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Sleeping in Light
The first thing Tess became aware of was the slightly medicinal smell of the air.
She could see the orangey-pink glare of bright sunshine through her eyelids, but it took some time to find the energy to open her eyes.
When she did so, daylight streamed onto her retinas, making her squint. She lifted an arm, which felt like a block of stone at her side, and her skin brushed against crisp cotton sheets. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the unrelenting brightness.
A figure stepped forward from a chair at her bedside and, when her vision came into focus, she saw her brother, Nate, leaning over her. His concerned face lightened as she continued to stir.
"Welcome back, Tess," he said, squeezing her other arm, which lay motionless upon the bed in Hogwarts' hospital wing.
Tess attempted to speak, but her voice was a squeaking croak.
"How do you feel?" Nate asked.
Tess swallowed and ran a mental checklist through her body. There were no aches, no pains and no stiffness. Just a very dry throat.
"Thirsty," she whispered.
Madam Pomfrey appeared at her bedside with a glass of water, and Nate helped to adjust Tess's pillows as she sat up. Small sips of deliciously cool water slid down Tess's throat, and with each mouthful she seemed to regain mental acuity.
"What happened? How long have I been here?"
"Aurora Sinistra found you unconscious in the Headmaster's office yesterday morning. You were lying on the floor, covered in blood." Nate reclaimed his seat next to the bed. "Madam Pomfrey checked for everything, but could find nothing wrong. You've been here, fast asleep, for twenty-four hours."
The breath in Tess's lungs seemed to ache. "So it was a dream," she said shakily. "He wasn't real." As she said the words out loud, she felt her heart sink into her hollow stomach.
Poppy stepped forwards. "The Headteacher portraits told me you'd put this ring on your finger before you collapsed."
In the matron's upturned palm was Severus's Tiger's Eye ring. It sparkled in the sunlight.
Tess's heart leapt back into her chest and began to thrum.
"We didn't dare take the ring from you," Poppy continued, "not knowing what magic held you in your slumber. I felt certain you were safe, because... well, you were smiling in your dreams." Poppy touched Tess's forehead to check her temperature. "Nate arrived yesterday and has watched over you whilst I triaged and cared for the injured. This morning, we decided the time had come to remove the ring from your finger." Poppy's fingertips checked Tess's pulse for a few seconds, then she took a step away from the bed. "You seem fine now. I'm going to tell Minerva you're awake."
And then the nurse left the bedside.
An uneasy silence lingered between brother and sister. Tess realised the removal of the ring had pulled her away from the riverbank. She watched Poppy slip Severus's ring inside her apron as she left the ward.
"Aurora told me everything, Tess," Nate began. "That you were in love with Snape..." The words seemed to cause him some distaste, but his next sentence was filled with regret. "I'm so sorry you lost him."
Tess blinked a flurry of tears from her eyes. "I haven't given up hope," she mumbled.
"Harry Potter relayed Snape's story after the battle, how he'd loved Lily Evans, and worked as a triple agent to protect Harry and bring down Voldemort. But nobody knew about you, Tess. Well, no one except Aurora."
Tess nodded sadly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Nate's tone was soft, without reproach.
"I couldn't. I was sworn to secrecy," Tess replied. "Anyway you weren't really around for me to tell. I think Gran might've figured it out, though."
"I still don't fully understand it, Tess. Snape just didn't seem your type – I mean, you hated him when he was your Potions master."
"Yes, I did. But that was sixteen years ago. A lot has changed. I've changed. And so did he. We grew closer; I was the only one who knew of his true affiliation. At first, it was just a physical attraction, but I came to realise some weeks ago that I loved him."
Nate's hazel eyes were wide, betraying his surprise. Nevertheless, he reached for his sister's hand and squeezed it.
The doors to the hospital wing opened; Poppy had returned with Minerva McGonagall. They walked past the rows of injured in curtained beds, until they stood beside Nate in Tess's cubicle.
Minerva held out Severus's Tiger's Eye ring in her hand, then placed it upon the bedside table and clasped her hands awkwardly.
"I owe you an apology, Tess."
Tess shook her head, but Minerva continued.
"No, I do. I doubted your allegiance, thought you were colluding with Death Eaters. I should've trusted you as a fellow member of the Order. I'm sorry."
"It's OK," Tess reassured her. "You weren't to know. You did what you thought best. I wouldn't have expected anything less of you."
"But I impeded you when you were trying to save Severus –"
"He was already dead," Tess interrupted. "It was already too late. I just couldn't accept it. I was desperate – hoping there was still a chance to save him."
Minerva's head hung low, and she dropped her hands to her sides, brushing them against her tartan robes. "I feel terrible about the whole thing. I didn't trust him, and I stopped trusting Dumbledore's judgment too. If I hadn't duelled with Severus in the corridor, he might still be alive today."
