There were cauldrons everywhere, dozens of them, steaming and bubbling and spitting foul odors into the dank dungeon air. Half-melted Death Eater masks floated on their surfaces; a serpent-head cane protruded from one like a giant’s swizzle stick, one manicured white hand still attached. Harry’s stomach twisted at the sight.
He’d always fancied that cane.
Harry and his friends moved on. The tunnel grew steadily wider and brighter, and a final turn found them standing in the arched entryway of a vast stone chamber. The room was circular, the ceiling nearly sixty feet high; there were no sconces, but the stone walls seemed to pulse with their own soft pink light. There were still more cauldrons in here, and more Death Eaters, all of whom had apparently been stewed, boiled, broiled, baked, poached, grilled or fried. Here and there, Harry saw the remains of someone he recognized: Bellatrix Lestrange’s head had been immortalized amongst pineapple chunks and sliced bananas in an enormous orange Jell-O mold, and what was left of Peter Pettigrew lay half-eaten in a corner, on the largest slice of toast Harry had ever seen.
It was like the set of some ghastly cooking show. Live from Hell.
“My God,” Hermione breathed. “This is like the set of some ghastly cooking show live from Hell.”
“Horrible,” Luna agreed. “Pink light, ewww.”
They entered the chamber, all of them blinking like owls as their eyes adjusted to the increasing brightness. Suddenly, Hermione seized Harry’s sleeve and pointed. “Harry, look!”
Harry looked. A large portrait of a young man and a young woman hung on the far wall. With a start, Harry realized it was a picture of his parents on their wedding day. It was a Muggle portrait, though it appeared some charms had been cast upon it: a fall of enchanted rose petals cascaded softly over the Lily side of the portrait, while DIE POTTER DIE flashed in Slytherin-green neon across James Potter’s face.
And, in the center of the room, looking as greasy and dark and sinister as ever in his black Death Eater robes and starched white Kiss the Cook apron, stood Severus Snape. He didn’t look up as they entered; he was bent over a skillet the size of a child’s wading pool, poking fretfully at the scaly, snake-faced mass sizzling within.
Severus Snape. After all this time. In the flesh.
Stir-frying the Dark Lord.
All the words Harry had planned for this moment, all the accusations and insults and curses he’d rehearsed again and again and again, fled from his mind, chased by the one question that suddenly needed desperately to be asked.
“Why are you cooking the Dark Lord in a skillet the size of a child’s wading pool?”
If Snape was startled, he gave no sign. He straightened from the skillet and fixed Harry with a contemptuous look.
“I see your powers of deduction have not improved overmuch since last we met, Mr. Potter,” he sneered. “But even a simple-minded little cretin such as you should be able to determine that the logistics of cooking a six-foot human in a twelve-inch implement would be prohibitive at best.”
Ron looked at Hermione. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Duh, Harry, my T-Fal was too small.’ Now hush.”
A familiar voice spoke up, seeming to emanate from the empty space behind Snape. “If I’m not mistaken, Severus, Harry was inquiring as to your motivation, not your methods.”
Harry’s jaw dropped; Hermione gave a startled gasp, and Neville tottered on his feet. Luna yawned and looked at her watch.
“Professor!” Hermione cried happily.
“Headmaster!” Harry cried joyously.
“Transparent old bloke!” Ron cried cluelessly.
The ghost of Albus Dumbledore had materialized at Snape’s side.
“Professor, I—I don’t understand,” Harry said, when at last he had recovered himself and revived Neville and stopped Hermione from whacking Ron with a rolled-up newspaper. “What are you doing here?”
“Yes, Headmaster,” Snape said, “what are you doing here? You know how I despise anyone around me when I’m working.”
“I’m sorry, Severus, but I couldn’t resist. We are so near to the end of our task at last, the end of this terrible war…I did so want to be here, if only in spirit.” He smiled at Harry and his friends. “And I have missed the children terribly.”
“Fine, but I’ll thank you to stay out of my way,” Snape grumbled. “I’m almost finished, and I’ll not have you hovering about, annoying me with your ignorant commentary. ‘Too much paprika, Severus.’ ‘Not enough dill, Severus.’ ‘The correct internal roasting temperature for a man Macnair’s size is 160 degrees, Severus, not 180.’” He glared. “You were an inestimable headmaster and a noble soldier, Dumbledore, but you don’t know your arse from your elbow about cooking.”
Dumbledore chuckled. “I have been a nuisance, haven’t I? But I enjoy your company, Severus. It’s so comforting and familiar. You know, my boy, you haven’t changed one bit. You’re still as prickly and sardonic as you were the night you cursed me.”
Harry cleared his throat. “Er…yeah…about that, sir…”
“Well, sir…I…I don’t…”
“I…I don’t understand…”
“What don’t you understand, Harry?”
