Alastor Moody sat in his office and watched the morning fog roll over the moors and blanket the windows in a shifting gauze that blotted out the ashen dawn only to reveal it once more through the fragmented, bleary lens of the windowpane. The vibrant colors of spring and summer had faded, leached of their vitality by the encroaching breath of winter. What little grass remained was brown and brittle, and the surface of the lake was dull and listless, cinders and lead. Soon, the ice would form, and by December, the boisterous, heedless children within these walls would be skating over its surface, shouting and laughing and oblivious to the danger lurking so patiently beneath their feet.
"Gormless little sods," he croaked. "Never think a moment."
Neither did you at that age.
He grunted in grudging concession of the point and unscrewed the cap of his hip flask with stiff, frozen fingers. No, he hadn't. Age and the loss of his leg and half his face had brought his wisdom, and it had been a bitter price to pay. But he knew now, and he saw what they, in their youthful ignorance, would not. Could not. His vigilance saw the tiny, hairline fractures that runnelled through the seemingly pristine ice over which they so glibly skated, confident in the belief that grace would never falter and gravity would never win. He saw what lay beneath.
And that was why he was sitting here in his office at half past seven in the morning, freezing his leathery arse off and ignoring the weeping throb of the November cold in his joints and waiting for the Stanhope child to cross his threshold with her clanking jalopy and her too-bright eyes. He was an Auror in a teacher's flesh, and it was his duty to be vigilant for those too reckless to know better.
She might not come. Hasn't been a young one yet who doesn't like to lie abed.
Oh, she would come. Of that he had no doubt. For all her affectations of misanthropy, she was a Gryffindor in the marrow, and no less than the Headmaster had bid her take up the charge. He had appealed to her vanity, to her need to prove her valor, and like stronger, wilier souls before her, she had answered the call. The children in the House of Lions were not permitted to shirk the duty laid before them, no matter the terror in their hearts, and she would walk into the valley of shadows because there was no choice.
There seldom is. That's the way of life, and of Albus Dumbledore. He smiles and twinkles and cajoles, and it's all so heroic and noble and grand, so damn sensible, that before reason can stop you, you've hobbled pell-mell into the killing chute with nary a backward glance. You were a Ravenclaw and a seasoned Auror when you fell into his thrall. You knew each trick of the forked tongue, each strategem of deceivers. You smelled the lies like copper on their lips, and despite all your experience and inveterate wariness, you found yourself in his pretty snare and agreeing that a Death Eater deserved to live. Little wonder, then, that a child should fall into his trap.
He took a long sip of scotch and rolled it on his tongue, savoring the sour-sweet bitterness of it and the heady bloom of heat in his chest, the kindling ambrosia of Prometheus. It always came back to Snape, and he often wondered how and when such a sniveling waste of skin had become the fulcrum upon which lives and future successes hinged. Snape had brought him out of his warm bed to sit in a chair and knead absently at a calf that had rotted to dust in the soil of Essex.
Severus Snape was a dangerous man, and if the child knew nothing else, she deserved to know that. When he had shaken hands with an angel to spare the devil from his due, he had known precisely what he was doing, but she was going in with eyes wide shut, and though he had never been a Gryffindor, it smacked of unfairness and a cavalier disregard by Albus for the consequences.
That's hardly new. Prosaic, wry. For twenty years, he has been so focused on the end of destroying the Dark Lord that he cares not for the means by which it is done. Or if he does, he tells himself that with one life, he is buying one hundred more, that by keeping secrets, he is sparing untold anguish. It is only after, when the blood has been spilled and the body lies cold and unmoving beneath its eternal blanket of earth, that he counts the cost and finds it too much to bear. By then, it is far too late, and the only atonement to be had is in the lines in his face and the emptiness you can find in those blue eyes if you look closely enough. He has done it to everyone who walks beneath his banner, including Harry Potter, his golden child. You shouldn't be surprised.
"And look where it's landed young Potter," he muttered to the shifting gloom of the room. "Stretched out in an infirmary cot while Clothos weaves his winding sheet." Another contemplative swig of scotch.
