Vespertine

Got Love? Whether it’s unrequited, extramarital, obsessive or completely otherworldly, this fic’s got it covered. Contrary to public opinion, Severus Snape didn’t die at the Battle of Hogwarts. Although he’s not exactly “alive,” he is on a mission to possess the very thing that eluded him in life: love. While love might be the best revenge, it’s never easy. When murder and madness are part of the mix, desire has teeth—and this kind of love really bites!

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11. Menacing Shades

 

Part I

Blanketed in shadows, history and its secrets slumbered, gilt edge to edge and shoulder to shoulder. Among them, another shadow rose, a deeper dark soaring with intention against the folds of predawn's murky scrim. A cabinet door rattled once and then, again. On its topmost shelf, memories sealed in cobalt phials shivered and clinked, but the door would not budge and the portraits crowding the walls around it would not awaken. Undaunted, the shadow uttered a single word, one that set the cabinet shuddering on its base. Flames, bursting from its panes, formed a pair of terrible claws and the screech that followed, slicing through the stillness, sent the shadow reeling across the room.

The first roused from soul-enchanted sleep, Archibald MacNabb yawned and said, "Ah! Nothing like a little Fawkesfyre to stop a fiend in his tracks!"

"Fiend? It's probably that horrid, little man, taking advantage in Minerva's absence. Caretaker, indeed!" Rowena Ravenclaw hissed from her frame above the dais. Then louder, she said, "Tell us, Mr. Filch, how many Galleons did the likeness of our latest Headmaster fetch? I wouldn't give two Sickles for anything of his." Tapping her frame, she illuminated the spot over McGonagall's desk with a soft glow but its light didn't reach the cabinet. "Blast it; I still can't see a thing! You're in a better position, Archibald, can you see him? Tell him to take his thievery elsewhere."

"I told you he'd come back! Why doesn't anyone ever listen to me?" Helga Hufflepuff's words were muffled beneath the cloak she'd thrown over her head. "We're doomed...doomed!"

"He's just a Squib! Get hold of yourself, for Mercy's sake. How you ever became a founder of Hogwarts is beyond me," she said. The remark produced its desired effect. Helga threw her cloak off with a huff. "Glad to have you back, dear. Now put your position and those eyes of yours to good use. What do you see?"

"You'll never get away with it," Archibald said. "Your kind never does."

"No, no! Please, no...." Moaning, Helga hid her face in her hands.

"Who won't get away? What's he taking this time? Helga? Archibald?" When she continued to cower, MacNabb still did not answer, and the surrounding portraits remained mute, Rowena appealed to another former Headmaster. "Phineas, wake up! We're being robbed!"

High on the far wall, a portrait burst into flames. Screaming, MacNabb plummeted from his perch, his portrait disintegrating before it hit the floor. Moments later, a jet of boreal green erupted in the dark room. Spiraling over the simpering Hufflepuff, its flames ensured she met the same, swift fate as her late colleague. Then, gathering itself into a filmy cloud, the killer wafted over to Rowena's frame. There it hovered, inches from her face.

Drawing herself up, she said, "Mine is a pure soul. I'm afraid you wouldn't like the taste." Oil drained from her canvas, splattering Minerva's chair, splashing upon the floor and trickling through the cracks, until only a blank canvas remained. However ingenious, her efforts were in vain; another spurt of fiendfyre barred any attempts at future restoration.

By now, the commotion had roused other late heads of Hogwarts. While some whispered and looked about anxiously, Salazar Slytherin tore off his nightcap and scowled from his emerald throne. "Can't a body rest in peace," he snarled. "Stop making such a racket!"

The cloud concentrated itself into a globe and hovered in midair. Then, radiating spiky wisps of jade, it exploded, sending shockwaves through the apartment. Papers flew and phials shattered. As every window in the room banged open, spraying rain and shaking portraits in their frames, a shadow slipped away on the wind.

 

 Part II.

Night's solid obsidian diffused like watered ink. The wind held its breath and the sky paled, until its shade matched the misty veils that ghosted over the lake. 

