- Story Summary:
- Snape can't fix Dumbledore's hand, nor many of the other consequences of Voldemort's actions.
- Author's Note:
- Thanks to ldybastet for beta.
"I've done all I can." Severus had not wanted to say the words -- had not wanted to admit defeat -- but Albus already knew. From the moment his onetime pupil had looked at his shriveled fingers and guessed at the nature of the curse that had caused its injuries, the Headmaster of Hogwarts had understood that he would not be using the hand again.
Snape would not look him in the eye, yet Albus could sense the fury radiating from the thin body despite the tenderness of the touch that was carefully wrapping a bandage around his wrist. He said gently, "I feel very fortunate to be alive, thanks to you. You mustn't blame yourself, Severus," only to be met with a look of pure rage.
"You didn't tell me that he had made horcruxes!"
"I didn't know for certain. I had hoped to be wrong." In the tight, twisted lips and fierce dark eyes, Albus could see clearly the boy Severus had once been, who had sat seething in this office while the headmaster instructed him that no matter how angry he might have been, he was never to divulge the secret identity of a werewolf. Now the older wizard tried to keep affection from his face, knowing that, as always, Severus would interpret it as condescension. "I had no proof that he had made horcruxes until I found this one."
Glancing at the cracked ring, Severus could not help allowing a slight sneer to cross his face, and again Albus had to struggle to restrain his own smile. The boy he had known had grown to be a formidable Occlumens, yet he could not keep the most basic emotional reactions in check. "Don't pretend that you don't admire the skill, Severus. When you next see Lord Voldemort -- " Snape flinched openly at the sound of the name. " -- you will need to hold all your awe at the forefront of your thoughts, not your revulsion."
For a moment he thought Snape might argue, less out of disagreement than because he felt a need to shout at Dumbledore -- for failing to tell him his suspicions, for failing to take him to retrieve the deadly artifact, for having come to him with yet more proof that his headmaster was only an aging, frail mortal. But Snape glanced at the withered hand and grew still, marshalling his strength.
"Regulus Black believed that he must have created horcruxes," he admitted. "It was Black who first told me what they were and how they worked -- something I believe he learned from his martyred brother."
Another unpleasant expression darkened Snape's eyes; even in death, he could not forgive Sirius Black. "Why did you never tell me this?" Albus demanded.
"I thought Regulus was being overly imaginative. He had a somewhat romanticized view of the Death Eaters when he joined; when he became disillusioned, I thought he required our master to be somehow inhuman, justifying his own folly. To tear a soul in pieces and survive...how did you discover what the Dark Lord had done?"
"You remember, of course, the unfortunate business with Tom Riddle's diary and the Chamber of Secrets a few years ago. You must have suspected, as I did, that the diary contained much more than a memory before young Harry destroyed it."
"You believe that book was a horcrux?" asked Snape sharply, his head jerking up as if he would demand to know more. But then he paused, looking thoughtful, and murmured, "So that was why the Dark Lord was so furious with Malfoy -- he very nearly killed him when he learned that the diary had been destroyed. Yet Malfoy claimed that the plan to open the Chamber of Secrets had been the Dark Lord's all along. He told me he had understood that the diary was enchanted to open the Chamber of Secrets and prove Slytherin's legacy to be true...nothing more."
"I don't believe that Lucius lied to you," Albus soothed. "If Voldemort did plan to use the book as a weapon, it is likely that he did not tell Lucius what the Chamber contained. After his master disappeared and the Ministry began its raids, Lucius must have hoped to rid himself of the object and embarrass the Weasleys all at once."
Of course it would also have been Lucius' fervent hope to frighten the Muggle-borns away from Hogwarts, but it was pointless to remind Snape of Malfoy's prejudices. Severus' attachment to Lucius originated in his youth and continued to this day, so much so that Albus worried about what would happen if Voldemort ever forced a confrontation between the two men. He had no doubt that Severus was the stronger wizard, but how much could Severus be asked to sacrifice? It was fortunate indeed that Lucius was in Azkaban, out of favor with the Ministry and Death Eaters alike.
