The Sugar Quill
Author: Sigune (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Return of the Prodigal Son  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

A/N: If you feel that in this story Snape’s language occasionally sounds more informal than it does in canon, please remember

A/N: If you feel that in this story Snape’s language occasionally sounds more informal than it does in canon, please remember that he is much younger here than when we first meet him in PS. Also, Rabastan Lestrange in my version is some ten years older than Rodolphus. I do not think this jars with canon, which has little information about him apart from the fact that he is Rodolphus’s brother and went to Azkaban for participating in the torture of the Longbottoms.

 

 

The Return of the Prodigal Son

 

He hung back in the large leather armchair, fumbling somewhat nervously with the white shirt cuffs that protruded from under the long, narrow sleeves of his black overcoat. The Dark Mark was hidden from sight. The thought crossed his mind that showing the horrid thing was not exactly a clever move for a job applicant to make, especially considering the fact the interview had gone so well; but it had to be done. He looked up at the silvery-haired wizard seated at the other side of the ornate wooden desk and was surprised to find that the ancient face did not show the horror or anger he had anticipated, but an emotion he found less easily recognisable. It was – regret. 

“How many are there of your age?” the old man whispered.

“Quite a number,” he replied evasively.

“Why?”

“I cannot speak for the others.”

“Let me hear about yourself, then.”

The young man remained silent. He was not much of a talker at the best of times, and he had always found it especially hard to talk about himself. Certain things in his life had made him conclude that it was unwise to bestow trust on anybody, and for several years now he had managed to keep himself to himself. But much as he delighted in mystifying others with regard to his feelings and motives, this, he knew, was not the time for it. He had come to make a confession. It was the only way out of his predicament.

“I didn’t have much of a choice, as I saw it,” he said. His voice was low, but the tone was not apologetic. “You see, I did want to play by the rules. But they forced me to overstep the mark.”

“Who did, Severus?” Dumbledore sounded calm and patient, and peered at him over his gold-rimmed half-moon glasses.

“The Ministry. I asked them for a research grant, but they said they couldn’t give me one because my subject was too closely related to the Dark Arts.”

Dumbledore picked up a sheet of parchment from his desk and read, “An Inquiry into the Magical Properties of Human Blood in Sorcery, Spell and Potion.” His pale blue eyes fixed the young man in front of him. “That is quite some Dark subject indeed. The magic you propose to deal with is extremely powerful. If the results of this kind of research were to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be incalculable. And you, young man,” – he paused to peer into a pair of pitch-black, seemingly empty eyes – “would you be able to handle the knowledge your investigations would yield you?”

Severus looked at him rather defiantly, and after a few seconds said quietly but self-assured, “Yes, Headmaster, I believe I would. In any case it doesn’t matter – the Ministry doesn’t fund studies into the Dark Arts. On the contrary, they believe they should be stamped out.” He gazed at Dumbledore without blinking. “I believe they are wrong.”

“Do you indeed?” The Headmaster sat back, his elbows on the armrests of his chair, his head leaning on his clasped-together hands. “Please explain.”

The young man shifted in his seat for a moment, then sat up straight and stopped fumbling. He had, for the first time in years, a chance to speak his mind about a subject that was dear to him and on which he had spent much time reflecting. He appeared determined not to waste this opportunity.

“Headmaster, I …” He looked around the room, thinking about how best to explain his point to a man who had won his Order of Merlin, First Class, by defeating a powerful Dark wizard.

“I think there are different approaches to magic and the uses to which it can be put.” He folded his thin white hands in his lap, silent for another few seconds, and then went on.

“Most of the things students learn at Hogwarts are very practical. They are meant for everyday use, they facilitate life. We are taught how to grow our own magical herbs and care for magical creatures. We hear about potions that can cure us from all kinds of simple ailments, or can be used as fertilisers, or rid us from magical vermin. We learn how to defend ourselves against those who may want to harm us, and get to know the proper uses of a wand. And after seven years of study we go out into the world and for what do we use our accomplishments? To perform all kinds of silly tasks that Muggles can do, too, though perhaps they do them in a more complicated way. We can conjure up a chair instead of going into another room to fetch one. We can levitate the furniture to make the spring-cleaning easier. We make béchamel sauce flow from our wands and charm a knife into peeling the potatoes and afterwards we do the dishes with a simple swish and flick. Being able to Apparate saves us the tediousness of having to take the Muggle public transport or having to endure traffic jams, but what is our working life like? It’s just like a Muggle’s, but without the machinery. You work in a broom factory, or in a Floo plant, or you sell magical objects, or keep people in line as a Hit Wizard, or make sure the Muggles don’t notice us – it’s all so very petty.”