Still clinging to the shreds of her dream, Hermione slowly opened her eyes to a vision of pale grey and green: the morning light through the diamantine-patterned window.

"Window?" Bolting upright, she found herself lying, not on the sofa by the fireplace, but atop Professor Snape's duvet. Her ears began to ring, a chittering star fall clouded her vision, and she flopped back on her side. Mind racing, she struggled to collect her thoughts. If this were a prank, it certainly wasn't the kind Peeves would pull. Throwing books and banging windows were more his speed; and while some poltergeists possessed tremendous strength, she'd never heard or read of him moving a body. She glanced at the bedside table, at the wand that sat beside the candle stub, the same as if she'd set it there herself.

If she'd set it there herself.

Which she most definitely had not.

She wasn't prone to sleepwalking and even if her body had decided to take a nocturnal stroll, why here, where she'd discovered that godawful scarf.

Sybill's scarf, a voice in her interjected. Filch never mentioned where they'd found her; if she'd had strong feelings for Snape, his quarters would have been the most logical place to sense his presence. While she'd never cared much for Trelawney as a professor, Hermione now pitied the woman whose grief had turned her divinatory gift into pure delusion. Inching to the side of the bed, she leaned over and stared at the spot where she'd dropped the scarf and the bottle. 

Both were gone.

She double-checked beneath the bed. Except for amplifying the pounding in her head, her efforts yielded nothing. She now began to wonder if she'd ever really seen them in the first place.

He haunts these rooms! Filch said so. Filch said...

Yes, he said many things, what of it. She preferred to attribute the night's events to stress, exhaustion, unfamiliar surroundings, and an overactive imagination—one further confounded by the resurgence of unexpected (although not unwanted) emotions concerning her former Potions professor.

She sank back and hugged a pillow. How many times had she cast furtive glances at the man whose secrets outnumbered the buttons on his frock coat? How many times had she imagined unfastening them, one by one, to release the unspoken passions that had lain imprisoned so long beneath that impenetrable, ebony fortress? How many times had she pictured silk rubbing wool, radiating sparks, each layer peeling away, forgotten, exposing the magnificent forbidden territory of him? How many times had she imagined the sudden electricity of skin on skin; the rush of lips and tongues and teeth and exhalations, erupting hot and tormented in an empty room, the table shuddering and groaning beneath them. In how many of those charmed afterglows had she basked, besotted by the prospect of further assignations. If she could conjure those feelings so easily, then why couldn't Sybill do the same? Even now, she could feel his smoky voice purring against her ear, each syllable a sensuous tether, drawing her closer and pulling her deeper down.

She bolted upright. Tether, yes. Entrapment. The moment infatuation turned to obsession, the need to possess the object of one's desire kindling recklessness, madness: a mental potion more devious than Amortentia, all the more powerful when unrequited. Caught in that moment's inescapable thrall in the throes of a self-inflicted Imperius Curse, poor Sybill, convinced that she had nothing left to lose, had finally succumbed. The bottle, the open window: now they made sense. Severus' bedroom was the site of Sybill's botched suicide attempt!

Hermione rolled out of bed, went to the window, unlatched it, and looked down. Expecting to be much closer to ground, she was shocked to discover an almost seven-meter drop. Impossible, considering the apartment was located at least one flight down from the main floor. As she stared slack-jawed, a breeze wafted off the lake, tickling her nose with the tang of drowned green. As it stirred her hair, a voice whispered her name. His voice. So close, so real, she could almost feel his breath against her cheek.

Hermione...

