Two decades, almost to the day, since he walked out on his childhood. Or no, not walked out, exactly; tore down the walls and didn't look back. Good riddance to soot-covered streets, to mornings waking up to breaking glass and shouts from the kitchen, the taste of spilt magic acrid in his throat. No more slinking, head low, across schoolyards where being a wizard meant being a magnet for trouble; where all that kept him from boiling over was the thought of Lily Evans, taking classes in a school two miles down the road. Two decades since he was admitted to Hogwarts. Since what could have been the start of the rest of his life.
Ten years since he had squandered it all.
Snape shook himself and, with a muttered incantation, tugged the Concealment charm closer about him. Ten years since Harry Potter lived, and changed the rules. That Albus had left the boy here, of all places: on the doorstep of a Muggle home in a Muggle street that, even if it was worlds apart from the washed-out grey of Spinner's End, instilled in him the same measure of loathing. He'd been here once before, in the year of Harry's second birthday, drawn in by an impulse he'd refused to analyze. It had been around Christmas. The neighbourhood's sticky air of false cheer had made him want to gag.
But today was a warm day, and the garden of number 4 Privet Drive was now a screaming cacophony of colour. It wasn't sentiment that had brought him back, though. It was prudence. The boy had turned eleven this month; mere days and he'd be arriving at Hogwarts. Best to be prepared. It wouldn't do to run into the boy without warning and to – No. That wouldn't do at all.
Perched against a tree trunk, he squinted at the bony woman preening the flower beds. Petunia Dursley, looking every bit as unpleasant as an adult as she had as a child. Good, he thought, relieved. Perfect. Far easier if the memories could be coated with scorn, not longing.
What he hadn't been expecting, even though Albus with his trademark lack of tact had warned him ("Truly, Severus, the boy looks remarkably like his father"), was not to find just James' son but James Potter in miniature, sprawled at the back of the garden with his nose in a book. If there was something of Lily in there, Snape didn't see it. He averted his eyes with a rush of distaste, cresting briefly into despair. For a moment he just stood, stiffly, unclenching his hands with an effort. Then he walked away.
To say that Snape loathed house-elves would have been straining the truth. He had no love for them, certainly, but the same went for any creature in possession of a voice like curdled milk and eyes which were far too keen for comfort. It wasn't a matter of upbringing, or pride. His mother had never owned a house-elf, although Severus suspected her reasons were less noble, and more worldly, than the principles she'd claimed. Money, for one, and his father's fists.
No. On a good day, Snape would gladly take a house-elf over the average halfwit student of his. Two house-elves, if that student was Gryffindor.
This, however, was not a good day. This was his third attempt to help brew a cure for the Basilisk victims, and he was running out of time. He hadn't botched this many potions since he was a first-year. It was getting absurd. Of course, it wasn't so much the complexity of the recipes as their inaccuracy that was giving him trouble; he had a growing suspicion none of the authors wanted him to find a cure. At least that's what he gathered from their smirking portraits on the parchment. This time he was running mostly on instinct: more toad's liver, less viper bile; adding the wormwood only after five heartbeats; stirring in the Mandragora much more slowly, one counter clockwise turn for every thirteen clockwise ones. Three hundred and three, four, five… There.
The spoon clattered against the table. Snape winced and flexed his cramping fingers, wondering absently when he'd last eaten. Forget eating; I could do with a drink.
"Is Professor Snape all right?" a voice squeaked, from somewhere around knee height.
Snape's hand flew to his wand; his head whipped around and downwards. "Who –"
"Dobby, sir," the elf supplied hastily, and stepped out from behind a cupboard. Snape lowered his wand and half-slumped against the table. "Headmaster Dumbledore sent Dobby to check up on Professor Snape. Also, to bring him a drink."
The elf's hands held a dust-streaked bottle of what appeared, on closer inspection, to be very good brandy. Albus' way, no doubt, of telling him: Take a break, come sit with me a moment; we have much to discuss. Snape could hardly deny that, but neither could he deny there were three students slipping deeper into oblivion every minute he delayed.
