Severus had never held out any hope of forgetting the old games.
It had been well over a decade since he'd sat at Narcissa's table to swindle and manipulate with the best of them, but there was a part of him that had been trapped in time; and that part of him was thawing out, reawakening, resurrecting. At times he would turn to listen to something Lucius was saying as he sat so primly next to him, only to realize with a jolt that it had in fact been fifteen years. Everyone was older (though no more wise than they had been), with faces lined and shoulders—or guts—heavier, but they were all the same; just as petty and vapid as they'd ever been. These were the same people who he'd once admired, had found amusing, had looked up to for their clever stratagems. They, in turn, had pretended to think of him in the same respect. None if it had ever mattered in the end. He was, ultimately, just a jumped-up Half-Blood playing at equals.
Lucius's hand touched his shoulder, sending goosebumps rushing down his arm. "Severus," his host hissed in his ear, "you are slouching. Narcissa does not like her guests to slouch."
He straightened back up out of the slump he'd automatically slipped into. Dragging his feet back underneath his chair from where they'd drifted out to the center of the table, Severus adjusted his robes to smooth out wrinkles, and reached again for his fork and knife. Here's the proof, he thought bitterly, studying his proper Pureblood dinner mates through eyes shrouded by lashes. Just a jumped-up Half-Blood playing at equals.
To vent some of his anger, he slipped a diuretic into Crabbe's drink on his right, in hopes that the man would piss himself during the meal. He added a slow-acting laxative to Lucius's. It would only take effect after he'd left and the blame could not be pinned on him.
It had been well over an hour since he'd arrived, but the meal seemed to have no end in sight. Severus supposed he could take it as a test in patience; he would be needing much of that, in the coming days. Lupin had sent a second letter rushing along behind the first, detailing Black's plans to gate crash and force his way into Spinner's End. The Headmaster would have to be alerted, he knew. But first—dinner. Dinner and Occlumency.
The summons here had come at a surprise. He'd managed to bypass the one from days before, but he hadn't had an excuse this time round. All he'd been able to do was set the boy up with a meager fare with the promise of leftovers, don his best robes, and leave immediately. Their lesson had been cut short. Of course, Severus thought, straightening up again as he began to slide downwards in his chair, perhaps that one had been for the best. He'd seen the effects the lessons had had on the boy. He'd seen the headaches, and the way Potter had rubbed a hand over his no-doubt hurting scar. This had been the first lesson that hadn't seemed to have much effect in that way on the boy. He'd remained as upbeat as he had the day previous; and this time, it was Severus himself who'd suffered.
He felt as though someone had opened his head up and poured in too many thoughts and feelings. A headache pounded at his temples in time with the beating of his heart. Each time he looked round, a lightning bolt of pain shot down the back of his neck. Severus wanted to be at home. He wanted to be at his own table, where he could sit terribly without fear of judgement from the Potter boy, who had worse posture than he did. He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to listen to rich and powerful men bat squabbling words back and forth like toddlers pretending to be civilized. He did not want to play this game of peace and normalcy, as if the Dark Lord wasn't sitting in the next room over.
He did not, above all, want the semi-peaceful bubble of a life he and the boy had managed to build up, to pop the moment Black descended into his rubbish heap of a house.
Severus felt strung-out. Clutching at his water goblet, he drank deeply to gather himself, and set it back down with a heaviness that made Lucius's eyelid twitch. He vowed to set it down more heavily next time.
Something was going to have to change, with these lessons. They had only had one so far since the discovery of what may be the boy's saving grace, but Severus was already too drained to keep up the proper appearances. It was always a constant battle to remain as prim and composed as his more civilized dinner mates, but his will had always been as strong as iron, unyielding. Tonight he was a fucking mess.
(It was Lupin's fault, too. Giving him odd, heated dreams, and strangely whimsical thoughts that would linger in his head for hours along with the memories the wolf had given him. He had not been sleeping well in his attempts to exhaust himself so thoroughly, the thoughts would remain in a hazy fog for good.)
Yes. Something would have to change. And soon, lest Lucius murder him in cold blood the next time his feet began to slide further and further away from his chair.
Dinner passed without incident, and he and Narcissa retired together to a small chamber off the side of the dining room, settling onto a cushy chaise with cups of coffee brought by the house-elf Dipsy, whom he was much fonder of than Dobby. Severus took a sip of his coffee. "How is Draco's independent study coming along?" he asked, keeping his tone carefully neutral. Narcissa's eyes lit up in a way that only the sound of Draco's name could do, but her mouth dragged down unbidden.
