Severus stared at the ingredients on the shelf, wondering if there was a potion that could fix his life, and make things go back to the way they were before. He felt powerless. After his parents had been killed, he should be able to understand what Dorcas was going through, having just lost the closest thing she had to a family. He should know what to do, but he didn't have a clue.
Dorcas had spent the first few days in her room with the door closed, mostly quiet except for the occasional outbursts of anger and tears. When she did come out, she wouldn't talk, wouldn't even look at him. And he was afraid to look at her. There was nothing he could say to excuse his failure. He knew how disappointing and useless he was. Hearing it from her would probably kill him.
It was painfully clear that she wanted nothing more to do with him. Rather than endure the silence between them, he escaped to the Potions shop and threw himself into his work. But as much as he tried to concentrate, his thoughts kept turning to Dorcas, and he made little progress on the antidote.
Today, that progress had all but stopped, with his mentor’s insistence on putting the shop’s entire supply of prized bezoars on reserve for a private matter. He only needed one, he’d explained to deaf ears. Surely Netterheim could spare it, especially when he believed it to be the key ingredient for his antidote. The Potions Master was unsympathetic, lecturing him on the importance of self-reliance, and suggesting he go out and harvest his own.
And now a dead goat lay in front of him, its neck dangling off the storage room table at an obscene angle, daring him to make a move. Severus eyed the engorged belly distastefully, fingering the point of a long-bladed fillet knife that Netterheim had conveniently borrowed from the butcher across the way.
He wasn’t keen on disemboweling the thing, though he knew how to use a knife. He remembered watching his mother single-handedly butcher a cow and how as a young boy, he’d been all at once horrified and fascinated while she deftly packaged it away. They had eaten well for a full month after that.
Her old potions textbook lay open next to him. Severus flicked a charm on her handwriting in the margins to make it more legible and scanned the page for something he could use.
He retrieved his wand, going over the words in his head before he made the attempt.
Steady now. He spoke in an even tone, pointing his wand at the gut of the animal. Wait. Not yet. He reached out and felt the swollen flesh and found it, the soft lump that was his target. He raised his wand again and aimed; he could sense the spell working, how the energy cut precisely through the skin of the animal, one layer at a time, avoiding the main arteries.
He put his wand aside and stretched the opening wider with his fingers. The slimy hairball was almost the size of his fist, a decent specimen. He set the fresh bezoar down on the table and wiped his hands on a rag, feeling accomplished for once, momentarily ignoring the faint stench that leaked from the carcass in front of him.
Then he heard footsteps, followed by Netterheim booming voice through the wall.
He Scourgified himself quickly and stepped into his mentor’s lab.
Netterheim’s brewing robes were spattered with purple ooze that puddled at his feet and his hair was sticking up at odd angles. The Potions Master waved madly at the side entrance.
“Go control your woman!”
“But I didn’t...”
Netterheim pointed an accusing finger at the side entrance and Severus dutifully went, partly angry that Dorcas would risk the shop security in the middle of the day. A larger part of him felt relief. She hadn’t said two words to him for the better part of the week. Maybe she’d finally come to yell at him. Maybe she’d say something. Anything.
He rounded the corner to face whatever state she might be in and was met with a glazed-over vacant stare.
“Go away, Sybill,” Severus warned. “I’ve had enough of you.” He didn’t want to know how the Seer got in. He wanted her out.
She swayed out of the dark room and through the hallway. “It won’t work, hiding here and pretending that you have nothing to do with anything.”
Severus swore loudly and stalked away. To his extreme irritation, she followed him back to the store room and when he turned to shoo her out, he noticed in the beads of sweat dripping from her face and the paler-than-usual complexion. She was in a bad state.
Sybill took off her glasses and wiped her face with a sleeve, damp with perspiration. “You promised not to tell...” she trailed off, grabbing the wall for support.
“What are you...?” Severus stopped himself and noted the bloodshot eyes. “You’ve taken something again, haven’t you?”
She blinked. “Just a nip. And none of your mamby pamby crap! I can feel it all around me now. But that...” she stumbled sideways, “is not the point.”
Severus sighed. As frustrated as he was, getting angry wasn’t going to make her leave any faster. “Please. I’m busy. Just...”
“I know things.”
