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Nothing Else Matters by Renfair
Chapter 2 : Chapter Two - Severus
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 14

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The moment I had been anticipating and dreading for nearly fourteen years had finally arrived. After leaving Professor Dumbledore and Potter behind in the hospital wing, I immediately left the castle to do what I had long known the headmaster would ask of me when this time came. Fortunately, all of the tournament’s spectators had finally departed—the stragglers most likely driven away by Fudge’s brilliant idea of summoning a Dementor to a school full of already terrified children—and I was spared having to answer any inconvenient questions as I hurried down the sloping road to the iron gates that formed both the physical and magical boundary of the school grounds. The gates clanged noisily open to allow me passage then immediately slammed shut and relocked themselves once I was on the other side. I took a moment to compose myself, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the early summer night. My thoughts kept wanting to return to tempting reminiscences of Avrille and the last kiss we had shared, but I forced it back to the task at hand. In a few frightfully short minutes, the solidarity of my mind would be the only thing standing between me and my already predetermined death sentence.

When I decided I was as ready as I was ever going to be, I shook back the left sleeve of my robes and raised my forearm, the cool night’s breeze making the hairs on my bare skin stand on end. The Dark Mark, the details of its ugly form barely visible in the dim starlight, nevertheless stood out starkly against my pale complexion. At least the brand was continuing to fade slightly, now returning to its previous shade of drab charcoal instead of burned black, and the images of the skull and snake were immobile once more instead of writhing on my skin.

With one final cleansing breath, I closed my eyes with my left arm still held out in front of me. I stepped forward into nothingness, allowing the pull of the Dark magic to guide my Apparation. Once the instantaneous sensation of having the life squeezed out of me had passed, I opened my eyes to find myself in even deeper darkness than what I had just left. Here the weak light of the crescent moon was obliterated by thick clouds. I appeared to be high on a hill, for the only light I could see came from the electricity of a Muggle village a ways below me. When my eyes had adjusted to the dimness, I saw that I was standing in front of a large country house. The property was also presumably under the ownership of Muggles since no spell had prevented me from Apparating directly onto the grounds, an enchantment a witch or wizard would certainly have implemented.

Taking one more breath and flexing my fingers a few times, I steeled my strongest mental walls then strode purposefully forward up to the front door of the house with my shoulders thrust back and my head held high. If anyone was currently watching me, I wanted them to believe from the very beginning that I had nothing to hide.

Indeed, as soon as I had climbed the stone stairs and reached out with my hand, the  front door swung open apparently of its own volition, revealing a grimy, dusty foyer illuminated by a random scattering of candles. I stepped over the threshold, and the door immediately slammed shut, nearly catching the hem of my robes and sending an echoing clap throughout the apparently deserted house. Sensing the door had not been opened by magic and that there was someone behind me, I turned to find myself looking at a small, twitchy man with pale, lank hair and watery eyes.

“Pettigrew,” I acknowledged him with a raised eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be dead.” Though, of course, Professor Dumbledore had told me last year that Peter Pettigrew had faked his own death to frame Sirius Black and protect himself from the wrath of both the organisations he had betrayed, it was still quite another thing to actually see him standing in the flesh before me.

“Snape,” Pettigrew replied shakily. He was stroking his right hand with his left, and the candlelight reflected off the fondled appendage with a flash of silver. I wouldn’t have needed the headmaster’s account of just what purpose his former right hand had served to know that it had been replaced with the Darkest of magic. The evil of the silver prosthetic wafted from Pettigrew like the stench of a festering wound.

“You’re late,” he snapped, the smooth glide of the silver hand under his fleshy one seeming to give him a boost of confidence. “He is … displeased.” Pettigrew said this with relish, savouring the feeling of having the Dark Lord’s approval while the status of mine hung precariously in the balance.

“Yes, well, I had more important things to do than standing around, answering doors,” I retorted coldly. Two spots of colour, either from anger or embarrassment, pinked Pettigrew’s cheeks, making him momentarily once more resemble the simple-minded boy who had somehow managed to melt his cauldron or explode his alembic every other Potions class.

“More important than immediate response to the Dark Lord’s summons?” Pettigrew waspishly spat.

“That will be for the Dark Lord to decide,” I replied simply, gazing around my surroundings and exuding every appearance of being completely at ease. It would have been dangerously foolish of me to think that the Dark Lord was not currently watching and listening closely to this pointless banter.

Pettigrew alternately clenched and flexed his silver fist as though wishing it was currently around my neck. “I’ll have you know that while you were living comfortably at Hogwarts, I was spending every waking moment serving our Lord. I was his most obedient servant. It was because of me, because of my sacrifice, that he was even able to—”

“—And yet here you are, making the Dark Lord wait again, he who allowed you the great honour of playing butler for him. I must say that your job performance leaves something to be desired, Peter. You haven’t even offered to take my cloak.”

