A small, slightly crumbling building burst into Severus Snape’s vision, darkness replaced by a buzzing yellow lamp and small pinpricks of stars overhead. The heavy sensation of Apparition lifting from his chest, like a relief of pressure applied by a phantom hand, was a welcome thing; he could have walked home, of course, but that would have required time and effort he felt much too important to waste.
He regained his balance quickly and looked about; Mulciber was nowhere to be seen, but that was to be expected. His old classmate had never proved quite as adept at Apparating to and from various places as might have been deemed desirable; frankly, the fact that he had passed the test at all was quite miraculous.
Then again, Mulciber had been rather more shaken up by what had just happened than he, Severus, had been, not having had advance warning that someone armed with a wand was creeping up on them – not that that was an excuse for his notably poor Apparition skills. Severus had seen Black long before Mulciber had, and had been rather amused at his reaction to seeing an old enemy out doing the Order of the Phoenix’s dirty work; there was nothing honorable, and there had never been anything honorable, about Black being allowed to parade around London like he owned the damn city. It had been a good thing his colleague, whoever she’d been, had yanked him away at the last moment; the hexes Severus had found himself wanting to put on Sirius Black would not have led to a favorable reaction from Dumbledore. They might have been in the Order together, Sirius and Severus, but they each still hated the other’s guts with almost sickening gusto.
He frowned a bit to himself – he had never seen the young woman with Black, he was fairly certain. Who had she been? Surely Black, of all people, hadn’t gotten a girlfriend? Severus smirked at the thought; the poor girl. Then again, if she had agreed to date him, she must be as big of an arrogant idiot as he was.
Severus turned around and faced the dark doorway leading onto the staircases to the flats; his breath misted in front of him, and he blew out a large puff of it, wrapping his hands around his forearms as though to keep out the chill. London was unusually chilly tonight, even for March; it was only appropriate that this would be the night Roark had scheduled for a meeting. He didn’t wonder that Rosier and Wilkes hadn’t shown up; then again, a small part of his mind wondered how they’d been stupid enough not to. Well, he wasn’t going to tell them what they’d missed – he’d let them bear that consequence firmly on their own shoulders.
Just then, there was the sound of footsteps walking up the lane behind Severus, and he turned, instinctually reaching to draw his wand. Mulciber was approaching, appearing to be clutching a stitch in his side. Pathetic, Severus found himself thinking without remorse. Can’t even walk properly without running out of breath. Mulciber had grown quite stout since he and the other four had left Hogwarts, allowing him to become a running joke as soon as his back was turned.
“Merlin, I hate doing that,” his friend wheezed as he came within range of Severus’s hearing. Severus didn’t know what he wanted him to say – did Mulciber expect him, Severus, to agree with him? – and so said nothing, turning to the small door and opening it, motioning for the other to go first.
“So,” Mulciber panted, clutching tightly to the iron railing with one fleshy hand. “Boring meeting, eh? Cor, I don’t know why we’ve got to go through all that. We never even see the Dark Lord, do we? I mean,” he added hastily, taking Severus’s continued silence for disapproval, “Dad’s stumped, too, it’s not just us. He reckons we ought to be doing something, you know, not just tottering about London and acting like a bunch of Muggles.”
“If you like,” Severus said airily, sidestepping his friend, who had paused to take another breath, “you could talk to Roark about leaving. I’m sure that will go over well.” He glanced back briefly at his friend as he rested his hand lightly on the door into the flat that Mulciber shared with Wilkes; Mulciber’s face had turned a rather disgusting shade of puce, indicating anger that was visible even in the landing’s dim lighting.
“Didn’t say that, did I?” he muttered savagely, elbowing past Severus and tapping his wand rather forcefully on the bent old doorknob, so that the door smacked into the hall wall with a tremendous crash. “See you later, Sev.”
“Later,” the latter said, with cool indifference. He waited until Mulciber had closed the door firmly behind him, the lock clicking softly, before starting back up the stairs again to his own flat.
As much as he hated to admit it – and he never would have admitted it aloud, within the earshot of others – Severus had to agree that the London side of Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters had seen considerably less action in recent months. He would never have been stupid enough to question the reason why, for he knew that was an excellent way to get oneself killed, but it had been like Mulciber had said: The most any of them seemed to be good for these days was running about London and raising hell just for the sake of hell-raising. All they had done tonight was gather and listen to Roark preach about their cause, which the group all knew well.
“Mudbloods,” he had sneered, at the height of his speech, “and anyone associated with them, are as good as dead to the great cause of the wizarding world. It is your mission – it is your duty – it is your call, to make that virtual death a reality.”
And Severus, as he had done so often of late, had thought of Lily, and his insides had burned with invisible torment.
It had been nine months since Severus had agreed to play the incredibly dangerous part of a double agent – nine months since he had agreed to work, in secret, for the Order of the Phoenix, so that Lily might be protected from whatever the Dark Lord was plotting. Though it was entirely possible that it was lost on Mulciber and the rest, Severus thought it was painfully obvious that that was why action was withheld for the time being. Lord Voldemort was planning something, and he, Severus, was almost sure that it had to do with the prophecy.
