Author's Note: My thanks go to my Beta, as they always do. She is quite wonderful!
The Bravest Man
by J Forias
The room, which had been all noise just a moment before, crashed into a stretching moment of silence, like a burning train falling into an icy lake.
“No!” Albus ordered, finally, his eyes torn impossible wide and his wand shifting to point at the body of his sister, as if expecting it to obey his command, to reawaken.
Aberforth’s crawled up from his bundle of agonised limbs. “Ariana!” he gasped, lurching towards her. “She’s dead.”
“She’s not,” Albus whispered.
He was trying to think of some spell. Surely there was one, somewhere, on the edge of his consciousness, just waiting to blink into being. Of the hundred he knew, of all the power he held, there had to be a possibility. There had to be. His sister couldn’t… she couldn’t… she wasn’t…
One person still hadn’t moved. Gellert Grindelwald was staring at the scene with an expression of mounting unease.
“You have killed her!” Aberforth bellowed.
The coarse features of his face were ripped apart; his skin twisting into odd, agonised positions as the muscles of his face tore this way and that.
He flung his wand from his hand and rushed at the two friends, his hands outstretched.
The blonde-haired wizard finally moved, stunning Aberforth with an easy flick of his wrist.
Albus started as the limp body of his brother dropped at his feet.
“She’s not dead,” Albus said desperately, turning to his friend for support.
Gellert shook his head. “I have to go, Albus. This looks bad, very bad, especially with my record. I’m sure you understand.”
“Understand?” Albus whispered.
But, with another flick of his wand hand, the man was gone.
Albus moved slowly to stare down at his sister. He knelt and laid a hand on her shoulder. He had never realised how beautiful she was, until now, staring at her across the bridge of death.
“Ariana,” he called, like a man trying to coax a wild bird into his hand. “Please don’t be dead. Please.”
The house was destroyed. A killing curse had rebounded, a magical feat of high-order. Severus would have been fascinated in other circumstances, but even the defeat of the Dark Lord paled in comparison. Lily Evans had already been dead.
None of the rest mattered, now.
In fact, nothing mattered at all.
His mother’s body felt pitifully small as he hugged her goodbye. He hated to leave her, but she had been unmoveable on that matter.
“You must go to Hogwarts, Jack,” she had whispered. “What sort of mother would I be if I denied you that? You’ll do brilliantly. You’ll have the time of your life.”
“But who’ll look after you?” asked the agonised eleven-year-old.
She had smiled, her eyes shining brightly beneath her wispy hair. “There’s a nice lady from St Mungo’s. She’ll look in on me. Now you go be somebody, my little man.”
And now he was leaving her, heading off into the unknown, striving to make something of himself.
His mother had bought him a rat. It was all she could afford as a parting gift. The rat was a ragged looking creature with a certain worldly weariness about her.
Jack had called her Rat and he kept her close at all times.
A dipping sunset resisted its shackles for a final set of heady, fleeting moments. Its fire raged across the sky, silhouetting trees and buildings to a bleeding backdrop, rebelling desperately against inevitable forces.
Albus had arranged everything, as best he could.
It was all Grindelwald’s fault. Albus wasn’t a killer. He was the shining student of Hogwarts, powerful and beloved, destined to lead. Gleeful memories of the way he had amazed the learned NEWT examiners danced in his mind. Everyone knew it. Everyone had said it.
Albus would find a mission.
Yes, that must be what he was destined to do. He had to hunt down Grindelwald, the murderer, and then put a finish to him.
That was the only thing that made sense.
Yet just at the moment that he almost believed, the last red rays from the sun fizzled and died on a darkening landscape.
Albus was responsible. Even if it hadn’t been his curse, it had been his arrogance. He had invited Gellert into their home. They’d gorged themselves on each others lies, reassuring themselves of their own power, their own inestimable importance and their own gleaming destiny.
Had he ever cared for his sister in the way his brother had done? Or had he forgotten what was most important of all?
He had had a beautiful sister, a fierce and admirable brother, loving parents…
And he had turned from all that to go running after power.
The man sat alone, staring into the empty eye-holes of a white mask.
It represented so much to him: power and status. He had watched his father bully his mother, despite her abilities. He would overwhelm her with words, reduce her to tears, and then he would tug on her heartstrings. He would use the fact that she still loved him obsessively, even at the point when she most loathed him.
Severus had been alone; an irrelevant pawn in a struggle beyond him. So he had fallen in love with a girl who was beautiful and good, who represented everything that his father wasn’t. And then, at the same time, he had gone after power. He had learnt the most complex of spells and he had joined with the strongest of men, becoming part of something that was huge.
