Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
He should have been dead - he had been dead, surely, there had been a fierce hot pain and his own blood flowing out between his fingers, there had been bone-deep terror and a desperate will to do his duty and Potter's eyes, her eyes, as green as springtime, there had been an aching desire both to see those eyes and to be truly seen by them at the last: but everything felt like grey wool and when he touched the side of his neck the pain dimmed to a dull ache and then blew away, leaving two healed blemishes, slightly raised. He shook his head slightly, trying to clear the wool away, he opened his eyes and Potter/Lily's green gaze was still there but the angle had changed, or gravity had: instead of lying on the floor looking up at those startling eyes he was looking down on them from a height....
It had taken him, he remembered, a moment to register his surroundings - he was/had been in his own quarters, or a fair approximation of them, but there was an oblong window which seemed to be attached to nothing, floating in mid air, and through it he could look down into what had been, until a subjective hour or so ago, his office, but which now contained an indignantly-rumpled Harry Potter, much cleaner and better-dressed than when he had last (?) seen him a subjective two minutes ago, and possibly slightly older. Or perhaps that was just the effect of being respectably turned-out, although nothing on earth, it seemed, would make the blasted boy's hair lie flat.
In his mind he was still in shock, still strangling on the terror he had felt when Riddle set the snake to kill him, only a few minutes ago as it seemed to him but his body wasn't going along with it; part of him knew he should be shaking and dizzy with adrenalin but an adrenal system didn't seem to have been provided. "Potter...." he said warningly to the snub nose and the chippy expression, daring the boy to say anything as his mind scrabbled frantically against the realization that he was, in truth, dead and hung up on the wall as a portrait among the crowd of boring old farts and fossils who had been irritating him all year.
"Headmaster Snape - sir. Welcome back," the bane of his previous existence replied politely, and he could actually feel his jaw drop. It was the first time Potter had ever left him literally at a loss for words - he made a vague attempt to say something, anything, and all that came out was a vague gick noise.
He swallowed and tried again. "Potter...." He put his hand up to his forehead, feeling hazy and confused and knowing that if he had still had the adrenalin he would have been on the ragged edge of hysteria. "What - why are you...?"
"You - you died, sir," Potter said quietly. "This is... you're in a portrait."
"I know I bloody died," he snarled. "That much was bloody obvious after Riddle's bloody snake used me as a bloody chew-toy. But why aren't you dead? Did we - did we lose?" But if they had lost, and Riddle had won after all, what was Potter doing alive and apparently free and in the Headmaster's office? Or were they both dead, and this was some bizarre version of the afterlife? Had he somehow ended up chained to this office even in true death?
"No, sir, we won. I - I did die, sort of. I knew I'd probably have to because of what you showed me so I went to Voldemort and let him kill me, only it - sort of didn't take. Again. At the time - well, I thought it might have been my willing sacrifice that protected the others but afterwards I thought - well, that maybe yours protected me...." he finished quietly.
"You - you saw the memories which I offered you," the portrait-self said in memory, feeling mortifyingly choked.
"Yes," Potter replied, his voice oddly gentle.
He bared his teeth at the boy like a dog. "Don't presume to think you understand me, Potter, just because - "
"You're not so bloody mysterious, you know," Potter snapped, and Severus raised his eyebrows. "I can see now why you - why seeing me made you... think about things that made you angry."
Crushing guilt, guilt and grief and the sharp physical pain of seeing Lily kissing and giggling with the gilded bully who had made his schooldays a protracted hell; Lily's eyes, the grass-green memory of love and loss, set in James's face that still made him want to curl up and weep with terror and humiliation; all mixed together in one nauseating, gut-knotting tangle. He opened his mouth to comment that the boy had not been blameless in himself, but Potter beat him to it.
"Not that I wasn't a little shit to you at times in any case," the boy said cheerfully. "I realize looking back that I wouldn't have dared pull half the stunts I pulled with you with McGonagall - she would have had my guts for garters."
"Thank you for that graphic image," Severus replied balefully. "A large part of it was that I was - angry, as you say, to see you feted as The Boy Who Lived, and receiving credit which properly belonged to your mother."
"Yeah, well," the other muttered, absently pushing his glasses up his nose with one knobbly forefinger, "I guess The Boy Who Lived makes for better propaganda than The Girl Who Died, doesn't it? But I never asked to be their bloody poster-boy, and talking of graphic images and poster boys.... Is it all right? The picture, I mean?"
In memory, the painted Snape opened his mouth to say "I am the picture, Potter: how the hell should I know if it's 'all right' unless you bring me a mirror?" - with the passing thought, quickly suppressed, that the less it really looked like him, the better it would be. But before he had really started to say it, the memory of a few minutes ago caught up with him - he was in his quarters.
Behind Potter he could see other portraits: none of them except Phineas looked very well-disposed towards him, and all of them were painted against minimalist backgrounds - a chair, if they were lucky, and a draped curtain which obviated the need for any expensive detail. He, on the other hand, was standing in a fully-realized room, as precise and detailed as something by Vermeer. There were his comfortable old sofa and his shabby rag-rug in front of a glimmering, shifting orange fire; the heavy china sink and the stone worktop and the shelves of jars, gleaming in the greenish underwater light; the rows of books, which he felt sure would prove to be detailed and readable, not just a decoration; and -
With a sudden lifting of hope, he walked away from Potter, into the picture, and opened the doors which stood slightly ajar beyond the fire. His bathroom, his bedroom, both just as he recalled them except tidier and a little less shabby. The mirror over the sink showed him his own face as he remembered it, very little improved, except that his hair looked almost healthy: no longer lank with weariness and nervous tension. The green light shining in the depths of the aged glass made him look like a drowning man. On the other side of the room was a door which he did not unbolt, which should open onto a corridor in the dungeons of Hogwarts, but which he knew without knowing would lead him out into some other portrait.
He turned back to the boy, his movements jerky. "How - ?"
"I thought you wouldn't want to be on display all the time," Potter said, "so I asked the painter to give you some doors to close."
Relief flooded through him, knowing himself released from a torment he had scarcely begun to consider. The idea of being forever on show, whether waking or sleeping, of never again having even a moment's privacy, was ghastly to him, and he observed with detached, clinical interest that his hands were shaking slightly. "I - " The half-formed "thank you" stuck in his throat, especially as he wasn't really sure why all this was somehow Potter's doing. "That was a - considerate thought. But why did it fall to you to think it?" There must have been a better way to put that - he wondered if the boy would even understand what he meant.
Potter blinked, evidently turning the words over in what passed for his brain. "There was a bit of an, um, a - a difference of, um, opinion about whether you'd - well, what with you having, uh, off the school grounds, and having been, uh - "
"Having been ignominiously sacked and driven out by my own colleagues," Severus replied bitterly, and Potter gave him a nervous smile. Watching the boy trying to be tactful was like watching a frog trying to crochet.
"Yes, well... because you were neither in office nor on the school grounds when you - uh - "
"Died," Severus said flatly.
"Yes - that - so, uh, there wasn't a portrait generated automatically because the castle didn't know that you'd - that you'd been killed."
