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
#8: Burner Be Burned
[In which some very old tables are turned, or overturned.]
"Lucius - no! Ah, no, please - "
She gripped his shoulder and shook him gently. "Prof! - come on Prof, wake up!" His eyes were open and looking straight at her, but it clearly wasn't her he was seeing. As he cringed away from an invisible blow and whimpered again she shook him more firmly. "Severus! - snap out of it. Come on!"
His eyes came back into focus and he drew a long breath, looking as if he might be sick. "I was dreaming" he said hoarsely - as if she might not have noticed. "Dreaming about - an old friend" and his face twisted bitterly.
"Bloody Elric of bloody Melniboné."
"The posy, white-headed, oozing slime-ball with the bum-length hair."
"Seems to me, you have an unfortunate taste in friends."
He shuddered and shook his head. "I thought he was a friend, when I was a boy - but even then he was just taunting me."
"Such friends we could all do without, even apart from - "
"Yes. But I was three parts Muggle in a house of pure-bloods, and I thought that joining Lucius's group - joining the Death Eaters, the way things later developed - would protect me from the worst of the persecutions. And I had other persecutors, as a child. I needed an ally, desperately, and I had no experience and no sensible criteria to help me choose one: the white-headed boy of Slytherin seemed like - the circle of fire I could hide in to keep out the wolves. But he became a tormentor - not just currently but in general. A corruptor. A spy at my elbow, watching me for signs of weakness. The best he ever wanted for me was to use me, in one sense or another." He sighed and passed his hands over his face, wearily. "He was so much older than me, you know - I met him through a, a sort of informal club of able or well-connected students that one of our teachers, a man called Slughorn, had collected about him, and I should have known nothing but harm would come of it, because He, the - my former master - had belonged to the same group. Lucius did keep his side of the bargain and protect me, to a strictly limited extent, from the bullies: but in many ways his friendship was so much more terrible than their enmity. All my life, in all the battles I have fought, when it came to the point of confrontation it was always - just me. I always had to fight solo."
"And I quote: 'There seems to be a battle going on, and as far as I can make out I seem to be the only one on our side.'"
"Always. Having a - a comrade in arms is - novel."
"Good or bad?"
"Both. I wouldn't have believed how much less - lonely it feels, just having a companion in danger. On the other hand, if I were going to have a - a side-kick I could have wished for one who actually knew how to duel, rather than being an extra liability that I needed to protect."
She wondered briefly whether to take offence at that. "Fair comment I guess, Prof. But it's a laugh, though, isn't it? When I was a teenager, my mother gave me this birthday card which had these two soppy-looking cartoon dogs on the front, holding hands, with a caption that said 'It's you and me against the world' - and then when you opened it, inside it it said 'When do we attack?'"
But his mind was so full of knives it was hard to predict what might cut him, in this feverish, exhausted state. Perhaps even mentioning her parents was a bad move. When he slid back into a fitful doze and then began to twitch and jerk horribly in rhythm, so that she did not need clairvoyance to know that he was reliving a whipping, she assumed he was dreaming of some recent cruelty - and felt sick to her stomach when she realized instead that he was murmuring "Dads - please! I'll be good, I promise, I promise" over and over under his breath. She did not like to try to hold him without permission - he might even find it threatening - but she moved him gently so that he was lying with his head resting against her leg, and then sat patting his arm and murmuring back useless, empty, loving reassurances, and wondering unhappily how long it would take for sheer lack of proper sleep to kill him. She wasn't sure whether to try to wake him again or not: if she did wake him he would remember that he had been dreaming, and know what she had seen, and she had an idea that that would embarrass him far worse than any adult horrors.
After a few minutes he shuddered and lay still, and she could tell from his breathing that he was awake. Another moment, and he had brought up the wand-light and lay gazing up at her with a troubled, thoughtful expression. He frowned, and said quietly "How much of that did you...?"
"Um. Enough to understand what you meant about being used to being punished, I think."
He sighed and pulled a wry face, and then started to struggle wearily up to a sitting position. "I suppose we had better be moving again."
"Are you sure you're up to it? You haven't exactly had any sleep, to speak of...."
The professor simply shrugged. "The hell with it - I never let the old bastard stop me in life, so why should I now he's dead?"
"That's my brisk boyo."
"Don't patronize me, O'Connor."
"I wasn't! Much."
"Don't get me wrong about Horace Slughorn, incidentally. He's a terrible social climber but he would never have intended any harm to come to me through his little club, and I cultivated him as ruthlessly as he did me. I thought his connections might be a royal road to fame, and I wanted fame because I thought it would make me - safe."
"Huh. Obscurity is safe: fame just makes you a bigger target."
"Very possibly. But to do him justice, Horace Slughorn saw potential in me when no-one else could, and he and his little club provided me with something at least loosely resembling a social life. I was - not a popular child. I was - solitary, studious...."
"You mean you were a geek!"
"I was a scholar - I took my studies seriously."
"You were a geek - you were so! I'll bet you were the geekiest kid - " She stopped, seeing him flinch away from her in earnest, snarling and raising his hand so that for a frozen instant she thought that he was going to hit her. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to offend - "
"Don't mock me! Please. I lived through several lifetimes' worth of mockery at the time."
"I'm not mocking you, you twit - just teasing a bit."
"Is there a difference?"
"You know there is."
"I know no such thing." He turned his shoulder against her and refused to look at her, even when she touched his elbow tentatively.
"Don't sulk: it's not becoming."
"Not becoming what?"
"Oh - don't be more wilfully difficult than you can help."
