Title: No Room for the Weak
Category: Four (31- to 40-years-old)
Characters: Eileen, Harry, Severus
Beta Reader: loupgarou1750
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Word Count: +/- 10,400
Author's Note: I seem to have convinced myself that Joy Division's 1979 album "Unknown Pleasures" is the ultimate soundtrack to Snape's life.
Summary: There's a Boy Who Lived and a boy who didn't, and even a mother can't always tell them apart.
I really ought to sell this bloody miserable dump. From her perch at the edge of her son's favourite chair, Eileen priced the value of the sitting room, not in pence but in memories. Nothing but rottenness all round.
She poured and handed her guest a cup without waiting for an answer. He blew on it, steaming his glasses right up. She was seized by a violent impulse to smash the misshapen thing out of his hands. That was her boy's mug. She would never have let her guest put his lips to it if she'd been in her proper mind and paying attention.
"Since I wasn't expecting visitors," she topped off the last word with acid, "I don't have much to offer, so you'll have to make do."
He dipped smudged lids, nodding. Prat. Thought he was being docile, but he was clearly dodgy.
Well, maybe the mug ought to be smashed regardless. For that matter, pull the house down around their ears. Melt all the cauldrons, curse the books to ash. But it wasn't for him to decide, not this stripling. He hadn't the right.
She scalded her mouth on the very first sip and almost dashed her tea to the floor. Sod it. Sod everything.
The boy's wary eyes through his fogged lenses stopped her. No need to confirm his opinions about the murdering traitor's crazy mum. This is what came of letting strangers force their way into your parlour.
Bollocks. This is what came of not tossing famous wizards out on their famous ears.
Really, could someone explain to her what in Merlin's name the much-loved, much-ballyhooed, eligible, brave, so on and so forth, Boy Who Lived (Again) to Bugger Darkness and Bring Forth Light (over my son's dead body) — what this beardless paragon was doing in Spinner's End in the first place? She ought to boot his trespassing arse out onto the beer-stained and spat-upon pavement, that's what she ought.
Funny, he was nothing like she'd expected. Six months since it all ended in blood and death, and from the looks of him, the lad had forgotten the meaning of sleep. A stretchy green cable-stitch with a lumpy homemade hem swamped his scrawny torso; his trainers, heels drawn up as if he planned to spring away on short notice, were battered and grass-stained.
No wonder her son's attitude toward this boy had been — oh, Merlin. Convoluted. Hard as a knot to suss out. He'd carried such a torch for the lad's mum, a nice little witch with nice little manners whose nice little morals had burnt his heart to a crisp. Watching him sink deeper, darker, had been absolutely wretched; sitting by while he sat in his room scribbling vainglorious spells in the margins of his books, searching for ever more shameless ways to get himself noticed.
Well, he'd managed, all right. Noticed big time. Bullies and Mudbloods, and the girl hadn't the sense Merlin gave a Pygmy Puff to call him out as a half-blood and a sodding hypocrite.
So sweet red-haired Lily had wed the bully, birthed the hero, and died. Died defending her baby, this boy sitting across from her.
Eileen chafed the discoloured spot where her wedding ring used to clutter her knuckles, as if it were a stain she could somehow rub out. She had told him and told him: smart isn't everything. It won't stop you, for instance, destroying what you love.
"Have a biscuit," she threatened, and thrust the plate forward. Reluctantly her guest picked one up, examining it with a faint scowl that suspected it of being dosed with Mandrake root. It wasn't, merely stale; she'd found the months-old packet in the sweets cupboard. "Don't play with your food, boy, it's nasty. Eat."
Hired child-minders would no doubt rate her poorly for having Legilimised her son throughout his childhood. But would she otherwise have known about Lily Evans? No, she would not. Would she have been able to send a raving Howler to that arse Dumbledore after the werewolf episode? Not that anything came of it but a patronising letter advising her that it had all been a 'prank' and it was in his best interests to drop the subject. Meaning: keep her mouth shut. Following that, her son came home tutored in the fine art of walling up his mind. "A natural Occlumens," wrote Headmaster Effing Know-it-all. But how else could she be privy to what went on in his life? He never said. He bottled it all up inside, like a poison that would turn lethal on contact with air.
He'd hated her after the fact, for spying on his secrets all those years.
Sweet Lily's death had turned him inside-out. All the darkness at his centre had boiled up to the surface, eating at him. Embalming him. If you're intent on an early grave, no faster way to get there than mortgaging your soul to a Dark Lord.
And this child here, this skinny, bespectacled creature squinting into his tea leaves as if seeing Grims, had inherited the consuming fester of his attention.
"I'm forgetting myself," she said, aiming for civil and ending up nowhere near. "I haven't congratulated you yet, Mr. Potter. On —" She inhaled deeply, felt anger blossom like a shadow on her lungs, and fought the urge for a fag. Doctor's orders. "On saving the world."
She coughed, but the spot of rage wouldn't come up.
He snorted. "I didn't."
She took a vicious sip. No flavour worth mentioning, now she'd parboiled her taste buds. "Speak up." She added two dollops of sugar and, hankering for Scotch, stirred three times clockwise. "No one likes a boy who mumbles into his cups." Her spoon clinked against the side, as if signalling permission to speak. She hadn't meant to, it was simply that her hand shook just then.
He glowered at her over the rim of his mug. He ought to look into styling gel, otherwise it was hopeless. She knew from problem hair; it ran in the family. The rebellious fringe tickled his glasses.
"I'm sorry." His glare softened as he put down the mug. "I'd no idea you'd be here."
Eileen pressed her burnt tongue to the roof of her mouth. When she'd stumbled upon him, you could have knocked her arse over cauldron with a quill. Upstairs, paging through an open book. Helping himself to things that weren't his.
Furious, she'd stuck her wand in his ribs.
"My house, isn't it?" she snapped. "My house, my son, my son's belongings. My right to tell the Ministry they can bloody well set themselves on fire if they can't bother to knock."
She had to look away, then; a mistake, as the stacks of books stared back. His legacy, for God's sake. Not that she could hardly stand to be in the same room with them. Dust magnets, the lot. No wonder her sinuses came over all queer. Bloody things were saturated with his presence, serenely waiting on him to billow through the door, flay open a brown-paper parcel, spider-walk his fingertips across their bulging spines, and slot a new acquisition into their midst, though you'd have bet it wasn't possible to take a piss between them.
They even smelled of him, or he of them, an intellectual wanker's stock-in-trade, all lifeless parchment and bitter magic. Ink and leather and the dust of ages rubbing off on the skin of his long, thin hands.
