Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
#9: Present Company Accepted
[In which various problems are pin-pointed.]
"I have tried," Severus said, leaning heavily onto the heels of his hands where they rested on the living-room windowsill, and staring out at the small garden. "I have tried to feel again that... communion, whatever you want to call it, that I felt in the caves, when I called on the soul within the ground and felt it come to me. But I can catch only a sniff of it - I wondered if it was because - Well, I've always been more comfortable indoors, preferably underground, ever since...."
He turned his face away from her with a bitter grimace, and she touched his elbow. "What?"
"Don't give me that. If you don't want to talk about it that's fine, but don't pretend there isn't anything there to talk about. I'm not daft - I can see when you're troubled."
He bowed his head, resolutely not looking at her. His eyes were still sunken into weary hollows, even weeks after Azkaban, and she thought that he was still not sleeping properly. "When I was at school, I mean as a pupil, staying in our - that is, in Slytherin's - dungeons was safe, comparatively speaking. Going above ground, or worse still going outside into the open grounds, meant being hexed from all sides, if the Gryffindor mob were feeling lively." Lynsey noticed that the thin trace of grey at his temples, which had been present in prison, had now mysteriously disappeared. "Even - even Lucius was better than that."
"I wish I'd been there," Lynsey muttered, half to herself. "I'd've given the little bastards something to feel lively about." He gave her a twisted little grin at that.
"I wish you had been. Anyway... to be honest, when I'm at Hogwarts I don't even like leaving the curtains open, if the window faces onto the grounds. What?" he added in his turn, as Lynsey gave a ladylike little snort.
"Well, it's just - it goes with the hair and the robes, doesn't it? It's very Goth."
"You mentioned that before. I thought Goths were some kind of late Roman-period Germanic tribe? Surely they wore - well, braids, and helmets, and so on."
"You're quite right, but the Goths I'm thinking of are a modern fashion-movement - usually in their teens and twenties, but you do get older ones as well. They get the name I suppose from Victorian 'Gothic' literature - you know, sort of overheated romantic horror-stories - and they wear black a lot, often velvet with a red or purple trim, and have white skin and long black hair - usually make-up and hair-dye, but you've got a head-start in that department - and hang around in darkened rooms talking about sad poetry. They're quite sweet, usually, if a bit posy. Oh and they're nearly always interested in magic, although usually just as Wiccan wannabees - only a few of them are really serious or know any real stuff."
"You mean like that - odd bloke on the boat? The bird-call one?"
"Yeah - that's it exactly."
"Huh. I can assure you I am not trying to be - fashionable. Quite the reverse, if anything. And I'm anything but sweet."
"Prince Charles said something to the effect that he always wears the same style clothes, and then if he waits he comes into fashion once every thirty years or so. And I think you're quite sweet, Prof - in a sour sort of a way."
"Sweet and sour sauce?"
"Sauce-y, certainly. You seemed all right in the garden the other day...?"
"Running through the tunnels with you was one thing, it was - weirdly enjoyable, in a heart-stoppingly terrifying sort of a way. I just wish - "
"Wish that Draco had agreed to come with us," he muttered. "I worry about him, Lynsey - I worry about him all the bloody time, stranded there with that - creature and that - simperingly sadistic tosser of a father of his, and I know there's not a damned thing I can do about it but believe me, that doesn't help."
"I believe you. Good summation of Lucius, by the way."
"I'd like to sum the bastard up by cutting him into very small pieces and then counting them, trust me. But anyway, being hung up in that little cave to be - and then being shut into a cell with no windows, thinking that I'd never - Now I think that as well as the original mild agoraphobia I'm now sodding-well claustrophobic as well. Which is just delightful," he said lightly, "because basically it means I now feel jumpy everywhere except for - apparently - extensive Stone Age tunnel-systems and large, well-ventilated rooms with the blinds drawn, but at least as far as my public behaviour goes they pretty-much cancel each other out."
Lynsey snorted at that, and Severus answered her with a shrugging, self-deprecating tilt of the head. "Anyway - sitting out in the garden with you is quite pleasant, I admit, but there's still that constant underlying feeling that somebody might jump me, and maybe when I'm above the earth instead of under it I just don't feel relaxed enough to be able to open my mind to it."
"It's not that," Lynsey replied with a small shiver, and moved to stand close against him. "Don't think it's that. There's been something wrong with the land energy everywhere, ever since last autumn."
"It seemed strong enough when we were in the caves."
