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Villain of the Piece

Part 2  Youthful Indiscretions

- Chapter  29 -

Chapter 29:   Five Minutes to Midnight

15th May to 9th June 1980

Through Rosier, Wilkes, and Rookwood, Lord Voldemort began the revival of his contacts at the Ministry.  He was particularly keen to have access to the Book of Birth, the book that recorded, magically, the birth of every wizard child in the British Isles.  He also contacted Dumbledore and got himself and interview – he intended to secure a teaching post at Hogwarts, preferably Defence Against the Dark Arts.

But at this point Dumbledore thwarted Voldemort’s plans – he refused to employ him in any capacity.  Incensed, Voldemort returned to Wilshire to skulk about the attic and lick his wounds.

Well, if he won’t have me, he mused, I’ll start by getting my Death Eaters at the school.  Yes, I’ll attack this the other way around.  It may take a while but I’ll manage it; I’ll tunnel under the old fool’s foundations.  Snape – I’ll start the tunnelling with him!  He’s a sound choice, either for Potions or for ‘Defence’ as Dumbledore quaintly calls it.  I’ll get Snape in place first and then work out the next move.  He’s frittered away his time and talents long enough; it’s time, Severus Snape, for you to learn the meaning of the Mark.

Severus had never seen Voldemort in such a mood.  Lucius warned him that Dumbledore’s rejection had stung him, but even so it was a shock to find a slightly desperate Voldemort in place of the confident, battle-ready one he had seen only weeks before.  Not that Voldemort was sensing defeat – he was still spoiling for a fight, but he was like a wounded tiger – dangerously angry.

It also came as a blow when Voldemort coldly instructed Severus to arrange to see Dumbledore and talk the Headmaster into giving him a job.  This was not how Severus had imagined events would unfold – in his minds eye he had seen a Voldemort already installed at the school and making a place for him; easing his path.  Picking his words carefully, Severus pointed out that he had put himself in the wrong with Dumbledore.  It had turned out to be of benefit because he had discovered the all-too-vital prophesy, but the fact remained that Dumbledore probably viewed him as untrustworthy.

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” Voldemort snarled.  “Is this such a difficult task?  Dumbledore has appointments to fill; surely you can be adequate for one of them.  Look at me, Severus.  Yes, I understand your concern that you have spoiled your chances.  It was stupid to be discovered.  But throw yourself on his mercy – you are so desperate for a job that you would listen at keyholes to try to improve the odds.  Now go – you have your orders.”

“But, Lord, what if–”

“Do not fail me, Snape.”

Step by step, Severus made his way down the narrow wooden stairs, leaving the Dark Lord to his dark thoughts.

I must do this, he told himself desperately.  I MUST do it!  This is my chance of a proper career.  This is my chance of an end to humble lodgings, and a hand-to-mouth existence.  Trimming fat off bulbous buttocks, and blonding bimbo’s hair!  I must do this for myself, if not for him!  And when the Dark Lord is at Hogwarts he will be easier to deal with.  He won’t be under pressure, and petulant, like he is now.  We can do great things – I must remember that; hang on to that.  Lord Voldemort certainly has a murderous temper.  But then he would have, he has a large agenda.  Much to achieve, and few followers of great talent.  There is myself and Lucius, and the Lestranges, and Bella.  All the others are just messengers.  No, I don’t know that – I don’t know all the others.  But surely there are few of the calibre of myself, Lucius and Bella.  This is crazy, Severus.  You are a Healer, a potioneer, a prize-winner, a man with a string of Outstanding final exam passes, a creator of spells … surely you can get yourself a decent job!

At the foot of the creaking stairs he turned for the study.  Only Lucius was there, seated at his desk.

“Bad session, was it?” he asked.  “We all have them.  All I can say is – it’s normal.  I usually find an Ogden’s helps.”  He poured them both generous measures of Firewhisky and took and armchair opposite the one that Severus had plumped into.  “What have you got to do?” he enquired.

