In The End

For almost two weeks Severus had managed rather well to dodge McGonagall and her attempts to question him about his little trip into the painting, and he really expected her to give it up soon. He couldn't understand what she wanted from him anyway; there just was nothing to talk about. Nothing of interest and nothing he wanted to talk about.

Although he couldn't deny that he himself had spent a lot of time thinking about that night, even though he hadn't wanted to. He'd intended to tick it off as just another encounter with magic of the more unpleasant kind, but now it just wouldn't leave him alone.

His old nightmares had returned and had taken him back to his parent's house every single night and even during his waking hours, there was always something that made his thoughts wander off again, back to that night.

It felt almost as if Escharoth had gotten what he wanted after all; as if he'd brought the demon back with him. Just like he'd said – he'd always be there.

#-#

Tuesday evening after dinner Severus sat alone at his desk in his office and tossed dried snowberries across the room and into the cauldron in the corner. At least he tried to, but up to now only about one third of them had hit the mark and the majority were scattered somewhere on the floor. He reached into the jar on his desk, took out another one, tossed it across the room and with a pling it landed right inside the cauldron.

Twenty-four.

To anyone watching, it would have appeared as if he was deeply lost in thought, but as a matter of fact, he wasn't. Actually what he concentrated on was keeping the memories away and thinking about nothing at all. It seemed to be a lot more difficult now that he was not fighting that demon anymore; now that he himself was his only enemy.

The next snowberry hit the floor, and he took out another one.

He couldn't help his thoughts wandering off again. Back to what the demon had showed him, what it had told him. He was well aware that it hadn't showed him anything new. It had simply forced him to confront things he'd kept buried deep inside of him and hidden from everyone, even himself, for a very long time. And well hidden was where he'd wanted to keep it all.

Another one hit the floor.

That's why it had chosen him. Because it had seen those ghosts he didn't want to face.

There was a knock on the door and the next snowberry landed inside the cauldron.

Twenty-five.

He didn't say anything in reply to the knock; the door was half open, so whoever it was was just knocking out of pure courtesy anyway.

The door opened a little further.

"Severus? Can I come in?" McGonagall asked, stepping into the room.

You are in already.

A berry hit the side of the cauldron, fell to the floor and he took another one from the jar. He didn't even look up at his visitor.

"The door was open," McGonagall said.

The next one hit the floor.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

Isn't that obvious?

This one hit its mark. Twenty-six. Perfect throw.

"Ah, yes, I see," McGonagall said. "Throwing potion ingredients across the room."

Another hit. Twenty-seven. I'm getting better at this.

"Are you very busy with that or do you think we could talk?"

Busy.

"I'm a little worried about your behaviour," McGonagall continued. "You've become unusually quiet ever since you got back. You've almost completely stopped giving out detentions, taking points and insulting people."

It appears I've become a lot less annoying. You should be pleased.

"Severus? I'm talking to you."

Another hit.

Twenty-seven. I could become a professional.

"If you won't even as much as look at me, I'll just leave again."

For a few seconds she stood there and waited, but Severus just kept staring at the cauldron on the other side of the room. McGonagall turned away and walked back to the door.

"In case you should change your mind, you know where to find me," she said before she closed the door behind her.

Part of him was glad that she'd left, part of him regretted his reaction. It had been rather rude, no doubt. But he'd known what she wanted from him the moment she'd shown up at the door, and he just didn't want to talk to her. Not now and not about this.

Nonetheless, he probably could have been a bit nicer. After all, she might actually be worried about him. What else would have made her come down here? She'd have had a reason if he'd done something she didn't agree with, but she couldn't very well complain about him doing nothing.

And nothing was pretty much all he'd done for the last two weeks. He'd mostly kept to himself and had nearly completely given up prowling the corridors at night, so he hadn't really gotten a lot of chances to take points from students or to argue with someone. And he hadn't given out a lot of detentions either, probably because he hadn't paid enough attention during his classes to notice any misbehaviour that would have justified it. He hadn't even punished Potter for his idiotic behaviour and the evening he'd made him serve detention for being late in class he'd sent him off to help Filch, just because he hadn't wanted to put up with that boy.

