Beyond This Place of Wrath and Tears
Summary: Some burdens cannot be left alone. And memories can taunt a wizard for the rest of his life. Severus Snape, however, is not a man who accepts defeat. Time travel, AU 6th and 7th year.
Category/Ships: Drama, general, angst. Gen.
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.
Author's Note: The title is from the poem "Invictus," by William Ernest Henley. Enjoy!
Severus Snape had never been particularly enamored of social gatherings. Perhaps he easily adapted to them as such, but his preference was to sit down with a bulky potions manuscript and read it thoroughly.
He was listening to some nameless idiot jabber on about the recent burglary at the Ministry—or what had once been called the Ministry. The term now used was the Purity Bureau. Personally, Severus thought it showed an appalling lack of imagination, but he never said so. Half his mind at present was occupied with noting what the idiot said—just in case something might be important—while the other half was engaged in checking and reinforcing his Occlumency shields, pulling out choice bits of memories to push outside, all of which were evidently snippets of loyal obedience to the Dark Lord.
"Professor, sir!" Severus's face did not change one whit when he heard the term by which he had once been addressed—despite all the bitter memories it brought, he had buried his facial emotions long ago, and his tears had never fallen.
He turned to see Draco Malfoy cutting his way through the mass of trailing robes. He looked somewhat more weary of late, but then perhaps that was because he had drawn Azkaban duty for a week. Just because the Dementors deigned to do as the Dark Lord ordered did not mean they did not mind floating perilously close to Death Eaters, trying to feed upon any happy memories. His face had none of the chiseled, cold, aristocratic and aloof countenance of which his father was to have said to have used to intimidate new Death Eater recruits. Instead, it was a soft, tired face, cheekbones slanting up to light grey eyes, pointed nose and a pointed chin. The light provided by the floating, glowing candles glinted off his silver Sickle of a thatch of straight hair.
"Draco." Severus recognised his former Hogwarts student with a curt nod. "What is it?"
The Malfoy scion sketched a hasty half-bow. Doubtless it rankled on him to perform the gesture for higher-ranking Death Eaters, but Severus was the rare exception. Draco had never forgotten how Severus had saved his mission by killing Albus Dumbledore when he had lost his nerve. The Dark Lord had been angry at Draco's failure, of course, but his glee at hearing of the Hogwarts Headmaster's death had surpassed it.
Draco, thought Severus as he surveyed the boy, do you know how you destroyed my life in that moment, when you faltered and I arrived?
"Professor Snape," Draco began—Severus bit down an undercurrent of irritation; he wasn't a professor anymore—"I was wondering if you could help me with something."
Severus nodded silently. Draco, even after all this time, was still uncomfortable with Severus's reticence. At Hogwarts, their relationship had been that of teacher and student; even now, Severus was one of the highest ranking Death Eaters, while Draco, for all his father's efforts, was still in the middle.
"The Dark Lord assigned me a post at Hogwarts," Draco said finally. "My duty will be to check the entire school. Since you were a professor there, I assume you know the entire layout."
"Yes, I do." More than you know, Severus thought silently to himself. More than anyone else will ever know. He fought the temptation to close his eyes and feel, in the back of his mind, for his mental connection to the broken-down castle, which he had created before he had had to leave years ago—the connection which kept him sane in an insane, mad world. All the magic in Hogwarts, over the centuries, had contributed to make the castle sentient. And now Hogwarts responded with a plaintive, I want you here. You never come here. Can't I see you again? There was a sad, longing tone to her words; she wanted her children back. My last child.
"And, er, if you have any free time…"
Severus did have plenty of free time. Too much time, for his liking. He said, "I will come with you, if that is what you want."
Draco gave him a vague smile. "Thank you, Professor."
But Severus's thoughts no longer concentrated on Draco; instead, they hovered around the existence of a certain object that was hidden in his rooms. He turned and refilled his goblet of wine. As he sipped at the sherry, he thought, Yes. I will do it there. To redo what I did, to stop the world from rumbling toward its ruin.
It is only fitting, after all, that it should be done in the place where I killed my mentor, my only friend.
