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in penance for his past misdeeds

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Imagine for me, if you will, a Snape who isn’t sorted into Slytherin, but into Ravenclaw.

No, not that. Imagine for me, if you will, a Severus who isn’t sorted into Slytherin, but into Ravenclaw. Because he’s just Severus then, just eleven-year-old Severus, dark and angry and so so scared, because Slytherin was all he knew, from stories from his mother, Slytherin and curses and hiding in dark corners.

Lily finds him hiding in a dark corner than night, that first night, stomping all the way from Gryffindor Tower in the middle of the night, answering the door riddle and going all the way to the boy’s dorm, because she knows he’s going to be scared, and she doesn’t care if she gets in trouble, she’s going to help her friend.

She finds him hiding in a dark corner, because when all you know is hiding in dark corners, dark corners are what you go towards, even if they scare you.

They fall asleep in that dark corner, and it’s not the last time they will fall asleep in dark corners together, and no, not that way, except for the few times that it is that way.

A Severus who’s sorted into Ravenclaw is a Severus who doesn’t fit in Ravenclaw, not really, because he wants desperately to learn, but he wants to learn for himself, to advance himself, and he disdains those who want to read something esoteric and fantastical and pointless. But he is a Ravenclaw, he really is, because the thirst for knowledge isn’t always pure and it isn’t always good, and it can be desperately selfish as well.

He’s also not someone who fits into Ravenclaw because he’s an anti-social asshole, but that’s somewhat besides the point.

He knows what he is even without Potter and Black and their two lackies taunting him at every turn for his nose, his hair, the shabbiness of his best robes.

He knows who they are, too. He knows what the wolf is, and corners him in a dark corner and says, one day I will ask you for something, and you will give it to me, or I will destroy you.

A Ravenclaw Severus knows everybody’s secrets, knows when the first Slytherin takes the Dark Mark, when Black leaves his parents, when the fifth-year Hufflepuff muggleborn gives herself a disastrous abortion that nearly kills her and when the DADA teacher gets his balls hexed off for trying to touch a seventh-year prefect during detention.

Because a Ravenclaw Severus is a Severus who doesn’t need to watch out for his housemates, and so he can watch other people, can learn, can collect information the way some people collect Famous Witches and Wizards Cards, and he’s not afraid of using it, though only where Lily can’t see.

Because Lily is about 95% of his moral compass and 85% of his self-control, and the only reason he doesn’t murder James Potter the first time he sees him and Lily snogging is that it’ll make Lily cry.

Being a Ravenclaw doesn’t make him a good person, and he’d never claim it would.

What it does make him is not a Death Eater.

Slytherins have no real reason to pay attention to him--not that all Death Eaters are Slytherins, let’s not forget that, and we’ll get back to the rat later--because Slughorn gives even less of a shit about him, no matter how good he is at potions, and, him being a Ravenclaw, the Slytherins never notice.

By seventh year Lily is with James and Severus fucking hates it, hates that Lily is slipping away from him, because he and James refuse to voluntarily be in the same room, and Lily is always with him, with the proud Potter prince, and there’s no way Severus can compete with that. He will always be ugly, always be poor, always be mean, and he hates people but he loves Lily.

He begins an apprenticeship with a German potions maker, and the war had started by then, started long before then, started before he ever got to Hogwarts, but what did he care. The muggles have been at war for forever, he has no particular love for muggles anyway, and why is one war on the British Isles different from another?

He’s lost Lily at that point, more or less. She owls him occasionally, talking about nothing in particular. James. They’re married now, and she signs her letters Lily Potter exactly once.

He doesn’t respond to that letter.

He considers burning it, but then doesn’t, and it goes in the box with the rest of her letters, shoved under his bed and warded seven ways to Sunday so not only can nobody find it, nobody can even remember to look for it, not when they get close enough.

He learned young not to show anyone his weaknesses, and there are lessons you never unlearn, not even with seven years of Ravenclaws, not even with a dozen years with Lily Potter. He may love her, but he is not soft, and he has replaced his dark corner with dark robes and has never forgotten how to hide.

He receives his potions mastery on July 30, 1980, and the next day he receives a letter that says, I have a son, Severus, help me.

Because, you see, Severus was never a Death Eater and so he never heard a prophecy in a bar, never turned spy, never cared about a war or those fighting in it. He knew Lily was fighting, knew her owls had tapered off out of fear for her safety, but it was distant, removed, and he worked very hard not to think about it.

Severus has his mastery and not much else, because he learned young to collect secrets and not belongings, and he packs up his robes and his potions tools and that box of letters, and he finds Remus Lupin and says, you owe me, and I intend to collect.

This Severus doesn’t fall to his knees before Dumbledore, doesn’t beg for his forgiveness, for redemption, for solace. This Severus walks up to Dumbledore and says, she asked for my help and I intend to give it.

This Severus walks up to Sirius Black, wand at his throat, and says, you are their secret keeper, and I intend to learn that secret.