“Any of this!” Harry exploded. “Why are you acting all matey with Snape when he’s the one who killed you in the first place, and why are there bits of cooked Death Eater all over this dungeon, and why are there giants lined up outside behind a big velvet rope, and why is Hagrid wearing a tux and taking reservations, and why is he”—he pointed at Snape—“stir-frying Lord Voldemort when he’s supposed to be a Death Eater?!”
But it was Snape, not Dumbledore, who answered.
“Once again, you flaunt your woeful ignorance, Potter,” he sneered. “Even a pathetic little waste of minor magical talent such as you should be able to determine that the flame beneath this pan is not nearly of sufficient height to induce the quick, searing heat required for the ancient art of Asian stir-fry, but is in fact eminently more suited to a slower, more delicate method of culinary preparation.”
Ron looked at Hermione. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Don’t be stupid, Harry, I’m not stir-frying, I’m sautéing.’ Now be quiet.”
Harry went quite red in the face.
“WHO GIVES A SHIT WHAT HE’S DOING?” he roared. He turned on Snape furiously. “I don’t care if you’re stir-frying him, or sautéing him, or bloody well caramelizing the scaly old fuck, I just want to know what the hell is going on! Why are you killing Voldemort when I know in my heart you’re nothing but a lying, murdering, cowardly piece of traitorous Death Eater scum?”
“And yet again, you parade your pathetically puny intellect for all and sundry, Mr. Potter,” Snape sneered. “It should be abundantly clear even to a gastronomically-challenged little barbarian such as you that I’ve used far too much butter to properly caramelize an onion, let alone a full-grown evil overlord.”
“You really do keep missing the point, don’t you?” Harry asked him.
Dumbledore spoke up. “Perhaps I can answer some of your questions, Harry. I suppose I should start with the Astronomy Tower, and what you believe you saw that night. It—”
“I know what I saw!” Harry said hotly. “I saw that psycho freak kill you!”
“No, Harry,” Dumbledore countered. “You thought you saw that psycho freak—I mean, Severus—kill me. What you actually saw was Severus pointing his wand at me, speaking a Killing Curse, and blasting me clear off the tower to crash in a bloody, broken heap at the bottom.”
Harry blinked. “Oh. Well. Don’t I feel stupid.”
“You get used to it,” Ron told him.
Hermione flicked him briskly on the nose.
Dumbledore chuckled again. “Harry, what I’m trying to say is that you did not see what you think you saw.”
“OhMyGod!” Hermione slapped her forehead, mouth dropping open in astonishment. “What he’s trying to say is that it wasn’t murder!” She turned to Dumbledore. “Was it, sir?”
He winked. “What do you think, Miss Granger?”
Neville winced; Harry groaned; Ron slapped his own forehead. “You just had to ask her that, didn’t you?” he muttered.
“Well, sir, I think that when Professor Snape cursed you that night, he was just following your orders. I think the two of you had it all worked out beforehand. I think it was your fallback plan in the event that Draco succeeded in his attempt to get close enough to kill you. I think you knew about the Unbreakable Vow that Professor Snape had made to Narcissa Malfoy to protect Draco at all costs, and you knew your death at his hands was the only way to keep Snape alive. I think that must be what Hagrid overheard the two of you arguing about that night in the Forest. I think that’s what you were talking about when Professor Snape said he didn’t want to do ‘it’ anymore, and you said he had to do ‘it’ because he had promised. I think you not only accepted your death as the only way to save Snape and prevent Draco from destroying his soul, but that you embraced it as an opportunity to make Voldemort trust Professor Snape completely, thus revealing to him vital clues as to the locations of the remaining Horcruxes.” She whooped in a huge breath and looked from Dumbledore to Snape to Dumbledore again, her eyes alight with a wild, almost fan-girlish awe. “And I think you’re both absolutely brilliant and noble and selfless and unspeakably brave to make such a sacrifice for the Order, and thank God this isn’t a fanfic, or I’d be willing to let both of you do lusty guy-things to my nubile teenager’s body just to show my gratitude!”
“Why let that stop you?” Snape leered, fingering his paprika in a most unteacherly manner.
Dumbledore cleared his throat.
“Well, just because you can’t doesn’t mean I shouldn’t—”
“That will do, Severus. And kindly stop fondling your paprika. There are ladies present.”
Harry left off glaring at Snape and his spices to turn incredulous eyes on Hermione. “Hermione, have you lost your mind? You can’t actually believe a crazy theory like that!”
“It isn’t a theory, Harry,” Hermione sniffed. “It’s the truth.”
“It’s insane!” He turned to his other friends for support. “Ron, Neville, Luna – help me here! Tell her how crazy it is!”
“It is a bit, er…out there,” Neville offered hesitantly.
“Bloody mental,” agreed Ron.
