Chapter Three: Paradiso
Even blind, Maud could tell the difference between the way to Filch's office and the way Dumbledore was leading her. "Sir," she protested, "I'm supposed to be doing detention-"
"I am aware of that, Miss Moody," he said gravely. "Nevertheless, I would like a word with you first."
Maud let her breath out in a sigh. "Yes, Headmaster."
In silence they made their way through the corridors, then rounded a corner and stopped. "Treacle fudge," said Dumbledore, and led her forward, onto the ever-spiralling staircase that ascended to his office.
"Now," he said, guiding her through the door and closing it behind them, "please sit down and make yourself comfortable."
She had barely lowered herself into the chair when she heard a musical rustle of feathers and a solid weight landed on her shoulder, causing her to lurch, startled, to one side. Dumbledore's phoenix was a great deal heavier than Athena, and yet his talons gripped her so gently that she felt no pain.
"That is very handsome of you, Fawkes," said Dumbledore. "Maud, if you wish, Fawkes will act as your eyes while you are here."
She was startled. "But I can't. With a new host it takes time, and preparation..."
"Not with Fawkes," said Dumbledore. "Try it and see."
Maud bit her lip, sceptical but unwilling to contradict him. "Iungo," she murmured-
-and her world exploded into light.
Seeing through the phoenix's eyes was unlike anything Maud had experienced before. Everything in Dumbledore's office seemed deeper, richer, somehow more meaningful than it had on her first visit several weeks ago: the colours more vivid, the details more intricate and beautiful. Dumbledore himself was surrounded by a warm golden glow, and his eyes twinkled like constellations.
"Better?" he said.
Maud nodded, too dazzled to speak.
"Good." He sat down behind the desk opposite her, and steepled his fingers in front of his long nose. "Now, my dear, your uncle Alastor has expressed some concerns about your welfare here at Hogwarts." He paused. "And in light of today's events, I am inclined to agree with him. You are evidently unhappy in Slytherin, and I wonder if you might be reconsidering your choice."
His gaze was kindly, but piercing. She wanted to look away from it, but Fawkes would not let her. At last she said quietly, "I am, sir. The reasons for which I chose Slytherin are... less clear to me now."
"It's good to see you again, Maudie."
Her uncle was thinner and greyer than she remembered, and the pale shadows under his eyes spoke of the long months of confinement he had endured. She had wondered why he had not written to her in so long, when all reports said he was in good health and apparently well established at Hogwarts: only now, when it was too late, had she learned the horrifying truth.
Part of her blamed herself. She hadn't been there for him, and she should have been. Thanks to the accident that had put paid to her first year of schooling, she had come of age six months before any of her classmates - there was no reason she couldn't have been part of the delegation for the Triwizard Tournament. But on the qualifying examinations she had deliberately held back. At Hogwarts, or so she had reasoned, Karkaroff would be under her uncle's supervision, so there was no need for her there. And if she stayed behind at Durmstrang in its Headmaster's absence, she might finally get the chance to look at his secret files...
It had been an excuse, of course, and a lame one. The truth was, she didn't want to see Hogwarts, didn't want to know what she had been missing all these years. It had taken her a long time to fit in at Durmstrang, and even now her friends there were few: the chance to compare it with another school might well entangle her in bitterness and regret.
She had never anticipated that not going to Hogwarts would burden her with a regret more bitter still. If she had gone, she might have seen through young Barty Crouch's deception, exposed the false Mad-Eye before he could carry out his plans. And then Uncle Alastor would not have suffered so long, so alone.
Her expression must have given her away, because he took her hands and squeezed them reassuringly. "None of that. You couldn't have known. But your work at Durmstrang's done, now, and I want you to come home. Karkaroff may have done a bunk, but there's an even slipperier eel I've got my eye on now, at Hogwarts. You could help me there."
If she had ever thought of refusing him, of giving up her double life and coming in from the cold, she could not do it now. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Another Death Eater who walked free. Name of Severus Snape..."
