Chapter 13: The Ghosts of Halloween~~~
‘This is your second detention this week, Longbottom. Your ninth in as many weeks. I always knew you were dim-witted, but even you should have learned by now that insubordination will not be tolerated.’
Snape was keeping his voice low. He had no reason whatsoever to yell at Longbottom. For in fact, he was not angry with the boy at all. Not about him getting a smart mouth with Alecto Carrow anyway and not about the graffiti he had been caught putting on the corridor wall on the second floor either. Dumbledore’s Army, Still Recruiting. He would never admit it to anyone, of course, but Snape had smiled when he had seen the writing on his early morning patrol. Longbottom deserved every kind of credit for his courage and determination. What Snape was angry about, however, furious even, was the fact that the boy had let himself get caught yet again. Didn’t he understand how dangerous the Carrows were? Didn’t he understand that he was endangering not only himself but everyone he had ever held dear as well? It was only a matter of time until the Carrows would find out whom he associated with. The Weasley girl, Lovegood. The brother and sister had their eyes on the girls already anyway: Ginny because her brother was on the run with Harry Potter and Luna because her father couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Even worse, the blithering idiot put his words in print! Much like Longbottom, Xenophilius Lovegood did not understand that he was endangering the ones he loved. Sooner or later, the Dark Lord’s henchmen would go for Luna in order to shut her father up. Innocent, sweet Luna.
‘You will serve your detention with me on Saturday, Mr Longbottom,’ Snape continued equally calmly.
Neville gave Snape a surprised look which ever so quickly turned into a look of disgust. It was clear that he would rather be hung by his thumbs in the dungeon and be tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange than spend five minutes, yet alone several hours, in the presence of Severus Snape. He had no idea, of course, that the headmaster was trying to keep him from harm, even if it was only for the duration of a detention. He had no idea that Snape had been protecting him and all the other students of Hogwarts since the start of term, vanishing their graffiti in the early hours of the morning before the Carrows noticed them, casting silencing spells on whispered conversations so the Carrows wouldn’t hear them, and first and foremost, doing whatever it took to keep the two Death Eaters away from the seventh floor. So far, neither of them had managed to get there, and both were wondering why all the stairs led from the sixth floor directly to the eighth and vice versa, and Snape was intending to keep it that way. For he knew that Dumbledore’s Army had once used the Room of Requirement as their headquarters. Should they have need of the room again, which Snape suspected that they would before long, they wouldn’t have to worry about being caught by the Carrows upon entering or exiting. But of course, Neville Longbottom knew nothing of that either.
Snape dismissed the boy and sent him to dinner, and he himself kept standing behind Dumbledore’s desk – yes, Dumbledore’s, not his – feeling the weight of the world pressing down on his shoulders.
‘You are taking great risks, Severus.’
Snape looked up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore.
‘Would you like me to stop?’ he asked, his voice weary.
‘My comment wasn’t meant as a criticism,’ Dumbledore answered softly. ‘I was merely trying to point out that you are a very brave man. Godric Gryffindor would be proud of you.’
Normally, a comment like that would have earned Dumbledore a sneer and a snide comment, but as neither of it came, the former headmaster tilted his head in concern.
‘When was the last time you had a full night’s sleep, Severus?’ he asked.
‘Early July?’ Snape replied, failing miserably at sounding sardonic. He didn’t possess the energy.
‘Your colleagues are brave witches and wizards as well, Severus,’ Dumbledore pointed out. ‘And they, too, would do anything to keep our students safe. I do believe that they, if you decided to rest for just one night, would take good care of the young ones.’
‘I doubt neither the abilities nor the loyalty of the staff, Dumbledore. But I don’t think that I have to remind you that we have two Death Eaters in our midst.’
‘I am very well aware of that, Severus. I am also aware of the fact that the two of them will be having dinner in their chambers tomorrow night. They will be feasting on the finest dishes the kitchen has to offer and wash it down with expensive elf-made wine, laced with lavender, valerian sprigs and Flobberworm Mucus.’
‘A Sleeping Draught?’ Snape’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘How?’
