FIC: Light Between the Cracks
Title: Light Between the Cracks Author: bohemianspirit Type: Fiction (Het) Length: Short Story Pairings: Severus/OFC Series: No Yes, it has a sequel, now: Knowing Jack. Rating: PG
Summary: To the end, he had to pretend he hadn't changed a bit. The best of him, Severus resolved, never would be Dumbledore's to reveal.
Note 1: As much as I'm enjoying writing an AU in which Severus ended up marrying Lily, I also wanted to explore how his capacity for love might have evolved in the life that he actually ended up living. So here's one way it might have unfolded: Details are my own invention, but I'd like to believe that, somewhere off the Hogwarts radar screen, something like this really happened.
Note 2: The opening verse is from a poem of mine, because I like to quote myself it fit the story so well.
Light Between the Cracks
Light between the cracks of pain, pain that cracks the numbing flesh beneath the stone.
Anything, he had said.
It had been a vow of shortsighted youth: the sacrifice of his life for the love of Lily. In exchange for her safekeeping--and, not long thereafter, in atonement for failing to avert her death--he had placed himself forever at Dumbledore's disposal.
His life for Lily's. Dumbledore had expected nothing less, and, consumed by guilt and grief, Severus had accepted his sentence without question. For what else did he have to live? Lily had been his one love, even if she had not returned his love, and it was because of his own folly that she was now forever beyond his reach. Remorse would be his constant companion until his dying day. Lily was gone; he would live to protect her son.
He would always love Lily. Always.
But as he drew nearer to thirty than to twenty, Severus realized that he had ceased to think himself capable of loving only Lily. It began to strike him as absurd that in the name of love he should live a life without love. And then it occurred to him that remorse was supposed to lead to absolution, and absolution to release from the sins of the past.
He began to wonder if a future might, after all, be possible.
Of course, as soon as he began to think of moving forward, his promise--and his predicament--restrained him from acting upon those thoughts. There could be no love in a life like his. The word of Albus Dumbledore was all that had stood between him and Azkaban; the protection of Albus Dumbledore all that had stood between him and the vengeance of former Death Eaters who had neither forgiven nor forgotten his defection from their ranks. And should the Dark Lord rise again, as Albus Dumbledore predicted that he would--
No. Severus had forfeited his future when he chose to follow a fool's path at seventeen. He had turned from that path, but he never would be free. To subject a wife and children to the dangers of association with him would be unthinkable.
But his heart had been opened; and no heart, least of all his, had ever been daunted by the limits of the thinkable.
My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?
He was far from Hogwarts, far from anywhere he knew or was known. He was dressed in Muggle attire, sitting on a park bench, thinking of nothing more than to forget his work and his world for just an hour, maybe two.
He had made the mistake of leaving enough room on the bench for another occupant. A woman, walking through the park, stopped and settled into that space. His first instinct was to rise and find another bench, or another park; but then he thought, let her be the one to move. He held his place in silence, and, by reflex born of long habit, observed.
There was nothing remarkable about her, one way or the other. Not unpleasant, but neither a beauty, though certainly anyone sitting in proximity to him had the advantage. She seemed placid, unflappable, not easily shaken her from her moorings. He had the feeling that he could have shouted at her, I am a former Death Eater responsible for the deaths of my childhood best friend and her horrible husband, and because of me their son is an orphan, and she would have received it with the same calm acceptance that the priest in the confessional had once received his litany of childhood peccadilloes.
Yet, as with the priest, he sensed that calm acceptance did not reflect a lack of conviction.
But it was a Saturday afternoon in the park, and priests and peccadilloes were the last thing he wanted to dwell upon.
A lovely day, said the woman on the bench.
Yes, he said, and hoped that would be the end of it.
So very relaxing after a week of teaching, she said, wholly unaware of anything he happened to be hoping.
He raised his eyebrows, his gaze still fixed on the park before him.
You teach? he said, hoping he didn't sound too interested.
At the primary school, she said.
He debated, briefly, before offering, I teach secondary.
To that she gave no answer. And that should have been the end of it, so why did he feel a need to add, Well, summer's at hand, thank God.
And, of course, then she had to ask, You don't enjoy teaching?
And then he had to think.
Well. Yes. And no.
She laughed. Spoken like a true teacher, if you ask me.
I never asked.
Somehow it didn't sound a tenth as curmudgeonly as he had intended for it to sound.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was studying him, more amused than offended.
My name's Dora, she said.
He hesitated a moment, then said, Jack.
It had been a childhood fancy, one he'd kept to himself, as with so many other things. He had so wished he had a normal name, a name like Jack, anything but Severus. So now, for once, he would be anything but Severus.
He returned to the park the next Saturday. Foolish. Very foolish, to establish a predictable pattern of behavior. But the Dark Lord remains disempowered, his followers disbanded. It was easy to convince himself that the danger was past and that he could get on with living the future.
