Chapter 1: A New Assignment
The long-disused barn was stuffy with the August heat, and Severus Snape was sweating under his black mask and hood as he waited to speak to the Dark Lord. He felt confident that even under his mask, his face showed none of the nervousness he felt at the prospect. The Dark Lord had been angry tonight. His frustration at his inability to trap the Potters, and the losses of a few key Death Eaters over the past months to arrests or battles with the Order of the Phoenix had been apparent.
Snape recognized that it was his efforts that had made these irritants possible. It was a source of no little satisfaction to him, though always mingled with disappointment that he had failed thus far to identify the traitor who had, on at least one notable occasion, betrayed the location of the Potters' hiding place. Try as he might, he could not return to them the relative safety they had enjoyed before he had chosen to report Trelawney's prophecy. Ruthlessly, Snape suppressed that thought. This was no time to wallow in guilt, however deserved. It seemed he would be facing the Dark Lord one-on-one shortly. To survive such an encounter yet again, he had to be in complete control of his emotions, allowing nothing to peek through that was not safe for the Dark Lord to see.
For, at the end of the meeting, The Dark Lord had ordered five of them, Snape included, to stay behind. In the eerie light cast by green globes of fire that floated among the rafters of the barn, Snape could see the Dark Lord speaking to one of his fellows. The Death Eater the Dark Lord had summoned to him first appeared to be in favor, judging from his body language. He seemed confident and at ease. Snape could not hear what was being said, but took a careful look at the man. He was pretty sure he had heard the man speak earlier, as he had entered the barn. He had thought at the time the voice sounded familiar. It sounded like a guest at one of Lucius's parties at Malfoy Manor. A Ministry employee, Algernon? August? Something like that, Rookwood. He would pass his suspicion on to Dumbledore tomorrow, of course.
The man knelt to kiss the Dark Lord's robes, and, Snape was surprised to see, the Dark Lord raised him back up, permitting him to walk away. That was a highly unusual indication of the Dark Lord's favor. Snape's musings were interrupted when he saw the Dark Lord was gesturing for him to approach.
Hastily, Snape strode over to face the Dark Lord, composing his mind one final time in preparation.
"Master," he said respectfully, as he dropped to a knee and bowed his head. As the Dark Lord acknowledged his bow, he stood back up.
"Snape," Voldemort hissed softly. "I have an assignment for you. You are to obtain the position of Defense Against Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts." The Dark Lord had seen the shock he permitted himself to show in his mind, Snape thought, because a cruel smile twisted the Dark Lord's snakelike face.
"Surprised?" Voldemort continued with a mirthless laugh. "Dumbledore is behind our recent troubles, I am certain. I want to get someone close to the meddlesome old fool. The position is open, and you are qualified. You are not suspected – the old man let you go, after you heard the prophecy."
"I shall apply immediately, Master," Snape said automatically, as he considered this order.
In a way, it made sense: he had an Outstanding NEWT in that subject, and the position was open, as it seemed to be every year. Although he had no experience (that he could publicly admit) in the area. A far greater obstacle, as the Dark Lord well knew, should have been that Albus Dumbledore would know that he was the source of the Dark Lord's knowledge of the blasted prophecy, for only he and Dumbledore had heard any part of it. Everyone knew that Dumbledore would never hire a man with any association to the Dark Lord. He was reluctant to bring it up, but…it was illogical to expect Dumbledore to hire him.
"My Lord," he began, his decision made, "after the failed raid in October, Dumbledore must know that you heard of the prophecy. I was the only other witness to it."
The Dark Lord's eyes blazed dangerously. Snape felt fear well up in him; he made no effort to suppress it, instead permitting himself to remember the Dark Lord's anger at himself and the others at their failure.
"I ask myself," Voldemort said quietly, "how Albus Dumbledore came to know that you heard the prophecy."
He had escaped punishment for his mistake in allowing himself to be seen by the barman at the Hog's Head, back when he had originally reported the prophecy. Now, however, the Dark Lord was looking for a target on which to vent his frustration. Snape could see no profit in self-justification; opposition, he judged, would only serve to increase the Dark Lord's wrath.
"It was due to my mistake, Master," he said quietly, his body tensing in anticipation of what was coming.
"I am pleased you understand that," Voldemort said in a high, cold voice, "but you must learn caution if you are to serve me as a spy at Hogwarts."
