Harry Apparated onto Platform 9 ¾ and looked around. He had never been there at such a late hour and the rising moon cast long shadows on the landing, emptying Harry of every hope that this nighttime visit would be nothing worse than visiting an old friend. The Hogwarts Express stood like a cold iron monument, and Harry imagined for a moment that he could turn back and end the night comfortably in front of the fire with Ron and Hermione instead of on a bare platform by himself.
Stuffing his invisibility cloak in his pocket, Harry pulled himself up to the roof of the engine car as quietly as he could. Once he found himself atop the train, he pulled out his wand and touched it to a rectangular lid in the center of the roof. “Alohomora!” he whispered, and the lid popped open.
He had no chance to look inside. At that moment, Harry was acutely aware that he was not alone. He leapt to his feet and thrust his wand in the air behind him, turning in time to see Severus Snape’s wand fly out of his hand.
“Non-verbal disarming charm, well done, Potter. I daresay you’ve finally caught up to the rest of your peers on last year’s material.”
“Snape.” Harry's surprise quickly turned to anger. “You’ll find I can be an excellent student when I’m not trying to learn from you,” he snapped, his wand aimed directly at Snape’s chest.
Although the former Potions Master sneered in his usual way, Harry thought he detected a trace of anxiety in Snape’s features that he had never seen before. “You are still a shamefully poor Occlumens. It is any wonder that the Dark Lord himself could not hear your raucous thoughts,” he remarked dryly. “You should be grateful I found you before he came here himself.”
“Let him come. Neither of you frighten me,” Harry retorted, vaguely aware of an icy tingle in his fingertips as he glared wrathfully at Snape. "Just try and stop me!"
“Always an arrogant dunderhead. I did not come here to kill you!”
“Yeah? Still saving me for your master, then? It's been sixteen years since you served my parents to Voldemort and you’ve finally got me alone, so why not finish what you started?” he snarled.
Harry felt hot anger rise behind his eyes as he took another step towards Snape.
“You betrayed Dumbledore, who wouldn’t hear a bad thing said against you even after I warned him you and Malfoy were up to something,” began Harry in a cold and quiet voice. “You called my mother a ‘Mudblood’, your endless bullying practically drove Sirius to his death, and since the first day you set eyes on me, you’ve taken out every ounce of hatred you ever had for my dad on me!" Harry sucked in a ragged breath as a thirst for vengeance gripped his heart. “I'd hoped we'd meet again someday," he said darkly, rotating his wand for better aim. "And now… Dumbledore can’t protect you.”
Harry advanced on him, but to his surprise, Snape backed away, glowering.
“Fool! You don’t know anything about me!”
“I know you're a murderer!”
“Then why don’t you do it? You have the wand, so why don’t you kill me?” Snape hissed. “I know why! It's all right there in your mind! You’re curious. You want to know why I did it! Say it, Potter! ‘Why is Dumbledore dead?’”
Harry stared at him in a mixture of rage and astonishment, all the while utterly furious at his constant inability to keep Snape out of his head. But Snape was right - he had been more than curious. He had wondered about it almost obsessively for a year. Perhaps retribution could wait.
“All right, then. Go on, let’s hear it," said Harry through gritted teeth, his wand fixed on its mark. "Though you’ll need better than Legilimency to make me believe a word you say."
"Well, we certainly can't rely on your staggering intellect to deduce the truth, now can we?" Snape remarked, raising an insulting eyebrow.
In a flash of red light, Harry sent a curse careening past Snape’s face that struck the roof of one of the train cars behind him, leaving a gaping, smoking fissure in the metal. Harry looked back at Snape’s startled expression with satisfaction.
"Don't mistake me for being patient, sir."
There was a pause, and then Snape squared himself. “I made an Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa Malfoy,” he began. “She came to me some time after your misadventures in the Department of Mysteries to beg my protection for her son, Draco…” Harry felt bile rise up his throat. At every mention of Malfoy, Harry recalled with vivid detail the day he had found him crying in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, haunted by the memory of the crimson stripe of blood across Malfoy’s body issued from Harry’s own wand. Harry had considered it tremendous good fortune that Draco could not return to school. The last thing he wanted was a constant reminder of his own carelessness.
