Story summary: Set six years after the Goblet of Fire, and almost a year after Voldemort has been defeated. How has the wizarding society changed as the aftermath of the war? How are people coping with the world around them, and with the past? Why are Sirius Black and Severus Snape sleeping in one, four poster bed?
Thanks: My thanks go to Kalena, who suffered my outbursts of creativity patiently even though it wasn't her fandom, and who has been the most wonderful friend, cheerleader, and mentor. The story wouldn't have been written if it weren't for her.
The most wonderful beta readers: Thanks to Tracey for careful continuity check, well-thought suggestions, and detailed grammar and style help; to Emcee for British English help and a thorough grammar surgery; to Johanna for helpful pointers and canon watch; and to moj, who gave the story the first reading. As I'm not a native speaker of English, I needed a lot of help to weed out grammar, spelling and stylistic mistakes. There are undoubtedly many still left. If anything catches your eye, please let me know.
Feedback: If you read the story and liked it, or didn't like it, please let me know. It's the first story I've ever written--your feedback is very important to me. Contact me at thetaeridani @ yahoo.com
The title of the story has been inspired by the following poem by Anthony Weir:
My bones were formed by sorrow
And it's a cheerful and optimistic story, don't run away!
Shade More Than Man
Sirius was subdued for the rest of the day. He took his potion quietly, ate quietly, and lay staring at the dungeon ceiling. Finally Snape snapped.
"Stop giving me that hurt look!" he demanded, glaring. Then, unexpectedly, he added, "I'm not testing the potion on you."
"You aren't? But..." Sirius was confused.
"It's already been tested. I just haven't submitted it to the Chamber of Alchemy yet. I wouldn't feed anybody untested potions. Not even you, Black."
"Who did you test it on, then?" Sirius asked, still bewildered.
"On myself, of course." Snape stilled, sitting in his armchair like a life-sized china figurine. Before Sirius had a chance to pry, he continued. "I developed the potion for myself, starting from the basic ingredients for mood-lifting and tranquillising potions. Over the years, I was able to perfect the formula."
Sirius lay silent for a while, digesting the revelation. It put a lot of things in a different light. How quickly Severus was able to spot his condition. How intimately he knew the symptoms. Why he decided to restrain him.
"Why were you... I mean, what caused it, for you?" It was stupid, and Severus probably wouldn't want to satisfy his curiosity; still, it made him feel less abnormal, because, after all, it was just an illness. Other people had it too. It wasn't something dirty you got in prison.
Snape twisted his lips and shrugged. "After I defected."
Sirius looked at him, uncomprehending. Snape had succumbed to despair after he had done the right thing? He voiced his surprise.
Snape rested his chin on his hands, nodding slowly. "You said you didn't come here looking for forgiveness."
Sirius gestured in assent, but Snape wasn't paying him any attention. Baring his left forearm, he thrust it toward the bed. "Do you think this could be forgiven?"
It was obvious what kind of answer he expected. "No," Sirius said in a quiet voice. He understood now.
They remained silent for a long time, Snape motionless in his chair, Sirius curled on his side, staring into space. Finally, Snape got up, retrieved a bottle of Firewhisky from an ancient wardrobe, and took a long swig.
"We must have been an exemplary generation for the 'ruin your life through bloody idiotic behaviour as a young man' concept," he commented after a long while. He drank some more, pacing around the small room like a trapped animal. Sirius watched with concern how quickly the alcohol was disappearing.
"You understand a guilt for which you'll never be able to forgive yourself," Snape said finally. "But all you were guilty of was rashness and hot-headedness. I--" He stopped.
"Did you..." Sirius had to clear his throat. "Did you kill people?" he asked in a whisper.
"Back then? not directly. Not with a wand, or a knife. They had me brew potions for them, praised me for being so inventive and far-reaching, for pushing the boundaries of science. Many were poisons. I had never stopped to think about what it meant to make them; all I did was preen at their approbation." Snape's voice was dripping with self-loathing. He was already slurring his words slightly. "Then... one day they took me somewhere. Avery and Gibson, and Malfoy. They told me that I'd get to meet the Dark Lord himself, that he was very pleased with me. And that there would be a presentation."
