Title: Unexpected Grace
Disclaimer: I own nothing. Harry Potter belongs exclusively to JKR...she is a goddess. I am making no money from this.
Summary: Snape's dark mark is returning and he ponders his uncertain fate and reflects on past choices. Over tea, Dumbledore offers him counsel, support and even Occlumency lessons as each man suffers silently in their own guilt - Snape for his past actions, Dumbledore for having to ask his Potions Master and friend to return as his spy. Will Snape's nearly fatal return to Voldemort push these two apart or pull them together?
Warning: This is a Pre-SLASH story. It focuses on the uncertain and as of yet unrequited feelings between Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore. If the concept of non-platonic love between these two men disturbs you, don't read. (For strictly paternal love between these two, see my other story). Please no flames.
Unexpected Grace by Cocoa-Snape
Chapter 1: Even then...
As Severus Snape began the contemptible chore of grading a week's worth of Potions essays, he marveled at how complicated his life was. True enough, for the past thirteen years, it had been fairly stable and seemingly straightforward. He taught, or at least tried to teach, young brats of varying degrees of stupidity the fine art of Potions and spent nearly all of his free time engaging in research in his field – which he considered to be the most intellectually demanding, rigorously scientific and yet artistically creative area in all of Magic.
Severus Snape was truly a virtuoso when it came to Potions – a fact that had been his salvation and his undoing. As the youngest known wizard to gain Masters status in the field, he had proven himself a true scholar and had been labeled as perhaps the next great pioneer in this ever-burgeoning art. However, his early successes had also served to attract the attentions of a wizard who hoped to employ, and ultimately exploit his skills. And the then vulnerable young Snape was all too easily swayed by Lord Voldemort's words of admiration and grandiose if deceptive promises of power, justice and perhaps more importantly, acceptance.
And for the past thirteen years, Snape had, for the most part, been divested of that grave mistake. Of course it never truly left him – nearly everywhere he went there were always some people that would look at him with a mixture of terror and disgust. More significantly, however, he had always carried – would always carry – his most grievous trespass with him in his own mind. But now, he was burdened anew with that fact that he would have to carry it, once more, on his arm – a constant physical reminder of his sins. Slowly but steadily over the past few months, the Dark Mark that bound him to the Voldemort's servitude for the rest of his life was returning. And there could be no doubt as to its meaning.
No, Snape mused, his life was not treating him very well at the moment. Aside from the usual stresses of the school year, he had a deranged Auror watching him night and day and an all but equally deranged Death Eater, his former colleague, stalking him. Igor Karkaroff's visits were becoming more and more frequent – he demanded to speak with him at the most inopportune times, and had even taken to interrupting his classes. And what for? What could he do for him? Snape recognized that he was as helpless, and secretly as concerned as this terrified man was.
Snape was startled out of his thoughts by a soft whooshing noise that he recognized as the sound of something coming through his floo. He looked up to see a golden piece of crisply folded paper floating deftly towards his hands. He felt his heart warm slightly at the sight of it. What was it exactly about these notes that made him feel this way? Perhaps, he told himself, it was the certainty of their arrival that pleased him – a small bit of constancy in what was now a life in upheaval.
Snape wondered again, for what must have been the tenth time that day, what would happen to his life if the Dark Lord returned to power. Would he be killed out right? Or would it be a slow agonizing death? The alternative possibility, survival, seemed almost too impossible to consider at times. One thing he knew for certain, however, was that he wasn't going to run or hide the way he was sure Karkaroff would. No, Severus Snape was not a coward, and he would face his fate – whatever it was. And if there was a chance, however miniscule, that he might be accepted back into Voldemort's circle, he had to take it – he knew he owed Albus at least that much, if not a great deal more.
Looking back at the gold note now in his hands, he almost laughed aloud. Things were not good, his life was going to hell – and yet he was still able to find bizarre satisfaction from these invitations that arrived semi-randomly, although these days with greater frequency. As he opened it, he wondered why he even bothered – after all, they always said the same thing. Still, he derived some curious pleasure in reading them each time.
'Tea?' the note said simply in distinctive narrow, exceptionally neat handwriting.
Snape could barely suppress an amused grin. He remembered when thirteen years ago, the notes had been much more formal, and had said something like: 'Severus, would you care to join me for some tea and noshing in my study this evening? There is no need to reply. Come if you can. Albus Dumbledore.' Over time, they had gradually shortened to the now all too familiar invitation he held in his hands.