Nor was he the only one. Dumbledore's well-intended machinations have done a great many of his followers a fat lot of good. Take Potter's parents, for example. They believed him without question, and now they are martyrs remembered by fewer every year and ghosts who haunt the child they left behind. Or the Prewetts. Two sons came home in boxes draped with Merlin's crest, and though the sister who would one day become Molly Weasley has learned to smile again, she has never entirely forgotten them. They live on in her constantly wringing hands and the shrill voice that cannot stop hectoring and the cotton umbilici with which she binds her sons to her. She looks at her husband and children and sees, not men, but funeral pyres and Orders of Merlin, First Class in velvet-lined boxes.
Simeon and Gideon Prewett. There was a pair he hadn't pondered in a while. Years, maybe. The boxes they'd been brought home in had been closed for good reason, and even as a veteran Auror, he'd been shaken by the carnage. The younger Aurors on the scene had vomited discreetly into the privet hedge. His gorge had remained steady, but later that night in the dingy confines of the Boar's Head Tavern, he had quaffed a fifth of scotch, and had taken a week of baths with lye soap to get the reek of Dark magic and the gassy sweetness of exposed entrails out of his robes and his nostrils.
Even when it seems that we've strayed far afield, the point is close at hand, after all, because Severus Snape and his coat of turning colors was in the thick of the stink. He and Lucius Malfoy both, sons of Slytherin, as diametrically opposed as darkness and light, but united in their malice and bottomless ambition. Brothers in greed, they would gladly have torn the viscera from their enemies if it moved them one step closer to their coveted glory.
Oh, there was no proof that they were involved, no bloody handprint, no scrap of clothing left behind as they fled. The blowflies that crawled over the unseeing eyes of the dead did not cast indictments against them in their strident, buzzing tongue. Officially, no one was ever brought before the Wizengamot on charges, and the Prewett file gathers dust in the Ministry vaults, passed over even by the Aurors assigned to murders everyone and time has forgotten.
But officiality is not sacrosanct, and rumors are longer-lived than truth by miles and centuries. The scuttlebutt in the pubs and houses of ill-repute put faces to the specters that had spirited them away, and they were hook-nosed and sallow-skinned and fair as ivory with a crown of white fire. The Ministry bigwigs ignored the whispered, soaked as they were in rye and gin and other assorted spirits of the most terrestrial stripe, but those who had slogged through the trenches and lived through the horrors the bureaucrats proposed from the safety of their lofty parapets listened. Most of them frequented the taverns to slake their thirst and guard against nightmares, after all, and those with nothing to lose but their lives see the clearest of all.
Odd that you should place so much stock in an institution that has spent the last ten years overwriting all the good you've done with tales of your paranoia and the exploits of "Mad Eye," who once was Alastor Moody in the eyes of the Fates, sneered a dour, rusty voice inside his head. They slosh ale over the splintered lips of their tankards, and between sips, they assay to one another that you had always been mad, and that lunacy drew you to the bosom of Aurory as a moth to a flame. They grunt and they nod, and then the bolder and the drunker among them assert that your mind was not all you lost when that Curse struck home. They guffaw and raise their tankards, and with unsteady voices, they toast poor Moody, who lost two of his three legs in one fell swoop.
He grunted. Well, they could think what they liked on that score. The Curse had taken most of a leg and a chunk of his nose, but his bollocks and prick were still his own, even if they were as dusty and ignored as the dossiers in the Ministry's vaults. He intended it keep it that way, too; since the unfortunate Bum Mishap of 1974, wherein a young Auror had divested himself of his right buttock in his haste to draw on an oncoming suspect, he had given up stowing his wand in a pocket or belt loop. However barmy the legends made him to be, he was not a fool.
Besides, the perniciousness of the grapevine that wended its way through the bars and back alleys of Knockturn Alley and its surrounding environs did not preclude its occasionally utility, and he had never been above using any tool at his disposal to gather information. More than one Death Eater had come to that realization a scant second too late.
The eddies of gossip in the low places of wizarding society had identified Snape as a murderer, and he had believed it because he had wanted to, and because he had known the boy would be nothing but trouble from the moment he had lain eyes on that sullen, sneering face. There had been cunning in his face, an awful, shifting awareness that had reminded him of the flitting shadows that moved within the murky depths of a stagnant palm, elusive and mocking and infuriatingly impudent. His face had never been so expressive since; experience had since taught him painful lessons in the need for discretion, but that first glimpse had told him enough, and their encounter in the Ministry interrogation room a year later had done nothing to change it.
