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Severus kept his hand raised to his cheek for what felt like a long time, although the reality of it was that it was probably only a few seconds. Absurdly enough, he could still feel the place where Beth’s lips had grazed his skin, like they were still there, and a stupid part of him was worried sensation would fade if he removed his hand. Eventually, though, there was the sound of three loud pops – three Apparitions – and he jolted back to his senses.

The stretch of road just outside the alley where he’d hidden with Beth seemed deserted, although smelled faintly smoky – reminiscent of the duel that had just taken place there, no doubt. He wrinkled his nose at the unpleasant smell and stepped hesitantly out onto the pavement, lighting his wand and holding it aloft in case any of his enemies were left hiding. He didn’t think Beth could get away with not hexing him a second time.

Even thinking her name again, however, brought a rush of blood to the spot where she had kissed him, and again Severus raised his hand to feel the spot – it didn’t feel any different than normal. He hoped that she had gotten herself out of danger, away from Wilkes and Malfoy and Carrow and the rest of them, despite being painfully aware that he wasn’t really supposed to be thinking things like that. She was, after all, the enemy, and no good would come in the end of softening the blow now.

There was a skittering of stones from the direction Malfoy and Severus had approached, and he turned the wand quickly in that direction, the beam of its lighted tip bouncing crazily off the dark shop windows. The Muggle girl Lucius had pinned to the pavement with the heel of his shoe was gone; his throat closed up with relief, immediately replaced by a deep surge of guilt.

The clattering sound came again, and there was a rather loud grunt of pain, quickly stifled. Severus’s heartbeat stilled; he would recognize that high-pitched grunt anywhere. Hastening quickly enough down the pavement so that his cloak flapped oddly about his ankles, he rounded another corner and came upon the other three men in his party.

“Where the hell have you been?” snapped Lucius, his eyes still trained on Wilkes, lying prone on the ground. The curly-haired young man had clenched what looked like a strip of hastily-torn fabric in between his teeth while Carrow, kneeling beside him, poked at his shoulder. The sleeve of his robes was halfway torn off, and the fabric was soaked in blood. Severus’s stomach turned.

“D’you want to be just a little louder?” he said irritably. “I don’t think we can be heard enough as it is.”

Severus turned his gaze away from Wilkes and found Lucius still staring at him, silently demanding an answer. “One of them ran down that alley,” he said shortly, “so I gave chase. I lost her – or him, I couldn’t tell.” He added this last almost as an afterthought, and sucked in a deep breath as the blonde man’s eyes narrowed a bit. Thankfully, Severus was spared further questioning as Wilkes grunted again in pain.

“Do you think you could stab me with that harder?” he snapped, writhing away from the point of Carrow’s wand as the man seemingly butchered whatever healing spell he was attempting. Severus could see that the hand that held the wand was trembling a bit.

“What happened?” he asked tonelessly.

Lucius gritted his teeth in evident annoyance. “Idiot got so caught up in dueling that he forgot to keep his wits about him,” he spat. “Somebody sent that” – he gestured towards the prone Wilkes – “at him just as he got blasted into a wall by a Stunning Spell. Whoever cut him up didn’t like him dueling the other person, apparently – the one you ran after, if I’m not mistaken.” His lip curled higher and higher in displeasure as he spoke.

Severus fought hard to keep his gaze steady, his insides already twisting nervously – he might not have been the one to shoot the spell that had sliced Wilkes’s arm, but he’d definitely been the one to Stun him. “And I’ve already told you that pursuit was unsuccessful,” he said smoothly, wanting to get off the subject as quickly as possible. Lucius sneered again.

“Let me do that,” he snapped at Carrow, as Wilkes groaned through the fabric, fingers scrabbling to clutch at his arm. “Before he gives away our position and we’re all dead.” Carefully avoiding Lucius’s eyes, he knelt onto the pavement and hastily closed up the wound with the old, familiar spell. This curse wasn’t Sectumsempra, but was something milder, and the wound mended neatly.

Wilkes stood up gingerly, poking the newly-closed skin with a tentative forefinger. “You’re fine,” Severus said irritably, stowing his wand in the inside pocket of his robes and drawing them more tightly around himself. He felt suddenly and inexplicably annoyed with the others around him – they didn’t understand, they didn’t know anything.

He could feel Lucius watching him still, as though waiting for him, Severus, to reveal something. It would have been unnerving enough if they hadn’t just nearly been blown to bits, or if the blonde man’s eyes weren’t so pale and icy-looking.

“Are we done here?” Carrow spoke up. His brow was set low over his eyes in something like consternation; he clearly hadn’t like being shoved so unceremoniously to the side by Severus. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, his fingers tapping on them, which Severus found highly annoying.

