Title: With Nothing On My Tongue
Age-Range Category: Four
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Severus Snape, Lily Evans, Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall
Beta Reader(s): Lolly
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Adult language, implied violence & major character death.
Note: This is an homage to Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen.
Summary: And even though it all went wrong/I'll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…
A piano appeared in the staff room on his third day as a professor.
The old upright replaced a sagging red velvet two-seater that had been languishing in the far corner of the room. Severus had made the mistake of sitting on the monstrosity only once; fearing that he was in imminent danger of being eaten alive and belched out the bottom in the form of woollen dust bunnies, he had gracelessly extracted himself and never attempted to sit there again. Oddly, the fabric of the padded piano bench was the same velvet as the sofa, and Severus wondered if the House Elves were being simply tight-fisted or if he was imagining some sort of cryptic message about the meaning of life.
He ignored the piano for weeks; it smelt strongly of one of Dumbledore's more ham-handed traps. Still, the instrument beckoned like a siren upon the rocks, the brazen oaken curves gleaming seductively with the promise of music.
It was a blustery, blue-skied Wednesday when he finally gave in to temptation. As the youngest member of staff and a mere two years removed from his own graduation, Severus found himself adrift and friendless, neither fish nor fowl to the other denizens of the Castle. And so when he strode into the lounge—something that still rather felt like trespassing—to find himself blessedly alone, Severus made a beeline for the piano, all marking forgotten.
To his great surprise, the piano was not only well tuned, but the padded bench contained a wonderfully thick stack of Muggle sheet music. Cautiously, he sat down, running a long finger over the keys.
C, D, E, F…
The notes were bright and pure, mixing with the sunshine streaming through the mullioned windows to create an altogether different sort of magic. A shiver slid down his spine, loosening some of the knots: here, at least, was something that he knew how to handle with confidence.
His first measures of Schubert were halting and rough; it had been over five years since Severus had even seen a piano, never mind played one. With a grimace, he rose again, stripped off his robes and frock coat, and flexed his narrow shoulders. Taking a deep breath, he began again.
Sit up straight, he recited, whispers of the past filling the room like errant sunbeams. Play at the shoulders, not the wrists. Don't hit the keys, caress them…
One note, and then two; a chord, then an entire measure... and just like that, Severus was utterly lost.
The music flowing from his fingers dipped and soared, somehow contriving to loosen the tight Occlumentic shields that had frozen everything but his fury and fear; each tumbling arpeggio chipped away at the ice until the sound and the sentiment were one glorious mess rippling through the air.
Abruptly, the magic ended.
The room had gone gloomy, the sun having sunk below the mountains at the far end of the Black Lake. His wrists and fingers ached abominably, and his neck had the most peculiar crick in it. Shifting gingerly on the bench, Severus peered behind him and froze; the room was packed with silent, staring staff members.
In an instant, Severus felt his face flame red and scrambled to shore up his shields. He had never meant to expose himself in such a fashion, and never would have continued to play if he had known that there was an audience…
"That was magnificent, Severus." A dark form detached herself from the wall, and with a wave of a wand, lit the lamps in the room. Bathsheda Babbling—a professor who had never so much as given him the time of day—granted him a warm smile. "I had no idea that you played, nor that you played so well. We've all been sitting in the dark for the better part of an hour because we didn't want to disturb you."
"My apologies. I did not mean to monopolize the space…" Severus began, hastily donning his frock coat and wondering how quickly he could flee to the dungeons without looking foolish. Idiot! You should have at least taken enough care to cast detection charms…
The Professor's countenance turned wry. "Oh, don't misunderstand me, lad. Your playing was a pleasant treat after a trying day. I do hope that we will get to hear you again."
A chorus of agreement met her words and Severus paused, briefly taking in the expressions around him. For once, people were eyeing him with blatant approval rather than icy disgust; even McGonagall had relaxed enough to not appear as if she was sucking on lemons.
Maybe, he mused, just maybe I can use this to my advantage…
Then the coldly calculating blue gaze of Albus Dumbledore collided with his, and he nearly shuddered at what he saw; a pet Death Eater he might be, but he would not willingly hand the Headmaster any more of his soul than he already had.
"I must agree with Bathsheda. That was quite the performance."
Visions of being trotted out to play for the students, or worse yet, the Ministry, filled Snape's head. Never! "It was a one-off, I assure you," he said, snatching his marking from the table and turning for the door.
"That's a pity," the older wizard murmured. "Clearly, the Castle saw fit to move the piano into the staff lounge for a reason. And as you well know, help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."
For all that his words were conciliatory, there was a threat lurking just under the surface. Don't get any ideas. Your job here isn't to make friends…
Snape sneered. I know that, you bastard!
In a swirl of robes, he left.
Naturally, it wasn't a one-off.
Two weeks later, Severus snuck into the staff room after the evening rounds and played for nearly five hours; when he finally fell into bed, he slept like the dead and awoke more clear-headed then he'd been in months.
Something had to break, he knew; one could not dance on the knife's edge between two masters—not to mention teaching Potions and Head of House duties!—and not slip without some kind of outlet. Occlumency could only go so far, and he already had been ordered to stop assigning so much detention. He resolved to continue his nocturnal expeditions, the unspoken reproof from Dumbledore be damned.
However, a conversation overheard several days later radically changed his approach. Severus hadn't been lurking, precisely—he had a right to be on the fourth floor balcony just like anyone else—but had declined to announce his presence as McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey meandered by. Their inattention made it clear they were having a juicy chinwag, and he slipped further into the draperies when it became obvious that the chatter was about him.
"Has he played again?" Pomfrey asked.
"Not so you'd catch him at it. Several of the portraits have heard him playing in the wee hours of the morning, however."
