For all Joy wants Eternity
Chapter Twenty One
Never before had he been so aware of the cold clarity inside him. Of the consequent complete emotional indifference on the one hand and crackling fear on the other that occupied his entire being as soon as he had to slip on the mental mask of a Death Eater, along with the wooden one. It was as if liquid glass was poured into him with each of the Dark Lord's calls, a disgustingly glutinous mass, hardening amazingly fast until he was completely filled with cold, transparent, spotless crystal, crystal that would never again liberate what it once had frozen and swallowed.
It had taken Severus a long time to find the places inside himself secure enough not to be reached by the pitiless cold he needed to let take hold of him in order to give a credible performance to his former Master and 'colleagues' - or to face the sheer horror the very thought of facing Voldemort again gave rise to in him. There weren't many parts of his soul unaffected by the consequences of his being a spy, and the few safe spots he had sought out were small and vulnerable. The Slytherin had been forced to be very selective about what he chose to store there in order to save it from being gradually, but irrevocably destroyed by the cruelty he had to allow to flood him and the infinite terror he was unable to fight at each of his returns to the Dark Lord. Not that there had been much to salvage. Being a man with hardly any social bonds at all, Severus had never had to deal with the impossible task of protecting too many important aspects of his existence from the inevitable influence his being a double agent had on his inner life. There were only a few memories he wanted to keep unstained from the touch of Voldemort's bloody claws, as well as a few emotions his former Master must never learn about, like the strong and profound connection the spy and Albus shared. But that was about it. Never had there been anything more.
Now, there were the past few hours that he and Remus had spent in his quarters, and all that had been said. Confessions, revelations, words of fear and care and emotions for each other. Realization. The unbelievable awareness of the Gryffindor's feelings for him, Severus Snape. His own confession to himself and the werewolf, the confession of genuinely returning those sentiments—though neither of them had explicitly used the word 'love', or even 'affection'. Still, there was nothing in the Slytherin's life he could think of that was more important, more precious, more necessary to protect. Never should Voldemort's morbid perversion that always took partial hold of him on each of his missions lay hands on that treasure, never should it be besmirched by the strangling fear and horror his encounters with the Dark Lord hurled Severus into. Never should it be touched by the cruelty that swelled up in the Slytherin every time he had to fake being the submissive servant of his former master.
So he had hidden the rarest, most beautiful gem that was the werewolf's feelings for him in the darkest corner of his soul, in a place where he knew it was safe, and where it shone with an intensity and brightness like nothing else that had ever resided there before. Severus had been cautious enough to let that jewel rest there without allowing his mind or his heart to touch it even once since he had left Hogwarts that afternoon, although doing so took all of the self-control he could master, and he could literally feel the powerful gleam of Remus's love lighting up the darkness of his consciousness.
Still, all the reassurance, strength and solace that lay in that brightness did not allow the Slytherin to overcome the profound pain and despair in the face of being forced to push away what he and the Gryffindor had just found out about their mutual feelings, at least for the time being. Severus craved to put that shining treasure at the center of his undivided attention where it belonged, wanted to explore it with all his heart and mind, wanted to learn all about it, to marvel at its uniqueness and perfect beauty. He yearned to take all the time he might need to understand and accept the impossible fact that someone thought him worthy enough to entrust him with a gift that stunning, that amazing, and still he was not able to. There was no time, no time at all, and only Merlin knew whether he ever would be granted the weeks, months or even years it would take him to fully understand what it could be like to be loved, and what kind of feeling it was to give those emotions back to someone in return.
No time, and not a fraction of his mind could he afford to set upon Remus. Not after what had happened last night. There was no way he would again allow himself to endanger someone innocent because of his own inability to focus on the fact that there were lives in his hands.
So when Severus had passed the icy glare of a silent Alastor Moody at the entrance to the tunnel under the Whomping Willow to the Shrieking Shack, the powerful Occlumens was in tight control of anything concerning the past two hours that could possibly have seeped back into his conscious thoughts and feelings. Every inch a Death Eater, he had Disapparated to St. Mungo's as he had been told to, with tension and grim determination the only emotions accompanying him. As well as fear. Brightly flaring fear.
Well hidden now in the small entrance to the backyard of the block of Muggle offices where he had broken out of space and time, the Slytherin had an excellent view on the red bricks and broken windows of his destination's distinctive façade, which was only a corner away from him on the other side of the road. Its magical disguise was still perfectly intact, which was a blessing for the innumerable shoppers that strolled up and down the street. On the other hand it also meant that there was no way to tell what exactly was going on inside the building without getting a great deal closer to it...cursing silently, the spy let his head fall against the wall at his back. He knew he was running out of time; it was already five, his orders were waiting for him here, and not complying precisely with Voldemort's instructions would undoubtedly raise the Dark Lord's suspicion, which *must* not happen. Not today of all days when there was so much at stake, when the Order needed him as a link to Voldemort's servants as it probably never had before. Still, notwithstanding his better judgment and all his whispering doubts, Severus hesitated, Lucius's warning echoing loud and clear in his head. Unable to tell why he trusted the other Slytherin as unreservedly as he did this time, the spy chose to follow his intuition and stay at the safe place he had arrived at—and he was proven right to have done so by a sudden rush of air hitting his face.
