The best regards and thanks to Kittyluv and Floss bucket, my wonderful Betas.


Chapter 69

Trust and friendship

Severus observed the flames in the fireplace through the bourbon behind the glass in his hand. The golden liquid distorted the flames out of their natural shape, morphing them into hideous monsters, out of control. Making the flames look like help-seeking arms of something drowning, trying futilely to escape from what there was no escaping.

No escape. Never. Which turned out to be his fate just as much.

That fact, so solid and unchangeable held his heart in an iron grip, pressing all life out of it. For an instant, the fire in the fireplace seemed to reach out to him, robbing him of his breath. Severus' heart began to race and frustration, so strong he could almost taste it, took hold of him. With a furious howl he jumped off his chair and smashed the glass, including its content, at the fireplace.

But to observe the glass shatter into a thousand crystalline shards and the sticky liquor running sluggishly down the stone didn't bring any relief. He had to get away. He had to do something. Anything.

He had paced the room for at least two minutes before he even became aware of what he was doing. Severus stood stock still and forced a couple of deep breaths into his body. But the inner anxiousness, this urge to do something, didn't lessen. Something was trapped in his chest, like a beast wanting to break out of its cage through blind fury alone, a futile task. He couldn't get rid of this thing, which robbed him of his sleep and made it impossible to not fall into the past at any given moment.

There was no escape...

With a frustrated sob he sank to the floor. The thick carpet under his body was soft and fluffy but Severus felt as if the cold of the walls around him was reaching him unhindered, taking root deep in his bones.

Severus buried his face in his hands. He felt cold and so very weary. He thought he could sleep away the rest of his life and it still wouldn't be enough to chase away the tiredness. But sleep, even for an hour, was impossible, at least without a strong sleeping potion. The anxiety didn't let him. As soon as he lay down, trying to relax and leave it behind, the memories had free reign to smother him.

Was that it? Would that be all the rest of his life held for him?

Lowering his hands, Severus' gaze lingered on his fingers, which clawed at the long fibers of the carpet, hidden under the black leather of the gloves which only seemed to mock him now. He sat back, lifting his hands in front of his face. With an angry cry he ripped the gloves from his fingers and stared coldly at the rippled scars on his palm. Useless claws. That was all they still were. Ugly, and nothing but insult, calling forth the demons of his memories. Poppy had told him that the feeling would come back eventually but the scars would never fade. They would remain, prove of his failure. They or the gloves he wore because of them. No matter what he ever tried to hide them with, the camouflage was more obvious than the scars themselves.

If only Black hadn't found him. Sure, suicide was the coward's way out and was fitting for an overly emotional Hufflepuff or Gryffindor, who couldn't even kick the bucket without some pathetic and dramatic departure, but him? Only one year ago he'd only sneered in disgust, whenever he read about it or one of the other teachers spoke about an endangered student from their house. It has never been a topic in his house. Slytherins didn't kill themselves, no matter what happened to them. They found the easiest way to get through it and stored the happenings deep in their hearts, ready to strike back somehow, sometime.

He had been exactly like this. Even his difficult childhood hadn't managed to take his pride.

Until Voldemort.

Until Malfoy.

No, he didn't plan on a glorious demise and if he was overly emotional.... But wasn't that the problem exactly? He wanted peace. The anxiety, the shame, which stung his heart at every thought, making room only for apathy and depression and leaving a bad taste in his mouth, was impossible to handle. They were driving him insane, slowly but surely.

But he couldn't and wouldn't let that happen. Severus directed his gaze back towards the fire, letting it rest upon the stone mantle, where the wooden box still lay, holding his temporary wand. It was far from perfect and Albus had told him yesterday that he would accompany him to Ollivander's soon to get a new one. Severus didn't want to admit it but he had liked his old wand. It had been his first, bought by his parents, and if that didn't remind him of a happy family life, then at least of what it could have been.

Many things could have been, but nothing was.

