I Was Right

Chapter 13: Some Graduation

My profoundest thanks for Jedi Boadicea, who beta-read this for me and gave me both confidence and many much-needed pieces of advice and correction. Her fics are excellent--you really don't know what you're missing if you haven't seen them yet! I am her proud No. 1 fan, and if any of you want the distinction you're going to have to fight me to the bitter end for it... ;-)

Thanks, also, to Morrighan, who set me right about English breakfasts. I am completely in love with her fics(including an excellent Snapefic, The Long Road to Damascus), and I am proud to be beta-ing for her.

Disclaimer(just obligatory, as you know--skip to the story if you wish): As always, everything belongs to JK Rowling the Magnificent, except the crazy plot, excessive angst, some minor characters, and the folks who are killed or incarcerated in this part. Other things that I don't own:
Mannaz, the rune symbolizing the individual's place in the community.
An Ursula K. LeGuin quote, "...for she had lost that minimal trust in the world, called sanity." (from Winter's King, from the anthology The Wind's Twelve Quarters.)
A quote from the final message of Mordechai Anielewicz, A leader of the Jewish resistence in the Warsaw ghettos before the resistence was crushed and he committed suicide. "Sensing the end, we demand this from you: Remember how we were betrayed. There will come a time of reckoning for our spilled, innocent blood. ..."
And that thing about remembering the best/worst of people comes from a self-help book...called Live Your Life the Way You Want or something like that. Somebody get Sevvie a copy...

His last summer in Hogwarts and his seventh year passed by quickly. Later, when he looked back on that time, he remembered it not in the terms of the things he learned, or the flurry of activity, the hellish study for the N.E.W.T.s, or even the animosity-ridden rivalry with the Gryffindors--it was the indecision he remembered the most.

It was indecision over a decision that, from the outside, seemed already made...He was a Slytherin, famous for his fascination with the Dark Arts, biggest enemy of James Potter and his satellites who were as outspoken against Voldemort as they were outspoken about everything. Everything about Snape, indeed, pointed in one direction--except his actual convictions.

He was normally a smooth and remorseless liar, but he found it hard to lie on such a scale to the Slytherins he had, for better or for worse, spent the last six years with--particularly to the real fanatics Lestrange or Jin were daily becoming. He simply avoided further "after graduation" talks under pretense of studying or cooking up some plot or another against Potter and his cronies.

He suspected his gang were still in touch with Lucius Malfoy, but Malfoy himself never tried to contact him again-- must have realized he was more trouble than he was worth, which suited him just fine. He told himself he had nothing to think about except the usual schoolboy things: The N.E.W.T.s, the strutting Gryffindors, cheering Quidditch matches and watching Rosier and Wilkes trying to clobber Potter and Black out of existence with their beaters' clubs in addition to their Bludgers(and failing miserably, the fools), rivalries for the House cup. But the truth was, the 'nothing' underneath all that was the one that bothered him the most.

He told himself, over and over again, that he couldn't be bound by a promise to some redhead Mudblood in his fifth year. It was stupid. He didn't even have the excuse of sentimentality because he no longer felt anything--anything--for her. Whatever the nature of the short, confusingly platonic relationship had been, it was long dead. But that wasn't the only thing holding him back. He knew, as none of the others did, what taking a life felt like, and knew, firsthand, what the Unforgivable curses, the epitome of all things Dark, were like...

The months wore on and everyone's nerves got more than a little jumpy among the worsening conflict-- wizards who had been defying You-Know-Who being tortured or killed one day, Death Eaters killed or captured the next. And the gang, though to the outside they presented a united front, were losing patience with Snape.

"Hey, listen to this," Lestrange said one day over breakfast, "'Muggles Tortured and Killed in Bristol. Suspected to Be You-Know-Who's Doing...' Really, what is the world coming to?" He shook his head over the Daily Prophet with a contented mock sigh. The Slytherins within hearing laughed; Severus did not.

Avery leaned over to look at the paper. Snape noticed his beady eyes glancing over at him. "Whoa, you won't believe what they did to this one Muggle brat!" Avery exclaimed. "Its head was absolutely--"

Severus slammed down his Ancient Runes textbook so hard that bits of bacon went flying in all directions. "Must you talk about that over breakfast?" He snapped over the sudden silence. He had been taking these subtle jabs silently for months, and he was thoroughly fed up, especially with the interpretation of Mannaz in context giving him a headache at the moment.

"Interesting you should say so, Severus," Avery said with feigned geniality. "Concerned about the welfare of Muggles?" He sneered.

"More like for the welfare of my appetite," Snape retorted. "Did anyone tell you that you have a sick mind?"

"Sick? Am I sick, Evan?" Asked Avery off-handedly, his eyes never leaving Snape's.

"Perhaps," Rosier replied lazily from across the table, eyes glinting maliciously in Snape's direction. "But I'd say it's better than being a pathetic, two-minded coward and a traitor to boot."

Traitor. His temples pounded as if the blood was trying to escape the bounds of blood vessels; his neck went suddenly and painfully rigid, the inside of his head turned hot and white, and in the center of his suddenly reddened field of vision Rosier smirked at the look on his face. The next moment bowls of sausages and tomatoes went flying as Rosier was dragged halfway across the table by the front of his robes. With his free hand Snape pressed his wand into Rosier's neck. With that he felt the pressure in his temple ease somewhat, and his vision cleared. He looked deep into Rosier's eyes, and with the greatest satisfaction watched him squirm.

Amid horrified shouts and approaching footsteps Severus said in his most dangerous voice, "I am not taking any more of this." He spoke to Rosier's face but knew the gang, now standing around but not daring to approach, would hear him. "Do you doubt my ability in the Dark Arts? Or my commitment to it? I could prove both right this second." The faces of teachers appeared behind the circle of Slytherins, and he tightened his grip and pressed the wand tip even harder, making Rosier wince. "I could blow your head away right this moment, shrivel it to a husk, or make it rot. Should I, Evan? Alan? Mei-lin?"

"Snape." Professor Baddock's voice came from one side, hushed and low, as if he was afraid of triggering off his perhaps least stable student by exciting him. "Let Rosier go. This can be resolved by words."

"You don't seem to think I should," Snape went on in a malevolent whisper, nose to nose with Rosier's deathly pale face and looking sidelong at the others' frightened, tense ones--and enjoying the sensation. God, he loved the feeling of having them all at his fingertips. "Then I would advise you to leave me alone now. Do not question me. Got that?" Then he threw back Rosier, who immediately landed on the floor, pale and breathing heavily. An audible sigh of relief came from the surrounding crowd, and Snape felt a satisfied smirk cross his face.

A rough hand grabbed his arm. "Snape, my office. Right now." Baddock's voice spelled out loads of trouble for him, but he hardly cared. He had a brief glance of Dumbledore's grave, concerned face as he was all but dragged from the hall, but he didn't give a damn for that, either. He felt light-headed, intoxicated. Now he knew what it must be like to get drunk--the brief sense of power he had experienced had left him just that, drunk. The pale, frightened Slytherins watching him seemed more like the ones facing punishment.

Had the specifics of the argument been revealed, especially what he had said to Rosier, he would have been in serious trouble, but Rosier and the others didn't go into any details, either with their Head of House or with the Headmaster. He got twenty points off Slytherin and a week of detention.

Later that day, he recalled the immense feeling of power having Rosier at his mercy had given him--and realized, with a sinking heart, that this Dark business was like spiderwebs, quicksand, or giant Venus flytraps: Every effort to struggle free just got him in deeper.

But that still didn't bring him any closer to his decision.

At any rate, the little scene had its desired effect--he was still with the gang, but they no longer bugged him about his allegiances or decisions. They also kept a distance that wasn't there before, but this was fine with him. Pathetic, two-minded coward or not, traitor to Slytherin or not, his seventh and final year at Hogwarts sped on despite all the doubts and uncertainties that plagued him.

Graduation day dawned bright and clear, and the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall showed a clear, sunlit sky without a cloud in sight. Snape looked up from his toast wondering if the professors had worked weather magic to ensure such perfect conditions. He glanced over at the staff table only to notice that the aged headmaster was absent from his usual seat at the center--as was his head of house. So were they off working weather magic or something?

He shook his head almost cheerfully and went back to eating. It would be his--their--last meal as Hogwarts students; the ceremony took place later in the morning and by lunchtime, they would be official graduates. They would then spend one last night in the dormitories, though they were more likely to be celebrating than sleeping, and the next day's Hogwarts Express would be carrying full-fledged wizards out into the world.

Waxing sentimental, he told himself. He felt he deserved a bit of it, though, since his school years, for all the trouble and bother he had gone through, had been fairly fruitful. He had passed all seven N.E.W.T.s with flying colors, with special mentions in Potions. Admittedly Potter and Black had done even better, but he ranked top among the Slytherins. He was a prefect, with excellent grades and twelve O.W.L.s--he could get a job at the Ministry for certain, unless his family ties worked against him.

Or he could become quite a competent Death Eater, with family ties to help him out.

Exaperated with himself and sick of the same old uncertainty, he concentrated on the excited conversation around him, about post-graduation plans for the summer.

"I will be visiting relatives abroad," Mei-lin was saying. "That is, unless I am--contacted."

"Same here," said Alan. "I'll cut the trip to France short any time if they contact me."

Snape got the distinct impression that the gang were more excited about this possible 'contact' than the places they would be going.

"I'll be staying home, helping my old man out," said Wilkes. "They can reach me any time they want." After a pause he added, "And you, Severus?"

Snape could tell this was an invitation of sorts, a gentle prod to see if he would finally join them. He had been remarkably elusive on this point, and while they did not dare push him after the Rosier incident months ago, they still wanted to know which way his allegiance lay. He was, after all, the most skilled in Potions and the most knowledgeable in the Dark Arts, and he was part of the gang, however precariously.

