Title: Penultimate Acts
Characters and Pairing: Severus Snape, students, teachers and portraits of Hogwarts. Severus/Lily.
Beta Reader: Anne
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
Summary: Severus Snape, from nearly the end of Dumbledore's life to nearly the end of his own.
Severus had often loathed Dumbledore enough to hope that the old man would go first. Neither of them were going to get out of this alive anyway: such had been his fear even before Dumbledore had arrived at Hogwarts with a curse inside him slowly eating its way out. If only it had been the curse that had killed him. If only before trapping the curse in Dumbledore's hand Severus had asked himself whether containing it was what he really wanted to do.
It worked out in the end--if working out was what you'd call it. When the time came, Severus had accumulated enough fury to kill Dumbledore himself.
"You must kill me...Severus...please..."
Green light had answered for him: I hate you. I will always hate you.
But always relented, as it always did. By the time Charity Burbage was spinning before him, weariness had filed down the rough edges of Severus's feeling. He didn't need Occlumency's help when Voldemort cut Charity down at last, when the voice of the other one he hated said, "Dinner, Nagini."
A year after he had failed to heal Dumbledore of the ring's curse, Severus Snape was made Headmaster of Hogwarts. He'd had little need of Occlumency then, either, as Pius Thicknesse's mind was bound by Yaxley's Imperius Curse when he conferred the honor. Still, he'd had something to hide from the servants of Lord Voldemort who had surrounded him at the confirmation:
"If it falls into his grasp, I have your word that you will do all in your power to protect the students of Hogwarts?"
All in his power. Severus had only nodded to Dumbledore in reply, for he'd always considered it safer to avoid putting such potent utterances into words. Always.
Now Hogwarts was in Voldemort's grasp and Headmaster Snape stood in his office, gazing at ex-Headmaster Dumbledore asleep, chin on chest, within the confines of a picture frame.
Headmaster Snape. Neither of his masters, living or dead, really believed that he deserved it. Yet he could feel the bedrock of Hogwarts under his feet, holding him up, its turreted backbone stiffening his. The waters of its lake coursed through him like his own blood, and the ghosts of its halls flitted greyly through his brain. That was what it meant to be Headmaster of Hogwarts.
"Along with a myriad of lesser annoyances."
Severus wasn't startled. He'd been waiting for Dumbledore to wake up.
"So you do feel it," Dumbledore said. "I must say, I'd hoped for it, but I didn't really expect it. Congratulations on your new position."
"Thank you, Headmast--"
"No, no. Call me Albus. Please."
Severus couldn't see himself getting used to that. "So we're equals now?"
"Equals? Why, no. You're my superior. You're alive, aren't you?"
Severus looked at him in silence.
"You're the Headmaster of Hogwarts," Dumbledore said. "I can't want what needs to be done any more than you do."
It dawned on Severus then, the way the ceaseless activity, the seemingly eternal life of Hogwarts had dawned on him. "To protect the students of Hogwarts."
"Yes. Especially now that our uncommonly debased friends, Amycus and Alecto, have joined the faculty."
"Well, it won't be so easy," said Severus. "Amycus Carrow won't be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. He'll be teaching the Dark Arts. With plenty of hands-on exercises in class."
"Ah, yes. In keeping with 'our finest Wizarding traditions and values.'"
Severus recognized the Prophet's quote of his remarks on the announcement of his confirmation as Headmaster. "I didn't know portraits read the newspaper."
"We don't. But there are portraits of Faris Spavin in the Minister's office and the St Mungo's Hospital Board of Trustees' conference room. Minister Spavin was a Trustee in his day and a generous donor too. The Healers couldn't repair his lame leg, but that didn't close his purse."
"Faris told me everything." Headmistress Derwent's portrait gave Severus a withering glare.
"Dilys is also quite naturally enshrined in a portrait in the Trustees' conference room," said Dumbledore.
"I came at once to tell Albus," said Headmistress Derwent. "I thought he ought to know what his protégé is up to"
Severus looked at Dumbledore. "You have quite the network."
"Not I, Severus. Hogwarts. Hogwarts, you'll find, has many friends."
"We'll need them." The new Headmaster of Hogwarts looked at each portrait in turn. "Things are going to be very different around here from now on."
Phineas Nigellus Black was the only one who smiled at that.
Severus had spent sixteen years as a teacher before becoming Headmaster. But believe it or not (he could hardly credit it himself), there were still students whose utter asininity could floor him.
