Chapter 12 : Severus Past and Present

Publish Date: 31 July 2005

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, its characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. The resemblance of any character to an actual person is completely accidental. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.

Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE: Chapter 12
-- Severus Past and Present --

After exiting the castle through a little-used side door, Severus quickly became airborne. As soon as he cleared the anti-apparition zone around the school, he landed. Propping his broom against a tree, Severus cast a concealment charm and then a locating spell on it. When he returned, he would be able to find it again without any trouble.

Then he apparated away.

He re-appeared in a run-down old muggle building. This was his designated rendezvous point. He looked around until he spotted an empty bottle lying on the floor in a corner. Unlike the rest of the room, there was no coating of dust on it.

"Wonderful," he murmured in disgust. So this was his portkey for tonight. He walked over and picked it up. It was attuned to his magical signature, and the moment his fingers wrapped themselves around the cold glass, he felt the familiar tug of magical transportation.

Seconds later, he arrived.

Looking around, he was not surprised to find that he was in a room with no windows. On his previous visits, he'd assumed that Voldemort's current command centre was somewhere underground. The air had that odd damp feel to it that he commonly associated with dungeons or caves. This was unfortunate because it meant he had no idea where he was, and very little way of finding out. People arrived via portkey, and they left via portkey. Aside from Voldemort himself, it was very unlikely that anyone here knew where they were -- so it wasn't even worth the effort of interrogating one of the other Death Eaters.

"Sir?" someone asked from the doorway. He turned. There was a young man waiting nervously for him. The boy couldn't be more than twenty. Silently, he stared at the child with his favourite mix of disdain and arrogance. The youngster gulped. "Sir," he repeated, "the master is waiting for you. If -- if you'd just follow me."

Severus nodded once and crossed over to him. The young man seemed unnerved by his silence. //Good,// Severus smirked to himself.

As they made their way through corridors and halls, Severus took note of the other Death Eaters they passed. Some were masked, while others were not. All of them unconsciously gave him a wide berth, and Severus smiled thinly to himself at the overt signs of fear. All of them knew who he was -- and that he was part of the Dark Lord's inner circle. He was known for his ruthlessness, his keen intelligence, and the callus contempt he felt for those around him. It was commonly whispered that the Dark Lord had somehow removed selected bits of his humanity in an effort to create a more perfect servant.

//Not strictly speaking untrue,// he reflected. His service to Voldemort had, indeed, damaged or destroyed various illusions and beliefs he'd held about himself and the world in general. Sometimes Severus felt like the Dark Mark had warped him beyond all recognition.

As yet another Death Eater delicately sidestepped him, Severus recalled a time when he'd enjoyed such reactions. His initial foray into the world of the damned had been pleasant. At seventeen -- alone in the world, and shunned by many for being arrogant, intolerant, and Slytherin -- he'd joined the Death Eaters during his final year of school. As a powerful pureblood with intelligence and the will to use it, he'd rapidly passed through the lower ranks of Voldemort's supporters. By the time he'd gained Voldemort's personal attention, he was already feared by the lower echelons.

At eighteen, Severus had quietly gloried in the fact that other wizards -- many of them much older than he -- were already calling him 'sir' and deferring to his wishes. Knowledge drew him like a moth to a flame, and the Dark Lord offered to teach him many things -- Dark things -- that held the promise of sweet power and beautifully intricate magic. He could still recall his master's first words to him as he'd knelt at the man's feet...

"Severus, is it?" And the rich tone of Voldemort's voice had flowed around him like a warm caress. "Your name means 'stern' or 'harsh' -- yet it also reminds me of a sharp knife -- 'severing' that which is useless or dangerous to us." And then he'd leaned down and placed a single finger under Severus' chin. Raising his servant's face with gentle pressure, Voldemort had whispered to him: "Shall we see, my young knife, just how sharp you truly are?"

Back then, Voldemort had been a handsome and charismatic man. The evil in his soul had been overshadowed by the charm of his face and personality. The force of his presence had overwhelmed Severus completely. The thought of serving such a man -- one who could command his respect, and who recognised his talents and valued them -- had been all he could ever have asked for.

Had he been somewhat less intelligent, Severus might even have continued in this belief. But unfortunately -- or perhaps to his great good fortune -- he rapidly grew out of it.

Severus eventually came to realise that it was not fear he wanted from those around him, but respect. At seventeen, those two things had seemed synonymous. But by eighteen, when the whispered tales of his supposed inhumanity finally made their way back to him, he'd been forcefully confronted with the truth. His fellow Death Eaters might fear him -- but they did not respect him. And soon after that, he came to realise that he'd even been mistaken about wanting their respect. Most of them were fools, whose opinions were meaningless to him. And so he drew back, and focused all of his attention on his master. Voldemort's opinion was the only one that truly mattered.

...and it was Voldemort's opinion that ultimately shattered the last of his illusions.

----oo00oo----

"Well, well," came an oily voice to his right, "if it isn't Dumbledore's little pet."

With a snap, Severus was pulled from his memories. "Lucius," he replied in an equally cold and contemptuous tone. "I thought you were supposed to be off buttering up that idiot Fudge. If you can't control a moron like him, then I doubt you possess the intelligence to deal with an enemy like Dumbledore."

Lucius' lips thinned at the insult, but he remained silent.

Severus' guide had brought him to a medium-sized and sparsely furnished room. To the left, he knew there was a much larger hall -- richly decorated and designed to impress the lower ranks. Whatever else he might be, Voldemort was an excellent student of human nature. If such meaningless trappings impressed a man, then Voldemort used it to his advantage. However, for people like himself and Lucius Malfoy, it was unnecessary. Both of them already knew that true power was not to be found in the furniture.

His guide bowed low to them both, and then scuttled out.

As the youngster left, there came a soft clinking of chains from a shadow near the door.

Severus blinked. As he stared at the shadow, it gradually resolved itself into another young man -- perhaps eighteen or nineteen. He was chained to the wall and had obviously been beaten and starved. However, what astonished Severus was the fact that the boy was dressed like a muggle. Seeing Severus' interest in him, the youngster huddled deeper into the shadows.