Tess offered her hand, and Minerva reached out and gently grasped it.
"The only person responsible for Severus's death is Voldemort," Tess assured her.
"You are kind, Tess. I'm so sorry for your loss."
With that, Minerva and Poppy left the bedside, leaving Tess alone with her brother.
"Help me out of bed, Nate. I need to speak to Dumbledore's portrait."
"Are you sure you're up to it?"
"Yes. It's important. There's something I need to know."
Tess was forced to eat breakfast before Poppy would allow her to leave the hospital wing. After some tea and toast, Tess dressed in fresh robes and followed her brother to the Headteacher's office.
Despite Nate being overly-protective, Tess managed the walk up the stairs unaided, and found her strength gradually returning. By the time she stood before Albus Dumbledore she felt strong and calm.
"Did you know?" she asked the blue-eyed, bearded wizard sitting in his portrait.
Dumbledore peered at her through half-moon spectacles. "That you and Severus would fall in love?" he elucidated.
Tess nodded, her chin set.
"No," Dumbledore replied simply. "I knew you would be good for him, help him work through some of his grief, and ensure he remained at Hogwarts to protect the students. I hoped you'd become friends. I admit I never thought Severus capable of getting over Lily."
"You used Severus's grief for Lily as a way of guaranteeing his loyalty," Tess said without accusation.
"I did," Dumbledore confessed.
Tess retrieved Severus's ring from her pocket and held it out for all the Headteacher portraits to see.
"I've spent the last twenty-four hours with Severus," she began. The audience of witches and wizards took a collective intake of breath. "Somehow his essence has become trapped in this ring. We don't know how, or why. I need to know what this ring has become. Is it some kind of Horcrux?"
Dumbledore looked troubled. "Tell me what happened at the time of his death."
"Lots of things. After he was bitten by the snake, Severus collected his memories and gave them to Harry. Then I felt him forgive himself... I saw bright, white shapes moving... coalescing... He told me he loved me then everything went black."
Dumbledore sat back in his seat and hummed thoughtfully under his breath.
Tess continued, "Nothing happened to my ring, but when I recovered his, the ring had soaked up his blood. I returned to this office, placed the ring on my finger, fainted, and woke up inside his happiest memory. No time had passed for Severus since the moment of his death."
The piercing blue eyes of the portrait studied Tess, and she felt her brother's hand on her shoulder, reminding her of his presence.
"Horcruxes are formed when the soul is torn in two," Dumbledore explained. "The magic, naturally, is Dark; it requires a murderous act to tear the soul. What happened at the time of Severus's death sounds anything but Dark... Perhaps, in the moment of death, you witnessed Severus's fragmented soul being restored."
Tess remembered the shapes she had seen shifting and reforming, becoming a coherent whole. Maybe that had been a manifestation of Severus's soul?
"The healing of his soul at the precise time of his death, coupled with your connection to him through the rings, may have caused magic unheard of to have erupted spontaneously. Your love for each other and your shared connection through the rings must have melded his soul to the vessel on his finger. Perhaps, then, it has become some kind of anti-Horcrux, a version of the Light. Severus's soul may indeed live on, intact."
Tess started to feel faint, as the ramifications stormed her mind.
Nate squeezed her shoulder, and spoke softly into her ear. "Maybe you did save him, after all."
"No," she replied. "He saved himself. He was the one who forgave himself, and he was the one who allowed himself to feel love. Severus held the power all along. It took him until the moment of his death to realise it."
Tess stroked the silver band in the palm of her hand. "If his soul resides in this ring, there might be a way to bring him back."
There was a moment of silence as the listening portraits pondered the possibilities.
Dumbledore spoke first. "It could be feasible. After all, Voldemort regained his corporeal form in the graveyard of Little Hangleton, at his father's burial site."
"I could research how Voldemort's soul was reunited with his body that night," Tess contemplated.
"You could, Tess. But, before you begin, perhaps you should ask Severus to express his wishes? Does he want you to bring him to life, or would he prefer his soul be released into the ether?"
Tess bit at the dry skin of her bottom lip, a snake of doubt and worry curling in her abdomen. "You're right. I can't make the decision for him."
She hesitated as she placed the tip of her finger inside Severus's Tiger's Eye ring.
Nate stepped forwards, forcing her to look at him. "Tess, at least wait until you're back in the safety of the hospital wing."
"No, Nate. I have to do it now. I might not find courage to ask him otherwise. This needs to be Severus's choice." She looked steadily into her brother's eyes. "Catch me if I fall?"
With mingled acceptance and resignation, Nate nodded.
Tess slipped the ring onto her middle finger.
The last thing she felt was her brother's arms capturing her before she hit the ground.
And then Tess found herself stepping through the cascading branches of the weeping willow. Her presence caused the leaves to rustle peacefully.
Severus lay half-dressed upon the blanket, sleeping in light, just as she had left him.