Severus snapped back to the reality of the narrow and semi-dark entrance just in time to avoid the frantically beating wings of a jet-black owl that desperately tried to find a place to settle down between the high, cold and blank walls. By purest reflex, the spy's arm shot forward, allowing the bird to finally land and stretch out its leg immediately. It didn't take the Slytherin's sharp wits to tell who the sender of that small piece of parchment was, and had Severus not already recognized the eagle owl as soon as he saw it flapping around him, the short letter's handwriting would have been enough.
'Be at the station in Hogsmeade at 5:10 p.m. sharp. You'll be expected and will receive further orders then.'
Judging from the hasty script, Lucius must have scribbled the two lines in great haste, having probably received the message's content himself only a few moments before he sent his owl. The spy dispelled the unnerving visions that were suddenly attacking his inner eye, visions of his former housemate being forced to write his letter as the bright flash of curses surrounded him in the midst of a battle, one that must be far more difficult and demanding than he or any other Death Eaters had expected, now that St. Mungo's had been prepared for the Dark Lord's strike thanks to Severus's warning. Not sure where this sudden sympathy for Malfoy had come from, and more than a little angry at himself for feeling that way in the first place, Severus concentrated on the rage that had begun to boil inside him as well. Hogsmeade! What, for all of Salazar’s sweet serpents, was he supposed to do in *Hogsmeade*? The degrading game Voldemort was playing here, moving him arbitrarily, senselessly from place to place with no good reason at all except to put his submissive obedience to the test gnawed at the Slytherin's still intense pride - probably the only aspect of his being that was just as alive now as it had ever been. The spy knew of course, on a rational level, that he should be aware of the capricious whims of his former Master by now, that working for Voldemort *did* mean being humiliated over and over again, that there had been nothing else to expect with the Dark Lord obviously determined to find out about his, Severus's, true loyalties today of all days. Still the bright fury that erupted somewhere inside his chest when he read Lucius's message was flaring wildly enough to let the Slytherin almost miss the small voice in the back of his head. The voice that reminded him with whispering words of last night's attack. Of the more than ludicrous part in it the Dark Lord had assigned to him by making him play rearguard. Of the totally unbelievable explanation Voldemort had offered afterwards for his decision.
That he had wanted to keep him out of harm’s way.
Suddenly scraps of thought and dark premonitions began to run amok behind Severus's eyes. Realization hit him with a fierce punch to the pit of his stomach, leaving a quickly spreading feeling of horrible icy cold that soon flooded his entire body.
There was more to his having to Apparate to Hogsmeade than giving Voldemort the twisted pleasure of being able to watch him follow even the most pointless orders. The Dark Lord had not ordered him to the weak spot of the castle's anti-Apparation-barrier directly for a reason, for the same reason that he had tried to prevent him from actively taking part in one of the attacks last night. Still, even now, in the night that would probably decide the future of the wizarding community, his former Master was unwilling to let his property be damaged. Not by anyone other than himself, by his very own decision. He still wanted to keep him away from danger. Wanted him to be at Hogsmeade Station.
Which could only mean that Hogwarts itself was already under attack.
Only a split second later, the black eagle owl flew from the dark and narrow, but now totally deserted entrance between two office buildings.
The tiny platform of Hogsmeade Station was completely empty and had been for quite some time. The clock on the small building beside the track ticked the minutes away, and with each movement of its little hand the already strangling grip of impatience upon Severus grew even stronger, even more unbearable. Though it was now half past five, there had not been as much as a sign of another Death Eater, and the Slytherin, pressed against the side wall of the station's building, well hidden in the deepening shadows of late afternoon, felt a sweat of frustration and ever growing tension run down his masked face, his neck and his spine.
Which was when, suddenly, a trace of another sensation crept to the surface of his perception. Severus knew those first heralds of alarm well enough by now. Only the growing closeness of another body would make his insides clench up like that, would send those violent shivers down his entire frame and stir up the first waves of panic that began flooding his consciousness.
Someone was coming, getting closer every moment. Knowing that the decisive portion of this evening, of this war, for the Order, for himself, was drawing nearer as well, Severus prepared himself for what was waiting, steeled his mind and heart against the onslaughts he knew lay ahead during the coming hours. He sensed the powerful, reassuring walls of Occlumency building inside him, felt how self-assurance and determination grew stronger with every single one of his thoughts and feelings that retreated behind the shield of protection his magic erected, all the time aware of that someone who was still and steadily approaching him.
When he finally caught sight of a cloaked and hooded figure slowly walking around the corner of the building to his left, the Slytherin was completely prepared for another encounter with any of the Dark Lord's minions. Awaiting the Death Eater who was now slowly walking up to him, Severus straightened, letting will-power and pride well up inside him in strong surges, more aware of his task and his responsibility than he had ever been before. His entire body was singing to him of the opportunity to finally complete what he had chosen to expose himself to long ago. This was his chance. This was his night. If this should be the time to bring it all to an end, then so be it. For the last time, two short visions of Remus and Albus shot through his mind like dazzling beams of glorious light before the Slytherin banished from his consciousness for good anything that might be a threat to his disguise. Focused like never before, with a calmness he hadn't experienced in years, feeling sharp as a knife, the spy faced the smaller man who now came to a halt a few feet in front of him, curtly inclining his head in abrupt acknowledgement of the Slytherin's presence.
