Chapter 16 – The End of the Beginning

Severus arrived back at Hogwarts fighting a surreal sensation that he was living in an endless dream. A part of him wanted to remain at Malfoy Manor, shut away with his friends, thinking only of how to cover their tracks. But that option wasn't available, and so with a sense of grim inevitability he strode through the grounds. He was tired and hungry but he didn't even hesitate at the stairs that led down to the dungeons and his rooms. Instead he marched directly to the concealed staircase that led to Dumbledore's quarters.

'Come in, Severus.' The voice from beyond the door sounded weary. Severus pushed it open to reveal Dumbledore seated at his desk, viewing him from above the tops of his spectacles. 'Come and sit down.' He indicated the chair opposite his desk.

It seemed to take an eternity to cross the floor. All the time he shot wary glances at the Headmaster, but felt unable to hold his gaze. Finally he was seated, and looked up into those blue eyes. Now he was there, all thoughts of small talk and procrastination were gone, and he asked the only question that mattered to him. 'Is Lily safe?'

Dumbledore took a little intact of breath, before saying in a very gentle voice, 'I'm very sorry Severus. She is dead. Voldemort tracked them down, and she and James were killed.'

Even though he'd known it deep down all along, the news still hit him like a physical blow. His head spun, he did not know if he cried out or slumped or froze. It took him a minute to even make sense of the words. Dead. Gone. It was too late. He'd never speak to her again, never see her again. All the unlikely but precious hopes he'd had of eventually reconciling with her were now wiped out. No amount of wishful and creative thinking could make things right now.

'No.' He spoke the word so softly that it was barely a breath. 'No. No! No!' He began to cry, trying to release the awful anguish within through his voice. He didn't care how dreadful he sounded, he didn't care that the portraits of past headteachers winced and tutted at this display of raw emotion. Dumbledore rose and came to stand behind Severus, putting a useless hand on the younger man's shoulder as he wept.

'I thought you were going to keep her safe!' he finally managed to say, when the initial outpouring of grief allowed for other thoughts to creep in.

'She and James put their faith in the wrong person. Rather like you, Severus. Weren't you hoping Lord Voldemort would save her?'

Had he not been in such distress, he might have pointed out that he hadn't put any faith in Voldemort saving her. That was how he came to be there, spying for Dumbledore in the first place. He'd hoped that if one of the two greatest living wizards failed to preserve her, the other might. But what did it matter now? She had been condemned to death from the very moment that Severus had repeated the words of that damn prophecy to Voldemort.

'Her boy survives,' said Dumbledore softly.

The words barely made an impression through the fog of misery. He flicked the thought away. What did that matter if Lily was dead? Nothing mattered but that fact. He couldn't care less if the child survived or not. It wouldn't bring back the mother.

Dumbledore repeated in a louder voice, 'Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and colour of Lily Evans' eyes, I am sure?'

'DON'T!' screamed Severus, recoiling from the image Dumbledore's words conjured up. Remember? He sometimes thought about those eyes for minutes at a time, saw them in his dreams. He knew those eyes as well, if not better, than his own. And he would never see them again in life. 'Gone… dead…' he gasped, forcing himself to face the fact those eyes were no more.

'Is this remorse, Severus?' asked Dumbledore, in a tone of academic interest.

Severus stared at Dumbledore, wondering how the old bastard could mistake such severe distress for anything but. But remorse wasn't a big enough word to express the level of sorrow and regret he felt. 'I wish… I wish I were dead,' he blurted out, meaning it.

This didn't seem to impress Dumbledore in the slightest. 'And what use would that be to anyone? If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.'

It took a few moments for Severus to process the words. Surely he'd misheard? His way forward had never been less clear in his miserable existence so far. The only thing that had given him direction, true purpose, was gone. In fact, the only direction he could see was the one involving a goblet of poison – a proper poison this time – and burial in a pauper's grave. But Dumbledore had just indicated that wasn't the course he had in mind. 'What – what do you mean?' he asked eventually.

'You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily's son.'

Baffled, Severus stared back at the old man. 'He does not need protection. The Dark Lord has gone…'

'The Dark Lord will return,' interrupted Dumbledore, in a tone so matter-of-fact he might have been commenting on the weather. 'And Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does.'

