The remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix were scrambling over rocks. They were battered, bruised, cursed, wheezing, bleeding and unable to stop until they had seen if Voldemort could finally be responsible for something good in the world.
Lord Voldemort had absolutely no doubt that he would win the battle. Recent informants had imparted intriguing information; apparently the prophecy predicted not that Harry would kill him, but that either of them could kill the other.
He was at full power. Not only was he in full-bodied form but this form was stronger than his first. The Order of the Phoenix may have destroyed his Horcruxes, his back up plan, but did he really need it? Potter was just a child; he had only just come of age and hadn't even passed his apparition test. He didn't even finish school, cutting his education short because he couldn't cope with his teacher's death – he must remember to reward Severus properly for that.
Voldemort initiated the final battle within three hours of hearing this information. The first hour was spent gathering forces and releasing the prisoners from Azkaban. The second was spent arranging those forces and making sure that they knew what to do. The third was spent killing and torturing the innocent; might as well do something constructive whilst waiting for Potter and his under-educated cronies.
The battle was delicious. He was too wrapped up in his pursuit of Potter to realise that it wasn't all going in his favour. He saw bodies fall but didn't notice that they were his own people. It was slightly disconcerting that the brat managed to block his curses and evade his Avadas but at least he was running. He cornered the boy in a derelict church, the irony didn't escape him. Darkness was about to vanquish a Messiah in a neglected holy sanctuary – he didn't hold back the laugh that echoed hollow through his frame.
The boy had a powerful shield in place, but Voldemort recognised it. It had a finite life, as would Potter when the damn thing failed on him. He used the time to mock and taunt the child who had been the bane of his life. He looked so small, so frightened, so angry. So much for a glorious victory, this was a joke. The boy was only here to exact his revenge over the old man, it was so close to the surface of his mind that it took no effort to see it.
"Still pining for the parents you never had boy? Dumbledore filled that hole, didn't he? You really are a stupid child."
He smiled to see that he was close to getting a rise out of the boy; the shield flickered for a moment.
"If you were less consumed by weakness, by Love," he spat, "then you would have found a way to have what you want. Dumbledore drank the liquid from the Horcrux receptacle, he split his soul. You could have called him back; you could have restored him to life. Instead of solving your problem, instead of pursuing what you wanted – you allowed yourself to be consumed by grief. This weakness is the other side of love and is just as worthless. You have the power to take my life, but not the knowledge to achieve it. Only a great wizard would know how to be done with me, as I know how to be done with you. So here we stand; equal in power but one drenched in love, grief, weakness and ignorance – the other empowered by knowledge and a lack of shackles. Who do we think is going to be victorious here POTTER!" He spat the boys name at him like a curse. He could see the child's mind ticking away; even shielded he could guess that his weakness was guiding his thoughts.
Severus came rushing in, wand equipped and face contorted. He looked vaguely panicked.
"There there Severus, don't fret. As you can see, the whippet hasn't caught his hare yet. Quite the other way around, in fact. Join me; we are playing "wait for shield failure" – care to make a wager on how long it lasts?"
Severus couldn't keep the scowl from his face, luckily the Dark Lord was watching Potter as he struggled to pour in the power to maintain his defences. He mouthed "drop it" to Potter but the damnable boy glared at him as though he had just bitten the head off a bat. Damn him, damn Albus; it was impossible to do this if the boy didn't trust him. He had never trusted him and now there was no chance. He couldn't exactly tell the boy the truth; he'd be dead within seconds. He would just have to act now and hope that the idiot Gryffindor had enough power left to do what needed to be done.
He mouthed the incantation at him and illustrated the wand technique; he just prayed that he had found the incantation in the book and practiced it. That had been the whole point of giving it to him. Even now he couldn't understand how Albus had thought that this would work; they should have just told him.
He moved within spitting distance of the lizard-man and raised his wand, pointing it directly at Potter.
"Now now Severus, let's be patient. We've waited long enough, we can wait another ... oooh ... six minutes."
"Six minutes is too long my Lord. This should end NOW."
With an agile twist of his wrist, he flicked the wand at Voldemort's head.
Voldemort's head whipped round, he moved to raise his wand but his body and soul were already separating and he had no control of his muscles. Severus rummaged in his robes and screamed at Potter, the boy still wasn't moving.