“Makes perfect sense to me,” Luna said.
“Thanks, Luna,” Harry sighed. “I knew I could count on you.”
Hermione put her hands on her hips and jerked her head at Snape and Dumbledore. “Well, if you don’t believe me, why don’t you ask them?”
Harry looked at her. He looked at Snape, who was sneering again for no good reason Harry could see, and at Dumbledore, who was smiling and nodding and twinkling like a bloody Christmas tree — and his heart sank. It was the truth, then; the twinkling old nutter was all but confirming it. Snape was not a Death Eater. Snape was not a traitor. Snape was not a murderer. Snape was innocent.
You just couldn’t count on that greasy bastard for anything.
Still, Harry had to try.
“But, sir…he …he used Avada Kedavra! He used the Killing Curse, and you have to really want someone dead to make a killing curse work, don’t you?”
“No, Harry. Actually, you just have to be extremely cranky.”
Harry tried again. “But…you begged him…when you begged him not to kill you, he just ignored you!”
“No, Harry. Actually, he did exactly as I asked. You see, my boy, when Severus approached me that night, I saw at once that his resolve was faltering, and I simply couldn’t let that happen. I had to reassure him that this was truly what I wanted, what I needed him to do, and so I begged of him the unspeakable, the unthinkable, the unfathomable: I begged him to kill me.”
“Oh, you bloody old liar, you!” Snape exclaimed. “You begged me to Incendio all those back issues of Playwizard you had stuffed in your desk drawer before McGonagall saw them, that’s what you begged me to do!”
Dumbledore’s ghost flushed a deep silver. “I’ll remember that, Severus,” he muttered, sotto voce.
Harry was getting desperate.
“But…but…what about that look on his face? You must have seen it! A right nasty look, all twisty and snarly and sneery—oh, hang on, he always looks like that.”
Dumbledore spread his hands. “You see?”
“But…” Harry set his jaw. “But this look was worse than his usual look! I saw hate in his face, hate and disgust! He was looking at you the way you’d look at a maggot in your treacle pudding! The way you’d look at a great stinking wad of dog poop on your shoe! The way Hermione looked at Ron the first time she saw him naked, except that Snape didn’t point and burst into peals of hysterical laughter! I’m telling you, Professor, there was real disgust there!”
“Yes, I’m sure there was.” Dumbledore turned to Snape and gave him a forgiving little twinkle; Snape sneered affectionately back. “Severus was disgusted with what he had to do, revolted by it, repulsed by it. You must understand, Harry, that Severus did not want to kill me, in spite of my wishes, in spite of the fact that I had ordered him to do so. He did not wish to obey those orders, any more than you wished to obey when we were in the Inferi cave. You forced me to drink the Horcrux potion in the cave because I had demanded that you do so, yes, but you hated yourself for doing it; you were revolted by it. Severus felt much the same right before he cursed me. What you saw in his expression was hatred not for me, but for the task at hand.”
“Actually, it was indigestion,” Snape said.
“Perhaps you ate someone who didn’t agree with you,” Luna said, reasonably enough.
“Perhaps,” Snape conceded. “I do recall having some rather underdone house-elf earlier in the day.”
“Well, there you are, then. Still, they are very high in protein.”
“Yes. And with almost no trans-fat to speak of, they’re—”
Dumbledore silenced him with a rather stern twinkle.
“It is, of course, entirely my fault,” he continued, not without some pride. “You see, Harry, I asked Severus to do something so contrary to his personal beliefs, so loathsome to his higher sensibilities, so morally repugnant to him in every single possible way, that he resisted to the bitter end. It was only when I made it clear to him that it was truly the one certain means of defeating Lord Voldemort that he acquiesced.”
Snape rolled his eyes. “And when you threatened to publish those pictures of me in the Prophet.”
“Yes. And that.”
Harry clenched his fists. “I still don’t understand,” he said at last. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Snape shrugged. “I was young. I needed the money.”
Harry felt a migraine coming on.
“I was talking to Dumbledore,” he managed through clenched teeth. “Why would Dumbledore believe he could help the Order more dead than alive?”
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Hermione thrust her hand in the air, jumping up and down and squealing. “Oh, Headmaster, please! Please, may I answer Harry’s question?”
“NO!” Harry, Ron, Neville, and Snape shouted in desperate unison, but Dumbledore ignored them, twinkling at Hermione like a fairy on crystal meth.
“Do tell, child.”
“I think you were already dying. I think the effects of the Horcrux ring you destroyed not only injured your hand, but they were slowly killing you as well. I think, without Professor Snape’s intervention at the time—and, I expect, regular doses of Cursus!Reversus! Potion later on—you would have died long before that night on the Tower. I think that’s why you were in such a hurry to teach Harry about Voldemort’s history and the Horcruxes - you knew you hadn’t much time to live.”
