Dumbledore was pretty firm with him

Chapter 1: Dumbledore

This can be read as a stand-alone fic, but if you read the prequels "Why Snape never eats here", "Malice in his voice" and "Threesome at Spinner's End" and the sequels "I taught him! I thought I knew him", "Well done, Draco, well done" and "Power the Dark Lord knows not" you will get a better feel for the particular version of the Potterverse in which this story is set.

He thinks, I know what Severus wants to talk about, and this is not a conversation I want to have in my study, the portraits will all be listening, and they'll talk. They are only sworn to serve and obey me while I live, when I'm dead they'll talk. Loose lips sink ships, as the Muggles used to say in their version of the war against Grindelwald, and it's probably a good thing the Muggles don't know how their world was nearly destroyed by the malevolence of one mad wizard and his followers, and the indifference of the rest … they wouldn't be happy about it at all. Yes, it's definitely better to meet Severus in the Forbidden Forest if he wants to discuss the Vow, when he fulfils the Vow I don't want to lose everything I'm gambling for because Phineas Nigellus is a boastful old gossip who can't keep his mouth shut.

He remembers when Severus first told him how Narcissa Malfoy had tricked him into the Unbreakable Vow, told him that he intended to break it, and he'd thought - I need to see how this affects the game, how this affects where the pieces are on the board. Draco will never do it, I hope and pray he'll never attempt it, he has been a rather unpleasant boy at times, but mostly in an attempt to please his father. He's still a child, for all his pretensions, still an innocent, and we may yet be able to save him. But if Draco fails in the task that Voldemort has given him, it falls to Severus, and Severus can do it, I know what's in his Ministry file, I know what's he capable of. He can do it, and he will do it if he has to, and there's even a little part of him that wants to do it. Severus lost his innocence so long ago, he'd stepped over a dozen bodies – and that's not counting the Muggles - before he came to me, and he would have cheerfully stepped over a dozen more, if Voldemort hadn't threatened someone he loved, if Voldemort had chosen Neville instead of Harry. He won't admit that he loved Lily - he won't admit that he loves me, either - but no man betrays the Dark Lord lightly, no man betrays the Dark Lord for anything less than love.

His mind drifts back to when Severus first came back to Hogwarts, when he applied for the Defence Against the Dark Arts position, and he thinks, as if I needed Legilimency to see that he belonged to Voldemort! He was dangerous enough when he left Hogwarts, but when he came back he had an aura of deadly power, and why would he have ever voluntarily returned to the place which held so many painful memories? I thought it best to keep Voldemort's young spy close at hand where I could keep an eye on him, so I gave him a job teaching Potions, he didn't want it but he dared not refuse it and disappoint his master, and who could have forseen what would come of it?

And now it comes to this – Severus' life or mine? Which does Harry need most? Should I sacrifice the bishop to move my knight and my queen into position … bad analogy, that, Harry is both king and queen, both the most powerful and the most vulnerable piece … Voldemort will never suspect the move - he can't imagine that the only wizard he's ever feared, the leader of his enemies, might be prepared to die for the cause - in his mind he is the cause, and there is no fate more terrible than death. If Severus fulfills the Vow his position will be secure, and only one piece – Bellatrix Lestrange – will stand in the way, and then Severus will be the most loyal, the most faithful servant, the only one with any chance of being entrusted with the secret of the Horcruxes, and he'll be Harry's last line of defence, the one that Voldemort will never suspect, Harry's last protector in dire need. No, I don't need Severus to trade his life for mine, I need him to trade his life for Harry's.

He remembers when they'd first discussed the Vow, strolling by the Lake in the summer sun, discussed how the game was shaping up. He'd told Severus what he suspected about the diary, that it was a Horcrux, and Severus had smirked triumphantly, he'd worked that out for himself, oh yes, Severus is a bright lad, a very bright lad indeed. He'd made his mind up then and he'd asked Severus to promise that he would do it, to promise to obey him, and he'd just stood there with his arms folded, curtains of greasy black hair hiding his face, hiding his thoughts, in the way that he does when he's sulking, and had said something bitter about preferring immediate death with honour to being hunted up and down the country like a mad dog and then blown apart by the entire Auror Corps. He frowns at the memory of how he'd tried to lighten the mood by reminding Severus of what Phineas Nigellus always says about Slytherins – they're brave but not stupid, and given the choice, will always choose to save themselves – in hindsight that had been cruelly insensitive.