A lock of hair fell over her shoulder and his voice faded, settling like the wind into morning's wan tarnish, like dust motes in an empty room: the ghost of a ghost. A chill that began in her feet swept up her body, bringing with it a wave of dizziness and another glittering blizzard that threatened to obliterate her vision. Closing her eyes, she took a few deep breaths, leaned against the windowsill, and willed it to pass. The ghost of a ghost: exhaustion and raw emotion reacting with residual energy, the vestiges of Professor Snape's spirit, his essence, thus producing quasi-paranormal phenomena. It made sense. The longer a person occupied a particular place, the more they imbued it with their energies, emotions, and memories. The place, retaining those physical and psychic energies over time, would become a kind of storehouse...a potential space, a sentient vacuum, which required a significant catalyst to reignite that energy. Her eyes flew open. "Rumplebolt's Residual Theory," she said, allowing herself the day's first smile and a sigh of relief. "I'll bet this is happening all over the castle! If not properly defused by the new term, Hogwarts will be complete chaos! That's why Professor McGonagall wanted me back; she needs help to defuse it."

The voice spoke her name again.

"You can't scare me anymore; I know what you are," she said, knowing that Rumplebolt's theory only partially explained what she was experiencing inside the apartment. Her arms pimpled with gooseflesh. As she tried to rub some warmth back into them, she noticed her bandage had fallen off in the night. The book clasp had done more damage than she thought. On her wrist, two punctures above its slash still oozed. 

Summoning her backpack, she stumbled to the washroom, where another surprise awaited, although this time, one she didn't question. Replacing the cramped shower stall, a tub whose size rivaled Moaning Myrtle's bubbled and beckoned.

A long soak in its steamy, scented water revitalized her and whetted her appetite. Knowing the castle would be chilly, she pulled a fresh t-shirt and jeans from her pack, along with a rosy, zippered sweater. The moment she'd laced her boots, however, she heard a dull thud-thudding coming from the sitting room. "Not this again," she said, wand at the ready. "How much residual magic can one man have!" She threw open the door.

"Good morning, Miss." Filch looked up from the pile of kindling he'd just dropped beside the fireplace. "Didn't scare you, did I?" Turning back, he began stuffing sheets of crumpled newspaper beneath the smaller pieces of wood.

"Good morning, Mr. Filch. Yes, you—I mean, no. I didn't hear you come in."

"Key was still in the door," he said, removing a box of matches from his coat pocket. "Lucky for you it's Saturday, otherwise anyone on the work crew could've walked right in." Scowling, he watched the flames eat the newsprint. "Shifty bunch they are, always pocketing a scrap here or a trinket there. Anything to have a shiny prize, a piece of the historic battlefield: a murder of magpies, the lot!" Muttering under his breath, he turned away, his gaze passing over the bookshelves. "I hate to think what kind of mischief those rotters would get up to in here." He waggled a finger at her before returning to his work. "You should be careful too, Miss Granger!"

Since she didn't recall leaving the key in the lock, Hermione added this to what seemed to be her growing list of Impossible Things That Happened Before Breakfast. "Yes, Mr. Filch," she said, eyes traveling to the door and then, back to the fireplace. "I suppose you're..." seeing the empty frame above it, she trailed off. There's nothing unusual about that at allHe could be off visiting one of the other headmasters, she thought.

What was unusual was the appearance of the now-vacated canvas, a yawning impenetrable blackness that seemed to ripple soundlessly, like silent waves of a black sea...or air in a sentient vacuum... A flush crept over her. "Mr. Filch," she stammered, "I wonder if you could explain something to me. We walked downstairs to get here but just now, when I looked out the window, I could've sworn I was much higher in the castle."

"It's on account of that room," he said, "the secret one where you practiced dueling."

"I don't understand," she said. "The Room of Requirement burned down. I was there; I saw it."

"Only things burned what could be burned," he said. "There's a powerful spell over that room—Dumbledore told me—and all that magic had to go somewhere, didn't it? You'd be surprised how many rooms are bigger inside than outside or not where you thought they'd be, nowadays. Got to watch what you think or they play tricks on you. Gonna take some doing, setting that to rights again."

"I'd like to speak with Professor McGonagall about that," she said. "Has she returned?"

"Not yet." Rising stiffly, he nodded at the stuttering blue flames. "He said you might need—" Before he could finish, a coughing fit doubled him over.

