HBP-compatible! Contains a spoiler or two...A/N: This story is to be situated in the wake of the events recounted in Prisoner of Azkaban. The usual disclaimers apply.
Many thanks to my betas: Charybdis, Elfie and Ada Kensington.
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Severus Snape was no fool. He thought of himself as clever, rational, and accomplished, and he trusted his own judgement. But there were things – things he did, things he said – that he could not reconcile with this assessment of his own personality, as they had led to his first row ever with the man whose esteem he wanted most. It nagged at him; it prevented him from sleeping that night.
He was sitting on the battlement at the top of Hogwarts’ West Tower, leaning his back against the cool stone wall and watching the thin wreaths of smoke he exhaled unfurl into the night air. He had come up here to smoke in secret ever since he had been fifteen. Nothing had changed much, except his taste: he had exchanged his cigarettes for cigarillos. It was one thing he retained from his altogether short acquaintance with Rabastan Lestrange, who had been of the opinion that cigarettes lacked distinction and had gently steered his protégé towards what he considered a nobler tobacco product. Severus had not objected. In those days he had been eager to distance himself from his father’s sphere of life and everything that it comprised. For some time he had pretended to be an aristocrat by virtue of his mother’s name, trying very hard to ingratiate himself with the smart set centred around the Malfoys and the Blacks. But the truth of the matter was that it was his mother, and not he, who was the last of the Princes, and to people like the Malfoys this was more than a mere detail. He had never been their equal and never would be, try as he might; his father’s lower-class, Muggle background had crept into the blood that, but for this, would have been pure. There were less-esteemed wizards than half-bloods, to be sure, but they did not rank with the best.
He had been naïve once. Life had seemed simple. He had thought that he belonged somewhere – that there was a place where he might fit in perfectly, that there was in the world a Severus-shaped hollow that was just waiting for him to step into it and blend wonderfully with the surroundings, that it was just a matter of finding that hollow for him to be at peace. He had looked for it among the purebloods, but he had seen a certain, admittedly polite, disdain in their eyes that told him to search on. He had looked for it among the Death Eaters, believing that his interests and skills predisposed him to an allegiance with this select band of Dark sorcerers. But the niche he had found there did not fit either; they had pressed him into it with force until he was crooked and sore. He had finally turned to Albus Dumbledore.
Dumbledore had welcomed him like a long-lost son. This had surprised him, and for a long time he thought that here, at last, he had come home. He had found a seat at the Hogwarts staff table, a bed in the castle’s dungeons and a private corner in the library. There was a particular low-backed chair in the staff room that was, by silent convention, his. He wielded authority over Slytherin House; he was the Potions Master, with capitals. And Dumbledore had let him be. There were no dictatorial commands, no tugging at his sleeve or pushing him in a direction he’d rather not take, no complaints, no interference with the way he taught his classes or organised his life or studied Dark Arts or snarled at people. And, offered full scope to develop his talents, he had been successful in his undertakings. Slytherin House prospered. The standard of the Hogwarts Potions curriculum had risen. He had established his position as one of the prime potion makers in the British Isles. From junior staff member he had become Dumbledore’s right hand man. He had been almost content.
Until the ground on which he had built his life started to tremble.
He had, quite suddenly, found himself haunted by ghosts from the past. First the Potter boy had arrived at Hogwarts, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father. Severus could not help himself, but simply seeing the child made his hackles stand on end and his left hand ache for his wand. It was a weird reflex he had acquired during his own schooldays, when the sight of James Potter had invariably meant trouble. There was an instinct in him, an irrational fear that told him to crush the boy before he could strike, as he most certainly would. He knew that at this point in time, Harry was his inferior in power; but his memories of being at James’s mercy were so vivid that he felt precious little inclination to wait until the situation had changed. Again and again he had to call himself to order, remembering that the boy was a student like any other and that he, as his teacher, was at least partly responsible for his welfare. Severus had, with great force of will, done his duty, and restricted himself to the occasional pestering, bullying and humiliation – his self-control only stretched so far. He had made no explicit mention of his disturbance to Dumbledore, thinking it redundant to attract his attention to something that was obvious for all to see, and trusting that the Headmaster understood Severus’ position.
