The Sugar Quill
Author: Azazello (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: An Unbreakable Promise  Chapter: An Unbreakable Promise
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AN UNBREAKABLE PROMISE

AN UNBREAKABLE PROMISE

 

BY

 

AZAZELLO

 

~*~

 

‘Well – I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much fer granted an’ maybe he – Snape – didn’ wan’ ter do it any more –‘

 

~*~

 

Both men were so intent on their conversation that neither realised they had been overheard.  The encroaching twilight and the gloom of the Forbidden Forest concealed Hagrid’s presence from Snape and Dumbledore, and they did not see him.  He took a quiet step back, and then waited for a chance to retreat undetected.  It was not possible to hear what they were saying, but Hagrid guessed from their location out of the castle, the whispered exchanges and the way they looked, that this was secret Order business.

 

Snape said, “It’s an insane idea, and I was insane ever to listen to you.  I’ve followed your lead for almost seventeen years; obedient to your wishes, regardless of what they meant for me, but this is the end.   You cannot seriously ask me to—“

 

“It may not come to it, as you well know, Severus.  But I very much doubt there is a way to escape the consequences of your Vow with Mrs Malfoy, should you fail to fulfil it—“

 

“I should never have made it, I realise that now, but at the time, I did not see how else I might convince that crazy sister of hers of my loyalty.  I knew what the Vow would mean for me; I should have seen a way of avoiding it—“

 

They stood facing each other, a scant few yards from the edge of the forest.  Hagrid noticed a curious tension in both their stances.

 

“No, Severus.  It was right to make the Vow.  Nothing less would have convinced Bellatrix.  Mad she may be, but she would have gone straight to her master with the full tale, had you refused or even delayed.  Your present standing with Voldemort would not long have survived her uttering any suspicions to him.  It was the right thing – the only thing – to do, and now you must do as I ask, also,” said Dumbledore.  He spoke quietly but with irrevocable finality.

 

“No!” Snape hissed through clenched teeth.

 

Yes. What we have planned, what we have worked for all these years – you must not jeopardise it now.  Not when—“

 

“I cannot.  Do not ask it of me—“

 

“Severus—“ This time, the old man raised his voice - just enough to display a certain force.  “I do not make anyone take an Unbreakable Vow.  But you made me a promise.  There can be no turning back from this, the very hardest part of the road we have travelled all these years.  When you told me of the Vow, and then I told you of my plan in case the need should arise, you agreed to it.  This might be the only way.  There must be no shirking of this test – the hardest you will ever face.  It is hard for me, too, but I am ready.”

 

Snape looked aghast at Dumbledore’s last words.  Then he shrugged and said with bitterness, “Why me, then?  I’m not the only Order member!  Ah, but wait – I’m the only one who is so tainted with suspicion that everyone will believe the worst of me.  Isn’t that the truth? Always me – I’m always the outcast, and always alone.  I’ve never been accepted, never, not even after everything I’ve already done.  That’s why you asked me, isn’t it?  You’d never ask this of those you care about, the ones you’ve always favoured, Lupin, for instance.”  He spat the last words out almost petulantly.

 

“Lupin could never do what I mean for you to do afterwards.  And besides, he has not made the Unbreakable Vow - unless you fulfil it, it will claim your life! There is no other.”  At last Dumbledore sounded angry. 

 

“There never is.  Always, always you ask so much of me, and I do it, for no reward.  I’ve never had anything I wanted!”

 

“I gave you the Defence job…I gave you that post against all my better judgement.  I believe the post is cursed, and yet you still want it.  You refused to heed any of my warnings.  So I appointed you.  If the signs are right, you will either be gone from Hogwarts—“ Dumbledore’s voice now clearly showed his annoyance.  “--Or dead, by the end of this year.”

 

“Well, if I should do as you ask, the curse will be self-fulfilling, in my case too – because it is certain I shall not be able to remain at Hogwarts, afterwards.”  He was silent again for a few moments.  Then he spoke with sudden acid.  “Do you enjoy your little game of chess, Albus?  Moving all of us around the board, this way and that?”

