Shedding One's Soul
by Persephone Lupin
published: 8th December 2003
SUMMARY: When Severus Snape returns home after a venture for his master early, he becomes witness to a secret that will turn his whole world upside down. Pre-canon. Sequel to ‘A Nightmare’.
DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Severus Snape entered the gloomy house in Knockturn Alley through the backdoor. With only the faint light emanating from the tip of his wand and careful not to make any noise, he made for the staircase. An encounter with his - most probably drunk - father wasn’t exactly what he wished for after his latest mission for his master. Of course, he had been successful, as always, and he had accomplished his task in much less time than. But it had been quite exhausting, and for the moment his only desire was to catch up with several nights’ sleep.
There was still light in the living-room. Severus could see it through the cracks in the old wooden door. And he could hear the muffled voices of Scelestus Snape and Caligula Malfoy. Wonder what deviltry the two of them are plotting this time? Curiosity got the better of him, and he cautiously sneaked up to the door. But what he now heard, should turn his whole world upside down …
Caligula Malfoy despised this fellow Death Eater from the bottom of his heart, but once in a while he was forced by necessity to associate with the sorry excuse of a pure-blood. This time he had come to collect some special ingredients for a certain illegal potion which only Scelestus could provide. And the bastard was not willing to hand over the costly items without making Caligula share a drink with him beforehand. The cheap whiskey burned down Caligula’s throat and made him gag. But the story sounded interesting, some untold secret he might be able to exploit later on, who knows? So, Scelestus and Sylvia weren’t Severus’s parents. Who would have thought of that? With his greasy black hair, pale skin and hooked nose the boy did look like a rather unfavorable mixture of his parents - no, not his parents, if what Scelestus just told him was true and not the meaningless rambling of an old gibbering drunkard.
"And fulsome secrecy might kill you, Scelestus Snape. But anyhow, I don’t believe you. What could be so special about the lad’s origin that the Dark Lord himself would take any interest in the affair?" This was the best way to outsmart the filthy, self-contented bastard. Pretend to not believe in the importance of the information. He’d blab out the secret soon enough, the greasy git.
"You don’t believe me?" Scelestus leaned closer, his boozy breath almost choking the younger man. "And what if your Highness himself dumped the boy onto his most trusted and loyal servant and his wife? What if the Dark Lord is his father?"
"Take it or leave it, then. But I can tell you, there are graves out there, three graves. Our master did a thorough job when he retrieved his boy from that Mudblood whore, who is his mother, and her parents. By the way, I'm sure you knew her. Went to Hogwarts, same year as you and Tom. Quite a beauty. Her name was Helena Evans, Gryffindor."
Caligula gaped. He knew what had happened between his class-mate and fellow Slytherin, the former Tom Riddle, and Helena Evans. But he never knew that there had been consequences. And never ever had he suspected that these consequences could go by the name of Severus Snape.
The young man, whom the two wizards in the living room were talking about, leaned heavily against the door, too stunned to think or move, he hardly remembered to breath. The Dark Lord was his father. The one person who had shown interest, the one who had bought him his wand when he was only three, who had given him fascinating books full of dark magic, who had clapped him on the shoulder when he had managed to cast the Imperius curse on a rat at the age of seven. His admired godfather who had explained the concept of power to him. And who had taught him how to torture and kill on his command. Without thinking. This man was in truth his father. And this father had dumped him into this abusive hell in Knockturn Alley. With a 'father' who had beat him up on a regular basis when he was drunk, and, when sober, lashed out at him with his vicious sarcasm. Even today, he couldn't tell what had been worse. He had learned early how to sneak noiselessly around the house, how to make himself invisible by melting into the shadows - his sanctuaries - which the gloomy house provided in abundance. Just to avoid attracting his 'father's' attention. Sometimes, he had managed to keep out of the way for days. Those were his lucky ones. But then again, his 'father' would seek him out as an outlet for his drunken rages. Or he would demand for his help down in the potions lab.
Severus had always loved the lab. It was the only room in the entire house that was kept clean and tidy though it rather resembled a dungeon than a room. Cauldrons were arranged on smooth stone tables, phials of all sizes, forms, and colors sat orderly on wooden shelves, and all kinds of ingredients were neatly stored in drawers, boxes, and baskets. Others were kept in numerous glass jars on more wooden shelves. Those glass jars with their mysterious contents submerged in nameless fluids always gave him the creeps when he was a kid, but at the same time they held a strange fascination that drew him close again and again. Now, at the age of twenty-two, and with a mastery of potions that exceeded his "father's" by far, he knew the contents of those jars by heart and there was little mystery to it, really, but nevertheless, he could still feel the slight prickle down his spine, the surge of fascination, when looking at them. If it hadn't been for his 'father's' menacing presence and the beating that was inevitably waiting for him after the work session - mostly for no reason at all - he could have been happy in the potions lab.
His 'mother' hadn't been any help, either. In the beginning, she had argued with her husband on behalf of their son a few times, but mostly, she had stared at something only visible in her own dazed mind and was hardly aware of his existence at all. If it hadn't been for Ickly, the old house elf, Severus would surely have died of starvation and neglect long before he ever came to Hogwarts. When his 'mother' died during his 2nd year at school - most probably of some potion overdose - he felt nothing, it didn't make any difference whether she was there or not. Since she had never been there for him. She was no more to him than a once beautiful piece of furniture that had long lost its usefulness and was finally discarded.
But the death of old Ickly that same year had left him devastated. Now he was truly alone and at his "father's" mercy. Would that the summer and those dreaded holidays never came. But they would come as inevitably as the earth would keep on spinning and rotating on its never-ending journey around the sun. The only hope that kept him from utter despair was that his godfather might come visit once or twice during the summer break and bring new books and, if he was very lucky, teach him some new hexes.
His godfather. He could have had a loving family, or at least a mother and grandparents who cared for him, could have lived in the light if not for this "godfather," who was in truth his father. Who had killed his true family. Who had condemned him to a life in hell. Who had made him his soulless slave. A murderer, as heartless as his father himself. The bloody bastard, curse him!
He felt nauseous, sick. Didn't hear the soft steps approaching the door. Didn't notice as Malfoy pressed down the handle. When suddenly the door sprang open, Severus lost his footing and fell backwards into the living-room with a gasp of surprise. Malfoy and Snape senior were no less surprised as the young wizard came tumbling on the floor before their feet.
"What the hell are you doing here, bloody son-of-a-bitch?!" Scelestus inquired, towering menacingly over his fallen "son." He grabbed the flabbergasted Severus by the neck, jerked him upwards, and slammed him painfully into the wall in unconcealed fury.
Though Severus was a couple of inches taller than his old man, being of a rather narrow and lean frame left him unable to physically fight the burly, heavy-set Scelestus, who was, in spite of his drinking habits and his almost sixty years, strong like an ox and always ready to charge.
"You are no father of mine, you bloody, worthless bastard!" he spat with vigor, and with a quick, unanticipated move he freed himself from his "father's" grip, drew his wand and sent Scelestus flying through the room.
That was going to be interesting, a father-son duel, or not father-son after all. Caligula stepped back a little, far from trying to stop the entertaining performance. Scelestus seemed to have sobered up by the excitement, and he was known to be an expert duelist who didn't care for rules. What young Severus was capable of, he couldn't say yet. But considering what his son Lucius had told him about his fellow Slytherin, he knew his stuff, too.
"I can hardly let you two kill each other, can I? As much as I would enjoy the spectacle. But what should I tell the Dark Lord if you were missing at the next meeting? This is for your own good, you know, and mine." And with an elegant wave of his wand Caligula conjured up thick ropes which wound themselves tightly around Severus's arms, chest and legs.
