To Bring Him Home.
The stone door slid open silently at her touch. The torches in their iron brackets were extinguished, and the common room was dark and heavy-shadowed. The carven mantle loomed huge and imposing, the flawless dark stone bathed red beneath by the dying embers. The sullen glint of ruby in the eyes of the stone serpents made them look strangely alive. As she drew closer she realised, as she had never realised before, that they were beautiful – serpents wrought with a craftsman's skill into an ornate pattern, twined amidst the leaves of branching trees. She passed her wand lightly over the nearest torch bracket, and immediately wished she hadn't as the torches flickered, invading the room with slow light. Their flame made the shadows seem heavier, the utter stillness and silence more pronounced. The serpent-carved brackets seemed to stir, hostile, alive. She did not belong here. She felt the room heavy with silent threat. This was not her domain.
In her realm, the armchairs were fat and cosy, their springs broken by exuberance and time. The embroidered tapestries were faded, and torn in places by careless hands, the rug before the fire singed black. Here, in his world, the furnishings were immaculate; the emerald velvet slightly dulled, perhaps, the dark wood polished by the memory of many hands, but tenderly, with reverence. The intricate carvings were everywhere; trees of all kinds, branching, blossoming; tiny birds with wings of black stone; creatures real and imagined – dragons and wolves, wild horses, satyrs, swans, tyreths, hippogriffs, chimaera. And everywhere she looked, twined about the arms of chairs and the legs of tables, about the panelled alcoves and the high, arched doors, beautiful, terrible serpents.
Lightly, Minerva brushed her fingers across the nearest snake-backed armchair. Her hand looked unusually pale; small and white against the dark wood. In her mind, she saw the common room in mornings of long ago. Bellatrix Black, seated in this same chair, brushing out her shining mane with slow, sensuous strokes, tying her braid with dark red ribbon . . . In those ageless mornings, first Andromeda, then Narcissa would have sat upon the floor at Bella's feet while her deft fingers braided each head in turn. She still remembered those hair ribbons. Bella's, red as blood; Narcissa's, pale ice-blue; Andromeda's, a particularly rebellious shade of bubblegum pink.
Minerva's hand dropped from the back of the chair as though scorched. She had passed many bodies on her way through the Great Hall, but only one with bubblegum pink hair.
On either side of the fireplace there was a doorless archway. Stepping through the left-hand arch, Minerva found the staircase beyond, curving upwards in an elegant spiral. As she ascended, her breath came faster, her hand upon the snaking banister damp with sweat.
The staircase climbed steeply, emerging into a long, straight corridor. Dark, in the absence of torch light, and cold. There were heavy doors spaced along the right-hand side of the corridor at regular intervals. The boys' dormitories. She paused momentarily before the third door. This had been Marius' dormitory, when she and Marius had still been friends. It had been Christmas, 1952, and of the third years, only Minerva had remained behind. Only Minerva, and Marius Avery, who was one of them, yet not quite one of them, on account of being a Slytherin. Minerva had never been in the Slytherin dormitories before. Marius had been asleep still when she found him. A fine, dark head upon a white pillow; a tiny, spun-glass snitch, and a bag of Honeydukes fudge . . . Many years later, he had almost succeeded in killing her. Minerva looked hard at the stone door, but she did not open it. Instead, she walked slowly on down the corridor. The seventh and final door alone stood slightly ajar.
The dormitory was like, and yet unlike any other in the castle. She didn't know what she had expected; she only knew that it was not this. The five canopied beds were laid exactly as in Gryffindor tower, scattered with the detritus of teenage life. A chessboard lay upon the furthest bed, a single black rook still standing. The other pieces lay swearing squeakily, trussed in the tangled sheets. That game would never be finished now. The jumble of heavy and exceedingly difficult library texts about the bed led her to guess that it had been Theodore's. She wondered who he had been playing with. Blaise, perhaps. That next would be his bed. The drawers were overflowing with handsome dress robes, and an elegant collection of shaman's beads was strung about the canopy. Besides, the silver-framed photograph on the dresser clearly showed Blaise, dancing with his sister Tala. Two beautiful, dark-featured siblings, with mysterious smiles and haughty eyes. That would make the two beds at the further end of the room Vincent and Gregory's. Both were in disarray, littered with sweet wrappers and chip packets, old boxer shorts and stray socks. The walls here were plastered with posters, though two different tastes were evident. Lissome Veela posed and pouted, jockeying for space alongside pictures of the burliest Quidditch teams in the league.
