Disclaimer I don't own any of it and I won't make any money from it. Created strictly for entertainment.
Author's note: This story has been updated. See note below.
The tall, thin form of a man plunged deep into the obsidian shadows of the Forbidden Forest, which seemed to welcome it into its fold as one of its own. Rage emanated off of the man in waves, but his location in the enshrouding darkness was given away only by the green and silver sparks that would shoot sporadically out of the tip of the wand clutched tightly in his fist.
"Potter!" He spat out the name, as if even the thought of it left a bitter taste on his tongue. Oh, how he despised the name and everything associated with it. The embodiment of the injustice of his life, the very bane of his existence, had the unimaginable gall to accuse him of cowardice! If that imbecilic, hateful, insolent, spoiled, arrogant, insufferable brat had even a vague notion of---
Severus Snape stopped abruptly, and worked hard to master his spiking anger. Several deep inhalations and slow exhalations, and a snap of his head to either side – resulting in a sharp, but satisfying crack – and he felt in control once more. He cast a quick Scourgify over himself, and his billowing black robes, to remove any trace of blood that may have been drawn by that bloody demon bird, and the thorny branches he'd ploughed himself into in his efforts to get away from it, and to avoid further delay. It wouldn't do to attract some of the more bloodthirsty inhabitants of the forest. His purpose there required shadow and stealth; certainly unattainable whilst emitting sparks, or with Thestrals in tow.
Much calmer, he moved forward once again, and listened carefully for any telltale signs of company. His destination was not that far into the forest, but he needed to be certain he hadn't been followed when he'd left the brat at the edge of the forest. Satisfied that he was alone, he started to double-back toward the castle, to observe the havoc he'd wrought just moments ago.
From his position in the shadows, he could see in the distance, a small crowd forming around the Headmaster's body, which was lying prone at the foot of the tower.
The evening's events had transpired too quickly for any contemplation, but Snape thought he should feel something more than just disdain for the people currently gathered around Dumbledore. The fools! The only other emotion he could conjure was simple regret for the meager possessions he'd been forced to leave behind – his favorite scales, and a unopened bottle of fifteen year-old Scotch among them – in his haste to get to the Astronomy Tower before the careful plans all went pear-shaped. He gave no thought whatsoever to the co-worker he'd had to Stupefy and leave immobile on his office floor.
The castle had been his home for sixteen years; twenty-three if one were to include his time there as a student. Snape allowed himself a derisive snort. He certainly wasn't feeling nostalgic; his days as a student were exactly why he was in this treacherous situation. In fact, a single incident had set the course for the entire train wreck that was his life.
Black! –Another name to be spat at the dirt.
Contrary to his long-standing attitude, and his continued antipathy for the dead man (and oh, how he wished he'd been there for that happy event), he hadn't hated Black immediately. Snape had, in fact, paid scant attention to the non-Slytherin students at his very first Welcoming Feast. It wasn't until later that night, in Slytherin's dungeon common room, that he'd heard the name Sirius Black, and about the scandal of the boy who should have been among them. Lucius Malfoy had been particularly disgusted. The Blacks and the Malfoys had been closely associated for decades – centuries perhaps – and as a third-year, Lucius had been charged with taking young Black under his wing.
No, Snape's hatred for Black had slowly simmered into a seething boil. He'd resented Black at the beginning for simply being and having everything that Snape himself had ever wanted: an actual pureblood family, a place in the impenetrable circle of the elite, seemingly unlimited wealth – and for rejecting it all.
The resentment had grown as the years progressed, until it had become a living, breathing thing inside of him. During that time, Black and Potter, along with their two sycophants, had become increasingly more intolerable. Snape had become their favorite target – unprovoked more often than not – and had got away with it time and again. Ever the small-minded Gryffindors, they'd most frequently mocked his appearance, which Snape could hardly help, and he'd eventually grown a callus over that sore spot, so that he'd no longer cared what others thought of him. They'd even somehow found out about the hexes of Snape's own creation, and had had the nerve to use them against him. However, the more serious bone of contention was their idiotic lack of respect for the Dark Arts.
When he was nine years old, Snape had come across some very old books on the subject, in his maternal grandfather's collection. Grandfather had fallen ill, and Snape's mother, ever the dutiful daughter, had insisted on the weekly visits. Like everyone else in Severus' world, Grandfather Prince had not been a warm man, but Snape had never learned to expect warmth and kindness, nor would he ever think to offer them. He'd looked forward to the visits simply to immerse himself in the books that had fascinated him. There was beauty there, a vein of exquisiteness in the pain most of the curses would cause. The Dark Arts had given him an escape from the wretchedness that was his life with his contemptible Muggle father and weak-willed witch mother.
