by Persephone Lupin
Author notes: Beta-read by cecelle.
SUMMARY: The spring after Half-Blood Prince. (Do not continue to read this summary if you haven't finished book 6 yet!!!) Harry and his friends are hunting after the last Horcruxes. And there is still that burning desire in Harry to avenge Dumbledore’s death. What will happen when Snape and Harry meet again? Warning: major spoilers!
Chapter 1: A murderer always returns ...
Chapter 2: The Fall of the Prince
Chapter 3: The Portrait
Chapter 4: The last Memory
Chapter 5: Potions and Mirrors
Chapter 6: Apologies and Drops of Blood
Chapter 7: Potion Books and Parchments
Chapter 8: Rose and Silver
DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
What shall we do now, Harry? This was the very last place on our list, and it isn’t here, either."
There was a long silence. Ron and Hermione looked expectantly at the fierce young man with the lightning-bolt scar who was staring up at the deserted old monastery, obviously deep in thought. Rumour had it that Voldemort had spent some time there, researching you-wouldn’t-want-to-know-what, and that the place had been haunted ever since, but there hadn’t been any trace at all of the second to last of the Horcruxes, Rowena Ravenclaw’s magical mirror.
Finally, Harry lowered his gaze, determination in his eyes. "We are going to Hogwarts."
"But Harry, what on earth would we want there? I’m sure neither Hagrid nor McGonagall know any more about the mirror than we do, and they are the only people left now that the school has been closed."
"I know that. But you of all people should know - the library is still there. Haven’t you yourself always turned to the books when clueless? We might find something about the mirror there." Suddenly, Harry’s face contorted into a hateful sneer. "And we might find something else at Hogwarts. You know the old Muggle saying, ‘A murderer always returns to the scene of his crime’, don’t you, Hermione?"
"You – you mean Snape?"
"Yeah, Snape ..."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was more than strange coming to Hogwarts and not seeing a single student out on the grounds or in the castle. After having paid a short visit to the headmistress, the three friends headed for Hagrid’s hut.
"Harry!" the half-giant roared happily, "McGonagall tol’ me yeh’d come back, but I couldn’t b’lieve it till I seen it with me own eyes!" With something in between a laugh and a sob, he buried Harry in another squashing hug, making the teen wonder whether the Prophecy had gotten things wrong after all and he was really destined to die of broken ribs and lack of oxygen.
"C’mon in, me boy, and yeh, too. Ron. Hermione. So glad ter see yeh. Yeh’ve come ter do some studyin’ here, I’ve been tol’? An’ stayin’ at me hut ter boot! Buckb- I mean Witherwings, will be so glad ter see yeh three, he will. ’S been so lonely here after all what’s happened ..."
Still catching his breath after the suffocating embrace, Harry entered the familiar hut with his best friends and sat down at the huge wooden table. Nothing had changed in here, it seemed, after Aragog’s burial. Hagrid, too, looked his old comforting self. Although, was it just the effect of the flickering light from the fire place or was there more grey in his beard and hair and a strange sadness to his eyes that hadn’t been there before?
We all have changed, Harry thought, and suddenly he felt old beyond his age - old and worn and tired to the bone. The dangerous hunt after the Horcruxes had taken much more out of him than he was willing to admit, even to himself, and without Ron and Hermione he would never have come so far in his quest. So much had happened after Dumbledore’s burial last summer; many innocent people had died since, some had been fellow students at Hogwarts, friends ... Cho Chang, Dean Thomas, the Patil twins. And Mundungus Fletcher. He shuddered at the thought of the old thief’s death. Why had he been so foolish to try to open the locket by force? If only they had found out about it earlier.
Now, in retrospective, he could not understand why on earth it had taken them all summer to figure out that the mysterious R.A.B. was no other than Regulus Alfric Black, Sirius’s younger brother. That the Slytherin’ locket had been hidden at 12 Grimmauld Place all those years, until Sirius had thrown it into the rubbish sack right under his very nose while cleaning out the house – Sirius, who had thought his brother a coward and a fool ... After his horrific journey to the cave with Dumbledore last summer, nobody except him could possibly imagine just how brave Regulus must have been. After all, he had had the greatest wizard of their time with him, while Regulus had been entirely alone. Of course, Kreacher had retrieved the locket from the sack and hidden it. Mundungus must have found it while sneaking into headquarters to nick Sirius’s things. Nothing but blackened bones and smouldering ashes had been left of both man and Horcrux ...
Luckily, finding and destroying Helga Hufflepuff’s cup had been almost easy, once they had had the idea to search the dilapidated, long since deserted orphanage, where Tom Riddle had spent his childhood years. But the fifth Horcrux was a tough nut to crack. If Luna Lovegood hadn’t joined them at the Burrow over Christmas and told the tale of her great-grandmother Aurelia Ravenclaw’s murder, they might never have found out about the mirror. Who would have thought that ‘loony’ Luna of all people was a descendant of one of the four Founders! No wonder she was in Ravenclaw ... But knowing what the Horcrux most likely was hadn’t helped them much in finding it so far. And there was still Nagini, and Voldemort himself. And Snape ... There had been a few sightings of the traitor, or at least the Daily Prophet claimed there had been, but although he was on the very top of the Ministry’s wanted list, neither Aurors nor anybody else had come even close to apprehending Severus Snape. He was as elusive as his master, and almost as feared. No wonder, with all the rumours that had been spreading about the country as quick as Dragon Pox. Snape must be delighted to be more infamous than even Sirius Black had been while still accused of mass murder, Harry thought grimly. But he, Harry, would wipe the sneer off that hated face, make him beg for mercy on his knees and never give it...
"... that raven sometimes does, too, after he’s been sittin’ watch on the Astronomy Tower or whatever he’s doin’ up there. Comes swooping down, sits on the tomb for a while as if carved of stone, and blimey, if a raven’s able ter look sad and contrite, that one does, b’lieve me, then gives a single caw and takes off again. Strange bird, that is. Never lets me come near him, neither. Seems ter be scared as hell of Buck-… Witherwings, too. But that’s all that ever visit the headmaster - McGonagall, meself and that raven."
Harry had hardly listened to Hagrid’s prattle, being engrossed in his bleak musings. Only at the mention of that strange raven had he listened up. Why would a simple raven sit watch on the Astronomy Tower? And why by Merlin would it visit Dumbledore’s grave? That didn’t make any sense. Unless ...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The three friends were standing in front of Dumbledore’s tomb when Harry told them about his suspicion.
"You really think the raven – ?" asked Ron, his eyes wide with surprise.
"I’m dead sure it is. As I told you, a murderer always returns. The raven is Snape. And I’m going to prove it."
"But there is no way to tell when he’ll come back the next time, if he comes at all," Hermione said. "You cannot possibly keep watch on the Astronomy Tower twenty-four hours a day. We have research to do in the library. And it’s still rather chilly for May."
"Didn’t Hagrid say he came during the day, preferably at dusk? Why don’t you work in the library then, Hermione, and I keep an eye on the Tower? Ron can help both you and me, copy things, bring me books up to the tower ..."
"You really want to get him, don’t you? But what will you do if he does come back, Harry? Kill him?" Hermione asked agitatedly. "Harry!" But Harry had already turned away heading for the castle.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was indeed much too chilly for May, Harry thought, as he was once again sitting watch on the highest of Hogwarts’s many towers, huddled under his Invisibility Cloak. All morning, a thick fog had obscured the grounds and the forest and made it almost impossible for Harry to see further than his own hand. Luckily, the fog had lifted around noon, but it was still cold and windy up here. If Snape didn’t show up soon ... Harry was interrupted in his train of thought by the creaking of the door as Ron entered the platform, panting.
"They could at least have a lift up here or an enchanted staircase like the one going up to Dumble –McGonagall’s office," he complained, scowling at the heavy stack of books in his arms. "It’s been almost two weeks now and there’s been no sign of Snape. Neither have we found anything helpful about that mirror. If you ask me, we’re wasting our time, mate."
"Sooner or later, the raven will show up. But if you keep on standing there, it’ll be gone again the second it sets eyes on you. Get under the Cloak and stop complaining." Ron did as he was told, and the two friends spent another afternoon on the Astronomy Tower, searching through dusty old tomes for answers and getting nowhere.
"Can’t keep my eyes open any longer," Ron finally groaned. "It’s getting too dark anyway. And I’m starving. Let’s go down and get something to eat. You’re coming, Harry?"
"Wait a second, Ron. I think I saw something move at the edge of the forest."
"There’s always something moving, squirrels, for example, or ferrets, or owls, or – "
"Or a raven. Shhh, it’s coming!"