That left only one bed. It stood, as she had known it would, in the centre of the room, but there were few personal effects here. There was a small, unnaturally straight stack of library books on the floor. The uppermost she recognised from the bookcase in her father's study. Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy. This bed, alone, was neatly made, the silver sheets turned crisply down over the emerald green counterpane. He would have known they were coming. Would have felt the dark mark burn upon his arm. What had he told his dorm mates? To flee? To fight? Minerva closed her eyes briefly, as if in pain. Amongst the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, and her own dear cubs, there had been three Slytherin dead. One was Vincent Crabbe, whose body would not and could not now be recovered. Vincent Crabbe, and two others, laid slightly apart from the rest of the dead, as if the searchers had not known where to place them: Beautiful Tala Zabini, a sixth year who she knew only for a remarkable skill in charm work, and Theodore Nott - a vicious, unlikeable boy, cut down in the final assault by his own mother. Why had they returned, those two, in defiance of their house, their families, their Lord? She could not know. She had refused Horace's unwilling offer of help in laying out their bodies. They had been Severus's house, in the end.
Upon the wall beside Draco's bed an elaborate design had been etched into the stone with a wand tip. It was a family tree, sprawling back in time to the Middle Ages. Peering closer, she realised that the tree displayed the names and details in a tiny, elegant silver script of every pureblood back to Merlin, joined and embellished with a flowing tracery of leaves. It was with a profound sadness that she noticed the names of the living in bright silver, but outnumbered twenty, thirty, a hundred times over by the dull, blackened names of the dead. At the head of each family, there stood a crest. Trailing her fingertips across the marvellous workmanship, she found with a jolt of grief, the familiar characters: lion and snake, locked in combat, surmounting two crossed thistles. Beside the crest, the names of Taura Artemis Black and Marcus Aurelius McGonagall, linked by a single curling vine. Beneath, there were six names in a straight line, all dull and lifeless save one. Morgainne Iphigenia, Medea Circe, Aurelius Gawain, Tristram Mordred, Felix Galahad, and Minerva Artemis McGonagall. There were no further descendants. Blinking away the tears, she noticed other names now, names of students, of friends, enemies, lovers: One name, which was all these things and more. It rested among the lowest branches of the tree, faded and dead now, though it must have been mere hours since that name had glittered silver. There were no children listed for that name, no father. Only a single leafed vine, and beside it the crest; crucible, dagger and serpent, recording the dilution of the blood of Princes. It was perfect in every detail. Minerva blinked back tears. She had not known that Malfoy could draw.
She threw her head back, fighting the tears, and crossed to the window. The daylight was already failing, the first day of their victory drawing to its close. The windows opened eastward, and at this late hour, the castle's shadow lay heavy on the surface of the lake. The genius of Slytherin's architecture came into its own here; genius never fully realised by other wizards in their lofty towers. The Slytherin dormitories were the lowest rooms in Hogwarts save the dungeons, extending beyond the castle walls towards the edge of the cliff. The windows of the dormitories opened, unseen by those above, out of the cliff face itself, the wide stone sills mere feet above the surface of the lake. The cliff at this point grew steeply in height, curved in an irregular arc, so that, leaning from any window it was possible to see each of the others, and beyond to the narrow, ivy-curtained chasm in the rock face through which the first years sailed on their voyage across the lake. Watching from the window, Minerva found herself again imagining summers beyond time, and generations of children hurling themselves, shrieking, from the open windows, to plunge into the glorious green depths. And then, in the still midnights, the snake-silent swan dives, the long, languorous swimming strokes beneath the stars, the gentle tap upon another's window, and a night of revelry, an assignation, a council of war, beneath the very noses of ignorant teachers, and only the giant squid an unsleeping guardian . . . For some reason, a single shape stood out clearly in this imagining. A boy, skinny and graceless; dark haired, dark eyed, with pale, sallow skin reflecting the moon-silver light.
