A/N: I would have had this out a few days sooner, but the story wouldn't cooperate. I'm seriously bad at editing (sigh). Again, thank you very much to those who took the time to review, I truly appreciate it.
3 - Severus - Flying Free
Severus couldn't concentrate on his book, the memory of his conversation with Albus earlier in the evening resonating in his head and drowning out the words. He was suffocating in knowing twinkles and kind words - suffocating because they weren't real, they were just part of some hateful game, and he wanted them to be real, needed them to be real-
The flames in the fireplace leapt and spun, and he could almost imagine Albus' face peering out at him from the streaks of red and orange. "I have confidence that you will do the right thing, Severus." He scowled and snatched up the poker, prodding angrily at the fire as he tried to dismiss the phantom. Right for whom? he wanted to demand. Was it 'right' for him to throw his life away on someone else's whim for a plan that held so little chance of success? Was he somehow wrong to want to live and not die a pointless, useless death?
Did Albus think he was blind to the manipulations that were being spun around him? He was a Slytherin! Slytherins had invented manipulation! He hadn't minded when he was young and unsure and didn't want to have to make any more decisions lest he make the wrong ones yet again, but he wasn't that person anymore. He couldn't blindly accept everything Albus told him as right, and he couldn't continue to obey without any thought to the consequences. This wasn't a game! It was his life, and other people's lives, and it should be treated as such.
Slytherins tended to build their lives upon strict codes, where certain things were done and certain things were not done; for historic reasons these often weren't codes that anyone else would approve of, but they were followed rigidly nonetheless. Albus had managed to instil his own ethics and morals into Severus instead, and as a good Slytherin he adhered to them firmly - but Albus did not. Albus was straying from what he had taught, and Severus couldn't accept it. Gratitude could only go so far. Loyalty that was not returned could only last so long.
He buried his face in his hands, lost, staring blankly down through his fingers at his book. What could he do? Where could he go? He wanted someone to tell him what to do again, wanted someone to follow who he could believe in. He was a follower, he had always known that, but there was no one worth following. Why had Albus changed? What had happened to the man who had cared about him and listened to him and not minded that he wasn't worth saving but saved him anyway?
Maybe he could run away to America and start over, hoping (vain hope) that Albus would keep the Dark Lord too busy to follow and kill him.
But before his thoughts could turn too bleakly suicidal, the fire flared green, and he jerked his head out of his hands as Minerva's head appeared in the fireplace. "Severus! Are you alone?" Her voice was a secretive hiss.
Curious, he nodded. "Yes."
"Good." Her head disappeared for a moment, and then she stepped through, dragging someone after her.
"I told you he was alone, Minerva," the young man said. Severus felt he should recognise him, but couldn't. He didn't know anyone other than Albus who wore that casual aura of power and warmth.
"I was just checking."
The man rolled his eyes. "You're as paranoid as Mad-Eye. I can know just about everything that happens in this castle if I want to. I even know that Abbott and Finch-Fletchley are currently snogging at the top of the Astronomy Tower."
Minerva grimaced at that, but her lips quirked into a reluctant smile and she turned to Severus. "Severus, we need your help."
He didn't answer immediately, eyeing the man warily. Green eyes studied him in return, and the man nudged Minerva with his elbow. "I told you!"
She frowned at Severus, then sighed and smiled. Severus stared, having never seen her so relaxed around anyone. "You did," she admitted. "There's no need to brag. Oh, don't scowl like that, Severus, we're not laughing at you. Hurry up, Harry."
He looked back at the man, who smiled sadly and... changed. Nothing about him changed, not his hair or his eyes or his face, it was just something in the way he held himself, the expression on his face. His aura folded back in on itself and disappeared and years seemed to drop from his face. Suddenly Potter stood before him, and Severus automatically assumed a look of disgust. "Superman and Clark Kent," the boy said cryptically, and Minerva gave him a warning nudge.
"Severus," she said, "we really do need your help."
"You want me to help Potter," he sneered. "Why don't you ask the Headmaster, he would be happy to oblige your little whims, Potter."
"No," the boy said calmly. "He would be happy to make me dance to his tune."
Taken aback to hear an echo of his thoughts from Potter, Severus looked at the boy through narrowed eyes, animosity taking a back seat to curiosity. "I thought-" He cut himself off.
