The hidden door in the stones made no noise as it slid open, revealing nothing but darkness beyond. In the thick silence, a sudden light shimmered into existence at the tip of a wand which, held high, illuminated an empty bedroom.
Taking a furtive step forward, Severus Snape entered the bedroom that had once been his. He hadn’t been there for many, many months, and his eyes swept the room suspiciously, expecting changes. Yet nothing looked as if it had been touched.
The books he’d been reading before his unexpected flight from the castle still stood in an untidy pile on the small table beside his reading chair. His bed was made up neatly; even the door to his wardrobe was still slightly ajar, revealing his somber robes within. The doors to that piece of junk hadn’t fit tightly for over a year ever since he’d slammed it so hard in a fit of anger that the whole piece had fallen over. He’d kept meaning to have the house-elves fix it, but he’d just never gotten around to it. Certainly it was too late now.
With a frown, he crossed the bedroom to the inner door that led to the sitting room and pausing in the doorway, he peered inside. Very little here looked as if it had been touched either. The desk had been cleared naturally. All it had contained were essays and lesson plans. Things that would have been needed to complete what little had been left of the school year.
But why hadn’t the rest of his things been cleared out? Or at least searched thoroughly? If he’d been the one so seemingly betrayed, he wouldn’t have wasted any time before inspecting and then destroying every last item owned by his believed betrayer, but Gryffindors played by different rules than rational people, and Hogwarts had been and still was run by Gryffindors.
With a faint sigh, he turned towards the fireplace, and there he found the first real sign that someone had indeed spent time in his quarters once he’d abandoned them. Shattered crystal lay strewn across the stones of his empty hearth. Some of it even looked as if it had been ground to powdered bits beneath a viciously applied heel. This was more as he’d expected to find things.
Snape crossed the room and went down on one knee at the edge of the rug. Slowly, he reached out to touch the small cracked model of the castle that sat forlornly in the midst of the glittering mess. He still remembered how surprised he’d been to receive the crystal globe. Larger than one of Trelawney’s crystal balls, it had contained a perfect model of Hogwarts that had changed with the seasons.
In the summer, the small castle had been awash in sunlight and lush growing things, while in the winter, storms had swirled through the darkness filling the crystal orb up with snow. He’d spent many an hour mesmerized by all the details of the constantly changing scene in the tiny world behind the curved glass, and he’d treasured it much more than he ever thought he could. He hated that it had come to such an end.
With a muffled grunt of pain, he jerked his hand back before he could touch the castle when a sliver of glass, unseen in the dimness, stabbed into the fleshy part of his thumb. Minerva had given him this lovely gift two Christmases ago. Probably, she’d been the one to destroy it, too. Who else would bother to destroy just this one item out of all his things? When faced with it again, she no doubt saw it as a symbol of affection and trust misplaced. He would have in her place. As he looked at the broken globe, he could almost picture her grasping it in her hands, sliding her fingers across its surface before suddenly flinging it down to shatter on the stones at her feet.
A sudden wave of weariness washed over him as he stood up once more, rubbing his injured thumb against the side of his dingy robes. This wasn’t a good sign. Not good at all. But he still had no choice but to try. He’d thought long and hard about this, and there simply wasn’t any other answer. He needed someone to know the truth. If he was to have any chance at all of getting out of this nightmare alive, there had to be someone who knew why he did what he did…and believed him. And if Minerva wouldn’t listen to him, who would? Lupin? Moody? Potter?
He shuddered. No. It was Minerva or no one, and Christmas was as good a time as any to try. The castle was as empty as it was ever likely to be, and hopefully, enough time had passed since Albus’s death for her to be over that initial surge of anger and grief and be at least willing to give him a chance to explain.
With a determined wave of his wand, the cold hearth burst into sudden flames. Albus had made sure that there was a dedicated floo connection between this room and the Headmaster’s quarters so that he could make his reports without fail any time of the day or night. He doubted that the connection had been disrupted since there was very little reason for it to have been known to anyone else. Not even Minerva.