Severus allowed the words to percolate through his consciousness. Voldemort would return… well, that made sense. He did not question how Dumbledore knew it, but it did not surprise him. And it went without saying that Harry Potter's life expectancy would be very brief indeed when that happened. But Severus protecting him? When he'd made such a dreadful job of protecting Lily herself, he doubted his ability to save her son from such overwhelming odds.

But what else could he do? Dumbledore was right. Severus' death would serve no more purpose than his life had done. And the baby had been something Lily cared about. She had died to protect it, of that he was sure without even knowing the exact circumstances. He closed his eyes and brought Lily's face into his mind, and asked himself, What would Lily want me to do? And he knew the answer straight away.

'Very well. Very well,' he said, nodding slightly. An unpleasant thought occurred to him. 'But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us. Swear it! I cannot bear… especially Potter's son… I want your word!'

'My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the very best of you?' said Dumbledore wearily. Severus nodded fiercely. He had a sudden vision, of a faceless boy sniggering at the stupid lovelorn Professor who was pining in unrequited love for a woman who had preferred another man. The thought was unbearable. Dumbledore sighed, 'If you must… but I wish you would see that your love for Lily is your greatest strength, not the weakness and source of shame that you seem to consider it.'

'Tell me what happened,' he asked quietly. 'I want to know…'

'Why torture yourself?' asked Dumbledore, then seeing Severus' face sighed and returned to his seat behind the desk. 'Very well. Events are still not entirely clear, although I have spent most of the day piecing them together. Voldemort discovered the whereabouts of Lily and James. He arrived at their cottage. They were not expecting it – they believed themselves safe.'

'We all believed them safe,' whispered Severus, bitterly.

'James rushed to head off Voldemort, whilst Lily ran upstairs to the baby. Of course, Voldemort had placed an anti-apparation jinx and sealed the doors, windows and fireplaces. Escape was impossible. However Lily, as you know, was a talented and resourceful witch. She used the very limited time available to enact some charms, using the old magic. As you know, she had a talent for charms, and a keen interest in what you might term 'natural magic' or 'old magic'.'

Severus nodded slightly. He remembered Lily occasionally talking about such things. They had always seemed dull to him, and he'd found her fascination incomprehensible. New magic was what excited him, innovation. Old things were best forgotten.

Dumbledore continued. 'She enacted magic that she hoped would protect the boy. When Voldemort entered the room, she placed herself between the baby and him, and naturally, he killed her – as she knew he would. With her death, Voldemort unwittingly activated the charms. When he tried to kill Harry, the curse rebounded somehow. Voldemort was destroyed – or at least, his body was – and the resulting thaumic explosion caused severe damage to the house. But Harry Potter survived unharmed, apart from a scar on his forehead.'

'It must have been strong magic,' said Severus eventually, 'to cause the amount of destruction you say.'

'Yes,' said Dumbledore thoughtfully, drumming his fingers. 'Of course, the power Voldemort would have put behind the killing curse would have been considerable. But it does not account for the full effects. One wonders if some other magic was going on… but we shall probably never know. Or of course… ah…'

'What?'

Dumbledore took a moment more to think before answering slowly. 'Of course… it is possible that Voldemort may have honoured your request. He may have given Lily the option not to die. If he did that… it would have increased the value of her sacrifice – although it is one that any mother would make. Yes… that would account for some of the additional effect…'

Severus made a bitter sound. He wasn't sure how he felt about that, that his desperate attempt to save Lily's life may have simply contributed to the success of her demise. 'What happened to the Dark Lord?' he asked.

'That I don't know, precisely. He will be severely weakened, without a body. A disembodied spirit. It is likely he will lie low somewhere, regaining his strength. It may take months, it may take many years. One thing is sure though, he will find a way back eventually.'

'So we just wait till then?' Long years stretched ahead of Severus, empty years without Lily.

'Indeed we must.' Dumbledore placed both hands on his desk to signify the end of the discussion, but something else had entered Severus' distressed mind.

