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Beggars Would Ride

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The Dark Mark gives a silent victory scream.

It is a moment's shrill, triumphant agony, an instant of knowing, echoed through every Mark still seared into living flesh; Alecto has found the boy. Just room enough for a breath of chalk-white horror, a cough of, "No." And then the answer -- a searing, eager joy as looming and dark as the Highland night outside.

Marco.

Polo.

And the Dark Lord is coming. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

"Sir?" the girl asks, her voice trembling with a fear I am sure I cannot have put into her -- not in the shadow of all the Carrows have managed this year. "Are you-"

I straighten, suddenly furious at the idiot girl for her very presence, and the detention which made it necessary. I cast her a quelling glare, and she inhales the rest of her error unspoken, shrinking against the half-emptied bookcase and resuming her cleaning with hasty, shaking hands.

Her instant submission makes me want to throttle her. Has she not the wit to realize that there is no TIME for her nonsensical pretense at concern? There is no time for her conciliating, fluid pliancy, for cultivating that supple spine and those downturned eyes that offer challenge to no one, however brutal. There is no time for her kind of survival through surrender now. It is time to stand up! Time for the student who has fought me hardest, challenged me oftenest, hated me most. But how to find him?

The blue of her robes reminds me. Alecto demanded a 'favour' out of Filius after dinner, the exchange overheard by a vigilant portrait which still answers, however reluctantly, to the Headmaster's will. Ravenclaw tower then, surely. Though the boy will have gone to his staunchest ally to win him access. The lioness will have let him into the eagle's aerie, I am certain of it.

"You will be excused, Miss Chang," I tell the girl, and with a twitch of my wand, vanish the stack of record books she had been cleaning. A shocking waste, yes, but strangely cathartic in the moment. "I require one duty of you first, however." She is on her feet, hovering at the door and more than ready to be gone by the time I have finished writing the note, and charming it against prying eyes.

"You are to find Professor McGonagall," I say, and proffer the parchment twist with a snap of my robes that makes the girl flinch as if slapped. "You will put this note into her hands, and you will remain with her until you have seen her read it. Should she attempt to excuse you beforehand, you will refuse, and cite my particular instructions to you. Do you understand these instructions, or must you be placed under Imperius?" The threat is not an idle one. Not tonight.

To my relief, she seems to realize this, and straightens to the task with more spine than she has shown since the debacle at the end of fifth year. "No, Headmaster," she says, and takes the note firmly, "I'll stay with her until she reads it."

I nod, release the door latch, and she is through it so fast she might have Disapparated. The door slams in her wake, and I lean both palms on the desk, shuddering as the Dark Lord roars nearer, ever nearer. The other Headmasters are a babbling clamour and frame-bound flickerings, meaningless beneath the thudding of blood and anguish in my ears.

It's here. The end of it all. It's now. He must be told, and there is no time for the fury, for the questions, for the inevitable bluster and sulk. He must understand. He must believe, Merlin help me, that his most hated teacher, treacher, traitor, has his best interests at heart behind the instruction that he must walk like a compliant lamb to his death.

Seven years' worth of calculated enmity flash through my mind like mocking crows. Irony. To have worked so long, to have been so complete in securing the boy's hatred and distrust, only to find the fate of the world depends upon my word of honour now... how Black must be howling with laughter at my expense, the dog.

Wait. Perhaps...

I raise my hands, stilling the rising chorus from the gallery of the dead. "I have it in hand," I tell them once I am sure my voice will not shake. "He must hear of it by way of a proxy he will not question." A moment's concentration to summon a suitable memory -- longer than it should take, I will admit, -- and then my messenger stands before me, moon-silver, dark eyed, and fiercely sweet.

I reach out my hand to her. No words in my voice can frame this; he must see for himself what has gone before. He must see what he must believe. He must see the task for which Albus Dumbledore had always intended him. The Patronus spell is not so very different to a Pensieve's core enchantment, and with each thread of memory that drips from my wand, the silver doe blazes. Brighter, fiercer. By the time I have given up all I can think of to further my case, I can barely stand to look at her at all.

"Go now," I whisper, and let myself fall into Albus' chair, "Find him. Show him." And only when she has leapt through the solid stone can I allow myself the inevitable, the irrelevant, "I'm sorry."

And then the cramping agony of my left arm informs me that the end is come, and it awaits my attendance out in the Forbidden Forest. It expects the Headmaster to open Hogwarts' great gates, allowing my 'master' his pleasure of the place as Dumbledore never would. It is why the Dark Lord placed me here, and from the first we both understood it. I am meant to run to his call, clutching the keys to his kingdom in my slavering jaws.

