Title: The Azote Principle
Beta Reader(s): atdelphi and abrae
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Angst. Many liberties were taken with Hogwarts geography.
Note: Thank you to my wonderful beta readers, without whom I could not have done this. See below the story for further notes.
Summary: A meeting of three very different elements in the between hours of two days.
The dirty old house-elf appeared in his rooms with a bang, startling him awake. For a disorienting moment, still caught up in his dreams, he thought the light coming in from the underwater window was composed of floating red filaments of hair. For a horrible second, the shape of her mouth distorted in a scream flashed before him with electric vehemence. But the vision faded as the elf bore upon him with a repulsive expression on its face, a sealed letter held tauntingly between long and furrowed yellow nails.
Severus rubbed his eyes clear of sleep and stray hairs (he saw, through the film of exhaustion, traces of fiery red in the oily blue-black) with the back of one hand. With the elbow of the other arm he dragged himself up into a sitting position.
The elf's features were constantly in movement. It was impossible to tell whether it looked sullen or malevolent or goading or all of those things at once. As it approached Severus, its expression seemed to sour, to darken, to brighten with malice. It did not bow before him. The letter was turned over in gnarled hands, not handed over.
Severus felt mocked; annoyance zigzagged through his veins. His hair stood on end. Severus was awake, Severus was snarling and he was snatching up the letter before it could be twirled in his face again.
The elf recoiled as though burnt.
Severus sneered and snapped his fingers — a quill came sailing into them — and pulled up his knees. His kneecaps jutted sharply through the parchment, but he used them as a surface for writing anyway, scrawling a few uneven but angry words into a blank space at the bottom of the page.
He folded the letter haphazardly and tossed it over the elf's head. His stomach flipped as the elf's expression became even more turbulent and distorted, and yet he bared his teeth at it in a kind of smile. "You'll want to take that to your master," he said.
Muttering darkly beneath its breath, the elf drew claw-like hands through the papers and quills and books littering the floor, uncaring of the volumes that fell from unstable piles and the parchments fluttering off to the side.
It seemed as though the elf had been specifically born to ridicule and disgust Severus.
"Could you possibly be any more useless?" he snapped, calling the letter back to himself with a wandless spell.
The elf drew itself up slowly. It had large eyes that seemed to consist only of pupil. They swallowed light rather than reflecting it.
Severus brandished the letter. "Take it, you stupid elf."
He watched closely as it approached. It was old and bowlegged with a sagging pouch for a stomach and gnarled stumps for feet. It was also clearly in some pain. Severus thought he could hear the cracking of its joints as it reached forward and took firm hold of the letter.
For a moment, Severus could see nothing but its hands. The skin was whorled and a sickly yellow-green. Its fingers were bent and dirty and somehow reminded him of his father.
Queasiness rose in him; his lip began to curl. "Get out of my sight."
The elf bowed mockingly. It disapparated with a bang so loud the glass instruments in the room tinkled and swayed.
Severus waited a moment, then let out a breath and leaned back on the headboard of his bed. It was an uncomfortable position — the wood pressed somewhat painfully into his neck and spine — but he closed his eyes and pushed against it anyway. He felt self-indulgent and sleepy, but the wary admonishing stab of some higher feeling kept him from relaxing. His thoughts moved sluggishly; at the same time he was all too aware of the time: five or six pm, to judge from the light . . . The admonishing stab became self-aware. He forced himself to make a list of unfinished tasks in his head and found himself swimming in apathy. It all seemed so onerous spread out before him like that.
Suddenly the stab became a flare of pain, slicing through him like a fork of lightning. Bile rose to his mouth, the physical effect of self-loathing.
It was enough to overcome, temporarily at least, even the deepest sense of apathy. Severus steered himself out of the bed. The hairs on his hands and arms and legs began to rise and for a moment his hands trembled. A muscle in his feet cramped up and twitched like a dying thing.
He summoned a vial of Pepper-Up and stared at it through hooded eyes for several seconds.
He set it aside. His hands were really trembling now, but he ignored that and wrapped them around his waist, where he wouldn't have to see them. Shakily he made his way over to the furthermost corner of his room. He kept a small laboratory there for private experiments and had been working there last night before exhaustion had taken over.
Laid out in neat order on a cutting board were the frogs he had killed and dismembered shortly before staggering off to bed. He had captured the frogs himself; they had been large and strong and full of magic when he had found them. Catching them had made him feel buoyant. Frogs made powerful ingredients when fresh. It had been with the intention of using them immediately that he had removed the main organs, the central nerve and leg muscles from the carcasses.
They smelled something awful now.
Frowning, Severus approached the largest specimen and galvanised the nerve with the tip of his wand. The response was weak — the muscles barely spasmed. His trembling wand hand was moving more than they were.
"Fuck," he swore, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. Beads of sweat had formed on the skin only to break up moments later and flow into his eyes. The skin was wet and clammy and he couldn't stop sweating and his eyes stung. He felt a flash of rage.
It made him think of using a regeneration spell on the frogs — dark magic to be sure, but not criminally so. At least he would be able to salvage some of yesterday's hard work. Severus ran through the necessary steps for regeneration in his head —
— and a deviant memory strayed to the surface. It was the memory of an uncontrollable magic and how it had relentlessly consumed precious, stolen strands of red hair. He no longer saw the frogs. Imagination took hold and he could only see the fire and his own futile attempts to douse it. Sickened and sustained by the image, he found himself dredging up more. The old shame and bitterness and despair bobbed to the surface of his mind like bloated drunks and he had to wonder at himself, at his ability to exist without constantly remembering, without constantly retching —
He felt the muscles contorting in his face and felt more than saw himself banish the frogs. He even banished their hearts, which were valuable even when no longer quite fresh.
For several seconds he stared at the empty cutting board, his wand outstretched in his hand. A niggling feeling made him increasingly aware that something was out of place. He blinked and blinked again but could not fathom what it was that his mind was trying to tell him.
