February 14th, 1998
The Great Hall was alive with swooping owls and eager faces; even the staff seemed willing to join in the frivolity for once, and it took a great deal these days to raise a smile from McGonagall. Snape, however, was not inclined to spare a moment's reflection on the thoughts and feelings of the Gryffindor Head; his burdens were greater than anything she could envisage.
Minerva made no effort to hide her repugnance for the new Headmaster; it was evident in every utterance and every glimpse. Words had become few lately, but the looks were frequent, and always loaded with undisguised loathing. On a good day, he found her contempt amusing, but more often than not, her willingness to trust so wholeheartedly in his apparent betrayal disturbed him far more than he cared to admit.
Today was not a good day, and he was inclined towards bitterness as she threw him another death glare over breakfast. It mattered little to Snape that she was mourning the loss of a dear friend and respected colleague. She should try spending her every waking moment pandering to the whimsical impulses of a fanatical despot, or pacifying two sadistic and brutal "teachers", hell-bent on exacting cruel and vicious practices, and inciting hatred within the castle walls. McGonagall could take her cold, disapproving looks of sedition and shove them up her noble Gryffindor arse, he mused.
He could feel tension beginning to develop in his neck and shoulders, a sure sign of the headache to follow. Sure enough, within minutes, he felt the familiar throb of pulsating pain, and he longed for the luxury of kneading his fingertips into his temples, in an effort to massage the hurt away. He was acutely aware, however, that even the most diminutive alteration of his usual body posture would spark speculation regarding his ability to lead. It would ignite doubt and serve to call his authority into question. Snape could not afford the ranks to suspect him of weakness; he was walking a very thin and a very high tightrope. One lapse in concentration and he would fall into the abyss, dragging with him the hopes of an ungrateful wizarding world.
Breakfast was almost over. Snape contemplated a detour to his familiar old haunt, the dungeons, for another dose of Draught of Peace from Slughorn, but anticipation of the solitude his office would provide was too great. He stood to leave, aware, as usual, that all eyes were upon him as he swept out of the Great Hall, his dark robes billowing ominously behind him.
A large portrait of an elderly wizard wearing purple robes, a long silver beard and a benign smile had spoken. Snape turned around from his desk where he had been furiously rubbing his aching temples and wishing with grim futility that this foul day would soon be at an end.
'Dumbledore!' he sighed.
'A word, if you please.'
He did not please, but he rose from his seated position and walked resignedly over to the portrait of the lately departed Headmaster. Snape sometimes wondered if Dumbledore had forgotten that he had recently been on the receiving end of a Killing Curse, fallen several hundred feet from the Astronomy Tower and died. The old fool certainly seemed under the impression that he was still running both the school and the struggle against Voldemort. Even in death, he held the strings, and Snape danced a jig to each benevolent tug.
'What is it, Dumbledore?'
'What day is it, Severus?'
'It is Saturday.'
'Yes. I am asking what significance today's date has,' replied the old wizard.
'Aside from the fact that two of my more dubious teaching staff want to introduce the Cruciatus Curse for students to practice on each other?'
'You seem to be under a great deal of pressure, Severus.'
'How observant you are, Dumbledore. You may be reduced to nothing more than burnt umbers and cobalt blues, but your powers of perception are, I am happy to see, as penetrating as they ever were,' replied Severus darkly.
Dumbledore peered sympathetically at his fractious ex-Potions master from the safety of his canvas residence.
'And I'm happy to see that the pressures of the job have not robbed you of your unique sense of humour,' he returned.
'It's all I have left, Headmaster. If it wasn't for the laughs, I fear the job of "lackey to the Dark Lord" may leave me feeling… unstimulated.'
The purple clad portrait smiled at Snape's dark humour.'You need a break, Severus, some leisure time.'
Snape folded his arms across his chest and gave the old wizard a withering glare.
'Are you suggesting a little holiday, Dumbledore?' he replied. 'Perhaps you are right. I feel sure the Dark Lord is having similar thoughts as we speak... in-between his quest for immortality and torturing innocents. Do you think I should summon him at once to make the request?'
'I wish I could say that sarcasm doesn't become you, Severus,' replied Dumbledore genially. 'A holiday is undoubtedly just what you need, and deserve, but I fear you are in no position to pack your bags just yet. No, that is not what I had in mind. I am talking of something connected with the day. Think again Severus, what day is it?'
'Well, judging by the flock of owls carrying lurid pink envelopes and heart-shaped packages, I would hazard a guess that we can safely rule out Saint Swithin's Day.'
'Quite. But a Saint's day it most surely is.' Dumbledore beamed. 'It is Saint Valentine's Day, the day of love. Love: "the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, and the amazement of the gods".'
'And you bring my attention to this fact because…?' replied Snape, curling a contemptuous lip. 'I hope for your sake that you are not attempting to match-make. The amount of willing and eligible witches seems to have reduced dramatically since your demise, and the number was hardly substantial even then. I fear Minerva may have gone off me.'
