For all Joy wants Eternity
The thick, stale air ripped his throat open and inflamed his lungs with each of his frantic attempts to inhale. After a few breaths, he didn't know anymore what was worse: The stinging lack of air that made his chest collapse, tearing at his ribs and pectoral muscles with an irresistible force, or the liquid fire inside of him fuelled with every desperate gasp for air, that made him feel like he was swallowing petrol, constantly feeding the voracious flames that greedily burned their way through his trunk. His mouth was filled with the smoky taste of fear, and the air that slapped his face while he hurried towards the end of the tunnel became more of a tenacious, viscous mass with each of his steps. He could feel the subterranean walls slowly but constantly closing in on all sides, and he knew he would never be able to make it to the tunnel's exit beneath the Whomping Willow before he would get smashed by tons of stone and mud and wood that already seemed to reach for him with rotten, disintegrating fingers from above, from below and from both sides. Promising to never let him escape, to bury him down here, to make him a part of the darkness that was everywhere.
And then, bright chaos erupted inside him.
Claw-like arms of boiling heat suddenly shot through his chest and wound towards his heart and brain with the speed of a lightning flash. Or had they been talons of chilling ice? Was his head melting or was his brain freezing from a biting cold he had never experienced before? Had his heart caught fire or had it just stopped beating beneath a glacier of solid, translucent ice? What had been the reason for that bright flash that was lighting all of his insides right now, had it been red, hot flames or crystal-clear, freezing cold? He couldn't call it pain, and it would have been a lie to say it hurt, he couldn't tell if his heart was squeezed to a twitching ball the size of a Snitch or if it was stretched until he was sure it had to explode like an overstrained balloon...
...what in the name of Merlin's cauldron was wrong with him?
Severus Snape felt the bones of his legs vanish, and only a very quick reflex allowed him to intercept the fall with his hands. Immediately, the air of the tunnel, heavy with the spy's bristling fear, crushed down on his back and forced him further towards the moist, earthy ground, leaving him no room for anything else but instinctive actions. Digging his fingers into the mud, Severus crawled forward on elbows and knees, slowly making his way towards the Whomping Willow. All he knew was that he had to make it there, that there was nothing more important, that it was vital to reach the end of the tunnel. He tried to concentrate, tried to focus all of the pathetic remnants of his intellectual abilities on that one goal as he moved on. Meter by meter, the opening that simply had to be the way out of this hell came closer, and Severus glued his burning eyes on the spot he knew he had to reach, dragging his failing body forward with steely determination.
When his wand-hand had passed the chink beneath the violent tree and frantically searched for the knob that would grant him safe exit, all that kept the Slytherin conscious was the knowledge that he was almost there. As a drowning man could see the promising, sneering rays of the sun flash through the surface of the deadly waters, the air outside teased Severus with its freshness. He could almost see the stars, feel the cool breeze caressing the burning skin of his sweaty face, the taste of peace and shelter the castle promised already danced on his lips and tongue and the smell of his quarters, interwoven with the scent of herbs, cold ashes and candles was close, so very close... His fingers found the spot on the Willow's roots.
With a hoarse moan that vibrated with exertion, despair and relief, Severus pulled his limp body through the narrow opening. All he was able to do was to crawl far enough to be out of reach when the temporarily tamed tree awoke again, and then his body, every nerve screaming with utter exhaustion, finally refused any further cooperation and broke down. Having bravely carried the Slytherin that far, it now collapsed onto the grass, which was already wet with dew, for good. Lying on his back and panting hard, Severus let his weary gaze dive into the depths of the starry night-sky above him. Slowly, the boiling cold let go of his chest, and the chilling heat inside his skull ebbed away. With every breath, he could feel the dense wall of bright haze lifting from his consciousness, giving his spirits the space they needed to be able to return. It was an indescribable perception to sense how he slowly, gradually slipped free of the terrors of the past minutes, until it was no one but he himself who rested on the ground between castle and Whomping Willow. Shivering. Torn. Totally overwrought. Wounded by another bitter experience.