He did look at her then, with a faint smirk quirking the corners of his long lips. "But being wilfully difficult is one of my few real pleasures in life," he said gravely.
"Seriously" he said, suddenly sounding it. "I am never going to be the popular one, I am never going to be the desired one - at least sharpening my wit on innocent bystanders represents some sort of social interaction. Dumbledore would be proud."
"Why will you never be the desired one?"
"Oh, use your eyes, O'Connor!"
"But a certain wild eccentricity of countenance is often more attractive than not - and you have lovely arms."
"Don't be ridiculous!" - but he looked embarrassed, and more pleased than not. He both shied away from praise and flourished visibly under it, like a parched plant placed in water, and she had to wonder what on earth his life had been like - what on earth kind of society he came from - that such an able man should be so starved of appreciation. She was coming to an uneasy suspicion that he had coped with the psychological effects of torture so well because he had gone into it already feeling himself to be debased, worthless and deserving of punishment. If he was a Catholic, even a lapsed one, he had probably imbibed the sense of his own sinfulness and unworthiness with his mother's milk. At least he had enough sense of himself to resent humiliation, to be burned by it: but if they were ever to get out of here she could see spending a lifetime instilling him with the proper pagan virtue of pride - that true, ironclad pride to which humiliation would be so much water off of the proverbial duck's back.
"Oh, pet - I'm sorry for teasing you, but I'm always amused by the people I like - or maybe I only like people I find amusing - but either way a little mild teasing is a sign of affection. A sign that I like you."
"Good God - do you? Why?"
"Eh? What kind of a question is that?"
"Oh, come off it O'Connor - you can't be that bloody blind. I may have a good brain, and I know it, but I am nobody's idea of a charming companion!"
She frowned at him, realizing that he was deadly serious. "Say that Prince Charming is a thundering bore - and I'd rather have Prince Valiant any day."
He looked away and down, hiding behind his hair again. "The joke's on me then - for I will never be more than half a Prince."
"My mother's maiden name - Prince. When I was a teenager I made a - a vainglorious joke out of it, and called myself the Half-Blood Prince. To myself. Stupid brat. I would never have dared tell it to anyone else!"
"I think it's quite a good joke, Prof - and more self-mocking than vain. After all, you were saying 'I may be only half a wizard by blood, but at least I'm half a Prince!'"
"I am not even half a wizard by blood, but I was half a Prince. I'm three-parts Muggle."
"Oh yes - you mentioned that. How come?"
"My mother's father was a pure-blood - as pure as they come. My mother's mother was a Spanish witch, and a very gifted one, but she was Muggle-born. My father - my father was just a Muggle, impure and exceedingly simple. But thanks to Dumbledore and his damned social experiment - those were his actual words, curse him, 'An interesting social experiment' - in sticking a dirt-poor, working-class, three-parts Muggle twenty-one-year-old in as head of a house which is eighty per cent made up of arrogant, wealthy pure-bloods, I've had to cultivate such a patrician manner that most people now imagine I'm a pure-blood myself. Draco Malfoy - Lucius's son - knows of course, but to his credit he's never given me away, nor attempted to make capital out of it."
"It sounds to me as if you might have, kind-of, missed the point of the experiment? Surely the object of the exercise was for you to be obviously not a pure-blood?"
"So I'm to be thrown to the serpents as a sacrifice to one of Dumbledore's bloody theories? I had quite enough to contend with, without that."
"So you cultivated that posh voice instead of the Derby twang the gods and nurture gave you...."
"And wore formal robes all the time and walked as if I'd swallowed a poker and never, never admitted to a weakness or gave anybody any quarter, because if you're a pure-blood like the bloody Malfoys the whole bloody world is just dust beneath your feet, and if I were them I would trample over gutter-trash like me."
"Kiddies, can you say 'over-compensation'?"
"Ah, don't - dignity was all that I had, and now I don't even have that any more."
"Hush, my dear. You have honour, courage - and anyway a friend of mine says that those who stand on their dignity generally end up tripping over it."
"That's quite clever."
"It is, isn't it? It's true, though - it sounds like you over-compensated so hard you shot right past the mark. Real aristocrats - at least in the Muggle world - don't swish about in posh robes acting all straight-laced and dignified: they wear old clothes covered in dog-drool and get into fights in pubs and do whatever they damn' well please, because they have an ironclad assurance that whatever they do must be the right thing to do, because it's them that's doing it."
"That sounds more like Dumbledore - or like Arthur Weasley who is the purest of the pure - much more so than the Malfoys in fact - and who dresses like a clerk and is nearly as flat broke as I am."
"Exactly. And to get back on-topic - what's not to like? You're a good laugh, you, in a spiky kind of a way - and the whole scholar-spy thing is so... Kit Marlowe, you know? You're a cool cat, and I like you fine."
"That would be - novel" said the professor, frowning.
"Truly. To the best of my knowledge, apart from the - the childhood friend that died, the only person that ever actively liked me in my life before was Albus Dumbledore and I - no. Don't ask about that - not here. Oh and Hagrid, of course - but that's scarcely flattering: I was just one more of his pet monsters. Roll up, pay your galleons and gawp at the geek."
"I shouldn't worry about it - in truth I'm sure I was geekier-than-thou by far. I used to carry this really old hermit crab around in my pocket just because I thought it was interesting."
"When you say 'old'" he said, in a tone of voice like somebody exploring a sore tooth, "do you mean 'had been alive for a long time'?"
"No - I mean 'had been dead for a long time'."
"Oh - that's.... I mean, even I think that that's weird, and I was a connoisseur of weird."
