Harry tumbled arse-over-head into the viscous sludge of memories, doing several somersaults before his feet slammed into soft, loamy ground. It took some time for the world to stop spinning, but when it finally did, he found himself in what appeared to be a children’s playground, nearly deserted despite being, by the look of the sun, around mid-day. Where this particular playground was situated, he hadn’t a clue, but beyond the low-cut treeline he could make out a single, tall smokestack belching black soot into the greying sky. A Muggle someplace, then, he supposed.
A rhythmic creak caught his ear, and he turned on one foot to see a swing set, both seats presently occupied by a pair of girls swinging back and forth in a discombobulated rhythm. They were engaged in quiet conversation with one another and did not seem to notice the skinny, underfed twig of a boy peeping at them from behind a nearby bush.
The girls looked young—perhaps only ten or so; one had mouse-brown hair and a sour, pinched frown, while the other could have easily been a Weasley, given her striking red hair, with bright green eyes shining out of an equally bright face. The spying boy had a hunched look to him, as if he made a habit of trying to make himself seem smaller than he was, and his long, greasy black hair hung in his face. Where the girls wore simple but colourful matching shirts and skirts, the boy wore a mish-mash of what had to be hand-me-downs: jeans pockmarked with rips and tears that looked less fashionable and more accidental, an oversized coat that came down to his knees with sleeves rolled up several times over, and a pair of trainers that might have been white once but were now a dishwater grey-green, scuffed and stained. Harry didn’t dare judge; there had been a time he’d been forced into an outfit much the same, through no fault of his own.
It suddenly struck him, though, that he was seeing a memory—a memory, coiling slurry-like in a Pensieve stored in the Headmaster’s Office. To be delivered to Mr. H.J. Potter in the event of the Headmaster’s untimely demise.
This boy was Snape.
He looked of an age with the girls, and he was remarkably unremarkable, with the same pale, drawn look to him he’d worn as a man. His expression as he watched the girls from his secret spot in the bushes, though, was certainly one Harry had never seen on his Potions professor: besotted avarice. He had his dark eyes fixed hawklike on the younger of the pair—the redhead—as she kicked her heels out and drew them back in with equal force, swinging higher and higher despite her friend’s—sister’s?—admonishments.
“Don’t you dare, Lily!” shrieked the mouse-brown girl. She hopped off her swing and stamped her sandalled foot sharply, hands on her hips. “Mummy said you weren’t allowed to do it again!”
“She only said I shouldn’t!” Lily said. “It doesn’t mean I mustn’t!” And as if to prove her point, Lily braced herself, waiting until the swing reached the height of its arc—and then let herself fly free. Quite literally, really: she seemed to soar unnaturally far from the swing set, given the relatively modest speed and height she’d attained, alighting a good twenty feet away with a gentle feather-step, prim on her toes like a ballerina. She held her arms out in triumph, beaming. “Did you see, Tuney? I jumped so far, and I’m totally fine! It’s like magic! You try now!”
Lily. ‘Tuney’. This was Harry’s mother and aunt.
Snape had known his mother and aunt?
“You’re going to get in trouble!” Petunia said with a huff, hunted eyes darting to and fro; she looked like she half-wished they weren’t alone on the playground—so that she might be able to run to their mother and tell on her sister.
“Not if Mummy doesn’t find out,” Lily reasoned. Her launch from the swing had brought her very near the bush behind which Snape was lurking, and she smiled softly as her eye fell on a blossom that had fallen to the ground. She rushed over and cupped the blossom in her hands, turning back to face her sister. “Watch! I tried this yesterday with a butterfly, but I’ll bet I can do it with a flower, too.” Petunia kept her distance for a brief moment, but her curiosity eventually won out, and with her lips twisted into a disapproving moue, she drew closer, peering into Lily’s hands. Once she saw she had her audience’s captive attention, Lily blew softly on the petals, smiling when, in response, the flower closed back up into a new bud before blossoming again, and then repeated its trick.
“Stop! Stop that right now!” shrieked Petunia, slapping Lily’s hands away, as if she had shown Petunia a creepy-crawly of some sort and not a lovely flower.
Lily frowned at her reaction. “What? I wasn’t hurting anything—I just thought it was pretty.”
“It’s not pretty, it’s unnatural,” Petunia spat, recoiling. She stared down at the flower where it lay crumpled on the ground, lips twisting nervously. “…How’d you do it anyway?” she asked, and Harry wondered if he was mistaking the note of longing in her voice. Petunia hated magic—jealousy made no sense here. “Is it like Mr. Grissom’s card trick? Have you got a mirror up your sleeve—?”
“A mirror? Stupid Muggle.” A rustle of leaves heralded Snape’s timely arrival as he popped out from behind the bush. “Rather obvious how she did it.”
Petunia gave a startled shriek, nearly tripping over her own two feet as she rushed back for the apparent safety of the swing set, but Lily held her ground, nose wrinkled and chin jutting out defiantly. She reminded Harry, with some degree of amusement, of Draco that first day on the Hogwarts Express—all juvenile pomposity and stubbornness. She raked Snape with a judging sweep of her eyes, and he seemed to shrink in on himself, leaning on his back foot. Perhaps he had not expected to be met with screams of terror and a sneering pre-teen.
“How’s it obvious, then?” she asked him, and he seemed to brighten, suddenly more sure of himself.
He cut a brief glance in the direction of Petunia, who was clutching the chain of one of the swings and glaring at the two of them in wary disapproval. Evidently satisfied they had their privacy, he leaned forward, and said in a low, soft voice that even Petunia’s ears, so attuned to catching gossip, surely couldn’t catch: “Magic, of course.”
Lily lifted a brow, not bothering to keep her voice down. “There’s no such thing as magic. It’s all just tricks, anyone can do it.”
“Can your sister do it?”
This seemed to stir some consideration in Lily, and she bit her lip. “…She could, if she tried.”
“I’ll bet she couldn’t—she’s just a Muggle; but you…” His lips quirked up to one side, and his brows lifted as he whispered conspiratorially. “You’re a witch.”
Lily’s mouth dropped open, and she snapped with the sort of bald offence only children can muster, “That’s not a very nice name to call someone!” She then turned on her heel and began marching back toward Petunia, nose in the air. Harry half expected her to toss back My father will hear about this!
“Wait—no!” sputtered Snape, flushing darkly, and he raced after Lily in protest. The oversized coat he wore, which he’d been holding closed with one hand, flew open as he ran, revealing a dirty, dingy smock that looked like it hadn’t seen a good wash in days; Harry now understood why he’d insisted on wearing the thing when it was well past coat-wearing weather. “I didn’t mean it badly!”
Lily joined Petunia behind the swings, clinging to the opposite chain. They stood as a pair, twin frowns of disapproval on their lips, and Harry didn’t know how he’d ever mistaken them for anything but blood. He shuddered to imagine his Aunt Petunia’s pinch-faced scowls on his mother—a sight he probably would have been treated to at least weekly had she lived to see thirty or more.
“You are a witch,” Snape said, more earnest now and forcing a toothy smile. “But you being a witch is a good thing! It’s a great thing, in fact! My mum’s one, and I’m one too! I mean, I’m a wizard of course. But we’re the same!”
Petunia laughed, her tittering chuckle sounding brittle and cold. “Right! A wizard!” she snorted, bold once more with her sister standing by her side. She sneered at him. “I’ve seen you around—you’re the Snape family’s boy.” She looked to Lily, explaining. “You know, those people, the ones who live down Spinner’s End, near the river. Always arguing loud enough to wake the dead.” She then narrowed her eyes at Snape, suspicion thick in her voice. “Have you been spying on us?”
“Of course not!” Snape said, baldly lying, and he hunched down a bit lower in his massive coat, as if trying to lose himself in its folds. “What’s to spy on? You’re just a boring old Muggle.”
While Petunia clearly did not know what the word meant, she had sense enough to realise she was being insulted and drew herself up in a close approximation to her older self. “Come on, Lily. Let’s go home; the riff-raff are moving in.” Lily, evidently no more enamoured with Snape than her sister, did not protest, keeping close on her sister’s heels as they marched off the playground—though she did not look away from Snape until they turned around the bend at the entrance.
Once they had gone, Harry was left alone with the young Snape, whose scrawny shoulders were slumped in bitter disappointment. He mouthed an oath to himself that Harry did not catch and kicked a pine cone viciously, sending it into the scrub. “…Stupid. Stupid.” Harry reflected on the scene that had just unfolded; clearly this had not been a chance encounter. Snape had engineered it, after a fashion, and it had decidedly not gone how he’d pictured it.
The scene dissolved in a blur of colour and light, quickly reforming before Harry could wonder where they were off to now. The playground was gone, and he now found himself in a stand of trees atop a little hill, at the base of which he could see ran a gentle river, glittering in the late-afternoon sun. It was near enough Harry could hear it babbling, though not so near it drowned out the quiet conversation of the two children sitting cross-legged on the ground at his feet.
It was not the same day—but not so much later, Harry thought. Snape still wore his dirty smock, though he had removed his coat and spread it on the ground, that they might sit on it.
“…gotta be careful. You have to make sure you keep the Statute of Secrecy—”
“Statue of Secrecy?” Lily asked, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
“Statute. Like a rule you’ve got to follow. It’s against the law to show Muggles magic usually. If the Ministry catch you doing magic outside of school, you’ll get letters of warning the first couple of times, but if it’s bad enough, you might even get expelled.”
Lily gasped, eyes wide and white. “But—oh no! I’ve already done magic outside school! Loads of magic! I’m not even in school yet, and I’ve already broken the rules!”
Snape waved her off with an easy psh. “I wouldn’t worry about that—it’s just wild magic you’ve been doing. All wizarding kids do it, they can’t help it sometimes. You should’ve seen me when I was younger! I accidentally set the drapes on fire this one time, and another time I blew the cat up into a balloon—it nearly floated out the window.” He shrugged. “They wouldn’t do anything to a kid who hasn’t even got their wand yet—it’s only once you’re eleven and they’re training you up that you’ve got to start being more careful.” He gave her a wink. “No more flying leaps off of swings or Herbivicus Charms.”
She favoured him with a gentle smile, then turned her eyes forward, staring into the middle distance. Absently, she picked up a twig at her side, testing its weight, then began swishing it about in graceful arcs. A casual onlooker might have imagined she was playing at conducting an orchestra—but Harry knew she was envisioning all the fantastic spells she would cast when she had a real wand in hand. Snape watched her amuse herself, rapt—but after a moment’s cavorting, she caught him staring and quickly dropped the stick, flushing darkly. “…You aren’t having me on, right?”
“Wh-what?” Snape sputtered, thrown by the sudden shift in her demeanour.
She cut him a dubious glance, eyes narrowing in much the same way Petunia’s had. “…Tuney says you’re making it all up to try and impress me. She says there’s no such place as ‘Hogwarts’ and I’m not a witch or magic or anything.” Her expression softened, entreating. “…But it’s real, right? Cross your heart?”
Snape mimed crossing his heart. “I’ll even make an Unbreakable Vow if you like!” Lily laughed, and Snape flushed, her smile infectious. “It’s real, I swear it,” he continued, dark eyes fixed intently on Lily’s. “Your sister only thinks that because she’s just a Muggle—but you and me? We’re magic. We’re a witch and a wizard. We’ll get our letters, the summer of our eleventh year—you’ll see.”
