Conspiracy of Silence
Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling created and owns Hogwarts, Severus Snape, and almost everything else in this story - for which I will be forever jealous.
Author's Note: The sequel to CoS: Sixth Sense. Seventh and final story in the series.
The Seven-Headed Serpent
Severus Snape stepped out onto platform nine and three quarters for the seventh and final time. Perhaps his heart ought to have been heavy - or even light - at the thought, but he had other things occupying his mind. A great number of things were coming to a head in the world of wizardry right now, and his school career was just about the least important of them.
At seventeen, Sev was now a man grown, imposingly tall if more skinny than slim, and could perhaps have been handsome if he'd cared. He did not - appearances, like many of the other things his classmates considered so important, were largely meaningless to him.
Indeed, all of Snape's own most valuable skills were the kind that didn't show on the surface; his surface showed very little at all, except when he wanted it to. He went through life with an icy, impassive exterior, occasionally exploding into a raging temper that very few realised was as calculated as his barbed remarks.
Orphaned and largely self-raised, with the aid of his uncle's extensive magical library, Severus had developed a truly exceptional logical mind - not to mention the ability to remain detached from the people around him. He'd been watching and listening very carefully from the very beginning of his time at Hogwarts, and it hadn't taken long at all to realise that something very rotten was building in the wizard world.
Though nobody could accuse him of selfless nobility, Sev was nothing if not pragmatic, and logic dictated that the rise of the Death Eaters would do him no favours. Whilst he prized knowledge above all else, they were more interested in their meaningless concept of 'purity' - a system which offended his innate sense of logic. He wasn't impressed by the idea of a world where stupidity could be ranked over genius simply by 'virtue' of family connections, and he knew for a fact that a man of his intelligence would be a target for everybody when it came to that kind of backstabbing environment. Oh, he trusted his ability to outwit them at every turn, but he knew it would be even simpler to eradicate such enemies entirely.
The Death Eaters needed to be stopped from reaching power, and he wasn't about to trust the forces of 'good' to achieve that without aid. Even Dumbledore, one of the few wizards he believed to have an intelligence comparable to his own, was too often blinded by emotion and compassion. Heroics had their place, he supposed, but they were no substitute for careful calculation and planning.
The Death Eater leader, Lord Voldemort, was certainly just as mentally adept as the Hogwarts headmaster - and considerably less hampered by any semblance of moral code. All the heroics in the world wouldn't defeat Voldemort's cunning - that was a job that would require somebody on the inside; somebody extremely quick, adaptable, perceptive, and capable of thinking a few dozen steps ahead of the enemy.
Naturally, Sev considered himself the only possible candidate for the job.
Right from the beginning, he'd made his way into the inner circle of Lucius Malfoy, the obvious ringleader. Though Malfoy didn't like Sev overmuch - he was far too aware of his superior intelligence for that - he trusted him, as much as one Slytherin trusted another.
Malfoy was waiting for him as he stalked through the crowd on the platform. Most of them stepped back out of his way; his carefully built reputation for fury and curses was close to legendary. He was tarred with the same brush as his fellow secret Death Eaters, and his icy exterior added a dark mystery all his own.
Though Lucius Malfoy had no doubt reached his full adult height, he would never be as tall as Snape or indeed most of his male classmates. Together with his white-blond hair and slim build, he looked almost fragile, delicate - until you noticed the steel in his cold grey eyes.
"Severus." He acknowledged Snape with a barely perceptible nod. "You kept us waiting." Of course, they had never actually made any arrangement to meet on the platform - Malfoy had just assumed that it was his classmates' priority to be where he was.
"This is hardly any place I would care to loiter," he said with a sneer. In truth, a crowded platform was an ideal place for indulging one of his greatest talents, people-watching, although after six years there was little about his fellow students he didn't already know. However, as a Death Eater he was supposed to be deeply disgusted at the idea of fraternising with lesser mortals. In fact, Sev was quite happy giving most of the students that designation, but not for the same reasons Malfoy did.
"Quite." Malfoy pulled a highly snooty expression and swept around in a circle pointedly. "Then let's get out of the rabble." They boarded the train.
There were seven of them together in the carriage; over the years they had formed into a tightly knit group. Although by now all of house Slytherin bowed to Malfoy to some degree, these five - and, so he believed, Snape - were his most loyal followers.