He mused a while in silence, looking at his hands with a troubled expression on his face. When he lifted his head again, there were sparks in his eyes and a faint smile played around his lips.

“But the Dark Arts… The Dark Arts really distinguish us from Muggles. They yield us uncannily intense power over the human mind, over life and death, over the great mysteries of the world… They contain the most thorough magical philosophies; they explore the boundaries of our abilities. They set challenges. And they are an essential part of magical lore. I don’t believe it is possible to understand White magic without exploring the Dark. And it is absolutely futile to try and crush the Dark Arts. I mean, if you take away one of the pillars of magic the whole building collapses.” He looked appealingly at Dumbledore, waiting for some sign of approval, but none came. The Headmaster remained pensive and reserved.

“Headmaster,” Severus pleaded, “I am sure you know... I am sure you understand. I know you don’t approve of the Dark Arts, but you could not have defeated Grindlewald if you hadn’t studied them. You cannot parry if you cannot comprehend the attack, can you?  Unless by chance - but there is no predicting how long luck lasts, is there?”

Dumbledore slowly rubbed his temple with the index finger of his left hand. “What did you think the Dark Arts would give you that was not to be found elsewhere, Severus?” he asked.

“Knowledge,” the young man said simply. “I wanted to know more. What I had learnt at Hogwarts could not be all there was to know, could it? We had only just dipped our fingers in the great fountain that is magic. We have twice the lifespan of a Muggle, but our magical education is disposed of in seven years. It is absurd. I knew there were vast dominions we hadn’t explored. They fascinated me. And I loved the idea of…”

“Power?” Dumbledore suggested quietly.

The young man shook his head. “I know what you are thinking, Headmaster, and I don’t expect you to believe what I am going to say next. But to me, there has never been any greater satisfaction than that of studying a pure and perfect theory. I love knowledge for its own sake. I have never been very interested in the practical purposes to which the Dark Arts can be put. Most of the time those uses are degrading and the aims unworthy. What fascinates me is how sorcery is constituted, how a particular combination of specific ingredients produces one particular effect, how the stress on one syllable of an incantation makes all the difference. I go into ecstasy over the recipe of a potion and the power of a spell. There are sorceries so intricate, so ingenious they bring tears to my eyes. The Dark Arts -"

He stopped dead. “Headmaster, I know you worked on alchemy with the only known maker of the Philosopher’s Stone. What was it like? Why did you do it? You didn’t use the Stone, did you? In any such research, the product you get in the end is just – well, just that: the end of your quest. You set out to do something, to gain knowledge, and once you have reached it the rest is of no importance. Who wants to live forever? Who wants to make gold? The people who go for the use of the thing are not worthy of attaining the thing itself. It is the process of working towards the Philosopher’s Stone that is interesting. Once you have created the Stone, the excitement is all over.”

“What a remarkable statement from one so young”, Dumbledore said, cocking his head a little. “You have the mentality of a true scholar, it seems.” Then he added with a frown, “But how could you believe the Death Eaters would help you on your way to intellectual enlightenment?”

Severus drew in a deep breath and set off again, ignoring the Headmaster’s irony. “When I came out of Hogwarts, my… thirst for knowledge was possibly even greater than when I went in. When the Ministry denied me the grant I was after, I was desperate. I couldn’t ask my father for help; our relationship was…strained, at best. My father as a true Gryffindor and incorruptible Hit Wizard wasn’t going to finance his son’s ‘Dark education’, as he called it. And I couldn’t do it myself either. I worked as an apothecary’s assistant in a small shop. I liked that work, but it was not going to get me anywhere: I didn’t get paid much, I had a lot of duties and little spare time, and Mr Waddle was nice enough but he couldn’t afford to give me proper holidays.” He sighed. “So I decided to try my luck with my mother.”

“Ah,” said Dumbledore, stroking his beard. “Septimia DeQuincey. I remember her very well indeed. Ravenclaw, wasn’t she, graduated in 1954 or thereabouts. Quite a brilliant student, too. What became of her?”

