For all Joy wants Eternity
And love dares you to care for
the people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our ways
of caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
- David Bowie & Queen -
His head still ringing with Moody's last words, his body still shaking with the violence of his own sense of guilt, self-disgust, exhaustion and pain, Severus let the hot water from the shower pour over him, inhaled the dense steam until his nose and throat prickled from the inside, and tried to drain his mind of all possible thoughts for once.
It didn't work, though. The attacks of recollection had not stopped since the Auror had voiced the first word of his accusations. Pictures, noises and smells kept invading Severus’s mind over and over again. The events from the previous night and the morning after repeated like a flip-book before his inner eye, with scraps of images, sensations and sounds flashing in and out. Death Eater masks, desperate voices, his wand in his hand, a starry night sky, green lightning, red eyes, pain, darkness, red eyes, more pain, the smell of decay, more pain, more memory, more pain...
With a violent, highly abrupt movement, the Slytherin turned off the water and gratefully welcomed the slight shock of his heated skin being hit by cold air as he stepped out of the shower. Anything distracting his brain from circling the past twenty-four hours was a relief.
He would have given a lot for Albus's Pensieve right now.
The towel that was rubbing over the still open cuts and bruises that were by no means confined only to his face made the Slytherin wince, but the idea of magically healing the injuries Voldemort had inflicted on him this very morning had not yet entered his mind before he already dismissed it again. Taking care of himself had not only stopped being relevant when he lost his body to the Dark Lord, it was rather a totally undeserved treat, something that was not for him. He knew it was irrational, was well aware that it wouldn't rectify anything, but still, after what he had done the previous night, after Moody's words that had burned themselves into his mind, it somehow felt *right* to hurt. Severus even had the feeling that he didn't hurt enough. Not yet. But maybe he'd be lucky. Maybe that would come later today. He was pretty sure that it would.
Merely noticing the cool cloth of the dressing gown he had just slipped on, Severus left his bathroom without even thinking about toweling his hair. There were still more than three hours before he would have to leave for St. Mungo's, enough time to rest a little, enough time to finally think his mission through, to make some plans which would be in vain anyway, to *truly* become aware of what was ahead of him. Of all of them.
Enough time for his hair to dry.
With a sigh and a resigned glance at his still shaking hands, the Slytherin let himself fall into one of the chairs in front of the fire and closed his eyes. For the first time since he had returned to Hogwarts he was not bothered with memories from the latest Death Eater attack, but felt the first signs of profound exhaustion instead, which so far had been kept at bay by the course of events and the essentials that being a spy entailed. His body seemed to grow heavier every second and a glutinous numbness began to creep up his limbs. The weight dragging his lids down became more and more irresistible and his mind began to retreat somewhere into the most remote regions of his skull. It would be so easy to give in, to fall asleep right here and right now, so very easy, and he was so tired, so tired...
Severus's eyes flew open at the short knock at his door.
The spy was aware of his visitor's identity before the last traces of sound had ceased, still he didn't make the slightest move to reach for his wand and lower the wards to his rooms, not even to voice an answer. For several seconds, the Slytherin simply sat in his chair, still as a statue, and stared at the closed, unmoving door until his eyes began to water. Until he wasn't sure anymore if there had ever been any sound announcing the werewolf's presence at all.
Which was, exactly, when the knock reached his ears again, this time accompanied by Remus's soft voice, a little distorted by the thick wood between them, but still unmistakable.
'I promise I will leave as soon as you tell me to, Severus. But please *do* tell my something! Don't leave me standing here like this.'
A grimace of pure frustration contorted the Slytherin's face when he let his head fall aginst the back rest behind him. The last thing he needed now was to be forced to make decisions. He didn't feel that his mind was capable of any coherent action at the moment, he didn't even know how he *felt* about the idea of facing the Gryffindor right now. The only thing he was definitely sure about was the that he was not ready to make choices like sending Remus away or asking him in. There had already been too many choices and decisions for him to make today. All he wanted was someone else to take over responsibility for what would happen. He wanted to not be the one to blame for once.
So Severus reached for his wand on the low table beside him. With a voice loud enough he knew it would carry to the werewolf outside, he spoke the spells that would leave his door ready to be opened, but he did do nothing more, leaving it up to Remus whether he saw fit to enter even though he'd not been explicitely invited. Filled with a strange uncertainty about how to deal with the Gryffindor *should* they face each other within the next seconds, the spy leaned back in his chair once more. And waited.
It would not have taken the slight, almost inaudible sqeaking of the door on its hinges to tell him that Remus had chosen not only to stay but to come in as well. The Slytherin's worn and overstrained body reacted as soon as the werewolf had crossed the threshold, with a cold wave of alarm washing over the spy despite the profound weariness that had almost made him fall asleep only a few minutes before. Unable to resist or even try to summon the mental strength necessary to fight the sudden urge to escape, Severus gave in to the first impulse that gripped him at Remus's entrance and more or less jumped up from his seat. But not even the hurried steps over to the book shelf brought enough distance between him and the Gryffindor to free the spy from the surge of panic that boiled inside him. A distant part of his mind registered that he responded in an unusually drastic way to Remus's presence, and the same weak resort of rationality blamed that fierce reaction on the enormous strain from the previous hours, on the utter exhaustion which was depriving him even of the pathetic remnants of strength he normally fought the ritual with, especially when Remus was around.
On a much more unconscious level, a nebulous thought was whispering about other reasons for the Slytherin's momentary lack of readiness to oppose the effects of his bond with the Dark Lord. Reasons that had to do with the powerful sense of guilt and self-loathing working their way through Severus ever since last night's events, which had only been intensified by Moody's reproaches.
Severus would never find out whether it was the abysmal fatigue or the subconsious willingness to be punished for what he had done that caused his completely passive acceptance of the mental and physical torture ahead. The effects of the three marks on his chest were now fiercely, mercilessly attacking his body and mind full force, hurling him into a violent vortex of the painfully familiar sensations another body's closeness induced.
