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The Blood of Stars

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At first, it's dark and he's flying.

Always more graceful on his feet than on a broom, he shivers at the unexpected freedom. Not that he actually needs a broom. He knows how to fly without one; has for years. The exhilarating art of swooping through space—something most wizards never master—goads his heart, which stalls in his chest, then stutters back to life.

This isn't like straddling a cushioning charm while clinging to the handle of a wooden staff. He's soaring. The pulse of escape makes it worth the pain.

For there is pain. Too soon, the downward spiral begins. He drops lower, darker, through an agony of sky. Freefall. The very air hurts. No, wait, he's got it wrong. That's not wind streaming past his ears—that gurgling sound, is it him? Bollocks. Water, then. Perhaps he's floating.

Through the suffering and darkness, he senses disturbance. It's still at some distance, but moving fast. A sort of muttering. It's coming his way, advancing in ever louder echoes. Voices. Never mind that he can't see; he hears them approaching. More than one. He can sense where they are. He can almost identify who they are.

Sod that. He doesn't want to know.

In the silence of his mind, he tries to force them to pass him by. They don't. They circle, squabbling like rooks. Furious at being found, he tries to banish them but can't remember how. He'd go instead (let go, he thinks savagely) but he has no idea where he is, other than in darkness.

Words start to peck at him, stabbing, shredding. This reminds him too much of life, in which he has no interest. If they're birds, then, let them fly away.

They're not. He already knows this, as he knows there's only one means of escape. He'd speed up the pace if he could, drain faster into the subterranean quiet. Die faster. But his stubborn heart sounds out the seconds. With each beat, pain drives a spike through his soul.

He wants it to stop. He wants to fly again. A hiss flashes in darkness like the cold, crescent-moon slice of a fang.

Severusss.

For one piercing second, his memories break the surface. Shock coils around him. He starts to thrash.

No, his mind snarls, don't listen, you fool. Harmless, the words are harmless, neither curses nor spells. They reach out like the withered fingers of an old friend, beckoning trust me.

Harmless, bah. He shakes off the coils, fighting to shed his life like a used-up skin. It's because of his 'friends' that he's here, after all.

Withered fingers… Get off. They have no business touching him. He'd turn his face away, but he's not supposed to have a face. An unswept, sawdusty odour hangs over him, and he smells the stink of blood on his breath. He knows, although moments before he didn't, that he's lying sprawled on a splintery floor.

Merlin, how he hates being helpless.

Somewhere in the distance, his fingers twitch, tacky with—it doesn't matter. For the love of God, it doesn't matter. He backs away from conscious thought, confused, unwilling to cooperate. What more can they ask of him? When your last breath is torn from you, what's left for you to give?

"Severus?"

He feels himself go deeper, as if a hand's pushing him down into blackness.

"Come, my boy, sit up. Give an old meddler the benefit of your company."

Albus?

The dead hand that's sinking him suddenly grips, and astonishment yanks him up like a portkey. Parting time instead of space, it heaves to the surface a sunken chest of memories, the rotted happiness of a forgotten childhood.

Ambushed, his startled heart limps faster. His mouth opens, overflows with a horrible taste.

Merlin help him, he hasn't thought of it in years: the day he boarded the Hogwarts train. The beginning of the life he ought to have led.

Swollen against the padlock that holds his memories shut, the invisible lid of his heart flies open. He knows where he is now—Christ, yes, remember? That time. The best time. He'd been so excited he hadn't slept that night, and now it's happening, and he's packed, he's leaving for Hogwarts, and—

—it doesn't make a bloody bit of difference. His parents are that glad to get shut of him. They haven't changed; he doubts they ever will. He watches his mum walk slowly down the platform, lighting a fag with the tip of her wand. She doesn't wave goodbye, so neither does he. Not to mention he hadn't even seen his da that morning, only heard the front door slam.

Well, the two of them can get stuffed for all he cares. He means it this time. He'll get along all right.

In that spirit, when the train pulls out he takes his courage in hand and staggers from one racketing compartment to the next, peering through windows in search of Lily. For a moment, having found her, it seems his luck's turned. His one friend in all the world, the only person dear to him, rises from her seat beside two self-declared Gryffindors and follows him out. Leaves them behind and comes with him.

Claiming a corner all to themselves, they stow their satchels and slide onto the shiny leather seats. Lily huddles so close Severus can hardly breathe. As peaceful scenery flows unheeded past the windows, he jitters with talk of magic and belonging. Lily scrapes her tears dry with the heel of one hand, and he wishes he owned a hankie so that he could dig it out and sneak it into her other hand, braced there on the seat cushion between them. Her skin is so clean. Even her nails.

When she sniffles and sighs and starts pestering him with questions, he dredges up everything he's salvaged from the stingy, slung-away references to school his mum drops in her rare confiding moods. Everything he's hoarded up to remind himself that he won't be stuck at Spinner's End forever. He offers it to her in short, fumbling sentences. Lily's heard it all before, but it's something he can give her, something to stop her eyes swimming with homesickness. And how daft is that? But maybe if your parents aren't total rotters (and of course they love Lily, who wouldn't? Although this line of thinking makes Severus squirm), maybe you'd feel a pang on leaving.

After turning the pockets of his memory inside-out, he adds a few stray details he invented on his own during long, boring broods spent confined to his room constructing the ideal Hogwarts in his mind. It will be the perfect escape, he's promised himself, and who's to say he's wrong? Maybe it's exactly as he imagines.