Her mind, over-eager as a house elf, hurried to her with an image of those pale fingers branched and limber around the tobacco-leaf brown of a binding, his head bowed in that swot's cross between inward and awkward (chin up, boy, and mouth shut), eyes sucking down knowledge, hair lank in his face, oh Severus.
Her cup clattered as she aimed for the saucer and almost missed. Wobbly old cow. She flatly refused to get maudlin over a truckload of Dark Arts rubbish and arcane potions manuals.
Across from her the boy finicked with his glasses. Really, how had something so half-grown and half-witted spelled the end of a Dark Lord? The world was full of baffling things.
"The Ministry said that he — Sna — Professor —"
"Headmaster," she corrected, before she could stop herself.
He gave her an odd look. "He lived alone," the boy told her, as if this was news.
Oh, he wanted slapping. But, no, she wouldn't. It was tempting, but she'd kiss a Dementor first. Was it apparent to no one but herself that her son had always been alone?
Stuffed deep in a part of her that would never, ever heal, she was hideously glad he'd killed that heartless old Gryffindor prick.
She smoothed a greying strand of hair behind her ear, leaned forward, and selected a second biscuit. It would do if she needed something to crush into sticky crumbs with her bare fingers.
"Two years ago, not that it's any of your business, Albus Dumbledore deeded my son an Unplottable house in the next borough over. He stashed me there," she sniffed, "out of the way. For my own good, he said. To stop me sticking my nose in, like as not."
"Or being taken hostage," Potter pointed out, eyebrows tucked down. Pissy little chap. "Or caught in the crossfire." Well, well. Not so wet, after all. A momentary flare of liking reminded her that this was the first time she'd spoken about him to anyone since — since he'd —
She opened her mouth quickly, to save face. "You saw him die, didn't you?"
Bloody hell. Not what she'd meant to say.
Their moment of irritable camaraderie vanished. With great care, Harry Potter set down the green mug and stood up, his face blank. Bugger. Those words had been repeating in the back of her mind ever since she'd found him upstairs. Her worst discourtesies always came of deep feelings, but he couldn't know that. She didn't blame him for taking it badly.
"Yes," he said tightly, "I did." And then, "I need to leave now."
"Wait," gasped Eileen. It had been in all the papers, how this boy had ended up with his memories. "Not yet. Tell me first. You're the only one who knows. Tell me how he died."
But he was already heading for the door. "Sorry, I have to go."
"Come back later," she pleaded, rising in a panic. One minute she'd relished insulting him, now she was practically hanging on his jumper. "Please. Another day. You were there. He gave you — for Merlin's sake, he hated you, but you know him better than I did. You know whether or not he was a monster, and I —"
The boy turned, mouth twisted, eyes dark. "And you don't?"
"Not an honest word out of him since he was fifteen," she threw back at him, tasting humiliation. Her mood changed again, and suddenly she wanted Harry Potter gone from her house. "What must he have thought of me? Assuming he hated you as much as you say, still, he left you his memories, and me? He left nothing."
The weedy creature held open the door and peered out at the bitter November day. His face, tilting toward her, mirrored the dreariness of the street. "Thanks for the tea." He reached up to pluck his jumper collar away from his throat, stretching it even more shapeless. "Give me a day or two to think about it. I may be back." He smoothed one sleeve, and she reckoned it was where he kept his wand. "Or I may not."
The door slammed, leaving Eileen wringing her hands, craving smoke and drink and because she wasn't allowed to have either, fighting the desire to throw crockery at the walls. She marched back into the parlour. There she was hit by the overwhelming feeling that she ought to set things to rights. Only, nothing was out of place. Well, the books were there. Waiting.
"What the ruddy fuck d'you think you're looking at?" she yelled at them, then dragged her chair around to face the window and sat perched like a vulture, huddled over the plate of expired biscuits in her lap.
A week later he knocked. Eileen had given up expecting it, so it got a flutter going under her ribs.
"Mrs. Snape?" He looked better. Healthier, well-slept. Bundled up against the biting weather in thick woollen robes.
"Don't loiter about on the front step," she retorted. "Makes me think you're trying to sell me something. Have a seat. Tea?"
When they were facing off over steam and engaged once again in a silent sipping war, she prompted, "So, are you here to sell me something? Because if that's the case, I'd really rather —"
A Ministry shill in the making, Harry Potter swung into some pre-rehearsed babble about clearing names and restoring reputations and how he'd put in for an Order of Merlin for, fuck them all sideways, 'services rendered.' Eileen could hardly believe her ears. A meaningless trinket to commemorate a branded Death Eater who'd thrown over his friends, murdered the mighty Dumbledore, and then died a pointless death, abandoned by everyone. They'd used him, the smug bastards. Why not just admit it? He hadn't even been terrible enough to command the hatred of the ages. Shunning him wouldn't do, they had to feel sorry for him.
"I appreciate your efforts, Mr. Potter," she swatted aside his good-faith nonsense once her stony silence had tripped him up twice. "Pity that your smarmy posthumous goodwill does absolutely nothing to bring my son back. But the thought counts, I'm sure."
Wanting a spot of false courage before getting down to brass Knuts, she fished out her wand.
Potter behaved a bit frantic shovelling his tea things onto the tray, his earnestness evaporating in alarm. "Hang on, there's no need to get —"
Numbskull. She snagged the bottle she'd Summoned from the kitchen and added a slug of Scotch to her cup.
He frowned, looking put out, as if he'd done her a favour extending the olive branch, and she'd torn it from his hand and started switching him with it. "Mrs. Snape, I'm sorry you think I'm not doing enough. But people still hate him. Some can't forget what he did, and most think he was wrong to do it. Students were," he hesitated, "tortured at Hogwarts, and then Dumbledore — the fact that he — they agreed —" Potter gave up trying to finish that sentence. "I just thought you ought to know. In the interests of fairness, some of us are trying to tell the truth."
"The truth?" she turned it back on him in a gravelly, Scotch-burned voice. "I suppose you're the one who decides what that is, eh? Very well, let's not dawdle. You can tell me right now." She wasn't a Death Eater or an indentured professor, she'd never learned to eviscerate with a look, but she managed a respectable line in hooded glares. "The truth, thanks. About how my son died."
It was a good thing Potter had already rid himself of the green mug, as he'd likely have dropped it. Shuddering, he made a great show of wrapping himself in his robes, as if it were colder in here than the winter wind outside. The nice, rosy shade of injured decency drained out of him, and she realised that the sunken-eyed boy in the green jumper lurked just below the surface, like some exhausted younger brother, haunting him.
