Excerpt from: Book 7, Chapter 33, Pages 686-7. Takes place in the spring of sixth year, well before Dumbledore takes Harry horcrux hunting. A/U: Horcruxes don't exist (except perhaps Harry), but the prophesy does. Special thanks for the awesome beta from BookSlug and hpfan4life! Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or make any money from these stories.
CHAPTER 1: BETRAYALS
Shards of broken glass rained down around his boot-clad feet: the remnants of his last brandy snifter. The set of four crystal goblets had been a gift from Albus Dumbledore. How much time had he wasted for that man? Doing his biding, doing everything he was asked, keeping Potter alive, and for what? Snape grabbed the half-full bottle of brandy and lobbed it at the fireplace. The fire roared to life in a grand conflagration, one that almost equaled Snape's anger, as more bits of glass tinkled to the floor. As he turned in search of something else to destroy, his left arm burned red hot. For an instant, he thought his sleeve had caught fire; then he realized it was actually something much worse.
Snape took a deep breath, inadvertently inhaling the scent of charred wood and burning alcohol, and tried to clear his mind. He needed to be clear-headed when he arrived at the unexpected gathering. He had a little more time to take his leave than the rest of the Death Eaters as Voldemort would expect him to check in with Dumbledore before leaving. That bought him ten minutes at most.
Measuring his breathing, he made his way to the bathroom, disrobing as he went. He turned on the taps and splashed cold water on his face. Anger in the presence of the Dark Lord was dangerous if not downright fatal; strong emotion weakened one's Occlumency shields. Quickly, Snape pulled his undershirt over his head and set it aside. He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a braided piece of leather which he used to pull his inky black hair into a cue at the base of his neck. He stood for a moment, shirtless in front of the mirror, and began his ritualized preparations for the meeting. Fingering the brass key that he wore on a long chain around his neck, normally hidden beneath layers of clothing, he murmured: "Tonight I lay my soul at your feet, and pray someday again we'll meet, but if tonight it's not meant to be, I pray that you'll keep watch over me."
Snape grimaced at his pinched appearance in the mirror before turning away, shutting off the light as he went. A wave of his wand and a few muttered incantations opened the wardrobe beside the bathroom where he kept his Death Eater robes and mask. He dressed with practiced motions, each step in the ritual important to the mindset he needed to maintain. Tonight, the last step would be the hardest; he didn't want his mentor's absolution for whatever he might be asked to do. Nor did he want the man's empathy. But when could Severus Snape ever have what he wanted?
He tossed a bit of floo powder into the fireplace and, instead of stepping into Albus's private rooms as he would normally have done—to receive the man's blessing as well as his pardon—he merely peered out from the embers. The Headmaster looked up at the disturbance, surprise etched on his lined face. "Severus, my boy…"
"Don't," Snape said. "I've been summoned."
Dumbledore began to rise from his chair. "I'll wait up…"
"No," Snape contradicted. "I will see Poppy if I have need of assistance." And with that, Snape pulled out of the fire, ignoring the stricken look on the Headmaster's face.
Snape apparated on the outskirts of the circle. Cheers and jeers rang through the air as the acrid smell of charred flesh and the tang of blood assaulted his senses. His fellow Death Eaters were clearly in the midst of torturing their latest victim or victims, and from the looks of it, he'd soon be invited to take part. Dumbledore's words reverberated through his mind as he made his way forward: How many men and women have you watched die?To which Snape had replied: Lately, only those whom I could not save.
The Dark Lord stood with a look on his face that Snape had rarely seen: one of elated satisfaction. Clearly, he was enjoying the proceedings. Snape stepped into the opening in the circle and bowed low.
The Dark Lord inclined his head toward Snape. "Nice of you to join us, Severus. Tonight is a glorious night, my sly servant."
"My Lord?" Snape inquired.
"Have you not noticed our guest of honor?"
Severus looked towards the altar at the center of the circle. Amycus Carrow was blocking Snape's view as he used a myriad of curses to inflict maximum damage on the poor soul. Likely a Muggle, Snape thought, considering Carrow's interest. Beside him, Bellatrix Lestrange bounced up and down on the balls of her feet with undisguised anticipation.
