Author's Note: In ancient Greece, a ‘symbolon’ (from Greek symbállein—to put together) was a means of recognizing each other. An object (whether a piece of parchment, a picture or a coin) was cut in half, and only if the two halves fitted together were letters delivered or messages given to unknown recipients.
This story is the response to a WIKTT challenge with—thankfully—few requirements. Snape and Hermione are destined for each other, and meet in different historical periods. During every encounter, the same object (chosen by the author) has to show up, and there has to be a recurring phrase. In this case, the object is the symbolon, and the phrase is “Do you come here often?” My thanks go out to Cynthia Weasley, the creator of this marvellous challenge.
Prologue Outside of Time
God, for whom Time did not exist, for whom beginning and end, alpha and omega, past, present and future were but one smooth entity encompassed in His wisdom and love, stretched out an immaterial arm to stop, with a gentle forefinger, a nanosecond that was busy scurrying off behind its colleagues, slightly out of line. He blew on it, just like a child would blow on a drop of soapy water stretched into an opalescent plane within a plastic hoop, so that the nanosecond expanded, much in the fashion of a balloon, until it became a time bubble.
Inside, a slightly threadbare, wing-backed chair was waiting for Him, who, as a gesture of courtesy towards the guest He was expecting, had taken on the shape of an old man with long white hair and a snowy beard. It seemed that people—not only His guest but others as well—enjoyed picturing Him like that, and thus He had grown quite used to the disguise, even liked it.
A second seat materialized within the bubble, and on it Fate. She (or was that he? God was never quite sure) had often shown her face to humans, though mostly in their dreams or visions, and thus some of them had succeeded in representing her quite accurately: a face, neither male nor female, the beauty of which transcended any aesthetic ideal, irresistible and terrible. Not blind, as many would have her. But what they had seen in her eyes had been so utterly out of the reach of any human imagination that their feeble minds had preferred to forget that expression, for it had madness skipping in its wake. So fate was thought to be blind, and the idea made her lips contract in an unreadable smile.
Now she was half lying, half sitting on a low recamière, and looking expectantly and maybe a little mockingly at God, for whom it was not difficult to withstand those eyes.
“It’s Science again, isn’t it?” she stated—it wasn’t really a question.
“Yes, and Strife. It seems that, this time, they did it. Will do it.”
“Never mind the tenses. So that means that you’re requiring my help?”
God nodded gravely. “Yes. We should at least give it a try.”
Fate’s teeth were bared in another grim smile. “Tell me who the culprit is, and I’ll do what is necessary.”
“No,” God said, “Not like that. Really, I…” He stroked His beard. “You know that I am pretty fond of leaving them their Free Will.”
Free Will had been a constant cause of discord between God and Fate since the beginning of time. In fact, the bones those two had to pick with each other, concerning that particular subject, were so many that, put together in the right fashion, they would have resulted in no less than 564 782 dinosaur skeletons, with plenty of spare parts. (Dinosaurs, too, had been the topic of many a heated discussion between them)
“So what do you suggest?” Fate asked. She was in a rather conciliatory mood.
“There is only one Force stronger than Science and Strife together…”
“You mean Love? How incredibly jejune!”
“Maybe, but you can’t deny that, most of the time, she has been successful.”
“Hmmm…” Fate frowned. “But you are aware, aren’t you, that she’s terribly slow? How much time do we have?”
“Not much. Half an hour, in fact. That’s why I thought we might try another approach this time.”
God explained His plan. Fate listened attentively.
“Let me see it,” she said, when He had finished. God put forward his hand, the object resting on his flat palm. Fate examined it closely, and laughed. “Just your unique brand of humour, eh?” she said.
God’s eyes twinkled. “Well, the idea has merit, doesn't it? Besides, once it’s cut in two, the letters will dissolve into so many little lines and curves. Only when the halves click together will the inscription be legible again.”
“Seems you had one of those in-depth talks with Plato again,” Fate said, shaking her head.
“Be that as it may. Are you in on the project?” Fate nodded. “Very well, then I’d better call Michael.”
One of God’s thoughts went out to His powerful Angel, who, with a single beat of his fiery wings, reached the time bubble and entered.
