A/N: JKR has lots of stuff. I snuck in through the back window and borrowed some of it. Thanks JKR, and I promise to return it very soon!
Also a big thank you to my betas: the incomparable theelderwand1 and the best character relationship therapist around, melian!
Thanks for reading! Edited for oopses on February 6, 2012
It was time.
Minutes from now, Igor Karkaroff would unleash a magic that the world had not seen in five hundred years. He couldn’t help the smug satisfaction that spread across his face as he turned the corner and stepped into the clueless mob. He was going to be the most powerful wizard in Europe.
Navigating his way through the rushing herd of Muggles, he finally spotted his destination ahead, but then a sudden jolt to his shoulder knocked the key from his hands. He bit out a curse in Russian. Second most powerful wizard, he corrected himself, struggling to reclaim the key among the stomping feet on the pavement. And then only if he could get to the warehouse in time. He straightened up and shoved his way through to the doorway.
The double-breasted overcoat chafed at his neck, reminding him how much he hated dressing like these primitive creatures. Almost as much as he hated having to act like them, he decided, as the key jammed in the door and refused to turn. He applied more force, resisting the urge to draw his wand. The unwanted attention from blasting the lock would ruin his plans for good.
It would all pay off in the long run, he told himself. A man like him deserved to be noticed.
With a grunt, Karkaroff won against the lock and stepped inside. The sharp tingle of the anti-detection shields felt almost soothing to him. He shook off the late December cold and strode purposefully towards the dim glow in the back. If he succeeded, he wouldn’t need to hide behind locked doors for much longer.
His irritation faded as he approached the cauldron of glistening ooze. Karkaroff picked up a syringe and a vial from a nearby table as a single bubble grew, its swirling, translucent surface dancing in the torchlight. He raised the crooked needle slowly, carefully above it. But just as he was about to extract the forming vapors, the bubble burst, splattering everything around it with slime.
The thin mucus-like film stretched in sickly patterns all over his lab equipment, his carefully hand-written lab notes… and the notebook. He ignored the burning on his arm where a few droplets had landed and set down the dripping syringe and vial. Disgusted, he Vanished the mess. A few muttered charms later, a lit cigarette appeared in his hand and he stalked back out into the cold.
Karkaroff inhaled the calming vapors, his cane mindlessly tapping a steady rhythm on the pavement, a purposeful counterpoint against the late-afternoon traffic winding through London’s industrial district, with its noisy mechanical squeaks and honks and exhaust.
The contingencies that hung around his grand future astounded him. He’d turned down several noteworthy positions to be where he was today, stuck in this Muggle-infested city, hidden away with the barest minimum of equipment.
He was better than that. Better than them. When he closed his eyes, he could picture the world as it should be, the weak and untalented hiding between the cracks of society and all of his people, the ones with the real power, standing above them all. He breathed it in slowly, savoring the vision of a world where all wizards had the freedom to wield magic without restraint. It was a beautiful, tasty picture.
It had taken him months to track down the owner of the ancient text. After relentless bargaining, he’d finally lost patience and forced his will upon the argumentative bastard. Karkaroff had thought that the dying merchant only meant to taunt him so he’d feel the least bit guilty as he pried the notebook from the man’s desperate clutch.
“These secrets are not yours to discover.”
Those final words haunted his every failure. Perhaps if he hadn’t killed him so quickly…
He’d followed the instructions of the ancient text to the letter and the experiment had still failed. Week after week, he’d prepared, brewed and continued to fail. Something was missing. Karkaroff scowled. He was not a stupid man. He simply needed more time.
Who was he fooling? He needed help. A crack of air to his left brought the old man’s thoughts back into focus. He’d been waiting for this.
“You are late.” Karkaroff brought the cigarette to his lips again and inhaled deeply. He breathed out a puff of smoke as a large bus spewed its own exhaust into the air with a screech of gears. “Muggles,” he said, cocking his head to indicate the noisy traffic. “Messy lot.”
Not waiting for a reply, he turned back to the warehouse. The threshold shimmered between the two worlds. “This way,” he said. Karkaroff slipped his wand out of his black robe and whispered at the wall torches, lighting them properly this time with words and gestures as he moved farther inside, until the whole warehouse flickered with a warm glow. He tossed the remaining butt down and made a quick gesture, causing the burnt roll to disappear into nothingness before it hit the ground. Satisfied, he turned and studied his new companion.
Karkaroff preferred to handpick his underlings, but the Dark Lord Voldemort had chosen this one for him. Though he had to agree that a young, well-connected aristocrat like Lucius Malfoy wasn’t a poor choice. The older man nodded to the notebook on the table. “Do you see what this is?”