He'd thought he hadn't left himself unprepared. He'd regularly reminded Amycus Carrow that the Dark Lord wanted no student crippled without cause. There was a resistance out there, one that would exaggerate classroom injuries into atrocities. Then, unable to sustain a hope that Carrow would have the capacity much less the discipline to absorb his warning, Severus had spoken with Madam Pomfrey.
"You're likely to run across the occasional intractable curse this year. Don't go floundering out of your depth if you do. Call me at once, day or night."
"Oh, yes, that's right. You came closer than anyone to healing the Headmaster. Before you killed him."
"I'm the Headmaster."
She'd met that with silence, meaning as far as Severus was concerned that she hadn't said she wouldn't call him.
In fact she did call him, hardly three weeks into the term. So Severus was right about that. When he answered her call, he discovered how wrong he was about the extent of youthful stupidity--especially Gryffindor youthful stupidity--at Hogwarts.
They stood beside a bed in the ward of the hospital wing, looking at the patient. "I'd have transferred him to St Mungo's instead of calling you, if your lot hadn't taken over there too," said Madam Pomfrey.
Severus didn't look up from Neville Longbottom, convulsing gently on the bed, his eyes rolled back in his head. "Only the Board of Trustees, really. There aren't many Healers who are Death Eaters. What happened to Longbottom?"
Madam Pomfrey seemed to have difficulty answering. "He refused to cast the--Cruciatus Curse on Megan Jones in Defense Against the Dark Arts. So Carrow did it to her instead. And then he did--he did it to Neville."
"How is Miss Jones?"
"Fine. She was just shocked, that's all. She's in the girls' ward, sleeping. But you.... I didn't really think you could stand by and let Carrow...even though you killed Dumbledore...Carrow...Snape, he enjoys torturing children!"
When her voice broke, Severus looked up. She'd squeezed her eyes tightly shut, crumpling her face into furrows of grief. A tear trembled at the edge of each lid.
"You were in the staff meeting at start of term, Madam. I said then that things were going to be different from now on."
She opened her eyes. There were no new tears in them. "You'll regret this."
Severus had rarely heard hatred expressed so quietly. He didn't rise to it. He knew what it was to find your Headmaster intolerable. He drew his wand and, taking light from the Dark, found the counter-curse that would soothe the disarray of Longbottom's nervous system. Murmuring, he passed his wand over Longbottom's body. Longbottom's limbs stilled, his eyes closed, and he breathed easily.
Madame Pomfrey went still too. After a moment, she said, "Teach me how to do that."
Severus met her eyes. They were as clear as spring water in sunlight. "You don't have it in you to learn it."
She blanched, spun on her heel, strode into her office and slammed the door. She'd taken Severus's comment as an insult. He hadn't yet decided whether she was wrong to do so when Longbottom shifted and opened his eyes.
"Wha--?" Longbottom muttered. He started shaking his head, stopped when his eyes landed on Severus and jerked fully awake. For one second he remained perfectly still. Then his eyes darted here, there, while he groped beneath the bedclothes. Finally he saw his wand on the bedside table. His hand shot out.
Severus waited until he saw Longbottom's hand. Then he opened his own and Longbottom's wand flew into his grasp.
"Give it back, you son of a bitch."
Severus eyed him. There were cuts on his cheek (perhaps not Carrow's work, as Longbottom fought constantly with the Slytherins) and boyish stubble scattered in immature patches on his jaw, chin and upper lip. With the insolent rebellion of his expression and the bone structure of the better-quality Pureblood emerging from his childishly chubby cheeks, Longbottom reminded Severus of no one more than Sirius Black.
"You were at the start-of-term-feast, Longbottom," Severus said, deciding on a plain recitation of the facts. "You heard then--from me--that things were going to be very different around here from now on. Gryffindor disrespect, Gryffindor disobedience, Gryffindor challenges to a teacher in his classroom will not be tolerated under Headmaster Snape as they were under Headmaster Dumbledore."
"Is that why you murdered him? So you could use his position to get revenge on a bunch of kids?"
The Neville Longbottom Severus had known mere months ago couldn't have asked those questions.
"You must be glad Potter's not come back to Hogwarts this year, Longbottom, that he's on the run like a rat. You can take his place as the Chosen One."
That got under Longbottom's skin. "Harry Potter is not running!" he shouted, flinging himself at Severus as if he hadn't been tortured into convulsions an hour earlier.