 

Dumbledore shuddered slightly.  “Is that how you see me, then, Severus?  For it is not true.  It is not true and never has been.  In chess, there is a hierarchy of pieces – there are those whose loss is a part of the player’s strategy.  That is not so in this struggle…  All those in the Order, and my other charges, the children at this school, are equally dear to me.  I would not lose one.  Not even Draco Malfoy.  And not you, either… Nor did I wish to lose Emmeline Vance.”  Dumbledore’s voice dropped almost to a whisper.  He sounded very old.

 

“I was not guilty of that, despite what the Dark Lord believes.  He believes I passed the information to Yaxley.  Because when Yaxley carried her in – he had stupefied her - before we got in to see the Dark Lord, I put the swine under Imperius, and he boasted to all present that I had informed him of her whereabouts.   Albus… I saw I could not save her, whatever I did, and all I would have ended up doing was giving away my own true loyalty.  She died proudly.  I can still see the expression in her eyes when she heard Yaxley say that I had told him her whereabouts… She looked at me with such contempt, but said nothing, nothing at all.  That was the worse part of it.  She died believing I betrayed her and the Order.  I could not do or say anything to show her otherwise.  I had to stand and sneer at her, like all the others.”  In an eerie echo of the way he must have looked then, his lip curled unconsciously in a hating sneer.  It was an unpleasant sight, even to Dumbledore.

 

“I know you could not have prevented it.  But I do not easily bear losing a comrade, and I do not think I could bear to see another child at Hogwarts lost, like poor young Diggory, or another life ruined, as so many already have been in the service of Voldemort.   This is not chess.  This is not a game, and if I could find another way, I would.  I have considered every possibility, but there is no other way than this! I must have you at Voldemort’s side, his trusted second, when…You know what I have foreseen, one day. If you are there, it may prove the turning of the tide.  And it may be that you shall finally have the revenge you have sought these sixteen years.”

 

Snape winced.  “Please do not speak of that.  Even you should not dare to speak of it to me.”

 

“I do dare.  It is the sole reason you have continued to serve me, and we both know it.  That alone, not loyalty to me, or to any cause.  And I believe it is the reason you will do as I ask, even in this extremity.”

 

Now Snape’s voice rose louder, and at last Hagrid, still carefully concealed nearby, could make out his words.  “You take everything for granted; you take far too much for granted.  You told me of your plan, and assumed without question that I would simply do as you wished, as usual.  It never once occurred to you, afterwards, that maybe I might change my mind and not wish to do it anymore.”  His voice was controlled, but did not entirely mask his agitation.  It showed in his taut stance and the set of his shoulders.  His head was slightly bowed, but he then raised it slightly and his eyes glittered.

 

“You agreed,” said Dumbledore firmly.  “And that must be an end to it – you agreed, and if it comes to it, then you must do as I asked.  Now, as to this matter of the necklace and the poisoned mead—“

 

“We both know perfectly well who—“

 

“Indeed we do.  However, we cannot make it public.  Severus, you must be seen to investigate in your own house – you know how to do it.  There is no way of knowing who is watching you, and you must also be seen to be negligent and careless in the investigation, to favour your Slytherins, as usual, if all our other plans are to work!” 

 

Intent on their argument, neither man was aware of the large figure of Hagrid seizing his opportunity and backing away silently, to vanish among the trees of the Forbidden Forest.

 

“Voldemort must never doubt your loyalty to him,” Dumbledore continued in a gentler tone.  Snape visibly flinched at the name; he could never get used to Dumbledore’s seemingly careless use of it.

 

Now, unmistakable emotion could be heard in Snape’s normally cold and detached voice, and there was even a touch of pleading in the way he spoke.  “You are asking me to do this; so that I can then slink to the feet of the creature I have despised for almost seventeen years, and remain there?  Do you know what it is you are asking?  Do you know all of it?”

 

“I trust you, Severus.”

 

“So does he.  That is not an answer to my question, either.”  Now his voice took on a sneering tone.  “Do you never wonder about my true loyalties?” he continued smoothly.

