Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: A million thanks to Lindsay, dear friend and little sister, for beta-reading this monster and scribbling in the margins the kind of comments that could only make it better. We'll have to do this again sometime. Love ya, Linds.
"Emerald & Ebony"
by Christine Anderson
aka Anla'shok Ivanova
posted to FictionAlley under the pen name Lilly Malfoy
In a dark room within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in a chest beneath a window closed and shuttered against the morning light, a chest marked with the "S.S." of it's owner's initials, a woman in a green tartan cloak deposited a letter. It would be the first of many.
"Be well, Severus," Minerva McGonagall whispered.
I have begun this letter more times than I can count. My words never seem right no matter how I try. I don't know if, in the end, it will be too little, too late. I don't know that any of it will matter.
But I do know this. We are past the time for secrets now. Between us, I think even more than mistrust, secrets are the thing we can least afford. If you were here I know that you would understand that, in a way I doubt very much the others can.
I didn't want you to go. I wish it were unnecessary for any of us to go, to do what you must, but that is not all. You looked into my eyes just before you left, and I know that you saw something. I don't dare to hope that you saw what I was unable to say.
The truth is important, Severus. In the end it may be all we have. And there is a truth I have left untold.
I didn't want you to go. And you think that you understand that, because over the years we've come to an understanding, you and I. We are polite, sometimes even kind, if no one is looking. We support our houses and the children in our care as best we can. And we never, never speak of the events that transpired when we were students together all those years ago, I in Gryffindor and you in Slytherin. Nor do I mean to speak of them now. What remains of those times is between you, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin, and those ghosts of the past are not ones I can put to rest. Perhaps no one can, now.
You believe that you understand, but you do not. You think my concern is only for a friend, one of the few still remaining who knew me before so many years of Gryffindors labeling me strict but fair, before I began to don that mask every day because it was easy, easier by far than facing other things.
I am a fool, and I realize that. A fool for writing this, for thinking it will matter. More a fool still if I gather together the courage to send it.
Imagine. I, a Gryffindor, having to gather courage. We're supposed to have it by the cauldrons, but I will tell you a secret you already know- it is not so easy, and it never has been. I am foolishly bold rather than brave, and that is why I am writing this.
This truth may burn me to ash if I do not tell it, to the one person to whom it may matter most.
All these years, and you've tried to push me away. All these years, I have quietly, firmly resisted. I am stubborn, of course, and so if you tell me one thing, I am almost certain to do the opposite. If you tell me I cannot have something- your friendship, for example- I will go to great lengths to obtain it, and to keep it. I never let you push me away, Severus, because I felt that you needed an anchor. A friend, someone you could go to, entrust your secrets to... And- this is quite Slytherin of me, really, and rather selfish- I couldn't bear to lose my last friend. I still can't.
I wanted you near me, Severus, and... You were far brighter than anyone else in our year, your mind so sharp I am almost certain the Sorting Hat considered Ravenclaw when you sat beneath it. I am sure you can guess why. But just as I am stubborn in my ways, you are stubborn in yours, and I feel now that I will have to say it if I wish for you to acknowledge it.
As you will, then.
I love you, Severus.
I love you, and I am sorry- sorry that I cannot help what I have felt all this time, nor keep it secret a moment longer. Sorry because I am quite certain you already have enough to worry over now, without my adding to it. Sorry because I can't change, not a thing, and I cannot stop loving you no matter that you- that you do what you must, and so do I. Your task is to go, mine to stay, and never knowing if we will see you again...
Forgive me. And if you ever return to us, Severus, if you ever can, don't shut me out.
In the end, that is all I ask- all I have a right to ask.
PS - Even I am only so much a fool, and so I dare not send this. Instead I will seal it and leave it, where only you will find it. A hope against hope, that you will come back to read it. Laugh then, if you will. I will laugh with you, if only in joy for your return.
A pale, thin man in black sat beneath a copse of trees, trying to ignore the furious burning upon his left forearm. The Dark Lord called the others, but they would not come, not now, not ever. And he did not know if that made them wiser, or more foolish, than he. Not that it mattered.
Severus Snape scowled at his arm, and muttered the key to a spell. It was all he could do.
For the first time in almost twenty years, I finally feel useful again. You would think that I would be a bit more pleased by this turn of events. Instead I find myself longing for the days when we only knew that he would be coming back, that someday we would have to deal with him. The days when that 'someday' was not today.
Quirrell. Those were our better days, when that stuttering little fool taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, and jumped when I so much as looked at him or raised a glass in his direction. Useless git... He'd have died of a heart attack if I had ever offered him a drink. Which would not have been a bad thing, even before he had the hideous visage of the Dark Lord imbedded in the back of his already less-than-appealing head.
I thought, strangely, that I might find myself out here, that in standing against Voldemort I would be able to put things to rest. To settle the affairs of my old life and perhaps, dare I even write these words in ink?- begin the new. Instead I find myself only weary, only so very tired of this that I would welcome even our young Mister Potter saving the day one last time if it meant that I could take myself home.
Home... Hogwarts. I have nowhere else to go, haven't in many years, but what I have is enough. There I am hated and feared by the students, true, but if I wished them to see me in a different light, then they would. I am seen as I wish to be. To the world of Hogwarts I am a known quantity, as each of the others is to me. My work is less than fulfilling, but more than I deserve. Perhaps somehow I can save those of my Slytherins most at risk from following too closely the path that my life has taken.
You must know that in Draco Malfoy I see myself, as I was. The same turmoil and inner conflict. The same danger of walking roads that none should walk.
It would mean more to me than I can say, more than I have felt in many years, if I were able to deny them Lucius Malfoy's son. For everyone else's sake as much as Draco's- the world does not need another Malfoy who follows his blood so very closely.
Foolish, perhaps, to risk so much to save only one. But if I cannot deny them one child, one of the many given into my charge, if I cannot do it before he is too far gone to bring back, than it is hopeless. Hopeless enough that I should return to Hogwarts so that we might with the aid of a simple potion step from this life into the next, with I the last remaining to take my own life, before the Death Eaters came for us. Because in that universe, Minerva, we could not possibly win. Futile to keep on trying, and I will not live in a world where Voldemort reigns absolute. I would not wish such an existence- if it can be called that- for you or the others, either. I would spare you any pain I could, but that, above all.
Morbid thoughts. But I have always been morbid. You were right about that, and many other things besides.
I saw it in your eyes just before I began my walk off of the Hogwarts grounds so that I could Apparate to this place; you did not want me to go. And that would make two of us. We both knew it was necessary, that Dumbledore would not have asked it of me otherwise. And still I would have given anything to have stayed. I want you to understand that.
But do you? Do you understand that it isn't only because I am weary of this, that it isn't only because Voldemort's power terrifies me enough that I would run from it if I could? I am quite unlike you; too sly to be brave, too self-centered to think that it might matter. Until now.
I left as much because I was afraid, as because I loathe Voldemort and all that he stands for. Afraid of what? Afraid of you, of the truth...but mostly, of myself and what I might do or say if I stayed.
I was afraid; I ran. Stupid, when one considers how little time all of us, myself in particular, may have left. (Never let it be said, then, that Severus Snape is really all that sharp where these things are considered, because I know I am not.) I ran... but for you, I would have stayed. If I were less a martyr, less a fool, I would have stayed. Even knowing the cost to all of us, I would have stayed. You made me feel again when I believed only that I could not, and what that isn't worth...
My heart is yours, Minerva. Cast it away or keep it close, it belongs to no one else.
Fitting, I suppose. You are the one who found it, and so you should keep it.
I will carry these words engraved upon my heart, in a corner nothing and no one can touch but you. Should I return, I will write them for you from memory. Should I die in pursuit of my task, as seems far more likely, there is an enchanted quill in my room which will transcribe these words and see them delivered to you. Either way, you will know. That comforts me, when little else does.
I love you.
A second letter joined the first in Severus Snape's trunk, sealed, as the first was, with green wax that shimmered gold when the light touched it. The hand that placed the letter within the chest lingered over its leather and buckles, tracing along the initials gently.
Minerva McGonagall sighed and turned away.
We hear many rumors, and I should know better than to listen to them, but the doubts that form in my mind refuse to go away. I look at Draco Malfoy, so smug and certain of himself sitting in my classes, and I want to throttle him. I want to take him by the collar or the ear and drag him along until I find a place where he can see, truly see, what his father and the others have become. I want him to understand. I don't want to lose this one, Severus. He is Slytherin, and a true one, but there is good in him. I know it. He, however, does not, and until he finds it, well...
I'd also like to take the smug little bastard by his school tie and demand he tell me if he knows where you are.
Of course, I can't do any of these things, and it is only nervous energy begging to be let out in some way or other. I prowl the halls often in Animagus form, but it doesn't do much besides leave me feeling more restless.
I fear for you. It has been so long, and we haven't heard a word... I know that contact with the outside can be hard, sometimes impossible, but I am afraid, if we don't hear from you...
Be alright, Severus. By Merlin's ghost, be alright. Please.
Dumbledore's given me your classes until you return. You would be pleased to know that the Slytherins greeted this announcement with a great deal of sarcastic commentary and ill humor. I am trying to conduct the class as you would, but I fear I must report a few accidents. Six cauldrons melted in the last week- and most of them due to Mister Goyle, rather than Neville Longbottom. Even when one considers the way you favor the Slytherins, his marks are abysmal. I wonder which of his classes is saving him, since it isn't mine, nor yours.
I did try to beg off being made acting Head of Slytherin House, but Dumbledore wasn't having it. He wanted someone... someone you trusted. I only hope I won't leave too much of a mess for you to set right when you come back.
Wouldn't it be lovely if this was settled and done by term's end? We could have a summer for ourselves, the way that we had them when we were only students. Pity we haven't gotten one since, isn't it? I want to believe this year can be different, but Severus, I am rapidly losing my faith in everything.
There is so much I wanted to tell you, and now that I am finally here, now that I have quill and parchment and time, I can't find the words.
Take care, Severus. I don't think I could bear it if you...
A scrap of parchment, frayed and torn and stained with what could have been tears, made its way to Hogwarts in the care of a large black dog, who waited in Minerva McGonagall's rooms up past the Gryffindor tower to drop it directly into her hands. Her fingers shook as she took it.
"Thank you, Sirius," McGonagall whispered.
She pushed her glasses up on her nose and began to read through the stains and tears.
I live. Not knowing into whose hands this may someday fall, that is all I can say. And for that I am sorry. Tell the others...tell them, I am not well, but I live. What must be done, will be.
I... Oh, hell.
She folded it carefully, lest it crumble away to nothing in her hands.
Alive. He was alive.
Was it enough? No. But it was all she had.
Sirius gave a low, canine moan.
Minerva sighed. "Yes," she said softly. "I know. We are both fools, aren't we?"
The black dog shook his head slowly. Sirius returned to his human form long enough to produce a quill from somewhere within his robes and hand it to her.
"You are mad."
"So I've been told. I'll go find you an owl."
"Sirius, I can't-"
The other Animagus brushed a bit of hair back from his face. "I look in the mirror, and do you know what I see? Too many regrets, too many things I did wrong, or didn't do at all. I don't want that for you, not for old friends like you..."
"Not even for old enemies?"
"No. What you want to say... It's dangerous, but you'll find a way."
"But how could you possibly...?" Minerva asked.
"I've always known," Sirius said. "Even back then."
"You thought I could have done better."
"Old friend, I know it! But you didn't want better. You wanted... What you wanted. Write him, Minerva."
Find a way. Could she? Would she dare? As Sirius turned away, she gave a long moment's thought to the matter, and picked up the quill. She would dare.
I hope this finds you better than when last we spoke.
Looking out my window I see thick fog, and wonder where
on earth you are. My dear, dear old friend, it has been so
very long. I tell them that I cannot replace you; I am only
eccentric, which is not enough, and my humor is... not
yours. I didn't ask if I could reach you, I know
only that I must. Be well, and write when you can.
The code was so very simple that it took Snape quite a long time to break. When at last he did, he smiled to himself and shook his head. The words were not nonsense, but within them was a message, more than the sum of its parts.
Broken down to the first letter of each line, it said only this:
S, I love you. M.
Foolish though he knew it was, he folded the paper and kept it close to his heart ever after, in a pocket within his robes.
His reply he sent within the hour, by the same owl.
You are ever as the sign of your house; never doubt it. There is, again, much I wish to say, but cannot. I did wish you to know, that I received your letter, dated today. I see your fog; I am near. Perhaps soon I will be able to return. The message you sent...
Your words are a mirror. Know that I see myself in them, as well.
The fog had still not lifted when Minerva sat in her room in the evening's dark, writing by candlelight. A letter not for the owl post, but for the gathering of them in the chest.
I know what a risk I took to send the note, but I could not bear the silence a moment longer. The code was simple- too simple, I thought- but your response says that you understood it. I only hope I am reading your words within the right context.
'Your words are a mirror', and the signature, 'with love'. I want to believe in this, but if I am wrong it may break my heart. I cannot afford to be broken now, in any way, shape or form. And so I will do the only thing it seems I can- wait, and try not to hope for too much.
In the gathering darkness Severus Snape wrote by the soft light of a single candle, uncertain even once he had finished the letter, whether he would save it or hold it to the candle's flame until the parchment turned to ash.
Having used the Auto-Quill enchantment once, I know the chances of my finding a way to get this to you are rather slim. I believe, though, that I am writing more as a mental exercise, a way to keep my hands busy and my thoughts from overwhelming me, than out of any hope that this might fall into your hands. A Pensieve with parchment and quill, if you will.
Things are going rather badly for Voldemort and the others. My heart bleeds, I cannot tell you how much.
Sarcasm has never translated well to the page, has it, my dear? Ah, but you know me- perhaps would be able to take my meaning, anyway.
At any rate, I hesitate to appear too optimistic- we couldn't have that, now could we?- but I think that this might be over soon. And if it is, if I am right, and if I chance to survive it...
I'm a damned fool. You must realize that as well as I do. We have been in this place before, Minerva, and barely escaped it then. And in the past we have lost a great many people whom I know all too well, could have been of far more use to the wizarding world than I ever have been. Yet they're dead and I'm still here, and I used to wonder, for what?