According to his sources, she was now ensconced in the Headmaster’s suite, so he should be able to step into the fire, give the password and be whisked off to her sitting room in a matter of moments. Of course, it was the middle of the night…early Christmas morning actually. She’d probably be in bed, but that was all to the good. She couldn’t strike him down the moment she saw him if she was asleep when he arrived. His left hand crept into his pocket and clenched around the neck of a small bottle. He hoped she’d accept his present willingly, but willing or not, before this night was over he had to find some way to make her hear him out.
Clasping his wand tightly, he released the bottle, took a handful of powder out of his pocket and tossed it into the flames. When they roared up high and green, he stepped over the smashed crystal and into their midst, stating the password that would send him up into the Headmaster’s…no, the Headmistress’s Tower.
Minerva McGonagall pulled her wrapper closer about her throat and stared into her dying sitting room fire. It was very late. She knew she should be in bed, but sleep came so rarely before the wee hours anymore that it hardly seemed worth the trouble to turn down the covers and get in before 3 a.m. She glanced around the dim room with a sigh. The only sound beyond the crackling of the fire was the occasional snore from one of the sleeping paintings on the walls.
Even though she still didn’t feel sleepy, she was tired of sitting alone and letting her mind dwell on unpleasant memories of the past, so she downed the last of the whisky in her glass and setting it firmly on the table beside her chair, she rose to her feet and headed for the staircase that would take her up to her bedchamber. Perhaps she could find something to read.
Suddenly the fire behind her roared to new life, and as she whirled around to find out what was happening, she was amazed to see the rather shabby looking figure of Severus Snape step out of the flames to confront her.
The two of them simply stared at each other for a shocked second before, with a gasp, Minerva began to fish in her pocket for her wand, and Severus raised his arm, extending his wand to stop her.
“No, Minerva! Leave your wand where it is. I’ve just come to talk…”
She hesitated at the commanding tone of his voice and paused in the act of pulling her wand from her pocket. His wand was already aimed at her head. He hadn’t hesitated to use it to kill Albus. Surely he wouldn’t hesitate to kill her as well.
“Talk…” She finally managed to force words from her constricted throat. “What on earth do you think that we have to talk about?”
“Albus…” Severus began.
Minerva cut him off angrily. “Don’t you dare say his name to me! You, who murdered him in cold blood while he begged you not to. How could you do it? How could you kill a man who trusted you with his life, stood up for you when others wouldn’t, kept you out of prison, gave you a job…a home… And how did you repay him? With death.”
Severus took a step forward and pulled his left hand from his pocket as he moved, brandishing the small bottle while his right hand dropped perceptibly. “Yes, yes…I know how it looks, but there’s so much more to the truth of the matter. That’s why I’m here. You have to listen to me. Let me explain.”
“I don’t have to do any such thing. The explanation is obvious. You deceived us all. You never truly left the service of He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named. You’re still a Death Eater, Severus, and you murdered Albus because that monster wanted you to,” Minerva responded coldly.
“No, damned it! I mur… I killed Albus because Albus demanded it of me. He wasn’t begging for me to spare his life that night on the roof. He was begging me to end it! Don’t you see…he knew he was dying anyway. I had no choice. I didn’t want to do it, but I…”
He stopped at the incredulous look on her face and tried again. “Here. Take this. It will explain everything. Just look at it and you’ll understand.”
Opening his clenched fist, he held his left hand out to her so that she could clearly see the small glass bottle with a silvery-white substance inside. Minerva frowned; she recognized it at once, of course. She’d seen many such bottles in Albus’s hands. It held a memory but a memory of what?
When she raised her eyes back to Snape’s there was curiosity in them. “Whose memory is it, Severus, and what does it show?”
His pounding heart began to slow ever so slightly. Was she ready to listen? “It’s mine. It’s a memory of a conversation that I had with Albus. It explains everything. Please, all you have to do is put it in Albus’s pensieve and watch it. What do you have to lose?”
