Disclaimer: The characters belong to J. K. Rowling, of course.
A Prison Tale
The old man blinked and shook his head disapprovingly. The young man had appeared so quickly that in one moment the street had seemed to be empty, and the next moment he was running past the old man, who had to grab a lamppost to avoid falling over. By the time the old man resumed walking, the young man had reached the door of the last house in the street. He stopped for a short moment. His eyes swept the almost totally deserted street as he looked around anxiously. His face was pale, his shoulder-length hair black like his eyes, in which a dark fire seemed to be burning now.
Severus Snape entered the house and hurried into the kitchen, where he opened the door of an old cupboard in which bottles of all shapes and sizes were stored. They contained liquids of various colours and density. Snape did not have much time to consider which of his potions could be useful for his plan. He was not even sure whether it had been a wise decision to come to his house just to get a few bottles of potion. He was losing valuable minutes when time was short and precious. However, he knew what he was going to do required resources other than just his wand. If things went wrong, his magical powers would not be enough, not against him, that was at least quite certain. But he had to hurry. Without thinking too much, he put some bottles into the inside pockets of his travelling cloak. Strengthening Solution, he would probably need that; an antidote; something to heal wounds; Polyjuice Potion, just in case; Veritaserum, perhaps; ... and yes, he needed one more potion. A tiny, round bottle was hiding at the back of the cupboard. It contained the most expensive and difficult one of all his potions, Felix Felicis, liquid luck, which had considerable side-effects when used too often. He, for example, had never tasted it but was storing this tiny bottleful for special occasions. He had no doubt that now that he was about to disobey the Dark Lord's order and defy the Dark Lord's wishes and the Dark Lord's plan, the "special occasion" could easily arise. He could have taken the luck potion immediately but he decided to put it into his pocket instead, like the other potions. The bottle contained enough of the potion to help a person in great trouble, or maybe two if the situation was not very bad. He was saving it for a later moment and - should it be necessary - for someone else rather than for himself.
With his pockets full, he left the house just as hurriedly as he had come. He barely checked if there were any Muggles nearby before he turned on his heel and Disapparated. He did not know exactly where he was going, but the Dark Lord's instructions made it sure he would not miss his destination. When his feet touched the ground again, he was standing in front of a large, greenish rock in the middle of what seemed to be a barren, rocky landscape surrounded by water in the distance on all sides. He touched the large rock with his wand, murmuring the password. For a moment nothing happened. Then a wide, black door appeared on the side of the rock, and was opened a few minutes later by a sinister-looking, bearded man in dirty-grey robes. Without hesitation, Snape handed over to him the seemingly empty piece of parchment the Dark Lord had given to him. He knew the parchment contained a detailed description of his orders and his permission to enter, which no one else would be able to read but the chief of the prison guards, now standing in front of him.
"What are your orders?" the guard asked him. Obviously, he had to check whether the visitor knew what only the Dark Lord's servant could know.
"I have to take a recently captured prisoner to the Dark Lord," he said, sounding as stern as he could manage and pulling up the sleeve of his left arm to leave no doubt in the questioner.
The prison guard, who was the Dark Lord's servant but not a Death Eater, regarded him with a respectful look and opened the door of the prison wide, bowing deep as Snape entered. The prison was gigantic, cold and dark. From the entrance, long, torch-lit corridors were leading in every direction, each lined with large black doors, behind which there were the cells where the Dark Lord's prisoners were kept. Snape was sure not even Azkaban could be bigger or better guarded than the Dark Lord's prison. He had only seen pictures of Azkaban, still the resemblance between the two prisons was obvious enough even though this one was not guarded by Dementors - yet. As he followed the guard into what seemed to be a maze of corridors, Snape was reminded of the sudden urge he had felt a little while before to attack Bellatrix Lestrange, to curse her or, even better, to strangle her with his own hands. It was Bellatrix who had made the triumphant announcement at the meeting earlier that day informing the Dark Lord that two members of the Order of the Phoenix had been captured. They would know where the Longbottoms were to be found - the Longbottoms who were not only Order members but Aurors as well and who therefore kept their address secret so that even the Dark Lord had difficulty finding them. But the Dark Lord did want to find them - because of a prophecy concerning him and the Longbottoms' son. Snape found the prophecy rather ridiculous. He had never cared for Divination at school, a subject that was neither learnable nor predictable and seemed to be simply rubbish when compared with the exact art of potion making. Of course, the Dark Lord did not ask his opinion and he would not have told him anyway how amazed he was to see that the greatest dark wizard of all times took the prediction so seriously.
