It was a calm, crisp night; somewhat too mild for a night in late October. At this late hour most of the Hogwarts students would be asleep. Their Headmaster, however, was still awake, gazing thoughtfully at the dark grounds below his office windows. A young man stood uncertainly near the entrance, watching as Albus Dumbledore looked on.
The young man examined some of the various contraptions in the Headmaster's office, feigning interest, stalling, shifting uncomfortably, and then finally saying, "I'll just… go, then."
Dumbledore looked at him for a moment and then continued to observe the grounds. The young man's brow creased slightly, but he said nothing. He turned away and left.
New information churned in Dumbledore's head, and yet this other matter kept creeping to the forefront of his thoughts. He watched a night bird glide towards the forest.
A moment later, from the bottom of the stone steps, the new Potions Master and double agent Severus Snape answered, "Dumbledore?"
"I wonder if I might keep you for a little while longer… I believe I may have another task for you."
Severus re-entered the office to find Dumbledore facing him; making eye contact. "Certainly, sir," he said, barely able to remove all traces of contempt from his voice.
It was much later that night, or earlier the next morning, when Dumbledore arrived at the Order of the Phoenix Headquarters. A brilliant silver phoenix roused Lily and James Potter, who were hiding there until further arrangements could be made, and asked them to join Dumbledore in the kitchen.
They did so eventually, both wearing pyjamas and yawning.
"I believe I've found you a solution," Dumbledore said without preamble.
"To what?" asked James, stifling another yawn.
"To your dilemma regarding a choice of secret keeper."
"We've already worked it out with Sirius -"
"I thought you were looking for someone Voldemort would not suspect."
James and Lily glanced at each other. "We've – we've discussed it amongst ourselves -"
"And while I do hate to meddle, I think I have come up with a rather brilliant plan."
"Not to sound ungrateful," began James warily, as he and Lily glanced at each other again, "but you see, Professor, we've talked it over with Sirius and we think we've come up with the perfect -"
"What is your plan, then?" asked Dumbledore.
"I – what?" James replied, no longer yawning.
"I am willing to admit that you have arranged matters quite snugly amongst yourselves, but in the interest of your safety perhaps we should explore all options." The Headmaster was staring into space again. James and Lily looked at him, quite as dumbfounded as Severus had been.
It was Lily who broke the silence.
"Sirius suggested we use Peter – we're going to ask him in the morning," she said.
"Ah, because you presume Voldemort will think you have used Sirius and is therefore not likely to think you have used Peter. I see." He gazed off into the dusty darkness thoughtfully.
James and Lily looked at each other again.
"Have you considered the possibility that either of them… or both of them… could be relaying information to Vol-"
"Never," James said firmly.
"I hope you are right. Still." Dumbledore finally looked at them again, pierced them, in fact, with his gaze, first James, but for a long moment he looked at Lily. "I ask you to consider my alternative."
"Professor, we're very thankful that you've offered, but we think it's really for the best if -" began Lily.
"Oh, I'm not asking you to consider me again. The person I'm thinking of is far less conspicuous. Perhaps even the last person Voldemort would think of."
"Who is it?" asked James.
Dumbledore looked at Lily first, and his eyes came to rest on James. "Severus Snape."
Lily blinked. James stared at Dumbledore wordlessly.
"Lord Voldemort will never suspect him. And he will never betray your secret."
"But - he's got to be a Death Eater!" Lily said, staring at Dumbledore incredulously.
"Indeed he was, not long ago. But now, he is a double agent."
Lily looked at James, her mouth open in disbelief and confusion. James was shaking his head at Dumbledore, his expression matching hers. "I would never put my family's safety in that git's slimy hands."
"You are blinded by hatred. Severus and I have an understanding. I am convinced beyond any doubt that he will keep your secret."
"He is exactly what you're looking for -"
"We know we can trust him, whereas -"
"Might as well suggest using Voldemort as secret keeper!"
"No one apart from us will know of it, and Voldemort is too arrogant to suspect -"
"You've gone mad, Dumbledore! I've already told you, no!"
James and Lily stared at the now silent Headmaster with identical expressions of indignation. After a long moment, Dumbledore stood, slowly, but his eyes had hardened, and every particle in him radiated power. To behold the great wizard like this was becoming less and less rare in these dangerous times. The Potter's expressions melted away.