He drank from the bottle again in long gulps before continuing. "They had some Muggles and a wizard. Gave them some of my potions. I watched them die. Puked all over myself. They laughed and patted my back, talked about baptism by fire. It was as if I had opened my eyes for the first time in my life. I was terrified and revolted by them, but I couldn't leave. I didn't have anywhere to go." He droppedinto his chair, tense and agitated. Sirius didn't think he had ever seen him like that before.
"So you asked Dumbledore to shelter you at Hogwarts?" he asked.
"Oh, no." Snape laughed bitterly. "Riddle wanted me to get a teaching position at Hogwarts so that I could poison Dumbledore."
Riddle. Sirius tasted the word on his tongue for a moment. It was good, he thought, to finally be able to call him simply by his last name. A mere man, not a mysterious menace of the Dark. And a petty little victory, to use the name of the Muggle father 'lord Voldemort' detested so much.
Snape was still talking. "Riddle really resented Albus and it infuriated him that he wasn't able to harm him in any way. Of course, I couldn't do what he asked of me--I didn't have the stomach for it, and Dumbledore's charisma was difficult to resist. Nor could I tell Riddle that I wouldn't poison the Headmaster."
"You were a coward," Sirius said quietly, after pondering Snape's words for a while. Snape didn't seem offended.
"I had always been a coward. It was part of my credo. But at that point that credo cornered me. Riddle and his obsessed zealots on one hand, fanatical aurors and Azkaban on the other. So I did the only logical thing I could think of."
"You went to Dumbledore?" Sirius tried again.
"I tried to kill myself." Snape's face twisted. "With one of my potions, no less--though I had chosen one that would give me a painless death," he admitted, compelled to honesty for some reason. "Dumbledore got to me first. That old fart knew everything, of course. Had been waiting for me to make the right decision. Apparently finishing myself off wasn't it."
Another bit of Snape's usual reserve was washed away by a swig from the bottle.
"Dumbledore has a century and a half of experience in manipulating even the most unlikely people into doing something brainlessly heroic--did you know his grandmother was a Veela? So I suddenly found myself working for him. I'd tell Riddle or whoever he sent that Dumbledore was resistant to the latest poison I used, and I'd try to get them talking. Then I'd report back to Dumbledore. It was to be my atonement, I suppose. Like you, I had a sense of purpose that held me up. After what seemed like forever, I was finally supposed to make a move on Riddle: incapacitate him so that he could be apprehended. And you know what? Before I could execute my carefully prepared plan, Lord Voldemort had been defeated--by a one-year-old infant!" Snape's laughter sounded more like hacking.
"Is that why you resent the boy so much?" Sirius felt vaguely sick.
"I used to resent Harry Potter only because he inherited James' infuriating ability to always get the better of me, regardless of the circumstances," came a surprisingly sober reply. Snape calmed visibly. "But then... I lost my chance to atone, or so I thought. I was interrogated several times. Imprisoned for a while. When I came back to my dungeon, I realised there was nothing more to be done."
He blinked at the almost empty bottle and put it on the floor. "I no longer wanted to kill myself. But I was wasting slowly anyway. You want to hide in your animal shape. I wanted to hide in my dungeon. You think you are having a rough time? I didn't leave the dungeons for a year and a half. Dumbledore agreed to move the Potions class downstairs, so I was still able to teach. I already knew I had Soul-Rot at that point. I was trying to get along with the standard cheering charms and chocolate, all the time reading whatever I could find and experimenting. Fortunately, I was on the right track pretty much from the beginning, but it still took a long time to regain some balance."
"A year and a half!" Sirius felt cold. "Do you think it's going to take that long for me?" Whatever reasons there were for Snape's hospitality, he wouldn't keep him here for that long. Yet the thought of being on his own brought with it a wave of panic, and he had to bite his lip to keep it down.
"I don't know," Snape said, resting his head on the armchair's back and staring up. "It's different with you. You are naturally cheerful, chatty, and confident. Your condition has been caused artificially. And the potion has been greatly improved. I would expect first results after a week or two, when I manage to establish the right dosage for you. The side-effects should vanish by then, and you should be able to start noticing a stable improvement in your mood. It'll be three or four months before there is a permanent change for the better, though, and you'll have to take the potion for much longer than that to avoid setbacks."
Three months. "Could I have some of that whisky?"
"No. You are not supposed to drink while taking the potion."