He'd been stunned to learn, once at school, that study of such magic was forbidden. Severus had got a taste of it though, and his appetite for it was insatiable, so he'd continued his study privately. The thought of being without his beloved books had already driven the boy to systematically relieve his grandfather's collection of the ancient tomes over the course of the last few visits, during the man's final days, and he'd found it to be a rather exciting endeavor. Smuggling the purloined texts in his school trunk had also been an adventure of its own, as his mother had insisted on a thorough inventory before he'd departed for school. She'd never even looked twice at the books. With his brand new wand, and with the aid of his schoolbooks, he had managed to charm the covers to indicate more innocuous subjects, in the event she might recognize them.
The reasoning behind Dark Magic's prohibition was still unreasonable to Snape's way of thinking. Magic was magic – it was intent that made the difference. Studying the Dark Arts could only help one prepare to defend oneself. Not every Wizard would abide by the Ministry's rules, nor could they be expected to always play fair; it was simply human nature.
Severus had found that Potions came very easily to him. He'd used his mother's textbook, of course, and her notes; however, he had adapted them too, further improving the results. Although the Dark Arts were his true passion, he loved brewing potions nearly as much as it was possible for him to love anything. He'd found the same dark beauty in brewing that he had in the Dark Arts and had been eager to combine the two with some of the potions he'd come across in his studies. Much to his disappointment and endless frustration, a good many of the key ingredients were either illegal, or not obtainable without proper Ministry involvement.
His clandestine study of the Dark Arts had eventually caught Lucius Malfoy's keen eye, and he'd taken an interest in Severus that had left the solitary boy reeling from the unaccustomed attention and the prestige that went along with it. It'd been very gratifying for Snape to take Sirius Black's place, but he'd learned over time that Malfoy had considered him a poor substitute. Snape had ignored the digs at his parentage and his social status, or lack thereof, to remain in Malfoy's good graces. As the sentiments mirrored Snape's own anyway, he'd just let them roll off his back.
His doggedness had paid off when Malfoy had finally trusted him enough to introduce him to the Dark Lord himself. The man whose power had so enthralled Lucius Malfoy and had even driven the older boy to refer to the him as "Master", a man that had the entire Wizarding world fearing to speak his very name aloud – was a man that Severus Snape had been only too eager to meet.
In reality, Severus had walked away from that first meeting feeling somewhat disillusioned. Malfoy's hype, and admittedly, Snape's own idealized vision of the man, had raised his expectations far too high it'd seemed. Snape was familiar with bullies, had dealt with them both at home and at school, and had found the enthroned, and warped looking man to be no different. Although Snape had been impressed and very interested in whatever the Dark Lord possessed that had caused the grown men around him to fall prostrate at his feet, he'd resisted Malfoy's pressure to join them, finding the subservience distasteful – until that fateful incident had changed his mind.
They'd fancied themselves marauders because of a few successful childish pranks. Though he'd made efforts to avoid any interactions with them, Snape had continued to be watchful of the idiotic Gryffindor quartet, and his diligence had been rewarded. They'd definitely been up to something. What it was he hadn't known, other than it'd had something to do with Lupin. If he could catch them at it, he could take the shine off of the Headmaster's "Golden Boys".
Snape's obsession with them, and his goal to take them down a notch, had become such that he'd ignored his very Slytherin instincts for self-preservation, and had instead succumbed to a taunt that had questioned his fortitude. Black had told him if he wanted to find out what they'd been up to, he had only to follow a tunnel that was under the Whomping Willow to find the answers. Of course he hadn't trusted Black, hadn't assumed it would be that easy; however he'd underestimated the boy, thinking him to be a noble Gryffindor through and through. It'd never occurred to Snape that Black had had some sneaky Slytherin blood in him after all, or that Black would even have had murderous intentions to begin with.
The noises that had reached his ears from a point ahead in the damp tunnel had been feral and ghastly. It was only determination and curiosity that had spurred his progress toward it. So certain was he that the "Golden Boys" were torturing animals, or something that would be equally disturbing news to the Headmaster, he'd pressed on, ignoring the niggling sense of foreboding that had raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He'd reached out to push the trap door upward and had caught a glimpse of the horror that had awaited him. Snape's recollection of the events became fuzzy at that point. He could recall – never without a shudder – yellow eyes bearing down at him from the face of a hideous snarling beast. He remembered being thrown or pulled backward, and then nothing more until he'd regained consciousness as he'd been dragged out of the tunnel by none other than James Potter.
Potter had, of course, tried to explain it away, had tried to apologize, had tried to convince him that safeguards had kept Lupin harmless, and had even tried to tell him that Black had acted alone. Snape had not been so gullible; did they take him for a fool? He couldn't have very well gone to the Headmaster either, could he? No, the old man clearly had had knowledge of Lupin's condition since the blasted tree had been planted and a tunnel had been created for his use. So Snape had silently seethed, his outrage and indignation feeding his hatred, which had grown exponentially with each passing month in the presence of those he'd considered his sworn enemies.
