Standard Disclaimer: I own nothing except the plot. Harry Potter and all the elements therein are the intellectual property / registered trademarks of JK Rowling, Scholastic Books, and Warner Brothers.
Warnings: See Snarry Games Post for warnings.
Genres: Angst, Drama
Length: 15,200+ words
Notes: This fic was written for the Snarry Games for Team Wartime; fic prompt: Fairy Tales. All fairy tales quoted are cited with endnotes. I was actually aiming for a bit of subtlety here. . . . . *cough* Let’s see how far off the mark I was.
Special Thanks to my betas baitedbreath & joanwilder, both of whom did a fabulous job & to the rest of Team Wartime for all their patience, help, and support.
Dedicated with much love to djin7 for not strangling me after my third email and the rest of the Games Admin, who have been inexorably patient with me and my unnecessarily hectic life. ^^;;; Moshiwakearimasen.
Summary: “That was his gift, you know? Happy endings... ” He wanted to believe that. He really did. But he knew better.
“Listen. To live is to be marked.
To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story,
and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.
In perfect stillness, frankly, I've found only sorrow.”
- Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible
A child’s voice: quick and clear.
Albus looked up over the rim of his half moon glasses and smiled benevolently at the wide-eyed, too-pale First year Slytherin in front of him. “It’s a book of fairy tales, Mr. Snape. Passed from my father to me. I’d like you to have them.”
Something twitched over the child’s face—longing perhaps . . . possibly fear. Albus couldn’t be certain, however, because the expression was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. A skinny, long-fingered hand shoved the book back across the desk and those thin lips pursed in preparation of a sneer. Albus frowned slightly.
“No thank you, sir.”
The elderly wizard stared hard at the boy in front of him. “May I ask why you would refuse such a gift, Mr. Snape?”
The Slytherin looked away, uncomfortable. “Thank you, sir,” he said stiffly, sitting ramrod straight in his chair, “but a Prince does not accept charity.”
A white eyebrow quirked. “Charity?”
But the boy did not appear to hear his surprised murmur. Instead, young Severus continued with an air of false haughtiness—the Malfoy boy’s influence, no doubt. “Besides, I have no use for such things.”
Albus’s eyes widened at the statement. “A child with no use for fairy tales? For happy endings?”
Those dark eyes—his mother’s eyes, actually—flashed as young Severus turned back to the Headmaster. “Drivel,” he snapped concisely. His words sounded more like a regurgitation than his own thoughts. “‘Happily ever after’ . . . Manufactured tripe designed to dull the mind. I did not know that this would be included in Hogwarts’ curriculum.” The boy squirmed slightly, wiggling to escape the too-large chair. “If you wish to talk about what I did to Potter and Black in Charms, I already explained to Professor Flitwick that that was an—”
“Accident,” the Headmaster finished a bit sadly. The old man shook his head, blue eyes looking curiously dim. He reached out and reclaimed his book. “No, my boy. I just wanted to make sure that you were adjusting alright. Slytherin is not always the most comfortable place for a Muggle-bo—”
“I am no Muggle-born!” the child snapped with sudden ferocity. He finally managed to slip out of the chair. He was surprisingly short, even for a First year; the desk came up to his chest.
Albus stared at him, unblinking. Their eyes locked for a moment and then the boy wilted slightly, unable to hold the older wizard’s gaze.
He sniffed, suddenly looking younger than his eleven years. “Anyways, Lucius looks after me.” Another flash of dark eyes. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
For a long, long moment Albus was still. Then he nodded slowly. Sadly. He tugged his beard thoughtfully, one hand still splayed over the battered cover of the large book he’d tried to give to the child. “Yes, Mr. Snape. I can see that you would prefer to find your own way. I am sure that you’ll do quite well in Slytherin.”
The boy cast him a suspicious look. His face was pale and his bone structure was all gaunt angles. Framed in such features, the expression made the child look somewhat sinister.
Albus settled back into his chair and took a lemon drop from the tin next to him. “Thank you, Mr. Snape. That will be all, unless there was something that you wished to discuss with me?”
Severus squirmed for a moment under the Headmaster’s knowing gaze and shook his head a bit more firmly than necessary. He just wanted to leave.
“Then you may go.”
The child darted towards the door with surprising speed, stopping only when Albus called after him.
“And Mr. Snape?”
His hand hovered over the doorknob and he turned, looking almost frightened of facing the elderly man again.
Albus watched him with sad, stern eyes. “We all write our own endings, whether they be happy or otherwise. So no more accidents, alright?”
The boy looked at him for a moment and pursed his lips, but made no reply. He turned away and twisted the knob, slipping out as silent as a shadow. Albus’s quiet sigh was lost beneath the heavy thud of the door closing behind him.
The page rustled faintly as he turned it. “Then this one went into her chamber and got her toes safely into the shoe, but her heel was too large. So her mother gave her a knife and said, ‘Cut a bit off thy heel; when thou art Queen thou wilt have no more need to go on foot.’ The maiden cut a bit off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King's son. He took her on his horse as his bride, and rode away with her, but when they passed by the hazel-tree, two little pigeons sat on it and cried, ‘Turn and peep, turn and peep, / There's blood within the shoe / The shoe it is too small for her, / The true bride waits for you.’ He looked down at her foot and saw how the blood was running out of her shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking. Then he turned his horse and took the false bride home again.”(1)
He paused at the quiet click of heels against the stone floor of the infirmary and looked up at Poppy as she approached. “I didn’t expect to see you here again tonight,” she said quietly, bending over the bed to check on her patient.
Severus watched her expressionlessly through his one good eye. He’d been blinded in his left eye during the fight to destroy Nagini and had opted against getting a glass eye like Moody’s. These days, Severus Snape opted against a lot of things. The eye was a punishment of his betrayal (though he still had to wonder whom he had truly betrayed) and it was a small thing to bear in the long run.
“Where else would I be?” he asked tiredly after a moment.
The mediwitch fussed over Potter for a few moments more and the Potions master resisted the urge to sneer. It’s not like the boy was even aware of her—or anything else for that matter. Instead, he looked away.
Poppy saw the motion and stood up, frowning. “Not here, at least.” Her frustration was understandable under the circumstances, but even she could see it was misdirected. The woman deflated slightly and nodded towards the private room’s door. “Out there, I would have thought. Supporting the others.”
Severus turned to follow her gaze, closing the heavy book in his lap as he did so. “It has been quiet . . . The Death Eaters have not attempted anything for at least two days.”
“Perhaps they know it’s too late by now?” Despite her words, there was no real hope in her voice.
The former professor smiled darkly, more a twist of the lips than a genuine expression. “No . . . The siege has not lifted yet. Look outside. You can still see his forces down there, waiting. The Dark Lord will not give up so easily. Even now when there is no hope left. Conceding defeat would mean that there was a flaw in his plan—that Potter and Albus won.” His dark gaze shifted to the still, pale form lying in the bed and his expression became unreadable. “To his logic, such an outcome does not make sense.”
It had all been arranged. Albus’s death was inevitable the moment he put on Gaunt’s ring. No, the real challenge had been turning that inevitability to their advantage. That had been Severus’s job. Save Draco. Save Potter. Secure himself a place within the Inner Circle and find the remaining Horcruxes. Destroy them. In truth, he should have been the hero of the story, but he ultimately felt like the villain through it all. He resented Albus for that.
Had the man known what destroying the Horcruxes would entail? Probably. Albus was like that—smiling, seemingly harmless—and all the while leading his most beloved lambs to the slaughter. Though it really was not Severus who was ultimately being sacrificed this time.
At first the entire thing had seemed simple. It was Minerva who discovered Albus’s instructions in his notes, warded for her eyes only. She fed the information he gleaned from the Inner Circle to the Order and thus to Potter, and the brat went out and did the dirty work. He never saw the boy during those first few years and didn’t have any inclination to ask after him during his anxious, clandestine communiqués with the Headmistress. Severus had been a spy for years; he knew how to play the role. One by one, he helped find information on the Horcruxes and one by one Potter and his merry band of heroes found and destroyed them.
Nagini was supposed to be the final Horcrux . . . a grave miscalculation on his part. Perhaps he was becoming complacent. Perhaps he was simply getting old. With the destruction of the last bit of his soul, the Dark Lord was supposed to die and the war should have ended. He’d fed them the information just as before and, just as before, Order and Aurors working together set out to destroy the powerful wizard’s familiar.
In retrospect, Severus didn’t know how he had not recognized it for a trap. When Potter destroyed Nagini with a spell so strong that it made Severus’s hair stand on end, they had all thought that it would be the end. They had been quite wrong. The Order had lost nearly a quarter of their members in the battle that ensued and Potter had almost been captured. Severus had lost his eye saving the brat from Lucius Malfoy, though there had been something infinitely satisfying about watching the other man die at the end of his wand.