"I am familiar with the magic involved. Normally in such cases - if a retired head dies in their bed" (the lucky sods he added under his breath) "for example - some more or less indifferent artist is commissioned to cover the lack."
"Yeah, well," Potter said darkly, his face taking on the indignant, truculent look which Severus knew so well. "Certain people" - his eyes slid sideways expressively, indicating some of the other portraits - "claimed that you'd deserted your post and didn't belong here, but I told them, I told them you couldn't have stayed without firing on Professor McGonagall, and that it was all a misunderstanding and that you were - that you had ten times more right to be here than a bunch of narrow-minded old fossils half of whom never did anything but sign paperwork, and I couldn't have defeated Voldemort without you."
There was a muttering hiss of voices from the walls around him, and Severus realised with a sinking heart that he was back in the same situation he'd been in in the Order, surrounded by people who despised him for the very services which they themselves had required of him. But the realisation that the smouldering indignation in those green eyes, in Lily's eyes, was actually on his behalf and not against him gave him a strange, elusive sensation as if a very small and insubstantial wild bird's egg, the pale grey-blue of a winter sky, had cracked inside him and hatched a bubble of song.
Potter flashed him a sudden grin, fiercely smug. "So I played the celebrity card for all it was worth - it's got to be bloody-well worth some good - and I threatened to make a scene until the Board of Governors backed down, and then I hired you the flashiest artist I could find, just to rub their noses in it. I thought you'd appreciate a sort of, uhm, vicarious gloat."
Severus inclined his head in silent acknowledgement, feeling his own lips escape his control and twist into a definite smirk. That explained the beautifully delineated interior scene and the subtle underwater light, and if he was doomed to spend near-eternity as the eternal outsider, at least he would do so from a position of advantage and not as the Order's whipping-boy.
"It was well done, Harry," a too-familiar voice said softly somewhere off to his right, and Severus jerked his head up again as if it was on wires - the Severus who was now, who was reborn, felt the action in the memory of the Severus of the portrait and wondered hazily that a painted body could still seem so real, such that he could feel the sharp pull of the tendons and the jointed flexion of bone - to see a shallow, sideways glimpse of that familiar blue-eyed stare. It hit him then that was going to spend a painted eternity hanging next to Albus Dumbledore. Oh joy. As the familiar tangle of grief and guilt and rage and humiliation and thwarted love rose up to choke him, he noted absently that even though he seemed fully rounded and solid to himself, he still saw the painted Dumbledore as a shallow sideways glance across a two-dimensional surface, not as a side view into a three-dimensional room.
"As if you would ever care what became of me," he snarled in his pain, and the blue eyes gazed back at him in cool assessment, insofar as he could tell from this angle.
"Just because I was prepared to sacrifice... both of you," the old man said levelly, "in order to put a stop to Voldemort's plans for our world, that does not mean that I would not have greatly preferred - another outcome."
"Don't lie to me! Not now, not now when I bloody died for you. You didn't even care if I - if I broke my bloody soul for you, just so long as Draco's was safe."
The blue glint faltered, flickered - he could tell that the painted man had blinked, even at this angle. "I never thought for a moment that your soul was in any danger, Severus - I thought you understood that. You were committing no murder, only an act of mercy, and I knew you well enough to know that your remorse would heal you even as you killed me. Whereas Draco, if he could have brought himself to do it, would have felt a triumph which would have blighted his nature, and might well have become addictive."
"I don't -" believe you, he wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat.
"I know that you preferred not to kill even when you followed Tom: you would be no murderer, Severus, and your soul would still be whole, even if you had killed this old carcase ten times over. I have always had complete trust in your good heart: I thought that you knew that."
Liar! Severus whispered under his breath, remembering the same voice sneering at him in the bubble of silence at the heart of the storm, telling him how disgusting and selfish and altogether worthless he was; the same level tone lashing him almost into madness as he rocked and howled with grief; and he spun away and strode jerkily to the back of the room, blinded by hot tears which stung behind his lashes as he fought to contain them. Distantly, he was aware that Potter's pet artist had paid so much careful attention to detail that even his boots were more comfortable and better-made than he could have afforded in life. It was obscurely comforting to realize that somebody (even if it was only Potter) had thought his comfort worth considering.
He pressed the palms of his outstretched hands flat against the wall by the door and leaned his weight against them, breathing heavily. "And what does Minerva make of this - arrangement?" he said, without looking round. Surely that was now her office, out there beyond the fourth wall, so where.... A sudden horrible fear gripped him. "Minerva - she's not -?"
"No, she - she's all right," Potter's voice answered him, understanding the half-articulated question, and he heaved a sigh of relief. It would have been too bitter to bear, to have fled to meet his own death rather than fire on her, and then to have her killed in any case. "But she was... ambiguous...."
Severus spun round to face him, his face so contorted with bitterness and pain that Potter took an involuntary step backwards. "She still thinks that I'm a coward who fled my duty, is that it?"
"No, I - sir, no. Everybody knows how - how brave you were. I made sure they all knew." Severus blinked, trying to make up his mind whether to be touched or insulted at the idea of Potter taking him up as a Good Cause. "It's just - well, between you and me and the gatepost she's ashamed of not having trusted you and she's not looking forward to apologizing, especially as she thinks you're going to rub her nose in it."
The painted self smirked. "How well she does know me." He thought about that for a moment, feeling the smirk freeze and twist and become a flinch. "A pity she didn't know me well enough to know which bloody side I was on."
"It's a tribute to your skills as an actor, Severus, I suppose, but, damnit, you might have told me."
"You might have trusted me, instead of -" To be cast out so harshly by a woman who had taught him as a child - a woman whom he had admired greatly and perhaps even loved, in his own sullen, caustic way - had been rawly painful; and even though the feelings of this painted self were less physically acute than they had been in life, the memory still burned in his throat like acid.
"I - I did wonder, but when you wouldn't even take coffee with the rest of us any more, when you shut yourself off so completely -"
"How the hell -!" His voice cracked and wavered embarrassingly and he stopped and took a deep breath, wondering remotely why he should still need to. "How the hell could I have sat in the staff room with the rest of you bloody harpies hating me, whispering about me - what do you think I am? Was. And I couldn't -" He turned his back on her, feeling the tears starting in his eyes. "I was there, Minerva," he said thickly, "I was there when they killed Charity, she begged me to save her but I couldn't, I couldn't, Dumbledore told me I was to keep my cover above all else so I could be in place to protect the students and I couldn't save her and she -" He stumbled blindly to the bookcase and leaned against it, trying to blank out the memory of his colleague's upside-down, pleading face.
"Even if I could have borne your hatred of me," he finished quietly, when he could breathe (?) again, "I couldn't have stood hearing you all speculating as to what had happened to her and - and me knowing, and not being allowed to say."
There was a long pause during which he simply leaned there with his head hanging, feeling as if he were awaiting execution. The revelation of his personal failure to save Charity was one for which he did not expect to be forgiven but he hadn't been a coward, he hadn't - maintaining his iron composure in the face of her mortal terror had been almost the hardest thing he had ever done, and it would have been so much easier and less painful to die with her.