Pettigrew’s face flushed fully crimson at my jabs, and his nose twitched spastically. Perhaps finally realising that he was keeping the Dark Lord waiting, who surely knew I had arrived the instant I Apparated, Pettigrew sniffed loudly then angrily shuffled past me. His silver hand flashed as he beckoned me with it to follow him.

He led me down several hallways towards the back of the house. The rooms we passed were dark, but I could see the hulking white shapes of sheet-draped furniture in most of them. The electric lights were obviously non-functional, but here and there a single lit candle had been carelessly shoved into sconces that had a century ago burned with gaslight. As we turned a final corner, I saw we were approaching a room that seemed to be more well lit than the rest of the house, a crackling fire within casting a slice of deceptively cheery light from the ajar door. Pettigrew stepped aside when we reached the door, pointedly not opening it further for me with a sneer on his still rat-like face. Ignoring him, I pulled the heavy oak door open wide enough to admit me and walked confidently into the room.

It appeared to have once been a grand salon, though the numerous plush armchairs and divans on which the house’s previous occupants had once savoured expensive liqueurs and cigars were currently stacked haphazardly back against the walls. Once richly embroidered tapestries, now threadbare and moth-eaten, hung from the walls hoarding decades of dust. Directly upon entering the room, I found myself face-to-face with Lucius. He stepped aside immediately and fell back against the wall like another piece of furniture, fixing his gaze to above the fireplace mantle across the way from him. I could see that several other Death Eaters were milling about the side-lines as well, but I ignored them and instead walked towards the far side of the room along a mouldy carpet runner leading to an intricately carved, Tudor-style chair. The Dark Lord sat upon it, the position of the chair and the runner giving him the appearance of a king holding court on his throne.

He appeared much as he had the last time I had seen him in the flesh. His unnervingly tall, skeletal body was swathed in black robes that tumbled around the chair as though they were sewn from woven smoke. His long-fingered, bone-like hands gripped the armrests of his chair, his wand laid delicately across his lap. Whereas the firelight would have shone off the head of any other bald man, the skin stretched tight across the Dark Lord’s skull reflected nothing and resembled pliable wax. His eyes, slightly narrowed above the slits that made up his nose, studied me keenly as I approached. I made sure to hold his gleaming red stare without blinking until I was directly before him, where I then fell to one knee and dropped my gaze to his feet deferentially.

“My Lord,” I said simply, as though I had seen him yesterday and was merely replying to a casual summons.

“Severus. You’re late,” he repeated Pettigrew’s greeting, his cold, high voice dangerously quiet. “You didn’t become lost, I hope?” The insinuation of his words hung so heavy in the air that I was sure every other Death Eater around me was now holding his breath.

“Never, my Lord,” I replied, letting him know I understood completely what he was truly asking me.

“You had me… concerned. I do not like to be kept waiting.”

“Forgive me, my Lord,” I said to the floor in front of him, “for taking the liberty of believing you would understand my unique situation. I took it upon myself to assume you would wish for me to remain at my post and return only under Dumbledore’s orders to preserve my cover.” At the mention of the headmaster’s name, whichever three Death Eaters stood next to the fire directly behind me to my right muttered several vulgar epithets at me under their breath. Through my eyelashes, I saw the Dark Lord shoot out one white hand in their direction to instantly silence them before returning it to its original position on the armrest.

“You did indeed take a liberty, Severus. Whether or not you are correct in your assumption has yet to be determined.” The Dark Lord paused here and seemed to be scrutinising me curiously. I held my position like a statue, keeping every muscle in check even though my knee was already aching from pressing against the hard wooden floor under the flimsy runner.

“Leave us,” he suddenly commanded the other Death Eaters. I heard the sound of half a dozen or so pairs of feet file out of the room and the thud of the door closing behind them. Once all sound has disappeared from the hallway, the Dark Lord said quietly, “Stand up. I wish to look upon you.” I obeyed instantly, rising to my feet and looking him once more directly in the eyes, something I knew he would respect more than a cowering avoidance.

The Dark Lord smiled coldly at me, a macabre sight indeed. “You say that you have returned on Dumbledore’s orders.” He picked up his wand and rolled it between his fingers with seeming nonchalance.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“So Dumbledore believes you to be truly repentant for serving me in the past and trusts you to continue obediently fetching for him, even now.”

Ignoring his insult, I replied, “Yes, my Lord. Dumbledore is a trusting man.”

The Dark Lord studied me keenly again for a moment before replying, “I, however, am not.”

I cannot say I wasn’t expecting it, but when the Cruciatus Curse hit me, it was only my decades of relentless training that kept the walls around my mind firm and intact as the Dark Lord latched onto them like a striking viper in what he believed to be my weakened state. I couldn’t stop my body from convulsing on the ground before him, but I know my disciplined self-control could have kept me from crying out if I had wished it. However, I had planned on all of this beforehand and knew the Dark Lord would expect a man being tortured to scream. So I screamed, knowing he was enjoying the sound of my pain and the punishment he was inflicting on me even though he certainly must have realised I had truly done what he would have wanted by delaying my appearance without him having to ask.