He was about to pick up the knife and start working when it sunk in: he had banished the frogs.
A bead of sweat swelled on his forehead, and, propelled by its own weight, began to trickle its way down into his eyes.
"You can have this — decaying life," he said to no-one. "I don't want it."
"I don't want it," he repeated dully, and went back to bed.
Albus Dumbledore — Grand Sorcerer, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — stood on the battlements of the tallest tower at Hogwarts, gazing out. A loud, dry wind blew at the sleeves and hems of his purple robes and partially suspended his long beard in the air. His expression was pensive, and he would occasionally clutch at his wrist as though disturbed by his pulse.
Fawkes the Phoenix stood perched on his shoulder. His feathers were a healthy, glossy red, and he craned his long neck almost thoughtfully, beetle-black eyes seeming to search the horizon.
Albus also seemed to be searching for something — although for what, it was difficult to tell.
He had not come here to survey the grounds. Had that been his intention, he would have gone to one of the towers strategically located in the midst of things. Most of the Hogwarts towers had been built to wage war. In a single gaze one could capture the gamekeeper's hut, the Forbidden Forest, the main boathouse, the bridges and hidden entrances and courtyards accessible by internal Floo, the Victorian train station and goblin-forged gates separating Hogwarts from Hogsmeade.
Albus had chosen the Astronomy Tower, the tallest tower, and it did not provide such a frame. Of Hogwarts, all one could see were the recreational facilities — the lavishly renovated Quidditch Pitch, the modern greenhouses of stained glass and steel and the new additional boathouse housing slim canoes and brightly painted pleasure boats. But it was nature that called with elemental force, drawing the eye from the depthless mirror of the Black Lake to the uncharted depths of the Forbidden Forest into the seemingly boundless hills — into the great beyond.
Hogwarts receded to insignificance before such visions. One felt as though one were discovering a new world.
Fawkes trilled suddenly — in time, it seemed, to the breathings, the murmurings, the peculiar sounds drifting up from the landscape below. A strong wind gusted through the nearly barren trees. What few brown leaves remained on their branches were swiftly whirled down to the sodden beds below or sent up as sails, high into the air, where they beat wing-like above the castle. One seemed to hear the creaking boughs of ancient trees, the hoofbeats of hunting centaurs and pale, hunted unicorns, the moist, clicking jaws of acromantulas spitting faint webs around their numbed prey, the gasps of surfacing mermaids in the cold and lapping lake. Nature herself seemed to be singing a changeable, tuneless music, should one only care to listen to it.
Albus seemed to be listening very carefully. He drew in a breath, then another. The air was certainly fresher here than anywhere else. His cheeks were suffused with colour and his blue eyes were bright, almost boyish.
Fawkes croaked and, spreading his wings, took flight.
Albus fixed his eyes on the soaring phoenix. He began moving closer to the battlements, as though the reduced distance would help him see better. For a moment, it seemed as though Fawkes and Albus were moving in tandem. Then, just as Albus reached the very brink, he came to a sudden halt. His face seemed to have been wiped of all expression. Seemingly of its own volition, his hand gripped convulsively at his wrist.
Fawkes had dropped out of sight.
An aged house-elf in purple rags, long nose smeared with dirt, appeared silently on the battlements.
Albus kept his eyes fixed on the invisible traces of Fawkes' trajectory for a moment longer before turning towards the elf. A ray of sunlight was caught and magnified by the gold frames of his spectacles. In that space of seconds his entire demeanour changed. His expression became lively. His hands ceased to move restlessly on their own and his fingers intertwined, forming a loose knot before his middle.
"Ah, Burr," he said.
The house-elf twitched with fear and gave a deep bow. It proceeded to hold the bow, the twitching calming into an almost unnatural stillness.
"What news do you have for me, Burr?"
The elf did not seem to move. It extracted a scrap of parchment from the knotted rags at its breast. Eyes boring into the ground, it proffered the scrap from knobbly fingers with furrowed, translucent nails.
Albus looked at the parchment. Something ignited in his eyes, a burning emotion. He snatched up the parchment from the elf and unfolded it in a single swift movement.
At the top of the parchment was written the question, How are you doing?, followed by further unremarkable pleasantries penned in his own handwriting. Albus' eyes jumped down to a set of lines at the bottom of the page, where still-wet ink glistened in the shape of an uneven spidery scrawl:
Whatever my response to your
Albus seemed vaguely amused. His eyebrows were twitching. He carefully tucked the letter into the breast pocket of his robes. "Thank you, Burr," he said. "Do be so good as to inform the professor that I will be coming down to check in on him presently."
"Yes, headmaster," said the elf, straightening eagerly.
"Although — on second thought, that won't be necessary, Burr."
The elf hesitated. For a moment its unreadable expression seemed to emanate bitterness or disappointment. Then that moment was over. "As the headmaster wishes," it said emotionlessly. "Is the headmaster wishing anything else?"
"Thank you, that will do for the present."
The elf bowed once, deeply, and disapparated.
Albus patted his breast pocket. Although reassured that the letter had not vanished with the elf, he hesitated, fingers tracing the perceptible outline of the parchment against his robes. Then he threw his entire weight into pacing the battlements, his face creased and his eyes on fire, his hand once again clutching desperately at his wrist.
And then, without warning, he seemed to arrive at a decision — and turned sharply to enter a hidden staircase. It formed part of a path that led from the airy tower through his private courtyard, where many former headmasters had been buried amongst the lilies and asters, down past the infirmary into the earthen Hufflepuff cellars, down beneath the lake into the Slytherin dungeons. Albus could feel his robes snapping against his heels as he sped down the stairs, the contorted lines of a spiderlike calligraphy seeming to pass arc-like through his breast pocket into his very eyes —
An erratic blur appeared unexpectedly across the path before him — a squirrel and its mate, bounding into dry brown leaves — Albus, thinking he'd stepped on one, came to an abrupt halt.