'I'm here as the Dark Lord's messenger. You're to follow my instructions as if you'd received them directly from our Master.' The masked chin beneath the hood lifted a little in an obvious attempt to make an impression, an attempt that failed pathetically. 'The Dark Lord is aware that you know where Hogwarts' defences can be broken, and he expects you to lead me there now without delay.'
Wormtail’s slightly whining and unpleasant voice still hanging on the early evening air completely failed to have its usual irritating effect on Severus. Instead, the feeling of being totally certain of his actions and a complete lack of doubts or hesitation only grew deeper, became stronger. Not showing as much as a slight gesture of attention towards the Gryffindor Death Eater, Severus turned on his heels and set off for the Shrieking Shack. This was exactly what he had expected to happen. How he had predicted things would be tonight. This time, he would not make any mistakes. He would not fail anyone. This was his night to not only, finally prove to everyone which side he belonged to, but also to regain at least a fraction of the self-respect he had lost to the Darkest Wizard, who had once been Tom Riddle. And he would not let this one chance pass. Never. No matter what the cost.
He was ready. He was prepared. At last.
Only a few minutes later Severus reached his destination and halted, waiting for Wormtail who had difficulty keeping up the pace that the spy had set as they climbed up the slope adjacent to Hogsmeade. With his breath coming in short, shallow and highly audible gasps, Pettigrew finally caught up with the Slytherin, all of his previous hauteur completely gone. Taking a step back from the other Death Eater, Severus allowed himself only the slightest satisfaction at the sight of the heavily panting Gryffindor who now leaned against the stony wall before him, using his silver hand for support. Had the awareness of the upcoming attack on Hogwarts not been gnawing at the Slytherin's mind, he probably would not have been able to resist the temptation to finally take revenge for all the times he had to serve as an unwilling object of Pettigrew's perverted gloating during their school days. He would have found ways to humiliate the other man a little more than was possible with only his disparaging gaze, which he knew that Wormtail was keenly aware of.
He didn't indulge his desire for revenge, though.
'Tell me, messenger of the Dark Lord,' The Slytherin could feel the tantalizing softness of his own voice tickling his tongue. 'since I've done as I've been told to and led you where I was supposed to, are there any further instructions from our Master for me to follow - just in case the strain of our mission should eventually force you to stay behind and deprive me of the grace of the Dark Lord's voice?'
The shaky sound of the Gryffindor's answer almost let the spy see the other Death Eater's trembling lips, and his words, frequently interrupted by desperate pants for air, were colored with a repulsive mixture of wounded vanity, defiance and arrogance. A last attempt to maintain the apparently superior position he believed he had enjoyed only minutes ago.
'Neither our Master...nor myself...will tolerate manners like that, Snape. Beware of...of the consequences...' Severus couldn't help but smirk behind his mask at Pettigrew’s ridiculous efforts to radiate menace. 'Besides, you...you are...permitted to...enter now.'
Something else had crept into Wormtail's voice, something that put the Slytherin's whole mind on the alert immediately. Something like vague regret. Like disappointment. Not quite sure yet what he was supposed to make of it, but listening to his subconscious telling him to take this as a warning, the spy steeled himself for what- or rather who- ever would be waiting for him inside the shabby hut. Closing his eyes for an instant before he reached for the doorknob, Severus already had a rather clear idea of the presence he was about to face.
With the first few steps that he took into the Shack, complete darkness welcomed him. It swallowed him whole as he heard the door fall shut behind him. Not that he needed any light to realize at once that he was not alone in the room. He could feel them, the tearing effects their nearness had on his mental shields. Not entirely sure how many of them were in front of him, he was definitely able to tell that Wormtail had entered the Shack as well and was now standing *far* too close, somewhere to his left. Severus stopped dead in his tracks as a precaution, not willing to reduce the slight distance between himself and his 'fellow' Death Eaters. He could not afford to risk invoking the ritual, sabotaging the iron grip he presently held upon his mind. Not when what he needed right now was for his defences to be intact and working optimally. Not when he wanted to pass the further loyalty test that Voldemort had apparently set up for him.
So he waited.
'I've had my doubts.'
Severus *had* expected this. Had been inwardly prepared for the sound of that voice, couldn't remember anymore how many times he had tried not to let himself get worked up by the Dark Lord's sudden appearance out of nowhere - only to find himself alight with terror over and over again. Just as he was now. Just as he always was. When he felt the gentle whisper of a billowing robe brushing his thighs without sensing the ritual answering at all, the Slytherin could tell that the source of the hated voice was much closer than could ever be good for him.
When he actually felt Voldemort's hot, dry breath tickle down the part of his throat not hidden behind his mask or cloak, each of Severus's muscles tensed in a desperate attempt not to let horror penetrate the walls he had put up around his mind.
'I've truly been wondering whether you were at all worthy of the trust I’ve put in you.'