'Black! What about Black? He… he betrayed them! He sold them out! Where is he?' He jumped to his feet, wand in hand, as if Black might be lurking there in the office.

Dumbledore made the slightest movement of his hand and Severus found himself seated again, wand back in his pocket. 'Sirius is in Azkaban,' he said wearily. 'Poor Peter Pettigrew hunted him down and confronted him. I'm afraid Sirius killed him and a large number of Muggles, before being arrested. He will spend the rest of his life behind bars, that is for sure.'

'It's too good for him,' whispered Severus.

Dumbledore looked older and sadder than he had at any other time during their miserable conversation. 'Really? A lifetime locked up in close proximity to dementors? Eighty, maybe a hundred years of deepest despair? I think that is worse than even anything you could inflict on him.' He sighed very deeply. 'Now, Severus, you should go and get some rest. You look exhausted.'

Severus doubted that he would ever sleep properly again. But his energy was gone, and he allowed himself to be steered out of the office, and into the grim future.

/

Severus lay in bed, his eyes stinging from crying, the covers pulled up over his head. He alternated between feeling numb, and feeling so much pain that only hard liquor could remove it. The days went past. He kept the door shut and locked. He knew nothing of what was going on outside, and cared even less. The fate of his Death Eater friends, the whereabouts of Lily's son, the Potions progress of his students – it was all irrelevant and meaningless.

He lay, reliving memories of Lily over and over in his head. Lily and him running across the moor in the rain, laughing. Lily when he first met her, flying from the swings in the park back home. Lily telling him he was her best friend. Lily…

A rapping on the door broke into his memories, and he retreated further under his covers. Whoever it was would go away sooner or later. The knocking continued, loud and insistent. Eventually there was flash, and the door flew open. Alarmed, he sat up, clutching his covers. He'd thought the locking charm he'd put on that door was practically unbreakable.

Minerva McGonagall was standing in the doorway, looking around the room with undisguised disgust on her face. Seeing him staring at her, she strode over and pulled the covers off him. 'Right, this has gone on long enough, Severus. Go and take a shower and put on clean robes right now.'

He stared up at his former teacher and now colleague. She glared at him. 'You heard me. You've wallowed for too long. Look at the state of this room! You should be ashamed. Now go and clean yourself up immediately. So help me, if I have to come in and scrub you myself I will do!'

Realising that she meant every word of it, he hastily scrambled out of the bed and into the bathroom. He made a half-hearted attempt at showering and dressed in fresh robes. When he returned to the bedroom, McGonagall was instructing several house-elves in a clean-up operation. She turned to look at him. 'That's better. Now get your shoes on and come with me. It's high time you had some fresh air.'

He made a feeble noise of protest, but seeing her face he obeyed. She linked her arm firmly through his, and towed him out. 'The students will see me,' he whimpered, as she strode along past the Slytherin common room.

'You're a teacher, man. Being seen by students is an occupational hazard,' she remarked drily. They passed a pair of girls who gave them the most cursory of glances. 'You see? They barely notice our existence. Wrapped up in their own lives.'

They passed through the rest of the castle in silence. Outside was cold, clear and crisp. McGonagall steered him onto the path that led around the lake, drawing in a deep breath of air. 'Ah, that's a good tonic,' she said.

Severus thought that it would take more than fresh air to make his problems go away. But reluctantly he had to admit to himself that he did feel a bit better. McGonagall pointed out fairy nests in the yew trees and kept up a running commentary on the weather. Severus had never had much skill for small talk, and supplied his part of the conversation with grunts.

Suddenly McGonagall said, 'Albus has told people about how you spied on You-Know-Who. That must have taken some courage. Worthy of a Gryffindor, I would say.'

'Coming from you, I suppose I must take that as a compliment,' he said, with something like a smile.

'It was meant as one. You risked a great deal. And now… I suppose it makes things rather difficult with your old social circle.'

'They never liked me much anyway,' he relied gloomily, reflecting that it was true. 'They only tolerated me because of Malfoy.'

'I understand Mr Malfoy has been making hearts bleed with his tales of coercion. Trapped under the Imperius curse. His memories are apparently terribly hazy for years. But fortunately he can still remember how to access his Gringott's account. Very generous, Lucius has been already with his donations. I understand St Mungo's is considering naming a ward after him.' She made a noise of disgust and shook her head.

