DISCLAIMER: The dialogue in this chapter is quoted from the last half of Chapter 32 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (pages 652-658). As such, it is the exclusive property of JK Rowling. I bow to her brilliance and merely quote it for the purpose of adding my own commentary and interjections on what I hope was going through Severus Snape's mind at the time.

All characters are also, of course, JKR's property. I'm nowhere near smart or creative enough to make them up on my own.

Chapter 1: The End is the Beginning

When Lucius found him and said that the Dark Lord had summoned him to the Shrieking Shack, Severus knew it was his last chance. He kept looking wildly around for Potter as he ran. Surely, surely after all this time, after everything he had done, after even killing Dumbledore, he couldn't fail now.

But Potter was nowhere to be found, and Severus felt a sudden sickening fear that the boy had already been killed. He had to keep looking. He needed more time. But it was too late, and there was no more time. He had to face the Dark Lord, and probably to die. By now, Voldemort had probably realized that the Elder Wand was not working as it ought, and he would have drawn his conclusions. Severus clenched his teeth. He could only hope that Voldemort had mistakenly identified him as the wand's true master, and not Draco.

Although he had fulfilled Narcissa's terms for his Unbreakable Vow, it seemed that all of Severus' years spent under the tutelage of the unmistakably Gryffindor headmaster had altered him. No longer could he simply worm his way out of it and leave Draco to die, slimy and unworthy as the boy was. Lucius and Narcissa had been kind to him, in their way, the closest he had come to having real friends outside of the Hogwarts staff. And they were frantic about Draco: even as he delivered the Dark Lord's message, Lucius' eyes had been scanning wildly for any sign of his son.

He immobilized the Whomping Willow and threw himself into the tunnel. Best get this over with, before this unusual streak of bravery and self-sacrifice had spent itself and he was tempted to repay Lucius and Narcissa's years of kindness with—what? With the very choices that they would say made him a Slytherin to begin with? With proper Death Eater behavior? But it was behavior like that which had led him to Voldemort in the first place, and which had led to Lily's death. And he had long ago decided that it was Lily who had made the right choice, in the end. Clearly, guile wasn't everything.

He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind, forcing himself to become calmer. By the time he was through the tunnel and at the door to the room where he knew the Dark Lord waited, he knew that any Legilimens who encountered him would see his mind as a blank wall.

Once, he had not been so readily able to hide his thoughts from his master. In fact, had it not been for Lily's life, he would never have made it as a spy when her death forced him to do so. Some things were simply too private to allow the Dark Lord to touch, and no mental strength on Voldemort's part could break through the force of Severus' refusal to allow them to be violated. He hid every secret he had behind the most precious secret he had--that of her face in his dreams.

"My Lord," he murmured deferentially, falling to his knees before the repulsive, scaly figure of his so-called master. His occlumentic walls were high. His mind was a virtually impregnable fortress, behind whose smooth façade roiled a loathing such as he had not known could exist until the day that Voldemort had arrived in Godric's Hollow.

"Severus," he responded, and Severus knew it was safe to stand up, to open his eyes. He would not be killed instantly, then. That was good. Perhaps he could buy some more time, try again to find Potter, to pass on the Headmaster's last message. Knowing it was probably futile, he chose to assume that he had merely been called to give a progress report on the battle.

"We shall be victorious, my Lord, their resistance is crumbling—" he began, feeling oddly detached. Everything seemed unreal, as though he were watching it in a pensieve.

"—And it is doing so without your help," Voldemort interrupted. Severus forced himself not to flinch. "Skilled wizard though you are, Severus, I do not think you will make much difference now. We are almost there…almost."

He felt a sudden twinge of regret. He had failed. Death held little fear for him as a concept; he had been longing to meet it for so many years. But he was not ready. He had not found Potter, and the secret of the horcrux (for when Dumbledore had given him the message, he had realized to his horror what it referred to) would die with him. "Let me find the boy. Let me bring you Potter," he said, struggling to keep himself from sounding too desperate. I'm sorry, Lily, his mind screamed. "I know I can find him my Lord. Please." He kept his head high, projecting as much confidence as he could.