“Ah, here you are,” said God, “Kindly cut this for me.”
He threw the object upwards in a perfect parabola. When it had reached the curve’s apex, Michael raised his mighty sword and smote…
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It was hot, very hot. They had all retired into the shade of a group of trees with low branches, which were thorny, but so densely intertwined that they provided real protection from the merciless sun. Most of them were dozing, two were on guard—lions usually didn’t hunt at that time of day, but it was spring, and there were females with cubs, which always increased the risk. The guards weren’t overly attentive. They were plucking fleas off each other's hairy shoulders.
A little apart from the main group, a girl was sitting. The expression on her face was more alert and intelligent than the others’; she was holding a stone in each hand and, from time to time, hit the left rock with the right. Nothing happened, and that seemed to greatly disappoint her.
Another member of the group was awake, too. This one was male. Less hairy than the others and of slimmer build. He threw furtive glances towards the girl, who never looked in his direction, and when he didn’t search out her eyes, he stared moodily at his surroundings.
Suddenly, something seemed to catch his attention, and he set off in the clumsy trot of his species, shoulders hunched and arms dangling almost to the ground. He stopped and picked up a glittering object—no, two objects. To him, they seemed the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Not that he would have been able to describe them, for he had no language, only a variety of grunts, to express what simplistic concepts crossed his mind. So he stood and smiled, enchanted by the almost-identical things in his hands.
They were completely smooth, and shiny, and their form reminded him a little of that girl’s breasts. But they were far more perfect, wonderful half-spheres made of metal, only their undersides were slightly rough and jagged, as if they had been cut by a not-quite-sharp knife.
So much beauty…
He stood and gazed raptly for a long time. Then, he seemed to make up his mind and strode back under the trees, where his companions were still dozing, and further towards the girl.
“Urgh!” he said. (Translated into English, this would have meant, more or less, “What a nice spot! Do you come here often?”)
She looked up. She knew, of course, that he was interested. But she wasn’t. Males had to be hairy, and sturdy, and strong. This one was much too lean and didn't have much to offer in terms of fur. “Grooooh,” she replied. (“Leave me in peace, you insignificant little bugger!”)
He had lost too many fights for predominance with other males (not that he wanted to fight, but the urge, whispered to his brain by the hormones his blood carried, was too strong) to be unaware of his shortcomings. Then again, he had not come with empty hands. “Ngrrrr?” he said, proffering one of the two shiny objects.
“Arrr-ack!” she said, and hit the left stone with the right.
His head was between them.
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“We-ell,” God said, looking slightly sheepish, “It was a beginning.”
“And what a promising one,” Fate purred. “So much for Free Will…”
“Let’s try again. After all, we have a few millennia.”
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She was only twelve years old, but many a poet had already sung the beauty of her eyes, of those barely recognizable breasts under the fine cotton muslin of her dress, of the graceful feet that danced so well, swaying hips and slim, flexible hands. She was Hermione, daughter of Glaukos, a rich merchant of Athens.
Tomorrow, she was going to wed Demetrios, the fifteen-year-old son of Demetrios the ship owner, whom her father called his business partner. Most Athenians called him his partner in crime.
Hermione wasn’t overly fond of getting married. Of course, every girl had to get married eventually, that was the sole purpose of a girl’s life after all. Her mother and the old wet-nurse had prepared her well, and she knew her duties. But lack of preparation wasn’t the reason for her reluctance. It was her future husband. At age fifteen, he bore little resemblance to the gods and heroes who filled Hermione's dreams. His beard wasn't a sober, well-ordered array of small locks and ringlets like Ulysses’ or Achilles’; it was little more than fluff, black fluff growing over spots. Demetrios’ face was riddled with spots, and she had heard the servants whisper that his back and his arse, too, were covered in spots.
And she had only one more day of freedom, before her body would belong to spotty Demetrios, who would be entitled to touching her and mounting her, grunting and sweating, like she had seen the servants do, sometimes, when she escaped her mother's care and peeped through the holes in the wooden walls of the servants’ quarters.
