The Tower, struck by lightning, is the sixteenth Major Arcana card in a Tarot deck. Some say it means the Tower of Babel and some say it means the Harrowing of Hell. In the Wizarding world, this is not true.
Three, two, one, Severus counts down in his head.
The curse bursts out green and bright, Avada Kedavra, like the flash of a demonic camera. Severus can feel his face stiffen into a mask of hatred, but nothing splinters in his chest. The solid mass of his heart still beats treacherously as he turns and exchanges his twisted expression for a smile.
Severus has been a murderer many times before, but this is the first time he's been a humane one. It was easier when he could call himself a monster and not have it ring false.
"You have used me."
It is nearly midnight and Severus is losing faith.
It was such a simple thing to believe in Albus Dumbledore. Severus didn't trust him, because he knew better, but for years he clung to the belief that Dumbledore was not a monster, even as the layers of imagined truth were systematically stripped from that belief.
The hourglass on Dumbledore's desk loses sand at exactly the correct rate, unlike Horace Slughorn's, which moves in accordance to the pace of the conversation. It's another little show of false honesty, another tiny trick to make people believe that he can be trusted.
Dumbledore has always known exactly what he is doing.
Dumbledore's hand is black and withered where the curse lurks under the skin, rattling and skittering away from Severus's careful fingers.
Severus has never seen Dumbledore weak before. His fingers skip and stumble across Dumbledore's arm, and he almost doesn't save his life. It would not be murder in the traditional sense to let an old man fall from the great height he climbed to and leapt from.
Severus moves his wand in the intricate pattern of a net, trying to trap the curse and keep it in the stiff black hand. The skin is rough and hard, death several steps removed from the immediate, liquid bursting of blood Severus is used to. Latin roots tumble from his mouth as he whispers the healing spells, almost choking him.
The net catches and the curse halts. Severus feels himself suspended, saving himself as well as Dumbledore, something he did not realize he was doing. Perhaps that was the only way he could have managed it.
"You must kill me," Dumbledore tells him only minutes later, rendering Severus's moment of doubt and redemption as redundant and useless as everything else in his life.
Severus makes himself take a breath and thinks about intention.
"I sometimes think we Sort too soon."
Dumbledore puts bravery into his hands like a wand, bravery that is as much a lie as Dumbledore's own. Severus realizes the dual shock at once, two lightning-quick jolts to his chest as he sees what he himself is and what Dumbledore is. Dumbledore does not dare to believe Severus to be a monster, and that is both immeasurably cruel and immeasurably cowardly. If Severus were truly a monster, Dumbledore would have failed.
Severus has come to love the acid taste of failure on his tongue, tucking itself into his mouth like it belongs. If his life were set up for winning, he'd be James Potter. The fact that a dead man is luckier than he is feels only appropriate.
There are very few things Severus believes in, but Dumbledore is one of them.
He also believes this: Harry Potter can be relied upon to make a bloody mess of things. The Gryffindor deserves to fail his class just as surely as the Slytherins deserve to and will not. If you add powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood, it creates a sleeping potion known as the Draught of Living Death.
Severus also knows that asphodel is a beautiful little flower that is said to have filled the plains of Hades. Wormwood is green and silver and can also be used for making absinthe, although Severus does not drink. As for living death, that's just another part of Severus's daily routine.
When Severus is thirty, he returns to Hogwarts in the fall to find that an invisible barrier has fallen between himself and Dumbledore. He puts his hand on Dumbledore's desk one day when he's angry and Dumbledore doesn't reach out to touch it, soothing away Severus's fury. His hand hangs limp at his side, rings clicking together shutter-loud when he moves to wind his fingers together.
Severus knows something has changed, but he doesn't trust himself to open his mouth and let the words pour out. In all the years Dumbledore has asked for too much of him, he also gave him far too much.
He has never gotten to the point where he could call Dumbledore by his first name. Albus means white, clear, bright. For all of Severus's skill at lying, that is one lie he could not make himself tell.
He has never smelled Firewhiskey on Dumbledore's breath, only lemon or the sweet scent of another innocuous candy. It takes him years to read that as camouflage for something worse than drunkenness.
Dumbledore has never offered Severus a lemon drop. Perhaps he knows that it would be acid in Severus's mouth.