His disappointment, I fear, will pain me more than him.

The stash of emergency potions I have been hoarding all year lies in the top desk drawer, disguised as a pack of exploding snap cards. It contains every contingency I could imagine in my endless nights of dreaming up all the myriad ways in which Potter might possibly manage to get himself nearly-killed. From the vantage of this slipping chance, it contains not nearly enough, but it is all I have at present, and so it will have to do. I slip it into my robes, then stand, open the windows with a wave of my wand. Just in case the note has not yet reached Minerva, I turn to the assembled Headmaster emeriti with a sardonic bow.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," I tell them as I step up onto the sill and lean out into the damp night wind, "I quit."

Then I step off the ledge, wishing I had the good sense to fall.

~*~

 

This is pointless remembrance.

Nothing can be changed. Nothing can be amended. Nothing can be served by this penance, this penitence, this punishment that no one else will deal out to you. Why watch these failures over and over again? It heals no wound, assuages no guilt, amends not one single wrong.

It does not bring him back. Surely you can see that, now it's no longer rattling around your skull.

Better to vanish it altogether than to commit it to silver and endless reflection. Walk away now, man, before it sends you mad.

Or, if you will be a stubborn fool, then set it down and pull the next.

~*~

I know from the stillness of Lucius' bruised face that the end has come. The glassy steadiness of his single, arctic eye when he leans close to murmur that the Dark Lord requires my presence in the Shack at once tells me that he knows, as I know, that it is time for the dying to begin. He smells, ever so faintly, of desperation.

Denied his chance to go hunting for his stray heir, I surmise; I nod my acquiescence without bothering to tell the man how very lucky is his son not to find himself within the Dark Lord's grasp just now. Hogwarts might be the only safe place on earth for Draco Malfoy this night, but I do not expect Lucius to understand that.

It is not cowardice. This I will maintain until breath no longer moves within me; it is not cowardice prompting me to seek within my cache, and sip down one of the antivenin doses there. It is duty. I have no proof, no idea, really, that Potter believed the Doe's message. She had returned, silent and grave as had she gone, but what message could she carry back from a heart from which she had not sprung?

Whatever mischief or mania lay behind the latest summons, I owe it to the world not to fall to it too easily. Not, at least, before I am sure that Potter understood, and will die for us all without contest. I must catch my breath at the twist that thought causes in my stomach, pushing the antivenin's ghost -- ammonia, honey, and raw chicken -- back into my throat, where it burns like a shame I cannot swallow down.

The bloody wreck of a house. Built to totter as though barely wished together, and like to topple at any strong wind. Built to terrify, to fill the mind with shadows, to prickle the spine, and liquefy the guts with thoughts of monsters whenever the slightest breezes howl through the thoughtfully placed blow-holes in its attic.

Built to contain monsters. And I suppose it is at least marginally better this time, knowing what manner of monster I shall find awaiting me there.

~*~

 

These are the moments that ache worst. The memories built of blame and despair for the knowing of just how easily I might have done something, anything else, and led us all to a different, better ending. How, had I consulted my gut, my instincts, or one second of the seven years' knowledge I had of him, I would have bloody well known that the boy would be lurking nearby.

Lurking, listening, too close by half a world, and willing, as always, to put his foot squarely in where it would terrify me most. Wretched boy. Damnable hero. Maddening, valiant, too-charitable creature, will this exorcism at last banish your ghost from me?

If I ward you into this bowl, make an oubliette of this Room, and never look back to it again, will you finally stop haunting me?

Please?

~*~

 

I am talking to the Dark Lord, pleading, as I vaguely recall, for permission to go find Potter, wherever he has got to, and fetch him to the slaughtering pen. Even in the moment, I could tell it would not work. The maniac thought me the master of the Elder Wand; imagined that I would somehow have remained beneath his thumb with that undefeatable weapon at my command. Balanced finely between the pinpoints of narcissism and paranoia, as usual. He had called me there to die.

And so I ignore it now. I needn't hear my futile words, needn't read the serpentine amusement behind his velveted threats, needn't search his caricature for any trace of mercy. I am watching for Potter this time -- trying to hear the signs I missed then. A whisper of rubber sliding against a dirt floor. A layered hiss of frightened, determined breath. A scrape, a slide of wood on wood on polished wood. A deeper resonance to the loathing I had always felt in the presence of the Dark Lord -- the echo of it that lingered around the boy, and I had always taken for my own prejudice and guilt at play, until Albus told me of the encysted evil the boy carried within him. How could I not have hated him when he reeked at all times of my worst mistake?

