A/N - The opening line comes from Goblet of Fire. The characters and world, of course, come from JKR. I make no claim to her empire. My grateful thanks to The Real Snape and Moira of the Mountain for their usual expert beta work.
~ / ~ / ~
"If the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember. . ."
Dumbledore's words filled the Great Hall of Hogwarts, soaring to the enchanted ceiling almost as if they were owls on the wing, and Severus Snape gritted his teeth against the sanctimony of it. "A choice between what was right and what was easy. . ."
As if the wrong choices weren't equally difficult. As if one could even tell what the right and wrong choices were.
Well, grinding his teeth had clearly been a wrong choice: it made the pain in Severus's head pulse like a thing alive. Looking down into the Hall from the staff table, he could see row after row of rapt student faces, eyes fixed on Dumbledore, waiting for the Headmaster to assure them that Cedric Diggory had not died in vain. And to assure them that they themselves were safe and would not die at all.
What little appetite Severus had for the Leaving Feast abruptly left him. Most of the students, even many of his too-often-reviled Snakes, were counting on Dumbledore, counting on him far too much, and suddenly Severus couldn't bear the sight of their yearning faces another minute longer. No one should be asked to look at that level of blind trust - - at least not without retching.
He shifted his head slightly so that he could gaze down the line of staff instead, but they were no easier to watch. There was Hagrid, as usual staring at Dumbledore with dumb adoration. And Moody, so damned jumpy that he could hardly stay in his chair. . . what the hell was the man even doing at table? He should be somewhere quiet where he could recover from spending nine months in a fucking trunk, not sitting here on display, listening to platitudes. He was positively unnatural.
And so was Minerva, seated so quietly to Severus's left. From the corner of his eye, he could see her hands folded unmoving in the lap of her dark robe. She'd stood up, as they all had, when Dumbledore had offered a toast to Diggory, but otherwise she'd been nearly motionless, and since they'd sat down after the toast, Severus didn't think she'd so much as twitched a fingertip.
She'd been unlike herself for a while now, particularly since she'd witnessed the Dementor suck the mind out of Barty Crouch, Junior. In the staffroom, she was atypically quiet, and when she did speak, she was even more waspish than normal. She probably blamed herself - - for the Dementor, for Diggory, for Merlin-knew-what. Severus knew the drill; it was the sort of thing he did himself.
He deliberately turned his back towards her. There were many things Severus didn't need, and one of them was to witness the expression of desperate hope that he was sure he'd find on Minerva's face as she listened to Albus - - because he knew that only years of hard-won self-control enabled him to keep a similar expression off his own face.
He wanted to despise Minerva for her unquestioning faith in a man who seemed to enjoy keeping even his most loyal lieutenants in a state of uncertainty. But he couldn't, not completely.
He couldn't, because despite everything, Severus still had some of the same faith. He still wanted to think that salvation lay in a flamboyant old man who could roll phrases off his tongue with the glibness of the born con artist. He still wanted to shout aloud, the way the other children had done at the Christmas panto his Muggle gran had taken him to see: "We believe! We believe!"
Except that even as a little boy, Severus had not, in the end, been able to open his mouth.
St. Albus, protect us.
Beside him, Minerva still hadn't moved, and when he again caught sight of her folded hands, Severus realised that they were clenched so tightly that the bones seemed about to break through the skin.
~ / ~ / ~
"Wormtail. Severus needs another drink."
Severus didn't need another drink. He hadn't needed or wanted the first drink, either, but one didn't refuse the hospitality of Lord Voldemort. At least the alcohol allowed him to wash away the some of the taste of Dumbledore's speech. Plus, there was the pleasure of being waited upon by an obviously terrified rat of a Peter Pettigrew. The only thing better would be to have Pettigrew replaced by an equally terrified cur of a Sirius Black.