I have no way of knowing how long the Dark Lord allowed the Cruciatus Curse to run through me, it could have been a matter of seconds or several eternal minutes, but I do know he tried to penetrate my mental defences several times. But I had been ready, and while he began his interview of me, I had filled my recent memory with doctored images and false emotions. I employed Occlumency to block my true memories from him, and as he tortured me, I replayed in my mind a scene where, when I felt the Dark Mark burn on my arm, I was instantly elated then furious at my inability to immediately appear at my Lord’s side, not terrified at what this might mean for the safety of Avrille and our son. I let the Dark Lord see the revelation of Barty Crouch, Jr.’s true form, though none of his interrogation under the influence of my Veritaserum, and transformed my shock and disgust at his deception into admiration tinged with jealousy that I had not been able to serve my Lord as well as he had. Any memory concerning Avrille, Char, or Sirius Black—though it was only because of Professor Dumbledore’s wishes that I excluded him—I sealed off completely, giving the Dark Lord no access to my family or Black’s current whereabouts.

Finally, when I was just reaching the point where I didn’t know how much longer I could keep a firm hold on my mind’s defences, the Dark Lord lifted the curse and sweet release flooded my body. For a full thirty seconds, I was physically unable to move, but as soon as I felt the stinging ache in my limbs signalling the return of my brain’s control over my still painfully tingling muscles, I shakily climbed back up onto one knee before him. Through the veil of my dishevelled hair, I risked a glance up into the Dark Lord’s face, mask-like and unreadable, before dropping my gaze once more to his bare feet.

“You surprise me, Severus. Not many men can claim that accomplishment.” Not knowing whether he was complimenting me or not, I remained silent.

“I confess I was convinced you had betrayed me. After all, you were quite meddlesome when I was attempting to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone three years ago.”

I nodded my head humbly and replied, “Forgive me, my Lord, but I merely believed I was hindering Quirrell, an undeserving and incompetent man. I assumed he had been seduced by its proximity in the castle and was attempting to steal the Stone for himself.” I decided to dare resuming eye contact with the Dark Lord and continued, “If you had trusted me to aid you in your attempts to obtain the Stone, you could have easily returned to us three years sooner. However, I understand that was much too great a risk for you to take, being unsure of my true loyalties.”

“You are quite correct in that,” the Dark Lord said coldly. He began almost absentmindedly toying with his wand, so I started to steel myself regretfully once more. “I was certainly not going to trust a man who appeared to be sharing the deepest confidences of Albus Dumbledore, the same man whom I had originally ordered to take up a post at Hogwarts to serve my interests, not to enjoy a comfortable profession while I wandered the earth stripped of all powers and completely unable to return to my former self unaided.”

This time the Cruciatus Curse seemed to be merely for punishment. The Dark Lord did not attempt to enter my thoughts, so I was able to focus completely on the agonising torment he was inflicting on my body. Either because every nerve ending in me was still raw from the previous application or the Dark Lord’s attention had been diverted enough by his Legilimency spell at the time to render his torture marginally more bearable, the second round of forced penance was even more excruciating than the last. It took every ounce of discipline I possessed to keep my teeth gritted tightly together so as to neither beg for mercy nor accidentally bite my own tongue off.

Though I couldn’t tell for sure, it felt like the eternity of incomprehensible pain I endured now was slightly shorter than previously. When he released me, I was able to return to my subservient position more quickly, though my legs were shaking badly, and I had to place my hands on the ground on either side of my knee to keep myself upright.

“You are merciful, my Lord,” I said hoarsely. “Yes, I remained at Hogwarts under the supervision of Dumbledore instead of scouring the earth for traces of your spirit as a good, faithful servant should have done. Forgive me, I was weak. I believed wrongfully that you had been killed when your spell rebounded off of the Potter brat. I was young, untrained, and unaware of your prodigious mastery of the Dark Arts. I would give anything to go back and help you return to your body more quickly, as I’m sure any of my fellow Death Eaters would agree. The only reparation I can offer you besides my immense regret is the summation of more than a decade’s worth of those very confidences you spoke of.”

I knew I had reached the very edge of the precipice. The Dark Lord believed that I had remained faithful to him, though incompetent in my service as the other non-incarcerated Death Eaters had been. Now I would see if my being privy to Professor Dumbledore’s “secrets” was a greater temptation than his desire to make me pay the ultimate price for my faithlessness. Though my instinct was to close my eyes and await my fate, I kept my gaze fixed on the Dark Lord’s face. I knew that if I allowed myself to wait in darkness, I would not be able to stop myself from seeing the faces of my wife and son.

Finally, after a seeming lifetime of waiting, the Dark Lord said, “Tell me of Hogwarts. I was not able to glean much information when I was bound to that foolish wizard.” I released the breath I had been holding slowly and imperceptibly. It appeared, for the moment at least, that I was safe.

