The Sugar Quill
Author: Sweeney Agonistes (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: One Wise Woman  Chapter: Chapter Two
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Part Two

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

-from "We Three Kings of Orient Are", John H. Hopkins, Jr.

 

I did not think; I simply acted. If I had stopped to think, I likely would have reconsidered my actions - think of it, a young man being stripped by an old woman twice his age! - but I did not. Severus was injured, perhaps gravely, and I was the only person in a position to help him. There was certainly no time for modesty. Thus, I unbuttoned his shirt, peeled it carefully away where the blood had coagulated and affixed the fabric to his skin - Severus twitched - and placed it neatly on the floor beside me. Performing a quick Cauterizing Charm on him, I started a fire with my wand, warmed some water and added soap, sat down on a stool, and began to sponge the blood off of his chest.

Severus reminded me a great deal of my nephew. Meleagrant was moody and dark, like Severus. However, Meleagrant had a lighter side - he was rather like young Percy Weasley in that aspect. He was stiff, but somewhat capable of relaxing and having a good time like young people should do. Meleagrant had a wicked sense of dry humor and a penchant for card games, and he was an excellent Quidditch player. In general, he was what I thought that Severus could be like if he was only given the chance.

I remembered Severus as a first-year: quiet, bright, and hard-working. He wasn't dark then - no, Severus enjoyed life, he had friends, he was all right. And then he got older. I saw how he looked at Lily Evans - I'd had my share of unrequited love and I could certainly recognize the signs. I saw how James Potter and Sirius Black - lighthearted though they were - tortured him. And then, when given the opportunity to strike back, he did. That polite young man with the world ahead of him became a Death Eater.

I looked on my students as my children. A parent should not outlive her children, as I had outlasted Potter and Evans. A parent should not stand idly by while her children are miserable, either, as I believed - no, knew - that Severus was. Meleagrant, for all his dark moods and stiff nature, was never like this. Meleagrant had been raised and shaped in much the same environs as Severus, Slytherin and all. Something had caused Severus to go in another direction, and that something might likely explain what Severus was doing drunk in Hogsmeade on Christmas Eve.

I rinsed the sponge out in the basin and went to the bathroom. I poured the red-tinged water down the sink, opened the cabinet, and pulled out two flasks. One contained a hangover treatment, and the other contained a common analgesic potion. I kept the hangover treatment there for Meleagrant - he was of age, and he did not have a very good head for alcohol. Closing the cabinet, I took the flasks back into the living room, stopping by the small kitchenette on my way to get a cup. I set my load down on the floor, retrieved his cloak, spread it over him, pulled out my wand, and said clearly, "Ennervate."

His hooded, guarded eyes blinked open, and with a gasp, he sat up. The cloak fell away from his chest, and he clasped it to him like a child with a stuffed animal. He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then his face was contorted into a mixture of fear and fury.

I reached down for the flask containing the hangover medication, poured some into a cup, and handed it to him. "Drink this. It's for your hangover."

Severus scowled, one hand reaching up to massage his temple. "I want some answers first."

"I give you nothing until you drink this," I said firmly.

He snatched the cup from me and bolted down its contents, making a horrible face. "This is served best - if that's possible - when warm. I would think that even a Transfiguration teacher would know that."

My voice was icy. "And I should think that even a Potions teacher would know better than to roam the streets of Hogsmeade during a blizzard, 'drunk as a Muggle', as Madam Rosmerta put it."

He had the decency to look abashed, but only briefly. "Answers."

"Give me a question," I said.

"Where is this?"

"This is my flat in Hogsmeade."

He seemed incredulous. "You keep a flat in Hogsmeade?"

I said curtly, "Yes, I do." A change of subject was in order. "Do you feel pain anywhere?"

"My chest hurts - " His voice cut off abruptly, and he dropped the cloak in order to examine his torso, where the Cauterizing Charm had repaired the dreadful gash in his chest. He traced a finger down the still-inflamed skin where a scar would soon form. He paled, but said nothing.

I took the cup and filled it with the analgesic. "Drink this." He did. "Better?"

"Somewhat." He eyed me as a cornered fox did its pursuers. "You found me?"

"Oh, yes. To be precise, I stepped on you. You were passed out in the snow. I imagine the blood loss, combined with the cold and the empty bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhisky you had in your hand, was enough to make you pass out. I moved you here, cleaned you up some, and here you are." I couldn't keep a hint of sarcasm out of my voice, although I tried.

He stared down at his hands, speaking quietly and without a trace of acid in his voice. "I suppose that I am in your debt."

"And you owe me some explanations," I said. "Especially if I'm not going to go to Albus about this." That last phrase surprised me as much as it did Severus - I was infamous for enforcing rules and propriety for a reason.

Severus stared at a spot behind my head - I was well aware it was at the picture of Medea, her husband Finn, my brother Maimonides, his wife Demetria, and Meleagrant. He said quietly, "I ran into an old colleague. We argued."

"I'm correct in assuming that this old colleague is a…" I didn't want to say it. However, he said it for me.

