Okay, this time I promise this is the final chapter. I'm very happy with the way this turned out, though it took quite a bit of extended effort to extract it from my mind. Ultimately I hope you all enjoy the epilogue, and indeed the entire fic as much as I have enjoyed constructing it, and that you liked where we went with it. As always, please share your thoughts about the story and my writing, I love to hear from my readers.
So Severus had his sweet, happy ending, but did you wonder about all the other characters? I forgot them first time around, so enjoy the final closure of some and how their endings affected our reluctant hero.
Chapter 16 – Epilogue
Severus returned some hours later to Hogwarts and, knowing Dumbledore would be concerned about his absence from the Headmaster's office earlier that evening after leaving him with Aries' diary, he made his way back to the seventh floor.
He entered through the door at the top of the spiral staircase and was instantly greeted by the Headmaster.
"There you are," the old man said, obviously relieved. "Are you alright?"
Still a little subdued despite his time with Claire Severus merely nodded his affirmation.
Albus nodded in return; pleased to see that at least Severus was physically safe. "Severus… I see that you took the page from Aries' diary," he said, indicating to the tome still sitting atop his desk. "I assume you also read it for yourself, and given that I… well, I'm here if you need to talk," the old wizard offered encouragingly.
Severus produced the folded page from his pocket, demonstrating that he had indeed taken it. "Yes… I read it," he admitted, "but… I do not wish to discuss Miss Cootes," he added with finality to his tone. He replaced the page into his robes.
Albus eyed the younger man with concern. "It's not a good idea to keep it bottled up, Severus… even you… especially you. I want to see you look after yourself emotionally… whilst doing what you are doing it's not enough to just get by," he advised adamantly.
Stricken by the Headmaster's supportive guidance he gazed appreciatively at him, his eyes showing a hint of gratitude, but still cool from grief and knowing this concern and advice was a little late in coming. "I am… I have…" he began, wanting to put the old man's reservations to rest, "from now on… I have someone to talk to," he admitted with perceptible relief on his part.
A concern of a different kind came over the Head of the Order's face that Severus interpreted to be unease about the safekeeping of Order intelligence matters.
"I will not breach security… I'll only be talking about me… and how I feel," he stated a little self-consciously, but wanting to reassure before the older man need voice any misgivings.
Dumbledore frowned, unconvinced. "It would be better if perhaps you might just discuss those things with me… it would be safer for everyone involved," he asserted, his features smoothing to reflect his openness to his dark spy. Severus could have opened up to him right then and there had the circumstances been right… but they weren't.
"No," Severus stated adamantly instead. "No… I cannot talk to you," he admitted with a certain amount of sorrow. "At times there is… there is a conflict of interest, to put it mildly-"
"I have your best interests at heart, Severus," Albus insistently contended, showing genuine fondness in his features.
"No," Severus regretfully asserted in return, shaking his head lightly, "no… however I don't doubt that you wish it were so. Besides, we both know to what entity your ultimate responsibility lies… and it is to no single individual. And that is as it should be… I realise."
Albus gazed sorrowfully at Severus, unable to deny his spy's observations. It was true; as the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, the sole force dedicated against the Dark Lord's legions, Dumbledore had no choice but to hold the Order's interests above each individual member's and therefore it was impossible for Severus to rely entirely on him alone if he was to feel a complete sense of reassurance.
Severus continued. "And besides, you too read Miss Cootes' letter, didn't you? You read what she observed…she's right… and I intend to honour her final wishes. I need someone for me… just me. Miss Cootes was right, I need that."
Whilst Dumbledore's expression showed that he at least could see Severus' point, and was sympathetic to the emotion being expressed, it was also evident that the older man was still not comfortable with what Severus was proposing.
"It is dangerous to involve another, Severus… dangerous for them too," Albus advised, making sure Severus understood what he was undertaking, and on another's behalf too. Given Aries Cootes' disastrous fate after becoming entangled with him Severus conceded the old wizard had a very demonstrable argument.
But Severus was not here for approval, this was information only, the decision had been made. "It is decided, Headmaster," Severus announced. "I have someone."
Along with his misgivings, Albus's features told of his open curiosity about who Severus might have chosen.
Severus shook his head. "I will not share with you or anyone else who it is… and the only detail I will impart is that they have no known connection to either side in this upcoming war," he worded carefully.
Severus wanted to add that his new confidante had not even an ounce of cognizance of the threat of the looming war, but he knew that would immediately announce that the person invariably had to be a Muggle; and Severus intended to keep that tidbit to himself. Dumbledore still looked optimistically expectant for added details, but Severus was determined to keep his newfound 'universe' private, for his eyes and awareness only.