Raising his wand, he said clearly, "Crucio!"
Snape fell to the ground as the spell hit him, the pain coursing through him shocking in its intensity, despite his prior experience of the Dark Lord's wrath. He felt his carefully maintained mental shield collapse as the agony continued unabated. As suddenly as it had begun, the pain ceased, leaving Snape curled up protectively and gasping for breath.
Voldemort loomed over him, a cruel smile distorting his thin lips as he watched Snape slowly start to pick himself up off the ground.
"I don't think you have quite learned your lesson," he said, and his red eyes glowed as he again raised his wand.
The second time the pain receded, Snape fought to control his breath enough to speak. "Master," he forced out. "I will...be careful."
Voldemort's high, cold laugh echoed in the in the emptiness of the barn. Before Snape could add anything further, he was again engulfed in Voldemort's spell. He lost all track of how long this continued, of the pleas and promises he made in a vain attempt to appease the Dark Lord. At the last, as he again felt the pain stop, and fought to articulate an apology, the Dark Lord interrupted him with a sharp command.
"Get up!" he said abruptly. Snape tried to get to his hands and knees, but his arms were shaking so badly that he fell back down. The Dark Lord came closer and kicked him as a master might a dog. "Up!"
This additional urging changed nothing. Much though he feared the consequences of any disobedience, he simply could not force his body into compliance.
"Very well," Voldemort said coldly, looking down at Snape. "I accept your apology. Because I am magnanimous, I shall give you the chance for which you begged. You admit your mistake; you may rectify it by accomplishing your mission. I suggest you think of a way around any suspicions Dumbledore may have, if you do not wish another lesson."
"Get him out of my sight!" Voldemort ordered two of the remaining Death Eaters.
Roughly, they hauled Snape up by his upper arms and started to drag him away. As they approached the door, he managed to get his feet under him. With a heave, the others threw him out the door. He fought desperately to keep his footing, and managed to stay upright long enough to collapse against the rough wooden planking of the door. If he fell down again, he was not sure he would be able to get back up on his own.
Gradually, his ragged breathing grew more even. He forced himself to take long, slow breaths, and was rewarded as the thumping of his heart, too, gradually subsided to a more normal beat. Encouraged, he tried an experimental step. He found that he could, now, slide along the wall. Carefully, he turned the corner and continued down the long side of the barn. Reaching the end, he stopped to look around.
While there had been several meetings in this location, Snape had never before paid much attention to the surroundings, as he always arrived and departed by Apparating. Disapparition in his present state, he decided, was simply out of the question. His examination of his surroundings, however, suggested an alternate plan. The light of the stars and crescent moon revealed the presence of a wooded area some distance behind the barn.
If he could manage to walk across the field into the trees, he might find a bush to curl up under and rest until he felt sufficiently well to Apparate. It seemed a far more attractive option than staying near the barn. He wished to avoid being seen by anybody who was still inside it
Carefully, he took a small step away from the wall, and found his legs were now willing to support him, though they still felt shaky. Slowly, he staggered across the field and into the woods. Encouraged by this success, he decided to continue and worked his way farther and farther into the woods. As he walked, the trembling of his body subsided and he began to move more freely. With every step, the knowledge that he was further away from the Dark Lord made him feel calmer, and safer. This feeling was not rational, he knew, merely an illusion, but one he sorely needed, at the moment.
Snape did not know how long he had been walking, when he found himself suddenly at the edge of the trees. For a moment, his mind refused to believe what he was seeing, because it meant that he would not, in fact, have to spend the night outside. He was standing on a grassy border between the trees and a country road. Quickly, he tucked away his mask and hood, and ascertained that he did, indeed, have enough money in his pockets. Then he lit his wand to see what he could do to make himself presentable. With a few passes, he got the worst of the dirt and dust of the barn floor off his black robes and out of his hair. It would have to do. Standing at the edge of the road, he extended his wand.
Some thirty seconds later, with an emphatic BANG and a blinding flash of light, a purple triple-decker bus pulled up on the road beside him. Its door opened and Snape entered. His eyes still unused to the light, he nearly tripped over the first step, then righted himself.
"Steady, there!" said the conductor, a round-faced young witch in a purple uniform. "Welcome to the Knight Bus. Emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard-"
"Diagon Alley, please. How much will it be?" Snape interrupted her well-rehearsed welcome as he stopped in front of her.
