The Red Light of the Sun
PG-13 (just to be on the safe side)
Yet another Snape fanfic from me, this time about a younger Snape... it's him indeed, though at first he may not seem quite typical. And yet again it has a spoiler warning for OotP and the four previous books. If you haven't read them yet, don't read further.
My apologies to all the readers of "Reflections" that the new chapter isn't there yet. I was attacked by a rather violent plot bunny - must be the season -, and it just wouldn't leave me alone before having been dealt with. But don't fret, as soon as it has, "Reflections" will be back. :)
Disclaimer: None of J.K. Rowling's characters, places, or other creations are mine. This story is meant for the sole purpose of entertainment, not profit. No infringement of copyright is intended.
I hope you enjoy the story, and would be really happy and grateful if you could leave feedback. Thank you! :)
At first there are the songbirds. One must be here somewhere near the window, another one responds from over there in the dark, a third voice answers from the Forbidden Forest. Soon there's an entire chorus of birds, chirping their own little tunes each - and yet there's a strange harmony in the acoustic chaos, brought out by all the different voices joining together.
Slowly the deep blue of the sky begins to brighten. On the bottom sides of the few clouds in sight the first streaks in orange and rose hues appear, increasing in number and intensity with each passing minute. Then at last a reddish rim shows over the horizon, rises, rises, until the fiery orb is fully visible.
Breathtaking, there's no other word for it. I must have seen, and heard, the sunrise more times than I can count, yet I still can't get enough of it. Especially on a day like this. "Incendio", I mutter softly, and the candle on the windowsill blazes into light. Few would think me capable of appreciating the meaning of this special day - and it's true that I sneer at the six-feet-tall Easter bunnies, grinning and waving at everyone in the Great Hall, and the breakfast baskets filled with eggs in (literally) screaming colours. Yet Easter does hold a special meaning for me, and that's why I prefer to spend these mornings alone with my own kind of celebration. The morning sun, a candle, and maybe one or two eggs in fiery red sent by Dumbledore... that's about it, and it fits well enough. The end of the night, a new morning, a new life. Rebirth from death.
It was night back then too, or rather a spring evening, soon after dusk. I had recently completed my apprenticeship at Hogwarts and acquired the degree of Potion Master - or at least that education was the cover I had been maintaining to spy on Dumbledore for the Dark Lord. As a side effect, the training by unsuspecting Professor Kettleburn for his Potions prodigy and assistant had proven useful to create a few nasty poisons, and of course antidotes for my fellow Death Eaters. Lucius, however, found that I kept burying myself in study too much and missed out on what he called "real life", and it had been his idea to lure me out of my dungeons and have a "decent party". So he took me and a few other Death Eaters to a muggle settlement.
Of course it wasn't my first muggle raid. I had been taken along earlier whenever they had been short of manpower on the watchout for Aurors, or whenever one of my creations had needed to be tested on human guinea pigs. These latter kinds of visit had been less enjoyable, but I kept telling myself that they were only muggles after all, not even wizarding folk. They should have been thankful to be of service to scientific progress... shouldn't they? At times I had felt a pang of guilt at the look in their eyes, pleading for their lives - they had been Silenced and were thus unable to cry - , but it was easily suppressed. Lesser beings with unknown faces, I had never met them before and would never meet them again, and I had always avoided to connect any names or personal histories to them - they weren't supposed to have any. Besides my poisons normally took effect so swiftly that, compared to what some of my fellows had in store for muggles, they were almost merciful.
And in the beginning it had looked like just another one of those muggle raids. As usual I remained outside watching out for Aurors, circling the house with some of my fellow Death Eaters, while the others went right inside.
For a couple of minutes there were only a few muffled cries from inside, and a window was shattered by a mis-aimed blast of green light. Then Lucius came out and called out to us: "There are three more outside! Get them killed before the Aurors arrive!" After a quick exchange it was agreed that Mulciber, Wilkes and I were to handle the issue. We separated to search on different sides, and I approached the stairway to the coal cellar, wand at the ready. When I was halfway down the stairs the handle of the cellar door turned, and the door opened.
I guess I should have been prepared that someday it was bound to happen. But the truth is, I wasn't. The person in muggle clothes who came out with a bucket of coal bore a familiar face, smiling and streaked with dirt but recognizable nonetheless - a face I had seen before at Hogwarts. Winking at me during a Charms lesson... poring over a book of NEWT Potions, unaware of the strand of dark-blonde hair that had escaped from her ponytail... discussing Mandrakes with me, her eyes glowing with fascination... and that inexpressible look on her face when I kissed her behind the greenhouses. Florence, of all people.
Her smile died instantly at the sight of my Death-Eater garb and mask, and with surprising agility she had her wand out and aimed at me. Then her gaze fell on my outstretched wand hand, shot up to my face, and latched on my eyes behind the mask - and the shock of recognition lost her the advantage she had gained. "Severus?" she whispered in disbelief.
My own shock, however, had faded enough for me to regain at least part of my senses. "Stupefy!" I shouted, my voice hoarser than I would have liked, and she froze against the wall, the bucket of coal scattering at her feet. Not that it made much of a difference, since she hadn't been moving anyway. Only then I remembered that she was actually muggle-born, or rather a half-blood with a muggle parent. Probably she was somehow related to the muggles above. Why had Lucius the darn git had to choose this house for his so-called party? My mind raced trying to find a way to get her out of here, or at least to hide her. But in spite of Lucius' orders, it never even crossed my mind to kill her.