He had no idea for how long he'd been defenselessly exposed to the violent and multifaceted assault the werewolf's presence had produced, for how long he'd been cut off from reality, unaware of anything happening around him. He also did not know *what* it had been in the first place that made it possible, but Severus eventually, finally noticed the ritual's effects slowly easing off. With a careful and still heavily shuddering breath, the Slytherin slowly lifted his head, not yet ready to trust the ebbing away of the complex torture which had been dominating him only moments ago. Still, the world around him gradually came into focus again, he felt how his heartbeat began to decelerate, how the storm that had been raging through his nerves calmed down, and how his muscles were slowly relaxing, one after another. The gratitude flooding the spy when he found himself again in the safety of his own quarters was overwhelming, as was the relief when his eyes were finally able to realize the familiar surroundings, when he was welcomed by well-known colors and smells.
As well as by the accustomed figure of Remus Lupin standing in front of the door.
Which was a severe understatement. The werewolf was literally pressing himself against the dark wood, his fingers clawing into the surface as if he had tried to dig himself deeper into the massive material in a desperate and futile attempt to increase the distance between himself and the Slytherin. Severus knew that the pain written over Remus's expressive face was only for the spy's desperate struggle that the Gryffindor had just witnessed, as well as for the werewolf's awareness that he himself had been the trigger for it all. Still, the compassion that was screaming from Remus's eyes was deeper, more desperate than ever before, and for a short moment, Severus was sure this was due to his own re-awakening senses simply emphasizing his perceptions. But only for a moment.
Then he abruptly became aware of the sight he must be.
A quick glance down his body confirmed the spy's worst fears. The dressing gown must have fallen partly open from his reaction to the torture caused by the ritual's effects; his left shoulder was completely exposed, as were great parts of his torso. The soft light from the fire perfectly illuminated each and every slash the Dark Lord had left on his body a few hours ago, the bite-marks on his shoulders and neck, the bruises that were covering his abdomen.
The three symbols of blood, semen and venom encircling his heart.
Severus knew he should have immediately drawn the cloth about his body again. Should have covered the evidence of his complete submission, whether it once had been offered of his free will or not, to the Dark Lord. Should have listened to his fiercly screaming pride which ordered him to keep this moment of unveiling and utter humiliation as short as possible. Still, the Slytherin didn't as much as move while he felt the weird mixture of abhorrence, sympathy and terror that was Remus's glance gliding over the violated skin of his body. Under usual circumstances, the degree of indifference that had taken hold of him would have given the spy more than a little shock, but aware of what was behind and what was still awaiting him today, in the face of what he had done the night before, Severus's mind was not in a state to fight the apathy it had chosen to resort to. He accepted the exposure of the evidence of his downfall as he had accepted the ritual's onslaught only moments ago. And probably, he did so for the same reasons.
Remus was almost frightened by the shock the sight of the Slytherin's body had given him. He had known, after all, that Severus had gone through exactly the same treatment all the Dark Lord's victims did. It had not been difficult to imagine what kind of marks that would have left. He had also already seen the three figures of Voldemort's ritual, even though they had only been on parchment. The Gryffindor had studied the shape and lines of the symbols in the book the Slytherin had given him with a caution and exactness that had verged on obsession, and had anybody asked him he could have drawn each of the three marks in detail by heart.
But actually seeing them carved into the Slytherin's body gave rise to a vicious stinging in Remus's own chest. The sight of Severus's doom irrevocably left its brand on the werewolf's soul, and the Gryffindor was hit by the sudden, painful realization that all the honest understanding he so far had evinced for the spy's situation had only covered a small part of the truth. All his awareness, all his precise knowledge had merely scratched the surface of what the ritual represented, and as hard as it was for Remus to admit to himself, it was only the substantiality of the thrice marked body under his horrified gaze that finally let him recognize the entire scale of what the Slytherin had given himself over to. For a few tantalizing seconds, before he quickly closed off his mind again in purest terror, the werewolf was almost able to feel the bond the spy and the Dark Lord shared, sensed the powerful connection that did not tolerate any intruders and momentarily perceived the destructive energy it fired Severus's way.
The impact of that dreadful impression literally knocked the wind out of the Gryffindor. But the realization of his own helplessness was even worse. All his skills, all his outstanding knowledge about how to defend himself and others against the Dark Arts was nothing in the face of that most complex structure of dominance and submission, and Remus's entire being was aching for the one who had first been naive and then desperate enough to choose enduring a self-loss like that. The Gryffindor had already been deeply disturbed about the level of dark magic involved in the ritual when he had first read about it. Now that he was truly understanding the bondage's verity for the first time, the profoundness and perfection of how malice had been transfered into magic left the werewolf speechless with horror. The world around the Gryffindor had been degraded to a pathetic backdrop for the most perverted and terrible drama he could imagine. He didn't feel the hard wood at his back or how his cramped fingers had begun to ache, he had forgotten about the war and the decisive stage of it that they were in. All he could do and think of was to continue to stare at Severus's exposed torso, continue to struggle with his own dawning awareness, with the attempt to grasp the new quality of suffering that had been revealed to him. But most of all, he struggled with the burning urge for words, knowing at the same time that there were no words that could ever comfort, nothing that would ever be able to communicate the degree of comprehension the werewolf had just attained. His mind had capitulated before the unspeakable extent of the Dark Lord's calculating cruelty. So instead of speaking, Remus finally managed to tear his eyes away from the three symbols surrounding Severus's heart and searched for the Slytherin's eyes.
They were standing that way for a long time, even though neither of them was aware of the minutes and seconds passing, the ongoing glance they shared being the only connection between spy and werewolf. Aside from his own need to calm down and gather his feelings and thoughts again, Remus felt that Severus himself was craving time to recover as well. The Gryffindor had been so absorbed by what the sight of the ritual's symbols had provoked in him that he had not consciously noticed the severe degree of torment the spy had been under, but now that he sensed the fierce aftershocks running through Severus's body, an answering idea was taking shape in the werewolf's head. Feeling how his own shock was gradually beginning to ebb away again, Remus let his breath go, slowly and very deliberately. Even though he would never be able to fathom exactly what Severus had been going through, the werewolf knew they had both been swept away by what had just happened, and before they could find out how to proceed from here, each of them first needed to get back on his feet again.
