For nineteen years, the Shrieking Shack stood neglected in a weedy hollow at the outskirts of Hogsmeade. Drenched in summer and frozen in winter, it began to come apart. Floorboards curled away from joists, leaving gaps that filled with falling plaster dust. Flowered wallpaper bloomed with wild water stains then collapsed into curling shreds. Grout in the windows shrank and crumbled, and icy winds rattled through the gaps, stirring eddies of mouse-leavings and dropped feathers on the floors.
It may have been charmed. At least, no one ever went near it. Every year, someone in the town brought up the idea of tearing the shack down; every year, somehow, the issue was set aside and forgotten.
* * * * *
Like all people, ghosts exist in relation to others. A ghost in complete isolation simply erodes, becoming less and less present until he is hardly aware at all.
So it was for Severus Snape.
The first year was terrible. He came to e to consciousness on the floor of the shack, confused by the spectral blood saturating his clothes. When he realized his condition, his grief was overwhelming; he would never see Lily now, never again.
The days passed with excruciating slowness. He watched the window brighten then dim, again and again. Stray thoughts brought fresh, stabbing pain so he tried not to think. He could have gone up to the castle, but there was no one he wanted, certainly not the company of other ghosts. At one point, the pounding of a hammer startled him; they were resealing the windows and door.
That was the last noteworthy event. Gradually, he lost track of time. He spent long days or weeks resting against the ceiling, sleeping and observing the deterioration of the shack without interest. He maintained only enough alertness to keep himself in place.
On this November day, four stripes of cold light crept across the floor, over the chair and the peeling table top and up the wall. At the top, they vanished, accompanied by the faint groans of shifting wood.
* * * * *
“Shit, shit, shit.”
The girl cursed as a splinter thrust itself under her fingernail. She could swear that the rusty nails re-drove themselves each time she pulled the plank away. She hadn’t thought to bring a hammer or a pry bar, and the ground was bare of sticks. She yanked the splinter out with her teeth and sucked her finger, considering.
She had to go in the back way, through the window, or she might be seen from the town. It was cold as Merlin’s ancient balls out here and she had only her robes and cloak on, no scarf or mittens. Infuriated, she braced her foot against the rotting shingles and tore the plank from the window with both hands, tumbling backward and taking the flat of the board on the end of her nose.
Blinded by tears, she sat until she had caught her breath, then wiped her face and stood up. If she weren’t so fat, she could possibly squeeze through the hole she had made; as it was, she would have to get the top board off as well. At least she had the first board to use as a lever.
The second one came more easily, the nails shrieking in chorus. This time she was prepared for the shack’s vindictiveness and leapt free as the board came tumbling for her head.
There had once been four panes on top and four on the bottom. What remained was the dried-out mullions, some jagged spikes and a single intact pane in the top row. She smiled as she adjusted her grip on the plank; she enjoyed breaking things.
* * * *
He jerked awake, startled, but the sound had already passed. He looked around. The light had changed. The window was uncovered and new bits of glass and wood lay scattered over the floor. His thoughts came slowly. Best to observe. The ghost sank silently into the wall and waited.
A cloak appeared, adjusted by a pair of grubby hands to cushion the frame and sill. The hands gripped, there was a grunt of effort, and a red, straining face appeared -- a girl. She wiggled her torso over the barrier by means of jerks and invisible kicks until she was cantilevered, hands braced on the wall. At this point she paused, panting, until her arms gave out and she tumbled to the floor, bringing the black cloak with her.
It had been a very long tme since the ghost had heard a human voice, and it hurt him like an electric shock.
The girl sat up and rubbed her shoulder, wincing. From inside the wall he peered at her. She was shockingly pink -- pink face, sturdy pink legs above sagging knee socks, pudgy pink hands moving about, checking her legs for injuries and pulling down her robes. Nothing so colourful had been seen inside the shack in many years. Now she clambered awkwardly to her feet, shrugging into the cloak quickly -- he supposed it must be cold -- and wrapping it tightly round her.