As he poured the firewhisky, the rat-boy's new magical silver hand shook so badly that the heavy decanter chattered against the rim of the glass, and Severus let his lip curl in satisfied derision. Even for a depressive former Death Eater in thrall to two masters, life could sometimes be sweet.
"Leave us, Wormtail," the Dark Lord said, and Severus knew that the real business of the evening was about to begin.
The summons to Voldemort's side had actually come as a relief. After Dumbledore had finally stopped talking and allowed the Leaving Feast to begin, the noise level in the Great Hall had rapidly become appalling, and the pain in Severus's head had just as rapidly become unbearable. For once the sudden burning of the Dark Mark on his arm had been welcome.
A pointed glance at Dumbledore had earned him a quick nod of dismissal, and soon Severus had exchanged the din and stabbing light of the Great Hall for the quiet, cool dimness of the Dark Lord's drawing room, where the fire in the grate was the only illumination, and the only sounds were the crackle of the flames and the oddly soothing slither of Voldemort's great snake as it moved along the wall.
Severus's headache ebbed as the whisky warmed him. No doubt a fresh hell was about to open up before him, but for the moment, he needed to do nothing but take a very occasional sip and listen to what was said to him. He realised that for the first time in weeks, he felt almost calm; he nearly smiled at the notion of what Dumbledore would say if he'd known that an evening with Voldemort could still be preferable to one spent at Hogwarts.
As if he'd heard the thought of his name, the Dark Lord began to speak. "You answered my call promptly, Severus," he said. "You haven't forgotten how the small things please me."
He was at his most genial, focusing his attention on Severus with that single-minded, concerned intensity that had once made an awkward, bitter boy from Spinner's End feel interesting and important.
But Severus, for good or ill, was no longer that boy. "No, I haven't, my lord," he said, his voice as neutral as he could make it - - yet another useful talent honed, ironically, upon the dullness of many of his Hogwarts colleagues. One couldn't fire off sarcasm all the time, no matter how easy the targets. A dry blandness, he'd learnt, could often pass for politeness.
"Do you find me a hard man to please?" Voldemort enquired.
"At times, yes." It was always a gamble, gauging just how much truth the Dark Lord would tolerate, but Severus had become skilled at navigating these waters, especially in the safer harbour at the beginning of a meeting. Later it would be rougher, for Voldemort inevitably became frustrated with what he saw as the stupidity of his minions, and of course, it was still unclear just how much he might have changed after his years of exile.
But all was well for the moment. Voldemort gave a short laugh and leant back in his chair, seemingly at ease. "Ah, you would rather risk my displeasure than lie to me, Severus. I like that. It's a lesson that others could well learn. Had you said 'no,' I would have known you were lying. Of course I am a hard man to please. If the things I wanted were easily accomplished, what would be their value?"
"Yet I think you might not be unhappy with the task I am going to set you tonight. It's hardly a task, in fact - - think of it as a reward, my friend. Yes, a reward." The Dark Lord sat forward again and looked at Severus intently as he went on, in an apparent non-sequitur that Severus was sure was anything but, "I find myself recalling the days of your unfortunate infatuation with that Mudblood girl."
Voldemort's slits of eyes suddenly narrowed even further, something that in the past had often signaled that he was about to attempt Legilimency. Severus had to fight the instinct to raise his Occlumency shields: the Dark Lord would not be pleased to sense them, and in any case, what Severus needed was not a full barrier but a selective opening of his thoughts. He'd vastly improved his abilities in mental magic since the last time Voldemort had searched his mind, so he didn't fear too deep an intrusion. Still, he'd have to let the Dark Lord see something.
Severus forced himself to breathe calmly; he needed only to keep one step ahead of Voldemort's probings, figuring out from the thoughts he touched what he wanted to see. Then it was just a matter of steering him. . .
He felt the first tendrils of Legilimency slide into his mind, the merest brush of mental Devil's Snare. "Do you still pine for the Mudblood?" Voldemort asked softly.