It was almost as if her thought of him had conjured it. Glancing upward, etched in the stone above the window, out of sight of all but his tallest classmates, his name, Severus, hewn not in blocky capitals, but in a tiny, cramped script. His name, himself, as surely as if he had reached beyond the shadows of death to touch her one last time.
Severus... where now did the man lie, unburied, his corpse cooling beneath the rising moon? She reached towards the carven name, and though her fingers did not touch it, the resolve hardened in her. She would bring him home.
It was already evening before Harry finally woke. Ron was still snoring in the bed beside his, and Hermione was nowhere to be found. The Common Room was fuller than usual with families and Order members, yet they treated him now with a sort of reverence, and he passed unhindered through the portrait hole and down towards the Great Hall in a numb dream. McGonagall had restored the four house tables that morning, and cleaned the tiles of the worst of the blood and rubble, yet despite her efforts, much of the Hall still lay in partial ruins.
Harry was yawning over soup and toast provided by the doting Kreacher when McGonagall found him. She had not asked him what he knew, how he had managed it. She had not asked how he died, nor how he returned. She had asked him only one thing, laying a momentary hand on his shoulder – a hand that shook, only the tiniest bit, and even that more than he had ever imagined it could.
"Where is he?"
And somehow, Harry had known exactly to whom she referred, had met her gaze with grief, with joy, with aching, bone-weary exhaustion.
"At the end of the passage beneath the Whomping Willow."
And that irony of ironies had caused her only the tiniest intake of breath before her hand had tightened gently about his shoulder, and released him.
"Thank you, Potter."
"Professor!" he called after her, the uneaten toast dropping from his hand as he half-rose. "I want to come with you."
To his surprise, she had nodded, just once.
She had frozen the Willow with the gentlest swish of her wand, and transformed, her sleek tabby form slipping gracefully beneath the knotted roots and into the darkness. Dully, in the back of his mind, Harry wondered why McGonagall's animagus was a cat. He had never thought to ask. There were so many things he had never known. Maybe she too had once loved someone, long ago.
It seemed a long, long time of stumbling through the darkness, the longest road of all. Harry wondered why he had asked to come, or what he expected to accomplish. Snape was dead, he knew that; had, perhaps for the first time, watched someone die without trying to fool himself into
thinking that it wasn't true. Snape was dead. And yet... he wished, more than he had ever wished - for his parents, for Sirius, for Dumbledore – that he could have had just one last chance. One chance, to say – what? That he forgave him? That he understood? But he didn't understand, not really. There had been seven years worth of hatred boiling inside him, and now, suddenly, it was gone, and there was only grief, and pity, and awe. If his own task had been daunting, it was nothing, nothing compared to Snape's.
Then they were approaching the end of the tunnel, and Harry's thoughts were interrupted by McGonagall turning abruptly back into herself. With that same, dulled sense of surprise, Harry realised that she was still wearing her tartan dressing gown. There was a ragged tear in one sleeve, and the hem was singed. As McGonagall knelt to push aside the crate covering the entrance, Harry heard her breath catch in her throat.
From a hole where the roof tiles had collapsed inwards, a faint band of moonlight fell across the floorboards, glancing across the end of the tunnel to where Minerva stood with Harry behind her. With her cats' eyes, she could make out the room beyond, the fallen beams and smashed furniture, the lightless windows boarded over. And one other thing. In the feeble beam of light, amidst the slow-swirling dust, a single black leather boot.
