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The Last Grains of Sand

Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.
Oscar Wilde, 1981
The Picture of Dorian Gray

His mind was blank. Cold, malignant eyes scanned the crowd above a mouth that rarely smiled. Today, however, it was sporting a rather horrific smirk, one which made the skin crawl and the stomach churn at the sight of it. When the Dark Lord smiled, his Death Eaters had the tendency of cringing and rooting themselves to the spot. Their muscles tensed and they inhaled quick shallow breaths, ensuring that their control extended enough to guarantee that they would not sprint away in the opposite direction. The all-seeing eyes skimmed the faceless crowd, passing over the blank mind within.

Severus knew that, despite the fact he was identical to everyone around him by appearance, Voldemort knew who he was. He would recognise his blank mind, he would let himself in, and he would run amok through Severus's memories as he searched for something of use to him. Voldemort would find very little; all that was of any worth was locked securely away in his Pensieve which sat in his office, the memories swirling away undisturbed. That was, so long as Potter didn't managed to get his nosy self inside it. He pushed away the image of Potter wandering inside his office, sticking his face into property that was not his own, as the eyes fixed themselves on him.

Amusement. It was evident in the Dark Lord as he entered his mind, leaving a lingering sensation of hate and evil laughter upon his exit. Severus swallowed and glanced around him. In comparison to those who surrounded him, the impression he gave was one which was comparatively cool and collected. Lucius appeared to be on the verge of vomiting; he always knew it was Lucius because he left the slightest hint of white hair showing out of the back of his mask. Severus resisted the urge to smirk as he looked at the man with the dyed hair. Oh yes, Lucius was not naturally white, merely fair. He had told him many years ago now that he had changed its colour to symbolise his purity. Severus had laughed long and hard at that, out of earshot, naturally, but the idea that the man would go to such lengths was a source of endless amusement to him even at the hardest of times. A smile touched his lips and it was not unnoticed by Voldemort; however, he clearly had bigger things on his mind.

The chamber in which they stood was silent now. Around them, gargoyles peered down, judging him, judging the poor decisions he had made in his life which he had not the power to reverse. Severus had no idea where he was, but he cared little for the knowledge of his environment and craved only the security of his life. He would not get that, not here at any rate, wherever 'here' happened to be. He had a strong suspicion that he was housed in Azkaban, but the Prophet had not reported any disturbances around the wizarding prison. Then again, the Ministry was running the paper now as Fudge was relying on his manipulation of the media to prevent necessary news from being spread. It would appear that Voldemort's conquest over Azkaban was one of them. Severus hated Fudge. He hated him with a passion, one which had often helped him through the Death Eater meetings when his empty mind had been noted by Voldemort. The moron had spent much of his time slipping blatant lies about Dumbledore and Potter into his articles; it had been time which would have been better spent investigating their claims instead of feeding the public something dangerously close to propaganda.

It was an icy wind which pulled Severus out of his musings; the door behind him had been swung open and several Death Eaters entered the room, two of them flanking a third who had been magically bound.

Voldemort ripped the mask from the man's head, not caring if he had hurt him at all. If he had then it would feel almost akin to pleasure once he had finished with him. Severus knew the man by name although he had never so much as uttered a word to him. The man, he scoffed - he was hardly a man, the boy was Regulus Black, the younger brother of one of his childhood enemies. He felt nothing for the boy, barely nineteen years old, who was dragged into the room.

Severus had been at his initiation. He had been a thin, ill-looking boy at the best of times and clearly he had not inherited his elder brother's apparent good looks. He had also failed to inherit any kind of common sense; he had joined the Death Eaters to please his parents. Regulus had wanted to take the place which Sirius had had as their firstborn son before he turned to the Light. It appeared that he was now going to bear witness to his death.

There was no fight in him as he was carried to the front of the room, nor was there any in him now as he stared at the ground upon which Voldemort stood. It was the first time that Severus would witness the true ruthlessness of the Dark Lord, and it would be the first time that he saw his master kill anyone. Naturally, the Dark Lord spent much of his time giving out orders to those below him and they would do the killing. It was very rare for him to kill anyone personally but, in such circumstances, it was often the only course of action.