He had first seen Severus staring insolently up at him from the pages of a dossier put together by Aurors investigating anonymous allegations of Death Eater partisanship. His picture had been one among many-two dozen, actually, all of whom would turn out to be Death Eaters-but even in that motley band of hellions, delinquents, sods, bastards, and ne'er-do-wells, he had stood out.
He had been a shade past eighteen in the photograph, and though his cheeks had borne the rough shadow of stubble and the shoulders had been thin slats inside his robes, much of his face would remain unchanged over the next nineteen years. His hair had been a greasy, lank mat, and his nose had already seen better days, a crooked, hatchet-blade protrusion from the center of his thin, sallow face.
And the eyes, of course. Black and glittering and seething with a contemptuous truculence that radiated from the photograph in a palpable wave that made his sinuses burn. I am better than you, his eyes had said as they scowled and narrowed and followed the movement of his hands over his desk with the aloof interest of a cat tracking an imprudent and bothersome mouse. I am better and smarter than you, and I can prove it. You are of no consequence, and I have no need of you or your self-righteous law.
According to the file, he was the only son of Pureblooded Slytherins. He was a child of privilege, or so the file had said, but the underfed boy in the photograph belied the words written with laborious care beneath it. The collar of his robes had been frayed and threadbare, and the cuffs protruding from the sleeves of his too-big robes had been yellowed with age, too few launderings, or both. If the Snape family cup had runneth over, then the son had clearly not been enjoying the wealth of his father's house. He had been bedraggled and unkempt, and there had been no reason for his arrogance.
Yet there it had been, potent and undeniable, and he had stared at the smirking, dour visage in disgusted disbelief, torn between the irrational impulse to hurl the picture across the room and an equally childish desire to lock eyes with the likeness until it blinked or averted its gaze. The boy in the picture had seemed to know it, too, because those thin lips had curled in a feline sneer that had made the blood burn in his veins and the knobbled ball of his thumb press into the glossy paper until the young face scowled and the bony shoulder pulled away with a furious flounce. Pale, thin fingers had wiped fastidiously at the greasy smear left on the shoulder of his robes.
"Weren't so haughty in my interrogation room, were you, you arrogant little shit?" he murmured with rough satisfaction, and allowed himself another swallow of scotch. "No, you screamed like all the rest when your bones popped, and I smelled the piss on your robes when you left."
Snape had crossed the threshold of his interrogation room two years after the dossier with his picture had crossed his desk, delivered there by Albus Dumbledore himself. Albus had been somber and silent, but Snape had been just as arrogant as ever despite the fact that he was being cast into the belly of the beast. Inscrutable black eyes had stared down that long, crooked nose, and the sanctimonious bastard had even had the temerity to cross his arms over his chest as though he were already the merciless schoolmaster he would become. Well, he had cured him of that soon enough, and never mind that he had promised Albus that no coercion would be used.
He hadn't lied to his old friend, exactly. When he'd bid his old friend farewell, he'd had every intention of honoring his word, but an hour into the interview, he hadn't been able to stomach the stony smugness any longer, and it had given him immense satisfaction to see pompous surety replaced by fear and pain, if only for an instant when the Stinging Hex had found its mark on that bony sternum.
He never thought I'd do it; that's why he was so surprised. Curses were not for the good or the just. They were gifts to the serpents and slithering creatures of the earth from the hand of Dionysus. They were forbidden to Apollo's children, beautiful shards of obsidian that poisoned the bearer if wielded too swiftly, too eagerly, or too often, and even if they hadn't been, it was not for a mere mortal and a beaten-down Auror to break a promise to the demigod, Albus Dumbledore. He was surprised as much by my hubris as he was by the hex itself.
Not that he'd stuck with the schoolboy hexes for long. Temptation was not the sole province of the wicked, and as with any vice, the first step had proven his undoing. The look of surprise and furtive unease had been too sweet, manna on his parched and ravenous tongue, and he had happily gorged himself. A second hex had followed the first, and still more after that, each darker and sharper than the one before. White to grey to black, and he had felt no shame.
On the contrary, it had thrilled him to watch his quarry writhe and twist and grit his teeth in a futile attempt to ignore the pain of Constrictus or Tortium, flecks of spittle glistening in the cracked corners of his mouth and eyes rolling in their sockets. He was an insect to be crushed and nothing more, a rat he would delight in shaking to pieces, and when he at last resorted to Cruciatus, that most revered of Eden's tainted apples, it had been euphoric.
