I felt as if the world had suddenly come to a standstill. Or it may have been only my world. I could not be certain of anything anymore. Perhaps life around me continued as usual. Perhaps the Dark Lord went on boasting. But for me everything ended with that one sentence. Severus was dead. So was something inside me.
Strangely enough, I felt no urge to cry. Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it would take some time before I came to fully grasp the implications of what the Dark Lord had said. Or maybe I simply refused to believe it. Maybe I was still keeping a shard of hope, even now.
Nevertheless, it was almost frightening how rational my mind remained in light of what I had learned. One would have expected hysteria, or at least a tear or two. Any emotion would have done, really. But there was nothing. Only cool logic, planning my next steps as if I were preparing a garden party. I would have to go and find the body, of course. I would have to make sure it was properly buried. I doubted anyone knew where to look for it, or would even bother to do so. Not that I was entirely certain myself. My intention was to go to the Shrieking Shack, where I knew Severus to have gone last, but who could tell with the Dark Lord? Perhaps he had committed the evil deed elsewhere. Although, now that I thought about it, that did not seem very likely. Wasting his time on somebody he was going to kill anyway had never been the Dark Lord's style.
Still cradling Draco, who showed no inclination of changing his position anytime soon, in my arms, I pondered over the sheer absurdity of it. I had asked Severus to watch over my son, and yet, in the end, it turned out that he had been the one who needed protection. Or perhaps they both did. If I were to believe what Potter, whose words drifted to me as if from a great distance, was saying just now, the Dark Lord had murdered the wrong person. Instead of Severus it should have been Draco.
Inadvertently pulling him closer and tightening my hold on him, as if afraid of the Dark Lord turning upon us to rectify his mistake, despite, as Potter had just made clear, having no valid reason to do so anymore, I wondered what I had done to make fate turn against me in this way. Was somebody or something up there enjoying killing off my loved ones? Or at least getting them as close to getting killed without actually doing so?
Then again, perhaps I was merely ungrateful. Perhaps I should be glad that Lucius and Draco were still alive. I could have lost them, too, and then I would have really had a reason to complain. But somehow that did not satisfy me. I wanted Severus. I could not imagine living a life where he would not be waiting for me, somewhere, anywhere. Waiting to smile at me and-
Stop. I would not dwell on that. Not until I had seen the body. Only then would I accept that he was truly gone. After all, the Dark Lord could have been lying, could have been mistaken. It was a slim chance, I knew that, but by now I was ready to believe anything, as long as it kept me from the bitter truth. Or what was considered to be the truth, to be exact.
A sound like an explosion suddenly shook the room, startling me so much that I nearly pushed Draco onto the floor. Glancing wildly around, I spotted the Dark Lord's wand flying high into the air, while the Dark Lord himself keeled over, his lipless mouth open in disbelief.
There was a moment of stunned silence, merely a second or two needed to process what had just happened, but then somebody let out a shout of triumph, and all at once the Great Hall broke out in cheers and whistles and laughter, and I knew then that the Potter boy had really done it, that the Dark Lord was dead and would rise no more. However, relieved as I was not to have to worry about him threatening my family ever again, finding myself surrounded by all the happy and smiling faces made me sick. All I wanted was to get out of there and look for Severus, and so at the first possible opportunity I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and then virtually fled the room in my anxiety to fulfill my quest.
I found the Entrance Hall empty, save for a couple of Death Eaters lying sprawled on the stone floor. Not even half an hour ago I would have found the sight of dead bodies disconcerting, to say the least. Now I barely spared them a second glance as I rushed past. Frightening, really, how a single moment can completely change one's view of the world. What did one body more or less matter now? Unless it was one particular body, which, of course, mattered more than I could ever say...
I quickly pushed the morbid thought out of my mind. Perhaps there would be time for such thoughts later, but it had not yet come. Not now, when there was still a shadow of hope.
Bearing this in mind, I determinedly passed through the double doors that were now hanging off their hinges, threatening to fall off at any moment, and stepped outside. The cool night air brushed against my face as I stopped to catch my breath, smelling of flowers in bloom mixed with the unmistakable cattle-like stench of giants, two of which I spotted hovering nearby. Now that they had nobody to command them, they were simply standing there with vacant expressions, absently crushing a swearing stone gargoyle, obviously torn from the castle roof, between their fingers.