 

“No.”  Dumbledore spoke with great emphasis.  “I trust you.  I have trusted you since you came to me, and offered your service to the Order of the Phoenix, all those years ago.  And I have trusted you entirely and without reserve, since the night of October the thirty-first, almost seventeen years ago – and you know why I do, too.  If you should be where I wish you to be, and when I wish you to be, I believe you will do what you know to be right, and at last your chains of guilt shall be broken, together with those chains of obligation to me that you bear voluntarily.  I need to make no Unbreakable Vow to promise you the atonement you have sought for so long will be yours.”

 

There was a silence.

 

“You shall be free, Severus.  And at last, you might be healed.”

 

Snape’s eyes flashed strangely in the gathering dusk.  Then he said despairingly: “Free?  I’ve never been free!  Always, always either enslavement to him, or some other bond of duty.” He gave a short and bitter laugh.  “And healed, you say?  In the circumstances, that is impossible.  The only one who could have worked any healing for me is long gone.  Stolen from me, twice.”

 

“She was never truly yours, Severus, despite your attempt to make it so.”

 

“You dare to speak of it?” he snarled.  “You once promised me that you would never remind me.  Do you think I do not daily repent brewing that potion?”  He broke off speaking and bowed his head, once again.  After a pause and a silence that seemed uncomfortably long, he raised it again.  “Or the prophecy…”

 

“Be still, Severus. You never used the Amortentia potion, I know.  And you know how worthless it would have been in giving you what you truly wanted – which was for her to return your regard, freely and without compulsion.   As to the prophecy, we both know that as soon as you realised its full import, you came to me…But she is dead.  Her son, however--”

 

“Oh, why don’t you tell that bloody boy all about it?  I imagine you are longing to!”  Snape started to turn away, as if to return to the castle, but Dumbledore reached out a hand ready to detain him.  On seeing this move, Snape swung back to face Dumbledore, beginning rage contorting his face.

 

Dumbledore now spoke slowly as if to reassure a recalcitrant child.  “He will never hear any of it from me, Severus.  And you know it.  I’ve never breathed a whisper about you and his mother to anyone else, and never shall.  To my knowledge, no one else knows about any of it.  What end would my telling that story possibly serve?  Let us leave that subject; it was not to discuss the past that I asked you to meet with me.  Once again, I repeat my request and ask whether you will do this thing for me, should the need arise?” 

 

Snape drew in a deep breath and seemed to calm himself.  Then he spoke again:  “Always chained – life debts, Unbreakable Vows, and what is this now?  An unbreakable promise?”

 

Dumbledore sighed. “Very well, then, you do not have to do it.  I give you a choice, as always.  But if the time comes, when the time comes, remember what I have asked of you.”

 

“And then what?  Then I’ll be alone, isolated – once again.  Cut off from everything!  Hated; worse than outcast.”

 

“No.  You will not.  You must trust me – as I trust you, for I shall see that you are not entirely alone.  A sign shall be sent to you in your hour of need.  That is my promise to you.”

 

Dumbledore stretched out his good hand, and gently grasped Snape’s shoulder.  “Do your best, Severus.  Please.”  He looked incredibly old and tired.  He closed his eyes for a moment, and then he withdrew his hand, turned away and, as if to completely belie his momentary look of aged exhaustion, walked away at a brisk pace towards the castle.  Any casual observer might have judged that he was merely taking a late constitutional before retiring for the night.

 

Snape did not make to follow him, but instead stood motionless, head bowed.  He knew what was being asked of him, to do the worst thing of all.  And he was terrified for the first time in all of this.  He could not do it; he would not do it…

 

~*~

 

If Snape had been a praying man, he would have spent many of the ensuing nights on his knees, asking that the cup be taken away from his lips.

 

But he was not. He had not prayed since forced to by his dour Muggle father, in the chapel during his Yorkshire childhood.

 

“Get down on your knees before the Lord God and beseech him to take this evil away from you!”

 

And he had so prayed, but his magical power had not gone and his father had still hated him, and so he’d decided not to bother with prayer again.

 

Instead, he hoped, though he had turned away from hope, long years earlier.  Hope was a fickle mistress and she’d never had much time for him.  Nor had he for her, for that matter. 