"I see," said Dumbledore. "And so, it would appear, does Professor Snape. You do know that he has recommended you be publicly Sorted?"
"He told me he was considering it, yes." Of all his cruelties, that one hurt the worst. Humiliation she could deal with, perhaps even turn to her advantage. But a public Sorting would take away something she valued far more than her pride.
"Why do you think he would make such a suggestion?"
To hurt me. To drive me away. To punish me for mocking him in front of the Weasleys. "I can't say, sir. He seemed to think I was - unworthy to be in Slytherin House."
"Or that you had failed to conduct yourself in the manner he requires from his most favoured students. The two are not necessarily the same."
Maud frowned. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
Dumbledore smiled gently behind his white beard. "Do you play chess, Miss Moody?" He indicated a board on a low table to his right, where a match was evidently in progress. "I admit to being a somewhat indifferent player, but I do enjoy the game."
To all appearances he had changed the subject; but Maud knew better than to underestimate him, or to think that anything he might say would be irrelevant. Curiosity piqued, she turned in her chair - this time Fawkes followed her cue, and his gaze turned with her - to regard the chessboard with its complement of white and black pieces.
It was obvious at first glance that black outnumbered white, and appeared to be winning. Just how this had happened, however, was not clear to her until Dumbledore tapped the board lightly with his wand and the pieces sprang into action, galloping back to their home positions and then, move by move, replaying the game up to its present point.
She watched the cycle three times, fascinated. White had to be Dumbledore: a conservative player, protecting his pawns as long as possible, and only reluctantly surrendering them. Black, on the other hand, was bold and ruthless, sacrificing pieces without hesitation to gain a tactical advantage, and all the while stealthily directing a single, vulnerable-looking pawn across the board. In two moves, Maud realised, that pawn would become a queen: and what little advantage White still retained would be lost.
There was no need to ask who Dumbledore's chess partner might be. If he had signed his name across the board his personality could not have been more evident.
"If you will excuse me a moment," said Dumbledore, "I have a craving for tea. Would you like some?"
"Yes," said Maud. "Thank you."
He smiled gently at her and left.
When he had gone, Maud rose from her chair and walked about, hugging her elbows and shivering a little, although the room was far from cold. Dumbledore's office was much the same as it had been on her first visit, except for one thing: the Sorting Hat, sitting on a shelf behind the desk. The rip along its brim grinned at her, and her stomach gave a lurch: did she dare?
She took one hesitant step toward the hat, then another. At any moment she expected Fawkes to trill a protest, but he merely settled himself more firmly on her shoulder, rubbing his silky feathers against her cheek. "All right then," she said aloud, and with a decisive gesture picked up the Sorting Hat and set it on her head.
"Interesting," came a thoughtful murmur from beneath the brim. "I don't believe we've met before. Let me see... Courage there, to be sure; but then there's cleverness as well, and no doubt of it, you're a hard worker... Oh my, but you're an ambitious one, aren't you? Nothing's going to hold you back, and you'll do whatever it takes to get there, no matter who or what stands in your way... Yes, I do think, no mistake here, it's got to be SLYTHERIN!"
The last word came as a shout that echoed around the chamber, and Maud whipped the hat off her head so fast she nearly unseated Fawkes. She was trembling all over, and it was all she could do to make it back to the chair before her legs gave way.
"Well," said a voice behind her, very softly. "That was unexpected. But then, I did not anticipate that I would find you here, Miss Moody."
Her hands clenched, hard, on the arms of the chair, but she did not move. Nor did she speak. Snape stepped into her line of vision, stood looking down at her a moment with an unreadable expression on his face, then turned to the chessboard and directed the black pawn forward. It picked up its little skirts and hurried into the square he had indicated, as though fearing the consequences of disobedience.