He could have had a better home, without the constant pressure and worries about so mundane, everyday things, which made the relationships in the Snape household difficult as there was no energy left to spare for them. He could have been sorted into a different House at Hogwarts, had he only wished hard enough. Of course he cared about Slytherin. It was his House, his home and more his family than the people once living in Spinners End, but his life might have been easier in another house. No hiding his background, no having to prove himself over and over again. The possibility of true friends. And mostly, not such a strong influence to join Voldemort. With a bitter sneer he reminded himself that Albus would argue that then, without his activity as a spy, many people who had lived would have been killed. But the fact was that many people had died because of him too, like Lily. Not that that was of any importance anymore.

Not even that.

That time had passed and all that remained was dream that he might not have been tortured. He would still have his pride. And peace, which he had never had in this life and now could never have. So much he could have done differently, had he only chosen a better time to kill himself… Black wouldn't have found him, wouldn't have stopped him.

But what was hindering him to choose a better moment now? Black couldn't show up on time every time.

Black. A low, humourless chuckle built in Severus' throat. His arch-enemy since well… forever. Worse than Potter. And now? Oh the irony. The hate was gone. His laughter died an abrupt death. No, no hate. His arch-enemy had somehow become his only friend. The only friend, at least, who didn't expect anything from him. Which meant his only true friend. Black didn't want him to kill himself and with astonishment, Severus realized that it wasn't because it would spoil all his work to nurse him back to health. Even if he'd surely claim that to be the reason. But after Azkaban, the Dementors and the fact to have been left by all his friends, Black would probably be the only one who could understand his decision to some extent.

The thought, only fleeting at first, was looking more and more like a salvation. But even Black's friendship – to think of them as friends was still hard to grasp –was not enough to want to live anymore. His soul was dead already, so what meaning held the body?

He pushed to his feet, let himself slump into his armchair, staring at the flames again. The prospect of quiet and peace was alluring. Very alluring. Now, all he had to figure out was the when and how.

He didn't want a great fuss. All that mattered to him was the result, not some pompous exit. His fingers were already sensible and strong enough to hold a wand. The knife was out of the question. Too messy. The thought of the house elves, scrubbing his blood off the dungeon floor only filled him with disgust. In Malfoy's laboratory it had been the only possible way and he hadn't counted on anyone ever finding him. The cleanest method would be to apparate into one of the thick walls. Gone, disappeared... only his personal belongings left to clean out. His gaze wandered over to the fireplace again. With the unaccustomed wand he would have a hard time to pinpoint his position exactly enough. With bitterness he realized that not even the imagination of his students, coming into their schoolroom in the morning to discover the leg or arm of a corpse hanging out a wall, could fill him with satisfied glee anymore.

And then the elves.... No, he didn't need that image, really. Again, he realized with delay that he had gotten off his chair and was pacing once more. But instead of stopping, his feet took him to his storage room. He paused in front of it. Most of his ingredients and finished potions stood in the room beside his classroom but before, when he still was a professor, he had always locked up the most potent poisons. Were they still there or had someone thought about removing them? They were used only for the most complex potions and he didn't even allow all his seventh year students to work with them. Poisons were usually only generated by slip-ups or inaptitude in his class.

A Potions Master poisoning himself. There was hardly anything more cliché. But, like he thought before, the result was all that mattered and it would be clean, fast and relatively painless.

All the others would still be at the festivities right now.

Sirius had been standing in front of the gargoyle at the entrance to Albus' office for minutes and was no closer in deciding what to do. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. Snape had been absolutely right. Everybody had been honored in the ceremony. Everybody but the werewolf and the former Death Eater who had gotten naught but a fleeting mention. With Remus it wasn't such a big problem, even if it was a stinking injustice. His gentle friend was not someone who cherished standing in the spotlight and for the fact that his role in the final fight was now widely known, he wouldn't have trouble finding work anymore. That would be godsend enough for him. He could finally hope to lead a near normal life. Even if it was still a long way for all the prejudice about werewolves to disappear; Remus as an individual was famous enough now, so that no one would dare to not hire him because of a condition that could easily be held under control. In fact, Remus had already been approached by the ministry to head the new department for registration, control and consulting for werewolves. With the possibilities the relatively new Wolfsbane potion opened up, chances were high that the public cut and dried opinion concerning werewolves might change in the years and generations to come.

