This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod, And there is in this business more than nature Was ever conduct of. The Tempest, V.i
Malfoy was acting up far more than usual, in fact; it might simply have been that he came back from break refreshed and ready for mischief, but I think it had to do with the presence of former Durmstrang students who'd transferred to Hogwarts. As they weren't Firsts, I imagine they were challenging Malfoy's authority in Slytherin and he was asserting himself in various unpleasant ways.
Indeed, Snape was speaking with Dumbledore when I entered, looking more dour and pale than usual, though far better than he'd seemed my first night back. When I entered, he flung himself up from the chair in front of the desk and strode to one of the windows, pointedly ignoring me.
"Sit, Miranda. Glass of port?" Headmaster enquired wearily.
"No, thank --"
"Take it: you'll need it," Snape advised sourly over his shoulder. I shrugged and accepted it.
"How much," Headmaster began, "Do you know about Voldemort?"
I considered the question briefly before I began.
"Former head of the Isolationist Party which was officially disbanded by the government in 1975, became leader of the Death Eaters in the late 1970s, gathering support among other wizards sharing his anti-Muggle stance; presumed dead in 1981, although apparently responsible for the attacks on Potter and Diggory last year."
Snape turned to stare at me.
"I read A Brief History of the Wizarding World last year," I said with a shrug. (All 1,589 pages of it; brevity was not an outstanding Wizarding characteristic.) "I've also inferred," I continued, "that the Ministry of Magic -- or at least, Minister Fudge -- refuses to accept that Voldemort might still be a threat."
"Exactly." Dumbledore nodded soberly. "You will also recall from what you overheard in the Infirmary on the night of the third task --"
Damn. I could never sneak anything past him --
"-- that I sent Severus on an errand that evening," he finished.
"I sent him," he continued carefully, "to re-establish contact with Voldemort's supporters." He gave me a moment to digest the information, and then added, "Severus is, in fact, a spy."
Ah. That answered a question or two. I nodded again for Headmaster to continue, though I was uneasy with where this was heading.
"Severus has been accepted back... into the fold, so to speak, but the Dark Lord still has reservations about his allegiances. I plan to address that in several ways, but only one of them directly concerns you." He took a deep breath, as if girding himself for battle, and added, "I am suggesting an alliance between you and Severus."
Oh, I don't want to hear this....
"I think you'd better elaborate, Headmaster," I said firmly. "What I mean is, I felt Professor Snape and I had reached a kind of détente by the end of last year --"
There was a muffled snort from the window, which I ignored --
"-- but I suspect you're suggesting something else entirely," I finished, and then turned to glare at Snape.
"I'm afraid I mean something rather more intimate, yes," Headmaster said. "It would be useful to provide Severus with opportunities for... misbehavior."
I stared at Dumbledore in disbelief. He didn't really say what I think he just said, did he?
He was serious. And although his phrasing was discreet, the implication was unmistakable.
I laughed, hysterically, for a very long time.
Dumbledore was furious with me -- he'd probably had to go through this with Snape, moments before I'd come up -- but he sat, silent, waiting for me to compose myself.
"Speaking strictly in dramatic terms, it's not a likely pairing, is it? I mean," I desperately looked about for an excuse, "we can't stand to be in the same room for ten minutes without wanting to kill each other. We're far too much alike temperamentally, and everyone knows that."
"I'm not suggesting you settle down in a rose-covered cottage," Headmaster snapped. "A gradual seduction followed by a very public cut would do admirably."
"But why me?" I cried, still grasping at straws. "Besides the incompatibility, I'm a Muggle --"
"Precisely." Dumbledore's voice cut coldly through my objection. "And as everyone knows Severus has no love for Muggles, there's every reason he might be tempted to take advantage of your current vulnerable state."
That shocked me into sober immobility; I could feel the blood drain from my face.
"Oh, my dear --" I heard Headmaster say remorsefully (for I couldn't see him through the haze of tears that rose, far too readily, to my eyes), "-- Miranda, my dear, I'm terribly sorry, that was quite uncalled for -- Severus, would you --?"
