FIC: Still, Life, with Modifications
Title: Still, Life, with Modifications Author: bohemianspirit Type: Fiction (Gen, Het) Length: Short Story Pairings and Main Characters: Severus/Dora (OFC), Edie, Harry Series: Sequel to Light Between the Cracks and Knowing Jack. This story is best read in the context of those two stories. Rating: PG-13
Summary: Severus comes to terms with life as a portrait.
Notes: Song lyrics from "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and "Skyline Pigeon" by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Parody lyrics based on Elton's "I'm Still Standing." "Hello, Goodbye," is, of course, by the Beatles.
Still, Life, with Modifications
On the second morning of September, in a portrait frame not far from the entrance to the Great Hall, Severus Snape watched the students file out into the corridor.
"Good morning, Little Raven."
Edie halted, reluctantly, and stepped over to the portrait. "Good morning, Dad."
"You could show more enthusiasm," he said.
Edie shrugged. "You're not really Dad."
Severus crossed his arms. "I think like Dad; I feel like Dad; I harbor all the memories, temperament, and personality of Dad. By any rational calculus, I am therefore a reasonable facsimile of Dad."
Edie shrugged again, avoiding looking at him. "You're still not Dad."
"Oh, off with you." He wouldn't have her late for her first class at Hogwarts. "I'll talk to you later."
"And I guess that's why they call it the blues: Time on my hands could be time spent with--not you." Severus grimaced as Harry Potter stepped into view. "What are you doing here?"
Harry shrugged. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm a Hogwarts portrait," retorted Severus. "I am not required to explain my presence at Hogwarts."
"Why aren't you in McGonagall's office with the other portraits?"
"Why aren't you finding something better to do than stand here boring me with your tedious nonconversation?"
"Why don't you just answer my question?"
"You can't tell me what to do, anymore."
Severus shrugged and resumed singing. "Laughing like children, living like lovers, rolling like thunder under the covers--"
He smirked, watching Potter's hasty retreat.
"Detention already, my darling daughter?"
Edie concentrated on the shelves she was scrubbing.
"I may be only a portrait, Eileen Dora, but I am, nonetheless, a portrait of your father. A modicum of respect from you would be refreshing."
Reluctantly she turned towards the portrait he was, for the moment, inhabiting. "What."
"What," he echoed, imitating her leaden tone. "What, indeed. I cannot begin to tell you how gratifying it is to see that the years and labors your mother and I invested in your upbringing have produced such a well-mannered young woman. Has the phrase, 'Yes, sir,' been completely excised from your vocabulary?"
There was but the slightest twitch of her eyebrow. "Yes, sir," she said.
With a will Severus suppressed the instinctive smirk. "Are you sure you weren't meant to be in Slytherin?"
Edie shrugged, and turned back to scrubbing. "The Hat said I could be," she admitted.
She shrugged again. "I asked if Slytherin had stupids, and the Hat said, well, that settles it, definitely a Ravenclaw."
"Ah, Miss Snape!" Filius Flitwick breezed into the room. "How are we coming along?"
Edie stepped aside and nodded towards the shelves. "Almost done. Sir."
"Very nice! Very nice work, indeed." Filius beamed up at her. "Now if you apply the same diligence to your studies, Miss Snape, I daresay we can expect to see great things from you."
"Thank you, Professor." Edie shrugged and turned away, but not before Severus caught a hint of a flush in her cheeks.
"Well, Severus." Filius turned to the portrait. "No doubt you were hoping she would be in Slytherin, but I am sure that in Ravenclaw she will make you very proud."
"I'll be content if she simply learns that she is not the only intelligent life on the planet."
Filius winked. "Like father, like daughter, eh?"
Edie burst out laughing.
"I believe, Filius, that Miss Snape has performed the duties of her detention to a satisfactory degree of completion?"
"I've got two more shelves," said Edie.
"Well, now, Miss Snape." Filius tilted his head, evaluating. "I think you have indeed done more than enough to constitute a satisfactory detention."
"No--sir." Stubbornly she shook her head. "I don't want to leave it unfinished."
"Oh, excellent!" Filius clapped his hands. "Conscientious as well as diligent."
Headstrong as well as cheeky.
"That bodes well, very well, indeed, Miss Snape," Filius cheerfully blathered on, wholly oblivious, of course, to Severus' mental emendation of his words. "Yes, I think we shall see excellent things during your tenure at Hogwarts. Excellent, indeed."
"Thank you, Professor." Edie had resumed scrubbing, and so had her back to Filius, but from where he stood Severus could see that the Professor's gushing, overindulgent praise had pleased her.
"I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss. Well, a few of these verses, they've got me quite cross..."
"Now that you're here, Potter, yes. Is it my fate to be haunted by you in death as in life?"
"I'm just stopping by to say hello."
"I don't know why you say goodbye, I--"
Harry stopped singing. "No?"
"Do I need to define the word for you, Potter?"
"I don't know why I bother."