I don’t care. “You don’t remember anything.”
“I’ve Seen what you did.” The change in her voice got his attention.
“Sybill...” He watched her eyes glaze over, like they had the year before, when he’d witnessed her reveal the prophecy in front of Dumbledore. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t meant to be there and hadn’t meant to hear it. Dumbledore had made him promise to make sure she wouldn’t remember anything about it and not to tell anyone.
“You’ve betrayed us to the Darkness!”
The shock must have shown on his face because Sybill fixed him with a triumphant grin. She took a vial out of her skirt pocket and dangled it from her bony fingers. “It’s starting to come back to me now!”
It was true that he had told Voldemort, the Dark Lord about the prophecy, not mentioning Sybill or Dumbledore – a selfish, cowardly act meant to ensure a place above his peers. But nothing after that. He tried to convince himself that he was stronger now, but the fear that he would one day crack under the pressure and have all of his secrets spill out of him welled up at her words. If Sybill the Hack was about to become Sybill the Accusing, he had a problem.
“And someone you are trying to protect will die!”
Leave it to Sybill to push it too far. He’d have to sort her out later, when there wasn’t a sharp knife in the room. “Go. Or I’ll...”
But he never finished telling her that he wasn’t going to listen to her drivel, that his mother was already dead, he’d grieved and moved on, because Sybill’s eyes glazed over completely and rolled to the back of her head.
She was downright scary like that.
“You promised...” she hissed and then fell over in a faint. Severus, wand in hand, managed to cushion her impact on the floor with a quick charm. He pried the vial from her fist and stowed it away before he lost the opportunity.
“What am I doing here?” Sybill blinked, coming around seconds later. “Get your hands off me! Let go!” She struggled to find her feet. Severus gladly released her and herded her through the shop and out the front door.
When he returned to the storage room, he Summoned a jar for the bezoar and let the hairy mass land with a wet plop into the flat of the glass, which he should have been proud of, now that he could get back to work.
But the root of another problem was hanging inside his robe pocket. There had to be a story he could concoct so Netterheim could help him track down the origin of Sybill’s new potion. And then he had to figure out what to do about it.
An hour later, the front bell tinkled, but neither he nor Netterheim acknowledged it, both too wrapped up in their respective projects to bother with another interruption. Footsteps returned to the storage room where Severus was finishing with the carcass.
The door creaked. “Go away,” he muttered.
“Sorry. If this is a bad time, I can leave.”
Dorcas stood in the doorway. Severus muttered another hasty Scorgify and tried to wipe the remaining blood from his hands. “No,” he said quickly. He tried to step in front of the remains of the goat, not sure how she’d take it. “I thought you were someone else.”
Dorcas opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She stood there, frozen for almost an eternity it seemed, and finally took a hesitant breath, as if she was trying to will the last week away with a thought.
"She's gone." she murmured. "They're all gone." And she started to shake.
Severus wasted no time and went to hold her. He closed his eyes and breathed her in, remembering what he’d thought he’d lost, hoping this meant she’d granted him some kind of forgiveness. He didn’t know how long they stood like that, but she eventually tried to pull away and he didn’t let her. She felt good and it had been too long.
She huffed softly. "I'm going to be late."
He cracked an eye open at her. "For what?"
“Moody’s having a debriefing at the Ministry…”
“And he doesn’t want you there. You’re not due in until next week, remember?”
She started to argue, but must have realized that it wouldn’t do any good. He was only telling her what he’d heard her venting through the walls in her flat. She looked up at him helplessly. “How am I supposed to do this? If I can’t face death and… if I can’t...”
He touched her cheek, where one of his shirt buttons had made an impression, somewhat elated that he had marked her as his, even if it was superficial and temporary. It was easier when the wound was tangible. He wished he knew how to help her with the mess it left on the inside. Not likely when he could barely manage his own scars.
“Why did you come here?”
“A few of us want to have a memorial for Marlene and… I’m sorry, Severus. For how I’ve been lately”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
“I do. I should have listened to you. I should have made them listen. You were right. The Death Eaters are too strong. I don’t see how we’re going to win this.”
“How can you say that, after all that they’ve taken?”
“Because we have to,” he said. He needed her to stop this.