Severus reached his quarters about an hour later. He didn't even care about putting any wards up after he had entered his rooms, he didn't care to undress or to let Albus know about his return. He refused to waste any thought on the possible reasons for what had happened to him on his way from the Shrieking Shack back to the castle, and he banished the frightening suspicions that lingered at the edges of his awareness where they circled this appalling physical and mental experience he had just escaped and banished them to the darkest corners of his mind. His brain yearned to forget, his eyes begged to be closed, and the Slytherin hadn't even completely sunk down into the armchair in front of the now cold fireplace, before he was fast asleep.
Some unnerving, annoyingly know-it-all little voice told him that *this* was not the place to be, and that the decision he had made half an hour ago was not the right thing to do. He couldn't remember how many times he had already angrily cut short this other part of his mind that wanted him to turn and take care of his own business...and in the beginning, it had almost been successful in convincing him. But not now, not anymore. Even though he didn't know exactly why, the unerring and unbelievably powerful feeling that this *was* his business had grown stronger and stronger, the longer he had thought about what to do.
And this was the reason why Remus Lupin now stood in front of the door to Severus Snape's quarters, hand already raised to knock for several seconds. Ignoring the doubts in the back of his head in the glorious certainty of right action, and taking a deep breath, he let the knuckles of his fingers finally descend against the dark wood.
For a few maddening, tantalizingly long moments, nothing happened.
Just when Remus was about to announce his presence for the second time, the door in front of him moved and opened just enough to reveal the slender form of the Slytherin, his face a cladding made of marble, his eyes narrowing alarmingly fast to two gleaming black slits as soon as he recognized his visitor.
"Now, what could it possibly be that grants me the dubious blessing of your presence, Lupin?"
It was nothing but a sheer act of volition that kept Remus from taking at least one step back from the door immediately. He had almost forgotten how very *wrong* it felt to confront his former school mate! The unfamiliar energy that emanated from the spy cut into Remus's awareness as a double-edged blade would, and the almost physical pain that resulted felt as if that sharp piece of steel had been twisted violently right after it had entered his flesh. The werewolf was almost thankful for the repudiation and sarcasm he was greeted with. His mind still refused to connect the physical image he received from the man in front of him with the mental one his memory provided, and he clung to the familiar threads of the spy's cynical rage that seemed to be all that had been left of the Severus Snape he remembered from only a year ago. For the second time within several hours, Remus had now been hit by the painful confusion the Slytherin's twisted aura evoked in him, and dark forebodings began dancing through his mind and tightened his throat. Oh, this would be so much more difficult than he had thought... "First of all, Severus, I wanted to ask how you're feeling..."
"Aside from the fact that this is absolutely no concern of yours, *Lupin*, I've been totally fine until some moments ago, and I will be so once more as soon as you leave again."
"...and second, I've found something you obviously lost last night. I thought you might want to have it back."
With those words, Remus slowly reached out his left hand toward the Slytherin. His hand, which held a blood-stained mask, carved of dark wood.
The fašade of stone and ice that was the face before him splintered. The dimension of the agonized, deep weariness, the total exhaustion, latent panic and staidness that was etched into the Slytherin's features engraved themselves deeply into Remus Lupin's mind, and what he saw for that split second before the spy managed to retreat behind a blank wall of self-defence once more, would never leave the werewolf's inner eye again. Horrified bewilderment seized him, and it was all he could do to not let the Death Eater's mask slip from his hand, which had started shaking slightly with terror merely given his awareness of the profound woes that must be torturing his former school mate.
The impregnable need to help, to comfort somehow made Remus take one step forward.