“I can’t wait…” Lily whispered to herself, marvelling at the prospect.
“You’ll be a brilliant witch, just watch,” Snape assured her, transformed and oddly impressive despite his unimpressive appearance. He was brimming with confidence and had a beguiling cocksurety that even Harry wouldn’t have been able to resist. If Draco had approached him like this back on the train, things might have panned out quite different.
Lily leaned forward, dropping her voice even further. “They really send our acceptance letters by owl? Why on earth would they do that?”
“Tradition, I guess,” Snape said with a shrug. “But they might send someone to deliver the news directly, since you’re Muggleborn. Not wanting to spook your mum and dad and all. Plus someone will need to explain the dos and don’ts and whatnot.”
Lily nodded along, then bit her lip. “…Does it…does it make a difference, being Muggleborn? I don’t know anything about what’s what, and no one in my family’s a witch or a wizard either…”
Snape opened his mouth, a ready response on his lips—but something held him. His eager black eyes took in her pale face, her auburn hair, her skinny arms and stockinged legs. He firmed his lips. “Of course not,” he said. “And anyone who says different’s full of it.”
“Oh, that’s good, then,” Lily said, shoulders slumping in visible relief, and she reached for the twig she’d been playing with earlier, perhaps wondering now what her real wand might look like, and it she should start practising with a dummy one in the meantime.
“Doesn’t matter where you come from—only how much magic you’ve got in you. And you’ve got loads, like I said.” Snape’s brows waggled rakishly. “They’ll be fighting for you. Maybe you’ll even get your letter early. Don’t think I won’t be jealous, now.”
Lily grinned at him, then flopped down onto her back. Her red hair splayed out over the leaf litter, and she stared up at the mottled canopy overhead. Harry watched Snape watching Lily, overly conscious of the eager, hungry way he looked upon her, just as he’d done before he’d shown himself to her and Petunia back at the playground. He had it bad, and he wasn’t doing a very good job of disguising it. Harry was beginning to get a very bad feeling about the way things had worked out between them, given how absolutely horrible Snape had treated him all these years.
Lily twisted around to glance further up the hill. “…Things all right at your place?” she asked, tone nonchalant—but Snape flinched nonetheless.
“Fine,” he said shortly. And Harry had heard that tone before.
“Doesn’t sound like they’re arguing any more.”
“Only probably ‘cause my dad’s left for the pub,” Snape said, bitterly snatching up a fistful of leaves. They crunched in his grip, and he began absently tearing them into confetti. “But they can argue themselves hoarse for all I care. Just a little bit longer, and then I’ll be off to Hogwarts. For now, I just stay well out of my dad’s way, and it’s not so bad. I get to hang out with you, now.”
“Does your dad not like magic? My parents think it’s funny—but I think they’re still mostly convinced it’s fancy tricks.”
“They’ll come around—your family are all right. Aside from maybe your sister.” He did not seem inclined to elaborate on his own father’s feelings concerning his magical abilities.
Lily picked at the pile of leaf confetti Snape had made. “…Hey, Severus?”
She wasn’t looking at him, but Harry saw it all the same: his face had made a funny little tic when Lily said his name. Harry was well acquainted with that tic. “Yeah?”
“…What happens to your soul after the Dementors suck it out?”
“What?!” Snape’s brows furrowed in panicked worry, and he leaned in close, searching her features. “Why on earth would you want to know something like that?”
“Well, I mean—you said if people break the law, and I’ve used magic outside of school—”
Snape rolled his eyes and gave her shoulder a gentle shove. “Geez, don’t spook me like that! They aren’t gonna sic Dementors on a kid—unless they were maybe the worst kid who ever lived and blew up the Ministry of Magic or something. I told you, they don’t care much about the wild magic untrained witches and wizards get up to—it’s a nuisance is all. Everyone does it, like wetting the bed—” He paused here, flushing, as he realised he’d admitted to something he really hadn’t wanted to, not in front of Lily. “Anyway, they save the Dementors for the people who do really bad stuff, like—like killing people, or using an Unforgivable.” Lily cocked her head, evidently wondering what an ‘Unforgivable’ was. “There’s a whole prison they built, just for evil wizards—the worst of the worst. It’s called ‘Azkaban’, and the Dementors pretty much run the place. But they’re not gonna chuck a little kid in there, especially not one who’s so—”
He cut himself off again, practically swallowing his tongue this time, and went back to shredding leaves. Lily, for her part, seemed relieved, allowing herself a ghost of a smile.
Her head snapped up, along with Snape’s, at the sharp sound of a twig snapping nearby—and their gazes landed on Petunia, frozen in fright, one hand on a tree trunk to balance herself.
“Oh, hey Tuney,” Lily said, inclining her head in invitation. “Want to come—”
Snape was already on his feet, though, fists clenched at his sides. “Rich of you to accuse me of spying, Muggle,” he snarled. “Keep sticking your nose into other people’s business and someone’s gonna bite it off some day.” He snapped his teeth at her, baring a toothy smile.
Petunia recoiled, hand at her breast and lip trembling. Her eyes jumped back and forth between Lily and Snape, and Harry knew from experience she was scrambling for some harsh, piercing rejoinder. She eventually stumbled upon, “Absolutely barbaric, as expected of Spinner’s End shite.” Her lip curled as she raked Snape with a critical eye. “You know that’s what they call you people, right? Because of how you smell—”
Another sharp CRACK rent the air: just over Petunia’s head, a branch snapped free, plummeting to the ground. Lily screamed as the branch glanced off Petunia’s shoulder, knocking her to the ground. Petunia burst into tears with a wailing yelp, scrambling back to her feet and beating a hasty retreat through the trees.
“Ohmygosh, Tuney!” Lily shrieked, quickly rising to follow—but Petunia had already disappeared into the underbrush. Lily stood there, impotent—then turned on Snape, fierce sparking anger in her eyes. “You did that, didn’t you? You snapped that branch on purpose.”
The grin on Snape’s face faded at once, and he lost a bit of colour. “Wh—of course not! It was probably just rotten—”
“Yeah, likely!” Lily sniffed, unconvinced. “I’m not one of those ‘stupid Muggles’ you talk about. I know you used magic to hurt my sister!”
“Wait—I didn’t, I swear I didn’t!” Snape cried, reaching for Lily’s hand, but she slapped him away, and without so much as a backwards glanced, she raced off after Petunia.
As on the playground, Harry was once more left alone with Snape, cursing himself for a fool and looking utterly miserable.
Again the scene reformed, and Harry knew exactly where they were now: Platform nine and three-quarters. Snape stood hunched beside him, already dressed in dark school robes, next to an older woman who looked as miserable to be there as he was. “Stand up straight,” she snapped, whipping him sharply across the back with her wand, and Snape winced but reluctantly stood a little taller, expression dour. He had no eyes for the cheery scarlet steam engine or the other students milling about or even the woman Harry suspected was his mother (what had become of his father, then? Down at the pub again?), though. Instead, his whole world seemed to have dwindled down to the family of four who had just come stumbling through the wall separating the platform from the Muggle part of King’s Cross Station.
The two children—girls, one mouse-brown, one redhead—had shuffled a short distance from their parents and seemed to be carrying on a hushed conversation that prompted Harry, unaccountably curious, to move closer to them to listen.
“…don’t be like this, not when I’m about to leave and I won’t see you for months. Plus, I told you—” Lily settled a hand on her sister’s shoulder, and Petunia harshly shrugged it off, trying to shoulder past Lily to get back to their parents. But Lily moved to block her. “Listen! As soon as I get there, I’ll go straight to Professor Dumbledore and ask him if he can maybe make an exception, just the once! You’re just as capable as me, even if you don’t have magic, and you’re my sister, so—”
“I don’t want to go!” Petunia shouted, earning the two of them curious stares from the surrounding students and their families. Snape, for his part, would have been glaring holes straight through Petunia if he’d had the power. Petunia flushed at the attention, ears and nose burning bright red, and dropped her voice to a raspy hiss. “I don’t want to go to your stupid freak school, all right? I want to stay here, with all my friends and my room and my belongings and my normal life. So you go be a freak, since you seem to enjoy it so much.”
Lily did not allow herself to be baited, but her lip was trembling, and when she spoke, there was a soft tremor in her voice. “…I’m not a freak. I can’t help what I can do—Severus says I’m special.”
“Oh, well if Severus says so!” Petunia spat, eyes lighting up. She was relishing the reaction, clearly. “What would he know? He’s a freak too! All these people are!” She waved her arm around the platform, and Harry tried to see things through the eyes of a young girl only just realising there was a lot more to the world than she’d been led to believe: Screeching owls and yowling cats and rats that had escaped from their enclosure and were running up and down the platform; new students bidding tearful goodbyes to their parents, who were bestowing heartfelt Cheering Charms upon them; older students greeting friends for the first time after the long summer holiday, showing off the new magic they’d learned. “Good riddance. That train can’t take you all away from polite society soon enough, I say!”
And in an instant, all of Lily’s pity and good graces melted away, and a cold, hard stubborn wall slid into place. “Freaks, are we? Then why’d you write the Headmaster, begging to be allowed to go learn to be one yourself?” she asked, keeping her voice low and punching sharply down on each word.
Petunia turned as red as the Hogwarts Express. “I—would never—”
“Except you did. I saw he even wrote back—I wouldn’t have expected he’d have the time, what with being the Headmaster of a school of freaks.”
Petunia was sputtering like a tea kettle left too long on the burner. “You had no right—that was private, and how dare you read—!”
“I didn’t read it! I just saw you got a response!” Lily protested, and now it was her turn to flush darkly, her shoulders tightening as she crossed her arms over her chest. “I mentioned it to Severus, and he sounded shocked a wizard as powerful and important as Dumbledore had shared correspondence with a Muggle.” She sniffed. “But I suppose that won’t mean anything to you, since you think he’s a freak who ought to be ‘taken away from polite society’.”
Petunia was incensed now; rarely had Harry seen her so furious, and he fought down the ingrained instinct to make himself scarce lest he tempt her wrath. Memory though this was, she was still an imposing figure. “I hope you blow yourselves up at that school, you and your little boyfriend,” she snapped, then spat a final harsh, “Freak!” and stormed back to where their parents waited taking in the fantastic scenery…
The scene dissolved again. They were on the Hogwarts Express now, and bright-green countryside flashed by in a blur beyond the windows Harry could see in peeks through each cabin. Snape was rushing down the corridor, school robes fluttering up to reveal he still wore shabby pants with holes in the knees underneath. He was checking each compartment as he passed, eventually coming to a stop outside one to which a pair of young wizards in loud conversation had already laid claim—Snape ignored them, though, in favour of the figure he could see curled up in one of the window seats, gazing distantly out at the countryside whipping by in a blur.
Given the furrowed set of her brow, Lily did not seem pleased with her company, but Harry suspected it was more to do with the fight she’d just had with her sister.
The boys glanced up from their conversation when Snape slid the door to the compartment open, but Snape only stepped over them and made his way to the seat opposite Lily. She kept her face resolutely turned toward the window, but from the angle, Harry could see in her reflection that she’d been crying.