"Potter, for Merlin's sake move boy. Drop the blasted shield and use the curse. You did find it didn't you?"
Potter stared at him, unable to work out what was going on. Voldemort's soul hung grey and translucent above his body, attached by a thin thread. Soon the soul would begin moving back towards its home and then they truly would be doomed.
"POTTER! Effectum animus NOW. Only YOU can do it. Only YOU are equal."
Potter stumbled forward pulling at his wand. He watched confused as Snape poised over the prone body with a vial of potion.
"For Merlin's Sake Potter. This is what we have been working for for years. This is your destiny." He realised that shouting wasn't working; time was running out fast. Any moment Riddle would worm his way back to life and it would all be for nothing, all his sacrifice, his entire life would have been wasted. When he spoke again his voice was soft, soft enough to be disconcerting even to himself. He reached over and pulled Harry's wand from his belt, handing it to him and gently steering him towards Voldemort.
"Harry. Do this and it will all be over. Effectum animus! End this and we are all free. Please Harry?"
Harry finally pointed the wand; comprehension still not registering on his face. Severus moved quickly, hovering the vial over the body again.
"Effectum Animus." Red and gold light shot from Harry's wand, impacting on the grey mist. For a moment, green and silver edged its way back along the beam towards Harry. Severus poured his potion, being sure to cover the full length of the body. Finally! This had so very nearly failed. Dumbledore and his bloody secrets, he knew that the infuriating old codger hadn't revealed the second prophecy. The Boy Who Lived and The Half Blood Prince, the turncoat and the Messiah; would he have believed it anyway? The acrid smoke pouring off the form filled his lungs and he fell back, choking.
An ethereal shrieking sounded from all points around them, echoes bouncing off the ruins. Red and gold conquered green and silver, smothering the grey mist in snake-like twists. The insubstantial mass squirmed mid-air before dissipating.
Snape was sprawled on the ground gasping for air; Harry stared at him for a second and then took off running. Snape was not his concern, he could not afford to think about what had just happened. Who was Snape? What was he? He dismissed the thought.
Hundreds of aurors and mediwitches were sweeping the battlefield. Harry watched through a haze as Dementors were captured, Death Eaters bound and the injured moved hastily to ... Merlin knew where ... there were too many for St Mungo's. He supposed they knew what they were doing.
"Harry. Blimey mate, am I glad to see you. 'Mione said she saw you running from You Know Who and I didn't wanna think about ... well ... alright mate?"
"Never better!" Hermione limped up behind Ron, smiling broadly. She wrapped her arms round Harry and squeezed him tightly.
"Er, Harry. You Know Who, is he You Know What?"
"Oh Ron," Hermione frowned, "Of course Voldemort's dead. Do you think Harry would be standing around here chatting with us if he wasn't?"
"Oh. Yeah, right. I mean, well done, er..."
Harry smirked, life edging back into his eyes.
"Yeah. He's gone. He may even have done some good."
Hermione's frown deepened, Ron looked scared and concerned.
"Er, Harry mate, are you okay? Did he do something to you, when you ... you know ... did it?"
"No. He didn't do anything to me, I'm fine. No really, I AM fine! He thought he was going to win, was damn sure of it and he was saying all this stuff to me, about love and grief being weakness and how I could have saved Dumbledore if I hadn't been so wrapped up in my feelings. He was right in a way." He held up a hand to stop their interruptions, "He told me something I didn't know, that none of us knew. He didn't think that I would get a chance to use the information, but he's fried – literally – and here we are. Dumbledore isn't gone; we can bring him back. You good to go?"
Harry turned and began striding across the field, he closed his eyes briefly as he stepped over bodies but he didn't stop. Hermione and Ron just stared at him for a moment, slack jawed in amazement. Studying each other briefly they took off after him, frantically waving as they went to signal other members of the Order. Soon they were well past the battlefield, Remus, Tonks and the Weasleys caught up to the trio in time to hear Harry call a destination.
Tests withstanding, they all managed to Apparate. Only Ginny needed a lift, she sighed with relief as her father pulled her tight and she felt the tug behind her navel. At least she wasn't being left behind again.
