1. Falling by believeindreamers
2. Waking to Moonlight by believeindreamers
3. Devil Rising by believeindreamers
4. Lucifer by believeindreamers
5. Darkness Bound by believeindreamers
6. Light in Every Darkness by believeindreamers
"Take them down!" A voice, unusual in both youth and authority, rose above the din. Familiar, too, but the vague recollection danced at the edge of his memory, and Snape dismissed it. Death was all around him now; he'd shown his true colors at a most inopportune moment. The werewolf lay Stunned a few feet away, Tonks had already been taken. Kingsley had gone for reinforcements that would come too late. And Dumbledore . . . He glanced in the direction of the elder wizard. The Hogwarts headmaster dueled with a half dozen of Voldemort's best, and Severus could do nothing but pray, held as he was at wandpoint by Lucius Malfoy.
"Malfoy." The young Death Eater, a most surprising lead for this most important of missions, was standing beside him. "I'll take him. Join the others. Voldemort wishes a free duel with Dumbledore, and there will be no interference by the Aurors, or Dumbledore's Order. I suggest that you ensure that."
Snape was staring. The easy, careless fashion in which this one referred to his lord bespoke a long familiarity with the Dark Lord, and a ranking higher than Snape would have believed possible for one so young. But it was Malfoy's submissively uttered, "Yes, my lord," that truly unnerved him. He knew Lucius, understood that Malfoy bowed only to the highest of kings. That he obeyed this boy with a respect he was wont to give even Lord Voldemort was telling, and not a little frightening.
It was insane, how bad things had gotten so fast. Harry Potter, stupid child that he was, had left the protection of the Dursley's home only a week into the summer after his fifth year. Snape supposed it was grief over that mutt Sirius' death that provoked the boy, though that was no excuse. But no matter. Potter had been captured by the Death Eaters, taken by Malfoy into the heart of Voldemort's castle stronghold in Russia. To tell the truth, Snape wasn't surprised they'd never found his body – after they'd finished with him, there probably hadn't been enough of him left to mail back to Dumbledore. The wizarding world had grieved for their baby hero, and in their grief, Voldemort's Death Eaters had found an easy target. Hogwarts was the last true sanctuary for the Light. Diagon Alley held its own, but it was only a matter of time. Now the Ministry itself was under attack, and despite the battle still raging around him, Snape knew that they'd lost this one almost before it had begun. There were simply too many . . . and that boy.
Snape didn't remember him from the latest of his Death Eater meetings. Couldn't remember the teenager who stood before him with such utter poise and control. Snape assumed he was Voldemort's heir; there was no other reason he could imagine that the Dark Lord would let him lead so great an attack. He'd done well at it too, this boy of perhaps seventeen, commanding Voldemort's most elite soldiers with the serenity of a seasoned general.
"Who are you?" he murmured, mostly to himself, and stiffened in surprise when the boy leaned closer, met his eyes through the mask.
"Your worst nightmare," he responded in that strangely familiar tone, and through the mask his emerald eyes glittered with malice and hatred.
"No . . ."
"Yes." His captor laughed, removing his mask with a theatrical flourish. For a moment Snape stared into the face of his archenemy's only child, took in the abomination before him, who mocked him with Lily's eyes. He didn't hear the curse that banished him to welcome blackness.
"Ennervate." The snarled spell brought him to full awareness in an instant, but he kept his eyes closed as he listened to the voices above him.
"He's awake, just faking it," Malfoy grumbled.
"I put a little power into my spells, Lucius." Snape recognized Potter's voice with a shiver. "Or perhaps it is simply that some of us do not improve with age. Tell Voldemort that the prisoners have been awakened. I will see to Snape." Severus heard footsteps retreating, then the snap of a closing door. And Potter's voice came again: "I know you're awake, so you can stop faking."
Snape hesitated only a moment before he opened his eyes and sat up, taking stock of his injuries. To his surprise, he felt perfectly fine, and he glanced at Potter in mute query.
"We haven't hurt anyone, as of yet. There are some that will be of better use intact, as bargaining chips. On the other hand, there are some – like you – who are good for nothing but a bit of entertainment."
"Why, Potter? I don't . . . I don't understand."
"If you live, Snape, you will indeed have the answers you seek. But that has yet to be decided."
"Potter." Voldemort's sleek, serpentlike tone came from the doorway, and Harry straightened, grabbed the back of his professor's robes and pulled Snape to his feet with shocking strength. "I see you've been quite as successful as I could have wished."
"Of course, my liege." Potter's posture and manner of address was perfect, just deferential enough to remain in good graces, but steady enough to gain Voldemort's favor. But there was something in his eyes, some flicker of disdained amusement, that puzzled Snape.
"Who have we here?" Voldemort turned to the prisoners behind them, and Snape turned with him, instinctively choosing to give his back to Potter to keep Voldemort in view. It was only wishful thinking, he knew, but at least with Potter torture was not certainty, but still open to negotiation.
The others – there were only four in the chamber with them – were chained to the wall several feet apart. Lupin, Tonks, Kingsley, and . . . McGonagall? Severus cursed inwardly, but remained where he was. A show of valiant honor, a frantic attempt at rescue, would do none of them any good. He wasn't certain why he was standing here, free, at Potter's side. But for the moment, he was unrestrained, and he would take any opportunity that chanced to present itself.
"Kingsley Shacklebolt," Voldemort nearly purred. "You have been quite a problem of late – you will pay for that with your life, but not, I think, very soon. Nymphodora." He shook his head in mock disappointment. "Your mother was once one of my grandest hopes, very like Bellatrix. A pity she had to choose the losing side, along with her mutt of a cousin, hmm? And Lupin. The werewolf. I offered you a choice twice, and was refused. It is beyond my patience to extend my forgiveness a third time, I'm afraid. And last but not least, Minerva McGonagall. Not one of my professors, of course. How are her teaching skills, Potter? As mediocre as Dumbledore's were?"
"I would not be an accurate judge . . . I was a Gryffindor, after all, and McGonagall was always partial to her own students."
"That, then, as not changed. Minerva, shame on you." Voldemort sounded pleased with himself, and Snape knew from past experience that was never a good thing. "Favoring your Mudblood students over my pureblooded Slytherins. You will pay for that." He turned away, favored Snape with a particularly vengeful glare. "And of course, my faithful Potions master. Who, it seems, is not so loyal as he once was. You have seen the penalty for betrayal, Severus. So, for a taste of what is to come, I think a lesson is in order. Crucio."
Snape tensed, prepared for the curse. It was always a new shock, each time. It didn't matter that it had happened a hundred times before, that every muscle still remembered the unique torture of Voldemort's curse. There was no way to take it gracefully, and he closed his eyes, waiting for a pain that never came.
Harry held out a hand, blocked the curse. Took the burden of it silently as he went down on one knee on the floor. Rose without a word to face his master's condemnation. "I want him, alive and uninjured." It wasn't a request this time, but a demand. "The werewolf as well."
"They are mine, body and soul, as are you."
"You needed an ally, Voldemort, and you have one. But if you wanted a slave, you got the wrong guy."
"You will bow to my authority."
"But not to you." They locked eyes, and to Snape's surprise, Voldemort looked away first. "I want them, for reasons of my own. You cannot deny me that."
