Birch-Wood and Dragon-Heartstring
AN: As always, thanks go out to Birgit, who is, perhaps, the best beta in the world...
Thanks must also go out to Greyfalcon, kyer (for reviews of all chapters, no less!), wynnleaf, SlythCommand, Iva and Lunatique for the reviews. If you want to know what's going on in the story in a literary sense, then just pop along to the review board and have a look at Lunatique's reviews. They are so insightful that I'm quite scared she'd already predicted the "big reveal" before I'd written it!
The "big reveal", however, is here. I do apologise for the delay. This chapter has actually been sitting, gathering dust in my hard-drive for a while now but when I first wrote it - I hated it, and I was seriously thinking of scrubbing the whole lot and starting again. I gave it some time, though, and now that I've come back to it and made a few alterations here and there, I've decided that I like it a little bit more and I feel it's ready to be shown to the world at large.
Hope you like it...
"If only you could breathe fire like all the rest," Severus snapped through chattering teeth. "Then I wouldn't be so bloody cold all the time!"
Muninn rolled its eyes. "Severus," it replied exasperatedly, "I could not breathe fire below the lyftedor even if I were able, for all of the Muggles and wizards could see us for leagues if they but chanced to glance at the sky. And, may I remind you, I am supposed to be dead."
Severus shivered grumpily. "Then I suppose I'll just have to work harder on that heating charm I've been working on."
"I suppose you shall, for you have been simply 'working on it' for quite some time," Muninn retorted, eliciting a scowl from the young wizard. "Now you must be quiet, Severus, and cease your ungodly racket if I am to set you down in the village without attracting the notice of wandering wizards."
Severus had just returned from visiting his mother in hospital - something he had been doing a lot more of recently. Not long after the Ollivander Incident, Severus had confided in Muninn, telling it just how worried he was about his mum. This was mainly down to the very strange dreams he had started to have, in which his parents were standing at one end of the lake down in the Hogwarts grounds, and he was standing at the other. Always, he tried to call to them, but they never responded. They just smiled and waved. Then he would try to run around the lake to get to them, but when he did, it seemed as though the lake had been stretched infinitely in both directions, so that reaching even one end of the lake would doubtless be a journey of several lifetimes. He knew he couldn't wait that long, so he would become agitated, and in his desperate state, he would attempt to dive into the lake and swim over to his parents - but an unseen force held him in place -and then he was forced to watch as his parents gave him a few last, cheery waves before turning their backs on him and walking off into the distance.
It was a horrible dream. Every time Severus had it, he would wake up in a cold sweat with a knot in his stomach and a screaming headache. Ever practical, though, he had went down to the library, intent on finding out whether his unsettling dreams possessed any particular meaning. He'd found nothing to his satisfaction, though, nothing concrete - not even in Trelawney's edition of Merlin's Prophecies, which was the book on dream interpretation. When he'd left the library, the only thing he had come out with was an increased sense of foreboding.
Later that night, Muninn had taken him to the banks of Loch Fyne, which he normally loved; taking a book with him and reading it by the light of a campfire while Muninn skimmed and danced across the still surface of the loch at breakneck speed, having the time of its life. However, Severus had been so distant and snappish that night that Muninn instantly knew something was wrong, and it was not long before Severus gave in to the dragon's insistent, pestering inquiries.
After he had told Muninn about his dreams and about how worried he was for his mum, the dragon had offered to take him down south to Saint Mungos whenever he wanted. Severus had accepted gratefully and had taken up Muninn's offer the next night.
They always had to fly very quickly (though when they turned to smoke it didn't seem fast at all!) and Severus regretted not being able to see much on the way, but it was so, so worth it. This time, his dad had been there - and although Tobias' initial surprise of seeing his son turn up at the ward out of the blue two months ago had worn off, he had still been obviously happy to see him. So he had sat and chatted to his mum and dad for a few hours, and it had felt such a relief. Even though his mum wasn't getting any better, she hadn't had one of her episodes these past few times he'd visited and she was even starting to remember him and look forward to his visits.
Therefore, despite the biting chill of early Spring, Severus was feeling rather happy, though rushed off his feet. He was supposed to be meeting Lily Evans at the Hog's Head in five minutes for a quick, secret drink. It had taken a while for Evans to forgive him for the Black Cursing Incident, and it had been awkward working with her in Potions, but she'd passed him a note one day in Herbology, informing him that he had finally been forgiven and that there was an invitation for a drink in the usual place next Hogsmeade trip. He had accepted. Hence his current haste to get there on time.
The Hog's Head sat on a dingy side street, which made it a very convenient place for an underage wizard to appear out of nowhere. He slid down Muninn's tail and came back into focus as he landed on his backside with a bump. He heard Muninn snigger in the way that only dragons could and stood up, dusting himself down.
"I will return to Hogwarts to wait for you, Severus, if that pleases you, Muninn said. "For it will give me a chance to watch the humans going about their business on the way."
Severus smiled and shook his head. It was one of those things Muninn had never quite got over. It loved watching people - loved noting all the silly, little things they did. Things that most would consider inconsequential, like getting into the shower to wash in the morning, brushing teeth, eating toast and jam, studying for a test, doing a crossword, playing music, arguing over whether eggs were best served hard or soft-boiled - things like that. It amused Severus to no end whenever he was playing the part of the captive audience and had to listen to Muninn waxing lyrical on the subject.
