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In The Red by TenthWeasley
Chapter 4 : Severus's Task
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7


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The previous calm of the night seemed to fracture instantly, hairline cracks through the stars dotting the night that was brightly lit by a sliver of a moon. The world seemed to tilt for a moment, so much that Severus actually had to reach out and steady himself upon the opposite supporting post from the one Lucius Malfoy leaned on. No one seemed to notice how suddenly off-balance he had become, but he didn’t even know if he’d care if they did.

He would have been lying if he had tried to use the excuse that he hadn’t known something like this would come along eventually. Wasn’t it what he’d expected, even wanted, from the onset? And wasn’t it what he had defended to Beth, all those months ago in the castle stairwell? But somehow, on this night, watching Muggles return from an otherwise ordinary evening at the pub, he felt sick to his stomach at the prospect.

A sort of eager grin had spread across Wilkes’s freckled face now, and he was looking from one to the other of them, trying to evaluate their responses. Severus’s own eyes searched his friends; with a sinking sort of feeling in his stomach, he realized that, for the most part, they looked as eager as Wilkes had. Avery’s face had paled slightly, but he didn’t look nearly as sick as Severus felt.

What was wrong with him?

Malfoy was regarding them all coolly, absently toying with the hem of his left sleeve. “One per man,” he clarified, out of the blue, again turning his pale eyes on Severus as though he could see the turmoil roiling in his gut. “So as to make it fair.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. How ironic, Severus thought, to be discussing fairness when five human lives – Muggles, but humans nonetheless – were being tossed about as little better than rubbish.

“I’m game,” Mulciber popped up, rubbing his large hands together in excitement. “Finally getting down to do a bit of action, eh?” Wilkes let out an impulsive sort of laugh, spit flying as he did, and was immediately shushed by the others.

“Splitting up, I think, will best accomplish the task,” Malfoy told them; he had now moved on to inspecting his already-immaculate fingernails. Severus remained silent, feeling his lip curl at the blonde man’s lack of emotion. And at the same time, he hated these emotions; he felt distinctly like they were betraying him in some way, going against what his mind was telling him to do.

“Snape, we’ll go this way,” Rosier said with a tiny jerk of his head towards the pub, still spilling its yellow light onto the pavement; it was more of a twitch than an intentional movement. “The others can head down around the corner and find out what’s down there.”

“Where are we supposed to go when we’re finished with the job?” Severus asked Malfoy now, speaking for the first time since being told what they had been sent out onto the London streets to do.

“You’re to return to the corner where I met you,” Malfoy said. “Someone else will be there to assign you your next move.”

“It won’t be you?” Avery blurted out. The older man grinned then, his too-white teeth gleaming very oddly, almost sinisterly. Severus was put suddenly in mind of the grinning teeth of the werewolves in the books he’d studied in the library after finding out about –

But he needed to stop pushing his mind in that direction. It had strayed too close to that group far too often lately for his liking.

Malfoy was shaking his head. “Too risky,” he said. “We’ve got to be just about as careful as anything.” He grinned a bit at Severus, who tried to smile back – anything to dispel the queasy feeling in his stomach – but even to himself, the gesture felt fake.

“So. You all know what you need to do?” Five nods confirmed the question.

“What happens if we don’t do it?” Severus asked suddenly, imbibing as much confidence and arrogance into the question as possible – better to sound that way than like a coward. Malfoy raised a slim eyebrow, and to his left, one of his friends let out a barely audible gasp. “How are you going to know?”

“He’ll know,” said the blonde man, so quietly it was almost a whisper, and another chill darted up Severus’s spine, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to rise. He continued to meet Malfoy’s gaze, cold and impertinent, and finally the latter nodded in return, as though pleased with what he found in the look. With an elaborate turn of the wrist, he tucked the cane he carried under his arm and strolled back off in the direction that the six of them had come, melding with the night until it was as if he’d never been there at all.