The scarcely hidden threat in those words seeped under the spy's skin, seemed to slowly drip into his body where it left a gradually spreading, numbing cold. Desperately focusing on keeping the up-welling fear at bay in order to maintain his defences, Severus only noticed the Dark Lord's hands coming up to his face when the heavy hood had already been pushed to his shoulders.
'I've been wondering for a long time.'
The Slytherin had not expected to hear even the slightest whisper of a spell, still he couldn't keep from flinching when the magic holding his mask in place dissolved into the soundless darkness surrounding him and the piece of wood fell from his face and hit the floor, cutting through the tense silence with an awful clattering sound.
'So I decided that tonight, it's time for you to finally let me know.'
A touch, a fingernail, sharp as a knife, that came to rest on his cheekbone. That began to slowly glide down his face until it reached the point beneath Severus's right ear where jaw and neck met. That was now delicately drawn across his throat, from one side to the other, a physical threat, constantly intensifying the emotional pressure on the spy's mental shields.
'So tell me...' The tip of the taloned finger came to rest above Severus's jugular where Voldemort must have felt an erratically beating pulse slamming against his palm. With one thumb softly stroking down the side of the spy's neck in a jarring parody of a soothing gesture, the Dark Lord continued. '...has my doubting you been justified?'
Severus was familiar with situations like this. With keeping the Dark Lord's probing, pressing mind at the margins of his own consciousness, with denying him the access he craved without raising Voldemort's suspicion. With being able to perceive and process the Dark Lord's words, while searching all the time for hidden signs that could give away his former Master's true intentions and coming up with appropriate answers as well. It was a task difficult to cope with under the circumstances in which he usually faced Voldemort; now that Severus knew how close he was to utter disaster, that the Dark Lord's suspicion was aroused (which most likely equated to his death sentence), it seemed impossible not to break under the pressure of Voldemort's menacing presence and cold fury. During the few moments of ensuing silence, true terror began spinning a tight cocoon of strangling fear around Severus's body. Horror sank its fangs deep into his flesh with each moment that passed after the Dark Lord had voiced his last question, sent down stubborn roots, promised to strangle and crush every last trace of determination, self-confidence and willpower that had continued to brightly gleam inside the Slytherin only moments earlier. Growing panic threatened to conquer his brain, was about to effectively drain it of all coherent thought, and had he not been the man that he was, the awareness of his impending death might have led him to break down right then, right there.
But sometimes it definitely paid off to be able to turn into the coldhearted, unfeeling, unwavering bastard that only a very few people were aware that he actually was not.
He had undergone similar situations during his years of spying, situations that seemed almost as hopeless as this one did - but he was still here, right? He was still alive, wasn't he? Silently, desperately struggling against giving in to fear and terror, Severus chose the only path he knew might get him out of this and followed the lead of the Slytherin inside who flatly refused to be defeated. Even though he still tasted doubt and bitter panic, even though he was encircled by Death Eaters with the ritual relentlessly gnawing at his composure, even though he was under the attack of the Dark Lord's onslaughts on his mind, sensing the first hairline cracks in the walls of his Occlumency, he would not break. He would not surrender.
Failure was *not* an option.
So Severus dared lift his eyes to the pair of glowing red globes before him, very aware that avoiding the Dark Lord's gaze would not contribute to his credibility at all. And after one more second of helplessly facing his former master in silence, he finally regained control of his tongue.
'My Lord...' Speaking made his throat's muscles shift against Voldemort's touch, and Severus scarcely managed to suppress the powerful urge to swallow hard. 'My Lord, I'm greatly distressed to learn that I somehow must have incurred My Lord's displeasure...'
A short pattern of rhythmical knocks on the trap door to the tunnel interrupted him. The cold red gaze that burned like fire drilled into the Slytherin's eyes for a few more moments, holding the gloomy promise that the two of them were not yet done. Then Voldemort turned sharply on his heels and took a few steps away from the spy towards the falling board, muttering something in a very soft voice. Without the slightest sound, the tap door opened, revealing the masked head of a tall Death Eater who carried a brightly flaring torch in one hand.
A brief gesture of one of the Dark Lord's taloned hands beckoned the dark figure into the room, and Severus suddenly felt all of the unbearable weight that had been pressing against the protecting walls around his mind lift from his consciousness in a single moment. Drawing a deep, very deliberate breath, he watched how the Death Eater, apparently a messenger, zealously bowed down deeply before he began to urgently whisper to his dark master.
With Voldemort's back to him, Severus was unable to observe any of the Dark Lord's reactions to his servant's report, but then the hooded figure turned towards the other seven Death Eaters that the spy was only too aware were still in the room, and the unmasked, wild triumph of his former master's smile made the blood in the Slytherin's veins turn to ice.
'My Death Eaters.' The voice was dripping with cruel satisfaction. 'It is time. You know your orders.'
Totally oblivious, totally helpless, Severus had to watch how seven masked heads inclined obediently as one Death Eater after another, along with the torch-bearing messenger, left the Shack, the low rustling of cloaks and robes the only sound accompanying them on their way through the trap door. Into the tunnel. Towards the castle. Leaving the room in complete silence and darkness again.
The Dark Lord obviously did not intend to close the entrance to the Shrieking Shack yet. Instead, his voice rang out again in the dark and musty air.
Severus felt the other man uneasily shift beside him.