"It was, and thank the gods for it, or I couldn't have done - what I did do." The idea that she might have had to leave him there, that she might not have been able to summon up enough power to break him free of the Unnameable One's torture, still made her queasy and cold, and she placed her hand over his, reassuring herself with his warm aliveness. He twitched irritably but did not draw away; and irritability, after all, was one of the signs by which biologists identified life. "But the caves have been in use so long, they're a major node, almost like a stone circle. Those - foci like that, they're still active, more or less; but the land in general...."
He turned and frowned at her, nearly not wincing, and she knew that his feet were paining him again. "Why is this?"
"Nobody knows, but I know it's not an isolated or local phenomenon; there have been reports in from America and Australia, all the same. But it's not... I don't think it is that the power's not there, you understand; it's more like there's some sort of interference preventing one from accessing it."
He turned around completely, then, until he was half sitting on the windowsill, taking most of the weight off his feet without admitting the need to do so, and linked his hands together under his chin, touching the tips of his long white forefingers to his mouth. "The timing is suggestive," he muttered, pursing his narrow lips. "Can you tell me more accurately...."
"A few days after Diana's funeral."
"The Muggle royal who was killed in a car crash? That would make it the second week in September, then, wouldn't it...?"
"About then, yes. Before then, there had been occasional power outages - afterwards, only occasional innages. Why, do you know something?"
"'Know' would be over-stating the case. Suspect, rather. Unfortunately the - He - I was already distrusted, on Bellatrix's bloody say-so, and so I was not privy to all that was going on, but I believe that - He - attempted some sort of land-raising ritual of His own, on the basis of what He had gleaned from books. It was only because He failed that He decided to capture and interrogate genuine practitioners."
"You think he may have created some sort of astral disturbance?"
"Given His personality and - and what I felt for myself, I think it unlikely that He would succeed in raising the land-power; I do not believe that the Land would accept Him. Yet He is immensely powerful, and the Dementors are breeding.... Who knows what such poison might do, introduced into the clean veins of the chalk?"
"Look, I know it's peculiar that the button you click to shut down is called Start but it just is, OK?"
"I thought you said this was an exercise in logic, not a - an arbitrary muddle of other people's left-over whims."
"It is logical, sort of, just - locally logical. Every bit of the system was logical to somebody but when you bolt them all together they can get a bit - odd, and then you're stuck with it because it's too much effort to try to re-write it. Unless you want to find yourself metaphorically re-inventing the wheel, there are some things with Windows you just have to accept, OK?"
"I'm sure if I put my mind to it I could come up with a spell to redesign - "
"I'm sure you could too, and don't you bloody dare. You've already seen what trying to use magic too close to a computer does to the drives - why do you think I confined you to the laptop? And even if you succeeded in altering it without wiping it, it probably wouldn't work with anything else, any more - and you know using too much magic might attract attention."
He pressed his hands to his forehead in frustration, pushing his long hair back impatiently. "This is no bloody good - I'm too old a dog to learn new tricks."
"Nonsense - you're just tired, pet. Sit down, do: I'll make dinner tonight."
"At least when I cook I feel I'm doing something useful, but I suppose really I'm just - intruding in your space."
"Hush - you've done quite enough today. I can't imagine how tiring it must be, teaching magical combat to a gaggle of untried teenagers when you're - well, still far from fit yourself. And I've told you, I enjoy your company; you don't need to pay for your presence with anything except your presence."
"If you're nurturing romantic fancies about me O'Connor you'll have a long time to wait," he muttered, folding down onto one of the dining chairs and looking away from her again. "Not that you're not - "
"Not that I'm not what?"
"Not that you're not - tolerably attractive, and even if you - if you weren't, I'm in no bloody position to be picky, am I?"
"Gods, the romance. Pasta, curry or chops?"
"Anyway," she said, frowning at him over the chopping board as she diced the garlic, "unless you tell me otherwise I do not believe that you're gay, and you seemed pleased enough on Sunday with the idea that I might be interested in you - not to mention flirting outrageously when we were in the caves."
"I did no such thing" he snapped, turning towards her sharply and glowering as if he felt himself attacked.
"All right - I retract 'outrageously', but you were definitely flirting."
"Flirting is one thing, but - " He looked away again, tilting his head so that his hair hung down in curtains and shielded him from her eyes.
"Don't ask. Please."
"All right Prof, I won't." She saw with concern that he was shivering, although the night was not unduly cold.
He nodded jerkily, then made an obviously conscious effort to look at her again, forcing a self-deprecating smile. "Besides, when we were in the caves it was all - different, somehow."
"Live every day as if it was your last, because it's probably going to be, normal restrictions need not apply - yeah. It was, to use a horrible buzz-word, a paradigm shift."
"Yes. Almost as if I was - well, somebody else."