“Well, now, that is very clever, Hermione, and quite plausible, but—”
“And that’s why you went to the Dursleys to fetch Harry personally and settle his affairs with them! You knew you wouldn’t be around to do it when Harry turned seventeen!”
“Yes, yes, my dear, I can see where you might think that, but—”
“And that’s why you finally relented and gave Professor Snape the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, even though you knew it was cursed! You knew Snape would have to flee Hogwarts at the end of the year – as a fugitive for your murder!”
“Miss Granger, perhaps if I could explain a few—”
“Oh, it all makes sense now!” Hermione gushed. “You knew you were dying, and you could accept that, but you needed to stay alive long enough to show Harry what he needed to know about Voldemort. It was only when Narcissa went to Professor Snape to plead for Draco’s life that you realized you might be able to help the Order more dead than alive.” She frowned. “The only thing I don’t understand is how Narcissa trapped you, Professor Snape, into making an Unbreakable Vow in the first place. She hardly seems clever enough.”
“I beg your pardon,” Snape said coldly. “She did not trap me, Miss Granger. I trapped myself. I underestimated the depth of her fear and desperation. I never dreamed she would have the audacity to ask for the Vow, and certainly never imagined she would ask me to murder Dumbledore in Draco’s stead.”
“Exactly,” Hermione nodded. “Which is how she trapped you.”
“Yes, I—no! Damn you! I told you, she was…she was desperate. She asked me to watch over Draco in his task and protect him, and I agreed. Then she asked for the Vow. Well, I couldn’t very well say ‘no’ in front of Bellatrix, could I? The woman’s always despised me. And then, before I knew it, we were on our knees and holding hands and Narcissa was asking me to kill the Headmaster if Draco could not, and I had no choice but to agree. I was—I was—”
“STOP SAYING THAT!” Snape roared. “THERE IS NO CONCEIVABLE WAY SOME STUPID WOMAN COULD EVER TRAP SEVERUS SNAPE INTO ANYTHING!”
“Well, I’m sorry, sir, but it certainly appears—” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you mean – ‘some stupid woman’?”
Ho, boy, Harry thought.
“So. Women are stupid, is that it, Professor?”
Snape seemed taken aback. “No…no, I never said that.”
“Old Narcissa couldn’t possibly have outsmarted you, could she, just because she’s a lowly female?”
Snape bared his teeth at her. “I never said—”
“And I suppose you’re all brilliant and superior and far, far cleverer than any stupid woman could ever hope to be, eh, Mr. Ha-Ha-I-Have-A-Penis-And-You-Don’t?”
“Losing the thread, ’Mione,” Harry said desperately.
“I beg your pardon?” Hermione turned on him with a shriek.
Harry cringed away from her. “Your theory?” he prodded.
“My what? My—? Oh. Oh, yes. That. Right. Well, anyway, when Narcissa utterly outwitted Professor-I-Have-Boy-Bits-Aren’t-I-Wonderful here and completely tricked him into taking an Unbreakable Vow, Professor Dumbledore saw his chance. He knew it was an opportunity to make his death count for something. He knew that if Lord Voldemort believed Snape had killed him, it would cement Snape’s position as the Dark Lord’s most trusted advisor—even if he is a narrow-minded, woman-hating, sexist scuzzball wanker—”
“—and put him in a perfect position to get critical information about the locations of the remaining Horcruxes, which he could then secretly pass on to you.” She took a deep breath and glared at Snape. “Isn’t that about the sum of it, Mr. If-You-Have-Tits-You-Must-Be-An-Imbecile?”
He glared right back. “What happened to ‘I’d be willing to let you do guy-things to my nubile teenager’s body’?”
“In your dreams, brew-boy.”
Harry sighed. He looked at Snape. He looked at Hermione. He looked at Dumbledore. He even looked at Ron, though he knew that was a lost cause, as Ron was picking his nose and staring dreamily at Hermione’s arse.
“But why?” he asked again.
Hermione pointed to the portrait of Harry’s parents once more; Harry followed her gaze. It appeared the enchantments Snape had placed upon it were still in order: James was now cross-eyed, and Lily’s wedding dress had become a T-shirt that read I’m With Stupid. “Harry, isn’t it obvious? Professor Snape was in love with your mother!”
Harry felt his stomach turn over, as though he had eaten too much treacle tart, or a spot of underdone house-elf. “What…what did you say?”
“Professor Snape was in love with your mother,” she repeated. “And I think you have to accept the possibility that she might…she might have loved him as well. Oh, not more than she loved your dad,” she hastened to add, seeing the thunderous look on Harry’s face, “and perhaps not in the same way, but…yes, I think there must have been some sort of special bond between them.”
“No,” Harry said. “No, no, no.”
