The Sugar Quill
Author: Daphne Dunham (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: With These Hands  Chapter: Default
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With These Hands
By Daphne Dunham

* * * * *

I. Mischief

It is due to a rather impressive Bat-Bogey Hex that Albus Dumbledore notices Severus Snape’s hands for the first time. It’s accidental, really, as the headmaster rarely ventures to Argus Filch’s office and has only done so today because of an unfortunate incident involving the Minister for Magic, some half-eaten toffees, and a rather cheeky portrait of Phineas Nigellus. But the moment Albus enters the caretaker’s shabby workspace, he feels it fortunate that he arrived when he did.

Albus recognizes the boy immediately; he had, after all, seen him sorted just weeks ago with the other first years. Even as he sat with the Sorting Hat on his head, he’d struck the headmaster as an odd boy, a cross boy—as Eileen Prince’s boy through and through. And now, as he stands in the doorway of Filch’s fish-smelling office, he’s once again stunned by how different young Severus is. The boy isn’t budging, of course, Albus notes. He stands stiffly in front of the caretaker, so stubbornly rigid and still that the headmaster wonders if he’s even breathing. His pale face shows no hint of emotion—not even of pain as Filch brings the switch down upon his open palm. He doesn’t flinch when he hears the swish of the rod through the air, and he doesn’t cry out when it cracks against his hand. Severus only stares ahead, dark eyes glaring indignantly, too furious at the string of events that led him to this moment—too proud to allow Filch the pleasure of knowing that he’s capable of hurting him—and too well rehearsed in the fine art of refusing to relent to such punishments.

“Mr. Filch!” the headmaster calls, his tone rather more sharp than usual, as he steps inside the caretaker’s office.

The gnarled, old Squib pauses mid-strike at the sound of the headmaster’s voice, the switch high above his head in preparation to beat Severus. Filch looks up quickly, startled, and beside him, the boy turns more slowly toward Albus. He doesn’t lower his hand from his punishment, and the ambivalent sparkle remains in those eyes as he stares over his shoulder, although his brows crease curiously above them. He is unsure what to make of the headmaster’s appearance on the scene and is not optimistic enough to hope that Albus might intervene on his behalf.

But intervene is precisely what Albus does. “Mr. Filch,” he says again, this time in more of a gentle lecture, “if I am not mistaken, one of the first school policies I changed this summer when I accepted the post of headmaster was the one regarding corporal punishment. If you’ll recall, detentions are now administered for misdeeds, not beatings.”

An unrelenting flush fills Filch’s cheeks, and he gapes at the headmaster in silence, his lips twisting into something that looks like a cross between grave disappointment and serious apprehension. He’ll be sacked for this, he thinks—no matter how much the little urchin deserves a good thrashing.

“Perhaps you’ve forgotten the change, Mr. Filch,” Albus continues, peering meaningfully over the rim of his half-moon spectacles at the caretaker.

Only at this prompt does Filch find his voice at last. “I-I suppose I have, headmaster,” he stammers. However, the caretaker is far from a consummate actor, and his response only vaguely masks the truth of the matter—that he did not, in fact, forget the rules at all. Realising the transparency of his reply, Filch casts Severus a quick glare, daring the boy to speak up to contradict him. Then, he looks back hopefully at the headmaster, who—much to his amazement—nods agreeably.

“No matter,” Albus replies. He smiles slightly, a gesture meant more for Severus’ benefit than for anyone else’s. “It’s a perfectly understandable thing to forget—as most rules are. There will be no further need for the switch this evening, though.”

The caretaker’s hand, still clinging to the rod with determined white knuckles, drops obediently—albeit rather reluctantly—to his side. The redness in his cheeks is replaced by a profoundly gloomy grey; he’s crestfallen, like someone has just told him his cat has died. “Of course, headmaster,” he mumbles sulkily.

Severus glances from the headmaster to the caretaker, his jaw faintly ajar in disbelief. A piece of him thinks that perhaps this is a cruel trick or a joke the two men are playing on him. But Albus Dumbledore is not Tobias Snape, and so when the headmaster tells him he may lower his hand, Severus believes him.

“Your punishment is through, Severus,” Albus tells him gently. “Go to the hospital wing immediately so Madam Pomfrey can apply some salve to your blisters.”