Severus will keep his life if he fulfils the Vow, but he'll lose everything else, he'll have to flee from the place that has been his home for most of his life, and he'll have to bear the loathing and contempt of the whole wizarding world, the Daily Prophet will print every vile detail from his Ministry file, and - what the strange proud creature dreads most of all – it will rake over the old scandal involving his mother's family. And he'll need to deal with Bellatrix Lestrange, they hadn't discussed that in detail, it wasn't necessary, Severus knows he has to find a way to kill her without losing Voldemort's favour; and Voldemort will give him more tasks – breaking Lucius Malfoy and the other Death Eaters captured in the Department of Mysteries out of Azkaban, for a guess - Severus knows what he will have to do, commit crime after crime in the service of the Dark Lord until it's over, until the prophecy is fulfilled. He'd felt for Severus, but it was too important a matter to leave hanging, it's open warfare with Voldemort now, so he'd pushed him for the promise of obedience, and he'd agreed.

He thinks, it has been dreadfully hard on Severus this year, caught between me and the Dark Lord he hates and fears and adores, and with the Vow hanging over his head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. He must be close to breaking point, and teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts hasn't been good for him, I would never have given him the job but I needed Horace Slughorn here, only Harry can get that memory from him, the memory I need to be absolutely sure of what I suspect, and heaven knows what memories having Horace back at Hogwarts teaching Potions again are dredging up for Severus. My poor dear Severus, all his compulsive, self-destructive behaviours have been getting steadily worse since the summer break … he's drinking too much, smoking too much – filthy Muggle habit, I wish he would give it up, doesn't he know what it does to his teeth? And there's the other thing, but that's not surprising, Severus has noticed how much Ginny Weasley resembles Lily – I'd wager a stack of galleons there is Weasley blood somewhere in the Evans family tree - and he can see it coming, history repeating itself, Potter catches the Snitch, Potter gets the girl. And that's just one more reason for Severus to keep on hurting himself, because his desire to be loved is only outweighed by his determination to be unlovable, as he has demonstrated to every good looking young female staff member who has ever made the mistake of being attracted to him, and most recently with that sad, sordid little incident last year involving Nymphadora Tonks. Yes, his behaviour deteriorated noticeably after that incident, and now it's completely out of hand, he slinks off to London, to those Muggle, ah, nightclubs, as they call them, every chance he gets. Of course I know what he does because he has to ask me for permission to leave Hogwarts, Minerva may be the Deputy Headmistress but I need to know that Severus will be here before I can leave the castle myself, if Voldemort changes his plans, if the Death Eaters somehow manage to break the wards, if they come for Harry and I'm away, if there's fighting in Hogwarts, if the students are in danger, I must have Severus here. I know where he goes and what he does, and I try not to let him see how much it saddens me.

He remembers something he read in a Muggle book about their war against Grindelwald, something an American admiral had said, "When the shit hits the fan, they send for the sons-of-bitches," and he thinks, crudely expressed but true, so true, I know all the Order think Severus is an absolute son-of-a-bitch, and they're right, but don't they ever stop to think, how long would he have lasted if he wasn't, Regulus Black was a nice boy and how long did he last after he turned against Voldemort?

He sighs, and thinks, if Severus is vicious and immature, that is also partly my fault … Severus could never admit to himself that that he loved Lily, that he loved James Potter's wife, because to do so would be gall and wormwood to him, would be to admit that James had defeated him in every possible way, and because he denies it, he has no hope of ever getting over it. But I didn't help, I let him stay at Hogwarts, wallowing in his misery and his memories and honing his cruel, sarcastic persona to a knife edge, for ten years, instead of sending him away, giving him a chance to make his own life. At first I kept him because he was so … fragile … after Voldemort fell, if someone hadn't been kind to him I think he might have killed himself, and he wasn't safe outside Hogwarts, two hundred witches and wizards heard me say in the Wizengamot that he'd been a Death Eater, and far too many people knew about the things in his Ministry file, the file that is supposed to be confidential, I won't forget that week he spent in St Mungo's in a hurry, he nearly died.