Her vitality caused him a stinging buzz like that of a fallen-asleep foot coming awake. He shifted and squirmed but could not escape it.
At one time he had been an astute collector of human information. He saw that her dark hair was ucombed and pushed behind her ears, with untrimmed, ragged ends. Around her nails was bloody evidence of nervous picking and chewing. Her face -- well, certainly, no one could call it handsome -- was round, with a slightly under slung jaw and, even when she felt herself unobserved, a suspicious squint in the dark eyes. Her legs, glimpsed briefly, had been bruised; she was either clumsy or the victim of rough teasing. He guessed from her size she might be a first year, although she seemed younger.
She turned in a circle, taking in the small room, then walked it, lightly touching the shredded wallpaper, the rusty nail heads, the thick dust on the table top. As she walked, her shoulders dropped and the hard line of her mouth softened into a baby pout. She returned to the single straight-backed chair, cannily leaning her weight on the seat to test it, then dropped wearily down and rubbed her face. When she looked up to take a deep breath, a few tears had muddled with the dirt from her hands.
The ghost fled into the ceiling, turned his back, and willed himself to sleep.
* * * *
His nap was restless. Like someone awakened by bad news trying to snatch a few more hours before dawn, he tossed and turned between the rafters. Some time before night, he knew the girl was gone.
He woke for the last time at daybreak. She would be back; he knew tears of relief when he saw them. He thought he could be rid of her easily, yet he passed the day in agitation, sailing round and round, examining the marks of her visit. For the first time in how long -- well, if he knew how long, he’d have the answer, wouldn’t he? -- he wondered what year it was. The shack seemed very small inside.
The cloak came over the sill in the late afternoon. This time he could hear the scrabble of her shoes on the shingles. She was ruining the leather toes, he thought with irritation. She had left the chair under the window and slithered in, rather than fell. Nevertheless she scraped her shin and used an extremely strong epithet as she wiped the blood on the hem of her robe.
The hard look was back on her face as she checked the room. No surprise that she’d been mistreated; she was such an unkempt and unattractive girl, it was like a “Pinch Me” sign on her back. Well, no concern of his. Within an hour, she’d be gone.
When she was satisfied that no one had been there, she sat, pulling her cloak tightly around her and adjusting her hat. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She poked her tangled hair behind her ears.
The dust on the table caught her eye, and she leaned forward, scribbling her forefinger in it. F-U-C-K, she wrote, and a faint smile curved her lips.
“I’ll thank you not to deface my home,” said the ghost, manifesting himself above her.
The dirty face tilted up at him, but the eyes, instead of widening in fear, narrowed angrily. Suddenly, she leaned forward and spat. The spittle hit the wall behind him and ran down.
He drifted higher, looking down his nose at her.
“That is extremely vulgar,” he said.
“Sod off,” she said.
“I’d like to point out that you have invaded my abode, not vice versa. I invite you to ‘sod off,’ if you dislike my company.”
“You sod off. You don’t own this place.” She sounded slightly unsure of this, however.
“I own it by rights of being able to curse you bloody. Would you like to try me?”
“Eh, you don’t scare me,” she said. “You’re dead.” She continued playing in the dust, adding B-I-T-C-H to the decoration of the table top.
In truth, although he remembered his curses and spells, the ghost was not inclined to make his first essay before a hostile audience. The intense, painful itching in his spectral body, seemingly in response to her breathing and circulation, made it hard not to wiggle or scratch.
He hadn’t imagined that this confrontation would involve conversation. By now she was supposed to be tumbling out the window, hopefully breaking her arm in the process. Instead, she sat dabbling her fingers in the dust and defying him. It had to stop.
He darted down and yanked the chair from under her, dumping her on the mouse-littered floor.
“You prick!” she yelled. Staring at him measuringly, she gave a long, high-pitched scream, like an alarm whistle. It ran through his head like a skewer. Then another, and another.