"That's a shame. I must say, I think it's sweet that he's too shy to play in front of anyone. It shows how much it means to him."
"Merlin knows he's not the bashful sort about anything else."
Pomfrey gave an amused snort. "Still sore that he outscored every one of your Gryffindors at the N.E.W.T.'s, dearie?"
"Hardly. The only thing that's sore is my hand, and that's due to the sheer length of his papers that I graded over the course of his student career. Still, I imagine that he's getting a taste of his own medicine now that he's teaching."
The women went quiet before Pomfrey spoke again. "Albus didn't seem very pleased with the reaction to his playing."
"No. He wasn't."
"So it was the Castle that moved the piano into the lounge, then?"
"As far as I know, yes."
"Why?" Pomfrey's voice dipped, and Severus strained to hear her next words. "If he's to be trusted now, why would Albus object?"
"I don't know, Poppy, truly. The two of them have always been at odds. Besides, you know Albus. Can't stand anything that he can't control."
Severus mulled over the conversation for several days. He was loath to reveal himself further, and playing the piano had always been an intensely personal act. But there were other considerations to take into account; he must be seen making allies in the Castle, or the Dark Lord would replace him in a manner most painful; the usual summons were bad enough as it was. Getting caught playing the piano had noticeably softened attitudes of the staff, and would be a good start to forming more positive connections. That the action would also ruffle the feathers of Albus Dumbledore was an unexpected boon…
I'll have to be careful and not let myself get lost in the music. Hex the bench, perhaps?
Unexpectedly, he found himself nervous as he settled down to play; Severus could practically count on one hand the number of times he'd played for others. Flipping through the sheet music, he was annoyed to see that not only was his hand a tad unsteady, but it wasn't completely dry, either.
Some big, bad Death Eater you are… why do you care, anyway? They thought you were nothing better than scum as a student, and their opinions are hardly better now!
The caustic and bitter flow of resentment at the thought calmed his nerves: he did not care what they might think. Severus wasn't doing this for accolades—it was merely a means to an end. He didn't trust Dumbledore to keep up his side of the bargain, and if he was going to ever make up for what he had done, he had to have more supporters than a single, poncey, judgmental old poofer.
Right. Some Bach, perhaps? Chopin? No, I need something showier. Khatchaturian, I think…
Shockingly, it worked like a charm.
By the second week of October, he was no longer an island upon himself; several of the more experienced teachers had decided to mentor him in the more arcane methods of student management, and could be counted upon to back him up when Dumbledore tried to blatantly favour his House in matters of discipline. Best of all, it meant a ready-made reason to play the piano, and Severus was gratified at how quickly his lessons were coming back to him.
He had been fiddling with a particularly tricky passage when a slim hand slid past his own and elegantly picked out the melody. Glancing up, Severus was startled to see that the limb belonged to none other than Minerva McGonagall.
She smirked slightly when she saw his expression. "You're not the only one who can play around here, you know."
"And here I thought I was the only one who benefited from a more polyphonic approach to early education."
"Our numbers are few but mighty," McGonagall retorted. "And I'll not let you butcher Tovey like that. If you are going to play something by a Scotsman in my hearing, you'd best do it right. Budge over and I'll show you how it's done."
Despite himself, Severus was amused at the older woman's manner; he knew that she wasn't nearly as haughty as she put on, but it felt odd to have her interact with him in such a congenial fashion. Obligingly, he scooted over and she sat at the padded bench, wincing.
"Nimue's nickers, but this bench is uncomfortable. It feels like someone has hexed the bloody thing…"
Severus aimed for blithe innocence. "And who would gain pleasure in committing such a petty, puerile deed?"
"Oh, I can think of one or two people," she said dryly, and pulled out her wand. In a flash, she had cancelled his hex and transformed the surface into something far more supportive and comfortable, giving a sigh of contentment as she did so.
"Now, pay attention…"
It was a strangely agreeable way to spend a quarter of an hour; Minerva had challenged him to a duet at the end, and they proved to be well-matched as partners.
"Where did you learn to play?" Severus asked, surprising the both of them with the question.
She gave the fallboard a fond stroke. "From my father. He was a rather musically disposed vicar, and I played most Sundays in the kirk until I came to Hogwarts. After that…" Sorrow deepened the emerald of her eyes. "Well, after that things became a great deal more thorny, and I played only occasionally."
Severus had forgotten that she was a Half-Blood just as he was, and her regret at paths untaken tugged at something within him rather uncomfortably; it was too close to the circumstances of his own past to sit easily.
"Our duality causes all sorts of complications, doesn't it?" he mused rhetorically. "Far easier to be one or the other, I would think…"
McGonagall cocked her head, staring at him for a long moment. "Perhaps." Her voice turned sardonic. "Alas, as both a woman and a witch, I've found that one can never escape the inherent complications of societal dichotomies, however much one tries."
"Freud had quite a few things to say on that subject…" Severus retorted slyly, unable to resist poking at the woman.
"Freud was full of shite, and you know it. Far better to read Mary Wollstonecraft if you are going to waste time on Muggle philosophy."
He tsked disapprovingly. "For shame, Professor. Isn't the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake a sacred duty?"
"Oh, don't lay it on too thick…" With admirable swiftness, she changed the subject. "Speaking of education, how on earth did you to learn play? I don't remember your Mam being musically inclined."
Snape looked down at his pale hands, still curved over the alternating pattern of black and white keys. For all that it was a simple question, the answer was anything but; he could lie, or he could answer it truthfully and risk giving himself away. Minerva McGonagall had long known who and what he was—and more importantly, what he had been. She was a smart woman, and the thought of her piecing together the truth of what he had done was terrifying.