"Other than that you will need to trust me," Severus implored firmly.
After a hard and long gaze Dumbledore, perhaps reluctant yet resigned, nodded his acceptance.
Severus took one further day to recover, during which time Miss Cootes' death was made public, before he resumed his teaching duties. He was personally advised of Aries' funeral a few days later, but could not bring himself to agree to attend.
Given the startling news of the death of a fellow student, the extra classes Severus had been delivering were permanently suspended, and Professor Snape was reinstated as Head of Slytherin in order to assist the students of his house to deal with their grief.
He wrote a short letter on behalf of Slytherin House to be read at the funeral; sharing what he, as Aries' Professor and Head of House knew of the potential and aptitude that was now lost, and how the Wizarding World would suffer not being able to share in Aries' talents and charm in the future. It was one of the most difficult things he'd ever had to do. Though not necessarily frequent, as Head of Slytherin house the letter was routine; he'd written a few over the years for other lost students. But never before had Severus meant every single favourable word he'd written. It pained his heart that was already tearing with culpability.
Severus hand delivered the missive to the Headmaster, at which time Albus tried to convince him to seek closure by attending after all. But no, he could not, he felt too guilty to be able to stand before Aries' family knowing that his one, foolish and reprehensible lapse in judgement had begun the chain of events that had ended in their family's loss.
Much to Severus' regret, the Cootes family was informed and appeared to accept that the wretched fate of their youngest daughter was deemed a suicide, as planned by the Dark side, and perpetuated by the Light out of necessity. It seemed rather noxious that Aries' likely courage in the face of the ordeal with the Dark Lord that ended up being her final moments might never be acknowledged by the ones that loved and admired her the most.
Severus knew he would never forget under what circumstances her life had been extinguished. If that wasn't enough, then at least it was something.
But the dark man did keep a hidden hope that one day, when the details would no longer need to be shrouded, the girl's relatives might learn more about their youngest family member's admirable character and what had really happened to her… even if it was at the expense of his own reputation.
Severus doubted that the true status of his character had far to fall anyway.
Against every effort by Severus and the Headmaster behind the scenes, Graham Montague returned to school, the charges of rape having been dropped as a result of the death of the victim and only witness and the therefore the lack of evidence.
Albus shared his suspicion that undue influence by covert Death Eaters in the Ministry played a part in the boy's release, and unfortunately due to circumstances of not being able to share some vital facts, Dumbledore could not convince those ultimately responsible for the decision to side with him. Consequently the Headmaster had no recourse for keeping the boy from Hogwarts and the task of ensuring the teenager presented no further threat then fell to Severus as his Head of House.
Severus, though seething with fury and loathing inside, used the circumstances to his benefit with cool cunning; convincing Graham that Severus alone had used his influence to save the teen's sorry arse purely as his father was an 'associate' of Professor Snape's. However he smoothly threatened the child that if he ever pulled such an idiotic and unpalatable stunt on school grounds again Severus would not step in to defend and protect him and would swiftly feed him to the sharks himself. Such behavior, though seemingly condoned by some sects of the Death Eater movement, was certainly not tolerable in Professor Snape's eyes for various reasons, not least because of the vulgarity of it.
The boy expeditiously became Professor Snape's best behaved student and greatest adherent; with the sufficient mix of gratitude, castigation and intimidation. Not to mention the boy had no wish to be seen as an 'animal' (as Professor Snape had put it) by someone he looked up to.
It was fortunate the boy was still impressionable.
Severus noticed that Draco, however remorseful for his part in Severus' betrayal, had begun a slow and gradual pull out from under the influence of his once favourite teacher that would never fully repair itself. The way the boy looked at him sometimes, and the air with which the boy carried himself, spoke of the divide that would one day intrude on Severus' ability to guide Draco onto the better path.
Draco's future was very much in his own father's hands and there was little Severus could do about it. He resigned himself to watching and being ready to pluck the boy up from the dregs of disaster if he ever got the opportunity, but highly doubted it would even make a difference in the long run.
Not whilst Lucius held Draco's puppet strings, anyway; the boy idolised his father.
Weeks went by after the dramatic few days that culminated in Aries Cootes' death, and eventually Severus found himself back in a familiar pattern of existence. The familiarity, though not necessarily pleasant, did bring a certain comfort with it.
The Dark Lord let the horrifying incidents disperse into the past, and barely mentioned or referred to them after a week or two, therefore Severus' spying duties returned to what Severus considered as the normal arrangement. With nothing specific to report to either Master, Severus attended each side's meetings with an apathetic attitude. However, today he would come away stunned and stricken.
