The Absence of Unhappy.
A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead and Snape wiped it away with the cuff of his dragon skin glove, not taking his eyes from the mixture. It was at this point the last two times that something had gone wrong. The ingredients were fine, he knew that. It could only be the order in which he added these final drops that made the crucial difference.
Snape measured the drops into the vial, watching carefully as the last one clung to the lip of the bottle, then gave itself up to gravity and splashed onto the amber liquid. Even as it melted into the mixture below the sparks were crackling around him.
He dived behind the nearest bench with only seconds to spare as the third explosion of the day left his ears ringing and his eyes stinging from the noxious smoke.
Pushing his goggles up onto his sweaty forehead Snape eyed the mess sourly.
"Fruit again," he muttered. "Why fruit?"
Fruit it was indeed, looking as if it had been fired from the barrel of a cannon as it ran down the walls and dripped off the ceiling. His vial now overflowed with grapes, squashed bananas squelched beneath his feet, and a pineapple quivered above him, skewered nastily on the sharp candelabra over his head.
Deciding he was definitely done for the day, Snape stripped off his gloves and tossed them towards the fruit salad, mind already busy with his plans for the next day. If he varied the drops between the other ingredients, then perhaps...
Blinking, he focused through the last remnants of smoke on the wall opposite him. Where once there had been a bare expanse of stone he could now make out a swinging door and a small dark recess at about eye level. Intrigued, he broke his train of thought and trod carefully around the work bench to the newly revealed space.
For more than a year he had worked in this dungeon without a clue that a kind of secret wall-safe lay behind this thin door of stone. Curiously he touched a long finger to the door which now hung drunkenly on one hinge. It looked as if a particularly deadly volley of Granny Smiths had pelted the thing, knocking it open and revealing the secrets within.
"Lumos," he said, holding his wand aloft. The recess was small, twelve inches square or so, seeming carved out of the cold, dark stone. And in its center a bottle.
With a word he conjured a pair of tongs and carefully lifted the tiny bottle out of the darkness and into the dim light of the dungeons for the first time in who knew how long? It stood about two inches high, blown from a soft lilac glass and stoppered with a pewter coloured metal that was crusted with age and some ancient crystalline residue.
The stopper bore an inlaid crest and Snape gently deposited the bottle onto the bench and bent to take a closer look. Unfortunately fate and gravity both took a hand, because even as he bent the pineapple that had been slowly sliding off the spiked candelabra above slipped free from its hold and slammed full force into the bench, upsetting the bottle and flinging it into the air.
Where it landed on the back of Snape's hand.
And the fourth explosion of the day rocked his dungeon.
"No fruit this time anyway," Snape muttered groggily as he stared up at his dungeon ceiling. "Some of those cobwebs look like they could trap an unwary student though."
With a muffled groan he sat up, cataloguing his injuries.
Dented pride. Check, but not so bad when no one was around to see you fall.
Dented spine. Check, and the portions somewhat lower were protesting their lack of natural padding as well.
Hand? He looked at the hand the bottle had hit, seeing a smattering of the salt-like crystals dusting its back. Forgetting his throbbing nether regions Snape leapt to his feet and hurried to the sink, rinsing the crystals off his skin and then drying it thoroughly. Deciding only a close examination under a magnifying glass would show any marks on his skin Snape turned back to the room and stopped as he finally took it in.
No fruit. No bottle. Not even the vials and burner he had been working on just minutes ago. In fact the bench was bare with only a thick film of dust covering its surface. Snape stepped forward and traced a finger through the dust, it bunched behind the moving digit like a soft grey pillow. No one had touched this surface for a good many years.
"All right," Snape said slowly, breath starting to come a little faster. "So you didn't just get away with a bruised bum. Think now, Severus, what else has changed?"
The door! The small secret door that had been blown off its hinges by a barrage of fruit. It no longer hung drunkenly in its niche, in fact even a quite close examination failed to reveal the smallest trace of it.
As if it had never been there.
Time to look outside the room. It was possible he'd happened upon some dried out old spell that did no more than... what? Fling someone about the room? Tidy up fruit? Repair broken doors?
Other possibilities raced through his mind but Snape suppressed them until he had more data. It was time to venture from his dungeon. He paced to the entrance and then froze in place, staring at his hand extended casually before him to push open the door. In frozen horror he spread his long fingers and rotated them slowly. Clearly visible through them was the stained and worn old wood of the dungeon door.
With a curse he slammed his hand hard against the door before him, crying out involuntarily at the pain but at the same time almost fainting with relief as he met solid wood. For a desperate moment a million thoughts had rushed through his terrified brain. Was he a ghost? Had that mysterious potion killed him? Was this how it was for all those who passed, these horrible moments thinking they still dwelt among the living?
His hand was throbbing and red, old splinters decorating his lacerated knuckles, but at least now it was solid flesh, not in the least bit transparent.
What on earth had that potion done?
Gingerly he pushed the door with his uninjured hand, unable to prevent himself from glancing every few moments at both his hands, checking to ensure they were still as solid as they should be. Outside in the hall torches flickered in their sconces and in the distance he could hear the dull roar a school full of students made in the middle of the day.