“Hogwarts is much as it ever was. Dumbledore still grants the Mudbloods and blood traitors free entrance into its ancient halls, though I am proud to say none of their kind are allowed into my own House.” Hopefully he wouldn’t fact check that statement too carefully in the near future. Though there truly weren’t any Muggle-borns in Slytherin at the moment, it was merely by lucky chance and not because I tried to actively prevent their admittance in any way. Personally, I could not care less what a child’s magical lineage or lack thereof was, so long as he or she didn’t cost me House points with sophomoric behaviour. However, I was fairly sure there were at least some parents of my current Slytherin students who would surely stand against the Dark Lord when he was ready to move out into the open and begin active conscription of followers once more.

The Dark Lord nodded in approval at my half-truth, stroking his chin thoughtfully with the long fingers of the hand not holding his wand. I readied my mental walls again, just in case, deciding the time had come to deliver one of the choicest bits of information I had.

To my previous statement, I added lightly, “I was hoping some of them would be eliminated when the Chamber of Secrets was reopened.”

Instantly, I could tell I had hit gold. Though it had been nearly indiscernible given the shadows playing on his face from the firelight as well as his mastery of his own emotions, I distinctly saw a twitch of concern flit across the Dark Lord’s face before it resumed its façade of expressionless stone.

“What do you mean. When was the Chamber of Secrets opened?” The Dark Lord was obviously trying to keep his tone conversational as well, but I was certain this news troubled him greatly.

“The year following your thwarted attempt to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone. Unfortunately, as I said, it was closed once more before the school could be cleansed.” I did not, of course, mention Potter had been the one to finish off Slytherin’s beast, or that it had met its downfall by the blade of Godric Gryffindor. I was quite sure Professor Dumbledore would not want The Dark Lord to know the sword had been found, or that Potter had once again foiled his plans to return to a body. When I paused, the Dark Lord gestured impatiently for me to continue.

“It transpired that a diary imbued with Dark magic possessed a first year student, who was then made to open the Chamber unawares. The diary was eventually taken from the girl, and Dumbledore saw to it that it was destroyed.” At these words the Dark Lord’s face once again flinched angrily. He raised his wand with a jerk and pointed it at me once more. Expecting the Cruciatus Curse for a third time, I was relieved when he merely attacked my thoughts with Legilimency, though the sensation of having him force his way into my mind was far from pleasant. But I had been prepared and showed him what he was searching for: the image of an old leather diary, burned through as if someone had injected it with acid. As a personal jab for his torture of me, and because I could tell this book had been very important to him, I included the sight of Professor Dumbledore holding the destroyed diary with a triumphant look emblazoned across his wise face.

As quickly as he had entered my mind, the Dark Lord pulled back out of it. “And if this girl was cleared, who was determined to have been the one responsible?” he asked me, his barely contained fury radiating from him like a frozen mist.

“It was rumoured that Lucius had a hand in it. After the diary was discovered, he happened to be expelled from the school’s governing council coincidentally. Fortunately, Dumbledore wasn’t able to prove it was him, and Lucius was never formally charged.” The Dark Lord’s eyes burned at the mention of Lucius’s name, not at all sharing my feigned relief at his escaping true punishment. Even though I disliked Lucius greatly for various personal reasons, I felt the slightest tinge of guilt that my information unintentionally had stirred the Dark Lord’s wrath so vehemently against him.

“You have done well to tell me this. You may rise, Severus.” I obeyed him hastily, my legs only giving out for a brief moment in my rush to get to my feet before I steadied myself. Still watching me keenly, he raised his wand for the fourth time. However, instead of at me, he pointed it at an old, high-backed dining chair that then flew through the air from one of the piles of furniture to land in front of him, slightly to the side. The Dark Lord pointed to the chair, still staring at me unblinkingly.

“Sit,” he commanded.

“Thank you, my Lord,” I said, not needing to affect the grateful tone of my voice. Though I was currently able to stand steadily, I didn’t think I could have kept the tremble out of my muscles for long. Once I was seated, the Dark Lord adjusted his own position in his chair, slouching to the side slightly and crossing his legs as though we were about to share an after-dinner brandy and discuss the racecourses.

“Lucius tells me you’ve recently married,” he said almost pleasantly, changing his tactics. I assumed we would come to this eventually, and whatever trace of pity I had been harbouring for Lucius instantly evaporated. I knew he was still smarting over Avrille’s violent rejection of his illegal advances and would want to make me pay in kind for winning her affection myself.

“Yes, my Lord,” I replied simply, not wanting to offer any more details than absolutely necessary. When the Dark Lord raised a hairless brow at me, I knew I would need to give him more than that.

“She was my apprentice at Hogwarts several years ago. I confess I quickly became more interested in her other talents than in her schoolwork,” I said with a small smirk. At the moment it seemed safer to make it appear I had simply lusted after Avrille instead of fall so completely in love that I had risked losing my job, not to mention my life, to be with her.