“…Tuney hates me now.”
Snape frowned, clearly having expected Lily to rejoice—as he was—that they were finally bound for Hogwarts, leaving all of their cares behind. “What for?”
“B-because I saw she got that letter from Dumbledore.” She rubbed at her eyes, inhaling sharply.
“Aw, she’s just jealous.”
“Of course she’s jealous—but I’d hoped she’d still be happy for me. That she might miss me…” She clenched her eyes shut, and fresh tears began to form on her eyelashes. “N—now she just hates me…”
“So what?” Snape said, and Harry flinched; even he knew that hadn’t been the right thing to say, and he was pants at talking to girls.
As expected, Lily’s head snapped up, and though she was flushed with emotion, her eyes blazed with anger. Harry was pretty sure he’d inherited that from her, too. “So, she’s my sister! You wouldn’t get it, you don’t have any brothers or sisters!”
“Don’t need a brother or sister to know she’s just a stupid M—” Snape started, but Lily cut him off with one finger raised in warning.
“Stop calling her that,” she said, voice soft with threat, and she rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. “I don’t like it when you rag on her just because she’s not like us.”
“You complain about her all the time, though,” Snape said, sour and morose as he slumped back into his seat. “Whatever, enough about her! Look where you are! You’re on the Hogwarts Express, just like I said we’d be! On our way to the best seven years of our lives! We’re gonna learn so much magic, your head’s gonna pop!”
He didn’t bother suppressing the excitement and exhilaration in his voice, and despite herself, Lily gave him a grudging half-smile. “I suppose.”
“I can’t wait ‘til we get Sorted,” he said, sensing he was finally managing to drag her out of her doldrums with the easy distraction of their upcoming schooling. “Of course I’ll be in Slytherin, but you’d better be there too! Or there’s just no point in going at all!”
“Slytherin?” came a new voice, thick with derision and contempt—and both Lily and Snape turned as one to see that they’d drawn the attention of the other boys in the compartment.
Harry’s focus thus far had been on Snape and Lily, not a thought given to the other students sharing the cabin, but now that he took a good look, he realised he was staring straight into the bespectacled eyes of the boy who would become his father not ten years from this moment. James was slight, with a shock of black hair on his head just like Snape—but there the resemblance stopped. Where Snape looked underfed and dingy, a mongrel in human clothing, James had an air of having been thoroughly doted upon in his youth. Harry wondered if he’d ever complained about the number of birthday gifts his parents had provided.
“There’s folks who actually want to be Sorted Slytherin?” James asked, turning his question to the boy lounging on the seat opposite him. “Merlin, if I got chucked into Slytherin, I think I’d take a long walk off the pier into the Great Lake on Day One. Just let the Giant Squid have at me.”
His companion, a handsome boy with thick, dark hair that nearly reached his shoulders, had his head propped up in one elbow leaned against the side of the cabin; he didn’t seem to find the situation half as amusing as James. “I might just, if that happens. My whole family’s been in Slytherin so far,” he said, sounding not at all pleased at the prospect of joining their number. Harry realised with a jolt that this was Sirius, before he’d escaped the ‘curse’ of the Black family and found his way to the warmth and friendship of Gryffindor.
James made a show of clutching at his chest dramatically. “Well, it was nice knowing you before the snake pit swallowed you up.”
Sirius rolled his eyes, shrugging. “Don’t count me out just yet. Maybe I’ll buck tradition. Bit of pre-teenage rebellion never hurt anyone, right?” He jerked his chin at James. “Assuming the Hat doesn’t toss you into Slytherin just for a lark, where are you hoping to be Sorted?”
“Where else?” James said, miming swipes with an invisible sword at some imagined enemy or another. “‘Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart!’ All my family’s been Sorted there, and I’m just fine continuing that tradition.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you are.” It was now Snape’s turn to make a derogatory remark on another’s choice of House, and James’s head whipped around, glaring daggers.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I should think it’s obvious; if you can’t piece it together, then clearly Gryffindor is the place for you.”
“Yeah?” Sirius said, rising to his feet. “Want we should show you where your place is?” James looked ready to join him, wand already in hand—when Lily leapt to her feet, taking Snape by the wrist and pulling him along after her.
“Come on, Severus,” she said in a tone Harry was sure he’d heard on Hermione. “Let’s find another compartment. This one’s overrun with riff-raff.” Snape had absolutely no objection to their leaving, staring down in wonder at Lily’s hand holding on to his.
“Come on, Severus,” James and Sirius mocked; Snape showed them two fingers before slamming the compartment door behind them, though not quickly enough he missed the sing-song, “See ya, Snivellus!” that followed them into the corridor.
The last thing Harry saw as the scene dissolved once more was James sneering face, and he tamped down the very real urge to clock him good. God, what a dick.
…Harry had inherited a bit of that, too, he supposed.
When he turned around, he found he a familiar scene sprawling before him; candles hung suspended in the air beneath the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall, and hundreds of curious faces looked upon the collection of First-years as they lined up before the rickety stool holding the Sorting Hat, waiting to learn their House assignments.
Professor McGonagall held up a roll of parchment, calling out in her rich brogue, “Evans, Lily!”
Harry, standing behind Snape, watched his mother carefully pick her way forward through the crowd to climb onto the stool. She looked terrified, and Harry tried to send happy thoughts her way, hoping to somehow transverse time and space to lift her spirits.
McGonagall favoured her with a thin smile before placing the Sorting Hat on Lily’s head, and Harry recalled his own experience in her place. Hat Stalls were rare, but Lily had been around Snape long enough, he figured, that maybe there would be a bit of mental tug-of-war, like there had with Harry—
“Gryffindor!” the Hat burst out, barely a second after it had settled onto her crown. Wherever Harry had gotten his Slytherin tendencies, it clearly hadn’t been from his mother.
“Fuck…” Snape cursed under his breath, fists forming at his side, and Harry felt a tiny stab of pity for him; he’d been so excited to come to Hogwarts, and things weren’t starting out in his favour at all. McGonagall removed the hat from Lily’s head, extending her hand towards the Gryffindor tables, and Lily slipped off the stool, looking suddenly very relieved as she made her way over to her new Housemates, where she was welcomed with raucous cheers and grinning faces. Before she let herself be folded into the throng of red and gold, she threw a glance back at Snape, giving him a sad little smile.
Sirius, who had already been Sorted, waved Lily over and budged up to make room for her on the empty bench. She smiled to graciously accept the offer—then met his eyes and seemed to realise he was the same boy who’d nearly clocked her friend back on the train. With a firmly upturned nose and arms crossed over her chest, she moved with purpose further down the bench, leaving a wide berth between them.
The Sorting continued, and Harry watched with rapt attention as Remus and James and of course Pettigrew joined Lily and Sirius at the Gryffindor tables. Lily gave James the same glaring stinkeye she’d given Sirius, but she was warm and cordial with Remus and Pettigrew, who both looked nearly as nervous to be there as she was.
Snape was among the final few to be Sorted, and he straightened proudly when McGonagall at last called him to the stool.
He closed his eyes as McGonagall placed the hat on his head, and Harry thought he might be mouthing something to himself—perhaps he was bargaining with the thing. Snape looked just desperate enough to force himself into Gryffindor if it meant he might be able to spend more time around Lily.
Whatever he’d said, the result was the same: “Slytherin!”
His fate being set, Snape sighed, allowed the Hat to be removed from his head, and shuffled off to the other side of the Hall, opposite the Gryffindor tables. The Slytherins welcomed him with polite cheers and pats on the back. Harry thought for a wild moment it was Draco standing there, clapping Snape firmly on the shoulder, with a Prefect badge gleaming on his chest—but no, it would have been Lucius Malfoy, wouldn’t it?
The Hall faded into fog and memory as the scene shifted again, and Harry could see it was some time later now. Lily and Snape, looking quite comfortable in their school robes, were walking through the castle’s main courtyard, and the arching branches of the trees overhead were bare, the ground littered with dead leaves. The tension in their bodies and the hushed but rapid fire of their conversation said they were arguing, and Harry broke into a jog to catch up, hoping to overhear them. As he drew close, he realised that it wasn’t just a few months later but a few years; they were both taller and had lost much of the soft roundness of youth. Lily looked even more fetching, while Snape seemed to have grown darker and more dour, and his lips twisted into a sour snarl as he spoke to her.
“…don’t see what’s the problem!” Snape was saying, brows knit and entreaty thick in his voice. “I thought we were friends! Best friends, even!”
Lily shook her head sharply, her red hair flying up around her. “We are—and friends are honest with each other. Doubly so for best ones! You’ve been hanging around some really shady sorts lately, and I’m sorry, but—” She sighed as they came to a pillar, turning around to lean her back against it. In her arms were clutched a bundle of library books—the topmost one was, he was most amused to see, Men Who Love Dragons Too Much. Curious to think they were carrying it around with them still. What had she thought, he wondered, of the Antipodean Opaleye? “I can’t keep quiet about it any longer. I won’t. I know they’re your Housemates, but Avery and Mulciber are just horrible. Not just mean or rude but cruel—and they seem to enjoy it. Especially Mulciber—I mean, did you see what he tried to do to Mary Macdonald the other day? All she did was bump his shoulder coming ‘round a corner!”
Snape brushed her off, rubbing at the back of his neck uncomfortably. “That—he didn’t mean anything by it, it was just a prank. A joke that fell flat, that’s all.”
“It wasn’t a joke, Sev. It was Dark Magic. I read about the Jinx he used—in a library book I had to get special permission from Professor McGonagall to read because it was in the Restricted Section.” Snape wasn’t meeting her eye now, and she ducked her head to force it. “So if you’re honestly telling me you think it was funny—”
“Didn’t say it was funny, just said he meant it as a joke. And if it’s unfunny jokes we’re discussing, then what about what Potter and Black pulled with Malfoy the other day?”
Lily regarded him warily. “What’s Potter got to do with anything? Do I look like I’m defending him to you? This isn’t about some randos in my House—it’s about the friends you keep.”
“Well—the point is there’s people in both our Houses who aren’t as amazing and wonderful as they’d have everyone believe.”
Lily made no arguments on this point, only dropped her voice. “Then we can have a conversation about Potter and Black when they start using Dark magic too, but until then—”
“They’re only not using it because they’re too stupid to know what they’re missing! Magic’s magic, there’s no ‘light’ or ‘dark’! It’s all in how you use it—”
“Oh, like how Avery and Mulciber use it?”
“Potter would use it too, if he ever bothered to crack open a book and learn spells beyond Lumos and Tarantallegra!”
Lily was breathing harshly through her nose. “…James Potter is a lot of things, but I doubt he’s the type of person to use that sort of horrible magic.”
“Oh, of course he wouldn’t! Not if it was something cooked up by a Slytherin, but slap a ‘Godric Gryffindor-approved’ label on it, and he’ll try just about anything! Half the people at this school thinks he hangs the moon, and the other half are too cowardly to stand up and say otherwise, but I know—and you should too—that he’s nothing but a stuck-up, pompous arsehole who gets his rocks off at others’ expense. If you can’t see that there’s nothing standing between him and the likes of Avery and Mulciber but a bit of gold and red—”
“You think Potter would carve an M into someone’s forehead, just for bumping into him.”