He seemed to become aware of his surroundings and turned to look upon the headstones and flowers bedded in a sticky and discoloured mat of leaves. Two oak trees were planted on either side of the path; Albus himself stood before twin bushes of decomposing red and violet flowers. Hesitantly, he sniffed: He could smell a scent not far from overripe roses and the lime and ammonium and bitter worms in earth still moist from yesterday's rain. Above it all there wafted the cloying fragrance of decay.
Suddenly Albus found it hard to breathe. He exited the courtyard and turned the corner into the infirmary hallway.
Poppy Pomfrey and Pomona Sprout were murmuring confidentially in the hallway corner. Albus drew in a long breath before making his approach.
They greeted him cheerfully. He noted pink spots on Poppy's normally wan cheeks, the comfortable way she shared Pomona's space. He complimented Pomona on the impressive growth of her newest plants and inquired after the state of Poppy's medical supplies. They responded easily, good-naturedly, with an almost infectious air of contentment.
After he felt he had observed enough of their behaviour, Albus continued his way, his breathing easy and his pace almost leisurely. The trek down to the dungeons became increasingly difficult, however. The air seemed to become thinner, colder and more humid all at once. Water began dripping down from the ceilings. It burned against his skin and formed damp circles on his robes.
Breathless, he came to a stop before an unassuming stretch of wall located near the secret entrance to Slytherin House. It was his custom to knock; today, however, he lifted a finger and drew it in a swift complex pattern across the stones. The wall rearranged itself into an archway. Before it had even fully materialised, Albus had stepped through, robes curling at his heels.
The archway disappeared in smoke behind him. He stood motionless: before his gaze and all around him, the air was shivering, twisting, forming and reforming in grotesque patterns. It seemed that the colour and solidity, the physical reality of all things were being drained away.
The natural order reasserted itself with magical suddenness. Albus strode forward into what appeared to be a room.
The smell that came from within was less than appealing. Pickling chemicals, dust, unwashed male skin and musty, decaying plants . . . Nose closing up in protest, Albus breathed in with his mouth, stepping around a badly placed pile of books, ducking beneath a melting crown of low-floating candles — tugging the hem of his robes from out the corner of a terrarium full of dried-out lichens and mineral flowers. The room was nearly dark but for the light given off by the melting candles and the few unearthly green rays that filtered in through murky underwater windows . . . Albus guided himself with a silent spell, edging past a shelf of gleaming metal instruments, past rows of grimy glass jars, finally coming to a halt before a large desk. A broken crucible and a quartz prism gave off a dull sheen from a shelf to its side. Beside them, half-hidden in shadow, rested a measuring compass, a set of scales and an hourglass filled with moving particles of glowing green sand. The desk itself was covered with jumbled layers of parchment, mislaid quills, half-empty pots of ink, abandoned teacups, miscellaneous little gadgets . . . Almost everything, it seemed, had been adorned with drops of melted candle wax, which had congealed in strange shapes on their surfaces.
Albus was tempted to pick up one of the parchment sheets. He was tempted to see what was written on them in dense spidery script, to run his fingers over them, perhaps even to appropriate one of them, but he restrained himself. The state of the room was a greater subject for concern. There seemed to be no order to anything; it was nearly impossible to construct an overview of where things were and truly impossible, it seemed, to understand the reasons why they had been placed here instead of there. Books covered nearly every available surface, from floor to furniture. Their arrangement was capricious, their topics random (potions, embryology, history, herbology, spell-creation, physics and metaphysics, ethology, hieroglyphics, emblematics, mineralogy, immunology, arithmancy, to only name the topics which immediately caught Albus' eye). There did not seem to even be the slightest indication that the books had been selected with a specific research goal in mind. Worse, several of them were open and collecting dust between their pages, as though their reader had flung them aside in disgust or in a fit of sudden amnesia. Next to this overwhelmingly unsystematic library, next to these alarming signs of stagnation and disuse, the other details of the room tended to fade into the background. Albus barely glanced at the half-shut wardrobe with its three black robes or at the kitchen stacked with partly opened tins of loose-leaf tea, sardines and baked beans.
There came a coughing sound from an as yet unexplored corner at the very back of the room. Albus peered into the gloom and was just able to perceive a mass of shifting blankets on a small wooden bed.
He drew in a breath. "Get up, Severus," he said. He cast a strong Lumos that bathed the room in a gradient of watery shadows and gritty white light.
There was no immediate reply. Albus waited for a number of increasingly oppressive seconds, perhaps even minutes. Then, just when Albus had come to the end of his patience and was making his way over to the bed, Severus sat up.
He was too thin and had a sallow, surly face. His long black hair was so thick with grease it appeared almost fossilised, like shiny obsidian or sedimentary oil. It swung in stiff, glistening planes around flat and pallid ears, around raw-boned cheeks.
He looked insolent and insomniac. His eyes were half-closed, as though he were unused to light; they made him look ill at best, murderous at worst. He wore an unflattering scowl and his movements were sluggish as he adjusted the right sleeve of his nightshirt, where Albus knew he kept his wand sheathed against his pulse.
There was a muscle slowly twitching in his hand. Albus was unpleasantly reminded of an animated corpse.
"This cannot continue, Severus," he said, allowing disgust and disapproval to enter his voice. "You simply cannot waste so much of your time with sleeping."
Severus gazed at him through heavy lids, through sockets purple and swollen. His lip curled in irritation or disdain.
"Take more Pepper-Up if you must. You know as well as I do that the three-a-day restriction is only for children."
Lines appeared with angry swiftness around Severus' mouth and across his brow, only to vanish nearly as quickly. Somehow he seemed older, more resigned, without them.
