Chapter 12: The End of Summer~~~
The fog hung thick over the little Muggle village on the last night of August, just like it had done most nights that summer. It was an eerie, seemingly impenetrable kind of fog that crept into the very marrow of the Muggles, made them shiver and hide in their houses with the doors firmly locked. They huddled together, arms wrapped around each other, crying and praying for their souls. They had no idea, of course, why the fog made them miserable, why it made them feel as if every ounce of happiness had been sucked from their hearts. But the witch and the wizard who were sitting by the window in the otherwise empty pub knew very well what the mysterious fog was all about. They knew that the fog was the result of Dementors breeding and that the risk of the world plunging into eternal darkness was more imminent than any Muggle could imagine. Yet they didn’t speak about it. For even though they knew that the war which was about to begin in the Wizarding world would touch even this sleepy Muggle village, they were keen to keep up the pretence for the night. Here, the Wizarding world did not exist. There was no war, no Dark Lord, no shadows. Not yet, anyway. Not yet.
Absentmindedly, Snape traced the rim of his tea cup with one of his long, slender fingers. He seemed to be looking out of the window, but in fact, he did neither see the fog nor the dim street lights that desperately tried to lighten up the gloom. For his thoughts were miles away, in a place he’d rather not to think upon.
He saw himself crouching on the floor in a dark room, felt his father’s belt on his back and heard his mother whimper beside him. But when he looked up, he did neither see his father’s dark eyes nor his hooked nose. Instead he saw snakelike features and red eyes that seemed to be glowing in the dark. Once again, he felt pain, yet this time it wasn’t his father’s belt that tore the flesh from his bones. This time, the pain came from within, tore his heart apart and with it his very soul. He lay on the floor, bleeding, feeling his life trickle from his slashed veins…
‘Where are you, Severus?’
Snape blinked fiercely. It took him all his willpower to tear himself away from the scene of doom, and as he looked at Hope, he felt his heart swell with gratitude. She had saved him. Had she not called his name, he would have drowned in his own despair.
‘Forgive me,’ he begged. ‘I am not good company tonight.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Hope replied. ‘I am glad you found the time to come and visit.’
Snape had not been to the pub for over a month. He had taken his farewell from Hope at the end of July, and since then, quiet moments had been far and few between. He had been at the Dark Lord’s beck and call, had discussed and dismissed plans, given advice and carried out orders, all the while weaving a elaborated web of lies, labouring towards the ultimate goal, the destruction of the Dark Lord. For he mustn’t win. Whatever the costs. Whatever the sacrifices. But tonight, Snape had stolen away. He had once again lied and cheated and put himself at risk, but tonight he didn’t care. He needed some last hours of peace before he returned to the Wizarding world for good, before he stepped out of the shadows and came to stand in front of the staff and students of Hogwarts. He, the man who had killed their beloved headmaster. He, a cold-blooded killer, the Dark Lord’s man through and through.
‘Are you sure you don’t want anything stronger?’ Hope inquired, pointing at Snape’s now cold tea.
‘No, thank you. I need to keep my head clear. Tomorrow will be a long day.’
He sighed and looked towards the clock that was hanging over the bar. It was a quarter past eleven.
‘I should be going,’ he said.
‘You don’t look like you want to go,’ Hope pointed out, and Snape nodded.
‘There are quite a few things I would rather be doing than returning to Hogwarts.’
‘You will do fine,’ Hope tried to encourage him. ‘Succeeding Albus Dumbledore as headmaster is not an easy task, but if someone can do it, it’s you.’
Snape sneered. He had told Hope that he had been appointed Headmaster of Hogwarts, but he had not told her by whom. Neither had he told her how Albus Dumbledore had died. She didn’t know that the whole of the Wizarding world thought Severus Snape to be a murderer. She did not know about the hatred that he would encounter the moment he stepped into Albus Dumbledore’s place. If he could help it, she would never know.
‘Funny,’ he said instead, trying to change the subject. ‘When I was a boy, I couldn’t wait to get back to Hogwarts after the holidays. I would have my trunk ready by the beginning of August and count the days until the first of September.’
‘I know what you mean. Returning to Hogwarts always felt like coming home. At Hogwarts there was happiness. There was freedom and friendship...’
‘Freedom and friendship,’ Snape mused. He had lost his best friend – his only friend – at Hogwarts. He had tried to win her back, had tried to apologise and impress her in every way possible, but she had turned away. And he had succumbed to darkness and lost his freedom forever.
‘I know you associated with Mr Herrington,’ he started, desperately trying to keep his mind from wandering yet again. ‘But what about the other members of Slytherin house? Did you have friends?’
‘I had to be very careful who I made friends with,’ Hope explained. ‘Father didn’t approve of just anyone. I was used to him being angry with me, but I couldn’t risk him getting angry with any of my friends just because they had the wrong last name or too little gold in their vault at Gringott’s. For years, I told him that Professor Slughorn had ordered me to tutor Charles and that I actually didn’t like him and hated spending times with him. I hardly dare imagine what Father would have done if he found out that my best friend was Muggle-born.’