Severus hadn't visited Hogwarts even once after the fateful night so many years ago. He preferred not to see what Hogwarts had become, reduced to a vestige of its former, beautiful glory. He had not even been at the attack and siege; he had pled sick and stayed back, doing research, trying to keep his mind away from what the Dark Lord's forces could be doing to the stronghold.
A terrible lot, as it turned out. From conversation and reports, Severus found out what had happened anyway. First there had been the giants, lumbering with a mighty, heavy walk toward the castle, disregarding the defenders' spells as the flashes of light bounced fruitlessly off their thick skin. Tearing out trees and flinging them against Hogwarts's walls, brick crumbling to the ground. Dementors, ghosting silently over the grounds and having a hearty feast of souls, their skeletal hands reaching out, vile and rotting and freezing. Leaving a trail of no longer self-conscious bodies in their wake. Inferi, blank faces staring, their grotesque bodies stumbling about and overwhelming with their vacant look of death. Fenrir Greyback and his werewolf renegades, slashing at throats and sharp teeth biting without abandon, the stench of blood in the air. By the time the Dark Lord came into view, Harry Potter must have been a tired, broken, war-weary boy.
Albus had often told Severus that Harry Potter had the "power the Dark Lord knows not," but in the end, Severus knew, Potter didn't have enough of it. The Dark Lord had more hatred for Potter than Potter had love for the world—because he had no-one left to love; he was all alone. He died gracelessly, his young face solemn and grave, lit up by the green light of Avada Kedavra.
Severus didn't blame him for not triumphing. Perhaps he was more happy dead. His friends were gone, ruthlessly picked off one by one, the Ministry collapsing, the Burrow razed to the ground and utterly annihilated. Longbottom refusing to give way and tell secrets, tortured into insanity like his parents; Lovegood, dying from an asphyxiation spell; Granger, who burned to death, while still alive and conscious; the two Weasleys, taking Killing Curses in protecting Potter. Pettigrew killed Lupin, performing the last act of treachery against his old friends, because when Lupin died, his old friends were all gone. Minerva was dead; Hogwarts was fallen. He blamed Albus instead, because he thought, sometimes, that it was because of Albus's death that everything had gone downhill.
Then he would remember who had killed the old wizard, and there was only ever himself to blame for that.
He turned his head slightly now, looking at Draco and listening. Draco was talking, desperately trying to fill in the empty silence with some resemblance of conversation. He felt the void too, Severus knew; even if he couldn't name it, he could feel it, and knew that something—something intangible, something ethereal and ephemeral and beautiful had died along with the Light. Their hopes, their dreams, their destinies.
Fate has always been cruel, Severus thought. I am worse—I defy Fate. I will be the shaper this time around, I alone.
"And did you hear about the raid at the Bureau, Professor Snape?"
Severus pulled his thoughts back to the present; replied, "Yes, I did. Not much else, though. What did you hear?"
Draco shrugged. "My father told me that someone broke into the Mysteries Department. Augustus Rookwood was raging mad—he says that everything on the entire floor was smashed to pieces, everything! The time room, the death room, the hall of prophecies—everything destroyed. Whoever did it was aiming for maximum destruction."
Maximum destruction, yes, and petty anger. It won't matter anymore, Draco, not in an hour, if I have my way. But Severus simply said, "Do you know what the attacker was trying to accomplish?"
"Not really," Draco admitted. "I suppose it could be those resistance fighters, but they're so scattered and so demoralised that it couldn't be them. It's rather hazy—I don't think there was any specific objective in mind, just to cause havoc and mayhem. Just between you and me, professor," he lowered his voice, "I think whoever did it must have been brilliant, to be able to get past all the wards and do so much."
Severus hid a smile, half amused and half ironic. Brilliant indeed… "Just between you and me," he replied. "We're almost at Hogwarts now."
"Thanks for coming, anyway."
"I have all the time in the world, Draco. It was no matter."
