It was, Severus knew, utterly stupid and foolish – perhaps even suicidal – to be standing in front of this door for the second time in as many weeks, waiting to be granted admission into 9 Dustund Way. Then again, perhaps suicidal seemed like an overdramatic word for it, but was there any guarantee that he was coming out of this alive? Was it still suicide if it didn’t destroy life in its simplest definition, but merely shattered any hopes of living life as you had been doing for the past twenty-odd years?
He bit his lower lip to keep it from shaking, though whether his teeth chattered with cold or with nerves, he couldn’t rightly say. There was nothing keeping him here as yet, no binding enchantments, forcible or otherwise. He could turn around right now and walk away, walk back home and pretend as though everything was fine. He should walk away, knowing the sort of dangers and risks he was voluntarily diving headfirst into.
But there were things worse than putting himself in danger at stake. Severus might have had the capabilities to walk away, but he had no desire to. This must be done.
The night was clear and cool, the sun no longer baking the cracked pavement stones of London, though the warmed smell of rotting garbage from the bulging dustbins nearby still caused Severus to wrinkle his nose. He wondered for a brief moment what Beth was doing then – sleeping, most likely, or perhaps just getting ready for bed. Reading a book, or brushing her teeth, or maybe even waiting for a letter from him… Blissfully unaware of what he, Severus, was doing for her, for the both of them… Someone, somehow, had found out that the pair of them were in contact with one another, and nothing was even remotely safe or innocent unless he took precautions to avert crises.
There was a soft click on the other side of the metal door of Number 9 – it was missing its doorknob, Severus had noted the last time he’d been here – and the hinges wailed in protest as the door swung inward. Albus Dumbledore was there, in the rusty frame of the door, regarding the younger man with cool surprise; he had evidently not expected Severus to show up, either.
“Mr. Snape.” Dumbledore stepped backward, his eyes narrowed and sharp behind the winking edges of his gold half-moon spectacles, and allowed Severus to pass through. As soon as he had, the door swung shut behind him, throwing the room into near-pitch blackness. There was a hiss, and a series of small pops; old-fashioned gas lamps sprung into life along the walls, casting thick, ominous shadows on the graying walls. Whether they were gray from the smoke of the lamps and candles, or from something else, he had no way of knowing.
Severus turned, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his robes just for something to do with them. Dumbledore was bent over the spot where a doorknob should be, his wand out, murmuring under his breath. The door gave a loud click, and chills shot up Severus’s spine, making the hairs at the back of his neck stand up. If he had had a chance to repent before, to turn and flee, it was much, much too late now.
His former headmaster regarded him then, looking neither inquisitive nor reproachful; there was, in fact, no expression on his face at all. “I understand you wish to tell me something regarding the events of our previous meeting,” he said at last.
Severus swallowed hard against the dryness in his throat, and cleared it for good measure. It felt like he’d swallowed an entire back of Pepper Imps whole, raw and fiery. “Yes,” he managed, “but I – I need to make a few things clear first.” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“No one can know I’m here,” Severus said at last. “Not the Dark Lord, not the Death Eaters. They’ll kill me –“
“I will wait to hear what you say before promising that,” Dumbledore said coolly. “You have other requests?”
Severus’s mouth, which had dropped open, snapped quickly closed in annoyance. “What I have to say,” he sneered through gritted teeth, “is of rather high importance, and would interest you greatly, should you care to listen.”
“Then speak,” said Dumbledore. The chintz armchairs of the previous week had disappeared, but he moved to one of the stacks of cheap metal folding chairs ranged along the wall and drew one out, propping it open and sitting on it. It couldn’t have been clearer that the atmosphere had changed; Beth was not here to act as a sort of mediator anymore, he reminded himself. The older man did not move to offer a chair for Severus, but he didn’t much feel like sitting anyway.
Now that he was about to tell Dumbledore about the Potters – how Voldemort knew of the prophecy, how he had decided that it meant the baby Lily was carrying – he didn’t know what to say, or indeed, how to begin to speak at all. The burning feeling came back into his throat, and once more, he swallowed against it.
“You said I was putting Beth in danger,” he blurted out at last, though it wasn’t quite what he had intended to say. “I – is she safe? Right now, is she… I mean –“ He sucked in breath and pressed a forefinger into his temple.