Remus was not surprised at all when he realized a little later that he was the first to do so. A careful, almost tender reaching out with his sharp, keen perception told him that the Slytherin was not ready yet, and so the werewolf waited a few minutes more before he finally spoke. He knew there was not a thing he could do about the ritual. But there still was more evidence of the horrible morning the Slytherin must have had, and those were things Remus definitely could deal with.
'Let me take care of those injuries, Severus.'
The werewolf was not sure why the Slytherin had not healed the numerous cuts, bruises and other marks of a Death Eater treatment himself by now, but when he was confronted with the sudden freezing of Severus's features, with the cold hardness that crept into the black eyes, he realized that there must be more to it than a simple lack of thought or strange priorities. Totally oblivious to what he might have done wrong now, Remus had to helplessly watch how the spy retreated behind an invisible wall of impenetrable ice, a wall which he thought the two of them had left behind. For a split second, the Gryffindor was overwhelmed by hurt and frustration, a most familiar reaction to the Slytherin's closing off. But the fierce determination not to let Severus hide from him again was not long in coming, taking him a little by surprise in its intensity. But there was so much at stake. This might be the last time they would be able to talk to each other, and there was still so much to say...
'Please don't turn away from me now.' The werewolf's voice was just above a whisper. 'I could not handle it. Is it so hard for you to believe that I simply want to help? All I want to do is to ease the pain of a friend.'
The Slytherin had retreated as far as the shelf at his back was allowed. With both arms tightly wrapped around his still half-naked chest, his ribcage moved erratically with the quick and shallow breaths he took and his fingers clawed into both of his upper arms while sinews and veins bulged on both sides of his neck. Remus pushed the hurt this sight awoke in him aside, knowing that he could not let the Slytherin go now. Not now. Not this time. But when he became aware of his barely audible voice as he spoke again, he was afraid Severus would not be able to hear him at all.
'Why can't you just try and let me?'
The werewolf felt his own lower lip begin to tremble as he watched how the spy's eyes slowly closed, how the tension of his body started to gradually ease off. Both of Severus's arms that had been clasping his torso as if the injuries there were something worth protecting slid down to his sides, with the Slytherin's hands still shaking against his thighs. And then, finally, the spy lifted his head, now facing Remus with a clear, calm glance, and answered the Gryffindor's last question with a very weak and just as short nod.
Not noticing how tears of relief were gathering in his eyes, Remus drew his wand from his robes.
It had taken him almost an hour. Very precious time, minutes he was losing because he was forced to spend them muttering spells and monitoring their effect instead of being able to talk to the Slytherin, but still the werewolf knew that each second that had passed before the last of the cuts spread across Severus's body had finally closed under his wand had definitely been worth it. There were still more than two hours before it would be five, and even though Remus was quite positive that the spy had rather not spend all of this time with him but also take some of it to prepare for the mission ahead, he sincerely hoped Severus would give him at least one hour. That would be all he needed.
Watching contentedly how the last slash in Severus's face had now disappeared, Remus gave the man at the other end of the room one last look-over before his totally sober voice re-opened the conversation - or rather continued his monologue. The fact that Severus had still not spoken a single word since the Gryffindor had entered his rooms had of course registered, and it was not a very encouraging situation given that Remus had come here to talk to his friend.
'They did a painstaking job on you. As always.'
The sound of the Slytherin's response to his remark startled the Gryffindor. He had not expected Severus to react to that of all comments.
'It wasn't them. He was gracious enough to do me the favour of taking care of me himself.'
Remus felt how his initial surprise at Severus having suddenly decided to speak mingled with true amazement as he continued looking at the other man.
'Is there a particular reason why...'
Severus did not let him finish his question.
'As Albus said, this...treatment was intended to back up the story he gave me to bring here with me, not to punish me. He knew should he let another Death Eater do the job, I...would have passed out and probably been put out of action for much too long by the mere closeness of my tormentor.' Severus pulled the dressing gown back over his shoulders and made sure it would not open again by pulling the belt much tighter around his waist than necessary. 'He could not risk losing me for that long. I had to be ready to leave in time to fulfill his plans.'
The spy slowly shook his head.
‚Isn’t it most ironic that one day I'd be grateful to have been tortured by the Dark Lord rather than anyone else?'
For the second time today, Remus struggled with a completely vacant mind that refused to let him come up with anything appropriate to say. A few seconds of silence fell between them with only the crackling sounds of the fire whispering through the room, until Remus felt the Slytherin's stare burn into his forehead, daring him to lift his own glance that had drifted away from the spy a little. The bitter seriousness he could read in the dark depths of Severus's eyes did not augur well, and some sad voice in the back of his head told Remus what was about to come.
And was proven to be right.
'And how does it feel to call one of the Dark Lord's killers your friend?'
Remus *had* intended to talk about that particular point. Still, this was not the way he would have chosen to begin. Looking into the Slytherin's face the werewolf could see how a great deal of the extreme tension that Moody's reproaches had provoked had already re-awakened; he was almost able to taste Severus's effort not to vent those feelings on him, Remus, of all people now. The spy had not managed to keep a certain degree of biting sarcasm out of his voice, though, and the increasing tremor in his hands gave evidence about the strain with which Severus was awaiting his answer.
'What Alastor did and said up in Albus's office was totally uncalled for - and I'm very sure that I'm not the only one who feels that way, Severus. I don't care about his opinion on this particular issue, and I will continue calling you my friend, no matter what Mad-Eye thinks or has to say about you.'
Had Remus hoped this honest and heartfelt reply would make the Slytherin relax at least a little, he had been horribly wrong. The werewolf had not thought this possible, but the tension radiating from the other man had increased even more, and when he spoke, his voice was crisp with coldness.
'And what if he was right?’