Minerva had always been complaining about his behaviour, so why was she complaining now that he did more or less the opposite?

During the last weeks she'd asked him several times if there was something wrong or if there was something he wanted to talk about. She might have come down here just because she was concerned about him. He should have been nicer. Maybe he should apologize to her.

"Idiot," he whispered to himself.

Yes, he'd have to apologize to her. Tomorrow.

#-#

The next day he waited until after dinner before he went up to McGonagall's office. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to be the only one who wanted to see her; waiting in front of the door were a fifth year Gryffindor and a first year Ravenclaw, eyeing him curiously as he leaned against the wall next to the door, folded his arms over his chest and waited.

A few minutes later the office door opened and another Gryffindor boy stepped outside. The Gryffindor waiting on the corridor was about to enter the office but then hesitated and insecurely glanced up at his Potions Professor.

Severus nodded at him to go in first; McGonagall had to know that he was standing there, she'd surely seen him in that crystal ball of hers she always used to see how many more students were waiting outside. She obviously wanted him to wait, so he'd wait.

As he was standing there and staring at the floor in complete boredom, two more students walked up to the office door, lingered there for a moment and then turned away and left again, apparently having changed their mind. He heard more footsteps but didn't look up until the person stopped walking to stand in front of him.

It was Lupin, frowning at him.

"What are you doing here?"

"Minding my business, why don't you?" Severus snarled.

Lupin raised his hands in an apologetic gesture and continued on his way.

Severus had barely seen him for the last two weeks, and he couldn't remember having spoken to him once since that night. And he'd have liked to keep it that way.

He didn't even notice the first year student entering the office and just remained standing there and staring at the floor when the door to his right opened again. While he noticed a student walking past him along the corridor, he didn't bother to look up and see who it actually was.

"Well, it seems you're next."

Upon hearing McGonagall's voice, he finally looked up.

"I'm sorry I had to keep you waiting for so long, but it really wasn't the smartest idea to show up exactly in time for my office hours, was it?"

"Probably not," Snape replied. It definitely hadn't been his intention, but that was just the sort of thing that happened when you spent a whole Wednesday being convinced it was Thursday. "Nonetheless, you should be thankful. My sheer presence here seems to have scared away half of the students who came to see you."

"Then I suppose I should consider paying you for hanging about in front of my office on Wednesday evenings," McGonagall replied. "Come on in now."

He hesitated for a moment before he left his place on the corridor to follow her inside her office.

"So what can I do for you?" McGonagall sat down at her desk and motioned him to take a seat as well, but for now he'd rather remain standing.

"Well...," Severus muttered and glanced around the room, looking anywhere but at her. "I wanted to apologize. For my behaviour yesterday."

"Oh, never mindthat. It wasn't so bad. Why don't you sit down now? You're making me nervous by standing around there like that."

"Actually, I already said what I came up here for, so-"

"I don't think you have. So please, sit down."

Slowly he walked over to the chair opposite from her desk and sat down, giving her a questioning look; he'd already said all he'd had to say, so it was her turn now.

"There's something bothering you," McGonagall said.

"If you say so."

"Don't be like that. I know you've got something on your mind."

They sat in silence for a while, waiting for each other to give in.

"I've been thinking quite a lot lately," Severus said eventually. "About that night, when we went into the painting."

McGonagall said nothing and waited for him to continue, but he didn't.

"Remus told me that you saw your father there," she said after a while.

"Did he," Severus muttered. "So what else did he tell you?"

"Nothing. I hoped you would."

A heavy silence settled over them until he spoke again.

"What do you want to hear?"

"Whatever you want to tell me."

