A Lesson in Charity
Disclaimer: Do I wish I had J. K. Rowling's imagination? Yes. Do I? No. These characters are hers—I am simply getting to know them better.
Chapter One: Kindness and Betrayal
He thought the retching would never stop.
What little food and drink he had taken that day had long since come up, followed by bitter yellow bile that stung the back of his throat. Now he was racked by aftershocks of dry heaves that seemed to split him in two. Perhaps that was appropriate: as a double agent he had, after all, suffered that emotional state for many years.
Finally, the nausea subsided enough to allow him to sink, exhausted, onto the cool floor in front of the toilet. He splayed, inky robes billowing around him, one cheek pillowed on black and white tiles as dingy as everything else in the house he'd inherited from his working-class Muggle father.
He heard a scrabbling at the door, like the furtive burrowing of some small animal. Wormtail, no doubt, though probably in his human, rather than verminous Animagus, incarnation; the fellow scarcely needed to transform, Snape thought savagely, he already was a rat. Wormtail had been one of the few Death-Eaters attending the meeting at Malfoy Manor who had genuinely enjoyed the evening's entertainment. While even some of the more hard-bitten had turned green, and Draco Malfoy had—much to Voldemort's amusement—actually thrown up on his parents' splendid Oriental rug, Wormtail sat at the edge of his chair, his flabby little jowls quivering with excitement as he watched Nagini savoring her supper. Now, no doubt, the quisling was spoiling to carry back tales about Snape to Voldemort: did you know, my Lord, that your supposedly trustworthy servant—the one you favor because he killed your most hated foe a few weeks ago—was in fact sickened by what he saw tonight? How faithful can he really be, my Lord, if he can't stand the sight of a Muggle-lover getting her just desserts? Desserts—Snape winced at the word, with its double meaning of food.
Well, Wormtail would be frustrated. Upon rushing into the bathroom at Spinner's End upon his return from the meeting—he barely made it before the vomiting began—Snape had nonetheless managed to invoke the Muffliato charm he'd invented long ago, which filled the ears of would-be eavesdroppers with a gentle buzzing noise. Just to be on the safe side, too, Snape thought that once he emerged he'd Confund the little rodent. Bewitched, Wormtail would have no idea that Snape had done anything so treasonous as be upset by the fate of Charity Burbage. He would never know, Snape thought as a tear scalded his cheek, that the Head of Slytherin House—bastion of purebloods—was secretly mourning a Muggle Studies teacher. And his own unwilling complicity in her murder.
Severus! Help me!
Hauling himself to his feet, Snape leaned heavily against the porcelain sink and gazed at his reflection in the spotty mirror. The black eyes into which the pleading Charity had gazed several hours ago were wells of darkness, their depths unreadable. Yet his tear-streaked face, twisted in pain and self-revulsion, was no longer the impassive mask it had been when she vainly begged him to help her.
Severus . . . please . . . please . . .
To his horror she used the same words that Dumbledore had addressed to him only a few weeks ago on the Astronomy tower. For an instant he seemed to hear both voices, Dumbledore's and Charity's, and be pierced simultaneously by two pairs of importunate eyes, the blue ones of the old wizard and the green ones of the witch ignominously dangling upside-down over the Malfoys' burnished dining-room table. Gold-flecked, moss-green, Charity's eyes were not—had not been—the brilliant emerald of Lily Evans's, but in their friendly way they reminded Snape of his former best friend's nonetheless. And the faint laugh lines etched around Charity's eyes—Lily would surely have had them too, had she lived as long. There had been nothing for Charity to laugh at this evening, of course; the eyes that frantically searched for his while her body twisted above the table were dilated with fear like a trapped animal's. And yet, before this last day of her life—not so brief as Lily's, but still too brief—Charity Burbage had loved to laugh.
Hadn't her eyes been filled with laughter on another day he could not help remembering? That November day, several years earlier, in the Hogwarts's teachers' lounge?
Snape glanced from the proferred tin—filled with what looked like brownies—to the youngish brown-haired woman in the nearby armchair who held it invitingly toward him. She was his sole companion in the lounge, not that he had acknowledged her recent entrance other than to nod curtly in her direction. Now, however, Snape looked straight into those friendly, moss-green eyes—and was surprised to find himself doing so. For all that he was used to impaling students, and others he wished to intimidate, with his fierce dark stare, Snape rarely met people's eyes in social encounters. To do so fit neither his morbidly introverted personality nor the persona of morally ambiguous devotee of the Dark Arts he assumed at Dumbledore's behest. As far as keeping in character, indeed, it would have been unwise for the haughty head of Slytherin House to befriend a Muggle Studies teacher, even had he been so inclined; but then he had never any difficulty being as standoffish with Charity as with his other colleagues. She, however, was serenely gracious with him, though she had never made any personal overtures before today.
