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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 20 : A New Position
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6


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Severus did not reach out to Dumbledore immediately – that is, not as quickly as he knew he should have. Having this information and knowing the dangers it meant for James and Lily Potter was like walking around with explosives strapped to his chest. Going to Dumbledore felt like it would be the match to the fuse, and everything would blow up, and nothing would be like it had been before. But he also knew that he had to do it, because he was the only person in the world who stood a chance of keeping Lily’s son safe, and he felt that knowledge on his shoulders like iron chains.

He returned to his flat that night, avoiding Avery’s prying questions and refusing to say more than five words altogether, but sleep did not come easily to him. When the rosy light of dawn had begun to creep in the window over the sofa, he had risen and taken a scrap of parchment from the kitchen table, scribbling out a terse message to his former headmaster and sending it off with the owl before he could think about it further.

Dumbledore,

Urgent report from Lord Voldemort. Request meeting at once. Kindly respond immediately.

S. Snape

He did not feel bad about lying about the purposes for the letter, and he knew Dumbledore would hardly bother with the necessary speed if he thought it was anything less than something from Voldemort himself. Dumbledore knew that Snape had told the Dark Lord what the prophecy meant, and he would surely be on the lookout for any sign of a shift in the winds that carried his plans and intentions.

He began to pace the length of the room as soon as the owl had disappeared over the neighboring rooftops, pressing his palms together and raising his fingers to his lips, as though he were praying. Dumbledore might not even answer right away, he realized, but he had nowhere to go and no one to see. He would wait all day for this answer, and all the while the guilt was eating away at Severus’s insides…

He pressed his eyes shut and pictured Lily, beautiful Lily, her pale skin and dark red hair and bright green eyes. The chains pressed down on his shoulders, and he squirmed, as though they were a physical weight. He did not know what would happen if Dumbledore refused to meet with him, or if he refused to help him.

He could not do this alone.

An answer came as the sun climbed the sky, and the purple was covered by gray clouds the weak September sun was not enough to burn through. Severus had sunk back onto the couch, his head lolling against the back of it in a fitful doze, and he awoke with a jerk at the sound of tapping talons on the glass above his head. He twisted around and jerked it open, still half-asleep, and the owl soared into the room, alighting on the table with a dutiful hoot.

“About time,” Severus snapped, feeling stupid for speaking to a bird even as he opened his mouth. He propelled himself off the couch and roughly yanked the tight furl of parchment from the owl’s leg. It snipped at his fingers with his beak and, with a rather more annoyed noise, took off again into the sky. He didn’t see it go; he was already skimming Dumbledore’s answer.

Mr. Snape,

Eleven o’ clock tonight. Dead Man’s Knoll.

A.P.W.B. Dumbledore

Severus’s fingers were shaking, and his eyes unfocused, turning the words on the vellum into nothing more than inky blurs. He crumpled it in his fists and shoved it with a pile of other rubbish – takeout cartons and messed-up letters and owl droppings – on the counter without giving it a second thought. He couldn’t tell if it was anxiety or excitement humming through his veins, making his veins and temples throb.

Tonight. Everything would be resolved tonight.

He tried not to take the name of the meeting place as an omen.

*

By the time eleven o’ clock had slowly dragged its way into place on the faces of London’s clocks, the storm that the clouds that morning had threatened had come and gone over the countryside, leaving a fierce wind in its wake. The grass beneath his feet was springy and spongy with fresh rain, and the sweet, fresh-earth smell of mud and water and dead leaves was thick over Dead Man’s Knoll. Severus’s hands were thrust deep in the pockets of his cloak, his teeth firmly set. He willed his mind to settle anywhere else but on the impending meeting.

What was he supposed to say to Dumbledore? He’d already confessed the knowledge he’d spilled to Voldemort that a prophecy existed, but even to his own mind, asking for help protecting the newly chosen target of that prophecy seemed unbelievably selfish. It was his fault Lily was marked in the first place, and it was his fault that she would die if he didn’t do something to protect her.

Severus had no illusions about it: Voldemort held no Mudblood life in high esteem, no matter who her son was. If she didn’t stand aside, the Dark Lord would murder her and lose no sleep over it.

A tiny groan escaped him, and he turned restlessly on the spot. Dumbledore was late. Probably intentionally, Severus thought spitefully, and whirled about him, as though expecting the older wizard to have been watching him from a distance, laughing or mocking him. Nothing moved but the branches of bare trees, creaking and crying out as the wind pushed at their roughened branches.

But wasn’t he doing the right thing in seeking help for it? Surely this was more commendable than sitting on the information and not doing anything about it. And surely Dumbledore, knowing this, would help Severus keep Lily safe…

There was a sudden and brilliant flash of white light. For a moment, he had a brief and somewhat delirious thought that he had been struck by lightning – but the storms had long since blown west, and anyway, there was no pain… His leg buckled beneath him, knees hitting soft earth and instantly soaking through the knees of his trousers. He felt his wand tugged from his grasp, and heard the soft sound of flesh meeting wood, as though someone had caught it.