Her mouth twitched which he took as a smile and he tried to return it. “Tell me about the memorial,” he said, hoping the distraction would be enough.
She nodded. “In two days. They’ve chosen a secure location, and I was hoping… you’d watch out for us?”
The spark had dimly returned to her eyes and a small part of him recoiled when he realized that the little hope she had left was placed on him. He didn’t argue the point. She had no family left to support her, her best friend was gone. All he could do was nod. And as misplaced as he felt her trust might be, he was all she had left.
Severus concealed himself in the thick brush, eyes intent on the cottage less than fifty yards away. He thanked whatever being governed the greater mysteries that no one had come outside to witness him crouching awkwardly between the yew and the holly.
Somehow, someone had known where to look and deactivated the wards he’d set. He gripped his wand tightly, irate at the gullibility of the people inside who might as well have been oblivious to the danger they were in. Secure location my arse. But he’d make it secure, like he had before, this time not just because of endangering Lily and his past transgressions, but because Dorcas needed him to.
He watched as a small number of Order members entered the cottage. Every once in a while, he caught sight of some of them through the window. He saw the black curly hair in contrast to the reddish brown, trading the baby for tissues… Severus hadn’t missed the irony. Dorcas’ friend would have had a perfectly pureblood baby. If the Dark Lord had valued pureblood wizards above all else, why had the McKinnons been slaughtered?
The afternoon wore on and the sun moved lower, casting a golden hue on the foliage, but the effect was lost on him. The wards he'd placed around the property tingled with an unwelcome presence. He scanned the perimeter for the source of his unease. Right over...
He caught movement to his left and pointed his wand, preparing to deflect whatever came towards the house. If the Order reports that Dorcas had shared with him were accurate, they would stay hidden, fire off a few hexes and disappear. But this time he’d adjusted the wards to interfere with a quick escape.
A robed figure stepped out of the trees about twenty yards away. The attacker must have sensed the block at his attempts and he strode forward with a familiar swagger, intent to do damage.
Severus recognized the man’s gait at once. The prick was everywhere! He broke from his hiding place and closed the distance between them, ramming himself into the intruder and grabbing hold. They rolled on the ground in a tangle of limbs. Severus squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on oblivion, forcing them through the darkness together.
A moment later, the vertigo faded and they tumbled onto the black barren field of the McKinnon property. As they came to a halt in the dirt, a muffled "Get the hell off me!" came from under him. Severus scrambled to his feet, grasping for his wand as he rose with a cloud of dust. He threatened the all-too familiar face with the tip of his wand.
“You!” he snarled at Avery. “It’s been you the whole time, hasn’t it?”
“Almost had her this time, right through the kitchen window." Avery said smugly, dusting himself off. "Did you see that she wore her hair up today? I could have nailed her right in the back of the neck.” He smirked at Severus' reddening face. “You mucked up a perfectly good shot."
The back of Severus' fist struck him hard against his jaw and he staggered sideways.
"Don't you touch her!"
Avery chuckled, low and raspy as he rubbed at his face. "I wondered what it took to get to you," he said. "Who’d ever guess that Snape would lose it over a mudblood?" He grinned. "What would your girlfriend think of you now?"
Severus had a split second of panic until he realized that Avery must have been talking about Lily. "She's not my girlfriend.”
Avery snorted. “Aw, Snape. Just give it up. She’s gonna die sometime, and I figured I’d gain a few favors this way.”
"I can't let you do that," Severus said, his wand inches from Avery's nose. He'd use it, if that's what it took.
"You know what the Dark Lord will do when he finds out about her."
"Don’t be a fool, Avery. The Dark Lord is well aware of the Potters and where their loyalties lie. Dumbledore got to them a long time ago."
"That's not what I meant." Avery's eyes glinted in the failing light. "What do you think he’ll do when he finds out you've been protecting a mudblood behind his back? Who will be the fool then, Snape?"
Severus’ wand hand shook. "What have you done?"
"What have I done?" Avery laughed and then convulsed into a coughing fit. He swallowed nastily and continued. “Everything, whether I wanted to or not. I've cleaned up after their messes. Hell, I've made a few of my own and I have the scars to prove it. I've given my blood and my sweat and they still laugh at me." He scrunched up his face mockingly, "Look, it's Avery the git!" His voice was hard. "Does all the dirty work and gets nothing for it."