"Would you want to be somebody else, Prof?" she asked casually, reaching for an onion, and saw him flinch to his bones. "I'm sorry - "
He shook his head, biting his lip. "I hadn't had time, then, to - to think much about what had happened to me. I was just - just relieved that it had stopped happening. But - Azkaban - "
"Too much time to brood?"
He nodded tightly. "Far too much."
"Be a love and grate the parmesan. You did tell somebody, didn't you - about what you did to the guards?"
"Oh yes," he replied with a sort of generic low-level sneer, as he rummaged through the drawer looking for the grater; "I was very responsible."
"And - you're not going to get into trouble for it?"
"Scared they'll cart me off to Azkaban again?" he said mockingly.
"Considering the trouble we went to to get you out of there...."
"I wouldn't worry too much about it. Minerva has the Minister by the balls, in a very real sense."
"How are you finding it, anyway, teaching that lot to fight?" Lynsey asked, as they shared a post-prandial glass of wine. "Are they as bad as you feared?"
"To be honest, no - even Longbottom can remember which end of the wand to hold it by, three times out of five. And much as I hate to admit it, Potter is reasonably good. Even so - the idea that the nearly-sole hope for the survival of British wizardry, and my bloody survival, depends on that - chippy, cocksure, sloppy...."
"Does it? Depend on Harry, I mean?"
"So the prophecy says." He knocked the remainder of the glass back in one, set it back on the table and curled himself into the yielding curve of the old sofa. His hands were shaking slightly. "Ask me what prophecy."
"What prophecy, Prof?"
"The bloody prophecy which I overheard - part of, anyway - and gave to Him, when I was - when I was one of them. The prophecy that killed Lily - she was my friend, my friend since we were children, and I fucking killed her. James, too, and he was a shit, but he didn't deserve that. The prophecy the second half of which was so damned secret Dumbledore didn't even tell Minerva or me about it until he knew he was probably going to die, that he might not be there much longer to run things, and then He - He ripped it out of my brain, along with everything else I knew, everything Dumbledore had told me - so I betrayed everybody a second fucking time and I don't know which was worse, the betrayal I committed because I was venal and deluded or the one I committed because I was too fucking weak to keep my mouth and my mind closed."
"Pet, you couldn't expect - "
"What? That I might be - something more than the stupid, snivelling weakling bastard Pettigrew and his filthy friends always said I was?" He sighed and leant his head back against the sofa, looking at her seriously. "I know they say - they say that everybody breaks, in the end, but I'm not convinced."
"Um - I have to say that as far as I know you're right," Lynsey replied, troubled but honest. "There are some people who don't break." He would know if she lied, in any case. "But, love, the people who don't break - they're very rare, and they're either very specifically trained in ways your people haven't even heard of, or they're, um, nuts."
"Is it madness, then, to be strong and not weak?" he said bitterly.
"You're not weak, you loony - you're anything but. But, see - as I understand it, when someone is, is tortured" - she hated to say the word, it burned in her mouth - "it's fear as much as pain, the fearful anticipation of more pain, which - "
"Yes. Until there's nothing left but pain and, and, and this sickening, absolute terror - until there's nothing left of your mind, of your self, except that overwhelming dread."
"Yes. Well, there are some people who just can't do terror, but they have to be a bit nuts to be that way, because fear of pain is a basic vertebrate defence-mechanism. There was this guy, this Polish Jewish doctor called Garri Urban, who wrote this book called Tovarisch, I am Not Dead which - well, which caused a certain amount of mixed feeling in the Jewish community at the time, as I recall, because books about Jews fleeing from the Nazis etc. etc. are supposed to be about terrible suffering nobly borne etc. etc., and this one should have been subtitled 'How I fought and fornicated my way across the wartime Soviet Union, fortified only by liberal draughts of surgical spirit.'" Severus gave a little snort at that, which she considered to be a Good Sign.
"Anyway, Urban was interrogated by the NKVD - the forerunners of the KGB? - never mind, by Russian security services, and they tried to torture him - but it didn't really work out that way, because he kept hitting them. They tried to sit him on a chair so they could loom over him and he hit them over the head with it. They tied him and left him on a block of ice for hours but when they came for him he still managed to stagger up and dump a bucket of pish over them. He still got beaten up, you understand - but psychologically he was just the loser in a brawl, not a, a helpless victim."
"I'm afraid that the - opportunities for fighting back are strictly limited when your opponents have all got bloody wands and you haven't."