"You're going soft, Potter."
Harry's smile was tinged with a hint of dark amusement. "Never that. I simply lack the stomach for true torture. I can perform the curse, but I do not share your love of the Cruciatus Curse. It comes, I suppose, of my own personal experience with it."
"McGonagall, then," Voldemort said after a moment, and Harry shrugged.
"If you like." He waited for Voldemort's nod of approval before he flicked his wand at Minerva and murmured "Crucio" almost lazily. Voldemort listened to the resultant screams for several long minutes before Snape gave up any appearance of impartiality and grabbed Harry's arm.
"Stop it, Potter!"
"Never interfere," Harry growled, releasing Minerva and turning the brunt of his fury on Snape. "Crucio." He snapped the word, and Snape went down, screaming. He held it for almost ten minutes before he released it, letting out a dersive snort as Snape went limp. Voldemort was laughing, and even in his weakened, pain-wracked state, Snape shuddered at the sound of it, sending new flashes of pain through his body. He tried to sit up, and cursed softly as the word spun around him in a blur of color and sound before everything faded to black.
"You seem to make a habit of passing out in my presence, Snape," Potter said from somewhere to his right. He heard Potter's approach, and opened his eyes warily to find the teen crouched beside him. "How many fingers am I holding up?" he demanded, waving three fingers in Snape's face.
"You'll be fine." Harry rose lithely to his feet, giving Snape his first view of the large wolf beyond, and Snape abruptly became aware of the moonlight shining through the window. He'd forgotten that tonight was the full moon; thankfully, Potter had not. Rather unsteadily Snape stood, and the werewolf – Lupin – went for him with a feral snarl, only to be brought up short by the silver chain that tethered it. Very calmly Potter pulled on a pair of gloves that gleamed dull silver, struck the beast across the face hard enough to elicit a puppyish whimper from the enormous wolf.
"So, Snape, still want those answers?" Potter crossed the room to sprawl with deliberate carelessness across a black leather recliner, one foot dangling over the chair arm, his eyes half closed, surveying the man before him with studied nonchalance. But Potter's impassivity was merely a farce; Snape knew that for fact. An effective one, and one he'd used himself, but easy for anyone who knew him to see through. There was an intensity to Potter's expression, a coiled strength and poise almost buried beneath that practiced façade.
"Yes." Snape paced the room for a moment before he threw up his hands in resignation. "Why? Why did you . . join him? Let him make a slave of you?"
"I would have thought that our little dispute over you would have proven well enough that I am no pawn. Not to Voldemort, and not to Dumbledore. I wouldn't have bothered if I thought I would just be trading one master for another. But here I am a prince of the realm, a force to be reckoned with, and not because of my close connection to Lord Voldemort. I was very good at DADA, Professor, if you'll recall. That same aptitude lent itself rather well to the Dark Arts themselves. After almost six months of practice, I can duel even your lord to a standstill. Another month, and Dumbledore will fall at my hand, and this world with him."
"After you disappeared, he grieved for you the way he would for a son he'd lost," Snape returned, the fire returning to his eyes as he defended his mentor. "He refused to believe the rumors, went out searching for you alone months after the rest of us gave up."
"He wasn't grieving, Snape – he felt guilty, and he kept looking because he had reason to believe that I was alive. He tried to put me under the Imperius when I wouldn't fall in with his plans to have me join the Order of the Phoenix. I broke it, and he almost killed me . . . trying to cut his losses, I suppose. I wasn't working the way he wanted, so it was time for me to die like a good little martyr. Obviously, I disagreed."
"I don't believe you."
"Then don't. But know this – I did only what I had to do. I didn't end my fifth year with the intention of going to Voldemort. I didn't want to join forces with the monster who destroyed my family. But that choice was no longer mine to make."
"You're no victim." Snape's tone was certain. "They – the Death Eaters – they defer to you . . . call you master, and kneel at your feet, and kill for your orders. You are not helpless."
"I made a choice, Snape, that night a year ago when Voldemort came to me, and I will not regret it. No, I don't want to kill people; I lack the violence of spirit necessary to desire another's pain. But I made a conscious decision to become Voldemort's heir, aware that there would be certain . . . obligations that came with the title. The first time I killed a man I stood there while Voldemort finished off the rest of his family . . . . and I went to my rooms, very calmly, and spent the next six hours throwing up. But that is, for a man in my position, impractical. I couldn't escape destiny, Snape. So I learned to enjoy it."
"You genuinely enjoy what you do, now."
"Yes." Harry smiled at Snape's obvious confusion. "I learned, over time, to ignore the morality of what I do. You have to admit that there is a kind of rush that comes with Dark Magic; it's what makes it so attractive. Voldemort has simply taken the extra step of removing the moral considerations and concentrating solely on the power . . . and the pleasure. I have chosen to do the same."
"Then why take the risk, why stand up to him, for Lupin and me?"
"Don't fool yourself into believing that I can be reformed. I wanted you alive because you could stand torture, I think, and make a martyr of yourself with it. And so I will have your pride, your very humanity, and have you crawling at my feet begging for death long before I grant you that plea. Lupin . . ." Harry glanced at the werewolf almost sorrowfully. "He is truly the last Marauder, now – one condition of our alliance was Wormtail's death by torture. He is . . . a last link to my parents; the only person I remember, save for Sirius, who cared for me, and not just what I represented." Harry was silent a moment. Then: "Why did you betray the Dark Lord, Snape? Why desert one master in exchange for another just as bad?"
"Because what the Dark Lord does is wrong. And a part of you still remembers that. You choose not to see, but deep down you know it is. Our world hasn't changed just because you aren't in it anymore. The Weasleys are still fighting at Dumbledore's side, the Granger girl with them. Can you kill them, Harry, in the heat of battle?" Potter turned away from the accusation in the other's tone, and Snape followed him, his words pricking the gentler emotions buried beneath the hate for Dumbledore that ruled Harry's every decision.
"What are you going to do when he catches Hermione and Ron, and demands another show like the one with McGonagall tonight? Are you going to kneel at his feet and say, 'Yes, master,' and slowly kill the best friends you ever had? How can you submit to that monster day after day?"
Harry turned on him, hatred and desperation flaring to life in the depths of his emerald eyes. "I submit because I know it is nothing more than my own will that keeps me at his feet. I submit because someday very soon my influence in the Death Eater ranks will exceed his own. And when it does, I will kill him and bow to no other God – and make of his followers a Dark empire the like of which this world has never seen. Only when Dumbledore takes his last breath, when every last member of his Order of the bloody Phoenix is dead and the bird for which it was named rises no more, will I be sated."
"I am . ."
"Of the Order. I know."
"Then if you truly hate them so much . . . why did you really save me? Because that is what it felt like – salvation."
"Because," Harry said at last, in scarcely more than a whisper, "this afternoon, when I took off my mask, you looked at my eyes and knew who I was . . . and your eyes never strayed to that damned scar. You saw me, not the boy savior of the wizarding world – even when I was at Hogwarts and you hated me, you saw me for who I was, not what I'd done. And for that, I am grateful."