“Get myself out of a jam by appealing to Dumbledore’s mercy” Severus replied.

“Better do it, then” Lucius advised.  “Dumbledore has mercy – that’s his weakness.  The Dark Lord has none.”

 

In the succeeding weeks Severus tried repeatedly to contact Dumbledore but the Hogwarts Headmaster proved impossible to find because he was at the Ministry on Wizengamot business; he was heavily involved in attending trials.  Realising that he may need to be ready at short notice, Severus arranged to take all three weeks of his annual holiday from work, but the days ticked by with still no word from Dumbledore.  I’m wasting this holiday, Severus grumbled!  Then, among the Death Eaters, the news broke that Voldemort, with the help of certain well-placed followers, had narrowed down the prophesy threat to two possible families.  A delighted Lucius owled him and he Apparated to Wiltshire just after dinner on Friday evening.

“You’ll love this” Lucius said gleefully.  “Guess who they are – the threat families – the Longbottoms and the Potters!”

Severus fought very hard to keep his face inscrutable.  Finally he managed a realistic smirk.  “Really?”  he said.  “This is very interesting.  Lucius, is the Dark Lord here tonight?  I need to see him about my Hogwarts appointment.”

“I thought you hadn’t managed to see Dumbledore?” Lucius asked warily.  “Is it wise to trouble the Dark Lord if you haven’t yet carried out his instructions?”

“Nevertheless, I need to speak to him” Severus replied, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.  “I need to be absolutely clear on all aspects before I see Dumbledore, because I don’t believe I’ll get at second crack of the whip if I mess up the interview.”

Looking most disapproving, Lucius disappeared to the attic and returned moments later.

“Go on up” he said.  “But I warn you, he’s not happy!”

Moments later Severus entered the Dark Lord’s sitting room.  Voldemort was seated at an antique writing table, piles of parchment spread before him.

“You come with good news I hope” he barked, although it seemed clear to him that Severus did not.  “You’ve got that job?”

“I have not yet been able to see Dumbledore, master” Severus replied.  “He is never at the school and he answers my owls by saying he will be in touch soon.”

“I KNOW he’s never at the school” Voldemort roared.  “The meddling fool is at the trials.  Day after day my followers get captured.  Aurors!  Those Longbottoms!  I’ll grind them to pieces, and all their kind.  And Dumbledore has a pack of them too!  Well, what do you want of me?”

“The families – the Longbottoms and the Potters–”

“What of them?”

“It is – it is only the children who are the threat.”

“Is it?” Voldemort replied, his eyes blazing.  “Have you not been listening, Snape?”  He jabbed a long white finger at a sheet of parchment which bore a list of names, and continued in the same ranting tone.  “Frank Longbottom – Auror!  Alice Longbottom – was an Auror and will no doubt return to it when she had reared her child.  James Potter – Auror–!”

Carefully, subtly, Severus began to close his mind as he said “But not his wife–”

“You dare interrupt me? … What have we here?” Voldemort wondered aloud, pausing to study Severus.  “Is there a tiny fragment of pity in that stone you have for a heart?  Or are you, Severus Snape, not the man I thought you were?”

With difficulty Severus persisted in the process of closing his mind.  A muscle rippled in his cheek but he steeled himself to continue as he murmured “Can you not spare Lily?  Only Lily, Lord?”

Voldemort was looking at him with curiosity.  Closed mind or not, he could see and deduce more than Severus wanted him to.  “Why should I?” he sneered.

“Name anything, I will do it–”

“You think you can bargain with me?  With what?” Voldemort taunted.  “You took my Mark.  And did you not then swear undying devotion?  Did you not then promised me perfection?  What possible extra service can you offer me?  You, who have, supposedly, already promised all.”

Severus knew he was beaten.

“The Aurors must die.”  Voldemort was adamant.  “One, at least, of the children must die.  I will decide.  It will become clear to me which of them is the threat.  As for Lily Potter … we will see about Lily.”  Grinning he added “I might give her a sporting chance.  Now get yourself out of here and carry out my orders.  I don’t want to see your face again until you come back as a member of the Hogwarts faculty.”