"No," he mumbled. "Sorry, I can't —"
"Tell me," Eileen snapped. Her son's blood was on this boy's hands. It was no secret that Harry Potter had walked away and left his body unattended in the werewolf's shack; otherwise it might not have gone missing. "I've a right to know. Maybe he was a murderer and deceiver, a sneak and a loveless wretch, but he was still my child." Potter shook his head, guilty and wild-haired, or perhaps just invincibly stubborn. "For Merlin's sake, I thought you'd jump at the chance to give me the gory details. I'm his mother, I deserve —" She heard the warning note in her voice, the rising stutter of impending disaster. "You can't deny me —"
"No!" Potter hit the arm of the sofa. "Stop it! God, you're just like him. You won't even listen. I was wrong, is that what you want me to say? All right, I admit it. I was wrong about him. But it's not — you don't understand —"
Struck dumb by the words you're just like him, Eileen curled back and sucked down her tea. She felt oddly hollow inside, her mind as blank as a white bedsheet snapping on a washline. Funnily enough, it was her skin that felt coated with rage. She could easily imagine a venomous fleck of the boy's temper landing on her bare arm, setting off a gigantic fireball. This was the state of mind, she supposed, in which it would be no trouble at all to commit murder.
She wondered if he'd spent his life like this, feeling that he might explode into flames at any moment.
Instead of hexing the daylights out of Harry Potter, she poured a second finger of Scotch. "You know, he was fair bursting to be a wizard. Absolutely mad for it as a child. His little Muggle friends used to call him names because he dressed the part. Stole clothes from our wardrobes — had this big flapping black coat he pretended was a robe, and he swooped around in it."
"I've seen it," said Potter, startled. "In his memories."
She clenched her fists. "What do you want? In exchange for the truth about how my boy died for you."
The words 'my boy' caught Potter off guard. "He didn't — look, it wasn't for me."
"Then why are you here?"
"Bloody hell." He tugged his hair into total disarray. "Right. In exchange? Just talk to me about him."
"Done," Eileen said.
"Next time," he deflected her, then was up and out the door bloody damned quick.
Tidying up afterward, Eileen tried not to think about all the years she'd be spending stuffed in amongst Muggles, none of whom had a clue her son had ever existed. Or that she'd only be able to remember him now as someone who killed old men and tortured children.
She snatched up Potter's mug, blurry with milk. Foolish boy. Should have told her he didn't take his tea black.
Three days later, after a raid on Tesco's and a face-off with Trinian Bucks, the Squib who kept a betting register on wizarding cock-ups, she came in and there he was, crooked over a book without a by-your-leave. Lord, but he was an advert for bad knitwear, all that green yarn ravelling off him like moss.
"Kitchen's this way," she said in offhand greeting, toting the groceries past. "Fancy some toast?"
"I'd fancy just about anything at this point," he said, with a wan smile to let her know he was joking. He placed the book down as if saving his seat.
The miniscule kitchen was clean but outlandishly old, yellow as dentures, its appliances bristling with eccentric habits from years of co-habiting with magic. Eileen boiled water the Muggle way. It took three matches to catch the burner flame without blowing her fingers off. The boy sat docilely waiting, until she handed him the green mug full of milky tea. Then he pulled his chin in, as if she'd promised soup and served gruel. When next she turned around, the mug was empty, suspiciously dry, not even dregs in it.
"Just black, thank you," he headed off her question. She thunked the pot down in front of him, feeling her kindness abused.
"You liked it near white, last time." He ignored her, practically purring over the Irish Breakfast vapours, his mouth open to inhale the steam. Picking from the tiny range of available topics, she said, "No further word on that Order of Merlin, I suppose. How much d'you want to bet the Wizengamot's lining its owl cages with copies of your trash?" She didn't bring up Trinian Bucks, or the fact that she'd gambled her Galleons on the longest odds she'd ever played. She expected to lose her knickers; it was the principle of the thing.
"Excuse me?" He squinted at her, then swivelled to glare over his shoulder, as if suspecting her of peppering the kitchen with hidden quills and Skeeterish hacks. Turning back, he held his collar bunched in one blunt fist. "Don't waste your time speculating. Trust me, no one gives a fuck."
The f-word startled her, but he was a teenager, after all. She didn't bother trying to shame him into saying sorry; boys who saved the world were permitted potty mouths. The toast chimed and popped, sticking up like dry tongues. No frills, she smacked the plate in front of him and watched as he scraped a pat of butter over the browned surface.
"I expect you'd like me to start," she broke the silence. He paused in his chewing, which was a mercy, because he'd been working on the same mouthful for a whole minute now. "What exactly did you want to know? My son — well, at your age, he and I weren't close."
Blinking, he washed down the wad of bread. His grotesque deliberation reminded her of a snake choking down its prey, the way you could see the creature's outline in the snake's gullet. Thoughts of snakes led to visions of her gangly lad sitting there in Potter's place, long black hair like some Muggle piker with a plug-in guitar, only his throat would be one horrible red mess, and the tablecloth with it.
Unhappiness welling inside her like fresh blood, she angled her chair sideways, unable to stand looking at the Boy Who Lived. The boy who'd lived when her own hadn't.
"He liked music," she burst out, bitterly wishing he had been magickless, just another working-class skinny-arse bashing out random noise on a local stage. "Bands, as it were. Used to play their rubbish on this crap turntable he got from his uncle. One I remember." She drew a raw, post-smoker's breath. Raking a hand out, she fetched tea to wet her aching throat. "Like the drone of a cemetery, if corpses could sing. The lead singer, poor soul, the one who sang like he was dead already, I'm told he had terrible fits onstage. Then he went and," she flickered a glance at Potter's rapt face, "killed himself. For love, my son said."
Potter turned his head aside and stared out the kitchen door. In profile, his youth and complete — the word that came to mind was ordinariness — were more out of place than the aura of fatigue that made him look right at home.
"One summer after Hogwarts my boy moved back in. Hid in his room and played this sodding album till I was climbing the walls, all miserable and melancholy over —" Should she say it? "— your mum's wedding. Threw hexes around, like when he was a lad, pegged as a troublemaker by the Ministry tight-arses." She nibbled a fingernail and spat daintily on the lino. "Bloody halfwit restrictions on underage magic."
Potter smiled slantwise through his fringe, reaching for a refill. She recalled an article announcing, in tub-thumping prose, how he himself had been brought up on charges.
