Standing on the Astronomy tower, beneath the night sky, with the Dark Mark glittering eerily above their heads, Dumbledore looked Snape in the face and the terrible pain in his chest lightened just a little. He had been afraid for several minutes, while talking to Draco, that Snape would not come.

Severus, I should not have doubted you. Now that he knew Snape was truly loyal to him, Dumbledore's concerns for what would come after his own death were lessened.

After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure...

That was Tom Riddle's problem, always. Even after suffering the rebound of his own Killing Curse and surviving, albeit in a diminished state, he still insisted: "There is nothing worse than death!" Dumbledore recalled the encounter at the Ministry last year, and if he had not been in so much pain at this moment, he would have smiled.

Harry Potter had to defeat him, it could not happen any other way. Voldemort had proven his own fatal weaknesses time and again, and after last year, Dumbledore had become certain. Poor Harry had suffered so much, and yet had more trials ahead of him, but Dumbledore was confident he would manage.

He had to hope. His own influence in the matter, if he had any, was about to be permanently ended.

Snape did not move. Was he hesitating? He was looking at Dumbledore with such rage and anguish as Dumbledore had never witnessed. Hopefully the Death Eaters could not see it, but Dumbledore could see the pain this was causing his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Why did he stand there looking like that? Why was he so reluctant to finish it? Surely he hadn't forgotten everything Dumbledore had put him through. He knew the stakes that depended on this moment. And every heartbeat that passed made it more likely Harry would be discovered, frozen in the corner.

You've got to act, or everything will be lost. You gave me your word! Remember your promise! Dumbledore thought. He could not use mind magic without his wand, but Professor Snape had to know what he was thinking. They had planned this. He could not fail now.

"Severus ... please..."

-----

As Snape looked at Dumbledore, saw him leaning back against the wall, looking terribly aged and weak, he thought: Albus Dumbledore, you sentimental old fool.

Everything had gone as Dumbledore predicted. The old wizard had made sure of it, of course. And now, near the end of the school year, just when Snape was hoping things might be all right, here he stood facing his nemesis, with a flock of Death Eaters and a white-faced Draco Malfoy behind him. Waiting.

Dumbledore expected him to fulfill his promise.

As he looked in those bright blue eyes for the last time, Snape recalled countless conversations with Dumbledore. When Snape had been a student, the headmaster of Hogwarts was mostly a distant background figure, but even then Snape had recognized him as a powerful wizard: accomplished, intelligent, a person deserving of respect, even of awe. Years later, when he had joined Voldemort, Snape had absorbed the Death Eaters' culture of hatred for Dumbledore. After all, he was the Dark Lord's archenemy, ever the leader in the fight against the campaign for blood-purity.

And then Snape had gone to him, begged for help almost on his knees, and Dumbledore had tried to help ... but not without a sacrifice from Snape.

"Any man can die for a cause," Dumbledore had told him once. "It's living for one that takes real courage."

After his last desperate effort to save Lily had failed, life hardly seemed worth living any longer. Snape had betrayed the Dark side, had turned his back on arts he'd taken years to learn, had sold out most of his hard-earned connections, had willingly helped to destroy and undo all that he'd spent his life working to gain. Even now he remained a scourge and an outcast to the others on his chosen side, branded by the Mark on his arm whether he showed it or not ... and for what? Lily had died anyway, killed by his old master. The only creature he had ever truly cared for was gone. He had wished for death, had even expressed the wish aloud, half hoping Dumbledore would grant it.

But the old wizard wouldn't put him out of his pain. Instead, Snape had been forced to live on, with his shame and grief. There was no one who knew the truth except Dumbledore, no one to help Snape bear the burden that weighed on his heart.

Sometimes, when Snape bothered to look in a mirror, he wondered whether there was anyone really living behind those eyes that looked back out at him. The face hadn't changed much, only aging a little with the years, but he felt nothing like a living person any more. Most of the time there was only coldness, except for moments of frustration, and anger, and wrenching hatred. There wasn't any joy in life. Perhaps Lord Voldemort felt that way all the time, but then, the Dark Lord could hardly be called human.

Dumbledore had said that killing tore the soul. If so, what kind of state was Snape's soul in? And what would happen to it now?

"Severus ... please ..."

What was it like to face death unafraid, with a clear conscience? Snape stared at Dumbledore, heard the plea for death, and wondered. His own conscience would never be clear, and though he had once wished for death himself, he knew now that there were truly some things even worse. The Dark Lord, for his part, had no conscience whatsoever ... but his one weakness, if he had any, was his ultimate and driving fear of death.

That, Snape thought, was the biggest difference between the two of them. Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort were strangely alike: both brilliant strategists, master sorcerers, highly accomplished in magical deeds too many to count ... and they were both driven, keenly ambitious, quite willing to manipulate others to attain their goals. They were truly worthy adversaries, almost two of a kind.

Yet Dumbledore had been in Gryffindor's House, and early in his long career as a fighter on behalf of Muggles and Mudbloods, he had destroyed Grindelwald himself. Snape hardly dared allow himself to think it, lest the Dark Lord detect his disloyalty somehow ... but he almost believed that, had Dumbledore chosen to study Dark magic, he could have rivaled Lord Voldemort.

But he hadn't. Instead he had chosen ... this. He would've made a fine Slytherin, the way he twisted events to suit his own ends. And there he stood, forcing Snape's hand one more time, forcing him to destroy the only man who knew his whole heart, the only person he could consider something like a true ally. The greatest wizard of the century, who had never paid much attention to him until he became a Death Eater, then treated him with barely disguised contempt when Snape had at last grown into a worthy wizard.

Even after Snape had turned to Dumbledore's side, Dumbledore kept him always at arm's length... he cared more for James Potter's worthless son than he ever had for Snape, who had done so much. Though Snape would not admit it even to himself, he had wished, since first meeting Dumbledore, for just one small word of approval from the man.

Snape's face was furious, hateful, as he faced the headmaster of Hogwarts. He hated Voldemort for putting the Malfoy boy up to this, hated Draco for being too weak to do it himself, hated Dumbledore for using him remorselessly and putting him in this position ... but Snape hated himself most of all, for getting into this whole mess in the first place. He had been shortsighted and had let his emotions get the better of him, several times, and that was why all this had happened. Was there no end to the waking nightmare he spent his whole life walking through?

Apparently not.

Yet.

"Avada Kedavra!"