Ah, but the time for pride has past, hasn't it? She's as good as Dumbledore's second, and you need her to see you as something other than a monster and a Death Eater. This isn't about you. It's about protecting Lily, and if McGonagall believes what you have to say, then Lily is all the more safer…
"No. My mother had no love for music. My father did, although that wasn't something I learned until well after I started playing." Severus swallowed, forcing the next sentence out. "Lily… Lily's mum taught me, actually."
For the second time that afternoon, his words surprised McGonagall. He saw the myriad of questions that his reply provoked, but to his own astonishment she gave him an easy out.
"That must be quite the story."
The dominant smells of the Evans' parlour rushed back to him then: lemon cleaning oil and fresh baking, with just a hint of starch. Then there was the ever-present burble of the kitchen radio and Lily turning the pages of a book as she sprawled out on the floor next to the piano…. He'd never been a happy child, but those stolen moments had been the closest thing to bliss he'd ever experienced.
"I suppose it is."
It was the fickle spring breeze that finally closed the distance between his hand and the shining claret strands, and it took all of his willpower to not wrap the silky stuff around his fingers as it gently tickled his palm. He had been edging closer for almost twenty minutes in a quest to touch it; Lily was unmindful to his movements as she fiddled with a bit of stick and twine, chattering away.
They lay in their special clearing by the creek, basking like a pair of lizards in the unseasonably warm temperatures. Although there was a rock under his back, and Severus could feel a bit of damp creeping through the sleeve of his jacket, he didn't care. All that mattered was the sensation of her hair on his skin; he could swear that he could feel the tingle of her magic as it rippled in the sunlight.
Abruptly she rolled from her back to her side, red hair flipping over her shoulder as she turned to face him. Biting her lip anxiously, she stared at him.
"Sev…" she said haltingly, and then reached out to grab his hand. "It'll come, right?"
He blinked, nearly overwhelmed by the simple touch. "Huh?"
"My letter. It'll come on my birthday…"
"Yes," Sev said fiercely, suddenly sure and full of purpose. "You are a witch, and witches belong at Hogwarts. You'll get your letter, and then we'll go off to school together. I promise."
She gazed at him, equal parts hope and fear. "I'm just scared. What if it doesn't come, or I'm not any good at magic? What if no one likes me?"
Severus sat up, tugging her upright with their intertwined hands. "I've seen your magic, Lily. It's bright and strong and so lovely…" he trailed off, feeling his cheeks heat. "You are a witch. You will be good at magic. And I like you, so why does it matter what anyone else thinks? I will always be your friend."
Lily smiled then and squeezed his hand. "I know I'm being a silly goose…"
A crack startled them both, and Petunia bullied her way into the space; her glower seemed to suck all the joy out of the air. "You'll be a cooked goose if you don't get home right now. Mum's been waiting for you for almost a half an hour."
Lily groaned. "Oh, no, I forgot that I was supposed to practice today!"
Tunie smirked. "She's pretty cross…"
Lily scrambled to her feet, brushing off the dirt. Severus did the same, glaring at Petunia. Why does she always have to interrupt? The darker girl scowled right back at him.
"Come on," Lily called, beckoning him forward. She took his hand again, pulling him back onto the path. "Are you coming, Tunie?"
"No. I've already practiced for the day. Mum said I could do whatever I wanted, and I certainly don't want to hang out with him." Petunia made an ugly face.
"Well, I don't want to hang out with you either," Severus shot back.
Lily rolled her eyes. "Ignore her, Sev. She's just jealous." She pulled on his arm and he obligingly started after her. "Since she's determined to be useless, you can help me practice by turning the pages of music."
"Practice what?" he asked, feeling a prickle of unease at the thought of going in the Evans house.
"The piano, silly. I have a recital in two weeks."
Before he could muster up any coherent objections, Severus found himself standing awkwardly in the Evans' parlour. Mrs Evans sat in front of a piano, flipping through a large stack of paper. She gave Lily a mildly reproving look at their tardy entrance.
"Darling, I expected you home quite awhile ago."
"Sorry, Mum. I was so busy telling Sev all about the recital that I forgot about the time."
Severus nodded, trying to appear as though Lily's excuse wasn't news to him. Mrs Evans sighed and patted the bench. "Lily, you need to be more aware of how your behaviour affects others. I had plans too this afternoon, you know."
"Mum, I am sorry. I'll practice longer to make up for it, alright?"
"That's not the point, dear."
Lily walked over to her mother and put a skinny arm around her shoulders. Giving the older woman a quick buss on the cheek, she smiled. "Will you play something for Severus before I start? I told him all about how talented you are, and how you were even asked to play at Covent Garden when you were a girl…"
Mrs Evans' attention switched over to him, and Severus tried not to squirm under her keen gaze. "I'd like that," he mumbled. "If it's not too much trouble. I've never heard the piano 'scept in church."
A glint of humour appeared in her expression. "Well, we can't have that, now can we? There's so much more to the piano than heavy-handed hymns." She pushed Lily away, and pointed to a spot on the floor. "I want you to listen carefully; I'll start teaching you some of the simpler sections of this after your recital. "
Lily grinned and gestured for Severus to sit next to her. He did so gingerly, painfully aware of how shabby his trousers were next to the fine furniture and rugs.
"I give you Mozart's 'Rondo Alla Turca'."
Mrs Evans took in a slow breath, and suddenly her hands were sweeping gracefully over the piano like a pair of swallows. The parlour filled with music the likes he'd never heard before; Severus couldn't even find the words to describe it to himself.
It was rhythmic and martial, but at the same time, full of light, reminding him of the blooming spring outside. Parts of it were loud and bombastic, making his ears ring; other sections were tantalizingly delicate and intricate. All Severus could do was stare, his entire body fixed on the glorious music being created by Mrs Evans. Not since the first time he'd cast a proper spell had he been so enthralled.