"Ah, there you are, Severus," said Dumbledore, emerging from a side room with a heavily laden tray on which were a steaming silver teapot, a plate of scones dripping with jam, and three china cups. "Just in time for tea."
"Dumbledore trusts him," said her uncle, "and whatever some might say, Dumbledore's never been a fool. And I won't deny Snape's made himself useful to our side, here and there. But I've been watching the man all summer, and from what I can see he's no different now than he ever was - a sneering, oily-mouthed bully. Besides, a man who served Voldemort once could serve him again, and I'm not so sure Snape is that much more trustworthy than Karkaroff. No, Maudie, Snape needs someone at Hogwarts to keep an eye on him, and you're the best I could wish for."
"It won't be easy," said Maud after a pause. "At Durmstrang nobody knew or cared who my uncle might be. But at Hogwarts - don't you think it'll look a little odd if Mad-Eye Moody's niece ends up in Slytherin?"
"Not when it's known you spent the last six years at Durmstrang - and especially not if I throw you out of the house first." He grinned. "I can always take you back, grudgingly, after the school year's over."
She nodded, accepting the logic without returning his smile. "And once I've been there a week or two, a couple of Howlers from you should get the message out to anyone who might have missed it."
"That's my girl," he said. "So you'll do it, then."
"I knew you wouldn't let me down." He squeezed her hand again. "I'm tired, Maudie. That Crouch business last year took a lot out of me, and this summer's not been easy. But having you at Hogwarts will put my mind at ease. Dumbledore's a good Headmaster - the best. He'll look after you."
"That'll be nice for a change," said Maud wryly, and Uncle Alastor laughed.
"Headmaster," said Snape in a flat voice, "may I ask what Miss Moody is doing here? I directed her to report to Mr. Filch-"
"And I redirected her," said Dumbledore, calmly pouring the tea. "With felicitous results, as you have just heard. It is evident that Miss Moody does belong in Slytherin House, after all."
And what does that say about me? Maud wanted to ask, but with Snape standing a foot away from her the question was not exactly politic.
Dumbledore, however, anticipated her: "Ambition is a potent thing, Maud. It can lead to noble deeds, or devour itself in a selfish hunger for power. Single-mindedness in pursuit of one's ends can likewise be a great strength - or a great weakness. It is true that Slytherin has turned out more evil wizards than any of the other Hogwarts houses. But-" he handed her a cup and saucer- "it has turned out some great ones, too."
Maud was silent, not trusting herself to speak. She poured milk into her tea and stirred it.
"Have a scone, Severus," said Dumbledore, passing him the plate.
"No, thank you," said Snape shortly. She could feel his gaze on her, black and relentless. "Headmaster, regardless of Miss Moody's house allegiance, her conduct of this afternoon has yet to be addressed-"
"Ah, yes. An excellent point." Dumbledore slathered a scone with jam and clotted cream, tucked it into a napkin, and rose, teacup in hand. "And since as her Head of House that responsibility falls to you, I'll leave you to discuss the matter." He stepped over to the chessboard and made one seemingly thoughtless move, then bundled himself out the door and closed it behind him.
There was a long and awful pause, during which Maud stared at her cup and Snape said nothing. Then at last his silky voice broke the silence:
"It appears that I cannot remove you from Slytherin, Miss Moody. But as long as you remain under my authority I will require you to conduct yourself in a manner appropriate to a member of my House. Is that clear?"
She raised her head, eyes burning. "You know what really happened with Muriel," she said. "And you know why."
"It would not have happened," said Snape levelly, "had you not been conversing with the Weasley twins in an unfortunate and very public manner. If you will not behave like a Slytherin, you must not expect me to treat you like one."
"I didn't mean to insult you," she said, but a tear escaped from the corner of one eye, and as it made its cold way down her cheek she realised there was no point trying to hide anything from him any more. "I never imagined people were talking about - I didn't know what to say."