Usually anything to do with students annoyed him as a matter of course, but today he found himself turning almost eagerly to the sound. He wanted life around him after his scare. After those few moments that had crammed a lifetime's worth of terror in them. He rushed along the worn old stones of the hallway, nursing his injured hand now but uncaring of the pain. Pain meant he was alive, as did those eager voices he could hear raised in laughter and argument around the next bend.
Then life was upon him more abruptly than he had expected as a trio of students rushed around the corner and crashed into him, sending him reeling against the dusty stone wall. Forgetting his eagerness to connect with life, Snape returned to habit and snarled at the newcomers, straightening himself and turning the full force of his glare on them.
For the second time in as many minutes Snape received the shock of his life. As glaring right back at him was a pair of eyes as familiar to him as his own.
Harry’s eyes glaring at him through a tangle of his usual messy black hair.
Harry’s eyes glaring at him, not with childish bad temper but with unalloyed hate.
Harry eyes glaring out at him from the face of a teenage boy, tall and thin and at least fourteen years old.
“Harry?” he stuttered.
“Professor Snape!” A girl exclaimed. He couldn’t spare her a glance, he didn’t know her, didn’t care to.
“We’re so sorry, sir,” another voice said loudly.
But Harry didn’t speak, he was still glaring, eyes spitting hatred across the scant few feet that separated them.
Snape’s gaze devoured him in disbelief, waiting for that other shoe to drop, for him to realise that this was not Harry, not his boy, couldn’t possibly be his boy. Someone who looked like him, uncannily so. A trick of the light, a symptom of that damn unknown potion that was messing with his mind, obscuring his senses, driving him mad.
But no such reassurance came. Teenage Harry curled his lips and spoke scornfully.
“It wasn’t our fault,” he sneered, his expression so full of hatred that Snape felt his knees weakening.
“Harry,” he said again. It was all he could manage. On either side of this teenage Harry the pair flanking him were exchanging glances, a hand lightly catching Harry’s arm as if to hold him back.
“We’re so sorry, sir,” a boy spoke again and then imposed himself between Snape and Harry, casually putting Harry behind him.
As if he’s protecting him, Snape thought dazedly. As if he’s protecting him from me.
“Sorry, sir, but we’re late for Potions,” the girl said, insinuating herself forward as well.
“But there’s no Potions class today,” he said numbly, trying to see Harry through them. His mind was racing with possibilities, all of them dreadful. Had he been thrown forward in time? Terrible stories were told about wizards who meddled with time.
But if he’d been flung from his own time to this, then why was Harry staring at him this way? And why did these other children seem so unsurprised to see him?
What was happening here?
“Harry?” he said again, desperate now for answers. “I need to speak with you.”
“Why are you calling me that?” Harry burst out, elbowing the gangly redhead away and stepping forward angrily.
Snape just had time to register that the redhead was a Weasley before he was confronted with those irate green eyes again. He almost took a step back as Harry glared at him scornfully.
“You never use my first name,” Harry was continuing angrily. “I prefer Potter, if you don’t mind.”
“Harry,” the Weasley hissed. “You don’t need another detention.”
“If there’s no Potions Class we should go,” the girl said, grabbing Harry’s elbow and dragging him backwards. The Weasley joined in and Harry was hauled back down the hall, sputtered arguments erupting from him despite his companion’s attempts to stifle them.
“But it wasn’t our fault," Harry was insisting as they dragged him away. “He’s the one acting weird! Did you see the way he was looking at me?”
“Harry,” Snape said again as his son disappeared back around the corner, his words fading with distance. He thought he should follow the trio, knew that he should be grabbing them and shaking some facts out of them. Like, why were Harry’s eyes so filled with hatred?
But all he could do was stand there in the hallway, hands shaking, mind full of that slanted green gaze.
If this was the future, was it the one he had always feared? A future when Harry knew all his father's secrets and despised him for them?
It's possible that Snape would have stood for quite some time in a shocked daze, if it hadn't been for the fact that at that moment he also walked around the corner followed by a gaggle of Slytherin students.
For one moment this Snape and that Snape stared at each other in amazement while around them wide-eyed students stared in wonder.
Then that Snape pulled out his wand and this Snape went down for the second time that day.
"There was really no need to stun him, Severus."
Snape knew that voice, it was one he connected with both exasperation and a rare feeling of reassurance.
"I don't see how anyone would have reacted any differently under the circumstances, headmaster."
Snape knew that voice as well. Could he really sound so peevish?
"After all, as far as I knew this imposter was here to murder me and take my place using Poly-Juice potion."
"I suppose it's fair enough as a knee-jerk reaction."
Kind of Dumbledore to say, Snape sneered in his head.
"Kind of you to say. Any ideas as to what it is then?"
And, do I really sound like that when I sneer?
"Perhaps we would do better asking him. He's been awake for a few moments now."
Blasted Dumbledore. Snape forced his eyes open and stared at yet another ceiling, This one was considerably cleaner than the last, though it still could have done with a good brushing.
"I was getting my bearings," he said as he sat up and glared around the room. A frisson of shock ran over him. It seemed it didn't get any easier facing your doppelganger.
"And do you have them yet?" replied Dumbledore interestedly, sitting down opposite him in his usual armchair.