She wondered briefly about singing him the one about the Bogside-on-Riddleton Camcorder Group and the ultimate nerds' revenge - but decided against it, on the grounds that "Borg" would take even longer to explain than "Klingon." "But, like me, you must have had the - satisfaction of knowing you were far brighter than your detractors."
"Is it a satisfaction? I have often thought that too much intelligence is simply another sort of deformity: it cuts you off from - "
"From the bozos and bow-wows who make up most of all humanity?"
"Ow! Don't make me laugh, O'Connor: my ribs are too sore." He arched his eyebrows at her for a moment, then frowned and sighed deeply. "But, you know, even to Dumbledore, I was just a tool. A favourite tool, perhaps, like your Army Knife - a tool he would miss if it wasn't there. But a tool."
"Is that due to a lack of respect for you personally - or is that just how he saw everyone? Me, I always see myself as a tool. My main interest in myself lies in what I can use myself to do."
"I think there's probably some truth in that - that he saw me as a tool because he saw himself as a tool." He shook his head irritably. "I've never been able to get close to anybody since Lily anyway. I don't have the talent for it - and in any case if I ever did become - fond of anybody they would just be a hostage to fortune - a lever He could use to increase His control over me. I never wanted to put anybody in that position."
"That doesn't really arise now, though, does it?"
"Maybe not - but it would be a bit late to change the habit of a lifetime. But - thank you, all the same."
"For being the occasion of laughter," he muttered, sounding mortally embarrassed; "when two days ago I could not have imagined ever laughing again. When I had thought that there was nothing to hope for ever again, except loss of consciousness or blessed death."
They were down to only a few swallows of water left each, with which to lubricate parched throats. On the other hand, with the Sonorus charm in place singing was hardly more effort than whispering, and serenading the Death Eaters with all the most baleful songs either of them could come up with passed the time amusingly, at a time when amusement was in short supply. Not that they had much hope of freaking out the Death Eaters as badly as shaking the sheets had freaked out their master: they had no intense two-way mental link with the rest of them, such as the professor perforce had with the old serpent, and so far as he knew none of the Death Eaters was as violently phobic about the mere idea of death as the Unnameable One was. But sinister songs echoing at them from all directions, when they knew for a fact that the professor was somewhere out there waiting to deal salutary violence, should keep them nicely destabilized and, one hoped, very reluctant to come after him.
"What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
"She has no house to lay a guest in -
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.
"She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you -
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you...."
Speaking for herself, she was still fairly alert - not passing out yet, by any means - but she felt grey and ill, and her knees seemed to have been replaced by pads of fluid, unstable rubber. Gods alone knew how the professor felt, by this point - but however bad he felt, he kept on doggedly keeping on. She thought she was beginning to see how it worked - that pain and fear and grinding stress had been so much a routine part of his life, more or less from birth from the sound of it, that they had become mere background noise, and he strode past them in the blazing armour of his own personal Blitz spirit.
And she wasn't sure, was she, whether his patient acceptance of pain was to be pitied or admired - whether it was a sign of strength of character, or simply the scab over a deep wound.
"This ae night, this ae night
Every night and a'
Fire and fleet and candle lighte,
And Christ receive thy saule
"When thou from hence away art past
Every night and a'
To whinny moor thou com'st at last
And Christ receive thy saule
"If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon
Every night and a'
Sit thee down and put them on.
And Christ receive thy saule
"If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
Every night and a'
The whinnies shall prick thee tae the bare bane.
And Christ receive thy saule...."
"Expelliarmus!" - a flurry of noise and light and she saw the professor's wand fly out and sideways - dived after it without thought and rolled over to come up again and she was looking up, up at a robed figure which had one foot raised to kick her in the gut even as it brought its wand to bear on her - slammed the side of her forearm against the sole of that raised foot and saw the shadowy form fall backwards with a yell, windmilling its arms - the professor was grappling with the other one, holding its wand-hand out to the side and as she watched he hauled off and delivered a competent and convincing punch which knocked the shrouded figure back into the wall - more yells, there were running footsteps closing on them from behind and the professor snatched his wand from her fingers and aimed back over her shoulder and then they were both running - she caught a glimpse of someone behind them staggering literally blindly, eyelids sealed smoothly shut and fused into the skin of the cheeks, and another stumbling and flailing on feet whose toenails seemed to be sprouting like weeds as four people got comprehensively in each other's way, before the tunnels swallowed them whole and the whole confused tableaux was lost to view.
She had to admit, he had an impressive vocabulary for swearing in - but if she had just punched somebody using a hand which had two half-healed, broken fingers she would have been swearing too. She tidied up the loosened splint as best she could, feeling queasy at how much she knew she must be hurting him, and then there was nothing really that she could do for him except provide a literal shoulder to lean on, sitting companionably side by side where their final mad, scrambling run had landed them, while he clutched at his broken hand and cursed inventively, waiting for the pain to subside and shaking like an over-ridden horse.
Truth to tell, she was feeling pretty shaken-up herself. She muttered something distractedly under her breath about needing to take a Sanity roll - and distinctly heard him reply, equally quietly, "I'll roll you for sanity, if we get out of this alive."
"Promises, promises" she replied, feeling a little hysterical.
"Are you flirting with me?"
"I might ask you the same question." He answered her with a cool, bland look which she found intensely aggravating. "Don't you try looking inscrutable at me, Prof."
"Settle for 'flippant'?" he replied, arching his eyebrows.
"Tchah!." She leaned her head against his uncomfortably bony shoulder. "I dunno about you, but I personally could murder a beer."