A huge black bird had left the shadows of the Forbidden Forest and came soaring towards the Astronomy Tower. As Hagrid had told them, it landed on the battlements, scanned the Hogwarts grounds with penetrating obsidian eyes, and then sat unmoving in the last glow of the sunset, an eerie black shadow against the orange-tinged sky.
In one flowing movement, Harry threw away his Invisibility Cloak and pointed his wand at the raven, shouting the first curse that came to his mind,
Taken totally by surprise, the raven was hit squarely in the chest and blasted high into the air by the force of the curse. For a split second, it seemed to hang suspended over the abyss, then, fluttering and cawing in shock and pain, it fell slowly backwards over the battlements, disappearing in the twilight.
"Yippee, you got him!" cheered Ron and ran towards the ramparts, but it was already too dark to see anything for sure.
"Let’s go down and check. I don’t suppose he will be in any shape to make for an escape, although you never know with Snape," cautioned Harry and turned towards the entrance to the spiral staircase. "Unlike Dumbledore, he has wings ..."
Halfway down the stairs, they met Hermione coming towards them.
"Aren’t you hungry? Dinner’s served in the Common Room. Dobby won’t be too happy if you miss it – again." On behalf of the elf, she sounded not a little reproachful.
"Forget about dinner, Mione. Harry’s got him!" Ron was taking three steps at a time from sheer excitement.
"Got who? Snape? So it was really him? What happened?" Hermione asked breathlessly. "Are you heading to the headmistress’s to tell her?"
"Nah, we want to have a look first, and make sure he can’t fly away again," Ron explained, while rushing past the baffled Hermione. "We’d better hurry."
A few minutes and a couple of hundred steps and corridors later, the three teenagers ran through the oak front doors out onto the darkening grounds. As they rounded the Astronomy Tower, they could see a black, huddled mass lying in the grass there, in almost the exact same spot Dumbledore had lain less than a year ago.
"You – you think he’s dead?" asked Hermione, suddenly scared.
Harry did not answer. Holding his wand trained on the still figure on the ground, he moved closer cautiously, Ron and Hermione following a few steps behind him. There was no doubt, it was a man, no bird, and he seemed to be either dead or unconscious.
"You know, it could be a feint," Ron warned. "He might pretend to be dead and then suddenly –" They jumped as the figure moved and rolled slowly onto his back, one arm covering his face. They could hear a soft and painful moan.
"Stay back, you two," ordered Harry as he strode forward, his wand at the ready. When he came closer, he relaxed a bit. It was Snape, all right; he could easily tell from the greasy shoulder-length hair spread out on the grass like black tentacles. The strange angle of his legs suggested that they were badly broken. And wasn’t there blood on his hand? Although Snape was definitely alive, he seemed to be sufficiently injured to prevent him from either running or attacking, Harry noted with satisfaction.
"Snape!" he called, nudging the man non-too-gently in the side with the tip of one trainer. The fallen wizard gasped, suppressing a stifled cry. Slowly, he removed his arm from his face and blinked up at Harry.
"Potter," he hissed, his bloodstained face a mask of loathing and pain. He was breathing heavily, struggling to keep his eyes focused. "Read your Karl May well, I see. How was it again, ‘The murderer always returns to the scene of his crime? – Etters dying on the grave of the one he murdered – Oh, the parallels." The last words had hardly been more than a whisper from bloodless, trembling lips. Suddenly, mustering all his reserves in a final effort, Snape sat halfway up, hisburning black eyes boring into Harry’s. "Are you satisfied now?" he spat, sending bloody spittle flying. "Proud of yourself? Now, who’s the coward? You fool, you cowardly fool. Like father, like son ..." A coughing fit shook his body, and, groaning, he sank back to the ground, blood trickling from his mouth. His eyes closed.
Harry stood rigid, as if carved of stone, his wand still trained on the dying man’s heart. At Snape’s last words, his wand hand twitched, and he looked, if possible, even grimmer than before. How often had he heard similar words from Snape’s curled, sneering lips? But this time, it would be the last time ever...
"Harry, we can’t just let him lie here and bleed to death. He is a murderer, yes, but he is also a human being. Of course, he must be punished, but that’s what courts and prisons are for. It’s not for us to judge." Hermione was looking at Harry pleadingly, her eyes filled with tears. "Harry, let’s take him to McGonagall. Please. Harry?"
Harry didn’t seem to notice. Finally, he turned to his agitated friend. "Do what you must. I don’t care one way or another." He gazed over at Dumbledore’s grave, the white marble of the tomb shining in the distance. Hermione gave him one last tearful look, then conjured up a stretcher out of thin air and carefully levitated the unconscious form of her former professor onto it.
"Ron, I’ll take him to the Hospital Wing. You go get McGonagall. But be quick, he’s hardly breathing," Hermione said softly to the tall boy beside her. Ron nodded and sped away towards the main entrance, while Hermione was following at a slower pace, the stretcher floating at her side. Harry remained behind. Alone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hermione had barely entered the Hospital Wing when Professor McGonagall came rushing in, panting and wringing her hands. After giving her former colleague a short look-over, she ordered, "Over here, Miss Granger, this bed. Be careful, I think he’s cracked his skull." Then McGonagall turned around, addressing the tall redhead lingering in the doorway. "Mr. Weasley, get me as much Blood Replenishing Potion as you can carry, the large cabinet over there, I believe. I’ll try to contact Madam Pomfrey. I’m not much of a Healer, I fear ..." She sighed, then hastened over to the large fireplace in the Mediwitch’s office.
While Ron was clattering about with several large bottles of a crimson liquid, Hermione found some gauze and bandages. A big blotch of scarlet had spread on the white pillows under Snape’s head, growing larger by the second. And his garments seemed drenched with blood.
"Help me with his robes," Hermione said to Ron, who had deposited the bottles on the nightstand. With a swish of her wand, she made the heavy travelling cloak unclasp and vanish from under the dying wizard, collecting in a black heap on the floor. Then they both fumbled about with the many buttons of the torn black frock coat, slippery with blood. Underneath, the formerly white shirt was a wet mess of crimson, exposing deep ugly cuts through the gashes in the fabric, still oozing large amounts of blood.
"Urgh." Ron gave a strangled sound, turning green in the face. "I think I need the bathroom," he stammered, rushing out of the room, his hands clasped over his mouth.
Hermione disposed of the ruined clothes with another flick of her wand. Pressing the gauze against the wounds in the man’s chest, she tried to stay the bleeding, but with little success. Snape gave a low moan, but did not stir. At least he’s still alive, she thought. If only she knew the spell Snape had used to heal Malfoy after Harry had cast the Sectumsempra on the young Death Eater in their sixth year. How ironic that Snape might die of a curse he himself invented when still a Hogwarts student ...
After a couple of minutes that seemed to drag like hours, Madam Pomfrey appeared in the room, Professor McGonagall on her heels. "What a mess," she murmured, taking in the bloody scene with one professional glance. Then she turned to the headmistress and the young witch, all business. "Out with you. I’ll take over from here on. Although I can’t promise anything. Out, out."
The two witches left the ward in silence, Hermione stopping at the bathroom to collect the still somewhat greenish-looking Ron. Finally, on the way to the headmistress’s office, McGonagall broke the silence. "Would you please explain to me what happened, Miss Granger? Mr. Weasley’s account of events was rather incoherent, I fear." And Hermione explained – how Harry had been convinced that Snape was the raven, how they had watched out for him on the Astronomy Tower, how he had finally showed up this evening ...
"Thank you, Miss Granger," McGonagall said wearily. "Would you be so kind to tell Mr. Potter to come to my office immediately. There is something I have to tell him. And get yourself cleaned up." She gave her former students’ bloodstained robes a telling look. "And have the house-elves make you some hot chocolate. I think you might need it, both of you."
How long he had been standing there, staring, Harry did not know, when he suddenly saw something glitter in the very last beam of sunlight. Something lying at his feet, where only minutes – or was it hours? – before, Snape had bled into the grass. Harry bent down. It was a mirror. A small, square mirror, much like the one Sirius had given him ages ago. It looked old; it was certainly dirty, caked with dust and some dark, sticky substance. A deep crack ran all across the glass, from one corner to the other. It must have fallen from Snape’s robes … Harry took the mirror, careful not to touch the traitor’s blood, wrapped it in his handkerchief and pocketed it. He wasn’t exactly hungry, neither was he especially keen on meeting Professor McGonagall just now, so he started towards Hagrid’s hut, when he heard someone calling his name.
