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The lone and the levelled

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You pat her nose.

The last time you patted her nose, she laughed and bit your hand for the trouble.

"Snape."

There is dandruff in her hair.

The last time you offered to make her a potion for the dandruff, she squirmed and scowled and said she could perfectly make one herself.

"Snape, bloody let go of her."

There is blood pooling in the hollow of her neck.

The last time she bled, her husband held you back from rushing to her birthing bed.

"Snape, for the sake of—"

Black drags her from you. Then he pulls you up and shoves you down into a chair.

"Stay there!" he warns you. "I need to call the Aurors. Can you bloody stay there?"

There are crayon scratches on the walls.

The boy—

There is a baby in a bubble hovering at Black's side. Harry. Harry is squeezing his face against the spell-bubble, licking at it, poking it, and chortling to himself in silly baby's glee.

"I can take the boy."

"No," Black refuses firmly. "Stay there until I return. Do you hear me?"

Black, spitting out orders, pretending he is James. He is not James. James was a leader. Black is only Black.

This was a happy home. Black avoided visiting. He has no fondness for happy homes. He shut himself in his mother's mausoleum and kept company with a portrait. Until this.

He stands over corpses. A grim motherless shade, with a bubbled orphan-child hovering at his shoulder.

You have a mother too. Lily likes her. Lily liked her. You don't. How can a man like a mother who gave him neither charm nor manners nor connections nor fortune? You inherited her talent for brewing and spell-making. What use is any of that now when you can't even—

"Stay put," Black warns once again, before taking off with babe.

His strides eat the ground as if he were a dog on the run. He is. Rumour speaks of how his mother is a portrait on his wall that haunts him out of his wits.

"Look!" Lily said, teasing, when she was full-bellied with child. "Look what I can do! You can't do this!"

Lily was gleeful throughout her pregnancy, hopping and skipping and singing, despite ungainly waddle and swollen toes and hair spurts in the oddest places. You hate Mum because she tells you how she wept and hoped and prayed for a miscarriage. You cannot blame her. Your father was not James. James brought you to his marital home and told you to fuck his wife, all so that she might be happy. And when she wanted more, James built a larger bed and did his best to want what she wanted.

---

"She is dead," Black tells her. He is grim in his unwashed garb, with a bubbled baby hovering at his shoulder.

There are neighbours peeping through their windows, gawking at the strange tableau. Black is nonchalant. What does he care?

She takes it quietly. Marriage has not changed Petunia. Motherhood has. It has burned out her spite and left her sedated to everything else that is not her boy.

"Potter?" she finally asks.

"Dead too."

She frowns. Then she turns to you. She refuses to look at Black. She would rather look at you. Black scares her. She despises you, but she does not fear you.

"I don't want the baby," she says plainly. "Will you take it? I can pay you."

"Black wants the baby," you assure her.

She frowns. Then she draws nearer to you, scowls, and hisses, "He reeks of alcohol."

"It is one of my many charms," he declares. "Mrs. Dursley, I won't need your handouts. You won't have to worry about being saddled with a nephew because his guardian ran out of money. Snivellus does not have a job. He has no prospects in our world or in yours. He lives with his mother in that hovel. What is he going to do with a baby?"

Black did not visit the Potters. James took the baby to Black's mausoleum on Saturdays. A bubble holds Harry hovering mid-air. He is waving at his aunt.

You live with your mother in a hovel, but Black lives with a portrait in a crypt.

Petunia sighs and shifts uneasily, eyeing her neighbours.

"If that is all!" Black declares, and strides off, baby-bubble floating obediently behind him. He is a dab hand at Transfiguration, his magic working delicate to shape matter out of matter at his whim even when his mind is lost to grief and inebriation.

You are about to follow him, when Petunia grips your hand.

"Can't magic bring her back?" she demands. Her eyes are wet. "You said there is nothing magic can't do."

You were a boy. You told Lily and Petunia what your mother told you. You told them proudly that magic could even stopper death.