Entering the House of Black at Grimmauld Place Severus found himself unexpectedly first to arrive to the meeting. He was ordinarily exceptionally punctual, arriving dead on starting time so as not to have to linger at the hated address, but today for probably various reasons, the dark man arrived to the house to find only Molly Weasley frantically preparing refreshments in the old basement kitchen. In a bid to keep out of the bustling woman's way, and not at all inclined to offer his assistance (not that Molly would likely accept anyway), he began to retreat back into the dark hallway.
"Oh, you're early too… and even Sirius is out," the Weasley matriarch said as if Black's absence would aggrieve Severus, sending him a swift, yet welcoming smile.
He acknowledged her and returned the greeting with a nod, but Severus knew he wasn't 'early'; Dumbledore had expressly told him four o'clock and it was dead on that now, but perhaps it was that everyone else, bar Molly, was running late.
"Oh well… you may as well wait in the Library, we'll be meeting in there today, Severus," Molly advised him as he further retreated from the room, and he instantly decided it was an excellent opportunity, whilst he waited for the others to arrive, to amuse himself with the intriguing old tomes lining the Library shelves that he'd always wished he could admire more closely. He entered the slightly musty, yet comfortable room through the partially opened door.
When he lifted his chin to scan the shelves for a good place to begin, he stopped dead in his tracks as his dark eyes picked out the tall, stately man perusing the very shelves Severus had intended to examine for himself. Severus had assumed Molly had, along with himself, been referring to herself as being 'early'… but apparently not. His lips had parted softly in surprise, but that was the only outward sign of Severus' shock at finding Andreas Cootes, Aries' father, within the Order's safe-house waiting for the meeting to begin.
The grey-haired man turned at the sound of Severus' entrance and appeared far less shocked to see the dark man than vice versa.
"Ah… I had a feeling it would be you… I haven't known Albus to be misguided very often," the older man stated bluntly.
Whilst Severus had a good idea about what the older man was referring, he did not respond. His mind immediately went to unravel the mystery of how Mr Cootes had been granted access to the secret Order meetings and what he might be doing here. Had Aries been unable to help herself but mention her deductions about Professor Snape to her family after all? Was he here to undermine the Order's spy because he'd discovered much more to Aries' story? Or was he here to simply confront Severus about why he'd not done anything to protect his daughter considering the apparent Death Eater association and Severus' assertion he wished her no harm?
Severus took a further two steps into the room and let the door swing closed again, at the same time he allowed the handle of his wand to slip down his sleeve to rest in his palm, ready to be produced in self-defence if needed hastily. Now he was fully recovered he did not feel the same sense of threat as he had back in the infirmary the last time they'd met, but he would not allow himself to be caught unprepared.
Severus caught the old, grey man's eyes with his own. "My condolences for your familiy's loss, Mr Cootes… Aries will be greatly missed," he offered genuinely. He'd never intended it, but it felt good to be able to express these sentiments personally to a member of Aries' family.
The man's pain flashed in his eyes at the mention of his deceased daughter and lightly nodded his receipt of Severus' offer of condolences, but he maintained eye contact with Severus, seemingly assessing the dark man further.
"I will generously assume you did what you could?" Andreas stated, framing it as a question with some obvious reluctance.
Severus continued the eye contact, careful not to confirm nor deny anything with his next response.
"There was nothing I could have done," he said succinctly, unsure of the entirety of the man's position or knowledge; however the fact that he was here at the Order of the Phoenix's secret headquarters suggested that he now had a reason to fight against the Dark Lord and his minions. The recent discovery that his daughter had not killed herself, but had in fact been murdered might just be that new motivation.
Andreas nodded his understanding and turned fully toward his daughter's teacher, steeling his emotions.
"I know she did not kill herself, Snape – I know her; I understood her… she would not ever do that. My wife… I doubt she believes it either, but she has no energy for this," the older man offered, indicating with his hands to the Order's Headquaters. "Albus cannot or will not explain why she was targeted… so all I am left with is her relationship to you, Professor Snape…"
Severus felt very uncomfortable, he had no idea what theories were skirting through the old man's head, but Aries' 'relationship' to her Professor, as her father had put it, was essentially the crux of the matter. He continued to listen to what the older man had to say before deciding what to respond with.
"… and your affiliation, disputed as it was, with Death Eaters… well, I came to the only conclusion I could. They killed her… didn't they? They murdered her," he stated, nodding to himself.
Severus did not respond, but kept his gaze firmly with the grey-haired man. His expression, though not overtly aggrieved, did confirm the man's demand to know the truth.
Andreas nodded again, his emotional agonies now clear upon his face, and then he turned away, hunching slightly in misery.