Suddenly there were noises upstairs, and voices approaching. "Quick, we have no time to lose!" Mulciber's voice, still distant but coming closer, and I made up my mind. "Mobilicorpus!" I hissed, and Florence rose from the ground, her dark eyes wide with horror. I opened the cellar door in a hurry, Floated her inside and tried to make out possible hiding-places in the darkness.
Just as I settled for a sheltered nook behind a huge container, she wriggled in the air and uttered muffled sounds - the Stunning spell was beginning to wear off. I quickly replaced it with another Stupefy and an added Silencio, Lighted my wand and and lifted my mask for her. "I don't mean you ill, Florence," I told her urgently, "but my comrades sure as hell do. They mustn't find you. Trust me just this one more time and play along, will you?"
She gazed at me, scepticism evident in each of her features. Understandable, for why would you trust a Death Eater armed with a wand when you're unable to escape? More so, why would you have trusted that same person earlier, after having been sent to overhear their conversation with Lucius about an ominous pureblood society and about having to drop the "little mudblood" in order to join? Back then she had refused to listen to me afterwards and ditched me instead, but I fervently hoped that this time she would believe the truth of my words.
She still looked wary, but eventually she closed her eyes deliberately and opened them again - the only equivalent to a nod she could manage. I let out a sigh of relief and set her down in the hidden corner. "The spells will soon wear off again, but don't get out here until all is quiet, or until the Aurors are here," I whispered, and she gave the same tense sign for a nod.
Pulling my mask back in place I strode around the container and towards the door, just as another cloaked and masked figure appeared in the doorframe. "Hurry up, you idiot! What are you still doing here, dawdling around?" I heard Wilkes' voice. "I'm searching for the escapees, you fool, what else?" I shot back. "Have you found any?"
"Two of them", he replied, "and you?" I shook my head. "Huge cellar, but there are only rats and spiders inside", I lied, sounding thoroughly disgusted. He grunted and waved me out. "One must still be around somewhere, but we don't have enough time to look for them. Let's go."
We ran upstairs, and indeed the first Aurors were arriving with a pop or a crack. The other Death Eaters were already heading towards the near forest - we seemed to be the last ones, and tried to catch up. One of them beckoned to us impatiently and, as an afterthought, sent a flash of blinding white light past us. "This should hold them up for a while", I heard Lucius' voice add in wicked glee.
I turned at the odd noise, and suddenly felt my mouth go dry. My eyes were fixed on the house under the hovering green skull-and-snake of the Morsmordre mark - it was rapidly losing its house-like shape and collapsing in a cloud of rolling dust and thunder. Sweet Merlin, Florence...
Some of the Aurors had stopped too, horrified, while others running at us seemed to gain more speed, and one, the hatred on his face clearly visible, fired one of the recently allowed Unforgivables in our direction. I snapped out of my transfixed state and threw myself into a run, my cloak billowing wildly after me, and the sight of Wilkes falling in a flash of green light spurred me to an even higher speed.
Lucius was about the only one now who hadn't Disapparated yet, shooting Unforgivables at the Aurors in turn to cover my flight. When I finally reached the border of the forest we both Apparated away to Malfoy Manor, and Lucius slapped me on the back in laughter. "Now that has been a party indeed!" he said. "A nice fight with Aurors, there isn't much better than that. Too bad that there weren't any tasty muggle wenches, it's about time for you to learn how to have fun. Better luck next time, hm?" I just nodded numbly - for once I was grateful for the silvery mask covering my face. With another slap on my back I was dismissed, and Apparated back to the boundaries of the grounds of Hogwarts.
Yet what I had once thought to be a safe haven wasn't anymore, at least not for me. Sleep evaded me - whenever I began to drift off, the sight of Florence's stricken face would startle me back to wakefulness. I heard her whisper my name, over and over, like an accusation. "Severus..." Eventually the vision had me on the brink of Apparating back to the site, to get her out of her hiding-place, to ascertain that she was well and alive. But could I, when the place was full of Aurors who would kill me at sight? And surely the Aurors would have found her in time, got her out before the building collapsed, wouldn't they?
The sound of the imploding house then drowned everything, rolling and rumbling. It is odd how much a collapsing building sounds like a dam breaking. First there's a faint crack in the barrier, a stone rolling off here and there, another crack running deeper in, and suddenly the dam gives in to water and gravity, blasted apart by the sheer force of nature.
Then the dam broke indeed. It wasn't her voice alone anymore, but an entire chorus of voices audible above the rumble - voices I had never heard so far, coming from countless faces I had thought to have forgotten. Muggle faces I had condemned to darkness, muggle voices silenced forever by my doing. "Severus..." I tossed and turned in my bed, trying to lock out the faces and voices, but closing my eyes and clamping my ears shut made them even clearer. "Severus..." My desperation to get them out of my head grew with each passing hour, and when at long last the sun rose to a dreary dawn I was very exhausted. All in all I hadn't managed to sleep more than an hour.
I had never been much of a morning person until then, but that morning even an extended shower couldn't do much to make me feel better. When my bathroom mirror dared to comment on my ashen face I shattered it to pieces, and at breakfast I was positively unbearable. I snarled at an innocent house-elf who only had picked up the napkin I had wiped off the table, I jumped at the rustle of Professor Sprout walking past my back, and I even snapped at Professor McGonagall when she asked in a concerned voice if I was feeling unwell. She turned away in a huff at that, but later I caught sight of her talking sotto voce with the Headmaster. Both kept shooting me worried glances.