And Sirius Black blinks at him and says, it’s not me. Also fuck off, please and kindly, and crawl back into whatever miserable hole you crawled out of, you miserable slimy fuck.

This Severus punches him in the face. It is very satisfying.

It does not, unfortunately, get him any closer to finding out where Lily is, where Lily and her son are, and Severus says, I want to join the Order, and Sirius laughs and says, you’re kidding, you’d never fight for a muggleborn in your life, and Severus says, how’s your cousin doing these days, still riding You-Know-Who’s dick, and this time it’s Sirius who punches him in the face.

This Severus goes back to Dumbledore and says, I will be your spy, and you will keep Lily and her son safe. Because he knows the value of information, and he knows how to get it, and he is a miserable asshole and everybody knows that miserable assholes can’t be good guys.

And Dumbledore says, oh my boy, and sends him out to be a spy, because it is a suicide mission but Dumbledore is a ruthless general who let one dark lord live and but isn’t prepared to be quite so lenient with one he was never in love with.

This Severus goes to Narcissa Malfoy and says, you watched, I know you watched, I know you know what I can do, and Narcissa Malfoy looks in his eyes and sees a muggle man with a raised fist and a swinging belt, and she smiles and says, your blood’s no good but maybe here you can overcome it.

This Severus goes to a meeting with the Dark Lord and sees a rat and thinks, motherfucking shit.

I told you we’d get to the rat.

Because, you see, this Severus knows who they are. He knows all of who they are, and what they are, and he knows that fucking rat, and he knows that there are precisely two choices here: that Dumbledore has another spy, or the Dark Lord does.

And he thinks I have a son, Severus, help me.

The thing is that Lily and James still die in this world, because he might see the rat but the rat sees him as well, and the rat also thinks motherfucking shit , and he might not have decided until then whether or not to tell the Dark Lord Lily and James’s location, but he is first and foremost a coward, and with the knowledge that he might be revealed, he spills the secret as though it might save his life.

And Lily and James die, and Dumbledore arrives straight from Severus’s warning to a destroyed house and a crying infant.

Lily and James die, and so does Voldemort, because he thought magic was the answer to everything and never thought to just bash the baby against a wall until he died like a normal terrible human being. It was magic that was his downfall, and that’s ironic, isn’t it, that a man who seeked immortality lived fifteen years shorter than the average life expectancy for a regular old muggle at the time.

All because he was too stupid to chuck a baby out a window.

Go figure.

But if you want to talk about ironic, let’s talk about ironic.

Let’s talk about how Severus being good got Lily killed sooner than him being bad ever would, how a war ended because a coward betrayed his friends, how it’s Severus’s knowledge that saves Sirius Black’s life.

Because Black said, it’s not me.

It’s not me.

It’s not him and it’s not Lupin, and the rat sees him and then tells, and so when Black murders the shit out of the rat (or doesn’t, but they will have years before they know that, not until Harry Potter starting Hogwarts has Dumbledore stopping at Severus’s potions lab and asking him to teach, please, just for those years, for Lily’s son) Severus grudgingly goes to Dumbledore and says, it’s not him, it was the rat all along, oh for God’s sake hand me the child, it’s not going to stop screaming if you hold it like it’s about to explode.

It’s Sirius Black who raises Harry Potter, and Remus Lupin, and few things horrify Severus more than the idea of a werewolf being around Lily’s child, because he might be one of the good guys but he’s still kind of a bigot, so he develops a new form a wolfsbane, a better form, and says, until the child is sentient enough to be alone for a night, you will give him to me for the full moon or I will steal him and go somewhere you will never find me, don’t think I won’t.

And don’t get me wrong, Severus doesn’t raise Harry Potter. Severus is the weird man who’s not particularly anyone’s friend who, once a month until Harry is nine or so, takes him in, hands him a book, and says, read it and don’t set anything on fire. And then he sits at his desk and obsessively watches the child while pretending to not obsessively watch the child, because never let it be said that Severus is good at letting go.

And okay, maybe when Harry is really little, Severus puts him on his lap and reads him a book on potions, moving it out of the way without stopping to read to keep Harry’s snot-covered fingers off of the pages.

This Severus has a box of letters from Lily, and some of them are desperately inappropriate, especially the ones from the summers between fourth and fifth and fifth and sixth years during the times when he wasn’t allowed to leave the house or was too bruised and didn’t want her to see, but some of them are just sweet. Happy. About nothing much at all. And he knows now that that was mostly a cover, to avoid talking about the war, to talk about something nice to the one person untouched by the war, but when Harry is seven, eight, nine, and asks about his mother, why do Padfoot and Moony know more about his dad than his mom, Severus pulls out one of the letters and reads it to him, and says, this was your mother. This was your mother, child.

Voldemort still comes back in this world (he does live to the average muggle life expectancy, go figure), and Harry still goes down and gets the philosopher’s stone, and this time it’s Severus that saves him, and Quirrell is dying but Severus is the one who kills him, because he doesn’t want the kid he looked after once a month to have killed someone, not even in self-defense.

