The Sugar Quill
Author: Stellar Hawk  Story: Casting Off  Chapter: Default
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Farewell

Casting Off

 

I stand beside lapping azure waters on fine, pale sand, warm as an incubator and white as powdery winter's garment. Brine-scented wind lifts my silver hair and unfurls it behind me like so many shiny streamers. I turn my face into the wind and squint toward the long, flat horizontal line where indigo waves meet a cloudless dove-gray sky. I peer hopefully at that far and distant point where I expect, at any moment, to observe that sharp, white, triangular projection which inevitably heralds the arrival of a ship. I know that it is coming, and I know that it is coming for me. Else I would not be standing here on this tranquil shore staring out to sea, waiting, waiting, waiting to sail away.

 

I long for that far and invisible shore, just beyond the endless horizon, and I wait.

 

And I wait.

 

But there is no sail, and there is no ship. Why? I know that it must be coming, for surely, it set sail the day I was born, its sole purpose to arrive here when I did. Why is it late?

 

Or can it be…can it be? That I…am early?

 

I look around. The beach seems to stretch on into infinity. No sign of life or, indeed, of anything but sand and surf as far as the eye can see. I am alone. I feel that I am not where I am supposed to be. And yet I am not afraid. Indeed, I remember fear, but I do not feel it now. What am I feeling?

 

I close my eyes and think for a moment, or for what feels like a moment. Time passes strangely here, and my watch is gone, gone the way my fear is gone because it is no longer needed. It no longer serves a purpose here.

 

I open my eyes. Sadness. Regret. That is what I feel. I raise a hand to my lined cheeks, touch them gingerly. They are wet, and not from ocean spray. I have been crying recently. Yet strangely, I do not remember doing so. Why was I crying? I can't quite remember.

 

I think it had something to do with a pale-faced man in a dark robe, and a searing green light. And hate. I remember…his face was aflame with pure disgust. He hated me beyond reason or limit, loathed me enough that the passion of his revulsion...became the green light. And then…and then what? I can't remember.

 

Severus, please…

 

I hear the words again, as if I have just spoken them. And suddenly, I remember. His name was Severus, and I thought he was my friend. I trusted him, and he…he betrayed that trust.

 

No. That's not quite right.

 

I reach for my glasses to remove them, something I automatically do before I rub my eyes, and discover that the glasses are gone. I realize, without knowing why, that like my watch, I don't need them anymore. Why? What happened to me after the green light? Why can't I remember?

 

I try to think back, but get only a vague impression that it began in a bar a long time ago…Aberforth's bar. Aberforth…my younger brother. He was…he was angry with me, but we were working together…because of the war, Voldemort's war. It was late at night and I was…waiting for someone. No, I had gone there to meet someone. And someone else arrived…someone who was not invited.

 

There was a prophecy…about Voldemort, and someone else, someone who could defeat him. Born as the seventh month dies. Neither shall live while the other survives. The Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal. And then…a disturbance. The uninvited guest. The spy, Severus Snape. He'd heard the prophecy…and he told Voldemort. And Voldemort fulfilled the first part of the prophecy without realizing it. And Severus came to me begging for mercy. He was utterly wretched, miserable, ashamed.

 

Albus, please…

 

And I spared him, against my better judgment I thought at the time, because I pitied him. And then…then I became as bad as him, because I used him cruelly, with little regard for his feelings. And I told myself that he deserved worse, and that made it easier. But I had no right to judge him, not after what I'd done to my own family…

 

I remember now, what happened to me that night on the tower, and how I brought it all on myself. If I hadn't been foolish and short-sighted…if I hadn't let feelings get in the way of common sense… Oh, I knew better than to toy with the enemy's possessions, but I couldn't resist. I couldn't pass the test that Harry had passed in the chamber of the Sorcerer's Stone at the end of his first year. I had to see her one more time. I had to know if I had cast the fatal spell. I had to tell her I was sorry. So I put on the ring, thinking that I would bring her back, just for a little while. Just long enough to salve my conscience. I threw caution to the wind…and I paid for my folly…with my life. Eventually…

 