Severus pulled out his wand, intent on illuminating the corner more fully.

"Don't bother," Lucius drawled. "I've already looked him over -- he's nothing more than a muggle brat."

"If that were truly the case," Severus replied contemptuously, "then I doubt he would be chained up in here." Then he added thoughtfully, "In fact, I doubt he would be alive at all."

Lucius snorted. "Maybe," he suggested in a snide tone, "the master felt like giving you a gift. Perhaps a little toy for your perverted tastes?"

Severus narrowed his eyes at his hated rival. It had been Lucius who'd gleefully informed Voldemort of his favoured servant's little 'flaw'...

----oo00oo----

-- Seventeen years ago --

Eighteen-year-old Severus Snape strode forcefully down the hallways. He'd been summoned to his master's feet, and it was never wise to keep the Dark Lord waiting. He arrived to find Lucius Malfoy smirking off to one side, and their master standing in the centre of the room with a frown on his face. Nervously, Severus knelt down and bowed his head. What lies had Malfoy spread about him this time? Ultimately, he knew it wouldn't matter -- his master was too smart to fall for his rival's petty schemes.

"Lucius tells me you are openly homosexual," Voldemort said to him in carefully neutral tones.

Surprised, Severus replied, "Yes, Master," and then -- bewildered -- he looked up and foolishly asked, "Does it matter?"

The look of calculated consideration on Voldemort's face shocked him. "It is a flaw," the Dark Lord finally concluded, but then he smiled in reassurance and added, "but only a small one, my knife -- nothing that cannot be overlooked in light of your other gifts."

It was from that moment on that Severus began to fall away from Voldemort's influence. Critically, he examined himself, trying to decide whether he was, in fact, flawed. He brought all his dispassionate logic into play, trying to divorce himself from his emotions in order to discover the reason for his master's comments.

But instead, he began to see flaws in his master.

Voldemort was not only critical of homosexuals -- he also believed that women were unsuitable for positions of authority. They, too, were 'flawed' in his opinion -- too 'soft', and not to be trusted with important decisions. There were women associated with the Death Eaters -- but Voldemort seemed to regard them as little more than useful pets -- and none of them bore the Dark Mark. Severus -- who had known one or two ruthless and brilliant women at school -- found this to be an absurd belief, and a massive waste of talent.

Privately, he began to question Voldemort's views on a great many things. Gradually, he came to realise that muggles were not the sub-human contaminants he'd been led to believe. In fact, when he worked out the mathematics of it, he was shocked to realise that without the influx of 'mudbloods' into the genetic mix, inbreeding amongst the wizarding population would probably have damaged a number of significant bloodlines by now.

Upon careful review, even Voldemort's little tricks in manipulation laid themselves open for his inspection. Severus gradually became aware of just how easily his morality had been stripped from him -- and how carefully it had been done. He had not jumped from feeling contempt for muggles to casting Crucio and Adava Kedavra on them in one easy step. Instead, Voldemort had carefully led him down a calculated path of tiny increments -- each new action or spell just a fraction more damaging than the last -- until the final use of the unforgivable curses had seemed no worse than killing a mis-begotten dog in order to prevent inferior blood from flowing back into the gene pool.

The first time it struck him that he had tortured and murdered people -- not 'muggles', or 'animals' -- but husbands and wives -- sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts -- human beings -- Severus dashed to the bathroom and threw up the entire contents of his stomach. He continued to dry-heave until he wondered whether he might start bringing up blood.

The days that followed were the worst he could remember. He was filled with self-loathing, but didn't dare drop his outward facade of cold indifference. If Voldemort discovered what he was thinking, his life would be measured in minutes -- if not seconds.

He couldn't even leave, since the Dark Mark would always allow his master to summon him, or to find him. Yet at the same time, he couldn't live like this anymore. On the outside, he looked like the Death Eater he had become, but on the inside he was no longer one of them -- and never would be again.

Suicide might have been a possibility, but he considered that the coward's way out. A raw and painful honesty forced him to admit that he'd screwed up in the worst possible way (so much for his vaunted intelligence), and he now had a duty to those he'd killed to try and make it right. He knew he could never atone for it, but he could at least try to put a stop to it.

He was in Dumbledore's office drinking veritaserum shortly thereafter.

He had imagined that being forced to tell the unvarnished truth to his old Headmaster would be terrible -- and in a way it was. He broke down in tears several times, pouring out his shame and horror into the words. But in some strange way, it was also a relief. Part of him longed to be punished -- to be judged -- and it was a complete surprise when he suddenly discovered that he actually cared about what the old man thought of him. The same Headmaster he'd once disdained as a doddering old fool, now revealed himself as the powerful and influential wizard he'd always been. Severus didn't want him to be ashamed of his old student.

But when he finally came to the end of the words and the tears, Dumbledore did not rage at him, or summon the Aurors as Severus had thought he might. Instead, a pair of saddened eyes, with dark shadows behind them, regarded him quietly. Eventually, the Headmaster said, "I'm sorry we failed you so terribly, Severus. I wish I had known. If I had -- then perhaps you would not now have to bear this terrible burden for the rest of your life."

Confused, Severus replied, "But... but -- I'm a Death Eater. Weren't you listening? The things I've done..."

"And yet," Dumbledore interrupted him, "here you are. When you finally realised the truth, you did not try to deny it, excuse it, or run away from it. Instead, you have come to me and faced up to it. This tells me that -- at heart -- you are an ethical and just man. A trifle distant, perhaps -- and not one to suffer fools gladly -- but still, an honest man -- especially with yourself. The hardest person in the world to be honest with, is yourself. It takes great courage to admit to such a terrible mistake -- let alone to accept responsibility for it."

Still open mouthed with shock, Severus could only stare dumbly at him.

