The End of the Beginning

By Marina

Chapter 5

The room looked ordinary enough: a shabby but relatively clean bed-sit above a second-hand robe shop in the poorer end of Diagon Alley. It was furnished with a narrow, sagging bed, a rickety chair, a cracked porcelain wash stand and nothing else -- not even a rug on the floor. The spells permeating its walls, floor and ceiling were subtly woven, undetectable to anyone who didn't specifically look for them -- and only two people had any business knowing enough to look. There were wards against Apparating, and against scrying, and against divination. There were charms against illusions and invisibility spells, charms to keep out various Dark creatures, and one extremely powerful and complex spell that forced any Animagus entering the room into human form. Aside from Hogwarts itself, this was probably the most magically secure place in England.

None of which made Severus Snape feel any better as let himself into the room and sat down on the bed to wait.

It was a short wait; less than two minutes passed before the lock clicked again and Albus Dumbledore came in, incongruous in a drab gray cloak with a hood and a high collar. With his beard tucked inside the cloak, he was scarcely recognizable as the flamboyant Headmaster of Hogwarts. Certainly any casual observer would be fooled and, as Snape reflected grimly, if there were any non-casual observers hanging about, then he was already stuffed.

"Good evening, Severus." Dumbledore removed his cloak and draped it over the back of the chair. Beneath the cloak he was dressed in his usual style, in iridescent purple robes decorated with tiny phoenixes on the cuffs and hem. He smiled as he sat down, but his eyes were worried. "I trust you're all right?"

"I'm fine," Snape said curtly. It was too early for conversation, and Dumbledore knew that perfectly well, but the old man always insisted on trying to make small talk. Severus Snape did not believe in small talk.

He took out his pocket watch and noted the time, held it up for Dumbledore to see, and put it on the bed next to him. Dumbledore shifted into a more comfortable position in his chair and settled down to wait with the tolerant air of someone indulging a friend's harmless eccentricity. Which was pretty rich coming from Dumbledore, Snape thought sourly. Still, he didn't care how the Headmaster looked at it as long as he followed the routine. Spells could unmask most forms of magical impersonation, but the only way to detect Polyjuice potion was to wait an hour and see if it wore off. So they waited. Snape leafed through a copy of the Daily Prophet, filled with the usual ineffectual dithering about the latest round of Death Eater attacks. Dumbledore chuckled quietly over what appeared to be a well-thumbed issue of Marvin the Mad Muggle. Snape's watch duly ticked off the minutes.

A soft chime signaled the end of the hour. Dumbledore shut his comic book and tucked it back inside his robe.

"There, Severus. I'm still me and you're still you. Now will you tell me if you're really all right? You took a great risk yesterday."

Snape clenched his hand around a fold of the bedspread. The cloth felt rough and prickly against his palm. "Seeing as I'm sitting here talking to you instead of floating dead in a sewer somewhere, you don't need to be Headmaster of Hogwarts to figure out that the risk was successfully avoided."

Dumbledore did not react to the rudeness. "I'm grateful to you, Severus. I would not have at all enjoyed having to face that demon without prior warning. As it is, the creature managed to smash my favorite tea set -- you know, the one with the pink daisies on the saucers? A gift from Minerva on my one hundred and twenty-fifth birthday." He pulled a rainbow-colored foil roll from his pocket and tore it open. "Gumdrop?"

"No, thank you." Snape stared at the floor. "I'm--I'm glad I was able to help."

After Voldemort had sent him to fetch the spell ingredients for Ethan Rayne from the Malfoy storeroom, Snape had ducked int oone of the spare rooms on the way and used the fireplace to alert Dumbledore about the impending attack. There had been no time to be properly stealthy about it; anyone could've walked in on him: Narcissa, Dobby, one of the human servants. It was the most terrifying thing he'd done since that night six month ago, when he'd stood in Dumbledore's office and rolled up his left sleeve to expose the Dark Mark on his arm.

Dumbledore could've killed him for bearing that mark. Killed him, or handed him over to the Ministry, which would've accomplished the same thing in the end. And Snape wouldn't have blamed him, though he hadn't wanted to die. He had said as much to Dumbledore when all other words ran out.

"I deserve it," he'd whispered. "I deserve worse, for what I've done."

And Dumbledore had looked at him with those terrifyingly compassionate eyes and said, "Well, then, Severus. I shall endeavor to give you what you deserve."