Lily's hair was riddled with dandruff, and her pale, pale face was wet with woe, before on your breast in blood she died, while a soft wind swung the open door to and fro in mocking lullaby.

"Snape!" Petunia demands. She has lost her composure. Horse-faced, hoarse-voiced, hauteur-stripped, she stands before her proper door like a lonely woman who has lost something dear.

You leave her there.

---

Black lives in a mausoleum with a portrait.

Narcissa has married a mausoleum.

She is not your friend, but she is all that remains.

She pours you tea in a tea-cup that sings about a bride riding bare to Banbury Cross, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes.

Lily's wedding had rings and bells and laughter and music. Lily's house had rings and bells and laughter and music.

Narcissa's house is an ugly affair, although it is more manse than hovel. It is ugly because it broods, because it sputters and leaks, because it looks cindered as a thing with its heart burned out. She refuses to leave the place. The little light that seeps through the windows cling to her, leaving her illumined lonely.

Lily was not a child who grew up wanting to become a bride. Narcissa's eyes was ever drawn to wedding-rings and happy lovers, during her years in school.

"Had nowhere else to mope?" Narcissa demands. "You should go home."

Mum does not know about Lily. Mum liked Lily. How are you going to tell her the news?

"What happened to the baby?" Narcissa asks.

"Your cousin took the baby."

Wide-eyed in surprise, she pours herself more tea.

"In a bubble," you add.

She laughs at that, though there is no joy in her voice. "Aunt Walburga carried Reg in a bubble."

Reg, the brother who went missing. Bellatrix held a burial service for him. Open casket. Walburga died soon after. Black then shut himself in his mother's mausoleum.

"Unexpected," Narcissa murmurs. "I hope he doesn't take after her."

Seeing your bewilderment, she scowls, before confiding in a low voice, "There are rumours Aunt Walburga killed Reg as human sacrifice in a ritual to resurrect her dead husband." Your horror must have been evident, because she adds, "There is no credence to the rumour. Walburga was a mediocre witch. Bella covered it up, whatever it was."

Bella Black, the most talented witch in their family. And possessed of most peculiar notions, if the grape-vine holds a kernel of truth. Narcissa stays mum when it comes to the subject of her sister.

---

Mum is sitting up. Waiting for you.

Black's mother is a portrait on the wall. You wonder if she sits up and watches him, when he drinks and slobbers around like the reclusive wastrel he is. What did the portrait make of the baby in a bubble he came home with?

"Severus," Mum asks. There is a wretched plea poorly hidden in her voice.

Da is missing. He has been missing for two years. He must have died in a gutter somewhere, you think. He was headed that way for years. You cannot tell Mum that. Mum keeps a scrying bowl on the kitchen table and peers at it all day long. She has not found him.

Magic can do anything, she promised you, when you were a little boy going to bed hungry, reading the same book over and over again, wearing her thrifted clothes because there was nothing else.

Magic did not turn her pretty. Magic did not give her a beautiful boy. Magic did not make her rich.

She lives in the hovel she raised you in. She lives with the boy she raised.

Magic cannot find her the husband who did not come home one day.

You should be glad that you were born to Mum. It could be worse. You could be Walburga's son. You are not glad. Walburga tried to resurrect her husband. Mum scries and waits and sighs. Magic could do anything, she promised when you were a boy.

Petunia—

"What happened?" Mum demands, frightened by the state of you.

"Lily is dead."

Mum staggers, as if struck. She liked Lily. Everyone did.

"What about the baby?" Mum asks, turning brisk to business. "Petunia will not want a magical child." She looks around the hovel in despair, before nodding to herself in the manner of one who has decided. "Bring the baby here, Severus."

Mum is grit. Everyone liked Lily. Lily was brave and kind, but Lily did not know what the oppressive grind of poverty did to a woman, how it wore her down and made her less. You have seen women on the streets. You have seen women begging. Mum won't. She taught you what you mustn't do. Sometimes, you wish she had not taught you to be proud. Pride does not solve poverty.