Then he heard Minerva's voice behind him say quietly "Severus - Severus, look at me please." His lips twitched despite himself at the faint hint of school-mistress-addressing-little-boy and he jerked his head up and forced himself to turn and face her, wondering hysterically if he was going to be caned again.
There were tears in Minerva's eyes when he looked at her, and he thought it was right that somebody should cry for Charity as he himself had been unable to do, when the memory of her death shrivelled his breath; but Minerva gave him a tight-lipped look as if she had bitten on a nut, and her words left him bitterly amazed.
"Severus," she said quietly, haltingly, "I want you to know that I am - sorry, for not trusting you better, and for what I said to you the last time I saw you, which was - which was entirely unjustified." She hesitated, paling, and then shut her eyes as if the sight of him pained her. "And I am - more sorry than I can say, that my apology could not be given to a living man."
Part of him wanted to comfort her, to reassure her and take her guilt away, but another part - and with all the certainty of an expert Occlumens' deep self-knowledge he knew that it was the larger part - thought that she damned-well ought to feel guilty, for what she had done to him, and was guiltily pleased to see her hurt a tenth as much as he had been.
"I lived with the knowledge that I might die at any time," he said harshly, "every bloody day of my so-called bloody life. Anything anybody wanted to do to me - and it usually was bloody to me - was always on the verge of being too bloody late."
"And now it is," Minerva agreed sadly. "But, Severus, you must see, after you - after you cut George Weasley's ear, any doubts - "
"Dear God, was that the crime I was condemned for - ?" It was horribly, darkly funny, after all that he had done and been forced to do.
"You were with our enemies, you fired on the Order, and Alastor died - "
"I was there on Dumbledore's bloody orders, and he knew there might be deaths - just as we knew Emmeline might die when he ordered me to give her location to Tom as a bloody tidbit! It was all - all of it! - on his bloody say-so - even, even letting Charity - "
Minerva stared up at him, her sharp eyes gone queasily old and troubled. "I knew - knew he must have to make hard choices, sometimes."
"As a commander must," he agreed, his anger deflating greyly into infinite weariness; "but he was never the one who had to watch them die."
"Did you never - never think to disobey him?"
"Once!" He bared his teeth in a sudden snarl. "And see how much thanks that fucking got me!"
"What do you - ?"
"George-bloody-Weasley's literally-bloody ear - I was aiming for Edrikson, I thought he was going to kill Lupin and I knew Dumbledore had told me not to risk my cover on any bloody account but I couldn't bear - and I suppose he bloody-well thinks I'm a traitor too, doesn't he, because nobody would ever think anything but the worst of Snivellus even when he - " He made an abortive gesture towards the scars on his neck, his hand made clumsy with misery. "Did you bastards even bother to collect my body before it -?"
"After Harry - after Harry told us what had happened, Aberforth went and found it - you - and took you down to the church hall to lie with the other dead of Hogsmeade," Minerva said gently. "You understand that manoeuvring a body through the tunnel.... But Lupin - Lupin died on school grounds."
And there it was, the litany of the dead - as fresh and as horrible in this vicarious, painted memory as it had been in the tranquil harbour of Luna's flat above the bakery; Lupin, Ted and Nymphadora Tonks, Colin Creevey, Fred Weasley, poor stupid Vincent Crabbe whose runny nose he had wiped when he was a homesick firstie - all of them stepped away and down into some other state where the part of himself which was not trapped here on canvas must also have gone, before being unceremoniously hoicked back again.
"But you must see," Minerva said, blowing her nose discreetly on a tartan handkerchief, "we never - never imagined that you had cut George's ear off by accident. You were always so expert in a duel - "
"But I was never much bloody good on a bloody broom, was I? Rolanda could have told you that." He had learned to fly under his own power, in the end, to overcome his terror of falling from an unstable and hex-prone aerial stick, but he had still been uncertain of his own ability that day. In any case it wouldn't have done to upstage the Dark Lord at his own party-trick and so he had clung wildly to the narrow, unstable strip of wood two hundred yards above the crawling lights of the suburbs and tried to save the man who had nearly killed him (even if it was through no fault of his own); the boy who had sat on the fence and allowed his swaggering bullies of friends to torment him, Severus, to the point of madness. But fence-sitting had been the nearest thing to mercy he could expect from any Gryffindor, after Lily had thrown him over, and he could not bear another death of someone he knew well, so soon after Charity.
And then he had had to watch Moody die anyway, the old Auror broken by the fall and gasping his last amid hard boots and jeers - somebody else who had thought him a traitor, who would never have believed any good of him even if he had martyred himself to prove his true loyalty (as he had done, in the end), but he would have given the paranoid old bastard a more dignified death if he could have done, even if Moody had helped to strip him of all dignity and reduce him to a sobbing wreck when he was twenty-one and puking his bruised-black guts up on the floor of a Ministry holding-cell....
Minerva tutted at him, her square glasses sliding down her nose. "Then you should have had more sense than to fire when you were not in full control of your mount: really, Severus, do you remember nothing of what I taught you about elementary wand-safety?"
"What are you going to do, Minerva?" he said listlessly. "Give me detention? Have Argus whip me?"
His former teacher flushed slightly. "You know the rules were different then - and you had just vanished the staff table in the middle of breakfast. What were you thinking?"
"But that was just it. Even my - even my bloody father never beat me just for thinking - not if I didn't let it show on my face, anyway - and your 'elementary wand safety' didn't include warning us that just thinking about a spell could be enough to make it happen."
"I had no reason to anticipate that a first year would be able to perform non-verbal magic - "
"But you didn't believe me when I tried to explain - nobody ever bloody believed me." Not even Lily... not when the magical vortex of his anger and humiliation had dropped a branch on her sister without his conscious input, not when Sirius-bloody-Black had tried to kill him, not when he had begged for her forgiveness and told her how truly sorry he was.... He scrubbed tiredly at his face with both hands. "Anyway, that isn't the point, is it? If Dumbledore permitted me and other students to be beaten, why was it so terrible in me that I could not always protect the students from physical chastisement by the Carrows?"
"I think the Carrows' idea of punishment was a little more extreme than - "
"Arthur Weasley still has the scars - for an offence for which I would have taken a handful of house-points, and been bloody-well blamed for doing so. And I couldn't - " He shut his eyes briefly, trying not to see the images burned into his memory. "You don't want to have seen what the Carrows would have done," he finished hoarsely, "if I hadn't been there to take the edge off them. I had to - had to stay, to pretend to be on their side. I didn't even dare to show my hand to you when you - when you drove me out, because if the - if Riddle had won I would have needed to stay, to salvage what I could. Yet I couldn't fire on you, considering you were...."
"I'm not that old, Severus," Minerva replied without much rancour.
"You're not that bloody young, either, and after you were so badly affected by Umbridge's hexes when you tried to defend Hagrid - "
"That's another thing - you didn't tell me or Filius or any of the other staff what you were doing, you and Dumbledore both shut me out of the loop, and yet you confided in Hagrid who, with the best will in the world, is hardly a model of discretion."