"'I've seen the nights,'" she intoned, "'filled with bloodsport and pain.' Merlin help me, I can still quote from memory." She drummed her fingers on the tabletop, dying for a smoke. "'Withdrawal pain's hard, it'll do you right in. So distorted and thin.' That's my son all over. He'd be in his room singing, 'Where will it end?' in this graveyard moan, and I'd bang on his door, yelling, 'Here! It ends here!'"
A choking noise answered her from across the table. She flicked her wand; the half-eaten scut of toast flew to the sink.
She smirked at him. "Music for the broken-hearted, eh?"
"Ow." Snickering, Potter massaged his throat. "Don't make me laugh."
She hadn't jollied him on purpose, but she'd take advantage all the same. Leaning forward, wanting one last look at her child's body, the body they'd never found, she caught him off guard. "Legilimens."
The spell sucked her into his mind. For a moment she battled her way through a fog of exhaustion, wariness, creeping tendrils of rage, finding no trace of what she sought. She scented guilt and ran it to ground: blood, an unmistakable nose in profile, a harsh, gurgling scream, but there was something off about it, something not —
The emotional weather went dark, and a blunt shove tossed her right out.
She straightened, panting, clutching her paisley-print bosom, hand sweaty around her wand. Well, that answered that. Harry Potter was an Occlumens. How not, considering he'd been Dumbledore's lamb?
The boy was on his feet. "Don't you ever do that again," he shouted, ebbing deeper into a gaunt rage with every trembling second, and oh God, that was familiar. His wand stayed poised near his face as if weighing retaliation. "Sod it all to hell. I can't trust you, can I?"
"For Merlin's sake, I'm not your mum," she spat, to enlighten the stupid lad and remind him whose side she was on.
A cough seized him by the throat. "I know that." No, he hadn't. He'd forgotten whom he was talking to. With a barely-controlled stumble, he knocked his chair backward, holding her at bay. "That's it, I'm off."
She stood up, too. "Mr. Potter. I apologise. That was rash of me. I was looking for —" She swallowed. "You know what I was looking for."
"You still want me to come back?" Apprehensive, she put her wand on the table and nodded, hurt by his incredulous look. He drew a deep breath. "Give me one good reason."
"You asked about him. Aren't you the least bit curious as to how we got on?"
"Not anymore." He wiped his mouth, and she spotted the streak of red on his knuckles. "Not when you're so eager to see him die. That, I can get anywhere." His parting smile was cruel. "Lucky you're not my mum, isn't it?"
"Please," she approached him. Potter backed off. He was still a bit of a runt, but no matter; boys could hit a growth spurt and shoot up overnight. "I'm sorry."
Turning away, he rolled her a weary look that said he would give in just to be shut of her.
She followed him out of the kitchen. "Here, take this." She Summoned the book from where he'd been sitting and held it out.
The boy paused, and time dilated around them in an odd, mutual longing to find common ground. "I don't read much." But his lips curled reluctantly, as if for some reason the idea amused him.
Feeling like a Venus fly-trap, Eileen offered, "Borrow it anyway and bring it back." She didn't miss the way he sneaked a peek past his lashes.
"If it means that much to you," but it was all false martyrdom. He slipped the book under one arm and Disapparated.
Several days later, a window-rattling storm blew into town, elemental power that nicely echoed her mood.
Just before noon, the ward alarm startled her. Yanking open the door, Eileen held a streaming-wet Potter at wand point. He smiled, unfazed, radiating so much health and well-being, such stupendous recovery despite his bedraggled state, she almost slammed the door in his face.
"Get in out of the cold," she snapped. Merlin, what a goose. It was blowing up a gale. Rain and wind pummelled the streets, and the gutters overflowed with sodden trash. All the buildings across the way were slate-dark, dotted with lit windows, since the storm had plunged the morning into dusk. It would probably ice over by tomorrow.
"You'll never guess," he said, bounding in.
"Won't I just." She dried him off with a downward flick, then bustled him closer to the fire. Staring at the back of his unkempt head, it struck her that she was looking up. He was two inches taller than she was. Taller, not shorter.
"Thanks," he said. "The Wizengamot —"
She hadn't literally meant that boys could grow overnight. "Tea," she stalled, trying not to stare, then hared off to the kitchen before he could say another word.
She returned with the tray. "Milk or black?"
"Oh, milk. Thanks," he repeated, absurdly polite. "Is there sugar?" She set the tray down before she dropped it.
He was confident and strong, a do-gooder, a Gryffindor, and when he lifted his face to say, "I came as soon as I heard the news," she spotted the wispy evidence of chin hairs. "The Wizengamot's admitted my petition for debate today. So it's possible Professor Snape will get some public acknowledgement of his sacrifice, after all."
What a blind, foolish old witch she'd been. How hadn't she noticed? "Oh, joy," she said, and abruptly Summoned the Scotch.
Potter deflated a bit, his brightness fading. The only sound was the gurgle of Scotch joining tea. "Mrs. Snape?"
She wouldn't cry. "It's all right." She wouldn't cry. There was nothing to cry about. Oh, Merlin, she was cold.
"What grand news," she roused herself to say, because the bloody boy seemed about to get up and come to her aid. She didn't need help. She needed time to think. "So my son wasn't as wicked and degenerate as his crimes would imply?"
"I wouldn't have petitioned the Ministry if I thought his actions were inexcusable, right?" Potter fidgeted, glancing about at the books, the fire popping and whistling as rain dripped down the flue, the shoddy, tan-shaded lamps. "Are you saying you believe he was guilty?"
"I'm saying," Eileen could scarcely endure the loneliness of sitting here with this boy, deciding her course even as she hedged her bets, "that I reserve the right to make up my own mind." More wailing at the window, all the ghosts locked out in the foul weather demanding that she throw open her life and admit them right now.
Potter blew out a crestfallen breath. "Well, that's fine. That's true for us all, I guess."
Eileen watched the rivulets of water braiding the glass, the strangely charged light of the storm, and wondered if the boy in the green jumper had some place to shelter from the horrid weather. It was absolutely pissing down. Funny, it wasn't like her to care where caring did no good. She just wondered, was all.
"Did I tell you about my son's favourite Muggle music?"
"I didn't know he'd any interest in music at all," Potter murmured, eyeing her second tot of Scotch. He paused. "Or Muggles."
"The singer died," she said absently. "Hanged himself." She inhaled the fumes of affordable Scotch, which were hardly better than Ashwinder venom. "Did you know he almost got caught by a werewolf once?" Potter twitched, and she chuckled. "Oh, that's right, my mistake. Part of your family history, isn't it. Someday you must tell me your side of the story." She paused, taking sips, utterly mesmerised by the transparent patterns rippling down the windows, the silvery onslaught of wind-driven rain, like waves of bullets. "I sent a Howler to Dumbledore about it, did you know? Screamed my throat raw. Called him every name in the book, including a few Toby taught me that may have been outside the old bugger's ken."
