shoulders have stiffened with a rictus of guilt. “And you promised to save his son?”

“No. Just wanted to fix things the best way I knew how. He liked me as his nurse.” There’s more than a little malice, now. “No one to care for him in his old age. No kids. Not after what happened. I’m sure you remember, but we could review that if you want.”

He waves a hand behind him to try to put her off. “All right, I get it.”

“I bet you do,” she says stepping closer. “Any other questions?”

Anger flares again. “Yeah, actually,” he says. “Why are you recording?”

“To remember what I said to who and when. I record everything . Take lots of notes, too, after I talk to you all. So I can know where I go wrong, know how far I can push everyone.”

Harry looks over his shoulder to ask even me? The hard look on her face tells him the answer to that is definitely yes. But even as he looks, it softens.

“It’s not just you,” she says, a little kinder now. “I’ve got to remember what I’ve told everyone and when and why. It gets confusing. I can’t waltz around assuming I’ve--for example--told you about the curse on the resurrection stone when I haven’t.”

“The what?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got that part worked out, after--more failed attempts than I want to admit.” She mutters, half to herself. “No more sloppy fucking workmanship.”

Harry adds it to the list: resurrection stone. Different from the Philosopher’s Stone, then, but the Library is a fine place to start on that, and maybe a letter to Hermione-- “All right,” Harry says. “What did you want me to hear, down there? Snape doesn’t seem to trust you.”

She snorts. “Snape doesn’t trust anyone. Maybe Dumbledore. And--one other person. Which returns to the point I was hoping to make. I really wanted him to say her name.”

“Whose? Is this someone from the future?”

“No. What you need to know isn’t your future.” She beckons him back to the table before the fire, to a notebook that she opens and places on the table in preparation for some kind of show. “It’s the past. Are you willing to sit and hear it?”

Harry looks at her, taking the measure of the offer. She’s answered everything he’s thought to ask. The only problem is asking the right questions.

Harry can ask the right questions.

He moves to one of the squashy armchairs and sits, and then gives her a nod.

Delphi gestures theatrically, as if conducting an orchestra. “Cokeworth. Nineteen sixty, January ninth, that unfriendly stringbean you call professor comes screaming out of a woman with the same unfortunate nose as he has.” She leans over the chessboard and lifts one black knight before setting it in the center of the board. A black rook and a knut she produces from her pocket join the knight. “Broke as shit, of course, and his dad Tobias was a no-good wifebeating muggle drunk intimidated by his witch wife. Lovely place to bring a child up, and that in large part produced the sunny disposition you are familiar with today. This is our context.” She snatches up half the white pieces in her fist. “Bear with me on this metaphor, but you tend to get this better with visuals.”

She steps easily onto the table before Harry’s chair, as if to reach a broader audience, and spreads her hands, lifting one to Harry’s eye level. “That much you could have probably guessed, given a few more years and a bit more sympathy for the sorry git. What you don’t know, what no one told you,” and she lifts the other hand to Harry’s eye level, “Is that a few weeks after Severus was born, same town, same hospital, different--much prettier--mother had a beautiful bouncing baby girl.” Delphi extracts the white queen from her fist. “She grew up with Severus. She was his only real friend for years. And she’s someone you know--or should have known.”

Firelight plays across Dephi’s face, but she seems to be waiting for him. “Why does this matter? I don’t care about Snape or his childhood or his friends.”

“You do, Harry.” She puts the white queen on the board across from the black knight. “When this little girl was born, do you know what her mother named her?”

Harry, exasperated, shrugs. “How would I know?”

Delphi leans close, index finger pressing white on the top of the queen. “She named her Lily, Lily Evans.”

Harry jolts in his seat as if electrocuted. “What?”

She straightens and angles her smile to Harry. “I see you’re familiar.”

“He was friends with my mum?”

“He told her she was a witch before she got her letter.”

Harry still can’t see where this is going but he can’t deny his own curiosity. "Friends," Harry says, incredulous. "He has friends? "

Delphi lets out a wild, nearly deranged laugh, pacing up the length of the table. "Had, kid. Your mom is dead, remember?"

Which is a twisted knife. “I know whose fault that is.”

“Is that what you know?” Her foot strikes out, and the chess board goes tumbling to the floor. All the other white pieces she picked up scatter after it deliberately. The knut rings as it rolls away under a chair. She drags her opened notebook to the table before Harry with a toe and then bends over it to mark a point near the center of the page. “A new metaphor. Point the first: they were friends. Ask Sirius and Remus about it if you like, they were there, they knew. I said as much to Snape, if you’ll recall.”

He wants to Floo Grimmauld Place to ask Sirius to confirm it before he lets it go--it’s so easy to check up on she can’t be lying, but he plans to check up on it all the same.

“And now, if you don’t mind, let’s put it in that splendid little locket in that lovely little cave we’ve carved out for you, shall we? Lest my dear father hear you thinking all this too loudly.”

“Is this why I’m learning Occlumency?” Harry asks before he can help himself. “Just for--whatever this is, about Snape?”

“Partly.”

“What’s the other part?”

“One thing at a time. We’ll get there, I promise.”

Harry weighs his hunger for knowledge against what he already knows--what he could potentially infer even from this knowledge--and decides it’s a risk worth taking. Down the cliff, into the cave, and sealed into the locket it goes.

The second point comes out of a book she fishes out of her fanny pack, thrusting her hand in up to the elbow. “No one writes a sensational passage like Skeeter,” she says apologetically, extracting a thick volume with a metallic dust jacket. “She explains it than I ever could.”

A black deer is sharp against the silvered front. On the back is a photograph of Snape, looking flat and blank and unhappy as he ever has. The page flagged by a post-it highlights a passage:

The relationship ended, it reads, one sunny day during Severus’ fifth year. The young lovers--

Harry makes a disgusted noise. “Wait. Lovers? I thought they were friends.”

“Skeeter,” Delphi says, shrugging. “Though some speculate--well, I suggest you ask him yourself if you’re actually curious on that account. Preferably from behind bulletproof glass. You know how Skeeter is. But the rest of the actual facts here, not the tone, are sound.”

The young lovers, the passage continues, went to the Black Lake after their O.W.L. exams, where James Potter, a predecessor to Severus in the Order of the Phoenix, began his customary harassment. He was assisted by fellow Order of the Phoenix members Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and the traitor Peter Pettigrew. During this display of base force and vile bullying, Severus let slip a slur we will not print here, one he certainly only obtained from the future Death Eaters he shared a common room with. This was the end of his relationship with Lily Evans. We have it on good authority that she never willingly spoke to him again, and never returned his overtures of friendship or--dare we say it?--love. When he waited outside the Gryffindor common room door to beg for her forgiveness that night, she rejected him with complete finality. These facts are all concrete, well-documented by the Aurors who went through Severus’ memories after his death.

All we have past this point, sad to say, is conjecture. However, this biographer is certain that he did not seek the path he found himself upon then. Utterly abandoned by the only good person in his life who had offered him true kindness, he was left with only one option: that of joining with his Housemates, in service to Lord Voldemort.

It is the speculation of this author that Snape, at this turning point in his life, was unable to articulate the true nature of his feelings for Lily Evans. Indeed, it would be difficult--

Harry goes to turn the page and continue reading, but Delphi makes a sound to stop him. “That’s enough,” she says. “The rest is bad reading and fuckery.”

“That reads like a romance novel,” Harry says, voice thick with disgust.

“Skeeter,” she says again, putting no small measure of dislike in her voice. “But this is still the best resource we’ve got on this one, outside the memory itself. The real documentation is sealed Auror evidence. But the point remains. It wasn't some fleeting childhood friendship based on proximity.”

And if Sirius and Remus were there that day too, he can confirm it the same way as the friendship. “So they were friends, and then he called her--well, I can guess. And then she stopped being friends with him and he became a Death Eater. Is that about the size of it?” Harry flips through the book again, glancing past the chapters of the table of contents. They have names like The Dark Lord, Dominic Mulciber, Lucius Malfoy; the one he’d been reading from was Lily Evans Potter , paired right next to The Marauders , and then, the last--Harry starts, seeing his own name as the final chapter. He flips forward in the book, wanting to see--

“I don’t think so,” she says, snatching the book from his hands and dropping it back into her bag.

“But you’re here to tell me all that,” Harry complains, reaching after it.

“I’m here to tell you the parts of it that are still useful,” she says. “You’d only get caught up in the parts that are sad. Too many fucking parts of it are sad. Trust me. Now, we put it all away.”

“I’d never call Hermione--that word,” Harry says hotly. “Is this supposed to make me feel bad for him? He did it, didn’t he? You’re not going to tell me he isn’t a Death Eater.”

Delphi shrugs. “Feel however you like about it. Skeeter wants to lionize him the same way she wanted to tear down Dumbledore, she likes puppeteering emotion and reaction; she’s got an agenda. I don’t--or at least, not here with you. Either way--into the locket with it.”

Harry only puts up a token fight; he wants the rest.

And Delphi marks the third point on the sheet, forming a misshapen, uneven triangle. “There was a prophecy,” Delphi says, wiggling her fingers around her face. “Made by your professor, Trelawney, to Dumbledore.”

This isn’t about Snape or his mother at all, and it’s not what he expected. “About what?”

“About you, my precious chosen one.” She drops suddenly, squatting on the table with the bent legs of a predator ready to spring. Her voice collapses to a dread whisper as she recites, something clearly she has learned by rote. “ The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches, born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies, and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not, and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.

Harry can feel his heart rate picking up. It feels like he’s in a steep dive on a broom, and he isn’t sure where the ground is--isn’t sure where to pull up, or even if he can. “What does that have to do with Snape?”

“He overheard it. You can imagine what a young nobody of a Death Eater might be thrilled to bring back to his master. It’s why my dad targeted your parents.”

Me , Harry thinks, his heart sinking. My parents are dead because of me. He’s too held by the thought to do much other than nod.

“It’s a bit more difficult to prove, but the prophecy is tucked away in the Ministry of Magic, in the Department of Mysteries, and right now my dad would give anything to get his hands on it. Only a person a prophecy is about can remove it from the shelf down there. But Dumbledore could confirm it for you. I’d just ask you wait a day or two until I finish something I’m working on, because he’ll be very cross with me for telling you and I won’t be able to get what I need from him. You’ll know when it’s safe to ask.”

Harry wants to ask Dumbledore today, right now, is he in his office, but-- “How will I know?”

“You’ll know.”

Harry presses further. “No.”

“Oh, fucking hell. Okay, the best I’m going to give you is a riddle.” Delphi’s eyes search the room. “You will-- you’ll get back something you thought was lost forever. That’s how you’ll know you can ask Dumbledore about the prophecy. Two days at the outside.” She fixes Harry with an uncharacteristic serious glare. “And no matter what, no adventures down to the Hall of Prophecy, all right? If you decide to go exploring the Hall of Prophecy, Sirius dies.”

Harry had been charting a path to Dumbledore’s office anyway until she says this. “What?”

“I’m not threatening. I’m telling you what happens. Sirius dies. I can’t control it, I can hardly stop it if you go to the Hall of Prophecy, so I’m just telling you--don’t. You blame yourself if you do.”

“How? How does he--” Harry’s fingertips are gripping the edge of the chair as if it is the edge of a cliff.

“The hall of prophecy is a trap my dad lays for you. That’s the other reason for Occlumency, so you don’t give up the prophecy to him now that I’ve told you. It’s a trap that gets Sirius killed.”

“But how--”

“Some stupid magic doorway bullshit. Or Bellatrix. Or--who cares? It doesn’t matter, because it’s not going to happen now, right?”

Harry swallows. “Right.”

She lets him sit in silence for a moment, pressing herself forward to lean over the paper once more. “Now. Back to the matter at hand. Severus didn’t know the prophecy was about you,” she goes on, drawing an arc connecting the three points like a lopsided half-circle. “When he figured it out, he flipped on Voldemort. I don’t have proof of that so we won’t mark it down. But he went to Dumbledore and begged him to protect your mother. That’s why they went into hiding, why they thought they were safe under the Fidelius charm--they were warned. Dumbledore can confirm that, too.”

Harry swallows his guilt, presses it down as best he can until it’s a dull roar to focus on the point. “But they couldn’t have been friends then. Why would Snape go against Voldemort? For some girl he used to know, a muggleborn? It’s insane.”

“It was,” Delphi says. “It is. Which brings me to point the fourth. Do you know what the form of a patronus means?”

Harry thinks back to his own Patronus; the stag, his father. And then, suddenly, to Snape’s, which he’d seen so recently; he hadn’t even considered--

“What was my mother’s patronus?” Harry demands.

" Exactly." Delphi’s tongue runs along her teeth. “Another thing you could confirm with Remus and Sirius easy as you please,” she adds, boring a fourth and final hole into the sheet below the others. Ripping the paper free, she folds it in half and withdraws a pair of dirty children’s craft scissors from her fanny pack. “So let’s put it together, shall we? They were childhood friends for years and years until his Death Eater tendencies grew too much for even her saintly patience to fucking bear.” She begins hacking at the sheet with the dull scissors, cutting out a shape. “He overhears a prophecy that he doesn’t realize indicates that you--and, by extension, your parents--have to die. And his patronus is the same as your mother’s was, the doe to your father’s stag.”

She shakes the sheet free with a flourish and Harry finally sees the shape she’s drawn and cut out from the sheet. It’s a valentine, a lopsided and jagged kind of heart with an ugly crease down the middle.

“He loved her?” Harry says, shock and horror warring for control. Horror wins. “Snape loved my mother?”

“And that’s why Dumbledore trusts him,” Delphi says, flicking the valentine into the fireplace along with the scraps of paper the cutting left. “And that’s why you should, too. He’s sworn to protect you in her memory. Even if he killed Dumbledore in front of you, you should trust that it’s part of the bigger plan--the plan to save your life and defeat the man who killed Lily Potter.”

Harry watches the paper catch before it even touches the wood, watches flames lick the jagged edges of the cut paper and the scraps around it, watches it disappear into ash.

And then he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “No, I don’t think so. That’s--I mean, that’s crazy. Even for this place, even for Snape. No. I don’t believe you.”

“Oh, come on.” Delphi blows air through her nose and then jumps off the table, landing hard. “You’re smarter than this.”

“Why wouldn’t he have said anything?” Harry says through gritted teeth. “Dumbledore, Remus, Sirius, even if Snape is too afraid--” But the look on Snape’s face when he’d visualized his mother suddenly moves into place as well. Harry shakes his head, trying to dispel it. If it’s true and they’ve left out so much of what he should know, so much of what he deserves to know, he--Harry doesn’t know what he’d do to them. They’ve said so much about his father but nothing of his mother and Snape, for all his cruelty, has been there the entire time.

“Is it so hard to believe?”

“You’re having me on, and I’m finished with it--finished with you, with him, with--”

“It makes more sense than any other explanation you’ve got,” Delphi snaps. “Unless you’re so simple that you hadn’t even considered the idea that even your professors are complete beings with their own agendas and desires.”

“Snape’s a Death Eater!” Harry says, coming to his feet. “I bet he was overjoyed when Voldemort came back, him and Lucius Malfoy and Crabbe and Goyle and the rest.”

“You were there,” she scoffs. “Tell me, did that ugly mug look overjoyed when he went out the door to greet his newly resurrected master two hours late? Did he skip and leap his sorry ass out of the hospital wing?”

Harry can recall the bloodless face well enough, but it’s not all he can recall. “That only proves my point. Voldemort tortured Avery, there’s no way he let Snape go without getting something for his trouble. Voldemort himself said he was as good as dead.”

Delphi shrugs. “He’s a double agent.”

“Yeah, for Voldemort!” Harry retorts. “Being friends with my mum when they were kids doesn’t mean anything, the patronus--I don’t even know what her patronus is for sure. And that Skeeter book, she’s never printed a true word in her life, she lied about me all last year.”

“Merlin, I forgot how fucking stubborn you are at fifteen." She expels a breath and a strand of hair flutters. "You’re easier to manage at literally every other age but this one. Okay. Would you like the fucking proof, then? That I’m not just making all this shit up and that it matters, that it’s more than you think? Follow me. Bring the Cloak so you don’t get nabbed, I can talk my way out of anything but I don’t need to explain you too.”

She storms away, not waiting for him. It takes Harry furious seconds to decide his course, but she knows--and he knows she knows--that he will follow.

The way down to the dungeon is cold and silent and Harry’s mind is buzzing. He runs it through the cliff once more: down, the cave, the blood, the boat, the island, the pool of potion, the locket, immortal, safe , everything he’s learned goes into the box .

They approach Snape’s office once more with no stealth. Delphi seems to know it’s empty, somehow--she says something about a Death Eater meeting which in any other context would stop Harry in his tracks . Now it’s just a convenience. A planned one, probably, knowing Delphi.

She strides forward into the room, extracting a a torn scrap of parchment from her pack and placing it on the desk. No, not parchment, Harry realizes as he follows, tugging the hood of the cloak back--it’s a photograph. In it, an infant zooms around, and behind him smiles a familiar face.

“That’s you,” Delphi says gently. “You and your father. You will note that someone did you the indignity of ripping the photo in two. And this, ” she removes a folded piece of parchment from her back pocket, “is the first page of a two-page letter your mother wrote to Sirius. I nicked them both from Order headquarters because your godfather is fucking rubbish at security and a dedicated muggle toddler could break into his room, but there you are.”

Harry lifts the sheet, covered in soft and looping script, closer to his face, and there’s a sudden pressure behind his eyes. She held this paper--his mother wrote this letter. His vision goes blurry. He blinks rapidly, and it passes. “You had this the whole time? Why not give it to me earlier?”

“Because it’s proof, and because it’ll piss Severus off, which is your second-favorite pastime and my actual favorite.” Which isn’t an answer, but she doesn’t give Harry room to respond. “Now. If you’ll note the yellowing on the edge of the photo against the lack of it in the center, we can see it was ripped recently. And Grimmauld Place has been sealed since the last heir--Sirius--went to Azkaban. Only just unsealed when Dumbledore reinstituted the Order after dad’s resurrection last spring, which means these were in that house since that time. Someone who cleared the house--someone in the Order--found these and took the other half of each. Keeping up so far?”

Harry slides his thumb along the tear and nods, but then shakes his head. “Are you telling me Snape stole a photo of me and my dad?”

“Not exactly.” She opens her arms and gestures to the rest of the room. “But if you wanted the other half of the photo or the complete letter, and they were nearby, a quick little accio the rest of this fucking letter should do it.”

It can't hurt. If nothing happens, then nothing happens, and Delphi can be thrown over in the heap of all the other bad ideas Harry has ever had. But if something happens…

Harry draws his wand out as if in a trance. “ Accio the rest of the letter.”

There’s a sound of rustling. A book on the highest shelf twitches, then soars forward. Halfway through its flight, the book drops away, and the parchment goes to Harry’s hand.

The sheet only contains a few lines, but it also contains a signature preceded by the word love , and the pressure behind Harry’s eyes is back again.

Delphi moves to the book where it fell, hefting it in her hands and cracking it open. “And if he’s as stupid as I fucking know he is--yep, here it is.” Delphi lifts another, smaller sheet; a sheet torn along one edge, a thing that has been tucked into the same book. She steps back to the desk, snapping the book shut. “There’s the other half of your photo, Harry.”

It’s a wizarding photo, and it’s like looking directly into the past. Harry’s throat closes, and his heart speeds up, chest tight and ears roaring. His mother smiles and laughs from the other half of the photograph, and when the two ripped halves touch it makes one complete picture. One complete family. As if death had never come to Godric’s Hollow.

“Now do you believe me?” Delphi says.

Harry can barely hear her. He folds the parchment of the letter together like a holy text and presses his wand to the photograph and says a soft, “Reparo.”

It doesn’t go back together quite right. He can still tell it was ripped, once.

“In exchange for all the things I just told you, I want just one thing from you, Harry.” Delphi extends one hand. “I want to borrow your invisibility cloak. Just for a few days. I promise on my own life I’ll return it.”

His father’s cloak. Harry swallows down the knot in his throat. Even with everything she’s given, everything she’s offered-- “No.”

“Trade you the book about Snape,” she says, immediately ready to bargain.

“No.”

“Trade you another book by Skeeter, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore , it’s even juicier reading, she really--”

No.

“What do you want, then?” she asks, exasperated.

He isn’t sure what makes him say it. He isn’t sure why he thinks it at all. “The time turner. Your time turner. That’s what I want, in exchange for my father’s cloak.”

Delphi’s already pulling at the thin golden chain around her neck before he’s even done speaking. “Deal.”

Chapter Text

Most of the devices in the Headmaster's Office do allow that most wizards sleep, and thusly go quiet at sundown; they are uncomfortably like a flock of birds in this way. Which is why the Headmaster’s office is mostly silent as Snape recounts the Death Eater meeting for Albus late that night, and which is why Snape--always attuned to listening ears, to soft footfalls outside an unwarded door, to any opposing spying--hears the unexpected person approach. He holds up a thin palm to interrupt himself, tilting his head, waiting--

He needn’t have bothered noticing the subtler signs. She climbs stairs like a horse and pounds the door like a tax collector.

“Open up,” Delphi Riddle yells through the keyhole. “It’s time!”

Snape looks at Albus, a question on his brow.

“The temerity of youth,” Albus answers, bemusedly. With a gesture from his wand, the door opens.

“Who’s ready to take me jewelry shopping?” she says with a coquette’s smirk, posing in the doorway. “I want a ring. Let’s go. I have this great little shack in mind in a posh joint, town called Hangleton.”

“Ah,” Albus says, in a tone that indicates he’s just gotten a final piece of information he’d been waiting for. “Indeed?”

Delphi pitches her voice down, half-mocking. “Indeed.” She crosses the room in three strides. “This one’s a bit harder and you’re both going to need to trust me a bit more, but we’re going to get it done. Then it’s two more, both of which you know about.”

The pointed finger Delphi levels at Albus seems to deliberately exclude Snape. Which it does; if Delphi has revealed the identity of the final horcruxes to Albus, it does better explain his faith in her.

“Yes,” Albus says. “We have.”

It also means Albus has not seen fit to share this information with Snape. There can be no reason for it that will make Snape happy.

“And then the last one,” Delphi agrees, “which nobody likes, but--we’ll handle that one your way if you let me handle this one mine.”

“So you have promised,” Albus agrees.

The dumbshow is for Snape’s benefit, then, as much as it is to reaffirm their commitments. It does not reassure him. It does rather the opposite.

“I do not like working in the dark,” he says to them both equally.

“Liar,” Delphi says. “You love the dark. Makes you feel spooky.”

“Miss Riddle,” Albus admonishes in a way that makes Snape wonder, bizarrely, if Albus agrees with her, which in turn makes him feel very exposed.

“It’s true, ” she complains. “You should see how he did up the Defense room when he was teaching in ninety-six. It’s ridiculous. All shadowy and full of portraits all like--” She pulled an agonied expression, and then another, and then a third so dramatic that leaves her making a strangled sound on the floor.

Snape considers the logistics of hiding a body, if only to appease himself.

“My point is,” she says from the floor after a moment of silence, voice half-muffled with her mouth pressed to carpet, “I’m hardly the dramatic one here.”

“Miss Riddle,” Albus repeats, this time with a warning kind of finality in his tone.

“Okay, okay. Sorry.” She picks herself off the floor and dusts down her front as if it could make a difference. She looks like a mess and smells like a locker room that’s been doused in the noxious cucumber-melon the muggleborn girls prefer these days. “Horcrux? Yeah? You up for it? I want both of you.”

“I believe this would be best done with just myself,” Albus says.

Snape makes a sound of startled indignance, and intends to interrupt before Delphi beats him to it.

