A Lesson in Saying Good-Bye and Letting Go
Severus tidied his desk and made sure the supplies in the potions cabinet were all accounted for and that there was nothing wanting.
Looking around his office, he mused that he had done all he could to make his leaving less troublesome. He had already written a sort of will to Filius (he still could not bear to address him as Headmaster, however much respect he had for the wizard) bequeathing whatever he had in his possession to Hogwarts. He also included a list of candidates he thought worthy to take on the position of Potions Master. Surely Filius could not complain, other than the fact that Severus had not prepared him for his leaving and had not done anything to prevent it or protect himself. But Filius would never know for certain whether Severus had foreseen this.
He felt a flutter of wind, and turned to greet his late-night visitor.
"Don't worry, I shan't resist."
The visitor, dressed in nondescript clothing, lingered at the doorway before entering Severus's office, with a gun aimed at Severus.
"My, we are bloodthirsty tonight." Severus murmured. The Daily Prophet and other newspapers and magazines were refrained from reporting on how the others were killed, but rumours were swift and even Severus had heard whispers about how it was not through Avada Kedavra.
As the visitor walked in, she took in the surroundings.
"I did a little tidying up," Severus said. "You can't be surprised that I was expecting you. As far as I'm aware, I'm the last surviving Death-Eater. Although I concede… I did not expect the mask. A nice touch. A Muggle gun and a Death-Eater's mask. Did you take it from one of my late departed and unlamented colleagues, or did you make one? Yes, I thought so. I didn't think you would touch anything worn any one of us. It makes your skin crawl, doesn't it?"
"Are you finished?" the voice said coldly, far more coldly than Severus would deem familiar. But it was a voice he knew well, nonetheless.
"Quite." Severus said, and sat down.
This nonchalance seemed to throw the visitor off, and Severus raised his eyebrows at her inaction.
"Do you savour your moment before destroying your victim? Do you gloat, madam? What is it you wish? I can pretend to be frightened. Or do you prefer that I beg?"
"Don't mock me." the voice shook with anger. "How dare you mock me."
Severus said in surprise, "I assure I'm not. I'm trying to be cooperative."
"I don't want you to be cooperative!"
"Oh good. At least we communicate." Severus said. Then his curiousity got the better of him.
He said softly, trying to suppress a sort of anticipation, a sort of eagerness even that he felt. "But before you… execute… whatever plan you have, perhaps you can indulge me. Show me your face… Show me what you've become, Miss Granger."
This time, the gun in her hand shook.
"It wasn't difficult to guess. You disappeared right after the battle. Even though we won and succeeded in vanquishing the Dark Lord, we lost also." He had suppressed those memories since then. Now the same despair and anger were returning as he remembered. "The Order… wiped out."
"Then," Severus continued with a bit of effort, "After all these months, the series of deaths started." He listed the victims, "Dolohov, Borius, Karkaroff, Gohar… Not just anyone can see that they were all Death-Eaters. Some were never exposed. And I started wondering, who had such an intimate knowledge as to what they were, and such a keen interest to see them dead. Then, I heard that even the Death-Eaters in Azkaban were killed… And I next wondered, who would be so highly skilled and intelligent to not only find those in hiding, but avoid the wards and guards in Azkaban without detection."
He smiled charmingly at her.
"It wasn't difficult, Miss Granger."
The figured stared at him for several moments, seemingly to gauge him. Then, Hermione took off her mask and faced Severus squarely, defiantly. Now it was two-way, and Severus could study her.
To put it plainly, Severus did not like what he saw. Her face was harsh, and there was no hint of smile left, something people had come to expect of her in the past. Her eyes, like her voice, were infinitely colder. There was no warmth or kindness. She resembled Hermione Granger, but was not who her friends and family remembered her as. She was more like the personification of death, and Severus felt a sense of loss. She used to be youth and vibrancy. A promising student with, Severus acknowledged to himself, the right sensibilities. Now, she was another wasted soul. And Severus grew a little more sombre.
He whispered softly, "I half-wondered if you would come to me in the end. After all, you knew that I had turned spy."