"The question is, Snape," Avery spat out his name as if it tasted bad, "what have you done for him? ‘Cause the way I see it, all you do is piss in a pot and put it in a vial while the rest of us bleed for him. Ain’t fair.”
“Would you like a demonstration of what I can do?” Severus threatened darkly.
Avery cracked a bleeding grin at Severus’ wand, still eye level with him. "You can't kill me. The Dark Lord’ll want to know why. He’ll dig in so deep, even you can't hide from him. He'll know all about you and her... Everything."
"Is that what this is all about? Making me pay for your mistakes?"
"Oh, I've paid for mine. Over and over."
"So what will your excuse be when he finds out you've waited two years and kept all of this from him? You think he won’t go digging for more?"
Avery stopped grinning. "You were there when Karkaroff pried my head open.” He shuddered, obviously reliving the sessions at the Malfoys’. "You just stood there all smug-like and watched me, watched all of us. At least you walk away. I..." Avery struggled with himself. "I don't know if I can take anymore of that. A real friend would help out... take away the pain. You never did a thing."
“You never asked me to.”
They always dug into Avery. The stupid git didn’t have a clue. "It doesn't have to hurt that much. Not if you didn't have something to hide." But Avery was always hiding something. Then he understood. "You aren't as loyal as they think, are you?" Avery's face crumbled and he knew he'd hit on something. He pressed further. "It's because you're weak, and you are losing faith in the cause, isn't it?"
Severus was surprised at the bitterness in his own voice. He felt the rage welling up inside of him. Avery knew how much Lily had meant to him. He’d taunted Severus relentlessly after their unlikely friendship had come out. And Severus had sulkingly taken it, never striking back, hoping to keep the attention on him and away from her. Even though he knew every dark secret screaming through their sick minds, he’d never considered using any of that against them. Until now.
An evil, vindictive thought formed in his mind. If there was anything that he’d learned from his so-called friends, it was how to play dirty. And Severus Snape was an excellent student.
“He doesn’t know about your box of failures, does he?”
The last of Avery’s will dissolved into a puddle of despair. "Please..." he begged. "Please don't tell him... don't let him see. I know you have a way; because you don't get punished... you never bleed for him. If you felt it, I know you’d cry out for mercy like the rest of us."
Severus looked down on the shell of a man that was all talk and no sense. He was pathetic. If there was such a thing as mercy in this world, it would come in the form of an escape from his past, his present and his inevitable future. Hell, Severus would do anything if there was a chance at a way out. To be rid of the mark, the Death Eaters, all of it.
His eyes narrowed. "What would you do, Avery? What would you do for me if I didn't tell the Dark Lord of your betrayal?"
"Anything, Severus,” he pleaded. “Anything you ask." He had nothing to offer and he knew it. Nothing Severus wanted, anyway.
“I want you to stop hurting her,” Severus gritted out. “Promise me that you’ll never go near her again. That you’ll never tell anyone where she is. That you won’t even think of her.”
“I…” Avery’s eyes got wide, on the verge of panic. “You can take it from me so I can’t. Take it!” He grabbed a handful of Severus’ robe. “And make me believe it all. Make me strong.” He fell to his knees. “I’d do it for you, if I could.”
Severus could hardly look at the quivering lump in front of him. Instead of feeling powerful over his cowering adversary, his stomach lurched.
"Do you know what you're asking me to do?" Severus waited for an answer. If he took these memories from him and erased the little doubt that Avery had about the Cause, he'd be forcing Avery to think that he was doing the right thing. He'd have no regrets or qualms of his obedience and unyielding servitude to Voldemort.
At least he would know where Avery stood from now on.
"Do it," Avery wept. "I don't want to be weak anymore."
Severus stared down at the mess in front of him. "How much do you want it?" he snarled, upset that he was even considering this kind of violation. Maybe Avery was too dumb to realize what he was asking.
Avery looked up at him with his red eyes brimming with tears. "More than anything." He gulped. "I want them to look at me like I’m someone. Like you."