He hadn't really expected to find her at the park again, but there she was. And of course he could not ignore her. His students may have thought him to be ruder than a pig's arse, but that was as students ought to think if their teacher were to do them any real good.
Good day, Dora, he said, nodding.
And she smiled, that he had remembered her name. Good day, Jack.
They walked on together, talking a little, comfortable in the silences. The bowstring that had been his life for five years relished being allowed to slacken, if only for a while.
And so the summer passed: the week devoted to duty, the weekend devoted to escape. After the first couple of weeks Severus and Dora arranged their meetings, rather than relying on chance, and they began to meet sometimes on weekdays instead of always on a Saturday afternoon.
It was understood between them that he told as much about himself as he was at liberty to tell. He did not doubt for a minute that Dora knew Jack Smith was not his real name. He told her that his work was in London--which was not a lie, if not entirely the truth. Eventually Dora formed the impression that his teaching, which he translated into terms of nonmagical science, was a cover for his real work "in government." It was near enough.
With autumn came the return to teaching, for Severus and for Dora, and a return to meeting on Saturdays. By then Severus was satisfied that he had not been followed. The last thing he wanted was for Dora to become a target of anti-Muggle wrath.
And that, realized Severus, was the first time he had thought of Dora explicitly as a Muggle, rather than simply as Dora.
On a Saturday in the middle of October, the wind turned bitter. Severus hated to cut short their walk in the park, but he could see that Dora was getting chilled.
Is there a place where we might have a cup of tea? he asked.
And she answered, I have tea at home.
And that was the point at which he knew he should say, I really do have to go, now, but instead he did what he wanted to do: He followed her home.
If she had harbored any suspicion, till then, that he might have been a married man, that night he proved spectacularly that he was not.
There were, he supposed, women who might be considered worthier of him; there were none of whom he considered himself worthy. And yet Dora treasured his company.
There was nothing extraordinary about any of it: Small talk. Small comforts. Hearth and home, his life and hers. Nothing extraordinary, he thought, save that it was all so comfortably ordinary when they were together. There was no madness, no desperation, in conversation or in embrace. With Dora there was a sense of simply belonging.
He began to wonder if that might be considered love.
She did not fuss about his hair. He'd gone out of his way, when they'd started seeing each other, to make sure it was freshly washed; but between teaching Potions and supervising Slytherins and spying for Dumbledore at a moment's notice, he had little time for the luxury of lolling in the bath at leisure. But squeaky clean or greasy git, Dora welcomed him all the same. For that, above all else, he came to know that he loved her.
I wish I could be with you all the time, he said one night on the edge of sleep.
And if you could? she asked.
I would ask you to marry me, he answered, knowing how impossible it was.
But she did not care how impossible it was. If you asked, she said, I would say yes, even if nothing else can change.
And he said, You deserve better.
And she said, I want you.
Which was surely evidence that she was mad, or at the least drowsy beyond coherent thought; but when morning came, her mind was clear, and it had not changed one bit.
My work will keep me away, he said.
It keeps you away now, she said, but you always return.
And he knew the day might come when he could not return, but she knew that, too, and so he did not say it.
They were married in the middle of winter, in a quiet ceremony with a handful of her friends and neighbors as witnesses. The name he gave to her was false, as were the documents which proved his identity, but the vows he spoke were true. If he could have worn a ring, he would. She knew he could not, but she never doubted that he was hers from that day forward, forsaking all the rest. The faith she placed in him moved him profoundly, and he vowed to himself that he would honor her faith with nothing less than his best.
The best of him, Severus resolved, never would be Dumbledore's to reveal.
So why me? he asked. They were washing and drying dishes one evening after supper.
What do you mean, why you?
In the beginning, he said. Why did you want to talk to me? Keep talking to me?
Truth? she said, looking a bit embarrassed. It was your voice.
Oh, Jack. You've a gorgeous voice, and you know it.
So that was it. All those talks, not for my brilliant mind, just the sound of my voice.
Such an ass. But you did ask.
Please tell me you didn't marry me for my voice, he said, teasing.
Oh, no, she said, smiling. I married you for your brilliant mind.
Only my mind, dear? he asked, trailing his hand along her side.
I didn't say only.
Their first child, Eileen Dora, was born on a blustery day in March, a little over a year after their wedding.
He sat on the bed, leaning against the headboard with his knees drawn up. Upon his knees he supported little Edie, looking into that tiny face and trying to comprehend that she was really his, that something of himself had been passed on to another, that he was the father of a child.
Until now, he had held in some unspoken corner of his soul the notion that Lily's rejection had been a sentence of doom, that Severus Snape was never meant to sire offspring, to see his image reborn, carried on in another generation. But in his hands he held an unanswerable argument against such fatalistic absurdities. He was overcome with wonder, and with hope; and then he began to tremble as it struck him that he didn't know what the hell he was doing. Such a tiny thing, so utterly dependent, defenseless. How could he begin to be equal to the task?
