STAVE III: The Second of the Three Spirits
Severus slowly opened his eyes, startled to learn he'd fallen asleep. He had no way of judging how long he'd dropped off, and as he sat up and tried to focus on the view outside the window, he became aware of a hint of light that allowed him to see better in the darkening room.
He turned to find the source of the light; it seemed to be coming from down the hallway. He followed the light to what was once optimistically called a sitting room. Just before his fingers clasped around the handle of its door, he hesitated. He thought he heard laughter, a great, booming voice chuckling as if its owner hadn't a care in the world.
Severus drew in a fortifying breath, forced his fingers to stop shaking, then bravely opened the door to face his demons.
The light was almost blinding him. He squinted against it, holding his hand up to defend his eyes against the luminous attack.
"Come in, and know me better, Sev'rus!" the voice boomed in good cheer.
As his eyes slowly adjusted to the light, Severus moved closer. He felt the heat of the fire in the grate--a flame that looked even larger than the grate itself--and the smell of various savory foods assailed his nostrils. He looked around the room and saw tables laden with roast turkey, sausages, duck, pheasant under glass, bowls filled with mashed potatoes, sweet yams, apples, oranges, bananas, steaming heaps of puddings, treacle, mugs and steins filled to the brims with pumpkin juice, wines, brandies, coffee, and tea.
Sitting in the midst of it all was Hagrid. Though not a small wizard, his size now threatened to upset the foundation of the rooms, and Severus was surprised to find he could still traverse the space between the doorway and the floor cushions the huge wizard was sitting upon. He moved closer, unsure if all this seeming good will was an illusion, or if he truly need not fear the meeting.
"S' down, and know me better, Sev'rus!"
"I know you quite well, Hagrid," he answered stiffly. "It's...ah...good to see you. What brings you here at this time of night?" If he could treat this as a mere social call, he could quiet the beating of his nervous heart.
"Think o' me as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It's my task to show yer the world around yeh, Sev'rus," Hagrid said in his gruff, friendly voice. "To show yer the things yer refuse to see."
"Why do you appear larger than you are in reality?"
"My size fits my needs," came the cryptic answer. "Though yer consider yerself aware o' the state o' things, there's still things yer refuse to take seriously. Yer've become so bottled up in yer own life and its challenges, yeh've forgotten the world a' large."
"I was never allowed to forget," he argued, his voice waspish. "Albus was always going on about the Greater Good, how the world needed to be a better place."
"But because he din't say anythin' ya wanted to hear, yeh've only gone through the motions. Now it's time yeh saw for yerself, through yer own eyes, what yer've been missin' all this time. Take hold of my robes and we'll be off. I haven' much time."
Any argument would be futile, Severus knew, and he would sooner face his troubles than put them off. Severus reached out and grabbed hold of the furry robes Hagrid wore, and watched as the food and fire swirled around his eyes before it disappeared. When he could focus once more, his eyes beheld a sorry-looking edifice, alone on a large area of land. Looking about, he saw a few pigs pushing against each other, looking for the most comfortable spot in which to sleep, and he could see a small structure near the pen, the soft noises from within telling Snape it was a chicken coop.
The house which he and Hagrid were approaching was at best, ramshackle, and at worse, too late to be condemned. Fervently hoping Hagrid didn't expect him to enter the questionable abode, he veered off to the side to peer into a window instead. He wiped off the late night condensation from the glass, then pressed his prominent nose against it.
The interior was dim, but not so much that Severus couldn't see it was a kitchen. He saw a long table taking up the middle space, with several mismatched chairs around it. There were two people sitting there, and as he strained his eyes to make out their features, Hagrid's huge hand came down on his shoulder.
"They'll not see yer, Sev'rus," he said in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. "These're only shadows we're seein'. Let's go in and poke 'round."
So saying, the two suddenly materialized inside, and Severus saw Arthur and Molly Weasley sharing tea. The silence in the house was almost palpable, save for the sound of Molly's spoon scraping against the bottom of her teacup as she stirred.
Severus glanced at Hagrid, frowning. "How is it you're no bigger than I, all of a sudden?"
"My size fits my needs," he repeated, nodding toward the Weasleys. Severus followed his gaze, wondering why the pair of them weren't upstairs, fast asleep. Just then, Arthur's voice broke the silence.
"Molly, it's the season of hope," he assured her. "Something will break, don't you worry. Everything will be alright."