“Of course not,” Snape said simply. “It’d be a P—though maybe that’s giving him too much credit for knowing how to spell his own name.”
Lily was visibly growing weary of the conversation, shifting the books in her arms to the crook of an elbow as she massaged a temple. “…I’m so tired of having this conversation, Severus…”
“…Same here.” Snape shrugged his shoulders. “I just wish you’d stop acting like my friends are the scum of the earth when the people in your House are nearly as bad.”
“‘Nearly’ and ‘in my House’ being the operative words. I want nothing to do with my House degenerates—while you set cockroaches on fire in the boys’ lavatory with yours.”
“Wha—who told you—” Snape flushed, and Lily rolled her eyes.
“I mean it, Sev. The time’s coming soon where you’re gonna have to decide what sort of people you want to be associated with. What sort of company you want to keep, knowing the kind of person it’ll make you into. You can’t help who you’ve been Sorted with—but you can certainly help how you orientate yourself with regards to them. Until you’re ready to stop apologising for Avery and Mulciber, then…” She bit her lip. “…Maybe we shouldn’t hang out.”
Snape’s already pale face went absolutely sheet white, and he was immediately contrite. “I—I’m sorry, I know they’re arseholes, I really do—it’s just, they’re the only ones who keep Potter and his lackeys in line sometimes! He’d be even more horrible if they weren’t around to get him to stand down, and it just pisses me off so much that people—” Harry heard the unspoken that you. “—Don’t realise how he’s just as bad as they are, simply because he hasn’t had opportunity to show it.”
“I’m not going to judge someone for the horrible things they might do, Sev; that’s ridiculous.”
Snape grew desperate, licking his lips feverishly. “I know, and that’s one of the wonderful things about you—I only don’t want to see you made a fool of! I mean, he fancies you, you know! James Potter fancies you!” His shoulders hunched, and he looked absolutely miserable, as if by saying the words aloud he had willed the situation into existence. “So if you thought—if you forgot—and he comes off like this big—with his Quidditch trophies—but he’s just so—cocky—infuriating—arsehole—” By the end of his rant, he was just choking out insults, his bitterness rendering him nigh incoherent.
Lily watched him impassively, arms crossed over her chest. Then she sighed loudly, defeated. “I hardly need you telling me James Potter has his head shoved so far up his own arse he can lick his own tonsils. I have to share a Common Room with him; believe me, I know.” She let her head fall back against the pillar and stared up at the crooked, raking claws of the naked branches arching over them. “But that’s all he is: a spoilt priggish bully who never quite managed to mature beyond First Year. Mulciber and Avery…the stuff they think’s amusing isn’t just ‘not funny’—it’s evil, Sev. And I don’t understand how you can see the things they do, the sorts of wizards they’re trying to become, and want to be associated with them.”
Lily was doing a very good job of trying to keep Snape on the straight and narrow, but Harry doubted he was listening to her earnest entreaties he find new companions; the moment she’d said the words ‘James’ and ‘head up his own arse’ in the same sentence, his whole demeanour had brightened, and as he offered to walk her to her next class, there was an unmistakable spring in his step.
When the scene shifted again, Harry realised with a sharp twist in his gut that he knew when and where this memory had placed him. He wondered if Snape had included this memory on purpose—a reminder of what Harry would find if he poked his nose where it didn’t belong, if he meddled in affairs that were none of his concern. Be careful what you wish for.
He watched, with no enjoyment, as Snape left the Great Hall after sitting his O.W.L. in Defence Against the Dark Arts, saw him wander away from the castle for a breath of fresh air and unwittingly into the eyeline of James, Sirius, Remus, and Pettigrew. Harry crossed his arms and shifted his gaze to the side, trying to see if he perhaps recognised any of the other students, because he neither wanted nor needed to see this memory again. He did not need to see James hoist Snape into the air and deliver barbed taunts; he had witnessed it once, and it gave him as little pleasure now as it had back then.
Lily shortly joined the group, flying to Snape’s defence and enduring James’s smarmy overtures—but the damage had already been done. There was Snape, humiliated and furious as he spat that most unforgivable word: Mudblood. The look on Lily’s face suggested she might have sooner excused an actual Unforgivable.
The scene dissolved into one in which Snape was already well into a fervent apology.
“I’m sorry, truly!”
“I highly doubt that.”
“I am! Honest! I’ll swear it in an Unbreakable Vow!”
Lily rolled her eyes, decidedly not amused. “I’ve heard that before.” She wore a dressing gown, and the lamps in their sconces flickered low and soft. It was very late at night, Harry suspected. Lily leaned against the portrait of the Fat Lady at the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. Her hair was drawn back in a loose plait, and she had her arms folded, keeping well back from Snape. “I came out her to tell you to go back to your dormitory. Filch is gonna find you, and then you’ll get detention for another week.”
“He won’t—he’s off handling Peeves’s latest handiwork in the Greenhouses. There was manure involved. Anyway, you have to let me explain myself; I never meant to call you Mud—” He bit his tongue at Lily’s sharp look. “…That word. Honest. You know me, you know I’d never talk that way about you.”
“Except you did. You did talk that way about me.” Her tone was cold, and every word that left her lips seemed to pierce Snape right through the heart. “I can’t do this anymore, Severus. I can’t—I’m tired of making excuses for you, of doing the same thing for you that you do for your precious little Death Eater friends—”
“We aren’t! Not one of us is marked!”
“But you want to be. The whole lot of you can’t wait to join You-Know-Who!”
Snape opened his mouth to protest, ears burning bright red—but nothing came, and Lily scoffed.
“…I think this is it for us, Severus. You’ve chosen your way, and I’ve chosen mine.”
Snape’s face drained of colour, and he reached to grab her nightgown, tugging on one of the sleeves. “Wait—wait, Lily, please, I swear I didn’t mean—”
“Didn’t meant to call me Mudblood?” she spat. “Why not? It’s what I am. It’s what you call everyone with Muggle parentage. Like you aren’t half-Muggle yourself.”
“I’m not—half-Muggle!” Snape protested hotly. “I’m a wizard!”
“And I’m a witch! You told me once that it didn’t matter.” She shook her head. “And like a fool, I believed you meant it. Or maybe you still do, and you’re just lying to yourself. I’m not sure which is more pathetic.”
Snape’s feeble protests devolved into monosyllabic pleas of wait no stop don’t, but Lily was no longer in a listening mood, and turning her back on him both literally and figuratively, she climbed back through the portrait hole, slamming it in Snape’s face…
When the scene reformed, after what felt like quite some time, Harry could see that several years had passed since Lily had broken off her friendship with Snape. Once the shifting shapes and colours finally settled, his surroundings solidifying once more, Harry found he was standing on a lonely hilltop in the cold, biting darkness of late autumn. The wind whistled mournfully over the whipping heather—and Snape snapped into view with a loud CRACK, no longer in school robes and brandishing his wand before him with a white-knuckled grip.
He whirled around, wide, white eyes scanning the gloom, as if he feared attack at any moment. Snape was more terrified now than Harry thought he had ever seen him before—more so even than when he had been staring down the Killing Curse unleashed from Voldemort’s wand. This would be, given the state of Snape’s robes and the lack of lines in his face, in the midst of the first phase of the war against Voldemort, and Harry could feel Snape’s tension as keenly as if it had been his own. His heart thudded heavy and hard in his chest, and though he knew he was in no real danger, this being but a memory, he found himself glancing around in the yawning darkness all the same, wondering what Snape might be waiting for, whose arrival he might be dreading—
In a flash, the black of night was split by a jagged jet of light slamming into Snape’s chest. The shock knocked Harry squarely onto his arse, and there was a ringing in his ears. He thought for one panicked heartbeat that lightning had struck them—but when the blinding flash faded, he found Snape cowering on his knees, arms raised to ward off attack. His wand was gone, now, having been flung somewhere into the encroaching darkness.
“Please—please, don’t kill me!” he yowled.
“Rest assured, had I intended to do so, you would be quite dead now.”
Dumbledore had either been hiding beneath a Disillusionment Charm or had managed to Apparate soundlessly onto the lonely little hill. The wind had whipped up with his arrival, and his long robes billowed around him as he stood staring down his crooked nose at the low state to which Snape had been brought. The only light for miles emanated from the tip of his wand, casting dark shadows over Dumbledore’s deeply lined face.
“Why have you summoned me here, Severus? A message from Lord Voldemort, is it?”
“No! He knows nothing of our meeting, I swear it!” With a wary, searching glance at Dumbledore, as if seeking permission, Snape climbed back to his feet. With his shoulders hunched and head hung low, he seemed so very small and defeated. The wind was whipping at his scraggly black hair, sending it flying around his face like some greasy Medusa. “I asked to meet with you…to deliver a warning—no, a request!” Dumbledore raised his wand, and Snape held a hand out in a feeble attempt to ward off whatever Curse was surely incoming. “Please, hear me out!”
But Dumbledore only gave a gentle flick of his wand, and a hush so still one could have heard a fly sneeze fell around them. By the light of Dumbledore’s wand, Harry could still make out the waving stalks of heather and detritus swirling around them, but within their intimate little bubble, all was quiet. “Well, then. I wonder what request a Death Eater would dare make of me,” Dumbledore said, smiling. Harry had often found the Headmaster’s smiles enigmatic, frustrating, doting, patronising—but now… This smile hid knives.
Snape drew himself up, firming his jaw. “…You’ve heard the prophecy. Trelawney’s prediction.”
“Ah,” Dumbledore said with a solemn nod. “And you have as well, it seems.” Snape did not bother denying it. “I suppose you carried Sybyll’s words to Lord Voldemort’s ears straight away, then?”
Snape’s expression wrenched into something terrible, bitter desperation thick in his voice. “He thinks she spoke of Lily Evans!”
“I believe she goes by Potter now,” Dumbledore reminded none too gently. “And why on earth should he think that? As I heard it, the prophecy made no mention of a woman—only a child. A boy, born near at the tail end of the seventh month—”
“Oh, don’t play stupid!” Snape snapped, before quickly recalling himself and recoiling into his miserable husk. “You know he thinks it means her son.”
“Does he, now?” Dumbledore reached one hand into his pocket and pulled out a yellow candy, carefully unwrapping it.
“He’s going to kill her! He’s going to hunt down the boy and kill him, and she’ll die in the doing, parent and child—”
“But are you not one of his favoured few?” He popped the sweet into his mouth, sucking boredly on it. “Surely you need but impress upon him how very much she means to you, and your most generous and understanding master will spare her. Why should she die, after all, when it is the child the prophecy spoke of?” Dumbledore cocked his head.
Snape slumped. “I…I have asked him—”
Dumbledore spat, and the half-eaten sweet went flying into the darkness. “You disgust me,” he growled, blue eyes flashing and lip curling into a cruel sneer. Never had he heard Dumbledore take such a tone—and Snape hadn’t either, it seemed, for he recoiled in shame. “Take the child but spare the mother? Let a good man and an innocent boy perish, so long as you get what you want?”
Snape seemed to recover, throwing his shoulders back and locking eyes with Dumbledore. “You cannot possibly have more contempt for me than I have for myself! So spare me the lecture, as I’m no longer your student, and just hide them. Hide them all if you must! Just—” He clenched his eyes shut. “Just keep her safe, please.”