Snape woke to the silver play of moonlight over his face, and for a moment he lay still, hearing only ominous silence in the room around him. He opened his eyes at last and sat up, to be greeted by possibly the oddest scene he'd witnessed in the last day – Harry Potter leaned against the massive grey wolf, stroking the huge head with a trembling hand. And for an instant, Snape glimpsed the boy behind the mask, heard Potter's almost forgotten Gryffindor compassion in the soft crooning note of Harry's voice as the teen ran his fingers over the welts the silver collar and gloves had left on the werewolf's flesh.
"I'm sorry, Moony," Harry whispered to the wolf as he ruffled the silky fur at the wolf's ears. "More than you will ever understand." His voice trailed off as Snape stirred at last. It was true enough that he felt a certain kinship with Snape – both had betrayed their former allies, and allied themselves with their ex-enemies. Snape had chosen the losing side a long time ago. Harry hoped to change that.
"I didn't believe you capable of brewing the Wolfsbane Potion," Snape commented, interrupting the boy's litany of guilt.
"I was always dismal at Potions . . that hasn't changed. Fortunately, Lucius has either a newfound talent for making potions, or a very expensive contact on the black market. It doesn't matter to me – but he'll have to obtain that potion for two, now."
"Someone was bitten? Tonight?"
"You didn't really think I'd try to pry his teeth open and pour that potion down his throat myself?" Harry laughed softly. "That's what new recruits are for, Severus. So eager to please, and so damn guillible. I was never that naïve, Gryffindor or not. The boy who was bitten tonight saw his brother die at my feet for his refusal to obey my wishes. They were very close . . twins. He learned a very important lesson tonight, and he will not soon forget it."
"What lesson is that? That cruelty, and power, are fitting substitutes for sense? That because you are his superior in magic, and in rank, his life remains dependant on your every whim? That wanton violence is the only way of life?"
Harry snarled, a harsh sound every bit as terrifying as the wolf's own. "They were Slytherins, bred and raised to have no will but Voldemort's, and now mine. Do you know how many less than perfect children are slaughtered at birth by their own parents because they don't live up some pureblood standard of excellence? Those nineteen year old boys knelt at Voldemort's feet only a week ago and pledged their wands and their lives to him. One of them has already paid the ultimate price for his decision; the other will be forever maimed for his loyalty to a madman." Harry paused, shrugged. "I care, Severus, I do. But a year ago I saw Sirius killed in front of my very eyes, because I acted on emotion instead of logic. It was logical to kill the boy, and use his brother to make a further example to the rest of the Death Eaters that I will not tolerate anything less than their utmost devotion. Only a few hours ago you asked me if I could kill Granger or Weasley in cold blood. Now I am utterly certain that if I need to, I could."
"So you killed that boy to prove that you can do so without emotion, as blankly and blindly as the Dark Lord does. Yeah, you proved something, Potter – that you are indeed as arrogant as I once named you, and a murderer besides. Good job."
Harry said nothing. He considered, briefly, torturing the arrogance out of the man; 'Crucio' would sound perfectly delightful when applied to this man. His knuckles turned white as his fist clenched on his wand, and slowly he forced himself to relax. Remus would be returning to human form within the hour. It really wouldn't do to have Snape's carcass be the first thing Moony saw upon his transformation. Harry shoved back his sleeve, lightly traced the edge of his Mark with his thumbnail, watching in amusement as Snape fought back a gasp of sudden pain as his own Mark began to turn onyx. Harry slammed his thumb down the scar, smiling triumphantly as pain flared up his arm, almost soothing in its familiarity. The sight of Snape, clutching frantically at his arm, was further balm to Harry's psyche, and Potter was again sitting tranquilly at Lupin's side when the man rose to his feet, human once more.
"Harry-pup." Remus murmured his own pet name for the boy, a term of address he hadn't used since the boy's infancy. "What have you done?"
"What I wished, for once," Harry returned, viciously. "Your Dumbledore is not quite the holy saint you and the Order have long made him out to be."
"Albus is only a man. You can't blame him for Sirius's death, any more than you can blame yourself. Neither of you knew, and both of you would have done anything to save him. You shouldn't have left, Harry. We could have helped you handle it. Why did turn to . . to Voldemort, instead of to us? Why take the step further into a Darkness that has dominated your life from the moment you were born?"
"Because he, at least, never lied to me." Harry snorted. "It was a dead-on surprise when Dumbledore tried to do away with me – I rather expected it from Voldemort. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. And come, Remus, Darkness is a bit more than you Gryffindors like to make poor children like me believe. The Dark Arts are perhaps the most potent and basic of spells – it is indescribable, Moony, to have a man, a powerful wizard in his own right, kneeling at your feet as he begs you for the lives of his family. And it is the utmost in power and authority, to deny him the family he pleads for."
"Oh my God." Remus backed away from Harry until his back hit the wall and there was nowhere else to go. His glance flicked to Snape in desperation – help me understand, those eyes beeseeched him, but Snape only shook his head. The Potions master looked at the tableau before him, and couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't only make the situation more violatile. Harry had already proven himself willing and able to kill indiscriminately – one paltry werewolf and the bane of his childhood would prove all too easy to destroy should Potter decide to do so. And so they stayed this way for a long moment – Remus staring at Potter in abject horror, Snape looking at Remus with some sympathy, and Harry surveying them both with a condescending eye.
"My lord." Lucius Malfoy rapped lightly at the door, waiting for Harry's approval before entering the room and almost crawling to Harry's feet. "McGonagall has escaped, my lord, and the female auror with her. His lordship is . . most displeased." The wizard's visible shudder made it quite clear that Voldemort's disapproval extended past the prisoners, and fell onto the Death Eaters who had been so unlucky to let them escape.
"Voldemort's temper tantrums have nothing to do with me. If he wants to scream and throw things and toss around a few 'Crucios' here and there, it's none of my affair." Harry sounded supremely bored.
"Yes, my lord, and I know I should not have bothered you with the news, but . . ." Malfoy hesitated, his eyes on the floor.
"Out with it," Harry growled. "Or get out. Your choice."
"My son was among those who failed to recapture the prisoners last night, and I fear that my master's fury will overwhelm his gracious patience with Draco's inexperience."
"You're afraid Draco going to be executed, hmm?" Harry grinned when Malfoy nodded. "Well, thanks for brightening up my morning so nicely. Too bad the brat didn't screw up a job of mine, but for your sake, you'd best be thankful he's Voldemort's problem, and not mine. Voldemort might be cruel – he might even be evil, though I am certainly in no position to be objective about that. But I am, I assure you, far more creative than he. Draco may survive the morning, if he is careful; I don't know. But know now, Lucius – if he screwed up a plan of mine, he would be dead within the week, and not a moment before. You see, I lived with one very sadistic Muggle for fourteen years, spent two months in Voldemort's dungeons. They say that the best torturers are men who have themselves been subjected to the most horrific cruelties that can befall a man. Unless you'd prefer to have your son delivered to you by mail in tiny pieces, I suggest you leave me in peace for the rest of the morning."
For a moment no one breathed, as Lucius went for the door in as much haste as his subservient posturing allowed. Harry wrinkled his nose in disdain as he watched the Slytherin go before he let out a soft laugh.
"Well, that was entertaining," he said with a smile. And, for a moment awed by the obvious power and regal cruelty in his manner, the other two simply nodded.