"Neither do I."
"I was laboring under the delusion that you might really be human, after all."
Severus let out a loud, harsh laugh.
"Well. In a manner of speaking."
"Observant as always, Potter."
"Your daughter thinks I'm stupid," said Harry.
Severus raised one eyebrow. "I think she may have a point."
"Got it from you, did she?"
"I told her nothing about you, Potter. My daughter is quite capable of drawing her own conclusions."
One thing his daughter did not seem capable of was navigating the halls of Hogwarts. On a typical day, Severus had taken refuge in a portrait in a side corridor, in hope of a bit of peace away from both portraits and people, when Edie, clearly oblivious to her surroundings, came storming into view.
"Is something the matter, my Little Raven?"
"Oh!" She expelled it in a loud and explosive breath. "That Potter!"
"Mr. Potter, Edie."
She screwed up her face, clearly struggling to bring herself to repeat, "Mr. Potter."
It was all Severus could do to keep his face sober. "What about Mr. Potter, Edie?"
"He's so annoying! 'How are you doing today, Edie? Is everyone treating you well, Edie? Classes going well, Edie? Any trouble, just let me know, Edie, and I'll be right on it.' Honestly!"
"Well, that doesn't sound terribly dire to me. Perhaps," suggested Severus, "Mr. Potter has nothing else to occupy his time."
"Well, I wish he'd find something," fumed Edie. "He's driving me mad!"
"Calm down, calm down, Edie. There are worse things than having an overeager do-good Gryffindor inquiring into your well-being on an hourly basis." Not that he had any examples at hand, but fortunately Edie demanded none. "He's got money enough. Next time he asks you what's wrong, tell him you could do with a nice box of chocolates from Honeydukes."
Edie sneered at him as if he were the stupidest person she'd ever met. "The only thing that's wrong," she spat out, "is that you're gone."
Severus drew in a sharp breath, closing his eyes. "That, I am afraid, is beyond Mr. Potter's power to repair."
"I know that."
"Of course you do." Severus opened his eyes. "You've always been a bright girl, my Edie."
"And humble, too. How are you doing in your classes?"
One corner of his mouth curved up. "Surprise me."
She looked at him, frowning, then nodded to herself. Reaching into her book bag, she drew out a comb and dropped it on the floor, then pulled out her wand. "Wingardium Leviosa!" she dramatically declaimed--then grinned as the comb immediately floated up to hover in front of her at shoulder height. "See?" she said without breaking her concentration.
"Professor Flitwick says I'm an ace at Charms. Best in my year." Edie stretched out her free hand and let the comb fall into it.
"And what else?"
"Defense Against the Dark Arts."
"Really?" Severus felt a surge of pride. "That was one of my best subjects, too; that and Potions."
"Mm." Edie wrinkled her nose.
"Not doing very well in Potions?" asked Severus.
Edie shrugged. "All right. In spite of the Slug."
"He's so stupid!"
She had been combing her hair, but she stopped at the sound of his soft reprimand.
"Professor Slughorn happened to be my teacher, when I was in school," he said, "and I got top marks in Potions."
"Because of him or in spite of him?"
"Stop making excuses," intoned Severus, "and attend to your studies."
Edie fell silent, looking sullenly up at him for several seconds. "Yes, sir," she quietly answered. "Not that you can do anything, any--"
"I can have an owl sent to your mother."
Her eyes widened. "You wouldn't."
Severus smiled sweetly: It was a teacher's smile, not a father's. "You don't want to find out," he said. "Do you?"
They stood, deadlocked, his daughter's black eyes boring into his.
At last Edie sighed. "No, sir," she quietly said, letting her gaze drop. She stood without moving, staring at the floor.
She looked up at him, her eyes shadowed.
He smiled, a softer smile, the kind he was used to bestowing upon her. "I have every confidence that you will make me, and your mother, very proud."
Her mouth twitched, just a little. "Really?"
A smile began to emerge, but faltered. "Daddy..."
"It's all right, Edie," whispered Severus.
Edie shook her head, grimacing. "No, it's not." Her eyes turned up to him, fighting what appeared to be a losing battle.
"That room over there." He gave a curt nod. "Nobody ever uses it."
Edie nodded. Snatching her bag, she slipped away, closing the classroom door behind her.
A folded, somewhat worn copy of the Daily Prophet had fallen out of Edie's bag. Severus shifted as close as he could to the front of the portrait, angling for a better view.
SNAPE'S SECRET WIFE
Double Agent and One-time Death Eater Had a Hidden Life Beyond Hogwarts
Well, there it was. Dated the second of September; they hadn't wasted any time getting the story to press. Severus Snape, sneering, snarling Potions Master and Headmaster of Hogwarts, had left behind a wife and four children, a secret kept well, revealed now--to the great astonishment of the wizarding world--only upon the enrollment of his firstborn at Hogwarts. Severus felt a familiar tug at the corner of his mouth, but it faded quickly as his eyes fell upon the final sentence above the fold:
One source, speaking only upon condition of anonymity, stated bluntly what appeared to be a commonly shared sentiment: "Who'd love Snape?"