If I live through this I may have my answer. If I live through this, and it matters to you... If we pass this point of desperation and you still look to me as you did when I left... well.
I have many regrets in my life, a few things which I might do over if I could. But one in particular is annoying me right now, and it is this: I should have at least kissed you before I left. While you still looked at me like that, while you still wanted me.
How I used to mock James Potter for falling in love.
Fate must have been a Slytherin, my dear. Never doubt it. I am not laughing now.
Voldemort calls. It begins.
All my love, for whatever it might be worth,
The hours of that particular Saturday dragged on endlessly for Minerva McGonagall. She carried the two letters from Snape, both of them all too brief, close to her heart, not knowing he had done the same with hers. Not knowing if he had read it or thrown it away.
I think it is the waiting which may drive me mad more than anything else. We know the end, one end or another, is very near now. This morning Harry Potter departed to do what even the best of us haven't been able to.
We have sent a fifteen-year-old boy to kill Voldemort. I'd like to think that I would feel the same if it had been a student of any house, but the fact that he is a Gryffindor, and one of my own, makes it all that much harder.
I pray we'll see him again.
Severus, I- Wait. There is a commotion, the clatter of feet on the stairs... It's Dumbledore, they tell me. He wants us all in the Great Hall at once. I wonder, am I being summoned, are we all, because the war has ended?
And if that is the case- Have we won or lost?
Into the Great Hall, and Minerva noted at once as she scanned the Gryffindor table that one of her students was missing.
"Potter," she whispered.
"He is gone," Dumbledore said. "We have lost much, but at last, Voldemort has been vanquished."
Gone? He was gone? Minerva shook her head. "Potter, Albus... What about Potter?"
"Right then, where's Harry?" Ron Weasley, one of Harry's closest friends in Gryffindor, looking quite put-out.
"Harry will be returning to us soon, Mister Weasley, so do not worry." Dumbledore smiled.
"You- You're certain it's done, then?" Sprout asked.
"Oh yes, quite. All that remains is the cleaning up, and as for that... I have one of our best looking over things from the Astronomy tower. He will alert us if anyone or anything approaches."
Moody, that would be; the real Alastor Moody. Minerva could think of no better lookout than the paranoid ex-Auror.
All sound died in the hall as one of the great doors swung open. In came Harry Potter, pale and in quite a state of shock, but alive.
"Harry!" Weasley exclaimed, with Hermione Granger only a moment or two behind him in speaking. They led the Gryffindors in a mad rush towards Potter, voices raised in glad joy, in relief.
Minerva sat alone at the Gryffindor table, wiping a tear from her eye and hoping it might go unnoticed in the commotion.
It seems the most difficult part is over.
You must have heard by now- Voldemort is dead.
Potter did it, of course. Another of those dreadful ironies life seems determined to throw at me. But it doesn't matter. Voldemort is gone, he will not be coming back. That is enough.
But I am tired, so tired... And I had to do something I did not want to do. I had to give up a part of myself, in a way that was rather unpleasant, to cast a spell I did not want to cast. Quite suddenly I feel the taint of the Dark Arts, so heavy upon my hands, and I cannot bear it.
What am I? What have I done?
I haven't the magical strength left to Apparate, and I may be unable to walk. I am not certain my legs can hold me.
And so I may be a while in getting home.
Trust me, please. I will be there.
I will regain my strength, I know, and the magic will be easier to reach then. No, it isn't those things that trouble me, not really.
Flesh can heal, and magic return, but spirit, heart? Are mine shattered beyond repair?
Perhaps you will know, or help me to find the answer.
With love and weariness,
In Professor Snape's room, a quill dipped itself into an inkwell and began to scrawl its way across a page, leaving in its wake the words and phrases which it had been instructed to write. When it was done, it printed rather than signed a name at the end of the letter. The letter folded itself and slipped into an envelope, and the quill scrawled a name across the front.
She had thought herself forgotten entirely until Dumbledore approached her, bearing a letter in his hands.
"This came for you just now," he said, and she took the envelope, recognizing her name in an unfamiliar hand upon the outside. It was in the style of an auto- quill, a pen enchanted by a wizard to record certain things.
Minerva broke the seal, removed the letter, and began to read. She laughed, and she smiled, and then she shook her head and sighed. So very like him, all of it- even the words she could hear as he might have spoken them.
But then she reached the last of it, read it again...and realized that the hand was not his. Realized it and knew what it meant.
It was not his hand; it was the enchanted quill, following the orders it had been given.
It was not his hand, and he was dead.
Tears blurred her vision, and the letter fell from her hands to the floor with a sick slapping sound. Minerva buried her face in her hands and wept, her body shaking with the weight of her sobs beneath the tartan cloak.
"No," she whispered, "no, no, no... Oh, Severus, no..." She did not notice when she slipped from the bench and fell to the floor, weeping still.
"Professor McGonagall!" Hermione exclaimed. "Headmaster- the Professor-"
Dumbledore turned to face her, but even as he did it the doors slammed open, both of them, and Moody said, "Someone's coming."
"Describe them," said Dumbledore, his voice calm.
"Black robes was all I took time to see. Coming here, whoever it is."
A Death Eater, Minerva thought bleakly. Too late to save his master, come to finish the master's task regardless. And so it would end, regardless.
"Don't fret, children," Dumbledore said. "If this one has come to harm us, he will only be disappointed."
Minerva wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her cloak, trying to concentrate. Her wand. She would need her wand...
The doors slammed open once more.
The figure was as Moody had said, wearing black robes and a hooded black cloak. He was tall and thin, his skin deathly pale. His hands were covered in blood, and beneath the hood, Minerva could not see his face.
The figure stepped forward, and Moody went to meet it, but Dumbledore- Dumbledore held him back. He held him back, and spoke quietly to him, and Moody gave a jerky nod. He stood aside and allowed the man to pass.
The man brushed past the Gryffindors, who reached as one for their wands, and...
"It is done. My debt is paid. I served willingly, but I will never do it again. Not even for you, Headmaster."
The Great Hall fell silent. Shock twisted in the air like a living thing. Not a one of them did not recognize that voice- and it was the voice of Severus Snape.
"I understand, Severus," Dumbledore said. "You have done well, and I thank you for it."
Impossible, Minerva thought, even as she heard the man's reply. "I had my own reasons for what I did." And the figure brushed past Dumbledore as well, moving still onward...
The figure stood before her, and then he kneeled. He wiped the blood from his hands onto his cloak, and it was then she saw that the blood was his. One of his hands was broken, shattered, with shards of bone poking out through the skin in several spots. Minerva gasped. His hands, his beautiful hands, their long, slender fingers so deft and quick, so much a part of his art...
As if the pain were a minor irritant at worst, he reached out to her, cupping his good hand beneath her chin while with the other he brushed back his hood.
It was Snape. His dark hair was tangled, streaked with dirt and blood, his pale features bruised and battered, but it was him. Unmistakably.
"Minerva." In the silent Hall, the sound of her name carried.
"Severus," she whispered hoarsely.
He slid his good arm around her shoulders and helped her back onto the bench.
"I thought..." Minerva held up the letter, her hands shaking.
"Yes, I'm sorry about that. I faked my death to buy Potter a bit of time, and it was necessary to do it well enough to fool Voldemort's spells. And my own."
Minerva nodded slowly. "Your hand..."
"A sacrifice of what was, necessary for the spell."
"That's Dark magic, Severus," Minerva said flatly.
"Yes. The last of it I will ever use. It is done, and I-" He brushed the last of her tears away with the fingers of his good hand. "I am sorry."
"Forgiven," Minerva said, bracing her hands upon his shoulders.
Snape tried to pull away. "You don't want- I am covered in sweat and dirt and blood, very little of which is even my own. You don't want to touch me right now." But despite the words, there was a quiet need in his eyes, a dark and desperate sadness, a look that seemed to say, "You don't want me."
"Yes, I do," she said, answering his words both spoken and not, and bent her head to kiss him. One hand went to his neck, beneath his hair, supporting the back of his head, feeling the tired muscles beneath her fingers, and the other went to the small of his back.
The reactions of the student body to this event were many and varied; several whistles from the Gryffindor table, the loudest and most enthusiastic of them coming from Ginny Weasley, gasps and expressions of total shock from the Hufflepuffs, and bits of polite applause from the Ravenclaws. The Slytherins' reactions were more or less evenly split, with cheers and even a few smiles from half of them, including Draco Malfoy, who had that very year begun to feel the ice of his heart melt for his own Gryffindor witch. Jeers and bits of mocking laughter came from the rest of the Slytherins, including Draco's own cronies, Crabbe and Goyle. A brief scuffle broke out amongst the Slytherins, which Draco ended with a few sharp words to his friends. He looked up, caught Ginny's eye, and smiled. Ginny smiled back.
It took several very long moments for the commotion to die down, but neither Snape nor Minerva took much notice.
He had been right, and she tasted the coppery sharpness of blood, the salt of sweat and tears, and several other things which she knew she wouldn't want to identify in any great detail, but Minerva McGonagall didn't care. She held him and kissed him, and Snape's good hand rose up to stroke her cheek gently.
"You shouldn't," he whispered. "Don't pity me, please."
"Do you truly believe it's pity?" she whispered back, and kissed him again. "It isn't. You should have that hand looked at," Minerva said, several long moments later.
"Yes," he agreed. "And I believe a bath is in order."
Minerva smiled, nodded, and brushed her lips across his forehead. "It is. But before you go..." She drew him to her again, but this time paused and beckoned him closer. They bent their heads and spoke quietly together for several moments. No one else stood close enough to hear what was said; their words were for them alone.
"I love you," Minerva said softly.
"Yes, I know. I did get your letter."
"And I, yours. I needed-"
"To speak and to hear."
"And to make certain that I understood correctly."
"You did." Snape paused, smiled. "I love you, Minerva. I do. Now please, Merlin's ghost, woman, let me go have myself tended to, and clean up a bit. My pride can't take much more of this."
Poppy Pomfrey was already looking crossly at them, as Snape rose. Minerva, folding the letter into her pocket, stood to follow.
"Minerva, Severus," Dumbledore said as they passed, a smile brushing across his face.
"Headmaster," Snape nodded. Then, as they passed the Gryffindors, he said, "Potter. Nicely done."
Potter did his best to mask his shock. "Thank you, sir."
Minerva nodded to the students, winked at Harry, and then they moved on. As they did so, however, both heard one of the second-years mutter to his comrades, "Why d'ya suppose she'd want to waste her time on a piece of work like that?"
"Shut up," hissed Ginny, looking quite annoyed.
Minerva and Snape glanced at each another. As one, they spoke.
"Fifty points from Gryffindor!"
"That would make it an even hundred," Dumbledore said. He looked, Minerva noticed, rather amused.
"Who is that guy?" asked a first-year Slytherin. "He looks terrible!"
Draco Malfoy swung his elbow into the boy's shoulder. "Professor Snape, the head of our house."
"And I thought Gryffindors were stupid," Pansy Parkinson muttered.
"And fifty from Slytherin," Snape said.
"Make it a hundred," Minerva said. "Which reminds me- you, Allen-" The first- year Slytherin had the good grace to look apologetic "-We need to discuss your Potions marks."
"Bad?" Snape asked.
"Pity. And a Slytherin, no less. My own house..."
"Professor Snape!" exclaimed the school mediwitch. "If you please..."
He sighed. "Coming."
Snape turned towards the Great Hall's door. He staggered, and Minerva reached out to steady him.
"Don't," he said, but she shook her head, her jaw set stubbornly.
"Lean on me, Severus."
With a sigh, he did.
Madam Pomfrey regarded them as they neared her, her lips pressed together in a thin line. "I can take him from here, Minerva," the mediwitch said.
"I'm certain you could, Poppy," Minerva replied. "Shall we?"
Pomfrey sighed. "Alright. Professor Snape, what did you do to that hand?"
As they stepped out into the hall, he told her.
"Stupid," Pomfrey said. "Rather brave, I suppose, but stupid."
"It was the hand or me," Snape replied. "Can you...?" He paused, and Minerva gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. "Can you repair the damage?"
The mediwitch nodded. "It may take Skele-Gro to do it, but yes."
"Is it true, then? Is...You-Know-Who gone?" Pomfrey asked.
He nodded slowly. "Yes." He seemed to grit his teeth. "It was Potter, of course."
The mediwitch traded looks with Minerva, but neither said anything.
They reached the hospital wing, and what was sure to be the first of many clashes between Snape and Pomfrey occurred. The dispute centered around the hospital gown which Pomfrey seemed determined to insist Snape change into. He endured her tirade for several moments before launching one of his own.
"Are you mad? I will have to re-break my hand in order to remove my robe, which I have no intention of doing. I refuse, do you understand?"
A laugh bubbled up from the witch in green standing beside the bed on which Snape perched. He rounded on her.
"You find this amusing, Minerva?"
"Yes," she said between gasps of laughter, clutching at his shoulder to steady herself. "You are so stubborn... Let it go, Poppy. It's not worth it to argue with him."
The mediwitch pursed her lips and regarded Snape in silence for a moment. "No," she said at last, "I suppose it's not. Alright...let me see that hand."
With a wince Snape extended the injured arm, and Pomfrey gave it a cursory examination. "Yes," she said, "I'm afraid so. Skele-Gro it is, then; it's too badly damaged to repair otherwise." She glanced at Minerva. "And you- Your excuse for being here would be...?"
Minerva raised her eyebrows. "I'm afraid I've sprained my wand hand, Poppy."
Pomfrey sighed. "Fine, fine... Next bed, and I'll be with you when I can."
As the mediwitch departed to get the Skele-Gro, Minerva turned to Snape and winked slowly.
He shook his head. "Does it concern you that Moody may be the only one looking after our charges?"
Minerva shook her head. "The others are still out there, Severus, and Moody's alright, just a bit paranoid."
Snape laughed quietly. "Two words, my dear. Constant vigilance. I'd say that was more than 'a bit'." He paused. "You haven't asked me..."
"What exactly happened with Voldemort? No, I haven't."
"Yes, but..." Minerva settled herself in the chair beside the bed. "When you are ready, Severus. Only when you are ready."
"I... Thank you." He took her hand with his good one, held it for a moment, then dropped it as if he was uncertain what to do with it. "It's over."