Snape pondered how it was that these outings had morphed from an insufferable chore to something else altogether. Initially, he was sure that they had been Dumbledore's way of controlling his most valuable weapon, his spy. But after the war had ended, and their meetings had continued, Snape assumed that they had become the Headmaster's way of keeping a close eye and a narrow reign on his newest teacher, his 'reformed' Death Eater. Or so Snape had told himself. But over the years, even as insecure as he remained about his ambiguous relationship with the elder wizard, he was certain that these invitations had become something more. The two had gradually developed a strong friendship, if yet tentative on Snape's part, that was precipitated in large part by these golden notes. Notes that now anchored him in the midst of what was happening, for what was to come.
Dumbledore, after all, was the only person with whom Snape could speak freely regarding the fate signified by his Dark Mark, and there was a measured comfort in that. Albus at least had the decency to look at him as he always had done, and not as though he were about to meet his death the very next moment. One could not say the same thing about Minerva McGonagall. By virtue of her position as Deputy Headmistress, Snape had supposed that Minerva knew some of the details of his Mark returning, although he wasn't sure exactly how much she knew and he had certainly never intended to speak with her about it. Nonetheless, this woman whom he counted as one of his few friends was clearly concerned about him – it was more than evident on her normally strict face.
Yesterday at dinner, in fact, she kept casting worried glances at him, and repeatedly insisted that he eat more. Having spent the better part of the day dwelling on his own doom, her transparent anxiety over his predicament frustrated him to the point of anger, and he had lashed out at her, almost spitting, "I don't think it will matter, Minerva, if I am well fed when I meet the Dark Lord, do you?" Fortunately, he had had the presence of mind to keep his voice down, and as such only McGonagall, Dumbledore and Flitwick were privy to his comment. He apologized almost immediately for his indiscretion, first to Minerva and then to Albus, and made the excuse of being tired before promptly leaving the table.
And now he had received an invitation to tea – perhaps to censure him for his remark, perhaps to gauge his mental preparedness, perhaps to console him in the face of what was to come, or perhaps, knowing Albus, to sample his newest dessert infatuation. Snape noted the time and realized that he had far too many Potions essays to grade in addition to a research project that he had hoped to finish tonight. But, he mused, he could put it all off till tomorrow – let the brats wait, he told himself. Snape could count on one hand the number of times he had not accepted Albus's invitation to tea. Of course he would go, he always did.
Snape uttered the password to the Headmaster's personal quarters and stepped onto the moving spiral staircase, allowing it to lift him to the office. He knocked sharply on the heavy oak door at the top landing and waited for a reply. Staring intently at the worn wood, his mind returned to the moment, nearly 17 years ago, when he had stood on this landing and was not quite so polite.
It was his last day at Hogwarts. Severus Snape cursed aloud as he unfolded the gold piece of parchment and read the Headmaster's words summoning him to his office. Despite his anger, he satisfied himself with the knowledge that tomorrow he would leave this infernal place and never have to return. He had played the Headmaster's twisted game – followed his ridiculous rules and for the most part, treated him and the faculty with polite deference, even as the Headmaster blatantly mocked him by openly favoring nearly all others over him. But now he was a full-fledged wizard, and finally free to do and say what he wanted. And soon, he told himself, he would be more than that – he would formally become a servant to the greatest wizard who ever lived – and he would be important, and he would command the respect that was owed him. Finally.
Spitting the password at the stone gargoyle, he took the spiral steps 3 at a time, his anger building as he thought of the audacity that the Headmaster had to summon him here now. He burst through the door without the courtesy of knocking. Dumbledore deserved nothing better after all.
The Headmaster was standing in the middle of his office, apparently waiting for him. His face betrayed no surprise at Snape's entrance. "Ah, do come in, Mr. Snape. Make yourself comfortable."
"What do you want old man? It's 5 o'clock. The term's officially over. I don't have to answer to you anymore," Snape spat.
Dumbledore's eyes narrowed slightly and he spoke with absolute calm, "And yet…you came. Why do you suppose that is?"
Snape stood dumbfounded at Dumbledore's words, which had clearly unsettled him. "I…I…" he began, unsure of what to say.
"Perhaps," the Headmaster continued, "it is because you know that He does not possess the answer to your problems, or the antidote to your pain."
Dumbledore's eyes were fixed unwaveringly on the young man, carefully studying him and his reactions. Many years later Snape would come to know that Dumbledore had not been sure about his association with Voldemort – it had been a calculated guess, one that he had hoped would prove incorrect. Unfortunately, it was not.