Potter interrupted, "Mrs. Snape, please don't disparage Professor Dumbledore to my face. I owe him. We all do."
For a moment Eileen swelled up inside, as if all the fury in the world were inflating her breast; she imagined herself exploding like a human Howler, like a shrieking, embattled child.
"He kept me alive," the boy pointed out.
Cripes, she had a fucking gentleman on her hands. Strange were the ways of the well-behaved; it certainly had never been a problem in her family. She shrugged. "It doesn't matter now." The wind howled, and she mustered a one-sided smile. "If you want to know the kind of singing my boy fancied, give that a listen."
Potter levitated the bottle from beside her chair into his outstretched hand. He ventured a cautious sniff and a prissy dribble, as if measuring volatile ingredients.
Comparing his square hands to her son's astute touch, his spidery fingers, Eileen let her tongue get away from her. "He had big plans to make a name for himself. Not in potions. Spellcraft. His first love. He was going to be an innovator just like," she gritted her teeth, "Dumbledore." Under her breath, she added, "Charlatan."
"The Half-Blood Prince," Potter volunteered.
"What?" He sank back, but Eileen sat forward, feeling as though the windows had blown wide open and Dementors were coming for her. "What did you say?" She could see the flames reflecting yellowish-bright in the grate. If her heart was anything to go by, the temperature in the room had just plummeted toward freezing.
"I had his potions book my sixth year," Potter admitted, one finger moodily circling the rim of his mug. "He scribbled notes in the margins. Corrections to the text. Spells of his own." He shook his head, and miniature twin fires danced in his lenses. "How could someone so smart be so taken in by Voldemort's bullshit? Worse, someone half-Muggle?"
Eileen propped her head on one hand. She was beginning to think she'd hallucinated her belief in two Potters. There was only one. Sometimes he was happy, sometimes he wasn't. Sometimes he took his tea black, sometimes with milk. Sometimes he was polite and reasonable, sometimes sharp-tongued and short-tempered. One could be invited to the kitchen, like family, the other stayed in the parlour as her guest. One was taller, with chin hairs, the other —
"Tell me more," Potter said, stopping the pendulum of comforting lies.
"Him. Snape. Your son, I mean." He flushed, or perhaps it was the warming buzz of Scotch. "Since I'm putting my reputation on the line defending him. I've —" He hesitated. "I've watched the memories he gave me until they're as much mine as they are his. But I can't say I feel any closer to him."
"Welcome to the club." Eileen yawned. Merlin, drink made her drowsy. Just then, the wind let loose with a squalling blast, as if someone had stepped on a bagpipe. The world through the window looked like it was drowning. She shivered, tasting her own unshed tears. The fire crackled, and cold water seemed to pour down the surface of her eyes with the same drenching force as it streamed down the windows.
When Potter said softly, "Shall I leave you alone?" she turned her head. Seated in her son's wingback chair, he shimmered slightly, haloed in silver. It was only the tears formed by her refusal to blink, by the sheen of rainfall that provoked a sympathetic moisture. She closed her eyes until they dried.
From the darkness of memory, she confided, "He liked boys." Curious about Potter's reaction, she forced herself to look.
His face was redder, fragile with the dismay of someone who'd reached for his wand and found it missing. "Sorry?"
"Severus — oh," she gasped as the name got by her. Names could raise the dead. She pressed on, "He liked boys. When he was a boy, I mean. As he got older, I imagine he preferred men, but I didn't want to start a row by poking my nose in."
Potter cocked his head at the fireplace, then at the exit, then helped himself to more Scotch. He said, as if baffled, "Snape was gay?"
She pondered. "Mmm, no. Word's all wrong, don't you think? Too lighthearted. Queer suited him better. Because he was, you know." Fifty percent of her laugh could be chalked up to Scotch. "In more ways than one. And when everything went tits-up —" She glared at Harry Potter, Dumbledore's protégé, the one the old bastard had seen fit to save. "Well, he should have come to me. Not to that ruthless old queen of a headmaster, who saw to it my boy was left stranded at the end, completely alone." Finishing her drink, she thunked down the cup. "Just because Albus considered abstinence the bees' knees was no reason to force it on my boy as a penance."
"Snape was gay," Potter repeated, still not catching the Snitch. He surfaced with a shrewd look. "So how do you explain my mum?"
"Explain?" Eileen shrugged. "What, queer little bastards with black hearts can't be incurable romantics? I've already told you, he was deliriously in love with magic. He thought he'd found his own kind. That little witch was the only stroke of good fortune in his entire rotten childhood. You think he was going to give her up?"
As the silence stretched, he made an awkward stab at courtesy. "Less than two weeks till Christmas."
"Stuff Christmas," Eileen snarled, prepared to hex the slightest tickle of pity off his face. His impervious innocence, combined with the noise of the storm and her knowledge that somewhere out there another boy was hunkered down, casting warming charms and coughing blood, dug a much-gnawed secret out of the last place she'd buried it. It was one of those memories she kept moving around, hiding from herself. If she couldn't find it, maybe no one else could, either.
"I didn't want him, you know."
Potter's messy head swung up. Hunched over like that, he had an orphan's sober-eyed, pinched sufficiency, resigned to table scraps.
"The day he was born, my life went off the rails," Eileen confessed, her calm nothing but a glamour to hide her thudding pulse. "I hadn't looked to get pregnant. I blamed him for it."
Potter winced down into his mug. "I'm, uh—" He glanced back up, his 'sorry' hanging between them. He was extraordinarily careless about looking straight at her.
She was never one to resist an invitation. "Legilimens."
His mind was the quagmire common to boys his age: hormones, impulses, hunger for the future. The memory she wanted lay just below the surface, lightly covered in guilt. She swept aside the protective shroud; a scream rose out of it. Her son's boots kicked uncontrollably at the approach of death. Blood sprayed everywhere, his clever fingers slimy and dripping, clamped around the open flap of his throat. His expression — oh God, so shattered, so terrified, red smeared on white, his black eyes begging in a way they hadn't since he turned six. Then the mist, the exodus of his memories desperate to escape before darkness set in — sucked into a flask, imprisoned.
Look at me. Merlin, it was asking too much.
Potter caught hold of her as she toppled, and shoved her upright in the chair. "What the hell kind of stunt was that?" He rubbed circles on his forehead, staring as if she'd turned into a Boggart. She cringed at the echo: What are you, drunk?