“I don’t know what to do.” Lupin curled into a ball upon the soft cushions of Harry’s living room sofa, in absent imitation of the frightened behavior of the wolf that shared his soul. “I never believed him capable of such cruelty . . .”
“And for all my disdain for the boy, neither did I,” Snape admitted. He and Lupin had been unceremoniously abandoned in Harry’s lavishly appointed chambers some hours ago, soon after Lucius Malfoy’s visit – it was a comfortable prison, to be sure, but the Slytherin in Snape couldn’t rest easily in his enemy’s territory. Lupin had napped, exhausted from the previous night’s transformation, but Snape hadn’t been able to relax enough to doze. And as dusk fell heavily upon Voldemort’s stone fortress, he wondered what would become of them.
He knew enough to be certain that the castle was almost empty; the Death Eaters, frustrated by their failure with Minerva and Tonks, would doubtless be on the prowl again tonight. Harry’s absence boded ill for the Light’s chances this night, for with Harry as their leader, Snape had little faith in even Dumbledore’s ability to keep Diagon Alley out of Voldemort’s hands. On the other hand, there would likely not be a better chance for them to stage an escape attempt.
He’d mentioned this to Lupin only an hour ago, and met with reluctant agreement. Lupin had wanted more time with Potter, and Snape didn’t blame him. It was difficult, even for him, to accept that the Boy-Who-Lived had fallen so totally to Darkness. But without a history of affection and worry clouding his perception, he had already realized the futility of trying to reform Potter. He’d recognized a general’s brilliance in the plot Harry had outlined for him last night; seen in Harry’s easy dismissal of Lucius’ fears for Draco their last hopes slip away. Harry was lost, had strayed too far from the boy he’d been to return to them whole in mind and soul. He’d chosen . . there was nothing Snape could do.
“Lupin . . . if we’re going to try, we need to do it now.”
Remus hesitated. He’d lost the boy once; had failed both Harry and Sirius too many times to count. The pack instinct inherent in his wolf form made him waver. The human mind he possessed told him that to stay was suicide, even while the wolf demanded that he stay with the last remaining member of his family pack. He believed in Harry, even now – he lacked the cynicism that had made Severus Snape such a successful spy. He didn’t believe Harry meant either of them real harm, but on the other hand, Dumbledore needed to know that Harry was alive and working with Voldemort.
At length he simply sighed and settled in a more comfortable position on the couch. “I won’t go. I can’t leave him alone again, Severus.”
“He’s not Harry anymore.” Snape hissed the words. “He is a Death Eater, and Voldemort’s only heir. I am sorry, Lupin – you may not believe it, but I am. But that doesn’t change the fact that the boy you knew has been dead for a long time.”
“I won’t leave him. If you’ll recall, it was our negligence that left him with no other choice but to join Voldemort’s ranks. I was foolish, to leave him with the Dursleys when he was a baby. It was crazy, to let him compete in the Triwizard Tournament his fourth year. But my stupidity in leaving him alone after Sirius was killed is unparalleled. He may be a Death Eater, as you say. But whether he is or not, I have to believe that there’s still something of Harry left in him. And if there is, I have to be here for him.”
Snape was quiet for a long moment before he nodded, albeit somewhat sulkily. “I understand your choice, Lupin. I assume you also understand that I, at least, have to make the attempt?”
“Yes.” And Remus said nothing more, refusing to voice his concern. He feared for Snape – feared that if Harry was placed in a position where his own life hinged upon his willingness to kill the spy, he would not hesitate. Intellectually, Remus understood that Harry was already a killer, many times over. But it would be something else altogether to destroy Severus. He wasn’t entirely certain what made it so different, perhaps merely the knowledge that while Harry and Snape had never gotten along, they had at least always agreed on the most basic of things – that Voldemort must be killed. Though, Remus mused with a faint smile, that hadn’t really changed. Harry still intended to murder Voldemort, even if not for the purest of reasons.
“Sometimes I wonder if I caused this . . . if what I did to him, to Black, made him what he is. I think I felt better when I believed him dead, because then I could only be blamed for his death, and not the deaths of the multitudes of people Potter has likely already slaughtered.” Snape’s voice was very soft. “And I have done many things I am not proud of in my life. But the thought that my hatred for James Potter has damned us all to death at his son’s hand is . . . unbearable.”
“I doubt it was you, any more than it was the rest of us.”
“Perhaps not. But I cannot be certain. It was really a nasty shock for him, I daresay, to learn that I was no true Death Eater, but a spy for Dumbledore . . . a realization that might very well have led to Potter’s defection. He hates me – you cannot deny that, Lupin – and right now hatred is all he has left. It might be enough for him, now, to know that he has chosen a side that is dedicated to my demise. Enough to know that he does not side with me . . . in anything.”
“I’d like to believe Harry is not so . . petty,” Remus offered.
“We all have to believe in something. Unfortunately, I believe that while Potter may be inclined to show some leniency toward you, I doubt his patience extends to me. If I fail, now, I will die. For all our sakes, I would prefer that it not be by Potter’s hand.”
“If he killed you . . . we would have to execute him. There would no longer be a chance of redemption . . not for Harry.”
Snape laughed, but cynically. “Execute him? If you could, Lupin, it would be only through his own will, and I won’t even speculate on how unlikely that is. He survived a childhood that consisted of nothing but pain and despair from the time he was a year old. If he was going to give up, just lie down and die, he would have already done so.” Snape shoved open a window, then paused and glanced back at Remus. “If he kills me – deny any knowledge of what I planned to do. It should save you, at least buy you time to worm your way back into his good graces.”
“Trying to save me, Severus?”
“We all have our little problems, don’t we?” Snape stepped over the window sill, shutting the window behind him, and vanished from sight.
“Potter!” Voldemort’s roar of rage had the closest Death Eaters tripping over each other in their efforts to escape his wrath, and in its wake came instant silence as every man present fell to his knees, some lying nearly supine on the cold stone floor in their efforts to escape his notice. Every man, that is, save one Harry Potter, who strode down the length of the hall with the confidence that can be borne only of power, and of will.
Harry’s hand was steady on his wand as he stood in front of Lord Voldemort, head up, every line of body screaming defiance. If this was to be a battle for dominance, he would win. There was no other option. And then he saw the man curled into a ball at Voldemort’s feet, and his eyes went black with fury. He took in the situation at a glance – Snape had attempted to escape, only to be caught and ruthlessly tortured, probably for some hours, before Harry had been sent for. That was unacceptable, for more reasons than he cared to consider. At any rate, the situation had to be rectified, and with that decision the reasons behind his choice promptly ceased to matter.
“My lord,” Harry said by way of greeting, his lazy drawl making a mockery of the title. “And Severus. My prisoner, if you’ve forgotten. Getting senile in your old age, Tom?”
“Perhaps you have forgotten who rules here.”
Harry considered that for a moment. “Oh, I didn’t forget,” he responded at last. “I simply chose to ignore it. Because you see, Tom, it has occurred to me that it is time for a few . . changes around here.” Harry slowly circled his former lord, deliberately giving his back to the Death Eaters. He trusted them to obey his wishes, not out of fear, but because they respected him. He’d learned a long time ago that terrified obedience was no substitute for true loyalty, and he’d employed that theory with Voldemort’s men. He believed he’d succeeded, was sure he held the upper hand – tonight he would put that certainty to the test.