"That's all that matters now." She smiled fondly, and brushed a strand of dirty hair back from his face.
Snape winced. "I wish you wouldn't do that. I am disgusting. I don't see how you can stand to touch me." He said the last very quietly, and it was clear he did not say it only because he was covered in blood and dirt.
"Not disgusting, Severus," Minerva said, "only rather dirty. As for the rest..." He turned away, and she caught his chin with her hand, turned him back towards her. "Look at me. All these years, all these years we've known one another, and you still question it. I... I can't explain it, but I love you. Isn't that enough?"
"No." He held up his hands. "Look. Look. There is blood on my hands- there always has been. And very little of it is mine. What I did to myself was no more than I deserved. Considerably less, actually. I have taken life, more times than I can count, and I can't pretend that each death was only for the best of reasons. What will your bold Gryffindors say to see us together? No, I needn't ask, I know what they'll say, because they've already said it. Why would she waste her time? And on that? I love you, but I don't deserve you."
"I will be damned," Minerva said, "if I went through all these years, this last one managing your classes and your House, sending cryptic notes back and forth, hoping you would understand what I meant to say and our enemies wouldn't- I will be damned if I have done it all for nothing, Severus. You are not what you say- you are better, or what you've done would be nothing to you. Believe that. Know it. Because I do, because it is true. Doubt yourself if you must, but don't you dare tell me what I deserve, or what I ought to have, because I won't-"
What Minerva wouldn't, though, Snape never learned, because he interrupted her with a kiss. He had meant it to be quick and light, but it was neither, as he was unwilling to draw away, even knowing the state he was in. Ashamed as he was at his appearance- and, Merlin's ghost, the smell!- it was what he had wanted for so long... Too long to be deterred by simple physical things which, after all, were only transitory.
"Bastard," Minerva whispered, but she said it fondly, and he smiled.
"I am what I am."
She nodded. "I know."
"I won't do that again, you know. Not until..."
Minerva smiled. "Of course." She paused. "I can meet you in the staff washroom if you'd like...early, before the others are up." The smile broadened. "Just in case you need help."
She turned and left him then, with a faint blush and a whisper of "Goodnight", and Severus Snape was left, blushing furiously, to face Madame Pomfrey and her Skele-Gro alone.
"Anything you'd like to share?" the nurse asked as she poured a small steaming cup of the Skele-Gro.
Snape shook his head. "Absolutely not."
"Crazy, the things they're sayin'," Hagrid said. "Said she kissed 'em, right in the mid'le of the Great Hall!"
"She did," Ron said with a shake of his head. "I don't get it. I mean... Snape?"
"What is wrong with you, Ron?" Hermione asked. "Can't you be happy for Professor McGonagall? I think it's wonderful."
"Mental," said Ron. "I just didn't see it coming, was all. I suppose you did?"
Hermione shrugged. "It wasn't that hard to see, not if you know how to look. She's been staring out windows for most of the term, like she was waiting for something. Or someone."
"I'd have been waiting for him to get back, too, if I were stuck looking after the Slytherins all year," Ron said.
"Harry?" Hermione asked.
"You've been really quiet, that's all."
"That's because he agrees with me, right, Harry?" Ron asked.
"I...don't think it's so weird, Ron. Look at your sister and Malfoy."
"I'd rather not, thanks."
Hagrid shook his head. "Whate'er makes 'em happy, I s'pose."
"Mental," Ron said again.
A red-haired whirlwind dashed up to the group gathered near Hagrid's front porch. "Any of you seen Draco?" Ginny asked.
"No. He's probably laughing at McGonagall with the Slytherins, like he's been doing all term..."
"He has not," said Ginny, "which you'd know if you weren't so determined to hate him." She dropped down beside Hermione. "Did you guys see-?"
"Yes," said Ron, sounding very tired.
"Did that just happen?" asked the first-year who had lost them a hundred points, after the Slytherins had returned to their dungeon common room.
Draco Malfoy sighed. "Why don't you go find Snape and ask him, Allen?"
Crabbe and Goyle snickered appreciatively.
"What are you gonna do?" Allen asked. "While I'm doing that, I mean."
"Help Goyle study for the Potions final," said Pansy Parkinson, "because if Snape's back, and he and McGonagall are getting on so well, it's going to be really bad."
"Oh," said Allen. "Right then." He turned for the door and stepped out.
"He should've been a Hufflepuff," Pansy said after he'd gone.
"What's wrong with you?" Pansy asked. "I know-"
"You don't know anything," Draco snapped. "Don't you get it? Voldemort's dead, for good this time, and hooray for the Gryffindors, Potter's done it again."
"So?" Goyle asked.
"So," Draco all but snarled, "I don't know where my dad is."
The Slytherin common room fell suddenly silent.
"I got an owl," Goyle said suddenly. "My dad's been arrested. Crabbe's, too."
"Said there's gonna be a trial," Crabbe added, "but they're going to Azkaban, everybody knows it."
"I'm sorry-" Pansy started. "Draco..."
"Forget it," Draco said, shoving back his chair.
"Where are you going?" asked Nott.
"To find Ginny. Maybe Potter saw my father." He paused. "Maybe I can ask Snape after he gets through with Allen. At least I should be in time to see that, if I hurry." He smiled with a good humor he didn't feel, and turned away before his friends could see that Draco Malfoy was close to tears.
Draco sighed as he gazed into the portrait of the fat lady that led to the Gryffindor common room. "Is Ginny here?" he asked the painting.
"You're not in Gryffindor," said the Fat Lady.
"No," Draco said. "I'm a Slytherin. I just... Never mind."
He turned to go, but the portrait swung open behind him. "Malfoy?"
It was Potter.
Draco sighed again. "Yeah?"
"I just..." Potter shook his head. "I don't know."
"Yeah. Me, either." Draco forced himself to go on. "When you were out there, when you killed Voldemort... Potter, I need to know- Did you see my father?"
Potter shook his head. "No. I was kind of busy at the time, but I saw most of the others- Crabbe, Goyle..." He trailed off. "Pansy's parents, they're both...dead."
Draco winced. "Professor Snape will tell her, and the others. You didn't see him at all?"
"No. I'm sorry. Maybe Snape...?"
"Yeah." Another pause, and the words he spoke were forced out against his better judgment. "Thanks, Potter."
"Sure." Potter started to go back to the portrait, then looked over his shoulder at Draco. "Malfoy?"
"Wherever you find him...Better knock first, huh?"
Draco burst out laughing. "Yeah." He grinned. "Allen- the first year who got a hundred points taken from Slytherin in the Great Hall- he went to look for Professor Snape."
Potter shook his head. "Almost hope he finds them..."
"That's not very Gryffindor of you."
The other boy shrugged. "Maybe not, but you ought to have some loyalty to the head of your House. He shouldn't have said that about Snape." He paused. "Not that loud, anyway."
"Yeah." Draco nodded once. "See ya, Potter."
"Oh- Ginny was looking for you."
Draco nodded. "I'm not going to thank you twice, Potter. Tell her I'll see her later. I have to ask Snape- about my father."
Remus Lupin set his shabby briefcase on the desk in the Defense Against Dark Arts classroom. Sirius Black perched beside the briefcase, twisting a strand of hair 'round and 'round his finger. Next to him, an arm around his shoulders, was Arabella Figg.
It had been almost a year since Dumbledore had sent for them. Defense Against the Dark Arts was a class which suddenly had practical applications such as even Mad-Eye Moody might never have dreamed of, and the Headmaster had wanted as many experienced witches and wizards teaching the students everything that they knew this year.
They had, Lupin thought, rather needed it.
"It's never over, is it?" Arabella asked. "No matter what they say."
"I think it's over this time, Ara," Remus said.
"I want to believe that almost as badly as you do," Arabella said. "Only two of us know for sure, and one of them is Harry. How about it, Sirius? He's your godson."
"Harry doesn't want to talk about what happened out there," Sirius said. "Neither does Snape."
"You spoke to Severus?" Remus asked. "Well. It's about time."
"I tried- Poppy Pomfrey wouldn't let me in. I went to see Minerva. Do you know he wouldn't even tell her? Not yet, she says."
"They've probably got other things to talk about besides that," Arabella said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh.
"Never mind," Sirius said. "We're not here to gossip about those two. Where's Moody?"
Arabella shrugged. "Said he'd be here, but maybe something came up. He's convinced there are still Death Eaters out there, you know."
"He might be right," Sirius said.
The other two turned to look at him in shock.
"What?" Lupin asked.
"Harry hasn't said much, but he did mention that he didn't see Malfoy out there."
Arabella swore. "I always knew Lucius Malfoy was going to be trouble."
"She's still insufferable when she's right," Sirius said.
Remus nodded. "Yes, she is." He sighed. "I don't like this, though."
"Neither do I," Sirius replied. "I think we should go find Moody."
"What, Alastor 'the rubbish bins are attacking me' Moody?" Arabella asked.
"Paranoia can be a good thing, Ara. He can see things the rest of us can't. And Malfoy, especially if he is the last of the Death Eaters, is going to be very, very dangerous," said Remus.
She hopped down off the desk. "Right then. Let's go."
And as the two men looked at each other, Arabella dashed across the room. She was out the door before either had time to do more than blink.
"Well," said Remus. "She hasn't changed. How do you keep up with her?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised. We'd better catch her," Sirius said. "Because the other thing that hasn't changed about Arabella is that she's not slowing down for anybody."
Pansy Parkinson slammed her Potions book closed.
"This," she said, "is ridiculous. "I don't care about this right now."
She shoved her chair back and stood up.
"What're you gonna do, Pansy?" asked one of the other Slytherin girls. "Draco's already gone to find out-"
"Oh, the hell with Draco," Pansy snapped. "I'm going to see Professor Snape, find out if he's alright or not."
"Maybe if he's really badly hurt, they'll cancel the final," Goyle said hopefully.
Pansy cuffed him across the face. "Shut up! Don't you get it yet, you stupid git? My parents were with Voldemort. Either they're alright, or they're not, and I'm going to find out which."
"You want some company, Pansy?" asked another of the girls.
"No," she snapped.
Pansy slammed the door on her way out.
The door to the hospital wing was slightly ajar, and she pushed it open. "Madam Pomfrey?"
The school mediwitch came around a corner. "Pansy, dear... Professor Snape asked me to tell you that he'd speak to you later."
"Alright," Pansy said. "Thanks..."
"If he's alive," said Alastor Moody, "you can bet we'll be seeing Malfoy again."
"We didn't need you to tell us that, Mad-Eye," Arabella Figg said.
"No," Moody replied. "What you need me to tell you, Arabella, is that Apparating is now possible within the Hogwarts grounds."
"What?" exclaimed Sirius. "How-?"
"Dumbledore and I took the barriers down," Moody said, "so that Potter and Snape could return. I was against it, of course-"
"Of course," said Remus.
"But Dumbledore didn't want them having to walk back from Hogsmeade, and I can't really blame him."
"Now that they're both back, though," said Arabella, "can't you put it back up?"
"Love to," Moody said. "Only trouble is, it's easier to take down than it is to put back up. We need the entire teaching staff for that, and most of us are fairly exhausted from keeping up the school's defense spells. Never mind that Snape's busy getting the bones in his wand hand re-grown. Morning's the soonest we could get it back up, and that's if everyone rests up tonight."
"Damn," Sirius said. "Can't one of us stand in for Snape? I don't like the idea of leaving the Apparating barrier down all night."
"You think I do?" Moody shot back. "No, it's got to be him, or nobody."
"Who would've thought?" Sirius asked. "We actually need him for something. The bastard."
"Stop it," Arabella snapped. "You're not helping. Alastor, is there anything we can do until morning?"
"Keep your eyes open and your wand out."
Moody turned and left them standing in the middle of the hall, all three shaking their heads.
"Great," said Arabella. "Ole Constant Vigilance there is going to end up turning the students into frogs and the ghosts into who knows what, and can somebody explain to me how that's going to help?"
"Forget it," Remus said. "We need to see Dumbledore."
"Now there's a good idea," Sirius said. "Think we should warn him in advance about Mad-Eye going wand-happy?"
"Dumbledore hired him- he must know what the man's like." Arabella shrugged. "If you were Lucius Malfoy, gents, where might you Apparate?"
Neither man said anything for a long moment.
Then, "Merlin's Ghost! Gryffindor!" Sirius exclaimed, and spun about.
"Oh, bloody hell," said Arabella. "Harry. Remus, you go to Dumbledore. Sirius, wait up!"
Sirius and Arabella ran for the staircase to Gryffindor Tower, while Remus dashed towards the gargoyle blocking the entrance to Dumbledore's office.
Draco peered around the curtain in the hospital wing.
Snape sat propped up by several large pillows, his shattered right hand held out before him. The head of Slytherin looked a bit better than he had when he'd walked into the Great Hall, and the blood had been washed from his hands. The grimace of pain he wore seemed to indicate that Skele-Gro was not a particularly pleasant treatment, though Draco knew better than to ask him about it.
He was alone. There was no sign of McGonagall or the school's mediwitch.
"I could come back," Draco said at last. "If this is a bad time."
"I can't think of one that would be better," Snape said dryly. "Sit down, Malfoy."
Draco took the chair beside the bed. "I think the rest of the Slytherins will be by later, after they've bought out the candy store." He shook his head. "They don't know what else to do."
"It's not the only thing they do not know, Draco," Snape said.
"No, sir. It's not." Draco paused. "Potter told me about the Parkinsons, and Crabbe and Goyle got an owl about their fathers, but mine... Nobody knows anything, Professor, and-"
"You wanted to know," Snape said, wincing as a new bone connected to its fellows with a sharp snap, "whether I saw your father after Voldemort was killed."
Snape dipped his head in a brief nod. "As soon as it became clear that the outcome would not be in their favor, Lucius and several of the others Disapparated."
"He ran away," Draco said flatly. "I'm not really surprised. But does he really think he can run from the Aurors forever?"
"No," Snape said. "He knows better. But before they catch him... Lucius would believe he had unfinished business. You know that as well as I, I'm quite sure. As to where- Well, it's not really much of a question, is it?"
"He'll come tonight," Draco said, speaking as soon as the thought came to him. "Before anyone has time to regroup, while the staff is still tapped out from holding the defensive spells over Hogwarts..."