Just then Professor McGonagall stood up and called for attention.

"May I have your attention, please. I would like the following six students to come my office after breakfast to discuss the specifics of the graduation ceremony."

Everyone sat up a little straighter. Those six were the Head Boy and Head Girl--James Potter and Lily Evans--and the representatives of the four Houses, all of whom would be receiving their diplomas in front of the entire school. And while the choices for House representatives were usually fairly obvious, it was always exciting to hear the names being spoken before the school. In Slytherin's case it would be Snape, being a prefect and having the best grades and overall record, though Mei-lin Jin was a close second.

"James Potter, Head Boy and valedictorian."

Immediately, the entire Great Hall broke into applause and cheers, and even some Slytherins joined in. McGonagall peered sternly over her spectacles. "Now really, this is a summons, not the ceremony itself." But a rare smile twinkled in her eyes, and it took some time for the tumult, particularly at the Gryffindor table, to die down.

Oh yes, thought Snape, bitterness rising in him like bile. James Potter, Head Boy, valedictorian, Quidditch captain, all-around Hogwarts poster boy. James Potter, the golden boy of Hogwarts, a beacon in these dark times--and also, he thought with a trace of queasiness, the one to whom he owed a life-debt. Damn him. Why was it Perfect Potter, of all people, who had come after him after Black's psychotic prank? No matter. He'd make up for that someday.

"Lily Evans, Head Girl." Again there were applause and cheers, almost as loud as for Potter. There also seemed to be liberal amounts of teasing, no doubt about Potter. As a matter of fact, people talked all the time about Evans becoming a Potter in the near future. Snape didn't feel anything in particular when he heard such gossip, other than an urge to go someplace private and be sick.

"Sirius Black, representative of Gryffindor." Snape gave a deadly glare as the commotion grew, if possible, even noisier and much rowdier. He wasn't about to forget anytime soon how Black had tried to kill him...well, at least it wasn't the werewolf who would represent the house in the ceremony. Not even Gryffindor could sink that low.

Just then, something tapped him on the hand impatiently. He turned his head to see an official-looking owl looking at him, a letter tied to its leg.

Scowling, he took the letter and opened it as the Hall quieted down once more--and as he read the letter, he felt his face grow deathly white.

"Miranda Summers, representative of Hufflepuff." Both McGonagall's voice and the following applause seemed to come from very far away. Shakily Snape stood up and made his way towards the staff table, ignoring the curious stares that came his way. He lurched over to the surprised-looking McGonagall and spoke to her, hardly knowing what he was saying. By the horrified look on her face he could guess he had gotten his point across. He looked up at Dumbledore's and Baddock's empty seats, slowly realizing that their absences had little to do with the weather.

"You--have my leave to go, Snape," McGonagall said in a strained voice. "By Merlin--Albus and Matthew left so suddenly--but I never thought--" she caught herself quickly and went on. "Your diploma will be left at your room at the dormitory, and should you fail to return within the night it will be mailed to your home along with your baggage."

"Thank you." He hardly understood a word of what she had said. With a last hoarse "Please don't tell the students," he turned away and headed for the doors. As he turned away he saw McGonagall quickly regaining her composure and conferring hurriedly with the other teachers.

"Carl Davies, representative of Ravenclaw," McGonagall was continuing as he walked away from the Great Hall. He was considerably calmer now--or numb, rather.

"And Mei-lin Jin, representative of Slytherin. These six students will report to my office at nine o' clock..." Her voice was cut off as Snape walked down the entrance hall and out the doors.

When Severus Apparated in front of the Ministry headquarters, he wasted no time in entering and giving his name and the letter the owl had brought him to the wizard at the front desk. The wizard cast him a quick, searching look, magically verified the seal on the letter he was carrying, then asked for his wand.

He stared. "My what?"

"Your wand, please," the wizard repeated. "Hold your wand in the middle so that it points sideways and give it to me. It will be returned to you when you leave the building."

"B-but," he stammered, "I'm not a suspect or anything. I'm here to--"

"I'm sorry, standard procedure," the wizard cut in. "To go in, you must check in your wand."

He wondered if this were standard procedure for all non-personnel or--damn it all to hell, what did it matter? He'd wasted enough time. Slowly he put a hand in his robes. The wizard looked calm and businesslike but alert, and looked ready to use his own wand at the slightest false move. Snape held the wand so that it pointed to either side of his closed fist, and held it out horizontally. It was taken from him, and he felt strangely vulnerable as he watched it being tossed into a bin with about a dozen others. The wizard then gave him directions to a room on the second floor and turned back to his papers without a second glance.

The interior of the building was strangely cool for June. Severus felt a chill enter his bones as if a shadow had fallen over him, blocking out light and warmth. Fear and shock, a detached, clinical voice said calmly inside his head. Just stay cool.

He stood before the door of the room he had been directed to, trying to stop his hand from shaking. It seemed like a dream, the letter and his coming here...He felt he would wake any moment now, to find he had overslept with McGonagall yelling at him--"You're late, Snape! When you're representing your House at the ceremony, too!"

Okay, he thought. Just a dream. Just a dream...

And he reached out with a finally steady hand to grasp the knob and pushed the door open.

"Mr. Snape?" The thickset, bespectacled wizard who looked up from his desk looked very solid and real. Snape nodded numbly, the second of deluded courage he had managed to scrape up now gone.

"Sit down, please," the man said briskly, and Snape obeyed. He glanced disinterestedly at the plaque on the desk--Jonathan Stebbins, Department of Magical Law Enforcement. "You are Mr. Severus Snape, the younger of two sons born of Alexander and Juno Snape?"

Snape nodded. "Yes," he said.

"Did you receive, peruse, and fully comprehend the Ministry's notification?"

Snape nodded again, then managed to say "Yes" without sounding hoarse or shaky.

"We need you to sign some papers," Stebbins went on in a businesslike way. "This, confirming that you have been informed of your mother Juno Snape's being taken custody by the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; and this one, that you have been informed of your brother Septimius Snape's death."

Wordlessly Snape signed them each in turn. Was it another bit of standard procedure to have the Dark wizards' next of kin sign stupid papers without letting them see their family members? Seeing his brother's body and his mother behind bars would certainly be a lot more informative than a letter over breakfast. The initial shock was wearing off as the unthinkable quickly settled itself into reality, but at the same time he felt himself grow impatient and edgy.

Stebbins took back the pieces of parchment and launched into an explanation of events. Snape heard him without really listening. Four civilians dead: Two Muggles, a witch, a wizard. A Hit Wizard dead. Heinous crime, of course. He would expect no less--or no better, depending on the point of view--from his family. Septimius and four other Death Eaters had been killed, and the others arrested, like Juno Snape. Killing five people before breakfast, that's a good day's work by any standard, he thought sarcastically. Too bad it's also their last. He began tapping a foot on the floor, then stopped himself.

"Now, we ask for your full cooperation in the investigation, Mr. Snape," Stebbins was saying.

"All right," Snape said impatiently. There would be no trial for certain Death Eaters like Juno Snape, the investigation was mainly for intelligence purposes. Refusing cooperation would mean he would have no job and pretty soon no bank account. He knew the drill, as every Slytherin did--he had had his laboratory at Snape Manor dismantled before his sixth year, and anything of his remotely incriminating was hidden in his personal belongings currently at Hogwarts, which would not be searched if he cooperated freely. And this 'full cooperation' would mostly consist of helping get rid of the various traps around the Manor and long interrogations where he would feign ignorance to anything of importance. The Ministry, for all its tough posturing, never knew the huge gaps in security caused by its relatively lenient treatment of voluntary "cooperators."

The wizard seemed a little taken aback at the speed of his answer, and Snape realized he should have stalled a little. But his irritation was boiling inside like overheated pus now. How much longer did he have to put up with the man's prattling?

"Well, then, please sign this agreement," said Stebbins, handing over another sheet of parchment. Silently, Snape signed it. He was now starting to think it was a good thing he had not been allowed his wand, for he felt like putting some really potent hexes on the man before him.

"And now, about the search on the Snapes' family estate--"

Snape couldn't take it any longer. "Could we talk about this some other time?" He cut in. "I would like to see Mrs. Snape now."

"I'm sorry, standard procedure," the wizard replied. "Now, your cooperation will be necessary in the process of searching--"

But Snape had stood up now, and he felt his own impatience as if it were a physical pain. "I have already promised full cooperation, Mr. Stebbins. I need to see--"

"Later." Stebbins sounded like his own patience was running thin. "She is safely in custody, and I assure you she is uninjured. Why would you need to see her?" He spoke as if it were highly unusual for a son to wish to see his mother at once, and Snape realized it really might be unusual. If his own family and the Slytherins he knew were any indication, few Stebbins dealt with would be exactly overflowing with familial affection. He paused. Why would he need to see her, indeed? She had used him, disowned him. What did he care what state she was in?

And yet he needed to know. He needed to know if she was in pain, suffering as she had suffered eleven years ago when his father died. The realization galled him. It has nothing to do with caring, he thought quickly. Needing to know is one thing, having any kind of emotion is another.

"Sit down, Mr. Snape." Stebbins was saying now.

"No, I will not sit down. I need to see her now." He bent over Stebbins's desk and looked him straight in the eyes.

Something about the look on his face seemed to have rumpled Stebbins's smooth bureaucratic blandness. He backed away, squirming in his chair, and Snape could tell he was half frightened despite himself, and angry for being frightened. "You can't do that. It's not in my--"

"Then call your superior, Mr. Stebbins, if you please," Snape rejoined smoothly, his voice low.

"Out of the question," Stebbins said. "I have been given orders to complete these forms before--"

"Forms?" Snape lost control of his voice at this point; he could feel it cracking. He grit his teeth--he was going to lose control over a lot more than his voice at this rate.