'She was never your biggest fan, Severus.'
'Ah, perhaps it is Pomona with whom you wish to see me happily settled? Again, I have to disappoint you: if looks were Mandrake screams, I would be joining you as a canvas acquaintance.'
'Pomona, as you are well aware, is not the dating kind.'
'Poppy is rather busy these days, what with treating the after effects of the Cruciatus Curse and administering antidote for Veritaserum. She hardly has time for socialising, but if you really think she and I would hit it off…'
'When you've quite finished indulging yourself, Severus, you may like to know why I bring up the subject, other than to provide you with much needed mirth,' interrupted the old wizard.
'Very well, Dumbledore, continue.'
'I happen to know of a certain someone who is rather, how shall I put it? Enamoured of you.'
Snape's scowl increased as he picked up his wand, which had been lying on the desk by his side; white knuckles betrayed his ever-tightening grip.
'You really do have too much time on your hands, Dumbledore. I always suspected an underlying touch of insanity when you were alive and twinkling, now I am convinced of it. You actually are attempting to match-make. Does your capacity to control and manipulate know no bounds?'
'Just hear me out, Severus.'
'Get on with it, Dumbledore.'
'I am not suggesting that you have either the time, the capacity or the energy to embark upon anything romantic; nor do I believe you would ever be inclined to do so… again,' he added softly. 'I merely wish you to know that there is someone, somewhere, who is unconvinced of your apparent devotion to Voldemort. She believes you to be loyal to the Order, admires your courage, and laments your situation.'
Snape drew his robes around himself, and considered having Dumbledore's portrait removed to the empty classroom on the seventh floor.
'Lost for words, Severus?'
'I would like to know how you happened to come by this information,' he replied.
'I am on very friendly terms with Laverne de Montmorency, whose portrait hangs in the library.'
'I'm not asking Madam Pince out.'
'I can assure you, Madam Pince is happily situated… elsewhere,' replied Dumbledore.
'Good for her,' mumbled Snape, in a tone suggesting resentment rather than good wishes.
'The lady in question, Severus, is the divine Professor of Astronomy.'
'Sinistra?' said Snape, frowning.
'Indeed, she was heard defending your actions most spiritedly when Minerva accused you of "cruelty beyond reason". Minerva objected to your punishment of Miss Weasley and Mr Longbottom following the sword incident. Aurora would not have a word said against you. She begged Minerva to watch you closely; to judge you according to your deeds rather than your words and appearance.'
Snape turned his back on his ex-colleague, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, in a futile attempt to obliterate this latest piece of unwelcome intelligence. He did not have the luxury of allowing himself even a moment's self-indulgence at Dumbledore's news. Dumbledore's inside information only added an extra painful beat to the pounding rhythm of pressure in his head.
'You have no choice, Severus,' said Dumbledore, gently reminding Snape of the precarious path he was constantly obliged to walk.
'I know,' he spat. 'But kindly tell me why you thought it pertinent to disguise this highly dangerous and undesirable situation as a piece of gossip I would embrace and find gratifying? Do you really think I have nothing better to do than to spend Valentine's Day bemoaning the absence of hearts and flowers from an admirer?' he lied.
'The outcome of the war against evil rests on your shoulders. Harry's too, of course, but he hasn't a hope without you. Perhaps I wanted you to see the silver lining aspect of this situation.'
'All you have done is pointed out that, for me, every silver lining has a great, thunderous black cloud, Dumbledore. And now I have no choice: if she suspects me of loyalty to the Order, then I must ensure that she is in under no illusions as to my devotion to the Dark Lord.'
Snape walked away from the Headmaster's portrait; his agitation forced him to pace the room as he formulated his plan.
'What do you intend to do?' asked Dumbledore calmly.
Snape ignored him, but carried on pacing until he was convinced that there was only one course of action left open to him.
'Well, Severus? You know you need to make it look convincing. What do you intend to do?'
Severus approached the portrait once more, a look of grim determination etched across the harsh lines of his forehead.
'I'm afraid I will have to announce my agreement with the Carrows' plan to allow students to use the Cruciatus. Let her judge me by my deeds then,' he added so softly that the old wizard barely caught his words.
Dumbledore nodded his understanding.'I believe that will do it,' he agreed.
The final meal of the day was always a relief, but more so today. The staff had taken Snape's announcement as badly as he expected, all except Filch and the Carrows, of course. He had glanced at Aurora, seen the shock and hurt in her face as he spoke of "discipline, a firmer hand, intolerance towards dissident behaviour", and finally the "extended use of the Cruciatus Curse as a means of keeping rebellious activities in check".
He spared no mercy as he singled her out, and admonished her in front of the entire staff for her inability to maintain student obedience. He even hinted that certain former Unforgivables would not be confined to use on students if discipline did not improve. When her lip quivered, her cheeks reddened and she was obliged to lower her head to hide the threatening tears, he was satisfied: she could no longer be in doubt of his allegiance; he knew his cover was safe.