"Well, I guess I have to go then," Harry said casually, although feeling a bit apprehensive. What if McGonagall did not approve of his actions? But Snape was wanted, dead or alive; his ugly mug was everywhere, on posters in shops, on advertising columns, on alley trees, glowering and greasy …
"Great. If McGonagall doesn’t transfigure me into a pin cushion, I’ll come and join you," Harry said gloomily, once and for all stopping Ron’s attempts at conversation. In brooding silence, they walked on.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"It does make sense, I assure you, terrible sense. I wish I had known about that madness, I might have been able to stop – no, I suppose nobody could have stopped it. Poor Albus, poor Severus." She sighed again, looking down on her folded hands, resting on the same desk Professor Dumbledore had so often worked at. After a moment of silence, they both heard a soft cough from the wall. Albus Dumbledore’s portrait was smiling down on them, his eyes twinkling, although there was a hidden sorrow to them Harry did not remember having seen in the living headmaster.
"Minerva, will you please continue? The boy has a right to know." He turned his twinkling glance on Harry. "I suppose we should have told you much earlier, Harry, but then you always did have the tendency to not exactly obey orders. It might have endangered all our efforts … and I promised Severus not to tell anybody as long as I lived. However, since I am not alive …" Dumbledore’s voice trailed off.
"Oh, sorry, I forgot – I’ve grown kind of forgetful these days, I fear. I’ll show you. But first, the headmistress should go on with the rather sad tale. Minerva?" He turned his twinkling glance back on the new headmistress.
McGonagall paused for a moment to collect her thoughts before continuing. "Almost two years ago, Severus made an Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa Malfoy to help and protect her son Draco, as you already know, and to finish the deed in case Draco wasn’t able to, without having the faintest idea what he swore to. It had been a blatant lie that Voldemort had revealed his plans not only to Narcissa and Bellatrix, but to him, too. He thought he could thus trick them into telling him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Instead, he ended up taking that fateful Vow, not able to back out because this would have proven that he wasn’t as dedicated to his master as he should. And Bellatrix and many others already suspected him deeply. Voldemort had even placed Peter Pettigrew at Severus’s place, not to assist him, but to spy on him, to find proof for his treachery. Taking the Vow was the best way to once and for all convince those who doubted his loyalty. He decided it was worth taking, even if he had to break it in the end. And you know what that would have entailed, don’t you?"
"Of course I wasn’t," interfered the portrait. "I’ve had my life, more than a hundred and fifty years, and mostly good ones, I might add. Severus already saved my life once – without his help, I would have died after destroying the first Horcrux. And I fear the injury in my hand would have caused unbearable pain without the potions that Severus brewed for me. No, it was better this way…"
"So you forced him into following through with whatever Draco planned, suspecting all along that it was you Voldemort was after, although Severus had not been able, in spite of him trying very hard, to lure Draco into telling him," McGonagall went on, her stern gaze on the portrait this time.
"You know Severus, my dear Minerva, sometimes he can be extremely headstrong and all but reasonable; you have to be firm with him. He for some odd reason didn’t think what I was proposing was a good idea," Dumbledore said with a wink at Harry.
"Quite right, my boy, quite right. I was dying anyway, you see, from that dreadful potion protecting the locket. And, of course, Severus noticed at first glance, being a real master in his field. I believe that was what made him follow through with my orders at last, although he truly hated doing it. And, I fear, he also hated me for making him do it ..."
"Yes, Harry, he did," said McGonagall sombrely. "The raven always left a message on the Tower. All the Order’s successful captures of Death Eaters over the last few months were made possible only because of these messages. I never suspected the raven was Severus, though. You see, he wasn’t especially talented at Transfigurations when I taught him; didn’t make it into my NEWT class. And his mother had a raven as a pet, I have heard ..."
"Professor Snape, Harry. And he won’t die, I assure you; Madam Pomfrey is a very able healer, and Severus is tough," the portrait said reassuringly, then turning unusually grave. "However, Harry, you used a Dark curse on an unsuspecting man when a simple ‘Stupefy’ would have sufficed, knowing explicitly how much harm it would do. This is a most serious matter. Think about it, Harry, and do so thoroughly." He paused to let his words sink in, then continued in a more fatherly tone, "I hope you now see how dangerous, though very human, it is to act on hatred, Harry. Never let hatred cloud your judgement."
"Yes, Harry, you do," confirmed the portrait-Dumbledore firmly. "And I still owe you the reason why I’ve always trusted Severus Snape with my life – and my death. But not today. You have enough to chew on already, I believe. Good night, Harry."
"How – how is Professor Snape?" Hermione asked the headmistress over breakfast in the Great Hall. Although it was more than strange to eat in the almost empty huge Hall, it was far better than having to eat Hagrid’s cooking. The porridge he had dished up after their first night at his hut had been as hard as concrete, and the colour was simply – disgusting.
The three friends exchanged looks of relief. Harry had finally told Ron and Hermione everything he had learned in the headmistress’s office while Hagrid had been out in the grounds for a night stroll with Fang. They had been rather quiet and downcast all evening. Once again, they had misjudged Snape, and now they had almost killed him – what if he didn’t make it through the night?
"Yes, there was. Madam Pomfrey found it in Severus’s pockets alongside his wand. However," McGonagall looked at them sternly, "it got spoiled. I tried to clean it up, but now the decoding-spell won’t work. We’ll have to wait until Severus is well enough to tell us and hope that we’ll still be in time to stop whatever they are planning." There was a depressed silence.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Good morning, Harry," the portrait of the former headmaster greeted him cheerfully. "I hope you have rested well?" Slowly, Harry shook his head. "Well, it wasn’t to be expected," the headmaster continued. "Yesterday, I promised to show you something, if I remember correctly. There is a small crystal phial in the cupboard over beside the window – yes, that one. Open it. There you go, the one with the silvery liquid. And you’ll need the Pensieve. It’s in the cabinet beside the door, you know where. Take both over to the desk. Yes. Now you pour the liquid into the Pensieve and stir it with the tip of your wand. Very good. And now feel free to enter the last memory I saved for you."
Harry lowered his face towards the swirling and shimmering surface of the Pensieve. It had become transparent. As through a circular window in the ceiling, he could glimpse a tiny sitting room, which had the feeling of a dark padded cell. The walls were completely covered in books; most of them bound in old black or brown leather. A threadbare sofa, an old armchair and a rickety table stood grouped together in a pool of dim light cast by a candle-filled lamp hung from the ceiling. Curious, he bent even closer, his face touching the silvery surface. He felt his feet leave the office floor; he was falling, falling, through whirling darkness and then, quite suddenly, he was standing inside the room. He wasn’t alone. Albus Dumbledore was sitting on the sofa beside a shrouded figure. Opposite him, in the armchair, sat a young Severus Snape, about five or so years older than in the memory Harry had seen in Snape’s office in his fifth year. He still had the same stringy, pallid look about him, and his hair was as greasy as ever, but his features had hardened; there were deep lines etched into the otherwise young face.
Instead of answering, Snape lowered himself so that he was kneeling opposite the sofa and stuck out his right hand. Slowly, the shrouded figure lowered her hood, revealing floods of shiny red hair. Harry gasped. The young, woman that now reached out to grasp Snape’s hand was no other than Lily Potter, his mother. She held a swaddled bundle protectively against her with her left arm – a sleeping baby, he now realized. Dumbledore stepped forwards so that he stood over them, and placed the tip of his wand on their linked hands.
Dumbledore’s satisfied face glowed red in the blaze of a third tongue of flame, which shot from the wand, twisted with the others and bound itself thickly around their clasped hands, like a rope, like a fiery snake.
The pictures went blurry; Harry was forcefully pushed back into the darkness, whirled around, and then suddenly his feet hit the office floor again. He gasped, finally realising that he had hardly drawn a single breath while witnessing the vow-taking. So this was why Dumbledore had always trusted Snape. Even if he had wanted to, Snape couldn’t possibly have betrayed the Order, or he would have died. And the many times he had saved Harry’s life were not due to his Life Debt to James but to the Unbreakable Vow to –
After a long and sleepless night spent at the bedside of a wanted murderer healing his numerous shattered bones and knitting blood-oozing gashes back together striving to save said murderer’s life, Madam Pomfrey was taking a long and deep afternoon nap when suddenly her alarm went off. Instantly wide awake, she jumped out of bed and into her slippers and dressing gown, grabbed her wand, and hastened over to the sick-room.
"You think you can heal yourself better than I can?" Madam Pomfrey said, offended. "I’m awfully sorry, but the house-elves are cleaning your things and patching them up; they weren’t in a much better state than you were. And your quarters have been locked and sealed by the Ministry."