Rubbing at the red, angry welts that have formed across his palm, the boy turns abruptly on the rather worn heel of his boot and starts to cross the room toward the door. He does not leave, however, without glancing up at Filch. Chin cocked high and haughty, there is a hint of smugness playing at the corners of Severus’ lips. It is a sneer intended to humiliate and infuriate the caretaker, a smirk intended to declare himself the victor in the battle of the switch. Filch looks as though he’s ready to leap out of his skin with fury, and even with the headmaster standing guard over the boy, he cannot help but start forward, hands extended as though to wrap them around his long, pale neck. Albus himself frowns in dismay at the boy’s insolence, but Severus is too quick, and before either Albus or Filch can do anything to detain him, he’s already disappeared into the safety of the corridor.

“What exactly did the boy do, anyway, Argus?” Albus asks as they both stare, incredulous, at the spot where Severus had stood mere moments ago.

“I caught the brat casting a Bat-Bogey Hex against the Potter boy near Gryffindor Tower,” the caretaker grumbles. “There are bogies stuck all over the Fat Lady’s portrait now—she won’t stop her screeching. It’ll take me days to clean up the mess.”

“That must have been quite the Bat-Bogey Hex,” Albus muses, slightly entertained despite himself. To tell the truth, he and Aberforth were once known to have settled their sibling rivalries in exactly this fashion, and the headmaster cannot help but feel somewhat nostalgic for his youth.

“Aye, that it was,” Filch repeats as shuffles over to a cabinet in the corner. With an almost affectionate tenderness, he runs his hands down the length of the switch one last time. Then, he opens the cabinet and locks the rod up beside a rather extraordinary array of whips and thumbscrews—all forbidden modes of punishment now that Albus is headmaster. “Not the darkest magic that lad knows either, I’ll wager,” he adds. “Not the darkest in the least.”

II. Contempt

The icy wind lashes at his robes as he stands inside the shelter of the great, wooden doorway. Squinting through the darkness, he spots them approaching from the direction of the Whomping Willow—there’s the bobbing of the lantern, the towering shadow of the half-giant’s figure in the black of night, the crunching of the snow as it is compacted underfoot. The drifts across the lawn are thick, and Hagrid’s steps are slow as he trudges through them. And Severus… he looks uncharacteristically delicate and vulnerable draped in the gamekeeper’s arms—like an infant or a wilted flower. Surely he’s not usually that pale; surely he’s not usually that still.

“Come, Hagrid, to my chambers,” Albus urges once they’ve reached the threshold of the castle. Hurriedly, he waves a hand to indicate that the half-giant should follow him through the corridors.

Even with blood oozing from his temple and a leg that is so broken it looks like a splintered twig, Severus still finds it within himself to spew venom. “You are going to expel those gits, aren’t you—Potter and Black, I mean?” he interrogates the headmaster once they are alone.

Albus looks down at the battered boy whose wounds he is trying to cleanse. For a moment, he marvels at the contrast of Severus’ scarlet blood against his sallow cheek, at the clash of Severus’ silver-and-green scarf against the crimson-and-gold of the chaise he is lying upon, at the way he manages to be so passionate despite being so wounded. Sadly, the boy seems to wear his injuries too well—is too comfortable with the pain. It is not, after all, the worst beating he has ever sustained; Tobias Snape had taught him long ago how to endure such hardships. Thinking of this, Albus falters slightly as he gently dabs at the boy’s cheek with a damp cloth. No child—not even one as bitter and disagreeable as Severus Snape—deserves such torment.

“I would think, Severus, that you have other things to worry about right now,” the headmaster says at last, a hint of soothing behind the lecture in his tone, “like your health and the fact that you are facing several detentions for breaking school rules and sneaking out after hours.”

Severus makes a face at the headmaster’s words. “So that’s how it is, is it?! They try to kill me, and I get in trouble?!” he spits incredulously, his onyx eyes wide and more than a little wild. “And what about you—what kind of headmaster admits a werewolf to Hogwarts to begin with?!”