"I ask you to trust that I did not come here in the middle of the night to play old Hogwarts Sorting Hat games with you, to pit you entertainingly against an old rival, and I am certainly not here to force you to do something you consider extremely dangerous and abhorrent. I am simply here to urge you toward the best solution you have. You may gallantly refuse to consider the possibility that any of those close to you are untrustworthy, but we know – indeed, we have known for some time – that this is most unfortunately and unavoidably a fact. If your friends truly care about you then they will be able to breathe freely knowing you found the safest hiding place available to you. And if you are unable to trust me any longer, then we might as well join the Death Eaters immediately."
There was a long silence. Finally, James turned to Lily. "What do you think?" he asked quietly.
She turned to Dumbledore, disbelief and fear clouding her green eyes as the headmaster took his seat once more. "And you're sure… quite sure… that he is on our side?"
Dumbledore smiled. "There are few things of which I am certain. This happens to be one of them."
James's eyes narrowed as if he wished to challenge this statement, but Lily took a deep, resigned breath, staring as a child mesmerized by the wisdom of his father into Dumbledore's eyes. She said to James, "I think we ought to consider it, at least."
But Dumbledore was unwilling to allow the Potters to consider any longer – now that even James looked resigned (though mutinous), Dumbledore knew that he had what he wanted. "There will be no time for further discussion. I shall summon him now."
"But -" James began as Dumbledore stood and produced his wand.
"Best to do it now, while everyone sleeps, so that your safety is entirely assured." The silver phoenix burst forth as Lily and James rose, bewildered and confused. "He will be here shortly. Mind your manners. Hopefully when next we meet, it shall be in happier times."
Then he was gone, leaving Lily and James gaping after him. Waiting for Snape.
It had happened. The Potters had made him secret keeper.
And he was very seriously contemplating suicide.
Dumbledore was smiling at him over a small, flowery tea set on his office desk. Severus considered throwing the proffered tea in the headmaster's face and telling him that he was even more sadistic than the Dark Lord. Instead, he scowled.
"You will do this, will you not?" Dumbledore asked seriously, but he was still smiling as he poured himself a cup. "Properly?"
"I believe we have already established this," Severus answered in a dull monotone.
"I told them that you would never betray them."
"And I won't."
"I know," sighed Dumbledore. He charmed two sugar cubes and directed them into his fuchsia teacup. "They don't trust you."
Internally rolling his eyes, Severus said, "Then it was foolish of them to make me their secret keeper."
"They trust me. Sure you don't want some tea, Severus?"
He jerked his head irritably by way of reply. Dumbledore shrugged and sipped his own. The office was silent for several moments, but then Severus looked up and asked, "And you're interested in their affairs because, what, you want to secure my position as your double agent?"
Dumbledore peered at him intently. "I am interested in aiding the Potters because they are good people, good people who do not deserve to be murdered to suit the whims of an arrogant tyrant. In any case, Severus, I do not put much stock into prophecies and other such magics. I do, however, recognize the power of love, and therefore -"
Feeling the need to end this conversation before it went anywhere too… well, too… something, anyway, Severus interjected. "Trelawney prophesized the Dark Lord's downfall. That doesn't interest you?"
"Indeed, Severus, and if you hadn't told your 'Dark Lord' all that you heard, do you suppose that he would have suddenly decided to gallivant about murdering infants?"
Severus glared defiantly back at Dumbledore for a moment, but then the fight went out of him and he lowered his gaze until he was staring moodily into his lap. Something flickered behind Dumbledore's eyes as he watched Severus. The Headmaster summoned a second fuchsia teacup with a flick of his wand, and silently made sugar and cream float through the air into the cup as the flowered teapot poured. The cup and saucer floated closer and closer to the potions master until they were directly under his nose and he finally noticed them. He rolled his eyes, seized them, and put them rather forcibly on Dumbledore's desk – but not before he took a gulp.
"If Voldemort unwisely chooses to depend upon prophecies and foolish superstitions, and we, as I was saying before, prefer to foster and revere love and decency in general, eventually, I think, we shall have the advantage."
Severus looked unconvinced. Dumbledore finished his tea and said, "So, to business. Can you guess what this little side project of yours will entail?"
"Not telling anyone else that I'm the secret keeper of the Potters," Severus muttered.
"I can't even tell him? I would never have guessed," Severus said in the same miserable monotone. Dumbledore smiled humourlessly.
"Yes, but you will be close to him often, and he can neither suspect your actual intentions, or that you are hiding something from -"
"I have, over the past few months, had enough practise evading the Dark Lord's suspicions."