The Dark Lord laughed quietly, his fleshless lips pulled back to reveal pointed teeth. “Quite understandable, from what Lucius has told me of her. And you now have a son?”

“Yes. We call him Charles.” Again, I thought it best to lie and not provide the Dark Lord with Char’s given name of Armand just yet if I could avoid it. The longer he went without connecting that Avrille Snape used to be Avrille Asphodel, daughter of Armand Asphodel who was murdered protecting his prodigy of a daughter from the Dark Lord’s North American supporters, the better.

The Dark Lord tapped at his chin with his wand and shook his head with an exaggerated sigh. “Young Severus married with a son … Lucius, Crabbe, Goyle, and Nott ... all their sons grown and at Hogwarts now. So much time has passed; so many other fathers and sons, come and gone.” He paused and stared off into the fire. With any other man, I would think he was waxing nostalgic, but that would at the very least require him to not be an utter sociopath.

“You know, Severus, this used to be my own father’s home,” he said at last, the flames he held captive in his gaze making his eyes appear even more scarlet than usual.

“Was it, my Lord?” I asked innocently, surprised not by the information, which I had had through Potter’s account to the headmaster, but rather that the Dark Lord was sharing such a personal detail with me. As far as I knew, besides the mostly dead fathers of the current Death Eaters he had gone to school with and a couple teachers still at Hogwarts, no one knew anything about his previous identity as Tom Riddle.

“Mmm, yes. He was a filthy Muggle, my father, though, I’m sure, greatly revered by his tenants. I do hope that doesn’t make you think less of me, Severus,” he said sardonically with a sidelong glance and indulgent leer in my direction.

Unsure why he was choosing to confide this volatile information to me, I tactfully replied, “Never, my Lord. We cannot choose our fathers, after all.” I tried to keep the taste of bitterness I was feeling out of my voice as I thought of my own hated, though pure-blood, sire.

“I killed him, though,” the Dark Lord continued. “Him and his own worthless Muggle parents in this very room. Why,” he said, gesturing at me, “he might have even been sitting in your chair!” I smiled tightly, again, waiting to see where this was headed.

To answer my unasked question, he said, “I tell you this because, though you have greatly disappointed me in the past, I want to believe that I can now trust you. It was perhaps foolish of me to give so much responsibility to Lucius, who apparently can’t even be counted on to follow one simple instruction. Perhaps he will be able to redeem himself in the future, but for the moment I cannot risk putting my faith in such an incompetent lieutenant. Perhaps you will rise to fill that position, Severus. After all, you have already aided me greatly on this first night of my rebirth.”

“You do me too much honour, my Lord. I am happy to merely serve you, though I will gratefully fulfil any role you require of me,” I said, inclining my head once more in his direction.

The Dark Lord studied my face for a full minute more. I waited, exuding a patient calm that was almost more difficult to reproduce than my nauseatingly manufactured fawning. Finally, he said quietly, “You may go. I will be summoning you again soon, and though I do understand your ‘unique situation,’ do not keep me waiting long.” Relief swept through me at his words, though I was careful to keep my expression as impassive as his. I would be back with Avrille soon.

“Of course, my Lord. I will come at the first available opportunity.” I stood up, my legs still somewhat weak but at least supporting my weight, and bowed deeply. I backed away from the Dark Lord’s chair for a few paces before turning my back at a respectable distance and crossing the room to leave.

Just as I reached the door to the hallway, the Dark Lord called after me, “Severus.” I turned back towards him. “Send Lucius in to me,” he said with terrifying coldness. I bowed my head a final time then left the room.

The hallway outside was so dim after being accustomed to the bright firelight that I hesitated for a moment once I had closed the door behind me to allow my eyes to adjust. When they had, I saw the hall was deserted, so I set off back along it to locate Lucius. I quickly found him several rooms down, milling around with the other Death Eaters in an abandoned library. They had been muttering amongst themselves, but the moment I entered the room, they fell silent and watched me with suspicious glares. Most of the men I recognised: great, hulking Crabbe and Goyle and tall, reedy Nott, obviously, since all of their sons were in my House along with Draco Malfoy. Pettigrew was cowering ignored in an overstuffed armchair in a corner, once more stroking his silver hand and watching the larger men nervously. Two others I didn’t know, understandably, since I had only been with the Death Eaters a brief time before the Dark Lord’s downfall, and he had been very careful back then to make sure we weren’t apprised of every Death Eater’s identity. One of the two, a thin, swarthy man with a limp black moustache, I recognised vaguely by sight though not by name from visits to the Ministry of Magic. The other, tall, barrel-chested, and with several streaks of grey in his ruddy hair, I didn’t know at all. Neither one of them stepped forward to introduce themselves, of which I was hardly surprised. They did, however, sniff disdainfully at my lack of proper attire, I having destroyed my Death Eater robes gratefully well over a decade ago.