The young wizard was astonished by the Headmaster's gall – openly admitting that he knew, and daring to speak of the Dark Lord so casually. He wanted to scream at Dumbledore, to tell him that yes, he was going to give himself to the Dark Lord, to tell him that he was finally respected and valued, to tell him that he would do anything for him – that he was his now. But somehow those were not the words that left his mouth; instead he spoke almost fearfully, "I…I don't know what you're talking about."
"Stop playing games, Mr. Snape," Dumbledore intoned, much more forcefully now.
Snape stared at his former Headmaster defiantly.
"Tell me what he's promised you," Dumbledore demanded.
Anger flared once more in the young man, "Why? Can't you read my mind?" he asked in a sharp mocking tone.
A smallest of smiles crept onto the corners of the older wizard's lips and barely a beat later, he asked almost tenderly, "Would you like me to?"
"I want to help you, Mr. Snape," Dumbledore added seriously.
"Help me? You arrogant bastard – you didn't help me before! What makes you think I want your help now?" Snape snarled, overwhelmed by rage.
"Whatever hold he has over you, I can assure you it's not real." A short pause passed between them, and then Dumbledore added gravely, a profound sadness entering his eyes, "Although you will not believe me, I never intended to hurt you. But I see now that I have failed you deeply, my child. And for that I am truly sorry."
"Your words are meaningless to me, old man. And I don't want your fucking worthless apologies. I want nothing more to do with you – ever!"
Snape turned on his heels to make his way out, but he was immediately arrested by Dumbledore's voice, uttering his given name. As he halted his exit, a surge of hatred flooded over him. How he hated this man – hated his platitudes, hated his twinkling facade, hated his soft hypocritical words, and most of all, hated the power he had over him – even now. His back remained to the older wizard.
"Severus, I need you to listen to me. Carefully hear my words – they may be of no use to you now, but perhaps some day they will reach you. Hogwarts will always be your home, Severus, should you choose to return. And I will be here, waiting for you, when you do."
Snape turned around and fiercely met those blue depths with his own eyes. He wanted to show Dumbledore what he thought of him and his offer of 'home.' He spat at the ground, directly at the Headmaster's feet and swiftly swept out of his office.
"Severus?" A gentle voice interrupted.
"What?" Snape asked, snapping himself out of his memory.
"Severus, come in. You're standing in the doorway."
"You seemed lost for a moment there, my boy."
Snape stepped inside and stopped in the middle of Dumbledore's office. Normally when he came to tea, he would head straight for the sitting room, and Dumbledore knew immediately that something was bothering his Potions Master. He waited patiently for Severus to speak.
"I suppose you want to discuss my comment at dinner yesterday," Snape said, unable to mask the irritation in his voice.
"I had no such agenda in mind, Severus. You are understandably stressed and I don't believe further conversation is necessary," Dumbledore said kindly, and then added, "Unless there is something you'd like to discuss."
"Well then, let's go into the sitting room and…" Dumbledore began, paused a second and added, "Ah, it seems Minerva is here to see me."
And a moment later there was a sharp knock on the door, which Dumbledore prompted opened.
"Severus," McGonagall said, acknowledging him with a nod, and then began, "Headmaster, I'm sorry to interrupt, but your presence is required in the South Tower immediately. Peeves is on a rampage and Mr. Filch insists only you can handle it. That ruddy poltergeist will be the death of me, Albus! Why can't you expel him?"
"That would be rude, my dear," Dumbledore said, chuckling at her annoyance. "Severus, I'll just be a bit. Make yourself comfortable."
But long after Dumbledore left, Snape remained standing, staring intently at the Headmaster's desk. Once again, his mind seemed to be somewhere else. He huffed mentally at his frequent day dreaming of late. He wondered if perhaps this was something akin to a person's life flashing before their eyes moments before their death. His death may not have been momentarily imminent, but he had nonetheless taken to reexamination of late. And, in many ways, his fate was worse – waiting for the Dark Lord's return, not knowing when or how it would come. He had long ago given up hope that he would be spared the torment of this second war, which forced his return to that sadist's servitude.
And now, standing here in this office for what must have been at least the thousandth time, the only thing Snape could think about was one particular night, 14 years ago, when he had stood in this very spot and changed his fate. It was odd really. He didn't remember many of the specifics clearly and he had deliberately not chosen to examine the memory in the pensieve. He didn't remember, for example, how he had gotten inside the Headmaster's office, although he was told later that McGonagall had found and escorted him inside.
Perhaps the strangest thing he did not remember was what had prompted him to go to Hogwarts – to Dumbledore – that night. Why hadn't he gone home as he normally did after such 'revels?' There had been no threat to his safety or well-being; this hadn't been one of those times where he returned injured, in horrible agony from repeated rounds of Crucio. On the contrary, those were the times he felt good, deriving some small measure of comfort from his pain.