“No, no, no. That’s how you did it before and you end up dead. I need both of you, and you both need me. Delphi and the Two Assholes, remember our band? From Cardiff? Both of you. Only you two. Those are my conditions.”

Albus looks between the two of them, and then nods. “As you say.”

“I fail to see the necessity,” Snape interjects. The stupidity of giving the girl what she wants--

“There is more at stake than you think, Severus,” Albus says, rising and moving to the door. He doesn’t wait; he moves through it and down the stairs, and Delphi follows.

Snape comes to his feet but stays, wondering, until Delphi’s head reappears.

“Are you waiting here for Lily Potter to come back from the dead?” she demands. “Come on .”

The hall becomes the deserted grounds, the grounds become the Forbidden Forest, where they apparate to a place Delphi describes on a map in great detail, and Albus apparates side-along with both Snape and Delphi in tow to a place almost completely robbed of light.

Snape moves to light his wand, but Delphi catches his wrist with an bony, unerring grip. “We’ll be seen. There’s a muggle village. Too risky.”

“How do you intend for us to make it to your shack, then?” Snape retorts.

“Carefully,” Delphi says, something smug in her voice. The hand on his wrist tugs him forward and he stumbles before righting himself on the dirt road. “Come on.”

Once their eyes adjust to the pale light of the moon, they hike a quarter mile up the road. Delphi leads, her hair a shining silver waypoint under the pale light of a crescent moon. Albus and Snape keep their wands before them. Before long, a shack rises into view. Delphi stops the party on the road before it and spreads her hand.

“Listen to me. This is a trap. It’s a trap for wizards exactly like the two of you.” Delphi looks serious, more grave than she has ever before, the moonlight carving her face into pale and darkness like a Roman relief. “I’m not walking you into it again. I’ve seen this episode before and it's a bad after-school special on the dangers of having skeletons in your closet.” She extends a palm to each. “So. I need your wands. To make sure.”

Severus feels himself blanch at the request. “No.”

Albus merely inspects her. “Why?”

Severus turns, hissing, “Surely you cannot be entertaining the idea.”

“There are other wands on the planet,” Delphi says, opening and closing her palm. “It’s not as if I can use them for anything.”

Albus raises an eyebrow. “You say it is a trap?”

Delphi blows air through her nose in frustration. “It uses your own ghosts against you. You remember the story of the second brother, or that fucking mirror? Do you know how many times you two--and, in one case, Sirius Black--dashed in there and picked up the damn thing and ran off with it? Or took the curse from it and died? No. It’s exhausting and you two are too damn fast and this is what I’m doing this time. I’ve come too damn far. We did the Cup your way, Albus, but we’re doing this one mine. Either you give me your wands or you’re on your own.”

The reference to the second brother plucks at a string in his memory, but there is no time to interrogate it.

“You have told me the identity of the remaining horcruxes,” Albus reminds her. “We are not required to bend to your will.”

“Yeah, but my plan for the snake is, like--really good.” Delphi stamps a foot like a petulant child.

Snape’s mind screeches to a halt, all resistance gone. The snake--the snake--surely not--

Delphi continues. “Cmon. Please. Just try it my way, this time? I’ve done so much work--”

And just like that, Albus places his wand in her palm.

Delphi grins, “Thank you,” and then turns to Severus.

“Absolutely not.”

“I trust the girl, Severus,” Albus says mildly.

Snape glares at Albus, and then at the girl, to no effect.

“Severus,” Albus says, disapproving at the delay. “We do not have all night.”

There is nothing for it. He scowls, but places his wand in her hand. Both disappear into her back pocket.

“Now,” she says. “You two wait out here. I’m going to fish it out, get it so you can destroy it, and then come back out and give you your precious wand back, Severus.”

Delphi disappears into the shack without waiting for a response.

“Foolish,” Snape mutters to Albus as he watches her back recede past the door.

“I know more than you do regarding her goals and techniques,” he replies mildly.

“And is that what trust is?” There is more bitterness than he precisely wants to express, there. “Is that all that it takes to earn your trust?”

Albus turns to face him. “You know it is not.”

“Have you looked inside her mind?” Snape demands.

“Close enough to it.”

“And what did you see?”

“A brilliant young woman who shares our goals,” Albus says pacifyingly. “Her desire to end the Dark Lord’s reign matches your own, Severus. I had hoped--well, there is nothing for it.”

Which leaves Snape to nurse the feeling that he is letting down Albus once again, for the thousandth time. It kindles a tiny fire in his belly that cannot be doused with all the well-meaning words in the world. But he has to try. “She has told you that Nagini is a horcrux?”

“She has.”

“What is the last one, then?”

“That must remain between Delphi and myself.”

Snape scowls at the dark and empty door of the shack. “Why.”

“There are reasons.”

The stinging silence of this new refusal burns and stretches. After a long moment, Snape says, “If I were to make a horcrux, I would simply create one of an ordinary stone and drop it into the ocean.”

“Spoken like a man who would never do so,” Albus chides. “Still, that is one method. Using precious artifacts is another. It does pain me that the diadem of Ravenclaw, the locket of Slytherin, and Hufflepuff’s cup have been destroyed. There were remarkable items.”

Snape reflects. “Nagini and the diary are not.”

“Aren’t they? The diary contained what Tom Riddle once was, a creature--our young friend asserts--in some ways more dangerous than the Lord you must face now. And Nagini, as a living creature, is capable of self-preservation on a scale that no mere artifact could muster.”

“I suppose I will be left to destroy Nagini,” Snape mutters. “Leaving the door open for you to destroy the Dark Lord himself.”

“Delphi’s plan does suggest that you bring me before the Dark Lord as a prisoner, yes.”

Insane. “You have agreed to this?”

“I have agreed to nothing, Severus. I am merely leaving the option available. The only true loss is loss of possibility.”

Snape thinks there is quite a lot of loss that is unrelated possibility. But he does not say it.

When Delphi emerges from the door, there is something in her hands. Albus’ wand is in her fingertips, held curiously, as she had not held it before, sends alarm bells ringing in Snape’s head. There is something shimmering across her right shoulder, draped long and fluid down her arm and into the dirt. And then, finally, a last thing dangling at the end of Albus’ wand like a fish on a line. She tosses it, glittering, past the moon and then into her opposite hand.

“Gentlemen,” she says, her face splitting into a wide grin. “Thank you so much for your assistance but I’m afraid it’s time for us to part ways.”

Albus understands what's going on an instant before Snape does. He lifts one hand, but he is old, slow, too slow--

"No," Snape cries. The stunner strikes Albus before he can react, and a body-bind hits Severus a moment later. In that breath of delay, Snape twists his body, tries to dodge. Only one arm escapes, but it might be enough, might be--

“You know,” she says conversationally, as if she hasn’t just incapacitated both of the wizards she arrived with. “The first time it took me quite a while to disable that horcrux’s curse. But now I’ve done it a dozen times, and I think that was a record--five minutes! Not that I’ve got any competition, but once you know what you’re working with it’s quite straightforward. Not my father’s best work. But hey, he thought he’d be facing someone like you to fucking swots--he couldn’t have dreamed he’d be facing me. ” The swirling silver thing wadded between her hands surrounds her shoulders. “I haven’t done this part before, though, so--wish me luck.”

As the silvered cloak settles around her shoulders, the wand lifts into the air, and the ring in her opposite hand slides onto her finger, and Snape can feel something go wrong , deep in his gut.

The sliver of moon steps graciously to the side. Any sound is swallowed in a violent rushing, like the air was water and even the pale, colorless light of the moon is being poured away. Then it solidifies, congeals, draws itself up into a thin line at Delphi’s side.

“Death,” she says into the new darkness, and it sounds more like a name than anything else.

In response, the thin line of shadow shreds like a wetted tissue and opens, solidifying in the air like the exact opposite of a body or mass.

Snape’s hand, scrabbling beneath him for purchase to help him crawl, to twist, to remove the body-bind, stills entirely.

“Death,” she says again, a pleased greeting. “I’ve come to make a bargain. There’s one who’s eluded your grasp--you can feel him but you can’t touch him. I can. In exchange for him, I want another.” A hand, then, floating in midair--Delphi beneath the cloak--lifting something--something dessicated--a skull, where had she been keeping such a thing--the last remnants of hair and flesh almost gone, eye sockets wide.

The skull, Snape cannot help but note with a detached and slow-growing horror, has scraps of red hair still clinging to the scalp.

“This one.” She throws it into the air, toward the rip, and something made of purest night catches it, fondles it, consumes it.

A deep thrum begins, like some ancient factory kicking to life, or some vast beast breathing.

He can hear her tripping down the stairs and coming to stand, impressing the grass with her feet before him. She pushes the hood of the invisibility cloak back and crouches, grinning down at him from only a short distance above him, now.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she says softly, kindly, like a mother might, “but I may have told a fib or two.”

Snape understands, in this horrible moment, that Delphi Riddle looks very, very much like her father.

“You’ll want to keep up the Occlumency lessons,” she continues, her tone still genial, gentle, very nearly loving--a worried caretaker. “I’ve told the boy about your real allegiances, and the reasons behind them. My father would wear your fucking guts for garters if the boy slips up. So don’t go cancelling that on my account unless you’re not overfond of living.”

Snape’s hand twitches. If he can only twist his fingers, the wrist will give him the wandless charm, to summon his wand back and then--

The tip of her worn and filthy trainer pushes at his shoulder, working its way beneath him until it comes gently to rest on the back of his palm, flatting his fingers against the dirt. "Every where, every when I came to, you were the fly in the ointment, Severus. I have worked to move you out of my way without killing you, because killing you is troublesome. Instead of killing you, I’m giving you something for all your hard work. Call it a freebie." Her finger circles and then jabs towards Snape. "Try to be fucking thankful. Try not to be a problem for me.”

Snape can't spit in her face, or reply, but he would if he could. He would also do a number of other things, but, being almost entirely Petrified, they are pointless to contemplate.

She tilts her head toward where Albus lies, rendered insensible by a spell that a fourth-year could cast. “Love. The greatest goddamn weapon, isn't it, Dumbledore?” The toe of her trainer twists into the skin of the back of Snape’s hand as she scoffs. “Pop song drivel. I bet I can blunt it with itself." Delphi’s head rotates again, looking like a massive and terrible predator inspecting paralyzed prey. ”Indulge me. I love a good monologue and I know you don't," she continues. “Imagine. You're Albus Dumbledore, a terribly talented young man with a muggle-hating father, and you're on a quest for the Deathly Hallows and all the power they can bestow." She presses the back of a hand to her forehead in mock drama. "And there's all that very boring drama with Grindlewald, blah blah blah smooching, blah blah blah fighting, blah blah blah Nurmengard. And then you've got one of the Deathly Hallows, the Elder Wand, but you're too sad to really use it because the shitty ex-boyfriend you got it off of is in prison or whatever. But then, decades later, fighting the second dark wizard of your lifetime, you find it: the second of the three Deathly Hallows."

She removes the cloak from her shoulders with a flourish and holds it, shimmering, to the moonlight.

"It's in the hand of this--really, complete tosser, James Potter, a nobody with a noble name and no idea what he's got, he's using it to pull off petty schoolboy bullshit because his dad's a numpty too, but you pull him into the Order of the Phoenix just the same, right? Because it lets you keep an eye on it, and he's talented enough." Her eyes narrow and she comes back to Snape's body, crouching next to him. "But then some little Death Eater shit overhears an inconvenient prophecy, one that targets said tosser and his mediocre wife. So you get them protected like the Death Eater asks, both to take the little shit into your cabal and maybe to preserve the Potter couple and their child, but you take the Deathly Hallow, too. Because you don't really think the protection will work, and you don’t particularly care if it does. You know there's a spy, and you need the spy out more than you need the Potters or the little Death Eater shit.

"If you thought the protection would work, if you really wanted to save the woman for that little Death Eater shit, you'd leave the cloak. It could help them escape, could save them, could help them hide better. But you take it. And if the Death Eater shit is too stupid to see through you then so much the better, and if the Potters survive, yahtzee, but otherwise, two or three lives are acceptable losses, and you can't let a Deathly Hallow fall into the Dark Lord's hands on the off chance he figures out what it is you've got."

She leans closer, whispering into his ear. "Dumbledore let her die, Severus. To expose a spy. The wrong spy, incidentally. To bind you to him and his war rather than her, because a man in love with a living woman can be bent by her, but a man in love with a dead woman can be turned to her cause and pressed into service. Expose the Dark Lord’s spy, gain a spy of his own. He gambled with her life against you and he fucking won ."

She lifts her hands as if to balance a scale. “I’d call your service complete." She removes Snape’s ebony wand from her pocket and straightens, and then says over her shoulder, toward the tear in reality. "I’m ready for this when you are.”

A sound so deep it vibrates the dirt in front of Snape’s face chills the air, shakes his bones.

“Yes,” Delphi replies. “I figured you might like half upfront, but if you want the rest you'll have to fulfill your end."

As if in response, the shifting nothing opens wider. Once hands to catch the skull, now suddenly a mouth, it starts as a glimmer of light--a red reflection in the tear in the universe. It grows, coming nearer and nearer until it resolves from a speck into a shape--a human one--a very nearly familiar human one--pressing closer and closer, tearing wider and wider.

Delphi drops his wand next to her boot, just out of reach of his fingertips, and trips back up the steps to the shack like a little girl at a candy store. Severus heaves with all his might and just barely brushes the edge of his wand, even as Delphi reaches into the darkness and pulls , bringing--something--something terrible with her inexorable grip.

It makes a tearing shriek and then an all-too-human gasp that turns into something like a sob, and Delphi drops the thing--no, the person--to the ground. And with that high-pitched, too-familiar laugh and a crack of disapparition, Delphi disappears.

He can hear the new person--the one who has come, the one who Delphi made the bargain for--breathing heavy in sync with his own breaths. For longer than Snape cares to admit, he can only breathe as well. It takes a full maddening, agonied minute to do so, but Snape manages to Summon his dropped wand to half-numb, half-paralyzed, clumsy fingers.

The paralysis drops away fast enough, then. And then he can stand, and then there is the sobbing person so thoroughly covered in blood that it provides a level of modesty--he does not even let himself think the name--and Albus.

Albus first. The tactical choice, and also the cowardly one. His wand flicks across the old man and he coughs, lets out a sound of faint bemusement and horror. He might be coming stiffly to his feet. It doesn’t matter; Snape isn’t watching. Snape goes to the figure who has risen, finally, to her hands and knees, her face shrouded in familiar dark red hair, sticky with drying blood. Hair that had been, very recently, clinging to the scalp of a skull but now--

He kneels, pushing his fingers past the curtain of hair to pull it away from her face. He needs to know.

"Lily?" Snape whispers.

When she looks up at him--a color of green he has grown to loathe in the face of the boy, the child, the enemy--he knows exactly what kind of weapon Delphi has used against him.

He also knows it is far, far too late to deflect the blow.

She doesn’t flinch or pull away; she leans on him as he pulls her to her feet, leaving bloody imprints of her palms on his arm, his shoulder, his sleeve.

Her mouth moves, but no words emerge, only a thin, hoarse sound as though her throat has been torn by screaming. She coughs, and then says something between where and what and then coughs again.

The question is clear, but the past fourteen years do not bear description, do not bear inspection, cannot be summed up so easily. Snape has never thought to do it and here, with her leaning on him, is ill-equipped to try. He thinks, bizarrely, that it’s not the first time someone has leaned on him, unable to speak and covered in blood. Snape lets out a strangled sound that might be a delirious kind of laugh. It's cut short when she sways dangerously to the side and he is forced to tug her back to her feet.

That instinct--of the last time someone had come to him, covered in blood--manages to pull Snape out of his paralysis.

It had been a seventh-year back in ninety-three, some idiot halfblood whose father had convinced him that she was a Slytherin and that there was some way she could control the basilisk. And that is a skill Snape has honed, talking to the distraught children living in that cursed castle. Slytherin house is no different than the other houses, and it has no shortage of children who were frightened of going to school, of separating from their parents, and over the years he has developed a tactic--a carefully distant, observant concern and a relentless honestly for questions both asked and unasked.

Snape learned within a month of becoming Slytherin head of house that most weeping eleven-year-olds had questions, and they were unaccustomed to receiving complete and truthful answers to adults. This is especially true when the child is incapable of articulating the question themselves--and being able to understand an unasked question only reinforced their view of Snape’s authority and talents. Why am I here, why is this so hard, I miss my parents, why are you so mean. He adopted a practice of answering these questions with flat and unembroidered truth: you are here because you are magical and must learn to control your magic, it is hard because magic is a difficult and enigmatic fundamental force in the world that you are lucky enough to manipulate, you miss your parents because until now they are all you have known, I am mean because niceness is not necessary to teach you.

The only kindness worth giving is truth; the only kindness worth receiving is respect.

The older students have more unique questions, but Slytherin house’s questions were generally all in one vein--pureblood politics and careful hinting toward the Dark Lord--and those questions were ones he was uniquely positioned to answer, a curriculum he had not inherited to but had been taught, painstakingly, at the right hand of Lucius and Mulciber and Rosier and, eventually, the Dark Lord himself. Learning those lessons later in life made him more able to articulate them, more able to tease them apart, more able to question their merit and worth and truest nature. It was likely why he had been appointed to Head of House, he suspected, despite the fact that Sinistra had been a Slytherin and had seniority.

Snape knows what he is: a mentor to a generation of Death Eaters, and a spy among their parents. This is just another complication to be managed. It will be borne.

She is naked as the day she was born. Who could say--perhaps this is the day she was born again. Just like Voldemort. The task at hand, then, becomes a simple one of being a responsible adult worth his pay at Hogwarts.

He produces a handkerchief. It takes a few tries and the Transfiguration is sloppy, but he manages to produce a thin shift--almost a hospital gown. It sticks to her skin, to the drying blood covering her body, as he helps her pull it over her head.

“We are in a town called Little Hangleton,” he begins, his tone cold and clear as a policeman’s. “What is the last thing you remember?”

She shakes her head, and then croaks again, and then coughs so violently she shakes and then spits something so dark red it appears black onto the bowing beams of the shack.

“Harry,” she manages finally. “Where’s Harry?”

Snape  answers the way he knew how, with flat truth: “Alive. At Hogwarts. I am taking you to him, as soon as you are ready to Disapparate.”

But she isn’t, and that much is clear. And then: “James?”

Snape answers the same way he’s answered any number of unpleasant questions over the years. “Dead.”

She swallows, wipes at her mouth, leaving a new streak of red across her cheek. “Voldemort?”

Through a flinch, Snape replies, “He died when he attacked you. You protected your son with your life and that protection defeated him, for a time.”

Her face twists with something he cannot name. “For a time?”

There seemed no point in holding it back, and Snape has never been a man capable of gentleness.

“He has returned,” Snape begins.

The Dark Lord alluded to work for ten of the intervening years until he had found Quirrell and taken his body, only to be thwarted; Snape does not offer any of the conjecture he and Dumbledore have run through--or he and Lucius, or he and Mulciber--about what that work had been. Likely it was merely waiting in a forest, unable to die or live. Snape instead told how the Death Eaters had formed and re-formed over the years, Quirrel’s failed machinations, the flat truth of Lucius’ ploy against the Weasley girl, Barty Crouch Junior and how the Dark Lord had called them all back but a few months past to witness his resurrection.

He did not say anything more than necessary of the boy. Harry Potter himself and the history books would offer more than enough of that . This version of history is much-abridged for it, but she had asked for the Dark Lord’s past, not her son’s, and certainly not his own.

It does not amount to much, summed up this way, and the end is dismal: “He has created failsafes. When he died, all assumed he was gone for good. Albus has been working to protect against his efforts, but he returned three months ago, using your son’s blood to resurrect himself.”

Albus has been watching this exchange, Snape knows, and at this conclusion he approaches. The look on his face is thunderous as a vengeful god, one Snape recognizes in his darkest memories. “Are you prepared to return to the war, Lily Potter?” he asks.

For the second time tonight, Snape considers the logistics of hiding a body.

She looks between them both, and then nods her head.

It is enough, and Snape does not wait for permission; this place is not safe. Snape pulls her arm tight against his own, and Dumbledore lurches to clutch his elbow, and the night air of Little Hangleton is clear and quiet once more.

Chapter Text

The sharp crack is what woke him, Benedict thinks later. He had been sleeping with the window open at his parent’s home--a thing his mother hates--and the sound was like a car backfiring.

He rises and looks out the window intime to see a dark figure dart into the street, look both ways, and then wave some kind of stick. Homeless were not strictly uncommon in this area of London, but they also weren’t common, and they definitely didn’t curse so loudly unless they wanted to be picked up.

And then she spun and looked right at him.

“Hello,” she calls up to the second floor. “ Imperio.

“What’s that?” Benedict calls back.

“I said--god dammit. Come down here, would you?”

He eyes her warily. She looks about his age, maybe a little older, and filthy. “I don’t think so.”

“Come on,” she whines. “Don’t make me break in.”

“I’m calling the police,” he says calmly.

“Like hell you are,” she said. “I’m coming in. Your parents aren’t home, right?”

He wasn’t about to tell her that they weren’t. “I have the phone right here.”

“That’s fine,” she says, advancing up the steps. Benedict has to lean out the window to watch her rap her knobbly little stick against the doorknob and watch the door spring open.

Which is, on the whole, not what he had expected.

Benedict rounds the corner of his room at a sprint and watches her start up the stair. “Now wait a minute!” he shouts from the top. “You can’t just--”

Imperio, ” she says again, more forcefully.

At which point Benedict cannot for the life of him recall what he was so upset about. “Oh.”

She peers up the stair at him. “That’s better. Good. Thank god it's ninety-five and the Ministry's corrupt as shit, I’m going to shower.” She pulls her shirt over her head, unfastens her bra, and strips down her trousers before he can blink, leaving only her hip bag. “Wash these. Hang the bra to dry, do them all on gentle. No calling the police, now. Oh, and lock the front door behind me.”

“All right,” he says, picking up her clothes from the floor.

An hour and a half later, he finds her lounging in the bathtub full of bubbles, and offers a stack of clean clothes. “Your brassiere isn’t dry.”

“I’ll dry it with a charm,” she says, which does not make any sense. “Now I want a celebratory glass of champagne, do you keep champagne?”

“I don’t think so. Wine, maybe?”

“Fine,” she says gamely. “Whatever you’ve got that’s best. Not most expensive, mind you, but best.

She downs half the bottle and tells him he can have a glass if he likes, which is nice. She babbles about a lot of things, seeming to want only an audience for her musings. She talks about some kind of celebrity named Death who she’s just met and gotten something from. She speaks longingly of a man named Albus and how much she’d like to lord this victory over him. Then there is a lengthy argument she has with herself about if someone named Severus will end up fucking someone named Lily, and then how both of them will feel when they discover someone named Harry--a child, Benedict infers from context--must be killed.

“Well that doesn’t seem fair,” Benedict interjects.

“Didn’t ask your opinion,” she says lightly. “Now hand me a towel. You’re going to help me steal a van.”

He stares at the opposite wall as she dries herself and pulls back on the now-clean clothing. “I don’t know how to steal a van.”

“I know you don’t. I said you’re going to help me. You’re playing lookout. Come on.”

She weighs him down with bedding, pillows and blankets-- “I’m going to be living in the van,” she explains, which does not sound very nice-- and they walk for nearly a half hour. The sky is just beginning to lighten into pre-dawn, before she sights something that excites her. It’s a dingy white panel van, at least ten years old, parked on the street.

“It’s perfect, ” she coos, the way other women might coo over a piece of jewelry. “Keep an eye out, I’m going to make her mine.”

It seems impossible to hot-wire a car in the fifteen seconds Benedict spends looking away, but the sound of the door opening is unmistakable.