That was why he had gone to Dumbledore with the prophecy in the first place, wasn’t it? It was to protect Lily; it had always, from the very first, been about protecting Lily. He knew that it could mean her, and her dying at his hands was something he could never have stood to bear.
He reached the landing to his own flat, a few flights of stairs above the door where he had left Mulciber, and let himself in to the tiny sitting room. The air here smelled stale and unused, despite the fact that he had only left it a few hours previously, and Severus wrinkled up his nose instinctually. Avery and Rosier apparently hadn’t returned from the meeting yet, but that in itself wasn’t terribly exciting; it wasn’t a rare occurrence for them to stop for a drink between headquarters and home.
His eyes were suddenly weighty with tiredness, and Severus fought back a thick yawn, moving over to the small sofa crammed between two walls of the flat. He knew he perhaps should have retreated to his bedroom, tired as he suddenly was, but frankly, the sofa was closer. He sank down onto the faded cushions and lightly pressed his forehead to the glass of the window just above it. It had begun to mist outside, a light precursor to inevitable early spring rain; the streetlamp outside with surrounded by a thick aureole of yellow-white light.
He didn’t know what to make of it – he was always tired, always restless these days. And he had been this way for months, though he found it difficult to pinpoint the exact time when he had begun to feel this way. But it was happening again now; Severus felt as though his brain was stuffed with something thick and cottony, and he couldn’t make sense of it. It was almost like a persistent headache, but it didn’t hurt; it was as though something was inside his brain, taking root there.
But that was what Legilimens was, wasn’t it – attempts to get inside his brain, to access what was there? And Severus had worked hard to become an accomplished Occlumens; this wasn’t Legilimency, whatever was pressing at the distant corners of his mind. If it had had anything to do with that, then Roark would have noticed it, would have mentioned something in his still-regular probing of Severus’s mind, which continued despite the fact that Severus’s Occlumency skills were somewhat more advanced than Roark’s were.
He just had no idea what the persistent sensation was. What had happened to his mind?
There was a tapping sound on the window, and Severus’s eyes shot open – he didn’t know when he’d started to doze off – and leaped up to fumble at the latch. It wasn’t an owl, however, but instead tiny drops of rain, pattering off the glass. He must have been sleeping for a while, then, for it to have started to rain. Severus yawned again, trying to ignore the stuffy feeling lurking just behind his eyes, and called out, “Rosier?”
No answer; his roommates had not yet returned. Severus heaved himself off the sofa, stretching and wincing as his spine cracked in protest, and started for his tiny, cramped room at the back of the flat. He was almost unsurprised when a knock came at the door just then; he glanced at the tiny, battered clock on the end table and saw that it was well past midnight. Avery probably got drunk enough to forget how to work his door key again, he thought, smirking, and moved toward the front hall. For a moment, he debated about leaving the pair of them to sleep on the landing – it might serve them right.
But when he opened the door, all thoughts of serving justice melted away almost at once. It was Avery on the landing, but there was no sign of Rosier, and what was more, Avery looked about as panicked as Severus had ever seen him.
“What happened?” Severus asked cautiously, his nerves jumping into action; previous traces of fatigue melted almost as quickly as the urge to leave his roommates locked out of the flat. Avery pushed his way into the small room, breathing heavily and acting as though he hadn’t heard what Severus had asked him. His face caught the dim light from the streetlamp outside, and Severus saw with a shock that there were dried tear-tracks streaking his friend’s cheeks.
“What happened?” he repeated, as Avery turned wildly and looked at him, fingers threaded through his hair, gripping tightly.
“Rosier’s dead. And Wilkes. They’re both dead, Sev.” His breath caught in the final sentence; he took a great gulp of air, as though he’d never breathed it before, and made an almost inhuman sound of pain. And Severus could only look at him, hands held limply at his sides, as he tried to process what his friend had just told him.
Rosier’s dead. They’re both dead.
“How do you know?” he managed at last, his voice rougher than he had anticipated. He tried clearing it, but that made it worse; it felt as though tiny shards of glass were pressing against his windpipe.
“We were walking back from the meeting,” Avery croaked, breathing so heavily now that it sounded as though he had just finished an endurance run. “You and Mulciber, you were still in headquarters, and Rosier said we might as well go back, we didn’t need to wait on you.” He swallowed thickly, and continued, “And so we’re walking down this street, right, and we turn this corner, and we’re walking out of nowhere this man just appears and starts shooting spells at us. And he hit Wilkes right in the face with some curse, and he just kind of keeled over – “
“What man?” Severus interjected sharply, but Avery was still talking, babbling almost incoherently.
“But Wilkes wasn’t dead from that curse; his head sort of just hit the pavement, and I knew.”
Severus shuddered; he wished Avery hadn’t told him that.
“And Rosier kind of lost it at that, and I was just trying to stay out of it, you know? I didn’t – I didn’t want to die.” He wailed the last words.
“What happened to Rosier?” the other man said with forced calm. Severus felt as though he was going to be sick, even while he was annoyed at Avery for losing control – didn’t he realize this was important?
