Title: Wormwood and Gall
Age-Range Category: Three
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore; cameo by Lucius Malfoy
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Angst.
Note: No specific date is given for the date Dumbledore hires Snape, other than sometime in 1981. It's unlikely Dumbledore would have hired him prior to Lily's death, since Snape would have been busy with his espionage work up until then, so I've placed it in late November of 1981, immediately after Dumbledore testifies on Snape's behalf. Also, no date is given for Lucius' appointment to the Board of Governors at Hogwarts, so I have (rather arbitrarily) placed that in the fall of 1982.
Summary: When Severus is offered the job of Potions Master at Hogwarts, he thinks that perhaps life might not be as desolate as it looked. Whether or not this is correct remains to be seen.
He could not stop shaking. Even though he had been acquitted and was now free to go wherever he chose, do whatever he wished, the gut-churning fear would not leave him. It had been such a near thing...He leaned back against the wall, eyes shut, palms pressed flat to the stone beside him; no doubt he was earning curious stares from the witches and wizards who passed by, but at the moment he was too busy trying not to throw up to care.
Some sixth sense nudged him, and he opened his eyes to see a tall man with long grey hair and beard standing directly in front of him. "Are you well, Severus?" Albus Dumbledore said solicitously.
"Oh yes," Severus Snape said through numb lips. "Being nearly condemned to Azkaban is such an...energizing pastime."
"What a remarkable difference a little word like 'nearly' makes," the old wizard said cheerfully. "And now you look as though you could use a cup of tea. Shall we?"
Before Severus could object, Dumbledore had taken his arm and he felt the familiar twisting sensation of Apparition. On top of his already-queasy stomach, the sensation very nearly sent him over the edge. He looked around and saw that they were standing in the main street of Hogsmeade, in front of a very small, very over-decorated tea shop.
"Madam Puddifoot's," Dumbledore announced. "The best crumpets in Scotland." Drawing Severus after him, he entered the tea shop, a tiny bell tinkling over their heads as he opened the door. "And such charming décor. No doubt you visited here once or twice during your student days."
Snape gazed around at the lace, the overstuffed chairs, the fat china teapots. "You really are mad, aren't you?"
Dumbledore smiled benevolently. "Many people have said so," he replied ambiguously. "Sit. We'll talk after you've had your tea. And eat this." He pushed a large piece of chocolate across the table, and then sat in silence.
Ten minutes later, his shivering had largely subsided and Severus was feeling much more human again. Setting down his third cup of Oolong, he took a deep breath. "I suppose I should thank you," he said, his voice rough and filled with something that was most definitely not gratitude.
"For speaking out for me this morning at the trial. For convincing them that I was your agent in the Death Eaters' camp. For keeping me out of Azkaban."
"Ah," Dumbledore said, stirring his tea. "Well then, proceed to thank me, by all means. It should prove a most unusual experience for both of us."
Severus opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again.
Dumbledore nodded. "Just as I thought."
The younger man's face flushed, two bright spots of color on the pale cheeks. "How can I? You saved me, but you did nothing for her! If you had saved her I would have fallen on my knees in gratitude—" his voice broke and he bowed his head to hide his face.
"I am sorry, Severus," Dumbledore said after a moment, and there was no mistaking the genuine pain in his voice. "Lily was a remarkable woman. If I could have, I would have. I hope you believe that."
Control regained after his momentary lapse, Severus simply shrugged. "It doesn't matter now. None of it matters. You agreed to keep her safe in exchange for my assistance in bringing down the Dark Lord. She is dead through no fault of yours and he is dead through no act of mine, so all our debts are cancelled."
"All?" Dumbledore inquired curiously. "What of your own life, which I preserved for you this morning in front of the Wizengamot?"
"My life, such as it is." Severus looked away. "Perhaps I would have preferred not to be burdened with it."
"Nevertheless, you have it. And it is a thing for which I spent a considerable amount of my own social capital, I must say," the old wizard added. "Some of them took a good deal of convincing. Dolores Umbridge, for example."
"Very well, I owe you a debt. What would you like for it?" Severus lifted a sodden teabag from his cup and plopped it on the table in front of the other man. "That seems about the right value. Are we quits now?"
Dumbledore laughed. "On the contrary," he said. I want much more than that. I want to offer you a job."
"Haven't I done enough for you?" Severus said bitterly. "First spy, now what?"
Dumbledore took a sip of his tea, grimaced, and waved his wand in circles over it until it was steaming again. "I was thinking perhaps Potions Master."
Severus gaped at him, dark eyes wide in astonishment. "You...what?"
"Horace Slughorn is retiring in December, at the end of this term. I would like to offer you the position of Potions Master at Hogwarts."
"Hogwarts needs a Potions Master. You need a job. And this will, once and for all, put to rest the rumors that you are, or were, a Death Eater."