Snape stared at her a moment, then threw back his head and laughed, a sound so unfamiliar and so unexpected that she was stunned. "Do you mean that's what's been worrying you?" He took a handkerchief out of his sleeve, tossed it at her with a flick of the wrist. "Dry your tears, Miss Moody. I regret to say that you have notsucceeded in breaking my stony heart."
He shook his head. "Don't be a fool, girl. Did you really think hearing myself dismissed as a romantic prospect would come as a shock? Or that I am ignorant of what I see in the mirror every morning? Rest assured, I do not require or even wish my students to find me attractive. My concerns about your conversation with the Weasleys were of quite another sort."
Maud gazed at him, speechless. There could be no question he was telling the truth, but could she really have been so - she hated even to think it, but there was no other word - blind?
Snape continued, his face hardening, "I cannot afford to be associated with a student who keeps company with Gryffindors - least of all those who are friends of Harry Potter. If you had thought it through more carefully, Miss Moody, you would have realised that. Your conversation with the Weasleys put me in a dangerous position. I had no choice but to disassociate myself from you publicly, until you recognised your error and corrected it - or else abandoned the goal for which you joined Slytherin House and returned to ordinary life." He paused. "I had reason to believe... that you might be better to choose the latter."
"Because they'll never let me be an Auror as long as I'm blind." Her throat was tight. "And your best attempts to cure me have failed."
"Yes." There was a slight hesitation before the word, and she could sense that he was not telling her the whole truth. But she knew better than to press him for more.
"Do you know that my uncle sent me here to spy on you?"
"Of course." He bared his teeth in another, bleaker smile. "I took it as a compliment to my skills. And as proof that you had never betrayed my confidence yet, and were not likely to do so now."
She said nothing, her hands knotting and unknotting the black handkerchief in her lap.
"But there is one thing you will have to learn," he said. "With you and with Professor Dumbledore I may be somewhat at ease, because you know what I am. But to the rest of the world I show a different face, and if you expect kindness from me - especially toward students of mixed or Muggle blood, or whose parents were known for their opposition of the Dark Lord - you will be disappointed. There are numerous Death Eaters still at large, many of them in positions of power. They all know what I was like when I served the Dark Lord, and if for one moment I appear to have changed, I will lose what little influence I have among them. Draco Malfoy is not the only student at Hogwarts whose testimony can make or break my reputation."
"I can't argue with your logic," she told him quietly. "But I wonder how you sleep at night."
Snape pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes, the first wholly unguarded movement she had ever seen from him. "Asphodel and wormwood," he said. "In small but effective doses."
The moment he invited her into his office, the moment he spoke the first few words to her, she had known. In that moment her world had reversed itself, and landed on a shaky new foundation: the man she had been sent to watch, the former Death Eater her uncle so distrusted, was the same man who had once saved her life. The years had eaten away the softness from his face, and his hair was longer than she remembered. But the voice had been unmistakable.
He looked hollow, she had found herself thinking. As though some hidden cancer of suffering gnawed at him from the inside, stripping him to sinew and bone. She thought she knew what it was, and her heart went out to him: a double life was a heavy burden, and the pressure on him must be greater than anything she had ever had to bear.
She had decided, in that moment, that she would not let him carry it alone.
Maud rose from her chair and walked to him, laid one hand on his arm. She felt him flinch, but he did not move. "My uncle told me once," she said softly, "that whatever happens, you mustn't become the thing you're fighting."
"It's too late," he said flatly. "I have never had opportunity to be anything else. I always knew that the Dark Lord would return. Whoever Severus Snape might have been without him, you and I may never know."
She gave him a steady look, then turned and walked back to the chessboard. With one determined movement she picked up the black pawn, ignoring its startled squeak, and set it down on the final square. "Why don't we wait and see?" she said. "Together."
His lips parted, the harsh lines of his face easing, and for a moment he looked as young as he had the night they first met. Then, unaccountably, he started to laugh. "As a dramatic statement, Maud," he said, "that was effective. But I wouldn't do that, if I were you. Dumbledore has us in check."