“Now,” she says. “Where’s the closest post office? I need to mail something. Has to be one of the really big ones, though, they’re the only ones with an owl room. I forget where the one in London is these days.”

“Um. About a kilometer, I think? Maybe more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an owl in a post office, though.”

“Adorable.” She pats his head.

Then she climbs into the car and starts it with her stick. She spends a minute fiddling with the mirrors and the seat before she looks at him again, and then she leans out of the driver’s side window and into Benedict’s face. “Oh, and you’re an awful actor. Go become a barrister or something, would you? Now. Obliviate.

Benedict knows the sharp crack woke him. But after, that is all he knows for sure. He comes to in the middle of the road, watching a van drive away, and with a vague sense of dread about the coming school year.

Perhaps he’d try to switch to a program in law.

Chapter Text

When the doe arrives in the common room, Harry starts out of sleep so badly that he falls off the couch. He had hoped to catch Delphi returning, since there are more questions to ask her before he asks Sirius and Remus anything, but clearly something has happened, and Delphi hasn't returned. Harry fumbles for his glasses while the brilliant creature tracks him with her eyes, and then speaks--unsettlingly, in Snape’s voice.

“Come to the front entrance of the castle. You will be met,” she says.

“Wait,” Harry says, fumbling for his wand. “Why?”

She disappears without explanation.

Which leaves Harry, five minutes later, standing shivering in fresh trousers and a threadbare tee shirt advertising some kind of soft drink Dudley had gotten for entering a contest. A few minutes pass, and Harry’s almost about to try to find a window to peer out of when the door slams open.

Harry does not understood the idea that Voldemort feared Dumbledore. It is a fact, of course, but it is also absurd on its face. Harry has faced Voldemort three times now, barely escaping with his life each time, and though he trusts Dumbledore, he can’t see why someone like Voldemort could fear the kind and old Headmaster.

Watching Dumbledore march up the hall, Harry suddenly understands. “Professor,” Harry starts.

Dumbledore marches past him as if he’s not even there, ordering, “Wait here, Harry.”

“Wait,” Harry calls after him. “Professor!” Harry sprints up the hall to follow the headmaster’s long and furious gait but then remembers who would have sent a doe patronus, and whose voice had told him to wait at the entrance.

And if Dumbledore thinks he ought to wait--

Resolutely, Harry turns back to the door in time to see Snape ascending the stair, much slower, and with someone else leaning heavily on his arm.

It’s a woman, leaning on him. She's draped in his cloak and his arm is around her hunched shoulders. It's clear they've come a long way and she looks dark-skinned, no, not that, but covered in--is that blood? And all this comes before he sees the red hair and thinks Mrs Weasley? and then sees the green eyes and thinks a mirror? and then she sees his face and says his name in a voice as shattering as memory.

"Mum?" Harry says.

He wishes later his voice hadn't shaken. He wishes later he had just run to her. He wishes a lot of things, later.

But it's enough. She drops to her knees and says his name again, and he runs to her, and her arms are sticky with--it must be blood, but she doesn’t look hurt--and around him and she's saying something--

"--Severus said--I didn't know if I really believed--you've gotten so big -- God, I'm so sorry," she babbles.

"Sorry?" Harry says, bewildered. "You died."

Snape says, "She needs the hospital wing."

Harry pulls away from the embrace first. She seems to be having trouble keeping her breathing even, staring into his face. When Harry reaches his hand to her shoulder, it is as much to hold her at that length as it is to continue holding her, and she clasps his hand in one clammy palm desperately. "Death," Harry says, incredulous. “She went through--she died. She’s dead.

Snape is so unexpressive he might be dead too. "Temporarily."

"Fourteen years isn't temporary." And then a sudden suspicion seizes Harry, like a hand around his throat.

Harry remembers Moody, helping him all last year. Hagrid, showing him the dragons of the first task at Moody’s behest; Moody, showing Neville the gillyweed for Harry; Moody, cursing obstacle after obstacle out of Harry’s way in the maze from the outside. Moody, teaching him all year, winning Dumbledore’s trust by wearing a friend’s face. Moody’s face melting back to the face of Barty Crouch Junior, Death Eater. And for every voice he had recognized in the graveyard--every name he had heard--there were two more he didn’t.

It feels like agony, but Harry draws back from her one step and then another, pulling his hand from beneath hers. "It could be a trick."

"Harry," she says between them, sounding like her heart is breaking.

Snape seizes her upper arm and jerks her up. “Enough,” he says, more to her than to Harry. “Hospital wing.”

Harry speaks over her. "It’s a trick. Moody--"

Snape marches Lily past him, into the castle, tugging the hood of his cloak back down over her face. Harry stares after them until they disappear up the stair. Snape is faster than he’d have given him credit for, and Harry has to run to catch up.

In the hospital wing, Pomfrey gasps before taking the bloody woman into her hands and beginning the efficient process of wiping the stickiness away from her face. She chivvies Lily behind a curtain and into a bed. Harry tries to follow, and Pomfrey’s arm stops him at the curtain’s perimeter.

“Absolutely not,” she says.

“You know who she is?” Harry demands.

“Do not tell me how to do my job, Potter,” Pomfrey scolds under her breath.

“Let him stay,” Lily croaks from the bed where she’s been hustled. It’s the first full sentence she’s managed and Harry surges, trying to duck past Pomfrey’s arm, but another hand pulls at the neck of his shirt and yanks him back with so much force that the collar chokes him.

“You will only get in the way,” Snape says coldly, pulling Harry out of the way.

“I quite agree,” says Pomfrey.

Before Harry can voice further protest, the curtains are pulled sharply closed behind Pomfrey, and the sound of Lily saying his name is cut off by a charm. Harry rounds, then, on the only opponent still in sight.

Snape. Harry can’t shake the feeling that this has only happened because of Snape, and that it has nothing to do with Harry at all.

“What happened?” Harry asks. “Was this Delphi? Where is she?”

Snape’s eyes are unresponsive, and he doesn’t even correct Harry’s demands to insist on a sir . “The headmaster will tell you what he sees fit to tell you.”

Harry can feel the pressure building inside of him, ready to burst--he wants to curse the look off Snape’s face, shake him, demand that he tell Harry something , even a lie.

“Sit down, Potter,” Snape says waspishly, with something approaching his customary disdain.

Harry ignores him, and continues pacing.

Delphi did all of this on purpose. She told him about Snape’s feelings for his mother, then--who else could it have been? Why else tell him this now? It makes a brutal kind of sense--brought her back from the dead and deposited her right into Snape’s hands, leaving them both to figure it out.

Other wizards might be more interested in how, which Snape might know, but he isn’t sharing . What Harry wants to know is why. And that will have to come from another source. Dumbledore, maybe. Delphi, more likely.

Harry sits down, then, takes three deep breaths, and tries to bail all the thoughts out of his mind.

Dumbledore arrives after a while--he must have gone to his office, and his wand doesn’t look like his usual knobbly one--and has a brief, hushed conversation with Pomfrey at the curtain perimeter before approaching the pair. He looks once more the calm and kind professor, but Harry has seen the other, and the knowledge does not fade. “Harry. Severus. I can’t say I’m disappointed to see the two of you working together, at long last.”

“What have you found?” Snape says, voice flat.

Dumbledore spreads his hands, smiling, nearly beatific. “It appears that Lily Potter lives once more. A calming draught has taken care of her nerves, which are understandably shaken, and she has been cleaned up, but she is otherwise a woman in excellent health.” He looks between each of them, the boy and the man, and the smile fades. “And yet neither of you appear pleased.”

“It’s a trick,” Harry spits. “It has to be.” Snape cuts a glare sideways to Harry, and it feels almost like a question, and Harry responds to it. “Delphi did this, right? Or she has something to do with it. She wouldn’t do this if it didn’t profit her somehow. She’s Voldemort’s daughter . Doesn’t seem like the gift-giving type.”

“Nevertheless, it is truly Lily Potter behind those curtains. As for our friend Delphini Riddle, I believe that her motivations may be more complex than you may have been led to believe,” Dumbledore says.

Harry grits his teeth. He sounds like Delphi. More, what Delphi has told him represents an advantage Harry’s not wanting to give up--not even if it’s Delphi who gave it. “What happened, then? How did it happen?”

"Severus," the Headmaster says, half-admonishing, half-encouraging. "I believe this perhaps is more your story to tell?"

Snape looks like he's say something and then, very suddenly, something snaps visibly--like a rubber band pulled too far, his spine goes slack and one of his hands goes to his brow. "No."

"No?" Dumbledore says, troubled.

"No." Snape comes half to his feet. "I mean no, Albus, no! I am finished with this--all of it, finished ."

"Severus, come now--"

"I have been working my fingers to the bone for you since nineteen eighty-one," Snape says, voice rising to a shout. "I have put my life at risk to save one life--one you failed to save--but I will not do this for you. I refuse this indignity. I refuse.” He cuts one sharp gesture between their bodies as if to sever any bond between them. “Handle this yourself, Albus," he snarls, and pushes past them both. The door to the hospital wing slams behind him.

There's a moment of echoing silence. "I want to see her," Harry says into it. Even if it's a trick, he thinks.

She’s holding her temples, but her hands drop away when he passes through the curtain. “Harry,” she says, and in the way she says his name, it’s both relief and comfort and love all wrapped around him.

He moves to her side and takes her hand firmly in his. “Sorry about earlier.”

“Don’t be,” she says simply. “I’m in the war too. Or I was.” She turns her focus to Dumbledore. "Or I was, and now I am again. I see that the intervening years haven't increased any of Severus' charms.”

"I'm afraid not," Dumbledore replies.

She throws a look to the door again, something complicated happening on her face. “I don’t honestly know what I expected. He’s still here, at Hogwarts? I didn’t think to ask.”

“I believe enough time has elapsed to inform you that Severus has been part of the Order since nineteen eighty,” Dumbledore begins.

“Teaching?” She wrinkles her nose at the idea.

“Teaching, and preparing with me for Voldemort’s return,” Dumbledore confirms. “Protecting many students, including your son.”

It is very nearly startling to understand that Dumbledore is gesturing to him , that Harry is someone’s son. That he always has been, and always would be, her son.

Lily is looking at him now like she has just realized something similar. “He taught you,” she says, and it’s half a question, half in fear.

Harry takes a deep breath, organizes his thoughts, and then discards every last one.

“First day I walked into his classroom, he called me a pint size celebrity, like for my first Christmas I'd rung up Voldemort and asked him to kill my parents,” he starts, voice gone rough and savage. “Third year he tried to kill Sirius--”

“Severus, along with the rest of the world,” Dumbledore interjects mildly, “even myself, did believe Sirius Black to be the Secret-Keeper.”

“But he wasn't,” Harry snaps. “He was trying to protect me from Pettigrew, sir , and I still haven't gotten a good explanation why you weren't Secret-Keeper in the first place.”

Dumbledore raises one eyebrow. "Is this our young friend Delphi's work I detect?"

"If it is, that doesn't make it a bad question. And it's besides the point." Harry turns back to Lily. "Snape was a Death Eater. Is a Death Eater. He showed the Mark to Fudge at the end of last year."

"And you know as well as I do that he spies for us, at great personal risk," Dumbledore says mildly.

Delphi's mistrust and rudeness must be rubbing off on him; he wants to apologize, but he's too furious. "He went back late to meet with Voldemort after he came back, and managed to stay alive after all of it. He's trading on something ."

"He trades what I allow him to trade, Harry," Dumbledore says. "Things you are not entitled to know yourself, restricted to Order members only. I would like to this subject closed."

Somewhere halfway through Lily has adopted a pained, pinched expression. Harry only notices now.

“God,” she says, lifting her hand off his and touching her temples again. “Nothing's changed, has it? Nothing. James and I died and it didn't change a damn thing.”

Which is grotesque, and true, and makes Harry sick to his stomach. He looks up at Dumbledore’s face, which has hardened. “No, I don’t think it has.” Harry doesn’t mean it to come out an accusation, but it does. “Voldemort hasn’t really even been slowed down.”

Dumbledore doesn’t interrupt again, not all while Harry recounts the stories of his personal war against Voldemort; the Philosopher’s Stone and what he had seen in the mirror, which made her eyes go misty; the Chamber and the basilisk and the book that bled, which made her clutch his hand very hard; Sirius and Remus and Pettigrew and the wound of James Potter's absence cut between it all, with Snape’s deranged fury laid over it; and then, finally, the tournament, Barty Crouch Jr, and the ceremony for resurrection.

He doesn't recount anything Delphi has told him, though. Only facts, only what he knows for sure to be true; that Voldemort is back, that the Ministry is doing nothing, and that Harry has been learning Occlumency. When he’s finished he feels less worn than he had retelling the events of the resurrection in spring. He feels energized, ready, as if he’s finally woken up.

“You’ve been so brave,” she says into the silence left by his story.

“You said that before,” Harry blurts out. “In the graveyard.”

Her mouth goes crooked, then, like she can’t quite muster a smile. “I suppose I must have. I’ve missed--a lot of things, by the sound of it. But I think Dumbledore’s right, I think there might be a lot of things going on you don’t know about.” She looks past him, to Dumbledore, who has sunk into a chair. “I’d like to talk to Severus.”

“Doesn’t sound like he wanted to,” Harry says, only a little resentfully.

"I need to know what else has gone on," she says, at least half to Harry. "I want to know--at least, who's still around, where they are."

“You would be better served by sleep,” Dumbledore adds overtop of Harry’s grumbling, and Pomfrey--now hovering behind him--makes an approving sound like it’s the first sense she’s heard all night.

“You asked me if I was still in the war,” she says, and her voice goes a bit unsteady. Harry clutches her hand tighter and she squeezes back. “Does Order membership lapse at death these days? You aren't going to sideline me, not again. I won't be stuffed in a cottage this time.”

And while Dumbledore and Pomfrey try to argue more--try to convince her she needs rest, and a strong sleeping draught--Harry excuses himself, slips his hand out of hers, and he wanders away to pace and think in the hall.

Something is falling into place in Harry’s mind, some kind of picture is becoming whole; not just of Snape and his mother, though they are part of it, but Delphi as well. Her plan, or at least this part of it, the part of it Delphi has for Snape--emerges like a creature from water. If Snape had loved his mother all these years--fought in memory of her, lied for her, maybe even killed for her, for Dumbledore but also for her--then what might having her back do? If he had turned from Voldemort to protect her and failed, and was still spying now, still at Dumbledore’s beck and call with no possible gain but winning the war for Dumbledore at--how had Dumbledore put it-- great personal risk?

And then she returned? Alive?

As he descends the stairs to the dungeons, Harry also goes down the cliff face in his mind, into the cave, across the lake, and opens the locket, summoning up the image of the black knight on a chessboard across from the white queen, and then Delphi’s foot, upending all of it.

He doesn't like thinking of her as a piece on a chessboard, but that's what she's being used as. And Snape, too. Harry is not so arrogant as to think he can understand love or the way that someone like Snape could feel it, but he does understand Delphi well enough to see the ploy.

Lily Potter's return could only remove Snape from the chessboard entirely, one way or another.

If Delphi is working for Voldemort, to support her father and his goals, Snape’s spying is more crucial than ever. But why try to remove him this way, this massive pull of some kind of magic that no one had bothered to explain, instead of just telling her father that Snape was a spy with the same proof she had brought to Harry? Having Voldemort call and kill him would be easier. Which meant Delphi is working for her own ends, different ends than Voldemort.  Which only makes her more dangerous.

The first step, then, is to fight whatever she had set in motion, or at least control it. It was a mistake on Dumbledore’s part to let Snape storm off like that. Harry thinks, suddenly, that Dumbledore has made quite a few mistakes like that, and then wonders if that, too, is part of Delphi’s plan--showing Harry things he hasn't been meant to see or understand. It probably is, Harry thinks. It's also working.

Harry doesn't bother knocking when he gets to the dungeon corridor, doesn't bother with a greeting, just drops into the chair across from Snape's desk. "She wants to talk to you."

"You will address me appropriately or not at all," he snaps.

"She wants to talk to you, sir, " Harry says grudgingly as he can.

"I do not wish to talk to her." He doesn't even look up.

"Because you're scared," Harry supplies, his judgement of it clear. " Sir. "

The quill in Snape's hand snaps in half. "What did you say."

"She wants to talk to you , which is a far sight better than you deserve. If she wanted to cut off your left arm, that might be a bit more reasonable. If you don't even give her that--" Harry crosses his arms stiffly. "Then you're a coward. Sir."

Snape gives Harry a look that should melt steel and comes to his feet, looking thunderous, but his voice is quiet and deadly. "One more word, and I'll--"

"Good," Harry says emphatically. "Kill me and sell my mother to Voldemort, then, if you really don’t give a damn."

Snape flinches at the name, and his own flinch seems to incense him only further. "You know nothing ."

“You’re wrong.” Something dangerous flickers into life inside of Harry. “I know about your patronus, and hers, and what it means.”

Snape says nothing but a muscle in his eyebrow twitches once, twice. He looks an instant from explosion. "You come into my office bearing no respect, making petty demands, telling me --”  His hand tightens, crumpling the sheet he'd been writing on and smudging the ink.

The sound makes Harry glance at the sheet--and what he sees there makes him look again, harder. "You're resigning your post?" Harry asks, taken aback.

Snape doesn’t care, though. “Get out of my office.”

"You can’t resign your post," Harry says vehemently. “You have to stay. That’s what Delphi wants, to remove you--”

"Is this how it is between you two, then?” says the voice from the doorway.

Both of them turn. Harry can see Snape's adam's apple bob, mouth snapped shut tight and thin, his hands in white fists.

Lily Potter approaches like a ghost, stepping silently toward them on bare feet. "You forgot you cloak, Severus.” She pulls it from around her shoulders and drapes it over the back of the chair. It’s sticky, stiff and dark with the blood she had arrived covered in.

Snape makes a violent motion, as if to express leave it or to physically dispel her, but does not say anything.

“Harry,” she says quietly. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to talk to Severus.”

Harry looks between them. “That woman, Delphi, her plan is to get him gone and it’s working, you can’t let--”

“No.” Snape interrupts, voice harsh. “I am presently drafting my resignation.”

Lily’s eyes might be fever-bright and red, but she caught what Harry said, what he meant, what he was trying to do. She nods, and then turns to focus back on Snape. “Fine,” she says to Snape, raising an eyebrow. “Resign if you like. No reason we can’t talk, though. While you clear out your office. I have questions I think only you can answer.”

Snape looks as if he could name a whole raft of reasons why they can’t talk, but he can’t decide which one to spit out first.

Lily takes it as assent and looks back at Harry. “Harry. If you’d give us a little privacy, please?”

Harry opens his mouth to protest once more, but she gives a tiny shake of her head. “Good luck,” he says instead, maybe to her, maybe to both of them, and steps out of the office, shutting the door on them both.

Chapter Text

If Severus Snape were a different sort of man--a man who could afford sentiment, a man who let himself wallow, a man who conversed with the dead--he might have been prepared for this. He might have had some conversation prepared, some confession, some adequate begging for forgiveness or something worse.

But he is not that kind of man. Lily had died, and he had shut everything that could hurt him away into a lockbox and swallowed the key. The lockbox might rattle and shriek like it was full of boggarts but it stayed shut .

Naturally, the boy is her focus. They had come across the threshold of the castle and she had swept the boy into her arms and Albus had looked to him for some kind of answer for the boy and it had all gone to hell. And here she is in front of him, now, looking at him like she’s in a cold kind of fury, demanding--something. More even than what he has already sacrificed.

When the door shuts, she advances, dropping into the chair across from his desk. “All right. Let’s get this over with.”

Yes. Hell indeed.

She is still scrutinizing him, as if expecting to see something she had not known before written across his face. “Your version of history left out a few details,” she says finally.

This still relies upon information, what he knows, what he can offer, which makes it simple. He answers readily. “You asked for the Dark Lord’s movements, and the machinations of his forces. I told you what I knew.”

“You missed the part where you treated my son like trash, Severus.”

He wishes she wouldn’t say his name. “I treated your son how I treat all my students, according to their ability to listen and perform.”

“I sincerely doubt that.”

“Your son is alive,” he snaps. “Dumbledore is alive to fight the war with him, a war he will inevitably be a part of. You are alive. You will forgive me if I could not have done more.”

“You?” she seems confused, as if the taxing events of the day--the years-- have finally caught up with her. “Do you think--what do you think?”

“It does not matter,” he says.

“Like hell,” she says, coming to her feet.

He matches her, coming to his feet. “It does not matter,” he says, more forcefully this time. "Nothing I have thought or felt has ever mattered to you."

Her mouth gets that line, that firm and unforgiving flatness that means she is done considering his point of view--it is the same, precisely the same as it was. "Of all the petulant horseshit , Severus--"

“Do you deny it?”

“Yes! Yes, I deny it. Good god, Severus, my husband is dead, and the last thing I can remember is hearing his body hit the stair--" Her hand moves to her mouth, and she swallows hard, even a very good calming draught can only do so much, "--and I was sure that my son and I were going to die too, which, let me remind you, I did , in case you had forgotten -- and all you can do is make this about yourself? "

It stings, because it’s true. He ignores it in favor of the obvious barb. "You'll have to forgive me if I fail to grieve the loss of James Potter," he sneers.

It’s not quite a gasp, the way she takes in breath, but her eyes are overbright. But weeping was never her way. "I don't even know why I even came here," she snaps. "I bet you didn't grieve me at all."

Something brittle cracks inside of Snape's skull. Of all the things--he could remember sitting in the Headmaster’s office and a sound coming out of him, like a child or an animal or a violent ghost being ripped from its haunting, a sound he could not stop. “Then you know even less of me than I thought.”

She curses him, then, coming to her feet white with anger and marches her way to the door. She tugs on it so hard it slams into the opposing wall. Even the violence is distant, disconnected.

The word is barked like an order, even as it is spoken into the dream. “Stop.”

She pauses, one foot over the threshold. She doesn’t turn, doesn’t look, but there’s a tilt to her spine, a twist in the long line of her neck, her ear lifted toward him, as if waiting to hear what will make it worth her while. It is a very, very last chance, it is clear--and he knows it.

There’s a certainty somewhere inside of Snape that the instant she walks through that door she will never return through it again. That she has been returned by magic he does not understand and might dissolve in an hour or a day or a year spent in silence and resentment.

That possibility is unbearable.

Snape has given her no reason to speak to him, but she came anyway. He has given her no reason to stay, no reason to tolerate him any longer. He can try, then. Try to give her a reason, at least. It is not so much to sacrifice compared to the others, not so far to go.

He takes a shallow breath to compose himself and then consciously unclenches his jaw, his fists, pressing his fingers to the desktop. “Please don’t go.”

She turns, then, looking at him like he’s a specimen performing some kind of unexpected behavior, or a trial she will tolerate for some kind of reward; that is acceptable. She can look at him any way she likes. It’s not as if he doesn’t deserve it.

After a long silence, she tugs the door shut, with herself on the other side. “All right. Can we try this again?”

Snape lets out a sound that could be an aborted laugh if it weren’t pressed so thin. He wants to say not unless you have that time-turner the girl made, but it doesn’t seem an apt joke. Snape sits down carefully, folds his hands before him--the way Lucius would, slow and composed and regal as he can make it. “What would you have of me?”

She considers, taking slow steps back toward the desk and finally letting one small, pale hand settle on his cloak that she had draped over the chair. “How about this. I say a name, and you tell me what happened to them since I’ve been--away.”

It cannot, at the very least, turn up anything worse. “Very well. Begin.”

“Mary Macdonald.”

“Dead.”

She looks taken aback. “How?”

“Mulciber.”