Albus hesitates, his hands fumbling as he dips a cloth into the basin of warm water at his side. In truth, he’s asked himself the same question a dozen times tonight—since Lily Evans had burst into his office and told him that James had run out to the Willow in a sudden panic. The headmaster has always prided himself on his good judgment—from his decision to admit a student of great talent like Remus Lupin to the precautions he’d taken to ensure that he would not be a hazard to the safety of the other students. Until tonight, Albus had no reason to second-guess his decision, but he cannot help but be alarmed at how little it has taken to prove him wrong.

It is not without great sadness and more than a little guilt that the headmaster turns back to look at Severus. The boy could have been killed tonight, Remus could have been slaughtered by the Ministry as a result, and Sirius Black could have faced time in Azkaban. And everything would have been Albus’ fault for allowing Remus to come to Hogwarts in the first place. The ordeal sounds rather monstrous when presented in this fashion, but Albus has had his reasons to take this risk.

“The kind of headmaster who admits a werewolf to school, Severus,” he explains calmly, quiet yet confident at the same time, “is the kind of headmaster who believes the best of people—who believes in second chances. I don’t expect you to be able to understand right now what you think is a great misjudgment on my behalf, but I hope that you’ll remember this someday when you may need to be given a second chance as well.”

The boy glowers and turns away in anger, finding the wall preferable company to the headmaster. He sticks out his thin, lower lip and crosses his arms over his chest resentfully.

“If it’s any consolation, Severus,” the headmaster tries again, “I am very sorry that this happened to you. It was never my intention that you should be hurt.”

Still, the pallid boy refuses to look at him. When it becomes apparent to Albus that Severus has no snide retort but is content to pout instead, he shakes his head in disappointment and resumes dabbing at his wounds. It isn’t until he feels the damp cloth in Albus’ hands touch his forehead that the boy protests. He inhales sharply, indignantly suppressing a groan of pain as the headmaster brushes against a particularly deep gash at his hairline. Then, in the same breath, he recoils and snatches the cloth from the older wizard’s hand with a single violent, thrashing motion.

“Don’t touch me!” Severus snaps at Albus before he can stop himself. He glares up at the headmaster, revulsion suddenly burning in his black eyes. “I don’t want your help, and I don’t need your second chances—not now, not ever.”

Even as he speaks these words, Severus regrets it—knows it’s a lie. The truth is quite the opposite, actually. He’s benefited from the headmaster’s help and second chances since his first year at Hogwarts—since the night Albus stopped Filch from beating him. The fact that he has not yet been expelled from Hogwarts himself—in spite of the hexes and pranks and rivalry with James Potter—is proof of the headmaster’s inherent goodness. Hesitantly, the boy looks up at the older wizard, expecting to see hurt or even anger flickering across his face.

“Headmaster, I—” Severus stammers, trying to find the proper words. Apologies have never been his strong suit, though, and his face flushes foolishly instead.

Albus only steps away slowly and leaves Severus to his own devices, his gaze maddeningly placid all the while. “I’ll send Madam Pomfrey in to help you, Severus, if that makes you feel more comfortable,” he tells him in barely more than a whisper.

It doesn’t make Severus feel more comfortable, though. The nurse’s hands, as he learns, may be soft and gentle as she wraps his wounds, but she lacks the tenderness with which the headmaster had cared for him. To Madam Pomfrey, nursing is an act of business; to Albus Dumbledore, it’s an act of affection.

III. Remorse

It’s while he’s leaving the Three Broomsticks that Albus sees him: the thin, wispy figure dressed in billowing black robes ducking down a dark alley by Hogsmeade station. The headmaster’s brows crinkle over his half-moon spectacles. He’d known months ago when he’d sat in his office reviewing his curriculum vitae that Severus Snape was plagued with secrets—secrets of the darkest variety, at that—and yet there had been something about the young man that had stirred Albus’ interest. Perhaps it had been the fact that he still felt he owed Severus something for having admitted Remus Lupin to Hogwarts; perhaps it had been the fact that a piece of him knew that James Potter and Sirius Black should have spent a bit more time in detention for the way they had harassed him; and perhaps it had been because sometimes at night, he still fell asleep with the image of the injured, wilted teenager in Hagrid’s arms haunting his mind. Regardless, Albus had given him the job—oh, not the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, of course. He was too keen on that for the headmaster’s comfort—reminded him of Tom Riddle as a young man, and he suspected that the similarity was not accidental. But Potions would do nicely. Severus had excelled in the subject under Horace Slughorn’s tutelage, and Albus was curious to keep watch over him, to untangle the web of secrets surrounding him.

