THE PRICES WE PAY

Two Weeks Before the Start of 'PRISONER OF AZKABAN'

The air is dank and musty, and the shadows drift and ripple over the stone walls as the moonlight bleeds through the spelled windows of the dungeons. It is raining again, but the clouds are considerate tonight, and leave the moon itself untouched. It hovers over the lake: rounded, benevolent and pale as the Fat Friar's stomach, and Severus Snape sits on the stool before the tableful of ingredients and remembers.

He. Is. A. Black. If we expel him, Severus, the Headmaster had said patiently, and for the hundredth time, I must provide a reason. If I provide a reason, it cannot be the real reason, and it will, of course, be questioned. If it is questioned, there will be Veritaserum, and if there is Veritaserum, I will – must - tell the truth. If I tell the truth, there will be an inquiry, and the expulsion may or may not be upheld, but it will be Remus who will pay the price. He will be executed, Severus. He will be executed, do you not understand that? He. Will. Die.

Sixteen-year-old Severus had not cared at that point, and had said as much, a hundred times and more. Finally, and at last, instead of simply dismissing him as he had ninety-nine times before, Albus Dumbledore had leaned across his desk, his hands folded precisely, and had looked the furious Slytherin straight in the eyes.

"I care," he'd said precisely. "And one day, if you do have your way, young Snape, you will too. You are reviled and frightened and bitter now – rightfully and righteously so - but I cannot, and will not, sacrifice an innocent boy on the altar of your anger. More to the point…" He' shaken his head as Severus had protested. "I cannot. I made a vow, Severus, on the day that Remus Lupin came to Hogwarts, that I would protect him from all untoward prejudice and evil, and yes, it was a private and personal vow, not an Unbreakable, but I will yet not Unbreak it. He is suffering enough, more than you –" He'd held up a hand at that. "Yes. More than you. You understand Black's kind of insane hatred, God help you, but Remus? Black was Remus' best friend, Severus; and raised as he was, Remus believes that he had to have to have understood the potential repercussions of his actions. All of his actions, on all concerned, and now he must process the fact that that love meant nothing at the crucial point. Nothing, do you understand? In that one moment when he sent you to the Shack, Sirius Black informed Remus Lupin in no uncertain terms that he was altogether quite as worthless as he has always believed himself to be. That all of their time together has been a lie, a prank, if you would, and one that has now completely stripped him of his ability to trust anyone again. It may not have stripped him of his life, but trust, you must understand, is much more valuable than life when it comes right down to it, and one day…One day, Sirius Black will pay the price for that fact. Believe you me, if you never believe anything else that comes from my lips – he will pay for that.'

And he'd dismissed Severus from his office for the hundredth and last time, and Severus had gone, and late that night in the dungeons, lying in his bed, he'd sat bolt upright, realizing that the old bugger had given him the answer after all.

Veritaserum. All I have to do is file a report myself. I don't need Dumbledore to do it. I can do it myself. I can go right to the top, the legal top, and since there's a bloody werewolf involved, no matter my name, they'll listen. They'll have to listen, and Black won't just end up expelled, he'll end up in bloody Azkaban, and…

He'd cut himself off abruptly as his mind, inexorably, had finished the thought for him.

(Lupin will die)

He'd lain back down, sweating and pale and wild-eyed in his excitement over the thought of his inevitable vengeance… but…

(he can't help himself," Eileen Prince had said once, as she'd sat beside him in the small, shabby bedroom in the aftermath of a particularly brutal beating. You must realize – try to realize that when your father drinks… He's a completely different person. Everything that he is, that defines him… It gets shunted sideways, into a locked vault or cell that can only be opened when the alcohol wears off. Whatever he does to you… Us… In the hours between… It's someone else. Something else.)

In the dungeons below the lake, young Severus Snape had closed his eyes against the sparkling, swimming, wild-eyed darkness.

(Black will go to Azkaban)

(Lupin will die)

And what of Potter? Potter will be hailed as a hero for saving 'Snivellus' ' scrawny, pasty, vengeful ass. Again. Lily might even overcome her distaste for the pompous, preening arse long enough to look at him with those limpid green eyes, adoringly and admiringly, and how will she look at Severus himself, for effectively handing the werewolf over to his death?

