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
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."