For the first time since he had arrived again at Number 9, Dumbledore seemed to relax, if only an infinitesimal amount. “She is safe,” he confirmed, in as gentle a voice as Severus had ever heard him use. “For now.” He clasped his hands in his lap and looked pointedly over the tops of his glasses at the man in front of him. “The degree to which she remains safe could very well depend on whatever you wrote to me about.”
“I know about the prophecy,” he blurted out, shoving his hands into his pockets again and turning on his feel to face the blank wall behind him; it was somehow easier at the moment to talk to something that wasn’t truly listening. “I overheard it.”
To his great surprise, however, Dumbledore didn’t seem particularly disturbed by this news. On the contrary, he merely sighed a bit and shifted in his seat, and Severus turned to face him once more. “I did think that was a possibility,” he said succinctly. “And I must say I’m not entirely surprised to see that my hunch is correct – as, of course, most of my hunches are.” There was a slight pause, and then he added, “Continue.”
Severus blinked at him for a few moments, not entirely sure what it was that his former headmaster wanted, and then tentatively forged on with his explanation, for a lack of other conversational options. “Well, it’s just – you know, I overheard what you said. That there would be a child born to people who’ve defied the Dark Lord, the one who would defeat him. And that’s when I got thrown out –“
“Pardon?” Dumbledore interrupted. Snape repressed the urge to grit his teeth or roll his eyes.
“That’s when I got thrown out,” he repeated forcibly. “Of the stupid pub.” He couldn’t understand the stupid look that had just crossed Dumbledore’s face, why he was looking so particularly happy all of a sudden. Probably because I got tossed out, he thought absently to himself, and his mood instantly soured further. “And I – I took what I knew to headquarters. And that’s when… I met him.”
He didn’t need to elaborate; Severus could see very well that Dumbledore knew exactly who he was. “And what did he say?” the old man pressed gently, sitting forward a bit on the edge of the folding chair.
“Then? Not much.” Severus turned back to the blank wall again, cursing himself even as he did so for feeling remotely guilty at having to deliver the words he was about to say. “But he… he thinks it could mean the Potters. He thinks it could mean Lily.”
There was a near-deafening silence; it seemed to roar in his ears, or perhaps that was only his own blood, throbbing there while his heart beat at what must surely be twice the speed of a normal man’s. If Dumbledore might have had a hunch about Severus’s being aware of the prophecy, it was rather evident that he hadn’t yet deduced that it was Lily’s child the prophecy referred to. Severus turned gingerly to look at Dumbledore again; he was staring at a seemingly-distant point on the carpet.
“Ah,” he said at last. “Yes.” He looked up at Severus again, and the glinting, icy expression had come back into his eyes, cracked through with something that was, more than likely, sadness. Severus felt renewed pangs of guilt wash through him. “I must ask you a very important question now, Mr. Snape.”
Severus winced. This was it, then – what sort of a question would it be? And (even as he thought it, he hated himself a bit for it) what would it mean for him? What if he didn’t make it out of this place alive –
Calm down, his brain snapped at whatever other part of him had begun to panic. Dumbledore had fallen silent again, hands still clasped delicately in front of him, folded over his long beard.
“Why did you tell me this?”
Severus had not anticipated this particular question. For the second time that evening, he found that his mouth was hanging open, in the process of forming words that would not rise to his lips. “I – but –what?” he stammered, feeling as though he were growing rather more stupid by the minute.
Dumbledore rose from the chair, which groaned in protest. “You have come here of your own volition, after writing a letter to me with equal motivations, to turn yourself in for eavesdropping – which, though suspected, could not have been proven against you.” He turned and began to walk to the opposite wall, now moving his hands to clasp them behind his back. “And now, having confessed this information to your superiors, you are telling me instead of killing me, which would, hypothetically, be to your advantage.” He glanced sharply over his shoulder at that, his eyes seeming to see straight through the younger man on the other side of the room.
Severus felt as though he was about two inches tall; hot patches blazed on his cheeks, and he stood up straighter, as though to make up for the metaphorical lack in height. “Am I that mysterious?” he drawled, fighting hard to keep composure even as he did so. For the first time all evening, Dumbledore smiled, a true and genuine smile.
“Not at all,” he responded, chuckling merrily to himself, as though greatly amused. Severus flushed further. “So often in the ones we love, we seek to set aside the rest of our lives for them. Just as you have done in coming here, Miss Bridger has risked much for you. But then, you knew that, I suppose?”