Severus was looking at him, brows lowered, his expression aghast. "If the book was a horcrux, and the ring was a horcrux...how many more might there be? Dozens?"
"He would have chosen a magical number," replied Albus. "Seven, I believe."
"Surely he murdered more people than that."
"Surely he did. But he would have reserved the making of horcruxes for particularly powerful killings and objects. The ring was Slytherin's, and the death he used for the dark magic was a member of his own family."
Snape's eyes had widened. "Potter," he said slowly, raising his fingers to his own forehead in the spot where Harry was marked with the lightning-shaped scar. "I've told you of the impression I have that Voldemort left too much of himself in the child when he tried to kill him -- I can scarcely bear to look at the boy. He speaks Parseltongue, he was open to Voldemort's visions..."
Quickly Albus shook his head, cutting off that line of questioning before it could begin. "We can't be certain, and even if we were, there are still a number of other horcruxes to be disposed of. You heard a part of Sibyll's prophecy. The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches...born as the seventh month dies. Even if what you suspect is true, it changes nothing."
A familiar defiance settled over Severus' features as he lifted his chin. "Should the boy not be told?"
"And risk him growing to hate himself, based on no more but conjecture?" Albus shook his head. "Potter must be told about the horcruxes, but not all at once. I will take care of that myself. As for you..." The younger professor gazed at him expectantly, and the headmaster felt his chest tighten. "I need something else from you, Severus."
"Yes?" Snape was nodding already. Argue and protest he might, but he rarely refused outright to honor a request from Dumbledore, and this would not be something that could be done halfway, like agreeing to work with Sirius Black while simultaneously plotting to make his life miserable.
It was, perhaps, the cruelest thing Albus had ever had to ask from anyone. "You've told me that Draco Malfoy has been instructed to kill me," he said heavily. "I need you to stop him from committing murder."
Snape's face was pinched, unhappy, but he nodded. "He has known me since he was a child, but he no longer trusts me. When he returns to school, I will do what I can to obstruct him. But if the Dark Lord should become dissatisfied with his efforts, he may kill the boy before I can..."
"I don't think you understand me, Severus. I am not asking you to keep me safe from Lucius' son. I believe I am quite capable of doing that myself, and the child's heart will not be in the task. Draco is spoiled and selfish but he is not a murderer." Severus nodded, his puzzled expression making him appear once more like the boy he had been, which made it even more difficult for Albus to speak the rest. "If it becomes necessary, I want you to promise me that you will not allow him to become a murderer. Draco must not be allowed to start down the same path as Voldemort."
Severus was frowning as if he suspected what was being asked of him yet did not want to believe it. "Then you do want me to hinder him before he can attempt to harm you."
"Oh, certainly, I want you to hinder him and watch him to the best of your abilities. But if he succeeds beyond our wildest expectations, Severus, if he should find himself in a place where he might be capable of striking me down, where I would be forced to strike him down first or allow him to complete his task...I want you to take his place."
"Don't you mean your place?"
"No. If Draco kills you in my stead, he will still have committed murder. Nor would I have you strike at the boy. I want you to complete his task for him."
Beneath its curtain of black hair, Severus' face was white as a sheet. "Are you asking me to kill you, sir?"
"If it becomes necessary. Yes."
In a blur of movement Snape was on his feet, gathering the supplies with which he had attended to Dumbledore's cursed hand. "You ask too much. What did I just save your life for? I won't do it."
"When I came here, after Regulus died and I understood what Voldemort meant to do to the Potters, you asked me if I truly meant to put that life behind me. And I swore to you that I already had. Since then I have engaged in none of the Dark Arts..."
"That may change. I want you to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts this term."
Albus had intended to distract Snape from his ranting, and his words had the desired effect. The younger wizard stopped putting away his belongings and stared at him. "You want me to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts? For years you have been telling me that the position is cursed and you need me too badly to spare me!"