A hot snare, burning with acid, jerkily tightened around the werewolf's heart. The last of Severus's words echoed through his head, reflected back and forth from the inner walls of his skull, laughed its challenge right into the Gryffindor's face. Remus could see the Slytherin's reaction to the consternation that must be written all over his features, felt the growing hardness in the other's eyes drill into his own gaze like razor-like daggers. Still the werewolf held Severus's glance, wanted to keep up a connection between the two them to demonstrate that even the dark hint in the Slytherin's question would *not* make him reject the spy. Remus would never condemn the other man as a simple murderous Death Eater, not after all he had learned about Severus during the past months, all the horrible details of his existence as well as those most precious and breathtakingly beautiful facets of the Slytherin's being. Still, the mere possibility of Severus being responsible for only one of last night's casualties was one of the most frightening ideas Remus could think of, and it was one he needed to get clear about as soon as possible. Fighting for the most composed voice he could master, the Gryffindor asked the question he knew he needed an answer to, no matter how much it might hurt.
'Was he right then, Severus?'
The Slytherin's reply to that came at once.
'What do you think?'
The bright irritability that flared up in Remus on that counter question didn't last long enough to make him miss the serious background to the spy's query. This was not a simple question-and-answer-game to provoke his counterpart. Severus's intention had been a most serious one. One that dared the Gryffindor to find out whether he was ready to deal with the probably terrible consequences Severus's being a spy meant, as well as to analyse his own assessment of the man he had become so very close to. Looking into the Slytherin's deadly serious face Remus realised that the spy expected an honest answer, and he felt deep inside himself that he deserved one, too. And so the werewolf closed his eyes and leaned back against the door at his back, concentrating on his own emotions, on the instinct of the animal to find out and to give Severus what he was waiting for.
It took the Gryffindor several minutes before he was sure and ready to search for the spy's glance again. Apparently Severus hadn't even moved but silently accepted the time Remus had needed to come up with his answer. The black eyes seemed to be glued to the Gryffindor's face, and while he heard his own words ringing out into the room, the wolf inside Remus was overwhelmed with the barely controlled emotions that were seething behind the motionless mask of composure that was Severus's face.
'I think it is possible that in the course of events last night, you might have been forced to do things you would not do under normal circumstances. I think these things might even extend to the worst one could possibly do. I think that no member of the Order, including myself, has the slightest idea what kind of situation you have to face doing the job you do and what kind of actions it takes to avoid raising Voldemort's suspicion.' Remus stopped for a moment, tried to replace the impossibility of approaching the Slytherin with an attempt to intensify the already deep glance they shared. 'What I *know* is that I will definitely not judge you by your actions only, whatever they might look like. If you want to tell me about it, I will listen without any prejudice, and I will try to understand the reasons for whatever you did last night.'
Severus's glance penetrated the silence that followed the Gryffindor's little speech, and the slight change in the spy's aura did not escape Remus attention. A tiny spark of hope had dawned in the Slytherin's eyes, and the barrier of coldness around him had begun to splinter.
'You said you'd listen without bias.' Remus gave a little nod after the spy had finished his sentence, now trying hard himself not to trust his own suddenly awakening hope too much, waiting for Severus to go on. 'Why do you think you'll be able to?'
Remus couldn't help the smile lifting the corners of his mouth. With a silent prayer to Godric Gryffindor to grant him that nothing but the strong affection that suddenly had washed over him was now showing on his face, that Severus might not misinterpret anything like arrogance or patronizing judgment to be on his features, the werewolf had begun voicing his answer without even having to think about it once.
'For exactly the same reason you have chosen me to speak to about that particular issue. For all the time that we've spent sharing whatever it is connecting us. For all that has grown between us during the past months.'
For one last second Remus felt the spy cling to his protection of cold refusal before the wall of ice he had errected around him finally broke down.
And then the Slytherin began to talk.
Severus would never know where all the words were coming from that seemed to literally fall from his mouth. He heard himself speaking of how he had been assigned to a group of seven Death Eaters right after he had arrived at the house the Dark Mark had called him to the morning before, of the feverish preparation for their mission that was to begin at midnight sharp, of how he himself had become a perfectly working part of the Dark Lord's machinery. Without truly realising it, the spy was already describing the images of their route to the Aurors’ training camp that were rushing past his inner eye, telling Remus about taking up his position as a kind of rear guard to back the others up. Which was when the true horror had begun.
'There were four of them. Apparently, the information about where the trainees were distributed among the camp's buildings was not correct - or maybe they were not in their quarters by sheerest accident that night. Be that as it may, they appeared more or less out of nowhere, and they detected me much sooner than I saw them, which might have been due to the fact that they had been warned by the sounds of yelled curses and spells. They were searching for Death Eaters, whereas I had not expected to come across anyone. A horrible mistake. Had I noticed them sooner, I would have had the necessary time not to fall back on reflexes. Had I not been so careless as to let them surprise me, I could have eliminated them by simple stunning spells. But that is not how things went. I made a mistake. I was feeling safe, far away from where the fighting took place as I was. I did not pay enough attention. I did not take things seriously enough. And one of the Auror trainees had to pay with her life for that.'
For the first time since their conversation had begun, the spy let his glance leave Remus's face and wander over to the fire. Staring into the flames, the Slytherin went on, in barely more than a whisper.
'She must have been extremely nervous; it was probably her first true fight, the first time she was facing a Death Eater for real, or the only curse she had time to cast would not have missed me. I...I had only noticed them, about 20 yards away from me, when the flash of energy from her wand blasted the low branch of a tree right beside my head. And after that, it was only basic, raw reaction, nothing more. It was...I didn't think, I only acted on instinct, did what... what the training of a Death Eater told me to do. I had cast the Killing Spell in her direction before I even noticed I had reached for my wand.' Severus felt his throat contracting with the first, most unfamiliar heralds of a sob. Speaking had become very difficult, as had keeping in controlof his voice, which was not more than a breath by now. 'It hit her right shoulder, just beneath the collarbone...'
Severus was not aware of his left hand, which had come shakily up to the spot on his own chest where he had seen his curse drive into the young woman's body. He knew, though, that the moment when her face had been lit by green light, when the slight surprise in her eyes had been replaced by sudden understanding before life left them forever, that what he saw would never leave his consciousness again. That sight would be a horrible companion for the rest of his life. Just at the screams of the first person he had ever killed had become.
With his eyes still fixed on the bright flames in the fireplace, with his lips trembling almost as badly as his hands did, the spy forced himself to finish the story of one of the darkest nights he had ever experienced.