Severus frowned. "And why would you care about that? I'm no use to you any longer. The Dark Lord is destroyed, the Death Eaters are dead or in Azkaban, there's no one left for me to spy on for you."
"My dear Severus, you really must stop being so suspicious. Professor Slughorn speaks very highly of you; indeed, he says you were the finest student he has ever taught. All of your old professors, particularly Minerva McGonagall, are united in appreciation of your considerable magical talents — not only Potions but Transfiguration, Charms and Occlumency, not to mention your skills in creating new spells and non-verbal magic. Surely that's reason enough."
For a moment Severus' mind refused to work at all. For thirteen of the past fourteen months, since the night he had come to Dumbledore and pleaded with him to protect Lily Evans (even now he could not think of her as Lily Potter), every waking moment had been spent in a state of ceaseless wariness. He had guarded not only his words but even his very thoughts, desperate to keep his change of heart a secret. The need to tread so very carefully around the Dark Lord and his followers — especially Lucius, most dangerous of all since he knew Severus so well — and the awareness that the smallest misstep could mean his death had knotted his shoulders with tension and made it impossible to ever truly relax.
And the last month of the past fourteen, the four short weeks since she died? They were a blur of pain and guilt and fear and bone-deep weariness. He wasn't sure he was even capable of making a decision as simple as what color socks to wear, let alone accepting a job teaching idiot Hufflepuffs who didn't know the difference between wolfsbane and monkshood.
And then he rememberd the pale gold of early morning sunlight slanting through the arches in the castle courtyard; the deep turquoise-blue of the lake, cool and mysterious; the tall, dim stacks in the Library, smelling of parchment and ink and old leather; the sweet tang of hot spiced cider rising from a mug in his hands and the feel of a wool scarf tickling his chin as he sat in the stands watching a Quidditch match...the first place he had felt welcomed, recognized, valued. The first place which had truly felt like home.
"I...you think I would be a good teacher?" he asked, almost humbly.
"Why else would I offer you this position?" Dumbledore said. "Now, what do you say?"
Severus, arms laden with boxes and bags of supplies, pushed on the door to the Potions classroom and frowned as it swung open smoothly and silently. Slughorn, notoriously averse to any sort of physical discomfort, had evidently kept the thing well-oiled so as not to offend his delicate sensibilities. Well, there was the first change Severus would make. The best way to convey to impressionable young minds the seriousness and power of Potions as a subject was to create the proper ambiance. A little intimidation — darker shadows in corners, strange odors percolating, ominously creaking doors — would do wonders to settle them down and reduce the inane chatter that so many seemed to find necessary to their classwork.
He had been back at Hogwarts only a few days, but already he felt himself setting into the rhythms of the castle. His quarters were in the dungeons, near the Potions classroom and storage room and not far from the Slytherin common room and dormitories. Things looked rather smaller than he remembered, but felt comfortingly familiar.
Not until he had accepted Dumbledore's offer (the man had come prepared, complete with contract and quill, which bespoke either amazing confidence or a reluctance to risk Severus changing his mind) did it occur to him that Hogwarts was also where he had been tormented by the Marauders and lost Lily to James Potter. But Black was in Azkaban, Potter and Pettigrew dead, Lupin Merlin knew where — and Severus was determined to overlay his old, bitter memories with fresh new ones.
Memories of Lily were more difficult, but even those he found he was able to cope with. After their fight during Fifth Year and the thoughtless insult that had so hurt and alienated her, they had seen little of each other, so most of his memories of her were pleasant ones from the years before that. Sitting together on the top of the Astronomy Tower on a winter's night drinking peppermint hot chocolate, studying in the library, practicing jinxes and charms...sometimes he felt that she was not gone, but simply away, and that he might bump into her just around the corner.
Now, as he moved slowly about the room, preparing supplies, checking ingredient stores, considering the order and pacing of his lessons, it occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, he could make a life for himself here that would not be entirely desolate.
Severus thought he had experienced the full spectrum of fear. Between the unthinking brutality of his father and the insouciant viciousness of the Dark Lord and his associates — Bellatrix, in particular — he had achieved a detailed knowledge of the fine gradations of horror, terror and dread. But as he waited for the arrival of his first class (double Potions, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff), he realized that one particular flavor had been missing: the fear of appearing a fool before a roomful of children.
The students trailed in by twos and threes, casting quick glances at him when they thought he wasn't looking. Naturally they were curious: it was common knowledge that the path to success in Slughorn's class was either talent or connections, and that a nice box of crystallized pineapple might make the difference between a P and an A at the end of term. Professor Snape, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity.
When all had arrived and taken their seats, he moved to stand in front of the desk, arms folded, looking coldly down his long beaky nose. He knew exactly how imposing he looked, and relished it. How else to gain (and keep) their attention?