"Beer would be acceptable, but what I really want right now," he said dispassionately, "more than anything else in the world, is a hot bath and a black coffee with so much sugar in it that I have to eat it with a fork."
Lynsey started to laugh, and he did - then they were both giggling madly like a pair of lunatics, until finally the professor caught his breath and gasped "If I wasn't exhausted and sore and terrified out of my mind I think I might actually be enjoying this."
"I know I'm enjoying this: but then I have a really boring job and no sense of self-preservation."
"I thought you told me you hated it - when I struck at Macnair."
"Then, I had not yet hit my stride. Now I have. I've let my darker self out for a jog and it's having a grand time so far - and this just has to be the ultimate in live-action rôle-play. Don't ask."
"All right - I won't. But this is not a game, O'Connor."
"Listen Prof: if I start to take all this too seriously it'll be me that rolls up into a ball - and I don't think you could carry me either."
He gave her a cool, appraising look. "Not for long, certainly."
"Huh" she said, without rancour. "Not that I'm not terrified too of course - but at least it's not boring."
"There comes a point" he said thoughtfully, "when terror itself becomes tedious. Looking back, I seem to have been terrified for most of my life, of one pressing threat or another: firstly of my father, then of the school bullies, then of - It would be novel, even exciting, to spend a few weeks where I didn't have to worry that somebody was going to hit me or humiliate me or betray me to - to Him."
"At least betrayal is no longer an issue."
"No. I would say that it's a relief to know that the worst is over and I've survived it - except that we don't yet know if either of those things will prove to be true. And this whole situation is - terrifying to me, if I let myself think about it."
"Well - yes, I mean - "
"Not just that. When I was - hardly more than a child, one of the school bullies set a trap for me which nearly killed me - which he fully intended to kill me. It involved luring me down into a long tunnel at the end of which there was - a werewolf."
"Oh - yeah, I see. So the - being hunted underground like this is specifically terrifying." She would have liked to ask him more about it - it was obviously still a very sore point - but she didn't feel mentally strong enough, just yet, to tackle a conversation which had the word "werewolf" in it. "At least," she said, "the advantage of being lost down miles and miles of bloody tunnels is that they have to split up and come at us in pairs and trios to have any hope of finding us, so we're fairly evenly matched."
"In any given encounter, yes. We, however, have to continue to win every encounter if we are to survive; whereas they need only win one."
"Aarrgh - did you have to say that?"
"I'm just being realistic. Also, because there are many more of them, they can afford to work in shifts and sleep in between: whereas we cannot."
"Still - you're picking them off at such a rate, Old Mouldy will soon be running out of people to send. You're bloody good at this."
"Yes." He frowned, and his lips tightened to a thin line. "Even so - there may soon come a point where we can go no further and have to decide whether to die there, in cold blood."
"Then let history record that we went to our deaths with a merry heart - knowing we'd taken as many as we could of the bastards down with us."
"Yes. You know, I could count the number of times in my life that I've really enjoyed myself on one hand, and not have to involve the thumb: but this is...."
"Ah! Two middle-aged and slightly battered knights errant, stravaiging through the darkness - what's not to enjoy?"
He grimaced. "If I'm a knight I must be a somewhat tarnished one."
"And you think the original knights weren't? There's plenty of time to give your soul a polish, my lad."
"Time is the problem, though - I've been running on strength I don't have, and won't have for weeks. Months. I am really, really going to pay for this, and probably sooner rather than later."
"Yes. You never really told me how it worked, this - borrowing ahead?"
"I'm effectively putting off the - the exhaustion, the collapse I should be experiencing now, and arranging to have it later. But there's a limit to how far ahead I can carry it - maybe five, six days - before it starts to catch up with me."
"So you arrange to be functional when you should be collapsing, and in return you're going to be collapsing when you should be functional?"
"More or less. The danger will come if I am in fact still under physical stress when I begin to catch up with myself. But if I am to be - recaptured, then the additional stress may be enough to kill me, which will be all to the good; and if by some miracle we escape from this trap we are in, then the odds are reasonable that we will be somewhere where it will be possible for me to rest for a few days."
"After what you've been through, my lad, I would have thought a few months would be more like it."
"But to tell the truth, I'd probably be bored silly by Thursday fortnight - and I could hardly sit on the sidelines while everyone else fought and fell in my place, could I? If the end is coming, I'd far rather meet it in harness." He sighed, tapping restlessly with his long, nervy fingers. "Listen:
"I am living in the island of the wise
And there is nothing wrong;
The wind blows along
The blessing of the skies.
Oh bread of heaven, storm
Of transformation, change
Sorrow to something strange.
In the cold one keeps warm."
"Oh - oh that's nice, Prof. And the rough shall be exalted equally with the smooth."
A little swallow of water, but nothing to allay hunger - she at least she supposed could go without food for some days before the matter became serious, but the professor was famine-thin already, and they would soon have to consider taking the risk of carrying the battle to the enemy camp and trying to raid the Death Eaters for what supplies they might have. All they were doing now, really, was staying on the alert, moving restlessly, trying to keep one jump ahead of the hunters. Trying to keep up flagging levels of energy, when they were both half asleep on their feet - but the instant they let their mental guard down, the Unnameable One was once more sniffing around, albeit very tentatively - if they dared to relax at all, the Dark Mark began to burn and sting and as weary as they both were, they did not dare, at this stage, to try using the professor as self-appointed bait again. It was enough that the snake-man was still wary: that his pressure on the professor was light and cautious and could be set aside fairly easssssssssssssssss
Ye gods! The snake was between her and the professor, piling up on the column of itself, swaying, spreading - trying to decide which of them to strike first. He was walking away from her, he hadn't seen... but he was as fast as a snake himself, she should have known, as the great serpent made up its mind and lunged towards her the professor spun on his heel and shouted something and she fell back, she fell back with the viper's teeth embedded in her arm, she grabbed it by the back of the neck and hauled it off her and his voice shouted "Kill her!" - for an instant she was confused, it took her an instant to realize that it must be a female snake, and with all that writhing life in her hands, trying to break free, she was reluctant to twist and snap it as she knew she could and then it was literally out of her hands as the professor hurled a curse after it - her - and evidently missed....