What did Black's mother teach him? What will he teach Lily's baby?

"Severus?"

"Black took the baby."

She scowls a sour scowl. She knows about Black, although you have never told her about the scrapes of your schooldays. Lily. It must have been Lily.

"Does he have a wife? Does he have any children?"

Mum wants Harry. Mum wants to raise Harry.

Black is no father. Lily would have—

Petunia asked you to take the boy.

There is Lily's blood under your fingernails.

"He lives with his mother. She is a portrait on his wall." Seeing Mum's shock, you hasten to drive the nail into the coffin, "There are rumours that she killed her second son in a doomed bid to resurrect her husband."

Mum sits down heavily at the table. Her eyes skitter to the scrying dish, before she swallows and cups her hands over her weary brow.

Oh. Oh.

Black said that you came to school knowing spells darker than even his family knew. Mum taught you everything, you assumed once. Mum didn't. Mum told you that everything is possible with magic.

"You can even stopper death," she promised a little boy.

He believed her. Then he grew up and ceased believing as Muggle children cease believing in Santa and gifts. You told Narcissa once about the Muggle fairytale of a frog and a princess. She took to kissing frogs, waiting in vain for them to turn to her knight.

Mum's hands are shaking.

"There is such a ritual then," you whisper, horrified, fascinated, seeing hope of a strange and foul kind.

"No," Mum says quickly. She is a poor liar. Her eyes skitter to her scrying dish again.

Walburga sacrificed a son in her ritual to resurrect her husband.

Mum would not have—

You feel sorry for Black. It is a first.

---

McGonagall does not like you.

It is a pity. You rather like her. She reminds you of Mum.

She became the Headmistress at a young age, when Bagshot resigned. Bagshot lost her wits and forgot most everything, including McGonagall's name. A slow decline. McGonagall nursed her to the end. Was she relieved when Bagshot died? Mum waited by the scrying dish. Was it easier than watching the deterioration of your lover for ten or twelve years? Knowing brought closure, Lily liked to say.

If it had been Lily, if Lily was decaying in mind slowly, James would have watched over her as McGonagall did. You would have tried to fix her.

The book.

"You came about a book?" McGonagall asks, peering over her spectacles in the manner of one scrutinising for foul play.

She does not like you. She does not like Slytherins.

She does not let her dislike stand in the way of fairness. She is a fair woman. How would Hogwarts be if McGonagall was self-righteous and favoured her House over all, if her dislikes became writ in rules and proceedings?

Lily said you would make a good teacher. You have no desire to teach children. There have been times, in the dark of the night, in the quiet of a long afternoon in the shade of an oak here or there on the Downs, when you have fancied being the Headmaster of Hogwarts. You would be like McGonagall. Fair, although you have no fondness for the Blacks and the Lupins of the world. Justice must be blind, Mum likes to say. Ruling must be also blind, McGonagall shows.

You rather like her for that.

"I came about a book, Headmistress."

She sniffed. "Mr. Snape, have you procured a position? You graduated with excellent results."

She does not think much of men who live with their mothers in hovels. Slughorn has given up, and no longer encourages you to make something of yourself. McGonagall continues to harry at what she considers your lack of motivation to make your own way in the world.

"I am doing research," you tell her. "It is why I came."

It is a lie. She does not expect anyone to lie. Why would she? You doubt she has lied once in her life. She ought to know better. She has been the Headmistress for years. She is not unexposed to human nature.

Her lips are pressed thin. She knows, you realise. She knows, but maybe it is her code that disallows her from refusing anyone the benefit of doubt. She is a woman with a code. You like her for that.

"How is Miss Black?"

"In her house."

She sighs.

Then she asks, "How is your mother?"

"In her house."

"Any news of your father, Mr. Snape?"

"None, Headmistress."