Lucius Malfoy, even after leaving school, had continued to exert pressure upon Snape to take The Mark, to become one of the Dark Lord's followers, and it had suddenly seemed like salvation. He'd decided he was ready to learn from the Master himself, ready to put his hatred to good use. The Dark Lord had, in return, offered to teach Snape things he'd never imagined possible, and had allowed him to experiment with the potions he so desperately desired to brew, procuring the ingredients that Snape himself would never have been able obtain otherwise. Bowing to the man in return had seemed a pittance.
Hindsight had proved him wrong in that respect, as the Dark Lord had become more and more twisted, and to Snape's disenchanted mind, less awe inspiring and more pathetic, in his all consuming search for immortality.
The true consequences of being saved by Potter had eluded Snape for several years. Had he known what that walk down the tunnel would eventually cost him, he'd have hexed Black before the taunt was fully formed on his lips. Had he known, he might have willingly offered his throat to the beast.
Better to have died, than to have been saved by James Potter.
It wasn't until he'd inexplicably felt compelled to find the Potters, and their spawn, that he'd realized something was amiss. Snape fought the odd, unfamiliar urges to protect, to save, to intervene, with every fiber of his being, but when he'd experienced excruciating pain, on the very night that Potter and his Mudblood wife had been killed, he'd finally made the connection.
The Potter brat had somehow managed to take the Dark Lord out of the picture, but Snape felt certain that the new development was not something that would have been wise to share with him at any rate. Having been cut adrift by the Dark Lord's disappearance, he'd had nothing to lose by turning to the one man whom might have answers. He'd only recently acquired the position of Potions Master – by order of the Dark Lord – and had become ensconced within the school, so he'd gone to Dumbledore – for explanation, perhaps for absolution. What he'd discovered was so much worse than he'd ever imagined.
The Headmaster had listened patiently, his blue eyes bereft of their damnable twinkle. Snape had always suspected that Dumbledore had studied the Dark Arts, and had confirmed this suspicion when he'd felt the man probing at his Occlumens shields. As Dumbledore could not have possibly been that inept at the task, Snape had correctly interpreted it as a request for access. Taking a leap of faith, he'd let his shields down completely, exposing the full catalogue of his sins to the man.
Dumbledore had known, of course, that it was Snape who'd betrayed the Potters to the Dark Lord, though Snape hadn't known, at the time, to whom the prophecy had referred – not that it would have made a difference if he'd known it was Potter. He'd had a Master to please and a lifetime of contempt for Potter. Why should he care if they'd become targets?
Certainly Snape had heard about Life Debts, purely in a mythical sense. It was ancient magic, and since the average wizard didn't find himself in such dire straits as to require life saving on the scale that would invoke the Life Debt bond, it had fallen out of general knowledge. How could he possibly have known that he, Severus Snape, had been bound to Potter, of all people? And worse, he'd failed to act when called upon to fulfill that bond. He had, in fact, indirectly created the circumstance that had killed the man – failure on a grand scale. The old man had speculated that since the child had survived, the bond would be passed on to him.
In exchange for the protection that the walls and wards of Hogwarts could provide a 'reformed' Death Eater, the Headmaster had requested an Unbreakable Vow. A vow so carefully worded that Snape could not betray Dumbledore in any way. Not that Snape had ever felt inclined to do so. Serving the Dark Lord had long ago lost its appeal, and agreeing to the vow had been beneficial to Snape as well – it'd had garnered Dumbledore's supportive testimony, which had saved him from wasting away in Azkaban. That cagey old man had had foresight too, had known, without reservation, that the Dark Lord had not been vanquished as the rest of the Wizarding world had assumed, and had seen to it that Snape would be able to operate undercover for him, within the Dark Lord's ranks, should the need arise again.
Snape, bound to the shadow of a Dark Lord, to a mad old man, and to the son of his worst enemy, had found a modicum of comfort in the notion that very likely one, or all of them, would kill him, and end his misery.
Yes, better to have died, than to have been saved by James Potter.
Severus had fully expected to loathe the Potter boy, and he hadn't been disappointed. It'd been torturous to see him every day, a doppelganger of his foe, and a painful reminder of the ruin of his life. He'd tried on many occasions to get the boy out of his sight; to relieve the constant, agonizing pressure and restraint required to achieve even the slightest civility. Over the years, several incidents had occurred that should have resulted in the boy's expulsion and he'd suggested the appropriate action in each case. His efforts were wasted, of course. Dumbledore had a blind spot when it came to the brat As a result, this evening had not been the first time Snape had desperately wanted to kill the boy, to deliver the blow that would release him, or condemn him, to a new fate, but the bond would not allow it. He'd even found himself giving the imbecile dueling pointers against his will. The ignorant whelp had never taken the studies seriously, how could he expect to fight the Dark Lord if he was an open book, and a weak dueler? That pathetic excuse for a wizard was the person that the Light was pinning its hopes to. Fools!