"A Death-Eater would always be a Death-Eater," came Hermione's bitter rejoinder.
"Yes, well, I've heard that from several people, including Ronald Weasley." He watched carefully at the flash of pain in her eyes. She could still feel. She was not quite deadened yet, and he found it disturbing to see himself reflected in her eyes, to realise how much like him she was.
"So, is this vengeance for you for all those who died?" Severus asked gently. "I suppose so. Not even Dumbledore survived," he sighed, "Not even Harry Potter. And the others… your friends, my students."
Hermione gritted her teeth. "Don't say their names."
"All right." Severus said, "We have deviated somewhat. Thank you for showing me your face, Miss Granger. You may proceed."
He continued sitting in his chair, and waited for her next step.
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "So calm, Professor? You expected me and yet you did nothing…"
"On the contrary. As I've mentioned before…"
"… to protect yourself." Hermioned scrutinised him and her voice softened, "So, you would see this as suicide then?"
Severus blinked. He knew her to be intelligent, although such astuteness was, as always, surprising. In response, he gave a shrug. He had no wish to become a fugitive, nor did he intend to kill Hermione out of self-defence. On the other hand, perhaps Hermione had a point. She could save him the effort. He had always been incapable of enjoying life, but there was a meaning to it before. Not now. Not since the war had ended. At first, it seemed possible that the depression was transient. He derived the same glee from upsetting students, and retained interest in academic discussions. As the days passed, however, he was aware that a never-ending lethargy had settled upon him. Even the breakthroughs he had with potions were no longer a source of pride for him. He could not escape the weariness, no matter how many recreational potions he imbibed in an attempt to break out of a feeling of monotony. Death was not unwelcome. Besides, what real loss was there to the world if he were gone?
"Always thought I'd die by another's hand." Severus said blithely, "Better yours than anyone else's."
He closed his eyes to listen to the fatal shot that would end his life.
Except that it did not come.
Severus opened his eyes, and stared at Hermione incredulously. She was staring back at him. Her whole stance exuded hesitation, and a sinking feeling of pain and sympathy fell on Severus.
"You mustn't soften in the face of someone you know, Miss Granger…" he said. "If you don't do it now, you'll wonder everyday about a Death-Eater who's roaming the world, alive and well."
"Why do you kill?" Hermione blurted out, as though he had not said anything.
Severus was genuinely taken aback at the non-sequitur.
"Why did you kill?" she continued, "There is no pleasure in killing, not even for vengeance's sake."
"Is that how you feel?" Severus took his time to consider this. It was a valid question. She was new to the whole business of vengeance and murder, and he was one who could supply the answer.
"Certainly, some people love the thrill of taking another's life. I did it because it was a means, and sometimes out of spite." Severus pondered over what she said, "Did you expect to be happy when you killed them?"
"I don't know… I don't know…" Hermione lowered her gun, and sank to the floor. "I expected something, not nothing. I hated them, for taking away everything. You said we lost and you were right. I was angry. I hated them for living."
"You hated me for living."
"Yes. You could say that I hated me for living too. I wanted… I wanted to set things… not right… even. I wanted to set things even. So much death… Victory was so hollow… I thought of how they deserved to die, but they lived, while… they died… I thought if they were dead, I could go on, knowing things were even. I expected to be free." Hermione said finally, "Yet everyday, I…." She looked at him, "This pain, does it ever go away?"
"No… Nevertheless, pain must be faced. Only then we can heal." Severus laughed morosely, "That was what Dumbledore used to tell me. And now I'm telling it to you. Killing doesn't alleviate the pain or erase the grief. Then again, different people have different ways of dealing with pain." He brightened. "Pain for pain. A life for a life and all that. That was what you were aiming for, wasn't it?"
Hermione stared at her gun.
"It can be an effective remedy to satisfy one's hunger for revenge. Or has too much death choked you?"
At that, Hermione looked up at him angrily. He noticed her grip on her gun tighten.
Severus smiled, "Take it from a former Death-Eater who had more experience than you. It is possible."
"Don't pretend you know everything." Hermione said.