He had died in pain, she thought, as she looked at him. His body was not laid neatly, but twisted in an agony of death. His hands lay curled, palms upwards, bloodied by his attempts to staunch the flow from the wounds in his neck. And there was blood there too. Red, darkening to black, across the exposed throat and jaw. There were fingerprints upon his cheek. Trailing crimson, where his fingers had slipped, the marks of his nails fading from the translucent skin. Minerva was struck by how pained he looked. He did not look like Albus had, beatific, serene. Not like Remus: a child in a pleasant sleep, nor yet like Colin: shrunken somehow, and afraid. He only looked dead. His eyes were still open, glaring black, his hair still unkempt, his nose still overlarge. The mouth was etched still with the shadow of a sneer.
Gently, she knelt, sliding one arm beneath his shoulders, the other beneath his crooked knees, and gathered the lanky frame to her breast. Harry started forward to take his weight, but Minerva turned him aside.
"I will bear him." She said.
And indeed, though she raised the dead man with a struggle, she held him as if he were no weight at all. She could have used a charm, but Harry guessed that, as he had needed to feel his own muscles working as he dug a grave for Dobby in the hard earth behind Shell Cottage, so his teacher and mentor needed to feel the weight of the dead man in her arms. He guessed, too, that the bearing of some burdens was beyond physical strength.
It was strange, numbing, terrible. Harry had seen dead men before, but this was utterly unlike the cold touch of Cedric's hand, or a flash of green light. This death was intimate, gross, invasive, the body utterly without strength. Malleable, almost boneless in the absence of tension, yet possessed of a dreadful weight which made the red hands hang straight down, heavy, heavy. The dark head, too, seemed weighted, the neck no longer able to support it. Snape's head hung back over McGonagall's forearm, and for a moment, Harry saw exposed the long white throat, the terrible wounds, before McGonagall shifted the body in her arms and the dark head fell forwards, folded against her breast. Harry wished that she would close its eyes.
He wondered how they were to carry the body back through the narrow tunnel, but there was no need. Minerva stepped towards the boarded window, and at a word, the wall before them crumbled and fell. She stepped lightly down the path of rubble as though it were a paved way, her head held high, carrying the dead man like a trophy. Her eyes, behind the square glasses, were red-rimmed and stoic, her dark hair, thick with smoke, stirring slightly in the wind. She looked, Harry thought, like some ancient warrior goddess, barefoot in her singed green tartan dressing gown. There was blood upon her cheek where the long cut remained unhealed, and the blood of the man upon her breast, staining the white linen pyjamas and the skin beneath. She did not look at Harry as they walked, and she did not speak.
The village was silent in the dark before dawn, its people stilled, voiceless and grieving in their numbed sleep. It was eerily quiet, Harry thought. Like a dream, or a dream of a dream. The great stone boars that guarded the gates stared at them as they approached, but did not stir. Only their eyes moved. Cold, black, empty eyes. Harry felt the weight of their gaze follow him as they passed through the gates, and around the sweeping path towards the cliff top. As they passed the Forbidden forest, he felt other eyes upon him, and knew that others were following, silent in the darkness, their footfalls making no noise on the soft turf.
It had been raining. He felt the dew soaking through the hem of his robes, the chill mist in the blind dark, and knew that they were near the lake. The sky was growing paler. Not lighter, as with red-gold dawn, but simply greyer, the blackness leeched from the eastern horizon. Slowly, the silhouettes of the hills became discernable, separated from the surrounding darkness. There were no stars.
Soon, it was light enough for Harry to make out the shapes of those that followed. Four legged, wild. The centaurs had come, more than Harry had ever seen. Men and women and young colts, naked, save for the weapons belted across their chests. Their skin had a lustre that no human skin could rival, their coats gleamed, hair flowed down their backs, and their eyes pierced him anew, beautiful, and terrible, and sad.
Harry lowered his gaze. He felt humbled by their humility - this fierce, ancient people, come to honour the fallen. They had known. How had they known? Did centaurs always know? He felt guilt and grief churning in his gut. Had the man whom he had always hated been a sign to them, a beacon? Had they read his dark way in the stars?