'Yes, my Lord?'
'I want you to take position outside the door, in the tunnel.'
Had he not been facing a hopeless situation, Severus would have been maliciously amused by the almost palpable note of indignant consternation he could sense building inside the Gryffindor upon that command.
'But my Lord, do you really want me to leave you alone with this…?'
The dangerous undertone and the lingering threat of Voldemort's voice cut through the whiny beginning of Wormtail’s sentence.
Unable to resist the pressing urge to put as much safe distance as possible between himself and the pathetic servant of his former master, Severus quickly took a few steps to the right. By no means was he willing to risk being weakened by the slightest physical contact with Wormtail of all people, who the Slytherin now felt swiftly walking away from him, towards where the open door must be, and only a moment later, Voldemort's low voice announced the soundless, magical closing and re-sealing of the entrance to the tunnel. Telling Severus in no uncertain terms that he was once more alone with the one man he hated and feared more than he ever had anyone else. The man whose disfavor usually meant death. The man whose favor he had most likely lost.
The ongoing dark silence gnawed at the Slytherin's nerves. No matter how desperately he put all of the focus he could spare on his auditory perception, his surroundings remained as quiet as a grave without the slightest sound allowing him to at least try to keep up with what was going on around him. He was blind, he felt deaf, and even sensing the torturing presence of another body would have been a relief right now; anything was better than the total lack of sensory input and his reeling brain's desperate search for *something* to process, to rely on, to orient by. The bitterly clear awareness that the Dark Lord *was* somewhere in the room with him didn't make things any better, and the feeling of utter helplessness that attacked him fueled the latent, lurking panic that raised its head inside him, each time the spy had to confront his former master. But this evening, it was not only Voldemort and everything he represented that Severus was facing. It was a Voldemort who suspected him of being the traitor he truly was. A Voldemort who most likely already had a detailed plan as to how he would kill him should he not be able to convince his former master that he was still on his side. A Voldemort who...
The force of the most powerful Legimens attack he had ever faced hit the walls around his mind with a blow like a hammer that made his entire head reverberate, a strike that hit him completely unprepared. Severus felt how the Dark Lord's evasive mind ensnared his own, how a vibrating tautness took continual hold of his defences, and he knew this time it would not wane before either Voldemort finally broken through his defences or he himself succeeded in satisfyingly portraying a loyal Death Eater one more time.
And when his former master's voice ripped through the silence again, the Slytherin truly realized for the first time this evening that tonight, he would most likely not be able to do so. That his chances to make it out of this room alive were as good as non-existent. That he would die in the Shrieking Shack after all, just as he already should have decades ago.
'Please believe how very sorry I am that our most interesting chat was interrupted earlier, my dear Severus.' A short silence, dense with unspoken suggestions. 'You already know that I had not expected you to be brave or stupid enough to lead Wormtail back here, but then I really should have been prepared for you to surprise me one last time, right, Severus?'
Struggling to keep his mind's defences up against the Dark Lord's fierce mental onslaught and unsure whether this last question was a rhetorical one, Severus was torn between not wasting energy on speech on the one hand and obediently answering Voldemort on the other, but the Dark Lord continued talking before the Slytherin could make a decision.
'There is, of course, one other option. One that, as improbable as it seems, I'll be generous enough to take into consideration for old times’ sake. And I'm sure you know what that option is, my *loyal* Death Eater?'
This time, the Dark Lord's demand to speak could not have been more explicit.
'My Lord...yes, my Lord.' His head ached with the attempt to get his brain back to at least a fraction of its usual sharp and quick-witted verbal abilities. 'And I don't know how to express my gratitude that you have not completely given me up for lost, my Lord.'
The low laugh that rang out from behind him on those words was much too close, and before Severus's overtaxed mind fully comprehended its necessary implications, two hands had already come down on his shoulders, gently massaging the tense muscles through the thick cloth of his cloak.
'Ah, but Severus, how could you possibly know what I have or have not done?' The ominous gentleness that never augured well crept back into Voldemort's voice. 'Be careful not to start from too bold an assumption.'
Severus's entire body literally shook beneath his former master's touch. The additional strain this physical contact added to the pressure of the mental attack his defences were already under was unbearable, and the Slytherin felt how he broke out in sweat as he summoned his last reserves of mental strength and endurance in order to keep up the protection that was his Occlumency - knowing perfectly well that whatever he came up with now, it might not be enough. Not in the face of the fierce determination, of the powerful force of Voldemort's attack which had not lessened for minutes now...
'But be that as it may, my sweet snow white, we will soon find out whether you're worthy of this last chance I'll offer you.' Taloned fingers buried themselves in the collar of Severus's cloak, drew the black cloth back over the spy's trembling shoulders, slipped the sleeves down his arms until the dark coat pooled at the Slytherin's feet on the floor.
When a lipless mouth lightly touched his right ear, Severus pressed his eyes tightly shut. Still hopelessly fighting. Still feeling how he grew weaker and weaker. Constantly.
'Are you listening to me at all, my dear Severus?'
The Dark Lord's voice had become even softer, now holding a mocking note of feigned concern. It was purest reflex that enabled the spy to answer, nothing but the routine and training of years that let him keep the turmoil inside his head out of the sound of his words.