Dumbledore regarded him for a long moment, the wind still whipping wildly in the night around them. “…And what are you prepared to give me in return, Severus?”
Snape’s head snapped up, eyes wide—and Harry was gaping right alongside him. In return? This was hardly a time for bargaining—and he expected Snape to protest as such, but instead he licked his lips, swallowed, and said, “…Anything.”
Dumbledore chuckled, more than a little derisively. “Going to try and make an Unbreakable Vow with me as well?”
But Snape drew himself up, head held high and defiant. “If you asked it of me, I would. My Vow, for her life.”
Dumbledore regarded him for a long moment, staring at him in that curious way that made you feel like he could see right through you to your very soul—and perhaps he could, for he had been, as Harry recalled, an accomplished Legilimens. Whatever he found in his search of Snape’s mind, if he’d attempted it, did not seem to concern him, though, for he sighed and waved Snape away. “That will not be necessary. Fetch your wand then, Severus. For you will have work to do.”
The hilltop faded, and when the world swirled back into view, Harry found himself standing in the Headmaster’s Office again. He thought he might have reached the end of the Pensieve memories—but he quickly realised that no, this was still some far-flung past, when Dumbledore stepped into view, hands clasped behind his back as he stared down, grim and drawn, at the man slumped forward in a chair before his desk, weeping openly.
Snape’s thin shoulders shook with ragged sobs, and when he lifted his head, he had deep tear tracks lining his face and snot leaking from his nose. He looked like a man who had lived a hundred years of misery since leaving that wild, windswept hilltop.
“You promised…you promised you would keep her safe… You would keep all of them safe…” he hissed in accusation. “I begged you…” Dumbledore was unmoved by his ferocity, only bowing his head.
“I made no such promise,” Dumbledore said, calm as a quiet pool. “Nor did they wish for my protection—as you well know, both Lily and James were ever so headstrong, Gryffindors through and through.” He sighed. “They placed their trust in the wrong person, and it was their undoing in the end.”
Snape’s breathing came in fits, and he gave a mournful moan, burying his face in his hands.
“…But a piece of her yet lives,” Dumbledore continued. “Her boy—he survived his brush with Lord Voldemort, protected by his mother’s enduring, undying love.” If he thought this might cheer Snape, though, he was very wrong; Snape only gave a tiny jerk of his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “He lives, despite Voldemort’s very best efforts. The final, sole remaining piece of her in this world. He has his father’s hair and smile—but his eyes, his eyes are hers. I believe you would remember the shape and colour of Lily Potter’s…Lily Evans’s eyes, no?”
“Don’t you dare use her memory against me!” Snape snarled, head snapping up. His face was mottled with red, and the skin around his eyes and nose had gone puffy. His expression twisted. “Can you not grant me one moment’s peace. I trusted you would save her… It is the only thing I’ve had to cling to these many months…”
“And now you feel remorse, Severus? Regretting a few of your decisions made along the way, are we?”
“You cannot imagine…” Snape moaned, miserable—but Harry rather thought Dumbledore could imagine. He could probably imagine very well, in fact, the self-loathing that came with the knowledge that your actions had directly led to the death of a loved one. Snape’s breath caught in his throat. “I’m dying… I feel it—”
“You aren’t dying,” Dumbledore spat out, irritation sharp on his tongue. “You may wish to—but you mustn’t, for what good would you be to anyone then?” His tone was cold and unforgiving. If he had been attempting to comfort Snape at all, he was well through with it now. “If ever you loved that woman—if you truly loved her, if she was not merely a prize you coveted—then as I see it, you have but one choice. One way forward. One thing you can possibly do to atone for the choices you made that brought you here.”
Snape’s breathing was still laboured, punctuated by hiccoughs and sniffles, and Harry wondered if Dumbledore’s words had even reached his ears—but at length, he lifted his gaze to meet Dumbledore’s, dark brows furrowed. Perhaps he hoped he might be allowed to die after all. “…Wh-what? What could I possibly…”
“You told me that you would do anything. Anything at all to save her—”
“She’s dead!” Snape snarled. “Must you twist the knife?!”
“Not all of her. A piece of her lives yet—help me protect the boy. ”
Snape’s brows furrowed, and he shook his head in disbelief. “That—he doesn’t need protection! He needs his mother—but she’s gone now, as you insist on reminding me, and so is the Dark Lord!”
“Gone, for now—but he will return. Of this I am absolute in my confidence, and I know if you search your heart, you will find the same dark suspicions within yourself as well. You know he was a cunning, calculating one—and if anyone could find a way to live beyond death…he would. So he will rise again, and when he does, he will come looking for Harry Potter. Voldemort will come for him—he will try to kill him again and again and again until he succeeds. Lily gave her life to save her child; do everything in your power to see her sacrifice was not in vain.”
There was a long pause, and Snape seemed to slowly regain control of his faculties, mastering his breathing and brushing a hand over his dishevelled robes. “…I could not protect her. What makes you think I will be able to protect him?”
“The fact that, should he perish, then Lily will truly be gone from your life forever. So long as he has breath, then her love lives on. I think you were fond of the love she shared with others, no? Perhaps that will be incentive enough.” Dumbledore let his hands drop to his sides. “It is what she would have wanted you to do.”
Snape grimaced, leaping from the chair and pacing angrily in the small space between Dumbledore’s desk and the door. “So I am to be satisfied watching Potter’s whelp grow, likely into the same man his father was? You will not even allow me the dignity of choosing to join her, should I wish it?”
“Your life is your own to do with as you please, Severus,” Dumbledore said. “Waste it, if you like—you’ve certainly done a masterful job of it so far. But if you would rather do some good with your life, to ensure that dear Lily’s last, great sacrifice was not wasted, her greatest love not lost, then I would welcome your assistance, for I fear it will be a monumental task.”
Snape’s lips twisted, and at last he bit out, “…Fine. Fine, but you must never—” He turned on Dumbledore, waving a finger in his face threateningly. “Never tell him, Dumbledore! You must swear that he will never know!” He bit his lip, swallowing thickly. “I could not bear…especially Potter’s get—I want your word!”
Dumbledore was not cowed. “My word—that I shall never reveal that you were, in the end, a good man? Or as good as is likely quite possible for you?” He sighed, removing his half-moon spectacles and massaging the bridge of his nose. “You Slytherins and your pride…”
The office began to dissolve—but then seemed to rethink itself, reforming instantly. Snape looked older now, even more lined and drawn than before, and he was once again pacing a trench into the floor of Dumbledore’s office, his steps dogged by a manic energy.
“—would not believe the cheek he has shown! Eleven years old and twice as arrogant as his father, breaking rules left and right, arrogant, impertinent—”
“You’ve said ‘arrogant’ twice, Severus,” Dumbledore said, settled back in his Headmaster’s chair and lost in a copy of Transfiguration Today.
“Because it bears repeating!”
“Now, now—I think you’re being harsh on the boy. As the other staff report it, he seems a modest—” Snape scoffed. “Likeable—” Snape rolled his eyes. “And reasonably talented child, not unlike his mother, from what I recall. Having spoken with him a bit myself, I find him quite engaging.”
Snape released a sharp, derisive laugh. “Engaging! And he is wholly his father’s son—that hair, those glasses, his—”
“Eyes?” Dumbledore offered. He dog-eared one of the pages and reached for a quill and parchment. “Now, if you can manage to tear yourself away from scrawling Harry Potter’s many foibles into your diary, keep an eye on Quirrell, won’t you? He’s been acting rather stranger than usual.”
Snape only grunted in response, and then the office disappeared—replaced this time by close, encroaching darkness. Snape and Dumbledore stood in the Entrance Hall, backlit by lamps flickering in their sconces. Through the open doors of the Great Hall could be heard the fading strains of music winding down, heralding the close of the Yule Ball. The final stragglers who’d held out for the last dance stumbled past them, breathless and giddy as they made their way to bed. It was strange to think that, right at this moment, Harry himself was probably crawling into his four-poster up in Gryffindor Tower, puzzling over the clue for the Second Task.
Dumbledore waited until they were alone, drawing the darkness around them and bidding the lamps to lie low. “Show me,” he said.
Snape cast a furtive glance around them, just to double-check, then rolled up his sleeve, exposing his Dark Mark. “It grows darker by the day—Karkaroff’s as well.”
“And how is our friend holding up?”
“Not well. You know of course of the deal he made with the Ministry after the Dark Lord’s fall, in exchange for leniency with his sentencing. He fears retribution.”
“As well he should,” Dumbledore said, taking a measured sip of the flute of champagne he held in one hand. “Will he flee?”
“…If it burns. Not before then—but…”
“Durmstrang may need to start looking for a Headmaster, in which case.”
Snape started as the doors to the Entrance Hall were thrown open—but it was only Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies, both looking pleased and pleasantly flushed. Harry knew that look well now, and he felt his own cheeks heat. Neither of them seemed to notice Snape and Dumbledore, and Roger led Fleur up the steps in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower.
“And what of you?” Dumbledore asked, and Snape whipped back around, one brow arched in question. “Are you also tempted to flee?”
“What good would fleeing do? No.” He shook his head. “I am many things—but no coward.”
“No, indeed you are not,” Dumbledore agreed. “You are a braver man by far than I quite expected, if we are being honest. It’s times like this I think we Sort too soon…”
Snape looked stricken, and Harry knew in that moment he was imagining some impossible what if, where he’d been Sorted Gryffindor, never fallen in with Avery or Mulciber or Voldemort, and married a bright, bold Muggleborn witch. Harry felt an unwelcome pang of sympathy; those sorts of what ifs were siren-sweet and just as dangerous to dwell upon.
When the scene shifted, they’d returned to the Headmaster’s office. Beyond the frosted window, Harry could see it was night, again—and something was very wrong.
Dumbledore sat slumped behind his desk. His eyelids fluttered, and his breath seemed rapid—he was only barely conscious. Curled before him was his right hand, but it was mangled and blackened, as if he’d charred it in fire or dipped it into a vat of particularly caustic acid. With a jolt, Harry realised that this memory was not so very long in the past—only perhaps early Sixth Year. Snape knelt beside the chair, his wand pointed at the wrist of Dumbledore’s ruined hand as he muttered a string of unintelligible invocations in rapidfire under his breath. A bright band, like a red-hot brand, sealed around the wrist as a bracelet before quickly fading, and Snape leapt to his feet, reaching for a goblet standing on the desk and tipping its contents down Dumbledore’s throat. After a moment or two, Dumbledore’s eyelids flew open, and he was instantly awake and alert.
“Good, you aren’t dead,” Snape said, flat and cold. “Though you would have well deserved it. Touching a ring you ought to have well known was Cursed? My First-years aren’t half as foolish as you’ve been this night!”
Harry followed Snape’s gaze to the ring that lay, unassuming, in the folds of a handkerchief on Dumbledore’s desk. A nasty crack marred the stone set in its centre—delivered, Harry suspected, by the sword of Gryffindor, which lay on the floor where Dumbledore had probably dropped it after he’d used it to destroy the Horcrux imbued in the ring. Now that he knew to look for it, Harry could clearly see the sign of the Hallows carved into the stone’s face.