Christ. ” She shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “I don’t want to know any more than that.”

“Perhaps this game does not suit your current state.”

Lily glares. “Perhaps you’re a tosser and I know when you’re trying to put me off. Marlene.”

“Dead. July 1981; you may not have heard of it, sequestered as you were, but I certainly did.”

“Why would you have heard about a dead Order member?”

“Multiple individuals--” he does not say on your side or on my side , but it’s clearly implied, just as much as the tone of her you meant not himself, but Death Eaters, all of them, himself among them as one of the group with no difference between. “Multiple individuals attempted to claim it. I credit Travers personally but it makes little difference.”

“Fine.” Lily’s face goes crooked again. “Alice? Alice Longbottom?”

“Alive.”

Her face lights up, and there’s a reedy, thin thread of hope in her voice. “Where? Can I see her?”

“She was tortured into insanity by Bellatrix Lestrange.”

Lily looks utterly crestfallen. “Do you have any good news for me?”

“I doubt it.”

“All right.” She puts her face into her hands and presses her fingertips into her eyes. “All right. I don't know anything about this Delphi. You, then. Let’s talk about you .” She pulls her fingers away and her eyes are red and stark against the green, her face looking worn, as if the intervening years are finally settling onto her shoulders. “You’re alive. You’re here. You’re working for Dumbledore. You’re a Death Eater. You’re a double agent, and Voldemort--don't flinch, he's your master--and Dumbledore both think you’re working for them. I trust Dumbledore enough to think he has a very good reason to trust that he’s got the upper hand in that particular struggle. Which leaves only one question.” She takes a deep breath and fixes him with a cool, calculating gaze. “Why?”

He stares at her a long moment, and can come up with nothing. He wants her to take the conversation and ferry it away from this horrible, widening silence--would rather she fight and rail against him--but she doesn’t. Lily just watches him.

When he can bear it no longer, he says, in a voice that very nearly does not waver, “You know why.”  It is half accusation, half admission, and also the bare unvarnished truth.

She would not have been what she was to him--what she is-- if she weren’t quick, and terribly clever. Her eyes go wide for half a moment and one palm settles over the dip in her collarbone. And it seems she does know--or at least had suspected enough, had he truly been so goddamn transparent as a child --but at least she feels no need to air the facts between them with specificity, to hear him say it.

A miserable kind of mercy, that.

She closes her eyes again, as if in fatigue. “Was it you, then? With the prophecy? He said it was a Death Eater who had defected, and I wondered.”

“Yes. I brought it to Dumbledore after bringing it to the Dark Lord.”

“James loses that bet, then, I suppose. He was convinced Malfoy had lost his taste for blood once things really got going.” She nods, looking at his desk, his hands, scrubs the back of her hand beneath her nose--a casualty of holding back tears. “I should thank you for that, at least.”

His chin jerks to deny it. “You shouldn’t. It failed to protect you.”

“Get stuffed. You tried. More than--bloody Peter. Harry told me about him .” And she spits, then, through her teeth onto the floor; an old, lower-class gesture, one she probably learnt from him. “There’s someone I’d like to have a short but pointed conversation with.”

“He is protected. Favored, even, for his role.”

Her eyes flash up to his again, finally. “Thought about it, have you?”

His mouth flattens. “Perhaps.”

There’s a fleeting, bitter smile, now. "Suppose Dumbledore still doesn't go in for a spot of casual revenge, even if it wouldn’t expose you."

"I have not asked."

“Is that why you’re running off? Get out and get revenge?”

He gives a humorless sound in his throat. “No.”

“What is it then?” She’s inspecting him closely now, and then puts a finger on the sloppily-inscribed letter of resignation. “I mean, if you don’t have a real reason that means you don’t have to run off tonight, right? I still need to get properly angry with you over how you’ve been to Harry, but your Calming Draught is--”

“It is and has always been the appropriate strength,” he snaps. It’s an old argument between them and everything is still very brittle.

“-- slowing me down , I was going to say. You’re so tetchy, drink some of it yourself.” She chews her lip, as if the next words gall her. “Once I’m done taking you to task over Harry I suppose I’ll have to thank you for all the good you’ve done and you’ll just have to choke on an ounce of gratitude. But I’m not nearly done with the first. Haven’t even got a scope of it.” She cocks her head sideways. “You’re itching so badly to get back to Cokeworth?”

“I was not going to go to Cokeworth.” He had no plan whatsoever on where to go, merely that flight was necessary, but Cokeworth certainly wouldn’t be part of any plan. There had been a vague idea of finding Delphi, forcing her to give him the final horcruxes, eliminating them personally and with great prejudice, confronting the Dark Lord, and then--nothing.

She seems to know it, even without knowing of the horcruxes. “You should stick around at least a little while, while I get settled. Besides, Harry’s right. If this Delphi wants to remove you from the war, you can’t go about giving her what she wants, if she’s all so bad. Still not clear on all that, though, she seems to have done well enough by me.”

He frowns at that. It’s very nearly kind; a held-open door. Snape does not suffer kindness well. “Perhaps.”

“I mean,” she continues, tapping the letter of resignation, “You went back and faced Voldemort, right? After that bit at the graveyard with Harry--he gave a rather different view than you did. You didn’t run from that. But I’m so bad you’ve got to run?”

It is an absurdity, laid out like this, to run from her and not from the Dark Lord. “Albus rarely knows when he asks too much.”

“I don’t really think he is, on this one. I think you owe it to Harry, at the very least, to see this through with him.” She taps the letter of resignation again.

And there it lies, the very thing Albus had used to manipulate him fourteen years ago. Snape had hoped it would grow less effective over time or from Lily’s own mouth. He is disappointed in that. One hand comes to his forehead. “Fine.”

“Glad that’s settled.” Two jerky tugs with her fingertip, and the letter is free from beneath his hand. Before he can stop her, she’s torn it neatly in half, and dropped it back on his desk. She taps a fingertip against her mouth. “Is Bowie still around?”

The frown deepens, and her question is the only thing that derails a tirade against her presumption. “What?”

“Bowie. David Bowie. Has he popped off on drugs or been murdered or--?” She looks at the wall. “I don’t know, for some reason Lennon crossed my mind, how he got shot less than a year before I--” she shakes her head, not wanting to say it again. “Anyway, I was wondering. Seemed like everyone was in mourning after he got murdered. The way you told it, everyone mourned me and--James--” she chokes a tiny bit on the name, still. “Anway, they mourned us the same way, which is--strange. Then I got to thinking about who I’d mourn like that, and--yeah.”

Of all the idiot questions to ask. “I think he’s still alive.”

She releases a long breath, as if she’d been truly scared of the answer. Even despite the Draught, her moods are still swinging like a hangman’s noose. There’s a grim satisfaction to it though, knowing that his own draught in Pomfrey’s stores had helped at least this much. It would be worse without it.

“Released anything good?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Oh, come on, Sev, you loved Ziggy Stardust as much as I did.”

“I don’t own a record player.”

She lapses into silence for a second, looking at her feet. “And I suppose Petunia handled all my things after. She probably threw my whole record collection away.” She sniffs, rubbing at her nose again. “I feel like my house burnt down.”

“It did, in parts. The top floor suffered particularly but the bottom did sustain some fire damage. Your records were likely beyond recovery.”

Her gaze comes up to meet his, eyes wide.

“There was an explosion,” he elaborates.

For a single, brittle moment she looks horrified, a kind of emotion Snape knows how to parse, a thing he is used to looking into the face of.

And then she throws her head back and laughs--it’s a little hysterical, a little unhinged, as if records could be half so important as the other losses of that night--a brittle but full-throated and desperately living sound that rings throughout his office long after she’s left.

Chapter Text

On Monday, August fourteenth, nineteen ninety-five, Dolores Umbridge goes to a cafe before work. She is not the kind of witch who is accustomed to this, and she had to wake up earlier than she likes to allow time for the trip, so she is already irritated with the task; the cafe is the kind of half-wizarding place that serves both Muggles and regular folk, which makes her hate it more, as such places should not exist no matter how many notice-me-not charms you spackle at them. And her mood was already foul with the reason why: the note the night before, written on blisteringly white parchment of fine but unexceptional gauge and its wax seal is that of a large and mysterious bird.

An Augury, the note had clarified, for the Augury Initiative.

She performs two laps of the cafe and does not see the chosen signal from the note, a red teacup. She exits the cafe beginning to feel desperate when she very nearly trips over it; a homeless Muggle woman, and before her, a teacup red as a cardinal and full of alms.

She is very dirty. Dolores immediately dislikes the Augury Initiative if they employ dirty, homeless muggles.

Dolores minces her way up hesitantly. “Hello,” she says stiffly.

“Oh,” the woman mutters into the cup. “She said you have to wait a tic.”

“Who?” Dolores asks sharply.

The woman does not respond, merely shakes her head.

Dolores stands there as long as she can stand it, feeling increasingly foolish. She very nearly turns to leave until a voice speaks behind her.

“Hello, Dolores,” it purrs. “I'm so glad you decided to come.”

Dolores spins round. The woman is pale, round of face, with hair piled atop her head so black it is tinged blue. Something tells Dolores that the hair has been Transfigured--a disguise, then. Her high-throated robes are layered transparent silk that flutters in the breeze, sleeves that very nearly touch the ground edged in silver thread, all wrought in a purple so dark is it very nearly black. They are very fine robes, and well-made, Dolores notes bitterly; they must have cost more than Dolores makes in a month, which marks this woman as from money both old and plentiful. Incongruously large, very Muggle sunglasses black out her eyes. The overall effect more than a little intimidating.

Hem, ” Dolores manages, a strangled little cough. After a moment, she offers her clammy hand.

“How lovely to make your acquaintance,” the woman says says, clasping the proffered hand between both of her own. “You may call me Pythia, Pythia Lestrange. I’ve had some tea sent to the back room so we can have some privacy.”

“No,” Dolores says quickly. Too quickly, maybe; the woman’s mouth purses slightly. No, that won’t do at all. If Dolores wants to get anything out of her--out of this Augury Initiative-- before taking this to the Aurors or somewhere else, she’ll have to please the agent at least a little. She offers up her best simper. “I would rather enjoy the sunshine, don’t you agree?”

The woman smiles. “Of course. I’ll have the tea brought up.”

They are offered a little table in the corner of the patio by an overfamiliar waitress; it is early in the morning and not quite so hot yet that it would be uncomfortable, but nerves have the back of Dolores’ sweater set damp anyway.

Dolores settles across the table and pours herself some tea, and then begins to heap spoonful after spoonful of sugar into it. “Your note was quite intriguing. I’m wondering, if I may ask, where you might have heard--”

“Hang on,” the woman who calls herself Pythia interrupts, extracting her wand--a strange and knobbly thing that Dolores is sure she’s seen elsewhere. She raps the table, and around them the sound from the street and the cafe goes blurry. The wand goes back into her pocket before Dolores can inspect it further or wonder where she’d seen it before. “There. Now we’ve got some privacy. Now, you were just wondering where I had heard that you sent Dementors after Harry Potter and how I got your home address to send that note and tell you about it, but I think it’s much more interesting to get straight to the point and ask if you’ve considered our offer to join up.”

“Well, it would seem to me that there is no choice but to join your little initiative,” Dolores says, done spooning sugar into her tea and beginning to stir with the sound of grit against porcelain. “You claim to have proof, which would be an incredible abuse of my power were it true. It would leave me entirely at your mercy.”

“You didn’t read the note very closely,” the woman says, her warm tone belying the insult. “I also said that we’d leave you be if you chose not to accept our offer.”

“My dear--Pythia, was it? Pythia Lestrange? ” Dolores replies, even sweeter. Lestrange is quite the name to be using these days, what with all the better-known branches of that particular tree rotting in Azkaban, and Dolores makes sure that this Pythia knows it. “I do know when I’m being threatened.”

“I wouldn’t threaten you,” the woman says, in a voice so serious it gives Dolores pause. “I’d rather be your friend than your enemy. I have no interest in pressing the unwilling into service, but your talents are criminally underused in your current position, and the task you have been given for this year is a trap.”

The idea is so absurd that Dolores lets out a fine little giggle. “A trap? The school post? Forgive me, Miss Lestrange, but I believe myself more than capable of handling a class or two of schoolchildren.”

“Are you forgetting who you’re really being sent to mind?” The way it comes out, drawling and arch, is very nearly an insult. Her speech isn’t quite as polished as a Malfoy’s, but that arrogance is pureblood through and through.

Dolores’ voice goes high. “Of course I know who I have been sent to mind,” she snaps impatiently. “Which is why your little club cannot jeapordize my position. The minister is counting on me to keep Albus Dumbledore in line.”

“The Minister’s a fucking idiot,” she says flatly.

Dolores splutters into her teacup for a moment, then looks around fretfully to see if anyone had heard. They hadn’t, of course. “You can’t mean that,” she says, once the sticky-sweet tea is cleared from her sinuses and into a napkin.

“I mean that with all my heart. Dumbledore is dangerous. You wouldn’t be sent to mind him if he wasn’t,” she says. She seems to be relaxing as she expounds, as if the cover of the spy is falling away and the real woman is emerging. “Cornelius lets Dumbledore do as he pleases because Dumbledore was offered the position before him, more than once. All that does it make it clear he’s second choice and robs not only the office of Minister but the entire Ministry and you. ” One sharp fingertip comes before Dolores’ nose.

“Dumbledore protests that he is uninterested in politics,” Dolores says dumbly, cross-eyed and focused on the finger. “He’s never accepted the position of Minister and never will.”

“He’s on the Wizengamot!” Pythia spits, hand gesturing explosively upward to the cloudless sky. “No one on the Wizengamot is uninterested in politics. And you know as well as I do that the Order of the Phoenix is back and walking the halls of the Ministry.”

“You suspect,” Dolores corrects.

“I know ,” she says firmly, her fist thumping the tabletop with a chime of porcelain. “It’s war, Dolores. Dumbledore said so to the Minister’s face not two months ago. Your Ministry is being infiltrated, and what does Fudge do? Send his most effective agent off to do a dismal job at the school in hopes of catching Dumbledore in the act?” Pythia gives a most unladylike snort.

“And what do you propose, then?” Dolores says, regaining her composure and straightening her blouse.

“I can help you,” she says simply. “I can feed you information, help you actually mind him instead of watch on while he does as he pleases.”

“I very seriously doubt--”

“Did you know he was associated with Grindlewald?” Pythia interrupts, plowing on and leaning forward. “There are letters. Very interesting letters between very close friends. I know where they can be found, the Prophet could publish them.”

Such a thing gives her pause. “How does any of this benefit you?”

“I think you know that Dumbledore is on his way out, if both of us have our way,” Pythia smiles. “I work for the organization that will come to replace him.”

“Which is?”

“The Augury Initiative. People you want to know.” She moves the sunglasses down on her nose and looks over them. “People you have already impressed quite a bit, people who want to make sure you keep your meteoric rise going.”

“Ministry officials do not take bribes,” Dolores says sharply.

“Bribe?” The woman puts a hand to her chest in mock-horror. “You wound me. I would never offer a bribe. I’m offering friendship.”

“The kind of friendship that keeps secrets, I expect?”

“Your secret will be kept either way, Dolores. That was just a way to make sure you’d come.”

Dolores doesn’t like being manipulated this way. But trusting this stranger who knows far too much is also too much of a risk. And keeping up contact could offer profit. “What do you require?”

“Two portkeys,” she says. “Off the books, if you please. This kind of thing is illegal, of course, and even asking for it would get me inquest from the Aurors, right? They’d take your word over mine. So now you've got something on me. I’ve left the paperwork with my associate with the teacup. Deliver them back to her within four days, and you’ll be squared off with me, and we won’t bother you again if you don’t want to be bothered.”

Dolores feels her mouth stretching into a smile. She has always been known for them, her smiles. “Very well,” Dolores says primly. She drains the last of her cup and then hesitates, letting it hover above the saucer. “And if I should reconsider your offer--?”

Pythia beams. “That’s another matter entirely. Can you get me a meeting with Lucius Malfoy?”

Chapter Text

August eleventh was a Friday--well, Harry thinks, it was technically the twelfth, a Saturday, since it was so late when Lily Potter came back to Hogwarts. Pomfrey had insisted on keeping her under observation for twenty-four hours. After her escape to follow Harry and talk with Snape, she had gone back to the Hospital Wing and submitted herself to Pomfrey’s scolding and ministrations and suggested additional examinations of her own. Harry had been allowed to visit for a few minutes the next morning, and later for an hour. The first time she hadn’t said much and Harry didn’t want to push her; the second, she had been sleeping even though it was mid-afternoon; both times, Pomfrey had been running tests and shooed him away the second his time was up.

But the tests didn’t turn up anything. Lily Potter was a healthy woman of thirty-five who had given birth to one child. Further spells illuminated that she had been pure of heart and intention, that she was unaffected by disease or curse, that she was not a virgin or a copy, that her body had been born in nineteen sixty and died in nineteen eighty one, and that she was, now, unextraordinarily alive. The only scars she bore were a few skinned knees and assorted scrapes achieved in her girlhood and one across the palm from a nasty slip of her potions dagger when she was sixteen. There were no markings, no insignias, no traced sigils, no gaps her in her memory beyond the one left between death and resurrection, no control over her mind or body that could be detected. Even the Imperius left traces; there were none. Her reflexes, her sight, her hearing were all perfectly normal. She was, medically speaking, perfectly unexceptional.

In any other situation, Dumbledore told Harry after his second visit, she would be sent to St Mungos to be re-examined as a medical marvel. But circumstances being what they were, Dumbledore was loath to expose her to the comings and goings of a hospital and all the eyes there. She was safer, he asserted, as a secret kept between the current inhabitants of the castle--who at that particular moment numbered as Harry, Pomfrey, Dumbledore himself, and the house-elves were had been sworn quickly and with exacting specificity to secrecy by the Headmaster himself.

All of which means that Sunday morning, the thirteenth, Lily Potter is allowed to walk free inside the castle.

Harry rises early and wolfs down half a plate of eggs and bacon, intent on making it to the Hospital Wing to lead her out of it without anything but the vaguest sense of where to take her after beyond I want to see her again, but he doesn’t get the chance. So intent on his plate and his thoughts, he doesn’t hear the trio of feet approaching until they are very nearly at the table.

“Good morning, Harry,” Dumbledore says warmly. When Harry turns, he sees Dumbledore on one side, Pomfrey on the other, and Lily Potter looking still astonishingly solid and real between them. “I thought your mother and I might join you for breakfast.”

Harry is very nearly finished but he isn’t about to get up now. He swallows. “Of course.”

“Excellent.” Dumbledore takes his seat across from Harry and helps himself to bacon. Lily and Madame Pomfrey settle next to Harry. “There are a few things to settle. As I mentioned yesterday, I would prefer it if you would refrain from sending any owls just yet. We are going to settle your mother into the Gryffindor girl’s dormitory until a more permanent place may be found. What is your plan for this fine sunny Saturday?” he asks.

Harry is barely listening. There’s something at the edge of his memory, something from the last time he had spoken with Delphi, but the question jolts him out of it. From thin air, he plucks what he’d done last weekend. “Er-- I was planning on flying again, if that’s all right, professor?”

“I don’t see why it wouldn’t be,” Dumbledore says gamely. “I’m sure Lily would like to watch as well, having never seen you play.”

“You’re on the Quidditch team?” she asks. Reflexively, as if watching the other three eat has reminded her that she should be as well, she reaches for the bacon. “What do you ride?”

“Sirius bought a Firebolt for me,” Harry replies. “Third year.” He nudges the plate of eggs closer to her so she can reach.

She loads her plate without even looking and doesn’t reach for a fork. “What position?”

“Seeker,” Harry says.

“One of the best,” Dumbledore adds, smiling.

Harry shrugs. “I beat Slytherin most of the time, at any rate.”

“I’d love to watch you practice,” she says firmly. “If you don’t mind.”

Dumbledore is watching her, and so is Pomfrey, but the only person’s permission she is asking is Harry. It’s very nearly alarming, to be trusted with her gaze. “Of course,” Harry says.

“You should eat first,” Pomfrey chides her.

“I’m not hungry,” Lily says, her gaze still fixed greedily on Harry.

“If you’re not hungry, you need further examination,” Pomfrey says firmly.

“I don’t,” Lily says.

“Lily,” Dumbledore says, the admonishment clear in her voice.

Lily’s grip on her fork tightens visibly for a moment, and her teeth clench--a transformation so visible it startles Harry--but just as he’s seen it, it disappears. “You’re right,” she says evenly, as if to confirm it for everyone at the table. “I am hungry.” And she dutifully begins shoveling breakfast into her mouth just as readily as Ron might. It seems to be enough, for now.

They while away most of the day that way on the Quidditch pitch, with Harry running drills and Lily watching him fly. “You’re really good,” she says when he finally dismounts. Dumbledore joins again for lunch. Professor Sprout has also returned, dusted with travel, and doesn’t look surprised.

“Lily, if I may, I’d like to take you on a small outing tomorrow morning,” Dumbledore says over his plate.

“Where?” Harry demands, before Lily can even ask for herself.

Dumbledore turns toward Harry, surprised. “To see her friends, of course.”

“Remus and Sirius, I hope?” Lily asks, pushing potato around her plate.

“I have arranged for Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Molly Weasley, and Arthur Weasley to be brought in to Order headquarters. I thought you might like to spend some time with them.”

“I would,” Lily says, after a moment. “And Hagrid, I hope?”

“We can stop by his hut on the way back, I think,” Dumbledore says, warming to it.

“I’ll want a wand, if we’re going out,” she says lightly, with only a trace of irony. “I seem to have lost mine.”

Dumbledore looks thoughtful. “I will contact Ollivander. I have arranged private, after-hours visits to his shop with disguised wizards once or twice before. I’m sure it could be done again.”

Harry is barely listening. The word lost , from his mother’s mouth, brings back the question he had contemplated over breakfast, and it falls into place.

Delphi had told him the prophecy, told him--two days, at the outside--he could ask Dumbledore if it were true, when he had gotten back something he thought was lost forever. Looking at his mother’s face, he knows what Delphi had meant.

“Professor Dumbledore,” Harry blurts out, “I need to speak with you in private.”

Dumbledore looks startled. And then something very strange happens; Harry has the sense that Dumbledore’s eyes are giving him the same burrowing, penetrating look that Snape’s have been in their lessons. It doesn’t feel anything like Snape’s prodding; instead, it’s like the lightest brush of fingers across the inside of his eyelids. Purely by reflex, Harry wills his mind blank as he can. It’s over almost before Harry can notice that it’s happening.

Dumbledore nods once as if nothing had happened, and looks back to his glass, reaching for the pumpkin juice. “Very well. After lunch, we can--”

“Professor, I don’t think this should wait,” Harry says urgently. “Please. It’ll only take a minute.”

“Harry--” Lily says uncertainly.

“Very well,” Dumbledore says, rising to his feet as well. “My apologies Lily, Pomona. We will return shortly.”

They don’t speak the rest of the way up to the office. When the door is shut, the conversation is very short. Dumbledore isn’t surprised that Delphi had told Harry, exactly, but he does look as though a massive weight is settling around his shoulders.

The prophecy is real. Delphi was telling the truth about it, down to the letter.

Neither can live while the other survives.

Learning this makes any remnant of Harry’s appetite vanish. Dumbledore tries to say something soothing--that there are spells in place, ways, plans, that this is not a death sentence--but Harry knows what it is. He wends his way back to the Gryffindor common room and sets up the chessboard, piece by piece, to think round and round in awful spirals.