'Yes, my Lord...yes, I'm listening.'
'Now, that is good to know, my lovely snow white, because I want you to listen very well and very carefully now.'
At the same time that Severus sensed his former master's tongue languidly stroking down the right side of his neck, the Dark Lord's irresistible demand to be let in slammed against the Slytherin's mind one more time with even more force than it had before, impossible as that might have seemed. With wild despair exploding somewhere in his stomach, Severus was forced to witness how the walls around his head were shivering more with each passing moment, felt the first of his banished emotions pressing to be let back into his head. Which would be the end.
One last time, Severus's entire being desperately rebelled against imminent defeat. The spy's hands clenched into tight fists and his parted lips trembled wildly. His body forgot about its need to breathe, so focused was the Slytherin on keeping the Dark Lord out of his head, knowing at the same time that should this merciless offensive go on for only one more minute he would break, and all would have been in vain. This must not happen, must not, must not...
And then, suddenly, it was over.
All of the wasted, useless air wrung itself from Severus's lungs on a long, unsteady breath as soon as he sensed the Dark Lord letting completely go of his consciousness, and when the Slytherin inhaled again, it seemed to him as if he could never draw enough oxygen back into his trembling body. He was still more keenly aware of Voldemort's hands slowly gliding down his arms and up again, but the wild relief that he had managed to maintain his mental shields outweighed his physical revulsion by far. Still it did not made him forget about the direct order he had received only a moment ago.
'Rest assured that I will listen carefully, my Lord.'
Severus didn't know what had made his former master stop those feral attacks on his mind and he had no idea whether they would resume again soon, but he desperately hoped that the Dark Lord was clueless as to how very, very close he had gotten to breaking through the spy's Occlumency. That he had only been a few seconds away from finally confirming his suspicions concerning the Slytherin's true loyalties...
Straightening up a little and slowly loosening his aching hands, Severus drove all of those thoughts from his mind and carefully began mending the cracks that the Dark Lord's powerful Legilimency had left running through his mental defences. All the time deeply concerned about actually listening very carefully to his former master who had begun speaking again, even though his voice sounded a little distant now, but was still clearly audible.
'To the left a portrait of two unicorns fighting...on the floor a Persian rug, rather old, fifteenth century I'd say, mainly in green and red...to the right a railing, now and then interrupted by gothic pillars...a suit of armour from the Crusades to the left, on the wall behind it two crossed long swords...ah, a most beautiful mosaic in black and silver on the floor now...'
A cold fist gripped Severus's insides as he took in Voldemort's words, a fist that began to slowly squeeze his heart in a merciless grip. Unbelieving bewilderment, edged with the first hints of a new quality of fear began to creep through the Slytherin's veins as recognition sang in his head, and when he felt one pointed index finger caressing a slightly winding line down his wildly pulsing carotid, he couldn't keep himself from drawing a sharp, quivering breath.
'Oh yes, I know, that sounds familiar. Doesn't it, my sweet snow white?' After one last playful caress over the Slytherin's throat, the spy felt Voldemort's finger finally retreat. 'What a most precious and useful instrument it is, Legilimency. Enabling you to bridge the gaps of space. To glance anywhere from here. Inside Hogwarts, for example.'
The Dark Lord's hands returned to Severus's shoulders, his fingers curling around both of the younger Slytherin's collar bones now, and only exerting the slightest amount of very gentle pressure, Voldemort pulled the slim figure before him towards him, until Severus could feel his former master's body pressing against his back. The hot, dry air that carried the Dark Lord's words brushed along the spy's left ear and cheek as Voldemort began speaking again, in the same, almost dreamy tones as before.
'Now that's a most lovely tapestry to the left again, showing the Round Table and the Grail...still that railing to the right...a nice colorful window of green and yellow glass...' Voldemort's voice changed from one moment to the next, was suddenly as hard and cold as ice as he went on. 'Tell me what it is I'm describing here, Severus!'
In a desperate but successful attempt, Severus fought down his fear, preparing himself to answer the Dark Lord's question without giving away any of the dark forebodings and hopelessness that seared his insides.
'This is...my Lord, this is the passage from the East to the West Wing of Hogwarts Castle, on the third floor.'
Three clawed fingers closed around the Slytherin's chin and slowly twisted Severus's head around until the spy hissed from the pain that radiated from his neck's muscles and sinews being stretched to their limits. Still he had to notice how Voldemort's horrible head bent forward until it fully entered Severus's visual field, close enough for the Slytherin to see the Dark Lord's features despite the complete darkness of the room.
'I had a feeling you would be able to recognize those particular surroundings, my dear Severus.' A portentous glow entered those blazing red eyes. 'It might be of interest to you that this passage is exactly the way our young Mr. Potter is taking right now in order to escape my Death Eaters, who are searching the entire school for him. But now,' Another pull at his chin made Severus's vision go partly black. 'now that there's you who are able to identify the boy's whereabouts, it should not be long before I finally face my young counterpart again.'
The spy's reply was not more than a hoarse croak.
'I'm very...glad that I can be...of service, my Lord.'