Remus liked the challenge, and even knowing that it would be a long and possibly futile effort, the prospect to do something for his kin was tempting and he was seriously considering accepting.

With Snape, things looked more dire. Even if he apparently had expected the whole thing, Sirius knew how important the public recognition would have been for the Slytherin. His shattered soul would hardly have mended with it but it might have given him back a bit of his self-worth had he received the order. Now, all of Sirius' sweet talk from before in Malfoy's cellar was nothing more than hot air. There was nothing which still justified Snape's torture. Nothing which would make it easier to accept what happened. With the fact that he had been officially ignored by the side he gave everything for, he had lost once more.

Sirius had seen Snape cowering in tears in front of Voldemort on a leash and just like that picture had then forever changed his view of Snape into a human being, it now made Sirius just as mad about the ministry's arrogance. Snape needed that recognition. Words wouldn't be enough. He had to have proof from others that he had done right and hadn't failed, even though he hadn't been able to pull through with the original plan. But instead they only managed to prove to him again of how worthless he was. They were repeating what Voldemort and Malfoy had done.

And that was exactly where Sirius' problem lay. He would never have described his feelings towards Snape as even remotely friendly but since he had seen what had happened to the man during his two week long captivity, thwarted the man's suicide attempt and taken a stroll through Snape's most personal memories, he felt responsible for the Slytherin. Unfortunately, the only person perhaps able to do something about the order, even if his chances were passable at best, was Albus Dumbledore. Which, again meant that Sirius had to tell the ancient wizard about what he knew of Snape's captivity. Unfortunately he promised the potions master to not tell anyone and breaking that trust would undoubtedly push Snape over the edge and break him for good and they would lose the Slytherin this time around. But if he left it as it was right now, there was no way in hell that Snape could accept what happened and work through it. It was risky one way or the other. Snape was a walking time bomb and the question wasn't if it would go off, but when. He would break sooner or later and take his own life.

With a sigh, Sirius decided, spoke the password "Lemon sorbet", and stepped onto the stairs as soon as the gargoyle leapt aside.

To his surprise he found the door open a fraction and after a short hesitation, stepped into the room.

Sirius hadn't been in the round office since before Voldemort's fall, when he had lived behind there for several months in some hidden rooms, but time seemed to have forgotten to pass here. Nothing reminded him of the fact that they had rid the wizarding world of one of its most menacing threats. Here, in this room, full of clicking, moving and mostly complete useless looking hotchpotch, the Portraits with the mostly sleeping, or pretending to sleep, former headmasters and the phoenix, who seemed to welcome every visitor with a welcoming, soft chirping, one never really felt in any danger. Here was Dumbledore's realm and his protective aura was palpable in every corner and in every apparent piece of junk.

He stepped up to the bird and the animal instantly begun to pick playfully at his hair. "Leave that alone, Fawkes," Sirius grinned with very little insistence.

"He must have missed you, my lad."

Sirius jerked around. How he hated it when the headmaster sneaked up on him. "Headmaster," he acknowledged with a nod, not letting the old man see that he had startled him.

"But, Sirius. Don't be so stiff," Dumbledore answered with a wink.

Sirius swallowed an annoyed sigh. Sometimes, he really questioned the old wizard's sense of seriousness.

He lost that thought with a shake of his head. "I must speak with you, Albus."

"Which I had figured, seeing as you are here. But take a seat, why don't you? Lemon drop?"

Sirius grimaced and declined by lifting his hand, while he sat down in front of Dumbledore's desk. His need for sweets had been fully satisfied in the months he had lived here.

He waited until Dumbledore simply sat down at the edge of his desk, ignoring the chair behind it, and looked at him expectantly over the rim of his glasses.

Sirius cleared his throat and bit his lower lip in a last bout of uncertainty. He might not have always been the best of persons towards others but he'd always taken keeping a secret very seriously. So it wasn't easy for him to tell what he was about to tell. "You must do something to get Snape that Order of Merlin," he rushed at last, before he could hesitate any more.