"Oh, but didn't you know?" he said maliciously. "Hagrid's indiscretions were usually scripted for him by Dumbledore, just like my own - betrayals." But even malice had lost its savour, here on the other side of death. "Hagrid is immune to Legilimency - he was the only one I could tell. And Aberforth, but he worked it out for himself - knowing how his brother treated his... creatures."
Minerva glanced at Dumbledore's portrait - empty, as all the portraits were empty, the occupants having removed themselves at her request to allow them some privacy or really, Severus thought, so she didn't have to grovel in front of witnesses. "If he had spoken to me, even dropped me some hint - "
"He told you that he trusted me - was that not enough? If you didn't trust me, could you not have trusted him?"
"I'm sorry" - and he thought, for a wonder, that she looked it, even if it was only guilt.
"He couldn't - he wouldn't speak to you after his, his death, because he knew you would ask him about me. He didn't want to go along with your impression that I had murdered him, because he knew that if we won his compliance might be used as evidence to condemn me, yet he couldn't tell you the truth in case Riddle read it in your mind. So he stayed out of it, for once in his unnaturally extended existence, and pretended to be sleeping."
"But then what would have happened if we had won and you had survived, if - if Harry hadn't seen your memories? Would the Ministry have taken a portrait's word for it - or an unqualified half-giant's? Dumbledore's secrecy could have sent you to Azkaban, whereas if he had only warned me in advance - "
"You would have tried to save him - "
"And you did not?"
"He - persuaded me." He looked at her bleakly. "May I sit down?"
"You don't need permission from me, Severus."
He remembered shouts and accusations and her assumption that she had the authority to dismiss him from the post to which both the Ministry and Dumbledore had appointed him, and pursed his lips and said nothing, only making his way stiffly to the couch.
"We never thought," he said remotely to the flames on the hearth, "that I would need to be exonerated. He would have come to my office, ostensibly seeking a cure for the poison which he had had Potter feed to him, and as far as anybody else was concerned I would simply have failed to save him. If it hadn't been for Draco's unexpected access of sudden bloody efficiency buggering the whole thing up, nothing more than a vague suspicion would ever have attached to me. And then - well, as I say, he didn't dare speak to you, because you were bound to ask him about that night, and whether he told the truth or told you I'd bloody murdered him, either way it would land me up the proverbial without a paddle."
"All right, I can see that, but still - I was acting Headmistress and he was honour-bound to obey me. All the portraits must have - must have known, and yet none of them told me, even though they should have bowed to my authority - what?"
He shook his head at her, smirking superciliously, and God, but malice still had some mileage. "He wanted to make sure I'd be able to come and go freely to the Head's office whatever happened, without the portraits giving me away. The night before he - died, he sacked you as Deputy Head in absentia and appointed me in your place, and then as soon as he was dead I named you as my deputy."
"Damnit, Severus -!"
"Isn't that a good joke of Dumbledore's? Your authority, in fact, came from me. Right up until you - " He swallowed and swallowed again, trying to choke back the rising tide of darkness. "Until you drove me out to die, and called me - "
"I am - truly sorry."
He considered not forgiving her - of doing to her what Lily had done to him. Dare he consider himself better than Lily, to forgive where she had not? Yet it would seem churlish to reject what was probably the only sincere apology anyone had ever offered him.
"Don't trouble yourself," he said, and his mouth twisted sourly. "It was only me, after all."
He had thought there would be mist between the images, perhaps, or some sort of cosmic, painterly switching station, like the wood between the worlds in a book he remembered reading as a child, where one could pick and choose among a selection of destinations; but this was more like Apparition without the effort, or a Floo without the flames. One opened a door - if one was lucky enough to have one - or simply walked at a wall, thinking about where one wanted to be, and the scenery changed as you moved, taking you sometimes into the midst of another painting, sometimes to a door which gave access to one. It was possible, though a little disorienting, to stride down a corridor's-worth of images whilst haranguing the latest unfortunate DADA teacher about the shortcomings of her syllabus, and have the scene switch on the beat of every second step.
He could have stepped into a portrait of himself in any other building on earth, if anybody on earth had been mad enough to want one. As it was, he was confined to the limits of the building he found himself in, so it was fortunate that Hogwarts provided so many images and so many opportunities for diversion, including, latterly, the celebrations marking the new millennium. And he would have a millennium or more to grow bored with it.
As a portrait, he found himself oddly simplified, shorn of the twin distractions of glands and glans, his emotions less layered and conflicted than they had been in life, although he could remember, sometimes, how they had felt. The sorrows and angers of the past were still complex, even viewed as it were through the other end of the telescope, but his feelings about his situation now were simplified and it was, perhaps, a mercy, that the hostility of many of his fellow portraits troubled him far less than his isolation within the Order had done. He was, he supposed, a two-dimensional thing, now, which imitated three dimensions, but it was only a trick of the eye.
He was not as isolated as he had feared, in any case. Some of the stuffier former heads - Dilys, especially - had sulked at him when he was alive and snarled at him now he was dead, an interloper, a half-blood, an untried boy without family or funds who had the nerve to think himself their equal, and the Fat Lady was a horror who never ceased to remind him of how she had seen him, shamed and pleading, debasing himself in front of her painted face for the chance to beg for Lily's non-existent forgiveness. And Phineas's friendship though sincere was a mixed blessing, since the old goat made a sport out of putting his colleagues' backs up.
Nevertheless, even if he had no other actual friends among the portraits, several of his predecessors were prepared to overlook his humble origins and his terse manners and turn a blind eye to the fact that he had served as headmaster for a meagre year, in respect of the fact that he had died more or less in the course of protecting the school. The Fat Lady's friend Violet had a worrying tendency to get tanked up and then flirt at him, and the fat knight on his fat pony was quite embarrassingly worshipful. And there was always the Baron.
There was, too, Minerva to talk to, and if it occurred to him that it was a pity she hadn't paid him more attention while he was alive, he was drearily grateful for what company and conversation he could get now - and he would have her company nearly for eternity, since she too would in her turn be translated into paint and hung on the tower wall.
And really, it wasn't bad, being a portrait, though he winced to think what it might have been like if not for Potter's unexpected generosity and understanding. But as it was, after a lifetime of frantic, scrabbling stress and overwork, it would take him a long time - several centuries, perhaps - to get tired of being able to spend as long as he wanted soaking in a hot bath, or sprawled bonelessly across the vast, rickety old bed in the back room. Even if he now needed neither sleep nor washing, in any real sense.
As the self that was now, that was reborn into the body flicked through the painted memories they stitched back on themselves by association, jumping back a month or a year to show him -
"Really, Phineas," Dilys's hard voice cut across him, ignoring his presence as effectively as she would have ignored a house-elf, "Snape may have died whilst in some sense performing his duty, but many professors of this school have done the same without expecting to be elevated for it, and he was never a true headmaster: simply Dumbledore's proxy."
"He defended the students of this school during its darkest hour - "
"But he did so on the orders of a mere portrait. A true headmaster would have expected the portrait to obey him."