He drew himself up to his full height. "You may tell the Headmaster that, if he insists on my joining a cocktail party rather than seeing his students cured, he ought to come and drag me out of here himself." That was unfair, he knew; Albus took every slight to his pupils as a personal affront. In fact, it was part of his problem. Still, it was exactly what Snape would have said to the old man's face, so he might as well say it to a bloody elf.
"Professor Dumbledore warned Dobby Professor Snape might say that," Dobby nodded sagely. Standing on tiptoe, he put the bottle on the table, where it wobbled for a precarious few moments. Snape sighed and, giving in to temptation, reached to pour himself a glass. He peered at Dobby from the corner of his eye, wondering –
"Professor Snape wonders if he has seen Dobby before." Snape stiffened. He raked his memory for what he knew about house-elf magic and whether or not it involved mind-reading, but came up short. In lieu of answering, he glowered and sipped his brandy. "Dobby was the Malfoy family's house-elf, sir, for many years. But Harry Potter freed us." Dobby's ears perked up by ten inches, at least. "Harry Potter is a kind boy. A good wizard."
Severus choked on his drink.
"Professor Snape dislikes Harry Potter." The elf had the audacity to look affronted.
"Potter is an arrogant, insufferable know-it-all and a miserable excuse for a wizard," he snapped, flinging all of his pent-up venom into the words and not caring. "I could imagine worse reasons to hate the brat."
"But – Professor Snape doesn't hate Harry Potter." Dobby's voice was an uncertain treble that sounded suddenly, impossibly stunned. "He only wishes he did."
By the time Snape found his voice again, he was quite alone.
The height of disgrace had been when, after the whole Black fiasco and after Snape had (quite rightfully, if with less satisfaction than he'd hoped) spilled Lupin's little secret, Albus had seized him by the arm and ordered him to calm himself. Calm himself! As if he was a child to be berated and talked down to! As if he hadn't done everything within his power to bring a murderer to justice, to the point of having his skull smashed in and nearly being flayed alive by the very idiot he'd gone through the pain of brewing Wolfsbane for. He had told Albus as much, spitting fire in the courtyard while the old fool tried to hush him with words like 'concussion', 'understandable' and 'shock'. Yes, his head was bloody killing him. No, that did not mean he had to be treated as if he were deranged! It had ended with Albus walking him down to his chambers and explaining, in a tone so laced with patience it had made Severus want to hex him on the spot, exactly why he believed Potter's mad tale.
But Pettigrew was beyond capture. The time for action had come and gone. For now, Snape was condemned to quenching his anger by grading O.W.L.s, marking essays, and nursing his still-throbbing head. Any distraction would do. Not knowing who to blame, he had no compunction blaming everyone: himself for not seeing what was right in front of him, Dumbledore for leaving him in the dark and confiding in Potter instead, Lupin for being a fool and a simpleton and not taking his potion, and Black for everything else. As for Pettigrew…
Slowly, deliberately, Snape set down his quill.
"Lupin." He made sure to stretch the syllables well beyond the point of obscenity. "Well, well. I hadn't thought you would have the nerve."
He hadn't meant that as permission to enter, but Lupin chose to take it as that regardless. "You look terrible," he remarked, setting down his battered case near the doorway.
Somehow, what Snape had intended as a sneer came out as a pent-up sort of sigh. "As opposed to you, I take it, who are brimming with health?"
Lupin chuckled humourlessly, which only served in making him look more haggard. "I'm not here to harass you, Severus, I just – thought I should tell you in person. I'm leaving."
"Good riddance." Snape pitched his voice just loud enough for Lupin to hear. He was well aware of the whispers behind his back, the mutters of indignation about the way he was, so claimed the Gryffindor camp, throwing Lupin to the not-so-proverbial wolves. Not that it changed his opinion. That he no longer thought Lupin was in league with a killer hardly implied all was forgotten. Snape simply did not believe in leaving mistakes unpunished, and last night had been a mistake of heinous proportions. The irony was, he suspected Lupin agreed. The man had always had an odd sense of honour, even if he lacked the backbone to act on it. All he had ever needed was someone to connect the dots for him, and Snape in this instance had been eager to comply.