Because, bugger it all, Lily should be excited. They both should. Because they're special. They're going off to be wizards. Going to a place where they both belong.

Once they leave the Muggle world behind, he'll show her, show them all, that no matter how unkempt and ill-mannered he is, no matter how unloved, he's brill at magic. Even his mum said so, never mind that she ruined the moment by grumping, "Not that it'll do you any good."

But all through the trundling, agitated day, only Lily's presence drives back the nausea, the deeply-buried panic that keeps him shivering inside his secondhand robes. In the pit of his stomach, Severus knows this is it. If he doesn't fit in here, in this academy of magic where they teach the very thing that got him smacked across the face and sent to his room, where even the darkest is promised a place—well then, he never will.

Night comes on, and they tumble from the train to join the other children groping into the gently rocking skiffs. The black lake glimmers; the half-giant booms at them to hurry up. Lily stays with Severus. The oars drag ripples across the water, and the little boats bob like corks to shore. They step off and stand gaping at the silhouetted towers of Hogwarts: spooky, overwhelming, and older than dirt, and like nothing Severus has ever seen in his life.

He grins in sheer infatuated terror, even though he knows it makes him look like a yob, an ugly little hyena, which is his da's favourite epithet for him when he's well and truly pissed. It's as if he's about to step beyond the point of no return, to walk onto the sword with his head held high and die for—for he doesn't know what. Love, he supposes. Despite this almost unbearable happiness, his stomach's pitching a fit, and he's afraid he might puke.

Then Lily's hand tightens in his, and it's the beginning of all he ever wanted.

He's home.

And here comes Dumbledore, hoary and sly and haloed with power, to welcome them into the Great Hall. Later still, Severus clatters into the dungeons with the rest of his House, wishing with every step that he'd been sorted with Lily. He doesn't doubt that Slytherin's where he belongs, but he'd trade it in an instant to stay with Lily. He doesn't say this aloud, of course. He's not an imbecile.

Still, he takes to the dungeons like an eel to sea bottom. It's dark, private, neither grand nor rich, just subterranean power compacted with subtlety. He can smell the magic down here, it's so unique and—he starts learning new words to describe it—potent. Heady. The whites of the portraits' eyes flash as Severus explores the serpentine corridors; the ancient stones breathe history down his neck. He sneaks back to the dorm with traces of old spells tangled in the strands of his unwashed hair. The whole shadowy, sentient castle plays tricks, keeps secrets, shimmering with the sort of magic he'd always dreamed existed.

What a gullible little bastard he'd been.

"Severus, I know you can hear me. Open your eyes. There's someone here who'd like a word with you."

The sound of Albus speaking affects him like that now, with so much hope it makes him sick, the sense that things can go right for a change. But they can't. They never do.

Let me be, you old tyrant. Loneliness is sharper than a serpent's tooth, but he prefers it to what the voice is offering. Bugger off to your next bloody adventure. For God's sake. Haven't I paid enough?

Apparently not. The darkness lifts from him like a broken glamour. Within seconds he feels the weight of his eyelids and knows, beyond all doubt, that he still has eyes to see with. The unfairness of it sends a bolt of rage through him. He follows the sensation, mapping its course through his body. He has a body. Fuck. This can't be happening. He'd been so sure there was nothing left to take. He'd even given away his memories—

Stop. Don't go there. The boy. His eyes. Himself, beyond dignity, clutching the front of Potter's robes while the whole wretched history bled out between them.

Dear gods, he needs to die right now. Why does he have to remember this?

Another voice chimes in, "Sev, look at us. Please. We thought you'd want— Oh, Albus, maybe James is right. There's no point to this. He doesn't have time."

Pain blazes through Severus, the cruel joy of the impossible. His heart swells to twice its normal size. Yes, it hurts, but everything does, and for once he doesn't mind. Gasping, he forces his way through the darkness, his heart thundering like wings.

It's her. Her voice. She's here, she's speaking to him, and oh Merlin, it's like flying.

"Maybe," says Lily, and the words knock him stranded and alive at her feet, "maybe we should just let him go."

It hits him like a Cruciatus of loss. His blood, his very tissues sing: Lily. Lily, save me. Pain, yes, of course, but a pain that matters more than any happiness. It drags him back, burning with terror and hope, from the oblivion where he would have preferred to stay.

In dreams he's known it, and now in dying. It's been so long since he last heard her voice. The girl who was more important than magic.

She's here. So he must be—fuck it all to fucking hell. Did he really believe the afterlife would be kind? He can't face her now, with his soul spread open for the whole world to see. Every mistake, every secret will be transparent before her. She'll know. She'll know the worst, things even Albus doesn't. The depravity of his thoughts about the Boy Who Lived.

For God's sake, how can he be expected to face her when just moments before he sent her son to his death?

"He's farther gone than I realised," Albus is saying. Then, "Severus. Pay attention. Trust me when I say this is important."

Right. He remembers. His hands, stuck to the floor with blood. His eyes, open and unseeing. But here—which isn't there, which isn't anywhere, he supposes—one last hope is being dangled before him. That must be what Albus is banging on about. It has nothing to do with trust, whatever the old hypocrite says, and everything to do with telling her that he'd never meant—would rather have died than—

She's right there, you idiot. Stop panicking and look at her. Look.

Bright needles of light sting between his lids, while faces waver over him in a backwash of mist. His eyes start to water, but he's too weak to wipe them dry. As he focusses with wonder on Lily's shining hair, a third voice grumbles, "Oh for crying out loud, leave the git to his beauty sleep. He's made his choice. The world's better off without him."