Somewhere to Severus's right, somebody cleared their throat in a meaningful manner. "If I may be permitted to express an opinion, Dilys," the familiar voice said with a sort of frozen faux politeness, "by advising him I was, you may say, obeying Severus's orders, since it was his wish that I continue to do so" and, God, that was nearly almost true, and he wasn't going to argue with anything which might get Dilys and her acolytes off his back.
"A true headmaster would not have needed to be instructed like an unqualified student, Dumbledore."
"But you will observe, I think, Dilys, if you examine your memory carefully, that Severus did not seek my instruction in matters relating to his administrative rôle as headmaster: only in those tactical matters in which I had been, and remained, his commanding officer."
"Then he should not have allowed his military rôle to intrude upon his position in this school."
"Unfortunately," the crisp, elderly voice said coldly, "Tom's settled interest in Hogwarts did not permit either of us the luxury of keeping our military and academic concerns separate. Whether we liked it or not, this school was both Tom's primary target and his goal, and it was he who decided that Hogwarts should be a battle-zone."
"We must not forget," Everard's voice said suddenly from higher up and much further back in time, "that Hogwarts was a castle before it was a school."
About Dumbledore, he remained conflicted, even now (except that now was then, seen from some nineteen years later). No reduction into paint and canvas could simplify the complex swarm of emotions he felt about the old man who had been by turns mentor and tormentor, jailer and protector, a commanding presence and an annoying old fool.
"It was - good of you to defend me" he said awkwardly, cornered against a wall in the romantically-painted Highland shieling where Dumbledore had caught him, somewhere down on the fifth floor; and couldn't resist the little spike of spite which added: "Unexpected, too."
"You know I have always had the highest regard for you" the painting of the old man said softly, sincerely, and Severus spun away from him and went to look out of the window at the eternally sinking Scottish sun, the painted gulls wheeling over a painted sea.
"Liar," he said, in a voice which surprised him by its level reasonableness. "When I came to you, you told me that I was - disgusting."
"I was... judging you in the light of my own behaviour, I think, which I can see now was unjust of me."
"Your sister whom you would never bloody have told me about, if I hadn't found half of it out already from Aberforth and the Skeeter creature's bloody book. Would you ever voluntarily have told me that I wasn't - wasn't the only one to have gone wrong, to have allowed my own idiotic political theories to cause the death of - No," he answered himself with a snarl, "you never bloody would, or you would have told me before you - I - "
"How would you have had me initiate that particular conversation?" Dumbledore said interestedly. "At what point - during dinner, perhaps? - would it have been appropriate to say, 'By the way, when I was seventeen I fell in love with a charming megalomaniac - male - and our shared plans for world domination led to the death of my mentally-handicapped sister'?"
"Everybody knew you preferred men anyway," Severus said distractedly. "It wasn't any great secret. It was only the - Grindelwald aspect...." He shook himself slightly, trying to get his attention back on track. "The time to have fucking told me would have been when you were - tormenting me over my failure to save Lily and it was fucking true, wasn't it - " He smacked the side of his fist against the window-frame in frustration. "I did choose to rely on the wrong person to save her."
"I was - angry with my own failure, as well as with yours," the older man replied sombrely, and his face moved like a real face under the shadow of grief and yet it did so in the manner in which it was painted, less crisp and clean-edged than Severus's own image. The Severus who was now, who had been remade out of flowers, wondered - even through the weight of his shared and remembered sorrow - what would happen to a portrait who was painted in, say, the manner of Picasso or of Bacon. There were sound reasons behind much of the conservatism of the wizarding world, and he should be glad that some whimsy of Potter's hadn't landed him with both eyes on the same side of his face.
"If you had told me that at the time - "
"Would it have made a difference?"
"Christ, yes - I would have been - " He couldn't even bring himself to say it, the aching weight of years of self-blame crushed the words before they could form in his mouth, made more tearing by the knowledge that they could have been lightened, and had not been - that he had lacerated himself with the sense that he was uniquely sinful, and yet his sin was a shared one. Dumbledore had been there before him, and worse - since Dumbledore had planned on actually being a deranged dictator, instead of merely following one.
The painted Albus laid a hand on his elbow, tentatively, and Severus almost but not quite shrugged him off. "But you never bloody did think me worthy of your - confidence, did you?" he muttered. "You never even told me that the reason Sirius-bloody-Black attacked me was because he was mentally disturbed - I had to hear it from Minerva after I was bloody-well dead. You let me think I was protecting Potter when you were planning to sacrifice him - and then bloody let me think you were planning to sacrifice him when you knew he had a bloody chance, you made me think that I was complicit in his death - and now I hear from Minerva that he wasn't the only Horcrux, that there were several - including the snake which fucking killed me. Didn't it occur to you that I could have helped Potter to find the Horcruxes, if you had only confided in me?"
He did shrug the old man off then, bringing his joined hands up with a jerk and pressing them against his teeth, so that his voice was muffled by it. "Even about the bloody wand, you didn't tell me the half of it - I had to find some of it out from Aberforth. Did you get some kind of thrill out of sending me to my death blindfold?"
"I had hoped not to send you to your death at all," Dumbledore replied with what sounded like genuine sadness. "I - you know why I didn't tell you about the multiple Horcruxes, about the possibility that Lily's blood in Tom's veins might in some sense function as a Horcrux for Harry. If Tom had suspected you - if he had decided to rip your mind - "
"Yet you did tell me about the Elder Wand - at least in part - and about the splinter of - of Riddle that was in Potter. What was this if not a security risk? Why those and not the rest?"
"It was - it was necessary that you should know these things in order to play your part, and the risk - " The old wizard turned away suddenly and began to pace, restlessly, back and forth over the brief length of the tiny cottage, his face tilted upwards and his eyes half closed behind the glitter of glass and gold, before coming to rest with his back turned to his erstwhile colleague. "I know that I have not always used you well," he said bleakly after a moment. "The misuse of power was always my special temptation, and you were - "
"Aberforth told me that you couldn't resist playing with your toys," Severus replied harshly, "and you knew every bloody string to make me dance."
"Perhaps," the other replied, sounding depressed: "although I wish that I had understood you one half as well as you imagine that I did. But I did, truly, want you to outlast me, and Tom: I wanted you to have your chance to be your own man. You deserved that, if anyone did." He spun back to face the younger man, and the always-setting sun made a point of fire in each half-moon lens. "Think, Severus. If I had told you - if you had known that I knew that Tom had made multiple Horcruxes, and you had not warned him of this, and he had forced that information from you - what possible excuse could you have given him? It would have been absolute proof of your true loyalties, and your death. The same if I had told you that Tom might no more be able to kill Harry now than he could eighteen years ago."
"But what you had already told me was enough to sign my death warrant - so why balk at this?"
"I thought - it shouldn't matter if Tom found out that I had asked you to kill me. He knew that I thought you were my agent, after all. And as for the wand - you knew that Tom knew I had the Elder Wand, and that he knew that I knew about it: there was nothing suspicious in your not telling him what you knew he knew already.
"As for the transfer of ownership, the fact that I expected that the mastery would either die with me or pass to you - I thought that you could, that you would say to him 'I did not think that it mattered: the old fool thought I was killing him on his orders but really I was doing it for you my Lord, and since I was but a tool in your hand the mastery will be yours.' As we planned. He might think that you had been foolish or presumptuous - he might punish you for it - but he would have no proof of your true allegiance."