He wanted to leave Avery lying in the dirt and get out of there, but it was almost a given that Voldemort would see the scene of Avery pleading with him at his next interrogation, and then they'd both have a death sentence. Voldemort didn't think highly enough of Severus to spare him for not reporting Avery’s wavering resolve, and Avery's mind was too weak to hide this. Now he had to do it.
Severus fought not to lose himself inside Avery's mind when he found the memories of Lily. He saw what she was to him: a warped symbol of ... whatever. They only thought of her as a way to send a message - that they had the right to take her down because of her mixed blood. He took the memories out, one by one, struggling to keep himself in check. It didn’t matter that they didn’t see her the way he had, something pure in a world full of hate. She'll be free of him, he kept reminding himself. And then he pushed harder.
All he left of her in Avery's mind was the smug satisfaction that Avery felt when he'd seen her walking away from a desperately pleading boy with stringy hair. He felt the familiar twinge of regret, and then anger that someone like Avery had witnessed his darkest moment. Before he could lose his concentration, Severus took that too. He then took out all the jibes in the common room, the arguments between the two of them that had contributed to his hatred of the man in front of him. He dug deeper as Avery squirmed, trying to see if Avery had told anyone about Lily, if anyone else had seen him stalking her... and found nothing. It was between the two of them, he realized. For all these years.
Severus pulled out of Avery’s mind, the sweat beading on his brow from his efforts. He closed his eyes and breathed, trying to steady himself from the reeling visions. This wasn't like the dizzying effects of seeing memories in a pensieve. It was ripping someone else’s secrets from the corners of their mind. The visions danced behind his eyes, taunting him until he forced them into oblivion. His knees shook from the effort of not allowing himself to collapse into a heap next to the broken man, huddled into a ball. "Avery," he said through clenched teeth, hoping he hadn't damaged him in the process. If anyone found out he'd tampered with him like this...
Avery looked up with haunted eyes, a scream of agony on his lips that hadn't yet escaped. He swallowed it down. "Am I stronger?" he choked out. "Because I still feel it. The weakness..."
Severus could have left him in that state but Avery reached up and clutched his hand. "I still feel it," he repeated. Then he scooted on the ground, getting closer to Severus and rammed his head into Severus' hand, bracing himself for the pain. "Finish it!" he demanded, shaking. "Or we both die!"
It made him sick, but the git was right. He reached inside Avery's mind and touched the revulsion there, the fear, the loathing, the sick longing and regret...
all of the things that kept Avery doubting, things that might have redeemed him one day. He pulled on those things and plucked them out, one by one, with Avery whimpering beneath his hand.
When he was done, he grabbed a purple potion from his satchel and popped the cork. He took a sip, letting the coolness run down his throat. He’d have to make up one hell of a story to smooth this one over… or maybe not. He knelt down and took Avery’s head under his chin.
“What were you doing here, Avery?”
Avery’s eyes rolled back in his head and Severus shook him until he blinked a few times and came into focus. “Wha’ happened?”
“Oh, yeah, I did. What’re you doing here?”
“Helping you. Don’t move.” Severus poured the rest of the purple liquid down Avery’s throat and watched him swallow. “Better?”
“Yeah.” Avery frowned. “Yeah,” he said again and shook Severus off him. “I’m fine. What was in that stuff?”
“Huh.” He smacked his lips. “Tastes good.”
Severus eyed him critically. “Do you remember anything?”
Avery looked around at the charred property and shrugged. “We blew it to bits pretty good, didn’t we? The Dark Lord was pleased.” Then he considered. “I was supposed to be looking for someone, but I couldn’t find ‘em. Must have gone into hiding or something.” Severus held his breath as Avery tried to remember. Then he smiled crookedly. “Never mind that.”
Severus found the new sense of confidence rolling off the man in front of him disarming. It was what he had expected from Wilkes, or even Mulciber. Not stupid Avery. “You’re not concerned?”
“Nah, it’s good.” He chuckled nastily.
Severus turned away, not able to look at him anymore.
He turned back reluctantly as Avery got serious. “Thanks, mate. I needed that. Do you…” he paused, looking a little contrite. “Do you think I could have extra, just in case?”
Severus tossed him another purple vial. “Sure. You’ve been asking for it.”
The lanky man got to his feet and laughed crazily, brandishing the vial like a new wand. It was still Avery. But much worse.
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