He’d woken up in Hogwarts’ Infirmary three days later, surrounded by Minerva, Scrimgeour, Potter, Shacklebolt, and a small host of Aurors. The bitter taste of Veritaserum was heavy on his tongue. The interrogation was not as much of a surprise as the Ministry’s reaction. He was to be kept under house arrest at Hogwarts and his wand was to be tapped until the Wizengamot could objectively consider his contributions to the war. Curiously enough, it had been Potter who had proposed the plan.
When Severus had later asked the boy why, all Potter would say was, “I may not like you, but you’ve saved lives. Without your help I don’t think that we’d have made it this far.”
Four years had apparently bred far more maturity than Severus had ever anticipated. Minerva would later inform him that it had really been the intervention of Albus’s portrait that had helped bring Potter around to this new philosophical outlook on life. In the days that would follow, he’d wonder just how much Albus’s portrait had influenced the boy’s decisions regarding what would have to be done, but he would never ask.
Severus looked up from the story he was reading aloud and his eyes narrowed at the sight of Ginny Weasley-Creevey standing nervously in the door. He lifted an eyebrow at her.
She blushed at the title. A year of marriage still had not made it familiar and it was very strange to hear Snape of all people say it. “I didn’t know anyone else would be here this late . . .”
The older man made no motion to leave, instead settling back a bit more comfortably in his seat. “I believe Mr. Potter has all his visitors during the day. When the Infirmary is actually open.”
The young woman blushed again, slightly harder this time, and for a moment looked like she wanted to escape. Though she had not actually seen the man in years, Harry had claimed that Snape had mellowed a bit. He had apparently been misinformed.
“I just wanted . . .” Her blue eyes darted towards the bed where Harry lay still and unmoving, looking for all the world as though he were asleep. “Is he . . . alright?”
The Potions master gave her a flat look with his good eye. “He is dying, Mrs. Creevey.”
“I—I know that, I just . . .” She trailed off, nervously twisting her wedding ring on her finger. “I wanted to see him . . . alone. To say goodbye, I mean.”
Severus looked at the woman in the door and then at the young man in the bed. It took an effort not to say something snide. The young Weasley witch had had ample time to say goodbye before. Doing so now would be pointless. “I will relay the message to him,” he responded coldly after a moment.
He hated these insipid, overly emotional moments. He knew that the boy and the Weasley girl had broken up several years ago, but had never known nor asked about the details. He’d had other concerns at the time, such as not finding himself on the wrong end of an Avada Kedavra.
This was why he only came at night—to avoid becoming entangled in Potter’s unnecessarily complicated personal life. He couldn’t help but glare at the wizard in the bed beside him, as though this were somehow his fault. Then again, if it weren’t for Potter and his damn painfully green eyes, he wouldn’t even be sitting here.
Ginny pursed her lips at his reply, her back straightening with irritation. “Would you give us a moment alone please?”
Severus closed his book and glared at her. “I am here to monitor his progress, Mrs. Creevey. You may return in the day like any of his other visitors.”
Anger flickered over her face and she crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. “Really? It looked more like you were doing something else.” Her gaze fastened on the book in his lap accusingly.
He stared back, matching her glare for glare. The expression was not at all diminished by his disfigurement. The two of them stayed like that for a minute, then two. Ginny looked away first. For a moment, it looked like she would leave, but then the woman surprised him by drawing herself up and marching into the room. She brushed past him with a haughty air that only a woman or a Malfoy could manage and bent over Harry’s sleeping form and pressed a light kiss on his forehead, directly over the young man’s scar.
In that moment, Severus Snape hated Ginny Creevey.
She stood again, gave Severus a pointed look, and turned and left. He did not watch her go. The door closed behind her.
Potter remained as still and silent as ever on the bed.
“. . . I am only here because of you.” Somehow the tone sounded more weary than accusing.
Predictably, the comatose Potter did not deign to respond.
Severus had taken to hiding. He hid in books. He hid in research. He hid from the war and the hustle of activity and the people who had helped bring him to this empty crossroads in his life. Not that he was completely faultless, of course. He understood the part he’d played in his own decline; he merely wished to prevent exacerbating it. He already bore enough scars. Since the night of Albus’s death, the entirety of his life had been devoted to seeking out and destroying the Horcruxes. He had promised the man, after all, and—whatever his conflicted opinions on the former Headmaster—Severus Snape did not break his promises.
He’d known that the other members of the Order were searching, as well, but he did not really expect anything to come from it. People had a tendency to miss the blindingly obvious—especially when the answer they sought was unpleasant. In the end, it was Granger who had been the first to discover the truth. She had come to him in tears, a stack of scrolls in her hands.
“Is it true?” she’d demanded, shoving the papers at him across his desk, nearly knocking his breakfast to the floor in the process. “Is it Harry?”
He’d looked up her, unsure how he should reply. The young woman did not move from the spot. Her cheeks were splotchy and her hair was frizzier than usual, giving her the appearance of an angry cat.
Severus took a sip of his coffee and met her gaze with practiced neutrality. “It has always been a possibility. However, given his previous attempts to kill Potter, I had discounted the idea until faced with no other alternative.”
Her face crumpled and for a moment she seemed dangerously close to crying. “No other alternative? How long have you known?”
“Since killing Nagini failed.” Six months, then.
She stared at him for a moment, trembling slightly, and Severus calmly took another sip of coffee.
“. . . Why? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
The mug made a dull noise as he set it heavily on his desk and the Potions master settled back in his chair. He turned away from her, staring out the window. Minerva had been kind enough to return his office and quarters to him following his return. The Potions position seemed to be as cursed as the Defense Against the Dark Arts position these days; even if Hogwarts had been open to students, she would hardly have had to evict anyone. As it was, she spent nearly a week trying to convince him to resume teaching when the school re-opened, or at least to be put back on the faculty payroll. Personally, Severus hated teaching. And even without seeing them, he was sure that the children were just as much a group of dunderheads as they had ever been. Her efforts had been in vain.
Researching the Horcrux fiasco had wholly taken up his time anyway.
He turned back to the young woman and for a curiously nostalgic moment remembered a much younger Hermione Granger standing at his desk holding a scroll and looking close to tears as he refused a late assignment. Strange, how time passed.
At length the wizard sat up a bit straighter and spoke in a quiet, reflective tone. “Do you know why the Dark Lord would be so adamant about killing Potter, despite the fact that the boy is a Horcrux?”
Her lips pressed into a thin line but she did not reply, so he foraged onward. “Two souls—or even parts of souls—cannot inhabit one body at the same time. The mind and flesh cannot tolerate the strain.” He looked down at the ancient-looking scrolls before him. He knew them all quite well—he’d checked them out of the Library a month ago to use for his own research. “Had a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul simply tried to inhabit Potter’s body, it would have been expelled by the boy’s magic before it could settle. No . . . While you’re correct in that the famous scar” (he sneered a bit as he said it) “is the entry point, it is not the focus of the problem. The fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul is not just hiding inside Potter’s body; it has actually melded with your precious hero’s soul—most likely the very moment when the boy should have died.” He shrugged. “The magic Potter’s mother used to protect him is a very rare thing. Mixed in with the Dark Lord’s potent incantation, there is no way to be certain how the magics would have reacted.”
All the blood drained from Hermione’s face and part of Severus couldn’t help but feel a small amount of contempt that she had not researched far enough to find that much out. Always trying to take shortcuts. That was what had always gotten the so-called Trio into trouble in their youth and it was somewhat vindicating in a base sort of way to see that nothing had changed in that respect.
It took him a moment to realize that the distressed-looking witch was speaking again. “So you’re saying that Voldemort doesn’t care about killing Harry because it doesn’t matter if Harry’s body dies?”
Another sip of coffee. “Ten points to Gryffindor.” The sarcasm in his voice was palpable. “The Dark Lord wants to kill Potter because he needs to extract the brat’s soul and the best way to do that is to remove the obstruction the physical shell causes. If you truly wish to rid yourself of the Dark Lord, then you have to destroy Potter’s soul. Completely.”
“I don’t believe you.” Her whisper was almost swallowed by the silence in the room.
“That is your prerogative,” he conceded mildly. “But you are the one who sought me out. Fighting it won’t make it any less true. The process is called the Morior Animus. Do the research.”
Minerva already knew; that was all that mattered to him. Somehow she had known before he’d ever broached his findings with her. Whatever she decided to do with that information was not his concern—he’d upheld his end of their arrangement.
The woman balled her hands into such tight fists that her knuckles turned white. “And what have you been doing this whole time you’ve known this?”
A spike of genuine anger moved through the Potions master at the accusation in her voice and he found himself sitting up a bit straighter, drawing himself up a bit with menace. “Searching for alternatives,” he responded coldly. “Do not be mistaken, Ms. Granger—I have no love for the Ministry’s darling Mr. Potter, but destroying a soul is no simple undertaking. You lot have had a relatively easy time with destroying the Founders’ items only because the Dark Lord’s soul is already severely damaged. An intact soul is an altogether different matter and—hybrid though it may be—I assure you that Potter’s soul is quite intact. The creation of Horcruxes is only a shadow of what this would entail. I have no desire to be a party to such a thing.”