Ah, this one Severus could answer openly. "No, my Lord." It was true: the idea of Lily, the fact of her, was something that had marked him more deeply than the Mark on his arm ever would, but the reality of her had faded. Her memory was now only a bruise, no longer an open wound, and in truth, the only times he could even see Lily clearly were when someone - - Dumbledore, or tonight, Voldemort - - came directly into his mind and brought her back.
He let the Dark Lord touch that mental bruise, feel the mildness of it, and almost at once he could sense the other man's satisfaction.
"Excellent," Voldemort murmured, but then, as if unwilling to offer approbation too quickly, he immediately asked, "yet once you would have said you loved her?"
"I thought I did, yes." It was a confession of sorts, but not a dangerous one. If he had to admit a fault, Severus knew, far better that it be a fault from the past, and one the Dark Lord was already sure of. Besides, when they weren't threatening his current plans, Voldemort always liked to see evidence of his subordinates' weaknesses.
"And what do you say of love now?"
No one in the Dark Lord's service - - well, no thinking person - - would have failed to plan an answer to this question, and Severus, though he sometimes wished he could do less thinking, was ready with his. "Love is something that many people believe in. But to me it is only a word."
He wasn't even lying.
A minute passed, then two, and finally, slowly, he felt Voldemort withdraw from his thoughts, the Dark presence sliding away like greasy rain down a windowpane.
For another moment there was only the crackle of flames in the fireplace. Then Voldemort said, "Many men make mistakes in their youth, Severus. What matters is whether they learn from the experience. Not many do, but you have seen the error of your ways."
"Yes, my Lord." This, too, was the simple truth, although even with Voldemort safely out of his mind, Severus wouldn't let himself risk visiting the more complicated truth: that the error of his ways had been deciding to do anything for anyone other than himself.
He was still committed to working against Voldemort, against the Death Eaters. But he was not working for Dumbledore or for Lily's memory or for her unspeakable son's sake or for the freedom of the wizarding world.
He was working for himself - - for the chance, for the first time in his life, to live in servitude to no one. Not his parents, not Voldemort, not Dumbledore, not Lily. He was working for the chance to live for himself alone.
That he probably would not live at all was another truth he did not deny. But at least he would get to decide what he was willing to die for.
Voldemort was speaking again. "What you felt for the Mudblood was desire only. You wanted her. I understand that. Boys want such things - - physical pleasure with women. It's natural," he said, in a tone that suggested he could think of few things more unnatural.
Here, at least, appeared to be something that hadn't changed during the Dark Lord's exile: for as long as Severus had known him, Voldemort had always been disgusted by sex, by the animal impulses that drove lesser beings.
"Natural," Voldemort said again, his nostril holes flaring in distaste. "And did I not tell you at the time that you would find other women, pureblood women, who were worthy of you? Or at the very least, a halfblood of good family, one whose touch would not defile you?"
"You did, my lord."
"And you have known such a half-blood carnally, haven't you?"
Though he wasn't sure he liked this turn in the conversation, Severus didn't have to wonder how to respond; this was a question to which Voldemort likely already knew the answer. "Yes, I have," he said.
His first sexual experience, not long after he'd left Hogwarts, had been with someone to whom Lucius Malfoy had introduced him, a genteel half-blood girl called Elda. "Someone suitable, one of our kind," Lucius had said, and Severus had taken it as a given that the Dark Lord knew of the whole situation.
The relationship, if such it had been, hadn't lasted, of course. Elda had fairly quickly moved on, for reasons Severus no longer remembered. Since then, there had been a few meaningless others - - mostly Muggle women he'd met during the summers in the pubs of Spinner's End. But he'd kept the connections carefully casual, and for the past two or three years, he hadn't indulged even in one-night-stands.
So on the whole, Severus lived the life of a monk, and he no longer thought he minded.
Unfortunately, the Dark Lord was now studying him with an expression that Severus thought did not bode well for his continued celibacy, and Voldemort's next words confirmed his fears.