Damn it, he thinks, I never expected Severus to be awarded an Order of Merlin, First Class, for what he did in the first war against Voldemort, but he was treated cruelly. It was two days before I even heard that he'd been arrested, and when he wouldn't talk, when Alastor Moody found that he couldn't break the man, he broke his wand. Breaking an adult wizard's wand is a serious thing, a very serious thing, it is a shameful punishment, only meted out by the Wizengamot to criminals sentenced to Azkaban for life, oh why did Alastor have to give Severus yet another reason to hate the whole world? Yes, I kept him while the storm raged, and then I kept him because I knew Voldemort would return, and I would need him again, and I didn't realise the mistake I'd made until I saw that venomous look on his face at Harry's Sorting – dear god, why does Harry have to be the very image of James, with his mother's eyes? It's ironic really, neither Severus, who hates Harry, nor Sirius, who loves Harry - he corrects himself, Sirius has been dead for many months now - who loved Harry, are really able to distinguish the son from the father, they're both so mesmerised by the physical resemblance.

Harry! Severus' feelings for Harry are so complicated that they defy understanding but there's no doubt that he hates him, fears him, and envies him. And there is also no doubt that Severus will never hurt Harry, not seriously, anyway. To Severus, Harry is the weapon, the weapon against Voldemort … and he is Lily's son.

He considers for a moment – can I really trust Severus with Harry? I know what it says in his Ministry file, "I enjoy killing. I don't do it any more. I know it is wrong." … and what it should say, "I enjoy killing. I don't do it any more. Dumbledore says it's wrong." He thinks, unflinchingly, Severus has the moral development of a six year old and the emotional development of a sixteen year old – not that many people realize that, he defends himself so well with a sharp wit and a poisonous tongue - can I trust him to be loyal to a mere memory of me? But he knows the answer to that question – Severus' understanding of the difference between right and wrong may be a little shaky, but he is as loyal as a phoenix, he has been loyal to a dead woman's memory for fifteen years, bound to her by guilt and grief and the desire for vengeance. He sighs and thinks, it is horrible but true, Severus will be bound more strongly to the memory of me when I'm dead, dead by his hand, than he ever was to me while I lived, he'll be bound to my memory as powerfully as he is bound to Lily's memory.

He thinks, I know I can trust him with Harry, Severus doesn't like it but he understands that Voldemort doesn't win when I die, he wins when Harry dies, and he will do whatever he has to do to save Harry, he'll do it grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, but he will do it. What Severus doesn't understand is why Harry wasn't taught the Dark Arts from an early age, wasn't taught to use Voldemort's own methods. He remembers how Severus came to him, to offer to teach Harry the Unforgiveable Curses, how those black eyes had glittered with cruel anticipation, and he'd been disgusted and angry, and then saddened, when he saw how his anger frightened and confused Severus. He'd realised – he's trying to please me, bringing me a gift, like a cat bringing a bird or rat into the house, and he's so … childish … he brings me the gift he wants for himself – Harry, my sweet Harry, soiled and degraded, reduced to his level. Why hadn't he seen if before, the poor boy is jealous, so jealous of Harry, doesn't he understand, I can love them both, care for them both? Though if he were to be honest – more honest than he cares to be – he pities Severus, he cares for him, his heart aches for the poor damaged creature and the ruin he's made of his life – but Harry he loves, truly loves, how can he not love such a magnificent unspoiled person? And Harry will have power the Dark Lord knows not.

He remembers telling Harry about the prophecy, he'd said he'd tell him everything, but he hadn't told him everything, he hadn't told him about Severus, hadn't told him that Severus was the agent of Voldemort who overheard the first part of the prophecy, and that Severus is the reason why his mother had the choice to die for him, to make the sacrifice that saved him from Voldemort's curse. He thinks, Harry is not ready to hear that, maybe he will never be ready to hear it, but Severus is very deep in this story, and my heart tells me he will have some further part to play, for good or ill, before it is over.