Draco kicked at a pebble, scuffing his shiny black boots. They turned the corner. The ruin of Hogwarts rose before their eyes, and Severus felt a slight chill. Once upon a time, the castle had been awe-inspiring. Now it was a mere shadow of its existence. The Gryffindor and Ravenclaw towers were long since destroyed; the lake was dirty and muddy, and the remains of the giant squid still lay in the water. What had been called the Quidditch pitch was no longer recognisably a Quidditch pitch—the stands were in shambles, and the grass was brown and dry. How could they have done this to you?
Because I am Hogwarts, came the mournful reply, and I rejected Voldemort. Because Albus Dumbledore loved me, just as you do.
One of the sentries flanked them on the left, cold blue eyes harsh and unforgiving as he scrutinised them closely. "What's your assignment?" he growled out, and Severus was inexplicably reminded of Mad-Eye Moody—Moody, who had always had suspicions of Severus (and to the old Auror, they had been justified); who had taken eight Death Eaters down before he was killed by Antonin Dolohov; whose last roar of defiance had been, "Constant vigilance!" (Now, if anyone so much as whispered the phrase, they were incarcerated, charged with sedition toward the government. More often, they were promised torture, and often death—the term was intolerable to Death Eaters.)
Draco reached into the pocket of his robes and withdrew a slip of paper. "Signed by Department Head Castleton," he said. "Another sweep of Hogwarts."
"Again?" snorted the sentry with derision. "There's nothing to find there, it's dead."
Not dead, thought Severus. Not quite yet.
The sentry had a rather annoyed look on his face, but he checked the slip and nodded. "Cleared," he said curtly. As though to make up for his lack of insults, he added, "I don't see why they have to do it over and over again, it's all gone."
Severus's lips thinned. "Obviously," he said acidly, "you have also forgotten that Albus Dumbledore lived here for more than four decades, and cursory looks at the castle will not uncover what he left behind."
The hostile look on the sentry's face vanished as he looked more closely at Severus, noting the black hair, the aquiline nose, the burning dark eyes. "Oh! Why, you're Professor Snape, the one who killed him, weren't you?"
My chief claim to fame, and infamy. "Yes," Severus said softly, ominously. "What's your name?"
"McGinty, sir," the sentry said now, looking at Severus with an odd glint which Severus realised, with a faint bit of shock, was awe at his accomplishment. "What was it like, killing him? It must have been a huge battle."
Severus cursed the unknown deity who allowed stories, inevitably, to spin out of control, taking on unrealistic aspects. Or perhaps it was simply pub gossip. Curse that, anyway. What a sorry story it would be anyway, if the murder of Albus Dumbledore was simply casting the Killing Curse at a tired old man who had drunk a wasting potion by the gobletful to retrieve a fake Horcrux? All the elements of tragedy.
He said, "It was curiously short." Beside him, Draco's face was stony, unreadable.
"Well…" The sentry held out a hand. "Job well done, then, sir."
Severus did not take the hand; instead, he nodded and said, a bitter smile curling around his lips, "Yes, it was a job well done. And now we have another job to do. Good day, McGinty." He swept past him, Draco trailing in his wake.
"Idiot," Draco said succinctly once they were out of earshot.
"Everyone was an idiot in their life sometime," Severus said. "It just takes a while to figure out when." Realising that this was potentially incriminating, he added, "Looking at that man, he never will."
Draco snorted and hurried to catch up with him, his legs moving fast to match Severus's long, smooth pace, well-practised from years of striding effortlessly down corridors in search of wayward students. Severus looked at Draco out of the corner of his eye, asking, "Where do you want to search?"
His old student pulled out a map of Hogwarts. "I was thinking I could take the lower levels, Professor, since I'm most familiar with those. You take the higher levels, sir—you were a professor, so you would know your way around the towers."
"And the Headmaster's office?"
Draco shook his head. "We can't get past—McGonagall must have put an insane number of wards on the office."
"Let me try. I was once a professor, at any rate."
"All right. Shall we meet back in the Great Hall?"
They parted ways, Draco heading toward the dungeons. Severus stood there for a moment longer, looking after him and his hunched way of walking, of weariness—and then, in a leisurely manner, made his way to the familiar stone gargoyle guarding the office—Albus's office. He passed his eyes over the craggy face, the distorted glare. He didn't know the password—Minerva would not have chosen the name of a sweet for her password. So he closed his eyes instead, and reached out with his magic.