It was Professor Kettleburn who finally had enough and sent me to Madam Pomfrey, in spite of my protestations that I was well able to continue my current potion. Looking back I have to agree with him that I wasn't in a state to brew even a simple Boil-Cure Potion, let alone the tentacula antidote I was working at. Burning yourself with salamander skin or confusing cinnamon and powdered bicorn horn should be quite obvious signs. So he sent me off with the strict order not to return before I had rested and fully recovered - a feat which, I thought wryly on my way to the hospital wing, would be harder to achieve than he probably thought.
Madam Pomfrey had a hard time figuring out what was ailing me, for I stubbornly refused to tell her. Sleeping disorders were all I was ready to admit, and when eventually it became clear that there was no way to get anything else out of me, she sighed and handed me a vial of Draught of Peace, another of Dreamless Sleep Potion and a third of Draught of Sleeping Death. "You know how they work, and I trust you can decide best which of them fits your needs", she said with no small amount of resignation. I felt another stab of guilt at her kindness to bear with me - knowing full well that I wasn't an easy patient -, and at her readiness to help me in spite of it. So I thanked her stiffly for her patience, which surprised her no end, and left.
At lunch I tried my best to restrain my temper, but the look on my face, my tense silence, and my lack of appetite must have told the staff that I still wasn't feeling any better. There were more worried glances across the High Table, but I brushed off the inquiries of Professor Flitwick and Hagrid the gamekeeper with the clipped remark that it was nothing of their concern. I saw Professor Kettleburn whispering to Professor McGonagall and shaking his head in sorrow, and when I finally left for my rooms I could have sworn that I felt the Headmaster's thoughtful gaze on my back.
Actually I was beginning to feel ashamed at the kindness of all of them here in Hogwarts. I was a traitor in their midst, a Death Eater and servant of the Dark Lord set here to spy on Dumbledore - they didn't know, granted, but I did. And still they kept treating me as if I were one of them. An irascible bugger at times, yes, and at others an insolent youngster - but yet a colleague even if only an assistant, respected and recognized for intelligence, talent, a keen eye and a sharp tongue. And amazing as it was, they seemed to be genuinely concerned about me and my well-being... which was more than I could ever have expected from my own family, the Dark Lord, or my "brothers in arms", who all relied on the stick and the carrot. It was almost too much to bear when I realized that I felt at home here. What the hell was I doing?
Sighing I scanned the three vials on my table. The idea of sleeping forty hours straight was certainly alluring, but the thought of forty hours of faces and voices put an effective damper on my enthusiasm. I put the Sleeping Death aside, and focused on the Draught of Peace for a moment - good to soothe a restless mind, but I was beginning to realize that my problem was more than just that. The remaining Dreamless Sleep seemed to be the most promising. Ah, the seductive sweetness of a good night's sleep without nightmares... and yet, was I allowed to take the easy way out, to cure the symptoms without dealing with the issue itself? The hardest choice is that between what is right and what is easy - that had been Dumbledore's words to us all a few years ago, at the graduation ceremony, and it seemed oddly prophetic. Finally, with a last longing glance, I pushed the third bottle aside as well. I would try to do without it as long as I could.
Instead I took up the Daily Prophet I had flung aside at breakfast after a glance at the headlines, and tossed into a cloak pocket before leaving the High Table. The news weren't any more delightful than they had been in the morning, and still made my stomach plummet. "Muggle Raid in Gloucestershire: Sixteen Dead, No Survivors". I had no idea where exactly we had Apparated the previous evening or how many muggles had been inside the house, but the road with the chestnut trees on the photo was the same one all right. In the middle of the picture, where the house should have been, there was only a huge heap of debris with the ghostly Mark hovering above it, and a handful of gesturing Ministry officials in front of it. Even if the article didn't mention any witch among the victims, under a spell or not, it was impossible that anyone could have survived under such a mountain of bricks. The house had been big, and Lucius' spell must have been powerful to bring it down at all. I dropped the newspaper and buried my face in my hands. Forgive me, Florence, I never meant to cause you harm...
And how about her muggle relatives? The thought had been there so suddenly that it startled me. I suppressed the instinct to just push it away and reluctantly pulled it closer, trying to be honest at least with myself. I hadn't followed Lucius' invitation with the explicit intent of killing, torturing or poisoning this or that muggle, but I wouldn't have done anything to prevent it either. Probably I wouldn't even have objected, at least not out loud, just like in previous raids. I would just have tried to close out anything I didn't want to know, anything that could have turned "guinea pigs" into real persons, to avoid wasting second thoughts on them while doing what I did. Or third thoughts, for that matter. Yet all those muggles did have names, feelings and personal histories, didn't they? Refusing to learn more about them didn't mean they didn't have any, right?
From the few encounters with muggleborn and halfblood wizards and witches I had had so far, I knew that muggles cared for their offspring just like any wizarding family would - or maybe more sometimes. I recalled my pang of jealousy, instantly suppressed, when Florence had told me about the Christmas celebration with her muggle family. My father had never cared about decorated trees and windows, cheerfulness, or, Merlin forbid, Christmas presents (my mother had never had a say in that matter, or in anything else). Gifts were for obedience, just like punishments were for disobedience, and at times the promises had turned out to be empty ones because you had neglected to dot an i or to cross a t. To be given a present just like that, because they liked you, had been an entirely new concept to me... and words had failed me when she had even had a gift for me, a plain raven-feather quill with my name engraved in it. And now she was dead, along with her muggle relatives.
