Severus could not understand how sitting surrounded by rambunctious, ignorant twits emboldened by too many sweets was going to help him forget his life’s travesties. He would obey the whimsy of Albus Dumbledore even though he would rather have taken dinner in the dungeons as was his custom. If the Headmaster felt that sitting amidst this joyous chaos, complete with singing skulls, was fitting penance for his sins, he’d attend a feast every night.
This day though. It had to be the first official feast of the year. How could it not make him think of last year, of the demons in the night before All Saints Day? He had not been there, but he knew. He knew what Voldemort looked like when he delivered the Killing Curse in his cold, detached voice. The impassive face and the triumph in those dead eyes was more chilling than the laughter of the most sadistic Death Eaters.
There had been no torture that night, only death. Yet he survived to sit among the joy and be forced to remember how many people he had deprived of it. Why did the world celebrate a day that held no happiness?
He knew the older students were toasting more than just All Hallow’s Eve; they were raising their glasses to the Boy Who Lived. To Harry Potter, the infant made a hero by accident of birth. Harry Potter was still, a year later, too young to understand the events of his parents’ deaths and his own miraculous life. The true heroes of the war were unlauded, unnoticed. They were passed over for a babe in arms barely able to talk at the time the Dark Lord’s deadly spell rebounded.
And Severus still suffered suspicion and whispering and exile. It didn’t matter what he had done, or what Dumbledore told the world. It only mattered that he had the Dark Mark burned into him. He was branded as Voldemort’s own.
It was a fate he could do naught but accept. He resigned himself to it the day Dumbledore did not curse him and turn him away. He was exonerated without a trial, with only the good word and plans of Albus Dumbledore keeping him from Azkaban with his once-comrades.
But that word did not reach the masses and did not keep him from an unstable perch on the line between acceptance and condemnation. He reemerged after years of subterfuge to find a world unwilling to accept him. That he could not account for his last few years was as good as confessing his guilt. The assumed guilt meant he was of no consequence to anyone, a non-entity in society.
Yet he lived surrounded by young people, people just beginning to find their places in life. They were reminders of what he would never have, of his mistakes as a child and how they made a life within the wizarding world impossible. But he had to watch them exalt in their youth and promise and lift their glasses and toast a world without Voldemort’s oppression, innocent of the eternal consequences of the Dark Lord’s rise and fall.
Did no one but him remember that Voldemort was not the only one to die that night? The hollow victory was to them as solid and as true as death. There was no thought for those that fell along the way, no public grief for the many victims of the reign of terror. There was only personal worry before his fall and unrestrained relief for their own survival after that Halloween night.
Even Albus Dumbledore forgot the loss for the gain. He encouraged everyone to go on with their lives. He gave Severus a job just to emphasize the normalcy of the world without Voldemort. He wouldn’t have Severus idling away in self recrimination. There was no use dwelling in the past, he said, when there was living to be done in the present.
There was no life for Severus. There would be no life for him, but if Dumbledore could use what was left of him, he would submit to this hell. He would deal with the day to day misery of trying to impart knowledge to distracted children with no drive for to learn and no respect for anything, and less for their once-Death Eater professor. He had held his teaching position only since the start of term, but he had already heard whispers when his back was turned. He had already recognized the uselessness of trying to convey the delicate art of potions making to the students who sat in the dungeon. It was his punishment, his sentence, and he would serve it as justice required.
“Severus,” the cheerful voice Scottish voice interrupted. “Have you forgotten this is a party? That scowl is going to give the students the wrong idea about how you feel regarding the victory.” The cheer had turned stern, revealing the real purpose behind speaking to him. It was a tone he remembered well from his Transfiguration classes, but with a tremor-- of suspicion?
He looked up and saw the glares some of the older students were giving him. Finally, he met McGonagall’s eyes. The same stern face he remembered, but her eyes saw him now through the dirty lens of his mistakes.
“You would rather I profess joy I do not feel? You would rather I forget, as you have done, the sacrifices made to reach your so-called victory?
“I have lived a lie to bring your precious triumph. I will not do it again as a salve for the feelings of the innocents and fools who prefer not to remember the lives lost in pursuit of that success. You and yours might dance on the graves of the Potters and the Longbottoms and Pettigrew and the countless others, but I will not.”
He had not realized his cold voice had risen in volume, or that he stood towering over his old professor. He saw now the fear in her eyes, the awed and terrified stares of the students who had stopped to listen. Behind them, he saw Albus Dumbledore: careworn, looking older at that moment than Severus had ever seen him. He didn’t care. He wouldn’t care. The lie of living would stop then. His life had ended the day he had sought out the mark that weighed heavily against the feather of purity. It tipped the balance of eternity toward damnation.
He didn’t heed McGonagall’s sharp replies or the muttering of the children. He turned and stalked out, people clearing out of his way as they would for a ghost: he was a ghost. Let them move away in fear of his lifeless chill. He was through trying to make other people comfortable, to make his differences and infractions less noticeable. He had given years to that already and he was done. He would do as Albus Dumbledore required, he would make himself useful, but he would do it on his terms, without the trappings and frills of the society that refused to accept him.
The sounds of the celebration resumed, but faded again as he descended into the darkness of his dungeons. Let them dance, then, he would leave them to it. If they preferred to drown out the memories of last year with song, so be it.
But he would not.
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Acknowledgements – Thanks to Mike who puts up with my fandoming instead of homework and who kindly beta reads for me, even when I show him absolute drivel. Also, to Teri, without whom this story would be much less than it is. Finally, thank you Zsenya for beta reading and to the Sugarquill.net Headmistresses for creating the challenge that inspired this.
Disclaimer: The concepts and characters taken from the Harry Potter book series belong to J.K. Rowling and various publishers and distributors including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books, and Warner Brothers. I just have them out on a day pass.
This story is also archived at The Sugarquill in a response to their Second Task.