"Then get some house-elf to pop in and out again; they don’t care about seals," Snape snarled impatiently. "I need that potion – now!" Exhausted from the heated conversation, Snape lay back on his bed again while Madam Pomfrey hurried into her office. He could feel the bandages on his chest become moist and warm from freshly seeping blood, but didn’t care. The pain in his left side was much worse; it had woken him up from his healing sleep much earlier than Madam Pomfrey had expected. The blackened wound that caused it was barely the size of his palm yet, but it would be spreading inexorably and deadly like the plague. Soon, he would not be able to make the potion anymore; he already felt the fever rising, a fever that would consume him if he didn’t get the potion ready in time. And Pomfrey, who was supposed to be a healer, had obviously not yet realised at all what was wrong with him. Healers! If he had a wand, he could heal those annoying cuts within bare seconds. But there was no wand on the bedside table. Of course, they couldn’t leave him with a wand after what he had done. It would be safe at the headmistress’s, no doubt. And the mirror? He’d have to see her soon, anyhow, but not now. First the potion. About two hours of brewing. If he only could make it down to the dungeons. And his robes. He needed his robes. What the hell took Pomfrey so long? The pain was driving him mad. Two hours, two more agonising hours ...
"Mister Snape?" The drowsing wizard woke with a start. "Here, Dobby got you some clothes. But first you take those." With an air of disapproval, Madam Pomfrey handed her patient one more bottle of Blood Replenishing Potion and two phials. Snape didn’t need to read the labels to recognise the liquids as a fever suppressant and a Pepperup Potion. Much to Pomfrey’s relief, he downed the potions without protest, then got into his clothes with the Mediwitch’s help.
"I told Miss Granger to come to the Potions classroom. We will assist you," said Pomfrey firmly. Snape curled his lips as if to give some scathing comment, but thought better of it. He would need all his energy for the task ahead, not for futile discussions. And, even if he did not like the thought much, he might actually need the help.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hermione was already waiting in the Potions classroom when Madam Pomfrey stumbled out of the fireplace, steadying an extremely pale Snape. As he saw her, Snape straightened up into his usual impressive posture, but she could tell that the man was far from recovered and should, by all means, be tightly in bed. Her curiosity was aroused. What was that mysterious potion for that Snape wanted so dearly?
Two hours later, Snape looked dead on his feet. After he had added one single drop of some clear liquid from a tiny opaque phial Dobby had collected from his private stores and stirred three times anti-clockwise until the potion took on its final amber colour, the Mediwitch pushed him vigorously into a chair, and he simply let it happen, closing his eyes as he sat, his hands trembling with exhaustion.
"The little silver goblet. To the rim. The rest ought to be bottled before it starts to cool," he answered groggily, not even opening his eyes when the goblet was held to his lips. He swallowed the bitter-tasting liquid, and fell asleep.
Hermione nodded and flicked her wand. Now, instead of the chair, there was a comfortable-looking pink sofa. Carefully, she levitated the sleeping wizard onto it, smiling to herself as she thought of how much he would appreciate the bright colour of his new bed. No, don’t be cruel, she berated herself and, with another flick of her wand, turned it dark green. Then she started to collect and clean the brewing gear that lay all over the tables. It had been an extremely complicated potion, and Snape had brewed it up all by heart, never in the least doubtful what he had to do next. Although she was pretty good at Potions, she realised she would never reach his level of perfection, no matter how hard she worked. It just wasn’t enough to carefully follow the instructions, for true mastership you needed to have the creativity and intuition to improve them, like the Prince had had ...
"Ah, thank you, Miss Granger," the Mediwitch said when she returned, a pile of blankets and bandages in her arms. Setting the load on a chair beside the sofa, she began undressing the oblivious Potions master.
While Hermione was clattering about with silver knives and cauldrons, she glanced over at the sofa from time to time. The cuts caused by the Sectumsempra were still of an angry red colour and had opened again in places, but they were obviously healing. However, when Pomfrey moved to replace the bandage around Snape’s head, she could glimpse another wound in the wizard’s side that made her gasp; it was blackened and shrivelled as though his flesh had been burned away ...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"It was that burn mark he wanted the potion for," Hermione explained to her friends half an hour later as they were sitting at the shore of the lake watching the sun set. "But, Harry, you said you only used the Sectumsempra, it couldn’t possibly have caused such a wound, could it?"
"Dumbledore’s hand ..." Harry murmured. "Snape can’t have ..." He reached into his pockets. With all that had happened, he had totally forgotten about the mirror. He had thought it was some secret means of communication, like Sirius’s mirror; it couldn’t possibly be ... He unwrapped the little package. There it was, bloodstained and dirty and broken.
Pink soap bubbles appeared on its surface. After wiping the bubbles away with the handkerchief, the mirror looked slightly better. Finally, after the application of multiple cleansing spells, the mirror’s silver surface emerged from under the grime and dirt. There were intricate engravings, garlands of minute flowers intertwined with ancient runes. And on the handle was a soaring eagle.
"And the release of dark magic has caused the injury, same as with Dumbledore’s hand," Hermione concluded solemnly. "The potion he brewed must have been identical to the one he treated Dumbledore with."
"No, Harry," Hermione shook her head. "Snape wouldn’t be so stupid as to carry such a precious object around with him, especially not if he was to safeguard it for Voldemort. I bet he wanted to give it to Professor McGonagall to have it destroyed."
When Severus Snape woke up two hours later, he found himself on a sofa in the Potions classroom. The pain in his side was still considerable, but bearable in comparison to the maddening agony it had caused before. The potion seemed to work. He still felt dizzy and weak and feverish, but there were things he had to do, no time to idle around and play sick. First of all, he had to see McGonagall, and then the Potter brat. And then return to his master. He would need to spin him a convincing tale, too ...
Slowly, he sat up. Madam Pomfrey was quietly snoring in an armchair nearby. His shirt and cloak sat on a table close to the sofa, beside two small bottles filled with the amber liquid, and the silver goblet. He poured himself another goblet of the potion, downed it in one gulp, removed the bandage around his head and dressed, careful to not make a sound. He pocketed the bottles and sneaked out of the classroom, for once closing the door noiselessly behind him.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The way up to the headmistress’s office was long and laborious, but finally Snape stood in front of the Gargoyle, panting and drenched with sweat. Shit, he didn’t know the password, nor did he have his wand to send his Patronus. At a loss, he leaned against the wall, thinking frantically of words McGonagall might have used for a password.
"Harry. Severus." The headmistress, who was sitting at the huge, claw-footed desk that used to be Dumbledore’s, motioned towards two chairs opposite her. "Take seats. I’m glad to see you up and about already, Severus."
"Potter may stay, as it concerns him as well," Snape said with a sneer. "There will be a major attack soon. The Dark Lord is rallying his forces. He intends to break any resistance once and for all. So, expect the Order to be his chosen target for the assault."
"Sir, I – I found it in the grass, under the Astronomy Tower," said Harry, not daring to look Snape in the eye. "I just wanted to tell Professor McGonagall. That’s why I came, actually." He passed the small package over to the headmistress. McGonagall threw her former colleague a questioning look and, as he gave an almost invisible nod, opened it. She gasped.
"Do as I tell you, Minerva, for your own good. And now I have to speak with Potter – alone." Snape motioned towards the office door. Not at all amused about being thrown out of her office by a much younger wizard, McGonagall made to protest, but was cut short by a piercing dark look from said wizard. She turned on her heels and left.
"It should suffice that I know – all of it," answered Snape haughtily. "The ‘where’ is none of your business. I’ll take care of Nagini, too," he sneered at Harry’s astounded face. "I told you I knew all of it, didn’t I? Then it’s up to ‘The Chosen One’," he curled his lips, putting a delicate stress on the last words, "to fulfil the prophecy."
"And how – HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DO THAT?" Harry stood up, suddenly bursting with long bottled anger. "Can you tell me? All Dumbledore’s enigmatic talk about ‘love’ and how powerful it is, but he never said how I could use it!"
"Sit down, Potter, and compose yourself!" Snape spat contemptuously. He turned away from the agitated young man who stood only a few feet away from him, shooting daggers at him from fiery emerald eyes. Lazily, he sat down on the headmistress’s chair, steepling his long, pallid fingers. Finally, he continued. "Actually, I can tell you, Potter. You still have my old Potions book, don’t you?"
"You might not be aware of it, and neither was I at that time, that Dumbledore himself made sure you would have that book. And he did so for a reason." He paused shortly to make his point. "And before you ask, he confiscated the book. A certain headboy had let slip that it was the origin of the hex that same headboy had enjoyed using so much only shortly before." Snape’s unhealthily pale face darkened. Obviously, Dumbledore had not been amused.
"You will need to get it back," Snape continued coldly. "Tonight, Potter. You don’t have much time to prepare. Chapter on Manipulative Draughts. The very last recipe, understand?" Harry nodded mutely. "You follow my instructions, precisely. And then – " he bent down to retrieve quill and parchment from the topmost drawer, "you do exactly what I’m going to write down just now." For a long while, there was only the sound of the quill scratching over the parchment. Finally, Snape reached over and handed Harry the roll.