He held his breath as she stared back at him. Had he persuaded her?
Though she never changed the expression on her face, Minerva suddenly brought her hand, now tightly wound around the handle of her wand, up to face him, and Snape felt himself stiffen and fall backwards, a victim of a silent Full Body-Bind.
Mentally, he cursed his stupidity. Instead of trying to play nice, trying to persuade her to listen to him, he should have simply immobilized her, waved the bottle in front of her face, dumped it into the damned pensieve and then stuck her head in it. Now he was at her mercy and, right at this very moment, he didn’t have much faith that she had any mercy to show him.
As he lay there staring fixedly up at the ceiling, her face suddenly came into view, staring down at him thoughtfully. She knelt beside him, rested a hand on his chest above his heart and almost seemed to be counting its beats while she made up her mind what to do with him. The expression in her eyes was troubled, but though he expected to see it, he found no trace of hatred in those eyes…only confusion and pain.
Suddenly, she reached down and eased the glass bottle out of his stiff fingers.
“All right, Severus. I’ll look at your memory in a bottle. If I think it’s genuine, and if what it shows me warrants it, we’ll talk further. If not, I’ll simply call the Aurors and let them take care of you.”
If he could have nodded, he would have, not that he had any choice in the matter. He’d foolishly let the situation slip out of his control. It was all up to her now. Oddly enough, he found he wasn’t very worried. If anyone would weigh the evidence fairly, it would be Minerva. So, as she got to her feet and headed out of his line of sight, for the first time in months, he dared to let himself hope.
Minerva withdrew her head from the pensieve and clutched the sides of the stone dish convulsively with her hands. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut but still wasn’t able to prevent a tear from sliding down the curve of her cheek.
Oh, Albus…why? Why did you always insist on keeping everything so secret? You knew what your death would mean to all of us, but most of all to Severus. You had to know what would happen once he did what you asked…what you demanded. Why didn’t you tell anyone the truth? Why? And what on earth am I going to do now that I know?
Straightening up, she released the pensieve from her grasp and wiped her eyes and cheek firmly with her hands. No need to display such sentimentality to Severus, he’d only exploit it if he could. The situation was under her control for the moment, and that was how she wished it to remain.
Once she felt more composed, she turned and glanced over at the still figure in black that lay waiting on the rug by her fire. With a heavy sigh, she crossed the room and looked down at him. Though he was able to give no sign, she knew that he was looking back at her and desperately wondering what she was going to do next.
Deciding to put him out of his misery as quickly as possible, she bent down and picked up his wand from where it had fallen from his stiffened fingers. Then she stood up once more and, aiming her own wand at her prisoner, she released him from bondage.
Once he could move again, Severus took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. God it felt good to move and breath freely again, that horrid feeling of almost suffocation was the worst thing about that frustrating curse. Stiffly, he pushed himself up onto his elbows and stared up at her. “Well? Don’t keep me in suspense. Do we talk or am I destined to end the year in Azkaban?”
Minerva’s eyes glittered behind her spectacles and then she stuck out her hand to help him to his feet. “I wouldn’t presume to predict where you’ll be to end the year, Severus, but right now…I believe we do need to talk.”
Snape grasped her hand in his and allowed her to help him up. Once they stood side by side, he eyed his wand, which she had tightly clasped in her fist.
“Do I get my wand back?” The answer to that should tell him something.
Tightening her grip on his wand, she gestured towards one of the chairs by the fire with her free hand. “I think I’ll hang onto it for the time being. Take a seat. I find I still have a few questions.”
Conceding that he had little choice, he shrugged and complied with her request. Once he was seated and she’d taken the opposite chair, he crossed his arms over his chest to prevent himself from drumming his fingers in his nervousness and waited for her to begin her questioning.
“I got the impression from the memory that this was just one of many talks that you and Albus had about the necessity of his death and your part in it.”