“She and my father were divorced when I was eleven. She had been having a relationship before that, which is why my father gained custody over me. He wouldn’t let her see me. He said she had a bad influence on me – that it was her fault I got sorted into Slytherin, as if that were some kind of mortal sin.”

He snorted. “He was paranoid about her. You see, she had never told him her family had played the odds wrong during the war. They had been on the side of Grindelwald and lost everything during the Repression.” The young man gave Dumbledore a bitter smile.

“It is not as if a woman like her would have married a dim-witted git like Stephen Snape if she had had better prospects. The DeQuinceys had come out of the war with their reputation tarnished and their fortune gone. In any case, my father was quite as self-righteous as he was stupid, and he took the allegiances of my mother’s family as a personal insult.”

“He was a Hit Wizard, Severus. People might have asked questions as to his loyalties. Unfair as it may seem to you, his position might have been compromised by his connection with a pro-Grindelwald family, certainly so shortly after the war.”

“Perhaps,” Severus said. The look on his face told Dumbledore he was quite unwilling to see sense in anything his father ever did or said.

“In any case it didn’t justify the way he treated her. No-one can blame her for leaving him. As I said, my father did not allow me to have any contact with her, but as soon as I left school and lived on my own in Mr Waddle’s attic I began to inform myself about her and arranged to see her again. I found out that she had remarried. Her new husband was a pureblood like herself. His name was Rabastan Lestrange. I told Mother and Lestrange about my plans and how my proposal had been rejected. Lestrange appeared interested in the whole affair. He made me talk about the project and the possibilities it raised, and said that maybe he could arrange something for me. Over the following weeks Lestrange repeatedly probed my opinions on the Dark Lord.

“I didn’t have any, really. The whole issue of who was worthy of using magic didn’t interest me much – the only thing I know is that some work harder at magic than others, and that I can’t stand people who don’t make full use of their talents. That’s why I didn’t like Potter at school. He was a lazybones and a wastrel. If I had such ease and talent I’d – ” He halted, scowling, and shook his head in an attempt to drive the thought of James Potter from his mind before continuing.

“The Dark Lord’s cause had failed to convince me.  I have always thought it idiotic to want to tailor any policy to purebloods only. How many are there, after all? Ten families? Most of us have Muggle blood in our veins somewhere. Anyone with more than half a brain cell knows that the gift of magic is entirely unrelated to the blood issue.”

“The founder of your own House left Hogwarts because of that blood issue, Severus,” Dumbledore pointed out quietly. “Clearly he thought it had its importance.”

“Yes, but that was back in the eleventh century, Headmaster,” the young man answered, not rising to the bait. “There was resentment against Muggles because they were beginning to repress wizards and witches, and no-one knew where the loyalties of Muggle-borns would lie. Slytherin’s request would have made sense as a measure of self-protection. But to uphold a ban on non-purebloods today is preposterously old-fashioned and impossible besides. I think it shows no disloyalty to Salazar Slytherin’s heritage to say so. The wizarding world has changed a lot in one thousand years.”

Dumbledore nodded almost imperceptibly. “So tell me, Severus, why you joined the Death Eaters if, as you say, you did not share their values.”

“Because they promised to fill in where the Ministry had failed me.” He fixed his black eyes on Dumbledore. “They thought my ideas were valuable. They agreed to finance my research and appointed Igor Karkaroff as my supervisor. In return I would join the Death Eaters and make myself useful in their service.”

“They committed crimes of the worst kind, Severus.”

“I know, I know,” the young man said with a trace of impatience in his voice. “But even that appealed to me. It seemed the perfect way of spiting my law-and-order father. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore. If he was the law, I wanted to be on the other side of it.” He began fidgeting again, and a wry smile played about his lips.

“I was being bloody stupid, wasn’t I? I lived up to his insults and prejudices. All I really wanted was to prove myself, and all I did was get myself into trouble in the worst possible way.” He sighed.