Severus hesitated for a moment. "He killed my cat," he said then. "He didn't want to have a cat in the house. Or maybe he just didn't want me to have one."

He stood up from his chair and walked past her desk over to the window. Hogwarts' grounds lay dark and quiet under a clear night sky that made the landscape look almost like a painting. Almost.

"He's been dead for so long now, but sometimes it seems as if he's still here, standing right behind me and watching me. Like a shadow, following me wherever I go."

"He's still your father. You can't change that."

Severus took his eyes off the nightly landscape before him and looked down at the little tree with the silvery branches that was standing on the window sill.

He held his hand above the tree and the leaves started shaking and jingling softly. The closer he moved his hand, the more the leaves were shaking. Carefully, he touched one of the branches with his fingertips and felt a strange warmth running through his hand.

"Do you think I'm a lot like him?" he asked eventually.

"I honestly couldn't tell you that. You know I didn't know him."

"But you've met him."

"Once. And we didn't talk for very long either; he wanted to speak to the Headmaster rather than to waste his time discussing anything with the Deputy Headmistress."

More likely didn't want to waste his time talking with a woman. "Well?"

"Severus..." She paused to contemplate her reply. "You're only asking me because you want me to say that you're not like him at all. But I can't judge that. It's something you have to find out all by yourself."

That's really not very helpful. He took his eyes off the little tree and looked at the window again, concentrating on his ghostlike reflection in the glass.

"I look just like him," he said softly, looking back at his own black eyes in the window. Ever since he could remember, people had said that he looked so much like his father. Mostly because of these eyes, probably. "The same eyes."

He paused for a moment, hoping that McGonagall might say something now so he wouldn't have to, but as was to be expected, she didn't. She could be annoyingly patient at times.

"I wasted so many years trying to prove to him that I'm not what he thought I was. That I'm not a failure and that I'm not a complete moron. I really thought I'd gotten over that by now, but as soon as I was face to face with him again..." He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to wipe away the image of his father that kept resurfacing whenever he looked at his own reflection. "I don't even know why I ever cared what he thought of me."

"All children care what their parents think of them."

"Probably," Severus muttered.

"You're trying to prove yourself to others. But it doesn't matter what they think. In the end, the only thing that counts is what you think."

Severus shrugged his shoulders. He'd said more than he'd wanted to already; enough talking for one evening.

McGonagall got up from her chair and walked over to where he was standing. For a while, she stood by his side, looking out of the window down at Hogwarts' grounds.

"I know it won't mean as much to you," she said eventually, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "But I'm very proud of you."

"Thank you," he said softly. "It means a lot to me."

"And you don't have the same eyes. Whoever said that can't have looked very closely."

Severus smiled weakly.

"So what about that game of chess?" McGonagall asked. "You've been avoiding me for two weeks already. Afraid of losing yet again?"

"The last time we played, I won."

"Oh no, you didn't. As a matter of fact, I won the last two games we played. And I'd love to turn that into three wins in a row."

"How about right now?" Severus asked. He hadn't planned on staying longer than a few minutes, but now his ambition had gotten the better of him.

"I have no objections. But Miss Granger is going to show up here in about forty minutes to discuss her Transfigurations project with me."

"Let's make it a quick game then. I'll need no more than half an hour to checkmate you."

"We'll see about that." McGonagall walked across the room, took the chessboard and a wooden box out of the small cupboard and placed both on the table in front of the fireplace. Severus sat down in the armchair next to the table, opened the box and began placing the pieces on the old Muggle chessboard.

They made their first few moves in silence and after a couple of minutes he was convinced that he was going to win this game.

"You haven't made Potter serve detention for it, have you?" Severus asked after a while.

"Neither have you."

"I'm not his Head of House."

"That never stopped you."

"I'll leave it to you this time," he said and moved his black bishop in front of one of the white pawns.

He wouldn't interfere, even if she wasn't going to do anything at all. So many times she'd told him to keep out of things that were none of his business; maybe she was right.