He crossed the room nervously, looking out the window. The Dark Lord stood. It did not bode well for him. Severus stole a surreptitious glance at the man he had been forced to call his master for so long. Forced through your own idiocy and pride, Severus, he reminded himself. The red eyes glinted with an evil that made his stomach turn. "I have a problem, Severus," he hissed through his horrible slit of a mouth.

"My Lord?" his heart sank. It would surely be about the Elder wand. If Voldemort had summoned Severus and not Draco, then at least a few of his secrets were still safe. But it meant he would die, and the secrets would die with him, unrevealed, even to those who desperately needed to know.

"Why doesn't it work for me, Severus?" he asked. Severus hissed through his teeth softly.

"My—my Lord?" he forced himself to remain as unemotional as possible, to sound more confused than he felt. In fact, he wasn't sure he remembered ever having such clarity of mind. Perhaps it was the sure knowledge of his imminent death that did it. He knew precisely why it didn't work, and he gloated over it inwardly. "I do not understand," he lied, "You have performed extraordinary magic with that wand." But not extraordinary enough, his mind added, knowing what would come next.

"No, I have performed my usual magic. I am extraordinary, but this wand…no. It has not revealed the wonders it has promised. I feel no difference between this wand and the one I procured from Ollivander all those years ago." There was a pause. Snape watched the Dark Lord's face, which was thoughtful, and almost as impassive as his own. "No difference." There was nothing to say. There was no point in lying further. Voldemort knew that the wand he had stolen from Dumbledore's tomb was not yet truly his. But he was continuing to speak, and Severus forced himself to listen. "I have thought long and hard, Severus…Do you know why I have called you back from battle?"

Yes. "No, my Lord, but I beg you will let me return. Let me find Potter." He had to find him. He was not enough of a fool to think that the afterlife did not exist, and he would have to face both Lily and Albus there, and explain to them that he had failed. He didn't think he could bear it. Help me, Lily, he pleaded in his mind, far more abjectly than he would ever have pleaded with the scum who had killed her.

"You sound like Lucius. Neither of you understands Potter as I do. He does not need finding. Potter will come to me. I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come." Severus winced internally, although his features remained steadfastly immobile. Potter's greatest flaw, as Voldemort saw it, was ironically identical to his mother's greatest virtue. His jaw tightened almost imperceptibly. Some perverse part of him wanted to smile, in spite of the circumstances. Somehow, hearing it from the Dark Lord made it more true to him than all of the times Albus had insisted that it was so. Harry—he used the boy's given name in his mind for practically the first time—was far more like Lily than he had previously allowed himself to imagine.

The thought gave him a renewed desire to find the boy, to communicate with him, even to share perhaps more than one secret. "But my Lord," he began, with a sudden new inspiration, "he might be killed accidentally by one other than yourself—"

"My instructions to my Death Eaters have been perfectly clear," snapped Voldemort. He was beginning to lose patience with Severus' dissembling, apparently. "Capture Potter. Kill his friends—the more, the better—but do not kill him. But," he continued, after another moment's pause, "it is of you that I wished to speak, Severus, not Harry Potter. You have been very valuable to me. Very valuable."

He suddenly remembered how abjectly delighted that statement would have made him, eighteen years ago. Had he ever really been that similar to Wormtail, the sneaking, sniveling…? But of course he had. "Snivellus," said James Potter's pompous voice somewhere in the depths of his memory, and he frowned. Ironic, that Lily's obtuse, unworthy husband had identified so clearly in Severus what he had failed to see in Pettigrew. Then again, Severus had seen it in Pettigrew and failed to understand. All of those years, he had hated Sirius Black far more for betraying Lily than for attempting to kill him. He shook himself from his thoughts, forced himself to attend.