Dumbledore sighed, and then leaned over to place his hand on Severus' arm -- right over the exposed Dark Mark. "Severus," he said gently, "you were seventeen -- still in school for heaven's sake! Even now, you're only eighteen-years-old! Before Voldemort, what experience did you have of the world? Of the evils in it? You'd never even seen a muggle -- and hardly knew any of the muggle-borns in your own House! Your parents both died while you were still in first-year. How could you have known anything other than what you were taught by those around you? I should have realised that others were teaching you lies, when we should have been teaching you truth. That's why I apologised for failing you." He sighed, and then added, "The young are easily led by older and more mature personalities. I should have seen to it that you had someone better than Voldemort to look up to."

Severus winced. He'd been so arrogant -- so sure of his cleverness and the stupidity of the so-called 'adults' around him. The picture of himself as an impressionable and innocent fool was a blow to whatever shred of ego he had left. And yet, some part of him was grateful to Dumbledore for this understanding -- for the belief that Severus had been merely an idiot, rather than an out-and-out monster. Maybe -- with Dumbledore's words to remember -- someday... he would be able to forgive himself.

But then again -- maybe not.

----oo00oo----

-- Present Day --

"What's the matter, Severus?" came Malfoy's snide voice once more. "The muggle not to your liking?" And the suggestive innuendo on the last word contained truly offensive overtones.

Calmly, Severus replied, "I wouldn't know, Lucius -- I really don't take that much notice of muggles -- unlike you, it seems. Just how carefully were you looking him over?"

Severus had always suspected that Malfoy might have some vague tendency towards his own preferences. That would explain the other man's endless attempts to insult his sexuality. It certainly wasn't because such insults had any effect on him. On the other hand, they did serve as a constant reminder to Voldemort that Severus was 'flawed', and therefore not quite as worthy of the Dark Lord's favour as some of his other servants -- such as Lucius himself. So perhaps he was wrong in his assumption...

Lucius chose to ignore his previous remark, and instead made the comment: "Such a pity you'll never know the joys of fatherhood, Severus. Draco will be joining us next year you know --"

"Oh?" Severus interrupted, "I thought I heard a rumour that it was going to be this year. But then, Draco's still at the school I suppose..."

Lucius' face darkened at the reminder of his encounter with the War Mage. "The bonds between father and son are powerful," he hissed. "How will you fare when Draco joins his magic with mine to stand beside me? You must have noticed how pleased the Dark Lord is when he sees the children of his current servants brought forth to receive the Mark. It's such a pity he knows you will never bring such a child before him."

"We all serve in our own way," Severus smirked at him, "and I quite understand why you feel compelled to make so much of the child you have. After all, one scrawny brat after sixteen years of marriage is hardly much better than my own contribution to future generations. What's the matter Lucius -- having marital problems? Perhaps you'd better ask the Weasleys for advice. They don't seem to have any problem popping out purebloods all over the place."

Lucius looked as though he might actually go for his wand, when suddenly he calmed, and a matching smirk appeared on his face. "As you say, Severus -- we all serve in our own way -- and since your... tastes... preclude the possibility of one form of service, then it's good to know that at least they may be used for... other... assignments."

Severus frowned. This was not good. Lucius was too smug to be lying. Voldemort obviously had something planned for him -- and the other man knew what it was. The fact that it involved his sexual preferences filled Severus with dread. Their master had pretty much ignored his little 'flaw' after Lucius had pointed it out all those years ago. Why would it matter now?

"Lucius." Suddenly Voldemort's smooth, icy tones filled the room -- quickly followed by the overwhelming sense of his presence and power, as the Dark Lord appeared beside them.

Instantly, both Death Eaters fell to their knees.

Chains rattled behind them as the muggle shook with fear.

"Still baiting Severus after all this time?" Voldemort enquired with an amused look in Malfoy's direction. "You know my knife cuts best with his tongue," and Voldemort ran a proprietary hand lightly over Severus' bowed head. "It does not serve me, Lucius, for my servants to be fighting amongst themselves."

"My apologies, Master," Malfoy humbly replied. "I live only to serve you."

"See that you do," came the soft warning.

Lucius remained silent.

From the corner of his down-turned eyes, Severus watched as Voldemort's robes swirled away towards a plain but solid chair. Once the Dark Lord was seated, it was permissible for them to raise their heads to look at him.

When he and Lucius finally did look up, Severus was careful to ensure that his expression did not give him away. The pale emaciated parody of a man who sat before him was unrecognisable as the handsome and charming wizard to whom he had first sworn allegiance. It was fitting that the man's body finally reflected his soul -- but some part of Severus always suffered a dull ache when he looked upon Voldemort's present form and remembered the past. In truth, it was not so much the loss of his master's appearance that pained him, as it was the loss of the man he had once admired and respected -- a man who had never really existed, except in Severus' imagination.

But it still hurt to look at him and be reminded of that loss.

Voldemort was regarding him closely. Carefully, Severus allowed his usual blank mask to slip just a little. A slight widening of his eyes, coupled with a tiny drop in his shoulders, and the softening of a few facial muscles, caused a faint hint of adoration to show through. Then he quickly returned to his typically neutral expression, as though trying to cover up a momentary lapse.

A pleased half-smile appeared on Voldemort's face. Inwardly, Severus breathed a sigh of relief. Lying to the Dark Lord -- with or without words -- was a tricky business at best. Hopefully, he'd just managed to once again reassure Voldemort of his continuing loyalty.

"Severus," the Dark Lord addressed him, "Lucius has brought me some very interesting news."

Silently, Severus slid his eyes sideways to the other man before returning a neutral gaze to his master. Without words, he used his expression to convey his doubt as to the veracity of anything Lucius had to say. Voldemort's face took on an amused look. Lucius hated the fact that Severus could communicate with his master in this soundless fashion. Indeed, the main reason Severus did it at all, was for the joy of irritating the wizard next to him -- a fact that Voldemort knew very well.

"Do I need to remind you of your duty as well, Severus?" the Dark Lord asked him -- still slightly amused.

Severus dropped his eyes submissively before replying, "No Master." The insane urge to complain that Lucius had started it flitted through his mind. He was obviously spending far too much time with those brats Dumbledore called students.

"Mmm," Voldemort mused -- not for one second fooled by his two servants' apparent contrition. "Lucius," he began after a moment, "repeat your son's information for Severus' benefit."