Draco had been ordered to kill me, but he could not carry out the order. Little did he know, it wouldn't have mattered whether he killed me or not. I was already doomed before he got his orders, because of the curse on the ring. Vain, selfish, and cruel-hearted though Draco may have been, his heart was not hard enough for cold-blooded murder. And yet, alas, he was not wise enough to realize that he was being used by everyone he admired, nor brave enough to defy them. Draco was but a pawn, and a poor one at that. I thought that in time he might come to his senses and realize that, that he would seize the hope I offered him. But no, he preferred to continue on in the enslavement he had chosen. I think he was too afraid to do otherwise. He felt that he was in too deep to get out. I told Severus to befriend the boy, to look after him, to reason with him. I hope he will succeed where I have failed. If anyone can persuade a budding Death Eater to change his ways before it's too late, perhaps Severus can. After all, Severus has a rather unique perspective on the matter…

 

Which is why it had to be him.

 

Severus, please…do what you promised to do.

 

I personally did not fear death, though I respected it and avoided it for as long as I was able. I did not expect to survive the second war, though the manner in which my death finally came was a surprise, and a great sorrow…even if it was…necessary. It was not death that pained me, nor even the bitter green bolt of light which took my life. It was the hate that created the spell, and the sense that I had failed Severus, without quite realizing how. How could he hate me that much? Where did I go wrong?

 

But of course, it was not any one failing of mine. It was not even the ring, though that was enough! No…I think of all the little mistakes, the careless words, the opportunities missed. I think of times when I was too proud of my own cleverness, too blind to see that I was neglecting the people around me. I could be a little hypocritical at times…though most people are, whether they realize it or not. I suppose that was what angered Severus enough for him to be able to fulfill his final duty to me. I once told him he disgusted me…but I wonder in the final analysis…was I a better person? Had I any right to judge?

 

I think not. And I regret that it took me almost my entire life to learn that.

 

Poor Severus. He must be feeling miserable right now. He had no choice. He knew he could not save me. He knew there were no other alternatives available to him. But still…it was the hardest thing I have ever asked of him…of anyone. However, if Harry has survived the Death Eater invasion, we shall have come out of this debacle quite as well as I had hoped, and far better than I had feared. I think…I think that Harry is alive and is finally ready for his part in ending the war. Severus knows what to do. He knows what is at stake. And he knows his instructions…even if he happens to be none too pleased about them. Harry will have plenty of unexpected help when the time comes.

 

I think of Harry and all my hopes for him, and my heart swells with love. He is an extraordinarily good person, in spite of…or perhaps because of…everything that has happened to him. He is everything I have ever tried to be, and I will miss him terribly. Yet, I feel certain that someday we will meet again…on the far shore…beyond the horizon.

 

And as I raise my eyes and scan the waters before me, a massive, regal ship appears right in front of me on the shoreline. This is not the usual manner of magical appearances that I am accustomed to, for there is no bang of Apparition, nor rotation of the Conjured item. The ship is simply sitting there, beached on the sand with white-foamed breakers rolling around it. It is almost as though it had been parked there for some time under an Invisibility Cloak, and the Cloak suddenly vanished, leaving the ship in full view.

 

I peer in amazement as I suddenly realize that the ship is occupied. I will not be making this journey alone. For he is perched there upon the bow, wiser, nobler, brighter, more beautiful and more graceful than I remember him in life. His eyes are full of all knowledge, all love, all beauty. His wings spread wide to shelter not only myself, but all the world under them if only he could. If only they would let him. My friend, my mentor, my companion.

 

"Hello Fawkes," I greet softly, my eyes brimming with tears. "I knew that you would come for me. I knew that you would not leave me waiting here forever."

 

"I have always been here, my son," he says gently. "You have only now begun to realize it."

 

"All this time I have been here waiting? You were here already?"

 

"Even so. Do not hang your head. Casting off is always most difficult for those who loved most. I understand your regret. But come, child, it is time for us to set sail for the other shore. You have a home waiting for you in my country. And there are many there who look forward to seeing you."

 

"Ariana…" I whisper.

 

"Especially Ariana. She has never left the water's edge since she arrived on the other side, but stands there waiting, watching, staring out to sea, looking for you as you were looking for me. Your homecoming will bring her peace at last, as even I could not."