“Yes, that’s very true. I can produce other memories very much like that one if you’d like a second look, but they all unfold pretty much the same way. We usually start by talking about strategy. He discusses potential scenarios for his death. I argue as to feasibility. He lectures me on the rightness of our cause and the importance of my part in it. I protest that I’m sick of the entire thing and don’t really wish to play anymore. He reminds me that I have no choice but to go through with it. I get surly. He gets overbearing and authoritative. I end up doing what he wants. They all blend together after awhile. This one just seemed to hit all the high points with a trifle less bickering than most of the others, which is why I chose it.”
She smiled faintly at the familiarity of his description. Though she obviously hadn’t been privy to any of these arguments, she’d often witnessed discussions on other subjects between Albus and Severus that had taken similar tracks.
“How exactly did Draco Malfoy fit into all this? Was he trying to kill Albus?”
Snape nodded. “Ah…Draco. Well, the short answer is yes.”
At her frown of disapproval, he sighed and continued, “However, the more complete answer requires me to start with Lucius instead of his son.
“As you know, Lucius was in charge of that ill-fated attempt to steal a prophecy from the Department of Mysteries last year. When he didn’t succeed, ending up in Azkaban was probably the kindest thing that could have happened to him. Lord Voldemort was naturally furious at his ineptitude. Since Lucius was beyond his grasp, the Dark Lord decided to kill two birds with one stone.”
Minerva sat up very straight. “He assigned Draco to kill Albus? But he’s only a boy? Surely he couldn’t have expected him to succeed?”
“No, naturally not. Voldemort did want Albus dead of course, and if by some miracle Draco succeeded, then that would be all to the good as far as he was concerned. But if the boy failed, then Lucius was punished once more by proxy.”
“Then how did it fall to you?” Minerva looked puzzled.
Snape ran a hand across his face and then settled his chin against his fist as he considered his words. “Narcissa came to me and begged for my help. She could see, even if Draco did not, that he was being set up to fail as a punishment for Lucius’ incompetence. She…persuaded me to intervene.”
How indeed? He’d always had a soft spot for Narcissa, but he certainly wasn’t going to admit that to Minerva.
“She pleaded with me to help her son. To make a long story blissfully shorter, I…took an Unbreakable Vow to assist Draco. To protect him from harm and to take over his task if he couldn’t complete it.”
“Oh, my god. You took that on willingly? Knowing that it meant you had to murder Albus?” Shock permeated Minerva’s voice and left her faintly trembling.
Snape squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “Actually…I took a gamble that didn’t pay off. I pretended to know more about Voldemort’s plans than I actually did in order to convince Narcissa and Bellatrix to speak more freely. It appeared to work. I thought I knew what Draco had been assigned to do, and it didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that I could manage it if he failed.”
“What did you think he was to do?” Minerva eyed him curiously.
Knowing that she wasn’t going to like the answer, Snape looked down and away, avoiding her glance. “The Dark Lord has always been obsessed with Potter and has seemed to be bizarrely fixated on destroying the boy personally; I believed that he’d assigned Malfoy to deliver Potter to him…alive.”
Minerva’s eyes flashed with momentary anger. “You’d have simply handed him over? Just like that? I knew that you disliked him, but really Severus, that’s unconscionable. Harry’s still a boy…one of your students!”
“I know that Minerva, and I was quite sure that Albus could figure something out. After all, if I handed Potter over alive and unharmed, it should have been quite possible to arrange a rescue,” Snape asserted vehemently. Not that he’d really cared whether Potter survived or not, but admitting that wouldn’t exactly help his cause.
Minerva looked only slightly mollified. “It would still be taking a horrible chance.”
Snape shrugged and threw up a hand in resignation. “It was all irrelevant anyway, because much to my shock and dismay, Potter wasn’t the target at all…Albus was.”
Sympathy crept back into Minerva’s expression and her voice softened, “What did you do when you found out the truth?”
“What could I do? Naturally, I told Albus. I foolishly expected him to pull some sort of last minute miracle out of his bag of tricks. After all, he’d done it so many times before, but this time his reaction shocked me. He simply accepted it and told me that I’d have to go through with it in the end. He wanted to save Draco Malfoy from himself if at all possible. Turn him back from the darkness. I told him that it was too late in that case, that Draco was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he refused to listen to me. Not for the first time, I might add.