And now, as Albus watches his newly-hired Potions professor skulking around the shadows of Hogsmeade, he is no less curious. He walks carefully through the streets, the warmth of Rosmerta’s wine in his veins chilled by the cool, October breeze with every step. Then, he rounds the corner and crosses into the same side street he had seen Severus escape to moments before.

He doesn’t see him at first, only hears a faint mumbling at the far end of the alley. The headmaster steps slowly forward, wand extended. “Lumos!” he says, scanning the deserted street. Albus strains his eyes to look beyond the garbage tip, past the empty barrels of mead stacked against the gray brick of the buildings, and through the shadows of weathervanes and roofs on the cobblestone street. He hears a shuffling of feet and a whimper.

“Professor Snape?”

The inarticulate murmuring continues; a cat mews behind him. Albus ventures forward.

“Severus?”

Drawing nearer, the headmaster can distinguish the murmuring as the voice of the young man—as that distinctive, low, silky tenor that blames him in his nightmares and is quick to criticise at staff meetings. “Avada—Avada—Avada—” he’s saying.

Albus rushes forward, nearly tripping over a discarded case of Firewhisky. The sounds of murder are in the air, and with each step, his mind is flooded with deadly images—scenes of finding the Potions master hovering over a limp body, of finding his robes and hands soaked with blood and his wand smoldering. He’s already imagining the headlines in tomorrow’s Daily Prophet, and he’s preparing his speech to the staff—how he’ll explain that he’d hired a killer.

But the headmaster stops short. What he actually finds stuns him more than anything he could have envisioned. Behind a pyramid of wooden kegs, Severus Snape is lying crumpled in a heap on the ground, barely visible in a blanket of shadows and quaking so badly that at first Albus thinks he’s having a seizure. He’s alone, much to the headmaster’s astonishment, and the wand raised in preparation to perform the Killing Curse is his own, aimed at his own skull. The person he’s about to murder, Albus realises, is himself.

Avada—Avada—Avada—” Severus keeps hoarsely stammering, unable to bring himself to utter the final syllables of the curse.

The headmaster crouches beside the young man in front of him and gently, slowly reaches out to touch him. He grasps him by the shoulder with one hand and brings his other over the Potions master’s, to force him to lower the wand he has lethally aimed at himself. Severus resists Albus at first, jerks away and sinks deeper into the shadows, thrusting the wand to his temple with increased vehemence.

Avada—Avada—Avada—

Albus persists, though. “Calm yourself, Severus,” he whispers soothingly, speaking to him as though he’s a small child or a caged animal as he tries to wrest the wand from the young man’s hand a second time.

Avada—Avada—Avada—

The headmaster has nearly pried the Potions master’s fingers from around his wand when Severus abruptly surrenders, dropping it as though it is made of fire. A sob escapes his lips as the wand tumbles to the ground in front of them, clanging dully over the cobblestones and rolling just out of reach. He raises his head to look at the headmaster, and as the clouds shift over the moon above them, Albus sees his face is tear-streaked, ashen.

“It’s James and Lily,” Severus is choking, only marginally coherent as the headmaster removes his own traveling cloak and drapes it over his shivering shoulders. “James and Lily. I didn’t know when I told him—I didn’t know what the prophecy meant.”

The headmaster pauses, only half-finished wrapping Severus in his cloak, and peers intently at the young man over the rims of his half-moon spectacles. So the Potions master, despite his claims that he was merely trying to find the toilets, had been eavesdropping that night with Sybil Trelawney after all, then.

“The Dark Lord will kill them,” Severus continues. He’s clutching his arm angrily—his left arm, his forearm, where Albus thinks the Dark Mark must be burned into him. “And my life debt to James—I-I’ve killed the man who once saved my life—I’ll be cursed as long as I live.”

Albus feels his heart pound anxiously against his chest. Matters, he immediately deduces, are far more grave than he had initially suspected. Cautiously, he glances over his shoulder to ensure that they are alone in the alley, that no one is watching or listening. These days, nowhere is safe—not even a backstreet in Hogsmeade. They must move fast now, he knows it; they must move before they are seen.