"Hardly," Snape retorted. "Although I heard enough to assure you I am no imposter."
"Are you saying I am?" The other Snape demanded silkily.
Snape surveyed him sourly. It was one thing to look in a mirror and even occasionally observe yourself in a Pensieve, it was quite another to confront a living, breathing version of yourself in all its glory.
It was quite depressing actually.
"I should think it's fairly obvious looking at the two of us," Snape snapped back. "That I am the younger and you..." he ran an insolent eye over the other Snape's form. "Are definitely the elder."
"And wiser too, no doubt," Snape spat back.
"Boys, boys," Dumbledore said calmly. "No need to fight amongst yourselves." He grinned between the two of them at his feeble joke. Snape glared back at him and then noticed the other Snape glaring at him as well and attempted to smooth out his scowl.
"That's better," Dumbledore praised. "Now, Severus, er, my Severus, it seems obvious our newcomer here is right. He is younger than yourself." The old wizard surveyed him in that way he had that made a fellow want to squirm in his seat like a naughty schoolboy. "And a little less pale too. Odd."
"Are we just to take his word for it that he is any version of me?" Snape demanded. "After all, whatever time I may have dwelt in, I'm sure I would recall the habit of squashing grapes into my hair."
Snape reached up and smoothed a hand over his scalp, sure enough sticky pulp met his questing fingers. Bringing them around he stared at the remains of some rather plump looking Muscatel grapes. His older counterpart was smirking at him but Snape had no desire to produce a biting comeback. He rubbed his fingers together, smearing the juice over his stained hand in a kind of wonder.
The grapes were real. Which meant that all that had come before it was real too. He was real too, no imposter, no ghost, not driven mad by the unknown potion. Somewhere a dungeon full of magical fruit awaited him.
Somewhere his Harry waited for him, with only love in his slanted green yes.
"I was in my lab," he said, eyes still on the fruit. "There was an explosion."
"Go on," Dumbledore prompted. Snape glanced up and saw the older wizard leaning forward in his chair. "An explosion?"
"Wait a minute," the other Snape protested.
"Please, Severus," Dumbledore said. "Oh dear, this is going to get confusing, isn't it? I suppose I must call you Present-Severus, and you." He turned a small smile on Snape. "You will be Past-Severus. Do go on with your story."
"Story indeed," Present-Severus drawled. "Might one just jump in and enquire, before it all gets too thrilling to interrupt, just exactly how far back in time you are supposed to be from, oh-Doppelganger Mine?"
Past-Snape looked at himself with real dislike. Merlin, what a prat he had turned into! Thankfully he wasn't like that now.
"1986," he answered shortly. "If I may continue?"
With a self-satisfied smirk Present-Snape sat down on another arm chair. "By all means," he said generously.
"I was working on an experiment that had a remarkable tendency to blow up and produce fruit." He gestured to his grape smeared hand. "One of the explosions caused a kind of secret door to open in the wall."
"Fancy," Present-Snape murmured.
"And there was a bottle in it," Past-Snape ground out through clenched teeth. "Containing the crystallised remains of some ancient potion. To cut a long story short -"
"I accidentally touched the crystals," Past-Snape finished in a rush. His fingers itched to wrap themselves around the drawling prat's throat, but since he wasn't entirely sure what could happen if you choked your own future self to death, and figuring he was in enough trouble, he resisted the urge.
"Is that it?" Present-Snape said in mock disappointment. "No glowing vortexes? No magic mirrors? Not even a twinkly fairy granting you a wish?"
"Perhaps it's just my younger and obviously keener brain," Past-Snape interposed sarcastically. "But it doesn't seem beyond the realms of possibility that something like this might have happened." He turned to Dumbledore. "Surely you've heard of this kind of thing before, headmaster?"
"Not exactly this kind of thing, no," Dumbledore admitted. "Which is not to say I don't believe you, my boy. I think we've just yet to establish exactly what kind of thing we're dealing with."
"I should think that's obvious," Present-Snape said triumphantly. "If I may, headmaster? It seems obvious that this," he gestured at Past-Snape brusquely. "Is some crude attempt to infiltrate this school as me."
"You think so?"
"I do. And having been apprehended by myself before he could do any damage, he is now coming out with this patently ridiculous story." Suddenly Present-Snape swooped down and pushed his face close to Past-Snape's, who reared back in surprise.
"You might at least have made some effort to research the wizard you were attempting to usurp," Present-Snape accused. "As the most cursory examination of my life would reveal that I was not living or working at this school ten years ago. I was in fact nowhere near it."
Past-Snape blinked as the words sunk in and then jumped to his feet. "What?"
Present-Snape drew out his wand with a swift move. "Careful, headmaster," he warned. "His lie has been revealed. Who knows how he will react now!"
"Oh, shut up," Snape muttered, mind racing. This explained it! Why the students knew him and why Harry glared at him with eyes full of hatred. But that would mean that he had not only been flung out of his time but out of his reality as well. And it would also mean that this Snape had never...
He turned wide eyes on his present self, or rather this reality's self. "You didn't live at Hogwarts in 1986?"
Present-Snape surveyed him warily. "I did not."
Past-Snape turned his wide eyes on Dumbledore, who was still sitting in his armchair, watching them closely.