“Stop it. Stop it!”
She stopped, panting triumphantly, face flushed. The ghost gazed at her, awash in dismay. She wasn’t afraid at all.
Pulling his tattered dignity around him, he faded, with an imperious look, into the wall.
* * * * *
Early the next morning, he made a few practice runs, hexing earwigs under the damp wallpaper and the few hardy spiders still about. He was ready with a Body Bind curse as she came through the window.
From the chair, she continued onto the floor with a thump. She made one attempt to rise, then lay quietly, eyes darting about the room. He saw that she had been in this situation before and was mustering her defences against a further attack.
He manifested next to her, looking down grimly.
“Now, will you leave me alone?”
Her reply was to roll onto her side and spit at him.
“Never use the same attack twice,” he said. “For God’s sake, one that didn’t even work the first time!”
“Piss off, dead man,” she said.
So he cursed her.
The Pustulous Pox are frightening as well as painful, what with the pus dripping into the eyes, and the crusty red rings on the hands and arms. But she lay still, only her rapid breathing and the brightness of her eyes betraying her.
“Will you leave me alone?” he said.
She closed her eyes.
The ghost had given plenty of thought to strategy in the preceding day; he must conquer her by fear. He could not kill or even damage her. Were she to appear, say, missing a limb or covered in gore, the staff would take notice, get the story out of her and before he could blink, his home would be torn down and he’d be living in a hollow tree.
“What is your name?” he demanded. She opened her eyes and rubbed a drop of pus from her nose onto her shoulder.
“Emma,” she said. “What’s yours?”
He answered despite himself.
“S -- Sss --” He had thought he knew, but couldn’t bring it to mind.
“Ya git, ya don’t even know your own name.”
“Sss -- SNAPE!” With the word, a rush of life and colour filled him so quickly that he floated to the ceiling and bobbed there, like a balloon.
Hogwarts for the first time from the rocking boat, its warm yellow windows casting spangles on the black water. He had been so frightened, although he hadn’t known it. And Lily was in the boat behind; he had wanted to turn and look, but hadn’t dared.
Lily coming up to him after class, a girl in tow, but he wouldn’t speak to her, wouldn’t be passed off to another friend or countenance her having one. Longing to stay, but turning his head with a sneer and walking away.
Watching Lily in the corridor with James Potter, a glance of shared humour passing between them, Lily leaning against the wall, her books in her arms. The burning in his stomach that sent him hurrying to the loo.
The night Lily married James. He had gotten drunk, a rarity, and awakened on the floor the next morning in his small flat, almost glad of the physical misery that took his mind off the meaning of the day.
Lily. He hadn’t forgotten her, precisely, but put her memory aside. Now it returned, and he braced himself.
The expected anguish never came. It was sad, really. What would he have done if she had returned his love? Spoil everything, surely. She had been right to refuse him. What a waste his life had been.
He remembered he was on the ceiling and glanced down. Emma lay on the floor, watching him with flat eyes.
“Finite incantatem,” he murmured, coming down again. Only a slight settling of her body showed that the Body Bind had been removed. The sores closed, leaving some fading blotches. He knew from experience that these itched terribly, but she did not scratch.
“Yer a real arsehole, ya know that, Snake?” she said, conversationally.
“And you are an ignorant, coarse little guttersnipe. Your language is abominable and weak. Get off the floor; your hair is sweeping up dust.”
“It’s dirty anyway,” she said.
“Why don’t you clean it, little fool?”
“Don’t like the bath, do I?”
“They wait for you there, then. I suppose they’ve put your head in the loo.”
Her mouth tightened silently.
“Who’s the ringleader?” he asked.
“It won’t stop until you make her afraid of you. Can you do a Mock Fleas curse?”
“You need to embarrass her into silence but she has to know you did it. The Indigestion curse is too mild, but Pustulous Pox will call too much attention. What curses do you know?”
“I’ll kick her bloody arse,” she muttered.
