Age-Range Category: Three
Character: Severus Snape
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Self-harm.
Summary: Severus, working on a new potion. Sometimes the breakthrough awaits closer than one might think.
The Headmaster had made quite clear that he wanted Severus to work on the Wolfsbane potion.
Of course he did. After centuries of ineffective containment policies and resounding counter-spell failures, Damocles Belby's invention was the first notable success registered by the wizarding community in their fight against lycanthropy, and the need for such a remedy had never been more pressing. In the three years that had passed since the Dark Lord's defeat and the end of the war, dozens of families whose members had been bitten (sometimes adults, but more often children, and sometimes all of them) had come St Mungo's Hospital in hope of a cure. The healers could offer them nothing but condolences and disappointment. Overworked as they were in the aftermath of the fights, they had they hands full with the people who could be saved, and no time to lose for those who couldn't be helped. Most of the new werewolves went into hiding with the rest of their congeners.
So it was no surprise when Belby's very public demonstration of the effects of his potion was celebrated like "a liquid miracle and an innovation comparable to none other, except perhaps the philosopher's stone" (to quote a Ministry official who preferred to remain anonymous, probably in order to avoid a link being created in the public's mind between his name and werewolves events of any kind). And Belby had indeed worked on making it an unforgettable show. He had chosen his patient well. The girl was five years old, both her parents were wizards who fought on Dumbledore's side, she had just lost her first tooth and she was blonde. The pictures of her transformation into a seemingly peaceful and fluffy cub did not make the front page of the Daily Prophet (the subject was too unbecoming) but they had been talked about, shown around and pinned on information boards by enthusiastic readers.
From a professional potioneer's point of view, the Wolfsbane was foremost an admission of failure. Obviously. It didn't even try to counter the animalisation induced by the full moon. It only mollified the beast. Supposedly.
It was enough for the Headmaster, anyway. To him, this potion probably looked like an amazing chance to reintroduce his dear Lupin and other beggars back into the magnanimous embrace of his perfect imaginary society. To this end, he needed to verify that Belby's prowess was replicable.
A plan towards which Severus certainly felt no inclination.
But even with the trials having come to an end and the specter of Azkaban finally receding, the leash on which Dumbledore kept him was still rather short. Self-proclaimed masterminds, this Severus had learned while working for the Dark Lord, appreciated initiatives from their subordinates, but reacted badly at the first suspicion of independence.
You chose to develop a potion that was different from the one they wanted you to sweat on? Fine. But you'd better find a project that would satisfy their ambitions. No Wolfsbane potion meant a dive into some equally challenging, similarly lifesaving brewing.
What Severus had set his sights on, during these cold weeks of January, was a drug that would clear the mind when it had been affected (destroyed) by the Cruciatus curse.
Mandrake leaves, lavender roots, crushed raven skulls and desiccated mint. That much was obvious.
Fresh dragon blood would be ideal, but how to incorporate it? The draught required an infusion of tentacles of Devil's Snare to acquire the desired potency, only said infusion necessitated boiling water, whose temperature would definitely sour the blood.
Severus struggled with this problem for an entire month. He was still turning it over in his head while shepherding ecstatic students along the road to Hogsmeade village and dampening their spirits as much as possible. (Which wasn't much at all: it was the first trip to Hogsmeade allowed and organised since the rebuilding of the commune. For the older pupils, who had resented the privation, this excursion confirmed the return of peace with more credibility than any speeches.)
He was thinking of little else when Professor Flitwick dragged him to the Three Broomsticks and put a pint of Butterbeer in his hands. (Generosity had not motivated this invitation and a polite refusal would not have allowed Severus to escape it. Indeed, his position amongst his colleagues could be described by a generous mind as "precarious". In spite of Dumbledore's recommendation, none of the teachers trusted him. Given the opportunity, they preferred to keep him where they were able to watch him. At least, if they could stand his presence at all.)
A tedious situation. However, Severus's bad mood was dispelled when Professor Flitwick, in what probably constituted a desperate attempt to carry a conversation, spoke about his latest trip to Italy and the risotto he had consumed for Christmas at L'Incantatrice Dorata (a hotel just as expensive as its name would suggest). While he was describing in great details the secret of its preparation and how ladle after ladle of bouillon were added to slowly softening rice, Severus realised that this culinary technique actually offered an original solution to his predicament.