"Alright," he whispered in reply. "I'll see you soon. I won't be long."
He opened the creaking doors of the Hog's Head and stepped inside, a little draught of cold air drifting in behind him. The dingy pub was more crowded than usual, though that wasn't saying much. At the back in a booth, three witches were conversing in hushed tones with a gaggle of rough-looking goblins; a hag swaddled in layers of filthy rags slurped greedily at a plate of raw liver; in a corner, a couple of goats chomped away on a bale of hay; and the only other customer appeared to be a stocky wizard, hooded and cloaked, bent over a pint of Old Ogden's. No Evans. Must be early, Severus thought.
Behind the bar, the surly, bearded barkeep wiped a layer of murk onto a glass with a dirty cloth. Pulling back his hood a shade, Severus nodded curtly at him and the barkeep nodded back. He'd been in enough times to be recognised, so he never got any trouble. He ordered a Firewhisky and sat down at a table to wait for Evans.
"Haven't ever seen you in here before," a smooth voice intoned.
Severus turned his head ever so slightly to see the stocky man he'd spotted earlier. He had removed his hood to reveal a youngish-looking face: square jawed and shadowed with stubble. His hair was a sandy brown colour, longish in the front, falling over his sharp green eyes. He was smiling broadly in a way that set the alarm bells ringing in Severus' head. No one ever spoke to or smiled at strangers in the Hog's Head.
"Likewise," he replied in a way which clearly signalled the conversation was at an end.
But the man was not to be deterred.
"What're you having?" he asked, leaning over and peering at the contents of Severus' glass. "Firewhisky, eh? Fine taste. I'll think I'll have a dash of that myself."
The man raised his hood again and made his way towards the bar. Severus noted with apprehension that he neither swayed nor staggered. He was stone cold sober. So what the hell did he want? Severus prayed that Evans would show up soon.
He heard the man ordering two Firewhiskeys and his stomach twisted into a knot of fear. Flashing him a sharp, knife-edge smile, the man paid for the drinks and walked over towards Severus' table. Then he pulled up a chair and sat down. The hairs on the back of Severus' neck were standing on end, but he forced himself to iron his face and stare stonily at the interloper. Underneath the table, his hand curled around his wand, ready to curse the man into oblivion if it came to that.
The man slid the Firewhisky over to him, flashing another one of his unsettling smiles. Severus took it and set it down to one side.
"My name's Travers," the man said, leaning over and holding out a hand. "Edmund Travers at your service."
Severus shook the man's hand. "Severus Snape, at yours," he replied with a cold politeness.
Travers laughed. "Oh I know who you are," he said matter-of-factly. "I know all about you."
Severus' insides froze, but he managed to force his mouth to twist into a disbelieving sneer.
"Is that right?" he asked, sounding much more composed than he felt. "Just how much about me do you know, then, Mr Travers?"
Travers leaned back in his chair, his eyes trained skywards as he counted off facts on his fingers. "Oh, let's see now..." he said, feigning hesitation. "Well there's the fact that you're the half-blood son of the infamous blood-traitor, Eileen Prince. That you have, despite the odds, been sorted into Slytherin house - I'd say the best in the school, but then I'm biased. I have been informed by a quite a few of my associates that you are a dab hand at all sorts of hexes, curses and jinxes and even formulate your own - and I also know that you're not afraid to use them, even in front of Albus Dumbledore..."
Severus' face remained inscrutable. There was a carefully timed silence in which Travers shook his head ruefully.
"You're a talent, Snape, you really are," he said, heaving a large, melodramatic sigh. "It would be a shame to see you go to waste..."
And there it was. So much meaning behind those little words. It would be a shame to see you go to waste... Was the man hiring? Looking for some underage wizard to do his dirty work so he would get off scot-free and no one would be locked up in Azkaban? He knew that sort of stuff went on in the Hog's Head, but he'd never imagined in a million years that it'd happen to him. Severus raised an eyebrow and looked Travers straight in the eye. The man smiled back at him; razor sharp, cold and unyielding. Yes, Severus thought. He must be hiring. Well, he knows where he can shove his offer. Unless...
Blood-traitor... Slytherin house... Hexes, jinxes, curses... Afraid of Dumbledore...
Travers wasn't hiring.
He was recruiting.
The palms of Severus' hands started to sweat and his wand threatened to clatter to the floor, giving him up. Travers went on, casually, as though he were doing nothing more sinister than reading a section from a Prophet article aloud over breakfast.
"It was a shame what happened to your mother, Snape," he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "But she was lost. Wizards are not meant to breed with Muggles." He paused for a moment, then shook his head, adding, "She broke the rules, and... well...". He sighed. "Bad business, Snape, bad business."
Underneath the table, the hand that was clutching his wand was shaking with anger.
"But you could redeem yourself, Snape," Travers whispered, tilting his head to one side and searching Severus' face closely. "That option is available to you..."
Severus leaned over until his nose almost touched Travers'. His face remained blank but his black eyes were burning.
"Over my dead body," he hissed.
It seemed as though Travers had expected such a reaction, for he laughed softly and patted Severus' cheek with a casual insolence that made Severus' mouth tic.
