Disclaimer: These characters were all created by JK Rowling, and are owned by her and her publishers. I make no money, and intend no infringement. The opening quote is taken directly from "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
"Legilimency is the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person's mind. Only Muggles talk of 'mind reading.' The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. Thoughts are not etched on the inside of skulls, to be perused by any invader. The mind is a complex and many-layered thing…"
The mind was not a book – if anything, it was a symphony. Complicated, full of swift-playing memories shaded by dark timbres of emotion, polyphonic layers, harmonies and (more often) jumbled masses of atonal clusters around the traumas and triumphs of any life. The Legilimens was both audience and conductor, calling forth the waves of sound, wrenching different sections of the mind out of obscurity, forcing thoughts and feelings to rise and fall according to the motion of his wand. He controlled the pace, he reached for what he wanted, he drew together all the tangled connections of memory and he interpreted them – he listened, and believed. But memory and feeling could not be neatly distinguished by the listener; he could not hear a note of music independent of the voice of its instrument. And it was feeling, not memory, that provided the voice of thought, that gave its shape and sense to any mental interpreter. Emotions were the instruments, thoughts were the music – but the same thought could convey radically different meanings, depending on which emotion delivered it. The key, the vital talent, was to find feelings so strong and real that they overwhelmed the memories, blurred their edges, blunted their clarity, and filled the ear of the invader too powerfully to be resisted. The key was passion, unmoored from its true foundations, precisely and perfectly controlled. And, at this one thing, Severus Snape was quite probably the best in the world.
It was not a matter of removing the memories one feared to expose. Memories were difficult things to eliminate, in any case. A Pensieve could only clear thoughts from the conscious mind, it could not eradicate them from the memory – there was an important difference between putting something out of mind and forgetting it. Only powerful charms could actually obliterate whole bundles of thought, but such spells left obvious and gaping holes in the mind that any talented Legilimens could sense immediately. The Pensieve, too, left suspicious gaps in the mind's surface for those who knew how to look, like plucked flowers in the middle of a verdant garden. All in all, attempting to remove memories was a dangerous mistake.
So, as Snape glided across the Hogwarts lawn in the darkness, he did not fight the thoughts of Lily that came to him, but welcomed them like old companions. If he had tried to get rid of them beforehand, it would only have given him away – and in any case, he could not do it. She was his courage, and he needed her tonight. Instead, when the time came, he would choose the emotion that would cloak his secrets best, trusting his strength of feeling to overwhelm the details of buried thoughts.
As he approached the entrance gates, his mind full of her, he was not quite sure what he felt. There was nothing romantic about facing pain and death, but at least tonight he was serving her in some concrete, immediate way. After over a decade of living day to day, grading papers and taking house points and teetering endlessly between anxiety and apathy, it was in some ways a relief to finally be put to the test. He had been waiting for this since the night she died. And if he failed tonight, he would die by the same hand as she, shielding the same worthless child. It was the closest he could ever come to union with her, and it was awful.
But his love and his hate were his best defenses, and survival was what she needed from him now. He did not intend to die through his own arrogant or sentimental mistakes – he'd leave that for the James Potters of the world. He was prepared to beat the Dark Lord at his own game, and to keep her son alive. Not because he owed it to her, though he supposed he did. Debt and payment were terms he reserved for James, because that was the only way he could bear to do him service. He acknowledged a life debt he did not really believe in, forcing himself to remember Potter's voice in a cramped, dark tunnel, and the moment when they had turned together, shoulder to shoulder, and shouted out their most powerful spells to slow down the beast that was coming for them both. It had all been to save his friends, his reputation, and his own skin, but Snape nevertheless found it convenient to acknowledge the debt. But with Lily it was different. It did not feel as though he owed her his life and was offering it up in just reparation – it felt as if it were his choice, his calling. He'd been born to offer his life to her, and neither her death nor his guilt had been needed to set that offering in motion. His crimes and her tragedy had transformed the nature of his giving, but they had not instilled in him the ceaseless necessity of it. Complete and devastating as his guilt was, it was not the force that prompted his sacrifices. He gave out of love. On most days, anger, vengeance, guilt, and grief were uppermost in his thoughts, but tonight it felt as if nothing and no one else compelled him.