The headmaster's bushy eyebrows rose in amusement. "You mean Remus shall get the order, don't you?"

Sirius shook his head minutely. "No, Remus doesn't care that he hasn't gotten the order but then again, if you could do something about that too…" He forced himself to stay with the topic. It wasn't getting any easier anyhow. "Snape will kill himself." So, now it was out. Sirius took a deep breath, while waiting for the headmaster's reaction. The old wizard looked astonished and even a bit confused.

"And what gives you that idea, Sirius?"

Another deep breath. "Because he tried before."

This time, the headmaster paled visibly and he let himself glide off his desk, "It was right after the death of Voldemort, Peter and Malfoy. He disappeared into a laboratory in Malfoy's manor. I followed him and found him with slit wrists. The only reason why he is still alive, is because he couldn't open the poison bottle with his hands."

The headmaster paled even more, upon hearing that. He turned around and walked over to the great window, looking out, turning his back to the animagus, but Sirius saw a small tremor getting hold of the old man's hands. "That can't be... You must have gotten it wrong somehow." His posture stiffened at last and he faced Sirius again, every trace of mirth gone from his eyes. "That can't be. Severus isn't the type to kill himself. You have no idea of his past. He was mistreated one way or the other almost his entire life, even though he had never received any physical wounds until his capture. But the mental wounds always weigh more in the life of a human being. Back then has never pushed him that far. Severus is a Slyther…"

Albus fell silent. His eyes widened and his face lost all color as if he were horrified by his own words.

Sirius had no idea why, but the sudden doubt and panic in the eyes of the ancient wizard hit him like a bolt of lightning. This wasn't the all-knowing, wise Albus he always envisioned in the old headmaster, but a simple man with all his faults and for the first time, Sirius really became aware how solid into his own beliefs and suspicion even, Albus Dumbledore was.

Back in his youth, he had always known to make use of the affection, which the old man had held towards his house and the waggishness the marauders always spread. He had been enjoying the fact that everybody always expected evil from the Slytherins until proven innocent, but now, that cut and dried opinion only made him sick. No wonder Snape had turned the tables, favoring his Slytherins.

The house of the serpent had to stick together because that was the only way to stand against the common prejudices and distrust. Someone smart once said that trust could only be gained, when given first. Only, Sirius had never before even remotely envisioned that even Dumbledore was included in that. But the truth was glaringly obvious now. Deep inside, even Dumbledore held his prejudices.

"Dammit, Albus. You once told me not to measure Snape against Gryffindor standards but perhaps you should stop always measuring him against Slytherin ones. Snape is a human being and even if he can be a sodden git sometimes, he has feelings and can be hurt, even if he does his best to hide that behind his arrogant attitude."

After Sirius' outburst, dead silence hung like a blanket over the room and only the occasional chirp and click of several objects was heard in the office. Even the portraits were dead silent and almost appeared to hold their breath, while Dumbledore shuffled to his chair with hanging shoulders, letting his body sag into the cushions. He buried his face into his hands and a shiver wracked his body.

"Not even thirty minutes ago, I told someone that a truly strong man stands by his mistakes and learns from them and now I have to find out that I'm no better than him." He turned desperate eyes towards Sirius. "You are absolutely right. Severus is a Slytherin but that is a crushingly small part of him. I was so blind. Severus tried to kill himself... He nearly..." His voice was heavy from doubt, grief and desperation.

"I found him in time," Sirius appeased. "And he hasn't tried again, yet, but he will now, I'm sure of it."

Dumbledore still looked at him and Sirius thought to see tears glitter in the old man's eyes. "But why?"