“Can’t we just remove that part of Voldemort from Harry?”
Though the desperation in her voice was plain, the question was so stupid he snorted. The woman blanched, more in anger than anything else, and for a moment she looked like she was going to hex him. The cold tone in his voice stayed her hand.
“Ms. Granger, the Dark Lord’s essence can no more be removed from Potter than your father’s contribution to your person can be removed from your worthless gene pool.” His good eye fixed her with a withering look. “It is inherent to Potter. His soul must be destroyed utterly, or not at all.”
Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears and Severus met her gaze without flinching. “Bastard.” A whisper. “Were you ever going to tell anyone? You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
. . . His wand was being tracked. Hogwarts’ wards would sense a curse before the words even left his lips. But he ached to hex the brat. The place where Malfoy’s spell had ripped out his eye throbbed.
She had no right to question his loyalty, and no idea what he had sacrificed . . .
“. . . Get out of my office, Ms. Granger. You are wasting my time.”
She stared at him, hazel eyes burning with the force of her ire, and then slowly and deliberately moved to gather her scrolls again. Severus clenched his jaw and remained still, watching her with undisguised malice. She took her time intentionally, then moved towards the door at a slow and measured pace. She could feel the former professor’s rage building behind her.
Finally the woman reached the door, opened it, and paused. When she turned around, the anger had left her expression, leaving only pity behind. “. . . You know, I used to defend you to Harry when we were younger. But he was right—you really are a coward.”
The door closed softly behind her, just moments before a half full mug of coffee shattered against the door in the place where her head had been.
“She had, however, run into her little den, had quickly taken off her dress, made her face and hands black again, put on the fur-mantle, and again was Allerleirauh. And now when she went into the kitchen, and was about to get to her work and sweep up the ashes, the cook said, ‘Leave that alone till morning, and make me the soup for the King; I, too, will go upstairs awhile, and take a look; but let no hairs fall in, or in future thou shalt have nothing to eat.’ So the cook went away, and Allerleirauh made the soup for the king, and made bread soup and the best she could, and when it was ready she fetched her golden ring from her little den, and put it in the bowl in which the soup wa—”(2)
Severus broke off mid-word and a chill ran down his back.
“Are you reading fairy tales, Severus?”
The Potions master turned as the Bloody Baron passed the rest of the way through the wall to enter the room.
He lifted his eyebrow at the unusual visitor. “Baron.” It was a greeting, nothing more.
The ghost’s eyes met his with a sad kind of acknowledgement before gliding over to Potter’s bed. The former professor felt a hot stab of resentment at the ghost’s familiar approach. It was curious, but after all the time he had spent with Potter over the last several weeks, he felt that he had some kind of claim over the boy. The nights should be his at least, without all these needless interruptions.
“Will you read to me . . . until you put me under? The others are here in the day, but the nights are always the longest, you know.”
Severus shivered, banishing the voice to his memory before turning to look at their latest visitor.
“Are you here to say goodbye as well?”
The Bloody Baron turned, looking mildly surprised at the snide tone. A cold, translucent hand moved to lightly brush the boy’s forehead, but passed straight through instead. “I was actually here to see you.” Dead eyes seemed to bore into the Potions master, a knowing light shining at their depths. “I have noted that everyone else seems to come to see Mr. Potter, yet no one worries for you.”
The wizard scoffed. “You are starting to sound like Albus.”
“Perhaps.” The Baron’s eyes moved down to stare at the book Severus held. “I have to confess, however, I am surprised to see you with that. You are never in the dungeons anymore at night. I had rather expected to find you researching or helping with the strategies, not sitting up with the Boy Who Lived.”
Severus looked at the spirit coldly but said nothing.
“There was another attack today,” the ghost murmured after a moment. He turned his attention back to the young man lying in bed. “Early morning. They nearly breached the front gates, but the Aurors held them with some help from the Weasley twins’ inventions. He is getting bolder.”
“He is running out of time,” the Potions master corrected. “And he knows it. I doubt he thought that the Ministry and the Order would go this far. Though, I suppose it was not really their decision.”
He had never actually asked Potter how the boy had finagled the Ministry and Minerva into consenting to this. It was another of those things they did not discuss.
He looked back down at the book in his lap, ignoring the cold feel of the Baron’s eyes on him. “So the cook went away, and Allerleirauh made the soup for the king, and made bread soup and the best she could, and when it was ready she fetched her golden ring from her little den, and put it in the bowl in which the soup was served. When the dancing was over, the King had his soup brought and ate it, and he liked it so much that it seemed to him he had never tasted better.”
The dismissal was clear.
The Baron remained silent, staring down at Potter for a few more minutes before vanishing as abruptly as he’d come. Severus Snape was not the type of man to explain himself if he did not feel he had to and there would be no waiting him out. Besides, whatever the motive for Snape’s actions, really he had only come to see that the man was safe—to see what had so captivated the attention of one of the few people with whom the Baron actually enjoyed conversing. Oddly enough, he had not really seen anything special. Knowing Snape, though, perhaps that was the point.
Severus decided to make it a point to stop getting involved with heroes. They were troublesome—pure and simple. The whole of them were self-centered, prone to martyrdom, and perfectly willing to drag other people down with them, all in the name of the Greater Good. Albus had been a hero. Potter was one too. Looking into the brat’s calm, determined green eyes, Severus had never been more certain of it than at that moment.
Potter spoke first when it became apparent that the former professor would not say anything. He’d shown up in Muggle clothes as opposed to the Auror robes that he usually wore when his haggard-looking face was plastered all over the front page of the Prophet. Not that Severus had been looking for his face on the cover of the Prophet—it was actually fairly hard to avoid some sort of news about the boy.
“Still down here hiding from life?”
The Potions master sneered and looked away without responding.
For a moment Potter was silent and then he took a single brave step into the room. “I spoke to the Headmistress.” Somehow calling her Minerva still felt too strange to him.
Severus turned and resumed putting the books back on his bookshelf. There was a large pile of them—the wreckage from his latest efforts to solve the Horcrux dilemma. “So Ms. Granger told you?”
The boy laughed slightly and the sound made Severus scowl. “Am I that transparent?”
A withering look. “I have not been graced by your auspicious presence since I resumed residence in Hogwarts, Mr. Potter. I fail to see what else could motivate the Boy Wonder to visit my dungeons.”
His dungeons. It was a territory play—one that the boy sadly ignored.
Potter looked around and entered the room fully, closing the door behind him. “. . . It looks the same. Did Dumbledore have it all left this way, knowing you’d come back?”
Hearing that name from Potter’s lips made Severus flinch and a very, very old and very, very illegal copy of Dombultz’s Incantations, Volume 2½ slipped from suddenly nerveless fingers. He hated this boy. Hated what Potter was. Hated what Potter reminded him of. Hated the kind of man that Potter’s very existence had forced him to become.
Why didn’t you die that night in Godric’s Hollow with your simpering mother and stupid father?
The words hovered on this tip of his tongue, begging to be said. But Potter just kept looking at him with those sad, knowing eyes. Severus sneered and bit back his vitriol.
Potter laughed again, nervousness plainly evident. “I . . .” He smoothed a hand back through his hair only to mess it up further and somehow knock his glasses askew at the same time. He looked away and something seemed to unclench in Severus’s chest when those green eyes were gazing elsewhere. “Look, the old cat—”
One of Severus’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“—I mean, the Headmistress—” the boy covered without missing a beat, “she didn’t want me to come down here.”
“Then take her advice and get out, Mr. Potter.” Severus turned and resumed putting the stack of books away. He had made it six months without having to see Potter in person, but even then he still couldn’t escape the brat. How loathsome that the axis of his life seemed to revolve around a Potter of all people.
Potter ignored him, choosing instead to lightly run his fingers over a jar with a house-elf head floating in formaldehyde. Severus manfully resisted the impulse to throw a book at the presumptuous little Auror’s head. And then the boy spoke.
And Severus froze.
Potter continued his inspection of the elf head, back turned to the Potions master. “I knew for a while,” he reiterated quietly. “He told me that night at Riddle Manor, after Nagini. Hermione . . . Ron . . . None of them knew. I didn’t think that anyone would be able to figure it out—didn’t want them to.” His shoulders jumped slightly and it took Severus a second to realize that Potter was chuckling silently. “Figures that you and Hermione would find out. Never could keep you two out of the loop for long.”
Shaking his head in amusement, Potter turned. His smile was an odd thing—a little sad, but relieved just the same. Severus turned away, feeling voyeuristic.
Potter made his way around the desk, moving closer—far, far too close—and bent to pick up the book Severus had dropped. His fingers ran lightly over the gilded words embossed on the cover. “The last incantation is in volume three, you know. It’s in the Black family library.”
“Of course it is.” Severus’s voice was so faint that he barely recognized it. He knew what the boy was talking about, of course. Regardless of what he’d told Granger, the Dark Lord had outdone himself this time. For the life of him, Severus could not find a loophole yet. Professionally, it was frustrating, but on a personal level . . .
