This story was entered in the Sycophant Hex: Deathday Festival.
Even now, years later, he remembers the shock and disdain that flickered across the Slytherins' faces when the Sorting Hat made its decision. It was but a momentary lapse, and after the briefest of hesitations - so brief that only another Slytherin, or a pureblood steeped in centuries of snubbing (which amounted to nearly the same thing) could catch it - they curved their mouths up and clapped their hands together in false welcome. To the rest of the world, the House presented a united front; but within the dungeon, the distinctions of rank and privilege were finely preserved.
He knows now that it was worse in those days, when old money still trumped new, and purebloods who were merely nouveau riche might as well resign themselves to lingering in the lower echelons of Wizarding society. In such a society, to be poor, and to be a half-blood, and an ugly, charmless one at that - well, even from the beginning, he'd been doomed.
Though his eleven year-old self didn't quite understand it the way his adult self does, he'd gathered immediately that he didn't belong among the miniature witches and wizards coolly assessing him. They reminded him unnervingly of the owner of the garment factory where his father worked; and so it was with reluctance that he unfolded himself from the stool, a scrawny, scowling boy dressed in faded second-hand robes, and made his way to where the beautiful children lounged in their sartorial splendor.
"What's your name?" a stiff-spined, bespectacled boy asked curiously.
Sensing that a great deal depended on this answer, he hesitated. "Severus."
The black-haired girl holding court near the center of the table tossed her head impatiently, as if he'd missed the point. "Severus who?"
And he'd flushed, knowing that his ignorant Muggle father would never pass muster with them, and nearly swallowed his answer. "Snape."
The girl turned to the blonde on her left. In a voice calculated to carry along the length of the entire table, she said, "Cissy, remind me where the Snapes are on the Register?"
Carelessly, the blonde - Narcissa Black, he recalled, who'd been Sorted many students before him - flicked back the shining curtain of her hair and smirked. "Why do you care, Bella? Are you thinking of marrying him?"
The table laughed; Bella shot him a furious glare, as if her humiliation were somehow his fault. After that the Slytherins ignored him. Summarily dismissed, he withdrew to the far end of the table, and ate his first meal at Hogwarts in silence. But all evening he kept glancing up to where the proudest of the proud sat, and vowed that someday he would see them on their knees before him.
His mother, Eileen, had been in Ravenclaw, and disinclined to politics. But from her occasional, preoccupied letters (his father was drinking again, he suspected), he soon learned that the Blacks were the closest thing Wizarding society had to royalty. Bella - Miss Bellatrix Black to you, the lady in question informed him with a disdainful sneer - was Narcissa's older sister. There was another sister, Andromeda, who was in Ravenclaw; a cousin, Regulus, who was not yet at Hogwarts; and Regulus's brother, Sirius, who was the family pariah for ending up in Gryffindor.
At first he thought he might find an ally in the outcast Black. But Sirius, whose liberal sensibilities evidently didn't extend to poor half-bloods who spoke with a rough Yorkshire accent, scented blood in the water, and tormented him ceaselessly.
"Why are you here by yourself, Snivellus?" Sirius taunted him one chilly autumn evening.
They were in the library, and as usual, Severus was alone. Flinching, he looked up, his hair sweeping against the pages of his Potions text and smudging the cramped scribbles in its margins. Sirius's eyes flickered with distaste and slid to the side, where a few tables away, the assembled lordlings of Slytherin House were scheming and plotting, while their neglected essays drooped in the flickering light.
"The other snakes won't let the greasy, unwashed git sit with them, eh?"
It was a test, Severus saw immediately, but not for him. His hand trembling slightly, he lowered his quill; and beneath the cover of the tabletop, he eased his wand from his robes.
Preoccupied with watching his childhood companions, Sirius failed to notice. Bella - Miss Black - had caught his gaze. As the Slytherin table looked on with great interest, her mouth curved into a dangerous smile; her eyelids slid half-shut. Severus saw Sirius go still, as if Petrified; and a heady, crackling something he didn't know how to name smoldered into existence, mingling with the scent of old parchment and ink.
Bellatrix swayed to her feet and leaned forward, still smiling. "You take that back, Sirius," she cooed.
Sirius swallowed, seemingly transfixed by the sight of her long, pale fingers twined around her wand. "You don't like him any better than I do."
But Bellatrix's lips only twisted more. Slytherin protected its own, and besides, she was delighted to have an excuse to hex her cousin. Without warning, her wand slashed upward, shooting a dull red jet across the room. As Sirius dove and lunged for his own wand, Severus sent a nasty Sectumsempra! hurtling toward his tormentor. Unable to dodge both, Sirius went reeling into the shelves with blood trickling down his forehead.
