by The Velvet Ghost

: Warning - Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince :

The gloomy front room of Spinner's End displayed the tell-tale signs that somebody had been here all too recently.

For one thing, fingerprints had been pattered into the soft layer of dust that had been building slowly, ever since Severus left for Hogwarts and abandoned the wretched old house for another year. That year had ended very eventfully though - perhaps too eventfully. Things had gone too far. So far, in fact, that an intruder had felt the need to break into his home and search the place. It was all done carefully, of course. Whoever had been here was not desperate to find whatever it was they were looking for. That, or they had ascertained very quickly that it was not here.

As Severus browsed through the book cabinet, noting that somebody else's fingers had trailed their worn leather fronts and left more paths through the dust, he suspected he knew what the intruder had been searching for. Him.

Whether Death Eater or ministry offical was unclear, but it was most likely the first. A ministry official would not have examined his book collection, nor would they have stuck around to help themselves to half a glass of red wine from his cabinet. No doubt some faithful follower of Voldemort had come round to call, found the place empty and indulged for a while.

Silently, he uncorked the wine bottle that had been left out. His weight sank easily into the shabby couch, as if it had been eagerly awaiting him and wanted to welcome him home for the summer. He almost felt guilty - he would not be staying here long. Overnight, perhaps, or just enough time to pack up his most needed items and then escape. Where he was going to, he was not quite sure just yet.

In fact, he wasn't sure of anything much anymore. Not after last year.

Sighing, and taking a gentle swig from the bottle, he reached up to scoop back a handful of black hair. It was even more greasy than usual. For the past few weeks, he had been drifting from place to place, staying nowhere in particular and not having such luxuries as a shower. His life, quite suddenly, had no goal. Lord Voldemort had wished Dumbledore dead, and it had been done... the Unbreakable Vow had seen itself fulfilled, and was gone, leaving Severus with a hollow feeling inside his mind.

And awful things to consider.

Though it was a feeble excuse, that he did not entirely believe himself, the Vow was partially to blame from Dumbledore's death. Nobody would believe it, not even his conscience. Vows were tenacious creatures that often seemed to have a life of their own, like a spirit that possessed the mind, surging you helplessly and wildly towards completing the promise. It was not mind control. Severus would never submit to something like that. Instead, the Vow had felt like a persuader, the tiny voice that hissed in his ear and reminded him of ropes like snakes of fire, binding and unbreakable.

Those ropes were gone now. Without the Vow and its selfish desire of fulfillment, Severus found himself realising the enormity of what he had done. He could have resisted the Vow, denounced Voldemort and joined Albus, united under the Hogwarts banner...

Somehow, he knew that life didn't work that way. Good and evil were inevitable foes. Unfortunately, good was not always the inevitable winner.

For many years now, decades, he had been strung between the Dark Lord and Dumbledore, unable to make up his mind and feeling safe supported between them, in the knowledge that should one fall, he would be welcomed to the other like a son... and also that if one doubted his loyalty too far, he could race to his other master. The Vow had forced him to make a decision, giving him that final push that tied him to one side, one banner, one force.

And maybe, just maybe, he had made the wrong decision.

He took another longer swig from the bottle, draining the wine and wishing it would possess him like the Vow had, so he wouldn't need to think. Anything to take his mind off the horrible knowledge that he had killed Albus Dumbledore.

Also the realisation that he hadn't paid a visit to the Dark Lord since that night, and that the rumours were flying, how Lord Voldemort was suspicious and his anger was growing. Draco and Narcissa Malfoy had vanished off the face of the Earth, coincidentally the day that the Daily Prophet announced Lucius Malfoy's escape from Azkaban. Severus hoped they had found a secure place to hide.

As he drained the last drops from the bottle, he realised that sitting here in the dark was getting him nowhere. He needed to plan and to prepare. For too many years, he had put off making one terrible decision, which led to his current feeling of being strapped into a rollercoaster he never asked to go on. He must not let it happen again. Logic, he thought quietly, tracing his little finger around the rim of the wine bottle and removing the fleeting taste of elderberry with his tongue. Logic and planning and organisation.