Potter shifted position slightly, and the young man stood before him again, all heroic charisma and young vitality and old eyes, power and strength that Severus would never have believed the Potter brat could wield. He'd been in the boy's mind, surely he would have known if Potter could become this? If Potter had been like this he might not have despised him. "You thought what you were meant to think. As did Dumbledore. But this is the last battle, Professor. I'm showing my hand, and it is not what Dumbledore wants it to be."
A slight smirk made its way onto Severus' face. "I never thought I would see the day. The Gryffindor Golden Boy breaks from Albus Dumbledore. Why?" he barked.
Potter looked at him, and Severus couldn't restrain a wince as those sharp eyes looked through him, saw all his secrets... and didn't judge him guilty. Accepted him and appreciated him and didn't care about his mistakes. "I won't be a puppet, Professor. Dumbledore has decided that the final battle will occur when he wills it." The young man held up a quill. "My portkey. To take me to my fate." He tossed it into the fire and Severus watched it shrivel and burn, unable to take his eyes from it. When he looked back, Potter had a sword in his hand. "My weapon. Crazy old coot."
"That's Gryffindor's sword," Severus said, startled.
"And apparently I'm supposed to kill Voldemort with it."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" Severus sniped. "Hold him still while you run him through?"
"No. I want your permission to track you."
"What!" To his eternal shame, he yelped. "That Dark Lord will-"
"Not notice. This is... not a spell."
"Albus," Minerva interjected, "didn't notice when we tried it on him."
He stared at her. "You came up with a tracking spell that Albus doesn't notice."
She shook her head. "No, Harry did."
"Minerva," Potter protested, "it-"
"Was yours, Harry."
Severus had the feeling there were a lot of blanks to fill in. "Why would you come to me?"
Potter thrust the sword toward the ground with both hands, and it disappeared, without an incantation or any other outward sign of magic, before it could touch the floor. Despite himself, Severus was impressed. "Voldemort is going to summon the Death Eaters soon." Potter looked at him with serene eyes. "I imagine Dumbledore is planning some dramatic, heroic entrance. But I'm not a hero, and I'd prefer to survive this encounter. So I would like to follow you to the meeting. After that I won't ask anything from you, and I think you'd probably be better off if you apparate away the moment I show up."
"Why are you asking? Why not just put the tracking spell on me?" There had to be something more going on, but Potter's eyes were no longer open and readable. How long had he been able to do that?
"Because you're right, there is a risk. I won't risk your life without your permission, it's not my place."
"And if I choose to tell Albus that his precious hero is running amok?"
Potter smiled, bright and amused. "Then you aren't the man I thought you were. He would never find me. Yes or no, Professor, that's all I want of you. If you say no, then that's it, I'll leave you alone."
"Forever?" he said snidely.
"I don't think I can promise forever," Potter said honestly, "though I can do my best. Look, Professor, I know you don't like me, and I can accept that, but you want to defeat Voldemort too, don't you?" Severus nodded. "Well, I know how to do it. And it doesn't involve shoving a clueless kid into battle with a sword he doesn't know how to use. I actually have a plan."
"Which requires I risk my life in the hope you can pull it off." Hadn't he just been through this with Albus? "No, Potter. Get out of my room."
Albus would have pushed and cajoled until he wore down Severus' resistance; Minerva looked at him with disappointment. Potter merely nodded, not judging. "I understand. Thank you for listening, at least." Without any further discussion, he stepped towards the door. That was it? No complaints, no perseverance, just simple acceptance?
"Potter, wait." The man turned to look at him questioningly, and Severus looked to Minerva. "This plan, will it work?"
"It will." And to his surprise, there was absolutely no doubt in her eyes. She read his confusion and smiled at him, and suddenly he understood. She had found a third side in this hopeless war, a side that was worth fighting for. He wondered how it was that such a thing could be found in Potter, yet couldn't disbelieve it. The war was over, and his knees almost collapsed in relief. It was over.
Half reluctant and half eager, he nodded at Potter. If he was going to risk his life, it would be on his terms, because he decided to. "Do it, then." With a flick of his hand Potter sent a tiny, silvery spell to Severus. It landed on his shoulder, hesitated there a moment, then melted into him like an errant flake of snow. "But if the Dark Lord kills me for it I'm going to enjoy haunting you, Potter."
Potter shook his head. "No one else is going to die. Not because of him." The look in his eyes actually scared Severus. He was suddenly very glad he wasn't Voldemort.
Potter told the truth: Voldemort didn't detect the spell. But as the Death Eater meeting droned on, Severus wondered what the boy was playing at. And wondered at the feeling of betrayal he felt when nothing happened. The meeting finished and the Death Eaters drifted away, but Severus dawdled, wondering where Potter was, and so was one of only two Death Eaters left when a black shape dropped from the sky in a flurry of wingbeats.