But, he seemed to say. It won't work, he seemed to say. Let it — leave me alone.
This is what I want, he seemed to say, the resentment kindling in his eyes. He sneered.
"As you wish," he said in a tone that was either indifferent or mocking, leaning back against the headboard of the bed.
Albus eyed him over half-moon spectacles. His gaze flicked down to the sneer, so rigid and bloodless it seemed inscribed in the flesh. Albus had never seen a mouth that so resembled a curse scar. Severus swallowed beneath the scrutiny, a long, slow working of a long, sinuous throat, but the sneer remained fixed.
"Your letter wasn't exactly informative," said Severus. He looked unusually sensual like this, spread out against the headboard. Undoubtedly it was the combined effect of an exposed throat and angry dark eyes. "You want me to sleep even less — fine. Was there any other reason you saw fit to barge into my quarters without even doing me the courtesy of a knock?"
"You are not well," said Albus. "You are not well, and it is a great cause for concern to me, Severus. I hardly need remind you of the student who will be joining us in less than a year —"
"I am quite well," interrupted Severus, sitting up. He was scowling and colour was rising to his face. In his indignation he seemed so very young. "I would be even better were you to stop sending your homicidal house-elf to torment me at ungodly hours of the day."
"Really, Severus, Burr is hardly homicidal. I would go so far as to say that he is a perfectly normal house-elf."
"No, headmaster, he is a perfectly horrid, abnormal little beast who takes an inappropriate amount of pleasure in taunting me —"
"Severus, there would be no need to send Burr to wake you if you were able to keep to a regular schedule like the rest of the staff."
"As for your precious Potter," continued Severus as though Albus had not spoken, "I assure you that I have every intention of honouring our bargain. In fact, the project that has been costing me so much sleep of late is intended to help us study the consequences of the Dark Lord's curse on the boy."
Albus, in his expansive mood, smiled. It was a kind smile — yet Severus seemed to find it deeply unsettling, for he drew into himself, lips tightly compressed. "That is very well done of you, Severus," said Albus. "Very well done indeed. Nonetheless, I must insist that you conserve your strength. I would even go so far as to retract my earlier advice. You should stop drinking Pepper-Up or at very least make every effort to reduce the dose. As valuable as your research doubtless is, it is your wits and stamina that will truly prove important in these coming times."
Severus hunched even further into himself. His hands were trembling, Albus saw; worse, he seemed to have dropped his occlumency shields. Apathy shone from the depths of his eyes. "You know something," he said softly. His expression contorted slightly. "Or is it that you don't think I have the skill to pull this off?"
"On the contrary, my boy, I have every faith in your abilities," said Albus. "It is your sense of judgement, sadly, that I am often forced to call into question."
Severus stared at him for a moment, blank. Then his brows plummeted and his eyes began to glitter with wounded pride. He threw off the covers, a scowl on his lips. Albus caught a brief glimpse of slim, almost beautiful feet with colourless, badly cut nails.
"Severus, don't pretend you don't know what I mean," said Albus as Severus stalked past him towards his desk. "You are caught up in some sort of vicious cycle. Your moods, though never exactly predictable in the past, now seem to waver between the most extreme forms of narcissism. The more time passes, the more unfocused, dare I say unmotivated, you seem to become. Minerva and Poppy have already commented upon the change."
Severus clenched his jaw and made a show of rummaging through the mountains of papers on his desk.
Albus frowned, continuing, "Surely you can't mean to impose such," he wrinkled his nose at the disorderly room, "abysmal conditions upon yourself for the next seven years. Truly, Severus, this is a disgrace. Why won't you allow the house elves to tidy your room?"
There was no response. Albus, until then in a fairly generous mood, became slightly aggressive. "I will only tolerate this for so long, Severus. If things do not begin to improve —"
"Oh, do go on, Dumbledore," said Severus bitterly, turning from his desk with a roll of parchment in his hands. "It's all so easy for you to say. You and all the rest of them. You can't even begin to imagine —" He began, perhaps unconsciously, to crush the parchment with his fingers. He was not even attempting to occlude. No dark tunnels were his eyes. They reminded Albus instead of squashed beetles, broken legs still crawling in a semblance of life.
Even Severus' expression was curiously flat. It was as though he was speaking by rote and did not give a whit for the actual words coming out of his mouth. "You can't even begin to imagine what it's like, sitting here, wasting away, grading bloody papers for bloody dunderheads — a literal pariah —"
"Severus," said Albus.
"I had prospects!" hissed Severus, who had now truly crushed the parchment, so that the internal weave was cracked and bits of it were beginning to float to the floor, "I could have been a great experimenter —"
"You are, without doubt, the greatest experimenter of your generation."
Severus was not listening. His next words emerged like train hurtling forth without a driver. "I should be off publishing books and breaking new ground with my research. Instead I'm here, waiting away, playing teacher to snooty, self-satisfied, untalented children who don't even have it in them to understand what is beautiful and meaningful and magical about the world —"
"Goddammit, Dumbledore! What more do you want?" Severus' expression distorted and, though he looked like he had more to say, his mouth shut abruptly.
There was a pause, then he clenched his hands. The broken parchment fell to the floor and rolled to a halt before his feet.
Albus fixed his gaze upon it. "Give me that," he said.
"It's pointless," said Severus.
"Because," Severus said quietly. He was trembling all over. The flatness had gone from his face; his expression now was merely empty. "You already know the answer."
"Perhaps," said Albus, still fixed upon the parchment resting at Severus' skinny, pale feet. Something like longing had appeared on his face. "Perhaps not. I have nothing more than my own speculations to work with."
Severus bent down and picked up the parchment. He watched the path of Albus' eyes as they avidly followed its trajectory; his expression grew calculating and his dark eyes gleamed. "Tell me."
"In time," said Albus distantly. "First, I would like to see you act yourself again."