“Hush, my boy,” the headmaster says, the beseeching quietness of his tone reinforcing the urgency within it. “Say no more until we’re safely back up to the castle. We live in dangerous times, and the consequences if we are overheard will be severe.”

He tries to stand, to help Severus do the same, but the young man is clutching desperately at his robes, his eyes glittering despondently. “You can’t let him do it,” he’s gasping. “You can’t let him kill them. Hide them—save them. Only you can do it, headmaster.”

There’s something about those hands as they grip Albus’ robes—those trembling, long fingers and soft, pale palms. Albus wants to hold them, wrap them in his own—anything to stop their panicked mania. Surely these aren’t the same hands that had cast hexes as a child, that had snatched bandages from him as a teenager. These are a man’s hands, tainted hands, hands that know how to touch a woman and how to brew poisons, hands that have perhaps even killed.

“Whatever has happened, Severus—whatever you have done or been instructed to do—I can help you,” the headmaster tells him as he eases the Potions master to his feet. “You have options, and if you are willing, I can make things better for you.”

IV. Melancholy

“You wished to see me, Albus?” Severus asks, entering the headmaster’s sitting room hesitantly, his knuckles still knocking slightly on the outside of the door.

Albus’ chambers never seem to change—everything in crimson and gold fabrics, the way it had been the first time he was here—the night that Remus Lupin had nearly killed him. There’s the chaise in the corner by Albus’ personal library; the letter desk brimming with scrolls of parchment, ink bottles, and several quills; and beyond that, partially visible through a set of open double doors, the headmaster’s bedroom. Tonight, Albus is seated in the center of the room, at one of the wingback chairs by the fireplace, and when he looks up at the approaching Potions master, his eyes are just as warm as the flames in front of him.

“Ah, Severus,” he greets. “Come sit beside me.”

For a long while after the younger wizard takes his place at the chair to Albus’ right, there is nothing but heavy silence—not the uncomfortable sort of quiet, of course, but the type that comes only with years of familiarity, with mutual respect and genuine friendship. A bystander might question the dense hush that pervades the room, but in actuality, Severus is greatly relieved that the headmaster does not fill the calm with senseless chatter. To him, it proves how well Albus knows him, understands him—that without saying anything, he comprehends why the Potions master was considerably more solemn than usual at the Halloween feast tonight and that without saying anything, he is able to commiserate.

“Let me send for some of that elf-made wine you enjoy so much, Severus,” Albus says softly at last, still staring into the fire. “It will relax you.”

“No, thank you,” Severus replies quietly, his gaze, too, unmoving. “I’d like to savor each moment of this misery in all its grim reality.”

“Of course, Severus,” the headmaster concedes. “As you like.”

More silence. Then, Severus whispers suddenly. “Seven years.”

Albus gives a single, solemn nod of his head, acknowledging the night that had marked both their failures as well as their simultaneous, accidental victories: Between Secret Keepers and spying, they had been unable to save James and Lily Potter, but their son had lived. Bittersweet—that was the best term for their triumph, he supposed. Bittersweet. Severus, of course, still blames himself: If only he’d been faster, smarter, closer. If only he’d been able to sneak off sooner or if he’d been able to Apparate directly into the headmaster’s office to tell him. If only he’d never taken the blasted Mark or overheard the Prophecy to begin with.

“It never gets easier, does it?” the Potions master murmurs sulkily.

“You do yourself a great disservice by tormenting yourself, my dear boy,” the headmaster replies, half-sympathetic, half-dismayed. “You cannot hold yourself personally responsible for James’ and Lily’s deaths, you know.”

“Why not?” Severus croaks hoarsely. “Regardless how I look at it, I’m ultimately accountable for killing the man who once saved my life. If I hadn’t told the Dark Lord about the Prophecy—”

Swiftly, Albus intervenes before the Potions master launches into the all-too-familiar guilt-ridden speech. “You did not know what the Prophecy meant, Severus,” he reminds him gently. “Your only fault is in not realising the long-term consequences of your actions—a fault that even the wisest of men—myself included—find themselves victims of. You really must learn to stop abusing yourself.”