As the viper seeped away into darkness Lynsey collapsed to the ground in shock, clasping her arm. The professor squatted down on his heels beside her, but he looked more detached and less anxious than she would have expected. "Don't worry," he said, catching her eye and raising one sardonic eyebrow, "I drained her of poison before she struck" and he gestured at a little, floating globule of - something, and her mind shunted back on its rails, re-ran the last minute or so and realized that what she had heard him shout was "Accio venom."
"Oh - oh gods."
He held out his hand to help her up and she took it gingerly, mindful of his sore fingers. "You should have killed Nagini while you had the chance" he said, frowning. "That was a foolish waste of opportunity - to let her get away like that."
"Well - poor brute. It's not her fault, is it?"
"O'Connor - He feeds people to her. He engorges her to giant size and He feeds her on severed human limbs I've seen it."
Looking at his queasy expression, she had no doubt of it. Even so. "And if I had killed her, would he suddenly stop killing people, do you suppose - or would he just find some other equally inventive method?" The quick, flinching tightness of his mouth was her answer, and she nodded as if he had spoken aloud. "So how would killing one poor beast help?"
"How can you be so ferocious one moment and so - soft-hearted the next?"
"Well, it's - Consenting Adults, see? You try not to hit anyone who isn't in the fight, or who is but didn't have much choice about it - like Nagini. But anybody who wants to fight you, you can hit them with everything you've got. If the snake-meister himself turned up, I could quite happily kill him with my hands."
"No. You couldn't. He's effectively immortal."
"Oh, terrific! How come?"
"Dumbledore discovered that He had split off six - splinters, I suppose, from His soul, each one incubated in murder, and concealed them in objects each of which is itself hidden. Unless all seven pieces die separately, He cannot die. Two are destroyed already, one is in His own body - "
"If he's sticking to the old tales, one should be in a blown eggshell buried under the threshold of his home."
"It's a thought, certainly. But Dumbledore believed that Nagini was herself a Horcrux - a repository for a soul-fragment."
"What happens if you destroy one?"
"If you destroy one magically - fire and disaster. Dumbledore almost lost the use of his right hand because of it, and could have lost his life. But where you have a living, mortal beast being used as a Horcrux, I'm nearly entirely certain that if you killed her in a non-magical way she would simply die, and the Horcrux with her."
"'Nearly entirely' - OK, I'll take a gamble on that. If you had told me this, then I suppose I might have wrung the poor brute's neck - though I still wouldn't like it."
"There wasn't exactly time for lengthy explanations, was there? - and I never expected you to be so - squeamish." His expression twisted suddenly, and it was all suddenly not funny at all, as he looked away from her, his face a mask of pain. "The things that I have had to do, or have stood passively by and seen done. I have watched Bellatrix or Lucius torture someone to madness, when the only way I could even finish them was to pretend to over-enthusiasm and load more pain on them until they died of it. I stood by and watched while He killed a man I owed my life to and a woman I - cared about more than life, and it was my fault, and I could do nothing. But your tender bloody conscience was too - nice to kill Nagini, with all the blow that that would have been to Him."
"I'm sorry, my dear - truly, I am. I didn't know."
"You could have followed my instructions."
Walking and talking again - except that by this point, Lynsey thought, it was more like stumbling and mumbling. "In a way it's quite - satisfying," she said, "to have an ironclad justification for being as vicious as I know I truly can be. Do you know what I mean?"
"I so seldom get the opportunity to - 'let my darker self out for a jog' as the song says. There's a lot to be said for a bit of good clean malicious fun."
"You really can turn malice into a positive attribute?"
"Oh, yeah - as far as I can see, the trick is to recognize your own faults and then turn them into tools. Isn't that what you're doing when you trick snake-face? Playing up your capacity for violence as a smoke-screen to make him think you approve of what he's doing, in order to stop the violence?"
"Yes, but - you don't think that having that capacity for violence - being able to, as you say, 'nearly-really' enjoy watching someone be tortured - makes me a - bad person? I may be using them as you say to good ends - but those things still really exist in me, they are a part of me."
"I think most people contain elements of most possible human behaviours somewhere within their mental makeup - otherwise actors would only be able to play themselves. We all have - a range of optional settings. Normally we make our personality up out of which settings we have activated at the outset, or by life: but if you're an actor - and essentially you are - then you can temporarily switch your own normal settings off and select others. It doesn't make you a bad person I think - confused, maybe, but not bad - so long as you remember which settings are really you."
"I think I do - I hope I do, anyway. But I can't help feeling that this - present suffering is deserved. I have after all stood by and watched others being tortured - assisted, sometimes, if it seemed expedient to do so."
"But you were only doing it in order to bring the torturers down!"
"Even so. I do not think that - fate, or the laws of causality, or whatever you want to call it, is all that concerned with motive. I did what I did, and I am being made to pay for it."