“Please. You are a witch, however unpromising. Answer me. What curses do you know?”
Emma remained silent.
“You don’t know any, do you?” She glared at him. “Don’t spit, for Merlin’s sake.” He took a deep breath, airless, but calming nonetheless. “All right, I suppose it’s normal for a first year to be ignorant of curses. We’ll start with Jellylegs. Get out your wand.”
Emma clambered to her feet, staring at him suspiciously. Her wand was tucked nicely into her sleeve, he noticed, and she had a neat way of getting it into her hand. Not so clumsy then, at least in terms of dexterity.
Within an hour he had showed her the proper wand movement and given her the incantation. The interior work, the means of harnessing her anger to give power to her intention, was more complex and best left for another day.
“Go home now, I’m tired,” he said peremptorily and sank into the wall for a rest. He was asleep before she left.
* * * * *
The sullen face that popped over the sill next day gave no indication that there had been something of a détente. She hauled herself inside by the usual method, scraping herself, as usual, on the window frame.
“Shit,” she said, sitting on the chair and applying spit to the scratch.
“Let me tell you, right off, that I despise children. You will do well to behave as maturely as possible, so as not to annoy me. And my name is Professor Snape, not Snake.”
“Right, well I hate fuckhead ghosts, so we’re in the same bin, right, Snake?”
He sighed. It was well within his power to put her in her place, but it seemed like too much work.
This seemed like a good time to resume his lesson on the Jellylegs Curse.
* * * * *
Outside the shack, a cold wind whipped brown leaves up against a low, grey sky. She hadn’t been by yesterday. He supposed it was a detention or some unavoidable work. Or maybe she’d found another, warmer, hiding place within the castle. It would have been easy to place a warming spell on the shack; why hadn’t he thought of it?
Then he heard her scrabbling on the shingles, and his mood lifted. He cast the warming spell quickly.
“Oi, Snape,” she said, as she wriggled in and caught herself on the chair. She managed without hurting herself.
“Get out your wand,” he said. “We’re going to complete the Jellylegs and go on to Body Bind.”
She paused, glancing around, registering the warmth with a grunt, then unwrapped her scarf and threw it on the table.
He no longer had painful prickles and itches when she appeared. He felt good, like a dog who has been given a job to do. He would have been equally content, he reflected, herding sheep into a pen.
They worked at the Body Bind Curse for a long while, forgetting themselves. She saw how it was built on the Jellylegs but took more emphasis. There was something wrong with the snap of her wrist, though. Snape drifted down to show her the proper movement, carelessly allowing his arm to inhabit the same space as hers.
“Gerroff!” she growled, attempting to push him. “Yer giving me the fucking chills with yer dead arm.”
“Oh, stop acting the chav,” he snapped, drifting away. “I know perfectly well that you are from a decent wizarding family. Your nasty language doesn’t fool me for a minute.”
She turned on him, hissing. “Spying! You been spying on me.”
“I don’t need to spy. I can deduce, without leaving this room. Look at the quality of these robes; they are lambs wool and cashmere, and I’ll bet you a galleon they came from Madame Malkin’s. True, that they are dirty and wrinkled, but that has to do with your filthy habits. I don’t suppose you ever hang anything, or clean it. Your parents bought your wand for you just months ago at Ollivander’s, and it’s unscratched because you never practice with it. So please don’t play the lower-class yob with me.”
“House-elf,” she said. “The house-elf took me.”
“I suppose your parents are ashamed to be seen with you, the way you act.” He had a faint, guilty sense of piling on.
“Just my dad. My mom’s gone. Telly gets my things. I haven’t a brother or sister, either. I only have a house-elf to take care of me.” Her voice quavered convincingly, but he caught the calculation in her eye.
“Quite a pathetic story. You’re hardly the only orphan in the world, however. Only, perhaps, the most incompetent one. Now, come over here and learn this spell.”
“Fuck off, ghost.”
“Right, now pick up your wand.”