"Not yours, Snape..." he said lightly, trailing off and leaving the implication drifting in the air between them like a pestilent fog.
Severus felt as though the whole world had shifted. He blinked several times. Then he swallowed.
"If you dare—" he began, his voice thick with suppressed fury.
Travers laughed again. There was a loud squawk as his chair scraped back across the floor. He rose to his feet and bowed to Severus. "I hope to see you again soon, Mr Snape. Give my regards to your mother and father," he said, before he Apparated out of the pub.
For a moment, Severus just sat there staring at the grimy oak-wood table before him. Then, he brought his wand out from under the table, and he began stabbing at a knot in the grain with a distracted desire to destroy something. A strange mist had settled in his mind, making thinking rather difficult. What thoughts he could make out were sinister shadows of dread and ill-fortune, and those he turned away from. They were unclear, and yet so suffocating and so close, and they terrified him. But there were other thoughts that burned brightly with red fire - further away, yes, much further, but they were clear as day - other thoughts that spoke of vengeance - and it was to these that he turned, awaking from his reverie, his black eyes burning with a cold fury.
They would pay. They would pay for what they did.
He had to go back and find Muninn to tell him what had happened. If someone was going to make an attempt on his life, then Muninn had to know. Maybe, together, they could even help come up with a plan to keep his parents safe...
Severus stood up and straightened his robes, getting ready to leave. He'd have to apologise to Evans later for not sticking around, but that was by far the least of his worries. He was about to reach in his satchel for a piece of parchment to write Evans a quick note when, outside, there was an earth-shattering explosion which made the windows of the Hog's Head rattle, illuminating the whole place with flashes of poisonous green light. Severus gasped and instinctively ducked under the table for cover along with the rest of the clientele. The flashes soon subsided. Then the screams came. Severus' eyes widened.
In a flurry of movement, he scrabbled out from under the table and sprinted for the doors, ignoring the warning shout from the barkeep. He hit them at a run and they slammed open, shrieking on their hinges.
Outside, it was getting dark; the gathering clouds casting a drifting shadow over the red twilit sky, like a livid bruise blooming upon battered flesh. The air was viscous, and the thick, wet slap of it assaulted Severus' senses. It smelled like Potions: like chemicals, acrid and artificial. It smelled like Magic: of blood and power and fear. He clamped one hand over his nose and mouth while his eyes darted quickly from left to right, his wand held out like a dagger in front of him. The alley came to a dead end a few doors down from the Hog's Head, so the only way out was along the main thoroughfare. Unfortunately, when several shadows flitted past the entrance to the alley pursued by a barrage of crackling curses, Severus realised with a cold, sinking feeling that that was precisely where he didn't want to be. He hoped against hope that Muninn had heard the explosion and would come to find him. If he just stayed put...
But the thought died instantly as a crackling, scarlet hex came whizzing over his head out of nowhere, slamming into the stone a mere inches from his head, showering him with dusty fragments of masonry. Then a scream cut through the air - a very familiar one - one that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Making a split-second decision, he darted from the relative safety of the alley and dived behind the cluster of bins the Hog's Head had put out front for collection, almost getting trampled underfoot as two frantic Ravenclaws hurtled past, dragging a gasping, injured third between them. He crouched low and peered through a gap, a strand of dark hair falling over his eyes. He was trembling slightly and an odd, urgent ache had settled in his chest. The prospect of losing the only human sort-of friend he'd ever had had provoked a startling reaction within Severus. Even though he knew from experience that it was incredibly stupid to become embroiled in a free-for-all that you weren't involved in in the first place - events and logic, it seemed, had conspired against him. So here he found himself in the thick of it, intent upon searching for Evans' familiar, red-headed figure amidst the chaos. It was much more difficult that he had counted on.
The scene unfolded in front of him as though he had altogether forsaken the waking world and had emerged instead into a dark and rushing nightmare. Zonko's roof was ablaze - presumably what had caused those flashes - and the eerie, green fire was spreading. Bits of it were breaking off and cascading to the ground like comets, the frightened students and residents fighting to dodge them and run with all their might to the relative safety of Hogwarts, dragging friends, children, loved ones, strangers behind them. However, it was not only the fire they had to contend with.
There were Death Eaters. Death Eaters in Hogsmeade.
From the looks of things, they'd Apparated in formation at the south end of Hogsmeade and had advanced up the main thoroughfare, past Dervish & Banges, Scrivenshaft's and Gladrags, running into trouble as they hit Zonko's because people had started to fight back. Wands were flashing in all directions and it had degenerated into an out-and-out free-for-all.
Suddenly, it was no longer about Evans...
He crouched low in the shadows, readying his wand, and smiled a grim smile, devoid of warmth or humour.
"They're going to pay for what they did to my mother," Severus thought savagely. "Travers is here, I know it. I'm sure he's one of them. If this turns out well, then they might finally, finally leave her alone—"
The Death Eaters were winning, though, and it was looking less likely that Severus would be afforded any chance whatsoever; their discipline and experience seeing them push irresistibly through the ranks of the defenders - a motley mix of older students, the braver of the denizens of Hogsmeade, and a small band of hooded wizards and witches he didn't recognise as belonging to either the Death Eaters or Law Enforcement. One of the latter shot silver sparks up into the air, and seconds later, a silvery-white owl was speeding towards the Hogwarts castle.