"Then we shall move on. Not one member of the Order is to know that you are my agent. When James asks you to give Sirius the secret location, which is an inevitability, you will not."
"Fine," was the curt answer. Severus was perfectly happy to keep Black and all of Potter's other stinking friends out of this.
"And you'll have to visit the Potters often to bring them whatever they need, and the Order's news."
"Couldn't you -" Severus said desperately, horrified at the prospect.
"I, Severus? I have other things to do."
Severus considered sneering at that, or arguing further, and perhaps smashing some strange contraptions. He stayed silent.
"On that note, since the Potters were in such an unexpected rush last night to do the charm, it's likely they don't have much prepared. You should go visit them now and see what you can do for them."
Severus balked, which was impressive, considering his normally pallid complexion. "Severus, you should do it now while our mutual friend," here Dumbledore nodded to the arm upon which the Dark Mark was burned, "is not summoning you."
Glaring more furiously than he had over the entire meeting, Severus stood up and swept out of the office, muttering something ferocious under his breath that made Dumbledore chuckle appreciatively once the young potions master was out of earshot.
Disillusion charmed and scowling, Severus Snape stood on the porch of the house in Godric's Hollow, fist raised to knock. He had been standing like that for nearly five minutes. Just do it. Get it over with. He sighed, and finally knocked.
He could hear eager footsteps down the hall, and an enormous crash and a lot of surprised shouting. The door opened.
James Potter was staring right through Severus, who hissed, "It's me."
Potter's eyes narrowed, but he stepped back to let Severus in. "What are you doing here?" he spat as he watched Severus materialize out of thin air.
"Believe me Potter, if I didn't have to be -" he stopped, and said in a more silky voice, "I'd expect more gratitude from you. I am saving your life. Part of this duty requires me to ensure that you don't starve, as much as it would satisfy me if you did."
Potter's eyes, which had been still narrowed in intense dislike, widened – now horrified. "Couldn't someone else… Sirius, or Peter, or… anyone do that?"
"Of course, Potter, practically everyone was falling over themselves to offer, but I, personally, couldn't refuse such an honour," Severus sneered. "Not to mention that your friends are selling information to the Dark Lord -"
James made a furious sound in his throat, but didn't challenge him. Instead, he said, "Why can't Dumbledore, then?"
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you think you're so precious. Dumbledore has far more important things to do than running around trying to pamper you."
They stood, glaring at each other with the same hatred as they had through all their years at Hogwarts. The silence increased until Lily stumbled in carrying the boy on her hip, who was covered in some sort of bright red gelatinous substance. She was looking at James; she hadn't noticed Severus at all as she admonished her husband. "James, do you think you could give up on that bloody fireplace for a minute and help… me…" she had seen him at last. "Oh…."
At an ungodly hour that morning, just before they performed the charm, Lily had seen to it that James was preoccupied with the child and took Severus by the arm so that they were safely out of earshot.
"What did you say to Dumbledore that made him believe you to be trustworthy?"
He had cringed, hopefully only inwardly. "I told him the truth. I told him that I could not do the Dark Lord's bidding anymore."
"And why would that be?" she had snarled.
He had stared into her eyes desperately, looking for an answer that wouldn't infuriate or disgust her. "Because… it would have hurt me to continue on any longer. I would have been destroyed. I went to Dumbledore and begged him for amnesty and for protection."
She had surveyed him for a moment. Then she leant in closer. "Are you going to betray us?"
"How can I know that for sure?"
"You can't, I suppose. But I wouldn't be here if I wanted you dead."
There had been another long moment during which she had peered intently into his eyes, and the seriousness of her searching for reassurance was only marred by the inexplicable honking noises coming out of the over-excited miniature Potter as he tried to yank his father's wand out of his shirt pocket.
"I'll trust you for now, Snape. I have no choice. But you need to understand something. If you go back on your word to Dumbledore, and my family ends up attacked, make damn sure that you kill me, or I will make you wish that it was Voldemort that you crossed. Is this clear?"
He had almost gulped. "Yes." She had looked at him a moment longer, and then had rejoined her husband.
Now, in the Potters' hallway, she was staring openly at him. He looked away. James was still glaring at Severus. "Well," he said finally, "let's get this over with."
"Get what over with?" Lily asked James. The boy stuck three fingers in his mouth.
"He's here to do our shopping," Potter replied distastefully.
"Oh," she said and shifted the boy on her hip. He finally met her eyes – they were full of mistrust and the smallest touch of fear, but she said, "Won't you come into the – well, the kitchen's a disaster at the moment, but… into the sitting room… Mr. Snape?"