“So I became a Death Eater, under Lestrange’s guidance, more or less. The thing is – I didn’t quite realise the consequences of joining. I was naïve – I don’t mean that as an excuse; I joined of my own free will; I’m prepared to take responsibility for it. But… The Death Eaters were my last resort. The Dark Arts are my passion, and I couldn’t see any other way of gaining access to them. Some of my former classmates had already joined. They told me that the Dark Lord had his followers instructed in forbidden magic. It was all – very tempting. I had tried it the legal way. If the Ministry had agreed to fund my research, I would have had money for travels and books; I would have had library access. As it was, I had no means. But the Death Eaters had. At the core of the Dark Lord’s forces are some of the richest members of the magical community. They have their own private libraries and collections, so if I became one of them they might let me consult those treasures. So I… I really couldn’t resist. I could think of nothing but the excitement the Dark Arts afforded me. It was delirium. I was pushing my limits, and was encouraged to do so. I was acquiring forbidden knowledge, discovering new grounds, and I finally felt that I belonged somewhere, I guess.” He shifted in his seat.

“Only - if I say I was prepared to make myself useful, I mean that I would have…helped, you know, by devising strategies, or brewing potions or something of the sort. I really didn’t join because I felt like torturing and killing Muggles – and that’s what they wanted us younger ones to do.” He paused, and threw Dumbledore a cautious look. Then, hesitatingly, he went on, “I am sure you are not going to…appreciate this, but – what I want to say…how I felt about that – it’s…well, I thought it wasn’t…sporting, killing Muggles.  A duel – that is different. That is two wizards testing their magical abilities against each other. And if one of them has lesser powers, that wizard can still win a duel by being, you know, cleverer or quicker… But a Muggle…? How are Muggles supposed to defend themselves against wizards? And what do wizards who kill Muggles prove? Certainly not their superiority. It seems so – unworthy.”

Severus risked a glance at Dumbledore, who remained impassive, and when he spoke again there was a note of apology in his voice.

“I know you want me to say that I object to killing – anyone – in any circumstance. But I can’t deny that I – well, that I admire a wizard who can cast a really powerful Unforgivable curse. I – I cannot help it.” He cast down his eyes and remained silent for a while, as if expecting Dumbledore to rise in fury and tell him to leave. But nothing of the sort happened. When he looked up again, he could see that the Headmaster was observing him intensely. The expression on his wrinkled face was difficult to read, but Severus was quite sure it showed no anger or impatience. It puzzled him a little.

“In any case – Muggle-baiting is not the kind of thing I could be proud of. It felt like misuse of magic. Besides there was no motive – not for me at least. I didn’t want to do such things. And I wasn’t the only one who felt like that. But we did them, Headmaster. I did.”

Severus’ voice faltered; he did not dare to look Dumbledore in the eye. For the first time he really felt a kind of shame at what he had done, and he could not stand even the thought of the look of reproach in the Headmaster’s pale blue eyes. The old wizard’s patience seemed oppressive rather than liberating.

“One night,” he whispered, “the first night we juniors were ordered to kill, one of us – Regulus Black, he was a little younger than me – refused to perform the Killing Curse on a Muggle child. Macnair, the senior Death Eater who was with us, killed him. He just killed him before our eyes. He said Regulus wasn’t worthy of serving the Dark Lord. He was eighteen.

“It was only then that I started to understand that we were being used and that there could be no escape. Disobeying an order was suicide. So we… I… did as they asked. I tried to remain in the background as much as possible. I felt – betrayed. But it was too late. Once the Dark Lord has set his mark on you, you belong to him body and soul. I didn’t realise that when I joined. He doesn’t accept less than absolute devotion. What you have is his. What you are is his. He disposes of you as he likes. He trains you so you can become his sophisticated tool. Your own personality doesn’t matter at all. You are not supposed to have a will of your own. Any objection to an order is punished. He has no regard for your feelings or fears or – or thoughts. He doesn’t respect you. You have no privacy. He reads your mind like a book. You’re his slave, nothing more.  

“I don’t want to be anybody’s slave. Above all else I want to be my own master, to be in control of myself and my destiny. But the problem is that once you are in with the Dark Lord, you can’t get out again – except in a coffin. And now I’m trapped. There is no way I can escape; and I cannot undo what I did. But what I can do is…well, manipulate my bondage. I can get back at him by making myself useful – to you, if you would have me. Headmaster, please – let me spy for you.”

“That would make you something of a liability for us, wouldn’t it, if he reads your mind like a book?”

Severus remained silent for a while. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest and with the tip of his left hand index finger he traced the line of his mouth. It was his favourite thinking pose and he adopted it almost unconsciously.  Dumbledore noticed that self-confidence seemed to have returned to him and that the look on the young man’s face was a trifle calculating. He silently waited for him to make up his mind about whatever it was he was considering.

When Severus spoke again, determination sounded in his low voice.