As Severus deliberated over the practicalities of casting a Patronus that was clearly not being used for battle, his eyes caught sight of a particular Death Eater, standing near the back of the fold, robes fluttering in the breeze, his the bone-white mask illuminated by the unnatural, green, flickering fire-light. He was advancing upon a pair of students, one prostrate on the snow, the other standing protectively over their fallen companion, looking ready to fight to the death. Severus' eyes widened. It was Lily Evans. She had placed herself squarely in front of James Potter, directly in the line of fire, with an expression of such grim determination that Severus knew she was going to do something stupid. Terminally stupid. The Death Eater was so intent upon them, though, that he appeared completely oblivious to his surroundings.
Events having decided matters for him, he rose to his feet in one fluid motion, pulled his hood forward, and sprinted through the fray towards Potter, Evans and the Death Eater. As he ran, a strange calm settled over him that did not even waver when a deflected Searing Hex jarred his shoulder on the way, causing him to stumble slightly, a great, hot welt already forming upon tender skin. It was the same calm feeling he always experienced when Sweet called him up to duel in Practical Defence. Cold, calculated, detached - already planning his first move.
"Surprise is your greatest asset in a duel, Severus. If you give your opponent a second to think, then it will be over in a flash..."
It was plain as day that his first move had to be non-verbal, and nothing that would drain his magic. That ruled out the Killing Curse. He'd never tried it before, but he was aware that the amount of magic and force of mind it required was immense, and potentially draining. He had the advantage, though. The Death Eater had still not noticed his approach. With a thrill, Severus imagined that if he could get even closer, he could simply pull back the swine's hood and slit his throat with the Ecgþeow Charm. Either that or...
Severus felt a manic grin spreading across his face.
It'll have to be the next best thing, then. An eye for an eye, after all...
He stopped a few feet away from the Death Eater, who was so intent on Evans and Potter that the appearance of the shadowy, wraith-like figure behind him had went entirely unnoticed.
Severus raised his wand and concentrated.
The Death Eater moaned with pain and doubled over, dropping to the ground instantly. Severus took this as a cue to step forward and intensify his concentration. Seconds later, the Death Eater was writhing in agony, clutching at handfuls of snow with clawed fingers, his body chatting rhythmically, telling of twisted tendons and torn flesh.
His concentration almost faltered when he heard a rustle of movement ahead. It was Evans. She had hauled up the unconscious James Potter and had slung him round her shoulders, pausing in the act of dragging him off to safety to look back at the one who had saved her from harm. He felt Evans' eyes fall upon him, puzzled, disapproving, wary - yet grateful. It took him a moment to realise that she wouldn't be able to recognise him, as the hood of his cloak obscured his face. That didn't matter, though, because it wasn't about Evans anymore. He nodded curtly and Evans returned the gesture. Then she was gone - ducking behind Scrivenshaft's with Potter out of the line of fire.
And that was fine. Fine, fine, fine. If Evans got away, it was a bonus. Right now, he had more pressing matters to attend to. He prepared to fully concentrate his force of mind, just as Sweet had taught him - to control the tides of magic and thus manage and augment the waves of pain that oscillated through the twitching body of the Death Eater. But Severus' small victory was short-lived. It was his turn to be taken by surprise, and he gasped as a red streak of light ripped into his cheek. He staggered backwards, breaking the spell, and he could see a stockily built Death Eater rushing towards his fallen companion.
Again, his focus shifted - as fluid and logical as water over rock - and he whirled round and attacked - not caring whether he hit any of the terrified, fleeing students - firing a Reductor curse, then another, then another, and another - aiming for arteries. Travers saw each one coming and dodged, springing away and back into the fray, firing a retaliatory Stunner before the chaos reclaimed him. Severus snarled and made to tear after him, but Travers' diversion appeared to have given the fallen Death Eater time enough to collect himself. He was on his knees, his head tilted skyward, breathing harshly, clutching at his wand with one hand and at his ribs with the other.
It seemed the bastard Travers would have to wait. So Severus resolved to make the one in front of him pay dearly in compensation.
He raised his wand and spoke the incantation.
But the spell did not hit its target. The Death Eater's arm jerked, deflecting the spell so that it crashed through the front window of Splinter and Creek's and burst into flame. Terrified shrieks provided a stark, piercing contrast with the low, elemental roar of the encroaching flames. Severus paid no heed to the danger, however, and he snarled with frustration and tried again - wanting nothing more than to see this bastard suffer as much as his mother had suffered.
Then his body went rigid. The world lurched suddenly, and he was toppling over onto his back, stiff as a board. The Death Eater had him. Petrificus totalus. That was all it had taken.
The curse was so strong that Severus' teeth were grinding together, and he felt as though they would crack under the strain. He could hear the Death Eater approaching, his footsteps gaining in confidence as he advanced. Severus' heart was hammering in his chest, and he blinked, then swallowed, as tears of rage and spite pricked at the corners of his eyes.
I'm going to die...
It was a fact, and he knew it, though it was an injustice. An injustice that his life would be so cruelly cut short and that he could not have the revenge he so desperately craved.
It's mine. You can't take it away from me! It's not fair!