Molly took the spoon from her cup and let it drop to the table. "She just stares up at the ceiling, Arthur. She doesn't sleep; she doesn't eat...she barely blinks! Where has my baby gone? What horrible spell has been cast on her? Who would do such a thing?"
"Now, Molly, we don't know that anyone is responsible for this. Until we know what's wrong with her, there's no point in trying to find someone to blame."
"But what are we to do, Arthur? Are we to celebrate Christmas with her lying up there, unaware of her family around her? She doesn't even know me..." Molly broke down and began crying, her hands coming up to cover her face. Arthur leaned in, hugging her, smoothing his hands over her hair, shushing her, trying to keep her from waking up the rest of the family.
Severus leaned in toward Hagrid. "Why did you bring me here, Hagrid? Did you think I could wave my wand and make it all better? Brew a potion that would make everything alright again?"
Instead of replying, Hagrid held Severus' arm, and an instant later, they were inside a small bedroom. Severus wandered nearer the bed, and recognized Ginny Weasley as she lay there, unmoving, eyes wide open and staring upward. He looked back at Hagrid.
"She's been like this fer three weeks now," Hagrid said. "No one knows why, or how, or who did it. She won' eat...she don' sleep. She won' last much longer."
"But...surely something can be done? St. Mungo's? Home remedies?"
"Well, nothin's worked so far. Still, if she's got to die, she should do it, and decrease the surplus population."
Severus lowered his eyes to the floor, knowing he couldn't berate Hagrid for using his own words against him. Glancing once again at the lifeless body in the bed, he looked back at Hagrid. "Tell me...is her death inevitable? Won't she survive this? Aside from a few wisely chosen hexes in clear-cut cases of self-defense, she's never hurt a soul. She doesn't deserve..." His words trailed off as Hagrid shook his head.
"All I can see ahead is this empty bed, and all I can hear is Molly's cries," he said. "If those images appear in the future, yeh'll have yer answer." He waved his umbrella over the catatonic young girl, and Severus followed him from the room.
Hagrid gestured for Severus to follow him outside. When the cool air of the night touched them, Hagrid turned and waved an umbrella toward the door they'd just exited. Severus watched as twinkling lights left the umbrella's tip, then sprayed outward until much of the door was covered with them. After a moment, the lights faded, leaving the door as if unmolested, looking as if it wouldn't keep out a draught, let alone anyone who wished to threaten the security of the home.
Hagrid grabbed Severus' arm, lifting him into the night, and The Burrow faded away beneath them.
Higher and higher they rose, and just before vertigo threatened to hit, Severus found his feet firmly on the ground, or rather the floor. Looking at this new scene before him, he saw the staff lounge on Hogwarts' third floor, and Minerva, Rolanda, Filius, and Filch were sitting on assorted chairs around the fireplace, chatting over tea and scones.
"It wouldn't have cost him a minute of his time," Minerva was saying. "All he had to do was give me the go-ahead, and I'd have done all the work. Merlin knows, we certainly could have used it this year especially."
"Well, maybe I see his reasoning," Filch said. "Things like that take lots of planning, for us here at the school, and for them what's planning to attend the blasted thing. The silly girls want to buy the prettiest dresses and put all that paint on their faces, and the boys want to build up the nerve to ask those same silly girls to go with 'em."
"Honestly, Argus," Rolanda broke in. "You act like you've never been a boy. Of course that's what they'd do, and it's a big part of growing up. It's like a coming of age rite or something. The girls get silly, and the boys get nervous."
"Yeah, but it also takes a lot for the rest of us, you know. Snape's already busy with trying to keep this school running, what with all that Death Eater nonsense going on now. Last thing he needs is to be saddled with keepin' them kids secure while they think of nothin' but whether or not they can get away with spikin' the punch and pinchin' a pretty bum."
"I knew you'd take his side," shot Minerva. "You two huddle together like rain and fog, always trying to upset other people's good times."
"Now, don't go getting off on your high horse, Minerva," replied Filch. "You know he's too busy keeping the Carrows at bay--I don't know why he tries so hard--and keeping these kids in school. Not all of us see this Yule Ball as anything important, compared to what's happening outside these walls."
"True, true, I haven't forgotten what faces us all," she said defensively. "Which is why I think it's so important we have this Ball. These are children, Argus, and they need a break from all the stress. Some are missing their loved ones, especially at this time of year, and the least we can do is act as their families, if only to make the day special for them."
