Chapter 17: Save Your Breath
Severus woke to a sea of blurry objects, lazily swimming around him. His head felt like it was being squeezed in a vice and he tried to focus on one of the moving dots to find out where he was, but a bout of sudden vertigo forced him to shut his eyes. A lump pulsed on the side of his head, he had a terrible ache on his left side and his limbs prickled.
Someone shoved something peppery under his nose and he jerked away from it, resisting the urge to gag.
Severus forced his eyes open again and stared at nothing. As things slowly came into focus... the chairs, the paintings, the posh window treatments... he recognized the familiar surroundings.
His body was propped, semi-upright in a large cushioned chair. Lucius prodded him with the drink, shoving it under Severus’ nose again, and he got irritated enough to grapple at it and down its contents without question. Sodding Malfoy. He needed a single unbothered moment to figure out what had happened, but even without Lucius’ intense gaze, he found it difficult to concentrate on anything other than the pain. As the hot liquid burned its way down his throat, his discomfort lessened and the pounding in his head receded... whatever the concoction was, it wasn’t strong enough to stop the blurred vision or the churning in his stomach. He waved the empty glass aimlessly in the air until it was taken from him.
He searched through his memory for a clue. What had he been doing? Something about the potion… the big meeting… Dorcas…
A chill went through him as the images flooded back to him. She’d held the shield… he’d gone after Rookwood… her body floating in the air above the wand blasts…. He had no idea how long ago that was and what had happened after… he had a vague recollection of falling.
He tried to blink away the confusion. Lucius’ voice calmly filtered through the haze. “You need to rest.”
“What happened?” His throat burned, but he didn’t care. He needed to know where she was.
“Lucius, please. I have to... is she... ?” He couldn’t say it.
The silence told him everything.
“No,” he started to stand up, needing to go to her. “Where is she?” He didn’t even make a step before his legs gave out and Lucius helped him off the floor.
“Don’t try to get up.”
Severus didn’t have the energy to stand, let alone fight through Lucius and the entire Manor staff. He shut his eyes. “Where is she?” he whispered. "I should have been there."
He felt Lucius’ hand on his shoulder, his body too incapable of even shrugging it away. “You were there. I’d like to think that I stopped you from doing something you’d regret later.”
A wailing sound drifted down the hall towards them and Severus’ eyes shot open in alarm.
Lucius let out a long, tired sigh. “My son.” He was about to say something else, but stopped at a breath.
Severus tried to get up again, but his legs wouldn’t obey him. He sat helplessly as Lucius straightened up, all formality back. “Narcissa is having a room prepared for you. I hope that you will accept our hospitality in your time of need.”
Severus stared blankly ahead as a rush of nausea overcame him. Whatever Lucius had given to him was already wearing off. His vision blurred again and he barely registered that he was being spoken to.
“I have things to attend to.” Lucius paused in the doorway as Severus looked on, unmoving. “We will talk later, when you have rested.”
Severus lay on the bed, still unable to move. He managed to blink his eyes open after a while, and gazed as far as he could without trying to move his head. There was a tall chair in the corner of the guest room. He had a sudden vision of Dorcas lounging about in it and felt sick.
Someone set a bowl on the side table and chattered at him in a high-pitched voice, but he wasn’t paying attention. All the concentration he had was focused towards the mark on his wrist. He’d always been able to feel it, but now there was nothing. Maybe the numbness was interfering with the charm.
He smelled broth of some kind. There was a blanket over him now. Finally, after a few agonizing minutes of whoever it was trying to get him to eat, they left him alone again.
He dozed off for who knew how long. When he woke again, he lolled his head to the side and stared out the window. The pain was less, and he tried again to focus on the location charm, but again, nothing. Maybe she was trying to remain hidden somewhere. He forced himself to get up and throw on the clothes that someone had left neatly cleaned and folded on the side table. By the time he was dressed, his legs had started to give out and he stumbled over to the chair for support. Clothed and upright, he felt slightly more in control of his situation and reviewed the properties of the charm in his head. If it still wasn’t working, then that meant… He raised his arm up and finally looked at it. The mark was gone. All he could manage was to slump further into the chair and clutch his head miserably, his eyes stinging and the blood pounding in his ears. She was gone. His world had gone with her.
By the time the door opened again, his body was stiff from his awkward position in the chair. He couldn’t bring himself to move. He didn’t even bother looking up.
“Did they give you something for the pain?”
Lucius feet shifted uncomfortably in the silence. “Dinner is prepared. Would you like someone to bring it up to you?”
Not hungry. Not anything.