He wanted to see Potter humbled, not this. And he certainly did not want it on his conscience.
But that’s what they’re doing, isn’t it? Prodding you towards the inevitable? Disgusted, Severus sneered at himself. Why did he even care what happed to the wretch? Simple habit, he supposed. He had always been a creature of habit.
For a moment the two men were silent and then Severus reached out and took the book. He shivered when their fingers brushed, but Potter did not seem to notice anything untoward.
“If that is what you came here for, then spare me your self pitying martyrdom,” he sneered, jerking the book free with more force than necessary. “There are still alternatives to be explored and Ms. Granger and Minerva have no doubt rallied half of Britain to your cause by now. Loathe as I am to admit it, I doubt you have any cause to worry.” He wondered if his words sounded as hollow to the boy’s ears as they did to his.
Potter adjusted his glasses and his smile took on a bitter edge. “The Ministry was attacked this morning.”
Severus felt his eyes widen involuntarily.
The boy-soldier snorted at his surprise. “You haven’t heard?”
He turned, making his way back to the other side of the desk and out of Severus’s personal space. The older wizard felt a bit of tension leave him and responded by shooting Potter’s back a spiteful glare. His voice was clipped and sharp. “I have been a bit preoccupied, Mr. Potter.”
Preoccupied and forgotten. People hardly went out of their way for Severus Snape these days—but then again, they never had in the past, either.
“They’re trying to minimize it all, downplay the whole thing.” Another chuckle, darker this time. “My presence was drawing undue attention, so Tonks and I came to ensure that Hogwarts’ defenses had been fortified. The damage was pretty extensive, though. The Muggles are calling it an act of terrorism, but . . .”
The Potions master turned away. “And how does this concern me, Mr. Potter? I am here to fulfill a promise, and I have made no promises to you.”
“We’re at a stalemate. Voldemort,” he ignored Severus’s cringe, “has been trying to shift the balance of power, but he knows as well as I do that nothing has changed since that night at Riddle Manor. The only problem is that he may still have more resources to call on and we’ve tapped all of ours. The final Horcrux must be eliminated before he has time to rally.”
Severus rounded on the boy and it took a serious effort not hex the brat. The Ministry’s dungeons might be preferable to this. “You stupid boy, you have no idea what you are asking. If you are intent on committing suicide, then find another Potions master or get your pet know-it-all on the job. I am certain she will be more than happy to help hang you on the Order’s cross.”
Everything on the desk jumped slightly as Potter suddenly slammed his fist down on the dark wood. “Snape, we are losing!” Bright green eyes glared at him, burning with a strange kind of urgency.
Severus found himself unable to look away. He narrowed his eyes in confusion. “What are you talking about? The news—”
“The news lies,” the boy interrupted quietly. His voice was soft, as though to make up for his previous volume. He turned and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “There would be a panic if people knew. Right now, the war is just a nuisance to most of the public. They live their lives around it because they have no choice and no idea of what the situation truly is. Voldemort’s gotten smarter since the last time and the Ministry controls every word the Prophet prints. The destruction of the Horcruxes has helped, but . . . It’s not going well. We can sustain this stalemate for another 6 months . . . maybe nine. Maybe.”
The older wizard let out a quiet sigh. He couldn’t say he was very surprised—he was hardly ‘in the know’ as far as the inner workings of the war anymore, but he had seen the strain on enough faces to know that things were not going as well as they might have been.
“Anyway,” Potter turned to pin him with those damnably green eyes as he continued, “if you are so certain that there are other choices, then why are you even bothering to look in Dombultz’s Incantations? Even having that book is illegal.”
Severus looked away, feeling as though he’d been caught.
After a moment of silence, Potter took a step towards him, maneuvering around the desk again. That sad but sickeningly hopeful expression was back in his eyes. It annoyed the Potions master for some reason.
“Can you do this thing?”
“It is magic blacker than black.” Severus turned away and crossed his arms over his chest. The motion kept him from physically reaching out and strangling the boy. “You have no idea what you’re getting into or what you are asking of me. Souls are not obliterated everyday, boy, though I can think of few as expendable as yours. Minerva and the Ministry would never sanction such an act.”
And Albus. Although he was pretty sure that this had been one of the previous Headmaster’s limitless contingencies. Damn him.
“But can you do it?” the young man pressed.
“. . . I can.” Strangely enough he flashed back to the unnecessarily ornate cloak and dagger ceremony in which he received his Dark Mark. The feeling was the same. He resented it.
Potter turned away, perhaps sensing the animus building in the other man. “Besides, you were planning for this, weren’t you? I’m asking for your help with this. I’d think you’d jump at the chance.”
“My help?” the Potions master sneered. He looked over, glaring at the boy’s back. “And what is so important about my help over anyone else’s? Have I not made it clear that I want no part of your idiocy, boy?”
Potter turned, still looking infuriatingly calm and determined. “You’re the only one I would trust to do what needs to be done correctly. With anyone else . . .” he made a vague gesture with one hand, “it would be too much. Too emotional. Anyway, McGonagall and I talked. There’s no one better. And no one more suited to the task of making dark potions of this caliber. There was a spell that we found, but . . .”
The Messor Animus. Severus had encountered it in his research as well. It required two hundred and twenty-two wizards and the only way to gauge its success was if each wizard’s own soul was torn from his body at the moment the subject’s soul was destroyed. Not very many people would be volunteering for that, war or no war.
The Morior Animus was a slower process, gentler for both the caster and the subject in some ways. A single potions master could create the potions if he were a strong enough wizard to handle the incantations. The subject’s soul was slowly destroyed over a three month period, as opposed to a single, eternal instant of indescribable agony. It was like a wasting illness—spiritual consumption.
Severus locked eyes with the boy, hating the obstruction that the other’s glasses presented. “How deeply have you looked into this process, Potter?”
The boy bit his lip; the gesture made him look sickeningly young. “I’ve read through the potions ingredients, but the process left me stumped. And I haven’t been able to find an original copy of the manuscripts, but I did find some pretty extensive information in the Black Family Library.
The Black Family Library. Severus sneered. It was a dabbler’s collection at best. Narcissa and Bellatrix had pretty much looted the place of any tomes of real value after Regulus’s death. Couldn’t risk leaving the important books to that bastard Sirius.
Curiously, he fixed the former Gryffindor with a piercing gaze. . . . The boy really did not have any idea what he was asking. “So essentially you are saying that you trust me to do this because I hate you?”
Potter laughed sheepishly at that, looking disturbingly like his idiotic father. “Well . . . pretty much.”
Severus grunted and turned around. He removed the necessary books, unable to quite push down the hollow feeling in his chest as he did so. He covered the discomfort with briskness. “Speak with the Ministry and your fan club, Potter. Minerva and Pomfrey as well. I imagine that you would be far more successful in getting a death sentence mandated for yourself than I would.” They would no doubt do a far better job of talking the boy out of this idiocy as well. It was hard to be convincing when he really couldn’t care less if Potter lived or died. He was too damn old to deal with this drama anyway.
Potter exhaled, looking curiously relieved. “You promise? You’ll help me?”
He looked at the boy levelly. “I promise.”
Potter smiled and Severus looked back down at his books with a frown. “Should you choose to follow through on this madness with their backing, then you must prepare yourself. You will not be able to continue your daily life. And this will not be comfortable. Pomfrey and I will do what we can. There are painkilling and sleeping potions that can ease the discomfort, but you will have to spend the final three weeks in a coma, otherwise your body or mind may give before the process has run its course.”
He paused and looked at the boy closely, waiting to see if his little speech had shaken his resolve. Instead, Potter had the gall to smile at him again—that soft, sad smile that made Severus avert his gaze. It was odd somehow. Even though he knew that he’d really signed Potter’s death warrant, it felt strangely like he’d signed his own instead. He didn’t think that he would escape this unscathed. . . . Then again, he rarely did when Potter was involved.
No, you don’t. You don’t understand anything, fool . . .
Potter turned to go and Severus felt a little bit of tension uncoil as the boy opened the door again.
Then the boy paused, back still turned, and spoke quietly. His voice was both weary and curious, an odd contrast to the smile he’d worn just seconds ago. “. . . After all this time . . . working together to destroy the Horcruxes, however remotely . . . Do you really still hate me, Snape?”
Severus found himself staring at the boy’s back again and his hand rose involuntarily to touch his eye patch. “Yes, I do, Potter.”
Potter was still for a moment and then stepped out, closing the door behind him. Severus sighed heavily. Voldemort’s deformed face loomed large in his mind.
“I hate you, Potter,” he reaffirmed to the still room. The place where his eye had once been ached. “But I hate him even more.”
Severus closed the book as Poppy opened the door. It was close to dawn now and he had a potion to brew. It was time for him to go.
The matronly mediwitch smiled as she did her prerequisite fussing over Potter. “You look terrible, Severus. You should take a night off. I doubt Mr. Potter wants you to worry yourself into the ground.
