"I don't know what to do." Remus murmured the words, but there was fire in them still, a steady belief that there was yet something that could be done; it was only a matter of discovering exactly what. "He scares me, now. Even after he caught us, after you tried to escape Voldemort and he separated us, I never believed he truly meant us harm. Now . . . I know he does, and he's just waiting for the proper moment to strike."
"That was only your naivete showing through, Lupin, if you ever thought he kept us here for the companionship. He means to kill us . . he'll do it, too. He's capable of anything now." And Snape's expression was nearly serene as he spoke of his approaching demise. "You've never had to watch him play with the prisoners. It's . . . obscene, to see just how much pleasure he takes in another's pain."
"And yet, he hasn't hurt either of us," Lupin finished with a look of triumph. "You see? There is hope."
"That way lies lunacy. Hope is a fragile thing, and a path not easily tread. We are going to die. Accept that, and perhaps you can manage to endure the ordeal with some modicum of dignity."
"Severus, if you believe a little self-resolve and negative thinking is going to keep you silent when I decide to kill you, obviously I'm not being violent enough in my demonstrations." Harry appeared like smoke before their cell, and for a moment Snape simply looked at him, deliberately blanking his mind and merely judging the teen by his current manner and appearance.
Potter was gorgeous. Not in the way of a model, or the way Draco Malfoy was – the obvious product of centuries of breeding. But beautiful the way a tiger is, all deadly strength and barely leashed power, kept tame only through the most intensive effort. Angular, chiseled features formed a face far more suited to the dark glory of a warrior god than the gentle perfection of a golden savior. But most of all, Severus thought absently, it was in Potter's eyes, in the natural arrogance he wore like a shield. Potter had been denied his rightful place in the wizarding world's aristocracy as a child, but looking at him now, Snape knew he wouldn't have been able to distinguish Potter by look or manner from any other wealthy, pureblooded lord. The difference, he understood, was that Potter had fought for everything he now possessed; indeed, for his very survival. It had made him strong, and with that strength had come disdain for those he percieved as lesser. In his way, Potter was every bit the purist Voldemort had been – but while Voldemort had sought his imagined superiority in the pureblood elitists and their strictly structured society, Harry had found his Utopia in the minds and hearts of the renegade families who lived outside the dictates of wizarding culture, in a community no longer tempered by Ministry standards. Harry's 'perfect world' seemed borderline anarchy, and Snape didn't doubt that Harry rather liked it that way. Pitting his own Death Eaters against each other, renegades vs. pureblooded elite, had proven that the renegades' lack of familiarity with obedience made them, if not easy to command, then easy to lead into battle. His most important campaigns were performed almost exclusively by the wizarding outcasts, and his easy victories made it clear that Potter's world – if he succeeded in his long term goals – would be a much more powerful, much more deadly, place to live. Severus had the feeling Voldemort would definitely not have approved.
"There has been a . . .shall we say, crucial development of late that I thought you'd enjoy hearing about," Harry said, conjuring a chair with sickening ease and curling himself into it with all the lithe grace of the tiger Severus had so recently realized he resembled. "Now, I wouldn't get your hopes up – the problem is already being taken care of. But apparently my gifts to Dumbledore last night at last brought the old man out of hiding. He's challenged me, formally . . . a neat trick I rather thought beneath him."
"Wait, Harry. What gifts?" Remus asked, struggling to keep his voice steady.
"Severus knows," Harry responded. For a moment emerald eyes locked with obsidian, and to the surprise of everyone, Harry looked away first. "It was petty, what I did to McGonagall . . I'll admit that, Snape. Petty, and ultimately, damning. I sent her body to him, to Albus, last night. Along with what was left of Tonks. And for some reason, he's seen fit to challenge me to a proper wizard's duel . . . no cheating, no seconds, just a flat out, to-the-death duel. What, Severus, do you believe my chances are, if I do agree to fight fair?"
Snape hesitated. He'd have liked to say Dumbledore, no question, but he'd seen too much of Harry's power to be so confident. "I genuinely don't know," he said after a moment. "Voldemort feared him, and he feared you – wound up justified in that, if nothing else. Albus defeated Grindelwald . . . you wouldn't be the first Dark Lord he's killed."