Severus looked at Hagrid incredulously. "You brought me here for this? How can a simple dance be so all-important that I've had to give up a precious hour of sleep? What lesson am I to learn from this?"
Hagrid beamed, as if Severus had said something brilliant. Instead of answering, he waved his umbrella over the group, then turned and beckoned Severus to follow him out the door. Instead of seeing the hallway outside the staff lounge, he saw grey, crumbling walls, and he could hear the dripping of water off in the distance. He jumped, startled, as a large rat scuttled past them, ducking into a narrow crack in the wall ahead.
They were in Azkaban.
Though he knew these were shadows, images of places, he still felt the energy of his will ebbing from him. Dementors were still in attendance here, and he didn't have to see them to know they were near. Hagrid ushered him to a hallway to their left, and Severus glanced in the cells they passed.
Surprisingly, he heard singing.
At least six of the prisoners were lounging on their beds, smiling softly as they shared Christmas carols, which harmonized nicely as the echoes bounced up and down the dismal hall. When one prisoner got the words wrong, there was good-natured laughing and razzing as they took it up again. All the while, Hagrid shook his umbrella, sending the twinkling lights to each cell.
"What is that you're doing, Hagrid?"
"'Tis Christmas cheer, Sev'rus." His bushy brown hair was greying, Severus noticed. When had that begun to happen? "Mind you, it only works this well a' this time o' year, but it's strong enough to overcome the dismal atmosphere o' the bloody dementors."
They turned another corner, and Severus found himself in an open field, where several campfires, or more likely, bluebell flames, were lit here and there. He counted twelve separate fires, and in the flickering light, he made out the grotesque features of house-elves. He recognized some of them from their service at Hogwarts, but he also saw there were many more he'd never seen before, and of various ages, from tiny, childlike elves to bent, grizzled, elderly elves.
"What are they doing out here?" he asked Hagrid. "Have they left the castle?"
"Even lowly house-elves celebrate the biggest holiday o' the year," Hagrid answered. "This is the one time of year they can see their kin." He swung his huge arm out in a sweeping arc, and Severus watched as the tiny, twinkling lights shot out of his umbrella and spread out until they descended over the groups clustered around the campfires, where they slowly faded out. He could hear the soft chattering of the elves amongst each other, and watched as the little ones nestled closer to their elders, snuggling up against what must be their mothers.
Before Severus could eavesdrop on any of the conversations, he felt a wave of dizziness as Hagrid pulled him into another setting. Here there were mountains, a large valley, and several dangerous-looking crevices he hoped Hagrid had the foresight not to lead him into.
He heard a rumbling, groaning, and quaking roar in the distance, and Hagrid handed him a pair of binoculars. Looking through them, he could make out moving shapes; it seemed the noise was coming from them.
"I won' take yer any closer," Hagrid said, "on accoun'of them bein' so skittish-like."
"I thought you said these were only shadows, and we were invisible to them."
"Giants are a lot more perceptive than yer seem to think. Bein' I'm one o' 'em, they'd know I was here before we got close." He held up his umbrella like a snooker cue, and with a quick motion, shot a bright streak of the twinkling lights over to the giants. The distant roaring faded down to indistinct grumblings, and Hagrid turned to leave, almost lifting Severus from his feet to follow. "I know yer don' think o' giants as havin' sense," he said as the wind whipped past Severus, "but even they know how to keep the season. Yeh could learn a lot from those lesser than yeh."
Before he could protest Hagrid's rougher treatment of his person, he found himself surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and a stately house looming up before him. He turned to look at Hagrid, to ask why he'd brought him to Malfoy Manor, and was shocked to see that Hagrid's hair and beard were now completely white.
Hagrid gestured for him to enter the house, and Severus did so, following the sound of voices to the sitting room. Inside, he found Lucius and Narcissa dancing to music only the two could hear, and Draco chatting with several of his friends from Hogwarts. Pansy Parkinson clung to his side, and he approached them to see what was putting Draco in so cheerful a mood.
"Bigger than a breadbox, but smaller than a building? I know it's some sort of animal, but does it fly, swim, or crawl?"
"It has been known to fly, can probably swim if pressed, and in spite of certain beliefs, never crawls. Not in his heart, anyway."
"I know!" exclaimed Pansy. "It's a bat!"