Standing before the basin again, Harry remembered the last time with horror.
"What should we do Harry?" Hermione whispered in a frightened voice. They were all tossing nervous glances at the "things" in the water; the general feeling was one of unease.
Harry and Remus caught each other's eyes, each pleading with the other to know what to do without giving away too much emotion. Arthur broke the tension.
"Right. Well. You three are the experts in these Horcrux things, so ... how about we ..."
Hermione looked desperately at Ron.
"Dad ... we ... er ... well, we only ever destroyed them. We never actually used them. That would not have been good ... I mean ... You Know Who and all ..."
Ron's eyes widened as he continued this thought inside his own head, boggling at the possibility of two Voldemort's.
"Er, Harry? How do we know that ... HE ... didn't mean for you to ... well ... bring him back. Perhaps D-Dumbledore isn't ... you know."
Harry continued to stare at the basin. Reaching beneath his robes, snapping the chain as he pulled the locket from around his neck. Dangling it over the basin, he offered.
"I don't know how Ron, I just know. When Voldemort said it, it just ... made sense. Dumbledore wouldn't just go, not just to get Snape back into the inner circle."
"Harry dear?" questioned Molly, "What do you mean? Severus ..."
"I don't want to talk about it now." He dropped the chain and the locket tumbled into the basin, which frothed and churned. The Order watched frightened and pensive as the green liquid whirlpooled, the churn rising up from the basin and swirling in mid-air. A sharp cry echoed through the cavern; some heads turned, some ignored it. Arthur, Remus and Hermione were watching as Fawkes came swooping through the cave to land on Harry's outstretched arm. How he got through, no-one questioned. Hermione opened her mouth as though she would, but Molly's hand on her arm silenced her and turned her attention back to the basin.
The swirling liquid had raised up to a height of nearly seven feet above the basin now, when it began to flatten out. It undulated, becoming more viscose; stretching like bubblegum pulled to its utmost capacity by invisible fingers. As it became more rectangular in shape it took on the consistency of something which they had all seen before. The veil spread before them, stretching upwards from waist height – wafting gently in some otherworldly breeze.
No breath remained unheld. Harry had no idea what to do next. Did he reach through? Did he call? If so, what name should he call? Professor? Headmaster? Dumbledore? Albus ?
Fawkes cried out once more and Harry reached, not with words or form but with his mind.
A hand reached through the veil, old veined and surrounded by drapes of red velvet. It was there but somehow not, ghostly. Harry reached forward to take the hand but passed right through it. He drew in his breath sharply.
Dumbledore stepped half-way through the veil. Fawkes shrill cry rang out for a third time and his claws dug forcefully into Harry's arm. He lifted his arm higher as Dumbledore lowered his. Harry wondered for a moment, how he was going to pass the bird to a ghost.
Phoenix tears fell swiftly upon the outstretched hand, which seems to shudder slightly as the droplets failed to pass through. The hand gained texture and spread in dimension as the solidity rippled its progress along the arm and form, travelling backwards through the veil. Dumbledore stumbled slightly as his solidified form completed itself. He looked up to meet Harry's eye, smiled warmly and stepped fully through – his hand clasped firmly around another.
Minerva all but squawked as the rag-torn bloodied group fell through the doors of the castle.
She was kneeling on the floor attending to the wounds of a student before she dared to levitate the stretcher. A volunteer mediwitch hurried over and took the patient from her care wordlessly.
Minerva then limped hurriedly towards the group, her hand brushing gently against each of those she could reach, eyes conveying more than words dared to stumble over. She grasped Harry in a tight embrace, thanking all the Gods that she had never believed in for his safe return. When she opened her eyes, they rested on the two forms bringing up the rear of the group. White and black, composed and slouched, dead and yet here. Her knees nearly betrayed her as they threatened to give out, stifling her own sobs she tentatively reached out a hand - and felt firm flesh and heartbeat beneath her fingertips. Allowing the sobs to wrack her body she fell into the soft twinkling embrace that opened to welcome her.
She didn't dare let go of the old man, but grasping him tighter reached out again and grasped Sirius' fingers, offering him a smile that threatened to break free from her face; her eyes remained tinged by the sorrow that seemed to subsume her soul. It would have been amazing to see such sorrow and joy combined in one expression if it wasn't the prevailing feeling in everyone.