"He is making fine progress," she said carefully, setting her coffee onto the spindly wood table in front of them, and folding her hands in her lap. Her fingers were clenched too tightly. "Draco is talented. The Dark Lord is pleased. He says"—and there was the slightest hint of a tremor in her voice now, undetectable to all those who did not know her like Severus did—"that Draco may take the Mark next school year."
The carpet in this room was very fine, Severus thought as he pushed down whatever violent reaction he may have had at the thought of a sixteen-year-old schoolboy taking the Dark Mark. Very plush, a silvery gray that reminded him of Albus's hair, and most certainly not made by humans. It was a very nice carpet.
"I see," he said indifferently, taking another sip of his coffee. His hands did not shake. "His skills will improve. Taking the Mark is an honor, and to receive it so young…You must be proud, Narcissa. You and Lucius both."
"Very much so." Her voice was warm, her smile flawless, but her eyes shone. Severus fixed his gaze on the dark green silk of the chaise backing, and did not look at her. "And you, my dove—have you heard the news of what is to happen at Hogwarts this year?"
If there was another Triwizard Clusterfuck, Severus would strangle Albus with his bare hands. "I have not," he said. "As you know, the old fool tells me nothing."
"It is to do with the events of last year. The Triwizard Tournament raised a flurry of inquiries."
"The Minister has told Lucius he himself will be assigning a professor to the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts this year. The school has run rampant for far too long; there will be changes this year. There are no doubts in my mind as to whether you will be permitted to remain at your post, Severus—Draco sings his praises for you in all of his letters. Dolores Umbridge is sure to take to you easily."
"Dolores Umbridge?" he inquired, even as his heart skipped a beat. He knew that name. He was more than up-to-date on the Ministry's position of the issue of werewolves, and her names was one that came up more often than not in the journals and articles he'd scoured on the subject. This woman was responsible for a vast majority of Lupin's problems in life. And while he'd have found that all fine and well a month before, the thought of it now left a…sour note in his mouth. One that had nothing to do with the bitterness of the coffee he'd just finished off. A house-elf appeared without a sound to refill the tiny ceramic teacup, and vanished seconds later.
"Hogwarts has been left to its own devices in a way that has posed a danger to the students within," he agreed, and was not altogether lying. Though it was not the chaotic war ground it had been when he himself was a student there, Hogwarts had always been a bit of a—mess. One did not see a mass murderer grow and learn inside the walls of a school that had had an eye on him for seven years, and say everything was safe and normal. Albus could not keep an eye on each student at every moment. But Dolores Umbridge? "What, do you suppose, was the Minister's reasoning on placing his undersecretary into the position? Will he be hiring a replacement in the meantime? There is a young Slytherin woman who graduated at the end of this year, and—"
They looked to the doorway, where Macnair stood leaned against the doorframe. "Yes?" Severus said coolly.
"He's asking for you." There was a hint of a nasty grin playing about Macnair's smile, showing a hint of rotting, blackened teeth. "Best not make him wait."
Severus smiled thinly. "Yes, of course. Narcissa, I'm afraid I must take my leave. Do give Lucius my regards. Supper was excellent."
"Of course. You are always welcome in our home," she replied, briefly clasping his hand in her own, before he stood and left the room.
Severus stood in the darkened hallway of the third floor, staring at the closed door in front of him. He could faintly hear the soft sound of music coming from within. Macnair had followed him silently all the way up the stairs and through the Manor, only deigning to melt back into the shadows after Severus reached the door and stopped to compose himself. He was alone.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes briefly, and knocked on the door.
The doorknob was cold in his hand. The air of the library as he turned and opened it was even colder.
"You asked for me, my lord?" Severus said softly, bowing low to the man sitting in the center of the room, positioned in a high-backed armchair with a heavy tome open in his lap. Nagini lay across his shoulders, flicking her tongue against the Dark Lord's pale ear, whispering serpentine secrets heard only by her master. The music playing from the xylophone sounded rather sinister all of a sudden.
"Come closer, Severus," Lord Voldemort said softly, beckoning to him with a long-fingered white hand. "Do you find me so frightening?"
"No, my lord." He moved closer, until they were barely a metre apart.
Nagini moved without warning, slithering down the side of the chair, twisting round his ankles. Severus felt her tongue flutter against the inside of his ankle. And the Dark Lord smiled.