But if muggles had feelings just like wizarding folk, how much truth was there to the other things I had been taught about them and their wizarding offspring? Purity of blood for instance - did wizardry run in the blood, implying that muggle influx spoiled it? I struggled through the haze of a beginning migraine and tried to think. Florence had been a halfblood but a powerful witch nonetheless, and muggleborn Lily Evans - now Mrs. James Potter, I remembered with a scowl - was at least as talented as Florence had been. Goyle and Crabbe, on the other hand, had an impeccable pedigree with wizarding lines reaching at least eight generations back, but they were about as intelligent or magically gifted as a shrivelfig. Sure, there had also been more talented purebloods like Lucius and Bellatrix, and less gifted muggleborns or halfbloods, but there was no discernible pattern that fit the clear separation lines I had grown up with. According to rumour even the Dark Lord himself was a halfblood, and yet he led his campaign against anything muggle with a fierceness that reminded me of a personal vendetta. As for Lucius and Bellatrix, while their magic was doubtlessly powerful they were clearly... lacking in other fields. Cold anger grew inside me when I realized they all had, directly or indirectly, had their part in what had happened the previous night - just like in less recent raids.
Suddenly I felt very cold. If muggle influx didn't spoil the bloodline, and if muggles were just as human as wizarding folk, only without magical abilities - what objective, logical reason could there be to torture or to eradicate them? Try as I might, I couldn't think of any. It would be just like catching a small animal, tearing its legs out and killing it, just because you could. Only they weren't animals, they were human beings, unmagical and defenseless. I felt a shiver run down my spine and spread out through my body. "It's more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean..." My nemesis James Potter had once said that about me, and I had hated him for it. But was I any better, killing muggles because of traditional assertions I had never bothered to question? The obvious answer was no. Rather the contrary.
It took me a while to realize that I was sitting in complete darkness, dinner time had to be long past by now. Which was just as well, I wouldn't have been able to eat anyway with these shaking hands and my churning stomach. My dear colleagues probably thought that I was resting at last... nothing could have been farther from the truth.
The values and beliefs I had held so far had been not only shaken, as had sometimes been the case before, but effectively shattered, and I wasn't sure yet what could possibly take their place. Still, there was one thing I was sure of. I was unable to return to the blind-eyed obedience to the Dark Lord, didn't even want to. There was only one course I could take now. I rose ignoring the jolt of pain in my temples, pocketed the bottle of Dreamless Sleep - in Azkaban there surely wasn't any to be had - and went to Dumbledore.
3. Wee Hours
The castle was dark, but I found my way easily and soon stood in front of the stone gargoyle shielding the spiral wooden stairs to the Headmaster's office. "Strawberry Straws", I said tersely, and the gargoyle jumped aside. On the rotating stairs I went over the things I was about to tell him for a last time. There was so much he had to know, but would he even let me finish, or would he send for the Dementors at my first words? I wasn't afraid of being tortured - okay, not very afraid. I had endured Crucio often enough under the Dark Lord, and I deserved any punishment I might get. But it was important that he heard me out before.
Then the stairs halted, and I found myself at the office door. I took a deep breath, braced myself and knocked. "Enter," said Dumbledore's voice, and I entered.
He was sitting at his desk, apparently going through some paperwork, and looked up at my entrance. But when he saw me, the welcoming twinkle in his blue eyes vanished and was immediately replaced by a look of deep concern. "Severus, dear boy... you look positively ill. Haven't you rested yet? Come in, take a seat." He waved me towards a plushy chair, and I sank gratefully into the cushions. My circulation had to be on quite a downtime.
"Lemon drop?" I heard him ask, and I cast a suspicious glance at the tin of sticky sweets he was holding under my nose. As if anybody in his right mind would accept such a lump of sugary glue. Then I thought, what the heck, and took one. It would probably be the last time anyway I'd ever be offered any, and my body certainly needed a few carbohydrates.
Dumbledore gazed at me sympathetically. "Is it anything urgent you have come to discuss, Severus? If it isn't, I'd rather you go to Madam Pomfrey now and come to me tomorrow after you have had a nap - you look like you really need it. And if you wish I will send you a house-elf with a tray of food as well."
"With all due respect, Headmaster", I replied, trying not to sound irritated, "my current state of health is beside the point. And yes, this is an urgent matter. Later you may send me wherever you please, to the hospital wing or... elsewhere." I ignored his curious look and snatched his folded Daily Prophet from the corner of his desk, front page upturned. "This is why I'm here. I was there last evening, at the site of the muggle raid. Not with the Aurors or as a spectator, but as a Death Eater hunting muggles, and I'm responsible for the death of a witch who was there as well." Exasperated I threw the paper to the ground. "And that isn't all. Ever since I began my specialized Potions education I have abused your and Professor Kettleburn's trust. His in abusing his training for the creation of poisons to be tested on muggles, and yours in spying on you for the Dark Lord."
His expression was a mixture of mild surprise, amazement, and doubt. "These are grave charges you are bringing against yourself", he said at last. "But you have spent your entire apprenticeship here, in the close proximity of the staff. Don't you think we would have noticed?" He smiled comfortingly. "You have been overtaxing yourself recently, Severus, and it wouldn't be the first time that lack of sleep and food affect the workings of the mind."
I knew what he was implying, and smirked. "My mind is working perfectly well, thank you very much. You didn't find out because the Dark Lord knows of some of your special talents, and equipped me well before sending me here. You have heard of Occlumency, I believe?" He looked up sharply at that. "Try me," I breathed. "You're a Legilimens, Headmaster. Read me, and you will see."