The Dark Lord trained his gaze on her and smiled. "You may go next, my pet." The deranged woman giggled with girlish glee. "And then you may have a turn, Severusss," Voldemort hissed.
"It would be an honor and a privilege, my Lord," Snape responded, standing still under the Dark Lord's scrutiny as he perused Snape's mind. Snape let Voldemort see the mundane events of his day, his pride and favor for his Syltherin students—especially the children of Death Eaters—his disdain for the students of other houses—especially the Muggleborns—and his demurring to Dumbledore's wishes. He was, after all, nothing but a servant to other men's desires.
Bellatrix stirred beside him, striding forward and shouldering Amycus out of the way. Together, they blocked Snape's view of the victim, though he could see the quarry's feet kicking rhythmically. Snape guessed that the poor sod was having a seizure. Bellatrix's words accusing Amycus of being selfish and leaving nothing for her echoed back to him. Finally, Amycus stepped aside, his eyes meeting Snape's. The short dark man's smile put Snape on full alert. Snape watched as Amycus directed his gaze to a pale, thin figure hovering on the edge of the circle. A new Death Eater, Snape guessed. Snape felt his blood run cold as he recognized Draco Malfoy standing across the circle, staring defiantly at him. Dread coursed through Snape's veins. What have you done, Draco?
Bellatrix stepped aside, laughing maniacally. On the hastily constructed altar, now stained with bodily fluids, lay a teenage boy, messy black hair matted with blood, broken glasses askew. His skin was deathly pale and marked by a fine sheen of sweat. Snape's pulse kicked with equal parts recognition and apprehension.
"So the boy… the boy must die?" asked Snape.
"And Voldemort himself must to do it, Severus. That is essential."
"I thought… all these years… that we were protecting him for her. For Lily."
"We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength," said Dumbledore.
"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?"
Potter's body writhed and spasmed in pain. The only thing that kept the boy on the edge of consciousness was the continual stream of Enervates that Bellatrix shot at him to maximize his suffering as she tortured him. "A gift for you," she sang, leering at Snape for a moment before she slashed her wand viciously over the boy's trembling form: "Sectumsempra!"
Using her wand like a knife, Bellatrix slashed a large X across Potter's chest, extending diagonally from his shoulders to his groin in both directions. Potter's body convulsed as blood spurted wildly from the deep gashes. Bellatrix danced with glee but Voldemort had begun to frown.
"I said you could play with my prize," hissed Voldemort, "not kill it. I think you may have gone too far, Bellatrix." Bellatrix stopped dancing, her lips drawing into a pout. Snape thought she was still far too drunk with sadistic pleasure to realize the danger she was in. Slowly, she stepped back and rejoined the circle.
"Severusss," Voldemort hissed, shifting his red eyes to Snape, "I need the boy alive. Have your fun with him but be quick about it."
"Yes, master," Snape demurred.
"Then," Voldemort exclaimed, his gaze encompassing all of his followers, "I shall delight in the death of Harry Potter at my hands." Voldemort raised his skeletal arms into the air. "Tonight, the world shall be mine!"
Snape blocked out the Dark Lord's voice and stepped forward, his eyes locked with Potter's dazed and unseeing ones. The boy's breathing was shallow and labored, his body covered in blood.
"I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Evan's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter—"
In that moment, staring down at Potter who was dying a hideously slow and painful death, Snape did not know which of the wizards he called master was worse: The Dark Lord—who made no excuses about his intention to kill the Boy Who Lived and wreak death and destruction on the Wizarding World, or Albus Dumbledore—who led his followers down a false path of redemption only to use their weaknesses and blind faith against them in the end.
Snape raised his wand, and Potter's gaze connected in recognition for just a moment. In that instant, Snape saw not the flicker of misplaced hope followed by betrayal he had expected. Instead he saw defiance. Potter would fight until the bitter end for a cause that he neither signed up for, nor was ever given a choice about. Voldemort didn't give people choices, and neither did Dumbledore. As Snape looked into Potter's green eyes, he realized something else. Lily had given him a choice once before, and she was giving him a choice now.
Snape slashed his wand down brutally while thrusting his other hand up under his robes. Potter's body arched as the boy screamed in pain. In another moment, it would be over. Snape had made his choice.