“Changes.” Voldemort raised one eyebrow, mocking him. “I am your lord . . . the only change will be that instead of leading my campaign, you will pave the way for it . . . with your death.”
“Now, see, that attitude right there gets you into trouble every time. That superior, holier-than-thou attitude just pisses me off. And recently it has occurred to me that for an order that has dedicated itself to purifying the magical world, it seems a bit hypocritical that you, our great and powerful leader, are no more than a half-blood.” Harry heard the murmurs of agreement that rose from the men crowded into the room behind him, and continued. “To be honest, I have blood purer than yours. I am, in truth, a first generation pureblood – my mother might have been a Mudblood, but she was a witch nonetheless, and powerful enough to destroy your former body, magical improvements or not.”
He left Voldemort’s side and stepped up onto the raised dais on which Voldemort’s silver throne sat. “I have decided that you are no longer fit to lead our . . . crusade. Not when your own father was a prime example of the very thing we have struggled so long to destroy. I am afraid, Tom, that you’re going to have to go.” Harry seated himself in the silver throne to a chorus of cheers from the men below, and Voldemort edged away from them, returning his gaze to Harry in a vain attempt to hide his fear.
“You can’t do this.” And there was a hint of desperation in his voice. Harry didn’t have to resort to Legilimency to read the chaotic thoughts that raced through Voldemort’s mind, when his face was all-too-clearly broadcasting the most prominent -- sheer, unadulterated fear. And Harry gloried in it.
“Very well. If it is fairness you require, it shall be given, because I am, above all things, merciful.” The cruel smile that tugged at his lips made mockery of the statement, and the Death Eaters began a soft chanting that sounded very like Harry’s name. Harry snapped his fingers, and a table, complete with gavel, appeared beside him.
“Tom Marvolo Riddle – aka Lord Voldemort – has been proven to the court’s satisfaction, a fraud in the manner of his blood heritage, and an unfit heir to Lord Slytherin. And I, as presiding judge, hereby sentence him . . . to death.” He cracked the gavel down on the table, never taking his eyes off Voldemort’s. “Snap his wand,” Harry instructed the nearest Death Eaters, who obeyed with obvious relish, wresting the precious object from Voldemort’s unwilling hands and handing it over to Harry.
“As our new Lord, I believe this honor should be yours,” Lucius Malfoy said, almost reverently, bowing his head as he surrendered his allegience, along with the wand, to Lord Potter.
“Thank you, Lucius.” Harry rose, holding the wand between his hands, reveled in the encouraging calls of the Death Eaters – his Death Eaters, he thought in triumph – as he ceremoniously snapped the slim bit of wood and tossed the bits to the floor.
Severus Snape had at last managed to rose himself from his pain-induced stupor, just in time to hear the last of Harry’s speech and see Voldemort led away in chains to the very dungeons he’d once loved so much. He wasn’t sure who began it, but abruptly it seemed as if the entire room was chanting Harry’s name at the top of the their lungs. His eyes met Harry’s for a mere instant, and the anticipation he read in their green depths shook him to the core.
“Oh, God. What have we done?”
Snape stole to his feet, went for the door – only to slam into an invisible wall the consistency of concrete. He fell, closing his eyes in resignation. Harry had obviously not forgotten his presence, and his ungraceful halt had caught the attention of the gathered Death Eaters.
“Now, Professor, one would think you were overly eager to leave us. Do you find my . . . hospitality lacking, then?” Harry purred, standing over the fallen wizard. “Because,” Potter went on, his voice silkier than ever, “I can assure you, your new accommodations will be a great deal less comfortable.”
“Harry . . .”
Lucius drew back one booted foot and kicked Snape in the side so hard the potions professor was absolutely certain he heard his ribs crack ominously. “You will address our Lord with the respect he deserves!”
Snape knew a moment of bone-chilling terror as the Death Eaters closed ranks around him, wands drawn, fire burning in Malfoy’s eyes as he stared down at his former rival. He heard a single murmured “Crucio” as his nerve endings went up in flames, and for several minutes was aware of nothing but the sound of his own screams . . . the murmurs of the men around him. Jackals, he thought in a flash of sudden coherence, too frightened to attack a healthy animal, but more than ready to devour the weak and wounded.
“Enough.” Harry’s voice was scarcely more than a whisper, but somehow it cut through the mob mentality that had taken his men. A single gesture had them moving almost frantically out of his path, scuttling for cover like the rats they were.
“Milord . . he must be punished for his betrayal,” Malfoy whimpered, his posture utterly submissive, but his tone hinting at his reluctance to relinquish his victim so easily.
“He has not yet betrayed me . . . and I care nothing for his crimes against the blood traitor who so recently ruled you.” And Lucius, already on his knees, cowered so low his belly almost touched the floor . . . mimicking, Snape mused, the defeated posture of a canine. The only thing lacking was the doglike whine . . wait, nevermind – complete with whine.
“I appreciate your zealousy,” Harry said, and Snape was sure he heard amusement in the boy’s voice, “but allow me to assure you, it was not needed.” Harry’s eyes locked on Snape’s, and Severus had never been more afraid in his life. The emerald colour of Potter’s eyes seemed still more intense in the darkness, glowing with a devil’s malevolence in the dimly lit chamber. “Leave us.” The simply spoken words released the men, and as one they went for the doors, fleeing their master’s vengeance.
“It was my intention, Snape, to keep you alive for quite some time . . . you have a certain entertainment value. Now, of course, that is no longer an option, as your attempt at escape has made your stand against me clear enough for even Malfoy to note. Because of you, I will be forced to resort to bloodier, less . . . profitable means to regain the utter confidence of my Death Eaters. After tonight, I believe a reward will be in order; a raid upon Hogsmeade will be just the thing to put the morale back in their black hearts.”
Snape glanced up. “Hogsmeade?” he queried, torn between concern for the residents of the town, and his knowledge that Dumbledore would quite likely be present, down from Hogwarts for a meeting.
“You needn’t sound so hopeful, Snape; Dumbledore no longer poses a real threat to my reign,” Harry said lazily. “Of course, you will not live to see that proven, you or Remus.”
“Lupin didn’t have anything to do with this. I wanted him to try to escape with me, but he wouldn’t go.”
Potter raised one black eyebrow in sardonic amusement. “And that is supposed to resurrect some long-dead Marauder loyalty, Snape?” He laughed, but there was something lacking in it, an emptiness of both heart and spirit that foretold only evil. There is nothing more dangerous than a man who believes he has nothing to live for, and doesn’t care. “Chivalry does not become you, Snape. Did you think to spare Remus?” A surface scan of Snape’s most recent thoughts, courtesy of Legilimency, told him the truth of the statement before Severus could think to prevent it. “Then you are more fool than I realized. You would do well to know that I will treat betrayal as cruelly as Voldemort did, and more. You would not betray me as you did Lord Voldemort, and you don’t have it in you to ally yourself with me for real.”
“You know me well enough to disprove that. I was a Death Eater, once. That says something about my character . . . or lack thereof.”
