Notes: This fic is a series of vignettes describing several significant moments of Snape's life during the whole time he was a teacher at Hogwarts. For a one-shot it ended up getting to be a bit on the long side, so I decided to cut it into two parts. The second part will be coming soon after this.
Not sharp revenge, nor hell itself can find,
A fiercer torment than a guilty mind,
Which day and night doth dreadfully accuse,
Condemns the wretch, and still the charge renews
It is his sixth year teaching at Hogwarts, and Dumbledore has started to sometimes have him in his office for tea. He tries very hard. But although there is something strange about Albus Dumbledore that makes Severus unable to very strongly dislike him, he simply cannot become comfortable with the reason he now works for him and what he hates that Dumbledore knows. As if living with it on his own is not punishment enough; he also has to be reminded all the time of why he is here whenever he meets eyes with the only other man who knows the truth.
It's the beginning of the school year, still hot and bright outside, and Severus is particularly frustrated with Dumbledore's nonchalant friendliness now. As he sits peering down at a Muggle newspaper through his spectacles and muttering something absently to his phoenix that keeps making strange, almost musical noises behind him, Severus just scowls into his cup as he takes drinks of tea, occasionally looking back at Fawkes and around at the other things in the office. What a character Dumbledore is, with his collection of odd magical instruments, some probably his own inventions. He notices for the first time that he has no pictures of friends or family members in his office. Not even one to smile and wave at him.
"Yes, Fawkes...don't mind that," Dumbledore says for the second time with a wave of his hand. "There's nothing to be done. Hagrid says that Thestral must be thirteen decades old; his time has come." He looks up at Severus then and explains, "One of the oldest creatures we have in service here is dying. Hagrid tells me she's quite a beautiful and extraordinary animal, noticeably wiser than the other Thestrals. Fawkes can feel these things, you see...I'll be able to collect some of his tears later. You never know when they might be useful."
Severus only stares at him like he cannot imagine why he thinks this would interest him. Dumbledore sets his paper down.
"Is something wrong, Severus?"
"Why do you even ask?" he wonders, his voice bitter. "I thought you were intelligent. Surely you already know, even if you don't want to talk about it."
Dumbledore nods, understanding. "It's about the job I didn't give you again."
It sets him off from being almost completely silent to practically spitting out words. "Why won't you let me have it? Find someone else to teach Potions!"
"How many times must I try to explain this to you?" Dumbledore asks, sounding like he is barely maintaining his patience.
"As many times as it takes for you to tell me honestly what your reason is."
"I told you before: I have refused to give you the Defense Against the Dark Arts position in hopes that the one you have now will come to suit you better."
"The one I have now?" Severus echoes. "Mixing hiccup remedies? I suppose to you I'm good for nothing but what is boringly easy for me."
"There is no shame in teaching a subject like Potions, even at a level you may find drudgingly elementary. It may not be the most exciting subject, but it can be used to do remarkable things - even save lives. After all, we can't always depend on having a phoenix's tears for certain things."
"While Defense Against the Dark Arts is merely fooling around with flashy and impressive curses, learning useless information about monsters," Severus says with thick sarcasm. "Why shouldn't I be teaching students how to defend themselves? After all, I thought that was why I was here...To protect."
Dumbledore just smiles, not fooled. "Oh, is that your interest in the subject? And all this time I thought your willingness to protect others besides yourself did not extend beyond Lily's son."
Severus looks down into the dark tea in his cup. "...It doesn't."
Dumbledore leans back in his seat, just regarding him for a moment, and Severus stands up from his chair and goes to stand in front of the window beside them, his hands clasped behind his back.
"We have a deal," he says quietly. "I gave you my word, and I have every intention of doing what I agreed to do. That doesn't mean I have to like it. I accepted this job even though it gives me absolutely no satisfaction to teach children how to make sleeping draughts."
"And would teaching about the Dark Arts give you any more satisfaction?" Dumbledore asked. "Is that what you think would really make you happy?"
The question silences him, and sends him deep into the kind of thoughts he would rather avoid. He really does not know how to answer.
Happy. For a moment he tries to think of all the things that have ever really made him feel happy, and is suddenly back in a playground surrounded by the sounds of swings creaking and children laughing. He always felt like he could not share other childrens' simple, unspoiled joy and that place he sometimes walked to as a boy only made him feel more alone. Then he met the girl, who had all the innocence that he had lost too early, but first looked at him and did not immediately look back away like he was used to. Somehow, he was able to share her joy in little things that were usually nothing to him, watching the lightning during a storm or finding a caterpillar crawling on a leaf. The darker parts of him frightened her even from the beginning, but still she stayed at his side, a pure light complementing him, growing up with him. The angel on his shoulder he should have listened to.
Now all gone. Can he ever be truly happy about anything again? Even the most beautiful things become ugly with the realization that he has taken them away from someone forever, that she will never enjoy them again.