'It was only when I saw her body fall to the floor that the ability to think seemed to come back to me. Some part of me must have realised what I had done and somehow prevented me from doing it again. I kind of...woke up to what had happened, and now, much too late, I was suddenly able to consciously decide again about my actions. It was necessary to take a life before I was capable of enough rationality to stun the other three instead of killing them.'
The seconds of stillness seemed to stretch until the silence had reached an unbearable quality. With all the resolution he could possibly gather in the pathetic condition he was in, the Slytherin brought himself to lift his gaze from the flames which continued licking the wood with comfortable indifference and let his eyes fall on the form of the werewolf again, ready to add one more sentence that would finally make things clear once and for all.
'So yes, Remus. No matter how uncalled for you think Moody’s behaviour was - he was indeed right.'
Severus desperately wanted the werewolf to do *anything*. Anything but stand there, silently watching him with burning eyes, one tightly clasped fist pressed against his lips. No matter how much he craved a reaction from the Gryffindor, no matter what that reaction might be, something inside the spy told him that he had no right to expect an answer. There were things you did that deprived you of any right, any right at all, and killing though there had been other options most certainly was such a thing - and especially to a Gryffindor. Severus knew the attitude that got you into that particular House almost as well as he knew what it took to become a Slytherin, and there was no way Remus would be able to meet him with anything other than contempt now that he knew. No degree of impartiality could change that.
And still the werewolf didn't say a thing. Neither Remus's glance nor his body language gave the slightest fraction of the Gryffindor's thoughts and emotions away. He held the the Slytherin's gaze unwaveringly, and once more they spent several minutes of the precious time they still had together in complete silence.
Until the werewolf's slowly descending hand, revealing slightly parted lips, and the shaky sound of the other's voice made Severus's heart jump.
'I know what it feels like.‘
The Slytherin did not know what exactly he had expected the werewolf to say, but it surely had not been that. There was no time to ponder on that for too long, though, because Remus had already started speaking again.
‚I used to go through that once a month, so believe me, Severus, I know. I know so well.' With every syllable he spoke, Remus's words grew clearer, rang out more strongly. 'Before the Wolfsbane Potion, there was nothing but instinct during a full moon's night. No control. No rationality. Had I not been extremely lucky, I, too, would have had to struggle with the responsibility of having killed several persons by now. I most likely would have killed you in the Shrieking Shack. I would have killed Harry, Hermione and you that summer night two years ago. I was just incredibly fortunate that both times someone saw to it that the wolf inside me did not have his way. Severus, I know it cannot put anything right again, it may not can even comfort you, but as horrible as your deed was, it was not your fault.'
The Syltherin's mercilessly analytical mind made him completely miss the actual message of what the werewolf had just said. Unable to ignore his brain, which was complaining loudly and clearly that Remus's statement lacked logic, the spy simply shook his head.
'I'm no werewolf. I'm not subject to an unbreakable curse as you are...' With a bitter snort, the spy became aware of the irony that lay in what he had just said. 'Well, at least I'm not doomed to lose my mental being along with my physical one. I don't think you can compare the forces you face during a full moon with my unforgivable mistake and lack of mental soundness last night...'
Severus was interrupted by the Gryffindor's voice, which was accompanied by a wild shaking of the werewolf's head.
'I can, Severus! I am slave to the animal's instinct once a month, you are to your intensive training as a Death Eater - and all the time! The wolf listens to its nature during a full moon, your subconscious listens to the conditioning it received long ago. It doesn't matter whether our instincts are inherent or whether they've been trained. We simply act on them when we're exposed to the appropriate triggers.'
Feeling how the Gryffindor tried to put even more urgency into his glance, hearing how that attempt was mirrored by a growing intensity in the werewolf's words, Severus still struggled against the shyly growing awareness inside him that Remus might be right. Yet, the overwhelming sense of guilt that had seized him, that had taken root ever since the young witch's dead body fell, shaking him from his strange mindlessness, was not ready to let go of him. Still made him refuse any possiblity other than blaming only himself for what had happened.
'Even if that were so, which I seriously doubt, it should never have come that far in the first place. Had I not resorted to such arrogant ignorance, had I done my job as I should have, had I paid more attention all this would not have happened at all. By all the banshee's screams, Remus, I'm a spy! When I'm out there with the Dark Lord's lot, I should definitely be aware of my actions affecting our side as least as much as they affect his! Being careless as I have been, I let down all those who might cross our way. As I demonstrated most impressively last night.'
The bitter taste of failure, guilt and self-contempt was welling up inside the spy again, washing away the small spark of light Remus's words had been able to momentarily kindle in the Slytherin who had been thoroughly flooded with darkness by the latest events. His fury at himself in the face of the disaster his behaviour had caused began to boil once more, making Severus clench his trembling hands into tight fists with fingernails digging deeply into his palms, and fueling the wild rush of blood that pounded in his ears and pulsated behind his now closed eyelids...
Remus's soft tone was caressing its way through the violent onslaught of emotions that were raging inside the Slytherin, ignoring the rejection it met, surmounting resistance that tried to block it in its gentleness. With infallible purposefulness it finally reached the part of Severus's mind that would not be able to resist and persuaded the spy to open his eyes again, to meet the Gryffindor's glance at last.
'None of us will ever be flawless. We all fail, and regarding what you have gone through these past months we all should think very highly of you that you got as far as you did without breaking under the pressure you had and still have to endure. You *had* to slip one day, Severus, as we all do. The difference in your case is that due to the nature of your being a spy the effects of your failing are much more far-reaching. But there's something else that should make you judge yourself less harshly than you do.'
The Slytherin gave way to the dry laugh that had been pressing against his tightly closed lips.
'I truly wonder what that might be!'
The profound sadness that crept into the Gryffindor’s eyes tore at the spy‘s heart, and for some seconds Severus was afraid that the corrosiveness of his tone might keep the werewolf from going on, but Remus was already going on.
'It is war, Severus. We all are most active agents of it, and thus everything we do is a decision about which we can't possibly know all the consequences. There are lives at stake, every single second, and since we all fail, we risk endangering lives with every choice we make. The same absolutely innocent mistakes we make in peacetime can cause a horrible disaster if we make them in times of war.'