Hogwarts moved slightly, stirred, said: What is it?
Let me into the office. Please.
The gargoyle twisted its neck to look up at him; then it slowly nodded, and shuffled over to the side, revealing the entrance. Of course I will, Hogwarts replied. Albus said it would always be open to you. You can come in.
Severus inclined his head in acknowledgement, and stepped over the threshold. There was the faint restriction of wards for a moment, trying to prevent a marked Death Eater from entering the office, before the castle pulled them back, letting him enter the office.
The office had suffered none of the destruction the rest of Hogwarts had encountered. It looked as severe and plain as Minerva had always been, the books lined up neatly on bookshelves, the administrative paperwork stacked on the desk. But then Severus saw the small dish of sherbet lemons, and the jeweled perch of Fawkes off to the side, and knew that Minerva had missed Albus just as much as he had.
He looked up at the walls. All the portraits were gone.
The Sorting Hat, atop one of the tables, stirred slightly. "Severus Snape?" it said tiredly. "So you've come."
"I have." Severus sat in one of the straight-backed armchairs and reached for the Hat, setting it on his head. "I haven't spoken to you in a long time."
"Indeed." The Hat sounded somewhat wistful. "Why are you here?"
Severus stayed silent, allowing the Sorting Hat to flit about his mind. It bent its ragged, dusty tip over his head, saying, "You would go so far as to do that, Severus?"
"Why not?" Severus picked up one of the sherbet lemons, unwrapped it, and put it in his mouth. The tangy sensation tingled in his mouth. "The resistance is broken. Albus is dead. If I must live on in this type of world…"
"Everyone's mad, in a way," the Sorting Hat replied. "You more than most."
"So I am. Mad enough to try this." He reached into his robes and pulled out a small object. The sunlight, filtering through the windows and the swirling dust motes, struck it with a small golden gleam. It was a small, golden hourglass, with the fine white sand settling securely in the bottom. It was the Time-Turner that he had stolen from the Department of Mysteries, while destroying everything else.
"You don't even know if it will work," the Sorting Hat said. "It's only theoretical, Severus, it may not work."
"If it works, so much for the better. If it doesn't—I'll be where Albus is, and maybe I can see him again."
The Sorting Hat was silent. "If it does work," the Hat finally whispered, "when you go back—see me. Speak to me. I can help you with your work."
"Thank you." Severus took off the Sorting Hat and set it on the desk. It was bedraggled, bent with the ages and the loss of Hogwarts. "I will. I promise."
The rim of the Hat opened along the seams in a final smile.
Severus held up the glittering hourglass, and began to turn it.
The idea had first come into his mind nearly half a year ago, when Augustus Rookwood had been chatting with him at another one of the social functions which the Dark Lord held to reward his loyal followers. Not so loyal, in Severus's case. He lingered near the open doors, letting the cold draft of air pass soothingly across his skin, half wondering if he should leave early and go back to his rooms to read. Then Augustus Rookwood came up to him, face relaxed with drink. "Severus," he said, "stop looking so grumpy. Port?"
"No thank you," Severus said shortly. He pulled out a cigarette packed with magical tobacco. Smoking was a habit he had only recently picked up, and it often made him calm down, or at least not think about anything, which was a much better state of being than the usual everyday existence. He lit the tip and put the cigarette between his lips. "You seem rather happy, Augustus," he remarked as he blew out some smoke.
"Oh, yes." Rookwood did look rather happy—or perhaps that was the side-effect of being pleasantly drunk. "I finally finished cataloguing everything from the Department of Mysteries."
"Really? How was it?" asked Severus, in the tone of voice which seemed to imply that 'I'm not interested at all, but I'll be polite and listen.' Rookwood, being a former Unspeakable, had been given jurisdiction over the Department of Mysteries. Severus, on the other hand, ran the research section of the ministry.