"Bats can't swim, you ninny," Blaise Zabini jeered. "And it's my turn. Now then, Draco, does it prey on live animals, or is it a scavenger?"
"Though greatly misunderstood, it preys on nothing. And it is definitely not a scavenger."
"Well, then it has to be human," calculated Millicent Bulstrode. "But who?"
Draco grinned as Pansy jumped up and down. "I know, I know! It's Snape! Right?"
Draco laughed as he proclaimed Pansy the winner. "I knew you'd get it, Pansy. You always seem to know what I'm thinking."
"I think she got it right the first time," Millicent said broodingly. "He's a bat."
Draco sighed. "Like I said, he's misunderstood."
Lucius had unhanded Narcissa long enough to allow her to leave the room, most likely to find a house-elf to replenish their food and drink, and he approached the group at the fireplace. Severus watched, still stinging from the comments made about him, as Lucius pulled Draco aside. He leaned closer to them, wanting to know what Lucius would say to his son.
"What are you going on about, Draco? What's all this about Snape and crawling?"
"We were only playing twenty questions, Father. What's the problem?"
"Because if our house guest should overhear you mocking one of his favorite followers, or hear you imply that any of his followers do not crawl, he'd be just upset enough to prove to all of us that we do, in fact, crawl. What's gotten into you?"
"It was just a harmless game, Father, and I'm sure our lord wouldn't waste his energy eavesdropping on pointless conversations among school children."
"Never, never, try to guess what he would or would not do!" Lucius admonished. "His actions lately have surprised even those of us who have known him all these years. Aren't we in trouble enough?"
"I'm sorry, Father," Draco said contritely. "You know I wouldn't do anything to bring his wrath down on us."
Lucius glared at Draco a moment longer, then let out his breath in a sigh, patting Draco's shoulder comfortingly. "It can't go on forever, Draco. Something will save us all soon. I just know it."
Draco nodded, but Severus could see the boy didn't believe his father's words. He watched as Lucius left the room, and he saw Draco's cheerful mask fall away, revealing the countenance Severus had seen all this past year. Then, visibly shrugging off the mood, Draco pasted a smile on his face once again, and turned back to his friends.
He'd forgotten Hagrid, until the half-giant dusted the Malfoys' sitting room and all its occupants with his magical dust. Severus wordlessly followed him outside.
Once at the front gates, he turned to Hagrid. "Why did you spread your...your good cheer to people who are doing everything in their power to fight you? You're a member of the Order; surely you of all people wouldn't have wasted the lights."
"I'm the Ghost o' Christmas Present," Hagrid reminded him. "Tonight, I'm not an Order member, nor a Keeper of the Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts, nor a Professor of Care of Magical Creatures. I sprinkle the lights on all who need it. And some--" He looked back at the manor. "--some need it more than others, I reckon."
He pushed through the gates, walking more slowly, and slightly bent over. Severus noticed something odd about his robes, and when he looked down at the ground, it seemed Hagrid had sprouted extra feet.
"Hagrid," he said, putting his hand on the half-giant's arm to stop him. "What's under your robes? You seem to have acquired a few stowaways."
Hagrid turned to face him. He pulled open his robes, revealing two quivering and cowering shapes, who were gripping his trousers tightly. "This here is Ignorance," he said, indicating the female-ish gnome to his right. "And this one is her brother, Want. Ugly, ain' they? Still, so many keep 'em in their lives, when there's no reason fer it." He grinned mockingly at Snape. "Yeh'd do best to get rid of 'em, yeh know..."
Before Severus could comment, Hagrid closed his robes and pulled him away from the cold winter night. As Severus thought about all the things he'd been shown in the last hour, he tried to piece together what Hagrid's lesson was supposed to have been. Did he think he'd shown Severus anything he hadn't already known?
He turned to Hagrid, to voice his opinion of the events, or rather the non-events, only to find he was all alone. Looking about, training his eyes on the far horizon, all he could see was barren land. The absence of sound was pressing on his ears with an almost tangible force. His heart began to throb in time, and he pivoted sharply, gasping, as he suddenly sensed something invading his personal space.
He almost bumped into an amorphous shape, and without knowing why, he felt such a strong feeling of horror overtake him that his overtaxed mind couldn't deal with it, and he slumped to the ground, his hand pulling on the dark mist before him. He had time to register surprise at the feel of the rough material in his fingers, just before darkness overtook him.