"Merlin, Severus..." He tried, but he couldn't keep the sympathetic undertone out of his voice, which he knew that his counterpart wouldn't approve of that at all. "Severus, what *happened* to you?" With his black gaze having returned to its usual coldness, the Slytherin held Remus's questioning eyes without blinking even once.
"If I was you, Lupin, I wouldn't waste too much of my chronically missing energy deliberating upon questions like that. If you considered the matter carefully, even you would see that I've just gotten over a quite demanding and wearisome night, of which our little encounter in the Shrieking Shack was a more than pathetic highlight. So right now I need nothing more than to be left alone, and I would greatly appreciate it if you would accept that and go back to whatever place in this castle has been assigned to you."
The Slytherin's glance wandered back to the mask Remus still held out to him.
"Where did you find that?"
For some seconds, the werewolf searched the spy's face for any evidence of the shocking state of mind he had witnessed only moments ago. In vain.
"It was lying on the tunnel's floor, half-way between the Shack and the exit to the castle." Remus lifted the mask and as if he saw it for the first time, examined its outlines and relief with a slightly tilted head. He noticed the barely inclined eye-slits, the high brow, prominent cheek-bones and the subtlety of the hand-carved ornaments that hemmed the mask's margins. And while he was still lost in his admiration for the beautiful piece of craftsmanship he held in his hand, sudden fragments of thought and foggy images flooded his mind; all at once, he wondered how many people already had beheld those skilful carvings, knowing that torture and probably the end of their lives were waiting for them, how many Unforgivable Curses had already been spoken against the inside of this enchantingly fair piece of wood, how many times Severus had looked down upon his suffering victims, upon dead wizards and witches, and up to the face of Voldemort through these almond-shaped eye-slits, he wondered whose blood it was that covered the surface in dry, dark cords...
Afraid to hurl the mask at the adjacent wall with all the force his sudden rage and disgust had let him come up with, Remus held it out to the spy once more, desperately praying for Severus to finally take this embodiment of death from his hand, which trembled again. Not with compassion anymore, but instead with revulsion and horror. "I'm afraid you'll need it once more eventually, won't you?"
The werewolf knew at once that his whisper must have dripped with the execration and abhorrence he felt for everything this mask represented - and for everyone who wore it, as well. He could tell from the bitter smile that accompanied the Slytherin's silent acceptance of his, Remus's, profound disgust, from the spark of pain in the black, knowing eyes, from the sardonic parody of gentleness with which his rhetorical question was answered.
Remus felt a hot wave of frustration welling up inside. The urge to somehow bridge the abyss he had just torn open between the two of them became overwhelmingly strong, and he was just about to open his mouth, just about to offer his honest and heartfelt apologies, when the Slytherin reached out to finally claim his Death Eater's mask again.
For a very short moment, their fingers touched in the process.
Severus closed his eyes on an agonized groan. He immediately recognized the bright flash ripping through him, clearly announcing another bout of last night's horror. Instinctively, all of his body jerked back, and his hand which had just reached forward retreated as if he had touched a boiling cauldron, overflowing with the most corrosive potion the wizarding world would ever know. Through the swirling haze of fear that had taken hold of him, he heard something hitting the ground, the sound echoing through his head, tauntingly resounding from the inner walls of his skull...
...and then it was suddenly over.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, the Slytherin slowly, disbelievingly dared to open his eyes. He was still standing in the door to his quarters, still able to think, to feel, to breathe. With wild relief washing over him, his glance started to wander, glided to the ground, took in the mask that was laying there, moved up again, scanned the corridor leading to the stairs, returned to the space in front of his rooms and came to a halt at the face of the man standing before him.
One glance into the werewolf's eyes and Severus knew that if he wanted to escape the concern and questions screaming from them, he had to act quickly, and he had to act now. With a hastily whispered "Accio", he summoned the mask into the firm grip of his hand. Ignoring Lupin calling his name and deliberately avoiding the arm that reached out for him, he swiftly stepped back into his rooms, letting the door slam shut behind him.
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