Potter, child, we were doomed from the start, you and I. No penitence, no love of my lost Lily's eyes could outweigh the crawling revulsion under my skin at the merest breath of you, and search as I might for justification, only death could lift the pall and let me see you clear. I see you clearly now.

But I could not ken you that night. So close to the source of the reek, not even my great nose could tease out you from its humours in that dank, horrid little place. Your year of running must have taught you a control you never learnt from playing seek and dodge about the school with me. Your thoughts do not roll at me like a muddled, angry tide tonight, your will does not shove at me in petulant, angry bursts, and how am I to know you like this? How am I to outguess you, keep you safe despite your damnable self like this?

The answer, of course, is that I am not.

He hisses, the Dark Lord, gestures negligently to his great, filthy familiar, and she is upon me in a rush of speed I cannot hope to counter. I hear my own cry, but this time I know to watch the far wall, the half-crushed crate, and the quick-flickering wand shadow behind it.

At least you have finally learnt to cast without calling the spell out first.

The Petrificus Totalis takes me from the back, and through my flesh it catches Nagini as well, and I do not, even now, know whether to blame your will, your wand, or your damnable, accidental luck for the fact that her petrification is literal, irreversible. I did not know it then -- stone fangs feel no different from living ones when buried in the meat of one's shoulder, and the spell held me rigid and bloodless as a plank. Nor could I tell, from within the spell's grasp, that you had made me look the part as well; a fool-shaped granite spar, wand just dropping into his fingers, blood just beginning to bloom, carnelian in the black. Unable to move, unable to die before you, how was I not to despair, hearing your voice behind me in the gloom?

"You don't need to do that."

I can see you come out of your crack this time, you green-eyed cat-child, scruffy and singed and stained as a stray, but lean and hard and madly unafraid. Idiot. Do you not know how to fear him? Of all the things you failed to learn of me, could you not have managed that one damned lesson? Or did hunger, loneliness, and desperation simply crowd the fear of him out of your mind?

Or have you always been that brave?

"Harry Potter." He names you, and we both hear the surprise in his voice. He does not know his serpent Horcrux is dead yet. Cannot know, or he would fear you properly, and not smirk to see you striding through the dust to stand, frayed and solemn, between him and his intended prey. Where is your wand, you wretched child? "Have you come to die then, boy?"

"That's what you've been driving at, isn't it?" Your voice is deeper. Rougher, as if from disuse, because it could not be from weeping. You've never done, to my knowledge, even when you should. "You kill other people because you can't get to me. Well, here I am."

And he laughs as if he's been practicing it. "Indeed. Here you are." And here is that damnable wand, slung into his greasy, skeletal fingers. And here are the ropes bursting from nothingness to twine about you like Devil's Snare. They bite, despite your lack of resistance. I can see the blood flee from your skin where it bulges between the green bands, and damn it ALL, where are Weasley and Granger? Why have they left you to this alone?

Because I have told you that they must. And because you have, for once, believed me. Damn my eyes.

"Tell me, boy," the monster says, languid now he thinks his prey helpless, "what makes you believe the killing is about you? I kill whom I wish, and when you are dead, what force do you suppose will delay my killing all whom you think to protect now?" He leans close, breathes poison into your ear, "Love, perhaps?"

Rougher still for constriction, your voice replies -- the dustbin cat's warning, the netted lion's curse. "Just get it over with. Or can't you manage without your audience?"

There. Your last words. I will not watch this farce again -- to no one did I promise that I would watch you die. Certainly not twice. The windows of the shack are clean from within. It must be charms that make the glass seem grime-clouded from without. Why are there no spiders here in this unused, abandoned space, I wonder?

"I will kill them, Harry Potter. I will hunt down those you loved, and I will strip them from the world, and with them, every memory of you. My faithful will seek out yours, and we will feast upon their despair before we eat of their deaths. Do. Not. Doubt. It!"

I must remember to breathe. I am not frozen now, as I was then.

"Avada Kedavra!" he says, and means it.

~*~

I must stop now. I must. It is too much for one night's work.

Coward. Yes, I am that now, and fool to stretch out this one-night torment across several. Coward doubly that I am considering... well. Only considering, after all, as I had once considered suicide, or thrashing or throttling a certain green-eyed, disrespectful whelp -- idly, and without meaning. Fantasy, lacking courage or conviction, carries no weight.