"I wonder if I shall ever learn the whole story," he continued at a whisper, "but I have enough of the pieces to act; those responsible will rue the day they tore my Aries from me."
Severus stiffened imperceptibly, feeling the hard butt of the handle of his wand in his palm; wondering if he might need to use it to physically defend himself.
Andreas squared himself back to Severus and pushed his body tall and strong once more. "You are the spy; your connection to Death Eaters is for me now undisputed, and through you they will receive retribution."
The older man's statement gave Severus pause. He blinked, taken aback; his expression slid into one of question.
Andreas suddenly smiled. It was not one of joy… but more one of content satisfaction, as if a weight had been lifted.
"Resources, among other things, are what I offer the Order of the Phoenix, why I have joined," he stated with a nod. The pain momentarily returned to his features, "Sitting on the fence to avoid endangering my family has spectacularly backfired in my face, Professor Snape… so now I categorically choose a side," he announced resolutely.
Awed momentarily, Severus nodded both his approval and his understanding, but quickly he wondered why he alone was this man's sole audience at this time. Surely the Headmaster had approved Andreas' bid to join the Order and had admitted the man to Black's house as the secret keeper. Where was the old Headmaster now?
"Why are you sharing this with me?" Severus asked. "Your reasons are your own… you need not justify them to me or anyone else bar Professor Dumbledore." If anyone knew about 'reasons' and how, ultimately, at times in one's life they served merely as excuses, it was Severus.
Mr Cootes eyed Severus shrewdly for a moment before answering. "Because… before I came here I had interest and concern for three men – the man who's association with my daughter attracted the attention of Death Eaters, the man who regularly puts his life on the line in order to gain intelligence to fight the Dark, and the man whom my daughter worried for. And even before I knew it for sure I suspected the three were really only one man… the same man. Aries, in her own way, indicated to me that a man she knew might be in need of help, for he had also been attacked in a similar manner as she. She asked me about how a man might cope with what she'd been through… she asked me that at home, during the last conversation I would ever have with her."
Quickly deducing what the grey-haired man was referring to Severus became instantly mortified. He himself, bar the occasional nightmare, hadn't thought of his evening of trauma for a good few weeks. He also hadn't realised that Aries had even puzzled out that he too had been raped in that same twenty-four hour period as she.
Andreas continued. "It was not that difficult to put the pieces together and work out who she might have meant." The tall, older man took a small step toward Severus. "It was you Aries had referred to, Severus, wasn't it?" Andreas asked flatly.
Quite speechless for the moment, it also suddenly occurred to Severus where Aries' intelligent deductive skills had come from.
"There ought to be no shame on the part of the victim, lad," Andreas added when the dark man did not immediately answer. He further assessed the dark man, tilting his head slightly in prompting question.
"I think Aries knew she herself could not make sure you were all right, and I got the impression that she wished for me to ensure you were on her behalf. And then after she-" he faltered slightly. "After we lost her I made a promise to her that I would somehow find a way to do so, to discover the man she referred to. I'm am now sure I've found him and I only wish for you to understand that if, in the event you do need help now or in the future, I will assist you to find it."
Severus was feeling quite stricken at the news, he sighed lightly, giving in and deciding to admit the events, knowing it was again Aries' wishes he was granting. "I'm fine," he responded softly with a light nod. And he was, really. He even had no deliberate intention to share that particular trauma with Claire. He held himself tall in an endeavor to demonstrate his assertion.
Andreas again glanced over him, ascertaining for himself that Severus' response was the truth; and eventually he nodded acceptingly.
Andreas was not finished however; his gaze took on a slightly harder look. "However, as I've said, I know you are all three of those men I mentioned, Severus… and whilst some doubt and misgiving remains within me regarding the nature of the relationship between you and my daughter that sparked all of this, my main focus now shall be in bringing down the force that stole the innocence and destroyed a treasure from my family. Any culpability you ought to own, and I can see you harbour some regret within you, shall no doubt rise into the light when the time is right. But whatever transgressions you may have committed, in my eyes you are not the enemy."
Completely stunned Severus did not know what to say, and fortunately before the need to force words from his overwhelmed mind came, Professor Dumbledore, followed by Arthur Weasley and Sirius Black entered through the Library door.
One final glance between Severus and Andreas had each of them share a light nod of agreement and understanding before the Order meeting overtook their unexpected, private conference.
Dumbledore swished past in a flurry of purple robes and only took a split second to lean in toward the dark man with contrition. "Did I say four o'clock, Severus? My apologies, I meant four-thirty."
"He does this deliberately," Severus griped, "I'm sure of it."
"What, your boss sets you up?" Claire replied, sounding unconvinced and thoroughly amused.