With a theatrical flourish, Mrs Evans ended the song, twisting back to look at the children. Lily clapped enthusiastically, and he copied the movement robotically, still stunned.
"That was wonderful, Mummy!" Lily elbowed him and he jerked. "Wasn't it, Sev?"
Mouth dry, he nodded. "It was. Thank you, Mrs Evans."
Seeing his reaction, Lily cocked her head, something close to calculation flashing through her bright green gaze. "Can you show him how to play something?"
"Lily, enough of your stalling..." her mother began.
She shook her head in rampant denial, red hair flying out wildly. "No, I'm not! Look at how much Sev liked listening to you play. I bet he'd love to learn! Please?"
Lily's Mum sighed again, and then looked down at Severus. He stared down at his hands, fighting hard to keep the yearning from his face; he had no place in this room, and no business even touching the piano. But, oh if only he could…
"Well, young man, what say you? Do you want to give it a try?"
Startled, he snuck a covetous peek at the instrument. "Yes, ma'am. I'd like to try."
She gave in gracefully. "Come here and I'll show you the basics. And Lily, don't think you won't be practicing a full hour when we finish."
Lily grinned cheerfully, getting up and snagging a book from a low table. "I know, Mum."
On wobbly legs, Severus rose and sat down stiffly on the bench next to Mrs Evans. She smelled sweetly of lilac, and he became suddenly aware that his hands were dirty from their earlier explorations. Compared to her serene splendour, he felt particularly grubby.
If Mrs Evans was aware of his discomfort, she didn't show it. Patiently, she demonstrated all the various parts of the piano and how to hold his hands over the keys. He listened intently, trying to etch it onto his memory.
"…Now, I just want you to experiment with pressing the keys and learning how they sound. Don't worry about making it sound like music, just get comfortable with the instrument."
Leaning forward with anticipation, Severus pressed a single white key. The vibrant resonance of the note seemed to linger in the warm air of the room, and he almost smiled. Then he hit one key after another, wincing at the discordant noise it was producing.
"That's it, dear. Try the foot pedals now."
But that didn't help either; no matter how he strung the keys together, there were only fleeting moments of harmony. He stopped, frustrated.
"Will you play part of the song from before?" he asked.
She raised a fine blonde eyebrow at the request, but humoured him. "Watch carefully, I'll play the first section slowly."
She did so twice over, and Severus did his best to memorise the complex patterns that her hands were making. Fixing the image in his mind's eye, he placed his fingers over the keys and tried to repeat the movements.
The effort was halting and excruciatingly amateur, but it was recognizably the same tune. Biting his lip, he bent over the keys again, listening hard for the mistakes and speeding up as he gained more confidence. He practiced it over and over, until he was playing it properly; with a proud smile, he turned to Mrs Evans.
She was watching him with a queer, almost hurt expression, and Severus snatched his hands back from the keys as if he'd been scalded. He darted a wary glance to Lily, who was completely lost in her book.
What have I done wrong?
Mrs Evans' soft voice drew him back. "It appears that you have a gift for music, Severus."
Severus said nothing, lost for words. Is she mad at me? Is that a bad thing? After all, the first time he had accidently shown his ability for magic to his Da, both his parents had been furious. Could this be the same thing?
"Shall I show you a bit more?"
He nodded, hands unclenching. Maybe she's not mad at me…
Music filled the air again, and Severus stopped worrying about anything but the spell of the piano.
Over the course of several months, Mrs Evans taught him how to read sheet music. He quickly leapfrogged both Lily and Petunia in terms of skill, and Lily gradually stopped playing. Often, she would read by the piano as he practiced, and he came to love those rare days when he could empty his mind of everything but music and friendship.
One afternoon just after his tenth birthday, he overheard a most peculiar conversation. Lily had run upstairs to fetch a new book when Mr Evans unexpectedly walked in. Severus was startled; he had seen the man only a handful of times and wondered if he should leave. But he only gave him a brusque nod and continued on into the kitchen.
Severus continued to play, straining his ears to catch the conversation.
"Well?" Mrs Evans asked.
"It's no use. I've spoken with the Headmaster, and they have no bursary spots open for next year."
"Is there any way..?"
"No, Mary. It's not as if we can afford to pay for him to go. Things are too unstable as it is with the mills closing. Besides, you said his mother wouldn't hear of trying to send him to St. Cecilia's, never mind apply."
"It's just such a waste. The boy has so much talent, and it's such an excellent music programme. If he were to audition, I know he would be offered a place!"
"There's no use tilting at windmills, dear. Talented or no, you've done all you can."
Severus felt his stomach give an odd lurch; they were speaking about him. Vaguely, he recalled that St. Cecilia's was a Catholic school in the next village over.
But I'm a wizard, and I'm going to Hogwarts, he thought. Not some stupid local secondary…
It occurred to him then that once he left for Hogwarts, he might have to stop playing the piano altogether. Hogwarts might not even have a piano; his Mam had never mentioned anything of the sort.
The thought hurt. Severus had come to value playing the piano almost as much as his clandestine magic lessons. Really, playing was just a different kind of magic.
But Lily is going to Hogwarts. Even if I did go to St. Cecilia's, she wouldn't come with me…
He stared at the shiny, lemon scented surface of the piano, a little piece of his heart breaking.
It doesn't matter. I'm a wizard. And Lily and I are going to Hogwarts together. I can always play when I come home in the summer. Anyway, I probably won't even like the piano once I start learning magic for real.
Lily thundered down the stairs, jumper in hand. "Come on, Sev. I want to go outside. It's finally stopped raining."
"Yeah, all right."
Severus didn't forget the conversation that he had overheard. As a result, playing the piano became an exercise in bittersweet restraint. Over the course of the following year, he began to consciously limit how often he practiced until it was no more than once a week; after his upcoming eleventh birthday, he vowed to cut it down even further.