"I'm sorry." She dug her thumbs into her temples in a vain attempt to fend off the splitting headache. "Believe me, it won't happen again."
Frowning, he backed toward the door. "Yeah, well, thanks for the chat. I'll keep in touch about the progress of the petition."
Eileen heaved herself up, latching onto his unwilling arm. "Mr. Potter. My son's birthday is the ninth of next month." The storm outside had abated, and the patter of rainfall was almost a lullabye, meaningless and sweet. "I'd be grateful if you'd honour him by spending an hour or so with me." She lifted her chin. "In celebration. There's one last memory I want to share, and then I'm done. It will keep until then."
Even after the mental ambush, Potter wasn't nearly suspicious enough. "I'd like that," he said, hesitating. Then he smiled. "No more sneaking into my head, though."
"Cross my heart," she promised. "Noon, then. Mark your calendar."
Once he was gone, Eileen rummaged out a fairly fresh bottle of Dreamless Sleep and lay down, although it was only mid-day, to blot out the image of what her son had looked like, dying.
The boy showed up, just as she'd prayed he would, on Christmas Eve. It was silent out, dark early, and the streets were locked in ice. He'd caught cold, nose raw and eyes bloodshot. Horrible, throat-scraping coughs shook him like a rat in a dog's jaws.
"Merlin, you scared me," popped out of her mouth as she rounded a corner and nearly ran him down.
He smirked. "Happy Christmas to you, too."
Eileen hunted up the steel to behave with brisk scorn. "You've some nerve, Flooing in here with a fever. This way, then. Let's get some soup into you."
Spine prickling, she preceded him to the kitchen and set a tin of chicken broth to simmer. The boy slumped in a chair and stared at the wall, shuddering so as not to cough. The bowl steamed. "Don't burn your tongue." While he laboured to swallow, one controlled spoonful at a time, his sleep-deprived eyes followed her about. Eileen stood at the stove and whisked vanilla custard, doing her best to ignore him.
"We've beds upstairs, if you'd care for a nap."
"I can't stay."
"A catnap, then." She ladled the hot custard into a cup. "Don't be obstinate. Follow me."
She honestly didn't expect he would, but footsteps creaked behind her as she spelled open the bookcase. His soft tread paused; she pictured him fingering the books. Toiling up the stairs, she heard him wheeze damply and willed herself not to look back. In the big bedroom, not the one her son had slept in as a child, she threw back the covers. "In you go."
Breathing with difficulty, he crawled into bed, arranging the pillows to his liking. "Shall I feed you?" she teased, holding up the spoon.
"Stop babying me." He laid the custard in his lap without tasting it, head tipped back with an exhausted sigh.
"Hand me your glasses."
He groped them off and held them out, unseeing. The circles beneath his lower lids cut deep, as if a Dementor had tried to claw his eyes out.
Eileen pulled up a chair and counted to ten. "My son's birthday's in two weeks," she began, and he jerked upright, nearly spilling his pudding. She pretended not to notice. "He'd be thirty-nine." The boy frowned at her blankly. "Come and have lunch with me. Say, half twelve."
"I can't promise," he muttered. The custard had cooled, and he dipped his spoon into it.
"There'll be cake." She waited, knowing better than to push.
Fumbling, he fished out a blue flask, peered at the fluid level, then took a swig. "Cough medicine," he lied, then scraped up the last of the custard, surrendered the empty cup, and slid down under the covers. "Wake me in thirty minutes."
"Shall I read to you?" She resisted the impulse to stroke his sweaty fringe and press her palm to his brow. It was something she used to do when her boy was small. He shook his head into the pillow, or perhaps merely snuggled. One arm curved atop the blankets. Daringly, she took his hand, and when he didn't pull away, that tiny concession nearly put paid to her resolve.
Once he lay bewitched in the private shimmer of sleep, she said to him, testing, "I didn't want my son. You know that, right?" The slumbrous flush on his face didn't darken, or his cold hand move. "I won't apologise for that. We can't help how we feel.
"Being pregnant was pure hell. But then —" She squeezed his slack fingers. "I fell in love. Oh Merlin, that little bastard and his hopeless greed. He was the most magical thing in the world to me. Long before Hogwarts. Long after he became a Death Eater. Even though he — killed people." Eileen held her breath. Curse Harry Potter's innocent face; the best mask was a bland one. "My life would always be miserable because of him. But," she leaned forward, "he's my bastard. So I know what he deserves."
In the silence, his slow, whistling breaths seemed to peel strips off her skin. She didn't speak again, instead casting Tempus. The Polyjuice would wear off in due course.
At ten to the hour, a bang sounded below. Then another. Eileen hurried to the railing and peered down. A glance back told her the boy was still asleep, his face pushed into the pillow. Taking a chance, she raced downstairs.
A handful of harmless, time-delayed firecrackers from the joke shop in Diagon Alley dotted the rug.
She Apparated at once, but the bed was empty.
Drifting to the window, Eileen stared out into the gathering dusk, wondering where the boy went when he wasn't here. Across the way, the artificial magic of Muggle fairy lights twinkled like stars strung across rooftops. A tree behind an unlit, frost-rimed window sparkled as if sequinned. Eileen stayed where she was, aware that behind her the imprint of her son's borrowed body had cooled and reverted to a wrinkle. Only the empty custard cup stood as proof that he'd even been in her house, holding her hand while she apologised for his life.
January ninth turned out to be one of those gorgeous, ice-sharp days that stirs the blood. Potter landed on her doorstep crackling with secret excitement, boyish spirits and the afterglow of the holidays.
"I brought presents," he said as she warded the door behind him.
"Leave them on the sofa." As he settled his bum in her son's favourite chair, Eileen levitated tea and scones from the kitchen. After fussing a minute, she straightened up. "By the bye, I have a surprise for you."
He pushed his glasses a notch higher and smiled. Her voice jumped. "Incarcerous!"
Potter shouted and fought being lashed to the chair. "Accio Potter's wand," she said coolly. It flew to her, and she tucked it away in a pocket.
Wrapped several times 'round in magical rope, he gasped, "I don't understand."
"I'm not going to hurt you. You're here to act as bait and," she sought the word, "witness. This is merely to ensure you stay out of it." As he opened his mouth to protest, the ward alarm tingled down her nerves. "Silencio."
He strained against his bonds, and it really was a pity she'd had to betray such pink-cheeked trust.
Then another Harry Potter, his green jumper practically in tatters, took a step into the parlour and froze. Across the length of the room, the two almost-identical boys stared at each other, identical glasses sheened with light.