On cue, the faces turn away. Well, of course they do. They always turn away when Potter's around.

I'm glad you're dead ignites all through him. It consumes him, blinds him with reckless fury; the infinity of the lit-up world turns black.

Only it's no longer the darkness he wants. It was never just the darkness. It was always her.

Albus tells the Gryffindor prick to have mercy. Lily sighs, "James, please," in a low, weary voice, and something inside him smiles. That his nemesis should be present to mock him at the end gores him with bitterness, but this is child's play. It doesn't hold a candle to consorting with the Dark Lord.

He doesn't have time. His entire torn and contaminated body understands. Potter's presence is simply another reason to get this over with and let the silence reclaim him. What else is his pride for, if not a means of paying off his debts?

His blind hatred eases, and Lily's still there. Elation wars inside him with the impulse to crawl at her feet. If I reach out, I could— No. Not touch her. He knows better than that. If he can't be purified, then he'd rather be punished. In a way, it makes dying so much easier.

But he can't go until he's said his piece. So he puts every ounce of his remaining life into the one word he owes her more than anything in the world.

Sorry.

Or not.

The act of moving his lips takes more concentration than learning to fly. Apologies come hard to him, but not that hard.

Severus breathes fiercely, surprised that he's breathing at all. He tries again to shape the words, prepare each broken, time-worn syllable. Pathetic, yes, but he knows them by heart. He's lived with them for fifteen years, attentive to their ragged whisper during the snap and snarl of Death Eater meetings, caught short in the middle of potions lectures, where the sulky, torchlit, dimwitted faces, none of them hers, sat in rows and shrank behind their cauldrons whenever he raged, half-maddened by memory.

The empty phrases trickle over his tongue, tasting of copper and endless years of silence. He knows they're there, if he can just force them out.

Lily, I tried to save—I'm sorry—don't hate me—

But Lily just looks at him and shakes her head no.

If he could carve the apologies into his flesh, cut through nerve and crack bone, deeper than the Dark Mark, it would still change nothing. There is nothing he can do.

Frantic, Severus fights to raise his head and force out one hoarse, snarling Please. He does, and it pitches his body into agony.

His eyes roll shut. No! Fire roars in his throat, and the blackness slaps over him. He disappears under it as if plunged into a lake. The way Muggles used to judge witches, whispers a childish corner of his mind. If you drowned you were innocent, if you floated it was a sign of the devil, and either way you died. Of course, he'd been a morbid child, and as a man the things he'd seen and done would make a child cry in the night.

Robes sweep his skin, and a dry, warm grip steadies his shoulder. The floor vibrates as Albus summons him back, wrapping his name in a mild Sonorus.

"Hang on, my friend. We won't leave you now."

No, but I'll leave you. How stupid can they be? The burnt-out wick of Albus's hand smokes in memory. Stupider than you'd think. His throat's scorched, but he hasn't sunk so low that he can't find his way back. Albus gently shakes him, and Severus stifles a growl. Though he'd rather spit blood than admit it, he's grateful for that reassuring hand, the heat of it along the join of his shoulder, because he's cold, cold and bare, and no one, no one has touched him in years.

…heat on the skin of his shoulder.

With an excruciating shock of self-awareness, Severus jerks awake. Panic rushes to his extremities, and he knows, wherever he is, that he hasn't a stitch on and is naked before them. And that means Lily, as well as James Potter.

He's exposed.

He wrenches himself into a sitting position, knees yanked to his chest, dying be damned, and hides behind the fronds of his matted black hair. Teeth clenched, he curses his pointy bones. Their starved geometry juts through his flesh, an invitation to ridicule.

"That's better," Albus says, with the barefaced cheek he sometimes passes off as kindness. It confirms Severus' suspicion that there's something he wants. Against the thin, bunched muscles of his back, the gnarled hand burns. Burns with the fire of obligation, branding obedience into his skin.

Marked. One way or another, always marked.

Hunched over his bony knees, Severus keeps his reactions at bay as a line of chipped brick walls emerge from the glittering fog. The empty street curves off into twilight. Grim against the silvery sky, the column of the mill chimney gives him the finger. His stomach heaves. Right, this is hell. He only just stops short of glancing around. No doubt his mum and da, as bitter in death as they were in life, are hovering behind him, faces sour with disgust. And if not? If they didn't bother to show? He can't honestly say which would be worse.

The urge to look overtakes him and passes. He already knows.

"Come now. Get your bearings, my boy. We've only a moment to talk, and then we must be off." Albus speaks as if to a homesick firstie, his long beard swaying back and forth, smoke-white, ghost-white. Of course, they're all ghosts on this twilight stretch of road.

Not daring to move his head, Severus searches for Lily.

She must know, because she crouches down directly where he can see her, dressed in outdated Muggle clothing. "Hello, Sev."

Hello. The fierce pang of affection he feels at sight of her sensible skirt, her woolknit jumper, her—Merlin, her wedding ring—is dreadful. Her red hair's smoothed back and bound at the neck. She could almost pass for one of his seventh years, so calm and unspoiled is she, unchanged by time.

Miserable and entranced, he hugs his sparse shanks, pale forearms pressed together in a futile attempt to hide the Dark Mark. How are you? What have you been doing all these years? Questions permitted between friends, questions he has no right to ask. She's been dead all these years, and he's to blame. He does his best not to break down in front of her, because this—this is the crowning humiliation, to appear before her so defeated, stripped of dignity, so (the thought blinks rapidly through his mind) so old.