The wand was raised against Regulus and screams filled the room. Severus felt his eyes glued to the scene and were they not, he would most likely have received similar treatment. The young Black in front of him was being slowly torn apart, limb by limb. Severus watched on. His gaze never wavering. He could not look away as the last grains of sand fell to the bottom of the hourglass.

Severus had always thought of life as an hourglass. The date of death had long since been determined and people’s lives slowly ran out over time. Some people were given more sand than others and it appeared that some people, such as Potter, had their hourglass periodically turned the other way up, just when their last few grains were falling. He wondered just how many grains of sand were left in his own glass and bit his lip slightly at the thought.

He breathed in slowly and deeply, trying to calm the frantic beating of his heart as it tried to burst out of his ribcage in one last bid for safety. In front of him one of the younger Death Eaters had been dragged to the feet of Voldemort and, in a wave of sickness, Severus realised that Draco Malfoy was about to be executed for attempting to desert the Death Eaters. Foolish boy, he thought as he looked towards the young blond on the floor. This was far too similar to the death of Regulus Black for his liking and he felt his nausea increase.

After Regulus' death, Severus would have described it as death by common sense. The man had slowly come to the realisation that, should he stay with Voldemort, then his life would be considerably shorter than it would otherwise have been. The only thing which he was sure he never regretted was the way in which he usurped his elder brother's lifestyle after he turned to Dumbledore. Shudders passed through him at the remembrance of a time long since passed. It had been thought that all this had ended; the constant torture, the fight between light and dark, the days when you stared down at the paper and saw that, due to Fudge's most impressive manipulative tendencies, the deaths of twenty wizards had been ignored and instead a story about the incompetence of Dumbledore was being forced into the minds of the general public. The days had finally ended, but only for a short interval and now they were back, as terrifying as ever. Severus dearly wished that he could run from it, become a Muggle even and just hide from the world Voldemort was moulding into his own. He could not, however, and he knew he could not. Instead the past and the present seemed to mingle together indeterminably, and, once again a young Death Eater was being executed in front of him.

Malfoy's pleas were ignored entirely as he lay at the floor, at Voldemort's feet. Severus tried to block it out in the hopes that somehow the sight before him would not pass through his eyes. He tried to keep his gaze at the floor by Voldemort; close enough to the scene he so badly didn't want to see in order that he would appear to be watching it, but not close enough so that he would see Malfoy writhing from the Cruciatus curse. Of course, this was all a warm up; he knew that as well as he knew that his name was Severus Snape. It would be just as it was so many years ago; Malfoy would be tortured lightly and then torn apart with varying curses until he either passed out from the sheer agony he was being subjected to or bled to death. It was not a death he would wish upon his worst enemy. Indeed, he had already plotted Potter's untimely end and had been doing so for some time.

The screams started to become more distant as his thoughts took over, and Severus was very grateful for it. The elder of the two Malfoys was watching his son just ahead of him in a cold, uncaring manner which made Severus desire to hex him. Voldemort was fully focussed on the apparently highly enjoyable task of tearing up a young man with only his wand and it was highly unlikely that he should choose to wander into his thoughts. Still, Severus kept his guard up; he knew that Voldemort had done such things before in an attempt to lure the ones around him into a false sense of unimportance in comparison to the matter at hand. It was during these times that he scoured the minds of his Death Eaters, searching for any signs of duplicity towards him. Many had been caught that way; all those who were inexperienced in the art of Occlumency sent by the Order in the past had lost their lives due to this and Dumbledore had finally ceased attempting to infiltrate the ranks of Voldemort with anyone but Severus himself.

The thoughts were well hidden behind a strong barrier in his mind. He knew that few could ever get past it, and indeed, only after an hour of Dumbledore trying all manner of ways in which to reach the thoughts which swam on the other side had he managed to finally break through. It was therefore dubious that Voldemort, with considerably less mental power than Albus, could enter such an area of his mind in much less time. But there was always the possibility. He would not lower his guard around such a dangerous opponent. Not again.