Snape's robes rustled behind me: he thrust the glass of port into my hand, and checked the pulse at my wrist until it had slowed to his satisfaction. I finally felt steady enough to sip at the port, and Snape retreated back to the window.
"I am truly sorry, Miranda," Dumbledore offered once again, and I waved the apology away and blew my streaming nose.
"Point's taken," I choked out, and had another sip of port to clear the phlegm. "I was being childish." I set the empty glass on Dumbledore's desk.
Both men had the decency to give me time to re-order my thoughts and to let me make the next move.
"So: you want me to play Donna Elvira to Snape's Don Giovanni," I eventually observed. Another soft snort behind me announced Snape's displeasure with the comparison; Dumbledore and I ignored him.
"That sums it up nicely. Without ghostly dinner guests, of course," Headmaster smiled faintly.
"And do you have a timetable for the proposed affair?"
"We can afford to be subtle, I think, until around Yule; then we shall have to see how things are progressing -- really, Severus," Dumbledore interjected irritably in response to yet another snort, "between the two of you, I feel as though I'm in a stable."
I choked back another laugh, and forced myself to remain grave: I wasn't willing to push my luck with Dumbledore further tonight.
"I'm aware that what I am asking of you may cause you both embarrassment at times," he continued more calmly, "but I assure you I feel it is necessary."
I turned to Snape. "You've been remarkably restrained," I noted dryly. "What do you think?"
"I think," he replied slowly, "that -- begging your pardon, Headmaster -- it is absurd. I doubt my reputation requires further tarnishing."
"Every little bit will help, Severus," Dumbledore said softly behind me. "You're too valuable to lose without a fight; I won't give you up without doing everything I can. Miranda," he added quietly, and I turned back to him, "in your reading, have you come across the Cruciatus Curse?"
Behind me, Snape drew in a sharp breath.
"One of the Unforgivables. Used as a torture, but if applied too frequently...." It struck me then, and I sat back, appalled. "Good God."
"Quite," Dumbledore affirmed softly. "We almost lost Severus in July. And though Voldemort will likely call him less frequently now the term has started -- at least for the time being -- I doubt he will refrain from Cruciatus unless there is evidence on several fronts that Severus is... mending his ways."
I turned back to Snape. "Last week, when you looked so ill --"
Snape stared at me, gave a jerky nod, and turned away to look out the window.
Obviously, I hadn't quite caught on to what was at stake. There was a very good chance that Voldemort would kill Snape. Regardless of my personal feelings, Albus Dumbledore obviously valued him highly, and I owed it to Headmaster, at least, to help however I could.
And I don't care to think what other misbehaviors Snape might be called on to perpetrate -- ones that can't be pretended.
"Very well," I told Dumbledore. I heard Snape shift abruptly, and could feel his eyes boring into the back of my head. "I think, however, that Professor Snape and I had best plan this out between the two of us. We need excuses to be seen together, and we can hardly be seen sneaking off to your office on a regular basis, or you to ours."
Dumbledore smiled. "I agree. I'm sure the two of you will do admirably. May I suggest, though," he said with something more of his usual quirkiness, "that a walk at the lake before it becomes too cold would make an excellent outing? I recall many happy hours spent in that pursuit..."
"Thank you, Headmaster," Snape interrupted hastily, "we'll take it under advisement," and he crossed to my chair and waited, hand on its back, for me to rise.
As I turned to go, Dumbledore rose and leaned over his desk; the lightness had fled from his voice. "Miranda --"
"Don't." I went back to him and put my hand on his: his skin was cold and paper-thin over the knarled bones. He might not have looked 150, but at the moment he could pass for eighty-four or -five, easily.
"Don't," I said again, more gently. "Let's forget it was ever said."
He smiled again, wearily, and murmured, "If only it were that easy." Then he raised my hand to his lips and kissed it. "Thank you, dear heart," he said. "Now," he straightened and waved us out, "go, plot."
So we did.
"Unless you've laid in a supply of something other than that Irish muck," he muttered grimly, "I suggest my rooms would be best. I need something stronger than Headmaster's port."
I followed him without comment. Other than one or two students running from the library to make their House curfew, we passed no one.