The mirror stands in a far corner of the Room, its incubus face covered with Shadow Veils -- too far for me to hear any inane whispering. It has stood here, thus enshrouded, from the day I found the thing in the emptied, looted Slytherin dormitories and removed it from the reach of these helpless little ducklings which now surround me.

Everyone lost in this war. Far too many would lose themselves in Erised's impossible promises if I gave them the ghost of a chance. Had I not the weight of this school still slung around my neck, I should rather have liked to do so myself...

But no. The Acting Minister, the Faculty, even the bloody Board have begged me to stay, to be the single point of anchorage in the chaos that is Wizarding Britain one year post-Voldemort. Absolution purchased with the blood of the innocent. A sacrament of absurdity. And yet I have stayed.

I have overseen the rebuilding, have marshaled the students who had neither homes, nor families to which to return, along with the paid workers. I have taught them the charms, potions, and transfigurations Hogwarts required in order to open on schedule. I have replaced their classes with apprenticeships in the science and lore of rebuilding a dream in which I will never believe again.

But Hogwarts must go onward. With that, I do agree. He died as much for her as for any of the rest of us, and the castle has mourned him for months now. I make an effort not to envy the place that luxury, but most of all, I make an effort to avoid any idleness into which such soppy, pointless sentiment can creep.

Soppy, pointless sentiment like this bowl of memories, for instance, only half filled with the shadows I must secure before the Room of Requirement can be re-enchanted. Before I dare face the Mirror of Erised, move it into the Room of Forgotten Things, and manage to trust in the shield of my Occlumency. I do not truly plan to leave the Pensieve full of regrets there beside it, of course. The thought is a nice one though.

There. I have mastered myself.

Time to carry on.

~*~

"But you fought at his back," they tell me, eyes bright with delusion, the both of them. "The two of you came into the Great Hall together, and you protected Harry from the Death Eaters while he battled Voldemort. You're a hero, sir."

My stomach turns. I can feel the cramp of it all over again, even as the blood drains from my already pale face. If I could speak, I would scream. I would spit and rant and howl in rage at their hollow, charming fictions.

I did not stir from the damned shack. I spent the night rigid and cold and caught in the vise of a stone serpent, unable to turn my eyes from the lifeless, staring face of Harry James Potter. I spent the night watching his green eyes go empty and flat, then dull as the orbs dried with never a blink to wet them, then as cloudy as the uncertain dawn creeping through those damned filthy windows!

I watched while the blood sank from his cheeks and lips, settled like a bruise where his back pressed the gritty boards, and left him as pale and cold as moonlit wax. I watched the rigor come over him, and then retreat. I watched the first flies come to creep between his parted lips, and to sip at what little moisture remained in his filmy eyes. I could not so much as scream to frighten them away. Death claimed all there was left of Harry Potter in those endless, agonizing hours, and I stood hostage to its conquest until dawn at last brought on the mercy of unconsciousness.

And now they come, the Hero's shieldmates, to tell me these lies.

I would turn to face the wall, had I the strength for it. I would spit and call them liars to their earnest faces, were my throat not swollen so thick around the snake's last gift that a spell must do my breathing for me. I would demand, if their Hero did indeed stride to Hogwarts' rescue in the spell-soaked hours after midnight, that they produce him at once, and prove their claim with more than bright eyes and empty words.

Bring me the man, living, breathing. Or bring me his corpse from the stretch of planking whereon I saw it fall. Or bring me his ashes -- the last crumbling shells of his teeth, the twisted wire of his spectacles, the cracked, blackened knuckles of his long bones from the embers of the Shrieking Shack if it did, as they claim, burn down in the small hours of the night. I will not be satisfied with their faith when my own has been crushed and buried in a cold granite grave.

But I do none of these things. I have no strength for them. A night of struggling against a dead man's magic has exhausted me beyond even the range of fury. I can do no more than lie back, close my eyes, and let the Cleverest Witch of Her Age recite the lists of the dead and ruined while her lover fidgets nearby and tries not to look like a man who's just last night lost his virginity.

Harry Potter is gone. I live yet.

Somewhere a God with a very sick sense of humour is laughing.

~*~

There. Just a few more now.