"Do have one," Charity now urged, placing the brightly colored tin on the side table separating their two armchairs. "My mum insists on sending them, no matter how often I tell her not to. It's not that I need fattening up," she added, glancing ruefully at her plumpish figure. "You, on the other hand . . . " she continued, "Well, Severus, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but you really could use some more meat on your bones."
Surely no one beside Dumbledore would dare make such a comment; surely, too, Snape would normally greet whoever did with the politeness of a Blast-Ended Skrewt. Yet somehow Charity disarmed him with her down-to-earth, unselfconscious kindness—for, despite her light tone, the green eyes were concerned. And she was right to be: the already-thin Potions Master was growing alarmingly gaunt. It was November of the year of the Triwizard Tournament, and the stress that had encircled Snape for years, that had worsened steadily since Harry Potter had come to Hogwarts, was like an iron band constricting his chest, pressing on his heart, his lungs, ruining a never-robust appetite and banishing sleep. The Dark Lord was coming back; of course there had been that business with Quirrell, but this fall the Dark Mark on Snape's arm—that hateful reminder of his worst sins and errors—had started to twinge ominously, burning blacker as it did. And so in the middle of these autumn nights, when he let down his guard ever so slightly, Snape would often find himself in the bathroom vomiting in anxiety. He had done so last night, in fact, and had only dragged himself through the morning by barking even more sharply than usual at his Potions students.
He looked down at the tin of brownies and, as in a dream, reached out and took one. As Charity beamed encouragingly, he bit into it.
It was ambrosia.
That was the only word to describe the taste. No wonder they used chocolate to buck one up after a Dementor attack. But this was not only chocolate; it was divine chocolate, rich, moist, dark, suffused with a hint of sun-warmed fruit—raspberry, perhaps?
He devoured it.
"Good, isn't it?" Charity asked. "Whatever else you say about my mum—and you can say a lot—she's a great cook." She took another brownie from the tin and matter-of-factly handed it to him. He took it and inhaled it as quickly as the first. He stretched out his arm for a third, then hesitated.
"Don't worry," said Charity, as if she read his mind. "I won't tell anyone else you took it from me." She ever-so-slightly emphasized the last word and smiled impishly. "It will be our little secret."
With a few flicks of her wand she wrapped a generous selection of brownies in brown paper and floated them in his direction. Still feeling like he was dreaming, he tucked them into an inner pocket of his robes.
Later he realized he had not said thank you. In fact, he had not said a word during the entire episode.
Charity Burbage had never spoken to him directly again. Yet whenever they passed in the halls, or if by chance their eyes met during a staff meeting, an almost imperceptible smile twitched her lips. For an instant, scarcely the span of a heartbeat, she would look at him with an amused recognition—and then away again, though she still seemed to be enjoying that secret knowledge.
He found it strange. As the Muggle Studies teacher and an outspoken defender of Muggles—the otherwise gentle Charity could wax hot on the subject of anti-Muggle prejudice—he thought she would distrust any Slytherin. Once, indeed, a year after the incident with the brownies, he had entered the teacher's lounge to hear her holding forth indignantly on certain Slytherins—Draco Malfoy among them—whom she had heard flinging the word "Mudblood" at Muggle-born students. When Snape came in she had glanced at him briefly before returning to her diatribe. It was not the look Snape would have expected: he might have thought to see a flash of anger or accusation directed at one who, as head of the offending students' house, could well have nurtured their bigotry. And yet he could swear the look she had given him held neither of those emotions. Yes, it had been a warning—you are watching out for these messed-up kids, aren't you, Severus?—but a warning made in the confidence that he would follow through on his responsibilities. Could that be right, or was he simply hoping against hope that she did not hate him?
Or could she know? Know, that is, the secret supposedly only known to himself and Dumbledore, that despite the purposeful ambiguity of his role as double agent, he really was Voldemort's foe?
Could Dumbledore have told her? Could she have figured it out herself? She seemed so unerringly to trust him, when even the members of the Order of the Phoenix held him at arm's length, their eyes wary. The only eyes that looked at him that trustingly were Dumbledore's.