"And I've killed enough Light wizards to fill a cemetery, yes, yes," said Harry, impatiently. "But if he tells me he intends to fight fair . . . will he?"
Snape didn't answer. Couldn't. He knew Albus, knew that the headmaster, while outwardly the epitome of Gryffindor gallantry, was nothing but Slytherin at heart. If the Hogwarts Headmaster could find a way to cheat, he would
"That's the way it'll be, then," Harry said, correctly interpreting Snape's extended pause. "It will be better that way . . . unfairly fair, or honestly lying . . contradictory in nature, but at heart, nearly the same." Harry glanced at his watch, and laughed when he noticed what it read. "Accurate, would you say?" he asked, extending his wrist to Snape, who leaned forward to look at the curious timepiece.
It was a wizard's watch . . silver, with Latin words engraved in a delicate script around the face. The hands pointed to varying times, such Too Late, or Time for a Raid, or, today, Time to Die. Or – and Severus glanced up at Harry in puzzlement as he read the next phrase, Time to Visit the Cemetery. "Harry," he said softly, and Potter jerked his hand free.
"It was a gift," Harry said, as if Snape had voiced the question. "From a friend, for my sixteenth birthday, just before the Death Eaters came for me. I altered it . . . she wouldn't have put my impending demise as a setting, nor suggested that I visit a graveyard."
"Granger?" Snape queried, and got a terse nod in reply. "You kept it . . .why?"
"You really don't know, do you?" Harry said softly, and his eyes were wide with surprise. "None of you did . . . I thought . . Albus was capable of it, I know that, but if he never told you . . . if he never knew . . ."
"Harry . . if we didn't know what?" Remus said it, sitting up straighter, eyes gleaming with renewed hope at this uncharacteristically emotional show from this oh-so-controlled man.
"She's dead, Remus." Harry looked at them, and felt his entire world spin to a sudden, grinding halt as he saw the sorrow on Lupin's face, and the brief light of understanding in Snape's black eyes.
"We wouldn't have known," said Snape. "We got letters, dozens, from the Muggleborn students, withdrawing from Hogwarts in light of the current situation. Albus spoke with Granger's parents, told them that her status as your companion made her more of a target, and that she would be safer at school, but nobody was really surprised when she didn't show up. There were no more than a handful of students at Hogwarts at the beginning of this year; we'll close the school soon."
"You got closer than you knew, Professor, when you asked me what I'd say if Voldemort caught Hermione and told me to torture her." The boy's emerald gaze locked with Snape's onyx, and there was a new fervency in them, a kind of desperation that bordered on lunacy. From a thousand miles away, Harry heard Lupin's sympathetic whimper, but this moment was for Snape, for proving that while some part of him still bled for the life he'd lost, that past had long been lost to them all.
"He caught her. He hurt her, and I stood and I watched and I did nothing. Is that what you needed to hear?" Harry's voice broke, and for a moment he sounded like the sixteen-year-old boy he was. His eyes closed for a moment as he visibly struggled for control. "He told me he would let her go if I used the Cruciatus curse on her . . . that it would prove my loyalty to him. It was, quite possibly, the only promise he ever kept. It destroyed me, as he knew it would, and he had no further use for her. He let her go, because I asked it of him, and I thought . . . I thought that to have her safe was more than I had a right to ask for. I gave myself up to this life because it was the only way to keep them safe, Hermione and Ron and Remus. And three weeks after I surrendered to him, Pettigrew brought me a Muggle newspaper with an article he thought I 'might be interested in'." Harry's laugh carried in it a tortured grief that made even Snape flinch. "When I told Hagrid I thought my parents had died in a car accident, he thought it was almost funny, to believe that a witch and wizard so powerful as the Potters could die that way. Somehow, I thought wizards as a species immune to the accidents that happen to the lesser Muggles. But twenty people survived the train accident. Seven didn't. And the only witch among them, Hermione Granger, was among the seven. It was . . absurd. I gave up my last shot at redemption to save her, and not a month later she died anyway, in a train wreck that any magician worth his salt could have prevented. It drove me a little mad, for a while. I killed people, innocent people, and Voldemort stood in the background and smiled as he watched me dig my own grave. And by the time I finally realized that hurting innocents wasn't going to change anything, I was in too deep to climb back out."
