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Under Pressure

Chapter Text

The blue sky’s engine-drone is deafening.
We’re living here on a shuddering work-site
where the ocean depths can suddenly open up
shells and telephones hiss.
-- Tranströmer, Under Pressure

 

 

The first staff meeting is quite frankly awful. What does one do with all of this, all of these people, Minerva McGonagall's expression all but screaming at him, I know what you did? Of course she bloody knows; she's part of Dumledore's secret club, a fact which would be painfully obvious even if she had not been there to see him swear his oaths. The rest of them are merely uncomfortable with the rumour of his recent adventures, he presumes; that no-one can possibly know what is hidden under his sleeve does not stop them from guessing. This he can take. It is not, after all, as though he cares so very much for them either. But that look is another thing entirely.

"I am certain that Severus will prove an invaluable addition to Hogwarts," Dumbledore is saying, voice dripping with benevolence. He suspects that his colleagues are being invited to take pity on him, but the only noticeable reaction is a slight quirk of McGonagall's eyebrow.

He nods stiffly in her direction. Blank, blank, blank; don't let them see you give a damn. Naturally you don't give a damn. You're simply here to--

Ah yes.

Teach.

Socialising is not in the job description, and thank Merlin for small mercies.

 

 

 

For a few weeks things are very nearly restful. He does not need to think very hard to rearrange ingredients, check their freshness, inspect catalogues and fill out order forms; the work has a meditative quality to it. Aconite: flower (dried), root (dried), root (powdered). Asphodel: root (powdered), root (extract of). Bat wings, beatle eyes, belladonna, betony. A litany. He dictates notes to a charmed quill from the top of his ladder (what kind of moron is incapable of a decent preservation spell? a miracle one learnt anything), and notices after the first day that it has censored some of his more creative comments on the methods of his predecessor. One cannot, after all, have everything. But his mind is clearer than it has been since, well. Since. He can, for a day at a time, almost allow himself to believe that everything is, will be, fine. That he is where he wants to be and no-one is in danger.

Of course, the world does tend to intrude on that particular illusion, today in the form of McGonagall, resplendent in what appears to be a new variation on the theme of monstrous tartan robes.

"I would of course recommend," she says, in dubious tones, "that you allow yourself a break for dinner, Severus. You seem quite industrious, but it would be a shame if you were to collapse before you have even had a chance to meet your students."

His name sounds all wrong coming from her mouth. He has been Mister Snape, certainly; simply Snape, in sharp tones, inevitably. You, exclaimed in a trembling voice which does not even know what word to choose to describe him -- naturally. But Severus? No. He would like to flinch. He would like to demand--

He does not demand.

"Such touching concern," he says -- indifferently, he hopes, but he suspects that he sneers. Sneering implies that he is irritated. He is irritated -- but it would be nice not to show it. "Has Dumbledore set you to be my minder?"

"I'm sure you're quite old enough to mind yourself," she says, tart. It is not, precisely, a denial. Of course not. "However, one must help one's colleagues however one can. I am quite certain," she says, "that you would do as much for me, were it noted," she says, "that I had missed dinner three nights in a row."

It is an art, the way she speaks; that carefully placed emphasis that can make one feel eleven years old again. Too grubby and too surly to pass muster. Too Slytherin, quite possibly. He scowls. Regrets scowling. Blank, blank, blank. "Of course."

Her eyes flick over him, note the dust that smudges his robes and his hands, his scuffed boots. No, certainly not fashionable. What is one meant to do with fashion in a storecupboard? Still, something about the whole does not meet with her approval, he feels.

"Quite. I trust we shall see you shortly."

It's too much suddenly, all he can do to count to ten as she leaves the room, smart heels clicking against paving stones, away, away; to hold himself rigid against hands that want to shake, against the wordless, violent sound that wants to force its way out of him.

In the silence she leaves in her wake he can snarl. Can hurl a jar containing a single sad piece of valerian root, long past usefulness, against the wall. It doesn't make him feel better, and as drowning himself in the showers would presumably be frowned upon he spells the worst of the dust from his robes and goes to dinner.

 

 

 

He finds a kind of peace in mechanical tasks that he could hardly have imagined a few years ago. He is assiduous in his cataloguing, in his quality controls. He cleans meticulously, to the irritation of the House Elves.

Somewhere he has a master, two masters. Somewhere there is a family-- but he won't think about that. In the laboratory and the storeroom and the office there is nothing else; they are their own closed world.

When he is summoned, after two weeks reprieve, he is so shocked at the way the world outside can rip through his walls of calm that a jar of leeches slips from his fingers, shatters on the flagstones of the floor. He stares at it, uncomprehending; does not even remember to banish the mess before he sweeps from the room, from the castle.

