Chapter 18 : Leave It Colder
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Two months later, Severus sat in his office, the new Potions Master at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His desk was a cluttered mess of quills, stacks of detestable essays, and the jar of spider’s legs. With the equipment he’d salvaged from the Potions Shop, it made for quite the impressive laboratory. As he left the security of his private quarters to face another day in front of the students, he caught his reflection in the large two liter flask by the door.
He felt like the butt of a bad joke – role model for children? Upstanding member of society? Severus scoffed at himself. What game was Dumbledore playing at?
Slughorn, his old teacher, had abandoned his post and disappeared. No word from Netterheim either. Entirely aware of Voldemort’s intentions to use Severus as a double agent, the Headmaster had demanded that he fill the Potions position immediately. Not that Severus had any reason to assist the Dark Lord any longer. The whole lot of them could sod off, much as he cared. But he kept his attitude in check, trading in his silver mask for a hardened expression of calm disinterest.
The halls whispered to him as he made his way to the Potions classroom. In spite of having found his calling in this place, the dungeon laboratory felt unsettling to him now. The faces of the children mirrored the ghosts of his past. Every night, he relived a hundred bad memories of his adolescence. No matter what concoction he brewed up and took, his mind was constantly drawn back to everything he wanted to forget, but couldn’t. One night when sleep wouldn’t come, he’d wandered almost trance-like down the corridors to the Slytherin Common Room. But then his wits took over and he hastily detoured to the kitchens before being seen, where he received a chorus of complaints from disgruntled elves over their recently mopped floors.
During the day, he kept up appearances the best he could, attended the feasts at the head table with the rest of the teachers, forced himself to participate in the Headmaster’s small talk and endure the scathing gaze of Sybill from across the room. Mostly, he distanced himself from the rest of the faculty. On days where he thought he wouldn’t be missed, he took his meals in his private quarters… when he felt like eating, which was almost never.
Severus went through the motions of instructing the hordes of children that sifted through the dungeons. He was getting better at pretending – pretending to be useful. Pretending he was worth something. Pretending that he had the power to carry out the threats he made on those little brats he postured to each day.
After another grueling day of getting nowhere with his classes, he fell, exhausted into his office chair and loosed a few buttons at his collar. He knew they didn’t care about Potions or any of it. But some small part of him had decided that it was important to prepare them for survival, and at the very least, self-sufficiency. As long as he was the Potions Master at Hogwarts, they were going to learn or they were going to suffer. Besides, he thought wryly, they weren’t paying him enough to worry about their fragile little egos. Hell, he was on the same pay grade as Sybill. And she was just as loony as some of the students.
There was a tentative knock on his door. He cleared his throat and ordered himself to quit moping. He had a job to do. “Come in.”
“Dumbledore sent me over,” Sybill mumbled, almost to herself. “I don’t like it.” She frowned, her bug eyes peering through the thick lenses. “You look horrible. Don’t you have a potion for... that?” She gestured to his sad-looking state behind the desk. “Next to you, I’m doing fine. Better than.”
“Stuff it, Sybill. We do what we’re told around here. No one has a choice in the matter anymore.”
“You could choose to clean yourself up a bit,” she retorted.
Severus gave her a hard look. He’d attend to his appearance if and when Dumbledore demanded it. Otherwise, it didn’t concern him. “You’ll have your visions back. Strong ones. But you won’t remember them.” That particular side effect was permanent, and she’d been briefed ahead of time. “There’s really no other way.”
He toyed with telling her he was sorry. He wasn’t. If he hadn’t given her the original potion that had wiped her memory in the first place, she’d probably be dead by now. She stood in front of his desk, sulking like a first year in detention, but she’d take the potion or Dumbledore would boot her out of the school. The man probably had the entire staff beholden to him for something.
Severus handed her the pink vial and she took it with a shaking hand. “I’ll do this in my own office, thank you.” She looked into Severus’ eyes and stared at him for a moment. “I saw something today. It’s likely the last one I’ll remember before I take… this.” She gestured with the vial. “It’s about your future.”
Severus rubbed his temple with a tired hand, unable to repress the sarcasm that swelled within him. “Let me guess,” he drawled. “You saw long, painful suffering, followed by Death.” Her surprised look made him chuckle darkly. Stupid cow… then he sobered. “I don’t have a future.”
Her expression changed to something closer to pity and he cringed. “I’m sorry how things turned out for you. Dorcas Meadowes…”
“…is dead,” he snapped. ”I don’t want to talk about it. Ever. You understand? She’s… she’s…” He stumbled over his words. “Gone.”