He had, though. So Severus slapped him back with the mildest of Firewhips, the spell with which he'd stopped Potter's name-calling on the night he'd killed--on that night. After the cascade of sparks had knocked Longbottom to his pillow, Severus thrust his face inches from the boy's, close enough to smell the sour breath of his suffering.
"Try to remember something for me, would you, Longbottom?" he hissed. "Try to remember that Amycus Carrow is a Death Eater. That is, a person who would like nothing better than to put you in the Janus Thickey Ward in a bed next to your parents, where you can all live together as one deliriously happy family."
Severus straightened, keeping his eye on Longbottom. Longbottom's lip trembled for a second, giving Severus a glimpse of the thirteen-year-old whose Boggart was Professor Snape beneath the seventeen-year-old who merely hated him.
But only for a second. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd join in, give Carrow a hand."
"Carrow wouldn't need my help. Any more than I'd need his."
Clenching wads of bed linen in his fists, staring at his wand in Severus's hand, Longbottom said nothing.
"Oh, that," Severus said, glancing down at Longbottom's wand. "It'll be in Madam Pomfrey's office. She'll return it to you when you're capable of using it properly."
He placed Longbottom's wand on Madam Pomfrey's desk, saying that if she would please refrain from returning it to Longbottom until after he'd left, it would be safer for all concerned. Pretending to be absorbed in her patients' charts, she neither looked up nor answered. So Severus walked out of her office, staring Longbottom down as he passed his bed on his way out of the hospital wing.
If Longbottom lowered his eyes, it wasn't until after Severus was gone.
"You again," Severus said to Longbottom.
He, Ginevra Weasley and Luna Lovegood were lined up before Severus's desk like prisoners before the Wizengamot. Severus looked at them over steepled fingers. Dumbledore slept within his frame on the wall above Severus's head. Beside Dumbledore's portrait, restored to its glass case, was what the world believed to be the Sword of Gryffindor.
"I stole the sword," said the Weasley girl. She gestured briefly at herself, indicating her captive aspect. "I'm the only one who should be standing here."
"We all planned it, Ginny," Longbottom said. "We all helped."
Lovegood had been the first to hear Severus's approach and had given the belated, loudly-whispered warning. The sword had been in the Weasley girl's hands when Severus had caught the three of them on the staircase descending from his office. But Longbottom had led. Ignoring Severus's warning after Carrow had cursed him into convulsions, Longbottom had assumed the runaway Potter's mantle as Hogwarts Head Troublemaker. He had the perennially-blooming bruises--under his left eye, at the moment--to prove it.
"My question is, why?" said Severus. "Why go to the trouble? The danger, now that you're caught?" He could tell by Longbottom's eyes that Longbottom, at least, knew how much danger they were in. "When the basilisk is long dead?"
With the mention of the basilisk, Severus's gaze went to Ginevra. If the memory of spending a year as Tom Riddle's creature still hurt, she didn't show it. He had to admire her for that. He hadn't always been able to hide his own similar pain. And if the newer pains of being a Weasley in these times, of loving Harry Potter in these times troubled her, she didn't show that either. With a Lily-like set to her jaw, she remained silent. The others did too.
"It's something to do with Potter, then," Severus murmured half to himself. "Potter and Dumbledore."
"That brings up a question," said Lovegood placidly. Her eyes were fixed on a point above Severus's head. "Has Professor Dumbledore been asleep ever since you took over his office?"
Severus glanced over his shoulder at the dozing Dumbledore. "I'm not always here to keep an eye on him."
"Perhaps he's been bitten by a Somnofact. Did you know that in 1791, the vicar of Tinworth recorded an epidemic of people sleeping for days on end? They wouldn't even wake up to eat or drink. Six of them ended up dying of thirst. The vicar knew to call the Ministry when the Muggle doctors were stumped--his sister was a witch--and finally an exterminator from the Pest Advisory Board sorted it out. They'd been bitten by Somnofacts. Somnofacts bite in sensitive spots, you know, and the exterminator knew exactly where to look."
"Luna--" said Longbottom anxiously.
"It was the first recorded Somnofact infestation among Muggles, and it was a great deal of trouble for the Ministry to clear up, since Somnofacts are endemic to Cornwall, although, due to warming temperatures, some migrants have recently been sighted in Scotland--"
"Luna!" said Ginevra rather more sharply.