“Right, so – around the corner?” Wilkes said at last into the slightly heavy silence that the older man had left behind. Rosier nodded, his eyes slightly unfocused as they turned towards the little pub across the street. With Malfoy’s disappearance had come a sense of unease that seemed to affect all of them, and Severus was glad that he wasn’t alone now. With a small jerk of his head not unlike that which Rosier had done earlier, Mulciber set off for the distant corner, and the other two followed. Finally, it was just Rosier and Severus by the bridge.

His friend cursed softly under his breath, hunched up under his cloak. Both pairs of eyes were set on the little yellow square of light across the street. From that direction, there was the sound of tinkling glass as something dropped, followed by a loud, raucous laugh as the door opened and shut again. Swallowing hard and trying to squash the feeling of nausea rising up within him, Severus glanced both ways and crossed the street, Rosier’s footsteps heavy on the asphalt behind him.

They stopped just outside the door to the little bar, the noise from outside that much clearer as they grew closer in proximity to those inside. “What do you want to do?” Rosier muttered under his breath, stuffing a hand in the pocket of his robes; Severus saw his fist clench around something through the material. “Are we just going to wait for someone to come out and…?”

The matter-of-fact way that they were discussing murder made Severus feel any sicker. He tried to think. “Let’s go inside,” he said, already stretching out a hand to push the door open. “We’ll be a bit less conspicuous that way.” The paint on the door was peeling badly, and the glass was waved with age. It was almost too innocent a place for this.

But really, when he thought about it, any place was too innocent. And so he pushed the door open and entered into the pub’s heady, warm atmosphere.

Already he could see that this was the wrong sort of place to have picked for what he and Rosier needed to do. It was too… normal, if that was the word he was searching for. The walls were painted a dark maroon, which made the interior seem darker than the small lamps hanging from chains, the source of the yellow light spilling out the door and windows, already did. Everything from the long bar – stretching the entire length of the left wall and made more crowded by the steins hanging from hooks overhead – to the small patron’s tables – all full, it looked like, with Muggles trying to relax after a day at the office – was made of rich, dark wood that may or may not have been mahogany. Framed newspapers and pictures crookedly dotted the walls at irregular intervals, and in the far back corner, a black quarter-circle stage, raised about half a foot off the wood floor, held abandoned karaoke equipment.

It was not a place for murderers.

For a minute, Severus wondered what would happen if he just turned his back on the whole operation, Apparated back to the flat he and Rosier shared and made himself a mug of tea instead of going through with all of this. It was frighteningly tempting – and that was even scarier, somehow, than the prospect of the punishment should he choose not to go through with what he’d pledged to accomplish. He had been so passionate about this when it was all theorizing, and presumably he would be passionate about it again – it was for the betterment of the entire wizarding world, he kept telling himself – but right now all it was giving him was a feeling of sickness.

Rosier nudged him in between the shoulder blades. “Come on,” he muttered. “We’re blocking the door.” Severus realized just then that there was a man – reeking of alcohol, too – standing in front of them, blinking blearily but waiting politely nevertheless for the chance to exit. Muttering apologies he didn’t feel, Severus stepped over to the long bar and slid onto one of the stick vinyl stools. Rosier followed suit.

“So what’s the plan?” his friend muttered, hunching over again so that his nose was nearly level with his knees; it was as though he was trying to make himself as small as possible, so as to not be seen by unwanted eyes. Severus’s own eyes scanned the place a second time as he tried to figure out the best course of action.

“Something I can get for you?” The barman, who had been occupied with a pair of men at the opposite end of the bar until then, walked over to them cheerfully, setting his arms wide on the counter and leaning toward them in a friendly manner. Rosier recoiled instinctively.

“Two, uh… surprise us,” Severus muttered, realizing even as he did so that the only money in his pocket was Sickles and Knuts. The man’s eyebrows, white and bushy, rose a fraction of an inch in surprise on his heavily wrinkled forehead, but he turned to the taps anyway and began filling two large mugs. Making sure no one was looking, Severus reached over and swiped a five-pound note from the nearest table, heavily laid with dirty dishes, which had presumably been left there for the tip. He fervently prayed it would be enough to cover the drinks – he had almost no knowledge of Muggle money.

Rosier waited until the barman had set the mugs in front of them and walked away before speaking again. “The plan?”