"A nightmare, at first," Rookwood grumbled, his face momentarily darkening with annoyance. "You'd think those young novices would know a little about being careful, but they bungle everything. I had to go so far as to put wards around the Veil room so they wouldn't accidentally stumble through and leave us less an idiot."
"Perhaps that would be better for us, all things considered," Severus remarked dryly.
"So you say," Rookwood stared down into the blood-red depths of his goblet of wine. "Merlin. They didn't even know the difference between an hourglass and a Time-Turner. Lalken nearly spun himself out of existence."
"And how did he almost achieve that dubious honour?" Severus suppressed the urge to make any further scathing comments about the declining intelligence of people in general.
"Well. An hourglass is an hourglass, of course. You know that. But you turn a Time-Turner one too many times, and the body disintegrates."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Merlin forbid."
"Oh, it happens." Rookwood absent-mindedly traced the gilded rim of his wineglass with his right forefinger, making a irritating, squeaking sound. "You see, if you go too far back into the past, your body can't support itself over that huge period of time. You die."
"Are you sure?"
Rookwood made a sound that suspiciously sounded like a snort; except that Rookwoods did not snort, they sneered. Or so Augustus Rookwood always said. "The souls may still stick around, except without a physical grounding, so they'd still expire after a while. And no-one's about to go on a suicide mission, of course."
Severus refrained from pointing out that the Dark Lord, in moments of rare misjudgement, often sent people on suicide missions too. Instead, he twisted his mouth into his trademark smirk. "Maybe we could use the Time-Turners to let the recruits have more time for training. Or gain some more common sense."
Rookwood laughed; said, "I wish so. Oh, I think Lucius wants to speak to me. Probably going to carp about all the money he's lost. Doesn't say that to the Dark Lord, of course, but nothing like a Malfoy ranting. Besides a dead Mudblood, obviously." He lifted his goblet in a rather inebriated fashion, like a cheerful bacchanal, before moving off, the whiff of wine trailing behind him.
Severus, feeling a tad bit malicious, decided not to point out that Rookwood had a tear in the back of his robes. He'd find out, anyway, once he looked in the mirror and turned around—and perhaps did a few pirouettes to boot. Just because they were fellow Death Eaters didn't mean he had to be the Good Samaritan. No need to mention that Rookwood was making a regular fool of himself. In fact, Severus rather enjoyed the spectacle.
It was only later that evening when Severus was idly flipping through a pamphlet on the space-time continuum that Time-Turners finally caught his attention, and planted an outrageous thought in his mind. And he began to plan.
It was a easy task, to break into the Department of Mysteries. Beside the nice benefit of lifting the normally irascible Augustus Rookwood to new heights of fury and fire-spitting anger, it was the only place where Time-Turners were kept.
Severus didn't really care about the benefit anymore. All he wanted was for it to work.
The hourglass turned: up, down, up, down, the white sand flung mindlessly against the clear curved glass…
"Mr Malfoy, I expect you to have the situation under control, do you understand?"
"Yes, Professor Snape," Draco said. Behind the blond Slytherin, Longbottom and the Weasleys both looked at Severus in faint outrage. Lovegood simply looked, and said nothing. Severus turned on his heel and strode off, his mind running quickly over what he had to do. Potter and Granger are off with Umbridge, the Order will have to find them… why the hell does this always come back to Potter's antics?
A heavy scowl spread over his face even as he walked. "Stupid Potter," he muttered to himself. He had to get to his rooms first, and then he could speak to Albus through the two-way mirror he had in his pocket. As he passed the headmaster's office, he glanced briefly at the motionless stone gargoyle standing in silent sentinel at the entrance. He did it all the time, to check if the office was secure. There was no indication that this time would be any different.
It was his Occlumency shields that felt it first. A faint prickling at the edges of his shields, molded and shaped like pools of quicksilver…
Severus let out a barely concealed gasp as his shields strained and buckled under some unknown strain. He reinforced them to full strength, but to his sudden shock, the attacker seemed to slip through them easily—as though his shields did not seem to matter. He stumbled toward the wall and leaned against it, breathing heavily. He tried to lift a hand to the wall, trying to push himself upright.