Lovegood blinked. "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't mean a real Somnofact. I thought Professor Dumbledore might have been bitten by a portrait-Somnofact." She switched her featherbrained gaze from Dumbledore's portrait to Severus's face. "Do we have a picture of a Somnofact at Hogwarts, Professor Snape? In the Restricted section of the library, perhaps?"
This was all Longbottom's fault. If he hadn't quite astonishingly stolen Potter's thunder in Potter's absence, Luna Lovegood wouldn't have joined the rebellion. There would have been no rebellion.
She nattered on without waiting for Severus's reply. "Because if Professor Dumbledore were awake at all, he'd have seen what's been going on, wouldn't he? He'd have raised a ruckus, rallied the castle portraits to his side, led a revolt. It would have put you in something of a bind with You-Know-Who, I'd think."
Severus regarded her. Despite what she'd just said, her vapid expression remain unchanged.
"Don't you worry, Miss Lovegood," he said. "Professor Dumbledore and I are in perfect accord. He approves of all the actions I've taken as Headmaster and agrees with all my future plans. In fact, you might say that Dumbledore's Army is working for me."
"Oh, well, he must wake up sometimes, then, to talk to you. I'm glad a Somnofact didn't bite him."
"You're lying." Longbottom's voice started low. He raised it to call to Dumbledore's portrait. "Professor Dumbledore! Professor Dumbledore!" Within his frame, Dumbledore snored softly on.
"Even if Dumbledore hated every single thing I did, he would never rebel." Severus didn't need to feign his pleasure at that. "He, like every other portrait in Hogwarts Castle, is under the Headmaster's command." Folding his arms on the desk, he leaned forward to stare into Longbottom's truculent face. "The Headmaster. That would be me."
"Not for long," said Ginevra.
"Oh, yes, that's right. I'm Headmaster only until Harry Potter returns--on King Arthur's arm, no doubt." Severus lounged back in the Headmaster's chair. "In the meantime, detentions. You'll spend the next two weeks after lessons with Hagrid, helping him out in the Forbidden Forest. Let's hope he'll keep a better eye on you than I'm afraid he will."
Their faces froze into masks, hiding their surprise, their relief and their triumph at putting one over on the Death Eater Headmaster. Severus doubted they'd ask questions. But he dismissed them immediately, just in case.
Autumn edged into winter, and Christmas emptied the school. Even the Carrows left Hogwarts, taking a break from the daily torment of students to retire to a revelry that Severus preferred not to consider. Happily, he had something else to occupy his thoughts: the revelation that Potter was hiding out in the Forest of Dean.
Dumbledore was delighted to hear it from his fellow-portrait, Phineas Nigellus. At last Severus could convey the Sword of Gryffindor to Potter, something which Dumbledore had been champing at the bit to have done ever since he'd first opened his eyes from a nap to see Severus standing in the Headmaster's office.
"Now, Severus, the sword! Do not forget that it must be taken under conditions of need and valor--and he must not know that you give it! If Voldemort should read Harry's mind and see you acting for him--"
Death had taken away Dumbledore's agency in that as in all other matters. That explained his words, tumbling all over themselves out of his mouth in his eagerness to get what he wanted done. Escaping the deluge, Severus took the sword and left.
He Apparated as soon as he was outside the school grounds, inserting himself into a close-set grove in the Forest of Dean. He didn't expect to find anyone here--even most Muggles weren't silly enough to go camping in snowdrifts--but he peered carefully through a curtain of fir branches before stepping into the clearing.
Usually, he wasn't one to take in views. As a child, he'd learned a sort of tunnel vision that had helped him block out whatever he hadn't wanted to see. At Hogwarts, both as a student and a teacher, he had been too harried and absorbed to allow mountains, lake and sky to fill his thoughts.
But now it seemed that even if he closed his eyes, he couldn't escape the sun in the cloudless sky, the snow sparkling like a carpet of stars, the blue shadows of the trees. He looked around for a moment, feeling a strange ache in his chest. Then, with a deep breath of icy air, he pulled a map out of his pocket.
He had no idea where Potter might be found, and the map was not the sort that could inform him. It was a Muggle survey map indicating every geographical landmark in the forest. As soon as he'd seen the map, he had known what test of valor he'd set for Potter. After six years of teaching him, he knew Potter's strengths and weaknesses.
"Arrogance and self-satisfaction won't do," he murmured to himself. "But a certain headlong recklessness might."