She was pondering all this, and many other things. Her mother called her pensive moods ‘moping’. Young girls shouldn't be moping—sometimes Hermione was beaten, and sometimes she was cheered up, depending on her mother's own mood. Today, she was inclined towards forgiveness. She was going to lose her little girl tomorrow, and that thought softened her usually harsh features until she was almost smiling. A tearful smile full of memories of her own wedding, all the hopes and dreams…
Due to her mother’s sentimental reveries and resulting lenience, Hermione was allowed to accompany Glaucos’s slavemaster to the market. Some of the merchant’s slaves had died from tuberculosis, and he needed new ones unless he wanted his business to slow down. And that was the last thing Glaukos wanted.
So they set off through the dusty streets, passing villas and gardens and temples, until they arrived at Athens’ central square, where everything could be bought, whether spices or slaves, cattle or Indian silk. Hermione loved the market, although the sharp, acrid odours sometimes gave her a headache. But the whirl of colours, voices and noise was entrancing.
The slavemaster firmly clutched her hand, while they weaved their way through the masses, and in his other hand he was holding the money bag, a swollen leather pouch filled with gold. They had arrived in time; the best specimens were still available. Both let their eyes sweep over bodies, tall and short, gaunt and fat, skin of every imaginable shade, blue eyes and black ones… The slaves on Athens’ market came from every corner of the known world.
The slavemaster was busy haggling; the price for two Germanic giants, huge and strong though they were, seemed absurdly high. In the meantime, Hermione sought the shade of a sun-sail, part of which shaded the slaves’ paddock.
“Do you come here often?”
She jumped—less with fright than with surprise, for she had been off dreaming, roaming Arcadia’s mysterious shores, waiting for a resplendent white bull with golden horns to rise from the waves, shaking his mighty head and trotting towards her…
The man who had dared to address her was older than she, by a good ten years. In spite of the Greek sun, his complexion was pale, albeit not unhealthy. Hermione wrinkled her nose—like all slaves, this one smelled horribly. Probably he had spent the last weeks in the bowels of a ship, without sunlight and in the damp darkness, where there was just enough room to curl up on the ever-wet floor. But he spoke Greek, if with a slight accent.
She turned a little, so as to fully face him, and a shaft of sunlight that fell in through a hole in the cloth above them drifted from her shoulder over her collarbone, and to a strange kind of amulet she wore around her neck. The reflected light made the young man squint.
Hermione was a polite girl, and she had not yet answered his question. “Yes,” she said, “quite often. But today might very well be the last time.” This was a huge confession, at least by her standards, and she looked at him expectantly, waiting for a curious question that might allow her to tell him more.
But he didn’t seem to have listened. He was staring, intently and unwaveringly, at her pendant. Slowly, his right hand went to the belt holding together the dirty rags he was wearing. She took a step backwards, suddenly afraid that he might have a knife hidden there. His eyes, pitch black and cold all the same, certainly made think of madness. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps he had watched the Maenads, believed himself hidden by bushes and high grass, and they had caught him and bitten him, so that now he was raving mad…
It wasn’t a knife though. It was a piece of metal, a shimmering, matte hemisphere just like the one she was wearing around her neck. He held it out to her, and smiled, as if in recognition… There was something stirring in her mind, deep down, like an itch on her back, in a place where she couldn't scratch herself…
She jumped again, because her left hand was being grabbed, gently but firmly. “Come on, Hermione,” the slavemaster said, “I have concluded my business. And you,” he squeezed her hand, “should know better than to go near those flee-eaten creatures. What would your father say? Not to mention your future husband?”
She had forgotten. The wedding and Demetrius had completely slipped from her mind. “I…” She felt herself being dragged away and dug her heels into the ground. “Couldn’t we take him?” She pointed towards the young slave, whose right hand was now balled into a fist, closing tightly around the object that seemed to be the twin of her amulet. The other half of the symbolon.
“Already looking at other men?” The slavemaster laughed. “No, no, I bought enough slaves for today. Come now, we have to go home, or your mother will scold me!”
Perhaps, she thought as her heart was stabbed by pain, perhaps he was an outcast like Orestes, a man who had committed a deed so just that even the gods had to avert their faces in shame. A son of kings, from a faraway land, tired, exhausted and worn to the bone…
She looked back. He had reopened his hand and slightly turned his palm, on which the glinting object was resting, so that a ray of sunlight was reflected directly into her eye.