“Yes, Harry. Yes.”
He shook his head frantically.
“Harry, think. Can you honestly imagine a bitter, angry, self-absorbed bastard like Severus Snape going through all of this – defying the Dark Lord, spying for the Order, killing his mentor and only friend - for someone who had done nothing to earn his love?”
“Not to mention the countless hours slaving over a hot cauldron,” Snape grumbled, “while certain other people got to sit on their wrinkled old arses all day, eating sweets and twinkling.”
Dumbledore twinkled sheepishly.
“But how could it be?” Harry wailed. “What could my mother have ever seen in …in … him?”
Hermione shrugged. “Perhaps they bonded over their mutual love of potions. Perhaps they were both in the Slug Club, or perhaps it was their shared Muggle backgrounds that drew them together. But whatever it was, I think they were friends. And I think Snape saw your mother as more than a friend. She was a companion; she was a confidante; she was a loving, nurturing presence in a lonely, motherless boy’s life—”
“She was a sexual acrobat,” Snape said, “who could suck the ugly off a troll from fifty yards.”
Harry looked pained. “I so did not need to know that.”
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter!” Hermione said impatiently. “The point is, he loved her and she loved him. But Snape ruined it. His growing involvement in the Dark Arts was too much for her. It frightened her. She loved him, but she hated his anger, his bitterness, his need for revenge, his insatiable lust for power and position and acceptance, his—”
“Car,” Snape said.
“My car,” he clarified. “She hated my car.”
Hermione blinked at him. “Your car.”
“You thought a shampoo was some kind of small, exotic dog, you were inventing spells that rip huge bleeding slashes in people, you were about to join a terrorist organization and let a genocidal megalomaniac brand his will in your flesh—and you think Harry’s mum dumped you because… of… your…car.”
“I don’t know, ’Mione,” Ron said. “Girls can be awfully funny about things like that.”
“So let me get this straight, Snape,” Harry said, after he’d recovered himself and shaken Luna awake and stopped Hermione from banging Ron’s head on the floor. “You’re still loyal to Dumbledore.”
“And to the Order.”
“So Dumbledore was right about you being sorry you gave Voldemort the prophecy!”
“So you’ve been secretly helping me all along.”
“So it was you sending me all those clues about the Horcruxes and where to find them!”
“And it was you Aunt Petunia overheard telling my mum about Azkaban and the Dementors!”
“And it was you Mum meant when she wrote in her diary, ‘I guess he’s kind of cute in an Edward Scissorhands sort of way’!”
“Yes—Hang on! What did she—?”
“And it was you who wrote ‘Sevvie-kins Loves Lily-poo’ all over your old Potions book!”
“And that means that you and my mum were…were…”
“Yes! Yes! Say it!” Snape shrieked, looking quite suddenly mad with gleeful angst. “She was my GIRLFRIEND!”
A horrible silence fell. Hermione preened. Neville and Ron gaped at each other. Dumbledore picked imaginary ghost-lint off his robes. Luna sampled some of the nearest Death Eater and found him quite tasty, if a bit tough. And Snape and Harry stared at each other.
Finally, Harry ran a hand through his hair and pointed to the giant skillet. “Is he really dead?”
“That depends. Is he fork-tender and lightly browned around the edges?”
“Er, well…I can’t really tell from here, but he looks like he’s sort of golden…” Harry caught himself. “HOW THE HELL WOULD I KNOW?”
Snape glanced at the skillet and waved a languorous hand at Neville. “Turn him off, boy. He’s done.”
It was Luna who did it.
More silence fell, broken only by the sounds of Luna chewing. Finally, Harry cleared his throat. “Well, I…I guess that’s that, then. And…er…we can go now, right?”
Outrage colored Snape’s face.
“Once again, you demonstrate your remarkably over-inflated sense of self-importance and your usual callous disregard for the sacrifices of others, Mr. Potter,” he sneered. “But even a puffed-up piece of pampered babyshit such as you should be able to manage a modicum of humility and gratitude in the face of what has clearly been a gross misperception of my character.”
Ron looked at Hermione. “What did he say?”
“I have no clue.”
“I said, ‘You’re an ungrateful little arsehole, Harry Potter, and you’ve been wrong about me since day one,’” Snape growled. “Now, Weasley, go stick your head in that cauldron.”
“I’ve been wrong about you?” Harry gasped, yanking Ron back just as his nose touched the bubbling surface. “What about how you’ve treated me? You landed on me with both feet the second I stepped into your bloody classroom! You’ve insulted me, publicly humiliated me, tampered with my potions, threatened me with Veritaserum, thrown me bodily across your office, chucked jars of cockroaches at my head, and tried to get me expelled every chance you got! I suppose none of that counts?”