Severus was momentarily startled. What useful information could Draco possibly have? The Potions Master was always careful to maintain the impression that he was a dutiful Death Eater in front of all the students -- especially the Slytherin ones. Worriedly, he tried to remember whether he might have slipped up recently. But, no -- if Voldemort had suspected him, he would've been under Crucio and veritaserum long before this.

"Master," Lucius began with an ill-concealed smirk in Severus' direction, "my son, Draco, has reported that the War Mage known as Ash seems to share Severus' preference in bed partners. He further reports that the man has taken a rather... intense... interest in the school Potions Master. In fact, Draco says it's common knowledge that the mage can't seem to tear his eyes away from him."

"Is this true, Severus?" Voldemort queried.

Severus didn't even consider lying. He was so surprised by the turn of conversation, that Voldemort would have picked up on his hesitation immediately. "It is, Master," he said simply.

"Ah," Voldemort smiled. Strangely enough, he actually seemed pleased by the news. "He has approached you, then?"

"Last Friday night," Severus confirmed.

"And what response did you give him?" Voldemort asked with a soft intensity as he leaned forwards.

"None as yet, Master," Severus answered truthfully. He had intended to decline the offer -- but given Voldemort's current interest, he wasn't about to admit to that. So instead, he added, "I was unsure as to what answer would best serve your interests."

"Excellent," Voldemort said as he leaned back into his chair again. "Do you see, Lucius, how even the flaw in my knife may be turned to my advantage?" Then -- once more addressing Severus -- he added, "I was wise when I chose to allow you to remain childless."

"Master?" Severus asked in surprised confusion.

Voldemort laughed at him. "So it escaped your notice did it, Severus? Given the nature of your weakness, I'm hardly surprised." Severus allowed his lack of understanding to show through. Voldemort laughed again. "How old do you think I am, my knife?" he asked in amusement.

Still confused, Severus replied, "I have never calculated it, Master." Older than himself, certainly -- but nowhere near Dumbledore's age.

"I was a wizard grown before you were even born," Voldemort told him. "Unlike my contemporaries, however, age will never weaken me -- death will never claim me. It is a peculiar joy, my knife, to watch your enemies wither into doddering old fools. It is unfortunate that I am too impatient to truly appreciate the effect." Voldemort paused to regard the two men kneeling before him. "But then, my enemies are not the only ones to pass into history before me. My servants, too, abandon me for death's embrace -- some sooner than others, of course -- but all of them in time."

Severus had a nasty sneaking suspicion as to where this explanation was headed. There was a slightly queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach.

"It is never wise to ignore the future, Severus," Voldemort told him. "Shortly before you and Lucius came to my attention, I lost one of my favourites to the Aurors. He had been one of my better servants -- powerful, intelligent, and from a long and pure bloodline. The day after, another of my Death Eaters brought his child before me to receive my Mark. This man -- while not unworthy of his place -- was by no means as useful or pleasing to me as the one I had lost. My dead servant had no offspring. Was a lesser man's child likely to equal him?" Voldemort snorted his contempt for that idea before continuing. "Was I, then, to allow chance -- luck -- to dictate the abilities of my future servants?" With a cold flick of his fingers, the Dark Lord indicated his rejection of the idea. "I think not," he concluded.

"And then," the Dark Lord smiled, "a new generation came to me. Lucius..." and he turned pleased eyes upon the other man, "was the first of your age-mates to show such promise. Like my lost servant, he too, wields powerful magic -- and his blood is pure and clean. He possesses a superior mind, and his family's social status has enhanced his natural ability to manipulate and dominate those around him. He has proven himself to be both valuable and useful many times."

Severus could practically feel Lucius preening under Voldemort's comments.

"But of course," Voldemort added, "his flaws were obvious to me from the beginning." Kneeling beside him, Malfoy's breathing suddenly hitched, before becoming deliberately slow and regular. "My Lucius," the Dark Lord explained, "-- with his natural affinity for politics -- is far too ambitious. Were I to permit it, he would gather followers of his own -- even stealing them from among my lesser servants. I must constantly remind him of his place." With a sigh of slight regret, Voldemort added, "I do not blame him for this, of course. It is simply his nature. Yet I still find it annoying at times."

"And shortly thereafter," Voldemort smiled coldly, "you came to me...." Half-lidded red eyes focused intensely on Severus' face. "You too, were powerful -- pure -- and you possessed a mind to rival even the best of my other servants. Like Lucius, you rose swiftly -- leaving fear and obedience in your wake. Yet, you lacked Lucius' craving for followers. Even now, you have no desire to rule -- and even should you come to desire it -- you lack the gift for it. You were the perfect servant. Perfect..." and Voldemort trailed off in regret.

"Perhaps now, my knife -- my sharp one -- you will understand why I was so disappointed when Lucius revealed your weakness," Voldemort told him. "I had such plans for you -- for your future..." Silently, Severus was thanking god, fate, and even Lucius Malfoy, for the fact that Voldemort had discovered his 'flaw' all those years ago. If he'd known then what he knew now, he'd have taken out a full-page ad in the Daily Prophet, announcing his sexual orientation to the world.

"But upon reflection," Voldemort was saying, "it was not so great a failing. After all, there are potions -- spells -- that may be used to overcome such a weakness." Severus suppressed a shudder. "And even with this flaw, you are still so very close to being the perfect servant." The Dark Lord paused for a moment. Then almost casually, he added, "I had some research done into your condition at one point. I had thought to gift you with a cure. But it seems that the idiotic medical community doesn't even know what causes it -- let alone how to cure it. And you are far too valuable to risk damaging through experimentation."

"Besides," the Dark Lord concluded, "your offspring are no more likely to inherit your weakness than any other child, so your failing is unlikely to affect my future servants."

Severus felt his eyes widen involuntarily at Voldemort's use of the present tense. Surely he didn't mean...

Voldemort laughed again. "Ah, Severus," he said with an uncharacteristic note of fondness in his voice, "did it truly never occur to you that of all those closest to me, you are the only one without wife and child?"