A shadow passed overhead; a void where the light should have been with a bone-white mask. Severus stopped breathing and stared up at his captor. His black eyes were glassy with terror, despite his resolve, and a vague, insidious thought twisted its way into his mind which served only to make it worse.
Is this how mum felt before they tortured her...?
For a prolonged, terrible moment, the Death Eater surveyed Severus with a cold impassivity, before extending a hand and twitching the hood away from Severus' face. As the fabric pooled on the ground about Severus' head, however, the Death Eater did an extraordinary thing. At the very sight of Severus, he recoiled instantly as though stung by a Doxy. His masked face tilted slightly to one side as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing. And far from indifference, this time, Severus could feel intent behind the shadowy slits that passed for eyes. The Death Eater's hand came down again, more gently this time, and brushed over the great, boiling welt the errant Searing Hex had given him. Severus hissed involuntarily and then cursed himself for giving the Death Eater any reaction. But the pain didn't last long. It faded remarkably quickly - so much so that it had to have been healed.
Severus' mind exploded in a riot of confusion, and he glared cautiously at the Death Eater. In his prostrate state, his body rebelled in vain against its impotence, and in his mind, railing against the injustice of it all, he screamed:
"What do you want from me, coward?"
Severus' heart almost stopped as the Death Eater knelt on the ground before him and raised his wand, though whether he was going to help him or curse him - Severus was no longer sure. He screwed his eyes tight shut, waiting for either release from his torment or unspeakable pain. But nothing came, because someone shouted something over the sweltering chaos that made the Death Eater's head whip round in alarm.
"Finite incantatem!" a voice bellowed, clear as a bell, sonorous and authoritative.
The Death Eater sprang to his feet in response, only to be caught in the chest and blasted into the wall of Scrivenshafts in an explosion of orange light.
An ominous silence descended.
Everyone was watching.
The eerie green fire was gone, and the blaze Severus had started in Splinter and Creeks dissipated in a puff of smoke. It was only then that Severus realised he could move. He gasped, filling his deprived lungs with noxious air that coated the back of his throat with a bitter film. Then he sat up, only to find himself on the ground, gaping, before the imposing figure of Albus Dumbledore.
Before him stood not the benign, partisan, old baby-sitter who regularly called him up to his office for a slap on the wrist. No. This was Albus Dumbledore: Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Grand Sorcerer, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Grindelwald's bane - and the only one the Dark Lord Voldemort feared. Now, Severus realised why.
He was awe-inspiring. Dumbledore radiated with an almost tangible aura of power, and his eyes burned with such intensity that his gaze could have rent iron. He did not look down when he addressed Severus, but his voice was strangely calm - gentle, even...
"Are you alright, Severus?"
Severus nodded shakily. "Y-Yes sir. I've suffered nothing worse than a petrifaction charm and a Searing Hex."
The corners of Dumbledore's mouth twitched upward in a smile.
"I am sincerely glad to hear it. Now, if you please, Severus. This is a rather perilous situation."
Severus nodded dumbly and scrabbled backwards across the cobbles like a crab, out of the way of Dumbledore, who squared his shoulders and began to approach the Death Eater with confident strides. In the meantime, the Death Eater had picked himself up, and, incredibly, was standing in the middle of the street, his wand hanging loose at his side, seemingly ready to face off against the greatest wizard of the age. People were backing away.
Above them, the clouds were churning and boiling in an unnatural sky, and the Death Eater had his face turned upwards to meet it, his lips muttering strange, silent syllables. Then, it began to rain.
Severus suddenly had a very, very bad feeling about this whole situation. He was so preoccupied that he jumped when a masked, robed man laid a hand upon his shoulder, and he instinctively (and accidentally) thrust the point of his wand into the man's eye.
"Peace! Peace, the twitchy young buffoon that you are! I've come to make sure you get out of here in one piece!" the man howled in a strangely familiar voice.. It the voice of one of the strangest men he'd ever met in his life, and it rang with the eccentric intelligence for which he would ever remember its owner. It was also a voice from his past - one that always dredged up unwelcome memories that he would have rather remained buried.
"Mr Diggle?" Severus said incredulously.
"Yes, Mr Diggle. Saver of Snapes, at your service," the man snapped sardonically, rubbing at his injured eye. "I would say 'How do you do?' but I see you have adopted the very rude custom of poking old acquaintances in the eyes with your wand when they approach you - so I most definitely won't bother now."
"I— What? I-I didn't mean to!" Severus retorted, bristling with indignation - temporarily forgetting all peril as Diggle mercilessly bruised his ego. "You sneaked up on me, and—!"
Diggle cut him off unceremoniously with an impatient wave of his hand. "I don't know whether you've realised, Severus, but we are in the middle of what is about to become a war zone. I am in charge of hauling those who cannot Apparate to safety - and I intend to do my duty - even though certain ungrateful wretches may try to stop me by poking me in the eye."
Severus scowled, resisting the urge to correct his would-be rescuer.
"Side-Along-Apparition is the method of choice," Diggle said briskly, "and you can like it or lump it. Now, take my arm, please."
Severus did as he was told, and at once felt the odd, suffocating rush of displacement as everything went dark. His shoulders bumped hard against Diggle's before everything came back into focus. It appeared that Diggle had Apparated just outside the school gates, and that he wasn't the only student who had been hustled away to the relative safety of Hogwarts. There was a crack beside him that made him jump, and a similarly robed and masked witch popped into being beside him with a breathless Isidore Wilkes in tow.
