Severus Snape released the wards on his study without glancing up. He pushed through the door and strode quickly across the room, sinking into the large leather chair where he’d been sitting when he received Dumbledore’s summons. Pointing his wand at the door, he slammed it closed and re-warded it, adding an extra, password-protected layer. Then he let his head fall into his hands.
Through his fingers, he could see the open book and the scribbled notes he had abandoned when the shimmering phoenix shape had arrived, a lifetime ago, it seemed.
“Severus, I need you now,” it had said, with terrible urgency, and he had thrown down his work and Flooed immediately to Dumbledore’s office. There he’d found the old man crumpled on the Oriental rug in front of his desk. The curse that was spreading through his left hand could barely be contained. It was a miracle that he’d been able to cast his Patronus at all.
Foolish, foolish man, he thought as he took Dumbledore’s hand in his own. He cast a barrier spell at the wizard’s elbow, hoping to buy time.
“Dobby!” he called.
The house-elf cracked into being beside him. “Sir?” he asked timidly.
“Potions! My stores--I need blood thickener, burn salve, curse blocker, my strongest healing potion and Vita Secundus--immediately!”
Dobby did not linger long enough to reply, but cracked out again, leaving him alone with Albus and the increasingly loud voice in his mind that screamed and gibbered that Albus Dumbledore was dying. Albus Dumbledore was going to leave him alone here, and when he did, well, then what? For whom would he be spying then? He would be nothing but a Death Eater. His hands trembled as he tore the sleeve of Dumbledore’s robes away. He cast a diagnostic spell, wincing at the result.
Dobby arrived, laden with bottles. “Sir,” he said.
Snape grabbed the smallest phial from the elf and conjured a goblet. He poured the contents of the phial into the waiting cup and added some healing potion from a much larger flask, passing over the others. The mixture was heavy and thick, but it would have to do. He tipped the cup into Dumbledore’s mouth, noting with relief that the headmaster was swallowing reflexively. Snape cast several charms to help the potion find the damage quickly, then realized that he had not dismissed the elf.
“That will be all, Dobby. Thank you.”
“But, sir… Headmaster Dumbledore--?” Dobby rocked back and forth nervously.
“Will be fine,” Snape snapped. “And you will not speak of this to anyone.”
The elf gave him a dubious look, but Disapparated all the same.
Snape looked around the room, hoping for some clue as to where the headmaster could have encountered such a virulent curse. He focused on a ring, lying cracked and destroyed beside the sword of Gryffindor. He moved to touch it, thought better of it, and turned back toward Dumbledore, who was beginning to stir.
“Why,” Snape said, without preamble, “why did you put on that ring? It carries a curse, surely you realized that. Why even touch it?”
Dumbledore did not answer.
“It’s a miracle you managed to return here!” Snape continued, furious. “That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power. To contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being--”
Dumbledore raised his withered, blackened hand before his face to examine it. Snape watched him, filled with fear and pain and disgust. All these years. All these years he’d belonged to Dumbledore, trusted him with the redemption of his soul. And now, before the war had even truly begun, now Dumbledore would leave him alone again, alone with his past. Snape never deluded himself that he was liked or even trusted by the other members of the Order of the Phoenix. It was only Dumbledore’s unyielding insistence that preserved his place among them. Now he would have no way in, no way to help, nothing left to do but wait for his duplicity to be discovered. To wait for death. How could the old wizard be so careless with his own life when so many others depended on his?
“You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?”
Snape turned away from Dumbledore’s open, trusting face. He wished he could strike it. “I cannot tell. Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread eventually. It is the sort of curse that strengthens over time.”
“Well, that simplifies things considerably,” Dumbledore said.
“I’m sorry?” Snape replied, whipping back. “I don’t follow.”
“I’m referring, of course, to the Voldemort’s plan to have poor Draco Malfoy kill me.”
“As I told you, Albus, the Dark Lord doesn’t intend for him to succeed. It’s simply a plan to torture Lucius for his recent failures--to make the family watch as the boy fails… and is punished.”
“And I imagine you are the successor to the plan, should it fail?”
Snape paused. Voldemort had never spoken this outright, yet, somehow, he knew it to be true. “I think that is his plan.”
Dumbledore nodded. “Well, I’ll be grateful to be spared the torture of the curse,” he said simply.
“You don’t actually intend to let Malfoy kill you?”
“Certainly not!” Dumbledore replied. “You must do it.”