Dumbledore straightened, looking rather wary now, and took out his wand. "If you insist...", he said, but there was a note of apprehension in his voice. I nodded impatiently, laid my hands on the armrests and steeled myself for what was about to come. Then I met his eyes. He cried "Legilimens!", and after three seconds of what felt like tiny waves lapping at the shores of my mind, I dropped my Occlumency shields.
The impact was heavier than I had anticipated. Searing pain throughout my left forearm, and a scream I barely recognize as my own... Florence's stricken face when I Float her into the cellar... The silvery glitter of a mask, a shriek, and a flash of green light... I gritted my teeth against the headache and kept staring at the pair of blue orbs, forcing down the urge to protect myself against the tidal wave, to re-erect my barriers and push him out of my mind. A blast of white light shooting past me, and the cloud of thundering dust when the house is coming down... A pleading muggle-face, moving his lips in silent supplication until they fall slack as the poison takes effect... My body writhing in pain under the Cruciatus curse, and above me a high-pitched laughter...
"Enough!" I heard a hoarse voice shout. Suddenly the contact was broken, and I felt myself slumping into the chair. My breathing was ragged, I was sweating all over, my head was throbbing with a vengeance, and my hands were wrapped around the armrests, the knuckles very white. I put the barriers that had become almost my second nature back in place, raised my gaze to Dumbledore, and was surprised to see him looking exhausted as well - exhausted and very old. "Do you believe me now?" I whispered, almost defiantly. He gazed at me as if he had never seen me before. Then he seemed to remember the question. "I do," he said, sounding grave and immensely sad. "I do."
I leaned back, unwrapped my fingers from the armrests and closed my eyes, willing my breath to steady. The lemon drop in my cheek had glued itself firmly against my teeth under the strain of the attack. That's why I hate these stupid sweets, I thought irritatedly while I loosened it from its place and chewed it to bits. Still, it could have been worse - I could have swallowed it in the process. Severus Snape, new Potions Master and infamous Death Eater, choked on a lemon drop. What a noteworthy end it would have been.
Then the oddest sound reached my ears. I opened my eyes and was taken aback - no, mortified at the sight. Dumbledore was... crying? That was impossible, or was it? "I'm so sorry, Severus", he said in a strangled voice. "What for?" I asked incredulously. For Merlin's sake, I was the Death Eater here, wasn't I?
"For not stepping in when you needed me to", he answered, his voice barely audible. "I let James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter get away with all they did to you. Even after that incident under the Whomping Willow where you were almost killed." Oh yes, I clearly remembered that one. "I had my reasons for not expelling them, even if it may not have been quite fair on you. Neither Sirius nor Remus would have had a place to go if they had been removed from Hogwarts. But I wasn't aware how hard it really was on you, and how much all of this would drive you towards your Darker housemates. When Bertha told me what she had done it was already too late, and now that I know what you have gone through after that..." He made another choked sound. "I'm so incredibly sorry."
Some part in the back of my brain rejoiced. At last he realized how unfair he had been, and yes, it had been a mistake to shield those arrogant Gryffindors from any punishment they deserved. Trust a Gryffindor Headmaster to overlook a mere Slytherin in favour of his own House. Yet to a bigger part of me the situation felt decidedly awkward. "Excuse me," I said softly, "but wouldn't you rather hear what else I have to tell you? I daresay there are a few things you might be interested in. About what I have been doing in Professor Kettleburn's dungeons for instance, or about my spying." I paused for effect, and saw with relief that he had perked up a bit at the latter. "The decision is yours, Headmaster."
He didn't want to hear all the nasty details of the poisons I had created and their effects - which was just as well, since I didn't like to dwell on it either. So I kept that part of my story short and, after a glass of water, plunged into an account of my spying activities. I told him how in my last year Professor Kettleburn had offered me a Potions apprenticeship at Hogwarts, and when the Dark Lord whose ranks I had recently joined had heard about it, he had decided to have me spy on Dumbledore. He had trained me in Occlumency all through the summer holidays so I could remain undiscovered, and when I had proven to have a gift for such mind-tricks, Legilimency had followed to increase my spying value.
In the beginning there hadn't been much to report yet. But that had changed when a certain Sybill Trelawney had made a prophecy to Dumbledore about the Dark Lord and somebody to vanquish him, "born when the seventh month dies" to "those who have thrice defied him". The prophecy had been partly overheard by Regulus Black who had then been thrown out by the barman - yes, the same Regulus Black who had graduated only the previous summer, and who had by the way been killed just a week ago for trying to leave the Dark Lord (a pained expression appeared on Dumbledore's face). But when the Dark Lord had tried to get at the prophetess to hear the rest of the prediction, she had turned out to have been brought to the safety of Hogwarts. Since I was stationed in Hogwarts anyway I had been ordered to sound her out about it, with Legilimency if necessary. The Dark Lord had been displeased to learn that she wouldn't even be persuaded to leave her rooms - I omitted to mention how much so -, but idle chat in the staff room had turned out to be a more useful source of information: Two couples of former students had had babies in the end of July, the Longbottoms and the Potters. Both couples had fought the Dark Lord and us Death-Eaters on different occasions. The intelligence had of course been double-checked, but it had proven accurate.
"And that's another thing you need to know about, Headmaster", I said, leaning forward. "There's another Death Eater spying on you. My task was to do so here in Hogwarts, and another one is now doing the same in your Order of the Phoenix. He must have joined us quite recently, but it seems his strategic position is too good to be neglected by the Dark Lord. From what I could gather he must be close to the Potters, and it was he who could confirm my information with certainty. They aren't in imminent danger yet for their location is still unknown, but it would be wise to take precautions." Dumbledore's eyes narrowed, and for a moment I caught the tiniest glance of why the Dark Lord might fear him. "Do you know who that spy is?" he inquired. "I don't", I admitted, "but I have my suspicions."