Lucius switched his gaze away and turned to look over his shoulder, back up the street in the direction they had come. “Muggles,” he sneered. “Are they too stupid to actually see what the shouting was about?” He smirked, and then turned back. “Right, yes, let’s get away before they decide to grow brains.” He laughed coldly. “Go on home, then.”

But suddenly, Severus didn’t want to go home – far from it. He didn’t want to stay here, of course, but home meant inquiries from Rosier and Avery and Mulciber, and it meant Wilkes playing the part of the wounded innocent in a pitiful attempt to garner sympathy. It meant trying to sleep while images of Malfoy’s malice towards the young Muggle woman played through his mind like photographic slides. And he wasn’t ready for any of that.

The four set off for the end of the street in the opposite direction, hopefully to avoid running into any unwanted onlookers – although, he thought a bit sourly, Malfoy wouldn’t really have been adverse to disposing of them. Malfoy turned on his heel without a word to the others and disappeared with a loud crack; after a moment, and looking considerably more wary about it, Carrow followed suit.

Wilkes glanced at Severus from the corner of his eye, and then, upon catching it, made a horribly contorted face that was apparently supposed to signify pain. “Helping me home, then?” he said, in a sniveling voice that made Severus almost sorry he’d healed the cut in the first place.

“You can manage,” he said, waving his hand carelessly in his friend’s direction. Wilkes’s face fell; it was quite evident that that was not the answer he had been expecting. But feeling a bit pleased with himself nonetheless, Severus clamped his hand over the wand in his pocket, closed his eyes, and turned into compressing blackness.

There was a roaring sound in his ears, and he jolted back to Earth on ground so uneven that he nearly pitched forward as he landed. He hastily straightened up, but nobody was around – and why should they be, at this time of the night? But it was the best time, he found, for a drink to clear one’s thoughts, and that was exactly what he planned to do. A part of him hated that he found the need to drink at all, much less the cheap ale that the nameless barman at the Hog’s Head found the need to slosh about, but he liked it for its anonymity. Nobody asked him questions as long as he paid his way through a tankard or two, and that was infinitely preferable to any other pub scene he might have stumbled across.

The ground that he’d nearly turned his ankle on was the brickwork path leading up to the pub door, which was mossy and overgrown, with several bricks missing from the pattern. It was this he traipsed up now, keeping his head low as he pushed open the door into the musty-smelling pub.

The Hog’s Head – a name that, while rather ugly, correctly led people to assumptions about the sort who might inhabit it – was comprised of one room, bordered on one side by a long, low counter and on the other by clusters of rickety tables, absent of lamps, and equally unsteady chairs. These were rarely ever occupied. To the right of the bar was a shadowed staircase that led to two or three rooms on the upper floor, though Severus had never ascended it to find out exactly what these rooms were for.

The barman was a tall man with a perpetual frown and tufts of silvery-gray hair sprouting from his scalp and chin and, oddly enough, ears. He was usually the only other person in the Hog’s Head, but tonight it seemed that a pair of goblins had chosen to make the place their after-hours haunt. They sat at the table closest to the door, a pile of silver Sickles between them, and were cackling over a joke that Severus doubted very much was as funny as they made it seem upon his entrance.

He crossed swiftly to the bar, trying desperately to ignore the continued laughter of the goblins and the pounding in his head that the noise was giving him. “One,” he said quickly, sliding his coins onto the counter with such force that they nearly slid off. The barman gave him a suspicious look and took his time puttering about, finally setting a glass of warm ale in front of his customer. Severus took it gingerly and turned. He caught the eye of one of the goblins.

“Care to make a wager, human?” he said in a high, thin voice, his reedy fingers flipping one of the Sickles, over and over. Severus kept eye contact as best he could; he didn’t want to let him know how unnerved he was by their eyes, small and shining and completely black.

“On what?” he said coldly, attempting to draw himself up to his full height.

The goblin grinned wickedly. “Why, on whatever you want,” he said, grinning and showing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth. An involuntary icy shudder snaked down Severus’s spine, and he turned quickly toward the back table, ignoring as best he could the goblins’ renewed cackles.

The air here was slightly mustier than it had been at the front of the room, as though it had been a long time since someone had dusted this particular corner – and, Severus rationed, it probably had been. He saw a small cloud of dust puff up into the air as he sat down and tried to ignore it, pulling his tankard closer to him.

The events of the night were buzzing heavily through Severus’s brain, as though he’d already consumed more ale than sat in front of him. It was a lot to take in: Seeing Beth nearly cursed, or worse, by Wilkes; having to then lie about helping her to Lucius Malfoy, who was by no means an idiot, as much as he might act like one; and, perhaps worst of all, somehow feeling guilty for what Lucius had done to the Muggle on the street.