And just when he had settled for, if not peace, at least a truce with Potter, Sirius Black had escaped from Azkaban prison, and Dumbledore had hired Remus Lupin as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. The former fact had thoroughly ruined Severus’ temper, which was of little import as few people noticed a difference anyway; but the latter had vexed him beyond words. Although his repeated applications for the Defence post sprang, these last years, more from habit than from any real desire to relinquish Potions, it stung him to the quick that the Headmaster should give the hated werewolf preference over him, especially with Black at large. Quite apart from that, the appointment meant that Lupin would come to live at Hogwarts, the territory Severus now regarded as rightfully his. He did not understand how Dumbledore could have made such a decision – surely it must be clear that a place that accommodated him could not also harbour his enemy. Besides, he had the prior claim. To his great dismay, however, the Headmaster had remained adamant, dismissing his arguments as puerile.
The last school year had been veritable torture, Severus being forced to live under one roof with both Harry Potter and Remus Lupin. To make things worse, the two of them got on rather well together; this raised his annoyance to the square. Every month as he prepared the complex potion that would render the werewolf harmless, he relived in his mind the horror of the night when he had nearly been killed by it. He had survived, but at the cost of a life-debt to someone he loathed; he found it hard to decide which fate was worse. All in all he had shown commendable restraint in his dealings with Lupin. But then again, he thought wryly, a boggart and the occasional snide remark were nothing compared to what had happened when Black had entered the scene.
Severus leaned his head against the wall and winced. He took a puff with closed eyes, his mind quaintly relaxed considering the violence of the feelings his recollection called up. He had been so angry that he had really been beside himself. He had entirely lost control – it had frightened even him. His fury had been such that in its wake he had felt empty and sick with exhaustion. But even now he thought he had been entitled to his rage. What had been done to him was unbearable. He had, finally, after so many years of carefully nurturing his resentment, held Lupin and Black’s lives in the palm of his hand. For one, fiery-coloured moment they had been in his power. And they had slipped through his eager fingers. Potter and his cronies had interfered, but that was not what bothered him most. It had been Dumbledore. Dumbledore alone could have kept him from fulfilling his sweet plans, and had indeed done so. Dumbledore, whom he had trusted like no other, had personally stepped in between him and his vengeance; had, as before, favoured Black and Lupin over him, as if the years of Severus’ complicity with the Headmaster, in which he took such joy, had never existed. It was downright betrayal; it had hurt Severus to the core.
He had struck back, of course. He had forced the werewolf to resign. He had every right. Lupin was a danger to the entire school. And Dumbledore and Potter would miss him. It was a brilliant solution and it should have made his meaning perfectly clear. But instead of offering to make amends, the Headmaster, seconded, as always, by McGonagall, had called him childish, petulant and immature.
Severus shifted uneasily. He had reached the essence of the problem that kept him awake. He had done something he did not regret, and yet he felt, or was made to feel, as though he had made a grave mistake. All his actions of that fateful night had been disapproved of by the Headmaster and those of the staff who knew, whereas to him they had felt natural and justified. His ruse of the following morning had seemed equally fitting, and again the Headmaster had made no secret of his disappointment.
It was only after all the damage had been done that Severus realised why Dumbledore had tricked him instead of otherwise trying to make him abandon his plans. He had purposefully given him a reason to hate him, to see how far the strange bond they had struck would stretch. If Severus was able to forgive once, he might be able to do it twice; if he overcame one slight he might overcome more. The Headmaster had set his student a challenge and had, judging from the good humour he had displayed in doing so - and which had only spurred Severus’ ire - been fully confident that he would pass. He had not. Instead, he had vented his anger and had retaliated when reproved. Anything that reminded him of his old school tormentors rendered him entirely irrational and clouded his judgement.
Looking back, Severus suspected that if he had succeeded in keeping a level head in his confrontations with his enemies, he would not only have avoided making a fool of himself; he might also have managed to take his vengeance – an extra he doubted Dumbledore had wanted to reckon with. He was so much more redoubtable when he had his wits about him. The Headmaster’s hard lesson had borne its fruit. It was now only a matter of how to achieve this distant aim.