Severus threw the parchment to the floor. "I am not any less myself than I ever was," he declared, gesturing suddenly and violently with his wand. The parchment burst into flames.
Albus started, hand flying instantly to his sleeve. For a moment, it seemed he would draw his own wand, but then his hand stilled on his wrist and his shoulders slumped. He watched in consternation as the parchment shivered and shrank, curling up into smoke and ash.
Severus sneered and doused the flames with a wandless spell. He stepped around the ashes at his feet. "My research," he said by way of explanation.
"What —" Albus closed his eyes briefly, still overwhelmed with horror, "what on earth possessed you to burn it?"
"You think you know me," Severus said coldly. "You claim that I am unmotivated. Perhaps I am — but not for the reasons you think." His hands shook and he strode past Albus towards his bed and sat himself on the dusty mattress, fingers gripping at the edge. His hair hung in oily spirals around his face, shielding his eyes. Despite his contemptuous air, his lips were discoloured and his cheeks the ashen colour of death. It was as though burning his research had made him physically ill.
But Severus was not one to admit to his own weaknesses. "Have you never once considered that I might grow tired of your keeping secrets?" he asked, low and accusing. "It is precisely because you keep holding back vital information that I have no idea of how to act or what to do with my time."
Albus tensed. "There is nothing else to know," he said.
"That is a lie," hissed Severus, looking up with eyes as dark and glistening and paralysing as the blood spurting from a wound. "How often must I prove myself before you will trust me?"
"I am certain that your Patronus remains unchanged, Severus. I also do not doubt — for a second — your sincerity." Albus grasped at his wand wrist, too distressed to stop himself. "Perhaps it would be best not to say any more on the subject for the present."
Severus drew his arms around his chest and hunched into himself; his brows lowered and the skin around his eyes crinkled with incomprehension. "Why not?"
"Because, quite frankly, you have exhausted me, Severus," said Albus. "Which is not to say that you are at fault."
Severus mouthed silently, as though he were being strangled and could not get enough oxygen. Then he fell back against his bed, feet still on the floor, eyes staring glassily at the ceiling. He looked utterly dismayed.
"I would ask you to think closely about what I have said. I will also consider your words very carefully," said Albus. His own breathing was shallow and he was unable to muster a smile. "In the meantime, I think what we both need is some fresh air."
"I wish you wouldn't treat me as such a child," said Severus between gritted teeth.
"In many ways, we are all children," said Albus, flicking his wrist: The ashes rose from the floor into a conjured jar, which he swiftly pocketed. Severus, still staring at the ceiling, did not notice. Albus took a long look at him, then drew a breath. "Do try and get out a bit, Severus. I would hate to see you become a permanent fixture of the dungeons."
Severus closed his eyes. He looked spent, as though their explosive exchange had consumed every last bit of energy in his reserves.
"And with that, I'll be off," said Albus, heading towards the door.
For a moment, Severus appeared to be frozen. He took in several short, sharp breaths through his nose and yet was otherwise motionless. Then, slowly, a sneer began to assert itself. His limbs relaxed. He sat up slightly and summoned a fresh sheet of parchment and a self-inking quill from his desk.
"Good riddance," he muttered while Albus was still in earshot, sinking back down into the covers.
Albus frowned but did not comment and, with a gripping of his wrist that Severus did not see, exited the wards.
The truly horrible fact of the matter was that the old man thought he was telling the truth.
Severus drew up his knees to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs. The quill and parchment lay quiescent beside him.
"Harry Potter," he said to the air, letting go of his legs and stretching back out against the bed. He stared up at a crack in the ceiling paint. "Such a silly, unremarkable name. Harry — you're probably just as hairy and hair-raisingly imbecilic as you sound. I'll bet anything that you're as much an ape as your — harrowingly — retrograde father."
Severus struggled to sit up and summoned a well-hidden Polaroid snapshot of the boy in question. Dumbledore had given it to him a few years back ("his eyes, Severus, his eyes"). Severus had scarcely glanced at it since. He'd decided that the boy looked exactly like his father and instantly lost almost all interest.
There were, admittedly, a few curious details that even the crude, faded Muggle image could not completely conceal and that Severus was too observant to miss. The boy was thin, underdeveloped, possibly malnourished; he wore elephantine and ugly clothes; his glasses were held together with tape, and to judge from his squint, not even remotely prescription strength. His eyes were of course remarkably like hers — almond shaped and of the same brilliant green hue. Severus did not need to be told something so patently obvious. Of course her child would have to inherit something. It didn't mean that they were at all alike.
Severus held the photograph closer, ignoring everything but that sullen green squint, the angry tilt of brows that, had they been red instead of black, could have easily been another's. He shut his eyes and thought of new-made leaves.
When he opened them again, the light from the lake had all but disappeared. The candles were just barely sputtering in their wicks. His nightshirt felt like it had been plastered to his skin; he had goosebumps all over and felt unbelievably dirty.
He fought his way to his feet — the quill and parchment fell to the floor, but he managed to set the photograph on a side table — and dragged himself to the sink. Avoiding his reflection, he spat and rinsed his face with some cold water from a jug. For a moment, he considered a bath; then an image of his task list flashed before him and he chose a quick cleaning and shaving spell instead. "Lily," he mumbled as he pushed his nightshirt over his head.
He donned his only clean set of robes. "Harry," he said to himself. "What a stupid name."
Socks and shoes on, he muttered, "All of it was for you and none of it was. I haven't even done anything. Ten fucking years."
Severus picked up the quill and parchment and set them down on his laboratory table. "To die," he said, seating himself on the stool he used as a lab chair. Down he looked at the parchment only to realise that he had no idea what to write, let alone why he had brought quill and parchment over from his desk in the first place.
There is nothing for me to say, he wrote on a whim. As soon as the nib of the pen hit the paper he felt something within himself respond, like a reflex. I've published two papers in ten years. Academically, I've committed suicide.