Six months later, Snape was starting to wonder if anyone really deserved his life. He'd thought that he'd found a way out when he went to Dumbledore. In the weeks before his defection, as he struggled to work up his nerve and searched for an opportunity to slip away unnoticed, he'd clung to that one life-line of a thought -- he would go to Dumbledore, and Dumbledore would get him out. Then he went to Dumbledore and found himself in deeper than ever before. And now there was no rescue to hope for, no one he could go to and say, "Please, Sir, I don't want to do this anymore." Sometimes, on particularly bad days, Snape considered the fact that this war had already dragged on for over a decade, and could easily drag on for decades longer. On days like that, he was almost tempted to confess the whole thing to Voldemort just to get it all over with.

"Severus?" Dumbledore's gently insistent voice drew Snape out of his incipient brooding fit. He shook his head apologetically as he realized that the Headmaster was waiting for some sort of response from him.

"I'm sorry, Sir, you were saying something?"

"I was just wondering," Dumbledore said softly, "what happened after Voldemort discovered that Mr. Rayne's attack had failed."

"Yes, of course. Sorry." Snape gathered his thoughts with an effort and gave what he hoped was a calm, straightforward description of everything that had happened at Malfoy Manor. As always, he found that his own actions came across much worse in the telling than they had in the doing. He disliked and distrusted Ethan Rayne. It had been far too easy to inject poison into the man's blood and to convince himself he was only doing what was necessary. Easy to ignore another man's terror in favor of his own, with Voldemort there to track his every move. But here, in relative safety, pinned by Dumbledore's nonjudgmental gaze, he felt soiled and cowardly. Not so much because of what he'd done -- it had been necessary, no question about that -- but because of what he'd failed to feel while he did it. He finished his tale in a breathless rush of words, never looking Dumbledore in the eye.

When he finished, Dumbledore slowly unwrapped another gumdrop, popped it into his mouth, and chewed for a few seconds before asking, "What did you give him?"

"A variation on the Convulsing Draught." Snape squashed the impulse to describe the ingredients. "I developed it last year -- before I came to you." It seemed important to clarify that for some reason. Snape dug through his pockets, eventually producing a small glass bottle and several neatly folded sheets of parchment. "I have a sample here. And the instructions."

"Excellent." Dumbledore put the bottle into a pouch at his belt and sat back to study the parchments. His eyes narrowed and his lips thinned -- a reaction to the twenty-seven illegal ingredients on the list, no doubt -- but all he said was, "This will take a while to reproduce."

"Months, I would expect." Snape saw no reason for false modesty under the circumstances. Professor Girolamo at Hogwarts was competent enough, and Circe Culpepper at the Ministry was almost brilliant, but neither one of them would have any experience working with these methods and ingredients. Snape had studied the techniques under Voldemort's own tutelage after he first took the Mark, and it had taken him ten weeks before he was confident enough to work on his own. Voldemort had praised him for his quickness. He had glowed with pride for days.

"I'm afraid you're right." Dumbledore neatly refolded the parchment sheets and tucked them between the pages of his comic book. "Is there a permanent antidote?"

"No," Snape said. Dumbledore just sat there and looked at him. "But I'll find one."

"I will trust in your abilities, Severus." Dumbledore sighed. "Mr. Rayne's current predicament is, at least partially, my responsibility. I must rely on you to remedy my own failure."

Snape was suddenly glad he had refused a gumdrop earlier; he would've choked on it now. "Your responsibility? Sir--" For a moment, all he could do was sputter. "You gave Rayne a chance to join you; he refused. He wanted to work for Voldemort, I'm sure of it. He was happy enough to kill you -- thought he could get something out of it." There had been a sly, calculating look in Rayne's eyes the whole time he was groveling at the Dark Lord's feet. If Snape had recognized it, Voldemort would have too. "He may not like the mess he's in now, but he got into it all on his own."

"Perhaps he did." Dumbledore stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Perhaps he came to Voldemort of his own free will and got what he deserved. But a man is entitled to change his mind, wouldn't you say?"

Snape winced. "Yes, Sir. But it's still his responsibility, not yours."

"I should've kept a better watch on him. I should've warned him. I knew there was a good chance Voldemort would come after him, but I never thought it would happen so quickly… and I expected Mr. Giles to be in more immediate danger."

"It was a reasonable assumption," Snape said. "This Giles is working for you now; any number of people know about him. But how many people know about Rayne?"

"That's the big question, isn't it?" Dumbledore's eyes grew somber. "Most of the people in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement know that James Potter and Alastor Moody brought two Muggles in for questioning three nights ago, and that I was summoned to speak with them. But no one is supposed to know anything more than that -- except for James and Alastor."

"And anyone they may have told."

Dumbledore's frown deepened. "I'm certain they both know better than that."

"I'm not." Snape scowled. "Oh, Moody won't have told anyone, I'll give you that. But Potter will have told his wife. And his friends. And we know, don't we, Headmaster, what his friends are capable of?"

