Thank you 'fyre' from fanfiction.net for giving me this idea in your feedback. You inspired me and I wrote it at midnight- although admittedly it didn't end up where I wondered it might when I began it.
And as always for my sister Quill, for support and encouragement.
After All These Years.
Dumbledore flicked his wand and the heavy curtains at his window drew themselves closed.
I think a cup of tea is in order," he said briskly, performing the necessary spell. "Shall I play mother?"
"What did he mean?" Severus Snape sat stiffly in the worn old armchair, spine straight, hands clenched on his knees. "What did he mean about... Potter's Muggle family?"
For a few moments there was only the hiss if steam escaping the teapot, and then the liquid gurgle as Dumbledore filled two wafer thin cups.
"Surely you must have noticed, Severus," Dumbledore said quietly. "That the boy is hardly happy in his home?"
"And when was I supposed to notice this?" Snape flared, head lifting, nostrils flaring. As quick as his spurt of temper began it ended and he dropped his chin back down to his chest.
Dumbledore added a slice of lemon to his tea and inhaled the fragrant steam. "You made your choice as to how you would interact with young Harry a long time ago, Severus," Dumbledore reminded him. There was no reproach in his mild tones, no censure, no judgement. Perhaps if there had been Snape might have found it easier to recapture the anger that still swirled somewhere within him. But it was a banked fire, smothered by all those other emotions he hardly had a name for.
"Yes," he agreed, hearing his own voice echo in his ears. "I did"
"Just as you and James and Lily made your own choice all those years ago when you chose to make him."
"I must have been mad," Snape muttered, lifting up his tea cup. The heat through the translucent china was almost a shock against the ice cold flesh of his hands. His fingers, long, thin, stained with years of potion making, felt like skin and bone as he handled the fragile cup. His whole body felt stripped of flesh, naked, exposed. Years of hard-won layers stripped away by just a few hours...
"It feels like a dream," he whispered hoarsely, and it didn't even feel odd to say such a thing. After all, Dumbledore was the only person in the world who knew his secret, the only one he could ever relax even the slightest fragment around. It was almost habit now to sit and drink tea with him, to calm himself after the ravages of having to spend time with...
"And an odd one at that," Dumbledore mused, sipping at his steaming brew. "I've read about such alternate existences but to actually hear about one first hand! To meet someone from a place so like our own and yet so different."
"Imagine it from my point of view," Snape observed, striving to emulate the headmaster's light hearted tones. "Imagine if it had been yourself you had met!"
"I'd have had a few sharp words to say to him," Dumbledore said wryly. "Mind you, I wouldn't have wanted to get him offside. I know what a nasty old fellow he can be when roused." He chuckled merrily at his own joke.
Snape wished he could find any part of this amusing.
"You don't sound as if you approve of your counterpart's actions," he ventured casually, making a show of sipping his tea, although for the life of him he couldn't taste a drop.
Dumbledore's chuckles subsided and he wiped at the corner of his eyes. "I don't suppose it's my business to approve or disapprove," he allowed. "After all, who knows what forces drove my esteemed counterpart in that other world? Perhaps Harry's treatment at the Muggles hands was harsher than here, and something had to be done? I suppose, in fairness, I wouldn't have thrown any sharp words. I might have asked him what he was thinking though! Risking Harry's life and our cause that way, and for what? Rank sentiment?"
"I saw the way they treated him in Potter's memories last year," Snape admitted. "I wondered at the time but I can't say I let it bother me. I can't say I... cared."
Dumbledore placed his cup on its saucer and looked at him frankly. "And why should you?" he asked pointedly. "You've more than fulfilled any duty you had to the boy, Severus. You've saved his life, worked with him closely, and all despite your feelings."
"I have," Snape agreed, wishing the reassuring words filled this hollow space inside him. Once they would have. Once he would have been content with such words, knowing in his heart that they were true. After all, despite his doppelganger's assertions, he hadn't been making a son with Potter and his wife all those years ago. It was a spell, that's all, a spell he had gone into with his eyes open and for his own reasons, but certainly not, in a million years, one he had expected would lead to any responsibility on his part for the results of that spell.
So why wasn't that enough now? Why did he suddenly feel as if there was more he should be doing?
"Does he have to stay with those Muggles?" he asked abruptly. He felt his skin flush a little as Dumbledore looked at him with surprise.
"Of course," the headmaster returned. "Where else would he go? And really, what would be the point of moving him now?"
After all these years.
Dumbledore didn't say it but the words were there between them.
"You made your choice, Severus."
"I thought happy just meant the absence of unhappy."
He had to ask the next question. "Did you really consider sending me to him?"
"As I said."
Snape frowned as he tried to imagine it. What on earth would he have said to such an outlandish request? "Why didn't you?"
"I said that too. Do you need to hear it again?"
"I just don't understand why he did and you didn't, that's all!"
"Do you wish I had?"