“You do your First-years a discredit,” Dumbledore said, grimacing as he shifted in his seat. “I was indeed…a fool. I have learned nothing, in all my years.”
“On that we can be agreed!” Snape sneered. “What could possess you—?”
Dumbledore chuckled softly. “Ah. Possession in itself, Severus.”
Snape did not seem to understand the cryptic response, and he charged into a furious lecture. “Have you the faintest notion of how close you came to death just now—how close you still are? I’m astounded you made it back here at all, given the power in the Curse that lay on that ring, but I fear it will dog you. I’ve managed to contain it for now, binding it to the bone instead of leaving it to wreak havoc on the flesh, but…”
“Have you, then?” Dumbledore lifted his hand, now a gnarled, blackened mess, and inspected it with an academic air, as if it were an exhibit in a museum and not part of his own body, being devoured by some vicious curse right before his very eyes. “Truly fantastic work, Severus—more than I could have possibly hoped for.”
“Fantastic—?!” Snape sputtered. “Have you no notion of what’s to become of you?”
“Oh, I have a notion—how long would you say I have, then? Before the Curse overcomes your very best efforts, that is.”
He spoke with a disaffected air, seemingly untroubled by his dire state, and could as easily have been asking after the weather as his lifespan.
Snape seemed just as thrown by Dumbledore’s demeanour, but he rallied after a beat of hesitation. “…You would have to ask whoever placed the Curse. As it is, I can only hazard a guess—but that guess would be at most a year. The binding I placed will not hold; the seal will degrade over time, after which the Curse will quickly spread, strengthened by its delay.”
Snape’s dire predictions did not seem to faze Dumbledore, and he smiled, nodding. He seemed thoroughly untroubled by the countdown that had been placed on his life, and Harry wondered what he knew that they did not, for how could one possibly greet their own mortality with such good humour and stay sane?
“…I am reminded not for the first time how fortunate I am to have you, Severus. I do not think I have often expressed my appreciation for your particular skills…or your discretion.” It was odd, hearing such warm words from Dumbledore after having heard him speak so coldly to Snape on the eve of Lily’s murder.
Snape grimaced, as if the compliment physically pained him to hear. “I could have done more if you hadn’t waited so long to summon me—at least I could have bound the Curse sooner, bought you more time!” He jerked his chin at the sword lying forgotten on the cold flagstones beneath their feet. “Or did you think the services of someone well-versed in the Dark Arts were unnecessary? You ought to know that simply damaging a Cursed object won’t dispel the magic! You would need to wholly destroy it.” He scoffed. “What a risk you took, all for some ancient bauble!”
“A bauble, yes…” Dumbledore shrugged. “My thoughts were preoccupied, I suppose; I failed to appropriately consider the danger.”
“And now you’ll pay for it with your life,” Snape bit out, trying for cool contempt and failing marvellously. Harry had never imagined Snape might be so impetuous and enslaved by his emotions.
Dumbledore sighed, running a hand down his beard to smooth it out. “Yes, I imagine so. But I suppose this will solve at least one of our looming difficulties.” When Snape only arched his brow in confusion, Dumbledore continued, “Naturally I refer to Voldemort’s plan to remove me from the picture by having poor Draco Malfoy murder me.”
Harry’s attention sharpened to the keen edge of a knife, and his throat went dry. This was Sixth Year—right. Which meant Draco was this very moment worrying himself sick, wondering how he was expected to carry out his task. Had he already decided to devote himself to his Animagecraft studies? Harry tried to recall when he had first suspected that Draco was up to something, more furtive in his actions than usual, but came up empty.
Snape seemed to want to discuss the issue of Dumbledore’s Cursed hand further, but the smooth manner in which Dumbledore had changed the subject suggested it had been put to bed for the time being. Snape sat down in the chair across from Dumbledore’s desk, looking not unlike a naughty student about to receive a gentle dressing down from the Headmaster.
“…Describing it as a ‘plan’ is being generous indeed,” Snape said, his scowl cutting deep lines into his face. “Trust that the Dark Lord is under no illusions that Draco might actually succeed where so many others—himself included—have failed.”
“Is he not, now? Young Draco has proven quite resourceful in his classes, I would not put it past him.”
Snape scoffed. “The task is merely punishment, as Lucius has recently fallen hard out of favour among the Death Eaters. You know, of course, that the Dark Lord prefers slow torture to a quick resolution, and forcing the boy’s parents to watch as he struggles futilely and is ultimately forced to pay for his failure in flesh will be a just punishment indeed, as he sees it.”
“Ah. So we are a pair, then, Draco and I—our days immutably numbered.” Dumbledore kept his tone even, his feelings on the matter indeterminable. “But Lord Voldemort could have set him on any number of tasks with equal likelihood of failure—could have even, perhaps with greater chance of success, instructed him to murder Harry Potter. Yet he chose to pit the boy against me… Why is that, I wonder?” Snape shifted uncomfortably, and Dumbledore gave a soft Ah of understanding. “He will see me removed from the picture one way or another, then? He intends to force your hand.”
There was a short pause. “…I believe that is the Dark Lord’s plan, yes.”
“You believe it is?”
“He has not asked me to do as such—but there was rather a spectacle made of Draco’s initiation, of his being set this task as his first mission. If one of his Death Eaters meets failure, the Dark Lord expects the next nearest at hand to step in.”
Dumbledore nodded. “Which is to say he no longer cares that you be seen as a former Death Eater.” He sighed. “He expects the school to fall into his grasp soon, then.” Snape said nothing, but that seemed to be all the response needed.
Dumbledore drew his wand out from his sleeve, and Harry felt his heart trip a beat—this was the Elder Wand, as it had been, its power banked for so many years. Dumbledore seemed to study it, tracing the fine woodwork that had gone into the hilt with his bright blue eyes. “Well, I believe we must accept that eventuality, for as you have said, I am not long for this world. Should the worst come to pass and Hogwarts indeed inherit a new Headmaster of Voldemort’s choosing…” He slid his gaze back over to Snape. “May I have your word that you will do all within your power to ensure no irreparable harm comes to the students sheltering within these walls? That you will protect them, to the full extent of your ability?”
Snape did not bother to hide his discomfort, his nod stiff and stilted.
“…A comfort to hear. Fret not, I won’t ask for an Unbreakable Vow, though I know you enjoy doling those out.” He gave a satisfied huff, then began wrapping the remains of the ring back up in the handkerchief upon which it sat, taking particular care this time not to touch the casing. “I think, then, your top priority for now should be to shadow young Draco, see what he’s up to. For all his youthful bravado, he does not strike me as a murdering fiend, so I dare say he is more than a little terrified of the burden he has just been saddled with.”
“Rash, frightened children can be more dangerous than adults in the same position,” Snape grunted.
“Indeed. Reach out to him—be a shoulder to lean on, an ear for his worries, a tongue for advice. You’re his Head of House—”
“A title that will mean nothing to him, as we are now ‘fellow’ Death Eaters. He no longer sees me as anything approaching a mentor—I am a competitor for the Dark Lord’s favour. More so now than ever before, as he suspects I meddled to bring about Lucius’s downfall myself in order to usurp his position.”
Dumbledore sighed. “Teenagers and their wild emotions. We were all slave to them once—and some of us still are. All the same, do try. Who knows what innocents may find themselves unwitting victims of the schemes Draco might concoct in his desperation.” Harry wanted to laugh so hard he could cry; Dumbledore didn’t know the half of it. “Though I fear there is only one way—one certain way—to spare Draco from Voldemort’s wrath.”
Snape’s gaze narrowed, and he said, carefully and almost accusing. “…Surely you don’t mean to let him kill you.”
Dumbledore was quiet for a distressingly long moment, and Harry felt his stomach bottom out. The thought had merely niggled at the frayed edges of his mind before, ever since Aberforth’s ramblings, but now it hit him with the force of a cannonball. Dumbledore would have taken steps to be sure that Voldemort did not wind up with the Elder Wand…would have hidden it away as best he could.
To what degree had Dumbledore actually planned his death? Had he orchestrated his final moments so deftly? Had he meant for Draco to kill him, for the Elder Wand to fall into his hands? To find its way, somehow, back to Harry?
He had known he was dying—and he must have at least suspected that Voldemort might seek out the Elder Wand, especially after the events in the graveyard at Little Hangleton. Knowing how tenacious and desperate Voldemort was, Dumbledore could not have imagined Voldemort wouldn’t, eventually, track down the Wand to his care. Dumbledore was a man of preparation, after all; he left nothing to chance.
“No, far from it,” he said at length, smiling at Snape. “You must kill me.”
Snape stared at him for a long moment, unblinking. “Oh. Must I, then?”
Dumbledore met his gaze, unflinching. “You must. You must. For I would entrust this task to no other.”
“And you don’t feel that’s asking rather a lot of me?”
“I thought you might appreciate the chance to finally strike me down; I’m sure the urge must have come upon you once or twice over the years.”
Snape did not seem amused—but after a deep, bracing breath, he brushed his hair back from his face and tidied his robes. Then, he reached into his sleeve and drew out his wand, raising it as a conductor’s baton. “Well, can we make it quick, then? The elves are serving blackberry cobbler for dessert tonight, and I’d rather not miss it.”
“Oh goodness, I wouldn’t dream of coming between you and fresh pastry,” Dumbledore chuckled. “No, I shall not call upon your services tonight, Severus. There are a final few matters that yet require my attention before I shuffle off this mortal coil.”
“And when can I expect to do the honours, then?” Snape sneered. “As you say, it’s an urge I’ve been struggling with for quite some time, so I’m eager to get to it.”
“Well, given the evening’s events…” He made to flex his dead, black hand—but it only spasmed feebly. “I suppose we can say within the next year.”
“Recall that was a liberal estimation,” Snape said.
“Indeed—perhaps I will try to arrange it around your birthday, so you may celebrate in style.”
“I fair tingle with anticipation,” Snape said dryly—and then, after a bit, added with a peevish tone, “…You’re taking this awfully well. If the idea bothers you so very little, why not just save us all the trouble and let Draco do it?”
“Why do you want him to do it?”
“And neither do I—hence, our little accord,” Dumbledore said with a soft, sad smile that did not reach his eyes. “The act of murder leaves a taint on the soul—a mark, indelible and immutable. Draco Malfoy is many things—but he is not beyond hope, beyond help. He may yet be able to be convinced that he can be courageous, and good. That he deserves to be saved.”
“And I don’t deserve to be saved?” Snape snarled. “What of my soul, and the marks upon it?”
“Of what is to become of your soul, only you can say. I spoke of murder—but this? This will not be murder between the two of us, Severus—it will be a favour. One I can ask of no other. Death is coming for me, this you now know—and it will be swift and merciless, like that Bludger knocking out poor Galvin Gudgeon in the Cannons’ match against the Falcons last week. Such a pity, too; they were on a hot streak until that happened—they hadn’t lost by triple digits all season!” He sighed. “I confess, a part of me pushes for this route because I know that of all the ends Lord Voldemort could prepare for me, the one at the tip of your wand will be the quickest and most painless. I am, after all, only human—and though you might not believe it of me, afraid of dying.”
“…You’re right, I don’t believe it of you.”
“Only because you do not yet realise the difference between fearing dying…and fearing death.”