Spartan comfort would best describe Snape's quarters, I should think. The wainscotting was similar to that in my rooms, though there was far less; so many bookshelves lined his sitting room that there was hardly enough empty wall space to justify paneling.
Snape waved me over to a chair by the hearth, and went directly to a sideboard for his drink. I perused the books on the nearest shelf -- potions and alchemical texts, mostly and unsurprisingly -- and then he returned with a snifter of brandy and a glass of whiskey, neat, which he handed to me before throwing himself in the chair opposite.
"Incendio," he murmured with a negligent wave of his hand at the fireplace, and it obediently blazed.
"I thought one needed a wand for that," I said as I sat.
"Wands are foci for unskilled or very fine work," he retorted sourly. "An experienced wizard can hardly miss a hearth from less than half a metre away."
Suitably chastened, I buried my nose in my glass and inhaled the fumes.
"Single malt, very old -- as close to your preference," Snape grimaced, "as I can bear."
"I'm sure it's quite nice," I replied mildly. "I don't drink much at all, in fact." I took an experimental sip and stifled a grimace: it was far more peaty than poteen.
"You may want to cultivate the habit now."
"Especially after tonight," I muttered. "Thank you for warming Headmaster up for me, by the way. Just the way I needed to start the term: Albus Dumbledore enraged with me."
"That wasn't enraged -- you've no idea what that is like." Snape shuddered and cradled the snifter between his palms.
"Well, it was bad enough, and I don't wish to repeat it."
Snape stared into the fire, sipped his brandy, and then volunteered, "You're quite right; I had him wound up rather tightly by the time you entered. I did my best to dissuade him. He never would have said... as he did, otherwise."
"He's terribly concerned for you," I noted quietly. "It's obviously been an unpleasant summer -- I simply didn't know just how bad." One of Snape's dark brows quirked upward, and I explained, "You still don't look at all well. And he had told me earlier you'd been ill over the summer."
He shifted uncomfortably. "Why should you know? You were... preoccupied with other matters. As Albus indicated, Voldemort has been using Cruciatus with alarming regularity."
"Of course," I began cautiously -- for it was obvious he hadn't been pleased that Dumbledore had told me -- "I only understand it at an academic level --"
"It feels like ones' guts are being ripped out. Rather like being drawn-and-quartered, I should imagine. Appropriate, for a traitor," he added bitterly.
"He looks terrible, as well. I've heard Fudge tried to have him sacked."
"He almost succeeded, but the majority of the Board of Governors voted him down -- by a three vote margin only, however, so he's working on them, at present. He might yet do it, if the government doesn't give him a vote of no-confidence, first."
I sipped again at the whiskey, and opened my lips to ask --
"There is something I need to know," Snape abruptly said, cutting me off, "before we go further with this. Why did you come back?"
Whatever I'd expected, it certainly wasn't this.
"I had a contract." I shrugged and buried my face back into the glass.
"Don't evade," Snape said sharply.
"You wanted an answer, and I gave it to you," I retorted just as sharply. "I don't know what you --"
He set his snifter down on the end-table and abruptly leaned forward; before I could help myself, I'd shrunk back into the chair as far as I could get. "I observed you during the Leaving Feast. You had no intention of returning to Hogwarts; you had already intuited that the situation was becoming unstable," he continued grimly, "and returning would put your nephew in danger. Yet you renewed your contract."
I let him stew in silence for a moment -- and gave myself time to calm down, and to fight the intimidation that he had, successfully, used on me.
"I promised Ian before I accepted the position that if he didn't like Hogwarts, we'd go back to our life in London," I said evenly, "and I brought it up with him before making the final decision. He had objections to leaving."
"But those became immaterial after his death," Snape observed brutally. "You could have resigned; Dumbledore would not have insisted you return, under the circumstances."
I glared at him. "I fulfill my obligations."
"Still evading," he snapped. "That is not the real reason, I think."
How dare he? How dare he press me about something that's none of his business, and then dredge up the most painful, wretched thing that's ever happened to me --
I lost it.
"It's the only one you're going to get," I said icily, and, setting the glass on a table, I rose and made for the door. "I didn't come here to put up with an interrogation; if this is all we have to discuss, I'm leaving --"
"Sit," he thundered, not moving a muscle.