‘Your father... Did he...,’ Snape broke off and bit his tongue, wishing that he hadn’t said anything. Surely, this wasn’t a topic Hope wanted to discuss. But he had opened his mouth, and now she was looking at him, waiting for him to go on.
‘I saw your scars. Back then, that night at Malfoy Manor. You father abused you.’
Yet again, Hope nodded.
‘My father was an angry, bitter man,’ she replied quietly. ‘I’d like to think that he hadn’t always been that way, that he was happy once. But when my brother died and my mother shortly afterwards...’
She paused and lowered her gaze for a moment as if to gather the strength to carry on and drew a deep, shuddering breath before she looked back up at Snape.
‘I have my mother’s eyes, you know,’ she said. ‘Her hair, her nose. I’ve been told that I smile just like her as well. Father hated it when I smiled and gave me every reason not to. On my eleventh birthday he hit me so hard over the mouth that he knocked out two of my teeth. He cried bitterly afterwards, apologised over and over again. He went out to buy me more presents, a kitten, I think, or a baby owl and a gorgeous new gown covered with fairy dust. He lay on his knees, begging for forgiveness and telling me that I was the apple of his eye and that he loved me more than anything else in the world. And I chose to believe him. Every single time.’
She broke off and bit her lip.
‘I don’t know what makes me tell you those things. No one knows about this. I never even told Charles.’
‘I have been asking myself the same question,’ he confessed. ‘No person alive knows the form of my Patronus. It has been my most well-guarded secret for many years. But I didn’t have to think twice about revealing it to you.’
He paused and extended his hand towards Hope’s which was resting on the table. He didn’t take it but simply brushed her fingers with his, a gentle gesture which made them both lower their gaze.
‘Maybe we both realised that we are in need of a confidant now that the world we know is coming to an end.’
His own words sent shivers down Snape’s spine, and as he looked out of the window once more, he thought that the streetlights were flickering and the fog becoming thicker.
‘Don’t go out there,’ he heard Hope say. ‘Stay the night.’
Snape closed his eyes. He wanted to stay. By the gods, he did! But he could not. He mustn’t. He had to get back to Hogwarts tonight. If he didn’t leave now, he might never be able to. He felt Hope’s fingers on his, but before she could take his hand, he withdrew it and rose from his chair.
‘I have to leave,’ he said firmly.
‘I know,’ Hope said with a sad tone, and Snape steeled himself. He didn’t know what to say or do if Hope started to cry now. But she took her time to raise her head and look at him, and by the time her green eyes met his black ones, she had managed to banish every trace of disappointment from her face.
‘Don’t be a stranger, alright?’
Snape drew breath.
‘I don’t know when… I shouldn’t come back here. It’s too dangerous, for both of us.’
He slid his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key Hope had given him at the beginning of summer.
‘I should give this back to you,’ he said, holding out the key, but Hope firmly shook her head.
‘Keep it,’ she said. ‘As a memory if you want or a reminder that you are always welcome here.’
Reluctantly, Snape took his eyes off Hope and gazed at the key in his hand instead.
‘If I keep something of yours,’ he said, ‘then I want you to keep something of mine.’
He closed his fingers around the key, and with his free hand, he produced a wand from the folds of his robe.
‘Larch,’ he informed Hope. ‘It has a reputation for instilling courage and confidence in its owner. It hasn’t been used for years, and I cannot guarantee that it will work well for you, but I know it will do you no harm.’
He held it out towards her, never taking his eyes of the slender piece of wood.
‘It was my mother’s. I am not asking you to use it on a daily basis. I know you won’t. But please, keep it close. If the worst should happen… If someone should find you…’
‘Then what?’ Hope asked quietly, her eyes, too, resting on the wand in Snape’s hand. ‘I haven’t used magic for half a lifetime. I won’t be able to fight off a Death Eater, no matter how much confidence that wand will instil.’
Snape sighed. Hope was right, of course. But he didn’t want to leave her without protection.
‘You were a gifted witch once,’ he argued. ‘If nothing else, you might be able to produce enough magic to buy you time to run and hide and alert the Aurors.’
‘What Aurors? Have you seen any around here for the last couple of months?’
Snape shook his head. Hope was right again. There hadn’t been any Aurors around of late, neither in the pub nor anywhere else in the village. Of course not. The Ministry had bigger problems than keeping this little village free of magic. Most probably, even an Unforgivable curse would go unnoticed nowadays.
He lifted his gaze to find Hope looking at him, and desperately, he made his last proposal.
‘Call for me then. There are charms with which two wands can be connected. If you use yours, I will know, and I will come to your aid.’
He looked intensely at her, and Hope held his gaze, her green eyes glittering like the most precious of gems. As she rose, she smiled one of her rare smiles, which lingered on her lips until she wrapped her slender fingers around the wand.
‘May I never have to use it,’ she whispered as she took it from Snape’s hand.