Some part of him had expected her to be attracted to that power; to understand that Severus wasn’t weak, that he could protect her.
And he’d tried. He had tried.
It was Dumbledore’s fault. He had promised to protect her. It was Voldemort’s fault, too. Neither of them had kept their word.
Snape tried to cast the prophecy from his mind.
“I didn’t know!” he hissed. “I didn’t know!”
He couldn’t look at that truth. Even the thought that it might be he who had… who was… That Lily was dead because of…
He wished he were dead.
There was a flash of light and a phoenix feather dropped to the floor.
Albus Dumbledore was summoning him.
“Goodness, Sloper, how can you possibly be so incompetent?”
The Potions Master loomed over Jack, his eyes fixed on the boy’s open bag; Rat was lounging at the bottom of it.
“Perhaps I should provide you with an incentive,” he whispered smoothly. “At the end of this lesson, we will feed a few drops of your potion to your rat. Let us see if that allows you to muster some focus.”
Jack’s heart lurched painfully into his throat.
He stared up at the man, searching for something he didn’t find in those black eyes.
“But, no… please!”
The teacher merely glared down at him disdainfully. “I suggest you get started on correcting your potion, Mister Sloper.”
He saw the eyes of his fellow Gryffindors drawn to him, desperate to offer some aid, but the long flowing cloak of the Potions Master marked a ruthless patrol round the desks, as if he knew exactly what was on their mind.
The minutes passed in a heady, sweating daze, as he desperately tried to force his shaking hands to work properly, to chop and grind and stir. Yet even as he worked, he knew it was hopeless, knew the potion would never reach the right colour.
“Get out your rat,” ordered the teacher.
Tears began to form in the child’s eyes, as he reached into his bag, tenderly grabbed Rat and placed her on the table.
“Why don’t you do the honours, Mister Sloper?”
He handed Jack a small spoon.
“No!” Jack shouted.
Severus Snape rose up to his full height, powerful and fearsome; his quiet, menacing voice cutting through the air like a surgeon’s knife.
“Do it,” he hissed.
Jack shrank beneath him. He took the spoon and dipped it into the potion, collecting the smallest possible amount of what he was sure was poison, before bringing it towards the mouth of his rat.
The door crashed open, behind him. He turned, the potion spilling from the spoon to hiss against the wooden surface of his desk.
Albus Dumbledore strode into the room, his face grim.
“My apologies for the interruption, Professor,” he began, addressing Snape, “but I need to speak to Mister Sloper immediately.”
Snape scowled, his hands bunching into fists.
“But of course, Headmaster.”
He took the punch, at the funeral… and did nothing.
He deserved it and so much more. It made him look weak, but he didn’t care.
He didn’t even get his nose fixed.
“Very well. Very well. But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Swear it! I cannot bear… especially Potter’s son… I want your word!”
He wouldn’t be weak. He wouldn’t have Potter knowing.
“My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?” Dumbledore whispered.
The best of me.
This was the best of Snape. He knew that. He could drown himself in a mission; he could continue to cling to Lily’s love. He would be doing this for her. Only her. It was as if, in some way, she was still there, he hadn’t killed her and he could keep being strong for her. He could still be something, something powerful.
She needed him. She needed him to protect something she had died for.
He would do that or die himself.
“If you insist…”
“And I certainly do, Headmaster.”
“I am so sorry, Mister Sloper,” Dumbledore whispered, peering down at him. “I knew your mother. She was a powerful witch and a wonderful woman. Her illness was a great tragedy.”
Tears streamed down Jack’s face. He couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe she was dead, because then it was all his fault.
And yet, he knew Dumbledore wasn’t lying.
He felt as though he had held that spoon to Rat’s mouth and his mother had died instead.
“You don’t understand!” he shouted. “I left her! She would have been okay if I hadn’t left. I knew how to take care of her!”
Albus Dumbledore’s eyes flashed violently for a moment, but he seemed to shake the moment off like an irksome bee.
“Mister Sloper… Jack, you can’t let yourself believe that.” The lines on the old man’s face were etched with compassion. “You do yourself and her a great discredit. She wanted you to be making something with your life, not tie it to looking after her. Knowing that she had ruined your future would have been a far worse death.”
Jack could hear the sense in the old man’s words.
“She wanted to be your mother, Mister Sloper. It would have been wrong to deny her that.”
Where your treasure is, there will also be your heart.
Albus stared at the words. They were his own.