"There will be no foolish wand-waving in this class," he said slowly. "Incantations are all very well for Professor Flitwick, and no doubt Professor McGonagall has begun to acquaint you with the intricacies of spells to change turtles into teapots." He surveyed the faces looking at him, noting vacant gazes for the most part, though one or two of them seemed more alert. "But if you have the patience for the exactitude, and the instinct for the subtleties, of Potion-making, you will find that the potential rewards are...substantial."
He was pleased to see that they were watching him intently, and lowered his voice to a silky purr. "Potions hold great possibilities for disaster; the Draught of Living Death can so easily become death indeed." A dark-haired Ravenclaw in the front row shivered, wide-eyed. "Care is necessary, and extremely close...attention...to detail..."
Over the next hour and a half, Severus demonstrated the correct way to chop Sopophorus beans, reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of crushing garlic versus mincing it, outlined the common uses of hellebore, and saved a dunderheaded Hufflepuff from accidentally releasing toxic fumes that would have sent everyone within ten feet of him to the hospital wing. The time passed remarkably quickly, and before he knew it the class was over.
"For homework: six inches of parchment on the effects of using ceramic versus metal knives when preparing ingredients," he said as they filed out. "And two additional inches from you, Mr Lassiter," he added, "on the nature of the fumes released when an iron implement falls into a cauldron of Baneberry Potion." The Hufflepuff who had nearly poisoned them grinned at him sheepishly.
When the last of the students had gone the heavy door swung closed with a long-drawn-out creak. Alone in the silence, Severus experienced an unfamiliar sensation: the satisfaction of having done well a job worth doing.
Over the next few months he settled into a routine: teaching, staff meetings, research in the library, the occasional weekend in Hogsmeade. He discovered that Minerva enjoyed wagering on the Quidditch matches, and a friendly rivalry grew up between them; since she never bet on anyone but Gryffindor he obliged her by always betting on Slytherin. The total amount of money that changed hands was small, but he enjoyed her mock outrage every time she had to hand over a few Sickles.
More than anything, however, he was gratified by the progress he witnessed in his students. He had never considered a career as a teacher — he was, he thought, too impatient and intolerant of stupidity. If Dumbledore had not offered him the position he doubted it ever would have occurred to him. But he discovered an unexpected pleasure in sharing his hard-earned knowledge, and although so far he had seen no sparks of brilliance in any of his students, he was confident that all of them would have the basic skills for home potion brewing and several of them might make competent apothecaries or alchemists.
One afternoon in late May, shortly before the end of term, he even overheard a Fifth Year Gryffindor tell a younger housemate, "Snape's a good teacher, yeah — he's tough, but he's fair. And he makes you think."
Later, he would recognize that as the moment of purest happiness he had known as an adult. Because it was shortly afterwards that it all turned to dust and ashes.
"They're worried, Albus. They don't like having a former Death Eater teaching their children. They don't understand it."
Severus stopped short. The door to the Transfiguration classroom was half open, and Minerva's voice was clearly audible.
"You may tell them I trust him. Fully."
"And if that is insufficient for them?"
"Then they can direct any further questions to me," said Dumbledore calmly.
"Albus, be sensible. People know that there are dozens of Potions professors out there. They want to know why him? Why Severus Snape?"
Dumbledore sighed, as though weary of the discussion. "Let us call it an investment. Or rather, an insurance policy."
"Must you always be so cryptic, Albus?" Minerva said, in tones of affectionate irritation. "Really, anyone would think you..."
Severus backed quietly away down the hall, embarrassed to be caught eavesdropping. So, some people didn't trust him. Well, that was hardly anything new. And who knew what Dumbledore had meant by his obscure remarks? Probably nothing,
But he felt cold, as though a cloud had briefly obscured the sun.
Finally the term was over, the students — shouting, laughing, crying, yelling goodbye — were gone. Severus was in the Potions classroom, tidying, setting aside items for replacement, considering what needed to be stored for the summer and how. He was, though none of his students would credit it, actually humming a song to himself. Books and papers were strewn across the table and he was deep in the midst of composing a detailed list of items to order from London when a soft cough behind him made him start and whip around.
A tall, black-clad figure stood leaning negligently in the doorway, pale blond hair tied back with a black ribbon, grey eyes shining maliciously, twirling a cane topped with a silver snake-head.
"Severus, my old friend. You're looking well."
"Lucius." Severus acknowledged. Despite himself, he felt a twinge of pleasure at seeing the man again. It was difficult not to fall into the old pattern of respect and envy. Older, handsomer, more confident, and of course richer, Lucius had attracted many followers. He had been the first person at Hogwarts to extend a hand of friendship to Severus, the first to make him feel truly welcome.