Dora laughed gently. Nobody knows what they're doing, at first, she said, reaching to stroke Edie's hair, which was black, like his.
I hope to God she doesn't get my nose, he said.
Silly Daddy, said Dora to the baby.
Daddy, he softly echoed, on the brink of tears.
There was irony in it, or perhaps amends: that he who had once aligned himself with Muggle deaths should now add to the numbers of Muggle life. Well, not really Muggle; not with a wizard for her father. But Severus was sure he had read, somewhere, that a Muggle and a wizard had significantly greater odds than a witch and a wizard of producing a Squib. A Squib was as good as a Muggle, he figured, and so a strike against the Dark Lord.
Within a few weeks of Edie's birth, it became clear to Severus--and to Dora--that their daughter was not a Squib. And then Severus had some explaining to do.
Dora received the explanation as she received almost everything: calmly and sensibly. The woman was a rock, the only stability Severus knew or had ever known; and for that he loved her all the more.
It became much easier, after that, to settle into a common life--such as it was--because at last they had a common understanding. He still withheld details, of course, as safety and confidentiality demanded, but he no longer had to hide what he was. He could talk about all of his life, not just the part of it he lived with Dora. She understood, at last, exactly why he could not be home more than he was; and she understood, at last, how truly he spoke when he wished he could remain always at her side.
Being free to talk with Dora about his other life made it easier to live his double life when he was at Hogwarts: to play the role of the surly Potions master during the week while anticipating his next return to the cozy domestic life of a devoted father and husband. He felt sorry for Dora, having to cope with the unexpected challenges of raising a young witch without having him there to help. A few trips to Hogsmeade, a great deal of eavesdropping, and a bit of discreetly casual questioning yielded a fair amount of information that Dora might find useful during his absences.
A month after Edie's third birthday, Jackie came along. To his surprise Severus wished the boy might have been Severus rather than Jack. On the other hand, he himself was growing so accustomed to being Jack that he sometimes had to recollect himself, and quickly, when Dumbledore or one of his colleagues would call him Severus.
He must not grow careless.
That September after his son was born, Lily's boy at last arrived at Hogwarts.
A week into classes, Severus had the impression that Jackie was already a more promising wizard than this mediocre brat who could not be bothered to crack a book. Why the Dark Lord should ever have considered the child a threat--well, it wasn't beyond him. He knew bloody well why the boy had been targeted.
In the days that followed, the boy clearly thought that Severus had singled him out for special hatred. What Severus could not tell the boy was that the hatred was directed entirely towards himself.
He coddled them. He knew he coddled them.
But seeing their faces, so full of joy when he greeted them after an absence of several days, or a week, or sometimes longer, how could he bring himself to be stern? Scarcely was he through the front door than he was on his knees, arms open wide, embracing his Edie and his Jackie and swearing they had grown since the last time he was home.
Fortunately Dora had sound instincts. She knew how to keep an orderly classroom, and she kept an orderly home. The children knew they were loved, but they also knew there were limits and were taught respect.
It became harder and harder for Severus to make himself return to Hogwarts. He wished with all his heart that he could resign his post, leave the protection of the Potter boy to someone else, leave all of it behind. But he had made a promise, long ago in the certitude of youth, when nothing seemed as if it would ever change, and he was duty bound to honor the promise he had made.
He and Dora bickered, from time to time, especially whenever it came time for him to leave. Petty arguments, they were, trivialities upon which he and Dora wasted too many of their scarce moments together. Yet bickering helped, somehow, to ease the pain of parting; and it helped as well to put him in a temper suitably foul to ensure that he should never reveal to the students of Hogwarts that he might, at heart, be very happy.
Not in front of the children. Never in front of the children.
That was his one firm rule in their household: Never let the children see them argue. It had taken but one glimpse of Edie's stricken face for him to resolve that his children would never be subjected to the pain and terror he had known as a child.
As the children grew, making concealment increasingly difficult, the arguments were eventually abandoned, and Severus and Dora came to truly accept what they had said at the outset they would accept: that their life together would necessarily involve a great deal of time apart.
Back when he had first applied to teach at Hogwarts, Severus had wanted the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. Instead, Dumbledore had hired him to teach Potions.
Admittedly--if only to himself--his motives had been mixed, when first he'd sought the post. But in the wake of Lily's death, when something resembling sense began to take root in his soul, Severus had seen in the position an opportunity to put his youthful obsession with the Dark Arts to good use. Who better to teach defense against them than one who'd squandered his youth pursuing them?
That had been his reasoning, but apparently not Dumbledore's. Severus had set out to earn Dumbledore's trust, demonstrating not only his competency as Potions master but his absolute loyalty to henceforth serving only the good. Yet Dumbledore, year after year, turned down his application to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Severus despaired of ever truly gaining his trust.