"Wilkes!" Severus exclaimed as the witch and Diggle Apparated out of sight without a word. He supposed they had been trusted to get up to the castle grounds on their own.
"Come on," Wilkes said, grabbing him roughly by the arm and propelling him up the slope towards the castle. "The hill. We can watch it from there. The others are probably up there already."
Sure enough, by the time both boys reached the little grassy outcrop of rock that looked out over the land surrounding towards Hogsmeade, there was already a small, select crowd of nervous, chattering students. The crowd mostly consisted of those who enjoyed Practical Defence and those who didn't possess any particular allegiance to one side or the other. As he and Wilkes jostled for a good spot, Severus caught snatches of conversations: "I've heard Dumbledore's an amazing dueller—", "—defeated Grindelwald single-handed—", "I don't know, that Death Eater looks as though he's building up to something special—". Then a fourth-year Ravenclaw suggested something that made Severus' insides grow cold.
"—maybe it is You-Know-Who..."
A heavy silence fell, but it was broken by an older Hufflepuff girl, who looked up from constructing a make-shift scrying pool and said harshly, "Don't be thick. He wouldn't show his face until the Death Eaters were inside the castle. Believe me, you'd know if it was You-Know-Who. He'd have cursed Dumbledore as soon as he laid eyes on him. It's more likely that he's waiting to see how his cronies get along before he shows his cards."
She gave the side of her pool a tap with her wand and the scene Severus had left behind in Hogsmeade swam into focus. The girl smiled smugly and the crowd shifted to gather around it. Severus stood up on tiptoe, but he couldn't even get a look in. All he could see were the backs of several Slytherin heads.
But he had a better idea...
It didn't take him long to find Muninn, as it was curled up on the roof near their usual meeting place - and moments later, Severus was hurtling towards Hogsmeade on the back of the dragon. The air was thick with raw magic and it crackled and sparked along their insubstantial forms as they cut a path through to the roof of Dervish and Banges, the highest building in Hogsmeade. Muninn landed soundlessly upon the slates of the cross-gable roof and came back into focus, its eyes reflecting the flashes of light from the wands of the duellers below. It was still raining here, oddly enough, and Severus almost slipped as he scrambled over the cross-beam to perch himself so that he could peer out from behind it. It wouldn't do to be knocked off the roof by an errant jinx, after all.
When he'd made himself secure, he risked taking a look. The sight that greeted his eyes sent his heart pounding with dread and excitement. Wands were blazing. Curses were screaming through the air. Witches and wizards dipped and rose and dodged and danced through the chaos. Some would fall. Others would laugh and rise and turn to face another. And there, in the middle, was the Death Eater from before - and Dumbledore. The old wizard was a fearsome sight to behold. From the tip of his wand, firebrands issued forth, and he wielded them like whips, attempting to snare the Death Eater. Even up here the heat was immense, and Severus could only imagine what it was like down below. He was so intent on watching the battle unfold, that he didn't hear what Muninn had said the first time.
"Severus? Are you listening to me?"
Severus blinked. "Sorry, what?" he said distractedly, turning to face the dragon.
"The sky, Severus. It is in turmoil..."
Muninn's narrow head was trained towards the clouds above. Severus' brow furrowed and he followed its gaze, feeling the rain pattering upon his exposed face. There wasn't a more appropriate word to describe it. The sky, did indeed, look as though it was in turmoil. It looked like a giant bruise, the swirling clouds tinged green-grey and purple, lightning crackling along their lining.
"Oh..." he said, slowly. "That doesn't look good. That really doesn't look good. Maybe we should—"
Then, just as the words left his mouth, the Death Eater stopped running from Dumbledore's onslaught, skidded - almost tumbling to the ground before steadying himself - and, turning to face Dumbledore in a maelstrom of swirling black robes, he thrust his wand in the air and screamed:
Severus had only ever heard a sound like it once. There were pylons not far from the Muggle primary school he had went to, and one day, when everyone was out playing in the playground, a fuse had blown. The noise the great surge of electricity had made as it escaped and plunged into the ground was terrifying. This noise was similar, but at least a hundred times louder, and with it, a great bolt of unnatural, green lightning forked from the sky and earthed itself in the Death Eater's wand, hanging there for a moment, suspended between earth and air, before it snapped as the Death Eater swung his wand up over his head and sent it thundering towards Dumbledore, who had a split second to react.
Severus felt himself screaming something incoherent as he willed Dumbledore to get the hell out of the way.
And react Dumbledore did. He disappeared in a puff of smoke, the bolt shredding through an unsuspecting Death Eater, who didn't even have time to scream before his body collapsed on the ground, sizzling and convulsing. Severus imagined he could smell the stench of it from the roof, and fought back a sudden wave of nausea. But where was the Headmaster? His eyes swept across the melee, searching from his high vantage point for Dumbledore. The Death Eater appeared to be doing the same, twitching round again and again, his wand held like a sword in front of him, looking to see where the old wizard would materialise.
The headmaster reappeared in a blinding flash. Ropes of light cascaded from the tip of his wand and began to writhe around the Death Eater, constricting him, blinding him. Instinctively, Severus raised a hand to shield his eyes; he knew the light burned, as he could hear the Death Eater screaming.