And so, during one of his evening meetings with the headmaster in his office, he asked the old man about Charity. He was worried: if it was so easy to unravel the layers of ambiguity, dark as his billowing robes, with which he wrapped himself, it would be impossible for him to fool enough people (not to mention Voldemort) about his true allegiances.
His fear made him sound irked with the headmaster, who, he implied, must have revealed too much of Snape's history to a fellow teacher. Dumbledore brushed aside this rudeness with his usual equanimity.
"I have not betrayed you, Severus," he pointed out mildly as he leafed through an issue of Transfiguration Today. "I have never broken my promise to hide the best of you from others. People may make their assumptions about your loyalties, of course; many might choose to hope you have truly renounced the Dark Arts because of your actions at the school these past few years. Yet even now you are managing wonderfully at keeping people guessing—and raising people's suspicions. In any event, Charity knows no more about you than anyone else."
"She seems so certain about me, though," Snape had persisted. "And why would a Muggle Studies teacher like me?"
Dumbledore put down Transfiguration Today on his desk, the cover photo of a wizard changing a teapot into a Komodo dragon shimmering as the transformation replayed itself. "Maybe," he said gently, "she remembers a Slytherin boy who, during her last few years at Hogwarts, befriended a Muggle-born student." Indeed, Charity had graduated Hogwarts when Snape was in his third year, when he and Lily Evans were still friends.
"She knows I became a Death-Eater later," Snape replied harshly. "Or, at least, she's heard the rumors. And I'm Head of the house with more anti-Muggle bigots than any other."
Dumbledore nodded. "Yes, Severus, all this is true. Yet Charity is aptly named. She presumably sees you as someone in need of the kindness she possesses in such abundance."
"I need no charity!" The words flew out of Snape's mouth before he could realize their double meaning. His hackles were up, the more so because he came from a background where his family probably looked like they could use a handout.
"Do you not?" Dumbledore questioned, a steely note now underlying his mild tone. "If you do not require charity, Severus, you are one of the few in that condition." He picked up his magazine again but did not open it. "It does not help, of course, that for many `charity' has come to mean condescending pity. This is not the kind of charity Charity Burbage practices. Hers is the more authentic version. Isn't charity, after all, just another word for love?" His tone was now wistful, as if he were pondering some past failure of his own. "How does it go? `Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things . . . Love never fails." Smiling a little sadly, he looked up at Snape. "Do not fear, Severus. Charity will not betray you."
But I betrayed her, thought Snape as he lay sleepless in his dank bedroom at Spinner's End a year and a half later. At least she died thinking that I did—and isn't that just as bad?
He had spotted the prisoner at once upon entering the Malfoys' drawing room with Yaxley, not that it would have been easy to overlook the body dangling upside-down like a hunk of butcher's meat. It took him several seconds to register who it was, but when he did the hands hidden in the folds of his robes clenched convulsively.
He had been expecting it. Charity was the sort of witch the Death-Eaters wanted to make examples of. A pureblood who, like Arthur Weasley, was fascinated by Muggles, she taught children of wizarding backgrounds about their ways with tolerance and enthusiasm. Having lived herself among Muggles for several years after graduating Hogwarts—even concealing her identity as a witch to take a job in a Muggle school—Charity saw no significant difference between Muggles and wizards. To her Muggles were not subhuman or inferior beings; they had simply not inherited magic genes, just as some people had not inherited a certain eye or hair color. For Voldemort and his followers, these views were rankest treason, all the more so since she had been hired by Dumbledore to teach them to new generations of wizards. It had been only a matter of time before she was targeted for extermination.
And then there had been the recent letter to the editor in The Daily Prophet. So like Charity to write it. As the wizarding world reeled from the death of Albus Dumbledore and attacks by Death-Eaters on Muggle-borns intensified, she penned an impassioned denunciation of bigotry: "in all conscience we must renounce this pathological obsession with blood purity and affirm solidarity with our fellow human beings. . . Mixture with Muggle culture, whether by learning about it, having Muggle friends, or intermarriage, is to the good if it causes the wizarding world to evolve beyond pureblood prejudice, a prejudice rooted, like all forms of intolerance, in ignorance and fear of a demonised group."
Snape groaned when he read the letter. He admired her courage and eloquence, but he knew what her public stance would mean to Voldemort and in what heightened danger Charity now stood. He had wanted to warn her—anonymously, of course—but upon doing discreet research discovered she was no longer at Hogwarts or even traceable to the homes of relatives. Had someone convinced her to go into hiding? Or had she already been assassinated?