"My Lord knows I seek only to serve him," he said silkily, feeling a sense of self-satisfaction at his ability to lie so blatantly to the creature he hated most in the world. "But let me go and find the boy, my Lord. Let me bring him to you. I know I can—"

"I have told you, no!" Voldemort snapped. This time, Severus did flinch. He was pushing his luck. But I'm going to die anyway, he reminded himself. I have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain. "My concern at the moment, Severus, is what will happen when I finally meet the boy!"

"My Lord, there can be no question, surely--?"

"But there is a question, Severus. There is." Severus forced himself not to look directly at the Dark Lord as the words reached him. If Albus was right, Voldemort did not know he had created a horcrux using Harry's body. He would not run the risk that the Dark Lord might penetrate even his skilled occlusion and discover the secret at the last moment. "Why did both the wands I have used fail when directed at Harry Potter?"

Because Lily Evans outclassed you more than you can possibly imagine. "I—I cannot answer that, My Lord."

"Can't you? My wand of yew did everything I asked of it, Severus," Voldemort was nearly ranting now, the words rushed and angry, lacking their usual sibilance. "Except to kill Harry Potter. Twice it failed. Ollivander told me under torture of the twin cores, told me to take another's wand. I did so, but Lucius' wand shattered upon meeting Potter's."

Because you were an arrogant fool, Tom Riddle. "I—I have no explanation my Lord." He lowered his eyes. The force of Voldemort's anger was palpable and oppressive. But Severus wanted to laugh at him, to mock him for his failure. Voldemort was still talking, ranting about the Elder wand.

"—I took it from the grave of Albus Dumbledore," he was saying. The words chilled him. Bad enough that he had been forced to kill the man who had loved him in spite of knowing even his deepest and most terrible secret. But to be forced to pay lip service to the beast that had desecrated his best friend's grave was intolerable. He channeled his surge of hatred, used it to strengthen his occlusion again, and then he raised his head. He buried his stray thoughts and emotions so deeply that it was like they suddenly disappeared.

"My Lord—let me go to the boy—" he was running out of chances. And if Voldemort didn't either kill him or let him go find Potter soon, Severus feared was going to throw his life away on a futile attempt to murder the Dark Lord himself.

"All this long night, when I am on the brink of victory, I have sat here wondering, wondering, why the Elder Wand refused to be what it ought to be, refuses to perform as legend says it must perform for its rightful owner…and I think I have the answer." Severus kept his mouth shut tightly and didn't respond, although the Dark Lord's pause seemed to be an invitation to do so. Voldemort shifted restlessly. "Perhaps you already know it?" he sneered, "You are a clever man, after all, Severus. You have been a good and faithful servant, and I regret what must happen."

"My Lord—" this was it. He was going to die. He chanced another look at the Dark Lord's face and realized suddenly that in some part of Voldemort's mind, the regret was real. Severus could identify that part easily; it was more commonly referred to as the imagination.

"The Elder Wand cannot serve me properly, Severus, because I am not its true master. The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner. You killed Albus Dumbledore. While you live, Severus, the elder wand cannot truly be mine."

Draco would be safe, at least. He wondered if Lucius and Narcissa would ever realize that Severus had, in the end, willingly given his life to save his godson. "My Lord!" he forced himself to say, raising his hand as though he would seriously attempt a defense. He wondered briefly whether it was due to Lily that he was able to do this, to sacrifice himself for Draco as she had done for Harry. He felt a surge of triumph such as he had never known before. He might have failed in some respects, but he could hold his head up high when he met Lily and Albus again. He could know that they would recognize that in the last moments of his life, he had chosen to side himself with them rather than the Slytherin impulses he had been taught to nurture since he was a young boy. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard Albus saying, "You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon…" and again, he wanted to smile.

"It cannot be any other way," Voldemort was saying, and Snape heard it as though from a great distance. "I must master the wand, Severus. Master the wand, and I master Potter at last." Severus felt like laughing. The Dark Lord jabbed the wand at him and nothing happened. Severus wondered for a second if somehow the wand prevented Voldemort from killing anyone at all.