Yes, that was the worst of all. Severus knew that it shouldn’t matter to him, and he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly had bothered him so much about it. She was a Muggle, and therefore of no value, not really – and yet her screams had been so human. It had been a long time since he’d been of the mindset that he wasn’t superior to her kind. Could that have been why Malfoy had looked at him so suspiciously, and he’d only imagined that he was talking about Beth, out of a guilty conscience?

Severus sighed so loudly that the goblins at the far table turned in their chairs, eyeing him shrewdly with their calculating eyes. He raised a hand to his forehead and rubbed his temples absentmindedly, wrinkling the skin at his brow, and took a long swig from his tankard.

The image of the prone, terrified girl flashed across his vision, and he squeezed his eyes tighter, as though to erase it.

At that moment, the door to the pub swung open, and every occupant swung round to look at it curiously. Severus shrank back instinctively into the shadows, cloaking himself in them to prevent him from being seen; it was another tactic ingrained into his mindset now. A nervous-looking woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, entered first. She was dressed very oddly in long, faded emerald robes, her thick hair tied back with a sequin-covered headscarf. Large glasses magnified her eyes to about three times their normal size.

Severus smirked at the woman’s odd appearance, but the twist dropped from his mouth almost immediately upon seeing the man who had entered behind her. Though he, Severus, had not seen him in several years, the stranger was instantly recognizable. It was Albus Dumbledore, his old headmaster, and what he would be doing at this time of night in a place like the Hog’s Head, Severus hadn’t the slightest clue.

“Good evening,” Dumbledore said cheerfully – the tone was rather out of place, Severus thought absently, in an environment like this. The barman grunted out a response in a tone too low to be heard across the room; the woman who had entered with Dumbledore moved to stand by the far end of the long counter, nearest Severus’s table, although she didn’t appear to see him. She began fidgeting with the end of her scarf and whispering to herself; she seemed quite batty.

The barman, who had continued talking in low tones to Dumbledore, set down his glass at that moment, and Severus’s attention was again diverted back to him. He raised his tankard to his lips, half-hiding his face in a precautionary sort of way, and watched as Dumbledore, the mad woman, and the barman all moved out to stand by the narrow stairwell leading who knew where. With a none-too-pleased motion, the barman jerked his thumb up, and Dumbledore ascended the creaky steps.

“What’re you looking at?” he growled irritably, locking eyes with the goblins across the room at that moment. The goblin that had offered to place a wager with Severus looked at him with obvious distaste and slowly turned back around in his chair, immediately taking up a furiously whispered conversation with his companion. Severus wondered if he, too, would be acknowledged, but the barman merely turned and followed the pair up. There was the distant sound of muffled footsteps, and then a door closed.

Severus leaned back in his chair, instantly alert. It was no secret that Dumbledore was a Muggle sympathizer – one of the best known, arguably, if you were to go by his near-daily mentions in the Prophet. If he was skulking around pubs in the wee hours of the morning, there had to be a very good reason for it, especially as school was still in term. Perhaps this was an opportunity for him. Not only would relaying information back to headquarters get Malfoy off a trail that might lead to Severus’s involvement with Beth, but it could open the door for him, Severus, to rise in the ranks of the Death Eaters – and that was something he wanted more than almost anything.

He was still thinking over the rationale of this decision when footsteps sounded from above again, and began to descend the stairs noisily. But only the barman reappeared at the base of them, muttering under his breath and wiping his hands on the slightly filthy towel tucked at his waist.

“Barking mad, he is.” Severus caught the words as the pub’s owner lifted the hinged door and moved back behind the long counter, letting it fall behind him with a bang. “Coming in here at whatever hour suits him without even bothering to ask if it’s all right with me…”

The goblins seemed to take this as their cue to leave; still speaking in hushed tones between the two of them, they hopped down from their chairs, pointed ears bobbing about level with the top of the table, and fumbled briefly with cloaks and buttons before making their way toward the exit. The barman yanked his wand from his pocket and pointed at the glasses; they floated over to him, and clattered onto the long counter with a bang. One of them shattered.

Cursing under his breath, the barman turned his palms toward the ceiling and glared at it as though asking it why he deserved that. Severus watched as he turned and sidled through a small door set into the wall behind the counter. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, like he had quite forgotten Severus was even there.

Which meant that it was now or never. Rising slowly from his seat, and checking to make sure that the owner wouldn’t come bustling back out the door as quickly as he had slipped through it, Severus swept over to the staircase and ascended it silently, adrenaline and nerves thrumming through him in equal parts, as though the sensations had replaced his very blood.