"You do realise," Sirius said, "that you have to find a name for it sooner or later. You can't call it The Potion forever."
"I could call it Canis Miserabilis," Snape said indistinctly. He was massaging his temples. Hangover, already?
"Very funny, but not a selling name," Sirius remarked absent-mindedly. There was a question he had always wanted answered, and he was wondering whether he should take advantage of Snape's intoxication.He decided to go with the punch; tomorrow, Severus would be irritated at his effusiveness and would clamp down again. "Tell me, why did you join the Death Eaters in the first place?"
Snape smiled humourlessly. "Oh, I was such an easy target. I wanted to belong. I was an outcast all my life, and they offered me a chance to be in. They told me how valuable I was, how great. What a difference I could make. They praised me generously for my efforts." He looked like he might be sick. "Told me about the wonderful future we would bring about, with witches and wizards walking the earth proudly, not hiding from Muggles. Riddle would send around pamphlets about how Muggles bred too quickly and suffocated us. I hadn't known even a single Muggle then, d'you know? They were some vague kind of impediment I didn't pay much attention to. The exalted Malfoy would stoop down to me--that was what counted." Snape looked flushed, either from the drinking or from spewing out the bitterness that must have been festering in him for so many years.
"Lucius was a real piece of work," he continued after a while. "He waxed sentimental about how the poor Muggles would be better off if they were kept in an enclosure and taken care of by specialised wizards--'If a Muggle child breaks its leg, it takes six weeks to grow it back together. Six weeks! Can you imagine the misery and pain?'--and I believed him at first, until I realised he was just after their land and titles. The Malfoys had had great estates in India, and when the British Muggles pulled out of there, they were forced to come back as well. Lucius' father was extremely bitter at being reduced to a mere 'lord'. As I understand it, Lucius badly wanted to be a Peer, with Riddle as the Queen, undoubtedly."
Sirius snickered aloud at the unexpected twist of humour.
"I didn't see the absurdity of it then," Snape said, but he smiled faintly too. "Then, it was all very logical, even the fact that we were fighting other wizards instead of rounding up the Muggles. Well, I woke up to the ugly truth pretty quickly, but it was already too late. Once you fell into their honey trap there was no way out."
"I can see how they got to Wormtail," Sirius said. "If I had only noticed it then..."
"Don't play that game," Snape interrupted him harshly. "You can't know what would have been. Voldemort tried to kill the Potters and was eliminated for more than fifteen years--what if it hadn't happened? What if he had won, or if the war had torn the country apart?"
Sirius pondered the question for a moment. He had trouble remembering there had been two wars, one before his imprisonment and one after. It all seemed like one long, dark night. But perhaps Severus was right, and Jamie's death hadn't been pointless after all--not if people had had the chance to recover and grow stronger. He sighed deeply. The sound seemed to waken Snape, who had been dozing off in his chair, and before Sirius had a chance to ask more question, the man stood up abruptly and disappeared into the adjoining room.
The next morning Snape was, as could have been expected, in a very sour mood. He kept their conversation short and refused to be drawn into their customary game of insults. Last night's revelations still hung in the air like some acrid, foul cloud. Sirius realised with surprise that he missed their easier, lighter chatter from before.
After breakfast, Snape, having evidently grown tired of walking Sirius to the bathroom, procured a bedpan with a simple banishment charm on it. He got it from the infirmary, and had apparently had a hard time explaining what he needed it for. Sirius imagined Poppy Pomfrey clutching the bedpan defensively to her breast and almost snickered.
"Why didn't you just transfigure something into one?" he asked.
Severus looked embarrassed and muttered something under his prominent nose. Right, he had always sucked at Transfiguration. This time the snicker tore free. Snape glared at him furiously and opened his mouth as if to hiss something insulting, but his face screwed up in a pained grimace as he suddenly clutched his neck.
Sirius was sitting upright on the bed in an instant, cursing the lack of his wand. "What? What is it, Severus? Talk to me! A hex? Someone bit you?" Fucking charms wouldn't let him off the bed!
Snape looked at him as if he had gone bonkers. "While I appreciate the concern, I'd rather you stopped bouncing and calmed down," he drawled. "If you break the bed, we will both be sleeping in chairs."
"Sorry. Listen, um... maybe we could take turns in the bed?" Sirius settled down, feeling stupid for offering the man his own bed.