“When I protested that I couldn’t just kill him, he told me that he was dying anyway, that the curse that had destroyed the usefulness of his hand was slowly poisoning him to death and that in the end, his death was probably what was needed to clear the way for Potter to succeed in destroying the Dark Lord. I can’t say I completely understood what he meant by that, but he did seem adamant. And from that point onward, all our plans revolved around Albus’s eventual death.”
As he spoke about the past, Snape’s face reflected his remembered anger and pain over the events of the past months, but when he finished speaking, his shoulders slumped slightly and the eyes that he raised once more to Minerva’s were empty.
“I really had no choice, Minerva. Albus knew he was dying, and he was determined to select a manner and time for his death that would serve the greater cause as well as possible. If there were some in the Dark Lord’s camp who distrusted me, what better way to allay their fears than having me publicly destroy the man they saw as their greatest enemy? If the Order was floundering, what better way to give them renewed purpose than for him to become a martyr to the cause? And if Potter needed the resolve to go on alone…it was necessary to remove his crutch in as dramatic a way as possible. I couldn’t argue with any of it. I was trapped.”
“Yes,” Minerva whispered, “I can see that.”
Silence stretched out infinitely between them until a piece of wood broke off a large log in the fire and fell to the floor of the hearth, shattering the quiet and scattering sparks into the air.
“Why didn’t Albus tell anyone the truth? If you were to continue in your role as a spy, someone needed to act as your contact. Someone needed to know.” Minerva’s voice rose as her agitation grew.
“I’m certainly not going to argue with you. Why do you think I’m here? Albus promised me that someone would be told, that I wouldn’t be left alone with no support, but it’s been months and as far as I can tell there isn’t anyone in the whole damned wizarding world who doesn’t think I’m the vilest scum on the face of the earth. If Albus was going to tell anyone the truth, it appears he waited just a bit too long.” Snape scowled bitterly.
Minerva sighed. “That’s probably exactly what happened. Albus was always one to keep his own counsel as long as possible. His death…when it actually happened…it wasn’t as you’d expected, was it?”
Snape shook his head. “No. Not really. Draco refused to tell me his plans, though I tried on several occasions to get them out of him. Unlike Potter, Draco had actually listened when he was tutored in Occlumency. I wasn’t able to pull the plans from his mind, nor was I able to persuade him to give them to me voluntarily. That confrontation on the roof took me as much by surprise as it did all of you. But it was then or never. I knew that I had to act, although I feared that I’d be sealing my own fate if I did. Still…there was no other choice.”
With a sigh, Snape stared earnestly across at this woman whose support he needed so desperately. “Which is why I’m here. You’re my last hope, Minerva. I knew that no one else would listen to me if I tried to explain what really happened. So…what’s your answer? Do you believe me? Will you try to convince the others that I’m still loyal to Albus and the Order? Or should I dig out some warmer clothes and prepare for a trip further north?”
The temptation was strong to try to pull the answer from her mind, to possibly influence it, but he forced himself to simply wait. If it was going to matter at all, the decision had to truly be hers.
Minerva rose from her chair and walked over to stare down into the fire while Severus simply sat still and watched.
Finally, she turned back to him and nodded. “I believe you, Severus, and I will take this information to the Order and try to persuade the others to believe in you as well. I can’t really promise that they will, but I will do my very best to convince them. You have my word.”
A huge wave of relief swept through him and Severus got to his feet and walked over to stand next to her. “Thank you, Minerva. That’s all I could ever ask. If anyone can convince them, it’s you.”
Inwardly pleased at the faith he showed in her, she smiled sympathetically and held out his wand. “I imagine that you’re going to need this back.”
Grasping his wand with a nod of thanks, he slid the warm polished wood through his fingers and replied softly, “Yes, even with your help and support, I’m very much afraid that I will.”