"I know that pet, and I'm not suggesting.... The point is that Urban was so aggressive, so - manic as a ferret on amphetamines, basically - that he just saw the situation as a golden opportunity to hit somebody, so he didn't get scared - he hadn't got room to be scared, because he was too busy spoiling for a fight. And he was cast-iron arrogant - he really loved himself - so he was just - insulted, but not humiliated. And when people insulted him, he thumped them - with a complete disregard for the odds against him which was, even by my standards, slightly nuts. And even Urban gave in in the end and signed their false confession that they wanted him to sign, rather than go on being beaten."
"How - disappointing. After all that."
"Oh - he was using a whole different script from the NKVD, so they couldn't tell what it was he was writing, and had to take his signature on trust. He didn't sign it with his name - he signed it with an obscene doodle. What was in this prophecy - after all that? If you're allowed to tell me."
"There's no point not telling you, is there, now that He - It's not as if it's any fucking secret any more, is it?" He drew a deep, ragged breath. "The first part... as I came to the door I heard Sybill's voice speaking to Dumbledore - only it wasn't her voice, it was - deep, hissing, like something from under the ground, like the original Pythoness. She said - 'The one with power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches' and that this person was 'born at the end of the seventh month' - presumably July - to parents who had defied Him three times. That was when Aberforth caught me ear-wigging and threw me out by my ear. I didn't know - God, I swear I didn't know it was a baby that was being referred to, the latter part, the part I didn't hear said 'will be born,' future-bloody-tense, but I didn't hear that, I didn't know it was someone not even born yet, I swear - "
"I believe you, pet."
"Then you're just about the only bloody person that does. The odd thing was, the way it turned out two boys were born at the end of that July - the rest of the prophecy apparently identified the vanquisher as male - and it could have fitted either Longbottom or Potter equally well, and I don't know which I find the more disturbing as a potential saviour. The prophecy said that one of them would have to kill the other - that is, the - Riddle and the vanquisher, presumably - because 'neither can live while the other survives'. Which is damned odd when you think about it, because they both are alive. Potter may be the bane of my life but I've never actually suspected him of being an Undead - and it does seem as if it is Potter, not Longbottom, because the rest of the prophecy said the - He - would mark the boy as His equal, and He marked Potter, with that scar of his. Oh and that the vanquisher would have power He knew not, which Dumbledore believed to be the power of love, which - well, certainly He cannot feel or understand love, so it could be that, I suppose. Dumbledore said only great love would make someone strong enough to withstand the temptations of the sheer power which Riddle could offer them, which, well...."
"Which tells you rather more about Dumbledore than it does about the prophecy."
"And does it have to be just one? It couldn't be both of them?"
"It said 'the one' - but then it also said 'neither can live while the other survives', which is clearly not literally true, so I suppose...."
"And it said that the vanquisher 'approaches' - just as you approached the door?"
"Yes, she... shit." He gave her a wall-eyed look. "Don't even suggest it!"
"Well, at least you weren't born at the end of July."
"No, but I was born two months short. Shit."
She thought that one of the cats must have awoken her, or the wind in the trees outside, but her heart was hammering and her breath stumbling with distress. Both cats were on the bed and the trees, when she peered through the darkened glass at them, were barely stirring. It was when the thin wail came again that Lynsey realized, with a sinking sense of the inevitable, that it was not the wind that was weeping.
She padded barefoot across the boards to the door of the spare bedroom and then hesitated, wondering how and whether to proceed. Would he regard any intervention by her as comforting, or as an unwelcome intrusion? There was no further sound from his room. If the fit was past, now, it would be better not to embarrass him by admitting that she had heard.... As she turned away she heard him cry out again, sharply, and she turned back and opened the door without thinking about it, and was at his bedside in two strides.
The professor was sitting up in bed, huddled against the wall. He stared at her wildly, his eyes open but focussed somewhere far beyond her, his hands trembling and twisting neurotically together. As she advanced towards him he cringed away from the movement and she sat down quietly at the foot of the bed, so as not to loom over him. "Severus," she said rather diffidently, "come on pet, wake up now."
The blind-looking gaze drifted across her face without apparent recognition, and he whimpered again and moved his hands restlessly as if trying to push something away. "Please," he whispered as his eyes gradually came into focus, "get him off me - oh God, please, get him away from me - "
"I won't let him near you, I promise. Who, pet?"
"Lucius - his hands were everywhere, all over me, oh God oh God I can't get away from him he was all over me, in my mouth, up my - "
"When you were at school?" Lynsey asked quietly.