"Yes," Snape said. "Do you know where he'll strike, Draco?"
"Answer the question, Draco. Do you know where he will strike?"
"Isn't it obvious? At the one who just killed Voldemort."
"Yes," Snape said. "At Potter... And the Gryffindors." His uninjured hand slammed down upon the bedside table. "Minerva. She stood as Dumbledore's second in the main defensive spell, she's got to be exhausted..."
"And she's the only defense the Gryffindors are going to have," Draco finished for him. "Damn!"
Snape glanced sharply about the room. "My wand-" Draco pointed, and Snape nodded, gesturing sharply at it. "Accio," he said, and the wand flew into his hand. "Go back to the Slytherin common room," Snape added as he swung his feet over the side of the bed. He clutched at the bedrail as he stood, and Draco moved to help him, but Snape waved him back. "Go, Draco. I have enough to worry about without having to trouble myself over what your father will do if he sees you've come to help defend the others."
Draco pulled out his wand. "Do you know how many times my father has threatened my 'silly, Muggle-loving girlfriend', Professor? If you and McGonagall were in better physical shape, I might trust you to take care of what needs to be done, but now? No. I can't leave Ginny and the others, I can't."
Snape sighed. "I haven't the time to argue with you. Let's go."
Arabella and Sirius raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time, skirting the trick steps. And it seemed that no matter how quickly they ran, they would not be fast enough, wouldn't get there soon enough...
"Go!" Arabella said.
Sirius squeezed her arm once, quickly, and transformed in mid-stride. The black dog raced on ahead of her, wand grasped tightly in his teeth.
Arabella grabbed hold of a nearby door to keep herself from falling off the edge of the landing, and the door fell open under her weight.
It was a broom closet.
She grabbed the first broom she found, an old CleanSweep, yelled "Up!", and kicked off from the ground.
She had not flown in years, not since her days as a Chaser with the Gryffindor team, but it came back to her in a flash as she flew after Sirius, aiming her broom for the tower dormitory where danger sought out her lover's godson.
"I'll be damned, Malfoy," Arabella said to herself as she flew, "if you'll harm one hair on that boy's head. I will be damned."
She reached the portrait of the Fat Lady at about the same time as the black dog, and hopped off her broom. The dog transformed back into Sirius, to the shock of the first-year students standing before the portrait hole.
"Death Eaters..." one of them, a short blonde girl, whispered.
"Harry," Sirius said, and launched himself at the painting. "Let us in, now!"
"Password," said the Fat Lady.
Sirius snarled wordlessly.
Arabella grabbed his arm. "Staff passkey, Sir... Batwings," she added to the Fat Lady. "Move it."
The portrait swung open, and they dashed through it.
"Everybody down," Arabella snapped as she hit the floor running. "Out of the way, kids!"
Sirius was a blur of teeth and black fur as he launched himself at Lucius Malfoy, who aimed his wand at the dog.
"NO!" Arabella cried. Even knowing there was no counter to the Killing Curse, she had to try. Arabella turned on Lucius. "Expelliarmus!"
In the hall outside Dumbledore's office, the Headmaster and Remus Lupin came upon Snape and Draco Malfoy. The head of Slytherin House kept flexing his injured hand and wincing, but his jaw was set in a determined line, and Draco wore a similar expression.
"Headmaster-" Snape began, as they jogged down the hall.
"I know, Severus," Dumbledore replied. "Sirius and Arabella are already on their way. But surely Minerva can manage until they get there."
Snape shook his head as they reached the first staircase. "You don't understand, Headmaster. She's tapped herself out casting the defense spells over Hogwarts. They all are."
"He's right," Remus said. He turned his head to glare at Draco. "You- What are you doing here?"
"Ginny Weasley," Draco snapped between gasps of breath. He skidded to a stop, and Snape crashed into him. "Professor, look out!"
Draco pointed, but needlessly.
The staircase they were on was floating away from Gryffindor tower.
Snape scowled. "I think not." He aimed his wand at the stairs. "Stupefy!"
The staircase shuddered once, and froze.
"Better," Snape said. He eyed the distance between the last stair and the entryway before the portrait of the fat lady. A pair of first-year Gryffindors were standing helplessly there, waving furiously and yelling for help.
"Quick!" one of them shouted. "Death Eaters!"
"Can we jump that?" Draco asked.
"Going to have to, aren't we?" said Remus. "I'll go first."
He dashed up the last of the stairs, and launched himself towards the ledge. The first-years scrambled back out of the way. Remus landed hard, hands outstretched to catch himself upon the painting.
"You again," sighed the Fat Lady.
"Never mind," Remus said as Snape, Draco, and Dumbledore leaped after him.
Snape barely made it, landing hard on his shoulder. He threw out his wand hand to catch himself, and-
Swore, a very detailed sort of curse that caused even Remus to look at him with amusement.
"Batwings!" Lupin snapped out at the Fat Lady. And, "Go on, out of the way, we'll take care of this," to the first-years.
"There was no need to shout," the Fat Lady said, but the painting swung open, and they all clambered through the portrait hole into the common room.
Hermione stretched her arms above her head and yawned, then bent her head to the roll of parchment before her and made another note.
"Haven't you given that up yet?" asked Ron.
"No," she replied. "With Professor Snape back, you know the Potions exam is going to be very difficult, and I just don't think I've gotten it all memorized yet."
"Maybe he'll go easier on us on account of his snogging McGonagall?" Dean Thomas asked.
"Snape?" Neville asked. "I wish!" He leaned over the table. "Hermione, can I see your notes, please?"
"Sure," Hermione said, handing him the parchment roll. She spotted Ginny standing by the window, and got up to speak to her.
"Gin?" Hermione asked.
"This is supposed to be a good day, right?" Ginny asked. "So how come everybody's so... so..."
"Wary," Hermione supplied.
"Yeah. Why are they acting like this?"
"I think," Hermione said, "it's because everybody thought You-Know-" She glanced at Harry. "That Voldemort was dead once before, and he came back. It's taken so much to stop him this time, and no one's quite ready to believe it's over yet, because they were wrong before. Even the staff feels it, you can tell."
Ginny nodded. "Harry told me Draco went looking for Snape, to ask about his father..."
Hermione hugged the younger girl. "Whatever's happened, Ginny, Snape will look after him. It's funny, but I'm almost sure that Snape really likes Draco."
"Yeah," Ginny said. "I guess-" She grinned. "I guess we'll all be getting pretty high Defense Against the Dark Arts marks this term, huh?"
Hermione laughed. "Even Snape couldn't flunk us in that class."
"Like you've ever flunked anything," Ginny said.
"Doesn't count," Ginny said. "You dropped it. Think I will, too."
"Bad?" Hermione asked.
"Fourth-year girls with red hair and freckles are going to have a real bad year," Ginny said. "Or so she's said. It's been a good year, though... Mostly."
"Ron hasn't actually attacked Malfoy in weeks, Gin. That's got to be progress, right?"
Minerva had propped open the door to her room so that she could sit at her table and write, and look out down the staircase to see her charges, the Gryffindor students, scattered about the common room below as they laughed and joked and studied.
They were uncertain of the victory, afraid to hope too much, but they were beginning to think that it might be real, that this time it might all last, and seeing them that way, their greatest worry being that Snape might now be writing the Potions exam, made it seem all worthwhile.
Minerva returned to the letter she had been writing.
Seeing them, these children of mine, laughing and fretting over your final
exam downstairs, warms my heart. It tells me that what Voldemort most set out to
do- to turn everything upon its head, to sow discord amongst the younger
generations- It tells me he failed in that. They will be alright.
So, I think, will we.
But, Merlin's ghost, what a year it's been. I don't know about you, but I for
one could very dearly use a vacation. I think I would like to not be here for the
summer holidays, that I would like to go somewhere I haven't been in a very long
time, or perhaps even somewhere I have never been.
And if you don't think it too forward of me to be asking, would you like to
go with me?
We have been too many months apart, and I- I would miss you, Severus, very
Seeing them, these children of mine, laughing and fretting over your final exam downstairs, warms my heart. It tells me that what Voldemort most set out to do- to turn everything upon its head, to sow discord amongst the younger generations- It tells me he failed in that. They will be alright.
So, I think, will we.
But, Merlin's ghost, what a year it's been. I don't know about you, but I for one could very dearly use a vacation. I think I would like to not be here for the summer holidays, that I would like to go somewhere I haven't been in a very long time, or perhaps even somewhere I have never been.
And if you don't think it too forward of me to be asking, would you like to go with me?
We have been too many months apart, and I- I would miss you, Severus, very dearly-
A sound like the rushing of air through a cracked window.
Minerva dropped the quill to the desk with a sharp sound. Through the open door she could just make out the Apparating figure in its dark cloak and Death Eater mask...
"No!" she said, and grabbing her wand, raced for the stairs to the common room.
The Death Eater pulled off his mask...
...and from the students below there were gasps of surprise.
It was Lucius Malfoy.
He was alone, but he did not stay that way. There were several more rushes of cold air, and a trio of his fellows appeared behind him.
Mr. Malfoy aimed his wand at Harry. "Crucio!"
Minerva aimed her wand at a book on the common room table, and flicked it sideways. "Wingardium Leviosa!"
The book flew off the table and smacked Malfoy in the head. He shoved it aside with a snarl, never taking his eyes from Harry, who writhed on the floor, crying out softly in pain.
Hermione's cat, Crookshanks, launched himself at the Death Eaters behind Malfoy, and one of the fifth-year boys chucked a book at them.
Minerva dashed onto the staircase, unnoticed in commotion. "Incendio," she said, causing the fifth-year boy's books to burst into flames. The Death Eaters had to give most of their attention over to Impediment curses for several moments.
Lucius Malfoy's eyes alighted on Ginny, and he smiled.
"You! I've been wanting to meet you for quite some time..."
Ginny rolled her eyes at him. "Whatever. Expelliarmus!"
Malfoy flew back into the other Death Eaters, but managed to maintain hold of his wand, and the others pushed him back to his feet before he could fall too far.
Several of the first-years dashed for the portrait hole.
"Get the DADA gang, quick!" Hermione yelled after them.
Lucius smiled again. "As if Mad-Eye Moody and his crowd of fools could stop us." He spun to face the staircase, as one of the steps creaked under Minerva's foot.
"Hello, Lucius," Minerva said. "Stupefy!"
He ducked to the side, and the spell hit one of the other Death Eaters, knocking them flat. One of the others, however, worked the counter-spell almost immediately.
"Gryffindor bitch!" Lucius spat. "Crucio!"
Pain as she'd never known it, sharp and white and blinding.
Through the haze of her pain, Minerva saw a black dog clawing furiously at Lucius' face, and a witch in a red cloak- Arabella -trying to aim her spells at Lucius without hitting Sirius. She inched her fingers towards her wand, trying to focus past the pain...
Snape's head snapped up as he dropped to the common room's floor, the first of the group through the portrait hole. He recognized Lucius Malfoy's voice, having heard him cast that very spell far too many times. Recognized, too, the cry of pain that followed it.
"Easy, Severus," Remus said quietly. "Temper won't save her- cooler heads might."
Snape gave a jerky nod, but he flinched as she cried out again.
"You don't understand," Snape said. "I've stood by and let this happen once too often. I have to help her."
"Crucio!" another of the Death Eaters cried, and their was a young, feminine shriek.
"Ginny!" said Draco. "Bloody-"
"Bastards," Snape hissed between his teeth. "Lucius!"
Dumbledore raised his wand. "Finite Incantatem!"
Remus Lupin was guiding the Gryffindor students out through the portrait hole. "Downstairs, go," he said, giving Hermione a push. "Bit of a jump to the stairs, but you can make it."
"No," Hermione protested. "I- McGonagall, Ginny...Harry..."
"Go," Remus said flatly. "We've got this."
Remus ushered the last of the students out into the hall beyond the portrait, and Snape heard the picture close behind them.
"Lucius!" he shouted again, wand upraised in his hand.
Dumbledore's spell had canceled the Cruciatus Curses, and Minerva had regained her wand.
Sirius had drawn back and reverted to human form, still looking as if he might pounce on Lucius again at any moment.
Not taking his eyes from Lucius, Snape held out a hand to Minerva. She took it and climbed to her feet, wand leveled at Lucius.
"Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!" Arabella and Sirius stunned the other Death Eaters, leaving them to face only Lucius.
Snape held out his hand again, this time to Harry. "Up, Potter," he said.
"Thanks," Harry replied.
Draco made his way towards Ginny. "Father," he said, "What have you done?"
"What needed to be done," Lucius said flatly.
Draco knelt beside Ginny, reaching out a hand to touch her cheek. "Professor Snape? She's not moving."
"Hospital wing, Draco- now."
"Lupin, take them," Snape said.
Remus nodded. "Come on, son." He took Ginny's feet, Draco her shoulders, and they made their way towards the portrait hole.
"You alright?" Sirius asked Harry.
Harry nodded slowly. "Yeah. The others?"
"Remus got them out," Arabella told him. She looked to Dumbledore. "Headmaster?"
Minerva McGonagall gave a little cry and started to lose her footing.
Snape reached out instinctively to catch her, and in the process his wand turned away from Lucius.
Dumbledore glanced away from the Death Eater, looking as if he were about to reply to Arabella.
Arabella and Sirius were gazing at Harry, who had just realized that his wand was several long feet away.
And Lucius Malfoy saw his chance. He smiled.
"Snape!" Harry yelled. "Accio wand!"
Snape glanced up sharply. "Expelliarmus!" he snapped out.
Lucius Malfoy flew back, spinning head over heels to land in a heap in the corner.
Snape caught Sirius' eye, jerked his chin towards Minerva, and stalked towards Malfoy's corner. Sirius nodded, and he and Arabella moved towards the head of Gryffindor.
"You are a fool," Snape said quietly. "I'm only sorry you won't have longer to suffer for it." He raised his wand. "Avada-"
"NO!" Minerva pulled away from Arabella and Sirius, and threw herself forward, barely managing to take hold of Snape's robes and drag him back. "Severus, no!"
"You would spare him, after what he did? After what he came here to do?"
"It's not for us to say," Minerva told him quietly, reaching out a hand. Snape took it and pulled her back to her feet. Minerva leveled her wand at Lucius. "Stupefy," she whispered. Malfoy hit the floor with a resounding thump.