Back to the silence of his quarters a few hours later, he exploited what little unspoiled time he had left that day to test this hypothesis. The experiment run its course smoothly: the solid ingredients absorbed the dragon blood until the white of the raven bones disappeared under a rich ruby colour. Then, stirring the fire under his cauldron, Severus could pour the watery infusion of Devil's Snare on the thick mixture and let the potion simmer without inducing a damaging reaction. The bubbling surface shone the most promising shade of scarlet.
Clouds of maroon smoke rose above the liquid. They smelt of ripe pears and venison. Severus scribbled a few notes on his piece of parchment on the subject, before cautiously approaching his head and inhaling more deeply. The heat made him want to close his eyes, but a curious reflection of light caught his attention. He looked again. There, hovering a good inch above the potion, two round flecks sparkled green.
"Lily's eyes," Severus thought, instantly, idiotically.
But the room was as dark as any dungeons. These twin glows could not be explained by a refracted beam. Severus shook his head, and fanned the billowing smoke with the nearest book he managed to find, in order to clear the view somewhat. He looked for the third time, and recoiled so brutally that he nearly dislodged the cauldron from his tripod. His knee had crashed against the hot metal, but he did not felt the pain.
Just under the green circles, James Potter's face had appeared, coloring the fumes with the pale pink of living human flesh.
And, as if summoned by this ghost, loud knocks rattled the door. Severus flinched, gathered himself, and rushed over to open it. Argus Filch was standing in the corridor, his robes in tatters and his expression murderous. Severus sighed, vanished the still stewing concoction behind him with a flick of his wand, and followed the vituperating caretaker towards whatever prank scene he had stumbled upon. Something had gone wrong with the potion anyways. He would have to start again from scratch.
At least the toad he had selected to become his first test subject had won a temporary respite out of this distasteful setback.
It was not until a week later that Severus managed to free himself from his obligations long enough for a second trial. He had taken less time than usually to graduate his first year essays that Sunday: most of the students had finally understood what he expected of them. And those who still hadn't grasped it, well. He wasn't going to waste ink on desperate cases and lazy imbeciles.
This time, he added cobwebs frozen in morning dew to the infusion of Devil's Snare, for clarity of the mind. And he roasted cocoa powder on the bottom of the cauldron during the fifth stage of the recipe. He also tripled the quantity of dragon blood, using almost a full flask.
(Thank Merlin Dumbledore had been on such friendly terms with the Longbottoms. Had he not been so attached and so emotionally involved in the possibility of their recovery, he might have raised objections to Severus's generous helpings of the costly ingredient.)
These modifications gave the potion a yellow hue, like amber pollen spread over the claret-red corolla of a prized tulip. But the green eyes sprang from this background just the same.
They were seamlessly aligned with the orbits of James Potter's face, which was younger than in most of Severus's memories. He looked like he did on the Hogwarts Express, during their first year. The rounded face of a child, his features still small, black hair already uncombed. The green eyes blinked lazily. (They did not seem to see Severus.)
Then panic, all of a sudden, distorted the mouth. The form of a body clad in red robes attached itself to the floating face and the whole figure shrank and rotated, plunging head first towards the depths of the cauldron and a mist now coloured the bright green of grass. Severus raised a hand to catch it on instinct, but the vision was quicker. The vapours had already coalesced into Albus Dumbledore's unmistakable silhouette, right arm extended and beard floating in the wind. Yet the tiny boy was still hurtling towards the ground and the last thing Severus noticed, before the scene dissolved, was that he had never seen the Headmaster looking so old.
And with this observation came an awful certitude. Only one person could possess Lily's eyes and Potter's face, although Harry Potter was merely four years old at the moment.
Severus was aware that he had, perhaps, not always given the best impression of sanity to his fellow teachers. The conclusions they had drawn based on his previous behaviour prevented them from showing too much surprise when they found themselves confronted to his present acrimony. Only Dumbledore seemed to suspect that something was amiss (on top of Severus's usual complaints and hindrances). The Headmaster asked about Severus's progress in the ongoing development of his potion again and again, until Severus shouted at him.