She doesn't speak, and he can't. Instead he tries, with the intensity of his stare, the ridging of his muscles, the way he digs his nails into the flesh of his calves, to tell her of his grief. That he'd repented the only way he knew how. And that, Merlin, he misses her.

Sod it, this isn't working. He draws breath, ignoring the harsh, wet burn that scrapes the air.

Lily rocks back on her heels. "No, don't. Sev, please. I don't want to hear it." She makes a warding-off gesture, and Severus nearly bites his tongue in two. "Save your strength," she advises, gentler now. "You're going to need it."

With the reckless effort already gathered, it's like opening a sluice gate to stop a cresting wave. He hangs there a moment, then his breath rushes out of him with such force he nearly faints. His senses divide, and he feels it again: the blood of all those he hadn't saved, flowing out of him onto the floor of the Shrieking Shack.

Memories pour down, blending, overlapping, as they had when Potter appeared above him, a last mercy, a scruffy angel of death, and Severus had forced all the shameful secrets out of himself. (Not all of them, dear God, not all.) Now Lily shrinks from him again and again, a girl, a ghost, the name for his grief. Dizzy with the double vision, Severus braces one hand on the ground. Right, yes, he feels the planks through his bunched-up robes, the terrible, debilitating pulse at his throat, sees Nagini float past him in her sparkling cage, red eyes returning, a stricken green—Lily?—no, the boy, the brat he'd tried to save, his shocked, dirty face the last thing Severus will ever see, Harry Potter bending closer and clearer in the darkness until it seems that his eyes will swallow the world—

"Severus!"

He shudders and comes suddenly to himself, his nose bent sideways against his knees. Groggily, he props his head up and meets Albus' expectant frown, sharp over half-moon spectacles.

Albus has a stare on him like an ice pick. Every knob in Severus' spine aches with dread as he braces himself for whatever it is the old man has brought him here to say.

"Do I have your attention? Excellent. We're running out of time, so listen closely." Strong, crooked fingers squeeze his shoulder. "Severus. You must go back."

What? Severus flaps his head, as if stunned by a stray spell. No. He couldn't possibly. They can't make him. It's over.

A sickening thought slices through him like a knife: you pathetic fool, it will never be over.

Beyond the mist, Spinner's End dissolves. Red brick walls crust over into dungeon stone. The sky hardens into solemn arches hung with empty cobwebs. Severus scowls to hide his panic, his gaze darting to Lily. Slender, ordinary, ageless, Lily Evans crouches beside him, as distant in death as she was in life. He's twenty years and countless terrible deeds beyond her, and her innocence flares like a torch in the darkness.

He can't fathom how there can be such a thing, this depth of innocence.

She smiles, never mind that it's forced, and oh Merlin, how lovely to see them, those three faint freckles on the curve of her cheek, the slight dip of her left eyelid as if she's about to wink. She watches him expectantly, by her silence endorsing what Albus just said.

No escape, then. She will send him back, and how can he deny her? There must be something he's failed to do, some unfinished task he has yet to perform. It's haunting, impossible, as if even now he's thrashing in the sheets in the headmaster's bedroom, experiencing the worst nightmare of his life.

But the worst has already happened, opening the door to a lifetime of nightmares.

Severus lowers his head and feels a warning tug. Albus, still kneeling, has hold of his hair. Trapped, he turns to snarl. Go back?

"Why?"

The sound of his voice blares forth with the effort of bursting all restraints. Only there is no restraint. Shocked, he turns to Lily. She sets her chin, and her eyes flick to James. Oh God. His lips move, and he presses his tongue against his teeth. When he tries to speak to her—only her—not a sound comes out.

She's silenced him.

He tries again, with the same result. If he has something to say, apparently Albus is ready to listen. But Lily?

Her refusal to look at him is damning. She's not interested in his self-serving confessions. What good is his remorse? It won't give her back her life.

Severus' throat aches. He sees her point.

"I'm sorry," Albus tramples right over the tension in what he doubtless believes is a comforting voice, "but it would be wrong to let you suffer for my mistakes when you've struggled so valiantly with your own." He lets slip a small chuckle. "Well, some of them, anyway."

But the levity is a set-up, because he continues in the next breath, "You were right to be concerned for your soul, my boy."

The old man's face is so grave, Severus wouldn't be surprised to see his own epitaph appear on Albus' forehead. A chill nuzzles down his unclothed back, worse than Dementor's breath. What game is His Deviousness playing now?

"It's for your own sake that I urge you to return."

Oh, that game. The erratic golden snitch of redemption. From somewhere among his fast-fading resources, Severus musters the temerity to snort.

Lily stands then, smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt. "And you gave your word to protect Harry."

Pole-axed, he stares from one to the other. So this is what he means to them. But really, what did he expect? Lily called him Snivellus and spun on her heel. Albus chose him to be his executioner.

He's reluctant to speak, in case the pain knocks him back into that stupid, helpless state. But what about—

"Harry," he rasps, and the silhouette of James Potter steps forward, fists clenched. "I gave him—he has my memories. He must know—"

"Oh, he does." Still kneeling, Albus pats his shoulder, then gathers his garish robes together and gets to his feet. "That was very quick thinking on your part, my friend. The luck was with you there."

Holy Merlin on a hot cross bun, only Albus would call death by snakebite a stroke of luck. The old bugger stands beaming down at him, as if he's done something unbelievably bloody wonderful.

Severus has no intention of encouraging him in this delusion. He sneers back.