The duel was far from over, however, for the Death Eater retaliated, and at a response of an arcane incantation, shadowy, whip-like tentacles burst forth from the ground and latched onto Dumbledore, pulsing wetly and oozing black oil, snapping and sucking, dragging him down towards the earth like an ancient and terrible creature from the deep. The tentacles slithered upwards and found Dumbledore's nose and mouth, hovering above them for a brief moment as though appraising their victim, before plunging in. Severus gasped with horror, and even Muninn snorted with surprise. It was horrible. It looked like Dumbledore was being devoured by a Lethifold - only that a Patronus, however strong, couldn't have done anything to save him.
But... Dumbledore was holding on - winning, even - and Severus knew this by the fact that the Death Eater was now completely encased in light, shrieking in agony.
It was a battle of wills. The Death Eater, ensnared by light. Dumbledore, drowning in darkness.
The black tentacles gave a great lurch and enveloped Dumbledore completely. Severus felt himself hiss with anticipation and dread, his hands tightening their grip on the crossbeam.
Suddenly, the ball of light contracted and the figure encased within managed to Apparate. For a moment, the light wavered uncertainly before exploding with a sound like that of breaking glass, jettisoning millions of glittering shards out into the twilight. The oily tendrils of shadow gave a shudder, and then withdrew, returning swiftly and smoothly to the earth as though compelled by an unseen hand. Dumbledore emerged from the dark, taking in gasps of air as he did so. He wasn't covered in slimy, black oil, like Severus imagined he would be - but he coughed, and Muninn said it saw something black spattering onto the cobbles below.
The battle didn't last much longer when Dumbledore was free to deal with the rest of the Death Eaters. The witches and wizards in silver robes fought with a new, more ferocious confidence with the Headmaster on their side - and within mere minutes, the Death Eaters were being pushed back further and further.
With a grin, Severus gave Muninn's mane a tug and the dragon turned round. He jerked his head in the direction of Hogwarts and Muninn nodded, motioning for him to climb on. Severus decided that he'd seen enough. He knew without doubt that Dumbledore and the silver robed witches and wizards would win the day. After all, it was as it had been said up on the hill: Dumbledore really was an amazing dueller. There was also the fact that if he didn't get back up to school soon, he'd be in a whole lot of trouble.
Severus soon felt the familiar feeling of turning to smoke and then Muninn was airborne, carrying him upon swift wings back to the school grounds.
"That was quite a spectacle, was it not, Severus?" Muninn asked excitedly.
"God, yes," Severus snorted. "Best duel I've ever seen! And I had by far the best view. Sod the rest of them and their stupid scrying pools."
Muninn laughed. "It might cheer you to know that it was one of the best wizarding duels I have ever seen, and I have lived for quite a bit longer than you."
Severus grinned incredulously. "Honestly?"
"I am being perfectly honest," Muninn replied, smiling.
Severus punched the air and would have toppled off Muninn if he hadn't grabbed, wild-eyed, onto the dragon's mane at the last minute.
"Watch yourself, Severus, or you'll never live to see another one," Muninn warned.
Severus nodded weakly and held on tight.
"Now, where would you like me to deposit you?"
Severus thought for a moment about somewhere near the grassy outcrop at the hill so that he could boast about having seen the duel, too, but another thought entirely sprang to the forefront of his mind, one which made him smile to think about.
"Take me to the Entrance Hall," he said. "I'm going to visit Sweet to let him know I'm okay. Then I'm going to tell him what he missed. He's going to be green with envy!"
The dragon laughed its low, rumbling laugh. "Very well, Severus. It shall be done..."
True to its word, Muninn dropped him off at the usual place and Severus sprinted round to the Entrance Hall. He spied the Hufflepuff girl and her friend who were also making a last, surreptitious dash attempt to make it inside without getting into too much bother, so he put on a burst of speed and nipped in beside them. It hadn't been worth the effort, because as soon as he stepped foot inside, Professor McGonagall spotted them and stormed over, her cheeks tinged with colour and her lips pursed tightly.
"Hortensia! Evangeline! And you, Mister Snape— don't think I can't see you! Do you think my head zips up the back?" She stopped and stood with her hands planted firmly on her hips, her nostrils flaring slightly. "Where on earth have you been? And you, particularly, Mister Snape, for Dedalus Diggle said you were one of the first ones to be brought here!"
Severus felt all eyes boring into him expectantly. McGonagall's because she wanted an explanation from him; Hortensia and Evangeline's because, though they wanted an explanation from him, they wanted one that would get them out of trouble.
He thought for a moment, and then decided upon a half truth - one he knew McGonagall would believe of him at least. Let the others fend for themselves.
"I'm sorry, Professor. I can't speak for everyone, but I wanted to watch the Headmaster duelling."
If it was at all possible, McGonagall's lips seemed thin even further, but there was also a hint of curiosity, of worry, there that wasn't before.
"And how did it go, Mr Snape," she said, a little more quietly, an odd, strained expression tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"Professor Dumbledore won, if that's what you're asking," he replied, with a small, secretive smile. "The Death Eaters are being driven back as we speak. They're probably all gone by now." The scrying pool Hufflepuff girl smiled and nodded, too, as if to back him up.