Increasingly, he dreamt of fleeing to Hogwarts with Lily. His Da had lost his job, and was rarely able to find day work; consequently, his parents were fighting almost all of the time, and Severus made it his goal to not be seen by the elder Snape lest the violence rain down upon him, too.
Needless to say, it was shaping up to be poor Christmas, both materially and in spirit. Severus sat glumly in their tiny parlour, cutting snowflakes from old newsprint as his Mam knitted a pair of new socks.
A flash of green out the window caught his attention. Half rising, he saw a familiar Morris Minor pull to the kerb. To his disbelief, Mrs Evans got out of the car, Lily and Petunia trailing after her like bewildered ducklings. The older woman wore a bright red wool coat, the vivid colour standing in firm contrast to the dreary neighbourhood.
His Mam had likewise seen the visitors coming up the front stoop, and shot Severus a stern look. "Have you done something you ought not, boy?"
Severus crumpled the bit of newspaper up in his hand, feeling sick. "No… no, I don't think so."
Mrs Evans knocked at the door, and his Mam levelled another hard glare before getting up. Saying nothing further, she opened the door.
"Hello, Mrs Snape," Mrs Evans said cheerfully. "I know this quite the imposition, but may we come in for just a moment?"
"You might as well, or you'll freeze to the bitumen."
Mrs Evans laughed as if it were a joke and pulled the girls in behind her. Both of them were wearing their Sunday finest; Lily in a hunter green overcoat, and Petunia in purple. Resolutely, Severus did not let any of his embarrassment show as Petunia disdainfully looked around. Lily was far more neutral in her assessment, and he wondered if he'd be subjected to a round of questioning the next time they were alone.
They looked terribly out of place, but Mrs Evans at least seemed comfortable enough in her surroundings. "My," she began, gesturing graciously to the threadbare furniture and faded wallpaper. "…You certainly do keep a tidy house. That must be quite the battle with such an active son, and I can only imagine that his father isn't much different."
Eileen offered a thin smile. "My husband regularly accuses me of using magic."
Mrs Evans chuckled again and Severus winced, knowing his Mam wasn't trying to be funny or friendly.
"Husbands always think anything they don't know how to do is witchcraft, don't they?"
"Oh, ay. That or useless."
Undaunted, Lily's mother went on. "Well, as I said, I don't want to bother you, but I have a bit of an odd favour to ask. You see, Phillip—that is, Mr Evans—has managed to land a Christmas miracle of his own. He's surprised us with a last minute trip to Paris for the week. We leave tonight—we're flying on an aeroplane, if you can believe it. I'm rather nervous. Have you flown on one before?"
His Mum looked at the other woman steadily. "No, I've not flown on an aeroplane."
"Neither of have I… anyway, that's neither here nor there. You see, the problem is that I've already done the shopping and a good deal of the cooking for Christmas, but now we've no need for it. It'll spoil if we can't find a place for it. I was wondering if you could incorporate it into your own feast, or barring that, hand it out to those who might otherwise go without."
His Mam's countenance turned stony, and Severus felt a flush of shame creep over his features. They needed the food, and Mrs Evans had to know that. It was as plain to see as the Prince nose that sat upon his face. But to accept charity as such? It was inconceivable.
Twisting a glove in one hand, Mrs Evans continued in a beseeching voice. "I know it's terribly old-fashioned of me, but after spending so many years either not having enough food because of war or rationing, I can't bear the thought of all that food going to waste. Frankly, it'll ruin the whole holiday."
As if on cue, Severus' stomach rumbled loudly; breakfast had been a scant helping of beans and toast, and there had been nothing for lunch. His mother's face whitened, but she did not make any other acknowledgement of the noise.
"There's even the ingredients for Yorkshire pudding," Lily interjected suddenly, stepping forward. She sent his mam a wistful smile. "Sev says you make the best Yorkshire pudding in all of England. He practically drools when he talks about it."
For a moment, the only sound in the house was the tick of the hall clock. Then his mam gave an unlady-like snort, rolling her eyes. "He'll try and eat the entire pan if I don't stop him."
Mrs Evans gave him a wry once over. "With the way he's been shooting up lately, I rather imagine he'd try for the pan, too."
Eileen smirked, appearing genuinely amused for the first time. "Ay, followed shortly by the table, and then the chairs."
"Allow me to propose a trade, then. You take the dinner, and when we return, you teach me to make a proper Yorkshire pudding. I'm hopeless—it either burns, or falls completely flat. My husband despairs of us ever having a true Sunday roast."
Severus' mouth began to water just thinking of the possibility of all that food sitting on their table, and couldn't help but glance at his Mam hopefully.
She didn't like it, but the notion saved enough face to be palatable. "As you wish, although I warn you that I'm no natural teacher. We may burn a pot or two until we get it right."
Mrs Evans beamed. "Oh, that's simply marvellous, I can't thank you enough..."
It took three trips to the car to carry in the boxes. Not only was there a large hunk of beef for roasting, but everything else to complete the supper from tinned fruit to posh Christmas crackers. Once the Evans' had left, his Mam sat down in her chair again, looking dazed at the bounty.
"Go fetch your Da," she finally said, holding a bag of parsnips. "Tell him they'll be supper."
Grabbing his battered jacket from the hook, Severus ducked out the kitchen door and down the back alley towards the square. He could hear the noise from the pub where his Da held court before he could see it. Entering through the back door, he grimaced at the smell of piss.
The crowded room was murky with men and fumes, the ground littered with peanut shells. Letting his eyes adjust, he stood in the corner for a long moment. A battered black piano a few feet away caught his attention, and he realized that with the Evans' gone, it would likely be several weeks before he could play again.