The owl contingent had reduced dramatically by suppertime, and only a few stragglers remained, landing on the long dining tables in search of the lucky recipients.
Snape sipped meditatively from his goblet, nodding occasionally in response to the congratulatory comments made by the repugnant Death Eater sitting to his right, and avoiding the pale face of Professor Sinistra, and the fury-filled expression worn by McGonagall.
He was startled when the owl, which had been heading for the staff table, did not adjust its course to drop the odious-looking card in its beak onto the plate of Aurora Sinistra or Rolanda Hooch, but continued its trajectory until it landed gracefully onto the table directly in front of Snape. The small tawny owl dropped the scarlet rectangular offering and made off at once without waiting for either payment or a meaty treat.
Snape was aware that the usual degree of chatter which filled the Great Hall had reduced to a low-level murmur, as the entire room turned their attention to the staff table. He glanced down at the card, hoping to discover an owl blunder, but the name on the card was clear enough, and he was forced to acknowledge the recipient as himself.
He considered the possibility that his earlier public humiliation of Aurora had not produced the desired effect. It seemed her infatuation was worse than he had imagined, or supposed possible. He knew he should be feeling anger and concern rather than elation at the idea of inspiring such devotion from an attractive witch. With forced composure, he reached out a steady hand to retrieve the offensive communication of love, with the intention of opening the thing in his office, away from the intense public scrutiny of the entire school.
The scraping noise of Snape's chair on the polished wooden floor as he hastily pushed it backwards reverberated around the almost silent Great Hall; the envelope had jerked out of his grasp, just as he was about to retrieve it. Snape reacted instinctively, pulling out his wand, and pointing it at the object. His captive audience were almost united in letting out a harmonious intake of breath when the realisation filtered through: Snape had received a Valentine's Howler.
The envelope sprang into life without waiting for either an invitation to begin, or a Blasting Curse. It formed itself into a grotesque representation of crimson lips, teeth and tongue, rose to his eye level and began its magically-induced diatribe of jibes and insults, with enough venom to match Mrs Black's portrait in Grimmauld Place.
It spoke of treachery, deceit, brutality, malice and cowardice.
White-hot anger surged through his veins as he took in the full horror of the situation. Nervous giggles, swallowed up by the cavernous silence of the hall, sounded in his ears. This was no protestation of love, it was a seized opportunity to denounce and rebel against his regime.
A glance at Sinistra's pale, shocked expression lay to rest any suspicions he harboured regarding her as the source; but a smug look of triumph, etched on McGonagall's told a different story.
He stood, pointed his wand at the haranguing folds of paper, and blasted it into ashes.
'Minerva, my office. One hour!' he bellowed as he swept out of the room.
Snape dreaded the alternatives before him: he was well aware that retribution for this act of mutiny must be swift, harsh and public. He had to admit that the Gryffindor Head had more than lived up to the characteristics held in such high esteem by her House. The old bat had guts and stupidity to rank with any of her forebears.
He sat at his desk and looked around him. Dumbledore was now conveniently asleep, Phineas had finished his outraged rant, and all was relatively peaceful for at least half an hour until Minerva arrived.
As Valentine's Days went, this had to rank alongside his lousiest, and there were few memorable ones. He could still recall with intense clarity, the sweet sensation of pure joy, felt on receiving a Valentine's Card when he was sixteen. Short-lived hopes, soon to be denigrated into nothing but a cruel prank. The words "in your dreams, Snivellus", remained etched on his brain: a memory almost as painful to contemplate as the day he had called her a "Mudblood".
At least he could gain some pleasure when he recalled the Valentine's Day he had spent at Malfoy Manor, just prior to taking the foolish leap into chaos and misery. It was little wonder that Bellatrix had never trusted him, once she realised just what a master of potions Severus Snape was, even then. The moments spent hidden in her bedroom, when she had screamed out for his touch, and been denied, was worth every moment of her subsequent loathing.
Snape could evoke few unsullied memories from the surplus of self-denial and atonement which constituted the greatest portion of his adult life; but the heartfelt innocence of the Valentine's Card he had once received from an anonymous student had touched his iron heart, more than all forty-six of the sickly outpourings of love received by the foppish, Gilderoy Lockhart. If the card had indeed been from Alicia Spinnet, as he suspected, he wondered briefly how much she must now despise herself, for her foolish infatuation with a notorious Death Eater.
He stalked across the room to a locked cabinet, which opened at his command. Inside was a small wooden chest. He took it out and returned to his desk where he placed the object and opened it with a casual wave of his wand.
Inside was a card, handmade and curling slightly at the edges. The picture on the front was a childish drawing of a heart, entwined with a flower: a lily.
He rarely allowed himself this indulgence, but he felt the circumstances owed him a small moment of painful pleasure. He took out the card with reverence and opened it.
Best friends forever.
A long pale finger traced the last two words as if the ink itself could connect him to her.
'Always, Lily,' he whispered to an empty room.