He felt himself becoming as feverish as the toad he had tortured before testing on it that second batch of the potion. Judging by its persistent convulsions and broken croaking, the animal was still suffering from the after-effects of the Cruciatus and the potion had not alleviated any of its symptoms.
An ineffective potion was a result to be expected at the beginning of one's research. A potion that created visions (influenced by the potioneer's psyche, one could presume), on the other hand, was not.
Severus spent night after night in the library, perusing grimoires and checking translations with a copy of Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms. A footnote on page 1489 of Treatments for the Threatened by Earnest Earsucker provided his only lead: "In 910, Al-Mundhir of Córdoba wrote in his research diary that combined in a draught with a strong catalyst, the perceptiveness of the raven should be able to strengthen the Inner Eye. However, none of his successors succeeded in finding a powerful enough catalyst, and this speculative point was soon discarded."
910 was a long millennium before Dumbledore's discovery of the properties of dragon blood, which constituted for sure "a powerful enough catalyst". Had Severus been seeing the future? He certainly never had any talent for Divination. Could his potion kindle the Sight in those it had not been given to?
And if so, what kind of future had he been shown a glimpse of?
Method above all else (precisely why Severus was such an abysmal seer). Real effects could be replicated. Real qualities could be checked. What Severus had to do was to devise an adequate test.
He waited for an entire month, until a satisfactory opportunity presented itself. The Slytherin vs Hufflepuff Quidditch match. In public, Severus had more than hinted at his absolute confidence in the talents of his team. In truth, though, the fervently wished-upon humiliation of the Hufflepuff team appeared far less certain. They had destroyed Flitwick's team defence strategy during their last match, and the Ravenclaw players had all been experienced.
Severus easily obtained a piece of fabric from Slytherin Quidditch robes. The elves kept a trunk full of them in the locker room, just in case. Modifying the recipe so that he could introduce this extraneous element, in order to guide the vision, proved more difficult. In the end, Severus settled for adding six drops of Sphinx's tears, because of their conductive properties, even if this inclusion forced him to switch the order of many stages of the preparation.
It was worth it. Watching a diminutive Antonius Flint catch the Golden Snitch over the orange-coloured smoke of his cauldron warmed Severus's heart. Watching the full-sized Captain brandish the Snitch over his head filled him with a momentary satisfaction so intense it felt like joy.
The following week, the candidate's moving picture cut from the Daily Prophet was enough for Severus to predict Cornelius Fudge's accession to the position of Minister for Magic, an event that occurred four days later.
His success left Severus dizzy. Quite permanently, in fact. At that point, he could not focus on anything but the implications of his find for more than a few minutes at a time. He had neglected his students' homework for so long that Professor McGonagall, as Deputy Headmistress, called him out on it. (Some Ravenclaw teenagers must have complained. Who else?)
His entire weekends were spent refining the Potion. (He had not found a name for it yet, but it had won a capitalisation in his head.) He also tried to improve his strategy of enquiry, regarding himself and his own destiny especially. But no matter which aspect of his life he tried to bring to the attention of the Potion, dropping a hair strand, a sock, a nail (that had hurt) and even a spoon into the mix, the smoke always projected the face of that boy. Sometimes very young, sometimes almost an adult, sometimes alone at night, sometimes surrounded by classmates whose silhouettes remained indistinct. Never doing anything of importance.
Seeking visions about other people turned out to be less frustrating, but equally puzzling.
He took once a sherbet lemon offered by the Headmaster at teatime in the staffroom just to sneak it into the Potion. The vision occurred lightning-fast. An older Dumbledore raising from the vapours, a man with black hair and a blacker cloak in front of the Headmaster, turning his back to Severus. A green flash, a fall over some kind of parapet. From a bridge? A tower?
Severus's hands were burning and his head was pounding. Should he talk to Dumbledore about it? Whatever it was? Could it be what it looked like? Gellert Grindelwald's hair displayed a lighter shade; Severus had seen enough photographs of him to be sure of that. And the Dark Lord was taller than the man he thought he saw. Could — could that Potter boy grow powerful enough to murder Albus Dumbledore? (Why would he need to? Dumbledore already adored him on principle.)