If neither can live while the other survives, then one of them has to die. Maybe both; maybe they are so bound--the mental link, the way Harry’s scar burns, all of it--that when one of them dies, the other has to follow suit. Even if that isn’t true, the best option is that Harry must kill him; that Harry has to become a murderer. Unbidden, Cedric’s lifeless body rises again in his mind, and even with every attempt to shut out thoughts, to hide himself away, Harry can’t resolve the vision of a corpse--even Voldemort’s corpse--with anything that could come out of his own wand.

Which leaves only the other thing.

Lily joins him, after a while. She can sense his melancholy, it seems, but she isn’t inclined to leave him to it; instead, she offers a game of chess, and Harry accepts, trying to put a brave face on things. She starts off strong and captures three of his pieces inside of five minutes, but it’s clear she’s not quite as good as Ron at it, and she’s only winning because Harry’s mind is elsewhere. She prods, gently, and the discussion between them evolves into twenty questions: favorite foods, favorite holiday, old stories, the rotating cast of Defense professors and what they’d learned from each.

“Slughorn,” Lily is saying, “who was the old Potions professor before Severus--he was sad to see Professor Gurdy go after sixth year, but none of the rest of us were. Worse than useless, that one. But it was better than what happened to Nivens before him, with that trick staircase, or--” she pulls a face of disgust, “LePlace, after.”

“What happened to LePlace?”

“Vampires,” Lily says.

“He became one?”

She purses her lips. “Not exactly. Some poor Ravenclaw second-year found him in the Forest went she went wandering away from her class with Kettleburn. She dropped out right after.” She shakes her head. “Not very nice all around. New topic: What’s your favorite dessert?”

“Treacle tart,” Harry answers instantly. “Yours?”

“Lost my taste for sweets when I got pregnant with you ,” she says, with a chuckle. “Before, though, I’d have said chocolate cake.”

“Which bit?”

“Icing, always the icing. Your grandad did up this massive thing just slathered with buttercream for every birthday when I was little.”

“Hm,” Harry says, shifting a pawn forward to stall for more time. “I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten a birthday cake that Hagrid didn’t make. Or Ron’s mum.”

Something goes tight around Lily’s mouth, at that. “When Dumbledore lets me out of here, I’m going to have a talk with my sister, I think,” Lily says, trying--failing--to keep the anger out of her voice.

“I’d like to see that,” Harry says.

“You wouldn’t,” she says flatly. “Check.”

Harry moves his king almost unthinkingly out of check. “Why not?”

She snorts, and shifts her bishop to follow the king. “Check again. Ask Sirius what happened when he almost dropped you on the pavement one time, when you were just three months.”

“I probably bounced,” Harry says. One more move and the bishop won’t be able to follow without getting endangered by his pawn. He’s not sure if she sees it. “I hear that’s what happens.”

“I almost bounced him, ” she says, and there it is again; that little flash of anger pulling at her eyes.

He bumps the King along without looking at it. “Did they let him visit, when you were in hiding?”

“Some,” she says pensively, examining the board for a moment. “Not half often enough. James got so bored, so quickly--Dumbledore had us doing research and brewing potions. I thought it was a little tedious, because bulk-brewing Wideye to help a stakeout isn’t the most thrilling thing, but James got so impatient.” She hasn’t made a move, but is scrutinizing Harry’s face with something like pain. “I suppose everyone must tell you that you look like him.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Except--”

“My eyes,” she says, almost like she’s heard it somewhere before, and from someone she dislikes. “But you’ve got my mum’s cheekbones, too. And your skin’s darker than mine, but you still have a few freckles. No hiding those. You’re not all James.”

“Do you miss him?”

She looks away. “You were almost named Fleamont , for your father’s father. Or Hardwin, that’s another old Potter name. Did anyone ever tell you that?”

It’s not an answer. “I don’t think anyone could have. It was just Aunt Petunia, she probably didn’t know any of it.”

“Sirius could have told you in a letter. Or Remus.”

“Talking with Sirius about dad is--strange,” Harry says. “And Professor Lupin--Remus--he didn’t even tell me he knew my dad until the end of third year, after he’d been teaching me for so long.”

Her jaw goes tight again, for more than just a moment this time. She moves a rook and doesn’t say anything.

Harry looks at the board and then moves his king back into the corner. “It would have been hard, though. Losing your best friend, finding out your other best friend’s a traitor, and winning the war all at once.”

“They should have done something,” Lily says finally, positioning her knight. “Sirius, especially.”

Harry looks up in surprise. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him, that anyone could have told him anything sooner. “He was in Azkaban.”

“If Sirius could escape from Azkaban for Peter he should have done it for you.” She blows air through her nose and glares at the board. “Remus, at least, could have gotten in touch earlier. He met Petunia at the wedding, he could have found her, even if they never let werewolves adopt children, he could have dropped in.” She looks up. “Will you be all right on your own, if I go tomorrow morning?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asks, bewildered.

“I can have Dumbledore move it if not,” she adds, which doesn’t clarify anything.

“I’ve been all right on my own for fourteen years,” Harry shrugs.

It’s immediately obvious that it’s the wrong thing to say. Her face falls, and she swallows hard.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says. “I didn’t mean--”

“I know you didn’t mean anything by it,” she says quickly, recovering. “You’re right. You have been. I don’t want to hover, or make things--stranger than they already are. You’ve been responsible for so much on your own.”

“I always came out of it all right,” Harry says, which is almost worse.

She grimaces. “By the skin of your teeth, by the sound of it.”

“Not on my own,” Harry says. Which is closer than he wants to be to the real question he means to ask. He looks at the board, pushing a pawn absently forward. “I know this is a personal question, but--did you ever manage to cast a Patronus?”

“Hm. Yes, I did.” She nods slowly, and her eyes eyes focus for a moment past the table. “The first time I saw it, I thought it was so beautiful.” She runs a fingertip along the edge of the table before her. “I didn’t think I ever could have made something so perfect until I held you for the first time.”

Harry blinks a few times, but the feeling of pressure in his eyes passes, and there’s more to ask. “What was it?”

“A doe,” she says simply, looking up, and in that moment there’s no anger in her eyes, no regret--only something that Harry suddenly realizes is love. And it doesn’t look how Harry had imagined it on her face. It looks still a little sad, and still a little broken, but so much bigger.

But it is a doe. The same as Snape’s. Resolutely, Harry returns himself to the task of confirming everything Delphi said, beyond the prophecy. “Were you and Professor Snape friends, when you were younger?”

She looks slightly bewildered by the turn of conversation, but answers readily enough. “We were. For a while. I guess we are again, if it comes to it. We both grew up near each other. I think--” Her brow smooths and her eyes go soft and sad. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. It was a long time ago.”

“I know he called you--something awful. At the end of your fifth year.”

She grimaces. “What, did Sirius bring it up?”

“No. I just need to know--I need to make sure it’s true. That he’s a good person.”

She starts, defensive, “Severus has never been--” but she stops abruptly. Then she shakes her head and nudges a bishop along its diagonal, capturing Harry’s rook. “Well, you know more about him than me, at this point.”

“I don’t know anymore.”

She peers at him. “Why are you so curious about Severus?”

“You’re so angry at Professor Lupin and Sirius,” Harry says, trying not to sound frustrated. “But Snape could have said something, too.”

She nods along to what he’s said. “Severus could have said something, but he--Harry, we hadn’t spoken since seventy-five. I don’t know how much there is to tell.” She shrugs. “Last I heard of him, Slughorn had been strongarmed into retirement and Severus had taken the Potions post. No idea why Dumbledore even let him in the castle, but it’s not like he opened it up for debate. He just asked me--” her brow wrinkles. “Dumbledore asked me if I had, once, trusted Severus.”

She’s so furious at Sirius and Remus, but--Dumbledore, Harry realizes suddenly. Dumbledore could have done something. Dumbledore could have told him everything when he was eleven. No, he could have done something even earlier. He could have told him earlier, carried the baby he had been to the castle, left him with anyone else, done something--

Harry remembers the searching feeling on the insides of his eyelids from earlier in the day and realizes, with arresting certainty, that he no longer exactly trusts Dumbledore.

Trust is a funny thing. “What did you tell him?”

“I told him I wasn’t sure. It’s--hard, for it all to not be colored by what I know now, and what I thought I knew then.” Then she sighs, wiping a hand across her face. “Honestly, I have no idea what Severus is anymore. Haven't for years. I can’t imagine he’s suddenly become kind .”

“I know that you’re the reason he’s on Dumbledore’s side of the war,” Harry says, trying to coax more out of her. “I know that you’re the reason he’s helped me.”

She grimaces again. “And what’s that gotten either of you, exactly?”

The question is bigger than Harry thinks, once he considers it. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, even if that’s true--which I don’t know about--what’s it gotten you? Or him? He wasn’t ever all that content, but he’s miserable , it rolls off him in waves. And you , you’re stuck with him, taking lessons from him, even though he--well. I always knew how he’d feel about you, if he ever taught you. I even talked to Dumbledore about it when Severus took the post. But he’s had to be here to be useful, and has to teach you to keep you safe. It’s--it’s all just efficient. Very nasty and very efficient.” She purses her lips, tapping a fingertip to them. “And while we’re at it, I want to come to that lesson tomorrow.”

Harry doesn’t like the idea of being smothered, and it feels like smothering. “The lessons are fine. He doesn’t--”

“I didn’t ask if he did anything. I heard you two spatting.” Her mouth twists into something rueful. “Just sitting there will be enough to keep him in line. It’s how his mum used to manage us.”

The idea of a child-sized Snape, being handled by a mother, is startling. “Manage you?”

She leans back, the chess board almost entirely forgotten, and looks up to the ceiling. “We got into some trouble, when we were kids.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Nothing so bad as your kind of trouble, Harry. Kid stuff. Normal kid stuff.”

Which sounds final enough that Harry doesn’t want to push further. And at the end, it doesn’t really matter. Delphi had told the whole wretched truth of it. Harry looks away from her face, back to the board, and listens to the fire crackle in the hearth for a moment before he says, “Do you still trust him? Do you think he’s on our side?”

“Sides,” Lily scoffs, looking back to Harry and gesturing to the board. “It’s not a chess game. People end up where they end up for a reason, not because they’re born as colored pieces on a checky board.”

“He’s a Slytherin, though. Everyone in Slytherin--”

“Rookwood,” she says, hand coming up to cut him off and voice gone flat. “He was a Ravenclaw. Passed information from inside the Ministry during the first war, read he went to Azkaban for it. Jugson, we had reason to believe he was in on things, he was a Hufflepuff. Igor Karkaroff and Levi Ivanovitch, both from Durmstrang, and Gloria Dubois, from Beauxbatons, they were all suspected in the murder of Benjy Fenwick, not sure if that ever got solved. It’s bigger than houses, Harry. It’s not quidditch.”

“I know. I know, ” Harry says, though he doesn’t. Something suddenly occurs to Harry, something that had prompted the revelation in himself and then might prompt something further in her. “Snape stole a picture. Here--hold on--” Harry leans, fishing in his knapsack for the book where he’d pressed the photo. “Look,” he says, thrusting the moving photograph into her open palm.

He had expected her to be angry, the same way he had been seeing the torn picture. So many other things seemed to make her angry in a way that flashes across her face, pinches her brow, and then through sheer force of will smooth it again.

But the photograph doesn’t. Harry watches her face soften, watches her eyes hungrily search her own face and the baby’s face--and James’, James’ most of all, she traces it with a fingertip--he knows that he’s done something different than he’d intended.

“You asked if I miss him,” she says carefully. “A lot of our friends are gone, Harry. The Order used to be much bigger.” She looks up, and her eyes glitter wetly in the firelight before she blinks it away. “I died thinking you were about to die. When I saw you, I thought--I knew it was worth it. That I’d done something important, and you were safe. And then you tell me you’ve been chasing after Voldemort for four years, and--” She runs her nail along the place where the photo had been torn, looking down at the baby there. “Harry, I’d rather die five times over than watch you run into war. War changes you. It makes you realize the value you’d put on other people’s lives--on your own life--is a lot lower than you’d want it to be.”

Which is far, far too close to the thing Harry is actually wrestling with. Kill, or be killed, or both. “I don’t have a choice,” Harry says.

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “You do.”

“I don’t.”

“I had a choice.” She looks furious again, though not with Harry. “I had only bad options by the end, but I chose.”

“There's a prophecy,” Harry says helplessly. “It says it has to me and him.”

“No,” Lily says sharply, the violence of her gesture toppling the black knight. “I don’t accept that. Saying you don’t have a choice is an excuse people use to justify horrible things, awful things--”

“I don’t think I can stop it,” Harry says, swallowing thickly. “I don’t think you, or Snape, or Dumbledore, or anyone can stop it.”

And I want to make sure someone is still here to watch over you if I’m gone, he thinks silently. Delphi had been telling the truth about Snape. He would do it. Harry can’t imagine how, but he also knows--deep inside his bones--that he no longer trusts Dumbledore enough to the task alone. Snape had been cruel and unforgiving, but when it came down to it, he had saved Harry’s life more than once. And that was enough. It was Dumbledore who had protected her before and failed, Dumbledore who had kept the prophecy from him, Dumbledore who stood poised to fight Voldemort and even now did so close to nothing that Harry could not tell the difference--

It is a thin comfort. Harry wants it anyway.

“Harry,” she says, and she reaches across the board to grip Harry’s hand. Pieces topple to the floor, and she doesn’t seem to notice. “I know you haven’t gone looking for any of this. I know it. Neither did I. But promise me,” she swallows, visibly upset. “Promise me that if you can--if there’s any choice at all--promise me that you won’t go running toward it. I don’t care about that damn prophecy, I don’t care who tries to tell you what you’ve got to do. Promise me you’ll keep yourself safe--that you’ll try .”

“Okay,” Harry says quickly, putting his hand over hers, trying to offer comfort. “I’ll try.”

She scrutinizes his face, and then lets his hand go. She bends, picking up pieces from the floor, her hair cascading over her face as she speaks. “I wonder if you know,” she says quietly, “James was bad at lying, too.”

Chapter Text

Over the years, Snape has grown to recognize that there is a machine inside of himself that alchemizes all emotion into anger. Happiness becomes a smirking, self-satisfied thing, stolen from others instead of generated from within. Sadness turns to fury, regret to bitterness, worry to recrimination, and all of it either bottled up or violently spat into the safety of the external world. Without context, there is no danger of being understood.

There is no other path he knows. It is a functional way to interact with the world, safer for a spy, and--though he rarely admits it--more comfortable for himself. It offers control, stability.

He has only over the past days learned he might regret it.

When she left his office, he had sent both halves of his resignation letter to the Headmaster’s office--only to underscore his point, Albus would never accept the resignation and could probably guess the tenor of what had transpired. It was likely the reason that the headmaster had not felt the need to pursue either the boy or his mother. There were other, more central concerns to manage; that of the war, the girl as a new entrant on either her father’s side or--worse, and more likely--some new force at least marginally opposed to both. That was what mattered, not the emotions of a boy or his mother or a spy. Snape had understood all of this bitterly in the hours after she had left, had worked it over from every angle, then had shoved both balled-up halves of his letter of resignation through the floo, and then gone to bed.

The next Monday the boy turns up at the previously-appointed time, and the boy’s mother walks her son through the door, eyeing Snape like an opponent. She perches on a chair and watches them both work, but there is little to see, and halfway through she plucks a book from the shelf and begins reading. Snape cannot tell if it is the boy’s skills improving or his own distraction, but his Occlumency seems marginally secure, and his strength grows daily. His own covert communications with the Dark Lord--through Lucius--indicate the Dark Lord is still unaware of the extent of his access to the boy’s mind. The boy’s mother sits through the lesson the next day, and the one after that, and Snape understands it: it is a silent threat against any further cruelty to her son.

Delphi’s warning about training the boy to save his own skin does not ring in his ears. He does not heed it. He does not experience relief when he turns his traitorous, cowardly thoughts to the Mark and how it does not burn.

Snape avoids the widow Potter, as he comes to think of her, as he must think of her, as the week after her return progresses. He must admit to himself this is avoidance born of cowardice, as he reroutes his path to the greenhouse for the third time to work upon the necessary ingredients to prepare for the coming year. Pomona returned from her summer’s travel on the thirteenth; she had merely appraised the widow Potter from across the small table in the Great Hall and asked him how the orchids had fared the summer. Dumbledore must have told her in order to ensure Pomona didn’t make a scene or ask uncomfortable questions; likely he had told Minerva and Filius as well, as they are slated to return shortly. Snape had felt a flood of something better men might even call gratitude.

Some contact cannot be helped with the widow Potter, but it can be planned for; she spends her mornings with the boy in the library, walking him to the lesson and giving Snape a wary look but not remaining to observe, and her evenings are spent lingering over her food in the Great Hall, leafing through old Prophets to get a grasp on the time she’s missed.

The boy’s lessons also proceed apace. The scenes constructed in the boy’s mind are vivid with grandparents that Snape himself once knew. Once thinly sketched from photographs, they are now full of life and breathing; she must have told him about them. One of them smokes a pipe tobacco so pungent and familiar it stinks in Snape’s nose even after the boy has left.

The war effort is not nearly so robust. The Dark Lord is elusive, the Ministry unwilling to even acknowledge his return, and much to the misfortune of all, Delphi had thought with care about how to stay hidden. It was especially unfortunate for Remus Lupin, who--as the most currently mobile member of the Order, with no family or career to tie him to any place--had been tasked with hunting her down. Snape does not have to express his lack of faith in the werewolf's abilities to perform such a task when the truth had eluded both Dumbledore and himself. Still, the werewolf is sent to dig out false trails.

Life seems very nearly normal for a full seven days--or at least what has passed for normal--until, on the seventh day, August eighteenth, Snape starts awake. Someone is saying his name, and there is the pressure--a thing that resolves into a small and knobbly pair of feet on his chest at two in the morning.

The feet are small; the voice is not. The voice is the graveled thing that is familiar enough to make him not cast a curse immediately, at least, and it’s saying something--

“There is a letter for Professor Snape,” the house elf Kreacher says, thrusting a rolled sheet of parchment directly up one of Snape’s nostrils.

Snape makes a noise somewhere between a curse and an engine turning over.

“Professor Snape should know this letter is urgent.” Kreacher tries to seize his hand, grumbling something after about ungrateful halfbloods . The house-elf twists Snape’s fingers firmly--more than a little painfully--around the parchment. “Professor Snape will take this letter,” Kreacher demands. “The mistress sent it.”

It takes some flailing to knock the house-elf off his chest, and another to get an elbow beneath his own body to pull himself up to sitting. The other hand extracts the rolled parchment from his nose. “Your mistress is dead,” Snape says, rubbing his abused nostril.

“Mistress said I may serve her if I wished, as she is of the House of Black,” Kreacher grumbles from the floor where he’s been sprawled. “And mistress said if you show anyone else the contents of the note, she’ll give Master Snape something she called a nose job and then feed him to the snake.” Kreacher sounds inordinately pleased at the idea. “Mistress said Master Snape would know what that meant.”

Snape snatches his hand away from his nose, no matter how sore it is from the recent intrusion of parchment. He also does not imagine having his throat torn out by a snake for the thousandth time. He absolutely does, however, curse the day the girl from the future walked out of the woods.

He’s already touched the parchment; it cannot be cursed, then, or contain any curse. There are a few old curses he runs through that can be contained in written words alone; the writer of such curses would go equally mad in the writing. With little to lose, he unrolls the letter and reads dear ugly bugger .

He already wants to shred the sheet. He does not.

Dear ugly bugger, it reads, your one-and-only is currently moping about out of bounds. Could scoop her up right now but won’t as a sign of good faith. She probably could use some protecting as I’m not the only one with eyes. I’m sure you can figure out where folks generally leave lilies, right? Don’t make me spell it out, it really kills the fun. Tell that old bastard upstairs if you feel like you owe him, but no cops or she goes right back in the dirt.

It takes about three seconds to figure out, five more to pull a robe over his nightshirt and shove one boot onto his bare foot, and one to scoop up his wand and thrust it into his sleeve before he is sprinting--hopping on one leg for a moment to cram the other foot into the other boot--up the hall toward the Headmaster’s office.

Fear makes him fast, and the castle accommodates. He is hammering on the Headmaster’s office door inside of minutes, shouting, and Albus comes to the door fast enough, blinking owlishly and dressing gown askew, but he reads the parchment fast enough.

“Ah,” Albus says when he is finished, pushing the half-moon spectacles up his crooked nose. “It sounds like you’d best be going to fetch her, then. If you can get them both--”

“We should call the others. The Weasleys, at least. They are capable and informed. Or Pomona.”

Albus looks down at the parchment, but his eyes do not flicker back and forth with the telltale evidence of reading. His mind is on other matters, seeing something else beyond it. “No, I don’t think so. This is a delicate situation, too delicate for an army. One person--you--may move with greater ease. And you know her.” The pronoun seems large and ambiguous enough for both women in question. “You know the location, I trust?”

Snape knows it.

There is a reason why most wizards do not daisy-chain together Apparition to cover long distances with speed; that reason is dizziness, nausea, and a greatly increased likelihood of leaving behind a limb or crucial organ on any leap past the second. Snape manages to only come through with the first two and is fairly certain he has only missed the last by a hair; there is a certain prickling heat all over his left arm that tells him he’d very nearly left it behind. He clings to the wall of the post office like a drunk for long seconds, gulping down great breaths to steady himself. He had been in bed not ten minutes ago. Now he is five hundred kilometers away in the cool night air across the street from a graveyard.

A graveyard where Snape can see a single soft light shining.

Approaching it, he cannot help but think of the Potter boy and his nightmares and memories of another graveyard, gripped so tight in his mind that Snape can unearth them still. There is a new kind of pity for the boy’s sorry state where there was none before, one that dovetails neatly with his own pity for his own self.

The widow Potter is sitting, knees to chin, looking at the headstone with her own name on it. Fairy-light illuminates the stone, casting its warm glow across the lush grass and flowers. Of course, there are flowers, in varying states of decay. There are always flowers on the Potter grave, the same as there are before the broken monument of the house.

At least, that is what Albus had said. Snape had never gone. He adds it to his sudden and mounting list of regrets.

“I don’t want company,” she throws over her shoulder. When she does, he can chart the tear-tracts down her freckled cheeks.

“I do not intend to keep you company,” he says stiffly. “I intend to return you to the safety of Hogwarts.”

At the sound of his voice, her shoulders come up around her ears in violent reflex and then relax consciously. She rotates her shoulders to face him more fully, the light picking at errant strands of her brilliant hair.

You? ” she says, somewhere between repulsed and astonished. She inspects him and settles on, “You look like you’ve just been turned out of bed.”

He does not smooth his hair. “I was,” he says curtly. The schoolteacher mien had worked before; it will work again. Wayward first year Slytherins do not stay wayward for long. “I have been sent to fetch you back to the castle. Come along.”

“Get stuffed,” she says, turning her back to him.

“You are liable to be recognized,” Snape says, a brittle thread of urgency working its way into his voice. “Here more than anywhere else.”

“Let them recognize me, then,” she says. “What do I care? That’s Dumbledore’s priority. Maybe it’s time I started making my own moves.”

There is something familiar, in that. “Have you gotten something from a house-elf?” he says slowly, stepping closer.

She lets out a humorless snort and says bitterly, “Got some post too, did you?”

That is dangerous. Incredibly so. “You didn’t bring it to Dumbledore?”

“No,” she says waspishly. “It asked me first to read one little chapter inside one of the two books before I brought it to him, and once I had, I found I wanted to read the rest before I turned it over. And then I didn’t turn it over. That was yesterday evening, late.”

“You should have turned it over to Dumbledore.” Or me, he thinks, but doesn’t say it. “It could have been cursed.”

“Knowledge can be plenty of curse on its own without any magic at all. You should know that.