“Headmaster, when I decided to, well, confess - I did not know what to expect. I know you never particularly liked me and that what I have done appals you. But you have listened to me without scolding me or showing contempt. So I will trust you with this. I have never told anyone because it did not seem a wise thing to do, but – I can close my mind to others.”

Dumbledore arched his eyebrows in surprise. “You are an Occlumens?”

“Yes. I am perfectly capable of deceiving the Dark Lord.” Severus’ eyes glinted. “I wouldn’t have survived until now if I weren’t.”

“Well, well,” Dumbledore mused, staring at no particular spot on the wall opposite to him, “one thinks one knows one’s students more or less… And they always turn out to have wonderful talents one knew nothing of… Occlumentes are rare indeed. We do not even teach Occlumency at Hogwarts. But it does explain a few things… Tell me, do you practice it regularly?”

The young man gave him something that looked vaguely like a smile. “Constantly, Headmaster.”

Dumbledore leaned forward in his chair and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Nasty side effects, eh?”

Severus shrugged. “I can cope. Though I must say it doesn’t exactly work wonders on my temper, as anyone who knows me can testify.”

Dumbledore reached for a lidded china bowl on his desk. He opened it and pushed it towards Severus. “Sherbet lemon? I find they help.”

“Thank you, Headmaster.” He picked one from the bowl.

“Now Severus,” - Dumbledore took a sweet himself - “if you are an accomplished enough Occlumens to fool Lord Voldemort” – the name made the young man wince – “how will I know for certain if you are at all truthful with me?”

“You won’t,” Severus said simply, sucking the sherbet lemon.

“I am just to trust you?”

“Well, yes. As I trust you.” He felt Dumbledore’s gaze almost physically weigh upon him as the old wizard measured him with his keen blue eyes behind the gold-rimmed glasses. He knew he was asking much, and he was not entirely sure the Headmaster realised how much he was actually giving in return. He braced himself.

“Headmaster, …” He decided to brave the blue eyes directly, though without letting down his mental guard. It was hard enough as it was. “I am ashamed of myself. Not perhaps for the right reason – the reason you’d expect. I am ashamed because I have been stupid.” He shook his head in disbelief at himself, repeating, in a whisper, “Stupid.” Then he looked up at Dumbledore again. “I haven’t got looks,” he said with a kind of bitterness, “I haven’t got money. I haven’t got friends. I only have my brain, and I didn’t use it. I can’t believe I did that to myself. I have never hidden my contempt for stupid people. Now I can’t respect myself anymore. I trapped myself...” He was now staring at a point somewhere beyond Dumbledore, his black eyes wide open in amazement, shaking his head slowly. The look of disapproval on his features was unmistakable. The Headmaster almost had to suppress a smile. There was no need for Legilimency here.

Suddenly Severus’ expression hardened. “I am not prepared to face death, or torture, or imprisonment in Azkaban for a foolish decision I made when I was eighteen,” he said softly, but in a determined voice. He looked imploringly at the old wizard seated behind the large desk in front of him. “I want to prove myself, Headmaster,” he pleaded. “Make me your spy and I will be cunning, resourceful, and discreet. I will show you what I can do. You won’t regret it. I can pull it off if I have the safety of Hogwarts to fall back on.” He now leaned towards the desk; he seemed strangely agitated. “Of course, some would say I am just a turncoat. They would say I became frightened. But I am not afraid.  I can’t pretend I have a very guilty conscience, or any sense of justice. It’s just – personal. This is between me and those who tried to control me. I realise that should put you off, but… Well, in my case I would say it is the best assurance of my loyalty and dedication.” He looked Dumbledore frankly in the face and said, with a hint of defiance in his voice, “I am very good at personal vendettas.”

“I have no doubt you are,” the Headmaster said. There was a curious gleam in his eyes.

A long silence fell after these words, during which Albus Dumbledore reflected on what he had heard. Severus sat huddled in the large armchair, feeling suddenly exhausted and looking somewhat flustered after his long, rambling confession. Now that it was over, he was torn between a rather violent disgust at having exposed himself and a strange excitement that issued from a sense of relief mixed with hope. Despite this present discomfort of mind, the tension he had felt during the interview ebbed, - unfortunately to give way to what he sensed was going to be a particularly nasty headache. The sherbet lemon obviously had not worked. He hoped Dumbledore would not be too long about his decision, whatever it might be; he was bound to be irritable once the migraine hit him with its full force, and he had come to Hogwarts – it seemed quite incredible by now – hoping to make a good impression during what was, after all, a job interview.