Severus dropped his hands from his face and stared at them. They hadn’t changed. Hadn’t turned into big gangly claws. Hadn’t shrunken to miniscule proportions and fallen off. They were just hands.
“Sulking doesn’t become you, my friend. You need to eat something.”
Severus said nothing.
“I’ll leave you to rest. We’ll try again in the morning.” Lucius closed the door to the guest suite and left him alone.
The dreams were horrible: flashes of light and heat, someone shouting at him or around him, someone falling... running towards the danger and being torn away at the last moment... Severus woke, shooting upright in bed, and cried out as his body protested against the sudden movement. He was sweating in spite of the cool temperature in Malfoy’s guest suite.
The comfort of the bed, the quiet surroundings, all of it should have soothed him, but all he could think about was how he shouldn’t be here. He didn’t deserve this after what had happened. He hadn’t been able to save her. He hadn’t been able to save any of them.
He forced himself out of the warm bed and stripped out of the nightshirt. Lucius must have given him something while he’d slept, or he’d been charmed, or whatever these people did for mock complacency, because after a minute of standing still, he couldn’t feel a thing. He was empty.
He stumbled over to the free-standing mirror and examined the scars on his body. Old scars from his prior torments. He could name every significant event in his life by the scars they had left. For his own faults, he reasoned. But his wrist was clean, unmarred, and he hated that. There should be something there as a reminder, a punishment for his crimes against her. He closed his eyes and breathed. He could almost feel her soft fingers on him, tracing the lines, soothing him and whispering to him that he was fine.
He snapped his eyes open and stared critically at the mirror. The ugly red lines stared back at him. There was nothing fine about it. He turned slightly, and found the bandage at his side from his latest failure. He tore it away and looked at the handiwork that had put him back together. If the curse had caught him more in the center... a little deeper... he wouldn’t be standing here in shame.
He got out his wand and prodded at the pink flesh that was daring to heal and winced as it gave. He whispered a clumsy healing spell, not sure why he was bothering with it. It was all still too new, too fresh to take in. He kicked off the pants too and found more angry lines on his thigh, on his back.
How could anyone look at that and see him for anything but the monster that he was? Torn and twisted, scarred and alone.
Some time later Lucius found him sitting up on the bed, partially covered by the sheet and staring at his hands again. He sat down in the chair across from Severus and considered him silently. The new injury where Severus had taken that dreadful hit was exposed. It throbbed slightly with Severus’ pulse, a reminder of how close he’d come to losing his life.
Out of all of the recruits he’d been put in charge of, Severus had stood apart from the beginning. The rest of the lot had been either fearful or eager, or a little of both, flailing through their trials. Severus had shown remarkable determination and commitment to his duties, where the others had not. Lucius had to admire him for that. They seemed to share a similar distaste for the senseless violence, but still remained faithfully in the Dark Lord’s service. Lucius had his reasons. He assumed that Severus had his own.
He was like a brother to Lucius. A slightly estranged, reluctant brother, but family just the same.
“Your injury is healing well.”
“I don’t feel well.”
“What hurts the most?”
“Everything.” Severus finally looked at Lucius, hollow and lost. “She’s gone.”
Lucius nodded. “My sources have confirmed that Dorcas Meadowes’ body was registered at St. Mungo’s morgue immediately after the... incident.” His face twitched. “I understand that it is a very painful affliction, this... care that you had for her. Please, take your time.” But not too much.
“We were able to mend you temporarily, but I have asked for a Healer to come and assist with your recovery.”
Severus clenched his hands together, swallowing a noiseless sob, and Lucius took that as his cue to leave the room. Some things were better dealt with alone.
“Everything is dealt with. You have nothing to worry about.”
The sitting room was stifling; the air around Severus barely moved, with Karkaroff on his left and Lucius on his right. The task master and the handler wore somber faces. If he was to be turned over for punishment, it was about time. He was sick of waiting around.
“We discovered the persons responsible for the leak in our security. It won’t happen again.”
Severus looked up sharply. Seeing the sudden movement, Lucius gave him a warning look and continued.
“The Potions Master Netterheim was an Order spy, closely linked to Dumbledore. He and the girl conspired against us. She is dead. And he has been taken care of.
Karkaroff nodded. “Very well. The casualties were heavy. But my next plan is already in motion. The Dark Lord wants results, and I will give them to him.” He leaned towards Severus. “Take care of yourself, Snape. We still need you.” And then he rose and left the room.
Severus’ mind was still foggy with sedative from the Healer. It had been three days, maybe five… he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he had been delivered to a new level of hell where nothing made any sense to him. Lucius hadn’t briefed him before the impromptu meeting with Karkaroff. He’d barely followed the conversation to begin with, using most of his energy to keep himself upright in the chair and not vomit.