Was he loyal to Lord Voldemort? It was the biggest question, the one that dictated everything else, and yet... he didn't know the answer. It would be easy to fix his allegiance to Voldemort, even easier now that Albus was gone and the Ministry had him wanted for murder. The Dementor's Kiss, according to the front page of the Daily Prophet. Did he have any choice, other than to join the Dark Lord? If he did swear loyalties to Voldemort, then there was always the good chance that evil would triumph. Severus would rise as a hero, the one to kill Albus Dumbledore...

Still... it felt wrong.

Something wasn't right. Deep inside, something squirmed and bucked uncomfortably whenever he thought of the Dark Lord's flaring red eyes, that white face, that cruel voice asking for news and rumour and speculation, as always.

He opened another bottle of wine. Lying back into the musty comfort of the couch, he tipped the bottle's neck to his lips and drank, soothing himself in the flow of red wine. It had all gone too far. If he had not killed Dumbledore... if he had allied with him, instead of murdering him, and Dumbledore would rise up with the forces of good.

And Harry Potter. Severus could not forget the look on the boy's face, as he fired off that simple insult - "coward". It was such a stupid word, so very childish, but it was one that Severus had not had brandished at him before. It un-nerved him then, and still did, weeks later. Coward. Was he a coward? Had Potter somehow found the single word that summed up all of Severus's fears, all his indecision, all his disloyalty?

He took the bottle from his lips, and rested his head against the arm of the sofa, feeling his eyes drifting over slightly in contemplation. He had refused to swear his allegiance for one real reason, and one reason alone - he was afraid of what would happen, should he pick the wrong side. The Dementor's Kiss awaited him as a Death Eater, while an agonising end by Cruciatus or worse would be Voldemort's punishment. And what if he regretted his choice? What if he found himself anchored to a cause he did not believe in?

And a little voice inside his head said, "Like you are now."

What was the definition of a coward? One who did not act, through fear of the consequences? In that case, then yes... he was a coward. It had taken Harry Potter to make him realise that... and only minutes after he had taken one step too far, the step he had feared so much. The Ministry would not accept him now. He had broken too much trust people placed in him, time and time again, and the one person who had trusted him completely, undoubtingly, was Dumbledore.

The same man he had murdered.

Groaning quietly, hating himself, Severus drank. He found that he didn't think quite so much when red wine was running down his throat, and it had been a long time since he felt the release and irresponsibility of getting totally and completely bladdered. He would drink away his sorrows for tonight, have a shower, sleep and then in the morning...

Oh yes, his plan. He kept getting distracted. Forcing himself to sit up and abandon the bottle on the floor by the sofa, he drove his fingers through his hair and massaged his temples, thinking, straining for a miracle. He did not want to ally with Lord Voldemort. He could not. Not after Dumbledore, not after Potter, not after 'coward'... but what else could he do? Had he forced himself into a one-way road? Were his options as depressing as Voldemort or death?

He considered finding the Malfoys. They would take him in, surely... after all, they were in the same boat as him. Draco had been there, had taken a lesser role in Dumbledore's death, and was facing the regrets, the guilt. Severus had known it the moment he saw Draco on the battlements. The boy was unsure. He didn't want the glory of Death Eater, and Narcissa didn't want him to have it... Lucius must have lost his nerve as well. He might have heard what happened to Draco, how he was forced into Lord Voldemort's arms at such a young age. Severus knew that eventually, Lucius might have wanted Draco to follow in the family's footsteps... but not as a child.

Severus could imagine how Lucius felt: like his son was being taken away from him before he was ready. Lucius's loyalty to the Dark Lord was fierce and pure... but his loyalty to blood, to his family, was stronger. If the rise of Lord Voldemort meant the fall of the Malfoy line, Lucius would have his doubts.

Why would a wizard like the Dark Lord, campaiging for the purity of blood, risk the eradication of the most elite pure-blood line? Severus didn't need to think too hard for that one. Lord Voldemort no longer cared about blood. Only power.

Distracted, again. Angrily, he stood up and paced around the room to keep his focus, until he came to a dull stop behind one of the winged armchairs and thought. He was going to abandon Voldemort. Perhaps it was stupid, perhaps his biggest mistake after killing Albus Dumbledore, but perhaps death was preferential. If he was leaving the Dark Lord's side, he needed shelter and protection...