He hefted the sword. The sun glanced off its blade as he tilted it in his hand, blinding him for a moment with reflected brilliance, kindling the rubies in its hilt to flame. He gazed into the blade's fire for a moment, enduring its burning until his mind was clear. He drew his wand then and let the memory in, of flight above the asphalt playground under a summer sky, Lily's hand clasped in his. His Patronus sprang from his wand.
They regarded each other. "You'll be able to find him," Severus said to her. "He's your son. More or less."
Would Lily endorse what the doe was finding her son for? Probably not. She hadn't given her life to send Potter to his death. Severus, fortunately for the wizarding world, was more detached.
The sword, then. He looked at it, realizing there was little he could have about him that was gaudier, more likely to attract attention. He lowered it, wishing he had a scabbard to slip it into. But it had been forged whole, so that nothing could be conjured around it, nothing added or taken away. He held the hilt in one hand and laid the blade across his other palm. He hunched his shoulders, leaning over it as if to shield it from the revealing light, and began to walk.
His Patronus walked sedately beside him at first. Then she ran from the trail into the wood, leaping over fallen branches and snow-covered rocks, flashing silver between the dark tree trunks. Finding her way through the forest so that she could the more easily find her way to Lily's son.
It was what Severus wanted. She always looked freer than most Patronuses he'd seen, every inch the bounding young doe, going where she would. But she always did what Severus wanted. She was his, after all.
It was like the portraits, he mused. They spoke their minds to him; they traveled as they wished among their various frames. But they were the Headmaster's portraits, and when all was said and done, they followed the Headmaster's will.
"And you still aren't going to tell me why it's so important to give Potter the sword?"
"No, I don't think so...."
I don't think so either. Severus already knew more than he wanted about the Boy-Who-Must-Die. Much more than he wanted around a Dark Lord who seemed to be disintegrating mentally and physically before his eyes.
But he wouldn't think about that now. He was enjoying his walk. He could have Apparated to the pool he'd found on the survey map, but he hadn't wanted to. He liked sinking himself into the ritual of bearing a sword wreathed in ancient magic to the hiding place he had chosen in his wizard's wisdom, where it would rest unseen, unknown, waiting for the hero who would retrieve it and make it his own.
Under conditions of need and valor.
He walked on. He hardly thought about it, but when he did, he realized that the unruffled blanket of snow, marked only with the tracks of animals and birds, the sun setting among clouds of mauve, pink and peach calmed him. He felt his heartbeat grow quieter, his breathing more even. Some time later, he felt his fingers stiffen and the sword turn to ice in his hands. He pulled gloves out of his pocket and put them on.
Cantering over the surface of the snow, leaving no tracks (which startled Severus for a second; she seemed so real to him), the doe returned to his side. They were nearing their destination. In an indigo twilight, with the first stars coming out, they arrived.
Severus stopped before it, a frozen pool in a small clearing. The doe stopped beside him, and for a moment they gazed at the pool together. Then the doe lifted her head, fixing her eyes on Severus as he drew his wand. He soundlessly opened a crack in the ice, widened it enough to slide the Sword of Gryffindor through. Then, levitating carefully, he submerged the sword, anchoring it in the silt at the bottom of the pool with a charm. The water closed over it with a quiet splash, and he closed the ice over the water with a flick of his wand.
Again Severus gazed at the pool. The ice was thick, slightly cracked, like the ice of the marshy ponds he'd seen near the river in his youth. But by wandlight you could see through the ice to a red glint below. Not dangerously far, but just far enough to make the fetching of the sword a perfect misery to anyone who tried it. To free it from the charm and lift it from the pool, Potter would have to lay his hand on the sword's hilt. To lay his hand on the sword's hilt, he would have to submerge his entire body.
Conditions of valor, Severus thought with a grim smile.
But then he felt his Patronus close to him, saw her light scattered on the snow, and his satisfaction faded. He looked up, meeting her eyes. "You can find Potter...Harry...if anyone can."
She lowered her head, in assent, he assumed, since she was his, and trotted off.
Potter discovered the sword, but what use he made of it, Severus never knew. Severus was only at Hogwarts, and at Hogwarts Longbottom led the rebellion. Certainly it was Longbottom who brought things to a head, for it was Longbottom who understood the Room of Requirement better than anyone alive. (Alive, for Dumbledore was dead, and Severus had ceased to call life whatever it was the Dark Lord possessed.)
For how else, Severus asked himself later, had Potter got into Hogwarts but by the Room of Requirement? With Longbottom's help?