"He used –" Harry closed his eyes at the horrific memory. "He used my blood ..." he whispered, realisation dawning on him. That was why, for a fleeting instant, Harry had thought he saw a gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore's eyes when he had told him about his role in what Voldemort had called his ‘rebirthing party’. The headmaster had known already then.
"You may talk to Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger about the potion. But nobody else." Snape gave Harry another piercing stare. "And you are supposed to brew it yourself. On your own. Or it won’t work. Have I made myself clear?"
"How often do I have to tell you not to call me this? I’m not your professor!" Snape gritted through his teeth and straightened up, sending Harry one last glare full of loathing. In a swirl of black robes, he swooped out of the office.
Snape stepped into the scarcely lit corridor. The ride down on the moving staircase hadn’t helped with his dizziness. He had to pause for a moment, holding onto the Gargoyle that guarded the entrance to the headmistress’s office. Through the faint ringing in his ears, he could hear voices coming closer. Female voices.
"You may check on Mr Potter if you want to, Madam Pomfrey," a soft and sneering male voice came from behind the Gargoyle. "But I assure you, he is as alive as ever." Snape stepped around the statue and into view of the two witches. "Minerva, one word."
"You know it wouldn’t," snarled Snape. "One alone wouldn’t stand the ghost of a chance, not in open combat. As far as I remember, and in contrast to," his lips curled in contempt, "a certain ‘Chosen One’, the Order members don’t tend to hide under Invisibility Cloaks."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next morning saw Harry, Ron, and Hermione sitting around the wooden table in Hagrid’s hut, the Half-Blood Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion-Making in front of them. Hagrid was bustling about in the garden, humming some tune that was supposed to make his giant pumpkins grow faster. It had been easy enough for the trio to retrieve Snape’s book earlier in the morning even among all the trash and stuff in the cathedral-like Room of Requirement, since Harry had marked the hiding place well.
"I can’t believe it! Snape brewing love potions!" Ron said over and over again, clapping his thighs in excitement. But then a disturbing thought struck. "Urgh, I do hope he never used them on anybody ..."
Harry stared at the letters, transfixed. This was no ‘C’; after last year, he knew the Prince’s handwriting ... No, it couldn’t be, it mustn’t, he had called her a filthy Mudblood – However, it would explain so much ... The scene in the last of Dumbledore’s memories emerged before his mind’s eye, Snape clasping hands with a beautiful redheaded witch, taking the Unbreakable Vow – echoes of Dumbledore’s words ‘You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realised how Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy ...’ – ‘I am sure. I trust Severus Snape completely’ – ‘I believe it to be the greatest regret of his life ...’. Now it all made sense; Snape had been in love with L. E.: Lily Evans, his mother. And he had intended to brew the Amortentia Potion for her. Harry’s brain refused to go on. It was too horrible a thought. Snape and his Mom. But he couldn’t have given her the potion. She had married James, after all; loved James. James was his father; he looked so much like him. There was no chance in hell that his mother had loved Snape back. Or was there? Harry’s mind began to spin ...
"No break, Ron," Hermione admonished. "Didn’t Snape say the attack would be soon? Even with the Prince’s shortcuts it will take about four days to brew the Amortentia, and then, there are those extra instructions we haven’t even looked at yet. We better get started." Seeing Ron’s face fall, she added with a smile, "But I think we can continue outside, the sun’s coming out."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Do you know what I think, Harry?" Hermione asked while studying the parchment with Snape’s instructions. "This seems to work pretty much like creating a Horcrux. Only that you don’t split your soul but your love ..."
"No, Ron. Pumpkin juice would spoil it, you should know that," Hermione began to lecture. "The substance you infuse it into has to have a certain similarity in its magical structure, hence a love potion would be the ideal receptor, the more powerful, the better. It’s pretty logical, and at the same time so ingenious. Snape really knows what he is talking about."
There it was indeed, in black ink on yellow parchment in Snape's tiny letters, impossible to explain away. The spell that was needed to activate the altered Amortentia Potion could only be performed with success if somebody gave their life for Harry.
"Harry, wait!" Hermione said in alarm. "Don't do that. Think. We are in a war. Many people die. And if there is a major attack on the Order, people are bound to die. We have no possible way of knowing what is going to happen, but wouldn't it be better to have the potion ready, just in case?" As an afterthought she added, "After all, Dumbledore wanted you to have Snape's book. He must have known about the Potion and how it works; he might even have developed that spell, not Snape."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Amortentia Potion was extremely difficult to brew, even with the Prince's additions. No wonder it wasn't commonly used. Without his 'extra training' in Potions, Harry would never ever have thought it possible for him to get it right. But now, he was pretty confident and almost thrilled at the prospect of trying such an advanced draught.
After he had finally agreed to prepare it, he and Hermione had gone through the recipe to figure out how it was best done, and where the traps and pitfalls were. Together they had searched through the potions cabinets to find the necessary equipment and ingredients. All the rarer and more precious ingredients were still kept in Snape's private, now Ministry-sealed stores, but with Dobby’s help, it had not been much of a problem to obtain everything they needed.
The first day, Harry had prepared the basic solution from dried and finely ground Belladonna berries, the extract of violet petals, and dissolved pixie wings, spiked with one tablespoon of dark, molten chocolate, one of the Prince's ingenious additions. The next day, after twenty-four hours of simmering, more ingredients went in: Veela hair, several teaspoons of mashed dragon heart, pieces of frozen Ashwinder eggs, and a variety of flowers and dried herbs. The temperature schedule had been quite tricky, with a sequence of careful heating, subsequent cooling, and re-heating, but at the end, the Potion had been the perfect colour of a clear summer sky, exactly as described in the recipe. On the third day, special attention had been required, since the ingredients he had had to add were highly volatile. However, thanks to the Prince’s tips, he had mastered the task without a single accident.
Now, as the fourth day of brewing was drawing to a close, he was anxiously adding the last touches to the Potion, carefully stirring in the mixture of ground unicorn horn and powdered mother-of-pearl. Only two more stirs ... one more ... now slowly add three strands of his hair ... stir three times anti-clockwise ... wait for exactly thirteen seconds, and then ... blow lightly on the surface ... With a sigh of relief, Harry saw the Potion turn a mesmerising shade of rose with a distinct mother-of-pearl sheen. Pastel fumes began to rise from the cauldron in characteristic spirals, and a bewitching fragrance, simultaneously reminding him of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle and a certain flower from the Weasley’s garden, tickled his nose. He was breathing slowly and deeply, and a great contentment stole over him. He grinned to himself; Slughorn would have been ecstatic with praise. With the sleeve of his robes, he wiped his sticky brow, careful not to spoil the potion with a carelessly falling drop of sweat, and, humming a random tune, started the tedious task of clearing the workbenches and cleansing his equipment. The potion would have to cool down and then settle for at least another twenty-four hours before he could proceed with the final step, the instructions on the parchment.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Exactly twenty-four hours later, Harry stood in front of his cauldron again, eager to start. If anybody had ever predicted that he would spend hours and days on end in the potions lab and enjoy it, he would have rolled on the floor, laughing his a- off. However, it was true. He did enjoy himself. So much so that he had hardly been able to wait for the potion to settle. It was still rose-coloured and seemed to literally ooze magic.
Images appeared before his mind’s eye. His Mum and Dad on Hagrid’s moving pictures, laughing and waving at him. Mum and Dad in the Mirror of Erised, their smiling eyes overflowing with love. Slowly, almost in trance, he raised his wand to one temple and extracted a thin, silvery strand that stretched between his hairline and the tip of his wand like a spider’s thread glittering with early morning dew.
Carefully, he let it glide into the caldron with the simmering Amortentia, stirred seven times clockwise, then concentrated again. Hermione bent over a large old book in the library, Ron cheering and laughing on his broomstick after the match against Slytherin. Sirius hugging him in a bear-like embrace, his eyes full of mischief. Albus Dumbledore winking at him, his crystal-blue eyes twinkling. And Ginny. Ginny, her red hair blazing in the sun like fiery threads of copper. Her freckled face. The curving of her soft, slightly-opened mouth, her loving arms around his neck ... For the seventh time, his wand rose to his temple as if of its own will ... Seven memories of the seven people he loved ... The last seven stirs ... Intricate silver patterns formed on the rose surface, spiralling and merging and disappearing as the potion turned the colour of molten opals. It was almost done.
Harry reached for the little silver knife that was waiting on the work table. A quick cut to his left index finger, and three drops of blood fell into the cauldron. The potion began to sizzle as the scarlet blotches sank into its surface. It welled up, emitting soft pastel fumes and the faint smell of violets. Holding his breath, Harry stared at the cauldron. Please let it work, please let it work, he repeated over and over in his head, like a mantra. After exactly seven minutes, the potion settled. It was the deep colour of red wine. Harry closed his eyes in relief, exhaling with a heart-felt sigh. He had done it, actually done it. The altered Amortentia Potion was ready, and it looked perfect.