"Put on a few pounds, hasn't he?" muttered Arabella.
"Snape," Sirius said.
Snape sighed. "What?"
"Do you want to face Draco and tell him that what happened to his father is that you killed him?"
"This from the man who wanted to kill Pettigrew several years ago?" Remus asked.
"You were of a similar opinion," Sirius replied.
Snape said nothing.
"Severus," Minerva said. "If you kill him like this, you're no better than he is. Do you really want to end this being no better than Lucius Malfoy?"
Snape sighed again. "No. You're right." He glanced over at Sirius. "So are you, Black," he added, and the words seemed to cost him, but he said them.
"Good," Minerva said. "Now what would you say to getting this bit of rubbish off of my common room floor?"
"Splendid idea," said Arabella. "Say, where's Dumbledore?"
"Went for Moody," Harry spoke up. "I heard him say he was going, but you were all a bit busy at the time."
"What kept him, I wonder?" asked Minerva.
"A few of Malfoy's friends Apparated downstairs," Moody's head spoke from the fireplace. "Had to Stun them. You seem to have done alright for yourselves, though."
"Oh yes," Minerva said dryly. "Quite."
"Dumbledore says stun the gits and bring them downstairs," Moody said.
"Brilliant idea," said Sirius. "Have they fixed the stairs, Mad-Eye?"
"Yes. Which of you thought to stun them?"
The others wordlessly pointed to Snape.
Moody nodded. "Right then." His head vanished from the fire.
Arabella nudged Malfoy's still form with her boot, none too gently. "So... who's stuck carrying him out of here?"
"I'll do it," said Snape.
"Not with that hand," Minerva replied. She scowled at Malfoy. "I suppose I could do it..."
"No, I think you've been ill enough today," Snape said.
Sirius pulled on a pair of dragon-hide gloves. "I'll do it."
"Lovely," said Arabella. "I'll get the door."
"Was that the last of them, Severus?" Minerva asked.
He paused to count the Stunned figures littering the floor, then nodded. "If Moody dealt with three downstairs, then yes. That's the last of them. The others are dead, or captured." Snape aimed his wand at the fireplace. "Moody."
Moody's head appeared once again. "Yes?"
"How many Death Eaters did you 'deal with', Alastor?"
"Three," said Moody.
"That's it, then," said Snape. "That was the last of them."
"Right," the ex-Auror said. "Bringing your lot downstairs?"
"Yes," Snape told him.
Moody's head winked out, and Snape doused the fire with a flick of his wand.
"What'll happen to them?" Harry asked Arabella as they worked levitating charms on the Stunned Death Eaters and chucked them out through the portrait hole.
"Do you really care?" she asked.
"Just curious, is all," Harry replied.
"Well," said Arabella, "likely they'll go to Azkaban, or worse."
"The Dementors?" Harry asked.
"Yes," said Arabella. "Foul creatures, but for this lot..." She sent Lucius Malfoy sailing through the portrait hole to Sirius. "That's the last of them, Sirius- For this lot, Harry, I can't say as I'll be weeping."
"Yeah," said Harry. "Me, either."
"Why don't you run downstairs and ask Dumbledore to call the Aurors?" Arabella suggested.
"Right," said Harry.
Pansy found Allen, the Slytherin first-year, crouched in a corner behind one of the suits of armor. She scowled and shook her head, and jerked him upright by the front of his school robes.
"What?" she asked him, because the boy was trembling, and his face was very pale.
"Professor Moody," Allen said, "just stunned three Death Eaters...it was right in front of me."
Pansy looked him over. "You're an idiot, do you know that?" He didn't answer. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"Hospital wing. It'd be just my luck for you to pass out on me."
They walked for a few moments in silence.
"Did you ever find Snape and McGonagall?"
There were seven Death Eaters laid out in Dumbledore's office, counting Lucius Malfoy, and standing over them were the ones who had brought them to that state- Snape, Minerva, Arabella, Sirius, Moody, and Remus.
"Lovely group," said Arabella, summing it up rather nicely.
"The Aurors are on their way to take them off our hands," Moody said.
"Did Dumbledore tell them how many we had?" Snape asked, fingering his wand. At least, he tried to, but it fell from his fingers, which felt suddenly stiff and clubbed...
"Severus," Minerva said, "your hand..."
The Skele-Gro had clearly not finished its work when he had raced off to Gryffindor tower, and as a result the bones had reformed at odd angles, the skin stretched tight over them...
"Hospital wing, you two," Moody rasped.
"But I-" Minerva began.
Snape shook his head. "No, he's right. The Cruciatus Curse is going to catch up with you fairly soon."
Sirius looked them over. "Can you two hold each other up until you get there, or would you like some help?"
"I don't need your help, Black," Snape snarled.
"You still think you can survive on pure venom when you've got nothing else left, don't you?" Sirius asked. He sighed. "Have it your way, then."
Snape shook his head slightly. "I...apologize. That was uncalled for." He bent to retrieve his wand, and returned it to his pocket. "It's been a very long, very trying day, and I don't think that now is the time to get into all that lies between us. Frankly I haven't got the energy to spare for it right now."
"Neither do I," Sirius said. "And... Thank you."
Arabella burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" Sirius asked.
"Well- it just occurred to me that Minerva and I are the most normal ones in this room."
"And you reached this conclusion how?" Moody asked.
"You," Arabella said, "are paranoid almost to the point of being, as Mr. Ronald Weasley would put it, mental." She nodded to Lupin. "You, of course, are a werewolf. And you-" She grinned at Sirius, "are a mad ex-convict."
"And me?" Snape asked, half-dreading what she might say.
"When's the last time you washed your hair? I know it's a bit strange down in the dungeons, but, I swear..."
"This morning, I'll have you know!" Snape exclaimed.
But it seemed to the others that he smiled, just a bit, before he swept out of the room.
Minerva, who had stood beside him, was certain that he had smiled.
Approximately two thirds of the school seemed to have crammed into the hospital wing. They sat three and four to a bed, they overflowed the chairs and the tables, they stood in lines and knots out in the hall, and poured down the staircase.
Pansy Parkinson gave a little shriek when she spotted Professor Snape entering the hospital wing with McGonagall.
"Professor Snape! We were worried..."
"Miss Parkinson," Snape said with a nod. He glanced about the hall. "I see most of the Gryffindors are here... And the Slytherins?"
"I don't know," Pansy said. "I went looking for you just before-"
McGonagall laid a hand on Snape's shoulder, then drew it away. "I'm going to go tell Madam Pomfrey you're back. She's going to be cross with you about that hand..."
"Yes," Snape said. "I know. Minerva-"
She turned back. "Yes?"
He sighed. "Nothing."
As McGonagall left them, Snape drew Pansy aside, and into a room just off the hall. With one quick scowl, and an imperious gesture towards the door, he cleared the room of milling Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs.
"Professor," Pansy said, "they're saying- the Gryffindors are- that Draco's father was one of the Death Eaters who came to Hogwarts tonight, but I... my parents..."
Snape sighed. "Sit down, Pansy."
She shook her head. "No, I..."
"I'm very sorry," Snape said quietly. It suddenly struck him that he wasn't any good at this. She was in his house, and it was his responsibility to tell her. He couldn't have handed it to anyone else, and yet he wished Minerva were still there. She, he was certain, would have known what to say, and how to say it. "Your mother and father were trying to protect Voldemort when Harry Potter arrived. They had- The others had made quite sure I had my own problems at the time, and your parents..."
"They liked the Unforgivable Curses," Pansy said. "They liked them a lot." She paused. "So what did they hit you with? Cruciatus?"
"How did you-?" Snape started to ask.
Pansy laughed bitterly. "Who do you think they practiced on? It wouldn't have mattered if you'd been the one who killed them, Professor. It was you or them. It always was."
"I am sorry," Snape said. "I wish I knew what else I might say."
Pansy shrugged. "Don't worry about it. But... Did you tell anyone, about the Cruciatus Curse? Because coupled with other injuries, like purely physical ones, it can have some...really strange side effects."
"No," he replied, "I haven't...told anyone."
"Try McGonagall," Pansy said. "She'll know what to do."
"She usually does," Snape murmured.
She went to the door, and glanced back over her shoulder. "Thank you, sir, for telling me..." Pansy shrugged her shoulders, and stepped back into the hall. She scanned the crowds for McGonagall's green tartan cloak.
She found her standing with Sirius Black and the others, and approached them slowly. "Professor?" Pansy asked.
"Miss Parkinson," McGonagall said with a nod.
"We were sorry to hear about your parents," Arabella Figg said.
Pansy shrugged. "I wasn't, but thanks." She looked to the head of Gryffindor. "Professor McGonagall? This isn't really any of my business, but Professor Snape..."
McGonagall looked rather annoyed, and so, surprisingly, did the others. Pansy hadn't thought they would have approved, but clearly something had passed between them all, something that wasn't quite friendship, but wasn't simple hate any longer, either.
"He's hurt," Pansy went on before McGonagall's expression could turn even more severe, "worse than you know. And I just thought someone should see to him, that's all."
She turned and made her way past a group of milling Ravenclaws. They stopped her, though, and one of them, a sixth-year boy, asked her a question. Pansy nodded, and took the seat he offered her.
"You know," said Remus Lupin, "if she's right, you're probably the only one he would tell."
McGonagall nodded, and made her way to the small room Pansy had exited a few moments earlier. She stepped through the door, and the others could just make out the murmur of voices from within the room.
The sound stopped abruptly.
Minerva stepped into the small, dimly lit room, peering into the darkness. "Severus?"
"I'm here," he said quietly.
Following the sound of his voice, she found him sitting as far from the single candle as he could get, robes folded under him, in the farthest corner against the wall.
Minerva dropped down beside him, and realized immediately that Pansy had been right. It was difficult to tell in the dimness, but his face seemed a bit green, and his expression was dreadful.
"Do you feel well?" she asked, studying his eyes as he answered.
"No... as a matter of fact, I don't."
Minerva held up a finger and moved it from side to side before his face. His eyes seemed to be having trouble tracking it, and she nodded slowly. "Miss Parkinson said you might be hurt. I can see she was right."
"I feel more ill than injured," Snape said slowly.
She nodded, pressing a hand to his forehead. "You have a fever."
"That would make sense. I'm rather cold."
Minerva aimed her wand at the nearest candelabra. "Incendio," she muttered, and the candles lit. "Would you like to tell me what happened?"
Snape sighed. "I suppose I had better. The Parkinsons, before they died, hit me with the Cruciatus Curse. Voldemort had finally realized, you see, that I'd betrayed him. Potter's arrival distracted them at a crucial moment- any longer under the curse, and I'm certain I would have died. Because of the way the Cruciatus Curse works, the way it amplifies pain, it is considered...unwise to cast any spell upon yourself involving pain soon after having experienced it. But I didn't have any choice." He raised his hand, slowly, with its half re-grown bones. In the candles' deep shadows it looked horribly deformed. "When I cast the spell, I felt- something. I knew I would pay for it, soon. It seems soon is now."
She nodded, taking hold of his shoulders. "Can you stand? We've got to-"
"No," he replied. "I can't. I'm sorry. I had hoped I might have a little longer..."
"Dark magic," Minerva said quietly. "We have always known the cost is high. But, Severus, how high?" He didn't answer. "What have you done?" she whispered. "What have you done?"
"Outsmarted myself, it seems. I think I'm dying."
"The hell you are."
He smiled. "So determined, so brave, my Gryffindor. I think you could stare down Death, unafraid. But it isn't your death, is it? I have done this to myself, and you can't save me from myself."
"Yes," she whispered fiercely, "I can."
"How? You are no healer."
"No," Minerva replied, still grasping his shoulders. "No, I'm not. But maybe what I am, is enough."
"Oh?" Snape asked. "And you think being a mad Gryffindor Animagus will help you how, exactly?"
"Shut up, you fool," she said, pulling him towards her. He didn't have the strength to resist her. "Don't fight me, Severus. I can't help you if you fight me."
"I'm sorry, Minerva, but I can't let you do this. There is no point."
"There is. Damnit, if you wanted to go this route, you should've done it before I let myself fall in love with you."
"Ah, so you feel my timing is inappropriate?"
"Yes," she all but snapped. Minerva shook her head, and took his face between her hands. "Severus, listen to me. If you care for me at all, help me. Don't fight me. Let me do what I can, please."
He sighed. "You had to ask it, didn't you? Knowing I can't turn you away."
She smiled and kissed his forehead. "Of course."
"I love you, you know," he said quietly. "Even if you are mad." His eyes closed, and his head fell against her shoulder.
"Severus? Severus?" Minerva sighed, tipping back his head and feeling for the pulse at his neck. "At least you're still breathing," she muttered.
Minerva cradled his head in her lap, and for a long moment the only sound in the room was that of his labored breathing.
"I can't do this alone," she said, then raised her voice. "Remus! Sirius! Get Poppy, quickly!"
Ginny Weasley's eyes fluttered open, and the silvery-blond blur sitting beside her bed slowly resolved itself into Draco Malfoy.
"Alright there, Ginny?" he asked.
"I think so... Are you okay?"
"Me?" Draco asked. "Yeah." He sighed. "Gin, I'm sorry-"
"What for?" Ginny asked. "It's not your fault your dad's..."
"Yeah," Draco sighed. "Moody told me they might want all of us to testify at his trial."
"I passed out before I saw much," Ginny said, "but I can tell them..."
"You can tell them he was going to kill you, Gin," Draco said flatly. "Because he was. You, Potter, McGonagall, Snape- anybody he could get at."
"What stopped him?"
"Your friends, for one thing. Kept chucking books at them..." He smiled a bit. "Guess it was the best they could do, huh?" Draco asked, his tone slightly mocking.
"Draco," Ginny sighed.
"Anyway, I think Neville's Potions book is beyond hope- not that it'd help him pass the final, anyway..."
"That's about the last thing I saw, really, before you got hurt. They seemed to be doing alright when Lupin and I left to bring you here, though."
"Ron," Ginny gasped.
"He's alright," Draco said, "everybody is. Well, more or less..."
"What?" Ginny demanded. "What?"
