It was a dark and stormy night... and it just bloody figured that the end of Severus Snape's life as he'd hoped it might be would revolve around just such a trite and ridiculous bloody cliche, too. It was disgusting. Thoroughly repulsive, and perfectly fitting for the likes of him.
Severus took another drag on his cigarette, relishing and loathing at once the way the nicotine becalmed his knotted stomach, and eased his trembling nerves. He'd held his wand steady as a rock in that hand when he'd sent Dumbledore over the tower's edge, He'd not shaken when he'd faced down Potter's ranting, so whence came this palsied tremble now? He had known what he had to do, and why. Plenty of time to get himself ready. He was fine. Fine. Just smoking muggle cigarettes in the rain, barely sheltered under the rotting eaves of the last safe place on earth.
Merlin, but he was fucked. Right now, Potter would be telling the others what he thought he knew. He would be destroying all trace of the trust Severus had managed to scrape out of his peers over the past sixteen bloody years with a few well-placed truths. They would hate him. All of them. Severus could almost feel the emotion settling over his shoulders like a shroud, sodden and cold as the bloody damned rain was making his robes... How smug Moody would be. How shocked, Minerva, how wounded, Lupin. They would believe the very worst of him, just as Potter did. Just as Albus intended. He'd known it was coming, how it had to be. He'd known. He was fine.
"You're not fine." The voice out of the darkness should have brought him en garde. He knew it ought to have done, but somehow Severus couldn't find it in himself to startle, snatch his wand out, and search for the speaker. Whoever it was, he was clearly good enough to slip past Severus' wards and the disillusionment charms on Spinner's End (not to mention that garden gate that howled like a banshee no matter what he put on it,) and so... well, if he'd wanted Severus dead, he supposed it would already have happened.
Still, a man had his pride. "Come closer if you're going to pass judgment on me," he said, and drew hard on the cigarette, so the heat from the coal warmed the tip of his nose. "I'd like to look my death in the face."
A chuckle, but not a mocking one. "No, Snape," said the red haired man as he stepped under the eaves and leaned against the wall beside him. "I'm not her. But if it makes you feel better, she did ask me to come."
"A Weasley..." Severus groaned, covering his face with one hand. "Merlin, spare me."
This time the chuckle was louder, somehow warming in a way that Severus usually didn't find laughter to be. "That's two guesses wrong," the man said, "Better quit while you're ahead." He chuckled again when Severus scowled at him, and produced his own pack of cigarettes. "Let's just say I'm a very, very distant relative from a branch of the family you've never officially met. I'm not here to hurt you, or to scare you, or to make you do anything." He lit the cigarette like a muggle would, producing fire from a tiny metal box of oil.
"Then why are you here?" Severus couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice, and given the liberties this stranger -- for now that he looked twice, he realized that the man was taller and broader in the shoulder than the eldest Weasley son ever had been -- was taking, he didn't much feel like trying. "Come to gloat?" It was all he could think of.
The man shook his head. "Just to talk. I was around anyway, and... well, when she told me what was going on... Well, let's just say I figured it was a hell of a time to be on your own, is all."
"I... I've nothing to say to you." What could he say, after all? He had just killed his only ally, his only friend, and even now his name was being trodden down by the one wretched boy he'd always tried to -
"Oh, I think you do," the man said. "But the truth is, I've heard it before so many times, I could probably tell you what you're feeling better than you could." Severus glared, and he shrugged. "No insult intended, it's just this is only the first time you've gone through it. Me though?" He shook his head, and his long red hair whispered across his shoulders. "Old story, just with new names plugged in."
"What, then?" Severus hissed, throwing the stub of his cigarette out into the rain. "If it is so simple for you, then tell me what I am meant to be thinking right now!"
"Calm down," the man said, handing him another cigarette from the squashed packet. "I never said it was simple. Just that I'd seen it before."
Severus snatched it, put it in his mouth, and lit it properly, with a wordless incendio and the tip of his wand. "For someone who claims he came to talk, you are saying quite a lot of precisely nothing-"
"That's because you're not listening." His eyes were calm, some nondescript colour in the wan light. Not brown, but no special blue either. "I'll make it plain for you if you'd like, but it won't make you feel much better."
And now, Severus had to laugh -- a cold, bitter thing. "Nothing could."
"No. I suppose you're right about that," he allowed, turning to face Severus, one shoulder against the rotting clapboard, the other getting dripped on by the eaves. "All right then: You're thinking of running."