Snape took no notice of Harry’s sudden change of pallor and continued. “I knew from Dumbledore that Voldemort had given Draco a formidable assignment that would put his life in grave peril, and though he insisted that I take whatever necessary measures to ensure both Malfoy’s safety and my place among the Death Eaters, Dumbledore refused to share with me the details of Malfoy’s task,” Snape explained matter-of-factly. “I had no choice but to convince Narcissa that Voldemort, who confides in no one, had confided in me and shared the secret. Ultimately, I accepted the terms of the Unbreakable Vow, but it was not until several months later that Dumbledore finally exposed the plan to which Voldemort had appointed Draco.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re a Legilimens,” Harry argued. “You could have just broken into Narcissa’s thoughts and found out what Malfoy was ordered to do.”
“And be discovered by Bellatrix, an equally skilled Legilimens? I think not.”
"You'd already lied to Narcissa without Bellatrix finding out."
Snape frowned condescendingly at him. "If you had not been so careless with our lessons you might have eventually learned that one cannot perform Occlumency and Legilimency at the same time."
Harry eyed him with skepticism. “All right, then, why wouldn’t Dumbledore tell you Malfoy was planning to kill him? You were a member of the Order,” he said.
“No doubt Dumbledore knew I would not go through with it if I had known Voldemort’s plan before making the unbreakable vow. He had left me no other option than to obey his command.”
Harry took another step toward Snape, his knuckles white from his vice-like grip on the wand. “Do you expect me to believe Dumbledore wanted you to kill him?” he asked, at once feeling insulted as much for Dumbledore as for himself.
“No,” snapped Snape, a flash of color spreading onto his gray face. “I am saying that Dumbledore did not wish for Malfoy to become a murderer, and realizing how extremely important my position among the Death Eaters was to the success of his plan, Dumbledore seemed to understand that, given these impossible circumstances, he was expendable.”
Harry’s heart leapt into his throat, and his arms began to itch with the intense longing to throw Snape from the roof of the train. “EXPENDABLE? Did he tell you that, or is that what you told yourself after you killed him and ran off like the miserable coward you are?”
"Don't call me coward!"
Instantaneously, Snape's composure came apart, his expression tortured.
“How dare you!” he hissed. “How dare you think for a moment that I wanted Dumbledore gone! Don’t you think I tried to get out of it once I discovered what I’d been sentenced to do? That I detested and reviled myself for pledging my complete fidelity to Dumbledore’s wishes once I learned what horrors I was to commit with my own hands? I daresay Dumbledore put too much stock in your intelligence, Potter, if you cannot see the many ways in which his death was not a murder, but a sacrifice he willingly made of himself!”
Harry’s breathing came short and fast as he stood shakily in fear and recognition. He, too, had taken orders from Dumbledore that night – had despised himself more and more with every drop of venomous potion he had poured down Dumbledore’s throat to the sound of the headmaster’s pleading for an end to his torture. Harry relived his guilt over it daily, but then, he had not had a choice either. He had sworn his obedience. Dumbledore had said he’d done well…
Harry stared mutely into Snape’s face and saw himself. He lowered his wand a fraction of an inch.
“The rest of the Order… they think you’re a traitor…”
Snape looked abjectly away. “Another provision of Dumbledore’s design.” Lowering his voice surreptitiously, he added, “You must have known there would come a time when I would have to prove myself on Voldemort’s side if he was to trust me.”
Harry brought his wand to rest at his side. “Then why are you here?”
He surveyed Harry through narrowed eyes. “I had Lupin tipped off to the existence of a Horcrux at this station. A trinket of Godric Gryffindor’s, was it? Well, I am here to tell you that there is no such Horcrux to be found.”
“What?” Harry’s anger was second only to his confusion. “I don’t understand…”
“See for yourself,” said Snape, gesturing to the open sheath behind Harry’s feet.
Raising his wand at Snape once more, Harry backed towards the casement that he had just opened, and, flipping back the lid, his stomach lurched at the realization that the receptacle was in fact empty. Startled and suspicious, he rounded on Snape. “This is a trap!”
“Regrettably, it is not in my best interest to thwart you. I think you’ll agree with me when I say I have had plenty of opportunities,” he said silkily. “No, Potter. What you seek is not here. Although,” he added, sniggering, “there is a Horcrux on this train...”
Harry paused. “Wait. Then it is here...?”
“Yes,” said Snape. For a reason Harry couldn't quite pinpoint, he suddenly felt as though he might be sick.
“Where is it?”
Snape’s mouth curled into a grimace. “In you.”
For an infinite moment, Harry’s mouth hung open in stunned disbelief. “You’re a liar…”
“To the contrary, I am being quite sincere,” replied Snape, his eyes expressionless.