The Potions master frowned. “Worry? I am merely here to monitor the process, Poppy.” His voice held a light note of censure.
The woman blissfully ignored it. She had known Severus far to long for a sulking fit to deter her. “Mmmmm . . .” She looked up, brown eyes sharp behind her glasses. “And how much sleep have you gotten in the past two weeks?”
He looked away, scowling, knowing that the dark circles beneath his eyes would betray him. “Will you have an elf deliver the blood? And not that sniveling Dobby creature. Last time he wept into the bowl.” He stood stiffly and began gathering his things. His back ached fiercely from sitting in the chair all night, but he was getting used to it by now.
Poppy nodded and watched him gather his belongings. They mostly consisted of a few scrolls and the well-battered book that he always read from while he was here. She stared at it for a moment. The cover looked ancient and the leather had cracked, but it seemed well-read and much loved, especially given the way Severus held it close.
After a moment, her curiosity got the best of her. “Why do you always read that to him?”
It was simple question, but one no one had dared asked outright. Severus paused and looked at her for a moment, his remaining eye looking sharp and clear despite his apparent fatigue. “. . . The nights are always longest,” he replied simply.
The two stared at one another for a moment and then Severus began to head towards the door. He felt as though he owed her more of an explanation than that, but he couldn’t find the words. He had never been very good when it came to explaining himself. He paused in the doorway.
“. . . Albus gave it to me right after I first came to him. He said it was a gift . . .” he paused, unsure of he should continue. “I’d never read fairy tales before. I thought they might be interesting.” He gripped the book a bit tighter, knuckles going white from the effort.
“Drivel. ‘Happily ever after’ . . . Manufactured tripe designed to dull the mind. “
“Ahhh . . .” she murmured knowingly.
Strangely, Poppy seemed to understand the words that he could not bring himself to say. He wondered what promises Albus had given her to win such loyalty . . . But then again, Poppy seemed to be one of the people who was just ‘good.’ He had never suffered from such an affliction.
“That was his gift, you know?” the matron murmured as she bent to check Potter’s temperature.
He turned to look at her, a sudden swell of bitterness contorting his face into a scowl.
Poppy stood upright and smiled sadly when she saw the dark look on the man’s face. “Happy endings.” Her voice was kindly and gentle, as though explaining something to a child.
Severus stared at her moments longer, then his gaze flickered to Potter’s pale face and he snorted. He whirled around and left the private room without a word.
He wanted to believe that. He really did. But he knew better.
Day One went by smoothly. As did Days Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six. Potter reported sluggishness, lethargy, insomnia, and a bitter taste at the back of his throat. Snidely, Severus wondered to himself how the boy could tell lethargy and sluggishness from his usual state.
Potter received his treatments in Severus’s office twice every day: once in the morning and once in the evening. In truth, the bulk of the work was preparation. As Potter was a willing participant, it made things much easier, but much of Severus’s day and early morning were spent preparing the four potions required for the process. Their composition varied every day, dependent upon the contents of Potter’s own blood, so there was no making them ahead of time. With fresh blood necessary, so was Potter’s presence. Surprisingly, the boy did not drive him insane the whole time.
For the most part, Potter gave his blood quietly; sat until Severus was sure he was no longer needed, and then wandered off for two hours until the potions were ready to be consumed. The boy always returned on time to drink the various potions without complaint and would then sit quietly while he took notes on the boy’s condition. Severus had only the speculation of a few long-dead dark wizards to go on, so he was groping blindly in the dark and it was important to ensure that nothing went wrong. If a fragment of Potter’s soul were to survive . . .
It was actually Potter himself who pointed out that eventuality. It was Day Twelve of the treatment. Severus had asked the boy to bleed into a small white bowl and Potter was obediently holding his sliced open palm above the dish, watching his life’s essence spill out.
“What if this doesn’t work? Then I’ll be dead, but Voldemort won’t.”
The sound of the boy’s voice had startled Severus for a moment. Potter was normally so quiet that he forgot the brat was there. Severus rapidly stirred the pure white potion counterclockwise four times with a three-pronged iron fork and then looked up. “The entire process will take ninety days. If it looks as though you are deviating from the forecasted progress, we will make contingencies to capture any remaining fragments as they vacate your body and find an alternate means of disposal.”
The boy nodded calmly, as though they were not discussing wiping him off the face of creation.
Severus frowned, uncomfortable. He preferred it when Potter did not speak. While the spell work and potions themselves were fascinating, it was a bit disturbing to be forcibly reminded of what the ends of this whole ordeal were. It was a bit strange to think of a world without Potter.
After a few more moments of silence, the Potions master looked up, feeling oddly compelled. “. . . With all the Horcruxes gone, the portion of the Dark Lord’s soul within his body will be destroyed as well. It is too damaged to stand alone.” He knew that this had all been explained to the boy, but for some reason, it seemed important to impress that on him. He wanted Potter to know that this was not going to all be in vain.
Potter looked up, perhaps surprised to hear Severus actually address him directly. “I know . . . unicorn blood, plus the making of the Horcruxes . . . It’s easier to destroy a fragmented soul than one already intact. Hermione explained it all to me.” He snorted. “It almost makes me feel bad for the bastard, you know. He must have been enraged when he realized where the sixth bit of his soul had gone . . .”
Severus stared for a minute and then shook his head, unable to quite take in the boy’s words. “Your capacity for forgiveness is astonishing. The Dark Lord deserves every pain he is going to receive. Having one’s soul die inside oneself is not a pleasant thing. Your pain will be buffered by Poppy and myself and the fact that this process is gradual. The Dark Lord will die from the inside out.”
He wished he could be there to watch it happen, or at least to see the great wizard sweat. Surely he must have felt the slow press of what they were doing by now. Severus could. It was a slow, draining thing. What must it be like for the Dark Lord, who had so much more invested in Potter?
He looked over at Potter. The boy’s eyes were red and bloodshot and his voice had a weirdly flat quality to it, as though speaking across a great distance. Otherwise, however, he merely looked like he was experiencing severe exhaustion and anemia. . . . Though his skin seemed a tad translucent perhaps. He wondered how much of the composure he saw was a front.
“Forgiveness?” Potter’s voice cut through his thoughts, startling him. The boy gave him a strangely unreadable look that made Severus acutely uncomfortable. The sarcasm in his voice was a tangible thing. “Oh, yes. Love is my gift to the world.”
Severus found that he had no reply to that. Somehow sniping at a dying man was less entertaining than he had thought it would be.
The boy stood and stretched, seemingly made restless by their conversation. He began to putter around the room, browsing the bookcases. Severus scowled at the potion and added a diced pig’s tongue to the cauldron. It was his own fault for riling the boy up with conversation and ruining a good thing. He should have known that Potter would remain docile for only so long. Besides, there was not a lot of damage that Potter could do looking at the books; the important volumes were spelled to be . . . unpleasant if someone removed them from a shelf uninvited. As long as Potter stayed away from the potions, he couldn’t care less what the brat did.
After a few minutes, the boy stopped and a peculiar sound became evident. It took him a while to place it—he could hear Potter breathing. Wheezing, in fact.
Severus looked up sharply. “Is that usual?”
Potter was leaning on the edge of his desk, a book his hands as he caught his breath. “A bit,” he managed through desperate breaths. “It only happens after I take the second potion. I’ve reported it to Poppy, so she knows.”
That wasn’t in the scrolls. Severus would have to start reviewing Pomfrey’s notes a bit more carefully, it would seem. He added some honey to the potion, still frowning even though the substance turned the proper shade of magenta just as it was supposed to. “Is there anything else that you’ve told Poppy that I should know?”
“I thought my progress was checking out as usual?”
A single dark eye shot Potter a withering look. “This is for posterity, Potter.”
To his credit, the boy did not flinch. “I don’t sleep anymore,” he admitted after a moment.
“You’ve reported as much before.”
The boy shifted uncomfortably. “No, I mean, I don’t sleep anymore at all. Ever. Not even naps. I don’t even want to. McGonagall made me try to get some rest—Poppy, too—but sleep never comes. I just lie there.”
Severus made a mental note to scribble that down as soon as he got the chance. “For how long now?”
Potter shrugged, clearly seeing nothing wrong with this. “Four days, maybe? Poppy says that I’m not showing any of the mental strain of exhaustion, but she wants me to consider moving into the Infirmary earlier than scheduled.”
“You should take her advice,” Severus countered, annoyed with the boy for not reporting this sooner.
“I want to keep as much of my freedom as I can.” There was a quiet finality to the boy’s voice that warned Severus against pushing the issue.
He glared at the boy instead. Stubborn brat.
The boy seemed to ignore him, preferring to focus on the volume in his hands. “. . . This is very old, isn’t it?”
Severus looked up again, preparing to say something cutting, until he got a good look at exactly what book Potter was holding. “Give that back!”
The panic in his voice was almost childish and entirely uncalled for, and Potter looked up, startled. His wide green eyes seemed to pin Severus in place.