"It's Snape," Draco said quietly, and Ginny saw that his hands were shaking. "I don't know- Something happened... It was just before he passed out-"
"He what?" Ginny interrupted.
"McGonagall did, too- Madame Pomfrey says it was the Cruciatus Curse- takes a lot out of you, that one does. She'll be okay. But Snape... He was pretty badly hurt when he came back, and they're saying with the fight at Gryffindor, he gave more energy than he had..."
"He saved us," Ginny said. "Him, and the others... I was pretty useless."
"You were great, Gin," Draco said with a small smile. "The way you looked at my dad and said 'Whatever'- that was great."
"Absolutely." He held out a Chocolate Frog. "Here. Slytherins bought all this crap for Snape, and we know he won't eat it, so we've been pinching it back."
"Only a Slytherin would steal candy from a passed-out Professor," Ginny said with a laugh. "Thanks, Draco."
Madam Pomfrey looked up from her examination, and slowly shook her head.
Sirius and the others had rushed into the room at Minerva's call, and together they'd managed to lift Snape off the floor and onto the bed. It had taken all of them to do it, and Sirius had muttered something about dead weight, which was cut off rather quickly when Arabella stomped on his foot.
"I'm sorry," Pomfrey said, shaking her head again. She looked quite startled; it wasn't often that there was an injury, magical or otherwise, that she was unable to cure. "I hardly understand the damage, and if I can't figure out what happened, I can't repair it." She looked to Minerva. "He didn't happen to tell you the spell he used?"
She shook her head slowly. "No, he-" Minerva cut herself off, and began fishing in her pocket until she came up with a ring of keys. "Do everything you can for him, Poppy. Call me if anything changes."
"I- Minerva? What are you doing?"
Minerva turned to Sirius, Lupin, and Arabella. "Keep watch on the Gryffindors for me, please."
"What about the Slytherins?" Sirius asked.
"I'm going to need the worst troublemakers of that lot," Minerva said. She brushed a hand across Snape's cheek. "Hold on, Severus. You may have outsmarted yourself, but you haven't outsmarted me, or those children of yours..."
"The Slytherins?" Arabella was asking, incredulous. "Minerva, you can't be serious-"
"I haven't got the time to be anything else, Arabella," Minerva said, and swept from the room.
The door slammed closed behind her, and the others were left staring after her, expressions ranging from shock to dismay to outright horror upon their faces.
"Poor thing," Pomfrey said. "I suppose the strain's just been too much for her..."
"No it hasn't," Lupin said. "Trust her, Poppy. She knows what she's about."
"You hope," the mediwitch replied.
"We know," Arabella said.
Minerva wound her way through the milling students at a run, and they parted to either side of the hall as she passed. She came to a stop at last beside Ginny Weasley's bed, and nodded a bit to herself when she saw Draco Malfoy seated beside her.
"Miss Weasley, I'm afraid I need to borrow Draco for a bit."
Draco turned at the sound of her voice. "With all respect, Professor, I'd rather stay with Ginny."
"I know, but I'm going to need you. You and Hermione Granger are at the head of your class in Potions, correct?"
"Yeah..." Draco said.
"Good. Find her, find Pansy Parkinson, and any other Slytherin who knows what they're about, and meet me in the dungeons."
"The dungeons, Professor?"
"More specifically, the Potions classroom."
"Do you mind if I ask why, Professor?"
"I need you and the others to help me with something, something very important."
"You need our help?" Draco asked.
"Yes. I've learned two very important things about the Slytherins this term, Mister Malfoy. First, some of you are every bit as good as you think you are. And second, you would do anything in the world for him. Are you willing to prove me wrong?"
"No, ma'am," Draco said. "I think we can prove you right." He stood up and glanced about the hospital wing. "Pansy!" he called, darting off through the curtain. A moment later he was back. "Er...sorry, Gin. I-"
"Go," Ginny told him. Draco smiled, waved, and went. "Professor?" Ginny asked after he'd gone.
"Do you really think...?" Ginny trailed off, but Minerva took her meaning well enough.
"I think an answer exists, Ginny. I think if it exists anywhere within Hogwarts, the dungeon is where we'll find it. I only hope we find it in time."
"Me, too," said Ginny. "Good luck, Professor."
"What," one of the Slytherins asked Draco, Pansy, and the others as they ran for the dungeon stairs, "does McGonagall think we can do to make a difference in the Potions classroom?"
"She thinks," Hermione said, "that we can help Snape. I think she's right."
"And I," Draco added, "think anybody who disagrees with that might be more useful babysitting the Hufflepuffs."
"Second the motion," said Pansy as they skidded to a stop at the foot of the stairs.
The Slytherin who had asked the question made no reply, and they filed into Snape's classroom in silence.
The classroom itself was empty, but books and papers littered the front table, and light spilled out from the open office door.
McGonagall stood in the office, her nose in a book. Draco peered around the book's cover and recognized Snape's handwriting on the pages.
"Good, you're here," McGonagall said as she turned a page, shook her head, and turned another. "Most of you know Professor Snape came back from the fight against Voldemort injured. You may also know that he left his treatment half- finished when the Death Eaters arrived. What you most likely do not know, and what you will continue to not know once you leave this room, is that his injury was self-inflicted, and magical in nature." Pansy swore, creatively and at some length. Rather than chastising her, McGonagall smiled. "That's a fairly accurate description of our problem, yes. Before their deaths, several of the Death Eaters cast one of the Unforgivable Curses upon him, and that, combined with the spell he cast upon himself, is what has put his life in danger. Madame Pomfrey cannot cure what she doesn't understand... Which brings me to you, and why all of us are here.
"I have the beginnings of an idea, but in order for it to work, I need Severus' notes on the spell he cast. You're going to help me find them."
"You asked for the best Potions students, Professor," Draco said. "Do you think we'll be brewing something?"
"It's possible," Minerva told him. "If the effects are reversible, I believe there's a particularly strong potion taught in the Seventh Year that will be able to counteract it. Its key ingredient, however, is determined by the spell one is trying to counteract."
"That makes sense," said Hermione, "but it means we need those notes... If they exist."
"They've almost got to," said a Slytherin girl named Blake. "Professor Snape keeps notes on everything."
McGonagall handed Blake a large book; she struggled under its weight until Pansy and Hermione moved to assist her.
The cover, when they had dusted it off enough to make out the gold lettering, read simply, "Moste Potente Potions".
As the girls opened "Moste Potente Potions" and began to flip through it, Draco pulled a book at random from one of the shelves along the wall and began to thumb through it.
"Remember first year?" Pansy asked Blake and Hermione. "'Put a stopper in death'?"
"Yeah, but how?" Blake asked.
"Here's something- oh, wait, no... Unicorn blood. Ick." Hermione turned the page quickly.
"Where's the Sorcerer's Stone when you need it?" Draco muttered.
"Destroyed, and for good reason," Hermione replied. "It's too dangerous. Right, Professor? Professor?"
McGonagall, though, was gone. A door at the back of the office, which none of them had noticed before, had been left ajar far enough that they could see the steep stone staircase beyond it, and the flickering candlelight as McGonagall ascended it.
"She must know what she's doing," Hermione said with a shake of her head. "Call out if you find something, right?"
"Yeah, if," said one of the Slytherin boys.
In the end it was Minerva who found the answer, and she found it not in the Potions classroom, nor in Snape's office. She found it in the trunk beneath his window, when she paused in her search to deposit the latest of her letters, including the unfinished one, which she hadn't remembered snatching up from the table in Gryffindor tower, though she must have done it.
The dark leather cover of a book peeked out from beneath the pile of letters, and she pushed them aside to get at it, lifting the book from the trunk with both hands.
It was quite logical once she thought about it. Minerva, too, kept the most advanced and potentially dangerous of her notes locked in her room...
And at that thought she paused, and took another look at the trunk.
There were protection charms, anti-theft spells, and several other enchantments cast upon it, yet she'd never felt so much as a twinge from any of them. Perhaps because they had been charmed to allow her access...?
Minerva shook her head. It didn't matter. Not then, at least.
She opened the leather volume carefully, and the pages turned themselves. It seemed almost as if the book knew what she was looking for, and meant to help her find it.
"Devoveo cruentus," she read aloud. "Roughly translated, the consecrated sacrifice of blood... The sacrifice must be willing, for it is that which gives this spell its power. Only in most desperate need of power such as cannot be otherwise commanded by the caster should this spell be used. Within blood there is power, which may with the use of this spell be directed towards any goal..."
Minerva seemed to hear his voice then, coming as if from very far away.
"I faked my death to buy Potter a bit of time, and it was necessary to do it well enough to fool Voldemort's spells. And my own."
Her hands shook, and Minerva nearly dropped the book, for she knew this spell, had read of it in her seventh year Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and knew that there was only one counter-spell that had any hope of working.
She closed the book and rose to her feet.
Minerva carried the book carefully tucked under her arm as she descended the stairs, and some sign of what she'd found must have shown on her face from the way the students gathered in the Potions Master's office looked upon her when she reached them.
"Did you find something, Professor?" Draco asked.
Minerva nodded. "I did, and I'm afraid there is no antidote."
"No!" Pansy cried. "Isn't there anything you can do?"
"There is one thing," Minerva said.
"Then let us help, Professor, please," Hermione said.
Minerva shook her head. "No, Miss Granger, I'm afraid not. I have to do this myself. If anyone can..."
"There's no way we can help, then?" Pansy asked.
Minerva shook her head. "You can tell the others, I have found a way."
Pansy nodded, and they departed the room. Minerva opened the book again after they had gone, re-reading the passage she'd found. She didn't get more than partway through it, though, before the sound of footsteps announced the return of one of the students.
It was Draco.
"I forgot my bag," he said, picking it up. "Professor?"
"Is what you're going to do the least bit dangerous?"
"No," Minerva said. "It is considerably more dangerous than that." She tapped the book with a finger. "The spell I'll cast is similar to this one, and only marginally safer. Quite dangerous actually, considering I must modify what is written. Tell me, how much do you understand of how magic works?"
"Er," said Draco. "I know that saying a spell isn't enough, you have to understand how it works, and to want it to work..."
"Even the strongest witch or wizard can only do so much without stopping to recharge. Where are you going with this, Professor?"
"Severus needed magical energy he didn't have, in order to help bring down Voldemort. He was able to get it, but at a price."
"His hand," Draco said.
Minerva nodded. "Yes, exactly. And under most circumstances, he would have the hand seen to, rest, and recover every bit of what he'd lost. But something else happened, immediately, I think, before he cast his spell, and that changed everything. He needs a portion of what he lost restored to him at once, or he will die."
"I don't intend to let that happen, Mister Malfoy."
I only pray, she thought to herself, that I can stop it.
Minerva returned to the hospital wing with Snape's notebook tucked under her arm, and as if she were a wave passing over them, the students grew silent as she passed.
She heard her footsteps echo in the hall, heard the whispers rise up to cover the sound, and shook her head in silent anger. Now, now that they had started to recover from the shocks of today, now they would judge her, judge them both. Now they would disapprove. As if it were any concern of theirs, as if it were their place...
She looked up, pushed her glasses up on her nose. It was Dumbledore. "Headmaster," Minerva said with a nod.
Together they stepped away from the crowds of students, towards the one door in the wing that was closed. Beyond that door lay Snape. Minerva reached for the doorknob, but Dumbledore caught her arm and held her back.
"I know I needn't say this," Dumbledore said quietly, "but I will do it anyway. Take care of him, Minerva."
She shook her head. "Albus, I don't even know that I can save him."
"You can," Dumbledore said, with great conviction. "You can. And you will. And once that is done, Minerva- take care of him. Take care of him, and watch over him, because no matter how strong he is, his heart is fragile. He needs you in a way you may never need him."
"Do you think I'm stronger," she asked, "because I seem to feel even less than he does? You're wrong, Headmaster."
"No," Dumbledore said, "I am not. In time you will see- in time he will tell you everything, I think."
"I only hope he has the chance."
"You should have faith in yourself, Minerva. Severus does."
Minerva nodded, and clutched the book a little tighter. "I have to-"
"I know. Go."
She reached for the doorknob and turned it. The door creaked as she pulled it open, and Minerva stepped inside. The door eased its way closed behind her, and as it closed it shut out the hall lights, leaving only the candlelight.
Several of the candles had gone out while she had been gone, and Minerva set the book down on the small table by the door as she reached for her wand. "Incendio."
Once the candles had been re-lighted she picked up the book again, and once again it opened to the same page.
For the first time since coming back to the room, Minerva looked to the bed, and the paler than usual head of Slytherin house laying upon it. She approached the bed and touched her hand to his forehead. It still felt all too warm.
"I didn't mean to take so long," she said quietly, "but it took me a bit to find the right notes. Miss Blake was right about you, Severus- you do keep notes on everything. I regret that a potion couldn't help you now, because they're quite good, those students of ours. Mostly yours, actually, but I've come to think of them almost as my own over this past term. We might've been able to make that the Potions final, too..." Minerva laughed suddenly. "Save your teacher, pass- kill him, flunk. Not terribly humorous, though, is it?"
She shook her head, knowing she was only stalling, knowing what needed to be done, but frozen with uncertainty.
I must, Minerva thought at last. There is nothing else left to do.
She took a deep breath, and began.
Minerva pulled her wand out, and lay it beside him. Then she reached within the pockets of his robe until she found his, drew it out, and lay it near her own, the tips of the two wands just barely touching.
Reaching out, she clasped Snape's hands in her own, holding tightly enough that her grip would not slip, loosely enough so as to not do any further damage to his injured limb.
"Sacrifice of willing flesh and bone," Minerva said softly, "your task is done."
From the hands she held, in particular the injured right, she felt a resonance, and there was an echoing sense from the magic.
"Strength that was given, join again that which remains."
The two wands began to glow, silver from his and gold from hers.
Minerva hesitated over the next words, running over in her mind the spell she had learned all those years ago, the one that she must now alter still more. It was necessary to add her own strength to the spell, else she knew that it would not work. She shifted her grasp upon Snape's hands, and as she did she heard the rustle of parchment from within her robe.
And then, she had it.
Your words are a mirror, he'd said.
"Blood granted in higher cause, see your true reflection."
The glow from the wands grew brighter, and she nodded slowly.