‘Let us say the elves decided that the students needed some cheering up. Seeing as the Carrows would spoil everyone’s mood with their presence, they will be taken care of, so to speak. They will be sleeping soundly until the morning, the students will enjoy a nice Halloween meal, and their headmaster will leave the castle for the night.’
‘And where exactly will the headmaster be going?’ Snape inquired frowning, and Dumbledore smiled as he leaned back in his chair.
‘To the one place where he has slept soundly all year, Severus,’ he explained. ‘To a little pub in a Muggle town by the lake.’
No one noticed Snape the next evening as he peered into the Great Hall. He had the gift of making himself invisible and could effortlessly vanish into the shadows, but most probably, no one in the Great Hall would even have noticed a fully grown mountain troll. For students, staff and ghosts alike were enjoying the food and the decorations that had appeared half an hour ago seemingly out of thin air. At first, they had been wary, peering over their shoulders and expecting the Carrows or their headmaster to swoop down on them at any moment, but as neither of them had shown up, everyone had started to relax. Now the hall was filled with the sound of laughter and joy. The students were eating with gusto, filling their bellies with sweets and cake and pumpkin pie, and the staff allowed themselves to sip on the wine that had appeared in their goblets. One could almost believe that the good old days had returned to Hogwarts on this Halloween night.
The good old days... Snape remembered them as well. Days when he, too, had been enjoying pumpkin pie and wine. Days when he, too, had been somewhat happy. But he also remembered a Halloween night when food had turned to ashes in his mouth and wine to acid, a Halloween night when the only one he had ever loved had been murdered and his heart had been ripped from his chest. One might think that the years had healed the wounds, but no matter how much Snape tried to think of something else, he was still hurting. So much that he considered retiring to his chambers, open a bottle of Odgen’s and drown his sorrows in it. All by himself, in the darkness, where he belonged. But what good would it do? The pain would still be there in the morning, and he would still be unrested and of no good use to anyone. No, he had to heed Dumbledore’s advice. He had to get out of the castle that night, far away from both heartache and responsibilities.
With his fingers tightly wrapped around the key in his pocket, Snape swiftly made his way out of the castle and through the grounds. He encountered no one on his way and at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, he Disapparated, his goal clearly in mind: a little run-down pub in a Muggle village, a private booth in the shadows where he could spend some peaceful hours in the company of someone he held very dear. He did, however, not Apparate directly to the pub. Instead he chose his usual spot at the edge of the forest, lingering there for some moments, completely still and barely breathing, in order to make sure that he had neither been followed not that anyone had noticed his magic. But as no one stirred, neither wizard nor Muggle, Snape started walking towards the village, feeling his heart become lighter with every step. He was looking forward to meeting Hope. He had not visited her for two months, yet still she had given him peace for so many nights. Perhaps it was time that he told her that Dumbledore’s charm was still working, in one direction at least. She should know what she had done for him even without her knowing.
As he entered the pub, Snape was greeted by a familiar sight. The drunkard and his son were sitting at a table close to the bar, the boy eating mashed potatoes and pie and the father holding on to a pint. Edmunds was sitting with the fishermen, playing cards, and otherwise, the pub was empty. But there were some empty glasses standing on one table and a plate on another. There seemed to have been some other customers there that night, at least.
Snape acknowledged Edmunds’ greeting with a silent nod and then slunk into his booth, merging into the shadows and creating the illusion of him not being there. Yet still he heard her soft footsteps only a few moments later. He had not seen Hope upon entering the pub, but somehow, she seemed to have sensed that he was there.
‘I had a feeling that I would be seeing you here tonight of all nights.’
Snape looked up, but it was too dark in the booth for him to make out Hope’s face. Apart from that, she was wearing her hair loose, and it was obscuring her features like a curtain of black velvet.
‘What do you mean?’ Snape asked.
‘There is magic in the air tonight,’ Hope replied quietly. ‘Even the Muggles can feel it.’
She wasn’t talking about the carved turnips he had seen in front of some houses in the village, Snape was quite certain of that. Surely, Hope didn’t believe in the old stories of sprites and goblins roaming the moors on All Hallows’ Eve and from which the Muggles tried to protect themselves. No, Hope was talking about a different kind of magic, their magic, his and hers, and from the soft tremble in her voice, Snape deducted that she was frightened. But before he could utter his concern, Hope changed the subject.