Severus ducked his head to hide a smile – he wouldn’t allow that sort of thing to be seen, not now – and looked back up at Dumbledore. “Potter means a lot to her,” he said in a low voice. “She’s told me that he’s like a brother to her. And if I help” – he sucked in a short breath before continuing. “If I can help keep Potter and Lily safe, then it would make Beth happy. And if I can do that…”
Dumbledore beamed at him. It was very odd, Severus found himself thinking, just how transient the old man’s moods could be, flitting from disapproval to happiness in less time than it took him to blink; not for the first time in his life, he wondered if his former headmaster was completely off his head.
“I want her safe,” he said at last, and though it cost him something to tell the truth – to Dumbledore, of all people! – it felt, at the same time, immensely freeing. “As long as she’s safe, I – and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure she’s safe and alive and… I want to protect her.” If he stumbled over a few of his words, he didn’t care. There was something about finally letting out what you had been thinking for months and months, and had never had the courage to voice before, or indeed, much of anyone to voice it to.
“Am I correct in remembering that you owe James Potter a debt?” Dumbledore probed gently then, although laugh lines still creased the corners of his mouth. Severus blinked at him.
“How did you – that’s not why I’m here,” he spat, all hints of former trust and truthfulness now switched off, extinguished like a lamp. “James Potter couldn’t be any further from my mind, Dumbledore. He’s probably got you charmed, but I know better –“
“And yet it’s true that you owe him your life, isn’t it?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, and jerkily, reluctantly, Severus nodded his head once.
“Except Beth was there too, that night,” he added defensively, almost desperately, as though that somehow alleviated the horror that was a life debt to one’s enemy. The ghost of Dumbledore’s smile turned up the ends of his long silver mustache, and hot impatience flared up within Severus. “But that’s not important. I’ve told you why I’ve come here, Dumbledore. She doesn’t seem to care about the risks, but I… I can’t lose her.”
“And you will do anything to keep her safe?” The question was so quiet so as to have nearly been whispered; if the room wasn’t so empty of other people, Severus rather suspected he wouldn’t have heard it at all. As it were, he took an impulsive step closer to the older man, eyes bright with understanding.
Keeping within the theme of the fleeting quality of his emotions, Dumbledore’s mouth became suddenly resolute, turned down firmly at the corners. He resumed the chair he had abandoned some minutes ago, and this time, Severus drew one out for himself as well, setting it up to face his former headmaster. He had said all he’d come to say, confessed all he knew, even if he had somewhat doubted it along the way. The Quaffle was in Dumbledore’s hands now, so to speak.
He had once more resumed staring at a patch of the cheap carpeting, his eyes seeming to turn inwards, as though lost in his thoughts. Severus watched him impatiently, clasping his hands before him. The skin was stretched so tightly that the knuckles turned white, though he didn’t notice this, nor would he have cared if he had. Somewhere unseen, a clock ticked the seconds – a rather cruel implementation, he thought. As if the situation weren’t tense enough as it was, the universe had to be counting it down…
He jumped as the clock chimed just then, fifteen minutes past the hour. But what hour? Severus had lost track of the time, of how long he’d been here, and couldn’t remember any other bells to tell him otherwise. His senses seemed heightened, waiting for a verdict – everything was in sharper relief, the shadows deeper, his breathing louder –
“Yes,” Dumbledore spoke up quietly, and though it was clear he was speaking to himself, Severus jumped nonetheless, nearly falling off his chair. The former rose slowly from his seat, the latter following in rapid succession, instinctually mirroring his movements without realizing it.
“There is a two-part solution to this.” The hard, cold look had returned to Dumbledore’s face. “It is, I think, for the best. Beth will be safe, and you will be protecting her. That is what you want?” he inquired sternly, and again Severus had the sensation he was being examined with more than a surface-level depth.
“Yes,” he said breathlessly, without stopping to think about it for a moment.
“The first part is working alongside the Order of the Phoenix, as a sort of… liaison. A spy, to put it more simply; collecting information, and more importantly, keeping your true tasks a secret. It would be no small task, Severus; you must understand this.”
Severus started a bit at that, more so because of the fact that Dumbledore had switched abruptly to using his first name than anything else. Becoming a spy, working for the Order of the Phoenix, right under the noses of Roark and the Carrows and all his school friends, Rosier and Mulciber and Avery… It was one of the most dangerous situations he could picture putting himself into.