Malfoy was the leader, and Sev the mastermind. Nick Avery was slick and charming, and could have rivalled Malfoy for leadership if he hadn't been too lazy. Colin Crabbe was dim-witted but a surprisingly talented thief, and Simon Lestrange was quietly psychopathic. The other two boys, Alex Nott and Graham Goyle, were both a year younger, and served as the muscle of the operation. They terrorised 'mudbloods' and 'Muggle-lovers' wherever they were found, or even suspected of being found. The young Death Eaters never let the facts get in the way of a good prejudice.
Although it would be a big mistake to assume - as most adults probably would - that their youth somehow rendered them harmless, Malfoy's band of followers were not Voldemort's most deadly card in the Hogwarts deck. That honour belonged to Ellida Vitae, a Death Eater spy who Snape had spent most of the past six years trying to uncover.
As the head of house for Gryffindor, no less - home of the noble and brave - Vitae would probably be considered above suspicion by all but the most untrusting. The only ones who now knew her secret were Malfoy, Snape, Dumbledore, and the Slytherin head of house Professor Malachite.
And, of course, Lily. The least likely of Sev's allies in his undercover war, she had twigged early on that there was more to him than met the eye, and whilst she didn't exactly approve of some of his methods, she had to accept that his spying was probably their best hope against the Death Eaters. She might not lead nearly as elaborate a double life as he, but her Gryffindor boyfriend Potter and his friends would be very surprised if they knew that she and Snape were actually pretty close associates.
Malfoy, of course, would be totally horrified. Lily fulfilled every qualification necessary to be his most hated enemy - she was a mudblood, a Gryffindor and James Potter's girlfriend, not to mention committing the cardinal sin of being simultaneously female and better in her classes than Malfoy.
However, right now Malfoy was dreaming of bigger things than the perpetual thorns in his side from house Gryffindor. He waited until the train pulled out, as if fearful of spies, and then leaned forward eagerly.
"Our leader wants to see us all this Christmas. I need you all to tell your parents that you'll be staying with me, or at least that you'll be staying on at Hogwarts."
"Why all the fuss?" frowned Nick Avery. "Why can't we go out at night like we usually do?"
"We're not using the Portkey this time," Malfoy explained curtly. Over the last few years, they had often been woken in the middle of the night to troop out to the Forbidden Forest and be magically transported.
"Why not?" frowned Colin. Sev realised the answer first, probably because he was the only one who'd taken the time to work out where they actually were when they visited their hidden leader.
"He's in the country," he surmised. All their previous visits had been to the European school of wizardry, Durmstrang, although no one had admitted as much out loud. Now, it appeared, Voldemort was coming to England to set his plans in motion.
Malfoy grinned wickedly. "The hour is upon us," he smirked. "Soon..." He didn't need to finish.
The boys' answering grins were a mixture of triumph and nervousness. All of a sudden, their playing at being spies and rebels was a whole lot closer to becoming a reality...
Sev's meeting with his other group of secret allies was a much more surreptitious affair. The young Death Eaters were secure in their arrogance, and protected by the fact that everyone expected Slytherins to be clustered together in corners, plotting. Secret meetings with people who were supposed to be his arch-enemies were a little hard to arrange.
It was three weeks in to the term before Professor Malachite happened to 'casually' snare him after class. "Severus; I've been thinking about entering you for an extra NEWT in Dark Enchantments at the end of the year. I'd like you to come and see the headmaster with me about it, if you don't mind."
As if she'd been coached to do so - and perhaps she had, for she was under considerably less scrutiny than he - Lily piped up "Dark Enchantments? I've been reading up on that over the summer. Oh, sir, can't I take the exam too?"
It was hard to tell whether Malachite's scowl was real or feigned. Though his enmity towards Professor Vitae had turned out to be well-justified, he hadn't quite got over his dislike of her house in general. And perhaps he had good reason to; house Slytherin were routinely maligned and mistrusted, a legacy of suspicion that Malfoy and his disciples certainly weren't doing anything to retract. Malachite tended to be fiercely proud of any show of talent or good behaviour by his students, and was endless frustrated when house Gryffindor horned in on it for their slice of the glory.
"Very well, Lily," he said coolly, "you may come and speak with the headmaster as well. However, I should warn you that the extra course on top of your Defence Against the Dark Arts studies will be very demanding."