"Then you never sent him," he continued, voice low. "You never sent him to... Harry."
Present-Snape jerked at the name as if he had been stung. "Potter?" he said in disbelief. "Harry Potter?" Amazement turned to anger in the twinkle of an eye. "I might have known," he raged, chest rising and falling. For a moment his mouth worked as if it had a hundred things to say and couldn't decide which to spew first. "I might have known!" he repeated, turning it into a shout. "That Potter and his cronies are behind this... this travesty! Did you know, headmaster?" He swung his gaze onto Dumbledore who returned it calmly. "Did you know Potter had a hand in this?"
"I did not, and I might remind you, Severus, I mean, Present-Severus, that neither do you. Let us hear what Past-Severus has to say, do."
"Not Past-Severus," Snape managed. "I am not from your past." He looked at the crimson faced visage of the man he had thought was his future. "You are not my future," he said gladly.
"At last you admit it!" Present-Snape shouted.
"And what has Harry to do with it?" Dumbledore asked carefully.
Snape looked from him to the Present-Snape and back again. "Because he's my son," he said simply.
He might as well have dropped a bomb in the room for the reaction he got. Present-Snape shouted a spell and every door and window in Dumbledore's study that was not already closed slammed shut and wards clicked into place. Dumbledore himself jumped to his feet and reached into his own embroidered robe for his wand.
"I think it's safe to say you have our full attention," he said dryly, before waving his own wand. "For the doors you don't know about," he explained to Present-Snape. He turned to Snape. "It's vitally important that no one outside this room hear this secret. Because, you see, up until now no one outside this room did know it. No one living anyway." He gestured to Present-Snape, who still gripped his wand as if it were a lifeline. "Just the two of us."
"In a way it's still just the two of you." Snape took his eyes from the headmaster and glanced at his other self. Now that he knew the truth he couldn't even despise the man. Instead a worm of pity was gnawing at him. To think, this might have been his future, if...
"But I don't understand," he continued. "Why does this reality exist at all? How could there be a time when the whole world does not know Harry is my son?"
"Don't call him that," Present-Snape said abruptly. His sallow skin was white where moments ago it had been red. His knuckles were white too where they gripped the hilt of his wand. "A few ounces of seed a lifetime ago does not make him... Does not mean he has anything to do with me."
"Yes," Snape murmured. "I can remember thinking that too."
"Because it's the truth!" Present-Snape spat out. "You've seen, him, you know! One only has to look at him to see that nothing of me went into him, it's all Potter! Potter's arrogant sneer, Potter's complete disregard-"
"Severus," Dumbledore said softly, laying a hand on the younger man's shoulder. Present-Snape broke off and half turned away, his lips pressed tight against more angry words.
"Perhaps this is a bit much for you?" the headmaster suggested. "It might be best if I saw this through."
"Please don't be absurd, headmaster," Present-Snape said firmly, head still turned away. "I want to get this nonsense sorted out as urgently as you do." He deposited himself stiffly in an armchair and set his jaw.
"Then let us clearly state what has somehow happened. Young Severus has apparently been flung here from his own time and reality. In that time and place he appears to have accepted Harry Potter as his son, and is also working here at Hogwarts."
"Working and living here, at Hogwarts," Snape confirmed. "With Harry." Present-Snape moved restlessly in his chair but did not speak.
Dumbledore stroked his beard and paced across the room to his desk. It was the first time in a long while that Snape remembered seeing the old wizard in the least disquieted, but he could not enjoy the moment. Too much needed to be said and done.
"Harry is living with you? In 1986 he was but six years old. Do you tell me that you have had care of him since James and Lily died?"
Snape shook his head. "No," he confessed. "I was like him." He nodded at Present-Snape who sat stiffly in the chair, staring moodily at the far side of the room. "I didn't feel I had any responsibility for a life I had helped create. I assumed him well protected in your care, if I thought about the matter at all."
"And what changed this circumstance?"
In his armchair Present-Snape tilted his head a little whilst still wearing a bored look.
"You did," Snape said baldly. "Christmas Eve of the year he turned five. You sent me to him."
"Did I indeed?" Dumbledore said thoughtfully. "Did I happen to mention why?"
"You were concerned at reports you'd had about his treatment at the hands of the Muggles who cared for him." Snape's lips twisted as he spoke the words. Now was not the time to take issue with the manner of that Muggle care.
In fact it was his other self who did that. "Concerned?" he repeated in a bored tone. "What sort of concern? He lives with kin, does he not?"
"His mother's kin," Dumbledore said softly. "And certainly I would have wished better for the boy."
"The boy is alive, isn't he?" Present-Snape drawled. "Perhaps he hasn't the wealth and power growing up with Mr and Mrs Perfect-Potter might have given him, but he is safe and well! No thanks to his own recklessness either!"
Snape exchanged glances with Dumbledore and there was knowledge in them. So, the Dumbledore in this reality knew what the Dumbledore in that other had known. And yet he had never sent this Snape to see Harry, to take him away. Why?
"Why?" Snape asked quietly. "Why did you let Harry stay there if you knew what it was like for him?"
"I did think about another alternative, Severus, truly I did. It gave me no pleasure to leave the boy with such uncaring folk."