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“That was… encouraging.” Fate smirked.
God smiled at her (or him? Even now, he wasn't sure) “Yes, wasn’t it? It will get better, though, with each encounter. The memories are buried deep down in their subconscious. They will accumulate.”
Fate snorted softly. “He was lucky, then.” After a brief silence, “You’re cheating shamelessly, you know?”
“Uh-huh.” God took a pipe and a tobacco tin from His pocket. “Sometimes, that's necessary. Or how did you think the French won the Soccer World Championship in 1998?”
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The humid heat of the Venetian summer did not penetrate into these rooms. They were perpetually dark, dank, and filled with the smell of old age. Old palazzo, old furniture, old people in rich, old clothes, which were all splendour unless you looked closer and saw that they were moth-eaten in some places, that the gold thread was tarnished and some of the precious stones replaced with cheap glass. It was all about façades. Venice itself was all about façades, the front sides of the palaces lining the Canale Grande all pomp and pageantry, so that nobody—especially not a stranger—would ever stop to consider that behind them lay mould and threadbare tapestries, rooms that looked grand only by candlelight, and that people were dirty under their resplendent robes, their skin itching and their joints aching with rheumatism.
He, however, was not a stranger. He was the Doge’s spy, his eyes and ears that reached far, out into the lowest regions of aristocracy’s palaces; they spied among the merchants and thieves, lingered in ill-famed taverns and at the entrances of monasteries. There was much to be heard, and Pietro Gradenigo, the Doge of Venice who every year renewed his marriage with the sea, wanted to hear it all. These were dangerous times. The Great Council had been closed shortly ago, which meant that only a selected few, those whose names were written in la Serenissima’s Golden Book, were now holding the city’s destiny in their hands. All the others, who were now excluded from power—and also from the considerable monetary gains that came with it—wanted it back. Understandably. The air was ripe with conspiracy.
He swiftly strode through a narrow corridor and knocked at a door, not much higher and wider than himself. Without waiting for response, he entered.
“Lorenzo?” The doge looked up from the parchments on his desk. He was old, and care-worn. Without his golden headwear and precious paraphernalia, he looked smaller, almost insignificant. But he was a powerful man, and Lorenzo know better than to underestimate him.
“Serenissimus.” He bowed. The gesture was acknowledged by a thin smile. “I have brought you the reports.” From the depths of his cloak, his slim white hand sneaked out—a gesture which many of the low tavern folk had learned to fear, for usually the fingers were holding a knife, and once it was out it refused to return inside before it had killed. Now, it merely held a roll of parchment.
The doge nodded. “Give it to me.” The hand he held out was thin and pale, too. Unlike Lorenzo’s, though, it trembled and was covered in age marks. “I will read it later tonight. Come back tomorrow morning, after the first mass, and we will discuss the necessary measures.” A small pouch of gold wandered into Lorenzo’s pockets.
“As you wish, Serenissimus.” He drew the hood of his cloak deeper into his face, so that it was impossible to make out his features, and silently left the chamber through the same tapestry door. In the half-dark of the room, its outline was almost undistinguishable.
So he had the evening to himself. He would spend it in good company. With a smile on his pale, sharp features, he directed his steps northwards.
Monna Vittoria, a young widow of ill reputation but great beauty, was known to have a young lover, along with the older—and richer—gentlemen whom she sometimes granted access to her bed in exchange for lots of gold. Nobody knew who he was, although many whispered about his identity. The doge himself, some reckoned. Others swore it was a noble Genovese—Venice and Genoa being mortal enemies, this would have been tantamount to high treason. Fortunately for Monna Vittoria, few believed this, and fewer even listened to the rumour that it might be the Cardinal of Milan.
Luisa, her chambermaid, knew of course. Her silence was bought with a small part of the gold the patricians paid her mistress. Luisa knew many things, more than Monna Vittoria would have liked, had she suspected it. But the girl was cautious and silent like one of the many stray cats in this city. She spied at keyholes and listened at doors and through holes in the floor. Not that she had any intention of using that wealth of knowledge. She just liked to be a little ahead of others, that was her nature.