Severus's mind froze in shock as his body suddenly straightened and changed directions. And he was suddenly aware of the fact that he hadn't wanted to do that. Who are you? he roared in his mind. Get—out!
I'm sorry, came the reply, edged with dark amusement. But I need to do something important, and even Hogwarts agrees with me. He turned sharply around a corner.
Mm. She is sentient, after all. Now, I have a job to do, about the Order.
Severus was wary now, even as he was shuttled into the corner of his mind. Are you a Death Eater?
Something similar to that of a bitter laugh reverberated through him. Don't worry, I won't harm the Order. In fact, I'm off to find Potter. They're in the Forbidden Forest right now, you know. He had by now slipped outside. Unfortunately, the centaurs aren't particularly welcome to them.
How do you know this? Severus asked. He thought it best not to antagonise the presence, whoever it was. It had the upper hand, after all.
I'm quite willing to talk to you later. He had reached the edge of the Forbidden Forest, and the Other, without a hint of hesitation, directed him to plunge into the underbrush.
You'd better have a good explanation, Severus grumbled.
Oh. The Other suddenly sounded tired. Yes, I do. The control over his body, however, only tightened further. Severus struggled, and found himself bound tight by flickering tongues of black flame. Now shut up. The Other was getting annoyed.
Severus fell silent, and tuned his senses. Faintly, he heard some odd commotion going on. A little to the right, I think, said the Other lightly.
Are you mad? Rushing into a group of centaurs?
I think sometimes I am mad, replied the Other. I told you to be quiet.
He stepped out into the clearing. Centaurs of all colors and physiques were gathered menacingly around a pitiful-looking Umbridge. Off to the left, Potter and Granger huddled together, as some others surrounded them. Granger was saying something desperately, hurriedly, pleading to a dark-haired centaur. That would be Bane. He's the headstrong one.
Severus wondered how the Other could identify the centaurs. But now the Other was opening his mouth, saying smoothly, in an emotionless, neutral voice, "Lahir Cahadhwy, I was not aware that you were so hostile to those who would seek refuge in the forest."
All of the centaurs turned sharply toward him. Behind the screen of bodies, he saw Umbridge kneeling, trembling with fright. Potter and Granger clung to each other, staring at him in stunned surprise, although he thought he caught a flicker of relief in Granger's eyes.
It was a strongly built, brown-haired centaur that stepped forward, his skin tanned and rippling under the bright moonlight. Severus recognised that he must be the Lahir, the one who led the centaurs in the forest. Even as the others stirred slightly and stared at him, he came up to Severus and said, "You speak as though they do seek refuge. Yet the woman calls us unfit to live, and the children use us like tools to rid themselves of her."
The Other replied. But although Severus could still understand what he was saying, he was suddenly aware of a slight shifting in the air, in the vowels, in the vocal chords flexing and relaxing. Severus nearly started in shock. It was the centaur language, the language that they almost never used around humans. And the Other knew it, knew the fluidity and language, the words that whispered of the unknown destinies, the dancing flow of magic.
Tools are what you say they thought, the Other was saying to the centaur. But did they not ask you to help them, once they were here? They asked you to help them, they gave you a choice of whether or not you could aid them.
But they knew we would not tolerate the woman, Lahir Cahadhwy replied, showing no surprise at the use of the centaur language, looking steadily at him. She would kill us all, and think nothing of it. You think we would have let them go? There was no choice—our decision was already made. They exploited it; they are foals, to be sure, but they manipulated us all the same.
And they will learn, Lahir, said the Other. Can you blame them? They did not know that you would see it that way—most wizards know nothing of centaurs. All they knew was that the woman was loathsome, and that the centaurs would know it too, and that they must get away from her, if they were to rescue someone in danger.
The centaur paused and scrutinised Severus so closely that he felt as though his soul was being laid open and carefully sliced into slivers. You are not like the rest, he said. You are different.
I am, the Other said. And Severus felt an sense of grief and pain overwhelm him. When he stirred again, recovering from the emotions, the Other was saying, They want to rescue the man who is like a father to the boy. They think he may die. And the woman would not let them go.