"Sit down, young man," the wizard said again with a firmness that he did not quite seem to feel. "We need to--"

"Mr. Stebbins," said Snape. "You need to call your superior and ask him--tell him--to let me see Mrs. Juno Snape. Otherwise," he added on sudden inspiration, "Pertinax Malfoy or his son may take a great interest in this matter." He knew he was name-dropping, and on Lucius Malfoy and his father of all people, but he was past caring.

Stebbins seemed to have sensed the danger in his voice. He also seemed to have forgotten that he had a wand while Snape did not. Looking thoroughly cowed in spite of himself, he reached over and brought a mirror close to his face. He muttered some words, and presently Snape caught snippets of a one-sided conversation. "Mr. Trimble? There's..." "Yes, he insists..." Then, finally, "Sir? Yes, sir." Stebbins looked up, looking confused. He stood up with a suspicious glance at Snape, said "Follow me, then," and walked out of the room. Snape followed, briefly wondering what had made Stebbins's boss give permission so quickly.

Snape followed him down the hall and into cold and gloomy hallways where there were little of the scuttling people and flurried activity that characterized the other passages he had passed. They passed through several iron bar doors on their way, each guarded by security wizards with their wands at the ready. He could tell they were entering a holding area of some sort. It was cold here, but he could feel his hands clammy with sweat. His former sense of urgency gave way to nervousness--what was he going to say to her, anyway? Hullo, Mother, first time we're seeing each other since the time you and Septimius put the Imperius Curse on me. Haven't heard from you since the letter where you disowned me, how have you been? It's really too bad about Septimius--speaking of which, did he die painfully? Which I hope he did...

Another door of iron bars clanged shut behind him and Stebbins and there was now a large, guarded metal door to their right, which Stebbins entered, followed by Snape.

They came into a small and low-ceilinged room without windows, the wall facing the door entirely made of opaque glass. Stebbins indicated a chair facing the glass wall, and Snape went to sit in it as Stebbins spoke to the stone-faced guard.

Snape stared at the blank glass before him; it seemed to radiate coldness, and the surface glowed with a blackened sort of brilliance. Magic-proof glass, he realized. To keep the visitor and the prisoner from destroying each other, he supposed. He could imagine that kind of thing very clearly.

And suddenly, as if a light had come on on the other side, the glass became transparent and there was a hunched figure sitting before him, close enough to reach out and touch but untouchable, of course. "You have ten minutes," came Stebbins' voice.

The strange thing was, she was nothing like the cool, collected, mockingly calm woman he knew--she sat bent over, head bowed, what he could see of her face gaunt and pale, eyes unfocused--yet she was very familiar. His heart sank. This woman, though altogether different from the mother he remembered, was branded into his memory forever: She had looked just like this eleven years ago when Alexander Snape was killed.

"Mother?" He called, feeling suddenly very young, very...six years old.

Juno Snape, after the day she had watched her husband, a Dark wizard, die at the hands of Aurors, would sit wordless and expressionless, not responding when someone spoke to her...

She continued to look down at the floor, not meeting his eyes, appearing not to have even heard him.

She would not even look at six-year-old Severus or ten-year-old Septimius...

"Mother!" He called more loudly, tapping at the glass in frustration. Had these Ministry fools made the partition soundproof as well as magic-proof?

She would not eat and would not sleep, and sat unresponsive for endless hours until suddenly she would start speaking...

Snape gave up: Obviously she was in too much shock to speak to him. He looked up at the ceiling, then down at the floor, and listened to the clock ticking away his remaining visiting time. Just then Juno Snape raised her head and spoke.

"Why did you come here?" Her voice was a low rasp, again not her usual voice but familiar to him from the decade-old memories. The cold black eyes both her sons had inherited looked straight into his, wide and bloodshot.

I came to see you. But he saw the look on her face, in her eyes, and knew he would rip out his own entrails with a grappling hook before saying that to her face. The results with the hook would be a lot less painful, too.

"I was summoned," he said coldly. "You don't think I wanted to come?"

She would start shouting without provocation; scream at her children; throw things and hurt herself.

"How dare you show your face here?" Grief certainly had not taken the edge off her venom. Her voice rose as she continued. "Have you come to gloat over me, Severus? Over your fallen brother?"

Snape opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came.

"You betrayed us." Hatred burned in her eyes, all black irises and broken red veins. "You betrayed the family name, the Dark Lord, our honor."

He finally found his voice. "I was tortured," he snarled. "You think that was a picnic?"

"You were always a weakling," she sneered. "You were never half the man Septimius was."

Septimius and Severus would huddle together, frightened, Severus crying helplessly into his brother's shoulder and Septimius holding back his own tears...

Stung by the contempt in her voice, Severus found himself lashing out where he knew would hurt her most. "Yeah, 'was,' not 'is.' Your precious Septimius is dead," he sneered back.

There was a long pause, and Snape watched expressionlessly as the muscles in her jaw worked tightly, her neck straining impossibly. "Yes, dead." Her face had gone pale as death, and her voice was little more than a scraping whisper. Then suddenly, like a tendon snapping at its limit, the last vestiges of her self-control broke and she screamed out. "Dead!" She looked up, shaking, and pointed an accusing finger. "You as good as killed him--traitor!"

Snape stood up abruptly, and heard, as if from very far away, the chair clattering to the floor. He tried to speak, but was again forcefully reminded that she was one of the very few people who could strike him speechless. Muddled images came to him of a harpy he had killed in his third year; its scream ringing in his ears again, so much like the screams of the woman before him, and the dead face...

"Oh, this is just great!" Severus shouted back. Anything to rid the picture from his mind. "You're not even in Azkaban yet and already you're raving mad!"

Juno Snape stood, shaking, and faced her son. "Why is he dead, and not you?" She shrieked. "You are the one that should have died!"

She doesn't mean what she's saying, Severus, ten-year-old Septimius Snape had murmured to his little brother, blocking the six-year-old's ears to the torrent of verbal abuse. She doesn't even know what she's saying, don't cry, Sevvie...

"Yeah, you're one to speak! If you hadn't dragged him into this Death Eater business he'd still be alive!" And to his amazement, Snape realized he actually meant this, was actually sorry Septimius was dead.

She completely broke down at this point. He watched her collapse to the floor, her screams melting into wracking sobs. She was just before him, within arm's length, but the years of distance and the poison of pointless accusations stood in the way more surely than the ice-cold wall of glass. He looked down at her, face and eyes steady, then bent down, leaning forward. Her words still scratched at him like talons clawing his eyes out, and caught helplessly in the raw pain he lashed out in the only way he knew. He put his lips almost to the glass and spoke.

"Everyone you've ever lived for, everything you've worked for is gone, wasted. You say I should have died, but as for you, it would have been better if you had never lived. Your whole life is a waste, do you know that? And it's all over now, even before the death of your body. You have no chance to make amends, no chance at vengeance or anything else, because you will never see the light of day again." His voice was very low and smooth, almost a whisper, but he could tell she had heard him, from the rising pitch of her sobs.

"Time's up, Mr. Snape," said Stebbins' voice behind him, and Snape straightened up. "Give my regards to the Dementors, Mother," he sneered, and her sobs were cut off as the other side of the glass darkened, turning the wall black and opaque once more. He turned away and followed Stebbins from the room.

The sidelong glance Stebbins gave him as they left the room looked slightly sickened, as if to say, "Was that what you wanted to see her for?" Snape only gazed straight ahead, clenching his jaws and hands to keep them from trembling. Rage, grief, and exhaustion mingled together now struck him like the aftershock of an earthquake, and it took an effort just to keep walking. Stebbins looked away with a shake of the head that clearly showed he thought them all nuts.

Yes, we're nuts, all right, Severus thought as they cleared the first of the clanging metal doors. Mother and Septimius, and, by induction, I. For it took something horribly wrong, a serious perversion of the mind, to do what they had done this morning: To attack a graduation party that Hogwarts graduates' parents, four Muggles and six wizards, were getting ready for; to kill the Muggle couple and the wizard couple that were defending them, and then put the Imperius curse on the remaining wizards torture the other two Muggles. The surviving Muggles had gone to the brink of madness before Aurors and Hit Wizards had come to the rescue. What was to be a joyous celebration turned into a hell-fest of killing and torture at the bidding of the Dark Lord. Fools, he thought. Did they think Voldemort would permit that kind of thing, wizards celebrating with Muggles? Did they imagine he wouldn't use it as a chance to warn the world that he meant business?

Once back at Stebbins' office Snape sat without hearing a word the bureaucrat was saying and signed anything he was given. The papers could have been agreements to hand all his property over to the Ministry or sell himself in slavery, for all he cared. He just wanted it to get it over with so that he would be left alone. All the while, he couldn't help thinking--in Azkaban, would she see the people she loved most in life die, over and over again? His father, dead before he hit the ground--Septimius, lying in a pool of his own blood--until she forgot who she was and slowly lost that minimal confidence in the world, called sanity...

The mirror on Stebbins' desk started flashing and the wizard tapped it placidly. "Yes?" Moments later, he said, sounding flabbergasted, "Oh, yes, I see...Yes, we're just about done here...Yes, right away."

As the glow in the mirror faded, he turned to Snape and said, "Mr. Rookwood of the Department of Mysteries wants to see you."

"What for?" Snape asked. Not that he cared--he was feeling strangely hollow inside, not to mention tired.

"I wouldn't know--it's the Department of Mysteries, after all," answered Stebbins. "Here, better use the Intra-Ministry Floo Network..." He had practically dragged Snape off his feet and led him in front of the fireplace. The container he held out at Snape was full of white powder instead of the usual green Floo powder. He waited for Snape to listlessly take a handful the lighted the fire with a flick of his wand.

"It's no different from using normal Floo powder. Just it in and say 'Mr. Rookwood's office,' and it will get you there." Snape did as he was told, and presently found himself spinning through the tunnels of the Floo Network...