I can hear the others gathering in the passage outside, talking low and worried amongst themselves. And perhaps they are right in some way; this Room has been used for mischief in the past. Without it, poor Draco Malfoy could not have brought Death Eaters past the castle's wards to attack its students, Voldemort might have been forced to hide his Horcrux in more obvious sight, and let us not even bother to address the myriad risks inherent in the vigilante activities of "Dumbledore's Army."

The Room of Requirement is most definitely a liability to the castle's security, as well as the safety and sanity of its students. The trouble is that Hogwarts will have it, or one like it, whether we accede to the plan or not. Give her enough students within her walls, enough frantic wishes for secrecy, privacy, or just shelter, and she will grow such a room -- or a dozen such, -- herself, and let no faculty know where they have sprung up.

Being still the Headmaster despite my battlefield resignation, I find myself aware of such subtleties now, though neither inclined nor able in any greater part to explain them to my colleagues. My voice often pains me. They have become used to my silences anyway.

And so I will not tell them that Hogwarts has all but offered me an ultimatum. We are to recreate her Room, as well as we may, before the students return -- officially, for there are a good many, some with their families alongside, who had no place else this summer to go, -- for the coming year. She will spoil her students with our complicity, or without it, and if we wish any influence upon the goings-on within, we had best cooperate now. Albus, and all the other Heads' portraits agree that is pretty much how matters stand.

The castle is a tyrant. Voldemort's shade ought to be glad he never had the running of it, for he would have broken his teeth on her wilfulness.

We have come to an agreement though, Hogwarts and I. I will allow her this indulgence, and in return she will allow me one pocket of space for my own use -- my oubliette, my little place of forgetting, my Chamber of Dirty Secrets.

Perhaps she intends that this chamber will be accessible to any Headmaster coming after me, or perhaps she means, as I do, for this door I am transfiguring into the stones to open to no other's hand but mine. I tell myself I do not care. Either will do to put the Mirror entirely out of reach of those who lack the willpower to resist its charms. Those who would waste away before its infernal summons for just a glimpse of the living faces of those they have lost; just a flicker of life and forgiveness in dead, clouded eyes; just a ghost of a smile upon lips plump with blood and mirth, not slack, blue and cold.

No, let the Room offer access to her Forgotten Things, once she has hoarded them up again, so long as she keeps these Deadly Things locked and warded behind the Headmaster's will.

Just a few more memories first, weaknesses I dare not afford while casting such tricksome, wilful magic as that we intend tonight. I set my wand to my head, grit my teeth, and pull them free one by one.

Draco Malfoy, discovered in a sprawl on the tiles of the second-floor girls' bathroom, limp, wet, and living, but cursed to silent, staring madness. His mother huddled over him, keening in grief and rage as the Aurors came to take them away.

Lucius' trial, that pornographic perversion of justice into revenge. His eyes so cold, so angry as they sent him into the mercy of the Veil for his complicity in events he could neither stop nor resist. He had not touched wandwood for over two years, and the Veil swallowed the whole Malfoy line with him.

Relearning the language of my own wand, strangely changed now that Potter's power had had its way. Quicker, fiercer, more ready to destroy given half the chance. Of Voldemort's --Dumbledore's -- wand, no one has found any trace. It was not on him, so they say, after the duel, when he fell dead, never to arise again. Neither has anyone found Harry Potter's wand, a fact which the deluded cite at every opportunity as proof of his continued survival... somewhere.

The living twin, George, released from hospital, turned up on my threshold in the dead of night. First he attacked me with fists and feet like a common Muggle hooligan. Then he forgave me, which hurt the more. Thanked me for saving Ron's life, Hermione's life, Harry's life in the Battle That Did Not Happen. Drank with me until he was able to weep out confessions I ought never to have heard. Went away in the morning without speaking or looking me in the eye. Left one gold earring on my bathroom countertop. I have not seen him since.

Passing Narcissa's thin, pale shadow in the halls of St. Mungo's on the day she was allowed to go and visit Draco. The healers had installed him in the same room as Frank and Alice Longbottom. She said she had arrived to find their son Neville reading aloud from The Adventures of Martin, the Mad Muggle to all three of them.

Christmas Dinner. Dear God. Every agonizing moment of desperate cheer and brittle merriment, clinging and singing and weeping under the fairy lights. Impossible for the Headmaster to leave, or to get himself drunk enough to bear the sham. Would that I could expunge all future pantomimes of hollow comfort and joy along with the memory of this one.