His associate glanced at it, clearly unimpressed by the well-worn binding and smear of dried blood on the cover. “It seems to be quite old.”
Karkaroff hadn’t expected the younger wizard to understand. The new generation hadn’t learned enough about their past to realize how much potential they had. He was determined to change that.
“This,” he picked up the notebook, “contains great magic. The Ministry has weakened us. They banned and forbade and imprisoned those who dared to push the limits. With this, our Master will restore the wisdom of the ancients back to our people. The Dark Lord tells me you can help with this task.”
Lucius Malfoy bowed ceremoniously, his platinum hair sliding forward over his shoulders. “I am here to serve.”
“I need an expert on ancient texts.” Karkaroff squeezed his hands around the book. He could almost feel the power hidden within its pages.
“There is a Potions Master in Diagon Alley,” the young man began, but Karkaroff waved him off.
“Yes, yes. I have seen him. He has refused to help.”
“Refused?” Malfoy repeated, as if the very word held a death sentence.
“For now. I hope to change his mind. Until then, I need someone else.” Karkaroff stared thoughtfully at the younger man. These aristocratic types were easily manipulated. All he had to do was threaten his status and he’d likely bend over backwards to get what was needed. “Perhaps you are not as well-connected as you claim.”
Malfoy shifted uncomfortably. Then his eyes lit up. “Have you spoken to his apprentice?”
“Netterheim has taken an apprentice?” The Potions Master certainly hadn’t mentioned this during their brief, yet heated discussion.
“His name is Severus Snape. Reluctant, but pliable.”
Karkaroff nodded. “How approachable is he?”
“Quite. He’s been one of ours for a number of years now.” Malfoy looked pleased with himself.
Karkaroff pounded the tip of his cane into the floor. “Excellent. Make arrangements for a meeting. I wish to examine his qualifications.” It sounded proper to say, but wasn’t necessary. If Netterheim had accepted an apprentice, his qualifications were stellar. Perhaps a solution was closer than he thought.
“Very well,” Malfoy said, slipping a silver mask over his face. The air cracked and he was gone.
Death Eaters. Stupid name for the Dark Lord’s supporters who were dutifully clearing the way for wizards all over the world. It was a war after all, and people had to die. No more hiding, no more coddling those lesser beings… exterminate them when necessary. Karkaroff had no problem sacrificing the Muggles if it meant a quicker victory.
A small flame licked up and around the sides of the cauldron as the remaining potion continued to gurgle. A second, smaller bubble began to pulse beneath the ooze.
Perhaps the experiment was not completely lost.
Karkaroff grabbed the syringe off the table and held it over the cauldron. The ooze pulsed one last time and made still. His face soured as the bubble sank back below the surface.
He threw the syringe on the table and grunted. Potions Master Netterheim would have known how to fix this. He was sure that in time, Netterheim could be swayed. Coerced. Whatever it took.
With the power of the Guild Masters added to the Cause, the Dark Lord would have more than just the elitist purebloods on his side. The Guild had been preserving the most powerful magical discoveries for centuries. Once they joined forces, they’d convince the Ministry with sheer will that Muggles were just in the way. But that would have to wait. He’d been given a reasonable amount of time for this experiment and he wasn’t about to tax the Dark Lord’s patience on politicking with a group of hard-nosed academics when he had young impressionable talent at his disposal.
Karkaroff felt an unusual twitch in his hand and he inspected it in the dim light. His skin had blistered where the splattered ooze had landed.
Never mind that. He was more intrigued by the unexpected news from Malfoy. “Theodorus Netterheim has taken an apprentice after swearing against it for all these years.” He thoughtfully rubbed the leather binding of the ancient notebook with his thumb. “Why would he do such a thing?”
“Why on earth would you agree to such a thing?” Theodorus Netterheim’s voice boomed through the basement storage room. The Potions Master waved the leather-bound notebook above his head emphatically and then slapped it down onto the granite slab next to the large bubbling cauldron.
“This,” Netterheim gestured with fat hands, “is the folly of mad men and thieves. I will not have you turn my Potions Shop into a laboratory for the whims of dangerous men.”
Severus Snape knew better than to argue with the Potions Master when he was in such a state. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the notebook, wondering how to explain himself.
Karkaroff, the Dark Lord’s General they called him, had told him it contained the magic of the ancients, but when he skimmed the section on the potion that Karkaroff wanted, all Severus had found were sketchy instructions and an incomplete ingredient list. It would take a lot of research to complete the formula.