When only two days after Harry had finished the potion Snape's Patronus arrived at Hogwarts, it didn't come as much of a surprise that Voldemort was planning his major attack for the coming Saturday, the day of the wedding.
Harry had been so busy brewing and practising how to extract a memory (of course it had been Hermione who found the book giving detailed instructions on the procedure), he had almost forgotten about the upcoming event. Once again, they had all been invited to the Burrow where the binding ceremony for Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin was to be held. Molly had kindly proposed this arrangement, since neither Remus nor Tonks could afford to rent a place that would accommodate so many people. Apart from Tonks’s and Remus's parents and a couple of friends, the entire Order of the Phoenix was expected. The ideal opportunity for Voldemort to wipe out the strongholds of resistance with one single blow.
What was more of a surprise was the Patronus itself. Ron spotted it through one of the windows of Hagrid's hut, flying swiftly over the nightly school grounds, neighing and shaking its long, silvery mane. It was a pearly-white unicorn.
"What did you expect, a gigantic vampire-bat? Or a basilisk?" Hermione quipped. "Come off it already, things often aren’t that obvious." She turned to Harry. "Did McGonagall tell you what the Order is going to do? They had a meeting, hadn’t they?"
"There’s no way the Death Eaters could get on our property," Ron said with the greatest conviction while putting Fred and George’s latest invention in his mouth – dragon shaped crackers so hot, you could breathe fire through your nose. The twins had kindly sent them a free sample package. "The Burrow is unplottable. And you need a W–" Further explanations were cut short as Ron gasped for air. His eyes almost popped out of his head. When finally he managed to breath out again, small tongues of fire and smoke shot from his nostrils. Harry doubled up with laughter at Ron’s perplexed expression.
"The Ministry promised a special unit of Aurors," said Harry, wiping the last tears of laughter from his eyes. "They think it’s a great opportunity to capture or kill plenty of Death Eaters." Harry paused briefly, his face darkening. "You know Scrimgeour, he doesn’t care it’s a wedding."
"The potion’s ready. Guess it’s time to get it over with," he answered, trying to sound more confident than he felt. What would await them at the wedding? Most probably, he would have to face Voldemort again, and this time he had to go for the kill – or die trying.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
On Saturday afternoon, Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Professor McGonagall were waiting for Hagrid to join them in front of the castle. It was five to two, and at exactly the full hour, the Portkey that Arthur had arranged for them would be activated.
"Jus’ comin’, jus’ comin’," the half-giant panted as he jogged over the lawn in his holiday attire (a hairy and very horrible brown suit and a checked yellow-and-orange tie), Buckbeak on his heels. "Here we go, Buck– Witherwings," he cooed to the Hippogriff as he ran, "t’ won’ hurt. I jus’ grab yeh aroun’ the neck an’ touch that ol’ log with me other hand –""Hagrid," McGonagall’s indignant voice cut through the groundkeeper’s babbling. "You can’t mean to bring that – animal to the wedding, can you?"
It happened immediately: It was as though a hook just behind their navels had been suddenly jerked irresistibly forward. Their feet left the ground and they were all speeding forward in a howl of wind and swirling color; their fingers were stuck to the mouldy log as though it was pulling them magnetically onward and then -
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
By three o’clock, everybody had arrived and crowded the Weasley’s garden. In a wide circle, tables and benches had been set up on the freshly-mowed lawn, and a buffet overflowing with the products of Molly Weasley’s cooking stood ready to be attacked by hungry guests. In the center of the circle was a low bench covered in burgundy satin.
"Today we have come together to join two young people in the sacred bond of marriage," Mr Weasley began. "Nymphadora Hortense Tonks and Remus John Lupin, will you step forward, please." He motioned for the soon-to-be-weds to come into the circle and kneel on the bench.
Harry stared at Tonks’s almost phosphorescent hair. The bright greenish glow reminded him uncomfortably of the stone basin filled with potion, where the fake Horcrux had been hidden. That day had ended in Albus Dumbledore’s death at the hands of Severus Snape. A chill crept up Harry’s spine. How would this day end? Would there be more bloodshed and death? Harry tried to concentrate on Mr Weasley droning on about the duties of marriage, how a couple should support and protect each other in good as well as bad times, how they should share their happy and their dark hours, their burdens and sorrows and their joys, but his thoughts were drifting. When would the Death Eaters come? And how would they get into the Burrow? How strong were their forces? The Order had agreed that in case of an attack, everybody was to assemble inside the circle of benches and fight back to back against the assailants. Mr Weasley would Apparate the Aurors in, who would then station themselves in an outer ring of defense to surround the attacking Death Eaters. If all went according to plan, none of the Dark wizards would escape. But would it work? What if the Death Eaters brought Dementors? All the Order Members could produce Patronuses, as could Hermione, Harry and Ron, but would that be enough to fight a whole flock of the soul-eating monsters? And what about Voldemort; would he be with them from the beginning? Or would he show up only if his Death Eaters failed, as in the fight at the Ministry of Magic?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The sun set over the Burrow in a glorious display of red and orange. Candles and Chinese lanterns lit magically and bathed the darkening garden in their soft multicoloured shine. Fred and George were distributing hundreds of firefly crackers and glowing will-o’-the wisps from their new collection, and soon the air was filled with zooming and buzzing dots of coloured light. Taking Fred and George’s slogan of the day (‘No leftovers for the Death Eaters’) to heart, the guests were helping themselves to Molly’s famous pies and stews, pretending this was just a normal wedding. However, as the evening drew on, more and more anxious looks were exchanged and a growing tension settled over the party. Even Fred and George grew quieter and stopped trying out their new products on unsuspecting guests. The Death Eaters would strike after nightfall, the Patronus had said – it couldn’t be long now ...
"I’m so glad things have smoothed over between Percy and the rest of us, Arthur," Molly sighed. "He even laughed when the twins spiked his drink with that new powder of theirs that makes you turn into a donkey and Ee-aw ..."
Harry stopped listening, his thoughts racing. What was it again Ron had said – ‘you need a Weasley to get in’? And Percy had left for the Ministry ... Percy surely couldn’t be a Death Eater, could he? But what if he was captured by Death Eaters and used as a key to get into the Burrow? Or he might be under the Imperius Curse ... Before Harry could tell anybody about his suspicions, soft ‘pops’ could be heard all around the garden.
All of a sudden, the night was filled with cries and shouts and more ‘pops’. Curses came flying. High iabove them the blazing green skull with a serpent tongue appeared in the night sky, flooding garden and house with eerie green light. A huge hand grabbed Harry by the shoulders and dragged him into the circle. Hagrid stood beside him, raising his pink umbrella at the moving shadows that closed in on them.
Harry felt for the small glass phial in his cloak pocket. It was spelled unbreakable, and it was still there. He drew his wand. Taking aim at a bulky black figure that was firing curses from behind a bush, he shouted, "Stupefy!"
The figure dropped to the ground. Harry jumped aside as a curse came flying at him. Darting sideways, heped towards the bush, ducking curses as he ran. Gregory Goyle lay spread-eagled in the grass, unable to move, his wand several feet away. Harry picked up the wand and looked around in the greenish semi-darkness. If Goyle was here, Crabbe couldn’t be far ...
"Look who’s here – Harry Potter, the ‘Chosen One’," jeered a familiar voice from out of the shadows. Leaning lazily against an apple tree was Snape, holding his white Death Eater mask in one hand, his wand in the other. "Ready for another duel, Potter?"
Before Harry could open his mouth to answer, Snape had already shot the first curse at him, quick as lightning. A sharp pain seared through his cheek. Harry wiped away the blood, seething with rage and confusion. What was Snape playing at? He was supposed to be on their side, wasn’t he? Why did the bloody bastard attack him now? Another curse came hurtling at him, but this time Harry was ready. He ducked the curse, and at the same time shouted, "Expelliarmus!"
"Better, Potter, better. But not good enough for me," he jeered and fired a Stinging Hex that painfully grazed Harry’s ear. Throwing all caution to the winds in his rising fury, Harry ran after Snape, who disappeared between the trees, firing hex after hex over his shoulder.
"You won’t get away this time, you bloody –" Another curse hit Harry in the knee, and he stumbled. Clenching his fists in anger and pain, he scrambled back to his feet and continued the wild chase through the orchard and up the hill towards the forest, oblivious of the battle raging through the Weasleys’ house and garden.
At the edge of the forest, Snape turned around. Half of his face was illuminated by the eerie green glow of the Dark Mark. The utter loathing that was etched into those sharp, mask-like features made Harry shudder to the bone. A searing pain shot through his scar, and his mind went blank as Snape approached him.