Quailing before his wrath, Severus murmured “Thank you, master.  You are most merciful.”

“Am I indeed?”

A bolt of pain shot through Severus’s body as he bowed and backed out of the room with the Dark Lord’s mocking laughter following him.

The Cruciatus Curse was a shock to him.  Sadly he realised that despite the years of bullying torment, the much-hated James Potter would never have done that to him.  James might have wanted to, but he would never have given way to such an impulse.  Voldemort might be great, but he had no limits.  He was as capable of punishing a devoted and blameless follower, as he was the bitterest foe.  I didn’t join this to be a punch bag, Severus decided.  And when will my needs count for anything?

He had reached the study.  Lucius had heard his stumbling footsteps and this time had a warm shot of Bullsblood ready in a goblet.  “I’d better take you home after this” he said.

“No, I have things to do” Severus replied.  “Thanks anyway.”  A shudder ran through him, but he threw the fierce liquid into the back of his throat and then straightened up, squaring his shoulders.  “I’d better try Dumbledore again.  Thanks, Lucius.”  He gave his friend’s arm an affectionate squeeze and then Disapparated.

Severus’s first call was to New Malden in Surrey, because there was a particular detail he wanted to check.  From there he went home to Snarebeck where he had a heated argument with his mother and where in the privacy of his bedroom he began to compose a letter.  The family owl was still at home and he shut it in, pacifying it with owl treats as best he could.  It fretted to get out and go hunting, so he resorted to the Silencio Charm, just to get some peace and quiet, because he had to plan his next moves very carefully…

The Cruciatus Curse had been a grim revelation; it had taught Severus that not only was Voldemort powerful, he was capricious and capable of turning on the most faithful of disciples.  No one was special enough to be exempt from harm.  And if one fell foul of the Dark Lord, where was there to run to?  Voldemort could find anyone, anywhere.

Anyone, anywhere – that was the problem.  And he had unwittingly put someone at risk.  Now he would have to try his best to put matters right.

He put quill to parchment and began to write:

Dear L,

I must speak to you – it is VITALLY IMPORTANT.  I cannot overstate how important it is.  And it must be totally secret – that, too, is crucial.  NO ONE must know that we have met and NO ONE must overhear or learn of what I have to tell you.  I am literally risking my life to do this, so you must understand how serious this matter is.

In a town where once we met and I made a mistake about a potion, there is a window display of blue and yellow, and the emporium has a double name that puts me in mind of Wales.  I will wait there at midnight from the night of Saturday 7th June and for five further nights in case this message is delayed.  Come alone, and find me.  From there we will go to any place of your choosing so that I can give you my message without risk of being overheard, so please choose carefully for both our sakes.

Do not ignore this – I beg you with all my heart!  And please destroy this letter.

To remove any ambiguity about the date, he changed ‘midnight’ to ‘five minutes to midnight’.  Then he obliterated ‘town’ replaced it with ‘suburb’ and then with ‘neighbourhood’ so that if the letter was intercepted no one would know if he was talking about a village or a town, or even a city.  Then he re-read it several times, growing less happy with it on each reading.  It wasn’t clever enough.  It was nowhere near clever enough!  The envelope had to bear Lily’s name so if the message was intercepted anyone would assume that she was the ‘L’.  Therefore the neighbourhood probably concerned her.  James, obviously, knew where she had lived, so presumably Sirius too, and therefore so too might Regulus.  If so, New Malden would be a first and obvious guess.  And if that could be worked out, the rest would be transparent.  Regulus would do no one any intentional harm, but he had a naïve turn of mind and a wagging tongue.  And dangerous associates.

Don’t we all, Severus thought bitterly!

But time was of the essence – Severus knew he had no time to think up anything better; if he could send this now Lily might have a chance to react by tomorrow night.  He would have to gamble.  He debated whether to use a charm to disguise his writing but he could not afford to sign the letter so he had hoped Lily would recognise his handwriting.