Sybill left him and he uncorked something strong from the supply cabinet and gulped it down. There were too many things that he’d rather forget. His regrettable association with the Seer would be a good start. Severus flipped the research tome closed, revealing a familiar folio underneath, which he’d meant to get back to. It must have gotten buried in the mess of student papers over the last week.
He touched it tentatively. Then he gingerly laid it open and started to read from where he’d left off the last time. Occasionally, he’d find a bit of incomplete information or a wrong fact and he corrected with his quill as he went along. He came across information on Karkaroff, surprised that they hadn’t discussed it long ago. She could have asked him… he dipped the quill in the inkwell and scratched out the “unknown”, adding “14C - Knockturn Alley, current residence.”
About halfway through the folio, he found the picture strips from the amusement park that had somehow gotten tucked in, close to the binding. It was her, shying away from the flash, holding up a hand to cover the lens, pulling at someone’s sleeve. The next strip had her making a disgusted face and turning her nose away from the camera. The last picture had captured the back of her head as she climbed out of the booth. He stared at it for too long and then placed it in one of his desk drawers.
Then he picked up the quill, turned to the last entry of the folio and continued to write.
Later that night, Severus stood in front of the mirror. Pale, slightly dehydrated, he’d been going through the motions of living since he arrived at the castle. He could blame it on the work he threw himself into, but he just didn’t have a reason anymore.
He dropped the single hair into the tube, counted to ten and drank the vile thing down. As the transformation took place, he turned away from the mirror, unable to face his reflection any longer. The cloak had been laid out carefully on the bed. That and the familiar shoes.
Finally, he took a small amber-filled vial from his side table and downed it too. Avery had complained about the voice-altering potion before, but Severus had made adjustments to the formula since then. It still burned going down, but tasted less like piss and more like…
He shook himself and had to swallow several times so the potions wouldn’t come right back up. Then he checked his timepiece. If he hurried, he could still avoid being late. He wrapped the cloak tightly around himself, grabbed the folio off the table, and took one of the many hidden passageways out of the castle and into the forest. Every step felt raw. When he got far enough away from the castle, he apparated to the glen and tried to force himself to breathe.
He had to do this.
Soon, he heard the steady crunch of dry leaves and Alastor Moody came around the bend, stopped in his tracks and stared.
“I didn’t expect to see you.” He took another step forward and then stopped, as if he finally caught on to the nature of the meeting. He cleared his throat noisily. “Better get on with it,” he said gruffly.
Severus nodded and held out Dorcas’ folio. “This is for you.” He cringed at the sound coming from his mouth. The words felt strange… not his. His fists gripped it for a moment longer, and then he finally released it into Moody’s hands.
“I promised her…” He couldn’t finish. “It’s everything you need. For Karkaroff, and others.”
Moody flipped through the folio, keeping one scary eye on him as he scanned the completed notes. “We could use someone like you in the Order.”
They both stood in the dappled moonlight appraising each other. This was the man that she’d been feeding his information to, Severus thought. That had to be worth something. If he revealed himself, would Moody take him in? Would the Head Auror rid him of his burdens, or would he demand more, like Dumbledore had?
Severus swallowed. “You have what you need.”
“Almost,” Moody said. “We still need someone to come forward. I don’t suppose that you’d be willing…” When Severus flinched he added, “Of course not.”
Severus forced himself to speak again, though his throat felt like it was lined with wool. “I can get you someone who will tell you everything you need to know, under the proper encouragement.” If they needed more, he’d give it to them. Dorcas would have done it. She would have done anything they’d asked, even for the slightest hint of justice.
Moody nodded. “That would do it.” He tucked the folio under his arm, the way Dorcas used to carry it, and a lump formed in Severus’ throat. “Thank you for this.” Moody tapped the folio with his knuckles. “I imagine that you will contact me when things are ready.”
The Head Auror shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking like he was trying desperately to fill the awkward silence. Then he said, “I tried to save her.”
All Severus could do was nod. He’d tried too, but in the end it hadn’t done any good. His shoulders tingled, a sign that the Polyjuice was wearing off and if he wasn’t going to give himself up, he had to get out of there. He turned to go, and then looked back at Moody.
“Get him. Get them all.”
He apparated to the edge of the Hogwarts grounds and stayed behind the tree line until the disguise wore off. The shoes pinched his feet horribly, but it was a relief to be feeling anything at all. He relished in the discomfort on his walk back to the castle.
