It was raining, the day they buried her. Not the soft rain that heralds the coming of spring, nor the savage beauty of a storm, but a cold, bitter dizzle that made Harry shiver as he watched them fill in the grave. The aurors around him murmured brief condolences to the family, words muted, fading into the rhythmic patter of water on the grass. Snape stood beside him, silent, the way he always was in moments such as these. He had no notion of sanctity, no idea that death should be anything more than this . . . a quiet funeral in an empty cemetery, the end of a life heralded by the soft thump of dirt on the lid of the casket and the muffled words of men who saw in the ceremony their own impending demise.
“You don’t cry for them . . not anymore.”
Harry glanced up at the Potions Master with dry eyes. “It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make him stop.”
“That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t matter.”
“Do you think she would have wanted it to end this way?” he asked, in a voice too bitter to belong to a sixteen-year-old boy. “Do you think it matters to her, that we stand by her grave, that our remembrance of her will always be tied into this?” Harry reached down, took a handful of earth from beside the grave. “She’s not here, Professor. What made her Tonks – what made her special – is already gone.” He let the bit of dirt sift through his fingers. “This . . ritual . . it isn’t for her. It’s for us.”
“It finishes things, I suppose,” Snape agreed. “Makes us face our own mortality, especially in times such as these.”
“I don’t want this,” Harry said abruptly. He met his teacher’s gaze squarely. “I don’t need this. I don’t want a funeral, or a memorial service, or anything like that. Just . . . just cremate me, and scatter the ashes across the Hogwarts’ grounds, and let that be the end of it.”
“Harry, that might not be possible. You really have no idea how much this world worships you, do you?”
“Fine! Jesus, all right.” For a long moment, they were still, the rain blotting out the presence of the other mourners. “I’m not the person to ask, really. I will doubtless precede you in death by a number of years.”
“It’ll be in my will.” Harry hesitated. “But if I fall, fighting him . . .”
“If by some miracle you die before I do, Potter, certainly, I will see to it.” Snape’s immediate assurance told them both how unlikely he thought that would be.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Harry warned.
“What are you going to do, haunt me?” Snape returned with a hint of his usual sneer.
“Yes,” said Harry confidently.
“Somehow, brat, I wouldn’t put it past you.” Snape paused. “Don’t make me fulfill that promise, Harry.”
“I’ll try. But even if I killed Voldemort, the Death Eaters . . . .” Harry’s voice trailed off.
“If you can kill the Dark Lord, his men should not be a problem.”
“Not on their own. But he is never alone, these days, and I really doubt the Death Eaters are going to graciously give me time to recover my strength before attacking. Even if I got away that time, Sev, the danger wouldn’t be over. Without him, his men would disband, for the most part. But the Lestranges and others who truly believe in Voldemort’s ideas, or who simply have too much invested in it, like the Malfoys, won’t waste any time trying to get rid of me. I won’t hide forever; they are capable of waiting that long for vengeance. And so I will have that promise, Severus.”
Snape took a deep breath, shaken by the boy’s blunt appraisal of his own chances of survival. And for a moment, he cursed Voldemort for what he’d done to this child. But he saw truth in it too, and he nodded. “All right.” Again he met Potter’s emerald eyes, and he had never hated that snake-like bastard more in his life.
“He stole my life, Severus.” Potter’s words were so soft, Snape had to strain to hear them. “I won’t let him have my soul.”
For the first time in years, Snape felt tears well up in his eyes. But Death Eaters don’t cry.
“No. You’re not working hard enough. Again.”
Harry paused for a moment, panting. Ariane, coiled in a great ball of gleaming black scales on a rug in a corner, raised her head, woken not by the clang of the weaponry, but by the ceasing of it. Harry let the point of the Gryffindor sword fall to the stone floor, leaning on it as he rested. He was yet unaccustomed to the weight of it, and Snape was pushing him with a sort of desperate resolution that Harry hadn’t felt from him in months. Tonks’ funeral had unnerved the older man; Harry’s grim predication had put a new urgency into each practice session. They both knew it was only a matter of time, and neither would dare to say it aloud. They talked rarely, now – the camaderie of the past days lost in the shadow of the approaching battle. Only Ariane could truly tell of the nights when Harry woke screaming, sobbing . . . and when she curled herself around him in a vain attempt to comfort, he didn’t try to hide the tears.