She sighs again. Then she reaches for a scroll on the large table. It has been read and scrunched up again and again. Her fingers are shaking.

"My condolences on the Potters, Mr. Snape."

She is the first to say this bluntly. There are cobwebs at the upper corners of the bookcases. The sunlight streaks rainbows through the glassware she keeps around. There is a half-empty bottle of scotch on the sideboard. There are mud-stains on the carpet. She must have been tramping about with the groundskeeper. There are—

"You may look for the book," she says, dismissing you.

She is a kind woman.

---

A little, black book. The Lamb of Tartary, the title blared.

There was a picture on its cover. A sheep fixed to a plant by the navel, as if the tree had birthed the beast. The picture flickered, and turned to a red-haired girl fruited from a tree. The base of the tree was smothered in sacrificed blood and bone.

You reach for the book.

Fierce spells woven in guarding blaze. Not all of them are taught at Hogwarts. Some of them, we learned about in our Defense textbook.

Mum taught you anything is possible with magic.

You are no trained curse-breaker, but you have a knack for feeling along the crooks and corners of curse's magic, to find the knots and the gaps, and to tug and press until something gives.

The cost of failure is death or mutilation, you are sure. And it does not faze you now.

James died to protect her. You are going to resurrect her.

It costs you blood. Your right hand is cindered as a curse burns its way from palm to neck before you could arrest it. Another curse crawls through your eyes and ears and nose and plugs itself tight in your belly, no doubt to wreak strange and horrific consequences later.

You trudge on.

Stripped of curses, the book falls open. A slim note slides out from where it was stuffed between the pages of book. Muggle stationery. Who would—

The writing is calligraphic. It resembles Narcissa's hand. Feminine. What woman could have worked such Dark magic to guard a book? Narcissa's sister, the mad one, was known for her talent. This magic is not the work of talent. It is the work of skill.

"If you have found the note, I imagine you must be in some distress."

You are. The curse that has sneaked inside you is scorching you. You can smell burning flesh and organ. You are biting into your cheeks so as not to alert Pince. Your skin is turning blue as blood vessels pop.

You read on.

"My father died to birth me, in the ritual of the Lamb of Tartary. There must be a willing sacrifice. There must be a willing anchor. There must be a willing revenant."

Walburga sacrificed a son. It was no willing sacrifice. Her ritual failed.

Your nail-beds are bleeding. There is blood drooling from your ears.

"It is a cruel existence. It is not life that one returns to. I have taken steps to ensure there will never be another condemned to live as ritual fruit, wombed of sacrifice and folly."

Who was he? You are sure that he was no woman, despite the feminine calligraphy.

A sacrifice. An anchor. A willing revenant.

There is a baby. The baby could be the anchor.

A willing revenant. Why wouldn't Lily return to her child?

And the sacrifice. You need to live until the ritual is done.

You read the last lines of warning. There will be never another condemned to live as ritual fruit, it declares.

There is a poem about Ozymandias that Lily liked.

---

"Black."

"Snape."

He lets you in. There is a bubbled baby hovering at his shoulder. There is a portrait on his wall screaming profanities at you. He does nothing to stop her.

"I should return in the morning," he mutters.

It is full-moon's night. He has accompanied Lupin faithfully in the past. The baby has placed a crimp in his routine. He cannot trust a portrait to watch over the child. You wrote to him, offering your services. He accepted, but his thunderous scowl makes no secret of how displeased he is.

After Black has taken off, you remove the bubble of charms from the baby.

Walburga's portrait watches you in suspicion. Did Black tell her anything?

"There is strange magic on you, mongrel boy," she says.

"Cosmetic spells. I am trying to straighten my nose and whiten my teeth."

She scoffs.

Glamours. Many of them. You are hiding the effects of the curse that is swift progressing in its destruction of you. There is blood in your shit. There is blood in your piss. There is blood in your spit. There is blood in your tears. There is blood in your snot.