She gave him a cold stare to match his own.
“Teach me Pustulous Pox.”
“No,” he said. “You’re not ready.”
“Fine,” she said, settling herself in the chair and crossing her legs.
“How dare you try to manipulate me.”
She shrugged and scratched at the table with the stem of a leaf. He left her there and went up to the ceiling for a rest.
The wind whistled through the cracks in the walls. Her chair creaked. After some time, she yawned and took out her wand.
“All right,” she said. He floated down.
“We haven’t time for a practicum,” he said evenly. “I’ll give you the theory of the Body Bind, but for the rest, you’ll have to wait.”
She drew a breath to argue, but stopped at a warning look from him.
“Take this down,” he said, transfiguring a piece of parchment from her leaf.
* * * * *
Naturally, curses don’t work on ghosts, because they are incorporeal, but he was pleased that she tried. Wand and eyes appeared at the window simultaneously. She had marked his favorite spot in the wall. Luckily, he was in the ceiling at the time.
“Nicely done,” he said, manifesting. “But don’t try it again if you wish to learn more curses. And if it had worked, had you given any thought to how you would free me, once I was in a Body Bind and unable to instruct you?”
“Bugger,” she said, scowling. She hated to be caught out or corrected.
“Language,” he said. “And I did say ‘Nicely done.’”
She nodded. “Teach me Pustulous Pox.”
“You need to try out the ones you know on a human subject.” There was that devilish smile. “No. Not your worst enemy. Someone small, an annoyance.” She nodded again. “All right then, we’ll start work on the Pox, but I won’t finish it with you until you’ve practiced at school.”
The next day, her smile was positively feral.
“I did the Jellylegs! On this obnoxious boy Fritz Firebox that everyone hates, who always stands up close and talks too loud. He wouldn’t leave me alone, but I didn’t do it when he was bothering me. I waited till he was bothering Phoebe Black and I kept my wand in my sleeve, and it worked great! Man, he was all over the place; he had to go to Madam Rossignol.”
“Totally! Totally satisfying. I’m going to practice it a lot.”
“Infrequently, please. If it becomes known that the Jellylegs Curse happens repeatedly in your presence, you will lose the virtue of surprise, and you will find that your enemies have acquired the counter-curse before you have even used it on them.”
She narrowed her eyes in comprehension.
* * * * *
November passed with dripping fog. December arrived with brilliant skies and blustery wind. Emma came in the window with a dusting of snow on her hair that changed instantly to a net of glistening drops. Just before the Christmas hols, he transfigured the planks that lay on the ground into two sets of steps, one up to the window from the ground, and one down to the floor, inside.
“You better put it back,” she said uneasily. “Someone will see.”
“They’re covered by a glamour, of course. Just as the window appears to be boarded up. You didn’t think I’d open my home to every little beast who finds her way here did you?”
It occurred to him later to wonder why she had not been deceived by the glamour. Perhaps for the same reason that she, and no one else, had been able to pry off the boards.
She went home for the holidays. Snape tried to sleep more. He watched the snow that drifted through the open window and piled against the table legs. On Christmas Eve, for the first time in many years, he looked out the window. Hogsmeade was a sentimental picture of glowing street lamps, snow-capped buildings and last-minute shoppers with their arms full of parcels. The door to the Three Broomsticks opened, spilling laughing celebrants into the street.
On New Year’s Eve, he heard firecrackers and church bells. He remembered a night in his parents’ house, hiding in his room while his drunken father fell over a chair, then tipped over the table in a rage.
The Hogwarts Express arrived on a clear, cold late-afternoon. He was pleased that he had lost track of the days. If he listened, he could just hear the voices of the students disembarking. He hadn’t noticed that before.
He didn’t expect the girl to come by that night; she’d be tired from the trip, and it was almost dark when they went up to the castle. He gave some thought to her progress on the Pustulous Pox curse. Her anger was too wild; it overtook her and she lost control. There was a reason that younger students were inconsistently successful with curses.