There was one thought, however, one fixation that infested her mind, so that she felt as if her soul were gangrenous. It was a dangerous dream, reckless and perilous. And not at all likely to succeed.
She was in love with Lorenzo, who, as she well knew, was the Doge’s best spy and her mistress’s lover. Lucia fully understood why Monna Vittoria loved that man, although his exterior was anything but lovable: taller than most, he had long black hair, black eyes and a narrow-lipped but sensual mouth. He was pale, so pale… Not handsome, not even by the most lenient standards, because his nose was too big and his cheeks too hollow. But Luisa, herself a plain fourteen-year-old girl, could feel the fire burning inside him. It was a flame so intense that sometimes she almost saw him and her mistress devoured by it, while they were writhing on Monna Vittoria’s bed. Burning on a pyre of passion, briefly, leaving only a small pile of grey ashes.
Luisa envied her mistress in a quiet, stubborn way. She was not a violent creature, except in her dreams, and could not have harmed a fly on the wall. Her unrequited love, which Lorenzo had not even noticed—she had no illusions as to that—made her unhappy, more so as she knew that, for him, she probably didn’t even exist. Who would see her, when there was magnificent Monna Vittoria, all white, velvety skin and golden curls flowing down to her waist? No, she was destined to remain in the dark. Sometimes, her heart was so heavy that it hurt.
Nobody knew of this secret love, not even her mother, not even her best friend Agnese, who served down in the kitchen. They wouldn't have understood. To none of them had she shown the talisman dangling between her breasts, a massive half-sphere of unknown metal, its matte finish glinting softly even in the faintest light. There were a few small lines and curves engraved in its surface, probably they were magical. It had been handed down from mother to daughter for generations, and now she was wearing it. In a way, it was to blame for the pain in her heart, for once, when Lorenzo had not yet been her mistress's lover for long, she had spied on them and seen the very same object hanging on a chain around his neck, playfully swatted away by Monna Vittoria when he was over her and inside her…
He was early tonight, and her mistress would join him shortly, as soon as she had finished her polite conversation with a visitor, downstairs in the parlour. He was waiting for her, somewhat impatiently as it seemed, in her bedroom, and Luisa was there, breathless against the keyhole of the small side door, watching him. He had flung himself into a chair and was holding a goblet of wine. Then he stood up brusquely and started pacing, out of Luisa’s line of view. She shifted a little, so as to change her angle, and that small movement made the talisman slip out of her blouse and swing against the door. It produced a small but audible sound.
Luisa got up from the floor, heart hammering, thoughts reeling, wanting to flee but rooted to the spot.
He wasn’t a spy for nothing. She didn’t even hear the floorboards creak under his boots, when the door was already flung open, and he stood there, sneering down at her. “Do you come here often?” he asked, his voice dripping with contempt.
She fled. She cried the whole night, upstairs in her attic room.
The next evening, she cried even more, together with her mistress, blonde curls mixing with frizzy brown hair while the two women held each other, sharing a grief only one of them knew they had in common.
Lorenzo had been found dead in the morning, near the doge's palace, a dagger buried deep in his back.
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Smoke rings rose inside the time bubble and dissolved into a bluish-opaque mist.
“It seems that we aren’t too lucky,” Fate remarked. “Granted, she was in love with him this time, but they didn't even get to talk.”
God blew another smoke ring. “Patience, my friend. We are making some progress. You have bound them together, so sooner or later…” His eyes dreamily followed the rising smoke.
“Sooner or later, yes. Hopefully not too late. And I wish you had chosen a more original pick-up phrase.”
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“Rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosa, rosa…” Her brother’s voice drifted out of the schoolroom and into the garden, where Henrietta was sitting in the shadow, pretending to read.
She loved reading, was even called bookish and a bluestocking by her parents and siblings. Right now, however, her mind wasn’t focused on her book, but on the voices from inside. Robert, her eight-year-old brother, had studied his declensions well, and any second now, Mr. Harper would praise him, tell him what a bright and good boy he was, because he had done his homework and resisted the temptation of the bright summer day. She was waiting for that voice…
“Well done, Master Robert. Very well done indeed. Now let us do some translation. I will dictate you the phrases first. Number one: in the evening, the farmer hurries home, where his wife and children are expecting him with great joy.”