Harry paused, took a deep breath. "I don't regret, Remus. Not the way you do. It makes me sad, sometimes, to realized just how many people have died because of the division in our world, Muggle and magic, Muggleborn and pureblood. But I can't change what I am. I can't change what happened to me, or what that drove me to. I can only say that at the time I believed the end justified the means. And that now that I've realized it does not, it's too late to change things . . . even if I would."
"It's not too late, Harry. Never."
"Then your world would welcome me back with open arms, Remus?" Harry smiled wryly at Remus's look of dismay. "I chose, Moony. I knew what life I condemned myself to when I took the hand Voldemort offered me. And I cannot go back."
A man, filthy and bloodied, stumbled from the Forbidden Forest, closely pursued by a trio of thestrals – only to collapse upon the steps of Hogwarts, unable to go further. Severus Snape gathered the last of his strength for a final attempt at the sanctuary of the school as the horselike creatures thundered up the steps – only to see them rear back in surprise as the doors burst open and Albus Dumbledore came to his rescue once more.
A wave of Dumbledore's wand Banished the nearest horse; the other two bared their fangs and prepared to charge this new human, only to pause and prick up their ears to catch the soft sound of their master's whistle, calling them back. They turned away as one, cantered back to the edge of the Forest and another thestral that emerged from the dimness, gently nuzzling at the man who rode it.
He rode the thestral stallion to the base of the steps, but went no further, sneering at the Light Magic he felt from Dumbledore. It posed no threat to him; this old man, for all his power, was no longer a match for what he had become. But a fight here would solve nothing, not when both Dumbledore and his intended victim stood only a few feet away from the strongest sanctuary the Light Side could offer. But he no longer needed Severus. Immortality was already within his grasp, with Lucius' recent discovery of a Philosopher's stone, and he could all but taste sweet revenge.
"Tom," Dumbledore said at last. He couldn't see the man's face clearly, but there was no need for that . . . no other single figure could project such Dark Magic as Lord Voldemort. He should have known that no matter how powerful Harry had become, Voldemort would not risk his best general, his only heir . . . . could not pass up this chance at an even duel with his former teacher. Albus shivered at the realization of how bold Riddle had become, to ride up to the very doors of Hogwarts alone. "I should have known you would come yourself rather than send the boy . . . take the risk of his returning to the Light."
"That, then, is where you are wrong, Professor. Tom Riddle lies dead at the hand of his own Death Eaters, betrayed by the men whose loyalty I now hold. This war is not over, Dumbledore. Not by a long shot." The rider threw back the hood of his cape, and Dumbledore shied away from him before he could stop himself.
Harry ignored him, slid from the thestral's back to stand over Severus. "You served your purpose, and I've no further need of you. But if you are wise, Severus, you will not cross paths with me again, for I will not allow you to slip through my fingers a second time. Rejoin your master, Snape, and you will see just where my priorities fall. Remus is a member of the Order too, and for that ill-made choice he will suffer, and you will live to see your world fall." A slender hand, adorned with a ring that bore the Slytherin family crest, forced Snape's head up, and Severus couldn't stop shivering as he met Potter's emerald eyes. "I believed, when I was young, that you cared for nothing . . held nothing sacred. We will see." He returned to his mount, dismissed the other thestrals with a gesture.
"Harry. You have Remus?"
Harry's hand paused momentarily in his gentle stroking of the thestral's muzzle, and his hand clenched on its bridle for a moment so hard his knuckles went white. At last he answered, without turning back to look at them: "Yes."
"Return him to me, Harry. Please. If not for me, then because Sirius would have wished it."