The narrow corridor he found himself in was in a fair state of disrepair: Some of the planks in the wooden walls stuck out at odd, splintered angles, and the floor itself tilted slightly to the right. Then again, Severus figured anything better wouldn’t have been expected, after the shabbiness of the pub below. There were three doors set along the left wall in close proximity to one another, but only the last one had a strip of pale yellow light shining from under it. Tentatively, he crept toward it, his heart hammering madly in his throat.

Dumbledore’s voice spoke pleasantly from behind it, growing slowly more audible. “And you are a distant relation to the Seer Cassandra Trelawney, is that correct?”

“Her great-great-granddaughter, yes,” said a tremulous female voice, presumably that of the goggle-eyed woman Severus had seen vanish upstairs alongside his old headmaster. There was a slight pause, and then a clunk, as though a heavy glass had been set upon a tabletop.

“Could you tell me,” Dumbledore spoke again politely, “whether you can see anything in that crystal ball?” There was another pause, longer this time, and Severus curled his lip in disgust at being made to wait to long for what was turning out to be a fruitless mission.

“The Inner Eye only sees when it choose to see,” the woman spoke again, although it was painfully obvious that she didn’t believe her own words. “I cannot help you there, Albus.”

“How disappointing,” said Dumbledore mildly; there was another brief silence and the noise of someone settling back into a chair. “Palmistry, perhaps?” He made a noise that told Severus he had proffered his hand in order for the woman to read the lines on his palm.

She spoke again after a while. “You… you will live a long life,” she said with forced bravado. “And you will lead many young people in their quest for knowledge.” Severus had to bite back a derisive laugh at this; surely the woman didn’t think Dumbledore was as stupid as old age normally inflicted upon a person?

Dumbledore heaved a rather large sigh from behind the lit cracks of the little room. “I am afraid,” he said heavily, “that the position you seek is not one I can grant you, Sybill.”

The woman called Sybill sniffed, almost at once, as though expecting the news. “But I – I need this job!” she wailed, and Dumbledore shushed her gently. “If you can’t help me, I don’t know what –“

Her words were abruptly cut off with a great, shuddering gasp, and Severus was so surprised by it that he nearly stumbled over the hem of his cloak. He pressed his ears more fervently to the doorpost, ignoring how the rough wood rubbed unpleasantly on his cheek. Sybill spoke again, and this time it was not in that obnoxious faux-dreamy way she had about her; it was scratchy, grating, and very inhuman.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches...”

For the second time in less than a minute, Severus had to catch himself lest he should fall over. His hands scrabbled at the door frame, hoping against hope that he would not be overheard by the inn room’s occupants, and very nearly missed the next sentence the woman spoke.

Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…”

“What’re you doing here?”

Severus whipped his head around, mouth raising into an instinctive snarl, and found himself face-to-face with the grubby-looking barman who was perpetually behind the counter of the Hog’s Head. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, and his teeth were bared angrily; he looked more animal than human at that moment.

But how was he supposed to explain his reason for hanging about doors on the second floors of inns?

“Out,” barked the barman in a half-whisper, reaching forward and jerking Severus away from the door; the woman was still speaking, he could hear, but it was impossible to make out what she was saying for all the noise that the barman was making. He jerked again on Severus’s arm when the latter resisted.

“Let go of me,” he snapped, straining to catch something, anything, of what the woman was saying. His words were only met with a sharper jerk of his wrist, and he felt it pop painfully under the man’s surprisingly iron-like grip.

“I said out.” He shoved Severus roughly in the direction of the staircase by one shoulder. “And don’t come back for a long, long time, if you know what’s good for you.” He stood at the top of the stairs as Severus made to descend them, his brow thickly creased and his mouth turned down in displeasure.

Severus fairly flew down the narrow stairs, through the empty main room of the pub and back out into the chilly night once more. All thoughts of Lucius and the Muggle girl, even of Beth, had disappeared completely from his mind for the time being. His thoughts instead echoed with the prophecy he had just heard. The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord...

He had to get back to headquarters. This – this was his ticket into being respected by the inner circle of Death Eaters, by the Dark Lord himself… he would tell them what he had overheard, and he would be a hero for it…

With a small, malicious smile on his face, Severus turned once on his heel. With a loud crack, he vanished from Hogsmeade.

A/N: And the prophecy makes its first appearance! This certainly will throw a few kinks into Severus's dealings with Beth, you can be quite sure of that. It actually feels a bit funny to be posting this chapter, though -- it kind of feels like I just wrote it yesterday. But I'm actually due to start working on the first chapter of Breaking Even tonight, and by my calculations, I'll start posting that in February! Where does time go anymore?

As a quick note: The italicized lines of the prophecy, spoken by Trelawney and then thought by Snape, come from the Harry Potter series itself; I did not write them, and do not own them.

With that being said, thank you for reading this chapter! I hope you've enjoyed it!

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