"Here I have you, Potter ..." the Death Eater hissed, then shouted "Expelliarmus!" Harry tried to duck the curse, but was too slow. He was blasted backwards, his wand flying from his hand and high into the air. "Without a wand ..." Snape continued. He pointed at the boy lying on the ground, and thin, snakelike cords shot from the tip of his wand, curling around Harry’s legs and arms, "… bound ... and all alone with me," he bowed in mock-curtesy, then motioned towards the trees, sneering, "– and the Dark Lord!"
"Welcome to your death party," the hollow, high-pitched voice rang in Harry’s ears, "– Harry Potter. Time to fulfil the prophecy, don’t you agree?" He turned towards Snape, who was kneeling in the grass not far from Harry. "Well done, Severus, my most faithful one. Will you bring me the boy’s wand?"
Snape rose and walked over to where Harry’s wand lay in the grass. If looks could kill, you would be dead, traitor, thought Harry, staring daggers at the Death Eater as he passed him. He had trusted Snape those last few days, truly trusted him for the first time in seven years. Snape had given him the recipe for the Amortentia Potion, had alerted them to the attack - with a Unicorn Patronus to boot! He had promised to kill Nagini, hadn’t he? But there she was, as alive as ever. And he, Harry, was lying on the ground, wandless, defenceless, lured into Voldemort’s arms by that very same wizard: Snape, who had sworn to his mother that he would protect Harry. And now he was going to die a most horrible death, thanks to the bloody traitor.
But wouldn’t Snape die too, for breaking his Vow? You are dead, traitor, thought Harry, and a strange, malicious satisfaction filled him at the thought. He was just about to open his mouth and shout the words at his former teacher, who was passing him on his way back to Voldemort, when he heard a low hissing.
Harry felt for the small bump in his pocket, now completely confused. It was still there, the phial with the altered Amortentia Potion. However, it wasn't activated yet. How on earth did Snape expect him to perform the spell? It was impossible. There was no one else, only he, Voldemort, and – Snape. Harry’s eyes grew wide. Snape couldn’t mean to –
"Harry Potter’s wand, my Lord," he announced, then smoothly stood up. "Well, I think not," he added casually and, with a flick of his wrist, threw the wand backwards towards Harry, at the same time pointing his own wand at the snake’s raised head.
"I myself broke your Mirror," Snape continued haughtily. "Bella was so big-headed about being the one you favoured with safekeeping it, she hardly missed an opportunity to brag." He sneered in contempt. "Presently, she is the proud owner of an expertly made replica. Never even noticed I had been to her hidey-hole." Snape paused for effect, his black eyes boring into Voldemort’s. "And now, my Lord," he lowered his voice to a dangerous whisper, "you are as mortal as any of us. And I’m going to kill you. Expelliarmus!"
Voldemort’s wand soared high into the air. The self-declaimed Dark Lord gave a hissing sound, whirled around, and disappeared. In the blink of an eye, he re-appeared in the spot where his wand had fallen to the ground. Snape was already facing him, his wand raised high. "Sectumsempra!"
Again, Voldemort whirled and was gone. "You? Kill me?" his inhuman voice jeered from behind, and Snape spun around. "Want the glory all to yourself, do you? The wizard who killed both Dumbledore and the Dark Lord? - I think not. Crucio!"
Snape deflected the curse. It hit one of the trees, sending sparks of pale green light into the sky. At the same moment, fiery arrows flew from Snape’s wand towards Voldemort, but the Dark wizard had Disapparated once again.
He could not have imagined the scene that followed, not even in his wildest dreams. For a long time, the two Dark wizards seemed equally matched. Beams of light flew from their wands, thick as hail, one immediately answered by the other, but not a word was said. They had stopped shouting the incantations, but duelled in utmost silence, appearing and disappearing in the darkness as they Apparated in and out. Like two demons from hell, the two black figures were locked in a deadly, and at the same time strangely beautiful, dance. And he, Harry, ‘The Chosen One’ could do nothing but watch, his heart beating frantically as he lay in the grass.
"You wish," the other wizard spat, but Harry noted with dread that Snape was injured. There was blood running down his face, and one arm hung limply at his side. Nevertheless, he fought on, agile like a panther.
The distant noise was growing louder. If only Snape would last long enough for the Order to break through the line of Death Eaters and reach them. If only he hadn’t been so foolish as to follow Snape in the first place ...
"Serpensortiae!" he shouted, and a coil of wriggling snakes sprang from the tip of his wand, flying towards the fallen man. Snape dived for his wand. Yet before he could touch it, the snakes were rearing over him, hissing viciously and sinking their pointed fangs into his skin.
"Well, Snape, how did you like my snakes?" asked Voldemort mockingly. "Don’t worry, the poison is a slow one. It won't deprive me of the pleasure of killing you myself. And then, it's Potter's turn." He looked from Snape to Harry, his eyes flashing malicious triumph. "Your deaths will make two fabulous new Horcruxes!"
Shakily, Snape scrambled to his feet. "No, it's you who is going to die," he breathed, but instead of pointing his wand at Voldemort, he aimed it at Harry, muttering an incantation. The cords vanished. Quickly, Harry rolled over towards his wand. He must get it before -
From the corner of his eye, Harry could see the lethal jet of green light shoot towards his former professor, who stood still and erect against the nightly sky, awaiting the deadly blow. As if welcoming it ...
Suddenly, Harry understood. Snape had planned it all, had separated them from the others on purpose so no one would interfere and endanger his plans, had bound Harry to keep him from doing something rash and stupid, and now he was sacrificing himself so Harry could activate the Potion ...
"NO!" cried Harry, thrusting his arm another few inches and lunging for his wand. At the same moment, a shrill, screeching sound erupted from the sky, and something huge and wild and flapping came flying at the doomed wizard. Buckbeak, the Hippogriff. In a heap of feathers and black fabric they fell to the ground as the green light struck its target.
He was too late. Snape was dead. In a flash of burning anger, Harry wanted to run at Voldemort, beat him, strangle him, but as he made to stand up he felt something small and hard against his thigh. The Amortentia Potion. No, Snape's sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. With a swift movement, he fished the crystal phial from his pocket, closed his eyes and concentrated. Tapping his wand to the little phial, he whispered the incantation, "Amoris Infinitas."
"Ah, Potter. I'm sorry, I believe I not only killed our dear Severus but also that idiotic pet of yours," Voldemort drawled as he inspected the heap at his feet, kicking at the dead bodies. "Two with one blow! Anyway, you won't need it anymore as you will follow it wherever it is - NOW!"
The same instant Voldemort cast the killing curse, Harry had uncorked the phial behind his back. A flash of blinding light erupted from the opening and burst into an awesome display of glittering, multicoloured fireworks. Millions of sparkling drops rained down from the illuminated sky, drenching both Harry and Voldemort with the Love Potion. The deadly green light from Voldemort’s wand had vanished.
Voldemort stood rooted to the ground. What devilish scheme was this? Gently, he felt the rain drizzle down on him, on his hooded head, his shoulders, his arms and hands, his face. He felt a tingling sensation, a prickling that grew in intensity. Panic rose in his chest. With a swish of his wand, he tried to evaporate the rain, but to no avail; the sparkling drops fell even tighter around him. Opalescent steam began to rise from his cloak, his skin. The prickling became a burning pain, eating into his flesh, into his bone, into the very core of his mutilated soul.
It was terrible to behold. Harry stood in the rain, staring transfixed at the rotating and screaming whirl of steam and black fabric. After some time, the rain slowed down and the screaming became a faint sobbing noise. Then, there was silence. The last wisps of steam dissipated in the gentle breeze.
More people came – Remus Lupin, supporting his limping wife, the twins, Mad-Eye Moody, Ron and Hermione running at him and almost toppling him over in their attempt to hug him and Ginny senseless ... They all looked bruised and singed and worn-out from the fight, but they were alive and not seriously hurt.
"'e iz relly gone, Voldemort, iz 'e?" asked Fleur, whose silvery-white dress was torn and splattered with blood, although judging from the graceful way she moved, it couldn‘t be hers, at least not all of it.
"And look whom we’ve got here," came a triumphant voice from behind him. "The traitor. Congratulations, Harry, two at one blow." Alastor Moody had levitated the dead Hippogriff off the cloaked figure that lay sprawled on the ground. "Damn, Lupin," he then muttered to the wizard standing beside him, "I think there's still some life in the bloody bastard. Shall we finish him off?" He pointed his wand at the unconscious man, his magical eye rolling back and forth angrily.
Lupin looked down at the prostrate form of his once-classmate, whose chest rose almost imperceptibly, at irregular intervals. Once I trusted you, Lupin thought with utmost loathing. How he had longed to get his hands around Snape’s neck all those last months. And the Ministry openly condoned the execution of traitors. However – "No, Moody," he said grimly, having made up his mind. "I want to see him in court. And then it's the Dementor's Kiss. And good riddance."