When Severus is twenty-three, his knuckles are pressed against the surface of Dumbledore's desk in anger, and he is leaning forward and shouting. Dumbledore's long, pale fingers skip forward across the space and connect with Severus's wrist, stilling his tongue and his rage.
"What-" Severus begins.
Dumbledore's lips are warm and he does not taste of lemon. The beads in his beard click together and Severus smiles for the first time in sixteen days.
He does not say, Everyone I've ever loved has died horribly. He doesn't need to. Dumbledore knows.
"Don't kill me!" Severus gasps, taking short, hard breaths. He is hovering at the tipping point between Death Eater and Order Member, a point he will remain at forever afterwards. There is always a third option.
"That was not my intention." Dumbledore is so kind and so cruel, the duality bound together by appearance alone, because no one dares to say that it should not work. The words of the killing curse lie there under his tongue, though, sweet as death and warm as skin. Severus can feel them, even at this distance, and he is afraid.
Severus has never in his life begged for himself, only for others, and that is not bravery. That is selfishness.
The snake squirms on his arm, struggling to escape the mouth of the skull. The Dark Lord looks at Severus and everything comes easily, not candy-coated and buzzing with unseen flies. This is not a Gryffindor truth, this is a real truth, true as the laws that govern potion-making.
The flowers under Severus's feet as he stands in the forest are asphodel, but he is not Persephone. He came willingly and touched nothing, and so he is free.
This is the lie he tells himself, because it's allowed and no one will disagree.
There are monsters in this forest, Lily tells him, eyes wide and earnest. It is true for her because she believes it, and that is how truth works when you are a child. They are ten and Severus does not believe in monsters. Not that kind.
Severus is three, and there are flies on his bedroom ceiling. It's the first time he's noticed them, but he thinks they must have been there before. The house is old and the screens are full of holes. He looks down at his hands, wandless and chubby and too slow to catch the flies.
Someone is shouting in the next room.
A fly with a broken wing skitters across the floor, dry wings scraping against the wood. He reaches out one pale, plump hand and takes the fly between his fingers. It flaps weakly, as though it's in pain. He opens his hand and shuts his eyes, and flies buzz above him.
Severus does not cry, but he doesn't kill the fly, either.
In The Swiss Tarot de Besançonhe, the Tower is called the House of God. In the wizarding world, there is no God.
Sometimes the Tower means failure, grand ruination. Sometimes it means taking dualism apart into its two halves, splitting them out from the center like opening a vein.
Sometimes it means the act of reality not conforming to expectation, of something you thought to be true turning itself inside out without warning.
Severus knows magic, and he knows that there is always a third part to everything, just hidden under the surface. It is not enough to add the asphodel to the wormwood, you must also know how to stir it together. The duality itself is a lie, one that looks true simply because it should work.
The Star is the seventeenth card in a Tarot deck. On it, a naked woman kneels by a pool of water that is meant to be the subconscious. She is pouring liquid into the water and onto the land.
Harry is crying, water falling down his cheeks and onto the hard ground. Dumbledore lies absolutely still, but his beard moves a little in the stiff wind, the beads clicking together gently. His blackened hand lies wandless at his side.
"Oh my God," someone in the attendant crowd says.
I know, Harry thinks.
Above them, the stars are obscured by the Mark, the snake squirming to escape the mouth of the skull.
"I am not afraid. I am with you."
The weight of Dumbledore's words settles onto Harry's shoulders like a heavy cloak. He does not say, I can't do this. You're asking too much. I've changed my mind. Iam afraid.
He doesn't need to. Dumbledore knows.
As he takes Dumbledore's arm, he isn't crying. This is bravery.
"Kill me," Dumbledore begs. He's sobbing into the potion and onto the hard rocks around them, but the tears roll and slide away in ways they should not. There is magic in this place beyond Harry's knowledge and perhaps beyond Dumbledore's. Harry has never considered that Dumbledore's knowledge might have limits before, but he's learning all sorts of new things today.
Harry promises Dumbledore that the next mouthful will kill him, and the lie hurts, even though if it were true, it would be murder.
Mercy-killing is still murder. He needs to believe this. Lying to himself is easy, because he trusts easily and always will. This is how truth works when you are sixteen.