He did not discuss this aberration with the Headmaster. But he casted about for other answers, and for a distraction from the perpetual queasiness that plagued him since the night of that vision.
On a warm morning of April, during the Easter holidays, he gritted his teeth, rolled up his sleeves, and scraped the skin of his left forearm with a clean grater, exactly where his Mark had been branded.
The scene was slow to emerge, probably because more blood than Dark Magic ended up in the Potion, and its outlines were fuzzy. The creature's tail was hard to miss nonetheless. Long, thin and pinkish, it belonged to a rat.
Had the Dark Lord's magical imprint rendered the Potion's prophecies more metaphorical? Or was Severus supposed to believe that the Dark Lord's wandering spirit would possess rodents? (And then what? Infiltrate the Ministry by the sewers? It would be a novel approach.)
If only Severus could put some semblance of order to his thoughts, he might gain a better comprehension of these mysteries and devise a sounder plan of action. Sadly, his mind now seemed encased in the fog of a constant headache. The irony, considering the initial aim of his research, was not lost on him. And if harrowing memories of his last encounter with a valid prophecy were not haunting his every step, he would assuredly come to more rational resolves. (Or any resolve at all.)
The school schedule obliged Severus to devote all his remaining energy to his professional duties during the month of May, with the examinations lurking around the corner and the drama of career orientation unfolding meeting after meeting. Professor McGonagall's reproachful looks eased considerably, but the Headmaster's lamenting about Severus's supposed "worryingly wan" complexion did not. Nor did his questioning about the progress Severus had made regarding his potion against the Cruciatus curse.
Because many things must not be said to your all-powerful superior, Severus preferred to let his gaze roam over the Great Hall on the numerous occasions when his meal was disturbed by such drivel. Most of the children avoided his eyes, some of them with blatant expressions of guilt painted on their faces, and this small deference pleased him.
What was it about Florean Fortescue's ordinary profile that steered his brain that day? The youth of his half-witted smile?
Severus abruptly perceived the obvious significance of the visions of that boy he could not escape. The blinding truth that he had missed.
The boy that he kept seeing never became a man. He grew older, but never old.
Lily's son, the so-called "Boy Who Lived". How long was he actually meant to survive?
The itching that reddened Severus's hands since he had irritated the spot of his Dark Mark got unbearable. His fingers shook viciously. Severus sprang from his seat as soon as possible, and fled to his empty classroom.
On that very evening, he prepared twice the amount of required ingredients and suspended two cauldrons above the flames. He gazed into the suffocating smoke until the searing heat made tears roll from his eyes and he kept watching until his eyelids burned like a curse. Four green eyes in twin faces (faces too young) were watching him back.
His mounting frustration turned into unbridled fury. He whipped out his wand and sent both Potions splashing against the floor. And for a very brief moment, above the hard wet tiles, the view of a poorly lit classroom materialised over the colourful flood of Potion. A classroom that did not belong to the dungeons.
It did not linger, but Severus did not witness its disappearance. He had already collapsed, overcome by the toxicity of the expanding fumes.
When he regained consciousness, to the taste of dust on his tongue and the noises of chattering ghosts nearby, Severus knew three things. (Two of which had been hovering in the back of his mind for weeks.)
First, that besides Potions, the only class Severus would ever be qualified to teach was Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Second, that the Potter boy did not have to die young for the visions to be accurate. Severus dying instead would suffice. (The Dark Lord had shown him as much: all prophecies were subjected to varying interpretations and could be accomplished by various means. You just had to pick the way that suited you best, and accept that it would not always work out for you.)
Third, that Sphinx's tears blended with dragon blood provoked upon repeated exposure an allergic reaction of potentially life-threatening intensity.
The next Monday, Severus informed the Headmaster that his attempts at creating a potion capable of counteracting the effects of the Cruciatus curse had all failed. From now on, he would work on replicating Belby's Wolfsbane.
He did not wish to dwell on the particulars of his failure.
And more importantly, he never wanted Dumbledore (or anyone) to learn of his ultimate endeavour with the Potion.
(Despite the nausea and the rash covering his hand, he had dropped a lily in the cauldron. He already knew that there would be nothing to see, but the nightmares of his tortured soul. And yet, of all things, why would he have hallucinated a Golden Snitch?)