“In — in return?” Snape gaped at Dumbledore, and Harry expected him to protest, but after a long moment he said, “Anything.” DH: The Prince’s Tale, pg. 678
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape. DH: The Prince’s Tale, pg. 687-688
The office around him seemed dark and silent and above all incomplete, as if something was missing that he couldn't quite place. Snape sat at his desk as the last rays of afternoon sun filtered through the narrow tower window, doing little to dispel the gloom. Soon he'd be expected to attend the Halloween feast and sit among the other professors, pretending not to see the looks of deepest loathing that were thrown at him. Minerva McGonagall's expression was the worst; it was as if he could see the shards of broken trust floating in the depths of her gaze, waiting to pierce him in the heart for his disloyalty. Only once before had someone given him a look which displayed so clearly the cost of his betrayal, and that had been the day his life had ended. Snape couldn't see how he would be able to wile away the hours in silence, walking the precarious balance between traitor and savior—not today, not the day that she'd died.
The guilt hung over him like a cloud, obscuring all else. He had to attend the feast; the Carrows were liable to take their holiday cheer a bit too far, and students would get hurt. It was one of the last promises that he'd made to Dumbledore—that he would keep them safe, keep Hogwarts from falling.
But what if Dumbledore had been wrong? He had planned so thoroughly, pulling the strings even after his death, with seemingly complete faith in what he was asking others to sacrifice for him. Even as he asked Snape to take his life; even as he asked him to lead Lily's son to his death. But Dumbledore wasn't infallible. He made mistakes. He had tried to wear that ring, though even a first-year would have expected a curse. And now that he was dead, everything seemed to be falling apart. The carefully-detailed plans seemed to leave so much up to chance, and the only reward if they did miraculously succeed was the death of the boy Snape had given up his life to protect.
He didn't want to do this anymore. His orders had been all that kept him going, that last loyalty and promise to Dumbledore, but since he'd learned the truth it was harder and harder to keep his faith. Snape waved his wand in anger, yelling the words first inside his head, then out loud—EXPECTO PATRONUM. A few thin wisps of white smoke emerged and hung lankly in the air, serving only to further highlight his failure. For the past week he had found it more and more difficult to produce the silver doe that was his lifeline. Since Dumbledore's death and his subsequent promotion, Snape had taken to casting the Patronus in his office late at night, when the door was locked tight and he knew he couldn't be disturbed, running the late Headmaster's vague instructions through his mind by the glow of the pearly light. Now it had failed to appear altogether, as his trust in Dumbledore faltered and died.
He had cast a silencing spell on the room's portraits yesterday, unable to listen to their constant suggestions mingled with accusations of cowardice, Phineas Nigellus his most vocal supporter. The unnatural silence, combined with the loss of his Patronus and the deeply buried memories that this day could always unearth, made Snape feel like he had nothing left in the world. He was supposed to be helping Harry, providing him with the sword, but he had no idea where the boy was and no hopes of finding him; why should he succeed when the near-hundred Death Eaters and Ministry officials and "concerned citizens" who had made Potter’s capture their sole mission continued to follow empty leads…
A sharp rap on the door cut through his musings—Ginny Weasley. He'd forgotten that he requested she come, as soon as the Carrows saw fit to release her.
Snape sighed. It was hard enough trying to protect them from the Carrows without having to worry about saving students from themselves as well.
He supposed that from some perspective, continuing Dumbledore's Army under the noses of two confirmed Death Eaters and his own presumed evil rule was admirable, but it wasn't a perspective that he could appreciate at the moment; every way he looked at it, the rebel students were simply a headache. They were drawing even more attention to themselves with their stupid stunts, achieving nothing tangible but increased anger from the Carrows. And they got caught, more often than not.
What did it matter that they were inspiring the other students? They were still only children; children arrogant enough to operate under the false assumption that they could defeat the Dark Lord with their secret meetings and schoolboy pranks. Potter and his little friends, of course, were the glaring exception, but their hands were being held along the entire journey by Dumbledore, more than they would ever know, and Snape was sure that members of the Order were helping them at every turn. Dumbledore would probably have told him that he was missing the larger point—that Voldemort could only be defeated by stubborn resistance and every person who refused to allow their hearts to be taken by his fear and darkness played a role in weakening his defenses, however large or small their action—but Dumbledore was dead. He'd left behind only some vague instructions and the impossible task of keeping the students of Hogwarts safe. Snape wished for the thousandth time he could bang enough sense into their skulls that they'd shut up and lie low and just let him do his damned job.