Ignoring their disparaging looks, I walked over to Lucius. “The Dark Lord wishes to see you,” I said, not quite able to stop a small, vindictive smile from flitting across my lips. Lucius’s pale face blanched even whiter, and he had not the discipline to keep a wave of fear from washing across it. He nodded, glanced at his companions, then hurried from the room. I turned to leave as well, not considering the other Death Eaters worth any more of my time.

“Going back to tattle to your Muggle-lover, Dumbledore, are you?” the ruddy man called after me. I almost let the insinuation slide but decided I had better start climbing the pecking order now.

I turned back towards him and asked coolly, “And you are …?”

“Selwyn,” he replied snidely. “And I was serving the Dark Lord before you were even a schoolboy, so don’t you dare think of giving me any lip.”

“Well, Selwyn,” I sneered in return, “perhaps you should be less concerned with the Dark Lord’s plans for me and worry more about your own upcoming assignment. He informed me that its difficulty is aptly proportionate to his disappointment in you,” I invented. I could tell, however, that I had unnerved Selwyn, for he didn’t taunt me again and resumed his silent glower. Turning my back on him once more, I strode from the library only to nearly walk into Lucius, who had been waiting for me just outside the door.

As I made to pass him to leave, he grabbed my arm roughly and hissed in my ear, “What did you tell him, Severus!?”

Wrenching my arm free of him, I replied, “Only how well you continued his work of trying to kill off the Mudbloods when you saw to it the Chamber of Secrets was opened again. He must want to thank you for knowing his mind so completely, even when he wasn’t around to command you.” I straightened my robes casually, smoothing out several wrinkles from Lucius’s seizure of them. With another small smirk and a raised eyebrow, I left Lucius behind in the hallway visibly trembling, his white face having now turned a sickly shade of green.

When I had rounded a corner, putting me out of Lucius’s line of sight, I picked up my pace and virtually fled the manor house. The moment I stepped outside the front door onto the cobbled stoop, I Disapparated to appear instantly back outside the gates of Hogwarts. Once again bathed in summer starlight, the moon having only risen a few inches higher in the heavens, I hurried to unlock the towering school gates. I slipped between the iron bars, then dropped to my knees the moment the closing gates’ clang sounded behind me. I took several shuddering breaths of pine-scented air, keeping myself from complete collapse by digging my fists into my thighs with locked elbows. I hung my head, my neck suddenly having the strength of a green sapling, and let my hair fall forward to block the cheerfully lit castle from view. I stayed in that position recovering for several minutes, hoping no one would be coming down from the castle or back up from Hogsmeade to discover me in such a compromised stance.

Finally, I was able to muster my strength by remembering Avrille was waiting for me. I stood once more and brushed bits of gravel from the legs of my trousers. I walked up the twisting drive to the castle, practically limping from the cramps spreading up my legs. When I reached the massive front doors, I shook myself over once to regain my composure, then headed into the castle. Both the entrance hall and the Great Hall were deserted with their lights dimmed low, the headmaster having presumably finally sent the students to bed. I was glad I didn’t meet anyone on my long climb up the dozens of stairs to Professor Dumbledore’s office; I didn’t want to have to report to anyone else at the moment, and my legs were shaking badly once I reached the correct floor.

At the end of the corridor, I spoke the password to the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to the headmaster’s office, hoping he hadn’t yet changed it in accordance with the new security measures he was surely implementing. Fortunately, the gargoyle instantly leapt aside to grant me admittance. At least I didn’t have to climb the moving staircase up to his actual office tower, so I leaned against the stone wall, catching my breath as I was carried upwards. When I reached the top, I took a moment to smooth my robes once more then knocked on the door to Professor Dumbledore’s study.

“Enter!” I heard him call loudly. I did, and as I passed over the threshold, I was given the feeling he had just been conversing with the former headmasters and headmistresses since many of the paintings’ occupants stared at me with interest as I closed the door behind me.

“Severus!” Professor Dumbledore exclaimed when he saw it was me and quickly rose from his desk where he had been seated, penning a letter. His aged face soon showed even more lines than usual, for his expression fell from relief at my apparent safety to deepest concern as I stepped into the light. I must have looked as dreadful as I felt. Professor Dumbledore hurried over to my side and immediately took my arm to support me. Had any other man done so, I would have been mortally offended, but I gratefully accepted the headmaster’s assistance in walking to one of the comfortable armchairs by the fire. I fell into it and let the soft give of the well-broken-in leather cushion my weary body.

“Can I get you anything? A brandy … or perhaps something stronger?” Professor Dumbledore asked, standing over me and still looking very worried.

“A Strengthening Solution, if you have one, would be best,” I replied, resting my forehead in the palm of one hand. Now that I had released the Occlumency spell from binding my mind, my skull was throbbing like someone had been using it as a duelling dummy. The headmaster nodded and with a wave of his hand, summoned a glass vial from one of his many cabinets. I reached forward and took the potion thankfully from mid-air where it hovered before me and downed the crimson liquid in one gulp. Replacing the stopper, I handed the vial back to Professor Dumbledore and looked up at him once the room finally stopped spinning.