"It was the death of me even so, that bloody wand," Severus muttered. "He realised it wouldn't work for him and assumed that I...."
"An irony I could have done without. If the mastery had indeed passed to you as we planned then I do believe that the wand would have worked for him when he tested it, since you wished it to and doing so would serve your interests; but since Harry had no idea...."
"You couldn't have - have saved yourself by telling him that the mastery had passed elsewhere? Told him what we had planned if it had ended with me, that because Grindelwald never defeated Gregorovitch, the mastery had gone to some unknown duellist who had?"
"What do you bloody take me for?" Severus snapped, raising his chin in offence. "I hadn't come that bloody far only to warn him - Lily's bloody murderer - that he held a weapon that was bound to fail him! I'd have died ten times over if I thought it would help to avenge her."
"Oh, my dear...." The old man blinked hard as if holding back tears, and Severus looked away in embarrassment.
"Yes, well," he muttered. "But what excuse could I possibly have given for not telling him that Potter was a Horcrux, that his own death depended on Potter's...."
"You were supposed to use your imagination and tell him that since you knew he had other Horcruxes, and I did not know this, you had been sure that I was mistaken, that it would be safe for him to kill Harry - "
Severus jerked his head up as if on rails, glaring. "But, you bloody fool, you just told me why you couldn't tell me he had other Horcruxes - !"
"Yes, well, " Dumbledore said again, rather fussily, "you were supposed to work it out for yourself, using the rare and enticing Dark Arts grimoires, complete with prominent chapters on the subject of Horcruxes and a little charm to keep them from Minerva's prying eyes, which I left in my office for you to find. You would have realized almost at once, I think, that the story I had told you about Voldemort placing a fragment of his soul into Harry almost by chance could not be true, that he had to have initiated the process of deliberately making a Horcrux for that to happen, and from there.... And that way you would know, and yet you would be able to swear with almost complete truthfulness that you had no evidence that I knew, and hence no reason to go to Tom about it. He would believe that you had been afraid, I think, to mention his own secret plans to him."
"So what went wrong?"
The older wizard took his spectacles off, huffed on them to moisten the glass and then polished them absent-mindedly on his sleeve. "Miss Granger," he said with a sigh. "In her - misguided ingenuity, she managed to pilfer the whole collection before you had a chance to see them. And I couldn't very well tell you about it, because that would take us back to you knowing that I knew, and not warning Tom."
"Blast the girl. But yes I - I do see. I suppose. But - He would have destroyed me anyway, if he realized I was still taking advice from y-- from your portrait; so what was the point...?"
"By that point," the fussy, precise old voice said, "most of my plans had gone, as the saying is, tits up, and I was forced to extemporize. But at least you could swear truthfully that I - that my living self had not ordered you to do this or that, and perhaps that truth would have been enough to avert Tom's suspicions before he found the other." A tight little smile flashed into and out of existence, and his eyes twinkled with suspect sweetness. "As for poor Sirius - I would have thought that the fact that he was mentally disturbed was self-evident."
Severus gave a faint snort of laughter at that, but it did little to lift the weight of sadness which had settled across his shoulders. As he watched, a painted gull - little more than a double arch of white - flitted across the window, screaming, and was gone.
"I hated you, you know," he said quietly. "I hated having to kill you, but I hated you enough to be able to do it - and I hated you for making me do it, and myself most of all, for being able to."
"You shouldn't hate yourself for having done what was necessary - what I required of you. Hate me, if you must hate someone."
"Oh, I do," he answered, and wished that it were true. "But you were my death, as I was yours, and I paid the price for my - obedience."
"I know you won't believe me," answered the sombre voice of the old man, "but I wish very much that you had not."
The next thing, a jagged, brilliant stained-glass window into memory, was the burning sense of himself standing perfectly still as a tall, serious-looking young woman with heavy dark eyebrows painted the medal onto his painted chest, the brush-point flicking silver across the dark of his robes, marking him with the sparkling point of light which showed that the people he had fought and died for had, finally, recognized some worth in him. The Order of Merlin, First Class, proposed by Arthur Weasley and seconded by Minister Shacklebolt himself, with the vociferous support of the sainted Potter and his little gang.
The knowledge that the Order had only fully accepted him once he was safely dead and they didn't have to - God forbid - actually mingle with him socially was a bitter weight; but when Phineas began on a forceful hand-clap which spread outwards in ripples until all the portraits of his predecessors and peers (even, grudgingly and finally, Dilys Derwent herself) were united in applauding him, that bitterness eased somewhat, and its place was taken by a bleakly nihilistic pride. He had lived a harsh life with little pleasure and less safety, and had died as isolated and rejected as he had lived, but he had, always, done his duty with a patient heroism which he was smugly aware of now and had been at the time, even if he was never going to admit that fact to anyone else.
Over time, he settled into some sort of accommodation with Dumbledore. The man still made him uneasy in many ways but they had shared things which no-one else on earth had shared, or even knew of: and although he considered himself no expert on the subject, he was aware that people did often form friendships, at least of a kind, on the basis of shared experience rather than deep liking. There are things that I can say to you, he thought, that I can say to no-one else; whether or not Albus was the person he would have chosen to say them to, if he'd had the option.
Minerva, too. The requirements of her working life as Headmistress meant that she often spent eight or nine hours at a stretch only a few feet away from his portrait, and he was damned if he was going to be driven out of his own painted rooms just to avoid her: so it was inevitable, if ironic, that he saw more of her now in death than he ever had in life. He was surprised to find that she preferred to discuss work-related difficulties with him rather than with Dumbledore, but when he plucked up the courage to ask her about it she pulled a waspish, point-nosed face and said shortly: "I want an opinion, not a Judgement of Solomon."
As the months grew into years, he actually found himself talking to her a little about things other than work. The memory of how she had driven him out still ached like a dull bruise in the middle of his chest, and Minerva's eyes on him were full of sorrow: the more so, perhaps, as they both saw how things might have been between them, when he was alive, if they had only talked more and teased each other less. But they got on better now than they ever had when he was mortal flesh. Severus was uncomfortably aware that this was, at least in part, because the portraits' traditional duty to obey the current Head meant that she was now able to shut him up if he grew too provoking, as she had not been able to do in life.
Among the incidents which stood out from the litany of Minerva's day-to-day duties was the replacement of Pomona, who had never fully recovered from curse-damage to her lungs sustained during the Battle of Hogwarts, and was moving down to stay with her sister in Cornwall, where it was felt that the sea air would be better for her.
"I don't know," Minerva said thoughtfully, tapping her ginger newt absently against the parchment. "Lavoire has the most experience, but why did she resign from Beauxbatons? Does one believe her claim that she wished to expand her personal growth - which sounds like some sort of cyst - by experiencing Scotland's 'vibrant and unique culture', or was she given the boot for some unspecified offence?"