Well, no -- it never had. Although, in hindsight -- and given his suspicions about Lucius -- it probably should have.

"Those among the lower ranks," Voldemort told him, "may choose whomever they wish, so long as the woman is not a mudblood, and is capable of bearing children." He didn't even mention muggle women, since -- to a Death Eater -- that option was unthinkable. "And through the birth of each successive generation," the Dark Lord continued, "all my Death Eaters will continue to serve me down the long centuries to come." A thin smile tugged at the corner of Voldemort's pale lips as he added, "It pleases me greatly to welcome such children into my service -- since they come to me already knowing what is expected of them, and obedient to my wishes."

Then the Dark Lord paused, and one spidery hand absently caressed the arm of his chair. "But for such as you and Lucius," he told the two men before him, "it is not sufficient for you to simply marry. Your children must be strong enough -- powerful enough -- that they have the ability to serve me as well as -- if not better than -- you do yourselves. Inferior families cannot be permitted to dilute your bloodlines." Then Voldemort added, "Even girl children are of use to me when they carry the blood of a powerful father. The Parkinson child will make a suitable match for young Draco when the time comes."

Personally, Severus was of the opinion that if anything would make Draco refuse to become a Death Eater, it was the knowledge that Voldemort expected him to marry Pansy Parkinson. The girl was a natural schemer who enjoyed manipulating people for her personal benefit. Draco was not the sort of person who would put up with being controlled by his wife. Thoughtfully, Severus filed that thought away for future consideration. It might be useful to let young Mr Malfoy know what Voldemort had planned for him.

The Dark Lord was speaking again -- this time directly to Severus. "Only you, my knife," he was saying, "have yet to provide me with an heir -- and the decision to delay that requirement was not lightly made."

The knowledge that Voldemort thought his marriage had merely been 'delayed' did nothing to help settle Severus' stomach.

"It occurred to me," the Dark Lord continued, "that there might come a time when it would be useful to have someone with your... preferences... among my servants. Many times, the seduction of a single wizard or witch has yielded valuable and important information, where more obvious spells and potions might have been discovered. Yet there are those among our enemies who are flawed in the same manner as yourself -- and some of them hold positions of key importance. The fact that you allowed your weakness to become public knowledge only made my decision easier."

Then, surprisingly, Voldemort laughed again. "And now see!" he crowed, "See how my patience is rewarded! I have a servant who is poised to learn the secrets of a War Mage!"

Animated by the thought of claiming such power for himself, Voldemort quickly leaned down towards Severus. With one hand open before him, the Dark Lord hissed, "You will encourage the War Mage in his infatuation, Severus! Take him for your lover! Make him trust you -- make him love you! Love blinds men -- even mages -- and you are a Master Potion-maker." Then the open hand suddenly clenched into a tight fist. "I want you to own him! Use all your skills to bind him to you!"

Mind cringing away in disgust, Severus nonetheless managed to ask, "Once he is mine, Master -- what would you have me do with him?"

With a cruel smile, Voldemort straightened up. "I want you to bring me the secret of wandless magic," he said bluntly.

Severus was taken aback. So far as he knew, there was no secret -- merely a different way of thinking and of using the same magic within yourself. Voldemort caught his surprise, and sneered at him. "Did you really think," he asked, "that it was simply a matter of imagining yourself to be one of the sub-human creatures that inhabit our world?" The Dark Lord made a derisive noise. "As if," he continued with contempt, "it is possible for a man to suddenly think like an animal -- even such intelligent ones as goblins or elves. No, my knife -- that is nothing more than a lie that mages have spread across the world to protect their power -- a power I mean to have for myself!"

Severus knew he was in trouble now. While it was barely possible that there actually was some secret trick to wandless magic, Voldemort's refusal to accept that non-humans could be as sentient and intelligent as wizards, told him that there probably wasn't. It was far more likely that at some point the Dark Lord had tried to learn magic from a non-human, and his failure had driven him to conclude that if he couldn't do it, then plainly nobody else could either. That, in turn, would have convinced him that the accepted explanation for a mage's abilities was a lie.

All of which meant that Severus was destined to fail this assignment no matter what he did.

Voldemort didn't cope well with failure.

Thus, Severus did the only thing he could think of. He played for time in the hope that either he or Dumbledore could come up with something later.

"Master," he began smoothly, "I am confident that I can do as you have commanded, but I must humbly beg for your patience in this matter. It may take me some time to --"

"Why?" Voldemort interrupted.

Smoothly, Severus pulled back his left sleeve. "I am yours, Master -- and Marked as such. The mage does not know this, and has shown a certain... aversion... to Death Eaters. I will need to find a way around this problem. As well," he added, "it may be that mages have the ability to resist the usual potions and spells. I will need to take care so as not to arouse his suspicions before I am certain of my hold over him." Then Severus concluded, "And of course, it would not be wise to attract Dumbledore's attention to the development of an unnaturally swift relationship."

Voldemort considered this. "Your points are well made," he finally allowed. "You may have whatever time you require." Then he narrowed his eyes -- the slit pupils appearing as fine black lines over red. "But I expect to be informed of your progress, Severus," he hissed -- meaning that there had better be progress. "And I do not expect you to tax my patience endlessly!"

Severus bowed his head in acknowledgement.

From there, Voldemort turned his attention to the whereabouts of one Harry Potter. He was greatly displeased that the child he so hated had somehow managed to disappear.

For now, at least, Severus could enjoy listening to Lucius bumble his way through his failure to locate the boy. "Master," Lucius was saying, "nobody at the Ministry knows where he is. Your people," and Severus almost smiled -- usually Lucius said 'our people' -- "among the government and the Aurors are still looking, but --"

"Enough!" Voldemort roared. "Crucio!" and Lucius was instantly twisted up in agony on the floor -- too contorted to do more than whimper and gargle helplessly.

Watching dispassionately, Severus found himself thinking that for a supposedly smart man, Lucius was occasionally a bit of an idiot. There were ways of delivering bad news so that it didn't sound quite so much like failure.

Voldemort released Malfoy -- who lay panting on the stone floor -- and turned to his other servant. "I trust, Severus, that you have better news?"