After four or five years of watching the parade of incompetents--or worse--pass through Hogwarts, Severus' frustration had given way to comprehension: The position was jinxed. Nobody lasted in it past the end of their first year.
But by then, Severus understood that Dumbledore expected he would continue to covet the post; and by then, Severus had a vested interest in continuing to live down to Dumbledore's expectations. So Severus continued to apply for the post, year after year, and to make bitter noises when, year after year, he continued to be denied.
At least this year, for once, Dumbledore had hired someone who knew what the hell he was doing and might actually be able to teach the students something useful.
Not that Severus would ever say that to Remus Lupin's face.
Under different circumstances--had Lupin shown evidence of a spine back when they were in school--they might have been friends. Maybe. As matters stood, simply being with Lupin brought forth too much pain for friendship to be possible. Lupin had tried to apologize, the first time Severus had brought him his potion, but Severus had cut him off. Your apology is seventeen years too late, he'd snapped in a low voice, and had left the room before Lupin could think of something to say that might change his mind.
Even so, Severus continued to make the Wolfsbane potion, month after month, and not only because Dumbledore had told him to do so.
It weighed on Severus, even after seven years of the life to which he and Dora had both agreed, that he was absent more than present. The children were growing so fast, and it bothered him that their care fell so heavily to Dora. This was not the kind of father he would have wished to be.
Was I wrong, he said one night, lying down for the luxury of a full night's sleep with his wife, to have trapped you into such a miserable excuse for a marriage?
He should have waited until the lights were out; then he would not have been able to see the anguished look Dora gave him as her eyes flooded with tears.
Dora, Dora, my dear, he murmured, taking her into his arms. I don't mean you, dear, not for a minute would I ever mean you. How could I ever regret you? And he held her tightly while she wept.
Then why'd you say such a stupid thing? she said into his chest.
Because I feel terrible, dear, putting you through such hell, living this way.
It's a hell I walked into of my own free will.
Well. He sighed. I know. But I can't help thinking it was selfish of me, thinking how much I wanted to be with you instead of what was best for you, what would be best for our children.
She curled in closer against him. You're an ass, she said.
That's me, he said. Jack Ass.
That made her laugh, as he had hoped it would; and in the end he couldn't entirely regret his blundering words, because when all was said and done, that night had given them Sara Grace.
He was glad he had never accepted Lupin's apology.
He'd told Dumbledore not to trust Lupin. And he'd been proven right--if only he could prove it. The fact that he couldn't made him even angrier than knowing that he'd been right: Lupin had been working with Black, the man who had betrayed Lily's hiding place, the hiding place Severus had pleaded with Dumbledore to arrange. Black, the man who had enabled the Dark Lord to murder Lily, leaving Lily's son an orphan, and leaving Severus with the burden of protecting Lily's ungrateful, careless, arrogant, mediocre brat who had zero comprehension of how much he, Severus, and so many other people had sacrificed and continued to sacrifice to keep his sorry arse alive just one more day.
Anyway, Lupin had been doomed to leave the post after one year. Severus reckoned that resignation under pressure was a better fate than death or dementia. A better fate than Lupin deserved.
By some miracle Severus was able to be at Dora's side when the baby was born, able to be the first to hold her, to be the first to speak her name.
Another baby. Another blessing. A far better fate, thought Severus, than he deserved.
He had sunk to a new low.
It was the strain, he told himself. The Potter boy, whom he was supposed to be protecting, had contrived yet again to throw himself into the heart of danger. Did he believe the boy's protests of innocence? He would rather believe the boy guilty of arrogance; the alternative meant the boy was in greater peril than ever. Typical Gryffindor, and typical Potter, always had to be at the center of attention, always the exception to every rule. Everyone loved Gryffindor. If Severus didn't lean heavily against Gryffindor, there would be no justice at all at Hogwarts.
Even were he inclined to be less partial, he had no choice but to favor Slytherin. The Mark had reappeared, and was growing darker: If it should burn, he had to be sure his reputation at Hogwarts would help and not hinder what he would have to do. Besides, the girl was a nose-in-the-air know-it-all; it wouldn't hurt her to be brought down a peg or two.
He had many excuses at hand. But all he saw, as he glared into the mirror, were the tears in the eyes of the humiliated girl and the tears in the eyes of the humiliated boy who had been continually tormented for being an ugly greasy git with a big nose and bad teeth.
I see no difference.
He stalked out of his rooms and out of the school, shielding his tear-streaked face with his hood.
I can't stay long, he said, walking into his home.
Dora took one look at his face, which he had not bothered to wash, and enveloped him with her arms; and he broke down, glad to relinquish the burden of appearing unmoved.
It has not been a good week, he murmured when at last he had grown still.
He asked to see the children, then, sleeping in their beds; the baby, barely a month old, in her cradle; and he lay down with his wife, even if only for a while, and rested in her embrace. All he wanted was to remember that there was some good in him, that some good had come from him, that the worst of him was not who he really was.