Shaking his head, Harry backed away from him trying desperately to read Snape’s face. “No. I don’t believe you – it’s impossible!"
“Surely you must have wondered why your mother’s sacrifice was so significant,” murmured Snape ominously, taking a step towards Harry. “Voldemort made the mistake of giving your mother a choice. The Dark Lord was set on killing you whether or not she stood in the way-“
“-But he needed only one murder for his soul to be divided. Not two…”
“But it's NOT possible! Dumbledore said... If Voldemort wanted to create a Horcrux, he'd've brought some precious object with him! He couldn't do it with a human being-"
"He did it with Nagini."
Harry stuttered lamely. "B-but he couldn't do it by accident! You need to say the spell!"
"Use your head, Potter!" Snape snarled. "Your death was to be a significant moment for Voldemort! That night was supposed to make his immortality a certainty - he would make his Horcrux and do away with the one ordained by the Prophecy to kill him! But something he did not plan for occurred.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your mother! She came between you both, and though he gave her the chance to escape, she left him no choice but to murder her first. Once she'd been taken care of, he was eager to complete his task. The vessel for his soul was in hand, the words of the spell were uttered, and he took his aim..."
Harry stared breathlessly at Snape. "And then?"
"And something happened no one could have predicted. The curse deflected."
Harry's mind was a whirlwind. "I don't understand..."
“Even Lord Voldemort did not foresee his fatal error in trying to destroy you after murdering your mother," Snape remarked in a far-off voice. "Her sacrifice gave you a very rare protection indeed. From the moment he tried to kill you, everything went wrong. You failed to die, the broken shard of his soul went into the wrong vessel, and when the curse backfired, Voldemort's corporeal self was destroyed – but NOT without leaving something behind!” Snape pointed a trembling finger at Harry’s scar.
Harry’s eyes went wide with horror. “No…”
“Yes, Potter. Lily’s death became the determining factor of both his immortality and of his annihilation. She was the means by which Voldemort created his Horcrux and mortal enemy: you.”
“STOP IT!" Harry bellowed, desperation burning at his throat. It could not be true… it must not be true… And yet, Harry could naught but taste the bitter reality of Snape’s words. How else could he have born so many similarities to Voldemort? Had he not spoken Parseltongue to enter the Chamber of Secrets? Didn’t they share the same ambitious nature that had made it so easy for Harry to cast off rules as though they were meant for everyone but him? He had even seen the Dark Lord’s evil treachery through Voldemort’s own reptilian eyes, partaken in Voldemort's hatred for Dumbledore, and was practically the very visage of young Tom Riddle save for the blackness of spirit that Harry gratefully never inherited.
Just then, he gazed down at his wand in disgust. Their wands were brothers...
"How do you know all this?" Harry demanded.
Snape looked deathly pale in the moonlight. "I know… because I was there," he whispered.
He could not bear to hear anymore. All at once, Harry, who had thrived his whole life on the reassuring thought that, if nothing else, he had been the product of his parents’ love for one another alone, felt defiled and contaminated. The ground seemed to shift out from underneath him, and he stumbled to his knees, fighting back tears.
“My mother died to save me. But it was all for nothing,” Harry murmured. “If what you say is true, it’s not a matter of which of us kills the other. We’ll both die… in the end…” His voice faded to a whisper.
Snape turned away as though Harry’s grief were indecent. “True, your survival is improbable. But it is not impossible.”
Harry looked up at him.
His back still turned, Snape spoke softly. “Do you fear death, Harry Potter?”
It was the first time he had ever heard Snape say his first name in a context that did not involve his ridicule or degradation. He thought seriously about whether dying frightened him for the first time in over a year, and suddenly, as though an dam within him burst open, Harry’s mind flooded with memories he had purposely avoided for fear of being consumed by the pain and yearning they created in him. He thought of his few happy moments with Sirius, of his parents’ joyful faces gazing up at him from Mirror of Erised and their voices encouraging him to stay strong as he dueled with Voldemort, of the safety and comfort he felt whenever he was with his beloved headmaster.
They all had fearlessly faced death for Harry’s sake. His heart swelled with love for them, and Harry reminded himself once more that they were not gone. He felt them inside him as potent and as pure as ever - ever so much more than mere whispers behind a veil.
Harry willed himself to his feet.
Snape spun around – a look of triumph on his sallow face. “Then you are ready.”