Lahir Cahadhwy said, But the man would not die. You know what will happen. Tell me!
The last two words rang like a bell in Severus's mind. The Other said, You want to know? Let me show you, as one equal to another.
Very well, said Cahadhwy. I knew you would come. We saw your return in the stars.
Severus felt the Other say, But only my return. This is what will happen, or what had happened before.
He held his left hand, clenched into a fist, loosely at his side. Then slowly, languidly, he opened his hand and moved it around him in a circle. A solid sheet of blazing, blinding white fire streamed from his palm and sprang up around the two of them, the man and the centaur. Severus's eyes were dazzled by the white glare, and he wondered how the Other had done that.
You might want to see this too, the Other said to Severus.
And Severus gave a sort of shudder when he saw the broken body of Albus Dumbledore lying motionless on the ground. Then that image was gone just as suddenly as it had come, and Severus was seeing Longbottom scream in agony, Granger burn in fire, Potter collapse to the ground. Last came the lingering picture of the ruins of Hogwarts. The Forbidden Forest was hacked and distorted, destroyed. Only the lingering remnants of shrubbery remained.
Severus saw only Albus's bright blue eyes. His voice was tight as he said, What is it?
It is the future as I lived it, the Other said to Lahir Cahadhwy, answering Severus's question as well. Would you let that happen to your forest? The Dark Lord Voldemort has no love for centaurs.
Neither does the Ministry, Cahadhwy said. But even he looked somewhat shaken by the pictures. The white flames danced around them, flickering and moving in their own silent waltz.
But some against the Dark Lord do, replied the Other. With the Dark Lord, he will not care at all.
You're from the future, Severus said. It was a statement, because he knew it already.
Yes, I am. I was Potions Professor Severus Snape, once. As you are now. The Other was weary. Later.
All right. Severus could wait for the Other to manage the present in order to prevent the future. When the future had Albus dead.
Lahir Cahadhwy stepped forward, close to him. He said, You speak truth, Severus Snape. Brave in heart, sharp in mind, far-reaching in ambition, and loyal to your principles. I agree to let them go. You will visit again.
I can agree to that, said the Other. May the stars shine down upon you in favour.
May they do the same for you, Severus Snape, replied Cahadhwy. You are a worthy person. The white flames died down around them, leaving a charred black circle in the grass. Lahir Cahadhwy stepped away, not turning around and still facing him. It was a mark of respect. So Severus—the Other—knelt, and bowed his head. When he looked up again, the centaurs were leaving, their hooves making soft noises against the dirt, their tails swishing slightly like the rustling of leaves. He stood. The Other—his future self—said, Contact Albus. Tell him to keep Black at Grimmauld Place, no matter what. I'll speak to you when all is over.
I can do that.
The Other gave the mental equivalent of a tired smile, and retreated to the corners of Severus's mind.
Potter and Granger were still staring at him. Umbridge was unconscious. "Professor Snape?" Granger said softly. "Are—are you all right?"
"All right," said Severus. "Come on, Potter, Granger."
"Not yet," Potter said suddenly. "Voldemort's got Sirius at the Department of Mysteries!"
Severus narrowed his eyes at Potter. Keep Black at Grimmauld Place—must be one of the Dark Lord's tricks. "So you say," he said acidly, although he still saw Albus's blue eyes hovering in front of him. He pulled out the mirror from his pocket. "Albus Dumbledore," he addressed the mirror. Something twisted with sorrow in his heart. When he saw Albus's face, he tried not to show anything was wrong.
"Hallo, Severus," Albus's voice rose from the mirror's glass. "What is it?"
"Are you at headquarters?" Severus said shortly.
"Yes, I just got here a minute ago—"
"Is Black there?"
He heard Lupin faintly off in the background, answering the question with a yelled, "Sirius is up tending to Buckbeak. Kreacher injured him."
Severus paused, looked up, and arched an eyebrow at Potter, who staggered against Granger with something like relief in his green eyes.
"What's wrong, Severus?" That was Albus.