Every head in the library shot up and jerked toward the Slytherin corner. Madam Pince hurried over, fury suffusing her face. "Dueling in the library! Why, I never! Out! Out!"
In the confusion, Severus hastily seized his belongings and hurried away before she could call him back to assign detention. The other Slytherins were right behind him. But while his threadbare bag was slipping off his shoulder and his tattered books were threatening to slip from his grasp, his housemates looked as regal and elegant as if they'd just left a garden party. Even in retreat, they carried themselves with pride; and Severus hated them all with an intensity borne of envy and desire.
The next morning at breakfast, a pale, silver-haired boy slid into the seat across from him. Severus looked up in surprise: Lucius Malfoy was a prefect several forms ahead, and usually presided over meals from a seat near the Blacks. With curiosity tempered with a healthy dose of wariness, Severus closed the text that he'd been studying and waited to be addressed. Anxiety lanced through his gut. Would he be chastised for nearly costing Slytherin House points? Would he be rebuked for upstaging Bellatrix Black? Would the purebloods close ranks against him and take Sirius's side?
But Lucius was in no hurry to enlighten him. In his usual fastidious manner, Malfoy took his time selecting his breakfast and began eating, as if it were perfectly normal for him to mingle with the fringe elements of Slytherin House. Between bites - Lucius had beautiful table manners, Severus noted - he said, "Snape - it is Snape, isn't it? That was an impressive bit of wand work last night."
"Tha were there?" In his shock, the worst of Severus's dialect emerged. Lucius raised an elegant eyebrow. Severus flushed, wishing he dared to modify Malfoy's memory.
"You must get rid of that utterly atrocious accent," the older boy said, setting down his knife and dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "Of course I was there. It was an interesting hex you used on Sirius Black. Where did you learn it?"
"Books," Snape said, feeling his cheeks warm again. He made an effort to speak properly, but failed. "Me - my - muther gat - er, has - 'em hidden in t' cubboord. Ah wud sneak in and read 'em all, when ah was t' be doin' me schoolwork."
It was true enough, in a way; he'd learned how to create his own curses from those books. Lucius looked him over carefully, and Severus felt as if he were a racing broom that Malfoy was considering purchasing. "For a first-year who's just begun with charms, that's powerful magic," he said at last. "I think we can expect great things of you, for all your unfortunate heritage."
Severus couldn't quite keep hope from flaring in his eyes.
"Yes," Lucius repeated softly, and rose to his feet. His face was inscrutable. "I think we can expect great things of you."
Severus understood immediately what Malfoy meant: I can ensure that someday you will become one of us.
"Thank 'ee," he murmured.
But in his gratitude, he'd forgotten that there are no gifts in Slytherin House, only favors that must one day be repaid.
After that morning, Lucius paid him little public attention, though all the Slytherins seemed to be aware of his new status as the Malfoy charity case. Initially the others received him with cool indifference. (In the case of the elder Miss Black, this was an improvement, for now she left him alone, though she never quite forgave him for her embarrassment that first day, or for getting the draw on her cousin in the library.) But no one objected when he dared to sit closer to the center of the table during mealtimes, and in his new seat, he found himself privy to the intrigues of his House for the first time.
He was amazed to discover that the first-years were already busy jostling for positions on the Quidditch team; the lineup was evidently as much about status as flying talent. Older students jealously watched their Head of House, Professor Slughorn, for signs of his favor, for not even the Blacks dared sneer at his Ministry connections. It was all part of the Great Game, the constant dance of power and shifting allegiances among - and sometimes within - the prominent Wizarding families, and Severus's head whirled from merely trying to keep track of the score. But if he wished to belong, he told himself grimly, he had to understand the rules; and so he gritted his teeth, and watched, and learned.
To his surprise, it was Narcissa Black who proved to be the most skilled player. For her, the maneuvering was as natural as breathing; and her subtle and deliberate efforts to undermine her own sister as the queen of Slytherin fascinated him. Whenever Bellatrix's mercurial temper ruffled her allies, Narcissa was there to take advantage. It was like watching the sands drain from an hourglass, and the more Bellatrix tried to cling to her influence, the faster her power slid through her fingers. By midwinter the youngest Black sister was the undisputed ruler of the dungeons. Soon after, she began to take particular interest in him.