He passed the gates and moved beyond the protective wards of Hogwarts. Pausing only to take one deep breath, he touched his wand to his arm and allowed the Mark to wrap its power around him like a Portkey, its chain-like pull tugging him through darkness, until with a sudden jolt he landed in the center of an overgrown cemetery. A barren hill rose to his left, and in the distance one solitary yellow lamp blinked through the slats of a church steeple. Ten feet before him sat an enormous cauldron, the fire beneath it burning low and blue, its dying light flickering across an old, cracked headstone and a scattering of discarded rope. The ground was littered with stone and marble wreckage blasted from the neighboring graves by spells more powerful than accurate. It was littered, too, with bodies, robed in black, groaning or whimpering, most curled in on themselves, their faces buried in the grass. In the center of this circle of destruction, his back to Severus and his hands clasped contemplatively behind him, stood the Dark Lord. He was precisely as Severus remembered him; it was as though the last thirteen years had never happened. He seemed to have worn out his anger for the moment, and his black robes fluttered gently around him as he tilted his head, staring up at the steeple light and listening to the muted suffering of his followers as another might listen to the soothing sound of waves. Surely he had heard the distinctive crack of Apparition behind him, surely Severus' robes, rustled by the same breeze as his, were even now announcing the arrival of a hopeful penitent, but the Dark Lord did not turn. In silence, Severus sank to his knees and waited.
"You dare…you dare to crawl to me now?" the Dark Lord asked, his high voice quiet and almost gentle. "After such a night as this? You dare to leave his side, where you have been fawning and petted these thirteen years, to ask for your old place at mine?"
"I ask for nothing, my lord, save the chance to serve you, to turn these wasted years to some account for your…"
Blinding pain cut off his words and stopped his breath. He couldn't even scream. He was writhing on the wilted grass, blind and deaf to everything but suffering. It didn't stop, didn't break or yield or even worsen, it simply held him still and utterly submerged, and he was dying.
With a thoughtless flick of his wand the Dark Lord lifted the spell, turning to face him, and air rushed into Severus' starving lungs. He choked and retched, and retched again. Knowing he had mere seconds before the next round would begin, he forced his croaking voice out. "Dumbledore sent me."
The Dark Lord's raised wand paused in its downward arc, and the red eyes behind it widened. After a moment's pause, the cold voice said, "You are almost interesting, Severus. Do you really think this is the moment to present me with his calling card?"
"I knew you would never forgive," Severus choked out, his eyes closed. "I knew I deserved your vengeance. I could not return empty-handed, I had to have something to offer, something of use. I am still at Hogwarts; I am still trusted. He thinks I am his spy, but I am yours. Wholly yours, my lord."
He lay on the grass, ready for the test that was only moments away, aware that the Dark Lord had already made his first mistake. It was quite a natural error, to imagine that torture weakened the Occlumens' control and stripped away his power. Perhaps for some men it was so. But the first step of true Occlumency was to empty the mind of thought and emotion, and pain obliterated everything in its wake. It trapped the sufferer in the agony of the present moment, drove out every memory, every complex thought and subtle emotion, leaving only terror, which was easy to control. Severus did so, and felt the silent, blasted desert in his mind. He was ready.
Then the Dark Lord's clawing fingers grabbed him by the hair and ripped him upward. He let out a yell, eyes wide and watering, and his old master was bending close, too close, and crimson eyes were boring into his. Instead of resisting, Severus focused with all his skill on the emotions he wished to project, filling his mind with them, wrapping and rewrapping them like gauze around a tender wound. "What have you been doing these thirteen years?"the Dark Lord hissed, and Snape heard the words double themselves through the strange echoing of his physical and mental senses. "You dare to plead loyalty, when you have served my enemies so faithfully and so long?"