She came through the window the following afternoon. There were actual bits in her tangled hair -- straw, a pink thread, a shred of silver paper -- and her lips were chapped and cracked. Her nails were bitten to stubs and outlined in blood. She dropped into the chair without taking off her cloak.
Snape stayed in the wall for several minutes, appraising the situation, then he stepped out right in front of her and cleared his throat. She kept her eyes on the floor.
“I’ve been considering your progress on the Pustulous Pox, and I feel that Legilimens will afford you the quickest results.”
She gave him an apathetic glance.
“Your power would be significantly increased by some minor instruction I might best impart in that fashion.”
“Yer not getting into my mind, if that’s what you mean,” she answered.
He had thought she would be pleased that he had made plans for her individual instructional needs while she was away.
“I’m offering you a very simple and easy way to gain power.”
“No,” she said, pulling her cloak tighter around her, although the room was surely warm enough.
“What, exactly, are your objections?”
“I fucking said no, dead man. I don’t have to give ‘my objections’ if I don’t want some corpse putting his dead feelers into my brain.”
He almost hexed her right there. He had his wand out and the Zippermouth Curse on his lips when he caught himself short: bad example of anger management. Instead, he turned his back and vanished into the wall, where he silently fumed and mentally berated her. He refused to turn around. Gradually, he calmed down. He was, after all, the adult here; he must set an example. He needed to approach her with sensitivity and understanding if he wanted her cooperation.
He returned to the room. She was slumped in the chair, chin on chest. He noted that her boots were soaked.
Trying again, he said, “You seem to be in a hostile mood. Perhaps your holiday was a disappointment? If so, I suggest that you get over it and we return to our work.”
With a shout of fury, Emma was up and turning the table over. Practically at the same moment, he had hurled Iaculator Lamniarum. Thirty daggers pinned her to the floorboards. She was lucky it wasn’t Sectumsempra. He stood over her, wand pointing at her throat.
“Don’t you ever, ever throw a tantrum around me! Don’t you ever! I’ll cut you into strips and bury you under this heap! Don’t you ever!”
“I hate you!” she shouted. “I hate your dead guts! Go to Hell, where you belong!”
He had raised his wand, and was casting about for a painful curse that would leave her unmarked, when she burst into tears.
“Go on to Hell,” she sobbed. “Why are you still here, anyway?”
Her crying was horrible. Her face was a like crumpled mass of red, shiny paper, her mouth a howling cavern. Tears streamed into her ears. For a moment he considered a silencing spell, but all the steam had gone out of him.
“Why don’t you go?” she wept.
“Finite incantatem.” The knives clattered to the floor. He lowered his wand. He felt ashamed. “All right. Stop crying. Stop crying.”
Free to move, she curled away from him, hiding her face. Her hiccupping, gasping attempts to restrain her sobs were also horrible.
“I said, stop crying.”
It really was too much. He couldn’t be expected to deal with this. He had never comforted a crying child and it was too late to learn. He fled into the wall and covered his ears.
In time, her noises slowed and then stopped, except for an occasional quivering breath. He passed invisibly to the other side to inspect her. She stared at the stained wallpaper vacantly, her face a plodgy mask of exhausted energy.
He came back and sat on the chair, arms and legs crossed. He didn’t really need to sit, of course, but he found that, in Emma’s company, he adopted the gestures of the living. She still had her back to him; he turned sideways to her and addressed the wall.
“Look,” he said. “You’re not the only person with a brutal home life. No one cares, including me. Grow up and take care of yourself. You’re -- you’re an intelligent person. Learn to control yourself.”
The shack was silent, except for her breathing and the creaking of the frame in the January wind.
She stirred and sat up. He had never seen her look so awful -- snotty and swollen and dirty, with leaves and cobwebs in her hair and on her cloak.
“Then,” he said, “you can grind them into dust.”