Severus is silent for several minutes, the crackles of the fire and the ticking of the clock on the mantel the only sound in the room as he turns the headmaster’s words over in his mind. His brows meet in a bewildered knot over his cold eyes, as though he can’t quite decide whether or not he believes Albus. As much as he wants to, a piece of him never will.

“It’s been so long, Albus,” Severus whispers eventually. “I’m not sure I know how to do anything but abuse myself.”

His voice sounds odd, suffocated, and if Albus had to guess, he’d have sworn that he was struggling to repress a sob; however, out of respect for Severus’ pride, he declines to raise his eyes and look into the younger wizard’s face. Instead, he reaches out to the armrest of Severus’ chair, where the young man’s hand lies, so that he can pat it comfortingly with his own. The Potions master’s hands are chilly, his long, lean fingers like icicles under Albus’. A man’s hands—a man’s life—shouldn’t be so cold, the headmaster thinks sadly.

“Perhaps,” Albus concedes softly, sorrowfully. “Or perhaps you’re merely unwilling to try.”

V. Devotion

It’s the pain tonight, not the nightmares he’s prone to having, that wakes Albus Dumbledore from his sleep. He shifts in the bed, rolling over onto his side slowly, the emerald duvet slipping from his shoulders in the process. Early summer may be upon them, but Slytherin House is always somewhat chilly, and he shivers slightly as he opens his eyes. Blinking away the haze of grogginess, he is surprised to see light in the room. The headmaster squints through the shadows, trying to focus on the figure beside him: A pallid, hook-nosed young man silhouetted in the soft glow of a candle is seated on a chair beside the bed.

“Severus?” he whispers.

With a start, the young man looks up from the book he is poring over, his curtain of lank, dark hair lapping against the collar of his black robes. Despite the sharpness of his features, his face softens when his eyes meet the headmaster’s. “Did I wake you?” he asks apologetically.

“No, my dear boy, not at all,” Albus replies. He moves to sit up and winces as his weight on his hand causes sharp bolts of pain to course up the length of his arm.

“Albus, really, you must rest,” Severus bosses. There may be disapproval in his tone as he watches the headmaster struggle, but he hurriedly abandons the book in his lap in favour of getting to his feet and readjusting the pillows and blankets around the older wizard.

Even as Severus props a pillow beneath his head, the headmaster cannot help but turn to look at the orphaned book. In his haste to tend to Albus, the Potions master let it drop to the seat of his chair when he vacated it, and the cover has snapped shut over the milky parchment of the pages. Embossed into the leather binding, large, gold leaf letters boast the title of the volume: Miraculous Medicines for the Moste Mystifying Maladies. The headmaster raises his eyebrows as he notices this isn’t the only book Severus has been studying: Several more rather hefty tomes are haphazardly stacked on the bedside table among the vials of medicines; jars of salves; and bundles of crisp, white bandages. Without his spectacles, Albus is left to strain his eyes to see what they are called, but the words he is able to distinguish—terms like cures, remedies, and potions—make it perfectly clear to him what his friend has been occupying himself with while keeping watch over him.

“You must rest as well, Severus,” Albus reminds him softly, silently noting the exhaustion that hangs like twin nooses around the Potions master’s dark eyes. “It will do neither of us any good if you run yourself ragged trying to find a cure for my hand when you know as well as I do that none exists.”

“I do not know that none exists,” Severus replies with mild defiance. “Only that no one seems to have discovered it yet. There’s a distinct difference.”

A small grin wraps its way around Albus’ lips: Severus Snape has always had a mind for complex subtleties; it’s what has made him such a remarkable Potions master, a convincing spy, and a caring friend. “If the loss of my hand brings us one step closer to defeating Voldemort, then it is not a sacrifice made in vain,” Albus assures him. He pauses then before adding, an unmistakable twinkle in even his sleepy eyes, “Besides, surely you would not deprive me of my hard-won war wounds, Severus.”

Reluctantly, the corners of Severus’ mouth turn upwards. He’s about to repress even this much of a rare smile when suddenly he finds he doesn’t have to: Concern puckers his face once more as he sees the headmaster’s eyes flicker closed with another tremor of pain. “Let me see the wound, Albus,” he insists, his tone low and resolute, protesting the headmaster’s inevitable self-effacing assertions that he is fine even before the words are spoken.