His brain perceived every single word. The spy surely understood their meaning by now, realised what it was the werewolf wanted to tell him. It made sense on an abstract, impersonal level, too, and had Severus been capable of rationally facing what had happened last night, he would probably have agreed with the Gryffindor on most of what Remus had pointed out. But he had been there. He had spoken the accursed words. It had been his wand that had sent the lethal flash. The young witch had fallen lifelessly to the ground before his eyes, and it had been him who had felt once more what killing meant. Who was still feeling it. And nothing the werewolf told him about drastic circumstances causing drastic effects would ever be able to change that. No matter how Remus tried to look at it, he, Severus Snape, had taken the life of an innocent human being, and he had done so because of an inexcusable carelessness. That was the terrible truth, and he knew it.
And it was time to let the Gryffindor know as well.
'Stop troubling yourself with looking for excuses for something unforgivable. There's no point in...'
The calm firmness of Remus's voice that cut into the spy's sentence strangely resembled Albus's tones, reminding the Slytherin of the innumerable occasions when the Headmaster had silenced him with nothing but the characteristic sound of his gentle words which nonetheless made it clear that contradiction was not an option.
'I'm not searching for excuses, Severus, nor do I think that it's up to me to grant you forgiveness. I know I will not be able to ease your sense of guilt in any way, and I'm also aware that there are no excuses for violently ending a life. But there are explanations, explanations that reveal the difference between a Death Eater - or an Auror, for that matter - deliberately killing an opponent on the one hand and your ending up doing so because of a confluence of most tragic circumstances on the other. I know that to you, this will not change a thing concerning what you did. To me, and to a lot of other people, it changes everything.'
The sudden, irresistible understanding that was finally aroused by the Gryffindor's firm words took the spy completely by surprise. He was not prepared for the breath-taking emotional response that surged up inside of him upon his comprehension, not only because reactions like that were not usually part of his design. The absolutely unbelievable reason for the bright wave of warmth he felt craving to flood his body made his mind accuse his ears of having lied to him, so that he hesitated to believe in the glorious awareness singing through his entire being.
But when Severus dared to search the Gryffindor's eyes for affirmation, when he finally, truly saw the same reason shimmering in thier depths, somehow knowing it had been there all the time, he felt how Remus had managed to break down another barrier, laying open another part of his, Severus's, withdrawn soul. As he had done so many times before.
'You do not detest me.'
It was not a question, but a still slightly unbelieving observation, and the Slytherin listened to his own words lingering between the two of them, concentrated on how voicing them had tasted, marvelled at their perfect sound and the incredible bliss with which their meaning was soothing his mind.
Not enough to make him miss the werewolf shaking his head, though.
'No.' The low sound of Remus's whisper wrapped itself around Severus as the other's arms were unable to. 'No. How could I ever?'
The clock was relentlessly ticking their time away.
Sitting quite comfortably on the floor now, the door to the spy’s quarters at his back, Remus could hear how the seconds and minutes of the last hour they still had together were dissolving into nothing. It was a few minutes past four, and the werewolf, knowing that the spy had to leave very soon now, felt the first hints of a profound sadness rise inside. After Severus's confession about what had happened during the Death Eater attack he had been part of, when they had finally finished struggling through their discussion afterwards, the Slytherin had directed their talk to other issues, and Remus who knew what it must have taken Severus to address last night's events and go through all the emotional strain that came after had not had the heart to stop the spy in his attempt to stay away from even more awkward topics. Consequently avoiding more private matters, Severus had started a discussion about the defense of the Shrieking Shack that Albus had organised, they had also talked about options to protect the students during the upcoming attack, and then they drifted off into pros and cons concerning the probable evacuation of the castle.
But for a few moments now, silence had fallen between them once more, and Remus had been fighting a battle of his own for just that long. He could tell by what he received from the Slytherin who had got lost in staring into the flames of the fire once more that the other man had calmed down from the emotional turmoil that still had been raging inside him half an hour ago. Torn between not wanting to disturb the peace Severus had reached on the one hand and the desparation he felt at the thought of not being able to tell the spy what he longed to before they would part on the other, Remus hesitated to begin speaking again. But with every moment he waited, he knew the chance of Severus asking him to leave so he could prepare to return to Voldemort increased, so in the end he gave in to the urgency with which some thoughts and feelings were begging to be voiced.
'There's a question I have to ask, Severus.'
The dark head lifted, and dark eyes turned towards him. The spy didn't say anything, but in his glance Remus read the silent agreement he had needed to go on.
'Do you have any idea where you're going to be ordered tonight?'
The Slytherin shook his head. Still not saying a word.
'So it's possible you'll be participating in an attack on Hogwarts?'
A short nod this time, while the werewolf tried to ignore the dragging pain that passed through his insides. It had been a rather rhetorical question, and he knew it. They were both aware that Voldemort would most likely obtain a more than perverted joy from making Severus fight against those he had been working with for years as well as from exposing him to the risk of at least hurting some of his fomer students. It was more than probable that the Slytherin would be assigned to join a raid on the school right from the beginning, but the spy's curt affirmation of that fear deepened Remus's dread of that possibility. Not able to keep his body from reacting to the anxiety running through him, the werewolf leaned slightly forward, fixing the man by the fire with an unblinking stare. An extremely weird, twisted feeling seized him as he forced words through his completely dry mouth.
'Is there any way we will be able to tell you from any other Death Eater?'
Remus would have given anything to be able to close his eyes to the bitter smile that had begun playing around the Slytherin's lips, but that would have meant cutting his only way of maintaining a connection to the spy. So the Gryffindor forced himself to deal with the cruel grin on Severus's face, which was mirrored in the other's voice as well.
It took the Gryffindor a little while to fight down the fury Severus‘s deliberate ignorance of his, Remus's, genuine fear that the spy was so openly displaying gave rise to. Only his knowledge of the unbearable situation the Slytherin was in helped the werewolf to do so, as well as his own experience, which kept reminding him that sometimes sarcasm was the only way to deal with facts that would make most people break. When he spoke again, though, it was with a calmness he still didn't feel at all.