In fact, it was Snape who had overheard the prophecy and told it to the Dark Lord. At the Dark Lord's order, he had applied for a job at Hogwarts and secured an appointment for a job interview with Dumbledore. When he arrived at the Hog's Head (a rather weird place for a serious meeting), the barman informed him that he had to wait because Dumbledore was interviewing another applicant. Snape was nervous. The Dark Lord expected him to succeed but he was only twenty years old with no experience of teaching at all. He had had good marks at school and he had been interested in the Dark Arts from an early age but how could he be sure that it was enough for him to be hired as a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts? He wanted information about the other applicant.
He soon realized that Dumbledore and the woman behind the door were talking about Divination, not Defence Against the Dark Arts, and Dumbledore had just refused her application when her voice changed... It was easy to tell she wanted the Divination position really badly. Just minutes later, Snape was thrown out of the pub, no interview, no teaching job, the barman's growling voice still in his ears and he had to go back that night to the Dark Lord and report on the success of his interview. He was afraid as everyone else would have been in his place, yet had no better idea than tell the Dark Lord exactly what had happened and wait for punishment. The Dark Lord, however, was interested in the prophecy. The Dark Lord made Snape repeat the words he neither understood nor believed. He repeated them several times and made the Dark Lord forget his initial anger at his failure. The Dark Lord even seemed to forget he had wanted a spy at Hogwarts.
After that, the Dark Lord became obsessed with the idea of tracking down a family named the Longbottoms. The latest idea was to capture someone - anyone - who might know anything about them and that was the reason why Snape was now walking behind the grim prison guard, having volunteered to fetch one of the new prisoners so that the Dark Lord himself could question her at Headquarters. Bellatrix had already tortured them both but so far in vain - and at this thought fierce hatred filled Snape's mind again and he clenched his fist in anger. But it would not do to start acting suspiciously now when he had managed to avoid giving himself away in front of Bellatrix and the Dark Lord. To divert his thoughts from Bellatrix, he began watching the corridors and the black doors. "Where can she be," he thought, "in this horrible place?" "Anywhere," he answered his own question but a quiet voice somewhere in his head whispered, "Everywhere".
At last the prison guard stopped in front of one of the doors. "Shall I wait for you here, Sir?" he asked.
"No," he said quickly, "no need".
"I will have to lock the door. When you want to leave, knock on the door with your wand and I will come to let you out," the guard said.
Snape entered and the door was closed behind him before he could even look around.
"Lumos," he murmured into the darkness. In the wandlight, he could see movement in a corner. He approached the two human figures, one of whom was sitting on the cold, stone floor of the cell, and the other one was lying motionless, with her eyes closed, her head in her husband's lap. Seeing her in this state, Snape forgot about his original plan at once. He had wanted to act with as cold determination as any Death Eater would, to take her out of that place as soon as possible, until she was safe. Now he sank on his knees by her side without a word. She was alive but very weak.
James Potter was glaring at him, a mixture of anger and disbelief on his face.
"You...?" he began.
Snape had no time to give obvious answers to silly questions. He took a potion bottle out of one of his pockets, lifted the woman's head and poured a few drops of potion into her mouth.
"LEAVE HER ALONE!" Potter grabbed Snape's arm. "WHAT DID YOU GIVE HER? YOU -"
"Strengthening Solution," he answered coldly, freeing his arm, "and you'd better keep your voice down -."
Lily opened her eyes. As she glimpsed Snape, he could see something in her eyes that he had never seen there before. It was fear. She tried to pull away from him.
"I'm here," said Potter in a warm, soothing voice, taking both her hands.
"She has to drink the rest of the potion," Snape said to Potter, not daring to address Lily directly. Lily drank. Soon she was able to sit up, leaning her head against Potter's shoulder.
"What are you doing here?" Potter growled.
"Saving her," he said, "I must get her out of here quickly. There is no time to lose."
He wondered how long it would take before the Dark Lord became suspicious and decided to investigate. Lily did not move.
"Voldemort sent you here," Potter said.
It was sheer madness to pronounce the Dark Lord's name in their position. Snape shuddered and got angry now.