Sounding slightly put out, Albus says, "Well, I suppose it doesn't hurt to tell you. Harry has already come and gone."

Gone. Forgetting modesty, Severus lunges to stand and succeeds only in falling to his hands and knees. Albus conjures a robe and spells it to enfold him, and why the bloody hell didn't he do that before? The ends wrap his naked body, and it say something about his life that no person has ever touched him with the respect this robe does.

"The boy—the boy's dead?"

He's afraid to say it too loudly with Lily standing right there. In the little silence that follows, defeat bows his head downward until the ends of his hair draw patterns on the floor.

He misses the dungeons fiercely. The stone under his hands speaks to him, whispering of his rightful place. That's where he should have died. Something wild and horrible is tearing loose inside him, something he hasn't felt this desperately since news of Lily's murder reached him, set him keening like an animal in the headmaster's office. His fingernails scrape loudly on stone.

"Severus. Control yourself."

He whips his head up, hatred turning inside him like a snake. "A … lamb to the slaughter. Albus, what have you done?"

"So we've gone beyond pigs, have we? I'm surprised at you, Severus." There's a keen edge to Albus's retort, as if, God forbid, he's enjoying himself. "I'd have thought such Muggle sentiments beneath you. At this rate, we'll soon have you admitting Harry's human."

Severus pants with rage. It taxes him a great deal to maintain his glare, but he'd (witless phrase) rather die than back down. As exercises in futility go, defying Albus pretty much tops the list, but it's deeply satisfying in its own childish way.

It has its drawbacks, however. "Tell me," the cagey old bastard remarks, "since apparently we all need our memories refreshed, how old were you when— "

Severus almost crushes his face into the floor.

Albus demonstrates his cruel streak by pausing a little longer than necessary. "By which I mean, how young were you when you made the decision that cost others their lives? And by the same token, blighted your own. No older than Harry is now, if memory serves."

Lily has retreated to James' side, and Severus can't bring himself to glance in her direction. Nakedness is nothing; this is true shame.

Albus waits, then chides gently, "I thought you said you didn't care."

"The brat's a child," Severus croaks, on his hands and knees in this strange, hazy replica of the dungeons, a vile-tasting distemper filling his mouth and dripping from it like foam.

He coughs, and the already dim room swims before his eyes. "You left the boy—to face that monster alone. That's not—it isn't—" He can't finish the sentence, and the thick, gluey rasp of his breathing echoes off the nonexistent walls. The edges of his vision blur with the force of his wrath and the shining, shifting mist.

"Not what?" Albus presses him. "Not right? Not fair?"

Cornered, tormented, like an animal poked with a stick, Severus snarls at them all, so near the end of his strength that he fears his bones will snap from the weight of his hatred. He wipes his wet chin with the back of his arm; a disgusting red smudge slicks the surface of his robe. Every chamber, every corner, every nook and cranny of his soul flares as if he's Incendio incarnate. He has no desire to die and absolutely no intention of getting out of here alive until Albus tells Lily that this time, this once, it wasn't his fault.

"Your concern for Harry does you proud, my boy."

Potter huffs rudely in the background, and Albus flicks his wand up. Silence rings like a sickle striking the pavement, spinning and settling with a conclusive rattle. "But as ever," Albus picks up the silence and pockets it with disarming cheer, "you jump too hastily to conclusions. When I say Harry's gone, I mean he's returned to fulfil his destiny and put an end to this dismal business. He will triumph, Severus. I do not make this prediction lightly. Trust me, there's more to this than you know."

Severus' blood—what's left of it—boils in disgust. Of course Dumbledore failed to let him in on one last secret. Of course he did. It's so very Albus. Yet he has the arrogance to speak of trust. Offended, Severus folds himself together, refusing to dignify these insults with a reply.

Still, he can't stop his mind from working out the answer. "The Elder Wand?"

Again, Albus radiates an absurd glow of approval, as if Severus has just come top of his class. "Who do you suppose is its true master, eh?"

Numb in the aftermath of rage, Severus nods. He's resigned, not that he has a choice in the matter, and it leaches the last bit of stubbornness from him. He remains kneeling, his attention turned inward to where oblivion already rises past his waist. From the neck down, the sensation of nothingness engulfs him. Any second now it will swallow him whole.

Oddly, his mind wanders to Draco. Malfoy, too, is a terrible child, but he doesn't make Severus lose control the way Potter does. He doesn't drive Severus to extremity the way Potter does. Both boys, insufferable brats though they are, deserve a second chance, and he hopes they both survive to take it. Severus isn't even sure what he means by this, because by now his thoughts have drifted on to life debts and Unbreakable Vows and how very, very glad he is to be shut of it.

He barely notices when Albus squats down before him, a damp flannel draping his outspread fingers. The cool scrubbing rouses him, and his confused stare locks onto that of the headmaster, ice-blue over the rim of his spectacles. He can endure it for only so long before lowering his eyes to the thin-skinned, ministering hands. The curse-blackening's gone. He supposes he ought to care.

"I can do that," he mumbles, pulling away. The old man ignores him and continues to cradle his jaw, sponging up the blood. Severus hoods his eyes, content, almost leaning into the touch, hoping this will be the last thing he remembers. Unless—

"Lily?" he ventures through stiffening lips.

"She can't stay, I'm afraid," and although it's no more than Severus expects, it cores him like an apple. If life were fair, the sudden gutting would empty him of feeling. Instead, of course, it hurts like fuck.