“I’m thinking,” Severus whispered harshly, rubbing a finger against his right temple, which had suddenly begun to throb uncomfortably. Across the bar, at a large table in the back, a woman let out an obnoxious, high-pitched laugh, and he gritted his teeth in annoyance. But anything elaborate was beyond his current comprehension; they could fix any mistakes with magic, surely. He’d have to go for the simplest thing that he could think of.

“We’ll wait for two people to get up and leave,” he said in an undertone, speaking over the rim of his mug in an effort to conceal the conversation further. There was a pair of men, looking like they were conducting a business meeting – papers and folders surrounded the drinks on their table – in the corner nearest the door. Rosier, seeing where Severus’s gaze had strayed, nodded in confirmation. He took a sip of his own drink and wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Gross,” he whispered, taking a paper napkin and wiping his tongue on it. “Where’s a bottle of firewhisky when you need it?” He nudged Severus in the ribs, and his friend gave him a grim, obliging smile.

It was very odd, almost surreal, to be sitting here in an everyday pub, with everyday Muggles, discussing drinks while subconsciously plotting how best to murder somebody. So instead, Severus tried to think about what he was doing – not at this moment, but in the long run. Wizards were superior beings, after all, and what was this if not a way of enforcing that? This was one step closer to the Dark Lord’s inner ranks, too, and the privileges that awaited anyone who made it into them.

He was doing the right thing. It had to be the right thing.

The barman wandered back over to them, his other bar patrons having switched to an unoccupied table. He wiped his hands on a slightly filthy rag that was frayed at the edges, tucked it into the apron knotted about his waist, and began drumming his fingers on the counter in front of the two men. Severus wished he wouldn’t; it was intensely annoying.

“So where are you gentlemen coming from?” he asked, looking a bit curiously at the cloak still tied around Rosier’s throat. “Halloween’s not for well over a month.” He winked conspiratorially, as though letting them in on a grand joke, and Severus found it within him to conjure up a humorless laugh.

“Office party,” he muttered, hoping the lie would slide by undetected; he wished Rosier hadn’t worn the stupid cloak, too, although none of them could have known what they’d be facing that night. The barman made a little noise of comprehension and continued to tap his fingers in an irregular rhythm.

There was a shuffling sort of sound from behind them. Severus glanced over his shoulder as quickly as possible and saw that the businessmen were gradually replacing their papers in the folders, chatting away and reaching under the table for nearly-identical leather briefcases. Rosier saw them, too, and his gaze met Severus’s. He gave the tiniest of nods, which the old man across the bar didn’t seem to register.

Severus’s heart had suddenly jumped into his throat; he could feel it beating there, jammed against the thin skin under his jaw, and was sure anyone else could have seen it too should they have thought to look. He drained the last of the disgusting drink and stared unseeingly at the foam that clung to the sides and rim of the glass.

“Another round?” the barman said, in a very transparent effort to continue the nonexistent conversation. One of his crooked and wrinkled hands reached over, trying to take the glass, and Severus jerked it back towards him quickly before the old man could do so.

“No, thanks,” he said hastily. “I’m – not finished.” It was a painfully obvious lie, but the barman just stared for a moment and turned away, taking the rag back out of the waistband of his apron and starting to wipe down the area where the other men had been sitting previously.

“They’re starting to get up,” Rosier whispered, looking down into the depths of his own half-finished drink. “How long do we wait after they leave?”

“Not long,” Severus hissed back; it was hard to hear his friend over the sound of his pulse in his ears, which had only grown louder as the seconds ticked away on the stupid clock behind the bar, decorated with the same logos on the taps that the barman had drawn Severus and Rosier’s drinks from. He watched from his peripherals as the last of the folders were stuffed away, the briefcases closing with distinct clicks. The two men shook hands and continued to exchange pleasantries. It looked like they might do so forever.

“Come on… come on…” Rosier was muttering under his breath, but it didn’t appear that he knew quite what he was doing. One of the men had a dark stain on the front of his light button-down; Severus wondered what it was from.