Pomfrey colluding with Granger to insist upon a survival support group. Reciting their catechism of five-phases-of-guilt and processing of feelings, and I, as Headmaster, must set the example for the rest. I tried, Merlin help me, I did. I sat through Longbottom's apology for not seeing through the performance which had never been for his benefit, but which had merely been meant to preserve my life until I could spend it in Potter's defense; I listened to the Weasley girl's struggles with the ethics of whether to stay true to a corpse she hoped one day might return to love her, or to accept the open, wholehearted devotion of the Lovegood girl with whom she had been sleeping for months; I watched Molly Weasley weep in agony over having put Bellatrix Lestrange down like the rabid dog she had been; I watched and kept my silence until I could bear no more without running mad of it. Only when I threatened to tell the whole self-congratulatory circus the awful, rotting truth of that night, of the flies and the eyes and the chill, waxy lips, did they desist, and let me go. It was nearly a month before Poppy would speak to me again.

Halloween. Hunting alcohol poisoning or oblivion in my chambers, warded so that ghosts could not pass through. And in the morning the Prophet clamoured with sightings, rumours, and lies. Harry Potter seen riding a flying car over Anglesey, or perhaps a flying motorcycle over Leeds, or a rainbow-maned unicorn over the Ministry's provisional headquarters. Harry Potter spotted at Godric's Hollow. Harry Potter carnally visited fifteen girls with whom he had never spoken in school, and half of them claiming to be pregnant with his seed afterward. I wore my hangover like a hair shirt that day, and snarled my frank opinion to anyone who ventured near, and still not one of them believed that the wretch was dead.

The Anniversary. May Day. Minister Shacklebolt awarding me my Order of Merlin, First Class. Leaning close to hang the ribbon like an albatross around my neck and whispering in my ear, "You are the only hero they've got right now, Snape. Give them that, at least. For Harry's sake." And I nearly replied by vomiting down his designer robes. Nearly. I choked back my rage, my fury, and my savage, bitter failure though, and for Harry's sake, I faced the staring, sugarplum-starved crowd. I cannot recall, even now, if I managed to speak in my shattered voice. It could well be that I merely stood, gravely silent, and waited for the censure I deserved, for the inevitable, unanswerable question: Why are you here when he is not? I do not know. I do not know. I only know I was relieved nearly unto weeping when Weasley and Granger finally stepped in to take over the heinous business. And as they fed the beast with pleasant fictions, I shook in my chair, and I cursed myself for ever having wished for such acclaim as this.

Nearly done now. Nearly done.

His birthday. Every owl in the school sent out with gifts and letters on the same fool's errand, and even the Castle Elves wallowing in the shared delusion. The cake. I could not bear to see it served, cut, slaughtered amongst the survivors like an obscene and sugary sacrament. I removed the monstrous thing, and left it to rot on the scraped ash-bed where the Shrieking Shack had stood. The elves served tiny cakes to every student and teacher that night, each inscribed with his name on top. I gave mine to Hagrid, who wept aloud while chewing. I wept alone, behind my locked and warded chamber door, and felt no saner for it. No sense of release, no easing of the horrible confusion and disgust at every face which failed to accuse me, failed to condemn me for the coward and traitor I had been.

Waking to find that someone had been in my rooms, had vanished and tidied the wreck my tantrum had made of them, and had gently laid a knitted afghan across my shoulders while I slept and dreamed of Him. My obsession now, more than ever his mother had been. After all, I did not watch her die.

And last, the day I found the mirror. The less said of that, the better. Had I not remembered the old story of how it had come to be -- of the succubus the four Founders trapped behind the glass and golden frame -- I might have smashed the damned thing once sense finally returned to me with the morning's light. Instead I took myself down into the bowels of the castle, to the Chamber of Secrets, secret no longer after Weasley and Granger had raided it for Basilisk teeth on the night of the Battle, and there I cast bitterly dark magic, conjured Shadow Veils for the damned thing. My chambers were ice cold and could not warm for a week, but I slept without Potter beckoning from my dreams for the first time since he'd died.

There. Exhausted. The Pensieve roils with a mass greater than any star, and even if I could bear to lay my hands to it, I am sure I could never find the strength to lift the thing off the table and carry it to the tiny cupboard next to the Mirror. Luckily, my wand has just strength enough to levitate it onto its own pedestal without sloshing out any of the welter within.

Outside, someone has begun to knock on the doors. Pomona, I suspect, from the timidity of it, though it could be Horace as well. Either way, it is my signal to have done with this, as the cacophony will surely begin to rise once Minerva or Filius arrives to take the business over. They know I am alone within, and of late my colleagues have begun, perhaps wisely, to distrust my resistance to the temptation of doing myself a mischief.