Of course. Of course. Because what are spies for when it comes down to it? You can coddle them and dress them in teacher’s robes. You can admit them to secret societies and ask them to heal the unhealable. You can charge them with protecting children. But in the end, you always expect them to kill. They are always the weapon. Never the shield.
“Shall I do it now, or would you like a few moments to compose an epitaph?” Snape sat back in his chair and arranged the lines of his face into sneering indifference.
Dumbledore chuckled. “I dare say the moment will present itself in due time.”
“If you are intent on dying, why not let Draco do it and spare him the Dark Lord’s wrath?”
“Because Draco’s soul is not yet so damaged. I would not see it ripped in two on my account.”
“And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?”
Always the fear had lingered around the edges, the memory of Dumbledore’s face as he spat at him and whispered, “You disgust me.” Always the suspicion that for all his protection, Dumbledore hated him still, thought him beneath contempt. Now the truth comes out, Snape thought with a heretofore unknown bitterness.
“You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” said Dumbledore.
“Very well,” he said icily, and matching the chill in his voice was the sudden and trickling, cold certainty that this had always been the plan. “And when do you intend to let the Order know?”
“Surely you realize it will have to be our secret?” Dumbledore said. “Hogwarts will fall. And when it does, you must be well and fully within Voldemort’s good graces. There can be no more dance. For how else will you be appointed Headmaster? I am counting on you to protect the children.”
Protect the children, indeed.
“So you intend to brand me a turncoat and return me to the Dark Lord,” Snape said, his voice completely affectless, his face a mask. “And should I survive…?”
Dumbledore paused, and for a moment Snape was swept with the notion that there was no plan in place for that particular possibility, that the debt he owed Lily Potter had come due at last and with interest. No one expected him to live through the war, certainly Dumbledore did not, and if he were honest, he himself did not expect it. But over the years, he had begun to think it possible that someone, even if he could not find it inside to do it himself, might hope that he would live. He had begun to think that Dumbledore might.
“I see,” he said.
“Severus,” Dumbledore said kindly. “My dear Severus. I know what I am asking of you. Surely you did not think I would leave you completely without recourse? We both know that your chances of surviving this war are nearly as terrible as my own. But I think there is a way to protect our secret and still secure for you the chance at life, should it present itself.”
Snape’s lips tightened and there was a subtle lift to his chin. No one who did not know him intimately would see relief in his face, but it was evident in the curve of his brow and the pallor of his skin.
“Do tell, Albus,” he drawled.
Dumbledore leaned forward shakily, and Snape nearly interrupted to tell him to relax and save his strength. But he felt, in those moments, as if his very existence balanced on a fine, invisible point, and he intended to hear it, now, before the point turned and tore him to shreds.
“I want you to marry Hermione Granger.”
Snape blanched, but managed merely to cross his legs before replying. “And how, pray tell, would marrying the great Gryffindor know-it-all secure my chances at a life?” he asked. “A life worth living, anyway,” he added unkindly.
Dumbledore tipped his head slightly in acknowledgement of Snape’s distress before he continued. “Hermione is not a member of the Order. She is not bound to share its secrets or her own. And yet, she is an icon of the Light, and will become more so, I’m sure, as the war progresses. Her trust in you,” he paused, “would speak volumes.”
“Shall I propose immediately?” Snape asked sardonically. “My chambers, of course, would be a suitable home for any student of mine.”
“Miss Granger will come of age in three month’s time,” Dumbledore said, as if they were speaking of the weather or a recent Quidditch match. “If you were agreeable, I would approach her then. Obviously, this would be simply one more of our secrets. Both you and she would continue on as usual.”
The only thought tethering Snape to sanity was the simple and reassuring fact that Hermione Granger would never, ever agree to wed the greasy Potions master, dark-hearted bat of the dungeons. He was suddenly profoundly grateful for the persona he’d been forced to cultivate over the years. For Dumbledore seemed in earnest, in fact, seemed to have given this some thought and come to the conclusion, by whatever unfathomable process, that this was a good idea.
“And how do you intend to woo her on my behalf?” he sneered. “Miss Granger, happy birthday! How lovely to see you. Professor Snape here is going to kill me. Do marry him and prove he was for the Order all along, won’t you?”
Dumbledore chuckled. “Severus, you do have a way with words. I wish I could trust you to sway Miss Granger on your own.”