Dumbledore tells him exactly what he needs to know. Harry knows this is true because Dumbledore told him so.
When Dumbledore lays his hand on Harry's shoulder, his rings dig into Harry's skin. His fingers feel warm through the fabric of Harry's shirt, and it gives him hope. They're still alive, their hearts are still beating, pumping red and solid under golden skin. That means everything will be all right. Harry believes it like he believes that Ginny is beautiful and Snape is a bastard and failure is not an option.
Dumbledore's mouth tastes like lemon drops and another fruit Harry can't identify, with an undercurrent of butterbeer, and Harry is becoming used to it. It's a safety net in all the madness that is his life this year and every year.
He walks the halls of Hogwarts feeling as if the water of the pensieve is clinging to his skin, immediate and liquid. At night he goes to Dumbledore's office and dives into the pensieve, mingling his own memories with Dumbledore's.
He has a nightmare one night after meeting with Dumbledore. In the dream, he is naked, and his memories are pouring out, dripping and sliding away across the ground in ways they should not. They're slipping away and he can't stop them. He's holding a net, but his hand hangs limply at his side, and he knows the memories would just fall through the holes.
He looks around himself and realizes that he's in a forest. There are monsters in this forest, he whispers to himself. Once upon a time, he desperately wanted to believe in mythical creatures like dragons. Now that he knows they're real, he's no less in love with the idea.
But he's slowly learning that monster means something else. There aren't dragons in the forest. Not the kind with scales and safe, red fire.
Snape's method of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts is very different from his method of teaching Potions. In Potions, Snape would talk about the laws and truths that govern the subject, but now everything is muddled and heavy, full of spells that don't come easily at all.
He wants very badly to be an auror, but he knows he'll fail this class, just as he knows that the Slytherins will all pass, although Draco Malfoy has missed six classes already. Harry is counting, because while precision may not be important in Defense Against the Dark Arts, Harry is living his life by a Potions book now. His head is full of Prince-knowledge: it's better to stir a certain potion for immeasurable hatred with a silver rod, some potions work better if you whisper the instructions over them in Latin, roots that can improve one kind of love potion are useless in another.
Dumbledore tells Harry many times that Snape has good intentions, but it's never been harder to believe than this year. There must be some invisible barrier between what Snape intends and what he says.
Hermione reminds him that Snape is probably jealous of Harry's father and everything that he got and Snape didn't, but all Harry can think is that all his father got in the end was dead.
In Transfiguration, Professor McGonagall teaches them about the concept of dichotomy: a whole is split into two mutually exclusive, jointly exclusive parts. She says that Transfiguration deals with this concept, the dichotomy of cat and woman, bird and flower vase. She also tells them that this is a lie.
Transfiguration is transformation, and the woman is the cat and the cat is teaching them words from the world of maths or philosophy. The vase could take flight. The bird is made of glass.
When Harry is in Hogsmeade one weekend, he buys Dumbledore flowers: white, clear, bright asphodel. He walks back to the school and thinks about dichotomy, himself and Dumbledore as two mutually exclusive halves of a whole. But something is wrong, off-balance missing something to center it into a Venn diagram. Harry sometimes wishes he hadn't studied Muggle maths before coming to Hogwarts.
The first time Dumbledore kisses him, Harry is bent over the pensieve, shaking from the memories he's just been shown. Dumbledore's fingers meet his on the edge of the basin, and he turns.
"What-" Harry starts to ask, unsure of what Dumbledore is asking for.
Dumbledore leans forward and kisses Harry's forehead gently, a sweet, innocuous action. When he doesn't pull back, though, Harry tilts his face up, and Dumbledore tilts his down, and then they're kissing in earnest.
And Harry smiles for the first time in sixteen hours. This is strange and new and all his own, and being given this almost makes up for everything that Dumbledore kept back from him last year.
After a moment, Harry says softly, "Everyone I've ever loved has died horribly." Fair warning and all.
Dumbledore says nothing. Finally, nods gravely and puts his hand on Harry's shoulder. "You should be getting to bed. Have a lemon drop and get some sleep."
"Take my arm."