"Yes, Master," he replied. "I can tell you that the boy's disappearance was definitely not planned by Dumbledore, and that he is not being hidden at the school."

"You are certain?"

"Yes, Master. Dumbledore himself went to the boy's muggle relatives and used a memory charm on them to discover what happened. I now know when and where the boy disappeared, and also the circumstances under which it happened." Then, nastily, he added, "Perhaps, with this information, Lucius will have more success in his search." Severus knew he wouldn't, of course, but if he could raise Voldemort's expectations, then it would be just that much worse for the other Death Eater when he failed to live up to them.

Considering the impossible task Severus had just been assigned thanks to Lucius' interference, he felt absolutely no qualms about returning the favour.

Shortly after that, the interview came to an end, and both Severus and Lucius -- who had managed to regain his kneeling position -- bowed their heads as the Dark Lord arose from his chair. Seconds later, the overpowering sense of his magical presence winked out, and they were alone again.

Severus ascended gracefully to his feet. His knees ached, and he desperately wanted to sit down, but he was damned if he would ever show weakness in front of Malfoy.

Lucius himself didn't so much rise to his feet, as drag himself up off the floor. He even staggered a bit after straightening up. But then, the Cruciatus Curse tended to have that effect -- as Severus knew all too well.

They regarded each other for a few moments -- both recognising that it could easily have been Severus staggering in place, rather than Lucius. It had been that way in the past, and probably would be again in the future. And there were no end of instances where it had been both of them under Cruciatus by the end of the interview. In this, if in nothing else, they understood one another perfectly. No thought of assistance would ever cross either mind, but when it came to Voldemort's anger -- each knew exactly what the other suffered, because the punishment was the same for all.

Into that peculiar moment of understanding, Severus suddenly asked, "Did he give you a list of names? Or was Narcissa your only option?"

For a second, it looked as though surprise and the lingering effects of the Cruciatus Curse might actually furnish him with an answer -- and Severus was genuinely curious. But then Lucius pulled himself together.

"Enjoy yourself with the War Mage, little knife," he sneered. "It will be the last time you get to indulge your 'weakness'. After that, it would seem that our Master will be giving you personal experience with the answer to that question." And then he straightened his robes and stalked from the room.

Grimacing in disgust at the idea, Severus murmured, "I very much fear you are correct..." He carefully smoothed down his robes in preparation for his own departure, when a faint voice called out: "It... it's not -- not a f-flaw, you know."

The muggle.

Severus had completely forgotten about the young man chained up in the corner.

Curious, but wary, he approached the darkened unknown muggle. "And what would you know?" he asked contemptuously.

"I... I have... had... f-friends... who were..."

"Did you indeed?" Severus tilted his head in curiosity. "And what, pray tell, are you doing here?" He did not expect an answer, since Voldemort rarely explained anything to his prisoners -- and would never lower himself to speak with a muggle. Severus' question had mostly been to himself, with the thought that someone in this place must know why the boy was here.

But surprisingly, the young man answered for himself.

"He... he wants me t-to... to explain t-things..."

Severus' eyebrows shot up. "What on earth could a muggle know that a wizard -- particularly one as powerful as my Master -- would want 'explained' to him?" Had Voldemort actually been talking to this child? Or was the boy lying to him?

The boy in question stank of fear, dried blood, and his own waste. In his present condition, Severus rather doubted he could successfully lie to anyone. He could hardly talk without stuttering.

The muggle swallowed at Severus' harsh tone. "I... I was s-studying -- at the u-university... physics -- c-chemistry..." Severus frowned. He knew vaguely what these were. Why would Voldemort be interested in them, though? "S-something happened..." the boy added. "A... an experiment... I -- I don't know... It w-was strange. I-I told p-people... They didn't b-believe me. Then h-he came..."

"Curious..." Severus mused. But the muggle wasn't finished...

"I d-didn't know ab-bout wizards. ...d-didn't know.... But n-now -- now I think w-what happened... that it was m-magic..."

Severus' eyes widened. Magic! A muggle who had performed magic?! But muggles didn't have any innate magic themselves. That meant -- dear god, that meant this muggle might have stumbled across a way to access an outside source of magic through muggle science!

Severus was no fool. The wizarding world might be perfectly well able to protect itself from nuclear weapons and other muggle inventions, but from a magical bomb? -- or even a source of magic that could be tapped using muggle gadgets? The thought of some kind of muggle wand that could cast spell after spell with no drain on the wizard using it, was terrifying. Suddenly Severus had visions of an army of Death Eaters who would never exhaust themselves, and could continue to cast curses until their opponents fell into exhaustion.

He seriously considered killing the muggle right then and there. Such action might very well get him killed along with the boy when Voldemort found out -- but the risk should this child live...

But no, he couldn't judge whether killing the boy was worth his life. And time was growing short -- Voldemort might return...

"Do you know what you did?" he demanded. "Could you repeat it?"

"N-no," the boy stammered. "I d-don't know... i-it was an accident... it could t-take years..."

Good enough. He would let the boy live -- for now. But it would be prudent to discover more about him. Severus didn't have time for an extended interview, but there was one piece of information that would probably tell him a great deal about a muggle who was missing from a university somewhere -- "What's your name, boy?" he demanded.

"R-Robert," the lad answered, "Robert T-Thomas."

Severus pulled out his wand, and watched as the muggle shrank away from him. "Don't worry," Severus told him, "I just need to make sure you don't tell anyone about our little conversation."

"Obliviate."

----oo00oo----

It was well after midnight by the time Severus finally arrived back at Hogwarts. Tiredly, he made his way to Dumbledore's private quarters. He knew the Headmaster would still be awake -- probably worrying about him, as much as waiting for him to make his report.

It was with gratitude that Severus soon found himself ensconced in one of Albus' comfortable chairs, with hot tea in his hands, and the inevitable biscuits beside him. By rights, he knew he should be hungry, but the thought of anything more than soothing tea in his stomach was nauseating.

Albus watched him with concern, but knew better than to offer unwanted sympathy or useless words of support.