The Mark was growing darker. Should it burn, he would not flee; but he prayed with all his heart that it would fade, the Dark Lord fail, and that he might someday have a normal life.
"Sara Grace! Sara Grace!" Edie jumped in the middle of the living room, touching the ceiling with both hands and stretching her legs out in front of her, floating slowly back to the floor.
"Sara Grace! Sara Grace!" echoed Jackie, following his big sister's lead.
"Can't a man read his newspaper in peace," muttered Severus, scowling. But Edie and Jackie laughed, and Sara Grace giggled with them.
Severus felt the corner of his mouth turn up. He could almost pretend, at times like these, that he had a normal life.
Sara Grace had not yet celebrated her first birthday when the Dark Lord returned.
There could be no more pretending. Severus now reported to the Dark Lord as well as to Dumbledore, a daily dance of ambiguous allegiance that threatened to devour him, body, mind, and soul. Years of practicing Occlumency in the presence of Dumbledore had helped prepare him for that moment when the Dark Lord looked again into his eyes, searching, to find only what Severus allowed him to see.
His family, for now, was safe. But the day was coming, he knew, when he would not be able to return.
He sat with Dora at their kitchen table, both of them sober as they talked quietly. A large cloth purse lay on the table between them.
Wizard coin, Severus told Dora, looking into her eyes. I pray you will not find it necessary, but should I--be unavailable, the year Edie turns eleven, there is more than enough in there for her first year, if you economize. Someone will call upon the house, early in the summer, to assist you in buying what she will need, and to help you find the train. Dora's composure showed signs of cracking, just a little, but she immediately recovered herself and nodded. I will do what I can to ensure that you encounter no difficulties in drawing upon the rest of my holdings. If--anything should happen to me, my name--my legal name--will then appear on our documents, so you'll know what name to give, which vault is ours; and, I should hope, persuade them of your claim to it. And there will be a letter in the vault, legible only upon--if I am not able to be there myself. To verify.
Jack. Dora reached across the table and clasped his hand.
If it comes to it, he said. And maybe it won't. Though one look at Edie ought to be verification enough--the poor mite.
Jack, she said again, frowning. She's growing to be a lovely girl.
She is, he agreed. No thanks to me.
Jack. Don't say that.
He shrugged, tightening his hold on her hand.
So he'd been wrong about Lupin. And Black. He still didn't have to like them, and he still wasn't certain he should fully trust them. But as long as they were all working to bring down the Dark Lord, Severus guessed he could at least tolerate them.
Not that he would ever tell them so, of course.
It was no coincidence, he knew, that Dolores Umbridge had come to Hogwarts. She was there to do the work of the corrupted Ministry; and she was there to keep an eye on things.
Keep an eye on him.
Do you have any idea why Dumbledore has consistently refused to appoint you to the Defense Against the Dark Arts post?
Because he needs me to stay at Hogwarts longer than one year, was what he thought. What he said was, I suggest you ask him.
Oh, I shall. I shall. The Ministry wants a thorough understanding of every teacher's background.
The thought of Umbridge learning his secret... Severus felt ice slither up his spine.
I don't know how much longer...
Dora clasped his hand, caressing it. We've had nearly ten years, she murmured. Whatever happens, nobody can take those from us.
It was a pilot light, a light he kept well hidden behind the black veil of his eyes, a tiny flame that kept him warm on many a cold day to come.
That year for Christmas, which they ended up celebrating a couple of days after the day, Edie wrote him a poem, Jackie drew him a picture, and Sara Grace covered him in mashed yams. Dora gave him a memorable dinner, and, when dinner was done and the children asleep, an even more memorable night. Then Severus had to return to Hogwarts, where, at the end of Christmas holidays, Dumbledore gave him the assignment to teach Occlumency to the Potter brat.
Hopeless. The boy was utterly, utterly hopeless. If the fate of the world, wizarding and otherwise, rested upon him, then they were all doomed.
Even so, he had to keep trying.
Edie. Come here.
She dragged her feet every step across the small sitting room, but she did as she was told, stopping in front of where he stood.
Look at me.
She looked up into his eyes.
He held up his wand, which he'd found lying in her room. Were you using this?
No, sir. There was the slightest hesitation before she said it.
Severus held back a sigh. Don't lie to me, Edie, he said, in a voice quiet, cold, and terrible. He continued to gaze deeply into her eyes, black as his own. He couldn't let the deed go unpunished, but neither could he bring himself to wield the stern discipline that came so naturally to him as a teacher. She knew she was not supposed to touch it--and dear God, if the Ministry had got wind of a seven-year-old--his seven-year-old--
Tears welled into her eyes. Without asking permission she fled into her room, shutting the door behind her.
He considered going after her, then decided her misery was punishment enough. Severus walked over to his armchair and sank into it, rubbing his brow.