Snape knows it. He also has no interest in discussing it. He tries the teacher’s voice again, adopting the tone he gives to overfamiliar seventh-years who feel they have earned latitude. “How, then, did you come here.”

“Little pill bottle with a pebble in it, said if I wanted to think things over I could come here to think things over.” She shoves a heel into the dirt of her own grave. “The second book, the one about you, said you died for my son. Or for me. Wasn’t exactly clear on the point. Took me long enough to get through that one, I kept getting upset and furious with you up and down. And the other said all sorts of--it was about Dumbledore. It was about Grindlewald and the Hallows and pureblood bullshit and my son --” She lets out a choked sound, as if her anger and grief are wrapping their long, cold fingers around her throat still.

“Dumbledore has plans for your son,” Snape says repressively. “And I know what Dumbledore’s plans would have been. Delphi revealed as much.”

“And you trust him? Dumbledore?” she demands, looking fiercely up at him with a gaze so arresting that it must be her, he cannot keep up the farce of the widow Potter even in his own mind. “Knowing what he’s done to you , what he’d ask of you ? You still trust him?”

Which is a question Snape can answer neither in public, nor to her. “If I did not, it would change nothing.”

Lily snorts. “He really does have you tied in a knot.”

Snape’s hands do not have to still, do not have to stop worrying at a stray thread in his cuff, do not think of all the knots he has done and undone in his life. She is merely quoting. “You must know you cannot trust Delphi Riddle. She has only ever exposed half the story to myself or Albus, and that for her own gain. The books could be frauds.”

“The half truth is bad enough.” Lily rises to her feet then as though her back aches--they are thirty-five, the age is not without its pains, he recognizes it instantly. “And the books have enough truth in them that I recognize it.” She shakes her head and lays a hand on the headstone as if it is the head of a beloved pet. “There’s things in them, Order secrets no one knew, things from your-- our childhood, stuff that no one would bother to dig up. They’re real enough to make me wonder how much of the rest of it is true, too.”

The wand she pulls from her pocket is not the one he knows. The one he knows must have been destroyed or looted or perhaps even interred with whatever remains below the disturbed earth beneath their feet. The wood of it is dark as his own. It still captures the familiar fairy-lights, leaving them both in a great darkness alleviated only by the rosy glow a distant sodium bulb in a street lamp.

“Nobody’s asked me what it was like,” she says quietly. “Being dead, I mean. No one’s asked.”

Snape waits. If she wants to say more, she will.

She sighs. “It wasn’t anything. It wasn’t darkness, because even darkness is something. It was just--”

The brilliant lights from the street blinds them both. They are well into the graveyard but it is still targeted on them both, from across the street in the alley. Snape throws up his arm to protect his eyes and casts a shield charm from beneath it, to no avail; it is merely light. He glances behind him; Lily is brandishing her wand as well.

And then, the voice: shrill, vile, delighted. “Hey lovebirds!”

He had expected this but it still galls him. Snape strides toward the sound, throwing stay here over his shoulder.

There is a revving of an engine as Snape marches to the cemetery fence, and the lights swing around past the gravestone as the white panel van comes idle alongside the gate in the cemetery fence. The van door on the side slides open--Snape’s wand is trained on the door as it moves--and she’s crouching there on her heels, grinning like a cheshire cat. “Hey kids. How’s life?” Her grin widens and her eyes go sharp as--of course --Lily has followed Snape to the cemetery fence. “You know, considering that one of you is so recently returned to it?”

“Lovely,” Lily replies as she steps through the gate, her tone the chilly one Snape is still too-familiar with.

Delphi’s gaze snaps to his face. “Any smell of rot? Or mold? Any--” she drops a hand between her legs and wiggles her fingers there, obscenely. “Maggots?”

“Is she always like this?” Lily asks, her scowl flattening to distaste.

“She is,” Snape replies, putting all the effort of disapproval he is capable of into his voice. His wand is still pointed between her eyes; at this distance, it would be impossible for her to dodge or miss.

“You still want to kill my dad, right?” she asks. “Chill with the hostility, my dudes, I’m still on your side.”

“Is that why you’ve stolen Dumbledore’s wand?” Snape says coolly.

“And James’ cloak,” Lily adds acidly. “Which makes you guilty of the same crime as Dumbledore.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Delphi puts up both hands--no wand in either, Snape notes, and short sleeves of her transparent-formerly-white shirt preclude it being hidden. She is weaponless, then. “Go ask your bouncing baby boy, he traded me that cloak over fair and square, and I just returned it to him right after Severus here got his care package. He’s probably got it on right now.”

The tip of Snape’s wand is still less than a meter from the skin between her eyes, and it does not move now. “You lied to us.”

“Not to her .” Delphi’s hands are still up and she gives a little nod to Lily. “You and Dumbledore, I’ll cop to a lie or two, but you both deserve it and I bet she agrees.” She turns to face Lily, a fake smile painting her features. “I haven’t had the pleasure of actually meeting you. Delphini Riddle, time traveler, heir to the Dark Lord, and future Minister for Magic.” She extends one flat palm, the other still in the air in surrender.

Lily scrutinizes at the extended hand, then looks back up to Delphi’s face, nonplussed. She does not move to close the distance.

“Fair enough,” Delphi says after a moment of letting the hand hang, letting both hands drop to her side. “I’ll take that one on the jaw. Anyway. The cloak’s back with your son. As for the wand--well, that’s the Deathstick, that gets passed on in battle, I won it fair and square. Ask Albus about that, he’s not itching for that great huge target on liver-spotted back anyway, just took it from Grindlewald and held onto it for safekeeping. And this-- ” She rotates her hand and the black stone they had seen at the shack glitters there on her middle finger. “Well, when dad dies, I’ll have inherited this, won’t I? I’m no kind of thief. I’m here to help you destroy horcruxes.”

“Destroy-- what?” Lily says.

Snape’s head turns slowly toward her. He had assumed the headmaster would have said something, would have mentioned, could have--

“Oh my fucking god ,” Delphi says, expressing his own thoughts succinctly and slapping a hand over her eyes. She kicks her legs out in front of her so she can sit on the edge of the van, feet dangling above the curb. “Dumbledore didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what, ” Lily demands.

“Horcruxes,” Snape summarizes before Delphi can. “Physical containers of the Dark Lord’s immortality. The reason he was capable of returning. If those books were legitimate, they would have--”

“They got written out of your biography, Severus, didn’t want any little boys and girls getting ideas,” Delphi interrupts.

Snape continues, “Surely the boy will have been told--”

“That’s happening on Albus’ timetable, not mine, which means if he hasn’t said anything to her he hasn’t said a damn thing to anyone ,” Delphi says, venom in her voice. She jabs a finger at Snape. “Didn’t tell your boyfriend here the first go-round either but sure expected him to take about ten million for the team over it.”

Something very strange happens on Lily’s face. First there is anger, of course, but then there is a strange widening of her eyes, as if she has just understood something.

“You don’t want us to trust Dumbledore,” she says slowly. “Why?”

“Because his conscience is too heavy for him to do the efficient thing,” Delphi says, rolling her eyes. “Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Many-Sainted Dumbledore And His Multitude of Secrets don’t like using his considerable power as a weapon unless he absolutely has to, which almost means he’s useful when he’s pressed up against a wall, which almost is like being a good old fashioned hero if you squint.”

“And you?” Snape says archly. “What of your goodness ?”

“What are you, my priest? Unlike both of your bosses, Severus, I haven’t killed,” she enunciates carefully, “ Anyone. That’s my dad’s mistake, innit? You know how he came to power originally. Giving people what they wanted. Not fear. Love. ” She frames her face with her palms and mugs, hyperbolic, pursing her lips and fluttering her lashes. “Much more powerful if you ask me. But now, after he’s come back from the dead, he’s relying far too much on fear.”

“Don’t buy it,” Lily says, crossing her arms.

Delphi looks startled. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean I don’t buy it . I don’t buy you, ” Lily says again, flicking her fingers as if the story is nothing more than an elusive fly. “Maybe you tricked Dumbledore, maybe Dumbledore has all of us working to his own nefarious ends, but I don’t trust that you’re not going to try to use fear, and I don’t trust that you haven’t killed anyone when you’re campaigning to kill someone out in the open with us right now, and I don't trust you to tell a truth complete enough for us to make a move on it.”

Delphi makes a noise at the back of her throat like a cat clearing a hairball. “Listen, sweetheart, maybe this is a side effect of being dead or losing your husband or whatever--”

“Don’t call me sweetheart,” Lily says venomously.

“Fine. Missus Potter. Here’s why you shouldn’t trust Dumbledore with the shit that really matters.” She overenunciates, then turns to Snape, pointing a finger at his sternum. “Did he tell you what the final horcrux is, besides the snake?”

Snape tries to fight the scowl off his face. “It is irrelevant.”

“I didn't think he would.” Delphi’s head snaps around to Lily and the finger thrusts again. “That’s why. I told that old bastard and he isn’t sharing just because the truth is nasty.”

It feels good--more good than he wants to admit--to be on Lily’s side of things once more, to be working with her and not against or for her. “I doubt your ability to tell the truth,” Snape drawls.

Delphi bares her teeth. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I just give you everything you’ve ever wanted? This bitch back from the grave, the Dark Lord almost battered and ready to deep-fry, your freedom from under the thumb of Albus fucking Dumbledore? Is that a complete listing of my sins? How awful. What a monster I am. Lying is truly reprehensible. They say without trust there can be no love, you know, so it’s a good thing I don’t fucking need you to love me.” She rolls her eyes and reaches behind her, into the van.

Snape’s wand twitches and the thing she had been reaching for--not a wand, just a packet of cigarettes--sail into his outstretched hand.

“Light me one, then,” Delphi says, exasperated. “You people are exhausting. Wouldn't have done any of this shit if I'd known it'd turn you into such a buzzkill, Severus.”

But Snape is entirely out of patience. “I know Nagini is the next. Tell me the nature of the final horcrux, as you so clearly desire to.”

“Fine. Harry James fucking Potter his sainted self.” She bangs her fist twice on the roof of the van like a judge’s gavel, and stretches her hand toward Snape, beckoning. “Now light me up, cowboy.”

“Liar,” Snape says automatically.

“Oh,” Lily gasps, hands flown to her mouth.

“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Delphi flaps a hand. “It’s very upsetting. He’s a good kid, he generally either walks willingly to his death or offs himself and calls it a war effort. And that snake is just dead gorgeous, should be in a zoo, but we’ve got to chop her beautiful head off instead. Damn shame.”

“Is this some kind of joke to you?” Lily asks, voice high, and there’s a note of credulity there that gives Snape pause.

“I’m never joking when someone else is holding my cigarettes. And, sidenote, do I have to remind you who turned your son into a child soldier so ready to die for a cause?”

“It is a transparent lie,” Snape insists.

“It’s not, unfortunately. Ask her,” Delphi points, squinting coyly past her finger. “Your lady love's got it figured.”

Lily finds his face. “Occlumency,” she says helplessly. “Why else would he need it?”

Snape shakes his head unconvincingly. “The killing curse could have--”

“Did you say killing?” Delphi interjects brightly. “You need to do that to make a horcrux.”

“The Dark Lord would not have made a horcrux in Godric’s Hollow. I know what he was thinking that night; he was removing a threat, not building a legacy,” Snape retorts.

“He didn’t mean to make it, but he sure did,” she says.

“Dumbledore thinks--” Snape interjects.

“You think what Dumbledore wants you to think and you haven’t had an original fucking thought since nineteen fucking eighty goddamn one,” Delphi barks.

“And how do you anticipate dealing with this horcrux, then?” Snape snarls, though he suspects he already knows the answer.

Delphi tilts her chin towards Lily. “How did they deal with the snake in those books I lent you?”

Lily makes a sound that is halfway between a curse and a snarl. Delphi just smiles. Snape can guess.

“Your plan to end the war cannot possibly involve the death of Harry Potter,” Snape says.

“It has to,” Delphi replies casually. "I'll serve up Harry for my dad for a foot in the door, you--" she nods to Snape, "take care of the snake, I take care of my dad. That's how it has to go, even Dumbledore agreed."

"He wouldn't agree to that," Lily says fiercely. "Even if everything you say is true, Dumbledore’s not a monster. He couldn't. "

"He already has!" Delphi says, tucking her feet back underneath her and returning to her crouch. “All Dumbledore has done these years is wait for the kid to grow up and ready him to be served up like roast mutton. Not the way I would have played it, mind, but acceptable, considering.”

"And how would you play such a thing, then?" Snape sneers.

"Kill the baby in the cradle," Delphi says instantly, guilelessly, situating her elbows on her knees and spreading her hands. "Smother him and make it look like an accident, maybe even make it look like he died in the initial attack. Don't let him grow up and make friends to weep over his coffin, definitely don't pay to send him to school--"

"You can’t mean that," Lily says, sounding furious.

"Do you want to win this war or not?” Delphi snaps. “Sacrifices must be made. You know that more than anyone. And it’s been Dumbledore’s plan all along. If Dumbledore wanted him to fight, don't you think he would have sent him to someone who could teach him to fight?" Delphi shakes her head contemptuously. "The man runs a fucking school and a secret organization full of political revolutionaries. Moody, Remus, even spooky Romeo here could have done it, even while maintaining the protection at the Dursleys. He could have come up with someone."

"The muggles would not have permitted it," Snape says. “Neither would the Ministry.”

"The Dursleys and the Ministry have both been strongarmed into plenty of things they don't want to do by Dumbledore. This isn't different," Delphi says flatly. "If you want someone to fight, you train them. He's not trained to fight. He's trained to die a martyr just like his old man, and trained to have lots of friends to stand up for what he believed in--which is what Dumbledore believes in, which is a very, very tidy solution."

"Albus couldn’t have known from the beginning that this was happening," Snape says.

"Probably not," Delphi says, shrugging. "But he did know that neither can live while the other survives. It's not a bad bet."

"Betting with my son's life," Lily says, voice tight with a sudden rage.

“The same way he gambled with yours and your darling husband’s and your sweet bouncing baby boy’s,” Delphi smirks. "That's war, sweetheart. The kid is going to walk willingly into death, and I’m going to drive the van taking him there."

Lily's wand is in her hand and lashes out before Snape can even see it, and Delphi dodges--even at point-blank range, Lily’s wand movement is sloppy with anger. Delphi flings the sliding door shut in Lily's face. The hex bounces off of the floor of the van and it pingpongs around the interior twice before sailing through a passenger window, up into the night. Lily makes a frustrated cry like a wounded animal and flings herself at the door, scrabbling for the handle. There is a distinct ka-chunk of power locks engaging and the engine revs, tires squealing, as the van pulls away from the curb. Snape reaches for her shoulders, pulls her away as the van moves.

Delphi leans out the window, not looking ahead, to shout, "Kill the snake on my signal and I'll take care of the rest!" as it trundles up the lane, swerving dangerously close to a signpost before disappearing round a bend and into the night.

The sound of rage and despair Lily makes then is one that reverberates throughout his memory for years to come. Down the block, a light in the upper floor of a house comes on.

Snape does not spare a thought for what Delphi’s signal might be. Surely it would be done in sky-writing. He turns Lily forcibly with his hands. "Get hold of yourself," he says roughly.

"I'm going to kill her," Lily says through her teeth, clenching and unclenching her fists. "If she so much as touches a hair on my son's head, I'm going to kill her."

"Your son is at Hogwarts," Snape says forcefully. “I will return you to him.”

“So you can kill him?” she snaps, very nearly shouting. “So you and Dumbledore can serve him up to be slaughtered? For the war, that’s what he said, isn’t it? It’s all for the war, and that’s what you’re doing, fighting the war, not protecting my son.”

“No.” It’s instinct, but the second it falls out of his mouth, it’s true. And it feels like a promise, too, a deadly kind of oath. “I have not spent years saving the boy’s life to fold so easily now.”

“Why bring me back just to let me watch him die?” Lily says. It begins fierce but ends broken. “Why bring me back? Just so I can watch and suffer all over again?”

Snape has his own suspicions on that account, none of them good, all of them damning to both himself and the boy and Dumbledore. “It doesn’t matter. Another way will be found.”

It seems to bank the fire, at least. “Is there another way?” she says, wrapping her arms across her middle and trying not to to look so brittle and so strung between worlds. “I don’t know--I never learned how any of it works, Dark magic. Is there another way?”

Dark magic requires a price, always, to be worked with. It is a thing that always exacts a cost. The method of payment is frequently messy, with unexpected consequences. It’s what makes it so dangerous. The headmaster had frowned upon other research and experimentation inside of Hogwarts so Snape’s explorations have been limited to the summers he has taken away from Hogwarts. Recently, Snape’s focus has been Occlumency. There had been no time for horcruxes; Dumbledore had taken that research on himself.

An oversight on Snape’s own part, it would seem.

He could lie, tell her yes, of course, try to soothe her. “I don’t know,” he says, with all the honesty he can muster.

She takes another deep breath and then looks at him-- really looks at him, for what feels like perhaps the first time in twenty years. She pries one of his hands away from her shoulder and clenches the palm between her fingers, more the grip of someone looking for control over a life that has careened entirely off a cliff than the clasped hand of a friend.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay. Take me back to my son.”

Chapter Text

It is very nearly eleven when Harry heads to bed on the eighteenth. His mother has been acting strange all day--she looks tired, and like she’s shoved down some kind of deep anger. She skips lunch in favor of the library, and when Harry went looking for her to bring a sandwich he caught her with her with her face in a strange and thick acid-green book. When she walked him down and sat in on the Occlumency lesson, she brought the same book--Harry tried to see the cover but she must have spelled it blank. After dinner, she had claimed she was exhausted--hadn’t slept well--and then gone up to the girl’s dorm.

Harry hasn’t been sleeping well, either, but the exercises--down the cliff, through the cave, into the locket--at least help push it away a little.

Which is why it’s so unpleasant to feel a tiny hand shaking him awake at three in the morning.

“Harry Potter must wake up,” Dobby whispers.

“Whaszzat?” Harry manages to roll over and sit up, peering blearily down at the house-elf.

Dobby looks fearful, suddenly. “Mistress said you needed this. Mistress said the whole war rests upon this.” He thrusts a beat-up cardboard box wrapped in newsprint into Harry’s hands.

“Dobby, what’s--” But he disappears before Harry can ask anything more.

Figuring that Dobby wouldn’t give him anything lethal, he picks at the newsprint until it shreds and peels apart the box.

The package contains the invisibility cloak, a note, and a pill bottle.

The note reads, We need to talk, and you should have been allowed to visit their graves while both of them were still dead. Unlike my father, I’m asking permission to take you on a field trip.  Can’t hex anything out of your way, unlike dear Barty Jr, so be careful. You need to avoid your mum and Snape in particular, who are out and about tonight. The stone in the pill bottle is a Portkey. It’ll take you there when you’re at the edge of the Hogwarts wards; don’t try it anywhere else or you’ll end up a mess of guts strung up on the Whomping Willow.

Three turns ought to do it.

Three turns ought to do it. When Dumbledore had said it, it had been a puzzle for himself and Hermione to go back, to save Sirius and Buckbeak and even himself. But he had needed Hermione’s--

No. He doesn’t need Hermione for this. Harry stands, all thoughts of sleep gone, and goes to his trunk. There, in the bottom, wrapped in a sock, is Delphi’s time-turner.

Hermione would say it’s mad. That he should go to Dumbledore right away, or Snape, or Sprout, or someone. But either professor would take him right to the Headmaster, and that isn’t what Harry wants.

Besides, she just wants to talk. Delphi hadn’t done anything wrong , exactly, not yet. By the measure of what Lily had relayed--though it was tinged with unnamed horror--Delphi had just stolen a wand and borrowed the cloak and performed some kind of inscrutable spell that had done one thing he had wanted for as long as he had been old enough to want something. And she had even returned the cloak. Harry wonders, idly, if she has returned the wand. And then he wonders if she has returned everything else that has been taken from him over the years.

She might have his father, Harry realizes suddenly. She had returned his mother, and she had returned the Cloak tonight. Maybe she was done with it. Maybe she needed something else before she could bring back another. It might be like polyjuice, Snape had to be there to bring back his mother, he might have to be there to bring back--he might be able to come back with James Potter. It’s a blinding, paralyzing possibility. And he might be able to talk to her, ask her for another--Cedric, she could bring back Cedric, and he could bring home his father, and he and his mother and his father might be able to be a family, before Harry has to--do whatever he has to do.

Harry puts on the cloak almost by rote. He’s gotten taller; he can only imagine how poorly Ron and Hermione would fit beneath it alongside himself, shooting up in height as he is. No, it’s better to go alone, and carefully.

The castle is empty, and no professor is on patrol. Filch is sleeping in his own quarters, according to the Map, and Mrs Norris is chasing rats in a far-flung corridor. He watches Snape  It’s almost laughably easy to sneak out, to find a secluded copse of trees in the Forbidden Forest, and take out the time-turner.

Harry takes a deep breath, and turns it three times.

It feels nothing like Hermione’s time-turner did. It’s more like being sucked violently through a straw, or blown up and then pieced back together. The leaves on the trees rustle in reverse; and owl flits backwards across the sky, and the stars and moon trace bright paths backwards as the earth shifts beneath him.

When the leaves stop moving, it’s still night; no surprise, as three hours prior would still be midnight. Harry takes two deep breaths, then twists the lid of the pill bottle, and the pebble drops into his hand.

The portkey spits him out someplace loud and dimly lit and smelling of greasy chips. He also feels like he’s upside-down, and his face is pressed into some kind of upholstery, making his glasses go askew.

“Who’s there?” a sharp voice demands from near his feet.

“It’s me,” Harry says quickly, struggling to right himself and his glasses. Looking around, it resolves into a van. Harry had tumbled out of thin air into the back of it, face pushed up against the driver’s seat--where, now that he looks up, he can see her, Delphi, pointing Dumbledore’s wand. She’s pointing a little to the left of his head, but not by much. Harry pulls the hood of the invisibility cloak off his face. “It’s Harry. You sent me a package.”

“Oh, shit. Is it time already?” Delphi’s lounging across both the driver and passenger seat, but her face shifts from the sharp, combative expression it had held to one of delight. “She’s a fast reader, I guess. Time turner, give it here.”

Harry has it looped around his neck, and he clutches it still as he rights himself. “Why do you want it?”

“Because I gave back the cloak. Fair is fair. And because it’s mine, ” she says. “What are you, a thief?”

“No,” Harry says, unlooping the chain from around his neck. “Are you going to use it?”

“Nah. Just safe keeping. People get real stupid when they think they can fix things completely.” She lifts it to her eye and flicks a fingernail against the hourglass. The chime it makes is bright and resonant as a bell. “Awesome. Excellent. All right. Let’s go.”

“Go--where? What do you need me for?” Harry asks, looking around the van. There are no seats in the back; instead, there’s a thin single-sleeper mattress with a wad of blanket and sheet just to his left, behind the passenger seat; he could have tumbled onto that, but no, the floor caught him instead. He rubs his aching neck. “Have you been living out of this van?”

“Don’t knock it til you try it, kiddo,” Delphi chirps. “My last taste of freedom, before what I've got planned. Want some chips? They’re getting cold and I’m done with them.”

“Not hungry. Why did you bring me?”

“Because it’s phase two,” she says, like that means anything, chucking the box half-full of chips out the window and wiping her greasy fingers on her jeans. “Come on, get up front with me. We’re gonna need to hit the road if we want to get there in time. How’s your week with your mum been?”

“Fine,” Harry says, pushing his way up into the passenger seat. “What’s phase two?”

“Phase two is the part where everybody gets to know everything they need to know,” she says cheerfully, turning the key. “No more goddamn secrets. And then everyone gets into their places.”