He knows the answer to that. She already looks at him that way. Too late, nothing will change there, nothing at all, she looks at him the way everyone else does now, and…

Nothing will change, then. Nothing but the fact that (Lupin will die).

Doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, it doesn't…

He pauses, astonished to find that the thought, surprisingly, now that he has had time to process what the Headmaster pointed out, actually bothers him a little.

He didn't actually hurt me. He didn't even want to hurt me. He never has hurt me, except in standing by and letting Black and Potter hurt me. That doesn't mean he's good by default, but…

Lupin doesn't talk to Black now, he knows. Severus had heard the whispers and the rumors toward that end soon after the two boys had emerged from the hospital wing. Lupin won't even look at Black, much less talk to him. No one knows why, no one knows what happened…. But the Marauders, as they were, are dead. Dead, buried and rotted, and the werewolf yet speaks to Potter, but it is strained and polite, and if the word "Sirius' comes up, in whatever cajoling, pleading, near tearful and imploring context – Lupin simply turns and walks away. Pettigrew is a casualty by default; the little shit wouldn't understand subtlety if it bit him on the arse, and I just want to know what happened, Remus, nothing can be that bad, can it, and James won't tell me anything, Remus, and I'm neutral here, maybe I can help, let me help, James, oh come on Siri, you can't possibly have done anything that bad, it was just a misunderstanding, it had to have been….

Young Severus had turned on his side and buried his face in his pillow. Tomorrow, he'd thought; I'll decide tomorrow. Charms test in the morning; I need sleep, and he hadn't slept, and he hadn't decided the next day, nor the day after that, nor the day or even the week after that, and Lupin still wasn't talking to Black, and then there came the night. The Night, where Black had actually, at dinner, dinner, in front of the entire bloody school, approached the smaller boy and fallen painfully to his knees before him, head bowed and with raped and empty eyes, and placed his head on the shocked werewolf's feet. Severus had sat at his place, shepherd's pie falling off his fork of its own shocked initiative, as Sirius Orion Black had begged Remus Lupin for his forgiveness (however unspecified) in front of ghosts , teachers, Gryfs, Slyths, 'Claws, 'Puffs and all… Remus Lupin had put his own fork down and looked down, bemused and alarmed.

"Please," Sirius Black, first born (if errant) son of the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black had whispered. "Please, Remus. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry, please. Forgive me?'

"Siri!" Peter had hissed. "Get up! The Slytherins are watching!'

"Shut up, Peter,' Potter had said roughly, before anyone could say anything else. No one else in the Hall made a sound.

"Please, Remus," Sirius' voice had cracked, and then… Then he was crying, Sirius Black was actually crying, thick, gulping sobs, and Remus Lupin had looked down for one more long moment, and pushed his chair back, and…

Very few people present understood the real significance of what happened next. Severus was one of them, and he'd watched, stunned, as Remus Lupin had risen to his feet, near regally, and lifted his boot and nudged Black to a prostrate position. There, before the entire Hall, and even Dumbledore's mouth had fallen open slightly as Sirius Black rolled onto his back, eyes closed and thrown his head back. The boot had descended on his throat, not hard, but extremely firmly, and held him there for almost half a minute before its owner removed it.

"Get up, you mangy cur," Lupin had said, and Black had rolled over again and stumbled to his feet, and the silence broke as Remus Lupin drew his fist back and slammed it into Black's jaw so hard it shattered, even as his foot slammed out and caught him so hard in the groin that even from his position at the Slytherin table, Severus heard his testicles pop. He, too, had heard what had followed, though no one else did – he realized after that there was some sort of modified charm involved, that made the words distinguishable to his ears only - Lupin had reached down and hauled the bloody limp Black to his feet.

"The jaw was for me," he'd said clearly. "The balls were for Severus."

Black had gurgled something through his broken teeth and mouthful of blood, and promptly passed out as the knee, rather than the foot came up again.

'Don't you dare," Lupin had said. "Don't you dare. It stops now. It all stops now," and he'd turned his head and looked Potter straight in the eye, and Potter had nodded, and Lupin had dropped Sirius again, and settled himself back in his chair again, reaching for his knife and fork.

"Take him to the hospital wing," he'd said to no one in particular, as he sliced into his ridiculously rare beef, and no one had had a chance to move an inch before six house elves popped in, just as quickly disappearing with Black's body. Seconds later, a huge white light had flashed, and Dumbledore's voice had rung out, clear as a bell.