...And he emerged into a sparsely furnished, Spartan office. A desk overflowing with paper stood facing the wall where the fireplace was, and a man looked up from the desk to look straight at him.

"Mr. Snape?" The wizard, evidently Mr. Rookwood, had a face that reminded Snape of a bird of prey--aquiline nose, sharp eyes, a thin slit of a mouth. He spoke sharply and without emotion.

"Yes." Feeling wary for no reason he could name, Snape walked over to the desk and stood before it, looking down at the rolls of parchment that cluttered the top, which immediately disappeared with a wave of Rookwood's wand. Snape blinked. Well, so he was an Unspeakable.

"Sit, please."

Snape did so, and for a few moments Rookwood just continued to look down at him from his higher chair in silence. The piercing blue gaze made him uncomfortable in a way he wasn't used to, and Snape gazed back mutinously.

Presently Rookwood started speaking. "Are you aware, Mr. Snape, of the nature of your mother and brother's crimes?"

"Yes." Don't start talking to me like you're some kind of judge.

"Both of them had a long and heinous record of Dark activity and violence, all the more damaging for keeping a low profile. Though not well known to the public, the Ministry's Aurors have been trying to find them for nearly two years now."

Was he supposed to take pride in that? From having kept his eye on the news he could tell they'd been keeping their heads low. It was a Snape thing, right up there with the sarcasm and the monomaniacal tendencies. He was feeling vaguely uneasy, though. Just why was Rookwood talking about their crimes to him?

Rookwood leaned forward slightly. "And now that your mother has been apprehended, you must understand there is no way she can escape a life sentence in Azkaban."

"I understand." What was the man getting to? And why did he get the feeling that he knew about it? Slowly, every fear, every premonition he had had since the day he learned of Septimius' involvement in Voldemort's rise, the feeling of abject helplessness that had overpowered him after his torture, crept out from the darkest recesses of his mind where he had hidden them.

"Except for one."

Snape heard a sharp intake of breath. It was a moment or two before he realized it was his own. Now a high-pitched warning bell, conditioned by too much experience and pain and those sleepless nights when he had feared for the future, went off in his head screaming Get out of here, out of this conversation NOW. But something deeper and stupider inside him prompted him to say slowly, "What do you mean?"

Was that a smile curling around Rookwood's thin lips? "We would like to make a deal with you, Mr. Snape."

"And what is that?" The frantic howling in his head was giving him a headache, and he spoke more sharply than he intended. Yet a part of his mind was strangely detached, looking on the scene with bemused, or perhaps amused, interest. It was like a mayfly spiralling into a lamp fire, a scene avoidable yet inevitable...

"That we find Mrs. Snape to be criminally insane and put her in the insanity ward at St. Mungo's Hospital instead of Azkaban," again that smile-like curving of the lips, "and in return you give us--inside information--about the activities of He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named and his supporters."

Inevitable, because of the mayfly's stupidity: Instincts made living things stupid, whether insect or human.

The room was plunged into silence as his mental warning bell shut up abruptly: He was now past the point of needing warnings of any kind. "And why do you think I would agree to a deal like that?" He asked calmly.

"It's your mother, after all."

"And what makes you think I care?" He had a sickening feeling he might know the answer...

"Your actions in Stebbins' office, for one," Rookwood answered, too unemotionally even to sound cool. "You seemed quite impatient to see her."

So that was it. He was being watched, his actions and responses being reported to an Unspeakable probably since the moment he entered the Ministry. He saw the look of arrogant, assured certainty in the other wizard's eyes, the eyes of a bird that had caught a prey that hadn't stood a chance in the first place.

"And from your obsession with the fact that your mother was going to Azkaban, during your meeting with her."

Snape forced himself to think clearly through the muddle in his head. "So why are you making me an offer like this?" He asked. "I'm sure not everyone gets this kind of --choice," he sneered at the last word.

"Quite right," said Rookwood, his sitting form looming over Snape. "We will be as open with you as is necessary. Mrs. Snape, with her late son, has kept her activities mostly out of the public spotlight, which means there will be no public repercussion against not putting her in Azkaban. Also, you have the abilities that you will need on the job--quick assessment of situations, emotional manipulation, and most of all, the ability to look men in the eye and make them uncomfortable enough to do your bidding--a most valuable qualification."

"How about the ability to detect deception?" Snape asked bitterly.

The Unspeakable raised an almost-amused eyebrow. "Deception? No real deception involved here, Mr. Snape--just observation. And switching the order of standard procedure around a bit. Stebbins really had been given explicit orders by his superior to complete those papers first thing, which makes your influencing him all the more remarkable."

Flattering, Snape thought sardonically, that all my so-called abilities are ones that go towards making me a better puppet for you.

"Besides which, you have considerable intelligence and the right connections," Rookwood's eyes glinted. "I understand you are the top student in Slytherin house?"

"I am certainly not the House representative," Snape said, suddenly wanting to know just how much Rookwood knew about him. "That honor goes to a friend of mine."

"If you say so." The corners of Rookwood's mouth curled again. Snape was not surprised that he knew so much, but just how he knew so much bothered him. "At any rate, we are certain you will not be suspected, and that you can bring us valuable information."

"Would it considerably lower your opinion of my considerable intelligence if I asked you just what you expect me to do?" Snape asked bitingly.

"That," Rookwood said softly, "is none of our concern. Just as long as you give us such information as we are sure someone of your background and qualifications can provide."

Oh, that's just it. Avoid any mention of the unpleasant details, so you can deny all involvement if things go awry... He could tell this was one deal that would definitely not go on record. And at any rate, who would know? This was the Department of Mysteries, and regardless of what its actual job was, anything that went on here must be classified. Including shady back deals. Especially shady back deals.

"I see. So there is no guarantee, no protection, no promise of immunity." Because there was only one way of garnering "inside information" from the ranks of the Death Eaters. He had watched his tidy little family business long enough to know that they trusted no one outside their number, and that even their trust in each other scraped the bare minimum of necessity.

"We are not forcing anything on you, Snape," Rookwood said, and Snape knew technically he was right. "And remember--the amount of immunity we are giving Mrs. Snape is something enormous, considering her crimes. We will even throw a job into the bargain: A position at the Office of Experimental Potions," he said condescendingly, as if this was some huge and undeserved prize.

Translation: Kiss your chances at the Office of Experimental Potions good-bye if you don't take this offer. Snape wondered how many of his job choices Rookwood could cut off. Would he be able to influence apothecaries or research institutes outside the Ministry?

"I need some time to think about this," he said, looking away. He hated feeling helpless, trapped. He had done everything he could never to feel that way again, yet here he was.

"By all means," the Unspeakable answered, very pleasantly. "You have a week. Remember the stakes here, and remember that this is a very valuable service you can render the magical community."

Hell, and why would I want to render valuable service? Snape said silently as he stood up. "Good-bye, then, Mr. Rookwood. I'll be certain to answer you within the designated time."

"Good-bye," Rookwood answered. "And it really is a shame about your brother, Mr. Snape."

Snape muttered something polite-sounding in response and walked out the door. He didn't want to stay in the room a moment longer than was necessary.

Once out in the hallways, of course, he was hopelessly lost. His head still buzzing with the recent conversation, he was wondering how the heck he could get out of this accursed building when he walked straight into a figure in navy blue robes and nearly fell back.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry!" The other man exclaimed as he caught Snape's shoulder to steady him. "Are you quite all right?"

Snape looked up. "Yes, quite. If you could tell me--" he started sharply, then paused at the look on the other wizard's face. The man looked as if he had seen something utterly impossible and horrifying. The look disappeared so abruptly Snape had to wonder if he had really seen it, and was replaced by shocked recognition.

"Snape," said the wizard. "Severus Snape?"

Snape looked at him. For a moment he did not recognize the face, though a vague dread stirred in the back of his mind; then suddenly it all came together: the good-natured face and brown hair, the navy blue robes, and the red-and-gold badge. The last time he had met the man was in an interrogation chamber; and there were few faces he felt less like seeing again.

Immediately, he staggered a step back. "Agent Longbottom." He forced the words from his lips, inclining his head stiffly.

Looking at him, Snape saw why he hadn't recognized the other man at once; besides the addition of the sunrise badge, Longbottom had changed--his face had lost its rounded boyish lines, becoming more angular and set, and white scars crossed his right eyebrow and left cheekbone. Yet the eyes, though harder and deeper-set, had that same warm glow they had held since his Hogwarts days--the same eyes he had seen when...he quickly clamped down on the recollection.

"I was...looking for the way out," said Snape. Inwardly he was praying Longbottom would not mention anything about the time they had last met, in the November of his sixth year when he had been...interrogated...by Aurors. Or worse, try to apologize.

"Oh!" Longbottom broke out of his dazed and confused look. "Go down this hallway and turn left at the second corner, then right at third. You'll find a stairway that leads down."

"Thank you." There was a moment or two of horribly awkward silence. They had so little ground for small talk it was ridiculous--Longbottom couldn't say he was sorry about Snape's family when they were responsible for five deaths just that day alone; Snape couldn't congratulate him on becoming an Auror without sounding bitter or sarcastic about Longbottom's failed attempt to save Snape from torture, when the former had said he would rather lose his career than let the torture go forward; neither could talk about the last time they had met without walking into a minefield.

"Well, I'd better get going, then. Good-bye, Agent Longbottom." Snape turned to go.

"Mr. Snape," called Longbottom.

"Yes?" Heart racing in half-fear, Snape looked at him without quite meeting his eyes.

"Congratulations for your graduation. I'm sorry it couldn't be a better day for you." The young Auror looked quite sincere about it, too.

Seek, and ye shall find! Snape thought with an inward sneer. Trust someone as sickeningly decent as Longbottom to come up with something in an impossible situation.