"Uncaring?" Present-Snape repeated.
"Oddly I even remember the Christmas you're talking about. Perhaps it was the first time I ever really considered reminding you of your responsibilities towards the child."
"Responsibilities?" Present-Snape repeated in exasperation. "I have no responsibility to that-"
"Why didn't you?" Snape interrupted and his counterpart hissed angrily between his teeth.
"Because I thought better of it. Harry was safe with his mother's kin. Nowhere on earth would he be as safe. I could not risk the boy's life out of rank sentimentality."
"Well you did," Snape said, feeling his ire rise. "I'm living proof that somewhere in time you did. And it was the right thing to do."
"For who?" Dumbledore probed. "For you? Undoubtedly. Anyone with eyes can see the difference in you, the light in your eyes when you speak of him."
"Oh please!" Present-Snape erupted. He pushed himself to his feet. "I'm not going to sit here any longer and listen to this emotional vomit! I will leave you, headmaster, to sort out this ridiculous mess and put it right!" Robe swirling about his ankles he strode to the door and unwarded it with a word. "But I don't ever want to see that," he pointed a quivering finger at his other self. "Back in my dungeons again! Understand?"
With a slam the door closed behind him.
Snape met Dumbledore's glance again.
"Do you really think you did the right thing?" he continued as if the conversation had never been interrupted.
"I do." Dumbledore's reply was instant.
Snape searched the clear blue eyes before him for some sign, some clue as to what the old wizard was feeling, but as usual, Dumbledore's eyes were serene as the calm, blue lake.
"Muggles have a saying," Dumbledore said thoughtfully. "Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."
"Sounds like something Muggles would believe."
"Be reasonable, Severus. It's a fair enough axiom to live by."
"But what kindness is there for Harry, to be raised by such folk? What benefit that?"
"The safety and anonymity of the Muggle world."
"He's safe with me."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"But you don't believe it."
"I think it's early days yet. Worse is to come."
"We will handle it."
"I hope you do," Dumbledore said sincerely. "It will be a full-time job, guarding Harry. It is now and we have the whole school to do it!"
"Well, in my reality Harry has the whole school and me too," Snape said defensively.
"Ah yes," Dumbledore murmured. "He has you too. I have to wonder, if, in his moment of weakness, my counterpart realised what he was sacrificing, when he gave you away."
"Sacrificing?" Snape repeated. "I'm not dead!"
"I meant as a player in our great game, Severus," Dumbledore said with a smile.
"I know what you meant. But I don't think it's player you mean, headmaster, so much as pawn."
Dumbledore raised a surprised brow.
"That's what all of this is about, isn't it?" Snape accused. "Shuffle Harry off to one side until he has the power to put him on the board, keep one of your best pieces in play while you do it. Sacrifice me, you said. My Dumbledore can hardly use my exceptional knowledge of the Dark Lord to its fullest, if I'm more concerned with protecting my son. Isn't that what you meant?"
"I suppose it is, Severus," Dumbledore admitted quietly.
Snape sat back in his chair in surprise. His accusation had been a wild shot in the dark and this frank admission was not something he had excepted.
"It is?" he repeated weakly.
"I'm not ashamed of it," Dumbledore continued. "It's not something I asked for after all, this ability, this position. I'd much rather have lived a quiet life teaching and studying and traveling. But fate bought war to my doorstep, and I could hardly turn away from a battle I was uniquely suited to engage in."
"You've fought Dark Wizards before," Snape recalled.
Dumbledore sighed and rubbed wearily at the bridge of his nose. "I was a lot younger then," he admitted. "I'd rather hoped one Dark Wizard in a lifetime was enough."
Snape studied the headmaster's face, suddenly realising how much older he looked. So busy with studying his double's aging, Snape had not even noticed how the years had taken their toll on Dumbledore.
And probably not just the years.
"Leaving Harry with the Muggles, keeping me as I was. That was all part of some plan then?"
"Nothing so grand as a plan," Dumbledore admitted. "But I will admit that I have looked forward and seen a certain shape to things. And that my Harry and my Snape have a chance to triumph in the end, or at least play their parts in what must come."
"How very bleak that sounds," Snape said bitterly. "But how majestic and noble. And really, what's one unhappy little boy in all that? One loveless childhood? Why, I must seem positively selfish to even bring it up! Next to the fate of the world and so on."
"Dear boy," Dumbledore said heavily. "I wish I'd known a better way. I wish it hadn't fallen to me to make such decisions."
"And I wish I'd been a little more careful in my lab this morning," Snape quipped. "I've enough darkness in my head, I didn't need to know there was a time and place where my boy could look at me with such savage hatred in his eyes. Wish I didn't know there was a Dumbledore who's ruthless enough to recognise a spy with something to live for isn't much use as a spy." He smirked and leaned back in his chair, trying to push down the bitterness and anger in his chest. "Makes me appreciate my own Dumbledore a lot more though, I can tell you."
"Then that's my good deed for the day," Dumbledore said softly, then heaved himself to his feet. "For my second I'll see about getting you back where you belong." He sent Snape a rueful look and shrugged. "It seems that's all I can do for you."
Snape sat up straighter. "What do you have in mind?"