“Your brief foray as a loyal Death Eater shows me nothing more than the depths of your response to pain. I don’t know why you joined him, if only in name these last years, but you are intelligent enough to have known, even when you were first Marked, that he could not win. Why, then, take a vow of loyalty to a master you had no true wish to serve?” And the boy’s eyes were disturbingly acute.
“Because my father was one of the first to pledge his life to the monster,” Snape said slowly. The decades between then and now had taken the sting from the memory, but the regret had yet to fade. “He wished me to join the Dark Lord as soon as I finished Hogwarts – my mother did not. I am not certain which of them killed her, my father or the Dark Lord. But one of them did, and I did as my father asked because he was all the family I had. Eventually, I realized that was not a good enough reason.”
“But to deserve redemption you must first regret. You did. I do not. Don’t try to project your guilt and shame onto me. I learned Occlumency from a harder teacher than you, and I learned not to fail. The only thing I regret, Snape, is that I didn’t do this sooner.” Harry shrugged. “I was too young, I suppose. I fell in with all of Dumbledore’s original plans for me . . . did it for years, and fooled myself into believing he did as he did for my sake – or, if not that, then at least for the greater good. When Sirius was killed, I realized he was not infallible. When he tried to kill me, I began to understand that there is no greater good. There is only evil, and the varying degrees of it. I wonder now much purer of spirit it is to kill under the guise of goodness, than to kill as I do, without excuses.”
“What happened between you?” Snape demanded. “Because I know that he tried to help you, did his best to protect your suicidal mutt of a godfather. I know that the memorial service we held for you was the first time I ever saw him cry.”
“Very well, then. Snape, listen carefully, because in all likelihood you will be the only man alive, but for the two of us, who knows the whole story.”
Severus nodded, and Harry’s voice took on a faintly didactic, lecturing tone.
“I went back to the Dursleys that summer, same as I did every summer. It didn’t matter what they did to me, I couldn’t retaliate, and I couldn’t run . . . Sirius was dead, Remus was off on a mission for Dumbledore, and I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t dare ask to visit Ron; I’d brought his whole family nothing but pain in the years I’d known them. The visions got worse, bad enough that I finally called for Dumbledore. I told him all I knew of Voldemort’s plans, and after he realized the sheer enormity of what I knew, he told me there was really no reason not to induct me into his Order of the Phoenix.
“I said I didn’t want to . . . mostly because I was terrified that if Voldemort did manage to possess me again, he could pick through my memories at will, and I didn’t want to risk the Order’s safety. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that; I’d already proven a disappointment to him. And when I told him I didn’t want to join the Order, he told me it was ‘for my own good’, and attempted to put me under Imperius. I broke it – it was no more difficult than breaking Voldemort’s, really – and he said that I was this world’s last hope. I didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of thousands, did I?”
Harry snorted in slight disdain. “I was only a boy . . . he’d pricked my temper. And I told him I’d already killed two people, after all; what were a few more?” He sighed. “I suppose I’d frightened him. He attempted to use the Killing Curse on me. Naturally, I dodged, and ran before he could summon assistance. I all but ran straight into Lucius Malfoy when I left the house; I think he was more surprised than I when I told him to take me to Voldemort. Of course, he wasn’t going to waste a golden opportunity, and took me back to Voldemort’s Russian fortress.
“I spent two months in the dungeons, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. Voldemort was away, dealing with the dementors and currying favor with the students at Durmstrang, and they treated me the way they did everyone else – which meant torture. I lived, and when Voldemort returned, Lucius had told him that I hadn’t been captured, exactly – that I’d been willing. I explained what had happened, and the rest, as they say, is history. Voldemort oversaw my education himself. He taught me everything he knew, made me his heir in all ways but blood. He taught me to kill, and very slowly the loyalty of his men shifted from him to me. Last night I made my stand against him public, and the Death Eaters rallied to me. Voldemort rests now in his own dungeons, and if he isn’t already dead, I will see to it personally when I return.
“Of course, Voldemort’s demise has, in the last year, become a mere secondary goal.” Harry’s eyes went cold. “I mean to see Dumbledore and all his Order dead before this year is out, and I will find a way to turn that damn phoenix into ashes forever. After that . . .” Harry shrugged. “I might find out I like being a Dark Lord. It suits me. And with Dumbledore and Riddle gone, there is no one strong enough to stand against me.”
“The Dark Lord has been where you are, Potter . . . it did not make him happy,” Snape cautioned. “It certainly won’t please the general population. You will always face resistance, and any empire you create will certainly fail to survive your death.”
“And that, Severus, is why they invented the Killing Curse . . . to deal with just such resistance. And it is too early to speak of death . . . I have been searching Voldemort’s notes for the past year, attempting to find the failure in his attempts at immortality. I believe I have found it, though it is beyond my ability to correct. That is why you still live . . . to correct it for me.” Harry eyed the Potions master with a hint of displeasure. “You have made that difficult, but I will have your compliance for what little time you have left. You are not indispensable, Snape – you know as well as I do that there are other wizards as capable as you in the field of experimental potions. You are the best, Severus, but you are also the most intractable. If I wish it, you will bend, make no mistake of that.”
“I would not,” Severus snarled, and Harry laughed softly.
“You will, or I will cripple you, and let you live to enjoy the state. You’re very attached to your hands, Severus, and your eyes. Any of my Death Eaters could function as an extra pair of hands or as your seeing-eye dog . . . but it’s really not the same as having your own appendages still functioning, and not pickled in a jar, is it?”
“No,” Snape said faintly. Voldemort had always been careful not to damage him in ways that would inhibit his ability to make the potions the Dark Lord required. Harry had, however, put his finger on the critical distinction – it was Severus’ knowledge that was crucial, his experience with volatile mixtures . . . both in men and cauldrons . . . that made him so valuable.
“I could rip apart your mind and take what I like from it,” Harry said, simply enough. “But while I have become quite accomplished at the mental arts, I don’t do Potions work. You are an Occlumens of unsurpassed strength; while I could break your shields, you would not survive long without them, and I lack sufficent knowledge of the subject to extract the relevant data before you die on me. If it proves necessary, I will maim you – in ways that cannot be undone. Should that fail, I will extract what I need to know by whatever means necessary. I’ll do the research, and I will complete my quest for immortality on my own. But that would be a most inconsiderate waste of my time, and I believe it would be in the best interests of us both if you would acquiesce without putting up a fight.” Harry paused, surveyed Snape’s mutinous expression with a sigh. “If that is your final decision, then so be it. But be certain, Professor. And be prepared to face the consequences.”
Snape nodded. “I assume I could expect a full pardon if I assisted you in making this potion you require?”
“No. You heard what I told Lucius; there is, as yet, nothing to forgive. Whether it stays that way is up to you, but I am, above all things, a man of my word. Now, Severus, I believe I have a village to ransack, and a headmaster to obliterate. Good-day, Professor.”
Harry walked away, his boots making little noise on the stone floor, and Severus could only watch him go.