I spared them only a moment, before I was off again. Unlike them, I could not afford to be idle. There was only so much time one could spend in the bathroom, though I supposed it would be possible to prolong the period a little by pretending that I had become nauseous and needed to sit down for a while before I felt well enough to walk back. Not that it was too far from the truth. As I came to a halt near the edge of the Forbidden Forest, just beyond the castle grounds where the Apparation restriction ended, I felt ready to vomit. I steadied myself against a tree, taking slow, deep breaths, waiting for the wave of nausea to pass. I had never been physically fit; I had never needed to be. It did not suit the part of a lady that my family, and later Lucius, had wanted me to play.
However, as I stood there and my breathing slowly returned to normal I realized that it was not only physical exhaustion that was making me feel sick. Now that I was only moments from finding out the truth, I could feel fear creeping stealthily into my body, dark and sinister like a cloud of thunder. It flooded my stomach, making it feel as though it were full of twisting snakes. It paralyzed my limbs, stronger than a Body-Bind Curse. It penetrated my mind, filling it with dreadful images that made me shiver. Images of what I might find if I only dared to take the next step. If only I dared... But did I? Did I really want to know, to see? What if the Dark Lord had been telling the truth? What if I really did find him there in the Shrieking Shack, cold and lifeless-
Enough. These thoughts would not get me anywhere, not to mention I was wasting precious time. Whatever was waiting for me in the Shrieking Shack, I would go and face it, fear or no fear. I would probably find out sooner or later anyway. Better get it over with, then. Thus determined, I took one last calming breath, gritted my teeth and Disapparated.
The smell of burning oil was the first thing that greeted me upon my arrival at my destination. It did not take me long to find the source – a sooty oil lamp standing on a battered wooden table, casting just enough light to illuminate its immediate surroundings. Boarded up windows, peeling wallpaper, numerous cobwebs, a dusty floor. To all appearances the room was empty. But perhaps there, in the corner, almost completely drowned in shadow? What was it? A black shape, a pile of clothes? A figure? Heart racing, body trembling, I took a few uncertain steps towards it-
-and let out a frightened gasp as my eyes met those of Severus Snape. Only ... only he could not see me. His eyes were lifeless, fixed forever at an unspecified point on the opposite wall. His neck was pierced in several places; blood was still oozing from the wounds, forming a dark pool on the floor.
Dizziness came over me. I swayed on the spot for a second or two, then dropped to the floor as my knees gave way under me. No, no, no. It wasn't true. He could not, he would not. Surely my eyes were deceiving me. Surely I was having hallucinations, seeing only what I had feared to see. Surely if I extended my hand – thus – I would touch nothing but air.
A split second later I pulled back again, shaking all over. The feel of cool skin under my fingers could not have been more real. In one last desperate attempt to defy reality I gingerly reached back to feel for a pulse, half-heartedly hoping that, despite the horrible wounds, Severus was merely unconscious, that with the right treatment he could still be saved, if only I was quick enough to get help...
But it was useless, as I had known only too well it would be, whatever I was trying to beguile myself with. There was no life coursing through the veins, just as there was no life in the eyes. Eyes that used to reflect a thousand emotions at once. Eyes that spoke to me of love like words never could. Eyes that showed only emptiness now.
Slowly, ever so slowly, realization began to sink in at last. Severus was gone, dead, lost to me forever. That was the horrible truth, a truth I could no longer hope to run away from.
Crouching there by the body of my beloved, gazing at his pale, waxen face, I finally allowed my eyes to fill with tears. And once the first tear fell, there was no stopping the rest. I did not even realize how many emotions I had been holding in until they all came bursting out in great, heart-wrenching sobs. Taking no heed of the blood, I threw myself on Severus's body, clutching his robes until my knuckles grew white, soaking them with tears that seemed to have no end.
"Severus," I whispered in between the sobs, as if hoping he would hear me and answer. "Severus..."
I do not know how long I lay there on his chest, choking on my tears; in my grief I had lost all sense of time and space. For all I knew Severus and I may have been in bed together just like we used to, only now there was no movement under my head to soothe me. Nor would there ever be, again. My body convulsed with a fresh wave of tears at the realization. What sense was there to keep on living? Why should I bother? What good was a world without Severus in it? Never, never again would I see his eyes light up at the sight of me. Never again would his face soften as he smiled. Never again would I feel his lips on mine, his light touches on my skin. Instead of the love that had filled my heart to the point of bursting, warming up my body to my very fingertips, there would remain only a gaping hole, a stab wound, a frozen land. Why, why, WHY? It was not fair! Why did the Dark Lord not take me instead? Why this wonderful, brave man?