'Lucius isn't a bad person,' said Severus quietly, feeling a mixture of relief that Malfoy seemed to have got away with it, and sadness that he could no longer see his friend. 'He only cares about himself really, and his family. His sense of self-preservation is far too strong to get involved in anything dangerous, and he's not the type to kow-tow to anyone, not even the Dark Lord.'

'So the argument goes,' sniffed McGonagall. 'You'll forgive me for having my doubts.'

'Malfoy is no threat to anyone,' said Severus with a touch of impatience. 'He's not a killer. He's too lazy to have any real interest in dangerous dark magic. Let him give money to help others out. He'll do more good doing that than he would in jail.' Keen to move the subject on from Lucius, he continued, 'What about other Death Eaters? Have they caught many?'

'Some. Of course, there's the Lestranges.' A grim look came over McGonagall's face.

'What happened?' he asked, not sure he wanted to know. He remembered the mad fervour in Lucius' in-laws as they departed Malfoy Manor the day after Voldemort fell.

'They captured the Aurors, Frank and Alice Longbottom,' began McGonagall in a strangled voice. 'For some reason they believed the Longbottoms may know the whereabouts of You-Know-Who, and tried to torture the information from them-' Her voice trembled for moment and she swallowed hard before she continued. 'They didn't even deny it, when the rest of the Aurors caught up with them. As for poor Frank and Alice… it was too late. They've been shut up on the long stay ward at St Mungo's.' She looked away, and took a moment before she spoke again. 'It came as a terrible shock, I must say. We'd all got used to the idea things were going back to normal, that the horror had stopped at last. It seemed worse, somehow, than even all the other terrible things that have happened in this war.'

For the first time since Dumbledore had told him about Lily, he felt a genuine sense of sorrow on behalf of another person. He realised that he rather liked McGonagall, despite their differences in opinion. He placed a hand on McGonagall's arm. 'I'm sorry,' he said, and he meant it. 'What about their boy?'

She dabbed her eyes quickly. 'He was saved, they pushed him into a Vanishing Cabinet. He's with his Grandmother now. The poor little thing. No child should lose both parents, especially at such a young age. And of course, there's poor little Harry Potter too.'

'What happened to him?' asked Severus

'Harry Potter? Dumbledore has sent him to live with his Aunt and Uncle.' She sounded no more approving than she had of Lucius.

'Petunia?' he gasped, horrified. 'He's sent the boy to live with Petunia?'

She looked at him sidelong. 'Yes. She has a child of much the same age, they live in a Muggle neighbourhood, somewhere in the south. They are the only living family the boy has left, and Dumbledore felt it was important for him to be brought up by his flesh and blood. Dumbledore says the child will be safe there, he has put every possible protection in place. '

This seemed highly doubtful to Severus, but thoughts of the child were too painful, so he pushed them away. They walked on in silence for a while. Then McGonagall said, 'The rest of the faculty have been covering your lessons.'

'I thought Dumbledore might have got Sluggy back,' replied Severus, though in all honesty it was the first time he'd given it any thought at all.

'Horace is licking his wounds in private,' sniffed McGonagall. 'Of course, most of us already have near full timetables, so Sybil has ended up taking most of your classes…'

'Trelawney?' he yelped, trying to imagine the be-shawled old fraud in his classroom.

'Yes. It hasn't been very successful I'm afraid. There was an unfortunate incident yesterday when she was trying to teach the third years to make a Chaemelic Concoction. I understand that all of the victims are expected to return to their proper colour within a few days.' She stole a quick glance at him. 'So all in all, it's high time they had a proper teacher back. Not to mention that the students of Slytherin House need strong leadership now perhaps more than at any other time in the house's history.'

'I don't know if I can,' he said, honestly. The thought of standing inside a classroom again, all those hateful little faces staring back at him, made him shudder.