Lucius moved lazily into the room, dragging the silver tip of his cane across the table. "Whatever are you up to here, Severus? Cooking lessons? Teaching the Mudbloods how to make tea and crumpets?"
Severus set down the quill he had been holding. Lucius also, he reminded himself, had a vicious streak, as Severus had seen more than once; that and his obsessive hatred and distrust of anyone not a Pureblood had no doubt been what caught the Dark Lord's attention. "Congratulations on escaping Azkaban."
"Yes indeed. And the same to you." The words were cool, but the eyes sharp, speculative, curious.
"I understand you told them you were under the Imperius curse for an extended period of time," Severus said blandly, in an effort to change the subject. "That must have been...distressing." It was always wise to be cautious around Lucius, even when he was at his most polite. Perhaps especially then.
Lucius smiled. "Oh yes. Terribly."
"And you must have been very...convincing."
Lucius shrugged. "It didn't take much, in the end. No one wants to believe that a gentleman of such impeccable breeding and good family would freely do such terrible things. It's so much more comfortable to believe they were forced into it."
"No doubt. But what are you doing here? I can hardly imagine that Dumbledore would have invited you."
Lucius smirked. "Haven't you heard? I'm to be appointed to the Board of Governors for Hogwarts this coming fall. Quite a few parents would like to see more stringent admissions requirements put in place, and they've put their faith in me to do it. I'm confident we can create a...higher quality student body by the time Draco starts here."
Merlin's balls. Hogwarts was the one place he might reasonably have expected to be free of former Death Eaters, but he wasn't safe even here, apparently. Severus turned back to his papers. "I really am rather busy, Lucius, so if you don't mind..."
The heavy silver snake-head dropped with a thud on the paper, missing Severus' fingers by a whisker as he jerked them back. "What are you playing at?" Lucius hissed almost in his ear. "Working for the Dark Lord's greatest enemy, teaching half-breeds and Mudbloods?"
Carefully, he said, "We're not all independently wealthy, Lucius. I needed a job. This one was available."
"And what do you think the Dark Lord will have to say about this when he comes back?"
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Comes back? Are you mad, Lucius? He's gone, defeated by a child! Even if he did come back he'd be a laughingstock."
Lucius gripped Severus' arm with brutal force and, with the head of his cane, shoved up the sleeve of Severus' robe. The Dark Mark twisted across his forearm, black as ink, menacing as a shark. "That's still here, isn't it?" Lucius whispered. "He'll be back. Mark my words. As long as there are still people loyal to him — and you are loyal to him, aren't you, Severus? — he will find a way. And when he returns he'll be more powerful than ever before."
"In that case, I imagine I shall be much more useful to him here, in the heart of enemy territory, than I would anywhere else," Severus retorted sharply, jerking his arm away.
Lucius stared at him for a moment and then began to laugh. "Oh Severus, you are a crafty one," he said. "Yes, very useful indeed."
Relief flowed over him. Thank Merlin Lucius had swallowed the story. Now maybe he'd be left alone. "I'm glad you agree," he said. "Now, if you don't mind, I really do have work to do."
Lucius swung his cane negligently. "Very well. Narcissa is waiting for me, so I'll be on my way."
Severus inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Give her my regards. And little Draco."
"I shall keep you informed of any news of our mutual friend," Lucius added. He glanced around the room. "I'm sure he will appreciate the wisdom of your choice." And with a brief nod, he was gone.
Severus sank down into a chair, surprised to find that his hands were trembling. It was nonsense, of course, all this about the Dark Lord returning. He was gone, dead, destroyed; how could he come back? You didn't come back from the Killing Curse.
He rubbed his forehead, which was beginning to ache. He'd have to tell Dumbledore, of course; even if there was nothing to it, he should know. And if something did come of it—
And then it all fell into place. That was why Dumbledore wanted Severus Snape, and not any one of the hundreds of other Potions professors. What had he said? "This will, once and for all, put to rest the rumors that you are, or were, a Death Eater." Believing that Dumbledore trusted him, the Death Eaters would consider Severus a most valuable piece, in a strategically crucial position. Which, in turn, made him uniquely placed to gain their secrets. And pass them on to Dumbledore.
He was an insurance policy.
And it made no difference whatsoever, he realized with a sinking heart, whether he was good, bad, or indifferent as a teacher, or whether his colleagues like him or respected him or hated him, because his value was of another coin entirely. "You think I would be a good teacher?" he had asked, and the old wizard had answered, not "Yes" but "Why else would I hire you?"
Why else indeed.
Severus felt a wave of despair at the realization that, try as he might, his past had trapped him as thoroughly as Devil's Snare. Slowly he rose and took up his quill, but the joy was gone, and all that was left was wormwood and gall.