Severus stiffened, but the man went on before he could deny it. "You're thinking about how your bridges are all burning down. How they don't understand why you did it, how they won't understand until it's all over, and even then, even if they win this war, they might not forgive you for it. You're thinking that it wouldn't be so much to expect that you should just take that lost little boy you've got drugged to sleep upstairs, and use him as your passport to somewhere far away from this war." He reached out, lay a hand on Severus' shoulder, and it was only then that Severus realized that he was shaking again. "You're thinking that your job is done now. You've done the most horrible thing anybody has ever asked you to do, and you have hurt people you cared about in the doing of it, and how could anybody ask more of you than that?"
Severus closed his eyes, let the weight of that broad, callused hand steady him. The man smelled of woodsmoke, and very faintly, of cordite. Severus wondered if he had somehow been at Hogwarts when Hagrid's hut had burned down. It he had watched Severus then, had judged him then, and somehow seen through him.
"They will though," he heard his own voice whisper.
"The horcruxes." Not a question. Severus heard the man's long hair rustling, imagined a nod.
"Potter will never have the wit to find them alone. And even if they fall into his lap, the bloody wretch couldn't possibly manage to destroy them all--"
"What if I told you that he could?"
Severus opened his eyes, startled, and then annoyed. "You know Potter?"
"He's the other kid. The one with my sister's hair," he nodded, taking a drag on his cigarette. "I've noticed him."
"Then you'll have noticed that he's a callow, egotistical, reckless, foolish-"
"I've noticed that he gets a lot of help when he needs it." Severus snorted in disgust, but the man went on. "I've seen catalytic people like him before, you know. His talent is to be the linchpin -- to put a face onto things, and give people a rallying point. Like that old man tonight." Severus felt his spine go rigid at the reminder, but the man's eyes held no censure as he released Severus' shoulder and leaned back. "Thing is, I could arrange it so the Potter boy could destroy the horcruxes on his own. Nobody else involved but him. Nobody else's life on the line. Not yours, not the kid upstairs', not his friends, or yours."
Severus was staring now, hovering on the edge of outrage, with an icy horror creeping up his spine from the direction of a superstition he hadn't directly acknowledged since his muggle father had left. "Who are you?" he breathed.
The man cut a glance at him, eyebrow raised, and then laughed. "No, not him either. Old Scratch is having fun watching all this from afar, Severus, he doesn't need to put his fingers in here. Frankly, with my sister's interest in the matter, I'm pretty certain he wouldn't actually dare."
Severus shook his head. "You're mad."
Another laugh, sharp and bright, like a bark of mirth. "In the land of the blind... No, Severus, I'm not. I'm probably the most terribly sane person you're going to meet while you're alive. And I'm telling you the truth, which is probably more than anybody else is going to do for you right now."
Or had done for years, Severus mentally added. The neglected cigarette burned in his still hand, its ash growing fragile and attenuated as the smoke curled through the rain. All the same. "What do I have to do?" he asked, voice the lowest whisper he could manage, as though so thin a sound could somehow slip out between shame and hope. He did not look at the stranger's eyes. Blue eyes filled with disappointment would crush him right now, he knew.
"Just ask," the man said.
"Will..." Severus swallowed. "He'll die, won't he? Potter, I mean? He'll manage to destroy them all, bumbling through on luck, but he'll be weakened. Like Albus. And then he'll die when he faces Voldemort."
"Probably," came the quiet truth. Severus closed his eyes. "Destiny's the only one who knows for certain though. Maybe the kid'll make it. Or maybe he'll be glad to see her when Death comes for him. I'm just saying it doesn't have to be your problem."
Severus had never been so tempted. Not even when he'd faced Black over Albus' hamfisted attempts at peacemaking the year before, refusal burning a hole in his throat as he choked it down. And temptation that alone made him more suspicious than any glib, glittering promise could have done. "Why are you telling me this?" he demanded, the skeletal ash falling with a whisper as he turned on the red-haired stranger.
Who sighed, and looked out at the rain. "Because... this thing is bigger than you realize, Severus. Maybe that old man who died tonight had an idea of what is really at stake here, but I doubt it. There are forces at play here that..." he shook his head, finished his own cigarette, and threw it, spitting, into a puddle beside the hydrangeas. "I don't like it when my family fights. We've all got pawns in play here, whether we're actively steering them or not -- every one of us has meddled here in one way or another, and I don't like the idea of a harmless kid like you getting crushed in the mix. You don't deserve it."