And then he saw her hanging above the Malfoys' table. She was unconscious, her face bruised and bloodied; she had presumably put up a fight before being captured. She was a talented witch. But it had been probably at least four against one . . .
Estimating these odds reminded Snape of James Potter and his gang, who had always pounced upon him when he was alone. Four against one. Grotesquely, Charity's captors had used Snape's own spell, Levicorpus, to hoist her upside-down in mid-air, just as James had done after the Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L. when he had exposed Severus's grayish underwear to a crowd of sniggering students. At least Charity's tormentors had not thought to humiliate her in that way. Dressed in Muggle jeans and a shirt, now torn and bloody, she had either not been wearing robes when abducted or been stripped of them before being suspended. But at least the Death-Eaters could not now jeer at her underwear. Sheer oversight, surely: it was the type of indignity they loved to inflict on their victims.
In his dark bedroom Snape recalled that one of his first thoughts upon seeing Charity had been to fear the role he would be asked to play in her death. Would this be the day his double-agent game was finally up? Would he end the evening strung up beside his former colleague?
These fears had been the swords hanging over Snape's head for years. While he was willing to do certain things as Dumbledore's spy—things that were admittedly morally ambiguous—other actions he refused to perform. He had killed Dumbledore at Dumbledore's orders, because the headmaster was dying anyway from a curse and was willing to sacrifice himself to convince Voldemort of Snape's allegiance (fearing death so much himself, the Dark Lord would not suspect that anyone would voluntarily seek it). And, had Voldemort commanded Snape to kill Charity himself, he would have seen it, like Dumbledore's death, as a type of euthanasia, a way of sparing her worse treatment since there was no way to save her. But what if Voldemort had asked Snape to torture Charity to death, or watch others do so?
In that year of the Triwizard Tournament, he had told Dumbledore, "There are things I will not do, even for Lily's cause. She would not have wanted me to commit atrocities in her name."
"Of course not, Severus," the old man reassured him. "I will never ask you to blacken your soul in that way."
He had not added "more than it is already," but Snape mentally supplied the omission.
And here he was, on a particularly vital mission, supplying Voldemort with information about Harry Potter's transfer from the Dursleys while simultaneously undermining the success of the inevitable Death-Eater attack. "You must offer Voldemort further proof of your loyalty," Dumbledore had urged from his brand-new portrait in the headmaster's office, "or he will become suspicious that you did not know of the Order's change of dates in moving Harry."
And so together they had concocted a fiendishly Machiavellian scheme, the plot of the Seven Potters. Coached by Snape while Confunded, Mundungus Fletcher urged the Order of the Phoenix to use Polyjuice Potion to send six Potter-look-alikes from Privet Drive along with the real one. And Dumbledore had begged Snape "Try to stay in Lord Voldemort's good books a little longer, Severus. He will surely appoint you Headmaster of Hogwarts and I need you to curb the worst excesses of his other appointees."
"I know it is difficult for you," Dumbledore continued, "to convince the Death-Eaters you are on their side while actually doing your best to defeat them."
You have no idea, old man, Snape had thought mutinously, as he often did in response to Dumbledore's impossible demands. You have no idea. You have no idea how hard it is to look and sound like a Death-Eater but not in fact act like one. You have no idea what it's like to feel the suspicious eyes of Wormtail and Bellatrix Lestrange trained on your every move as they yearn to prove to Voldemort how much more faithful they are to him than you. You have no idea what it's like to walk the knife edge of mortal danger every second of your life, never knowing which day might be your last should Voldemort glimpse just one of the hundreds of memories that could betray you, and which would subject you to a protracted and creatively painful death. You have no idea what it's like to fear that you will have pretended to be complicit with evil only, finally, to fail to destroy it. You don't have a clue, do you?
Of course, he suspected that Dumbledore did have some clue. But he could never truly know the ache of the constant stress under which Snape labored. And he could never know the terror that gripped Snape when he imagined the kinds of choices he might be called upon to make. And the temptations. It would only be too easy to kill and torture while telling himself he was just keeping up his cover. And yet it would also be sheerest agony to expose himself by refusing to follow one of Voldemort's commands. There was the natural fear of pain and death, but even worse the knowledge he would be failing Lily, and the goodness she had always embodied.