And he'd do well to remember, this isn't life.

"You took anti-venins?" Albus murmurs.

Did he what? What the blazes is the old devil on about? Severus curls his lip. Yes. Of course he took anti-venins. Who does Albus think he is?

"And blood coagulants?"

Mm. He's not sure he remembers doing that. He might have. He recalls choking on the taste of blood-replenishing potion. He expects a good half of it trickled out the ragged hole in his throat.

Abruptly, his head rocks beneath a blow.

Without thinking he strikes back, swinging his arm out when his magic fails to answer and connecting hard with a fragile, silk-clad breastbone. Albus goes down in a gaudy spray of robes, like a capsized peacock.

A plume of glee streaks through Severus, and he almost laughs. Merlin, I knocked the Headmaster on his arse!

Then Albus is up and gripping him by the shoulders. "That's the spirit, my boy. You're not dead yet, and I won't have you behaving as if you were."

Severus gapes. He's been manipulated again, his whole body still ringing from the startled rush of energy. The robe begins to slip from his shoulders, and he clutches it. "Take your hands off me."

"As you wish." Albus shakes his head with ironic affection. "I'm in no position to make you fight for your life." Cobweb-soft, his beard bats Severus in the face. It's an occult caress, smelling vaguely of tea (Severus inhales helplessly, wanting more), sunlight, warm wool. Also, for some reason, sealing wax.

"I won't deny you deserved better, but the choice is now yours. You can die like this," Albus gestures to the emptiness, which to Severus looks like the answer to his prayers, "or you can have a second chance."

Severus pulls the robe tighter and tries desperately to think. So he has a choice, has he? That's new. Since when?

In the distance Lily pauses, one hand toying with her hair. Then she twists about, and her hand wobbles upward, pale as the flower that gives her her name. It dawns on Severus, with a flush like first light over the world's rim, that this half-hearted wave is meant for him. Not in absolution, but farewell. As much as his heart rebels against her going, it's as close to forgiveness as he's ever likely to get.

Faded and warmly familiar, her voice floats through the darkness: "When you see Harry again, please give him our love."

Oh. Not for him. Severus cranks his shoulders up and hunches down between them, pretending he hasn't just made a wishful-thinking fool of himself.

"If I do this," he mutters as Lily walks on, linked to Potter even in death, "will you give me your word that you'll never ask anything of me again?"

The old schemer and string-puller, so accustomed to it being his hands that position the secret machinery of war, tucks those unstained fingers inside his sleeves and looks shrewd. "Even if it's for your own good?"

Severus narrows his eyes. Faint wrinkles of amusement pucker Albus's face. They vanish almost at once, but Severus' heart rises up against this man whose bidding he's followed across the threshold of death.

It has to stop. "Your word."

"You have it," says the tall figure almost absently. "Do this, and it will put you beyond any help I might have to offer. Or any hindrance. Is that good enough for you?" Try as he might, Severus can't scowl the kindness off Albus's face. "I only wish you to be free, my friend."

Dear God. His heart splits open in wrath and despair. "Then for Merlin's sake, let me go. Let me— "

"Am I to understand," the stern voice cuts him off, the words rebounding in distinct, undying echoes, "that after all these years, with Riddle's devastation of lives—children's lives—fresh in your mind, you're still capable of confusing freedom with death?"

Severus snaps his mouth shut. Sodding hell. Can Albus, after all these years, still flatten him with a well-placed word? Why is it his fate always to be outfoxed by wizards who use his blind spots against him?

Knowing he shouldn't, he glances over to where Lily last stood. But she's gone, and Potter with her.

He turns illusion-stripped eyes to his former master. "I'm not a student to be disciplined, you realise. Just tell me what you want me to do and be done with it."

Albus removes his spectacles, ostensibly to polish them, but in fact, Severus is sure, to give him an unsparing look at that age-mapped, sorrow-creased countenance, the slightly comical, crooked nose, the caved-in cheeks. It's not an indulgent face; one need only look him in the eye to see that, even if one hadn't spent years at his beck and call.

"Simply put?" Albus says, with a slight smile. "To live."

Severus waits. There has to be a catch to this, there always is.

Albus repeats lightly, "To live, Severus." He pauses, his silence like an unsubtle nudge. Severus won't give him the satisfaction. "I imagine this is the one card in the whole dreadful mess you weren't expecting to be dealt, am I right? The card I, with my plots so heavily dependent on one hapless page of hearts, held all along in my winning hand. And to my eternal discredit, forgot to lay down."

Oh, please. Harry Potter, page of hearts? That merits an eye roll of colossal proportions, but it's someone else's job now. Severus is too tired to manage it. Not to mention that Albus waxing sentimental is a sure sign of something fishy in the works. Is this how the greatest wizard of the age thought of the war, then—as an interminable game of Exploding Snap? Merlin save them all from obsessive old bounders.

"Take it now, with my blessing," Dumbledore urges, with the same ironclad bonhomie with which he'd doled out the various commands and cups of tea ferried to Severus over the years and his Hogwarts desk. "Life." He pronounces it with gusto, as though blowing a bubble of pure magic into the air. Then he perches his glasses back on his nose as if that decides it.

The mist is fading now as the darkness thickens, threatening to take Dumbledore with it.

Right there, Severus realises what the catch is. It's that Albus, having made his amends and dispensed his blessing, can say good-bye. Is saying it, here, now, and suddenly Severus' throat burns as if he's been screaming with all the things he can never, ever admit. Bitter as it is to mouth apologies to Lily and have them die in his throat, telling Dumbledore anything—about the spirit in which he'd laboured under his strict counsel, by his side, in his crusade, anything at all of the grudging warmth that had been his only human solace for years—no, it's insane. All he can offer, by way of reply, is silence.