"Then, too. Three bloody months ago." He had started to shudder violently, but at least he seemed to be properly awake now. "He made the most of his opportunities. Himself or - watching other people do it. At the Christmas revel he - " He wrapped his arms round his updrawn knees and began to rock back and forth on the mattress, repeating "Oh God oh God - "
Lynsey touched his elbow, very gently, but he shied away from her like a skittish horse and she clucked her tongue at him - exactly as if he was a horse. "This is just me, thou loon. You just - you don't have to be alone with it, that's all. If you'd prefer company." He didn't look at her - consciously looked away, in fact - but he snaked out one long arm and grabbed her by the forearm, holding on like a drowning man until his fingertips sank into the muscle with bruising force. "I did whatever he told me" he said faintly. "Anything, if only he would stop - hurting me."
She clasped her other hand over his and they sat in silence for a while, him shivering and staring blindly at some awful inner vision, and Lynsey simply waiting, patting his hand occasionally. After about ten minutes she said "Whisky?" and he nodded once, sharply. She disengaged herself from his desperate grip and went and poured him a generous measure of spirits, which he drank in one gulp and then held the glass out peremptorily for more.
After three doubles, knocked back one after the other in silent desperation, he uncurled enough to raise his head and look at her. She met his unfathomable eyes and smiled tentatively, and he stared wildly at her for a moment and then groaned and keeled over onto his side on the bed, still rolled up in a ball with his arms wrapped round his knees.
Lynsey fussed the blankets up around him to keep him warm and then sat down decorously on the floor beside the bed, half facing away from him, and murmured "You haven't made a fool of yourself, you know. You're allowed to feel bad about it. It was a very bad thing. But don't feel shamed by it, because you are not the one who has done anything to be ashamed of, here."
"Have I not?" his soft voice said bitterly at her shoulder.
"Is this about what you did as a Death Eater - again?"
"Don't mock me!"
"I'm sorry - I didn't mean to sound dismissive. I can never take the idea of you as a villain very seriously, but I can see it must be - miserable, horrible, to know that you did such things."
"I committed rape."
"Of your own desire?"
"No! Oh, Merlin, no. Only to keep my cover, and only if I couldn't get out of it - and I got it over with as fast and as painlessly as I could. Even so - I can hardly complain if the same thing happens to me, can I?"
She half turned to look him in the eye, lying curled up on his side on the bed behind her as he was. "First off, the fact that you feel so bad about having had to hurt people is proof that you're not a villain. Secondly, it's not about 'complaining', is it? It's not like you're planning to send your life back to the manufacturer with a sharp note. You had an absolutely ghastly experience which went on for far too long, and you're allowed to freak out about it."
"It sounds so - manageable, when you put it like that."
"You will manage. I have faith in you, Prof. As for me - if we ever do get it together I promise I won't make any alarming sudden movements, trust me. I used to ride a lot when I was younger, and if you make any alarming sudden movements around horses, they treads on yer feet." She brushed her fingers lightly across his and he took her hand and held it. Some time after that, she heard his breathing settle into the quiet rhythms of sleep.
It's really true about the disruption of the land-soul energy, although in reality it presumably wasn't caused by Voldemort. The front-running theories are interference due to mobile 'phone masts, fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field or sunspot activity.
"Sybil" was the job-title of the oracular priestess at the Ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi; she was also known as the Pythoness. Her oracles were associated with steam rising from fissures leading deep into the earth.
To be "born short" does not necessarily mean that a baby was born prematurely (although it might have been) - it means it was born noticeably less than nine months after its parents' wedding.
I cannot, sadly, lay claim to the suggestion that Snape might himself be the one who "approaches" - somebody else suggested that on the Severus Snape's Slytherin Society discussion group.
But the observation that the bit of the prophecy which Snape heard did not state, or even strongly imply, that "the one" was a child is I think wholly original. It was only when I was writing this chapter, and reading through the exact words of the prophecy to work out which bits Snape was likely to remember verbatim and which bits he would paraphrase, that I realized that all he knew was that "the one" was probably a Leo. There was nothing, in what he heard, to indicate that "approaches" meant "hasn't been born yet but soon will be," and no reason why he should interpret it that way. As far as he knew, it referred to an adult Leo who was physically getting closer.
That raises the question of why Voldemort interpreted it as he did - but he would have a much better idea than Snape of how many pairs of parents or prospective parents there were who had defied him three times, and he would also know, through Peter, that Dumbledore thought the prophecy referred to a child, because he would know that families with children born that July were being given special protection. And for all we know he may have killed a few adult candidates, as well, and have fully intended to work his way round to the Longbottoms once the Potters were dealt with.
In the light of the new backstory revealed in Deathly Hallows, this chapter has been slightly edited to place more emphasis on Lily's death as a result of Snape relaying the prophecy.
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