For an absolutely breathtaking second, the three of them formed a tableau of shock and multiplying impossibilities.
The smaller boy smacked his sleeve as his wand shot out; not fast enough, as it squirted from his grasp. Stuffing it away with the other, Eileen stood well back, breathing hard. She kept her own wand at casting angle; even disarmed, the boy in the green jumper was dangerous.
Colour flamed in his cheeks. "What the fuck is going on here?"
The boy in the chair stopped struggling, and his lips moved in silent agreement.
"It's your birthday," she said, holding him at bay. "Don't bother denying it." His green eyes narrowed and his soft lips thinned. He started circling, but a twitch of her wand drove him back.
She motioned toward the silenced, hogtied Harry Potter. "See there?" Hawkish, he watched her. "I'll kill him, if you like. Right this second. Plenty of Polyjuice to be going on with. You could," she said raggedly, "take his place." He didn't react at first, then his head swivelled slowly toward the chair, considering. "No more thankless sacrifice," Eileen urged, her voice gaining conviction. "I'm willing to do that, if you want a second chance."
He said nothing, the bastard. The blood beat heavily through her body, sluggish thumps of dread. "I'll do whatever's necessary. You can return to the world and be loved and honoured, wealthy and welcomed wherever you go. You can be free." She flung him the challenge, but avoided meeting his eyes. Mentally, he was stronger by far, after duelling with Dark Lords all these years. "You've earned it, haven't you?"
"What on earth made you think I'd fall for this?" he snorted.
She jerked her wand at the sofa. "Sit."
He stalked over and perched on the edge, hands on knees. "What a delightful birthday party. Thank you so much for profaning the one day in the year set aside for me."
"You'd forfeit your life to spare his?" The stony face defied analysis, glasses walling off his thoughts. "Either way," she said, "I'll give you what you want."
The boy sat forward intently. "In that case," he whispered, "give me his life."
She had to act now, before grief tore her to pieces. Her arm flew up, wand humming with green death.
"Give it to me," sneered her cold-blooded child, "and I'll let him have it." He crossed his arms, scowling. "You're seriously off your nut if you think I have any desire to be him. An hour is bloody provoking enough."
The boy strapped to the chair twisted against the ropes, his confusion and helplessness terrible to see.
One instant away from casting an Unforgivable, Eileen felt her entire body vibrate to the leap her heart gave. "You won't take this way out?"
"Stop embarrassing me," her boy said, slouching. "I've had enough of saving the stupid brat's life. I really think we're done with that."
After a long-drawn silence, Eileen repealed the Binding and Silencing spells and set Potter free. "Your birthday present," she said. Her wand embroidered the air, and candles dazzled to life. Her hands wouldn't stop shaking. She hadn't really thought beyond this point. She'd assumed it would all be over, only darkness as far as the eye could see.
"What kind of farce —" Potter shouted, staggering to his feet.
"Hush, Mr. Potter. Please sit down." She cast a pouring spell on the teapot, because she'd only spill anything she touched. "Sorry. I was afraid you'd object."
"To being offered as a sacrifice?" he choked. "D'you think?"
"Shut up and drink your tea," the other boy interrupted. "Our revels, I suspect, have not yet ended."
Furious, Potter faced himself. "And who the fuck are you?"
"Oh, for Merlin's sake," the younger boy snapped back. "Let's eliminate the obvious. I'm not an imbecile, so I'm patently not you."
Eileen sighed at the flinty, bitter look Potter darted between them, but he controlled his temper. "Just — what is this?"
"Severus Snape's birthday," the other boy smirked, surveying the food. "Appropriate that all hell should break loose, agreed?" He glanced up. "You're off the hook, idiot. Either join the party or get out."
Taking that to heart, Eileen fixed herself a plate. Blast. She couldn't taste a thing. Her boy raised an eyebrow. "You said there'd be cake."
"In another —" She appraised him. "— forty-five minutes?"
"Less than that," he said. Potter was sullenly helping himself to tea, pouring milk into the green mug. "That's mine," his double said sharply.
"Get your own," Potter grumbled, sneaking him a fascinated, unhappy glance, obviously gobsmacked by the sort of mad tea party that took proclamations of bloodshed in stride.
The minutes ticked by. Eileen's head still throbbed with the enormity of what she'd risked and the ways in which it might still go wrong; and with the knowledge that she'd almost committed murder.
"Fuck," one of the Potters said suddenly. Eileen put down her tea things and stood to attention, fist clenched around her wand. Queasy now, she regretted having eaten. The other Potter looked over, his mouth full, then swallowed and likewise jumped to his feet.
The younger boy had his fingers clamped to the sofa cushions. From both trouser cuffs, an unsightly length of skinny leg emerged. The black hair slithered downward, changing texture, until it draped his shoulders. Silver threads glistened in it, like ice at night. His face grew bonier, nose more complex and cartilaginous, and the famous green eyes turned infamously black.
Eileen blinked; her cheeks were wet. "Oh, shite. You're alive."
"You've known all this time," her son said roughly. "Why cry now?"
She couldn't explain. It would have involved confessing to things she hoped to God he never found out.
Potter's face was a sight. "Snape?" If his eyes got any rounder they'd fall out on the floor, and his hair looked the sort of sentient weed you'd find in a magical greenhouse. "Snape?"
Severus pinned him with a belligerent stare. "My eternal gratitude for leaving me to die, you little arsehole," he growled, voice guttural and unlovely.
"This is what you've been up to?" Potter demanded. "Passing yourself off as me?"
"Yes, the nerve of me, not believing that a halfwit like yourself would have the bollocks or ability to defeat a Dark Lord." Severus was panting slightly from the transformation. Despite its shabbiness, the green jumper had clearly been made with him in mind and looked less pathetic on his long bones. "I collected fifth-year hair clippings to ensure that some version of the Boy Who Lived would survive to finish the fight." A passing shadow sharpened the weariness in his face to shocking hatred. "Buggering fuck, the pleasure should have been mine. I've fantasised about killing the Dark Lord for years."
"Well, he's gone now," Potter said frankly. "And I'm glad Nagini messed up." A shy, joking note crept into his voice. "So, did you enjoy being me?"
Eileen watched the ironic muscles in Severus' face work through a complex series of equations; stupid, when the answer was so distressingly obvious.
The way his stare mapped and quantified Potter's body. Oh, Lord, that look. It ran in the family, like problem hair. Not just love. Not just hate. But loving and hating at the same time, with equal intensity and insatiable need.
Potter's face reddened by slow degrees, until his green eyes positively glowed.
