Two more days passed and Severus found himself slowly adjusting to the raven's presence. He found it oddly refreshing to have someone around to share his opinions with on various things, and to argue with when he was irritated over a student's obtuseness or gripe to when his eyes burned from spending too many hours trying to decipher a whole classes' atrocious handwriting.
Yet still the professor held himself aloof, not allowing the familiar to slip past the iron gates about his heart. He knew better than to allow Skullduggery to get through them, because then he would be vulnerable, and he did not want to lose yet another whom he cared for. Because, one way or another, all those he loved had left him.
Skullduggery began to despair, for him the bond was still as strong as ever, but he sensed the professor had not yet accepted it, and time was running out. It was the night before Halloween, and still Snape continued to deny the bond. The raven did not know what would happen to him if Severus repudiated him. Such had never happened before. Normally a raven's chosen was eager to accept the bond, and honored to have been chosen. He could feel the obdurate man thawing a little towards him, but it was not fast enough. If only there was a way for Skull to prove his loyalty to Severus beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Severus had been quiet and uncommunicative all day, shutting himself off from everyone, and brewing endlessly in his lab. Skullduggery had ventured inside for a few brief moments, curious to see what was going on, and was promptly snarled at to get out before his feathers got singed by a steaming cauldron.
The raven supposed that was an improvement over the noncommittal grunts he'd gotten previously, and flew outside, but the brisk October wind was not great for flying and he soon grew weary from battling the cross currents and returned to Severus' office to sleep upon the chair back.
Dusk descended, dark and dreary, and Severus picked at his supper before abruptly leaving the hall. Skull quickly rose from eating a satin cream tart and followed, hoping that the professor wasn't going to retreat to his quarters to brood all night.
Instead he saw the professor head out of the castle and made haste to follow, narrowly avoiding the doors being shut on his tail. "Severus, where are you going?"
"Somewhere you do not need to follow. I have an appointment to keep." He continued walking down the path towards the iron gates.
Skullduggery flew overhead, his curiosity piqued. In the week he had stayed at Hogwarts, this was the first time he had seen Snape go off the grounds.
When Severus reached the front gates, he stepped beyond them, and prepared to Apparate. Skull shot down like a black bolt from the sky and landed on Snape's shoulder as the wizard vanished, determined not to be left behind.
They emerged in the shadow of a black live oak, inside the gates of a cemetery. Skull glanced about, his eyes darting here and there, for he had never been in a cemetery before, despite the legends which said ravens frequented them.
A sort of cold fog was rising up from the ground, wreathing the headstones with an eerie mist. Skullduggery felt his feathers prickle in warning. A cemetery was a gateway between the living and the dead, and never more so than now, upon the eve of All Hallows Eve.
Severus picked his way among the headstones, his footsteps sure, it was plain he had come here before. He halted in front of two graves beneath two entwined ash trees. Skull's sharp eyes could just make out the inscription—the last enemy to be defeated is death—and beneath it two names—Lily and James Potter.
The tall Potions Master stood before the grave, his head bowed. Then he slowly went to his knees, his hands pressed into the earth. Skullduggery hissed, for Severus reminded him of a mighty oak felled by a strong wind. He saw the proud shoulders shake and felt the endless sorrow and regret flow through him.
For long moments, there was no sound in the graveyard except the whistling wail of the wintery wind. All was still, save for the occasional rattle of the entwined branches.
"Lily . . . forgive me . . ." Severus whispered, his voice a fragile thread interwoven into the wind's shriek. "I came too late . . . always too late . . . I am sorry . . .how I wish I could see you, just once more . . . to tell you that . . . I never meant to betray you to him . . . I never thought the prophecy referred to you or your son . . . or that the Dark Lord would become obsessed with it . . . I thought it the foolish ravings of a pitiful drunk . . . I still do . . . it is my fault you died . . . and for that I can never atone . . ."
Skullduggery flew to the top of the headstone and perched upon it, the stone cold against his feet. Had he been able to cry, he would have wept for the man huddled before him, Snape's pain was like a dark wind ripping through his soul. This was why the Old Magic had chosen him to bond with the professor. Because only a familiar could fill the abyss in Snape's heart, for a familiar loved without reservation, and was always faithful.