Memories of Dumbledore and Hogwarts and the infernal Potter child were pouring out of him and, rather than staunching their flow, he swelled them on waves of feeling. 'These thirteen years have been a misery.' He let his bitterness fill him, he brandished his loathing for the wretched children, and the dark dungeons, and the stultifying work, and the parade of idiots who'd been preferred to him year after year. His rage fed into the torrents of memory the Dark Lord was effortlessly tearing from him, and his humiliation pulled particular images to the surface like cresting waves. It was the last day of his first year as Potions Master, and one of his seventh-year monsters had left a rotten apple on his desk, the unsigned card beneath it reading, "So long, Snivellus, and thanks for the memories." He was poring over one of his mother's old volumes on Darkest Curses in the deserted staff room, and suddenly Dumbledore was standing over him with a look of silent disappointment, reaching down to close the book. He was twenty-two, and the muffled sounds of hundreds of children laughing and glutting themselves at the Halloween feast disgusted him as he stared into the bathroom mirror, tears dribbling down his nose and dripping into the sink where he had just been ill. Gilderoy Lockhart was slinging an arm around his shoulder and loudly announcing that he had nothing to be ashamed of – after all, once the five-time winner of Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile Award had announced his availability, the Defense post was as good as filled, wasn't it? The Potter child was grinning triumphantly at his toadies as the Minister of Magic withdrew his offer of the Order of Merlin and stared at Snape as though he belonged in a mental hospital. Mad-Eye Moody was glowering up at him as he stood in his nightshirt on a dark staircase, saying, "'Course Dumbledore trusts you. He's a trusting man, isn't he? Believes in second chances. But me – I say there are spots that don't come off…"
"I am yours, my lord," Snape whispered, and, though he lied, he focused his whole mind fiercely and unrelentingly on the truth of his mantra: These thirteen years have been a misery. And the Dark Lord felt the truth of his misery – saw it, heard it, savored it, drank it in, and allowed it to color every stolen memory rushing past his mind's eye. Severus could feel him in the deepest levels of his mind, lingering over these ugly thoughts, soaking in the passionate strength of Snape's heartache like a reptile warming itself in the sun.
Then his presence withdrew – not entirely, but enough that Snape felt himself to be alone in his inmost thoughts, with the Dark Lord now skimming the surface of his mind. The questions began, thick and fast, but he knew that his old master was already almost convinced. All he had to do was answer without fear or hesitation, and keep any inconvenient thoughts or feelings firmly suppressed. It was second nature to him.
"Why did you thwart my plans to recover the Sorcerer's Stone?"
"I had no idea that Quirrell was acting as your conduit, my lord. I thought he wanted the stone for himself, and I wasn't about to see that spineless, Muggle- loving mediocrity take such a prize. Threatening him seemed a good way to stay in Dumbledore's good graces. If I had known the truth, I would gladly have thrown over Dumbledore's plans and abandoned his service for your sake." All it took was calm concentration and a flash of remembered resentment. Snape pulled up the image of Dumbledore flipping idly through his papers, smiling his secretive smile and throwing out Quirrell's name with an off-hand command. Confiding nothing, expecting everything, ordering him into unknown dangers with cool nonchalance. It was a single moment in a complicated relationship, but Snape focused on it to the exclusion of all else, and the Dark Lord caught the memory and the sense of outrage enfolding it. A lipless smile stretched across his face.
The smile did not vanish as he continued his interrogation, asking Snape more about Dumbledore, about Potter, about his fourteen years at Hogwarts, about the Order of the Phoenix and the plans being formed this very night. Snape responded calmly and quickly, without pausing for thought. He'd had a year to prepare his answers, after all, a year to watch the Dark Mark growing clearer and to consider what to say if he ever got this far. At the news of Fudge's recalcitrance and the rift between Dumbledore and the Ministry, the Dark Lord laughed out loud. Then, without warning, the stream of questions ceased and the Dark Lord's presence withdrew entirely from his mind. Snape gasped and doubled over, thrown off-balance by his sudden release, only dimly aware that his master had stepped back and unfolded to his full height.
"You hear this news, my Death Eaters?" he cried, and Snape recovered himself enough to look around at the silent figures surrounding him. Most had revived from their earlier prostration, but they had wisely remained on the ground where they'd fallen, fearful of making a move that could attract his notice. Now, though, called to attention, they rose to their feet and moved quickly to reform their circle. Snape shoved himself upright as well and managed to cross to his old place without staggering, uncomfortably aware that the absence of the Lestranges and of Karkaroff left him unusually conspicuous, his position now set in the midst of empty space.