The engine putts to life and Harry looks out the window. They’re in the lot for a large, anonymously suburban grocery store. “Where are we?”

“Outside Bristol,” she says, turning the wheel and steering the lumbering van out of the parking lot and onto the deserted road. “We need to get to Godric’s Hollow soon or else we’ll miss it.”

“Miss what ?”

“Your mum is out and about, apparently. I have--well, I haven’t yet, but I will, you’re my warning to get on it--I’m going to tell Severus she’s out and about, because it’s the only thing that could tempt him out of the castle, and then I’m going to deliver some very bad news to him. And her, too, I guess.” She glances over for so long that the van starts to drift over the line in the middle of the road. “I get the feeling you might already know the very bad news, am I right?”

Harry looks into her face, gone grave as it is. “Neither can live while the other survives,” he says, feeling the bottom fall out of his stomach. “They don’t know?”

“Dumbledore, kiddo,” Delphi says, sounding very nearly sympathetic. She looks back to the road and swerves back into her own lane. “I’m shocked you came so fast, though. This plan was a long shot, I thought I’d have to drag you to me kicking and screaming.”

“I thought--I mean,” Harry swallows thickly. “You brought back my mum, so I thought you might have done--”

Delphi lets out a bark of laughter, and then looks at Harry’s stricken face. “Oh, fuck me, did you really--”

Harry looks away.

“Oh, man, you really did. Dad, right? That’s who you’d want, James Potter?”

“Or Cedric,” Harry mutters to the window.

“Sorry,” she says, and it seems like she even means it. “It doesn’t work that way. I had to promise a trade, my dad for your mum. I’ve got the hold up my end of that bargain before we even think about anything else.”

“It’s fine,” Harry mutters, looking away.

“Not really,” Delphi says, flippant again. “But whatever, you clearly don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, the plan. I inform them just how totally fucked they are, and then we’ll probably have to run when Severus really gets it. Once all that’s sorted and they know the score, they’ll do what they have to do when shit hits the fan, and we’ll hit the road to set phase three into motion.”

“What’s phase three?”

“Phase three is my favorite,” Delphi says with relish, a bright and unpleasant grin suddenly reflected in the dark of the windshield as they merge onto the motorway. “That’s the one where we kill my useless asshole loose cannon of a father once and for all.”

“How?” Harry suspects he knows, can figure it out--has had it figured for more than a week and has almost made a peace with it--but he’d like to hear her say it.

“Not completely sure yet,” she says. “I like to stay flexible. I don’t make plans, I just--push people and see where we end up. Prevents me from getting too bound up.” Delphi leans over to her phone and taps it a few times, and something starts screaming tinnily from it’s speakers. “This is the Spice Girls,” she says loudly, over the music. “Oldies station shit to me, but they’re going to hit the radio next year, gonna be inescapable.”

“It’s awful,” Harry says.

“It’s fucking funny ,” she says, like she’s correcting him. “I’m letting you hear music from the future. I could put on Kesha. No? Okay. Anyway, do you want to talk at all about your impending death? I can explain some, if you want. But I don’t have to, if you’d rather be surprised.”

Harry doesn’t want to talk about it. But he does want to know. “Why does it happen?”

“Horcruxes,” Delphi says. Her shoulders move back and forth in time with the music, and there’s a little smile on her face. “Dad made something called horcruxes. They keep him immortal. Most of them are just objects, but there are two that are living things. They’re why he didn’t die, way back when you were a baby.”

Something clicks. “That thing you were looking for, from the goblins, in Gringotts, was that--”

“On the nose, smart boy!” she says, flashing him a smile. “Gringotts, we got. And there were some others, but they don’t matter, we took care of them. The next one was this ring,” she lifts a hand off the wheel, wiggling a finger where a large black stone sits, “which also helped me bring your mother back. The one my father keeps with him is the snake, Nagini. And the last one--the last one no one likes, because it’s you .”

Harry goes very very still and then turns his face to the window. “My scar,” he says slowly. “Every time I’m near him, my scar--”

“Yep,” Delphi says. “And the link between your minds.”

Almost by instinct, Harry tucks the dawning realization away in his own mind, willing himself blank again. “I thought that could be something with the blood, with the spell he did to get a body again.”

“No such luck.”

Harry pushes that down, too. “How do you destroy a horcrux?”

“Couple of ways,” Delphi says, shrugging. “Basilisk venom is one. Killing curse is another. Fiendfyre. Probably a dementor could do it.” She glances over, one eyebrow up. “You’re not surviving any of them.”

“No, I don’t--” Harry swallows. “I just want to know what to expect.”

“Well, we’re going to let my dad do it,” she says matter-of-factly, eyes back on the road. “So it’s probably the killing curse.”

“Dumbledore said--when I asked him about the prophecy, he said that there might be ways around it.”

She snorts. “Did he tell you what those ways were?”

“No.”

“Do you believe him?”

Harry thinks about everything Dumbledore had kept from him; the prophecy, Snape’s past with his mother, leaving him with the Dursleys to be starved and unloved which he hadn’t even thought to be angry about until his mother has been angry over it. Harry thinks of trust. “I don’t know.”

“Did you go to him before coming out for me?”

“No.”

“Do you know what would have happened, if you had?”

“Probably would have locked me in Gryffindor tower.”

“He would have told you to come to me,” she says with firm certainty.

It startles Harry so much that his head hits the window. “What?”

“Dumbledore and I have a bargain. I do his dirty work, and he lets me do it my way. You’re part of that bargain. Your life.”

“I don’t believe you,” Harry says reflexively.

“Fine by me,” she says, shrugging. “Doesn’t make it untrue.”

And even just the possibility of it--the idea that it might be true--is horrible enough that it fills Harry’s stomach with cement.

They drive the rest of the way in silence, once the music runs out. It takes a long time, and Harry dozes off for a while. The roads grow smaller as they get off the motorway until they are just small lanes, and then they are on a cobbled lane lined with homes and little shops. And the end of the lane, there is the open sky over what must be a graveyard, and a tiny light among them. They park just in view of the tombstones.

“Is that her?” Harry whispers.

“Sure is,” Delphi replies.

“Can I--”

“No. Sorry kid,” she says. “Now let me just-- Kreacher!”

The house-elf pops into existence in Harry’s lap, making Harry start.

“Mistress,” the house elf says, sweeping a bow so low and elaborate that Harry has to duck to avoid being smacked. “Kreacher is so pleased to be--”

“Shush,” Delphi says, rummaging in the glovebox for a rolled piece of parchment. “Remember what we talked about? It’s time. Take this to Severus Snape and make sure he reads it right away.”

“As my mistress commands,” Kreacher says, bowing again and disappearing.

“There we go,” Delphi says, shutting the glove box. She switches off the lights and turns off the music.

“Oh,” Harry says, putting it together. “I looked at family trees, like you said. Bellatrix was a Black, which makes you able to--”

“Exactly. And now,” she announces to the darkness inside the car. “We wait. When Snape shows up, I’ll need you invisible. I’ll chat with him, and then we’ll ditch them, and--I dunno, any requests for a last meal before we get on with it?”

Harry’s stomach flips over. “I don’t think I’m hungry.”

She shrugs. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

It’s surprisingly quick, altogether. Harry’s eyes adjust to the darkness enough that he can see Snape stagger against a wall when he appears, then right himself, and stride off into the graveyard and out of sight.

“You ready?” Delphi whispers, sounding excited.

"Why do you need to tell them?"

"Because," she says patiently. "They don't know, and they need to understand. If I don't tell Severus I am willing to bet he throws his own skinny ass between you and the killing curse."

"He wouldn't," Harry says reflexively.

"Wake up, dingdong." She leans forward and raps on his skull. "You think your mum will take your death in stride? After all she's been through?"

"She's tough enough," Harry protests.

"I’m willing to bet she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown and she's held together with cooking twine. I was hoping--once you're gone--they could do each other some good. Severus always gets in my hair, anyway. I'm hoping to keep him out."

Which really, really isn’t something Harry wants to think about. He lets his anger move him. "Is that the only reason? For him?"

Her teeth shine in the distant illumination of a street lamp. "And to see if I could."

"You're horrible," Harry says.

"Just like everyone you've ever looked up to, kiddo. Doesn’t change what we have to do, though.” She’s toying with her wand, like she’s not sure if she’ll have to stun him to get him to stay. “Are you ready?"

Harry shakes his head, and then takes a deep breath, and nods. He unbuckles to pull the cloak over himself completely, and lifts the hood.

“Excellent,” she says. “Showtime.”

It all goes by so fast that Harry can barely keep up with it, seated invisibly in the passenger seat with his neck craned to watch. The door slides open and his mother and Snape are standing there. Snape looks just as unhappy as he always does, and Lily looks cold and displeased enough to match. And even Lily is just as incredulous at her information as Harry has been, maybe more.

Until she says Harry is a horcrux. That she believes. It’s written all over her face that she believes it. Even when she flings a parting hex, even as Delphi slams the door in her face and vaults inelegantly back into the driver’s seat to pull them away from her, she believes it--that’s why she’s so furious.

She believes. She believes so much it makes her scream after the van as it careens away.

Delphi leans dangerously out the window to scream something back at the pair, and then lunges back in just in time to pull the car away from a signpost. She cranks the wheel around for a sharp turn and punches the pedal, careening down a side street, up another, whooping the whole time. Her free hand slams into the ceiling with every whoop, like she’s just won a quidditch match.

God that fucking felt good!” she cries once they are back on the motorway. “And your mum, she’s a firecracker! Did you see her almost knock my head off?”

Harry nods stiffly, and then realizes he’s still under the cloak. “Yeah.”

She laughs, high and melodic and more than a little wild. “I’ve never seen him like that. He has no fucking clue what to even do with her. Hell, I don’t have a fucking clue what to do with her! Your mum changes the whole game, Harry, and it’s fanfuckingtastic. Oh, fuck,” she says, mood changing abruptly as she pats the dash. “Snape still has my fucking cigarettes. I’ll have to go pick up more. Dammit . I could really go for one right now.”

Harry lets her babble herself out, but she seems finished. “What now,” Harry asks, his mouth gone dry.

“Now? Now, you call Dobby and I send the you from the past that box you got a few hours ago, and then we find a nice hotel, we catch some sleep in featherbeds courtesy of the Lestrange vault. I’ve been in touch with Lucius Malfoy, so I’ll send an owl to him to set a time up to throw this party. Dad has a flair for the dramatic, so--probably midnight or something, which gives you some time to write some last words before I take you to him for your grand finale. You,” she jabs a finger at him, causing the wheel to twitch and the car to veer dangerously, “are going to keep wearing that cloak, because as of right now, you are officially a ghost--if anyone sees you, they’ll take you back, and it’ll fuck everything all up. If you get scooped up and taken back, I’ll assume it’s because you don’t want to do this anymore, and I’ll stop trying to work with you and just do what I have to, which is much less pleasant for everyone. All right?”

No , Harry wants to scream. No, it isn’t all right, none of this is right at all. But his mother’s face flits across his mind, belief written on her face. And Snape, working through it same as he had. And Dumbledore, doing exactly what Delphi accused him of--raising him for the slaughter.

Maybe it would have been kinder if he’d been killed in the cradle, how Delphi had described.

“All right,” Harry says.

Chapter Text

Lily Evans Potter did not lose her head. Had never. Had screwed it on like the lid to a jar of some particularly toxic ingredient, had composed herself carefully, daily, like assembling and reassembling some kind of particularly loose-jointed doll. She had been doing it since she had been--whatever they were calling it. If there was something there that hadn’t been before, some kind of defect, some kind of poison bubbling inside of her waiting to come up like sick, well, she would swallow it as many times as it took. The rest of her rotted life, if she had to.

In the war, she had managed to take panic, take fear, and transform them into action--into hexes, near escapes, into deft and brutal force that made her formidable in combat. Lily thought that her heart would come unstuck from her throat with time and purposeful movement towards the solution, towards her son, toward thwarting this plan that the girl had credited to Dumbledore and herself equally.

It hasn’t.

It is going to take five Apparitions to return the pair of them to Hogwarts, Severus says, since her Portkey is dead. Severus doesn’t let her do any past the first since she loses half an ear doing it; he scowls as he reattaches it and explains the limits of Apparition like she’s an idiot or a child or a troll. He almost lost his left arm on his way here and isn’t about to leave more of either of them, he says, so they take fifteen minutes between each.

It is half the Ministry-recommended time between Apparitions and it is still too long. She tries to go ahead without him, if he is going to make her wait, but he takes her wand--he is fast, and her intent is written out on every sparking furious fiber of her body. It’s clear he’d sooner snap the wand than return it to her right now. She is, he says, in no fit state to be Apparating anyone anywhere.

He isn’t wrong. That’s what makes her furious, that he isn’t wrong. And he doesn’t share her urgency, not just because he hates Harry--though he does, he must, they both betray it every time they share a room--but for something far worse.

He thinks Harry is already gone.

That’s why he’s not hurrying, why he didn’t send a message of his own when she attempted-- and failed --to send a patronus to Dumbledore, to Hagrid, hell, to the useless Filch to watch for her son, to look for him; why he hadn’t left her behind to travel faster on his own; why he is so focused on shepherding her back safely and in one piece. It’s not just--she doesn’t want to think love , so, fine, whatever he feels for her--it can’t just be that. He was more practical than that even as a child and it hasn’t changed as he grew into a man. If he thought Harry could be saved, he’d be running. And he isn’t. He thinks Harry is already gone into that monster’s hands. That they will return to the castle and find an empty bed and--worse--a Dumbledore unwilling to help.

She almost asks him, but the prospect of voicing it fills her stomach with a leaden dread so heavy it steals the voice from her throat.

When they finally sight the castle through the trees, she starts marching. Let him keep her wand, let Dumbledore betray her, let even Severus offer up her son to his own Dark Lord, but she would not let him go without a fight. If he won’t return the wand, then her fists will have to do.

Severus, for his part, keeps pace, and doesn’t try to talk. He knows better. But when they reach the bottom of Gryffindor tower he steps in front of her smoothly, like a shadow, and grasps her arm.

Lily grits her teeth. “Get out of my way.”

He grasps her arm tighter. “If the boy isn’t there--”

“I know what to do if my son isn’t there, Severus,” Lily snaps.

“--you will have to come to the headmaster,” he carries on, slowly, deliberately, as if she hasn’t spoken. “I will leave your wand with him.”

“And then what?” she demands. She’s going shrill again, she can’t control it. “If he’s gone, then what? We sit around and wait in the headmaster’s office?”

“Spare me the theatrics,” he snarls. “I know you would go chasing your son yourself.”

She tries to wrench free of his grasp and he just clenches tighter. She’ll have a bruise, there. “And if I did?”

“It would be unwise and prove fruitless,” he says, that cold arrogance suffusing his face once more. “We have been looking for her, you know. We have not sat idle.”

He’s probably right. Again. “And what if she’s telling the truth about Dumbledore? What if Dumbledore doesn’t want her to be found?”

What Severus should say next is Dumbledore would never sacrifice your son. It’s a platitude, what she’s prepared to rebutt. She can see the sentence sitting on his tongue, but it never emerges.  His thin lips flatten into something that isn’t quite a scowl, and his brows come together, his sureness faltering.

He’s seen it too, then. He’s just as unsure of Dumbledore as she is. For better or worse, they both suspect Delphi’s assertions might have a kernel of truth.

When he doesn’t say anything, she replies to the silence. “I’ll go to the headmaster’s office.”

He nods once, his face smoothing back to that cold impassivity once more, and turns on his heel to sweep away from her, up the hall toward Dumbledore. And then she is alone.

The dread hanging in her chest is heavier, now, as she ascends the final staircase alone. It’s like a swarm of wasps inside of her, the kind of thing she knows from war, the kind of instinct that had kept her alive in skirmishes. She knows what she is going to find and she wants to hold it off for as long as she can, if Harry is really, truly--

Lily doesn’t remember sitting down hard on the stair outside the boy’s dormitory. She tries to get control of her breathing, running her fingers over her hair again and again. She has to think. If Harry isn’t there, then what? If she truly can’t trust Dumbledore, then what? If Harry is already in front of him, is, perhaps, already--but he is a horcrux, Severus had explained the basics of it, he has to be--if they were to--well, what if they let Voldemort live, then? Fight him other ways? No, no, it can’t be allowed, he had murdered--unbidden, the memory of James, either last week or years gone. They had argued about the way she did the drying charm and how it left water spots on their glasses. She had still been tetchy with him when Voldemort had slammed a fist into the door of their home in Godric’s Hollow, a door no one should have been able to see--

Now he was in the dirt and sleeping and not afraid, just like she had been. Just as Harry might be. But Lily isn’t dead, not anymore. She pushes the heels of her palms into her eyes. Before there hadn’t been time enough to be as scared as she should have been, but it seems to be catching up with her now.

But fear is a tool, too. And Lily knows how to use it. She lets it draw her to her feet, swaying. She doesn’t call his name, climbing the stairs, or when she reaches the top of them, or when she pushes aside the hangings around the bed. Lily knew she would find it: the absence where her son should be.

It feels like a blow to numbed flesh.

She does run, then. Automatically, driven by the pumping fear, the way she know she would, past halls that contain memory so vivid that she can’t stave them off; the creaky stair where she had kissed James for the first time; the old rug where she had painted poor dead Marlene’s toenails with polish; the doorway, where she had shut the door on Severus for good; here, the hall’s uneven stone that almost sends her sprawling, that had sent clumsy Alice to the floor more than once; there, the tapestry of the nun who had patiently explain the history of goblin rebellion better than Binns ever could; beyond, a castle veined with halls like it, brimming with violent memory, ready to shred her. The gargoyle before the headmaster’s office leaps aside, startled, at the sight of her, and she doesn’t knock on the inner door.

Severus is sitting across from Dumbledore as if they’re about to have tea and it only makes her more furious.

“He’s gone,” she pants. She eyes Dumbledore and bites back, but you already knew that.

“I have already sent messages,” Dumbledore says, rising to his feet, his tone intended to be soothing.

Severus plucks a bottle from where it’s sitting on the desk and unstoppers it, making half a gesture to hand it to Lily.

“Don’t make me tell you where to shove that calming draught,” she snaps. “Who’s looking?”

“Everyone,” Dumbledore says simply.

Severus watches her eyes dart back and forth, and adds a list of names--Molly and Arthur Weasley, Remus, Sirius is doing something complicated through the Floo, a few other comforting names.

It doesn’t help. Maybe there is no help to be had for her.

“A van,” she says, sinking stiffly into the other chair. “They were in a van, she said she was going to drive him to--I don’t think they’ll be using magical means of transport.”

“Which Severus has brought to my attention,” Dumbledore says, in that soothing tone once more, like she’s some kind of frightened animal who may be convinced to eat from his palm. “He has told me everything. Please, take the draught--or dreamless sleep, if you don’t mind visiting Poppy. There is nothing to be gained by worry, and you need rest.”

“Did you know my son was a horcrux?” she demands. “Did you know he has to die to defeat Voldemort?”

Severus’ shoulder twitches in the chair next to her. Dumbledore sighs, removes his glasses, begins to polish them with a deep purple handkerchief produced from a sleeve. “I have suspected many things, Lily. I could not have planned for this; by her very nature, Delphi is ready for every move any of us could make.”

“Except mine. I’m dead,” she says, which makes Severus twitch again.

“Perhaps.” He seats the spectacles back on his nose. “I am beginning to believe that you mistrust me, Lily, but I trust in you. And more than that, I trust in your son. He has proved himself time and again to be capable, brave, resourceful, intelligent, loyal, a true credit to this school--even if the Order is incapable of finding him, I would wager that he would find his way free of his own accord.”

“That isn’t what the girl said,” Lily says. She glances at Severus. “Offs himself and calls it a war effort. That’s what she said.”

“I do not believe that will come to pass,” Dumbledore says evenly. And it doesn’t sound like a lie. But it also is phrased like an evasion.

She hates how much she can’t hold it together, how much they both clearly pity her. She wants to demand what they’ll do if they find her--if Dumbledore will give in to the plan to win , if one boy is so much to sacrifice for the struggle. But she doesn’t want to know that answer. She doesn’t want to force Dumbledore to lie to her face.

“You’re right,” she says, rising to her feet. Her voice is unsteady and unconvincing even to her own ears but she needs to recite the words, at least, to not be fretted over, to not be inspected or she will become another problem to be solved. And there is nothing more she can do; running out onto the grounds with no direction is useless. If a direction becomes clear, it’ll happen here. There is nothing else. “I need rest. I’ll go to the hospital wing and take some Dreamless Sleep.”

“We will wake you with any news,” Dumbledore promises. “Severus, if you would?”

With a rustle of robes, Severus rises as well and follows her out.

They don’t speak the whole way; Pomfrey is asleep but Severus has a key and knows the potions cabinet, likely from having stocked it himself. She can hear him pluck a bottle from the shelf with a soft sound of glass and then the sound of a stopper pulling free.

Lily chooses a bed and steals extra blankets and pillows from its neighbor to heap on herself. She doesn’t even consider changing into a hospital robe or a dressing gown; she forgets that she didn’t even have a wand until Severus sets it carefully on nearby table next to the potion.

“Do you think he’ll really try to stop her?” she asks, in the barest whisper as she lifts the potion-bottle to her lips. “Or do you think he just wants to look as though he’s tried?”

Severus tries to hold her gaze and then fails, turning his face to look out the tall windows, the encroaching dawn. “I don’t know.”

Lily inhales slowly, and then mutters, “At least you’re telling me the truth.”

Chapter Text

The widow Potter is asleep before her head hits the pillow. A different kind of man would stay, would watch and wait and contemplate their relationship and and perhaps weep for it.

Snape is not that kind of man. He has never been able to afford to be that kind of man.

Before her breathing evens out in sleep, he is on his way to his office to write urgent, carefully-phrased letters to Lucius, to Mulciber, to anyone the school owls can reach. This had been, of course, part of the plan constructed with Albus; it had also been his own suggestion. Hunger threatens to blunt him where lack of sleep is already dulling his mind. A school house-elf brings him porridge a half-hour after sunup; he eats quickly, mechanically, but with gratitude. The owls fly by seven, and he begins combing through his personal library for mentions of horcruxes.

The search is long. It is also futile.

Horcruxes are obscure, and so exceedingly Dark that Albus would never knowingly let a reference, let alone a manual on their construction and destruction, enter the school. Severus’ library is extensive, but there any many things Albus had drawn a line on when he had moved into the castle, half-spy, half-refugee, and still untrusted.

At nine in the morning, Mulciber’s owl interrupts his study and the note it carries betrays deep ignorance. Avery does much the same by ten. He finds a stopping place to reply around noon--there are a few volumes he could borrow, likely from Lucius, though Lucius has suspiciously failed to respond. There's a problem in that. And lack of sleep is still dulling him, he isn’t so fool as to miss that. He starts writing replies to Mucliber and Avery, but--

Snape awakes at six in the evening after a vivid thoroughly bizarre dream where it was urgent that he write to Rosier, who had never liked him and is, perhaps more relevantly, dead. This is only an inconvenience, in the dream; the real issue is that all the words go slithering off the page like mercury. Blinking blearily awake, he takes in the cold lunch and the cooling plate of dinner atop his half-finished correspondence with Mulciber--and the thing that woke him, the colossal eagle owl perched on the edge of his desk regarding him with palpable disdain.

It’s Lucius’ owl; Lucius, who, more than anyone else, still trusted his old friend Snape implicitly, who would inevitably be bound up in all this sooner or later and--Snape reminds himself regularly--had been betrayed most thoroughly over a decade ago, and would continue to be betrayed until one of them died or went to Azkaban. But Lucius was not the first friend Snape had betrayed, and would likely not be the last. Those choices had been made and regret is a luxury for those not embroiled in active war.