"I think I'll go down to the dungeons and see if I can find that potion you stumbled upon. No, you stay here," he said as Snape made to rise. "I don't think my Severus was joking when he said he didn't want you down in his dungeons."
Once the headmaster was gone Snape let his mask slip and for a moment he clenched his fist and considered kicking one of the worn old armchairs that scattered the room. Since he wasn't entirely sure one wouldn't kick him back, he dismissed the idea, and satisfied himself with a stream of curse words and some inventive swearing. He paced the room and ended up by the window, staring sightlessly out at the wide blue lake.
In just a few minutes this Dumbledore had reminded him of everything he'd always hated about the old wizard and his Machiavellian ways.
He wondered if this reality's Snape knew how his strings were being pulled.
Probably. He was obviously all kinds of an idiot, but he wasn't that much of a fool.
It was another reason to pity the poor bastard anyway.
The door clicked behind him but Snape didn't turn around.
"I knew you'd come back," he said quietly.
"Because you know me so well?" Present-Snape sneered from behind him.
"I suppose," Snape allowed. He turned and met that scowling visage. "It's what I would do."
"But you've already concluded we are very different people," Present-Snape pointed out snidely. "Ten years separate us, and in those years I have lived the life that you would have, had Dumbledore not interfered with the situation."
A shudder ran down his spine at the thought and Snape nodded blindly. "I would have," he agreed to himself. "I was already set on that path, the one you took."
Present-Snape was studying his face now, a frown of confusion on his brow. "I don't understand you," he murmured. "I don't believe I once was you. Tell me now, between us two here, was there another reason you took him in? Some deeper plan for the future?"
Snape snorted grimly. "Because then you'd find it easier to understand?" he asked incredulously. "You're worse than Dumbledore, building your little army, putting all your toy soldiers in a line! No, you blind arrogant fool! There was no plan, no reason, weren't you listening to your Master's voice just before? He had a moment of remorse, a moment when his conscience overtook his Machiavellian schemes and webs! But he, unlike my Dumbledore, got over it. There is no plot, no plan!"
"All right," Present-Snape said huffily, waving along fingered hand. "No need to get yourself in a state over it. It was a simple enough question."
"A typical one," Snape muttered, feeling his ire dip.
"All very well for you to say," his counterpart bit back. "But you're still years away from the trials we're facing. We have to think in terms of plans and weapons."
"Trials?" Snape said curiously, then shook his head swiftly. "Don't tell me, I don't want to know. I still live in hope of averting such trials. I've not the time to think of any plans other than my own."
"Plans that brought you here?" Present-Snape probed curiously. "To Hogwarts?"
"It was the only place to keep Harry safe."
"So it was for dear Harry's sake," Snape said in tones of deep disgust. "You came here, to a place you loathe and a career you're ill suited for, and it was all for dear Harry. How Potter must be laughing from his grave! Even after death he managed to mess your life up!"
"You're a fine one to talk about this place we both loathe. At least I have Harry as an excuse for being here, what about you, Professor Snape?"
"That's none of your concern," Present-Snape said smugly.
"Oh, don't tell me you mean that grubby little spying job you do for Dumbledore?" Snape drawled, enjoying the outrage on his counterpart's face. "That excuse doesn't wash, dear Doppelganger-Mine. You could have been just as effective a double-agent away from here, possibly even more so."
"But not as valuable a one," Present-Snape snapped defensively.
"Oh come now," Snape drawled. "You can lie to Dumbledore, and perhaps even yourself. But you can't lie to me. It was Harry that brought you here, wasn't it?"
"Don't be any more of a fool than you can help. I was here years before Potter showed his face."
"But not that many years. And it was a given that he would be here, right? The only place other than with his loathsome relations that he could be safe? You came here to watch over him --"
"I most certainly did not!" Present-Snape denied strenuously. "I'm aghast and amazed that you should suggest such a thing!"
"All right, all right," Snape said languidly, waving a careless hand. "No need to get yourself in a state over it."
Present-Snape set his teeth together with an audible click and bared them at his counterpart. "You don't know what you're talking about," he grated.
"I don't know?" Snape repeated, one brow raised with mild incredulity. "Excuse me, I don't know? I know everything, my friend. More than Dumbledore knows, more than Potter and Lily knew. More than you've even admitted to yourself. I know it all."
Present-Snape seemed struck dumb by these calm pronouncements.
"And I know things that you cannot possibly know," Snape continued, his voice lowering and softening. "I know the power and pure strength of holding my own child in my arms."
"Oh please," Present-Snape said in disgust, turning his head away and putting out his hand in a physical rejection of his counterpart's words.
"Sorry," Snape said with a snort. "That was a trifle wet, even between ourselves."
"I should say so," Present-Snape muttered, still looking repulsed.
"And you were right before, I did give up my life in a way, for Harry. I gave up my home and my independence to come to a place I hate and a job I'm rather bad at. But the thing Harry has given me in return more than makes up for it."
"Let me guess," Present-Snape interjected sarcastically. He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes. "Love," he simpered.
"Happiness," Snape corrected softly.
Present-Snape snorted hugely. "Oh, happiness!" he exclaimed dramatically. "How tragic for me! To have missed out on that!"