Dumbledore was eventually the one to break the silence.
"We should all get some rest. Those who have not been as lucky as ourselves will need our energy come the morning. I assume that we are now a hospital."
The gentle enquiry was to Minerva, she nodded sadly.
"There are so many Albus. So many children."
"But they are alive. They have a good chance and we will all do our best for them."
His smile should have been reassuring but Minerva was not convinced. They had not seen the carnage of flesh and blood that had surged through these doors for the past three hours.
"I need to go and check..."
Albus gently held her hand to halt her departure, his eyes following the line of blood on her robes to her own injury. Instinctively she pressed a palm against the wound on her side.
"It's nothing ... not compared ..."
"And tomorrow, when you are healed, you will be able to say that truthfully and be of greater help."
Back five minutes and already giving orders, Minerva mused.
"I thought death was supposed to be the great equaliser."
Albus chuckled, Sirius almost barked with laughter.
A young mediwitch hesitantly edged into the group and addressed the Headmistres, the only person of authority whom she recognised.
"Excuse me Professor. We were wondering, as we are running low on some potions, whether there might be anymore in the dungeons? In the potions stores?"
"Yes, I believe there are some." She handed the young woman a key, "Mind you only take what is recognisably labelled. I have no idea what else Severus might have kept in there, but there are undoubtedly some nasty surprises. The password is "Redemption"."
"Severus." The Headmaster barely breathed the name, but everyone heard him and turned. The mediwitch was scuttling off down the corridor already as the Headmaster became agitated.
"Where is he?"
Various responses snapped back;
"Who cares?""Dead, I hope."
"With HIS Lord!" "I hope they caught him."
Albus eyes flamed before the insults flying around him.
"Severus acted under my direction. ALWAYS!"
Minerva stared at him aghast, "Albus, he murdered you. I admit that seems to have less weight at this particular moment in time, but that betrayal.."
Arthur spoke up softly now, "Albus, he was standing by Voldemort's side. I saw him myself."
"He had to." This time it was Harry who spoke up; all eyes turned incredulously to him.
"He was there. At the end. He helped me finish it. Without him ... I wouldn't have ... I couldn't..."
Dumbledore laid a hand on Harry's arm,
"Harry. What happened? Was he hurt?"
"He... he couldn't breath ... the fumes ..." Harry hung his head, "I left him ... I just ran."
Dumbledore nodded sadly. Then with greater strength and speed than he had mustered since passing through the veil, he turned and headed towards the dungeons himself – the group felt themselves dragged along in his wake. Over his shoulder, Dumbledore dismissed some of them to bed.
"Arthur, Molly perhaps you could make sure that these youngsters make it to their beds. Sirius, Tonks, I suggest you get some sleep also. Harry, Remus – you may come with us."
The four of them made their way rapidly through the dungeons towards Severus Snape's rooms. Harry wondered why they were going there. He had left Snape choking in the ruins; either he would be on his way to one of the makeshift hospitals, or Azkaban or he would be dead.
There were no wards and a fresh trail of blood disappeared under the closed door. Albus knocked and predictably there was no response.
Entering the room felt like an intrusion. No-one but Albus had ever felt comfortable in these quarters, nor had they been welcomed.
Harry sighed with relief when he saw the Potions Master curled up in a chair by the roaring fire. The fact that he was curled up was slightly disconcerting and it occurred to Harry that the man probably wouldn't want them to see him in such a vulnerable position.
Albus was striding across the room. He reached out a hand to his friend's face and was overwhelmed by sadness. Swirling around, he grasped the goblet on the table and sniffed at the contents.
"Vacuus Poena" Minerva, antidote – NOW."
Harry's mind swam through the fog that surrounded the thoughts that he tried to formulate. Snape had committed suicide. Was this his fault? He vaguely noticed action hustling around him and forced himself out of his reverie.
Remus was propping Professor Snape up and trying to make him walk, but the man was definitely unconscious if not ...
"Is he dead?"
"No Harry, not yet. He must only just have taken it, but it will act quickly and we must act quicker if we are to save him."
"Is there anything I can do?"