“Give it here, then,” he says gruffly, throat sticky with sleep. He extends a hand toward the owl, which extends its leg barely far enough for Snape to reach the note strapped there.

When unrolled, the parchment only has two words. The handwriting isn’t Lucius’ fine copperplate, either; it’s a scrawling, unpracticed hand, loopy and girlish.

It reads, You’ll see.

“Lucius has been compromised,” Snape says fifteen minutes later in the Headmaster’s office once more, thrusting the note beneath Albus’ crooked nose. “The parchment is from his home, but the note itself--”

“Ah,” Albus says, plucking the sheet from Snape’s fingers and inspecting it. “Are you concerned?”

Snape crosses his arms. “If it were Mulciber, perhaps, but Lucius will prove more of a challenge to fool. You could as well worry for the girl.”

“It does not serve us to underestimate her,” Albus chides. “But no, I meant for greater things. Are you concerned that she poses a greater threat, united with Lucius Malfoy?”

“It does not serve us to let her serve the Dark Lord,” he retorts acidly. “Or her own aims using Lucius. She was born dangerous.”

“Her aims seem to be rather aligned with your own, Severus.”

He doesn’t say our own. Which could be worrying, if things were less urgent. “And what of the boy? Lily’s son? Delphi has him and intends to kill him. I presume we do not share that goal.”

Albus looks away, up to the phoenix on his perch. The thing looks ancient, ready to die, and yet unable to do so. “Harry has been a casualty of this war since nineteen eighty-one, Severus. You know that as well as I.”

It’s a strange sentiment--almost a confession, mournful and weary. Snape speaks slowly, puzzled. “You speak as if he is already dead.”

“In my own way, I suppose I have been mourning him for years.” Albus shakes his head, and the movement travels his beard. “I told him there may be a way to escape it, but--”

“Then you agree with her,” Snape says, horror cresting like a wave. The girl was right, telling the truth about very nearly everything. “You have known for years, what happened--what would be required of him, and you find it necessary.”

“I suspected,” Albus says, meeting Snape’s eyes. “I did not know.”

Which is semantic. For a fleeting moment, Snape wonders what Lily would do were she in this office, hearing this. She cannot be eavesdropping; in her state, she would have thrown a lit candle into the curtains just to make a point. “You agree, then,” Snape says, keeping his voice level. “The boy must be sent to slaughter.”

“Yes.”

It is an insufficient word to support everything it means. “You have lied to me,” Snape says.

“And if I had told you what I suspected,” Albus says, voice still even but gone cold to the core, that voice Snape remembers from a windy hilltop. “What would you have done?”

It is a question with many answers and none.

Snape has time to contemplate almost none of it. As the last tendrils of light fall beneath the horizon, a tingle begins in the middle finger of his left hand. It is a portent against more, and Snape clenches a fist, grits his teeth against what is to come.

The true signal begins as a dull ache in a coiled shape he knows too well. But it doesn’t stop there. His fingertips tingle and then ignite with pain; it radiates past his elbow to the shoulder and up his neck. It’s earlier than either of them had anticipated, and he had wasted the day, wasted his efforts discussing the past when the present demanded more, all of it, wasted --

Face gone white with the effort, Snape stands.

“I am being summoned,” he says stiffly; he is, once more, a soldier awaiting orders.

“You cannot interfere,” Albus says, calm despite the urgency of his message. “If you were to attack Tom Riddle tonight, even if you were to slay Nagini, the horcux within Harry himself would keep him alive.”

“And you would lose the advantage,” Snape says acidly. The pain is intense, the Mark knows that he is far from being able to Apparate away, but he bears it. Through his teeth, he says, “Tell me, Albus, when I came to you all those years ago on my knees, did you know then? Was this part of your plan for me from the start?”

Albus is already shaking his head. “Never,” he replies. “I have only ever tried--Severus, I have tried to what what is necessary.” He won’t deny that he has played into the girl’s plan, which is very nearly as good as guilt. Albus himself would likely agree. He looks weary, old and brokenhearted, and Snape is furious with it--having sent or allowed the boy to go to his death, having known it all along and done nothing more to prepare him, having been so central and so useless--how dare he look so fallen and so alone.

“What would you have me do?” Snape demands.

Albus says wearily, “Stay alive, Severus. Do not die for those who cannot be saved.”

The grounds of Malfoy Manor are lovely at the end of dusk; far above, a black bird with vast wings wheels lazy circles, marking his destination as surely as the pain in his arm. Snape is not the last to appear, pressing his conjured mask to his face. The ache in his arm eases the closer he draws, and there are others, wending their way through the gate to Malfoy Manor, dark figures silhouetted against the fading light. The trellis of massive white roses is illuminated purple by the last reflections of sunset from the sky. The sweet fragrance of late-summer blooms carries across the ground. It is undeniably beautiful.

It’s the last lovely thing he allows himself to see before shuttering his mind entirely.

Outside, then. There are tactical advantages and disadvantages. The lawn of Malfoy Manor is smoothed to the even grass of a pitch to the treeline, offering little cover if it comes to open combat. He has no instructions from Albus beyond don’t die, no foreknowledge from Lucius short of the fact that he is working with the girl, no insight into Delphi besides wait on my signal to kill the snake. He is, effectively, blind. He must move with care, then, if he is to--

Panic beats at the back of his mind like a second heartbeat. But he must move with care if he he is to perform his function. It is unclear what his function may be, but that is no matter. You’ll see, the note had said. Very well. Wait and see.

The circle forms, he notices as he draws closer, around the coiled dark rope of the snake Nagini. No Harry Potter. Curious. There are still gaps in the circle; those still in Azkaban or dead remain absent. Lucius had recounted that first moving-through in revolting detail. Severus stands apart among the ghosts, with three empty spaces to his left and two to his right. A figure approaches the circle, masked, robed, in a spot directly to his left. Rodolphus’ spot, though the build beneath the robes indicate a woman. Delphi, possibly, though he carefully sets that assumption aside; the body in Rodolphus’ place is not the only new body in the circle, replacing an old one. The Dark Lord has been busy. Another joins them, in Bellatrix’s place, hood pulled too low and robe so overlarge it obscures gender. If this is her game, it is better to let her play until he can see its shape, and stop it--if he is able to stop it--in the right moment.

It is the first time Snape has allowed himself to consider that he might stop her, even though it will likely mean his own death, and the continued life of the Dark Lord. If done very well, if he is very lucky, it might offer a decade more of peace. It could be enough. Couldn’t it?

It is the wrong thought. More, it is dangerous. He shuts it out.

More robed figures follow, filling out the empty places in the circle. This is a complete gathering, then; for some no doubt their first. The first time Snape had been summoned after the Dark Lord returned, it was the grand summoning in the graveyard of anyone carrying the Mark--and he had arrived two hours late, two hours of persistent agony, to bow and scrape before the Dark Lord alone and suffer for forgiveness. That forgiveness had been granted, barely. Through intermediaries, he had passed valid information--information that had led to a death. The second time he had been summoned to witness that death, along with only a few others. It has taken some time to black out the stains of the blood that killing had left on his boots. The memory is entirely shuttered away; the thing that comes to mind instead is retching up his lunch into a patch of moss in the forest when he had finally made his way back to the school. But that death has bought him position, leverage. Albus had weighed it an acceptable trade a month prior; Snape hadn’t though he would react so strongly after what he had seen in the last war--after what he had done in the last war. Apparently his stomach had grown weaker in proportion to the strength of his convictions.

As the last of the group find their places, the wheeling bird stoops to a dive, and falls like a thunderbolt made of shadow, until it seems it will collide with the ground, with the snake--

The Dark Lord stands at the center of the circle. A great hiss goes up from the grass; the snake greeting its master.

He surveys the assembled with curious amusement as they being their grovelling, approaching to kiss the hem of his robe. Snape bends to do it as well, over the snake--contemplates beheading the thing now, but no, wait for my signal , there little to be gained and much to lose--he kisses the hem, returns to his station.

He checks his breathing. There is no change. It is still even, deep, ready. Beneath the mask, he inspects the others still moving; some of those bowing are more hesitant, more careful, watching the others perform it first; others do it with practiced ease, how they all used to so long ago. Some do not do it at all, merely kneel, as if they are unworthy--the newcomers, Snape notes. Lucius does it with a grave and serious stiffness. Perhaps Imperius, perhaps nerves, perhaps they are all older than they were during the first war and his back is in pain. It is impossible to tell.

Obeisance completed, the Dark Lord lets silence lapse across them. The sun is truly gone, now, and the moon is a waning crescent, not enough for tinctures but still too bright for starlight. It is not beautiful, merely a useless thing that offers insufficient illumination, a bad lantern and an ill omen. There are no birds any more, only the buzzing of summer insects strumming their own legs. A trickle of sweat runs down Snape’s spine.

“Bring him before me,” the Dark Lord says.

The voice was quiet, but in the silence it is worse than a shriek. The anonymous figure in Bellatrix’s place twitches, an involuntary movement, and the woman beside him in Rodolphus’ place puts a steadying hand on his shoulder. Snape knows, now, who it must be--and how they have been dreading this moment. Before Snape can formulate a plan or move to execute it, the hand of has become a push, a guiding thing for the hesitant steps toward the Dark Lord.

The first, guiding the other, reaches for the hood and pulls it away, revealing too-familiar dark hair. A familiar mess. If he turned, no doubt it would be those awful green eyes. T    he one who led him there pushes back her hood, revealing blond hair tinged with blue. The mask would betray nothing, even if he could see her face. Her back is straight, precise as a scalpel.

“Harry Potter,” the Dark Lord says. It is nearly a whisper, but it carries, the snake giving sibilance to the name.

The shoulders move, as if the boy has just taken a deep breath, but he says nothing. There is no wand in his hand. He does not turn, does not run.

The Dark Lord’s mouth splits like a wound, exposing teeth in something that could be called a smile, as if he’s just confirmed something. “So kind of you to join us. And so very kind of my daughter to bring you.”

Delphi reaches, pulling her mask away and letting it fall to the grass. As she turns to take her place at her father’s side, her face is solemn, serious, grave as he has never seen it before, her eyes--Bellatrix’s half-mad eyes--gone almost black and shining as stones in the half-light.

Meeting her gaze, he reaches almost instinctively with his mind across the distance between them, a futile attempt to read her plan, to stall, perhaps even to use her to create chaos in which the boy might escape--

It very nearly works. He sees a flash of something, kneeling. Of her mouth making words carved from truth, I will bring you Harry Potter, and when he had threatened to read her own mind, threatened to blow it all away, the house of cards, a necessary distraction: there is a traitor--

Which is when Delphi lifts the wand in her hand, holding Albus’ wand, and body-binds him.

Snape tries to lift his own wand to deflect, to dodge, but pulling himself free of her mind loses crucial moments. It catches his side as he turns, wrapping his wand-arm to his front and sweeping his feet to the side. He falls, still facing the circle, as the final binding pulls itself taught against his mouth.

“The traitor,” Delphi says, her voice twisted in open contempt. “He would have moved against you to save the boy, as I told you. For her.

Those words are a death sentence, but there is no point in dwelling on it. The body-bind was sloppily done; he has enough movement in his arm to free his wand for a twitch to free himself. Even freeing a few fingers would be enough to try wandlessly. It will only take a minute of careful effort, and the Dark Lord will want to gloat. Or perhaps the Dark Lord will save the boy for second and kill Snape himself first; the Dark Lord enjoys his torments, his petty entertainments, an opportunity must--

The bone-white wand levels at the boy’s chest then, and the words are spoken--Delphi lifts her arm to protect her eyes--maybe Snape says something, maybe he shouts, perhaps his mouth merely shapes the word no behind his mask but never gives it voice, but the wand doesn’t waver and the green light flares blinding bright, and then brighter still.

Snape can’t look away. Someone screams. Another is laughing. Father or daughter, they are the same.

Is this is what it looked like, Snape lets himself wonder as spots circle his vision. When Lily died, is this what it looked like? Is this what she knows now, this light the thing that haunts her nightmares?

His arm is free. Too late, already lost and too late, but he cuts the bonds away and Snape struggles to his feet, blinking away the blindness, before most of the rest are able. He staggers forward one step, another, toward the form in the grass.

The boy is crumpled in an awkward heap an arm’s length from his own feet. The Dark Lord is similarly thrown, halfway across the circle that is now collapsed around him, in an attempt to assist. Lucius is among them, and the Dark Lord throws him back, hissing--no, that is Nagini hissing, head swaying and high, ready to strike. Delphi, though--Delphi crosses toward Snape, crouches over the body of the boy.

Harry Potter. The poor, broken, dead boy. Bones unbroken, skin unblemished, but perfectly still.

Delphi tilts his chin back to stroke his throat with her fingertips, searching. “He’s dead, father,” she says, standing. She looks over her shoulder to Snape. “Confirm it, if you like, Severus.”

He does not kneel to touch the corpse. He has knelt to recently--knelt so many times his knees are scarred with it--but not for this.

She rises beside him, not turning, pale face bright and hungry and fixed on her father. “If you’re looking for a signal, Severus,” Delphi murmurs, voice cast so low that only he and the corpse could hear it. “This is it.”

The boy is lost, but there is a kind of victory she’s offering still. It has already cost Snape’s life. Let that price be high.

His wand slashes out, the spell falling from his lips with the relish Dark magic always brings--his own spell, the cutter--and the snake’s hissing draws to a violent peak and bubbles out.

The Dark Lord was the one who screamed, Snape decides on hearing the sound again, a manic and crazed sound of pain and rage. The howl distorts strangely as the Dark Lord rises, feet lifting away from earth, wand in hand. He dissolves to half-smoke and flies from his sycophants, away from the hands trying to assist, one hand extended--a hand that lands around Snape’s throat.

Snape had not realized he was laughing--with Delphi, that mad and joyless sound of bitter victory--until the Dark Lord’s fingers crush the sound from him. The momentum carries them both beyond the circle.

“Look at me,” the Dark Lord snarls, eyes boring into Snape’s.

The intent is clear, and the battle lost. Or won. It is hard to say. It is about to be over regardless, so Snape does what he has done for years. He does as he is told. Decades of Occlumency fall away, letting the Dark Lord see all of it, see the first betrayal, Lily, the grief that had locked himself away, working for Dumbledore, his truest loyalties, the doe, the boy, the training.

Then the girl. The diadem. The locket. Gringotts and the cup. That filthy shack and its ring. And then: I'll serve up Harry for my dad for a foot in the door, you take care of the snake, I take care of my dad--

The Dark Lord’s red eyes go wide with realization just as the trap snaps shut. A wind and a green light builds behind them, and the Dark Lord frees Snape’s throat, stands, turns to face it, wand raised--

And then, with an unexceptional thump , the body of the Dark Lord falls to the ground dead.

Snape tries to laugh again, but only manages a wet, retching cough. He rolls onto his side, pushes himself up and tries again to laugh, but it comes out wrong, almost a jagged and choked sob.

When he had first taken the Mark, it had ached for a month, like a deep wound that would not bleed. When he had turned against the Dark Lord he had been barely able to look at it, out of cowardice. One night after Lily’s death, he had tried to remove the patch of skin bearing it in a drunken fit of self-loathing. He had brewed more blood-replentisher and skin-supplement to resupplied Pomfrey all the next day. He had grown to accept it, this blemish on his spirit, this indelible tattoo. It is a reminder of what he is, of his duty. He had never thought it would leave him.

But now--

It hitches in his throat as Snape feels something change in his left arm, spreading all across his skin, like the pricking of pins, like feeling returning finally to a limb deprived of blood. It goes hot, and then cold, and then--most miraculously--a pain that troubled him for nearly two decades, a pain that has been so fundamental to his person as to be able to be ignored, falls silent.

A gasp, from the nearest masked, anonymous one; then another. A muttering, then, and fists clench. One goes so far as to push his sleeve to the elbow and inspect the clear, unblemished swath of skin on his inner arm.

They must all feel it. The must all know. It’s not a fantasy, not a trick--it is a gift.

As the circle shifts, moves, realizes slowly what has happened, Delphi comes to Snape, on wobbling, uncertain knees. If she wants to kill him now he isn’t sure he would even raise his wand to stop her. He had reached the only end he knew to hope for. Lily is likely still sleeping in the hospital wing, but her child is dead. He is not absolved. He might welcome Delphi’s continued violence. It would be no less than what he deserves.

But Delphi does not attack. Instead, she kneels unsteadily next to the body of her father and pushes the chin back, peeling open one red eye. “Luck and chance,” she whispers, almost to herself, as if she is rehearsing, or a little desperate. She presses a palm to her heart, then puts a finger on her pulse, and then pulls the time-turner free of her shirt.

Snape recognizes that harsh blue light as it illuminates Delphi’s face. This close, he can almost see the sand stuttering, up and down, up and down. She flicks it with a finger and it’s that same resonant, discordant chime from the office in Gringotts. It is the sound and light of a time-turner stymied, paralyzed. Stuck.

It can only mean one thing: Delphi cannot be--will not be--unwritten with her father’s death. She has bargained with death, and doing so cheated time. Her laughter is so high and arch it should ring the hourglass again, coming forth from her head thrown back like water from a fountain. She looks right at Snape and smiles--for the first time tonight, smiles that deranged, brilliant grin, pulled from her mother’s mad cackling and her father’s cold sneering and something else, something entirely her own. “Luck and chance,” she says again, louder, so the others might hear it.

She rises, assuming the posture of a performer: shoulders back, looking down her fine pureblood nose, moving her even gaze from face to face before she begins. “A few months ago, this corpse--my father--said that Harry Potter had only survived by luck and chance.” She spreads her hands, like a performer--no. Like a politician. “We all know there is no such thing as luck, and chance is a thing the stupid use to convince themselves things could not have gone any other way.”

“The Dark Lord cannot be killed,” Avery interrupts, voice shaking but body gone perfectly still, eyes through his mask fixed on the corpse in the dirt. “He has said--”

But Delphi makes a sharp motion with her wand, and the rest of Avery’s sentence is lost to a gummy kind of silence. His expression grows frustrated but not pained; not Voldemort’s solution to dissent, then, but silence all the same.

“Luck and chance? No. There is only skill.” She raises one hand. “And magic.” The other, holding the wand, rises to meet it, an apothecary’s balance.

Delphi moves back toward the center, toward the boy and the corpse of the snake. They make way for her, giving her berth, as if she carries a poison in her skin. She goes to Harry’s side, kneeling by the boy, murmuring something, and then--

And then, by some kind of miracle, the boy seems to move . It could be a trick of the light, the way the boy’s hand seems to flex into the dirt. But then it happens again, more pronounced.

Snape himself saw the boy take the killing curse directly to the chest. He should be dead. He is dead. As dead as his father, as dead as--

“Harry,” Delphi says, gentle as a mother. As his mother. As Lily Potter, once dead, now returned.

Perhaps death is not so permanent anymore , Snape thinks, watching the hand flex again, unmistakable the third time. The familiar eyes flicker open, and then, impossibly, the boy who lived--again--comes unsteadily to his feet.

The sound of awe and horror that runs through the assembled pleases Delphi in a way she cannot hide. “This is what I have to say to luck and chance, my friends. Harry.” She cups his dirty face her hands. “You have been marvelous. Thank you so much. I’m going to send you home, and neither my father nor I--nor anyone here--will ever trouble you again.” Delphi lifts her eyes, still holding the boy’s face. “Severus. Come here, please.”

Snape stills, unsure.

“I won’t make you,” she says, watching him hesitate. “I am not my father. His use of force was unnecessary. I am asking .”

Poised on the knife’s edge once more, Snape decides to do what he has done: Protect the boy. Or whatever is left of him. The distance is crossed easily enough. The boy’s back moves with heavy breaths, but Delphi is holding him up. It makes sense; Lily could barely stand after she was returned to life, too.

“You will take the boy back to Hogwarts. Back to Dumbledore.” Delphi presses the boy’s arm onto Snape’s own; the boy leans heavily. But she does not release his forearm once she has a grip upon it. Her hand digs into Harry Potter’s where it rests against Snape’s arm. “And Severus? I consider your debt to the world paid.” Her smile widens, sharpens. “In full. Several times over, actually. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you, and I can see it done.”

Snape thinks that unlikely, but does not say it. Instead he takes the boy’s arm; the boy leans dangerously, and Snape is forced to carry more of his weight than he had expected.

With the boy’s weight off her arms, she steps back and smiles at him, eyes bright and wide and hungry, admiring her handiwork. “Now take your prize and go. As I said, you’ve worked off your debt.”

Then she turns, and her spine is straight and shoulders are back once more. The wand in her hand jumps, twitchy and still ready to fight. More than one of the masked shift uncomfortably on their feet, unsure. “The rest of you,” she says, louder, “have quite a bit of debt to work off.” She claps her hands together. “Here’s how this is going to work. You have a choice, which is better than my father ever gave you. You can go home, be free--raise your sons and daughters to be better than you so they can in turn raise their sons and daughters to be better than them. You live the rest of your happy lives in peace. Or--”

“And if we choose to expose what you have done here?” Yaxley demands acidly.

Delphi makes a flicking motion, faster than the eyes can track, and Yaxley’s mask falls to the floor with a clatter. “Don’t interrupt me, Corban,” she says brightly. “If you expose me, we are exposed together. Did my father treat you so well that you want to fight in his memory? Was he so kind and generous that you feel the need to sacrifice your happy lives for what he was, the thing he became?” She revolves on the spot, casting her performance broader. “You are the clever Death Eaters, the ones with something to lose, the ones smart enough to stay the fuck out of Azkaban, resourceful enough to get caught and maintain position.” She points to Corban. “You can keep that position. Or you can work with me to actually change the world.”

“Our brothers and sisters in Azkaban--” one newcomer asks, hesitant, shifting his feet. They look unsure, as a group, or stiff with anger, but no one has left yet--she holds them, with information, with guilt, with her offer, she holds them steady to her.

“The zealots can rot with the Dementors,” she scoffs. “Is your love for my father so great that you would join them? And--” Here, she smiles pityingly. “Don’t you think the world would reward someone who destroyed the Dark Lord?”

“The Dark Lord cannot be destroyed,” Macnair says, parroting Avery with more panic and less sureness.

“Then you are all welcome to wait for him to return another decade, and get older and greyer, and watch your power wane while you do it,” she says serenely. “But I’m not waiting for you. And I am going to do wonderful things, with or without you. Whether your names go down in the history books is up to you.”

“What are you?” asks a tremulous voice, one Snape cannot identify.

Delphi smiles, and her voice rings like a gong, confident and sure. “I am the new past. The new future. I am the answer this world has been waiting for.”

Lucius is the first to kneel. Of course he is; she had explained her case to him before and already won him over. Some newcomers kneel as readily as they had before the Dark Lord. Yaxley takes a step back from the circle, shaking his head, and disapparates; a few newcomers follow him, but then Peter Pettigrew kneels, and Avery kneels, and then the rest are all going to a knee, crawling forward, touching her robes, kissing the hem. From their midst, though, she looks up, fixing him with her pale gaze. “Severus, are you still here?” She shakes her head. “Are you going to make me coach you through your own fucking redemption arc? Go!”

The boy has his feet beneath him, though he sways and leans as Snape turns and slowly, slowly guides him away. Snape can hear her giving orders behind him, but they wane, footstep by footstep. “Peter, I want that body turned into a ruby, I know you’re skilled at transfiguration. My father didn’t use you properly at all; we will do wonderful things together. Lucius, I will need a meeting with the Minister; arrange it for two weeks hence. Yaxley--”

Snape pulls the boy to his chest, lifts his wand, steps into the nothing, and all sound is lost.