“It is a waste of your time and mine,” Netterheim was telling him. “I refused to have anything to do with this half-baked instruction booklet and here I find you with it right under my nose.” He stared at Severus hard. “Without my knowledge or permission. What exactly did he tell you?”
Severus cleared his throat and looked Netterheim in the eye. If he had learned anything from the Death Eaters, it was to give them what they want. Most of the time, they wouldn’t probe for the rest.
“He promised the approval of my Master’s Project.” And the protection of his family, Karkaroff had added at the end, making Severus agree to whatever it was he’d asked without question, but he dared not tell his mentor how deeply involved with the Death Eaters he’d gotten.
“Quatch!” Netterheim spat out, along with a string of German phrases loosely alluding to pigs and dogs… and then a disturbing combination of the two. “That man has no power over the Guild. They are impressed enough with your academic progress.” Then he added, “Though your understanding of politics is severely lacking. I expected better judgment for you, especially in matters such as this. You should have known to come to me first.”
Netterheim paced in front of him, scratching his moustache. “When did Karkaroff approach you?”
Severus looked up from the letter. “Three nights ago,” he admitted, and then winced as his mentor made tutting noises.
The Potions Master reached into his robe and pulled out a large envelope, which he threw on the table next to his apprentice. “Here. I should have gotten this to you sooner.”
Severus took the envelope and broke the Guild seal on the back, but his Master didn’t wait for him to open it.
“They approved your Masters Project the week before Christmas. As long as you complete your twelve-month Journeyman program, you can start now.”
Severus read the letter himself and then thanked the Fates when the bell upstairs signaled a customer. It was the only thing that Netterheim would allow to interrupt one of his lectures.
“This afternoon’s orders are ready?”
“Yes. Of course.” Severus reached behind him to the shelf of padded wooden boxes. He selected a fully cured set and handed the box over to his mentor. Netterheim took a vial out and held it up to the lamplight. “Clear, with no residue,” he stated approvingly. “I will make sure your cut gets sorted.”
The Potions Master replaced the vial and snapped the box shut. Then he left Severus with one last glare before he ambled up the stairs to the Shop’s main floor.
Severus shut his eyes and tried to shake the mess he’d just made out of his mind. Once again, he’d walked into another trap because of their damned promises. How was he to know that Karkaroff had nothing to do with the Guild?
Straight out of school, he’d had nothing. No money. No job. Only the promises he’d gotten from the Dark Lord on his seventeenth birthday - that he would do what they wanted when they came to him and in return, they’d keep his family safe from the purging. But nothing more. He’d spent the early days of his apprenticeship living in Netterheim’s basement, sleeping on the camp bed against the back wall.
Severus flicked his wand at the cauldron, extinguishing the flame below it.
He loved his work. It was a predictable, repeatable process. With his talent and training, he’d mastered the ability to bend the elements to his will. He loved everything about potions-brewing. Lived it, breathed it. He often slept with a notebook under his pillow on the off chance that an elusive formula caught him up in his dreams.
If you loved something or someone, he reasoned, you’d do anything to protect them. And so he believed her when his mother had told him to stay away from home for his own good. And he’d spent the last two years of school and then the next two years of his adult life in quiet servitude to the minions of the Dark Lord because she had told him to. And they’d told him she’d be dead if he didn’t.
Severus rubbed at the brand on his forearm through the fabric of his sleeve, remembering what he’d had to sacrifice for the love of his family.
He thought he’d loved a girl once. But that had been a mistake. One he vowed never to make again.
All he wanted was to be left alone with his potions, the one thing in his life he had any control over. He no longer needed that camp bed in the corner and was thankful for that. He finally had a flat of his own and a steady income from his work with Netterheim. He didn’t even mind the intrusion of the Death Eaters for their special orders from time to time. Compared to what his former schoolmates had been forced to do, his work was simple and it paid well.
Severus flipped open the tablet of orders for the rest of the afternoon and mindlessly reached behind him for the bottle of potion thickener. It felt wrong in his hand… and then he held the empty container up to the light. He sighed as he set the thing down and grabbed a covered bowl and a sharp knife from the back shelf. Preparing a fresh batch of thickener would delay his afternoon schedule. Karkaroff’s notebook would have to wait.
The harsh afternoon sun half-blinded him as he emerged from an invisible doorway into the back alley. Severus pulled up a stool against the shop wall and grabbed a bucket, balancing it between his knees.