"Thank you," he replied with a smirk. "And I congratulate you, though belatedly, on your promotion. The Auror badge quite becomes you." He turned his back on Longbottom's suddenly stony, rigid face and strode down the hall.

So Longbottom still blamed himself for failing to protect him against Redwood. Fool. What had there been for him to do? He had been a measly apprentice, while Redwood was his superior. Typical Gryffindor--always thinking they could, and should, set right every wrong in the world.

He stormed down the stairs into the lobby, and the wizard at the reception desk practically had to flag him down to return his wand. Snape shot him a murderous look before snatching it away without a word, and stalked to the double doors.

He stepped out of the cool building into the sun. The sunlight had shifted considerably since the time he had entered--it was well past noon. The graduation ceremony would be over by now.

He had missed it completely.

Severus wondered what it would have been like to receive his diploma in front of the entire student body, the professors, and the guests. At least five hundred, there would have been, and while not one of them would have really cared, it would have been something he would have been proud of. Something he had worked for and no one could deny him, no matter who he was or what anyone felt around him.

You're pretty pathetic, Snape, he told himself. And suddenly it occurred to him that he could now call himself that without fear of confusion: As far as he knew, he was the only Snape in circulation in the wizarding world. The thought made him feel intensely alone, and somehow not quite as relieved as he thought he would be.

That brought him back to the business at hand, the only one left for him in London: He had to go to St. Mungo's where his brother's body was, and make arrangements for his burial. And no amount of self-mockery could goad him into facing that at the moment.

He turned heavy, weary steps toward a cafe across the road--glancing, without much interest, at the sign reading the The Gaelic Gale--entered a booth in the farthest corner, and ordered an Earl Grey. With the steaming cup before him he tried desperately to get the day's events to make some sense to him.

Strangely enough, he realized Rookwood's offer came as no big surprise to him. Ever since he had been betrayed by his family and then been tortured into betraying them right back, he had known something like this would happen. Known, through helpless misery and sleepless nights, no matter how much he tried to deny the knowledge--that he could not run forever from what he was, and that the world moved with a force stronger than any strength his willpower could muster. Forces like the Cruciatus Curse. Or the power of men who saw others only as means to an end. Or the power of a son's feelings for his mother...

He sank his forehead onto the heels of his hands, the fragrant fumes wafting up from his cup doing little to soothe his nerves. Images came to mind of the charred, twisted mayfly bodies he used to pick out of his reading lamp after a night of reading. I haven't come that far yet, he reminded himself. I can still refuse the offer. A blank moment, then: I'm a mayfly with brains. That sounded bitter even in his head.

Then he remembered having to go to St. Mungo's Hospital and slumped onto the table, groaning into his arm. Why couldn't they have both gotten killed or both gotten arrested? It would make things so much simpler. But no, they had to split ways and cause him two problems instead of one to deal with.

He was aware he was being callous, but he wasn't exactly a stranger to callousness. Without it, he would either have become a piteous sniveling wreck or gone mad.

Now that would be a sight, his mother and himself locked side by side in the insanity ward at St. Mungo's--except, he realized, she wouldn't be in St. Mungo's in that case. She would be in Azkaban.

He was thankfully distracted by that train of thought by the smart click of high heels. At first he thought it was the waitress, but the clicks entered the booth next to the one he was in. He heard a bustling of robes behind his back as someone settled into the seat. The partition between booths was too high for him to see who had entered even if he turned his head, but he guessed it was a young woman.

Whatever. He couldn't sit here all day and wish it would somehow go away. He had to get moving, and get Septimius' corpse out of the way. Yes, corpse, he thought. Because Septimius is dead. No matter how hard you find that to believe, your big bad brother, who cheated basic human morals, the Ministry, and magical law, couldn't cheat death in the end. Well, all he had to do was go see. There were few things in the world more concrete than the sight of a pale cold corpse. He raised himself from his chair, took a silent step to exit the booth--

And then snapped back to the seat, quickly as a coiled spring and just as silently. He couldn't believe it. What was Frank Longbottom doing here? He nearly hyperventilated before he managed to convince himself that Longbottom probably hadn't seen him, as he was just coming in the door and was looking the other way. He heard the Auror's voice friendly voice greet the man at the counter and then, to his horror, he heard distinct footsteps approach. Then they sounded just behind his back, entering the booth that the high heels had. Now how was he going to get to the door without Longbottom seeing him and causing more awkward moments?

"Hullo, Diane," said Longbottom's voice, sounding almost solemn.

"Hi, Frank." The voice that greeted him was indeed a young woman's, low and light. There was a pause as several more footsteps sounded and robes rustled.

"You look tired," the woman said. The concern in her voice was something more than friendly, and Snape didn't have to be a genius to figure out why she had chosen such a private (or so she thought) booth for this meeting.

"I'm all right." Longbottom sounded even more miserable as he said this. Snape wondered if he was trying to be crowned World's Worst Liar or something.

The two in the next booth ordered tea and tried to make conversation. Evidently they had originally planned to join the Gryffindors' graduation festivities, but the events that came up in the morning had kept Agent Longbottom far too busy, allowing him to scrounge up barely an hour to see the girl. He kept trying to apologize for that, and she kept saying it was all right, while Snape was planning his escape. With luck, he thought, he might slip out unnoticed or Longbottom might not bother trying to talk to him.

"All right, Frank," the girl said suddenly after a particularly awkward pause. "Out with it."

Or, Snape thought as he kept a halfhearted ear on the conversation, he might just Disapparate. He just could not face Longbottom again under the circumstances.

"With what?" Longbottom asked stupidly.

Apparate out--yeah. That would make good headlines. Dead Death Eater's Brother Flees Restaurant Without Paying for Tea.

"About what's eating you, Frank! You're not yourself today." The girl sounded exasperated.

No, he would just walk out. And if Longbottom tried to accost him, he'd just give him the cold shoulder. He wasn't afraid of the rookie Auror or the things he reminded him of.

There was a long pause in the next booth. Snape decided he'd make his exit when conversation started anew, since their voices would partly cover the sound of his getting up and leaving.

"Diane, I--" Snape put a foot out from under the table and started tensing his muscles to rise. "I just met the brother of the man I killed today."

This took a heartbeat to register. When it sank in, Snape froze completely in his half-sitting, half-standing pose.

In the next booth, the girl said nothing for a moment. Then, predictably, she said very confusedly, "What?"

Hopefully not what I think it is. Snape sank into his seat a second time.

"Do you remember Severus Snape, the Slytherin boy--"

"Oh, him." After that, neither spoke for several moments. When the girl spoke again her voice was very low and gentle.

"I've told you before, Frank--you can't blame yourself for what happened that night. Redwood was--is--a very determined man, and you were only on probation. You could have faced derobement or court-martial for insubordination if Redwood hadn't first forced you out of the chamber. You did all you could."

"I know." Longbottom sounded hoarse, unconvinced.

Diane sighed lightly. "And what's this about the man you killed?"

"You know about the attack this morning, on the mixed wizard-Muggle grad party preparation," Longbottom began heavily. There was a short pause the length of a nod, and the Auror went on. "Snape's brother, Septimius Snape, was among the Death Eaters at the scene."

"What happened?" She asked in her low voice.

"We burst in--though it was already too late for the Johanssens and the Prescotts--" Longbottom sounded bitter at this--"and Mad-Eye and I stood between several Death Eaters and the survivors. I came face to face with Snape--Septimius Snape. After a few exchanges he must have thought he could finish me easily enough. I had encountered him before, and back then I had barely escaped with my life."

There was a brief pause, then Diane said quietly, "I remember that time."

Longbottom gave a dry laugh. "I hardly do, except the reminders I see in the mirror. I had been knocked out cold for days."

"And I was the one who had to sit by your bedside, wondering if you'd ever--" the girl stopped her rush of words, took a deep breath. "So what happened this morning?"

Longbottom sounded uncomfortable when he began again. "It just happened so quickly. He stepped forward and began to speak the Killing Curse. I couldn't think of anything, it was all happening too fast, so I hurled a Reductor Curse, to distract him or drive him back...but he didn't step back, and the curse struck him on an artery in the neck. After the battle was over we discovered he had bled to death during the confusion."

And as he listened, Severus could finally believe that Septimius had died. Longbottom's account had the reality that Stebbins' simple explanation, "excessive loss of blood," did not. Septimius, dead of his own underestimation of an enemy and a simple, elementary, legal Reductor Curse--it was so unlikely that it had to be true.

"Frank." The girl's voice came very gently, more of a soothing sound than a word.

"I--I don't regret what I did," Longbottom continued. "If anyone deserved to die, men like him certainly did. I tried to put it out of my mind. And then I met the man's brother in the hall, just now, and..." his voice sank almost to a whisper. "I thought I was seeing the dead man again. For a split second I was so afraid...then I realized it was Severus Snape, not Septimius Snape, and that somehow made it even worse." his voice cracked slightly.

"No, Frank, don't do that to yourself--" the girl's voice was hushed but anguished, and Severus was astonished that she actually seemed to be feeling the pain more keenly than Longbottom was.

"He was a man, just like any other," gasped out Longbottom. "He had family, people who loved him, look just like him, and--" his voice was muffled but steady when he spoke again after a short span of time. "I know it's something I had to do, and it is the innocent lives that were lost today that I mourn, not his. But what frightens me, Diane, is that the second man I kill, or the third, might cease to mean anything to me--that I might be able to kill men, men who are just like me, without feeling anything."

"Like Agent Redwood," Diane stated, her voice low but certain. Longbottom said nothing but she went on, "No, Frank, you will never become anything like Redwood or Crouch. And don't give me that doubtful look," she added. "I know it because of the pain you feel. Don't you think I feel it, too? Frank Longbottom, I know you. You became an Auror because you wanted to save lives. Life can be destructive as well as benign, and you accept that. It's how you can appreciate the value of even the lives of men like Snape."