Dumbledore observed him pensively, slowly rubbing his right temple with one long finger. The thin, pale young man now slumped up in the leather chair seemed distinctly unimpressive. He looked vulnerable and unsure what attitude to adopt, but after what he had heard, Dumbledore knew that there was much more to young Snape than met the eye. He was only just twenty and already in possession of remarkable mental skills, not to mention a considerable body of powerful Dark knowledge. The old wizard had encountered a searing ambition, a craving for recognition, and a ravenous hunger for more learning. There was strength in the young man, dedication and perseverance, and an urge to demonstrate what he was capable of. And already a creeping sense of bitterness born of frustration manifested itself – a bitterness that inspired Dumbledore with fear on his behalf. It seemed to him that he could almost touch the Dark potential that lingered within the boy, and he foresaw that age, magical maturity and thorough study would turn the gifts that now lay smouldering into a redoubtable power. Welcoming a Dark sorcerer in his entourage was possibly dangerous, but rejecting him now might be more dangerous still. He did not believe the young man would return to the Death Eaters; but he hated to think what would happen if resentment were to cause him to unleash the magic that was in him against his fellow wizards and witches. Severus Snape would never be another Voldemort or Grindelwald; but he was quite capable of doing harm on a different scale, just by being malicious, seeking revenge and inflicting pain in what would no doubt be carefully calculated doses. Despite the young man’s confidence in his own ability to control the magic he was dealing with, the old wizard felt no such reassurance. He was worried about what he perceived to be a disturbing lack of ethical sense. If Severus had come to him of his own accord, he had done so, as he admitted himself, for the wrong reasons.

But then again, Dumbledore thought, and the corners of his mouth curled in silent amusement, these wrong reasons were exactly what – dared he admit it? – endeared the young wizard to him. He had been perfectly frank, demonstrating a strange kind of brazenness that appealed to the Headmaster, and possessed a lively mind the teacher in him wanted to engage with. Also, though he could not quite explain why, Dumbledore felt a certain responsibility for the young sorcerer’s fate. It had perhaps something to do with the unpleasant sense of failure that had been nagging him ever since he had seen the skull with the snake protruding from its mouth etched on the soft white flesh of the boy’s left forearm. It hurt him personally that promising young wizards and witches, freshly graduated from his school, should turn to Voldemort. He must have made a mistake somewhere. He would have to do something about the Slytherins, especially, – something positive.

The Headmaster sighed and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger, upsetting his glasses in the process. He adjusted them and reflected on the course he was to take. Set aside whatever he might become in the future, at this particular point in time young Snape, he realised, was rudderless. He was neither evil nor good; he was simply looking for his own place in the larger scheme of things. And he seemed to think that this place was at Hogwarts, in the Defence Against the Dark Arts position. But that was obviously impossible.

“I am sorry, Severus,” Dumbledore said at last. “I do not want you for Defence Against the Dark Arts.”

The young man looked up with a jerk of his head. He flushed around the temples and his black eyes flashed for a moment as he struggled to come to terms with yet another disappointment. The display of discontent lasted for no more than a split second and a less acute observer than Dumbledore might have missed it entirely. In no time Severus’ expression was blank again and his eyes had regained their empty stare.

“I suppose I needn’t inquire as to your reasons,” he muttered. “I have handed them to you myself.” He narrowed his eyes. “I shouldn’t have come in the first place,” he added listlessly. The migraine had caught up with him; his vision was now disturbed by dark spots like black snow and when he looked at his hands he could only see the right one. The overwhelming feeling at the Headmaster’s words was humiliation. The thought that he had opened his heart to someone only to meet – rather predictably, he admitted irritably – with rejection filled him with revulsion. He had only himself to blame, though. As always, he had made sure of that.

He stood up, straightening his coat and mentally scraping together the shreds of what had been his dignity. But as he opened his mouth to take his leave, Dumbledore raised a hand in a gesture that signalled he had not yet finished.

“Please sit down again, Severus,” the Headmaster requested. “I insist on explaining my reasons to you.”

“I am not sure I want to hear them,” Severus replied curtly, and he half turned to go.