When had Filch become so frail and so old? The realization shocked as much as shamed her; no longer the sly, indomitable force she remembered, the stooped and haggard man before her looked twice as old as he had barely a fortnight ago. Was this the price he paid for living and working in a magical environment or was a deadlier ailment slowly eroding him from within? Easing him onto the sofa, Hermione rubbed his back. When his spasms subsided, she said gently, "Who's he?"

"Eh?" Still struggling to catch his breath, he wiped a glob of spittle on his coat sleeve.

"You said he just now, Mr. Filch. He wanted me to have some firewood. Who's he?"

At the doorway, a striped cat with tufted ears scratched and mewed. Red faced, Filch indicated her, rasping, "I meant we. We thought you'd need some more wood!" Leaning towards the hall door, he said, "We were just going to start our morning rounds, weren't we dear?" Mrs. Norris scratched at the floor and mewed again. "There's my girl!" He said, beaming. "Why don't you come in and say hello?"

The old cat started in, but then, stopped dead in her tracks and arched her back. Hair on end, eyes owlish, she spat at Hermione. Then she bolted off, as if trying to outrun a swarm of Dementors.

"Persnickety old thing, never did like it in here. Too near the lake, I suppose and now the catacombs are flooded it's even worse. The dampness just seeps into your bones. It never goes away neither, no matter how hot it gets outside. It's a wonder everyone in Slytherin House didn't catch tuberculosis!"

Outside, Mrs. Norris yowled.

"I'm coming, old thing! Don't get your tail in a knot." Filch rose. "Well, we'd best be getting on with our rounds now," he said, giving particular attention to we and our as he made his way to the door. "Oh, and seein' as it's the weekend, you'll have to see to your own breakfast, what with those new SPIT regulations and all."

Stifling a laugh, Hermione nodded. "Thank you again for the firewood, Mr. Filch, you're too kind." Before she could finish, he'd disappeared down the hall.

 

 Part III.

Unlike Hermione, Minerva hadn't slept a wink. Even if she'd wanted to, her bed had lumps in all the wrong places. Patches covered its blanket, and its sheets, which reeked of lavender bleach, obviously had been woven from the most scratch-tastic nettles that money could buy. Wind rattled the shutters and the inn's mice scurried ceaselessly in the rafters. Now, even more noise accompanied London's first light: hooves clip-clopped on cobblestones; merchants, making morning deliveries, loudly greeted one other from passing carts and lorries. In the distance, a bell, reverberating sourly, signaled the start of yet another day.

No use putting it off, then. Rising stiffly, every joint registering a formal complaint, Minerva dressed and packed her things. Saturday breakfast fare at the Leaky Cauldron consisted of weak tea, dry toast, a shirred egg that could've been a miniature Quaffle, and a watery gruel that looked as if it'd been made during the first Wizarding War. Minerva pushed it all aside. Oh, what she wouldn't give for a nice cup of pitch black tea with just a hint of malt, fried eggs, and Lorne sausage! Once she returned to Hogwarts, she would summon just that.

Then she remembered she couldn't, not until Monday. Today was Saturday, meaning there'd be no House Elves on the premises, thanks to an enterprising student's social reform. She made a mental to note to have a little chat with Miss Granger before the start of the new term. A five-day work week might be fine during the summer holiday, but the thought over four hundred students preparing their own meals twice a week made her head swim.

Hastening to the inn's Apparation Foyer, located just outside the pub room, a discarded Daily Prophet caught her eye. She didn't need her spectacles to read the headline splashed across the top of its front page, Malfoys Murdered in Cold Blood! Nor did she bother to read the story, having heard its most salient points from Arthur and Kingsley. The piece accompanying it, also written by the infamous Rita Skeeter, was another matter:

 

SYBILL TRELAWNEY: BONAFIDE PSYCHIC OR LOVELORN LUNATIC?

Lovelorn? She didn't like the look of that at all.

According to an anonymous source close to the Ministry, St. Mungo's Hospital has yet another famous patient. Late last evening, Sybill Trelawney, former Professor of Divination at Hogwarts, joined the ranks in its Behavioral Health Wing after a botched suicide attempt.