It had been two months since Severus had seen the sun rise. A month since Remus had been taken away, leaving him alone in darkness. A week since he’d had to watch Potter’s smirking face in the background as Lucius Malfoy very delicately, very artfully, removed his left pinky finger. He’d watched helplessly as some of the most powerful wizards the Light Side possessed had been slaughtered. There were no words for the atrocities he had seen, and he would not speak of them, even to Remus, when he asked. Severus was, at Harry’s order, present at each and every torture session, at every Death Eater meeting, and he learned to fear his dreams. Potter had taken the tiniest of holes in his Occlumency shields and run with it, nightly projecting visions of death and Darkness. And the worst of it, was the reality of every moment.
Snape didn’t look up as he was shoved to his knees before Harry’s silver throne. Absently he noted the smudge on Potter’s black leather boot, the mud on the tread that told him Harry was no paper icon, but a warrior who led his men in truth as well as name. It could conceivably have gone on forever; Snape was eager enough for the touch of sunlight that studying Potter’s shoes in the clear light was certainly no hardship. But Severus suspected Harry knew that . . . and anything that Severus even remotely enjoyed was not to be prolonged for any length of time.
“Will you bow, Snape?”
“I’m bowing now, aren’t I? Not,” Severus added, “by choice, but if all you wanted was a bow, Potter, I could have bowed at your feet two months ago. But if you think this pose is going to demoralize me enough that I will give up my Potions secrets, you are sadly mistaken.”
“I really don’t want to bother with you further, Severus. You have become a most extravagant waste of my time.”
“You never did have any patience, did you, Potter? Perhaps that was why you were so bloody dismal at Potions.”
Harry’s eyes never shifted, his expression retaining its utter serenity. “And will ‘no’ be your final answer? Choose wisely, Professor.”
“No.” And Snape’s voice rang clear.
“Very well.” A snap of Harry’s fingers, and Crabbe and Goyle reached for his arms, dragged him to his feet again . . . held him fast. Walden Macnair made a soft sound of impatience, quickly quelled by his master’s stern gaze. Severus controlled the impulse to flinch away as Harry prowled up to him, standing only inches away, his eyes searching Snape’s. “I always thought you could see straight into a student’s soul with those eyes of yours. As distinctive, in their own way, as mine.”
“You don’t need eyes like mine to see that you have no soul, Potter,” Severus snarled in reply.
“True enough,” Harry agreed. His gaze never left Snape’s as he gave the order. “Blind him.”
“No.” Severus all but whimpered the word. “Don’t . . . Potter . . . Harry . .” His tone climbed higher as the warlord turned away without a word, gesturing for the others to follow him out of the room . . . leaving Snape alone with Macnair. “Please . . .” And it was the last, unwittingly pleading word that made Harry pause in the doorway: “Please don’t do this to me.”
Harry closed his eyes against the terror he read in Snape’s face. It hurt him to do this – to hear that particular note in the Potions master’s voice sounded a death knell to all he had ever known. Harry had burned his bridges a long time ago, literally as well as figuratively. Somewhere along with the line he’d gotten used to the sight and sounds of torture, had learned what it felt like to kill, not with magic, but with the more tangible force of a sword . . . feeling the solid contact of the blade as blood sprayed his face. But deep down his most basic instincts still recognized the wrongness of what he did, and he had known that eventually he would reach a point he could not pass, where one more needless cruelty would shatter what was left of his soul and leave him broken. His magic was Light . . had been so for so long that performing the Dark Arts felt odd to him – not wrong, exactly, but exponentially more draining on not only his powers, but upon his heart as well.
For a moment more he wavered, knowing that standing by the orders he’d issued would be, in its own way, as ultimately destructive as a dementor’s kiss. He eyed Macnair’s arsenal of torturous implements discerningly, and saw nothing permanent among them. If it became necessary, Snape’s eyes could be fixed quite easily . . . . Harry had discovered, first on himself, then on others, that he was a natural Healer. His magic was imminently suited for the purpose, and Voldemort had trained him in that as rigorously as he had in everything else, until Harry’s peculiar flair for torture was matched only by his natural ability to reverse the effects. Should Snape ever need his vision for something vital – say, making an immortality potion, perhaps – the damage was not irreparable. And it was with the faintest of smiles tugging at his lips that Harry left the room and oh so gently shut the door behind him.
“Severus Snape, my favorite Potions professor.”
Snape instinctively shifted away as the door opened, shrinking back from the pleasantly lyrical tone of Potter’s voice. It was rare enough that Harry sounded so incredibly happy with anything, but a session of ‘Let’s torture Professor Snape’ invariably put the spring back in his step, if only briefly.
He heard the click of Potter’s boots on the floor, the delicate, almost liquid sounds of a knife being sharpened somewhere behind him, and winced as Potter began to hum a quite credible rendition of a waltz. Harry chuckled, and abruptly reached down to grasp Snape’s wrist, hauling the older wizard to his feet.
“Now, cheer up a bit, Sevvy. One would think you didn’t enjoy our little visits,” Harry drawled.
“All things considered . . . . not really,” Snape responded, struggling to maintain a casual façade. He would lose it quickly enough when Macnair and Malfoy went to work on him in earnest, but until then, he would fight to hold on to at least some semblance of dignity.
“Well, then, you’ll be pleased to know we’ll be doing something a bit different today.” Snape felt Harry leave his side, heard his footsteps receding, and the low murmur of voices across the room.
“What are you playing at, Potter?” Severus demanded, and was met again by that disconcerting laugh.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Harry queried, amused. “That will be all, Lucius, thank you,” he added to the Death Eater by way of dismissal.
“Yes, milord,” said Malfoy, drawing the door to Snape’s cell gently shut behind him.
“Mind if I turn on a light? Oh, whoops, I’m sorry,” Harry said insincerely, “I don’t think you really care that much either way. It’s all blackness for you, hmm?”
“You’re a true bastard, Potter.”
“Only figuratively, Snape,” came the cheerful reply. “Only that.”
Severus flinched as he felt Harry’s hand come up to his face, trailing across his ruined eyes. “Why do you torment me, Potter? Certainly it has to have lost its entertainment value by now?”
“It took you five years to learn any sort of grudging respect for me. If I can keep you alive that long, I fully intend to return the favor.” Harry’s slender fingers probed delicately at the scar tissue that rimmed Snape’s eyes, and strangely, his touch seemed to lessen the dull ache that had persisted long after his blinded eyes had scarred over so much as to make the damage irreparrable for all but the most gifted of Natural Healers. But there hadn’t been a true-born Healer in Europe for a century, at best, and the world round, their numbers had dramatically decreased over the last few decades.
Severus kept his eyes closed as Potter’s bruque, yet not entirely painful, examination continued. Harry’s fingers paused, lingered a moment over the easily discernable crack in Snape’s jawbone, reached up to map the zigzag pattern of another that had all but destroyed the socket of his eye. Snape reached up to brush Potter’s hand away, firmly banishing any thought of the damages that had been done, but froze as his fingertips came in contact with his own suddenly smooth, unmarred skin. His jaw dropped in surprise, and the fractured bone no longer scraped painfully with every movement. And for the first time in weeks, he opened his eyes to the dim light of a dungeon cell, and the liquid fire of Potter’s emerald gaze.
“You’re a Healer.”
Potter inclined his head slightly in grudging acknowledgment. “Yeah. Lucky break, that. I might not have survived down here otherwise.”