And now Severus is standing in front of him, scowling and silent, uncertain how to begin, and he thinks, the boy must be the spitting image of the wretched Muggle who sired him, he's got nothing of his mother about him, except her black eyes, and that look on his face, both sullen and angry. Poor Eileen, she would have been a prefect, even Head Girl, if it wasn't for the scandal of a father serving a life sentence in Azkaban - a bitter thought given that he now has half a dozen students who are proud to have fathers in Azkaban, but things were different before the rise of Voldemort. When she graduated from Hogwarts she'd simply disappeared, he hadn't thought about her for years, not until he looked through the new students' files, and seen her name on Severus' file, and realised she'd married a Muggle.

He'd watched the boy closely at the Sorting, as he watched all the first years, and wondered how he'd manage in Slytherin. There have been half-bloods in Slytherin from time to time, but the Muggle parent has always been rich or beautiful, or both, and that makes sense to a Slytherin, look at Riddle's mother, at least she chose a man who could give her son the advantages of astounding good looks and tremendous natural charm. What did Eileen see in Tobias Snape? The man must at least have been intelligent, Eileen wouldn't have tolerated a fool, but clearly there was no money, going by the boy's general shabbiness, and by Merlin, he was an unprepossessing little thing to look at, scrawny, hook-nosed and greasy-haired. He'd concluded that Eileen must have married the first man who offered, desperate to get away from her family, and possibly the whole of the wizarding world.

The next time he'd seen Severus was in his office, facing expulsion, a very nasty incident in the corridor outside Minerva's Transfiguration class, and it was only the first week of term. Severus had disarmed Sirius Black, sent his wand flying into the air, and Sirius had lost his temper, had tried to punch him, Muggle-style, in those days Sirius was inches taller than Severus, he would always be taller than Severus … and Severus had cast a bone-breaking curse that most of the seventh years didn't know existed let alone knew how to use, and had shattered every bone in Sirius' right hand and arm, so badly that Poppy needed to remove the bones and regrow them with Skele-Gro. He'd had Horace and Minerva in his office while he questioned the boy, trying to find out where he'd learned the curse and what had possessed him to use it.

He'd talked to him gently, calming him down so he could see inside his mind without being rough or intrusive. As he expected the boy had been teased mercilessly at his Muggle school, that wasn't unusual in the case of half-blood children if they had to live in the Muggle world, it was often harder for them than the Muggle-borns because they knew they were magical, but that didn't seem enough to explain his aggressive behaviour. There was something else, something the boy was hiding, by Merlin's beard, the child is only eleven years old, but already he has raised formidable barriers around his mind, he's a natural Occlumens.

Minerva had been steaming away in the background like a kettle reaching the boil, and finally she'd burst out angrily about a cowardly and vicious attack on a student who'd been disarmed.

He'd raised his hand to signal her to be silent, and the boy had flinched, his eyes fixed on the raised hand, and then the barriers had gone down and he'd seen it, a hook-nosed man shouting at a cowering woman, something about "Black magic", "deceitful bitch" and "freakish brat", the man raising his hand … and he'd realised, horrified, the boy thinks I'm going to hit him! And not just a slap either, he's been really knocked about, but it's the indignity, the humiliation, that he hates more than the pain. And there's something really sad, the trouble only started when the boy's father found out his wife was a witch, he thinks that all magic is evil, wrong, freakish, and he's tried to beat it out of the child. The boy was only six years old when his world fell apart, divided between the father he loves and hates and fears and the mother he loves and hates and despises, and he can't deny his magic, it would kill him to do so, it's so strong in him.

DAMN, HELL AND DAMNATION, he'd thought, these situations are intractable, it's outside the jurisdiction of Magical Law Enforcement because the perpetrator is a Muggle, and if Eileen hasn't left him by now she never will. As usual, all we can do is wait and watch and hope the kid doesn't grow up too badly maimed. So he'd lowered his hand, watching the fear and hate subside in the black eyes opposite, and he'd asked, "Who taught you that curse?"