"Propositioning the Quidditch coach, perhaps." He peered over her elbow at an angle, reading the names off the parchment where it lay slantwise across the desk. "I'd probably go for Longbottom, if it were my choice."
"You amaze me, Severus. I thought that you regarded him as an unmitigated disaster."
"I spent the five years that he was in my Potions class expecting at any moment to be blown through the wall, but that isn't the point." He pressed his palms together in thought, clicking the nails of his forefingers against his teeth. "The fact of the matter is - he tends to dither and he shouldn't be allowed within fifty yards of a cauldron, but his written work was of an acceptable standard and clearly-stated, and Pomona always said he was one of the best Herbology students she'd ever taught. I'm not sure about his ability to control a class but he's conscientious and has a genuine enthusiasm for his subject - you could certainly do worse, especially compared with some of the clowns that Dumbledore hired over the years." Somewhere off to his right, Dumbledore's portrait sniffed audibly.
Longbottom, when he came for his interview, proved to have grown considerably and settled into a steady, sensible-looking young man, although still with the moving bulge which signalled a toad about the person. When he caught sight of Severus's portrait he flashed it a nervous, uncertain smile, and Severus had to fight with himself to suppress the urge to say "Boo!" and see if the boy would jump.
He had been a portrait some seven years, and dead for eight, when the comparative calm of his half-life was shattered by a further infestation of Potter. Not that the boy - man - was entirely unwelcome, if he were to be truthful. Truth be told, he was thankful beyond measure for the comfort and privacy of his own quarters which Potter had provided for him, and it would be churlish to refuse to speak to him - although he supposed wryly that Minerva would say that "churlish" was his middle name.
But the cycle of escalating mutual anger had been broken, now. Lily's grass-green eyes in Potter's face looked at him with measured consideration, rather than the hatred and scorn which he had seen in them ever since that fateful, horrible morning under the beech tree when he had ruined everything. And so, now, he could see Lily's son as just himself, rather than as the living embodiment of every mistake he had ever made: and, taken just as himself, and now that he didn't have to attempt to actually teach him anything, he found the brat almost tolerable.
"The thing is," Potter said, shifting on the balls of his feet with a careless athletic energy which Severus had found profoundly annoying in life, "Ginny's expecting our second son any day now...."
"Why, Harry, that is excellent news!" Dumbledore said with an audible twinkle. "Isn't that good news, Severus?"
"I suppose congratulations are in order," Severus muttered. "I heard about little James Sirius" he added, with a cold curl of his lip.
Potter sighed. "Look, I know that they were - that they could be a pair of bloody bastards at times, but they were all the proper family I had, all right? Them and - and my mum, but we haven't had a daughter yet."
"How... predictable," Severus murmured, shutting his eyes against the pain of visualizing another flame-haired, green-eyed Lily running across the summer grounds. It had been painful enough when Potter had first started dating Ginny Weasley, seeing James's near-double whispering with his red-headed sweetheart; but at least Miss Weasley's hair had been, truth to tell, more carrot than flame, and her eyes were brown.
"Yeah well, the thing is - the thing is, I, uh - Iwonderedifeitherofyou'dmindifwecalledhimAlbusSeverus?"
Severus blinked, trying to make sense of Potter's gabble, and as he did so Dumbledore's rather choked voice said "My dear boy! I would be - deeply touched." The old fool actually sounded as if he was almost weeping.
When he realised what Potter had said, he felt as if the blood he hadn't got had slowed in the veins he hadn't got either, and his notional breath caught in his throat. "Sir?" Potter said seriously, looking straight at him, and Severus looked steadily back.
"Not the werewolf?" he asked, more lightly than he felt, and Potter dropped his gaze and shuffled his feet.
"No," he said quietly. "Remus has - has a son, but you two...."
"There are reasons," Severus said rather maliciously, "why Headmaster Dumbledore never had children."
"Indeed," the old fool's voice said complacently, "and whatever you may have heard about spells to induce male pregnancy, the process is still in its - as it were - infancy."
"Eww." The green gaze flickered and encountered Severus's black one. He smirked, and instead of glaring Potter surprised him by smiling back, conspiratorial and amused.
Severus swallowed. "Yes," he said rather huskily. "Yes, I would be - pleased to have my name linked to that of Lily's grandson." He forbore to add that what pleased him most about it was how much it would have annoyed James, in case the blasted boy changed his mind.
Potter - Harry, he supposed - gave him a thoughtful look. "Sir," he said quietly, "do you mind if I - if I ask you something?"
He shut his eyes for a moment, dreading what might be coming. "You may ask," he said, finally: "but I reserve the right not to answer."
"It's just - I know that you and my mum were - were friends." His eyes flickered sideways, indicating the other portraits, an entire audience of painted ears.
"It's all right," Severus replied with a sigh, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyelids for a moment of weariness. "I appreciate your - attempt at tact, but thanks to the Fat Lady every portrait in this school knows that - that I loved her. And - why she ceased to love me."
"Yes, well, it's just - I don't know how to put this, but if you loved her, and um you protected me for her sake, why were you such a bastard to me? Didn't you think that she - that she'd want you to be nicer to me?"
Severus stared at him, and he felt - both in the painted memory and in the mind of the living man that watched it - as if the ground were sliding away under his feet. "I - " He braced his right hand against the couch to steady himself. "It never occurred to me."
"Yes but - why?"
"Because - " and he could feel the tremor as the muscles jumped in his arm. He shouldn't have to think about this.
"Sir? Are you - ?"
He spun away, gripping the back of the couch with both hands, his shoulders bowed. "It never occurred to me because - because why would it bloody occur to me? My bloody mother never gave a damn whether anybody was 'nice' to me or not, so long as they stopped short of killing me, so why should I - why should I think that Lily would be any different?"
He had been young when he died and he would be young, now, for all eternity - or a reasonable stab at it. But Minerva was still, for the moment, mortal flesh, and the years crept up on her as he watched. The time came that the years were too many, and she folded up her belongings in her old carpet bag for the last time, and went home to Invergarry - though he was pleased and touched to find that she had commissioned a small portrait of him so that he might go sometimes and visit her, until such time as she came back to hang on the wall beside him.
The arrival of Quincy Dobson was a curious experience, for he had taught Quincy, as Minerva had taught him - and he was amazed to find that the man evidently regarded the experience with some fondness, rather than the horror which he had expected. The fussy little schoolmaster spoke to him as if he were a living colleague rather than a useful tool, although he confessed that he found working with so many pairs of eyes on him unnerving.
"I, ah, never was any good at working while I was being watched," he murmured as he cleared a spreading stain of spilt ink from the document he'd been working on, "and every time I notice them it's - 'Blast! Another blotch!'"
Severus had not been decanted onto canvas until a year or so after the Battle of Hogwarts, but it had taken some years to finish restoring all areas of the school. Moving from painting to painting throughout the castle he had built up a clear idea of the damage, and of what had been done to make it good. The classroom from which he had leapt all those years ago, when Minerva had driven him out into the spring evening, had been smashed away by a giant's club, and a whole section of wall with it, leaving the corridor behind it open to the air. When the facade was rebuilt, the row of wrecked classrooms had been cleared away and the corridor widened to make a long gallery overlooking the grounds.