But was it suicide, Dear Readers? Our source says Trelawney's involuntary incarceration came on the heels of her latest premonition and multiple, clandestine meetings with her romantic partner, a former Hogwarts Headmaster and known Death Eater who, until now, Yours Truly, along with most of the wizarding community, believed dead...

"Anonymous? I think not," she said through gritted her teeth, feeling the sting of betrayal's acid bath. Why else would Arthur follow her or employ an illegal Prying Sphere? Minerva's eyes narrowed. Bile rose. She could taste it in the back of her throat. Grinding her teeth and white-knuckling the paper, she continued reading.

According to Trelawney, Severus Snape is alive and well—and hiding at Hogwarts! Recently, at a private memorial service on Hogwarts grounds honoring the war criminal and murderer of Albus Dumbledore, she was overheard saying, "His grave is hollow: blood will run."

And run it has, Dear Readers! Our source can also link Snape to the Malfoy slayings, as well as the brutal killing of a female Muggle with close ties to Hogwarts whose identity at this time remains undisclosed, pending notification of next of kin...

On her forehead, a vein swelled and throbbed.

Oh, but that's not all! Rumor has it that the not-so-late Severus Snape has a rare gift that far exceeds his talent for duplicity. Showing his true colors at his "memorial" service, he revealed his true Patronus. It was not a white doe, which some like Minerva McGonagall would have you believe—no, nothing so mild and meek—Severus Snape's true form has teeth! His Patronus is dragon! A white dragon! As you all know, Dear Readers, only one creature in all of wizardom is capable of changing its Patronus...

McGonagall winced. For there it was in black and white, the last word in the last paragraph of Skeeter's ludicrous, libelous drivel: the last twist of the knife. Fear in a font: seven deadly, little letters, declaring a dreadful accusation, a malediction in a single word:

Vampire!

The room spun and her heart threatened to burst from her chest. Flinging the paper aside, she staggered to the Apparation Foyer. Forcing a vision of home into her still-seething mind, she finally fixated upon a formidable pair of black iron gates. While far from her ideal choice of landing, perhaps a long walk in the crisp morning air would soothe her temper and quiet her still-fluttering heart. Holding the image, while turning on the spot, Minerva disapparated with a furious pop.

 

 Part IV.  

In a suburb outside London, the new day was also getting under Petunia's skin. As if the drone produced by the street lamps wasn't bad enough! Although it wasn't painful, she could still feel the sensation over her entire body: a tangible unpleasantness. She hadn't felt it in the house across the street because she'd been too distracted by the throbbing in her teeth and the woman with the white goop on her face. The shrew who kept screaming for "Tuney" to stop, until the crunch of bone silenced her, leaving only the spurting flood, whose first swallow, mingled with all that white glop, had been as bitter as the stray cat she'd feasted on earlier.

It lay where she'd left it in the street. She watched the breeze tease its long white hair. Unlike the woman, it had at least tried to defend itself. Tried and failed, poor puss. Gingerly, she touched one side of her face. To her surprise, her torn eyelid and gouged cheek had completely healed. As Petunia headed home, the streetlights sputtered out. In that merciful, sudden silence, whiffs of oily sludge from the river and factory smoke mingled with the wormy attar of rain-soaked earth. Overriding all was something else, however; something other, keener: something as unwanted as the hundred invisible spiderlings she could still feel stealing across her skin. Thinking she'd walked through a web in the garden, she brushed her coat, and shook her arms and legs, but found nothing amiss. It was so irritating, this thing she could feel but couldn't see! It never occurred to her to wash, even when she passed the sink. Picking her way over upended chairs, broken glass, and the wad of pink plastic on the floor, Petunia entered the sitting room.

They were still where she'd left them, too.

As she sank into an armchair, the odd feeling turned from creepy-crawly to devilish tickling. Not so terrible, she decided, just terribly confusing. She pushed up her coat sleeves and stared at her arms.

Nothing.

She hiked the coat over her thighs and examined her legs.