Snape fidgeted, clearly discomfited. “I could…I could prepare you a tincture, or…”
Dumbledore shook his head. “An acceptable suggestion, but I fear I will be busy with tying up loose ends until my final moments. You may need to resort to the Killing Curse for expedience—and if it will soothe the soul you so worry over, know that you have my forgiveness in advance.”
Snape did not seem satisfied with this plan, but Dumbledore was giving him no choice, and at last he gave a curt nod.
Dumbledore settled back in his chair, releasing a relieved huff. “…Thank you, Severus. You have been a worthwhile confidant all these years.”
When the scene shifted again, Harry found himself outside, with the moon rising over the castle, and Snape and Dumbledore were together again. They were walking the castle grounds, quite alone, and any onlooker might have assumed the men were merely out for a postprandial walkabout.
“Am I ever to learn what it is you’re up to with Potter, all these evenings spent with him? He’s nodded off in class nearly every day this week, and I know it isn’t because he’s been up late studying—his essays prove as such.” His tone was short and sharp, suggesting he had been holding his tongue on the matter for quite some time.
“Worried I’m grooming him for your position?” Snape gave a wide-eyed start; clearly he had not been thinking that—but he definitely was now. “Fret not, Severus, you’ve well earned the Defence Against the Dark Arts post, and I do not intend to lose you quite yet.” He began stroking his beard, head turned towards the heavens. “As I have mentioned before, I have matters that need attending to. Matters involving Harry—he must be made aware of certain information, guided on how he is to proceed after my passing.”
“Information…guided…” Snape frowned, as if the words left a sour taste in his mouth. “You have entrusted him with a job, then. One you evidently cannot trust me to complete.”
“You complained so much about the first job I tasked you with, I did not think you would agree to a second.” Dumbledore gave Snape a pointed look. “Do not play stupid, Severus—you and I both know that your skills and the boy’s lie in very different aspects. It is not a question of trust—it is a question of who Harry Potter is…and what he needs to do.”
“Yet you cannot even tell me what it is he needs to do? You’re trusting a sixteen-year-old to handle this on his own? He can’t even manage his own study schedule! Granger has to tutor him in half his subjects!”
Dumbledore actually chuckled at this. “True enough, on most accounts I would hesitate to ask a boy in the throes of puberty to focus on something of such import—but this is not most accounts, and Harry Potter is the only one who can do what must be done. Besides…” Dumbledore bent to sniff at a bush of night honeysuckle, blooming in the moonlight. “I would rather certain secrets not stew about inside a head that spends so much time in Lord Voldemort’s orbit.”
“A place that head sits because you so ordered it—not because I find the Dark Lord’s company just that charming!” Snape hissed, incensed. “Shall I tell him to fuck off the next time I see him, then? Would that put me back in your good graces?”
“Calm yourself, Severus—didn’t Poppy prescribe something for your blood pressure only last month? No, I would have you in no other position, for you handle your job as our ‘liaison’ with Lord Voldemort exceptionally well. Know that I do not underestimate the danger in which you place yourself for me, for you know as well as I what the consequences would be were he to grow wise to the subterfuge you’ve engaged in while under his command. You are a cunning snake, my friend.”
Snape did not appear to appreciate the compliment. “…Yet not so cunning you think I wouldn’t unwittingly spill your secrets to the Dark Lord. If you don’t trust my Occlumency skills, how on earth can you trust Potter’s? He’s got a direct connection to the Dark Lord’s very mind—a connection that has been used to great effect in the past!”
“And a connection that Voldemort now fears,” Dumbledore reminded. “Theirs is not merely a connection, an opportunity to peek into one another’s mind—it is a sharing of minds, and Voldemort has now gotten a taste of what it truly means for one such as him to dare tread within the mental boundaries of the likes of Harry Potter.”
“Because he’s just so special, is that it?” Snape sneered, rolling his eyes.
“For Voldemort, yes. Theirs is a unique relationship—do not let your low opinion of the boy cloud your understanding that the link he and Voldemort share is anything short of unparalleled in our history. Voldemort has learned that any attempts to possess Harry Potter, to guide him through direct mental connection will bring upon him such pain as he has never experienced. I very much doubt he will attempt to confront Harry in that manner again.”
“Pain—?” Snape prompted.
Dumbledore nodded. “Lord Voldemort’s soul is…fractured. Marked, in such a way as I made mention of once before. In its state, even the briefest, most grazing brush against Harry’s is pure agony. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like bare flesh in dragonflame—”
“Who asked about souls?” Snape sniffed derisively. “We were speaking of their minds!”
“And in their case, those are one and the same—at least in certain matters. Though the connection between them transcends our petty understanding of these abstract concepts, I fear.” Dumbledore glanced around; their stroll had brought them down a meandering path, close to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. They were very much alone, with only Hagrid’s hut visible in the distance, a stream of smoke curling from the chimney and the windows glowing with a warm, merry orange light. “Now, once you have killed me, you must—”
Snape scoffed. “This is what you dragged me out here for? More soliloquising on the ‘small service’ you somehow still expect of me, when I can’t even count myself in your inner circle?” Even in the wan light cast by the moon hanging overhead, Harry could tell he was flushed red in anger, neck and cheeks dark with rage. “No—I think maybe I’ve changed my mind. I wouldn’t want to misstep, after all, and spoil your many-cogged plans. Perhaps I shall let Draco fail or succeed on his own terms, come what may!”
“I did not extract that Unbreakable Vow from you, in the end, but you did give me your word, Severus,” Dumbledore reminded him evenly. “And now that you bring up the matter of Mr. Malfoy, I thought you agreed to keep a close eye on him? I notice he has been tucking himself away in the Library for much of his free time of late, no more of these feeble attempts on my life.”
“Please. He will find nothing outside of the Restricted Section that could possibly undo you that any other student couldn’t also piece together.”
“Perhaps, but all the same. See to it that he uses any knowledge he is seeking wisely, lest it come back to bite him. He does not want to kill me, I think, but neither does he wish for he or his parents to perish in my place either. I worry his efforts to seek out a third option may do more harm than good.”
Snape looked like he wanted to disagree, just to be contrary, but he said nothing, only ground his teeth in mute anger, and Dumbledore sighed.
“Impetuous and impatient as you are, it’s a wonder you never found your way to Gryffindor.” He shook his head. “Very well—as you say, you are indeed a skilled Occlumens, and if I am to ask so much of you, you deserve to ask a few favours of your own from me. Come to my office—after curfew, for I will be meeting with Harry again this evening. If it’s an explanation you’re after…then an explanation you shall receive.”
The next memory, Harry assumed, took place later that evening, for they were back in Dumbledore’s office once more. The thickly glazed windows showed that it was well into the evening, and Fawkes sat silent on his perch, his head tucked under one wing.
Snape was seated in a chair before the Headmaster’s desk while Dumbledore walked around him, speaking rapidly with an eager rasp in his voice. “Timing is everything, you must understand. If but one piece of the puzzle should fall into place at the wrong time, then all will be lost. This has been building for years—since before you were even born, Severus, and certainly before Harry was. Yet he must not know what it is he’s meant to do—what he must do—until the final moment. Until everything else has fallen into place and paved the path forward: a path he and he alone can walk. Otherwise…” Dumbledore paused, and a fleeting expression of grief flashed over his features. “Otherwise I fear he will not have the strength to do what must be done.” He shook his head. “He must have his back against the wall—must see that there is no choice, for there will be no other choice.”
“You speak of choices and needs—two very different things! And what is he meant to do? You still refuse to tell me!”
“That, I am afraid, I cannot say—no, do not protest,” he said, even as Snape opened his mouth. “On this, I will remain firm. I hesitated even to reveal the full breadth of my plans to Harry himself, for as you have reminded me so often, he is a boy, a child, and a Gryffindor at that. Few would accuse him of being even-keeled, I think. Still, these are desperate times…” He rounded on Snape. “But hear me: there will come a time after I am gone—”
“We have not finished our discussion on that point, let it be known.”
“Confound you, do not interrupt me! For once, sit there and listen. You must hear this and store it away, deep within your mind, where your master cannot sniff it out. After I have been dispatched, Voldemort may feel empowered and flex his magical might for a time—but should all go as planned, should Harry succeed at the task I have set him…there will come a point where Voldemort will draw in on himself and seem to fear—to fear for the life of his snake.”
Snape seemed cowed by the outburst and blinked up at Dumbledore, brows furrowed. “His snake—Nagini?”
“The very same. You must watch closely for this moment—he may try to hide it, to seem unruffled and unbothered, even to his inner circle. But when that moment comes, when he no longer sends Nagini out to work her wiles on the world at large, when he instead keeps her close, perhaps on his person or even under magical protection…then, I think, it will be time to tell Harry.”
“Tell him…” Snape swallowed, then asked, attention rapt, “Tell him what?” and Harry felt his mouth go dry in anticipation.
Dumbledore took a deep breath, drew himself up, and closed his eyes.
“Tell him that fifteen years ago, when Lord Voldemort set upon his family’s home with murder in his heart—when Lily threw herself between them, acting as any mother would to shield her child from certain death—the protection imbued by her abiding love caused the Killing Curse to rebound, where it fractured Voldemort’s soul and sent a tiny fragment spinning away…to latch itself onto the next nearest living creature it found: Harry Potter himself.
“That part of Lord Voldemort lives still as a parasite on Harry Potter’s soul—it is this fragment that is responsible for the curious connection between the two. But equally so, it is also this fragment that will, when all else fails, tether Voldemort to life, or at least a facsimile thereof—for as long as that tiny fragment remains lodged within Harry, protected by his mother’s love and his own burgeoning magical abilities…the Dark Lord cannot be killed.”
Neither can live while the other survives.
The prophecy’s forbidding proclamation rang like a death knell in Harry’s ears, drowning out Dumbledore’s and Snape’s conversation to a muffled hum. Something clawed at his throat, constricting, and he felt as if he were sinking into a deep pool, down so far not even light could penetrate. Their voices echoed strangely.
“But then…you mean to say that the boy…” Snape spoke slowly, carefully, making very sure he understood Dumbledore’s meaning rightly. “…The boy must die?”
“Not simply die—he must be killed. And Voldemort himself must do it—mark that well, Severus, for that is essential. He cannot be picked off by a stray Death Eater—he must face Voldemort and let come what may.”
Another long silence passed; Harry wanted to sit down, but he was only part of this memory, not really here at all. Perhaps it might be all right if he sicked up instead, then.
“But…you told me—” Snape shook his head, expression tightening. “You asked me to protect him! You told me it was for her! For Lily!”
“For her—and for all of us. He needed protecting—because he needed to grow. To mature. To become the man he would need to be—that we would need him to be—in order to complete this one, final task.” Dumbledore’s head hung low, eyes still closed. “I had hoped, in some far corner of my mind, that these efforts might help him to cut out this parasitic influence himself. That his innate goodness, the love he had inherited from his parents and from those he came to call friends and family, might somehow counterbalance this infectious entity, but it has only grown stronger. I have wondered at times if he suspects its presence. If he can feel it, this unnatural connection that so many of us have downplayed over the years…” Dumbledore sighed, opening his eyes to stare fixedly at the richly patterned plush carpet beneath their feet. “This is what must be. There is, unfortunately, no other path forward, and if Harry is every bit the man I believe he is, he will see this. He will understand the gravity of the situation, the import of his sacrifice, and arrange matters so that his death might be the final blow needed to strike down Voldemort once and for all.”