 

~*~

 

…at that precise moment, the door to the ramparts burst open once more and there stood Snape, his wand clutched in his hand as his black eyes swept the scene, from Dumbledore slumped against the wall, to the four Death Eaters, including the enraged werewolf, and Malfoy.

 

~*~

 

He knew this was the moment Dumbledore had foretold.  The vow, the boy - Malfoy, the promise… This was the time, this was the turning point.

 

In the single moment after his arrival at the top of the Tower, he understood the exact import of the scene before him.  Firstly, that Draco could not and never would kill Dumbledore, and his life would be therefore be forfeit, unless Snape acted.  He also knew that the Unbreakable Vow he had made with Narcissa would claim his own life, if he did not now carry out the task, to which the Dark Lord had appointed Draco.

 

He knew very well who else would be present, too, concealed under that Invisibility Cloak.  It had been a very particular detail of Dumbledore’s design that Potter witnessed it.

 

Harry must believe that you are all Voldemort’s creature.  He must never suspect for a moment that you are otherwise.

 

But he also saw the most significant thing of all, which was that Dumbledore was already dying, and indeed far beyond any aid.  He saw clearly, that he would be dead in minutes, and if he were to just die, there and then, they’d all suffer the wrath of the Dark Lord, because Voldemort did not want Dumbledore to just die.  He wanted him killed and killed at Hogwarts, too, in order to serve as a symbol of his power and the reach of his force, his inexorable rise, and soon to be decisive victory. 

 

Which meant there was nothing else for it – it all came down to what he decided.

 

There is always a choice.  Always.

 

Very well.  This is my choice: I refuse.  I shall not do this.  Let me be killed, instead.

 

“Severus…”  He heard Dumbledore’s voice, speaking softly.

 

And he saw and felt the private imperative in that appeal, which no one else would be able to hear – to his fellow Death Eaters it would sound like a sad and beaten old man pleading for his life.  Except that it was not pleading.  His heart was beating so hard, surely the others could hear it?

 

Not even the certain knowledge that what he was about to do was merely advancing the inevitable by about three minutes at most, could keep his suddenly welling anger at bay.  In that watershed moment, he actually did hate Dumbledore.  He also hated Draco Malfoy together with his stupid and greedy mother and father, who had led them all to this horror, but above all, he hated himself.

 

Most of all he hated himself.

 

The only man who had ever totally trusted him, the man who had given him a second chance, when others would have seen him in Azkaban for life, the man who had been the father Tobias Snape had never been, and he was supposed to kill him? 

 

No, no…

 

His face contorted into a sneer and a rising tide of self-loathing twisted his features into a mask of revulsion, which seemed to fit his face all too well.  He should be the one killed! He was the one who needed to be put out of his misery.  How he despised himself!  That it should come to this!

 

“Severus…please…”

 

There was iron deep inside him, which had been tempered in so many harsh trials, and he reached for it to sustain him now.

 

Then I grant your wish.  I hope it is worth it.

 

He raised his wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore.  He reached for all his hate – that deep well of so many hates, which had been much of his life’s story - to power the death curse.   At that moment, he was the very personification of hate - hate made flesh.   I hate you, old man, but never as much as I hate myself.  His eyes narrowed and he gritted his teeth – at that moment, he looked almost animal.

 

Avada Kedavra!”

 

~*~

 

Of the madness that followed, when he and his fellow Death Eaters fled the castle, pursued by that foolish boy, Potter (who was supposed to stay alive after this, in order to be Dumbledore’s sword and arm for that undetermined future day - not to get killed), he remembered little, except his final hellish confrontation with the boy, whom he suspected was, one way or another, destined to be his own nemesis, and not merely Voldemort’s. 

 

His hate for Potter was not feigned, nor was it something created for this night.  That had never been an act - not with the boy wearing the face of his worst enemy – James Potter - that man and boy he had spent nearly a lifetime loathing; the boy who had so taunted him, and the man who had robbed him of the prize that should rightly have been his. James Potter, who had once deigned to save his life, with such careless and negligent arrogance.  Yet withal, despite hatred so poisonous it threatened to consume him, he still had to ensure that this maddening young fool, Potter’s son, did not get himself in the way of a Death Eater curse.  And not allow anyone to realise that he was still protecting the little bastard.