“You shall hear me out, Severus,” Dumbledore said sternly. “You were bold enough to come to me and flaunt that Dark Mark on your arm. Now I demand that you be bold enough to swallow your pride and listen to what I have to say about it.”

The request was reasonable, Severus thought grudgingly, and yes, he would face the music. He had been through worse things. So he bowed his head in assent and sat down slowly, adopting an expression of as much cold dignity as he could muster. The headache actually helped.

“If I do not want you as Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, Severus, it is because I fear that you may have trouble distinguishing the Defence from the Dark Arts.” Dumbledore tilted his head a little. “It is not a matter of trust. I trust you. You have convinced me.” He paused to let the meaning of these words sink in. “I just do not think it advisable to have Defence Against the Dark Arts taught by a Dark sorcerer who, despite the fact of his being, as I have come to believe, a decent person at the core, possesses what seems to me only a very rudimentary insight in the concepts of good and evil.”

Severus looked annoyed. “Where am I supposed to have learned about those?” he asked defensively. “For seventeen years I have lived in a house with a man publicly recognised and honoured as a representative of the Law, and he was violent and abusive. For seven years I have been bullied at school by a gang of four who were never properly sanctioned because you, for some bizarre reason beyond my comprehension, sympathised with them. So forgive me if my judgment proves somewhat faulty. Does that make me incompetent?”

“‘Confused’ is the word I would use,” Dumbledore said, making a mental note about the depth of old wounds.

“Well, I hate confusion, God damn it!” Severus snapped, raising his voice. “I like clear directions. I need them…”

He paused for a moment, struggling to regain his composure. “I came to Hogwarts hoping that you would set me rules, Headmaster,” he explained, quite calmly. “I remember this school as the place where things were clear to me. I have been trying hard to draw up similar rules for myself. You can mock me for it if you like, but I’ve become religious. It gives me something to hold on to. You have these ten simple commandments: don’t kill; don’t blaspheme…”

“You blasphemed ten seconds ago,” Dumbledore pointed out.

“Yes, I did,” Severus admitted with a shrug and a crooked smile, “because I lost my temper. When I was angry as a child I would break my favourite toy. That’s how I am. That’s the kind of thing I do. Anyhow,” he interrupted himself, “you are not giving me the job.”

“No,” the Headmaster said. “And that is definitive. But you might be interested in another one on offer. Hogwarts,” he folded his hands on the desk, “happens also to be in dire need of a competent Potions Master. Professor Bradshaw handed in his resignation only yesterday, after an unfortunate accident involving an exploding cauldron that left his hair a permanent electric blue and his elbows folding in the wrong direction.  I do hope that does not put you off? In any case, the vacancy is so recent that I have had no time to announce it. Since you happen to fit the profile perfectly, I thought I would propose Potions to you.” He paused. “We can see about Defence against the Dark Arts later, when I have kept you under observation for some time,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.

“Thank you, Headmaster.” Severus could have smiled triumphantly if the pounding in his head had not been quite so bad. As it was, he managed a lopsided grin.

“Your office and rooms are in the dungeons,” the Headmaster informed him.

“Splendid,” Severus said grumpily. “Chilly dungeons for a cold fish, is that it? But at least they will be safe.”

“And long underwear should do the trick,” Dumbledore suggested helpfully, deliberately taking no notice of the young man’s scowl. “You can settle in as soon as you are ready; Mr Filch will give you a hand if you should need any help. All teachers are required to be present at the school a fortnight before the start of term.”

“I will be there.”

“By the bye, Severus – with Professor Bradshaw gone, Slytherin will need a new Head of House. I daresay you would be the youngest Head ever, but I see no problem there. Do you?”

Er – what does extra responsibility mean in terms of remuneration?” the new Potions Master asked casually.

Dumbledore frowned benevolently. “Young man, I should have hoped that your youthful idealism…” he began.

“Yes, yes,” Severus interrupted. “Message taken. I’ll do it for Slytherin then,” and he consoled himself with the thought of unrestricted access to the Hogwarts library.

“Good,” Dumbledore said, gathering pieces of parchment from his desk. “That is settled then. I expect you here in two weeks’ time. As to the spying – for which,” he looked over his glasses, “I am not in a position to offer payment either – you will be receiving orders shortly.” Severus nodded.

The two men rose from their seats and shook hands. They made a pair of most unlikely allies, but both left the room feeling that they had just begun a new chapter in what had been, was, and would be, an exciting story.

 

***

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