Eventually, the Headmaster sighed and poured out a cup of tea for himself. "I assume," he said calmly, "that everything went well, since you obviously aren't suffering from the after-effects of the Cruciatus Curse this time."

Severus looked at him curiously.

"Your teacup isn't shaking," Albus offered by way of explanation.

"Ah," he replied, looking down at his steady hands.

Albus waited for him to begin, and Severus took a moment to organise his thoughts. The first thing he related was news of the muggle boy and his potential threat. Albus looked suitably grave when Severus explained the possibility of a muggle who'd found a way to access some unknown source of magic. The Headmaster duly noted down the young man's name, and assured Severus that they would soon know everything there was to know about Robert Thomas and his research.

Just before they moved on to the rest of Severus' report, the Headmaster made the comment: "I fancy I have some few muggle contacts who may be of use to us in this matter."

It was the first time Severus had heard of muggles in Albus' network of informants. But then, he supposed it made sense when you thought about it. Muggles outnumbered wizarding folk by an order of magnitude, and if Voldemort gained the upper hand, it would be muggles who suffered most. The Headmaster had always been firm in his belief that people had the right to face their enemies if they could. Voldemort would never, in his wildest imagination, anticipate that Albus might be using muggles against him. That, in itself, gave them an advantage.

Then -- with the most important information taken care of -- Severus briefly described his orders with regard to the War Mage, and the resulting discovery of Voldemort's personal eugenics program. By the time he was done, even the soothing tea wasn't helping his distressed stomach, and Albus looked as unwell as he felt.

"Breeding wizards..." Albus shuddered. "To reduce his own followers to such a level..."

"We're little more than slaves to Voldemort," Severus reminded him. "I really should have seen this earlier..."

"I somehow doubt," Albus replied, "that anyone could have foreseen being treated like a prize horse at stud."

"Most of them will never even realise," Severus agreed. "For the majority, the pressure brought to bear on them will seem like the same thing their families and the world in general expects of them: get married and have children. Only the upper echelons are controlled firmly enough to really notice -- and many of them will be content if it means their family name and prestige will remain intact."

"I know," Albus sighed. "And yet, I'm horrified to think what it might mean should the children find out. To be told that you were merely a duty! -- part of a breeding program designed to swell the ranks of Voldemort's Death Eaters! He planned their lives before they were even born, and he intends for them to have no say in those lives at all."

Severus made a derisive sound. "A lot of pureblood families still practice arranged marriages," he scoffed, "and their parents tell them what to do, and who to see, for most of their lives. I fail to see any significant difference, save that one child might serve Voldemort, while another serves his or her family." After a moment of reflection, he added, "Then too, many parents genuinely care about their little monsters regardless of who their spouse happens to be."

Albus smiled. "You say you despise them, Severus, yet I'm certain you don't mean it."

Severus just looked at him.

"Well," Albus amended, "I'm certain you don't entirely mean it. You'd make a good father."

"Unfortunately," Severus replied in a sour tone, "it would seem that Voldemort agrees with you."

Albus nearly choked on his tea.

"Oh, yes," Severus continued, "didn't I mention it? He has every intention of marrying me off just as soon as I'm finished with my little foray into the bedroom of our local War Mage. Apparently," he finished, "I'm far too useful to be allowed to remain childless. My descendants are destined to serve him until the end of time."

Albus looked pained.

"Don't worry," Severus assured him, "it's very unlikely to happen. I have no doubt that if he doesn't kill me for failing to acquire the 'secret' of wandless magic, then he'll inevitably do away with me when he discovers I've been spying on him all these years." Absently, Severus added, "I'm rather astonished that I've lasted this long, actually."

"If you don't mind," Albus replied mildly, "I'm rather hoping that you're not going to be killed at all -- or paired off with Voldemort's choice of mate."

"You're overly optimistic," Severus told him.

"Perhaps, you're simply too pessimistic," Albus cheerfully retorted.

Severus chose to ignore the Headmaster's remark. Experience had taught him that it was useless to argue against Albus' boundless wellspring of hope. The simple fact of the matter was that unless somebody came up with a way to remove the Dark Mark -- or a miracle happened and Voldemort got himself killed -- then there was no leaving the Dark Lord's service except through insanity or death.

It was time to shift the topic of conversation away from himself.

"Would you like me to arrange for Mr Malfoy to discover Voldemort's plans with regard to Miss Parkinson?" Cynically, Severus added, "Knowing the two students involved, I'd say there's an excellent chance that Draco will defect to our side on the spot."

"Severus! That's most unkind," Albus objected. "Miss Parkinson has many redeeming qualities." However the amusement sparkling in his eyes totally ruined the effect of his words.

But in response to the original question, Albus eventually decided, "No -- don't let young Draco find out just yet. With sufficient time, he will undoubtedly come to believe he can find a way to sidestep Voldemort's plan. But at the right moment -- when applied in just the right way -- such information could be very useful."

"As you wish," Severus acquiesced.

"And now," Albus told him, "I think we need to discuss your current assignment." A fleeting look of discomfort passed across Severus' face -- the first unguarded expression he'd displayed since returning to the school.

Sitting across from him, Albus noted the brief look, and reflected that the lateness of the hour, on top of the interview with Voldemort, was obviously beginning to affect Severus' control. However, if it allowed him to see honest responses, then Albus was not above using that to his advantage. His Potions Master had been a solitary figure for far too long, and it was Albus' belief that the man known as War Mage Ash might be just what Severus needed to finally bring a little light into those dark and depressing dungeons that the Potions Master seemed to favour.

But of course, Severus had other ideas.

"Perhaps it would be better to discuss it another time," the Potions Master suggested. "After all, it's quite late, and I do have classes tomorrow."

"No, no, my dear boy," Albus argued, "I know you said Voldemort granted you plenty of time -- but I'm quite concerned about the interim progress he expects you to make. You must have something concrete to report, or he'll become suspicious. It particularly concerns me that the children could easily verify anything you tell him. Two staff members -- two male staff members -- engaged in a relationship? It would be impossible to hide from the students -- which leads us to the impossibility of hiding it from their parents. You know Lucius -- and many others -- would be only too happy to inform Voldemort of any deception on your part."