That's either the late Snape or Septimius Snape for you, Snape thought with a scowl. He realized he had been listening riveted to every word, and mentally shook himself.

"And that's how I know," she continued softly, "that you won't lose yourself to the Dark while you think you're fighting it, as I've seen too many people do."

"Oh God, Diane." Longbottom took a long breath as if he had not breathed for hours, and Snape could hear him choke.

"It's all right, Frank," Severus heard the unshed tears in her voice as well. "It's all right..."

Some silent minutes passed, during which Snape stared down at his tea and absently fingered the completely cold porcelain of the cup. A strange mixture of thoughts and emotions roiled around in his head, not one of which he could sort out after the long and confusing day.

After a while Longbottom suddenly spoke again. He spoke in the kind of voice one used when screwing up every dredge of courage one possessed to do something desperate, like jump over a cliff. "Diane, I'm afraid I might never have the courage again if I didn't--now--I mean--I'd...please. Here." Snape heard robes rustle and a small click as something small was set down on the table.

"What is it, Frank?"

"Open it."

There was a small snap, something like a small case being snapped open. "Oh!" The girl sounded completely bewildered.

"Will you--accept it?" Longbottom didn't seem to be breathing anymore: Severus wondered how long he could hold his breath without passing out. He also thought that there should be a law against such trite romantic situations.

"Oh, but I--I mean, I can't!" Diane burst out.

"Y-you can't?" The Auror said faintly. Snape had never heard such a strange mixture of absolute disappointment and relief in the same voice.

"I mean," she said quickly, "I'm sure it'll be very useful and all, and I appreciate the thought, but I'm sure it's not allowed..."

When he finally did speak up, Longbottom sounded thoroughly mystified. "What?"

"You can't give me your hand-held motion detector! It's Ministry issue!"

There was a loud crash in the adjoining booth and some muttered, very unintelligible words. Snape clapped a hand to his forehead and thought, Now who's the shame to the family name? You actually got yourself killed by that bumbling fool, Septimius?

After things had settled down a bit, he could hear the girl Diane's voice again. "Let me ask you one thing. Was it a ring you were originally going to give me?"

"Yeah." An embarrassed, miserable mumble. Then a chair scraped back as Longbottom stood up. "Uh, my time is almost up. I'd better--"

"Frank Longbottom, you will sit down right this second." She sounded sharper than Snape could have thought she was capable of. He heard Longbottom seat himself, meekly. Then he tried to speak. "Diane--"

"Frank, I don't want to go into the propose-to-me-or-I'll-hex-you routine too many relationships fall into, but this is ridiculous. I've seen you wanting to ask for so long and holding back--and today, you actually scrape up the courage then lose it all just because of a silly mistake! Just what are you afraid of?"

"Would you believe me if I said I was afraid of commitment?" Snape listened with mixed amusement and surprise--the Auror who, as a mere apprentice, had stood up to his superior under danger of career loss or even court-martial, who had faced the followers of the Dark Lord and who laughed off a close brush with death itself, now sounded dry-throated, terrified before this (normally) mild-mannered young witch.

"I swear, I will hex you if you lie to me like that." Diane sounded like she was gritting her teeth together.

"Diane, you know there's nothing I want more than for you do be my wife." The very intensity of the words and the rush of emotions behind it left no possible doubt about his sincerity. "But I just can't ask you. How could I be so selfish?"

"How can it be selfish," her voice was shaking now, "when there's nothing I would want more?"

"Because--because I'm an Auror. Because you'll watch me growing wearier every day under the weight of the horrors I face, and you'll look at me every morning and wonder if you'll see me again in the evening, and because you...you could become a target...you know what they're capable..." the raw pain rasped in his voice, and for a moment the only sound that came from the next booth was Longbottom's labored breathing. "Diane, I'm not the right one for you." He sounded like a man reading out his own death sentence. "You need someone who can make you happier, someone who can keep you safer."

The words that came next came softly and tremulously, yet there was a firmness in them, a power that came from complete truth and unafraid honesty. "No, I don't. What I need is you."

A moment or two later, Snape stood up without worrying about the noise: The nature of the silence coming from the adjoining booth told him that the two would take no notice if the entire restaurant blew up around them. Restraining a strange urge to give that thought a test, he walked past the booth with a sidelong glance at the young couple locked in a passionate embrace, to the counter where he paid for his untouched Earl Grey, then out the door.

Thirty minutes later, after Apparating to St. Mungo's and being led by an expressionless nurse along sterile white halls, he was looking down at his dead brother's remains. He drew back the white sheet and saw where the Reductor Curse had gotten him. It was not even a very large wound, just a rather deep cut next to his Adam's apple. Hard to believe a life had drained away through a cut like that, all over the floor, while the chaos of a battle raged all around...Severus closed his eyes briefly against the image, then opened them again.

Septimius Snape had always been a sallow man, but now he looked deathly pale, leaden, as a corpse should. Yet with his eyes closed and his face quiet, he looked more peaceful than Severus could remember seeing him in a long time. Peaceful as when he had slept as a child, long ago.

Why was it that one saw the worst in people while they still lived and remembered the best of them when they died--it would have been so much easier if it were the other way around. For at that moment, he didn't remember the increasingly distant brother who went off to a foreign school and never visited or wrote, or the cruel and arrogant man who seemed to have only ambition and fanaticism where most men had souls. Instead, Severus remembered the big brother who had huddled with him after their father's death, all through their mother's mad outpourings of grief and rage, the boy whose shoulders had shook with the silent tears he kept back to comfort his little brother.

Where did it all go wrong? he wondered, in the silent cry that too many people standing in the wreck of what used to be family had uttered.

Where, you ask? Said an insidious voice from the back of his head. Perhaps some point back where Dear Departed Dad decided to take what looked like the fast lane to power. Or maybe where his dad before him did. Or his dad before that. Bad blood, don't you think?

Blood, thought Severus as he looked down at his brother's pallid face. It was easy see why Longbottom had thought he was seeing the man he killed when they ran into each other in the hall--during the time he had not seen Septimius he had grown to Septimius' height, and on the dead man's face Severus recognized the high brow, the hooked nose, the gaunt and shadowed cheeks, the set of the mouth...all from his own mirror, resemblances that had not been so striking only a year and a half ago.

Neither can you run from what you are. You can only fight it, if you have the strength.

In a sudden incensed movement, Snape threw the cover back over the face of the corpse with such force that the bed shook. "I'd like to make the funeral arrangements now," he said, turning to the coroner who stood over another bed, the stiff black robes of his office a stark contrast against the white of the surroundings.

The coroner looked up mildly, conjured a clipboard and quill, and nodded.

"I want him cremated. And as soon as possible," Snape added through clenched teeth. In fact, right here and now would be just fine. As long as I won't have to look at that face again.

It was well past sunset when he Apparated into Hogsmeade. Cheerful lights blinked in the warm summer darkness and people passed him on the streets, but the mood seemed remarkably subdued considering the occasion. Looks like the they did a good job scaring people, at least, he thought sourly.

He walked aimlessly down the streets, and suddenly noticed there seemed to be an unusual amount of noise coming from somewhere up ahead. He looked up and realized it came from the Three Broomsticks.

Slytherins? He wondered as he hurried forward. They were the only ones who could conceivably be out after dark, after what had happened in the morning...

He caught sight of the people inside through a window, and immediately he flattened himself against a wall next to the open window by which, thankfully, no one was sitting. The people celebrating inside most emphatically were not Slytherins. The interior of the entire pub was decorated in red and gold, and floating candles cast cheery glimmers of golden light to every corner of the pub. Fairy lights floated gently among the lion banners, their delicate tints of color shifting constantly.

"Today is a day for celebration," James Potter was saying, standing up before his table at the center of the room. "Of joy and hopes for the future. Yet Lord Voldemort--" general wincing all around, all except the small circle at Potter's own table--"has distorted even the spirit of celebration and reconciliation into terrible losses and abject terror."

Snape supposed he should be getting on his way to find the Slytherins, but decided to stay a bit. He wanted to see what the Gryffindors were up to, and who knew, he might find out something useful. He noticed Sirius Black was not in sight, nor was the ever-faithful Pettigrew. He would have to keep alert, since it would not be pleasant to have Black appear suddenly behind his back...

"In the face of such tragedy, on our last day at Hogwarts and first as full-fledged wizards, let us remember that no matter what the Dark Lord does to undermine it, the spirit of tolerance and friendship will never be quenched. Nor will hope, love, or light. We will never be defeated as long as we take heart, and face each new day with hope of victory."

Nice try, Potter, Snape sneered to himself during the short but charged pause that followed. But it doesn't quite work if you don't have a flowing white beard. Should consider growing one if you're so determined to be Dumbledore's lapdog. He had half a mind to curse one onto him when there was a scraping sound as someone else stood up--Lily Evans. Her face was solemn, and an intense light shone in her eyes. "To the Prescotts," she said steadily, raising her cup. The Gryffindors repeated the salute to the late Muggle couple who, as Snape understood, were the parents of some Ravenclaw who was also a graduate.

Snape felt his lips curling in disgust as Remus Lupin, the Gryffindor resident werewolf as he thought of him, rose as well. "To the Johanssens," he said, cup upraised. The couple who had died defending the Prescotts were acknowledged accordingly.

Indira Kaur also stood up and raised her cup "To Malachy O'Leary," the Hit Wizard who had been killed in the skirmish with the Death Eaters.

The Gryffindors quaffed their cups, and at Evans' suggestion observed a moment of silence for Voldemort's five latest victims. Slightly subdued, they were talking among themselves when a loud explosion and multicolored sparks came from the direction of the kitchen. A moment later, Sirius Black--who else?--appeared, levitating an enormous cake before him. It was a culinary marvel, with nine sumptuous layers, icing that was multicolored as if a ton of confetti had been sprinkled over the surface, rows of cream topping that cascaded from layer to layer, and candles whose flames crackled and sparked madly in red, blue, green, purple... Snape was forcefully reminded that he had touched nothing since breakfast.