Perhaps the bastard will have the courtesy to kill him this time and be done with it. The suspense is getting ridiculous.

 

 

 

Naturally, he does not die.

 

 

 

Too soon it's another day and the Great Hall is packed. It shouldn't be possible to feel so claustrophobic in such a large space, not looking down on it for the first time from above when one is used to being in the middle of the chaos at the long benches. But stuck between Dumbledore on his right and Pomona Sprout on his left, he manages it anyway.

The students jostle each other, all elbows, still too loud, too excited, even though to Severus it feels as though the grey weight of the war is trying to smother the castle -- yelling to each other as though eight hours on a train just wasn't enough time for catching up.

And Dumbledore, unmoving as a statue of a benevolent Merlin beside him, is testing the edges of his mind. The intrusion always feels deceptively tentative, a question spoken softly, and if he relaxes for a second it will take him apart just the same. But Occlumency has become like breathing during the course of this last nightmarish year. It is generally not a matter of closing one's mind entirely, not before his keeper, although he can and would much prefer to do so; rather one must make strategic sacrifices. People like Dumbledore, people like-- like the Dark Lord, curse him, want to know one's secrets. One must give them enough to make them believe that they have seen it all.

He has given them Lily, in fragments and half-truths. Love and regret and fixation. He has used her, again, to keep himself safe, and he has hated himself for it. But it is a minor infraction, in relative terms. And it has, at least, been enough. It has not made him more likeable -- a lost cause if ever there was one -- but it has allowed him to keep some fragment of himself, his conflicts and uncertainties and fears, hidden away.

What, he wonders, does Dumbledore conclude from this strategy?

"Oh, but Severus," Dumbledore murmurs, finally looking away from the hall below, a gentle smile on his lips, "it will not be so terrible as all that. Who knows," he says, damnably amused, "you may even enjoy yourself."

I disgust you, Severus thinks. You meant that more than anything else you've ever said to me, I would swear it. And now you can laugh and tell me to enjoy my medicine.

The memory of that night is sharp-edged and raw, for a quarter of a second it is almost too much to contain.

"I may," he manages. Allows himself a conscious touch of coolness, of open scepticism. Just this once, under the curious eyes of half the school, everyone old enough to remember him as a student wondering why he’s here. (I heard from Potter that he's dark as anything-- remember that time when-- what's he-- potions I guess-- d'you think he'll hex us if-- I bet-- how he cried-- pathetic git.)

The doors swing open for the arriving first years. The hat is laid out. And Severus, sick of everything before it has even started, slams shut every door that exists inside of him, makes himself a shell, nothing but a smooth surface for the world to slide off. To hell with whatever Dumbledore may think.

 

 

 

His chambers look out over the lake, windows charmed into invisibility from the outside, the rippling surface of the water reaching up to inches below the glass. It would not have been his choice; it feels curiously vulnerable, although the rooms are certainly as well-protected as any others in the castle. Still: better to surround himself in stone, to never leave the cool, dark depths of the dungeons. (Dumbledore's twinkling eyes; no, Severus, it will not do. I'm afraid I must insist that you come into contact with daylight on occasion. McGonagall's tiny snort of laughter she thinks that no-one noticed.)

A winding staircase takes him down, emerging directly outside the Slytherin dormitories and perhaps a hundred feet from his classroom and the adjacent office. In the dormitories live the children of many of the families he has so recently betrayed. He is responsible for them; quite laughable, really. Several of them have seen him hanging upside down by his ankle, showing off his oh so attractive underwear; more have seen him hunched in a corner of the common room, seen how he has been tolerated but never loved.

One of the current seventh years was present for that memorable afternoon when Voldemort decided to test curses on him, for want of an actual mu-- muggle-born. (After all, Severus, are you not the next best thing? But come; I will purify you. I will make you worthy. He is ashamed to remember how he welcomed it, pain and all. It was in the early days.) Who let a fifteen year old watch that kind of thing? What must the boy have thought? No; he does not, on the whole, look forward to dealing with Avery's younger brother.

 

 

 

A normal class is, he is quickly learning, awful enough. One cannot lose focus for a second.

"If you are trying to kill us all, then yes, certainly, an excellent effort," he snarls at a third year girl whose name entirely escapes him, banishing the potion before the fumes can do more than give half the class a headache. "You imbecile! Are you incapable of following instructions?"

It is not precisely how he had planned to deal with students, in as much as he has been able to imagine the damned situation at all. (In his vague plans, he never lets them get to him.) But nothing else explodes for the rest of the lesson, which he can only count as a blessing.