And then the cage was flying at him and encasing him. He shouted, letting the Dark Lord have his show. Inside, there was a joy building in his chest, a joy such as he had never felt before. Nagini's fangs sank into his neck and he screamed. The sound was awful, startling even him. He could feel blood pulsing over his skin, hot and thick and sticky. He collapsed.

"I regret it," came Voldemort's voice from somewhere, cold and unfeeling. The beginnings of a grim smile began to tug at the corners of Severus' mouth before a spasm of pain wracked his face instead. He sensed, rather than saw, the Dark Lord turn away. The cage lifted off of his body and the side of his face slapped against the hard floor. Blood was pooling around him, gushing in angry spurts with the frantic beating of his heart. Nagini's aim had been true. Voldemort left and, somewhere, unbeknownst to Severus, Harry Potter's eyes left the scene.

He reached a shaking hand into his robes and drew out a flask. For perhaps half a second, he hesitated. He wanted Lily; wanted to see her again, to hear her voice. He was sure, somehow, that she would be there to meet him. And Albus, he knew, would be there as well. But he had one last duty to fulfill, and he could not do it if he were dead. He certainly didn't intend to become a ghost. They would be parted forever if he did that.

And so he swallowed the potion he had prepared. He'd been expecting Avada Kedavra, and it was a stroke of luck that Voldemort had attempted to murder him using the snake instead. He had spent months on the potion, anticipating just such a circumstance as this, brewing feverishly in the secret of the Headmaster's office. If he lived, he could make a fortune with it—it was quite possibly the most potent healing potion ever invented. He let his head fall to the floor. The wounds would close in a few moments, he knew; the blood would cease to flood from his body. And then, hopefully, he would survive long enough to find the boy and fulfill his final duty to Lily's son.

His entire body was shaking from loss of blood. He saw, as if from far away, his own hand, whiter than he had ever seen it before, flying up towards his neck and pressing into the wound, instinct forcing him to clutch at it even though he knew he had a good hope of survival now.

And then, miracle of miracles, the boy appeared in front of his eyes. He stared and wondered for a moment if he was hallucinating. But Harry was bending over him, was looking at him with an expression of horror and—could it be? Regret? For the first time, he saw more of Lily in Harry than just her eyes. It was odd to him, that James Potter's face could so perfectly mimic the mannerisms and expressions of Lily Evans.

Unconsciousness was beginning to steal over him, and he struggled to focus. He reached up and grabbed Harry, dragging the boy down. Nagini had partially punctured his windpipe and speech was difficult. He had to be sure that Lily's son heard him.

"Take… it" he demanded, and tasted blood gurgling up from his throat. It erupted from his mouth, and he felt it flowing along his face. He caught a glimpse of movement behind Harry, and saw the Granger girl staring strangely at the flask that lay nestled into a fold of his robes. Brilliant girl, she was. "Take… it" he insisted again, and with a supreme effort, he wandlessly forced his memories to leave him. He gave up more of them than he had originally intended. For the first time in his life, he wanted Harry to know how much he had loved the boy's mother. The boy… who looked so much like her that it sent a pang of longing to his heart so painful that for a moment he forgot he was bleeding, possibly to death, all over the floor of the Shrieking Shack.

Granger thrust the flask into Harry's hands, and he didn't ask where it had come from. Severus could feel the blood flow slowing, knew that the wound was beginning to knit itself back together from the inside out. He breathed an imperceptible sigh of relief. Harry was gathering the memories into the flask, not looking at him, and once again all Severus could see was James Potter. Still not knowing whether he would live or die, he could not bear for James' face to be the last thing he saw.

"Look…at…me…" he whispered. He was begging now, something he had refused to do in front of Voldemort. But this was different. Harry's eyes met his and the rest of the world seemed to disappear. Warmth was suffusing his shivering body. Blackness was creeping in around him, and all he could see was Lily's beautiful, beautiful eyes. Then the potion took him over completely and for a long time, he knew no more.