Did he have to select that kind of sentences? Henrietta sighed to herself. It seemed that Roman farmers had had it all, whereas she… What had she got? Dreams, and nothing else. She was allowed to read poetry and even romance, but her parents expected her to cut herself in two—dichotomy, yes that was the word, the dichotomy was driving her mad. On the one hand, there were impossible love affairs—impossible because of the many obstacles separating the lovers, who always managed to overcome them, if only by death—and on the other, she had to be reasonable. Reasonable meant that she had to ignore all those sensations evoked by her reading and by… well, yes, by Mr. Harper’s voice.
Henrietta was sure that Jeremy Harper, her brother’s tutor, had the most beautiful voice on earth. It was a rich, mellow baritone, equally adapted to speaking, singing and reading poetry, a voice the inflections of which made her think of velvet folds by candlelight, all dark valleys and shiny slopes, so that you wanted to turn into a moth and lose yourself therein…
He was also quite handsome, in that romantic, brooding way, which was so much favoured in these days. That, and he was definitely very susceptible to her looks. Whenever she thought of a pretext to enter the schoolroom—very often, she deliberately placed her sketchbook there, so she could go and retrieve it—his dark, glittering eyes were resting on her, and his hand went up to the collar of his shirt. As if he were wearing something under it, a locket maybe… Maybe he had drawn a picture of her and kept it close to his heart…
Henrietta absentmindedly played with the pendant that was fastened around her neck on a velvet ribbon. Its origins were lost in time, and nobody knew how exactly it had come into the family’s possession. But it was always given to the eldest daughter, on her fifteenth birthday, to be worn every minute of every hour of every day. Always. She would give it to her own daughter, once she had children. They would not be his, though. It was impossible, and she had accepted it. Nobody knew of that love, not even her own mother. It had to be buried in the deepest recesses of her heart, never betrayed to anybody, not even to him. There wouldn't be a single inappropriate gesture, no clandestine meetings, no stolen kisses. There had been hope in his eyes when he had found her, by mere chance, in her favourite hideaway back there in the untended part of the park. “Do you come here often?” he had asked, and she had fled. She knew her duties and position, and so did he. But it hurt…
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“Ah,” said Fate, “We’re getting closer, aren’t we?”
“Definitely.” God tilted His head and looked at her (or him? He couldn't really ask now, could he?) “You know, sometimes I’m asking myself how many of them really use their Free Will. I mean, look at that girl, Henrietta. She was in love with him, and maybe they would have become happy—what?”
“No,” Fate said, “They wouldn't. He would have got a small living, somewhere in the North—can’t remember the name of that godforsaken place, pardon the pun. She’d have died giving birth to their first child. Consumption, no kidding. He would have hated the child for it and—”
“Thank you, I don't think I need to hear more. I get the general idea. Are you sure you didn’t talk to Aeschylus lately?”
“Life, dear friend, produces enough tragedies.”
“True, very true. Maybe a little magic might help…”
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When she had received her Hogwarts letter at age eleven, Hermione Granger had had her very own ideas of what it meant to be a witch. She had fantasized about turning people into toads, and changing her parents’ old couch into a pile of gold…
During seven years of magical training, she had adapted her ideas to reality. She had learned as much as she could—and that was a lot—and honed her abilities. Since her fourth year, thirst for knowledge had ceased to be her sole motive. Voldemort had come back then, greater and more terrible than ever, according to the words of Sybil Trelawney, Divination teacher and fraud extraordinaire. That particular prediction had been on-spot, though. Not that anybody was glad about that.
Hermione had read about Voldemort's first reign of terror; her face pale with shock and fatigue, she had ploughed through books, and more books, which described the horrors of those years—the torture, the killing, the fear. In a way, she had been prepared, if only in theory. Nothing could have prepared her for the reality of losing her parents. Or of seeing Ron cry for the first time since they had met, when he received the news about Percy. Or of watching, unable to move, as Neville Longbottom threw himself at Draco Malfoy, clawing and beating and kicking, ready to strangle the other.