As they stepped into the shadow of the castle, the centaurs, without word or gesture halted as one, surrounding them in a great arc. As one, they knelt, one foreleg stretched upon the earth, their heads bowed in supplication. As they straightened, Harry caught sight of Bane, standing stock-still upon a raised hillock, with the wind in his wild, black mane. With a thrill of shock, he saw that there were tears in Bane's eyes.
For Dumbledore, the centaurs had fired a volley of arrows in tribute. For Harry, they had returned to fight a war beyond all hope. For Snape, they wept. What had he been to them, that strange, loveless man? McGonagall shifted the body in her arms again, and the black eyes stared accusingly from behind the greasy curtains of hair.
She laid him in a chamber off the Great Hall. Once, it had been used as a staff room for the Arithmancy faculty, but long years and long wars had cost Hogwarts dear, and the castle now supported only a tenth of the numbers it could have accommodated. Since the time of Phineas Nigellus numbers had steadily dwindled until row upon row of classrooms stood vacant, and faculty meeting rooms were made redundant by the absence of staff.
There remained a single battered filing cabinet, the desiccated corpse of an ancient pot plant, and a wooden desk in the centre of the room, its surface cracked and drawers missing. She relinquished the weight of the body gladly on to this makeshift bier and straightened, feeling the ache in her back, the numbness prickling in her arms. She pulled her pyjama shirt away from her, feeling as she did so the damp patch of the man's blood upon her skin. She re-tied her dressing gown over the stain, and stooped to align his body, laying his arms at his sides, allowing his dark head to sink back upon the desktop. She transfigured the old filing cabinet into a stone ewer filled with steaming water, conjured a basin from the dead pot plant, and a soft cloth from a scrap of her dressing gown.
One moment only Minerva paused, looking down upon the body, yearning and yet fearing to touch him. Then, feeling strangely shy, she slid off the black outer robe, mud-spattered, potion-stained, and laid it reverently aside. Her pale fingers found the collar of his frock coat. Trembling only slightly, she slipped the first button from its fastening. Harry shifted uncomfortably, as with stumbling fingers she unfastened the long line of buttons and stripped away the black doublet. This too, she folded and laid gently aside, sparing a little half-smile as she did so.
In his black shirt and trousers, Harry thought, Snape no longer looked intimidating. He looked smaller, somehow, diminished. Just a man, not quite young, dressed in sober black. His black leather boots were cracked with mud and grime, and McGonagall eased them gently from him, stood them neatly paired at the foot of the desk. The socks were dark grey wool, surprisingly soft. She laid them on top of his cloak.
Snape's feet were long and pale, with slender toes and soft white soles as though he never went barefoot. They were so pale as to appear almost blue, and Harry couldn't tear his eyes away, even as McGonagall moved to begin unbuttoning the black undershirt. Snape's feet looked cold. Cold, and vulnerable. Somehow, in those bare dead feet, he realised suddenly that Snape was real. A real person, a man, with feelings and thoughts and desires . . . but dead. Terribly, irrevocably dead.
He saw Professor McGonagall square her shoulders, and pause for half an instant, then the white hands moved across Snape's body with a touch like a caress, stripping away the black shirt. Harry could not suppress a gasp of horror at the scars that lacerated the man's narrow chest. McGongall betrayed no sign of surprise. She had seen them before. The body was familiar to her, Harry realised. Familiar, cherished, hated. The exposed flesh was unbearably pale, almost indecent. Harry wished himself anywhere but in that tiny shadowed room, but still, the body fascinated him. He had never imagined ribs, whipcord muscle, white skin beneath the black robes. The body was smaller than he had expected. Snape was narrower than he about the chest, gaunt-ribbed, with a long, tapered abdomen and jutting hip bones. There were two large freckles upon the curve of the bicep, another small scattering about his collarbone. The nipples stood out, coffee coloured against the pale skin, one split by the passage of a puckered scar across the heart. A delicate tracery of fine dark hair patterned the chest, and there was a swirl of the same dark hair about the navel, sweeping down below the belted trousers. Oh god, Snape was human.