I give the cupboard door a kick, and it obligingly slams to with a resounding "DOOM." Then I must wait until the urge to laugh has passed before I can open the outer door, and let the others in. It takes an unseemly long time, that.

~*~

The chamber is measured with meticulous precision, its footprint altered and then altered yet again until it conforms to all three relevant schools of numerism. Its quoins and ashlars are inscribed anew with runes for perspicacity, resolution, comfort, and fortitude. The potions are applied to the stones in twelve perfectly even coats, not a speck of mortar or joinery left dry, and then comes the last, the smallest of the cauldrons.

Minerva, her face grave and pale, drops into it one bony knuckle, retrieved from a silent, marble grave in the lea of the forest's shade.

"Bone of the Father, graciously given," the assembled mages intone as it rings against the silver cauldron like a pebble, "you will renew the auspices of your guardianship."

I consider a full arm, cut lengthwise from wrist to elbow, but the castle's internal bristling forestalls that inkling. I aim a small slicing hex at my earlobe instead, and think of George Weasley.

"Flesh of the Servant, offered unasked," the litany continues, "you will heal the ablation." To my chagrin, the cut is sealed even as I drop the gobbet of flesh into the cauldron. No blood drips heat down my neck, but I doubt my compatriots have looked at me long enough to notice the lack. No one meets my eyes for long these days.

Granger steps up last, eyes grim and jaw set. As she tips a tiny and quite illegal phial of red in to join the rest, a shudder travels like a curse around our little ring. A year past the death of its host, only magic can have kept it wet enough to flow like that.

"Blood of the Conquered Enemy," and now it is a canticle more than a spell, "you will make restitution of our loss."

There is a flash, not unexpected, and the silver cauldron along with its contents disappears from Filius' startled hands. I resist the urge to swear under my breath, as the cauldron had been my own, and a costly one at that. But some magics do require sacrifice, and there are far darker versions of this spell known to Wizardkind.

I can see the fidgeting begin in the ringing, massive silence that follows -- the wondering glances, the bitten lips. Did it work? Someone will ask it, any moment now, and I am still waiting for the castle to give me the bloody answer. Just at the moment when silence, sanity, or stonework must crack, a great sigh of wind lifts about the chamber, spiralling up in a flutter of robes, hats and hair before it fades to a thin, whispering whistle.

"Is that..." Slughorn sniffs the air, "I say, that's candied pineapple, isn't it?"

"More like cider," Sprout says.

"Toffee apples, perhaps," Sinistra allows, wistful and thin.

"Really? I'd thought ink and incense." Vector, smiling for once.

"Yes, yes! Nag Champa, I'm certain." Trelawney, thank Merlin not inclined to natter onward.

"Heather blossoms after rain." Minerva's eyes are closed, and I can see the glimmer of tears under her eyelashes.

"Aye. That's new-cut hay, it is," Hagrid agrees, sniffing hard and smiling.

"Lemon drops." Filius just manages the words.

They are all wrong. It smells of playpark dust, of rusty iron and sweat in the crevices of your hands, bruised grass and evergreen and the swelling summer funk off the river. It smells of beans on toast and cheap biscuits nicked from down the corner shop when the owner pretends not to see you. It smells of book leather and pages full of secrets, and the oil, steam, and grease of your first train ride. And faintly, under it all, of candyfloss.

Granger says nothing, but her eyes are closed, her face tipped beatifically to the ceiling and her cheeks streaked with tears. I find I do not care to know what it is she believes she smells.

"The spell was successful," my corvid croak handily shatters the air of wonder. "And as it appears the Room has deduced that most of you are hungry, the Elves shall lay out a light tea in the Teacher's Lounge before you retire." It is no longer a matter of summoning the elves, I have learned since assuming the mantle. The little bastards anticipate me now -- I must work very hard indeed to go hungry these days.

They file out, seemingly content to leave me alone to test the new Room's capacities. Granger is last to go, and though she has not yet mastered herself enough to speak, she struggles to convey an itching depth of compassion and fellow-feeling along her sopping gaze as she hesitates on the threshold. I turn from it, as I usually do, and examine the featureless stones until I hear her sigh and start off down the hallway.

It occurs to me that I will someday need to thank her for her donation to the school, and perhaps to ask what on earth she'd been thinking to collect a sample of the Dark Lord's blood in the first place. But not tonight. Not just yet. First, I must check to be sure the mirror and my memories are as I left them.