He'd never seen such a creature, a snake the size of Nagini with black, feathered wings. The other Death Eater cast a curse at it, but the spell just rebounded and hit the man, sending him flying. He didn't get up. Severus, skulking in the shadows, stayed put, wondering what the snake wanted. Voldemort faced it with genuine surprise and curiosity, Nagini coiled around his feet.
The snake hissed, and both Nagini and Voldemort flinched. The winged snake spoke again (Severus was sure it was Parseltongue) and Nagini reluctantly slithered away. To Severus' surprise, Voldemort made no move to stop her. Instead he stared at the snake with something approaching fear.
And then the great winged snake disappeared, and in its place stood Potter. Voldemort's surprise equalled Severus', and for a moment all was still. The boy stood there, his guileless mask in place, the mask Severus would have sworn just yesterday was no mask.
"Dumbledore's hero," Voldemort sneered. "Complete with sword." He seemed to have forgotten his fear.
"Godric Gryffindor's sword," Potter acknowledged. "Dumbledore wants me to think I'm Gryffindor's Heir. But I'm no more Gryffindor's Heir than you are Heir of Slytherin. Did you know that Salazar and Godric were best friends?"
What was he doing? Severus wondered, watching Voldemort's irritation with the boy's words. Was he just trying to get himself killed as painfully as possible? But one look at Potter, at the strain in his shoulders - and was that sweat on the back of his neck? - made him wonder what this plan was, the one Minerva was so sure would work.
"Insolent brat," Voldemort hissed. "What are you going to do, stab me?"
Potter threw the sword to one side. "No, Tom." Voldemort snarled in incoherent rage. "I'm going to kill you." And there was sorrow in his voice, deep, deep sorrow.
He didn't raise his arms, or shout a spell, or do anything remotely heroic. He just stood there, beginning to tremble, his aura flaring suddenly and out of control, while Voldemort's eyes widened in horror.
"What are you doing, Potter? What are-" They collapsed together, the hero and the villain, two untidy heaps on the ground.
Severus moved forward cautiously, freezing when there was sudden movement, then hurrying to Potter's side as the young man struggled weakly to his knees. Green eyes gazed peacefully at him. "Thought that was going to kill me," Potter said in the tone of someone speaking of the weather, though exhaustion threaded his voice.
Severus stared at him, then at Voldemort, who was not only dead but destroyed, as though whatever it was that held people together had been taken away. This was one monster that would never again terrorise the world. He looked back to Potter, who gazed back with fatigue-blunted eyes.
"I took his magic," Potter said simply, as if it were no bigger task than a Lumos spell. He reached out a hand that trembled ever so slightly with weariness. "Do you want your Mark? Can take it from you now, won't be able to later. Only chance."
Severus dropped down to one knee and offered his arm without hesitation. He wanted to be free. Potter clasped his hand around Severus' forearm, covering the Dark Mark, and Severus felt something pulling, tugging, shifting, breaking-
Potter fell, but before Severus could shift forward to his side a cat sprang out of the dark. It became Minerva, kneeling by Potter, clutching the young man's hand between hers. "Come on, Harry, don't give up on me now." Nothing changed, and she lifted her head, addressing someone Severus couldn't see, pain in her voice. "Please, you want to save him as much as I do, do this for him. Let me help him."
But Potter lay there, cold and white and drained and dead - and then he moaned softly and Minerva faltered in sudden fatigue and he pulled away. He smiled up at her, the smile of two old friends with no secrets between them. "You told me off for doing that."
She sniffed. "Of course. Energy transfers are not to be taken lightly." And then she smiled.
He laughed - an old friends thing again, Severus felt like an intruder - and the pair helped each other to their feet, both weak but neither dying. Severus stood with them, and for a moment they just stood there, the three of them still and quiet in the dark with Voldemort's body crumbled at their feet, and Severus realised it was over. The war that had haunted his entire adult life was done, and he no longer had to spy, he no longer had to fear - it was over. A weight lifted from his chest, and he felt like laughing for the first time in a very long while. It was over. It was truly over. It was almost incomprehensible, and he could barely take it in. He'd never dared to imagine a life without Voldemort's shadow and yet now it was here.
The war was over. Really, truly over. Minerva smiled at him with the same shattered relief that he felt, but Potter wasn't looking at either of them, his eyes distant as if listening closely to someone.