Severus scowled. He looked up at the closed door of the classroom into which Edie had retreated. She was going to be late for class. He briefly considered going into the classroom, then turned, instead, to advise the professor that his daughter was temporarily indisposed.
"I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife; it's lonely out in space..."
"Is that all you do, stand around singing old songs?"
Severus glanced down. "What else have I got to do, Potter?"
"I don't know. Learn some new songs?"
"Elton John's songs suit my voice."
"Lots of songs suit your voice."
"Don't you have anything better to do, Potter, than hang about Hogwarts listening to me sing?"
"Such a hard life. Not all of us can be the idle rich."
"No," retorted Harry. "Some of us have to settle for being the idle dead."
"Five thousand points from Gryffindor, Potter, for your cheek."
"Portraits can't take House points."
"No one can take points from someone who is no longer a student at Hogwarts," Severus rejoined.
"True." Harry nodded briskly. "Gotta go."
To his surprise Harry halted and turned back to look at him.
"Next time you are at Honeydukes," Severus directed, "buy my daughter a box of chocolates."
Only Harry Potter could look so stupid in attempting to look perceptive.
"Chocolates. Right." Harry nodded and ran down the corridor.
Harry couldn't sleep. He wandered the castle, hoping that if he walked long enough he would tire enough to turn in for the night. He thought he knew every curve and corner of the corridors of Hogwarts, but having nothing to do but meander its halls yielded fresh surprises. One such surprise, tucked away in a side passage that led only to several rooms used for storage, was a painting: a landscape in twilight. It showed a gently undulating field, several trees in the background, and the base of a tree in the foreground. There was a figure sitting under the tree.
His knees were drawn up in front of him, his arms resting on his knees, his hands clasped. He was staring bleakly into the distance, tears streaming slowly down his face.
"I thought Slytherins didn't pine."
The words were out of Harry's mouth before he could take them back, but Snape just looked over at him as if he were hardly worth the bother.
"I lied. Go away."
Harry didn't think he'd ever before heard Snape speak in a monotone.
"Go away," Snape said again, in the same dull voice.
Harry looked away, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, back and forth. "Um." He glanced back up at Snape. "With all due respect, sir, you haven't been yourself, lately."
That elicited a familiar sneer. "I'm a fucking portrait."
Harry blinked. "Well. I--I know that."
"But--your portrait--your portrait's still supposed to have your personality. The one you had when... when..."
"This is my personality: my personality when I'm no longer dangling between the tethers of Albus Dumbledore and Tom Riddle, and I'm no longer living under the duress of continual mortal danger, and I am no longer compelled to hide who I really am and what I really think. This is who I am when I have absolutely no meaningful work with which to occupy my endless days, when I find myself trapped in canvas, a sentient semblance of a being, eternally bound to a facsimile of living yet unable to move forward into the life I long hoped I might someday be permitted to live without constraint."
Harry stared at Snape, unable to think of anything to say.
"Two hours, Potter." Snape spoke in a whisper. "Just two more hours, maybe three, and I would have been a free man."
Those black eyes bore into Harry, and Harry thought he had never seen them so empty, not even in death. Drawing a deep breath, Harry squared his shoulders and continued to meet that gaze, unflinching, until finally it was Snape who looked away.
"Thirty-eight really isn't all that old."
"Brilliant, Potter. Your provocative insights into the human condition never fail to amaze me."
"Well, you..." Harry grasped desperately for something, anything, that might spark at least a glimmer of the spirited Snape he'd grown to know and hate. "You always seemed a lot older to me. Before."
A slight jerk of his shoulders was Snape's only response.
"You seem a lot younger, now, than you ever did," Harry pressed on.
"I feel old." Snape glanced at him. "Do you think you could convince them to destroy my portrait?"
"What? Snape, no!" Harry was horrified. "You don't really mean that."
"How the bloody hell would you know what I mean or don't mean?" Snape shot back, glaring. "I'm not asking you to do my thinking for me! I'm suggesting that you might use some of your largely unmerited influence to do something constructive."
"What about your daughter?" asked Harry. "Your family?"
What little fire had begun to flare immediately faded into ash.
"Truth, Potter?" Snape spoke so low that Harry could barely make out the words. "I think they would be better off without me--this imitation of me. I think it only makes it harder for them. They need to come to terms with my absence, accept it, accept that I'm never--going home." Snape's face twitched, and Harry averted his eyes. "If not for the aberration of my appointment to the headmaster's post, the complications of my present situation would never have arisen."
Harry wanted to argue. He wanted to say that a memory was better than a void. Instead he asked a question that had been nagging at the back of his mind.
"So. Professor." Harry looked back at the portrait, and saw that Snape had composed himself. "When did they finally get round to putting your portrait in the headmaster's office?"