"I don't expect you to understand," Snape said with a resigned shrug. "How can you? You're like me, dear Doppelganger. I thought happy just meant the absence of unhappy."
Present-Snape frowned. "What?"
Snape studied the other man's genuinely confused expression and shrugged again. What was the point? He knew himself too well. It would be like explaining colour to a blind man.
"Never mind," he murmured and Present-Snape snorted again. But there was a trace of puzzlement in the glance he slanted at Snape as he turned and made for the door.
"Whatever you are," he said as he left. "I pity you."
"Yes," Snape murmured as the door swung silently closed. "I do."
Long minutes passed as Snape turned everything over and over in his mind. As a brewer he knew that one missed ingredient, one mis-measured dose, one step out of sequence could prove disastrous to the final result. But it was still chilling to recognise how his and Harry's fate had hung on that one impulse of Dumbledore's on that long ago Christmas Eve.
If he asked his own Dumbledore that question, would the answer be the same?
Did his Dumbledore think he did the right thing, sending Snape to Harry?
The door opened and closed again. "Severus," a soft voice said, and Snape found himself looking up into wise old eyes again.
"You were almost completely gone that time," Dumbledore observed, sinking with a sigh into the armchair opposite.
Snape looked down at his hands, they were solid again but already traces of transparency shone through.
"Your body knows where and when it belongs," Dumbledore said comfortably. "It's trying to pull you back there. Just relax and let yourself go. I'd have let you go then but I thought you should know I've found the old bottle and destroyed it."
"What was it?"
"Oh, no idea," Dumbledore said airily. "Something to read the future perhaps? Or what might have been? But it had been sitting there for centuries soaking up the residual power of the dungeon, which is no doubt why it blasted you any which way as it did."
"But I'm going back?" Snape beseeched, looking down at his hands again.
"Back is all there is to go to," Dumbledore smiled. He glanced at the door. "Paid yourself a visit, did you?"
"It's not too late you know," Snape said suddenly. He could feel it now, the pull of his own power. Dumbledore's office flickered around him and for a moment he smelled pineapple. "For them. It's not too late."
"It's far later than you think," Dumbledore said, and was that a trace of sorrow in his voice now? Things were getting dim and Snape couldn't tell. "Too much has gone on between those two that you don't know about. It's too late for them."
"No," Snape denied, shaking his head as the smell of squashed fruit grew sharper in his nostrils and the walls flickered. "I know Harry, I know my boy. All he wants is someone of his own, anyone. Even me," he finished in strangled tones. Transparent hands reached for Dumbledore's and gripped. It was like grasping smoke.
"You could do it," Snape hissed.
There was no mistaking the sorrow in those eyes now, all serenity washed away, placid blue now storm tossed steel.
"I know," Dumbledore murmured.
The room was vanishing around him but he still heard that last anguished whisper.
"But I won't."
I thought happy just meant the absence of unhappy. I lived my life and congratulated myself on my independence and never knew there was anything beyond that.
Snape opened his eyes and focused on the smoke-blackened ceiling. He knew he was back, he could smell the tang of squashed fruit around him, feel a smashed banana underneath him. Oddly enough he was content to lay there for the moment, his conversation with Dumbledore echoing in his mind.
Of course the old wizard wouldn't have listened to him. His choice had been made long ago, and now he had to live with it. Unfortunately his Harry and Snape had to live with it as well.
His counterpart's bitter gaze flashed across his mind and then Snape closed his eyes in pain as Harry's green gaze flashed savage hate at him. He hoped he never had to see it ever again.
Suddenly tired of his awkward pose, Snape leapt to his feet and steadied himself against a sticky bench. He needed to see his son.
Friday afternoon meant Lupin's little class would be down on the green, running off the last of the week's excess energy and competing wildly for the various treats their tutor tempted them with. Whether it was a ball game or a race or an obstacle course, Lupin always managed to come up with something both boys could compete in fairly and equally.
Today it was an obstacle course, and Snape paused by the lichen covered standing stones as shrieks of happy laughter drifted towards him on the day's ragged wind. He steadied himself for a moment in the shadow of the worn old stone, almost as if he feared what he would see when he looked around it down to the playing field.
Or perhaps what he wouldn't see.
Setting his jaw he took a step around the stone and despite his best effort couldn't help the breath he released in a sigh of relief.
Almost at once the relief turned to cynical amusement at his own dramatics. Of course it was his Harry clambering madly up a stretch of rough rope netting and over the other side. Of course it was six year old Harry, panting and grinning and looking behind him over his shoulder as Neville gamely struggled after him, only briefly tangling himself in the old plaited rope.
What did he expect? This was his time and place, he didn't need magic to confirm that, his own senses told him so.
All the same he didn't go down right away, for the moment he was content to lean against the stone and observe as the race continued and the children scrambled from obstacle to obstacle, laughing and waving at their tutor as he cheered them both on.
How tall Harry looked, Snape marveled to himself. Not compared to the Harry he had last gazed upon, of course. But compared to the scrawny, underfed boy carried away from his Muggle relatives just a year or so before, he was taller and even a little broader about his shoulders.