Almost as the thought is forming in my head, the Room brings out the door for me. Oddly, it comes loose from the stone with another whistle, though the candyfloss wind does not bear it along this time. I turn the bone knob, already deeply suspicious, and calculating all the ways in which this little spell of ours might have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

For a moment, when the door swings away, and the lights rise on the shadow-bound frame, and the luminous Pensieve, both just where I had left them, I relax. But only for a moment.

Because the next thing I know, the far wall is thrusting away from me, speeding off into rumbling shadow. The ceiling and side walls curl, and an unmistakable gust of coal smoke, steam, iron and creosote comes panting out of the tunnel, sending stray papers skittering like rats along the platform.

The train is coming into Hogsmeade Station via the lower track, and dear God, I am alone to meet it.

I can hear the engine come, chugging and huffing like some giant dog until it breasts out of the billowing steam in a riot of scarlet, brass, and polished steel. The brakes scream to make banshees flinch, the carriages flutter past, snapshots flicking by slower, slower, until finally, glidingly, they stop and are still. Steaming, ticking, rustling as they settle into one spot for the first time since...

I cannot breathe. I dare not look to see whose shadow glides along the windows to the carriage door. I cannot breathe. I cannot look.

Wood slides on metal. "Snape?"

Unbidden, my lungs prove with a sob that I can breathe after all. I can hear his trainers squeaking on the iron steps, hopping over the modest gap, and then slapping across the boards to my side. I must not look. I will not look.

"Sir?" he says, "Are you all right?"

"Eurydice." It is the first safe thing that comes to my mind.

"Er. No, actually," he says, amused, damn the wretch, "It's Harry Potter."

My eyes are clamped so tight that nerve lightning flickers across the black as I struggle to draw another breath. Then, "You're late."

"Erm." I hear him shuffle in place. "Yeah, I expect I am. Sorry about that." And then he touches my shoulder with a hand that is warm, dry, and solid as a wand. "Where are we? I know this isn't King's Cross, but I thought sure the train would go to-"

"Hogsmeade Station," I say it with him and take hold of his wrist, defying any vengeful Hades to try and take him from me now. "It did," I say, still not brave enough to look. "Students arrive by the Express, on the upper tracks. Supply trains and commuters use these below." I feel foolish, inane, and desperate with the horrid urge either to giggle, or clasp him to me, or to burst into tears.

The hero saves me from these indignities by giving a mighty yawn, one that startles my eyes open and full of him. His open maw is half hidden behind the grubby fist I am not clutching in mine, his chin wants a razor, his hair a comb, his clothing a bonfire. He is entirely, appallingly beautiful.

"Sorry," he says when he can manage the words, "It's been a really long trip-"

"Longer than you know."

He gives me a look, then continues when I shake my head. "Anyway, I could probably get a room at the Hog's Head, but I'd hoped I could stay at the castle tonight..."

I should force him to ask my welcome. I should make him prove to me, somehow, that he is not some dangerous fantasy roused from a bowl full of regret, the Room's need to please, and that frustrated Infernal under glass in the corner. I should walk away from this dream in grubby trainers, find Erised, and peel back the shrouds to be sure his fantasy image still twines with my own there, safe and impossible in the velvet darkness.

Only I cannot seem to let go his wrist. In my fingers it is bony, slightly grubby, and creased where surely he has pillowed his head against it on the seats. There is a strange, looping, script-like scar across the back of his knuckles, one I do not recall seeing on him before.

It has been a very long ride indeed -- I wonder if he will ever know just how far he has come. But now he has come home. At last.

"Hogwarts, you may remember, is quite a large place," I manage to reply, turning toward the stairs, and drawing him along behind me. "As you have deigned to grant us your presence before the arrival of the students, it seems as likely as not that the castle will make room for you."

He grunts, and I realize with a tiny shock, that I know the sound for laughter now. And also, that proximity to him no longer makes my arm burn, or my stomach turn. The thing I hated in him is gone, and he has returned from the undiscovered country, and I find I cannot bloody care whether he is real, or a delusion conjured from the ruin of my sanity.

He is here. He is here.

I turn, meaning to lead him after me, but with a sudden wriggle, he twists his arm free. He catches my own hand before I manage to turn, and laces his fingers together with mine, not seeming to notice, as I have only just done, that mine are besmirched with blood.

"It's good to see you too, sir," he says with a smile like absolution.

And then Harry Potter climbs the steps behind me, lets me lead him from the underground back into the light.

~* Fin *~