Inside his private quarters, he shut the door, locked it and for good measure, put up extra wards so as not to be disturbed. He cast the satchel on his bed and it landed next to Dorcas’ bag, lying open where he’d left it, along with her hairbrush and a few other personal items that had fallen out in his rush to get to his meeting on time. He swore under his breath at his own carelessness.
He’d told Moody the truth. When he’d given her his word that they’d stop Karkaroff, it was the first time he’d dared to promise anyone anything. Tonight’s outing was the least he could do. No more go betweens. The folio rightfully belonged in the hands of the man who would put it to good use.
The shoes practically fell off his feet. He had made another promise to her, not in words, but in everything else, and on that he’d failed miserably too. How could someone like her have put any faith in him at all? Severus found himself angry all of a sudden. How dare she give him the illusion that he deserved anything better!
He ripped Dorcas’ cloak off and threw it in the fire. Immediately, he wanted to dive in after it, but his foot stumbled over the forgotten shoes on the floor. He picked them up, meaning to chuck them into the fire with the rest of it but he couldn’t do it.
Severus sat down hard on the edge of the bed next to her bag and clutched the shoes to his chest. Some time passed before he noticed the wet streaks from his own tears on the black finish. He tried to stop the streams of anguish, but it was impossible, they kept spilling down, so he did the only thing he could: he sat on the bed and wept, mourning Dorcas Meadowes and the promises that had died with her.
Avery sat at the back table in the Hogsmeade Inn, nursing a drink and muttering to himself. His robe fit properly for once and looked remarkably clean. Severus had heard rumors of his advancement in the ranks, probably because there wasn’t anyone else left to promote. When he looked up and saw Severus, he waved his hands in the air.
“Over here!” the lanky man called out unnecessarily. Severus’ eyes flitted around the mostly-empty establishment. Thankfully, he spotted no one he knew, and dropped a small sack off with the barman before making his way over to the back table. Avery’s appearance might have improved, but his stealth skills were sorely lacking.
A drink waited for him on the table next to Avery’s half-sloshed glass, and his first thought was that maybe the git had put something in it. Severus grabbed the full glass and drank from it without hesitation.
Avery guffawed at some unshared joke. His mood seemed to have improved tenfold at Severus’ appearance. “Getting to be that time of year,” he drawled, nodding his scrawny neck at the door. Severus swiveled his head around to see a couple of witches with strange hats come in and seat themselves at the bar. Hopefully, the rat’s nose on the blonde was Transfigured, and not a permanent aberration.
“The students started up last week,” Severus muttered, “and Halloween isn’t until tomorrow. They’re a bit early.”
“Only by a day.” Avery took a swig of his own drink. “Remember the pranks we used to pull? Planned them out and couldn’t wait to show them off in the Great Hall.” He grinned. “Good times.”
Severus swirled his drink around in its glass. He silently urged Avery to get to the point of this meeting, or someone would be missing a limb before the rest of them showed up.
“The Dark Lord said that he’s pleased with me. Says I’m making real progress, training up the new recruits.” Avery gave him that lop-sided grin. “I think, ‘what would Snape do’ and then I get all inspired. Give them ‘Snape’s beady-eye stare’ and they fall right in line.”
Severus checked his watch and then stared blankly at a spot on the wall over Avery’s right shoulder.
Avery stopped talking and cocked his head to the side. Apparently, Severus had failed to look impressed by his news. “Am I boring you?”
“No. I’m listening.” The small talk was excruciating.
“Good. ‘Cause you got to be careful. The Aurors are riled up about something. There were two more arrests, and Karkaroff got hauled out of Knockturn Alley yesterday. They’re even bringing in Malfoy for questioning.”
Severus raised an eyebrow. Even with all the evidence he’d provided to Moody, Lucius and his family were practically untouchable.
“All I’m saying is watch your back, Snape.”
“And I don’t know if you knew this either, since you’re out here now, getting the sneak up on Dumbledore and all, but the Dark Lord’s got himself a new mission. Something about a prophecy. I don’t know much about it.”
Severus did. He kept a straight face as the past week played over in his head like a waking nightmare. When he’d heard that Voldemort had gone hunting for Lily and her son, he’d crumbled. He’d first begged Voldemort to spare her above all else, to show one small act of mercy. And when his pleas didn’t seem to sway the Dark Lord, Severus had humiliated himself in front of Dumbledore. Gotten on his knees and begged the headmaster to give Lily the highest protection possible.