Still nothing.

Maddening! She supposed, if she stared from here until doomsday, she'd probably never identify the cause of her unease. So rapt in her assessment, Petunia did not notice the subtle tipping of the scales in day's favor: the bleary, but steadily brightening gray that made the living room windows look like giant, baleful eyes.

Their gaze now fell across the great hulk on the couch and the lump in the other armchair. Vernon's lips curled. One of Dudley's arms twitched.

Feeling their movements, each one a little tug wedged between tickling sensations, Petunia looked over at them. "Do you feel it, too?"

They said nothing, each caught in a dance of hitch and jerk, while a faint aura pulsed around them, particularly in the places where their bare skin touched the light.

Morning grazed her legs, turning the tickling to a pricking sensation. Its heat soon intensified, becoming like heated needles driven into her shins; her skin flushed crimson, blistered, and a bolt of blinding pain burst over her.

Get out of there now! A voice shrilled inside her head.

Hissing, Petunia dove out of the chair and rolled into the hall foyer, where it was cooler and still dark. The pain ebbed, becoming a distinct tickling once again. Not perfect, she decided, but still better than being stabbed with red-hot pins!

Oddly, the others hadn't followed her. Peering around the corner, suddenly fascinated by the bodies squirming like unmanned marionettes, she said to the fat man with fair skin, "How can you stand the heat? Aren't you afraid of catching sunburn?"

Memory squirmed inside her head. Sunburn, wasn't there a balm for that? Part of her knew that she needed to do something but she couldn't remember what. Hugging her legs, hoping the little friend inside her head would enlighten her, Petunia waited, watching as daylight poured through the windows and sideswiped the boy in a brilliant, blinding wash. He recoiled from it instantly, half-sliding and half-falling over the chair arm.

The other one wasn't so lucky. A sunbeam hit him square in the face.

Fascinated, she watched his skin redden, blister, and bubble. Howling like a trapped animal, he clawed at his face and chest, tearing his flesh away in ragged, bloody shreds. On the floor, but by no means out of harm's way, now the boy's face contorted. His arms flailed, his back arched, and his broken neck grated with every convulsion. As the back of his head burst into flames, his eyes flew open. Turning towards her, he screamed, "Maaamaaa! Maaaaw-maaawww! Awwww! Haaaawwwt! Maamaa-maamaa—Maama!"

Mama. The word was like a hammer shattering the glass bell of her trance. "I'm here, D-d—d-dudders! Mummy's here!" Crawling on all fours to the threshold, she called out to the form that was now doing its herky-jerky voodoo dance on the carpet. Pounding the floor, Petunia screamed, "No, here! I'm here! Over here!" When he didn't respond, she reached into the light.

No,don't! the Little Friend shrilled, too late.

It felt like plucking a burning log from a fireplace. Yelping, cradling her injured hand, she shrank back into the shadows. "I can't! I can't!" she said, whimpering.

Hide, the voice whispered. Hide now!

"But, he's—he's my—my..."

What? The voice sounded mildly amused. What is he to you?

"And him too," she said, nodding in the fat man's direction. "He's, he's my...They're my..." She sank to all fours, unable to find the words.

It's too late for them; save yourself.

Wisps of greenish flame flickered inside the boy's shirt and then, licked around his collar and sleeves. The man, having become a roiling, orange inferno, lurched off the sofa, just as the smaller one crashed into the coffee table. Careening together in a fiery embrace, the two fell in a flaming heap on the rug. Lurid flames singed the ceiling and then, imploding, reduced both men to a single, charred heap.

Hide now, the voice said. Sleep...

Light blurred through the front door. Petunia scuttled away from it, only to find the kitchen behind her awash with brightness. Looking into it made her head ache. "Where do I hide? Where," she whimpered, pounding one loose fist against the bead board paneling.

It made a dull, hollow sound: Uh.

She pounded again.

Ah-ah-hah.

Now she saw the knob; she turned it.

Ooooh!

