Professor Slughorn scrambled up the stairs and fumbled for the castle's front door. He was sniffing loudly as he entered the empty front hall, the boy's words still ringing in his ears. He was an old man now, it had been a very cruel thing to do – to torture him with such horrid details... Poor Lily Evans, she and her pretty eyes and witty tongue... to die in such a way... and certainly the boy would hate him now...
Everything was swaying unpleasantly and it was really very hard to focus eyes in the darkness – the little lantern he was holding didn't cast a strong enough light. It took Slughorn longer than usual to make his way towards his chambers, because he kept bumping into cabinets and corners which he could've sworn hadn't been there on his way to Hagrid's hut. As Slughorn made his way up the staircase between the third and fourth floors, he suddenly realised he was falling - a stair had given way under his legs, making him cry out in surprise and pain. He had forgotten that the seventh step was a trick step! Thigh-deep in the stairway, he struggled to pull himself up; but alas, he was unable to. The lantern had fallen from his grasp and the flame had gone out, leaving him surrounded by permeating darkness. He tried in vain to reach his wand, but it was inside the pocket that was currently inside the staircase, and he couldn't manage to reach it. He cursed loudly.
After another moment of useless struggling, Slughorn sniffed again and gave up. He could feel that one of the little flasks inside his robes had broken, and the Acromantula venom was absorbing through his clothes and making his skin itch unpleasantly. Perhaps he should stay here all night covered in the stuff, and be found covered in blisters in the morning – he could imagine the ridiculing whispers of the students. Or perhaps one of his shocked colleagues would bump into him and he'd turn into a joke at the staffroom, he thought melodramatically. Just as well – perhaps he deserved it, for having been so very, very foolish... to have fallen for the polite charade... to have fallen for the flatteries of a madman...
"Horace?" He suddenly heard a soft voice from behind himself. He struggled to turn his head in an angle where he could see. The face of Severus Snape appeared in front of him: the younger man was standing at the bottom of the stairs, eyeing him blankly. He had appeared soundlessly, wasn't carrying a light and it appeared as though he had simply condensed himself into existence out of the very shadows surrounding him.
"S -Severus?" Slughorn slurred, feeling rather foolish under the unblinking gaze of the black eyes. The situation was made worse by the unwelcome tears which had begun to well up behind his own. Severus didn't ask him what he was doing out so late, or why he was loitering inside a staircase in the middle of the night. Instead he quietly glided to Slughorn's side and offered him his hand; with his help, Slughorn managed to pull himself out of the staircase, which promptly closed up and re-assumed the appearance of a regular, innocent stair. Slughorn wiped his brow, staggered for a while (Severus grabbed him by the shoulder to steady him) and then tried very hard to hide his puffy eyes and wet pocket from the penetrating gaze of the other man.
"Thank you, thank you, my dear boy..." Slughorn said as he straightened himself, and then felt even more foolish. Severus Snape was no longer that gangly, boyish teenager he had once been, and addressing him as 'dear boy' seemed to be in violation of something very profound in the black-clad, severe looking man. Had he always been this... dark? Had he always had that bitter line between his eyes?
To his horror, Slughorn realised he had pondered this out loud.
Severus Snape raised his eyebrows and examined him rather coldly. "I believe you have had a drink too many, Horace. Perhaps a dose of Hangover Vanish and sleep would be in order?"
Slughorn sniffed. "My dear boy... eh... Severus... I deserve the hangover... I've been such a fool... but you wouldn't understand..." he said and wiped his nose, feeling tears rise to his eyes once more.
"However you like. Would you like me to escort you back to your chambers?"
Suddenly Slughorn grabbed Severus by the front of his robes, and looked into the unnerving blackness of his eyes through a haze of his own tears, shaking him.
"But you knew her, Severus, you did, didn't you?"
"Knew who?" Severus asked in an irritated tone of voice, prying Slughorn's fingers off him. The man didn't let go.
"Lily... Lily Evans... Lily Potter - Harry Potter's mother - you always sat next to her, you exchanged those little notes behind my back, I saw it... little Lily Evans, with red hair...you knew her, you knew what a wonderful girl, a wonderful witch she was, didn't you?"
Severus froze, his fingers still around Slughorn's wrists, and Slughorn stared at him pleadingly. Oh, to be able to tell Severus, to tell anyone what a wreck of a human being he had been...
"I did," Severus said quietly, his lips hardly moving. He said it as though he had just confessed to a grave sin.
Oh, to confess! Slughorn craved to confess, to confess and then be freed of the burden of a guilty conscience; he wished for an absolution of the sort that only someone who understood what had once been and what had been forever lost due to his misguided foolishness could give him.
"I didn't mean to... I never imagined... Tom was always such a pleasant boy, a polite boy," Slughorn pleaded for Severus's understanding. "Never in trouble! Perfect marks... so when he asked... I should've seen... such dark magic and - then she... she... perhaps she wouldn't have died if I hadn't told him..."