And then, hell broke lose. Severus never knew how he did it, but all of a sudden his burning wrath exploded in a thundering burst of blistering energy. The ropes which bound him flew through the air torn into hundreds of sizzling pieces. And, with a thundercrash, half the ceiling came down upon his attackers, the heavy wooden beams burning like torches from purgatory.
The whole room caught fire instantly. Severus, exhausted from the powerful display of wandless magic, stumbled towards the door through dust, smoke and flames, blocking out the frenzied screams of deathly pain coming from the one he used to call father as the flames consumed him. Malfoy, at least, had found a quicker death.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There would be people here soon. He had to get away. But where should he go? What the hell was he supposed to do now? Severus couldn't think, couldn't concentrate. He wanted out, out of here, out of this nightmare. And he wanted revenge. His father had betrayed him - now he would betray his father. Strangely enough, the thought had a calming effect. At least, he had a purpose now. Left him to figure out a strategy, though. But not now. Some time later when his head stopped feeling ready to explode any minute. Now he had to get away. He had to.
Too drained to dare Apparate, he slowly dragged himself to his feet. Without looking back at the inferno of flames he had created, Severus summoned up the last remnants of energy left to him, and staggered out of the garden.
Aimlessly, he drifted down along the nightly streets, oblivious to the cold and the pouring rain. Finally, he ended up in some nameless park and collapsed onto a timeworn wooden bench. He closed his eyes. But sleep didn't come, only images of his Death Eater existence, of the raids, the chaos, flames and blood. The faces of the people he had tortured and killed. The screams. And above all, the cold, menacing voice and the high-pitched maniac laughter of his master. Of his father. He wanted to retch with disgust and self-loathing.
How he hated it now, hated himself, hated the mark that bound him to the Dark Lord forever. The mark of evil, of sin and damnation burned into his flesh. And though he knew it was in vain, though he knew it would never come off, he tore and clawed at the mark on his left forearm with teeth and nails, welcoming the pain. But clawing wouldn't do. In the pockets of his heavy traveling cloak, he found the little knife he used for collecting herbs and cut at the bloody mark that still grinned viciously in his face. He cut deep.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The cold and dreary December morning found Severus on the damp ground, slowly awakening from unconsciousness. His head throbbed and there was a numbing pain pulsing through his left arm. He neither knew where he was, nor why he was still alive. He shivered from the cold, his drenched cloak providing no comfort. He felt more miserable than ever before, dizzy and nauseous, and just wanted to curl into a ball and die in this godforsaken park.
But there was something he had to do first. Before giving in. - Revenge. That was it. He clung to the word as to a lifeline. And suddenly, the image of an old wizard with long white hair, a long beard and twinkling blue eyes behind half-moon spectacles formed in his mind. Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore. The headmaster. Of course. He would listen. If he turned himself in to the Ministry they would throw him into Azkaban without a second thought, or have the Dementors's Kiss performed on the spot. Not that he didn't deserve it. He knew, he did. He would even welcome it. It would make an end to the chaos of emotions, to the terrible memories that kept on flooding his sanity after the revelation of the evening before had broken down his mental defenses. But first he wanted to cause as much damage to Voldemort as possible. Tell the enemy all he knew. Dumbledore would listen before condemning, and he would know what to do ...
His resolve made, Severus shakily got to his feet, fighting back the dizziness and pain. Apparating was no option in his current state. Left the Knight bus. The ride might even allow him some time to get out of his mental stupor, think through his decision. Plan what to tell Dumbledore. Strategize. Probably, a first strategic step would be to dry himself and tidy up a little. Why hadn't he cast a waterproof spell before running out into the rain? And the blood on his robes and hands, though exclusively his own for once, wouldn't make a good impression, either.
His hands groped for his wand. But it wasn't in his pockets. Damn it! The wand was buried and burned in that cursed house that used to be his home. Together with his most beloved ‘father.’ And Lucius's. This thought, at least brought some satisfaction. Two useful minions less for the Dark Lord. But no wand was a bad thing, he almost felt naked without it. Couldn't be helped, now. And it spared the Ministry the process of breaking it ...
The Knight bus. Luckily it could be summoned without a wand. Severus gave the required signal, and with a plop the bus appeared out of nowhere at a terrifying speed. The young man had to quickly jump backwards to avoid being run over. Bloody madman of a driver! The bus came to a halt with breaks screaming, and the door opened.
When Severus entered, the elderly driver's eyes almost popped out of his head. If it hadn't been clear daylight by now, he would have sworn this deathly pale, rain-soaked and bloodied youngster was a Vampire on the run. But he hadn't heard of any light-resistant Vampire breed yet. So there surely was a rather harmless explanation for the unusual appearance. Probably a little drunk-fight with a friend? His sympathetic curiosity and good-naturedness took over again after the first shock.
There were quite a few passengers, mostly witches with their children going Christmas shopping. They all stared but one glare was enough to make the gawking kids look the other way, horrified. Even whispering seemed too dangerous in the sinister looking man's presence.
In a dark corner, Severus found himself a secluded seat and sat down. When the bus took off with a sudden jerk, he almost tripped, muttering curses under his breath. This definitely didn’t help with his nausea. He had to concentrate hard to not vomit. Probably he better lay down. Gingerly, Severus got up again and sprawled his long limbs on one of the thin mattresses which hadn’t yet been tucked away after nightshift. This was better. But he was soaked to the skin and so cold his teeth began to clatter. When the obnoxious driver came up to the rear and dropped a blanket on the freezing man - luckily without a word - Severus only managed a weak half-glare before coiling up under the woolen cover.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hogwarts. Severus opened his eyes from an uneasy slumber full of images of fire and death. At his graduation four years ago, he had been sure he would never set his foot on Hogwarts’s ground again. Not if he could help it. The school had been much more of a home to him than any before, that was true. But it had been a relief to finally get away from the morons who were his classmates and the suspicious glares of the predominantly incompetent teachers, nevertheless. Not to forget the humiliating pranks by Saint Potter plus disciples and the unnerving twinkle in the Headmaster’s eyes. Though the twinkling was much preferable to the cold, piercing wrath in those same eyes that seemed to strip their human target naked to the bone.
He shuddered. Being subjected to this glare wasn’t something he looked forward to encounter a second time, though, most likely, he would exactly have to face this and even worse before the day was done. Potter, of course, had never been the target of Dumbledore’s calm rage. Not even this stupid dude Sirius Black or the werewolf. No, it had been Severus alone who got the whole measure after nearly having been killed by the ‘holy trinity.’ They were noble Gryffindors after all. And he was nothing but an evil Slytherin snake.
If he only had left for America after graduation, or Australia, Alaska even. Anything would have been better than stay. Stay and join the Death Eater ranks together with several of his house-mates. And return to that blasted house in Knockturn Alley to help his ‘father’ brew potions for the Dark Lord. Or acquire rare ingredients for his Lordship’s experiments. But he had been too deeply involved already, would have done anything to gain his godfather and master’s recognition. He had just returned from one of those ventures, this time to retrieve a certain marine slug that is said to hold a very potent poison. He still had the jar with the pickled animal in his pockets …
And now, he was returning to Hogwarts of his own will. How ironic. To the smiling and trusting old fool of a Headmaster, as so many believed. But Severus knew better. He had seen the slumbering beast in Dumbledore’s eyes. Beware if that beast ever broke lose.
Wordlessly, Severus got off the bus and walked up to the school’s impressive iron gate. With a creak, the huge wings opened. It was late afternoon by now, and still raining slightly. Severus prayed to heaven - or hell, whichever granted his wish - that the students and staff would be still occupied with classes and not crowding the hall and corridors. The very last he wanted to experience now was to run into a flock of frolicking first-years. Drawing up his hood against the rain and curious glances, he proceeded on the way to the main entrance.