“Well, he got really angry,” Avery sobbed, “and just started shouting at this man, you know, and the other guy said that we could come quietly to – to wherever it was he wanted to take us, something like that. And Rosier kept on shouting, and trying to curse him, and he couldn’t get a spell past any of the Shield Charms – well, no, I think he hit him in the face with something. There was a lot of blood. But finally the other man just…” Avery mimed the swish of a wand. “And then I just ran for it. I hid out in an alley for a while, I didn’t want him catching me.”
Severus leaned against the wall behind him, his heart feeling as though it was beating twice as fast as normal; he was still fighting wave after wave of nausea, roiling up inside him in great masses. “What do we do?” Avery whispered at last.
“What do you mean, what do we do?” Severus snapped. “You idiot, there’s nothing to do. They’re dead.” He brought his hands to his face and rubbed his face, stretching his skin taut over his cheekbones. Tiredness had come back to consume him again twofold; he wanted to crawl into bed and never emerge again. “Someone’s got to tell Mulciber.”
“I can’t,” Avery moaned. Severus, in looking at him again, saw his cheeks were shining with fresh tears; he would probably go to pieces if he had to recount his tale a second time.
“Stay here,” Severus said harshly, only because he had nothing else to say – he couldn’t spend any more time around his distraught roommate. Not taking the time to look back over his shoulder, he threw open the front door, taking the stairs two at a time and coming to an abrupt halt on the landing in front of the flat where Mulciber and Wilkes lived. He supposed Mulciber had the place all to himself now.
It took several minutes for Mulciber to respond to Severus’s repeated banging of his fist on the door – he was two seconds away from blasting it open – and when he did, he looked so untroubled that Severus was instantly, irrationally angry.
“What’re you doing here?” Mulciber yawned, scratching his stomach under the thin, filthy T-shirt he had apparently worn to bed in absence of normal pyjamas. “Thought you might have been Wilkes – are Avery and Rosier back? Merlin, you’d think they owned watches –“
“Wilkes and Rosier are dead,” Severus interrupted shortly, stuffing his hands into the pockets of the robes he had fallen asleep in. He suddenly wished that he was anywhere but here; he didn’t want to be doing this, did not want to be the bearer of this sort of news.
The man, framed in the doorway, gaped at Severus for a long moment, and then said, rather stupidly, “What?”
“Dead, you heard me. They’re dead. Avery was there, he knows what happened. He’ll tell you when he’s done being an idiot about the whole thing.” Severus felt slightly guilty – he knew how coarse he was being about the whole thing – but he had been seized with a sudden desire to get away, to go somewhere that wasn’t this squalid little building.
“Snape, what’re you –“
But he had already turned away from the landing, taking the stairs back down to the ground floor three at a time now in his haste to leave. Bile was crawling up his throat, choking him, and he burst through the door, back out into the chill night, wind tearing at his robes and hair almost as soon as he let the door slam shut behind him.
Severus didn’t know what to make of his reaction to Avery’s news. It wasn’t as though he had been particularly close with either Rosier or Wilkes when they had been alive, even if he had shared a flat with the former. He, Severus, had always preferred to do things alone, to be alone, if it was possible. And hadn’t he resented Wilkes all those years – his spitty way of talking, his seeming inability to think?
But it was very different now that he knew he would never see them again. He might not have been overtly fond of them; that was true enough. But it didn’t mean that he’d wished them dead. And that man, whatever man Avery had been talking about… surely he had to be from the Order of the Phoenix. Dumbledore had allowed this.
As he thought of this, though, the thick feeling returned to the inside of Severus’s mind, pressing against his ears and the backs of his eyes. There was something important about the Order of the Phoenix – potentially crucial information – and it seemed just out of his reach. He made a small noise of frustration (or was it grief?) and dug his nails into his forehead, as though to summon forth whatever he was missing from his thoughts.
Then, for a moment, behind his closed eyes, something strange flashed into his conscious, an image that he couldn’t ever remember having seen before: Another person, sitting beside him on a roundabout. He grasped for who it was, but just as quickly as it had come, the mental picture slithered from view, and was lost. The stuffy feeling in his head dissipated almost immediately after.
Come back, he wanted to say, but who would ever think him sane if he talked to his own brain? But who had that person been, and why had they been there? Was he going mad?
Severus drew in a deep breath and, at last, lifted his head from his hands. Whatever was going on in his mind, he wanted nothing to do with it at the moment. This was the reality; this was the here and now. Rosier and Wilkes were dead, and that was all there was to it. He could not dwell on thoughts he couldn’t make sense of, or memories he couldn’t place; they weren’t important.
He waited outside for a few more brief moments, and then returned inside the flat complex, the mysterious figure on the roundabout he had seen in his mind’s eye all but forgotten.
A/N: Sunday felt like it would never come -- all week, I was so excited to post the next chapter of this story! Severus is obviously going to be slightly more absent in this story than he was in In The Red, and even In The Black, but you will still get chapters from his point of view every now and again. Whatever he remembers, or doesn't remember, his story is still very important to the plot as a whole.
The response to this story has already been fantastic, guys. Seriously! Thank you so much!