He looked at his watch.  It was almost one o’clock so he dated the letter for 7th June and altered the date inside it to Sunday 8th June.  It was done.

With trembling fingers he sealed the letter in an envelope and wrote upon it in a larger, bolder style that was less like his own.  He wrote

Lily Potter, neé Evans

or, as a last resort, Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts

or only as a final and absolute last resort – return to me unopened

Then it was time to un-silence the family owl, feed him some more owl treats, and show him the envelope.

“You see her name?” he asked.  “You must find her as fast as possible.  Faster than possible!  If you get stuck, ask of your kind at Hogwarts because Dumbledore will probably know where she is, so the owls of the Forest are likely to know.  You must on no account fail!  If you cannot find her, deliver this letter to Dumbledore, and only to Dumbledore!  If you cannot do that, bring it back to me at Camden.  Make all the speed you can.  Fly well!  I am returning to Camden before sunrise.”

He watched the bird take flight, and then mooched down the stairs to the sitting room where his mother sat knitting.

“I wish you’d tell me what you’re up to” she said sternly.  “I know you’re in trouble.  I don’t know what it can be.  Severus!  Look at me!  I have never understood why you lost that job.  You’ve never explained about it.  And you don’t seem happy in your present job.  And now you’re behaving so oddly.  Tell me honestly – have you done something criminal?”

Feeling like a chastised teenager, Severus flopped down into the armchair.  He did look at her briefly, and then lay back in the chair, resting his head and wondering.  No, this time he hadn’t done anything criminal.  In the past, yes, perhaps he had.  Once upon a time in a life so distant that it seems not to be his, he had damaged a girl by giving her a potion; badly made, and without her knowledge or consent … He had carried out a similar tactic on a patient in St Mungo’s albeit without causing detectable harm … He had acted negligently toward other patients … But he had not committed any crime as a Death Eater.  How odd that was.  He could say nothing about any of it so he sighed and closed his eyes.

“Well, shall I make us some supper?” his mother barked, “Or is there no point?  Will we be arrested before we can eat it?”

“No, Mother, it’s not like that” he replied softly.

“Then why were you suddenly hinting, tonight, that we might have to run away?”

“You know what’s going on.  Disappearances.  Deaths.  It’s all in the Prophet, day after day.  These are dangerous times, Mother.”

“That is nothing to do with us.”

“No one can be that complacent.  I’m trying to forestall trouble.  Others just blunder into it.”

“Innocent people don’t.  You’re in with a bad crowd these days.  That’s why you won’t let me meet your friends, and why you never talk about them.”

“Lucius is my friend – you know that … Can we just drop this?  I merely wanted you to be forewarned in case we need to take action.  I didn’t think you’d over-react so.”

“Over-react?  You don’t know how white you looked when you came home.  Ashen!  You might close your mind to me – yes, I know you can do that, I’ve noticed that you’ve been working on it – but it doesn’t disguise the evidence of these past months.  Ever since things went wrong for you at the hospital you’ve been different … Oh, what’s the use of talking to you!  Young people always think they have all the answers.”

She left her knitting to continue on its own, and slammed the door behind her, not reappearing until she had set cold meat and pickles upon the table, together with the remains of a bottle of claret.  They ate in a silence broken only the click of the knitting needles.  Eileen poured the wine but Severus drank no more than a mouthful – he wanted to keep a clear head.  After supper Eileen returned to her knitting and Severus cleared the table, wondering for the umpteenth time why his mother bothered to knit manually.  Once the kitchen was returned to order he said he was heading back to London.

“What?  At this hour?  It’ll soon be breakfast time.”

“The hour is of no account.  I have a key to the main door.”

“Be careful in London” she added grimly.

“I promise I will” he replied.  He bent and kissed her goodbye, but she refused to look up.