"You are only trying to make me believe this decision is in my best interest," he says, talking more loudly and defensively now. "I don't understand what else you want from me to prove I'm worthy of your trust."
"I do trust you," Dumbledore says.
"Like hell you do!" he says, turning back to him. "You're keeping me as far away from the Dark Arts as you can like you'd hide poisonous pixie repellent where it's out of a child's reach! You think I'm no good for it - because I was..." His words trail off, but without thinking he grips his arm right where the mark is under his clothes, numbingly tight, as if he wishes to pull off the arm and remove a part of himself he can't get rid of.
Despite his heated anger, Dumbledore continues to look at him calmly. "I trust you to do exactly what you promised to when you came over to my side."
"But nothing else. Not to teach - "
"Have you even wondered if you can trust yourself with that kind of job?"
At that, he finds himself rendered speechless again. His anger cools down as he stands silent, crossing his arms and looking away from him, but he does not feel any better about it.
"I'm sorry, Severus," Dumbledore says, suddenly sounding a little distant. "But I'm afraid I know much too well how difficult it is to change, truly change. Even after losing so much because of your attraction to something that is best not sought after, the temptation never completely goes away."
Severus turns and leaves his office without another word. On the way down to the dungeons, he passes two Second Years in a corridor playing with a Zonko's Better-Bounce Ball. Their laughing reminds him of the creaking of rusty swings in a playground - they have no idea what they have to lose. He points his wand to the ball and immediately makes it blow up loudly in one of the childrens' faces.
"Hey!" the both of them say with falling faces.
"Ten points from Hufflepuff," he says nastily, and as he walks away he hears them audibly moaning about how "Professor McGonagall said she'd allow it" and calling him some names. When he reaches his office in the dungeons, he closes the door behind him with a great slam. Then the silence inside the room leaves him with nothing but his own thoughts. He slowly sits down at his desk, looking pensively into the air a while, and then lifts his left arm to pull down his sleeve and stare at the pale skin there, appearing to be clean and have no remaining sign of what was there.
To him, the Mark is as dark and clear to see as it ever was, even if it's invisible to others. He knows it is there.
Dumbledore once said something to him about how he believes the worst possible fate is to live without love. How that is to be feared much more than death or any kind of hell. He said, "To do things as evil as kill, and to not experience love, is in itself the only kind of punishment I can imagine a person like Voldemort needs. He is already living in a self-inflicted hell, whether he realizes it or not."
He only thought at the time, You old fool. What does he know about the torture and hell that life can be?
Perhaps even from the beginning when he was drawn to him, Severus wanted more from Voldemort than power. He wanted to be given his other strengths besides unmatched magical ability. To be able to forget about all of it. The woman whose eyes still held him in their gaze like chains even though she never would have looked at him in the way he wanted her to, so badly that when he saw her finally look at another like that it felt like his insides being pulled out of him, like the murder of something inside him. The day during the first summer after she would no longer talk to him that his parents were fighting again and he realized he couldn't sneak out and go to her house to escape it like he used to, because it really was over and he had to finally face it, so instead he sank into a corner of his room with his mouth stuffed against a pillow to muffle and stop his sobs, feeling more alone than he ever had in his life. Feeling a stab of regret with every single time he uttered that horrible word even though all the regret in the world would not take back that one time he said it to her. He just wanted to be able to forget it all, to be released from it.
But no, Voldemort is the one living in hell. Feeling nothing when he commits unspeakably evil acts, not even the smallest pull of regret holding him back as he raises his wand to kill. Needing and wanting absolutely no one but himself.
The old fool. He doesn't know anything. After everything Severus has promised for Lily's sake, he still wishes to be like the Dark Lord more than anything.
Something very old and very valuable has been moved into Hogwarts right before the beginning of the school year. Dumbledore seems to be keeping details about it secret even from most of the staff. Severus passes by an unused classroom it was taken into earlier in the day and finds Dumbledore standing right outside the door leaning back against the wall, his eyes closed and his face very white.
"Professor?" he asks.
He opens his eyes and looks to the side at him, then stands up straight and seems to be recollecting himself.
"What are you...?" Severus looks around, searching for something to explain what is going on, not sure if it is even his business asking. As he steps back a little to look into the classroom, Dumbledore stops him by taking him by the arm.
"I told you about something I would need to use to protect the Philosopher's Stone," he says.
"Yes, but you failed to tell me what it is."
Dumbledore nods toward the door of the classroom. "In there. It's a mirror."
Severus's brow contracts in a look of surpise. "A mirror?"
"Yes. There is only one like it in the world. I would...rather not explain right at the moment. But will you do me a favor?"
In his confusion, he manages to answer, "I...do what? Professor, are you...?"
"I will be quite fine. Severus, please..."