And, besieged as always by these fears, he had walked into Malfoy Manor and seen Charity Burbage strung up for execution. Voldemort's eyes bored into Snape as he took the reserved seat next to him, apparently the Dark Lord's right-hand man but still very much under suspicion. After all, those red eyes could the more easily probe Snape's mind if he were close by.
Snape had calmly returned Voldemort's scrutiny, even as the other Death-Eaters shuddered away from feeling merely the refracted heat from that blast-furnace gaze.
For, agitated as Snape was upon recognizing Charity, he had, with his usual almost superhuman strength, shoved grief, fear, and guilt inside a barred corner of his brain—a corner not unlike his dungeons in the depths of Hogwarts. The bars of this internal dungeon were forged of an emotion that would have surprised the students he hectored in his Potions classes. Maybe it was the torment he had endured from James Potter and Sirius Black and his own father; maybe it was the memory of Lily's daring to stand up for him, but when Snape saw Voldemort and the Death-Eaters gloating over their victims an incandescent rage at the bullies consumed and enobled him. That this rage was mixed with self-revulsion at his own poor choices in his youth made it the more potent—and the more controlled and channelled into covert rebellion. It was this pure and holy anger, as carefully calibrated as the flames beneath a cauldron brewing the trickiest of potions, that enabled Snape to close off his mind from the Dark Lord's probing; that allowed him, when Voldemort asked "Do you recognize our guest, Severus?," to sneer convincingly and watch impassively, all the while thinking, undetected, Charity, you, like Lily, will have justice. Alas, I cannot save you, but I will do all in my power to defeat your tormentors. I promise.
But she had been no more able to read his mind than Voldemort, had she? What had she thought in those last terrible moments of her life? Severus, please . . . Had she still trusted him despite the pain she must have felt upon hearing of his role in Dumbledore's death? Had she imagined that he could somehow rescue her, that he had the power to vanquish a roomful of Death-Eaters and Voldemort himself? How had she interpreted Snape's silence in response to her anguished pleas?
Oh, Snape could tell himself that he had done what he could. He had tried to warn her after the letter in the Prophet, after all; he could not save her, but neither had he tortured her or performed Avada Kedavra himself. And, by not exposing his true identity, he made it possible someday to bring about Voldemort's downfall.
Yet all this seemed small comfort, a web of rationalization to cloak his role in augmenting the agony of her end. So if he had not tortured her with the Cruciatus curse, had he not still tormented her with the knowledge that she had been wrong about him? Had it not been agony to believe that the man she had trusted, to whom she had fed comfort food—to whom she had been simply kind—had been a Death-Eater all along? What had it felt like, to know that her charity had been thrown away, wasted?
Had the tears that soaked her hair as she repeated his name been shed in fear of death, or were they tears at his betrayal?
She died in despair. And nothing Snape could do, no final glorious triumph of good over evil, could change that unbearable fact.
As grey streaks of dawn leaked into the bedroom at Spinner's End, he found himself wondering whether there was comfort for either of them.
Thinking of comfort after death made Snape ponder the existence of an afterlife, an issue he was not fond of considering. In his Death-Eater days, of course, he had rejected religion as moralistic claptrap. Even in his post-Death-Eater days he was not inclined to want to believe in life after death. But that was the thing about magic: knowing that one type of supernatural experience existed made it the more likely there were others as well. Surrounded at Hogwarts by resident ghosts who were each, as he informed his DADA class, "the imprint of a departed soul" made Snape uncomfortably aware that most departed souls did not hang out at schools but went somewhere else. Where? Despite his long penance it was hard to believe that, in his case, the destination would be a pleasant one.
But if there were a heaven, Snape thought now, it would be where Lily was, and those like her—not plaster saints or incredibly flawless people, just kind ones. If there were such a place, too, surely Charity would have joined Lily there. Perhaps, even as he agonized over her death, Charity finally understood what his position was, and how it had hurt not to be able to help her. At the very least, Lily could console Charity after her grim ordeal.
Even as he thought this he saw in his mind's eye, with the sparkling clarity of a vision, Lily draping an arm over Charity's shoulder, drying her tears, helping her to walk haltingly down a long black corridor that ended in a sunburst of light. The light was so far off that he, standing at the mouth of the passage, could scarcely see it. He tried to follow, but was rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak. Once, he thought, Lily glanced back at him, but he could not read her expression, and could only pray it did not hold disappointment or reproach. Look at me, look at me, he begged wordlessly as the two women left him further and further behind in the darkness. Comfort me, too; tell me I am forgiven. But neither looked back.