 

The boy might have been the son of his bitterest enemy, but he’d had two parents, after all.

 

Ah, but he still could not resist stopping to taunt him, which was a mistake and he knew it.  He should have just run and gone.  But when the boy tried to use that spell, his spell, his own weapon, his Sectumsempra, his special hex-for-enemies – the one he’d devised against all his tormentors, but Potter and Black most of all – something finally snapped inside him.

 

The last of his sanity, perhaps.

 

He was no longer Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher of Hogwarts, Head of Slytherin House, grown man, Order member, even feared Death Eater and favourite of the Dark Lord.  In a hideous slippage of time, he was back in his schooldays, he was Sniv- no, he was the Half-Blood Prince – the name he’d taken for himself, his own mother’s affectionate styling and the shield and talisman he had always used to blot out that hated and vicious punning nickname, with which they’d branded him.  The Half-Blood Prince, the name he would always silently breathe to himself whenever he hurt, when they name-called him, the sad title that gave him the strength to endure the rest – a title that always seemed to carry with it the promise of some future greatness.

 

Now, he was a boy of seventeen, who vowed his revenge for the vicious practical joke that almost killed him…

 

Now a humiliated boy of sixteen, enduring snickering laughter as he was exposed by his tormentors…

 

He was an eleven-year-old boy who could not fly a broomstick in a school for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and who howled in terror when he fell off.  Now he could hear the laughter of his classmates, especially the father of this brat in front of him, who called him – Snivellus - for the first time, to the raucous laughter of his friends.

 

I am the Half-Blood Prince…I am…I am…

 

He could have killed Harry Potter as he lay there – it would have been so easy.

 

“You dare use my own spells against me, Potter? It was I who invented them – I, the Half-Blood Prince! And you’d turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father, would you?  I don’t think so…no!”

 

Then the brat twisted the knife, with the same easy expertise as his bloody father.

 

“Kill me, then,” panted Potter in a voice of sneering contempt.  “Kill me like you killed him, you coward-“

 

And Snape’s rage, shame and fury all swept up, like a floodtide, and the enormity of the night’s horror and the guilt he felt – despite it having been planned - hit him in a wave. 

 

“DON’T CALL ME A COWARD!” he actually screamed, the sound torn out of his guts, as if he were under Cruciatus.  Everything that had happened rolled over him, the killing; the dreadful bind to which his life had brought him.  And it was all the fault of this young fool in front of him.

 

Protect the little swine?  No longer! He just wanted to destroy him, he wanted to see the son of the person he had hated most in his life of many hates, ripped apart, cringing before him and howling for mercy.  He was not Harry Potter anymore.  He was James Potter, he was Sirius Black…

 

He was every hate and resentment Snape had ever harboured made incarnate.  He’d kill him, but he’d hurt him first.  He’d make him scream!  He slashed at the air and white fire erupted from his wand-

 

No, Severus! No!  Dumbledore’s voice spoke clearly inside his head, as if he had been present.

 

The air was suddenly filled with the beating of powerful wings and he looked up in some terror.  When he realised what was about to attack him, he finally turned and ran for his life.

 

Like a bloody coward…

 

~*~

 

Hours later, in the room given to him in the old Riddle House (tomorrow he’d be found better quarters, but he would stay here just for the night.  The Dark Lord had forbidden him to return to his home, though those were safety instructions he had actually needed from no one), he sat stiff and motionless on the old iron bedstead.  He would not sleep that night.  He was alone in this derelict house, finally in a solitude for which he was profoundly thankful.

 

While he gave his dark master a terse account of what had taken place this night, he was somehow able to maintain the mask of calm he would now perpetually need in order to be the triumphant bearer of such a wanted gift to his Lord.  Now, alone at last, he was able to set down the Occlumency shield in his mind, and at leisure to recall the events of the past few hours.