Dumbledore's arm under Harry's fingers is thin, but strong. Even his withered hand looks as though it could still wield a wand or comfort someone with a touch, soothing away fury or pain.
The whoosh of apparation reminds Harry of the first time he flew, or of time travel. The bottom of his stomach drops out and he turns, thinking of the hourglass in Hermione's hand or the broom under him. He was never afraid of falling, not matter how great the height.
He tightens his grip on Dumbledore's arm, shuts his eyes, and flies.
The flash of the cameras outside the Ministry is like lightning, making Harry blink hard, and a tall reporter towers over him, shouting questions. The sound of shutters clicking is driving him mad.
"Come on, Potter," the man says. "You must have something to say. You're a star."
Harry refuses to open his mouth and let the words pour out. He has a lot of things he could say, but he won't. Not here.
Dumbledore attempts to wave the reporters off, but he's still weak from his fight with Voldemort. However, when the tall man shoves too far into Harry's personal space, Dumbledore stands forward. "Allow me to answer a few question." He's even smiling.
"Professor? What are you doing?" Harry hisses under his breath. They shouldn't give these people what they want.
"I don't know," Dumbledore mutters back, almost as though he's talking to someone else. Then he meets Harry's eyes with his twinkling blue ones. "Trust me, Harry."
The Star means trust, peace of mind, calmness. It also means renewal: the phoenix burning itself alive to rise from the ashes. The old die and the young survive. That's how it's supposed to be.
A baby is born with curse-green eyes and fat little hands, and he is famous by the time he's a year old. There are shooting stars in the sky in November, but he doesn't know anything about that. He doesn't know anything at all. He just sleeps, dreaming of water.
The Devil is the fifteenth Major Arcana card in a Tarot deck.
Air, the suit of Swords: the devil has wings. Fire, the suit of Wands: the devil holds a torch. Earth, the suit of Disks: there are grapes on the one of the demon's tails.
The only thing missing is Water, the suit of Cups.
Albus wants to say to Severus on the tower, I am not afraid. I trust you.
But Severus would just say, I know, oh God, I know, spitting Muggle blasphemies from the lips Albus has kissed.
Harry forces the cup to Albus's lips and he drinks. The liquid burns as it goes down, acidic and immediate in its pain.
He thinks dimly that Harry is beautiful when he is afraid. His eyes are the color of the killing curse, but he isn't the one who is meant to kill Albus. That's not in the cards that are unfolding like a game of fifty-two pickup instead of the careful Tarot Albus thought he could control. His fingernails skitter against the stone as thought that will help him gather the cards again, but they're slipping away and he can't stop them.
His skin feels cold and clammy, but his blackened hand is still hard and dry.
Dumbledore learned how to trust from Gellert Grindelwald, and he's never forgotten, although perhaps he should have. He trusts Severus and he trusts Harry and he doesn't even have room to think about whether he's right to.
He does not, after all, have a choice. Murder binds people together as surely as it splits one individual soul into pieces, creating bonds and breaking them in what Minerva would call the give and take. Severus will kill Albus will kill Harry. Threefold bonds are stronger.
Albus is not brave enough to face the possibility that they could fail in their tasks. The knowledge of that he is a coward solidifies like a stone in the center of his chest, solid as a heart.
Harry tastes like . . . no. It would be beside the point to split him open like a vein, to try to explain him as though he is a mathematical concept. That would suggest that Albus knows why he's doing it. For the most part, he flies on instinct these days. There are bundles of guilt lining the walls of his mind, memories stacked crookedly at odd angles like broken bones.
There is a list as long as Albus's withered, blackening arm of things Harry and Severus need, but there's only so much he can give them. Severus wants more information, Harry wants more answers, and all Albus has offer up at the end of the day is a bag of little yellow candies and himself. He wonders if they realize what a sacrifice this second gift is. His last refuge, the belief that he could build invisible walls between himself and the dangerous things he wants, is stripped away now.
But this is not bravery. It is desperation.
It feels as though there are fingerprints on his arm, ghosts of a thousand men, women and children he never touched and could not save. He has been a murderer by omission more times than he can count, and although it is not murder in the traditional sense, it is perhaps Slytherin murder.
He sometimes thinks they Sort too soon.