The first lead I had, the first real idea
I burned it.
D. has a theory about what the curse scar signifies. That's knowledge enough. Does he know bloody everything.
Six years of practising regeneration spells did nothing to bring you back.
He had half-imagined that she would strike him down for even daring to address her indirectly, and yet nothing had happened. Emboldened, he began to scrawl with furious speed.
If only H. could bring you back — literally as your regeneration.
Purebloods think genealogy = eternal life. Admittedly it took me a while to realise this, but they couldn't be more wrong. People aren't defined by biology alone.
When I look at H. I see stunted growth. Not degenerate necessarily, but something is fundamentally out of place. I think it has to do with the scar — perhaps it consumes years of his life? D. knows for sure. I could try to eat away at his occ. defences, but he is far too strong. How am I supposed to help you when he treats me like a horse and blinds me?
H. is stunted because he carries death within him. He is destined to die. It should have been him but
You sealed my fate when you
I am burning I am burning but I do not burn — I make things burn and rust and calcinate
All movement all existence is decay. Galvanised frogs decompose more quickly. Mistake to have tested them last night. Breathing is galvanism is oxidation is recomposition from decomposition. Noitisopmoced. Self-consuming fire. Every breath is a step closer to death. The only reason to breathe to speak at all is to express contempt for this burnt offering we call life.
I should work on my will. D. doesn't know everything. D. thinks there is no order in disorder. The opposite is true. My quarters are a monument to the paths of my mind. I keep stages, versions of myself alive in petrified topology. (Grindelwald's theory that magic is petrified electricity — stone fire.) Perhaps this is the only kind of resurrection.
H. doesn't stand a chance really. I do this for you, but even if he inherited your talent he would still be no match for all the powers amassing against him. It's not that I won't protect him — I will. But it's so fucking futile
Severus dropped the quill, stood up and moved away from the table. He unsheathed his wand and aimed it at the parchment. For the second time that day, Incendio shot out from his wand.
He turned towards his desk as the parchment burst into flame, one hand shielding his eyes. A stack of ungraded essays caught his attention. His hand slid from his cheek. He closed his eyes, breathing in the smoke.
He opened them. A quick dousing spell and he found himself in front of his desk and he found it hard to breathe but he sat down, spreading the essays out before him in order of year and house.
Idiots, he thought as he read, the lot of them.
He pulled over his marking quill and dipped it into a pot of red ink . . .
There was something undeniably cathartic about verbally slashing Gryffindors into little pieces. Or perhaps it was just that he had been writing. He had not particularly needed to think about what he was going to say. The muscles of his hand had remembered that much for him. Moving with the quill had been steadying nonetheless, like being carried forth by a train. His unregulated breathing had given way to a strong sense of directed motion and he had felt purposeful. Now he had a sore arm and a dry mouth and a head as blank as a new sheet of parchment and yet he felt better than he had all day.
He was also quite hungry, as he had managed to miss all of the meals served in the Great Hall. One glance at the cupboards in his tiny kitchen confirmed that he had no particular appetite for baked beans, sardines or toast. He devoured a few stale digestive biscuits before deciding it was high time to summon a house-elf or better, to make the trek to the kitchens himself.
For the first time in what seemed an age, Severus actually looked forward to stretching his legs. Perhaps he could even catch a stray student out of bed . . .
The kitchens were located in Hufflepuff territory, what Severus considered the most uninteresting part of the castle. Like the Slytherin dungeons, the Hufflepuff cellars were located below ground, but perhaps being beneath the lake made all the difference. The cellars, with their bright yellow tapestries, clay statues and droll paintings, certainly never failed to kindle his sense of irritation or puzzlement.
Although he had lived at Hogwarts for most of his life, Severus had never been able to wrap his mind around the concept of Hufflepuff. Why gather all the unremarkable students together in an environment that, by virtue of its very peacefulness and sheer ordinariness, discouraged their intellectual growth? Hufflepuff, to Severus, was nothing less than a breeder factory for mediocrity. All his Hufflepuff students seemed to do was eat or exchange vague pleasantries. None of them had ever distinguished themselves in his classes; in fact, most of them would probably have failed had they not been partnered with Ravenclaws. Not even Gryffindors were that consistently inane . . .
It was with such thoughts that Severus entered the kitchens. He was thus absolutely unsurprised to find Pomona Sprout sitting at one of the tables eating a full English breakfast.
Naturally, Pomona spoke first. "Hello Severus," she said pleasantly. "Fancy seeing you about. We were beginning to wonder whether you'd taken a holiday."
Severus sneered at her. "I'm sure you were all jumping for joy."
"Oh, no," she said, all genuine surprise and good Hufflepuff cheer. "We were worried about you. It's not like you to miss so many meals in a row." She raised a forkful of egg to plump lips and chewed with an appearance of hearty enjoyment. Severus found it hard not to stare at the workings of her ruddy cheeks and ample throat and — he quickly looked away. "I suppose," she asked, teeth clicking audibly, "you were tending to an experiment of some sort?"
Severus swept around her table to where a group of elves were busy cutting and arranging thick slices of roast beef. "I'd like a plate of the beef with whatever else you have ready on the side," he told them, before spinning around with his hands held together in a triangle and raised as in thought. He tapped the uppermost corner against his lips. Then he said, "Yes. I have an experiment running."
"Is it going well?"
Severus scowled. His hands fell shapelessly to his sides. "What does it matter to you?"
Pomona shrugged. She sliced into a sausage with her fork, where it clanged loudly against the plate. "Just trying to be friendly, is all. If you'd rather not talk, that's also fine by me."
Severus felt that vague irritation he always experienced around Hufflepuffs and sometimes thought of as his bad conscience. "We may speak of something else," he granted.