"So, letting Moldywarts spoil our party, are we?" Mock-roared Black as he lowered the gargantuan dessert onto a low, flat pedestal that suddenly appeared on the floor. "We can't have that! Right, Peter?" In answer another set of firecrackers went off, this time announcing the entrance of a nervous-looking but laughing Madam Rosmerta surrounded by floating trays laden with drinks. Cheers erupted all around as she waved her wand to distribute them.

Potter clapped a hand to his forehead in mock despair. "Thus sayeth Padfoot, in whose eyes there is no greater crime than party-pooping."

"Let's see how you're complaining, Head Boy, after you've had a taste of Madam Rosmerta's mulled mead," retorted Black, winking at the pub's owner, who smiled back and gave a wave of her wand to send a cup of the drink into his hand.

Putting down his cup after a swig, Black leapt on top of the table where Potter and his cronies sat. "Okay, everyone, I now announce--party night!" He spread his arms and spun slowly around on his place on top of the table as the Gryffindors broke into applause and cheers. "Of course, not before I finish my speech," he added, and ducked wadded up balls of parchment and a rotten tomato someone had conjured.

"I'd like to speak briefly about the people taken from us today," continued Black, and suddenly there was dead quiet in the room. And Snape had to admit, Black had talent. All the makings of a rabble-rouser, certainly, he thought.

"The Prescotts were two of the most supportive and open-minded people I ever met." Black's voice was low, yet every word could be heard over the stillness within the pub, all the way to the uninvited visitor standing outside the open window. "Our kind, to them, were no freaks or oddments. They embraced their daughter Jeannie's world as part of their own, a whole new world of wonder and beauty. The Death Eaters brought them their deaths out of the very world Dawn and Ryan embraced with such open arms, and for that, they will pay." At this Black's face darkened and for a moment the very air seemed to grow heavier with pulsing anger, deep and dark. Snape noticed that Evans looked particularly moved, her eyes glimmers of light, and wondered if the Mudblood was thinking of her own parents.

"Morgan and Muriel Johanssen loved life with a vigor that I will never forget," Black continued, in a gentler tone. "Just as they loved their own lives they loved the lives of others--and, as we have seen today, they were capable of giving their own lives so that others might live. We will forever remember them, as will the twins Lex and Larissa Johanssen. May their memory rest with us to inspire and guide us in the fight ahead." Again his pale eyes flashed in his tanned face, and the room hung onto his every word.

So they're suddenly all so perfect, are they? Snape thought. In death, they suddenly seem such saints and angels, don't they. Did they have no faults, errors, regrets? Or don't those matter anymore, since they're dead?

Won't the things Septimius has done not matter anymore, since he's dead...

"And Malachy O'Leary." Black paused, as if unable to go on. Snape, though distracted, heard the small catch in the Gryffindor boy's voice as he continued. "Malachy was one of the bravest people I knew. He truly had the spirit of a lion, and his energy never seemed to flag or wane. Hey," he said with a forced laugh, "he could out-party and out-prank me, which is saying a lot." There were gentle laughter and murmured agreements around the room, lightening the mood somewhat. "He lived with courage, and humor, and boundless energy. When he died, he was defending innocent lives, and even then he would not go down alone." There were approving murmurs at this statement: O'Leary had taken three Death Eaters with him before he finally fell.

"I still find it hard to believe he is gone," Black continued in a lower voice. "But I will struggle to accept it, and to ensure that he will not have died in vain. There will come a time of reckoning for the innocent blood spilled today and on many days before this--and, though we will all strive to prevent it, days after this."

Hypocrite, Snape thought as he shot Black a venomous glare. You froth at the mouth about killing people after what you tried to do to me last year? Too high-minded to do it yourself, were you, you planned to have your filthy werewolf friend do the dirty work for you... Hot and bitter anger rose up inside him and he felt his fingers twitch, wanting to grab his wand and curse Black to pieces.

"Our blackest rage goes to those who dared take them from us--yet, in the end, they could not take them from us, the Prescotts, the Johanssens, and Malachy. No act of violence, no revolting attempt at terrorizing us can take their memory from us, for they live inside us now, their spirits shining brighter and stronger than ever before. And that is why we cannot lose this war, though we may face the most evil wizard the world has seen. It takes more than the killings, more than the acts of terror to make us lose hope. And hope, our greatest weapon against the fear and darkness rampant today, will live within us as long as we won't let anyone take it from us."

Still trying to calm himself, it was a moment or two before Snape realized there was no applause. Then he noticed several people wiping tears from their eyes. Evans was not weeping but her eyes were overbright, and she clung very close to Potter, who did not seem to mind the chance for the contact himself.

Oh great, Snape thought, rolling his eyes. A Gryffindor cry-fest. I'm going to be treated to the sight of Gryffindors bawling their eyes out.

"And that," Sirius Black said in a lighter tone that nevertheless sounded just as fierce somehow, "is why we're going to have the granddaddy of all parties here tonight. Voldemort, yeah, Voldemort, that's not a four-letter word, is it? He might think he has us scared--but it takes more tricks than he's got up his slimy sleeves to scare us. That said, let's PARTY!"

On cue, firecrackers went up at once all over the room, showering everyone with colorful sparks and various items--one of the firecrackers exploded right before Black's nose, Gobstones and Chocolate Frogs smacking him in the face. Startled, he lost balance and fell backwards--right toward the nine-layered cake he had brought in.

"No, the cake!" Evans yelled, and Potter quickly raised his wand. "Penderus!" He shouted, and Black came to a halt midair just before hitting the cake.

"Oh, thank you, James," Black breathed as Potter moved his wand to maneuver Black away from the cake. "I don't know how long Lily and I worked on that thing--to surprise you all, you know. Now if you'll just--James?" Potter, with a mischievous grin, had given his wand a playful spin instead of easing Black down to the ground. Black spun around in the air while still hanging horizontally several feet above the floor, an extremely foolish look on his face. "Hey, James! Let me down."

In answer Potter waved his wand around, giving it an occasional spin, causing Black to float around the room, twirling like a sluggish, oversized baton. "That's for upstaging the Head Boy, Sirius," he called lazily as the room swelled with laughter.

"Lily, help! Madam Rosmerta! Indy! James, come on, put me down. Remus, you dog!" Everyone Black called to was overcome with laughter as he continued his aerial journey around the room, flailing and howling all the way.

"I'll help you, Sirius!" Little Peter Pettigrew burst out of the kitchens where he had no doubt been working the firecrackers, and pointed his wand eagerly at his hero. "Finite incatato!"

The cancel spell wasn't quite as effective as it should have been, for Black continued flying on course for a few more seconds--then suddenly shot off in another angle altogether, falling towards the--


"AWWW!" A collective groan went up as Sirius Black was buried in the surprise cake, only face, hands, and feet sticking out of the jumble of icing and cream and the soft, succulent-looking insides.

"Whoops," came Pettigrew's small voice. "Sorry."

"Oh, I'm sure it's all right, Peter," said Black airily, his voice somewhat muffled with all the icing. He swallowed and said, "You've done the collective waistline of the ladies present a great service indeed..."

"Oh yeah?" Evans stalked up to him, eyes flashing. Black cowered, and tried to pull free of the ruins of the cake. Her face broke into a mischievous grin all too familiar to Snape. "Well, as long as you're not too worried about your own waistline..." And she scooped up a large chunk of cake and squashed it into Black's face.

Immediately the room erupted into action. "Cake fight!" Shouted Potter as he flung a piece across the room, catching a hapless sixth year on the nose. Everyone stampeded to the center of the room to grab chunks of the cake. Eventually Black came free as the whole thing was dismantled around him and joined in with a gusto, looking like a walking mountain of frosting.

Outside, Snape shook his head in disbelief. He just couldn't understand those Gryffindors--he certainly didn't know how the Sorting Hat could have ever considered putting him there. Weeping one moment and laughing the next, foolishly defiant in the face of impossible odds, yet joyful and crazy even in defiance, instead of becoming cold and warlike as a Slytherin would.

Silently he watched the mayhem taking place, the participants of the mock battle bathed in the flooding light and bits of cake, as the air cooled and the evening deepened around him. He knew his eyes kept being drawn to one person in the room, and he knew it was like tearing open the hardened scar of an old, old wound. Her vibrant laughter drifted out to where he stood. Flushed and laughing, she ducked the pieces thrown her way, ember-colored hair flying. She paused to fish a squeaking (fake) white mouse out of her cup, took a long drink, then snuck behind Pettigrew to drop a handful of cake bits down his back.

I let you go so you could be happy. Severus found himself unable to stop the thoughts any more than he could stop the rush of emotions pent up for too long. And you are happy, happier than I could have hoped. Potter had suddenly picked up his girlfriend, whirling her around in the air for no evident reason, and Black started walking around with a wizard hat as the two broke into fevered embrace and kissing right in the middle of the room. "Ten Sickles per view, no minors peeking!" He called, holding the hat like a collection box. "Fund drive for more butterbeer! Ten Sickles per view!"

"Sirius!" Lily came up breathless, eyes sparkling, cheeks rosy. "Stop it!" She tried to grab at Black, who pretended to be trying to grab her right back.

"Now she wants a stint with me! Here, James, you hold the hat while I--"

"Shut up, Sirius." Potter took the now coin-filled hat from his sidekick and hit him over the head with it, causing a small cascade of silver coins to fall to the floor. "Madam Rosmerta!" He called over the noise in the room, holding up the hat. "Do we have enough for butterbeer?"

"Sure thing, James," the witch gasped back, tears still running down her face from laughing so hard.