A lump in his throat made it hard to speak, and he swallowed. Severus's hands had fallen to his sides, and he didn't try to pry Slughorn off his robes any longer.
"I always liked little Lily Evans...” Slughorn pleaded. “So vivacious, charming, compassionate... perhaps my favourite student out of them all... Severus, I can't stand it – I never meant... giving Tom information like that, I fear I did worse harm than any Death Eater... and I never wanted anything to do with that lot – ouch!"
Severus had abruptly grabbed Slughorn's arm into a harsh grasp, and his eyes, which before had looked so unreadable were now alight with a dark flame. Slughorn took a step back, suddenly frightened by the man.
"What did you tell him?" Severus hissed. "Tell me everything!"
"I – no... I shouldn't... not to you – you... weren't you a Death Eater once, too?"
Severus's grasp tightened around his arm; it was quite painful now. His eyes were gleaming in the darkness, his face so full of emotion Slughorn couldn't understand that he looked frightening, mad...
"Tell me!" Severus ordered, and the image of Tom Riddle's handsome young face surfaced in Slughorn's mind...
Can you tell me about Horcruxes?
"What are you - ", Slughorn started weakly.
"Horcruxes?" Severus whispered, his eyes blacker than ever, like two endless tunnels where Slughorn was falling. He was helpless, his own words from decades ago ringing in his ears...
"But I didn't mean to!" Slughorn repeated in a shaking voice, trying to push the shameful memory away. "His charm was just so hard to resist! If I could go back– if only I could bring her back to life -"
"She's gone," Severus said flatly, and Slughorn thought he looked oddly vulnerable as he said it, not at all like his usual self. "Dead. Forever gone. Because of foolishness, because of desire for glory and power...
"I had no desire for either glory or p -", Slughorn started.
"Why did she have to pay for the mistakes of so many?" Severus cut him off abruptly, his face distorting with some repressed emotion as he stared at the wall behind Slughorn. "Why did she have to go, when so many others would have deserved to go in her stead?"
The tears came again, and Slughorn choked back a sob. Severus didn't understand, couldn't understand...
"Harry told me today...” he croaked. “H-he told me how it happened... I asked him to stop, I am an old man, I did not wish to hear... but he told me how his father died first... told Lily to escape, to take Harry and go... a-and Harry told me... he told me that You-Know-Who told Lily to step aside, that she died begging You-Know-Who to spare Harry's life, offered to die for him... and... and then he murdered her... laughing..."
Severus let go of Slughorn's arm and turned his back on him. Staring at the back of his head, Slughorn rubbed his hurting arm. He swallowed his tears and hiccuped, thinking of the clever girl who had always made him laugh... who had been annihilated in such a cruel way...
"I think she would forgive you," Severus said very quietly, talking to the wall. Slughorn blinked. "I think... if... if she knew how deeply you regret... if she knew that you regret it more than anything... that you only wished for her to live and be happy at any cost to yourself, wanted it more than anything else..."
Slughorn hiccuped again. He had a bizarre feeling that Severus had slightly misunderstood the strength of his devotion and familiarity towards the dead woman. But the ray of hope he was granted was a relief and he eagerly consoled himself with Severus's words.
"Yes, she would, wouldn't she?" Slughorn agreed gratefully, clinging on to the absolution Severus had offered him. After all, Severus had known her, had once been her friend. If he thought she would forgive him, certainly he would be right. "She was such a kind person... if she knew I would never do it again... if she knew that I regret it now... she wouldn't judge, would she? She wouldn't think too badly of me, would she?"
"No... I... I believe she would understand... and forgive," Severus muttered.
The two men were quiet for a long while after that. Severus stood with his back on Slughorn, and the older man could only guess at what he was thinking. He really was quite a cryptic person, Slughorn thought. But as Slughorn thought of what he had said, he felt a little better about everything that had transpired. After all, Lily Evans had been the sort of person who had valued reformation, had always wanted people to improve, and was ready to believe the best out of everyone as long as they took responsibility for their actions...
"I should escort you to your chambers now," Severus said. He turned back towards Slughorn and his face was blank again. Slughorn squinted at him, trying to guess what the man was thinking, what he thought of him, but his face was unreadable and closed off. Together they started walking upstairs towards Slughorn's chambers. Slughorn was just about to ask Severus what he himself had been doing up so late, wandering about the upper floor corridors, when he suddenly felt Severus's wand touch his shoulder. Slughorn opened his mouth to ask him what he was d -
"Obliviate," a voice whispered. Things became blurry, fuzzy, the hallway was swaying harder than ever, and it felt like all burden was lifted from his shoulders... how sweet it was to forget...
When Slughorn came back to himself he wondered why he was standing outside his chambers in pitch black darkness. And why was his head hurting? And why did his leg feel damp and burning, like it had been dipped into something mildly corrosive?
Slughorn could've sworn he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a shadow move across the moon-lit corridor – but as he turned around to look, he saw only an empty corridor shrouded in darkness.
His heart felt lighter than it had in a long while.