Impossible. The girl was not yet eight. And yet he saw, in her eyes he knew he had seen a flicker, a hint of shadow clumsily obscuring what she had not wanted him to see.
Seven years old, he said to himself, shaking his head. Seven years old and already exhibiting an intuitive sense for Occlumency surpassing the repeated efforts of a fifteen year old under expert private tutelage.
Of course, he was biased. Severus smirked. But even so...
Seven years old. He could be proud of such a daughter.
No owl, yet, reprimanding the misuse of magic by Miss Edie Smith. Or, rather, Eileen Dora Smith. Or, God forbid, Eileen Dora Snape, a.k.a. Smith.
What did the Ministry register--and the register at Hogwarts--read? On her birth certificate she was Eileen Dora Smith. She had been baptized Eileen Dora Smith. As far as the Ministry and the rest of the wizarding world was concerned, then, there should be no reason for her to be anything but Eileen Dora Smith.
But what if...?
Had he really fooled them all? Or was the Ministry merely biding its time, until...?
I must not tell lies.
He'd seen the scars on Potter's hand. More recently, he'd seen the memories in Potter's head. Idiot boy. Why hadn't he said something? If Severus had known, he would have...
Tipped his own hand?
He hugged himself, wishing he could get warm.
I never want to see him again.
As soon as the Potter boy had fled his office, Severus slammed the door shut, fell back against it, and let the tears flow unchecked until he felt safe that they were all spent. A water glass, half empty, was sitting on a shelf by his desk; he grabbed it and splashed its contents over his face, using the hem of one sleeve to wipe his face dry. Severus was still shaking as he repaired jar after jar, returning each one to its shelf. The books he'd flung, one by one, he returned, one by one, sliding them into place by hand. He was a proficient Occlumens, a master of his emotions; he could, and would, master this.
After clearing the chaos he'd created, Severus swept the floor, attacking the floor with harsh strokes, as if to drive any remaining debris out the door. Then he walked over to the Pensieve, drew out the memory, and put it back into his head only because he did not wish to leave it where it might again be seen.
When everything had been put together and set in order, he left the grounds to pay a call on his wife.
He took one look into her eyes and fell apart.
There was a girl... a long time ago... I was madly in love.
He was lying in bed, facing her but not looking at her.
I don't know if she ever knew... but I think he knew... the one she... the father of the boy I'm sworn to protect...
He told her everything that had happened that night, the entire, horrible, humiliating ordeal, twenty years gone but fresh as newly-cut wounds. He told her everything, including the things that the Potter boy--thank God--had not seen.
When he had finished speaking, Dora remained silent for a long, long time.
So this girl you loved, Jack; the one who called herself your friend--she never spoke to you again.
Because of what you said. What you called her.
Mudblood. His throat constricted as he said it.
One time, one time you called her a name--
I used to say it all the time. The tears rushed in again. Not to her--but--my friends--my house--it was expected. And-- He sucked a sharp breath through his teeth. I hated my father.
He pressed his eyes closed, wishing the tears would cease.
A Muggle. Like me, said Dora.
Not at all like you, Severus vehemently countered.
There followed a stillness that settled over him like a blanket.
Why was your prejudice unpardonable, Jack, and theirs pardonable?
He looked, for the first time since his arrival, into her eyes.
She stretched out her hand, touching his brow, smoothing away the strands of black that had fallen across his vision.
A vow to kill Dumbledore. A second vow to help Draco Malfoy kill Dumbledore.
Severus hated his life.
Stolen moments were becoming more and more difficult to steal. Spying for Dumbledore; spying for the Dark Lord; Severus was eternally at someone else's beck and call, while Dora had to remain, for her safety and that of the children, content with unpredictable, unannounced visits.
And he knew, yes, he knew that the visits must come to an end.
Not yet, he argued behind his shields. Not yet.
One night, as he was lying down with his wife in their bed, his left arm suddenly burned.
God--DAMN--it! he choked out, fighting back tears.
I'm sorry, dear. I have to go.
He kissed her gently, let his hand rest on her hair just long enough to make clear where his true loyalties lay, then got out of bed and prepared to obey duty's call for the greater good.
That autumn, Dumbledore appointed Severus to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. It's what you've always wanted, Severus, Dumbledore mildly remonstrated when Severus objected.
Not really, Severus wanted to say, but of course he couldn't. One more act, come back to bite him in the arse. The position was cursed; nobody held it for more than one year. Finding himself in that position was one more bubble in the proverbial kettle of water, slowly ascending to the boiling point.
And then there was Potter, damn the boy.
I realize that you are far too important to be bothered to pay attention in my little class, Potter, but you might consider the fact that you, of all people, should avail yourself of whatever you are capable of gleaning from the subject at hand. In case it happens to have slipped your mind, Mr. Potter, the Dark Lord has returned and is growing in power, and you had damned bloody well better take this class seriously, because the dangers you face are very real.