"Damn you, Albus," he said softly into the silence. He reached up, rubbing his frown gently to ease the pressure. If he had not killed Dumbledore, his options would be so much more extensive. His Vow with Bellatrix Lestrange was a monumental regret.

It was horrific to admit, but without the support of the Ministry and the wizarding world, he would be an easy target for Lord Voldemort. No matter where he hid, the Dark Lord would track him down.

Vaguely, he thought of Igor Karkaroff, how he escaped jail by confessing so many fellow Death Eaters to the Ministry.

"And a fine end Karkaroff met," he said quietly to himself. He sat back down on the sofa, picking up the wine bottle and drank, wanting to clear his head. Karkaroff was a stupid man, Severus reminded himself. Too much of a snivelling little coward, maybe if -

As he realised what he had thought, Severus felt a cold shiver dart down his spine. Karkaroff had died because he was a coward.

"Not all cowards die," he growled. Catching sight of himself in an old and scratched mirror above the fireplace, his upper lip curled. "I am not a coward."

"You just keep telling yourself that," the mirror drawled. "It might come true."

Five minutes later, Severus stood on the banks of the rubbish-strewn river, watching the mirror sink away beneath the surface of the contaminated water, its glass cracked viciously in several places. Destroying it did not take away the wound it left. As Severus leant back against the iron railings, closing his eyes and turning his face up to a darkening evening sky, he could think of nothing but Harry Potter and that word. Coward.

"I am not a coward!" he spat to a flock of birds flying overhead, and louder, he cried out, desperate for somebody to hear. "My life has been... has been... I am not a coward! Nobody in my position is a coward! Nobody in my position could ever comprehend... comprehend exactly what..."

His voice trailed out, hating himself, hating his past, hating his future. There was nothing he could say to get rid of Harry Potter's face, glaring up at him in hatred, in furious loathing, and that word was echoing over and over again in his head.

"There was nothing I could do!" he shouted. "Nothing I could do! Do you hear me, Albus? Will you stop tormenting me now? What could I have done? This was inevitable, you old fool, you knew it was!"

Nobody answered. Frustrated beyond anything he had ever felt, he fell to his knees on the damp soiled grass, his hands curling into furious claws and he let out a shaking howl as he realised, for the first time, just what had happened to his life. What had happened? What had gone wrong? Was this really his life?

Burning trails of angry tears were seeping from his eyes, staining his skin like blood.

"What's the brave option, Albus? What would your Gryffindors do?" He glared at the sky in hatred, shaking all over, and a surge of anger welled up inside him. "Coward! Nobody can call me a coward! Nobody knows what I've been through, what I've lived, and nobody cares! Did you care, when Black and Potter nearly murdered me? Ten points, you took from Gryffindor, ten points! Is that what I'm worth?"

A cold, harsh wind was starting up, tugging newspapers and packaging free from the mass of rubbish and scattering it along the banking, into the stagnant pools of the river. Severus found himself wanting to be torn apart. He felt like a million years of anguish and misery was building inside him, raging, clawing at his insides and trying to break him right open, kill him, like he had killed his only chance.

"Not a coward," he gasped out. He fell forwards, curling his face away, his shaking hands burrowed in his air and clinging to the heavy black strands so hard it hurt. "Not a coward... nobody's coward... coward, coward... oh God, coward..."

Another howl wrenched free from his throat. As he shuddered, gasping for air and praying for a way out, begging for help, he found three words spilling from his mouth and his heart caved in.

"I'm sorry, Albus..."

Once it had left him the first time, it was so much easier, and he clawed at the grass as he tried to breathe, his voice faint and weak. "I'm sorry... oh God, Albus... Albus, I'm sorry... I didn't-... I'm sorry... it's all gone wrong, it's all my fault... coward... A-Albus... I need help..." He cringed inside, aching, and gasped, "I need help... Albus, please..."

And as his eyes fell closed, he truly knew what he was, what he'd done, what he had condemned the wizarding world to. One word thumped in his brain like a pulse.