Snape shook his head and shrugged, then grimaced again. "That won't be a problem. Last night I was too... distracted to arrange proper bedding and fell asleep in an awkward position. I assure you I can take care of my sleeping arrangements."
Yeah. Right. "Give me my wand for a moment. I'll transfigure one of the chairs into a sofa for you."
Snape scowled at him resentfully for a while, but his neck must have really hurt, because he turned off the charms and helped Sirius get to the study.
Getting up made Sirius light-headed and he sat heavily in the chair he was supposed to transfigure. It creaked protestingly under his weight.
"Where do you get your furniture, junk shops?" he groused. "Is there one chair in here that's less than a hundred years old?"
"Well, the cushy job doesn't pay as well as you might have expected," Snape shot back. "Besides, I have better things to spend money on than furniture."
"Potion ingredients," Sirius said knowingly. "Because one ounce of Black Primrose is worth a thousand chairs."
Snape shot him a disgusted glare and retrieved Sirius' wand. He directed his scowl at a small, worn-out footstool this time.
"I've been transfiguring it into a couch, but the wretched thing won't stay that way," he confessed finally. "After I woke on the floor twice, I decided to try the chair. Unwisely, as it turned out."
"Your problem, " Sirius said, "is that you've learned to transfigure things for exactly 90 minutes. That is, for as long as McGonagall was looking."
Snape smirked. "You, on the other hand, haven't learned to make your potions effective for more than five minutes, have you?"
"That's because I always finished making them five minutes before the end of a class. They didn't need to be effective later," he retorted, happy at the change in Severus' mood. "Here. Observe and learn."
Ignoring Snape's sarcastic snort, he pointed his wand at the harassed footstool. "Let's start with simple things, like size. Elongare." The footstool obediently stretched in length, stopping where Sirius wanted it to be. He repeated the transfiguration with another dimension, until the makeshift bed was wide enough for Snape to sleep on comfortably. "Do you see how I'm binding it into the desired shape at each step?" Snape nodded. Sirius continued his work, making the legs more sturdy with a Robustus and softening the bedding with an Extrudus. Then he tapped the simple couch delicately with his wand to solidify the transformations.
Snape was stroking his chin with his thumb. He looked vaguely impressed. "I must admit it looks simple enough if you look at it that way. How can you be sure it will stay like that?"
"Why do potions remain effective for a long time?"
"Because the formal process of preparing and mixing the ingredients binds the maker's magic into the formula of the potion," Snape answered immediately.
"Exactly. Try applying the same principles to transfiguration. Organise the item's qualities into groups of attributes, starting with the simplest: colour, size, surface. Bind new qualities into the item and move on to the texture and material, and so on. With such qualities as 'animate', you can go two ways: if you are transfiguring a living creature into an inanimate object, start the whole process with making it inanimate; it'll be easier to work on it later. Just don't kill it--try to bind it into a statue, for example."
Snape frowned, perhaps mourning the multitude of beetles that had expired while being transformed into buttons. Sirius continued, undeterred. "If you are transforming an inanimate object into an animate one, go the other way round. It's always easier to work on something that doesn't try to run away."
"They never told us that at school. You were supposed to make it happen all at once," Snape said dubiously, poking the couch with his wand.
"Actually, after you gain experience with a particular type of transformation, you can make it happen seemingly all at once. But if you are thinking about the object too generally, or if you hurry too much and skip too many stages, the changes won't bind and you'll end up with something only half-transfigured or going back to the original form after a short time."
Sirius continued his demonstration excitedly, delighted at the chance to do something different than staring at a mouldy ceiling. He transfigured two handkerchiefs into silk sheets, discussing the problems of stretching a small object into something much bigger for a long time.
"No, I didn't make them silk," he answered after Snape's inquiry. "That would be transmutation. I made them look and feel like silk, but they're still cotton."
"It's a pity McGonagall won't go to the trouble of explaining the process to her students instead of yelling herself hoarse at them," Snape observed finally.
"It's not that simple. There are about as many approaches to transfiguration as there are wizards and witches. I chose the analytical approach only because I thought it would be closest to what you do with potions, chopping a thing down into pieces and then combining it into something else step by step." Snape nodded in agreement. "But other people conceptualise it in their own ways. For most children, it works better if they're not taught someone else's methods but left to develop their own. They intuitively grasp the principles that would be too inhibiting if they were forced into them beforehand. Kids have enough work as it is, memorising evocations and charms, and learning the history of each transfiguration."