Severus held his breath, certain that the very mention of Black would send the new Dark Lord into a towering rage. But Harry was still, his posture deliberately casual – and only Snape saw the way his fingers trembled before he flattened them against the sleek hide of the dark horse.
"Provide me with a portkey I may use to return him here, and I will do so. Though I would suggest a box for the portkey, as I will be sending him back in pieces."
For a moment no one took a breath. Even the thestral, who had been prancing nervously in the presence of the other humans, had quieted. And Snape was absolutely certain that if something didn't change within the next few seconds, Potter was more than capable of chopping Lupin into tiny bits and mailing them back to Dumbledore post haste.
"Harry," he murmured, and as always, his tremors faded away as he faced his monsters.
"Be silent, Severus," Harry growled, leaping onto the thestral, and in desperation Snape shoved past Dumbledore to grab at the reins.
"Harry, damn you, listen."
"Release my horse, Professor. Lucifer is . . . temperamental, at best."
"The only dangerous thing here is you. You think your men don't talk? You think they bother to censor what they say, when they believe Remus and I are already dead in every way that matters? Do you really believe they don't watch you stand for hours in front of that damned Veil, and wonder why? If you want to die so much, why don't you just step through and join the mutt!"
"Because I can't hear him anymore!" Harry turned his face away, swallowing hard. "I spent months trying to understand what happened to Sirius when he fell through the Veil. Stole that piece of wizarding shit because I thought I could bring him back. Luna . . . Loony Luna Lovegood, the Ravenclaw girl?" Severus nodded, remembering vaguely a too-thin girl with old eyes and a roaring Gryffindor lion perched on her hat, and Harry went on. "She said she could hear them too, when Sirius died. Said it wasn't just me, that she could hear the voices behind the Veil, same as me, and I wasn't just going crazy. But she died in a raid while I was trapped in Voldemort's dungeons, and I can't hear them anymore. I can't find a way to get them back."
"You didn't have to go to him, Harry. We would have helped you." Dumbledore whispered it.
"I know better. I'm dangerous, always have been. There's more of Voldemort in me than you ever let me suspect, and when I killed him, you would have had no further use for me. You'd have killed me, and told yourself that it was for the good of the world, and if you ever felt guilty about it, you'd pass it off as 'the greater good'. I'm a weapon, Dumbledore. It's what I was born for. And if I choose to use what I can do for myself, and not for you, it is because I was left with so little choice."
"So, perhaps, there never was a choice to be made. I'm sorry, Harry." Dumbledore raised his wand, and Severus knew. He held a distinction, perhaps, in being one of the few wizards who'd ever seen Albus Dumbledore cast the Killing Curse . . . had performed the curse himself often enough to recognize the preliminary wand movements. He'd killed Potter, and never seen it coming.
"Ginny, no!" Harry screamed, and Severus had never heard such pain in a man's voice. And everything else happened too quickly for him to stop it.
The thestral Harry had ridden, the horse he referred to as Lucifer, knocked Harry out of the way, reared in front of him as he struggled to his feet . . . took the curse in his place. And even as it fell, it shifted . . . the ebony mane went fiery red, the heavy frame of the powerful animal shrank into the slender, pale form of a girl, and Harry Potter fell forward onto his knees as he cradled Virginia Weasley's body in his arms.
"Damn you, you bastard!" Harry rose, clinging to Ginny as if he could ward off the very coming of death with his presence. Severus froze, desperately fighting back panic as he struggled to understand the intricate relationship that seemed to exist between Dumbledore and his Golden Boy. But Albus had already raised his wand again. Harry's eyes locked with Snape's as the Killing Curse was cast again, and Severus reached for his wand in some last-ditch effort to do something. But there was nothing left to do. The green light flashed again, so bright Severus had to close his eyes, and for a long moment he stayed where he was, afraid to look again upon a world that seemed to spin under him. Light was Darkness, evil spoke of salvation, and for the first time in years, Severus wasn't certain he'd chosen the right side in what seemed like an endless war. Soft sobs broke the silence, overwhelming the soft crooning of what Snape abruptly realized was phoenix song. And Severus opened his eyes to a world forever changed.