Both Severus and Potter started at hearing her use this formality with him, but then Potter was laughing.
"Mr. Snape! Lily, what the bloody hell… I'll have to tell Sirius that."
"I'm constantly amazed at your infantile sense of humour, Potter," Severus said furiously. His cheeks had coloured just a little bit.
Lily said nothing, but marched determinedly through a small archway into the sitting room. They followed her in, Potter still laughing. "Please sit down," she said politely, aggressively, gesturing to a squashy purple armchair. Truthfully Severus would have much preferred to take care of matters in the hallway, or better yet, on the porch, but it was Lily who asked, so he took the seat. She sat on the couch opposite, and Potter, who was frowning again, asked, "And since we're being hospitable, may I ask how Death Eaters take their tea?"
Severus twitched, longing to reply scathingly. He had always had trouble with the scathing replies when Potter had been among friends, although when it was just the two of them they sparred quite evenly. Black, Pettigrew and Lupin weren't here, but Lily was. He had always had even more trouble articulating in front of her. There was a time when it didn't matter – she would have stuck up for him. Today she just sat, tense, perspiring a little bit, clutching her son. Severus ignored the crack and simply asked, "Well?"
Potter lowered himself into the seat beside his wife and leaned forward. "You'll need some parchment. And a quill."
"I'll be fine."
"It's going to be a long list."
"If you forget something you'll have to go back out and it'll take longer."
"… I haven't got ink on me -"
Potter tossed him a bottle, grinning menacingly. "Okay. Food."
"Care to be more specific?"
"Lily, what do we usually buy, I can't quite…"
"Just the fresh stuff, whatever looks good."
"So, fruit, vegetables, eggs, juice, milk…"
"A large assortment of baby food. Is that all, do you think?"
"I'd say so. We've got stocked cupboards. And we've way too many potions ingredients. We're out of floo powder, though."
"You can't have floo powder," Severus interjected.
Potter glared at him. "We can have whatever we want."
"No, you can't. Floo powder won't work, anyway."
Potter simply glared at him. Lily sighed, and looked at Severus. "He's been trying to hoodwink it so that it will."
"It doesn't surprise me," Severus said softly.
"What is that supposed to mean?" James and Severus were glaring at each other furiously again.
"Just that you're predictable, and extremely foolish. You cannot make contact with the wizarding world except through me. It's too dangerous."
"You can't possibly expect us to just stay in here for who knows how long with only you for company!"
"I expect you to do what you have to so that you don't have to watch your son get blown up before his next birthday."
"Get out of this house."
He was breathing rather heavily, staring at the door through which Severus had left moments ago. He ignored her.
"What?" he snapped.
Lily had set Harry on the floor, and he was crawling in slow pursuit of the cat. Lily stood with her arms crossed and a frown on her face.
"You can't… you shouldn't argue with him."
"He's helping us. He's the only one we've got, so you shouldn't revert back to your Hogwarts days -"
"Lily, did you hear him? Did you hear what he said about Harry?"
"Yes, I heard him. And don't think I like this any more than you do, but I'm telling you that it will be much easier for everyone if you control yourself."
"I, control myself – he was the one who -"
"You asked him how Death Eaters like their tea, and you laughed at me calling him Mr. Snape."
"That's because that was bloody ridiculous."
Lily sighed and sat back down, and James followed suit. He flung an arm around her and they watched Harry prod the cat.
"I don't trust him."
The cat peered at Harry through one pale green eye, and her tail thumped dangerously on the floor. Harry seized it in one chubby hand.
James was staring at her searchingly.
Lily sighed. The cat grumbled. "Harry," warned James. Harry released her tail and she stormed off.
"I discussed it with him this morning."
"Yes. James, I think Dumbledore is right. I think he really means to protect us. Is he pleasant? No. Is he even adequately helpful? Probably not. But I think we're at least safe. And that's a lot to be thankful for." She watched Harry pull globs of jelly off of his elbows silently.
James frowned. "Fine. Wonderful. Stupendous. But from now on we'll do business on the porch. He's not coming back into this house. And if he gets our shopping wrong I'm going to hex him."
"You do that."
"You used to laugh at my jokes."
"Your jokes used to be funny."
There used to be something at the beginning about whether or not the timeline/secret keeper thing makes any sense whatsoever, but I got rid of it. Just so's you know. Still, thanks to those readers among you who weighed in on the subject.