The outer wall of this gallery was a glittering expanse of tall windows, looking out into the changeable Scottish weather. It was Quincy who thought of lining the opposite wall with duplicate portraits (complete with anti-fading charms), enabling the Heads and other worthies to interact directly with the students. Severus at first regarded the idea with deep-dyed suspicion, as being an imposition on his peaceful retirement. On the other hand, it would be a new diversion in a life where diversions were in short supply, and he was mollified by the promise that he would be required to teach for no more than two hours a day on weekdays and an hour on Saturdays.
And at least nobody could expect him to mark essays.
He was even more mollified when he saw the sketches for the new portrait. Many of the Heads already had duplicate portraits which were brought in from elsewhere: Phineas, for example, preferred not to maintain a presence in the house which had belonged to the family which was now extinct in the male line, and he would probably see more of the grandchildren of Narcissa and Andromeda Black at Hogwarts than he would at Grimmauld Place. Of those who required portraits to be newly painted, some simply opted for an armchair or a sweep of drapery such as they already had, whilst others - envying Severus his cosy domesticity - asked for some more complex background. Fortesque surprised everyone by insisting on an upright piano, which he played tolerably well considering his deafness.
But Severus.... Harry Potter's vicarious one-upmanship and more adventurous Muggle tastes had, once again, paid for the painter: the same serious young woman (somewhat less young, now) who had come to add the Order of Merlin to her clear-edged image of him. And just as he had Potter to thank for giving him his rooms and his bed, so he had Longbottom to thank for giving him the green woods, the sunlight and the restful shade.
"I thought, you know," Longbottom's slightly northern burr said apologetically, "that you'd probably like to get outside for a bit: I know I would, if it were me. But I, um, remembered that you didn't seem to like strong light much, so I said to Miss Agutter, if there were a lot of trees there you could have a choice...?"
"That all seems - acceptable." He flushed slightly. "It - surprises me somewhat that you should care, after...."
"Bellatrix Lestrange was a Death Eater," Longbottom said remotely, "and she tortured my parents until it tore their brains apart. I can remember - " He stopped and jerked his head, casting something off. "Amycus Carrow was a Death Eater, and he forced little damp-behind-the-ears first years to torture each other. You were a Death Eater, and you were a bad-tempered, ill-mannered nagger but I'm not going to hold it against you, especially after - after I saw what you were trying to do, keeping the Carrows off us when you could. And Harry's right - you were the bravest of all of us."
"I just did what needed to be done."
"Yes. But nobody else volunteered to do it, did they? Except Regulus Black, maybe, but he got killed too soon...."
"Both Slytherins, you will note," said the familiar faux-reedy voice.
"Yes, thank you, Phineas."
"Headmaster Black is right, though, isn't he?" the young man said interestedly. "I think Slytherins are really just as brave as Gryffindors, mostly - just... sneakier about it."
"That's an... interesting viewp-- is that that bloody toad again?"
And so he had his sun and his shade to doze in through an eternal painted summer, and the green grounds to walk in if he wanted to, although sometimes they reminded him of things he'd rather forget. And he had the Thestral, who somehow turned out to be a mare he had known and liked when he was first teaching, and who was very surprised to find herself translated into paint.
Advising students about their Potions and Defence homework, or lecturing them about the war, proved to be less onerous than he had feared, although he shied away from any too-personal questions: especially after he discovered that Rita Skeeter had penned a lurid best-seller about him. And he found to his surprise that Longbottom actively sought him out - and was surprisingly good company.
The following year, he frequently found himself being badgered for stories by his namesake, a little dark scrap of a child in Slytherin green whose green eyes were full of curiosity and admiration. A few weeks into their second term, Albus Severus began to be accompanied by Scorpius Malfoy: a nervy, serious-minded boy who had, to Draco's undying disgust, been Sorted into Hufflepuff.
Dumbledore, for reasons known only to himself, chose to be painted standing on a cliff-top, against a cold sweep of Cornish sky.
And then it was May, and Longbottom was standing with the sun behind him so that Severus couldn't quite see his face, and the boy said: "There's a chance - I don't know quite how to put this, and I can't promise it'll work, but - well, Luna and Hermione have been doing some work with one of the research healers at St Mungo's, about - about the spell that Gwydion used to bring Blodeuwedd to life. And they think - if you have someone's memories at the point of death, and some of their tissue, it might be possible to bring them back through the Veil and into a new body and, um, well, we thought we could try... if you wanted to, that is."
His non-existent breath caught in his throat as he realised what the younger man was saying (except - bizarre thought - Longbottom must be almost as old as he had been when he died, now). An offer of renewed life, for another part of himself, but - "Would I - would this - portrait cease to exist?"
"They don't know," Longbottom said gently. "They don't think so, but - they can't be certain."
And he thought about what he had gained, and lost, by existing as a portrait; about what it would mean to be a living man again, both the pleasures and the pains; about the risk of losing all that he had learned these past nineteen years, his memories wiped back to flakes of pigment; about the chance to step out of the frame and enjoy his new-found friendships on the far side of the fourth wall, and the dark thrill of seeing the Order's faces when they realised they had to welcome him in in person -
And he opened his mouth to speak, and his vision fell away, it peeled apart into two, and for a moment he was both in the painting and outside it, looking at himself looking at himself in an endless loop - and then his sense of self snapped back like elastic and he was once more slumped breathlessly in the chair which Quincy Dobson had conjured for him, staring up at his own portrait where it hung on the tower wall.
The fourth wall is a theatrical term for the open side of the stage, facing the audience. A fourth-wall breach is a story in which fictional characters interact directly with their creator or readers, breaking down the barriers between reality and fiction. From the point of view of an animated portrait, they exist in the fiction of the painting, the real world is the world of the flesh-and-blood observers who look at the picture, and their ability to interact with the observer is a fourth-wall breach.
We do not know when corporal punishment ended at Hogwarts, but it's very likely that it extended for a considerable time after Dumbledore became Headmaster, which was probably in the early 1960s. We also know Minerva began working there in 1956.
We do not know how old Molly and Arthur are, except that Molly had left school before Snape and the Marauders started, but their first child, Bill, was born circa 1970 and as they were already courting at school, married straight out of school and are demonstrably very fertile, they probably hadn't left school very long beforehand. So we can assume that they overlapped Dumbledore's Headmastership by at least several years, and probably didn't even start at Hogwarts until well after Minerva was appointed. Whilst Arthur and Molly were at school, and old enough to be courting, Arthur was beaten or othertwise physically punished so badly by Apollyon Pringle, the then caretaker, that he was scarred for life.
So we know that Dumbledore initially sanctioned quite extreme physical punishments, and it's quite possible that these extended into the Seventies when Snape and the Marauders were at school. Whether they did or not, the point certainly stands that the Dumbledore-and-McGonagall regime permitted extreme corporal punishment for at least some years, and are therefore not in a good position to criticize Severus for failing to control the Carrows completely.
The wood between the worlds appeared in CS Lewis's book The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to the Narnia series. In it, a series of apparently shallow pools are each a gateway to a different world.
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