Before the headmaster can muster the energy to tell Severus not to worry, the Potions master is already gingerly tending to his heavily bandaged hand. “More salve will ease the hurting, if nothing else,” he explains.

Albus hesitates as Severus begins to unravel the white gauze protecting his charred coal of a hand, anticipating the throbbing in his bones to heighten at the agitation. The aching waves, however, do not come. Instead, Severus is gentle with the headmaster—gentler than the harshness of the lines of his face or the bite of his words would leave most people believing he is capable of. Albus watches him as his long, thin fingers tenderly remove layer after layer of the dressing.

“I’ve decided I’m not going back to Spinner’s End on Monday,” he says quietly, nearly mumbling, as he works.

“Don’t be foolish, Severus,” the headmaster replies. “Voldemort will be suspicious if he finds out you’ve stayed at the school longer than expected—especially after our duel.”

His attention to the bandages wavering, Severus looks up into the headmaster’s face. His gaze is more severe than the one he usually greets Albus with, and his eyes are flashing strangely. The headmaster has seen this look on him before, of course—it’s that same determined, fervent glint he gets whenever he tries to persuade him to expel Harry Potter from Hogwarts and that he had just over a year ago on the night Lord Voldemort was reborn, the night Albus asked him to return to the Death Eaters as a spy.

“I won’t leave you—not like this,” Severus persists, his voice bursting forth agitatedly. “You’re too ill. If something were to happen…” His voice trails off, and his lips crease into a tight frown, as though he can prevent what he fears by refusing to speak them. Then, turning his energies back to the headmaster’s hand, he continues more calmly. “The point is, if I stay just a few days longer, I can do more research—I can take care of you.”

The headmaster sighs thoughtfully. “My dear boy, I know you mean well, but defeating Voldemort is more important than my hand—or any of my other limbs—or even my life, any of our lives,” he kindly informs him. “Promise me you won’t take any risks that will put our cause in jeopardy.”

Severus is silent. Time has proven he will do anything Albus asks of him—from spying on Lord Voldemort to teaching Harry Potter Occlumency—but when it comes to risking the headmaster’s health, he must always think twice. Seeing his reluctance, Albus reaches out with his other hand—his good hand—to grasp Severus’ wrist, halting his progress on dressing his wound. He looks intently, imploringly, into the Potions master’s pale face.

“Severus, please,” the headmaster presses gently.

Although he still looks slightly unconvinced, Severus nods. “Of course, Albus,” he replies. “Anything you wish.”

VI. Despair

The Forbidden Forest is chilly today, despite the fact that it’s well into June. An oddly cool breeze whips through the tops of the trees, howling eerily a moment, before it cascades downward and wraps itself around the young man’s ankles, rippling his loose, black robes. He shivers slightly, but he does not move. He only stands still, blending in amongst the tree trunks, his onyx eyes straining to catch a glimpse of something—anything—up the hill, up by the school. There are hundreds of them, he can see. They’re too far away for him to distinguish their faces, to hear their sobs or smell the flowers they’ve brought to leave at the foot of the grave. However, he can discern enough through the distance to know that there is a crowd: Half the magical world—from Rufus Scrimgeour to Knockturn Alley vagabonds, from centaurs to merpeople—is there, he imagines.

But he is not.

The young man’s blood turns to acid in his veins at the thought of it. No one has more of a right to be there in that crowd, to say farewell to the headmaster, to show respect, to mourn over the revered wizard’s body, than he does. He has been, after all, Albus Dumbledore’s closest advisor, dearest friend, and most devoted servant. Thanks to Harry Potter, though, Severus has been relegated to the shadows, forced to watch from afar, made to hide his face lest he be spotted by an Auror and hauled immediately to Azkaban—or, worse, given over to any remaining dementors for the Kiss.

Harry had been in the tower that night—under his Invisibility Cloak, he supposes, but he’d been there just the same. Severus knows it; he’s always been able to sense the boy’s presence. And Harry had seen what happened—he’d seen Severus step forward, and he’d seen the headmaster plead. Peering into his friend’s eyes during those final, fleeting seconds, Severus had understood so much. The headmaster wasn’t begging for him to spare his life; he was begging for much more. He was asking Severus to remember that he must follow his orders—that he must not endanger their cause at any cost, as they had discussed almost a year ago before Severus had departed to Spinner’s End for the summer. He was asking Severus to continue to work against Lord Voldemort—to help Harry in any way that he could, to protect him from the Death Eaters as much as possible. And he was asking Severus to understand that he loved him as he would a son—that he cared so deeply he was willing to give up his own life that Severus might live.