Snape studied him thoughtfully. "My portrait," he slowly replied, "has been here at Hogwarts since the moment of my death."
"But--it wasn't there when..."
Harry's jaw dropped. He stared at Snape, his eyes growing wide.
"Very good, Potter. I do believe you are showing signs of rational cognition."
"My God, Snape! You said there was nothing I could do! And now you tell me you were still--still--"
"There was nothing you could do, unless you wished to have me languish for God knows how many years in a permanent vegetative state at St. Mungo's."
Harry gaped a moment longer, then snapped his mouth shut.
"Dying can be damned hard work," Snape quietly informed him.
"Still," Harry shook his head. "If I'd known--you were still..."
"Clinging to life. By a thread. My brain irreparably damaged, my body taking its own time to make the final passage." Snape looked intently at him. "For once, Harry, you showed sound judgment. Don't spend the rest of your life regretting it."
And then it struck him.
"You called me Harry," he said.
Snape inclined his head, very slightly. "I've been known to do so upon occasion."
"No occasion I remember."
"Well, mark it in your diary. Hell froze over."
Snape turned his head, gazing up into the painted sky. Softly he hummed a tune that Harry did not recognize.
"I was going to leave it all behind," he murmured. "Go back to my family. Teach the children at home. Keep them away from this place."
"You didn't want them to go to Hogwarts?" exclaimed Harry.
"No. I didn't. I certainly never wanted them to be here as Snapes."
"We were the Smiths. Not terribly original, but it suited. After the war, I was going to change my name for good: Severus Smith, known to his friends as Jack."
It was strange, thought Harry, seeing Snape like this. Unguarded. Relaxed. Acting like a human being instead of like a horse's arse. This must have been what he was like, alive, in those photographs. Far away from Hogwarts, and from the people who...
"I never meant for Dora to change their names to Snape. But I never told her not to. And I suppose it was easier to change the names of the living than the dead. Still, I wish my children didn't have to go through Hogwarts as--"
"As your children?" blurted Harry.
There, at last, the arch of an eyebrow.
"It won't be for them like it was for you," Harry told him. "I promised your wife."
"You shouldn't have made a promise you can't keep."
"I will keep it."
"Damn Gryffindors. You think you rule the world."
"You could at least be grateful."
"Grateful?" echoed Snape. "Is that why you did it? To elicit my gratitude?"
"No," Harry answered firmly. "I did it because... for them. For her. Because." Harry frowned, then looked back at Snape. "I didn't want them to go through..."
"What I went through," Snape softly finished. "What your father put me through."
"Look, damn it, I'm trying to say I'm sorry."
Snape fell silent.
It was too much, of course, to expect an apology in return. At least Snape wasn't subjecting him to a sardonic rejoinder. Then it occurred to Harry that the absence of a sardonic rejoinder was an apology. Maybe.
"Ravenclaw, huh?" Harry brightly piped up.
Snape's mouth curved in a familiar twist that Harry found oddly comforting. "Slytherin had too many stupids."
"I rather thought you'd agree," said Snape.
"Slytherin also had you," Harry pointed out.
Snape looked down at his folded hands, saying nothing, but the smirk softened into what just might have been a real smile. Harry felt himself begin to smile in response.
Abruptly Snape's head jerked up. "Potter, what are you doing here?"
"Talking to you," said Harry, taken aback.
Snape rolled his eyes. "At Hogwarts," he elaborated, as if talking to a two year old. "In the middle of the night."
"Oh." Harry felt his mouth twitch. "Um. Well. Actually, sir, I'm staying the year. For, um, review." He cleared his throat. "I'm training to be an Auror, and they said I needed more work in... um..."
Under ordinary circumstances, the triumphant insinuation in Snape's tone would have infuriated Harry.
"That's right, sir," said Harry. "Potions."
A smirk emerged. Harry wanted to shout for joy.
Sudden inspiration struck. "You could tutor me."
Both eyebrows went up, this time.
"If you want," Harry hastened to add. "It would give you something to do. Meaningful work. If you're interested."
Snape looked at him sharply. "Are you prepared to listen to me, this time?"
"Then I might be interested." Snape suppressed a yawn. "Speak to me again at a more reasonable hour, and we'll discuss it."
"Will do. Thank you, sir."
Snape yawned again, not troubling to suppress it this time.
"Well. I'll just be heading off to bed, then. And I guess you want to get back to your portrait."
"Mm. No." Snape stretched and leaned back against the tree, closing his eyes. "I'll sleep right here. More comfortable than napping at my desk."
"Right." Harry nodded. "Well, then, good night. Oh, and sir?"
Snape cracked open one eye. "Yes, Potter?"
"Do you think, someday, you might allow me to call you Jack?"
There was a long silence. Snape gave Harry an appraising look, a look so intense and searching that Harry wondered if a portrait were capable of practicing Legilimency.
One eyebrow flickered, ever so slightly. "Maybe," said Snape.