Then the clock struck midnight, and the first of September was upon them.
‘How did it go?’
‘How do you think it went?’ Snape snarled, glaring up at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. ‘They all loved you, and here I stand in front of them, taking your place as headmaster. I, your murderer. They didn’t exactly burst into spontaneous applause.’
‘I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they all loved me, Severus. Slytherin House, for example...’
Snape raised his hand. He wasn’t in the mood to discuss the loyalties of Slytherin House. The little snakes were loyal to no one but themselves. They would do just fine this year, sticking together and making sure that their house didn’t come to any harm. For the Gryffindors, however, Snape was less hopeful. He had seen the looks in their eyes, the hatred, the determination, the bravery. They wouldn’t surrender. They would revenge their beloved headmaster. They would defend their school. They would have to find a new leader as the Potter boy had not returned to Hogwarts, but already during dinner, Snape had seen Neville Longbottom straighten his back. That boy would not sit back quietly but rebel against the new authority. Who would stand behind Longbottom, Snape did not yet know, but he had his suspicions. Ginny Weasley was a given, of course, and so were Seamus Finnigan and Luna Lovegood. For surely, the gang that once had rebelled against Dolores Umbridge would fight. To the death if need be. Dumbledore’s Army would not be scared into submission by the likes of the Carrows.
Snape shuddered. He didn’t like the idea of two Death Eaters loitering about the castle. They were a danger to the students, the staff and not least to Snape himself. They would keep their eyes on him, monitor his every move, and report his every step. If they as much as believed that he was fraternising with the enemy, they would inform their master. And what would happen to the students of Hogwarts if the Dark Lord decided to remove Snape from his post? Who would protect the innocent then? Who would carry out Albus Dumbledore’s elaborately crafted plans?
‘This is a suicide mission, Dumbledore,’ Snape pointed out, turning towards the window and letting his gaze wander over the dark grounds. ‘I know you think that Potter has both the knowledge and the courage it takes to defeat the Dark Lord. But what if you are wrong? What if he can’t find the Horcruxes? What if he can’t destroy them?’
‘He will not fail,’ Dumbledore replied calmly. ‘I believe in Harry.’
Snape closed his eyes and felt his shoulders slump. He was feeling tired and desolate, and for the time being, he found it hard to believe in anything, especially in the abilities of a seventeen-year-old boy. He saw the fog rise from the lake, felt a chill creep into his marrow and wished for nothing else than to be elsewhere and that somebody else would carry out his task.
‘Go to bed, Severus,’ Dumbledore suggested. ‘There will come nights when the staff and students alike will need your protection, but there is no need to keep vigil tonight. Rest instead. Gather strength. We will talk again tomorrow.’
His footsteps echoed eerily through the empty corridors as Snape descended to the dungeons. He met no one, neither staff nor ghost, and he was certain that not a single student would be breaking curfew tonight. Surely they all sat in their common rooms, silently huddled together. Some of the younger students might cry themselves to sleep that night, maybe even some of the older ones if only furtively. For just as Severus Snape himself, they were mourning the dream of Hogwarts, the memory of the brightly decorated Great Hall and the loss of their freedom. No one would be playing Exploding Snap tonight. There would be no exchanging of Chocolate Frog cards and no excited discussions about what kind of wonderful magic they were about to learn. For magic, bright, glorious magic had vanished from Hogwarts, and all that was left were dark spells and curses.
His old chambers didn’t provide him with the comfort Snape had hoped for, and after having paced his study for a while, he decided to sit by the fire. Sleep would not come to him in bed, he was certain of that, but maybe the flickering of the flames would hypnotise him enough to at least fall into slumber. Yet the hours went by, and Snape was still wide awake, his mind working feverishly in order to come up with answers to questions that were not even his to ponder. Once or twice, he played with the thought of taking a potion to help him fall asleep, but every time, he dismissed the possibility. He couldn’t sleep. He mustn’t. What if he was needed that night? What if someone called for him?
The fire in the grate eventually burned down, and the study was wrapped in darkness, and still Snape sat with his eyes wide open, staring into nothingness. What he was looking at, he did not know, and it took him quite some time to react to the tiny light that suddenly erupted in the darkness, a minuscule flame in the worn, wooden frame that resided on the top of the mantle.
‘Hope,’ Snape whispered and rose from his chair, his eyes unblinkingly staring into the flame. For a moment, he feared that he would once more see shadows, even the wraiths that Hope used to see rising from the depths of the lake. But the scene that unfolded before his eyes was one of utter peacefulness: Hope was sitting on the chair by the window, looking at the wand in her hand, turning it over and over and examining it from every angle. Her fingers traced the magical signs that were engraved in the handle, and as a handful of silvery sparks sprang from the tip of the wand, she did not even flinch. And in the darkness of his study, Severus Snape sat back in his chair once more, already feeling his limbs grow heavy and his eyelids flutter shut. Hope, however, had no idea that the candle she had lit for her own comfort was now giving her former teacher the peace he needed to find some rest.