His skin was cold. The touch of it chilled her fingertips, and she could not shake from her head the thought that it was the last time. The last time that she would touch him, would clean his wounds, caress the pale body. She almost lost herself in the hollow curve of his belly, the tense sweep from ribs to hip bone. Her fingertips skimmed the pale flesh, leaving no impression. This same flesh, exposed before the cruel taunts of his classmates; raw and flayed by his master's hand; gleaming in the bitter moonlight of a mid-winter's eve as he poured himself into her. Not love, but something else entirely. She had tried to protect him, had tried to care for him, to hate him, to destroy him. But he had slipped from her grasp, as from life, and she could leave no mark upon him. Peripherally, Minerva was aware of the youth behind her, and she felt a flutter of guilt. But Harry Potter was a child no longer, and it was time for him to learn appeasement of his father's ghost.
With the soft cloth, she washed the blood from Severus's body, as she had washed his wounds, it seemed, in an entirely different life. The blood came away easily, far more easily than she remembered, leaving only the faintest pink tinge upon the skin, like a flush of life. There were six wounds, neatly paired. Four in the neck, two lower down beneath the collar bone. Minerva washed the blood from the jagged holes, from his face and jaw, slightly stubbled with the dark shadow of a beard that she had never seen in life. Then from his breast, his forearms, his beautiful, broken hands. His palms bore the scars of his life's craft, hardened calluses, burns, tiny nicks of thorns or silver sickle knife. And those scars, those scars she loved, more a part of him than the great rents that violated his flesh, or the contemptible brand upon his forearm.
Minerva poured hot water from the ewer into the silver basin, and the steam of it stung her eyes as she bent over the dead man. Supporting him in her arms, she let his head fall gently backwards into the basin, his dark hair pooling, swirling upon the water. With her fingers, she combed the hair back from his face, carding the thick locks through the water, releasing the filth and grease and matted blood, the dust and debris of the shack's floor. The steam smelt of pine and sandalwood, and the black strands were shot through with grey. When had this child of hers grown so old?
Severus lay still upon the wooden desktop, clad anew in a clean dark shirt, his wounds hidden by the black locks arrayed upon his shoulders. Clean, his hair gave his face an entirely different aspect, softening the harsh lines of his nose and jaw, lending to the dark features a strange nobility. The damp, slightly curling tendrils caught the light, trapping it in a thousand refracted shades, like the wing of a raven. His face was pale, set, and yet in its own way, she suddenly realised, beautiful. Stooping, Minerva placed a last kiss upon the white brow, and with a brush of her hand, at long last closed his eyes.
They laid him in state upon a green bank beside the black lake, his body draped in a great cloth of green and silver. His wand they placed in his hand, and a Hogwarts shield at his feet, and tributes and accolades lay heaped about him. Men spoke of his service, his courage, his loyalty in the face of all hatred and ridicule. No one mentioned that it was they who had been doing the ridiculing. No one mentioned a sour, greasy-haired, sneering bastard with a vicious tongue and cruel eyes, and a mind as subtle and elusive as quicksilver. And when they consigned his body to the fire, and the white flames covered him, swirling and spiralling into fantastic shapes of beasts and birds, Minerva heard, or thought she heard, the faintest snatch of Phoenix song.
There is a dark lake in the grounds of Hogwarts School, rippled by the wind, and stirred from beneath by deep currents unsuspected by those that dwell in lofty towers. And in the still mornings when the new sun rises, turning the lake's misty shroud to a veil of flame, and children dive laughing from windows in the cliff face, seeking in the green depths some whispered secret, then they may glance towards the lightening shore, to where a white tomb and a black tomb stand side by side. And though they may not see her, their eyes dazzled by the sun upon the surface of the water, yet, in the shade of the black tomb, a small grey tabby cat stands sentinel.