Netterheim was no more part of the Order than Dorcas had been a Death Eater. It was all lies and deception. He looked over at Lucius, opening his mouth to demand an explanation, but the bastard was already talking.
“Your mentor, Theodorus Netterheim provided your associate, Dorcas Meadowes with an antidote to your potion and gave the Order the location of the warehouse.”
Severus’ head wouldn’t stop spinning from all the lies.
“I sent Avery to deal with him.”
“But...” He was barely getting by with the reality that Dorcas was gone. Now Netterheim? “Why are you doing this?” he asked weakly. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
“The Malfoys always look after family, Severus. One mistake shouldn’t be the end of you. You deserve a second chance.” Lucius checked the hallway and made a point of closing the door to the sitting room. “We have neatly explained away the entire mess. I expect that you will not throw away this opportunity to set things right and my efforts on you will not be wasted.” He cleared his throat. “And we will never speak of this again.”
Severus met Lucius’ gaze from across the room, unblinking. Damn the man. Why couldn’t he have let him die? He didn’t care how Lucius had spun it. It was wrong.
Back inside the Potions Shop, Netterheim stepped out of the shadows and brushed himself off. He couldn’t help the age-old habit of examining his wares and strutted through the room, making sure everything was in its place. The storerooms were largely empty, but the shelves out front looked like the shop was still in business as usual. Severus had done a good job in his absence.
The Guild hadn’t heard from Severus in days. Odd, since they’d monitored the relatively mundane event and assumed from the lack of widespread hysteria that the former apprentice had been successful in thwarting Karkaroff’s mission.
Severus’ things were still packed upstairs, which could mean many things. Hopefully that girl… what was her name? Not the one down the street who had been so dreadfully obnoxious. The other one, the clever one with the nice curves… Perhaps she was taking care of him.
Netterheim took stock of the orderly shop, this time with his wand… he flicked it at the shelves under the counter and then pulled out the leather-bound notebook that Severus had left there. Excellent. He tucked it into his breast pocket and made a note to get it to where it belonged. Out of the hands of crazed madmen.
He checked his timepiece. The appointed time was drawing near and Diagon Alley was too quiet.
Netterheim inked a quill and hastily drew out a message. Then he Summoned an owl. The message should get to its destination in record time, he mused. Then they could get to work in earnest.
As he fixed the scroll to the owl’s leg, the front bell went off. “Is that you, Severus?” He set the bird free out the window.
“’Fraid not,” came a different voice. Netterheim appraised a tall gangly form with messy hair. He knew this bloke. This was the one he’d heard the complaints about. Even Karkaroff had griped about him in passing.
Avery approached the counter. “Your time is up, old man.”
Netterheim silently swore at Karkaroff and his associates for sending such a hooligan. Did a Potions Master not even rate the courtesy of sending someone who took the time to comb his hair and make himself presentable?
Or perhaps the Death Eaters were attempting to dispose of this bothersome youngster. He’d gladly oblige them, if that was the case. He fingered his wand in anticipation.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in a mock-jovial tone, hoping to delay the inevitable mess.
“I think you know what I’m here for. And it’s not for mamby pamby potions,” Avery drawled, wiping his sleeve across his forehead where sweat and grime had congealed.
Netterheim scoffed at the attitude. “In my day, someone of your rank would be more respectful of his duties and the one to whom his duties are aimed.”
Avery raised his wand. “I’m not here for a lecture.”
He measured his opponent with his eyes, making Avery squirm under his gaze. Lanky git, Severus had referred to him over the years. Yes, Netterheim nodded, that was about it. This one deserved many, many tireless lectures, but he wasn’t in the habit of wasting his time. “At least give me the decency to tidy up.”
“Won’t be much left here when I’m finished with you.” Avery’s chest puffed out. A small bit of singed fabric broke off his sleeve and drifted to the floor.
“We shall see,” Netterheim stooped over and stowed a satchel under the counter, then reached into his pocket and carefully placed a small smooth river rock on the shelf next to it. He whispered a few words and the stone pulsed once.
A soft breeze stirred to his left and he smiled at the coalescing group of shadows in the corner. They were supposed to greet their newest member, take him to the gathering in Prague and give him his final instructions, but that would have to wait. Apparently they were going to give a different lesson today.
“There,” he said, coming around the counter. “About this duty of yours…” The edges of the room were growing darker with swirling forms and Avery took a few nervous steps back as Netterheim matched his opponent’s dueling stance.
“Let us see how good you really are.”