The man pressed his lips together, cursing his knee-jerk reaction, and glared. Severus had not snapped at Potter like that since when . . . When . . .
“DON’T CALL ME COWARD!!”
He took a measured breath, trying to regain some semblance of control. “I said, put it back.”
The boy carefully placed the book down on the desk. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm. It just—”
“Don’t touch anything, Potter,” the man snapped, turning his attention back to his work. Impudent, spoiled little brat . . .
“It just felt like Dumbledore.”
The quiet murmur of contrition was almost enough to make Severus stop stirring. He frowned down into the cauldron, hating Potter for affecting him so much.
“Give me the blood,” he ordered a bit roughly.
Potter hopped off the desk obediently, breathing still harsh, and handed him the small dish.
“I am sorry,” he murmured. “But it does feel like him.”
Their fingers brushed as he took the offered dish and Severus shuddered.
The Potions master ignored the words, focusing instead on the brew. After several minutes of silence, the boy retreated to his perch on the desk and resumed his now familiar silence.
Blood joined the mixture in the cauldron, followed by two tablespoons of hot water and three fennel seeds. Potter’s words gnawed at Severus the whole time.
“It just felt like Dumbledore.”
He looked over at the book on his desk and the boy seated beside it, scowling as he considered a reply. Several moments went by, punctuated only by the labored sound of Potter’s pained breathing and the quiet bubbling of the potion, before he reached a decision.
Eventually, he turned and looked up again, staring at the young man. “They’re fairy tales. The original versions,” he stressed, feeling defensive about having such a thing. “Albus”—Merlin’s blood, how he hated that word—“gave them to me once.”
He stopped, unable to explain any further, unable to share the promise that had once been bound in that book, and looked away. He didn’t even know why he felt he owed Potter an explanation anyway.
There was a moment of silence and then Potter shifted, making the desk creak faintly. “I’ve never read a fairy tale.” The sentence somehow sounded like a confession.
Severus looked up at him, face unreadable. His arms moved through the motions of the potion automatically. He could probably make it in his sleep if he tried. Potter shifted again nervously, looking uncomfortable and embarrassed.
After a few minutes, the intensity seemed to be more than he could bear. “I mean, I’ve heard them,” he blurted nervously into the growing silence. “I’ve just never actually read them.”
Severus looked down, feeling oddly disquieted. “Why not? Nearly every child reads fairy tales at some point in time.” And then he remembered a cupboard under the stairs and a horse-faced woman and spiders crawling over a small boy as he slept on a cot. Severus scowled.
Oblivious to his line of thought, Potter shrugged. “Just didn’t seem important. Knights and fairies and evil stepmothers . . . Why bother? The real world has enough things to scare you, and there’s no promise of a happy ending, so why set yourself up for false hope?”
Sad blue eyes. “We all write our own endings, whether they be happy or otherwise. So no more accidents, alright?”
His disquiet grew.
He was almost surprised to hear himself reply. “Take it,” Severus ordered, his voice an uncharacteristic mumble.
Potter stared, clearly as surprised as he was. “But—”
“Borrow it,” he corrected with a glare. “Perhaps it will help you sleep.” He looked away to drop a single drop of mercury in the potion. Half of it vanished the moment the silvery liquid made contact and the remainder of the potion turned a brilliant green. For the first time, it occurred to Severus that it was the same color as the boy’s eyes.
“. . . Thank you, Snape.”
The former professor grunted sourly, wondering why he’d ever even offered the thing to the boy, and began to ladle the completed potion into a vial. He was getting soft.
“Get another dish, Potter, and then drink this. We still have one more potion to go.”
The boy gave him that frustratingly sad smile again and nodded. Severus couldn’t help but note that Potter was clutching the book as he left the desk.
On Day Thirty, the Dark Lord placed Hogwarts under siege, finally seeming to react to what they were doing. This had been expected for quite a while and the Order and the Ministry were prepared, leading to a standoff at the gates. Potter took up residence in the Infirmary on the same day after collapsing in the Great Hall. For his part, Severus was not concerned about either event. Hogwarts was as secure as it could possibly be and Potter’s collapse had really only been a matter of time. All things considered, it was only to be expected.
Potter’s friends had dressed up one of the private rooms like a traditional bedroom and someone had even spelled a window to appear and let in fresh air and sunlight. It was merely an illusion, however; the view displayed Hogwarts’ former glory, not the churned-up battlefield that currently existed outside the castle’s walls. Such a feat would only have been possible if Hogwarts itself had allowed it—further proof that the world was hell-bent on doting on Potter. As much as he wanted to be bitter about that, however, he could only be inexplicably grateful for the castle’s kindness.
The treatments themselves were going well, which only meant that Potter deteriorated daily. They soon switched the twice a day routine to a once a night regime, granting Severus more time to brew and more time to record the boy’s progress. He tried to only visit at night, avoiding Potter’s endless slew of visitors like the plague. Minerva had told him that the Weasleys and even the Minister wished to talk to him, but Severus refused. He had no desire to be guilt-tripped for doing his job, and he could not imagine that anyone would be celebrating his role in their little hero’s death. Hogwarts itself was oddly accommodating of this and had taken to moving the dungeons whenever anyone besides Minerva tried to see him.
He could not help but wonder if the castle pitied him as much as it seemed to pity Potter. He wasn’t certain how to feel about that.
Potter, however, neither pitied him his position nor blamed him. While it was refreshing, it was also a bit infuriating. Surely the boy ought to feel some sort of guilt for marking him as his executioner, but the only thing the boy would give him was a sad smile of welcome and a bit of inane conversation during their time together.
They never spoke of their personal lives. Severus had no personal life and he did not care enough about Potter’s to pry. Occasionally the boy would ask after the siege, but Severus rarely knew details. He was too valuable to risk on the battlefield—at least not until Potter was dead.
Looking back at it, Severus would actually never be able to recall what precisely they discussed, but he was oddly grateful for the conversations. There were few people who would actually speak to the Potions master and most of them people Severus would just as soon avoid. Besides, after having to deal with Potter’s presences for hours on end twice a day for a month, he had found that once the boy was gone, something was . . . absent. He did not like the feeling.
“I have to say,” Severus had begun quietly one night as he monitored the boy’s condition.
Potter glanced up from his reading at the interruption, looking a bit startled, but pleased nonetheless. For some reason, he always looked pleased when Severus initiated conversation between them.
Severus ignored the light of pleasure in the other man’s eyes as he measured out the next dose of potion. The green potion frothed slightly as it was moved from one vial to another while he continued. “I am surprised by your willingness to give up your own life. It’s hardly seems befitting of a Gryffindor.”
Harry continued staring at him for a moment and then laughed slightly. It was a shadow of the sound he’d made when he’d first come to Severus’s office nearly six weeks ago. For some reason, that made the older man frown slightly. Potter shook his head, still chuckling quietly.
“Everything and everyone I love has been lost to this war. All that’s left . . .” He looked away from the Potions master and fell silent. The quiet stretched on for a long moment before Potter looked back up. “Snape, what do you have to live for?”
The Potions master blinked, unsure how to reply to the unexpected question. He found that he had no reply.
Potter smiled at him wanly and then looked back down at the book in his hands. “ . . . This isn’t the way things were supposed to end, was it? There was supposed to be an epic battle, and then I was to ride away into the sunset hand in hand with the love of my life, right?”
Severus scowled. “I wouldn’t know, Mr. Potter. I am the villain in this story, remember?” He shoved the vial of potion at his patient. “Drink this.”
Potter’s smile widened a bit and he accepted the vial. “You know, you really should call me Harry. After everything we’ve been through . . .” He stopped at the sight of the scowl Severus directed at him.
Potter raised the vial as though it were a drink. “Bottom’s up, then.” And he tossed back the contents, swallowing hard.
Severus took back the vial and placed it in his bag. He’d clean it when he went back to his quarters.
“It’s been a very long time since I thought of you as a villain, you know,” Potter said after a few minutes.
Severus did not look at him. “Then you are a fool.” I am killing you, Potter. What more proof do you need?
Potter did not reply, though, instead staring at the Potions master for an unnervingly long time. It was a blessing when he went back to his reading. Severus began to pack up his things, his thoughts heavy and troubled. He tried and tried after that, but he was never once able to call Potter by his first name. And he hated how easily Potter forgave him for that.
Potter had gone blind on Day Forty-Two. It was right on time.
The boy had been sitting up in bed, reading an hour after the final potion had been administered. Severus had been reading over his notes in his usual chair beside the bed when he heard the quiet gasp.
He didn’t look up from his scrolls. Such sounds were not unusual. “More pain?”
Potter had been on a painkilling potion cocktail for nearly three weeks now. It was one of the reasons Severus now sat with him through the entire night. The idiot boy would not say anything until he was close to tears from the agony if there was not someone watching him. True to his word, Potter did not sleep—he didn’t even nod off briefly—but a companionable silence had settled between the two as well as a tacit agreement that each other’s company was better than being alone.