Mum has been concerned by your slow gait and pained movements. You have told her that you have taken up boxing to work out your grief after Lily's death. She does not believe her. She is distracted, however. There are dots and splotches in her scrying dish now. Signs of life. She obsesses over the dish, scrying and scrying through the night into the wan hours of the morning.

You hope that she will forgive you one day for charming that dish. A nifty piece of spell-work, just as the curse-breaking on the book was a nifty piece of spell-work. McGonagall is worried that you are squandering your talents. Slughorn has given up on you making something of yourself. You have pioneered a few spells in the course of a few days that might have taken the Unspeakables months and years to invent.

Another nifty piece of spell-work, and the damned portrait falls into a snooze. Black's wards require no sophisticated spell-work to break, but the house has a mind of its own. It is no match for you.

Necessity truly births invention. And you intend to birth Lily tonight.

---

Baby in hand, you arrive at the graveyard.

Black paid for the funerals. The tombstones are grand marble, taller than Lily and James were in life. They stand there sneering cold under the moon, as two vast lifeless legs of stone. Lily would have said something about Ozymandias.

Harry starts squirming in your hold.

"Soon," you promise him. "Your Mum will be here soon."

He has her eyes. He has James's smile. You must be the first to hold him after they died. There are goosebumps on his skin. Black's bubble must have been perfectly conditioned for pressure and temperature. The bastard is unnaturally skilled at Transfiguration. Harry squirms against your side and laughs, and noses along your arm-pit and sighs in contentment. Babies need human contact, Lily said. Black did not learn that lesson at Walburga's knees.

Harry makes puzzled noises when your glamour slips. You are sweating blood. Harry licks it off and makes an unhappy sound.

You place Harry carefully on the plinth.

Then you enact Tartary's ritual to fruit a lamb from sacrifice.

"Snape!" It is Black. "Snape! Bloody hell! What are you doing?" He curses. "I know what you are doing! You fool! My mother—"

He dives in to shield Harry as a tree tears the graves and bursts up into life. It is leafless and gnarly, knotting about the bones of a woman who died too young. Its roots bear shreds of decomposing flesh of wife and husband. The barren branches seize you, whipping swift about your trunk and limbs and head, crushing bone and organ and peeling open skin. Before you have the presence of mind to let ritual have its way, you scream. Your voice is no longer yours. It is a strange, sepulchral sound that frightens you.

Black is screaming too. Harry is crying. Earth and root stuff you beneath the profaned ground, berthing you between bones and dead flesh.

A dead woman rises, with death's magic. She is eating of you from head to toe. From your flesh is birthed she, shaped as of wisp and whim, coalescing into misshapen child, eating greedily until it grew to woman, as eldritch as only the lamb of Tartary could be. Bound as thrall, as once the bleating lamb to rooted tree, its soul winds about yours.

Fire tears through the grave in fierce resolution, scorching ritual-fruit and corpses and the sacrifice gladly given. Black's fire. Fiendfyre.
.
"Enough!" Black screams. Harry is bawling. Has Black wrapped him in a bubble again?

"I won't let you!" Black is yelling. "I won't let you do this to her!"

She wakes then, with eyes wide and full of horror.

"Severus," she says, alarmed. "Severus! What happened to you?"

Harry's cries carve frightened through the ruckus. Black's Fiendfyre is burning what you birthed. You wrap your fruit in your arms as she weeps.

Her magic pulses against yours, as child's navel leeched to its mother's. Through this pulse, you can feel Harry too; the sacrifice, the fruit, the anchor all three intertwined and one in willing union.

You have to save her. You have birthed her. Now you must save her. Her husband's flesh rots about you. He died to protect her. You have given your life to resurrect her. You squeeze the remains of him in the remains of your palms. His wife clings to you, weeping.

Black's magic sweeps green through the graves; it seeks the death you stoppered.

"Remember Ozymandias," Lily pleads, and dies.

You are left lone and levelled.

---