Pomona smiled — wry or pleased, Severus did not care which. "Why don't you sit down," she said, pointing a fork at the seat opposite hers.
With narrowed eyes, he carefully drew his robes around him and sat, conscious of his posture.
"This is nice," said Pomona. At his scowl she smiled and continued, "Did you know that Albus revised next year's curriculum? We've gotten several new plants in, all very interesting. Some of them could be of use to you in your line of work — a new bubotuber strain, for example, rather difficult to grow, but some five times more potent in acidic solutions. There's also a . . ."
Severus listened with only half an ear, sending baleful glares at the elves whenever he was certain Pomona wasn't looking. By the time they finally brought him his plate — roast beef piled high with freshly roasted potatoes, greens steaming boiling heat from every pore and his favourite, Yorkshire pudding — he was almost delirious with hunger.
"Bon appetit," said Pomona, looking at his plate approvingly.
Severus mumbled his thanks, tossed a napkin across his lap and dug into the food.
"Well, I don't know about you," said Pomona after monologising for a while, cleaning off the last bit of her grilled tomato, "but it's almost dawn, and I think I'd like to get to the greenhouses before the Flaming Violet fires up for the day."
Severus, whose stomach had protested against completing more than half of his meal and who had listlessly been pushing potatoes around his plate, sneered. "The Flaming Violet," he repeated.
"You don't know it? I'm not surprised. It's practically useless except as a metaphor."
Severus was insulted and yet also curious. He dropped his fork and glowered. "Why keep it, then."
"Albus bought it. You know his affinity for phoenixes and their ilk. And I don't mind. It is very pretty. The morning cycle is rather spectacular." Pomona stood. "I'd best be off — unless you'd also care to see the Violet? I've always thought it a shame that such a fine show only ever got a one-person audience."
Severus frowned at his unfinished plate of food. Cold and disarrayed and with his roiling stomach, it repulsed him. He wanted nothing better than some fresh air. Pomona was acting very strangely, out of line really, but she was offering him an excuse to get out. And he was interested in the phenomenon she had described (it irked him that there should be a plant with a fire cycle of which he was unaware). There was also the fact that he could still hear the insulting echoes of Albus' words in his ear. A 'dungeon fixture', indeed. He felt oppressed and surly just remembering it.
A short visit to the greenhouses sounded more appealing by the second.
"I will admit to some curiosity about this plant," he said.
Pomona nodded as though she understood. "Then you should come along." At his hesitation, she added, "This won't take much of your time, I assure you."
"Very well," he said slowly, still not really decided, because despite everything it seemed very wrong to go on an outing with another professor, a Hufflepuff professor no less, at the crack of dawn. Yet he stood and threw his napkin onto his plate nonetheless. And he found himself following Pomona out of the kitchens.
Pomona took him on a shortcut through the cellars that Severus had never been aware of before, and he found himself regretting his decision less. They emerged from the cellars through a trapdoor in the ground that opened up directly into Greenhouse One.
The sky that appeared through the glass panes of the greenhouse roof was a metallic grey-blue. Pomona led him past rows of recently watered plants, their purplish, still-wet leaves glimmering in the faint light. Severus took great sniffs of the air. It smelled of ammonium and Thestral dung, of iron and dusty glass, of exhaling, living things — and it seemed to awaken something slumbering in his brain.
He thought he could hear the plants murmuring, but whenever he looked at them, they were motionless, silent.
They came to a halt before a small potted plant with heart-shaped leaves: the violet. Severus could not see anything uncommon about it. It had three little flowers, each of which was formed of five petals: four upswept and one pouting lower lip. In the near-darkness, it was difficult to make out their exact colour, but Severus was certain they were purple.
"It seems like a perfectly ordinary violet to me," he said, not bothering to hide his disdain.
Pomona pulled on her gardening gloves. "Just wait," she said.
Frowning, Severus drew nearer, only to be halted by Pomona's gloved hand. "Listen," she said, gesturing up at the roof with her chin. Severus followed her gaze and saw fat drops of rain forming silently on the glass. Stationary blasts of rain streaked past the walls, patterning them with lines and sharp angles made increasingly distinct by the growing grey light.
"Tumult and peace," said Pomona softly.*
All at once, lightning rent the air and pierced the gloom with shockingly white light. It had not quite disappeared before it was followed by thunder. Severus drew in a breath as the thunder rolled and thought he could smell oxidised nitrogen, charred earth and grass. He could almost taste the charged chalk of the rain against his tongue.
Pomona's chin bobbed. "Look," she said with a smile.
Severus turned and saw the violet. It was glowing — a dull purple that seemed to be growing brighter and bluer with every second. Soon it was no longer purple-blue, but a saturated sunset orange that was steadily becoming molten red.
Fascinated, he stepped closer, half-expecting the violet to burst into spontaneous flame the moment he drew near. But the glowing violet seemed to be on some kind of oscillatory cycle. As soon as he stood before it, the red light began morphing back into a cool blue.
Pomona hobbled over and turned on a lamp above the violet that Severus had not noticed before. The light that shone out of the lamp was a bright and leafy green.
Severus stared at the beam with the shock of recognition. "What — what are you doing?"
Pomona adjusted the head of the lamp. Rogue rays of green light dashed into Severus' eyes. "Feeding it," she explained. "The violet can only produce purple and red light on its own. It synthesises green light with its own purple and red in order to create white light, and thus the energy needed for photosynthesis."
Severus nodded as though he understood, but he had barely processed a word. His heart was racing with a single thought.
Pomona smiled encouragingly. "You can touch it, you know. Despite the name, it won't burn."
Unthinkingly, Severus reached forward with a trembling finger. The green light from above made his skin resemble an elf's but he ignored that bizarre fact and stroked a scalloped, heart-shaped leaf. It was hairy and thick and it was consuming the green light in a way he thought he could feel.