McGonagall sagged with relief, unable to resist a smile. Then her face suddenly ironed itself back into position, and she was once again the formidable Gryffindor housemistress.
"That was incredibly, incredibly reckless of you to disappear like that in order to satisfy your petty curiosities considering the circumstances," she said sternly, brandishing an admonishing finger, "and, as a result, ten points each will be deducted from your respective houses." She gave each of her offending students a grave look, which set them awkwardly scuffing at the flagstones with their feet. "Now, none of you are in any way injured?"
They all shook their heads.
McGonagall nodded. "Then I suggest you return to your Common Rooms and stay there until you are given permission to leave. Do I make myself clear?"
They all nodded. The Professor had made herself perfectly clear.
"Then off you go."
Severus and the two Hufflepuff girls parted ways, the girls heading up to their tower, and Severus towards the dungeons, which he veered away from when he was certain everyone was too busy dashing around like headless chickens to notice. He made his way up to the Ravenclaw tower, towards Sweet's office, getting a few funny looks from some straggling Ravenclaws on the way, which he ignored. He turned off and headed down the corridor where Potter, Black and Pettigrew had cornered him in his first year. It was empty. The Ravenclaws had appeared to have taken McGonagall's warning to heart. Maybe the ones who were up on the hill had had points taken off them too. Severus hoped so.
But as he drew nearer to Sweet's office, Severus suddenly realised that there was something wrong. Very wrong.
Muffled crashes and bangs were coming from inside. There was a sound of glass breaking, then that of books and paper being swept from a desk and scattered to the floor. He could hear someone pacing frantically, their footfalls loud and clear, but erratic. Then he heard a low, ghostly moan and a thud as something, or someone, slid to the floor.
All the alarm bells were ringing in Severus's head, warning him not to step foot inside that office, but he began to approach despite himself, his curiosity getting the better of him. Slowly, warily, he crept down the corridor. The door to Sweet's office was slightly ajar. He hesitated for a brief moment, unsure of whether he really wanted to see what was going on inside, and then the sound of Sweet's hoarse, broken voice risen into a choked sob settled it for him.
He took a silent step forward and peered round the door just as a white something flashed past his head and hit the wall, dropping to the floor unscathed with a strangely ponderous, hollow thud. It was a bone-white something. A porcelain something with slits for eyes...
No. Not possible...
Severus's head suddenly felt treacherously light, and his knees somehow refused to support him. He stumbled slightly, and caught hold of the doorframe. The door slid open a shade further. He could see Sweet now, collapsed in a heap on the floor, his pale face streaked red with tears. His mouth was open slightly, and he was staring, unseeing, at the opposite wall, rocking gently back and forth. A cloak, black as midnight, lay discarded upon the floor next to the fireplace: the fireplace which was still smoking slightly...
Severus fought the urge to be sick as his mind struggled to absorb the terrible truth of what he had just witnessed, singing the same twisted refrain over and over again...
He's a Death Eater. He never liked you at all. Never. He was only interested in you because he wanted to sell your soul to the Dark Lord. You were stupid and you let your guard down. Muninn always said he never trusted him, but you were blind. He was friends with your mum at school. It must have been him. He must have been the one who hurt mum. It had to have been him. It must have...
The red mist began to descend, creeping insidiously into the corners of his mind, filling it with thoughts of blood and vengeance and clouding his judgement. His fist curled around his wand. His hands were trembling violently, but his purpose was clear.
He would not be played any longer, by anyone; and he would exact his revenge - no matter what came after, no matter what affect it had on him.
But just as Severus was about to draw his wand and attempt the most infamous of the three Unforgivable Curses, something peculiar happened that made all thoughts of retribution vanish like so much as dust, replacing it with a strange, stirring curiosity - like that when he first discovered that Sweet and his mother had been friends all those years ago on the Hogwarts Express. Sweet spoke, muttering through what seemed like madness, his voice thick with emotion.
"Eileen, my love..." he said. "Forgive me, Eileen. Please..."
Severus felt as though a cold hand had wrapped itself around his heart.
He placed a pale and unsteady hand against the door and tentatively pushed it open, stepping inside. Sweet still hadn't noticed him, and he went on, his vacant, staring eyes glazed over with a pain that Severus tried to force himself to ignore.
"I did not know..." he whispered. "I did not know it was Severus... and... and I almost hurt him. I swore to you when... I swore to you that I would look after him as though he were my own, but—"
A floorboard creaked and Severus hesitated. Sweet trailed off, and he looked up and finally saw Severus. He didn't respond at all. He just sat there and stared - though his red-rimmed eyes were begging, begging for Severus to understand, begging for him not to turn away.
As he stood there with one hand on the door, Severus seriously thought about turning away: running back down the corridor, back to his dormitory where he could throw everything he owned in his trunk and call for Muninn and be speeding away from Hogwarts for good; away from everything that was complicated; everything that made him worry so much he couldn't sleep at night; everything that made his insides twist with rage, betrayal and injustice; everything that made him want to cry and cry until he was sick in the basin of the boys' bathroom in the Slytherin Common Room.
But he didn't do that.
Instead, he took another step inside and closed the door gently behind him. Sweet flinched at the sound, but said nothing. Then he took a deep breath to steady himself, and the words came out slowly and clearly.
"The truth," he said. "I want the truth. Now."