I had to fight the impulse to obey his command, but I succeeded. Instead, I walked 'round to the back of the chair I'd occupied -- I still needed an obstacle between us -- and informed him, as deliberately as possible, "I am not some First Year that you can browbeat into submission. If this is going to work, you are going to have to treat me as an equal, as abhorrent as that thought may be to you. If you can't do that, tell me now, and we'll call this off. I'm sure," I added in deliberate challenge, "that Headmaster will understand if you're not capable of fulfilling his request."
He was absolutely enfuriated with me; his eyes went even darker than usual, and I was suddenly, painfully aware that if he chose, he could force me to do as he wished.
But he didn't. He made a visible effort to calm down, and leant back in his chair. "Sit. Please," he added grudgingly.
And, slowly, I did.
"Other... things happened over the summer, as well," he finally said when he'd mastered his temper. "The Death Eaters -- Voldemort's inner circle -- have resumed regular attacks on Muggle-borns and their families. Seamus Finnegan, for one -- though they were warned, and escaped --" he added when I started, "-- and the Jordans, who were not so fortunate: the father, William, was the only survivor."
That was a blow. I was fond of Seamus, given our similar heritage; and Elizabeth Jordan had been one of my brighter, livlier students.
"It was something of a relief," Snape continued, "when we learned that your accident was in no way involved with their activities. Nevertheless, your return puts you in some danger, though you're safe enough at Hogwarts. But a closer association with me increases the risks."
I processed this in silence for a moment, and then took a stab at the heart of the problem.
"You'd rather not have me on your conscience, as well as... whatever," I guessed.
"That is more or less correct," he admitted softly.
I picked up the whiskey again and sipped. "Well, for what it's worth, I absolve you of that responsibility. My reasons for returning, though private, had nothing to do with you. And as far as... this is concerned," I added, waving a hand absently between the two of us, "I could have said no, much as I would have disliked displeasing Albus. But I owe him a great deal." I met his eyes, and admitted, "Ian was very happy here. Happier than I could make him, Outside. And I owe that to Albus."
He seemed satisfied with that, and with an acknowledging nod he relaxed.
"Look," I said, feeling it was time to 'fess up about my own misgivings, "the thing that truly bothers me about this -- the reason I behaved so badly in Headmaster's office -- is that my emotions are very raw, right now, and I'm just not certain that I can keep things under control. My temper's quite short now, among other problems."
"Ah." His mouth twitched. "That explains the twenty points from my House, then."
"Yes. So much for dealing with things by my wits," I smiled wryly. "I'm afraid Mr. Malfoy will cost you many more points bef-- Hang on," I said abruptly. "You could use that," I pointed out, "though it might be a bit heavy-handed."
He caught the thought and smiled grimly. "So I could. I think I can manage a personal appeal to Malfoy, when the time is right."
We sat silently for a moment, and then Snape ventured, "The current state of your emotions was one of the things I debated with Albus."
"Let me guess: he claimed I could use the distraction."
"He's probably right, damn him," I admitted with a sigh, and then blushed. Snape snorted appreciatively.
"You have no idea how frequently I do so, myself," he said by way of explanation, when I looked up. "For once, we are in agreement." And his mouth twitched upward again. "Moreover, I cannot flatter myself into believing my... attentions would be welcome under the best of circumstances, let alone now. I regret this will not be a pleasant exercise for you."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," I retorted distantly, and when he shifted in surprise I explained, "I've worked with actors who -- well, who were Adonis personified, but were either rotten human beings or dumb as posts. You're a vast improvement in many respects."
His lips twisted in a thin, ironic smile, and he accepted the back-handed compliment with a lift of his glass before draining it.
"All right, then," I said, and took another sip of my own glass, "we need an incident."
"A plot: Action," I said firmly. "It's the same in drama as in science: cause and effect. So we need an event that will... pique your interest in me, and vice-versa, and, ummm... have the potential," I said thoughtfully, "to give you an opportunity to play on my vulnerability.... Something for a small audience, not too public, not yet...."
We talked it over for the better part of an hour, and by the time I left his rooms, we had a strategy for the next week.
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