"You were right, you know," Lupin shrugged, expression free of resentment. How pathetically predictable. "I betrayed Dumbledore's trust, made an error in judgment I couldn't afford. I could have bitten anyone yesterday: Harry, Hermione, Ron. You."
Snape didn't even grace that with a reply. "I presume that Albus, insipid as he is, told you the gates of this school will always be open for you?" He was very careful to make that a sneer, not an opening.
"Not in so many words. And definitely not as a teacher." Lupin stifled a cough with the back of his hand. "But yes."
Something in his face told Snape he didn't intend to take Dumbledore up on his offer. Which was something he understood. Still, he had to say it. "Then should you ever find yourself in need of Wolfsbane, do pray send a message beforehand, Lupin. I'm a busy man."
For once, Lupin had the decency to look stunned. Then of course he had to spoil it. "That's not – an apology, is it?"
Snape grimaced and dug at his temple with his fingers. "Merely being practical. But then, you've always been more about sentiment than practicality, haven't you?"
That was avoiding the question, but Lupin, uncharacteristically, let it pass. "Sentiment is not the same as weakness, Severus."
"Perhaps not," Snape said, and sucked in a breath. "But it is certainly as deadly."
It wasn't Albus but Minerva who met him at the gates, ramrod-straight and composed as ever, apart from the slightest tremor in her wand hand. Snape surprised himself by not calling her on it. Not that he expected her to return the favour. He had few illusions left about the Dark Lord's efficiency in expressing his ire; fewer about Minerva's restraint in meddling where she shouldn't. Bloody Gryffindor philanthropy. He swallowed and gripped the ironwork tighter.
"Albus?" he asked brusquely, pushing himself away from the gate. His legs felt like lead, but didn't fail him. Small favours, at least.
Minerva, to her credit, made no move to assist him. "Albus didn't think he should leave the school right now. And I concur. Poor Cedric Diggory's parents are still there, and Potter…" Her lips pressed together. Snape took the hint: the maudlin old git didn't want to leave Potter out of his sight. He fought down a stab of what felt absurdly like envy.
"Don't give me that pitying look, Minerva," he snapped. "It doesn't become you."
"It's not pity." She looked faintly offended at the suggestion.
"Whatever you call it." Please, let that be contempt in his voice, not petulance. "Don't."
She narrowed her eyes but kept silent, motioning for him to lead the way. "I take it that You-Know… That Voldemort wasn't pleased with your late arrival?"
"Not at first, no. Though in the end I managed to – persuade the Dark Lord of my continued loyalty." A branch snagged at his robes; he swayed on his feet for an embarrassing moment. "He was pleased enough with the information I brought."
"In the end," she repeated blankly, and Snape resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. How the woman could have fought a war and yet act so stricken at the thought of human cruelty was beyond him. "How long?" She caught up with him in two steady strides. "The Cruciatus curse. How long, Severus? I don't pretend to be an expert, but I would be a poor excuse for a witch if I didn't recognize the symptoms."
The bluntness was oddly refreshing, and Snape found himself giving the question some thought. "I – don't know. Not long, I think. Though one doesn't ordinarily – recall – such details." Or at least the mind did not. The body, however, was a different story. Voldemort practiced Cruciatus as another would practice fine arts; even after a decade, it had been shamefully clear how well Snape's body remembered his old master's craft. "There are techniques," he continued, as much to distract himself as to chase that expression from the cursed woman's face. "Countermeasures. None of them very effective in themselves, but used wisely, in the proper combination…" He shot her a sideways glance. "I can show you."
Minerva looked pale but unflinching. "Yes. That would be… prudent, I agree."
Snape nodded, then turned his attention back to keeping his footing. He made no effort to point out this kind of resistance took practice; Minerva would know very well what it entailed. As with any curse, of course, the casting varied with the caster. Dumbledore's was not less brutal, per se: in any case, there was no way to cast a mild Crucio, even if the purpose was training. But there was still something different, an undercurrent of anguish that was worlds apart from Voldemort's unique brand of disregard. An anguish that, ironically, had been Snape's clearest proof that he wasn't just being used; that Albus, for all his ruthless energy, regretted the necessity of what he asked of them. Of him. But it had been necessary. The Dark Lord had, at last, returned.