It had gone on for interminable hours, and eventually, he had wearied of even Cruciatus. It was too remote, too sterile, and he had longed for more intimate contact, to feel the bones and tendons break and tear beneath his hands. He had wanted to see the moment that Severus Snape broke, the instant that his sullen defiance guttered and died.
But you never did. His pride was too fierce, too hot, and though he shrieked when the bones of his fingers snapped, he did not beg, and his story never wavered. He simply screamed behind his teeth and followed your hobbling, deliberate circuit around his chair. He reeked of sweat and bile and piss, but his eyes were as clear and bright as ever, and they blazed with contempt and stiff-necked audacity even as the next knuckle shattered. He never broke, and you've never forgiven him for it.
No, he hadn't, and he never would. His loathing would linger long after he was naught but bone in a forlorn London churchyard and fading memory in the whiskey-rotted minds of old Aurors. It would seep into the soil in which he was buried and ensure that nothing but thorns ever grew upon his tomb.
His reverie was interrupted by the ratcheting whirr of turning gears and clicking magnets, and a moment later, Rebecca Stanhope peered into the room, cautious and hesitant, fingers clutched around the stem of her joystick and nostrils flared. A glance at the hourglass behind him told him that she was right on time.
"There's a bloody first," he growled, and his magical eye fixed on her. "A student on time."
She offered him a wan smile. "Professor Snape made it quite clear that tardiness would not be tolerated."
He stiffened at the mention of Snape's name, but he only said. "I wager he did. Well, come in, girl. If you're waiting for biscuits and tea, you'll be sorely disappointed."
She shook herself. "Yes, sir." She rolled into the room, parked in front of his desk, and folded her hands in her lap.
He grunted and pointed his wand at the door, and it swung silently shut. "You know why you're here, do you?"
She pursed her lips and flexed her emaciated fingers. "Yes, sir. The Headmaster told me it was to receive remedial tutelage in the Charms Professor Flitwick assigned me in Hogsmeade."
"Aye," he said, and nothing else.
They stared at one another across the desk. He raised his flask to his lips, and she brushed a stray hair from her forehead. He stretched out his wooden leg with the creak of leather binding straps, and she blinked in polite expectancy and studied the bewildering array of Dark Arts detectors arranged on the shelves behind his head. Her eyes drifted from one to another, and they occasionally lingered over an object he sensed was of particular interest.
You like them, do you, girl? I imagine you would. You all do. In the beginning, when you're wide-eyed and wet behind the ears, the Sneakoscopes and Foe Glasses are the epitome of glamour, the totems by which our world is safeguarded, but by the time you get to be my age, you realize they're as hollow as Cornelius Fudge's head. The Dark will always be darker than the Light can banish, and it's a victory if you can just keep your head above water.
Mm. Fat lot of good your Foe Glasses and Sneakoscopes did when Barty Crouch, Jr. came calling.
He shifted irritably in his seat. The ten months he'd spent imprisoned in his own trunk and smelling varnish and mothballs and his own stink while Potter was led toward a rendezvous with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and Cedric Diggory was led to a date with his last breath were not his finest hour, and he preferred not to think of how easily he'd been fooled and overpowered.
He took a consoling swig from his flask and screwed the cap into place with slow, deliberate turns of his fingers. "Do you like what you see, Stanhope?" he asked casually.
She straightened and tore her gaze from the shelves. "They're intriguing, sir. I've never seen most of them."
"All rubbish if you don't know how to use them. You've got to have constant vigilance. Wizards get complacent, relying on gadgets like those. Got to use your instincts."
"Yes, sir." Polite and a trifle quizzical.
"How are yours?"
"My what, sir?"
He rolled his eyes. "Your instincts, girl," he snapped impatiently.
It was four breaths before she answered. He watched her frail chest rise and fall beneath the bundle of her robes. "I like to watch things, sir." She shrugged.
I'll just bet, and with that mangled body of yours, unwary fools pay you no mind. "That's not what I asked."