He still felt cold and dizzy, and the closer he came to the castle the more nervous he became. When he reached the large wooden door he was on the verge of panicking, could hardly keep himself from turning and running. Draw the bell, you bloody coward, he scolded. And with hands shaking he followed his order.
Oh joy! Of all the teachers it had to be Minerva McGonagall, the stern Gryffindor Head of house, who answered the call. She surveyed him up and down through the half-opened door, eyebrows raised in legitimate suspicion.
"Who are you, Mister, and what is your business? Explain yourself!" Her voice was exactly as scathing and reprimanding as Severus remembered from his school-days. Don’t show your nervousness, now, by all means, pull yourself together! He steeled himself against her piercing gaze.
Snape. That rang a bell. An alarm bell to be true. She remembered the boy. Very intelligent, ambitious, and exceedingly arrogant. A loner who mostly kept to himself and his books when he wasn’t engaged in this outrageous personal feud he had going on with James Potter and his fellow Gryffindors. Nothing good to expect from this side. A cunning, treacherous, sneaking little Slytherin snake, no doubt. And wasn’t this blood on his cloak?
"Not your bl… ." No, not good. Not good at all. You didn’t yell and swear at the Professor. She’d deliver you a scathing lecture on how to behave and then bang the door into your face. Calm down and try again.
"You must understand, Mr. Snape, that these are dangerous and busy times. I cannot possibly let you walk into school and occupy the Headmaster’s valuable time without checking the legitimacy of your request. Now, Mr. Snape?"
"I can’t." His voice was hoarse, almost a whisper. Not much of the proud and arrogant Slytherin she remembered from the years past was left now. With eyes fixed to the ground, hands trembling and obviously fighting back tears, her former student reminded her of a frightened first-year waiting for detention. The usually well-hidden motherly part of Professor McGonagall took over, the part that even held some comfort and pity for a lost Slytherin.
"I lost it." Black eyes staring intensely into hers. That boy definitely looked as if he had lost more than merely his wand. Should she call Madam Pomfrey? But then again this might be of some importance. Making up her mind, she finally let Severus in.
The way to the Headmaster’s office seemed to take him hours. Just setting one foot before the other was a terrible strain. At the same time, Severus wasn’t prepared to actually find himself standing before the stone gargoyle that warded the entrance to Dumbledore’s realm, yet. What on earth should he tell the man? Would he listen at all? But there was no way back, now.
"Follow me." Professor McGonagall stepped onto the ascending staircase. Just looking at the ever spiraling movement made Severus dizzy again. He closed his eyes and followed the Professor gingerly. He did feel sick. But it wouldn’t do to come here and throw up into Dumbledore’s face. Or pass out on his doorsteps.
"You wait here and don’t mess around." McGonagall rapped at the oak door with the griffon-shaped brass knocker while surveying Severus again. The boy does look sick. Definitely feverish if nothing worse. The door opened silently. With a worried frown on her face, Minerva entered her superior’s office and whispered a few warning words into Albus’s ears. The Headmaster’s face was grave as he called Severus in.
"I guess I can cope with a wandless youngster, don’t you think so?" A smile played around the corners of his mouth, but it didn’t reach the eyes. One glance at Severus in his wet, bloodstained black cloak had convinced him that this wouldn’t be a pleasant tea-and-cookie discussion. The young man was nervous and frightened. And Albus sensed a strong undercurrent of guilt and despair mingled with loathing.
"Turn yourself in?" Dumbledore held the gaze as if looking deep into the soul of his former student, reading his very thoughts and feelings, revealing all the dark secrets, exposing his entire life. Shuddering, Severus averted his eyes.
And now, a painful interrogation began. It seemed to last for hours. Severus had finally accepted the seat Dumbledore had magiced to his side. He felt lightheaded and had to concentrate hard to follow the rapid succession of questions. But he would answer them as truthfully as he could. Give away as much information on Voldemort and his Death Eaters as possible. Provide his enemies with a decisive advantage, so they could bring the monster down one day. As a member of the Inner circle, he knew a lot, as much as one could possibly know considering the fact that Voldemort didn’t trust anybody except himself.
After joining the Death Eater ranks, Severus had quickly advanced to this Inner circle of the organization, in spite of his youth. None of his classmates had achieved that much, not even Lucius Malfoy. Merit came before name and status among the Death Eaters, and the Dark Lord had been the very first person in all his life to acknowledge Severus’s brilliant mind, his talent and thirst for knowledge, as well as his desire to not be at the receiving end any longer but to be the one in power. But now, he had found out that all this were delusions as his entire life had been a lie. He was nothing but a willing tool of terror. Had tortured and killed. Probably not with the sick pleasure many of his accomplices in crime displayed during a raid. But with cold calculation. He had believed in the cause, in their leader. Had swallowed the doctrine of pure-blood superiority from early childhood on. Had despised half-bloods, Mudbloods and Muggles with all his heart. And now, all this was shattered. He was a half-blood himself. And he was a mass-murderer.
Dumbledore’s face was lined with suppressed anger and fatigue. What he heard made him sick. How could this boy, hardly a man yet, just sit there and confess the most terrible atrocities in such a quiet, detached voice? He could slap him in the face. And why on earth had he come here, to him, in the first place? Death Eaters didn’t just drop by and pour out their hearts – provided they had one – without bargaining. Always it was information for remission, for a new identity, a new life in the States. How he hated this scum that got away unpunished. And, most often, the information they gained was rather marginal. But this boy was different. He didn’t only give detailed and profoundly important information on how the terror organization worked, how Voldemort’s mind worked, but hadn’t mentioned any bargain yet, not once.
"No, he’s dead. But they weren’t my parents, anyway." Had it been only yesterday that he had overheard the conversation in the living-room? It seemed ages ago now. Far, far away. Everything seemed to be increasingly far away, remote and bleary. Even the Headmaster who sat behind his desk only a couple of feet away. Dumbledore’s voice ebbed and flowed like waves on some distant, rocky shore. The faint buzz in the back of his head had become a maddening cacophony of sounds and there were searing flashes of light disturbing his vision. He was slipping …
"Severus?" The young wizard in his arms didn’t respond. He felt hot to the touch and was obviously delirious. With a sigh, the aging Professor magically transformed the chair into a sofa and gently laid him there. A sick Death Eater to worry about, that was exactly what he needed on top of all his worries and work. He could contact the Ministry and hand him over, he was a murderer after all and didn’t deserve any better. But something kept Albus from doing so, some vague feeling that there was still hope for the boy, that he wasn’t entirely evil. That he might merit a second chance. A plan began to form in his mind.
"No need to hurry a decision." Albus muttered to himself. The boy wasn’t in any condition to run away or cause major trouble for some days. Better sleep it over. There were many questions still unaccounted for, anyway. But they had to wait. He cast some powder into the fireplace.
"Albus, how could you interrogate the lad? Even a blind man would have noticed that he is sick with a bad fever. And look at his robes, they are drenched with rain and blood! You should have called me immediately!" Dumbledore gave her a slightly guilty look.
Still scowling with indignation, Madam Pomfrey pointed her wand at Severus, moving it slowly up and down the length of his body. His pale face was covered in sweat, his whole body shivering with chill.
"Looks like pneumonia with high fever and ague," she announced the results of her medical screening. "And he has lost quite a bit of blood. His blood pressure is much too low, what explains his passing out."
"No, Poppy. We can’t. He’s a Death Eater." Pomfrey’s face fell, her eyes widened in horror. "Nobody must know he is here. For the boy’s own safety. I have not figured out yet why exactly he has come to Hogwarts and neither do I know what to do about all this, but it has to be kept secret by all means," said Dumbledore with conviction.