 

A restless night was followed by a miserable day, and then another such night and day as Severus stayed alone in his lodging-house room, hardly stirring for meals and too nervous to immerse himself thoroughly in a book.  He lay on his bed beside the open window, listening to the roar of the traffic, and with the book An Appraisal of Magical Education in Europe open at the Hogwarts section but largely unread.  At half past nine on the second day a discreet knock sounded at the door.

“Sev.  You okay?”

Easing the door open he saw Jimmy Hardcastle.

“Yes.  Thanks.  I’m okay.”

“Soup time.  Comin’?”

“No.  No thanks.  Got a touch of ’flu’ – just taking it easy.  See you at breakfast, Jimmy.”

The gruff young Yorkshireman eyed him carefully, decided he wasn’t at death’s door and merely required privacy.  “Right you are” he said, and slouched away.

Severus watched him go and then closed the door with a soft click.  When he turned around the owl, who had been waiting on the window sill, hopped down onto his bed and from its beak it dropped a single white Convallaria inflorescence.  The tiny flower fell noiselessly onto the crumpled sheet.  A small and incredulous smile crossed Severus’s face as he patted his pocket for owl treats, thanked the bird and sent it home.  It’s worked, he realised, so it’s time to check my watch again.

At twenty nine minutes to midnight, when his nerves could no longer take the strain of waiting, Severus Apparated to the doorway of Tudor Williams store in New Malden and inspected the dummies in the window.  They all seemed to be just dummies – modelling ladies fashions in mix-and-match combinations of blue and yellow just as he had seen them a few days earlier.  Satisfied with that, he made his Animagus transformation and sat unobserved, waiting and watching, and regretting that in this form he could not keep track of the time.

Each second trickled past like an eternity.  A car growled by, and a Cadbury’s Flake wrapper blew along the street, but nobody passed on foot.  At eleven minutes to twelve he transformed back so that he could take a look at his watch, then he transformed back again and tried to be patient a little longer.  He transformed once more at six minutes to twelve, lurking in the deep shadow of the shop doorway.  Then he froze; he could hear footsteps.  No one was in view but faint footsteps were sounding along the pavement, proceeding slowly.  Cautiously they passed the Wimpy Bar.  Then they ground to a halt.  He could feel himself being watched and his fingers tightened upon his wand.

“Lily?” he whispered.

“It’s James” a voice whispered back.  “I couldn’t let her do this.  She’s too heavily pregnant.”

That made good sense, and Severus fought back his disappointment.  The voice sounded like James’s voice, but could he trust it?

“Well, it’s up to you now” Severus said with a note of resignation.  He had gambled all – he was at the stage of risking everything to get this done.

“Then keep still” James’s voice replied.  “I’m going to hide you under my Cloak.”

James threw the Invisibility Cloak over them both and told Severus to grip his arm.  The Apparated less than a mile to the middle of a golf course and sat in the saucer-shaped green of the 7th hole.  Severus looked at James, and then glanced around.  Although unlit their surroundings were not totally dark; the orange glow of London’s south western extremity was, like the rest of the capital, incapable of utter darkness.  But they were in the open, far from bushes and trees; no one was in sight, not even a fox.  It seemed as safe as was possible, but just to feel safer he swung his wand in a circle, muttering a spell designed to reveal Animagi.  No one appeared.

“Satisfied?” James hissed.  “Now, what do you have to tell us?” he added in a whisper.  He had folded up his Cloak and was watching Severus suspiciously.  Severus saw the same narrow face he had loathed for so many years, but it was impossible to tell the colour of the eyes – an occasional glitter gave away their presence but that was all.

“Only that you are in very grave danger” Severus whispered back.  “Mortal danger – from the Dark Lord.”

“Voldemort?” James murmured derisively, watching Severus wince.  “Yes, we know all about that–”

“No you don’t” Severus insisted.  “You and Lily and your unborn child are in grave, personal danger.  He will hunt you down and kill you.  All three of you.”

“Why?”

“He believes you are a threat.”