And his consent. Oh yes, that. Always, no matter what it costs him, his consent.

The pain searing his throat continues to spread, a presentiment of the end. All thin, shaky bones and bloodless skin, Severus throws open the robe and lies back, naked and cold from his bitten lips to his cramping fingers to his badly-clipped toenails. Staring up into the darkness, he takes a grim pleasure in speculating that they've waited too long. He wonders, in that case, what will become of him.

The eye-watering brilliance of the Headmaster's robes tints the mist coiling on all sides. It reminds Severus of opalescent snakes. Shivering, he looks away. But he's only ever had two friends in the world and he murdered them both, and this may be the last he ever sees of either.

So, in difficult tribute, he turns his face to Dumbledore. He thinks ahead to the people who loathe him, the Dark Lord who will gladly eviscerate him again, the boy saviour who has custody of his most precious memories, and wonders what in the seven hells Albus supposes he has to go back to.

"Good luck," says the old devil in whom Gryffindor and Slytherin are so intertwined that even Severus can't tell them apart. He's always understood that Albus is unique. "Don't be too quick to judge, my boy. And don't for one moment believe"—Severus is astonished; is that a faint note of pleading?—"that this is meant to punish you."

Severus' snort is so faint he doubts it's audible. He keeps his gaze steady, but even so he can't say at which moment Dumbledore fades from view.

~~#~~

Then the darkness changes colour, and with no warning he's on fire.

Oh God no. Severus rears into consciousness on a bucking, pain-driven wave of terror, red and gold flames beating at his face. His limbs spasm with the instinct to roll out of the way, and from the base of his throat, where a knife seems to plunge over and over, rips a thin, eerie scream like a hawk's.

For one blazing moment he teeters between insanity and the raving denunciation of every good thing he's ever believed in, that he allowed himself to believe, like a fool, an effing Hufflepuff, and the penalty for his stupid faith is this second, hideous, consuming death.

Albus, what have you done to me?

It's too bright; the hot, glowing waves slap the air above his face. He tries to turn over, but can't. A weight pins him at the breastbone. He tries to find an entry back into the blackness but the rippling light blocks his way. His knees jerk, his nails claw the wooden planks.

Then a trill lifts through the dazzle of pain: a song from the past so familiar and aching with the reminder of better days, that Severus' head clears, and he sees.

Fawkes.

Talons sunk in the blood-soaked fabric at his heart, the phoenix gives a cry, its wings outspread. They flare, the source of fiery light. And Severus is fully clothed and on his back and—not dead. His throat and hands, the entire front of his robes, are caked with blood, under him, around him, his face smeared, he can feel it everywhere, his hair sticky and stiff as if dipped in glue. His body feels host to a horde of Acromantulars shocking and biting as they crawl through his system, injecting venom at every turn.

Overcome, he stares at the ancient, enigmatic creature sitting astride him, for so long Albus's constant companion. The warm drafts from its wings sweep his face. About to speak, he finds his mouth filled with a meaty, iron tang reminiscent of blood pudding. He gags instead.

Fawkes curls its neck down to stare. Its eyes are as gold as the sun, and glistening.

As Severus watches, a tear swells in the bird's eye.

Fuck. Rebirth, whether he likes it or not. He trembles, outraged at the honour being done him, the heels of his boots knocking once or twice against the floorboards. He didn't ask for this. The bird trills again, intimate as a promise but a touch impatient. Submitting, but not bothering to be gracious about it, Severus lets his head roll sideways, away from the gilded feathers. Past shimmering pinions he can dimly see the old, broken-down table and the crates pushed to the wall. When the first hot splash seeps into his throat's volcanic crater, lighting up torn flesh and clotted blood with a crackle of magic, he squeezes his eyes shut, holding back the fear, the agony, the strange, soothing feeling of being cared for.

Fawkes weeps with precision, and a tingle like molten gold, like the finest distillation of the purest essences, filters through Severus' veins. Poison dissolves wherever it touches, spreading balm to his depleted soul. Eyes closed in bliss, he floats on the scuffed, red-stained floor. Inside the shack it's dark, but sunlight streams through him, warming his sore muscles.

In that warmth, he catches a whiff of sealing wax and fragrant vapour. Oh, tea. Black, steaming, unsweetened tea. His mouth waters. Merlin, what he wouldn't give for a cup. The disgusting mess blocking his throat melts suddenly away; he can swallow again without wanting to be sick.

Wings buffet his face then, and the spell breaks. Fawkes pushes off, the sudden downward thrust pressing a grunt from Severus. Tangled in soiled robes, he curls onto his side, his eyes flinching open to follow the bird's path. Fawkes circles the room once, then glides to perch neatly on a dresser sitting canted in a scatter of wood shavings. The shack is pitch-dark, but the phoenix gives off a hearth-glow, golden and flickering, sweeping back the shadows to show every stick of furniture gnawed to paisley patterns.

Evidently Merlin smiles upon parasites. The insects here don't give a flipping sickle about the comings and goings of Dark Lords or werewolves.

The Dark Lord.

Potter.

Oh gods, to what fresh hell has he wakened?