Sirius Black, most likely. Going the same way in the end like his brother Regulus, even though he kept thinking himself superior to all the rest of his family. So much so that he refused to follow his family tradition to join Slytherin, and despised all those who did, including me. Yet he could never deny the nastiness of his family running in his veins, what with his attempt to murder me - and now he had joined us anyway, to rule it over us again. The pot calling the kettle Black, hmm?
Dumbledore leaned back on his chair, pondering my words for a long time. Then he looked up and said: "I wonder... Why are you here, Severus?" The question seemed so out of the blue, I couldn't help staring at him. "Surely you cannot claim to be deaf", I drawled, "or senile. You aren't that old yet. I've been telling you why all the time since I came in." He chuckled. "How nice to hear such a compliment from a twenty-year-old", he said, his eyes twinkling. I bristled a little at that - I was twenty-two after all, not just twenty. Then he became serious again. "What I meant was, why have you chosen to tell me all this? What do you want or expect from me in return?"
It was a good question coming from a Gryffindor, and I realized that I hadn't thought as far as that. No, I corrected myself, I hadn't even considered to strike a bargain. Slowly I said: "I don't like to leave my debts unpaid, you know that. And I realize this is a high debt. I cannot give the lives back I have taken" - I winced at the thought of Florence and all the nameless others -, "but there are other ways to pay. I have given you all the information I have to help bring the Dark Lord down, and if you should have more questions I'm ready to answer them as fully as I'm able to. After that you may turn me over to the Ministry, have me tried and sent to Azkaban - or if that should be the verdict, to a Dementor." It felt strangely good to have spoken the word out loud, and after a Kiss there would be no more need to worry about the Dark Lord's revenge. My voice was very soft. "I pay my debts, Headmaster."
"How odd that you would talk about paying a debt", he mused aloud. "What gave you that idea? Surely you haven't been carrying it around for the past few years, have you?" I gave him a humourless smile in return. "The debt I have indeed been carrying all that time", I corrected, "but I wasn't aware of it until recently." I glanced at the newspaper on the ground, and the pounding despair at the memory was almost physical until I tore my gaze away. "I met someone I hadn't been expecting to meet, and was forced to think again. Let me just say that it was... recognition that made me change my mind." Rather the shock of it, I thought, and in more than one sense.
Dumbledore leaned back, his blue eyes resting on me and strangely alight. "Remarkable", he said softly. "How very remarkable."
I looked sharply at him, but it was impossible to read anything in his expression. "Since you didn't have dinner, Severus," he offered, "would you like a midnight snack before we discuss the matter further?" Funny, the notion of food didn't seem half as repulsive now as it had been hours before - it sent a wave of hunger through me that made my stomach respond before my lips could. Dumbledore chuckled at the sound. "I take it that's a yes", he said, took out a pocket mirror and relayed an order to the kitchen. A few moments later a house-elf appeared with a tray of sandwiches and pumpkin juice, and I tucked in greedily. Never had plain cheese and bacon sandwiches tasted so good.
The Headmaster watched me closely while I ate, silently stroking the phoenix on its perch. The bird made an eerie sound when it woke at the touch, but soon snuggled its head back under its wing and dozed on. When I had consumed the last gherkin, he asked: "Are a trial, a sentence to Azkaban, and a Dementor's Kiss all you are still expecting of your life?" Slightly confused, I nodded. These were the rules, what else could there be for a Death Eater than conviction by the law? The only other thing I wanted was the downfall of the Dark Lord and of all he stood for, but as I wouldn't live to see it anyway... Dumbledore seemed to guess the lines along which I was thinking. "You know, if you are so intent on paying there may be yet another way", he said gently.
He elaborated, and my confusion turned into incredulity while he spoke. Dumbledore was as well-known for his nonsensical sense of humour as for his addiction to sweets, and Professor McGonagall had even called him a barmy old codger once. But this was the first time I suspected it could have been meant literally.
"You can't be serious", I whispered. "Haven't I told you what kind of person I am? A life-sentence in Azkaban is what I deserve, if not worse. And you want to depend on me as a double-agent, and put me in charge of children? How very Gryffindor of you." I snorted. "No offence meant, Headmaster, but you must be out of your mind to put that much trust in me."
"Maybe I am", he said, gazing fondly at the lemon-drop in his hand. "But the truth is that the Order needs a good spy in Voldemort's inner circle", I flinched at the name, "one who would be able to stay alive in the process." His smile faltered for a moment, and I knew he was thinking of Regulus. "As a double-agent you would need to stay as close to me as possible. You have already proven to be a good spy, and an excellent Occlumens to boot. You have managed to fool me until you revealed yourself tonight, and I daresay that's quite a feat." He chuckled and winked at me over his half-moon spectacles. "Besides I believe in second chances. You ought to as well, it'd do you really good." He put the sweet back into the tin, leaned over the desk and looked at me, now very serious. "You're a man of principles when you want to be, Severus. That's why I trust you to be worthy of trust. There was no risk for you at all to be discovered - and yet you have come to me of your own free will and turned yourself over. Yes, you deserve a second chance."