"The Veritaserum you delivered to me," he said, "was put to excellent use. I expect nothing less than perfection from you, Severus, and you have never failed me…until as of late. Why do we not have the boy in our grasp, Severus? Why does Harry Potter continue to elude me? You have seen him at this 'headquarters' Albus Dumbledore has created, have you not? So why, then, have you not brought him to me?"
"Dumbledore guards him zealously," Severus said slowly. "He is surrounded at all times by members of the Order. Alastor Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt—"
"These are excuses," the Dark Lord said sharply, cutting him off. Severus bowed his head and stared at the floor, chagrined. "I do not want excuses."
"I apologize, my—"
"I do not want apologies!" Standing abruptly, the Dark Lord took a step forward until they were a mere foot apart, and unsheathed his wand. "I regret what I must do, Severus."
Expecting a Crucio, he felt himself go tense—and then staggered to the side as the Dark Lord slapped him hard across the face. Severus overbalanced and crashed to the floor. Stunned, he lay there for a moment to take stock of his injuries, and then rolled onto his hands and knees at the hissed, "Up," only to be hit with the Cruciatus before he could so much as stand. A scream tore its way out of his throat, pain searing through him, exploding its way through his veins and bones like he was being burned alive from the inside. He couldn't move and he was dying he was dying he was burning on fire and—
It ended as suddenly as it had begun. Severus panted into the floorboards as sweat rolled down the side of his face, hands scrabbling uselessly for purchase on the legs of the armchair. The Dark Lord tapped at him with his bare foot and tipped him onto his back so that their eyes met. He had only the barest second to prepare himself before he was no longer the only person occupying his head.
Memories of the last few weeks whipped by, tediously edited days before; snapshots of the moments spent without the boy in his house, alone. Him cooking, him smoking, him reading, him shopping, headquarters, him cooking, him brewing, brewing, brewing, supper with the Malfoys, meeting with the Dark Lord—
Severus slumped backward onto the floor as the front of his robes were released and the Dark Lord stood straight. "Stand up, Severus," he said coldly, easing back into the armchair as Severus struggled to his feet, swaying with the effort of it. His cheek felt swollen and his shoulder throbbed in time with his heartbeat. "Let us speak of your failures."
"My failures, my lord?" he managed to say, eyes fluttering open and closed as he tried to keep consciousness. Severus stumbled forward to catch himself from falling.
"Why do we not have Harry Potter in this room with us tonight?"
"Because I have not wanted it enough to make it so, my lord," he whispered. "I—apologize."
"Correct. For all of your intelligence, you lack the drive and ambition that we—that I—need. I need Harry Potter. And you have failed in delivering him to me. I am disappointed."
"I apologize, my lord."
"I do not want your apologies. I want you to fix your mistakes and right your wrongs. Only then will I be satisfied." The Dark Lord leaned back into his chair and hissed something undecipherable; Nagini entwined herself about his shoulders and lay prone, tongue flickering in the air as though searching for a lie. "Leave me, Severus. I wish to be alone. When I next summon you, I will require a potion—I am quite sure you have heard of the Drink of Despair. Bring it to me."
Severus would not allow himself to feel relief. "Yes, my lord. Thank you, my lord."
"Oh, and Severus?"
He turned at the door, and regretted it when he saw the wordless snarl on Lord Voldemort's face.
"Leftovers," Severus said, setting the bundle of food Dipsy had discreetly packed for him onto the coffee table with a thunk. Potter looked up from the book he'd apparently filched from the shelf nearest the kitchen and shifted so that he was sitting upright on the couch rather than sprawling across it. "You may eat in here."
"Are—are you…" The boy gaped up at him with wide eyes. "Sir, are you all right?"
Severus sneered at him, even though the movement made the left side of his face sear in agony. "Mind your damn business, Potter. Eat your tea and go to bed."
It took a beat too long for Potter to reach for the food on the coffee table. Unwrapping the bundle, he pulled out two plates of food hung suspended in a stasis charm, and set them carefully on the table. Excellent—he would keep those plates. Lucius and Narcissa wouldn't even notice they were missing. "How, er…how did it go?" the boy asked hesitantly.