His mind involuntarily ran back to the past and again he saw Regulus on the floor in exactly the same place Malfoy was. Voldemort loomed over him in the very same manner he had done all those years ago and then he realised that he was standing just where he was twenty years ago. Exactly the same place... He stared at Voldemort for a moment and Voldemort stared back at him. Their eyes were locked and Severus could feel the man racing around his mind. He was searching for something and he did not appear to be finding that which he desired. Memories swam in front of Severus' eyes and he saw his childhood streaking past ... his initiation into the Death Eaters ... Potter joining Hogwarts ... Grimmauld Place ... his own thoughts running through his mind and suddenly it got to mere moments before. Voldemort was tugging at nothing. There were no thoughts, only observations of Malfoy as he lay screaming on the floor.

Severus realised abruptly that the screams had stopped now. Malfoy had stopped moving after what felt like an eternity and Voldemort had left his mind. There was a lingering feeling of an emotion nearing anger, mingled with... amusement? Severus couldn't tell but he felt a strange relief that Voldemort had finally left his thoughts in peace. He stared down at the lifeless form of Draco Malfoy as he left the room slowly, with the rest of the Death Eaters, the warning that Voldemort gave to them all regarding their loyalty disregarded in his mind. He had no doubt that Voldemort had taken the opportunity to search the minds of those around him once again for any signs of treacherous nature towards him, although the fact that he, Severus, was still alive and leaving the prison unscathed said that he had passed. Or at least he hoped so.

He did not report to Dumbledore when he returned; he did not desire the company of an old man who would debrief him from his horrific experience so soon after it had occurred. He would rather have the night to himself, rather let the thoughts meander around his head, occasionally giving him a glance into the chamber he had just left than go to Dumbledore at that point in time.

The dungeons were cool, as always, when Severus stepped inside them and walked quickly through the passageways. He did not encounter anyone on his journey back to his quarters and he was very glad of it. In the morning he would have to tell Dumbledore just what had happened to one of his seventh years, and that was not an experience he was looking forwards to. He contemplated telling him that night, but the thought did not remain in his head for long, and soon he had strongly decided against it.

He pushed against a hidden section of the wall and Severus slipped inside. He saw only blank wall on the other side and any student who found himself in the small enclosed space would think that they had taken a wrong turn into a very strange part of the dungeons and turn back. Severus moved to the suit of armour at the end of the short corridor to nowhere and muttered the password: 'twenty points from Gryffindor'. It was that and always had been, although admittedly he had changed it from ten to twenty the day that Potter had joined the school.

Dumbledore's head was already in the fire the moment he stepped inside. Severus withheld a snappy comment at his employer and instead shot him a cool look. Naturally, he was asked how the meeting had gone and Severus told him the basics; that Malfoy had been murdered for his traitorous acts, unknown to himself. He did not give anymore information than that and Albus quickly understood that Severus did not wish to talk. He left the younger man wondering how long Dumbledore had been waiting in the fire for him to return before he retired to bed.

The night was filled with the horrors of the past and of the present twisting themselves in Severus' mind. He had awoken, a scream only just bitten back, on more than one occasion that night. Voldemort always had such an effect upon him and Severus dearly wished that he had had the forethought to bring a vial of Dreamless Sleep potion to his chambers before departing for the meeting. It was certainly too late now, he found himself thinking as he rose from his bed.

The sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon as he made his bed with a flick of his wand and pulled back the heavy curtains which hid the outside world from view. He had long since asked Filius to charm a window into his room, and the small professor had done so gladly. This now meant that Severus could happily look out over the grounds on a morning, the weather always reflecting his mood. That day it was autumn. Leaves were scattered over the grounds and the wind whistled round the towers of the castle. From the view he had, it was easy to believe that he was high up in one of the towers and on more than one occasion he had wondered why he wasn't in the dungeons. Sadly, his quarters remained where they always had been, with no view of the real outside world.

He touched the tip of his wand to his night robes and in an instant they had become his regular teaching ones. He was quite tempted to cast a charm which would make them billow out behind him; it was always highly amusing when he did so, if only because he usually overheard Potter declaring that he had used some kind of charm to achieve the effect later on in the day. However, he was not in the mood for charming clothes that day and so, with his robes not streaming out behind him as he walked, Severus went down to breakfast.