"I do know everything," Severus said arrogantly, "In my time as a Death-Eater, I have killed many people in many ways. Each one of those experiences was different. My first kill, for example…"
He began to describe each encounter with his victim with relish and more importantly, in detail, and was pleased to see the effect on Hermione who became filled with horror.
"And he went down on his knees and pleaded with me, like so many of the others, telling me that his children were innocent. I told him simply that orders were orders, and that it was his fault for offending the Dark Lord…"
By the time he came to his seventh victim, Hermione was again aiming her gun at him.
He almost had her baited, almost. He saw the rage flicker in her eyes, at his callousness and cruelty. To his disappointment, however, she in turn read something in his eyes.
"You do wish to die." Hermione said in an awed tone. She had seen through his pretense.
Severus fell silent.
"Do you remember Neville?" Hermione asked after a while.
Severus blinked. Another non-sequitur.
"He died before the war… He was always brave and he was starting to… but he was careless… To be tricked into thinking his parents were cured… We couldn't recognise his body when Voldemort… dumped it in the Quidditch field… We were all crying… and McGonagall was hysterical… And you… you laughed. You laughed and laughed and laughed. How Dumbledore prevented Harry from killing you that day I don't know… Then I saw you in your office later, and remembered the laugh… You were hurting as much as we were."
Hermione turned her face away and chuckled sadly, "It's ironic that the only one left in the world who understands turns out to be a former Death-Eater. I should have known… before I came here, that I couldn't kill you. You're nothing like them. Not now. I can't kill you in cold blood."
Severus looked at her in disbelief. She was letting him off.
"A conscience, Miss Granger?" he asked sarcastically, "It mustn't do to have one now."
Hermione said wearily, "Our friends wouldn't have wanted this."
"If you had kept that in mind, you wouldn't have started!" Severus snapped. "Don't be a fool, Hermione. Pick that gun up. Finish what you started."
To his anger, she merely stood up and started walking away.
"It's over, Professor."
"By god, woman," Severus sneered at her, "Are you going to leave, just like that? I must profess, I feel that I've been cheated out of something."
He got up, crossed the floor, and blocked her path. Before this, he was certain of his future, or the lack of it. He could face it confidently. Hermione could shoot him without him complaining. Even though his life was in her hands, Severus had been in control. He had known what direction they were taking and he had known what to say. Now she was casting him off into the wind, and he demanded… something.
When he saw that Hermione was weeping, Severus's shock overcame his anger. For a moment, his hand went up to her face, wanting to comfort her and ask for comfort in return. He snatched his hand back, and wondered if he imagined the longing in her eyes. As she said, they were the only ones left in the world who understood each other, and suddenly, Severus felt confused and alone. Maybe Hermione felt likewise.
"What will you have me do?" was all Severus asked.
"What is left." Hermione's voice was no longer cold, and Severus flinched at it, for it was tired, and worse, sympathetic. "What you do. Teach, berate students, make Potions… you'll manage."
"And you?" he asked, almost desperately, "What will you do?"
"What is left." Hermione replied steadily, "We all manage, somehow."
"Will you come back?"
"I don't know." Hermione brushed him aside. "Take care, Professor."
"Hermione." Severus stopped her, although neither dared look at each other. "You said… you hated yourself for living…" He struggled with his words, "Don't… don't think about doing anything foolish."
From the corner of his eye, Severus saw Hermione stiffen.
"Does it matter?" she asked.
"It does. You are willing to let my ragged life go on… cherish your own life."
For a long while, they said nothing, until Hermione moved abruptly and placed the gun in Severus's hand.
"Take it then," she choked out.
Severus took the gun, and gripped her hand tightly before letting it go.
When she left the room, Severus destroyed the gun immediately. The conversation was surreal, and unsatisfactory. Where did they stand now? Would she return to him? He was not a good guide like Dumbledore, but given a chance, he could teach her how to come to terms with the world's unfairness and with herself. Or was she gone forever?
Severus sighed. More regret.
He looked around his room, and thought gloomily.
More classes to prepare.
More students to torment.
More of the same.