Snape recalled his counterpart had stated ten years separated them in time and Snape frowned anew at the memory of the boy in the hallway with hatred in his eyes. He'd mistaken that boy for fourteen at most. Was that truly what Harry would have looked like at sixteen? Underfed, ill-used, neglected.
Was that truly the boy that Dumbledore was pinning all his hopes on?
Snape watched as Harry finished the race and jumped up and down in joy to have won.
Could that Dumbledore had been right? Had he made a grave mistake taking Harry away from his family and claiming him as his own?
Well, maybe he had. But if he had he couldn't find it within himself to care. The future, whatever it might be, would have to take care of itself. Win or lose, it was on its own. Snape wasn't about to buy into the idea that his boy had to be a sacrifice to the safety of the world.
"Sod them all," he murmured, and meant it.
And what of his own usefulness, as a potential spy for Dumbledore and the Order?
Well, perhaps it was true he could never be that spy, not while he was so clearly on his son's side. But that didn't mean he couldn't take his rightful place in the Order and fight any evil that came along and threatened them.
It was true that a spy was probably most effective when he had nothing left to lose.
But surely a soldier with everything to protect could be just as useful?
If that Dumbledore could have seen this, Snape mused as Harry and Neville flopped down onto the lush green grass and accepted a glass of juice each from a house elf. If he could have seen how well and happy the boy was, both boys were, would he still maintain that any world with that sad, lonely teenage Harry was the right one?
There was grape juice in his hair and the squashed banana in his robes was starting to smell quite pungent. Snape shrugged irritably and pulled out his wand, spelling away the remnants of fruit and willing away the anger and the pain and the resentment the last hours had caused.
It was hard to know that world existed. Harder still to accept how thin the line had been that separated him from his older, embittered counterpart. Hardest of all to accept that Dumbledore, whom he wasn't feeling too agreeable towards right now, had been responsible for both those worlds, with just one decision.
And for a moment Snape had a glimmer of what it must be like for Dumbledore to have that power at his fingertips, how lonely it must be, how devastating when he got it wrong, as he surely must, fallible human that he was. For just a moment Snape almost felt a burst of pity for the man, empathy, understanding...
But it quickly faded and he shrugged it away with the rest of the day's misadventures and headed down the path towards his charges.
"And then I won the race and Mr Lupin gave me a Pixie Pop but it was okay because Neville got one for getting best marks this week in spelling."
Snape raised a brow at his son as Harry mopped up the last of his gravy with a piece of bread and popped it into his mouth. "I hope you're not neglecting your studies, Harry," he said pointedly.
"Uh uh," Harry denied, dabbing at his face with his napkin. "I was only three behind. But Neville knew some hard words this week."
"Ensure that you know them too, by next week."
Harry bit his lip and looked a trifle hesitant. "Will you help me learn them?" he ventured. "Neville said his Great Uncle Algy helps him with spelling and maths and stuff all the time."
Snape considered for a moment. He supposed as Harry grew older that his workload would become heavier, the work more challenging. The boy had inherited his father's competitive streak, and even if there were only two of them in the class it would not do for him to fall behind.
"Of course I'll help you, Harry," he agreed. "You have much to learn before you become a student here at Hogwarts, much you have to know before the focus of your education shifts towards magic and away from the more general trends of education."
Harry's brow furrowed as he followed this. "Does that mean I won't have to do maths any more?" he asked brightly.
Snape couldn't help a snort of amusement at the hopeful tone.
"Only the kind of mathematics you'll need to know to cast spells. Arithmancy and the like."
"Oh. Harry absorbed this. "What about spelling?"
"The only kind of spelling you will do will be with your wand, Harry." Snape watched as that sunk in and his son dissolved into giggles into his napkin.
"Not that kind of spelling, daddy," he chuckled. "Oh, I can't wait till I'm big and I have a wand and can do magic and everything!"
"Don't be in such a hurry," his father counseled, and meant it. The last year, now that he looked back on it, had flown by. How quickly would the next years go? How long before the little boy came to his shoulder, then met his glance eye to eye? Thinking again about that teenager in the corridor, Snape felt a pang of nostalgia for little Harry, who he could pick up and rest on his hip and carry away from danger and keep safe from the world.
"Shall I get my book?" Harry was asking, and Snape blinked and realised he was waxing nostalgic over something he hadn't even lost yet, something still in front of him, young, vulnerable, full of trust. And love.
He was overcome by an urge to reach out and gather Harry up, to hug him and try to convey some of what he was feeling.
But it wasn't his way, and Harry didn't expect it of him.
He bade the boy get his work and sat with him in the warm lamplight, heads bent together over a book full of childishly sloped handwriting and the occasional doodled broomstick.
And after all, between him and his boy, wasn't this how they showed their love? With care and attention and time spent together? All the things Harry had been starved of, and all the things Snape now knew himself to have lacked his whole life.
Hugs were fine, but this is what Harry would remember when he was older, and this is what the Harry who had faced him in that corridor today had lacked.
And the more time they spent like this the less chance that this reality would ever see a Harry with hatred in his eyes, and lines of pain bracketing his mouth, and furrows of anger on his brow.
His own Harry's smooth little brow creased as he puzzled over a difficult sum.
And Snape nodded patiently and set about showing him how it was done.
To companion piece - After All These Years