It was almost nine breaths this time, and he could see the cogs grinding in her head as she tried and discarded responses, a fickle child trying on clothes before an attic mirror. He was too fascinated to be properly insulted, and though his leathery, grizzled countenance betrayed no emotion, he was wryly amused. Given time and practice, her inherent talent for evasion and stoic stonewalling could prove formidable, indeed, and he had little doubt that it had already overmatched dullards like Dawlish and Umbridge, but he could still see the seams and crevices of her mask.
Albus, you old fool, he thought in incredulous, bitter amazement. This cub of yours has sharp teeth and sharper claws and bollocks in fistfuls, but she's still a cub for all of that. She wouldn't last five minutes with the likes of Lucius Malfoy or that lunatic, Bellatrix Lestrange. They'd toy with her for a while, allow her to think she'd a chance at the game, but when they wearied of her, it would be over quickly, and when the dust settled and the screams faded, there would be nothing left but a red smear and tattered Gryffindor robes.
Finally, she said, "I think they've served me well, sir."
"Do you, now?"
She nodded. "Yes, sir. They're not foolproof. Seamus told me that last year, Headmaster Dumbledore spent most of the term convinced that a Death Eater was you."
Moody bristled at the subtle insouciance in her voice and the memory of dust in his nose and the humiliating sting of hairs ruthlessly plucked from his thin scalp as he lay in his own trunk. "Find it funny, do you?" he snapped. "Has it occurred to you, girl, that if an experienced Auror and the greatest wizard of the age can be overthrown and deceived, you've got scarce little chance? You're in deep waters, indeed, and they are not gentle. There are sharks aplenty, and enemies without names, and you'll not see them when they come for you."
She merely regarded him with that baleful, gaunt face, fingers curled around the arms of her chair.
"What do your instincts tell you about Snape?" he demanded suddenly.
She blinked. "What do you mean, sir?"
"You know what I mean."
Her shoulders stiffened. "No, sir, I don't. Headmaster Dumbledore said you were going to teach me the Disillusionment Charm and a complex Silencing Charm for mobile objects."
"Aye, and I will, but first, you're going to tell me about Snape. If you don't, there's the door." He pointed at his office door with one gnarled finger.
Her lips thinned, and she straightened still further in her chair. Her eyes were narrowed slits, and her clawed fingers dug into the worn vinyl of her armrests. She was a cornered cat, hunched and searching for escape, claws extended and scrabbling in the soft soil of the snaring hedgerow.
Come on, girl. I've you either way. Tell me, and you risk damaging his scant virtue more. Hold your tongue, and your quest, fool's errand that it is, dies in this room. Your only choice is to choose, and I can wait all day. Impatience is for the young and the stupid, and I am neither.
"I suspect he's not terribly popular at tea parties, and if the pupils of Hogwarts spontaneously combusted in a firestorm of brainless hedonism, he'd shed nary a tear."
"Any idiot could see that," he scoffed. "The man puts on his hatred alongside his underpants. What do they tell you about who he is, what he is?"
"He is my teacher," she answered simply.
"Haven't you ever wondered why a man of his skill teaches when he so obviously loathes it?"
A brusque shrug. "He has his reasons, sir. Maybe he's a masochist."
"Dumbledore didn't tell you, did he?"
Her brow furrowed. Tell me what, sir?"
"About him. About what he did before he was a teacher?"
"No, sir, and it's none of my business. Everyone is entitled to their secrets."
But you want to know. I see in your face, in the way your nostrils flare and your eyes dance. You've caught the sweet, narcotic scent of mystery, and there'll be no getting rid of it until your curiosity has been satisfied. Blackbeard's wife and the cat both fell prey to their desire for the forbidden, and it killed them in the end, but there was ecstasy in the terror of discovery and delight in the slinking, tallow-spined pursuit of the mouse. You cannot resist; you thrive on it, in fact, and I've belled you without a fight.
There was another emotion, too, a fleeting flicker of guilt, as though she had glimpsed something unchaste, a blur of entwined bodies seen through the crack in a carelessly closed door.
"He's not what you think he is." It was kind, pitying.
"Neither is anyone else, sir."
He sat back, satisfied. That was enough for now. She was still defiant, but the seeds had been sown, and when she tired of the maddening itch in her blood and on her scalp like the defiling prickle of lice, she would ask. When she did, he would tell her. Everything. Every bloody, sordid detail.
"Take out your wand, Miss Stanhope," he ordered, and she did.