Sirius smiled bitterly. "Because I was right." He was astonished how joyless his own voice sounded at this revelation. "Snape couldn't handle what happened during his captivity. I convinced him to show me his memories, back in the laboratory and he agreed to show me bits of it. Only, the whole thing ran out of control and I've seen every single, ugly detail. You said, back at the cottage, that they had tried to break Snape, but what you don't know is that they succeeded. They managed to bring him to the point where he was cowering, begging and sobbing at their feet on a dog's leash. They wanted him to survive, Albus. It wasn't important to them that he'd get his magic back because they knew that such a prideful man like Severus would never get over the fact that they broke his spirit. This last curse was only there to show him that they had complete control over him.

"Snape couldn't attack them when he stood face to face with Voldemort and Malfoy again. He just couldn't. They still had total control over him. Voldemort wanted his talents back. He planned to use him, as soon as he won the war. Snape wouldn't have been able to oppose his will at all."

The tears had finally left Albus' eyes and one ran down his cheek, disappearing into his beard.

"He swore to himself to win against them and instead they almost completely destroyed him. Snape must gain some kind of personal victory or he'll never be able to put it behind him. It must be proven for him that it's worth it to keep on living. That he has achieved something and that Malfoy and Voldemort have not taken everything from him.

Albus lowered his head. "I was such a fool. Once more I have not recognized the help this boy needs. Why is that always happening to me with him?"

"Because he's a stubborn bastard who never shows his feelings?" Sirius provided helpfully.

But if he'd hoped to lure a smile from Dumbledore he was disappointed. Albus only sighed deep in his throat, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Perhaps I should have shown him more what he means to me, so he'd come to me with his problems, instead of attempting suicide."

"Perhaps," Sirius agreed meekly. It wasn't an easy thing to realize, that not even Dumbledore was above being a simple human with all his faults and weaknesses. "But it's over now. There are always things that we could have done differently in hindsight. I've been mulling that over enough, for twelve years. But what will we do now? Can't you talk to the ministry about the Order of Merlin?"

Albus shook his head regretfully. "Don't you think that I've already tried that? I had no idea that Remus and Severus would be passed over at the ceremony and I confronted Cornelius straight away. He told me to be glad that the two had been mentioned at all and that the public would not understand, if a werewolf and a former Death Eater were to be getting the Order of Merlin. Unfortunately, some other influential members of the ministry seem to share that opinion and not even my influence will be enough to change that. At least as long as Fudge holds his position."

"The public, my arse. That fricking son of a bitch," Sirius exclaimed. "He only cares about his popularity and his chances for a re-election. He's just being a jerk over the fact that we used him and his legal system for our plan."

Sirius watched Dumbledore turn around and stare out the window, deep in thought. "I have to do something. I won't let Severus down again."

"We could Imperio Fudge?" Sirius suggested after a while.

Albus sat up straighter and sternly looked back at him. "I will not lower myself to Voldemort's level, using dark magic, Sirius."

Sirius shrugged, the gesture nonchalant but his eyes burning. "Well, then Snape will kill himself again."

Dumbledore got off his chair and walked over to the fireplace. For a while he just stood there, unmoving, his back turned towards Sirius, his eyes directed towards the flames.

Sirius waited silently. If he was honest to himself, he had no idea what to say. He was at the end of his wisdom and could only hope that the ancient wizard would pull a miraculous, simple solution out of his sleeve, which would resolve this whole mess.

In the end, Dumbledore squared his shoulders and turned back around. For a moment he held Sirius' gaze and then turned towards the door. "I won't let that happen. Come with me, Sirius."

"Where?" Sirius asked with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Surely the headmaster didn't intend to...

"We're going to see Severus. I have to talk to him."

He did intend... But Sirius couldn't allow that. It would be disastrous.

"Wait Albus...please!"

His near panicked yell made the headmaster pause and look at him startled.

"There is a problem," Sirius began. "I have given him my word that I wouldn't tell anyone. He would..."

"...interpret it as a new breach of trust," Dumbledore ended the sentence in a murmur. "I see."

"Which means that you can't let him know that I have told you. It would be too much for him, after all that's happened."

"I'm afraid that we don't really have a choice here, my boy. If all what you've told me is true. But don't worry, I won't confront him with everything right away. I just want to talk to him and with a bit of luck he'll start telling me on his own."