On that night, he had watched his Master and loyal Death Eaters inflict much more horrific tortures on innocents. It wasn't the first time, and he knew it certainly would not be the last – they enjoyed their depraved games too much. Fortunately, as the Dark Lord's Potions Master, he had some leeway and was rarely compelled to participate, although his attendance was expected. He had never developed a taste for these Death-Eater 'get-togethers,' as they had assured him he would. But he did not delude himself into thinking that that made him any better than the rest of them. He was, after all, responsible for many deaths, many more perhaps than the others – he did not know precisely, but given the Potions he had created, he could only imagine.
He left the revel weak and exhausted, physically and mentally, having not eaten or slept in an inordinately long amount of time. Yet instead of going home, he had ended up on the Headmaster's doorstep. Once again, he wondered if that had been a conscious decision or not.
One thing he remembered with bizarre clarity of mind was the look of surprise on Dumbledore's face when he entered his office. He could tell that it took the older wizard a long moment to recognize him. He was aware his appearance had changed in the past three years – normally thin, he was almost emaciated now, with a curtain of unkempt greasy hair covering his gaunt face with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. He could see Dumbledore's surprise rapidly shift into concern as the Headmaster noticed how unsteady he was on his feet and that his dark robes were stained with blood. But he had immediately dismissed the older wizard's concern.
"I'm fine," the young man said.
"You're obviously hurt, Mr. Snape."
"No," Snape said slowly and meaningfully, "I'm not."
And then came the dawning realization that the blood covering the young man in front of him was not his own.
"I see," Dumbledore said. He had spoken in such a cold voice, as only Dumbledore could. It hurt, even to this day, to remember it.
Snape wanted to explain so badly. He began abruptly with wide eyes, "I didn't…" but immediately stopped himself, bowing his head. He reminded himself that he wasn't the victim here. It didn't matter that he hadn't actually done the killing or participated in the torture – or that he hated having to be there, or that it was tearing him up inside.
"I was there, but…" he started again, but closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "It doesn't matter…"
The words came out wrong, but somehow it didn't matter in that moment. He didn't deserve mercy anyway. Determined to quash any ambiguity about his guilt, Snape forcefully pulled up the sleeve of his robe, revealing that ugly black mark on his pale flesh before rapidly covering it again.
Dumbledore closed his eyes in sadness, but opened them moments later in anger.
"Why are you here, Mr. Snape?" he intoned forcefully.
Snape told the Headmaster that he had come to warn him about the threat to the Potters and explained in detail that Voldemort had decided that they, and not the Longbottoms, were the subject of the Prophecy.
The younger man sat uncomfortably as those sharp blue eyes seemed to probe him, verifying the validity of his statements. He knew the Headmaster was carefully digesting the information he had given him, although his face remained blank.
"That was not my question," Dumbledore began anew, "Surely you had that information before tonight. My question to you was, why are you here now?"
Snape wondered if this was a test, if his fate lay in his answer.
"I don't know," Snape murmured.
A long silence passed between them. Dumbledore eyed the young man intently, as if waiting for something more, a better answer perhaps.
Almost in a panic, Snape felt the need to explain, and he spoke in a rush of words that he could not quite string together. "You don't know the things he does…the way he…you don't know…"
"I do know, Mr. Snape," Dumbledore replied gravely.
Snape felt his insides twist and wrench even more at those words. The idea that this man had some insight into the horrors he'd witnessed, horrors he'd committed, was almost too much to bear.
And suddenly, Snape reached into his robes to retrieve his wand, in an act of strange stupidity. For if Dumbledore had been an Auror, he would have surely killed him right then and there. Years later, when he thought back on that moment he almost laughed when he remembered that Dumbledore hadn't moved a muscle – that even his eyes had remained calm as he had pulled his wand from his robes and handed it gingerly to the older wizard.
But as Dumbledore nonchalantly took his wand from him, he was visibly startled by the Headmaster's casual attitude and wondered if the powerful Legilimens had simply read his thoughts, or if he was so certain of his prowess, his invincibility over him. Years later, he still did not know the answer.
"Why are you here, Mr. Snape?" Dumbledore asked again.
Snape looked down at his feet, studying them for a long moment before looking up and meeting Dumbledore's eyes directly for the first time that night.
He whispered almost hesitantly, embarrassed by the truth, "I…I…didn't know where else to go," he admitted, thinking back on the Headmaster's words the last time he had been in this office.