“However, as I’m sure that is an impossibility, I intend to present it to her much as I have to you: as a necessity. Hermione is intimately acquainted with sacrifice and has a well developed sense of justice. You remember, I trust, the year the house-elves nearly went on strike? She understands what is at stake, and I’m sure she would do all in her power to see that you are properly recognized.”
“Miss Granger is a Gryffindor, Albus, and as you say, she has exacting ideas about justice. She will not stand by and watch me kill you.” His voice dropped and bore in it a tinge of deep regret that it could not be he who stood by this sentiment. “She would rather die.”
Dumbledore sobered. “On that point, I believe you are right. However, I see no need to tell Miss Granger that particular part of the plan. She need only be informed that you will need to seem to return to the Death Eaters, that you will commit some atrocity that will secure your acceptance there, and that no one but she will know the truth of the matter.”
Snape looked at him levelly. “I have known you to manipulate people in the past, in the name of the greater good, but this seems underhanded even for you, Albus. There is no greater good here. My good name is no reason to condemn a young girl to--”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you very chivalrous, protecting a young girl’s--”
“A young girl’s--a young girl! All witty banter aside, this is preposterous. She is not yet 17! She is my student! If you insist that I marry, why not someone older, more appropriate?”
“I’m sure it is not lost on you that the more appropriate witches are dead,” Dumbledore said ruthlessly.
Inwardly, Snape recoiled from his words as if struck. Dumbledore had conjured Lily in the room as surely as if he had spoken her name. “Those we could have trusted were lost in the first skirmish,” he continued, “and few babies are born in wartime--”
“There is Nymphadora.” Snape grimaced as he said it.
“Nymphadora is spoken for,” Dumbledore replied.
“Are you referring to the werewolf? Because he hardly seems to be chomping--if you’ll forgive the phrase--at the bit to marry her.”
Dumbledore glared at him for the first time that evening. “Nymphadora is in love with Remus. Whether or not he returns her affection. She would never agree--”
“So we forgo the witch who would, quite rightly, stand up for her wishes, in order to pursue a younger and more malleable target?” Snape asked venomously.
“If you insist on looking at it that way.”
The two men sat in silence, staring at each other for a time. Dumbledore sighed.
“Forgive me for saying so, Severus, but the likelihood is that we will change her life very little, if at all. The chances that--”
“I have no illusions about my longevity,” Snape spat.
“Then I fail to see your objection.”
Suddenly, Snape felt very foolish, defending Miss Granger when it should have been clear to him all along that Dumbledore would have never risked his precious Gryffindor princess if he actually thought her life would be affected. She, of course, would never be considered expendable.
“And nothing about my life would be changed?” he asked pointedly. “I would go on exactly as before?”
“Assigning her as many detentions as I’m sure you otherwise would, Severus.”
“Then I suppose there is nothing more to say on the subject,” he said, rising. “Speak with Miss Granger if you must, though I doubt very much she’ll agree.” He moved to the desk to collect the bottles and phials strewn about it.
Dumbledore snatched up a slim, unmarked phial as Snape reached for it. He was remarkably quick for someone who, only a half an hour before, had been on the brink of death, Snape thought. The old wizard held it to the light before beginning to speak in the quiet, clipped tones that told Snape he was murderously angry.
“Is this the Vita Secundum?” And before Snape could reply, “Oh, no. No. Tell me you didn’t--”
“It’s full, as you can plainly see. Or did the curse impair your vision?” Snape’s voice dripped with sarcastic solicitousness.
“Why is it in this office?”
“I asked Dobby to fetch it, along with the other potions. The ones that saved your life, as you’ll recall.”
“Severus, I thought I made myself clear on the subject of the Vita. It is for Harry and Harry alone. No one else’s life is remotely--”
“Important. Yes, I know,” Snape said acidly. “I can see that my concern for your welfare was misplaced.”
“We did not spend years on that potion to have it thrown away on trivialities!” Dumbledore hissed.
“I’m sure I will be comforted by your lack of regard for your own life when I have to take it from you,” Snape said, removing the phial from Dumbledore’s grasp and striding from the room, robes billowing.
Still sitting in his worn leather recliner, Snape lifted his head from his hands and glanced around his chambers. Everything was remarkably normal, unchanged: a stack of rolled parchments on his desk, a fire kept low in the grate, his mother’s Abyssinian rug on the stone floor where it had lain since he joined the Hogwarts staff and took up these rooms as his own. And yet, though it would likely be months before any of this came to pass, Severus Snape felt that his life, as he had known it, had ended.