Snape shook his head in automatic revulsion, feeling the lank strands whip the sides of his face. "Of course not," he scorned. "Wish I'd been infected by whatever foolish sentiment took ahold of that idiot in his alternate reality? Reality, pah! Alternate unreality, more like! I mean, if you could have heard the man! Blathering on about happiness. As if such a thing actually matters in the grand scheme of things!"
Dumbledore tilted his head curiously. "Is that what he said?" he murmured. "How odd. How very very odd."
"Happy," Snape repeated in disgust. "The man is trying to convince me that he's done the right thing throwing his life away for James Potter's son, and the best he can come up with is happy? Pathetic."
"Unexpected certainly," Dumbledore said quietly. With slow movements he pushed his teacup away and stood up. He seemed weary suddenly, as if the weight of the day had finally caught up with him too. "And yet, if you think about it..."
His voice was quiet and Snape had to tilt his head to catch it.
"Headmaster?" Snape said uncertainly.
"I mean," Dumbledore whispered, almost as if to himself. "One does ones duty, one does ones best. But at the end of the day, when all's said and done... If one wasn't happy... I mean, power, possessions, prestige aside. If none of that made you happy... Then what was it all for?"
"It doesn't mean anything," Snape insisted, half frightened by the intense whisper. "It's just an insipid word, that's all. Headmaster?"
Dumbledore had reached his desk and was leaning on it, his head bowed, his posture slumped. He looked almost... defeated, Snape thought, and he couldn't bear the sight. Dumbledore was the key, Dumbledore was the pin that held them all together. If he should doubt himself now, doubt his own decisions, his own actions...
"You did the right thing," Snape said firmly.
Dumbledore lifted his head and stared across the empty expanse of his room. Was he looking back in time to that Christmas Eve and the decision he had made?
"And you were right before," Snape said even more firmly, conviction growing inside him. "There must have been more to it than just that one decision. Differences in the two worlds we can know nothing about. Think about it, headmaster!"
Dumbledore straightened and tilted his head, although he did not turn around.
"Even if you had come to me that day, all those years ago. I wouldn't have gone," Snape said, sure that must be true. "And, even if I had, it wouldn't have made any difference!"
The headmaster turned and looked at him, his face uncertain.
Snape found he couldn't bear uncertainty on that face.
"As if just seeing him could change my mind and a lifetime of resolve," he said in his most decisive tone. "Nothing would have done that. Don't I see him every day here at Hogwarts?"
"But, as a small child?" Dumbledore murmured. But the uncertainty was fading and his inquiring look was flickering back. "If you had met him, had made some connection with him?"
"There is no connection!" Snape said firmly. "If ever I was looking for one it was when he first came here, when I first met him! But all I saw then was what I see now! The image of a man I spent my formative years hating! The very spit and image of his father. His father," he repeated deliberately.
"And you have never seen yourself as such," Dumbledore recalled, turning to face him.
"Never," Snape confirmed, almost drunk with the relief of seeing his mentor back to his old self. And with the relief of feeling his own uncertainties washed away. Everything he had said to Dumbledore was true, and if there had been a time, years before, when he had idly wondered if the child had any part of him in it... Well, he had been younger then, and obviously more a fool.
"We can only wonder at what forces shaped such a world," Snape continued reassuringly. "And hope, for their sake, that the differences in our worlds allow them a better outcome than such a foolish action would have meant here for us."
"Of course, of course," Dumbledore murmured, nodding his grey head consideringly. "But perhaps it would be better still not to dwell on it at all, eh, Severus? Some things are best forgotten, as we well know. Some secrets best buried."
Snape nodded decisively and jumped briskly to his feet. "I couldn't agree more. Now, if you'll excuse me, headmaster, it's been a long day. I'm more than ready for my bed."
"Sleep well, Severus," Dumbledore called after him and Snape returned the usual goodbye with his own evening platitude. He made his way to his chamber with a lighter foot than he had climbed the steps to Dumbledore's tower, mind already slipping away from the odd events of the day and looking forward to his next task. It wasn't a bad life, and the occasional perilous escapade just made the peaceful times even more pleasant.
"The absence of unhappy," he murmured mockingly to himself as he trod the worn stone steps down to his rooms. "What else could happiness be? If I am not unhappy I must be happy, right?" He checked the dormitories before turning in, walking the same path he did night after night, watching over his charges as was his duty.
In his darkened rooms he donned a night shirt and splashed some water onto his face, straightening to look in the curved old mirror that hung over the basin and was hardly ever used. Behind him in the reflection was his chamber, familiar, quiet, empty. A clock ticked, a mouse scurried.
He met his own eyes in the mirror.
And looked away.
Dumbledore spelled the tea away, finding the sour smell of the lemon was turning his stomach. He performed his own nightly tasks, did his duty, washed his hands and face. Straightened and looked himself squarely in his mirror.
Some things were necessary, but that didn't mean he enjoyed doing them.
"You could do it."
"It really is too late," he said to himself. But there was no one to convince but his reflection, and he'd long ago given up trying to convince him.
"You could do it."
"But I won't."
And in the mirror, Dumbledore didn't look away.