“Massster?” Ariane slithered from her mat and crossed the room to wind her heavy body loosely around his legs, raising her head far enough to meet his eyes. She’d grown, Harry thought absently, from a mere ten feet to nearly thirty. Regular meals had restored the gleam to her scales and the fire to her golden eyes; she would be more than a fair match for Nagini, when the time came. He worried about her still, for all that he knew she could take care of herself. A sixty-foot basilisk had been killed a week before, attempting to break into Gringotts – her brother. And for all that she was his, he’d begun to realize that keeping her with him might not be safe. He’d already acknowledged the necessity of introducing her to Dumbledore, who as yet had no knowledge of his pet – if something happened to him, and to Severus, he needed the Headmaster’s assurance that the young basilisk would be allowed to leave the school unharmed. There was so much left to do, and so little time. His magic was still a little iffy when it came to casting the Unforgiveables, his visions warned of Voldemort’s growing frustration, and the time would come, very soon, when Severus could no longer risk returning to Voldemort.
“Jesus.” With a sigh, he sank down onto the floor, leaning against the basilisk, who draped her head over his shoulder and crooned her sympathies.
“If you give up this easy when it’s just me, the Dark Lord won’t have any trouble at all finishing you off.” Snape’s actions belied the harshness of his tone as he settled down beside Harry on the stone floor of the Chamber of Secrets.
“Then you’ll just have to hope the bond between him and me goes deeper than a few shared dreams,” Harry returned without rancor.
“What’s wrong with you? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re giving up . . . just when we’re so close to our first real chance to win this thing altogether.”
Harry was silent for a moment. “Can we quit early today?” he asked at last. Snape’s eyes narrowed at the bleakness in his voice as the boy went on. “There’s a lot of things I need to take care of . . . and Voldemort could show up any day now.”
“You aren’t going to die. I won’t let you,” Ariane vowed quietly, picking up on his stress, and Harry stilled for an instant.
“You must stay away from the fighting, cara,” said Harry. “It will not be safe.”
“I will not let you go alone to that . . . that monssster.”
“It’s not your choice to make.” The snake refused to meet his eyes, and Harry sighed. Ariane was stubborn, and too assured of her worth in combat. She would be a great help to him, but allowing her to stay with him when he went forth to do battle with his demons contradicted every instinct he possessed. She was innocent . . . it was something different to risk himself. He was Chosen. He’d been marked – not by choice, but the scars remained just the same, and only the least of them was visible on his forehead.
“I suppose making this an early evening wouldn’t hurt so much . . . not this once,” Snape agreed. “The business you have to attend to . . . can I help?”
“It’s personal, but thanks for the offer.”
“Harry.” Snape waited for the boy’s eyes to focus on him before he went on. “Don’t settle things so much that you no longer have a reason to come back. There are people here who love you . . . not all of us show it so much, but we still care.”
“Thank you, Sev. I will try to take that advice. But remember this, too – if winning cost me the people I love, I would not survive to enjoy my victory. I wouldn’t want to.”
“Harry . . .” Severus suddenly couldn’t find the words.
“Don’t. Don’t say anything.”
“There’s more to you than prophecy. That’s not what makes us care.”
“Of course it is. I have my father’s face, my mother’s eyes, and a scar that everyone says proves how much they loved me. But if they loved me so much, Sev . . . why couldn’t I go with them? Why did they make me stay alone?”
“They wanted you to have the life they couldn’t,” Severus offered gently. “Your mother died to protect you, and her sacrifice saved you, because she loved you enough to give you up.”
“I have to kill him, Sev. I have to. Because I can’t imagine meeting them, wherever they are now, and telling them I failed.” Silently Harry rose to his feet. “Ariane will show you out when you wish to leave,” he said softly, and there was something so final in the words that Severus had to fight down the panic that rose inside him. Harry had become the son he’d never risked having, not when any child of his would have been pledged to the Dark Lord from the moment of its birth. It was so odd that he’d found his reason for survival in his archenemy’s only legacy, he thought now. For a moment he saw James Potter again in Harry’s face, and he paused. And a moment later, Harry had gone.