'I felt certain that we had reached a level where it was not necessary to laugh in the face of each other's concern anymore.'
Every trace of irony was wiped from the Slytherin's face immediately and replaced by an earnestness that Remus had already seen on the other's face this afternoon. Confronted with an almost thoughtful glance from the spy, still fighting down the remnants of his irritablity due to Severus's reaction, the werewolf waited for the Slytherin's reply.
'I had not intended to violate your feelings, Remus. Rather it was your question that gave me the impression that you had not yet completely comprehended what this is all about. Did you truly expect that it would somehow be possible to make myself discernible as a fake Death Eater? What kind of spy would I be if there was any way to *tell* that I was one?'
Remus felt a hot flush rush up his face. Afterwards, he understood how stupid and thoughtless his question must have sounded to the ears of someone who had lived under several disguises for decades now. But no matter how naive he might have appeared to be, there had been a reason for his query, and he knew he would not be able to simply drop the point just like that. Not now that they were finally getting where he had wanted to go ever since he had first set foot into Severus's quarters this afternoon.
'Can you imagine what I feel like knowing that in a few hours, members of the Order will probably meet you somewhere out there, completely unaware that it is you they're facing? Do you have the slightest idea what the mere thought of I myself fighting a Death Eater and finding out later this Death Eater was you does to me? Do you want to know? It's driving me out of my mind, Severus!'
The calm, completely sober way the Slytherin was watching him was almost frightening. Remus could see in those eyes, could tell from the spy's body language that Severus was taking him totally serious now, that the other man had thought this dilemma through for himself long ago and had come to terms with it as well. And the finality that was in the Slytherin’s voice when he spoke again tore the werewolf's heart apart.
'Scruples like that won't help, and you know it. This risk is part of what I do, and both sides have agreed on taking it long ago. You definitely must not let yourself get distracted by thoughts like that! If we don't want to go down in this war, each and every one of us needs to be completely focused. If we want to defeat the Dark Lord, we can't afford one single person who's not with the cause wholeheartedly. Not to mention that you put yourself in danger as well if you think twice before fighting *each* Death Eater you come across. Consequently...'
Under normal circumstances, Remus would have reacted with nothing but fury to that cold demand of simply being able to switch his emotions off lest he become a burden to the Order, would have countered the Slytherin’s short speech with some acid comment of his own, concerning the values and principles he believed inand the fact that knowingly risking the sacrifice of lives was definitely not among them, even though he knew, of course, that in theory, Severus was right. But they were not facing normal circumstances, and the werewolf had already found out that his reactions to the Slytherin were not predictable anyway, not even to himself. So he simply accepted the amazingly warm calm which that gripped him, the fact that suddenly, everything seemed to be so very easy, that all his theoretical knowledge would not change a thing that he felt. It never would. Not in this particular case. Because this was not about abstract beliefs. This was about his very own, most concrete emotions.
'I'm afraid I will have to live with being a potential danger to our cause as well as to myself then. Because by no means will I be able to simply tolerate the possibility that I might be hurting you at anytime - or doing even worse.'
There was a great deal of urgency in the Slytherin's eyes now, and his words dripped with vividness.
'Remus, you're depriving Albus of one of the most skilled Defenders against the Dark Arts in the entire Order. Remember how valuable you are, that you're responsible for Potter getting through all that's ahead of us alive, for his being able to fulfill the prophecy in the end. I really feel...honored by your concern for me, but I think that right now, there should be other priorities.'
The werewolf felt as if he was glowing from the inside with the certainty that this was the moment he had been waiting for. And he should be cursed if he failed to seize it with both hands!
'I'm very aware of my priorities, Severus. To me, there's nothing and no one more important than you are, and I will not knowingly take the risk of your dying at my own hands. So I guess you’d better come up with a solution to this problem, or else I'm afraid I will not be able to reconcile my feelings for you with my duties to the Order.'
After the first short moment of the spy's genuine shock had ebbed away, Remus could sense how emotions were literally overwhelming the other man. In a wild cascade of feelings, Severus's aura pulsed fiercely and changed every single second. The werewolf almost felt ashamed to witness those most private sensations, even more so since he knew that Severus was not one to willingly share his emotions. They *had* come extremely close to each other, especially during the past weeks, still the Gryffindor had not known that it was possible to shake the spy the way his confessing his feelings for him just had. Severus had closed his eyes, rather was pressing them shut right now, and his ever so slightly parted lips were trembling violently, a tremor that gradually spread to take hold of the spy's entire lower jaw. Remus could see how the muscles of the other man's throat were tensing and relaxing frequently in several desperate attempts to swallow, and all the time the variety of feelings welling up inside the Slytherin took the werewolf's breath away in their intensity. The sudden feeling of intruding upon one of the other's most intimate moments made Remus mentally retreat, struggling to keep his wolfish perceptions to himself, which turned out to be more difficult than he had ever experienced. His own emotions were anything but calm after having just revealed what he truly felt for the Slytherin, and with all of his instinct the animal part of him longed to know about Severus's reaction, wanted to find out whether his feelings were returned, wanted to desperately turn again to the flood of emotions it received from the spy...
'Are you familiar with Krabat's tale?'
Severus's voice, a little tremulous, but ringing out loudly and clearly, pulled Remus's out of his struggle with himself. Refocusing on the man at the other end of the room, not sure where Severus wanted to go with his comment, the werewolf slowly shook his head.
'No. No, I'm afraid I've never heard of it.'
He silenced the wildly protesting animal inside, forcing it to be patient for once. It was not difficult to tell that Severus had started this with a reason behind his question, and Remus decided that he would simply trust the Slytherin not to let him down now of all moments. Severus *would* give him a reaction to his confession, or all he had just received from the Slytherin had not been more than one big, painful lie.
Severus had cast his eyes to the floor, but Remus could still see how the muscles of the other man's lower jaw were furiously working. When the Slytherin finally began to speak again, his whispered words were barely audible.