And in the second year, when Harry is hearing voices, it’s Severus that he goes to, and he says, I think I can talk to snakes, and I think there are snakes in the wall and they’re the ones killing people (because someone does die here, because luck runs out, and Penelope Clearwater is found dead on the stone floors of the castle hallway), and Severus says, if you go looking for the snake I will drop you in the largest cauldron I own and lock you in there until you get some sense in your head.

Harry grins at him and climbs into the cauldron and says, this is really quite creepy, actually. Because this Harry never grew up trapped in small dark spaces, and he never learned to fear them, or to use them.

It’s Severus who kills the basilisk, who stabs the diary, swearing at Harry and Ginny and the Dark fucking Lord the whole time, and when Fawkes cries on him he pets the bird and says, you’d better not tell Dumbledore or I’ll roast you and eat you for dinner.

Harry’s third year--and Severus’s--is quiet, because the first time the second-youngest Weasley kid stepped into the Great Hall with the rat in his hand, Severus turned to Dumbledore and said, If you don’t destroy that rat I will feed it to Black myself. The year is quiet, but it is too quiet, and this time it is Lucius Malfoy who is planning, because Lucius Malfoy was never all that bright but he’s always been ambitious, and the Dark Lord could come back, he knows that now, and he wants to be on the winning side.

Fourth year Severus helps Harry cheat, and it doesn’t make a difference. Cedric Diggory still loses his life in an old graveyard, and Harry still sobs, bleeding, over his sprawled body on the grounds of what was the Quidditch pitch as Amos Diggory shouts, not my son.

Please.

Not my son.

This Severus is fired in the fifth year, and shows up to teach the next day, and the day after that, and by the time Umbridge asks him for veritaserum, she has forgotten he was ever fired in the first place. This Severus has no Dark Mark and is no spy, and he brews Murtlap Essence by the bucketful and watches Slytherins fall into the same trap he nearly fell into and thinks, nobody ever taught you that ambition doesn’t need to be cruel.

Because, you see, this Severus was never a Slytherin and so he is not the Head of Slytherin, is not the Head of anything, and his marking may not be kind but it is fair. But Hogwarts is not, and never has been, for fortune favors the brave and so does Albus Dumbledore, and without a protector like Severus Slytherin children learn young to band together to fend off hexes and heal the results of the ones they can’t block. And so when given the chance to stand on the other side of that wand, of course they take it, because they may not be evil but they are children.

When Dumbledore tells his Severus that the boy is being raised only to die, Severus says, fuck that shit, and searches for a way to save the boy he babysat for once a month for much of the boy’s life.

He saves the boy.

He saves the boy and then watches his students--for they’re all his students, you see--kill Dumbledore and claim that it is their school now, it is the Slytherin’s school now, and they will kill anyone who tries to take it from them.

A few highly trained teachers are no match for dozens of very angry students they don’t want to kill who think they have nothing to lose.

Because, you must understand, the students found they much preferred being the ones holding a wand than the ones at its mercy, and who can blame them, really. They understand that the world isn’t fair, and if someone’s going to be on top, it might as well be them.

The problem, of course, is when you don’t teach children to be good people, some of them will end up horrible bratty murderers who take over a school.

It’s worse, this way, because these children are creative in their cruelty, but on the other hand they still think like school children, in the end, school children who think that the only kind of power is the kind at the giving end of a wand, and they are easy to undermine, easy to overwhelm.

It just takes a while.

Harry flees at this time, sixteen and forbidden from using magic, and the first moment Severus can get away he finds Harry and tells him, your fucking asshole of a godfather can make it so they can’t track your magic, and yes that means you have to go see him, stop being such a coward and give him a hug.

This Severus doesn’t say, be safe, because he’s not here for that sentimental bullshit, and besides, it’s a useless instruction and he refuses to give those on principle.

Harry doesn’t stay safe, and neither does the rest of the wizarding world, and in the end the battle is not in a school full of children but at the Ministry, and the person to kill Voldemort is not Harry but Neville Longbottom, running the Dark Lord through with the same sword he just used to behead Nagini.

The two boys of prophecy stand with Tom Riddle between them, one holding the sword through Tom Riddle’s chest, the other holding a wand pointed at Tom Riddle’s face.

You were taking too long, one boy says.

What lunatic would be able to kill Voldemort with a wand anyway, the other boy says, I was just a convenient distraction.

The war ends, and the war continues, because the death of a general does not destroy an army. A good thing, that, or the Order would have lost the moment Albus Dumbledore toppled from that tower, Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson holding hands and green-glowing wands, saying, this is our school now.

The war ends, and the school lies empty, and Severus says, we must change, or we will see this again. I refuse to see this again.

I have no taste for war, this Severus says, and I have no taste for death, and I will not watch one more child suffer at the hands of another.

Give me the Slytherins, this Severus says, for I have cowered in the same dark corners as them, and understand.

Give me the Slytherins, this Severus says.

The war ends.