He took another drink, a long one this time. He didn’t trust himself to keep anyone safe anymore. His last resort was to take the responsibility out of his own hands and maybe, just maybe his sins wouldn’t be repeated.
“And I’m gonna be a second in command!” Avery announced in his next breath. “Directly reporting to Malfoy… and that new bloke… alright, third in command. Fourth. Whatever. But people are gonna have to listen to me now,” he concluded. He took another swig of drink, the arithmetic having exhausted him somewhat.
“I’m sorry. I have to be going.” Severus patted his satchel. “Deliveries.”
“Wait.” Avery chucked some coins on the table and stood up. “I’ll walk you out.” Severus shrugged as they left the Inn together. The git could suit himself in the short time he had left.
“I am much stronger now. You wouldn’t believe it. I went after this old bloke and my hexes were so powerful they blacked out all the light in the room for a full minute. And when it was all over, he’d completely disintegrated into dust. Nothing left. Not even a finger.”
“Really.” Severus picked up the pace.
“Yep. Got the scorch marks to prove it.” There was a rustle of fabric at Severus’ side.
“I never thanked you properly for what you did for me.” Avery chattered away as they made their way down the street. “Whatever you gave me, it was exactly what I needed. I still got some left, just in case. I guess that makes us even now, huh?” Avery had followed a step behind him, but now that they were out in the open, away from the main square, he’d caught up to Severus’ side.
Severus stopped and frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I knew it was a gamble, what I did for you, but I can see that it has paid off. You’re stronger too. Wait.” He scratched his head. “You mean you didn’t know it was me?”
Severus was sure he’d done the procedure correctly. He had trouble forcing a threatening wave of panic back down. Avery shouldn’t remember anything about her.
“What have you done?”
“I used to hate watching you pine away for them.” In a hushed tone, he added, ” I never told anyone how much of a Muggle-lover you were. It was our little secret.” Avery’s head teetered from side to side. “I knew they were all ‘protected-like’, but look at you now. You didn’t need them. They just made you weak.”
Severus whipped out his wand in an instant. “Avery.” He measured his words. “Tell me what you’ve done or I will beat it out of you right here.”
“She was very brave in the end, your mother. I couldn’t say the same for your father.” Avery giggled girlishly. “Screamed like a baby.”
“You!” Severus’ wand arm shook and his other hand instantly balled into a fist. He mustered up enough control to keep from throwing a punch into Avery’s face, but just barely. If he held out a little longer…
Avery took a step back, his grin wobbly. “I knew you’d be upset for a little while, but look at you now!” He gestured at Severus with gangly limbs. “All strong and focused. No thanks necessary. Think of it as a gift. After all, you gave me back my dignity.”
He knew he’d promised Moody an informant, but if they didn’t get here soon, they’d have to scrape the lanky backstabbing bastard off the cobblestones. The swirling cloud of dust in the distance was the only thing that stopped Severus from uttering the killing curse right there. Avery’s back was to the Inn and, as the dust settled, a determined team of Aurors starting towards them.
Severus shoved his wand into his cloak, reminding himself of why he’d come in the first place. There would be no more death by his hands, directly or otherwise, and in return, Dumbledore could demand whatever he wanted. Severus turned away from Avery without a word. He needed someone to pay and this was as good a punishment as any.
“You’re welcome!” Avery called after him.
To know that his parents had needlessly suffered at the hands of a madman who thought he’d done a favor… it was a good thing that Dorcas Meadowes hadn’t lived to discover the naked, ugly truth about him. On some level, she’d have to be ashamed of him, like he was ashamed of himself for realizing that everything he’d done with her had started with a lie.
It mattered little what he’d come to believe in the end. He hardly knew what that was anymore, except that his parents didn’t deserve to die because of him. Dorcas hadn’t either.
Severus kept moving away from the village as the Ministry personnel put their hands on Avery and arrested him. He trudged back to the castle, deciding to take the long way around the lake to clear his head. The echoes of Avery’s struggle, the open curses and screams of protest rang in his ears.
That was the only payback he was going to get. There was no justice to it. Only retribution.
A/N: Breaking Benjamin and their song “I Will Not Bow” needs credit for the inspirational chapter title. I want to thank my betas, Melian and theelderwand one last time. You guys are fabulous! Thanks again to Anna_Black @ TDA for the banner that makes me smile every time I look at it. Also, thank you to everyone who has read and left a review: you brightened my day! And now, the two words I’ve been dying to put together for a very, very long time…