"My mother."

"Why did you use it?"

"Because wizards don't hit each other with their fists, only filthy Muggles do that. Wizards fight with spells."

He'd explained the situation to the Heads of all of the Houses, and it wasn't expulsion, just a week's worth of detentions, and he'd tried to get Severus to understand the concept of an appropriate and measured response to provocation and when he saw he wasn't getting through to him, listed the hexes that were, de facto, tolerated – stinging hexes, bat bogey hex, jelly-legs, that sort of thing - and told him that using anything else would result in instant expulsion. Severus had grasped that immediately.

Eileen probably thought teaching the boy every hex under the sun was the best way to prepare her son to survive Sorting into Slytherin, but that ugly incident with Sirius had only attracted the worst kind of attention, from Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Black, for example. Lucius and Bellatrix! He never cares to probe Severus too much about his relationships with that malevolent pair, Severus still thinks of Lucius as a friend, and he can guess at what must have occurred between Severus and bold, beautiful, sexy Bellatrix Black, she must have been one of Voldemort's most effective recruiting agents.

And naturally Sirius had hated Severus from the moment they'd clashed so violently in that first week of term, had hated him because Severus represented everything he didn't want to be and was afraid that he was, a nasty little Dark wizard in training. And because Sirius hated Severus, James had disliked him, Peter loved to see anyone except himself being singled out for cruelty, Remus had gone along with it for the sake of his fledgling friendships, he'd been so happy to be accepted and liked for the first time in his life, there had been only four Gryffindor boys in that year, and it was natural that they made a tight little group. So it was usually four to one, Severus didn't really have friends in his year, he'd hung out with the gang of older kids dominated by Lucius and Bellatrix, and while they looked out for him, they weren't in his classes where most of the petty harassments took place.

However, Severus usually gave back as good as he got, and thankfully he had a real gift for Potions, so Horace had warmed to him, and things had gone on, fairly smoothly - although somehow Severus picked up that cruel nick-name 'Snivellus' - until his fifth year. That incident during the OWLS, when James had threatened to take Severus' pants off down by the Lake, and Lily had become involved in that – the last straw for Severus, he'd been so provoked, he'd lashed out even at her, and then been too proud and embarrassed to apologise until it was too late – had done serious damage. There was worse to follow in the next year, that dreadful business in the Shrieking Shack, and by the time Severus came back to Hogwarts in his seventh year, he had become really savage, he didn't do anything that would get him into trouble, he had learnt self-control by then, but for those with the eyes to see it he'd become a seething black cloud of rage and hate and wounded pride in human form, and he'd matured in that last year at Hogwarts, he'd grown up physically and magically once he turned seventeen and came of age, and developed into a graceful, dangerous young man. James and Sirius became curiously wary of hexing Severus that year, and girls started to notice him, and thank god Severus had reciprocated the interest – perhaps a little too enthusiastically, given the unpleasant gossip Bertha Jorkins spread about him and that sweet little Hufflepuff, Florence ... Florence, damn, he can't remember her surname - otherwise he might have thought he had another Tom Riddle on his hands.

Riddle's complete lack of interest in sex had been one of the things that alerted him to the fact that there was something very, very wrong with young Tom, the best-looking boy in the school, girls hung around him like flies, even the normally aloof Minerva McGonagall, not that she'd thank him for reminding her of that, and if Riddle had been interested in boys there were quite a few who would have been willing. But Riddle had been completely obsessed, even as a teenager, with overcoming death, when a man is determined to achieve immortality he has no need for heirs, and the primeval urge to reproduce has an awful lot to do with all that excitement in bed. No, the boy Riddle wasn't interested in any form of human neediness or contact, not even of the basest kind, and Severus has confirmed that Voldemort has never been known to engage in sexual activities, though not in so many words, he's surprisingly prudish for a man who spends his Saturday nights picking up women in Muggle singles bars.