Ginny was just able to register her surprise as she stepped into the Headmaster's office, beneath the layers of passionate rage which made the blood beat loudly at her temples and clouded the edges of her vision—this man was the reason that George was forever maimed; this man had killed Dumbledore. She had expected him to be glorying in his newfound power, assumed that Dumbledore's office—it would forever be Dumbledore's office, at least in her mind—would be transformed by glass jars and dark cauldrons into the disgusting mix of curio shop and embalmer's paradise that had characterized Snape's dungeon office. Instead, it was strangely empty, as if even Snape himself was unwilling to admit Dumbledore was gone and lay claim to role that no one, not even the other professors, thought he rightly deserved.
This wasn't the first time Ginny had seen the office—it had been just yesterday that she'd entered secretly with Neville and Luna to steal the sword of Gryffindor—but it was the first time that she was afforded the luxury of actually getting to examine the contents of the room, while trying to get her temper in check. It wouldn't do to lash out at Snape, no matter how much she wanted to grab hold of his greasy hair and pound his face with her fist, without magic, over and over until he was just as bruised as Neville or Seamus and she had the more drawn-out pleasure of feeling his pain come slowly. No, that wouldn't do at all; she was clearly in enough trouble as it was.
She had known their plan would fail before they even began. Maybe Luna and Neville had as well, she couldn't be sure; any hopefulness in their gazes had long ago been replaced by sheer determination. She knew they all did what they did—reviving Dumbledore's Army, standing up to Snape and the Carrows—for different reasons, though the ultimate goal was unchanging: Resist Voldemort. Keep Hogwarts safe.
Neville did it because he wanted to. For the first time he had found something that came naturally, something important that he could contribute without thinking. He might not have been the best with spells or the quickest with excuses, but Neville was the heart of their group without question. He was the one who brought them together and offered encouragement, who tended bruises and applied bandages and raised spirits. He had always been a fighter at heart, but trapped by his insecurities and limited by the scope of his abilities he had constantly been left in the shadows, taking orders from others who were quicker, stronger, more confidant. Now it was his turn to take charge, and he had stepped into the role more smoothly than anyone had expected, driven to new heights by his pride at finally living up to his parent's memories and his passion to protect the castle and friends that he loved.
Luna did it because she had to. She wasn't so much a reluctant leader as an accidental one; she never seemed truly comfortable coordinating and organizing the other students, and Ginny could tell that while Luna enjoyed knowing she had others to fight with her as friends, truly she was more of a loner at heart. She needed her time apart to daydream and stargaze and do the things that made her so uniquely Luna, but she had sacrificed that to help them, because they were her true friends. It might not have seemed like much, but Ginny for one knew what it had cost her and appreciated Luna's sacrifice all the more each time her absentminded gaze was forced to become hard and calculating as she outlined the newest plan.
But all along, Ginny was fighting for Hermione, Ron, and most of all, Harry. She didn't know where they were but she could imagine them, hidden together, trying to outline their next move. She liked to imagine that they sometimes thought of Hogwarts, not as it was now but as it had been, a haven of safety and happy memories even as Voldemort gained strength. The Carrows may have entered Hogwarts, but they never really controlled it, not while there were still students who remembered Dumbledore and continued to fight in his memory. Hogwarts had become a home to all of them, but especially to Harry, Ginny knew; it was somewhere that he could look to for hope, when everything seemed lost. And she secretly wished he was thinking about Hogwarts, and maybe even thinking of her, praying she was safe in the dead of night when sleep proved most elusive and fears hung closest to the surface. It was what she did every night, watching the images of masked figures and green eyes dancing across her closed lids as she tried to clear her mind and just concentrate only on what the morning would bring, another day to fight her way through before the unbidden memories resurfaced. While Hogwarts stood, Harry would know there were still things left worth fighting for. If the castle truly fell, that small glimmer of hope would be lost, and Ginny was going to do everything in her power to prevent it from happening—Harry had lost enough already.