“You deserved it!” Snape shouted. “You’ve never appreciated a single thing I’ve done for you! I saved your life and nearly got my leg ripped off in the process! I risked exposure to the Dark Lord warning your idiot godfather and sending the Order to the Ministry! I was nearly molested by an over-amorous giant searching the bloody forest for you, I’ve risked my neck again and again acting as a double agent since before you could talk, and what’s the thanks I get? ‘And…er…we can go now, right?’”
Harry looked a bit nonplussed. “Er – well, I – I—”
But Snape was just getting wound up.
“Oh, it’s all too easy for you, isn’t it, to sit in your comfy little throne high atop Gryffindor Tower and ignore the efforts of your betters? But I was the one who had to spend the last year as a fugitive from the Ministry and the Order! I was the one who had to pose as a Death Eater! I was the one who had to bow and scrape before a man I despised and wallow in the filth and devastation I had fought so hard to escape! I was the one who had to endure all of the hideous Muggle-tortures and murders and disco theme-parties and bake sales—gods, did I hate those infernal bake sales! I was the one who had to wear the leopard thong and the chocolate sprinkles and play ‘Redneck and the Naughty Stripper’ with the Dark Lord until I thought I’d—” He stopped. “Er—perhaps I’ve said too much.”
“Perhaps?” Harry shuddered. Ron, Hermione and Neville exchanged horrified looks. Luna picked a bit of Voldemort out of her teeth.
“But the point is, Potter, I have endured unspeakable torments on your behalf for almost two decades, and, with the exception of Albus Dumbledore, I have yet to hear so much as a ‘ta very much’ from anyone, least of all you!”
Harry thought about it. He supposed, if you looked at it from Snape’s point of view — and if you ignored the fact that he’d once been a murderous terrorist minion hell-bent on world domination — Snape did have something of an argument for feeling unappreciated. He had risked his life to defeat the Dark Lord. And he had saved Harry’s own neck any number of times — enough times, at least, for Harry to feel slightly guilty about the agonizing, gore-spattered, Technicolor death he had been wishing on the man since time out of mind.
Harry heaved a tremendous sigh. He looked at Snape. He looked at Dumbledore. Then he sighed again and looked back at Snape.
“All right, then,” he said. “I’ll say it for all of us. Thank you, Professor Snape.”
Snape was clearly startled. “Um—”
“And I’m sorry for wishing you an agonizing gore-spattered Technicolor death.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“But I do have just one more question.”
Snape raised an eyebrow.
Harry glanced at the picture of his parents again. At James, who was now sporting a faceful of boils, and at Lily, whose T-shirt now read I’d Rather Be Marrying Severus Snape. “If you loved my mother so bloody much, why have you been such a bastard to me all these years?”
Snape raised the other eyebrow.
“I mean,” Harry hastened on, “I reckon I understand some of it. You hated my father, and she ended up with him, and I look like him—”
Snape spread his hands. Well, there you have it.
“—but that can’t be all of it.”
“Of course it can,” Snape said hastily. “Now, then, off you g—”
“No, it can’t. You’ve been way too nasty for it to be just that. You’ve been a right royal prick to me, Snape, since the day we met.”
Snape stiffened. “I believe ‘prick’ might be overstating the case somewhat, Mr. Potter.”
“Not hardly! Ask anyone, they’ll tell you.” He turned to the others. “Hasn’t he been a complete arsehole to me?”
“Total shithead,” Ron nodded.
“Horrid bitch,” Hermione agreed.
“Vindictive twat,” Neville concurred. “Er — no offense,” he added nervously.
Snape looked down at his shoes. “All right, so I’ve been a bit…unkind to you on occasion. So what of it?”
“So I want to know why!” Harry shouted.
“You already know why!” Snape shouted back. “You said it yourself! You look just like your wretched father, and I did despise him. And why not? He pranked me! He bullied me! He stole the best piece of arse—”
“The love of your life,” corrected Hermione in a fierce whisper.
“—I ever had and married her and completely took her away from me! I wasn’t allowed to see her or talk to her, I wasn’t invited to the wedding…why, he and Lily didn’t even drop me a thank-you note for the Cuisinart I sent them!”
Dumbledore sighed. “It was hexed, Severus.”
“That’s a filthy lie.”
“It would only prepare poisoned food.”
“Coincidence,” Snape said firmly.
“And it tried to eat baby Harry.”
“Well, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?”
Harry glared at him. “I’m starting to picture you hung up by your own entrails again,” he warned.
“Bah! I’ve had worse.”
Hermione stepped between them, shaking her head in disgust.
“Oh, honestly! Of all the patent rubbish! Pranks and weddings and cursed kitchen appliances — it’s none of it the real reason for your animosity toward Harry, Professor, is it?”
Snape looked down at his shoes again. “Don’t-know-what-yer-on-about,” he mumbled.