Ironic as well, then, that Snape's first reaction to that had been relief. He'd been shocked, yes, enraged, sickened to hear the words from Potter's mouth. But he also felt as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. All these years of waiting, protecting the boy, preparing themselves for this very night, never knowing if the preparation would be enough. From now on, it would have to be.
The cards were dealt; it had started. He was prepared.
He returned the Pensieve that same night. After he threw Potter out, after he'd cleaned up the sorry mess of scattered glass and even more widely scattered cockroach and found himself staring, hands clenched, at the swirling silver surface, all he could think of was that he wanted it gone. Out. The mere sight of it disgusted him. Besides, Albus would know anyway in the morning, would read the weight of failure on his face. Far better to concede defeat on his own terms.
"You'll find I did not retrieve all of the memories." Snape's mouth twisted. There was a curious kind of detachment at work: the words tasted foreign, metallic, as if it wasn't him but someone else moving his lips around them. "The Dark Lord…"
"… could only use them against you. I agree." Dumbledore finished locking the Pensieve away, then stood, hands folded, gazing up at the windowpane as if it held some strange and wonderful secret. "Severus…" Names were power, Snape thought, even here in this room. Especially in this room. "Are you quite sure you won't reconsider?"
This chair was too soft. His hands were drowning in the armrests, unable to find purchase. He clenched his teeth until they ached. "To what end? What makes you believe Potter even wants to be taught?"
"The boy –"
"The boy betrayed what little trust I had placed in him!" Snape squeezed his eyes shut; he visualized his pulse, bleeding white-hot into the lush, plush fabric. "Potter may be lazy and arrogant but even I do not take him for a total fool. He knew those were private memories! He knew I had placed them there for – safekeeping."
"And how many of Harry's memories have you accessed during your lessons?" Albus held up a placating hand that, for some reason, did nothing to alleviate the rushing in Snape's ears. "I realize you had little choice in the matter – the Muggles, I believe, have a saying about omelettes and eggs? But that Harry is young does not mean his private thoughts are not precious. Yet he made concessions. As you did."
"You are excusing him?" Snape hissed, rage engulfing him like a hot, red tide.
"That is not what I said." Albus sounded wistful, though about what, Snape couldn't tell. "But have you considered, even for one moment, that some good may yet come of this? For Harry to have seen this part of you…"
"You gave me your word," Snape said slowly, dangerously. "Don't tell me my trust in you was misplaced as well."
"I did not –"
"Severus…" This time, there was no power in the name. Albus' shoulders slumped and for a moment, he looked at a loss for words. "Surely you are stronger than this?"
That he had no answer was answer enough.
"Not the hospital wing." Draco clutched at Snape's robes with a feeble swipe of his hand. "I don't – not there."
He actually, Snape marvelled, succeeded in making that sound like a demand. Instinct, most likely. "Now is not the time for pettiness, Draco." He slowed and slipped the boy's arm off his shoulders. "Unless, of course, you intend to convince me you do not need proper care." Scowling into Draco eyes, he found them pinched but lucid. Good. It was fortunate that he had been the one to find Draco; the countercurse to Sectumsempra was hardly, he thought wryly, textbook knowledge. That Potter, of all people, had not only gotten his hands on the spell but also been dim-witted enough to use it, was enough to make his blood boil.
"You said Dittany," Draco gasped, then turned, if possible, paler. "You have – don't you? In your private stock."
Snape considered this. Of course he had, along with blood-replenishing draught and an ample supply of potions, assembled for the exact purpose of patching oneself up without interference. A precaution that had served him well over the years. Admittedly, there was something to be said for discretion in this case, so –
He gave a curt nod. "Can you manage the stairs?" Draco's face, gone briefly slack with relief, grew hard again. Ah. Redundant question. For all his customary flaunting of injuries, it seemed Draco didn't take well to needing help from someone close to him. From the look on his face when Snape levitated him down, then had to help him to a couch in his private office, it seemed Snape still qualified as that. Which might be a good thing, or it might make what lay ahead that much harder.