“We bloody well are!” James began.  “What d’you think we–”

“You’re not hearing me, you foo–”  Severus just stopped himself in time.  “You’re not hearing me, James” he repeated.  “You must hear me!  This is real.  This is now.  And every second from now.  This is about you, and Lily, and your child!  You must hide.  And you must never, never let anyone know your hiding place.”

“We are well hidden” James assured him.  “We’re already hidden.”

“My owl found you.”

“And would have been destroyed if Lily hadn’t been certain that that note was from you.  Had we not been one hundred per cent sure of that, and had Lily not been convinced of your sincerity, you would never even have learnt that your owl found us.  We are – well hidden.”

Severus paused – it was a fair point.  “Well, no matter how good your hiding place is” he said more calmly, “Find ways to make it better.  Think about who knows it.  Trust no one!  Make it better – safer – anyway you can.”

“How do you know we’re in such–” James began again.  Then he seemed to come to a realisation.  “You’re working for him, aren’t you” he said.  “Or are you? … Are you working for–?”

Severus’s temper boiled over.  “Do you think that I, Severus Snape, would risk my life to tell YOU, of all people, any of this” he hissed, “If I was his–?  Do you think it is as simple as that?  I don’t want to discover your whereabouts.  I don’t want to know anything about you.  I just want you to take this warning more seriously than you have ever taken anything in your life, because if you don’t, three lives will be thrown away.  I’ve risked my neck to let you know this.  Don’t underrate that!”

James thought it over.  It seemed plausible.  He didn’t trust Severus but Severus didn’t seem to want anything but to make him increase his precautions.  What could be wrong with that?  Whether or not he was working for Voldemort, he must have taken a huge risk to deliver this warning.  And he really didn’t like taking risks; he would rather sit back and say ‘what must be, must be’.

“Okay.  Thanks” James conceded.  “I think I owe you one.”

“No.  We’re square” Severus growled.  “What did you do with my letter?”

“Destroyed it, as you asked us to.”

“How?”

“Burned it.  Lily burned it.  Then vanished the ashes.  She said that’s what you’d want.”

“She’s right … How is she?”

“Ha.  Thought you didn’t want to know anything about us.  Yes, she’s fine.  In perfect health, and quite serene.”

“That’s good” Severus nodded, trying to hide his feelings.  “I must go now … I wish you all … good luck.”  His dark eyes burned once into James’s, and then he stood up, turned on his heel and was gone.

Although he was relieved that Lily had burned his letter he felt, paradoxically, sad that she had destroyed it.  And he cursed himself for feeling so.  He also fretted that she really had destroyed it – that was another paradox.  But he consoled himself with the memory of how she had absolved his guilt that day in the garden.  Lily was like a salve; she would not let him down.  Only in preferring James had she ever let him down.

“Dreams and memories!  Such thoughts will get me nowhere” he said angrily, as he gained the safety of his lodging-house room.  “These things must not be thought after these ways – so it will make us mad!”

So instead of brooding he busied himself with the next urgent task – that of composing letters to Dumbledore and to Honor.  To the best of his knowledge none of the lodgers had an owl, and even if one had, he could hardly go hammering on their doors at one o’clock in the morning to ask to borrow it, so the letters’ despatch would have to wait until morning when the Post Office was open.  But he wanted to let Honor know that he was out of action for a few days.  And most of all he wanted to wait for Dumbledore at the school, and courtesy demanded that he send a note ahead of his arrival there, rather than barge in without warning.

So he would send a note.  And then he would go to Hogwarts and wait.  He was going to wait within or outside of Hogwarts until Dumbledore could see him.  He would wait for days if need be.

- Author's Notes -

About Chapters 29 and 31

I can’t resist putting the odd Shakespearean quotation into Severus Snape’s mouth, perhaps because Snape’s habitual turn of phrase points to him being a well educated Englishman.  In chapter 24 of Order of the Phoenix he warns Harry of ‘fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves’ and this is a reference from Othello – Iago says mockingly ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for ’daws to peck at’.  So it is possible that Snape learned some of the major Shakespeare plays; Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello are amongst the strongest candidates.

 - Chapter  30 -