Wanting to shield her son from the boy's blazing attention, Eileen was visited with misgivings about Potter's Unoccluded mind: YOU'RE ALIVE! alternating with YOU'RE GAY! flashing overhead in flaming letters. Bloody hell, Severus would have an aneurysm, and it would be all her fault for gossiping.
"I'll fetch the cake," she said, scrubbing her face. Potter twisted to scoop the parcels into his arms.
"I brought presents," he said shakily. "Even though I had no idea —"
While she passed out wedges of chocolate, Severus fastidiously unwrapped Potter's gifts. "My memories." He shook the phial, and threads of misty silver swirled about. Face shuttered, he pocketed it for later. "My potions textbook." It was charred and missing the front cover, but he handled it with bemused affection before sighing and setting it in his lap. "I knew you were lying about that," he remarked, but his eyes were closed so he missed Potter's blush.
At the third small, paper-wrapped box, Potter leaned forward, his brightness rising to the surface. Severus scrutinised the Ministry insignia stamped in wax on the surface. He shot Potter a curious, dissecting look before his worn-thin fingers pried off the lid.
"Put it on," the boy insisted. Severus merely stared at the silver medal and silk ribbon, his face expressionless. Eileen ached at his utter lack of response; it must seem such a paltry thing now, after lifelong experience of depravity and death.
Strange, wasn't it. Once the news hit Trinian's, Eileen would clean up.
"Here," Potter said with the unbearable hope that is the privilege of youth, and for an instant she stiffened on her son's behalf. But the boy was both quick and respectful, lifting the Order of Merlin from its tissue paper, slipping it gently over Severus' bent head. Her son stilled, then shuddered all over, the air wavering around his throat. A glamour dissolved, and Potter flinched back as his hand brushed bandages bearing traces of blood.
Lean, sick, used up, a plate of half-eaten cake on the cushion beside him, a burnt book in his lap, a shiny medal and a stained bandage around his neck, Severus sat there and glared. He might have been a homeless king presiding over some pit stop to Hell, so creepy and ridiculous and dignified he looked.
The boy retreated to his chair. "Happy birthday," he said, smiling like a silly bugger.
"I'm sorry I have nothing more to give you," Eileen broke in. The currents burning between them got right up her nose; they should just get it over with and poke each other with sticks. Jealous, she allowed herself to boast. "The gift of life is enough, I expect."
"Right," Potter agreed, having evidently decided to forgive death threats in exchange for a ringside seat at her son's resurrection. "Being born pretty much trumps the competition."
"Potter," Severus frowned, "coming back from the dead hasn't improved your powers of perception much, has it? You miss the point." His cold, dark intelligence shifted her way, and Eileen knew at once she'd slipped up. "My mother wasn't referring to my birth. 'Giving me life,'" he mimicked, glancing toward her pocketful of wands, "only means she's not going to take it away."
"What?" The boy was a dimwit, no doubt about it, but adorable in his idiocy. Eileen, on the other hand, wanted a smoke so badly, not to mention an entire bottle of Scotch and an unbreakable personal ward on her bedroom to keep Severus out, that she half-considered Disapparating while Potter had him distracted.
"You were never in danger," Severus drawled, lazy the way predators are lazy, violence shifting under velvet. "If I'd agreed to let you die so that I could take your place, I would even now be stretched lifeless on this loathsome carpet. Much as I was in the Shrieking Shack, but with far less likelihood of ever rising again. You, I imagine, would be soundly Obliviated and on your way home."
"You're shitting me," said Potter, and Severus' eyes narrowed. So did Eileen's.
"No-o-o." If you wanted bottom-of-the-boot disgust, Severus was your man. "Are you blind, Potter? Her wand lit up green." Empty as attic windows, his eyes opened onto abandonment and broken glass. "My mother believed I was a monster. She still does. Don't you, Mum?" A strange light flashed far back in attic darkness. "Only now I'm a monster with a conscience."
Eileen twined her hands together to hide their shaking. "I buried Toby. If I had to, I would bury you, too."
There was a crash; Potter had dropped the green mug. He was staring at her, horrified. "Relax, idiot," Severus rapped out. "She didn't kill him."
It didn't cross the idiot's mind to ask who had.
The Order of Merlin lay atop the green jumper, bright as a tin woodsman's heart, and her son's ugly beauty — beautiful simply because he existed — made her own heart speed and sing and ache, all the signs of life.
Through the shattered windows of his black eyes, Eileen saw Tobias die again, saw the night Severus had come home stinking of Dark magic, drugged and deranged by the mark on his arm, "Get out, get out," in a raging panic, "do you hear me, Da? I'm going to kill you, you stupid bastard, get the fuck out of the house —" Warning, begging, but what was the use? Half Toby's vocabulary involved flinging curses; besides, he'd rather die than let his bitter son boss him around. Then, oh, that vicious spell from the margins of a book, blood on the carpet and Severus on his knees by his father's body, trying hoarsely to sing, to serenade the bleeding gashes back together —
She'd never know. She would always doubt. It helped that some heroes were cast in a recognisable mould; perhaps it was up to the Harry Potters of the world to punish or reward the Severus Snapes.
They'd never spoken of that weekend, near twenty years gone, when he'd come to her, weeping, "I want to die, Mum. I wish I were dead."
Evidently he no longer felt that way. But just because he'd somehow found the will to live, didn't mean he deserved to.
Rising from her seat and flicking the fire hotter, she paced toward her cold, frightening child. He had his back to the cushions like a wounded animal left to die by the side of the road. One hand tight around all three wands, she wondered what it would do to a person to be hit by three Killing Curses at once.
Warily, Severus sat forward, his head tipped back as if granting permission. The bandage was right there; she could do him irreparable harm even now by ripping it off.
He would do the same for her, if it needed doing.
Then the Boy Who Lived laid a hand on her arm, his touch warmer than the January sun. It wasn't her blighted, unsmiling child who plucked away her last chance. No, it was the hero. The wand of betrayal, the wand of retribution, the wand of redemption: one by one, the burdens of judgment passed from her to him.
Oh, Severus. If not for love, she would have been strong enough. If not for love, of course, he wouldn't be here.
She knew what he deserved. What she didn't know, had never known, was how to give it to him.
Leaning forward, Eileen kissed his brow, faintly shiny with sweat, still feverish after all these weeks. "Many happy returns, my son," she conceded, failing him and saving him as she had the last time, and the time before that. Bargaining on the graves of Tobias Snape, Lily Evans, and Albus Dumbledore, on this day he'd been born and this day he'd come back, that it would end, that it was ending, for the love of all they'd lost, that it ended here.