"Yes, he did," he snapped, "how else could I enter this place and leave again if not on his orders?"
"And what other things did he order you to do besides coming and leaving, Snivellus?" Potter continued, his eyes flashing. He looked at Snape with unmistakable contempt and disgust.
It was Snape who raised his voice now, his face red with fury.
"He ordered me to take her to him for questioning. He wants to torture her himself until he gets the information he needs from her ... or from you! And when that happens, he will kill you both!" He paused. "If you are lucky," he added in a quieter tone.
Lily let out a little scream as Potter jumped on Snape, who barely had time to raise his wand. His Shield Charm threw Potter back but almost immediately he was on his feet again.
"YOU ....WILL ... NOT ... DO ... THAT!" Potter prepared for another attack but Snape's spell stopped him halfway in his movement and he became as motionless and silent as a statue.
"That's the point, you idiot!" spat Snape, glaring directly into Potter's face. "I'm not going to do that, I'm going to take her out of here, to a place of safety! But you may easily get all of us killed if you keep interfering!"
Shaking, Lily got to her feet as well. Snape took a glance at her and quickly lifted the spell that kept Potter petrified. Potter did not attack but seemed ready to fight.
"Understand it now?" hissed Snape.
"I don't know why we should believe you," Potter replied, eyeing Snape's wand.
"Why do you think I'm still here reasoning with you when I could have taken her away by force the moment I arrived as anyone else would have done? In case you didn't notice, Potter, I have a wand while you don't."
James Potter did not answer. He was apparently considering Snape's words. Snape thought of the Dark Lord again. "Do not make me wait too long, Severus," he had told him with a mocking smile on his face after he had given him his orders. Snape had been too preoccupied to worry about the meaning of these words. Nobody would ever dare make the Dark Lord wait, of course. Now it seemed these words sounded as though Snape was given permission to be a little late - but how long would it take before the Dark Lord became impatient?
"What do you mean by a place of safety?" Potter asked, still suspicious.
"Anywhere she wants to go," he said. That was a definite weakness in his plan. He had had no time to think of where he could take her. He had had no time to think beyond getting her out of prison. In fact, he rather hoped Lily would know where she wanted to go.
"And why would you want to save her?"
Snape was silent. He was not prepared for such questions and did not feel like chatting. "Wouldn't you want to save her?" he thought bitterly. He cast a quick look at Lily (didn't she understand how little time they had?) and saw her pale face and green eyes, as she was watching them, gathering strength visibly.
"We must hurry," he said at last, trying to sound commanding. He knew the Dark Lord would not wait for ever for a servant and a prisoner. Then he looked at Lily again, almost imploringly. But Lily did not look back at him. She turned to her husband.
"I'm not leaving without you," she said firmly.
This was the first time she had spoken.
James Potter took her into his arms in a gesture of protection. The prison cell started to spin with Snape and he tightened his grip on his wand.
"I can't save you both," he said slowly." Don't you understand? The guards have their orders, too. They will never let the three of us leave. Only two can get out." He had not counted on having to explain that. He had not expected to feel so miserable telling Lily there was something he could not do for her.
"I'm not leaving then," she said again.
So that was how it was going to end, Snape thought. He wanted to save her but she would rather die because of Potter. He turned away from them both because he could not bear the sight of them. He spoke again but it was like speaking to the cold walls of stone around them.
"You may want her to die with you, Potter, but I'm warning you the Dark Lord is determined to separate you. The next person he sends here will follow his orders without hesitation. Or he may come here himself. She will be tortured and killed alone and so will you. It won't take long now."
He turned back to face them again and he could see his words this time had really hit home. Potter was as white as a sheet and his voice was quite unlike his usual voice when he spoke.
"Go with him, Lily ... if you think you can trust him."
"No," she said, "I don't want to leave you. I can't."
"Harry needs you. You must go." Potter's voice sounded quite resolute now.
Lily did not answer but her eyes filled with tears. Snape thought he would much rather suffer torture, even death, than watch her cry like that, not being able to help.