"And someone saved my life tonight--"
"Dad! Dad!" Edie was nearly jumping up and down in her excitement. "Dad, look!"
Severus Snape: The Man I Never Knew
An Exclusive to the Daily Prophet by Harry Potter
How very like Potter.
"It's a good article," Severus admitted, reading it. "And, so, not true."
"Dad." Edie crossed her arms, still clutching the Prophet. "Of course it's true."
One corner of his mouth turned. "Do you think so?"
"That really is your dad?"
Edie nodded, shrugging. "Was. Dad, this is Angela. She's in Ravenclaw, too."
"I see." Severus inclined his head. "Angela."
"Sir." She gave a cursory nod, then turned back to Edie. "I can't believe your dad's Professor Snape."
Edie shrugged again. "I told you he was."
"Well, yeah, I know, but still--Professor Snape!"
"There's some who don't think much of that."
"Stupids," declared Angela, tilting her chin up. "Everybody knows that Professor Snape's the one who brought down Voldemort!"
"Everybody?" echoed Severus. "I'm given to understand that Mr. Potter is the one credited with that accomplishment."
Angela snorted. "He did his bit, I guess, but you're the one who did all the work. Fancy Potter being a spy!" she scoffed. "He wouldn't last ten minutes, stupid Gryffindor. All brawn, no--"
"Come on." Edie pulled on Angela's arm. "I don't want to get another detention."
"Eh. Detention with Flitwick's as good as a holiday." But Angela followed, all the same. She glanced back at Severus in the portrait. "Stupids," she said to Edie. "They're all stupids. Your dad's nice."
That disturbed him almost as much as the original article in the Prophet had.
"Yeah." Edie's mouth quirked as she met Severus' eyes. "He is."
So Edie had a friend. Several friends, as he learned in the days following the publication of Potter's article. All of them first year Ravenclaws who knew Severus Snape only as the name of the brilliant and clever spy of the last war against Voldemort. Any stories from older students that tarnished that image were summarily dismissed as the natterings of "stupids."
"I mean, really." A girl by the name of Juniper held forth in the library, under pretext of discussing the Potions text. "Slytherin's said to be shrewd, but I think that a man of such brilliance really belonged in Ravenclaw."
Several Slytherins, overhearing, shot dark looks towards the cluster of Ravenclaws.
"I think he was sorted by mistake," Edie asserted. "After all, I'm in Ravenclaw."
"And when you're brilliant," declared Angela, "you don't have to be nice--even though he is."
"Now, at least," said another girl, Bridget. "My sister says he could be really snappish, back in the day."
"Back in the day when every day he thought he was going to die!" exclaimed Edie.
"Sssshhhh! You want Pince to evict us?"
Edie clamped her mouth shut. Her eyes darted about, surveying the library, before she went on more quietly, "He wasn't anything like they say, not with us, at home. He was always nice. Always. Except when he and Mum spatted, of course."
"You weren't supposed to--" Too late, Severus caught himself.
Edie turned, rolling her eyes. "I'm not stupid," she sighed.
"Don't you know, I'm still sleeping, longer than I ever did, looking like I'm getting nowhere, waiting on a hopeless git--"
"Cut it out, Snape! I'm trying to think!"
"Well, then, try just a little bit harder--"
"I swear, Snape, if you start singing Janis--"
"Come on, Potter! Don't just recite from a recipe book! Understand what you are doing! Why is the powdered dragon's blood essential?"
"I don't know." Harry shook his head, shoving his hand back through the mess he called hair. "Why couldn't I have inherited my mum's knack for Potions?"
"You might have," Severus retorted, "if she had married me."
Harry started, looking wide-eyed at Severus.
"Forget I said that, Potter."
He'd never thought it all the way through, before, what sort of children he might have had with Lily. He'd spent all his life seeing Harry as Potter's son, attributing every imbecility to the genetic malformation of the Potter line. Only now did it consciously occur to him, what he had long known beneath the surface: There was, indeed, an awful lot of Lily in Harry.
And an awful lot of Dora in the children he himself had ended up fathering.
And if I hadn't made a complete bollocks of my youth, he further thought, I'd never have met Dora, at all. And...
He made his way to the landscape portrait in the side corridor and settled beneath the tree, where he spent half the night thinking.
"Fly away, skyline pigeon, fly, towards the dreams you've left so very far behind..."
Severus' voice faded as Edie, suitcase in hand, stepped out of the Ravenclaw dorms. She walked over and stopped in front of the portrait in which he stood.
"Have a merry Christmas, my Little Raven." Severus smiled fondly at his daughter. "I'll see you after the holidays."
"I don't want to go," protested Edie. "I want to stay here, with you."
"No, Edie. You belong at home, not hanging about this musty old castle all alone."
"But I don't want to leave--"
"Go home, Edie." His voice was quiet, but firm. "Your mum will be missing you. And Jackie and Sara Grace, and..."
He was grateful for his years of practiced impassivity.