He knew what it would take. The Headmaster had more than once told him how essential it was that he divest himself of his hatred, and of the burden of his memory. But as Severus sat there in silence under the moonless, starry sky, thinking and smoking, he did not see how he could possibly do such a thing, provided he even wanted to. Because, all things considered, hatred was what propelled him forwards. It was his troubled relationship with the ever so talented Potter and Black that had driven him to work hard on his studies, to prove to the world it had no right to despise him. His loathing of his father was what had made him resourceful and independent. It was his ardent desire to, as his younger self had once so delicately phrased it, ‘kick the Dark Lord’s arse’ that had led him to spy for Dumbledore and secure a few small but welcome victories for the Order of the Phoenix. His resentment of old Professor Slughorn had pushed him towards the excellence in potion making in which he now took such pride. Everything positive in his life had its roots in his amazing capacity for deep, fierce hatred. He felt that if he were to part with it he would simply disintegrate. On the other hand, if he kept cherishing it, it was probably only a matter of time before he spontaneously self-combusted.
Dumbledore had said to him, years ago, just after Severus had returned from the trial that cleared his name, that love and hate lie so closely together that a man such as he, who was capable of passionate hate, must be capable of deep love also. He had postulated love as a much better motivation for anyone’s actions, and advised his pupil to look for it inside himself. Severus thought this was sentimental rubbish that, though it obviously worked for the Headmaster, had no bearing on him. He could not think of anyone he loved, unless he qualified the reverence and respect he normally bore towards Dumbledore as affection, but even that regard was not unconditional. He sometimes wished he could live in a world miraculously devoid of people, and, coming to think of it, of animals too, as he did not care for them either - though he was willing to make an exception for cats, who were clever and didn’t trouble one.
It occurred to Severus for the first time in twelve years that his nature might actually be in entire contradiction to the spirit of the environment he had been moving in. He was the one trochee in the otherwise perfectly composed iambic pentameter that comprised the Headmaster and his four Heads of Houses. He was the one metrical foot that could not be made to fit, consisting as it did of the same elements as the others, but in the opposite sequence. And he had apparently reached the limits of what poetic licence Dumbledore would allow.
A feeling of loss weighed heavily in his chest. He had deluded himself into thinking he belonged at Hogwarts, or, it had dawned on him, anywhere else. There was very simply no such thing as belonging. There was no space that would magically absorb his shape. There was only a ready-made mould, and he needed pruning to fit in. He asked himself if he could stand being pruned, and if so, who would do it.
He sighed and stretched his legs. Dumbledore and he had reached an impasse. One of them must apologise and take a step towards reconciliation, or their ways must inevitably part. And although he had threatened the Headmaster by saying that he might just go and offer his services to Malfoy, he had never seriously considered doing so. He would not be able to bear the man’s misplaced airs of superiority for long, and he was only willing to take orders from someone above him in attainments and talents, something Malfoy certainly was not. In truth, Severus recognised only one master: Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of the age.
A bitter smile curled the corners of his mouth. If he wanted to stay at Hogwarts, and he had no intention of leaving before he had learnt all there was to learn, he would have to eat humble pie, though he had no stomach for it. He could, if he did not really feel it, at least pretend to be sorry for his actions to begin with – it was impossible that the Headmaster should make the first move and give him what he craved. He wondered if he would ever be able to understand why Dumbledore had acted as he had done, why he had refused to take Severus’ side despite his staunch loyalty that was obviously greater than either Black’s or Lupin’s; and if, given the right amount of time, he might be able to forgive him for it.
Just as he was about to take a last puff from what was left of the cigar, he experienced a pain he had not felt for long years. It was an unpleasant, stinging sensation on his left forearm, and it made him start in alarm. A shudder ran along his spine as with his right hand he unbuttoned the tight sleeve of his robes and the white shirt underneath. The thing on his arm, which had been the delicate pink of a healing scar for more than twelve years, had assumed a reddish hue.
Although the sight of the reinvigorated Dark Mark filled him with mild apprehension, Severus could barely resist a chuckle. It provided him with the ideal pretext to go to the Headmaster without having to admit defeat. Dumbledore and he had a common goal again, and Severus could suddenly explain to himself why he kept submitting to the Headmaster’s commands: his enemy’s enemies were most definitely his friends. If he was perfectly honest with himself – and even though it was easier than being so with others, he still found it hard – he had to admit that he was relieved at having an excuse at hand. He raised his eyebrows in irritation and sincerely hoped he was not going soft. He Vanished the cigar stump with his wand, left the battlement, and began a slow and thoughtful descent of the West Tower. He was ready for more.
In the east, dawn’s pink fingers touched the mountain tops.