Minerva limped in through the door at breakneck speed, vial in hand. Remus stopped walking the man around and Albus steadied them both as Minerva tipped the contents of the vial down Snape's throat. There was a muffled gurgling sound and then Snape was spluttering and coughing. Some of the potion sprayed spittle strewn across the room, igniting briefly in the flames of the fire, but most of it stayed down.
Snape grasped at the arm of his chair as he tried to stop himself from collapsing onto the hard dungeon floor. He was gasping for breath through a dry throat, fear and confusion evident in his darting eyes.
Albus pressed a glass of water upon him and made him drink, as he collapsed back into the armchair his eyes settled on Harry. The boy felt that he ought to say something, he had left this man behind to his death and he had ended up seeking it out for himself.
"I'm sorry." He whispered. There was so much more to say, but he didn't know how to say it, or if it would make any difference. The world had shifted.
Snape's eyes widened briefly, he gulped down more water and held the boy's stare. When he spoke it was a weak rasp,
"Potter, for once something was not about you. For Merlin's sake. The sheer bloody arrogance. Do you not believe that I can think for myself boy? That something could actually be about someone else?"
Albus' eyes held a painfully evident sadness that ripped at the hearts of those around him. Snape assumed it was pity and felt himself tumbling deeper into the depression that overwhelmed him. Interesting that even in death he could not escape from himself, from his life. Even death looked like Hogwarts.
"My dear boy, I have done you such wrongs. No-one should have been asked to shoulder the burdens that I have forced upon you. I wish it could have been another way. I wish I could have taken better care of you."
Severus said nothing; he was thinking about whether the afterlife would be any better. Would he be trapped in some eternal Hogwarts with all the deceased students. Oh Merlin, would he have to teach the same dunderheads for the rest of eternity? He groaned aloud at his thoughts and collapsed further into his chair. He laid his head back against the support of the padded velvet and massaged the bridge of his nose.
"Tell me Potter. How did you manage to get yourself killed, surely The Boy Who Lived didn't just blunder off into a stray curse."
When he question met with no response, he looked up to find himself surrounded by confused frowns.
"Uh ... I'm not dead Sir."
Albus knelt down in front of him and gathered Severus' hands between his own.
"Severus, you are not dead. We found you in time."
Severus groaned as the reality impacted, this time with a growling frustration. Albus looked to Minerva with alarm, Remus had his hand on his wand in case he needed to restrain the suicidal Professor.
"Leave," the command held the same force as it might usually, despite being whispered instead of bellowed.
"LEAVE. NOW. GET OUT."
"My dear boy, I don't think ..."
"How do you think Albus? How is it that you are here?"
Harry shuffled nervously, Snape's glare switched focus towards him.
"The bloody Messiah raises the dead. How typical." He paused for breath, "Albus, You have my word that I will not kill myself, now GET OUT."
Severus felt the old man skimming his mind and for once he allowed the intrusion. The Headmaster staggered backwards a little at the force of grief, guilt and pain that he found there. Severus had never before allowed his barriers down. Dumbledore staggered towards the door, waving the others along before him. He glanced over his shoulder, desperately worried about the young man and overwhelmed with guilt. He was at least assured that the man would still be alive in the morning, for that he was thankful.
As the morning light streamed in splintered beams through the castle windows, its occupants were already dashing about in their uncommon chores.
Mediwitches buzzed efficiently through the corridors. Professors calmed students in search of loved ones. House elves took food and drink to those sequestered in the makeshift wards of the towers and Albus Dumbledore amazed everyone by simply being alive as he made his way down to the dungeons.
On the mantle above the fire was a prominently placed parchment in Severus' hand. The old man's heart trembled as he took the note and carefully unfolded it.
I am no longer needed and I find that I cannot bear to be here any longer, cannot bear to be me any longer.
I have gone. Please do not look for me.
Do what you will with my possessions, I donate them to school.
Albus looked around the room, an unbearable sadness gripping his heart. The letter did not state whether he was going to a new life or to death, but the fact that Severus had left all his belongings did not bode well.
Severus' robe hung limply from a hook by the door. A book lay open on a tall coffee table by the fire. A stack of essays, unmarked from before the battle inside the school, sat on his desk and next to them lay Severus' wand – broken clean in two.
The Headmaster sat down with his head in hands and wept.