So she'd agreed to try to steal the sword, knowing how unlikely it was that they would actually make it out of Snape's office undetected. Either way, they would succeed. Harry clearly needed the sword for reasons unknown, and she would love to be the one to provide it for him; it would make her a part of the larger battle, not the one fought in the school or even by the Order, but that which had been tasked to Harry, Ron, and Hermione alone—the one she had guessed long ago was the most dangerous and important of them all. But even if she failed, even if she was caught and tortured, she hoped that the story would get out somehow, to let Harry and the others know that they were not alone in the fight. Attempting to take the sword would be a sign that she trusted Harry to succeed, that she believed he really could defeat Voldemort and was going to continue trying to fight to help him in any way. And she really did believe that he could.
Now that she'd been caught, she could only hope that Harry would hear what she'd done and remember the people who still believed in him, despite all the rubbish that the Daily Prophet and the radios reported and the lies spread by the Ministry. The Carrows had interrogated her together, trying to make her reveal Dumbledore's secret plan for the sword, but her fierce hatred for them had lessened the pain and the undeniable truth of her ignorance had gotten her off with only some bad bruises; she'd expected worse.
It was time to face Snape, the first time that she'd been alone with him since he'd taken George's ear, since he'd killed Dumbledore. He could punish her, but she wasn't about to make it easy. None of the taking punishments silently with lowered eyes and muffled screams that she saw among most of the other students—she was going to stare right back at him and let him see her defiance. Ginny ran through insults in her head, trying to prepare them ahead of time so she'd be able to squeeze in as many as possible before he forced her silence. She knew some pretty good ones from Fred and George, and had a few of her own invention that she'd been waiting to try out.
Ginny only wished that there was some way what she was planning on saying to Snape could be included in the story that was certain to be told of their attempted robbery; Harry sure as hell deserved a good laugh.
People are dying. She wanted to scream it, for all the castle to hear. She wanted to scream it so loud that Harry heard, wherever he was hiding, loud enough that Voldemort could hear her and know that Snape’s rule was being challenged and Hogwarts was ready to fight. First years are being tortured, children who have never been away from home before and now wake up screaming every night, plagued by thoughts of pain and death. This is Hogwarts to them, a place of evil, a place of fear. And still it’s safer than outside, where schoolchildren are being thrown in Azkaban for the crime of being born and parents slaughtered for trying to protect them. Not that you care, evil greasy ear-cursing git, I thought you would at least have better aim than that, being a murderous Dark wizard and all, I know you enjoy abusing your power and frightening students but I know you’re nothing but a coward, playing the spy, too scared to even acknowledge the master you’ve been serving for years, at least the Death Eaters stand up for their beliefs, however perverted and wrong. You won’t even admit to yourself that you’re evil, and this might come as a surprise but guess what, I’m not scared of you…
But the words died on her lips, screamingly silently only in her mind. However much she tried to tell herself that she wasn’t frightened, that she had nothing to lose, it just wasn’t true. Even now, when she’d committed the worst crime imaginable—breaking into the Headmaster’s office itself, as much a direct challenge to his authority as it was an insult to his security measures—there were worse things he could do then torture her, or even kill her. He could go after her family. Ginny didn’t think that Snape was planning to kill her; she was a pure-blood after all, and a woman. It seemed as if Snape and the Carrows had been instructed to avoid doing any permanent damage to female pure-bloods. They would be necessary after the war was won to help rebuild the wizarding population. In that case it would probably be better to die now, rather than be faced with the humiliation of having someone like Malfoy forced upon her.
Truthfully, Ginny was scared of Snape and what he could do to her. She would have to take the punishment dealt to her, her only regret that if she was going to make Snape this angry anyways, she hadn’t at least done so by killing one of the Carrows instead, or gotten away with the sword successfully. But she couldn’t lose her head, and she wasn’t ready to die. Mostly, she worried about her family, not knowing the extent to which Snape’s anger would carry; her own fate was already sealed, whatever Snape’s decision, but maybe if she listened quietly and obeyed orders, he wouldn’t go after the rest of them as well.
Ginny was brave but she wasn’t stupid. It was one of the things that the last year had taught her—there was a difference between standing up for what was right and taking foolish risks; while rescuing the sword had been considered necessary to help Harry, though they didn’t know why, and rescuing students from detention saved the innocent from being punished, insulting Snape would be a reckless and selfish act, putting her family in danger just to help herself pretend she wasn’t completely powerless. As Neville constantly reminded them, the small amount of hope that they’d managed to reinstall in the student body through their rebellious messages and successful rescues would be destroyed tenfold if one of them were killed. It would be like her first year all over again, or third year when Harry returned with Cedric’s body—they all knew that the moment a student died, the memory of Hogwarts that they were trying so hard to preserve would be lost forever. They’d been walking a fine line that fall, refusing to give up the fight but aware at the same time that their actions could have far-reaching consequences, and every one of them had someone they weren’t willing to lose, someone who could be used to force them into submission.