"Come," Potter said, and it was an order but Severus didn't know how to obey it, and a feeling like none he had ever felt before wound up inside him, a yearning, a longing, a desire, a love... home home home home home...
They stood outside Hogwarts' gates, looking up to the brightly-lit castle. Severus stared at Potter, knowing he hadn't apparated, knowing it could only have been Potter...
Who stared at him with solemn green eyes and nodded, somehow reassuring, then looked at them both, Severus and Minerva, with old, old eyes. "He knows. Dumbledore knows I refused his portkey, he knows I left on my own. He and Fudge are trying to decide what should be done with me." He laughed a little. "They would be enemies, you know. Fudge is too afraid of losing his position to Dumbledore, and Dumbledore despises Fudge for his petty-mindedness. They could barely work together to fight Voldemort, yet against me..." It never occurred to Severus to doubt Potter's words, even as he didn't understand how the man could know these things. "They both fear me, you see. Almost everyone will fear me, because I'm too strong. If they find out how strong I am, there will be nothing for me but fear, and Dumbledore and Fudge will fan the flames."
"I'm leaving," Potter said flatly. "The castle is warning me and I'm taking the warning. I'll say goodbye, though," he added, suddenly mischievous. "I'd rather like to show Dumbledore how badly he miscalculated." His gaze held Minerva's. "I told you I wouldn't be the hero. I'm not going to be Dumbledore, manipulating and manoeuvring and solving everyone's problems for them. Voldemort is gone, and the Death Eaters are taken care of. I took the spell signature from your Dark Mark before I destroyed it, Professor, and I've bound them. They won't harm anyone ever again. I think that's enough problem-solving, don't you?" Minerva nodded, and Potter's gaze shifted to Severus. "You'll have months, maybe even a year, left at Hogwarts. He suspects you're worried about his methods, but he's too sure of his own infallibility to worry much about it. You, Minerva, will have several years. Neither of you need to leave yet. But I'm selfish, so I'll ask: Will you come with me? But you shouldn't come. If I had the right, I'd order you not to."
"I will follow you," Minerva said without hesitation.
Severus stared at him, this boy whom he had thought he had known who had become a young man he knew nothing about. When did Potter become a person in his own right and not just somebody's son? When did Potter become a better person than Albus? When had Potter become a leader, a leader such as Severus would choose to follow with all his heart because he was all that Voldemort was not and everything that Albus should have been-
And Severus stared at Potter and knew that there was only one answer he could give, one choice that was right, one thing he could say. "So will I."
Hogwarts had apparently chosen a master: the front doors opened for Potter, the gargoyle guarding Albus' office leapt aside with alacrity, and the door at the top of the stairs opened without being touched. Potter led the way in, but Severus still saw the surprise on Albus' face, hastily covered with the usual geniality.
"And who might you be?" demanded Fudge from his chair before Albus' desk, glaring at Potter. "How dare you burst in like that?"
The young man looked back at Minerva and Severus as they took up flanking positions behind him, highly amused and inviting them to share his joke. "I told you they had no idea."
"Minerva?" Albus asked. "Severus? What is going on?"
"It was under his nose all along," Potter continued conversationally. "He just never saw it."
"I demand to-"
"Oh, shut up, Fudge." Potter stepped forward, leaning on Albus' desk and letting his aura have free rein. Fudge shifted away from him uncomfortably. "Don't you remember me, Albus? The pawn, the hero, the weapon you thought you had completely under your control. So young, so brave, even after he lost his parents and then his friend and then his godfather."
Severus owed Potter just for that look of stunned incomprehension on Albus' face.
"You will call me Mr Potter," came the cold reply. "I am not your puppet any longer."
"You may be interested to know that Voldemort is dead," Potter said flatly. Fudge flinched. "You may not be pleased to know that I have not done it according to your plan."
Potter rolled his eyes and held out his hand. The sword appeared in his grasp. "Your precious sword, unstained by Voldemort's blood. Did you really think it would work, Albus?" A flick of his wrist and the sword was back in its usual place beside the Sorting Hat. "I only came here to see that look of surprise on your face," a smirk curled around Potter's lips, "and to say goodbye. You've lost your pawn, Albus. I'd weep for you, but I'm not at all sorry."
"But - but you can't just leave," Fudge flustered. "What will we tell people?"
"You were going to get rid of me anyway," Potter said, with a merciless edge to his voice that made the man cower. "Tell them whatever you want. It doesn't matter to me."