He didn’t know if Aberforth approved. Albus had watched, cloaked invisibly, as his brother spent hours at the grave, while great, wracking sobs tremored over the younger man’s body.
The older brother had waited his turn, knowing that Ab had every right to his anger and his grief. Albus couldn’t help now. There was nothing he could say that would soften the anger or the grief.
He had no power.
All he could choose was where to put his heart. And he would put it with Ariana, just as his brother did. He would stand by the weak, as a comrade, and offer what help he could.
Even as his brother rightly hated him, they were joined by that, just as they were joined by the tears they both let fall on freshly turned earth.
“Severus,” Dumbledore said, turning to the younger man, “you know what I must ask you to do. If you are ready… if you are prepared…”
“I am,” Severus said.
He could feel the lack of blood in his own skin. He was painfully aware of his rabidly beating heart. He knew he was afraid.
But he was brave and strong and he was doing it for Lily.
Jack dreaded the next Potions lesson. He knew the story had gotten out. Jack knew that he would know.
“I expect your full concentration today,” Snape began silkily, “as this will be a most thorough test of your abilities. Of course, it goes without saying that Sloper will fail spectacularly, so I recommend that everyone keep a safe distance.”
Blood rushed to Jack’s face.
“I have heard tell that he is so inadequate that he managed to knock himself out with his own Beater bat. While this is, of course, the best that the Gryffindor team can manage to put forward, it’s a level of incompetence that I will not accept in my classroom.”
He sneered at the angry Gryffindor faces.
“Begin at your leisure.”
It took only moments for the man to appear at Jack’s shoulder.
“I so look forward to watching your next match,” he whispered. “To see you fail again, as you always do. You really are hopeless, aren’t you?”
“Apparently so,” Jack replied tonelessly.
“Do watch the burdleroot in this potion, Sloper. The slightest mistake in the slicing will have explosive results. And I’d just hate to see more embarrassment heaped on Gryffindor.”
The boy said nothing and Snape drifted away, his presence lingering in the air.
Yet Jack knew he would go back onto that Quidditch field, because they needed him. Even if he was terrible, he was better than nobody, better than his team flying with one man short.
The whole school would laugh at him. He would be a disgrace even amongst his fellow Gryffindors. Snape would hound him mercilessly, revelling in the stench of weakness.
Jack would do it anyway.
“That’s an interesting mirror, Ab,” Albus Dumbledore said conversationally.
Aberforth shrugged, passing his brother a pint of mead.
“Just a piece a’ junk I bought off Dung. Not much use without its twin.”
“Hmmm,” Albus murmured. “The twin happens to be in the possession of Harry Potter.”
The two sets of piercingly blue eyes met across the dusty bar.
“Is that so?” Aberforth asked, his tone wooden. “And why are you telling me this? Attempting to wrap me up in one of your little schemes again?”
Albus Dumbledore smiled. “There may come a time, when I am not around…”
“Want me to look after Potter, eh? Make me a pawn in whatever masterpiece you’re laying around the boy?”
Silence drifted out through the dirty pub.
“No, Ab, I’m trusting you to be the better man, as you always were.”
“You have used me.”
The two men faced each other in the Headmaster’s office.
“I have spied for you, and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter –”
Everything was lost. He thought he had been protecting Lily’s son. He had been doing it for her.
Now what was he living for?
“But this is touching, Severus,” Dumbledore said seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
“For him?” Severus shouted, appalled by the idiocy of the idea. “Expecto Patronum!”
The doe leapt from his wand, blinding Severus with its light, as it always did.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” Severus replied. “And now this has all been for nothing. Her child will die anyway.”
Dumbledore hesitated, as if torn between two choices.
“I swear to you, Severus, that this is what she would have wanted: to see her son grow up happily, to survive to meet his fate and to do a great good.”
Severus ground his teeth.
Perhaps there was some truth in that.
He needed there to be some truth in that.
“Very well,” he said.
The battle was coming to Hogwarts.
And Jack Sloper was leaving.
“Absolutely not, Creevey, go!” McGonagall hollered. “And you, Peakes!”
Jack waited for the two to catch up.
“We can’t not stay,” Colin protested, as they were herded away by the prefects. “Look, Harry Potter is there. This is it. The final battle.”
Jimmy Peakes nodded. “We’re Gryffindors, we stay and fight.”
Jack quietly agreed, but he didn’t say anything.
They were led through the school, quickly, and into a strange room that Jack didn’t remember seeing before; it had a tunnel in it. The students were ushered in by grim looking prefects.
He heard the sounds of Jimmy and Colin talking, though he couldn’t see them in the darkness.