He told Severus that once, Severus who doesn't taste like anything, or maybe Albus simply doesn't remember. He hasn't touched Severus in six years, since the year Harry came to Hogwarts. Renewal.
Fawkes crows loudly, wings scraping against the wood of his perch with a whoosh. On the desk, there is a bouquet of asphodel.
In the Greek underworld, there is a river called Lethe. One sip of its waters makes the drinker forget everything he ever knew. On the banks, white, star-shaped flowers grow.
Albus keeps other people's memories in his closet along with his own.
Albus has, over the years, managed to attain the title of Warlock, meaning that he is highly skilled at dueling. Today, he is discussing the principles of dueling with Minerva in his office while the hourglass marks out the time.
"It's the same basic principle behind Transfiguration," she argues. "The give and the take. Your latest duel, for example."
He nods gravely. "Yes, in the Ministry. I suppose in a way the ideas behind dueling apply to Tom himself. It's what I've been attempting to teach Harry all year."
"Duality," Minerva says, as though she's understood something. "It's a dichotomy. Tom Riddle and Lord Voldemort. Mutually exclusive."
"No," Albus says. "Not duality. Triality."
"I don't understand," she says.
She doesn't, but he does, and the failure to understand is all he can offer her. Perhaps she simply read different fairy tales in her youth.
Albus is drawing a careful net around Tom Riddle, and he has to be so very cautious that no one else is caught in it. No one is that cautious.
For the most part, he manages to thrust himself into danger in the place of others. The curse rots and burns his hand, death several steps removed from his smooth, hairless heart. As Severus pulls him back from the brink of death, Albus does not say, I'm sorry, but you must murder me. Not yet.
Severus told him he was a monster because of his plans for Harry, and that tells Albus how Severus will feel about killing him. He never intended . . . the lie flattens itself under his tongue, not gone, but waiting. He always intended this.
Albus is good at lying, and he knows too well that failure is an option.
"You must kill me."
Once upon a time:
There were three brothers. A wand, and a stone, and a cloak.
Once upon a time:
There were three lost boys who found a home in Hogwarts.
Tom slipped through Albus's fingers, but the wand did not. The cloak and the stone are not meant for him, but . . . If he cannot posses the Hallows, there are other things he can posses, turning them in his hands without their knowledge.
He can say to Severus, "You must do this," and Severus will shout and berate him and refuse, but he will follow Albus's orders anyhow. He can say to Harry, "You must not do this," and Harry will nod and smile and do it anyhow.
This is how to use people.
He can also press his lips to a forehead or a wrist or a mouth with no intention of causing pain.
This is how to love people.
I'm sorry, but I must murder you.
It takes Albus longer than it should to think of Nagini and begin to wonder. One night, though, he is prodding someone else's silvery memories and he finds it: At Tom's side, the snake squirms, and for a moment the snake is the man and the man is the snake writhing on the ground.
The word Horcrux has no Latin root. Perhaps it is a newer invention, and the ancients had no use for splintered souls, simply allowing them to fall the great distance into the underworld where perhaps they accumulated in piles like trash. These days, there's a use for everything.
Once he reaches the conclusion that Harry must die, everything else slots into place with a thunder-loud click: He must give Harry what he gave Severus, as an apology for an act of murder between them.
The idea of losing the boy is painful, making the bile rise acidic and strong in his throat, but he takes a short, hard breath and tries to think of other things. It's almost too easy for him to accustom himself to the idea. After all, everyone he's ever loved has died horribly. All, of course, but Gellert. Albus often thinks of Gellert as the point around which his morality began to unravel, like a spool that turns and turns until its thread is a bloody mess.
The Devil also means self-bondage: being so caught up in a belief that you do not have the ability to move on and live a healthy life.
Harry Potter smiles like Tom Riddle smiled like Gellert Grindelwald. There are very few things about Gellert that Albus still believes in, but his smile is one of them. It was too bright to be a lie. This is how truth works when you're an old man, because it's allowed and no one will disagree.
In Harry Potter's sixth year at Hogwarts, Albus tries stripping down the beliefs he holds about the world, systematically peeling back the layers of truth and lies around himself and Harry and Severus. At the core lies an easy truth, bright as Phoenix-feather: simplification.
In the end, only one of them will survive.
Triality. Duality. Singularity.