"Urrgh. Well, if you must see it that way, then surely the mere fact that you were - sent help, shows that God or fate or whatever thinks you've paid your dues now?"
"One would like to think so - it's an encouraging idea. I tend to assume that some other punishment is being lined up for me - but perhaps that's just reflex pessimism."
"It could be argued that if you expect the worst all the time, you'll tend to attract it."
"It could be argued that if you expect the worst all the time, life will be full of comparatively pleasant surprizes."
Light, ahead of them, and Lynsey's heart clenched in her chest: if this was another attack coming then it was the third in a couple of hours, and the strain was beginning to tell on her nerves, until boredom began to look quite attractive. The professor motioned her to stand against the wall behind him, and this was almost routine - the feeling as if her stomach was trying to climb out through her mouth was also routine. Sounds, up ahead - noise, and movement, the professor ducked sideways and fired towards the light and somebody hidden in that light screamed but the sound was wrong, somehow, and she screamed and kicked back as a strong forearm took her across the throat, yanking her backwards - as the professor whipped round she drove her elbow into her assailant's ribcage as hard as she could and in that moment of confusion the professor gestured sharply and her attacker's wand went flying but his grip was iron, she could not break free and she was pinned, trapped in a cloud of floating white hair - oh gods....
"Throwing your voice, Severus my old friend?" said Lucius's smug tones, all oily charm. "Two can play at that game. Are you so easily fooled? Oh but I forgot - you are not quite - well, at present, are you old friend?"
The professor stared at him, and Lynsey saw his eyes go blank and black - the pupils of his already dark eyes fully dilated with terror. He swallowed, and said carefully "Lucius. Your quarrel is with me, not with O'Connor. Let her go and then we can - discuss matters."
"And throw away my best bargaining counter? I don't think so."
"What do you - what do you want? If it's just to be the one to hand me back to the Dark Lord you can have that, I'll give myself to you - you don't need the Muggle as well."
"Azkaban, Severus" the man spat - literally spat, Lynsey was clasped so closely to him that she could feel it - "I spent a whole year in Azkaban, largely thanks to you, and I mean to avenge every minute of that time on your quivering flesh, until there's nothing left of you but a shell of a man, for me to do as I please with." He clutched Lynsey firmly against his chest - gods, but he was strong, worse luck, and struggling just brought tighter constriction. For the moment, then, she contented herself with threading her legs through his and then going totally limp like a sack of flour, so that he staggered and swore under his breath before regaining his composure. She might not be able to get free of him, but she could be an effective ball-and-chain, to tie him to the spot while the professor decided what to do about him.
And he was wary and poised as a dancer, her professor, watching, moving, fluid - but she herself was immovably in the way, unable to break free of Lucius's iron grip. "It's no use trying to fight me, Severus old friend - no use at all" her captor said, his voice dripping with malice - trying, Lynsey thought with an inner grin, to sound hypnotic and commanding even though his position, hopelessly entangled with her as he was, was faintly ridiculous, "and you are in no position to bargain. The others are coming even as we stand here, debating so - charmingly. What will you do now, Severus my old friend? It's not as if you have anywhere else to go to - A traitor, a murderer, and now they all know what a weakling you are - oh, didn't you know? Our Master was generous enough to entertain your - friends - by letting them hear how you reacted to some of our recent - interactions. 'Oh, please Lucius, no! Please stop!'"
At that the professor gasped and jerked as if he had been struck in the gut, and Lynsey felt sick to her own stomach in pure sympathy; but Lucius laughed wildly. It occurred to her to wonder if he was drugged in some way - he seemed just the type for suspicious white powders. "Not," he added viciously, "that any of them were real friends to begin with, were they Severus? - because we both know that you can never have true friends: the most you can hope to inspire is pity, and the best you can ever hope for is someone who's prepared to endure you - and now you won't have even that. Macnair says that when he has finished with you this time, you will not even be recognizable as human - but were you ever? When I have finished with you, you won't even remember your own name - or gender."
The professor still stood with his back pressed to the wall, his wand trained on both of them, but he grew whiter and whiter the longer the other man spoke, and at that last threat he flinched visibly. Silver-hair laughed again, then, a wild, drunken-sounding laugh. "James Potter knew how to make you cry, Snivellus - but I know how to make you piss yourself with fright" Her professor, Lynsey saw, was staring at them both, his dark eyes flickering back and forth as he assessed the situation. He looked as if he might be hyperventilating from pure fear, and yet was obviously still in full command of himself: scared half to death he might well be, but she had faith that he would never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be scared witless.
"I have your little Muggle," said the gloating voice, "and I will have my fun. Give yourself up to me unresisting, and I might let her go and be satisfied with you. You know my tastes, my - preferences: so which will it be, then, Severus - her or you?" At that, the professor flinched again and put his hand up to his mouth as if he was going to be sick, and Lucius laughed. "That's it, Severus - can you taste me? What will you do for me, to make me like you? Little threadbare Severus, with your shabby robes: will you lick the crumbs from my table, Severus, as you did before? Beg me for a loan to keep yourself in schoolbooks?"
From her unique vantage point, clutched against his chest as she was, Lynsey could feel that the slimy bastard was working himself into an erection just thinking about it. "Where I come from" she said sharply, "making a big thing about how rich you are is the mark of someone irredeemably common."
The professor gave a sudden wild yelp of laughter. Lucius swore and clapped his hand over Lynsey's lips, and she sank her teeth into the base of his thumb until the hot salt tang of blood spurted into her mouth. As he yelled and tried to pull his hand away she hung on grimly, then abruptly let go and slammed her head back, hard. She was rewarded by a sickening, satisfying crunch.