Flakes of corn, for breakfast? Whose moronic idea was this?! Had Severus not been fully aware that Potter was not in the business of manufacturing cereal he would strongly have believed that it had been one of his. He glared at Potter across the room but the boy didn't notice. It was probably for the best; he was in a rather violent mood today and he was certain that Rita Skeeter would love nothing more than to reveal the Potion master's lamentable attempts at beating The Boy Who Lived to death in the Great Hall. He shot the bowl beneath him one last disgusted look before he picked up the paper in front of him and pretended to read.

It was becoming one of his pastimes - staring at the paper in the morning. It was the easiest way to lose himself in his own rather dark thoughts without seeming to be gazing intently at Potter. That would not go down well with the school, he was certain of that. Of course he was certain that Potter would give him his most impudent looks and go back to his own flakes of corn. He made a sound of disgust: why was it always about Potter? The part of his mind which spoke up, loudly telling him that he had Potter on his thoughts also was silenced. Occlumency was very useful when you needed to ignore yourself, and he seemed to be doing that rather often recently.

On his left, Dumbledore was speaking to McGonagall and he knew, he just knew that Dumbledore was dying to ask him of the events that had transpired the previous night. He would be disappointed; he had told him all that he really needed to know without going into gory details the night before in one simple sentence: Draco Malfoy has been killed for treachery. Naturally the headmaster would desire to know more. His thoughts darkened and, to keep his mind well and truly clear of such matters, he began to read the paper. He began to wish he hadn't the more he read.

Earlier this morning, Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody was placed under arrest by no less than seventeen Aurors from the Ministry of Magic. The ex-Auror had been breaking into the Department of Mysteries at the time of his capture. Interrogation under Veritaserum gave conclusive evidence that the man had in fact been working under the instructions of Voldemort at the time and, with no further ado, he was committed to imprisonment.

Severus stopped reading there and continued to stare at the paper before he tapped Dumbledore lightly on the shoulder. The headmaster turned round and stared at him; telling him to speak without opening his mouth. He gestured to the paper in his hands and Dumbledore nodded sadly.

"It would appear that Alastor has not been working with us for quite some time," Dumbledore said to him calmly and Severus felt his eyes widen. How could they have failed to see something such as one of their own working for the other side?! He was the spy in the Order and yet he should have been able to see one doing his own job. He had failed to do so miserably and yet, when he thought about it, he realised something rather spine chilling: Voldemort knew Severus's role in the Order. He knew that he was passing information about the Death Eaters to Dumbledore and he knew where his loyalties truly lay.

He could never go back there. Dumbledore had just lost his one useful spy in the Death Eaters, although, to be honest, he wondered how useful he had been in the first place. Voldemort had known of him a long time, clearly, and the information he had been able to gather had never been of that much use to him... Plans which Voldemort had made had always gone unnoticed by him, despite the fact that he was supposedly one of those in his inner circle, information which he should have been privy to had never made it to him at least not in it's correct form.

All that time he had been staring down at the paper, nausea increasing inside him and he looked back to the headmaster.

"You must go back there tonight, Severus," he said quietly to him and Severus' eyes opened wide in shock. How could he be expected to return to Voldemort and attend the Death Eater meetings now that they knew Voldemort was aware of his position in the Order?! The very idea was preposterous, it was suicide!

"No, I cannot. To return to Voldemort now that he knows I am aware of the extent of his knowledge of me would be ridiculous. He would kill me in an instant," Severus told him simply. He would not play games with Dumbledore today and he would not be manipulated by him. He refused to be.

It was after the events which had occurred that morning which made Severus wonder just how he had managed to get into this situation. He pulled on his Death Eater robes, and placed his mask over his head. It effectively hid the fear he felt inside and he could only hope that Voldemort would assume he had not read the article in the Prophet that morning. The idea was madness, and yet it appeared to be the only way he could survive. His fingers were shaking as he moved to button the top of his cloak and he slipped his wand into the pocket of his robes. He knew it would be of no use to him that night.