"Already the fear of my name is throwing Dumbledore and his so-called allies into confusion!" Voldemort crowed. "And with the Minister convinced that Hogwarts is the greatest threat to him, I will have time. Time to rebuild my armies, time to discover what secrets have been woven around that wretched child!" The Dark Lord's eyes swept viciously around the circle, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "Rejoice, my faithful followers," he said, his words sharp and venomous. "You have been given a second chance. A chance to prove yourselves worthy of my service and to reap the rewards of power and strength. I am reborn, and I shall not forget the lessons of this night. Nor shall you." He trailed his wand lazily around the circle, enjoying the rigid tension of each potential victim, as his followers rushed to answer, "No, my lord," "Never forget, my lord," "We shall justify your faith, my lord." His wand came to rest on Snape, who had kept silent, and Snape lowered his eyes and bowed. "And you, Severus," the Dark Lord said. "You shall return to Hogwarts and resume your duties, and when next we meet I expect to hear only good news."
"Yes, my lord," Snape answered.
Though he kept his eyes trained on the ground, he heard the Dark Lord moving closer, and so he did not start when a pale, clammy finger brushed under his chin and tilted his head up to meet red eyes once more.
"And Severus," the high voice drawled softly, "next time…do not be late." There was death in those eyes.
Instead of replying, Severus sank to his knees, bent low, and kissed the white, bare foot on the grass before him. He stayed still, frozen and hunched, until the Dark Lord turned away.
"You are dismissed. All of you," he said, and there was the slightest note of amused triumph in his voice.
Severus closed his eyes, feeling his revulsion give way to a sort of numb disbelief, and Disapparated.
The night shifted around him, and the gates of Hogwarts gleamed white before his eyes. He stared at them for a moment. He was still alive. It was done. Without thought he walked onto the grounds, but he turned immediately from the castle's distant lights and moved along the wall toward the forest. He had gone only about twenty yards, though, when he stopped and sank slowly to his knees facing the wall's white, irregular stone, trailing his hand along it as he descended. Beyond the circles of light cast by the gateway's enchanted torches, but without the deeper shelter of the forest shade, Snape pressed his forehead against the cool stone, hard, and his body's reaction played out with the mundane predictability of trembling limbs and mild hyperventilation. Once his hands stilled and his breathing steadied, he stayed slumped face-first against the wall a moment longer than necessary. Then he leaned back and opened his eyes, his forehead welted red from the pressure of stone, and saw without much surprise that Dumbledore was standing at a respectful distance, watching him.
The resentment and humiliation Snape should have felt refused to rise – there was simply no privacy for him tonight, and he was beyond caring. He felt as though all his passions had bled out of him, leaving him weary and hollow. Dumbledore, too, looked tired and blank, and though he stood erect with his hands clasped before him, there was something in the slant of his shoulders that suggested he would be sliding down the wall, too, if he hadn't been determined to deny himself the luxury. He had probably been with the Diggorys not an hour before. "I was waiting for you," Dumbledore said, and his folded hands moved forward slightly, as if he were offering something.
Snape nodded, but said nothing. He knew Dumbledore meant the gesture to be personal, standing vigil for him. But Dumbledore was surprisingly bad at personal gestures – there was something about him that precluded intimacy, something ultimately unapproachable behind his every kindness. Yet his kindnesses were real and powerful, and over the years Snape could not deny that he had been touched by them – as he was touched, just a little, by this. But he had always known that Dumbledore's concern for him was primarily a facet of his larger concern for Harry Potter and the world in general. He was sorely tempted to look up into the headmaster's face and say, "I survived according to plan. Glad to be of service." But he waved the thought away; he was too tired. Besides, what did it really matter if Dumbledore's kindness was based on unrelated higher loyalties? Snape had never pretended his own obedience was based on anything more.
"I'm fine," he said quietly, and levered himself to his feet. "He took me back."
Dumbledore stared at him without surprise and nodded once. "Well done, Severus," he said. "Well done, indeed." Despite their mutual exhaustion, there was warmth in his voice, and Snape did not know what to do with it. As they passed back into the torchlight together, Snape could see the gleam of pride in Dumbledore's eyes, and looked quickly away. They walked back to the castle side by side, neither saying another word.