A shiver went through Severus as he stepped into Diagon Alley, but it wasn’t from cold. The air was hot and humid, another blistering June afternoon, and the streets were deserted. He hadn’t wanted to come back here. He couldn’t stay at Malfoy Manor forever, though. And Lucius had prodded him to at least go and have a look.
The front of the shop was untouched, except for the blackened windows. A dark smear ran all the way down the wall along the side alley. Across the way, he grimaced at a “for rent” sign in front of Sybill’s place. In her own small way, she’d failed too.
He pushed the front door, and it swung open on teetering hinges. Piles of charred refuse stood where the shelves of ingredients used to be, and he was surprised that the floor hadn’t collapsed into the basement by now. Severus cast stability charms on the burnt out support beams and entered the remains of the shop.
Netterheim’s lab was empty. The Potions Master must have cleaned it out before… all this. He turned back down the hall, finding nothing left to salvage and then he saw the faintest glow under the counter. He bent down and picked up a smooth glowing stone that stopped glowing at his touch. The area under the counter was the only thing not blackened by soot. He found the satchel and a jar of spider’s legs. Inside the satchel was all the research material that Netterheim had promised him. He threw the satchel over his shoulder, and after a moment’s thought, he took the jar of spider’s legs too.
He was drawn to the hallway and before he knew it, he’d passed through the paneling and up the stairs.
He wasn’t prepared to find everything just as he’d left it… as he and Dorcas had left it. The table and chairs, his satchel and Dorcas’ bag lay untouched on the bed, ready to be snatched away at a moment’s notice.
For a full minute, he couldn’t breathe. They’d done what they had to do, and then it had all gone to hell when he left her... he’d left her alone out there and he’d lost her. He’d gladly trade his own life for hers, but his damned luck kept him alive while everything else around him burned to the ground.
In recent dreams, he’d seen her come around a corner and tell him that the morgue had made a mistake, that Moody had saved her, or she’d cheated death some other way and they’d be off together within the hour, making new plans.
He was a fool for believing in a happy ending.
Then a loud banging cut through the stillness. He opened the window and let in a large bedraggled owl. When he undid the clasp at its foot, he saw the seal from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and groaned.
Dumbledore! He could go to hell too. Severus crumpled the parchment without breaking the seal.
He looked at the ball of parchment in his fist. He should burn it. He could simply walk away. Forget it all. He could still run and be free of everything.
No, he didn’t deserve a new life. There wasn’t going to be a future without her.
If Dorcas had been there, she’d have told him to read the letter. He saw no point in listening to a memory, but he tore it open anyway. What did the bastard want with him now?
He scanned the letter with unbelieving eyes. The old bat couldn’t be serious. Why would Severus even entertain going back to that infernal school? Even as a professor, what good would come of it?
Then a small dark owl flew straight through the open window, barreled into Severus and almost clawed his eyes out, attempting to find purchase on his face. Severus violently batted it off. He knew this animal far too well. Harbinger of doom… messenger of despair… caused nasty scars if you didn’t do its bidding. And it knew, because it was straight from the Dark Lord himself.
The owl spat out a small scrap of parchment into Severus’ hands and made irritating noises at him until Severus undid the ties and read it.
Two words. “Take it.”
The little beast didn’t wait for a reply. It flapped wildly around the small room, then swooped down to grab the Hogwarts scroll in its razor sharp claws. The ill-tempered creature chucked the scroll at Severus’ head and flew off.
Severus picked up the scroll and stared at it unbelievingly. They wanted to use him again. It was like walking from one nightmare into another. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But he wasn’t staying here, and he wasn’t going back to Malfoy’s.
He had his parents’ house. That was a whole different set of demons from his past to face, but he’d do it to get out of here. All he’d ever tried to do was the right thing and what had that gotten him? Maybe Lucius had been right about letting himself care too much. Maybe he’d gone about it all wrong.
Maybe you should clean up your mess before you go.
Severus’ head snapped around the room before he realized that Netterheim’s words were a forgotten flash from his past. He grabbed everything off the bed and tucked it under his cloak. It wouldn’t do to have the Potions Master haunting him too.
He stepped outside the shop, dark thoughts circling inside his head, not even bothering to close the door. Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him bloody die this time? He wrapped himself up in his cloak and aimed his wand at the Potions Shop.
And then the shopkeeper across the street stepped outside. The one from the Menagerie too, and a few others he recognized, all waiting, wands drawn but not raised. Ironic, that it had taken these people this long to finally organize a neighborhood watch.
Severus fired his wand at the shop and turned away. Behind him, a large “for sale” sign plastered itself across the blackened window and the door slammed shut. He never looked back.