Maybe this time, they’d finally crossed the line. Had they gone too far? Standing in the doorway, Ginny looked up and met the Headmaster’s eyes. He scowled back at her, sheer loathing broadcast in every line of his face, mouth set, dark eyes unreadable—the same way he’d always looked at her, whether because she was a Weasley or a Gryffindor or friends with Harry she had no idea, though the force of his hatred had seemed to triple last year when it had become common knowledge that they were dating. She willed herself not to shrink before him, though she couldn’t quite control the tremors that ran through her body and made her hand sweat against the smooth wood of her wand.
Ginny was afraid for her family, who were too proud to go into hiding, insisting on continuing to go to work each day like the world hadn’t fallen to pieces; they had made themselves easy targets, though she knew her family was not to be underestimated. Ginny was afraid for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who had been missing for weeks without a word to the Order, and had dozens of Snatchers on their trail. And she was afraid for herself, because Snape had killed Dumbledore and he might kill her as well, and though she knew in her heart that there were some things worth dying for and this fight was one of them, however willing she was in theory, she still wished it didn’t have to be right now; sixteen was too young to die.
But Snape didn’t need to know how she felt, and the lives of her family depended on her ability to keep her temper in check. So though she cursed and she fumed and she screamed inside her head, Ginny held her tongue as she approached the Headmaster and prepared to fight for her life.
Snape studied the young woman illuminated in his office doorway as he inclined his head ever so slightly towards the chair set in front of his desk. He had already met with the other two, bumbling Longbottom and the infuriating Lovegood girl, but the Carrows had insisted on keeping one for themselves first. They must have thought Ginny the most likely to talk, though staring back at her fierce, determined face, now mottled with bruises, Snape couldn't imagine why. She was more like a dragon than a young woman, preparing to burn him to death with the fire of her rage. Her look was so full of anger that his hand actually moved to his wand, just in case; he doubted that even the Weasley girl would be thick enough to attack him outright, but there was no telling what unconscious damage might come of so pure and intense a hatred, and it wouldn't do to be unprepared if the room went up in flames.
The Carrows must have been hard on her—face bruises were a bad sign, he had learned. They still tried to maintain a modicum of subtlety, particularly when dealing with pure-blood students, and most of the physical marks of their various torture methods were confined to areas hidden by clothing. If Snape could see marks, he knew that they'd been truly enraged. Ginny looked anything but cowed as she took her seat, however; it seemed as if she took extra strength from having survived the first round of interrogations, knowing now how far she was truly willing to go to protect those around her.
"I'm sure you realize why you are here, Miss Weasley?" His voice slid over her but she didn't flinch, and Snape was surprised despite himself. He'd taken little notice of the youngest Weasley before, except as a pawn in one of the Dark Lord's first attempts to regain power and more recently as the unfortunate object of Potter's affections.
"For being stupid enough to get caught while stealing the sword of Gryffindor."
"Yes, that plan of yours was most unwise. I have always known that Longbottom was quite dim but I expected more sense from you, especially with your family in such a precarious position as it is, mother and father in the Order, brother traipsing around the country with Undesirable Number One."
"You have no right to talk about my family! You nearly killed my brother!” Ginny’s voice was getting louder, her face nearly as red as her hair. “And Ron's at home with Spattergroit, ask the Ministry if you don't believe me, they confirmed it…”
"Very well," he cut in sharply, letting the characteristic mix of irritation, contempt, and boredom flow into his tone. Their discussion had to end quickly, before the girl could get herself worked up further; she was clearly preparing to throw all manner of insults his way, however much she tried to restrain herself. Her knuckles were white from where she gripped the edge of her chair in anger, and a small drop of blood appeared at the corner of her lip—it seemed that she’d bitten through it, in an effort to rein in her fury and regain some semblance of composure. Snape was in no mood for talking on today of all days, and all he could picture as she screamed was the cloud of flying red hair; it was almost too much to take. Besides, if she did lose control of her magic and lashed out at him without meaning to, which continued to be a distinct possibility, it would be hard to save her from an even worse torture than she'd already endured. "You make an interesting claim. I would have said that you were here because you attempted to steal the sword."