Severus looked in through the brightly lit window at what he could never be a part of--real companionship, joy and mourning and celebration and defiance all in a jumble of something fiercely and poignantly alive, each red-and-gold banner, each peal of laughter, each wild snatch of song seeming to proclaim they would never be defeated. They did not live to fight, they fought so that they and those that came after them may have a chance at life.

One thing I did right, he said silently as he watched her raise her cup of foaming golden butterbeer, cheering, surrounded by friends, with Potter by her side. I was right to let you go. I know nothing about the future, but I guess I knew one thing, all along. You should stand always in light, hope, love--because you are all that. You never did belong with me, in my life of shadow and doubt...and now, if I so choose, of violence and darkness.

If I so choose.

Inside the Three Broomsticks he could see the Gryffindors settling down a bit more, nursing their butterbeer and talking. She was smiling, the tangled glow of her hair spilling over Potter's shoulder, teasing Lupin about something.

Severus, I am never leaving you. He remembered the words, suddenly, with a pang. The moment Lily had said those words he had known he may wonder for the rest of his life just how much she had meant them. Now he found himself wondering again, about all the what-ifs and might-have-beens, worthless but unavoidable speculations.

She had also told him, when he had confessed to killing a man under the Imperius Curse, that it was not his fault. He supposed it was not his fault that his family had become Death Eaters, or that his mother had been arrested, or that the Ministry wanted to make a deal with him to keep her out of Azkaban.

Well, he was sick of things not being his fault. And as he watched her lean her cheek on her fist and laugh gently, as he had so often seen her do, something finally snapped inside him like a long-enduring bone. If anything ever happened in his life again, he would take every measure to see that it would be his fault. His choice. No one would ever tell him it was not his fault, that he was a pathetic little boy dragged into something he never wanted to be a part of.

Besides, if he knew about the horrific aspects of the Dark, he also knew well what it had to offer him. If there were some things he could not have in life no matter how much he longed for them, he damn well wasn't about to settle for nothing.

Snape looked up into the dark sky of late evening, lit by the light of the moon but not bright enough. It would never be bright enough. He realized that he would have to go now. Staring hungrily into a bright display window changed nothing, neither himself or the night all around.

Just remember, he thought as he turned from the window. It was my choice to have you leave me. No one can take that much from me. And I was right, Lily--I was right. Good-bye again, forever this time.

"What the--" he suddenly heard Lily's voice and quickly flattened himself to the wall again, wondering if he had been seen. She was still seated at the table, but was looking up with a perplexed expression.

"What is it, Lily?" Potter asked.

"I don't know." She sounded bewildered and almost upset. "I felt the strangest--"

Black looked up sharply, right toward the window by which Snape stood hidden. "There's someone there," Black said harshly, and Snape wasted no more time. As quietly as he could, he rushed away from the light spilling out of the window of the Three Broomsticks, around a corner and into another alley.

Not a moment too soon--a door crashed open, and Black's voice shouted "Petrificus totalus!" Snape saw a ray of blue bounding off the corner he had just turned.

"Sirius!" It was the werewolf's voice as he ran up, slightly out of breath. "What's going on?"

"I saw someone standing by the window," Black said. Snape checked to see that he had not entered a lane that was a dead end, then kept his attention at both ends, not wanting to be surprised.

"Who did it look like?"

"I don't know. School robes, it seemed. Could have been Snape sneaking around again--" Very astute, Black! Thought Snape as he edged toward the opposite end of the alleyway, careful not to make a noise and keeping to the shadows. His wand was at the ready.

"But the ward Professor Dumbledore set assures that no one hostile could approach, and we'd be alerted of any attempt at approach by people of hostile intent." More levelheaded as always, Lupin's voice sounded quiet but certain.

"It's never been tested, though." Black said darkly. "Couldn't exactly ask Old Voldie to come over to see if he could get through, could we?"

So not even the Gryffindors were complete idiots. They had taken precautions. He had to wonder how Dumbledore defined "hostile intentions," though. Twice he had had every intention of cursing two of them through the window, yet the alarm had not worked.

"Look, Sirius." Lupin's voice came again, and Snape heard their footfalls stop. "We're safest inside the Three Broomsticks. I trust Professor Dumbledore. Coming out into town after what happened was risky enough--it's not a good idea to be wandering without protection in the streets at night."

True, thought Snape, his hand closing convulsively around his wand. If you had been alone I'd already have hexed you. As it were, he could surprise and take on one of them, but not two--and he certainly couldn't face the horde or angry Gryffindors that would come pouring out.

"All right," Black said grudgingly. "Let's get back inside."

"Yeah, people must be thinking you're mental," teased Lupin. "Prongs is going to put on some music. Says you need a good dance to get the jumpiness out of your system..." The voices grew indistinguishable, then inaudible as a door closed.

Snape let out a long breath. Now to go find his fellow Slytherins. The Gryffindors were out in town because they were stupid; the Slytherins would be, too, because they were safe.

As he set off down the alley, he heard cheerful music coming from the direction he had come from, slowly fading away as he walked deeper into the dark streets.

He was a little nervous about the prospects of telling the Slytherins his final decision, but at least he had a story they would believe. Septimius turned out to be of some use to him now that he was dead. He would tell Rookwood tomorrow, and Lestrange or one of the others would contact the Death Eaters for him. It was a precarious position, perhaps not exactly the condition he would have hoped for, but he would find ways of using both sides to his advantage.

Before long the streets he walked were completely quiet, with fewer lights. Coming to the Hog's Head he opened the door and stood blinking for a few moments, eyes unadjusted to the dark interior lit only by the low fire going against the slight chill of the night, the occasional sputtering lamp and tallow candles on the tables.

"Severus," someone called over the murmur of conversation in the room, and he looked around to see Mei-lin's figure lit by the redness of the fire. He could see the other members of the gang gathered round the fireside table as well. He ordered his drink and made his way over to the table.

"We heard about your mother and brother, Severus," Lestrange said in a low voice. "My condolences."

"Thanks, Alan," Snape replied, nursing his cup.

"I really don't know what to say," said Jin. "All the comfort I can offer is that your brother fell in the fight for the cause--and your mother, when Azkaban is broken open, will be rewarded beyond her wildest dreams." Snape stared for a bit--he thought he had gotten used to Mei-lin's fanaticism, but the look of near envy in her eyes frightened him.

"Do you know who did it?" Rosier asked.

"Some greenhorn Auror called Longbottom," said Snape, careful to curl his lips back and make his eyes fill with hatred. He seemed to have succeeded a little too well, for there was silence around the table for a few moments.

"Do not brood over it, Severus," said Mei-lin, the only one not looking remotely uncomfortable. "Perhaps," she went on, slowly and smoothly, "someday you will have your revenge."

Something in her tone of voice made a chill go down Severus' spine. "Thank you, Mei-lin," he said calmly, but somehow the fire seemed to give him very little warmth.

"He was a Gryffindor, wasn't he?" Avery spoke up.

"Yes, quite chummy with Potter and his henchmen," Snape said. "Why?"

"Oh, we were talking about their being out in town tonight," Avery said in a jeering voice. "Can you believe it, after what happened this morning? Looks like some people can't learn their lessons at all."

"So we're thinking of going down to give them a revision," smirked Rosier. "How about it, Severus?"

"No," Snape said flatly. "And I wouldn't advise any of you to go, either."

No one spoke. Then Avery said, "Oh, I understand, Severus. The loss of your brother, I see, has--ah--affected you..."

"Do you call me a coward?" Snape asked in a silky low voice.

Only the fire crackled over the tense silence. "We would like your reasons, Severus." Even Mei-lin sounded slightly cautious, and this pleased Snape.

"For your information, the Gryffindors are not as defenseless as they seem. The Old Fool has put wards around the Three Broomsticks that will alarm them to the approach of anyone hostile, and keeps enemies out."

"I see," said Lestrange. He sounded thoughtful. "And how do you know all this, Severus?"

"I have my ways of knowing. Do you doubt me?" The question hung in the air, then dissipated slowly into the uneasy lull in conversation.

"The Old Fool and his pet Gryffindors," Wilkes said disgustedly. "I'd like to face those overbearing Muggle-lovers without the Old Fool interfering for once."

As if you were their match in a duel, except maybe Pettigrew's. Boasting, insubstantial braggart. "I agree," said Severus. "I would most definitely want a chance." He put on the cruel, vindictive look again, frighteningly familiar to his face already.

He went on, his voice little more than a whisper, "I would like to know how to contact them."

Vague as this sounded, the meaning was not lost to the people present.

"I'll contact them," Lestrange said quietly. "Welcome to the fold, Severus."

As easy as that. So they bought his performance about Septimius' death. Snape was subjected to handshakes all around, and in the sharp relief of black gloom and red fire-glow their smiles seemed to him not smiles but grimaces of pain...Out of it, Snape, he thought.

"As a rule, the followers are supposed to know as few of each other as possible," said Lestrange as they settled back in their chairs. "And it's quite likely we'll be contacted separately--but we know one another."

"A built-in advantage," Rosier said exultantly.

"It'll give us the edge in information and influence," Avery added, eyes glittering shrewdly.

Right up until we've outlived our usefulness for each other, Snape added silently. Then we play mistrust-and-betray.

"I propose a toast," said Wilkes, raising his cup. "To us," he said.

"To the future," intoned Rosier.

"To success," said Avery.

"To the fallen," Mei-lin said solemnly.

Snape could feel glances coming his way, but ignored them. He wasn't about to toast Mother or Septimius even to keep up the act.

"To the New Order," Lestrange said with ceremony, "that will rise from the ashes of the old--and to He who will erect it."

"To the New Order," they all said, and brought their cups to their lips.

Yes, thought Snape. To power. Wealth. Knowledge. And damnation. And as he threw his head back and drank, every shadow--lurking in every corner, looming above into the ceiling, pooling around their feet--burned black, blacker than the gathering night outside.

the end-