It opened on a cubby containing a narrow mattress and a blanket. Both were a little worse for wear but Petunia was beyond caring. Tearing away the thick curtain of cobwebs, she crawled into the small, windowless space and locked the door behind her. Soon, the woman who used to be Petunia Dursley floated down a well of perfect darkness to a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

 Part V.

Slightly nauseous from her trip through the magical equivalent of hyperspace, Minerva tottered through Hogwarts' iron gates. A flick of her wand reset their locks but could not stop the ground from shifting beneath her feet.

If only she could see the ground! Swirling, cloying, cold and thick, a relentless cloud of mist, constant as a living cobweb, swaddled her feet. It mounded before her in misshapen columns, blotting out the sky, gobbling every shaft of sunlight that struggled to pierce its seine. Its droplets beaded her hair, seeped through her clothes, and trickled down her spine, creeping into her very bones. Undaunted, she forged through it in true Highland fashion, her skirts whisking away its low-lying clouds as she made her way to the newly repaired bridge.

Midway, she stopped and listened. Wind hissed through the grass and water dripped from the trees, but behind those trees, something was watching her, following her. She'd sensed it ever since she'd left the gates, a presence dogging each suck and release of her steps in the spongy ground. A twig snapped. "Is that you, Mr. Filch," she called out, hoping the voice that carried out was not as anxious as the one in her ears.

When no one answered, she turned, intending to go on, but a sudden and unbearable hammering in her chest forced her to stand still until her breath returned. If only there weren't so much fog! In all her years at Hogwarts, she'd never seen such a thick and sinister accumulation. Refusing to clear, its slow-moving spirals swallowed the familiar, transforming it into an alien landscape of odd humps and brooding hulks. Then, more branches snapped and something heavy landed in the wet grass. How near, she could not judge, for the mist distorted both landscape and distance. "Firenze?" she whispered.

The unmistakable scrape of sharp against stone answered. Claws! Minerva drew her wand. The last thing she wanted to tangle with out here was a Hippogriff or a Blood-sucking Bugbear, although she hadn't seen the latter on the grounds in over thirty years. Fingers of one hand tangling in a tuft of grass, she took a deep breath and pulled herself out of the mud.

Using branches and exposed roots, she climbed the rain-slick slope to the top of the knoll. Her pursuer followed, crashing through the underbrush and snarling at the jinxes she cast. Finally, the land leveled and hardened, and she could see the tip of a dark peak amidst the fog. The long bridge! Her heart soared. Just a few more steps and she'd be inside its charmed walkway, safe from harm. Casting another jinx behind her, she turned, hitched up her skirts, and ran.

Rising from the depths, emerging from the very essence of mist, hair drenched, eyes fathomless as pitch with a gaze haunted and hollow, Severus waited.

Hollow, yes: Minerva could see the walls of the bridge through him. 

They entered the covered span together. One's chest heaving and the other's form becoming more solid with each step. "You shouldn't have returned," she gasped.  

"I never left."

A nail caught the toe of her boot and she fell hard on the planks.

Severus helped her to her feet, slipped his arm around her waist, and looked deeply into her eyes.

Unafraid, she stared back. "They know. Arthur knows. It's no longer safe for you here."

Drawing her close, he tilted her chin and said, "We could make it safe. Together."

"Together? Do not think me some lowly sybil, easily ensnared by your thrall. I may have lied to protect you and betrayed those I loved for you, but I have never forgotten what you are!" She raised her wand.

"I can hear every thought you have, feel every desire that quickens in your heart." Fingers, cold as stone, dug into her arms. "I can feel the hoof beats of the Pale Rider thundering down the long corridor of your life, growing nearer with each passing hour; I can hear the whine of his raised sickle. Don't lie to me, Minerva. I can smell the fear in your blood." Then, fixing her with his dread-dark gaze, he said, "I could offer you Eternity."

Outside, claws, grating against stone, drew sparks.

"A cage," she spat. "Although bound by time, I do not fear it as you do, Severus." Wrenching away, she steadied herself against the railing and glared at him. "Let the Pale Rider come; I'm ready." Opening her arms, she said, "Exipio mortem!"