Potter’s hand suddenly reached out and groped at nothing for a moment before finding one of Severus’s wrists. He looked up at the touch, startled. Green eyes stared at him unseeing.
“Snape . . .? I’m blind.”
For a moment, Severus was still and then he waved his free hand in front of the boy’s face. There was no reaction.
“. . . So you are, Potter.” Potter did not react to his briskness anymore and it covered the sinking feeling in his stomach nicely. “This was to be expected, remember?”
Potter withdrew his wrist, shivering. “Yes, well . . . Knowing something’s coming is a bit different from having it happen.” The boy was unnaturally still for a moment and Severus realized belatedly that this was the first time Potter had shown any sort of fear or doubt in his presence.
He reached out and carefully removed the book from Potter’s lap. He ignored the way the boy stiffened as he did so. Severus did not touch Potter—it was another of those tacit agreements. “Do you wish me to get Pomfrey?”
“. . . No . . .” Potter carefully settled himself back against the pillows, his movements anxious and carefully contained. “We expected this, after all.”
Severus nodded despite the fact that Potter could not see him. He looked down at the book in his lap. “Bearskin?”
Potter made a noise of agreement.
Unbidden, he smiled very faintly. “I always enjoyed reading this one.”
Potter’s lips parted as though he were going to say something, but then he paused. His tongue darted out, small and pink, and licked his lower lip nervously. Severus’s eyes followed the motion with an intensity that made him uncomfortable once the bit of pink vanished between those slightly chapped lips again. The silence stretched on between them longer than was comfortable until Severus finally cleared his throat a bit awkwardly.
“. . . You seem to be enjoying the book.”
“Read it twice through,” Potter replied, vacant gaze staring just a little bit over Severus’s left shoulder. He sounded proud of himself. The sad smile reappeared and he shrugged slightly, sensing if not seeing Severus’s raised eyebrow. “I like happy endings.”
The simplicity of that statement hurt.
Lacking a retort, Severus stared down at the book in his hands again, unsure what to say. “The pain will come soon . . . The real pain. We will have to put you in a coma or your heart may give out.”
“. . . It was to be expected, right?”
Severus looked up sharply, but there was no recrimination on the boy’s face, just that damned smile.
“Can I have a few days,” Potter asked. “To say goodbye to everyone?”
‘You should have said your goodbyes already, boy,’ he wanted to remind him. Instead Severus looked away, inexplicably pained. His voice remained neutral, however. “If you wish. If Pomfrey approves of it when she comes in for her nightly check, then I see no problem. The longer you delay, however, the greater the chance that the pain will increase to intolerable levels.”
Potter nodded. “I know.” He was silent for a moment. When next he spoke his voice was quiet, the hollowness in the tone oddly prominent. “This is it, isn’t it?” The boy’s sightless eyes were blank and his skin looked waxy.
Severus did not look directly at him. “Yes. You will not have to suffer any longer, though—not that you will be aware of, at least.” There was no sense in sugarcoating it, after all. This was what they had been working towards.
“. . . I am sorry.” He would never know why he said that, but he couldn’t take it back.
Potter looked over in surprise. Then he laughed softly. “For what? You’ve only done as I asked. And you haven’t been nearly as bad as you might have been.” The sad smile became startlingly beatific and Severus was taken aback at having such an expression directed at him.
“I know I’ve never said it, but thank you. The others weren’t pleased, but I knew that you could do it. Albus was right; I couldn’t have trusted anyone else.”
The sentiment was touching. It made him feel sick to his stomach. Severus covered his reaction and growing headache with a derisive snort. “Good to know that the service of cowards is still in such high demand by the Order.” He shot the boy a nasty look, but instead of looking affronted, Potter appeared pained.
He wondered what the penalty for picking on a blind boy was.
Potter stared at him for a long moment. “You know . . . I’ve known you weren’t a coward for years now.”
“. . .”
Question answered. Sometimes Potter’s efforts to make Severus resent him less just made Severus hate himself a little bit more.
Potter was the one to break the heavy silence that fell between them. He settled himself more comfortably in the pillows as he spoke. “Will you read to me . . . Until you put me under? The others are here in the day, but the nights are always the longest, you know.”
Severus’s mouth moved soundlessly for an instant until he found his voice. “Yes, I know.” He remembered his days as a spy just after Albus’s death. The nights were always hardest.
The words didn’t make any sense on the page for a minute; they were nothing but squiggles. Then he heard one of those soft, pained gasps from Potter and the world seemed to shift back into focus. To Severus’s credit, his voice did not shake as he began the tale.
“There was once a young fellow who enlisted as a soldier, conducted himself bravely, and was always the foremost when it rained bullets. So long as the war lasted, all went well, but when peace was made, he received his dismissal, and the captain said he might go where he liked. His parents were dead, and he had no longer a home, so he went to his brothers and begged them to take him in, and keep him until war broke out again. The brothers, however, were hard-hearted and said, "What can we do with thee? Thou art of no use to us; go and make a living for thyself." The soldier had nothing left but his gun; he took that on his shoulder, and went forth into the world.”(3)
Potter remained quiet throughout the night.
They put him into a coma two days later. It was the first time that Severus had had to contend with Potter’s little support group of friends and pseudo-family—even the Minister was there. Thankfully, Severus missed the accolades and speeches. Minerva was also kind enough to run interference between him and Potter’s acolytes. He could feel their eyes on him though, accusing him. Condemning him. It was nothing more than he expected, but he longed for the solitude of his dungeons. Crowds made him anxious these days.
He came up at the very last moment possible. Poppy had everything ready; all she needed was the potion to inject. While injection was not the favored method of potion administration, this particular brew was potent and fast acting. Stomach acid could interfere and Severus had no desire that Potter suffer any longer.
Considering what he faced, the boy actually looked relatively calm.
No one said anything to Severus as he entered, but Pomfrey gave him a small smile as she began prepping the needle. Minerva merely looked sad.
“Are you ready, Mr. Potter?”
A shaky laugh. “All my life.” He smiled and Severus saw fear there. “See you on the other side, Snape.”
No, you won’t.
From the other side of the bed, Ronald Weasley glared at him and squeezed Potter’s hand. Severus ignored him. The room was silent. Pomfrey handed him the needle and he double-checked the dosage. Poppy did not need this on her conscience and he was going to follow this through to the end.
He’d promised as much to both Potter and Dumbledore, and Severus made it a point to keep his promises.
“Sleep well, my boy,” the mediwitch murmured sadly to Potter, lightly petting his forehead.
The former Gryffindor smiled at her slightly and then his eyes flickered to Severus. Perhaps the Potions master was imagining things, but the smile seemed to be a bit gentler when it was directed at him. Suddenly a dozen questions boiled up in Severus’s throat—questions that it seemed he’d had all the time in the world to ask, but were now forever out of his reach. Foremost among them was: Why?
Why? Why? Why? Why?
It was a pointless thing to wonder, though. The why of the measure did not matter, only the necessity of it.
A light touch on his elbow startled the man and he realized he was hesitating.
Frowning, he slipped the needle into the offered arm and injected the potent potion into the boy’s body. Green eyes fluttered shut and then closed. As Potter fell asleep for the first time in two months, it occurred to him that the boy really was not a boy at all anymore. And that he really did not know anything about Potter at all. He felt hollow, as though he’d somehow wasted some great gift. It was only Poppy’s quiet sniffle that roused him from his thoughts.
His missing eye ached and his remaining one misted over a bit. Angry, he turned away, blinking rapidly. He was getting soft. There was no sense in mourning, and certainly not in mourning Potter of all people. The boy had made his choice.
But still that hollow, wasted feeling remained and nothing he did could shake it.
It was some Ministry official’s voice. He’d never heard it before.
He was almost surprised to hear himself respond. “Eight PM.”
He’d never hated the sound of his own voice more.
Day Ninety. It came and went.
He was not there when Potter breathed his last some time in the late afternoon. He felt it, though—a hollow ache taking up permanent residence within him. When he focused on it, his mind was filled with unasked questions, a sad smile, and painfully green eyes. He tried not to think about it all. He also opted not to attend the memorial. Albus had deigned to appear in a portrait in Severus’s room on the morning of the service to ask after him. It was a rare occurrence—the sight of the former Headmaster pained Severus greatly.
Severus had flat out refused entreaties to attend the service. Albus looked disappointed, a face that had conned Severus into far too many mistakes already. His once mentor told him it was a selfish indulgence; he told Albus to shut up. Things had only deteriorated there, ending with one of Albus’s pitying looks and Severus hurling more crockery across the room. At this rate his coffee mugs would not survive the month.
He’d been firm in his decision, however. It was not his place to attend. Potter’s friends were there . . . His admirers. Those he considered family. Severus was not among them. Besides, their grief—both real and orchestrated—was not something Severus needed to see. And who invites a killer to the victim’s funeral?