 

"Fawkes…I must know…" I whisper, "was it my wand, or his?"

 

He peers at me kindly, and I fear his answer. Surely it will be what I have always dreaded, always known. It was mine…

 

"Child," the phoenix says gently, shaking his head slightly, "that is no longer of any importance. She does not blame you, nor may you bring your own pain or shame with you to the other side."

 

I start to cry again. I can't help myself. I want to go, more than anything I've ever wanted before. I ache to board the ship, to get reacquainted with my dear friends, to see the far shore, to go home. But I also cannot bear the thought of leaving behind the ones I love who are still living, especially the ones who are in the greatest danger.

 

"I want to go with you!" I say, anguished. "But I also want to wait for my students, for Harry, for Severus…They need me!"

 

Fawkes shakes his beautiful head, his golden eyes brimming with sorrow and empathy. "There is nothing more you can do for them, my son. You have made your choices. And they have chosen their paths that they must follow to the end."

 

"But Harry…he has no one to guide him now. And Severus…" my voice breaks. I think of that night on the tower. I remember the mistakes I made that led up to it. And I blame myself. I failed him. I failed them all. And it was my fault. "I want to tell him, I'm sorry I forced him!" I cry. "I want to tell him! I want him to know…"

 

"Harry is not alone, child. I will send others to help him, as I always have, for as long as he is in need. And the choices Severus made were his own to make. He knew what the price would be. The fault is not entirely yours."

 

"But it is! I was weak!"

 

"Every man has moments of weakness, child. Severus understands that, and so does Harry. So do I. But you know that the true measure of a man is not his strengths or his weaknesses, but the way he lives in spite of them, the gratitude he shows to those who have helped him, the mercy he offers to those who have wronged him…and the remorse he feels for the harm he has done."

 

"Words cannot describe my remorse," I whisper. "What will happen to them now that I cannot protect them? My friends…my students…my brother…?"

 

"I do not know. There are a myriad of possibilities, depending on the choices of thousands of individuals. Come, child, the tide is going out, and we must go with it. The work you've left behind will be done by others, and my work will go on as it always has until I am satisfied that it is finished."

 

I board the ship with a curious mixture of extreme anticipation and extreme reluctance. It's not the work I've left behind that I will miss. It is the people. Strange, all those years I lived in my ivory tower, trying to shape the world according to my vision of what was good and right, only to find that in the end, it matters about as much as a single grain of sand on this beach. Aberforth was right all along. I neglected the things that were most important, and in the final analysis, it is neglect that does the most damage. What might I have accomplished if I hadn't been so busy trying to accomplish?

 

I look back, thinking of Aberforth, Harry, Severus, Minerva, Rubeus, Elphias, Poppy, Pomona, Filius, Remus, Arthur, Molly, Alastor, Sturgis, Kingsley, Tonks, Dedalus, Emmeline, Bill, Fleur, Olympe, Igor, Phineas, Sirius, James, Lily, Hermione, Ron, Neville

 

So many faces, so many names. Some have gone ahead. Some I am leaving behind. And some… some I am sure that I will never see again. Tom, Lucius, Amicus, Alecto, Fenrir, Bellatrix, Carenius, Bartemius, Peter…

 

It is especially for them that I am sorry to leave, for I think I loved them. Yes, I loved them all. Even the ones who hated me.

 

Fawkes spreads his glorious scarlet wings, and the sky sheds its grayness like a cast-off cloak, as the water turns from indigo to turquoise. A radiant light, which comes from Fawkes himself, burnishes the ship and everything around it with a brilliant golden hue. The glowing sails swell with a powerful gust of wind, and silver waves gently rock the hull. The ship slides forward gracefully, and the sandy beach begins to recede behind me.

 

"Farewell," I whisper as the white sands slip away into the distance. "Farewell."

 

I turn my face toward golden shores and light that never fades. Fawkes sings magnificently as the ship sails into a brand new harbor that is already more familiar to me than the world I left behind. And the song is one of forgiveness, and love, and joy, and it is also one of sadness, and it is the very wind and water and substance of home.

 

***

(Author's note: This story was primarily inspired by Annie Lennox's wonderful performance of "Into the West", my favorite track from the "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" CD.)

//
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