"Does the name Escharoth mean anything to you?" he asked after a few minutes of silence.

McGonagall kept her eyes on the chessboard, thinking. After a while, she made her move and looked up at him. "It does indeed," she replied. "He's one of the Three Ancients."

"The Three Ancients? Am I supposed to know what that means?"

McGonagall smiled at him. "You're probably too young. It's just an old tale my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. Escharoth is the Master of the Mind, one of three evil spirits. The legend says that they were all banned from this world by a couple of wizards over a thousand years ago. Are you going to make your move now?"

"It might be more than just a legend," Severus said in a low voice and moved his knight across the chessboard. "The demon's name was Escharoth."

"It's just a fairy tale. Maybe you yourself provided the demon with this name. You might have heard it before and just didn't remember."

"Yes, maybe." The demon didn't tell me its name, though. Lord Macius did. He made his move and for the next few minutes they played on in silence, the only sound the crackling of the fire.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," McGonagall said as Severus reached out for the black knight.

He hesitated, his eyes fixed on the chessboard and wandering from one piece to the next, playing through the possible moves in his mind. "Why not?" he asked after a few seconds.

"Because I might lose if you do that."

He smiled and made his move. There was a knock on the door, and they both looked up.

"Come in!" McGonagall called.

The door opened a little and Hermione Granger peered into the room. "Good evening, Professor McGonagall, Professor Snape," she said with a smile and turned to her Head of House. "Sorry for interrupting. I'm here because of my Transfigurations Project?"

"Yes, Miss Granger. Do come in, please," McGonagall replied.

"We'll finish our game tomorrow," Severus said quickly and stood up from his armchair. "It'll take just a couple of moves anyway."

"We'll see about that," McGonagall replied.

With some amusement, Severus watched Hermione Granger carrying a stack of books across the room to McGonagall's desk and then go back outside to fetch some more.

"Have a nice evening," he whispered to McGonagall, nodded at her and walked towards the door.

"Professor?" McGonagall called him back just as he was about to step outside. Severus turned back around and threw her a questioning look. "I think you still owe me five Galleons. You haven't forgotten that, have you?"

"No, of course I haven't. You shall have it by tomorrow," he replied and pulled the door closed behind him, feeling lucky that nobody ever wanted to discuss their homework with him.

#-#

On his way back down to his office he witnessed one of his second years arguing with a third year Gryffindor boy. He had no idea what they were fighting about, and he didn't care too much either; he took ten points from the Gryffindor for yelling in the corridor and sent them both off to their dormitories.

Now, McGonagall couldn't complain about his behaviour any longer. At least, no more than she always did.

He'd just made it back to his office when he met Lupin for the second time this evening. As soon as Lupin spotted him, he smiled at him and started walking towards him.

"Good, you're here," he said, as he came to a halt in front of him and held out a large dark green book. "I wanted to bring you back your book."

What book? He glanced down at the black letters on the cover. Oh, that book. "About time," Severus said and took it from him. He remembered very well that Lupin had said he'd bring it back the next day when he'd borrowed it the night that Potter had disappeared – two weeks ago.

"I'm really sorry, I just forgot about it," Lupin said. "I wanted to bring it back to you on Saturday, but you weren't in your office, so..."

"Next time, just leave it at my door." Snape opened the door to his office but then hesitated when he noticed the large object Lupin was carrying in his left hand. "What's that?" he asked.

"Oh, that's the painting," Lupin replied and held it up a little for both of them to see. "Still sends a shiver down my spine," he added when looking at it.

Severus couldn't deny that he felt the same; just seeing the painting again, the misty landscape and the small old house, made him feel a little nervous.

"The Headmaster decided to have it destroyed after all," Lupin said.

"Why?" Severus asked thoughtfully, still looking at the painting. "It had nothing to do with it."

"Yeah, I know. But just in case that Thesdale might find a way out of there and back through this painting... He doesn't want to take the risk."