She looked back, surprised, and found that he was right. Embarrassed, she put the pawn back where it had been. "It's your game," she said. "Obviously I still have much to learn."
The amusement on Snape's face shaded back into seriousness. He crossed to her, took her hand lightly between his own. "I will teach you," he said, "whatever you need to know. And if we survive-"
Fawkes launched himself from her shoulder, landed on the high back of Dumbledore's chair. Disoriented, she saw herself, and Snape, through the phoenix's pellucid gaze: dark and fair, man and girl, teacher and student: opposites, yet in purpose one.
"Then," she said, turning her face up toward him with a smile, "my uncle will kill you."
He dropped her hand abruptly. "I'd forgotten about him."
"I was joking!"
"I think," said Dumbledore's voice from behind them, "it would be prudent to take Maud's uncle into your confidence, Severus. If Miss Moody is to remain under your tutelage, then she and Alastor will have to stage a complete parting of the ways, and I think it safe to say that she would not be willing to do so without his co-operation."
Snape looked exasperated. "Headmaster, must you?"
"Hand-holding between teachers and students," said Dumbledore placidly, walking into the room and handing a sleepy-looking Athena to Maud, "is expressly against school rules. As a reprimand, Severus, your detention-granting privileges are temporarily revoked." He tapped Fawkes lightly with his wand, said "Abiungo," and her visual bond with the phoenix collapsed, leaving her in darkness.
Maud set Athena back on her shoulder, murmured the linking spell, and Dumbledore's office leaped back into view. "I'll talk to my uncle," she said to Snape, "and tell him how you saved my life. With your permission, that is."
His mouth twisted in displeasure, but after a moment he relented. "Very well. But make sure that it is your uncle." She nodded, and he went on, "And whatever you do, don't speak where you might be overheard. You have yet to realise how much is at stake."
"I know." She turned to Dumbledore. "Headmaster, may I have permission to go?"
"I would suggest a lengthy detour before returning to your dormitory, but yes."
"And I should warn you," said Snape, "that your reception in my class for the next few days is likely to be... less than pleasant."
"That's nothing to the reception I'm likely to have when I get back to my dormitory," said Maud. She reached up to her shoulder, stroked Athena gently. The little owl hooted and nibbled her fingers, comforting. "But it's all right. I can manage."
"I am beginning to realise," Snape said dryly, "that there are remarkably few things you can't manage, Miss Moody. Allow me to see you to the door."
She was a child again, listening blindly to her uncle's low, rasping voice as he cradled her against him and stroked away her tears.
"You'll have me now, Maudie. I can't bring back your parents, or take their place, but I swear I'll take good care of you. And the Death Eaters who came to your house - we'll find them, no fear, and I'll see them punished if I have to do it myself."
But what about the others? she wanted to ask him, but her throat was too choked with crying. Who will punish them?
If she had not been blind, she might have believed that two particular men were guilty of her parents' deaths, and consumed herself with a hunger for personal revenge. But the evil that had destroyed her family had no face. It was not the Death Eaters, but the evil they represented, that she learned to hate that night: a thing which could never be locked away in Azkaban, nor even put to death. It was bigger than even Voldemort himself, and though she knew she could never destroy it, nevertheless it had to be fought. It was a realisation that would define her life.
It had taken Maud fourteen years to appreciate it, but her blindness was a gift. It had limited her, but it had also set her free. Because of it, she had won the confidence of a remarkable man, whose methods she might sometimes question, but whose integrity she could never doubt. The exact means by which he planned to strike against the darkness she could only guess at: but she felt instinctively that the blow, when it came, would be a powerful one.
And if by supporting him she could strengthen his arm one iota, it would be worth it.
Standing in the moonlit corridor outside Dumbledore's office, Maud fingered the black pawn, tucked away into the pocket of her robes, and smiled. Then she turned, and walked fearlessly into the darkness.