"And Ruthie," Severus concluded. "Give them all a hug for me, and give them my love."
"From portrait you or real you?"
He looked deeply into her eyes, so like looking into his own. "Both."
"Haven't you left for the holidays yet, Potter?"
"I leave first thing in the morning."
"For the Weasley residence, I suppose."
"Potter." Severus regarded the boy sharply. "Have a care before you rush into anything. A schoolboy crush is not always the best choice of a lifelong mate."
Damn, the boy was looking at him far too shrewdly for a Gryffindor.
"We won't be rushing into anything, sir," was all Harry said.
"Good." Severus nodded.
"Too bad you can't be with your family," said Harry.
Severus shrugged. "Done is done."
"Oh, I forget. Slytherins don't pine."
Severus narrowed his eyes.
Harry snapped to attention. "Professor!"
"What do you get if you add powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?"
"Draught of the Living Death," replied Harry without hesitation. "An extremely powerful sleeping potion."
Severus nodded once. "And what modifications to the instructions in Advanced Potion-Making will yield superior results?"
"Crushing the sopophorous bean with the flat side of a silver knife will extract much more juice than simply cutting it up."
Severus nodded again. "And?"
"And," Harry went on, "in the final phase of making the potion, add a clockwise stir after every seventh counterclockwise stir."
"Correct." Severus looked intently at him. "Now," he intoned. "Can you tell me why?"
Harry looked back into his eyes, quietly confident. Slowly he smiled.
"Now," he said, "I can."
All in all, thought Severus, it had not been a bad autumn. Not the life he would have chosen, but it was a life, of sorts.
It was late in the night on Christmas Eve. Severus paced from portrait to portrait, slowly wending his way through the corridors and rooms of the castle. All the other inhabitants of portraits had long since fallen asleep; he took care not to wake them as he passed through their frames.
Potter, when he bothered to apply himself, was proving to be competent, if not exceptional. And perhaps--Severus could admit to himself, now that the halls of Hogwarts were all but empty--perhaps in the classroom he had not provided the optimal environment in which the Potter boy could have flourished.
Done was done.
He'd made mistakes. He'd made a lot of mistakes. But he'd also done some good. He had not lived in vain; he would not live now in vain.
Nobody needed the advice of a thirty-eight year old headmaster who'd served scarcely one year, and that largely as a figurehead. But he could teach. He could not be physically present to handle ingredients and clean up messes, but he could teach theory, the underlying principles by which students could go beyond rote memorization of ingredients and instructions and learn how to practice the subtle science of potions as a living art. After the holidays he would discuss the matter with Minerva, ask her to add a course in Theoretical Potions to the curriculum.
He smiled to himself, and kept walking.
He could teach. He could enjoy teaching. And if he could not be home, in mortal flesh, to live out a normal lifetime with his family, at least he was not wholly sundered from the ones he loved. Dora would be permitted to visit his portrait at the castle, and the children would be attending school for many years to come. All of his children would go through school knowing their father, even if only by way of a replication so vivid that Severus sometimes had to remind himself that he wasn't really himself.
Severus stepped into his frame in the headmistress' office. He settled into the chair behind his desk and adjusted his robes, wishing he had other clothes to wear. As a child, he couldn't wait to get into wizarding robes. As a man, he couldn't wait to get out of them. What he wouldn't give now for the comfort of his old jeans and a T-shirt.
And here he was, fussing about clothes, of all the trivialities. He had consciousness. Even if that consciousness was only an echo of his living self, it was a perfect echo: He had all of his memories, and he had all of his intelligence and capacity for reflection by which he could build upon those memories. He could choose, and change, even as a portrait, far more than he had been given to believe.
And he had his family. If he could not be with them always, well, that was no less than he had known in life. He would see them again; that was more than he might have had. Above all else, he held within him always the knowledge of how very much he loved them. That was something neither life nor death--not even conniving manipulative puppet-masters--could take from him. Ever.
Severus folded his hands on his stomach, leaned back in his chair, and, smiling, closed his eyes.
The first thing he noticed upon awakening was that he was not sitting at his desk. The chair in which he sat was soft, comfortable, and very familiar. Severus blinked, slowly opened his eyes, and saw that he was wearing his home clothes: his favorite pair of faded blue jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and his soft old flannel shirt in a dark green and blue plaid. He lifted his hands, touching the fabric, verifying--and then he saw, on his left hand, a plain gold band.
He stared, open-mouthed, at the ring. Slowly a smile emerged, and the smile broadened and brightened into a grin. He looked up, then, and saw that he was sitting in his living room, at home, looking out upon his living room, at home. And there was Dora, smiling at him.
"Merry Christmas, Jack," she said, her eyes glistening.
Severus stared, speechless. He looked again at the ring on his left hand. "I don't have to hide anymore."
"No, Jack," said Dora. "You don't."