"Snape," she trilled one Friday evening as she glided into the common room, the warm tones of her voice completely at odds with her cold demeanor. Her eyes went unerringly to the shadowy corner where he'd secreted himself. Reluctantly he extricated himself to greet her. She looked like a marble sculpture come to life. "Your Forgetfulness Potion today was simply brilliant. Even Professor Slughorn complimented it."
He knew that she was using him - she was a Slytherin and a Black, after all - though to what end, he is still uncertain. Surely it wasn't for sport; that was the role of Sirius (who, to the Black sisters' delight, continued surfacing at unexpected times, like a dog begging to be kicked). Perhaps she wanted someone to do her schoolwork, for she quickly claimed him as her partner in Potions. Or perhaps she had already set her sights on marrying the Malfoy heir, and befriended him in order to curry favor with Lucius.
Whatever the case, Snape was grateful for her efforts. Her sanction bought him entry into a new circle of Slytherins: the Lestrange brothers, Martin Avery, Ashley Wilkes, and Evan Rosier. All were purebloods, though none were quite as wealthy or noble as the Blacks; and like himself, all had rather sardonic bents. When she learned about their developing friendship, Narcissa was uncharacteristically delighted, and for some mischievous reason of her own, took it upon herself to cultivate his manners.
"Severus, you do know a finger bowl is not for drinking, don't you?" she chided him, chilly amusement glinting in her pale eyes when she caught him glaring at the offending setting in question. Or, "Severus, how charming. You're dropping your h's again."
He studied her; he copied her; he trailed after her through the hallways of Hogwarts like an over-eager puppy. He even fancied himself infatuated with her at one point during their third year, until she coolly reminded him that the vast social gulf between them precluded any possibility of a match. Still, he'd have done anything for her, in those days before she became Mrs. Malfoy.
For all his disillusionment with Wizarding aristocracy, he reflects morosely, he still would.
Lucius's lessons were of an entirely different sort, though he certainly didn't disapprove of Severus's efforts to improve himself. He observed without comment as Severus acquired some of the veneer of a well-born wizard. He considered it his duty to provide the substance.
"There is a natural order to the world," Lucius explained as they strode through Diagon Alley the summer after Malfoy graduated. Snape had to hurry to keep up, like a shadow that Malfoy kept misplacing. "Even among Muggles, some have the will to power, while most do not. How much more important this distinction is in the Wizarding world! Among the purest of the pure, generations of careful breeding have ensured the proper cultivation of strength and ability."
"Aren't I a powerful wizard?" Severus asked. He refrained from remarking upon the green-eyed girl who also defied that generalization, the one who the teachers said was the cleverest witch in his year. "And I'm no pureblood."
Perhaps Malfoy guessed where his thoughts were lingering, for his smile displayed too many teeth. "Of course you are," he acknowledged smoothly. "I did not say it was impossible for someone with a... less than impeccable heritage to become great. But you must realize that in order to be a true wizard, one must go beyond academic brilliance. One must demonstrate character, leadership, and social ease."
Severus frowned. Lucius added hastily, "Not that it's a worry in your case. But in the case of Mud - er, Muggle-borns, their talents are often wasted, for they have no appreciation for the history and legacy of our world. Instead they charge in and try to impose their own quaint notions upon us. And because there are many of them and few of us, the old ways are dying."
"What do you mean?"
They had entered Knockturn Alley. Ramshackle buildings lined the narrow street, sagging inward as if closely listening to Malfoy's words. Dust obscured the grimy shop windows. Sharp gabled roofs screened the sunlight that had burned so brightly in Diagon Alley, and transformed it into a queer grey glow.
"The Wizarding culture is slowly being stamped out, Severus," Lucius said softly. "By those who don't respect our heritage and our power. By those who believe Muggles are harmless. By those who have forgotten the persecution our ancestors suffered at the hands of those without magic."
"By people like Dumbledore," Snape supplied, familiar with Malfoy's complaints about the Headmaster.
"Exactly so." Lucius's voice had deepened. "It is our duty to protect the Wizarding world from fools like him."
Severus thought of his first Welcoming Feast, of the two rows of blank faces staring at him and wondering how someone like him had been Sorted into their House. Was that the world he was duty-bound to protect?
Abruptly he asked, "Why am I acceptable, despite my Muggle father?"
Malfoy winced; Severus still had much to learn about subtlety. But his answer came readily enough. "Power," he said simply. "Few who aren't born to the Great Game ever learn to understand it. But you have, have you not?"
Lucius continued, "You have seen that there is no right side or wrong side. There is only power, and those who know how to wield it."