Minerva released her hold on Snape's injured hand, and with her free hand drew a small knife from her pocket. She set it upon the side of the bed, and shifted her grip from the handle to the blade.
The knife sliced cleanly, cutting a slender red line along the center of her palm. Minerva hissed between her teeth at the pain, grasping again the still- healing broken hand.
Inspiration brushed over her as the blood touched his hand, and her lips parted before she had even time to think the words. "Willing blood of the devoted," she whispered, "restore your love."
The glow of the two wands grew brighter still. Minerva felt the hands she held tighten about her own.
It was nearly done, but the danger was not yet passed.
Minerva felt her own strength begin to ebb, and through her hands and his was able to direct its flow. But if there was no reciprocating spark of power from Snape, the spell would take everything she had.
One final incantation to make or break it...
"Heart so long needed, come back to me."
She sensed it then, a spark like a glint of silver in the dark, reaching out for her. She caught it and drew it forth...
...and Severus Snape's eyes opened. Slowly the world seemed to come into focus for him, and he recognized Minerva standing over him. He looked to her, then to the two wands, and the hands that held his, and slowly shook his head.
"Foolish," he whispered. "Even for you, my brave Gryffindor. It was foolish."
"I did what I had to," Minerva said. "I won't pretend I'm sorry for it."
"How much did you alter the spell?"
"As much as was necessary."
"You are a fool."
"Yes," she said.
"For being foolish?"
"Of course not. Thank you...for saving my life." He paused, smiled as much as the sheer exhaustion he felt would allow. "Thank you, too, for finding the heart I thought I'd lost."
"Not lost, only misplaced." She might have gone on, but the world before her seemed to tumble, and she swayed.
"We're both going to need a good bit of rest, I should think-"
A knock sounded at the door. A moment later it opened. Arabella Figg stood there, a second bed floating beside her.
"Hey, kids," she said. "Thought you might need this, Minerva- You look exhausted."
With a flick of her wand, Arabella guided the bed into the room, and set it down beside the one occupied by Snape.
"By the way, Minerva, the Slytherins and Gryffindors have made a deal, and half the stock of the candy shop out here now has your name on it."
Minerva laughed. "Are the Slytherins getting soft?" she asked.
"Are you kidding? They didn't give it to them, they sold it." Arabella winked at them. "They've already been into the Chocolate Frogs, of course. The cards they pulled just happened to be yours, and you should see the looks they're giving each other. The students are eating it up."
Snape and Minerva traded looks.
"The Potions final," he said, "is going to be as difficult as it can possibly be made."
"Absolutely," Minerva agreed.
Arabella smiled. "Get some rest, you two. You've earned it." The door closed behind her before either of them could answer her.
Minerva, suddenly every bit as exhausted as the other witch had said she looked, set wand, notebook, and knife aside on the table, then lay down upon the other bed.
"Are you alright?" Snape asked.
"Yes. Just very, very tired."
He nodded as he raised his wand, and, aiming it at himself, whispered a few words Minerva was unable to catch.
"Severus?" she asked, glancing over at him.
In the space of several moments, he had changed. A bath still would not have hurt, but was no longer completely necessary, and the layers of dirt and grime he had been wearing since his return were gone. His hair was still a bit tangled, but she smiled as he ran a hand through it.
She reached out to take his hand, but the bedrails got in the way. Wordlessly they pushed them down, and nodded as one when they sat back to examine their handiwork.
"You clean up rather well," Minerva said, holding out her hand again.
"Thank you," he said as he took her hand. Snape brought it to his lips and gently kissed the back of her hand.
He released her hand, and with only the briefest hesitation, held out his arms to her.
They had already dispensed with the bedrails; now they shoved their pillows over and eased into the middle. Minerva shifted position once, ending up with her head pillowed against Snape's shoulder.
"I can move if you'd like," she said.
"No, I think you're perfectly alright where you are."
"If you're sure."
"I am." Snape turned his head and brushed his lips across hers. "You see? Perfect."
Minerva smiled. "Yes, I think I see just what you mean..."
Snape raised his wand, gesturing at the candles. "Nox."
His arms came up to encircle her, and her hands grasped them.
"Good night, Severus," she whispered.
"Good night, Minerva."
Minerva fell almost immediately to sleep, and Snape looked down on her for a moment. Slowly, with a gesture more tender than many would have thought him capable of, he removed her glasses and set them aside. Only when that was done did Snape give himself over to slumber.
Together, at last they slept.
The hospital wing was finally quiet at a good bit past one in the morning. Madam Pomfrey, having dealt with the most serious of the patients, had then found the time to weed the injured from those who were simply curious or concerned, and these last she had evicted, in a quieter tone of voice than she normally would have used.
They fought her, of course. They always did.
Draco Malfoy wanted to stay with Ginny Weasley. So, for that matter, did approximately the entire population of Gryffindor tower, up to and including Ginny's brother Ron. When the school mediwitch tossed them out of Ginny's cubicle, they installed themselves near Harry Potter's, and had to be kicked out once again.
The Slytherins had wanted one of their number remaining to keep the others updated on Professor Snape's condition, and while Madam Pomfrey had been busy evicting Draco once again, Pansy Parkinson had slipped back in, and firmly planted herself in the chair outside Snape's room.
Pansy peeked in once, and decided then and there that not only was she not leaving, but no one was getting past her.
About the time Pansy reached this decision, Draco snuck back into the hospital wing. Crabbe and Goyle, who could always be counted upon to do whatever Draco did, were not far behind.
Like bad pennies, the Slytherins and Gryffindors simply kept turning up, and after Mad-Eye Moody had caught all six of the usual suspects lurking under Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak, he had yelled at them one last time, then given up and left them in the care of Arabella Figg and Sirius Black, who seemed determined to avoid sleep at all costs.
Hermione did her best to cover a yawn when Ron replaced her in the chair nearest Ginny's bed.
"How's Harry?" she asked.
"Looks alright," said Ron. "He's still asleep. How's Gin?"
"Same," Hermione said.
She drifted down the hall towards Harry's room, pausing about halfway there for just a brief rest.
Arabella found her several moments later, asleep in a corner with her head on her knees.
"Mobilicorpus," she whispered, and guided the sleeping Hermione towards the door.
"Think they'll all drop off like this?" she asked Sirius as she passed him on her way out the door.
"Probably. Going to put her to bed?"
"Yeah." Arabella eased the door open. "They all look so young asleep, don't they?"
"They are young," Sirius replied.
After taking Hermione back to the fifth-year girls' dormitory in Gryffindor Tower, Arabella returned to the hospital wing. Sirius was on his way out with Ron, and waved as he passed her.
Draco Malfoy was the only one who made it till morning. He dozed in the chair vacated when Arabella had taken a sleeping Pansy Parkinson back to the Slytherin quarters. Draco slept in fits and starts, as if to spite Arabella and Sirius, who had gone to put each of the others to bed hours ago.
He opened the door a crack to look in on Snape and McGonagall. Draco had forgotten, though, how much the door creaked, and he winced at the sound, loud as a crash of thunder in the otherwise silent hospital wing.
Snape stirred, and opened his eyes. McGonagall lay with her head against his shoulder, and Snape was working at untangling his wand hand from her grip upon it when he recognized the pale-haired Slytherin looking in on them.
"Sorry," Draco whispered. "I was just checking."
Snape nodded, and let the wand lay where it was.
"Do you need anything, Professor?" Draco asked.
"No," Snape replied softly. "Thank you." He paused. "Draco. The sun's nearly up. You have a final in two days."
McGonagall stirred within his arms, and seemed about to wake. Snape held up a finger for silence, and turned his eyes to her.
She looked up at him, sleep-fogged. "What-?" she asked.
"It's alright," Snape told her. "Go back to sleep."
The last thing Draco saw, before easing the door closed again, was McGonagall resting her head once more on Snape's shoulder and closing her eyes. Now, Draco thought, he could sleep. They'd be alright till morning.
While McGonagall, Snape, and the others recovered in the hospital wing, while the exhausted students they had put to bed slept, Arabella and Sirius worked quietly and diligently to clean up Gryffindor Tower's common room. They picked up the books and stacked them on the table, straightened the curtains and righted the chairs, scrubbed the scorch marks from the walls with a few deft flicks of their wands. Only when it was done, when the room looked very much as if the fight with the Death Eaters had never taken place, did they take themselves to bed- Sirius curled up in dog form beside the fireplace, and Arabella stretched out on one of the couches.
The only sound within the tower was that of one of the first-year boys snoring softly, and the "ribbit, ribbit" of Neville Longbottom's toad, Trevor, which had wandered off and was presently enjoying a soak in the washroom sink which had been backed up ever since Fred and George Weasley had dropped a firework down its drain in their second year.
The days leading up to the end of year feast passed quickly, and with midnight study sessions, exams, and the strange combination of nervous anticipation and celebration that followed them, things slowly seemed to be returning to normal at Hogwarts. Despite Madam Pomfrey's best efforts to keep her patients resting within the confines of the hospital wing, Professor Snape was seen on numerous occasions stalking the halls, his wand hand bandaged, but no less the terror of the school and the bane of many a Gryffindor's existence.
If the students and faculty had thought that Snape's budding romance with McGonagall (which, of course, was such a well-kept secret that it seemed the entire wizarding world knew about it) might have taken the biting edge from the head of Slytherin, they were soon proven quite wrong.
It was the incident involving the two Hufflepuff seventh-years whom Snape found snogging in his classroom during the lunch hour that truly set him off. They might have gotten off with only a rather lengthy lecture and a quite horrific detention, if the boy hadn't been foolish enough to try to appeal to the sympathy he was certain Snape must hold somewhere within his heart for those who found themselves in love with someone of whom those around them disapproved quite strongly.
The whole story came out before the Hufflepuff boy realized the error of his ways; how the girl with whom he had been snogging in the Potions classroom was only a half-blood, how his old wizarding family would never approve, how he had heard that Dumbledore had owled everyone's parents and that they might even now be arriving...
The number of points Snape took from Hufflepuff put that house, formerly in second place, into last, with absolutely no hope of even snagging a single place higher before the term was out. Then he turned them over to Filch, the school's hated caretaker.
This event was discussed in much the same manner both in the staff room and in the various House common rooms. The Hufflepuffs, of course, were outraged, but as used to Snape's legendary unfairness as anyone else. The Ravenclaws, as always, failed to see the logic. In the Slytherin dungeons (where they'd been able to overhear most of Snape's exchange with the Hufflepuffs in question) it was the funniest thing to come their way in years.
In Gryffindor they shook their heads and muttered to each other. They felt sorry for the Hufflepuffs, of course, but couldn't help thinking (along with the rest of the school, more or less) that the pair should've known better.
"I mean," Ron Weasley said at one point, "what kind of fool appeals to Snape's sense of anything?"
Harry Potter, though, felt strangely relieved about the whole thing. No matter how much had changed that year, it seemed Snape would always be Snape. And for that and several other universal constants, he was thankful.
Snape, in black dress robes edged with silver, entered the Great Hall arm-in- arm with Minerva McGonagall, her dark hair swept back from her face with a pair of combs rather than in her customary bun, and she fairly glowed in dress robes of Gryffindor red.
The Great Hall's enchanted ceiling showed brilliant specks of starlight, complete with constellations in their proper places, arranged by the Astronomy Professor, and a large section of the floor had been cleared by pushing the Gryffindor and Slytherin tables close together.
The staff were first into the Great Hall that night, and like Minerva and Snape, they all wore the best of their dress robes.
Arabella came in with Sirius on one arm and Lupin on the other. A continuous shuffle/thump sound seemed to follow them, and it was only when she saw an arm snake out of nowhere to poke behind one of the tapestries that Minerva realized it was Moody who followed them.
"I was sure," Snape said quietly, "that somewhere in the Hogwarts Codes of Conduct, it specifically states Invisibility Cloaks are not to be worn in the Great Hall." He scowled across the room. "We all know you're under there, Moody- may as well come out. Unless your dress robes are as or more humiliating than Weasley's were last term?"
Moody muttered something Minerva thought it was just as well Snape was too far away to catch, and tossed the cloak aside.
He wore a set of dress robes that must have, at some point very long ago and perhaps in another country, been the height of fashion. Whenever and wherever that might have been, however, it had long since passed, and the camouflage patterned garments Moody wore were simply...odd.
"Suppose he thinks he can blend in with that getup?" Arabella asked of no one in particular.
Moody shuffled off, his wooden leg thumping against the floor. He stood with his back to a corner, where he could keep an eye on both of the Great Hall's doors, and anywhere else from where Dark wizards or witches might suddenly appear. No one wasted their breath reminding him that they'd put the Apparating barrier back up several days ago, because Moody's paranoia had never in the past given way in the face of logic, and it certainly wasn't about to do so now, either.
Minerva pulled out a roll of parchment and looked it over. "Well," she said. "This is going to be quite interesting, I think."
"Yes," Snape agreed. "I think so, too."
The parchment contained a tally of the House point standings, with Hufflepuff in third place, Ravenclaw in second- and Slytherin and Gryffindor tied for first. Included in that tally were the points the staff planned to award tonight, but of which the students knew nothing.
Dumbledore walked through the doors, with the rest of the staff coming along behind them. He smiled and nodded at Minerva and Snape as he approached the high table.
"Lovely to see you both here, you're looking well- How is the hand, Severus? Better?"
"Yes, a bit," Snape replied.
With the addition of Moody's group, the staff table had expanded a bit in the past year. Dumbledore sat at the head of the table, with Flitwick and Sprout to one side, and Snape and Minerva to the other. The other teachers arranged themselves as they chose, but it appeared that no one, least of all Sibyll Trelawney, the Divination teacher, wished to sit next to Mad-Eye Moody. It might have had something to do with the way he was twitching and muttering to himself. Or it could, Minerva thought to herself, have simply been Sibyll.
Snape glanced about the table, counting heads. "She's going to start that nonsense about the numbers any moment now-"
Trelawney, who counted a bit slower than Snape, drew back from the table with a little shriek. There were, indeed, thirteen staff members preparing to sit down there, and she seemed to want no part of it.
"I do apologize, Headmaster, but I am receiving a Vision."
"Isn't it interesting how convenient her timing is with those?" Snape said under his breath.
"Not anymore, it isn't," Minerva replied.