 

He could not bear to relive the killing – not that.  What he saw, played in his mind again and again, was instead the confrontation with Potter, then that screaming loss of control, and the murderous impulse he’d felt to kill the brat, there and then.

 

He had never been so alone in his life.  There was now no one who could understand, to whom he could speak, and for once, in this life of so many terrible secrets, it was an unbearable lack.

 

Coward…coward…coward…

 

That was the worst thing of all.  He could take other accusations, but not that – never that, and he did not know what it would take to make that word stop echoing in his head in that hated voice. 

 

He knew what he had done this night had been, in some way, the bravest act of his entire life, and he could never tell anyone.  In all probability, the truth behind tonight’s terrible events would never be known.

 

There were no curtains at the window.  The early dawn light illuminated him through the window, throwing into sharp relief the harsh lines on his face, which were deeper than before - etched by the night’s work.  A scratch on his cheek from the claw of the Hippogriff was still oozing slow blood. The window was open, and a slight breeze had begun to cool him.  And he heard the sound of powerful wings for the second time that night. 

 

At first he cringed away, thinking that monstrous thing had somehow followed him, at Potter’s behest perhaps, to finish the job, but as his eyes focused, he realised his visitor was a very different creature.

 

Fawkes the Phoenix flew towards the window, and perched almost delicately on the outer window sill.  He held something in his beak and whatever it was, gleamed in the moonlight.  The magical bird inclined his head slightly, and made it clear, by that simple gesture, that he wished Snape to approach.  First, though, Fawkes gently dropped what he was holding onto the sill.  It was a plain and unengraved silver locket.

 

Snape approached the fabled Phoenix with some trepidation, and then slowly outstretched his hand and gently stroked the magnificent feathers.  He felt a soft wetness on his hand, and as the magical Phoenix tears soaked into his skin, his utter despair began to abate, and he found new strength that squared his shoulders, and made him hold his head up higher. 

 

I am the Half-… No, I am Severus Snape - nothing more, but certainly nothing less.  He no longer needed the false comfort of the other name, it was a childish styling.  And perhaps, at last, it was time to put away childish things.

 

Then Fawkes raised his head, opened his beak, and began to sing. 

 

Snape had never heard Phoenix song before, and stood transfixed by the haunting sadness and beauty of the lament.  It seemed to wordlessly utter all his own tormented feelings of grief, shame, guilt and horror, and miraculously, to place them into a design of meaning and destiny.  There was absolution in that pattern, too. 

 

He had no way of knowing how long he stood listening to the Phoenix singing its master’s Keen, but he believed that this gift had come directly from Dumbledore, and that changed everything.  It meant he was no longer alone.  Not really. 

 

You must trust me – as I trust you, for I shall see that you are not entirely alone.  A sign shall be sent to you in your hour of need.  That is my promise to you.  Now he understood that Dumbledore would never break a promise and that he should trust to all the other things the old man had told him.

 

Then the bird ceased singing, and with a flap of his wings, he flew away.  Snape looked down at the sill where the locket still lay.  He had forgotten it as he listened to the song.

 

He picked it up, and opened it, wondering if there would be a message, perhaps a note or some instructions as to what he must now do, or some other token.  There was none.  There were only two miniature pictures therein, and though they were not magical portraits, which would move or talk to him, he was heartened by the sight of their painted faces.  Both were familiar to him.

 

One was Albus Dumbledore – the miniature picture-Albus bore his old trademark twinkling smile. The other was of a beautiful woman.  She’d been dead these sixteen years, but for him, there would never be any forgetting that fiery red hair and those emerald green eyes.   She, too, was smiling. 

 

He thought he knew what this gift betokened.  It meant that he might be forgiven, one day.  He could perhaps be free, after all.  Even healing might be a possibility. Dumbledore had said it might be so.  He silently thanked Albus, wherever he had gone, for the gift of the Phoenix and of the locket.

 

He promised, to no one, and to everyone, and above all, to himself, that he would be there when he was needed, and on that day, he would do what he needed to do. 

 

This was a promise he would not break – an unbreakable promise.  Freely given.

 

~*~

 

THE END

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