‘Would you like some steak pie?’ she asked. ‘Homemade.’
‘Some ale to go with it, maybe?’
Again, Snape nodded and added his wish for Hope to keep him company. But she turned him down.
‘Maybe later. I, um, have work to do.’
She turned on her heel before Snape could say anything more, and as he didn’t want to yell after her, he just followed her with his eyes. She was keeping her back straight and carried her head high as always, but something wasn’t quite right. She seemed uneasy and nervous, and more than once, Snape saw her rub her left wrist. But as his own mark wasn’t burning, he concluded that she could not be experiencing any pain from her scar. At least, she shouldn’t be.
As she returned with his food and drink some minutes later, Snape listened carefully. Her breathing was rapid and shallow, and as she placed his knife and fork in front of him, Snape could see her hands shaking.
‘What is wrong?’ he asked carefully.
‘Nothing,’ Hope answered, a little bit too quickly.
‘Who are you trying to fool?’
Hope didn’t answer but stood as if frozen, and Snape offered her a seat.
‘I can’t. There is work to do,’ she claimed once more, but Snape insisted.
‘The dishes will not be going anywhere. And I am sure your father will be more than able to care for five customers. Sit.’
She kept her eyes lowered as she sat down opposite him, and Snape saw her shoulders slump. Not much, barely half an inch. Most probably, no one apart from him would notice.
‘What is wrong?’ he asked once more.
Hope inhaled through her nose and exhaled through gritted teeth. For a moment, it looked like she was about to bury her face in her hands, but in the last moment, she stopped herself. Instead, her hands turned into fists, and with what looked like an enormous effort, she placed them on the table.
‘I hate this night,’ she confessed, digging her nails into her palms. ‘It is bringing back all those memories I worked so hard to forget.’
Snape nodded. He knew how it was to lie awake all Halloween night with guilt and despair gnawing away at one’s heart. By Merlin, he knew!
‘I didn’t feel a thing when I saw my father’s body, you know,’ Hope suddenly started. It wasn’t what Snape had expected to hear, yet still he listened.
‘Absolutely nothing,’ Hope carried on. ‘I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t relieved. There was nothing. Nothing at all. And I heard this voice whispering in my head: “This is your father, Nadezhda. The man who raised you. The man who hurt you. React. Feel something.” But I couldn’t. It was like staring at a blank bit of parchment.’
‘You were in shock,’ Snape tried, neither sure about what to say nor why Hope was telling him those things. ‘People react differently. Some cry, some get furious, others shut off. There is nothing wrong with how you reacted. I know that deep down, you loved you father. I saw you later that night. You had turned him around and closed his eyes. You gave him some dignity.’
‘And still I didn’t cry for him. I never did. But something died inside my heart that night, in my very soul.’
Hope sighed and relaxed her hands, put them flat on the table and took some deep breaths. Then she straightened and lifted her gaze, looking straight at Snape with those emerald green eyes of hers.
‘What do you do when you are feeling desolate?’ she inquired. ‘What do you do when you feel alone, when there is this icy feeling spreading through your body and you fear that you are going to freeze to death?’
Snape swallowed, unable to look away. He was mesmerised by Hope’s eyes, and for some inexplicable reason, he felt that she already knew the answer.
‘Do you ever speak to Dumbledore nowadays?’
‘Dumbledore,’ Hope repeated quietly. ‘Do you ever speak to his portrait?’
Snape nodded. He wasn’t able to formulate an answer, so surprised was he by the sudden change of subject and the unsettling feeling that was growing inside him, the feeling that the woman across the table knew far more of his deepest secrets than she was supposed to.
‘Go back to Hogwarts,’ she now suggested. ‘Talk to Dumbledore and tell him you need to use the Pensive. Tell him I sent you. Tell him I’m ready.’
Then she rose, and the look in her eyes was so soft that Snape could almost feel it on his skin. It felt like a tender touch on his cheek, like a lover’s kiss on his lips.