"I fear I must dine alone tonight. Good evening, colleagues, friends..."
And Trelawney retreated back out of the Hall.
"I think I've had a premonition as well," Snape said.
Dumbledore looked at him and sighed. "Severus. Not another word."
"Oh, say on, Snape, say on," Remus said, looking quite interested. "Tell us about your premonition."
"Shut up, Lupin."
"Ah yes," Dumbledore said. "Life as usual at Hogwarts. That's what I like to see... Shall we, friends?"
He sat, and the others did the same. Snape, in a quite surprising show of gallantry, held out Minerva's chair for her.
"Thank you," she said as she sat.
He took his customary seat at her side with a small nod.
"Very well," Dumbledore said. "Let us begin." He raised his wand, and somewhere within the castle, several bells began to ring, summoning the students to the much-anticipated end of year feast.
As the students filed into the Great Hall, they looked with interest upon the Slytherin and Gryffindor tables. When the first Gryffindors and Slytherins reached the tables, they sat as far away from one another as was possible, the Slytherin students scowling, and the Gryffindors stoically pretending not to have noticed the looks being cast their way.
From the high table, Minerva saw Draco Malfoy shrug slightly, and take the seat beside Ginny Weasley. Ever in his shadow, Crabbe and Goyle followed, though the Gryffindors edged away from the pair.
Pansy Parkinson and the other Slytherin girls, who appeared to have reached some amount of understanding with Hermione Granger on the day of Voldemort's demise, moved to sit beside her, and after a moment's hesitation, she introduced them to the Gryffindors.
"No blood yet," remarked Sirius. "I'm impressed."
"Give them time," Snape replied.
Dumbledore stood, and raised his hands for silence.
"Another year," he said, "and this one has seen almost as much change as the last. I know you are all anxious to see the awarding of the House Cup, and I will not delay that announcement very long at all... I only wanted to take the time to tell all of you how very proud I am of you. You have all done great things this past year. You have been brave, you have been cunning, you have been wise, you have been loyal." Dumbledore held out a hand, and Minerva handed him the roll of parchment.
"The points stand thus: In third place, with one-hundred and two points, Hufflepuff."
There was a smattering of applause for the Hufflepuffs, most of whom seemed to be directing rather dark looks at the two seventh-years who had put them in that position.
A murmur went around the room, as the students realized the Headmaster had said Hufflepuff was in third place, not fourth.
But Dumbledore was going on, and they quieted to listen. "In second place, with three hundred and fifty points, Ravenclaw."
The Ravenclaws got more applause than the Hufflepuffs, though they looked a bit let down. Apparently they had been expecting to win the Cup.
"In first place-"
As they had planned, Minerva stood, and so did Snape.
"Excuse me, Headmaster, there are just a few things-" Snape said.
"Yes, a moment, please," said Minerva. She took one side of the parchment, and Snape held the other.
"It seems," Snape said, "that there are a few last-minute points to be awarded. "Firstly- to Mister Draco Malfoy, for an outstanding show of bravery and determination, I award one hundred points to Slytherin."
The Slytherin side of the Gryffindor/Slytherin table burst into cheers, and Ginny threw her arms around Draco, who looked a bit startled, if rather pleased with himself.
"Next," Minerva said, "to Miss Virginia Weasley, for courage under fire, I award twenty-five points to Gryffindor."
"Alright there, Ginny!" Ron yelled.
Ginny ducked her head and blushed.
"To Miss Pansy Parkinson, Miss Catherine Blake, and Miss Blaise Zabini, for their unswerving ability to brew potions correctly when they matter most- Twenty- five points to Slytherin," Snape said.
"But, Professor- We didn't end up needing the potion we brewed," Pansy protested.
"No," Snape said, "You didn't. But I tested it- Mrs. Norris will recover-" At this there were as many laughs as groans "-and it worked perfectly."
"Hey, Pansy?" Blaise asked. "Shut up and let him give us the points, huh?"
"To Miss Hermione Granger, for same," Minerva said. "Twenty-five points to Gryffindor."
"To-" Snape seemed to sigh. "Mister Harry Potter. For-" He cracked a smile- barely. "For finding the most practical use I have ever seen for his Defense Against the Dark Arts training...Fifty points to Gryffindor."
The Gryffindors cheered; another twenty-five points and they would tie with the Slytherins, and it didn't look as if Minerva or Snape were ready to sit down yet.
"Lastly," Minerva said, "to the Gryffindor fifth-years, all of you, for quick action in defense of each other- twenty-five points."
"That seems to be everything," Snape said. "So. With five hundred points each- The House Cup goes to both Gryffindor and Slytherin."
Dumbledore aimed his wand at the House Cup beside his place. Suddenly there were two House Cups, one engraved with the Slytherin coat of arms, one engraved with the Gryffindor.
"They're mental," said Ron. "Us and the Slytherins?"
"We all earned it!" Draco shot back. "I didn't hear any points for you, except what the fifth-years got, so-"
Ron lunged at him, and, since he had been sitting on the opposite side of the table, plates and goblets flew in his wake.
Hermione and the others ducked- and Ron hit Draco with enough force to knock him off the bench and onto the Great Hall floor.
"Malfoy! Weasley!" Snape's voice rang out. "Control yourselves!"
Draco glared up at Ron and smoothed back his hair. "There, see? You can't-"
What Ron couldn't do, none of them ever heard, because Ron drew back his arm and punched Draco in the nose.
It began to bleed almost immediately.
At the high table, Sirius Black sighed. "Well," he said. "There goes that."
Snape and Minerva traded looks, then went to separate their students.
"Perhaps we should send them Howlers," Snape remarked as they stood there, watching the fight as it carried on.
"Hmm," Minerva said, looking very much as if she were considering the suggestion. "After term ends, when they've returned home?"
Ron stood back abruptly, and offered Draco his hand. "Er," he said. "Sorry about that. Lost my balance."
"Yeah," Draco said dully. "Forget it, huh?"
"Good," Snape said with a nod. "Now shake hands and sit back down."
"Professor-" Draco protested.
Snape crossed his arms and looked at him.
Draco grabbed Ron's hand, shook it, and dashed back to his seat.
"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Snape asked. He pulled out his wand and gestured at Draco with it. Immediately the blood flow stopped.
And standing there, before the combined Gryffindor/Slytherin tables, Minerva McGonagall held out her hand to Snape.
"Do you think it's remotely possible," she asked, "that our Houses can grow past this nonsense?"
"We can only hope," Snape said. He kissed her hand.
Behind them, Slytherins and Gryffindors alike whistled.
"Think he's gonna kiss her again?" Pansy asked rather loudly.
"Could happen," Ginny said.
"Have I mentioned lately," Snape said none too quietly as they made their way back towards the staff table, "how much I loathe children?"
"Oh, is that his excuse?" one of the Gryffindors muttered- but he said it quietly enough that Snape could pretend to not have heard it at all.
"Aw, I think you should've done it," Arabella said as they sat back down.
Snape eyed her sharply. "What?"
"Kissed her, you fool. It was entertaining enough the first time-"
"I think," Sirius said, "that Snape believes it's our turn?"
Snape nodded. "Quite."
"Right, then." Sirius turned in his chair, grasped Arabella by the shoulders, and kissed her.
"Not bad," Moody said. "Think theirs was better, though." He jerked his chin in Snape and Minerva's direction.
"Do you suppose we could eat now?" Minerva asked, blushing furiously.
"Splendid idea!" Dumbledore exclaimed, and raised his wand.
The empty plates and goblets upon the tables filled themselves (the ones Ron had knocked over, having the advantage of their Always-Clean Charms, had simply been picked up and returned to their proper places) and large covered dishes appeared in the center of each table for anyone who might desire a second helping.
Along with the food appeared the usual end of year feast decorations- the banners and hangings bearing the colors and mascots of the winning house. But this year Slytherin silver was entertwined with Gryffindor gold, green lay alongside red, and the Slytherin serpent stood alongside the Gryffindor lion.
"It's an interesting contrast," Minerva said.
"Isn't it, though?" Snape said.
She tilted her head to examine the large banner upon the wall behind the high table. "I think I rather like it." Minerva smiled. "And the children are getting used to it. It won't last, of course, and we'll be right back where we started from next term-"
"No, I think not," Snape said. "I think we have made great progress this year. In," he added quietly, "more ways than one."
It wasn't customary for the end of year feast, but the joining of the Slytherin and Gryffindor tables had cleared quite a space in the Great Hall, and the students, many of whom had attended the previous year's Yule Ball, were eyeing that space as if they were well aware how good it might prove to be for dancing.
"We have a great deal to celebrate this year," Dumbledore said, "and I can think of no better way to celebrate than to dance. And so..." He waved his wand, and music, light and silvery, seemed to rain from the 'sky' above them.
The students took to the idea immediately, and the pair of Hufflepuffs Snape had caught in his classroom were first out onto the floor. Others soon followed, including Draco, who was dragged bodily onto the floor- quite an effort, considering- by Ginny Weasley.
"Further," Dumbledore called out, "it is my pleasure to inform you that classes are cancelled tomorrow. I would ask you not to overdo things tonight, and anyone who happens to fall asleep on his or her feet will be relocated to his or her dormitory."
Cheers met this statement, the latter half of which was pretty much ignored.
"Well then," said Dumbledore, and he headed off to join the students upon the dance floor. The rest of the staff table cleared quickly, leaving Minerva and Snape alone there.
Snape watched the dancers for a moment and shook his head slightly before turning to her. "Would you care to dance?" he asked quietly, as if uncertain he'd phrased the request correctly.
"I'd love to," Minerva said.
Snape stood and offered her his hand. She took it, and they descended from the high table. Remus Lupin waved as he spun Hermione Granger past them, and there was a good bit of applause from the student body.
It might have been only a coincidence, but as soon as they stepped down from the table, the song that had been playing faded, and was replaced by something a good bit slower.
Snape hesitated, as if suddenly aware of just how many people stood around them. Resolutely, though, he took another step forward, and Minerva turned to face him.
"I feel I should warn you," he said, "it's been years since I've done this."
"I'm sure we'll manage," Minerva replied, holding out her hands.
Snape nodded once, then he took her in his arms, and they danced. Slowly, with their arms around each other, they danced. The stars above them spun, until the candlelight and the other figures about them faded into smoke, and after that they saw only each other. Snape forgot to worry about where he was putting his feet, and Minerva smiled, just a bit, as she felt the tension go out of him.
They continued on that way until a sudden weariness washed over them both, and pausing to sit down seemed the wisest thing to do.
Several of the seventh-years, who had formed a band the previous term, were setting up their instruments before the high table, and as they neared it Minerva realized that Dumbledore's silvery music had in fact stopped some time ago. She smiled and shook her head.
"What?" asked Snape.
"Nothing," she said, reaching for her goblet and taking a slow drink of water. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Only a bit tired. That was... Well. I wouldn't mind doing it again sometime, but perhaps not right away."
Minerva nodded. "Thank you."
"I happened," Snape said as he refilled his goblet, "to open a certain trunk in my room today, and I found a few things..."
"Oh," Minerva said, feeling a bright flush creep across her face. "I..."
"I read them, and I have something here for you. Come with me."
They rose again from the table, and Snape led the way to the far end of the Great Hall, out onto a balcony that was both mercifully quiet and unoccupied.
Snape leaned against the balcony's wrought-iron railing, gazing out over the Hogwarts grounds. Minerva joined him at the rail.
"As I said, I read your letters, and I was touched." He paused. "It would seem we are more alike than we know. These are for you." Snape produced the two letters he had written and been unable to send, and offered them to her. Minerva's hands shook as she took them, and he waited, patiently, as she read them.
Wordlessly, Minerva slipped the letters into the pocket of her robe, and took his hands. Only then did she speak. "Dear Severus," she said softly, "these have been dark times, trying ones, for all of us. We have all faced difficult choices, and I believe that you made the right ones."
"Did I?" he asked. There was no venom in his words, but he drew one hand away to push up his right sleeve, baring the Dark Mark upon his forearm. "Was this the right choice?"
"Perhaps not, but nor was it the most important choice. You came back to us, Severus, returned when we most needed you, and that is the choice that matters. You came back. And look-" She brushed her fingers across the Dark Mark. Snape winced, and moved as if to pull away... But where her fingers touched, the blackness of the mark seemed almost as if it were being dusted away.
"What-?" he asked.
"All scars fade with time, Severus. So too will this one fade. It'll take time, but you will wake one morning and hardly be able to see it at all. One day it will be as good as gone." She paused. "Voldemort is dead, Severus. You're free now."
"You know you are. As to what you might do with that freedom, that is a choice only you can make."
"You have far more faith in my choices than I do, I think."
"Perhaps. But I know you."
"Yes," Snape said, "I suppose you do." He paused. "The future...this concept of freedom you spoke of just now- I find that it overwhelms me. I don't think I am quite ready to face it just yet. Coming to terms with it may take time."
"It takes what it takes," Minerva said quietly. "I'll be here when you decide where you go from here. But I won't go- I will not walk away."
"I was rather hoping you'd say that." He held up one of her letters- the one she'd left unfinished, by the looks of it. "I find the idea of travel appeals to me. I, too, would like to go somewhere I've never been."
"Yes. And," he took her chin in his hand and tilted her face up towards him, "I, too, would miss you, rather desperately, I think, if we were apart."
"Is there anywhere in particular you'd like to go?"
"You know," he said thoughtfully, "as long as you're with me, I really don't think the destination matters all that much."
Minerva smiled. "Settled, then. I suppose we'll see where the wind takes us, won't we?"
"Yes." His hands moved to her shoulders, pulling her closer, and they kissed as they had not done since he had stepped back into the Great Hall several days ago, blood on his shattered hands and the word of Voldemort's destruction upon his lips. And as they kissed, as she ran her fingers through his hair, something of the quiet despair that had lurked so long within his eyes, began to fade away.
That, too, was a scar both knew would not fade all at once. But day by day, those wounds too would heal; together, they would be certain of that.
Snape lifted the slightly shorter Gryffindor witch into his arms as he kissed her, and Minerva's hands locked about his neck.
When they drew apart and he set her once more upon the ground, they needed no more words. The two of them stood for a moment in silence, and then, hand in hand they turned away from the warm summer night to rejoin the others in the Great Hall.