"Now, Harry," Albus said placatingly. "I'm sure-"
"Don't you understand? You have no hold over me anymore. The boy who you could trick and manipulate is long dead, and I won't listen to you. I'm leaving, and I take with me three of the most precious things in Hogwarts."
Albus' eyes flickered over to the sword and the Sorting Hat, and Potter laughed. "You're too concerned with the material, Albus. You've forgotten that the most important things are not always those we can see or touch. I take with me Minerva and Severus, and I take the heart of the castle, its love. And I don't know if you will ever understand just what it is you have lost."
Turning away from the steely, uncompromising glint in Potter's eyes, Albus appealed to his friends. "Minerva. Severus. Surely you're not going to destroy your careers by going along with this foolishness." Severus had never liked that tone of voice, the one that somehow made him feel so guilty and childish and stupid, but it wasn't until today that he realised that he had done nothing to deserve that, that he wasn't being foolish. That was just Albus' opinion, and Albus' opinion was no longer recognised currency. He smirked, feeling ridiculously free.
"You'll never understand, Albus." Minerva was smiling. "This isn't a game or a lark, we won't regret this in the morning or wish to come crawling back to you. This is about love - do you remember it? All three of us have loved you in our own ways, why else would we have done so much for you? I know you think you love us too, but your love is a stifling parody of the true thing. We need to breathe and we need to live. You would only let us survive. Goodbye, Albus."
"Severus," Albus turned to him, almost pleading. "Surely you'll be sensible."
"Yes," Fudge sneered. "A Death Eater doesn't have many options."
He smiled. Rolling up his sleeve, he said, "Do you see this? No Mark. It's gone, and I'm no longer bound to anyone." Albus was stunned, but Severus ignored him and looked to Potter. "No longer bound, except for where I wish to be." Potter smiled. "I have found a place, Albus, and I won't let you deny me that." A place where he was wanted, not for his Potions skills, or his position, but simply because someone had found something in him that they liked. He'd never had that before.
Albus sighed, and wouldn't meet his eyes. "I am sorry, all of you. Somehow I have failed you."
"Yes," Potter said with brutal honestly, "you have. I'm sorry too, because I cannot make you see how you have failed."
"Dumbledore, you're not just going to let them walk out of here!" Fudge stood, eyes wide and frantic. Potter looked at him with disdain and turned away. "Stop! I order you to stop!"
"Fudge." Potter didn't turn, but his voice was cold. "I killed Voldemort." The Minister flinched. "Do you understand what that means? It means that you are no threat to me."
"Dumbledore! I order you to stop them!"
"Cornelius," Albus said wearily, "I have no grounds on which to do so."
"He's going to be the next Dark Lord! Why else would he have a Death Eater following him?"
Albus lifted his head, and Severus realised that Potter's going Dark truly was what he feared. He could have laughed at the absurdity, but it froze his heart with worry. Potter, however, showed no sign of uncertainty when he turned around. "Fudge, you would go Dark long before I. Or Albus here would, since all that's stopping him is his firm belief that he is on the Light side."
Furious, Albus stood; Severus caught his glance to Minerva as if expecting her to defend him and his shock that she was nodding agreement. "How dare-"
With a wave of his hand, Potter froze both Dumbledore and Fudge in place. Only their eyes could move, rolling wildly about as they tried to understand what was going on. "This is pointless," the young man said. "You will accuse and I will accuse, and no one will listen to anyone. You say you are not Dark, so I am willing to give you both the benefit of the doubt. I hardly believe you'll give me the same courtesy, but I will state nevertheless, that I am not Dark, and I can see no future where I would go Dark." He smiled, eyes sparkling, and Severus' breath caught in his throat. "The world is too wonderful to destroy. I would rather finally take the chance to enjoy it." He sketched a short bow. "Good day, gentlemen." Looking at Severus and Minerva, he questioned them silently, once again giving them the option to stay. Severus' answer filled his eyes.
Potter's smile widened as he turned, but Fawkes interrupted the dramatic exit by landing on his arm and trilling pleadingly. Potter smiled sadly and whispered to the bird. When he had finished, Fawkes hung his head and trilled a quiet agreement.
"There is hope, Fawkes," Potter said, scratching the bird's chin. "There is always hope."
The phoenix flew back to his perch and fixed Albus with a contemplative stare as Potter walked out the door.
Minerva and Severus followed, not knowing where they were going nor what the future might hold. All Severus knew was that the one constant in his future would be Potter, leader and holder of Severus' loyalty.
He had found his place and he would not relinquish it.