"If we hadn't been caught, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
The conversation was an act, for Ginny's sake and for that of the Carrows; he already knew what her punishment would be. The same punishment that he'd just given Neville and Luna—a night in the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid. It was his fallback position; Hagrid would see to it that the students stayed as safe as possible, but the idea still seemed dangerous enough, particularly after Dolores Umbridge's unfortunate experience, to warrant being a proper punishment and to please the Carrows.
"Why did you attempt to steal the sword of Gryffindor?"
"It was left to Harry Potter in Dumbledore's will."
"So you wanted to help fulfil Dumbledore's last wishes?" This was the reason that Longbottom and Lovegood had given a few hours before. Snape hadn't been surprised by their loyalty to Dumbledore's memory or the extents to which they'd gone to show it, not after everything he'd done himself at Dumbledore's request over the years; but any respect he might have had for them as others caught in a deadly game with only a handful of the rules and unwavering trust to go upon was lost in his anger that they couldn't at least have come up with a better plan.
"I wanted to help Harry Potter, and Dumbledore seemed to consider the sword necessary to Harry's success." Ginny's eyes flashed and she stared off out the window, searching for something in the darkness.
"You were willing to risk capture and torture to steal something that may possibly have helped Potter complete some mission that is unknown to you, in some way that you don't understand? Miss Weasley, are you listening?"
"Yes, you were willing?"
"I am willing to do anything for Harry Potter. And I always will be. Anything." Her voice was even, her mind was set. She really meant it.
The words reverberated in Snape's ears. Always. Anything. He knew what to do. It was dangerous and demanding and perhaps impossible, but it had always been straightforward. He had given his word. Anything. Always.
The conversation had stopped abruptly, and he rushed to assign Ginny her detention and dismiss her back to her common room. Finally, he heard the heavy door close and knew that he was alone in the office once more. Glancing towards Dumbledore's portrait, Snape removed the silencing spells that had kept the former Headmasters unable to speak. It was time to find Potter.
A few days later, when the portrait of Phineas Nigellus asked whether it should obey Hermione's summons, and Dumbledore's whole mess of a plan sprang back into action, it was Ginny's answer, and his own answer so long ago, that Snape thought of as he gave his consent. Though he'd been almost too afraid to admit it, even to himself, her unwavering dedication had reminded Snape of his own feelings, talking to Dumbledore so many years ago. And he thought of two red-haired girls, so different yet so alike, one whose heart he’d broken and one who still kept a spark of determined hope alive, even as others were beginning to admit defeat. He imagined the light in those eyes extinguished as Dumbledore's final plan was revealed, imagined history repeating itself. Yet she would never go back on her word. Maybe he couldn't save the boy forever, but he could at least help him hold on for as long as possible, help all of them hold on. And maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to make sure the fiery girl whose words were so very like his own, and whose spirit was so very like the one he'd loved, never lost her unwavering faith.
As much as he hated Potter, a constant reminder of the man who’d taken everything Snape had wanted without a backward glance, as much as he hated all the students sometimes, looking forward to bright futures and better times, he wouldn’t wish his life on any of them. Not even a Weasley. Students could be insulted and mocked and thrown in detention, but to be forced to continue living when all chance of happiness has been washed away with tears of regret—the girl sitting before him didn't deserve to feel the same pain from which he could never escape. No one deserved that. He'd failed Lily twice before and a million times in between, but Ginny was stronger than he’d ever been and she hadn't yet broken; and for Ginny, for Lily, for Dumbledore who trusted him and for Harry who had reached through the darkness inside him to find the love Snape had always dreamed of, he would make sure she never did.
The sword was waiting—he just needed to locate Harry, and wherever Miss Granger was seemed a good place to start. Plus, Snape realized with a smirk, he had the perfect plan to lure Potter in when he did find them.
The silver doe seemed to erupt from his wand unconsciously, without effort, as soon as the spell had left his lips; he had only to think of Ginny's fierce words with their implicit challenge, almost begging for a fight just so she could prove him wrong, and how much it would cost if he refused her challenge. His Patronus brought no feeling of peace or protection as he watched it glide softly across the office, but then again it never had. Instead, Snape remembered what he was fighting for, and that was a comfort in itself.
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