Severus scoffed; of course she could never know the man personally, for if she did she wouldn't doubt him about Dumbledore's character.
"Yes," he said adamantly.
Claire chuckled at his frustration and rubbed at his tense, black clad shoulders. "Well, if he wants you to work with this man, then that is what you'll need to do; he is the boss after all."
"Hmm," Severus mumbled, still miffed about the Headmaster's meddling. It wasn't that he did not wish to comply, and he was happy enough to operate alongside Andreas Cootes, but it was the sheer manipulation that irked him. Dumbledore might have warned him about the girl's father joining the Order at least.
"The other boss is worse still though… isn't he? What's his name again?" Claire asked.
Severus expression darkened at the mention of the Dark Lord. "Tom," he replied succinctly, "and yes, he is".
Claire could sense the disturbance in the man at the mention of his other boss and stopped her rubbing to slip around to capture Severus' gaze. "The sooner you get rid of him the better," she said.
"I'm working on it," Severus responded. He'd led Claire to believe he was in the process of finding information on 'Tom' to unseat him from his position… which was really not that much of a stretch from the truth, just a play on words. It was easy enough to neutralise the details of Severus' real life so that he could merely discuss his feelings and reactions to them. After an awkward start on their first reunion since their initial meeting, straining to begin their dialogue, Claire had coaxed him to tell her about his job teaching, and it had led ultimately to discussions about his students who, if you left out the details of their magical ability, were simply just children with faults, warts and all.
He was able to leach out his frustrations and with Claire's help rationally consider each individual personality so he might better avoid throttling the twits. And, of course, the pressures of Severus' two 'employers' had yielded some discussion too; even if it was severely watered down. It still helped.
"How's the boy coming along?" Claire asked with interest.
"Which one?" Severus asked in return; he'd specifically discussed issues with a few individual students, including Draco, Potter and the ever problematic Neville Longbottom.
"Harry," Claire clarified.
Severus sighed. "He is far from being his mother."
"Yes, well we established that," Claire teased him. "But how is his attitude toward you? Any better?"
"No," he replied, shaking his head.
"You know, I sometimes think you make a rod for your own back, Severus… if you could just give him the benefit of the doubt… just a few times."
Severus snorted in contempt. It just wasn't that simple, but he would take her advice on board and see if he could use it.
"I have some one on one lessons coming up with him… I'll see what I can do," he promised.
Claire sent him one of her radiant smiles and her hand, which now lay over his sleeve, squeezed his arm in an encouraging and appreciative clasp.
His eyes met hers and after a few moments he felt perfectly at ease, letting his concerns and tension melt into the distant background for the time being.
"Mummy," rang a small voice as a young, blonde headed boy entered the room. "Look," he demanded, displaying the toy his mother's new friend had gifted him with last week. The child waved the short wand in an ark and both of them amazed at the green and gold sparks that emanated from it.
"Wow, Joshie… that's cool." She turned back to Severus. "I don't know how that works, Severus… it's really incredible… where did you get it?"
"Just a little place I know in London," Severus answered, secretly very pleased his impulsive gift had captivated them both. The 'toy' wand was intended for very young Wizarding children whose magic had yet to emerge. The magic of the wand, strong enough to only produce some sparks and perhaps snow at the most, came from within the wand which had been imbued by the Wizarding toy maker when it had been made. It was not dangerous for young Joshua to play with, and Severus had explained away the magic as being the latest in electronic chip technology.
However Claire, a little more observant and astute than she often let on, knew there was something very special about the little Wizards wand, as there was about the man who had given the gift. One day Claire hoped he might feel free and at ease enough to share everything with her. She would give him the time and space to do so. In the meantime he was interesting and clearly intelligent which kept her entertained and content enough for now.
"Try swish and flick," Severus suggested to the youngster, demonstrating with his hand in the air, and Joshua ran excitedly off into the next room to practice the new movement he'd been shown.
Claire called to him as he left. "Be sure not to wake Emmett," she cautioned before turning back to her friend.
"Thank you again… that's really lovely that you thought of him."
Severus nodded and shrugged nonchalantly, it had merely been a spur of the moment idea when he'd seen the toy wand whilst shopping for supplies in Diagon Alley. He was just pleased they appreciated it.
But he underestimated Claire's appreciation and was taken slightly by surprise when, now that they were alone again, she leaned in to give him a tender kiss on the lips.
He sighed, his chest full of elation. "You're welcome," he whispered to her more appropriately this time. Then his right hand rose immediately up to cup her jaw, taking her other hand in his left and led it to lay on his chest and he showed his own appreciation back for her very passionately.