Such a hypocrite, he was. He'd been denying the dangers for a decade. Which thought put Severus in a temper so foul that he was snarling and slamming books all the rest of the period, culminating with assigning half the class to detention--which he had to delegate to other teachers, in the end, because he was too damned busy to oversee them himself.
Look, Daddy, look!
Such a bright girl you are, my Edie, he said, ignoring the corrections and focusing on the words of praise on the school paper in her hands. Absolutely brilliant.
She beamed, revealing that she'd lost another tooth since last he'd seen her.
Tooth fairy been good to you?
Well, just in case-- He reached into his pocket for a few coins. There.
What about me, Daddy?
What about you, Jackie? He arched an eyebrow, keeping his face even. Lost any teeth lately?
The boy looked so crestfallen that Severus laughed and pulled him into his arms. Here you are, my boy, he said, dropping a few coins into Jackie's hand. For the tooth you're going to lose--someday.
It was getting far too risky; he should make the break, and soon. He did not want to think what would happen to his family--never mind to him--if the Dark Lord should learn of his marriage to a Muggle.
Oh, it's good to be home, dear.
Washing dishes? she said, smiling.
I would wash dishes for the rest of my life, if it would give me the rest of my life with you.
Her face shadowed. That bad, is it.
Come on. Her arms wrapped around him, and she pulled him away from the sink. The dishes will keep.
Severus, for the first time in his teaching career, told Dumbledore that he would be away from Hogwarts for most of the Christmas holiday. Dumbledore accepted the news without question, assuming that Severus would be away on business of which he would be informed in due time. There was indeed business to be done, but not yet: For now, Severus intended nothing more than to enjoy at least one Christmas week with his wife and children.
Slughorn's insufferable party, Severus reminded himself, was but a temporary annoyance to be endured en route to a happy Christmas with his family. The Potter boy seemed to have developed a newfound talent for Potions, a subject which he would not have been studying at all in sixth year had Severus still been Potions master. Slughorn was entirely too soft, and Severus was decidedly skeptical that a Potions prodigy had suddenly blossomed from a talent previously demonstrated to be mediocre, at best.
Had Potter and Slughorn been the worst of the party, Severus would have continued to put off what he had known for some months needed to be done. But the worst of the party had been when Argus Filch dragged in Draco Malfoy.
Severus took Draco out of the room, down the corridor to an empty classroom, and tried to talk some sense into the boy. Between Potter and Malfoy, Severus really wondered how he kept his sanity. Two idiot boys, now, whom he was sworn to protect, both of them seemingly determined to thwart his every effort at protection.
But the situation with Draco was serious. By the time the boy stormed out of the classroom, thanks to Severus' inelegant reminder of his father's imprisonment, Severus realized that to prevent the boy from bringing disaster upon all of their heads would require constant vigilance. And keeping his promise to the boy's mother reminded him that, in the not too distant future, he would be faced with keeping his promise to Dumbledore.
It was time to do what he most wanted not to do.
How wonderful to have you home for Christmas.
Dora's arms were around him, holding him tightly, and he never wanted to let her go.
Home for Christmas, he whispered into her ear. Till the New Year. All to ourselves.
One real Christmas, with carols and cocoa and trimming the tree. One real Christmas, to fill stockings and wrap gifts. One real Christmas, to watch the children awaken on Christmas morning. Edie was going on nine, Jackie was already five, and Sara Grace had just turned two.
Christmas dinner left them all drowsy and sated. While the younger children napped, and Edie curled up in an armchair with one of her new books, Severus reclined with Dora in their bedroom so they could talk.
I don't want to wait till the minute I leave, he began.
Dora's hand on his cheek silenced him. This is it, then, she said.
Till after... he said, not wanting to say there might not be an after.
Lock the door, she said, and he picked up his wand and pointed it at the lock before letting it fall to the floor.
The younger ones suspected nothing, but Edie, all that week, kept looking up from her books. It was disconcerting, seeing his own eyes fixed upon him, searching; and his pain was mitigated by pride to think that he might have sired a very talented future Legilimens.
If the letter comes for Edie, and you still haven't heard from me...
I know, said Dora, her tears mingling with his as she kissed him.
He embraced them all, one last time: Edie, Jackie, and Sara Grace. He did his best to be grateful for what he'd had, rather than resentful of what he might not have, but in the end he still would rather he never had to leave.
He turned last to Dora. He looked at her, remembering her, even as she was remembering him. And he told her, as she had known all along, that he loved her.
The first time he heard Remus Lupin say Dora, Severus thought he'd been found out. He breathed again once he realized that Lupin was speaking not of his wife but of Tonks the Auror. It soon became plain to Severus that the man was in love, felt he had no right to be, and was thereby making both himself and Tonks utterly miserable.
Severus cut him off with a hand through the air. If you wait for a perfect life, Lupin, he snarled, you'll never know love.
Lupin looked at him with pity in his eyes. Clearly he took the words to heart as coming from bitter experience. They had, but not in the way that Lupin undoubtedly thought.