Longbottom had been there for two weeks. One of the few moments of amusement afforded to Severus that year had been when Amycus Carrow had come to him complaining of Longbottom's final escape. "He ran into a wall! I couldn't follow him, could I?"
Severus asked what, precisely, Carrow wanted him to do about it.
"Get him out of the wall!"
Clearly Carrow wasn't familiar with the Room of Requirement. Severus explained, then said, "I'm afraid he's got you over a barrelhead. As long as Longbottom or one of his friends remains in the Room, none of us can get in."
Things were at a stalemate then, and so they remained until the first of May, when as the colors of sunset illuminated the school lawn the Dark Lord burned a message into Severus's left arm. Gasping, he turned from the office window to face the portrait above the Headmaster's chair.
This time Dumbledore wasn't sleeping. "What is it, Severus?"
"The Dark Lord--he's warning me--Potter might try to get into the castle. But why?" Severus caught his breath. "Why do something so foolish?" He stopped again, suddenly thunderstruck. "You foresaw it. You said he might suspect...."
"About that bit of Voldemort's soul inside him, that he must kill by dying? No. Not yet, not thoroughly." Dumbledore gazed at Severus and sighed. "But it is time for you to arrange a meeting between Harry and Lord Voldemort."
"That will be the easiest thing in the world," said Severus, smiling cruelly, "since the Dark Lord wants Potter dead just as much as you do."
The taunt didn't get a rise out of Dumbledore. Perhaps, like Severus himself, Dumbledore's portrait had lost the capacity to be shocked.
Severus retired to his bedroom to nurse a glass of Firewhisky and wait. Potter attempting a return...with the help of Longbottom and Dumbledore's Army, perhaps? Perhaps it was a Gryffindor plot from top to bottom. Perhaps Minerva knew Potter's whereabouts and acted as his and Longbottom's go-between.
Absurd. Minerva would never put students in such danger. Besides, the Dark Lord had ordered him to place a guard in Ravenclaw, not Gryffindor House. Why, Severus had no idea. And then a dispatch from the Dark Lord burned into his arm with such a fury of exultation that his blood seemed to boil beneath the Mark.
Alecto is holding Potter in the Ravenclaw common room. Go there, Severus, take him. Save him for me.
Severus rose and left the bedroom. Potter was here, the Dark Lord was coming, the end was nigh. He strode out of the Headmaster's office under a dozen watchful portrait-eyes and made for Ravenclaw House.
He started by walking but ended up running, as lightly and quietly as he could, down the stairs to a corridor that linked to a pair of staircases ascending to Ravenclaw. He traversed the corridor, turned a corner, saw the first flight of stairs and dodged instantly behind a pillar. In her hairnet and tartan dressing gown, holding her wand aloft, Minerva McGonagall came down the stairs and entered the corridor.
Now what was she doing so far from Gryffindor House at this time of night, descending the very staircase Severus wanted to climb? She hadn't just come from Ravenclaw House, had she? Potter wasn't with her, was he, under his father's Invisibility Cloak?
Minerva looked up and down the corridor, then took off in the opposite direction, away from Severus. He followed her. After some moments, she hesitated again, tilting her head. He sidled behind a suit of armor that stood beside the wall.
"Who's there?" Minerva said.
Severus shrugged. There was no hiding from Minerva McGonagall when she wanted to find you. Besides, it was time to stop hiding. "It is I," he said, abandoning the armor's shelter.
It was like and unlike meeting her on her discharge from hospital two years before. Then his heart had lifted with relief as he'd strode forward. Now as he stepped into the center of the corridor, it sat like a lump of clay in his chest.
What was he going to do with her?
The old rivalry mixed with respect still lay between them. She looked at him without surprise or fear. And she held her wand in dueling position.
He'd raised his some time ago, but now it struck him: how, exactly, were you supposed to duel with the witch who had taught you how to Transfigure a feather into a handkerchief when you were eleven years old? The same way you killed the wizard who had welcomed you to his school with a bright hall ceilinged to look like the sky, with more food than you'd ever seen in your life, with warm words and open arms?
He didn't hate her as he'd learned to hate Dumbledore. Yet everything else was the same. He still had to get Potter to the Dark Lord any way he could.
"Where are the Carrows?" he asked Minerva.
She didn't quite have the nerve to lie. "Wherever you told them to be, I expect, Severus."