That seemed enough for her. She nodded and rose awkwardly, wiping her nose on her sleeve. The floor was still strewn with daggers, which Snape vanished with a wave. He righted the table.
They didn’t look at each other. She went to the window and gazed out; he remained in the chair. After a while, she took off her cloak, shook it out and hung it on a nail. She scrubbed her face with her robe and pushed her hair back.
“What are you in for?”
“What are you, an American gangster? I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re dead, right? So, what kept you here? I see your wound,” she said, shyly. “It was murder, then, right?”
“You don’t know who I am?”
“What is the year?”
He groaned. It wasn’t that he had any specific idea, but still! Nineteen years had passed.
“I was a teacher here. I got in with some bad company, trusted the wrong people. One of them killed me.”
She nodded thoughtfully, satisfied.
“My mother might be dead,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“She went off?” he asked. She nodded again. Snape shrugged.
“Fuck ‘er,” Emma said.
Outside, twilight was falling, painting the snow blue. Inside, it was quiet. Snape had the strange sensation that he could feel the warming spell; it must be the way the girl moved slowly, meditatively, around the room. She was comfortable, that was it.
“I’d better go,” she said.
“Then go,” he said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. Snape didn’t answer, but disappeared.
In February, she mastered the Body Bind, the Pustulous Pox, the Pig Tail, the Mock Fleas and the Pernicious Dandruff. Some impediment seemed to have been removed; she built steadily, strength on strength. He taught her a few nonfatal curses of his own invention.
It was mid-March when she popped through the window with a jaunty air and felt delicately for the step with her foot. She had to duck to pass through; she had grown taller. She was wearing Slytherin ribbons, green and silver, at the tops of her socks.
“Hey, Snape. You won’t believe it.”
“If I won’t believe it, you might save your breath telling me about it,” he said, manifesting in front of her.
“I did it. I cast Double Mock Fleas on Dahlia Parkinson. She scratched and scratched. She knew it was me, too, because yesterday she tripped me and I said I’d get her back. You wouldn’t believe it; she cried! She had to ask me to call it off.” She smiled her devilish smile.
“Mm. Now make her your friend,” he instructed.
“No! I hate that bi -- little beast,” she said.
“I didn’t say you should like her. You may continue to hate her. But make her choose whether you will be an ally, or a constant threat. If you are of use, then she must be of use to you, as well.”
Emma sat quietly, nodding a bit. He liked her at these times, when he could see the wheels turning in her mind. She was quite an apt student. Rewarding, even. He hadn’t noticed, at first, that she had beautiful eyes, golden hazel with green specks, most evident when she was thinking hard and turned them up.
After a few silent minutes, she nodded again, to herself.
“You know that Iacio Lamnias? The daggers one? Teach me that.” She had heard it just once, and in a state of high emotion, but she remembered the incantation.
One day she came in with mud on her shoes and he realized that the warming spell was no longer necessary. Her winter robes were gone, replaced by spring green or sky blue ones. They were becoming to her pale skin and dark hair; he wondered if her mother had bought them before she did a bunk, or if the house-elf had a good eye for colour. She had almost two dozen curses in her repertoire, as well as counter-curses and some other useful matters he thought would not appear on the curriculum.
As the weather softened, rock doves returned to their preferred places under the eaves. Their soft cooing and shuffling filled the shack, and the occasional feather drifted through the dusty light. Emma skipped a few days.
When she reappeared, he did not come out.
“Snape?” she called. He stayed in the wall. She looked around suspiciously, walking the small room.
“Snape?” She went to his favorite place in the wall and knocked. When he did not reply, she scratched lightly with her fingernails.
“Do you imagine that you will progress adequately without consistent application?” he asked from his hiding place.
She shrugged. “I have things to do.”
“I suppose you feel that you are practically a Dark Wizard? That no one dare offend you, you are so powerful?”
“It’s Griffindor-Slytherin for the Quidditch Cup,” she said. “I went to the game.”