They began moving towards the door, and then they had disappeared through it, and the small bell above had stopped tolling out their exit. Severus couldn’t take his eyes from it for some reason; he knew what he needed to do, but his body refused to listen to what his brain was screaming at him.

“Snape, let’s go,” Rosier said, another sharp jab in the ribs accompanying his words. He shook his head slightly to clear the confused fog and placed the stolen five pounds on the bar under his stein. With a quick glance around to make sure he and Rosier weren’t as suspicious as he felt them to be, they exited into the night after the two businessmen.

They had turned right, heading back in the direction of the spot where Malfoy had Apparated, the other five in tow – had that really been only about an hour ago? – and away from the corner where the other three had set off to pursue their own quarry. He was a bit glad that this meant they wouldn’t run into the others and risk one of them getting to the Muggles first; he didn’t want to go through the tedious ordeal of picking out another victim. One was enough for tonight.

Merlin, how could he actually think like that? Was he even sane anymore? Or was he finally sane for the first time all evening?

They kept a good distance back, half a block or so, in case the men should glance over their shoulders and see Snape and Rosier following the pair of them. Both men had their hands around their wands, waiting for the perfect opportunity, whatever that was. Severus’s palm was already slick with sweat, but he was too nervous to bother losing his grip on his wand; Beth in his dream was still near the forefront of his increasingly paranoid mind.

The men stopped on the corner ahead, under another buzzing streetlamp, one of the many identical ones dotting this section of town. They appeared to be parting ways for good this time, chatting amicably, their hands hovering as though inching towards another inevitable handshake. It was now or never; Severus felt his insides tense and knot themselves, and bright lights popped in front of his eyes. He gave Rosier a sidelong glance, and found his friend was already looking at him for confirmation.

Now? he mouthed, and Severus nodded briefly, tossing a strand of hair out of his eyes as though he needed to see better. In an identical and simultaneous motion, both men lifted their wands and pointed them at the two businessmen. They stepped into the outer edge of the glow of the streetlamp, and the heads of the two Muggles turned in their direction.

They spoke together. “Avada Kedavra.” It was a spell Severus had practiced in his head, over and over, but the words had never before left his lips. They felt heavy and strange, hanging in the air in the millisecond before they were spoken and the jets of green light that burst from the end of each wand found their targets.

The men collapsed at once, and the briefcases each had been clutching in their hands made dull and ugly sounds as they hit the concrete shortly before their owners. Death was instantaneous with the Killing Curse, and that was perhaps the only good thing to be said for it. Severus, after a brief hesitation, walked over to the two heaps that had, a few minutes ago, been living and breathing people. Rosier stayed behind, biting hard at his lips, which had already turned white.

There was a funny sort of burning in his chest, like his soul was splitting. Perhaps it was – maybe that was what killing people did to you. He nudged the man with the toe of his shoe, trying desperately to ignore the bilious taste that was very quickly rising up in his mouth.

Heavy footsteps approached, and Rosier came along Severus’s right side; now that the streetlamp hit his face more strongly, he could see that his friend’s face was slick, dotted with beads of sweat. “Are they…?” he said, his voice cracking; his tongue tried in vain to moisten his lips.

“Dead,” Severus said hollowly. He sought for the triumph that should have reached him in that moment, in his first physical work for the Death Eaters, but he could only stare disbelievingly down at the man on the pavement, the dark stain still marring the fabric of his dress shirt.

It was then that a massive explosion shook the air around them; turning quickly, wand aloft, Severus just glimpsed Rosier’s panicked face before the corner of the nearest building rushed toward them in a mass of bricks and mortar.

A/N: Oh, Severus. I feel so, so badly for him in this chapter -- and this is really the first time it's had to hit home for him just what he's done, you know? I could talk for hours on this story, actually, so I won't start launching into analysis on his mindset and motives. But poor guy, really.

As I write this, I should be writing more of this story -- I had the first 50,000 words done by the end of May, and the next 50,000 are my project for this year's Camp NaNoWriMo. I finished chapter 16 last night, so things are going really well, and hopefully the entire novel will be finished by the end of the summer! How cool would that be?

As always, reviews are really appreciated. Thank you very much for taking a look at the chapter!


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