Snape. Of course. How could she not recognize the young wizard? He had given her at least a few more strands of graying hair. She would never forget the days and nights she had spent at the bedside of a deadly pale twelve-year-old Slytherin by the name of Severus Snape, fearing for his life. It had happened right after the welcoming feast. One of the last students to leave the Great Hall, the scrawny Slytherin had suddenly collapsed to the floor, moaning softly and clutching his abdomen. Acute appendicitis was what first shot through her mind then, or probably some malicious prank. But it was worse. When she had reached the boy’s side, he was already unconscious with an acute liver failure. She was in a bad predicament because the strong healing potions she had to give him, in turn, would have a negative effect on his damaged liver. So, she had to be very cautious with the medication. He had pulled through in the end, but it was a close call. And he had ended up with a slight chronic insufficiency of the organ.
The Mediwitch had had the worst suspicions about what had caused the dangerous injury and the many bruises that had covered the dark boy’s body but he had stubbornly insisted that he had fallen on the stairs. His parents never showed up to visit their perilously sick son, not once. Hadn’t responded to the urgent Hogwarts owl at all. No presents, no get-well cards. As if they didn’t care at all. Nor were there any friends to visit or bring chocolate frogs or candy. The boy’s loneliness had cut through the Mediwitch’s compassionate heart, and she had promised herself to keep a sympathetic eye on him. But after he had been released from the hospital, the busy witch had soon forgotten about her promise. And Severus had never been seriously ill after the incident.
"Albus," Pomfrey returned to the present from her musings. "I fear, this will be more complicated than I anticipated at first. Usually, I could treat these symptoms within two, three days at the most, but in this case … . I cannot use any strong healing potion in high dosage because of the boy’s weak liver."
"How do you feel today, Severus?" There was genuine concern in the old wizard’s voice. Severus wanted to answer, but there was no voice there. Only an unintelligible, rasping croak followed by a whacking coughing fit that caught him by surprise, and left him gasping for air.
"Steady, steady now. Here, my son, drink a bit. This will do you good." The Headmaster slid a supportive arm behind the sick wizard’s neck and raised his head to a steaming cup of herbal tea. It smelled of sage and honey. He was thirsty, indeed. He could have drunk an entire river. But after a few sips he was too tired to even swallow. He closed his eyes again and sank back into the softness of the pillows, the Headmaster’s concern like a warming blanket around him. He had called him ‘son’ …
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next time he woke up, Dumbledore wasn’t there. But he could discern a softly snoring figure resting in the armchair by the fireplace. The mild winter sun shone through the narrow window, and he could see the sky, a stripe of immaculate azure. Like Dumbledore’s eyes. The unfamiliar room was small and sparsely furnished. But it was definitely not one of the wards in the hospital wing, he was sure about that. Besides the picture of some lonely, rugged coast and a troubled sea - a stark contrast to the lovely weather outside - there were no personal things. A guest room, perhaps? On the bedside table were many phials filled with various healing potions and, gratefully, he noticed a mug filled with tea. It was the same sage-honey blending, and it was still hot.
Severus sat up a little and reached for the mug. He also felt very hungry, all of a sudden. But he didn’t want to wake up the sleeping witch. Instead, he leaned back and enjoyed the tea and the quietude. It would be over soon enough, he was sure of that. They would interrogate him again, stir up all those images of burning houses, Muggles writhing in agony, wizards and witches killed in a flash of green light. And the Dark Mark blasphemously marring the velvety dark of the night sky. No, he would not think of this, yet. He would cherish the short time of peace that was granted him before returning to his personal hell. Just a few minutes of peace …
But the beast in his mind was already awake, releasing a surge of self-accusation and guilt that could not be dammed up. The flood advanced on him full force without mercy. Severus closed his eyes again, trembling with the turmoil of emotions, droplets of perspiration appearing on his temples and brow. He moaned in exasperation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Severus?" Professor McGonagall asked softly, her gaze directed towards the place where the sounds came from. The sick wizard had buried his face in the white pillows, his entire body shaking with agitation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When the Mediwitch entered the sick-room, she found her patient in Minerva’s arms almost coughing his lungs out. He was deathly pale, his haggard face glistening with perspiration and not yet dried tears, his pitch-black eyes feverish and full of anguish and despair.
The Mediwitch had a fair idea about what was going on in her patient’s agitated mind. He had talked a lot in his feverish dreams. Incoherently, most of the times. But she had learned a lot about him, nevertheless. That she had indeed been correct with respect to her strong suspicions towards Severus’s father, for example. The boy hadn’t fallen down the stairs but had been beaten up so badly that he had almost died of the injuries. By his own father. She had talked to Albus about her suspicions then, but neither of them had taken any action to protect the boy from his abusive family. But why hadn’t they? Because he was only a hopeless Slytherin? Because he had grown up at Knockturn Alley and had known more curses prior to entering Hogwarts than most of the students at their graduation? Had they given up on the boy from the very beginning, she, Dumbledore, and the rest of the staff? And now, he had become a Death Eater, a murderer marked by "You-Know-Who." She had seen the ugly mark grow back on his bandaged arm as clear and vicious as ever ...
What was it called again? – Pygmalion effect, that was it. Self-fulfilling prophecy. They had expected Severus to succumb to the Dark arts, to seek out the enemy, and he had just fulfilled their expectations. And they had never done anything to prevent it, none of them. Were they guilty, too?
"Here, drink this, my lad. It will drive away the nightmares and ease the cough." It was a strong sleeping potion combined with a cough suppressant, much stronger than she felt comfortable with, but the young man was so shaken, a mild concoction of valerian would never do. She’d have to carefully monitor his sleep, so she could detect any negative effects on his liver early and take the appropriate countermeasures. Another sleepless night, then. She sighed. Luckily, there would be Christmas holidays soon with only a handful of students left at school, and she would have ample time and leisure to catch up on her sleep. When this mess was over.
The rumbling of his stomach awoke him late the following morning. The delicious smell of cinnamon and vanilla was tickling his sensitive nose. Slowly, Severus opened his eyes. Still the same room, the same picture above the bed, but the sea was calm now and seagulls were floating on the merry waves. There was nobody in the room besides him, but a tray with fragrant, creamy porridge was placed on the bedside table. And the usual mug of sage tea. He sat up and reached for the compelling dish. The flavor was even better than the scent. He couldn’t remember ever having eaten something so delicious.
From the adjacent room he could hear low murmurs. Was it the Headmaster’s voice? He was almost positive. A female voice he identified as Professor McGonagall’s. But there were more voices, voices he couldn’t place. The low droning and the warm and satiated feeling in his stomach made him sleepy again. He dozed off on a cloud of vanilla and cinnamon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the meantime, the discussion in the Headmaster’s office took on a fiercer note. Alastor Moody, renowned veteran-Auror, and Sirius Black, one of the younger members of the Order of the Phoenix, were standing and agitatedly trying to talk Dumbledore out of the plan he had just outlined.
"He admitted himself that he helped torture and murder half a dozen innocent Muggles at least, not to speak of the three Ministry Aurors and their families! How can you possibly think of letting the bloody Death Eater go free, Albus?!"
"I never said I would let him go free, Alastor. I only asked you to consider the possibility of offering Mr. Snape a second chance under the condition that he works for us as a spy. Given that he can satisfactorily answer the remaining questions and is willing to join our side and take the oath, that is."
"You would admit the greasy git into the Order? He’s a bloody sneaking, treacherous Slytherin! He’d sell us to his bloody master the second he got out of here!" Sirius foamed, trembling with frustration.