The Weasleys had Potter cremated at the boy’s request. It was a smart move on their part; too many people would prize Potter’s body as an ingredient in potions or incantations. The boy’s ashes were scattered on the coast without ceremony. They didn’t want people scavenging for any remains that may have escaped the fire. When Severus heard the news from Minerva via Floo, he merely nodded numbly.
Severus made it a point not concern himself with the details of the whole affair. Instead, he did what he did best: hid. He could not escape his thoughts, however.
What must it have been like to realize that the greatest value you could have to the world was in the complete annihilation of your existence?
There was no sorrow—no grief . . . Just a strange hollowness. He told himself that it was merely an effect of the spell, but the words fell short of comfort. . . . Particularly when he found himself standing in his office, half asleep, and preparing one of Potter’s potions.
It’s a habit. Just a habit now . . .
Unfortunately he was a better hider than he was a liar.
It took two weeks before anyone came to see him. Minerva brought down a copy of the Prophet. Molly merely brought herself. When he looked up to see who the castle had allowed into his rooms, he was a bit surprised by the vague stab of betrayal he felt at the site of the redheaded woman. Minerva gave him a sharp look, warning him to behave, and Severus moved his notes off the tea table with a scowl.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” His voice made it clear that he found their presences anything but pleasurable.
Mrs. Weasley looked away from his glaring eye. Her own eyes were slightly puffy from crying.
“Now, now, Severus,” Minerva clucked, settling herself into one of his high-backed, uncomfortable seats. “There’s no reason to be sharp.”
He responded by standing and moving away from them, towards the fireplace. He braced himself against the mantel and looked up when his hand struck something. It was the book of fairy tales. He looked at the beaten leather cover for a moment and then moved his hand slightly to grip the stone mantel. He should have had the book burned with Potter.
He stared down at the flames. The heat made his eye water.
Mrs. Weasley took a step forward and he turned slightly, looking back at the woman to ward her off. “Isn’t there?” he asked the Headmistress coldly. He turned back to the flames. It was easier to look down at them than at Molly’s grief-stricken face. “Has the Order dealt with the Death Eaters?”
Though he’d been assured that Voldemort was gone, the Dark Mark remained. It was more than a bit of cosmetic magic—it was a brand on his soul; nothing would ever remove it. Knowing that, it should not have been difficult to single out the remaining Death Eaters who had escaped after Voldemort’s collapse outside of Hogwarts’ gates. Surprisingly the dark wizard was even stronger than Severus had given him credit for—he’d managed to survive Potter’s death. It was Shacklebolt who landed the killing blow.
The man was being celebrated as a hero.
The very thought made Severus’s lips curl in disgust.
Shacklebolt was a good man, but he was no hero. Potter’s sad, determined smile flashed in his mind, and Albus’s last word: a sad, desperate “Please.”
“Please,” Albus had begged. “Thank you,” Potter had said.
And Severus was left behind with nothing but fairy tales and the good deeds of men who had ultimately proved to be stronger than him—men whom he had killed. This was not the way he’d been told that it was going to be. He’d been a fool to believe Albus’s well-intentioned lies.
“We’re rounding up the last of them,” Minerva replied, breaking him from his dark thoughts. “Poppy’s stores are running low, however. If you have time, she has a list for you. It should be relatively straightforward.”
He nodded dumbly.
The Headmistress placed the paper on the table. “It’s a letter. Mr. Potter wrote it to the Prophet and a few other periodicals to be published upon the announcement of his death.”
Severus did not move.
“He thanks you in it,” she pressed. “Credits you for saving him during the war with your work as a spy . . . And with helping him endure the last ninety days. I think you should read it.”
Be silent, Minerva. He closed his eye against the heat, head throbbing with the hollow ache of where its partner had been. Be silent . . . ”
“Severus . . .” Molly’s voice now. Consoling. Soothing.
Severus hoped that the flames would reach out too far and set the hem of his robes aflame, if only to get them to shut up. “I don’t want it,” he interrupted her tersely. “Please leave me in peace.”
There was a moment of silence followed by a light touch on his shoulder and the homey, gingerbread-like scent that always seemed to cling to the Weasley matriarch. “Harry . . . he spoke so highly of you before he died. I don’t know what you two talked about during your time together, but—”
“The boy was a fool.” Not a boy. Not really a boy at all.
Molly gasped and withdrew her hand. “. . . Did you really hate him so much, Severus?” And the pity in her voice nearly overwhelmed him.
“Yes,” he replied a bit thickly, wishing they would just leave. His hands gripped the mantel until his knuckles turned white. I did. I do.
And he really did hate Potter—hate him as much as he’d ever hated him. He hated Potter for being so damned heroic, and for not hating him, and for worming his way into the empty loom of Severus’s life, and for being tolerable when the brat was never, ever supposed to be humanized in Severus’s eyes. And he hated Potter for never telling him why he’d smiled and walked so calmly into the darkness.
. . . Just like Albus.
. . . Those people at the Prophet were fools. Shacklebolt wasn’t a hero at all.
Molly withdrew behind him, the very air around her seeming to shudder back away from him.
Don’t pity me. But he remained silent.
Time stretched on between the three of them, broken only by the quiet noises of the fire until Minerva finally stood, her lips pursed with disappointment. “I can see that you’re not ready for visitors yet.”
She began to pack up her things and in Severus’s mind’s eye all he could see was the bare private room in the Infirmary, stripped of all signs of Potter, and he saw himself there, too—sitting in ‘his’ chair and reading to the empty room . . . Just as he had every night since Potter’s death.
The nights were always longest.
“Dark magic,” he said suddenly. “Do you know why it’s forbidden?”
Molly looked over at him sharply and Minerva paused, turning to her former colleague as he leaned on the mantel.
It was Molly who took the bait. “. . . Why?”
“It eats at you,” he replied, still staring into the yellow and red flames. Yellow and red. Red and Gold. “It devours you. Unlike other forms of magic, it does not merely move or redirect energy, it either destroys or warps it. As that energy is warped or destroyed, so too is the energy of the caster. It is why Accio-ing someone’s ribcage or heart is not considered Dark, but using Sectumsempra to defend yourself is.”
He turned to look at them and for the first time both women got a good look at his face. He seemed gaunt, skeletal . . . paper thin. “This is what light practitioners never expect and what dark practitioners need to learn for themselves. Morior Animus . . . ‘Withered soul’ . . . The name does not refer to the subject, but rather to the caster. As Potter’s soul was destroyed, so too was a third of my own. So you will forgive me if I bear the boy some ill will yet.”
Not a boy. And I am again made a liar.
A third or no, it did not feel like it was his soul Potter had guilelessly taken with him to oblivion, but something far more precious. The hollowness left behind terrified him.
Minerva stared, looking a bit surprised by the frank admission. She shook her head and for a moment Severus thought she might reach out and shake him. “Severus . . . Then why did you do it?”
It was the one question he had somehow not been expecting. He floundered for a moment until all he could come up with was the truth. “. . . I promised him.” And when the subject was Potter, when had he ever been able to turn away?
It was his weakness and his burden—to try to aid the tiny life he’d ruined all those years ago when he ran to the Dark Lord with the prophecy. And now that life was extinguished.
The two women stared at him for a moment, as though seeing him for the first time, and then Molly turned away. “I just wanted to thank you. For being there with him.” She turned to go, her heels loud on the stone floor. “That’s all.”
He looked after her as she sped towards the door and then turned back to the fire. “Please leave,” he repeated quietly to Minerva, his voice flat.
This time the woman obeyed.
He waited for several moments after they were gone before turning around and picking up the paper Minerva had brought him. He made a concerted effort not to look at the front page and took the tome of fairy tales off the mantelpiece. He wrapped the heavy book in the newspaper and then threw them both into the fireplace. The flames caught them immediately.
He was too damned old for fairy tales anyway.
As he watched them burn, he felt a curious twisting within himself and a strange heat about his eye. It was not until the tear hit his cheek that he recognized what the sensation was, though. How long had it been since he cried? Albus’s death? His mother’s? It did not matter. No other tears followed, nor did he make any move to wipe the single drop of saline away.
It was only one tear, after all, and it would be the last he’d ever shed. As far as Severus was concerned, there were no more heroes left, no more tales to tell, and no more tears left to shed. As Minerva had said, it was all over.
“Besides,” he muttered at the flames, “when all is said and done, who weeps for the soul of the villain?”
The fire danced, consuming the heavy book and newspaper utterly, and a log in the fire popped.
The story was over and silence was all that was left to him.
“Time takes it all whether you want it to or not, time takes it all.
Time bares it away, and in the end there is only darkness.
Sometimes we find others in that darkness, and sometimes we lose them there again.”
- Stephen King
The Green Mile
(1) Cinderella - ‘Aschenputtel’ (Grimm’s Fairy Tale # 21)
(2) Allerleirauh [All-Kinds-Of-Fur] - ‘Allerleirauh’ (Grimm’s Fairy Tale # 65)
(3) Bearskin - ‘Der Bärenhäuter’ (Grimm’s Fairy Tale # 101)
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