Without meaning to he drifted closer, coming to rest in front of the chipped keys. Carefully, he pressed the middle c. The sound wasn't half bad. Out of nowhere, someone squeezed his arm hard. "Play something, boy!" a drunk ordered, lurching against the wall. "You 'eard me. Play!"
Mechanically, Severus began to softly finger the first tune that popped into his head, an old Christmas folk song that Mrs Evans had been teaching him the previous week.
To his horror, the pub went utterly still.
His Da materialized like a vengeful god, and Severus stopped, swallowing hard. Black eyes narrowing as he took in the sight of his son standing at the piano, Toby Snape strode forward, pint in hand.
"You think you can play?" his father asked, a hint of something nasty lurking in the challenge.
"Only a bit, sir," Severus replied, voice cracking.
"Go on, then. Give us a show."
Severus turned back to the piano with shaking hands; if he messed this up he knew that his Da would belt him something awful. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine that he was in the safety of the Evans' front room and not in the busy bar.
The first several bars of 'The Holly and The Ivy' were less than perfect. Heart pounding like an out of control drum, Severus fought for control, and the music gradually evened out. He managed to finish it with a bit of a flourish, working the foot pedals hard for effect.
The pub had stayed quiet, and it felt like forever for his judgement to come.
"Well, will you look at that, Toby…" the barkeep announced. "…Your boy is just a chip off the old block, ay?"
Severus looked at his father, confused. His old man put his pint down and gripped Severus' bony shoulder tightly.
"Play it again," he ordered. "No mistakes this time."
He returned to the keys with more confidence, the start of the song coming out strong and true. So focused was he on the piano that Severus jerked badly when the lovely, deep baritone began to accompany him.
It was his father.
"The holly and the ivy," the man sang, resonate voice in perfect harmony with the piano. "…When they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown..."
His Da's rising and falling voice wove a spell around the gathered men. The foul smells and dank atmosphere disappeared; there was something almost holy in the way his singing and the tune came together. On the third refrain, a man standing by the front window joined in, and steadily, the rest of the patrons followed suit.
Severus finished the song with a smile; no longer was the meaty hand on his shoulder a threat. For once, it felt nice. His father also looked satisfied, especially as requests for other songs started raining down.
"Do you know any of the tunes?" he asked, peering down at Severus with a downright friendly smirk.
His Da shrugged good-naturedly. "Well, I suppose I'll 'ave to teach ya."
Severus grinned, feeling giddy at the unexpected reply.
"What's your Mam want?" Toby asked more gruffly.
"She sent me to tell you there's supper waiting."
A black brow went up at that; Toby knew that there was little food to be found in the Snape household. The press of onlookers prevented him from inquiring further, however.
"Can't keep the missus waiting, then can I?" he announced, and there was a general muttering of manly laughter. Toby settled his accounts quickly, and escorted Severus from the bar almost before he could catch his breath.
Severus braced himself for an interrogation, but his father stayed silent until they were halfway home.
"My Father—your Grandfather—could play the piano, and a band's worth of instruments besides," he told Severus in a contemplative tone. "He always said that the Snapes were descended from a long line of Northern bards, and that any Snape worth his salt would have something of the music in him."
Not knowing how to respond, Severus nodded. "I didn't know you could sing like that. It was… amazing."
"Phhh," he spat. "…I've always had perfect pitch. You should hear me when I've not spent a night in a smoky pub drinking. Me old man used to say that I could sing the knickers off a nun."
"Will you teach me?" Severus asked. "Those songs the men in the pub were asking for?"
His Da gave a sharp nod. "Ay, I will. No use being a Snape if you don't know your music."
Even without Lily, it proved to be the sweetest Christmas that Severus could recall. His Mam managed to parcel out the food until New Year's, and his Da took him to the pub each morning to learn the folk songs that his own father had taught him.
Toby was an indifferent player at best, but Severus only needed to hear him sing the tune to be able to work out the fingering. His Da was proud of that ability, and boasted of it to his cronies. The bragging resulted in an impromptu concert one evening, and Severus found himself beaming ear to ear as they were toasted with pint after pint; it was a type of acceptance that he had never experienced before.
His birthday dawned cold and clear, and he scrambled down the stairs to find only his mother in the kitchen. She had her back to him, flipping several flapjacks on the hob.
"Good morning," he said carefully, noting how tense she was.
"Happy birthday," she responded dispassionately. "You've got your letter." It hit the table next to his hand. Severus stared at the heavy white envelope and fine crest, excited and terrified all at once. He touched it gently, but did not break the wax seal.
"Out." She deftly put the hot flapjacks on a plate, and then opened a tin of peaches. Placing several of the golden slices on top, she slid the food across the table to him.
"Did he see it?" Severus asked dully, understanding that things had irrevocably soured.
"Yes." His Mam took a cup of tea from the counter and walked from the room, leaving Severus to eat alone.
His father never took him to the pub to play again. Nor did they discuss music.
Twenty-one days later, Lily Evans received her Hogwarts letter. Her parents were utterly gobsmacked, but very proud to have a witch in the family.
The first note always hurt.
Snape had not played for the first five years after Lily's murder; his grief and shame had been such a wild and terrible thing that even the sight of the piano could send him off in bouts of bottomless drinking from which it would take weeks to emerge.
Oddly, it had been Minerva who had finally broken that cycle. Five years and two days after Lily's death—All Souls' Day 1986—Minerva had quite literally kidnapped him, Apparating them both to a small stone kirk outside of Mull. A wizened old vicar had been awaiting them, and let them into the hushed space.
She had dragged him into the nave, only releasing him from the full body bind once the wooden doors had been firmly shut behind them. Genuflecting at the alter, she lit three candles and bowed her head in prayer; after several minutes, she turned back to Severus and pointed to a piano half hidden in the wavering shadows.