 

 

 

The only positive to the whole mess is that he is too exhausted to avoid sleeping on weekday nights; weekends, on the other hand, become an anxious, sleepless blur. Without the sheer drain of trying to keep class after class of students from dying horribly he is too restless to fall asleep easily, and too prone to nightmares to sleep for long. On these nights he lies awake, waiting for a summons, trying to think about anything but that question: will it be tonight, will it be tomorrow, am I excused for the week? He might cut off his damn arm if he thought it would help. If it wouldn't prove an impediment to brewing. If it wasn't for Dumbledore's price.

He tries instead to think about what he will do once the war is over. When he has, oh, yes -- survived. The idea is as laughable as everything else in his wretched life -- he has allied himself with what is almost certainly the losing side, ridiculous prophecies notwithstanding. Sooner or later this will become known.

Once he told himself that he might, at his master's pleasure, travel to the continent. He might study the theory of magic and create the kind of spells that no-one had yet dreamt of. Make a name for himself until no-one remembered or cared that no wizard before him had ever been called Snape. But He is rarely pleased, and is always in need of potions, and has Expectations even in other areas. Veritaserum is hardly the worst of it. It is a relief to have other duties, in its way. (You cannot be spared, Severus. Your skill in these areas is unrivalled. Why, I do not believe even the mighty Dumbledore--)

Perhaps one day there will be this kind of travel. German magical research is unparalleled in Europe, he has been told. But it is hard to make himself believe that he will have the opportunity to test it. Imagine that utopian world in which the Dark Lord has fallen; imagine what it will say when the whole sorry story comes out. Why, yes, of course it is true that Severus happens to have the Dark Mark etched onto his arm. Certainly he has killed people. Oh yes, I have been led to believe that he defected purely due to some ridiculous obsession with a woman-- oh, they will line up to thank him, won't they.

No. Try again.

Found innocent and even, thanks to Dumbledore's shining assessment of his character, rewarded. A stipend and an Order of Merlin. I'm sorry I doubted you, Sev, Lily says. It doesn't even matter that she stands with her husband and child in a little family unit that doesn't leave space for outsiders. She says sorry and means it. She smiles. Certainly he is grateful for that, but, he says, I don't need anything from you. Just to know you're safe.

He leaves her there and travels and knows she does not hate him and it is, finally, enough.

Yes. It ought to be like that.

(Oh, as if. As if he even deserves Lily's thanks; as if she wasn't right to doubt.)

 

 

 

To keep himself from screaming with resentment and frustration he uses his first month's pay to subscribe to international journals, potions, magical theory, defence. Thinks that it might be time to improve his German and half-formulates plans that he finds himself too tired to follow through on. Diverts himself from the inanity of first year potions essays with the higher-grade inanity of respected leaders in the field and tells himself over and over that if anyone would ever just give him the chance he could do so much better. This is a fine dream, at least, and so safely abstract that he doesn't have to waste any energy on wondering whether there's any kind of truth to it.

 

 

 

He knows things are not going well, of course; he is quite aware of his failings as an educator, knows that he would not be good at this job even without the distraction that is playing the part of the rope in an endless tug of war. But he can't stop the feeling of defensiveness that rises in him when he finds the whole thing thrown in his face. As though he is the only less than satisfactory teacher at this ridiculous school; as though everyone else can be said to be perfectly fucking fair.

"Three students this week alone! In tears, Albus, actual tears!" McGonagall is saying, a high, angry edge to her voice. "I simply can't think-- quite entirely unsuitable-- that is-- and his, his background! I don't know why you think you can trust him with students, Albus, but I have to say--"

Standing at the bottom of the staircase, Severus hears Dumbledore's reply only as a low murmur, an indistinct rise and fall that reminds him of nothing so much as his father's radio, the deceptively calm rumble of the shipping forecast filtering up through the floor of his bedroom from the kitchen below. He strains to hear, and feels suddenly a more accute sympathy for the people for whom the shipping forecast is not an abstractly calming recitation but a necessity. He wonders if Dumbledore is defending him or condemning him. Perhaps both.

He's five years old and the grown-ups are fighting over him again. Something about that boy just isn't right, I'm telling you.

No.

He pulls his robes tighter around him, straightens them viciously -- takes the stairs with quick, exact steps. The voices falter. He does not need to rap on the door of the headmaster's office; it opens for him.

"Severus," Dumbledore says. "We were just discussing your progress. Do come in." He is offered a seat, a cup of tea, a ginger snap (do be careful with those - this recipe seems a touch more aggressive than the last, I fancy). He stands, keeps his hands from clenching into fists through will alone. Cannot, for all he had resolved himself, find the words of defence he had planned to speak.

"You know you can always turn to any of your colleagues for help in matters of classroom discipline," Dumbledore says. "My door is certainly always open to you," he says. "If you should ever have questions about any aspect of your job..." his eyes twinkle, knowing.