To the end, he had to pretend he hadn't changed a bit.
In a way, it had always been what Dumbledore expected. For all his talk of choice and change, Dumbledore never had truly believed, at heart, that people could and did change in any essential way. It was his one great blind spot, and it was that blind spot that had enabled Severus to conceal his family from Dumbledore's detection. In Dumbledore's eyes, Severus would always be the smitten and grieving youth, forever bound to the memory of an early and unrequited love.
So it very nearly caught Severus off his guard when Dumbledore showed astonishment at his horror: Astonishment, that the man whom Harry had trusted above all others had been preparing him, like a pig for the slaughter, to walk to his death. Astonishment, that Severus would object to so callous an indifference to the life of one boy in the name of the greater good. Astonishment, that Severus might harbor any human feeling that extended to anyone other than Lily Evans Potter.
Why, Severus, have you grown to care for the boy, after all?
That exclamation shocked Severus into realizing how very nearly he had given himself away. With a rush of defiant anger, he roared a denial that really didn't quite come to a denial but neatly deflected interpretation in that direction.
For him? Expecto Patronum!
He watched the doe, his deer, leap and soar gracefully into the night. And he turned to Dumbledore, who plainly thought exactly what Severus wanted him to think.
It was his finest performance to date.
On a windy hill, far from anywhere he knew or was known, Severus stood, staring at the fragments in his hand. His own youthful callousness, bared, without whitewash or defense: What he had done to the photograph he would have done to Lily, done to her family--had done to her family, only it had been Lily's boy, not Lily, who had been torn away, set apart to live without the family who had loved him.
Lots of love, Lily.
The words had not been written to him. He had never had her love. He had known it all along. What he had not known, until this moment, was that he had never truly loved her. Had he loved her, he would have borne his own loss, let her go her way in peace and in peace his own way gone. Had he loved her, he never would have done what he had done.
Tears ran down his face as he stood, isolated, gazing at the fragments in his hand. He wished he could go back, put it back, patch it together again, but it was too late. There was only one thing he could do, and that was let it go.
Headmaster Snape, of all things. It was the opportunity hidden in the crisis. Severus did everything in his power to protect the students from the Carrows, yet the Carrows never suspected.
It was a wonder to him that no one at Hogwarts had ever, in all those years, detected the father's heart that drove him. So many people, colleagues as well as students, looked no further than surface appearances. And his surface, even at his best, still had its points of abrasion. He knew very well his own shortcomings, even though he would never let on that he knew. He also felt a duty to challenge rather than coddle his charges. And he knew that what he considered to be a refusal to coddle, others considered cruel. And he was aware that, sometimes, they may have been right. But when it really mattered, when the children were in real danger, subjected to risk of real harm, Severus thought it should have been plain for all to see that he did indeed care very much about their welfare.
He wondered, often, sitting alone in the headmaster's office at Hogwarts, how Lily's boy was faring.
He had not coddled the boy; that did not mean he had hated the boy. Hated the father, yes, as the father had hated him. But try as he might, he had not been able to bring himself to hate the father's son.
Just because he exists.
For Lily, he had said; but his protection of the boy had long ago ceased to be for Lily. He had done it because he could not have done otherwise. For six years he had been a father to Harry, in ways that he had not been able to be a father to his own children. Had that been love? He was not sure; but it certainly had not been hatred.
Seventeen years of caution and stealth, seventeen years of evading innumerable dangers; mastery of potions and spells and curses and countercurses, preparation and practice in defense against dozens of dark arts; only to be felled, in the end, by a ruddy snake.
The day that Minerva walked into the headmaster's office and announced that someone had arrived to see him, Severus realized that the time had come for his firstborn to attend Hogwarts. Minerva asked the other portraits to please go elsewhere in the castle so that Severus might have an hour to himself. Severus drew great satisfaction from seeing the question in Dumbledore's face: His best had remained his own, unrevealed, to the very end.
He looked to the door, expecting Edie, but it was not his daughter who walked into the office.
"Dora," he said, the wonder in his voice no less than the wonder on her face.
She stared, awestruck, finally venturing, "Jack?"
"Yes," he said; and he smiled.
She walked up to him, reached up towards him. He knelt, reaching down, placing his hand just above the bottom of the frame, so that the palm of his hand met hers, as if upon a window.
"It's still only a portrait," he whispered, feeling tears begin as he saw her last hope dashed. "A memory, almost as real as life, holding all of my memories: all that I did... knew... felt. But wherever I am, I am certain that I am still with you, in a way more real than this can ever be." He pressed his hand more firmly against the barrier between them. "Can you forgive me?"
Their tears were flowing freely now.
"They told me you were a great man," she said, her lips trembling as she smiled. "I never knew..."
He felt his own mouth twist. "I assure you, Dora," he said, looking deeply into her eyes. "Neither did I."