"I'm sure I'll survive," said Lily, and smiled sweetly. In her own way, she could be just as wickedly smug as Lucius Malfoy himself.
As she and Snape trooped through the corridors together, they shot each other sneers and dirty looks. As soon as they were through into the corridor outside the headmaster's office, Lily's dissolved into giggles.
Malachite gave her a disapproving look. "This is hardly a laughing matter, Lily."
"Sorry," she said, not very apologetically. "It's just your face, Sev. You look like you've swallowed a frog."
"It's my 'what did I do in a past life to have to put up with these people?' look."
"Well, it's very effective," she assured him.
"What makes you think it's put on?"
"I should think you have more trying things to put up with than us," observed Professor Dumbledore, seeming to appear out of nowhere. "What of your other group of allies?"
"They're up to something," Sev said bluntly. "Voldemort is in the country, and he wants to see us all at Christmas."
"In the country?" Malachite stroked his goatee beard gravely. "Sounds like he's getting pretty close to making his move openly."
"Indeed it does." Dumbledore looked troubled. "And if so, I fear the viper in our midst may well be preparing to strike."
"Yes, well, she's not the only snake in the Hogwarts grass," Malachite said pointedly. The Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher had a secret of his own; he was a Naga, a shapeshifter capable of taking on the form of a huge white snake. Dumbledore had known about it since his school days, just as he had kept the secret of Remus Lupin's lycanthropy.
"Enough with the snakey metaphors?" Lily suggested. "If anybody can listen in on us here, we've lost already, so why don't we all just speak plainly? You're talking about Professor Vitae, right?"
Dumbledore smiled fondly at her. "Indeed we are Lily, and you're quite right. The time for mincing words is long past."
"In that case," said Malachite fiercely, "let me say again what I've been telling you all summer. We need to get rid of her."
"Maybe so, maybe so." Dumbledore looked sad. "I fear you're right; the time for bringing her back from the dark path she's strayed to is long past, and if Voldemort plans to move openly there's little need to worry about a replacement spy. So the question becomes - can we move against her without throwing suspicion onto young Severus?"
"Of course we can," insisted Malachite boldly. "By throwing it all onto me."
"Now, Carnus-" Dumbledore seemed less than thrilled with the idea, but the Slytherin house leader was firm.
"Please, Albus, she knows full well that it was I she tussled with in the tower last year. There are a limit to the giant white snakes one encounters in a lifetime," he said dryly. "I didn't see her face then, but she knows I've always been suspicious of her."
"It makes sense." Sev spoke softly, but everyone fell silent when he did. "If you confront her, you can have her convict herself."
"Oh, c'mon!" objected Lily. "She's kept her defences up this long, you really think she's that stupid?"
"No, but she's that arrogant. Think of Malfoy. The things he says could get him in trouble a thousand times over, but why does he do it?"
"To prove he can," answered Lily instantly. "It's not enough to be nasty, he has to be nasty and prove that he can get away with it." She turned that over in her head for a moment. "So you're saying she'll taunt him with the truth, if she believes no one else will ever get to hear it?"
"But I think we'd better arrange that someone is there to hear it," interjected Dumbledore soberly. Malachite frowned at him.
"I appreciate your help, Albus, but I assure you, I can take care of Ellida Vitae myself."
Dumbledore looked troubled. "I thought you would say so, but I'm afraid I must insist. Ellida has been waiting to revenge herself upon you for a long time - your nature may protect you from many kinds of attacks, but you must remember that she knows what you are. Your victory is not much of one if it gets you killed."
Malachite looked petulant, but finally he gave a single sharp nod. "Very well. I'll confront her, and you can tag along. I trust you'll find a way to make yourself... unobtrusive."
"I'm sure I'll think of something," smiled the headmaster enigmatically.
"But not yet," Sev cautioned. "The time isn't right."
Malachite snorted. "Is it ever?"
"Wait until after Christmas," he elaborated. "Vitae is Voldemort's conduit to Malfoy's Death Eaters, and his means of sending them their orders. No doubt he'll find a way to reestablish contact soon enough, but let's not hand it to him on a plate."
The others nodded their agreement, and Lily asked "So what does he want with you at Christmas?"
Sev gave a slight shrug. "To talk about the future, no doubt. Time is growing short, and sooner or later he's going to take us out of the schoolyard and into the combat zone."
The others exchanged worried glances. Sev's face was, as always, unreadable.