“He wasn’t very pleased with me, at first,” I said with a grim smile. I sat back in the chair again with a sigh and enjoyed the warm, tingling sensation as the potion spread vigour back into my limbs.

Professor Dumbledore sat in an armchair beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Have you been to see Avrille yet?” he asked. I shook my head. “She’ll be worried sick, Severus,” he gently reproached me.

“I know, but I had to see you first and get all of this out of the way before I speak with her.” Professor Dumbledore nodded in understanding, and with obvious trepidation, he nevertheless gestured for me to continue.

I began recounting the night’s events after I had left him in the school’s hospital wing. I told him of seeing Pettigrew alive in the flesh, confirmed the identities of the Death Eaters Potter had claimed had appeared before him in the graveyard, and matter-of-factly recounted the Dark Lord’s interrogation of me, passing over none of the more unpleasant details. Professor Dumbledore’s brow knit worriedly when I described the times the Dark Lord used the Cruciatus Curse, but thankfully he did not interrupt. It would have been more difficult to recount the torture with him offering words of regret or consolation. Enough had passed between us in the past that I knew he was feeling my pain as his own. He did, however, break in after I mentioned how interested the Dark Lord had been to hear the Chamber of Secrets had been reopened.

“So he was definitely visibly angry when you told him the diary had been destroyed?” he asked me.

I nodded, sipping the brandy the headmaster had insisted I drink as well. “It was the only time I saw him lose control of his emotions. I didn’t stay to eavesdrop, but I’m certain Lucius suffered much worse than I did tonight for his role in the harm that befell that book.”

Professor Dumbledore looked oddly triumphant and stroked his long silvery beard thoughtfully.

“Do you know what significance that diary held for him, besides being a tool to continue his unfinished work?” I asked.

Professor Dumbledore smiled and replied lightly, “I have a vague notion, but really nothing more than the meanest of conjectures. I won’t bore you with my unorganised ramblings on the subject.” I personally didn’t buy his excuse as to why he wouldn’t tell me his suspicions but tried not to be resentful of it. He obviously must have felt it was safer for me not to know.

When I had completed my full recount, we both stood, and Professor Dumbledore placed his hands on my shoulders. “I am so very sorry for what you had to endure tonight, Severus, but you have aided the Order in more ways than you can know. Voldemort may have returned, but because of sacrifices like yours, we will be more prepared to face him than ever before. There are more things I wish to discuss with you, where we will be setting up headquarters, for example, but I won’t trouble you with them tonight. Please go to your family, now. We have been letting your wife worry far too long, and I certainly don’t wish to give her any more reasons to be angry with me!” With a fatherly pat on the back, Professor Dumbledore steered me to the door of his office. I bade him goodnight as the numerous clocks around the room chimed the hour of one, then took the revolving stairs back down to the main castle.

As I made my way down to my rooms in the dungeons, I debated with myself how much information Avrille should be given. The delicate balance between wanting to protect her from knowing too much and having her be in danger from knowing too little tipped back and forth in my mind. I arrived at the door to my rooms without having made a decision and simply hoped that Avrille wouldn’t badger me for details, at least not tonight.

Glad to see that she had locked the door, I opened it with my wand and passed through into the parlour. The room was silent, and the lights were extinguished besides the large fire in the grate. I hung up my cloak by the door then entered the main living space to see Avrille’s still form reclined on the sofa, draped with a blanket. I approached her quietly and saw to my relief that she was sleeping, though her eyebrows were knit together like she was having a bad dream. I cast a very mild sedating charm over her, and her face instantly relaxed into a more peaceful expression. She must have been utterly exhausted to fall asleep amidst the intense anxiety I knew she had been suffering since I left her behind earlier in the evening.

I silently made my way across the room and entered my bedroom. By the light of a single candle, I saw Char sprawled across his bed, his legs tangled in his kicked-off blanket while one arm smothered his bear. My arms ached to gather up my son, but I couldn’t touch him, just as how I couldn’t touch Avrille. Not yet. I contented myself with waving my wand again, this time to pull his blanket back up over his small frame and tuck it in under the mattress.

I continued on through the bedroom and into the bathroom. Closing and locking the door behind me, I flooded the hard, echoing space with light. I splashed a bit of cold water on my face, then gripping the icy marble countertop tightly, I looked up into the mirror at my reflection. Instantly I was glad I hadn’t awoken Avrille just yet; the sight of me probably would have made her scream. My normally thin face looked beyond exhausted to thoroughly wasted, and my eyes were framed with circles so dark it looked like someone had punched me. I imagine I must have looked rather similar two years ago when Avrille saved me from my father’s tomb.