“Dumbledore,” he gasped. The tall, thin wizard stepped forward, holding Severus’s wand and his own in his right hand. There was nothing but contempt in his chillingly blue eyes, looking down a crooked nose at the man on the grass from behind half-moon spectacles.

Severus felt his heart plummet to rest somewhere around his ankles. Dumbledore had not looked on him kindly in over a year, but he had never looked as angry as he did tonight. He knew something, or suspected something, and it was enough to bring fire behind his eyes. There was no comfort, no reassurance – and where those two things were lacking, there could almost surely be no pity.

He scrambled to his feet, panting slightly, and tossed his hair from where it had fallen into his eyes. Overhead, the wind howled like a wolf, and Severus thought the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. “Dumbledore,” he said breathlessly.

“You had a message from Voldemort, Mr. Snape.” Dumbledore’s voice was as cold and flat as his eyes, his hand tight around the two wands.

“His name – “ Severus started to hiss, but he was interrupted.

“You are not afraid of the name,” the older man said, spectacles flashing in hostility. “You wrote it in your letter. Do not mask yourself under false pretenses now, Severus. It is not the man you have shown me you are.”

There were many things Severus had to bite back in response to this: That Dumbledore knew nothing about him; that he couldn’t imagine what he, Severus, had sacrificed; that he had to play this dangerous game, before he could let the contents of his mind and what he knew hurt those he cared about. He swallowed it all, wringing his hands together nervously, and said instead, “This too important to waste time arguing over my character.”

The older man folded his lips into a thin line, and extricated his wand from Severus’s. He pointed it at the night around the pair of them, and the wind fell silent. The ensuing quiet was eerie. Severus drew the back of his hand across his mouth and continued.

“The prophecy. He’s chosen who it means. He – he thinks it’s Lily’s son.”

“And Lord Voldemort has sent you to tell me this,” Dumbledore said in disbelieving contempt.

“Of course not, you –“ Severus stopped, not willing to take the risk of calling the old headmaster a fool, as much as it was sorely deserved. “There was no other way to get you to come, unless I made it sound to you as urgent as I know it is.”

“James and Lily have gone into hiding, and have been hiding for several months,” said Dumbledore loudly, with the air of trying to talk over a child who was making pathetic arguments. “We have ensured their protection, Mr. Snape. Their location is known only to their Secret-Keeper and to those whom they have chosen to reveal their home.”

He tried not to pretend how much the words embittered him. Lily and James, tucked away in their hidey-hole… “Do you think a Fidelius Charm is likely to stop the Dark Lord?” Severus hissed. “He’s the greatest wizard who ever lived. He has ways around charms.”

“Be that as it may, you have not told me why you’ve called a meeting to arrange this.” Dumbledore’s fingers were lost in the depths of his long silver beard, tugging at unseen knots. “Your job was deceptively simple. Late-night meetings on Dead Man’s Knoll are not part of it.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong.” There was tension, thick as cotton, binding itself around Severus’s lungs, squeezing tight. Every minute they wasted on this godforsaken windswept hill was another minute that could have been used to protect Lily, and he was growing more desperate with each one that ticked by. “Protect her, Dumbledore –“

“Mr. Snape.” Dumbledore drew himself up to his full height, which was, Severus had to admit, a rather impressive one. He looked down coolly on the man in front of him, mouth turned down in a disapproving frown. “I am going to tell you something, and you will take me at my word. Protection and the need for safety are both embedded deep inside you. But your decisions do not only affect you. I advise that you make them wisely.”

Before he could even begin to work out the riddle hidden in that sentence, Dumbledore had dropped Severus’s wand; it disappeared into the high, dark grass at once. He turned on his heel as though preparing to Disapparate.

“NO!” Severus reached out a hand and snatched at the sleeve of his former headmaster’s robes. He couldn’t make any sense of the entire evening – why Dumbledore was questionably angry with him, or what he meant when he said that the need to protect was embedded in him. In a split second, what he saw was his last opportunity slipping away from him, turning its back on him.

Dumbledore looked back at him over his shoulder.

“I’ll do anything.” Severus was ashamed of the way his voice wobbled over the words, and he swallowed, trying again to sound more in control and sure of himself. “Anything. Even if – if it means protecting James and the boy. This is part of my payment. My debt. I want her safe.”

Dumbledore went very still.

From a more distant hill, in a more distant tree than those that ringed Dead Man’s Knoll, an owl hooted a mournful cry, and Severus felt another shiver dart up his spine. He realized with no small about of embarrassment that he was still clutching Dumbledore’s sleeve in his fingers, and dropped it hastily, as though the silk had burned him.

Still the old man watched him. There was no longer anger or iciness in his bright blue eyes, but frank curiosity – and something else Severus could not read. His breath had caught in his chest. He didn’t know what was going on, what he’d said…

“You know that I cannot just protect Lily.” The old Dumbledore was back, speaking in gentle, almost apologetic tones. Somehow that made Severus feel even worse. “If you want me to keep Lily safe, I will keep James and Harry safe too.”

He fought the wave of bitterness that welled up within him even still at the mention of James’s name – what use were schoolboy feuds now, well-deserved though they might be? “Hide them all,” he heard himself blurt out. “Just – just don’t let –“

His throat felt swollen, and he couldn’t say anything more.