The cruel smile that lifted the corner of the Dark Lord's terrible mouth was the last thing Severus saw of his former master's face before Voldemort finally let go of the his chin again. It seemed to the Slytherin as if his head literally snapped back into place. From behind him, his former master's voice rang out once more, having gone back to the strange singsong-like tone.
'We will see, Severus. We will see.'
Taking a deep breath, the spy tried to clear his thoughts, his initial confusion concerning what this was all about being gradually replaced by the shock of understanding. Tiny voices of alarm whispered through his head, but Severus struggled to ignore what they were trying to tell him. He was still too busy recovering from what had happened earlier, still too vulnerable to further mental attacks from the Dark Lord to afford to pay attention to the possible explanations his subconscious offered regarding how Voldemort could know where Potter actually was.
And by no means was Severus ready to risk a single thought on who Potter was most likely with on his desperate flight through the school.
'Do pay attention, Severus.'
Had Voldemort's soft voice not dragged the Slytherin back to reality, the hands that pushed under his arms and made their way across his chest, pulling his body closer to the Dark Lord’s, certainly did.
Silence fell once more between them, in which the spy tried to ignore fingers that were still slowly, lightly roaming his torso, but to focus on the only thing that gave rise to at least a little hope: the fact that the walls around his mind were growing stronger with every minute that passed; and as long as he could keep Voldemort out of his head...
Once more, the hated voice cut through his musings.
'Now things are getting interesting...a room, a rather large room...the typical tables and chairs of a classroom...several windows at the left… a big candelabra in the ceiling, along with some kind of skeleton, how lovely indeed...a small balcony or circle with a staircase leading up to it...a large blackboard...lots of small portraits at the back of it...' Voldemort's hands glided down to the younger Slytherin's legs, where they wandered from the outer to the inner side of the spy's thighs. 'But I don't think I have to go on any further; you already know which room I'm talking about, don't you, Severus?'
Biting his tongue partly because of the most unwelcome caress between his legs, partly because of no longer being able to refuse to realize what the Dark Lord was playing at, Severus did not manage to answer at once. He was not able to fight the image of Potter that irresistibly slipped into his mind, Potter sitting somewhere in Hogwarts, probably not even noticing Voldemort breaking into his mind and using his eyes and sight, over and over again. The thought that Potter was unable to ward off those intrusions, even if he realized that he was being used as a medium, made the spy feel sick.
'What happened to you eloquence, my dear Severus?'
There was enough of a warning in the Dark Lord's voice to shake the spy back to his own hopeless situation immediately. He was still not quite ready to speak, though, and realized with more than a little shock how much of the chaos reeling behind his brow showed in the rattling sound of his voice
'I think, my Lord, that I do know.'
A soft chuckle from behind him.
'Then I hope you won't mind sharing your knowledge, my lovely snow white. Be so kind as to enlighten me.'
But Severus had found out only a split-second before that he couldn't.
He had more than a vague idea regarding the degree of trouble he would get into should he refuse to give Voldemort the information the Dark Lord had demanded of him. He knew that all he had achieved this night, the entire desperate fight for control of his mind, the hard-won, slight chance his former master had granted him to prove his loyalty, all of this would have been in vain, he would sacrifice all of it if he did not tell Voldemort what he knew, would sacrifice his life. This was his chance to return to grace, and he shouldn't think twice but seize it, grab it with both hands, not for his own but for the Order's...
Severus had not been prepared for the conflict with which he was suddenly confronted. Did not expect the scruples he had tried to talk Remus out of only a few hours earlier to take hold of him as well. The self-loathing he felt at the thought of giving Harry away took the Slytherin completely by surprise, and the knowledge that Remus was most likely with the boy and thus would have to deal with the consequences of Severus's betrayal, too, seemed to make his choice very easy. He would not be the one responsible for Remus's being captured, wounded or killed. He would also not be the reason for Potter falling in Voldemort's hands and all that would consequently come to pass.
A hot, dry stream of air was breathed into his left ear.
'I'm waiting, Severus.'
The spy's eyes drifted shut.
'My Lord, give me one more moment, just to be sure. I'd be inconsolable should I give you the wrong information.'
Long fingers combed through the spy’s black hair.
'Me too, my dear Severus, me too...'
...but still another voice, small and whispering compared to the powerful roar of this sudden, self-righteous nobility that had somehow taken hold of him, had not yet fallen silent. Continued appealing to that usually undefeatable rationality of his. Reminded him of choices and decisions once made, of risks he had always been aware of, of luxuries the nature of his existence did not allow. Showed him clearly what his scruples would lead to. Told him that even if he refused to comply with the Dark Lord's wishes now, he would not be able to prevent any of the events that would come after. Instead, he'd deprive the Order of the only trump card it still had, only to die with a clear conscience at the Dark Lord's hands.
And the longer he listened to that voice, which grew louder with each word, Severus realized that every syllable was true.
The Dark Lord did not need him to correctly interpret the visual perceptions he received from Potter. They were not only dealing with a most powerful Legimens here, but with the Heir of Slytherin as well - who knew the castle as probably only Albus Dumbledore did. No, the Dark Lord would immediately recognize each part of Hogwarts he perceived through the boy's eyes himself. Voldemort would get Potter anyway, and Remus along with him, no matter what he, Severus, decided to do.