Torture and death? Only two can get out... The idea struck him like lightning and he even wondered if there was something in him, something completely independent of the rest of Severus Snape, that had secretly known from the beginning that things could come to that. Kneeling onto the floor, he took another bottle out of his pocket, opened it hurriedly and poured half of its contents into the empty bottle of the Strengthening Solution. Then he tore at his hair, almost enjoying the pain he felt, and he put a long, black hair into one of the two bottles. He gently shook the bottle around with one hand, moving his wand over the potion with the other. For a moment he gaped at the shining, silvery colour of the potion, and then he handed the bottle to Potter.
"Drink this quickly," he said. "But first I need a hair from you."
Potter stared at the potion. "What is this?"
"Polyjuice Potion," Lily whispered.
"You see," said Snape, standing up, "she knows. It will make you look like me... for a while."
Potter's eyes widened.
"Long enough for the two of you to get out of here." Snape paused. "She must leave but she won't leave without you so you have to go, too. That is the only way... DON'T STARE, DRINK IT NOW!"
He was afraid his determination would not last long enough but James Potter did not hesitate any more. A minute later Snape had also drunk the potion with Potter's hair in it. Lily closed her eyes.
"I suppose we have to exchange robes," said Snape.
When Lily looked at them again, the man who was standing where Snape had been standing before looked exactly like James Potter and was wearing James Potter's robes. Opposite him stood a Severus Snape who was James Potter in reality. Lily looked from one to the other with a bewildered expression on her face. The two men seemed equally confused as each was glaring at his own image worn by the old enemy and rival. Snape spoke finally, trying hard to concentrate on the practical aspects.
"You have to wear this one, too," he said lifting his travelling cloak from the floor. "Inside its pockets there are some more potion bottles. She will know how to use them."
Potter seemed unable to stop staring at Snape so Lily took the cloak for him.
"Remember that she is your prisoner until you get out," he continued, then took a deep breath. "There is one more thing. You will have to take this."
With these words he offered his wand to James Potter.
"It is part of the disguise," he explained forcing his voice to sound calm and unconcerned. "You will have to knock on the door with this when you want to leave and you may need it later, too."
He did not know how well his wand would work for Potter or Lily but that was the only wand available now and he, after all, would not need it any more. Yet, he turned his head away for a moment. He did not want to see James Potter taking his wand.
As Lily was handing the travelling cloak to Potter, Snape walked away from them. It was time they left. The Dark Lord was surely angry now. Perhaps he would spend a few more minutes thinking Snape was simply taking more time than he was allowed to and designing the appropriate punishment for him before ordering an investigation. He was beginning to feel cold. He did not know if he should say anything more to either Lily or Potter, who had no idea what part he had played in their trouble. This thought reminded him of something.
"If you see Dumbledore," he said to the dark walls in a colourless voice, "tell him the Dark Lord is looking for the Longbottoms. Tell him this is a message from me." He had no doubt that Dumbledore would make the connection to the prophecy he had overheard. A soft hand touched his shoulder.
"Severus," she said.
Snape turned towards Lily. He saw no anger or contempt on her face now, only a light in her eyes that warmed him a little. How many times had he thought he would give up everything for a friendly look from her again? But now he was wondering whether Lily could bear seeing him at all only because he, at that moment, happened to look like Potter. She gave him a long, warm hug - or was that also something given to James Potter's image rather than to him? Yet, it was Lily's hug, her arms around him, her cheek near his. Potter let out a cough that sounded almost like a groan. Lily let go of him.
"Good luck," she said and hurried to James Potter, now in the shape of Severus Snape. The guard came in, glanced around in the cell, nodded as he saw him and left, closely followed by Lily and Potter. Snape watched them leave as though he was watching himself from a distance, his happier, more fortunate self going towards life and freedom with Lily.
As the door closed, darkness fell on the cell and Snape could feel his strength leaving him. While Lily had been there, his main concern had been how to save her. While Potter had been there, he had been careful not to show any weakness or fear that Potter could notice. Now he fell on the stone floor, shaking violently.
After a while, he lifted his head and began to listen. How much time did they need to reach the exit? Had Potter managed to deceive the guards? If anything went wrong, he would perhaps hear some noises. Were there any noises outside at all? He thought of Lily, how unwilling she had been to leave without Potter and how willingly she had left with him. "Good luck," these had been her last words to him as though he was taking part in a contest or was preparing for an exam... Yet, that hug from her was probably the last good thing that had happened to him in life. He had no illusions. He knew no one loved him and no one in the whole world would take the trouble to save him.