Severus moved closer, searching the air around her as if he might pierce it with his eyes. Of course he couldn't. The air was the Cloak, and the Cloak shielded Potter. I know it, I know it. "I was under the impression that Alecto had apprehended an intruder."
"Really? And what gave you that impression?"
He half-answered her with a tightening of his left arm.
"Oh, but naturally," Minerva said. "You Death Eaters have your own private method of communication, I forgot."
Severus took another step toward her, raking the air, the Cloak, with his eyes. He would rip it apart somehow, expose Potter; it was the only way he could avoid fighting her. Unless, perhaps, he could show her that he knew what she was up to.
"I did not know that it was your night to patrol the corridors, Minerva."
"You have some objection?"
"I wonder what could have brought you out of your bed at this late hour?"
"I thought I heard a disturbance."
"Really? But all seems calm."
The Cloak was impermeable. Was Minerva's mind? He'd never dared try her before. But before he'd had something to lose.
"Have you seen Harry Potter, Minerva?" Severus said, looking into her eyes. "Because if you have, I must insist--"
In place of Occlumency she threw a Stunner at him, so quickly and powerfully that he was startled into overreaction. His Shield Charm, bursting ferociously from his wand, nearly bowled her off her feet.
And then, whether he wanted to or not, he was duelling with his former teacher. She used Earth's elements against him as only a great witch could, casting a rope of fire at him, dissolving his Serpensortia to smoke. Then a half-dozen daggers flew at him (she'd done that?). He couldn't repel them without hurting her, so he pointed his wand at the suit of armor. With a shrill scrape of metal against stone, it moved in front of him. One by one, the daggers rang into its breastplate. None of them clattered to the floor.
They'd sunk into solid metal deeply enough to stick. How much further would they have sunk into his flesh?
"Minerva!" With Flitwick's cry came the pounding of slippered feet. "No! You'll do no more murder at Hogwarts!"
The suit of armor sprang forward and seized Severus in an agonizing embrace. He writhed and kicked, gasping for breath. Jointed metal bit into his sides; the arms hugged tighter, crushing his ribs so that he couldn't breathe. A grey fog filtered into the edges of his sight. Panic flooded him; he lunged desperately against the iron arms--and broke free. Whirling, he slammed a spell into the armor. As it flew at McGonagall and Flitwick, he saw that Sprout and Slughorn had joined them.
The four Heads of House, the four most powerful wizards in Britain save the Dark Lord himself. Four on one. Severus turned tail and fled.
He ran into the nearest classroom. They rushed in after him, cornering him. But they'd have cornered him out there too. At least here there was a window.
And here were four raised wands, four faces twisted in fury. He had no time to open the window. So he thought of Lily--
--of soaring beside her on the swings. Just before touching the sky, they seize each other's hands and jump. They don't fall. Laughing with delight, they fly high above the playground--
--and jumped. He shattered the glass with his body and was free.
Severus flew into the night. The wind roared in his ears, nearly drowning out Minerva's shout ("Coward! COWARD!"). He went higher, nearer to the stars, further from the castle. He glanced down and saw Hogwarts receding into his past. A fiery silver half-moon filled his present, overwhelming him. He couldn't pull his eyes away.
He'd never flown at night with Lily, never held her hand beneath a gigantic moon. They had only flown during the day, a couple of times when they were sure no one was looking, from the swings at one end of the playground to the chain-link fence at the other.
But Severus couldn't stare at the moon and feel the spring wind blow through him as if he himself were air forever. He had to find Potter and tell him the truth.
You're not the Boy-Who-Lived. You're the Boy-Who-Must-Die.
Severus looked away from the moon and stars. He descended scores of feet, until he could see where he was: just outside Hogsmeade, above the road that led to the Shrieking Shack. There was the shack at the end of the lane, and there was someone in the lane, looking up and waving. Gripping his wand, Severus descended further.
It was Lucius Malfoy. Severus lit his wand. Lucius looked as battered as Longbottom after a particularly rough detention with Carrow.
Severus alighted beside him. "Lucius! What happened to you?"
"Never mind." Lucius gestured into the darkness. "The Dark Lord. He's in the shack. He wants to see you."
He was here. "Has he got Potter?"
"Potter?" For a moment Lucius looked as though he didn't know whom Severus was talking about. "No...I don't know...just go!"
He was off before Severus could reply, running toward Hogsmeade. Severus watched him Disapparate. Then, turning toward the Shrieking Shack, he walked into the last hour of his life.