A keening howl brought him back to his current situation. Snape couldn't tell if it was that oaf Hagrid, or his mangy mutt that was making the racket until a second howl joined the first and it ceased to matter. A look that would have likely stopped the hearts of his – now former – students crossed Snape's face. A person unfamiliar with the man might even have called it an attempt at a smile; though, what he'd achieved was more a pained smirk. He wondered idly if the half-giant's heart was up to another shock. The one that he would receive upon the arrival of a time enchanted missive, in Dumbledore's own hand, directing him to the hidden antidote, and the tomb in which Dumbledore's body would be laid to rest.
The illusion had been a success as far as Snape was concerned. Whether or not the old man, in his weakened condition, had had enough in him to cushion the fall, take the Draught of the Living Death and vanish the phial that he'd carried on his person for months, was of no consequence to Snape. He'd become an enemy of the Ministry the moment he'd agreed (and he had been given a choice in the matter) to Dumbledore's charade, and then had put it into practice.
The old man had adjusted the plan and had conveyed his intentions through Snape's Legilimency, to accommodate the location, but the result had been as intended. Just as Snape had suspected, the Dark Lord had sent reinforcements – some of the least skilled and least intelligent in the ranks (and in Greyback's case, the most repulsive) – and the normally sharp Draco Malfoy had been terrified enough that he wouldn't have noticed anything awry. The execution had been flawless in any case. The fact that Potter had been an immobilized, invisible witness to the event had just cemented Snape's contentment with the results.
The Draught of the Living Death was just as the name suggested. It was close enough to real death that it could fool magic itself. Once Dumbledore had ingested the potion that Snape had personally brewed, or if the old man had not made it that far, then once he'd hit the ground and truly expired, the Unbreakable Vow that had bound Snape to Dumbledore had dissolved. As he'd had a hand in either would-be manner of Dumbledore's death – faux or otherwise – he'd also fulfilled the Vow that had bound him to Narcissa Malfoy. This was the closest thing to freedom that he'd experienced in his entire miserable existence. It was nearly intoxicating.
Snape turned his back on the grieving tableau, and moved once again, deep into the Forbidden Forest. He would report to the Dark Lord, and would allow his now sole "Master" to have this little souvenir to gloat over. Snape was uncertain whether or not he would be punished for stepping in front of Malfoy, the younger, or if he would be lauded as a hero by the Dark Lord. He would take his lumps or his rewards, he would bow and kowtow to that warped and hated visage, and he'd wait eagerly to fulfill his final bond requirement, which Snape assumed would be his life for Potter's – eagerly welcoming his own death, and the coveted release it would bring, with open arms.
A/N Okay, before y'all get your knickers in a twist, this is purely speculation on my part, in an effort to explain Snape's behavior throughout the series, and then his actions at the end of HBP. Whether or not Dumbledore is still alive, I don't know. I'd like to think so though.
I based the theory on several things: Dumbledore's assertion early on that he would trust Hagrid with his life, the repeated mention of the Draught of the Living Death in HBP, Dumbledore's implicit trust of Snape and his knowledge of Malfoy's plans, among them. I also had a problem with the AK throwing Dumbledore over a parapet like that, as I could not recall it ever having that effect before. I would actually like to know what others think of this theory and it's plausibility. Thanks for reading!
I need to thank Tracy and Sparky for filling in for Casey on the read-over and encouragement duties while he was incommunicado (damn cable company!).
Thanks again to Kjirstyn, for the awesome (and quick) beta efforts. You are right, only time will tell. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that Jo doesn't get hit by a bus!
Special Author's note: This story was edited to accommodate a note in regards to a review on the previous version by duj.
I owe you an apology duj. I had responded that Dumbledore did not say when exactly Snape had started spying and I was incorrect. In GoF, when Karkaroff names Snape during his trial, Dumbledore interjects that he'd already given testimony that Snape had turned spy for the side of good before Voldemort's downfall. However, other subsequent information is slightly contradictory. My theory about that is that Dumbledore is not above smudging the truth to suit his needs (e.g. Harry's trial and Mrs. Figg's testimony). I believe that at the time of the trial, (in my world here) Snape had already taken the Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore. That being the case, Dumbledore had every reason to believe that justice would not be served by Snape's going to prison and it was much more beneficial to have him on the outside working for the Order. I've adjusted the story to reflect that. Thanks!