"Twenty Sickles, but for twenty-two we throw in a hot chocolate, and for twenty-four-" she responded.
"No chance of a firewhiskey instead?" Snape inquired, cutting her spiel off again as he fished out a Galleon and three Sickles and handed it to her.
"Say, you look like you've already 'ad enough," said the young witch, accepting the money with a suspicious look. "'Ow did you end up 'ere in the middle of nowhere, anyway?" Well, if she attributed his appearance to drinking, he could play along.
"I don't even know where here is," he said truthfully, taking a lurching step towards the stairs to the second level. Several of the beds on the first deck were occupied by wakeful passengers, and he wished to avoid conversation. Deliberately, he missed the first step and barely caught himself on the brass banister of the spiral staircase. "Blasted step moved on me," he muttered belligerently, as he made a show of dragging himself clumsily up the stairs.
"Bloody sot," the witch whispered to the driver behind Snape's back. "Could you move on up so's we could drive on?" she added to Snape. He ignored her and continued up the stairs.
As he reached the second deck, the bus lurched abruptly into motion with another loud BANG, and Snape was thrown against the wood-paneled wall. He ducked just in time to avoid hitting his head on a bracket holding a lit candle. Since the bed next to it was unoccupied, he sat down on it and looked around. Scattered about the bus were five other beds, each with identical brass headboards and purple coverlets. Mercifully, only the one at rear of the bus was occupied, by a loudly snoring witch or wizard who had his coverlet pulled over his head.
A good idea, that, he decided, in case the next passenger to choose the second deck was a more garrulous type. He lay down and curled up with his cover pulled over his head as well.
He wondered whether he had truly angered the Dark Lord with his observation. With some time and distance, he was beginning to think that perhaps his comment had not, after all, been a big mistake on his part. Perhaps the Dark Lord's anger was part of a larger plan. Certainly, he had chosen to talk to a highly favored Death Eater first, and had made sure his audience knew it. He had chosen to speak to Snape immediately afterwards, providing a rather marked contrast for the audience, reminding them both of the possibility of winning the Dark Lord's favor, and the price of failing him.
But that would mean that the Dark Lord had already decided to punish him in advance. Why? It came at the same time as his new order. Snape felt confident that Dumbledore would give him the job, if he presented the problem to him in the right way. After the night's events, a part of him very much longed to do just that. At the same time, Snape was also getting a feeling that the Dark Lord was pushing him, hard, to get the job. Yet the Dark Lord could not know how easily he might attain the position, surely? What would the Dark Lord conclude, if Snape did obtain it?
In all honesty, Snape realized, he simply did not have the emotional distance to evaluate the situation objectively. To his disgust, the memory of lying helplessly on the ground, being kicked like a dog, and threatened came back vividly each time he considered the courses of action open to him. He would not let his fear make the choice for him, he decided. He was meeting with Dumbledore anyway. He would lay out the situation, share his own suspicions, and see what Dumbledore made of it. If that turned out to mean returning to the Dark Lord with empty hands…he would deal with that when the time came.
His mind made up, he closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep, but memories kept intruding. To pass the time as the bus stopped and started along its erratic course, he thought ahead to the potions he would be making at work in the morning. Running lists of ingredients and directions through his head was certainly preferable to remembering the events of the night.
Suddenly, he felt a hand in his shoulders. Startled, he sat bold upright, his hand shooting towards his wand until he realized it was just the conductor.
"We're stopped at Diagon Alley," she said.
"Thanks," he replied as he stood up and followed her down the spiral staircase. He exited the bus in front of the Leaky Cauldron. The Muggle bookshop and record store on either side of the shabby old inn were long since closed, and the street was empty. Snape stepped into the pub. From his previous experience of the Cruciatus Curse, he knew sleep would prove as elusive at home as it had on the Knight Bus. Perhaps if he helped it along…
He stepped into the pub and approached the bar.
"What'll you have?" asked the barkeeper indistinctly.
"A double firewhiskey, please," Snape responded.
After paying for his drink, Snape tossed it down in two large gulps, ignoring the burning sensation in his throat and stomach, and put down his glass. In the absence of a more specific potion, he hoped it would serve. He left the bar through the back door and headed for home.