“We can slip away,” Jimmy whispered. “Look there’s a gully there; we’ll hide and let the others past.”
“Yes, let’s do it.”
Jack followed them in.
“That you, Jack?” Colin asked.
“Yes,” Jack whispered.
“Glad to have you with us!” Jimmy declared.
The wand was raised and pointed.
It was the end.
He was to die defending the weak, defending a young boy’s soul, yet die weak himself, on his knees, pleading.
He thought of Aberforth.
He thought of Ariana.
And then he died.
His fingers tried to staunch the blood that was flowing from his neck. He had to complete the mission. He had to get to Potter.
He couldn’t fail.
The thought was unimaginable.
And then, as if in divine response to his desperation, the boy was in front of him.
Yet he couldn’t speak. What was he to do?
Give him the truth, a voice whispered in the back of his mind. All of it.
Yes, let the boy make his own choice. Face what Dumbledore believed to be the necessary truth, or have him run away from it and save himself.
“Take… it… Take… it…”
The memories flowed from him, agonising moments from his life, choice after choice after choice. But it had all been for the best. He had protected the boy. He had been strong. He had done what Lily would have wanted.
It had all been for her.
“Look… at… me…” he whispered.
And as he lost himself in those eyes… the eyes of a good and beautiful person, he let himself hear the words he had so longed for.
Thank you, Sev.
He died happy.
Fire-cracks of light danced through the cool air of a Hogwarts night.
A Death Eater was duelling with Remus Lupin, Jack’s DADA teacher from his first year at Hogwarts.
The three students raced forward to help, but it was too late, Lupin was disarmed and knocked, bleeding terribly, to the ground.
Colin rushed between the fallen man and his opponent.
The spell was blocked.
“Impedimenta!” shouted Jimmy Peakes.
The Death Eater cast a wordless shield charm and Peakes fell backwards onto the ground.
Jack had never duelled.
“Relashio!” he cried, but the spell didn’t work.
He heard Snape’s voice in his mind. He was useless and incompetent. No good to anyone.
Jack tried to block the words out, mustering all his concentration: “Rictusempra!”
A few meagre sparks leapt from his wand, but no more.
The Death Eater laughed.
Physical agony arced through Jack’s body. He fell down to the ground, twisting and writhing, landing next to the dying form of Remus Lupin.
Suddenly the spell was broken.
The aggressor was on the floor, his lip bleeding. Colin had his wand brandished victoriously at him.
Then, in one fluid movement, the man was on his feet, his wand extended.
Colin fell, dead, with a look of victory and pride still etched over his tiny features.
Jimmy was up again, hurling furious spell after furious spell at the laughing Death Eater.
And then, impossibly, Remus Lupin was pulling himself to his knees, apparently unaware of the gaping wound in his chest.
“Have to… get you out…” Despite being wandless, he directed a palm at a nearby rock and screwed his face up in concentration. After several moments, he gasped his victory. “Wards down anyway… Portkey to London…”
Behind Jack, he heard Jimmy knocked down once more.
“Enough practice, little one,” the Death Eater hissed. “Time to join your friend.”
You really are a coward, Mister Sloper. You're going to run away. How pitiful.
He was weak. There was no hiding from it.
Yet he remembered his mother, who had died so that he could make something of himself. He shook off the doubt, those words of cruelty, for just one single moment.
Jack pointed his wand at the Portkey and it shot from the ground.
“Avada Kedavra!” a voice cried nearby.
The Portkey struck Jimmy Peakes, activated and stole him away, moments before the green spell crashed into the cold earth where he had lain.
Remus Lupin stared at Jack, shock evident on his features.
Then he gave the boy the smallest respectful nod… before the green light of a killing curse took them both.
Sometimes, when Harry was standing over the plaque that marked the list of the dead, he would notice the name ‘Jack Sloper’, remember the boy who knocked himself out with his own Beater bat and wonder vaguely how he died.
Other times, he would look at ‘Albus Dumbledore’ or ‘Remus Lupin’ or ‘Sirius Black’ and remember them for their wisdom, kindness or love.
And yet, more often than not, his gaze would linger on ‘Severus Snape’, a person Harry believed to be the bravest man he had ever known.
Author's Note 2: It is a sign of weak writing when an author has to leave notes to explain what they meant by a piece. So I take the weakness of my writing onboard cheerfully. The piece is inspired by Harry's comment at the end of DH that Snape is probably the bravest man he ever knew. And while there is an element of truth to the suggestion, this story would politely suggest that bravery comes in many forms. As does cowardice.