This was only another test, another round in that perverted fight, and it was up to him whether he deliberately chose to fail and thus die - or whether he decided to act like the Slytherin he was: playing along to remain in the game, to save the crucial position he had gained, a position that could still prove extremely precious for them all. A position that would grant him at least the *chance* to still influence the upcoming events. No matter how much this decision would hurt him...
Had someone asked him later, Severus would not have been able to tell what came first, the tantalizingly soft voice ripe with menace that brushed over the skin at his left temple or the overly tight grip with which the Dark Lord's hands returned to the Slytherin's throat, long skeleton fingers pressing against the spy's larynx slightly as Voldemort's thumbs gently whispered up and down the back of the neck beneath them.
'Sharp-witted as you are, my sweet snow white, you can of course imagine that neither time nor patience is something I can afford to waste on a night like this.' Two razor-like nails cutting down at each side of the Slytherin's cervical vertebra, drawing blood in the process, signaled clearly that the Dark Lord's tolerance was definitely wearing thin.
With an inner scream dripping with pain, the spy let the Death Eater from his youth take over and drove all disturbing emotions such as nobility and every kind of scruple from his consciousness, completely, surrendering to the blind obedience and unerring instincts of his past. And finally made his choice.
'Forgive the delay, my Lord.' Taking one more deep breath, Severus steeled himself for the next words. Never in his entire life had he feared speaking the truth more than now. 'The room you described, my Lord, is the classroom for Defence against the Dark Arts.'
A lifeless void spread inside him. He had done it. Had deliberately betrayed the man he loved, as well as the Order's only hope to defeat the Dark Lord in the end. And only Salazar knew whether he would ever be able to look at himself in the mirror again without drowning in self-contempt.
Momentarily lulled into total indifference as to what might come next, the Slytherin felt how he was turned around to finally face his former master, even though he was not able to see more than the red gleam that was Voldemort's eyes. The horrible stare seemed to regard him thoughtfully for a few moments, before Severus noticed from the periphery of his vision how a soft glow began to light up the thus far total blackness of the Shrieking Shack. Four torches, one in each corner of the room, sprang to life, and the warm light as well as the small crackling sounds of the fire filled Severus with the strange feeling of having just returned to the real world from a place for which he had no name.
And the Dark Lord smiled.
'I agree, my lovely snow white. Potter chose well, I have to say. What an appropriate place to confront a Dark attack! The boy obviously has a flair for drama.' A bony finger came up to trace Severus's lower lip and the smile on the horrible face deepened. 'Or perhaps it wasn't the boy's choice after all...'
Neither taking his finger nor his eyes from the Slytherin’s face, Voldemort murmured a few words, and Severus felt more than heard how at his back, the trap door to the tunnel opened again. He could not have cared less.
'My Lord?' The submissive voice of Wormtail scraped over the spy's nerves, and the sudden surging need to increase the distance to the door that flooded him told Severus that the Gryffindor must have climbed into the room. The image of what the other Death Eater must see right now, him without mask and cloak, the Dark Lord right in front of and much too close to him with one hand still caressing his face, should have made the spy sick with humiliation. But even feeling Voldemort's other hand slowly wandering up his spine did not affect the Slytherin at all now.
With his scrutiny never leaving Severus's eyes, the Dark Lord began to speak in his usual cold, intimidating voice.
'Wormtail, you will resume you animal form and immediately convey the following message to Goyle: I want six Death Eaters in the classroom for Defence against the Dark Arts as soon as possible, to retrieve a very precious...individual I *crave* to have here with me. As soon as they have succeeded in their mission, they will hand that disarmed person over to you.' The spy couldn't see it, but Wormtail's face lit up at those words. 'You will guide our guest here in your human form, without the slightest delay, without touching him or speaking to him. Have I made myself clear?'
'Totally clear, my Lord.' The other man's voice was dripping with eagerness, but Severus felt that he still hadn't left, had not even turned into his Animagus form yet. 'My Lord, any orders concerning Snape...?'
The Slytherin saw icy rage dawn in the red stare, and the low tone of Voldemort's next words sent shivers of panic through the spy's entire body.
'Severus and I have set our differences aside, and I seriously doubt he will ever again give me reason to distrust his loyalty.' Very slowly, the Dark Lord bent his head to one side, and his eyes left Severus’s for the first time in minutes to cast a deadly glance in Wormtail's direction. 'Whereas you and I will have an extensive discussion after you return, during which you'll have the opportunity to explain your definition of the word 'immediately' to me - in detail.'
Wormtail’s stammering indicated that Severus had not been the only one to realize the scarcely hidden threat and the cold fury in Voldemort's words.
'My Lord, I...forgive me, my Lord, I swear that I...next time...'
The Dark Lord's voice cut through Wormtail's whining like the crack of a whip.
'Yes, my Lord...'
'Yes, my Lord?'
The burning gaze had returned to drill into Severus's eyes, who felt his heartbeat accelerate slightly at the sight of a cruel spark that had not been there before. Something was wrong. Something was still to come.
'Tell Goyle that Potter's not alone.' There was actually an almost loving smile playing around the Dark Lord's mouth. 'Tell him that werewolf friend of yours has never left the boy's side all evening.'
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