He wondered if his mother would have heard anything about his accomplishments since leaving school: if she knew that his Headmaster had arranged an interview with a most-respected Potions Master, if anyone had told her he’d been accepted as an apprentice, finished his training in a remarkably short period of time and was so close to achieving, despite his obligations to the Cause, a well-respected and prestigious title. He’d sent her potions textbook back to her after graduation, as proof that he’d finished school. It wasn’t useful to him anymore. He’d memorized the contents a long time ago.
His mother had said that she was turning her back on magic to live exclusively in the Muggle world. He ripped open a brown, slug-like thing and squeezed, aiming the gelatinous goo into the bucket. Maybe she didn’t even follow wizarding events anymore. Had she forgotten him entirely too?
The wall next to Severus shimmered and a grave-looking Netterheim appeared in the darkening alley. “There you are.” He made a face. “Clean yourself up and come inside. The customer took longer than I expected and there is something else I have to give you.”
Severus threw the knife into the bucket and stood, muttering a cleansing spell for his hands and robe. His mentor insisted on a neat and professional appearance at all times and he wasn’t in the mood for that lecture again.
His appearance presentable enough, he followed Master Netterheim back into the shop.
As Severus pulled a stool up to the counter, Netterheim pulled a smaller envelope from his robe pocket. “I have already given you the good news. Here is the other.”
Severus silently traced the thick wax of the Ministry seal, hesitating. Did they find out about his arrangement with the Death Eaters? Were they ordering him in for questioning?
Without preamble, Netterheim continued. “Your mother is dead. They need you to identify her body and sign a statement.”
Severus broke the seal and read the statement for himself as a painful knot settled in his gut. Despite the details of the apparent double suicide, the last line of the report proved to Severus that his parents had not done this of their own free will.
The Dark Mark over the house had taken hours to dissipate.
A chill ran through him and spread to his fingers as he forced himself to read it through again. Everything they’d promised… He’d done what they’d asked of him, hadn’t he?
It didn’t matter anymore. Whatever the reason, he’d failed.
Netterheim stood by as Severus reread the Ministry letter. “Take your time. I don’t expect you in the shop tomorrow.” He set two Galleons on the counter in front of Severus. “For her eyes.”
The lift lurched, jostling Severus out of a disoriented haze. When the doors opened, he hardly noticed the crowd as they shuffled him onto the second level of the Ministry of Magic. He thought by now he should feel something – anything. But yesterday’s news had left him disturbingly numb. His parents were dead. The only sensation he’d noticed was a queasy rumbling in the pit of his stomach, initially attributed to the shock setting in. Or it could be last night’s leftover stew, he wasn’t sure.
Regardless of the state of his gut, Severus had gone to St. Mungo’s morgue first thing that morning as the letter had ordered.
It wasn’t like his mother to have just lain there for hours, bleeding out onto the living room carpet. She would have at least tried to save that worthless man for whom she’d sacrificed everything – including her own son. It didn’t make sense.
Feeling naked without his wand (admissions having confiscated it downstairs), he walked into the heart of the Ministry, brandishing the letter in front of him like a shield, just in case he was stopped for questioning.
Anyone in the department could help him with the forms, they said. Anyone in the building could haul him off to Azkaban with a word.
Surely, someone had his name on a watch list. He’d imagined being surrounded by a squad of Aurors and dragged away, never to be seen again. At least that’s how he’d read it was done in the weekly news. There were names on the tip of his tongue. He was determined to take as many of them down with him as possible.
A breath later, he pushed himself down the hall into a room full of cubicles and tried to look like anyone else who’d lost a family member to the war.
When he reached the Auror’s department, the front desk was empty, so he fell into one of the vacant seats by the wall and waited.
He’d spent half the night in his kitchenette, working on Karkaroff’s potion – on the off chance that if he showed significant progress, his life would be spared – and the other half in the early hours before daylight, composing a letter with details that would surely give the Ministry enough intelligence to weaken the Death Eaters– he hoped.
And then he’d burned the letter because it read too much like a confession. All he’d done was brew potions – sometimes with dubious components, sometimes for questionable people, but so had Netterheim and the Potions Master didn’t go about acting all conflicted.
He’d burned the second letter too, the list of potions provided to Lucius Malfoy and the rest of the Death Eater underlings. What was the Ministry going to do with it anyhow? Arrest them for being repeat customers?
The final letter had avoided being tossed into the fire grate, but just barely. He hated it, but it was all he could come up with to get someone’s attention:
“My life is in danger. Help me.”
The truth of the message scared him. He’d rarely had the chance to stop and think about his choices, always reacting or being told what to do. Study hard. Do your duty. Join the Death Eaters or your family dies. The Ministry might offer him condolences and make an attempt at serving justice, something he never understood. For Severus, forcing someone to make amends for their wrongdoing was like waking up to a field of snow in July.