She did have a healthy glow. He felt a flash of envy. Once, he had attended Quidditch games, cheered in the stands, peeked at the girl he loved and felt the vicarious rush of victory. He had been living, once.
“Who is leading?” he asked, manifesting behind her.
“Slytherin,” she said, turning. “I had to go.”
“All right,” he said. “Get out your wand.”
Spring was almost summer. Snape looked out the window and saw the black shadows of the Forbidden Forest screened by fresh green leaves. It would almost be time for the Leaving Feast, then.
Her steps were heavier than usual -- not that he listened. She appeared in the window holding a large, leather-bound book in her clean, smooth hands.
“Hey, I got you something,” she announced. “As a Leaving present.”
“I hardly think a spectre is in need of possessions.”
She looked at him with amusement. “You haven’t seen it. And I pinched it myself. From Madam Pinch.” She chuckled at her own pun.
She laid it on the table and opened it: Headmasters of Hogwarts: a Pictorial Gallery. It was made of good-quality plates, with short legends on the facing pages. There was serene Dilys Derwent by a window, her silver ringlets shining in the light; the scowling Phineas Nigellus Black and Armando Dippet, who smiled weakly and waved the tips of his fingers. Minerva McGonagall, in a tartan shawl, nodded briskly.
“Went too far.” She paged back. “There. That’s you, innit?”
“Isn’t it,” he corrected.
He couldn’t resist looking, then floating down to sit, occupying the chair with her, which she no longer seemed to mind. God, he was an ugly bastard in life. He supposed he made an ugly ghost, as well.
The cold-eyed figure in the picture drew itself up and sneered as he leaned forward. Had he really been so energetic in his disdain? Now, it hardly seemed worth the trouble.
“I know who you are,” she said. She moved the tissue interleaving and pointed to the words, “under-celebrated hero-spy of the Death Eater Period.”
“Phoebe and I saw your picture in the Headmaster’s office, too. Sibley -- Professor Sibley -- caught us out of bed and we got sent for discipline. He’s not easy on his own house, you know.”
“Perhaps he punished you for getting caught.”
“Huh.” She nodded consideringly. “Maybe.”
They paged through the book a while longer.
“So, I’ve got to pack,” she said. “Don’t have much time before the Feast.” She was already heading toward the window. “Take care of yourself, Snape.” She didn’t wait to hear his goodbye, if there was to be one. She sat on the sill, swivelled around and was gone.
Heartless. Of course, she was completely heartless. She hadn’t given a thought to him, penned up in this box day after day. She had made use of him and now she was done.
After she left, the shack seemed dark and empty. He kept busy, floating around for hours, rearranging the chair and table, cleaning up scraps of wallpaper. What an idiot he’d been, to become interested in a living person. It would be a long, painful piece of work to regain his former equanimity.
He wondered if Emma was at the Feast yet, and if she was sitting with Phoebe Black.
He leafed through Headmasters of Hogwarts again, stopping at Dumbledore’s portrait. Twinkling as usual. Albus raised his white brows. Go on, he mouthed. Snape looked carefully. Yes, again, Go on. It made no sense.
As he drifted to the ceiling to rest, he noticed a change in the interior light. Looking about for the source, he found the door to the shack open. Outside he saw, not the back alleys of Hogsmeade, but a soft, green summer day, with the sound of a river splashing against its banks and congenial voices. A young woman laughed, carefree.
And then a voice, unknown but inviting.
“Are you coming?” it called.
Snape remained still, gazing raptly at the scene outside. The people were gathering on the bank. One sat in the boat and took the oars. The wondrous thing was his sense that he belonged there. These were his people.
“Severus, are you coming?” it called again. He nodded eagerly.
He glanced around at the shack. All was still and grey. Then he passed through the door, into the world beyond.
Many thanks to my assiduous betas, Delphi and K_Haldane, to Junediamanti for advice on British swearing, and to Amorette, from whom I stole the admonition “Language.” Written for the Snape_After_DH community.