Boards groaned. An enormous black beast bounded inside the bridge. With a roar that shook the structure, it lunged, snapping its jaws. Sideswiped by its massive bulk, Minerva fell, striking her head. Snape disappeared in a wisp of smoke.

"Fang, where'd yer run off to, you bloody beast!"

Barreling in from the fog, Hagrid stumbled over Minerva's body.

 

 Part VI.

After fixing a breakfast tray, Hermione headed for the Great Hall to await Professor McGonagall's return. Although still missing most of its furnishings, a few of the hall's tables sat by the great hearth. After settling in at one of these, Hermione looked up at the ceiling, wishing an owl from one of her friends could find her. The swirl of thick clouds overhead told her otherwise.

Someone had left a week-old copy of The Quibbler on a nearby bench. "Better than nothing," she said, voice echoing through the room's near emptiness. She picked it up and started leafing through its pages. The articles about Snorkack sightings, Gernumbli repopulation statistics, and advertisements for Wrackspurt repellent made her giggle. Some things never changed. Sometimes, this was even a good thing. Then she looked about the hall, amazed how so much had been repaired in so little time. New mortar peeked between the stones along its far wall and faint light gleamed in the panes of the long window. The side windows, now replaced, sported parti-colored glass; beneath them, wall benches, newly repaired, gleamed with varnish.

Leaving her seat behind, Hermione walked the length of the Great Hall. Running her hand over smooth wood and spotless stones, she found not a stain or scar. Everything had been replaced, scrubbed, or polished. "As though nothing ever happened here at all," she said, tears stinging her eyes. No matter how many crews refurbished or how long, she could still see them: Tonks, Lupin, Fred, the bodies of friends and professors, the dead, the dying. She could still hear the curses and hexes zinging through the air, could still taste the sour, metallic smoke that choked the room on that bright May morning. Though part of her knew the fortress' restorations were only fitting, the feeling that those reparations were a pitiful attempt to erase all memory of those who'd given their lives for freedom was like a dark splinter wedging its tip in her heart.

In the fireplace, a stray draught stirred the ashes, sending out thin tendrils and an acrid stench. The scent of things that could never be undone; the attar of the past. Outside, the first rays of sunlight flared through the fog, suffusing the hazy panes of the new windows with gingery gold. Too weak to breach the frosted glass, they cast only a wan glow, a ghost of morning in the room.

More ghosts, she thought. I shouldn't have come here. She sent the tray back to the kitchen with a flick of her wand but as she started to the door, her gaze fell upon the now-empty dais where the staff used to take their meals. When school reopened in the fall, students would return but how many of them would notice the empty chairs, empty spaces, the voices forever stilled? How many would know the spot where Voldemort fell or where Neville beheaded Nagini, the final Horcrux, the last, living vessel in which the Dark Lord hid his soul?

Nagini...her thought turned to Severus once more. The snake's bite killed him...

What if it didn't? His voice echoed in her head.

"I watched you die," she whispered back, thinking the voice she now heard was escaped magic from the Room of Requirement, nothing more.

What if you only saw what I wanted you to see?

"How did you survive, then, Professor: numinous transference, by creating another Horcrux, or perhaps you went to your storeroom and un-stoppered your best death-stoppering potion? You boasted about having one once, if memory serves."

"Let me show you."

No longer in her head, his voice echoed high in the room.  As she looked up, a dark shape swooped from the rafters and landed on the dais. "Professor Snape?" While the man who was now slowly approaching her certainly resembled him, his eyes had a strange glint and he seemed to be made more of shadow than substance.

"Come with me."

Shaking, she backed away. "No! You're not real!" Before he could speak, she raced out and slammed the Great Hall doors behind her.

"Don't be afraid," he said from behind them.

"You're not real! Go away!" She threw her weight against them, hoping it would be enough. "I've had enough of ghosts for one day!" Suddenly, she heard frenzied barking coming from outside the castle. 

 

 

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