Retribution. That, he understood.
He still hadn’t sent the message. Who would know how to get him out? Who would believe him when he said he hadn’t done anything wrong?
A girl in a Ministry robe walked up to him with a clipboard and an attitude. “Severus Snape,” she read like a reprimand. Then she looked at him. Recognition, or something else flitted across her face, he wasn’t sure, but he silently begged her to take pity. Just this once.
As if any of them ever had.
Most of his peers back in school had been quick to judge him for the mistakes he couldn’t have helped. Mistakes that paled in comparison to the choices he’d made since then. He reflexively tugged down on the cuff of his sleeve.
“Dorcas Meadowes,” he returned, remembering the dark curls, the purposeful gait. And she was bright. His apprehension was replaced by irritation at an awkward flashback from sixth year when she had gotten too close to topping his scores in Potions class.
He followed her down the corridor to one of many ordinary cubicles. A hunched, pock-faced man eyed him suspiciously as he passed, but then the girl stopped short in front of him and he had to catch himself before he knocked into her.
“Please take a seat.” She indicated an empty chair in front of her desk.
It was always unpleasant, facing the people he’d known from school. He’d like to have forgotten the shame, the ceaseless torment. At least Meadowes had been one of the few who’d marginally tolerated him. And she knew things. Enough to detain him for questioning...
The tightness returned to his gut. “What are you doing here?”
She wrinkled her brow and slammed open her folio. “This is my desk.”
“I meant the job.”
“In the Ministry? I received a recommendation from Headmaster Dumbledore. Personally placed.”
Severus glanced around nervously. “You’re an Auror?” Her marks had been high, but he didn’t think she was the type. There hadn’t been enough time for her to finish training…
“Heavens no!” she said. “Assistant. I handle the documentation.” She prepped her quill and took a form off the top of her stack.
Severus’ stomach turned over again. “Assistant.” If this was how the other side rewarded its best and brightest, he was almost glad for a second that he hadn’t chosen that path. He couldn’t think of a more dismal occupation than pushing parchment around a desk and meeting with… people like him.
“I don’t usually do this sort of thing,” she went on. “The Ministry is short-handed and we all have to double up. Your letter, please.”
He handed over the Ministry document without comment and she made notes in her folio. He regarded her badge with suspicion. “License Inspections?”
She looked down at her Ministry robe. “Oh. Forgot to switch badges. Doesn’t matter. They know who I am. I see that St. Mungo’s has given you the personal effects. Sign here for those. And here.” She pointed to the verification form.
Severus read over the form, checking “yes” for having received his mother’s Potions book, her ring and pieces of her broken wand. There were other things too, but they had been lumped under the heading “bag of small personal effects”, including his father’s watch, which he had no use for. The only thing the man had given him of consequence was his name. And even that wasn’t such a prize.
He sighed and checked “yes” for that too and searched for any fine print that would permit his incarceration without a trial. Satisfied, he handed it back to Dorcas Meadowes, parchment-pusher extraordinaire, who had him sign for the house too. As if he’d want to set foot there ever again.
“Regardless, it’s yours,” she said after his protest.
And more questions.
“Where were you at…” she checked the form again, “…eight ’o five two evenings ago?”
Severus stared at her, unblinking.
“Standard question,” she said to his look. “Really, if you’d just answer…”
“At home,” he said flatly. “Alone.” Because he knew what was coming next. “And the letter was the first I’d heard of it.”
She nodded, noting things down.
“When was the last time you saw them? Your parents.”
“Christmas,” he said. “Three years ago.”
That made her pause, but she didn’t question him further. None of the Ministry’s business, he decided.
“One more form,” she said, handing him a parchment and quill. “The Ministry is truly sorry for your loss. If there’s anything we can do for you…”
Her words sank into his memory, the same words that Headmaster Dumbledore had used when he’d placed Severus with Potions Master Netterheim - though he had trouble wrapping his head around the notion that Dumbledore had given him a chance at a future and at the same time placed someone like her in a dead-end desk job. Still, Dumbledore was the only wizard who’d caused the Dark Lord himself to be wary. Or so he’d heard.
Even with all their power, the Death Eaters remained baffled by the small handfuls of people who had managed to flee the country under their noses. There were rumors, but no one had any proof. Only a man like Dumbledore would know anything about that.
“There is one thing,” Severus said, fingering the letter in his pocket. “Does the Ministry have an Owlery? I have to send a letter.”
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