He looked back at his wife, at the Christmas tree behind her, at the windows, still dark. He blinked, shook his head, started to rise from his chair, half dazed, then abruptly fell back into the seat.
"It was his idea," Dora confirmed.
"It would be." Severus' mouth twisted. "It would be Potter all over. He's the only one I can think of who has the money--and the motivation to spend it--you have no idea what it costs. Only the wealthiest families have these in their homes."
"He wanted the little ones to know you," Dora said gently. "He couldn't bear the thought that Sara Grace and little Ruthie would grow up not remembering you--that you'd be a stranger to them when they met your portrait at Hogwarts."
"You'll have to take care to impress upon them it's not really me," said Severus.
"I know, Jack. I know. But at least this way they'll know who you were, what you were like. And I daresay you were getting a tad bored up at the school."
"No, Dora. I was getting exceedingly bored up at the school."
They both laughed together.
"He's awake! He's awake!" Edie burst out of her bedroom, Sara Grace in tow. "Merry Christmas, Dad!"
Severus grinned at his daughter. "Merry Christmas, Little Raven."
"That's Daddy," said Edie to Sara Grace. "You probably don't remember him."
"Edie," chided Dora.
"Well, she doesn't. Jackie! The picture's awake!"
The boy shuffled out into the living room, blinking. "Dad?" he said, staring blearily at the portrait.
"Merry Christmas, Jackie," said Severus.
"Jack," muttered the boy.
"Oh, don't be stupid," sighed Edie.
"Jack, now, is it," said Severus. "You are growing to be a fine young man."
Jack drew himself up. "Too old for baby names," he declared. "But you can call me whatever you want, Dad."
"It's not really Dad," Edie cut in. "It's just a picture, only it's magic, so it can hear us and talk to us just like Dad."
"Virtual Reality Dad," breathed Jack. "Awesome."
Edie rolled her eyes. "You are so stupid," she sighed.
"Edie," reproved Severus and Dora in unison.
"Well, he is," Edie defended herself. "I'll bet he gets sorted into--"
"Come on, Edie." Jack tugged at the sleeve of her pajamas. "There's presents to open."
"Ah." Dora's face softened. "Half a minute, Jack." She retreated into the nursery and returned balancing a sleep-bemused toddler on her hip. "Here's our Ruthie."
"Ruthie," Severus echoed. The child tipped her head, gazing up at him as if he were an image on the television.
"She looks so much like you," he whispered, blinking.
"A little," said Dora. She brushed the tips of her fingers through the girl's curls. "But she's got your eyes. And I think her hair will be dark, like yours."
"She's lovely," he said. His voice was thick. "I wish I could have known--but I can't tell you how happy I am. I'm only sorry I couldn't have been there."
"Hm." Dora shrugged. "Many's the time you couldn't be here even when you were still here," she pointed out. "And we aren't so alone, now, are we?"
"Mm. No." Severus smiled. "I suppose not."
Severus hoped that somewhere in heaven--for surely God had taken mercy on his battered and beleaguered soul--his real self had looked down upon that Christmas Day and experienced at least as much happiness as his oil-on-canvas self had known that day.
Whilst Dora put the children to bed, he took the opportunity to further explore his new portrait home. Food, drink, books--lots of books--and Potions journals; doors that led to other rooms within the portrait; a wardrobe on the other side of the portrait exit where he found a set of his black wizarding robes; and another wardrobe, inside the portrait-house, containing several changes of clothing.
"Potter really did the thing right," muttered Severus.
"Will it do, Jack?"
Severus snapped about, startled out of reverie. "Yes, Dora. It will more than do." He laughed. "I'm never going back to Hogwarts."
One corner of her mouth curved. "I should hardly blame you," she said. "Still, you'll want to see Edie when school is in session."
"Of course, dear. Of course." He walked over towards her and settled into his chair. "Besides, I've made plans. I'm going to teach again."
Dora nodded, looking not the least surprised. "That'd be nice, Jack."
"It'll give me something to do besides hang about the halls singing songs all day."
"Well, you always did love to sing." Dora smiled. "But you've missed teaching, haven't you?"
Severus laughed again. "Yes, dear, I have," he said. "And here I thought I hated teaching."
"You didn't hate teaching," she countered. "You hated being trapped."
She had a point.
"Well. This time round, it's entirely my choice--and their choice. I've in mind an elective, centered on theory; it'll be for advanced students in fourth year and up. That ought to sift out the slackers. I'll only have to work with the ones who'll take the subject seriously and go into it prepared to work their ruddy arses off."
"Don't they already teach theory in Potions?"
"Not sufficiently, to my mind. Too much time spent on following the directions and precious little time given to understanding the reasoning which created the directions."
"Hm." Dora grimaced. "Hogwarts in a nutshell."
"Indeed." His mouth twisted.
"Teaching them to think. D'you think it'll be allowed?"
"If not, I s'pose we could start our own school, right here."
Dora burst out laughing. "Right you are! That won't draw any attention from the neighbors."
"There are charms and wards we could put in place."