It would have been only too easy to stay there forever, with my cheek pressed against the fabric of his robes. Given the circumstances, it was the best I could get. It was something, at least. But once I left the room I would be left with nothing, save for my memories. Still, unless I planned to die here next to my beloved (which, romantic as it sounded, would not do anyone much good), I had no option but to do just that. Lucius and Draco would be wondering what had kept me so long. And so eventually I sat up, and for the last time drank in the face that I loved so dearly. Tears still streaming down my face, I smoothed back the soft black hair, now matted with blood. Then, with a sob that seemed to come from my very soul, I bent down and placed a kiss on the cool, lifeless lips. The last kiss...
"Goodbye, Severus," I said softly. And with that I stood up and Disapparated, before I could change my mind and throw myself back on the floor, never to get up again.
Back at the edge of the Forest I paused for a while, taking several deep breaths to calm down. If I did not look composed enough by the time I arrived back in the Great Hall, there might be questions, which I honestly could not imagine answering without breaking into tears again. Also, it would probably not do to come back covered in blood, either. Or with half-dried tear tracks mixed with mucus all over my face.
One wandless Scourgify later, I finally regarded myself presentable enough to rejoin society, and so with one last deep breath I set off back towards to castle.
It seemed as if nothing had changed while I was away. The two giants were still torturing the unfortunate gargoyle, most of whose body had now been reduced to crumble, and nobody had yet bothered to collect the corpses in the Entrance Hall. And no wonder, too, for I did not even have to enter the Great Hall to know that retrieving dead bodies was the last thing on people's minds; such was the noise coming from the room. Walking down the aisle between the House tables, I saw children and parents, teachers and house-elves, centaurs and ghosts, all sitting together regardless of Houses, laughing and chatting and raising their goblets in a toast for what must have been at least the upteenth time. Just like before, the sight made my stomach turn.
Dropping down into my place next to Lucius and Draco, who were sitting exactly as I had left them, demurely sipping their pumpkin juice, I took one last irritated look around before suggesting that we take our leave. As far as I could see, this room full of celebrating people no longer held anything worthwhile for the three of us. In fact, I was surprised that our presence was being tolerated at all. As the Dark Lord's followers, we were certain to undergo questioning, perhaps even a trial. Obviously, though, nobody could be bothered about that at this moment, which suited me just fine. Like three shadows we left the Great Hall, straight past a group of Order members, who did not even raise their heads from their goblets as our billowing robes brushed against their bench.
Once outside, we followed the same route to the Forbidden Forest I had taken only minutes earlier. Tears immediately sprang into my eyes at the memory, but I resolutely pushed them back. I had held up until now, I would hold up a moment longer. I could cry myself silly after I got home. So I kept telling myself all the way to the Forest, which, as if to make it even harder for me, seemed much further than when I had undergone the journey alone, but at last we were there and, after taking a furtive glance around to ensure that, in spite of the apparent disinterest in our movements, we had not been followed, we departed from the grounds with three faint pops.
Three days later, a funeral was held at Hogwarts for the victims of the battle, heroes and Death Eaters alike. After all, everybody had the right to a proper burial, claimed the temporary Minister of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and I was inclined to agree with him. I doubted that, by the end, there were many Death Eaters serving the Dark Lord out of conviction, rather than fear.
It took me a while to persuade Lucius to attend. Like me, he had reached the conclusion that it was only a matter of time before our family came to be called in for questioning, though he obstinately insisted on the option of them coming for us, rather than us coming to them. Showing our faces at the funeral, he declared, was almost like walking into the Ministry of Magic and giving ourselves in. It was only when I flatly announced that he could hardly expect me to miss the funeral of my own sister, and that I was determined to go whether he accompanied me or not, that he finally conceded that it was really all the same whether we underwent questioning sooner or later, and that if they picked us out at the funeral we would at least get it over and done with. However, I rather suspected that he merely did not want to see me go alone. I was touched by his concern, all the more so because I knew just how much the prospect of a potential trial really frightened him. Given his condition upon his return from Azkaban, it was only too clear that even the slightest possibility of being sent back was enough to give him nightmares.