I stripped out of my clothes and got into the shower, making the water as hot as I could stand without scalding myself. I simply stood under the steaming stream with my arms against the wall for a good ten minutes, letting the hot water run over me and relax the remaining kinks in my muscles the Strengthening Solution hadn’t removed. When I felt myself starting to sweat, I turned the heat of the water down and gave myself a vigorous scrubbing over. The Dark Lord hadn’t physically touched me, but I felt like I still needed to be thoroughly cleansed before holding my wife and child as if to protect them from his evil magic transferring onto them through contact with me. Stopping only because I knew I would soon scour my skin raw, I forced myself out of the shower and onto the slick tiled floor. After towelling off, I rubbed a clear space on the foggy mirror and examined my face once again. The hot water had done me a world of good. I still looked tired, but at least I didn’t resemble an Inferius anymore.

The air in the bedroom was so frigid after the bathroom’s sauna-like atmosphere that bumps erupted over my bare torso as soon as I stepped through the door. Stopping only to finally allow myself to kiss my son’s mop of black hair, I hurried to a wardrobe and dressed for bed. When that was done, I examined myself once more in a mirror to make sure I hadn’t reverted to my previously ghastly visage. Realising I was blatantly stalling, and not even sure why I was at all, I finally re-entered the parlour and closed the bedroom doors behind me.

My charm had kept Avrille sleeping soundly on the sofa. I lifted it with a wave of my hand as I sat down beside her feet. I watched her to continue to sleep, not wanting to break the spell of her peaceful rest with worries and talk about the Dark Lord. But I knew she would be far more anxious about not knowing my fate this evening, so I reached across and gently ran my hand down her face to wake her. She stirred fretfully for a moment then opened her eyes blearily with a small groan. Upon seeing me, she sat bolt upright and threw her arms around me, pulling my face into her neck.

“Oh my God, Severus! I was so worried.” She didn’t let me go for a minute, and I could feel the pulse in her throat racing against my lips. She finally released me slightly so she could look me in the eyes. “I can’t believe I fell asleep! When did you get back?” she asked me with a slight accusatory tone in her voice as she eyed my changed clothes.

“A little while ago. I’m sorry I didn’t wake you. I wasn’t ready for you to see me just yet,” I said quietly, cupping her cheek in my right hand. Her eyes filled with tears, which she furiously tried to blink away.

“But you’re ok, now?” she asked, covering my hand with her own.

“Yes, I’m perfectly fine,” I lied. I then waited for her own inquisition to begin, knowing I had provided her with painfully few details before possibly rushing off to my death. But Avrille’s earlier thirst for information seemed to have vanished, and instead of rattling off a thousand questions, she threaded her hands through my damp hair and roughly pulled my mouth to hers. The tip of her tongue brushing against mine did far more to renew my strength than either of the restorative draughts I had drunk in the headmaster’s office. I gently pushed her back down onto the sofa and settled my body over hers. Avrille began immediately stripping off my clothes, I returning the favour, until we lay naked under the blanket. For the first time since I had felt my Dark Mark burn hours earlier, my mind was blissfully empty as I ran my hands over every inch of my wife I could reach.

“I need you,” she moaned throatily in my ear. She wrapped her legs around mine, and I instantly made to grant her wish. But then I hesitated, propping myself up on one elbow and placing the other hand on her hip to keep her still for a moment.

“Have you been taking your potion?” I asked her. Annoyance flashed across her flushed face, and she brushed her hair out of her eyes so she could stare at me with incredulity.

Really, Severus? You’re asking me this now?”

“Forgive me, it’s just … This isn’t the time to be bringing another child into the world,” I said quietly. Avrille’s expression softened somewhat, and she pulled my mouth back down to meet hers.

“I took it earlier in the week,” she said in between kisses. I abandoned myself to her lips and allowed her to guide my movements, relieved to finally be able to relinquish any semblance of control.

When we had satisfied our cravings for the time being, we lay curled together on the sofa, Avrille pressing her face into my chest as I ran my fingers through her long, silken hair, the firelight catching the red undertones and making them shine like burnished copper. I tried desperately to keep my mind empty and simply enjoy Avrille’s soft warmth, but my earlier ordeal and worries of the future wouldn’t stop invading my otherwise contented thoughts.

“We should get to bed,” Avrille said, her weary voice slightly muffled. Her lips moving against my chest reignited my burning desire, so I pulled her more tightly against me and captured her mouth once more.

“Not yet,” I whispered pleadingly. Though I knew she was tired, I sighed with relief when she once more melded her body to mine and allowed me to drown my troubled thoughts with the sweet taste of her skin. I had no idea what further trials and sacrifices the morning would bring, but at least for now, I was home.

Author's Note: Since this is a WIP, please leave a review if you have a moment. It's really incredibly helpful for me to know what you like or don't like so far. Passing on any mistakes that you've noticed (especially with "Britishisms") would be very much appreciated! If you have any questions or suggestions, the link to my Meet the Author thread on the HPFF forums can be found on my main author page. Thanks so much for reading! ~Renny

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