I was dumbfounded. He was serious... there was nothing I could answer to that. And come to think of it, his offer did open up certain possibilities... I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my forehead, trying to think without waking the headache again. Then, very slowly, I said: "I am honoured, Headmaster, and grateful. But I cannot go on as a Death Eater, even if only for spying. It would mean more killing to keep up the cover, and I don't think I'm ready to add more deaths of innocents to those I have already caused." The lack of sleep, so vigorously pushed aside for the confession, began to reassert itself, and I tried to blink away the tiredness. "Another thing. If you really want me to teach children - and I'm still not sure that it would be a good idea -, the field of Potions might be too... hazardous in view of what I have abused it for. May I suggest a different subject?"
I waited for his nod of consent, and when it came continued: "With Professor Clarion rejoining the Aurors next summer, I take it the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher will be vacant. I would like to apply for it." Dumbledore made a sound of astonishment. "Defence Against the Dark Arts? Why that, Severus?"
"The Dark Lord is now in the zenith of his power, and the students need to be properly trained and toughened up to stand a chance against him," I elaborated, tracing my lips with my index finger - a habit I still haven't managed to get rid of after all these years. "An Auror as a teacher may be good and well, but even Aurors do not possess inside knowledge about the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters, about the Dark Arts they use in battle and how to counter them effectively. I do have that inside knowledge, and would be honoured beyond words to be allowed to pass it on." He still didn't look quite convinced, so I pressed on. "I mean it, Headmaster. My motives aren't dishonourable, rest assured of it. Read me if you wish, you will see that I want to see him vanquished too."
"I don't doubt your loyalty or your motivation," Dumbledore said, "and it won't be necessary to read you again. You already have my trust. But don't you think it's a bit too early yet for what you are suggesting?" He looked at me, sympathetic but grave. "No matter what grief Voldemort has caused you" - Merlin, did he have to use that name? -, "it doesn't do to use children for revenge. You will have to settle your mind before I can let you have that position. We will see how you fare with Potions first, and depending on that you will be welcome to renew your application later." I turned away, my lips very tight, and shook his comforting hand off my arm.
"Besides Professor Kettleburn is right", he went on, the slightest hint of disappointment in his voice. "You truly are gifted in Potions. He has asked repeatedly for more time for his animals, and when I asked him in jest about teaching a new subject Care of Magical Creatures, he immediately recommended you to take his place in Potions." I kept my face turned away, and his tone grew insistent. "Severus, you are the first new Potion Master in more than a decade, and the youngest in a century. It would be a shame to let such a talent go to waste." He left his chair and came around his desk to face me. "Unless you are saying that you have a problem with the field of Potions itself. Don't you enjoy what you have been doing and studying for so long? Is it that?"
Reluctantly I shook my head. Whatever others might think of a field where wand-waving and incantations didn't reign supreme, it was a powerful subject, and the subtle science of Potions was an art with its very own aesthetic appeal - you just had to open up your senses to be aware of it. "It's more that I don't trust myself with it", I admitted. "I have abused it before, so what makes you think that I won't poison your students as well? It's easier than you might believe, Headmaster. It could even be made to look like an accident."
To my surprise there was the ghost of a smile playing around his lips. "That's exactly why I think you are suitable," he replied. "I would have been more suspicious if you had agreed at once. Your own doubts confirm that my trust in you is justified, and I'm certain that you will manage brilliantly." With a reassuring smile he continued: "As for your other objection... the House of Slytherin is famous for cunning and subterfuge, isn't it?" I could have sworn that now there was a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "It must be tempting for a sharp Slytherin mind and Occlumens to spy on a powerful wizard, and I imagine a Dark wizard would be even more of a challenge with the risks involved. And surely there have to be ways to get around the need to kill. I hear you are quite creative as a Potion Master."
Ah, but he was persuasive for a Gryffindor, the sly old fox - almost a Slytherin himself. Against my will I found myself rising to the challenge, exploring possible ways in my mind to fool the Dark Lord and my former comrades-in-arms. The Draught of Living Death for instance might be a basis for one - with a tweak here and there it could be adapted to imitate a deadly poison, leaving the victim alive to be saved hours later. Most of the real poisons could be counterbalanced with the addition of ground bezoar, and Unforgivables could easily be misaimed in the heat of battle...
"Very well," I said finally, just a trace of silk in my voice. "You have your double-agent. And Potions it will be... provisionally." I was determined to give my best in both matters, and if necessary badger him on a regular basis, until he gave in at last. Defence Against the Dark Arts was mine, and sooner or later Dumbledore would have to accept it as a fact. And then... I kept my face carefully blank, but silently exulted at the idea of the Dark Lord being beaten at his own game. And his minions, Lucius first and foremost.
"Are you sure about it?" he inquired. "I'm aware that I'm asking a lot of you. If you need more time to think about it, after you have had some sleep..." I shook my head, stifling a yawn. "No, Headmaster, I am sure. I don't think that time or sleep will change my mind." There was a bird's voice from outside - a nightingale? -, and the dark sky visible from the tower windows had become a fraction brighter. I rose and walked over to a window, looking back at the Headmaster with a raised eyebrow. "What exactly do you expect of me as your double-agent?"
He came over and explained, and while the dawn rose outside I remained at the window listening to his words, only tossing in a question or a suggestion from time to time. I was to report directly to him and to him alone, so the other spy would not be alerted, and to feed the Dark Lord lies and half-truths whenever he asked for information about my "target" - such as about my new position at Hogwarts. In the meantime I would try to ascertain the identity of the mole in the Order, keep Dumbledore up-to-date about any development in the Dark Lord's plans, and warn him whenever I learnt about other raids being planned. Apparently the Headmaster had connections to some of the Aurors, and they would take care of any victims of my future "poisons".