His heart was beating so quickly in his ribcage that he imagined it was leaving internal bruises. It was probably just exhaustion and a full stomach that was making his chest contract and the light in his eyes spin and pop and his knees feel like they could collapse any second . . . He drew in a harsh breath, which helped a little. He told himself that it meant nothing that Pomona owned light in exactly that shade. Of course it could exist independently of a pair of eyes.
And yet to see it being consumed, ostensibly to maintain life . . . A remembered image of a resistance fighter, defiant, spitting at the Dark Lord's feet . . . A swift and deadly curse . . .
With bile rising in his already unhappy stomach, Severus cupped one of the flowers in his palm. There was a slight throbbing as of a pulse (or was it his own?), but he could not perceive any heat. Dizzily he noticed that the flower had reached an almost creamy state, a kind of milky parchment yellow, and was steadily building up to red again.
A shuffling sound entered into the din of his thoughts.
There was a delay before he heard it. Rather than contributing to the cacophony, it made him gradually self-conscious. Suddenly Severus was all too aware of the outer world. He was not alone, he remembered, swallowing. Pomona was undoubtedly the source of the shuffling. She was probably watching, laughing at him secretly. He hunched his shoulders to make himself unassailable and glanced to the side, but she was no longer there. Heart beating in his throat, he attempted to pinpoint her location in a way she wouldn't notice, from beneath his eyelids.
It took him a moment to find her. When he finally did, it was a burst of light from her wand that gave her away. It looked as though she was pruning the student pots of Devil's Snare. She wasn't looking his way and she was certainly not laughing. She had simply gone to look after her other plants.
Severus took in a sharp breath and looked back down at the pulsing flower. He had no idea what to think. The interruption had distracted him from his previous thoughts. For the life of him he could not reconstruct what he had been so worried about. Something in his brain also seemed to resist that direction of inquiry.
Without quite meaning to, but perhaps because it was the only way he knew to calm his stomach, he began to take in deep breaths. He found himself immersed in his senses. The air was so very bitter and clean; it tasted and smelled and almost seemed to make a kind of sound in his ears, like the whisperings of an undecipherable language. The more he took in of this silently living world, of the ammonium in the soil and the wet roots beneath and the shifting leaves above, the more he became aware of his own participation in a soundless exchange of airs and the more mysterious it seemed — and the more stumped by it all he became.
Desperate for answers, he dove forward and buried his nose in the flower still nestled against his palm.
. . . oh, he thought.
When he lifted his face again, the blossom of light was no longer red or blue, but a kind of negatively greenish white. The flower was no longer glowing properly; it seemed as though the petals were sucking up the light, and as Severus watched, all the whiteness gave way to grey and finally to a purplish-black afterglow. The leaves seemed to darken as well into a deep forest green.
He took in a breath and then another and wound his arms together tightly against his chest. He looked up to where Pomona was working. As though sensing his gaze, she looked up almost instantly. The corners of her eyes crinkled in a smile. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
Severus felt a surge of irritation. Beauty was not the point. Beauty was not what was at stake here. "No," he said.
She blinked, but her smile did not waver.
"I want one of these," he said, which was not what he had intended on saying, but was true anyway. He thought of the several terrariums in his room, all the plants in them dead, the mineral flowers rusted. He thought of the violet glowing every morning by his underwater windows, bathed in cursed and sublime green light. "How much would it cost — with the lamp and such."
Pomona's mouth had formed an 'o' of surprise. Now she was babbling on about how she would make him an early Christmas present of some seeds and a lamp of his own. He didn't need charity, he replied; that wasn't the point, she said. It's nice to see one's own craft appreciated, she said. Severus felt a headache coming. He offered to make her a potion. She said something along the lines of needing a stronger weed killer.
He was only half in this world. The rest of him was dissolving, dissolving into the memory of the violet. Its scent and the light. The light. He heard himself excusing himself to Pomona and vaguely saw himself leaving the greenhouses. Somehow he made it back to his rooms and through to his bed without falling onto his face.
Perching himself on its edge, he picked up the photograph of Harry Potter and stared at it. The boy had been photographed against a blue sky. Severus looked at it for a long time before setting it aside and collapsing back against the bed. The ceiling seemed red after all that blue. He sat up slowly and imagined that the negatively blue, positively red ceiling was caving in on top of him.
It was an illusion, of course. He closed his eyes, fell back against the bed and, against the curvature of his eyelids, tried to remember that exact shade of green. But the lingering impressions of red and blue mingled with the image of a streaking curse, with his memory of their eyes, and he found himself confused.
"I want you," he said in frustration. He turned onto his side and brought his hand up to his eyes as though to shield it. "All I ever wanted."
A thought occurred to him suddenly. He lay, tensed, on the bed for several seconds more before finding the strength to stand up and walk over to his deliberately cluttered desk.
This was all he would ever have. Without further glance at his labyrinth, at his legacy, he sat down and picked up a newly sharpened quill.
The Last Will and Testament of Severus Tobias Snape, he scrawled, then leaned back and blinked at what he had written.
He felt — unbearably light. Almost happy. Were anyone to strike a metaphorical match in his vicinity, he would undoubtedly self-combust in delirious relief.
Rarely had he felt so alive.
To Harry James Potter . . .
*Pomona reads a great deal of Wordsworth. She is quoting from The Prelude, Book VI. "Stationary blasts" is a phrase from the same passage.
Azote was the name given to nitrogen by the French chemist Lavoisier in the 18th century. It means "without life", as Lavoisier thought nitrogen (because of its suffocating effects) was the part of air which could not sustain life.
In Romantic chemistry, by contrast, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen made up an elemental trinity. Hydrogen and oxygen burned together formed water; oxygen and nitrogen mixed together formed air. Nitrogen could also be found in the soil and was essential to plants. Together, these three elements represented the basis of all life and death.
The glowing Violet is a term used by Milton in his poem Lycidas.