"Potter here seems to have got it into his mind that Black was captured. He was about to mount a foolhardy rescue mission to the Department of Mysteries to save him."
"The Department of Mysteries—oh."
"The Death Eaters will be there, no doubt of that," Severus said shortly. "If we catch them, that's solid proof that the Dark Lord is back. Fudge won't be able to survive under the Howlers he'll get."
"I'll mobilise the Order," Albus said.
"Don't send Black," Severus said.
"Don't send Black, leave him there. After all that trouble we went through to keep him safe, I'd hate to have him die and break Potter's heart anyway." Severus's voice was sarcastic, but Albus recognised that Severus did mean it.
"All right, Severus. Thank you." His image faded from the mirror.
Severus shoved the mirror back into his robes; looked at the two students, Granger speaking reassurances to Potter. He walked up to them and said, "Potter. Granger. Unless you hope to get pneumonia from standing out in the night, shall we get back to Hogwarts or not?"
"Yes, Professor," Granger replied. Potter said nothing, but Severus thought that the worry lines on his face seemed to have smoothed out a little. He turned, and realised he had a pounding headache. His temples throbbed with dull, repetitive pain. He walked unsteadily to one of the nearby trees to catch his breath and massage his forehead. But it didn't help; the headache came back with a vengeance, and now there was a hazy veil of pain in front of his eyes, his knees gave way and he was kneeling, his hands in the grass, Granger saying, "Professor Snape! What's wrong?"
He blinked through the pain. "I…" He felt Granger push him back, grasping his hand, Potter running over, his voice impossibly boyish and young. I was never that young, thought Severus, and winced at the throbbing. Granger's voice: "Sir!"
Severus muttered, "It's nothing, it's fine…" He thought, I need to speak to my future self and find out how Albus died.
His world faded away to black.
Hermione knew that something was wrong with Snape the moment he suddenly relaxed from his tenseness. She tilted his head back and let the moonlight shine down. "He's unconscious, Harry," she said. "That—whatever he did with the centaurs, it must have worn him out. Can you get Umbridge?"
"All right," Harry answered. "Mobilicorpus!"
Hermione turned back to look at Snape, lying in the grass. The moonlight struck his face at odd angles; his face was lean and angular and hawklike, and Hermione wondered what he had said to the brown-haired centaur, Lahir Cahadhwy. "Mobilicorpus!"
That was the way the others found them, the two bodies floating next to them, Harry following Hermione as they made their way back to the castle. They took the two professors to the Infirmary, the curtains drawn around their unconscious bodies, and waited there, as Hermione insisted. Dumbledore had to tell them what had happened, she said.
Nearly an hour later, the fireplace flared green and Dumbledore stepped out. "Professor Dumbledore!" Hermione gasped, jumping to her feet. Harry was up just as quickly. "Where's Sirius?"
Dumbledore held up a hand. "Sirius is safe and uninjured," he said. "The Ministry has admitted Voldemort is back."
"Finally," Ron said. He was a little bruised after scuffling with Malfoy, and Madam Pomfrey insisted that he stay in bed while she treated him for his magnificent black eye. At that moment, there was thick orange salve spread over his face, and he looked extremely odd; the colour clashed especially with his flaming-red hair. "It's about bloody time!"
Dumbledore nodded. "Harry, I would like to speak to you about something," he said, his demeanour changing from satisfaction to weariness. "In my office."
"Okay." Harry followed the Headmaster to the fireplace, and with a pinch of Floo powder and a shouted phrase, they were gone.
Hermione sat back down on the bed. Ginny looked at her and said with relief, "Well, at least everything turned out right."
Hermione smiled, and nodded. But she wasn't half so sure. She stared out the window at the unruffled Hogwarts grounds below, quiet and settled and having no traces of what had occurred in the Forest. Then she lifted her eyes up to the sky, where the stars shone with a strange intensity, and the moon was bright, and for a moment, she thought it was tinged red. Then she blinked, and it was just the ordinary slim crescent.
She closed her eyes and lay down on the bed, breathing in the fresh, piney scent. Then her breathing slowed, and she was asleep.
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