Those blue eyes continued to study him carefully, examining every detail of his face and eyes. He had never felt so bared open before – not even with the Dark Lord. He waited anxiously for the man's next words.
"Tell me, Severus. Tell me everything," Dumbledore said with gentle authority.
It was as though Dumbledore's words had released him from an unspoken oath of silence, had fueled him to bare his soul to this man. And Severus did. Over the next few hours, it all came spilling out of him, without any further prodding. He began with his confession, of how and why he had been tempted by Voldemort in the first place, and how after about a year out of Hogwarts he had taken the Mark. Then Snape gave an overview of his involvement as a Death Eater, which consisted mainly of illicit potion making for the Dark Lord. He vehemently insisted that he had been completely unaware of the unspeakably violent and sadistic acts Voldemort and his followers routinely committed before he pledged himself to the madman.
The confession, which had been flowing so freely from the young man, so matter-of-factly it was as though he were reciting a fictional narrative, abruptly became rough and full of incessant stammers. Dumbledore was keenly aware of Snape's profound discomfort, and took careful note of his suddenly labored breathing, his white-knuckled grip on the arms of his chair and the rather pale hue of his face. Hesitantly, Snape detailed his minimal involvement in these more appalling affairs. Midway through describing one of the few times he had been 'forced' to participate in such a session, the young man stopped suddenly, threw his head over the side of his chair and began retching uncontrollably, hyperventilating wildly between his bouts of sickness as he tried to catch a breath. Once the younger wizard had regained his composure, he barely had time to apologize for the mess before Dumbledore cleaned it up with a wave of his hand.
Righting himself in the chair once more, Snape started up again, faltering significantly as he concluded his rather unsettling account. He continued by giving the names of all the Death Eaters he had come into contact with or heard of and the details of their positions within Voldemort's circle. He finished by detailing everything he knew – however limited it was – about the Dark Lord's plans. Dumbledore asked few questions, seeming to prefer (at least for the time being) to let the younger man lead his own confession.
After it was over, Snape begged the Headmaster for a mercy he was sure he did not deserve, a quick death at his hands instead of by the Dementors. Snape remembered Dumbledore saying he would not grant his wish just before he passed out in the chair from sheer exhaustion.
The next morning Dumbledore had greeted him with a proposal, and however terrified he was at the prospect of Voldemort finding out, he had accepted and became the Order's spy. The first step had been convincing the Dark Lord to have him apply for the Potions position at Hogwarts so that he might serve to spy on the Headmaster. Shortly thereafter, Snape began lessons with the elder wizard, training his mind in Occlumency, which, as Dumbledore had said, he was already using unconsciously, insisting that he possessed a rare innate ability in this obscure magical art.
And it had all gone according to plan. Voldemort had been defeated and he had been spared. Would he be spared this time, he wondered – or was this time the end?
Snape made his way into Dumbledore's sitting room and sat down on the familiar couch, waiting for Albus to return from his errand with Minerva. He remembered waking here, on this very couch, 14 years ago, after his confession.
He had been vaguely aware that his sticky, blood-soaked robes had been removed and that he was dressed in a nightshirt, tucked under layers of blankets, cocooned in heavenly warmth. He had opened his eyes just enough to become dimly aware of a tall figure sitting in the dark in a plush armchair directly across from him. If he had taken a closer look that night, he would have seen the Headmaster's scrutinizing stare and his face deep in thought – no doubt thinking up the plan that had saved not only his life, but also his soul.
Instead, he had closed his eyes, and slept better than he had in years. He did not wonder then – although he would later – why he felt so comfortable in these quarters in which he had just delivered a confession that assured him the Dementor's kiss. He did not wonder why it was that he felt so safe under the watchful eye and powerful presence of his sworn Master's greatest enemy.
If he had, he certainly would not have known the answer. At least not yet. That answer would take some time to come.
'But still it had been there…even then,' Snape thought, while running his fingers over the red fabric of the now well-worn couch.
A/N: Please review. I hope you enjoyed this beginning. I am looking forward to your comments on this new idea of mine. I realize that this is a bit flashback heavy and therefore lighter on dialogue than I usually like to write but I wanted a more reflective tone in this beginning.
So unlike my other story, updates on this one will be significantly slower because this is the only chapter I've written so far and I really want to finish 'Light on the dark side of me' soon. So I recommend that if you liked this and want to continue reading (please do!), that you sign up for a story alert email so that you will be alerted when I post a new chapter. I thank you for your patience.
Thanks to Kelei for agreeing to beta this chapter for me even though she doesn't like AD (sad sigh).