"Then you have sufficient experience for what I need from you. You see, Severus, there is a pureblood witch whom I wish you to bed."
~ / ~ / ~
Upon his return to Hogwarts, Severus did not report to Albus as he normally would; he merely dispatched an elf to say that all was well and that the meeting had been of no great import.
Because there was no way in hell - - not in the worst hell anyone could devise - - that Severus was going to tell Albus Dumbledore that Voldemort had ordered him to fuck Minerva.
"She is a blood traitor, but a pureblood nonetheless; thus she is worthy of you, and you of her," Voldemort had said. "And she is known to be close to Dumbledore. I must learn as much about Dumbledore's plans as I can, Severus."
"I will share - - " Severus began, but the Dark Lord interrupted.
"You will report what you are able, yes; I trust you will give me no cause to doubt that. Yet Dumbledore is wily. There is much he will not tell you."
The great snake had wound its way into Voldemort's lap at this point, and the Dark Lord had paused to stroke it, scaly hand upon scaly head. "There is much he will not tell her, either, of course," he had continued. "But she will know some things that you do not, and you must learn them."
"Legilimens?" Severus had suggested. Voldemort must be made to see that there were workable alternatives to bedding Minerva.
But Voldemort had shaken his head slowly from side to side, and rather unnervingly, the giant snake's head had mirrored the motion. "I know Professor McGonagall from earlier days, Severus. She is a witch of ability, however. . .misguided she might be. You would not be able to invade her mind without her knowledge. No, you must take her to bed. Get her to trust you, to need you. Let her want to talk to you. Let her think she can save you. Women like that sort of thing, especially Gryffindors. She might even be foolish enough to believe she loves you."
The notion was laughable, but Severus said merely, "Perhaps she already has a lover." Minerva was private; he knew very little about her personal life.
But again the two heads had moved in negation.
"Lucius has conducted enquiries for me. She is unattached. She is not young, Severus, and she is apparently unwanted. She will be grateful to you, you'll see."
But then Voldemort had looked at him sharply, and Severus had to fight not to drop his eyes. A Dark Lord double-take was never a good sign; the best response was not to show any possible unwillingness.
"You seem reluctant, Severussss," Voldemort had said, his voice hissing audibly. Another bad sign. "What is the difficulty? Does Professor McGonagall remind you of your mother?"
Severus had barely stopped himself from snorting. "No," he said, as dryly as he dared. Eileen Prince would never have won any "mother of the year" awards, but if truth were told, she had been a better mother than he'd been a son. Minerva, on the other hand. . .well, few women struck him as less maternal, no matter that she spent her life with children. It was one of her most appealing characteristics.
"Is it her age, then? You think she is too old? Useless? She is disgusting to you, perhaps?"
Severus had known better than to fall into that trap: as best he could recall, Minerva was only a year or two older than the Dark Lord himself. Thus he couldn't offer age as a problem, and in truth, it wasn't.
Nor did he find Minerva unattractive, prim though she could be. In his student days, she'd drawn the attention of more than one hormonal boy, and a few girls, too. Severus hadn't liked her - - she was a Gryffindor, after all - - but he hadn't been unaware of her possibilities. The only time he'd ever agreed with Sirius Black was when he'd overheard the git snicker to his toady Pettigrew that McGonagall had nice tits.
Voldemort was waiting for an answer, so Severus gave it. "Not at all, my lord; she is in the prime of life. But. . .she was my teacher. And I her student. It would be difficult for either of us to consider the other as a - - "
"A minor problem, Severus. It has been many years since you were her student. You will simply have to adjust your thinking and convince her to do the same. And once you have become essential to her, you can begin to change her mind about her wrong-headed allegiance to Mudbloods. Women are easier to lead when their hearts are engaged. Just look at Bella and Narcissa."
Voldemort had slid the snake round his shoulders and stood, signaling the end of the audience.
"That's settled, then," he said. "You will begin a liaison with Professor McGonagall and bring me your first report in a month."