But those were unimportant details, compared to what was going on outside.
Since that evening after the Triwizard Tournament, when they had all been at the infirmary with Harry and seen Snape bare his left forearm to a recoiling Cornelius Fudge, she had known that he had once been a Death Eater. Her trust in Dumbledore was unshakeable, and so she wouldn't have needed Harry’s confirmation to be sure that Snape wasn’t one of them anymore. A spy… she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it implied. She knew it was a cowardly reaction, but sometimes she simply sought refuge in the thought that, after all, she was still a child and thus entitled to not knowing.
But from then on, she had watched him.
She had secretly observed him during meals, had darted unobtrusive glances while she was busy preparing potions, had even volunteered for double shifts in her sixth and seventh year, first as prefect and then as Head Girl, when the corridors of Hogwarts had to be constantly patrolled. She had patiently monitored him and, in a way, gotten to know him. There were days when he seemed almost normal: his hands were completely steady then, and his eyes as sharp and glittering as ever. But there also were the worse days, and their number increased as time passed. On those days, his eyes seemed to have sunken more deeply into their sockets, and they were glazed over. His hands were mostly in his pockets, so that none of the students could see them tremble. But she saw, because she knew. One night, she had even surprised him, high up on the Astronomy Tower, where he was standing at the window, shivering despite the warmth. His “Do you come here often?” had been a reprimand more than a question, and she had understood. It was his refuge, and she must not disturb him there.
She didn't have time for a boyfriend. Most of her peers—with the exception of Harry, maybe—were convinced that she was simply too picky, too arrogant, too… well, demanding. In reality, she had shoved that thought aside, quite rudely even. It wasn’t as if she didn't want; on the contrary, sometimes she would have bartered ten years of her life for the embrace of a lover, especially since her parents had been killed. She merely thought that there were more important problems than her own cravings for love and physical contact.
In the end, they had won. A terrible victory, obtained at a price that forbade celebrations. She had survived, together with a few others… No happy few, no. Traumatized and bruised and wounded, their minds so crammed with images of horror that sleep would elude them for weeks, maybe for their whole life.
The dead were in the Hospital Wing, ready to be buried the next day. She weaved her way through the rows of immobile forms until she had found him. One last look at Severus Snape, a last, clandestine glance, before earth held him in her cool embrace.
She pulled at the shroud covering his face. He looked peaceful, she thought. Younger, too. They had clad him in his dress robes of black velvet, as suited the occasion. For a long time, she merely stood and looked at his face. The nose seemed bigger now, because his cheeks were more concave than when he had still been alive. Pale skin, black hair… she lost herself in her thoughts.
Then, she noticed something on his throat, a piece of chain, so thin that it was almost invisible against the background of white skin. Snape had been wearing… what? An amulet, maybe? Or perhaps a locket, containing the picture of someone he had loved? She tried to resist, but the urge was too strong. With numb fingers she unbuttoned the stiff collar of his robes, and pulled at the chain. For a moment, she forgot to breathe.
It seemed unbelievable, but he was wearing the same pendant as herself, a perfect hemisphere of some metal she'd never been able to identify, shimmering and perfect, with small lines and curves engraved into the surface. The other half of hers. She lifted the object to examine the flat underside—yes, the same jagged, rough structure, like wood cut with a blunt saw.
Had she but known… Of course, she shouldn't blame herself, as there had been no way for her to find out. But all the same… Maybe she could have done something, helped him, even saved him.
It was too late now.
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“It was a close miss,” God said, almost apologetically.
“A close miss is still a miss. And time is running out…”
God sighed. “I know, I know. Next time, it has to work…”
“Indeed,” said Fate. “Maybe I might give them a little push…”
God nodded, trying to look as if He hadn't quite understood.
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Sean Sullivan made his way through the corridors of Block 44 A, passing a different security device every thirty seconds. His fingerprints had to be scanned, his voice recognized; he had to give various codes and to insert his ID card into scanners. At last, he arrived in the laboratory where Heather Gillian, his long-time friend and colleague, was already waiting.
“Had a good weekend?” she asked, by way of a salutation, while he put on his lab coat and washed his hands.