McGonagall's mouth is a hard line. But he does not quite recognise the emotion in her eyes. It's a shade softer than he expected. Unable to understand it, he opts to ignore it.

Gives a small nod, a tight little jerk of the head; all he can manage.

"Certainly. Headmaster."

"Oh, but call me Albus," Dumbledore says. "Come now, we're all friends here."

It will be a cold day in hell, Severus thinks. And isn't it odd, the phrases one remembers. Driftwood from the wreck of another world, no way to stop it washing up. Fuck everything.

 

 

 

If he had not overheard, would Dumbledore ever have said anything to him? Severus is not sure. Possibly he wouldn't have. He never seems to make much of an effort to involve himself directly in the issue of how classes are taught.

Perhaps it is all according to some higher plan.

He has his own logic, plan or no. Fourth year potions, Slytherin and Hufflepuff. He stalks between the desks, snorts at the efforts of half the class. If he tells Artemis Lestrange that she has no more talent for potions than the average garden toad, will dear aunt Bellatrix curse him the next time they meet? She's never liked him; she would probably relish the opportunity, lack of actual blood ties notwithstanding.

"Turner," he snarls, looking away from Lestrange towards the Hufflepuff side of the classroom, "that is a singularly creative interpretation of minced. I look forward to seeing you test the results of your doubtless fascinating experiment at the end of class."

 

 

 

At the end of September he is summoned and loses an entire weekend to his lordship's pleasure. It is late on Sunday night by the time Dumbledore meets him at the castle doors, steers him upstairs to the headmaster's office. Makes him tea, of course, as though tea might somehow make up for everything else, for the exhaustion so deep that it threatens to make him sick, for the words he has spoken and heard, the things he has seen. The people.

The tea has a calming draught in it. Severus doesn't comment. He can hardly fault Dumbledore's judgement on this point, at any rate.

"I don't know," he says. "I don't know! I can only tell you that I doubt anything good will come of his current mood." He knows something is happening, but no-one is invited to every party, so to speak. But he mistrusts-- it is never a good sign when his Lord is in the mood to play with his food, if one must put it delicately.

"We knew that he would not trust you with the most sensitive information when you are placed so close to me," Dumbledore says. "Do not concern yourself. Tell me what you know."

What he knows is not enough. He knows it even then, as he speaks.

Dumbledore listens, serious and still, his hands folded on his lap and his eyes very distant. Severus cannot imagine what he is thinking, feeling. He hardly seems human; this is not an intelligence report, Severus thinks, but a confession of sins to a higher power.

He is far too tired.

 

 

 

He is not sleeping when it happens; it is late on a Saturday night almost two months after the beginning of term, and he has not even been able to bring himself to go to bed; sits on the cool stone ledge of his windowsill with a book beside him and watches autumn mist moving across the lake in the darkness, blotting out the forest and grounds, eerie, appropriate. He feels certain he will be summoned at any moment. The feeling is a cold weight against his spine, curled snug against his body like the still-living memory of a nightmare, but he cannot explain where it comes from. He tells himself it is paranoia, that he is beginning to crack under the strain; it is not a comforting thought, but he refuses to consider himself a person who has premonitions. That is for-- for Trelawney. And her like.

His not-premonition is not quite right. It is violent pain he is waiting for, his arm tense in anticipation he cannot dispel, and he gets it, it claws at him, sharp and savage and-- ends.

On his arm the Mark is dead. No trace of movement. A bad tattoo. Faded, as though with extreme age.

He forces himself to walk to Dumbledore's rooms. Not run, not stumble down the corridors in a confusion of panic and elation and terror. Counts out his steps, a measured beat.

"Headmaster," he says. Does not know how to continue. Holds out his arm. They both stare at the greyed lines.

"I do not--" Dumbledore says. Frowns. "I must investigate. Wait in my office, if you please."

 

 

 

The news breaks. The war ends, at least on paper. He stands trial, not formally before a court of law but in a Ministry office, Dumbledore’s hand on his shoulder, Dumbledore’s calm and fatherly voice explaining everything while giving away nothing (a most natural change of heart – strength of conviction can hardly be doubted – my utmost confidence). He is neither damned nor rewarded. The school receives a small flood of letters requesting his removal despite the technically confidential nature of the proceedings; the senders' loyalties are, as far as he can tell, evenly split.

He sets longer and longer essays and is increasingly thorough in his marking. Red lines multiply, fill margins, spill over onto new scrolls. Students cower away from him, but talk behind his back.

There is nothing else of note to be said. Things exist which cannot be looked at directly; they can only be observed through careful tricks, mirrors and lenses.

In November there is a funeral. He does not attend.