As Lucius staggered back and clapped his hands to his face she had the sense to drop and roll, fast. The professor went past her like a striking wolf, wand raised and slashing, and she saw blood blossom across the backs of Lucius's hands. He screamed and threw them wide and the second cut sliced across his face - she thought she saw it cost him an eye. Everywhere the professor's wand pointed, blood followed, as Lucius howled and tried to scramble away. The cuts were only skin-deep but the professor looked drunk with rage, and she thought he was prepared to go on and on cutting until he sawed his way through to something vital. But she thought she could indeed hear running footsteps, and she had to clutch at his arm and shout at him to come on out of it, to come careering madly into the dark with her, leaving Lucius whimpering and spitting blood on the tunnel floor.
They had the light with them, but the professor was running blind even so - she thought if she hadn't steered him he would have crashed into a wall - but somewhere in running he plucked sanity and control back out of black air. Skidding round a corner with the hunt at their heels, he pushed Lynsey down to the ground and crouched down himself, coiled like a spring. The looming shape of the Death Eater came round the corner after them, firing at what would have been head height had they still been standing, and the blast from the professor's wand took him cleanly in the chest and threw him back against the opposite wall, unconscious and sprouting tentacles. Shouting, swearing - and this time she distinctly heard more footsteps, this time running away from them as fast as they could, scrambling and sliding.
When they could run no more, then they could do no more than collapse, gasping. Then Lynsey could do no more than hold the professor steady while he retched up what little he had in his stomach to be sick with, and then insist on him drinking the last remaining mouthful of water, to clear his palate.
When he could draw breath again he looked at her sideways, half ashamed and half triumphant. "In my own defence," he said, as if they were already half way through the conversation, "I would like to point out that I'm not the one who just broke someone's nose with my head."
"Where I come from that's called a Glasgow Kiss."
"And what a charming insight into Muggle society that gives us."
"Shut it." She thought about the fight for a while. "Anyway, as soon as he got me at close quarters I was honour-bound to do something drastic to him. I don't think I've ever met anybody so richly deserving of having their nose smeared across their face." She expected he might laugh at that, but when she looked at him all that fiery, mocking spirit had somehow drained out of him and left him with his hands clenched into fists, as far as his damaged fingers would allow, and his head bowed between his shoulders. "What?"
"I would have," he said tightly. "If you hadn't - I wouldn't have let him take you. Don't want you to think I would have let him take you. I would have gone with him."
"Brave lad" she said, and had never meant anything more sincerely in her life. "But best to let me do it."
He looked up at her then, through the swinging curtain of jet-black hair, and she no longer found that odd, neurotic mannerism the least bit amusing. "Why?"
"Because women are generally better at fighting dirty - and I bite like a horse. If he was suggesting what I think he was suggesting, I'd have given him the worst case of castration-anxiety in recorded history, I would so."
The professor made a strange face at that, amused and yet deeply flinching. "You heard - you heard Lucius. You must have realized that we - that he - " He looked away and down, his austere face settling into a bleakly understated Mask of Tragedy, until she wanted to howl with sorrow just looking at him.
"Yes." She put her hand over his and squeezed gently. "But I do not pay him any mind. He is beneath consideration." After a moment he put his other hand over hers and squeezed back.
"You were the one who told me that everything was imbued with soul and worthy of respect!"
"Yeah, well - there are always exceptions and he's one of them, if I'm any judge."
"Every time I saw him," he said thinly, "even as an adult, he still made my skin crawl - but I had to smile and pretend to friendship."
"Because it was politic to do so. Because I cared about what might happen to his son. Because in the early days I truly was - friendly - with Narcissa, his wife."
"Guess" he said, with a flicker of a smirk. "What you said - about boasting about money being considered common - is that really true, among Muggles?"
"Here in Britain - at least for our generation, and older."
"Oh. I think we must have a - different system."
"Damn straight, if that common little piece could think itself up-market."
"How does it work, then - why is having money 'common'?"
"It's not the having money per se, it's the bragging on about it. Listen. The way I think it happened is this. In the Middle Ages knights could go out and make themselves rich and then they became high-status, because they were rich. Right? But then it got to be that the old families, the families which had been rich for a long time, wanted to keep the power to themselves: they didn't seek members for their club."
"Neither do the pure-bloods."
"Right. So it got to be that money you inherited was better than money you made, and only the inherited sort gave you much status. Anybody who had to make their own money was common. Then anybody who thought much about money, because if you were high-status you'd been born to money and never did have to think about it. Then the old families lost most of their inherited wealth but they still had the social cachet, so it got to the point where anybody who made a big show about being wealthy probably wasn't one of 'the right sort,' and wealth itself became a bit - vulgar."
"So how can a poor man acquire true status, in Muggle Britain - if money isn't the key?"
"By having obvious yet understated good taste. By being educated. By having a good professional job."
"So what would that make me?"
"Oh - upper middle class, I'd guess."
"Damn. I never thought I'd miss something from the Muggle world, but - damn."
"I was good enough to suffer and die for the Order - but God forbid I should actually sit down and eat with them! Not that I would have anyway, with Black there."
"It sounds to me, my lad, as if they made you the sin-eater - they put all their several and various guilts onto you, and then shunned you for it."
"Well - the hell with them, then. Who needs them?"
She should have been sad, perhaps - perhaps she should have been eaten alive with sorrow at the depths of suffering which opened up treacherously wherever one looked at this stubborn, damaged man, and perhaps if she had been a nicer and less malicious person she would have been - but things being as they were she was overflowing with wild unfeeling joy, with power and with light, striding through the darkness singing that strange old ballad Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight, about the victim turned victor and the slaughterer cast down.