"Sit and calm down, mate. Honestly!" James Potter had put a hand on his best friend’s shoulder and firmly pressed him back into his seat. "Albus would never do anything rash or dangerous. You know that. And we dearly need a spy in Voldemort’s ranks. We haven’t been able to prevent a single raid yet, safe a single life, in spite of all the sweat and work we’ve been putting into the Order. Voldemort has been outwitting us for years. The Inner circle of the Death Eaters, think of it! A spy there could make the difference, could give us the upper hand for once, don’t you understand?"
"I never said I trusted young Mr. Snape. But I have learned a couple of things about the boy that made me wonder whether he ever had a choice. He has yet to earn our trust, but I’m ready to give him a try, a second chance. And I dare say he’ll take it." There was conviction in Dumbledore’s voice.
"No, I’m Albus." Dumbledore forced a smile. Then, turning to the other members of the Order’s core group, he continued, "That makes it nine versus two for a second chance, if I’m correct. I’ll inform you about the outcome of my further negotiations with Mr. Snape as soon as possible, then. You are certainly aware of the delicacy of the matter, so no word to anybody. Not even to Lily or Peter." There was a slight warning in the Headmaster’s voice as his gaze met the eyes of the notorious triplet that was James Potter, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin.
"Then it’s high time for you to find yourself a wife, mate, if that’s what it takes!" James chuckled and slapped his grumbling friend heartily on the shoulder. "There are many beautiful girls out there waiting for you, old Padfoot, get one and start a dynasty!"
"The problem is there are too many. I can’t possibly pick just one and break the hearts of all the others!" Sirius grinned broadly. He couldn’t stay angry with his friend for long. "What about the Potter-dynasty, by the way?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
He was wandering along a beautiful shore. The ocean lay calm and glittering in the sunshine. A gentle breeze caressed his face and left faint traces of salt on his lips. The scenery looked somehow familiar, but he was sure he hadn’t been there before. Flocks of seagulls were circling high in the air or floating on the silvery water. He wandered on for a while, savoring the peace and quietude of the place. Suddenly, a dark shadow fell upon the land. Black clouds were gathering, quickly blotting out the sun and the blue of the sky. The seagulls cried out and vanished. A cold wind hit Severus in the face, but he couldn’t turn and run for shelter. He was rooted to the spot, breathing heavily against the storm, and staring down at the sea in horror. The merry blue waves had transformed into leaden walls of foaming water, which were advancing on him inescapably. Through the howl of the gale, he heard a cold, menacing voice:
"You cannot run from me, Ssseverusss! You are mine, my creature, bound to the dark. You bear my Mark. I will never let you go!" And with those words, the waves were upon him. Severus fought for his bare life against the combined onslaught of storm and water, struggled for a single gasping breath.
"Help me!" he cried desperately and reached out with his hand. To his utter surprise, it met with something warm and alive. He held on to this something with all his might. The storm was shaking him, slapping him in the face. Now, there was another voice, hardly audible through the deafening gale at first, but growing stronger and more urgent.
"Severus, wake up! It’s only a bad dream! Severus!" Albus Dumbledore had been trying to wake the wildly thrashing and kicking young man, finally resorting to shaking and gently slapping him, but to no avail. He seemed to be locked in a terrible nightmare, his hand clutching convulsively at Albus’s thigh in his troubled sleep.
"I will help you, Severus, if you are willing to help us. And if you cease to squash my leg, that is." He smiled at the confused look in the young man’s eyes and the flushing cheeks as he realized what he was grabbing at.
"I know, my boy, don’t worry, I’ll live." Dumbledore produced a large handkerchief and a box full of candies from the pockets of his silken robes. "Here, my lad, a good sneeze and a lemon drop will make the difference, as I use to say."
"Professor Dumbledore, I was wondering about this picture. I know it sounds weird, but somehow it was in my dream, or I was in the picture, I can’t tell, and suddenly the weather changed ..." He shuddered at the memory.
"Oh yes, the picture changes a lot. And sometimes, I wonder if it might be linked to the mood of the persons in the room somehow. If this is true, you seem to feel much better at the moment." Severus nodded, still contemplating the picture. As he spoke again, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon.
Helena Evans. Professor Dumbledore remembered well the family tragedy that had made the front page of both Muggle newspapers and the Daily Prophet for more than twenty years ago when the Dark Mark had flashed over London for the first time. Four casualties, Andrew and Achillea Evans, their daughter Helena and her little son Perseus. Almost simultaneously, the memories of a deathly pale Helena in a ward in the hospital wing came to his mind. She had taken an abortive potion that had almost killed mother and child, but both had been saved against all odds. And the image of a beautiful young girl with shining red curls happily waltzing in the arms of a dark-haired, black-eyed boy by the name of Tom Riddle. The Yule-ball. That’s when it must have happened. Everything made sense now. Why Helena had been so desperate, why the Evans family had been killed. Tom Riddle had gotten Helena with child, probably raped her, and then he had come to claim his son. The corpse of the baby had never been found ...
"I overheard a conversation between Scelestus Snape and Caligula Malfoy the other day." And then, Severus recounted what he had learned that fateful night only a few days ago. Dumbledore didn’t interrupt the hesitant tale, only nodded now and then. And gradually, the aging Headmaster began to understand why Severus had come to Hogwarts, the boundless hate he must have felt for his Master and Scelestus Snape after the revelation of the dark secret, the turmoil of emotions at the realization that his entire life had been nothing but a lie...
When Severus had ended his tale, Dumbledore stood up and left for his office in silence. After a few minutes, he returned with a couple of newspapers and a Hogwarts Yearbook in his hands. Wordlessly, he passed one of the newspapers to the young man in the sick-bed. On the front page was the picture of a burning house, the flames blazing high into the sky. The title read: "Two wizards killed in a lab accident? Caligula Malfoy, Head of the renowned Malfoy-clan, one of the victims."
"No," Severus answered vigorously. "I did it, and I don’t regret having killed those bastards, though I don’t really understand how it happened." Then, he told Dumbledore about the duel and how the ceiling had come down burning, setting everything on fire.
"You are aware of that what you accomplished that night in the field of wandless magic was quite exceptional?" The Headmaster gave him an inquiring look. "You are a very powerful wizard, Severus. I’m glad you are no enemy any longer." Dumbledore smiled at the perplexed look on the young man’s face. He had obviously expected a quite different reaction to his dark tale.
"No, Severus. Being a Parselmouth isn’t evil in itself. It’s a rare gift. It’s up to the wizard how he uses that gift." Dumbledore locked Severus’s eyes in an intense blue stare. "Don’t despise yourself for your heritage. You are not bound to be evil by your blood. Even if there were something like innate depravity – what I strongly doubt – you can fight it. And don’t forget your mother was a Gryffindor. You carry her genes, too." The old wizard opened the Yearbook. The graduates of 1960. Under the picture of a beautiful but pale and sad-eyed girl with curly red hair Severus could read the name Helena Evans in Gryffindor red and gold. She smiled at him, then averted her face and broke into silent tears.
There were more pictures. One with a happily smiling Helena in red and golden robes holding the Quidditch Cup. Another one showing her in the middle of a group of students all proudly displaying their Prefect badges. And one of the Yule-ball, Helena in the arms of a black-haired young man ... . Severus’s stomach turned as he realized who his mother’s dance partner was. The younger self of the Dark Lord – his father.
He slammed the book shut. That picture was too much. She had looked so happy, so innocent, totally unaware of what would happen to her soon, that the same dark boy she had smiled at lovingly would cold-bloodedly kill her and her parents. How he hated that monster!
Dumbledore passed him the other newspapers. Again, there was a house on fire, but the flames didn’t move. A Muggle paper. It was a frightening sight, nevertheless. The house of his grandparents. The Daily Prophet of the same day displayed a family picture. A couple in their early 50ies with daughter and son, both red-heads like their father, a daughter-in-law with a similarly red-headed toddler in her arms, and a peacefully sleeping black-haired baby in its grandmother’s lap. Severus’s hand began to tremble as he looked at the smiling faces. His family. All dead. Because of him. But were they all dead? Unable to speak, he gave the Headmaster an inquiring gaze while pointing at the people he identified as his uncle, aunt and cousin.