Tossing his mask to the side, where it landed somewhere unknown, Severus grunted in reply and collapsed backwards into the chair by the hearth. He started a fire with a flick of his wand, desperate to chase away the feverish chill wracking his body. Then he summoned a litany of potions to his lap and began downing them one by one. Nerve regeneration, to cure whatever neuropathy the Dark Lord had wrought on him. Pepper-Up. He stopped at the Calming Draught, still feeling distant and foggy; he would drink it later. Potter watched him unblinkingly all the way through. "What?" he said lowly, too tired to summon any of his usual ire.
"Nothing!" the boy blurted. Then, as the seconds passed: "Actually, could you get rid of the stasis?"
Severus removed it with another flick of his wand and tilted his head back to stare at the cobwebbed ceiling. His eyes burned when he blinked. "Give me a plate," he mumbled, reaching a hand out blindly until Potter passed the second plate his way. He summoned silverware for them both and forced himself to sit upright so that he could eat the food he'd merely picked at earlier. Eating slowly, Severus had to shake himself awake every few bites, and finally set the food aside before he could polish it off entirely. He lurched to his feet and caught himself on the arm of the chair as he nearly toppled backwards. "Get to bed," he said to the boy. "It's late."
"I will in a second. Do you need any…help…?" Potter trailed off at the sight of his face, and then squared his jaw in the familiarly stubborn way. "Professor, you look like you're about to fall over. Let me help you upstairs. You were with V—him, weren't you? Let me help."
"I don't want your help," Severus tried to snap.
"No, but you need it. Let me help you."
He tried not to give in. He failed. "Up the stairs, then."
The boy sprang to his feet and approached him from the side, taking him gingerly by the arm and pulling it round his skinny shoulders. Severus tried not to lean on him too heavily. They ascended the stairs unbearably slowly, with fumbling feet and hands pressed flat against the wall, by the light of a shaky Lumos. "Downstairs," Severus breathed as Potter helped him to his bed and stepped back to watch him warily, face illuminated oddly against the Lumos. "To bed. Now."
"Yeah. It's late. You er, get some rest, okay? Sorry about…Er, well, I sort of forced you to let me help you, so I…Goodnight. Sir." Potter hurried out of the room. Severus could hear the unmistakable sound of him scooting down the stairs one by one. It was only after the bookshelf snapped shut with a click, and he'd cast a hasty Muffliato on his bedroom door, that he allowed himself to be pulled out of the haze of Occlumency and into the waiting arms of full-blown hysterics.
The sound of his hyperventilating gasps were like thunderclaps in the silence of his bedroom. Clasping his hands over his mouth, Severus screwed his eyes shut to force away the stinging sensation that had surfaced without warning, and bent double til his forehead was nearly level with his knees.
"Draco may take the Mark next school year."
No. No, no. No, no, no, no, no no no…
Severus gagged on his own panicked breaths and forced himself to stop breathing entirely, until the pressure in his chest became too great and he had to suck in great, heaving gulps of air like a drowning man. His eyes burned and there were tears, hot and salty, on his cheeks. Draco Malfoy, to take the Dark Mark, to destroy his life before it had even fully begun—
No God please God no…
Independent studies to learn to cast the Cruciatus and Imperius and—
Next year, but he's only fifteen and—
He gripped the vial of Calming Draught inside of his robes, wrenching the cork out with a force that made his wrist ache, and downed it all in one go. The hysteria left him in ebbs and trickled its way out of him like a drain that hadn't been fully sealed. Severus crumbled backwards onto his bed seconds later; he had no more energy to hold himself upright than he had to take his shoes off. He toed them off onto the creaky old floor next to the empty vial and clawed helplessly at the buttons of his robe, pulling it off with an effort that drained him even further.
The room tilted around him; Severus closed his eyes to stop the spinning, feeling sick. It took all the will he had in himself to not become suddenly, violently ill. Bile rose up in his throat, and he swallowed it down, hard. His body trembled and twitched uncontrollably with the aftershocks of the Cruciatus. Hot-cold shivers jolted up and down his spine. He clawed at the collar of his shirt in a vain attempt to bring in some of the cold air of the room.
What time was it? How long had he been lying here? It felt as though each time he blinked, the room got a bit lighter. His heartbeat was very loud in the static of his head.
Severus rolled onto his side and reached blindly for something to hold. Finding his pillow, he dragged it close, clutching it tightly to his chest and breathing hard like he'd run a marathon. He buried his nose into the pillow and closed his eyes, drifting deeper and deeper into an empty blackness—only to sit bolt upright when there came the sound of a scream in the night.