"Severus." A trace of weariness began to creep into Dumbledore's paternal manner. "I know your feelings on this matter, but--"

"My feelings are not the issue here!" Snape tried desperately to stay calm, but he could hear his voice rising sharply along with his temper. "I'm talking about facts, Headmaster, facts we're both well aware of. Someone told Voldemort about Rayne, and if it wasn't Potter or Moody, then it had to be someone close to them. Someone they'd trust with the information. In Moody's case that means nobody. In Potter's case, there are four people. You can't ignore this, Headmaster, you mustn't, there's too much at stake! I know you've always dismissed my views in this matter, I know you like to trust people, I know Potter and his friends are your favorite pet Gryffindors--"

"That's quite enough, Severus," Dumbledore said calmly. "Please sit down."

Snape didn't remember getting up, but now he realized that he was standing in the middle of the room, looming over Dumbledore's chair in a manner that probably appeared threatening, though Dumbledore himself didn't look in the least bit threatened. Snape took a step back, feeling his face grow hot.

"I have never dismissed your views," Dumbledore continued in the same tone, "and I'm not going to start now. I will investigate this."

"Investigate. Of course." Snape stomped over to the bed and sat back down. There was a dark sweat-stain on the bedspread from where he'd gripped it earlier. Snape wiped his hands down the front of his robe. His face still felt hot, and he knew he must look blotchy and undignified. Potter and his cronies always did that to him. He wanted to change the subject or, failing that, to just shut up, but the words kept spilling out. "You mean you will ask them about it and then take their word as gospel. As you always have."

"I don't think I'm quite as gullible as all that." Dumbledore smiled. "Why, to this day, James Potter swears that he is not responsible for the exploding éclairs at his fifth-year Halloween feast, and to this day I don't believe him. I hope I can be equally discerning in matters of life and death."

"I hope so too," Snape said shortly. He didn't believe it for a second. He was quite certain about who the traitor had to be, but he knew better than to make the accusation without proof. Sirius Black could march down Diagon Alley at high noon wearing Death Eater robes and firing Unforgivables at random pedestrians, and everyone would laugh and say what a charming joke it was. Not even Dumbledore was willing to look past that grinning façade, not even when his own life might be at stake. So Snape kept his mouth shut and grimly resolved to get proof before it was too late.

Dumbledore, in the meantime, was still harping on Rayne. "You say he is being held in Malfoy Manor?"

Snape nodded. "Voldemort is being very secretive about it. Only Malfoy and I know what's going on." He didn't bother pointing out the obvious implication of this -- any attempt to rescue Rayne would tell Voldemort that either Snape or Malfoy had betrayed him. Knowing the Dark Lord, he would likely resolve the uncertainty by killing both of them.

"I see." Dumbledore looked grave. "This will require some careful planning. In any case, there's nothing to be done until we have the antidote."

No need to speak the implications of that, either: the only person likely to come up with an antidote was Snape himself. He could keep himself safe -- as safe as he ever was these days, anyhow -- simply by postponing the discovery. Snape considered the thought and found that he wasn't in the least bit tempted. It wasn't courage or nobility; Snape didn't want to die, and he didn't give a damn what happened to Ethan Rayne. But he had known, when he agreed to spy, that none of this was for his benefit. He was performing a penance, and a penance wasn't something you got to pick and choose, it was something you accepted and endured. Snape hated every crawling moment of it, but he never considered stopping.

"I will get to work on it right away." He stood and collected his belongings. His hands didn't shake at all.

Dumbledore stood, too, and draped the gray cloak around himself again. The whole room suddenly seemed drab and colorless. "Take care, Severus."

He always said that. "Are you all right?" when they met, and "Take care" when they parted. Stock phrases, spoken as if they meant something. Snape never quite knew what to say in return. Usually, he just grunted something unintelligible and left as quickly as possible. Today, for some reason he couldn't quite articulate, he found himself lingering by the door.

"I'm sorry about your tea set, Sir." He remembered it: a hideous, flowery, gilt-edged thing. Remembered clutching a cup with shaking, bloodstained fingers as he poured out his confession to Dumbledore six months ago.

Dumbledore shrugged. The gray cloak made him look very old and very tired. "I was able to fix it," he said. "A few Reparo spells was all it took. But it's never the same, is it? No matter how well you fix something, you always remember that you've seen it broken. Every time I use it now, I'll be looking for the cracks."

"I'm sorry," Snape repeated. He didn't know how to respond to philosophical musings about tea sets any more than he knew how to respond to admonitions to take care. So he muttered a hasty good-bye and fled back to Malfoy Manor, where all the people were scum, but at least he knew how to talk to them.

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