"You sure?" said Moody, sounding somewhat disappointed. "Then you better make sure he doesn't snuff it here and now. Doesn't look too good to me." As if to prove his statement, Moody kicked Snape in the ribs. No reaction. He swung back his foot to try again when suddenly he was thrown off balance and pinned to the ground by invisible hands.
"Harry, calm down. The fight is over." Lupin stepped forward, his hands held in a pacifying gesture. But Harry ignored him. Pushing his former professor out of his way, he strode over to where Snape lay and crouched down at his side, oblivious to Moody's grumblings and the others' stares. Snape was breathing, that was all that counted at the moment.
Lupin nodded. "OK, Harry. You get some rest; you must still be in shock," he said, half turning to Molly Weasley, who had arrived on the scene, "and I'll take care of Severus." Reluctantly, Harry rose to his feet and made room for Remus to kneel down beside Snape. Lupin carefully hoisted the dying man into his arms and Disapparated with a soft ‘plop’.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Burrow was in a terrible state, inside as well as outside. All the benches and tables were turned over, some of them burnt and shredded. Broken plates and glasses, and ripped-off garlands and lanterns were strewn all over the lawn that was so riddled with curse-holes that it looked like nothing so much as a Swiss cheese. Inside, it wasn't any better. Most of the furniture was damaged and singed, the windows smashed, and the doors unhinged or blasted away, as were some walls.
Arthur Weasley was staring at the ruins of his home, a thick bandage around his head. A curse had hit him right in the beginning of the battle, and he had been unconscious through most of it. In the general confusion, nobody had realised that with Mr Weasley out cold, the Aurors would not be alerted. It was Ginny who eventually became aware of the calamity and brought the Aurors in. The battle had fired up dramatically, and soon, the Death Eaters were outnumbered. When suddenly the fireworks appeared above the hill, there were only a few of Voldemort’s followers still on their feet. Filled with dread and foreboding, they made off at a run, chased by determined Aurors. They would not let anybody escape ...
"Come, Arthur," said Molly gently as she came back from the hill with Harry and the others in tow. "It’s over. Let’s get inside and find a place to sit. And I’ll try to make some tea. It’s nothing we can’t clean up and repair."
Arthur nodded, giving her and Harry a small smile. Molly was right, as always. The damage to the house could be repaired. What was far more important was that all of his family – and that included Harry and Hermione as well – were alive and Voldemort was gone. Only Percy would have to stay at St Mungo’s for a few days after having been under the Imperius Curse for months. McGonagall, too, had ended up in hospital, as had a few others, but all in all, there had been few casualties on their side. It could have been far worse. Mr Weasley glanced at the shrouded figures arranged along one side of the house. Auror Dawlish was dead, as were Dedalus Diggle and Elphias Doge from the Order, and several Death Eaters, Bellatrix Lestrange among them. She had killed herself before she could be arrested.
Shortly afterwards they were sitting around the fireplace, drinking tea and hot cocoa. Together they had made makeshift repairs to the kitchen, while the Aurors had transported the captured Death Eaters off to Azkaban, and now the room was almost inhabitable again. Harry was very silent, and although the others were eager to hear what had happened on the hill, they did not push him. They were just glad they all had survived. Almost all ...
Snape nodded towards the single chair that stood not far from the bed. The wizard was propped up in his bed with numerous white pillows. He still looked awfully pale and sick, but the healers had assured Harry that it would only be a matter of a few weeks, strict bed rest and healthy food, and afterwards a nice holiday at the coast to fully restore his former professor to health. Although Harry could hardly imagine Snape sunbathing and enjoying himself with a cool drink in some holiday resort, he fully agreed with the bed rest and food thing.
After Remus Lupin had brought Snape to St Mungo's, the healers had had a hard time keeping the man alive. Flinging their code of honour to the wind, some, seeing who their patient was, had stubbornly refused to even try. However, this changed when Dumbledore's will was found. It had been hidden in a secret drawer in his desk at Hogwarts. Of course, the desk had been carefully searched after the headmaster's death; the drawer simply had never been there before, but suddenly it was. Obviously it had been timed to appear once Voldemort was dead. The will proved beyond doubt that Snape had acted strictly on Dumbledore's orders. In an extraordinary meeting, the Wizengamot had declared his deed a 'necessity of war in the service of the light' and cleared him from all charges. The Aurors positioned at the entrance to Snape's sick room had received new orders; instead of preventing the man from breaking out (something the badly wounded wizard wouldn’t have been able to do anyway), they now were to prevent anybody from breaking in; there were still a few Death Eaters on the loose, Peter Pettigrew among others, and they were eager to take revenge. Finally, after almost two weeks of searching, the healers had found an effective antidote to the snake venom. However, Snape had been so weakened from the violent cramps and burning fever caused by the poison that they had thought they would lose him nevertheless. Fortunately, they were wrong, and their patient slowly began to recover. The blackened burn mark that had caused the healers quite a headache had started to heal of its own accord, and the Dark Mark burned into the wizard's left forearm was fading.
"Sir, I came to bring you something - from the Ministry," Harry said, reaching into his pocket. He put an oblong package carrying the seal of the Minister of Magic on the bedside table. "Mr Ollivander said it should work just as fine for you as your old one since he made it from the same materials. And if not, you just drop by his shop and get another one, he said." Harry smiled conspiratorially. "The Ministry pays."
"Yes, sir, Ollivander, Fortescue and all the others were rescued right after the final battle, not in exactly the best shape, but alive." A flicker of relief crossed Snape’s pale face. It had always bugged him that he had not been able to disclose the location of Voldemort’s prison to the Order as, ironically, the place had been hidden by a Fidelius Charm. "McNair was rather eager to tell the Aurors where to find them," Harry continued. "Now it’s only ten years of Azkaban for him instead of a life sentence, and without Dementors ..."
"Hagrid was desperate ..." Harry said, grinning again. Somehow, he felt strangely elated, in spite of the sad topic and the gloomy Potions master's presence. One of Luna's Wrackspurts must have hit him, there was no other possible explanation. "But Buckbeak got a nice funeral - and an Order of Merlin, First Class!"
"No, sir," said Harry. "Oh, I almost forgot," he added, suppressing another mischievous grin, "here is yours, sir." Harry put a small package with a red ribbon on the table. "You missed the ceremony, though, I'm afraid. And," again he rummaged through his pockets, finally producing a sealed roll of parchment, "this is for you, too. A copy of Professor Dumbledore's will. Looks as if he left all his earthly belongings to you, including a vault full of lemon drops." Harry had to bite his tongue in order not to laugh out loud at Snape's look of utter incredulity.
"All right," Harry let the roll of parchment drop on the bed within easy reach for the sick wizard and stood up from his chair. "I'd better go." He turned to leave, but stopped again and fished another package from his pocket. "Professor McGonagall asked me to deliver some get well cards from the Order if you were well enough, and from -"
Snape scowled. Obnoxious boy, he wasn’t his professor anymore. Or was he? After all, Harry hadn’t finished his NEWT classes yet due to the war. He didn’t intend to come back to Hogwarts? Merlin forbid! Snape sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Another year of teaching the brat. He felt a bad headache building behind his temples. Although, the boy hadn’t missed a single ‘sir’ today, he had to admit, there might still be hope ...
He sighed again. This had certainly been a most enlightening visit. Obviously, he was not only alive against all odds, cleared from all charges and in the good graces of the-boy-who-lived-to-kill-Voldemort, but was the owner of an Order of Merlin, First Class, and the sole heir of Albus Dumbledore. Who would have thought of this? Certainly not him. And now his nightstand was filling with get well cards – soon it might even be Chocolate Frogs or Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans ... He shuddered at the thought. Glancing over at the nightstand, his gaze fell upon a card that had sat there for several days already, and his expression softened. It was a Muggle card from New Zealand with a Mountain parrot on it – from Draco and Narcissa. With his help, they had left the country shortly after Dumbledore’s death and were posing as Muggles now on the other side of the world, safe from both Aurors and Death Eaters. In a few years they might be able to come back ...
Wearily, Snape picked up the stack of cards from the Order. Not that he was interested in their inane scribbling, but there might be some important information in it that Potter had conveniently forgotten to tell him about ...
The topmost envelope was addressed to 'The most courageous wizard of all times'. He sneered at the title. They weren’t making fun of him? Inside the envelope was a card with a bubbling cauldron whose surface was incessantly forming the words 'Get well soon'. Luckily, it was not a singing cauldron ... He turned the card over. There was only one short sentence and a signature. The sneer vanished from his gaunt face and a faint and genuine smile began to play around Snape's thin lips as he read the words:
Herewith I declare that James Potter was a big-headed, arrogant git,