A witch. By the name of Evans. Red hair, a few months older than himself, Muggle-born – no doubt, it had to be Lily Evans. Lily Evans was his cousin. The beautiful girl with the sparkling emerald eyes who had tried to help him once when Potter and his gang had played a particularly humiliating prank on him. And he had called her ‘Mudblood’ in his seething rage … - And now, his only living relative was married to this same James Potter, his nemesis, of all people. He groaned in exasperation.
"You won’t go to Azkaban, Severus. I have other plans for you." Dumbledore sounded very confident, more confident than he actually felt. What if he had misjudged Severus’s intentions? If the boy wasn’t ready for the perilous mission? Could he, Dumbledore, then turn him over to the Ministry after those long days and nights of watching and worrying at the young wizard’s sickbed? He couldn’t deny it, but somehow he had become attached to the boy in spite of what he had done, of what he was …
"I told you, Severus, that I would help you," Dumbledore continued. "But we need your help in return. We dearly need a spy within Voldemort’s Inner circle. And I want you to be this spy." Severus paled. A suicide mission. That was what they wanted of him. They could as well throw him to the Dementors, the Kiss, at least, would grant a quick death, whereas a traitor’s death by the hands of the Dark Lord … He shuddered. He had witnessed several such executions and the memory still made his blood curdle. And those victims hadn’t been spies, just wanted to leave, get out, like that fool Regulus Black.
"I know this will be difficult and dangerous, extremely dangerous. But I wouldn’t ask this of you if I didn’t believe you could do it. As I told you, you are a very powerful wizard, Severus. I trust in your abilities." Dumbledore paused to let his words sink in. "You don’t have to decide right now, though. Take your time. Poppy won’t let you go any time soon, anyway. Not until you are fully restored." He smiled encouragingly at the young man, then left the room, closing the door softly.
The thoughts began to spin in Severus’s head. Dumbledore trusted in his abilities. He trusted him. But did he deserve the Headmaster’s trust? What if he failed? He didn’t even trust himself, not in the least. But was there an alternative? Probably not. Rotting away in Azkaban wasn’t a very appealing prospect, either. As a spy, he might be able to get his revenge, at least, might even be able to somewhat redeem himself. A deathly game, no doubt. But probably worth a try …
It was almost dark outside when Severus awoke. No wonder he was hungry again. There was nobody in the room, but he could hear voices in Dumbledore’s office. Should he call? Before he could make up his mind, however, the door opened and Madame Pomfrey entered the sickroom.
"Ah, you are awake, Severus. Good. Time for your medication, then. And a thorough checkup." When the Mediwitch saw the disappointment on the young wizard’s face, she added with a smile, "and for Dinner. But not before I’m through with you."
The potions tasted abysmal, but as an expert in the field, Severus knew that the worse the taste the more potent the potion and the better the effect. He swallowed obediently, hoping to get finally rid of his annoying cough. The Headmaster joined them when Madame Pomfrey started her examination.
"Much improved, I’d say. The fever is down to 101.3, and the lungs are almost free, hardly any rattling anymore. Another few days of bed rest and he should be as good as new," the Mediwitch answered with a smile of compassion. "Now, let me see your arm, please."
Severus winced. He had totally forgotten about the Mark. Under the sleeve of the white Hospital night-shirt his forearm was still bandaged. What would he find under the white covers? Had the Mark grown back?
"It has grown back, indeed, my lad," the Headmaster said as if reading his thoughts. "And that’s not altogether a bad thing if you consider my earlier proposition." True. The Mark had to be intact and unblemished if he was to return to the Dark Lord as a spy. A mutilated Mark would raise serious suspicion.
Madame Pomfrey removed the bandages with a flick of her wand. And there it was leering at him, the skull and the serpent, the mark of Cain that would never come off. Ever. A few thin and pinkish scars running criss-cross over the ugly Mark were the only reminders of his desperate attempt to remove it.
"You have to apply this salve once a day and the scars will fade completely in no time at all," advised the Mediwitch. "Do you want me to replace the bandages, Severus? Though, it’s not really necessary."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The delicious chicken broth had helped a lot to lighten Severus’s spirits. The Headmaster had not returned yet, so he reached for the Yearbook that still sat on the bedside table. Probably there were more pictures of his mother? He leafed through the pages. Lots of Quidditch pictures. And there she was riding high in the air on her broom, the Quaffle secured firmly under one arm, red locks dancing in the wind. A Chaser. Now, she waved at him, then grabbed the Quaffle with her right hand and sent it flying through the center-loop with ease.
"Ah, you found some more pictures," observed the pleasant voice of the Headmaster. Being thoroughly immersed in the moving image of his mother, Severus had not heard him knock on the door. "Don’t let me disturb you, my boy, we have plenty of time."
"Curls? But – Merlin, how long have I been sick, Professor?" Couldn’t have been for more than a few days, could it? But then the effect of the hair-straightening potion certainly shouldn’t have worn off, yet. It was supposed to last for ten days, and he had applied it only the morning before his return to Knockturn Alley. Scelestus Snape had always hated his unruly curls and had made him use the potion from early childhood on. He was so used to his hair being lank and greasy, he could hardly picture himself with curls anymore. And what would the Dark Lord say if he Apparated to the next meeting looking like a dark version of a tinsel angel?
"I’ll try." He shut his eyes for a few seconds, an expression of deep concentration on his face. At ‘three,’ he opened his eyes again, and the Headmaster cast the mind-reading spell. Images began to rush through Severus’s mind in quick succession. Sylvia Snape in her nightgown staring blankly at a wall, a gloomy room, rather a coop, with nothing in it but an old brass bed and a wooden trunk, a drunken Scelestus Snape pinning a little, scrawny, dark-haired boy to the wall with one hand, hitting him heavily in the face with the other. Blood splattered as the boy sank to the floor holding his broken nose, eyes wide open in terror. – No, he didn’t want to see this. He had closed those chapters of his life for good when the house in Knockturn Alley burnt down two weeks ago. Concentrate. Empty your mind, your emotions. The flow of images slowed down, becoming distant and hazy. Some intruding force pulled and sucked at his mind, but as he fought back the memories the tugging ceased, too. Now his mind was all empty and calm, a totally new and pleasantly peaceful experience. Like floating high above the troubles and toils, the perils and pains of this world. He could do this forever …
"I’m impressed. You are a natural Occlumens, Severus. With a little practice you should soon be able to control this skill and use it to your advantage. And ours." Then a look of concern crossed the old wizard’s face. "You are exhausted, child. I should better let you sleep some more, or Poppy will give me a harsh lecture about not overexerting you."
It was true. He was exhausted. The exercise seemed to have drained all his strength and a leaden sleepiness seeped through his body into his very bones. He sank back into the softness of his pillows, closed his heavy eyes, and fell asleep almost instantly.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Where are you going to live, Severus? Do you have any plans, yet?" Dumbledore asked while sipping his hot chocolate. They were having a late breakfast together in Severus’s room after another straining Occlumency lesson. But today he wasn’t half as exhausted from the practice as the day before, and he definitely was getting better. At third try he had managed to block the Legilimens almost instantly. Images from the Headmaster’s memory then had appeared before his mind’s eye. Dumbledore at the age of five … They both had had a good laugh at little Albus trying to get to the cookie jar on top of the kitchen cupboard. The little sugartooth had ended up stuck on the cupboard after his ‘ladder,’ a precariously swaying construction of chairs and stools, had collapsed under his feet. But he had conquered the cookies …
Severus strongly suspected that Dumbledore had shown him this particular memory on purpose. The Headmaster surely was an expert of both Legilimency and Occlumency and would hardly allow a mere beginner to pry into his mind at random. And seeing the old wizard without beard and spectacles and with chocolate-smeared cheeks instead had certainly eased any remaining tension. A veritable breakfast with ham and eggs had helped a lot, too.