'It's a very old folktale, from a time when magic was still widespread and Death was still walking the earth in a human form. There is one aspect of this story I would like to tell you about. I will have to leave out a lot of it, but what you need to know is that Krabat, a young boy of fourteen years, is one day accepted as the thirteenth apprentice in an old mill. He has to spend three years there, and he finds out very soon that the miller is a master of the Dark Arts and in league with Death himself, and that all the young men working in the mill are the miller’s students.'
Unable to say why, Remus felt gripped by the story from the very first word. He leaned forward a little, putting his arms on his knees, rested his chin on the backs of his hands and waited for the Slytherin to go on. When he heard the first of the Slytherin’s next words, the Gryffindor felt his eyes drifting shut, and all his concentration narrowed onto the story that he was being told.
'As it turns out, Krabat's master once made a terrible agreement with Death: Each New Year’s Day, he has to sacrifice one of his apprentices, or else Death will take the miller himself instead. Krabat's best friend has to die that way, and when the boy finds out about the true reason for it, he wants to leave the mill forever - only to realise that this is impossible. Once a boy has agreed to work for the dark master, he will not be able to leave the mill again, unless he dies, is set free by the miller - or is redeemed by his beloved.'
At the last word, Severus had lifted his head again and Remus felt how the Slytherin's eyes were searching for his own. The intensity of their meeting gazes made the Gryffindor's heart skip a beat, and when the spy continued to tell Krabat's Tale, his glance never left that of the werewolf again.
'Krabat learns that the one he loves will be able to set him free from his master forever, but there is a task to be fullfilled first. If his beloved can name him as the one he or she loves and so tell him from the other twelve apprentices, Krabat will be free. If his loved one fails, both of them will have to die. When Krabat actually falls in love with a girl from the village near the mill in the third year of his apprenticeship, the two of them decide they will take the risk, and to be sure that she will be able to recognise him, despite all the dark arts the miller will try to confuse her with, she gives Krabat a ring of her hair by which they think she will always be able to tell him from the other twelve apprentices.
'But when the day comes and the girl confronts the miller with the demand to let Krabat go, for once the dark master does not use transfiguration to disguise the apprentices and thus make impossible for her to recignise the one she loves. Instead, he orders all the young men to stand in a row, blindfolds the girl and tells her to tell Krabat from the thirteen persons in front of her.
'The girl walks the row three times before she finally stops in front of one of the apprentices. Without the slightest hesitation, she lifts her finger and successfully names Krabat as the one she loves, thus freeing him from the power of the miller forever.'
His eyes glued to the those of the Slytherin and his mouth completely dry, Remus only noticed that he had held his breath when he had to give in to the sudden urge to inhale. Licking his lips in a totally unconscious gesture, the werewolf was still totally absorbed by the story, knowing that the tale had not yet come to an end.
'When the two of them have left the mill, free to go anywhere they want to, Krabat asks the girl for the first time how she was able to recognise him with blindfolded eyes, unable to see the ring of hair on his finger. And she answers that due to his strong, true love for her, the fear for her life when he had been standing there in the row, sure that she would not be able to name him and thus would have to die, had been so powerful that it reached out for her, touched her, so she could feel it and thus knew immediately which of the thirteen men was Krabat.‘
Remus could see and sense the tears in Severus's eyes, though not one of them ever made it down the Slytherin's cheeks. Swallowing hard one more time, the spy visually reached over to the werewolf and desperately tried to communicate something one simple touch would have told immediately. But Remus, by now close to tears himself, understood, his shaky smile colored with so many things letting the other man know, and he was rewarded with the one last sentence that he had been waiting for.
'So you would be able to recognise me under any mask, Remus. Each passing battle of this war increases my fear for your life, and since I know you will feel it, I also have not the slightest doubt that you will know me at once should we ever meet on a battlefield.'
The very rare, very small but all the more honest smile he saw shyly grow on the Slytherin's face was all it took to make Remus's tears finally flow. Speaking had become absolutely impossible with his throat so tight with all the feelings he wanted to voice, with his mind paralysed by this emotional onslaught, so all the werewolf was able to do was give Severus a reassuring, affirming nod, continuing to smile himself as well as extensively cursing Voldemort and the ritual that kept him and Severus from sealing their verbal confessions with suitable actions, and had there not been...
It was not only the deadly serious, slightly alarmed tone in the spy's voice that immediately shook the werewolf back to reality. As soon as Severus had spoken the first syllable of his name, Remus had known that something was wrong. The infallible instinct of the animal.
'I have to go.'
One quick glance at the clock on the wall was all Remus needed. With iron determination that would have done a Syltherin credit, he pushed away everything that he felt. Everything, except for his awareness that Severus had to arrive in time at St. Mungo's. For his own sake, for the Order's sake, for the sake of the cause. There was no room for sentimentality right now; he knew that later, he would have a lot of time to grieve for the time they had not had, for all they had not been able to tell each other, time to be at odds with fate which had treated them so very unfairly. Later. When he was alone again. After Severus left. Probably never to return this time...
Fiercly forcing himself to stop thinking any further than this point, Remus pushed himself up from the floor. The sadness he saw in the Slytherin's eyes battled with the readiness to do his duty that was there as well, and the werewolf knew that his presence only made it unnecessarily harder for the spy. With one last effort, not sure whether he would be able to summon that amount of will-power again, Remus quickly turned, now facing the door. He had already reached for the handle, already felt the cool metal beneath his fingers, when something made him turn around one more time.
Severus hadn't moved, was still standing by the book shelf, but his eyes had returned to the fire, and Remus could detect the first hints of hardness on his face again, could see how the Death Eater had once more begun to take hold of the man he loved. The Gryffindor did not know whether he would still be able to get through the first layers of self-protection Severus was re-erecting around himself, but he had to try.
'Please take care of yourself.'
The dark eyes flickered back to him. A little nod announced that his request had registered. And the spy's voice, so much harder than when it had just told Krabat's Tale, answered him.
'As far as he lets me.'
And then, after only a split second: 'Thank you.'
When he pressed down the door handle this time, the werewolf did not turn again, but instead literally fled from the dungeons. Afraid that he would not be able to let the Slytherin go should he stay one second longer.
'Krabat's Tale' is borrowed from the most fantastic and
amazing book 'The Satanic Mill' by Ottfried Preußler.
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