"A Death Eater?" He smiled wryly, deprecatingly, looking straight into my eyes. "Oh, yes. He was a Death Eater."

I decided not to comment on his pointed use of the past tense. "And then?"

"And then I made it to the Three Broomsticks, where the bartender was kind enough to give me that bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhisky. I sat for a while, rather dazed, and drank the contents. Madam Rosmerta entered the main room, saw me, and insisted on booting me out. I remember wandering up the street for a while, and then everything blanks out." His gaze returned to the picture. "And that is what happened."

After a moment, I said calmly, "It's not good enough, Severus."

His dark eyes bored into me, blazing with the added light of the fire. It was a task not to shrink from that look, but I kept eye contact. "Not good enough?"

"Not good enough. You had words with your - your former colleague." I noticed him wince slightly; he had recognized the unintended double entendre. "I want to know what those words were."

Severus stared at me. "You - you can't know. You can't."

"Severus, as young Lavender Brown would put it, I have 'dirt' on you. Don't make me use it." And he knew I would. That was the useful thing.

He shook his head. I tried another tactic. By this time, I was curious. "Severus, I know that Albus is your mentor, your confessor. But he is not here. By the time we'd get back to Hogwarts, he'll be up at the Ministry, dining with Fudge. You can't tell him what's gone on today. And Severus, don't forget that I've been teaching a good deal longer than you have. I know when a student of mine needs to talk about something. Just - just try." I did not smile, for I knew he would see that as unnecessary sentimentality.

Severus did not speak for a long while. Then he said, "I felt the Dark Mark this morning, Professor. It burned worse than it has in a long time. So much that I left the school - I knew one or another of the Death Eaters would be coming for me, and I did not want to put the school at risk. It never burned that horribly unless there was something urgent…" He swallowed heavily. "I came here, and indeed, someone came. I met him in an alley. We fought. I - I killed him." I tried to keep my face impassive, but I didn't succeed. "Professor, I didn't want to kill him. It was self-defense." He looked at me pleadingly from behind that iron wall of self-reliance, seemingly asking me - me! - for clemency.

It broke my heart. The old first-year was still there. Was this what Albus saw when he looked at Severus? The scared young man who had made bad choices and regretted it? The young man resigned to his fate, whatever it was, figuring that whatever happened to him was a product of his past sins?

In that instant, I realized two things about Severus. The first was why Albus trusted him with running interference between the Order and the Death Eaters. Underneath that well-crafted, impenetrable façade he had erected, there was that polite, brilliant young man - a young man who was integrally good and integrally trustworthy. The second thing that I realized was how much work Albus had put into Severus. All the years Severus had been teaching at Hogwarts - and likely a few years before that - Albus had been a combination of a therapist and a Muggle clergyman for him. After Severus had left the Death Eaters, he'd needed someone. His own parents were dead. He had no siblings. Due to the nature of his relationship with James Potter and Sirius Black, he came in contact with his headmaster a good deal. Albus would have cultivated a relationship with young Severus, encouraged him, told him that he was worth something, despite anything that his Slytherin brethren and my own Gryffindors would have him believe. Severus remembered that, and turned to Albus when he was in danger. I remembered him coming to Hogwarts as sort of an apprentice the summer before He Who Must Not Be Named's initial defeat. Albus had told me that he needed a place to stay for a while, and he would take over Professor Buckminster's Potions job at the beginning of the year. But couldn't he have just as easily been on the run from the Death Eaters?

Albus had always kept a spot in his world for Severus - a spot that Severus needed. I had not. Was this, then, an opportunity for me to give him the support that I should have given him years ago when he turned away from his solid upbringing, when he joined the Death Eaters, and when Lily Evans died? I could not shake the idea.

"Severus…Severus, I - " Even if I knew what I was going to say, I couldn't have said it at that moment. Instead, I simply reached out for his hand and squeezed it firmly, trying to compose my thoughts.

And to my surprise, Severus squeezed back, closing his eyes, shadows dancing malevolently over his face. "Professor, I knew they'd come back eventually. I was alone and unprotected, Professor Dumbledore was going up to London, it was Christmas Eve. I didn't have anything to live for. I had just killed a man. Nobody…nobody would have missed me. So I went into the Three Broomsticks, convinced the bartender to give me that bottle of Ogden's, and went outside. The wind had picked up. I walked down the street, drinking as I went, hoping it would - hoping it would dull some of the pain." If what I thought was coming next truly was coming, I didn't want to hear it. "And - I took out the knife I use in class and - "

I couldn't let him say it. "I know, Severus."

"No - let me say it…I must…" He kept his eyes shut, speaking quickly. "I stabbed myself with it. And then I made it about thirty feet before I fell. It felt good to fall in the snow…a soft pillow…a good place to die. I remember thinking that I was making a grand Christmas surprise for whoever found me, and then after that, I don't remember anything."

What could I say to that? I couldn't condemn him. It wasn't as though I hadn't felt the same way at least once in my life. It wasn't as though I hadn't tried to achieve the same ends, either. I didn't know if saying anything would help, but I would try.

//
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