"Sometimes things turn out better than expected." Blue eyes twinkling. "Even a bad pneumonia might have its merits." Severus nodded pensively. His malady had indeed given him time to get a grip on his emotions, to come to terms with his new loyalties. It had bought both him and the Headmaster precious time to reconsider. If it hadn’t been for his illness, he would most probably serve a life sentence in Azkaban right now. Left the question of his future whereabouts. To see the matter straight in the eye, he was completely broke. He owned nothing but the one set of robes he wore when he fled from the burning house. No home, no money, no job, not even a wand. And the heritage of the late Scelestus Snape most probably consisted of nothing but debts. Not exactly much to begin with.
"I guess I’ll have to find a job, first of all. And stay at – some friends in the meantime." Only that he didn’t have any friends he would have asked for asylum. The Slytherins he had hung about with while still in school were all from old and disgustingly rich pure-blood families. The Malfoys, Lestranges, Averys, just to mention a few from the top of the ‘Who is Who’ of wizard society. The Snapes were somewhere at the bottom. They had only accepted him because what he lacked in money he had in brains. And it was much easier to copy of his homework than do the tedious task oneself. Plus, they were slightly afraid of him and his vast knowledge of hexes and dark curses. No, he couldn’t ask any of them for asylum, though they were all fellow Death Eaters by now. It would be too humiliating. And he couldn’t ask Dumbledore, either. He owed the man more than enough already, much more than he could possibly pay back any time soon. He’d manage somehow. But he needed a wand. A wizard without a wand was as useless as a Golden Snitch without wings. Or a Potions master without cauldron. He would miss his lab in Knockturn Alley, he suddenly realized, in spite of all the painful memories. After graduating from Hogwarts, he had had the lab almost for himself most of the times while old Snape was drinking and gambling with his cronies. And since he had taken the Dark Mark on his 18th birthday and killed for the first time - a Muggle woman caught for his initiation - Snape had not dared touch him anymore. The hours on end spent solely in the company of shining cauldrons and clean glassware probably had been the happiest in his life, so far …
"Oh yes, a wand." Another twinkle of blue. "I already started to wonder whether you would bring up the subject at all, Severus." Dumbledore poured himself another cup of steaming cocoa. "Actually, I have given some thought to the matter already. How about Ebony, 12.5 inches, Dragon-heartstring?" To Severus’s utter surprise the Headmaster produced a slender dark wand from one of his pockets. A wand identical to his lost one. How did the old wizard know?
The wand was perfect. Smooth and pleasantly cool in his hand, ideal diameter and length, exactly like his old one. But the surge of magic as he swung it smoothly through the air was even stronger, exploding in a burst of beautiful green and silver sparks that rained down on his bed and the smiling Dumbledore. Must be the Dragon-heartstring ...
"The Mark. He’s calling. I have to Apparate at his side instantly," Severus panted through clenched teeth, then relaxed somewhat as the initial pain slowly diminished. But he knew it would be back soon and with increasing intensity if he didn’t answer the call.
An oath. Great. Exactly what he needed now. Not that he wasn’t willing to join the Order. But oath-taking was definitely not something you could do within the minute. Often it involved long-winded formulas and ceremonies, and time was running short. Dumbledore could not mean to keep him from answering the summons for such a long time. The pain would become devastating. And the Dark Lord would certainly kill him if he Apparated that late.
A beautifully crafted goblet came floating through the open door and settled on the nightstand. There were all kinds of ancient runes carved into the onyx stone, and the handles were formed in the shape of a Phoenix. It was filled with an iridescent substance, the color constantly changing from gold to scarlet.
"Here, Severus, write down your name – your true name – on this piece of parchment with the Phoenix-feather quill, add a few drops of blood to the liquid, and then throw the parchment into the goblet." Dumbledore handed Severus the specified paraphernalia he had retrieved from another pocket of his robes plus a tiny golden knife decorated with a Phoenix head. Severus hesitated only a second before writing ‘Perseus Evans’ on the parchment, then quickly cut his finger and let some drops of blood fall into the goblet. The liquid began to swirl with increasing rapidity, now as red as his blood. The moment the piece of parchment was swallowed in the swirls, golden bubbles formed on the turbulent surface. Suddenly the substance swelled over and burst into flames.
"Professor!" Severus gasped. This couldn’t be right. Had he made a mistake? What if the goblet rejected him? Didn’t want him in the Order? But Dumbledore only smiled. After a few seconds, the goblet stilled again, and on the table lay a shining Phoenix-feather.
"It’s yours," Dumbledore explained, "the token of the Order of the Phoenix. Keep it always with you and hide it well. Best you transfigure it into something inconspicuous. When you need to contact me, conjure a fire and throw the feather into the flames. Now you better get ready. I’ll be back in a minute."
Severus got up, fought the dizziness caused by the sudden movement, and started to dress. His robes had been cleaned and mended, and his Death Eater mask was still in place inside a secret pocket. He added the feather. No time to transfigure it yet. His entire arm was throbbing with pain by now, and he had difficulties to button up his pants and shirt. If he only could Disapparate from the spot, but there was no way to Apparate or Disapparate on Hogwarts grounds. Left the long walk to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. More precious minutes to be lost ...
"Here, my son, this will take care of your hair. And the broom will take you outside the Hogwarts anti-Apparition wards quickly and unseen. You must not return to Hogwarts, mind. Contact me after the meeting as soon as possible, but only if you are sure nobody can overhear our conversation. And one more thing before you take off. Do you know pickled Murtlap flower, Severus?"
"Surely not, Professor." In spite of the increasing pain Severus managed a weak smile while sinking the precious jar into one of the spacious pockets of his travelling cloak. "And thank you - for everything." He opened the large window and mounted the broom.
The very instant Severus Apparated into the circle of Death Eaters, the curse hit him square in the chest. A searing pain shot through his body, a stream of white-hot lava setting every single neuron on flame, making him twitch and quiver violently until finally his knees buckled and he fell to the hard stone floor, writhing in excruciating pain.
"Don’t scream. You must not scream," was all he could think while he clenched his jaws tight, his teeth slicing deep into his lower lip. Every fiber in his body seemed on fire, longed to cry out in agony, but he mustn’t give the monster that satisfaction. Severus had been subjected to the Cruciatus before, since it was one of the Dark Lord’s favorite pastimes to cast the curse on all his minions once in a while and without any apparent reason other than to demonstrate his absolute power. But it had been for no more than a few seconds, then. Though you never got really used to it, it was bearable in a way. Now, the pain wouldn’t cease, but only intensified as the curse was repeated twice, thrice, and ever new waves of pain swept through his body.
"You are late, Ssseverusss. I’ve been waiting for you for many days," Voldemort hissed. Then, his voice turned into a roar, "Nobody makes the Dark Lord wait, ever! Crucio!"
When finally the curse was lifted, Severus was on the verge of fainting. Blood was streaming from his mangled lip, he was panting and coughing badly, trembling all over in the aftermath of the Unforgivable.
"I hope you will remember well this lesson, Ssseverusss. And make sure you won’t disappoint me ever again."
"I won’t, Master," Severus managed to croak between the coughs as he tried to scramble to his feet.
"And what is your excuse, if I may ask?" the Dark Lord purred in a dangerously low voice.
"I was sick." Not really a good excuse since Voldemort expected his minions to appear before him in whatever condition, Severus knew that. But at least it wasn’t a lie. The lies were for later - if there was a later.