Despite Lucius's attempts to put him off, Draco insisted on coming, too. Perhaps he did not want to be left behind, perhaps he simply wished to bid a final farewell to those schoolmates who had perished in the battle, but the fact was that all three of us returned to Hogwarts on the day of the funeral, though, of course, each for a different reason. Despite what I had told Lucius, it was not Bella's coffin being lowered into the grave that I had come to see. Sister or not, I had not cared for her when she was alive, and I did not care for her now. No, it was because of somebody entirely different that I had fought so hard to be able to come...
Certain that nobody would go looking for him without my intervention, I had sent Professor McGonagall, the Deputy Headmistress, an anonymous letter, informing her of the whereabouts of Severus's body. True, a simple spell would have been enough to reveal the identity of the writer, but even if McGonagall did bother to perform it, I could not imagine how such information could possibly serve her. As long as my signature did not shine at the bottom of the letter, I did not care if she found out who had sent it. All I wanted was for Severus's body to be found and buried with dignity; he deserved no less. It was the most I could do for him, now.
And so we entered the lion's den, as Lucius had taken to calling it. The weather matched the occasion perfectly. The sky was a murky grey, threatening with rain. A strong, cold wind was blowing from the mountains in the North, bending the treetops and making all newcomers wrap their cloaks tighter around their bodies. It hardly made sense to hold the funeral ceremony outside, and yet that was where we were, huddled together in the second last row to keep warm, doing our best not to attract unnecessary attention but at the same time surveying our surroundings with utmost interest. Ahead of us, rows and rows of chairs stretched into the distance, some occupied, some still empty. At the very front, barely visible from where we were sitting, stood a speaker's desk.
Mainly, however, there were the people, milling about as they exchanged greetings and complained about the weather. A few I recognized, most I did not. I saw Harry Potter, holding hands with the Weasley girl as he chatted to Professor McGonagall. I saw Hagrid, trying to prevent a friendly giant, dressed in a suit that was much too small for him, from tearing off his tie. I saw Kingsley Shacklebolt, standing alone, muttering quietly under his breath, occasionally glancing at a roll of parchment in his hand.
And still more and more mourners kept arriving, many of them foreigners, judging by their appearance, all come to pay tribute to those who had died helping to rid the wizarding world of the terror imposed by the Dark Lord. It seemed to take forever, but at last, after several new rows of chairs had been added, everybody was seated and the ceremony could begin. I was quite numb from the cold by this time, but glancing around at the thousands of wizards and witches shuffling in their seats it was clear to me that it would have been quite impossible to fit them all inside the castle.
It was Kingsley Shacklebolt who held the first speech. Obviously not used to speaking in public, his magnified voice shook a little all the way through, which, surprisingly, did nothing to detract from the seriousness of his words. Quite the opposite; it made them sound more real, more human. Many an eye glistened with tears as he spoke about the courage, skill, selflessness and perseverance of the fallen fighters. To me, they seemed just the attributes that Severus had had, and I could feel a lump forming in my throat at the realization. I did not want to cry, at least not yet, but as Shacklebolt closed his speech with a lament over the loss of said fighters for the wizarding community, as well as their families and friends, I felt my own loss more than ever, and a solitary tear escaped my eye, leaving a warm track on my frozen cheek. I quickly wiped it away with the back of my hand. Pretending that I had wanted to attend the funeral because of Bella was one thing, but I doubted Lucius would believe me if I claimed I was actually crying for her. Certainly not after he had seen me slap her, I should say.
Shacklebolt was superseded by other speakers, but though they were undeniably more practiced than he was, I found they somehow lacked the immediacy of our Minister. After all, he had been there, he had fought in the battle himself. He had known most of the victims personally. But these foreigners? What did they know? Yes, they were thanking us now, but did they really understand what for? They had not experienced the atmosphere of terror like we had. They did not know what it had been like, waking up every morning in a cold sweat, dreading the worst. They had not felt the pain of losing a loved one...
Feeling the sting of fresh tears in my eyes, I resolutely transferred my attention back to the speakers, doing my best to concentrate on their every word so as to prevent my mind from further dwelling on undesirable topics. Listening to their repeated declarations of gratefulness, I rather wished time would speed up, but instead it seemed to drag on and on, as is so often the case in situations when we least desire it, until we were finally lulled into a state of lethargic stupor, which, in some cases, especially of those advanced in years, gradually turned into sleep.