Severus is still glaring at him, at a loss as to where to begin, and he realises, this isn't just one of his tantrums, this is serious, Severus is really angry and he's frightened, too, he's struggling not to lose control, struggling to keep his barriers up. Sweet Merlin, how could I not see this coming, he's on the verge of tears, and Severus never cries, he didn't cry when Remus attacked him in the Shrieking Shack, he didn't cry when Lily died, he never cries … no, that's not true, he cried when he came to me, begged me to save Lily, and I made him show me the Dark Mark, the Mark of the master he swore to leave forever.

He plays for time, asks pleasantly, "How are you going with Draco?"

Severus somehow musters one of his legendary sneers. "Aunt Bellatrix has taught him both to distrust me, and the rudiments of Occlumency. I must say, Headmaster, that Draco seems to have quite an aptitude for Occlumency – unlike Potter."

Inwardly he groans, can't Severus ever leave it alone, must he always pick at his sores, even at a time like this?

Severus is speaking again, "I can't break into Draco's mind without using techniques of which you would not approve, and which in any event the Unbreakable Vow precludes me from applying."

But just speaking of the Vow aloud has rattled Severus, rattled him enough to tear down the barriers. He looks into the black eyes opposite, and he's shocked at what he sees, an incoherent stream of childish anger, pain and fear: Albus, why are you doing this to me? You're like my father, I try to please you and it isn't enough, it's never enough, are you hurting me like this because I'm just a filthy Slytherin, because I'm not one of your golden Gryffindors? You don't care what's going to happen to me, you're LEAVING me, Albus, you're leaving me all alone, leaving me to rot … to rot in an unmarked grave in Azkaban. Albus, I've been good, I've been good for you for fifteen years, but you're still making me do it, you're giving me back to HIM, and then I will do bad things, and you will be angry with me, and I don't want you to be angry with me, it hurts, I want it to stop hurting … .

It is as if a dam has been breached, Severus is completely out of control, he's shouting, "YOU TAKE TOO MUCH FOR GRANTED, DUMBLEDORE, AND I WON'T DO IT! I'VE HAD ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON'T CARE ANY MORE!"

He winces, remembering how Harry shouted the same words in his office after Sirius died, but this is a much more serious situation, Harry only smashed a few trinkets but Severus' wand is in his hand, green sparks are showering from the tip of his wand, he's nearly out of his mind and capable of doing serious damage. He feels the magic building around Severus, when it discharges there's going to be one hell of a blast, he's too close to Severus to throw up an effective shield, it could kill both of them, and he's got to stop it. There's no time to be gentle, he's got to get Severus' attention now.

He shouts, "PROFESSOR SNAPE, YOU WILL DO WHAT YOU HAVE AGREED TO DO, YOU WILL CONTINUE WITH YOUR INVESTIGATIONS INTO SLYTHERIN HOUSE, AND YOU WILL REMEMBER THAT I AM THE HEADMASTER OF THIS SCHOOL!"

Severus is swaying, blinking, looking hurt and confused, he can feel the magic swirling around them but there's no blast, just a minor shock wave as it spreads out and begins to dissipate. Dear god, it has worked but it's awful to see, Severus has lowered his wand and dropped to his knees, he's kissing his robes, trembling and whimpering, "Master, I am sorry, do not punish me …"

He thinks, what have I done to Severus? I have used him as cruelly as Voldemort does, and now he's cringing to me as he does to his Dark Lord, I have dragged him into the arena to face the battle, and he deserves better, he deserves the dignity of a choice. Carefully, slowly – best not to make any sudden movements while he's in this state - he kneels down, embraces the man cowering at his feet, and just holds him until the shaking stops, speaks to him soothingly, "Severus, it's me, it's Albus, I won't hurt you, I'm not angry, I'm not angry with you, Severus, I promise I won't be angry with you, whatever you do, whatever you do for him, I won't be angry with you, I promise I won't be angry, I'll never be angry with you …." And when he sees that Severus has come back to his senses, he tells him, "Severus, I release you from your promise of obedience. When the time comes, you must do what you think best. You must choose."

But a little voice at the back of his mind is saying, the poor boy doesn't really have a choice, when the time comes, I will ask him to do it, and for love of me he will do what I ask of him, though it tears him apart.