"Oh, poor little Ssseverusss was sick?" Voldemort sneered. "Be grateful that I won’t show you what being sick really means - or shall I?"
He wouldn’t plead for mercy, no. Pleading wouldn’t help anyway. Only pathetic creeps like Karkaroff and his likes would try that. Nothing to gain but contempt from both Master and fellow Death Eaters. He would not sink that low ...
"Whatever you think is fitting, my Lord." Severus gritted his teeth in anticipation of another Crucio. But it didn’t come.
"We have important things to discuss and no more time for games. Where is your father?" Black eyes bored into equally black ones, trying to penetrate the young wizard’s mind, the red rims around the dark pupils glowing dangerously and sending chills down Severus’s spine.
Empty your mind. Don’t think of anything. Don’t let him read you, for Merlin’s sake, or you’re done for. You can do it, Severus tried to calm himself, but now he was trembling more from fear than from the Cruciatus. Luckily, nobody seemed to notice.
"Isn’t - isn’t he here?" Severus tried to sound surprised and looked shakily around for the first time as if looking for his father. Scelestus's place was empty as he expected, but Caligula’s had already been filled with a substitute. Lucius?
"No, he is not here, and I thought, you could tell me what happened." There was distrust and a deathly threat in the Dark Lord’s voice. "You are his son!"
Bloody liar. I’m surely not his son as you should damn well know. The hate that was welling up in Severus’s breast actually had a calming effect. He wouldn’t give himself away, wouldn’t confess and crawl to his Master on all fours, licking the hem of his robes and crying for mercy and forgiveness. He wouldn’t disappoint Dumbledore, even if he died for it.
"I haven’t been home for weeks. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he was too drunk to Apparate, my Lord," he lied smoothly. He even managed to put in a bite of his trademark sarcasm that had made him a whole lot of enemies among his peers in school as well as among his fellow Death Eaters, who feared him for his quick and scathing tongue. But the Dark Lord had been rather pleased so far, though Severus wasn’t sure if insulting the deceased Scelestus in front of his Master was a wise idea. Probably not. Scelestus was his very first and most loyal minion, after all.
"Your father never let me wait like you did, boy!" Voldemort thundered, his face contorted in cold rage. "Crucio!"
Definitely not a good idea, was the last thought that shot through Severus’s mind before the pain flooded his consciousness again, worse than ever. Everything drowned in a haze of burning fire. In the distance, somebody was crying out in agony. The voice sounded somehow familiar, but he could not place it. Or was it he who was screaming? Then, the world turned dark as he drifted into oblivion.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hours later, Severus slowly returned to reality. When he opened his eyes, he saw the bleak winter sun shining faintly through the dust-caked windows. The Death Eaters seemed to have left, but his vision was so blurry, he couldn’t be sure. His entire body was aching, every movement causing new flashes of pain. There were puddles of blood on the floor, and his torn robes were soaked in places. But he was alive. And sane. That was at least something. How much worse his ordeal would have been if not for the bite of Murtlap he had swallowed just before Disapparating at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, he did not want to contemplate.
"Ah, you decided to wake up at last." The drawling voice resonated in the hall-like room. "I already thought I’d have to stay in this hole all night and day to watch your pathetic carcass." Severus knew the voice at once, there was no mistaking it. Lucius Malfoy, Caligula Malfoy’s son. They had been room-mates during all those years at Hogwarts, and in spite of Lucius arrogance and annoying haughtiness, they had become friends of sorts. Not like Potter and Black, the inseparable and insufferable duo, but in a Slytherin kind of way. And, strangely enough, and though nobody would admit it, this included loyalty.
"Luc?" Severus asked weakly. He tried to sit up, but sank back again with a groan.
"Pretty mess you got yourself into tonight. And, of course, it’s poor me who has to pick up the pieces," Malfoy drawled on. "What on earth did you think you were doing, Sev? To foolishly aggravate the Dark Lord when everybody knew he had been in the foulest of moods ever since our glorious fathers managed to blow themselves up, or whatever happened." He didn’t seem to be especially concerned with his father’s untimely demise. "Or do you really want to tell me you didn’t know they are dead? Sev? Are you listening at all?" No reaction. Severus had closed his eyes again, there were fine droplets of perspiration on his brow, and his pale skin had acquired a greenish tinge. With genuine concern written on his face – an extremely rare phenomenon in a Malfoy - Lucius strode through the room and knelt down by his friend’s side.
"Sev, what’s wrong? Answer me!"
"Sick." Severus doubled over, his hands clutching his waist, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Lucius did not hesitate. He raised his groaning friend to a sitting position and held him firmly as he threw up bile and blood. He even produced a handkerchief to wipe Severus’s damp face after his ordeal.
"Thanks, Luc," Severus managed after a while. He was still leaning heavily against the blond wizard, who tried in vain to not get his silken robes bloodied.
"Well, we better get you out of here soon. These cuts should be properly looked after. We don’t want the Snape-line to become extinct just now, do we? There are little enough pure-blood families left."
If only you knew ...
"Can you stand? Or shall I use Mobilicorpus on you?" Malfoy smirked. He knew exactly that Severus would rather crawl on all fours than being subjected to that spell ever again. It had to do with Potter and Black and one of their pranks, of course. During their fourth year, Severus had tried to get into the Slytherin Quidditch team as a Chaser and secretly practiced in the evenings before the tryouts. He was a pretty good flyer, but still nobody believed his story about Potter and Black hexing his broom when he woke up in the hospital wing with a broken leg. Instead, the two got awarded twenty Housepoints each for rescuing him! And, of course, they had made sure that there were plenty of students around to see his unconscious form floated towards the Hospital wing by Potter’s wand point. Soon, the entire school knew Potter’s version of the story and, once again, everybody had a good laugh at his expenses. That put an end to his Quidditch ambitions.
"Don’t you dare," Severus spat and shakily struggled to his feet. With Lucius half dragging, half carrying him, they made it slowly to the entrance of the dilapidated house, and crossed the anti-Apparition line.
"Since your house lies in ruins, I propose I’ll take you to the Manor. We have plenty of guest rooms, and our house-elf can fix you up. You surely want to be in good shape for the raid on Saturday. Alastor Moody is celebrating his 50-years on-the-job anniversary, and we should definitely drop by and congratulate, don’t you think so?" But before Severus could answer, the blond had Apparated them to the Malfoys' family seat.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dobby, Lucius’s house-elf, had done a remarkable job. Severus was feeling much better already, lying comfortably between cool and unbelievably light silken sheets, his wounds cleaned and bandaged, and a strong pain-killing potion coursing through his veins, making him pleasantly dizzy and sleepy. All in all, it could be worse. He could be dead, for instance, or mad. Come to think of it, the Cruciatus galore might even have saved his life. If the Dark Lord had conducted a thorough interrogation instead, he might not have stood a chance, natural Occlumens or not. And certainly not if they had given him Veritaserum. So, there was a positive side to the Cruciatus, who would have thought of that?
He was alive, and he even had something of importance to report to Dumbledore. Warn him of the scheduled raid on Moody so the Order could cross the Dark Lord’s plans for once. The only thing that worried him was how he was supposed to stay out of the line of fire if it came to a fight. Without raising suspicion. Plus he couldn’t let Lucius down, they were friends, after all. But certainly, the Headmaster would come up with something. Yes, he would. You could trust the old wizard. He should have known that from the very start. But better now than never. And Dumbledore trusted him, was proud of him. He had called him son – and had meant it. Maybe he would even survive the dangerous spying-game - with the help of Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard in all Britain, probably the entire world. Dumbledore would think of something ...
And with those reassuring thoughts Severus fell asleep.