"I swear it, Hermione!" Severus heard Potter's voice float down the corridor to him as he left his quarters under the cover of darkness. It was almost curfew and Severus was sorely tempted to stick around long enough to take points from Potter but time was not a luxury he could afford. "Snape's robes are charmed! They have to be."

Severus smiled in the darkness before he quickly left the school grounds, unnoticed by anyone but Dumbledore, who would undoubtedly know of his departure from the building. He breathed in deeply, hoping to calm the nerves he felt bubbling inside him as he apparated to the edge of Azkaban.

The scenery around him changed dramatically; from the lake and trees set to a backdrop of Hogwarts castle, illuminated only by the light of the waxing moon to the large, looming fortress of Azkaban. He was standing on the edge of an island, and behind him he could hear the water lapping up at his heels. The large doors opened up for him and a wave of sickness washed over him. His fingers were still trembling, but Severus could not do anything for them as they hung limply at his sides. He wondered how Dumbledore had been able to send him to his death and whether he realised the full extent of that which he was sending him into. Severus no longer cared. It was an easy way out. It was certain death and he was glad of it. Although he would spend his last moments in agony, he knew that he could not be blamed for his death and he could escape the world he had come to loathe so much.

He stepped inside the prison, glancing back at the moon as he did so and wondering whether he would ever see the light of day again. He knew for certain that, as the large doors clanged shut behind him, he had sealed his fate.

Arms grabbed him on either side and a wand jabbed into his neck caused him to suddenly fall limp in their arms. He was unaware of the spell which had been cast upon him but he was certain that, whatever it had been, it would render his escape impossible. Severus did not look to the sides of him to see which Death Eaters were taking him towards his doom, walking calmly through passages well trodden and well known to them. He had no desire to know which faceless acquaintances of his walked alongside him. Ahead of him the large doors loomed which led into the main chamber.

He briefly had time to smile at the strange reversal of his situation. He was being put to death in just the same way that Black and Malfoy had been so many years ago. He had stood there in the same spot every time, watching them as the past and present joined together and his thoughts became lost. Had that been his moment of weakness which had decided his deathday? He pondered as to whether it was so.

Severus decided that common sense had not been the cause of his death, as it had been of Regulus and Draco. Rather, his own death was the cause of a lack of common sense, or perhaps a willingness to face his untimely demise at the hands of another. A light smile touched his face and he wondered whether nowadays people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes. He had heard that somewhere a long time ago, although he was unable to put a time and an occurrence upon it. It was true though, he found himself agreeing, and he wondered whether someone would learn from the mistakes he made. Would Dumbledore cease his attempts to get someone into the Death Eaters ranks on a permanent basis? Would the Slytherins learn that once they entered the service of the Dark Lord then they had signed the contract which would end their lives? Would Potter learn once and for all that Voldemort was not to be trifled with or taken lightly? And, most importantly of all, would anyone ever question why the hell they ate flakes of corn for breakfast every day? He knew that none of those would occur and a strange feeling coursed through him. He briefly wondered whether it was the knowledge that he was dying in vain, that he was dying unnecessarily and in a world of agony but all thoughts were wiped from his mind as he heard a creaking on the other side of the giant doors in front of him.

The large doors were opened from the inside and he was dragged into the room. His eyes met those of Voldemort and Severus took a deep, slow breath trying to calm himself as he appeared to have done so many times in the last twenty-four hours. Hundreds of faceless people stared back at him and, for a few moments, he imagined that he could see the faces of all those he knew. He was certain that the eyes of Potter were upon him, his long since dead parents, Black, Dumbledore... the list went on and the certainty that they were all there to observe his death unsettled him. He was deposited harshly upon the floor and he stared back up at the Dark Lord. The same rather horrific smirk Voldemort had been sporting the previous night was being proudly worn again. He smirked at Severus and took a step back.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut as the wand was raised against him and steeled himself for what was about to come. The last grains fell to the bottom of his hourglass and Voldemort’s smile became wider than ever.

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