"Grieve. Play. Say good-bye." Rising on stiff knees, she walked back over to him and touched his arm gently. "I've warded the kirk so that no one will enter, and no harm can be done. I'll be with my father in the rectory." Without another word, she had left him alone in the dark but for the flickering beeswax votives.
There was very little he remembered about that long night; he could recall flashes of being sprawled out on the cold stone floor on his knees begging for forgiveness, and hours spent at the piano playing all manner of tunes. He had found something there; not peace, exactly, but a re-dedication to the cause. The first battle was over but not the war, and Severus Tobias Snape had a vital role to play within it.
He had been playing the third movement to Prokofiev's sixth sonata when the rising sun had illuminated the patterns of purple thistle in the stained glass windows. The chapel had filled with a delicate, lavender light; letting the last notes linger in the dawn air, Severus had allowed a final wash of tears, and then had tucked that part of himself away forever. Stiffly, he had made his way to the rectory to find a hot breakfast waiting for him. It was his first step back to something approaching human again.
After that night, he returned to playing regularly. Minerva joined him for duets occasionally, and very rarely, he would consent to both sing and play; he had not just the Snape facility for playing, but his father's grand voice, as well. He also discovered the joy of skewering people through music. Granted, most of his targets did not recognize that he was making fun of them—his tendency to play Muggle music almost guaranteed it—but inevitably, at least one person would recognize the point being made.
Severus had just started to pick through his collection of sheet music when a pompous voice sounded off behind him.
"I say, Severus, do you play?"
"No," he drawled, allowing the disdain to drip from his tone. "I simply enjoy fussing with things that I don't understand."
Gilderoy Lockhart made a sympathetic moue as he buffed his nails. "Not very good then, eh? That's a pity. I must admit, music is one of the few areas I've yet to master despite my great delight of it. I have quite the ear, you know. Why, I can tell you right off the bat if something is quality or not. It's an absolute pity that my crusade against all things dark and foul has limited my free time to polish up such hobbies…"
With a sneer, Severus chose his first piece of the evening. "I suppose that if you had ever learnt, you would have been a great proficient, what with your true enjoyment and natural taste..."
Lockhart nodded sagely. "Precisely."
From the corner, Charity Burbage burst into laughter, placing a well-worn copy of 'Pride and Prejudice' down with a thump. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, indeed!
Severus rolled his eyes and began playing Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor'. If they were going to have to listen to something so painfully camp and outré all year, they might as well have the proper soundtrack for it.
It had been over a week since Snape had set foot in the staff room; with Lupin's gloating presence, it was no longer a safe space for either socializing or playing. He seethed at the very thought of the man back at Hogwarts, not to mention teaching at the school. Indeed, Albus had gone completely mad to think that having a fucking werewolf on staff would end in anything but disaster.
His temper was not improved by Lupin's dramatic retelling of the form taken by Longbottom's bloody boggart just a week into the year. It had been presented as a splendid joke for the amusement of the rest of the faculty, but in realty, it had just been another salvo in the on-going war between them. Alas, it had taken a bit of time to come up with something subtly humiliating enough to be used for payback; it was doubly pleasing to Snape that the action would also needle Albus to no end.
Banging into the staff room in a manner guaranteed to raise both attention and eyebrows, Snape was satisfied to see that the room was nearly full. Without acknowledging any of the greetings, he sat down at the piano and began to play.
The tune was… different. Modern rock, to be precise. And it was Albus, bless his conspiratorial, manipulative little soul who fell neatly in his plot.
"Severus, that is a singular sound. What are you playing?"
Snape finished the song, and then began making notes on the sheet music. "It's a composition by a Mr. Warren Zevon, late of America. It's called 'Werewolves of London'. Shall I sing along with it?"
Without waiting for a response, Snape launched back into the tune.
I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain
He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook's
Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.
Werewolves of London!
Snape put a particular relish on the last 'Aaoooo', and then paused, shifting back to glance at Albus and Lupin. The Headmaster was trying to not look irate—Merlin forbid he give the whole game away this early in the term—and Lupin had turned a ruddy, pleasing shade of pink.
"It goes on like that for a bit," he informed them gleefully. "Some of the verses are quite creative, actually."
From the centre of the crowded table, an ignorant Rolanda Hooch gave an exuberant cackle. "I rather like that song. It's got a bit of pep in it, doesn't it? Will you teach me the lyrics?"
"Of course, Rollie. Come sit with me…"
Naturally, Rolanda taught the song to her seventh years, who in turn taught it to the rest of the student body. The Castle was plagued by 'Aaoooooos' the remainder of the year.
23 June 1994
Even through the uncompromising white cotton of his button down shirt, Snape fancied that he could see the Dark Mark imprinted on his forearm. The tattoo had grown steadily darker over the course of the school year, and now it stood out in vivid indigo contrast to the pale flesh. It sickened him, both for what it originally represented and what the deepening colour meant for Wizarding Britain.
The third and final task of the Triwizard Tournament was planned for the morning, and Snape couldn't help but feel they were hurtling towards some sort of ghastly doom; he had argued, and pleaded, and finally begged Albus to cancel the ruddy thing, but the man would hear nothing of it.
And so Snape played the only thing that seemed appropriate: Liszt's Dante Sonata. The musical representation of wailing souls in Hell seemed horribly fitting; when else would the repeated use of the Devil's Tritone not be dissonant? The melancholy, shivering tune disturbed the assembled staff, even those who had never heard of Dante or his Divine Comedy. Minerva knew the song, however, and gave him a sharp look of rebuke. He flatly ignored it.
What was the bloody use of being a bellwether if no one listened?