'For goodness sake man, you've spent the last year spying on He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named! Controlling a few eleven year olds is surely child's play by comparison!' She paused, and continued in a quieter voice. 'Severus, I know you were once a Death Eater, but you did the right thing. You returned to us, you risked your life to spy for us. You cannot blame yourself for the death of the Potters, or the torture of the Longbottoms. Not since you had your change of heart…'

'I never had a change of heart!' he exclaimed. Seeing the shock on her face, he elaborated. 'I always felt the same, all the time. I cared about the same things, the same people. I never wanted to be one side or another of a war! I just wanted to be myself, to live my life, to protect the things that matter to me, just like anyone does. Everything I did, I did in order to do that. I just did what I had to do.' He shook his head sadly. 'It made no difference in the end though.'

'Who knows what difference it might make in the long term? Cause and effect is not a simple thing, Severus. We often do not understand the true consequences of our actions until many years after the event.' They walked a bit further in silence. 'You had an unhappy time at Hogwarts,' she said suddenly. 'And I am sorry for that. We can't turn back the clock, but you have the opportunity now to help other young people like yourself.'

'What help can I be?' he asked bitterly. 'It isn't like I've made a great success of my life. Who am I to advise others?'

'You could help them not make the same mistakes you did. You have the opportunity to be the teacher that Horace, for all his strengths, was not. Even handed and impartial. A champion for the underdog. The students of Slytherin need a role model they can relate to, but who offers a viable alternative to the philosophy of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I often think of that argument we had, when you first applied for a job here. You accused me of indoctrinating students.'

'No, I said that you and Dumbledore should allow people with different points of view teach in the school.'

'And perhaps you were right.' She smiled slightly at his look of surprise. 'I don't mean people who believed completely in the philosophy of pure-blood supremacy, mind you. But large numbers of young people, particularly from Slytherin, did join the Death Eaters. Trying to protect them from that clearly didn't have the desired effect. Albus and I tried to shut it out of Hogwarts, and pretend it didn't exist. But maybe what those students needed was someone who could acknowledge their fears without leaving them feeling they had to resort to violence and killing in order to have their opinions heard.'

'You want me to offer a middle way?'

'It's a suggestion, Severus. As you say, you never really had a change of heart. I'm sure you and I would still disagree very strongly on a number of issues around blood status and Muggle rights. Perhaps some of our vulnerable young people need to see someone with different views to Albus and myself, who can nevertheless still work alongside us and does not participate in extremist behaviour.' She gave him a long and piercing look. 'You talk of not having made a difference. But it isn't too late to do that. If there's one good thing about teaching, it's that you really can have a huge influence over people's lives.'

He thought through his options. He'd never wanted to be a teacher, and didn't much want to now. But the alternative was to go back into the world, without the benefit of Lucius' patronage. He would have nowhere to live, no friends and little money. He could return to Healing, but now that presumably there would be very few dark magic related injuries he wasn't sure he'd find it interesting enough. Not to mention that the publication of his role as spy would make him distrusted by both Death Eaters and the authorities.

'What choice do I have?' he said, thinking out loud.

'Not a great deal, so you might as well make the best of it.' She pointed up at the sky. 'Well, if it isn't a rainbow. I'm sure Sybil would tell us that is a portent.'

Severus raised a single eyebrow in reply. And so arm in arm the two colleagues turned back towards Hogwarts, and the uncertain future.

Author's Notes

So that's all for now folks... I'd like to say a huge thank you to all readers, and in particular those who take the time to review. It is a great priviledge to know the stories I so enjoy writing are being read and enjoyed by people across the world. Thank you all. The sequel to this story, 'The Redoubled Agent', is in progress. It's very long, and is going to take me a while yet to finish (and I never start posting until I am finished). Hopefully it will be ready by Christmas 2012. Keep an eye out for it! If you want to be automatically alerted, you could always 'follow' me on , where I think you'll get an email alert when I start posting the new story. What is there to look forward to in the final installment of this epic Snape-fic? Let's see... Lucius and Severus' friendship is tested as never before, history repeats itself as Snape takes Draco Malfoy under his wing, and a certain rule-breaking bespectacled young wizard is going to make Severus' life difficult. Relive the events of canon from Severus' unique viewpoint, right up to the tragic conclusion...