‘I am sorry, Severus. Unspeakably sorry. And I’ll understand if you decide to never come back here. But please know that I never meant to hurt you.’
Snape stared after Hope as she left, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He had no idea what she had been talking about, but he knew that there was no point in going after her. If she had wanted to explain herself, she would have done so. But for some reason, she couldn’t or didn’t want to, and unless he used force, which he was unwilling to do, she would not divulge her secrets. If he wanted to know, he would have to return to Hogwarts.
‘Back already, Severus?’ Dumbledore asked with a frown on his face. ‘I meant for you to spend the night at the pub, you know.’
‘It seems you forgot to inform Hope about your plans,’ Snape replied, closing and warding the door behind him before placing a well-chosen spell on all the portraits in the room apart from the one he was addressing. He didn’t want anyone to eavesdrop, neither staff nor student nor deceased headmaster.
‘She sent me back here,’ he explained. ‘She told me to use the Pensive.’
Dumbledore looked taken aback for a moment but then straightened up in his chair, eyeing Snape intensely over the edge of his glasses.
‘Has Hope said anything else?’ he inquired. ‘Has she prepared you?’
Snape shook his head.
‘She only said that she is ready and that…’
He paused for a moment, not sure whether or not he wanted to share the rest of Hope’s words with Dumbledore. But the old man seemed concerned, and Snape did not dare withhold any information.
‘She said she never meant to hurt me.’
‘No, she did not,’ he confirmed. ‘You keep that in mind, Severus. For what you are about to see, will not be easy to witness. You might feel offended, even betrayed, but you have to remember that Hope – that Nadezhda – trusted you and looked up to you. Whatever she did, she had her reasons. And one of them was not wanting to burden you any more than she already had.’
He nodded towards the shallow stone basin that was placed on a table on the other side of the room and instructed Snape on where he could find the phial that contained the memories Hope wanted him to see. Snape held the little glass vessel in his hand for some moments, wondering what he was about to witness, but as he could not even guess, he uncorked the vessel and poured its contents into the Pensive. Across the room, Albus Dumbledore rose from his chair and stepped out of his frame. Silence settled over the office, and Snape was all alone, gazing into the swirling contents of the Pensive. Then he inhaled deeply and plunged his face into the shimmering substance. His hands were holding on to the edges of the basin, yet still he was falling, falling, quicker and quicker.
When his feet hit solid ground, a cold, granite floor, it took Snape the duration of several heartbeats to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him. He could see nothing at first, nothing at all, but could only hear a hushed voice coming out of the shadows. His very own voice. He blinked a couple of times, and in the end, he could make out his own frame in the darkness. He was sitting on a chaise longue with his back straight and his head held high, and beside him, shaking with tears, was the seventeen-year-old Nadezhda McKibben.
Snape frowned. Now that his eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, he recognised the room Hope’s memory had led him to. It was the library of Riddle Manor. A gloomy, dusty place. He knew it well, of course. The Dark Lord had granted him audience there more than once. Yet Snape had no recollection whatsoever of being there with Nadezhda.
‘How did Barty find you?’ he heard himself ask.
‘He was already at the other house,’ Nadezhda answered through a flood of tears. ‘Some... something had happened there. An explosion. I don’t know. He was there and the Lestranges. They were fighting another man, but he Disapparated when he saw Bellatrix.’
Barty, Bellatrix, an abandoned mansion and the mention of an explosion… Snape felt his stomach lurch as he realised in what night he had landed. This must be Halloween, the cursed Halloween of 1981.
He flinched. No wonder that he had no memory whatsoever of him being in the Riddle library that night. It wasn’t a night he wanted to remember. How could Dumbledore have sent him there? How could Hope?
No, he wouldn’t do this to himself again, Snape decided. He didn’t want to go through the pain yet again. Yet when he turned to leave, he heard Nadezhda’s voice.
‘Don’t let go,’ she whispered. ‘If you let go, I’ll freeze to death.’
She was speaking to the man who was sitting beside her, of course, her teacher, her protector, yet her words made even Snape turn around and look at her, at her and himself, his younger self, a despairing young man who was going to pieces that night, a young man who knew all too well what it meant to freeze to death from the inside out, a young man who was experiencing that excruciating pain in this very moment.