“Why do this for me?”
“Because I have something I want you to see, obviously.” Potter tapped twice on the steel door, then stepped back as two women, closely guarded by a pair of Death Eaters, entered the room. A pair of dementors followed closely; only the Death Eaters’ Patronuses kept them at bay. One woman threw back her hood, revealing the distinctive spiky hair – pink, as was typical – of Nymphadora Tonks. The other prisoner turned to Severus, extending her hand as she unsnapped the cloak’s fastenings at her throat and let it fall to the floor as she took his hands in hers.
“Severus,” Minerva McGonagall murmured with little surprise. “I won’t pretend I’m shocked to see you here. You always were a survivor. But Harry—”
Potter cleared his throat, and as one every person present turned to look at him. “Professor, if you please, try not to speak ill of the supposed dead.”
With a squeal of delight, Tonks leapt for him, intending nothing more a hug of greeting – only to pause mid-stride as Harry’s wand pressed into her throat. “If you don’t mind, I really don’t like to be touched.”
“Tonks . . back away slowly,” Severus snarled, his voice ringing with a fierce command only accentuated by Harry’s devilish smirk. “He’s one of them now.”
“Not one of them, by God,” Harry swore softly. He crossed his ankles as he leaned back against the wall in a deliberately casual pose. “I am the one. You may not appreciate what I’ve done here, but at the very least, show a bit of respect for how long and hard I’ve worked to achieve the position I now hold.” Another knock came at the door, and Harry threw it open with a grin as Avery’s shove sent a pale, almost skeletal figure sprawling into the grime at Harry’s feet. “It seems our other guest as at last decided to make an appearance.”
Lord Voldemort raised his head a little – obviously all the movement he was capable of, at the moment – and spat on Harry’s boots. A flick of Harry’s wand brought the older man to his feet, but unsteadily so, as though only the invisible marionette strings of Harry’s spell kept him upright – a likely enough thought.
“‘Neither can live while the other survives.’” Harry quoted the prophecy with a chuckle of real amusement as he gazed into Voldemort’s red eyes. “I dunno . . . you seem alive enough yet, and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. But then, prophecy is a tricky thing, and God only knows what the whole prophecy said, ‘cause I doubt that bit Dumbledore gave me was the whole thing. For all I know every breath you take is like a ticking timebomb, and who knows what might happen if you’re still breathing tomorrow, or the day after that? Why, your empire – pardon me, my empire – might just come crashing down about my ears.” Harry shook his head in mock regret. “No, quite clearly the safest road is to kill you outright, but after all the experiments you’ve performed upon yourself, it would be quite a waste, don’t you think? And so I’ve come up with another idea, one I believe you’ll quite easily see the merits of. Prophecy or no, I expect you’ll be quite helpless after a Dementor’s sucked out your black soul, hmm?”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Riddle snarled with as much menace as he could currently muster.
“Why not? For the sake of justice? Really, Tom, I’d expect a more cynical outlook from my role model. Dumbledore is old, and weakening as we speak. I will kill him, very soon – possibly even tonight – and without him his people will fall, and there is no one else.”
“I believed the same – until a child was born to two of my greatest enemies, and I saw in him powers I could not find in myself.” Voldemort stared fearlessly up at his nemesis. “It was stupid to believe that you would fall in with my plans for you. Foolish . . . to believe in your honor when I’ve none of my own. I made too many mistakes. I saw your father in you, when what I should have seen, is the darkest part of my soul staring back at me with Lily Potter’s eyes.”
“Your mistake, milord,” Harry said, very softly, “was in destroying my family and leaving me alone. If you had waited, let Lily and James raise me as they saw fit, I would never have been strong enough to survive you. They would have ruined me, let my full potential be lost because they, I think, would have felt the evil in it. But you took away my sanctuary, and I grew up hard, and strong, and self-reliant. And in doing so, you damned yourself.”
“You were always Dark . . . more than the old fool, Dumbledore, would have suspected with parents like yours. I thought I knew, in your second year, when you slaughtered the basilisk and murdered my teenage form without a qualm, and had the audacity to call yourself a hero for it. And fourth year, when my spy brought me back word of your fascination with the Unforgivable Curses, of an aptitiude he believed you had for them. But I couldn’t get close enough to you to be certain.”
“Well, Voldemort, how does it feel to be proven right . . . . on all counts?” Severus inquired, almost lazily, feeling a sudden sense of camaderie with the Dark Lord. An odd enough thing to feel, he mused; but then, they were all in the same boat, now. Voldemort only growled in response, and Severus nodded. “Yeah. Not a comfortable feeling, is it?”
“Now, one other person in here is going to be joining Lord Voldemort on his soul’s journey to a dementor’s stomach. Who’s going to be the lucky one, hmm?” Harry asked, looking genuinely amused by the terrified whispers that began. “Any volunteers?”
“Me,” Snape said in answer. “Do your worst, Potter.”
“Ah, but Severus, I do hate a martyr. And frankly, I do believe you’d enjoy thwarting me a bit too much. It takes all the fun out of it, really, if you have a willing victim. Much less dramatic. Now, Nymphadora, on the other hand, would make a most spectacular candidate.”
“No,” McGonagall cried. “Harry, you can’t!”
“Watch me,” he said simply, conjuring heavy manacles and chain that quickly bound the Hogwarts professors. “Now, Tonks.” Harry extended his hand to her, and her fingers trembled violently as she laid them on his. “It shouldn’t hurt a bit. ’S only your soul, after all, nothing vital.”
He turned to the dementors and beckoned to them. “Come, my pets,” he all but crooned to the hideous things, seemingly unaffected by the waves of despair swamping his prisoners. He gestured to Tonks and Voldemort before he stepped back to stand beside his captives as he watched the show. Tonks struggled; Voldemort didn’t bother, knowing better than most just how futile resistance would be.
Minerva sobbed harshly, burying her face against Snape’s shoulder, unable to watch. Severus kept his eyes on Harry’s, pleading wordlessly for him to stop this monstrosity. But Harry did nothing, watching impassively as Tonks’s struggles abruptly ceased and the second dementor dropped Voldemort’s lifeless body to the floor. With a wave of his hand he sent the dementors away, their task complete for this night.
“Well, that’s done, and in time for a bit of sport before dawn,” Harry said with a yawn, dusting off his hands as if the night’s activities had left them dirty. He freed his former teachers from their bonds, glanced down at Tonks’s blank expression and Voldemort’s shivering form almost as an afterthought. “My men should be in to clean up in a bit,” he said absently, and that was too much for Minerva.
“You bastard. You scheming, manipulating swine. Albus will kill you for this, you . . you monster.”
In retrospect, Snape knew that was likely the worst thing she could have said. Mentioning the Headmaster’s name was never a good idea at the best of times. And it happened so fast he never saw the blow coming.
Harry slammed the dagger he’d pulled from his belt hilt-deep in McGonagall’s throat, ripping it free with a sideways twist that sent a fountain of blood bubbling from the gaping wound. Silently he watched as the Gryffindor Head of House bleed to death, stood in a growing pool of red and with as little expression as any stone statue. And when it was over, the Darkest Lord of them all gave a silent salute to Severus Snape as he walked slowly away from the carnage he left behind.
"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.