It was ridiculous for Severus to take comfort from that. This man was a stranger, knowing nothing of his past, his life, his loves, his sins and triumphs. He could not possibly know what Severus did or did not deserve. But somehow, between the sorrow hanging about the man's mouth, and the eyes that seemed to focus far, far beyond the rain, there was, perhaps, a crumb of absolution to be had.
"A harmless kid," Severus replied, watching as his cigarette extinguished itself untasted. "If anyone in this matter might distantly deserve that name, it would be Potter. But I daresay you will not make such an offer to him," he cut a glance at the man, added, "Will you?"
A grin flashed, white and sad in the darkness. "You know what he'd tell me if I did."
Just so. Severus nodded, and threw his fag-end out into the same puddle where the stranger's had died. "I don't suppose you've an idea how I am to convince the wretch to accept my assistance, now that he thinks me a traitor?" he asked.
"Well, I've done so well convincing you, I can see why you'd want my advice, here," the man said wryly, then shook his head. "but the best I can suggest is that you use a messenger."
Severus blinked. "A messenger?"
"Someone he distrusts a little bit less than you," the man said, straightening. "Maybe Desire's boy upstairs, if you think you can keep a rein on him. Have you got something he wants?"
"Desire's... Draco. Yes. I know where his mother is going to hide. I can... could get her letters perhaps."
"There you go." The man nodded, brushed his palms on his trousers as though that settled the whole thing.
"But Potter hates Malfoy-"
The man winked at him. "Don't you always hate what you can't have?"
Somehow Severus managed not to blush, remembering a shy boy with amber eyes, and another boy, not so shy, with eyes of haunted green. He shook the memory off as the man turned on his heel, and made as though to walk away. "Wait --" he caught the man's sleeve, "Pawns, you said?" A cautious nod. Severus swallowed, and made himself ask. "Whom? And whose?"
A long pause, the man's gaze rested on Severus for a long time, growing heavier with silence as it went on. At last those mild eyes turned away. "You don't want to know, Severus," he said. "And moreover, I don't want to tell you. You'd only be tempted to meddle, and I've already told you enough that you could easily get yourself killed with it."
Severus stiffened at that. "I have never required anybody's help in order to-" He caught himself before such a ridiculous thing could leave his mouth, and mentally kicked himself. Shock. Exhaustion. Perhaps one of Potter's hexes had got through after all. There was no other excuse for such idiocy in himself!
The man laughed, a hearty, rolling sound that would have been at home in Hagrid's great chest, but somehow didn't seem too big for the red-haired man. "No, that's true. You can shoot yourself in the foot right along with the best of them, can't you?" the man said at last, wiping his eyes. "All right then," he said, clapping Severus into a brief and startling hug, "You'll do fine now, kid. Just follow your instincts, like you always do."
"And if my instincts tell me to hex you blind for mauling me?" Severus grumbled against the man's shoulder.
Another laugh rumbled under his chin. "Then I'd suggest you have another cigarette instead," the man released Severus, and strode out into the rain before he'd quite caught his balance. "I guarantee you, Severus, me stumbling about blind is just about the last thing you want -- right after Death being eaten."
And yes, something in the strange words sent a warning shiver down Severus' neck. Still, he couldn't help calling after the retreating blaze of red pony-tail, "Will you not tell me who you bloody well are?"
The man turned at the back gate, all eyebrow. "You're a clever kid, Severus," he said. "You'll work it out."
And then, almost before the words had cleared his lips, a flash of lightning blasted the spot, knocking Severus back hard against the wall of his house, crushing the shout from his lungs. He slithered down the wall in boneless shock, gasping around the strange sense of impending epiphany -- as though he'd been handed his answer in that sudden, violent natural happenstance. As though the coincidence between the lurid green shadows that still scorched his vision, and the jagged scar on Potter's head could be balanced against the stranger's bizarre, enticing offer. Destruction. Ultimately, hadn't it all come down to that?
"Professor?" Draco appeared in the back door, pale and shaken, wand in hand. "What the hell happened?"
And just like that, the fragile notion unraveled into nonsense. A passing fancy, spun out of darkness and rain, a half-dream to comfort him in this wretched night. Severus heaved a great breath, and climbed to his feet. There was no smoking corpse in the alley. No singe-mark where the lightning had kissed the earth black. There had been no red-haired man after all.
"Nothing but the storm, Mr. Malfoy," he said, spelling his sodden robes dry.
"Stupid rain." Draco shivered, glaring balefully at the night, missing the eye-roll Severus could not suppress.
"It will get worse before it stops," Severus told the boy, turning him bodily and giving him a shove back toward the kitchen, where tea and possibly some sandwiches might be found. "It always does."