Dumbledore was still looking at him sharply. “And you’ll do anything, Severus? This is not a request you make lightly?” He was toying with his wand, running his fingers up and down its handle, as though he was turning ideas over in his mind similarly.

“Anything,” Severus reaffirmed. Dumbledore turned away, looking out over the low cluster of hills, barely visible in the dark and the clouds that scuttled across the half-moon. Severus dropped to his knees in the damp grass again, running his fingers over the ground until they found his wand. When he stood up again, his former headmaster was still staring away unseeingly.

“Mr. Snape,” he said. “You are still under the impression that you are working for the Order, still pretending to be loyal to Lord Voldemort? Our agreement has not been violated in any way? No one suspects your loyalties?”

“Would I have known about Lily if they did?” he snapped, suddenly annoyed without cause. He brushed grass off his wand but did not replace it into the inner pocket of his robes. Just in case, he told himself. Why would Dumbledore be under the impression that he’d reneged on their agreement?

Dumbledore sighed and turned back to look at him. “If you are going to keep Harry safe, other precautions need to be taken. You cannot watch him from afar and not raise questions. People will talk.”

“I don’t care what people think –“

“Your opinion is not what I’m concerned about.” The old man took a step closer to him. “When Harry comes to Hogwarts, he is going to need looking after. Even here, he will not be safe. If what you’re telling me is the truth” – and he gave Severus a look over the tops of his glasses, as though trying to see if he was lying – “then Lord Voldemort isn’t going to let this castle stop him. He means to kill the boy.”

“Yes,” said Snape in frustration. “I know.”

“Then you’ll need to take up a position in our school.”

For a few seconds, he thought he had heard Dumbledore incorrectly, or maybe that he was joking. When the serious expression didn’t disappear from his face, he snorted in humorless laughter. “I’m no teacher,” he spat. “I can’t do that.”

“It will mean safety for Harry. Lily’s son.”

Severus resisted the urge to wrap his fingers around Dumbledore’s neck. Damn him for knowing how to make me do what he wants. “Fine,” he snapped. “I’ll – I can say I’ve managed to get a position in Hogwarts to keep an eye on the boy – having a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher might be viewed as useful –“

“Professor Slughorn is due to make his retirement at the end of this next year,” Dumbledore interrupted smoothly. “With a bit of prompting from me, he will be more than willing to take it early. You were a gifted potions student, Severus. You’ll do well in that role.”

Cramped notes in margins, years of graffiti in potions textbooks, seemed to swim behind Severus’s eyes. Despite the fact that he knew he’d just been refused the most optimal job at Hogwarts, he felt a small bubble of pleasure well up in him all the same. At least his talents were being recognized… “Fine,” he said again, coolly. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

“Excellent.” The corners of Dumbledore’s eyes creased in a smile, the ends of his silver mustache turning up. The frighteningly cold man of only ten or fifteen minutes earlier had all but disappeared entirely. “The necessary arrangements will be made. You can expect an owl shortly.”

“All right.” He prayed to whatever gods were listening that Avery wouldn’t intercept it; he’d be mocked out of London, if not England entirely.

After Dumbledore had gone, Severus stayed atop Dead Man’s Knoll, despite the fact that the wind was blowing worse than ever now that the man who’d silenced it had gone, turning his exposed skin to ice. His hands were fisted and tucked up by his ribs for warmth, but he wasn’t focused on the cold. The stuffed feeling in his head, he just now realized, had been worse than ever during that conversation.

He looked off toward the trees, where Dumbledore had been looking minutes before, as if something he found there might give him a clue as to what it was all about. He was sick of it, sick of not knowing what was causing it; it felt as though his head was almost hollow, thick with emptiness and air, like he was missing something…

If he had expected any outcome from this night, it had not been a position as a Hogwarts professor. Who was he to be a teacher? He was twenty-one, barely out of Hogwarts himself. Severus felt absolutely sure he couldn’t do it.

He closed his eyes and tried to picture Lily, to draw courage from the way he had preserved her in his mind. But for a few moments, he could not find it – she was different, altered, someone else. And his eyes flew open again, heart racing, because that had scared him worse than any promise to Dumbledore had.

A/N: We're really starting to get into the thick of canon events now! And because this is the 20th chapter of this story... that means that there's only 10 more to go. For those of you who are still reading (and I am seriously so grateful if you are!), the chapter I'm posting in two weeks' time will be the catalyst that sets a flurry of things into motion. You'll get a glimpse of what that will be next week, but I am honestly and truly excited to post ALL of the last nine chapters, because each one of them contains hugely important and momentous things. I can't say more, but I wish I could!

As a note: The scene between Severus and Dumbledore in this chapter is my own interpretation of a scene J.K. Rowling gave us a brief glimpse of in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Although all the dialogue and the name Dead Man's Knoll are mine, it is her idea, and all credit for it should be given where it is due.

Two weeks! Two weeks! I'm so excited I can barely breathe! ♥ Thank you all for reading and reviewing. I can't wait to hear more from you!


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