Snape looked rightly horrified, his face a vivid visage of all the emotion that Harry could not, in his shock, process just now. “You…you mean to say…that you’ve kept him alive all this time, all these years—told me it was a service to Lily’s memory, mentored him and doted on him—not because he deserved it, not because you cared for him, but only so that he could die at the right moment? Instead of perishing at the tip of the Dark Lord’s wand before you found it convenient?”
“Many a war has been ended thanks to a death occurring at just the right moment. This will be no different.”
“And you are so very sure that Harry Potter will blithely go along with this? Won’t be horrified and turn tail—flee when he learns to what ends you have used him?” He did not say to what ends you have used me, but Harry heard it all the same—and Dumbledore did as well.
“…It is a blessing, after a fashion, to know the hour and time of one’s death. To have some degree of control over it, instead of being caught unawares. I do not doubt Harry will be shocked to learn what his fate must be—or the hand I had in arranging it—but he will see that the horrors faced by one boy, the weight of a single life, pale in comparison to the horrors faced by the whole of the wizarding world should Voldemort not be stopped in his tracks. This will be…for the greater good.”
Snape drew himself up, lips curling in bald contempt. “…Never before have I felt a kinship with Potter, but now I do: You have used me, as surely as you have used him.”
“I have not used you; you offered yourself to me.”
“For a lie! For a promise you never intended to keep! A pretty story to keep me doing your bidding! I meant to leave the Dark Lord’s side after what he did to her—but you told me no, to stay and spy for you, to do everything I could, good and terrible and in between, all to keep Lily Evans’s—” He winced, biting his tongue. “Lily Potter’s son safe! And now you mean to say you’ve simply been raising him as sacrifice—?!”
“Why Severus…” Dumbledore said; it was difficult to tell if his tone was amused or serious. “Is it possible you’ve finally warmed to Harry in your time together? And here I thought only he had matured over the years.”
“Warmed to him? You think this is for him? Have you learned nothing of me?” Snape spat, face gone white with fury, and he whipped out his wand. “Expecto patronum!”
There was a brilliant flash—and then, from the tip of his wand, leapt a shining, silver doe.
The same doe that had guided Harry and Draco through those dark, snowy woods. The same doe Harry had felt such a connection with, like she knew him, like she cared for him.
She landed on the floor on delicate hooves, galloped across the office—disturbing Fawkes’s slumber—and then leapt through the frosted window pane, gone as quickly as she’d come.
There was a long beat of silence, and Harry could see Snape pulling himself back together. His hands were shaking—with fury, or with some other unnamed emotion, it was unclear. “…For one so well-versed on the strength of a mother’s love for a child, you know nothing of the insidious, terrible power of a love that never could have been. It consumes—eating away at you, with no outlet, until without direction, you find yourself lost in might-have-beens.”
Dumbledore stared mutely at the shimmering, silvery glow the doe had left behind—then turned back to Snape, blue eyes shining with unshed tears. “…My dear friend—truly? After all this time?” he asked, voice breaking.
“Always,” said Snape. “It is why they call it an Unbreakable Vow.”
Harry was thrown mercilessly into a new memory.
They were in the Headmaster’s office again, though this time Snape was the one standing behind the desk, speaking to the newly hung portrait of Dumbledore on the wall.
“The Order will doubtless be planning to remove Harry from his aunt and uncle’s home soon,” Dumbledore was saying. “Much ado will be made about maintaining the secrecy of the plan, with decoy dates thrown about I’m sure, but you must make certain Voldemort knows precisely when Harry means to make his escape, for we cannot have him doubting your reliability, here so close to the end of our journey. It will be a delicate balance you must strike, Severus: leading the Death Eaters to Harry’s doorstep while also ensuring he escapes their clutches unscathed.”
“I thought the boy was meant to die at the Dark Lord’s hand,” Snape said, glowering.
“He is—but not just yet. To that end, we will need to ensure his safety as he makes his escape. You will plant the idea of decoys within the Order—that, I think, will be our best approach, as you have informed me that the Ministry has blocked the fireplace from being connected to the Floo Network and Apparition in and out is being closely tracked. A squad of Polyjuiced Harrys departing in different directions for different safehouses is certain to confound Voldemort’s plans for a swift dispensation of the last lingering impediment to his rise.”
“A suggestion is easy enough to make—but I doubt the Order will bite if it comes from me. My loyalties have always been questioned—and I suspect I am even less well trusted with my impending…appointment.”
“Hogwarts has had worse Headmasters…” Dumbledore said with a wry smile. “But there is truth to what you say. I can’t imagine a suggestion from him will sound any sweeter to the ears of the Order members, but try Confounding Fletcher. He’s an easy mark, at least. And remember, if you cannot avoid being forced to take part in the raid yourself—”
“—Then I must act convincingly, yes, yes. You have urged me so a dozen times already. I know the part I’m meant to play, Dumbledore. I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years.”
“Indeed, you have. But all the same—your remaining in Voldemort’s inner circle is more important now than ever before. Be brutal if you must to curry his favour—else the Carrows will be allowed to run rampant, with our students their helpless victims.”
Harry was jerked away again—and now he was flying far above the sprawl of glittering lights below, streaking through the night alongside Snape on a broomstick. Spellfire flashed around them in a violent rainbow, and ahead of Snape, he could see fleeing at breakneck speed Remus and a Harry Potter who was actually George Weasley.
A hooded figure cut Snape off—a fellow Death Eater, raising his wand and taking aim square at Remus’s back to George-Harry’s wide-eyed horror.
“Sectumsempra!” Snape shouted, wand whipping through the air—
—but a sudden buffet of wind sent the spell flying wildly, and instead of neatly slicing off the Death Eater’s wand hand, it nicked George-Harry’s ear, maiming him terribly—
Then, they were in a very familiar room: Sirius’s old bedroom, Harry recognised. They were at Grimmauld Place, and Snape was on his knees, back arched into a curve that shook with quiet sobs. An old piece of parchment was clutched in his hands, and fat tears splattered against the text as he read Lily’s letter to her friend. The second page carried only a few words:
could ever have been in love with Gellert Grindelwald. The very idea! Sounds like she’s been taking tea with ol’ Ogden too often, if you catch my meaning!
Lots of love,
Snape gripped the letter so hard, Harry feared it might rip—but he quickly recovered his faculties, and with a ragged sob, he folded the page bearing Lily’s signature—and her love—and tucked it into his breast pocket. He regarded the picture that had been included with the letter—Baby Harry zooming about on his new broom to his parents’ mingled terror and delight—with a final sneer before tossing it back onto the floor, where it slipped under the chest of drawers for Harry to stumble upon later.
Another dizzying shift, and Snape stood again in the Headmaster’s study, a half-filled tumbler of what looked to be Firewhisky in one hand. He raised it in mock toast to Dumbledore’s portrait. “Draco is travelling with them now, Phineas tells me. They seem to have convinced themselves just because they have stuffed him into a bag that he cannot overhear their tedious arguing.” He shook his head and took a draw. “Stupid children.”
“Is he, then?” Dumbledore said mildly, and Snape narrowed his eyes.
“You saw this coming. You knew—”
“I knew nothing. Nothing, beyond that Harry Potter is a good man, whatever you may think. Better than all of us.”
Snape stared him down. “Draco killed you; he managed it, in the end.”
“Without even trying! Now there is a tale worthy of a Rita Skeeter tome.”
“You’re awfully blasé about your own mortality.”
“A luxury granted to me only because I am merely a portrait. You need not mope so, Severus—would you rather the boy were still incarcerated by the Ministry? I recall it was you who put him there in the first place.”
“For his own safety! He was a danger to himself as much as to others, and—” He cut himself off, fixing Dumbledore with a pointed look. “And you know why the Dark Lord could not be allowed to know he yet lived.”
Dumbledore’s smile thinned. “Were you never tempted yourself, Severus? After my confession…”
“Never. You know well that was not the Hallow I most longed for.” Snape drained the last of his drink, bringing his glass down on the desk so hard it nearly shattered. “…Potter will be a terrible influence on him. He’ll get Draco killed trying to carry out whatever mad task this is you’ve set him.”
“Yes, it is an unfortunate possibility. Though Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger run the same risk.”
“But they chose Potter!”
“As did Draco.” Dumbledore cocked his head to the side, lifting one brow. “They are not your students any longer, Severus. It is time to allow them to make their own decisions—foolish or otherwise.”
“Foolish,” Snape muttered, tracing the lip of his glass. “Definitely foolish.”
The scene shifted again, and now Snape was standing before a glassed curio housing several delicate silver instruments. Into one of the empty portrait frames hanging on the wall bustled a red-faced, wheezing Phineas Nigellus. “Headmaster! The children you spoke of! They are camping now, in the Forest of Dean. The Mudblood—”
“You will not use that word in my presence,” Snape snarled, looking like he might just set Phineas Nigellus’s portrait aflame with his mind.
“Yes, quite—the Granger girl, then! You were right—her focus finally slipped, and she neglected to cast a Speak-No-Evil spell when casting her wards this time!”
“The Forest of Dean, then?” Snape said, and Phineas Nigellus nodded firmly. Snape shifted his attention to another portrait: Dumbledore was nearly leaning wholly out of his, eyes alight with excitement. “Ten points from Gryffindor for letting their guard down.”
“A lapse in memory that shall be to their ultimate benefit,” Dumbledore said, beckoning Snape closer. “Come, you must act quickly—retrieve the sword. Remember, it must be claimed in a moment of great need and at personal risk.” Snape rolled his eyes, and Harry thought he caught him mutter Gryffindors under his breath. “And most importantly, Harry must not learn the identity of his mysterious benefactor. Should Voldemort peer into Harry’s mind, even brief as he dares, he might learn of your treachery—”
“I know,” Snape said, sounding like a snotty Fourth-year. He stalked over to Dumbledore’s portrait and gripped the frame, tugging to reveal a hidden cavity within the wall. From it, Snape withdrew what Harry knew to be the true sword of Gryffindor. He replaced the portrait as it had been, studying the sword in his hand. “And you still won’t tell me why it is so important Potter have this thing?” He tossed the sword haphazardly onto the desk, where it fell with a heavy CLANG, and swung a travelling cloak over his shoulders.
“I think not,” said Dumbledore dismissively. “It is enough that Harry will know what to do with it—so make haste and get it into his hands as quickly as possible. Take care not to be spotted by Mr. Weasley or Miss Granger, either, for I doubt you will have endeared yourself to them any further after that display with George Weasley.”
“No good deed goes unpunished, it would seem,” Snape grumbled, and with that, he left the room, boots clopping on the stone staircase.
The image faded, and Harry felt himself being vaulted back up and out of the Pensieve, abruptly finding himself back in exactly the same room the final memory had left him. Fawkes was gone.
The door to the Headmaster’s office lay slightly ajar, and Harry stared at it, heartbeat thudding in his ears and imagining he could still hear Snape’s boots on the stair, as if he’d only just left a moment ago.