That gave me another idea. It might be improbable and irrational, but if I didn't ask I'd never find out for sure. "Would any of your... connections... perchance have been at the site of that muggle raid last night?" I ventured. He nodded, and I tried to keep the surging hope down. "That witch I mentioned before, Headmaster... you have seen her, in my mind. Did they tell you if..." Darn it, I hated to feel so uncertain. "... if she made it? If Florence got out of the building before it collapsed, I mean?"
The look on Dumbledore's face crushed my hope. "I'm sorry, Severus," he said softly. I turned my face to the window, blinking vividly and pretending to monitor the slow progress of the morning colours on the clouds. Then I felt a hand on my back - not in a slap like Lucius' but just resting there, almost comforting. "Don't blame yourself for it, dear boy," I heard his kind voice. Amazing how he could still call me that after all he had learnt by now, but I didn't object. "From what I have seen you tried to save her, which is more than many others could say of themselves. Outside the house your comrades would certainly have killed her, and there was no way to foresee that the cellar would be anything but safe. Do you hear me, Severus? It is not your fault."
I drew a shaky breath. "I've heard you, Headmaster", I said, trying to keep my voice steady and audible. "Don't worry about me, I'll be fine." He patted my back but said nothing for a while. I kept gazing at the brightening sky outside, and his voice was compassionate when he spoke again. "I've been worried about you all day, and now that I know the reason for your distress, I admit I'm almost glad about it." He smiled apologetically. "Do you know what that reason is?" I shook my head, and he explained: "It's called a conscience. Probably it seems to you more like a curse right now, but believe me, it's really a gift not everyone has. I'm truly glad that you have found yours at last."
"Indeed", I said tiredly. "I hope you don't mind if I don't join the party. And spare me with the champagne, I must be having a hangover already." Dumbledore gave me a sympathetic look. "You have indeed been overtaxing yourself, very much so if you don't mind me saying that. Anything else to discuss can wait until tomorrow. Go to bed at last, will you?" I managed the ghost of a smirk. "I would hate to miss the splendid sense of art of our house-elves at breakfast", I replied, a yawn ruining my trademark sneer. He chuckled. "Then I'll send you a sample of today's specialties as soon as you wake. Actually you have chosen a very fitting day to come to me."
I frowned, and racked my drained brain. What was he talking about again, a holiday of some sort? Christmas was in winter, and the season for Halloween was autumn... "It's Easter Sunday," he said gently, his face alight with the red of the rising sun. Then he broke into a broad smile and pulled me into a warm hug. "Welcome back, Severus."
The sun has fully risen by now, glowing high in the sky as a bright yellow orb. I turn from the window and take the burning candle along as I settle down at a table with a tray on it. The meal is a frugal one: a bowl of cereals, a mug of tea, and two red eggs. But I don't need more than that. The eggs are courtesy of Dumbledore - he has been sending them to me on Easter Sundays ever since, always in the colour of the morning sun. He must be remembering the event as well as I do. And he is wise enough not to choose the screaming kind, he knows what it would do to my nerves.
On the other side of the table a bottle of Dreamless Sleep awaits me, my trusty companion for the past fifteen years... not every night anymore, but often enough. At least the number of faces hasn't increased in the meantime. No more muggles, no wizards or witches, not even students have joined them ever since. Young Potter is still alive even though he keeps trying hard to change the fact (he has no idea how close he was to meeting the fate of his parents when I found him in the Pensieve), and not even Longbottom has managed so far to get himself killed under my eyes. Maybe the Headmaster was right after all, and I am worthy of his trust.
I gaze at the candle over my mug, and one of the faces glides to the forefront, merging with the fire. Florence - her hair as bright as the flame, her eyes as dark as its core. Among all those nameless faces hers is the only one I can name. I still find it hard to forgive myself for living while she does not, but I have been paying by every means I could, for her and for all the others. Wherever they are now, I hope that they can forgive me what I can't.
With the Dark Lord rising again last summer I have rejoined the lethal game, gathering more information for his downfall and trying to prevent more useless deaths, and with Potter growing up there seems to be a real chance that the nightmare will eventually come to an end. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had James Potter listened to my warning on that fateful Halloween night, and cleared up the fatal misunderstanding about his Secret-Keeper. Perhaps he would have lived, as would have his wife Lily... but his son would not have been marked by the Dark Lord as the One with the power to vanquish him, and that might have been even worse. So maybe some people do have to die to bring necessary changes about. Could Florence have been one of them? I don't know, but I like to think that one day I will be able to pay my old friend Lucius back for what he did. Openly, out loud, with his master and protector the Dark Lord and his comrades perishing next to him at the hands of well-trained Defence Against the Dark Arts students.
It is time. I put the remainders of my breakfast back onto the tray for the house-elves, take up the bottle and head towards my rooms. After this wakeful night I need my sleep. But I have to admit it, I think with a glance at the sunlit meadow outside... this is going to be a beautiful Easter Sunday indeed.
Bump! The violent Easter plot bunny is back...
Bumping it up again in time for the season, with a wave to all the new readers. :)
A big "thank you" to all those who have been reading this story so far, and a double big "thank you" to everyone who left me feedback - it makes me so happy. You're the greatest! :tu: :grouphug:
Just to say it again... each kind of review, from praise over nods to constructive criticism, is dearly loved and appreciated. So if you haven't left any comment yet, just drop me a line and tell me what you think. You know you want to. ;)
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