"Power," Severus echoed, drawing out the word as if it were something to be savored. He thought contemptuously of Sirius, who for all his upbringing was as easy to manipulate as a boggart: one only had to dangle Bellatrix before him, and he'd go haring away and get himself into trouble. Why couldn't Snape have been born into that family, instead? Oh, the things he'd have been able to accomplish...
Lost in his own dreams, he didn't see the sneer that twitched across Malfoy's face.
In fifth year, Snape was made a prefect, and found himself sharing a patrol with the clever green-eyed Mudblood, Lily Evans.
He despised her, at first. She was nothing like what a proper witch should be. She laughed constantly and without reserve; she was friendly with everyone, without regard for their birth or usefulness. She was as easy to read as a book, Severus thought with disgust. Like Sirius, she was a fool; though in her case, it was only to be expected, given her descent. He never spoke to her unless their duties demanded it, but his silence hardly dissuaded her from chattering.
But the more he looked to criticize her, the less he could find to fault. She wasn't as beautiful as Narcissa or even Bellatrix, but her warmth, liveliness, and sheer intelligence drew him against his will. She talked to him about receiving the Hogwarts letter, about her Muggle family, about classes. She had a particular talent for Charms and for Potions. Her insights impressed him, though he thought he'd learned nearly all there was to know about magic long ago. Even Professor Slughorn seemed to adore her, and preferred her to members of his own House at that.
To Snape's dismay, he found himself looking forward to their evenings together; and though he remained taciturn lest a Slytherin happen upon them, he couldn't keep his heart from lurching whenever she smiled at him, or his eyes from following in the wake of her graceful figure. The rosewater she dabbed behind her ears haunted him, but unfortunately many Hogwarts girls used the same fragrance, and he often found himself turning, only to scowl fiercely at a Lily imposter. He began to avoid fireplaces, because the burning logs reminded him of her flame-colored hair.
He developed a habit of glaring at the Gryffindor boys, with whom she seemed to share such an easy camaraderie. Flamboyant James Potter was beneath his notice; her contempt for that one's antics was obvious. Charming Sirius Black was more problematic, now that Bellatrix had graduated. But the true target of his jealousy was their fellow prefect, Remus Lupin. Lupin was frail and scholarly, and handsome in a pale, languid sort of way. He regularly fell ill, and though it seemed like an obvious ploy for sympathy, Lily mothered him relentlessly. Snape schemed endlessly to separate the two, and fantasized about getting Lupin expelled one day.
Miraculously, both Lily and his friends remained blissfully unaware of his growing obsession with her. No one suspected how many hours he devoted to contemplating their future together (though sometimes he caught Professor Slughorn watching him with a peculiar gleam in his eye). Lily Evans Snape, he'd think, lying in his bed and basking in the memory of her smiles. Someday, after he'd established himself in Wizarding society - prominently enough that no one would dare raise an eyebrow at his choice of bride - he'd go to her, and make her fall in love with him.
And then they would live happily ever after.
James Potter - the rich, handsome, pureblooded, and perfectly hateful James Potter - got there first.
Even now, after all these years, the loss of Lily Evans still galls him; how much more resentful he must have been when the wound was still fresh. It's the only explanation he can give for why he joined Lord Voldemort when Malfoy introduced them. (Not that he wishes to absolve himself of the responsibility.) But when the Dark Lord looked into his shriveled, shrunken heart, and promised to fulfill his darkest dreams and his deepest desires, Snape could not find it in himself to refuse. Power alone he might have been able to resist, but the temptation of Lily Evans - never.
How he has lived to regret his decision. It had all been an illusion: false dreams, false hopes. The ashes of his former ambition taste bitter in his mouth. Thanks to the Dark Lord - thanks to his own madness - Lily has been dead now these fifteen years, and after that Severus gave up his dreams of power. Now he is nothing more than a pawn in this Great Game being played out between Dumbledore and Voldemort. He wishes he'd realized earlier that a pawn is all he's ever been.
But now the endgame has begun, and the pawn must move. He stares down at the pale aristocratic head bowed before him. The gleaming hair is entirely out of place in the dreary sitting room of Spinner's End, gold amid the dust. Cissy, he almost murmurs, a warning; but he lost his right to call her that, long ago.
"Do you swear?" she pleads.
He recalls now why she is here: her son, Draco. He almost smiles at the irony; he almost smiles as he realizes that Narcissa Black is capable of love, after all. But then he feels a sharp twinge of sympathy for the boy, who despite his birth, is just another pawn in the Great Game. Ghostly green eyes glimmer at him, and then Severus pushes his memories aside. Taking a deep breath, he speaks for a third time.