"OBLIVIATE MAXIMA!"

And everyone present had promptly forgotten what happened. Everyone that is, but Lupin, Potter, Black, and Severus Snape.

By the end of the next week, it was business as usual for the Marauders. Black was out of the hospital, boasting of how he'd wrestled the Whomping Willow and the Giant Squid together, and how they were both yet licking their wounds. Pettigrew even believed him, the little git. Life went on as it always had for the Gryffindor Four; they strutted and smirked, they pranked and preened, but one thing had changed.

Every one of them left Severus Snape strictly alone.

Severus did not find himself particularly grateful for the fact at the time, but busy as he was with his potions and rather more disturbing particulars of his other extra-curriculars, he had to settle for chronic, simmering resentment. It wasn't till years later that he'd really understood what Dumbledore had said that hundredth time in his office – that Sirius Black had yet to pay the price, not for risking his friend's life, but for betraying his trust. And on that day, Snape had sat in his own office, watching the madly laughing face and rolling eyes on the front page of the paper before him, and thought of trials and sentencing, and lack thereof, and of a boot on a neck, and a shabby young man with the eyes of a pitiless and unforgiving king.

The door opens. Snape looks over. Dumbledore is standing there, and after a moment, he comes forward, examining the ingredients on the table.

"Do you have everything you require," he asks, eyes twinkling in the moonlight. Snape has to resist the urge to poke the twinkle out with his wand. It is, he reflects, a good thing that he's had so much practice there. The old man has really been sitting on his last nerve lately.

"I do," he says. Dumbledore nods. The twinkle fades a little.

"The Dementors will be arriving tomorrow," he says. Snape raises an eyebrow at him.

"That soon," he says. "Classes don't begin for another two weeks.'

"We all have our demons, Severus. We teachers will need time to accustom ourselves to their evokers' active presence before the children arrive."

Snape says nothing. Dumbledore sighs.

"Potions Masters are not as rare as all that," he says. "I can seek out another, if…'

"I will brew it," Snape cuts him off.

"Why?" the headmaster asks bluntly. Snape says nothing. The look softens, and the twinkle returns. "Have you actually forgiven him, then, at least?'

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I don't think I am, Severus. He did take vengeance in your name, as I recall.'

"As you likely told him to, when you told Black that the best way back into his heart was to lick his boots that night. And of course, no one remembers, so it lost a great deal of its satisfactory impact, but…"

"I didn't tell Sirius Black to do anything that night, Severus."

"I'm sorry?'

"The events of the evening were unorchestrated. Sirius' actions that night were completely spontaneous and sincere. As were," he said, assessing the pale, suddenly immobile face before him. "Lupin's responses."

Legilimency aside, Severus Snape prides himself on his ability to spot a liar. The old man before him is one of the best, and he is not lying now. Snape knows that as surely as he knows his own name.

"Is that so," he sneers.

"It is so," Dumbledore says, but wearily, and Snape smirks (internally of course) at the final dimming of the twinkle. As soon as the door shuts behind him, he sits again, bending to pick up the fallen paper at his feet. The mad and laughing eyes, unchanged from those in the photo published twelve years ago, track his even as he reads the more recent words.

SIRIUS BLACK ESCAPES FROM AZKABAN

Lupin, he recalls, had been absolutely devastated when Lily and James died – but had he truly been surprised? Snape puts the paper down, and thinks back, hard. No, he concludes. He hadn't been. He couldn't have been, for he never said a word in Black's defense. Not one word: not in public or in private. It likely wouldn't have made a difference, but then again…. It might have.

Enough to get Black a trial, anyway. Or at least for someone to take note of the fact that there hadn't been a trial at all. As things stood, the only thing that Padfoot had received from Moony as he was dragged off to Azkaban was the firmly attached finger. The-Snape-of-the-time had actually laughed at that photo, and not internally either.

Snape sighs, and picks up the slender vial of grated bellflower before him, recalling again, with a certain sour satisfaction, the sound of Black's testicles popping.

It stops, Lupin had said. It stops now.

Severus Snape rises to his feet and goes to the cupboard in the corner, retrieving his largest copper cauldron. The Wolfsbane Potion, like the creature it aims to treat, is a tricky beast, and he finds himself looking forward to the challenge.