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“NO!” shouted Harry, Ron, Neville, Snape, Dumbledore, and several of the deceased Death Eaters, again in desperate unison.
“I think you blame Harry for his mother’s death. I think the reason Voldemort gave Lily a chance to step aside was because of you. I think you somehow convinced him that Lily might be useful to him. Perhaps you told him of her talent with potions and charms. Or you told him she was smart and ambitious and could be persuaded to the dark side once James was out of the way. Or—”
“Or perhaps I told him she was a righteous smokin’ superfreak,” Snape said, “who could save us a fortune in group-rate prostitutes.”
“There you go again!” Harry snarled. “Will you please stop saying disgusting things about—” He stopped. Blinked. Snickered. “‘Righteous smokin’ superfreak’?”
“It was 1981, Potter. We all talked like that.”
“Whatever you told him,” Hermione growled, determined to recapture the spotlight, “it convinced him to spare her. He didn’t intend to kill her that night. But when he went after Harry, Lily stepped in front of him and took the curse instead. She died for Harry, even though she had a chance to live - and you’ve never forgiven him for it.”
Harry looked utterly bewildered.
“But that’s…that’s mental!” he protested. “How the hell is that my fault? I was just a little kid. Voldemort’s the one who killed her. Wormtail’s the one who betrayed her. And Snape’s the one who told Voldemort about the prophecy! If it’s anyone’s fault she’s dead, it’s his!”
Hermione sighed. “Harry, that’s the whole point,” she said, with a wary look at Snape, who had collapsed in a flurry of furious and rather fake-sounding sobs. “Professor Snape knows the role he played in your mum’s death, and he’s never forgiven himself, either — but that’s why he takes it out on you! Blaming you, projecting all his negative feelings, projecting all his guilt and shame and sorrow on you, was the only way he could live with what he had done.”
“I still say it’s mental.”
“No, it’s actually quite common. There’s even a proper name for it. Muggle psychologists call it—”
“Projection?” Ron tried.
Hermione beamed at him. “Good boy!” she exclaimed. “Here, have a biscuit.”
Harry walked over to Snape, still pretending to snivel on the dungeon floor, and nudged him with one foot. “Is that true, you? Did you really treat me like shit all these years just because you felt guilty about what you’d done?”
Snape jumped to his feet. “Sure. Okay. Whatever.”
Harry mulled it over. Twisted as it was, he supposed he could understand such reasoning, perhaps even empathize with it; he had, after all, reacted in much the same way after Sirius’s death. “All right, then. I guess…I guess I can forgive you.”
“I’ll try not to wet myself.”
Neville stepped forward and looked at Snape hesitantly, hopefully. “Is that why you’ve been so cruel to me as well, sir? Because you feel guilty about what your friends did to my parents? Because I remind you of all the evil you saw and did as a Death Eater? Because I make you relive your remorse and pain and horror every single time you look at me?”
“No. You just annoy the shit out of me.”
Dumbledore moved to comfort him. “Now, now, dear boy, don’t be glum!” he said. “This is a most joyous occasion! The war is over. Lord Voldemort is no more. We should be celebrating! In fact, I think my first order of business when we get out of here will be to throw a gala feast the likes of which Hogwarts has never seen!” He turned to Snape. “I don’t suppose you could be persuaded to make some of those lovely mash brownies of yours, Severus?”
“’Hash’ brownies, Headmaster. And, no. I still recall what happened the last time.”
“Yes,” Dumbledore said dreamily. “Me, too.”
Hermione spoke up, a diffident, rather confused look on her face. “Er, sir? I think…I think you’re forgetting something.”
“Well, yes, sir. I don’t think Professor Snape is going to be in any position to prepare chocolaty comestibles, with or without illicit substances added for your hallucinatory pleasure, given the exceedingly dire and problematical nature of the legal allegations still pending against him.”
Dumbledore looked at Snape. “What did she say?”
“Fucked if I know.”
“I said, ‘I don’t think Snape’s going to be doing any baking unless it’s in Azkaban, seeing as how he’s still wanted for your murder!’”
“Oh, that.” Dumbledore chuckled. “Yes. Well. I wouldn’t fret overmuch about that, Hermione. I don’t expect those charges will carry much weight once I put in a personal appearance with Minister Scrimgoeur.”
“But, sir,” she persisted, “they’re called ‘Unforgivables’ for a reason. Even knowing that Professor Snape was acting under your orders isn’t going to change the Minister’s mind. Snape used a Killing Curse, and—”
“Oh, you’d be surprised at how easily I might change his mind. I daresay amazed, even.”
“Oh, Merlin’s balls, Dumbledore!” Snape snarled. “Will you please stop toying with the little bint and simply tell her the truth?” Without waiting for a response, he turned to Hermione and the others. “He’s not dead, all right? It was all a ruse for the Dark Lord’s benefit, so you can stop with all the babbling and blathering and ‘but, sirs’ and leave.”