"Oh, I see it now." Snape's voice dripped with sarcasm. "It would be too hard on the poor children to explain to them exactly how to do something. Let's just tell them to do it and embarrass them publicly if they can't!"
Sirius grinned. "I think you and McGonagall have very different approaches to teaching. I'm sure you force your students into very strict procedures and berate them for the smallest departure from the rules. She believes overthinking magic at such a basic level leads to insecurities and inhibitions. Perhaps if you gave your students some leeway and let them use their intuition..."
"I'd end up bald and scorched! Thank you very much, but intuition and leeway have no place in a Potions classroom."
The talk of school made Sirius realise something suddenly. "Severus--your classes! Aren't I interfering with your schedule? You must have much to do apart from nursing me."
"How considerate of you to notice. Black, it's winter holidays. Haven't you realised? I have a week before classes start."
"Oh. That's all right, then, I guess." He hadn't paid much attention to the calendar lately. It still left the question of why Snape was nursing him, but he decided to let it go for now. He didn't want to force Severus into any more confessions so soon after yesterday.
"Indeed. And, Black? 'Someone bit you?' Really." Snape was snickering all the way back to the bedroom.
Snape must have decided that talking helped Sirius improve, or he was genuinely interested in the subject, because he asked about it again the next day.
"If transfiguration doesn't change the basic... essence? of a thing, like transmutation does, then how could you live as a dog for long periods of time? Were you able to digest dog food and get nourishment from it?"
"Dogs don't eat that much different from men, and besides, I mostly ate what you'd call human food anyway--scraps, whatever I could beg off nice old ladies. It was enough for a dog, but apparently a bit too little for a man. I'm somewhat smaller when I'm transformed. That's why I lost weight in my human form, I think."
"Can the Animagi... ah... breed while in the animal form?" Snape looked as haughty and collected as ever and the stutter was almost too minuscule to notice, but there was a ghost of a smile dancing around the corners of his lips.
"In other words, you're asking whether McGonagall could have kittens in the literal meaning of the phrase?" Sirius laughed. "No. When she transforms, she's a cat-shaped woman, not a cat. The blood is different, it won't mix."
"Then how could you make the final transmutation you talked about?"
"Well..." Sirius thought about the right words to explain it. "Two basic differences between transfiguration and transmutation are the level at which the changes occur and the reversibility of the change, right?"
If you say so, Snape's expression said. Sirius went on anyway.
"What I'm saying is that it's easy to go too far when you transform, and change everything--blood, brain, heart--so that suddenly there is no place for the human mind in the new body and you lose it. At least, that's the theory explaining the accidents related to Animagi irreversibly changing into animals. Nobody could ask them what happened, after all." Sirius shuddered slightly. It didn't seem like such an attractive choice, now that he was able to think about it clearly. "There are many opinions on whether it's a real transmutation or not, but since it fulfils the criteria of finality and doesn't spontaneously revert, the name stuck."
"I still fail to see the difference between transfiguration and transmutation," Severus remarked. "No matter how well you change something into something else, you can always change it back."
"Not at all!" Sirius sat up in the bed, gesturing animatedly. "With transfiguration, the object remains what it always was, only stretched, or coloured, or animated. No matter how well you bind it, the magic will eventually dissipate and the object will return to the original shape. Now, with transmutation, what you get is a completely new object. You do a lot of transmuting in your potions work, actually. To change the transmuted object into the original, you'd have to transmute it again, expending magic rather than letting it die out. And you can never get the original back with transmutation--you get a new object of the same category."
"I can change lamb chops into a sheep, but it won't be the same sheep that the meat came from?" Snape hazarded.
"Yes! Exactly!" Sirius was delighted. "Although," he frowned, "I don't think anybody has ever managed to transmute meat into a living thing. Transfigure, yes. I think you'll get zombie sheep that way."
Severus rolled his eyes at the idea of zombie sheep and fed Sirius his potion. Sirius asked for a bath and Severus walked him to the bathroom, helped him get in the tub and started washing his back and hair without being asked. Sirius managed to wash his feet and privates himself this time and felt childishly proud. He was getting better.
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