"Let's see how the Potions Theory goes, shall we, before you turn our home into a haven for Hogwarts refugees."
"Well, I had decided, that last year, to teach the children at home."
"The children, then. Our children. Not half the children of the wizarding world."
"You are entirely too optimistic, dear. Do you really think half the wizarding world is concerned with learning how to think for themselves?"
"I'd reached the same conclusion, myself," she said. "About teaching the children at home."
Severus felt the smile fade from his face.
"I'd send them to Hogwarts, of course," she quickly added, "if it came to it--and it did--but not if you..." She looked away, falling silent.
"I should have known better." He leaned forward in the chair, clasping his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. "Damned pride. Had to try to play it through, see how far I could carry it--stupid of me." He shook his head, staring at his hands. "Damned stupid."
"Was it, Jack."
He snapped his head up, looking at her. "I should have got out of there. Disapparated. That's what I ought to have done. I saw it coming; I knew he was--I should have Disapparated. Got the hell out of there, found Potter."
"But could you?" asked Dora.
"Well, not without giving myself away, of course. But I ought to have done. I knew the day might very well come--I knew that's what I should have done, then and there, I should have--"
"But could you, Jack?"
Her voice was so gentle, so subtle. He stared back at her: She gazed back at him, waiting, knowing.
He pressed his lips together, and, slowly, shook his head.
She reached up to him, her fingers brushing the portrait's surface, as upon a window pane forever separating them. "It's all right, Jack," she whispered.
He kept shaking his head. "No, it's not," he managed to squeeze out before his throat constricted again.
He wrenched himself out of the chair and around, turning his back so that Dora would not see the tears begin to flow.
It was all his fault. His fault, that Dora had lost her husband, that the children had lost their father. His fault, that instead of Disapparating out of the damned shack, he had stood there like a stammering fool, paralyzed by terror, reduced to passively pleading for permission to go find Potter even as he knew none would be granted.
"I was a coward," he choked out hoarsely.
He heard her draw a long, deep breath. "You were a man," she said. "No less; no more."
Why had he ever thought he could hide from her?
Slowly he turned, and saw that her eyes, too, were filled with tears. "I daresay," she added, "that you got farther, braved more, than most in your position would."
"I was afraid, Dora." Suddenly he found he could speak. "God help me, I was afraid..."
Her palm rested upon the portrait; he brought his own hand to meet it, his eyes never leaving hers.
"Be at peace, Jack," murmured Dora. "Done is done."
Done was done.
He held her gaze, unmoving, until his tears and hers ran their course.
"D'you think," he whispered, when he could speak, "d'you think my soul is at peace?"
"I do. But that's God's affair. Mine is to see to your peace of mind here on earth."
He snorted. "A task you'd never have, if not for the wonders of the wizarding world."
"I don't mind," she said, smiling.
"Will it make it more difficult? For you, dear. Having a memory to keep you company?"
Dora looked at him sharply. "Do you think," she softly replied, "I haven't already taken comfort in your memory? Worn those photographs half into dust, remembering?"
"Dora, love." Damned if he wasn't again on the verge of tears. "I don't want you to trap yourself in the past."
She shook her head. "I'm not," she said. "I'm drawing strength to face the future."
Severus nodded. "As long as you're not wasting away pining for what we couldn't have."
"There was so much we did have." Her eyes were upon his, unwavering. "I want to remember that. Always."
Had Albus Dumbledore ever looked into those soft brown eyes, he never would have mistaken the inspiration behind that Patronus.
"Always," Severus tenderly echoed.
Dora smiled. "I've missed the sound of your voice."
He couldn't help but smile in return. "Only my voice, dear?"
Oh, that had been a foolish thing to say.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "Portraits do have limitations."
"I know, Jack. I know." She smiled ruefully. "I wasn't expecting that much, even from a magical memory."
"No, Dora, I am afraid that reunion will have to wait for heaven."
She snorted. "I don't recall seeing that bit in the Catechism."
"Father Tom agrees with me. You may ask him yourself."
"I'll do no such thing," said Dora, blushing. "Honestly, Jack."
"Have I ever been anything but honest with you? As much as it was in my power to do so?"
She smiled at him, softly, holding his gaze with a warmth that would surely melt whatever passed for a heart in a portrait. It never failed to astonish him, how someone who turned such a stern and sensible face to the world could reveal such tenderness in private.
God, he wished he could hold her in his arms. It didn't matter to him that those arms were oil on canvas: to him, they felt very real, and very empty. But he could hold her with his eyes, look at her forever...
"About this portrait--I don't suppose you know. Did Potter use a permanent sticking charm to hang it on the wall?"
"Oh, no," Dora answered emphatically. "Ordinary picture hooks. I made sure of it." One corner of her mouth turned up. "I thought you might like it if I could move you to other rooms, now and then."
"You may be only a memory," she said, and oh, he knew that light in her eyes, "but you might as well be a happy memory."