"Severus, I am here. You are not alone. You can't be held responsible for the choices of a dark servant. He killed her because he could, because it is his nature to kill and destroy and bring chaos where ever he walks. It always has been. This burden you bear . . . let it go."
"No! You don't understand . . . it is all I have left . . . I swore an oath . . ."
"An oath to mourn her forever? Would she want that? For you to give up a chance at ever being happy, of feeling joy, to drown yourself in guilt and regret?"
"What would you know of it? You know nothing about her . . . about me!"
"Tell me then. Tell me the tale of the love you once had and lost."
Severus did, each word coming slowly and painfully. When he had finished the tragic tale he remained staring at the headstone, his eyes blurry with tears.
"Is that your secret, Severus? The reason why you think you are unworthy to have me as your familiar?"
"Is that not enough? To know that I once served him like a slave, did his bidding like a tame hound . . . destroyed the only woman I shall ever love . . .? How then can you choose me?"
"Because, Severus Snape, a familiar does not choose based upon past mistakes, we choose based upon need and the strength of the human heart. For all of your mistakes, your heart is still good. You do not see it, but I do. You might have joined him once, but he never held your soul. If he had, you could never have repudiated him. Do you know how rare that is? To look into the abyss of evil, to see it in all of its unhallowed horror, and to walk away? To be ensnared and manage to break free and seek the light? In all of history, do you know how many people have done what you did? Five. For you to break free took immense courage and determination, a will of iron, and a loyal loving heart. We ravens are creatures of light and shadow, we travel the Road of the Dead, and soar to the heavens. It is given to us to see and know many things, and this I know for truth—you are redeemed for your actions. You have no need for guilt and shame. I have seen into your heart when the Old Ways bound us, and it is untainted."
"You . . . are sure?"
Skullduggery nodded. "As sure as I am a raven. When you made the choice to return, the dark lost its hold upon you, and the light gained a weapon of unparalleled power—for who best to defeat evil than one who knows it well? Know thy enemy. You are the greatest enemy the Dark shall ever face, and as I am pledged to guard this kingdom, so I choose the best warrior to be my companion. There is none better."
"You are deluded. Dumbledore is the only wizard You-Know-Who has ever feared."
"Then he is twice the fool. Who is the more dangerous—the shining knight who makes no secret of his opposition or the ally who learns all his secrets and uses the knowledge to bring him down? The dagger you never see coming is the one that shall kill you, not the sword in front of your nose."
"You . . . may be right. But the prophecy-"
"Is not an absolute. What is prophecy after all but a future that may come true? May, not shall, for choices we make today affect tomorrow. You were given free will for a reason, Severus Snape. Now choose your own destiny. But know this, those who walk the road alone may falter and fall, but those who walk with a companion beside them shall reach their journey's end more often than not. I would be your friend, Severus, and unlike a human, shall remain faithful and love you till my last breath. I am the keeper of secrets, and shall never betray you. I, Skullduggery, swear to you my Oath of Allegiance. I am, and always shall be, your familiar."
Two sets of obsidian eyes met and locked. And the bond flared anew between them, as Severus released his Occlumency shields and allowed himself to feel the loyalty and love that Skullduggery felt for him, the love of a familiar for his wizard, unconditional and eternal. It swept through him with the force of a wildfire, incinerating all his doubts and fears, and leaving him with one inescapable truth.
Skullduggery loved him.
And he needed Severus to love him back.
Severus hesitated. His heart had been lying dormant, buried beneath the ashes of guilt and regret and sorrow. But Skullduggery had managed to bring it back to life. It hurt, but at the same time it felt good, like a wound that was healing. He found he did not want to lose that, did not want to go back to the cold specter he had been. He was tired of being alone. Skullduggery had done something no one ever had—he had trusted Severus with his heart. Severus discovered he didn't have it in him to reject the offering. "I accept. You are my familiar."
The bond seared through him, linking raven and wizard in a symbiosis that would last unto death . . . and even beyond.
Skullduggery reappeared and landed upon Snape's shoulder. He nuzzled Severus cheek and made a soft purring hum. "I love you, Sev. Quoth the raven—forevermore."
"And I, you. Forevermore." Severus rose. "Now let us go home."
Then he turned and walked away, the raven now sitting proudly upon his shoulder, for all the world to see that he, Severus Snape, was a raven's chosen.