Severus said nothing. He just stared at the painted landscape, and the longer he looked at it, the more he felt as if he was drawn towards it, losing himself in the endless misty night.

He blinked a few times and looked at Lupin again. "It might be better," he said then. "To have it destroyed."

"There's something eerie about it, don't you think?" Lupin asked.

"No," Severus lied.

"Really? Well, I've been a little jumpy ever since we got back, blame it on that," Lupin said. He paused and his expression suddenly became a lot more serious. "Do you think it's possible that...," he said slowly. "That maybe we brought it back with us?"

"No, I don't think it's possible."

"Have you never felt it? That feeling that someone's following you through an empty corridor or that someone's standing right behind you in the darkness, watching you?" Lupin asked in a low voice. "I can't shake it off, ever since we got back."

Severus hesitated; he wasn't going to admit that he understood very well what he was talking about. "That demon said something to me after you'd left," he said slowly. "It told me that I'd have to look no further than at my own reflection to discover its true identity."

Lupin thought about it for a moment. "That would mean that we actually did bring it with us. Somehow."

"I think it means that everyone has their own personal demons. We didn't need to bring it with us because it's always been there anyway," Severus said.

"Then all that's changed is my attitude; the demon forced me to face my ghosts."

Severus shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe," he said. "But they're your ghosts. Find your own answers. If you'll excuse me now – I still have work to do."

Without waiting for a reply, he went into his office and closed the door. He felt relieved to finally be alone again; he didn't want to see that painting ever again and neither did he want to discuss that night ever again.

For a moment, he closed his eyes. He heard Lupin's footsteps in the corridor, moving away. Then it was quiet.

Severus took out his wand and lit a fire in the fireplace. He looked over at his desk and spotted a stack of parchments waiting there for him; the tests his sixth years had written last week. He'd meant to grade them today, but the longer he looked at the papers now, the more reluctant he became to even read one of them. He could just as well do it tomorrow.

He'd been standing with his back to the door for a few minutes already but only now he noticed his black coat hanging next to the door to his left. Of course, he'd seen it hanging there for the last two weeks, but he'd completely forgotten about the piece of parchment he'd left in the coat's pocket.

He reached out his hand but then hesitated; would he still find it there, or had he only imagined it and it had never even been there?

Only one way to find out.

Slowly, he reached into the coat's pocket and pulled out the folded piece of old yellowed parchment. He opened it, read it and then studied the signature once again. He still thought he'd done pretty well on it; how Minerva had come to suspect that it hadn't really been his father's signature had always remained a mystery to him. Maybe he should ask her.

Taking the piece of parchment with him, he walked over to the fireplace and sat down in the armchair in front of it. For a while, he looked into the flickering flames, then back at the permission form again.

He felt tempted to throw it into the fire, just because his father had made him throw away every permission form year after year. He'd been the one who'd insisted that he be banned from all Hogsmeade visits. Dumbledore wouldn't have done that. Actually, the Headmaster and McGonagall had even tried to talk his father out of it; without success, of course. His father would never have listened to Dumbledore; he'd never thought highly of the Headmaster. And even less would he have listened to McGonagall, mostly because he'd been convinced that a woman didn't belong in the position of Deputy Headmistress anyway. In his eyes, that had been just another proof of Dumbledore's foolishness and incompetence.

With a swift movement, Severus crumpled up the permission form and threw it into the fire. He sat in front of the fireplace and watched it burn to ashes, then he took out his wand again and put out the flames.

-the end-


Author's Note:

Last chapter. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you all so much for your reviews and e-mails, I really appreciate each one. I'll miss you all Thank you :)

Thanks to shadowycat for all the beta-reading :) If you have nothing to do, why not go have a look at her stories.

Makrillit: I don't think Malfoy's just completely evil either. They had some sort of friendship once, and Snape was the one who ended it (at least in my world of never posted stories – can't write it all down here, send me an e-mail and I'll write you an essay ;)