“So-so. Barney wasn't too well…”
Barney, a gentle-eyed Golden Retriever, was Sean’s other friend, soul mate and, with increasing age, the source of terrible worries. Heather’s face became a mask of sympathy and concern. “Did you take him to the vet?”
“Yes, of course.” His voice was raucous, and Heather suspected that he had a hard time keeping himself from crying.
“And… what did he say?”
Sean had finished washing his hands and turned round to face her, while he put on his gloves. He shrugged. “What do you think he said? Barney is seventeen—there isn't much anyone can say or do…” His black eyes, usually glittering with scientific curiosity or simply with glee at other colleagues’ failures, were now suspiciously bright. “It’s just…” He took a deep breath. “I mean, I can’t imagine life without him…” His shoulders slumped.
Heather stood there, only at a few steps’ distance, biting her lip and nervously fingering the pendant she always wore. They had been friends for so long… she knew she loved him but wasn't quite sure about his feelings… he was looking so forlorn… maybe she should…
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God was apparently very interested in the trajectory of another smoke ring. Fate reached out through the time bubble and gave a gentle shove…
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…and almost as if pushed by some invisible hand, she closed the distance between them and put her arms around his shoulders. He didn't push her away. But he didn’t return her embrace, either.
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Fate rolled her eyes. Humans… she reached out again and opened the first two buttons of his shirt, then gave another little push…
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Finally, she felt his arms close around her. Finally, their lips met. They whispered “I love you” almost simultaneously. It was as if…
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God and Fate held their breath…
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…universe were holding its breath for a nanosecond.
Then, the two halves of a shimmering metal sphere clicked together. The small lines and curves slowly drifted into order, forming two words.
Suddenly, the couple found themselves in unknown surroundings—something like a huge dome, maybe inside a mountain… The ground was rocky and uneven. “Do you come here often?” he muttered into her ear, and she giggled. They let go of each other to look around. Something metallic hit the ground, and both crouched down to pick it up. It was a perfect sphere, matte and shimmering in the dim light.
“There's something written on it,” Heather murmured.
“Strange…” Sean said, “I wonder whether it has something to do with this machine…”
The machine was enormous and had a definitely sinister look about it. The low hum it emitted did nothing to make it appear less malicious.
Then they heard the ticking…
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“Fifty seconds to go,” God said, and Fate nodded. They were both quite nervous.
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“Ah, here's the display!” Sean called.
Heather joined him on the machine’s other side. “It's doing a countdown.”
“Like in those old movies…”
“Do you think it’s a bomb?”
“If this is a bomb, I suppose it’s going to blow up the whole globe,” he said pensively. “Do you think…” He held the sphere between his thumb and forefinger.
“Well, otherwise it would be too much of a coincidence, wouldn't it? And there’s this hole here beside the display… it think it fits perfectly…”
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“Ten… nine…” God was visibly tense.
“Put the bloody ball into that bloody hole!” Fate hissed through clenched teeth.
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“Okay,” Sean said. “Only three seconds, I think I’d better…”
Once the sphere, on which the words “EMERGENCY STOP” were now clearly readable, had been inserted into the hole, the humming ceased abruptly. Heather and Sean grinned at each other.
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“Oh my God!” said Fate.
“Ye-es?” said God.
“Nothing,” said fate. “Should we put them back now?”
“I suppose we should. Any preferences as to where?”
“Hmm…” Fate seemed a little undecided. “Maybe when they were both wizards? They'd live longer, you know, and if we twisted things just a little… we could go back a few months…”
“All right,” said God. “But let me tell you that you’re a hopeless romantic.”
Fate smiled her mysterious smile.
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“Sorry, sir,” Hermione Granger squeaked, “I didn't do it deliberately…” She bent down to retrieve the Mandrake root…
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Fate reached out and crooked her forefinger…
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…and the pendant she had been wearing, without ever taking it off, since her tenth birthday, slipped out of her blouse.
The Potions Master gasped. His right hand flew up to the collar of his robes. He swallowed, and then said, “Detention, Miss Granger. Tonight at eight sharp, in my office.”
To his surprise, she smiled.
T H E E N D