"I suspect that by the end of this term, you will no longer be able to maintain your cover with both the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters. It must appear that you have chosen Voldemort's side." A flash of grief darkened Severus' face; Dumbledore knew that he was telling him to give up the only home he had known for most of his life. "But I have other reasons as well. I intend to ask Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts -- something he will only consider if I offer him his old place teaching Potions."
"Slughorn!" There was both shock and a hint of confusion in the query, for Severus knew Slughorn's strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, having been one of his best pupils yet not drawn into the circle of popularity with which Horace had surrounded himself.
Squaring his shoulders, Snape said stiffly, "If you wish me to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, I will, of course, be pleased to accept the position. But as to your earlier request, the answer is still no."
"You would rather watch the Malfoy boy kill me, or watch me kill him?"
"Of course not, but there are other ways..."
"Not this time, Severus; there may not be another way. I want your promise. If Draco Malfoy is in a position to murder me, and you are in a position to take my life before he can..."
"Don't make me make that choice, sir. Please."
The plea wrenched at Albus' heart. When was the last time Snape had begged for anything? "Please try to remember what is at stake," he entreated. "Putting an end to a great evil has been the common goal of both our lives. I am willing to sacrifice myself for that, and I have been trying all along to protect the innocent. Draco is your friend's son; he cannot be allowed to become a murderer. For my sake, for his, for the sake of Lucius and Narcissa, but especially so that Draco does not become another pawn of Voldemort's, you must do as I ask."
Instinctively Albus had held out his hand. Now he realized that it was the one Severus had only just tried to repair -- the hand that had had to be neglected and sacrificed so that Severus could save his life instead -- and Severus was staring at it with a combination of loathing and disgust.
"Come here, my dear boy," he said softly. It was an endearment he could only recall having used once before with this particular former student, and it had the desired effect. Suddenly the boy he had been shone out through the potions master's eyes, and in that unguarded moment Albus could see past the armor of his Occlumency to all the pain and shame that had brought him back to Hogwarts more than a decade earlier.
Dropping his gaze, Snape took an unwilling step forward, but he let the headmaster touch him. "Do this for me," Albus said quietly. "So that others do not die as Regulus did, and Lily, and James, and all those others. Do it because it is my wish, and because I ask you not in fear or desperation, but in love."
He might have said Crucio instead, so intense was the pain on Severus' drawn, pale face. Though Snape had always been a survivor, tough and gritty, he had never in Albus' recollection been truly happy, and now he never would be: he would carry first the burden and then the guilt of fulfilling this request for the rest of his life.
Yet Severus nodded once, accepting all the horror Albus had placed upon him, though the headmaster guessed that it might be easier to kill the strangers whose lives Voldemort demanded. No matter how selfish Severus' reasons had been for switching sides all those years ago, there was nothing left for him here now except the faint hope that Voldemort's evil would not prevail.
"Thank you," said Albus, then, "I'm truly sorry." This time Snape's nod was curt, almost dismissive. He did not believe that Dumbledore understood his suffering. Albus would have spoken again, but he guessed that perhaps it would be easier for Snape this way, not to realize that Albus saw precisely what this cost him. "And thank you for your help tonight."
The bitterest of smiles crossed the younger man's features. "Don't thank me," he insisted, gesturing at the shriveled hand. "I couldn't treat it. This night has been a lesson in my limitations." Glancing at Albus' face, he added, "You look unwell. That curse is taking a toll on more than just your hand. You should rest."
As Snape shuffled with his things to the door, Albus thought that he, too, looked drained, exhausted -- even older, as if he had already been defeated in a battle that had not yet begun. "Severus," he called after him. "This night has only shown me your strength. And so I say again, now: thank you."
Severus' expression did not change. "I suppose that you had better say it now," he nodded. "I don't suppose that you'll be able to say it later." His eyes closed and opened, blocking the great well of suffering that Albus was able to glimpse before control returned. "Goodnight, Headmaster."
And with that, Severus stepped out of the office, looking as if he and not Dumbledore had been cursed by a fragment of an evil soul.