"Lie there, lie there, ye fause young man,
Lie there i' the room of me;
It's six kings' daughters tha's drahned here
And the seventh has drahned thee."
Elric of Melniboné is an albino prince with long white hair, who features in a series of SF/Fantasy novels by Michael Moorcock.
"White-headed boy" is an obscure Irish expression meaning "the admired darling."
"There seems to be a battle going on, and as far as I can make out I seem to be the only one on our side" - said by the folk-singer Vin Garbutt.
Children from the sort of industrial Derbyshire area that Snape probably comes from call their parents "Me Mums and Dads."
Why have I made Snape more than half Muggle? When Bella and Narcissa arrive at Spinner's End Bella says they must be the first of "our kind" to set foot there. She doesn't mean wizards, because she knows Snape is there ahead of them, so she must mean pure-bloods. If we assume both that Spinner's End is Snape's childhood home, where he lived with both parents, and that Bella knows this (both admittedly fairly large assumptions), then the implication is that Snape's mother wasn't a pure-blood.
"What is a woman that you forsake her" - from Rudyard Kipling's Harp Song of the Dane Women, as set to music by a British filker whose name temporarily escapes me - Leslie Somebody I think.
"Fire and fleet and candle lighte" - sometimes also given as "Fire and sleet and candle lighte" - is from The Lyke Wake Dirge, a very famous 17th C Yorkshire dialect funeral song. "Lyke wake" means "corpse-watch." "Fleet" is a dialect word for a floor or for the main room of a house, and the phrase "fire and fleet" probably means something like "hearth and home" - the domestic comfort in which the corpse is resting for one last night, while the soul sets off on its journey.
When Lynsey feels the need for a Sanity roll she is showing herself up as an old game-player - she wants the Dungeon Master to roll dice to see if her sanity is great enough to withstand what is going on around her.
"Let your darker self out for a jog" - line from the surreal/sinister filk song The Toad by Zander Nyrond.
"I am living in the island of the wise" - this is a poem by Ursula Le Guin, from her collection Wild Angels. I forget the title, and the book is currently in a packing-case somewhere. Although she is known mainly as a novelist, I always felt that most of Le Guin's later stories suffer from being too didactic - but that she deserves to be far, far better known as a poet than she is at present. Anyone who can get hold of any of her poetry, should.
It's certainly not impossible for a sixteen-year-old to have a benign interest in an eleven-year-old - indeed when I was eighteen I myself had a schoolfriend who was twelve - but Lucius is such a concentrated slime-ball that in his case I very much doubt it. Sexual bullying and manipulation of younger boys by older ones was so rife in some British boarding schools in the 1970s that it seems to have been accepted as just a fact of life by the victims, and ignored by the teachers.
To be fair to Lucius - although he hardly deserves it - he does feel he has a real grievance against Snape. He's not someone who would ever willingly think ill of himself, so he is sure in his own mind that his teenage relationship with the young Severus was seduction, not coercion. He probably thinks of himself as being benevolent and broad-minded by taking an interest in someone from such a low-class background. The fact that Snape has always remained reasonably friendly has done nothing to disabuse him of this idea, so finding out that Snape has loathed him and found him creepy and disgusting for decades, and that his supposed friend and client has been cheerfully stitching him up for nearly as long, would have been a major blow to his comfortable world-view. And that's without even knowing that Snape was shagging his wife....
Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight - a.k.a. The Outlandish Knight, or Pretty Polly. This is a widely-known and much-collected traditional ballad of which there are several hundred known versions from both Britain and mainland Europe. The gist is always the same. A sly seducer persuades a high-born lady to run away with him, bringing with her a dowry of her father's wealth. He takes her to a body of water and tells her that he has already drowned six, or in some versions seven or eight, similar girls (sometimes described as "king's daughters," sometimes as "pretty maids") before her at this same spot, and then cruelly tells her that her clothes are too valuable to be wasted in the water, and orders her to strip before she dies. She pleads with him prettily, saying that it is not fitting for a man to see her naked and so he must turn his back - and it was at this point that a friend of mine once cried "Oh, the fool, the fool!" because of course as soon as he turns his back she pushes him in and drowns him. "Six king's daughters tha's drowned here, and the seventh has drowned thee" - or in some versions "If it's six king's daughters tha's drowned here, Lie ye there, a husband tae them a'."
Isla St Clair did a wonderful televised version of this, for a series called The Song and the Story, in which Lady Isobel was portrayed in Norman dress, complete with very long braids, and when the Outlandish Knight turned his back on her she took one of her braids in her hands, smiled horribly and strangled him with it. Afterwards the lady rides home with all her own gear and the knight's horse besides. The family parrot nearly gives the game away by squawking when he sees her coming in at such an hour, but she bribes him to keep quiet and when questioned he tells the family that he had simply been frightened by the cat. Questioned by her father as to the ownership of the fine mount which has mysteriously appeared in the stable since last night, she smiles brightly and swears that she found him straying.
And it's really true about the hermit crab....
Minor alterations have been made to this chapter, to bring it into line with the new canon backstory revealed in Deathly Hallows. Nagini has been changed from a cobra to a viper, Snape has been made to refer to "Dumbledore" rather than "Albus", his age has dropped by a year and he now says that he has never had a friend since Lily, rather than that he has never had a close friend at all.
If you are seeing this text, your browser does not support inline frames: to select a chapter you will have to return to the title-page