No tiniest shaft of light through the boarded-up windows. Past sunset, then. Nervous tension urges Severus to follow the phoenix's example and—well, not literally fly, but at least get the bleeding fuck to his feet. The war might be over. During the time he spent yearning toward Lily and quarrelling with Dumbledore, all might have been lost. Or, hard though it is to share Albus' confidence, won.

Either way, no matter who the victor is, he can't be found like this.

He fans his fingers out in the darkness. "Accio wand." The shaft stings his palm, as precise and quiet as his own deep whisper. The thin shock as his hand closes, like metal snapping to a magnet, is what finally persuades him he's really here, really alive, and since there's no going back he might as well stand all the way up and go forward.

Swaying a bit, not trusting the strength of his limbs or anything in between, he positions his feet and pushes upright, the encrusted robes heavy upon him.

Almost without thinking, he grips his throat. A slippery band of scar tissue meets his questing fingers. Considering that his flesh had been shredded like a tea towel, he's not about to quibble. There's a pulse beneath the skin, and that's all that matters.

Great sopping quantities of blood cover his clothing, rigid as dragonhide by now. Severus wonders how long he's been lying there, then puts it from his mind. Cursing the boards that creak beneath his feet, he staggers to the door. Spelling it wide, he hangs back and listens, straining his eyes against the dark. A rush of night air envelops him in a steady breeze, smelling of trees and earth and sky. It's bracingly cold. Inhaling the fragrance of the world, he lifts his wand and Scourgifies himself three times in succession. Even with all the dried, flaking gore removed, all the grease from his hair, and what might be an outer layer of skin, he still feels steeped in blood.

Soap and scalding water and hot food and clean sheets and a year's worth, at least, of Dreamless Sleep might expunge it someday, but he doubts it matters. He doesn't really expect to live that long.

Holding the warped doorframe, he steps awkwardly outside. He knows the earth's not tilting but it somehow feels that way. The ground beneath his feet is restless with leaves. Ominous masses of trees crowd the shack, long walls of secrecy and darkness. He can't see a thing but knows better than to cast Lumos.

Above him, a rustling whoosh blows straggles of hair forward into his face. Fawkes swoops past like a flaming arrow, tail feathers trailing sparks. Severus jerks his head up, but the irate words die as beyond the pitch-black eaves the silent, winking infinity of the heavens calls out to him, catches him, siphoning his attention up and away past all imagining. Such a random spatter of stars, crisp and twinkling like frost in the void.

Forgotten, his body seems to fall away.

A beautiful, pleading sound, sublimely inhuman, rouses him centuries, seconds, later. He's on his sodding knees. The dizzying weight of the sky bears him down—bruising his shins, damn it. Flushed with embarrassment, Severus staggers back up and smacks dirt from his trouser legs.

The phoenix skims behind him to land with a flurried thump atop the shack. In its feeble flicker Severus realises how bedraggled the bird really is. It looks as wretched and tattered as he feels.

With arthritic slowness, the droopy wings hike upward and spread apart feather by feather. Head cocked, Fawkes pins him in place with one golden eye, and Severus submits.

Beak cracking open, the phoenix bursts into song.

Knowing he should leave, knowing that the glorious outpouring will draw Hogsmeade residents to this spot by the dozens, Severus tarries. Because this is for him. It won't last, and once it's over he'll be alone again, he knows that.

He knots both hands around his wand and lets the fiery starlight in that sound inhabit every crack inside him unclaimed by darkness. The beauty of it cauterises his breast. He endures the ecstatic ache without protest: poison crossed with joy. Later, assuming he lives that long, he'll find a way to blend them, make of his deepest feelings a mirror of the night sky, brilliance and the abyss.

He doesn't say, "Thank you." If that's petty, so be it. After all, this isn't about him, it's about Potter. They've made that perfectly clear. How can they expect him to feel gratitude when he still bristles with betrayal, the knowledge of how much the boy is loved when he is not? At least Fawkes welcomes him back, in such a way that Severus is reminded of the universe beyond the wizarding world, how the map of infinity consists of intense, unfathomable burnings in a waste of emptiness. If he needs consolation, he knows where to look.

The wild, rippling trill echoes to silence, and the phoenix bursts into flames.

Severus stumbles back, crashing into a tree and almost falling. Heat crackles, licks outward, radiating from the feathered body, consuming it while a golden halo pulses upward into the night. Mesmerised, Severus watches as the scruff of dead leaves on the roof, the dry, split timbers, begin to spark.

Smoke leaks into the sky. If it didn't betray the very existence this conflagration is meant to hide, he'd stay. Oh God, to the bitter end. His racing heart almost chokes him at the thought of this hellhole reduced to a pile of smouldering timber. One more nightmare vanquished.

Flames spit through the boarded-up windows. The glare scratches at his eyes. Lips skinned back from his teeth in a snarling grin, he squints at the spreading blaze. The tree trunks and windswept branches surge in and out of view, shadows clawed to gold. Inside the shack something explodes, savage with splintering wood. Banners of fire flap upward in the wind. The roof sags, caves in, and Fawkes's burning skeleton goes down with a roar.

Severus retreats behind leafy cover, firelight beating feverishly at his face. If someone were to find him now, he suspects he'd look as skeletal as Fawkes, his soul burning just beneath the surface, his heart as blackened and inflamed as the geyser of fire that had once been a shack.

He touches his scarred throat. The feel of it stirs him to speak, harsh by contrast with the lingering echoes of phoenix song. "I will do my best. But if I die again, for fuck's sake, do not bring me back."

Then, with no idea what awaits him, he turns on his heel and Apparates to Hogwarts.