Severus sighed and absently massaged his forehead. He really needed sleep at this point, but it was obvious that Albus intended to force the issue. "To be honest," he told the Headmaster, "I was rather hoping you might come up with a way to get me out of it altogether -- since I really don't want to get involved with the man if I can help it."

"Oh?" Albus asked with surprise. "You don't find him attractive, then?"

Severus frowned. "What on earth has that got to do with it?"

"Well, I was rather under the impression that he finds you quite attractive -- and don't bother scowling at me, Severus -- I'm immune to it."

The Potions Master was not amused. "In case you failed to notice," he replied, "I have essentially been ordered to seduce a man who is far more powerful than I, and who has a rather noticeable prejudice when it comes to Death Eaters. I hardly think this," -- and he thrust the Dark Mark under Albus' nose, "is going to endear me to him."

"Ah," Albus noted. Then, after a few moments, he added, "Do you really think he doesn't know?"

"What!?" came the astonished cry. "You didn't tell him --" Severus cut himself off mid-sentence. Quietly, he added, "No -- you wouldn't have."

"Certainly not," Albus agreed calmly. "However, I rather think he might know anyway."

A sudden memory of the War Mage's soft dark tones surfaced in Severus' mind. 'I know more about you than you would believe possible,' the mage had told him.

"Perhaps," Severus reluctantly acknowledged. "However, I would rather avoid the necessity of finding out."

Albus sighed. So it was going to be like this, was it? Children could be so stubborn... "Well, then," he reflected aloud, "I suppose I could always fire him..."

The look on Severus' face was priceless.

"You'd... do that?" the shocked Potions Master asked. "But, you can't -- at least, not without a reason. What grounds could you possibly have...?"

Albus sniffed reflectively. "Sexual harassment, if nothing else," he replied.

This time it was Severus' turn to choke on his tea. Although... he didn't seem to have any tea in his hands just at the moment. Charitably, Albus blamed the tea anyway. It was kinder than assuming Severus was coughing and spluttering for no apparent reason.

"Sexual harassment!" Severus finally managed to strangle out. "Are you out of your mind?! I'd be the laughingstock of the wizarding world! The Death Eaters would have me for lunch! I hardly call that an acceptable solution!"

"Sexual harassment is a very serious problem in the workplace," Albus told him, "and aside from that, I can't imagine what else I could use as an excuse to get rid of him. He's an exceptional teacher, and the children all think he's wonderful."

"He's dangerous!" Severus exclaimed. "They're terrified of him! Use that!"

"Unfortunately," Albus said apologetically, "he hasn't harmed anyone -- and has, in fact, even defended us from attack by others -- first Death Eaters, and then mad elves. And very few of the students are frightened of him anymore. Careful, yes -- but certainly not frightened. The board is hardly likely to back a decision based on that."

Severus eyed the Headmaster suspiciously. He didn't for one second believe the tale of an insane elf attacking Hogwarts -- and he knew perfectly well that Albus didn't expect him to. But aside from that, he suddenly realised that the Headmaster was not the least bit serious in his supposed attempt to help Severus avoid becoming involved with the mage.

"You want me in his bed!" Severus suddenly realised. Outraged, he yelled, "Don't tell me you want the bloody secret of wandless magic too!"

Albus took a moment to reflect that it was a good thing he'd reinforced the silencing charms on his rooms a while back. Still calm and unruffled, he replied, "I want you to be happy, Severus."

"Excuse me!?"

"You've been alone a very long time, my boy -- and although I know you cope well with it, I don't believe you enjoy it. Our present Dark Arts teacher is a man who understands very well the necessities and trials that someone in your position must face. I believe him to be trustworthy, and we both know that he's uniquely suited to the dangers of being associated with you. Indeed, it's hardly less dangerous for him now."

Severus was deliberately controlling his breathing so as not to hyperventilate. "Let me see if I understand this correctly," he said in a quiet and deadly voice. "You think I'm unhappy, lonely, and pining for companionship. You believe a War Mage would understand my 'position', and also be able to protect himself from Voldemort. You have undoubtedly been encouraging the man with these misguided beliefs to the point where even the students -- and Draco in particular -- have noticed his interest. That interest was then reported to Lucius Malfoy, who in turn reported it to Voldemort." Sitting perfectly motionless in his chair, Severus finally asked, "Would that be an accurate summation?" He was going to kill Albus. He really was...

"Except for the part about encouraging him," the Headmaster replied. "While it's true I may have mentioned your favourite foods once or twice -- his interest in you pre-dates my knowledge of it by a considerable amount. It actually took me quite a while to work out why he was so... fascinated... by your presence."

"And yet you didn't see fit to inform me of your discovery at the time."

"It wasn't any of my business."

"I.. you..." the Potions Master was flabbergasted. "Not any of your business! It seems to me that you made it your damn business some time back!" Then Severus' eyes widened with a sudden horrible thought. "Please don't tell me you've managed to convince yourself that he's my destined 'soulmate' or some such rubbish!"

Albus blinked. "Where on earth did you get that idea?"

"Well it seems to me," Severus replied cynically, "that you've failed to consider the fact that he might not like me! Or that I might not like him! What am I supposed to do when your brilliant matchmaking idea fails -- and I'm still expected to go back to Voldemort and tell him how completely I've got the man under my control? Not to mention how he'll react when he finds out I've been leading him on because of Voldemort's orders!"

"So you have no personal interest in him at all?" Albus asked sadly.

Severus struggled with that for a moment. He was severely tempted to lie, but his hesitation had already given the Headmaster his answer. "I didn't say that," he finally snapped out. "But 'interest' is hardly a guarantee of mutual domestic bliss! It certainly never has been in the past!"

"Perhaps this time will be different," Albus said with renewed confidence and cheer.

In defeat, Severus groaned and leaned forwards, dropping his face into his hands.

He'd done terrible things in his youth -- awful things -- and he freely acknowledged that he deserved to be punished for it. But surely -- surely! -- nobody deserved this!

----oo00oo----