Four astonished teenaged faces stared back at him, mouths agape; even Luna looked up briefly from her rather delicious Wormtail-on-toast.
“Well, now you’ve done it, Severus,” Dumbledore chuckled. “You’ve gone and spoiled all my fun.” He withdrew a ghostly wand from his ghostly robes and waved it in the air, becoming solid and corporeal and eye-wateringly twinkly right before their eyes.
“But…but…but…how?” Neville managed to gasp.
Ron spoke up. “Do you want to know what I think?”
Three of the astonished faces swung his way. Luna stifled a burp with the back of her hand.
“I don’t know, Ron,” Hermione said cautiously. “Do we?”
“I think Snape only pretended to kill Dumbledore. I think Snape spoke the Avada Kedavra spell, but cast another, different spell non-verbally—oh, maybe something like Levicorpus—that would make it look like Dumbledore had fallen from the tower. I think after Dumbledore fell about half-way, Snape suspended him in mid-air, transfigured him into a Fawkes-like phoenix which then flew away, and conjured a fake Dumbledore corpse for Harry to find on the ground below.”
Hermione pounced on him and began snogging him passionately.
“But what about the Vow?” Harry asked Dumbledore, with a wary look at Hermione and Ron, who were rolling about on the floor like two kneazles in heat. “If Snape broke his Vow to Narcissa Malfoy, why isn’t he dead?”
“Actually, Harry, the idea that breaking an Unbreakable Vow results in death is something of an urban legend. In reality, it only causes slight constipation.”
“‘Slight?” Snape squeaked. “I’ve been living on U-No-Poo for the past year, you ungrateful old loon!”
“Delighted to hear it, Severus! I’m sure the young Messrs. Weasley can use the business.”
Snape sighed. “I really should have killed you when I had the chance.”
“As if you could have,” Dumbledore said fondly. “You’re all talk and we both know it, Severus. Deep down, you loved me far too much to kill me.”
“And you still have those pictures of me locked in your vault, ready to go to press upon your demise.”
“Yes. And that.” He clapped Snape on the back. “And now, I suggest we all depart this foul place post-haste. We’ll just open up the tunnels and let our guests have at the—”
“Evidence,” Snape mumbled.
“—leftovers, make a quick stop at the Ministry to explain all this Horcrux/cannibalism/first-degree murder/back-from-the-dead business, and then it’s off to Hogwarts for the celebration! And what a glorious celebration it promises to be! We’ll have cakes and puddings and treacle tarts! We’ll have a treasure hunt with real galleons! We’ll have music and dancing and song! We’ll have karaoke!”
“Oh, bloody hell!”
“Severus! I thought you loved karaoke. Why, your version of ‘Do The Time Warp’ is still the stuff of staff-room legend.”
Snape almost smiled. “I was rather good, wasn’t I?”
“And best of all, Severus, when it’s all over, you and I shall resume our rightful places on the staff of the finest wizarding academy in the world!” He wrapped an arm around Snape’s shoulders. “Just think of it, dear boy! Why, with you teaching Potions again—”
“To dunderheads, in a dungeon.”
“—and me running the school—”
“Into the ground.”
“—it will be just like old times. Well, except for the part wherein you have to be a human Ping-Pong ball bounced between a sugar-crazed old poofter and an evil psychopath who would castrate you with a rusty hacksaw if he ever discovered your deception.”
Snape winced. “Can I have Fawkes, at least?”
Dumbledore looked puzzled. “I don’t recall you ever expressing any interest in Fawkes before — and what’s that book you’ve got there?”
“Book? What book? I have no book,” Snape stammered, hastily shoving 101 Ways To Cook Phoenix behind his back.
Dumbledore twinkled. “Well, I suppose we can discuss it later,” he said. “In the meantime, will an Order of Merlin and a twenty-percent raise do?”
“It’s a start.”
“Wonderful! Then it’s off we go. Oh, I can hardly wait! It will be such a lovely party! We’ll have cookies and crème brulee and Death-By-Chocolate! The wizarding kind, the kind that can really kill you! And we’ll have balloons and streamers and funny hats and jugglers and sex toys and the best group-rate prostitutes money can buy! And we’ll have…”
His voice trailed away as he shepherded Harry, Ron, Neville and Luna from the chamber.
Hermione lingered behind as Snape destroyed evidence tidied up. She wandered over to the skillet where Lord Voldemort lay in all his buttery, half-eaten glory and gave him a desultory poke. She seemed to be bursting to say something.
Finally, Snape could stand it no longer.
“Well?” he demanded.
She smiled. “You do know, of course, that Draco is your son.”
“Oh, shut up.”