So Severus raised his wand and uttered the Killing Curse—the swiftest, most painless, and least gruesome method of murder that he knew. Naturally, he hated himself for doing it—and he hated Albus for making him. He hated Bellatrix Black for coming with her sister to Spinner’s End that afternoon last year; he hated that she had doubted him, pressured him to twine his hand with Narcissa’s and make the Unbreakable Vow that had led to this moment. He hated that, despite his bravado, he hadn’t really known Lord Voldemort’s plans for Draco—that it had taken him months to unearth the truth behind what he had committed to. With great gladness, Severus would have reneged on the Vow and sacrificed his own life in place of the headmaster’s. But during his final moments, Albus had made his wishes perfectly clear, and Severus has always been the only one loyal enough, brave enough, caring enough, to follow the headmaster’s most delicate, difficult instructions—even the hardest one of all: killing him when it needed to be done.

Of course, Harry cannot comprehend this. He has never grasped complexities; nor has he ever bothered to believe Albus when he assured him that he trusted Severus. It became apparent that this time was no different the moment that Severus realised that the boy was chasing him off the school property—that he attacked him—that he called him a coward (as if a coward would have had courage enough to make the necessary sacrifice of the man who had been simultaneously his teacher, his friend, his saviour, his father!). Now, Harry was responsible for delivering the sallow-skinned wizard into the hands of the worst trouble imaginable. The sole law-abiding witness to Albus’ death, he’d told anyone who would listen that it had been Severus who’d killed the headmaster. Granted, the Ministry would have been able to trace the Killing Curse to Severus’ wand in time, anyway, but Harry had grossly misunderstood the complicated truth of the matter. He has turned Albus’ death into a cold-blooded murder and made Hogwarts—Severus’ home for so long and, thanks to the headmaster, the only place he had ever known friendship and safety—a dangerous place for him.

That isn’t all, either. There is Severus’ name announced on the Wizarding Wireless Network; his face on posters from Hogsmeade to London; and the headlines in the Daily Prophet: front page, top of the fold, in bold big letters. The matter is substantially more gray than the black and white of the print on the pages of the Daily Prophet would lead one to believe. And that is the crux of the matter: Who would believe the truth? Who would trust the word of a Death-Eater-turned-spy over that of The Boy Who Lived? Who would be able to fathom that the great Albus Dumbledore would award his friendship and his trust and his life to someone so seemingly unworthy? The only man who ever would believe—who ever has believed in Severus Snape—is lying in a tomb on the school lawn.

A sudden outburst from the crowd—gasps of surprise, of awe, of letting go—erupt over the grassy hill. Severus watches, startled, as the centaurs, also hidden in the shadows of the edge of the forest not far from him, rain down a salute of arrows over the headmaster’s pyre-turned-casket. Then, it is over. Struggling in vain to repress a sob, Severus looks down at his hands. His long, narrow fingers are nearly as white as Albus’ beard had been—as his tomb is—and they tremble uncontrollably no matter how he tries to steady them. With each tremor, Severus can see the headmaster. He recalls everything with these hands: from the blisters of Filch’s beating to the tenderness of Albus’ fingers as he dabbed at his wounds—from the warmth of the older wizard’s palms as he took his wand from him the night he meant to kill himself to the comfort of his touch on the anniversary of the Potters’ deaths—from the look of Albus’ withered flesh the night he made Severus promise he’d obey him to the afternoon Narcissa kissed Severus’ knuckles and extracted the Unbreakable Vow from him. The memories are etched into the lines of his palm and the print on his thumb, extending from his wrist to the tips of his fingers. It is into these hands that Albus Dumbledore had placed his trust, and it is with these hands that Severus Snape proved his ultimate loyalty.

~Fin~

A/N: There is discrepancy in canon regarding the timeframe in which Albus accepted the post of headmaster; for the sake of this story, I have opted to utilize the original PoA assertion that he assumed the position c. 1970. Also, thanks again to Ozma for her sharp beta-reading eye!

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