Both Snapes were now staring into a pair of emerald green eyes, Nadezhda’s eyes. Yet the younger Snape saw only Lily’s, and as he leaned forward to kiss away the tears that were hanging on the dark lashes, he drowned in the icy green lake, died and was reborn moments later as he buried himself between the thighs of the young woman in his arms. The heat of her body revived him, and she in her turn drew strength from him as he relentlessly drove into her and came undone in her embrace. And Snape staggered backwards, stumbled and fell, his heart racing in his chest and his eyes wide with shock.
‘What… was that?’ he brought forth.
He got up on his feet and swirled around, staring up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore, who was just about to re-enter his frame.
‘How much have you seen?’ asked the former headmaster calmly.
‘Enough,’ Snape hissed, still appalled by his own actions and now also mortified when he realised that Dumbledore must have seen it all as well.
‘What… was this?’ he asked once more, his voice now much feebler. His knees were growing weak, and he grabbed on to the edge of a nearby table in order to keep his balance.
‘A meeting of two lost and frightened souls that kept each other from dying during one of the coldest, loneliest nights of their lives.’
How romantic that sounded, Snape thought with a sneer, yet he was unable to understand how Dumbledore could remain that calm.
‘I… I… Nadezh… She was my student!’ he stammered, burying his face in his hands in a desperate yet futile attempt to regain control.
‘Not that night, Severus. That night, Nadezhda wasn’t your student and you were not her teacher. That night, the both of you were merely human.’
‘Human? No. No! That was not human,’ Snape spat, pointing at the Pensive and at the memory of his younger self he had encountered. ‘I took advantage of a student!’
The words tasted foul in his mouth, and for the second time that night, Snape felt his stomach turn. He forced himself to swallow and clenched his jaws.
‘You didn’t see everything, did you?’
Dumbledore’s voice was still calm, and Snape felt his temper rise.
‘There cannot possibly be anything else I want to see,’ he stated, fighting hard with himself so as not to hex the understanding look off Dumbledore’s face.
‘You were more than remorseful that night, Severus,’ the old man explained. ‘Much like you are now, you were convinced that you had taken advantage of Nadezhda, that you had used her…’
‘I did use her!’ Snape snapped, interrupting whatever Dumbledore had been about to say. For as he was now getting over the first shock, he was starting to question what he had seen.
‘I have no memory whatsoever of this,’ he pointed out, wracking his brain. He remembered returning to Riddle Manor after he had learned of Lily’s death. He remembered finding Nadezhda standing by her father’s body. He remembered leading her away and bringing her back to Hogwarts. After that he had Apparated to Godric’s Hollow, had stumbled around in the debris of the Potter home for hours without aim or goal. And later that day, when the rest of the Wizarding world had celebrated the defeat of the Dark Lord, Snape had drunk himself into a stupor that had left him in a haze for two days to come. Maybe that was why he didn’t remember, he thought. Maybe his brain had simply chosen not to. Yet Dumbledore had another explanation.
‘You were remorseful that night, Severus,’ he repeated, acting almost as if Snape had not interrupted him. ‘And Nadezhda understood. She knew you would blame yourself for what had happened. She knew that you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself. So she did the only thing she could think of at that moment. She used a Memory Charm on you.’
Had Snape not been holding on to the table, he would have collapsed. His breath caught in his chest, and he felt all the blood leave his face. His free hand twitched as he tried to decide whether to cover his mouth, his eyes or his ears or maybe slap himself hard in order to wake up from this nightmare. But he found himself unable to do either. He didn’t deserve to be shielded off. Not again.
He stared up at Dumbledore for a while, and the old man looked back down at him, his blue eyes filled with so much compassion and understanding that Snape had to avert his eyes. He had made a mistake, a terrible mistake. He had hurt the one he had meant to protect and eventually lost her. But now, half a lifetime later, he had found her again and had been given a chance to redeem himself. And so, without explaining himself and without saying goodbye, Snape turned on his heel and left, and Albus Dumbledore looked after him, smiling.