But he had told Dumbledore this was what he wanted, hadn’t he? And he was an Occlumens, or, at the very least, on his way to becoming one… he could do it, he could hide it from them, he was good…
“Yes.” His stomach gave a funny twist, a mixture of excitement and apprehension, and a small shiver darted up his spine once more. “I’ll do it. I can do it.” And then, after a moment, added, “But that’s not good enough, Dumbledore.”
“Beth will be all the more safe for your actions here,” the older man cut in smoothly. “By working to protect James – yes, both of the Potters” – and here Severus flushed yet again under an uncharacteristically stern look, appropriate to his status as a school headmaster – “you will be, by extension, protecting Beth. She is too familiar with the details of the Potters to overlook that.”
“But if I’m caught!” Severus burst out angrily before he could stop himself. “You don’t understand, you’re not listening – I need her free from any risks I might place upon her, anything that might hurt her –“
“Ah, well.” Dumbledore shut his eyes slowly, and for a brief, nearly nonexistent second, his face was lined with pain and sadness. The excitement drained out of Severus at once, apprehension replacing it immediately. “That is where the second part makes its appearance.”
“You have news for me, Pettigrew?”
Peter winced involuntarily at the voice; by all rationale, he should have seen it coming. Hadn’t he come up here solely for the purpose of speaking to the owner of that voice? His nerves were shot to pieces of late, frayed and battered, perhaps beyond any normal sense of repair. James and Sirius probably suspected something, and maybe even Remus… even Beth could be watching him. What had Severus told her? How close to death was he at this point in time?
“Pettigrew.” Roark’s voice spoke again, snappish and abrupt, and yet again Peter jumped. The tall man strode from the distant corner of the room, the moon shining oddly off both the ring on his finger and the smooth, hairless surface of his head. “I don’t want to ask you again.”
“S-sir,” Peter squeaked, and cleared his throat, desperate to get himself under some semblance of control. More and more, Peter, you sound like the rat, the scum that you are, for betraying those who trust you still… Had he made those words up, or had someone said them to him once? “I have the information you’ve asked for.”
There was a pause. “And?” Roark said exasperatedly. “Do I have to yank the words from you by force?”
He regrets making a deal with you. The condescending voice spoke again in his head, high and cool and female, not one he’d ever heard in the real world. It had cropped up frequently of late; perhaps he was going mad. It would be a welcome respite.
“They’re due at the very end of July. Both of them – the exact same time.” He cringed again as Roark stepped toward him. “There is no foreseeable difference… we’ll just have to wait…”
“There is nothing else to do,” Peter whispered, his voice broken with fear, hating himself for knowing that that was what was breaking him. “Unless we wait, we will never know for sure.”
Roark looked to be contemplating this information. “The Dark Lord will not like it,” he rumbled, heaving a great sigh and rubbing a hand wearily over his face; the moon sparked again off the broad gold ring on his thumb. “Waiting is not part of his plan. But we will wait.”
Peter let out a deep sigh he hadn’t realized he had been holding. There was in him a twisted emotion, some sick manifestation that still hoped it wasn’t James and Lily that Snape’s prophecy had referred to. He was a double agent, an enemy, but old feelings died hard… Could he live with himself knowing he’d seen one of his best friends to his death? Would it ever come to that?
“You may go,” Roark hissed, and Peter realized, with another thrill of anxiety, that it was already the second time the request had been made. He did not wait for a third time; he scampered for the door, closing it shut behind him, trying to block out the nasty voice in his head…
You will be the destroyer of all that is good in your life. You are destruction, Peter Pettigrew, destruction.
A/N: I'm so glad to be posting this story again! I don't think I've ever gone that long without posting chapters, and I have to say not having anything to do or any obligations to keep has made me a bit lazy. But now that I'm on a regular posting schedule again, I'm hoping to hop right back into gear! I've got eleven chapters of Breaking Even, the third book, finished right now, which I'm very excited about. I'm hoping to finish that up sometime between April and May of 2013! What I'm going to do without having these books to plan and write, I can't fathom...
Anyway. If you've stuck around over this break, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this chapter. The next one's huge to the plot of the story, and I'm already anxious to post it. Reviews are always so appreciated!