Shaking off the thought, he handed Draco a vial of greenish-white potion. "How, exactly, did you provoke Potter?" He kept his voice – almost – free of threat.
Draco was trying to look indifferent; an effort somewhat complicated by the fact that blood-replenisher tasted strongly of frog's bile. "Maybe he provoked me."
"I'm inclined to doubt that. This is Potter we are talking about, and Potter does not act, he reacts. So I am asking you again: what was he reacting to?"
Draco's eyes fixed on the ceiling. "He – startled me." This time, he sounded not so much sullen as wary. "I drew my wand, tried to hex him. It was reflex. But... he cut me off."
"Hex him how?" Something thick and heavy was coiling in Snape's stomach. "Draco. Hex him how?"
"Cruciatus." Snape averted his eyes just too late to hide his reaction. Draco stiffened and pushed himself up with a jerk. "You don't think I should do it," he spat. "You think I'm too young, don't you? That I shouldn't have to. The same things my mother says."
Snape took a moment to sieve through his answers to that. Most, in the vein of Narcissa has more sense than Lucius and you put together, or Your mother, at least, knows what she has to lose and is willing to go to some ends to save it, were rather too close to the truth. What he said instead was, "Your mother is – justifiably – concerned. It is a common misconception that casting an Unforgivable is harmful only to the victim. In truth, it affects the caster as well."
"You mean the killing curse," Draco shrugged, lying back a bit unsteadily. "Because, for it to work, you have to meanit."
In fact, that was a myth as well. An able enough wizard was perfectly capable of casting the curseon his closest friend. Or so Albus had claimed. Snape pressed his nails into his palm. "Not just the killing curse."
Draco narrowed pale eyes at him. Like his father, the boy excelled at sniffing out weakness. "You've used them. Unforgivables."
"Only when necessary," Snape said sharply. Curse it, he could not afford to have the mask slip, not now. "Never for sport."
"It wasn't sport." Draco shook his head with sudden vehemence. Ah – so he still cared for Snape's opinion, then. "Potter –"
"You will have no argument from me when it comes to Potter's insufferable attitude." That, at least, flowed out with ridiculous ease. "But restraint is vital, Draco. You would do well to remember it." He lowered his eyes and busied himself checking Draco's chest. It would need more Dittany: the wounds were knitting, but less quickly than he had hoped. He reached for the vial he'd set aside earlier. "If you take no other advice from me, take this. The Dark Arts are treacherous allies, so make sure you control them before you wield them. Otherwise, I guarantee: one moment of weakness and they will break you."
"I'm not weak," Draco protested, as Snape tapped out measured droplets across his skin. "It takes more than that to break me."
Snape only prayed that was true. For both of them.
Few, in Snape's experience, ever dared to meet the Dark Lord's eyes. Bellatrix was an exception, of course, but then Bellatrix had always been in a league of her own. Others would approach with lowered heads and hooded gazes, not looking up unless commanded to. As if any of it mattered. As if he did not see through them with ridiculous ease. He called them his children, but in truth he would take their lives for as little reason as another. Perhaps for less. None of them had ever been safer than those who feared them.
Snape had made it an art not to look away.
He didn't look away now, even though he knew in his bones – had known from the moment Lucius sought him out in battle – he would not walk out of this. The Dark Lord's voice was low and slick and curiously free of threat, and all Snape could see were those cold, cold eyes. They were nothing like Tom's, from before he was Voldemort: eyes filled to the brim with ambition and rage and want, but a man's eyes still. Nothing like Albus' eyes, which, for all their knife-edge brilliance, had never ceased to be human; were sometimes too human by far. It hadn't kept Snape from hating him, in those stolen moments where he refused to distinguish hatred from love. Albus was nothing like the man Tom had become, but he, too, had called them children, had offered them up as sacrifice. It was only that last moment, the last time meeting those eyes, that Snape had, at last, understood. Albus' sacrifices were not exclusive of himself. Every life he conceded, cost him. To forfeit his own was not nearly so hard.
Snape met Voldemort's eyes, and didn't flinch.
Lily's eyes had been open when he found her. He had not had it in him to stroke them shut.