Fortunately, even the most trying ordeals must come to an end sometime, and so as the last wizard, an elderly Frenchman whose English was so bad that we could barely understand him, finally lumbered off from the speaker's desk, and the sleepers dazedly blinked their eyes and asked whether it was tea time yet, we all got up, made sure that our numb limbs were still in working order, and then slowly shifted off to the greenhouses. Here, a small area had been turned into an improvised cemetery, specially reserved for those who had perished in the Battle of Hogwarts, as it had come to be called. Fifty or so empty graves, complete with marble tombstones, were already waiting for their occupants, who were currently residing in simple wooden coffins; one lying next to each pit. I noticed that a single grave had symbolically been dug slightly away from the others, undeniably that of the Dark Lord. Squinting, I tried to determine which grave might belong to Severus, but to my chagrin I found I was too far away to make out the names on the marble. Therefore I merely watched with resignation as Kingsley Shacklebolt uttered a few more words, before waving his wand and making all the coffins lower themselves into their appointed graves. Dirt falling on top, the job was done. As if on cue, those who had no further business down at the cemetery started trailing back towards the castle, chatting and laughing as if they had just seen a good show. Others, with expressions rather more suited to the occasion, were wandering down to the graves in search of their loved ones.
I knew my moment had come. Having persuaded Lucius and Draco to go on ahead while I spent a minute or two by Bella's grave, I swiftly set off along the first row of tombstones, flicking my eyes from one name to the next as I went. As if sensing what was about to happen, the rain finally broke its way out of its cloudy prison then; just a few drops at first, but quickly gaining in intensity. It was not long before I was drenched to the bone. Not that I really cared; all I could concentrate on was my quest.
Having passed onto the next row, it was paradoxically Bella's grave that I found first. It was a little strange, seeing her name there like that, shining at me in golden letters. After all, she was my sister, despite the differences we had had. I may not have liked her, but I would never have dreamed of wishing death upon her. Still, it was barely half a minute that I spent gazing at her tombstone, reminiscing, before I rushed on again. Sad as it was, I could not afford more. Not if I wanted Lucius to come back looking for me, anxious that I had been dragged off to the Ministry.
And so my search continued. One grave. Then another. And another. I passed the Weasleys, weeping over the grave of their son. I brushed past my sister Andromeda, too busy mourning the loss of her daughter to notice me. Perhaps it was just as well. Believing me to have been a loyal supporter of the Dark Lord, she would hardly have shown much delight at seeing me. Eager to put as big a distance between us as I possibly could, I all but ran to reach the end of the row which she occupied, but was forced to halt mid-step as a name caught my eye, gleaming from the marble very much like the others had done, and yet entirely different. For while all the other names had been just that – names, a meaningless arrangement of fancy golden letters, the mere sight of this name made my stomach plummet as if I had just experienced a sudden dive on a broomstick. His name...
Sinking onto the wet grass, I read the inscription again and again, as though I could not believe what it said, as though it were merely part of a bad dream from which I only had to wake up. But I did not. No matter how hard I looked, the letters were still there, solid as the tombstone that bore them. Laughing at me. Mocking me.
As if to save me from the pain, it was then that the tears I had been holding back throughout the whole funeral finally came, mercifully blurring my vision, fusing the treacherous letters into a solid golden mass. And still the rain continued to pour down from the sky, running down my face and blending with my tears, making it look as though the heavens, too, were mourning with me.
It was not more than a minute or two that I kneeled there by the grave, but it seemed as if my whole relationship with Severus passed before my eyes in that time. For all I knew, I may have been reliving the moments all over again... Begging him to alleviate my loneliness. Sitting with him in the library on the night he brought Draco back to me. Seeing love in his eyes for the first time. Chatting with him in the Forest clearing as we waited for the arrival of the other Death Eaters, blissfully unaware that he would be dead less than an hour later. Dead, dead, dead...
These were the words that continued reverberating in my head as I shakily got to my feet. Dead, dead, dead. Casting one last teary glance at the grim tombstone, I slowly raised my hand and muttered a spell. Dead, dead, dead. A single red rose appeared on the grave; my last tribute to the man who had taught me to love, who had given me the strength to save Lucius ... who had saved me from myself.
Dead, dead, dead.