"Yes, very well," he says impatiently. "Apparently you forget that I must do anything you ask."
For some reason, Dumbledore smiles, and there is something curiously like fondness in his voice when he says, "Yes, you are my man. I don't forget...But this is not that kind of request. I would simply appreciate it if you could go in there and...just cover up the mirror for now. I'll be locking this room, but it shouldn't be left out like that."
At hearing this, Severus looks at him with as confused an expression as ever. "That's all?"
"Yes. Wait," Dumbledore says as he turns to go, grabbing his arm again even more firmly. "Listen to me. You don't want to see what that mirror shows. As remarkable an item it is, its essential magical properties can only be useless to anyone. Don't take your time to look at what it is, and don't stand in front of it. Just go in there and cover it up it quickly."
Severus looks at him a while, only able to wonder what would make him talk so seriously about this thing, and then nods and goes into the classroom. He can see it, a great tall mirror in the middle of the room, standing at such an angle that he can barely see its front side from here.
What does Dumbledore not want him to see? Is this just something else he means to deny him by telling him he thinks it's in his best interest not to have it? He'll be expecting him to come right back out shortly. All he has to do is conjure a sheet to put over the mirror. But he could look for just a second, just long enough to know...
In his youth, he often had these dreams. They were the kind of dreams the mind seems to have the need to indulge in when there are no reservations to stop it from imagining certain things in extensive detail. All they did was torture him with what would never be. The feeling upon waking up and realizing it wasn't real was always sickeningly awful, shame mixed with the familiar and almost physically painful yearning. Her. Too much. Dreams like that were much more cruel than any nightmares, once he woke up.
It is a little like that, only so much worse, when he emerges from the empty classroom with a soft gasp, tearing himself forcibly away, falling to rest his shoulder against a wall as he covers a hand over his mouth and leans over as if he suddenly feels almost weak enough to collapse. He has completely forgotten Dumbledore, and jumps a little in surprise when he feels a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry. I told you not to look in it."
Severus says nothing; a knot in his throat is making him feel like he can't speak. But he turns to face him, suddenly conscious of himself, and tries to look calm and unaffected. Dumbledore then just says, "Thank you, Severus," and leaves him.
Albus Dumbledore has no pictures of loved ones in his office. After finding him standing in that hallway so unusually disturbed and discovering the reason, that even a man like him must have underestimated the arresting and devastating power of a mirror like that, Severus never sees him the same way again. Maybe he was wrong when he assumed he knows nothing about real suffering. Maybe he isn't such a fool after all.
After the successful breakout from Azkaban, the Riddle house is suddenly crowded with old Death Eaters in hiding. Voldemort wants him there almost every weekend to hear any new orders he has and give him news of the Order. Their meetings seem to last longer each time, and in a strange way Voldemort almost seems to enjoy visits with him, always having a drink with him and talking in a less urgent way than he does to his other servants, and often only sitting with him in front of the fire to talk once most of the others are asleep at night. But Bellatrix is still ever confident she is his favorite, so she still talks to Severus agreeably.
The house is a large, dusty, cobwebbed place where a raised voice or the dragging of a chair makes a great echo, and in any room it is impossible to feel any kind of a sense of privacy. Bellatrix, always speaking in her proud and elevated voice, can almost always be heard raving wildly about something from any part of the house.
Wormtail, in idle moments, still likes to admire his new hand. It seems to have become an almost unconscious habit for him to fool with it, seeing how much he can break with it and just how strong it is. As Severus sits at a desk in the drawing room and tries to write a letter to Albus reporting what he's been doing in code, Wormtail keeps crunching the same stone goblet in his fist to let all the pieces fall to the table and then immediately repairing it with his wand. Bellatrix is pacing around the room slowly, standing with her arrogantly erect posture and her arms crossed, and every once in a while she looks up at Wormtail with a vague darkness in her eyes - not a look of annoyance, but of envy. Severus supposes Bella would happily stick both of her own hands under the blade of a guillotine with the promise of being able to wear trophies like that in place of them, permanent signs of her master's gratitude. He can imagine her grabbing at one of her torture victim's ribs, arms, and fingers, smiling in that sadistic way of hers as she hears the bones break so easily.
The goblet crumbles again. This time Severus stops writing and lifts his face to give Wormtail a poisonous look. He stops, but not a minute later is flipping a Sickle back and forth over the fingers of the silver hand, making a constant ticking noise just as distracting as the sound of crushing the goblet.
Severus has seen him at night. He does not sleep soundly, but twitches constantly, never seeming to fall into deep enough a sleep that the slightest disturbance would not wake him and have him immediately up and alert. Always he keeps his wand right beside him, where it could be grabbed right as his eyes snap open.