Everything was dead silent around him and he wondered how many more minutes it would take before someone arrived to investigate. The chief of the guards would inform the Dark Lord that the Death Eater had already left with the prisoner so they might not come to his cell at once, but the Dark Lord would want to see Potter as soon as he realized Lily was gone. Would he have transformed back into his own shape by that time? It would not matter much of course. He could imagine all kinds of horrors, but he could not know what torture, what death the Dark Lord would choose in his terrible wrath to punish a servant who had betrayed him.
His thoughts wandered back to Lily. Had she been feeling the same, had she been as terrified as he was now? Had Potter been afraid, too? Could brave Gryffindors facing torture and death experience the same terror as someone like him? What about others? He remembered the many dark doors behind which there were other prisoners, enemies of the Dark Lord. Some of them could be alone like him, others in the company of fellow prisoners. They were all awaiting the same fate as he was now because that was the Dark Lord's will. The Dark Lord would have no mercy on them, as he would have no mercy on Lily, and what had Lily done to him? It was all because of a piece of information Lily could have - or not. He, Severus Snape, at least knew why he was going to suffer. He had betrayed the Dark Lord because he had wanted to save Lily and, as he had achieved his goal, he had nothing to regret.
The darkness took all kinds of shapes around him now, and his eyes were trying to penetrate the impenetrable as his mind was desperately trying to grasp the incomprehensible. Nothing to regret? Was he not the one who had given the Dark Lord the prophecy in the first place? That was how it had started. It was because of the prophecy that the Dark Lord wanted to find the Longbottoms. To find them and to kill them. It had never been mentioned what would happen when he finally found them - but did not they all know it anyway? To find the Longbottoms, the Dark Lord had to find other people and he was ready to kill as many as he thought necessary. That was how Lily had got into his way. All because of the prophecy... If only he had foreseen it back then! He had not thought twice, he had believed he would have no choice but to tell the Dark Lord what the Dark Lord wanted to know, but had he known, had he foreseen that Lily would get involved, he would not ever have mentioned the prophecy.
The truth was downing on him, merciless and cruel. He had had a choice after all. He had chosen to talk about the prophecy and he had chosen not to think of the consequences for others. He had been ordered by the Dark Lord to spy on Dumbledore but nobody had ordered him to serve the Dark Lord, who was now, at that very moment, preparing to torture Lily. The Dark Lord was also hunting down the Longbottoms, people Snape did not know, just as he did not know the other prisoners locked up in the same building where he was, - and yet it was his fault that the Longbottoms were in mortal danger now. For all he knew, others in the prison building could also be there because of something he had done. Yes, it was his fault. The darkness in the cell was whispering that to him. It was his fault because he had been part of it. All those people, the Longbottoms, the tortured Lily... He buried his face in his hands and began to cry.
If only he could change what had happened... if only he had the time and the power to make it right somehow... He was going to die looking back on a life in which there was hardly anything that he did not regret. He wiped his face in the sleeve of James Potter's robes. What was the point in feeling regret and remorse if he could do nothing about it any more? Was he a better man now that he understood how he had wasted his life in the service of evil? Would it be easier to die knowing nothing valuable would be lost? He did not know the answers, but there was one thing he felt quite sure about. Even if he was given another chance, if due to some miracle the Dark Lord forgave him or believed him to be innocent, he would much sooner die than serve the Dark Lord again. If he was given the chance to choose again, he would never join the dark side. But it was all in vain now... He would soon pay for everything. He would have to bear what lay ahead. Whatever punishment the Dark Lord would choose for him, it could be nothing he did not deserve. Or could he cheat perhaps, should he try to fight in the hope that it would be over sooner that way?
Instinctively, he reached for his wand but realized, almost immediately, that it was not in his pocket. He did not have a wand any more. Even the robes he was wearing belonged to Potter and would look ridiculously loose on him when he changed back into his own shape. Yet, as he touched a pocket of Potter's robes, he could feel there was something in it, something that Potter had left there, obviously. He took the small, round object into his hands. Any distraction of thoughts would be welcome now. He could not see the object in the darkness but its size and its shape were oddly familiar. He lifted it close to his eyes, opened it, smelt it. The joyfully splashing substance in it was clearly recognizable even in the darkness. He was holding a potion bottle full of Felix Felicis. His very own. Lily must have put it into his pocket when she hugged him.