He was right, of course. It had been a trap. And now they were all as lost as any wailing soul circling the depths of Hell.
1 May 1998
The piano sat in a puddle of moonlight, the world reduced to stark black and white shapes around it.
The Headmaster walked into the room silently and shut the door, warding it against all but the House-Elves. With a near silent sigh, he sat down on the padded bench, fingers lightly smoothing the worn velvet.
He was tired. Gods, but he was tired… and more than a little broken.
It had been over a year since he'd played the piano; he'd not even stepped foot into this room since killing Albus. Minerva hadn't tried to drag him out of his personal version of hell this go around. Rather, he had the feeling that she would have gladly poured the wine if it meant that he would drink himself to an early death.
The end had finally come, he knew. He only had to make it a few short days and his Sisyphean attempt at atonement would be concluded. But he wasn't going to go quietly into that dark night. No, he would go down fighting, and as the end was so close, he would do so with the memories of love and friendship near to his heart, not frozen in the far reaches of his mind.
Let it be quick, he prayed, and let me complete my task. May the boy live…
For the last time, he let his fingers dance over the cool ivory rectangles; made the air sing and weep with all that would go unsaid. He played until his fingers ached and cramped, until all the songs were gone and the sun had risen.
He stopped only when the fundamental wrongness in the Castle's wardings sent a lance of nausea through him, making further playing impossible. A House-Elf popped into the room just as he closed the fallboard.
"Headmaster," it squeaked, ears twitching uncomfortably. "…It has begun."
Bowing his head, he sent a final prayer into the ether. Please… oh, please, let it be enough…
Pulling his robes tightly to his cold body, the Headmaster rose and made for the door. He stopped at the last moment, turning back to the instrument that had brought him so much pleasure and so much pain.
With a practiced snap, he opened the padded bench and began to rifle through the volumes of music. It took several minutes to find the book that he was looking for, and with a reverent hand, he opened it to the final song. Carefully, he placed it on the music rack, charming it to stay in place.
If all went well, she would see it.
It would be enough.
The Headmaster left the room with a straight back and head held high.
5 May 1998
Minerva McGonagall, Acting Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, walked into the staff lounge cautiously with wand drawn; three days had not been enough time to completely clear the Castle of all hazards, and quite frankly, all of the dead bodies. But the room was empty and untouched save for a few hex marks on the north wall.
As it had done numerous times before, the ancient upright piano drew her attention, and with it came a flood of profound regret and grief.
Christ, but the man had been a bastard when he'd set his mind to it. Complex and intensely private, he'd also been selfless to the point of masochism, wickedly, painfully brilliant, loyal to the bitter and bloody end… and her friend.
Or had been.
He'd shown her enough of his anguish, of his guilt, that she should have seen behind the Death Eater façade. Hell, she had stood by the side of Albus Dumbledore long enough to know that things were rarely as they appeared.
But she hadn't seen through the ruse. What Minerva had done instead was make his every moment during the last year a torment. Had publically shamed him, and hunted him. Had spilt many of his most privately held secrets. And now he would never stalk down the halls of Hogwarts; would never play music again.
It was the thought of his music that brought her gaze back to the piano and to the sheet sitting upon the rack.
He had left the Leonard Cohen songbook for her to find; she could feel the dying embers of his magic in it still.
With trembling hands, she began to play the final song.
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing
Albus had never liked listening to Severus play; he would fidget like a restless, ill-mannered child, or crunch endless lemon sherbets between his teeth. Minerva had never quite been able to puzzle the why of it out; perhaps it was because listening to Severus play was akin to listening to his soul, and it was very difficult to play Machiavelli when you were forced to confront the humanity of your pawns.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
It had taken her years to figure out that Severus had never gotten over his youthful love for Lily Potter, and several more to understand how deeply he held himself responsible for her death. The blasted man had nearly drunk himself into the grave after her murder. His sorrow had been unquenchable.
Two decades later, she wondered if Lily had deserved his unwavering devotion; she had turned her back on him quickly enough. Minerva recalled a much younger Severus begging her at the door to the Gryffindor Common Room to fetch the redhead so that he might apologize. When she had spoken with the girl, the foolish chit had refused, and Minerva had not pushed her. Severus had been utterly crushed by the rejection—even she had been able to see that. But what if she had made Lily go down and confront the boy who was begging for her mercy? How would that have changed things?
You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
It was well known that Severus Snape had become a Death Eater shortly after his graduation, and Minerva had been appropriately appalled when Albus had hired him to teach Potions and stand as Head of Slytherin House. She had taken great pleasure in being an absolute, ball-breaking bitch to him… until one misty August morning. Returning from a hunt in her cat form, she had stumbled upon him at the gates, broken and bleeding in the most horrifying fashion. Transforming quickly, she had bustled him up to the Hospital Wing, summoning both Poppy and Albus.
"Why?" she had demanded, watching the Healer treating a large section of burnt flesh. "Why did this happen?"
"Because he fed Tom the wrong information," Albus had responded calmly.
"Did he… did he know?"
"That it was the wrong information? Yes."
Minerva blinked back tears. "Then why? Why would he do it, knowing it meant…"
The Headmaster was mute for some time. "Severus joined the Order. This is his role."
It was not the only night that she would find him injured.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
They all had a go at killing him—the staff and the students alike—and yet Severus had stood resolute. Had protected them when possible, and done what needed to be done. And unlike Albus, he only damned himself in the process.
Severus' graceful, magical fingers had been icy and stiff by the time Minerva had retrieved him from the Shrieking Shack. Pallid but well-formed, they had been sticky with his dried life's blood; it had taken her hours to wash all of it away.
Minerva stared at the music blankly for some time, the last verse hitting her like a punch to the gut.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
The following day, the piano disappeared. The corner remained empty.