But it is only on nights that Severus cannot even sleep at all that he sees this. It is unbelievably foolish, he thinks, what Peter Pettigrew seems the most afraid of, even though several times he has walked past the room he sleeps in to see him like that and had the momentary, hateful impulse to strangle him in his sleep. But the most terrifying things of all no wand can protect you from. Knowing there are many out there who would love to see you dead for being a loathsome coward and a traitor - this is not so much reason to fear. But there is nothing worse than living with yourself.
Severus has learned to make himself numb to it when in certain company; perhaps sometimes he is so careful to be convincing he forgets he is not still a loyal Death Eater. Those snake-like red eyes have looked searchingly into his mind innumerable times but never seen the deepest part of him, never penetrated his shield to find the bottom, the graveyard of horrible truths. Perhaps only one person's eyes ever peered far enough into him to see him as he truly is, and they were certainly not red.
But in the presence of his lord, it would take so little to betray himself. One moment's hesitation before he must attack to hurt someone or the smallest twinge of guilt at the mention of Halloween in 1981 could reveal everything, and he would be dead.
He pulls at the collar of his robes; his neck is sweating. "Bella, will you open the window?" he asks absently without looking up. She looks away from Wormtail and his prize hand long enough to do so, and then goes to stand by the desk at his side.
"Shall I get you another drink, too?" she asks with a little irony in her voice, but not so much that the question sounds completely rhetorical, looking down at his own empty goblet. For a long moment he just stays slouched over the letter, not seeming to have heard her, and she says, "Well, Sev?"
He moves so quickly that she gasps, grabbing her wrist in a grip so tight that her hand goes white. "Don't call me that," he says, his voice very low but firm.
Bellatrix raises her brow in surprise, and backs away when he lets her go. She turns and leaves the room looking perplexed, but not nearly as surprised as Severus is himself, who still has one hand up holding empty air where he was grasping her wrist, feeling momentarily frozen up with terror even if he manages not to let it show.
The Dark Lord is ever watchful and suspicious; even he will never completely have his trust. And even he can lose control. Only one moment of hesitation, of remorse, or of revulsion is all it would take.
He hears a rhythmic ticking sound, and looks over at Wormtail again, still playing with the gold coin in his beautiful, shining hand. It glares with the sunlight coming in through the open window, and Severus feels like Voldemort's eyes are on them right now, with that thing in the room.
He cannot understand the way Bellatrix clearly feels. No, he does not envy Wormtail at all.
He always hates returning to Spinner's End. He is a grown man and still he hears and loathes the sharp, cruel words of his father when he's back inside these walls. And sleeping in his old bedroom is like returning to a familiar cell. His only good memories he has from childhood are from times he was outside in the fresh air and free from his parents, not sitting inside this room. Sometimes the wind knocks a tree against the window and he thinks it is her knocking in the middle of the night to go to the park with him and show him something she managed to use magic to make change colors or share treats her mother baked with him before Petunia can get to them all first.
It does not make it any better to stay in his old house now that Wormtail has been sent here. His shameful background, everything about his life growing up he would like to forget, are now all known to Voldemort's people. He feels ashamed when welcoming Death Eaters into this common Muggle home before remembering why he is even still a Death Eater.
As harmless as Wormtail is to him, his presence in his house makes him feel more cautious. One night he wakes gasping from a nightmare, his heart racing, suddenly seized by an overwhelming and irrational fear, and he goes immediately to his desk to start emptying things from it. Pieces of her are everywhere in here, things he has saved since he was ten and not even looked at for many years. He has boxes filled with old school papers, Chocolate Frog cards, articles clipped from the Daily Prophet with bold glaring headlines about "You-Know-Who," and then notes written to him that Lily used to give him to read when they saw each other in between classes, and even a couple pictures of her. He looks inside one box long enough to read a small bit off of a piece of parchment on top - "Sev, you would have laughed so much if you saw what I just did in Herbology! I can't believe what a silly goose I can be..."
He closes the box before seeing anything else, before giving himself a chance to linger on any of the memories that will come back with every item he looks at. He takes everything and goes outside into the back yard, and burns it all. After there's nothing left but a pile of ashes at the bottom of the flames he conjured, he sits staring at it a while, still feeling only half-awake. He already wishes he had kept maybe just one thing, something to always keep close to him to make sure nobody finds it.
No one can know, and his home is not such a private place anymore. Only Albus must ever know. But still, as dawn starts to break and his mind sobers and the dream he had fades with the diminishing darkness, he thinks sadly of how little there is left of Lily Potter and how valuable these things he just destroyed really were. As much as he despised the people who became her closest friends by the end of her life, it haunts him a little that the godfather of her son is now dead. And he does not even know how well Remus Lupin knew her. It feels more and more all the time to him like everything rests and depends on her son, not just for everyone to be saved as so many Wizards and Witches believe, but for her to be remembered, for part of her to go on, and for her death to have meaning. Harry Potter. He is all that matters.